Wednesday, June 30, 2010

There Is No Gravity

When I look at something like GETTING STRAIGHT I find myself consciously aware of how the film is very much a relic of another time and yet all I can do is associate my own life with it. Originally released in May 1970 just a few months before star Elliott Gould appeared on the cover of Time, the film may be dated and it may be very much a product of a certain point in history—it came out within days of the Kent State shootings for crying out loud—but all I can do is look at it with my own eyes. Since this is a film which is even older than I am I’m not sure I can really state with any confidence how much to take certain elements simply as satire. I just know how it makes me feel. However dated the story along with some of the ideas presented in the film directed by Richard Rush (FREEBIE AND THE BEAN, THE STUNT MAN) might be in this day and age at the least Ingmar Bergman apparently thought it was the best American film he’d ever seen, certainly causing him to cast Elliott Gould in his own THE TOUCH, made the following year. As for my own perspective, I know that the bleak setting of the film on a college campus with such modernist architecture (filmed in Oregon) that would seem more at home in a science fiction film causes it to ring a particularly uncomfortable chord with me, thinking of a certain university I was once unfortunate to attend (and which will go unnamed here). Every time I watch GETTING STRAIGHT the last fifteen or twenty minutes stir up a form of anger inside of me that I’ve long kept dormant. So as far as I’m concerned it means something to me and I could believe that someone else out there might feel the same.

Post-graduate student Harry Bailey (Elliott Gould, with huge mustache) who was at one time a protester who someone even calls, “the great rebel, the great leader” is now looking at his 30s and is ready to join the system, desperately trying to finish his studies at a small college to receive a Master’s so he can become a teacher. The fact that he has no money left for food or rent is the least of his problems—he’s dealing with a faculty head determined not to let Bailey pass, girlfriend Jan (Candice Bergen) who he keeps fighting with and a growing feeling of student protest happening as Harry, who knows he’s getting too old for this place and feels like he’s done all the protesting he can already, finding himself literally caught between the growing fervor among the student body and a faculty who literally refuses to pay attention to the escalating riots that are going on right in front of them.

Much of the visual style seems appropriate for a 1970 film starring Elliott Gould, as if it’s meant to represent how his character sees the world around him. Wandering from place to place, rack focusing to look at something else in the background and leering at times a bit too long at certain female students who slink past the camera. With a screenplay by Robert Kaufman (also screenwriter on FREEBIE AND THE BEAN as well as LOVE AT FIRST BITE) from the novel by Ken Kolb, GETTING STRAIGHT veers between freewheeling comedy, satire and earnest drama, at times seemingly attempting to combine all three at once and more than willing to become confrontational about what’s being presented. The riots that eventually explode on this campus combining demands for students rights and a black studies program (news reports on Vietnam are briefly seen on TV and the threat of the draft also plays a role here) very much ground the film in the period. Some of it also remains as politically incorrect as certain elements of FREEBIE AND THE BEAN are these days—when told the government is going to put everyone in concentration camps in Arizona, he says, “Don’t knock Arizona, it’s a great state. They have the lowest incidents of lung cancer, homosexuality and crabs,” it’s hard to ignore certain elements of the sentence. I mean, can you believe it? Actually saying something nice about Arizona?

The film’s tone is somewhat unique in how it never wants the viewer to settle down in the sort of freewheeling comedy it sometimes begins to approach. The counterculture vibe is there throughout but GETTING STRAIGHT doesn’t make as easy as other films from this period do in a young vs. old way, making the thirty year-old Harry’s dilemma in being caught in the middle that much stronger—the protesters are often portrayed as blind to their own arrogance or naiveté and the old man professors are hardly clueless as to what’s going on even if they aren’t particularly sympathetic towards the students or even just to Harry (as for the cops seen putting away their badges as the riots begin, that’s another issue entirely). Even for the purposes of the film, the backstory of Harry Bailey (presumably not George’s brother, the one who saved that transport ship and won the Medal of Honor) is almost too good to be true—between serving a stint in Vietnam, protesting in Berkeley, Selma and Paris his sixties were apparently very busy but the way he’s written makes it clear how much he’s seen and how much he’s had enough of all that, he’s “done it already”. When someone unsuccessfully trying to get him to join up asks him as he’s racing across the campus, “What are you afraid of?” he just responds, “Of being late for class,” and he means it.

All he wants to do is be a teacher, to inspire children the way he was once inspired and the nature of those in the school trying to prevent him from doing that, to do something good with his life, exposes him to how broken the system is that he’s trying to find his way into. It’s his attitude, the rebel inside him, that’s holding him back according to the head of the department (played with icy intelligence by Jeff Corey who works very well with Gould) who looks at the act of teaching as more of an assembly line to move students through than any sort of road to the passion of learning and assigns Harry to teach a class of ‘Dumbbell English’ as a way to test him for that future. Some of the blatant comedy in the film doesn’t always quite work (particularly the running gag with his car that’s falling apart) and Gould’s outbursts are in some cases a little much even within this volatile atmosphere. But the film captures the feeling of being trapped between these two factions that one feels completely alienated from, looking for some kind of middle ground, some kind of something and what it builds to, what finally boils over in the last fifteen minutes as Harry attempts to answer certain questions about THE GREAT GATSBY during his Master’s Oral, is what really gets under my skin, even watching it right now. It’s a feeling of anger that brings up long buried unpleasant memories and because of that watching this film is extremely cathartic for me as if in some ways it allows me to finally witness the destruction of that certain place in my life from years ago.

In the midst of all this is Harry Bailey’s ongoing relationship with Candice Bergen’s Jan, which seems to consist of sucking her toes in between arguments not to mention how he casually sleeps with various other girls on campus (it is, after all, a counterculture comedy) after they’ve been arguing. Drifting in and out of all this is the ongoing look at campus life of students (with minor student characters who appear throughout and become extremely familiar by the end) getting involved with protesting and trying to avoid the draft—one friend of Harry’s lost his deferment because he came up short on his credits after taking a class over, not because he failed it but because he liked it. Some of the numerous shouting matches between some characters maybe go on longer than is sometimes necessary but there’s a passionately literate feel to them (makes sense, considering how it’s set in college) and even a few who seem dead wrong in their points of view feel like they’re given a moment to speak their piece in an intelligent manner.

Kaufman’s dialogue is very sharp throughout, though Rush may have played a hand in it as well since he once claimed ownership of one of the best lines, Gould’s kiss-off to Bergen at the end of one argument when he screams after her, “You’re not a woman. You’re just a guy with a hole in the middle!” The director’s visual style (the film was shot by László Kovács) is genuinely ambitious even if it’s not always perfect, with those rack focuses used throughout becoming a crutch that he relies on a little too often, but the way he frames the immense austerity of this campus is often very sharp. He also seems to have a keen eye that occasionally pauses to check out the girls in certain scenes. For me personally, GETTING STRAIGHT is about making the choice to not avoid who you are, no matter what certain individuals who may call themselves teachers try to accomplish in attempting to destroy you and as long as kids go to college that’s a concept which will never become dated. The riots are at first believably horrific, but by the end they’ve become something else…as if the film is presenting what truly has to be for the earth to keep spinning and for the lead character to realize what he needs to about himself. It all hits me like a lightning bolt, a film with ideas that are big and small and I find myself continually responding to it.

Elliott Gould digs into his character with a great amount of confidence and even if it all becomes a little much once or twice he nevertheless manages to infuse his character with passion and intelligence that is always present in every word he speaks, making it a key iconic performance of his from this period. Candice Bergen is still very green here but though her performance seems somewhat undisciplined there’s something about her overeager earnestness, her willingness to look Gould in the eyes when they argue, that I bought into. And yes, she’s beautiful too. I love that final closeup of her as well—is it a zoom in/dolly out? In addition to Jeff Corey, Cecil Kallaway makes his last film appearance as one professor sympathetic to Harry’s situation and Jon Lormer, instantly recognizable from several classic STAR TREKs, appears as a key member of the administration as well. Max Julien of THE MACK nails the militant black leader of the campus, unafraid to laugh condescendingly in the face of anyone who disagrees with him and totally commanding the screen when he speaks, getting the tone of this sort of person totally right. Robert F. Lyons brings an interesting early-Nicholson feel to his performance as Harry’s friend willing to do anything he can to avoid the draft, John Rubenstein and Jeannie Berlin are some of the more prominent protesters on the campus, Gregory Sierra of BARNEY MILLER and THE TOWERING INFERNO is the ‘Dumbell English’ student who turns in a book report on Batman and none other than Harrison Ford appears in several scenes as a partying student who lives down the hall from Bergen.

Maybe it isn’t very dated after all. Maybe how dated it is doesn’t even matter. What happens during the last half hour of GETTING STRAIGHT is where much of my response to it comes from so it’s possible that I’m overrating it slightly to myself, ignoring a few of its flaws. But I don’t care. All I know is that there’s something about the film that makes me wish that I’d seen it years before I finally did. I think it would have made me feel better but looking at it now helps me put things into a sort of perspective, reminding me of how far I’ve come, confirming for me that they didn’t deserve the power I once gave them. Thinking about it now, they didn’t deserve to be in the same room as me. But that was a long time ago now, so as I watch the beautiful (for me) final shot of this film as I hear that music which still stays with me I just think, fuck ‘em. Fuck ‘em all. That’s probably a steal from Robert Evans, but so what. I didn’t deserve what happened. I’m better than that. I’m better than they are. I still am. And I love a film like GETTING STRAIGHT that helps me remember this.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Still Alive

After seeing POINT BLANK once again recently, I found myself thinking about the nightclub waitress Lee Marvin’s Walker briefly deals with at the start of the Movie House sequence. When she first sees it’s Walker who’s sat her down at the table she playfully asks him, “Are you still alive?” Of course, he doesn’t quite answer her, merely responding with, “Are you?” He alternately calls her ‘Sandy’ and ‘Sandra’, implying some familiarity and curious about this actress listed in the credits as Sandra Warner playing ‘Waitress’—was Marvin just casually referring to her by name while playing the scene?—I looked her up and discovered that she was not only an actress but a model, possibly familiar to some from appearing on the covers of various Martin Denny records back in the day. Her other acting credits include playing one of the band members in SOME LIKE IT HOT and she even stood in as a body double for the absent Marilyn Monroe to pose for photos with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis. POINT BLANK pauses for just a few seconds as she and Lee Marvin regard each other—is she a cocktail waitress who’s served him numerous times in the past aware of the problems he’s had with wife Lynne or has more gone on between them? “Sandra,” he says, calling her by name. “See you around, huh?” “Soon,” she replies, as if she’d like that but knows there’s a good chance it’ll never happen since this is Walker, after all. According to imdb we never did see her around again, since this was her last screen appearance. Something about all this seems very appropriate considering how this is POINT BLANK.

There’s a rule—if POINT BLANK is playing on your birthday in Los Angeles, you go. At least, that’s a rule that I made up this year when I saw that POINT BLANK was playing at the New Beverly (on a double bill with THE OUTFIT) and knew there was no way that I couldn’t be there even if I had seen it in theaters numerous times already including once long ago at LACMA where Angie Dickinson sat right in front of me. POINT BLANK probably is an ideal birthday movie when you live in Los Angeles because just as the movie never answer certain questions regarding what’s going on, is Walker alive or dead, does he really want his money and what would he do with it if he got it. Earlier that day I found myself driving around the same city, thinking about a lot of things, trying to wonder if I have any idea where I’m going in life. I drove all the way down to the water in Santa Monica where it looks out at the beach—roughly around where Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson discuss their plans to get to John Vernon in the Huntley (“How bad does he want you, Chris?” “Oh, I don’t know. Who knows?” “Yeah, you know. How bad?” “Pretty bad, I guess.”), suddenly wondering if I’d done this before, knowing that I had. Then I went and drove slowly by the Huntley, just like they do in the movie. Then I drove some more. I came up with no answers, but I was in a better mood by that evening when I showed up to the New Beverly to see the film, sitting in the middle of that crowded theater. I loved getting to see this film once again, particularly on that day.

For those who haven’t seen the 1967 film—well, if you haven’t, what the hell are you doing reading this—here it is. Lee Marvin is Walker, who is talked into pulling a robbery at a drop on deserted Alcatraz island with old friend Mal Reese (‘introducing’ John Vernon) who owes money to a shadowy criminal organization. With Walker’s wife Lynne (Sharon Acker) also there, the job goes awry when Reese kills the guys he swore he was only going to knock out and it turns out there isn’t as much money as he was expecting. So he shoots Walker, leaving him for dead and takes Lynne with him. Some time later Walker, who has escaped alive (or has he?) is approached by a mysterious man named Yost (Keenan Wynn) who wants Walker’s help taking down the organization and in exchange will help give Walker the information he needs to so he can collect the $93,000 from the robbery that was rightly his. Once in Los Angeles, Walker tracks down Lynne’s sister Chris (Angie Dickinson) and enlists her to help get at Mal so he can finally collect his money, collect his 93 grand.

The first film directed by John Boorman in America, POINT BLANK has a screenplay by Alexander Jacobs and David Newhouse & Rafe Newhouse from the novel ‘The Hunter’ by Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake) but as much as I’ll defend the sanctity of the written word this could be seen as one of the best examples ever of tossing aside the script in favor of how this film ultimately transcends the genre it’s working in (although taking a look at the original novel to compare with what’s here is definitely worthwhile). If the basic story sounds at all familiar then you might have seen the Mel Gibson vehicle PAYBACK, either a POINT BLANK remake or another adaptation of ‘The Hunter’ depending on how you want to look at it, taking the nasty coolness of the original John Boorman film and dumbing it all down big time for a Mel Gibson action film. Maybe the most interesting thing about that film is that it exists it two distinct versions on DVD (I wrote about all this way back when I first started to write this blog if you’re interested) but let’s forget about all this right now. What Boorman did was to take a fairly standard revenge storyline and fuse it with an esoteric art film, fulfilling the expectations of the genre (Lee Marvin as badass, particularly during one of the nastiest fight scenes ever) while at the same time turning it on its head and making it an examination of the very nature of the man who moves through the frame throughout. It’s a movie where Lee Marvin is after some money and says, “Somebody’s got to pay,” but the way he says it isn’t how we would expect. There’s so much I love about POINT BLANK—the power of Lee Marvin standing by as certain acts of violence get perpetrated, the unbearably erotic undressing of Angie Dickinson, the continually changing color schemes, the unexpected doses of humor (“You’re a very bad man, Walker, a very destructive man!”), its insistent logic of a logic of a trance, a waking dream. As well as the way Boorman and cinematographer Phillip Lathrop shoot Los Angeles through that anamorphic frame using lenses that seems to create some tiny odd flares in a few scenes, a flaw which nevertheless becomes something else about POINT BLANK that I find myself peering closely at. The film is, among other things, a total examination of Lee Marvin as primal force, as screen presence, examining just how he moves through the frame and it can be so easy to just pay attention to him that other things are forgotten about. And it’s a study of Los Angeles, a city I can believe Boorman may have hated but speaking as someone who loves it here I can never get enough of how perfect this film seems to capture that level of unreality something I can definitely feel on certain days (among the notable locations, Lynne’s house in the hills up from Sunset is still there and I even spotted it on an episode of ENTOURAGE a year ago).

The more I see it the more I really become aware how little of the story actually makes any sort of sense. Is Walker a man who wants his money or is there something else? If there is, does he even realize it? If there’s anything more he wants other than his money can he even realize it? I say he wants it, only on his own terms, but I’m well aware that I could be very wrong. For each time the character is fully in control, storming in like a bull to the office of Lloyd Bochner’s Carter, there are just as many times that he seems totally disoriented, gazing out the windows at this city all around him or just rendered nearly speechless as Carroll O’Connor’s Brewster chastises him like a child. And when we float up at the very end before the credits roll, revealing Alcatraz across the San Francisco bay, what it implies is obvious but I never really want to believe it.

Based on evidence from this film John Boorman seems to look at Los Angeles circa 1967 as consisting of half stark landscapes and half used car dealerships, populated by mysterious men in suits (one played by Sid Haig, who got an appreciative response from the crowd) some of whom may be friends but none of them ever know if they can trust each other. Each of these men spend a lot of time gazing at each other threateningly with the women in their lives on the edges of the frame left at sea in this world—Sharon Acker’s Lynne is already a zombie, Lloyd Bochner’s wife who mouths ‘what’s up?’ at him from across the room as Walker threatens him and in a touch almost never mentioned, a striking plateau of three girls staring at a body splattered on the pavement in front of them, one curiously glancing around, one covering her face, one staring dead ahead and shaking. They’re all overshadowed by Angie Dickinson as Chris who presented here has to be one of the four or five sexiest women ever seen in a movie (even briefly seen about as nude as you could have gotten away with then if you look for it in the background of one shot) and, as anyone who’s seen the film knows, she has a very memorable way of trying to slap Lee Marvin. Thinking of Dickinson in this film makes me also think of the score by Johnny Mandel. It’s strikingly atonal for the most part but the CD released by Film Score Monthly contains several of the lounge source tracks from when Chris goes up to Reese’s apartment, making me wish Mandel had expanded this material into an album called something like, “Music to Attempt to Seduce Angie Dickinson By”. Playing this music would probably make me more like John Vernon than Lee Marvin, but I’d still buy a copy.

“Did it happen? A dream. A dream…” I woke up on the day of my birthday wondering if my time in Los Angeles had in fact been a dream. I wondered about the bonds of trust I had formed with some people, trying to focus on the ones I knew who had turned out to be some of the best friends I’ll ever have. And I wound up at the New Beverly, the best place to be on my birthday, seeing this particular film once again. Nothing is very clear at the end of POINT BLANK, except for maybe how Walker isn’t going to let anyone fully control him and his destiny (“How’d we get into this mess?” “I don’t know.”). At this point in time, that’s almost what I take away from seeing it more than anything. I love this film. I’ve seen it many times already. I hope to see it many more, just as I hope to never fully get the answers to its mysteries as long as I’m still alive in Los Angeles. That is, if I’m still alive. Like in POINT BLANK, I can never be sure.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Very Open About Things

I recently made the long drive across town to the American Cinematheque’s Aero Theatre in Santa Monica for a tribute to actor/director Richard Benjamin. The night featured a double bill of two movies he starred in, WESTWORLD and DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE, with a Q&A with him in between. I will not be writing about that for the moment. Hey, it’s my birthday this week, I can do what I want. The reason why I’m not writing about it is because as much of a thrill as it was to see the star of QUARK and director of MY FAVORITE YEAR there that night (Said me to the person on the phone as I entered the Aero to buy a ticket, “I have to go, Richard Benjamin is standing in the lobby.”) it was even more of a thrill for me to see his wife Paula Prentiss there as well. I have a thing for Paula Prentiss, you understand, particularly in Howard Hawks's MAN’S FAVORITE SPORT but also from a few other films she made back in the 60s and 70s. Not really in the public eye anymore, she wasn’t the focus that evening remaining quietly off to the side as her husband signed a few autographs for people and all I could think was how the one and only Paula Prentiss was seated by herself. That is her, isn’t it, I was thinking. It definitely was and here she was, looking older now, but that’s ok. After all, she is older. And I went up to her. I had to. I kept thinking about MAN’S FAVORITE SPORT but if I’d had more time I might have gone on longer about a few of her other films, maybe starting with her supporting role in LAST OF THE RED HOT LOVERS, released in 1972 based on the Neil Simon play which based on looking around the net seems to have become a bit of a regional theater mainstay. It’s not a great film, certainly not one of the more memorable Neil Simon comedies ever but rarely have you ever seen someone come into a movie midway through and totally take command as she does here. She’s funny, she’s sexy, kind of off the charts nuts and pretty much brilliant. The movie isn’t. It has its good points, but the claustrophobia becomes a bit much by a certain point and not in a good way, with being cooped up in the tiny apartment it’s set in for eighty percent of the movie making for kind of a dingy film experience, though not one without its pleasures. And Paula Prentiss…my gosh.

Keeping its Neil Simon Broadway origins apparent all the way through, LOVERS centers around Barney Cashman (Alan Arkin), the middle-aged owner of a fish restaurant in Manhattan who has been married for 23 years and, feeling that the world is passing him by, is suddenly consumed with the enormous desire to live before its too late and that includes taking a stab at adultery. The three women (who presumably make up the three acts in the stage version) who he arranges secret rendezvous with in his mother’s apartment in the middle of the day are the hard-drinking, hard-smoking and also married Elaine Navazio (Sally Kellerman), actress/singer Bobbi Michele (Paula Prentiss) who turns out to be crazier than he ever imagined and his wife’s best friend Jeanette Fisher (Renée Taylor) who it turns out is distraught over her own husband’s affair. Naturally, none of these secret meetings ever quite go according to plan.

The first ten minutes, detailing Alan Arkin’s character waking up and traveling to his restaurant in the city with an inner monologue in voiceover, goes on long enough that for a few minutes we become convinced that this is going to be a real movie. At that point we enter the apartment where the lead character’s unseen mother lives which is where we spend much of the remaining ninety or so minutes. Directed by Gene Saks (both the stage and film versions of THE ODD COUPLE among numerous Neil Simon-related credits but, interestingly, not the original production of LOVERS) there’s really very little point in addressing LAST OF THE RED HOT LOVERS as an actual film considering how much of it set in this tiny apartment is pretty dingy and grainy, as if it’s ready made to air on the CBS Sunday Night Movie or maybe just some tiny UHF station. Saks seems just perfectly willing to plunk the camera down and record the action which considering what the material is may be the right way to go—and in fairness to Saks there are a few subtly effective moments in his direction, particularly in the way he holds on Prentiss as she blurts out one of her long, impossible-to-believe speeches about her current living situation with a Nazi vocal coach only to then cut to Arkin sitting there speechless, not sure whether he should run away or pounce on her. It’s not much, but it does at least reveal someone paying attention to how to visually present material. The apartment set in question does at least feel like a place where an elderly woman might have lived in Manhattan or one of the outer boroughs during the early 70s but as a setting for almost an entire movie it comes off as pretty visually dull.

As a Neil Simon play it has definite strengths and even if much of it feels rooted in mid-twentieth century middle age angst it still has some teeth--listening to Arkin muse about how he feels invisible and that life is totally passing him by struck a cord for me while watching it this week, aware of my own mortality. When Alan Arkin says it, I can relate to those fears. But it’s hard to avoid it all from becoming awfully claustrophobic by a certain point even with a few minutes of early 70s New York location footage. What it does have is its cast headed by Alan Arkin who is for the most part terrific even though, in his late 30s at the time, never looks quite old enough to be 45. Making him bald isn’t quite enough—is this the first film where the actor appears this way? He does convince in all his insecurities with some great comic beats throughout particularly the silent moment when he pauses, trying to put together Prentiss’s comment that she met a strange man when “he was living with my roommate and she moved out” until he finally mutters to himself, “The roommate moved out…”. As for the three female leads, Kellerman overcomes a early overly-mannered feel to fully convince as her cynical adulteress unafraid to call Barney on what he won’t admit to himself, Renée Taylor is borderline intolerable even if her character is supposed to be but Paula Prentiss, who appears during the middle section (“Act II”) as an impossibly nutso actress is pretty much brilliant, walking in and insisting on paying back the money he loaned her while sitting on a park bench right away only to immediately say that she doesn’t have the money.

With her voice constantly rising and falling in octaves as only Paula Prentiss can do it with just about every single thing she says (“I’m goofy today, must be the heat,”), pretty much the uber version of every uber-hot and uber-crazy girl ever met in the history of the world…well, at least met by me, anyway. I will mention no names, but I’m feeling a little reflective right now. Prentiss and Arkin had already worked together in CATCH 22 at this point and the rhythm they achieve here is pitch perfect with all this madness resulting in her smoking pot and singing Burt Bacharach songs to Arkin and, frankly, it drives me kind of crazy. When he sits down with her after she insists he join her in the pot the sequence does feel more stagebound than almost anything else in the film, with the camera just focused on them from dead ahead, but by that point the section is working so well mostly driven by her manic energy that there’s no way to destroy it.

As it turns out, any sort of drama the film builds up is hurt the most by the final section—Renée Taylor kind of sucks all the air out of the room and if the entire movie sounds to you like shrill people screaming Neil Simon wisecracks and platitudes at each other in a tiny room, that’s what it all begins to feel like at this point, even if the movie does leave the apartment during this stretch more than it does at any other point. As it plays here the strongest drama has already occurred when Kellerman’s character tells Arkin off and if the third act was supposed to tie everything together it really doesn’t, damaging the whole film in the end. Maybe it needed to bring Arkin’s unseen wife into the story (she’s never glimpsed even though her character is present during a few scenes including a suburban party that kicks off the third section) or maybe it needed to do something totally quiet and serious—maybe this worked better on Broadway and I certainly don’t have any better suggestions, but the way it is here just doesn’t work for me. There are definite strengths in the work of Arkin, Kellerman and especially Prentiss along with the crackling of Simon’s dialogue but by a certain point the shrieking makes the claustrophobia that’s been building during the entire film feel all too apparent. Surprisingly, the film opened in New York (The Times hated pretty much everything about it) at none other than Radio City Music Hall which seems about as overwhelming a booking as could be imagined for a film set mostly in such a tiny enclosed space. One definitely enjoyable part would have to be the Neal Hefti score, as bouncy as you would expect coming from the guy who composed the theme to THE ODD COUPLE. It’s probably Hefti’s basic style but it sounds just as ready made for its own sitcom as well, although I doubt a show about Alan Arkin taking a different woman up to his mother’s apartment every week probably wouldn’t last very long. Then again, it was the early seventies.

The story about my night at the Aero doesn’t really build to anything. Before Prentiss went to sit down with her husband I stopped her and basically said, “I just want to tell you that you’re one of my favorite actresses. You’re in something, it makes me happy and I don’t want to watch anyone else onscreen. I love you in MAN’S FAVORITE SPORT, I love you in LAST OF THE RED HOT LOVERS, I love you in THE STEPFORD WIVES.” I probably couldn’t think of anything else right then so I just gushed about her in MAN’S FAVORITE SPORT for another moment or so. As I did a big smile began to appear on her face and when I finished she gave me a hug. That was nice. And she still sounded like Paula Prentiss, too. But I didn’t want to overstay my welcome so I let her be and I went to my seat to watch WESTWORLD. I didn’t get to tell Richard Benjamin how much I love MY FAVORITE YEAR, but suddenly that didn’t seem so important. There were very good two movies to go, but at that point the night felt like a complete success. LAST OF THE RED HOT LOVERS is only one film I would recommend to spotlight the comic genius of Paula Prentiss, something that has been unfortunately forgotten over the years when actresses from the sixties and seventies are discussed. The film she gives this performance in may not be all that great but every moment she’s there is totally memorable and there are times when something like that is all a movie really needs.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Good Scream

To dismiss Brian De Palma as nothing more than a Hitchcock imitator has always bored me. To dismiss BLOW OUT as nothing more than an imitation of other films makes me wonder if someone even bothered to see it. Yes, I’m aware of the whole BLOW UP/THE CONVERSATION thing and after all the times I’ve seen the movie a few issues still nag at me in the back of my head—Why doesn’t Travolta just take the film and drive right down to the TV station? Why doesn’t he just go inside the train station with Nancy Allen? And then…I forget about it. Part of the thing about BLOW OUT is that some of the problems that occur to me during the film seem to totally evaporate afterwards. Maybe it’s because of the ending. Maybe because I’ve just been dazzled by De Palma’s skill and confidence as a filmmaker, that feel of total cinema that comes from someone with his command of the frame. I would almost go so far as to argue that some of the issues that I or someone else might have with it—Nancy Allen’s performance, the clunkiness of some of the dialogue, the earnest naiveté expressed throughout—almost make sense once that ending hits and then a week later the damn thing still haunts me.

I can actually remember the film playing during the summer of 1981 when I went to see SUPERMAN II for the second time at Yonkers Movieland. Sure I was way too young to see it, but it’s amazing to think that it was playing right there. It almost makes me want to find a time machine and go back there to shout at people going into one of the other theaters and shout, “People, this is BLOW OUT! RAIDERS will still be playing for another six months! Go see BLOW OUT now!” I’ve gotten to see it in theaters a few times in the years since but I was definitely at the New Beverly to see it again at a double bill which paired it with De Palma’s borderline brilliant 2002 film FEMME FATALE, both showing as a part of Phil’s weeklong birthday celebration. Much like when DRESSED TO KILL was screened there several months ago some of the comments on the theater’s Facebook page didn’t hold back on expressing certain, um, opinions on the director—I say these are just angry, bitter people—but nevertheless the place was packed that night, as well it should have been. And some people there had never seen BLOW OUT before. You could kind of tell.

Philadelphia movie sound man Jack Terry (John Travolta) is in the midst of working on his latest film CO-ED FRENZY when, looking for some new sounds, goes out one night to a park to record some tracks. By happenstance he’s close by when a car careens off the nearby road into the lake right there and, acting quickly, Jack dives in and rescues a girl inside the car but the man at the wheel is already dead. It’s not until later at the hospital when Jack realizes that the man in question was Governor McRyan who many felt might have been elected the next president. McRyan’s people just want the girl Sally (Nancy Allen) to get out of town for a while to avoid embarrassment to his family but when Jack listens to his recording of the accident he becomes convinced that it wasn’t really an accident. Intent on getting the truth to come out Jack tries to enlist Sally to help him uncover just who is behind this conspiracy.

BLOW OUT sets itself apart from the other thrillers De Palma scripted himself partly in how it’s much more a complete narrative as opposed to the structural experimentation he often focused on. Even when the story seems to take a break for a few minutes for one of these sequences (mainly John Lithgow’s stalking of the hooker in the 30th Street Station) it does have a point in terms of the plot even if it’s somewhat obscured by all the other details—hell, even if you want to consider it a digression it’s still a pretty damn good one, coming complete with thirty minutes and thirty dollars. For all that people talk about what he’s lifting from other films De Palma’s work often does feel dosed with a strong touch of the personal, whatever that may be and this seems to be the case with BLOW OUT much more than usual. Travolta’s Jack Terry could easily be considered a stand-in for the director (or even the grown-up version of Keith Gordon’s character in DRESSED TO KILL) and with this character living in a building in the City of Brotherly Love with a neglected, tearing Washington & Franklin mural on the side seems to also place him as a surrogate for whatever De Palma had begun to feel about the world around him by the time he made this movie. What begins as a joke in this film—CO-ED FRENZY feels like him making his own joke of a De Palma movie as if he was giving everyone the coarsest version of all the sleaze they expected after DRESSED TO KILL—gradually transforms into something else as the director’s visual mastery takes hold. In its purely visual way of giving us information the storytelling is absolutely crystal clear in how it allows us to understand things that only a sound expert like Jack Terry can figure out, best exemplified in that simply awesome Scope shot where he pieces together in his head exactly what happened at the moment of the titular blow out. All hail Vilmos Zsigmond, while we’re at it. The economy of storytelling continues right up until the final minutes which always winds up lasting shorter than I expect it to, with just a handful of setups giving us a great amount of information but there’s no need to give us more than that. There’s hardly a wasted frame in the film.

And that joke we got in those several extended takes right at the start (slightly similar to something Tobe Hooper did in THE FUNHOUSE around the same time) gradually dissolves away, a small running gag in the film that seems to be forgotten about as the world closes in on the two leads. What becomes clear on those multiple viewings is that as much as we wish Jack would do a few things differently, there’s the overwhelming feeling that nothing can be done about any of this, the shadowy ‘they’ who are actually just as paranoid about everyone else yet still powerful enough to pull the strings. Frankly, it actually becomes kind of depressing for me to go over certain parts of the film again because of this. Coming from what was at that time over seventeen years of conspiracy talk surrounding the Kennedy assassination (using iconography from both that event and Chappaquiddick) against the bogus Americana of the Liberty Bell Jubilee he muddies the water to have it both ways—a lone nut hired by the conspiracy who engineers his very own plot against the wishes of those allegedly pulling the strings.

The biggest complaint people seem to have with the movie is the nature of the Nancy Allen character who in some ways is a case of having it both ways—a total innocent from De Palma’s perspective yet certainly complicit with being involved in ongoing blackmail schemes and who doesn’t watch the news because “it’s too depressing”. Of course, to make her more like Allen’s character in DRESSED TO KILL wouldn’t work since that would make her and Travolta too similar (I’ll bet that Liz in that movie didn’t pay much attention to the news herself beyond the financial page) and we need somebody like her—maybe not a complete innocent but one who’s ultimately completely unknowing to what’s really going on around her, somebody who we’ll always remember if we lose them. Maybe Travolta’s Jack Terry does make some stupid choices but even that seems to fall into the inevitability of it all—he’s only trying to get the truth to come out, after all. He doesn’t know what’s coming. I know that I have to admit that BLOW OUT isn’t perfect what with how Travolta seems to make the same rant about the truth coming out a few too many times and how that Pino Donaggio score feels half-perfect but also half-unfortunately dated. That still doesn’t mean I would change any of it. The continuous inspiration in every frame of BLOW OUT is a lot of what causes it to linger. It’s that feeling of De Palma’s aim of total cinema crashing into these real world events. How can you really reconcile the power of the image (and the sound that comes from it) with what’s really going on in front of you? When she reviewed the film Pauline Kael wrote one of those rare pieces where you imagine those who made the film weeping with joy after reading it, concluding with the simple statement, “It’s a great movie.” Almost thirty years after it was made, BLOW OUT still cuts deep. It’s still great.

It was probably a shock to see how good Travolta was then and it’s once again a shock now. There’s a true earnestness to his work here as someone making one final stab at redemption in spite of what has happened to him in the past and the genuine emotion that comes through in his performance was possibly never seen again in so effective a way by the actor ever again. It’s like his acting fire burned so bright that it could never quite get to that level again. Nancy Allen moves past the possible awkwardness of her early scenes to create someone who is completely endearing and she really does seem like somebody who it would be fun to go to New York with and see some shows, you know, like SUGAR BABIES and stuff. Dennis Franz oozes that J&B his character is drinking from his very pores and John Lithgow projects genuine danger in every scene he’s in—we really believe he’s capable of anything—and yet this was the very first time I picked up on a slight gesture he makes with a pay phone in one sequence which for me was one of the biggest laughs of the night.

The film’s editor Paul Hirsch appeared after the film for a discussion and while not offering much about how “personal” this film may have been to De Palma did discuss their mutual history (he cut eleven films for De Palma in addition to being one of the editors on STAR WARS) and also talked about how several reels of raw film from the parade sequence were stolen, meaning reshoots had to happen months after the fact (funny, something about the slo-mo of when Travolta’s jeep crashes through that window has always bugged me). Moving into general areas of their collaboration he responded to a question asked by Eli “The Bear Jew” Roth there among the audience about De Palma’s continued use of split screen through the years by surprisingly saying that he never liked the technique, thinking it was too intellectual as opposed to emotional. He also professed to dislike it because of how the way it sometimes affects stage direction and revealed that at one point during the climax of CARRIE he had the split screen slide from one half of the frame to the other to deal with this—the small revelations you sometimes get from these q&a’s. For the record, there was never any discussion about either BLOW UP or THE CONVERSATION by Hirsch—Chappaquiddick was mentioned briefly at one point and I couldn’t help but wonder how many people there had no idea what that was.

Several months ago when I wrote about seeing DRESSED TO KILL at the New Beverly I mentioned how based on the screams heard right before the ending the film was still able to get that reaction. The audible response of the crowd registering just what had been done by the film’s lead character at the very end of BLOW OUT, making it clear how many people there were seeing this for the first time, was considerably different and much more complicated, just like the movie. Looking at it now I thought of De Palma as this sixties hippie, getting burnt out, observing what had been going on in all those years since Dallas. I wondered it he was maybe using this ending as a statement to finally throw in the towel on all he once cared about, essentially saying, “we tried to make things better, none of it worked, you went and elected Reagan…just go fuck yourselves.” When something like November 7, 2000 comes to mind for me I think I understand and maybe BLOW OUT is about one final attempt by a person with regrets to engage with the real world, to truly do something to change it for the better, only to find out that such a dream is futile and you can never wipe what happened in the past from your brain. As it turned out FEMME FATALE, screened second that night at the New Beverly, was the ideal chaser to come after this, in a sense transforming all these regrets into a giddy vindication—both films, after all, conclude with the one of the leads finally putting the finishing touch on what he’s creating, something he’s been searching for the entire film. The revelation at the end of the second film is of course much more ludicrous, not to mention considerably more upbeat, but it also offers the feeling that maybe it is possible for a person to find some sort of peace within a work of art that they’re attempting to create. Maybe that was a conclusion that Brian De Palma himself, who after all is an artist, was able to come to in the intervening years, long after he made this bitterly cynical film in 1981. I was in a wonderful mood after this double bill, practically dancing out of the theater, although in the days since those final seconds of BLOW OUT have stayed with me, as I suppose I knew they would. I guess that’s the whole point.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Attached To Things

Walter Hill’s ANOTHER 48 HRS. was released twenty years ago on June 8, 1990, following up the box office failure of his hugely underrated JOHNNY HANDSOME from the previous fall with a badly needed hit. More than that, however, it was more likely an attempt by Eddie Murphy to regain his footing after the complete disaster of the previous year’s HARLEM NIGHTS. For his part Nick Nolte was just coming off the well-received Sidney Lumet police drama Q&A so around this time things were chugging along fine for him. Since the film is billed as being ‘in association with Eddie Murphy Productions’ it’s easy to imagine the superstar getting a look at the first cut of NIGHTS, the only film he’s ever directed, and immediately calling Hill and Nolte to get them to clear their schedules. The sequel actually did slightly better than the original had done eight years earlier when released in 1982 but a lot of time had passed and it didn’t match up to the heights Murphy’s career had reached in the intervening years. With the billing of the two stars unsurprisingly reversed this time out, the end result got rushed through production for a summer release that just didn’t have the old fire to it and ultimately felt kind of like a letdown, another piece of Hollywood sequel laziness. The Walter Hill feel of professionalism is there all the way through but it was all probably too small-scale during a time when summer movies were really starting to get bigger. It was way too soon for this sort of urban western to feel at all retro. Looking at it now, I honestly have to admit that I don’t think it’s all that bad—true, it’s definitely not one of the better films by the director, it’s missing that special feeling the original had and it features one of the single dumbest plot holes in movie history. But it moves fast and its nonstop momentum definitely feels like a Walter Hill film. How about this—if you’re sitting around watching movies with friends, this would probably work ok as the second or third movie of the night while you’re making your way through lots of pizza and beer. It gets the job done even if it tries its best to make sure that the job isn’t all that straining. You could do a lot worse. You have done a lot worse, to steal a line from Michael Murphy in MANHATTAN.

Several years after the events of the first film San Francisco cop Jack Cates (Nick Nolte, looking like a guy who’s just out of rehab) is on the trail of the Bay Area’s biggest drug dealer known as The Iceman but no one else seems to believe he even exists. When a shootout with a possible link results as you would expect in one of these movies, Cates is in deep trouble with I.A. when the dead suspect’s gun can’t be found. The one link he does have is an old photo of Reggie Hammond (Eddie Murphy) that he finds at the scene. As it turns out, Hammond is about to finally be released from prison years after he was originally going to be (it seems there was a payroll robbery that added a few years to his sentence but he says he was framed) and Cates believes that somebody is out to get his old friend. He’s right of course, with Cherry Ganz (Andrew Divoff, seen recently on LOST, here looking like a cross between Ben Affleck and Josh Brolin) the brother of the first film’s Albert Ganz, out to get him and more than happy to take down Cates as well. Cates knows that they’re out to get Reggie but he also knows that Reggie can help finger the Iceman so he uses the promise of the money he’s been holding for him since the end of the first film to help clear his name before another 48 hours, so to speak, runs out.

The Highway Patrol officer who gets quickly killed by the bad guys in the opening scene is played by a tough-looking woman, a nice Walter Hill-type touch which I mention only because this bit of casting feels like the only genuine surprise in the entire movie. With a fair amount of action the whole thing moves quickly through its 95-minute running time refusing to ever break too much of a sweat while presumably hoping that we won’t ask too many questions about the plot (Screenplay by John Fasano & Jeb Stuart and Larry Gross, Story by Fred Braughton who is actually a pseudononymous Eddie Murphy) that I honestly feel like I can only sort of track. What’s missing from ANOTHER 48 HRS, aside from how special the original film was, is the feel to it which was probably unique to the time when that film was made. I’ve always felt like the first half hour played as a seventies movie starring Nick Nolte’s pissed off cop then when Eddie Murphy’s super cocky con gets introduced everything suddenly shoots into the eighties and it becomes about those two elements coming at each other with all the ferocity imaginable along with some racial tension that had a genuine sense of danger to it. Everybody on that film including the two stars, James Remar’s bad guy Ganz and all crew members behind the camera were working at the absolute top of their game.

There was probably no way to recapture that feel, not when everyone was so much richer and didn’t have to try quite as hard, but the movie never really tries to live up to it anyway--instead of the forceful Bay Area location work like the shootout in the BART station or even the evocative shot of the San Rafael Bridge when Jack Cates goes to meet Reggie Hammond at San Quentin for the first time the sequel seems to have been mostly shot quickly in L.A. with very little attempt at ever setting some kind of mood beyond just another cop movie. A fair amount of scenes are placed in anonymous nightclubs and sleazy hotels—probably a bunch of sets—with downtown L.A. standing in for the other city complete with fake trolleys seen (and even heard offscreen) at every conceivable moment and some slightly hilly streets used in an attempt to convince us we’re up in Frisco (in fairness, not all of the first film was shot up there either but at least there was a definite sense of place). Many dialogue scenes are shot like a TV show with no real grit or rhythm to anything like Hill was trying to get all this done as fast as possible (considering the film started shooting around January for a June release this may have been exactly the case). Any style that does turn up just feels out of place like the occasional use of extreme wide-angle lenses, a touch that just feels like a misguided attempt to do something a little different (I also remember some of this in JOHNNY HANDSOME, which was shot by Matthew F. Leonetti as well) and, most annoyingly, some stupidly frenetic camerawork spotlighting the band playing in the one nightclub scene.

As fast moving as it all is, a few elements definitely feel like they were lost in the editing particularly a subplot involving a character played by Tisha Campbell, placed in jeopardy then forgotten about, and Frank McRae, the first film’s captain who is seen once briefly from a distance but presumably had his entire role cut out. Some bits that are left in just seem lame, as if they couldn’t be bothered to come up with anything better--at one point Hammond avoids getting shot because he’s kneeling down to get a look at a girl through a peephole. At least a lot of the action and shootouts are well-executed as would be expected from somebody like Hill, even if it never feels like he’s really trying that hard to make this film very special. That bus flip/truck crash assault when the bad guys are trying to eliminate Murphy is pretty damn cool too. Probably the most energetic moment of the entire film is the decidedly audacious beat of the bad guys crashing their bikes through a porno theater movie screen showing a Kitten Navidad film which is a touch of humor that doesn’t feel much like something from Walter Hill but at least it provides some oomph to a scene which up until then is pretty standard. Actually, considering how the bikers play such a big part (though it never feels like they do much more than snarl and try to act tough) you’d think that there would be some kind of big chase to really utilize this and there really isn’t. With all the action, shootouts, massive breaking of glass and general Nick Nolteness I suppose there’s a minor case to be made for the film as an auteurist expression of B-level craft—I kind of remember an article in Film Comment long ago that did just this—but very little about it could be described as noteworthy in any way so there’s really only so far that this argument can be taken.

It’s kind of fun to see these two guys sparring with each other once again but there’s very little of the ferocious chemistry that was there in the first film. They’re obviously not as hungry as they were then so maybe there just couldn’t be but it still feels like there’s a spark missing. Interestingly, there seems to be a role reversal going on—this time it’s Murphy who’s the pissed off one of the pair with Nolte getting on his nerves—but that idea comes off as a little half-baked and while it is actually kind of fun to see a relaxed Nick Nolte in a movie, considering Jack Cates’s career and freedom are at stake you would think he’d show a little more concern. Even when he does get upset he just seems kind of cranky and manic more than anything, never very dangerous. In addition to a plot that I’m a little fuzzy on regarding the details (there doesn’t really seem to be any sort of McGuffin equivalent to the money and also Cates’ missing gun in the first film) and no action scene that could be considered a standout there’s also not any kind of really brutal fight where the two leads let loose all their anger at each other like in the first film. There are a few random punches thrown at various points (when Nolte hits Murphy out of nowhere it does get me to laugh) but no real sense that they’re ever actually hurting each other and by a certain point it all feels like it’s sort of dropped as if they don’t have the energy to even try to hate each other anymore.

Murphy also loudly gets everyone’s attention in a bar at one point which feels like it’s supposed to be this film’s equivalent of his star making country & western bar scene in the original but this time it just becomes about him shouting at a lot of people. It’s still an ok scene and Murphy’s pretty good here, there’s just nothing all that special about it. I guess that sums up the movie. And sometimes you take another look at one of these movies with ok scenes after years away from it and you feel a little more forgiving. A poster for ANOTHER 48 HRS. is probably what you see when you look up the word ‘workmanlike’ in the dictionary, but Hill is enough of a pro so the craft comes through. Hell, even the shootout climax only lasts about five minutes, like the movie itself just wants to wrap things up quickly which is actually pretty refreshing. As straightforward as it all is there are a few eccentric beats that slip in throughout which manage to accentuate the director’s old-school nature—my favorite is probably when Nolte decides to back up his car through the city streets to return to the station and when he’s told he should just drive the long way around the block instead, he spits out, “Nah, it’s too easy.” The thing is, ANOTHER 48 HRS. really is the filmic equivalent of taking that easy way around the block, probably one of the last real Hollywood examples of a part two that felt totally slapped together before the execs realized that they could go on forever with these things if they wanted to. I like it better than I did twenty years ago but maybe that’s not saying much.

The one element that bugs me about this movie more than anything is the revelation of the Iceman’s identity which results in just about the dumbest plot hole in movie history, maybe even bigger than the one in LETHAL WEAPON 2 (a much better sequel, it should be said). When the character in question is revealed as the villain behind it all it’s not only ludicrous if you think about it for three seconds (Roger Ebert: “Why would he need to keep his day job?”) but if Jack Cates was never able to figure this out after all these years, considering how all this goes back to even before the first film, it really does make the character seem like, as Reggie Hammond puts it earlier, the dumbest motherfucker in law enforcement. I guess it’s nothing worth getting all that upset about since there’s no point in taking this movie very seriously but it is a pretty disrespectful way to treat such a cool Nick Nolte character like Jack Cates.

Murphy seems sporadically engaged at best here, sometimes active in scenes, sometimes just kind of there—when he has to drag out the old “Roxanne” bit early on his heart doesn’t really seem in it. When he takes a few minutes to try to track down old friends on the phone to hit them up for a loan it feels like they got him on a good day. Coming less than two months after the release of Q&A, this was Nolte’s second straight role as a cop dealing with Internal Affairs and he seems to be playing Cates as a guy still trying to figure himself out after quitting drinking and finally breaking up between movies with the Annette O’Toole character from the original. His performance may be kind of inconsistent and rudderless with a thin script that doesn’t really help but at least he seems to be working to come up with something so points to him for that. Besides, how bad can a movie where Nick Nolte willingly starts a bar fight really be, anyway? He also shouts “Call for help now!” at someone just like in the first film and I like when somebody who doesn’t believe he’s flashing a real police badge says, “My kid’s got one of those,” so he pulls out his giant gun and, cigarette dangling from his mouth, spits out, “Your kid got one of these?” The sadly missed Brion James reprises his role as Ben Kehoe from the first film with much more screen time in this one. Ed O’Ross, also in Hill’s RED HEAT among many other credits, is another detective who spars with Cates and Kevin Tighe (also recently on, whaddya know, LOST) is the prick I.A. guy. Brent Jennings (Harrison Ford’s partner in WITNESS) is the connection to Cherry Ganz who Nolte seems to spend half the movie trying to identify and Bernie Casey brings a lot of intensity to his role as Hammond’s prison protector that makes it seem like the actor thought his hard work was really going to matter in the end. Maybe most of the point of it was lost in the editing. To mention another tough girl who seems right at home in a Walter Hill film, Cathy Haase has some interesting moments in a few scenes as a waitress who deals with both the bad guys and Nick Nolte. The James Horner score makes use of that sax, steel drums and pan pipes thing the composer used in not only the first film but also COMMANDO, GORKY PARK, RED HEAT and probably something else I’m forgetting. James Horner, ladies and gentleman—he finds something that works, he sticks with it.

It feels like a total rush job, but I think it actually exchanged release dates with DAYS OF THUNDER, the other big June release from Paramount, getting moved up a few weeks because that film wasn’t ready yet. Say what you want, but Walter Hill knew how to have his shit together. Hopefully at some point soon we’ll get to find out that he still does. The definitely modest goals of ANOTHER 48 HRS. means that it certainly doesn’t warrant anyone making a strong case for it but I guess you could call the result a professional piece of work by an action director who knew how to bring the thing in on time. I pretty much hated this movie in the summer of 1990 but looking at it now after so many more summers with so many worse summer movies I guess I can now look at it as an enjoyably stripped down piece of action with no real pretensions, a non-taxing 95 minutes. Which sometimes isn’t all that bad a thing. The original is still one of the action comedy landmarks of the eighties. This one in comparison is just halfway decent and those plot issues still bug me. But I guess I’ve said far worse things about movies before and there are definitely far worse movies to revisit than this one.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Worth More Than A Piece Of Film

It might be a sad fact of life that summer movies don’t star Burt Reynolds anymore. Some people probably consider this a good thing and while a few titles could certainly be mentioned to prove their point looking at one of his starring vehicles now feels like a reminder of when films released during the lazy days of summer were much more of an enjoyable good time with not so many worries about life and death. A terrific actor who was also at one time just about the biggest star in the world, Reynolds made some films back during his heyday that are/were completely loved, particularly the original SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT which I just watched again recently and found it to be a huge amount of breezy fun. In the middle of those nonstop chases I even found its innocence a little affecting, as if it was set over an endless day of driving in the 70s, one that the sun would never set on. Leading up to that triumph for him were other enjoyable pictures like WHITE LIGHTNING and THE LONGEST YARD but by a certain point he began appearing in a few ambitious projects that possibly weren’t the sort of thing his core audience wanted (STARTING OVER, THE MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN) as well as making a few unfortunate choices like turning down the Jack Nicholson role in TERMS OF ENDEARMENT. Not to mention displaying maybe a little too much cockiness. That nonstop ride for Burt had to end sometime.

The trajectory of his continual teaming with stuntman-turned-director Hal Needham says a lot. Their partnership kicked off with the first SMOKEY, a smash hit, but it all went downhill fast with a sequel that’s pretty terrible, the smash hit THE CANNONBALL RUN (I’ve enjoyed watching that one for years, but I’m not going to admit that to you), the lousy STROKER ACE and finally hitting the absolute bottom with CANNONBALL RUN II. In between the two BANDITs and more than a little forgotten today (except maybe for a reference in Tarantino's DEATH PROOF) is the stuntman comedy HOOPER, very much made in a time long before CGI when if a guy jumped off a building in a movie he was really jumping off that building. Released in July 1978, it feels like an attempt to try to take the good ol’ boy fun of their big hit and toss in a few more personal touches. If Needham were a better director, or even if he just wanted to be a better director, it might reach for some kind of late 70s New Hollywood example of Hawksian camaraderie. But, as anyone who’s seen a few of his films probably knows, he’s not a better director so it never hits that much of a boil and is ultimately just kind of pleasant. It’s still not bad at all, just a little underwhelming.

Sonny Hooper (Burt Reynolds), known by all as the greatest stuntman alive, is working on the film THE SPY WHO LAUGHED AT DANGER (starring Adam West, who I guess is appearing as himself) for egotistical director Roger Deal (Robert Klein). He lives with girlfriend Gwen Doyle (Sally Field, introduced by greeting her guy at the end of the workday in short shorts and carrying a couple of cans of Coors) whose father is the legendary stuntman Jocko Doyle (Brian Keith). After being talked into performing at a charity stunt show, Hooper meets rising young stuntman Delmore “Ski” Shidski (Jan-Michael Vincent) who he hears is the young Sonny Hooper. The pair get along just fine but the younger man still compels Hooper to up his game but after one stunt he learns just how close he is to permanent injury. He decides that after this film he’s going to call it quits but first he and Ski have to pull off the greatest stunt anyone’s ever seen.

It’s all very laid back stuff and could be looked at as nothing more than a portrayal of how this director and star approached their own style of filmmaking. To them they don’t look at it as making a grand personal statement where they express their love of film as much as the whole thing is just a chance to have fun hanging out with friends and drink a lot of beer while doing the best job possible to entertain people (by the time of their last few movies, they seem to have been only paying attention to the hanging out and drinking beer part). They certainly don’t have much in common with the snobbish Roger Deal played by Klein, who heard musing about how movies are ‘tiny pieces of time’ is pretty obviously meant to be a slam at Peter Bogdanovich who previously directed Reynolds in AT LONG LAST LOVE and NICKELODEON (Needham worked on the stunts in the latter film as well). There might be a few differences—I’ll bet Bogdanovich was more likely to drop a Ford reference instead of Fellini (“It has a nice greyness like LA STRADA,” Deal offers after looking over a location) but this probably never fooled anyone who recognized in Klein’s demeanor what must have been the arrogance that the LAST PICTURE SHOW director displayed at the time. The film shoot portrayed here presents a bunch of crew members having a good time without any real cares in the world while the producer frets nearby but gets along with them too—it’s easy to imagine the artist director off by himself brooding about the art, wondering what the critics will say and the only glimpse of a writer we ever get is when he seen furiously leaving the set after his script was rewritten. This certainly isn’t any kind of meditative examination of film vs. reality like in THE STUNT MAN and while some of the details feel perfectly plausible some are a bit of a stretch--one big sequence of dangerous stunts happening all in one giant take would never occur that way in any film being shot but I guess so what, right? It’s pretty cool to watch with a lot of explosions and some damn impressive stunts which, after all, is what the whole idea of this film is paying tribute to anyway.

Looking at it now, HOOPER (story by Walt Green & Walter S. Herndon, Screenplay by Thomas Rickman and Bill Kirby) plays like a carefree portrayal of working-class people in the L.A. area living it up in a way that may be slightly more upmarket than EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE (also 1978, also Warner Bros.) but it still feels like it wouldn’t be too out of place for either film’s lead character to suddenly turn up in the other. Come to think of it, why didn’t Burt Reynolds ever make a movie with an orangutan? Since it all drifts along without any real conflict beyond Hooper’s own stubborn nature (refusing to quit despite the damage he’s doing to his body) and no real bad guys (Roger Deal and the first AD are more pricks than anything, though the director’s insistence on getting the big stunt no matter what does bring the later TWILIGHT ZONE-THE MOVIE to mind) it would be nicer if it all made more of an impression, if a few more things of consequence could actually happen. Jan-Michael Vincent was the rising young star at the time and Ski gets a big build up like he’s going to be some sort of antagonist but he just winds up getting along with everyone. Sally Field doesn’t seem to be in the movie for any reason other than she and Reynolds were an item at the time but it’s interesting to note that her own stepfather was legendary stuntman Jock Mahoney who is pretty obviously the model for Brian Keith’s character. All this only adds to some sort of autobiographical feel to it but it doesn’t seem to say much about anything except that these people all like each other. They aggravate a cop while driving up the PCH (“I don’t believe I was going over 55.” “You were going over 55 backwards!”), annoy another cop with a rocket car on the same stretch of road later on after drinking a few beers, get into a bar fight (of course) after which everyone who’s been throwing punches winds up drinking more beer together, they muse about the younger guys coming up in the stunt game with ‘pocket calculators’ to help do their jobs. There’s so much beer consumed throughout that I feel like I should be drinking some while I write this to get me in the proper mood. Oh, and Burt does that laugh of his a lot. It’s also inconsistent at times, with fairly believable serious developments that make us believe how dangerous some of this stuff really is mixed in alongside some goofiness that feels a little out of place. But what happens never becomes too dramatic and everyone eventually just goes back to hanging out, friends forever and, in its defense, it is a pretty hard movie to dislike.

It’s a nice, easygoing film, willing to just lounge around through various scenes like Burt lounges around in nothing but his briefs at one point. There’s not even much all that wrong with it. There certainly isn’t any of that nobody-cares vibe that something like STROKER ACE has that leaves a bad taste in the mouth, but it’s all a little too minor even for just a movie that doesn’t want to be much more than hanging out with some likable characters. In making this film Needham seems to acknowledge that there’s no reason these stuntman do what they do beyond just the fun of doing it (The Bandit and CANNONBALL’S J.J. McClure seem to display similar worldviews regarding what they do as well). “Is that why you did it all, for the good times?” asks Ski at one point, and any suggestions he makes that there are deeper reasons pretty much get ignored. It’s as if Hal Needham wanted use this opportunity to say something significant about his beloved profession, then partway through making the movie he decided he didn’t really need to so in the end it doesn’t resonate all that much. The film Needham made might be a personal statement about his approach to life but he either doesn’t have all that much to say about it or he can’t express these things as well as he did in SMOKEY where he shows just how great it can be out there on the road, driving faster than anyone else and just, well, living.

Burt is Burt, every inch the star we want him to be while watching this and totally comes off as a likable guy who loves doing what he's good at. Maybe he doesn't make the movie into anything more than it is, but he still totally sells Hooper as a guy who wishes he could be the best at what he does forever and one who'd be a lot of fun to share a case of beer with. Maybe his best moment is when, chewing gum while listening to a doctor discuss his precarious physical state, he blows a very large bubble which fizzles when he learns how bad things are. Plus it’s pretty cool to see the stunts that the totally committed actor himself actually does take part in, like when he gets thrown out of a window during the bar fight. Noticing a touch like that I couldn’t help but imagine the star having fun while working the bit out with the real stunt guys and the feel of camaraderie presented here comes off as totally believable. Despite the buildup before he’s introduced Jan-Michael Vincent never really gets the chance to come off as a younger version of Hooper or even some sort of friendly rival. It almost feels a little like the actor himself didn’t blow anyone away on set either—ultimately he’s just another guy who’s in the movie with Burt. Sally Field gets to be the concerned girlfriend, the one serious voice in all the craziness but she still doesn’t do all that much beyond providing a continuation of their SMOKEY pairing. John Marley has some solid moments as the film’s producer, Brian Keith brings some real weight to his old-timer role but I kept thinking about how James Best of THE DUKES OF HAZZARD quietly gives the film’s most genuinely relaxed performance as Hooper’s best friend and assistant. In this breezy context it comes off as a more natural, grounded take on the Jerry Reed/Dom DeLuise/Jim Nabors role and with the actor occasionally tossing his Jimmy Stewart impression into scenes he adds to the hangout feel maybe more than anyone else in the movie. A few familiar faces from other Reynolds-Needham entries like George Furth (as the ASPCA guy who hits Burt with his hat) and Terry Bradshaw turn up at various points as well.

The good vibes keep up all the way to the end but unlike the characters the movie doesn’t really pull off the final stunt where the rocket car has to jump over a massive gorge a bridge has just been destroyed in the film being shot—there are too many cuts for it to be all that convincing (some of it might be model work too) unlike the bridge jump forty minutes into SMOKEY that cements once and for all just how cool the Bandit is. It’s almost an indication of how the fun times in this movie just couldn’t continue—not only would these guys get too sloppy with their own films (seriously, have you tried watching SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT II recently?) but summer movies in general by now have become not about the cool stuff the characters were doing (and the stunts that showed them doing it) but more about an overall oppressive nature, draining all the fun out of everything to the point where it’s all one giant pulsing mass of sound and fury. In 3D. But back in the day when they made this movie none of that was a concern. The final image seems to tell us, without reservation, Hooper’s gonna be ok. Burt’s gonna be ok. Maybe it was more complicated than that in real life, but it’s a nice thought to go out on.