Thursday, October 12, 2017

Where Ignorance Is Bliss

There’s something to be said about the fantasy of being a stranger in a strange land, of thrusting yourself out of normal life into somewhere far off. This sounds particularly nice these days. A few Paul Mazursky films touch on such a theme even if only in minor ways but the overall idea becomes, You have to go as far away as possible to find out who you are, what you can do, who you can love and what you were meant to be in your own world. It’s a small idea to discover, but it can matter. Paul Mazursky’s MOON OVER PARADOR was released in early September 1988 and even though it opened in the number one slot at the box office the film didn’t stick around for long. Only a week later the top spot was taken over by A FISH CALLED WANDA, which had already been playing since July. The following week the number one film was David Cronenberg’s DEAD RINGERS. What I’m saying here, kids, is that it was a strange and different time. This was Mazursky’s first film after DOWN AND OUT IN BEVERLY HILLS, one of the biggest hits of his career but as much as that one seemed to totally click, MOON OVER PARADOR feels like a screwball concept aiming for high comedy that becomes more pleasant than anything and in the end sort of fizzles. Even the ideas similar to other Mazursky films, which are there if you dig far enough, feel shoehorned in so it’s mostly a nice diversion where the pleasures are maybe a little too minor.

While filming a movie in the South American dictatorship of Parador, actor Jack Noah (Richard Dreyfuss) decides to stick around a few extra days for Carnival when he is suddenly kidnapped and brought to Roberto Strausmann (Raul Julia), the dictator’s head of secret police with the news that Parador’s president Alphonse Simms has suddenly died of a heart attack. Having seen Noah’s uncanny impression of the dictator, Strausmann gives him the chance of a lifetime to impersonate Simms and help the country avoid revolution. Noah accepts, even though he has very little choice, but soon encounters Sims’ mistress Madonna Mendez (Sonia Braga) who quickly learns the truth about what has happened. She offers to help Jack out with his new role but even as he gets further into the part and achieves more success as Simms he gets increasingly fearful of the insane Strausmann while continuing to look for a way to escape playing this role forever.

The opening shot showing Joseph Papp’s Public Theater in New York that leads into the framing device makes it clear that MOON OVER PARADOR is mostly a theatrical piece, not as concerned with the agonies of the real world as some of Mazursky’s other films are. It also feels like one of the only Paul Mazursky films that doesn’t seem designed to be set in the specific moment it was made, as if the life of an actor resides outside of such earthly matters. Maybe Mazursky just liked the idea of making a broad comedy without too much personal introspection but it’s sort of an outlier in his filmography which consists of stories that seemed almost designed to date instantly, set during the exact cultural moment in which they were conceived. Aside from the fact that this is obviously an 80s movie set during the 80s there’s next to nothing about it that comments on the period except for maybe a random Reagan joke and a few other small details. The idea apparently came from the plot of the 1939 film THE MAGNIFICENT FRAUD but MOON OVER PARADOR (screenplay by Leon Capetanos & Mazursky, based on a story by Charles G. Booth) is also somewhat similar to Ivan Reitman’s DAVE which came only five years later, written by Gary Ross and slightly more of a comment on actual politics of the time, arriving in theaters at the end of three terms of Reagan-Bush. PARADOR is set in more of a fanciful movie world taking place in a fictional country and the film itself is one that cares more about the art of performance than anything. Even if what could happen to Parador becomes a plot device meant to be taken more or less seriously it still never seems part of the real world and it never feels like Jack Noah is in any real danger. The country is all kind of a dream in his head and so is the film.

Filmed in Brazil with bright, cheerful cinematography by Donald McAlpine, MOON OVER PARADOR always looks good in a movie-movie way and certainly has a wide, expansive feel, clearly the biggest of all Mazursky productions complete with what appears to be thousands of extras in some shots. Maybe the peak moment of the entire running time comes early on during the Carnival sequence as none other than Sammy Davis Jr., playing himself, glides into frame singing “Begin the Beguine” with Sonia Braga dancing in a tight gold dress next to him, the image so decadent that it almost seems beamed in from another planet. Nothing else lives up to how truly out there the moment feels but what also sticks out is how Mazursky doesn’t seem very interested in all the activity around them. He goes right for the people he cares about in the middle of all this and other filmmakers may have gone for a few extra angles of everything going on but Paul Mazursky was never a director that you went to for epic scope. By a certain point in the film the lack of attention paid to how many extras there are almost becomes part of the joke, the main character growing more unimpressed and along with that scale it’s perhaps the most benign film that Mazursky ever made. It’s also one of the slightest, mildly engaging but never delivering on the big laughs as if he was so content to be amused by what the actors were doing that he never went beyond that. The scripting is loose, not surprising since Mazursky is at his best when he digs inside his characters and their foibles, but the people in this film aren’t deep enough to explore since it’s mostly just a lark. His films were never about clockwork plot structure either but it’s such a light story that there’s not much to gleam from Jack Noah’s predicament and as things play out not enough laughs to support that either.

It may be fair in this day and age to ask if the basic premise counts as a form of brownface and it’s certainly not something the film is ever concerned about. The real dictator is quickly forgotten by the people who knew him and no one seems surprised that he’s dead, being all too familiar with his extravagant lifestyle. Jack Noah’s concerns as an actor mostly has to do with how needy he is, how antsy he is to move on to the next job. Instead of worrying about how his life is in jeopardy all it takes is a few old reviews waved in front of his face to convince him how perfect he is for this part. If you’re looking for a character arc, not exactly something this film is that concerned with, you could say that what he learns is that the praise needs to come not from cheering crowds but from those closest to you and, in the end, yourself. That’s how you find peace. The film wants Parador to slightly come off as a fantasy kingdom like Freedonia in DUCK SOUP (forget about any language issues; I think the convoluted history of the country we’re given is meant to account for that) but still have us worry about the citizens caught between the fascists in charge and the rebels threatening revolution. When the phony dictator finally takes action to really do something the plot mostly peters out. There’s probably a biting satire to be made on Latin American politics but this isn’t the film and it’s not really what they were going for anyway.

Naturally the people close to Simms figure out that something is up right away and simply decide not to say anything out of fear of losing their jobs with the declaration, “The dictator is the dictator” which is a good joke but it also means that they don’t do much aside from that. Up against the maniacal raving of Raul Julia there’s something automatically funny about having almost all of the great Fernando Rey's performance as Simms’ valet be one giant poker face but the film still doesn’t do very much with the idea. Even Charo is there as just a sight gag announcing her presence and not much else. It’s a film filled with people who give it a slight tinge of madness but too many of them have little to do so Mazursky’s skewering is just a little too genial as if he likes people too much to get too nasty with them. Instead he focuses on the broad bits of business like Julia teaching Dreyfuss about the art of flipping his hand as he salutes although it has to be said that skewering the vanity of a Latin American dictator feels a little subdued compared to the real world these days. Running jokes about the presumably escaped Nazis living in Parador flitter in and out, the rebels have their own actor on their side (cameo by Ed Asner) and even the real dictator was likely just a puppet as well. Everyone is an imposter and no one cares.

The overall message approaches being cynical but the tone is still so benign that it isn’t one of the more interesting Mazursky films although as a flat out comedy it’s probably not supposed to be anyway. It’s breezy and moves so fast that I’m almost surprised the film is as long as it is (103 minutes) with the boisterous Maurice Jarre score bringing just the right larger than life quality. Even when the material is half baked it feels like Mazursky is always doing something with the frame, always giving an actor in it something to do so nothing about it is ever dull or dumbed-down, it’s just a little too mild. The film has spirit but it needs more of a manic streak, more doors being slammed, more panic coming from Richard Dreyfuss being Richard Dreyfuss. Working lyrics from MAN OF LA MANCHA into a speech is cute as is the new Parador National Anthem patterned after “Bésame Mucho” but not much more than that and when Mazursky himself turns up in drag playing the dictator’s mother the whole thing takes on a slight in-joke feel, nothing really at stake. In Sam Wasson’s book “Paul on Mazursky” the director, who mostly recalls the film with genial fondness, talks about how there were issues with Universal during the cutting very late in the game. Some of what the studio wanted done sounds like executive doublespeak to make adjustments to the story or bolster the main character’s arc, not really what he cared about. It’s fair to argue that there were problems with the film but they probably should have been addressed while it was being written, not during the eleventh hour when at best all you could do was apply a few random Band-Aids.

It’s a film that feels like what it was meant to be but it’s still a little too mellow in the end and as a result not very memorable. It’s nice and that’s really it. More than being a farce it’s almost like a spiritual journey by the main character, the sort undertaken in Mazursky’s WILLIE AND PHIL and TEMPEST which helps Jack Noah convince himself of what he’s able to pull off both as an actor and as a person. Acting, the very concept of being an artist, is real and tangible the film seems to say, something the maniac Strausmann can never comprehend. He hates actors but loves celebrities, an obsession that is his Achilles heel, and it’s all surface for him, all about empty power, never about the art of truly being. The framing device is still a glimpse at the Paul Mazursky film we’d rather see, an actor living in New York with the Sunday Times always nearby in that familiar world instead of this prolonged vacation. The movie we get in essence is the Mazursky world view of loving life but that quality removes any bite the story could have. Because of the flashback device it’s a little open how much of what Dreyfuss tells really happened but it doesn’t matter because reality often feels somewhat fluid in Mazursky films anyway. To him, the journey is about enriching yourself and if you do something useful for others along the way that’s good too. Sometimes these glories have to be created in our own heads and, as the end of the film reminds us, that’s the way we need to live our lives in order to survive.

What the film does have is its three lead performances and the chemistry that’s always there when they play off each other. When he’s simply Jack Noah, Richard Dreyfuss is about as loose as he’s ever been in a film, almost with no inhibitions in between identities and even amused by his own insecurities. When he’s the dictator the broadness makes it more of a caricature that the true character never really comes through, a reminder that Noah himself feels he’s giving a “result-oriented performance.” But in either guise some of Dreyfuss’ best moments on a pure acting level are him up against Raul Julia, truly maniacal as Strausmann displaying a sense of comic danger that combines joie de vivre with the ever-present threat that he really could go mad at any second. When the rest of the movie cruises along, he forces it into overdrive with the sheer Nazi ferociousness of his laughter. And when Sonia Braga is onscreen the pure physicality of her presence (her hair deserves its own screen credit) combined with sharp coming timing is in its own way a dream for Dreyfuss to work with so their banter becomes an actual relationship combining chemistry with friendly bickering in the middle of this fantasy romance. Jonathan Winters gets a few moments as the retiree with his own secret identity—some of his muttering to Dreyfuss early on sounds like ad-libbing and I wish there was more of it. Polly Holliday is Winters’ wife, Marianne Sägebrecht of BAGDAD CAFÉ is the dictator’s masseuse, Dana Delany is Jack Noah’s co-star in the film shooting in Parador, Michael Greene of LOST IN AMERICA is the special effects guy, Dick Cavett is Dick Cavett, Mazursky’s wife Betsy, who recently died on Oct. 3 2017, appears briefly as does Richard Dreyfuss’ brother Lorin, playing the real dictator when the two are in the same shot.

Right now we seem to find ourselves as strangers in a strange land as far as the real world goes, it just feels like more of a dark allegory than a fantasy. MOON OVER PARADOR is a nice enough movie and even a hopeful one it’s just a little toothless even if it is a reminder that we’re all experts on fake presidents/would-be dictators these days. The film is ultimately a lark, complete with a couple of Parador cops who turn up throughout as a sort of Greek chorus throughout as we follow their journey from cynicism to a sincere nod of the head as if to say, maybe this could work. In some small way it counts as progress. The punchline to the whole theme of everyone acting as an imposter comes at the end with a suggestion that we’re seeing someone as they really are for the first time and the moment doesn’t quite land but it is a nice thought. “Sonia Braga is Hillary Clinton, but I didn’t know that then,” Mazursky offers in “Paul on Mazursky” (published in 2011) and if he had maybe there would have been sharper focus towards where the film was going. But it also makes me think of what Mazursky has missed out on since he died in 2014. MOON OVER PARADOR is still likable and not at all a travesty, not then or now, it just never clicks as maybe it could have. But it does make me think that all the world isn’t just a stage, it’s a theater. And it’s up to you if you want to watch or come up with your own character. In life the clock is always ticking towards what we’re meant to be with the hope that maybe someday we’ll figure it out.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Just Passing Through

The world is what the world is. Mostly people are no damn good and that’s the future we’re living in. So it’s important to remember that your own redemption, if you choose to go down that path, needs to come from yourself and no one else. It would be nice to blank out the past, and in some cases that’s exactly what I’ve tried to do, but it’s not always so easy. You just have to carve out your own place in the world no matter how much it’s tried to beat you down and look for the few good ones out there who want to come along. Sam Peckinpah’s THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE might be the least well-known from the golden ’69-’74 period of his films but it’s a lovely piece of work, beautiful and sloppy, emotional and erratic. Released in 1970 and his immediate follow-up to THE WILD BUNCH, it’s nowhere close to perfect but it’s a downright gentle film, presenting a world that’s always fighting the memory of the past while wrestling with the inevitability of the future but is still sadly decent down to its core. Recently made available by Warner Archive in a gorgeous new Blu-ray it’s likely better looking here than it has ever been before, including how the 35mm prints no doubt looked at the time of release. It’s a flawed film about a flawed man and both deserve to be loved anyway in the end. There’s nothing wrong with dreaming that maybe someday things will be better. Sometimes that’s all we have.

When Cable Hogue (Jason Robards) is left for dead out in the desert by his two partners (Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones), he wanders for several days in search of water, occasionally asking God for help and saying he’ll repent. After several days and in the middle of a nasty wind storm he suddenly discovers mud on his boot and when he digs to investigate finds an underground spring filled with, as he puts it, “water where it wasn’t”. Realizing that he’s made this seemingly impossible discovery right along a stagecoach route midway between the towns of Dead Dog and Lizard, Hogue sees an opportunity to capitalize on the need for water there so he acquires a deed for the small amount of land, a mere two acres, builds himself a house and opens for business. He soon befriends the wandering minister Reverend Joshua Duncan Sloane (David Warner) and upon visiting the nearby town of Dead Dog encounters Hildy (Stella Stevens), the local prostitute. When he finally gets the homestead which Joshua names Cable Springs up and running Hildy comes to stay with him for a spell on her way to San Francisco after she’s been kicked out of the town but instead of going with her Hogue is determined to wait where he is for the former partners who abandoned him to turn up so he can finally get his revenge.

Unlike the carnage of THE WILD BUNCH and the increasingly cynical outlook of all existence found in his later films, THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE is a downright benign feature length musing about the very nature of existence out there in the vastness of the desert. Like a few other Peckinpah films there’s a killing of a small animal at the very start but in this case it’s just about the most brutal act committed by anyone through the entire running time. That includes the few human deaths which feel downright justified in comparison since this is a world where those things are sometimes justified and can be forgiven, a west where Slim Pickens rides up on a stagecoach and he couldn’t be more willing to help you out. It feels like the directorial credit is held back a few moments past the title sequence, as if Peckinpah doesn’t want to officially sign his name to this story until Hogue makes his discovery, essentially learning that he’s not going to die just yet, underlining how much this particular west is a benign flipside to the brutally ugly universe of THE WILD BUNCH even if it is about some of the same early twentieth century end-of-the-west themes. There’s even the return of Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones teamed up again as if that film never even ended and once again a tent revival with the expected chorus of “Shall We Gather at the River” turns up only instead of carnage it merely results in a slapstick sequence that takes the tent down, mere gentle mockery instead of bodies violently blown away.

The undercurrent of revenge that Cable has his mind set on is one reason the plot keeps going in the script by John Crawford and Edmund Penney; that pays off but it’s more about how he takes advantage of his good fortune since finding water out there is almost as good as finding gold. “I’m worth something, ain’t I?” he angrily barks out while trying to get seed money for his new spread, with an anger that indicates no one has ever thought that before. When Hogue is presented with an American flag to officially coronate Cable Springs the moment has a sudden extra meaning in 2017 just as I imagine it did back in 1970, a reminder of how to really, finally be part of this country is something to be proud of, and he’s done it on his own terms. Watching the moment right now it’s hard not to wish this version of America really existed somewhere out there.

The best moments have an offhand loveliness and a true sense of calm, gently adding to the tall tale aspect, as if there’s no end to the amount of reflecting Cable Hogue can bring himself to do out there. The film takes its time, particularly during the first half with a long stretch of Hogue setting up the paperwork for his land, always more interested in the people and colorful dialogue than the plot which by a certain point has more to do with Cable determined to stick around mainly because he’s certain his former partners will eventually show up. Running a sliver over two hours the pacing is raggedy at times with a few beats going on a little too long and a few pieces that feel like they needed a little more finessing in the cutting room but there’s also continued inventiveness of the editing both within scenes and during transitions. It’s not the most visually aggressive Peckinpah film, photographed by Lucien Ballard, with the camera placement sometimes a little too random and it lacks the primal fever always felt when his films are in Scope, even if the 1.85 framing here goes better with the more relaxed vibe. But the lack of urgency and immediacy makes sense even more than usual since his films are so often about desperately trying to hold onto a world that is dying so what’s a few extra minutes anyway; it doesn’t want this way of life to end any more than the characters do even if it’s something that can’t be prevented.

That lyricism is also felt in the beautiful Jerry Goldsmith score which instead of playing up the majesty of the old west fuels Hogue’s own determination to not see his end just yet then aims for the simple acceptance of finding some kind of peace out there. In addition there are the prominent Richard Gillis songs, fitting for the post-BUTCH CASSIDY-Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head era but here turn out to play more of a part to bring out the true soul of the film, including a full-on duet between Robards and Stevens when their romance blossoms—an upbeat musical number in a Sam Peckinpah film is one of the more surprising things imaginable in all of cinema—but even better are the quieter grace notes that turn up particularly when David Warner is found singing a few bars of one of the songs by himself, totally unexplained where he might have heard them before, the sadness of the words hanging in the air which gives more power to the piece when it’s heard again later on. The songs go perfectly with the ramshackle rhythms of the film and these characters, each on their own road and determined to keep things that way; as Cable puts it, to join the normal people of the growing west in civilization would make them ‘nothin’’ and that’s something to put off for as long as possible.

Whatever miracle has led to Cable’s discovery he never questions it. He just accepts what happened and makes the place his home, calling out his own name to the horizon, willing the sound of it, willing himself to matter. The film is somewhat contemptuous of organized religion—even the local banker is suspicious of them and gladly chortles when the tent comes down—and Hogue, as Joshua puts it, makes the entire desert his cathedral which is the best way to stay true to himself. Just as Joshua is also a loner, his self-named parish “The Church of the Wayfaring Stranger” being of his own revelation (“Wherever I go, it goes with me.”) and even Hildy seems to proudly be the one prostitute in her town, perhaps a sign that civilization is encroaching even in a place called Dead Dog. The message seems to be, stay true to yourself and accept what comes. Don’t overthink it. Do something with what little time you have here. That’s what sticks in the brain from the film, a feeling of beauty and simplicity and isolation from the world, whether it’s Robards sitting there lost in his memories or Warner walking through the town at night in a west where he is all alone. And along with the running time are stretches where the mood doesn’t quite hold particularly during some moments of heavy-handed slapstick, complete with shots that are speeded-up in search of laughs that aren’t really there. Definitely not aging well are some of the skeezier elements, particularly how Stella Stevens is sometimes photographed and treated by the film, which in some ways recalls how Jerry Lewis had the camera linger over her in THE NUTTY PROFESSOR (it’s pretty clear she brought something out in her directors) but here going even further, zooming into her breasts and other body parts while lingering all over her, undoubtedly representing Hogue’s own view of Hildy but clearly the director as well, the Peckinpah Gaze made pure.

This isn’t the only one of his films that seem problematic today in that sense, of course, and it also spends a few minutes longer than it should with David Warner—phenomenal in this role, it needs to be said—taking physical advantage of both Stevens and what he believes to be a distraught widow played by Susan O’Connell (her husband, played by Gene Evans of Peckinpah’s PAT GARRETT and multiple Sam Fuller films soon turns up) which are clearly made to have him seem like a charming rapscallion when it comes to the ladies but the scenes play way too crass. Even if Hildy is essentially a whore with a heart of gold it’s still one of the best roles that Stevens ever had; the relationship between Hogue and Hildy gets more complex the longer she stays with him and a big fight over dinner between the two is stunningly good in how almost nothing is said, they know all the hurtful stuff already. By a certain point they’re on equal footing in Peckinpah’s eyes, Hogue even returns the favor of her giving him a bath by doing the same, but the intensity remains along with the feeling that another explosion between them isn’t too far off if she sticks around. Neither one can totally forget the past of the other person during their present.

“Just passing through,” Joshua drunkenly says after falling down some stairs, just as Cable builds a home out of a waystation for people making their way through the desert. Just like we all are, ultimately. Even this way of life is coming to an end when the credits roll although no one seems to want to admit it. There’s a sense of sobriety to THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE that I can’t quite shake, even with its most unfortunate indulgences, even with its ramshackle nature. To compare it to other Peckinpah films, THE WILD BUNCH is a fun and determined drunk, THE GETAWAY is a dinner party drunk, JUNIOR BONNER is a family reunion drunk, PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID is a sad drunk and BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA is an angry drunk. HOGUE, only drinking water although maybe a little woozy from all that sun in the desert, looks for a sense of peace through clarity that none of these others do as if continually asking what kind of revenge do you really need to keep going. It was by various accounts not an easy shoot due to weather problems and other issues so it stands to reason that there actually was a fair amount of drinking by Peckinpah, and presumably others, going on. But what the film presents in its depiction of hope of trying to accomplish something along with the feel of sober that is trying to stay that way, aware of how temporary all this is, inspirational in its own cockeyed notion. Nothing lasts forever but if you can prove something in spite of whatever the past is then maybe that matters in some way. The final moments are almost borderline perfunctory in its lack of total reverence towards what has just happened, racing to the inevitable close, as if a reminder that the things which get remembered are what happens when you’re alive. You don’t stop being who you really are. And just a moment can matter.

For once the actors in a Peckinpah seem cast not because of any particular iconic status but because of how much they fit these roles, the physicality of Jason Robards bouncing back and forth between his innate decency and a certain degree of bitterness that still lingers along with the power of his presence. Thanks to Robards you can never entirely pin down Cable Hogue only he is every bit the man that he deserves to be remembered as. Up against him, the abrasive charm of Stella Stevens has more of an effect than ever going right back and forth from the comedy to the darker moments; the way she plays it you just know how much she’s revealing to Hogue that she’s never shown to anyone else. The rogue quality of the awesome David Warner is like a revelation (as I’d imagine Joshua would put it) for anyone who only knows him from his bad guy roles and it’s a joy to see him as he enters scenes as if in a daze from wandering through the desert appearing truly happy to sit down and talk with someone like Cable, dropping as many biblical quotations he can into a single conversation. Plus the various Peckinapah players, the worminess of Strother Martin, the conniving of L.Q. Jones, the joy of seeing Slim Pickens turn up again, the disarming assistance coming from the banker played by Peter Whitney or the cagey by-the-book nature of R. G. Armstrong, each of them one with this particular western universe.

You never get rid of the pain of what you lose. You never get rid of the dreams that they’ll come back. The film itself dreams of a country, of a myth, of an idea of this land that maybe never was. Of decency, of goodness, of meeting that lady, the ladiest damn lady that you would ever want to meet, of finding water where it wasn’t, and having it all work for just a little while and all you want is for it to never end. It’s all a dream, of course, nothing more than a myth, a dream that no one ever notices because of course you’re not going to share it with anyone and you’re never completely certain just how much you’ll be able to forgive. THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE was mostly ignored upon release but has admirers even if they can’t quite be called a cult—no Bob Dylan soundtrack with this one, no Steve McQueen star power and it’s not the dive into total insanity that BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA is. It’s just messy sweetness and has been appreciated more recently if only because of how it plays into the Peckinpah mythos. When I tweeted out the main title song “Tomorrow Is The Song I Sing” not long ago someone replied, “I think about this movie every day.” It’s that kind of film that gets into you, cuts right in. Hopefully the new Warner Archive Blu which ports over the special features from the earlier DVD will play into that and making the film look this good is about as heroic as anything Cable Hogue did to survive out there in the desert. If you love Peckinpah, if you even have an interest in Peckinpah, I can’t recommend this disc more. It even restores the correct Kinney National-era Warner logo to the opening. A minor point but, well, sometimes the past really does matter, just like when you remember why you stopped doing certain things—right now I’m closing in on eighteen months but I still make no promises. I know why I stopped but the way things are these days you sometimes wonder if that’s a good enough reason anymore. It’s one more reason to try to keep on figuring out things for yourself. People don’t change, even if you want them to. As Joshua says to Cable when they muse over what it is about certain women, maybe when you die you get over it. Right now, I’m not so sure. But there’s always a chance.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

To Win Without War

There is no humanity without the awareness of cruelty. As much as we want to believe in reason, in goodness, we have to remember otherwise and understand that it may not get any better. That’s just the way some people are. John Frankenheimer’s SEVEN DAYS IN MAY was released in early 1964 and is meant to take place in the near future although it’s barely evident from watching the film. A date seen on a map possibly sets it in 1970 but there’s very little that would actually qualify it for some form of science fiction aside from the usage of video monitors for tele-conference purposes. The very concept of television and how it relates to people is something of a recurring image throughout Frankenheimer’s career and though SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, recently released on Blu-ray by Warner Archive in a stunning new transfer, is only a film about The Future in the loosest sense beyond an “all this could happen tomorrow…” feel the basic idea of how much would eventually play out on television wasn’t too far off. Frankenheimer was an extremely cultured, intelligent man, almost intimidatingly so but in spite of how much the film believes in a certain degree of justifiable paranoia he clearly also subscribes to the notion that the human brain is something which can eventually be won out by rationality. So he got some things wrong. On this particular point, if only for the optimism that he possessed, maybe he shouldn’t be faulted.

After a disarmament treaty with the Russians is ratified, the poll numbers for U.S. President Jordan Lyman (Frederic March) are at a record low. Almost by accident, Director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colonel Martin “Jiggs” Casey (Kirk Douglas) stumbles onto a few seemingly random pieces of information—a betting pool among high-ranking generals of the upcoming Preakness Stakes, the existence of a military base he was unaware of, which leads him to consider that there may very well be a secret plot led by the popular General James Scott (Burt Lancaster), the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, to stage a coup which will remove Lyman from office. With enough evidence and anecdotal information to at least convince the President of the possibility, Lyman sends various close allies off on secret missions to investigate and use what they know about Scott, including whatever may have happened with his former mistress Eleanor Holbrook (Ava Gardner), to discover the truth behind the plot and do whatever they can to stop what’s happening before it’s too late.

Based on the novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II with a screenplay by Rod Serling, SEVEN DAYS IN MAY is pure paranoid reportage, in some ways an extension of the hysteria portrayed in Frankenheimer’s previous film THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE but more grounded, more aware of the flaws within people that could lead to such potential calamities. The possibilities of what the end result might be are potentially far worse on a global scale, any satirical exaggeration in the earlier film is buried in favor of deadly seriousness with him taking one of the best scripts he ever had to work with and presenting it cleanly, briskly, tautly, always aware of what is at stake. There’s very little in the way of scale other than a small riot filmed in front of the actual White House and the closeness gives a feel of immediacy to every scene which hides how much is staged on sets, hinting at gigantic developments but only showing the briefest of glimpses. It’s a film set in a grown up world, a foreign concept right now, made by grown-ups, the premiere just days before Frankenheimer’s thirty-fourth birthday in ’64 and his total sense of focus is evident, throughout, each scene directed in a way that allows for total clarity as if it really is his own eye peering at every shot, waiting for what the characters are going to do next, every cut displaying a sign of his passion for the world to remind us how important it is to know what may possibly happen.

It’s essentially a thriller that mostly involves people conferring in rooms and the few traditional suspense beats are relatively low key but always compelling, its visual style consistent with other Frankenheimer films in how characters are often framed in relation to each other making every dialogue exchange even more intense. The overall feel is a little nightmarish at times, partly because of the Serling dialogue but also because of the claustrophobia felt by this insular world with certain elements offering a feel of ellipsis possibly for budget reasons but also possibly because the movie knows that it’s not really about the escape from the secret base in the middle of the desert. The plotting also keeps things close to the vest at times as to exactly what sort of plans are in motion with characters kept offscreen for stretches to add to their intrigue and if there’s more to a key plane crash than just an accident we never hear about it. Ava Gardner, the one prominent woman in the cast, is in for a few scenes as Scott’s ex-mistress with information that may be used against him which in one sense feels like an excuse to stick a semi-love interest into the picture and it’s a little soapish in how it plays but the subplot also becomes a reminder of the real world out there beyond the corridors of power, something that’s been discarded in favor of the job that never ends.

The heroes are conflicted, believing so strongly in the rules of their world that they can’t accept that something might come along to upend all of that until they have no other choice. Kirk Douglas’ Jiggs might not even be a ‘hero’ at all, ambivalent at best about the treaty and the information he’s passing along, while March’s President Lyman isn’t as torn about what he believes but he’s just uncertain enough about what he needs to do that it’s believable he won’t be strong enough in the end, firmly aware that even if he’s done the right thing it could still be his downfall. So it makes sense that the only person totally assured in what he’s doing is Lancaster’s General Scott, a few shots framed directly behind him that place us literally in his headspace as if a reminder that to him, his head is where the wisdom flows from, his decisions are what should be obeyed. The paranoia always in the air brings an otherworldly quality to the narrative helped by the rich, weighty intelligence of the Serling dialogue, every utterance with all the significance imaginable bringing a certain big budget TWILIGHT ZONE vibe to it. It’s made almost made more unsettling by how there’s nothing supernatural going on, events that can be explained if only they can be understood. As grounded as it is there are still a few elements that feel part of the ZONE/MANCHURIAN DNA to keep us uneasy and even Scott’s overcooked proclamations goes perfectly with his point of view as well as odd touches that skirt that vibe, particularly Andrew Duggan as one of the unknowing colonels at the secret base playing part of his role as if he’s in a slight daze, slowly waking up to the realization that there’s something off about it all.

It’s a version of the MANCHURIAN kaleidoscope that’s a little closer to the real world, the suggestion that Raymond Shaw play a game of solitaire turned into continued attempts here to have Edmund O’Brien’s alcoholic Senator Clark investigating the secret base to have a drink instead, to forget about all those things he’s being told are happening. When all else fails here the conspirators resort to simple gaslighting (“I’m afraid your memory fails you, Mr. President.”) which certainly helps to tie the film in to the world of 2017 even more. The crumpled piece of paper that might be a clue reveals more than any possible futuristic technology and all these TV monitors meant to show us what’s going on only make the true allegiances that much murkier although the thematic conclusions the film reaches courtesy of President Lyman, stating that the enemy isn’t Scott and his supporters but instead the paranoia of the nuclear age may seem naïve today, not when we have a major political party seemingly intent on stripping away all rights of a large amount of the populace. But this President, and the film as well, correctly labels it a sickness, the product of minds filled with desperation and impotence. There is the dream buried in the aspirations of the people who made this film that someday this can all be fixed, maybe someday this hatred can be wiped away, maybe someday Jiggs will redeem that raincheck Eleanor Holbrook keeps alluding to. There’s no point in waiting after all. We have to fight for the future, not stand around assuming it’s going to happen. Because that’s when the end comes.

Right now we live in a world beyond satire but this film is from another time, an extension of the live TV plays where Frankenheimer got his start, as well as films from long ago which aspired to people who might, just might, display the potential to be better, of what you’re tempted to do, and the good you might actually be capable of, when you’re down at the bottom of the barrel. The overall message is essentially pacifist but while still aware that the military is a reality it's purely, simply hopeful that one day we may be able to move past certain things. It’s also from another time when not only might certain love letters possibly incriminate somebody the people who have them actually have to think about it. What they have is dignity, something the traitorous Scott doesn’t possess nor does he care about, freely shutting somebody out the instant they start talking about ‘the Democratic way’ and the conservative commentator played by Hugh Marlowe of course folds under pressure instantly. Jiggs is human enough that he needs to take a gulp of that scotch before putting his suspicions into words and he agonizes over the choice he has to make, a reminder that it’s usually the good ones who argue over the morality of how to achieve their goals.

Very much a product of the Kennedy years, made pre-Dallas but released after and the specifics of the future don’t matter since Frankenheimer had no idea what was coming, no idea what would happen to JFK, no clue that in just a few years he would be accompanying RFK to the Ambassador. He couldn’t have known that one day there would be someone in power basing his decisions on what the TV ratings would be just as much of General Scott’s plan depends on being seen by the nation on television, the best way imaginable for a God (or a monster) to be anointed, at least until Facebook and Twitter came along. You shouldn’t have to wait for the future to happen before something is done but sometimes we’re forced to live with the consequences of those who didn’t act when they could have. The final words heard in the film immediately after a speech that sums everything up and states exactly what we want to hear (and, goddamnit, watching it now almost brings tears to my eyes) are of an announcer stating, “Ladies and gentlemen, that was the President of the United States.” With the final crash of Jerry Goldsmith’s brief score we are assured. It would be a nice feeling to have right now in the version of the future we’re living in, but I suppose we really do need to think of this as science fiction.

It’s a phenomenal cast. Burt Lancaster brings all his power and cagey intellect, spitting out the ferocity of his speeches without a care what the answer will be, the smugness of Scott daring the other person to even try to disagree. Frederic March is total dignity, coming off as someone you could imagine as weak but what he does he’s the strongest of them all, willing to keep from blinking and the power in his eyes and the uncertainty as well. It’s Lancaster and March who get the big confrontation of the entire film with each of them simply brilliant in how they come at each other. It was Kirk Douglas who reportedly realized as they were making the film that he had the lesser part so it could be argued that he visibly transfers that frustration to his performance of a man straitjacketed by what he’s compelled to do and the immense guilt he feels even though he knows what’s right, his silences left hanging there as he becomes more anguished over which side he’s on. As the woman who Scott won’t even say a word about when her name comes up, Ava Gardner plays her role a little like Ava Gardner as Ava Gardner Movie Star, waiting at a party with a drink in her hand to film her Special Guest Appearance. On the audio commentary Frankenheimer refers to difficulties with Gardner and she doesn’t always seem as confident as her co-stars; you can feel the director forced into coverage during a few of her scenes to help them play out. The great Edmond O’Brien received the one acting nomination for this at the Oscars and he’s electrifying, in some ways playing the audience surrogate, the one person in the film who appears to feel mortal, trying to keep his flaws in check for a little while to get the job done. Plus there’s also Martin Balsam, Whit Bissell, Richard Anderson (RIP), George Macready (also in PATHS OF GLORY and TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN with Douglas), Colette Jackson as a girl in an El Paso bar wondering about the nearby secret military base (she pops so instantly that on the audio commentary Frankenheimer wonders what happened to her; sadly, she died in ‘69 with only a few other credits) and an unbilled John Houseman, pitch perfect in his first film as an Admiral holding back the truth of what he knows about the plot.

People are who they are. And that’s what they want to be. Sometimes I wish it wasn’t true, but it is. The new Warner Archive Blu lives up to the importance of SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, with a transfer that is a huge improvement over the old DVD playing like a crisp new 35mm print after watching a muddy TV broadcast. Plus it contains the illuminating audio commentary that Frankenheimer recorded several years before his passing (he was one of the best at this—he remembers f-stops on certain shots, for crying out loud) and I wish he was still around to tell us more stories about this film to maybe shed more light on the path that led us to where we are right now with people who want nothing more than to be in command, just like the general working under Scott who we’re told subscribes to “out and out fascism”. At the very least, the people in this film seem more intelligent than certain people in the real world these days; certainly the film has better dialogue. So maybe that means there’s hope. Because right now we’re forced to deal with the madness while the intelligence that people like John Frankenheimer and Rod Serling delivered to the world gets left behind. Which is where we are right now. In the future.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Circuses Are Past History

Like the man says, the past is a foreign country. My own past in Los Angeles is of little interest and the more time goes on, the less any of it matters except in the most insignificant way imaginable. Way back in the 90s I always enjoyed going to the mall in Century City, partly for the movies and the bookstore, partly for the food but also because of the vibe of the place. I certainly got more than a few celebrity sightings there (Janet Leigh and Jamie Lee Curtis together was one of the best) and maybe to me the design of it seemed like what I had always imagined Los Angeles, or maybe just that generic southern California vibe, to be. The mall has been totally redone now so it doesn’t look like that anymore and by a certain point I stopped going to that part of town anyway. I miss it but that’s the way it goes.
One particular point of interest that was always attached to my fondness for the place is that it’s also where much of CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES was filmed, the location meant to represent the future world of the film’s “North America 1991” as the opening title put it, an indication that the country may not even be the United States anymore. Presumably they knew something about the future even if the years were slightly off.

The Twentieth Century Fox studio is right nearby—just up the street is where Fox Plaza aka “the DIE HARD building” would later be built—and the mall actually sits on what used to be part of the backlot so they didn’t have to travel far to use that location. Because of the extensive redesign of what’s now called “Westfield Century City” there’s not much left that’s recognizable, the mid-century modernistic feel to the place scrubbed away in favor of a certain plastic Kardashian vibe which somehow feels even more oppressive. The bridge that goes over Avenue of the Stars is still there of course even though the ramp leading up to it is new and though the staircase where Roddy McDowall’s Caesar makes his speech at the end is gone the building directly behind him is actually still there—I knew it as a Bank of America back in the 90s, now it’s something else. And there’s not even a plaque or a signpost or a statue there to indicate that this is the spot where the apes took over. But I guess it doesn’t matter. As far as CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is concerned, the future is now the past which in some ways means that the present is now the future, which is all it ever becomes.

North America, 1991 – Roughly twenty years after he acquired the baby chimpanzee offspring of Cornelius and Zira, the apes from the future, circus owner Armando (Ricardo Montalban) travels to the city with the now-grown ape Caesar (Roddy McDowall) at his side to advertise his upcoming show. But what Caesar encounters is a fascistic world where apes were turned into pets after the deaths of all cats and dogs but are now servants, essentially slaves to humans with Governor Breck (Don Murray) in charge of Ape Management which is designed to condition all simians so they will do the jobs they are trained for. Though Caesar is well aware he needs to not speak for fear of being discovered the treatment he witnesses soon causes him to shout out. In the melee of people convinced they have just heard an ape talk he is soon separated from Armando, who tries to take responsibility for what was heard, and Caesar is forced to blend in with the servant apes, soon even finding himself a slave under the command of Breck himself. But when the truth of what has happened to Armando is revealed, Caesar soon realizes that he has no choice but to take action and plot revolution.

The previous two films in the APES series, BENEATH THE… and ESCAPE FROM…, climaxed with the violent deaths of its main characters which in the first sequel was immediately followed by the total destruction of the entire planet. This apparently qualified each of them for a G rating but, hey, it was the 70s. CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, released in June 1972 and the fourth film in the series out of five, not only went beyond what even the MPAA was willing to hand over a G rating to it had to undergo considerable alterations during post-production to make it palatable for even a PG. After all, it depicts what is essentially a successful armed slave revolt that brings down the human race, which even in the 70s may have been considered a little much for kids. But it’s clearly a low budget armed slave revolt and considering that there are only a handful of locations actually used in the film we sort of have to take its success on faith, through dialogue telling us what will happen after the credits roll. Even after countless viewings I’m still a little unsure about the about the exact geography of the film’s primary location as depicted, presumably to make the area seem bigger than it is but it’s to the film’s credit how much it sidesteps issues of technology for this film set in the future such as how there’s not even a single automobile seen in the entire film. But science fiction or not, CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES isn’t about detailing a futuristic world or even presenting an ape revolt as it is detailing its own subtext, something which may have been in the air when the film was made and in some ways still is.

There’s surprisingly little in the way of plot with the three acts of the screenplay by Paul Dehn (who had also worked on the previous two films) serving as essentially capture, slavery and revolt. And that’s it. Most of the exposition is packed into what Ricardo Montalban’s Armando has to tell Caesar the film’s start (really, you’d think he’d have told him all this ahead of time) so we don’t ask too many questions about how much it remains consistent with the other films. It doesn’t match up exactly anyway, forced from a continuing storyline that backed into what it became by the destruction of the world in the far off future as seen at the end of BENEATH, creating a time loop that never made any sense even on a science fiction level but we just go with it. It’s one of those things that make the flawed storytelling of all the films put together so compelling that certain elements meant to connect can never be fully reconciled. The future of 1991 as presented is clearly a cold world as if without their pets any shred of kindness or even humanity has been wiped away from these people, almost in a very early CHILDREN OF MEN sort of way. It turns out no children are even seen in this film anyway but it feels like a safe bet that if there were they’d be just as bad as their parents. The recurring imagery of waves crashing up to the surf from earlier films are nowhere to be found and in its place is a world of metal and concrete, no joy, nothing but business.

“Circuses are past history,” a guard awkwardly states early on which in the context of the actual 2017 has turned out to be close to true with Ringling Bros. closing down this year. Of course, in our real world that’s a reminder of increased attention paid to animal rights and how people don’t like clowns very much anymore. In this film’s future the very concept of a circus is almost a symbol of all things pure, of art, joy and knowledge having been done away with. Which, looking at it again in the context of the real 2017, doesn’t seem so far off either. Even the concept of space travel, that symbol of optimism where the entire APES series began, is now little more than a place that astronauts have brought viruses back from. The slave outfits given to the simians are somewhat obviously meant to foreshadow the color schemes they would evolve into by the time of the original film far off in the future while most of the humans are all dressed in oppressive black as if they have no color in their lives to lose. The pleasures they now have are totally sterile with even cigarettes apparently having been made too safe to ever enjoy again. Everyone, every human, seems either angry, unpleasant or simply arrogant. The few we see out and about in this futuristic shopping plaza are clearly part of whatever the upper class is, living in paranoia as if they know the revolution is inevitable, the less fortunate ones tossed further down by their service jobs being taken over by the ape slaves.

It’s difficult to tell if things would be such a police state even if the apes weren’t around and Governor Breck is concerned with little other than maintaining his power, barking out orders to underlings. Even one command to “simplify that last paragraph” in a speech makes clear than anti-intellectualism is now the order of the day. Thought doesn’t matter anymore. Only adherence does. Only loyalty. In his paranoia Breck serves the function of Dr. Zaius from the original film only without the intellect, which makes him a perfect human leader. For a film that has to present a future on a tight budget (reportedly $1.6 million; by this point the budgets for each sequel were getting progressively smaller) it’s clear enough to be understood immediately. It’s a fascist world and it deserves to have a revolt by the apes. Plain and simple. With much of it shot on location (in addition to Century City, a few scenes filmed at UC Irvine) there are only a few sets that seem to have been built, the masks on many of the background apes are worse than ever and even if global ramifications of what happens are bigger than ever the plot is the slimmest of the five films, fitting nicely into the 87 minute running time. But it’s so effective in its stripped down way that very little of that matters.

Director J. Lee Thompson was a workhorse of a filmmaker, with a career going from the 50s to the 80s that included THE GUNS OF NAVARONE and the original CAPE FEAR but also a lot of sludge. Whether he responded here to the themes or even took the production limitations as a challenge there’s more ferociousness and energy felt here than in a number of his big budget prestige pictures. Along with DP Bruce Surtees (whose work during this period included DIRTY HARRY and NIGHT MOVES) brings to every scene an immediacy that the earlier films in the series never had, whether handheld cameras to make the ape riots resemble newsreel footage or shots which accentuate the coldness of the architecture. They seem energized by how to shoot Century City with the austerity of every sharp angle lending itself to the minimal plotting, looking for the hardness in the angles everywhere and makes the world seem that much more foreboding; it’s the only APES film after the original which feels like it contains a genuine point of view to how it’s shot with the total darkness during night scenes handled particularly well. One imagines John Carpenter seeing the film in ’72 and ideas forming in his head for how he could expand on these themes and visuals but the film is still no slouch.

It’s a film with not just blunt power but full on anger that goes beyond the satire of the concept into pure documentation of the horror, knowing there is only one side and this is the way it’s supposed to be. While the ham-handed protests meant to reflect Vietnam demonstrations in BENEATH felt hackneyed, in this film the imagery emerges perfectly out of where the story has gone. And with the somewhat liberal African-American MacDonald is the only character in the movie who seems to put actual thought into his actions and opinions but while he may be in a position of power he still hasn’t achieved any form of respect. “What’s he, like apes or something?” “Yeah, don’t it figure?” goes an exchange between two guards talking about him, a clear sign that apes may have been moved over to the bottom of the human food chain but old-fashioned racism among humans is still there. There’s no longer any one clear voice of reason with any authority whether the calm, collected president played by William Windom in ESCAPE or even a scientist like Eric Braeden’s Dr. Hasslein in that film who even as the bad guy had a point of view, ugly as it was. Even Caesar is without any real guidance whether Armando or the absent Cornelius and Zira so there’s no longer wisdom to pass down to the younger generation. Guards dressed like Nazi Stormtroopers patrolling the apes combined with the subpar masks of the background apes somehow add to that nightmarish quality. Even on its own level I still have a few plot questions but it doesn’t really matter since having it all match up with the correct timeline isn’t important. Just as the repeated sounds of ‘No!’ are used to mollify the apes from their conditioning and gets repeated when Armando eventually uses the same word to plea for his life, it’s a movie about imagery and sound connecting to the ideas of which the only real answer reached is this is a world that deserves toppling. And since no one else is going to rise up, it may as well be Caesar, the one already named for a king.

The minimalism gives the film an objective and a total sense of focus, helping the movie age well although what it is makes it sometimes more compelling than what it does; even at 87 minutes you can tell there’s not much story so all the sneaking around Caesar does can’t always hide how listless it is, the electrocution sequence feels muddled in a way that hurts what follows and the disobedience section gets short shrift maybe because the film just wants to get to the revolt by that point. But the appearance of a special unrated version on Blu-ray a few years back makes some of these flaws seem minor considering what it turns the film into, dispensing with the original conciliatory speech that had to be cobbled together in post to soften the ending along with some of undeniably shocking violence during the revolt and even a few additional music cues that feel like they were dropped for just sheer intensity almost as if the film itself is shouting at you to understand the message. The overall feel of the last half-hour, not just that final speech, is much harsher and bloodier almost to the point of genuinely wanting the audience to rise up. In just about the most shocking newly added moment to this version Governor Breck takes a gun from a guard (hey, at least he’s willing to do things himself) and shoots a gorilla right in the face, firing directly at the camera, in effect firing it at us. The message is clear. We are the apes. It’s the real monsters, whether they’re the fascists, the Nazis, the republicans, who all need to be taken down. And there should be no sympathy for them.

That jangly score by Tom Scott which, based on the Film Score Monthly soundtrack release, had a fair amount unused which may have been for the best although while the silence in certain scenes adds to the minimalism, a few parts are still too dry as a result. There’s more of it in the unrated version and in both is transformed from atonal bombast into an instantly recognizable Jerry Goldsmith track from the original (part of “The Search Continues” on that soundtrack album) at the very end to signify that the new world is born. I wish there was more information out there on this version—was it basically just sitting in a vault at Fox since the early 70s? Did the studio really make them take out music cues that were too upsetting? Is this really Thompson’s preferred version of the film? But it does manage to make the film feel as complete as it ever will, much more than the 4:30 movie that it’s always been in my memory. Thompson confirmed in Eric Greene’s book “Planet of the Apes as American Myth” that the film was based on the Watts riots and there had certainly been other forms of civil unrest during the years in between. Watching it now, I can’t help but view it with a whiff of Stonewall as well. The revised ending which was once all that was known pulls back and so does BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES, the next and last in the series also directed by Thompson, which is pretty kid oriented as well as more hopeful but it is a sequel to this film’s theatrical cut after all. But that’s another story. Considering other films that were made in the early 70s—DELIVERANCE, for one, opened a month later—what they changed it to it passed for a happy ending. Of course, maybe we’re living in a world where an ape did take over after all, just not an intelligent one. After all, as this film and recent times reminds us some people were not born human.

Clearly reveling in the chance to play a new character in the series, so much of Roddy McDowall’s performance is in his movement and eyes, letting the silences play out as if he’s just waiting for his character’s explosion at the very end. It’s one of McDowall’s finest moments but even the small touches stand out particularly when he and Don Murray take a moment to just stare at each other as Caesar chooses his name, everything imaginable stated in that silence. I can’t help but imagine the two actors finding that bit of business on the set and suddenly not caring about anything else in the scene going on around them. Murray, once opposite Marilyn Monroe in BUS STOP and currently on TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN as the boss of Dougie Jones, has stated that he deliberately rehearsed his dialogue in German to give it the proper cadence when he translated it back and it provides the right tone for his performance which gives each moment he plays the exact amount of contempt for all necessary. Even at the very end Breck’s arrogance won’t let him break eye contact with the ones about to do him in, making him seem somewhat braver than certain real life versions do these days. Returning as Armando, Ricardo Montalban dives right into the insane amount of exposition he has to spit out in the opening minutes with a passion which would defeat other actors, proving how good he was at dealing with preposterous dialogue and the character’s own true passion of what he believes in the midst of pure hatred is always evident. Hari Rhodes, also in Sam Fuller’s SHOCK CORRIDOR, provides a weighty middle ground of humanity in the film between the emotion and cold, calculated hatred bringing unshakable moral authority even when he knows there’s only so much he can do to change things, Natalie Trundy, wife of producer Arthur P. Jacobs who played several roles in the APES franchise, is the female ape Lisa and the icy oddness of Severn Darden, who returned in BATTLE as did Trundy, coming off as the most vicious kind of simple, pragmatic evil.

My own past doesn’t matter. Only the present does and what sort of actual future we’re really going to get, who can say. As far as the recent reboot/prequels go, I liked RISE, thought DAWN was pretty terrible and I’m moderately sort of ok on WAR even though it’s little more than empty spectacle. There’s not very much in the new film to discuss since aside from the effects there’s nothing there, as empty and hollow as you’d expect from an effects extravaganza made in North America 2017. But to this day I’ll still occasionally watch one of the sequels from the original five-film cycle, even the ones I never think are any good, maybe for some twisted nostalgia of how daring movies like this were sometimes allowed to be. CONQUEST feels compromised in some ways and it’s clearly aimed at kids but the film has a danger to it which in some ways makes it more appropriate for kids than any of them. They need to learn who the bad guys are, after all, and why such a revolt happens. It’s never too soon to be aware of such things, especially these days.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Between Planes

Deep down, part of the problem is all the waiting. You know you need to stop doing it but you can’t. And there’s nothing you can do about it except everything imaginable. But for now, let’s go back a very long time to way before the world ended, maybe longer than I want to admit, since it makes sense to start there. The occasion was a massive Billy Wilder retrospective at the Film Forum in New York which for all I know I’ve mentioned before. The double bill that day was ONE TWO THREE and LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON, two Wilder films I had never seen although that aside I can’t think of any particular reason for pairing them together. The problem, which anyone familiar with the films will understand, was that I saw ONE TWO THREE first. Fairly close on the list to being one of my favorite Wilders by now it’s definitely one of the fastest, hell it’s one of the fastest movies ever made. So following it up with a much slower, virtually languid romance may not have been ideal. But that’s the way I saw them that day and that’s the way it goes. And now that LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON has been released on Blu via Warner Archive that’s about the best possible reason to finally see it again after all this time. In addition to its considerably staid pacing, there’s a slightly different feel compared to other Wilder films as if he’s trying to find a balance between misanthropy and romance that would actually make sense in his filmic world. It’s so reflective at times that it’s practically about the very act of reflecting. Even now I can’t entirely get on board with all of it but if you don’t insist on comparing it to the Wilder I know and love that feels more intent on cutting into the way our works really works, falling into its melancholic rhythms becomes a little easier. Looking at it now is a reminder of what it’s like to fight your way through a cynical world, one in which lying might be the only way to make it through the day. While waiting for someone to come around.

Parisian cello student Ariane Chavasse (Audrey Hepburn), forever curious about the cases her private detective father Claude (Maurice Chevalier) is working on, overhears him talking to a new client known only as Monsieur X (John McGiver) who has been told of his wife’s affair with rich American playboy Frank Flannagan (Gary Cooper). When the client proclaims that he will show up at their rendezvous and shoot Flannagan (“In that case, you leave me no choice. I must insist on being paid right now,” Claude Chavasse calmly replies), Ariane becomes desperate to stop this and when she is unable to get the police to help shows up at the hotel suite herself. She prevents the crime but her mysterious nature intrigues Flanagan who insists on seeing her again. They do and have a brief, passionate affair even though she refuses to tell him so much as her name and he soon departs to continue his jet set life. When Flanagan returns to Paris a year later and they meet again she not only still keeps her name secret to keep his interest begins telling him stories about her supposed love life based entirely on what she’s read in her father’s voluminous files of adultery. But the more stories Flanagan hears from her, the more determined he becomes to find out who this mysterious girl really is.

The opening spells it out: an establishing shot of Paris which is revealed to be a mere drawing, followed by multiple drawings of other views of the city displayed out on a Parisian street. In other words, within the real city is a fantasy city, whichever one you want it to be. It’s a visual statement of theme of the sort that we don’t usually get from Wilder but maybe he’s saying that this is the Paris he remembered from when he first encountered it long ago or possibly even the one he wished had always been there. For me LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON doesn’t belong in the upper echelon of Wilder films; there’s a grace to its style that is insistent about itself but it never seems to flow in the right way even though the veritable catalog of preoccupations on display makes it essential. It also marked the beginning of his collaboration with co-writer I. A. L. Diamond and except for the immediate follow-up WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, the partnership would continue all the way to the end with 1981’s BUDDY BUDDY. So something different is felt here, a definite shift away from the strain of certain mid-50s Wilder titles with a sudden ease felt to the storytelling as if settling in to a style that fits, finding a comfort level to this new approach that makes it clear the movie is in no rush to get away from itself.

It’s still a black & white world, not the hard-bitten one of DOUBLE INDEMNITY, SUNSET BOULEVARD and ACE IN THE HOLE but one that’s more romantic in its accepting of the very concept of loneliness, as if dreaming of a grand romance that never quite took place. From this point on there’s a good deal of reflection in Wilder’s films with characters trying to come to terms with what never was or will never be. They’re facing middle age or beyond, often while staying in hotels somewhere feeling like the world is passing them by as the realization hits that they may be forgotten. Of course, for much of LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON the male lead never seems to have these concerns and just about the biggest problem that anyone has ever had with the film involves the age difference between the leads, specifically Audrey Hepburn being 28, presumably playing younger, and Gary Cooper being 56 and looking at least a few years older. It’s almost impossible to think about the film without acknowledging that, yes, he looks too old to be playing this rogue even if he does carry with him enough self-confidence to be believable as a rakish world-class playboy. Wilder’s first choice was Cary Grant, although I can never quite see him in this role regardless of age and let’s save the issue of Audrey Hepburn being paired with so many older men in her films for another time. The movie certainly doesn’t ignore the matter and the story seems designed for that anyway. “Aren't you a little too young,” he asks her. “Aren't you a little too old,” she says back to which he understandably replies, “That hurts.” Which doesn’t excuse or justify it, only to point out what the story is, of someone older trying to hold onto the younger person looking up to them and in a sense yearning for the past. It can be a nice dream, anyway.

Clearly meant as a tribute to the sparkling champagne feel of the films of Ernst Lubitsch, Wilder’s hero and teacher, director of the NINOTCHKA screenplay that he wrote with Charles Brackett, LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON was also the second of three 1957 releases for Wilder coming between the gargantuan THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS and the compact, much more characteristic WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION. After the likes of SABRINA and THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH, each based on popular Broadway shows, LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON (screenplay by Wilder & I. A. L. Diamond, based on the novel by Claude Anet; the novel had been previously filmed in Germany as ARIANE in 1931) feels closer to his own personal style for the first time in a few years with an extra level to all the melancholy. You’d expect technicolor from a romantic comedy make in 1957, not the black & white look courtesy of DP William Mellor (who also shot A PLACE IN THE SUN and GIANT, among others) and while there’s a coyness to LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON in its opening narration by Maurice Chevalier that introduces us to romance in Paris (one of multiple such Wilder beginnings) along with the husband and wife known only to us as Monsieur and Madame X as if the film doesn’t want to reveal the names of all involved to us, there’s a gloom over much of it that almost overrides the humor of the piece. Flannagan decides to call Ariane “Thin Girl” since she won’t give him her name but it could easily be Sad Girl, since she spends most of the film desperate for connection with just about anybody, trying to achieve some form of happiness in a world where it seems like everything has already been decided. Her semi-boyfriend from the conservatory never seems interested in her at all until she begins to lose interest in him and the cello she carries around everywhere is like an albatross; the film seems to be saying her art is holding her back from life.

The way it plays, LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON is almost too relaxed at times to the point that it feels like a few laughs are missed due to deliberately lackadaisical line readings. Technically it’s a comedy but some of the best dialogue exchanges seemingly waft into the frame and out again, lost in the mist, trying to infuse itself with the spirit of Lubitsch as if Wilder wants nothing more than for that feeling to somehow survive into the era of rock n’ roll. Instead of floating through the air like some of the best of Lubitsch does it drifts in a rowboat, just as the characters do at one point, almost not moving at all. Individual moments have zip and the dialogue often brings just the right flavor particularly Ariane’s call to a policeman who refuses to put a stop to matters involving adultery in Paris, of all cities. But Lubitsch films back in the 30s which featured the likes of Cooper and Chevalier were around 90 minutes, sometimes 80. LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON stretches out to 129 and you feel every minute of it. The extra running time does give the film a certain added weight beyond the frothiness but maybe it’s almost asking too much of the simple story of the “Two people who met between planes,” she says, trying to talk herself out of thinking anything else of it. It’s missing the acidity of the best parts of SABRINA; at the very least, Hepburn and Bogart in that film felt like they were in the same frame together. You can feel the movie reaching for the great strain of romance and it doesn’t feel as attached to the schematics of the plotting as a few later Wilder-Diamond scripts do but it still feels like it’s trying to pack too much of significance into the material, like the key music cue near the very end which seems deliberately turned up loud in an attempt to make it the most romantic gesture of all time. The exact specifics of their relationship are kept oblique enough that maybe no one in the late 50s was offended but some dialogue muddles things enough that it’s unclear what exactly their relationship has been and what we should even want it to be.

Some of the best bits of business are isolated within scenes like Gary Cooper on a Dictaphone, yammering away like Americans in Wilder films sometimes do along with a very early version of the importer-exporter joke from SEINFELD decades later. Plus there’s the familiar Wilder plotting of someone in disguise only here it’s the simplest and in some ways most complex version of it since it’s merely Ariane as herself but not revealing anything at all, not even giving away her name, afraid she’s simply too dull for a man like this. “I baffle you?” she asks him at one point, unable to believe it. The best moments are so crystalized in their elegance that I wish it could get a move on already—I guess all these years later even when I’m not watching it right after ONE TWO THREE there’s still the wish that it would pick up the pace a little. Elegance is wonderful but there’s a little too much starch in the film’s clothing and for a film involving trysts that have to be finished by a certain time, hence the title, it isn’t in any rush at all and, unusual for Wilder’s normally tight plotting, a few stray elements here like the woman in the suite next door to Flannagan could easily be dropped.

But touches like the close up of Hepburn framed against Cooper’s reflection have such an impeccable effect that for a few moments the mood the film is going for is achieved. It might be one of the most deliberate shots in all of Wilder who more often would go for the general oppressiveness of his framing even in CinemaScope. And the gypsy band that follows Cooper around through the film, essentially a musical Greek chorus, transforms from a mere running gag into the insistently romantic soul of the film when he begins to obsessively play the recording Hepburn has made listing off her ‘affairs’ over and over again over the course of an evening, nothing else in the world on his mind and the greatest excuse imaginable for drinking as much as possible. For once it feels like the perfect mixture of Wilder’s sensibilities with his hero Lubitsch and almost nothing else in the film has this effect, nothing else matches its pain while infusing it with the right sort of refinement (Cameron Crowe put it best: “Most directors would simply send the leading man to a bar. They are not Wilder.”). The word I think of when the film comes to mind is misty, a black & white feel that washes away in memory immediately after seeing it also how much of the time Gary Cooper is photographed keeping him in shadows and mist in an attempt to keep us from thinking too much about his age so it’s as if we never get a clear shot of his face and though the best moments sing the whole somehow congeals into an overly thick pudding. There’s an undeniably rich flavor to it but the details feel lost. The movie lives by its own code in its own world all according to Wilder’s belief in the romance of Paris, as if this is the only place on the planet where such a thing is even conceivable. And there’s not a moment of patience for Ariane’s humorless boyfriend who turns his nose up at the standard “Fascination” heard over and over through the film, saying it lacks any musical merit whatsoever. Whether it’s his youth or his stuffiness the movie knows that if you can’t love that piece of schmaltz, apparently designed to be nothing more than the last piece of music heard before making love, then can you really love anything at all. Or anyone.

When the final scene breaks away from all those interiors and emerges to a train platform outside suddenly the shift in location brings an all new energy to the film, a sudden immediacy that is undeniable and feels alive in a way the rest of the film doesn’t. Suddenly the romance between the two doesn’t feel clinical and there’s one close-up of Hepburn that is so heartbreaking I almost don’t know what to do with it. I’m still not sure if I buy the ending, whether narration meant to molly the code or not and like where the characters end up at the end of SOME LIKE IT HOT, here we have a case where the two leads that have fallen in love have barely even met as they head off at the end of the film, no idea who the other really is, no idea where they’re going. But, hey, nobody’s perfect. It’s a film more at home in the old world so naturally the man is the one who makes the final decision but at least it’s someone taking action. We live too much of life between planes, after all. Waiting for that next trip, for the right person to finally make that decision. LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON is a cynic trying desperately to believe, to allow for the possibility of love, of attachment, in all its truth and deception before it becomes too late and fitting for a film that is so much meant to be a tribute to Lubitsch which in itself is a form of going back to the past, it has no interest in the concept of Tomorrow. It’s merely a portrayal of the way things should be. How much the film really believes this I’m not quite sure, but it tries.

So much of the film is about close-ups of Audrey Hepburn anyway, about wanting to fall in love with her and the insanity of the men who won’t just as it’s about Wilder expressing the ultimate feeling of love through her and the grace that comes through whenever she’s onscreen. Even when she realizes that Gary Cooper is actually interested in her it’s her vulnerability, the desire to actually be a part of the world, that’s felt in every single one of her movements. Kept at such a distance in the shadows Gary Cooper is often in his own bubble apart from her and sticking a flower in his ear doesn’t do any good in making him seem any younger. But he finds his character in the beats between the dialogue with the split second he takes to consider the ad slogan “Pop in for a Pepsi” (since he works for Pepsi, it only makes sense that the lead character of ONE TWO THREE works for Coke; maybe that’s the reason for the double bill) smartly displaying his remove from everything around him. His devil may care nature so clearly espouses Wilder’s world view that when he actually begins to care about something, needing to find out about this girl, it plays. He just always seems way too old and there’s not much that can be done about that. Maurice Chevalier, representing all things French, suggests a nimbleness that the rest of the film never quite achieves but it still makes me wish that we could follow him and observe a few of his other cases when he’s on the job while John McGiver as Monsieur X, in just about his first film, perfectly captures the screwy cuckolded nature just a few steps behind everyone else. All he needs to do is learn about what Paris really is, the film seems to say, and he’ll be fine.

That’s the problem with eternal fantasies sometimes, eventually they get matched up with a truth that is going to grow more painful and maybe that’s why you wait. But it’s your own damn fault. Bosley Crowther raved about the film, calling it a “grandly sophisticated romance” to the point that you want to tell him to calm down already. Billy Wilder himself wasn’t as enthusiastic later on after its box office disappointment with the sad observation, “I got Coop the week he suddenly got old.” It’s possible that when LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON was released it may have been out of step with things. It certainly has nothing to do with the world now. Just as a film, it’s problematic and in some ways the imagery is also problematic what with all that mistiness as if it’s trying to hide what it really is but you’ve never see it look this stunning and kudos to Warner Archive on the new release. If anything, it’s one of the most underrated looking of all Wilder films and you can hardly blame him for mostly wanting to most stick to black & white for years after this. But going back to that day when I first encountered LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON immediately after ONE TWO THREE, it seems so long ago. It is. And I try really hard but I can’t quite recreate the memory in my head. There was even a woman I sat next to and in between films I talked to her about them. I never even found out her name either, so I’ll always wonder who she was. I wouldn’t mind recreating that day, to go back there knowing all I’ve learned since. Those days stay with you, after all. While you continue to wait.