Sunday, November 12, 2017
Autumn 2016 will be remembered for many things in the years to come but the fact that we got two Tom Hanks movies during that time will probably be considered of only minor importance. Everybody had something else on their minds, I guess. The first of the two was Clint Eastwood’s SULLY which we were all ok with partly because it turned out to be surprisingly emotional and, even better, it was only around 90 minutes. The second came deeper into the season at the very end of October, right at that moment when all of our attention was focused elsewhere. So it wasn’t much of a surprise that Ron Howard’s INFERNO, the third film adapted from Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon series, didn’t do much business. As for the first two, THE DA VINCI CODE came out in 2006, a long time ago with the memory of the surrounding frenzy now feeling like some sort of Bush-Cheney era relic that no one needs to revisit. The follow-up ANGELS & DEMONS came in 2009 and it’s a film I can’t think of a single thing to say about. So if you’re going to make a third film in a series that no one thinks about anymore and wait seven years to do it there’s always the chance the audience will have long since scattered. Even the SNL hosted by Tom Hanks the week before which featured the instantly legendary David S. Pumpkins sketch couldn’t get anyone to go. Naturally, I was there opening weekend. You think I’ve got better things to do? Something about how the film seemed off in the present climate was appealing in a why-does-this-movie-exist way, a franchise aimed at an adult market that didn’t really seem to exist anymore. So that Saturday afternoon I walked over to the Vista where I correctly guessed there wouldn’t be much of a crowd, got some popcorn and sat down, ready to enjoy a bad movie. Sometimes you know what you want and that’s exactly what you’re going to get. But thinking back on that time now it feels like the film was somehow a portent of what was to come and even Tom Hanks, who we all like to think of as our dad, couldn’t prevent that.
With no memory of how he got there, Professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) awakens in a hospital room in Florence, Italy and finds himself instantly in jeopardy. In between hallucinatory visions of a form of hell engulfing the earth, he finds himself almost immediately under siege but is rescued by attending doctor Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) who informs Langdon of his condition and gets him out of the hospital with them being chased by an assassin dressed as a police officer (Ana Ularu) in pursuit. Hiding out in Sienna’s apartment the two begin to piece together what brought Langdon to the city in the first place, connecting it to the suicide of billionaire geneticist Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster) who had instigated a plan to use a virus to literally bring about Dante’s Inferno as a way to solve the planet’s growing population problem. On the run from both the assassin and members of the World Health Organization led by Elizabeth Sinskey (Sidse Babett Knudsen) with their own interest in Langdon, the path leads them to the recent theft of a Dante Death Mask on display in the Palazzo Vecchio and who is really behind the plot to unleash the virus.
It wasn’t necessary for me to look up the plot summary on Wikipedia to clarify a few plot points that I zoned out on but it didn’t hurt. I still have a few questions, to be honest, but it doesn’t really matter. I’m not going to make any great case for INFERNO but I’ve seen far worse and in some ways it’s more entertaining on its own mediocre level than the other two films in the series, or at least my memory of them. At the very least, it feels like there’s some sort of weight off its shoulders to live up to whatever the DA VINCI CODE phenomenon was so there’s not as much self-importance this time with maybe a little more pulpish fun. It’s a film that at least seems to know it’s designed to be watched on airplanes or via On Demand in hotel rooms and accomplish little more than just letting us know how it’s going to turn out. I’ve never read any of the Dan Brown books and I have no plans to revisit the earlier two films in the series but flipping by a few minutes of ANGELS & DEMONS on cable recently made it clear that INFERNO, screenplay by David Koepp based on the book by Dan Brown, is a little stripped down in comparison and the reported budget of 75 million vs 150 million back in ’09 makes that clear, with less of an emphasis on special effects and sets that were clearly digitally created as well as a cast of supporting actors this time out who while just as capable were clearly somewhat cheaper. Instead of figuring out a way to digitally swoop down on the characters as they enter some massive cathedral, the film instead has to concentrate on telling the story. Much of the first half hour is largely set in a single modestly sized apartment before the chase really begins and it’s even shot (digitally, unlike the others which were on film) in 1.85 unlike the Scope framings of the first two as if to further scale things down visually, but I’m not sure Ron Howard is a director who depends on 2.35 anyway. Even better it’s only a sliver over two hours so it even feels like it moves faster which alone makes it an improvement over the other Langdon films. The plot gimmick of partial amnesia is always good in a noir-ish way particularly here since it not only takes away part of the hero’s intellect, it means we don’t always know what the intentions are of people who claim they already know him. Plus I’m never going to be too unhappy about a film partly set in Florence anyway, even if it barely gets a chance to pay attention to the surroundings.
Much of Howard’s direction seems to consist of portentous close-ups of characters as they debate plot points with the occasional wide shot as they enter a new locale along with the expected action scenes where we can only partly tell what’s actually going on but he does keep it moving. You’d expect it to simply go through the paces but, if anything, the film is over-directed in an attempt to add more flash than the story requires, trying way too hard with CGI Dante-inspired visions of a world turned into hell that Langdon has which seem to be there mainly to make the whole thing acceptable for an IMAX release. They seem to disappear after the first hour and never amount to very much anyway. As it is, one of the most effective visions is also the simplest, when Langdon finds himself alone in a suddenly empty hall at Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio, the naturalism of the brief moment proving much more effective. The film does at least do a good job in portraying a world in strife amidst all this history, with Howard always keeping us aware of the teeming hordes streaming through these tourist spots as a reminder of the population problem the film dwells on plus it turns out that the date the virus is set to be released is my birthday so the villain’s apparently more of an asshole for trying to ruin that for me. There’s even a fairly decent twist in the second half that I didn’t see coming along with a plot device seemingly borrowed from John Carpenter’s ESCAPE FROM L.A., of all things, although I’ll give this film the benefit of the doubt that it’s not a direct lift. Hans Zimmer’s score serves as wallpaper much of the time as if it wants to maintain a semblance of seriousness by not being too bombastic but a little more energy wouldn’t have hurt.
Like the other two films, all the main action is crammed into basically one day and the way Howard films things it’s more about how the people in the frame relate to what’s around them, not so much on the epic sweep; really, the entire series tries to make actors shouting exposition while on the run into a new art form. But even though the film takes itself seriously every single second it still manages to feel somehow looser than the other two films and maybe all the location shooting gave it an extra shot of adrenaline. There’s nothing particularly notable about how the climax set in the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul is shot but at least the actual location has a unique look and the film even seems to know that it doesn’t need to bother spending too much time wrapping things up. For something so plot driven and centered around Tom Hanks running with a pained expression on his face, a few of the most interesting touches have very little to do with that plot, whether it’s a memory of a lost Mickey Mouse watch or visions of a woman that Langdon can’t quite recall. The subtext of INFERNO isn’t exactly deep, but it does contain tinges of regret in portraying someone so consumed by work that it’s become his life and in doing that asks himself what he’s waiting for and, really, what are any of us waiting for, whether we’re thinking about the world or the things we’ve missed out in our own lives, as if we just assume we’ll wake up one day and it’ll all be taken care of. One character references Dante’s Inferno and how it was written by him as a journey out of hell to reach the woman he loves, a parallel to what this particular INFERNO turns out to be for Langdon who seems to be preoccupied with how he’s single, maybe wondering about what he’s leaving behind at his age. It’s too bad the movie needs to explicitly state the parallel in dialogue as if we couldn’t pick it up on our own but at least it’s something.
There are a lot of serious matters to bring up about the state of the world today and what the problems of population are doing to it but ultimately INFERNO is a chase movie, one that wants to be hopeful and remind us how we need to strive for a better world. It’s trying really hard to believe that but I’m still not sure it does. But it knows that sometimes we need to retreat into those Mickey Mouse watches that represent where we once were while desperately hoping that the future hasn’t been too screwed up because of the past. One thing about this film, and I suppose the others in the series, is that at least it involves people from the world of academia with knowledge of art, religion, history, people who believe in intelligence and what that represents. As it turns out, not everyone in the film agrees with that and certainly not everyone in the world these days. It even feels somewhat conservative in its overall message of believing that institutions will save the day from the maverick youngsters (“Young people are disappointing. I find they become tolerable around 35,” someone says but Langdon’s silent reaction indicates even he won’t go that far) and even the diabolical private security firm that figures in turns out to only have the best interests of the world at heart. “Things fall apart if you don’t look after them,” goes one line which feels like a moral and a reminder to us for what may happen in the future. We like to think that Tom Hanks is supposed to save all of us since he’s our dad, after all. The bad guys of INFERNO are tyrants who attempt to destroy the world to turn it into what they want. A year after seeing the film in that nearly empty theater I’m starting to wonder if they actually pulled it off. But I guess we can’t blame Tom Hanks and Ron Howard for that.
Tom Hanks, his goofy hair from the first film long gone, definitely knows what is required here and, sure, this is basically the equivalent of Jack Lemmon starring in AIRPORT ’77 but he always seems fully committed to the moment and Langdon essentially trying to restart his brain adds to the tension; there’s a moment where, trying to hold back his impatience at someone telling him something, where you can see how well he engages with even the bit players. Felicity Jones, who I guess now will always be Jyn Erso, adds a refreshing sense of aggression in how she bounces off Hanks which goes against just being ‘the girl’ and, without getting into spoilers, plays things with just enough hesitation so we can’t always be sure what she’s thinking. All of the supporting actors are pros and do a good job in not revealing right off where their allegiances lie, particularly Irrfan Khan as the head of ‘The Consortium’ who more than anyone else in the film seems to be exploring all the possibilities in his dialogue. With the male lead spending a good amount of the running time in a daze it makes some of its strongest characters the women, particularly Sidse Babett Knudsen, also seen in WESTWORLD around this time, who offers authority as the World Health Organization head as well as Ana Ularu who as the assassin who unfortunately falls out of the story way too soon.
Plus Ida Darvish as helpful Palazzo Vecchio representative Marta Alvarez turns out to be the most likable character in the film, maybe all three of the films for that matter. For once there’s actually some refreshing intentional humor when she rolls her eyes at Langdon’s introduction of the much younger Sienna Brooks as his ‘niece’ and the brief exchange, along with an earlier bit where Langdon tries to ask for a cup of coffee, makes me wish the film could be that much more of a romp through European locales but soon enough it’s just back to the furrowed brows. Darvish is such a refreshing presence after all the Sturm and Drang of the plot that you wish they could knock off the chase for a while, go to a nice restaurant down the street for some pasta and good conversation. I mean, we’re in Florence after all, why do we have to run everywhere? Her character’s pregnancy not only provides an extra layer of confusion for Langdon when she first appears but in the end provides hope for the future which makes sense considering she gives the film more life than anyone else does.
And in case I need to mention it, this particular INFERNO has nothing to do with the Dario Argento film of the same name, which you should see if you haven’t, nor is it connected to the 1953 noir with the title directed by Roy Ward Baker and starring Robert Ryan which I’ve never even seen but I’d like to. I also never saw the past few Ron Howard movies before this one but it was nothing personal. He still seems like a nice guy and I’m sure we’re all going to be seeing that Han Solo film when it comes out. Anyway, we all have pasts. Right now, a year later after all this, it feels like the past stopped at INFERNO and David S. Pumpkins. The YouTube page for the sketch even includes a comment reading, “I think David S. Pumpkins resonates because it was the last really pure thing we had before the whole world went to shit.” Which in some ways is true and, yes, it was a funny sketch but let’s all calm down for a few minutes. To go back to INFERNO, on opening weekend it came in second to BOO! A MADEA HALLOWEEN which already in its second week and while international numbers were fine, as much as people love Tom Hanks they obviously don’t care much about this anymore. To compare it to another sequel from a year ago, JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK opened just a week earlier and was also DOA at the box office but at least INFERNO has more oomph, even if it never attained the cache of Film Twitter approval, maybe because Ron Howard’s approach actually gives the vibe that it’s a film he’d like to see. For now, INFERNO is a reminder of that brief moment in time even if I may not need to return to it very much after this. And if there’s actually going to be a future, the film is a reminder that I need to see Florence again one day although I may pass on the INFERNO experience. We should always remind ourselves that history never dies. History will be remembered. These days, I have to hope.
Sunday, November 5, 2017
Maybe with age comes acceptance, whatever that means, even if it’s just being more open to what you should have liked in the first place. I’ve written before about my long ago aversion to Tony Scott films and how it feels like I was too snobbish about them when I was younger. Don’t worry, I’m not going to change my mind TOP GUN or DAYS OF THUNDER anytime soon and you’ll never convince me that his TAKING OF PELHAM 1 2 3 remake is worth spending much thought on. THE HUNGER, however, is a different story. Years after I first saw the film, probably during the laser disc days, all I could flash on were specific moments and images, maybe the same ones that have stuck with anyone else who half-remembers it. Looking at the Warner Archive Blu-ray is a reminder of those things, of how seductive the film really is in the pureness of those images and how I still can’t quite shake them, not even if I wanted to. Even now I’m not sure if THE HUNGER works as anything more than a particularly stylish vampire story with its own take on the mythology but then again I’m not even sure if I think of it as a vampire story at all or just a sustained mood piece about a certain way of life (and death). Maybe it’s just a movie about the things you remember and what they mean. Even though it’s never particularly scary, which in fairness is probably something you’re allowed to expect in an alleged horror film, the themes that emerge from the visuals refuse to diminish. Then again, maybe with age you also come to accept who you really are.
Miriam Blaylock (Catherine Deneuve) and her companion John (David Bowie) are a pair of vampires who have been together for several hundred years, currently living in a New York townhouse and once a week search for people they can feed off of. It was Miriam who turned John in the first place, promising they would be together “forever”, but when he suddenly finds himself aging rapidly he seeks out Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon), a doctor who specializes in forms of rapid aging. His attempt to see her is unsuccessful, left in a waiting room only to have her realize the truth of what he’s saying too late and returning home, the rapidly aging John soon learns that he will not in fact die but simply wither away into bones, left in a coffin alongside the remains of all of Miriam’s other former disciples nearby. When Sarah comes to the house in search of John she only finds Miriam who doesn’t waste time in her search for a new companion and after they are together Sarah has no idea what has infected her blood or what she is in fact becoming.
His debut feature released in April ’83 after a start directing commercials, THE HUNGER is like the embryo version of the Tony Scott style that emerged even before we realized it, seen here in the very early days of MTV before the likes of Simpson-Bruckheimer and Hans Zimmer got a hold of him. When his approach was finessed over the years it was sometime better than you expected and sometimes simply hollow but here everything about that rawness clicks into place as part of his sheen of pure cinematic crack. It grabs you right from the start with an opening sequence that overwhelms as much as a pure strobe effect combined with that perfume commercial aesthetic where you’re always aware of what’s happening but never quite sure what it means until too late. Even the long ago promise of ‘forever’ that John repeats back to Miriam sounds like a slogan for a new fragrance, the product of immortality being sold with an unspoken catch. Every single frame seems deliberate and yet it feels like Scott is always searching through those images that he catches for things that can accentuate them, looking for just the right movement from the actors, just the right gesture to hold on and use it to tell the story instead of dialogue. He’s more interested in the appearance than in exploring just what these vampires are so while the opening with “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” performed by Bauhaus might be a little on the nose these days it still feels like the closest the film comes to actually saying the V word. Based on simply watching the film I wonder how long the script (screenplay by Ivan Davis and Michael Thomas, based on the novel by Whitley Strieber) even was or needed to be, the essential story beats stripped down to basic essentials with some shots running only a few seconds that let us either piece things together or not, moving to the next scene whether it makes sense or not. It lasts through each moment whether it’s the sight of Catherine Deneuve crossing the frame or the quiet observance of David Bowie in the hospital waiting room, aging before you even realize it.
You could call it a case of style over substance with the focus on the visuals, the smoke and all the pure atmosphere in the air or just think of it as pure cinema, the way Scott and DP Stephen Goldblatt frame the close-ups of their godlike stars, not quite seeming like they’re in the same hemisphere of anyone else they come into contact with. Even the concept of spatial relations throughout the film occasionally throws us off, whether intentional or not, the way in one scene Sarandon keeps glancing off towards people who seem to be in another location entirely turns out to be in a restaurant overlooking a swimming pool (huh?) or when a scene cuts from her at a phone booth to someone inches away they could just as easily be way across town. It never feels like everything can be explained, not even what would usually be called normal human behavior.
These vampires don’t even seem to be any kind of representation of pure evil, at least not according to the film or even how many people they’ve killed. They’re just two creatures floating through New York (or maybe this film’s particular version of New York with streets that always seem rain soaked) and the film doesn’t pass judgement any more than it does Sarandon’s doctor for leaving Bowie in that waiting room for hours. It’s hard for me to ever hate porcelain doll Catherine Deneuve in any guise regardless and I suspect we’re not meant to, not even when she’s slashing some sleazoid’s throat or when she abandons her former lovers in wooden coffins locked up in the attic, essentially ghosting them as they remain there for eternity calling out her name (hey, I’ve been there). That’s all you remember more than any strict plotting and Scott clearly knows that the purely alien imagery provided by Deneuve and Bowie, supernaturally beautiful as they are, will be more visually compelling in their purely sexual way than any long speeches explaining plot points. If you’re going to be brutally killed then it might not be so bad if it’s Catherine Deneuve or David Bowie doing it, after all. Compared to that, it’s a close-up of a smiling old woman that is truly monstrous in this context. In addition to the beats of the original score by Michel Rubini and Denny Jaeger dripping along towards the encounter between the two female leads that we’re waiting for, the music gives it all a sheen of class whether the recurring use of Schubert or the Lakmé excerpt by Delibes described by Deneuve to Sarandon as part of her seduction later used again by Scott during the most notorious scene in TRUE ROMANCE during a display of a completely different kind of love. As a reminder, this is the film about which Leonard Maltin, bless him, in his star-and-a-half review says to avoid it “unless Deneuve and Sarandon in bed together is your idea of a good time” which doesn’t exactly qualify as woke criticism these days although if I asked what else was cinema invented for anyway since it’s almost the very reason why we’re watching the movie in the first place I’m not entirely sure that’s much of an improvement. But it’s still true.
Thematically it does feel a little scattershot as it explores that desire, that hunger the characters feel which is partly about addiction (essentially a real world issue) and partly about immortality (not so much) so I’m not quite sure if they work as equals although in a way the film is basically saying that the very concept of addiction makes pain eternal, an unending cycle that will destroy others whether they’re a part of it or not. On the disc’s audio commentary Susan Sarandon talks about how some of that was lost when the ending was changed but it’s not like I have to pay much attention to what Susan Sarandon says these days and either way it all works as the big budget, big studio, ultra-slick 80s version of something like DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS with Deneuve in for Delphine Seyrig. But Scott doesn’t turn his back on the reason why people are watching this film and goes for the pulp because he knows that’s where the true desire is, one that I imagine in this presentation is more pansexual than bi but maybe I’m the wrong person to ask about such things. What really sticks out thematically is the film’s portrayal of aging and the awareness that it’s too late to ever be anything more than what your promise was so in that sense it’s a film made by someone for whom vampirism isn’t something to be feared because it’s about living to the absolute extreme no matter how many bodies are left in the wake of these eternal lives. That’s what all of Tony Scott’s films were about anyway and it’s something that never really changed no matter how extreme his style became. He doesn’t want to analyze the themes. He just wants to jump. THE HUNGER came out less than a year after his brother Ridley’s BLADE RUNNER opened and one can piece together something of a distorted mirror image in how each film involves people living a blazing existence that abruptly cuts out as they search for more life, fucker. That one word David Bowie repeats asking for a reassurance even recalls how deleted BLADE RUNNER footage shot for the ‘happy’ ending of that film includes the exchange “What’s a long time?” “Forever” as Harrison Ford and Sean Young drive off in anticipation of a sequel 35 years later where. Just like in THE HUNGER, only one of them makes it. Each film favors a kind of poetry over strict mythology, each can in some ways be whatever you want to take from it.
There are certain elements that I still don’t get, why the characters go to a house out on Long Island during the opening sequence or if the cross-cutting with the monkeys is meant to be a mere visual parallel or if there’s something else going on in terms of a psychic connection. I wonder if Sarandon’s research into age itself being a disease, with her colleagues so cavalier about their mortality that they’re eating Big Macs, even amounts to anything having to do with the actual plot in the end. The old age make-up is at times remarkable with the middle-aged Bowie the most effective stage but when he gets near the end it essentially becomes a Dick Smith head right out of HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS, with too much of personality lost and there’s little enough Bowie in the film as it is even though his presence still comes through during the “a little saccharine” moment. At least one plot point, and probably more, is so oblique that you can hardly blame anyone for being confused or thinking they zoned out for a minute as if the movie is brushing off the impact of who was just killed. Does it matter? Not really. Even all the blood slashing is just another component of the style, not an attempt at a scare. The Ankh medallion that the vampires wear around their necks used to double for a blade is a little blunt as symbolism but still effective imagery, just as the doves that apparently hang out in the attic are, looking forward to how they’re used in Scott’s BEVERLY HILLS COP II, looking forward to turning up in John Woo movies. It is a kind of mish-mash of all sorts of things, a brief BARRY LYNDON flashback of Miriam making her promise to John looking forward to a SHINING present that in the end turns into a BLADE RUNNER happy ending (also part of THE SHINING, come to think of it) and if I’m really going to nitpick here, I don’t think much of the font used for the opening credits so THE HUNGER doesn’t have everything I want in a movie. But mostly I’m just happy to luxuriate inside this thing with all its intensity and erotica for a little while so worrying about strict reality is irrelevant, there’s too much mist swirling around to ever care. The images don’t always make sense. Even the time of day that the sunlight streams through windows doesn’t always make sense. I take it all about as seriously as I need to, just enough to take the shots and moments that stand out. The rest of it, maybe not so much but, honestly, I still dig the film in every ounce of its awesomeness. There are maybe only 4 or 5 sequences in THE HUNGER that really matter and the rest of it fades away a little, even as you’re watching it just get to feature length before you realize it. You already know what those scenes are. That’s enough.
It’s impossible to think of Deneuve and Bowie as mere mortals anyway, even now, so the casting is perfect. The way Catherine Deneuve plays her I’m still not sure what Miriam is ever thinking about anything, but it’s all about she projects just from her face in close-up, sometimes bemused by what she’s concealing from people but more often simply focused because she knows that she’s the one in the room people are going to pay attention to. Admittedly, I sometimes need to go to the subtitles when she’s explaining things but I still don’t care. David Bowie doesn’t have as much to work with but his very presence almost does all the work in showing how much David depends on Miriam for his very existence and he makes the moments where his quiet desperation is becoming apparent count. Up against the two gods, Susan Sarandon takes what may be the most difficult role and grounds it in her innocent confusion, particularly in her “You can’t leave” utterance to Bowie as the elevator doors slam shut, as much as the film ever needs to, faced with things that her intelligence can’t account for and with total confusion over what she’s drawn to. As music student Alice, Beth Ehlers gives hints that she’s worldlier than her years indicate which makes her perfect casting as a pure innocent--you can’t tell if she’s young or old or even what type of sexuality she’s heading towards and I wish we could get more of her interactions with Deneuve. As Sarandon's colleague/boyfriend Cliff De Young is just about the one relatively normal presence in this film while bringing an edge that grounds his end of the plot, annoyed at what he should be amazed by. Dan Hedaya is Lt. Allegrezza, a character who’s more of a plot device than anything but it’s still a treat to see someone like him sharing the frame with Deneuve since they barely seem the same species. I guess in this film they aren’t anyway. Shane Rimmer, whose presence is like a neon sign stating that the interiors were shot in England, plays Arthur Jelinek (cool name), the great Ann Magnuson is one of the victims during the opening sequence—I love that dance move as she slides right past Deneuve—and looking forward to starring with Sarandon in LIGHT SLEEPER a decade later Willem Dafoe appears briefly at a phone booth standing next to John Pankow of MAD ABOUT YOU.
On the audio commentary, Tony Scott offers about the film’s release, “It didn’t make a bean,” less than $6 million at the time as it turns out. Looking up theater listings in New York from the time it appears to have barely lasted a few weeks past opening day. Whatever following that THE HUNGER has attained over the years, the Blu-ray from Warner Archive is a stunner, capturing every stylish moment perfectly with all that light and smoke that the director loves so much. You just want to climb into this world, no matter what the risks you’re taking might be. Tony Scott was born on June 21, my birthday as it turns out, and he’s buried right in Hollywood just a short drive where I am so I’m feeling some sort of connection right now. I’m sure the next time I visit I’ll be thinking about this film more than any of his others, a film that dwells on how the people in front of you can reveal everything and nothing all at once, just as the film dwells on the Polaroid photos taken by teenage Alice. Which is just what the film does, telling us as much as a single photograph which is all we need to know. And for the 96 minutes of the movie it feels unblinking in what it says that life is. Maybe with age comes acceptance and wisdom, but maybe it also comes with ability to wipe certain things in your head away and move forward, further towards who you really are. Then again, maybe I’ll just watch another film. That might be part of destiny too.
Thursday, October 26, 2017
“She did not answer and I don’t know how much of what I meant she had understood.” The simple, eternal truth of this early line in Philip Roth’s “Goodbye, Columbus” stood out to me as I read the novella for the first time in decades, a piece of description as Neil Klugman, in the beginning of his relationship with the beautiful Brenda Patimkin, is still trying to figure her out. It’s a line that’s not in the film, without narration there’s no way it could be, but because it’s locked together with the book in my memory it’s hard not to judge the two in relation to each other. I’m not sure how much people even remember the film these days except maybe in connection with Robert Evans through his myth-making autobiography, particularly the famous poster tagline “Every father’s daughter is a virgin” and how its success led to Ali MacGraw’s superstardom circa LOVE STORY. It’s a case of a novel that is so interior there’s almost no way to transfer over the essence without it so the film is in some ways missing a key component but at the same time still manages to get richer with each viewing, through every regretful moment. It’s just about impossible to think of the past without regret, after all.
While visiting a Westchester country club as a guest of his cousin, Neil Klugman (Richard Benjamin) has a momentary encounter with Brenda Patimkin (Ali MacGraw) and instantly smitten, he tracks the girl down to ask her out. Almost immediately the two are soon dating through the summer with Neil, out of college and working in a library, sticking out somewhat among the nouveau riche Patimkins and their circle but even though Brenda’s father Ben (Jack Klugman) isn’t exactly welcoming he soon begins staying over on vacation. But when their courtship moves to the next level and Neil convinces Brenda to get a diaphragm what that means for their relationship and what she means to her own family soon becomes very clear.
While the book was set in New Jersey the film has been moved, without much apparent alteration, to New York as Neil travels between the working class Bronx where he lives with relatives and the upper class Patimkin home in Westchester. For purely personal reasons I’ll mention that some location work included scenes filmed in Scarsdale where I grew up, just a few years before I hit the scene (the tennis match, for one, was apparently filmed at the high school and if I squint I can figure out where they are) with some shooting in nearby White Plains as well—Neil and Brenda sneak in to a few movies, ROSEMARY’S BABY at the Colony (long gone; I never went) then THE ODD COUPLE down the street at the Pix (also long gone; I have a dim recall of going there when I was very young and it may have been the first time I ever went to the movies). So I’m always thinking about a small degree of familiarity while watching GOODBYE, COLUMBUS which in some ways seems designed to play like an east coast opposite number to the west coast setting of THE GRADUATE, obsessing over the same themes of sex, maturity and where you’re going in the world. Somehow THE GRADUATE seems set in outer space even when I watch it now while GOODBYE, COLUMBUS looks like it was taking place right down the street from where I was learning to walk.
With director Larry Peerce the first thing that comes to mind is how Robert Evans mentions his name on the audio version of his book identifying him as one of the directors who turned down THE GODFATHER, his voice oozing with sheer contempt. Peerce probably deserves better than that but these days his best known film might be the junkiest, the 1975 sniper-in-a-football-stadium all-star disaster film TWO-MINUTE WARNING. He’s also made appearances in recent years at the TCM Classic Film Festival to present some of his early films including the 1964 interracial marriage drama ONE POTATO TWO POTATO so there’s an intriguing history found in his filmography even though he also happens to be the guy who directed WIRED. The style of GOODBYE, COLUMBUS has a definite late 60s extremism to it with lots of zooms and fast cutting almost out of a TV commercial as part of getting us acclimated to Neil’s view of the world. The specifics of when he describes the very moment he falls for Brenda on the novel’s first page (“I watched her move off. Her hands suddenly appeared behind her. She caught the bottom of her suit between thumb and index finger and flicked what flesh had been showing back where it belonged. My blood jumped.”) is translated into cinema via an extreme zoom into this action that cuts immediately to another zoom into his own face, a moment that gets your attention but is hardly what can be called elegant. Peerce is as interested in the gaze of the flesh as he is in the vibe of all these women, of various ages, living in this form of luxury in the escape to the suburbs and what that represents, cha-cha music always in the air so the first few minutes feel like it’s trying too hard to get our attention in an attempt to establish things.
But while the film always has a cluttered frame along with a slick magazine ad quality to some of the romantic poses it manages to eventually settle down and tell the story, looking for the calm in the summer air and just skirting the edge of playing too broad in an attempt to find the humanity. GOODBYE, COLUMBUS is as faithful an adaptation as it could be if just taking the basics of the story into account and for the most part is a perceptive, knowing romance with a feel of bitter satire coasting through as the characters build. Whole swaths of dialogue are carried over in the screenplay by Arnold Schulman and even a shot of Neil at work with a book that needs binding represents much of the internal descriptions of his world, one where he barely has much interest in anything at all. Just as John Cusack would state decades later in Cameron Crowe’s SAY ANYTHING that he has no plans for the future, nothing in mind beyond the girl he’s got his eye on Neil is the same only not quite as adamant about it, barely even interested in answering the question when asked. Finished with both college and the army the only thing he seems interested in is Brenda because, well, even he’s not entirely sure. Neil just calls her up so while he may lack ambition he definitely isn’t shy and it’s not even clear why Brenda goes for him unless it’s simply because no one else has asked lately.
Neil seems to watch everything from a distance as a visitor who knows he won’t be allowed to stay, just like the African-American boy (the word ‘negro’ used in both book and film, products of another age) in the library played by Anthony McGowan who sits there looking at a book of Gaugin paintings and doesn’t understand why he should take it out when he can just come in every day. “Can you visit?” he asks about Tahiti and Neil’s patient response is, “Maybe. It’s very far. People live there,” as if he can barely believe it himself. Trying to fit in where these people live, Neil isn’t much different from his Cousin Doris who invited him to the club in the first place, reading “War and Peace” every summer and I wonder if she ever actually finishes the book. His hope of ever succeeding is crushed as easily as those cherries from the Patimkin’s well-stocked refrigerator that he puts in his pocket, food that he can barely bring himself to eat while the family sits around him shoving it into their mouths. If any of them ever tried to talk about money with him, you know he’d zone out in ten seconds flat. And while his relationship with Brenda contains passion there’s a hostility to it as well as if she knows this is a summer fling that can never last because there’s no real connection there. When he reluctantly joins her at a local dance where he clearly has no interest in meeting her friends they go away to fight which turns into a fuck, the only dance they even really know even when they’re in her house with her parents sleeping nearby.
Even though Neil is absent from a few scenes in the film, it largely keeps things from his point of view as if Peerce identifies with his inquisitive discomfort more than anything, perfectly happy to just sit back and watch the actors behave. Without any interior element the overall effect becomes a little too spare, missing much of the language that provides Neil’s take on the world but there are still hints through careful direction, how when Brenda argues with Neil she’s kept on one side of the frame while he’s seen in a mirror framed directly below a photo of her father, both the men in her life reflected against her, one permanent and another who can never be anything but temporary. The film isn’t as iconic or knowing as THE GRADUATE since Peerce doesn’t have the careful eye of Mike Nichols but he still has ideas of where to place the camera and while it’s not as overly controlled the messiness of how lived in everything is does feel refreshing, helping the film to dig further into the tension of the relationships. Jack Klugman’s father in particular goes beyond the broad stereotype he seems like at first with shadings revealed to his anger and also to his patience, even as the film’s legendary wedding buffet sequence is given full crass depiction as if to really say everything the film is suspecting deep down about mid-century Jews assimilated into wealthy suburbia.
Brenda’s own view of the world makes it apparent that they find it impossible to imagine anyone who wouldn’t be at that wedding in the first place, how she never imagined anyone—any Jews—actually living in Arizona, as Neil’s parents do. She has privilege without realizing it and a family that in some ways has come closer while shutting doors as they bicker, each with their own phone lines, all through their flight to the suburbs away from the past of the Bronx and people like Neil who remain back there. The novella was written in ’59 and there are only a few changes made to set it specifically in ’69 like a Mickey Mantle reference that becomes Carl Yastrzemski, but why the Patimkins are rooting for the Red Sox is never explained—have they really turned their backs on the Bronx that much? As cluttered as the film is, it now feels like one of those older movies where the world seems so much emptier and even a shot of the two of them meeting across from the Plaza Hotel the way the world around them looks it really does feel like maybe, just maybe, everything is going to be all right, an innocence as perfect as a willing Ali MacGraw swimming nude only for you. And in this version of 1969 the counterculture is nowhere to be found—much of the music, including the Charles Fox score with songs by The Association is so apart from that and yet still locked forever into that time, easy listening of the sort that haunts my early childhood dreams.
There’s something in GOODBYE, COLUMBUS that goes beyond the simple yet forever complex romance that feels like it’s about the primal yearning to remain where you came from, and where you feel you belong deep down, just as the record that Brenda’s brother Ron repeatedly listens to that record as a reminder of his glory days at Ohio state, the refrain where the title comes from. They’re the places where you were formed, that never fully leave you and deep down you have to believe that you’re missed as well. The confusion the film portrays, arch as the laughs might be, feels genuine. If you have the confidence to go for fucking Ali MacGraw (or whoever your own personal Ali MacGraw might be) that’s doable. But like it or not you’re going to have to wrestle with what that really means, whether for you or all the other people involved. Peerce holds back the tricks near the end when the two meet in Boston (Brenda goes to school up there, so let’s just call this a LOVE STORY prequel) but it still contains some of his best work in how he breaks the two characters apart during their confrontation, even when they’re in the same frame they truly seem in different worlds. Brenda may only display hostility towards her mother (who, played by Nan Martin, doesn't get so much as a first name in either book or film) and you know that she’s going to become her mother one day but if she doesn’t have that all important bond with her father, the one with love and trust and the money hidden away that only she knew about, then she’s got nothing. Even the letter Brenda’s father has written to his daughter, capitalizing words in a way that would never be found in the books stacked up in the library that he stacks and repairs every day is like some sort of breaking point for him. The last page or so of the book is so internal that it has to be left out which gives a slight feeling of emptiness as the credits roll every time I watch it but the basic message seems to be that things end and sometimes there isn’t any real completion. You’re left by yourself and that’s all you have. But the world you know, whatever that world is, is still there.
The definitive study of Richard Benjamin’s filmography from ’69 to, say, ’73 has yet to be written but kicking off his film career with this role, Richard Benjamin knows how to work the frame already with perfect comic timing in the way he pauses before answering someone but also a sensitivity that lets you sense his mind at work. Curious to engage with people even while staying in his own bubble he’s also as relaxed as he maybe ever was and not as mannered as he would be later on while still expanding on the possibilities of how far he could push his screen persona. Ali MacGraw may be considerably older than Brenda but she still has a rawness to her screen presence at this point that works for her as the embodiment of every guy’s dream and every father’s daughter all at once, never sure which one she really is. Commanding the dance floor at the wedding without even trying she knows that she’s the center of it all and becomes this character in a way she maybe never was again on film. Jack Klugman takes what might be the stereotypical suspicious father role and deepens it through small moments, faithful to what was on the page but imbuing it with so much more as if Mr. Patimkin’s entire history can be found through every glance, every word spoken to his children. There’s also odd enjoyment in the gawky Michael Meyers as Brenda’s brother Ron who plays each scene broad but still natural, wanting nothing more than to play his records late at night and in the way he cheerily tells Neil, “I want to talk to you” then just sits there in a way that you can never quite pin him down.
Then there’s the story of Monroe Arnold who appears at the wedding as Uncle Leo, a character from the book with a speech lasting several pages as he drunkenly expresses regret to Neil over how his life has turned out. In the final film we get is what appears to be a brief glimpse of the end of that speech and as the film’s editor Ralph Rosenbloom wrote years later in his book “When the Shooting Stops…The Cutting Begins” a full monologue was shot but as electrifying as everyone thought it was and as much as they loved Arnold in the role, as post-production went on the overall feeling was the massive weight of it all was too much for the relatively light film (why Larry Peerce only shot it from one angle with no coverage is something Rosenblum never answers) so it was almost entirely cut out. By that point in the story, I suppose, all that matters is Neil’s silent reaction to everything around him which leads into a quick montage of flashbacks courtesy of Rosenblum, an early version of what he would later do as editor of ANNIE HALL for the end of that film. The tragedy turned out to be that after all the praise Monroe Arnold had received during filming no one bothered to tell him this before he saw the movie at the premiere. He’s just there, then suddenly he’s gone and soon after this experience Arnold stopped acting entirely.
It’s inevitable that eventually in life you’re going to find yourself somewhere you don’t belong, somewhere you’ll never fit in because you’re not part of a certain history. You don’t know the people, you don’t know the stories and jokes they share and you never will. You'll never understand. GOODBYE, COLUMBUS may not be a classic but it still has a bite to its bittersweet romance with a complexity that feels rare these days. On the one hand I identify with Neil’s sense of never fitting in but I also remember the time I went to a wedding in Minnesota of all places and the half I felt comfortable with were all the other New York Jews. Of course, I’m not entirely sure what my past was either and I’m still not sure if I really ever belonged there. Don’t louse it up, Neil is told about the relationship he finds himself in. But sometimes you have to say goodbye. You have no choice. You have to find the answers in the possibilities of your own world.
Thursday, October 12, 2017
There’s something to be said about the fantasy of being a stranger in a strange land, of thrusting yourself out of normal life into somewhere far off. This sounds particularly nice these days. A few Paul Mazursky films touch on such a theme even if only in minor ways but the overall idea becomes, You have to go as far away as possible to find out who you are, what you can do, who you can love and what you were meant to be in your own world. It’s a small idea to discover, but it can matter. Paul Mazursky’s MOON OVER PARADOR was released in early September 1988 and even though it opened in the number one slot at the box office the film didn’t stick around for long. Only a week later the top spot was taken over by A FISH CALLED WANDA, which had already been playing since July. The following week the number one film was David Cronenberg’s DEAD RINGERS. What I’m saying here, kids, is that it was a strange and different time. This was Mazursky’s first film after DOWN AND OUT IN BEVERLY HILLS, one of the biggest hits of his career but as much as that one seemed to totally click, MOON OVER PARADOR feels like a screwball concept aiming for high comedy that becomes more pleasant than anything and in the end sort of fizzles. Even the ideas similar to other Mazursky films, which are there if you dig far enough, feel shoehorned in so it’s mostly a nice diversion where the pleasures are maybe a little too minor.
While filming a movie in the South American dictatorship of Parador, actor Jack Noah (Richard Dreyfuss) decides to stick around a few extra days for Carnival when he is suddenly kidnapped and brought to Roberto Strausmann (Raul Julia), the dictator’s head of secret police with the news that Parador’s president Alphonse Simms has suddenly died of a heart attack. Having seen Noah’s uncanny impression of the dictator, Strausmann gives him the chance of a lifetime to impersonate Simms and help the country avoid revolution. Noah accepts, even though he has very little choice, but soon encounters Sims’ mistress Madonna Mendez (Sonia Braga) who quickly learns the truth about what has happened. She offers to help Jack out with his new role but even as he gets further into the part and achieves more success as Simms he gets increasingly fearful of the insane Strausmann while continuing to look for a way to escape playing this role forever.
The opening shot showing Joseph Papp’s Public Theater in New York that leads into the framing device makes it clear that MOON OVER PARADOR is mostly a theatrical piece, not as concerned with the agonies of the real world as some of Mazursky’s other films are. It also feels like one of the only Paul Mazursky films that doesn’t seem designed to be set in the specific moment it was made, as if the life of an actor resides outside of such earthly matters. Maybe Mazursky just liked the idea of making a broad comedy without too much personal introspection but it’s sort of an outlier in his filmography which consists of stories that seemed almost designed to date instantly, set during the exact cultural moment in which they were conceived. Aside from the fact that this is obviously an 80s movie set during the 80s there’s next to nothing about it that comments on the period except for maybe a random Reagan joke and a few other small details. The idea apparently came from the plot of the 1939 film THE MAGNIFICENT FRAUD but MOON OVER PARADOR (screenplay by Leon Capetanos & Mazursky, based on a story by Charles G. Booth) is also somewhat similar to Ivan Reitman’s DAVE which came only five years later, written by Gary Ross and slightly more of a comment on actual politics of the time, arriving in theaters at the end of three terms of Reagan-Bush. PARADOR is set in more of a fanciful movie world taking place in a fictional country and the film itself is one that cares more about the art of performance than anything. Even if what could happen to Parador becomes a plot device meant to be taken more or less seriously it still never seems part of the real world and it never feels like Jack Noah is in any real danger. The country is all kind of a dream in his head and so is the film.
Filmed in Brazil with bright, cheerful cinematography by Donald McAlpine, MOON OVER PARADOR always looks good in a movie-movie way and certainly has a wide, expansive feel, clearly the biggest of all Mazursky productions complete with what appears to be thousands of extras in some shots. Maybe the peak moment of the entire running time comes early on during the Carnival sequence as none other than Sammy Davis Jr., playing himself, glides into frame singing “Begin the Beguine” with Sonia Braga dancing in a tight gold dress next to him, the image so decadent that it almost seems beamed in from another planet. Nothing else lives up to how truly out there the moment feels but what also sticks out is how Mazursky doesn’t seem very interested in all the activity around them. He goes right for the people he cares about in the middle of all this and other filmmakers may have gone for a few extra angles of everything going on but Paul Mazursky was never a director that you went to for epic scope. By a certain point in the film the lack of attention paid to how many extras there are almost becomes part of the joke, the main character growing more unimpressed and along with that scale it’s perhaps the most benign film that Mazursky ever made. It’s also one of the slightest, mildly engaging but never delivering on the big laughs as if he was so content to be amused by what the actors were doing that he never went beyond that. The scripting is loose, not surprising since Mazursky is at his best when he digs inside his characters and their foibles, but the people in this film aren’t deep enough to explore since it’s mostly just a lark. His films were never about clockwork plot structure either but it’s such a light story that there’s not much to gleam from Jack Noah’s predicament and as things play out not enough laughs to support that either.
It may be fair in this day and age to ask if the basic premise counts as a form of brownface and it’s certainly not something the film is ever concerned about. The real dictator is quickly forgotten by the people who knew him and no one seems surprised that he’s dead, being all too familiar with his extravagant lifestyle. Jack Noah’s concerns as an actor mostly has to do with how needy he is, how antsy he is to move on to the next job. Instead of worrying about how his life is in jeopardy all it takes is a few old reviews waved in front of his face to convince him how perfect he is for this part. If you’re looking for a character arc, not exactly something this film is that concerned with, you could say that what he learns is that the praise needs to come not from cheering crowds but from those closest to you and, in the end, yourself. That’s how you find peace. The film wants Parador to slightly come off as a fantasy kingdom like Freedonia in DUCK SOUP (forget about any language issues; I think the convoluted history of the country we’re given is meant to account for that) but still have us worry about the citizens caught between the fascists in charge and the rebels threatening revolution. When the phony dictator finally takes action to really do something the plot mostly peters out. There’s probably a biting satire to be made on Latin American politics but this isn’t the film and it’s not really what they were going for anyway.
Naturally the people close to Simms figure out that something is up right away and simply decide not to say anything out of fear of losing their jobs with the declaration, “The dictator is the dictator” which is a good joke but it also means that they don’t do much aside from that. Up against the maniacal raving of Raul Julia there’s something automatically funny about having almost all of the great Fernando Rey's performance as Simms’ valet be one giant poker face but the film still doesn’t do very much with the idea. Even Charo is there as just a sight gag announcing her presence and not much else. It’s a film filled with people who give it a slight tinge of madness but too many of them have little to do so Mazursky’s skewering is just a little too genial as if he likes people too much to get too nasty with them. Instead he focuses on the broad bits of business like Julia teaching Dreyfuss about the art of flipping his hand as he salutes although it has to be said that skewering the vanity of a Latin American dictator feels a little subdued compared to the real world these days. Running jokes about the presumably escaped Nazis living in Parador flitter in and out, the rebels have their own actor on their side (cameo by Ed Asner) and even the real dictator was likely just a puppet as well. Everyone is an imposter and no one cares.
The overall message approaches being cynical but the tone is still so benign that it isn’t one of the more interesting Mazursky films although as a flat out comedy it’s probably not supposed to be anyway. It’s breezy and moves so fast that I’m almost surprised the film is as long as it is (103 minutes) with the boisterous Maurice Jarre score bringing just the right larger than life quality. Even when the material is half baked it feels like Mazursky is always doing something with the frame, always giving an actor in it something to do so nothing about it is ever dull or dumbed-down, it’s just a little too mild. The film has spirit but it needs more of a manic streak, more doors being slammed, more panic coming from Richard Dreyfuss being Richard Dreyfuss. Working lyrics from MAN OF LA MANCHA into a speech is cute as is the new Parador National Anthem patterned after “Bésame Mucho” but not much more than that and when Mazursky himself turns up in drag playing the dictator’s mother the whole thing takes on a slight in-joke feel, nothing really at stake. In Sam Wasson’s book “Paul on Mazursky” the director, who mostly recalls the film with genial fondness, talks about how there were issues with Universal during the cutting very late in the game. Some of what the studio wanted done sounds like executive doublespeak to make adjustments to the story or bolster the main character’s arc, not really what he cared about. It’s fair to argue that there were problems with the film but they probably should have been addressed while it was being written, not during the eleventh hour when at best all you could do was apply a few random Band-Aids.
It’s a film that feels like what it was meant to be but it’s still a little too mellow in the end and as a result not very memorable. It’s nice and that’s really it. More than being a farce it’s almost like a spiritual journey by the main character, the sort undertaken in Mazursky’s WILLIE AND PHIL and TEMPEST which helps Jack Noah convince himself of what he’s able to pull off both as an actor and as a person. Acting, the very concept of being an artist, is real and tangible the film seems to say, something the maniac Strausmann can never comprehend. He hates actors but loves celebrities, an obsession that is his Achilles heel, and it’s all surface for him, all about empty power, never about the art of truly being. The framing device is still a glimpse at the Paul Mazursky film we’d rather see, an actor living in New York with the Sunday Times always nearby in that familiar world instead of this prolonged vacation. The movie we get in essence is the Mazursky world view of loving life but that quality removes any bite the story could have. Because of the flashback device it’s a little open how much of what Dreyfuss tells really happened but it doesn’t matter because reality often feels somewhat fluid in Mazursky films anyway. To him, the journey is about enriching yourself and if you do something useful for others along the way that’s good too. Sometimes these glories have to be created in our own heads and, as the end of the film reminds us, that’s the way we need to live our lives in order to survive.
What the film does have is its three lead performances and the chemistry that’s always there when they play off each other. When he’s simply Jack Noah, Richard Dreyfuss is about as loose as he’s ever been in a film, almost with no inhibitions in between identities and even amused by his own insecurities. When he’s the dictator the broadness makes it more of a caricature that the true character never really comes through, a reminder that Noah himself feels he’s giving a “result-oriented performance.” But in either guise some of Dreyfuss’ best moments on a pure acting level are him up against Raul Julia, truly maniacal as Strausmann displaying a sense of comic danger that combines joie de vivre with the ever-present threat that he really could go mad at any second. When the rest of the movie cruises along, he forces it into overdrive with the sheer Nazi ferociousness of his laughter. And when Sonia Braga is onscreen the pure physicality of her presence (her hair deserves its own screen credit) combined with sharp coming timing is in its own way a dream for Dreyfuss to work with so their banter becomes an actual relationship combining chemistry with friendly bickering in the middle of this fantasy romance. Jonathan Winters gets a few moments as the retiree with his own secret identity—some of his muttering to Dreyfuss early on sounds like ad-libbing and I wish there was more of it. Polly Holliday is Winters’ wife, Marianne Sägebrecht of BAGDAD CAFÉ is the dictator’s masseuse, Dana Delany is Jack Noah’s co-star in the film shooting in Parador, Michael Greene of LOST IN AMERICA is the special effects guy, Dick Cavett is Dick Cavett, Mazursky’s wife Betsy, who recently died on Oct. 3 2017, appears briefly as does Richard Dreyfuss’ brother Lorin, playing the real dictator when the two are in the same shot.
Right now we seem to find ourselves as strangers in a strange land as far as the real world goes, it just feels like more of a dark allegory than a fantasy. MOON OVER PARADOR is a nice enough movie and even a hopeful one it’s just a little toothless even if it is a reminder that we’re all experts on fake presidents/would-be dictators these days. The film is ultimately a lark, complete with a couple of Parador cops who turn up throughout as a sort of Greek chorus throughout as we follow their journey from cynicism to a sincere nod of the head as if to say, maybe this could work. In some small way it counts as progress. The punchline to the whole theme of everyone acting as an imposter comes at the end with a suggestion that we’re seeing someone as they really are for the first time and the moment doesn’t quite land but it is a nice thought. “Sonia Braga is Hillary Clinton, but I didn’t know that then,” Mazursky offers in “Paul on Mazursky” (published in 2011) and if he had maybe there would have been sharper focus towards where the film was going. But it also makes me think of what Mazursky has missed out on since he died in 2014. MOON OVER PARADOR is still likable and not at all a travesty, not then or now, it just never clicks as maybe it could have. But it does make me think that all the world isn’t just a stage, it’s a theater. And it’s up to you if you want to watch or come up with your own character. In life the clock is always ticking towards what we’re meant to be with the hope that maybe someday we’ll figure it out.
Saturday, September 30, 2017
The world is what the world is. Mostly people are no damn good and that’s the future we’re living in. So it’s important to remember that your own redemption, if you choose to go down that path, needs to come from yourself and no one else. It would be nice to blank out the past, and in some cases that’s exactly what I’ve tried to do, but it’s not always so easy. You just have to carve out your own place in the world no matter how much it’s tried to beat you down and look for the few good ones out there who want to come along. Sam Peckinpah’s THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE might be the least well-known from the golden ’69-’74 period of his films but it’s a lovely piece of work, beautiful and sloppy, emotional and erratic. Released in 1970 and his immediate follow-up to THE WILD BUNCH, it’s nowhere close to perfect but it’s a downright gentle film, presenting a world that’s always fighting the memory of the past while wrestling with the inevitability of the future but is still sadly decent down to its core. Recently made available by Warner Archive in a gorgeous new Blu-ray it’s likely better looking here than it has ever been before, including how the 35mm prints no doubt looked at the time of release. It’s a flawed film about a flawed man and both deserve to be loved anyway in the end. There’s nothing wrong with dreaming that maybe someday things will be better. Sometimes that’s all we have.
When Cable Hogue (Jason Robards) is left for dead out in the desert by his two partners (Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones), he wanders for several days in search of water, occasionally asking God for help and saying he’ll repent. After several days and in the middle of a nasty wind storm he suddenly discovers mud on his boot and when he digs to investigate finds an underground spring filled with, as he puts it, “water where it wasn’t”. Realizing that he’s made this seemingly impossible discovery right along a stagecoach route midway between the towns of Dead Dog and Lizard, Hogue sees an opportunity to capitalize on the need for water there so he acquires a deed for the small amount of land, a mere two acres, builds himself a house and opens for business. He soon befriends the wandering minister Reverend Joshua Duncan Sloane (David Warner) and upon visiting the nearby town of Dead Dog encounters Hildy (Stella Stevens), the local prostitute. When he finally gets the homestead which Joshua names Cable Springs up and running Hildy comes to stay with him for a spell on her way to San Francisco after she’s been kicked out of the town but instead of going with her Hogue is determined to wait where he is for the former partners who abandoned him to turn up so he can finally get his revenge.
Unlike the carnage of THE WILD BUNCH and the increasingly cynical outlook of all existence found in his later films, THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE is a downright benign feature length musing about the very nature of existence out there in the vastness of the desert. Like a few other Peckinpah films there’s a killing of a small animal at the very start but in this case it’s just about the most brutal act committed by anyone through the entire running time. That includes the few human deaths which feel downright justified in comparison since this is a world where those things are sometimes justified and can be forgiven, a west where Slim Pickens rides up on a stagecoach and he couldn’t be more willing to help you out. It feels like the directorial credit is held back a few moments past the title sequence, as if Peckinpah doesn’t want to officially sign his name to this story until Hogue makes his discovery, essentially learning that he’s not going to die just yet, underlining how much this particular west is a benign flipside to the brutally ugly universe of THE WILD BUNCH even if it is about some of the same early twentieth century end-of-the-west themes. There’s even the return of Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones teamed up again as if that film never even ended and once again a tent revival with the expected chorus of “Shall We Gather at the River” turns up only instead of carnage it merely results in a slapstick sequence that takes the tent down, mere gentle mockery instead of bodies violently blown away.
The undercurrent of revenge that Cable has his mind set on is one reason the plot keeps going in the script by John Crawford and Edmund Penney; that pays off but it’s more about how he takes advantage of his good fortune since finding water out there is almost as good as finding gold. “I’m worth something, ain’t I?” he angrily barks out while trying to get seed money for his new spread, with an anger that indicates no one has ever thought that before. When Hogue is presented with an American flag to officially coronate Cable Springs the moment has a sudden extra meaning in 2017 just as I imagine it did back in 1970, a reminder of how to really, finally be part of this country is something to be proud of, and he’s done it on his own terms. Watching the moment right now it’s hard not to wish this version of America really existed somewhere out there.
The best moments have an offhand loveliness and a true sense of calm, gently adding to the tall tale aspect, as if there’s no end to the amount of reflecting Cable Hogue can bring himself to do out there. The film takes its time, particularly during the first half with a long stretch of Hogue setting up the paperwork for his land, always more interested in the people and colorful dialogue than the plot which by a certain point has more to do with Cable determined to stick around mainly because he’s certain his former partners will eventually show up. Running a sliver over two hours the pacing is raggedy at times with a few beats going on a little too long and a few pieces that feel like they needed a little more finessing in the cutting room but there’s also continued inventiveness of the editing both within scenes and during transitions. It’s not the most visually aggressive Peckinpah film, photographed by Lucien Ballard, with the camera placement sometimes a little too random and it lacks the primal fever always felt when his films are in Scope, even if the 1.85 framing here goes better with the more relaxed vibe. But the lack of urgency and immediacy makes sense even more than usual since his films are so often about desperately trying to hold onto a world that is dying so what’s a few extra minutes anyway; it doesn’t want this way of life to end any more than the characters do even if it’s something that can’t be prevented.
That lyricism is also felt in the beautiful Jerry Goldsmith score which instead of playing up the majesty of the old west fuels Hogue’s own determination to not see his end just yet then aims for the simple acceptance of finding some kind of peace out there. In addition there are the prominent Richard Gillis songs, fitting for the post-BUTCH CASSIDY-Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head era but here turn out to play more of a part to bring out the true soul of the film, including a full-on duet between Robards and Stevens when their romance blossoms—an upbeat musical number in a Sam Peckinpah film is one of the more surprising things imaginable in all of cinema—but even better are the quieter grace notes that turn up particularly when David Warner is found singing a few bars of one of the songs by himself, totally unexplained where he might have heard them before, the sadness of the words hanging in the air which gives more power to the piece when it’s heard again later on. The songs go perfectly with the ramshackle rhythms of the film and these characters, each on their own road and determined to keep things that way; as Cable puts it, to join the normal people of the growing west in civilization would make them ‘nothin’’ and that’s something to put off for as long as possible.
Whatever miracle has led to Cable’s discovery he never questions it. He just accepts what happened and makes the place his home, calling out his own name to the horizon, willing the sound of it, willing himself to matter. The film is somewhat contemptuous of organized religion—even the local banker is suspicious of them and gladly chortles when the tent comes down—and Hogue, as Joshua puts it, makes the entire desert his cathedral which is the best way to stay true to himself. Just as Joshua is also a loner, his self-named parish “The Church of the Wayfaring Stranger” being of his own revelation (“Wherever I go, it goes with me.”) and even Hildy seems to proudly be the one prostitute in her town, perhaps a sign that civilization is encroaching even in a place called Dead Dog. The message seems to be, stay true to yourself and accept what comes. Don’t overthink it. Do something with what little time you have here. That’s what sticks in the brain from the film, a feeling of beauty and simplicity and isolation from the world, whether it’s Robards sitting there lost in his memories or Warner walking through the town at night in a west where he is all alone. And along with the running time are stretches where the mood doesn’t quite hold particularly during some moments of heavy-handed slapstick, complete with shots that are speeded-up in search of laughs that aren’t really there. Definitely not aging well are some of the skeezier elements, particularly how Stella Stevens is sometimes photographed and treated by the film, which in some ways recalls how Jerry Lewis had the camera linger over her in THE NUTTY PROFESSOR (it’s pretty clear she brought something out in her directors) but here going even further, zooming into her breasts and other body parts while lingering all over her, undoubtedly representing Hogue’s own view of Hildy but clearly the director as well, the Peckinpah Gaze made pure.
This isn’t the only one of his films that seem problematic today in that sense, of course, and it also spends a few minutes longer than it should with David Warner—phenomenal in this role, it needs to be said—taking physical advantage of both Stevens and what he believes to be a distraught widow played by Susan O’Connell (her husband, played by Gene Evans of Peckinpah’s PAT GARRETT and multiple Sam Fuller films soon turns up) which are clearly made to have him seem like a charming rapscallion when it comes to the ladies but the scenes play way too crass. Even if Hildy is essentially a whore with a heart of gold it’s still one of the best roles that Stevens ever had; the relationship between Hogue and Hildy gets more complex the longer she stays with him and a big fight over dinner between the two is stunningly good in how almost nothing is said, they know all the hurtful stuff already. By a certain point they’re on equal footing in Peckinpah’s eyes, Hogue even returns the favor of her giving him a bath by doing the same, but the intensity remains along with the feeling that another explosion between them isn’t too far off if she sticks around. Neither one can totally forget the past of the other person during their present.
“Just passing through,” Joshua drunkenly says after falling down some stairs, just as Cable builds a home out of a waystation for people making their way through the desert. Just like we all are, ultimately. Even this way of life is coming to an end when the credits roll although no one seems to want to admit it. There’s a sense of sobriety to THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE that I can’t quite shake, even with its most unfortunate indulgences, even with its ramshackle nature. To compare it to other Peckinpah films, THE WILD BUNCH is a fun and determined drunk, THE GETAWAY is a dinner party drunk, JUNIOR BONNER is a family reunion drunk, PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID is a sad drunk and BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA is an angry drunk. HOGUE, only drinking water although maybe a little woozy from all that sun in the desert, looks for a sense of peace through clarity that none of these others do as if continually asking what kind of revenge do you really need to keep going. It was by various accounts not an easy shoot due to weather problems and other issues so it stands to reason that there actually was a fair amount of drinking by Peckinpah, and presumably others, going on. But what the film presents in its depiction of hope of trying to accomplish something along with the feel of sober that is trying to stay that way, aware of how temporary all this is, inspirational in its own cockeyed notion. Nothing lasts forever but if you can prove something in spite of whatever the past is then maybe that matters in some way. The final moments are almost borderline perfunctory in its lack of total reverence towards what has just happened, racing to the inevitable close, as if a reminder that the things which get remembered are what happens when you’re alive. You don’t stop being who you really are. And just a moment can matter.
For once the actors in a Peckinpah seem cast not because of any particular iconic status but because of how much they fit these roles, the physicality of Jason Robards bouncing back and forth between his innate decency and a certain degree of bitterness that still lingers along with the power of his presence. Thanks to Robards you can never entirely pin down Cable Hogue only he is every bit the man that he deserves to be remembered as. Up against him, the abrasive charm of Stella Stevens has more of an effect than ever going right back and forth from the comedy to the darker moments; the way she plays it you just know how much she’s revealing to Hogue that she’s never shown to anyone else. The rogue quality of the awesome David Warner is like a revelation (as I’d imagine Joshua would put it) for anyone who only knows him from his bad guy roles and it’s a joy to see him as he enters scenes as if in a daze from wandering through the desert appearing truly happy to sit down and talk with someone like Cable, dropping as many biblical quotations he can into a single conversation. Plus the various Peckinapah players, the worminess of Strother Martin, the conniving of L.Q. Jones, the joy of seeing Slim Pickens turn up again, the disarming assistance coming from the banker played by Peter Whitney or the cagey by-the-book nature of R. G. Armstrong, each of them one with this particular western universe.
You never get rid of the pain of what you lose. You never get rid of the dreams that they’ll come back. The film itself dreams of a country, of a myth, of an idea of this land that maybe never was. Of decency, of goodness, of meeting that lady, the ladiest damn lady that you would ever want to meet, of finding water where it wasn’t, and having it all work for just a little while and all you want is for it to never end. It’s all a dream, of course, nothing more than a myth, a dream that no one ever notices because of course you’re not going to share it with anyone and you’re never completely certain just how much you’ll be able to forgive. THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE was mostly ignored upon release but has admirers even if they can’t quite be called a cult—no Bob Dylan soundtrack with this one, no Steve McQueen star power and it’s not the dive into total insanity that BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA is. It’s just messy sweetness and has been appreciated more recently if only because of how it plays into the Peckinpah mythos. When I tweeted out the main title song “Tomorrow Is The Song I Sing” not long ago someone replied, “I think about this movie every day.” It’s that kind of film that gets into you, cuts right in. Hopefully the new Warner Archive Blu which ports over the special features from the earlier DVD will play into that and making the film look this good is about as heroic as anything Cable Hogue did to survive out there in the desert. If you love Peckinpah, if you even have an interest in Peckinpah, I can’t recommend this disc more. It even restores the correct Kinney National-era Warner logo to the opening. A minor point but, well, sometimes the past really does matter, just like when you remember why you stopped doing certain things—right now I’m closing in on eighteen months but I still make no promises. I know why I stopped but the way things are these days you sometimes wonder if that’s a good enough reason anymore. It’s one more reason to try to keep on figuring out things for yourself. People don’t change, even if you want them to. As Joshua says to Cable when they muse over what it is about certain women, maybe when you die you get over it. Right now, I’m not so sure. But there’s always a chance.