They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (Pollack, 1969)

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I’m no fan of Sydney Pollack. Many of his films strike me as arrogant, indulgent, borderline incoherent, and completely overrated by the critical establishment. But his savage examination of the entertainment business and D-list celebrity entitled They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is a fascinating, ahead of its time picture and one of the great zombie films of all time. And when I say “zombie”, I mean each character’s physical and mental deterioration purposefully caused by an unflinching desire for fame and fortune.

Pollack dives head first into Coney Island during the Great Depression where a kaleidoscope of different contestants enter a Dance Marathon (24 hour dancing, the last couple wins $1500). Pollack frames the scope of this nation wide sport through the desperate times the country is experiencing, clarifying what’s at stake for each character. The film’s bravado concept feels more astute today considering the influx and dominance of Reality Television and the like. This behind-the-scenes mosaic calls to mind great Altman, and Pollack gives his characters and setting just as much flourish as the late master would have done. In our American Idol-obsessed world, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? brutally reminds how even the smallest amounts of fame can bring devastating costs, both to the individual and the art of competition. Simon, Randy, and Paula, take note.

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