Thursday, May 19, 2016

As You Get Older

Past midnight at the Formosa Café is no place to be when you’re not drinking but that’s where I recently found myself. The details of why I was there at that hour are not important. Suffice it to say that it involved a conversation which was rather heated and, as often happens in real life, very little was resolved in the end. After midnight in Hollywood, very little gets resolved anyway. Flash-forward less than a week later and there I was further down La Brea at the New Beverly, on a night when ordinarily I would have been at home completely exhausted since the TCM Classic Film Festival had ended just the day before. This was no ordinary night at the New Beverly however, but a double bill of Billy Wilder films that seemingly never play. Anywhere. I do not expect it to happen again. I had to be there. This was Wilder, after all, so as far as I was concerned church was still in session and for this one final night it simply moved over to another venue.
The two films, AVANTI! and FEDORA, have never been the most popular Wilder titles but putting aside how much I love them they made sense as a pairing—both from the 70s and set over in Europe, they each are rather wistful meditations on the past and what it means to us, what it can continue to mean for us. Essentially, they are Billy Wilder as Old Man. Both films have also been largely forgotten about and FEDORA, completed in 1978, never got much of a release at all. With issues that compounded its making, FEDORA is a problem film. Once the full scope of its plot has been revealed it’s easy to imagine how it might have worked better in its original literary form anyway. But along with the right amount of acidity within its story and compassion for its characters, FEDORA also has a power within the greater context of Wilder’s career. This is it, the film says, there are no other chances. This is the only opportunity you have to get everything right and, face it, you probably won’t. It’s a film that basically says ‘Fuck it’ to everything. Like many problem films, it’s rather beautiful in its freakishness. It’s also a reminder that most desperate conversations you have in bars late at night never result in anything you desire.
Legendary film star Fedora has died after throwing herself in front of a train. As her body lies in state in Paris, film producer Barry Detweiler (William Holden) flashes back two weeks to when he traveled to the Greek island of Corfu looking for the reclusive Fedora (Marthe Keller) in the hopes of luring her out of retirement to star in his new version of “Anna Karenina”. Long ago in the MGM days Detweiler had a brief fling with the star which he doesn’t even expect her to remember but upon seeking the legend out he discovers that the shockingly young-looking Fedora appears to be virtually held prisoner in a villa on a tiny island owned by the elderly Countess Sobryanski (Hildegard Knef) and the mysterious plastic surgeon Dr. Vando (Jose Ferrer). Detweiler seeks out the residents of the island to get the script to her but when he attempts to get Fedora away from them that only makes things worse, leading to revelations of what really happened to the star since her glory days at MGM long ago.
With a screenplay by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond based on a novella in the collection “Crowned Heads” by Tom Tyron, FEDORA is about the ghosts of the past both in the deep recesses of our mind and in Hollywood as well. The subject of old movie stars was certainly nothing new for Wilder and in spite of how well the film played with AVANTI!—the much more hopeful half of the pairing—it feels like FEDORA was specifically designed to play in rep houses following Wilder’s masterpiece SUNSET BOULEVARD, the most obvious reference point. With some of the film told in flashback narrated by Holden, even if he’s not the dead body this time around, it’s hard to avoid that feeling and at one point when the star launches into a speech of his woes where he complains how “the kids with beards have taken over” decrying the Hollywood of the 70s, it’s as if Wilder’s main direction to him was to simply play it as Joe Gillis thirty years later. Or maybe, having seen it all himself, the character is simply Billy Wilder. Although presumably not in terms of material—though one of Detweiler’s films, something called CHINAMAN’S CHANCE, ‘received three nominations’ his “Anna Karenina” remake has the title THE SNOWS OF YESTERYEAR which is pretty much the most corny, sentimental way of thinking about the past imaginable. It sounds like the sort of sludge Billy Wilder would probably never want to see, let alone make and although Detweiler does his best to push the script whenever given the chance it’s as if he can’t see how empty the whole thing, along with his futile mission to track down this old movie star, really is.
Whichever of Wilder’s post-APARTMENT films feel stifled by their strict plotting and maybe also a little too lumbering in how they’re paced (some more than others) FEDORA actually feels a little like he’s managed to break free of those old structural habits for the first time in years and found a new way to explore his preoccupations. Narratively speaking, it’s one of his most daring films with an intricate structure that almost shouldn’t work, essentially a plot that takes up the first hour followed by a flashback heavy second half in which everything gets explained a la Agatha Christie. I’m hardly the first to point out that just about anyone could guess where things are going within the first 30 minutes (in spite of this, I’ll try to keep the twists and revelations of the film under wraps) but for once the strict mechanics of the plot feel secondary to Wilder. FEDORA is not SUNSET BOULEVARD of course, few films ever can be, and it almost has no choice but to live in the earlier film’s shadow while still offering some intriguing differences to make it a distorted mirror image--the movie star in the earlier film has been forgotten about by the world, left to rot even if she is only a few miles away from Paramount. The title character of FEDORA, on the other hand, has traveled far away to live in exile and is still remembered but can’t return no matter how much people apparently long for the glamour that she represents. There’s a broken beauty to FEDORA which makes perfect sense since that’s much of what it’s about anyway.
The expected wit of Wilder/Diamond is there with an extra degree of bitterness to some of the dialogue but also feels a little buried this time out. Maybe the director doesn’t want to shine too much light on the inherent absurdity of the story, maybe in the end he’s just unable to find very much humor in it like he used to. It’s a film made by someone who’s seen too many people die, had too many people fall out of his life for him to want to make jokes about it anymore. Annoyed at still being alive while looking back on outliving one’s beauty one character observes, “Monroe and Harlow, they were the lucky ones.” There’s a streak of humor the film almost doesn’t want to acknowledge, a deadpan nature never more apparent than when Jose Ferrer’s Dr. Vando carefully explains how he pulls off the plastic surgery miracles to keep his patients young, mentioning items like sheep embryos and baboon semen. His speech actually got one of the most audible laughs during the New Beverly screening, causing me to really pay attention for the first time to the madness he was describing. “How much of that is really true?” Holden asks him after listening. “All of it. None of it,” is the reply which could describe the logic of what we’re seeing as well (although, considering what Ferrer is seen doing during one flashback, maybe more of it is true than we’d rather know).
One almost imagines Wilder standing off to the side of the screen as the film plays glaring at us, daring us to acknowledge the sick joke of it all as if there’s more he identifies with here than he wants to admit. Early on Holden is given some worry beads as a totem to help solve the problem of finding Fedora—an AVANTI!-like touch where the main character begins to give in to local customs—and much to his surprise they do the job almost instantly, something of a reversal from Wilder’s often pragmatic plotting. The message is clear: be careful what you wish for. Don’t go rooting around in echoes of the past since, just like MGM, it’s all dead and buried. When someone wonders who won the Oscar in a certain year, the closest they get to an answer is a vague, “The one who played that nun with tuberculosis.” The Oscar itself, for that matter, is derided as “just another knick knack that needs dusting.” Wilder doesn’t even seem to revel in the nostalgia of the THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT 70s—realizing that the concept of ‘old times’ sake’ is useless, Detweiler literally burns the letter he writes Fedora about their one night together and at another point tells her about old props being sold off at MGM saying, “Remember that big gold bed where you made love to Robert Taylor? It went for 450 bucks.”
There may be echoes of Wilder’s own past associating with the likes of Garbo and Dietrich (asked to play a key role here, she flat out refused) and maybe even the dangers of getting too close to one of those godessess. “I wouldn’t wish that on any man to be married to a movie star, carrying her vanity case, it’s too demeaning,” goes one line and in some ways it could all speak to a mixture of what some feel is Wilder’s own misogyny combined with his fascination with these women who still baffle him. Discussing Tolstoy and ANNA KARENINA one character decries, “He knew nothing about women,” as if Wilder is all too aware of what they’ve been saying about him. The portrayal here of the women in question mixes love in with that hatred, a total empathy combined with a sad acknowledgment that he’ll never have all the answers. It also veers closer to being a horror film than any Wilder ever had before, all set to a score by Miklos Rosza of the DOUBLE INDEMNITY and LOST WEEKEND days, insistently trying to bring the spirits of the past back to life. The treatments Norma Desmond went through to restore her beauty as she prepared for the film she’ll never make are turned into something much more horrifying this time out. Just as locks were removed from her house in case she tried anything once again, mirrors are removed from Fedora’s house to make it clear how much the villa is essentially being occupied by a vampire is living there. The character in this film is a monster but retains sympathy nevertheless because of what Hollywood has done to her, what the world has done to her, the very thing that causes those women to sob over what they’ve done to themselves. It makes them hate you as well. If it feels like that sympathy only goes so far on Wilder’s part maybe that’s because the film makes it clear he doesn’t claim to have any answers to this. Holden, playing the alleged lead role, listens and acts concerned and tries to understand but he’s forever an outsider to the real drama--if the film is viewed from the point of view of one other character (maybe two of them) it becomes an absolute nightmare. Wilder knows how little he really understands them, it’s just the way it is and always will be.
There’s a ludicrous majesty to it all, presented with an old world feel in a place where traditions must be upheld, complete with a bit involving putting out a cigarette that feels left over from the world of Lubitsch. In every scene there’s a consistent discipline to the framing, not in Scope like many of Wilder’s later films, and the scenery is lush but the local flavor of Corfu is almost presented as incidental which makes sense since Detweiler barely cares anyway. Visually speaking it doesn’t quite have the power in some of his other films with Fedora’s villa certainly seems like an attractive hideaway which is appropriately isolated but doesn’t quite speak to the madness we know is in there. But there is imagery which feels appropriately unnerving such as countess pairs of white gloves in a dresser drawer allegedly meant to cover up Fedora’s aged hands, a single haunting phrase scrawled countless times in multiple notebooks and even the name of Ferrer’s ‘Dr. Vando’ sounds like a character who should be played by Boris Karloff. Nods to films not make by Wilder are in the air as well such as essentially opening the film with someone declaring, “Fedora is dead,” followed by the twists to come the film offers echoes of Preminger’s LAURA as well and it’s hard not to think of Robert Aldrich’s impossible THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE (I still watch that every now and then, desperately looking for the good film in it) from a decade earlier which contains more than a few similarities—it’s not too much of a stretch to call this the Wilder rewrite of that film’s concept but his particular point of view gives FEDORA both the satirical slant as well as the sadness. There’s no getting away from this in Wilder’s eye, there’s no way out but the death that, if one faces facts, is most likely not too far off.
Detweiler refers to ‘tax shelter guys’ helping to get his Fedora movie off the ground which also seems to be how Wilder would up making the film after Universal put it into turnaround and was by accounts apparently not an easy shoot. The casting of Marthe Keller was seen as an issue with the actress never quite coming off as the right sort of Garbo-like enigma, which, no spoilers, led to extensive dubbing by German actress Inga Bunsch. When Holden encounters Keller at the Countess’ villa her behavior plays like an actress overdoing an actress overdoing it—one half expects him to realize it’s all for naught within five seconds and just leave. In interviews Wilder wasn’t too kind about the finished product saying to Cameron Crowe, “I wanted to stop the whole thing after we were shooting for a week or so, (but) I couldn’t…I mean, I could, but it would have been a loss of income, so I just finished it. It never became a sort of second SUNSET BOULEVARD,” sounding a little like he wants to move on to another topic. But he’s sadly no longer here to fault us for liking his own film and looking at it now FEDORA plays as Wilder’s ultimate statement about the ugliness of Hollywood and the allure it will always have. It’s his own THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE and all that comparison entails but here, instead of a stately intonation along the lines of Ford’s “When the legend becomes fact…” as someone muses over the façade of Hollywood and all that goes into keeping it alive Holden simply replies, “Magic time.” That’s about it.
As a result, it could almost be seen as a summation of Wilder’s entire filmography as well as a conclusion. Of course there was still BUDDY BUDDY to go just a few years later just as it always seems BUDDY BUDDY still lies ahead in life. But FEDORA has an awareness of that end and of how there’s no going back. The film ends on a brief, quiet acknowledgement of the past between two characters which is maybe all the lead was really looking for. Maybe that’s all we can ever get. Also found within the cracked beauty of the final moments of FEDORA is a last line in Holden’s narration which has to rank among my favorite things in all of Wilder—a deceptively flat statement of fact which also reveals a lifetime of dreams and regret that will never be fully reconciled. It haunts me, just like the film does. Within the sense of majesty and irretrievable fate is a feeling that it just misses greatness, maybe because it has to answer so many questions during the second half that the story telling becomes didactic but as flawed masterworks go, FEDORA possesses a bitter grace unlike anything else.
Serving as the sad conscience of all this, William Holden delivers a strong performance which is also free of ego, since he has to take a back seat for much of the second half. He seems to be in better shape than his last film, Blake Edwards’ S.O.B. just a few years later, and his strength is what’s needed particularly since it doesn’t always come from Keller’s performance in spite of her valiant work. It needs to be the performance of a lifetime but, of course, Fedoras don’t come along every day and at least Hildegard Knef as the Countess does manage to find the weary tragedy in the story when it’s most needed. Jose Ferrer also brings the needed wit to his part as if his character is continually annoyed by the events of the movie and would much rather sit down with yet another bottle of cognac. Frances Sternhagen is Fedora’s loyal secretary/companion, Mario Adorf (who took part in one of the best car chases ever in Fernando Di Leo’s THE ITALIAN CONNECTION) is the friendly but ignored hotel manager assisting Holden in some of the material that most closely resembles AVANTI! and Stephen Collins is the young William Holden in flashback. Henry Fonda is President of the Academy Henry Fonda while Michael York appears in what has to be one of the strangest ‘as himself’ cameos ever (of course, making me wonder if Wilder ever actually sat through LOGAN’S RUN).
FEDORA was the second film shown on the bill at the New Beverly and it ended late. That was bound to happen, considering how long AVANTI! is—incidentally, the first film of the night looked immaculate while the 35mm print of FEDORA was faded and a little scratchy but was…considering the miniscule release the film got that there’s a print of the film at all is miraculous; the Blu-ray released by Olive Films is also highly recommended. Either way, it meant was that long glorious weekend of the TCM Fest was finally, completely over. FEDORA was the perfect film to end it on, with William Holden’s last line sticking in my brain, a reminder of everything in the world, or maybe just in Hollywood, that doesn’t work out the way you want it to. There wasn’t a return to the Formosa that night. I had experienced enough late night cruelty there already and didn’t want to revisit the feeling at that time. Besides, as Holden’s Barry Detweiler quotes Samuel Goldwyn in this film, “In life, you have to take the bitter with the sour.” Since then I’ve gone back again to visit Billy Wilder as I’ve done before so at least I got him to talk to while continuing to look for answers. As for FEDORA, Billy Wilder actually said once that he’d like to remake the film then immediately contradicted himself to say there wasn’t much point in doing that adding, “I want to move ahead to new errors.” Which maybe in life is about as optimistic as you can ever get.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Nothing But A Dream

The TCM Classic Film Festival should not be interrupted by a fire alarm. When you attend it you should be ensconced in some sort of filmgoing bubble that keeps the outside world away. That’s the way it should be. Unfortunately, a fire alarm going off is exactly what happened on opening night during the final minutes of ONE POTATO, TWO POTATO being screened in a rare 35mm print and no one wanted to leave. There wasn’t much we could do, however, but fortunately thanks to some fine organization by the staff we did make it back inside to see the end and all was well. But even this festival isn’t perfect as was also proven by the two screenings of the pre-code DOUBLE HARNESS up in the 177-seat theater #4 which both times over the weekend filled up faster than anyone could have suspected (why the frenzy for DOUBLE HARNESS and not one of the other pre-codes? Don’t ask me--it actually airs on TCM on May 27 so I'll be watching). Even TCM’s Charlie Tabesh issued a mea culpa on Twitter about this but, hey, nobody’s perfect. The festival officially kicked off on Thursday, April 28 and I’m proud to say my team won Bruce Goldstein’s annual trivial contest—I’d like to think my input on a few answers was what pushed us over the top and I’ll stick with that. The big red carpet opening of ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN began across the street as the opening night party kicked off in the Roosevelt and gradually people began to make it over to the first films in the Chinese 6. The weekend had begun.
As usual, some of the most memorable selections for me over the next few days were films I hadn’t seen before—the 1964 ONE POTATO, TWO POTATO with director Larry Peerce in person talking about making this genuinely powerful low-budget look at interracial marriage several years before GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER. Gina Lollobrigida made several appearances through the weekend including before my first ever viewing of Carol Reed’s TRAPEZE—an imperfect print with faded color but containing CinemaScope imagery that was nevertheless jaw-dropping on the huge Egyptian screen. The premiere of a restored version of the micro-budget and completely unknown PRIVATE PROPERTY which I highly recommend. Shot in only five days, it’s Warren Oates’ first film but also a sexually taut, effective slow burn of a thriller with some genuinely evocative cinematography and it seems like a case where a small cult for it could easily build over the next few years. Plus there was Jack Cardiff’s 1959 HOLIDAY IN SPAIN aka SCENT OF MYSTERY shown at the Cinerama Dome in the one-time-only gimmick of Smell-O-Vision. It’s essentially a Cinerama-type travelogue through Spain starring Denholm Elliott and Peter Lorre in a very light, bare bones chase plot with the gimmick of various scents such as perfume, flowers, tobacco, garlic, etc. wafting through the air. There really isn’t very much to say about it as a film (produced by Mike Todd, Jr. and if you know who he was married to you can guess who makes a surprise appearance at the end) but I doubt I’ll get another chance to experience Smell-O-Vision anytime soon. Maybe that’s for the best but I’m still glad I went. I particularly liked the garlic scent, actually.
And there were the films I’d already seen and chose to revisit for the pure pleasure of it—John Garfield’s final film HE RAN ALL THE WAY playing to a packed house at the Egyptian, for one. Director John Berry’s son Dennis was there to discuss his father’s life and how his family fled the country via Canada for France after Berry was named before HUAC. It’s very much a blacklist film what with the involvement of Garfield, Berry as well as Dalton Trumbo among the writers and such paranoia informs everything about it. Those extra layers give sympathy to the two-bit crook played by John Garfield while adding depth to this fairly grimy DESPERATE HOURS knockoff as it reaches its final moments. 101 year-old Norman Lloyd, also in the film, was there as well and waved to the crowd who gave him a rousing ovation. The restored version of Godard’s BAND OF OUTSIDERS also played with Anna Karina in attendance to discuss how she first came to work with the director she later married and Alec Baldwin interviewed Angela Lansbury at the Chinese before Frankenheimer’s forever brilliant THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. On Saturday, also playing to a packed house at the Chinese, was Carl Reiner’s DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID followed by an hour-long discussion with actress/author/TCM host Illeana Douglas and 94-year-old Reiner about his legendary career, ranging from his beginnings to the film we had just seen. It was a true highlight of the weekend, with Douglas once again proving herself as one of the best interviewers among the regular TCM faces and Reiner was in top form. No one there will ever forget his story about asking George Burns about his sex life during the making of OH, GOD!, that’s for sure. Plus there were multiple talks with Elliott Gould including a career discussion with Baldwin and another one before a 35mm screening of THE LONG GOODBYE which, of course, I’ll gladly see any time. Life seems to change faster than I want these days and THE LONG GOODBYE seems to change with me but it still gives me joy like few other films in my life so I have no problem with saying that it’s probably my favorite (or at least close to it) right now.
As for one that I was particularly looking forward to, the premiere of the digital restoration of the Marx Brothers’ HORSE FEATHERS may have been slightly disappointing in how it didn’t seem any different from the way it’s looked my entire life, complete with the flaw of missing frames in some shots. There also was no additional footage despite the occasional rumors of longer overseas versions from various sources through the years. I’m never going to complain about the chance to see HORSE FEATHERS again but when someone asked me about the restoration afterwards there wasn’t much to say since the film is essentially the same—maybe those extra pieces are just gone forever. This aside, the biggest disappointments of the festival were my own choices of what not to see since at times there’s almost too much to choose from, such as the screening of VOICES OF LIGHT: THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC with live orchestra which I heard raves about afterward as well as a few other 35mm screenings that most likely aren’t very common. But these decisions have to be made at TCMFF and, like I said, nobody’s perfect.
There have also been some grumblings online about the number of 35mm screenings at this year’s festival which were considerably fewer than in the past and, unless I’m mistaken, only two houses actually projected that way this time around. By this point even I have to be aware that this is the way it is (the main Chinese, for one, is no longer equipped to screen 35mm) and it’s very clear the DCP format is what the studios have gotten behind. Plus it also makes sense if we’re going to be able to see certain films like the reconstruction of PRIVATE PROPERTY which is not only worthy of being screened at this festival but it also looked impeccable in its presentation. I’m still going to hold out hope that the festival won’t turn its back on 35mm too much—it’s such a part of the pre-codes and other such older titles that largely get relegated to theater #4 in the Chinese 6-- this year, they also included Ida Lupino’s NEVER FEAR introduced by Illeana Douglas, possibly the one connection at the festival to her excellent Trailblazing Women series which aired on the network last fall. I imagine part of it is trying to find the balance between the classic oldies with sparkling new DCPs that often (but not always) draw big crowds to the main Chinese theater and the deeper cuts that the hardcore fans often seek out. Some of my best experiences over the past several years at this festival have involved films that I’d barely even heard of before entering the theater and those can often be the ones mainly found on 35mm—certainly here in L.A. we just got the annual Noir Festival which this year was entirely 35mm as well as Tarantino’s New Beverly Cinema runs 35 every single night, both serving as reminds that such prints are out there in the world--for an extensive discussion of these matters and others at the festival, including the marginalization of such titles in favor of new films screened digitally at the Chinese to half-filled houses, check out this lengthy podcast with Miguel Rodriguez and Will McKinley. I fully get that there has to be a balance but it seemed that this year, maybe because projecting 35mm is becoming that much more of a specialized concept, the balance seemed slightly off.
Of course, in addition to the issue of film vs. digital there’s the daze of it all, the people you see only briefly between the screenings you race down the street to get to on time. And every now and then you decide to see a film for no reason other than the simple pleasure of what it is. Going with Vincente Minnelli’s THE BAND WAGON for my final film of the festival on Sunday night wasn’t something I needed to do plus it unfortunately was one of those not being shown in 35mm but it seemed the right note to end the weekend on. Long maybe a second choice to the likes of SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN on the rankings of MGM musicals I can’t tell if the reputation of THE BAND WAGON has been growing over the years or if I just find myself watching a little more each time it comes on and it’s somehow been gaining for me as I settle further into myself.
Well, you know what THE BAND WAGON is, at least I assume you do (the friend I was with had surprisingly never seen it before)—his screen career over, song & dance man Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) returns to New York to do a show with old playwright friends Lester & Lily Marton (Oscar Levant & Nanette Fabray) to be directed by egomaniac Broadway powerhouse Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan) and co-starring ballerina Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse). Instead of the light musical that’s already been written, Cordova has a much more ambitious idea in mind to do an update of Faust and even though it isn’t what Tony wants he joins in with the gang, even getting close to Gabrielle after their initial meetings prove rather icy. But when disaster looms after the first preview everyone scrambles together to do what they do best, the sort of thing that made Tony a star in the first place. With story and screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, it’s easy to compare THE BAND WAGON with SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, the equivalent for Gene Kelly that this one is for Astaire — a behind the scenes look at show business where everyone comes together to salvage a potential disaster, a romance where of course the two leads can’t stand each other at first, a climactic set piece with only the slimmest connection to the story at hand and ultimately the whole thing is a pretty much a cheerful excuse for a bunch of songs. SINGIN’ has long been the one anointed by the world maybe because its musical numbers, including the title song, are a little catchier, the whole thing is a little bit cheerier. On the other hand THE BAND WAGON, as breezy and uncomplicated as it ultimately is, feels slightly more adult through Vincente Minnelli’s Technicolor eye, offering an impeccable ambiance that resonates each time I see it again. In an odd way, it tells me more about pursuing what you want to do for the pure love of it and the camaraderie that comes out of doing it for the right reasons. And it’s set it the most perfect idea of a New York theater world imaginable, the sort of perfection that I suppose you’re only going to get at the MGM lot in Culver City.
It’s all an idealized adult world, of course, a New York that it’s hard not to wish was the one really there when we arrive on the train at Grand Central. Of course, cross-country trains don’t even come in to Grand Central anymore and if they did Ava Gardner wouldn’t be on any of them. But the New York here is one that’s bustling, busy, ambitious and full of life, it’s that fantasy of where we want to be. Not to mention how the story is ultimately about limitations, about finding the joy in what we love while also trying to figure out how we still fit into the world. Tony Hunter is facing a dead end in life and he seems accepting of being out of the movie business. He’s not depressed about it but self-deprecating in an endearing way and I always like the bit where, after his train has just pulled in, asks the porter if he could make up his berth for the night before he pauses for one more moment, waiting to head back out into the cruel world. Sometimes we all feel that way, that we’d rather avoid it out there while singing “I’ll go that way by myself all alone in a crowd…” with some small speck of hope still deep down. And when Astaire does that here it’s a lovely moment, almost the most offhand musical number I’ve ever seen and speaks to a quiet pull that the film has beyond the most elaborate numbers.
Along with her introduction, Illeana Douglas discussed the film with special guest Susan Stroman (director of both the stage and film musical of THE PRODUCERS along with many other theater credits) each speaking of their love for it while Stroman talked about how some of her own career including one particular frantic rewrite on a show could very easily have been made up of scenes from the film. No surprise considering all the people involved, the details feel like they come from people who’ve been there and who love every piece of madness of it as if there’s nothing better than going several night without sleep while putting a show together. The nuts and bolts we see of it getting made is appropriately larger than life but never feels too exaggerated. Even as the show is falling apart it feels like the most tension comes from a brief spat between married couple Oscar Levant & Nanette Fabray—I imagine it’s not the first fight the two characters have ever had nor will it be the last but even that is presumably taken care of by his visit to that ‘We Never Close’ bar next door--I still dream of visiting that place which I’d imagine would be swankier than the real world equivalent.
There’s a spirit of total enthusiasm the whole way through, it wants to love everyone onscreen and I imagine another film would push to make Jeffrey Cordova even more of a satirical lampoon if not an outright bad guy. But here it simply feels like a gentle tweaking of someone else in the arts who’s just been carried away in the wrong direction, as he puts it—he may be an egomaniac, but a well-meaning egomaniac. Any change of heart Cordova has when the show crashes in previews is mostly silent and he makes Tony the leader as if he’s remembering what it is to have fun in this world again. There’s no Lina Lamont-type bad guy and the closest it has to an adversary is wet blanket choreographer Paul Byrd played by James Mitchell, who it’s easy enough to forget he’s even in the film (Mitchell appears in the DVD extras sounding a little bitter about the whole experience and it really isn’t much of a part). The whole thing is so cheerful and everyone seems so upbeat about getting things right that when Astaire angrily makes a mess of his hotel suite I almost don’t buy that he, or the character, would act that way. Still, he talks about being cooped up doing their show and that frustration is what leads Astaire and Charisse out into the real world, or at least the MGM soundstage version of the real world, silently joining together in this fantasy Central Park, working out their problems in dance with nothing needing to be said beyond every single movement they make together as “Dancing in the Dark” plays. Damn, that’s cinema.
The film also breaks down my own prejudice to the usual MGM product from the golden age where everything seems deliberately just right and a too-perfect aesthetic always floats in the air. But the Minnelli style it all seems like perfection in how he always knows how to frame things through shots that go on for an eternity and you can’t imagine them flowing otherwise. As he visualizes his world, the artificiality to the elegance feels totally genuine. When two leads break each other up at the impending disaster of their show the bit may very well have been rehearsed multiple times down to the gesture but the looseness is almost surprising and totally human. The songs are what matter, of course, with the boisterous “A Shine On Your Shoes” and “That’s Entertainment” numbers along with the or the ultra-simple and elegant “I Guess I’ll Have To Change My Plan” in its elegance among my favorites all of which got rousing ovations from the crowd (even I have my limits of course—let’s just say you may like the “Triplets” number better than I do) The thrill and sheer pleasure of those songs almost meant that much more on this particular night as a reminder that this was all almost over—we’ll be forced back into the real world soon enough anyway, let’s just enjoy this for a little while longer.
The climactic “Girl Hunt” ballet is particularly inventive, more thematically complicated that the equivalent number in SINGIN’ and a little more fun as well—of course, they both share Cyd Charisse and each seems to be a subtle recapitulation of the film’s themes but the Girl Hunt goes deeper, looking at what art is to each person who creates it all in the guise of a particularly sharp Mickey Spillane parody. “Broadway Melody” in SINGIN’ ends with Gene Kelly alone but in this number at the end of THE BAND WAGON, a film with the earlier number “By Myself “which is meant to be at once wistful and hopeful, has Astaire walking off with his fantasy girl, the two of them perfect together. But the fantasy goes further than that in the ‘real world’ ending which makes it not just about the romance but everyone around Astaire in the final shot who has been part of putting this show together, all finally as one. You have to be who you are. That’s the best you there is.
It all feels like a high point of the entire history of Arthur Freed musicals at the studio from everyone in front of the camera including the charm of Astaire, the glacial sophistication of Charisse, the complaining of the great Oscar Levant and also behind it including Minnelli, the work of Comden & Green and of course choreographer Michael Kidd. Not being the biggest expert on the history of MGM musicals I imagine it also may have been made at just the right time—if made just a year later it probably would have been made in CinemaScope (as BRIGADOON, Minnelli’s next musical, was) a format which might have overwhelmed the intimate goals of the story, forcing it into the too-big Jeffrey Cordova style. If made a few years later it also might have had to contend with budgets being cut as musicals declined and television gained on the movies. The magic might have been lost. Even MGM didn’t last forever, after all. But the final shot of THE BAND WAGON betrays none of this, simply saying that even if lots of things have changed, even if they’re not as simple as they were when Fred Astaire was a star in the 30s, there’s always going to be a place for this sort of elegance, this sort of enjoyment, this sort of, well, entertainment. In her introduction at the final night of the festival, Illeana Douglas (so good throughout the weekend and clearly such a favorite of everyone that hopefully this means a larger role for her on TCM in the future) stated the one word that comes to mind when she thinks of THE BAND WAGON is ‘Joy’. That sounds about right.
I’ll admit, I was in a frame of mind through some of the weekend that was slightly off. Maybe part of it is that pressure of wanting to have the best time possible, worried about what’s being missed, while at the same time knowing that it’s the best weekend I’m going to have all year. Maybe that’s one reason I went for THE BAND WAGON to close it out. I needed that reminder of why I was there in the first place. With all of these thoughts swirling through my head the emotion I felt after the screening of THE LONG GOODBYE made me tweet that maybe it was the only happy ending in the history of the movies. A slightly flip thought, obviously, but if you approach me to debate it late at night I might be up for the challenge. Having said that, it’s fair to point out that THE BAND WAGON, with every ounce of joy that it truly projects, is the rare exception to that nonsense rule I just made up. After the closing night party at the Roosevelt I went down the street with some people to In-n-Out Burger to end things. And we got to hang out and talk about movies. With no rush to get anywhere. With no interruptions. Joy. I miss some of those people already and wish I could have spent even more time with them over the weekend. But eventually it all had to end so I could get some sleep--there was a Billy Wilder double bill the next night at the New Beverly to get to, in 35mm of course. So until next year. For now, it all continues.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Like Rolling Off A Log

The run of eight films that Preston Sturges wrote and directed at Paramount from 1940-1944 continues to inspire awe in me the older I get and I love every ounce of screwy, optimistic madness that can be found in them. Whatever the reasons were that he couldn’t sustain this streak after he moved on from the studio, the fact that such brilliance was able to spill out so fast is awe-inspiring and I still think of how my mind was blown when I first discovered these films long ago. Some are more venerated than others, of course, and it’s safe to say that THE LADY EVE and SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS are the two which are most enshrined by now. I have little problem with this. One of them I’ve even written about and there’s no reason why I shouldn’t get around to the other eventually. But certain things mean more to you as time goes on for reasons you only partly understand and I’ve reached the point that, maybe against popular opinion, HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO might very well be my favorite. I’m not saying it’s the best. I’m not saying I’m right. Even considering this over the combo of Fonda & Stanwyck in THE LADY EVE probably reveals just how screwy I am. But Quentin Tarantino has said that his favorite Sturges is either this one or the later UNFAITHFULLY YOURS so I’ve got him on my side at the very least. Though it wasn’t intended to be, HAIL was the last film made during his Paramount run so it feels like the culmination of all of his themes that had been building up until then. A main character pretending to be what he isn’t, the snowballing nature of the plot as it spins downhill, the incessant use of his mellifluous display of language (“He likes those big words,” to steal some dialogue), the manic portrayal of his many beloved character actors in the frame reaching a sort of crescendo here as if he’s trying to cram more of them into the shot than ever before. At the very least, the recent screening at Tarantino’s New Beverly Cinema paired with the unknown Eddie Bracken-Veronica Lake vehicle HOLD THAT BLONDE (never released on video, but pretty good) was a chance to remember why I feel this way about it in the first place and confirm that it does warrant such a defense, even if it may never be the most canonized of his filmography.
With World War II still going strong, Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith (Eddie Bracken) has tried to enlist and left his hometown to join the Marines, the only thing he ever wanted to do. But long since discharged for chronic hay fever he’s merely working in a shipyard, afraid to go home and admit the truth. Until one night he meets a group of Marines on leave and with fifteen cents between them. Honored to buy them each a beer, Woodrow tells them his story and realizes that the group’s leader Sergeant Heffelfinger (William Demarest) actually knew his father “Hinky Dinky” Truesmith who was a hero back in World War I. The shell-shocked Bugsy (Freddie Steele) is furious that Woodrow has lied to his mother and immediately calls her to let her know that Woodrow is on his way home. Before he can explain his way out of it, Heffelfinger comes up with an idea that will let him quietly go back to Oakridge (the town motto: “Business as Usual”) as a hero. But word quickly spreads through the town and a massive hero’s homecoming is what greets him at the train station, along with one-time sweetheart Libby (Ella Raines) afraid to tell him about her new fiancée and the heads of the welcoming committee who come up with an idea to use Woodrow’s status as a hero to their fullest advantage, nominating him as a candidate for the town’s upcoming mayoral race.
HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO achieves a balancing act which is rather awe-inspiring as if Sturges’ goal was to tell the screwiest “Local Boy Makes Good” story imaginable. It’s a satire of Americana and all that implies--small town, apple pie, home, motherhood, the frantic and desperate pleas of the masses to latch onto anything which might promise a better future through whatever means necessary. But it also displays a genuine love for each of these concepts, as if all that’s good in America lies within the frantic, impulsive decisions made by a happy crowd. The recurring song “Home to the Arms of Mother” written by Sturges with exactly the sort of sappy lyrics you’d expect shows how it can be taken both ways, a concept that deserves to be tweaked but also venerated just as strongly. Amid the wartime dialogue (the film was shot in ’43, released in ’44) tinged with subtle propaganda to help make it perfectly acceptable for whoever was keeping tabs on those things, HAIL revels in the glories of the soldiers responsible for finally bringing Woodrow home and even within their craziness is everything the American character should be.
In contrast to the nervous weakling he played in THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK who can barely get through a conversation with Betty Hutton without stammering, Bracken’s Woodrow is actually a pretty regular guy who wants to be one of those Marines, he wants to be a hero, the honest desire to be part of a tradition which is all he’s ever known. He’s just afraid to admit the truth, ashamed that he isn’t really one of them. When first seen he’s all alone in a nightclub, isolating himself as far away from everyone else as possible. It’s as if it takes this madness for him to turn into the expected bumbling Eddie Bracken character, to start sneezing immediately when handed flowers at his homecoming and be surrounded by people in practically every single shot for the rest of the film. HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO is not only about tradition and what it means, it’s about what it needs to be for us sometimes, whether the glory of the Marines or even Libby’s annoyance when new fiancée Forrest (Bill Edwards) discusses the inevitability of the children coming with their impending union as he asks with zero romantic thought, “That’s what marriage is for, isn’t it?” This gives a certain sense of reality to the film when compared with the broader and more slapsticky MORGAN’S CREEK (shot on the same sets at the Paramount Ranch) with a sense of emotion this time around to ground things while keeping the correct manic levels.
What little we see of the big city is filled with people tired of the war and missing wherever their real home is, with a nightclub owner not at all impressed by the Marines who stop by. In comparison they’re treated like gods amidst the small town madness of Oakridge, a sort of place that presumably only ever existed in Hollywood, where we wonder how there are possibly enough houses to fit all the people cramming the streets. Four marching bands play different songs at once as Woodrow arrives creating total chaos, which seems like a perfectly normal occurrence when Franklin Pangborn is in charge. The patriotism is unquestioned only no one in the town knows what to do with it anymore so it’s just left out like that statue of General Zabriski which is there for everyone to see but mainly serves as a place for pigeons to rest and is there because it was purchased at an ironworks going out of business. All anybody knows is he’s a hero and that’s all that matters argues the sergeant, just like Woodrow, about whom the townsfolk repeatedly mention how honest he is—it’s even in the name Truesmith. The laughs in the film escalate as the logic gets more and more twisted but it also knows to calm down for the reminders of the war going on. The picture of Woodrow’s father that hangs in the living room almost seems meant for laughs, with a cockeyed smile given by the uncredited actor playing him, but the movie treats the sight with a genuine respect earned by a fallen soldier.
The town of Oakridge exists unto itself with a white picket fence seemingly in front of every house and everyone knows each other. Even the hapless mayor Everett Noble, President of the Noble Chair Company (motto: “Seats of All Descriptions”) is hardly a Mr. Potter-level villain, instead happy to keep things the way they are, wartime or not. The subtle message seems to be that under his leadership it’s a town that isn’t moving forward towards the future, ignoring the war and whatever sacrifices must be made. Unlike the all-powerful bad guys of Capra it feels like everyone, even the blowhard Everett Noble, is on the same level scrambling for their piece just like anyone else. Sturges doesn’t tweak Capra so much as use the themes of the common man going up against the establishment for his own screwy ideals. Even the speech given by Judge Dennis played by Jimmy Conlin, yet another regular face in these movies, about what is going wrong in the town feels shot in a way to mirror the soda jerk’s endless speech to Gary Cooper in Capra’s MEET JOHN DOE. But it has a goal unlike the vague John Doe campaign in that film—more than anything, action needs to be taken, even in a small town whose only connection to the outside world is the train that comes through a few times a day. As much as Bracken’s Woodrow frantically screams and the deeper he gets into his predicament while doing nothing worse than drinking cooking wine the film points up the gravity of the situation not just from the honest responses, the grateful townsfolk, the former girlfriend who can’t find any time to tell him her secret. Plus there’s the mother he’s come home to, played by Georgia Caine with all the gravity in the world with so many tears from sadness or gratitude like no one told her she was even in a comedy. As rah-rah as the film is about victory along with dialogue about food rations there are the reminders that maybe it’s all more complicated than that like a subtle indication that Woodrow might even be lucky for not having to go off to battle and deal with whatever nightmares that the mother-obsessed Bugsy has to deal with. Maybe becoming a Marine wasn’t needed for Woodrow to finally become a man after all.
Maybe this is bordering on taking the themes of HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO too seriously, ignoring the expected Sturges madness and how joyous it is just to watch this film. It all feels effortless, about as effortless as it can feel to deal with countless people in the frame at once all with screaming dialogue to get out. The plot threads of the characters mixed with the Sturges touches whether Franklin Pangborn yelling at everyone to be quiet, William Demarest coming up with an explanation out of nothing or Al Bridge’s “Political Boss” eating his meal backwards. Plus there’s the infectious nature of that “Win With Woodrow” song the crowds endlessly sing that I still can’t get out of my head. And there’s the Sturges dialogue which could be plugged in to today however you like such as Woodrow’s pleas with the crowd not to vote for him taken as false modesty (“He has a natural flair for politics”) contrasted with how the Mayor overreaches as he prepares the victory speeches he assumes he’ll give. “If they want you, they want you. They don’t need reasons anymore,” goes a key line near the end which is touching in context but of course appropriately screwy still in this day and age.
The behind the scenes problems between Sturges and Paramount during production which led to his departure from the studio ranged from the still unreleased THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK and THE GREAT MOMENT to how he refused to replace female lead Ella Raines when the bosses insisted. Paramount recut the film without him when his contract lapsed and after a disastrous preview Sturges returned even though he was off salary to fix things. Whatever was going on, HAIL features some of the best and most confident pure filmmaking by the director. The opening sequence introducing Woodrow and the Marines gradually takes its time particularly in a lengthy single take as Woodrow tells his story and recites every famous battle the Marines ever had. It’s more than a little jaw-dropping and shows how little Sturges needed to get his point across while also displaying how confident he was to simply let these moments tell the story on their own. It all builds to the freneticism once we hit the town after several long scenes setting everything up we smash into the Oakridge train station in a cut that’s almost modern in how abrupt it is—you imagine them shaving off frames in the cutting room. And it even subtly one-ups the famous long takes in MORGAN’S CREEK that follow Bracken and Betty Hutton—a few similar shots here including one involving Ella Raines and Bill Edwards walking through the manic small town life going on around them feel at least as complicated, only not as pronounced, focusing on the story more than the bravura of the camerawork. “The only amazing thing about my career in Hollywood is that I ever had one at all,” Sturges writes at the end of his association with Paramount in his autobiography which shouldn’t be an understatement but maybe looking back years later at however he pulled off these movies must have seemed like a true miracle.
And while it’s arguable how much we should talk about the seriousness underlining the slapstick in Sturges’ films it possibly came to the forefront more as his Paramount run went on—a recent viewing of his earlier CHRISTMAS IN JULY revealed it to be somewhat slight in plot but possessing more weight than I remembered, becoming genuinely emotional in a way that prefigures this film. Maybe now that I’m older I’m just noticing those things more. The closing gag of MORGAN’S CREEK includes a title card that reminds us of the old Shakespeare “…some have greatness thrust upon them” quote without getting into the consequences of that. HAIL has the greatness thrust upon the main character right up front and in some ways it’s about how all men have it in them to be a hero or display their own greatness even if it is thrust upon them and they deserve that chance to prove they can follow through on the mistake when it happens (as for the women who stand loyally beside those men…well, it was a different time). The film has a heart several of his other films don’t have, even if part of it belongs to several people who are all screaming at once. And even more than THE LADY EVE or SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS it might hold together as his best story. All the parts go together beautifully and everything pays off right down to the very end. And as embarrassing as it is to say, it’s the one Preston Sturges film which when the final line of dialogue is spoken gets me to cry. Maybe not because of the Marine, or homecoming, or love of small towns or any of that but maybe the movie reminds me of the foolish hope that everything can be OK in the end if the right mistakes are ever made.
The familiar Preston Sturges faces are at their best here from Eddie Bracken as the everyman lead to each of the supporting players, all grabbing frantically for their few seconds of dialogue just like you’d imagine Sturges would want them to do. From William Demarest as Sgt. Heffelfinger to Raymond Walburn as the Mayor, it’s some of their best roles. At the very least, it’s my favorite Pangborn performance. And with his recurring “Save your voice, Evvy,” Al Bridge, too. Boxer Freddie Steele walks off with many bits as Bugsy, again walking that tightrope of a character with a comical gimmick to the utmost seriousness. The controversial Ella Raines is continually endearing as Libby--honestly, Ella Raines is a slight favorite of mine (I like her in the noir PHANTOM LADY too) and seems the perfect choice as just the sort of girl you’d want to be waiting for you back home. Sturges even gets something out of the height difference between her and Bill Edwards but she also pops off the screen with enough flavor that you can see why Woodrow is so stuck on her even if she wasn’t so preoccupied by the matter at hand. Maybe there were never towns like Oakridge with girls like Libby waiting for their guy to come home but Ella Raines makes me believe there were.
The first time I ever encountered several of these Sturges films was at a massive Film Forum retrospective in New York long ago, way back in 1990, which felt like it opened up this entire realm of classic film that I never even knew was there. Actually, at the 2015 TCM Film Classic Festival I got to meet Film Forum head programmer Bruce Goldstein and told him how much it, and a similar Billy Wilder retro the following year, had meant to me. He looked taken aback for a moment and then asked, “Why haven’t you been back since?” Well, I have been but eventually I moved out to L.A., what can I tell you. But I’m still grateful and still try to revisit these films every now and then. Come to think of it, there is a study to be made in how Sturges approached the conceit of charade in his films compared with Wilder. But that’s for another time. HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO may not be THE LADY EVE or SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS and the wartime setting does date it, after all. It still just makes me feel good like few other films in how it almost displays the pinnacle of the world as viewed by Preston Sturges but I also find it touching in ways that I can only partly understand. The final image goes back to an earlier plot point that almost seemed minor but turns out to be what the story was headed for all along, as if to explain the off-kilter grin on “Hinky Dinky” Truesmith’s portrait in the first place. A reminder of how sons try to live up to the enigma their fathers always will be. The past, after all, holds the secrets of the future. Life proceeds as it was always meant to.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Here For About Ten Seconds

I was talking with someone recently. Actually, we were texting but of course there’s nothing unusual about that. Some of my best relationships these days seem to happen over texts which is better than nothing, I suppose. I shouldn’t go into details but the conversation skirted on the issue of how we deprive ourselves of certain things in life and what are we waiting for, after all? Lately I think about this, how I was afraid of the mistakes I knew I’d make so now there’s the creeping dread that someday I’ll realize I fucked up one time too many. But let’s face it, I’m still trying to figure all this out. You plan ahead in your mind, you’ve got it all prepared, then when the moment comes you freeze up hoping the few things you actually do say are the right ones. “You’re here for about ten seconds,” Robert Culp tells his friend Elliott Gould in Paul Mazursky’s BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE as a way to chastise his friend for not acting on impulse. That impulse had to do with an affair Gould’s Ted didn’t have, but in the greater context there’s a lot on my mind. Wasted time, what certain events meant, whether I’m just treading water. But enough about all that for now. BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE was the fifth highest grossing film of 1969 and, like some of Mazursky’s best films, is locked into its era as if a few years earlier or later it would have been impossible for the film to exist at all. On the one hand I wonder how much I can identify with the film since so much about it feels far removed from me. And yet as I watch it these days not only do certain trappings begin to wash away, I realize it’s a film about people just trying to figure things out, wondering how much they’re screwing it all up in the process. Something that sounds familiar, after all.
The film is of course about the four title characters, the open-minded Bob (Robert Culp) & Carol (Natalie Wood) whose lives have seemingly been forever altered by a marathon group encounter session and the more straight-laced couple Ted (Elliott Gould) & Alice (Dyan Cannon), their friendship intermingled with their marriages, the affairs they have and what that means for each of them. When Quentin Tarantino reopened the New Beverly Cinema in the fall of 2014 this was the first film screened, in a gorgeous print that Tarantino had made as part of his DJANGO UNCHAINED deal with Columbia—Mazursky himself even supervised the color timing on it. The opening night screening took place only a few months after the director had passed away at the age of 84, serving as a fitting tribute as well as a reminder of the sort of film he specialized in, the kind that isn’t getting made much anymore, just like the concept of a gorgeous new 35mm print is sadly disappearing as well. The context of the film has of course changed, some of the ideas the characters espouse has changed and, yes, the fashions have as well, all of this is true. But instead of feeling dated the film feels free and open in its willingness to delve into these characters along with possessing a comic intelligence that is nearly obsolete today. The structure of only about a dozen or so major sequences (even the building blocks of the narrative feel a little like Tarantino) carefully examines what happens to the foursome as they learn secrets about their spouses and friends, how they relate to each other as well as the outside world. Right from the beginning the details always feel genuine as if we’re watching a satirical tweak of what 1969 was, not a sitcom exaggeration. The laughs come not from the wacky new world that Bob & Carol have discovered but from the newfound honesty it brings out of them and trying to figure out if they’ve really changed at all.
Written by Mazursky and Larry Tucker, BOB & CAROL was Mazursky’s directorial debut, coming roughly a year after their collaboration on the screenplay of the Peter Sellers comedy I LOVE YOU, ALICE B. TOKLAS and while the earlier film went for the broad, comical portrayal of the late 60s hippie zeitgeist with his own film Mazursky satirizes the scene but also keeps things grounded and humane, allowing each of his characters a point of view which, even if it isn’t always valid is at least partly understandable. Or maybe this is simply another case where the satire in the material has been drained away over time into pure naturalism. For Mazursky, there might not be a difference anyway. The encounter group which serves as the catalyst for all this is based on the Esalen Institute up in Big Sur, only called “The Institute” here (it was also the inspiration for where Don Draper found his big eureka in the final episode of MAD MEN), and the film opens with shots from above as a Quincy Jones-ified Hallelujah Chorus plays over images of the place. As Bob & Carol arrive, everyone already seems totally free of inhibitions—all the answers are there, the imagery seems to say, everything has been settled and they need to do nothing more than learn this. Mazursky went to Easlen to research the idea he had for the film, just as Bob says he’s researching a documentary he’s going to make—essentially researching an idea about a character researching an idea and finding the story about himself within that. Interestingly, Bob seems unsure whether that’s why he’s really there, as if to question how committed he’s really going to be to this newfound outlook on life--we never hear about the documentary again anyway. The sequence sets the tone right away, treating characters who would be played as jokes in other films—the old guy, the nympho—with respect and taking its time doing it so we can understand a fraction of what Bob & Carol have been through, why they insist they’ve been forever changed.
Like some of Mazursky’s best work it skirts the satirical edge of the story as the characters take their behavior to its ultimate extreme, viewing them with both sad bemusement and at times total compassion, knowing that they’re wrong more often than not, knowing that they’re trying their best no matter how outwardly odd their behavior is. It’s inevitable that they’re going to screw things up somehow but Mazursky loves them anyway, he loves how they’re trying to figure out what they’re trying to figure out. The film never becomes arch or contemptuous because he can’t, all of the four leads are part of him anyway. You can feel Mazursky as one of this crowd wondering these same things, enamored by Natalie Wood, fascinated by what Dyan Cannon isn’t admitting to those around her, feeling those same pangs of confidence and terror that Robert Culp and Elliott Gould do. Bob and Carol are the glamorous couple, almost too good to be true, and the way they insist how the affairs they’ve had are just physical and nothing beyond that is almost too perfect, there’s no way it can hold up, the all-too predictable whiplash of someone claiming to change who they are so fast. Ted & Alice are slightly supporting as characters—that’s how Gould & Cannon were nominated at the Academy Awards—but also supporting to the flashier movie star-like couple of Bob & Carol as well so when the film focuses on them after learning about Bob’s affair it’s a jolt that shifts things towards them leading to what may be the best scene in the film, a tug of war between their own individual reactions and exactly what that’s going to mean in bed for the rest of the night. Mazursky plays the confrontation perfectly through the laughs and the honesty between the two actors with their characters no longer sure how to behave with each other, ending on a note that resolves the scene and still leaves it totally unanswered as the two can barely understand what’s going on.
There’s a sense of freedom in how willing the film is to continually let these scenes play out but also an intelligence that knows what needs to be focused on. Like the post-party scene where the foursome smoke pot the film is in no rush to focus on what each character react to at any given moment and even the jokes become a normal extension of their reactions to what happens, never simply part of the patter. Instead it’s the little things, Carol’s total confidence in her new worldview, Ted’s discomfort at Bob shooting home movies of him, the tennis pro who Carol’s cheating with hedging on Bob’s offer of a drink until the 12 year-old Ballantine is mentioned. The awkward intimacy the film achieves in its close-ups reaches its peak when Cannon’s Alice visits her therapist (played by Donald F. Muhich, Mazursky’s own therapist) and how she discusses her own confusion, how much she doesn’t want to talk about sex, reaching for possible answers but not getting any beyond more questions. The aesthetic glimpses we do get at 1969 might be secondary to all this (as enticing as it is) but correctly gets across how everyone is feeling this excitement for what’s around them, something Alice simply can’t. Maybe partly because she’s the only one who stops to think about all this for more than a few seconds Alice is also the one who finally gets everyone to take things to the logical extreme—whether because she’s feeling left out by being the only one who hasn’t had an affair or because she can’t take being so afraid about the whole thing anymore it doesn’t really matter. The film wisely doesn’t always spell out the reasoning since it can’t, the tension between them makes it inevitable for things to build to the iconic image of the four of them in bed together. The answers don’t really matter, anyway. It’s just the way it is. The film observes the way things were. Or, more likely, still are.
As his own directing credit appears Mazursky makes a cameo at The Institute as someone is getting him to scream, to let it all out, the perfect entryway to four characters somehow attempting to do the same. The more I watch it the more BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE seems just miraculous, flowing beautifully with an intricate structure to the screenplay that adds to the freedom. Pauline Kael called it ‘a slick, whorey movie and the liveliest American comedy so far this year’ and although her complete review reads as pretty mixed it is lively, continually slick with a late 60s magazine layout feel to the visuals. On the surface the four of them go perfect together and the friends on the sidelines of the gatherings arguing about their kids aren’t with it enough, representing the audience who can only dream of being one of these people who on the surface have it all. With 1973’s BLUME IN LOVE (the second film in that opening night double at the New Beverly—Donald F. Muhich appears again, basically playing the same therapist, which made the pairing even more ideal) Mazursky went deeper making a darker look at infidelity and that film dangles on a tightrope like few others do but BOB & CAROL with its 60s sense of hope and optimism still felt in every scene comes together beautifully. There are no missing parts, each of the characters get their say and the realization they all silently come to at the end feels natural for them to stay who they are.
That’s the ‘What now?’ of the final moments between the four of them in bed together, of Robert Culp’s expression when he seemingly achieves everything he was trying for since the beginning of the film. What are you supposed to do when you get everything you thought you wanted? It’s not that it’s wrong, like Ted fears, it’s just that things are more complicated than that. They have to be for anything to work. Thinking about this film and a few of Mazursky’s others reminds me of the end of his 1980 JULES AND JIM homage WILLIE AND PHIL (not at the level of BOB & CAROL but still interesting—unfortunately, it’s not even on DVD) in which the narration at the end concludes the story and then says about the two leads, “they went on to live very ordinary lives.” The intentional break with reality at the end of this film aside, it’s easy to imagine that this is what happens to Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice as well. The director actually makes a second cameo near the very end, walking along in the crowd with his co-writer/producer Larry Tucker, the two of them looking like the best friends in the world. It’s a sort of bookend to that scream he let out at the start and in some ways his films are sometimes about that scream you have to let out before you retreat to that version of ordinary life you have in front of you, having hopefully figured out a little something. You do sometimes have to let out a scream, yes, but the ending finds the main characters in silence as they redo the encounter from the Institute, finally seeing the other person and embracing what it really means for themselves, for once not hiding their feelings. Mazursky based the film on his own experience and since he’s a part of this narrative of course he doesn’t have all the answers. But he seems to know that all we have in the end is ourselves. And, if we’re lucky, the person in front of us staring back.
Along with all that is the perfection of the performances, both together and separate, always fully lived in, always fully the characters. Robert Culp displays his character’s hollow confidence with the beads and chains, obviously trying to stay with it and a certain ‘Am I really getting away with this?’ air to his actions that prefigures how fast he crumbles when he’s not able to control the situation. Natalie Wood’s own elegant blitheness perfectly matches him in how she looks at her husband with all the love in the world—she introduces herself as “Bob’s wife” as if that’s all that matters—while still being able to hold enough surprises, displaying so much confidence and amazement at the world that she can’t believe everyone else doesn’t feel the same way, amazed that there can be other such emotions. There’s a sense that Bob & Carol as characters are each more comfortable in their own skin so the more conservative Ted & Alice feel more out of place as a result. Since they don’t put on as many airs, the discomfort that they show makes their more relaxed moments that much more genuine. Elliott Gould, the goofiest of them, is maybe the most human in his physicality with the way he dances while getting high and the way he primps before the big orgy, the gears clicking away in his head always apparent as he tries to figure out the difference between Bob’s advice and what’s right. The inner awkwardness makes it Gould’s most endearing performance and the way Dyan Cannon expresses Alice’s own discomfort alongside him makes her an ideal match, displaying the right amount of insecurity as if continually unsure how to behave when any situation doesn’t go exactly her way. Her insistence of her own vulnerability feels totally honest.
We break with reality Fellini-style at the very end of course in a Las Vegas ending which could be about all sorts of things or maybe could mean nothing more than the famous lyrics of “What the World Needs Now”. Regardless, we leave the four of them content with each other, ready to face the 70s which according to Mazursky means BLUME IN LOVE and AN UNMARRIED WOMAN but hopefully Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice had a happier decade. Thinking back to that line about being here for ten seconds the actress who played Carol has been gone for close to 35 years by now. Bob has been gone for six. I hope Ted & Alice stay with us for a long time to come. Joe Swanberg’s recent film DIGGING FOR FIRE (recommended) was dedicated to him and is a valid look at how some of these themes can be expressed in 2016 so hopefully Mazursky’s legacy will continue to make its way out there through the New Beverly or other means. I also suspect certain long ago women in my life tried to apply some of what gets learned at The Institute to me but, of course, I was too young and stupid to get it. That’s the way it goes and, as usual, I forgot that we’re only here for about ten seconds. But here I am, not living anything like this film, just trying to get through this stuff, while I have those late night texting sessions with people who, if I’m being honest, I’d rather be talking to with them right there in front of me. Sometimes you have to scream, yes. But you can’t scream forever. I’m trying to remember that.