Thursday, October 11, 2018
We can’t stop thinking about the past no matter how much we try. There are even reasons why we shouldn’t. Sometimes my dad took me to the movies, of course he did, and even if many of those memories are uneventful they’re what I choose to remember. And there were a few special occasions as well, almost as if he knew how important all this was going to be for me. Once he took me to the 57th Street Playhouse to see a few Jacques Tati films and this may have confused my 11 year-old self at the time but looking back on it I’m so grateful, almost like it was a small yet key event that helped open up my mind at that early age to what else was out there. Other days were more about the pure enjoyment of it all, like the Sunday afternoon when he took me to the late, lamented Regency for a double bill of A NIGHT AT THE OPERA and CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OPERA. It was the only time I ever went to that theater and though my memories are a little hazy—one thing I recall was actress Nedda Harrigan from the Chan film appeared before that film to talk about it—I may as well get extremely maudlin about the whole thing and say that this was probably the best day of my life. This past September marked 20 years since he died. I don’t know what that means. On the day of the anniversary I found myself more introspective than I expected to be, thinking about what was and what wasn’t, about memories that hadn’t come to mind for a long time. All those things I never got to tell him and never got to know. So that night for whatever reason I put on A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, thinking of him and what we could talk about after all this time if we watched it together again now, forgetting about everything else as much as possible.
Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho Marx), business manager for the wealthy Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont), introduces her to New York Opera Company manager Herman Gottlieb (Sig Ruman) in order arrange for her to invest in the organization thereby giving her an entrée into society. In order to get a piece of all this action Driftwood attempts to sign the famous tenor Rudolfo Lasparri (Walter Woolf King) for the company but a chance encounter with piano player Fiorello (Chico Marx), best friend to unknown singer Ricardo Baroni (Allan Jones), leads to him signing up that tenor instead. As they all set sail for New York and the new opera season, Driftwood is shocked to find Baroni, Fiorello and their friend Tomasso (Harpo) stowing away in his steamer trunk which means Driftwood must do what he can to keep them from being discovered while somehow getting Baroni together with his lady love Rosa (Kitty Carlisle) the soprano in the opera company who Lasparri very much has his eye on.
Released in 1935, A NIGHT AT THE OPERA may be the best film the Marx Brothers ever made even if it’s not the greatest Marx Brothers movie. The much more anarchic DUCK SOUP which they made previous to this was possibly the high water mark of their earlier run at Paramount; some might choose HORSE FEATHERS (1931’s MONKEY BUSINESS doesn’t quite sustain itself for the entire running time) and it’s possible that either of these films brings me more personal hysteria than A NIGHT AT THE OPERA does and the unapologetic insanity found in them might be the greatest pure examples of their humor onscreen. DUCK SOUP was also their last at that studio after it underperformed and it was apparently Irving Thalberg, wonder boy head of production over at MGM, who had the idea of how to get people interested in them again when they went over to that studio. Except for the absence of Zeppo, who departed his straight man role after DUCK SOUP to become a Hollywood agent, the brothers remained more or less as they were (not entirely and we’ll get to that) but A NIGHT AT THE OPERA surrounds their comedy with an actual story, production values, high end songs, elaborate costumes; in other words, give people who don’t want to see a Marx Brothers film reasons to see a Marx Brothers film. And even if it is more ‘normal’ the film succeeds, combining these elements beautifully and even while speaking as someone who isn’t the biggest fan of the classic MGM aesthetic, in many ways this feels like a golden age masterpiece, playing now as the ideal of what a Hollywood movie circa 1935 could possibly be with all the entertainment value imaginable. It looks pretty, not that anyone sees a Marx Brothers film because it looks pretty, but it takes a mixture that shouldn’t work as good as it does and it all flows together, even if any sense of anarchy that was a key part of the earlier films is pretty much wiped away.
For one thing, A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (Screenplay by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind from a story by James Kevin McGuiness) has a plot. This in itself would normally not be a surprise but compared with the past few Marx Brothers films at Paramount this warrants mention. Those are films which are never anything less than wonderfully random, scenes colliding together, costume changes out of nowhere, actions that make no real sense and a surreal mood always hanging in the air whether pondering what sort of country the mythical Freedonia is or simply how much Harpo really has concealed in his various pockets. OPERA, meanwhile, is firmly set in some version of the real world, at least a world set entirely on the MGM lot, where everything more or less makes sense. The story actually moves along from one scene to the next and the 3 Marxes become an integral part of it, even given reasons to care about what happens. Plus the main bad guy is an actual bad guy—he slaps around Harpo and even whips him, for crying out loud—not just somebody for Groucho to insult on the assumption that he’s a bad guy although he seems willing to do that anyway. It all makes me imagine a Paramount version of this film’s basic idea, maybe one where Groucho runs the opera house and whatever he does to save it would mostly be out of spite or fury rather than any concept of doing the right thing. Of course, nothing would make much sense and maybe even the music would be part of the joke (now I want to see this film) but A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, pausing for real musical numbers every now and then, plays that part totally straight which makes sense considering the setting but it’s also a reminder of how this is a musical comedy where the music actually matters, like it or not.
It helps that some of the music is better than average and of course the film doesn’t skewer opera as much as the pretension of everything surrounding it. Essentially it’s a story built around getting Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle to sing together which gives a reason for the mayhem, not that we need one even if the film does. The structure is both airtight and loose enough that it knows not to overcomplicate things since we know who the good guys and the bad guys are so it’s mostly about arranging them all into place for the big opening night climax. More than simple randomness, Groucho’s Otis B. Driftwood is always on the move given pointed insult dialogue that has a defiant and unapologetic approach whether needling Gottlieb, the incessant come-ons to Mrs. Claypool or even tossing out a familiar Garbo line (well, it is MGM) when questioned by a suspicious cop. What the film has is a balance of the impeccable wordplay mixed in with the sight gags and music so it always seems to know which one to focus on at any given moment.
Groucho’s surprise introduction at the start is one of his very best and feels like it’s toying with the expected anticipation after his delayed first appearance in DUCK SOUP. It’s one of the greatest unexplained mysteries in all of Cinema just why the various Margaret Dumont characters in these films submit to getting mixed up with Groucho and right from the start he wastes no time being indignant towards her at the very concept of being upset with him for dining just a few feet away while making it very clear he’s interested in her money as long as he doesn’t have to hear a minute of the opera. The persona of Groucho is someone who doesn’t care in a movie with a plot that sort of forces him to care but as long as he disrupts things and insults people, his job is done. Even when the plot forces him to suddenly be a nice guy it isn’t so bad and in particular I wish there had been more of Groucho just hanging out with Kitty Carlisle’s Rosa, lightly joking with her at a party while also keeping other suitors away until Allan Jones gets back. The parts given to Chico and Harpo are more strict supporting roles than they’ve had in the past with a little sanding off of their mischievous edges but they still get moments like Harpo’s endless drinking of water and Chico explaining how they flew across the ocean by taking a steamship when they try to pass themselves off as ‘the three greatest aviators in the world’.
Even Harpo is more grounded, no longer pulling steaming hot cups of coffee from his pocket or other such impossible feats and once their run at MGM begins it’s like he’s playing someone who can’t speak as opposed to someone who doesn’t speak—there is a difference, after all. Sure, Tomasso and Fiorello (nobody ever remembers their names, unlike Groucho characters) annoy Driftwood in his quest for Mrs. Claypool’s fortune but really all they want to do is help out Ricardo and Rosa and it somehow doesn’t feel like a betrayal of their basic persona. They’re just happy to help and do what’s right. Fortunately it also has Groucho and Chico dealing with each other in the classic contract routine with the recurring “party of the first part” refrain as they rip the contracts into shreds, one of those unexpectedly incisive explorations of Groucho’s persona as someone who prides himself on pulling it over anyone confronted by someone who is able to do the same to him, possibly without even realizing it. And, just so there’s no confusion, there is no Sanity Clause. When a film has Groucho and Chico debating something that makes no sense all it needs to do is find the right camera angle although that doesn’t entirely matter either. This just happens to be a film which cares about that sort of thing.
Which makes sense because MGM was kind of the Cadillac of studios back then, very pristine and safe and that style is very much in evidence, standing in contrast to Paramount which always had that silvery 30s look but never seemed to pay much attention to which way the cameras were facing or if there was any semblance of continuity between shots. At MGM everything is shiny, everyone is pretty and the filmmaking as evidenced by director Sam Wood (when it’s an MGM production supervised by Irving Thalberg it probably isn’t necessary to mention the director until the eighth paragraph) is always smoothly professional. It only really gets awkward when we become aware of how much the laughs are specifically timed for the audience which results in cutaways and inserts that stand out a little too much as placeholders before we can get to the next line of dialogue, making the film a little less elegant than it might be. But, of course, no one ever went to a Marx Brothers film for elegance. These pauses for timing were, of course, all part of the idea and the film’s history includes how they took it out on the road to perform the comedy sequences in a sort of “Scenes from A NIGHT AT THE OPERA” for audiences before filming in order to try out lines and gage the laughs they would get. And it worked although I can’t help but think that some of the best lines are the ones that feel the most offhand, like Groucho’s “We can tear up the Mayor’s speech when we get there,” during the aviator charade. I’ve seen this film countless times in my life and even now some of it gets me to laugh out loud with the famous stateroom scene a beauty of pure construction as if the runner of “two hard boiled eggs” is merely ramping up to the famous image of all those people crammed into that tiny space, never complaining as Driftwood encourages it all as much as possible. “I’ve got plenty of room,” Fiorello declares. This is the Marx Brother view of the world. Everyone crams in together. It’ll all make sense eventually.
I’m old enough now that the musical numbers aren’t as deadly as they used to be with several of them placed together anyway in the big setpiece on the ship filled with, I assume, peasants from some vaguely European nation who are traveling to America, strictly the MGM kind content to sing and dance forever (one imagines James Cameron struck with inspiration after catching this sequence on TV while writing TITANIC). Chico’s piano solos were always fun anyway and Harpo’s rendition of the recurring ballad “Alone” on the harp is one of his best solos, catching just the right mood and maybe more than any other point in the film here’s where I feel the MGM/Thalberg touch with that kindly old woman in the frame as he plays, as if assuring anyone out there who might be unsure that these boys aren’t so bad after all. Incidentally, they’re clearly traveling from Italy at the start of the film even though the country is never named—there were allegedly cuts made when it played during World War II that were never reinstated which would have specified the location and apparently this is why the opening of the film is so abrupt, although a few things like a close-up of Driftwood’s Milan hotel bill slipped through.
The best pure comedy sequences here move like clockwork, particularly when compared with certain scenes from HORSE FEATHERS or DUCK SOUP which are brilliant yet feel like they’re more about barreling forward to the next joke than the pace. The scene in Driftwood’s hotel room with beds being frantically switched around has expert farcical timing while the big climax at the opening night of “Il Trovatore” skewers every ounce of pretension brought to the occasion by Margaret Dumont and what feels like a theater full of Margaret Dumonts. The three of them attack all the pomposity and grandiosity they can find, whether through Groucho’s nonsensical introductory speech, the surprise appearance of “Take Me Out to The Ball Game” or Harpo’s unending glee at doing everything he can to bring this all crashing down. That all stops when we get to hear Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle sing but it’s the thrill of telling off an insufferable prima donna who just had an apple thrown at him onstage that really matters. The way it’s all laid out is mostly perfect, ideal enough that the film was paid homage to in the 1992 comedy BRAIN DONORS which starred a spectacular John Turturro as the Groucho-like “Roland T. Flakfizer” in a plot which substituted ballet for opera; it’s practically a remake and the ‘suggested by’ acknowledgement to this film buried in the credits makes me think someone in legal got worried it was a little more than just a tribute. Going too far in the other direction was the 1937 Marx Brothers follow-up A DAY AT THE RACES, never one of my favorites, which is loaded with extraneous musical numbers even though you’d think that wouldn’t be as necessary in a film set at a racetrack and hospital. What’s worse is even the comedy in that film never lives up to this one. But A NIGHT AT THE OPERA has a special flair that even now plays like total joy for me. Anyway, we love what we love. Whether it’s their finest film will never be decided since there are always going to be days when you might want to watch this one, you might want to watch DUCK SOUP. Sometimes it has to do with your mood. Sometimes it’s what you need to remember.
In some ways it’s Groucho’s movie and one of his best performances too, living up to the material as he lays out every possible insult and insinuation but sometimes doing the most when all he has to do in a scene in stand there, waiting for what he knows is coming. Chico’s happy stubbornness keeps things moving with his insistence that it’s all going to be just fine while it’s almost like Harpo makes an impression out of sheer force of will, even playing an active role in the stateroom scene when he’s supposed to be asleep. The likable Allan Jones takes on what is sort of the Zeppo role but not really since he’s more of a love interest and singer plus, all respect to Zeppo, he’s got more screen presence too and love interest Kitty Carlisle’s fragility becomes endearing which helps make you believe they’ll all do what they can to protect her. Margaret Dumont, declaring every effrontery to the heavens, and Sig Ruman, always gasping in shock, turn their foils into just the right dart boards for Groucho while almost getting you to believe that they’re still trying to make some sort of sense out of him. Hey, they’re not even really bad guys. Even Gottlieb is just trying to put on an opera, after all.
Of the two films I saw on that double bill long ago, A NIGHT AT THE OPERA is definitely better than CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OPERA. Just for the record. Still, putting aside any issues of political correctness, that one’s kind of fun too and I once snagged a used DVD of it for the same sentimental reasons. To this day it’s still the only Chan film I’ve ever seen and I’m fine with that. At other times my father also took me to a double bill of HORSE FEATHERS and DUCK SOUP at the Metro, the same theater where Woody Allen saw the latter in HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, as well as a trip to see the Marx Brothers/Hollywood homage A DAY IN HOLLYWOOD A NIGHT IN THE UKRAINE on Broadway, possibly on my tenth birthday. Of course, there are other memories not related to films or the Marx Brothers but they don’t really matter as much, not even some of the visits to Yankee Stadium. The pull and desperation to go back to those particular days just isn’t as strong. And some years later, when he was in a wheelchair, I took him to movies from DIE HARD to GOODFELLAS and even once to a Harold Lloyd series at the Film Forum. Some days I think about him. Some days I try not to. There’s no real end to any of this because the past always ends before you realize it. There are just things you remember about your father and things you remember because of him which will always matter. And I don’t need an anniversary to do that. The past stays with you, whether you like it or not.
September 10, 1939 – September 19, 1998
Sunday, September 30, 2018
You shouldn’t leave California. That’s the first thing to remember. My parents did, back in the 60s after they moved out here from New York, then they went back a year later. My mother always says that when they saw the George Washington Bridge upon returning they knew they’d made a mistake. I know they went back a few other times over the next couple of years but it never really stuck then I turned up in the early 70s and that was that. Maybe it was my job to do what they didn’t. That’s the whole idea of going west in order to make a life, to see what else is out there and discover your own personal idea of freedom. But for all the western imagery found in EASY RIDER it’s a film where the two leads do the exact opposite, with California represented as little more than a place where planes land, the modern way for people to arrive. There’s nothing there for these guys anymore, I suppose, so they leave. But it never seems to have occurred to them that they don’t know what else they’re supposed to find.
After scoring a large amount of cocaine down in Mexico then selling it off for considerable cash back up across the border, Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) take off on their motorcycles with the money safely hidden in Wyatt’s gas tank, heading across the country to get to New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras. Finding themselves unwelcome at roadside motels, they camp out under the stars at night with their journey taking them to a welcoming rancher with his family out in the desert followed by a hitchhiker who leads them to a commune populated by a group desperately attempting to grow their own crops. After being arrested in a small southern town for ‘parading without a license’ their jailhouse detour leads them to meeting George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), an alcoholic lawyer who soon joins them, willing and open to what they have to offer. But as Wyatt and Billy get closer to New Orleans things begin to darken on the trip across America which they originally thought was everything that they were looking for.
Dennis Hopper’s EASY RIDER lives in the past. It always will, there’s no getting around that. I’ll never know firsthand what it was like to be there when the film was first released back in July ’69, a month before Woodstock and Tate-LaBianca, so I’ll always be looking at it from a slight distance. Written by Fonda, Hopper and Terry Southern the film lives in the specific moment it was made but it’s also genuine enough that it becomes more than just a relic with its own things to say about what you can really find out there. Even the idea of leaving the west behind seems part of the point of going against that genre along with any connection the two leads have to classic Hollywood and what they’re trying to break away from. As a film by itself it works as a road movie, one with gorgeous scenery and an awesome soundtrack as well as just enough moments of introspection to lend a certain amount of weight to it all. The pacing feels tightened down to its essentials and necessary story beats with the occasional awkwardness due to using non-actors or maybe because certain scenes didn’t get the necessary coverage; one of the most traumatic events goes by so fast you could hardly blame a first-time viewer from experiencing a little whiplash. But it’s the imagery that seeps in and as much as it’s a film about wandering it always stays focused while ready to jump into another travel montage boosted up by all that music. Some of the best sections play as pure cinema, whether the dialogue-free drug sale at the opening or just letting us absorb the scenery which starts off majestic but gets uglier and uglier as we move closer to the end, literal walls coming down on these guys from everything being built up around them. All throughout the photographer’s eye of Dennis Hopper shines through, catching just the right way to frame them against the majesty, against what they want to get away from.
Even the completely unhurried way the campfire scenes play out is a perfect way to get us into that druggy vibe as they wonder about the world far out there, the effect showing how much they’re willing to take their conversations in unexpected directions that could lead to all the answers imaginable, UFOs or otherwise. Wyatt aka Captain America famously throws away his watch as the two of them set off on their journey, a pretty blatant symbol of materialism and everything that idea represents but it still feels a little like he’s throwing away a small part of himself that he didn’t realize was there. “Your time’s running out,” is what Luke Askew’s hitchhiker who brings them to the commune tells him when he offers up the LSD, as if he knows that you have to have a firm goal in mind somewhere, somehow. “I’m hip about time,” Wyatt tells him but when he finally decides to take the trip with Billy and the two hookers in New Orleans it seems like the worst possible idea to do it right then. Even when you’re free you need some sort of compass to stay on track.
They presumably leave L.A. at the beginning but it’s mostly represented by Phil Spector’s “Connection” and his Rolls-Royce when he buys their coke so we never see it, the name just something that gets quizzically repeated by someone who’s never heard the term before. The west we pass through contains the remnants of people long forgotten found that Wyatt quietly looks over in the early morning, that rancher who never made it to California himself but is totally content having made a life with his family. It’s like he knew when to stop. But going back the other way on the open road is what matters, soaking in everything they pass while we listen to The Band and for a few minutes there’s not a care in the world. It’s a motorcycle movie but one that never feels like it pays as much attention to the physical process of being on the road the way certain other films do, like the car-oriented TWO-LANE BLACKTOP and VANISHING POINT which pay so much attention to the gunning of the engines, the long silences while going from one place to another. With EASY RIDER it’s more how the music relates to the scenery as they pass through it all, along with just how cool these guys look on their bikes. Something like “Born to Be Wild” feels almost beyond cliché by this point but it doesn’t affect how it all flows with the imagery whether the serenity of the desert landscapes or later on as the scenery gets uglier and the vibe angrier. Time really does stop during a few of these sections and the film always looks spectacular yet intimate; the way Hopper with DP Laszlo Kovacs frames himself, Fonda and Nicholson turns each of them into instant icons. As improv-heavy as some of it might be there’s a slickness not found in the various Corman/AIP films that the three leads were involved in before this so the camera always knows where it should be and how much it should interfere. The film’s view of drugs is taken as no big deal, which definitely ties into their outlaw nature, and it plays as unaffected when compared to certain other films from the period that feel like they’re maybe trying too hard (to be honest, I always want to like VANISHING POINT more than I do) in getting across the hip vibe but here those moments always feel like they just happen.
For a long stretch of the running time it feels like the film is in no rush whatsoever and why should there be with the long stopover in the commune making it feel like they could easily stay there. There’s no point in worrying about time or how long it will take to get to New Orleans and the visit gives Wyatt the most optimism of their journey in believing they’re going to make it even though from their looks at some of their faces a few of them don’t seem so sure. Of course, in 1969 who knew how all that was really going to go. The hippie trappings are a little expected—the women are willing to fool around with Wyatt and Billy in the hot springs (although they actually seem like they’re the ones really in charge of the commune) and the mime troupe gives me bad flashbacks of certain elementary school music teachers from long, long ago. But it’s the 360-degree prayer circle shot that sticks out now, on the surface essentially this film’s version of passing around the joint in Roger Corman’s THE TRIP (itself a shot that also featured Fonda and Hopper), only replacing any drug-induced gimmickry for the pure feeling of the moment with the resolute faces of the commune members and genuine need for food, landing on the prayer delivered by Robert Walker (Jr., just a few years after his STAR TREK guest shot and looking absolutely haunted) which contains a desperate sense of hope for the future. The commune does start to seem vaguely sinister by a certain point so I can’t blame Billy for wanting to leave but Wyatt’s brief hesitation makes sense in his quest for some form of serenity. What he finds there is one of the strongest reminders that EASY RIDER isn’t just about what makes it such a period piece now, but how much the need to sometimes break away from what we think of as the real world can be all that matters.
It’s a film with two fairly low key guys and even the jittery Hopper isn’t quite what we think of compared to his later APOCALYPSE NOW persona so when Jack Nicholson turns up in the jail cell as ACLU lawyer George Hanson it shakes the foundation of the film. He’s a live wire from his very first moment while also the “regular sort of person” they speak of and it’s as if we’re suddenly asked to join the ride after observing the first half of the film from a distance. Partly audience surrogate, partly just someone lost in his own way it’s the earliest version of iconic Jack Nicholson roles that are about some form of transformation which gradually happens here as this small town alcoholic who’s been watched over by his parents way too long loosens up during the campfire scenes, gets rid of the booze and seems like a man truly being born for the first time in his life. Even much of his dialogue has a newly found sting to it these days considering the way things are going, maybe even this very week, and his grim musing over how this used to be a hell of a country means more than ever. But when he rides on the chopper wearing that football helmet there’s a sense of total joy from him as long as he’s around that infects the film. He seems to have no idea what’s really out there in the world beyond his booze and who he can get out of jail but he’s able to tell them things about the country they never thought of as if a warning that they can only ever go so far.
The experimental cutting style of jumping forward and back during scene transitions is very much an affectation, one where if the film did it a few more or even less times it wouldn’t make much difference. But it also plays as an extension of Billy’s impatience every time they stick around somewhere a few minutes too long and whether drug induced or whatever there’s a freedom to it, of trying to explore what this film could possibly be and it’s felt throughout even down to the hard cut to a Jimi Hendrix song during one montage. It’s not worried about if the cut is jarring so much as playing like a deliberate break in the flow of the film while also a warning of what’s coming. The history and poverty and life and unending cemeteries in these small towns they pass through all blend together and the film captures that sense of road trips and the places you’ve seen, if only for an instant, that sometimes stick in your memory as you try to imagine what kind of life goes on there. And how much they matter when you remember them. Wyatt and Billy mostly keep to themselves with the nest egg of cash in the gas tank (makes me think Albert Brooks in LOST IN AMERICA gets the plot slightly wrong but never mind) and try to avoid trouble while the girls in the café just get the men nearby more annoyed of course leading to disaster. And once they finally arrive at Mardi Gras, where Billy has been so impatient about getting to the whole time, it basically becomes dinner and a visit with two hookers (played by Karen Black and Toni Basil, each of which gets moments that stand out out during the fast cuts in the 16mm New Orleans footage). The LSD trip in the cemetery feels like a way to confront things with these women after whatever letdown Mardi Gras provided but what it brings out in them seems to be everything they regret, the bad vibes bubbling below the surface for the entire film finally emerging with no hesitation, the darkness enveloping all of the hopes, the flash forward that Wyatt tried to shake off becoming something he doesn’t understand but in a way it’s what he was always expecting.
Once Wyatt and Billy head out on the road when the opening credits begin, it feels like EASY RIDER is divided into three sections—the desert and the commune, the real world as represented by George Hanson entering their sphere followed by the Mardi Gras acid trip which leads to oblivion. In other words, the way it should be, the way it is and the way it’s going. Which seems inevitable. It’s all about freedom at first, the sense of living without fear, looking for a way to make your own path. And in the film’s best moments it gets me to understand and believe. But fate manages to turn hopes into something else, like George’s football helmet that suddenly reappeared thanks to his mother allowing him to tag along on their journey. The sense of darkness begins to overwhelm the film near the end, the famous ‘we blew it’ statement which could be anything but feels like a memory of what they missed when it was right in front of them. How good they had it, what they thought they were supposed to do to be the sort of legends of the west that their names indicate they already are but the ideals from the flag on Wyatt’s jacket and gas tank with all that cash weren’t enough. The hope is maybe we can figure out what they got wrong and do something about our own fear to let us find that freedom for ourselves. Just as letting the music play through at times feels like an extension of THE GRADUATE (even down to playing one of the songs twice, specifically The Byrds’ “Wasn’t Born To Follow” which is possibly the most sweetly hopeful of any of them) the ending works as the next step beyond BONNIE AND CLYDE, turning that rapid fire montage into a few brutal, complex flashes of imagery followed by the unending final shot. All we can do is linger there, nowhere left to go (I suppose the finale of ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE, one of many films inspired by EASY RIDER over the next few years, was the next step after that) and as the credits roll I suppose it really does turn them into legends. As a film, EASY RIDER is at peace. It already knows the ending.
Sure, the way that the film uses the two leads almost has more to do with their presence than anything they actually do but Peter Fonda lends that cool blankness to his unending introspection so you can project anything you want onto his seeming awareness that something bad is coming. His silence hides the tension that he’s keeping bottled up, as if he’s actually trying to never reveal those emotions, maybe to avoid seeming like his father for all we know. Dennis Hopper keeps Billy living in the moment while never letting down his paranoia, always trying to register how straight someone is being with him and he’s really just a big kid, not knowing what’s coming next but certain that he just wants to keep going. But the whole film shifts when Jack Nicholson yawns at a threat Hopper makes when they first meet in the jail and it’s never really the same after that, not a line reading or gesture from him is what you expect. Maybe that’s why the film works so well even now—the biggest performance in the hippie movie is from the normal guy, bringing an added joy to the biking scenes and moments like his delight in saying ‘very groovy’ and Nicholson’s continued delight in realizing how well the three of them go together becomes one of the best displays of freedom that the film offers.
Come to think of it, I’m not sure my parents ever actually saw EASY RIDER. It may not have mattered anyway and, of course, whatever we know about our mom and dad doesn’t solve everything. And we all have our own idea of freedom, just as Dennis Hopper did. Sometimes it’s the need to be out there when the wind is in your hair and the music is just right. But also that the way to live is to know where you are and why you’re there. The year before EASY RIDER the film’s producers made HEAD so maybe they just wanted to get away from all that since it’s a known fact anybody who works for the Monkees are among the worst people in the world. And by this point in time America, which used to be a hell of a good country, is just about gone. So leaving California is never the answer. Enough mistakes can be made there as it is and all you can ever do is let go of the way you thought things might be. If anything, I’ve tried to learn that.
Sunday, September 23, 2018
As the years go on it makes sense to ask if we change or the films. Do we outgrow them or do they become richer, deeper as we respond to their mysteries more than we once imagined. It’s been close to nine years since I first wrote about TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN on here, a lifetime ago, maybe even a few lifetimes ago. Too much has gone on since then, more than I want to get into, but I still feel like I’m back in the same place. Maybe there’s something wrong with that. Since then, this film has been released on DVD by the good people at Warner Archive and now several years down the road they’ve put it out once again in an improved transfer on Blu-ray, looking better than ever. I’m just going to assume they released it because of me and please don’t say otherwise. It’s not a film that is generally ranked among the best made by the people involved so any reasons I have for why this is some sort of odd favorite is difficult to explain. Part of it is the fantasy of finding myself among the film elites in Rome circa 1962 and all that implies, but it’s also the richness of what the film is about, the idea of looking at yourself in the mirror at the darkest point of your life, the abyss you might get sucked into staring right back. And it feels like the film means it, getting lost in the middle of that frenzy, not sitting back and merely observing. This was all something I responded to years ago when watching it on a VHS taped off TCM and again after who knows how many DVD viewings so it means more than ever looking at it now on this Blu-ray which is so stunning, so luscious that I almost feel like I can step right into all that madness.
Former movie star Jack Andrus (Kirk Douglas), still recovering from a complete mental breakdown as well as the aftermath of a car accident which left his face scarred, is in a sanitarium when he gets summoned by his former director Maurice Kruger (Edward G. Robinson) to come and play a small role in the film he’s currently shooting in Rome. But when Andrus arrives in the ultra-decadent city for work at Cinecittà he learns that there really is no part or at least no part he could play with the way his face looks. But desperate to finish the film on time with his wife Clara (Claire Trevor) nagging him every step of the way Kruger enlists Jack to handle the dubbing of the film while filming continues. Fortunately, Andrus soon finds another reason to stick around when he meets the beautiful Veronica (Daliah Lavi) and quickly falls for her much to the upset of the film’s star Davie Drew (George Hamilton) who is already hostile towards the direction he’s receiving in the dubbing booth. But when Kruger suddenly has a heart attack Andrus takes it upon himself to complete the shooting of the film for his old friend, unaware of what surprises are still in store to reward him for his hard work before his two weeks in Rome are up.
Another question might be if we know that some of the films we love aren’t as great as we want them to be and how much it matters if we’re aware of the difference. Released in 1962, TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN is very likely not one of the best films Vincente Minnelli ever directed but that alone doesn’t make me return to AN AMERICAN IN PARIS or LUST FOR LIFE multiple times instead. THE BAND WAGON or SOME CAME RUNNING would make a little more sense and returning to either one of those reminds me of how rich they are, how much joy and passion they offer. But the fact is, the ones we return to aren’t always the greatest and I’m not just talking about in a guilty pleasure sort of way. Sometimes it just feels like a film is part of our wiring and that’s the way it is. Vincente Minnelli himself was not happy with the studio interference that occurred during the making of TWO WEEKS that resulted in scenes clarifying plot and motivations being cut out so I’ll admit that it’s kind of a hot mess but I’ve still watched it endlessly, at times addictively, even multiple times in a week as if I was searching for something but didn’t know what, waiting for an all new answer to present itself.
But to back up for a second, not only have I written about this film before, I’ve also covered the ground of 1952’s THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL. Coming ten years later, TWO WEEKS is not a sequel to that film but it is a sort of follow-up reuniting director Minnelli and producer John Houseman with the same leading actor in a story which takes another biting look at the film industry only things have changed since the studios ruled everything. Some of returning composer David Raksin’s ferociously lyrical score even plays as if he were told that it was a straight sequel with minor plot elements and even pieces of dialogue (from the same screenwriter, Charles Schnee) recurring from one to the next, reflecting each film against each other in recalling what has come before. I guess if you stick around somewhere long enough connected with the same sort of people that’s going to happen. Almost picking up on the possibility of a reconciliation at the end of the earlier film, former movie star Jack Andrus has suddenly become a supporting character in his own world, trying to understand how he’s supposed to go back to the people who once betrayed him and put aside all the resentments. As always, Vincente Minnelli understands how to frame his leads and focus on their loneliness, their isolation in the worlds they find themselves trapped in, even if it’s only for two weeks. Filmed in glorious Metrocolor and CinemaScope by Milton R. Krasner it avoids the expected travelogue footage you’d expect as Jack Andrus drives around Rome in his snazzy Maserati 3500 GT, instead using the location shooting to find parts of the city that could burrow into his very soul.
Based on a novel by Irwin Shaw (somewhat loosely, so I hear, but I’d still like to read it someday), the film is overheated in just about every scene with a cluttered, colorful frame set in a Rome where no one ever seems to sleep, where the streets and hotels are always full. It’s the end of the studio system and ‘everybody’s’ in Rome so we never set foot in California as if Hollywood has become a gold rush town that’s been stripped and deserted. The party’s over and Jack Andrus is confronted by his own past, the director he once revered, the woman he once loved, an industry where he once ruled. With that facial scar always there to remind him (even if it’s just a movie scar that we can easily forget about) it’s all gone now with seemingly nothing left of it but an Oscar that’s just a knick-knack to be left in a drawer. I’m not even sure if some of these people are even supposed to be plausibly human, particularly his ex-wife Carlotta played by Cyd Charisse all purring and taunting him for reasons we never fully understand, but then again even this feels believable considering some late night phone calls I’ve had. It’s all part of those regrets of the past that we think about the most in the middle of the night and in my earlier piece I even said the whole thing feels like a movie from the middle of the night anyway, one where logic doesn’t always play into it. But it also contains the possibility of what could be in a pure world as seen in the form of love interest Daliah Lavi who later played vixens in the likes of THE SILENCERS and CASINO ROYALE ’67 but here is the vision of all things innocent, no particular life of her own, no awareness of films and not even a last name that she ever reveals (“Veronica what’s-the-difference,” is the reply when asked). She’s simply the way for the hero to once again find something meaningful in the world as he talks about his memories of being a star when everything in the world was available to him and for a brief time as the sit on a beach together all she wants is to be by his side, nothing more.
But when Jack Andrus first arrives in Rome, a former mental patient being let loose into a very different kind of asylum, he has nothing, has become nothing and when he tries to work with Davey Drew in the dubbing room he’s told he’ll get nothing in another one of those dialogue echoes of the earlier film. Everyone else is worn down, bitter and even the one celebration turns into a melee of jealousy. Edward G. Robinson’s Maurice Kruger, presumably meant to be a god among directors, is on the outs with the major studios back home and the little we see of him on set there isn’t any evidence of supposed greatness beyond how much he shouts at people. His past glory is only seen when he screens for Jack one of the films they once made which is never named (it seems like no film is ever named here, not even the one they’re shooting) but it’s THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, that remnant of past greatness only a decade old at the time but in the way they talk about it is a distant memory of a bygone age. In private for Kruger it’s all insecurities and being yelled at by his wife played by Claire Trevor who never stops screaming at him in a marriage of mutually beneficial co-dependent misery, presumably getting back at Edward G. Robinson for the way he treated her in KEY LARGO—every part of this movie seems to collide with another movie. The women, aside from Dahila Lavi and a few bit players, are generally spoiled at best, horrible at worst and ready to stab somebody in the back at a moments’ notice. Even Kruger tells Andrus, “All women are pure Monster” and it’s not what the film is saying though it never tries very hard to dispute that either. But even that is part of the simmering resentment between director and former star which always seems like it’s waiting for the final explosion of old grudges to go off, whichever one decides to get back at the other first.
More than anything, though, it’s the vibe of Rome, the eternal city that blankly stares back as the music crashes all around, with Kirk Douglas looking like his mind is about to burst from his skull as he stares out at it. So it’s little surprise that the location shooting has much more vibrancy, when they’re really stopped out in late night heavy traffic or when Douglas stops to play a quick round of football with some kids in the street which might have been rehearsed within an inch of its life but still feels loose and off the cuff. So it becomes a disappointment when scenes like that cut to something likely filmed on a backlot, not even an Italian backlot like Cinecittà, and all that rear screen driving footage throughout helps drain away any feel of verisimilitude; much as I love this film, I suspect they didn’t really shoot as much in Rome as I’d like to think they did. With a sense if impeccable staging in every single scene, Minnelli was one of those studio directors whose shooting style made the most sense when it could find the balance between the real and the artifice, especially with all those opulent sets like that screening room I’d love to spend a few days in. Sometimes, like in a few moments here, the balance falls over and the spell is momentarily broken. But those pieces of late night Roman life we see thanks to the location shooting during one montage makes me wish I could drive around in them even if I am stuck in rear projection for part of my visit and I sometimes obsess over some of the places they stop at in my mind, making me wonder what goes on each night over in that corner of the town. Plus it’s those odd bits that emerge from the insanity of it all like the sight of Rosanna Schaffino dancing with a few lounge lizards to Bruno Martino’s “Dracula Cha Cha Cha” as it drowns out the intense drama occurring nearby, a reminder that these glamorous Italians aren’t too far from being full-on vampires.
Among the many things that come to mind when I think of LA DOLCE VITA is the quiet in the air when the dawn hits and no one ever seems in a rush but this film, with a time constraint indicated by its title, barrels forward through the dubbing and shooting and all that driving around so unlike other MGM films of the time which are too staid it has an edge, a danger along with that gloss with some shots practically drowning in the color red as if to remind us of all that decadence everywhere. The rich, luscious shooting even includes one shot in the Hotel Excelsior elevator where we travel up from the lobby to the next floor, as if we’re floating through this city with the danger of being dragged where we don’t want to go. The plot seems to hold in place for a long time as if just as unsure of what to do as the main character is until it’s forced to rush towards the delirium of the final half hour as Andrus finds his passion, learning how to once again really be part of the world, when he takes over the director’s chair.
The climactic party is probably the most blatant stray into LA DOLCE VITA territory, essentially populated by the zombies of decadent, wealthy Rome but it all goes by too fast to strongly register, glossed over as possibly another casualty of the cutting. Leslie Uggams belts out a sad rendition of “Don’t Blame Me” for the crowd (that song was in the earlier film too) and Carlotta’s taunting of Jack builds up to what is possibly the most notorious sequence in the movie. After reaching the breaking point with whatever the hell Carlotta is doing to him a frenzied Kirk Douglas speeding off into the night in his Maserati as Cyd Charisse screams furiously, endlessly, in the passenger seat, filmed in a way that is almost deliriously impressionistic in its blatantly fake use of rearscreen projection that becomes genuinely hypnotic in its own unreality. There was, again, a similar scene in THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL with Lana Turner having a breakdown in a crashing car done all in one take which worked there—maybe opening up the concept to color and Scope is a step too far and all the fakery feels like stylization that doesn’t quite come off but the delirium still fits the film perfectly somehow, along with how unrelenting Kirk Douglas is in his psychosis, determined to dare this car to finally do the job already. After all, if you’re going to stare into the abyss with any hope of survival you have to go right up to the very edge. That’s what makes sense in the middle of the night.
In some ways the greatest betrayal is what happens between people who depend on each other. You have to figure out what matters, as difficult as that is while facing the wall dead ahead while admitting the mistakes you made. What matters in the end is that you cleanse yourself of all regrets, saying to hell with the past, to hell with those people you thought you needed in your life no matter what. Although, as I watch the film now I’m not even sure why Jack Andrus is gladly racing off at the end since it feels a little like he’s walking away from a happy ending being handed to him on a platter. Something about getting it on his own terms and no one else’s, I suppose, but the literal rushed nature of the final moments almost feels like it wants to end before we ask too many questions. It answers what was asked at the end of THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL by stating that those reconciliations can never work out. What’s done is done. But maybe finding that answer for ourselves while shutting out all that bitterness and resentment is what we have to do. As long as we accept that we can never know what the future holds.
But TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN is also about the pure ferocity of Kirk Douglas, as if he’s still straining against a world that has turned from black & white to Technicolor while throwing his entire body into the emotion of any given moment. He goes big but you can feel that sense of confusion within him, of wondering where his old life went, sometimes able to calmly reflect but he’s really just waiting for his next chance to unload on someone. Edward G. Robinson is the perfect choice for someone who can command a room and cut down anyone in it with just a few words, making his drunken power felt along with his uncertainty while knowing just how to manipulate his old friend as if he knows that this may be his last chance. The ideally angelic Daliah Lavi is the perfect counterpoint to all this and some of the supporting players like James Gregory as journalist “Brad Byrd” fit right in (Mino Doro as Tucino, the impatient producer of Kruger’s film, was actually in both LA DOLCE VITA and 8 ½) while some are used mainly to be positioned into frame and little else, particularly Rosanna Schaffino who as the film’s female lead has next to no English dialogue so her performance is mostly posture and wardrobe. George Hamilton never quite sells the intensity as a star who’s crashed and burned (eyebrow work from George Hamilton is always a delight, however, even in the early 60s) but Cyd Charisse with all her teeth remains unaccountably bizarre even after multiple viewings, no awareness of anything else around her and certainly not a care beyond reacquiring her ex-husband even after she’s married again, knowing she’s above it all and nothing will ever come crashing down. And, yet, in the middle of all this it kind of makes sense.
Reading over the older piece, I’m not even sure if my mind has changed much at all but what I wrote then was probably shorter so my apologies. But we are what we are. Maybe TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN isn’t as good as THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, whatever that’s supposed to mean, but to me it feels more vibrant, more willing to fly off the rails and I connect that much more to all that Technicolor insanity and desperation. Even if it has nothing to do with the reality of whatever filmmaking in Rome was at the time, it’s still about trying to hold onto yourself when you become stranded in the middle of whatever madness has a hold on you. Because that feeling is never going to change and it’s a film I’ve never quite been able to shake—I even remember where the side break was on the old laserdisc during my first viewing long ago. A flop when released, TWO WEEKS has its admirers on Film Twitter and I’ll just dream of a time when I can have a meal with the likes of Glenn Kenny, Miriam Bale and the Self-Styled Siren so we can all discuss our love for it. Even at the time Peter Bogdanovich called Minnelli’s film, “a grand melodrama, filled with passion, lust, hate, and venom, surely the ballsiest, most vibrant picture he has signed,” so maybe he’ll show up for the party. Godard loved it too and it feels like the perfect film to watch right before CONTEMPT. I should point out once again that this Blu-ray from the Warner Archive is a stunner and my thanks to them for putting it out. Suffice it to say, if you have any interest in this title or any of the people involved or just filmmaking in 60s Italy in general, I can’t recommend the disc more highly. It’s the best way to keep returning to this film as I hopefully continue to change. It’s probably inevitable that someday I’ll have seen this film enough times. Hasn’t happened yet.
Wednesday, September 12, 2018
We don’t want the truth. We’d rather just glide along in denial because the alternative is too painful. And if we’re forced to confront it there’s always the possibility we won’t be able to recover so maybe we never really do. It’s easier to simply dive into the water and forget about it all, hoping the few seconds it takes to swim from one end to the other will somehow carry us beyond, letting the beautiful days go on forever. In some ways, it’s better than really knowing. Released in 1968, THE SWIMMER never stops haunting in its avoidance of the truth, a great film although also one where the imperfections become apparent but maybe that makes it more alive, more willing to let you really confront it. Sometimes the perfect films can be a little dull anyway. Trying to rationalize its story is pointless since THE SWIMMER is never about figuring out that puzzle. You just have to accept the puzzle that will always be part of your life, one which you may never come close to figuring out.
Turning up at an old friend’s house one beautiful summer afternoon, Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) uses the pool and catches up with the couple who live there but soon figures out that by passing through other yards with pools in the town he can essentially ‘swim’ home, taking a route which he instantly names the ‘Lucinda River’ after his beloved wife who he says is waiting for him. He sets off on the journey, encountering other people who live nearby including a few other old friends as well as the delighted surprise of a girl (Janet Landgard) who used to nurse a crush on him back when she babysat his kids and is now grown up. But as the day goes on the mood of the people he encounters, including a former lover (Janice Rule) who has never forgiven him for leaving her, begins to darken with some not so happy to see him at all and it becomes clear that what might be waiting for Ned Merrill at home will not be what he claims.
Deceptively simple as it begins, THE SWIMMER quickly gains in power and sneaks up on you as you discover what it really is. Things are too good to be true at first, as they should be, the way they usually seem on a summer day when you’re catching up with old friends that have been nowhere near the wreckage of your life. “We’ve missed you,” one of them says, although they never spend much time pressing him for details. They’re the people who are only part of the good times and just like in a dream they say things exactly the way you want them to. It’s a world where everything works out, but that dream soon shifts and the talk becomes all hostility and hushed conspiratorial tones, nothing where it should be, no one left to help. THE SWIMMER itself is like a dream but one that soon turns into a nightmare crossed with the aesthetics of a late 60s TV movie, one where the blocking is sometimes awkward and the acting by a few of the bit players a little too stiff, one where you can no longer tell if you’re on a set or location or maybe trapped somewhere in between.
That dream state holds all the way through as Burt Lancaster’s Ned Merrill encounters a horse out in a field, almost as if he himself caused it to materialize and he races it for a moment, as if to become one with the horse, to experience all the glory of feeling alive and it’s the way he believes the world always is, all laid out for him. But this version of reality crumbles and as much as he offers up his recurring toast of “Here’s to sugar on our strawberries” it becomes clear that what he has is anything but. Directed by Frank Perry, at least up to a point, with a screenplay by Eleanor Perry based on the short story by John Cheever, the production also included reshoots handled later on by Sydney Pollack. Some of the details of the troubled shoot can be found in the comprehensive special features on the Blu-ray of THE SWIMMER put out by Grindhouse Releasing but in the end there’s just the film, as strange as it is, as upsetting as it is. The final result is at its best extremely powerful even when it’s hard to pin down exactly why, always compelling even as a hushed quiet falls on a scene, as those small details that don’t quite connect haunt us since we somehow know that they would lead to the very thing we want to avoid.
It’s easy to see how the world of THE SWIMMER might have been among the inspirations for MAD MEN although one never imagines Don Draper having so many past acquaintances he would be happy to see. Set among the upper crust east coast milieu, some of those friends of Ned Merrill’s are fellow country club types used to the old way of doing things who don’t let the bad news concern them. It’s close enough to where I grew up in suburban New York that I can understand some of the feelings once removed, a SECONDS vibe of a man thrown out of his golden cage that is the only world he knows and unable to ever return. But it’s more than that, just as the poster tagline asks us, “When you talk about THE SWIMMER, will you talk about yourself?” as we wonder about all those people we’ve encountered and what they were really saying to us at those crucial moments, as you wonder what happened to your life on that path between houses. The film gets at the minutiae of those feelings and though it spends maybe a few minutes too long on Ned Merrill running through fields in glorious slow motion, in his current mindset he’s living much of his life in glorious slow motion already, strangely attuned to oddities in nature he encounters as if somehow connected to them as well as a reminder of how out of time he is. He’s already been ejected from this world, like the pool he’s told about that filters out nearly all solid matter and he’s trying to fight his way back in, not knowing where anything is anymore. Insisting that he’s a ‘very special human being’ with a purpose no one else can understand, one party guest played by Joan Rivers falls under that spell for half a second then gets what he really is, just another guy making the moves on her, like any guy at one of these suburban parties looking for the next drink. And when his daughters’ former babysitter practically refers to him as a god, telling him about the shirt she once stole from his closet the praise reinvigorates him for a few minutes but she finally sees him for the empty shirt he really is as well. We follow Ned Merrill partly because of his charisma (and, after all, because he’s Burt Lancaster) but by a certain point it’s hard to ignore how off he seems, how much he repeats certain phrases and how out of place he becomes standing around in nothing but that bathing suit, everyone around him looking for ways to avoid stating the obvious.
Each pool that he stops at for a swim becomes a reflection of his world, his mind, his fears, his entire existence in one form or another. The carefree teenagers, the older nudists who seem to feel that the world is theirs to do with, the old friends who are drinking, drinking, drinking (several people in the first scene are heard to say, “I drank too much last night,” an echo of the Cheever story’s opening line). Naturally, what looks to be the biggest pool he encounters is also the empty one, as empty as his quest ultimately is and he tells the boy who lives there with unseen parents jet setting around the world that “If you make believe hard enough that something is true than it is true to you,” which sounds like the worst piece of advice imaginable to give to a sad and lonely little boy come to think of it. But, in the end, that’s what Ned Merrill is anyway. When asked about his wife and daughters as he swims further down the river named for his beloved wife, Ned Merrill keeps repeating, “Lucinda is home, the girls are playing tennis” almost robotically by a certain point, as if he’s planted that information in his mind and refuses to believe otherwise, the truth that he’s become convinced exists.
He already thinks of himself as apart from everyone else, refusing that he’s ever going to become ordinary while some of the people around him are content to merely drink and get older, having gotten what they wanted and with no reason to go anywhere else. This adds to the sense of loneliness in between the homes, none of them really seem next to each other, adding to the unreal feeling of the entire journey. Characters gaze up at the blue sky of a day you’d think would never end but the darkness begins to fall in the film almost before we realize it, the chill begins to emerge and even Ned Merrill can’t keep up his veneer of happiness forever, with it becoming more and more clear that everyone he encounters knows something about him they’re not putting into words. Even some of the awkwardness in the film, like how much of his travels with Janet Landgard’s Julie Ann Hooper feels almost too sickly sweet with a good portion of it playing as cobbled together in the editing room via dubbed in lines after the fact but is itself like an idealized dream, all soft focus and praises exactly what you want to hear. Some dialogue implies that he’s been gone a while but he has no idea how much time has passed, where he is in time and no one else seems quite sure, either. Nothing much ever changes in the suburbs, anyway.
Determining who shot every inch of footage may be a crapshoot but I suspect that Frank Perry, along with wife Eleanor, had more of an interest in capturing that cockeyed local Connecticut vibe searching for the idiosyncratic, oddball touches of those parties and their guests. The colors seem to pop in the right Kodachrome way as if we’re watching super 8 home movies of these parties with everyone a little too happy as they wave at the camera and even quickly brushing on the inherent racism in that closed off world. Plus after stopping in at the Bunkers’ with Julie Ann where all his old friends were so welcoming, the nightmarish party thrown by the classless Biswangers (“those awful people” as we hear about them earlier, played by Dolph Sweet and Louise Troy) is that much worse with the hosts clearly showing off how well they’ve got it now with their party guests drinking, falling into the pool and shoving caviar down their throats, the sort who have presumably driven in from the outer boroughs and, god forbid, will migrate up to the suburbs themselves eventually. It’s as if Frank & Eleanor Perry (who later collaborated on LAST SUMMER and the great DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE before divorcing in 1971; Perry also directed PLAY IT AS IT LAYS in 1972 and, much later, MOMMIE DEAREST) knew deep down that the only way to live around there and survive was to ultimately disappear.
The scenes apparently directed (uncredited) by Sydney Pollack feel like he zeroed in more on the performances and the reverie in the lead character’s own mind but his staging also plays as more confident particularly during the extended sequence where Ned Merrill encounters former mistress Shirley Abbott, played the first time around by Barbara Loden but taken over in the reshoots by Janice Rule (Jimmy Stewart’s fiancé in BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE). Introduced reading the January 1967 issue of Films and Filming, Rule plays the part as giving into her own vulnerability until she just can’t take it anymore, unrelenting she gets in finally cutting down this former lover who’s suddenly turned up in her backyard uninvited as brutally as possible, saying just the right things to utterly destroy him. Running over 15 minutes the scene is practically its own short film, enormously powerful and continually fluid in the way it plays, resisting turning into a soap opera by the different layers each actor brings to the confrontation leading to how ordinary, and how cowardly, their affair sounds no matter how much he’s elevated it to myth in his own mind. Possibly just like the rest of his life.
The episodic nature means that the tonal shifts possibly caused by the reshoots aren’t as noticeable but but throughout there’s a vibe of that late 60s creative experimentation in the air, a period of filmmaking when reality could be fluid, so at its very best the film locates that middle ground between the dreamlike and the mundane so it knows when to pause for the quiet in the air, when to hold on his face. And the climactic visit to the community pool that Ned Merrill is so desperate to use that once he gets there appears to be both fairly normal and also a total glimpse into hell (I’ll always remember how, during my long ago first viewing, everything suddenly clicked together at this moment—I guess that’s how vivid some of those afternoons at the local pool are in my memory), even if it’s just a suburban hell. Capturing that nightmarish feel of him reduced to this place, forced to wash his feet in order to be worthy of entering this pit and practically reduced to groveling before the working class we can imagine he’s always condescended to. There’s nowhere left for him to go.
Maybe all of the pieces of THE SWIMMER don’t fit, like the occasional editing during dialogue scenes that appear designed to cut around weak performances, sometimes arrhythmic pacing and even the very first moment of dialogue feels like it contains lines have been looped in after the fact. The score by Marvin Hamlisch (his first) contains lovely melodies that tie in perfectly with the psychology of the lead character but it also goes a little too big at times as if the composer was determined to create the greatest, most emotional score ever heard in a film, which in itself is also kind of correct in addressing Ned Merrill’s mindset. His own story becomes mythic in his mind and that’s what the film becomes as well, impossible to shake and it’s possible that it might play best when watched late at night while drifting off to sleep so the next day you can try to figure out what you just saw. It’s an extended TWILIGHT ZONE episode where we know the twist that’s coming, we just don’t want to admit it any more than he does. In some ways THE SWIMMER wrenches so deep down that it’s difficult to know what to say about the film since it’s all right there, a reminder of how much I might be as delusional as he is. And, messy and pieced together as it might be, kind of a masterwork because of how much it connects to those feelings. And I’m pulled back to it, searching for those answers that linger in the air. The very style of it becomes unpredictable and truly uncommon so it’s not a film about naturalism but about the fond memories we have, the embarrassment, the sadness and the moments we desperately wish we could go back to and make them right. Looking for reality there is a waste of time and thinking back on it, I wonder what the reality of some of my own past ever really was, anyway. All I know is, you can never swim back.
What Burt Lancaster does here is a staggeringly brave performance, unflinching in becoming Ned Merrill, literally just about naked in only that bathing suit which gives him nowhere to hide, no tricks to rely on, only the grace displayed each time he dives into the water. We see the man’s magnetism and how he can take command of a room, everyone hanging on his every word which makes where we can see it going that much more painful and he allows himself to collapse, his very presence gradually shrinking down until there’s almost nothing left as if the actor’s own spirit has left the frame. Much of it is a one man show but those faces popping up along the way add to that feeling of loneliness with the no nonsense vibe of Janice Rule matching him, as if unwilling to meet his gaze when he needs it the most. The best brief appearances throughout include Marge Champion whose “God, I hate Columbus,” early on could be the best line in the film, Diana Muldaur as an old acquaintance delighted to tell Ned that she’s now available, Bill Fiore & Jan Miner as a working class couple ready to let Ned know what they really think of him and Joan Rivers as that party guest in her first film role, unable to hide her interest in talking to this strange and possibly unique guy in just a bathing suit saying things she’s never heard until she realizes there’s nothing special about him at all.
Sure, we could ask where the hell Ned Merrill is coming from when he suddenly appears to dive into that first pool in the first scene but the answer doesn’t make any difference. It’s about the fear of running into those people, of what they might think of you, of those late night phone calls where they cut you down, the fear of losing someone to the wilds of Connecticut, all those insults we think are happening over in the next yard. Once several years ago after a screening of THE SWIMMER at the New Beverly I was walking up the aisle next to Clu Gulager (because it was the New Beverly and of course Clu Gulager was there) when he turned to me and said, “That was a strange movie.” I agreed and then he added, “But, you know, all movies are kind of strange.” I think about this all the time which I guess means I think about THE SWIMMER all the time too, stopping off at different houses each time in my memory. There are better films that I never say that about but there aren’t many that stay with me and want to be so protective of. In that sense, this 95 minute movie based on a 12-page short story set over a single afternoon becomes as much of an epic as I’ve ever seen, with all of the emotion that might be possible. And it’s one that I can never quite shake, as much as I keep trying never to admit the truth.