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, another reference to one of his other films. The two films paired together would work beautifully as reflections of each other and which performance ultimately reveals who this person she’s playing is.
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.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

With Equanimity

In many ways 2016 was about searching for some kind of reason for being. I don’t know if I succeeded. The year has washed up on the shore of pain and regret and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it anymore. “I wish I wished for things,” Ryan Gosling’s private detective Holland March muses near the beginning of Shane Black’s THE NICE GUYS, presumably while thinking about how soon it’s going to be until his next drink. THE NICE GUYS came out in May of this year and, yes, I was there for the very first showing at the Cinerama Dome. I even ran into some people I knew there because of course I did. It’s many months later now, it feels like many years later and I’m somehow still wishing for things but just as often I’m trying to see the point of all that.
In spite of its critical acclaim (along with some less than stellar box office), everyone seemed so focused on how much THE NICE GUYS fit alongside other scripts written (or co-written) by Shane Black which we venerate daily whether LETHAL WEAPON or THE LAST BOY SCOUT or, during our crazier moods, THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT that nobody seemed to pick up on how it may turn out to be as close as we’ll ever come to getting a third J.J. Gittes film. At least sort of, plotwise anyway--that fabled never-made final chapter of the CHINATOWN saga was going to somehow involve air in Los Angeles, following the water and oil-related storylines of the earlier films, set at some point after the no-fault divorce law was put into effect. The issue of smog, courtesy of the all-powerful auto manufacturers, plays a role in THE NICE GUYS although matters related to divorce surprisingly don’t figure in very much, even though it does get a passing mention. Holland March even makes a reference in narration to “a guy in a local retirement park” who passes cases his way which could maybe, kinda plausibly, be a retired Gittes hopefully living a comfortable life somewhere off screen and free of his demons as he’ll ever be.
Those demons have transferred over to the younger generation by the time of this film’s version of 1977 but in spite of any CHINATOWN connections, intentional or otherwise, THE NICE GUYS is very much a Shane Blank buddy comedy filled with the appropriate amount of violently funny nastiness and gunplay along with a hint of the holiday season near the very end just in case we thought he’d forgotten. To make an honest admission, I like THE NICE GUYS which I knew I would when I sat down in the Dome but even I won’t make the case that it’s without flaws. The film doesn’t play as freewheelingly effortless as Black’s 2005 film KISS KISS BANG BANG does and shooting much of it in Atlanta, presumably to keep the budget down, doesn’t exactly help provide the feel of Los Angeles, 1977 or otherwise. After multiple viewings I’m still not sure if the plot entirely tracks all the way through even if I’m not all that worried about this (my all-time favorite action movie plothole is in LETHAL WEAPON 2, which Black only has a co-story credit on). Period detail is also a little scattershot, not quite down to ANCHORMAN level but it still feels like if more attention had been paid to this it would only have helped to flesh out the world of the film. But I still like THE NICE GUYS and get a little more attached to it on each viewing. It’s not one of the best films of the year and I won’t even call it my favorite film of the year. But it is a small piece of comfort food at the moment as we continue to try to wish for things.
Los Angeles, 1977—After porn star Misty Mountains is found dead in a car crash, private detective Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is following a lead involving a girl named Amelia (Margaret Qualley) who may have been involved somehow. But soon after tough guy enforcer Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is paid by Amelia to get March to stop, which he does. But Healy soon changes his mind show up at his place looking for Amelia. So Healy enlists March to help him out with the detective’s daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) tagging along, leading down a path of porn and dead bodies, resulting in Amelia’s mother Judith Kutner (Kim Basinger), who works for the Department of Justice, hiring them to find her and put a stop to this.
For one thing, it’s hard to keep from wishing that the next Shane Black film will be The Great One. At the very least, we cherish the ones we have. THE NICE GUYS (which Black co-wrote with Anthony Bagarozzi) is smooth and enjoyable but also a little messy which I mean in the nicest way possible and I’m not sure I’d want something created by Shane Black to be any different—even KISS KISS BANG BANG has more flaws than I think some of its fans are willing to admit. It’s as if Black has willingly made the plot structures of his films more precarious over the years as if he’s cracked the code of his own plotting but is searching for ways to muddy the waters a little, more willing to accept the bitterness of the emotions they contain. The first LETHAL WEAPON is a true product of the 80s but it’s also almost exactly what it was supposed to be, with a certain amount of griminess in the material made palatable for audiences by director Richard Donner’s pop style in preparation for the increasingly larger-than-life approach ultimately taken in the follow-up films Black largely had nothing to do with. His material has gotten darker as time has gone on, as if he’s witnessed more of the pain underneath all those Hollywood parties he’s thrown at his mansion and had to do something with all that sleaze. Come to think of it, I went to a few parties at his house circa ’98-’00. I wish I had better stories than I do but I did see the sun rise there at least once so I guess that’s not so bad. There’s genuine regret in the backstory of some of his characters—hey, even Tony Stark in Black’s IRON MAN 3 was appropriately damaged. Holland March can’t stop drinking after the death of his wife and I suspect Jack Healy has a few cobwebs during all those years he wasn’t drinking Yoohoo that he never talks about.
The pleasures of a Shane Black film feel like a rare thing these days, as more and more action films feel simultaneously less humorous and increasingly empty, not a shred of wit or cleverness. Black revels in this—he clearly doesn’t care if you’re offended by a gag and he’d probably be fine if you were. Worried about the extra who gets shot in a scene and we never hear about again? That’s just life in the big city. I miss movies like this. It was more about the flashiness at one time—Riggs talks about getting famous if they bring down the bad guys, “we do shaving ads and shit, girls, money…” but back in the 70s these guys don’t have such high aspirations. They’re just trying to get through the day and even when they succeed, it doesn’t matter if anyone else knows. Even when Jack Healy reveals the big story of his past the person listening is fast asleep anyway. As it turns out his big motivation is as pure as I can imagine—he likes his apartment (located on top of the Comedy Store, however that works) and doesn’t want to move. You live long enough in Los Angeles, you just want to keep to yourself, stay where you live and occasionally emerge to go to a big party where they have whores and stuff (don’t say “…and stuff”). As party scenes go it’s not exactly Z-Man’s in BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS—after all, I’ve been to parties where they dance to Earth, Wind & Fire but this is the first time Earth, Wind & Fire played the party--but it’s still not bad.
Black almost seems amused by his own plotting, knowing that we’re going to need to get from one point to the other so he just has some fun with it. At one point when March kicks things to the next scene by actually doing something smart it turns out he’s wrong anyway. Even a certain dream sequence winds up having plot significance in the end, it was just the most unexpected way to get there and it’s that sort of creative choice which gives THE NICE GUYS the right sort of edge, the slight touch of anarchy balancing out the conspiracy. The presence of Kim Basinger in scenes with Russell Crowe automatically serves as an L.A. CONFIDENTIAL homage (RIP Curtis Hanson) although the less convoluted plot of this film still feels somewhat murkier, maybe a little too much. Basinger is essentially this film’s Noah Cross but it’s not helped by her weak performance as if she wasn’t entirely clear on how she fit into the plot—maybe another scene or beat or something was needed to smooth this out.
Black’s directing style definitely feels more settled than it did back in KISS KISS BANG BANG as if he’s focusing on his actors and telling the story than in just doing things for wacky effect so the elevator scene simply becomes about their quiet reactions to the mayhem outside and we don’t need anything more than that. He doesn’t always nail things (a better visual stylist might have done more with the gag of a rotating car during the climactic shootout) but every now and then he sets up a gag perfectly and while I’m not sure Shane Black has ever learned what actually happens to people when they fall from great heights I wouldn’t have it any other way. The energy keeps the film going past other flaws and I can’t even quite always pinpoint what they are--maybe part of the problem is shooting the film digitally (the first film shot digitally by the great Philippe Rousselot, incidentally) since even if it’s sunny California I never quite picture the 70s as this bright and gleaming. The film is often at its best when the scene is nothing more than the characters bickering while hanging out drinking in the afternoon and at times that vibe is all I want from THE NICE GUYS. Maybe that’s why the late action scene involving the house getting sprayed with machine gun fire is one of my least favorite stretches. For once, I’d like a little more ROCKFORD FILES and not as much Joel Silver but it’s still close enough. The mayhem of the climax works better, maybe because there’s enough comedy mixed in and there’s something about how things play out which is very satisfying.
“Are you a bad person?” goes one question and that’s the question the characters seem to be quietly asking themselves. Black’s treatment of women in his films kicked off with the nude Amanda Hunsaker plunging to her death at the start of LETHAL WEAPON and the opening corpse this time around is not dissimilar only with an added twist. KISS KISS BANG BANG openly addressed how much women in Los Angeles are regularly tossed aside and THE NICE GUYS is clearly set in that world as well, no closer to having an answer and complete with a key female character this time around who has openly embraced the conspiracy. But as the film’s opening makes clear, that sleazy L.A. world is unavoidable, even if you’re safe in your bedroom. You can hide it under your bed if you want but there’s no stopping it when it literally crashes into your world, which it’s probably going to do. The fantasy is going to turn into some sort of reality eventually. It’s just up to you at that moment how you deal with it. That’s what makes you a human being. Or maybe just not a bad person. I don’t like THE NICE GUYS as much as I want to but it’s hard for me not to love it.
The pairing of Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling works beautifully—Crowe feels totally relaxed and assured, giving one of his best performances with expert timing. Gosling, the Lou Costello to his Bud Abbott, displays physical comic prowess which is at times awe-inspiring. Angourie Rice, forever glaring at Gosling as his daughter, matches them line for line. Margaret Qualley has a knack for spitting out lots of exposition as the mysterious Amelia qhile Matt Bomer and Beau Knapp are both effective in their villain roles even if they’re not quite Taylor Negron in THE LAST BOY SCOUT (few henchmen are, you have to admit). Keith David is slightly wasted as one of the other bad guys but it’s still nice to have him around particularly when he just shrugs in response as his partner freaks out about something. Like everyone in this movie, he knows there’s only so much you can do.
Al Green sings “Love and Happiness” over the end credits, a perfect reminder of what there’s not enough of in the porn-soaked world of Los Angeles that Shane Black gives us but sometimes if you're with the right person you can remember the good things in the world. That's why Philip Marlowe wanted his cat back, after all. Appropriate for the detective genre, nothing really changes just like J. J. Gittes couldn’t do anything to help Evelyn Mulwray in the end. Daughters wind up dead. The powerful don’t get punished. You jumped off that roof for nothing. In the context of all that, the completion of Jackson Healy’s arc makes perfect sense at the end of 2016. Simply put, after noticeably turning down offers throughout the film at the fadeout he’s drinking again, ready to be partners with Holland March and presumably spending many afternoons doing just that. After all, some things are enough to get you to start drinking again anyway and if they’re not, I don’t know what to do with you. For the record, I stopped back in April. There were reasons, it’s a long story. Maybe I’ll start again tomorrow. Maybe what 2017 becomes will make me have to. I make no promises. Either way, whether it’s 1977 or 2017 the bad guys don’t lose. It’s the nice guys who fuck up and forever wonder if they’re a bad person. The best you can take with you is the knowledge that sometimes certain things do work out. Even if all you’ve got is all you’ve got. It’s something. It’s the search for those moments where you actually feel useful and make you want to wish for things. Those moments may be small ones and they’re hard to come by but they’re possible. I hope.

The Next Thing That Happens

If this hasn’t been a year about death, about the end of everything we’ve ever known, I don’t know what it is. But the question is what to do once the world ends. That’s something I’ve been wondering a lot, the past few months especially. “I wish I’d been here then,” goes a line in THE MISFITS, that legendary film directed by John Huston and written by Arthur Miller. It refers to another time when things were allegedly better, when there were more possibilities on the horizon of that desert as far as the eye could see. The thing is that much of THE MISFITS is made up of such key lines, maybe what you’d expect from this particular playwright, exposing all his demons in a screenplay written specifically for his emotionally troubled wife, fraught with all the meaning in the world and whatever you want to read into it. It plays as if this dialogue wasn’t meant to be spoken in a film at all but in some sort of theater-cinema hybrid written to play out on the biggest stage ever created in the history of the world. As great as some of it might be THE MISFITS is a problematic film, just as it’s an extremely problematic world, a film with a legacy that has made it bigger than it was, almost as if it was designed to become that in the first place. If THE MISFITS falters, if it feels like the film turns down the wrong road at a certain point, in some ways that almost feels right and it’s a reminder of how often we go down the wrong road ourselves, trapped on our own path of forever searching for the wrong thing. It makes the film feel all the more true somehow, becoming a dream of what we wish for even if we can never quite put it into words. So much is a dream anyway. And there are no easy answers.
Released in early 1961, if THE MISFITS is remembered at all these days much of the reason is the history which surrounds it, particularly involving the legendary stars above the title who as things turned out didn’t live for much longer afterwards, eerily fitting for a film focused so much on death. Clark Gable, in particular, died mere weeks after completing work on it and Marilyn Monroe was gone less than two years later so the film could almost be read as being about the end of the Golden Age of Hollywood and everything it represents as much as John Ford’s THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE was. But shot out on location away from Hollywood it’s also about the end of all sorts of things--stardom, legend, love, dreams, America, the world and the small matter of life itself. Reading up on the production is a reminder that any history of THE MISFITS might be more interesting than the film itself due to Gable’s health, the fragile nature of Monroe’s state and the larger-than-life personality of its director—maybe this is the one they should have made a movie about instead of THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL. Even certain photographs taken of the actors on location manage to enshroud the entire production on the level of Myth. THE MISFITS is set entirely in Nevada—Reno, specifically—among people who have arrived there because they don’t belong anywhere else, just as the jigsaw pieces of the main titles don’t connect. But I’m not even sure how much that matters since even though the film was shot out on location it’s almost set in another place altogether, a stark black & white dimension where the stars aren’t acting these roles but were instead reincarnated into this alternate world and these are the lives they’re now leading, with the unavoidable shroud of fate always before them. As a story THE MISFITS may not be about as much as it appears to be at first but as a movie it’s almost about everything.
In Reno to finalize her divorce, Roslyn Tabor (Marilyn Monroe) is staying with best friend Isabelle Steers (Thelma Ritter) when she meets cowboy Gay Langland (Clark Gable) and his best friend Guido (Eli Wallach). Even though Guido was the one who met her first, Roslyn is clearly drawn to Gay and the two of them move in to Guido’s never-finished house together. Gay soon has an idea to head out to round up wild mustangs and they recruit another cowboy, Pierce Howland (Montgomery Clift) to join in. But things begin to change when Roslyn learns the reason why they’re trying to capture these horses in the first place, sparking an unavoidable conflict between her and the three men.
Years after they happen you remember moments. Those little moments you shared with a person and even after they’ve decided how much they hate you those moments are impossible to forget in the middle of the night, keeping a stranglehold as you try to make it until the next morning. In the end those little things mean more than anything else that’s happened in your life. Just as every single moment in THE MISFITS is swirling with import through each gesture and line of dialogue. At times the film feels so overwhelmed by itself that it loses track of what it wants to be, which itself makes a certain amount of sense because it’s about pieces that don’t entirely fit together. It’s as if Arthur Miller always had a focus on what his theme was while writing the script, he knew who he wanted to write about, but while fighting his way through the complex emotions of the characters too often lost track of where he was going with the story, focusing on moments over the actual plot particularly during the final half hour when it feels like some beats are repeated a few times too many. One of the leads even drops out of the film around the halfway mark, never to be seen again, instead becoming attached to another group where they may be just as much an odd one out, another piece of a jigsaw puzzle that doesn’t quite fit. There’s a goal the film seems to have about coming to some sort of peace with what you’ve lost, even if you’re not sure that you believe it for more than a moment, and that people are going to drop out of your life no matter what. Maybe none of those things ever mattered anyway. “Maybe all there really is is the next thing. The next thing that happens. Maybe you’re not supposed to remember anyone’s promises,” Marilyn’s character muses to Pierce, to herself, to no one at all. There’s nothing to ever be gained from depending on others. People leave. They’re going to wind up hating you. Everything ends.
The black & white look is harsh and the film feels free, undeniably modern even if it’s about people willingly stuck in the past. It’s easy to imagine another director of the time shooting this in color and CinemaScope, framing everything like the play that Miller may have imagined it as, more interested in the gimmick of the stars and the spectacular nature of the climax. Instead Huston uses his frame to capture the small moments, the intimacy and awkwardness of the characters together in the frame. One imagines him standing there directing the film, staring coldly at these characters with every ounce of compassion he never reveals to anyone else. The filmmaking never feels bolted down as a result even if it sometimes becomes an allegiance of words and imagery that doesn’t always go together smoothly. You can almost feel the struggle of whether THE MISFITS wants to be a director’s film or a writer’s film and considering all the dialogue which sounds like it’s meant to be played out on a stage it’s as if the frame is continually searching for its own proscenium arch but slightly missing it. Another version of THE MISFITS by another director might have been more normal, maybe even more palatable but Huston continually gets in so close it’s as if you’re drinking right next to them, not sure if you want to stay there or flee.
Every scene makes an impression on its own but the story is also too vague at times maybe a few too many rambling monologues by the characters during general drunkenness; like Rosalyn’s divorce present, it’s a beautiful car with barely any miles on it and a few noticeable dents. THE MISFITS is a very good film that clearly wants to be the greatest film—producer Frank Taylor even told a reporter for Time Magazine that it was an attempt to make “the ultimate motion picture”—and maybe its biggest flaw is that it falls short of that impossible goal. But in some ways the messiness is essential as if it loses track of itself in a drunken reverie and that certain amount of unreality becomes haunting, a coldness which balances out the character’s lack of direction with the harsh reality that rears its head unexpectedly. Moments feel important but it’s not always clear exactly why, with that jangly Alex North score making me feel uneasy. Some of Huston’s best directorial moments seem to come out of nowhere shot in an offhand way, almost before we realize they’ve happened like when Montgomery Clift enters the film late and we hold outside a phone booth as his cowboy heartbreakingly calls his mother on the phone or Gable bluntly lecturing Monroe about the importance of death. Even the famous paddleball scene which may be an attempt to give this film its own version of Marilyn standing over the subway grate in THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH almost feels kind of sad the longer it goes on as if the real Marilyn Monroe has somehow wound up in this two-bit Reno bar and all she has left is men grabbing her ass.
“Here’s to your life, Roslyn. I hope it goes on forever,” toasts Guido, played by Eli Wallach who of course nearly did live forever, unlike Marilyn. Arthur Miller wrote this for her and their marriage fell apart. Much of the film is about the impossibility of ever understanding her, Miller seeming to represent each of these three men splintered off trying to connect with her and only sometimes coming close. A more straightforward plot might not have bothered with the Montgomery Clift character, focusing on a strict Rosalyn-Gay-Guido triangle, but Clift brings a heart to it, a vulnerability as if he’s going to fall apart at any moment but deep down he’s stronger than the other two, facing the truth of where their lives are. So much of the film is just about studying the actors in the frame, like how soft the focus sometimes goes on Monroe, whatever the real world reasons were for this. It’s possible that she never got to play a fully fleshed out human being as much as she does here unlike a few of those Twentieth Century-Fox star vehicles that I’ve never been crazy about, even if in the context of this film she’s supposed to be something none of the others can ever pin down. When she dances with Eli Wallach the effect she gives off is almost startling as if Monroe is trying to keep herself from suddenly having another nervous breakdown while in the middle of a take, her own demons always at the forefront of her mind. The film often feels transmitted to us from another dimension, there’s an intensity it has which goes beyond simply what the material is.
After the visual intensity of the Mustang hunt, Monroe’s big speech near the end where she lets loose all of her fury on the three men is played with the actress far away from the camera, almost as if the film is keeping its own theme out of reach, never to be fully understood. Maybe Huston simply decided the moment didn’t play well in close-up, maybe it’s about how all these men are keeping this woman at a distance. “She’s crazy. They’re all crazy,” Guido says to dismiss her after she’s rejected him and that’s the easiest thing in the world to do, after all, to stop trying to understand them while waiting for them to understand you. Instead it’s easy to go after a phantom, like the mustangs they try to capture for dog food, so few horses there that it barely seems worth it, that the only thing they seem to know how to do barely even exists anymore. “Better than wages” is the phrase Gay repeats like a mantra as if he’s trying to convince himself, that it’s the only way to “just live”. In Reno you can eat whenever you want, own a bunch of clocks that don’t work and live in an unfinished house where you can live an unfinished life unlike the real world where you recite the way things never really were, like Rosalyn has to do at her divorce hearing. That’s the place where every man who meets Roslyn, who as far as we know is just Marilyn Monroe, instantly falls for her placing all their dreams and regrets on her face. Clift’s Pierce unloads the story of his life on her lying near a pile of empty beer cans and says he loves her only hours after the meet, something he may not remember the next day anyway. Guido, desperately trying to impress her, asks for her to say his name ultimately unable to hide his bitterness. Only Gay seems to know how to crack the code of her sadness while also challenging it with his own beliefs but it’s still tough to know how he’s going to hold onto her after the film ends.
The very last moment of the film is as famous as anything about it, feeling a little like it was always designed to end at this point but maybe rewrites of the scenes leading up to it causes the dialogue to play like the scene is reaching for a transcendent feel it doesn’t quite achieve. Of course it turned out to be the final screen moment of the two stars onscreen so in some way THE MISFITS was able to become what it wanted to be. It may not be the ultimate motion picture but even when the story loses track there’s not very much like it. The film is a code which can’t quite be cracked, just like Marilyn can’t quite be cracked and never will. It makes me question what matters and how we can connect with another person, if we ever really can. And how we go on living knowing what there is to come. It’s not about whether THE MISFITS is good or not but it is a film that I could watch five times this year, then five times next year and it will have a totally different effect on me, whether I’ve changed or not. I wonder if I will. The film, meanwhile, will still be a work of art. It just lives.
The performances are a reminder of how it’s a film deliberately trapped between eras, Clark Gable’s old school MGM experience up against the Actors Studio training of the other stars. Gable is phenomenal, his strength and vulnerability coming through in every line reading. Up against him, up against everyone, Monroe is otherworldly in displaying her innocent trust of everyone, smarter than any of them think but still lost and never thinking beyond the next thirty seconds. It matches perfectly with the sensitivity displayed by Montgomery Clift and the growing anger of Eli Wallach. Thelma Ritter brings a healthy dose of pragmatism, gladly seeing through everyone and enjoying herself. Kevin McCarthy briefly appears as Monroe’s husband with a fair amount of his miniscule screentime played looking at his back. It still gives us the idea that there could be a whole movie around that marriage and how he probably never understood her any more than anyone ever does.
“What if he died?” Rosalyn asks Gay right after Pierce is hurt at the rodeo. Well, we all know the answer to that already. THE MISFITS is a movie about death, one that seems to be all too aware of the inevitability deep down. So maybe there’s no happy ending here. Maybe there’s no happy ending anywhere as much as we can sometimes pretend otherwise. And if the film doesn’t always connect and if it doesn’t feel very satisfying after that last moment just like when you reach the end of a year you dwell on all those missed chances and all the times you found yourself staring at the wall, asking for help in a world where there’s no one around to listen. For me this has been a year of picking up shards of broken glass with my bare hands. And I think they’re going to get sharper next year. Until then, I’ll have to find another way to be alive once the world ends. If that’s possible.