Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The End Is Always A New Beginning

Nearly a year ago I was wondering about films set during New Year’s Eve. Now I’m doing that again. I hope I’ve managed to do a few things in the interim. Anyway, the Cinematheque is showing THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE at the Egyptian as the opening of their Disaster Film series in a few days, so I’ll wait on that one. Last Saturday the New Beverly ran NEW YEAR’S EVIL at midnight so I got to see that. Starring Roz ‘Pinky Tuscadero” Kelly, this Cannon slasher film from 1980 is a pretty terrible ripoff of HALLOWEEN and FRIDAY THE 13TH but something about it was strangely compelling, maybe partly because of how it veered slightly away from the formula, leading to a twist in the third act that at least I was a little surprised by. But now I never need to see it again. THE APARTMENT always comes to mind and for all I know I really will wind up watching it on New Year’s Eve, with a bottle of champagne I’ll open at midnight just in case any Fran Kubeliks in my life happen to knock on my door shortly after twelve. Not that I expect that to happen. But one that I have a huge fondness for is GET CRAZY, a rock n’ roll comedy from 1983 directed by Allan Arkush. His cult success is of course the earlier ROCK N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL but this is the one I really love. I don’t know if it has a cult—maybe more of a small gathering. Janet Maslin gave it a favorable review in The New York Times when it was released and the Boston Globe once called it “The era’s great lost rock comedy,” so it’s too bad that the film isn’t better known. I once met the female lead Gail Edwards and asked her “Would I be the first person to ever tell you he was a big fan of GET CRAZY?” “No,” she responded with hesitation, indicating that it wasn’t exactly a common occurrence. At the New Beverly’s Dante Festival earlier this year I got to tell Arkush himself how much of a fan I was and he sadly informed me that issues with the sound elements were making a DVD release impossible. That really is a shame, especially because not only am I watching the thing on a VHS, I’m watching a version I taped off HBO more than 20 years ago. It’s still watchable, kind of. I’ll have to make it last. Looking at it again it not only holds up, I find myself wishing that I’d spent more time telling Arkush how much I really do love it.

It’s New Year’s Eve 1983 and world famous rock venue the Saturn Theater is preparing for its big 15th anniversary show. The theater is owned by music legend Max Wolfe (Allen Goorwitz) who is preparing the show with stage manager Neil Allen (Daniel Stern), weasly nephew Sammy (Miles Chapin) and a whole cast of characters. Just as former stage manager Willy Loman (Gail Edwards, best remembered today for the “It’s a Living”/”Making a Living” sitcom) stops by for a visit, Max Wolfe suddenly has to deal with rival concert promoter Colin Beverly (Ed Begley, Jr) who wants to buy the Saturn, level it and build his own massive concert hall. Meanwhile, Neil has to deal with getting the show ready as the acts begin to arrive. They include the King of the Blues, King Blues (Bill Henderson), New Wave star Nada (Lori Eastside) and her band with “special guest star Piggy” (Lee Ving), Captain Cloud (Howard Kaylan of The Turles) and the Rainbow Telegraph and the Jagger-like rock legend Reggie Wanker (top-billed Malcolm MacDowell).

The film is a huge hodge-podge of comedy from AIRPLANE!-type gags to lot of truly tasteless jokes to a lot of sex and drug humor (it’s hard to imagine this film being made, or at least made with some of these jokes, only a few years later as “Just Say No” and AIDS hit the news) to lots and lots of music which, even though the film is a spoof, is surprisingly good. Practically a concert movie for long stretches, the music covers rock, new wave, punk, blues and other things, most of which is very enjoyable while still being a valid comment on the types of music it’s satirizing. MacDowell does all his own singing and is very funny throughout (he gets just about the most insane conclusion to his character arc imaginable) but even better is Lori Eastside, also the film’s choreographer, who is all kinds of awesome as new wave singer Nada (NADANADANADANADANADA) and Lee Ving as punk singer Piggy, so hardcore that he wears barbed wire around his chest, is amazing. Amazing. Also in there is Lou Reed, very funny as the Dylan-like recluse Auden (introduced in a shot composition that parodies the cover of the “Bringing It All Back Home” album) who gets convinced to turn up at the show. Inspired by Arkush’s own days when he worked at the Fillmore East theater in New York, within it’s nonstop comedy the whole thing is very much a tribute by Arkush to this world. He clearly loves the music and the people, with the feeling extending to everything about the film, one of the many things that make it fun to see again and again all the way through the end credits and remember not to leave until they’re done. If only the world of music were still as fun as it looks here. There’s a no-holds-barred feel to the comedy in every possible way and the movie doesn’t waste any time with that tone starting right from the beginning but for all the sex and drug, many of the funniest things in the movie are the silliest—there’s an upside-down gag which gets me laughing every time. Random Tarantino observation: throughout GET CRAZY a certain font is used to introduce characters or settings, freeing the film from the burden of too much exposition. When Harvey Keitel’s Winston Wolf drives up in PULP FICTION that exact same font is used (“nine minutes thirty seconds later…”) and the way it gets wiped off the screen I almost have to believe that it’s a reference to this movie.

The leads are all very funny--Stern and Edwards in particular have a nice chemistry without the love story ever getting too bogged down. The film really does have a huge cast, to the point where it seems like almost everyone who gets a line is somebody recognizable. Also appearing, among others, are HALLOWEEN III’s Stacey Nelkin, Fabian, Bobby Sherman, John Densmore, Paul Bartel, Mary Woronov, Robert Picardo, Dick Miller, Jackie Joseph, Clint Howard, Anna Bjorn (also in MORE AMERICAN GRAFFITTI, the New Year’s movie I wrote about at the beginning of 2008) and probably somebody else I’m forgetting to mention. Everyone feels like they hit just the right note and there really is a party atmosphere to the whole thing giving the impression that everyone is getting along. Malcolm MacDowell even says “Catch ya later” to his BLUE THUNDER co-star Stern at one point, an in-joke I can’t believe I didn’t catch years ago.

The New Year’s Eve setting seems a little random--hell, there are more random things in this movie than I could possibly list anyway--but it’s a valid reason why Max Wolfe hopes it will be “the biggest concert in the history of the world”, as well as a good excuse for everyone partying so hard. But the occasion also provides a small amount of optimism in the film. “The End is always a new beginning,” offers Captain Cloud and the whole thing does look forward to the future with hope and promise. After watching it countless times over the years, GET CRAZY is still hugely enjoyable and makes me laugh out loud throughout. Until my tape of it disintegrates, it’s the perfect thing to watch after THE APARTMENT as I wait, wondering if Miss Kubelik will show up at my door so we can start the New Year together. Even if that doesn’t happen, the night will still be a new beginning. Happy New Year to all.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Rights And The Wrongs

Films seen over the holiday included my annual Christmas Eve viewing of ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON on Christmas Day at the Vista with a good friend and then that night I checked out a few titles which TCM had been running recently. First was HOLIDAY AFFAIR, a pleasant enough little romantic comedy from 1949 with Robert Mitchum and Janet Leigh. But it turned out that 1940’s REMEMBER THE NIGHT, which I had already seen a number of years ago, was the one worth checking out. Probably best remembered as one of the Mitchell Leisen films that drove the likes of Preston Sturges to directing out of unhappiness over how his scripts were shot (Billy Wilder was another), it was indeed the last Sturges script to be helmed by someone else before making his directorial debut with THE GREAT McGINTY. Its serious side overtakes the comic end by a certain point, which was probably Sturges’ intent as well and though it winds up not having as many laughs as it maybe should have had it’s ultimately a sweet and even a very emotional film.

Right before Christmas Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck) is arrested when she makes off with a bracelet from a jewelry shop and soon after tries to pawn it. After some fancy footwork by her lawyer, Assistant D.A. John Seargant (Fred MacMurray) manages to get the trial postponed until after the holidays, which means that she’ll have to spend the entire holiday break in jail. Feeling a little guilty, Seargant pulls some strings to have her sprung for the holiday break but a misunderstand results in her being dropped off at his place. After learning that not only does she have nowhere else to go but that she is also from the home state of Indiana that he is about to head out to, he offers to drop her off at the home where she hasn’t returned to in years. But things don’t quite go as planned and as they spend more time together they naturally begin to fall for each other.

Without actually reading the script, it’s all guesswork as to the changes Leisen may have made but it’s hard not to get the impression that either he doesn’t bring the finesse to the earlier comic scenes that Sturges later would in his own films or the director simply wasn’t as interested in these sections. As it is, there’s the feeling that he spent more time adjusting Barbara Stanwyck’s hat than he did working out bits of comic business such as in the early trial scene, which doesn’t feel as peppy as it should, resulting in its going on about twice as long as necessary. But once the two leads leave New York and head west for Indiana the movie begins to find its focus starting with the almost nightmarish sequence of Stanwyck visiting her childhood home, a place with a darkness to it in every conceivable way and is easily the best-directed scene in the film. Maybe that’s why once we venture forward to MacMurray’s own home and family the relationship between the two leads begins to take hold. A little of it is too broad and there’s no one great scene in the film but it does succeed as a simple story of people who have met after traveling different paths and considering who’s playing them it’s hard not to think of the whole thing as an interesting alternate universe to DOUBLE INDEMNITY. According to the Sturges biography Christmas in July, director Leisen wrote him saying he deserved much of the credit for the film, adding, “…I have always said a picture is only as good as the story and in my opinion, honors should be equally divided between us on this one.” In spite of this, Sturges seems to have been upset at certain cuts that were made and maybe even with the entire finished project as a whole. His self-titled autobiography doesn’t even spend a page on the subject, summing up his feelings by stating, “the picture had quite a lot of schmaltz, a good dose of schmerz and just enough schmutz to make it box office.” Granted, there is a certain lack of incident once we get to MacMurray’s hometown, but there really doesn’t need to be. All we need is to see the characters gradually falling for each other and it pays off in a long scene when they stop at Niagra Falls on the way back to the city to discuss the situation, truly letting all their feelings be known. It’s a romantic moment that Leisen truly succeeds in pulling off. It’s not as sharp as some of the best scripts that Sturges would ultimately direct but we still get such bits throughout as Stanwyck’s theory on “The Rights and The Wrongs” in the world. As far as Leisen goes, it’s not the true classic that MIDNIGHT is, but it’s a sweet film to watch over the Christmas holiday and the emotions that emerge in the final scenes feel genuinely earned.

Stanwyck, who Sturges would eventually direct in the true masterpiece THE LADY EVE, is a delight in the lead. She’s always likable, yet her street-smarts show through enough that you believe that she is still has a criminal past anyway. It should also be said how truly beautiful she is here. MacMurray, who Sturges would not direct in a future film, is likable and we fully believe how he’s fallen in love with Stanwyck so quickly but he never feels as interesting here as he would when he played the darker characters he would in his Billy Wilder films. Georgia Caine is truly believably cold as Stanwyck’s mother, making one scene go a long way. Beulah Bondi, from hundreds of films including playing Mrs. Bailey in the other Christmas perennial IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, plays MacMurray’s mother here and has some particularly good moments with Stanwyck. As for elements that haven’t aged all that well, there’s MacMurray’s butler Rufus played by “Snowflake” which, to put it mildly, is a bit of a problem in this day and age and for all I know is one of the main reasons the film hasn’t gotten more TV play over the years. Speaking of which, what is up with the crappy, dupey looking print that TCM showed? I could have sworn I’ve seen this film look better before (someone on the TCM message boards seems to think the same and speculates that the fire earlier this year out at Universal, which owns this title, may have had something to do with this).

But the whole film manages to succeed in giving just the sort of feel that maybe we want over the holidays, that maybe it really is possible to connect with someone and fall in love. Maybe that’s all it needs to do. I’m not sure if it’s the best of the scripts that Preston Sturges wrote before he moved on to directing them but it does contain some of the feel that his films would ultimately have, reminding us of the depth that can be found there when you get past the madcap zaniness. The characters he created were people that we find ourselves liking in spite of all the rights and wrongs that they’ve been responsible for in the past. It’s one of the many reasons why his creations are still worth studying today.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Making It Alone

I made an attempt to see a few considerably more cheerful films as the holiday approached. I caught the American Cinematheque screening of WHITE CHRISTMAS as the Egyptian, my first ever viewing of the film and I suppose it balances out seeing BLACK CHRISTMAS the previous week as well. There’s definitely room for both films during the holiday. I also saw Vincente Minnelli’s BELLS ARE RINGING which isn’t a holiday film even though the title sounds like it might be one, but it was still something cheerful enough to make it at least a little appropriate. If I didn’t know otherwise, I’d have guessed that BELLS ARE RINGING dates from a few years before 1960, the year it was actually made. It feels so much of an earlier time that it’s hard to imagine that the New York that it’s set in would be the setting of some very different movies at the other end of the decade. It would have made perfect sense for the film to appear during the first season of MAD MEN and one scene involving star Judy Holliday futzing with a dress that is no longer in style feels like something Betty Draper had to deal with. It was Holliday’s final film as well as the final musical that director Vincente Minnelli and producer Arthur Freed would make for MGM. With all this in mind while watching the film, it really does seem like it marks the end of an era and it seems almost too fitting that one of the most touching numbers is Judy Holliday singing a simple song entitled “The Party’s Over.” The film seems to acknowledge that the city of New York is changing based on the opening credits that show new gleaming skyscrapers going up as well as the shabby building much of it is set in that is surrounded by vacant lots. The thing is, I’m not sure what a lot of that has to do with the main storyline and it’s one of those things that makes BELLS ARE RINGING a bit of a mish-mosh. But it’s still enjoyable, even if it isn’t a classic.

Ella Peterson (Judy Holliday) works for the answering service Susanswerphone and often takes a little too much interest in the clients, especially successful playwright Jeffrey Ross (Dean Martin) whose career has been in a rut due to writers’ block and a lot of drinking ever since he broke up with his partner. Ella secretly loves this man she has never met and is determined to help him, but matters are complicated when the police get suspicious that Susanswerphone is actually an escort service and Ella is told she has to stop getting involved in the lives of the clients. Ella is determined to seek out Jeffrey Ross anyway leading to a change in both their lives. Meanwhile, what her cousin Sue(Jean Stapleton), the owner of Susanswerphone, doesn’t know is that the classical record business she has taken on, allowing use of their phones, is actually an elaborate front for a bookie operation.

If anything, what hurts BELLS ARE RINGING is a plot where not very much ever seems at stake—in Broadway parlance I suppose this would mean that the “book” was a little weak and since Ella and Jeffrey hit it off so well immediately there’s never a good enough reason why she just doesn’t come clean almost immediately. Much of the film’s charm is a result of its two stars, some of the supporting players and direction by Vincente Minnelli that is a great example of what he could do with MGM at his beck and call. The use of the actors within the Scope frame is continually dynamic and a few things wind up sneaking up on you—one of my favorite numbers is Dean Martin singing “I Met A Girl” which is done with an overhead shot of him fighting his way through the crowd in Times Square—or at least a backlot facsimile—and the camera following along with him, something that must have been extremely complicated but comes off as effortless. On the other hand a few things aren’t as effective. Judy Holliday’s big show-stopping number “I’m Going Back” feels more like viewing something on a stage than anything else in the movie—Holliday performs it just great but the absence of visual style here comes off as lacking. In fact, the style of the film in general is slightly inconsistent. There looks to have been some actual location shooting in New York (maybe just second unit) but at the same time there’s a patently phony backdrop of the East River used extensively. It’s a nice set and there’s no point in complaining about phoniness in this sort of film but the inconsistency still feels like it holds the film back. Maybe because of the lack of real tension, the plot really does feel like it’s all over the place. “It’s a Simple Little System”, the number which is all about the record company scam is nice but a little forced and everything connected with the subplot feels like a GUYS AND DOLLS wannabe. “Drop That Name”, which comes at the party and is all about the names dropped by the high society set Jeffrey Ross runs with is better but still feels like it doesn’t really belong. Those two songs, in fact, feel like they were shoe-horned in because Betty Comden and Adolph Green wanted them in there no matter what. On the other hand, along with the numbers that fit in more with the film we get to see Dean perform “Just in Time” with Judy and I have absolutely nothing bad to say about that.

Judy Holliday, close to forty at this point, is obviously a little too old for the role and occasionally she seems to be playing things a little too much like she’s on a stage but she’s so likable and endearing that it doesn’t really matter. Sadly, just a few years later she would die of breast cancer. Dean Martin is very enjoyable, bringing exactly what we want him to bring to the role and even though the movie really belongs to Holliday, he is extremely fun to watch. Still, even though the role originated on Broadway, it’s hard not to think of Jerry Lewis as the movie fixates on Dean Martin’s character feeling insecure after breaking up with his “partner.” "I'll never make it alone," he quietly muses, worried that his writers' block may mean the end of his career. Jean Stapleton is a lot of fun as Sue, the always good Fred Clark of SUNSET BLVD. is Martin’s producer (were there scenes cut? The film’s trailer seems to feature him in a setting not in the movie), the great Frank Gorshin is very funny as a Brando-like actor and Hal Linden makes his film debut singing the deliberately awful “The Midas Touch”. Trivial find—In the scene where Judy Holliday is walking Dean Martin around Times Square to get him out of his shell, she suggests he go up to somebody waiting at a crosswalk and say hello. This leads to a brief scene of strangers excitedly saying “Hello!” to each other until the light changes and they all rush off. One of these people is familiar character actor Len Lesser who decades later would play Uncle Leo on “Seinfeld” who of course would always shout “Hello!” whenever he saw Jerry. Is this a coincidence? Somebody needs to ask Larry David.

Ultimately, BELLS ARE RINGING (I always want to type SOME CAME RUNNING—of course, they do share a star and director) is enjoyable, but it feels hampered by a less than perfect plot and a slight bit of denial at how the world of filmmaking is changing. It’s not a classic, but MGM musicals all weren’t classics anyway and in all honesty I’ve seen some that are much, much less enjoyable than this one was.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Yuleish, Very Yuleish

It’s getting cold, Los Feliz is starting to feel emptier as night falls and it’s going to stay that way for the next few days as Christmas approaches. If that doesn’t get me in the mood to watch the classic BLACK CHRISTMAS a few more times, I don’t know what does. It even had its annual screening at the New Beverly last week and I was there to finally see it in a theater for the first time, but I’ve still been popping the DVD into the player to look at certain scenes again ever since. I’ll get to the cheerier Christmas stuff eventually, but maybe right now it’s just what I need. No matter how many times I’ve seen it, I always find myself fascinated by Margot Kidder’s character Barb in the movie, but considering what she’s like I probably shouldn’t delve too deeply into the reasons for that. Still, watching it in 35mm for the first time (70s-era Warner logo on the print) I paid special attention to her when she gets off the phone with her mother near the beginning and as we take a moment to stay with her when she heads back to the party it really stuck out for me. I guess it took a big-screen viewing for that to happen but I found myself thinking about the beat and how it seemed to alter her character for the rest of the film. She’s still funny, she’s still the drunk of the film, but there’s also this entire unspoken backstory between Barb and her mother that makes her more human. It’s the sort of touch that, in addition to its best scares, gives BLACK CHRISTMAS a great deal of its potency after all these years and no doubt one of the reasons why it was able to fill the theater that night.

I also found myself paying particular attention to the soundtrack and how much it added to the film. Not just the obscene phone calls made by Billy to the sorority house which are genuinely disturbing in a way that you almost can’t put into words. In addition to this sprinkled throughout the movie is the constant feeling of the cold wind blowing through scenes—makes you want to put on a coat even if you’re not cold--as well as the carols emitting from the clock tower which seems to illogically bleed over into scenes set at other locations. And there’s the occasional ticking of the sorority house clock as well as the continuous rocking back and forth of a certain rocking chair. It felt to me like the steady metronome-like pace of these sounds were applied to the pacing of the film, allowing it to get under our skin bit by bit. Right from the start the movie seems to move steadily along through serious moments, through the deadpan humor to the genuine scares in a way that creeps up and puts you all the more on edge. For a film that has the rep of being genuinely scary a lot of it is really, really funny but it doesn’t diminish its effectiveness one bit.

Not that I want to take anything away from Olivia Hussey, who is very good in the lead role and the tortured dramatics between Keir Dullea and her do somehow manage to have some interesting shadings, but by that point in the movie what I really look forward to is the great John Saxon as the cop in charge, Doug McGrath as the police sergeant who is the victim of a certain prank by Barb and Les Carlson (Barry Convex in VIDEODROME) in the key role as the phone company employee, each somehow managing to bring more to their stock roles than you’d otherwise expect. Andrea Martin gets the big emotional scene which also feels like a beat that you never get in these movies and Art Hindle of THE BROOD did in fact get a small unintentional laugh at the screening, as I thought he might, when he states, “We’ve been going oot,” but hey, it’s Canada.

Particularly interesting to pay attention to is James Edmond as Mr. Harrison, the father who has arrived to pick up the daughter who has suddenly vanished. The actor manages to make an impression even in scenes where he has no dialogue and while his ultra-conservative demeanor makes the character someone that I don’t think I’d ever want to know in real life, his meek manner (apologizing for disturbing the student who’s just hit him with a snowball) makes him more interesting than someone who would just come off as a hardass. Not to mention that, after all, it’s hard not to feel sorry for the guy given what we know. I particularly like the body language the actor gives off as he approaches the camera in the scene where something as been located out in the woods. And yeah, there’s Margot Kidder who’s funny and sexy with that dark undercurrent of hers and when she needs help with the inhaler for her asthma it’s strangely touching and I wind up feeling sorry for her in a completely non-horror movie way. I guess a lot of this has to do with my own appreciation for Margot Kidder as she was in the seventies and yes, I could watch her character for hours but please, let’s not analyze that too much.

And there’s that ending, the sort of thing that made me want to throw stuff at the television when I first saw it years ago but now I can’t think of a better way to end it. It just goes perfect with that late night feeling at this time of year when everything is so…quiet. Except for when the phone rings. I haven’t even written about the scares in the film very much, which you’d think would be most of the reason for watching it. They’re in there and they work, but BLACK CHRISTMAS is the sort of movie where it’s not just about that. Maybe I’ll go look at some of it again. DIE HARD and GREMLINS can wait for a day or so. And THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL. Yeah, I watch that one too.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Dynamism Of Apathy

LITTLE MURDERS opens with one of the most brutal parodies of the meet-cute I’ve ever seen. A woman tries to intervene when a man is being beaten up by muggers. The man breaks free, the muggers focus their attention on her and he walks away. At this point, the writing credit for Jules Feiffer appears onscreen as if to inform us of the world we are about to enter. Furious, the woman races after the man screaming at him for abandoning her after she had tried to help him. He offers no apologies, only yelling back at her for getting involved when his attackers were clearly getting tired. She continues yelling at him as they continue down the street. We then cut to later, with the pair in his apartment talking normally as they get to know each other, with no explanation how they got to this point. Actually, there isn’t much explanation for anything in LITTLE MURDERS, at least not any that ever make sense on any rational level. Roving gangs, snipers, periodic blackouts, obscene phone callers. It’s all part of daily life in this world, one that may not have the potency when it was released in 1971 (or when the play it’s based on was first produced in 1967) but like the best black comedies it makes us pause in the middle of our laughter, making sure that the sense of unease never lets up. None of it feels real, yet it all feels real and that is about as unnerving as anything about it.

Putting it as simple as possible, LITTLE MURDERS is about photographer Alfred Chamberlain (Elliott Gould), a self-professed “apathist”, a cynic whose only pleasure that he gets from life is his work and sleeping, who meets outgoing Patsy Newquist (Marcia Rodd), a woman who seems to take him on as her own personal project. This involves taking him home to meet her parents (Vincent Gardenia and Elizabeth Wilson) and, of course, getting him to marry her. This is all set in a nightmarish version of the city of New York.

It’s very much a product of its time—jokes about heavy breathers constantly calling feel like the sort of thing meant for audiences of “The Dick Cavett Show,” but there is something to be said for the film’s non-judgmental look at its hero, someone whose apathy and cynicism informs every aspect of him. This is all directed in an ultra-deadpan fashion by Alan Arkin and shot by the great Gordon Willis which makes sure not to overshadow Jules Pfeiffer’s words yet still manages to make this dialogue-heavy stage play somehow cinematic. Some of it is shocking in how bloody it gets and it’s not even always clear how much of it is supposed to be funny. Maybe all of it. Maybe none of it. While it’s certainly inspired by the violence occurring in society through the sixties, the world of LITTLE MURDERS also feels like a look at what was still expected to come, especially for those who lived in New York. Yet in spite of the blood many of the darkest elements are what feel like the most personal to Gould’s character, particularly in the biting section when he reluctantly visits his academic parents (John Randolph and Doris Roberts) who he hasn’t seen for years. Receiving him as warmly as they would somebody they used to rent a room to they are never less than awkward in everything they say to him and can’t even seem to answer basic questions he has about his childhood. Special kudos should go to the sound person responsible for getting the specific ring of the phone, making the running gag it’s associated with both funny and dread-inducing at the same time. It’s the sort of combination which carries all through the movie and it would be interesting to pair it on a double bill with CATCH 22, which Arkin stars in, although I wonder if the two together would be almost too much to take in one sitting.

Gould is quite amazing in the film, confidently underplaying and still keeping us aware of his character even in the long stretches when he has no dialogue. But as much as Gould carries the film with his presence, the film is stolen by his MASH co-star Donald Sutherland as the Reverend who marries the couple (declaring “Of the 200 marriages that I have performed, all but seven have failed,” in the middle of the service), possibly the freest, most exhilarating work I’ve ever seen by the actor in front of the camera. The unknown Marcia Rodd, kind of Paula Prentiss by way of Jo Anne Worley, pulls off a difficult role, coming off as harsh but never unlikable even as she screams, “You have to let me mold you!” and ultimately kind of endearing in the end. As her parents, Gardenia and Wilson are excellent as well and I found myself paying particular attention to Wilson and what she was doing as I rewatched certain sections. Lou Jacobi and Arkin himself also have showy, monologue-laden roles and both are truly hysterical.

LITTLE MURDERS is a very difficult film to get a handle on and I’m still absorbing it. Even considering the time it was made in, I was still surprised to find a studio logo (Twentieth Century Fox) in front of it, considering how unrelenting it is. Either you willingly go with it from minute one or you don’t. There’s no middle ground with this film and I’ve found it difficult to shake some of its darkest, most disturbing moments. I certainly understand the nature of putting up walls to avoid the cruelness of the world. Ultimately, it’s about the possibility of opening yourself up to somebody, anybody, being willing to take that chance even though you don’t know what the consequences will be. Maybe you can’t take care of all the evils out there but you can still fight back against something and that in itself can be a form of joining in and staying alive. Maybe that’s how you find a place in the world. When I went to mail the disc back to Netflix I discovered that the Post Office had closed earlier than I thought they would and they wouldn’t let me in. Determined to mail it out tonight, I walked around to the back to the loading dock and succeeded in handing it off to somebody so it would go out. A small thing, but at that moment in time I had to do something. Though it was released on DVD, LITTLE MURDERS is now out of print and appears to be going for high prices. It’s unfortunate, because I think I’m going to need to see it again one of these days.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Teeth, Teeth And Yet More Teeth

I haven’t given much thought to films directed by Paul Mazursky for a while, even though there are several I like and I always enjoy his onscreen appearances. I’ve seen him around town every once in a while through the years and many years ago I even did several days of work on the crew of SCENES FROM A MALL (not one of his best—I’d say it’s one of the longest films ever made that runs under 90 minutes). His films didn’t all get bad, but they are extremely locked into the time they were made in which has for better or worse affected the shelf life of his reputation. Several of them were hits—hell, several of them were big hits at the time--but by a certain point it looked like the flops caught up with him and there havn’t been too many signs of him in recent years aside from acting gigs like a role as one of Mel Brooks’ cohorts on CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM. Does anyone know if he still hangs out at the Farmers’ Market every morning? I should try to find out sometime.

The reason I bring all this up is because I finally took a look at 1968's I LOVE YOU, ALICE B. TOKLAS!, one of those films I’ve been meaning to see over the years. All I ever really knew about it was that it involved hippies and pot brownies, not to mention that it starred Peter Sellers. Paul Mazursky co-wrote the film with then-partner Larry Tucker (they had worked on THE MONKEES together) and would direct BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE just a year later. ALICE B. TOKLAS! isn’t really his film—it was directed by Hy Averback whose credits mostly consist of a long list of TV shows--but it feels like maybe it should have been and my recollections of his own thematic preoccupations were what kept coming to mind while watching it.

Harold Fine (Peter Sellers) is an uptight 35 year-old Los Angeles lawyer, a self-professed “square” who is being badgered into marriage by longtime girlfriend Joyce (Joyce Van Patten). A series of circumstances involving his parents (Jo Van Fleet and Salem Ludwig), his hippie brother (David Arkin, “I can remember when people just had jobs,” in THE LONG GOODBYE) and a hippie girl named Nancy (Leigh Taylor Young, also in THE BIG BOUNCE and SOYLENT GREEN and, seriously, Yowza) leads to him trying some of Nancy’s pot brownies, recipe by Alice B. Toklas. The revelations he receives from the experience leads to him dropping out, becoming a hippie and shacking up with Nancy.

Sometimes films become dated. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There once was a decade known as the sixties and though I wasn’t around at the time it seems that there were people known as hippies, so it’s not like there should be anything wrong with a movie that has them. I can’t comment in any way on the accuracy of the lifestyle presented here, but the simple fact that the movie presents it does not necessarily mean that the film is automatically useless in this day and age. What is slightly problematic is when the film style seems to be trying to hard to be “mod” as well as jokes involving overprotective Jewish mothers and Mexican families crammed into tiny cars complete with chickens. Those are the kinds of gimmicks and stereotypes that date something like this in a bad way. But more important than anything in this film is the basic idea of a man caught between the world he is trying to find a place for himself in and the person who he is inside, not only a universal notion with or without hippies, but a recurring theme in films that Paul Mazursky has made throughout his long career—looking over his filmography from BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE to DOWN AND OUT IN BEVERLY HILLS to even the forgotten Danny Aiello comedy THE PICKLE most of them seem to focus on that in one way or another. There’s definitely an idea that has potential in ALICE B. TOKLAS!, but ultimately the movie seems more interested in the pot brownies and Sellers dressing up as a hippie than in presenting an intricate character study or even any really cutting satire. Stylistically it feels caught between the standard approach of a sixties romantic comedy and this new tone the script was going for. At least it’s better than a few other comedies from the period like A GUIDE FOR THE MARRIED MAN and there’s a story in there somewhere if you look hard enough but it feels overwhelmed by an inconsistent approach and a continued feeling that it’s going more for the jokes (although there’s a very good one involving Andy Warhol) and wacky behavior at the expense of character. I enjoyed watching I LOVE YOU, ALICE B. TOKLAS, partly because I enjoy Peter Sellers and looking at L.A. in the sixties but I kept wondering about what was buried underneath all the randomness that seemed to be trying to get out. The plotting is extremely loose, almost nonexistent at times and when Sellers begins to question his hippie lifestyle it just feels arbitrary, like he was told it’s time to start wrapping things up. Late in the film is a sequence where a bunch of people appear in his apartment all at once and all I could think was that it wouldn’t be too long in real life before home invasions involving hippies weren’t all that funny. By a certain point near the end, it felt like the movie was collapsing in on itself though for all I know that may have been the point. As it is, I wasn’t entirely sure what the movie was trying to say about being caught between these two lifestyles and I couldn’t tell if the end was unsatisfying, a cheat, a cop-out, a post-production salvage or barely even an ending at all.

Some of the tonal issues may have to do with Peter Sellers, not that I have any real issues with his performance. There’s no way I can say that he’s miscast as a Jew from Boyle Heights, not when he plays an Indian named Hrundi V. Bakshi in THE PARTY, one of my favorite films of all time. Maybe it’s not entirely convincing on a realistic level but Sellers seems fully committed all the way through, especially compared to something like his similar look in CASINO ROYALE and he helps get this film through some of its dry patches. But no matter how great it is to see a Peter Sellers performance it’s still one of several things about the movie that made me imagine the more personal version that would have been directed by Mazursky and starring maybe Elliott Gould, who would work with the director only a year later. We do get the always welcome Herb Edelman as his best friend and Joyce Van Patten manages to seem more interesting than the scenes she’s given to play. Leigh Taylor Young is extremely, mind-bogglingly fetching, convincingly floating her way through her scenes and pulling off the small bits of complexity that she’s given in the later scenes.

It’s possible that I’m overthinking all this since I LOVE YOU, ALICE B. TOKLAS! is, after all, a Peter Sellers comedy that exists now as a time capsule and probably was already one soon after it was first released. It’s enjoyable enough with a lot of good L.A. location footage, particularly on the Sunset Strip, but it still feels like a collision of the personal and the mod that doesn’t fully gel. It has a lead who at one point earnestly states, “You don’t know me…I don’t know me,” but it’s more interested in the wacky hippie antics that undermine such moments. It’s not totally satisfying, but a lot of it is still fun while it lasts as well as interesting in how it anticipates films that Paul Mazursky would eventually get to direct. And for those who have seen it and are wondering—No, I still haven’t been able to get that damn theme song out of my head.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Running This Train Now

I guess I have to admit it, I haven’t really been feeling it lately. Stuff going on in my life, long days at work, though I’ve made sure to keep some films mixed in there. They included a midnight screening of PHASE IV at the New Beverly—fascinating and I’m still amazed at how crowded it was but by a certain point in trying to write something I had to admit that I wasn’t sure what to say about it. In some ways, I just wanted to let it sit in my head. I also saw the remake of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL which no one with any intelligence cares about and rightly so and I was there on opening day for GRAN TORINO which I loved—I’m well aware of things in the movie that people will have issues with but I don’t really want to get into it. I’ve also been tagged for a few of those memes out there but haven’t done those either. I’ll get to them in the future. Or I won’t. I don’t really know. For now, I need to splash some cold water on my face and try to figure out if I actually know how to write.

Playing behind me right now as I write this is VON RYAN’S EXPRESS, an exciting World War II adventure from 1965 starring Frank Sinatra. Frank plays Col. Joseph Ryan, shot down in Italy in 1943 and is taken to an Italian POW camp. Though it is largely populated by British soldiers, Ryan is technically the highest ranking soldier and soon after he arrives begins to clash with Major Fincham (Trevor Howard), the highest ranking Brit. Things are made worse when Ryan tries to barter for rations with camp head Battaglia (Adolfo Celi of THUNDERBALL and DANGER: DIABOLIK) and is double-crossed, leading to relations between Ryan and Fincham getting worse and Ryan receiving the nickname “Von Ryan” from those who are beginning to despise them. When word comes that the Italians have surrendered, leaving the camp essentially unguarded, the soldiers head off into the Italian woods, but the conflict between Ryan and Fincham, not to mention the continuing onslaught of Germans, has just begun.

Not much of it is worth taking seriously, but it is fun. It’s very much part of the GREAT ESCAPE formula of these films. Of course it doesn’t measure up, but few films of any kind measure up to THE GREAT ESCAPE anyway. With a screenplay by Wendell Mayes and Joseph Landon from the novel by David Westheimer, it’s still fast-moving with new elements continually popping up to keep things engaging, particularly some good action in the second half. Plus, it turns into a full-on train movie as the allies commandeer it to attempt to cross the border--there’s some impressive stunts centered around that train and I’m always a sucker for a good train movie. If there’s a problem with VON RYAN’S EXPRESS is that too much of it feels haphazardly assembled with a director (Mark Robson) who seems to have been more interested in getting the scenes on film than making sure that it all flowed together seamlessly. The DVD audio commentary contains several people including THE LIMEY screenwriter Lem Dobbs, present as a war film buff, who makes the correct comment that the prison camp section that opens the film (shot in L.A. on the Fox lot) winds up feeling like a different film than what follows (shot in Europe) with certain actors not even seeming to appear again once the location changes. It’s almost as if it’s a completely different war movie that just happens to star some of the same actors. The emphasis is often more on the scenery and the jaunty aspect of it, with some unexpected comedy shoehorned in. When the British army chaplain who speaks German needs to dress up as a Nazi to get the good guys through a checkpoint, he shouts, “I won’t do it. Absolutely not!” Of course, that’s when we cut to him in full costume as he rehearses “Heil Hitler!” One element that adds to the realism, which might not be as evident otherwise, is the surprising amount of subtitled dialogue we get in Italian and German. What are the earliest examples of Hollywood movies having so many subtitles, anyway?

Sinatra gets a great introduction, setting us up for a great character that we never quite get. Trying to guess his own interest in the project based on what he does onscreen, it seems to fall in between THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE and the Tony Rome movies, which is pretty much how you can describe the entire film as well. With the character of Ryan kind of a more proactive Steve McQueen in THE GREAT ESCAPE with an entire film focused on him, it is interesting how unsympathetic he’s allowed to be at times and there are some good conflict developed between him and Trevor Howard. A few of his best moments are also when he has to impersonate a German soldier, clearly not knowing the language, but by a certain point he just fades into the scenery with everyone else, given little to do but shout lines like, “Can’t this damn thing go any faster?” It makes me wonder if maybe he insisted on that, figuring that all of his real work had already happened by that point. Sinatra is given the heaviest dramatic moment of the entire film, but most of what we get out of it is what we infer of Sinatra at that point than anything he actually does onscreen in response to it. Is this a case of any actor with the confidence to let us project onto him or an actor who doesn’t want to do any more than is necessary? Trevor Howard and Edward Mulhare (more or less the comic relief as the fainting chaplain) are both very good, able to develop full characterizations independent of Sinatra and a young James Brolin makes an early appearance during the prison camp section. The score is by Jerry Goldsmith and it’s pretty good, though there’s no getting around that it can’t possibly top Elmer Bernstein’s music for THE GREAT ESCAPE. Strangely, to my ears a few musical phrases anticipate his score to PLANET OF THE APES a few years later, only done in a more traditionally symphonic way. There are always interesting things to discover within Jerry Goldsmith’s music.

There’s also an ending that is probably one of those things that somebody remembers about a movie years after seeing it (no spoilers here). It works pretty well, considering what’s come before it and gives the movie more weight than it would otherwise have. VON RYAN’S EXPRESS is no classic but if you find yourself digging beyond the famous war titles it’s a good one to catch up to. Now I just have to hope that splashing that cold water on my face actually does some good. We’ll see.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Rotten Business

Stuart Rosenberg’s THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN isn’t one of the best seventies cop movies but it is consistently interesting and it has Walter Matthau, which makes it even more interesting. Possibly the most notable things about it is how ultra-serious it is, which is a little surprising. The title, which is never uttered in the film, couldn’t be more ironic and I’m not sure there was ever a Walter Matthau vehicle where the actor was so unrelentingly serious the whole way through—no TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE wisecracks to be found here. The unrelenting grimness is felt after a while—frankly, BULLITT and DIRTY HARRY are like BEVERLY HILLS COP in comparison—but it ultimately is an effective look at a cop who is feeling the futility of everything he does. The story feels like it begins to lose its way during the second half but it’s still an intriguing artifact of the time and place it is set in.

When all the passengers but one on a San Francisco city bus are gunned down by a mystery individual late one night, Sgt. Jake Martin (Walter Matthau) shows up on the scene only to discover that his partner Dave Evans is one of the victims. With the younger, more outgoing Inspector Leo Larsen (Bruce Dern) assigned as his partner, Martin, who is already depressed and disgusted by everything in his world around him, tries to figure out why his friend and partner was on the bus to begin with, which could lead him to the person responsible.

Released in 1973, it’s at times very well done, but it’s also a fairly depressing experience with lots of attention paid to the messiness of the crime scenes and the bodies being loaded away. It’s hard not to wish that Matthau would at some point let out a crack that would provide some relief, but that’s not really fair to what the film is trying to do. Ultimately, THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN is about Matthau’s character and how much he despairs at everything in his life and world. This extends to his character’s family—he’s able to work up a smile at the refreshing normalcy of his pre-teen daughter but when he discovers his teenage son doing something he shouldn’t he gets upset but still avoids confronting him, maybe because after everything he sees all day he can’t think of what to say anymore. Without making a big thing out of it, the movie shows that Matthau’s character and his wife, while on speaking terms, are clearly living in other parts of the house with him sleeping on a couch somewhere. It seems like the only thing he has is his constantly listening to muzak versions of old standards, which also isn’t commented on, but is presumably the only respite he has to everything around him. There’s nothing comical about how beaten down his character is and there’s also nothing noble about the hunt for his friend’s killer, only the guilt he has over what he thinks led him to getting on that bus. In the middle of all this wee also get the unexpected sight of Walter Matthau slapping around Cathy Lee Crosby, something I’m pretty sure never expected to see. Plotwise, it’s more of a procedural than an action movie and even when some action is brought into the mix, with a hostage situation at the midway point, things turn out so bad in the scene that I felt like I had to shut the disc off for a while just to get a little relief from things. It’s not thrills the movie is after, but showing us the nasty result of some very unpleasant situations. Filmed in San Francisco, there’s some excellent location work and, with the exception of a few glimpses of the Transamerica tower, next to no use of the typical landmarks you’d expect from a movie set there. Frankly, I’ve never seen the city look as grimy or as unwelcoming as it does here. The film makes use of the “colorful” people of the place, from hippies to Hare Krishnas, but it all seems to be part of the reasons why Matthau’s character hates this world so much. This becomes more problematic in the latter section of the film when the investigation zeros in on a well-dressed Fernando Rey type (some of that FRENCH CONNECTION influence) who also happens to be part of the city’s homosexual community, with lots of dialogue spoken that is definitely un-P.C. these days. Yes, it’s offensive and yes, it dates the film but it also feels sensationalistic in the wrong way. At least THE DETECTIVE with Frank Sinatra seemed to pretend to take this expose angle seriously but here it just feels like more stuff to show how sleazy this world is. I’m not sure it even effects how the plot turns out anyway to any great extent. That’s one of the problems--there are actually a few scenes and leads that ultimately don’t fell like they go anywhere and I felt the movie losing its grip during the second half. For a while I was impressed at how there was no score in the film, adding to the hard-nosed realism but then score does pop up later on and I felt like the movie was copping out slightly, especially because the use seemed unnecessary. The movie does regain its footing with an action-suspense climax that is fairly exciting and well done. It’s not great or anything, but it is fairly well done. I feel compelled to point out that the shot of Matthau firing a gun with the Bay Bridge behind him that I would see on the old Key Video box in video stores all through the years turns out not to even be in the film. This definitely isn’t a movie about Walter Matthau walking around with his gun drawn.

Matthau is very good in this unusual role, underplaying things by chewing gum nonstop and sometimes saying little more than “Good” in some conversations with Bruce Dern, leading the other actor at one point to ask, “You ever think of getting your own talk show?” Of course, even Matthau can’t do anything about how, in all honesty, he just looks funny whenever he walks and runs but fortunately when it happens it manages to not kill the mood. Dern, the more excitable of the pair, is very good and the movie wisely never makes their pairing a simplistic “one’s by the book, one’s a loose cannon” kind of thing, continually bringing unexpected shadings to the characters. Anthony Zerbe plays their Lieutenant who yells at them a lot (I don’t know if there’s such a thing as an “Anthony Zerbe role” but maybe this is it) and Lou Gossett is pretty good as another cop who unfortunately disappears at a certain point. Joanna Cassidy has a small role as a nurse, giving us what has to be one of the earliest examples of that great cackle of hers on record. A few other familiar faces pop up, but I was most surprised to find that the small part of a prostitute in a giant afro wig turned out to be played by Frances Lee McCain (credited as Lee McCain), famous from her role in GREMLINS.

The seventiesness of the movie is both a good and bad thing. It’s a pleasure to see a film like this that is so adult and serious but at times its style feels like it could stand to be as loose as Bruce Dern’s character is. It all feels more staged and rehearsed than THE FRENCH CONNECTION does. It’s not that big a deal but it does mean that the deficiencies in the story aren’t ever really disguised. I think I follow the entire plot and what is revealed in the end, but I can’t be fully certain. The ending feels a little weak as well. Of course, no one’s ever been able to follow the plot of BULLITT either and I know that I’ve never really cared. There’s a lot of sleaze in THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN and maybe it is an artifact of another time, but it’s still a surprisingly potent police drama with a Walter Matthau performance different from what is usually expected from him. It was worth catching up with.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Too Many Swan Dives Into Empty Pools

I say it all the time. I can’t go to movies that start late in the evening. I can’t be out late. I have to be up early in the morning. That’s the way it is. And then I got an email from a friend informing me of a film playing at the Silent Movie Theater that would start at ten o’clock on Thursday. And not just any film. This was Jerry Lewis’s CRACKING UP. I sighed and sank in my seat as I read this email. There was no way that I could miss it. For those who have never had the pleasure, CRACKING UP aka SMORGASBORD was Jerry’s followup to his comeback vehicle HARDLY WORKING, a surprise hit when it was released in the spring of 1981. CRACKING UP, which turned out to be the final film Jerry would direct (I suppose I should add “to date”), never received a real theatrical release and may be of interest only to diehard Lewis fans but it is indeed interesting. There was a good sized crowd that turned up at the Silent Movie for the event but it was hard to tell what the response was. I think I heard laughter, but that may have just been me.

There’s not much of a plot to summarize but in brief: After several suicide attempts that end in spectacular failure, Warren Nefron (billed as Jerry –Who Else? in the opening credits) seeks out Dr. Jonas Pletchick (Herb Edelman) so he can find out why his life has been such a failure. Warren tells Dr. Pletchick about bad things that have happened to him, leading to various flashbacks and soon enough we also follow Warren on events of the life around him, some of which that pertain to his predicament and many of which that do not.

CRACKING UP was completed in 1983 but Warner Brothers wound up sending it straight to video and cable. At least in New York, the only release it ever received was a two-day engagement at the Thalia revival house in 1985 under its original title SMORGASBORD where it was shown on a double bill with THE KING OF COMEDY. The title on what we saw was also SMORGASBORD and for all I know, the Silent Movie Theater ran the same 35mm print that the Thalia did. After all, how many could there be? Vincent Canby reviewed it on that occasion for The New York Times, calling it “aptly titled” but “a mostly cold buffet of random Lewis routines”, adding that while a few things in it were tolerable, “the rest is grim”. The film has attained scattered fans through the years including, yes, Martin Scorsese and a prominently placed SMORGASBORD poster can be seen during the Paris sequence in Joe Dante’s LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION as well. A good deal of the reason for any appreciation that is out there may be because it fits in with the auteur theory so well. Right at the beginning is a title card reading simply, “A JERRY LEWIS FILM” and that truly describes the experience of watching CRACKING UP. Even more than some of his films that were made at the peak of his popularity, it feels like a distillation of his own comic mindset and also an experiment to see just how far he can sometimes take that comedy before somebody revolts. There’s no real plot and much of it is so random that it achieves a form of purity. It just is what it is and you either accept that or you don’t. In some ways, it actually defies criticism. For a film made in the early eighties it hasn’t dated much at all, maybe because Lewis’s own filmmaking approach was already so out of step with the times by then and it winds up feeling like it could have been made during any period. Even the score by HAWAII FIVE-0’s Morton Stevens (amusingly, no sound is heard at all during his screen credit) feels like that big band swing that Jerry was partial to back in the sixties, one of the things that probably made it feel terribly dated then and isn’t a problem at all now. Filmed in Los Angeles, probably much of it on the Warner backlot, it’s a fairly cheap looking movie at times—the cinematography is by Gerald Finnerman, legendary for his work on the old STAR TREK show but much of the look is pretty ugly, like the giant shadows that are splattered against the wall in the very first scene. Didn’t they take any time to set up the lights correctly?

Fans of CRACKING UP (actually, the title really should be SMORGASBORD—it makes sense when you see the film) are probably fans of Lewis and there are moments sprinkled throughout that such fans will appreciate and it’s hard not to appreciate when certain ridiculous noises emerge from his mouth. Gags are way out all through the running time—the opening credits as Lewis tries to navigate the slippery floor of his psychiatrist’s office without falling down is a beautiful little set piece. There’s very little discipline to all this—the most surreal pieces are so way out that you could almost say that they don’t have the correct believability required in surrealism, if that makes any sense whatsoever and I’m not sure that it does. It should probably be mentioned that Jerry appears as various other characters throughout. At times it veers towards being an anti-comedy as Lewis the director seems to be holding on certain things for so long past the point of tolerance that by a certain point you have to throw up your arms and accept it—I’m not sure I’ve ever seen another movie where characters give as many exasperated comic looks to the camera. Some jokes, like the running gag of being punched out by Dick Butkus whenever he lights up a cigarette, don’t seem to be based in anything particular and all we can do is choose to accept them or not. Many scenes seem to conclude with odd opticals, like quick freeze-frames, and all we can do is sit there and think, “I guess that was the joke.” But then there are sections, like when Jerry plays a guru who insists on undergoing surgery without any anesthesia and the extended sequence where he tries to fly on Jolly Fats Weehawkin, the worst airline in the world, that are pretty funny. There’s also a single shot where the suicidal Jerry pours gasoline all over himself, then realizes he doesn’t have a match to light himself on fire so he just walks off shivering and it truly feels worthy of a silent movie.

And then we get a scene like when he goes to a restaurant and encounters a waitress played by Zane Buzby with the worst voice in the world which goes on and on past the point of any tolerance as she drones on with every possible menu option (“…orange, lemon, lemon crush, banana, asparagus, avocado, nectarine, tangerine, cherry or pitless watermelon.”) and the result is in all seriousness painfully, unbearably funny (check it out on Youtube). I can't deny how during this entire scene I was sitting there in absolute hysterics. Having nothing to do with anything that comes before or after, you could call it a digression from the plot but really the entire film is a digression with little rhyme or reason to the order scenes play in. At a certain point everything just stops and the credits roll. There is a scene at the end that attempts to give some semblance of closure but I could almost believe that it was a reshoot done after the fact. Milton Berle and Sammy Davis Jr. appear in cameos and Buddy Lester, who made appearances in earlier Jerry films like as the bartender in THE NUTTY PROFESSOR, also turns up briefly. At the very least, it’s much better than HARDLY WORKING which was pretty awful the last time I took a look at it and Jerry even looks physically better this time around.

Getting to see Jerry Lewis’s final film at the Silent Movie was more than worth my going to bed late and I’m grateful they showed it. In many ways it’s an impossible film because it’s so unrelenting and by a certain point you almost want to throw up your hands at its refusal to even pretend to be a normal movie. Maybe it’s Godardian. Maybe it’s just Jerry Lewis being himself. Maybe if I ever did figure it out I’d feel just as crazy as Jerry’s character in the movie. If you could see me right now, this would be my cue to look into the camera, baffled, as I realized that maybe SMORGASBORD is life and life is in fact SMORGASBORD. If you can figure that one out, explain it to me sometime.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Breeze It, Buzz It, Easy Does It

I’ve been trying to write something about WEST SIDE STORY over the past few days but it’s proved difficult, partly because I’ve had my mind on other things and partly because I’m dealing with annoying computer issues. But mostly it’s because what am I really supposed to say about WEST SIDE STORY anyway? Is there really any possibility that after just one viewing I’m going to shed any new light on this film that people have been watching and loving for over forty five years? It’s a tall order, to put it mildly. But since I’ve seen it now I feel like I have to say something. The American Cinematheque ran a gorgeous new 70MM print of it over the holiday weekend and I made it a point to go. It was like I had saved finally seeing this movie for just the right occasion. In the introduction we were informed that not only was this a newly restored print we were seeing, but the first time the film had been seen theatrically since its initial release with the intermission intact, as intended by Robert Wise. United Artists had decided to do without it once the film went wide. The problem in writing about it is that I want to say, “WEST SIDE STORY is terrific!” and anyone reading this would naturally say, well yeah, we knew that already. But just go with me here.

Honest admission: I went to see it, fully knowing what the film was, but once it began and the music started a tiny voice spoke up in the back of my head saying, “Oh right, this is a musical,” and I braced myself, not really sure if I was in the mood. But that feeling soon went away as I found myself gripped to everything onscreen. WEST SIDE STORY feels to me like an attempt in 1961 to break the film musical out of its chains and do something new with the form. At this point in time the musical unit at MGM had pretty much died out and some of the ones made over at Fox like MY FAIR LADY don’t feel like they’re doing much more than plunking down the camera and photographing it. But WEST SIDE STORY feels like a different kind of stylization than any other film made in the genre up to this point. The immensely striking overhead shots of New York feel different than any other footage of the city I’ve ever seen and make us believe right from the start that this is all really taking place there. The entire film may not all be shot on location as much as this or the opening number that immediately follows may lead us to believe, but the heightened feeling makes it almost seem like the filmmakers had a Manhattan-sized backlot constructed just for the making of this film. Right from the start the visuals feel like an attempt to provide the cinematic equivalent of the boldness of Leonard Bernstein’s music and what I always perceive as his sound. It was a truly thrilling experience to sit through this film.

Speaking of that music, I guess I never was fully aware exactly how many of the songs from this show I already knew. Of course I can’t compare it to any stage version but some of these sequences are simply so striking that I can’t deny how effective they are—I guess now I know where a few elements in Jacques Demy’s THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT came from as well. Even when I could have sworn that I head a few people in the Egyptian audience singing along with the lyrics I couldn’t get all that upset. And when everyone burst into applause at the end of a few numbers, with the loudest responses coming after “America” and “Cool” (which, probably my favorite part of the movie, is truly, absolutely jaw-dropping) I was clapping right along with them. And yes, I can now fully appreciate how stars Richard Beymer and Russ Tamblyn turned up decades later on TWIN PEAKS, not to mention George Chakiris’s appearance in ROCHEFORT and I have to mention how gorgeous Natalie Wood is. But more than anything I feel like I’ve finally learned why Rita Moreno, playing Anita, is so famous (you mean it wasn’t just THE ELECTRIC COMPANY?) and all I can say is Holy Cow. She’s absolutely astonishing.

Doing a little research on the film leads me to a history of a difficult shoot telling that co-director Jerome Robbins was fired after falling behind schedule, leaving the rest of the film to be directed by Robert Wise, who was already in charge of the straight dramatic scenes. But I don’t want to get too absorbed in the turmoil behind it all jut yet. For now, I just want to remember the amazing viewing experience I had at the Cinematheque. When compared to musicals of recent years that I have seen, some of which have received massive acclaim, seeing this film is like traveling to the moon after years of remaining earthbound. And that’s a little of what I got out of just one 70MM viewing of WEST SIDE STORY. It has a cinematic pulse like few other musicals I’ve ever seen. But, like I said, everybody except for me already knew that.