Blu-ray Review: They Shoot Horses, Don't They? | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

Studio: Kino Lorber Studio Classics

Sep 27, 2017 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

“Ten minutes and they’ll be back, and then the world’s championship marathon will ho on and on and on and on and on and on!” The Emcee’s (Gig Young” bounces off the walls, and the echo is as dangerous as the length of the marathon, the threat of something that will never end. Sydney Pollack’s adaptation of Horace McCoy’s Depression-era novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? was once read as an indictment of the Vietnam War, aided not least of all because of Jane Fonda’s political inclinations; but the film, originally released in 1969, has since aged to not only represent the endless stream of opportunistic politicians and jingoistically tilted celebrities — whose guise is in working for the common folk, but are just as prone to selling out — but also the ways in which the bootstraps dream of American Idealism is a myth to wring all of us dry. On and on and on and on.

Weeks into the dance marathon that Gloria (Jane Fonda), Robbert (Michael Sarrazin), her accidental partner, and Alice (Susannah York) have found themselves trapped by their own volition in, they are drained, ready to collapse, only the hope of $1500 worth of prize money keeping them dead on their feet. So often, Gloria opines to Robert that she wishes she were dead, an emptiness that pervades inside her. And yet, while the rest of the contestants struggle to move with their gradually swollen feet, the Emcee is there, as full of cynical life as ever. Gig Young’s voice blasts across the dance hall, a threat of mythologized hope. If you work hard enough to put on a show, you, too, can win. He’s superhuman, from another place, his bellows of “Yowzah, yowzah, yowzah!” taking on a psychotic, ghostly quality. He’s not all there, only his voice, only what he “stands” for is there.

It’s hard not to find They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? resembling a Nathanael Westian nightmare, that these people, from various walks of life — some ins search of stardom, but most just of enough money to get by — putting on the show of their lives to die for. In Pollack’s (and author Horace McCoy) dizzying purgatory, West’s satire of the American bootstraps narrative, of the Horatio Alger joke, takes on a Buñuelian dread, with an acute sense of political and personal anxiety. What it feels like, watching these characters dance and dance, perhaps dance until they die for a buck is like the gig economy.

As defined by Wired’s Nicole Kobie, “The gig economy gets its name from each piece of work being akin to an individual 'gig' – although, such work can fall under multiple names. It has previously been called the "sharing economy" — mostly in reference to platforms such as Airbnb — and the "collaborative economy".” The dance is one big, long gig, nothing by any means to guarantee any of the dancers any sense of employment or security, but rather that this dance will lead them to that. As the Emcee, who goes by Rocky, reveals later in the film, the dancers are putting on a show, and doing something for the audience to believe in. He sighs deeply, a little weary, months into the marathon, and tells Robert, “They just want to see a little misery out there so they can feel a little better, maybe.” That’s one of the greatest myths of the gig economy; a mix of misery and joy, that freelance work can make your life.

Beneath the supposed glamour of this event, which Alice is inclined to take advantage of until her makeup and dress are stolen, is obsession, particularly one with not only self-reliance, but watching that narrative play out. We love a story of struggle and perseverance. That’s why they come out to watch. Jia Tolentino at The New Yorker formulates this myth as such, writing, “Human-interest stories about the beauty of some person standing up to the punishments of late capitalism are regular features in the news, too. […] The story is always written as a tearjerker, with praise for the person’s uncomplaining attitude; a car is usually donated to the subject in the end. Never mentioned or even implied is the shamefulness of a job that doesn’t permit a worker to afford his own commute.” Striking, in the film, is a scene in which the camera roves around slowly, watching first the feet of the contestants moving about effortfully and panning up to find that they’re eating mediocre sandwiches, probably the only thing they’ve eaten in a while. They have ten minutes to eat it, and, as the Emcee shouts, they must keep dancing the entire time. They stand as they eat, their hands trembling with exhaustion and hunger.

And of course, when the dancers are turned into horses on a race track — their sweaty bodies donning on tracksuits and numbers, legs tied together, the Emcee screaming, “You don’t need to be number one to amble down life’s highway…” — Pollack’s camera turning into a frantic vehicle of terror and urgency, that’s when They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? becomes not merely an incisive critique of the exploitation that celebrities are inclined to, but perhaps of capitalism itself. They’re dancing themselves to death, now martyrs, in an attempt to, ahem, make America great again. 

Author rating: 7/10

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Beth Mix
September 28th 2017

Saw this movie years ago, and it has haunted me;  Reading this article, I think I start to understand why.