Tuesday, February 24, 2009
It’s hard for there not to be at least a little bit of mystery around a film that has never been released on video in any format, especially one that has the reputation of being a disaster. Why did the film flop? Why is it being withheld? Is it a lousy movie or is there something genuinely interesting about it? I’m reaching here—I knew there probably wasn’t going to be anything good about MOMENT BY MOMENT. You probably know that too. But The Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre was showing it and…well, I just couldn’t resist. I mean really, it’s the legendary romantic pairing of Lily Tomlin and John Travolta, after all. Coming out in December 1978, Travolta had just starred in both SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER and GREASE. Tomlin had been Oscar nominated for NASHVILLE a few years earlier and had just starred in Robert Benton’s THE LATE SHOW. The disastrous reception the film received caused Travolta’s then-exploding stardom to screech to a halt, the first real sign of the downturn his career would take during the 80s and was at least partly responsible for him dropping out of AMERICAN GIGOLO. Tomlin certainly never starred in a role like this again, although the smash success of 9 TO 5 just a few years later certainly helped bury the stench of this failure. Even an airing on ABC in June of 1984 that wound up as one of the Top Ten shows of the week—well, it was June—couldn’t do anything about the film’s miserable rep. That even Travolta’s name could never get this released on VHS seems to say something about how embarrassing it is for certain people so getting to see a 35mm Scope print of it was certainly a rare occasion. At the very least it would be fascinating to try to figure out what was intended here. And I suppose it was, if fascination and falling asleep are one and the same. But seriously, let’s not spend too much time on this.
Trisha Rawlings (Lily Tomlin) is a wealthy Beverly Hills housewife going through a divorce with her philandering husband. As we first see her during the opening credits she is walking through the streets of Beverly Hills, then we see her going into Schwab’s Drugstore on the Sunset Strip next to Hamburger Hamlet (that’s one hell of a walk). When she unsuccessfully tries to get her prescription for sleeping pills renewed she is recognized by a young guy named Strip (John Travolta—and yes, I said Strip) who remembers working as a valet parker at a party she once threw. Obviously (and weirdly) showing an interest, he tries to strike up a conversation but she quickly brushes him off. Soon after (about twenty seconds after for us) at her Malibu beach house Strip shows up on the sand with some reds, once again trying to engage her in conversation. As Trisha begins to learn more about Strip and his bad luck (car broken down, friend disappeared) her icy façade soon starts to melt and their older woman-younger man affair begins full throttle when Trish tries to zzzzzzzzzzzz………
Sorry, I nodded off just thinking about it. A few hours before seeing MOMENT BY MOMENT I attended an event in Echo Park where somebody who heard I was going to see it (great to finally meet you, Emily!) pointed out to me the unmistakable resemblance between Lily Tomlin and John Travolta’s older sister Ellen. Naturally, I wasn’t able to watch the film without thinking about this. To put it simply, MOMENT BY MOMENT is such a completely wrongheaded, misguided, awful film that it’s tough to know where to begin in describing it. Written and directed by Tomlin’s partner Jane Wagner I can only imagine that it’s meant to be a showcase for the actress, displaying what she could do away from comedy. But it goes so far in this direction that it becomes stifling—there literally isn’t a single lighthearted or funny moment during the entire running time (not intentionally so anyway) which almost seems purposely designed to drain away any charm or likeability from its two leads as the endless score of a wailing sax that feels left over from a short-lived ABC drama of the time drones on and on. Pretty quickly it feels like the whole thing is unfurling in a late 70s daze of pills and Chardonnay, both of which seems to be consumed continually throughout the picture. The Silent Movie Theatre actually provided glasses of white wine for the screening which was appropriate and very generous of them but seriously, it felt like we needed something considerably stronger. Even minor scenes seem to take about twice as long as they should and though the running time is only around 100 minutes, it feels considerably longer than that. The entire film is filled with overly literal dialogue written by Wagner—“I’m sorry you found out about my affair with Elaine the way you did,” as well as the strangely laugh-inducing “Are you a member of the automobile club?” or just Tomlin mournfully stating, “Oh, Strip,” when she learns of her new guy’s troubles. Travolta is presented as a gentle, innocent soul who is always bursting into tears, latching onto her like a boy who wants his mommy. But, you see, because he’s more innocent (an innocent runaway, yet) he’s also wiser and more excited about the world. Whenever a bottle of wine is finished he places a note inside and hurls it out into the water, not revealing what he has written inside (He tosses it from the deck of the house and I couldn’t help but imagine hearing a loud “Ow!” from below). He also insists on being told by Tomlin that she loves him saying, “Cheap sex leaves me feeling cheap.” And in the category of you’ll-never-wipe-this-from-your-brain is the infamous hot tub scene where Tomlin motions for Travolta to remove the rest of his clothes and join her followed by gravely intoning, “Let’s smoke some pot.” Along with this are several (as in, more than one) love scenes that don’t feature any actual nudity, but let’s just say that they go further than you’d ever expect them to. Seriously, beyond that you don’t want to know. No, really, you don’t want to know.
Of course, Lily Tomlin has never been anyone’s idea of a sex symbol—although the film, as well as the character of Strip seems to think she is—but the overly serious, zoned-out approach drains away any appeal she’s ever had. We never see any reason why Travolta’s Strip goes after her so hard so fast since she displays no personality whatsoever unless she looks like his mother, which certainly seems possible. We also never get any indication why she’s so interested in Strip, unless she’s enamored by someone who acts like a mental ten year-old who asks how she cooks her chicken. Maybe she just wants to be a mother to him—her character does actually have a son, but it doesn’t matter because we never see him, just as her husband is dispensed with in just a few short scenes. Not only is it bad, there’s very little relief from most of the monotony. The majority of the film takes place in the beach house and the cast is so small that no one else is even billed during the opening credits. Trish’s best friend, introduced on the phone getting her legs waxed, is played by an actress named Andra Akers, who looks like someone who gets revealed as the bad guy at the end of an episode of “Charlie’s Angels” and that’s as good as it gets but at least it’s somebody. There’s also a subplot involving Strip’s missing friend who we never meet turning up dead that implies some mob connections but it never seems to affect anything and is eventually dropped. It’s very obvious that Strip is supposed to be ‘The Girl’ in this scenario and the movie is doing a spin on the sexual expectations, but ultimately it’s a case of so what? Is it just a fantasy for 1978 women who looked like Lily Tomlin? It certainly doesn’t seem like it would have appealed to his teenage fans back then. If you know anybody who was a teenage girl in 1978 feel free to ask them. I suppose it’s possible to read all this as a very, very deadpan satire of Malibu lifestyles—and there might actually be something in that approach--but it’s pretty clear that this all supposed to be taken seriously. At one point Strip runs away in tears when Trish tries to pass him off as the delivery boy so she and her best friend go looking for him all around the then-seedier Hollywood Boulevard. It’s a completely stupid, incomprehensible sequence but at least we get to see what the area looked like back then—JAWS 2 is playing at the Egyptian and DAMIEN—OMEN II is at the Vogue. Neither film is great, but it was hard not to think how preferable it would have been to be seeing either one at that point in time. Actually, hitting my hand with a hammer might have been preferable as well.
MOMENT BY MOMENT, though distributed by Universal, was produced by Robert Stigwood’s RSO films (everyone probably remembers the RSO logo) which was also responsible for SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER and GREASE, but in 1978 also gave the world SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEART’S CLUB BAND and the notion of pairing that with MOMENT could be one of the most painful ideas for a double bill imaginable. Which probably means somebody will play it one of these days. John Travolta has made enough terrible films (TWO OF A KIND, BATTLEFIELD EARTH, BE COOL—time will tell about that TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE remake) that it’s tough to say if this is the absolute worst but it’s certainly near the very top of that list. Maybe there’s more to say about this film but really, I just can’t do it. So for anyone who actually has seen MOMENT TO MOMENT, they’ll understand when I close this by simply saying...What a world.