Monday, October 5, 2009

The Hell With The Past

Why do I love TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN so much? Why do I feel like I could watch it over and over again? What is it about this movie that stands out for me? Is it because it displays that ultimate fantasy of being trapped in the decadent glamour of Rome in the early 60s? Is it because the film, directed by Vincente Minnelli with all the style he is famous for (in CinemaScope and Metrocolor), is so obviously a studio product yet coming as it did in the twilight of the old studio system the whole thing plays as slightly off, maybe even nuts. The 1962 movie seems to have the feel and logic of a party that you’ve stayed at way too long, just because you’ve still haven’t given up on this one particular girl, then suddenly you look up and realize that it’s 4 AM and from this point on not a thing is ever going to make sense. In a way, the film came at 4 AM of the long night of the old studio system as well—everything is breaking down, everyone is fleeing to shoot cheaper films overseas and suddenly Cyd Charisse has become downright frightening. Maybe she always was. You can’t be sure anymore.

Based on the novel by Irwin Shaw, TWO WEEKS stars Kirk Douglas as Jack Andrus, a washed up film star who while recovering in a sanitarium is summoned to Rome by his one-time favorite director, the great Maurice Kruger (Edward G. Robinson) with the promise of a small but juicy role in his latest film, being shot for a stingy Italian producer. There is no role in this production that a desperate Kruger has lowered himself to direct, but on a tight schedule to complete this production with a producer intent on pulling the plug in weeks, Kruger convinces Jack to stick around and supervise the dubbing, always a key ingredient of a film being shot over in Italy. Andrus digs in to the assignment with a sense of purpose but finding himself in Rome he also in forced to confront his past with ex-wife Carlotta (Cyd Charisse) nearby as well as the beautiful young Veronica (Daliah Lavi) who represents either the present two weeks or even a possible future as Andrus must confront his past and where he wants to go if he is going to be able to walk away from these two weeks.

The very title indicates a stopover, going from one place to another, only in the case of this film it’s referring to life in general, not just the place it is set in. Except for Lavi’s more innocent, free-spirited Veronica (who doesn’t like watching movies because “when I have two hours, I like to spend them my own way,”) everyone in the film, even the younger leading man played by George Hamilton, seems worn down, bitter. They drink in the parties, dinners and crowded cafes of Rome in an attempt to forget everything that has led them there but it never quite succeeds. Not to mention the fantasy of not just Rome but of Cinecitta—it could hardly be taken as a documentary of the filmmaking process in that place but the details of the crew, dubbing and actors all saying their lines in different languages expresses in a certain sense what it must have been like. The film is clearly set in the Rome of the time that was previously portrayed in Fellini’s LA DOLCE VITA but it also seems very much a Hollywood attempt to capitalize on it. This duality is one of the elements that genuinely helps with the feel that the film is caught between two worlds, two lifestyles, two filmmaking approaches.

These feelings extend to the very nature of the film we’re watching, right down to the footage from the previous Minnelli/Douglas/composer David Raskin team-up THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (some sources incorrectly refer to TWO WEEKS as a sequel because of this) that is used as a film being viewed in the film, supposedly one of the previous Andrus/Kruger collaborations. As Robinson is told how great he is he sits there sighing “I was great,” it’s hard not to read him as an obvious surrogate for Minnelli, expressing his own ambivalence for what his old studio MGM, and his own career, has come to, maybe even stating what he thinks about directing the film we’re watching. “How can a man go wrong and not know why” Robinson mournfully asks at another point, such a big question that it sounds like the theme to the film is being stated but it isn’t. TWO WEEKS by a certain point is about not the defeatist asking of the question but realizing that you need to move on from that that point--face the things you got wrong, wash yourself of all your sins and regrets (literally, in the case of Jack Andrus as it turns out) before moving on, ready to face the future and whatever it will hold. Maybe it’s also because the film is not about friendship winning the day or a man saved by finding the love of a good woman but about confronting these things on your own and once that’s done you can move on, even if it is by yourself.

Does any of this matter? Am I just attracted to this film by the scenery of Rome, the ultra-wide Scope compositions of Rome, the dream of having an affair with Daliah Lavi in Rome, the moments of Kirk Douglas faced with all the beauty of Rome all around him, tortured over what he’s supposed to do next. Maybe TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN, in all lurid splendor that is on display, plays like a laugh riot with an audience, but I don’t care, even if there are elements of the story that don’t make sense on any rational level. It’s all part of the delirium that I love getting sucked into. Not to say that there aren’t a few issues—at 107 minutes it’s about a half-hour shorter than Minnelli’s SOME CAME RUNNING and there is some abruptness involving a Douglas’s relationships with a few characters in the second half (I’ve seen references out there to MGM cutting things down, but few specifics—I would imagine much of it has to do with some sequences which come near the end). But these things barely seem to matter in the phantasmagorical climax, again mirroring a BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL scene, involving Douglas with Charisse madly driving in his out-of-control car through the narrow streets of Rome, a sequence as phony as it is strangely beautiful ultimately seeming flat-out expressionistic in giving us the desperate fury of what must be going through Kirk Douglas’s head.

Everything is big in this film, from the luscious score by David Raskin to the intense staging (it looks to me like one shot of Charisse watching Douglas and another man fight over her was slightly recreated by Brian DePalma in FEMME FATALE) to every single one of the performances. Kirk Douglas somehow manages to pull off seeming like an underdog yet still full of himself, providing impressionists out there with lots of material but we see enough of him working with other people on the film that we believe in his talent and intellect. This causes him to work very well with Edward G. Robinson, who has enough presence that we totally believe him as a director who can rule over a set and terrify it as well. The freshness of Lavi works well even with her inexperience, playing as the total opposite of Cyd Charisse who comes off as so scarily intense that she barely seems human. Watching her in every single bizarrely elaborate gown she wears as she preys on Douglas with what seems like enough teeth for three people it becomes clear that TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN isn’t about realism, because these kinds of nightmares that we need to face in life sometimes aren’t real anyway. It ultimately becomes so bizarre that we can’t look away. The one-note shrieking of Claire Trevor as Robinson’s wife becomes too much by a certain point in comparison—she screams more than Ava Gardner in EARTHQUAKE and eventually it feels like a type of hysteria that is out of synch with the rest of the picture. Maybe that it’s a thankless role is the point —you can hardly blame Robinson for preferring to be with Rosanna Schiaffino, who in her role as the Italian star of the film being shot doesn’t ever say a single word in English. Even when she screams, it’s in Italian so naturally it’s charming.

So why can’t I stop watching it? I still don’t have an answer to that. Maybe I see myself in Kirk Douglas’s character, maybe I’m constantly looking for my own redemption just like he is. Maybe I really do just want to go to Rome in the early 60’s, a place where the streets and cafes appear to be teeming with the most exciting kind of life ever seen—even if it is the MGM-sanctioned version of Rome (well, at least they actually shot it on location). TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN is not an easy film to see. The only video release it ever received was on laserdisc, although it does play on TCM fairly often. It’s not a film that I’m necessarily looking to share with people because I’m aware of some of its shortcomings. But sometimes the films that do feel flawed, even in all their nutso earnestness, are the ones we become attached to the most. In their flaws, we see ourselves. The films we want them to be, the exciting lead characters we wish we were. When the title of TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN appears onscreen during the benediction of the final shot as the David Raskin score swells to its conclusion, it seems to remind us that sometimes we all need to confront the abyss of our own past during two weeks in some other town. It’s ultimately our own decision how we decide to move on from that crucial point, when we finally have the ability to say, “The hell with the past.” Of course, until that happens, it’s easier said than done.


Baskingshark said...

Daliah Lavi is fascinating. She played the total innocent in Lord Jim and in this, then she turned into a full-blown psychedelic femme fatale in stuff like Some Girls Do and The High Commissioner before she quit acting to become a singer in Germany. She had a comeback/farewell tour there last year and a new album and she still looks great at almost 70.

Joe Valdez said...

I've never heard of this movie before, but the poster has me hooked.