Thursday, June 30, 2016

Value Is A Relative Thing

30 years since summer 1986. Not exactly the most important year ever but that amount of time still allows for contemplation. It’s also a summer where a surprising number of films, even some of the hits, have fallen away from pop culture prominence. Yes, there was ALIENS and David Cronenberg’s remake of THE FLY so that’s at least two good ones. Of course, we also had POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE and Tobe Hooper’s remake of INVADERS FROM MARS, two rare 80s genre films which don’t seem to have any sizable cult these days. No one seems to remember RAW DEAL, the one Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle of the year. THE KARATE KID PART II actually made more money than the original did two years earlier yet it feels totally forgotten now, at least by me. It’s actually a few of the flops that have stuck around in popularity longer than expected, particularly Jim Henson’s LABYRINTH and John Carpenter’s all-holy BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA which wasn’t just a flop but a flat-out disaster, opening in 12th place at the box office on opening weekend. Some of the big hits of that summer now seem emblematic of the 80s rot that was really setting in by this time, away from what we think of as the comparatively simpler enjoyments of RAIDERS, E.T. and GREMLINS from earlier in the decade. TOP GUN. COBRA. FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF. Even the enjoyable RUTHLESS PEOPLE is deliberately about that ugliness.
And then there was LEGAL EAGLES, a film which has always felt like it was designed in a Hollywood lab for the sole purpose of being a big blockbusting star vehicle hit. A package put together by CAA with the right names attached in front of and behind the camera but not anyone who had any particular passion for making this film. Ivan Reitman was the director, still hot off GHOSTBUSTERS and no doubt looking to extend his reign as the new big comedy guy. For star Robert Redford this was immediately after he made OUT OF AFRICA, also made at Universal, and was possibly the lightest material he had appeared in since maybe the 60s. Debra Winger was in the middle of her hot streak as the big female lead around while Daryl Hannah had just broken through two years earlier with SPLASH. Screenwriters Jim Cash & Jack Epps, Jr. (Reitman himself shares story credit with them) also had their names on TOP GUN that summer and were no doubt the hot writers of the moment. LEGAL EAGLES is slick, it always has been, but it’s really not more than that, kinda sorta an attempt to makes an old-fashioned Tracy-Hepburn comedy-mystery only in the 80s vein going for lots of laughs and action with a plot that never really kicks into gear. It’s not terrible but it’s not really all that good either. Since it wasn’t the smash hit it was meant to be is it serving any purpose for anyone at all anymore? The film’s MacGuffin is a painting, in case anyone out there has forgotten this crucial detail, one that we are deliberately never shown presumably because it’s so brilliant that it must be kept in our imagination. At least, I’m assuming that’s why but never showing it winds up serving as a metaphor for the entire project.
Tom Logan (Robert Redford) is a hotshot New York prosecuting attorney who may soon get a chance to be named the new District Attorney when defense lawyer Laura Kelly (Debra Winger) ropes him into a case involving performance artist Chelsea Deardon (Darryl Hannah) who is accused of stealing a painting by her late father which she now claims now belongs to her. Upon investigating wealthy art dealer Victor Taft (Terence Stamp,) Laura believes that many paintings by Chelsea’s father, believed destroyed in a fire 18 years ago, still exist and are possibly being hidden by Taft. After Chelsea, claiming she’s convinced that someone is following her, shows up at Tom’s apartment late one night he of course sleeps with her. But when the police burst in the next morning to arrest her for murder, catching the two of them in bed together, he is immediately fired from the D.A.’s office and reluctantly joins forces with Laura to defend Chelsea as she goes to trial.
Looking at it now, LEGAL EAGLES feels a little too genetically engineered to ever have a personality of its own. It’s the sort of 80s film that tosses the name ‘Ovitz’ into a random line of dialogue, presumably trying to make a certain agent happy, mildly pleasant but never particularly likable, moderately diverting but never all that involving. It’s clearly interested in star power more than anything else—close to the half-hour mark instead of kicking the plot into gear things seem to stop for a protracted sequence intercutting the two leads who can’t sleep late at night as SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN plays on TV, presumably spelling out how right they are for each other. But it says something that one of the movies big attempts at a charming setpiece to set up the chemistry of the two leads occurs without them even in the same place and it’s still more interested in pulling off the romance than the plot which never becomes that big a deal. One imagines a thriller centering around missing paintings to be a lighthearted caper that could star Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant in an earlier decade (odd piece of trivia—Grant himself is thanked in the end crawl for the use of a piece he owned so this is maybe the final film to feature the name ‘Cary Grant’ somewhere in the credits) except it’s made by people who seem to want to focus on the seriousness of the plot over the comedy only there’s never much of a plot to focus on.
For one thing, writing out the summary makes it seem extremely farfetched that Redford’s character joins up to defend Daryl Hannah on a murder charge after being found in bed with her when she’s arrested (would he need to be called to the stand?), so it doesn’t exactly stand up to close scrutiny. It’s all supposed to be charming and breezy which I guess means nitpicking that plot stuff doesn’t matter but it’s almost trying too hard—one of Redford’s big character traits is tap dancing late at night when he can’t sleep and I wonder how his downstairs neighbor feels about that. As much as the film wants to give us a Robert Redford having fun onscreen for the first time in years, playing a guy who burns the toast making breakfast and locks his keys in his car, too often the material seems like it’s beneath him and some of the other actors, a thriller storyline for adults that’s been dumbed down for kids to go see during the summer. When the murder mystery angle comes into play and the trial begins (the trial just begins, poof, with no indication of how much time has gone by) the movie never quite becomes about that either. It’s a little like at the halfway mark the film has suddenly decided to become a courtroom movie but there isn’t enough time left so it just moves on to the climax.
It’s at least professionally done and well shot by Laszlo Kovacs with that nice, crisp 80s Panavision look as well as extensive New York location work which actually makes it feel more set in the New York of GHOSTBUSTERS than GHOSTBUSTERS II does. A matte painting of Sutton Place late in the film in particular feels right out of the earlier film and throughout there are certainly enough evocative views of the city that they found the right places to shoot it. Locations like the late night shot of the Soho street outside of Chelsea’s apartment late at night or the view of the World Trade Center across the river from the Brooklyn art warehouse at least give the movie the an oddly cinematic feel for those brief moments but don’t do much for it as a comedy so those touches never have any lasting effect. Also extremely odd—even odder, looking at it all these years later—is Daryl Hannah’s performance artist presenting her new piece for Redford in a sequence which doesn’t have much to do with anything aside from extending the recurring theme of fire through the film. Then again, I’m not sure if this qualifies as extending a theme or just ‘the film has several scenes revolving around fire’. It’s not really a satirical look at what a mid-80s performance art piece might have been, it’s at least an unusual few minutes of film but still doesn’t have much to do with anything. Another film might have come up with a way to turn it into a clue for Redford’s character to figure out later on but here it plays as if Hannah had ideas for her thinly written character to make her something more than just a sex object and Reitman let her get carried away with it, even if the whole thing might have been more at home in AFTER HOURS. Maybe it’s meant to be a byproduct of PTSD from the character witnessing her father’s death as a child that is, if there was that much thought put into the idea.
It makes sense that Reitman would have wanted to prove himself away from the star power of Bill Murray (an early version of this was to possibly team Murray and Dustin Hoffman) but with all these disparate elements the film needed a solid idea behind it, a script as good as the one Reitman would had for DAVE a few years later, for that to happen. Looking back at Reitman’s career, some of the solid ideas are when his films have come out the best—looking back at his TWINS from 1988 it may never have been much more than what was advertised on the poster but it was definitely a solid commercial concept. LEGAL EAGLES plays like it’s as if when he tried to jigger an idea to his commercial sensibilities to fashion a movie meant to be such a hit it turned into a star vehicle which feels a little like actors assembled together waiting for the movie to happen so it’s all just a little too bland, the blanks haven’t been filled in to the bare bones of the basic idea.
At times there are hints that the film wants to be funnier than it knows it is and inserting a line that describes Winger’s character as having “once put a dog on the witness stand” implies more broad comedy than ever actually happens. In his autobiography “My Life As A Mankiewicz” the late screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz talks about doing uncredited work on the script, including mentioning how neither Redford or Winger wanted to be the ‘funny’ one of the pair in this alleged comedy—at times the task of getting laughs seems to be up to some of the bit actors playing other lawyers, like Christine Baranski as Logan’s associate at the D.A.’s office, as if they’re only passing through heading to appear in a broader movie when they leave the scene. As it is, some of the best bits are the most deadpan, a reminder that these actors deserve a more sophisticated approach to this material, like Winger’s “Happy Birthday, Your Honor” when she interrupts a court proceeding or Daryl Hannah describing the extent of a wealthy art patron’s interest as “She’s bored. She likes to wear earrings.” Even Redford’s big scene offering opening remarks at Chelsea’s trial where he asks who else believes Chelsea is guilty is nice (Liz Sheridan from SEINFELD is one of the jurors) is clearly meant to be a showpiece for him, as if part of the point of the scene is meant to remind us that he’s a movie star and it’s a nice moment but still pulls back before any real courtroom craziness so the speech never kicks into gear all that much. The film stays light when it should be more of a thriller. The jokes are flat when it needs more wit. The story beats are slick and 80s but never really mean very much. The patter never develops into real chemistry. Portions of the plot if described might sound like they could be out of an old screwball comedy but almost nothing about the film itself plays out in that fashion. It never becomes more than genial as a result almost as if the film was designed to be watched on a plane where only half-paying attention to it wouldn’t hurt it too much.
There’s also no real chemistry between the two leads that there’s not much to say about it so when Tom Logan tries to explain the concept of sexual politics to his daughter played by Jennie Dundas (Redford is given an ex-wife and preteen daughter for no particular reason) it plays as a little random but also a meta comment on how there’s nothing really going on in the film otherwise. The climax set in the art gallery ablaze (again with the fire) is a reminder that at least the film is expensive and you’d think there would be the opportunity to use the word Hitchcockian to describe some of this, but not so much with Reitman’s direction which gives off smooth professionalism but not much else here without Bill Murray to provide that extra juice. The bits of presumably deleted footage under the end credits hint at more plot but aren’t all that interesting (they look mostly like a main titles sequence for a LEGAL EAGLES TV show) and I don’t know if more plot, let alone more ineffective star interplay, would really help. The problem with LEGAL EAGLES isn’t that it’s too many things, it’s that it’s not enough of any of them. And, in the end, it’s a little empty. Which is not to say that a flashy star vehicle designed to entertain has to be rife with subtext and meaning but a small touch of resonance in the vein of the Grant/Hepburn/Tracy/Hepburn films of another era occasionally achieved would be nice.
Of course, star power only gets you so far. Robert Redford and Debra Winger at least have that but for a Tracy-Hepburn attempt it feels like it’s more interesting when the two actors are playing a scene with just about anyone else in the film. As if to compensate for the lack of chemistry both actors seem to default to being pleasant with each other just to get through it. I’d imagine that Daryl Hannah would be the Jean Hagan to this Tracy-Hepburn duo but aside from smoldering she never gets to do very much and feels a little like a waste. “Vintage Chelsea”, exclaims Winger near the end commenting on her effect on men which, again, feel like it implies more than we ever actually got to see. Brian Dennehy has a key supporting role looking like he walked off the set of F/X, got a trim around the sides and drove over to the set of this film. Terence Stamp doesn’t get much to do other than acting officious as Victor Taft but his dry reading of “Most of my clients prefer to see the front” to Redford’s request to see the back of a painting is a reminder of how dryly funny he can be, which he doesn’t get much of a chance to do here. Steven Hill, still a few years before LAW & ORDER premiered, is the Manhattan DA and after watching countless episodes of that show he seems overqualified for the way the part is written here. David Clennon of BEING THERE and THE THING is another stereotypical jerk in the D.A.’s office and Roscoe Lee Browne as the presiding judge offers some of the best comic timing in the film, making me wish it really were more of a courtroom movie. When he makes his entrance there’s such confidence in how he takes over the scene that I relax a little, happy to see him until I realize the character isn’t actually going to be around for very long. Elmer Bernstein composes the last of his four scores for Reitman and it plays like the composer knew all too well how much the film was depending on whatever excitement he could manage to bring to it. His music at least gets to make more of an impression here than in GHOSTBUSTERS where his work got buried by the pop songs--as anyone who was watching MTV at the time will remember, even if they don’t want to, Rod Stewart’s “Love Touch” was the one single for this movie and it plays over the end credits.
In the end, before LEGAL EAGLES was sent off to the purgatory of VHS it made just under $50 million, neither a huge hit or huge flop, certainly more impressive than it is now but the film also cost a lot and no one was ever that crazy about it. One odd postscript is how syndicated TV airings apparently featured an alternate ending which slightly altered whether or not Chelsea was guilty. Without being able to look at that one (for once, something doesn’t seem to be on Youtube) it seems like the one they went with for release at least wrapped things up a little quicker. LEGAL EAGLES isn’t all that terrible but it isn’t all that good either. For as much as it was meant to be a big deal, it’s just kind of a shrug either way, an expensive shrug with movie stars. Looking up that summer, other Universal releases included PSYCHO III and HOWARD THE DUCK so I guess it wasn’t one of their better seasons but chalk that up to karma from not wanting to release BRAZIL the previous year, I suppose. But hey, it was the 80s. At least that decade is over with even though for me when I spot extras in front of the art gallery during the big climax or the shot of Debra Winger driving the wrong way into traffic it gives me a hit of nostalgia as I close my eyes and imagine a film being shot in NY back then. As for LEGAL EAGLES itself, it’s really only memorable in the sense that you remember movies you saw during the summer when you were 15. Which is better than not remembering it at all, I suppose.

Monday, June 27, 2016

The Pull Of The Unknowable

Depression. Cynicism. Anger. Pain. And then there are the bad days. That’s the world right now and that’s the way it is. Much as I may feel that way I know it’s an ugly, evil thing, resulting in a year like 2016. It’ll end eventually, I hope. Of course, cynicism can be necessary and integral to the world view of a film whether we’re talking about Wilder or the Coen Brothers or whoever. This brings up issues of what a movie should be or what we may want it to be. I saw Cameron Crowe’s ALOHA on opening weekend way, way back in May 2015 after months of bad buzz coming from a delayed release date as well as Amy Pascal emails that were leaked in the wake of the Sony hack. The film encountered further criticism after opening, much of which having to do with female lead Emma Stone playing the one-quarter Hawaiian “Allison Ng” which Crowe himself apologized for mere days later. These complaints had validity for reasons having to do with the film and otherwise, speaking to the greater issue of diversity in casting these days whether speaking of race, age or other factors. Of course, if Emma Stone had been playing, say, “Allison Jones” not to mention if it had actually been an Asian-American actress in the role there still would have been the rest of the film to deal with.
Thinking of Cameron Crowe’s association with Billy Wilder immortalized in the book “Conversations with Wilder” for which he has my eternal gratitude I went on Twitter after seeing ALOHA and drew a comparison between several past Crowe films and several Wilders in terms of their parallel careers—deciding for a variety of reasons that the acclaimed ALMOST FAMOUS can be seen as his equivalent of THE APARTMENT, the disastrous reception of ELIZABETHTOWN serving as his own THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, WE BOUGHT A ZOO an attempt to make something commercial just like the Lemmon-Matthau THE FRONT PAGE and so on. And I concluded that the undeniably personal yet maybe unworkable ALOHA served as his very own FEDORA, a Wilder which is also admirable (and considerably better) yet also containing problems that go down to its very core. The fine writer Miriam Bale replied that this actually made her want to see the film (gulp, people really are reading what I say on there?) but it took me until now, after I revisited and wrote about FEDORA, to actually take a second look at ALOHA. To be totally honest, I didn’t have a strong dislike for the film a year ago—mostly what I remembered were the pleasant Crowe hangout vibes more than anything else. I didn’t think it was good but it seemed modest and amiable enough, nothing to get too upset over. So what I discovered on this revisit felt like a splash of cold water on the face within the first ten minutes, an unfortunate discovery where almost nothing seemed to work as if I was watching an abbreviated intermediate cut of material that was never correctly focused to begin with. There’s talk in ALOHA of what the past and the future can mean so when it comes to Cameron Crowe maybe those two things are what we should focus on as well. Maybe with this film we need more time for the present to become the past. Unfortunately, I’ve already started writing about it so I guess I have to continue.
Military contractor Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper) has arrived in his one-time home of Hawaii to negotiate with locals to allow a blessing on a new pedestrian gate for his boss, billionaire Carson Welch (Bill Murray) and to assist on a project involving Welch’s impending satellite launch. He is assigned a military liaison in the form of Air Force pilot Allison Ng (Emma Stone) but soon finds himself encountering old flame Tracy (Rachel McAdams) who now has two kids and is married to the near silent Woody (John Krasinski) with two kids which forces Brian to confront the ghosts of why he left Tracy to begin with. But as he spends more time with Allison the two of them are drawn to each other as Brian finds himself dealing with the truth of what Carson Welch has in mind with his satellite launch.
This is kind of sort of a plot synopsis of ALOHA. I think. After several viewings I'm still not entirely sure. Which of course is part of the problem since right from the beginning way too many elements are thrown at us for anything to really cohere. As the opening credits roll we get old home movie footage of Hawaii intercut with military activity as old school Hawaiian music plays that gets interrupted by the expected track by The Who bringing us up to date under a Bradley Cooper voiceover, clearly added after the fact to clarify backstory and set up the plot but it just adds confusion and it seems impossible to know which of these elements to focus on. It’s one of those films where it can be tough to figure out what the relationship between certain characters ar before the start of the film not to mention what the actual story is supposed to be so even fifteen minutes in it feels hard not to wonder what’s going on and what purpose anything serves—even after several viewings there are times when specific information is given that I find myself zoning out, occasionally going back to replay a line that I missed. Is the dialogue too mealy mouthed? Are the actors mumbling? Was the on-set sound recording bad? Is it me? Is it the film? I can understand the rationale behind moving from one scene to the next because a film is supposed to do that, but I’m not always sure why we, allegedly following this story, are moving along with it. There’s too much here but still not enough, as if it began as a 300 page draft cut down to feature length only what needed to stay and what needed to go all got mixed up in the notes.
ALOHA is a movie which is at least partly about accepting the past but we barely understand what that past means for the characters, let alone the present they’re muddling through--the all-powerful billionaire Carson Welch dismisses the past (nostalgia and a trap, he says) and warns of fear of the future (a brutal force that will steamroll you if you’re not watching) in favor of a present that he wants to control. But for all the portentous statements too much of what’s going on feels hazy as if Crowe just wants to get to certain jokes and cute interplay at the expense of story and the greater meaning of it all. The 104 minute running time gives the impression that cut footage would enhance things in a way similar to how the UNTITLED cut of ALMOST FAMOUS, already a good film, made that experience much richer. Unfortunately what can be found on the ALOHA Blu under ‘Alternate Opening’ entirely consists of footage running about 19 minutes, including Jay Baruchel who doesn’t appear in the release version as Cooper’s brother, all taking place before the film begins, making me wonder about a script going into production where apparently the first 20 or so pages didn’t matter. Too much is left vague, as if during editing they got so used to some of the exposition that they just cut it out, forgetting what we needed to know--sampling a few minutes of the audio commentary, Crowe talks about the independent nation of Hawaii headed by Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele who plays himself in the film and what this has to do with the specific reasons for why Cooper’s Brian Gilcrest needs to negotiate with him in the first place making me wonder why this info wasn’t made more clear in the actual movie. At least they could clarify why “taking care of a blessing on a new pedestrian gate” is so important. Maybe background on Hawaii is the sort of thing that should have been brought up in the opening narration instead of the backstory of Brian Gilcrest but then again Alexander Payne had sort of covered that ground at the start of THE DESCENDANTS a few years ago. Look, writing a film is hard. Coming up with the right idea is hard. But it’s as if instead of coming up with a clear idea for what this script was going to be, that ‘one line’ Paddy Chayefsky would tape to his typewriter so he would always stay on theme, Crowe’s version of that one line became ten pages long so he couldn’t see his own screenplay while he was writing it. The movie becomes about so many disparate elements that it winds up not really being about any of them.
My memory of ELIZABETHTOWN, which I haven’t looked at recently, is that it was a mess but that Crowe was putting himself completely out there maybe more than ever before. Until we saw the result, that’s what we wanted Cameron Crowe to do. The modesty of WE BOUGHT A ZOO felt dialed down in comparison as if he was trying to find a personal connection to the story but for once not deal with every single emotion that he’s ever had in his entire life. ALOHA plays as somewhere in between and is maybe more frustrating because of that as if all of those emotions were once in the material but what remains either feels truncated or simply empty, not enough for the right emotional connection to take hold. Spare pieces of dialogue that seem meant to lead to The Big Statement, like how Gilcrest apparently represents ‘the Arrival Myth’ sent to wreak havoc in the sky, feel forgotten in exchange for making the film a smooth ride, a pleasant interlude in Hawaii with likable characters and nonstop music. And a subplot involving nuclear weapons getting launched into space. There is imagery in the cinematography by Eric Gautier which in its occasional placement of characters within the frame hints at a yearning beauty the film never quite reaches but the use of handheld cameras in more intimate scenes which are maybe meant to keep the relationships feeling uneasy comes off as too scattershot, almost as if we’re watching filmed rehearsals and it’s all going to be completely formed when they shoot the real stuff. Things do come to life in a party scene about 40 minutes in which allows us to track glances between various characters as if they’re silently keeping tabs on where others are at that point in the plot so for a few minutes there’s actually some rhythm to things. The sequence also gives us the sight of Bill Murray and Emma Stone dancing to Hall & Oates which, granted, doesn’t have much of anything to do with the rest of the movie. I’m not even sure if the two actors are bothering to stay in character here but for a few minutes the film needs nothing else other than this tiny, unexpected piece of joy.
Storywise, if we’re going to bring the ghost of Billy Wilder, there’s maybe some DNA of AVANTI! and A FOREIGN AFFAIR in ALOHA – you could even say that this film feels a little made up of pieces of the plots of those films turned inside out only I’m still a little hazy on the specifics of what the plot of ALOHA is without looking at the Wikipedia summary (that’s a lie—I had to read it) to figure out why Brian Gilcrest is so integral to Carson Welch’s plan to begin with or the vagueness of the Afghanistan backstory (more to it in those 19 minutes cut from the start, not that we need them back) or why Allison Ng attaches herself to him so insistent about the glory of his purest self as if she’s been studying up on his childhood or why his old girlfriend has avoided telling him something important for so long. It’s a hangout movie which occasionally seems to remember that we need to be very concerned about certain plot points but the information hasn’t been made clear enough to get us to remember why. The idea of personal triumph coming out of failure is a familiar one in Cameron Crowe’s films whether ELIZABETHTOWN or even a little of JERRY MAGUIRE too but it never means very much this time, playing more like another encapsulation of Cameron Crowe themes than a story for its own sake that has an emotional impact on its own. The film wants to tell us that the answers to everything that we’ve forgotten in our cynicism are there as long as the sky above us remains pure and I’m open to searching for the positivity in that metaphor but it never winds up meaning very much.
There’s the feeling that Crowe supplied his actors, even some of the bit players, with pages and pages of character biographies which makes some of them pop during their brief time onscreen—for whatever reason, Ivana Milicevic’s mostly silent Carson Welch biographer lurking on the edges of scenes reminds me of her henchwoman dropping a mickey in James Bond’s drink in CASINO ROYALE—but he forgot to insert the necessary dialogue into the script so the relationships would make sense. Occasionally moments connect like the look on Emma Stone’s face when she realizes that Bradley Cooper is opening up to her but even though some of those touches feel like pure Cameron Crowe too often they’re isolated from everything else so massive close-ups of Rachel McAdams as a connection gets made, no matter how well shot they are, don’t have any impact.
Clarification is missing and maybe so are the right grace notes, maybe what we’re given just isn’t enough to build the foundation of a plot structure on so it doesn’t stand. You can look at an action thriller and say ‘cut it down to the plot’ but if the story is based on human interaction that requires some sort of emotional logic, even if it’s only movie logic, the plot beats aren’t going to be enough so it contains containing a haphazard pace which made some of it seem to take forever and seeming rushed through at the same time, reactions from characters whether happy or sad that come too abruptly. The release version feels like a compromise so everyone can agree, ‘Well, at least it isn’t too long,’ and finally get the movie finished but that doesn’t help us very much. I’m still a little vague on the plot mechanics of Cooper sending a sonic upload to the satellite which seems like a very Crowe-ian concept, similar to Tom Cruise being surrounded by the overwhelming mass of pop culture in VANILLA SKY or maybe to him it’s a cinematic representation of what it was like to be a kid hearing “A Day in the Life” for the first time, that the only way to stay pure in the world is to let all that wash away from you. It just never feels very clear why it needs to be a part of this movie.
Maybe Cameron Crowe wants to believe in the sweet-sour aspect of Wilder’s worldview more than he really does. He’s too cheery and optimistic about human nature for the sour to play but at the same time he’s trying too hard to remind us of that optimism instead of just letting certain moments happen. He can’t seem to bring himself to make anyone unlikable, at least for longer than a few minutes, and it leaves the movie with characters yelling at each other when there isn’t any real conflict. The messiness of the film isn’t uninteresting, it’s just frustrating in the intensity of its haphazardness. And it’s depressing because, Crowe or not, this is the sort of film I want to defend and Crowe is one of the few people left with any sort of clout to make it at a studio anymore. At least, he was until this film. Does James L. Brooks have any projects in the pipeline these days? Should I revisit HOW DO YOU KNOW next? The final scene closes things out on a moment of grace which would have the potential to be absolutely transcendent, finally giving beauty to the recurring theme of silent communication throughout the film, if anything connected to it beforehand had a shred of emotional plausibility. But it doesn’t. So it doesn't. And writing about that isn’t much fun at all.
In terms of performances, the problem is more the film than the actors whether it’s Bradley Cooper who feels like he’s trying to make it work even though we have to take much of his character’s reawakening on faith or that this is the rare film where Bill Murray doing the Bill Murray thing feels wrong somehow or any of the actors staring at each other, mostly at Cooper, with unaccountable yearning that they can't quite put into words. Some of them, like Danny McBride as “Fingers” don’t get to make much of any impression at all. Alec Baldwin at least gets a few laughs by calling Cooper things like “Mr. Three Day Beard Boy” during his big scene chewing Gilcrest out but when the next time he’s seen his Air Force General is relaxing in a Hawaiian shirt drinking a beer it feels like there’s some sort of joke there about the discrepancy but it’s tough to tell. I don’t even want to blame Emma Stone for that controversy connected to her since as an actress she seems custom made to star in a Cameron Crowe film but everything about her character just seems tone deaf by now, a female device to ‘save’ his male surrogate one time too many by now. Allison Ng is a fighter pilot and apparently some sort of pet project of Hillary Clinton’s according to dialogue but in the context of ALOHA what’s most important is that she’s the lead character’s last chance to achieve the glory that is his destiny, nothing more.
Rachel McAdams is also stranded, clearly bringing as much strength as she has trying to make her part work as if Crowe was so determined to squeeze some sort of love triangle in here whether it fit or not. Through no fault of hers, it’s either a character who didn’t need to be one of the leads or maybe should have been the lead in a different movie. That also extends to John Krasinski role as her husband jealous of Gilcrest but their conflict never means anything and his sometimes silent, sometimes not nature manages to be both overly cute and a head-scratcher as well. It’s the mostly silent relationship between Cooper and Danielle Rose Russell as McAdams’ daughter that almost gets there thanks to a few glances at the right moments but with the rest of the movie surrounding them it’s just not enough.
Early one evening way back in 2005 I was walking through the Paramount lot. As I passed a window where a light was on I glanced inside and could see sitting in an office, obviously engaged in an intense discussion with someone, Cameron Crowe. This was only weeks before ELIZABETHTOWN’S disastrous premiere in Toronto and I’ve always imagined that in the conversation taking place at that moment he knew what was coming. After all, he’s no dummy. And now over ten years later I suppose I don’t believe the Crowe optimism anymore, not while I’m getting older, not in 2016. Which may not be his fault but it also doesn’t feel like what the world is anymore. People are too cruel. I haven’t even looked at ALMOST FAMOUS, probably my favorite of his, for a long time now since I’m afraid the connection would be gone. His past several films have been about the redemption which can come out of returning to wreckage, the triumph which can come out of failure. And I still hope he finds that redemption—for starters, there’s his upcoming Showtime series ROADIES. The thing about ALOHA is, I want to I want to believe in a movie that contains the line, “Tonight’s the first night I’m truly glad I lived.” Right now, in the midst of all this depression and anger and cynicism and pain, I need to believe that. This just isn’t the film to make it happen. Apparently what I said on Twitter a year ago really did get Miriam Bale to see it and she wasn’t kind (looking up her tweets, “fascinatingly awful” is one term used) but if she held this against me she never said anything. I hope she doesn’t. Consider that right there a small piece of optimism. It’s better than nothing.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

As You Get Older

Past midnight at the Formosa Café is no place to be when you’re not drinking but that’s where I recently found myself. The details of why I was there at that hour are not important. Suffice it to say that it involved a conversation which was rather heated and, as often happens in real life, very little was resolved in the end. After midnight in Hollywood, very little gets resolved anyway. Flash-forward less than a week later and there I was further down La Brea at the New Beverly, on a night when ordinarily I would have been at home completely exhausted since the TCM Classic Film Festival had ended just the day before. This was no ordinary night at the New Beverly however, but a double bill of Billy Wilder films that seemingly never play. Anywhere. I do not expect it to happen again. I had to be there. This was Wilder, after all, so as far as I was concerned church was still in session and for this one final night it simply moved over to another venue.
The two films, AVANTI! and FEDORA, have never been the most popular Wilder titles but putting aside how much I love them they made sense as a pairing—both from the 70s and set over in Europe, they each are rather wistful meditations on the past and what it means to us, what it can continue to mean for us. Essentially, they are Billy Wilder as Old Man. Both films have also been largely forgotten about and FEDORA, completed in 1978, never got much of a release at all. With issues that compounded its making, FEDORA is a problem film. Once the full scope of its plot has been revealed it’s easy to imagine how it might have worked better in its original literary form anyway. But along with the right amount of acidity within its story and compassion for its characters, FEDORA also has a power within the greater context of Wilder’s career. This is it, the film says, there are no other chances. This is the only opportunity you have to get everything right and, face it, you probably won’t. It’s a film that basically says ‘Fuck it’ to everything. Like many problem films, it’s rather beautiful in its freakishness. It’s also a reminder that most desperate conversations you have in bars late at night never result in anything you desire.
Legendary film star Fedora has died after throwing herself in front of a train. As her body lies in state in Paris, film producer Barry Detweiler (William Holden) flashes back two weeks to when he traveled to the Greek island of Corfu looking for the reclusive Fedora (Marthe Keller) in the hopes of luring her out of retirement to star in his new version of “Anna Karenina”. Long ago in the MGM days Detweiler had a brief fling with the star which he doesn’t even expect her to remember but upon seeking the legend out he discovers that the shockingly young-looking Fedora appears to be virtually held prisoner in a villa on a tiny island owned by the elderly Countess Sobryanski (Hildegard Knef) and the mysterious plastic surgeon Dr. Vando (Jose Ferrer). Detweiler seeks out the residents of the island to get the script to her but when he attempts to get Fedora away from them that only makes things worse, leading to revelations of what really happened to the star since her glory days at MGM long ago.
With a screenplay by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond based on a novella in the collection “Crowned Heads” by Tom Tyron, FEDORA is about the ghosts of the past both in the deep recesses of our mind and in Hollywood as well. The subject of old movie stars was certainly nothing new for Wilder and in spite of how well the film played with AVANTI!—the much more hopeful half of the pairing—it feels like FEDORA was specifically designed to play in rep houses following Wilder’s masterpiece SUNSET BOULEVARD, the most obvious reference point. With some of the film told in flashback narrated by Holden, even if he’s not the dead body this time around, it’s hard to avoid that feeling and at one point when the star launches into a speech of his woes where he complains how “the kids with beards have taken over” decrying the Hollywood of the 70s, it’s as if Wilder’s main direction to him was to simply play it as Joe Gillis thirty years later. Or maybe, having seen it all himself, the character is simply Billy Wilder. Although presumably not in terms of material—though one of Detweiler’s films, something called CHINAMAN’S CHANCE, ‘received three nominations’ his “Anna Karenina” remake has the title THE SNOWS OF YESTERYEAR which is pretty much the most corny, sentimental way of thinking about the past imaginable. It sounds like the sort of sludge Billy Wilder would probably never want to see, let alone make and although Detweiler does his best to push the script whenever given the chance it’s as if he can’t see how empty the whole thing, along with his futile mission to track down this old movie star, really is.
Whichever of Wilder’s post-APARTMENT films feel stifled by their strict plotting and maybe also a little too lumbering in how they’re paced (some more than others) FEDORA actually feels a little like he’s managed to break free of those old structural habits for the first time in years and found a new way to explore his preoccupations. Narratively speaking, it’s one of his most daring films with an intricate structure that almost shouldn’t work, essentially a plot that takes up the first hour followed by a flashback heavy second half in which everything gets explained a la Agatha Christie. I’m hardly the first to point out that just about anyone could guess where things are going within the first 30 minutes (in spite of this, I’ll try to keep the twists and revelations of the film under wraps) but for once the strict mechanics of the plot feel secondary to Wilder. FEDORA is not SUNSET BOULEVARD of course, few films ever can be, and it almost has no choice but to live in the earlier film’s shadow while still offering some intriguing differences to make it a distorted mirror image--the movie star in the earlier film has been forgotten about by the world, left to rot even if she is only a few miles away from Paramount. The title character of FEDORA, on the other hand, has traveled far away to live in exile and is still remembered but can’t return no matter how much people apparently long for the glamour that she represents. There’s a broken beauty to FEDORA which makes perfect sense since that’s much of what it’s about anyway.
The expected wit of Wilder/Diamond is there with an extra degree of bitterness to some of the dialogue but also feels a little buried this time out. Maybe the director doesn’t want to shine too much light on the inherent absurdity of the story, maybe in the end he’s just unable to find very much humor in it like he used to. It’s a film made by someone who’s seen too many people die, had too many people fall out of his life for him to want to make jokes about it anymore. Annoyed at still being alive while looking back on outliving one’s beauty one character observes, “Monroe and Harlow, they were the lucky ones.” There’s a streak of humor the film almost doesn’t want to acknowledge, a deadpan nature never more apparent than when Jose Ferrer’s Dr. Vando carefully explains how he pulls off the plastic surgery miracles to keep his patients young, mentioning items like sheep embryos and baboon semen. His speech actually got one of the most audible laughs during the New Beverly screening, causing me to really pay attention for the first time to the madness he was describing. “How much of that is really true?” Holden asks him after listening. “All of it. None of it,” is the reply which could describe the logic of what we’re seeing as well (although, considering what Ferrer is seen doing during one flashback, maybe more of it is true than we’d rather know).
One almost imagines Wilder standing off to the side of the screen as the film plays glaring at us, daring us to acknowledge the sick joke of it all as if there’s more he identifies with here than he wants to admit. Early on Holden is given some worry beads as a totem to help solve the problem of finding Fedora—an AVANTI!-like touch where the main character begins to give in to local customs—and much to his surprise they do the job almost instantly, something of a reversal from Wilder’s often pragmatic plotting. The message is clear: be careful what you wish for. Don’t go rooting around in echoes of the past since, just like MGM, it’s all dead and buried. When someone wonders who won the Oscar in a certain year, the closest they get to an answer is a vague, “The one who played that nun with tuberculosis.” The Oscar itself, for that matter, is derided as “just another knick knack that needs dusting.” Wilder doesn’t even seem to revel in the nostalgia of the THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT 70s—realizing that the concept of ‘old times’ sake’ is useless, Detweiler literally burns the letter he writes Fedora about their one night together and at another point tells her about old props being sold off at MGM saying, “Remember that big gold bed where you made love to Robert Taylor? It went for 450 bucks.”
There may be echoes of Wilder’s own past associating with the likes of Garbo and Dietrich (asked to play a key role here, she flat out refused) and maybe even the dangers of getting too close to one of those godessess. “I wouldn’t wish that on any man to be married to a movie star, carrying her vanity case, it’s too demeaning,” goes one line and in some ways it could all speak to a mixture of what some feel is Wilder’s own misogyny combined with his fascination with these women who still baffle him. Discussing Tolstoy and ANNA KARENINA one character decries, “He knew nothing about women,” as if Wilder is all too aware of what they’ve been saying about him. The portrayal here of the women in question mixes love in with that hatred, a total empathy combined with a sad acknowledgment that he’ll never have all the answers. It also veers closer to being a horror film than any Wilder ever had before, all set to a score by Miklos Rosza of the DOUBLE INDEMNITY and LOST WEEKEND days, insistently trying to bring the spirits of the past back to life. The treatments Norma Desmond went through to restore her beauty as she prepared for the film she’ll never make are turned into something much more horrifying this time out. Just as locks were removed from her house in case she tried anything once again, mirrors are removed from Fedora’s house to make it clear how much the villa is essentially being occupied by a vampire is living there. The character in this film is a monster but retains sympathy nevertheless because of what Hollywood has done to her, what the world has done to her, the very thing that causes those women to sob over what they’ve done to themselves. It makes them hate you as well. If it feels like that sympathy only goes so far on Wilder’s part maybe that’s because the film makes it clear he doesn’t claim to have any answers to this. Holden, playing the alleged lead role, listens and acts concerned and tries to understand but he’s forever an outsider to the real drama--if the film is viewed from the point of view of one other character (maybe two of them) it becomes an absolute nightmare. Wilder knows how little he really understands them, it’s just the way it is and always will be.
There’s a ludicrous majesty to it all, presented with an old world feel in a place where traditions must be upheld, complete with a bit involving putting out a cigarette that feels left over from the world of Lubitsch. In every scene there’s a consistent discipline to the framing, not in Scope like many of Wilder’s later films, and the scenery is lush but the local flavor of Corfu is almost presented as incidental which makes sense since Detweiler barely cares anyway. Visually speaking it doesn’t quite have the power in some of his other films with Fedora’s villa certainly seems like an attractive hideaway which is appropriately isolated but doesn’t quite speak to the madness we know is in there. But there is imagery which feels appropriately unnerving such as countess pairs of white gloves in a dresser drawer allegedly meant to cover up Fedora’s aged hands, a single haunting phrase scrawled countless times in multiple notebooks and even the name of Ferrer’s ‘Dr. Vando’ sounds like a character who should be played by Boris Karloff. Nods to films not make by Wilder are in the air as well such as essentially opening the film with someone declaring, “Fedora is dead,” followed by the twists to come the film offers echoes of Preminger’s LAURA as well and it’s hard not to think of Robert Aldrich’s impossible THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE (I still watch that every now and then, desperately looking for the good film in it) from a decade earlier which contains more than a few similarities—it’s not too much of a stretch to call this the Wilder rewrite of that film’s concept but his particular point of view gives FEDORA both the satirical slant as well as the sadness. There’s no getting away from this in Wilder’s eye, there’s no way out but the death that, if one faces facts, is most likely not too far off.
Detweiler refers to ‘tax shelter guys’ helping to get his Fedora movie off the ground which also seems to be how Wilder would up making the film after Universal put it into turnaround and was by accounts apparently not an easy shoot. The casting of Marthe Keller was seen as an issue with the actress never quite coming off as the right sort of Garbo-like enigma, which, no spoilers, led to extensive dubbing by German actress Inga Bunsch. When Holden encounters Keller at the Countess’ villa her behavior plays like an actress overdoing an actress overdoing it—one half expects him to realize it’s all for naught within five seconds and just leave. In interviews Wilder wasn’t too kind about the finished product saying to Cameron Crowe, “I wanted to stop the whole thing after we were shooting for a week or so, (but) I couldn’t…I mean, I could, but it would have been a loss of income, so I just finished it. It never became a sort of second SUNSET BOULEVARD,” sounding a little like he wants to move on to another topic. But he’s sadly no longer here to fault us for liking his own film and looking at it now FEDORA plays as Wilder’s ultimate statement about the ugliness of Hollywood and the allure it will always have. It’s his own THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE and all that comparison entails but here, instead of a stately intonation along the lines of Ford’s “When the legend becomes fact…” as someone muses over the façade of Hollywood and all that goes into keeping it alive Holden simply replies, “Magic time.” That’s about it.
As a result, it could almost be seen as a summation of Wilder’s entire filmography as well as a conclusion. Of course there was still BUDDY BUDDY to go just a few years later just as it always seems BUDDY BUDDY still lies ahead in life. But FEDORA has an awareness of that end and of how there’s no going back. The film ends on a brief, quiet acknowledgement of the past between two characters which is maybe all the lead was really looking for. Maybe that’s all we can ever get. Also found within the cracked beauty of the final moments of FEDORA is a last line in Holden’s narration which has to rank among my favorite things in all of Wilder—a deceptively flat statement of fact which also reveals a lifetime of dreams and regret that will never be fully reconciled. It haunts me, just like the film does. Within the sense of majesty and irretrievable fate is a feeling that it just misses greatness, maybe because it has to answer so many questions during the second half that the story telling becomes didactic but as flawed masterworks go, FEDORA possesses a bitter grace unlike anything else.
Serving as the sad conscience of all this, William Holden delivers a strong performance which is also free of ego, since he has to take a back seat for much of the second half. He seems to be in better shape than his last film, Blake Edwards’ S.O.B. just a few years later, and his strength is what’s needed particularly since it doesn’t always come from Keller’s performance in spite of her valiant work. It needs to be the performance of a lifetime but, of course, Fedoras don’t come along every day and at least Hildegard Knef as the Countess does manage to find the weary tragedy in the story when it’s most needed. Jose Ferrer also brings the needed wit to his part as if his character is continually annoyed by the events of the movie and would much rather sit down with yet another bottle of cognac. Frances Sternhagen is Fedora’s loyal secretary/companion, Mario Adorf (who took part in one of the best car chases ever in Fernando Di Leo’s THE ITALIAN CONNECTION) is the friendly but ignored hotel manager assisting Holden in some of the material that most closely resembles AVANTI! and Stephen Collins is the young William Holden in flashback. Henry Fonda is President of the Academy Henry Fonda while Michael York appears in what has to be one of the strangest ‘as himself’ cameos ever (of course, making me wonder if Wilder ever actually sat through LOGAN’S RUN).
FEDORA was the second film shown on the bill at the New Beverly and it ended late. That was bound to happen, considering how long AVANTI! is—incidentally, the first film of the night looked immaculate while the 35mm print of FEDORA was faded and a little scratchy but was…considering the miniscule release the film got that there’s a print of the film at all is miraculous; the Blu-ray released by Olive Films is also highly recommended. Either way, it meant was that long glorious weekend of the TCM Fest was finally, completely over. FEDORA was the perfect film to end it on, with William Holden’s last line sticking in my brain, a reminder of everything in the world, or maybe just in Hollywood, that doesn’t work out the way you want it to. There wasn’t a return to the Formosa that night. I had experienced enough late night cruelty there already and didn’t want to revisit the feeling at that time. Besides, as Holden’s Barry Detweiler quotes Samuel Goldwyn in this film, “In life, you have to take the bitter with the sour.” Since then I’ve gone back again to visit Billy Wilder as I’ve done before so at least I got him to talk to while continuing to look for answers. As for FEDORA, Billy Wilder actually said once that he’d like to remake the film then immediately contradicted himself to say there wasn’t much point in doing that adding, “I want to move ahead to new errors.” Which maybe in life is about as optimistic as you can ever get.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Nothing But A Dream

The TCM Classic Film Festival should not be interrupted by a fire alarm. When you attend it you should be ensconced in some sort of filmgoing bubble that keeps the outside world away. That’s the way it should be. Unfortunately, a fire alarm going off is exactly what happened on opening night during the final minutes of ONE POTATO, TWO POTATO being screened in a rare 35mm print and no one wanted to leave. There wasn’t much we could do, however, but fortunately thanks to some fine organization by the staff we did make it back inside to see the end and all was well. But even this festival isn’t perfect as was also proven by the two screenings of the pre-code DOUBLE HARNESS up in the 177-seat theater #4 which both times over the weekend filled up faster than anyone could have suspected (why the frenzy for DOUBLE HARNESS and not one of the other pre-codes? Don’t ask me--it actually airs on TCM on May 27 so I'll be watching). Even TCM’s Charlie Tabesh issued a mea culpa on Twitter about this but, hey, nobody’s perfect. The festival officially kicked off on Thursday, April 28 and I’m proud to say my team won Bruce Goldstein’s annual trivial contest—I’d like to think my input on a few answers was what pushed us over the top and I’ll stick with that. The big red carpet opening of ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN began across the street as the opening night party kicked off in the Roosevelt and gradually people began to make it over to the first films in the Chinese 6. The weekend had begun.
As usual, some of the most memorable selections for me over the next few days were films I hadn’t seen before—the 1964 ONE POTATO, TWO POTATO with director Larry Peerce in person talking about making this genuinely powerful low-budget look at interracial marriage several years before GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER. Gina Lollobrigida made several appearances through the weekend including before my first ever viewing of Carol Reed’s TRAPEZE—an imperfect print with faded color but containing CinemaScope imagery that was nevertheless jaw-dropping on the huge Egyptian screen. The premiere of a restored version of the micro-budget and completely unknown PRIVATE PROPERTY which I highly recommend. Shot in only five days, it’s Warren Oates’ first film but also a sexually taut, effective slow burn of a thriller with some genuinely evocative cinematography and it seems like a case where a small cult for it could easily build over the next few years. Plus there was Jack Cardiff’s 1959 HOLIDAY IN SPAIN aka SCENT OF MYSTERY shown at the Cinerama Dome in the one-time-only gimmick of Smell-O-Vision. It’s essentially a Cinerama-type travelogue through Spain starring Denholm Elliott and Peter Lorre in a very light, bare bones chase plot with the gimmick of various scents such as perfume, flowers, tobacco, garlic, etc. wafting through the air. There really isn’t very much to say about it as a film (produced by Mike Todd, Jr. and if you know who he was married to you can guess who makes a surprise appearance at the end) but I doubt I’ll get another chance to experience Smell-O-Vision anytime soon. Maybe that’s for the best but I’m still glad I went. I particularly liked the garlic scent, actually.
And there were the films I’d already seen and chose to revisit for the pure pleasure of it—John Garfield’s final film HE RAN ALL THE WAY playing to a packed house at the Egyptian, for one. Director John Berry’s son Dennis was there to discuss his father’s life and how his family fled the country via Canada for France after Berry was named before HUAC. It’s very much a blacklist film what with the involvement of Garfield, Berry as well as Dalton Trumbo among the writers and such paranoia informs everything about it. Those extra layers give sympathy to the two-bit crook played by John Garfield while adding depth to this fairly grimy DESPERATE HOURS knockoff as it reaches its final moments. 101 year-old Norman Lloyd, also in the film, was there as well and waved to the crowd who gave him a rousing ovation. The restored version of Godard’s BAND OF OUTSIDERS also played with Anna Karina in attendance to discuss how she first came to work with the director she later married and Alec Baldwin interviewed Angela Lansbury at the Chinese before Frankenheimer’s forever brilliant THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. On Saturday, also playing to a packed house at the Chinese, was Carl Reiner’s DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID followed by an hour-long discussion with actress/author/TCM host Illeana Douglas and 94-year-old Reiner about his legendary career, ranging from his beginnings to the film we had just seen. It was a true highlight of the weekend, with Douglas once again proving herself as one of the best interviewers among the regular TCM faces and Reiner was in top form. No one there will ever forget his story about asking George Burns about his sex life during the making of OH, GOD!, that’s for sure. Plus there were multiple talks with Elliott Gould including a career discussion with Baldwin and another one before a 35mm screening of THE LONG GOODBYE which, of course, I’ll gladly see any time. Life seems to change faster than I want these days and THE LONG GOODBYE seems to change with me but it still gives me joy like few other films in my life so I have no problem with saying that it’s probably my favorite (or at least close to it) right now.
As for one that I was particularly looking forward to, the premiere of the digital restoration of the Marx Brothers’ HORSE FEATHERS may have been slightly disappointing in how it didn’t seem any different from the way it’s looked my entire life, complete with the flaw of missing frames in some shots. There also was no additional footage despite the occasional rumors of longer overseas versions from various sources through the years. I’m never going to complain about the chance to see HORSE FEATHERS again but when someone asked me about the restoration afterwards there wasn’t much to say since the film is essentially the same—maybe those extra pieces are just gone forever. This aside, the biggest disappointments of the festival were my own choices of what not to see since at times there’s almost too much to choose from, such as the screening of VOICES OF LIGHT: THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC with live orchestra which I heard raves about afterward as well as a few other 35mm screenings that most likely aren’t very common. But these decisions have to be made at TCMFF and, like I said, nobody’s perfect.
There have also been some grumblings online about the number of 35mm screenings at this year’s festival which were considerably fewer than in the past and, unless I’m mistaken, only two houses actually projected that way this time around. By this point even I have to be aware that this is the way it is (the main Chinese, for one, is no longer equipped to screen 35mm) and it’s very clear the DCP format is what the studios have gotten behind. Plus it also makes sense if we’re going to be able to see certain films like the reconstruction of PRIVATE PROPERTY which is not only worthy of being screened at this festival but it also looked impeccable in its presentation. I’m still going to hold out hope that the festival won’t turn its back on 35mm too much—it’s such a part of the pre-codes and other such older titles that largely get relegated to theater #4 in the Chinese 6-- this year, they also included Ida Lupino’s NEVER FEAR introduced by Illeana Douglas, possibly the one connection at the festival to her excellent Trailblazing Women series which aired on the network last fall. I imagine part of it is trying to find the balance between the classic oldies with sparkling new DCPs that often (but not always) draw big crowds to the main Chinese theater and the deeper cuts that the hardcore fans often seek out. Some of my best experiences over the past several years at this festival have involved films that I’d barely even heard of before entering the theater and those can often be the ones mainly found on 35mm—certainly here in L.A. we just got the annual Noir Festival which this year was entirely 35mm as well as Tarantino’s New Beverly Cinema runs 35 every single night, both serving as reminds that such prints are out there in the world--for an extensive discussion of these matters and others at the festival, including the marginalization of such titles in favor of new films screened digitally at the Chinese to half-filled houses, check out this lengthy podcast with Miguel Rodriguez and Will McKinley. I fully get that there has to be a balance but it seemed that this year, maybe because projecting 35mm is becoming that much more of a specialized concept, the balance seemed slightly off.
Of course, in addition to the issue of film vs. digital there’s the daze of it all, the people you see only briefly between the screenings you race down the street to get to on time. And every now and then you decide to see a film for no reason other than the simple pleasure of what it is. Going with Vincente Minnelli’s THE BAND WAGON for my final film of the festival on Sunday night wasn’t something I needed to do plus it unfortunately was one of those not being shown in 35mm but it seemed the right note to end the weekend on. Long maybe a second choice to the likes of SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN on the rankings of MGM musicals I can’t tell if the reputation of THE BAND WAGON has been growing over the years or if I just find myself watching a little more each time it comes on and it’s somehow been gaining for me as I settle further into myself.
Well, you know what THE BAND WAGON is, at least I assume you do (the friend I was with had surprisingly never seen it before)—his screen career over, song & dance man Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) returns to New York to do a show with old playwright friends Lester & Lily Marton (Oscar Levant & Nanette Fabray) to be directed by egomaniac Broadway powerhouse Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan) and co-starring ballerina Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse). Instead of the light musical that’s already been written, Cordova has a much more ambitious idea in mind to do an update of Faust and even though it isn’t what Tony wants he joins in with the gang, even getting close to Gabrielle after their initial meetings prove rather icy. But when disaster looms after the first preview everyone scrambles together to do what they do best, the sort of thing that made Tony a star in the first place. With story and screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, it’s easy to compare THE BAND WAGON with SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, the equivalent for Gene Kelly that this one is for Astaire — a behind the scenes look at show business where everyone comes together to salvage a potential disaster, a romance where of course the two leads can’t stand each other at first, a climactic set piece with only the slimmest connection to the story at hand and ultimately the whole thing is a pretty much a cheerful excuse for a bunch of songs. SINGIN’ has long been the one anointed by the world maybe because its musical numbers, including the title song, are a little catchier, the whole thing is a little bit cheerier. On the other hand THE BAND WAGON, as breezy and uncomplicated as it ultimately is, feels slightly more adult through Vincente Minnelli’s Technicolor eye, offering an impeccable ambiance that resonates each time I see it again. In an odd way, it tells me more about pursuing what you want to do for the pure love of it and the camaraderie that comes out of doing it for the right reasons. And it’s set it the most perfect idea of a New York theater world imaginable, the sort of perfection that I suppose you’re only going to get at the MGM lot in Culver City.
It’s all an idealized adult world, of course, a New York that it’s hard not to wish was the one really there when we arrive on the train at Grand Central. Of course, cross-country trains don’t even come in to Grand Central anymore and if they did Ava Gardner wouldn’t be on any of them. But the New York here is one that’s bustling, busy, ambitious and full of life, it’s that fantasy of where we want to be. Not to mention how the story is ultimately about limitations, about finding the joy in what we love while also trying to figure out how we still fit into the world. Tony Hunter is facing a dead end in life and he seems accepting of being out of the movie business. He’s not depressed about it but self-deprecating in an endearing way and I always like the bit where, after his train has just pulled in, asks the porter if he could make up his berth for the night before he pauses for one more moment, waiting to head back out into the cruel world. Sometimes we all feel that way, that we’d rather avoid it out there while singing “I’ll go that way by myself all alone in a crowd…” with some small speck of hope still deep down. And when Astaire does that here it’s a lovely moment, almost the most offhand musical number I’ve ever seen and speaks to a quiet pull that the film has beyond the most elaborate numbers.
Along with her introduction, Illeana Douglas discussed the film with special guest Susan Stroman (director of both the stage and film musical of THE PRODUCERS along with many other theater credits) each speaking of their love for it while Stroman talked about how some of her own career including one particular frantic rewrite on a show could very easily have been made up of scenes from the film. No surprise considering all the people involved, the details feel like they come from people who’ve been there and who love every piece of madness of it as if there’s nothing better than going several night without sleep while putting a show together. The nuts and bolts we see of it getting made is appropriately larger than life but never feels too exaggerated. Even as the show is falling apart it feels like the most tension comes from a brief spat between married couple Oscar Levant & Nanette Fabray—I imagine it’s not the first fight the two characters have ever had nor will it be the last but even that is presumably taken care of by his visit to that ‘We Never Close’ bar next door--I still dream of visiting that place which I’d imagine would be swankier than the real world equivalent.
There’s a spirit of total enthusiasm the whole way through, it wants to love everyone onscreen and I imagine another film would push to make Jeffrey Cordova even more of a satirical lampoon if not an outright bad guy. But here it simply feels like a gentle tweaking of someone else in the arts who’s just been carried away in the wrong direction, as he puts it—he may be an egomaniac, but a well-meaning egomaniac. Any change of heart Cordova has when the show crashes in previews is mostly silent and he makes Tony the leader as if he’s remembering what it is to have fun in this world again. There’s no Lina Lamont-type bad guy and the closest it has to an adversary is wet blanket choreographer Paul Byrd played by James Mitchell, who it’s easy enough to forget he’s even in the film (Mitchell appears in the DVD extras sounding a little bitter about the whole experience and it really isn’t much of a part). The whole thing is so cheerful and everyone seems so upbeat about getting things right that when Astaire angrily makes a mess of his hotel suite I almost don’t buy that he, or the character, would act that way. Still, he talks about being cooped up doing their show and that frustration is what leads Astaire and Charisse out into the real world, or at least the MGM soundstage version of the real world, silently joining together in this fantasy Central Park, working out their problems in dance with nothing needing to be said beyond every single movement they make together as “Dancing in the Dark” plays. Damn, that’s cinema.
The film also breaks down my own prejudice to the usual MGM product from the golden age where everything seems deliberately just right and a too-perfect aesthetic always floats in the air. But the Minnelli style it all seems like perfection in how he always knows how to frame things through shots that go on for an eternity and you can’t imagine them flowing otherwise. As he visualizes his world, the artificiality to the elegance feels totally genuine. When two leads break each other up at the impending disaster of their show the bit may very well have been rehearsed multiple times down to the gesture but the looseness is almost surprising and totally human. The songs are what matter, of course, with the boisterous “A Shine On Your Shoes” and “That’s Entertainment” numbers along with the or the ultra-simple and elegant “I Guess I’ll Have To Change My Plan” in its elegance among my favorites all of which got rousing ovations from the crowd (even I have my limits of course—let’s just say you may like the “Triplets” number better than I do) The thrill and sheer pleasure of those songs almost meant that much more on this particular night as a reminder that this was all almost over—we’ll be forced back into the real world soon enough anyway, let’s just enjoy this for a little while longer.
The climactic “Girl Hunt” ballet is particularly inventive, more thematically complicated that the equivalent number in SINGIN’ and a little more fun as well—of course, they both share Cyd Charisse and each seems to be a subtle recapitulation of the film’s themes but the Girl Hunt goes deeper, looking at what art is to each person who creates it all in the guise of a particularly sharp Mickey Spillane parody. “Broadway Melody” in SINGIN’ ends with Gene Kelly alone but in this number at the end of THE BAND WAGON, a film with the earlier number “By Myself “which is meant to be at once wistful and hopeful, has Astaire walking off with his fantasy girl, the two of them perfect together. But the fantasy goes further than that in the ‘real world’ ending which makes it not just about the romance but everyone around Astaire in the final shot who has been part of putting this show together, all finally as one. You have to be who you are. That’s the best you there is.
It all feels like a high point of the entire history of Arthur Freed musicals at the studio from everyone in front of the camera including the charm of Astaire, the glacial sophistication of Charisse, the complaining of the great Oscar Levant and also behind it including Minnelli, the work of Comden & Green and of course choreographer Michael Kidd. Not being the biggest expert on the history of MGM musicals I imagine it also may have been made at just the right time—if made just a year later it probably would have been made in CinemaScope (as BRIGADOON, Minnelli’s next musical, was) a format which might have overwhelmed the intimate goals of the story, forcing it into the too-big Jeffrey Cordova style. If made a few years later it also might have had to contend with budgets being cut as musicals declined and television gained on the movies. The magic might have been lost. Even MGM didn’t last forever, after all. But the final shot of THE BAND WAGON betrays none of this, simply saying that even if lots of things have changed, even if they’re not as simple as they were when Fred Astaire was a star in the 30s, there’s always going to be a place for this sort of elegance, this sort of enjoyment, this sort of, well, entertainment. In her introduction at the final night of the festival, Illeana Douglas (so good throughout the weekend and clearly such a favorite of everyone that hopefully this means a larger role for her on TCM in the future) stated the one word that comes to mind when she thinks of THE BAND WAGON is ‘Joy’. That sounds about right.
I’ll admit, I was in a frame of mind through some of the weekend that was slightly off. Maybe part of it is that pressure of wanting to have the best time possible, worried about what’s being missed, while at the same time knowing that it’s the best weekend I’m going to have all year. Maybe that’s one reason I went for THE BAND WAGON to close it out. I needed that reminder of why I was there in the first place. With all of these thoughts swirling through my head the emotion I felt after the screening of THE LONG GOODBYE made me tweet that maybe it was the only happy ending in the history of the movies. A slightly flip thought, obviously, but if you approach me to debate it late at night I might be up for the challenge. Having said that, it’s fair to point out that THE BAND WAGON, with every ounce of joy that it truly projects, is the rare exception to that nonsense rule I just made up. After the closing night party at the Roosevelt I went down the street with some people to In-n-Out Burger to end things. And we got to hang out and talk about movies. With no rush to get anywhere. With no interruptions. Joy. I miss some of those people already and wish I could have spent even more time with them over the weekend. But eventually it all had to end so I could get some sleep--there was a Billy Wilder double bill the next night at the New Beverly to get to, in 35mm of course. So until next year. For now, it all continues.