Saturday, February 28, 2009
It’s not a title I was familiar with up until a week ago, but Alan Rudolph’s 1978 film REMEMBER MY NAME is a fascinating find, an anti-thriller thriller that contains a genuinely memorable lead character and performance, as well as an off-kilter tone that helps make it truly unique. With Robert Altman producing, as he did many of Rudolph’s films, it does indeed have the feel of a thriller directed by Altman himself but it also provides us with a fascinating look at lead actress Geraldine Chaplin. She’s not someone I would have ever expected to see in a role like this, just as some of the other casting, to put it mildly, feels a little unorthodox. And she’s absolutely astonishing. Shown by Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre with Truffaut’s THE STORY OF ADELE H. (remarkable) on a ‘female stalker’ double bill, REMEMBER MY NAME has never been released on video in any format, reportedly due to music rights. It’s a shame because though it doesn’t deliver what one might expect from its set-up, it’s nevertheless a haunting, darkly funny look at obsession that in its own mundane way is consistently surprising.
A woman named Emily (Geraldine Chaplin), recently released from prison, drifts into a bland southern California setting and after talking her way into a job at a five-and-dime begins following and messing with the lives of construction worker Neil Curry (Anthony Perkins) and wife Barbara (Perkins’ real-life wife Berry Berenson), who are already going through marital troubles as the film begins. What she does starts simply from tearing up their garden and fiddling with the wife’s car, but soon graduates to throwing a rock through their window at night to finally just opening up their door and walking in as Barbara prepares dinner. And as Neil realizes the identity of this person stalking them, Emily’s plan for revenge begins to take full effect.
Though made years earlier, REMEMBER MY NAME could almost be read as a comment on thrillers made in the post-FATAL ATTRACTION/blank-from-hell era (typical for Altman, the comment is made years before anyone asks for it), detailing the process of what this woman does in the most matter-of-fact way that at times manages to be genuinely chilling yet at times weirdly funny, keeping us continually off guard (one of my favorite things about the movie is how it introduces us to Emily by showing the registration tags on her windshield, making it clear that she’s from New York). The extended sequence where the character enters the married couple’s home while Berenson makes dinner is almost anti-Hitchcock in its approach, yet the way it builds suspense to the point where her reveal genuinely startles us is a masterful moment. The film presents Emily not as a criminal mastermind but as a genuinely disturbed person who is also completely determined in what she is going for, even if it could never possibly make any sense to anyone but herself. Her plan doesn’t involve violence but certain actions make it clear that she has no problem resorting to that. Fittingly, the most graphic thing in the movie is presented in a way that makes it not clear exactly what has happened at first, just as if we were watching the same event ourselves from across the street. The film’s refusal to deliver the shocks that we would expect from this basic premise causes it to continually subvert our own expectations, taking it down a number of unexpected paths. By the final half-hour it feels like the world of the film is closing in on the main characters as they give into who they really are, after a long time denying that. As an Altman-like punctuation, throughout we continually hear news reports on TVs about the devastating death tolls coming from an earthquake in Hungary, as well as general commentary about the state of modern life. No one ever pays much attention to it, probably because they are no more equipped to do anything about what they hear on TV than they are to fix what is going on right in front of them. In its own idiosyncratic 70s sort of way, the film is about characters in a world where everyone is trying to get even for something attempting to make sense of their lives and choices as they approach middle age but have no idea how to admit certain truths to themselves. One of the most enjoyable sequences where this really comes out involves Chaplin and Perkins in a Mexican restaurant finally loosening up with each other and proceeding to order every drink on the menu. It’s probably one of the most strangely endearing sequences in all of Rudolph's films and it’s also just what we need to know about two people who are falling from anger right back into how they always behaved with each other. After everything we’ve seen, the ending makes sense but it feels like a beat is missing—as it is, it’s not entirely satisfying but I feel like that’s going to matter less as time goes on and what the movie really is will stay with me. The film even provides another level to the Alan Rudolph joke in Altman’s THE PLAYER (“Hey, you’re Martin Scorsese!” “No, but I know Harvey Keitel.” “I know you do. Hey, I loved CAPE FEAR!”) and I couldn’t help but notice that the short, blonde hair worn by Berry Berenson is actually identical to how Jessica Lange’s looks in the Scorsese film. It’s probably all a coincidence, but it still seems worth mentioning—REMEMBER MY NAME is very much the anti-CAPE FEAR.
Tiny, pixieish Geraldine Chaplin, smoking cigarettes almost every second she's onscreen, would never be someone I could imagine picturing in this type of role, but she is truly astonishing and comes off as genuinely, believably dangerous. However she pulls it off, she understands this character and maybe the fact that she isn’t traditional casting makes her even more of an unpredictable live wire. The most unfortunate thing about this film’s obscurity is that her brilliant work here remains underappreciated. Anthony Perkins was probably never anyone’s idea of a contruction worker (although he does appear to have worked out before shooting), but he maintains a strong presence throughout and the fact that we know he’s holding something back makes his own behavior unpredictable as well. He delivers some very strong, atypical work here. Also appearing in the film’s strong cast are Moses Gunn as the security guard who Emily endears herself to, Jeff Goldblum (looking so thin that a strong wind could probably blow him over) as the store manager of the five-and-dime, Tim Thomerson (credited as ‘Timothy’) as one of Neil’s fellow construction workers and Alfre Woodard, making a strong impression in her first film as the assistant manager who Emily butts heads with instantly. The songs, apparently the reason for the film being MIA on video, are all performed by blues legend Alberta Hunter, fitting perfectly with the theme of the movie and making it seem as if the story we’re watching is just one long blues song as well.
The beautiful Berry Berenson, who made only a few other film appearances, is extremely good as the odd one out, never fully aware of what is going on. The very evident fear and confusion on her face as she holds a knife on the woman who won’t leave her kitchen makes her a fully believable character, yet unpredictable in her own right. She’s of course remembered today as Perkins’ widow, but also sadly for being on one of the planes that were crashed into the World Trade Center on 9/11. It’s something that brings additional resonance to a moment late in the film where she sits watching a TV that is droning on about the meaning of all the lives lost in that earthquake in Budapest—names which, to go along with the title, will never be remembered. If anything, it just adds another layer of resonance to the film and the excellent performances by the three leads, two of which left us under enormously tragic circumstances. It’s unfortunate that REMEMBER MY NAME will continue to be essentially unknown because of the music rights issue, because a film this good deserves better than to languish in obscurity.