Tuesday, March 23, 2010
One Day You Wonder Why You're Doing Things
A few weeks ago I was at the Target on LaBrea waiting on line to pay for the items I was purchasing. It wasn’t much, mostly because I’m being careful with money these days. Anyway, standing behind me on line were two women, one of whom looked somewhat familiar. I don’t mean that I knew her and maybe I didn’t though I suppose you never know. But she had a certain resemblance to a type of woman I’ve known before as if she was someone a year ahead of me in high school or college that I had a crush on, somebody I might have gotten up the courage to talk to a few times at a party or something and wound up making no impression whatsoever. Though she looked like somebody who may have lived a few wild nights in her time, on that Sunday she was wearing a very loose-fitting summer dress. Very becoming. The possibility of past wild nights seemed to be confirmed when I heard her telling the older woman she was with about the time she saw the Beastie Boys at a club (in New York? I couldn’t tell) way back in 1984 before anyone knew who they were. I glanced at what she was buying. Refrigerator magnet letters. Obviously meant for kids. That she was probably the mother of. I paid for my things and walked off, thinking of how there may have been a time long in the past when I might have been able to actually speak to her. Things like this have been sticking in my mind lately.
The long, lazy afternoons in Los Angeles sometimes drift on, with not much else in sight. The walks I take become more frequent and before I know it the sun is setting off in the distance framed by Century City on the horizon. In those office buildings are people still working and maybe sometimes I feel like I should be drinking a cocktail while I watch that sunset only I’m just too antsy to relax that way. Maybe I start writing instead. This feel of drifting isolation is unavoidable sometimes and maybe not such a bad thing. At random moments it even brings on a form of peace. At the very least, I don’t have to go driving around in rush hour traffic. That feel sometimes gets me to think of CISCO PIKE, the neglected 1972 film which presents a Los Angeles just as isolating, just as trapping. I would say that CISCO PIKE is best known for being the film that gives us the “He’s a prophet, he’s a pusher,” Kris Kristofferson song (“The Pilgrim – Chapter 33”) that gets quoted in TAXI DRIVER as Betsy tells Travis Bickle what he reminds her of but of course CISCO PIKE isn’t best known for anything. Not released on video in any format before it quietly turned up on DVD a few years ago it’s a cult movie that has yet to be discovered, destined to unspool to isolated audiences in half-empty theaters until the end of time. I’ve seen it screened twice over the years, once well over a decade ago at the New Beverly with TWO LANE BLACKTOP, another portrayal of the alienation of that age, and once at the Egyptian with Jacques Demy’s MODEL SHOP, a personal favorite and another Columbia Pictures release of the time which features a lot of aimless wandering around this particular city. The lonely feel that CISCO PIKE gives off lingers in the brain longer than anything to do with its drug dealing storyline and even that has a certain amount of interest to it. The time capsule feel to the film makes it valuable considering the locations used don’t really exist anymore but that feel of drifting day after day is still around if you look hard enough.
One-time rising musician Cisco Pike (Kris Kristofferson) has fallen into drug dealing something he’s intent on getting out of after some trouble with the law that he’s still dealing with and is intent on keeping that promise to girlfriend Sue (Karen Black), who he lives with in Venice. Leo Holland (Gene Hackman), the crooked narc who busted him, shows up at his door one day with a proposition looking for Cisco to unload a great amount of marijuana (“It’s bad dope man…I mean GOOD bad,” Kristofferson tells the clueless Hackman) in less than three days time so he can get his hands on a badly needed $10,000. Cisco isn’t crazy about the proposition but he has little choice but to agree and still needs to deal with Sue when she figures out he’s dealing again, his strung out old music partner Jesse (Harry Dean Stanton) who turns up in town and, with little success in getting anyone to listen to one of his tapes, an L.A. music scene that seems to be passing him by.
Written and directed by B.W.L. Norton, CISCO PIKE ambles along like a short story that could shrug its shoulders and end at any time as the title character drifts out of frame, never to return. Or maybe it's just the film version of one of the songs written and sung by Kristofferson that we hear throughout as we follow Cisco making his way around the city trying to unload this weed. The deadline is an annoyance but the hole he’s found himself in is just as bad and it’s clearly beginning to feel like nothing is ever going to change, with demo tapes he’s spreading around town getting no response from producers, dealing with money men who remember how much a show he played years back grossed but have no interest in him now other than what he’s selling and how cheap they can get it. He tries selling his guitar but the owner’s not buying, saying it’s yours. It is and he’s right but there’s nothing he can do but use the guitar case to carry the drugs around instead since nobody out there seems to want him to do anything else with it.
The world of CISCO PIKE is very much a Los Angeles populated by people who seem quietly aware that they’re a few years past the good times. The sixties are over and all that’s left is, well, not much beyond memories of places people used to hang out at back in ’66. But that’s all mostly left unspoken as they find themselves talking with young girls who refer to music a few years old as something they used to listen to in Junior High. Trying to avoid the subject of why he really needs the money, Hackman’s cop says, “I don't know. You do things and, uh, one day you wonder why you're doing things. You know? I don't know,” which turns out to be a better explanation of what everyone is going through than anyone else in the movie can offer. As portrayed here L.A. seems somewhat abandoned as if all the fun’s gone out of everything—as it looks here Venice resembles a ghost town as if everyone who hung out there in 60s split for a better party somebody heard about (maybe I just remember how the area is portrayed in Oliver Stone’s THE DOORS, set during a few years prior). The film has a feeling of characters, especially Cisco, wondering, is this it? Am I always going to be staring through glass windows at people doing things I want to be doing? Even the flashback snatches of Cisco’s good times we see are surprisingly brief, as if they’re not appearing even in his own head very much anymore. Something I can understand—just because it’s specifically about the 60s moving into the 70s doesn’t mean that I can’t read a few things relating to myself into it—the way Harry Dean Stanton loses interest in a waitress who mentions recently getting married feels awfully familiar. The L.A. locations seen throughout continue giving us glimpses of a city that has slipped away—one quick pickup happens out in front of The Source, the restaurant where Annie Hall broke up with Alvy Singer several years later. The time capsule element of it is invaluable but CISCO PIKE stands on its own as meditation on the concept of stopping looking at the past and trying to head towards the future, turning it into a film that lingers in the brain far longer than you expect it to at first. It’s a simple crime story that gains in resonance as I watch it and wonder where Cisco can really go at this point, something I’m not sure the film knows either. Where can he ever escape to if he leaves L.A.? What can he do next? I’m not looking to escape, but what can I do next? Who was that woman in Target, anyway?
Several of the film’s characters come off as so vivid with enough left unspoken that it’s easy to imagine them being the lead in their own movie. Given an “Introducing” credit for his starring debut, Kristofferson barely seems to be acting. It almost feels more like this guy just wandered into camera range while taking a break from trying to unload all this dope and we feel his bitterness as he deals with people who desperately want what he’s got and treat him with contempt at the same time, unable to get anyone interested in his music. Gene Hackman gives what has to be one of the most unsung performances from the early part of his career, in a role shot before THE FRENCH CONNECTION but released after, with the feverish hunger that comes through in his performance truly palpable and the character’s increasing desperation makes it all the more clear how much this cop is out of place in this world that Los Angeles has become. The plot dictates that Hackman stay offscreen for a long time in the middle section (it really is a supporting role) and when he reappears it completely feels like he’s been continuing his narrative off screen and the way he plays things allows us to piece together the degree of his breakdown almost instantly—for years after seeing it for the first time I still remembered the unnerving way he runs in place to deal with what he claims is a heart flutter. He’s really good in his limited screen time, clearly acting on a different wavelength than everyone else but since he’s supposed to be the odd one out compared with everyone else in the film that actually works in the movie’s favor. Introduced doing yoga, Karen Black (briefly topless, for anyone who might be interested) brings a great amount of sensitivity to what is just about the only stock role here and also just about the most level-headed person in the film—maybe when the character is written in a relatively colorless fashion you need somebody as off-kilter as Karen Black naturally is. Warhol superstar Viva plays rich girl Merna who is keeping up her hard partying ways despite being pregnant (asked about this, she replies that she’s “just holding it for somebody for a couple more months.”) and though written as slightly flaky interestingly plays it as much more aware of things than she lets on. No doubt she’s been through a few of these nights that go very bad already. Plus, no one has probably ever seemed like a Merna more than Viva. Harry Dean Stanton palpably displays his awareness of being too old for this scene when he appears as Cisco’s ex-partner (actually, he never looks quite as bad as some dialogue claims—he’s Harry Dean Stanton circa 1971 so he looks pretty cool to me), Joy Bang is another party girl who tags along (both she and Viva were also in PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM) and the likes of Roscoe Lee Browne, Allan Arbus, Severn Darden and Antonio Fargas are in there at various points. Also turning up as a customer looking to buy a lot of what Cisco’s got is William Traylor, FLETCH’s Mr. Underhill, making this film his second straight appearance on this site.
It might make for a fascinating look back now, but it didn’t do much for the film at the time, even critically—Vincent Canby pretty much dismissed the film in his New York Times review when it was released there in January 1972 by saying “there isn’t much to say about it.” He does, however, mention that Columbia opened it on a double bill with MACHINE GUN McCAIN the Italian gangster picture set in America starring John Cassavetes. Definitely an odd pairing but it still sounds like a worthwhile day at the movies to me. Canby also adds that the story in “the foreground is no match for the realism of the found objects in the background.” Still dismissive, but interesting how what he points out isn’t all that different from a few of the things that I find myself responding to—Canby just didn’t care about them. But those signs of a city that seems to be dissolving as you look at it are there and tossed into this low-key mix of sex, drugs, music and isolation almost forty years old now is a movie that makes me stop and think for a few minutes, wondering about its characters, wondering about its Los Angeles. As well as wondering about my own personal version of those Kristofferson lyrics playing in my head as I approach another day of trying to make all this work, wondering if my car will ever make it over the next hill.