Tuesday, December 8, 2009
Searching Low And High
I’m sitting here in my apartment writing this, wondering how I got here and wondering where this is all going. My head must be somewhere else these days or I would have been able to finish writing something sooner. I suppose I don’t know what to do anymore. Don’t know what to say. Keeping that in mind, I realize that without any attention being paid the 10th anniversary of the release of Steven Soderbergh’s THE LIMEY was passed a few months back. In some ways it’s actually fitting, as if this lean, nasty and adventurous effort by the director would want to stay under the radar, waiting to be discovered by those who would really care. Soderbergh has moved on to making numerous other things since its release, what some might consider a minor stopover between his career rejuvenation with OUT OF SIGHT and the critical and box office triumph of ERIN BROCKOVICH. Soon after that was his Oscar for TRAFFIC and of course the massive success of the OCEAN’S ELEVEN series. THE LIMEY, on the other hand, seems to be loved by a select few that includes those who respond to its deifying of star Terence Stamp as well as its determined non-linear approach to telling its story. The style may not be as extreme today as it was when it was first seen but it remains extremely daring, making it a film without any real present tense. Not to mention how within its tribute to films of the sixties and death knell of the dreams of that era is a film that gains in resonance as time goes on because of how it looks at memory, of loss, of regret. If it is forever consigned to modest status then it might almost take pride in being this scrappy little movie as determined itself as is that stare that Terence Stamp keeps on his face, gazing down at those in his path.
English career criminal Wilson (Terence Stamp) arrives in Los Angeles soon after completing his latest stint behind bars in search for answers as to the death of his daughter Jenny (Melissa George). Tracking down her friends Eduardo (Luis Guzman) and Elaine (Lesley Ann Warren) leads him to the trail famed record producer Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda) with whom Jenny had a relationship. Knowing that someone is after him, Valentine and security chief Avery (Barry Newman) set out to have Wilson dealt with but things don’t go as planned and Wilson soon makes it clear how far he is willing to go to find out just what happened to his daughter (“Tell me…tell me about Jenny”).
A bracingly simple plot which comes off as an attempt to cross GET CARTER with the art-house stylings of Boorman’s POINT BLANK and made more complex, more resonant by its director, more interested in the idea of exploring the concept of memory within this pulp genre setup. That specific feeling is also helped by the presence of its lead actor, someone who in his erratic career (a star in the 60s, vanished in the 70s and reappearing through the 80s and 90s) really does fit the title of “The Seeker” as the famous song from The Who blares out at us right at the start as he walks into sharp focus. In some ways the movie is about its own process, shredding its narrative into splices that cover the editing room floor. The conversation over the course of an evening between Stamp and Lesley Ann Warren is shown as occurring in four locations, cutting together the sections of the talk in a way that makes no logical sense but that’s clearly not what Soderbergh is going for. This approach was picked apart by screenwriter Lem Dobbs in the infamous DVD audio commentary with Soderbergh (one of the best ever, highly recommended) in which the man who first put all this on paper proclaims, “…I’d say it’s a good movie. I’d recommend it to my friends. But as a screenwriter, I think it’s crippled.” A more ‘normal’ version of the film could certainly have worked as well, with aspirations that would go beyond the normal action approach but Soderbergh seems to have been intent on stripping away as many of the elements that would conform to expectations as possible while still keeping the occasional action beat and shootout. In one of the film’s most memorable moments, the camera holds outside as Wilson goes inside a warehouse to nastily take care of some business and it plays beautifully (and, since Dobbs points it out, all from the script).
Stamp’s Wilson does speak of regret, of the lost relationship with his daughter but equally as affecting as that is the chance to just stare into the actor’s expression, lost after decades of ‘seeking’, alone without family or the friends who he long ago realized weren’t his friends at all. THE LIMEY is about loss, of looking back on the past with nothing but despair and realizing what your actions have truly resulted in. Where does a person go after these things happen? How much can they implode inward and still somehow function? The most powerful characters in this film share that regret even if they don’t speak of it or have anything else in common—Fonda’s Terry Valentine has long since lost any idealism he had back in ’66 and ‘early ’67 (The first time I saw this film I heard his introductory song “King Midas in Reverse” as “Easy Rider in Reverse” and as far as I’m concerned that applies as well). Warren’s Elaine has had some sort of acting career but it doesn’t seem to have resulted in much more than the apartment she lives in and groceries she walks in with at night—that quick shot of the Breyers ice cream container seems to say a lot. Valentine’s latest girl Adhara tells him that he’s not specific enough to be a person, he’s a vibe, and this seems to what has happened to several of these characters through the years, damaged by whatever non-linear series of flashbacks that are spiraling through their own heads. THE LIMEY keeps up its genre trappings just enough to be aware of what it’s supposed to accomplish but its how those things are twisted through the approach that has kept me returning to it through the years.
Some of the humor is of the Tarantino-90s variety but after all, it was the 90s and manages to help emphasize the difference in the two time periods. Though it’s hardly new ground, the observational humor in regards to this alien city as observed by Wilson, like how Eduardo first met Jenny, feels sharp and dead-on—it’s a terrific L.A. movie beautifully photographed by Ed Lachman. Maybe it’s a minor piece of work but it’s also a remarkable one as well and one of the times that Soderbergh’s own clinical examination of his subject matter has caused something much more resonant than might have been expected to result. There are so many things I love about this movie—watching Stamp walk as he makes his way into the downtown warehouse, the car chase that puts VANISHING POINT’s Barry Newman behind the wheel backed by some very cool Cliff Martinez music, the randomness of the whole party scene and how Luis Guzman just wanders through it, the nastiness of Nicky Katt’s character. As fast as it all moves, there’s also the occasional point where it just pauses for reflection like on the drive up to Big Sur. THE LIMEY is lean, nasty, emotional and it knows that you don’t have to worry about getting your movie past the 90-minute mark to give it depth. Just looking into Terence Stamp’s eyes for 88 minutes is really all you need.
Whether or not anyone else was discussed for the lead role, and it is interesting to imagine Michael Caine in the part, Terence Stamp makes it his own in every possible way. After a tortured period of stardom through the sixties which included turning down the film version of ALFIE after playing the role on stage (Caine has written of how he tried to talk Stamp into it before playing the part himself adding, “I still wake up screaming in the middle of the night as Terry takes my advice and accepts the role.”), Stamp disappeared for much of the following decade before his return to the spotlight as General Zod in SUPERMAN and its first sequel. As the eighties wore on he continued to work, often in minor bad guy-type roles (though I love him as Sir Larry Wildman in WALL STREET), but it could be said that to most people of a certain generation he IS General Zod. THE LIMEY uses the actor he had become by 1999 and fusing that with the screen persona he used to be (particularly in how it incorporates actual footage of him in Ken Loach’s POOR COW as flashbacks for Wilson) and the film uses Stamp as the star he was always meant to be. He’s tough, he’s endearing, he’s ruthless as he takes in this strange landscape and the performance justifies Stamp’s entire career. He’s remarkable in the film, even (maybe especially) when he’s doing nothing but staring into space musing about how his fellow crooks (fellow actors?) have long since abandoned him as they went off to their own lives (saying something about the possible fondness Soderbergh has for the film, Stamp briefly appeared again as Wilson for a jokey cameo in FULL FRONTAL).
Peter Fonda is a blast as the sleaze Valentine, letting equal amounts of his massive ego and self-hatred show through. Just as part of Wilson is Stamp, certainly part of Valentine is Fonda and while the two leads have very little screen time together that first moment when the two lock eyes as Wilson exits the party is a damn near perfect silent exchange. Barry Newman digs into Avery with massive relish, a role better than nearly anything the actor got to play for decades before this, while Lesley Ann Warren gives the few moments she has to herself a degree of silent sadness that indicates her relationship with Jenny meant more than she’s willing to express to the girl’s father. Amelie Heinle, coming off as a Denise Richards with intelligence, also gives off an interesting vibe as Valentine’s new girl Adhara, staying wet through most of her screentime almost as if it signifies her continued purity in the middle of all this. Bill Duke, given a memorable line that starts with “There’s one thing I don’t understand…” is uncredited in a key role and Soderbergh sticks his OUT OF SIGHT star George Clooney in there briefly, seen as himself on an entertainment news program acting like a total jackass.
When I first saw THE LIMEY when it was first released I remember being fascinated by the idea of relating it to what L.A. used to be… the sixties that these characters still feel stranded in. Now I look at it and think about the present that I’ve arrived in and wonder about the reflections of my own past, the things that it’s too late to change. Sometimes I wonder if I’m getting a look at the future in my head as well. After all the gunplay and mayhem, THE LIMEY closes on a brief glimpse of the past where there was still the possibility of a life for the character of Wilson to look forward to, the idea of “getting better,” and something that has long since past. As I sit here watching this film yet again after already spending years driving around this city and living my own history, I wonder which point I’m finding myself at. Right now I don’t have the answer but I’d like to think there’s still time.