The Movie Waffler Apprehension and Acceptance: The Duality of MODEL SHOP and COMING HOME | The Movie Waffler

Apprehension and Acceptance: The Duality of MODEL SHOP and COMING HOME

model shop
How Jacques Demy and Hal Ashby's films act as mirrors of the Vietnam experience.

Words by Eric Hillis

It's 1968, and two young men are driving their expensive sports-cars around Los Angeles.

George Matthews drives an import, an MG Convertible decked out in a gleaming coat of British Racing green, its old world sophistication an anomaly on the streets of this very American, very modern metropolis.

Conversely, Luke Martin is behind the wheel of that most American of cars, a Ford Mustang. Further up the California coastline, a Lieutenant Frank Bullitt of the San Francisco Police Department is chasing criminals around his city's hilly streets in the same car, but where Bullitt's vehicle is a brooding shade of Dark Highland Green, Martin has opted for an eye-catching white with blue racing stripes combo. A decade later, Martin's car would be made famous as the vehicle of choice for Farrah Fawcett's character in Charlie's Angels, but in 1968 it stands out on L.A.'s streets just as much as Matthews' MG.

Matthews' mood is sullen, withdrawn, and apprehensive. A great weight is pressing down on his shoulders. He's unfortunate to live in a time when being a healthy young American male has a major drawback, and he's just received word that he's been drafted to serve in Vietnam. It's the capper on a day that began with his girlfriend expressing her desire to leave him and repo men giving him until close of business to come up with the $100 he owes in car payments.

Martin's car is no regular Mustang, specially modified for hand operation. After serving in Vietnam, Martin has returned home a paraplegic. Yet his mood couldn't be more different to Matthews'. He's accepted his lot, thanks in large part to the love of a woman, and he's decided to make the most out of his life. To paraphrase a soldier from a later Vietnam movie, he has come through a world of shit, but he's alive.

model shop

When French filmmaker Jacques Demy arrived in Los Angeles in 1968, one of the first things he did was purchase a convertible sports-car – what better way to familiarise yourself with that city? Demy was fascinated by L.A. and how alien it appeared to his European eyes. In the '70s, anyone who watched American TV would become familiar with practically every street in the city, but before then the City of Angels' screen potential had been largely untapped, Hollywood preferring to create facsimiles of other, more traditionally glamorous cities behind studio walls. The smitten Demy was determined to pay Los Angeles its due.

[ READ MORE: Blu-Ray Review - Black Angel ]

It was a period when European arthouse cinema enjoyed a large audience in the U.S., and as such, European auteurs were being courted by Hollywood producers. Demy's two most successful films – 1964's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and 1967's The Young Girls of Rochefort – were unabashed love letters to the Technicolor musicals of the American studio system, so Demy seemed a perfect fit for Hollywood. The movie he ultimately made in America however was a surprise to everyone.

Model Shop is a downbeat drama about a young man's final day in Los Angeles before departing for Vietnam. Played by Gary Lockwood, George Matthews is the sort of existentially haunted figure you might expect to front an Antonioni film, and not once does he break out in song. While Demy's previous two films had seen every line of dialogue doled out as a song lyric, in Model Shop, music is entirely diegetic, mostly heard on the car radio of Matthews' MG, and none of it could be described as toe-tapping.

coming home

While Demy was shooting in the streets of Los Angeles, actress Jane Fonda was attending anti-war rallies. It was at one of these events that she met paraplegic veteran Ron Kovic, whose story she became determined to tell. Fonda spent the next decade attempting to put together a film that would address the effects of the Vietnam conflict on those who returned with physical, psychological and emotional damage. The project eventually became 1978's Coming Home, directed by Hal Ashby, a filmmaker then at the forefront of what had come to be known as New American Cinema.

[ READ MORE: Blu-Ray Review - Coming Home ]

Coming Home tells the story of Luke Martin (Jon Voight), a young man who willingly enlisted, but now rendered paraplegic from his wounds, has determined to do all he can to disrupt the war and save other young men from suffering a similar fate. When Martin first arrives home he's angry not just at his country, but at the entire world, lashing out at anyone who attempts to help him. He doesn't make it easy for her, but volunteer nurse Sally Hyde, his former classmate, refuses to give up on Martin. Initially a friendship develops between Martin and Hyde, which quickly turns into a physical relationship, consummated in one of cinema's most memorable sex scenes ("What should I do?" "Everything!"). Hyde gives Martin a reason to live, while he forces the former cheerleader to question everything she's been raised to believe about her country. Martin's new lease of life leads him to purchase the aforementioned Ford Mustang, a celebratory act.

coming home

In both Model Shop and Coming Home, Demy and Ashby use sports-cars to signify their protagonists' states of mind. Model Shop's George Matthews is so filled with apprehension over the draft that he's practically given up on every aspect of his life. He has quit his job with an architecture firm and refuses to commit to his girlfriend's desire for marriage and a child, because how can he? He's become a hollow shell of a man, and all he clings onto is his MG convertible, a luxury he clearly can't afford. As anyone who has ever visited Los Angeles knows, it's a city in which owning a car is a necessity. While pedestrians in New York, Paris or London might distinguish themselves with their fashion, in L.A. it's your choice of car that sets you apart from the strangers you pass. Matthews' MG, a car whose design looks positively dated in 1968, suggests he's clinging onto the past, uninterested in the march of progress that threatens to put his life in danger. He spends the day driving around the city, attempting to borrow enough money from friends and acquaintances to allow him to hold onto his prized possession. For if he loses his car, what does he have left?

The Ford Mustang Luke Martin purchases is a far more frivolous item. With its then state of the art design, it's a symbol of Martin's newfound determination to move forward and make the most of his life. While Matthews purrs quietly around in his MG, Martin tears around corners, his engine growling triumphantly as he lives life in fifth gear. Unlike Matthews' MG, Martin's Mustang is fully paid for. His destiny is now in his own hands.

model shop

Matthews raises the required money to pay off the repo men who would claim his MG, but he blows it when he spots Lola. Reprising her role as the title character of Demy's 1961 debut, Anouk Aimee's Lola, previously a cabaret performer in the French city of Nantes, now finds herself working in a 'model shop' where men pay to take photographs of models in varying states of undress. Matthews pays a couple of visits to Lola at her place of work, eventually persuading her to meet him after work when they bond over their shared affection for Los Angeles.

It's far from a 'meet cute', as these are two people who find themselves at an uncertain crossroads. While Matthews would love nothing more than to be able to stay in America and avoid the war, Lola's stay in the U.S. hasn't gone to plan, and she expresses a desire to return to France as soon as she can raise the money for a flight home. Listening to Lola's personal tales of woe, of leaving her young son behind, of the people she lost along the way, Matthews realises that he's not alone in his anguish. In a rejection of the narcissism that has thus far dogged him, he gifts Lola the money for her plane ticket, knowing he will now lose his car. He no longer needs it. Lola has expressed no desire for any emotional involvement and Matthews' initial interest in her never seems like anything more than physical lust, but like Martin, Matthews has been saved by a connection with a woman who seems to understand his pain. He can move forward now and face his uncertain future. He's in a world of shit, but he's alive.

Model Shop is on blu-ray from Arrow Academy. Coming Home is on blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment.