Monday, October 31, 2016

Live It Over Again

The opening day audience at the Vista wanted blood. You could sense this in the air. I was in that theater, popcorn in hand, and I wanted it too. It was October ’08. A long time ago now and no time at all. I was standing in line when I realized I had forgotten to call a friend that week to wish her a happy birthday. It was mere days from when I finally joined Facebook. And the election was happening, right in the midst of the financial meltdown and everything else swirling around it. Including, of course, the release of Oliver Stone’s W. which had been raced through production to be in theaters before Election Day and get in whatever Oliver Stone wanted to get in there. It was a film seemingly made for just those few weeks and after that who cared. So that Silverlake audience which had no doubt been simmering all that anger since the end of 2000 wanted blood.
W. the film has been mostly forgotten since those few weeks which I guess isn’t really a surprise since not much blood was ever really spilled during the course of those two hours and you could feel the air go out of the room well before the end credits. As it turned out, that clearly wasn’t what Oliver Stone wanted to do with it anyway. Ask me what Stone’s films mean to me right now and you might get a very long, uncertain answer although I’ll still gladly sit through WALL STREET again anytime. Recently SNOWDEN didn’t get that much of a reaction out of me at all and as for certain comments he’s made in the press, I guess if he wants to vote for Jill Stein that’s what he’s going to do. Thinking back on some of his other films, JFK is a gigantic, manic cry in the night for a utopia that never was while NIXON is this gargantuan crazy thingamajig, long, flawed, big and messy. It’s not a masterwork even if it feels designed to be one but even its clumsiness has power and I can’t imagine it coming from any other filmmaker. The best of Oliver Stone is when he’s more than a little crazy, whether he knows it or not and when he downshifts into a more easy listening mode as he’s done in recent years it doesn’t really do anyone much good. And it’s hard not to want W. to get a little crazier, if not full Strangelovian, since having made the film at that time would seem to imply that’s what it was going to be, to not deny the anger anyone had been feeling during those years. Comparing the two, Stone himself once called NIXON a symphony and W. more of a chamber piece but instead it feels more like a loose jam session by talented musicians ready to swing which gradually, maybe before anyone realizes it, turns into more of a formalized performance of what’s on the page. It’s not in any way bad but still has a certain patchwork feel and never seems entirely complete which may in itself be part of the point but the ‘THIS MOVIE NEEDS TO BE MADE NOW’ aspect feels part of its limitations.
Of course, W. is the story of George W. Bush (Josh Brolin), 43rd President of the United States and his journey from hazing rituals at Yale to aimlessness and drinking while meeting wife Laura (Elizabeth Banks) to quitting the bottle and finding the lord all the way to his position as most powerful leader in the world. It’s as notable for what it leaves out as much as what’s in there whether for legal reasons or if Stone has simply decided that certain details just don’t matter as much. More than anything it’s about a guy who sought glory, whatever that glory was going to be, since in spite of the silver spoon provided by his family was always looked at as the black sheep for reasons never fully articulated to him almost as if his own parents had an OMEN-like premonition about him from birth. So he fights back to achieve that success at any cost, knowing that in this life it’s who’s up on the marquee that matters and if you can present yourself as that winner, you can own the world. His memory is sharp enough that he can always rattle answers off the top of his head whether nicknames of frat buddies or just knowing that Iran and Iraq are two separate places but he’s not particularly interested in the nuances of differentiating those things or what any of these facts might actually mean. The film bounces back and forth between the heavy drinking of his early adulthood and the days in the White House preparing for the Iraq invasion but it never plays as if he’s personally flashing back to those events—he reflects on himself simply through the baseball fantasy of standing out in center field, which he calls his favorite place, forever in search of that empty glory. That’s all his inner life is, at least that’s the way it is through Oliver Stone’s eyes.
Written by Stanley Weiser, Stone’s co-scribe on WALL STREET, with various pieces presumably pulled from multiple sources, the seeds of satire are ingrained in almost every scene and there’s something about W. which feels designed to play as underground, unauthorized and maybe a little dangerous. Even the modest scale of the production, as opposed to the epic feel of NIXON, adds to this but it all quickly becomes overly genteel, Eisensteinian cutaways as punctuation not having the impact they sometimes do in his work. The approach is also a reminder of how certain characters in his films are very obviously meant to represent Stone—he’s not Gordon Gekko and I don’t think of him as Mickey Knox but he is Ron Kovic in a sense, he is the Charlie Sheen avatars of PLATOON and WALL STREET, Jim Garrison seeing the light of the truth of conspiracy in JFK, Frank Whaley’s paramedic in WORLD TRADE CENTER finding a place for himself in the world again, he’s whichever character is being told in giant letters ‘THE WORLD IS YOURS’ whether by Angelina Jolie or the Goodyear Blimp. W. could easily have been even nastier than it is but it’s held back seemingly to bring gravity to the personal drama of quitting drinking and discovering the lord as well as, I suppose, the all-important oedipal drama which allows Stone to connect Bush to himself (as any piece of publicity about the film reminded us, the two men were in the same freshman class at Yale) so for once this not-quite-yet historical figure can serve as his peer, literally, and he doesn’t have to reach too far for the parallels.
As W. begins, everything is already in progress and the meeting we witness isn’t about the invasion of Iraq per se as much as the message the administration is declaring, discussing the creation of the term ‘axis of evil’ and the presumed necessity of what they’re going to do. It’s all about perception which is the reality as we’re later told by ‘analysts’ who are clearly meant to represent talking heads on a certain network who stress that W. ‘didn’t fight in the war but he looks like he did’. He’s for real because of how he looks. It’s that hubris of what the man took from his losses early in life and after that deciding not winning was forever out of the question. The film goes back and forth in chronology but W.’s basic character remains the same, he eats with his mouth full and carries on conversations with his wife while sitting on the toilet just like every other slob, ready to get back to watching sports on TV with his Bologna sandwich and Cheetos for lunch. Stone observes this but keeps his excesses in check mostly limited to a few giant close-ups as punctuation and the sly body language coming from some of the actors. A few moments indicate the film could have gone further, as also seen in a few deleted scenes on the Blu, but instead of outright anger is the feel of blithe amusement mixed with some sadness, maybe coming out of how much Stone relates to W. and the paths the two took in life. Maybe that anger had left Stone by this point, bled out from the failure of ALEXANDER, maybe for him it only applies to the fall of his own youth, from what he portrays in the Oliver Stoneland of PLATOON, JFK, THE DOORS and NIXON when to him it was worth getting angry. Maybe he’s just too aware of what seems to be happening again and again so the movie is more of a sigh than a shout, no thundering John Williams score this time presumably because someone of this intellect doesn’t deserve such a theme. Much of the score is somewhat low key as a result, with one of the most notable musical moments a gentle guitar strumming of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” as the decision to go to war is made, the light glowing from above W. and the certainty of his choice.
The film also divides W. dealing with both his family and his personal cast of characters in the White House, which is enjoyable if not too fiery in its approach. Dick Cheney as played by Richard Dreyfuss seems content to remain in the darkness off to the side since he doesn’t need the spotlight, Toby Jones as Karl Rove telling him what the public wants to hear, Thandie Newton as Condeleezza Rice loyally deferring to everything W. says, like a henchwoman in a Matt Helm movie. The tone sometimes swings all over the place here but at least feels unpredictable as opposed to the family drama which is somewhat more familiar, James Cromwell as George H. W. chastising him while admitting his own limitations in a way his son is unable to do. Brother Jeb, except for a brief teenage appearance during a flashback, is an unseen Chuck Cunningham, off living up to the ever-important family name the way they want. W.’s break from his father is made clear in how he doesn’t want to be called Junior, but is still so desperate to make him proud that he listens to the two devils on his shoulders in Cheney and Rove. They clearly know how to manipulate him and he wants them to, each getting an equivalent scene ending with W. reminding them before they walk off who’s really the decider but their power standing right behind him is unlimited and they know it. He refers to speaking to the “higher father” about what he’s doing instead of his own actual father figure keeping the former President in exile up in Maine, totally forgotten about (as for his mother figure, the line drawn from Caroline Kava in BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY to Ellen Burstyn as Barbara Bush here doesn’t seem that long). To all of them it’s as if W. is a kid who just needs to think that he’s really in charge and all they need to do is follow.
Ultimately, it’s a guy who put his life together, kicking the bottle (and good for him) and finding Jesus, but he’s still the same guy, only more focused and now drinking non-alcoholic beer. That in itself says something about him, desperate to hang on to the guy he was, but you could also say that W. is in some ways a non-alcoholic Oliver Stone film, missing the delirium that almost seems like would be a given. Occasionally it comes together, particularly during Stacy Keach’s two scenes as fictional televangelist Earle Hudd offering spiritual guidance who plays the first with massive close-ups, siphoning himself into W.’s very soul, warning him against the pitfalls of regret. The film’s centerpiece, an 11 minute sequence detailing the arguments of going into Iraq, avoids such tricks intentionally and doesn’t really need them, taking the idea of what were presumably hours of discussion and laying out the arguments as dry and forceful as possible, including Jeffrey Wright’s version of Colin Powell as the voice of reason no one listens to, as persuasive as he is, not having any idea that he’s just a small part of W.’s private oedipal drama. The film focuses on the performances and the words circling around to the same argument over and over (“Drain the swamp,” says Scott Glenn’s Rumsfeld) while Cheney’s ‘We stay’ answer to the question of an exit strategy serving as this film’s version of LBJ declaring ‘Just get me elected, I’ll give you your damn war’ as Richard Dreyfuss gets the icy confidence just right as oil is talked about, oil, oil, OIL! Of course, in the film’s eyes the argument is just an excuse for what W. wants to hear to pull it off for daddy and allow the family to ‘honor our commitments’. It builds up to what may be Brolin’s best moment in the film as he takes control, completely focused and talking that Bush-speak that only he fully understands (“We’re not so sure who the ‘they’ are, but we know they’re there.”) with a total lack of regard for anything other than what he’s already decided. For once the film pulls off the tightrope of that language and the full gravity of what’s happening.
Much is left out, of course. Except for Bush 41 saying how he had to “pull your ass out of the fire in Florida in 2000” there’s no mention of the Florida recount, 9/11 is only referred to in the past tense (and enigmatically in the future during one flashback) maybe because Stone had covered the day in WORLD TRADE CENTER, there’s no mention of Katrina since the film ends before the 2004 reelection campaign, etc etc etc. For the purposes of this film, these are just details we know about already. Aside from one quick montage of war protests there’s not even that much of a feel of the outside world, whether for or against him (again, that part of the film would have been the audience in October ’08 watching it). This could have given the film a more underground, maverick feel but it never quite gets that wild, searching for the middle ground between truth and satire, sometimes coming close to the mark. In a broader sense the film remains compelling over repeat viewings since of course the Oliver Stone version of this story is never going to be a standard cable biopic and it is entertaining, probably better than its rep in the end. The sequences of Bush and ‘his gang’ figuring out how they’re going to approach the process of war are at times particularly sharp and, hey, I like movies with guys in suits talking anyway, it’s just not as fully formed as it maybe should be. There wasn’t time for that anyway since it was roughly five months from start of shooting to release. In the film’s eyes, for all intents and purposes Iraq is the W. presidency and the lightly comical nature of it all makes the film a little like ‘The Bush 43 Follies’ but also in its incomplete nature is maybe just ‘Highlights From W.’ the laughs correctly undercut by the brief scene of him visiting wounded soldiers as everything starts to crumble, trying to keep a brave and noble face on where this all led. Stone can’t satirize this of course and doesn’t try. All the film needs to do for these few moments is observe.
I was just watching a Rachel Maddow interview with Stone from the time of the film’s release where she speculated that Bush simply wanted to ‘be President’ and would pretty much disappear from the public eye when he left office. For what it’s worth, Stone doesn’t seem so sure that he will. I won’t say revisiting W. after all this time gives me nostalgia for any of those days but compared to some of what’s going on now and what might be in the future it doesn’t actually seem so bad. It’s very clear that elements of W. are in there purely for dramatic purposes, certain quotes removed from their original context. Back then we’d maybe heard a few of the ‘You don’t get fooled again’ type phrases a few times too many. Now, of course, all this is in the past. W. sort of comes to a stop near the end as everyone realizes there are no WMDs, ‘nothin’ on nothin’’ as the President puts it, his staff eating pie as the world burns. And when it comes time for an answer without Cheney or Rove whispering in his ear he merely shrugs and has nothing to say. ‘The End’ abruptly flashes onscreen as if the film is telling us, we know that’s not really the end but what more do you need? We were so looking for blood at the time and so desperate to get all that done with that in some ways the film works better now as a reflection of that period than it did then, even if it still doesn’t feel complete. We know the ending anyway, or at least that particular ending. The past always seems more innocent as we get further away and new monsters emerge. The Rosebud in NIXON was that President’s mother, the pain of his poverty-stricken childhood. There are no flashbacks to childhood in W. which could almost mean that he never grew up at all, no Rosebud aside from the warning his father once gave him. The final scene indicates he never even figured out what that Rosebud could have been. In the end, or at least this version of the end, he’s nothing.
As difficult as it clearly was to portray George W. Bush without coming off like an SNL sketch, Josh Brolin does a phenomenal job combining the man’s stubbornness with a genuine need to prove himself, as lunkheaded as he always was going to be in doing so. You can almost see the wheels turning as he does the simple arithmetic in his head to determine each new step and the pride in his face when he assumes command of a room as if pulling off an impersonation of a genius. It’s not quite the real W. but it does communicate the empty essence of his very being. While there isn’t much to say about the character of Laura Bush as presented in the body of the film, written as doing little more than being supportive after their initial meet cute where she displays at least a little independence, but Elizabeth Banks is able to find much of her performance between the lines in her silent gazing while forever remaining by his side. Richard Dreyfuss, the one actor in the film who seems to have publicly spoken about his issues with it, transforms almost more than anyone while still looking exactly like himself, playing Cheney as totally focused, arrogant and quietly dismissive of almost everyone else around him with a dryness to his presence as if there may be intellect in there but definitely no soul to sell. It matches up well against Jeffrey Wright, quietly seething as Colin Powell, clearly aware how much his expertise is being disdained and there’s not a damn thing he can do about it. Tonally speaking some of these performances do waver but I’ll give points to Thandie Newton for going as far as she does as Condeleeza Rice even if she clearly thinks the film is much broader than it is while Scott Glenn is oddly almost too lackadaisical as Rumsfeld whether it’s he or the film holding back a much harsher portrayal. James Cromwell comes off as more of a Bush-type than actually George H.W. Bush (the glasses are right at least) but the inherent decency he tries to project from that man comes through as the future he once foresaw never comes to pass. Though playing a fictional character Stacy Keach manages to find the truth in this material almost more than anyone with even a beat or two of ambiguity in there but no condescension in the religious fervor with how he plays his scenes opposite Brolin and the power from his presence is undeniable.
It’s a film that is more reflective than I gave it credit for at the time, but maybe without that blood spilled even to this day the experience of watching W. will never be as cathartic as I still want it to be deep down. So now we’re here, eight years after all this. As I write this it’s an ugly time. Just revisiting W. is a reminder of where we were then and we don’t know if we’re going to go back to that. Or worse. The fictional Earle Hudd warns W. about the pitfalls of wanting to live your life over again and you can’t live it over again. But you can’t get rid of your regrets either, let alone your dreams of what might have been. Sometimes it’s hard not to let out a scream in the night about it all. I suppose that W., at least as portrayed here, has decided at the end that those things don’t matter since in the future, as he reminds us, we’ll all be dead. In my mind I live those eight years over. I live the past eight years over too. It’s hard not to think about the past and try to put right all those time you fucked up, when you missed what was right in front of you. I suppose we spend way too much time in life missing things. That’s the way we are.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

What That Reason Is

Sometimes films get forgotten. Who knows why, that’s just the way things go. Abel Ferrara’s BODY SNATCHERS never had much of a chance apparently since it never got much of a release. After playing in competition at Cannes in ’93 it slipped into a few theaters in early ’94, as if Warner Bros. was trying to hide it, to at least a few good reviews (including four stars from Roger Ebert) and some positive response. I still remember seeing it in Westwood Village, back when people went to the movies in Westwood Village, and the sheer rush of the film’s most powerful moment (if you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about) caused the audience to burst into spontaneous applause. Partly because of its style, partly because I was the sort of guy to champion films that it seemed like the studio was hiding, I talked the film up a lot back then. Now all these years later it’s become something I haven’t revisited in over a decade at least. Maybe this remake that follows the ’56 and ’78 versions of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS isn’t as good as those two but there are far worse things you could say about any film than that it doesn’t quite live up to a pair of classics. Returning to it again after however many years, if this BODY SNATCHERS has any problem it’s that the very best moments and ideas don’t necessarily make up a completely satisfying narrative in the end and maybe that’s one reason why I sort of forgot about it. But considering the onslaught of thematically empty remakes/reboots/whatevers that we’ve had to deal with in recent years this one is pretty damn near daring in what it even attempts to accomplish. The film is still flawed and either lacks the necessary ‘big idea’ or the one it has is a little too obscured but what’s there is still effective which, especially these days, is better than nothing.
Teenage Marti Malone (Gabrielle Anwar) is traveling through the country with her father, EPA chemist Steve Malone (Terry Kinney), stepmother Carol (Meg Tilly) and half-brother Andy (Reilly Murphy) as Steve investigates possible contamination involving the chemicals used on military bases. When they arrive Steve gets to work in spite of a hostile reception from base commander General Platt (R. Lee Ermey) but is soon consulted by Major Collins (Forest Whitaker) the base medical officer who appears extremely worried about the possible effects these chemicals are having on the people who live at the base. Although Marti quickly makes friends with Jenn Platt (Christine Elise) daughter of the General and helicopter pilot Tim Young (Billy Wirth) they at first are unaware of the changes taking place but quickly start to believe that maybe certain people around them aren’t who they claim to be.
Maybe connected in my mind to how it barely opened, the film feels like some sort of aberration both for Ferrara and the ‘Body Snatchers’ concept in general. Truth be told, I haven’t even seen a new Abel Ferrara film in a long time and by now just the idea of such a thing seems lost to another era, whether grainy videotapes of MS. 45 or half remembered viewings of THE ADDICTION or THE FUNERAL. BODY SNATCHERS came out right around the same time as Ferrara’s other foray into big studio filmmaking, the Madonna-Harvey Kietel team-up DANGEROUS GAME which I also saw (at the Beverly Center; there was a healthy walkout ratio) and have pretty dim recall of. Hey, it was the 90s and odd digressions were actually being made at the studios even if they all didn’t open wide. BODY SNATCHERS (screen story by Raymond Cistheri and Larry Cohen, screenplay by Stuart Gordon & Dennis Paoli and Nicholas St. John, based on the novel by Jack Finney) makes a point to pay homage to the previous films but wastes very little time in taking its own path, not at all a strict redo of what had come before.
Following the earlier two films which took place in a small town and the big city, the setting of a military base lends it a different feel on its own, an enclosed community unfamiliar to the leads and one where you really can’t tell what certain people are thinking. It’s a film with characters who are already withdrawn from each other, led by a teenage girl who refers to her stepmother as the woman who ‘replaced’ her mom as if for her the family she’s a part of has already dissolved into dust and the pod people don’t have to do very much to get their job done. It’s bluntly directed with a spare sense of dread that adds to each scene, containing lots of dead space in the widescreen frame where almost anything could be going on yet in spite of a certain arty nature still maintains as a genre piece that could have easily opened wide and I doubt there would have been rioting in the streets. Elements do feel dropped in from various drafts as if they’re more like pieces which don’t quite make up a complete whole and the myriad writing credits (with a few intriguingly familiar names in there) indicate a project that may have gone through numerous changes but some of those pieces still work in letting that dread seep in, like a particularly sly daycare sequence where every child’s artwork is creepily the same except for one. As it is, the narrative feels sliced to the bone anyway which manages to add to the tension while also providing a certain amount of speed to each event as if the film itself is fully aware that we already know some of these story beats so there’s no reason to dwell on them.
Like the previous two versions, there’s a certain Rosencrantz & Guildenstern approach to the story in how everything has already kicked off by the time the opening credits have rolled and the main characters are separated from the action even more this time so we only get to hear about some of what’s going on at the base. Along with that is a strain of verrrry dark, deadpan humor that the film does a good job in knowing when to undercut with another chill. This is especially evident in the portrayal of Marti’s uncomprehending half-brother, so young that he barely understands anything going on except that his mom has died and if he goes to sleep he’ll die too. The shot of him barely comprehending the nudity of his new ‘mother’ as she approaches him in its perfect form is one of the film’s best moments, a queasy eroticism in a way that few films ever seem to go for. One real problem with the film is that there’s so little happening around the central narrative that there’s only so many places to take it before everything is revealed and it all turns into a third act chase/escape—certainly with the myriad intellectuals of Philip Kaufman’s San Francisco debating things in the ’78 version there was more ‘stuff’ going on. Here there’s a left-right conflict of the EPA chemist representing ‘hippies saving the planet’ with the (then) post-cold war military that clearly wants to be left alone but the conflict never becomes very substantial, much of the EPA angle pretty much leading nowhere plotwise. The real impact comes from the teenage lead character who feels isolated from the entire world already, not feeling at all part of a family that has already broken apart. She doesn’t even know what personality she is yet, let alone what she’s going to become, in contrast with her new friend who rebels against her surroundings yet fully expects to turn into her parents eventually.
It’s also a case of a film building to its fever pitch too soon, but it’s still one hell of a fever pitch, a certain speech by Meg Tilly’s pod person in which she decries the futility of running away since there’s ‘no one like you…left.”. The moment of the big reveal that immediately follows is where the audience applauded long ago and even now the sequence is so effective, so powerful, that it deserves to be ranked among the great moments in horror of the past thirty years. The only problem is there’s nowhere BODY SNATCHERS can go afterwards to top it and part of me wishes it didn’t have to try—if the film ended here I’d be perfectly satisfied although I can understand why a studio wouldn’t want to release a 50-odd minute film where nothing gets resolved. But there is a certain maverick confidence to the film as if it was actually made under the radar during such an alien invasion while it was occurring and at its very best, there’s something seeping underneath each scene that you can feel, something unpleasant which almost matters more than any of the plot. Maybe the film is too underpopulated but the unique approach to the material does offer a new look at how individuality gets stripped away and Ferrara knows where to find the visuals that underline this; one shot dwelling on an American flag being taken down as the sun sets seems to be saying the real invasion is starting now, the idea of that country and its people no longer matters (naming the empty bar the ‘Top Gun’ also has certain connotations and there’s no flashy 80s patriotism to be found here).
That sameness forces us to pay attention to the people, the nervousness that a few of them don’t know how to hide just as he brings an individual feel to this film that’s about it being taken away. In the intimate scene between Marti and her potential love interest played by Billy Wirth where he confesses to killing someone while in Kuwait the film makes the military base setting into something meaningful, as if it’s the regrets which make us who we are more than anything. Just like it’s the music we listen to while hiding away from the world or the crazy persona we put on when we’re behind closed doors with our loved ones or even how much we try to drink away that pain and how no one can take that away from us…or at least shouldn’t. The film is at its best when it veers off course into those digressions, particularly during Forest Whitaker’s two scenes which, isolated from everything else, feel like they could be excerpts from an Abel Ferrara arthouse take on the ‘Body Snatchers’ concept and I’d like to see that film. It’s those moments where I almost can’t explain why they’re so unnerving which cause the movie to stick. Even that tiny little camera move during Meg Tilly’s big speech gives me a chill when I see it all these years later.
Part of it may be how Ferrara’s direction seems to pay less attention to spatial awareness or even daylight continuity than in isolating the actors in the frame and how it’s all presented as if out of a living nightmare, just as he quietly observes the insidious physical process of how bodies are taken over. The physicality of it adds to the dread that continually hangs in the air and even some subtly recurring dialogue turns the casual into almost unaccountably unnerving in a way that can’t quite be pinned down. There’s something unpleasant seeping under the film and even the tiny house where the family stays is framed in ways that make it look like being woken up at 3AM into the most nightmarish situation imaginable. It’s the lack of a real second half which makes it all feel not quite fully formed, like the state of the half-formed bodies of the pod people which get discarded.
So it’s a little bit of a shame that it doesn’t lead somewhere except for the chase with all subtext pretty much done away with, as well as how what happens means discarding some of the best elements for much of the second half. I wish there was a good solution for this aside from rewriting the third act entirely--as it is, one beat implies the possibility of more complications during the final third, then the movie oddly disregards it. It’s all still well executed, if anything, and the look of blackness is expertly achieved by DP Bojan Bazelli with a propulsive score by Joe Delia which adds immeasurably to the atmosphere that almost wafts out of the frame. Put together it feels a little like Ferrara was able to make half of the film he wanted then treated the rest of it as work-for-hire and went along with the compromise. But even a few moments during the final third stand out, particularly one moment where a recently born pod person suddenly rises into frame, the sound work combined with the movement of the actor creating a frisson of the sort that can only be found when a film is even attempting to approach greatness.
Still, there’s that feeling of dread and you can tell that Ferrara never forgets that this is, for all intents and purposes, a horror movie, in moments like when an alien body that isn’t fully formed pops out from under a bed like a monster in a haunted house. There’s also a fair amount of elements taken from the ’78 version, particularly that iconic shriek, as well as a few touches which harken back to the original like how the local bar is oddly empty. It also has an ending that I suppose falls somewhere between the framing device wrap up of the original and the bleakness of the ’78 denouement as much as it’s barely an ending at all. The final sequence manages to be shot in a way that implies a science fiction ZABRISKIE POINT but still feels a little too patchwork to have the full effect. The last half hour is at least cinematic, I’ll give it that much, with at least one plot turn that I’m still surprised made it into a major studio film so what’s there are the pieces of a potential classic but still just pieces. I don’t love the film like I did back then and a few of these flaws stick out to me, but revisiting it now while it still plays like an aberration it feels like one in a few of the best ways possible. It’s made by someone willing to let it be slick like a studio film usually is but also knows to give it enough quirks that you can tell the pod people haven’t fully taken over. Maybe it’s all summed up in the early line where someone says, “You’re scared. Good.” You still have those emotions and that’s the way the film wants it to be.
Part of that reminder of humanity comes from the main cast, particularly Gabrielle Anwar who brings a wounded innocence to Marti, not knowing where she is in life and forced to deal with that even when she doesn’t fully understand what’s going on. And one memory coming back to me now is how I had a crush on her way back then. Terry Kinney seems too young to be her father but that almost seems part of the point with the actor playing much of his part as willingly disconnected from whoever he’s talking to, unable to relate to just about anyone. Christine Elise’s undeniable energy plays well off Anwar as Marti’s new best friend just as Billy Wirth’s aloofness does, lending a distinct vibe to the chemistry each of the actors have with each other while Forest Whitaker nails his two scenes, not letting the full extent of the sheer dread he feels show right away—Ferrara holds on him for a long moment early on to let us grasp this and his line “I’m worried about these…people” is drawn out as if he desperately wants to believe they still are. But Meg Tilly easily gets some of the film’s most powerful moments including her big speech but there’s also a completely wordless moment where she exchanges glances with another woman, presumably a pod person, dealing with a baby crying, which doesn’t even need the science fiction context to be unnerving. It could be anything, whether its two women trapped in this place or two alien beings. It doesn’t really matter. Even one early moment of Tilly in her bedroom when she’s still human feels like a touch that only Abel Ferrara would have encouraged an actor to do, another reminder of how human we can be, unencumbered by inhibitions when we’re in private and how that makes us human as much as anything.
And of course there was yet another remake in 2007 called THE INVASION (directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, partly reshot by others) which even with Nicole Kidman starring already seems to have forgotten by everyone, including by me and probably you, with no sign of even a semi-interested cult around it. There’ll be another remake eventually, you know there will. What Abel Ferrara has had to say about the lack of release of his BODY SNATCHERS in some interviews leads to more questions but still isn’t the ‘Ferrara pissed off the Warner execs’ anecdote that I was expecting, apparently having more to do with skullduggery within the studio at the time than any maverick behavior on his part. But the recent release of a Blu-ray from the Warner Archive means that hopefully this film will still be out there. “You always remember the good things about people,” says Marti at one point, just as I need to remember seeing this film in Westwood long ago, and in some ways the film is about how we need to remember whether it’s the good things about other people or the bad things about ourselves. Like it or not, it’s part of what we hold on to, it’s part of what makes us who we are, even if those other people never know this and even if they never remember the way we feel about them.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Only Deign To Work

Memory. Usually I’d rather just forget everything. I don’t want to think about it, I don’t even want to write about it. Even when it comes to good memories if enough time goes by and certain people you once knew recede further into the past, there can still be the tinge of regret and of the road not taken. Autumn comes and no matter what else is going on I’ll think of New York, not because of Frank Sinatra but because of the excitement I felt back in those days working at a daily entertainment news show for a certain news network. I started that job in a September long ago and to this day during those months I remember the feel of autumn in the air combined with the excitement I felt. I was young, I was hopeful, I was stupid, I would leave the office every night and the entire city was out there, every single possibility was out there. On the same floor where I worked was the long running “Style with Elsa Klensch” and I never paid much attention to it or to her or any of that stuff but it was there with those monitors always displaying what seemed like endless b-roll of fashion shows. How much of this stuff went on day after day? I never found out and I still don’t know. Looking it up tells me that show ran all the way until February 2001 and an article in the New York Observer at the time references how the network “has drastically reduced its fashion-news coverage” which now sounds like a sentence from another dimension. According to Wikipedia the show I worked at in the early 90s (“Showbiz Today” for anyone who remembers that one) had its final airing on, um, September 10, 2001. We know what changed after that but it was already long in the rearview mirror for me by then.
Anyway, that’s the past and no point in dwelling there. The world moves on, after all. But I still get that rush from certain films set in New York that remind me of the hugely tangible feeling of being on those streets when you’re young enough to know you want to reach for something but maybe too stupid to know what the right choices are. Released during the summer of ’06, the film version of THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA is ten years old now and I’m guessing even the world of fashion magazines isn’t the same as it was then--Googling around I spotted a headline which read “How ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ Would Be Different in 2016” and I didn’t click on it since I’ve got other things to do. Putting all that aside, even without all the up to date gadgets that would be used by the characters, revisiting the film now it still feels current as if it’s very much part of this increasingly media intense environment. Not to mention that it barely feels like I’m revisiting this film at all since it’s never really gone away due to constant cable airings and how much it’s generally remembered. As a contrast, the DVD features a few trailers of other Twentieth-Century Fox comedies released the very same summer which serves as proof of how fast these things are usually forgotten. Plus the other film that opened the very same week was SUPERMAN RETURNS which also hasn’t exactly stuck around (that one’s a conversation for another time) and I saw it opening night at the Chinese with one of the most excited audiences imaginable but even then it was clear which film was more satisfying, which one hit the target. THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA isn’t perfect and it’s so slick that maybe there isn’t much to discuss in detail but it gets much of the overall approach just right and it’s just a damn good movie. Maybe not a great one but on a pop level of what a film like this is supposed to be in the best of all worlds it feels almost, pretty much, just right.
Recently arrived in New York and looking to work in journalism, Andrea Sachs (Anne Hathaway) takes a job as second assistant to the all-powerful Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), editor-in-chief of Runway Magazine. Nothing about Andrea fits in at Runway, as she deals with the daily humiliation put forth by Miranda as well as first assistant Emily Charlton (Emily Blunt) who worships everything the magazine represents and dreams of nothing more than the upcoming Paris trip during Fashion Week. But once Andrea begins to find her way at the magazine with the help of art director Nigel (Stanley Tucci) her relationship with boyfriend Nate (Adrian Grenier) begins to suffer and her ability to do the job surpassing even what she thought was possible she finds herself getting sucked into Miranda’s world at the expense of everyone else around her.
But you know this already. Everyone’s seen this film by now, my 12 year-old niece has seen it. It’s one of those perfect lazy Sunday afternoon movies to find on cable just like 2015’s THE INTERN which also starred Anne Hathaway and on a recent Sunday I had absolutely zero problem with finding that one on again. In comparison, THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA (screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna, based on the novel by Lauren Weisberger) is equally pleasant but it’s also meant to be sharper, darker even if it never goes too far in the direction of unpleasantness. Whatever the novel was, and I haven’t read it, the goal of the film is clearly not to blow the roof off of the treatment of assistants in the fashion industry and as dark comedies go it doesn’t go all that far, as if the most hostile physical action in the movie is the way Streep’s Miranda Priestly slams her coats down on the desk in that rapid-fire montage. The punches are even pulled a little when it comes to the worst thing Andy is asked to do she’s asked to do as if to make it not quite so terrible, as if there were a number of script discussions about this plot point but by this point so much of the film is clicking in the right way that it really doesn’t matter. The cutting dialogue keeps things moving through each of Miranda’s fucked up mind games and it feels continually grounded during each of the ridiculous tasks partly because it’s so easy to identify with Hathaway and her own goals.
And tone can be a tough nut to crack. Sure, just because the movie wants to be slick and commercial doesn’t mean it’s easy to pull that off. A little too much one way the whole thing is just too silly, like a bad ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS knockoff. Too much the other way and the dark humor would just become too sour. The Harrison Ford-Rachel McAdams comedy MORNING GLORY which came a few years later is clearly trying to do a similar thing (the two films even share the same screenwriter) and it’s not an unpleasant film in the least but is maybe a little too broad and ultimately insubstantial that there’s a ‘so what?’ feel to the conflict. Even comfort food has to have standards, after all. Whatever the book was, it feels like the goal of adapting THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA was to make it not a revenge piece (bringing to mind how Nigel mocks Andrea’s whining with a ‘poor you’) but to find a way to show how making this hellish job matter, to realize that you’re not forced to live in this world but if you’re going to be there you should at least try to live up to its standards since even fluff can mean something. It’s not about making Miranda Priestly a bitch to be put in her place but to live up to this challenge you’ve created for yourself and keep what you were meant to be in the process. Not easy, but no one said it was going to be.
Directed by David Frankel whose work before this film included the ENTOURAGE pilot, some SEX AND THE CITY episodes and the 1995 Woody Allen-ish romantic comedy MIAMI RHAPSODY, THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA is fast paced to the point that the speed almost becomes the very tone of the film using the breakneck approach established on ENTOURAGE and modifying it here to accentuate the stylishness of this world as opposed to the frenetic handheld feel of that show. The main exception is maybe during the famous scene where Miranda Priestly explains to Andrea with dripping contempt what it is they really do with the word ‘cerulean’ serving as a key part of that explanation and it’s one of the best in the film both in how it’s written and played by Streep with those words slithering out from the contempt she clearly feels for who she’s explaining this to while expertly doing her job at the very same time. The camerawork here goes handheld not in a manic way but just enough to add to the immediate unease that Andy suddenly feels (another headline I spotted was “What That Famous ‘Devil Wears Prada’ Scene Actually Gets Wrong” and I didn’t care enough to click on that either) and even in this scene the film doesn’t linger, moving forward immediately instead of on an expected reaction shot of the person who’s been momentarily rendered irrelevant. The deleted scenes on the DVD include a bit where Stanley Tucci’s Nigel introduces himself to Andrea; nothing wrong with the moment but in the film’s eyes it’s not necessary, pleasantries aren’t required here and you have to run alongside everyone else or you won’t catch up.
Frankel’s direction is continually assured in how to keep moving, like in the extended shot where Simon Baker’s slick columnist makes the move on Andrea as she gets lost in the drunken feel of this power just as he later tells her how sexy it is that she’s becoming part of that world so for those few seconds she sees the appeal in that. In each beat like that the film knows how to keep moving, it continually gets to the point of each scene and the dialogue gets it to the right point. And almost in a musical way it knows when to calm down, to allow for the quietness of Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly to cut through everyone else who knows they don’t have anywhere near the power she does. Streep’s the one who gets the speeches, cerulean-related and otherwise, whether designed to humanize her or add to the inevitable cruelty—Hathaway doesn’t get to say as much, there to merely listen since her place in the world is still being formed with a flashback to the beginning at one point just a few mere seconds as if that memory of what she was is already fading away. Even with the broader moments and the craziness of some of the fashions and yet it still is about the character more than strictly comedy, the world has its own internal logic. You’re either part of it or you’re not. And if you’re not, that’s all. Show yourself out.
Even when dealing with the absurdity of the then-unreleased Harry Potter book Andrea’s victories are small, relatable and for the purposes of the plot, significant. The film doesn’t have a deep or heavy message but it still knows to show how important this is in the way when you’re that young and everything seems so big and possible. All you want to do is not fuck up and you don’t know yet that you will. The feel is underlined by Theodore Shapiro’s score (who also did the score for, whaddyaknow, THE INTERN) which works for a comedy but also as Andy’s own personal soundtrack, as she stares up at the buildings all of this matters. For us, it’s Hollywood fluff. But it’s her story so it means something, as heightened as it is, as much as though we hear about the hours and the stress the glamour of working that job is still what comes across. Maybe it’s more of a coming of age story than satire or even a comedy—maybe it’s just an aspirational thing, since as much as we hear about it things never seem that awful. All we know is that when Andy buckles down and does the work it all looks pretty nice, leading to the Big Question of do you become your job or is your job just what you’re doing while waiting for the next thing. Plus with a few lines it drops in the subtle theme of women in the workplace and it could easily be called more progressive than WORKING GIRL with Sigourney Weaver last seen being told to get her bony ass out of there (and, lest anyone forgets, WORKING GIRL is a favorite of mine). It’s not too hard to imagine that version of this material being made by lesser hands, one that would make Miranda Priestly (or Emily) a one-dimensional bitch to be humiliated and even when Andrea makes her choice she’s not taking back any defense she’s made of her. It’s just not who she is. This all manages to bring a sliver of depth to this lightweight material, knowing that no more than a sliver is needed, dropped in to lines like Nigel’s dream of coming to Paris and actually getting to see Paris—the glamour of such a job letting you travel all over the world but still not entirely part of the world. Without that sliver the movie wouldn’t have turned into the perennial I guess it already is. I’m no expert on what my 12 year old niece should be watching but this seems like a pretty good one.
This film also seemed to mark the beginning of the Meryl Streep renaissance of the past decade or so and as big as this role seems in the surface the quietness she brings to her intensity, even on those rare occurrences where she shows what's underneath, is palpable. Whatever she’s doing, even if it’s just holding out her hand for what she expects to be placed there immediately, all those touches make it the perfect combination of star and larger than life character. Rachel McAdams reportedly turned down the role of Andrea and we’ll never know how that would have been (she wound up doing MORNING GLORY in 2010; let’s just say that film’s biggest issues aren’t her fault) but Anne Hathaway is an ideal audience surrogate, grounding the film with her insecurities in how she’s clearly trying to be better as the film goes on. Her steadiness makes it believable how much she ultimately fits into the world even if she can’t help herself. There are some scenes where Hathaway barely says anything at all, merely listening, and the way she listens helps to keeps the film about her during these moments. The supporting cast hits all the right marks as well—Stanley Tucci is awesome and totally laser focused with his timing with every line he has while the fantastic Emily Blunt brings nuance and believable panic to her innate over-the-topness with such sharpness that it’s still my favorite performance in this film. Simon Baker oozes the smarm of someone who knows exactly how to play this game while even the bit players pop--a few small roles almost feel like they were designed to possibly be played by big names in cameos but so what (a few real life notables do appear in cameos) and of course there’s along with Adrian Grenier of ENTOURAGE as the patient boyfriend pushed to his limits, Tracie Thoms of DEATH PROOF, Rich Sommer of MAD MEN and Rebecca Mader, now on ONCE UPON A TIME.
I’ve said very little about all the fashion, but I’m sure there’s someone else out there who can focus on all that from what I can tell, what Emily Blunt wears does the best job at getting across the exaggeration. And it’s hard not to notice those reminders of how the world really has changed—disparaging references to people forced to work at Auto Universe and TV Guide now sound like people they’re probably lucky to have any magazine job at all. But the world of the film is not so much the glossy New York I remember as it is a New York that I wish I remembered even if it is many years since I’ve been there now and, besides, that was so long ago that I’m not even sure if there’s any point in remembering it all. I’m perfectly ok with remembering a movie like this instead, since it’s a reminder that there aren’t enough like it these days (one I haven’t seen is David Frankel’s later HOPE SPRINGS which reunited him with Street). It goes down so easily that it doesn’t bother me that it never gets too believably dark Yes, there could have been a scene where Andy gets believably screamed at. I’m sure it’s happened in those offices before and it happened to me once at another entertainment news show I once worked at. I got over it. You shake these things off. You have to, while you wonder once again if you’ve become your job or if your job is just what you’re waiting for until the next thing. And while you try to figure that you walk off into the distance to go home at night, looking for a new day. Anyway, to steal a toast from the film, to jobs that pay the rent. That’s all.

Friday, September 23, 2016

In The Light Of Truth

For whatever reason I sometimes think of a declaration remembered from film school, maybe it was said by Dani Michaeli, but it’s so long ago now that who knows. It was a simple statement once while watching a film: “Pans suck.” That’s all it was, probably spoken during a film which contained a camera pan that most likely sucked. And I’ve always remembered that brief utterance, making me think of every bad pan I’ve ever seen, maybe some of them in the context of clunky student films and how false they were. Sure, you could bring up a million examples of good pans by Scorsese or whoever and, really, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to this sort of thing. But maybe there’s some truth to it, that the falseness of a pan is something to avoid and you should find some other way to frame your shot until you’ve figured it out. The reason I’m saying all this is that recently I was watching THE LETTER, a William Wyler-directed Bette Davis vehicle released in 1940, one of those goddamn Warner Brothers epics that opens with the familiar Max Steiner fanfare and everything about it speaks to the quality you’d get from films that were churned out by the studio system. As I get older there’s something about those goddamn Warner Brothers epics that stands out—yes, the familiar actors, but also that studio’s particular type of storytelling, a stylishness which sets it apart from the silvery aura of Paramount or the glistening perfection of MGM. It’s an extremely well-made film, heightened by performances which match the story and tone perfectly. At one point I found myself drawn in and fascinated by the direction, the way Wyler was staging a certain key moment and how the impeccable camerawork added to the way the story was being told. There was an undeniable elegance to every single moment in the deliberateness of the framing that Wyler was bringing to this particular shot. What I’m trying to say, and maybe it says something about the film as a whole, is that THE LETTER has some really good pans.
Late at night on a Malaysian rubber plantation, a man is shot six times by Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis) wife of Robert Crosbie (Herbert Marshall) the estate manager. The man is Geoff Hammond, another British local who Leslie claims entered her house with the intent to make love to her, resulting in what happened. No one disbelieves Leslie’s story and while she is arrested to go to trial no one has any doubt what the outcome will be. Until her attorney Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) learns about the existence of a letter written by her to Hammond, begging him to come to her home that night. And that letter now belongs to his wife (Gale Sondergaard) who has certain demands, leading Howard to refrain from telling Robert what is in the letter while working with Leslie to do whatever he can to suppress it, allowing for her acquittal whatever the real truth may be.
It’s not all about pans, of course. Some might wonder why I’m writing about a Bette Davis film and not immediately focusing on Bette Davis since, after all, a film like this is presumably all about Bette Davis who represents the type of strong woman portrayed during this era, up against the men trying to understand them and the impossibility of it all. Bette Davis was the star, she was why the film existed. Not so much the director or the original source material and certainly not her co-stars who as usual are all dapper gentlemen (some with moustaches, some without) forced to eternally play second fiddle to her, those “he looks thirty-two” types Davis’ Margo Channing later referred to in ALL ABOUT EVE. And I have no problem with writing about Bette Davis. Or Joan Crawford, for that matter, but equal time for her will have to wait until I get around to AUTUMN LEAVES. So in comparison to the star power on hand, maybe pointing out something as presumably insignificant as a pan shouldn’t be that big a deal. That was the job of the people who made this film, after all, to make sure those touches added to making it as good as possible without anyone even dwelling on such things.
And THE LETTER (screenplay by Howard Koch, from the W. Summerset Maugham play and also previously filmed in 1929) is that good, I almost want to say it’s a “cracking good yarn” or something old school like that, as well as a reminder that William Wyler is one of those Golden Age directors not talked about enough anymore. After serving in the Air Force and directing several documentaries during World War II (like George Stevens, documented in Mark Harris’ book Five Came Back) he returned home and took many of his feelings about the experience coming back from the war to make 1946’s THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES. That film won the Best Picture Oscar and is a confirmed classic by now but still feels underappreciated, its post-war context forgotten as other films, possibly made by more esteemed auteurs, have continued to be lionized. That one’s his masterpiece, not so much THE LETTER which may not even be the greatest film made by Warner Brothers during this period but of course they can’t all be CASABLANCA or TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT. But I’ve been watching THE LETTER multiple times over the past few weeks getting lost in its sumptuous atmosphere and found myself with a growing “damn, this really is good” appreciation for what it does, weaving its story through a tight running time of around 95 minutes without an ounce of fat and yet infinitely complex on a thematic and visual level. Frankly, you’d think that’s what more films should be. It’s one of the best examples of this sort of filmmaking that doesn’t get talked about much anymore as the past recedes further into the distance. It’s a great film regardless of when it was made.
It’s also the moon. The moon stares down at the film’s star throughout, recurring in its imagery while silently judging and hiding all secrets. To bring up a film like CASABLANCA, directed by Michael Curtiz, it’s hard to imagine that director ever paying much attention to something as heavily symbolic as the moon. The directness of the storytelling is one of his strong points and in some ways is part of what makes his movies play so well today, almost modern at times. He had Bogart & Bergman in CASABLANCA, he had Crawford in MILDRED PIERCE, John Garfield in the sadly underappreciated THE BREAKING POINT. Compared with the emphasis on that star power, William Wyler’s directorial style in THE LETTER feels somewhat ornate and even a little stately, more about laying out the shots in an elegant way and placing his own leading lady within it. He explores that setting and what it means within the film’s world, allowing for moments where that setting is the story, including the opening which establishes the plantation setting, rubber dripping down while giving us a look at the workers living in their bamboo huts, all that tension hanging in the air.
Because of its appearances in Chuck Workman-type montages, THE LETTER is maybe best known today for the early shot of Bette Davis firing a pistol into her unseen victim as she moves down a small set of stairs, her face a mask of pure determination the whole time. But then beyond the fury of those iconic seconds the camera moves in slowly on her face, no rush to cut away from it, trying to get us to see what is really in there since the film is, after all, about what lies inside that stare. It feels like half the story of THE LETTER is told through those eyes and because of that specifics of plot machinations laid out through exposition don’t seem to matter as much. It’s her face and the people and places around her that matters, just like the deep focus in some of BEST YEARS’s most famous moments which link those characters together. Even during Bette Davis’ multiple lengthy speeches where she describes in detail the events that lead up to the shooting, whatever sort of truth we eventually learn they contain, it’s almost about how she’s saying it and how the men around her are listening as much as the specific words, however elegant the dialogue is. Anything she says, anything she wants others to think is almost covered up by the lacework she seems to spend most of the film busy crocheting, representing those lies that she tries to cover herself with, to avoid the truth of what was in that letter. There’s a clearness to the storytelling which focuses on all this behavior and the movie never wastes any time; even the crucial trial sequence, something that could easily drag down the middle section of the film, is condensed down to a few crucial moments. We don’t even see the cross-examination heard about in dialogue to reiterate what we’ve already heard, only the closing summation by her conflicted friend and attorney which focuses on his own doubts about what he’s being made to do by this woman.
Of course, since this is a film made in 1940 shot on the Warner lot in Burbank its version of Malaysia is probably more Generic Exotic Movie Setting than anything having to do with reality but still presents an evocative look at this place where the English live but in their veiled racism still dream of a more ‘civilized climate’, even as Bette Davis kills a man then proceeds to cook for everyone who’s come over to investigate. When they have to go to the Chinese quarter to retrieve the letter in question, Leslie speaks of never having been there, assuming that it’s ‘a bit creepy’, clearly more interested in being with her friends who seem to have nothing to do but flitter about planning parties. The locals are basically all treated as servants or worse, which becomes part of how it’s obviously dated but also an element of the subtext since it’s those locals treated with such disdain who always seem to be quietly one step ahead of the lead characters. It’s almost as if they’re quietly pulling the strings of the story, waiting things out until the final moments--Sen Yung as Howard Joyce’s clerk who alerts him to the existence of the letter admits to being motivated by money but there’s clearly something more than that being left unsaid. It’s as if the camerawork itself is affected by them, even those pans seem controlled by certain characters to shift the focus back over to them.
Since it’s her vehicle Bette Davis is just about the only character in the film who gets any close-ups—the only possible exception is Gale Sondergaard as Mrs. Hammond (it’s not much of a role beyond her physical presence but Sondergaard herself is an interesting figure, later blacklisted after taking the fifth when being questioned by HUAC), the only other female of importance in the film but one who only appears in a few scenes and with no spoken dialogue in English. She’s basically a stereotypical dragon lady, I guess meant to be Eurasian, with fuzzy motivations at times but it all gives the impression that what plays out between the women, between their stares, matters more than the men around them who talk about nothing but Plot. It’s the unspoken passion involving the man who’s been killed that matters more than the trial or dollar figures bandied about which in the end are really semantics. The men remain off to the side, fretting or drinking (“Mix me another,” one says to the servant as soon as a round arrives) while husband Herbert Marshall thinks a kiss on the cheek from him will make everything all right, trying to deny the obvious truth for as long as possible. He has no idea.
Bette Davis famously shot her big confession near the end for director Wyler under protest, saying no woman would ever look a man in the eyes while she said such a thing. My experience is generally that they have no problem with this when they finally reveal the truth and destroy you, but that’s an argument for another time and maybe that one last ounce of defiance from her is what’s needed here. Besides, that confession almost seems minor compared with the unreality of the final moments however the production might have been forced into such an ending by the production code. The last several minutes are essentially without dialogue, pure cinema, and Bette Davis’ frozen expression involving the mystery of a certain dagger’s return appearance seems to involve an acceptance of destiny. THE LETTER is possibly better as a goddamn Warner Brothers epic than a simple Bette Davis vehicle as if she correctly knew that would be better for her anyway to be part of this film as opposed to fashioning it entirely around her. The very last moments even seem to say that she’s not important anymore, the world has already moved on. As a certain party continues in the background, only the moon knows the real truth and as far as it’s concerned those secrets will be kept.
Bette Davis plays her role with every bit of intensity needed, since much of what Leslie is projecting is a performance anyway, her eyes forever searching for the next piece to keep her lies going, trying to avoid the glare of someone who may call her on it. It’s not about realism, no one ever said a Bette Davis performance had to be about realism anyway, it’s about what she’s trying to express up front while hiding behind that mask which seems to crack more as the film goes on through her own self-loathing and determination to make all this go her way since she can’t imagine any alternative. Herbert Marshall, playing the husband, has no real chance up against her; it’s sort of a thankless role anyway, waiting around to be devastated but he plays it with just the right pitch as if it never occurs to him to consider the real story. As her lawyer and confidant, James Stephenson finds the truth in what also might have been a normal supporting performance designed to fade into the background but he matches her and brings an extra level of tension all on his own, playing it with the unspoken belief that there’s more going on here than any of them can understand hanging through every line, becoming a lesser man than he was before but with no choice in the matter. Stephenson received a Supporting Actor nomination for his performance but unfortunately died less than a year after the film’s release—his one of seven nominations the film received, also including Davis, director Wyler and for Best Picture but all involved went home empty handed.
In the end, guilt matters. What you’ve done matters. Late at night that’s all there really is. Sometimes we gaze up at the moon, hoping for forgiveness and that the past might be wiped away. It doesn’t happen. I’m not sure why I decided to write about THE LETTER but whatever that reason is probably isn’t very important. There’s the skill behind it, the star power, the atmosphere it exudes, the wit in the dialogue. And those pans. Again with those pans. Not very much point in obsessing over pans. Just like there’s not much point in obsessing over the past but that never stopped me before. Sometimes when you try to figure these things out you’re just left with the film and whatever it is as you watch it, never fully understanding why beyond the fact that deep down for you it’s a good thing it’s there. It’s not an answer. Maybe you never get an answer. But it’s better than nothing.

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Standard Of Living

It’s the easiest thing in the world to focus on what’s in front of you, making you miss the bigger picture. Sometimes you realize right away. Sometimes it takes a little longer. Either way, the outcome isn’t going to be what you want. Released in 1966, DEAD HEAT ON A MERRY-GO-ROUND is about just that sort of thing, a heist film with some of the expected fun touches but also a soberness to it that indicates how nasty some of the actions are, that the fun and games of a rollicking mid-60s heist aren’t just fun and games. Plus it has James Coburn, the epitome of cool in this star vehicle that came between the two FLINT films, at the height of his breakout with that enormous toothy smile just flashy enough to almost make you forget what sort of person he’s really playing. The KCET Cinema Series sometimes screens one of his films in conjunction with the James & Paula Coburn Foundation and this past August they played a gorgeous 35mm print of this film, something I had never expected to see. Remembered these days mainly for being the feature debut of a certain other legendary star in a bit role, DEAD HEAT is almost too aloof to be a classic, it’s almost daring you to call it anything other than aloof, never asking for your love but within the fractured quality of its story its own cool rhythm comes to play. It may not be a masterwork of the genre but regardless, there aren’t many days where I’m going to complain about getting to see a 60s heist movie anyway and this one definitely has its pleasures.
Recently released from prison and breaking parole after seducing his psychologist, con man Eli Kotch (James Coburn) begins to put his plan into effect to pull off a master bank heist at the Los Angeles Airport at the exact time the Russian premier arrives for a trip to the city. But first he must pull off a number of smaller jobs to pay for the blueprints that will give him the information he needs for the plan and sets out across the country to begin earning that money. During his travels he meets the lovely Inger Knudsen (Camilla Sparv) under the guise of an intellectual writer named ‘Henry Silverstein’, marries her and continues the con by moving her out to Los Angeles. As he makes his own way out west to assemble his gang of fellow thieves (Aldo Ray, Severn Darden, Michael Strong) for the crime, federal agent Milo Stewart (Robert Webber) who is overseeing the visit by the premier, is working to have the airport tight as a drum for the premier’s arrival and very intent on making sure absolutely nothing goes wrong.
Eli Kotch doesn’t care about anyone else around him, they’re only shadows, just like the shadows seen on a wall in the film’s opening shot as if for him the whole world is just sitting there, waiting for him to take advantage of it all and get what’s his. Written and directed by Bernard Girard (various feature & TV credits, including a number of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS), DEAD HEAT ON A MERRY-GO-ROUND is an odd, chilly film that makes you wonder just when the story is going to start instead of spending valuable time on scenes where apparently not much of anything happens only to discover that was the story, just like how you realize after the fact in life that what you were waiting for already came around. It’s a slippery narrative with an extremely detached layout and manages to be enjoyable even when you haven’t quite caught up to what’s going on. At times it’s as if half the scenes don’t even matter and, of course, they do it’s just not always clear exactly why. Along with the fun, it almost dares to be alienating in its storytelling; much of the pleasure in heist films involves laying out whatever the plan is, so we know what the characters know and even what they don’t, allowing for twists to occur in both directions. “Here’s what we’re going to do,” someone like Danny Ocean will say as we cut to the explanatory montage. Going totally against that grain, part of the goal of DEAD HEAT seems to be to clarify as little as possible as Eli Kotch puts his plan into effect, with what seems like whole chunks of plot skipped over through ellipsis and then offering still less info, never making it clear right away as a new scene begins what exactly is important, what we should be focusing on. One imagines watching the film on local TV with commercials during the 70s just assuming that scenes have been cut but as it turns out everything is right in front all along.
The film leaves it up to us to put the pieces together as Eli Kotch expresses all the confidence in the world without giving away the details even to the people around him. We’ll see the setup of the con, many of which involve getting women to open themselves up to whichever character he’s playing at the moment to take advantage of them, to help him ‘identify their desires’—a southern-accented funeral director from Berkeley, a French-accented shoe salesman from Switzerland who lives in Denver, returning a missing dog to a Boston heiress, but we see almost nothing of the actual jobs being pulled as if that’s secondary to the schemes and once he’s got the plan going the end result is a fait accompli. Characters are introduced, set up, then gone before we realize it, as the film and its lead character speed off to a different locale leaving them behind and clueless as to what really happened. The jigsaw puzzle layout does become clearer over multiple viewings but even then plays as if certain details are left unexplained because the film just isn’t interested in them, even if it would allow for just a little more clarity. But it does give DEAD HEAT ON A MERRY-GO-ROUND its own unique vibe and in some ways is the perfect vehicle for Coburn in his 60s persona. He’s Mr. Iconoclast, not needing anyone around him, facing straight ahead and not looking around for any cars that might be about to hit him as he walks out into the road. Just like he does, the film decides on what’s important and since you’re only an observer you don’t get a say in the matter.
And that main character remains an enigma, given little more than an extended speech in the very first scene in which he reveals a childhood betrayal which no doubt shaped his worldview. It may be the only truthful thing he reveals about himself, presuming he hasn’t simply made it up for the benefit of the prison psychologist he’s using to aid in his early release. Either way aside from that we get next to nothing else in the way of character detail outside a close-up of him staring at a newspaper headline announcing the impending arrival of the Russian premier which must be the date of his job, eyes on that prize, fixed on the goal no matter anything else and it’s the only thing that matters. DEAD HEAT ON A MERRY-GO-ROUND is a good, smooth time that continually clicks along—the pacing never slacks off so there’s a tightness to the direction through each new stage of the plan and it never seems to rest for a second. The jaunty score by Stu Philips keeps it all light hearted but never fully swings as much as you’d want it to in that 60s way as if it wants to keep things close to the vest, never fully indicating what kind of film this is, never wanting to reveal the next crucial twist, let alone what’s going to happen as a result. Eli Kotch talks about playing ‘that invisibility game’ in his cons and he’s right since the shadows he encounters, all those easy marks, never take too much notice of him. He already seems to know how helpful and open the world is going to be whether it’s the women he takes full advantage of or the people he encounters briefly who almost always seem to mention how pleased they were to have met him and help him out, never knowing the fast one he’s pulling on them. He even dismisses worry about how fast he’s putting this heist together, insisting that it can’t wait; you wait around, you get fat, he says. As if to prove his own viewpoint, the entire world around him is going crazy, stuck in their own world of worry about whatever their particular problems are.
It’s a film where almost everything is a put-on, including when one of the crooks is introduced wearing prison garb only to have it revealed to us that he’s working as a Hollywood extra. Even the preparations for the premier’s visit are all about what’s being shown on the surface, how it’s “the standard of living we want to project” and we’re seemingly told more details about the preparations for the visit, which as far as we know is of incidental importance to the plot, than the heist itself. As confusing as it might be the pacing keeps things feeling controlled, so careful that it’s a movie where the heist finally kicks off and the lead basically goes for a quiet stroll with us still not entirely sure what he’s waiting for. DEAD HEAT could have been made by its own lead character—“Eli Kotch” was even the original title—since it gives you pleasure for a little while, pulls a fast one and then that’s it. “Whoever remembers anyone by their name?” one of the women asks which is what Kotch seems to already know and he’s right, just about every choice he makes is absolutely right except for the one thing he doesn’t bother with. When he wins the heart of Camilla Sparv’s Inger Knudsen by pretending to be some sort of intellectual writer named ‘Henry Silverstein’ he doesn’t seem to know how good he has it and how good it can be with her, even if the two of them are only in some tiny apartment where they have to hide the fact that they’re cooking in a place where it isn’t allowed. She even puts on a little performance when they’re staying over at her wealthy employer’s house as if it really belongs to them, playing at the game that he takes very seriously. “Oh, Henry,” she coos to him, as if to foreshadow the final twist. Unable to believe that he’s fallen for her so fast, she couldn’t be sweeter to this total shit and he just doesn’t care. The movie is almost about the behavior that gets put out there for the world to see, whether truthful or not and what it can be during those lonely moments when we let our guard down like how Coburn pauses outside of Sparv’s building when he departs, for a few seconds aware of what he’s leaving behind. For once in a heist film, the suspense almost seems beside the point.
There’s also some neat location work giving us a pretty good glimpse of what LAX looked like back in those days, with the “International Back of Commerce” oddly located on the street level of the famous Theme Building (I always think of it as Encounter and was surprised to discover the actual name, so the things you learn). Even with the Russian premier coming through to this international airport it still seems like a pleasant commuter stopover compared to now. Other portions of the film feel somewhat backlot bound, typical of studio releases of the time, so much so that it’s almost a surprise when actual Boston locations turn up for that section. Because of the 60s vibe and airport setting some have compared it to CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, obviously a much warmer film, but there is also a certain amount of MAD MEN’s Don Draper as well in the behavior of this film’s lead character with his willingness to put on a false front and just take off, forgetting about what’s being left behind, nothing that matters but the possibility of what’s next. DEAD HEAT ON A MERRY-GO-ROUND is a little like the feature equivalent of James Coburn cackling with that huge grin of his only in this case he doesn’t get to hear the punchline to his own joke. And it’s a pretty good one.
As Eli Kotch, Coburn glides through every encounter with all the confidence in the world, making even the smallest moments effective. Once he’s given his first big speech at the start, that’s all we need to know as he uses his sly grin blowing smoke rings, confident that each new guise is going to work like all the others—at one point he even reuses his Australian accent from THE GREAT ESCAPE, not that it’s much better this time around. Camilla Sparv (also in MURDERERS’ ROW and DOWNHILL RACER) doesn’t have much to do but project sweetness and vulnerability but it’s what the part needs, enough for us to remember how much she’s being used. The various other women include Rose Marie in a brief cameo and Nina Wayne (sister of the more recognizable Carol Wayne from Blake Edwards’ THE PARTY; I had to check the credits to make sure they weren’t the same person) who as Frieda Schmid is given some of the cleverest dialogue in the film as her character somehow manages to contradict each thing she says within seconds ("I'm always on time. It's one of my failings.").
As Kotch’s cohorts, Severn Darden (both CONQUEST and BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES, among many other credits) and Michael Strong (Stegman in POINT BLANK) each do something with their thinly written roles displaying quiet nervousness that adds to the tension for their part in the job. But it’s hard to imagine Aldo Ray (who appeared with Coburn in Blake Edwards’ WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE WAR, DADDY? the very same year) doing much less with his own vaguely defined role—by a certain point it’s hard to remember if he even has any dialogue in the film. Along with dependable work by Robert Webber who gets moments of comical impatience in a fairly thankless role and Roy Glenn of GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER as a helpful airport cop, a few familiar faces appear briefly including Vic Tayback and Al Nalbandian, recognizable from small roles in a few Coppola productions (including THE CONVERSATION, AMERICAN GRAFITTI and TUCKER; he still has his own flower stand in San Francisco). In addition, as much as the world already knows, Harrison Ford makes his film debut here as a bellhop who briefly gets confused by Coburn pulling one of his many cons. It’s cool to see him here, but the film deserves to be known for more than that.
Since it’s not a film that warrants a huge response from a crowd I wasn’t even sure how it was playing that night and was pleasantly surprised when the final moment got a big response from the audience—the joke landed, essentially. The KCET Cinema Series screening included an enjoyable talk before the film with DEAD HEAT producer Carter DeHaven (this was his first feature producing credit; others include THE EXORCIST III which sadly did not come up) who discussed convincing a reluctant studio head to cast Coburn in the lead, the changing of the title, how Robert Evans tried to keep then-wife Camilla Sparv from doing the film as well as Harrison Ford getting cast in his first role. It was a stunningly pristine print which didn’t look like it had been played in decades; my thanks again to Lynda Erkiletian of the James & Paula Coburn Foundation for the invite. There’s a chilliness to DEAD HEAT ON A MERRY-GO-ROUND which sets it apart while fitting in perfectly with other Coburn films from the 60s. “It all depends on what you need,” goes a line near the end and sometimes that one thing can be all you think about, where all your focus is so you miss what else is there. Maybe you eventually notice it. Maybe you notice it too late. Sometimes these films keep things so light that there’s no time for such truths but DEAD HEAT ON A MERRY-GO-ROUND has just the right amount of sting to it. Besides, there’s nothing wrong with a little nastiness just when you think things are going your way. Except when it happens to you, of course.