Sunday, March 5, 2017

What Civilized Society Calls Justice

Things change. They don’t change at all. Over a year since its release it feels a little like we never actually talked about Quentin Tarantino’s THE HATEFUL EIGHT. Sure, we’ve had discussions regarding various things surrounding the film going back to the initial leak of an early draft of the script which temporarily canceled the project—I received it from a few people but under those circumstances I could never bring myself to read the thing. Attention was also paid when it started up again and Tarantino himself directed a live reading of the script featuring many, but not all, of the actors who would eventually appear in the film. And then by the time it was finally coming out the talk focused on the 70mm release and all the issues surrounding that including how it didn’t get booked into the all-important Cinerama Dome because THE FORCE AWAKENS was set to play there. That’s the film more people were paying attention to over Christmas 2015 anyway but now maybe we can go back to THE HATEFUL EIGHT since I’m still trying to figure it out myself.
Whether intentional or not, the film plays like after DJANGO UNCHAINED Tarantino decided that while he’d loved making a western the epic sprawl of the whole thing may have become a little too unwieldy, Oscar for Best Original Screenplay or not, box office success or not. This time he tightens things down setting much of it in a single location, forcing a specific structure to the story and mostly implying the grand epic going on outside in the world of the film, to focus simply on what’s happening to the characters right at the moment. Filming it in 70mm affects it, more than I think was really discussed beyond the surface, and it definitely affects the way the story is told although as much as I loved someone, anyone, trying to accomplish that sort of thing at this late date and as stunning as it looked when I saw it at the DGA Theatre maybe selling the release so much on that presentation wasn’t the greatest idea. Maybe, just maybe, like the film geek-centric approach of GRINDHOUSE what was being sold to the masses was simply something people didn’t care much about. But now maybe we can move on from that. THE HATEFUL EIGHT was about certain things when Tarantino wrote the various drafts of the script and when it was finally made. Maybe it’s about other things now, in 70mm or otherwise.
Of course, you know the plot or you wouldn’t be reading this, but just in case—as a blizzard is about to hit in late 1800s Wyoming, bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L.Jackson) trying to get a few bodies back for his reward, hitches a stagecoach ride with fellow bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) who is taking the still alive-outlaw Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Red Rock to hang. They’re soon joined by Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) also on his way to the town to assume the job of sheriff, or at least that’s what he claims. But with the blizzard coming down fast they bunk in at Minnie’s Haberdashery to stay at least until morning. They have no choice, even though Minnie and her regulars strangely aren’t there—only a Mexican who calls himself Bob (Demián Bichir) running the place in their absence along with Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) who identifies himself as the hangman heading to Red Rock, cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) and General Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern) formerly of the Confederacy who more than any of them just wants to be left alone. With little to do but try to keep warm, things seem suspicious but Warren and Ruth have no choice to stick around waiting for the blizzard to die down and for whatever’s going to happen to happen.
I got in two 70mm viewings at the time and even after the second was still unsure how I felt. The friend with me for the second viewing, the one at the DGA, speculated that the film played like it needed one more draft. And I’m still not sure that he was wrong. But THE HATEFUL EIGHT is not easy. It’s not meant to be, even if it was designed to be shown in the most old school style with all sorts of ballyhoo imaginable. It also may be the most difficult Tarantino film to get comfortable in since for much of the lengthy running time it’s hard to imagine ever actually wanting to be in this place with these people—it could have been done with a 78 minute running time but then it wouldn’t be able to trap us there. It’s a hangout movie where we don’t want to hang out with any of the characters. I’m definitely settled into its rhythms now that I’ve seen it a few extra times but there’s also the blunt truth that the film feels more appropriate at this moment. Things were different back during Xmas 2015—maybe not better but different enough that if it had come out one year later as things all around us have turned into the carnage in Minnie’s Haberdashery it might have all made more sense.
Unless I’m mistaken, the exact time period of THE HATEFUL EIGHT is never specified, only that it’s set some years after the Civil War. Long enough for things to move on but not long enough for the worst memories to be forgotten, the tensions of the era still falling to the ground as fast as that blizzard. The past is barely past and there are a few lines, beyond just the expected use of the n-word, that make my ears perk up a little more now. Chris Mannix with the anger of his Confederate past refers to suspicion of newspapers printed in “Washington D.C.” dragging out those two letters out making it clear what he thinks of the so-called real news that he’s been reading as things get too close for comfort in that stagecoach before trying to diffuse that tension by protesting, “You got me talking about politics!” as if that’s going to actually ingratiate him to anyone. The anger that Major Marquis Warren still has is there, simmering, with his Lee Van Cleef pipe close at hand constantly figuring out how to use that anger so no one can get the better of him ever again. And once we flee the snow into the uneasy atmosphere of Minnie’s Haberdashery, the ugliness only grows and the anger doesn’t have to be spoken out loud but of course that’s exactly what happens. Since everyone is trapped there’s no time element, just the awareness that things are going to boil over at some point and, appropriate for a western, several characters mention how they’re willing to wait until it does. The silences hang there as well and some of them don’t even bother to waste much energy claiming they are who they say because what’s to be gained.
For a movie in which at least a few of the characters are understandably paranoid (a word spoken, possibly anachronistically) about the immediate situation a surprising number of them seem to know, or at least have heard of, each other but that still doesn’t relax anyone. The two bounty hunters begrudgingly agree to watch out for each other as Chris Mannix reacts to their stalemate with an “Ain’t love grand,” a phrase spoken in THEY LIVE, another film about trying to determine who you can trust and it’s not even the most pertinent John Carpenter film referenced here. Even the names are murky--Domergue is pronounced several different ways and I’m pretty sure none of them are how namesake Faith Domergue of THIS ISLAND EARTH was ever referred to. As straightforward as John Ruth’s name is he’s still oddly called Bob a few times which he angrily corrects and his nickname is “The Hangman” even though part of the point of that moniker is he’s just a guy who delivers outlaws to a hangman, never doing the job himself while the hangman they meet in Minnie’s Haberdashery…well, you get the idea. “That’ll be the day,” Ruth spits out just as John Wayne once did in a certain John Ford western and the bounty hunter is so assured of his personal code that he just assumes everyone else has agreed to it too, just as he clearly wants to believe in the mythology of Major Warren’s Lincoln Letter, a cherished piece of correspondence from the beloved President that he keeps by him at all times, because what other truth could there be?
Kurt Russell plays the part with a little bit of that BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA twang back in his voice and the west Ruth lives in is basically the John Wayne mythology, one where you just know he wouldn’t shoot someone unarmed or in the back. At one point he even wipes a piece of food of Domergue’s face, a small piece of affection towards the woman he’s taking to her death which is definitely not going to be returned. Maybe it says something about Tarantino’s supposed dislike for John Ford, that this stuff about code and honor is all nonsense and even though he comes off as a guy who’s cracked a book or two in his time Ruth never seems as clued into the reality of things around them as Major Warren seems to be as if he knows from his own history that he can never afford to relax for as long as it takes to drink a cup of coffee. Walton Goggins’ Chris Mannix, meanwhile, is the son of the man who was the leader of the Confederate renegade army ‘Mannix’s Maurauders’ a name which recalls Sam Fuller’s MERRILL’S MARAUDERS—a World War II film, yes, but either way the Fuller America is a scrappier, much more incendiary mythology of America where the hatred can’t avoid bubbling to the surface sooner or later. For all the film’s focus on family, whether fathers, mothers or siblings, John Ruth never says anything about that as if he’s just been floating above history and never believes he has to get personally involved.
I don’t claim to be an expert on spaghetti westerns, even though I’ve seen a few that don’t have the name Sergio Leone on them, and I’m also not particularly versed in the sub-sub-genre of westerns set in the snow—there’s certainly McCABE & MRS. MILLER but that doesn’t seem to be much of a factor here. The Grindhouse aesthetic you’d maybe expect with crazy zooms, grainy Techniscope photography isn’t the approach taken here at all, with the use of 70mm becoming its own style. Putting aside all of the accoutrements of overtures and intermissions the grandeur does affect the film, it gives the whole thing a certain visual weight that makes every shot matter. And for all the surprise over Tarantino filming in 70mm but setting much of it in a single large room, there hasn’t been much talk of how that’s clearly affected the visual approach to that interior and while certain profile shots are very Tarantino-esque it always avoids standard coverage, there’s a decided lack of cutaways to characters listening to others talking unless it’s absolutely necessary. The stage play-like approach makes it extremely controlled in allowing for what we’re seeing or deliberately not seeing, as well as feeling that cold as we see their breath while they speak or getting us to wonder what that stew tastes like (seriously, I really want to know) as the actors play off each other-it’s not blithely cutting in closer to speed everything up. This keeps us correctly off balance and it’s for the best anyway since certain reactions at crucial points would reveal too much but of course it also means that we sometimes lose track of characters for way too long. Various silent glances register differently on multiple viewings when we can pay more attention to what they’re not doing and, I swear, it sure looks like Bruce Dern glances right at the camera around 37:05, an almost subliminal tell of what General Smithers is keeping from us. Close-ups are doled out carefully but they’re there which partly feels like a Leone approach but also works as its own thing—even if he has less to do than anyone I get the feeling Tarantino loves finding as many crevices as he can in Michael Madsen’s face and he clearly revels in the cracks of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s features covered in blood or otherwise. We want them to go outside and take in the glorious vistas but similar to how Paul Thomas Anderson’s THE MASTER was really looking into the faces Tarantino it’s all about those faces and the hatred behind them.
From the angle where we get our first look at the interior of Minnie’s Haberdashery there’s something deliberately unwelcoming about it allowing us to soak in the unease immediately, an oppressive feel that never really goes away. On first viewing the later flashback to a normal day in the life of the place (featuring Dana Gourrier as Minnie, who I wish there was more of, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN’S Gene Jones as Sweet Dave and the now obligatory Zoë Bell cameo) comes as a genuine breather after the downright oppressive feel after so much time in that darkness which seems to be part of the point as well. Watching that section again now that difference is felt even more, flashing back to a more innocent time, almost as if they were shooting this section on a totally different set. It’s a fanciful multicultural portrayal of the old west and whether it has anything to do with reality or not it seems like a nice place to be. It’s a picture of a more innocent time which we can picture for ourselves, the 90s, the early 2010s, pre-June 2015, pre-August 2015, pre-Election Day 2016, hanging out with our friends, joking around talking about movies and everything seems ok, no awareness of what’s coming. Yes, there are reminders of things like racism around us—if Minnie really did have that ‘no Mexicans or dogs’ sign up once upon a time she’s not exactly a total innocent, making me think of the fabled ‘FAGOTS – STAY OUT!’ sign which apparently hung in the West Hollywood Barney’s Beanery until 1984. You can take down those signs but it doesn’t mean that everything is cleared up. Doesn’t mean that we can fall asleep any easier tonight since that hatred is just lying in wait.
A few of the actors still don’t get to do very much even with that lengthy running time—Tim Roth, for one, is given a few enjoyable monologues done Terry-Thomas style after his introduction but after that doesn’t make much impression at all, certain characters forced to stay silent for a little too long in that second half standing up against a wall with nothing to do. Maybe there was some stuff left out, maybe there’s some things in there we don’t need—technically there are two versions of the film with the one available on DVD & Blu the standard release cut (167 minutes) while the roadshow 70mm version, overture, intermission and Cinerama logo aside, is only slightly longer so the differences between the two versions seem to be relatively minimal almost as if Tarantino made one of them slightly longer just because he could and have a little extra fun with the whole thing. In theory that roadshow cut could give us another version to buy at some point but I’m guessing it will have the same release date of a KILL BILL: THE WHOLE BLOODY AFFAIR Blu that we’ve all stopped holding our breath for. But what’s a Tarantino mythology without footage being withheld from us, after all.
It isn’t always as good as its best moments and a few points feel even weaker, RESERVOIR DOGS in the old west but not really. As punchy and dense as some of the dialogue is at times it also sounds a little too familiar to anyone who knows the Tarantino parlance, maybe a reminder that it needed the one extra polish my friend suggested. The confrontation between Samuel L. Jackson and Bruce Dern that leads up to the intermission (in the roadshow cut, anyway) is honestly my least favorite scene, as well played as it is by the two actors, feeling shoehorned in there no matter how much the film needs this sort of reminder of all the things that have led some of these people here; some Bruce Dern dialogue heard on the soundtrack CD that was cut from the film might have helped the buildup to it. But even with the weaker points we still get Robert Richardson’s stunning cinematography both outdoors and indoors adding to the hellish cold and placed up against it is the pure scorching fire that is the original Oscar-winning score by Ennio Morricone who brings to the film a spectacular main title along with that ticking feel that burrows underneath the film, a clock ticking down continuously as if just waiting for the brutality to reveal itself. There are also several Morricone tracks from John Carpenter's THE THING and one from EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC in there—the brief use of HERETIC music is appreciated because that score is all-holy but it’s the tracks from THE THING which make the most sense here, almost becoming part of the text itself coming from another film set in the remote cold with Kurt Russell, another film where you can’t trust who you’re trapped with, making THE HATEFUL EIGHT in part a prolonged examination of that film from an alternate genre perspective or maybe just the western that John Carpenter never made. Like other Carpenter films it’s a story mostly set in one place trying to keep out a greater force only in this case it’s not just the blizzard (referred to as a ‘white hell’ which itself brings to mind THE WHITE HELL OF PITZ PALU, referenced in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS—movie titles are part of the Tarantinoverse before movies are even invented) but the world itself with all the hatred and racism imaginable.
Carpenter’s THE THING of course featured an all-male cast so the presence of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Daisy Domergue who is at least as nasty as everyone else could almost be a commentary on what that film was missing, as if a demonstration of proof that the hatred which takes over everyone makes any specific treatment of her as a woman of secondary concern so the hatred consuming humanity is what really takes precedence. When she gently sings “Jim Jones at Botany Bay” for a moment strumming that guitar, John Ruth drops his hostility towards her for a moment and look where it gets him. “We’re gonna die...we ain’t got no say in that,” is heard near the end just as “We’re not getting out of here alive…but neither is that thing” was uttered near the end of THE THING. Major Warren’s Lincoln Letter is the false symbol which asks the question that stands for much of the film, either saying that the final image is either an expression of hope between these two guys who have always been on opposite sides or a realization of that lie, saying that hoping for any better is just a waste of time. I’m not sure I want to say which side I’m leaning on right now, but the answer doesn’t make me happy. The evil of the past is what makes the present after all and maybe the best way to look at the future is to laugh at it, showing no fear. There’s no chance of getting out of this alive, anyway. But, as another film once reminded us, neither is that thing. Maybe that right there is a sign of hope.
No one person gets the star role but Samuel L. Jackson takes full command of the frame, energized by this part and with total confidence in each gesture right down to his silences, figuring things out before anyone else is, as Tarantino points his camera directly at him assured in the history of his anger and just as assured in his righteousness. Kurt Russell with that enormous mustache thingamajig seems to love settling back in his scenes and playing off the other actors and he brings to John Ruth a cocky determination that shows how he’s keeping a close eye on everything in front of him but never anything else, right through to his very last moment which maybe more than anything reveals so much about who he is. In some ways it’s Jennifer Jason Leigh who really gets the showcase part you’d almost expect more of the actors here would have, taking being chained to Kurt Russell for most of the film and on repeat viewings we can see just how much she’s willing to sit back, crack a few jokes and wait for what she knows is going to come without fear, opening her mouth to get a taste of the falling snow while waiting to reveal her true feral nature. We never know what she’s done specifically to face the hangman’s noose but by the end we have no problem believing it. Veering from comic doofiness to deadly seriousness from moment to moment, Walton Goggins becomes the spirit of the film, even if it is a nasty, racist spirit unable to wipe away the war between the world and his father in his head, firmly believing that the renegade army was justified. Among the other guys, Bruce Dern has maybe less screen time than any of them but he still gives the most underappreciated performance in the film, the n-word is the nastiest coming from him just as the desperation when he thinks he might hear something about his son is palpable and the way he wraps his mouth around some of Tarantino’s words has more fury than it does from anyone else. And his scene with Channing Tatum making a crucial star cameo drives home much of the thesis. He doesn’t care about anyone else, certainly not anyone dying. Land of the free, after all.
As we wait for the day when THE HATEFUL EIGHT finally plays at the Cinerama Dome (I know one person who saw it there at the premiere and I’m still jealous) we can remember the majestic 70mm images at the film’s opening, a reminder of the cold, uncaring nature that continues amidst all this hatred. By the time we reach the end of the last chapter we don’t emerge back out into the snow as a brighter morning dawns, but instead stay on all their bloody faces where the darkness remains. I’m still dealing with a few things in there but right now the film makes perfect sense to me. These are characters who have done too many things, hurt too many people for it all to be wiped away and there can’t be peace, just as we can’t wipe away the ugliness of the modern world and a so-called president who proudly mocks the disabled. Looking all around you see reminders of how much they hate you, how much they hurt you and how much they want to kill you. It’s the unanswered question of what civilized society calls justice and if the possibilities of that civilized world can ever be attained. “Justice delivered without dispassion is always in danger of not being justice,” one character observes but of course it’s up for debate if that person really meant what he said and, in the end, the film seems to say that dispassionate justice isn’t possible anyway. One of the Morricone pieces from THE THING titled “Despair” is heard near the end at a very crucial point as a character tries to answer for himself the all-important question, Who Are You? How much of a person are you, really? At the very least, movies do have the power to change for us deep down as times goes on. But nobody ever said that people change too.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

If Anything Is To Be Gained

Maybe we have to accept the possibility that people aren’t good. They want to hurt you and they feed off it. It is their joy. You want to believe otherwise, you try to look for another reason for why things are but in this tragic world these days where morals are no longer needed and lies are as required as cruelty it is what it is. Anyway, several weeks ago I decided the time had come to finally watch the only Billy Wilder film I had never seen. It wasn’t that I’d been avoiding it. I had just long since decided that I liked the idea of there being one more film. As screwy as it sounds, it meant there were still possibilities, it meant there was still something to look forward to. But times have changed and on the off chance Fury Road actually happens any day now I figured there was no point in waiting any longer. That film, by the way, was THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS, not one of the more characteristic Wilders but still pretty good even if I could tell that whatever personal touches he presumably brought to the piece were muted in favor of the spectacle of it all. Because of the true story being told it would almost have to be one of Wilder’s most hopeful films and maybe that’s why it feels like there’s a hole at the fadeout since empty optimism was never his strong suit. SPIRIT was actually the first of three films directed by Wilder released in 1957, followed by LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON (never a favorite, but fighting over this doesn’t interest me right now) and WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION which in many ways could almost be the opposite of THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS. Compact instead of sprawling, black & white instead of color, no widescreen photography and a mere handful of sets instead of the epic tale of a flight across the Atlantic. It’s not hard to imagine which one the director would have been more at home making and even if much of the plot’s spine comes from Agatha Christie the character work feels like some of the best Wilder we ever got. There’s a snap to WITNESS, a flow to the dialogue in each scene that is almost musical. It’s a courtroom drama, no avoiding that, but within its myriad plot twists may very well be one of the most purely human of all of Wilder’s films, stripping away the expected cynicism until faced with the unvarnished, honest truth.
London barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton) has just been released from the hospital following a heart attack, with loyal and forever annoying nurse Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester) in tow, determined to make sure that he does nothing to overexert himself. Resigned to not getting back to work, almost as soon as he arrives home Sir Wilfrid is confronted with the case of Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), accused of killing rich older widow Emily French (Norma Varden) who had taken a liking to him. After Vole convinces Sir Wilfrid of his innocence, the barrister meets Vole’s wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich) a cold woman under no delusions of Leonard’s character, but willing to provide them with an alibi of when he arrived home the night of the murder. But when revelations of her past come to light she is able to testify against Leonard as a witness for the prosecution, putting Sir Wilfrid’s careful plan to defend Vole in jeopardy.
The mid-50s have never been one of my favorite periods in Wilder’s career, I imagine partly because after the box office failure of ACE IN THE HOLE he retreated from that darkness to somewhat safer projects. STALAG 17, SABRINA and THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH were based on acclaimed stage plays, all commercial properties to one degree or other. Whether or not it was by design, with his three 1957 releases it’s almost like he’s finding the way back to his own pure voice, gradually scaling things down from the epic CinemaScope sprawl of SPIRIT which was a prolonged, unhappy production to the big stars on location for LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON to the ultra-compact WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (based on the Agatha Christie stage play; adaptation by Larry Marcus, screenplay by Billy Wilder and Harry Kurnitz), shot on soundstages in Hollywood featuring a mere handful of sets and starring big names who by all accounts got along famously with the director. There’s a confidence felt in each scene as if everything about it is automatically clicking together and just as the film’s lead character is rediscovering the passion for his own work, Wilder is doing the same. Based on some of the films he made over the following decade he may have even realized that he never wanted to leave the confines of a soundstage again unless forced to, that all he requires are these actors speaking his dialogue and going at each other full throttle. And it does this without sacrificing the basics of the Christie narrative; in an interview excerpted on the Blu-ray Wilder talks about how the author was brilliant when it came to plot but lousy with characters and if you read the original 15-page story it doesn’t feel like anything more than a rough sketch. Very little dialogue is kept from the stage version as well; at one point in the Christie script for the play Vole mentions a job selling egg beaters which in the hands of Wilder is turned into a contraption he’s invented out of a Lubitsch film, just one small example of how the film was intent on transforming everything in the story. Even the character of Miss Plimsoll played by Elsa Lanchester is a new invention to go along with this subplot and it’s like Wilder mostly treated the source material as an outline (“Nothing was in the play,” he told Cameron Crowe, not far off from the truth) keeping the basic essentials and using those pieces to make the film that allowed him to say what he needed to.
The careful plotting builds to a twist which is a gimmick, no getting around that, but it’s still a good one. And the film never denies this, down to the booming voice as the end credits roll imploring us not to reveal the shocking conclusion to our friends, looking forward to Hitchcock’s ‘no one will be seated after the start of the film’ command for PSYCHO. But once those revelations are out of the way on repeat viewings, the film becomes more about the intricate character detail that goes into each scene instead of the plot, the drawn out testimony of Una O’Connor’s batty housekeeper becoming about her nitpicky behavior and everyone’s responses to that, the precarious physical state of Sir Wilfrid with his continued attempts to get at his cigars and brandy, the mechanics of his mind continually trying to figure out what’s going on, knowing that he has no choice but to see all this through to the end. As a courtroom drama it’s more a slice of cake than slice of life, to use the Hitchcock terminology, but Wilder keeps the focus always on the people, knowing that in the mechanics of the Christie mystery there’s logic to make everything connect together but he’s also interested in the human nature of it all which will eventually lead to answers that can never have anything to do with simple logic. The solution to the mystery isn’t just whodunit but who it turns out they really are.
With a first act that is almost one continuous scene broken up by a few flashbacks the stage roots are evident but it never drags for a second and as it moves into the courtroom section, the testimony plays as an excuse for elegant dialogue as much as the plot, as interested in the wit as making sure all the pieces of the plot connects. They all do, unless you really want to cry foul with the twist, and almost more than any other Wilder film the structure is tighter than ever. It’s also sprinkled with details that give it an almost instant comfort level, reminiscent of past Wilder films like a bit with a hat reminiscent of the script he wrote with Charles Brackett for NINOTCHKA and Leonard Vole’s questionable relationship with an older woman a further examination of elements in SUNSET BOULEVARD. Even with some production design trickery in the sets by Alexandre Trauner it’s not the most visually adventurous Wilder film but not only doesn’t that matter, it feels correct as if the institution of the British court needs to be presented that straightforward visually since it’s a world as confident in itself and its traditions as Sir Wilfrid is in his little monocle trick to catch people in their lies, the one way he knows to convince himself. The tightness of the direction may be almost too neat and tidy at times but when Laughton and Dietrich go at it, the very best moments feel like they’re going to burst out of that frame and that’s the only place where the passion ultimately needs to come from.
The accused Leonard Vole as played by Power is a scoundrel with no long term plans in life, another Walter Neff or Joe Gillis caught in the web that he’s created but Sir Wilfrid, a perfect role for Laughton, is also a stand in for the forever unsentimental Wilder himself, stressed out from those other films and finding his mojo again. Like Wilder, Sir Wilfrid demands structure in his courtroom approach, waiting until just the right time to bring out a theatrical bit that can win his case. Wilder fully understands these guys, before and after certain plot revelations, they make perfect sense to him. And they’re placed up against the total unknowability--I swear, I’m trying to avoid discussing certain plot revelations just as the film requested--of the character of Christine Vole as played by Dietrich (who was responsible for Wilder’s involvement in the project) and it’s a recurring Wilder theme through a good portion of his career, one of the key Wilder questions, extending all the way to the likes of FEDORA, that being Who Is This Woman? The WWII flashback to Leonard and Christine’s meet cute that includes brief confusion between a cigarette and stick of gum as Vole can’t take his eyes off her legs not only adds to her enigma it also serves to deliberately recall the character played by Dietrich in Wilder’s A FOREIGN AFFAIR. It not only serves as another reference to one of his films, the two would work beautifully paired together in a double bill as undeniable reflections of each other.
Wilder also keeps things just polite enough that we need to squint to imagine what the production code isn’t letting us see in those flashbacks and whatever was really going on between Vole and Emily French as well as with his wife who to everyone else’s eyes is older, German (or simply a foreigner), essentially ‘the bitch’, not one to be trusted and Miss Plimsoll even declares, “Oh, she’s evil, that one,” after listening to her testimony for just a few minutes as if nothing was more obvious. Dietrich’s character is all about what we’re not seeing, or what we think we’re going to see, even during that WWII flashback and in her introduction when meeting Sir Wilfrid she’s presented as what the film, or the film’s world, apparently believes women of her age should be, buttoned up and sexless, all passion burned out. One line of dialogue to describe her early on is spoken in an incredulous manner then repeated near the very end (this is taken directly from the play, but the dialogue improved on here) with a sense of total clarity by the person saying it, or at least as understanding of her as will ever be possible. In this context, it means something more than simply good or evil. It’s humanity.
Maybe some of the revelations aren’t as much of a shock as they once were and it all feels a little like the in utero version of multiple climaxes from episodes of L.A. LAW or other David E. Kelley shows years later. The twists are part of the Christie gimmick but each time I watch it they gain resonance in their presumptions you make based all around truth and guilt and what that means. Either way, it works beautifully, from the simple elegance in how even basic dialogue that lays out information is compelling to listen to or Laughton’s banter with, well, just about everyone else in the film as well as the sumptuous black & white photography by Russell Harlan. And there’s resonance to the constant fretting over Sir Wilfrid’s health and the way he insists this will be his last case—amazing that Laughton was only around 58 here since he looks about 20 years older. You may be dying, the film says, and everything around you may be crumbling. But, it asks, are you going to sit down and die or keep fighting. And if you need a little booze to get through the day, maybe that’s for the best. It’s all going to end eventually but it matters how you live, how you behave towards certain people that counts and it helps when the people around you realize that as well, which the very last line of dialogue is proof of.
I’m still a little confused about how Tyrone Power, top-billed in his final completed role, is supposed to be English (at least, I’m assuming he is since he was in the RAF) without any trace of an accent. But his likably callow nature seems like an ideal fit for the character, building up to his pleading for his life in the courtroom. Power seems to play things totally on impulse as if he makes his mind up about something immediately then never thinks about it again for an instant and this becomes the key to his performance. That becomes an ideal match up against Charles Laughton who clearly has the wheels turning in his head through every word he utters, fiddling with his monocle and occasionally enraged when things aren’t what they seem. Whether he zeros in on questioning a witness or simply wrapping his mouth around the word ‘cocoa’ or not even saying a damn thing there’s not a note he plays which feels wrong, every gesture has the right sort of elegance. Marlene Dietrich of course has the most difficult role, playing a woman who reveals nothing until she’s forced to and she makes the film all about her almost in retrospect. There’s subtle comic timing during the flashback but there’s also the famous explosion of “DAMN YOU!” during her climactic testimony and every single beat of her onscreen is fascinating. There’s also Elsa Lanchester (of course, she & Laughton were married in real life) who turns her over the top comic relief into a loyal accomplice as the case goes on and Norma Varden as the murdered Emily French, also not directly portrayed in the stage version, along with the likes of Una O’Connor, John Williams, Ian Wolfe, Torin Thatcher and others who bring just the right dry humor to the dialogue, turning even tiny little line readings from each of them into the sort of thing you unexpectedly look forward to on multiple viewings.
Beginning with his next film, SOME LIKE IT HOT, Billy Wilder collaborated on his screenplays with I.A.L. Diamond (they first worked together on LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON, then Diamond out WITNESS—he’s credited on the Danny Kaye vehicle MERRY ANDREW around this period) which of course led to the high point of the all-holy THE APARTMENT. A few lower points came in the years that followed like IRMA LA DOUCE and THE FORTUNE COOKIE as well as others which vary in quality but they also spend a great deal of time in their principle locations, just like this one. It’s hard not to wish that Wilder could have loosened up by a certain point (AVANTI! and FEDORA do a little, not that it helped the receptions that those films got) but let’s stick with this film for now. WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION plays so effortlessly that it’s probably been underrated over the years, looked at as just a stage adaptation that came between Marilyn Monroe vehicles. But mixed in with its incisive storytelling is a look at a cynical world, one where automatic innocence may be presumed while at the same time doubting the very concept of goodness. That’s part of why it works so well in the end—unlike the triumph of Lindbergh landing in THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS the sliver of optimism found in human nature comes from just about the last place you’d expect. So maybe we have to accept the possibility that something like it can be found again in this world. I’m not sure I totally believe in that yet but I’m trying.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Living In A Community

It’s valid to ask whether it matters if we even like a film. Some films don’t want to make that easy on us anyway. But how valid is a film if we don’t like it? And if we can accept that it has a certain amount of worth regardless, does that mean the film is doing its job? Released at the very end of November 2012 when it immediately died at the box office, KILLING THEM SOFTLY is set during the financial crisis that occurred during the 2008 election season which automatically brings a certain amount of didacticism to the storyline, a SHAMPOO sort of vibe to make us automatically question what it all means. I wasn’t entirely certain what it meant at the time myself, fresh after the re-election we’d just gone through and what a more innocent time that was. On that opening weekend KILLING THEM SOFTLY wasn’t exactly a film I particularly enjoyed aside from a few isolated moments but there were a few things in there that stuck with me. It’s possible the film means more now what with everything currently going on but I’m still not sure about that and it probably doesn’t matter very much, anyway. After all, these days it’s tough to figure out if any film matters. The way things are right now, it’s understandable to wonder if anything makes sense but that doesn’t mean any of it does.
During the financial crisis of the ’08 election season ex-con and dry cleaning business owner Johnny “Squirrel” Amato (Vincent Curatola, Johnny Sacramoni on THE SOPRANOS) recruits Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn, Director Krennic in ROGUE ONE) to rob a mob-run card game, knowing that they have a good shot at getting away with it. He knows this since wiseguy Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) who runs the game once pulled the exact same heist, admitted that he robbed his own game, and basically got off with a slap on the wrist so naturally the powers that be will assume he’s pulling the same job again. The robbery goes off just as planned, with Trattman fingered right away but the mob brings in enforcer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to take care of the situation, figure out if Trattman was really the guy, then find who was really responsible, restoring order so the games can continue and the money can keep flowing.
“There’s a plague coming,” Brad Pitt’s Jackie Cogan says about this country at one point and looking around the real world at the moment I guess he was right. KILLING THEM SOFTLY was directed by Andrew Dominik, his follow-up to THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD which also starred Pitt; that film was long, languid, dreamy and haunting so it makes a certain amount of sense that the follow-up is basically the opposite—short, sharp, nasty, ugly. And unlike JESSE JAMES which was a film I wanted to dive deep into and just swim around for a while getting lost in its melancholy, I barely want to spend any time at all in KILLING ME SOFTLY and even now watching it again I wonder why the fuck I have to be in this world which is dirty and unpleasant and not much fun at all. Though set during a specific time, KILLING ME SOFTLY doesn’t take place anywhere in particular, that no name city gimmick which isn’t anything new but is presumably part of the point here, that this is what America has essentially become. The 1974 novel “Cogan’s Trade” which it’s based on was set in Boston (no surprise since it’s by George V. Higgins, author of THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE; Dominik wrote the screenplay) and some dialogue indicates that’s where they probably are even though it doesn’t look anything like the place and was actually shot in New Orleans with nothing to identify it as such. If it wasn’t for the news reports playing on TV and campaign billboards overhead we’d barely know when the film is set anyway; unless I’m mistaken, there aren’t even any cell phones used, as if this low level mob world really is stuck back in the 70s. It’s easy to believe that nobody would get decent cell reception anyway since from the looks of things that plague Jackie Cogan talks about has already arrived, just as it’s arrived for us now, the entire nameless city having the look of scorched earth and you just know that nothing will ever grow there again. Which is starting to sound familiar.
The narrative bluntly parallels the two financial crises, the real world intersecting with the mob world, bickering over who’s going to get punished for this robbery whether it was their fault or not and it’s a little heavy handed, snatches of W. speeches practically commenting directly on plot developments. Since it becomes the point more than anything it all overwhelms the narrative but since there really isn’t anyone to ‘care’ about it all becomes a little clinical, almost as if we were watching a film about a worldwide financial crisis set on another planet. Even some of the plot developments are basically reported to us, information learned offscreen then reported secondhand later on. On a purely cinematic level the whole thing becomes so skillful in how alienating it’s willing to be that I kind of admire how the approach all becomes more about the scummy vibe than anything. Even the sound mix is downright Lynchian at times making each rundown building seem alive with subterranean noises. The camerawork courtesy of cinematographer Greig Fraser (recently the DP of both LION and ROGUE ONE) is almost reptilian in the way it seems to follow behind the characters and at times it’s a little mesmerizing. The big robbery sequence is particularly impressive in how it drags that quiet tension out even with those stupid dishwashing gloves they have on, playing almost as a short film in itself with minimal dialogue and in that silence we can tell exactly what the card players are thinking as well as how Ray Liotta’s poor bastard Trattman knows they’re thinking he’s in on all this. It’s isolated moments like that which work best throughout, not necessarily connected to the larger narrative as if the film itself can’t ever bother to get interested in the actual story, knowing that some clarity to a few story beats would help but not bothering—how many scenes are even in the film? 25? 30? Even if Dominik decided that the fractured nature of the storytelling was more appropriate at least he shoots the hell out of some of those individual moments and in its own way there’s barely a wrong shot in the film, the camera always knowing who to fix on at any moment and how far away to stay from them, keeping scenes visually active by breaking them up into sections but too often the wordiness of the dialogue gets lost in it all as if Dominik was staging for the visuals instead of the dialogue. To be honest it was a help when I decided to turn on the subtitles to help follow along with the plot which clarified a few things but also made me wonder about holes that weren’t plugged in, making the film seem more like a collection of stylish scenes than a complete story.
Maybe that’s partly why it all seems to end up in kind of a dead end since that story never seems to matter as much as the message and it’s a film where a few of the alleged leads barely even mattered anyway which is part of the point, just like plenty of people in the real world barely seem to matter either. I’m not even sure how interested it is in subverting the expectations of being a genre piece let alone just playing as a straight ahead crime thriller. It also feels like pieces are missing so it’s no surprise to read that the initial cut was considerably longer—Sam Shepherd appears briefly as a character who is referred to throughout, as if there’s a lot of backstory involving him, but in the final version it’s little more than a cameo. It’s left to us to find the meaning in some of those pieces, the phrase ‘smart guys’ heard a few times as in “We’re not the only smart guys who are going to think of this” but those supposed brains don’t take any of them very far. Frankie and Russell are only doing the job because there’s nothing better to do, at least one of them perfectly happy to sit around in a drugged out haze for ten minutes of screentime while the other gets more and more convinced that his life isn’t worth a damn.
Brad Pitt, the marquee name playing the alleged lead role, doesn’t turn up until close to a third of the way into this ninety-odd minute movie and it’s almost as if he becomes the main character by default since nobody else has the inclination to take on that responsibility so he only does it to get all this over with. He’s not an audience surrogate—in some ways that’s Scoot McNairy’s character, representing all of us who get fucked over and are barely even the lead characters in our own story. Pitt, on the other hand, introduced as Johnny Cash’s “When the Man Comes Around” is heard, lyrics telling us this is the man “who knows who to free and who to blame”. In this world he may be The Man, the one who knows how to get the fucking job done, more than the guys in charge do, but he’s still just a middle man. It doesn’t matter what he believes, it doesn’t even matter what the truth is. If people think one guy did it, he did it. Things just need to get back to normal. It’s like there are three levels to these crooks—the dregs on the bottom who are just trying to scrape by, the ones who actually can get the job done but usually get fucked and the (mostly unseen) money men on top who just want the money continually flowing to them so they get more. That never changes. It’s all done with pitch dark humor as chirpy song cues like “Live Is Just a Bowl of Cherries” play as it goes pummeling into the brick wall of bleakness. There’s a film to be made featuring a running gag where a mob tough guy like Ray Liotta is beaten up multiple times as other mob guys calmly discuss the situation but this one willingly takes it into nastiness, ugliness and not only wants to be ugly since that’s the way the world is, it has to be.
And much of the reason I’m writing about the film at all involves the great and much-missed James Gandolfini, in for just a few scenes as fellow hitman Mickey Fallon but those scenes wind up transforming the film, obviously even more now than they did at the time. Introduced getting off a plane from New York as Nico’s “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” plays with a few W. Bush soundbites cutting in to the imagery, from the moment we see him he’s not at all the tough guy we’re expecting, but a walking shambles who looks like he’s going to fall over any second. He’s the Willy Loman of hitmen, dragging his tiny suitcase alongside him, a lifelong scumbag facing jail time for the smallest possible reason considering all the shit he’s already done and it’s so fucking poignant. Essentially, James Gandolfini is Twentieth Century America, lumbering his way into this modern world and a total fucking mess, downing a huge beer almost in one gulp with the clock ruthlessly ticking away from him. This wasn’t the actor’s final role but it’s still hard not to associate his death less than a year later with this and this was one of the things I flashed on after hearing he died, with much of the rest of the film already having left me and it’s still what I think about now. Granted, parts work as an extension of certain themes dealt with better during the run of THE SOPRANOS and this is almost a mirror version of Tony a few extra years down the line having safely walked out of Holsten’s (as we all know he did) after eating those onion rings but we know Tony himself would never put up with this shit. The guy here has totally given up, drifting off in his mind to boozing and whores and the way things never really were and ready to explode if someone suggests otherwise so it’s all for the best if he just fades away offscreen, never seen again. That’s two SOPRANOS actors along with the lead of GOODFELLAS in this film meant to drain away what they once were so it’s all now just another business run by white guys, here in the form of go-between Richard Jenkins, no longer any difference between them and the politicians fretting about Wall Street.
The film has those scenes, those moments, which become so strong it almost doesn’t matter about vague confusion brought on by the plot or how the statement willingly overwhelms the narrative, whatever narrative there is. Since it tries to go to extremes, even on that level it doesn’t always work for me like the death scene scored to Ketty Lester singing “Love Letters”, maybe the biggest misstep in the film partly since BLUE VELVET already owns that song but also because the overwhelming CGI imagery of the bloodletting misses what’s happening between the people involved. At least some of KILLING THEM SOFTLY has stayed with me, I’ll give it that much, moments like Gandolfini chewing out that waiter bringing him his drinks or Pitt telling a lackey to put back the meager tip of a dollar he just left on a table. And there’s the ’08 election which everyone is aware of (Gandolfini complains about TV showing "all that election shit" in a deleted bit on the Blu) but, just like in SHAMPOO, few seem to actually care what happens because what will it matter. THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD always makes me sad when I watch it, getting lost in that feeling of regret and destroyed dreams but this one just makes me want to take a shower to scrub all this out of my head so I guess the film is doing its job. Set in 2008 and made in 2012, in 2017 it makes more sense than it ever did. Maybe when it came out the way it was saying that hope and change thing was bullshit wasn’t what we wanted to hear. Now, several years after that and in the shit we’re in right now it doesn’t seem like it goes far enough. “The world is shit. We’re all just on our own,” goes some dialogue late in the film, spoken by someone who knows all too well what’s coming.
It all ends on Brad Pitt as Jackie Cogan, more or less the lead, talking about money. He’s the only one in the movie who can get things done and even he’s pissed off over whether he’s going to get paid. Then President-Elect Obama gives his victory speech as Pitt walks through the streets, fireworks going off and an old timey version of “It’s Only a Paper Moon” heard but no one cares about the hope supposedly in the air. Now that we’ve arrived on the other side of all that possibility, it’s pretty clear that things aren’t going to suddenly get better since, as we all know, it’s easier to make things bad than to make them good. All that matters is if someone keeps the money flowing. And yes, none of us are innocent either. We’ve all fucked over someone. We’ve all been fucked. We all sob about it in the middle of the night while “Windmills of Your Mind” plays, at least that’s what I assume. Jackie Cogan talks about wanting to keep a distance from that carnage since getting attached to any of this, getting emotional, is just trouble. Even guilt is a waste of time. It’s not a movie I particularly enjoy but it does feel valid and so fucking what how it makes me feel. Partly because it’s skillfully made, partly because of Gandolfini, partly because of how willingly alienating it is, partly because I suspect it’s more than a little bit right as we face 2017.
Some of the best Brad Pitt roles are when he seems to know the entire film isn’t on his shoulders so he’s able to relax, it's interesting just to watch him settle in as the scene plays out. He holds back at the right times here, letting certain actors he’s in scenes with take the spotlight particularly during Gandolfini’s scenes, waiting for just the right moment to explode. In totally nailing the film's last moment he also plays very well against Richard Jenkins’ dry annoyance which makes for some of the best comic moments in the film--the way Jenkins plays it in particular makes me wonder how early 70s Peckinpah might have approached this material. Along with the tragic majesty of James Gandolfini, Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn make for an impressive pair of Ratso Rizzo-Rosencrantz/Guildensterns, bringing a pathetic humanity to the film with the fear in their eyes giving off a palpable stench. It’s especially true with McNairy over multiple viewings playing a guy who almost has a few intelligent thoughts poking out of his brain only he knows that he’s fucked from the get go. It’s tough to tell how much the film really cares about that—the clinical approach makes me wish we got more of such moments from some of the actors, like Ray Liotta who seems maybe cast more for who he is than what he can do. And speaking of Peckinpah, even he had more of an interest in woman and there are almost none here, mostly only talked about in not always very nice ways--pretty much the only female speaking role is the hooker played by Linara Washington. When we do hear about others they’re wives, girlfriends and most of what’s said involves cluelessness and regrets, just as they’re clueless about everything else. Brad Pitt’s Jackie Cogan stays either unimpressed or just silent, knowing there’s nothing to say. Maybe he’s just seen it all already.
You’re all alone, the film says, not in a community. You’re by yourself. Not a nice message, but lately it seems to be the way it is. And what does it matter if I don’t like the film anyway. It’s not asking me to like it, it’s merely displaying a view of the world from the vantage point of some pretty good seats facing scorched earth. KILLING THEM SOFTLY is bleak and unpleasant but of course we all know what that’s like these days. Just because I can’t bring myself to ‘like’ it, whatever that matters anyway, doesn’t mean I disregard it. And you don’t have to like any movie. You could simply walk out of the theater, shut it off, leave the room, move on to the next one. But once you’ve seen a film, even part of it, you still might be forced to remember it. It’s in your life. There’s nothing you can do about that and sometimes you still may even think about it. Doesn’t mean you want to. Doesn’t mean that life is fair because it’s not. The cruelty goes on. There are plenty of people ready to see to that and keep on making sure they kill you softly.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

To Hasten An End To History

Facing the future. Right now it’s not an easy thing to do. It’s there in front of us, refusing to get out of the way and it’s very possible we’re fucked. I try to remember that at some point in the future the age we’re living in right now will itself be the past, which is about as optimistic as I can get at the moment. As for the present, HAIL, CAESAR! may not be the best film of 2016 (although I’m not ruling out that maybe it is) but it’s certainly one of my favorites if not my absolute ‘favorite’ whatever that’s supposed to mean anyway. At the very least, no other film in the entire year gave me this much pleasure (a few came close—THE NICE GUYS, yes, and recently there was Jim Jarmusch’s PATERSON) and if other people don’t feel that way, well, they could always just see it again a few more times. As the eternal depression that was 2016 grinded forward something about what the film was saying, or at least said to me, began to feel more and more potent so once the Blu came out it became one of my default choices for what to put on late at night as I refused to fall asleep, waiting for those phone calls I knew wouldn’t come. At some point we’ll hopefully be looking back at this horrible period as the past, just as the unknown future this film’s characters are facing now is the present, more or less. That might be a good thing. Or maybe not. It’s complicated.
HAIL, CAESAR! is of course another test to try to figure out just how much the Coen Brothers mean what they’re saying or if we should stop worrying about all that. Their previous film INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS was also about somebody grinding away through the job that was their life and the life that was their job, not knowing that what’s about to come along will upend their entire universe. In the early 50s Hollywood of this film there are signs of what’s to come and a few implications that none of this is going to last but even though a few of the characters view such events as a given, the Coens seem to be saying that anyone who states with certainty what lies ahead, particularly when it comes from a group calling itself “The Future”, is bound to miss a few details. We always seem to miss things, as it turns out, and they always seem to disappear forever when we’re not looking. In some ways it really is that simple.
In 1951 Hollywood Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the powerful ‘Head of Physical Production’ at Capitol Pictures, is dealing with a wide variety of problems in a typical day, made more stressful by how he is trying to decide whether to accept an enticing job offer from Lockheed which would mean more money and less stress. All at once he has to deal with issues ranging from production of that year’s prestige picture HAIL, CAESAR! starring marquee name Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) to inserting cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) into a swank romantic melodrama directed by the uppity Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) to the impending pregnancy of bathing beauty Deanna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) that has to be kept secret. But everything is immediately exacerbated by the realization that Baird Whitlock has suddenly been kidnapped from the CAESAR set. Mannix scrambles to do something about this while preventing word from getting out as he continues to handle each crisis and try to finally make the decision whether to leave his job for possibly greener horizons.
As usual, the universe created by Joel and Ethan Coen operates by its own rules. HAIL, CAESAR! is a screwy shell game involving its own versions of certain Hollywood legends displaying some affection towards the past but also tweaking it just enough. Mostly set within a single day showing us the workings of Capitol—a massive factory of soundstages which oddly doesn’t appear to include any sort of backlot—although just as something like THE HUDSUCKER PROXY seemed to combine elements of different decades into its late 50s setting the rules of this Hollywood seem to be a little fluid as well such as how Laurence Larentz’s MERRILY WE DANCE looks more like a 30s movie or how I sort of doubt the B-western LAZY OL’MOON starring Hobie Doyle would have received such a gala premiere. But what do I know, right? This is Hollywood, after all. Eddie Mannix was of course the real name of a legendary MGM fixer just as his unseen boss Nicholas Schenck is a reference to the Lowes Inc. president who presumably served in the same capacity as he does here. The story of the real Mannix involves an awful lot of cobwebs and nastiness (the episode of the podcast You Must Remember This focusing on Mannix goes into details on some of the worst of it) so I’m not convinced that the character of the same name being played by Brolin hasn’t been involved in a few such things as well but as presented here even if he’s slapping someone around it’s all in the context of the greater good of the studio, all the better for it to provide that enlightenment and entertainment for the masses.
HAIL, CAESAR! travels from soundstage to soundstage venerating those films I’m constantly watching on TCM but tweaking the people who made them just enough since, after all, they weren’t gods brought down to this world courtesy of MGM. Through this prism of Eddie’s conflict it’s also about figuring out your own place in the world and how the god you pray to relates to that whether it’s real or false or just real to you if it helps you understand deep down how you fit into things. There’s a nimble breeziness to it all as the movie follows Eddie Mannix around, countered by the weighty nature to the conflict, absurd as it all is. After all, he’s a ridiculous character in a ridiculous film dealing with ridiculous problems but in his head nothing about that conflict could be more serious. It’s the question of what does it mean how you spend your day, what does any of it mean. Occasionally I wonder if the film is totally accurate when it comes to period aspect ratios or low long it would actually take for something to happen in the real world but then decide I don’t really care or just remember that Capitol Pictures isn’t the real world as Mr. Cuddahy from Lockheed reminds Mannix and us as well. The film asks which one is the real world but knows the answer is whatever we decide for ourselves.
Like a few others by the Coen Brothers it took more than one viewing for it to fully click for me—maybe two this time. Their films sometimes seem a little thrown together at first, even haphazard in their plotting and this one wasn’t helped by a trailer which didn’t really represent what it actually was. Now, close to a year later like, say, the all-holy BURN AFTER READING (which maybe plays better than ever right now) the film feels like it’s already being undervalued and by this point as I’ve been watching it practically weekly there barely seems to be a single false step, barely a piece that doesn’t go together as I get lost in the Coen wordplay which maybe feels sharper than ever before which a undeniable logic to the ridiculousness which takes each scene to a different level. One small thing I’ve grown to appreciate over multiple viewings is simply watching Brolin’s Mannix listening to other people make their arguments as the wheels turn in his head, trying to make each problem somehow work. And then there are the communist writers who call themselves The Future laying out their own beliefs to the movie star Baird Whitlock who only partly grasps what they’re saying. They react negatively to someone innocently suggesting they’ll ‘name names’ and these writers have presumably been blacklisted but it’s never stated outright, the film is cagey that way. Offering finger sandwiches, smugly proud at whatever meager message they’re sneaking into the films they write they may talk a good game and their credits are impressive (“I wrote ALL the ALL THE WAY pictures!”) but, communists or not, they’re still just schmucks with Underwoods almost as if the film is saying they’re so certain in their beliefs that they can’t have any real answers at all. Capitol Pictures—not to be confused with the Kapital-with-a-K that Baird Whitlock learns about—was also the name of the studio in BARTON FINK so the two films are presumably set in the same universe with a Wallace Beery conference room here to remind us of that actor’s former prominence. Barton himself is nowhere to be seen among these writers, I’m going to guess because he actually did name names when called before HUAC and they won’t have anything to do with him. A shot of waves crashing onto rocks seems like a deliberate FINK echo only with two instead of the one seen in that film—maybe at a certain point HAIL, CAESAR! will turn out to be the middle section of a Hollywood trilogy to give us three rocks that the surf in Malibu crashes up against and we can finally get the long promised OLD FINK, if the Coens are really serious about making it. I continue to hold out hope even though I’m still not sure that they might be joking.
It’s a lot of random silliness which in the end may not be that random or that silly, with narration by Michael Gambon veering back and forth between the life of Eddie Mannix and the events in ancient Rome being portrayed in the Capitol HAIL, CAESAR!, treating one dismissively and one with every ounce of portentous grandeur but seemingly accepting of the glory provided by this movie studio in the end. It’s difficult to spend too much time contemplating exactly what the film is trying to say about this parallel when it seems just as interested in having Laurence Laurentz spend several minutes trying to get Hobie Doyle to say one single sentence, trippingly, to somehow make it seem like the cowboy star belongs in a tuxedo or the sharpness of the wordplay in Mannix’s meeting with the religious figures there to consult on his biblical epic that he hopes will offend no one, a roomful of men searching for an answer to a question they can barely grasp, unable to agree on any one simple theological matter.
And there’s the beauty of Tilda Swinton playing twin gossip columnists that the film basically makes into a throwaway joke or little things like Brolin’s trot as he desperately tries to get away from Thessaly (or is it Thora?) when a phone call comes in. There’s even a details like the Malibu pad Whitlock wakes up in which as fake houses go is about as stunning as the one near Mount Rushmore in NORTH BY NORTHWEST (all praise to DP Roger Deakins, production designer Jess Conchor and everyone involved). And in the middle of all that is simple, glorious moment of serenity as Hobie Doyle waits to pick up the movie star Carlotta Valdez (ha ha) for his premiere and he just takes the chance to twirl his rope, not a care in the world. The later scene with the two of them getting to know each other is apparently as relaxed as anyone in this world can ever get, two people thrown together by their studio for publicity purposes who just click, for once no one onscreen has any worries. The thing is, even if you’re “the guy” you still sometimes wonder how you fit into it all, if people are really paying more attention to someone else. Even Hobie Doyle gets a little insecure by how people are paying attention to something else in the movie he stars in and the characters may sometimes be unsure as to their place in this world but they fit in perfectly to this version of Hollywood, to this world. Sometimes those simple glories in life just happen in a flash and we need to sometimes be willing to let them play out.
All right, I’m not sure if every beat holds and as much as it rushes through Mannix’s day with purpose I can’t help but wish if it could linger for an extra moment here or there, particularly that date with Veronica Osorio’s Carlotta Valdez or even if the film had paused near the end for an actual ‘final’ scene with Hobie. The acclaimed “No Dames” number featuring Channing Tatum doing a Gene Kelly bit which I never dislike and the sill behind it is obvious but it still has a close but no cigar feel for me, playing as even more of a spoof than Scarlett Johansson’s Esther Williams homage and, sure, everyone likes Channing Tatum but either the joke is just a little too obvious or maybe it even comes at the wrong point in the film since I often find myself pausing the film right at this point to take a quick break but if this is my biggest complaint then the film is doing ok.
HAIL, CAESAR! is the rare Coen Brothers film where the guy in a suit behind a desk is actually the lead, even if he does work for someone else behind another desk (hard to tell if he answers to anyone aside from Nick Schenck in NY—is Jack Lipnick still at Capitol in ‘51?) He’s not sure what his place is in the world, in a marriage where he and his wife never even look at each other in their one scene, racked with guilt over his betrayal of her, which is just smoking a few cigarettes, while ignoring the real problems. Hobie tips Mannix off on the uncertain behavior of extras which shows how on the ball he is but also brings up a few questions later on. Is Mannix even a principle at all or just an extra in all of these lives? How much does he, suffering for all of the sins around him, matter? In the Lockheed sales pitch their rep claims to represent the future and though Mannix doesn’t know it the studio he works for won’t be as powerful as it is forever, due to the imminent threat of television and other things, a modern day version of Ancient Rome which will most likely meet the bulldozer like MGM. It’ll all come crashing down, maybe around the point his ten year contract with Lockheed would have ended and even the real Mannix was dead by ’63. But maybe none of that matters. The Coens seem intrigued by the teachings of Professor Marcuse, but maybe feel that ‘the new man’ he talks about is not needed. It doesn’t matter who benefits, like when Danny Kaye has asked Baird Whitlock to shave his back, all that matters is to find what’s right in the world for yourself. To do your job the best you can, whether that job is taking the sins of the world upon yourself or merely the lowly occupation of Movie Star. Faith is a hard thing to come by, maybe harder than ever these days, almost as hard as it is to simply remember what that word is as we literally pray to the god of cinema. “He saw sin and gave love,” is what Baird Whitlock’s Roman centurion declares in his speech, speaking about either Christ or Eddie Mannix, in the search for what seems right.
Josh Brolin is note perfect the whole way through, spitting out his dialogue without a single false note and taking full command of every scene, bouncing off against his co-stars and saving big reactions for just the right moments. He fully commits to Mannix’s uncertainty and with just a glance we can always tell exactly what he’s thinking. Admirably wearing that ridiculous Roman costume for his entire role, George Clooney sails through his movie star role with the right cocky arrogance just as the idiot Baird Whitlock clearly sails through his own life, never thinking beyond the next thirty seconds and even when he learns he’s been kidnapped is never very concerned. He even does a Clark Gable impression at one point too. Alden Ehrenreich, the future-past Han Solo, is the one who practically walks away with the picture in how slippery and confident he makes Hobie Doyle, never the dumb guy some people think he is but always aware of how much he fits into a given situation. The other big names appear briefly, doing enough with that screentime that you wish a few of them could get an entire film, from the way one of Tilda Swinton’s twins pauses before stating the movie title ON WINGS AS EAGLES or the way Ralph Fiennes contorts his mouth utters the word ‘gamey’ or just the way Scarlett Johansson keeps that phony smile plastered on her face during the big Deanna Moran number. Frances McDormand has one scene as editor C.C. Calhoun and there’s the brief appearance by Jonah Hill—I guess a minute of screentime can get you on the poster but I can’t help but think that the big stars billed so high up on the poster recall how Christ himself is just a bit player in the HAIL, CAESAR! being made by Capitol. It almost makes sense how Hobie Doyle is the one we wind up paying attention to. With a few of the big names only in for brief periods of time it’s a few of the supporting players who really pop—Max Baker as the head communist writer, Heather Goldenhersh as Mannix’s loyal secretary, Robert Trebor as the desperately pleading HAIL, CAESAR! producer and Robert Picardo who kills in his one scene as the impatient rabbi (“Eh…I haven’t an opinion.”). Alex Karpovsky doesn’t even get a line as the photographer at the ‘study group’ which makes his glare as he takes George Clooney’s picture even funnier.
For now it feels important to ask if anything really matters anymore even as the waves continue to crash in on the neverending story of Hollywood. Last year may have been of one of the worst years any of us have ever known and now it’s the start of a year that may be even worse so it’s tough to know what to do. Does HAIL, CAESAR! offer any real answers or should I just be glad that I love this film as much as I do and just accept that for what it is? And where do we go from here? Is the ‘new man’ really on the way even if that wasn’t what ‘The Future’ had in mind? On the other hand, as the slogan of Hudsucker Industries once reminded us long ago, the future is now. And right now, at the beginning of 2017, what else do we have but that.