Thursday, September 30, 2010
I get the feeling that I’m not supposed to like BLAME IT ON RIO. I mean, I’m supposed to express more refined taste, right? A fairly skeevy adult sex comedy released just on the cusp of when the carefree 70s really gave way to the 80s once and for all, it’s long since become a slight pop culture punchline but looking at it now I found myself pretty much enjoying it. At least, that’s what I was doing when I wasn’t worried that the vice squad was going to bust down my door based on what I was watching. Look, it’s been a pretty miserable week around here with massive heat, unfortunate deaths by beloved figures in the film world and overall life frustrations so I just needed a little something like this to get my mind off things. It has a terrific lead comic performance along with a relaxing vacation vibe and, let’s face it, the girl that the whole plot is centered around is pretty damn memorable. It’s also somewhat unusual in that it was directed by one of the most heralded musical directors back in MGM’s golden age. Wasn’t that a million years before this? Time is strange. The world is strange. It’s been really hot lately. Hey, I got some pleasure out of the movie, so that has to mean something.
Businessman Matthew Hollins (Michael Caine) lives and works in Sao Paulo, Brazil alongside best friend Victor Lyons (Joseph Bologna) and the two men are about to head off on a vacation to Rio with their families—Matthew joined by wife Karen (Valerie Harper) and daughter Nikki (Demi Moore) along with the recently separated Victor and his daughter Jennifer (Michelle Johnson). At the last minute Karen, citing Matthew’s recent disinterest in their marriage, decides to head off to Club Med for some alone time instead but the two men still go with the two girls. They’ve barely been there a full day when while cavorting at a Brazilian wedding Jennifer confesses her crush to Matthew, throws herself at him and the two wind up making love on the beach. They begin a full-fledged affair without Victor’s knowledge but when Matthew tries to break it off for the obvious reasons Jennifer tearfully confesses what’s been going on to her father. Of course, she deliberately doesn’t reveal the name of the older man she’s had the affair with so the unknowing Victor ropes his best friend into helping him find the guilty party as Matthew tries to deal with his guilt as well as his own growing feelings for Jennifer.
Sometimes I wonder if I’d be able to pick out an American remake of a French film, comedy or drama without knowing it was the case ahead of time. There’s just something about the nature of those storylines that I can’t put my finger on, an approach that just seems slightly off when played in the context of American culture. Though never referred to in the credits as such, BLAME IT ON RIO, directed by Stanley Donen, is a remake of the 1977 French film ONE WILD MOMENT but all of the plotting and behavior (screenplay credited to Charlie Peters and the great Larry Gelbart, though some research suggests the possibility that the version shot was a Gelbart rewrite) makes me think that this would all make considerably more sense if performed in French. For one thing, I suppose we Americans somewhat frown upon sexual behavior involving girls who still wear their retainer which is of course perfectly reasonable. And unless I missed something the key issue of the ages of the daughters in question is never mentioned so legality never comes into play, not to mention much in the way of actual morality—the imdb trivia page states, and who knows if this is true, that Johnson needed special parental permission to shoot this stuff because she wasn’t yet eighteen. Um, am I allowed to be watching this film?
With the story framed by both Caine and Johnson’s characters recounting their own memories of what happened right to the camera BLAME IT ON RIO contains lots of snappy dialogue, which considering Gelbart’s involvement is no real surprise and there are a number of genuine laughs through the farcical complications as well along with some pretty broad stuff like when Caine, trying to keep the secret and shrieking, “Victor, I can explain!” in mistaken anticipation of what’s about to be said at one point, then when it turns out to be nothing he has to stammer and come up what he was going to explain. It’s slick, it’s peppy, it’s got great scenery (appropriate for a vacation film, Rio is presented as essentially a tropical paradise), it’s made by professionals, but the tone isn’t entirely consistent with broad humor sliding uneasily alongside serious expressions of middle-age (not to mention teenage) angst by the leads. The plotting isn’t airtight either with some minor confusion in the drama near the end concerning how certain characters are angry at each other, then not, then angry again. It’s ultimately about the clashing of mature and immature, the fulfillment of desire and the awareness of what the consequences of those things are but with maybe more of an effort towards broad plot developments than actual motivation and in the end even with some surprise revelations everything kind of dwindles to a close. It’s not without a certain amount of depth, but it doesn’t necessarily gel into much more than the sex and laughs. With a presumed aim at being nothing more than breezy, maybe it’s not supposed to. Let’s put it this way—I occasionally chucked at a stretch of dialogue or something Michael Caine was doing and I often gazed in wonder at the beauty of Michelle Johnson. What else am I really supposed to say?
I’m trying to figure out director Stanley Donen in this context—he’s one of the most beloved helmers from the old MGM and his films from the sixties (CHARADE, BEDAZZLED, TWO FOR THE ROAD) feel as much a part of that decade in all the best possible ways. The seventies included titles like LUCKY LADY, MOVIE MOVIE and SATURN 3 then after BLAME IT ON RIO, released in February 1984 he never directed another feature. If anything, this film could be seen as a sort of thematic followup to the romantic frustrations borne out of years in a marriage in 1967’s TWO FOR THE ROAD. It’s not even that much of a stretch to imagine Albert Finney in this part but the dual feelings of romance and bitterness aren’t expressed quite as strongly here. I kept imagining this as the director’s own take on mid-life crisis (or Gelbart’s or any of the other middle-aged men involved), finding ones self surrounded by beautiful women yet unable to avoid the process of aging into somebody ‘too old to act crazy’. There’s something to all that, though maybe not very much.
And though I found myself liking BLAME IT ON RIO’s smooth vacation feel with its farcical mishaps the enjoyment was slightly hampered by the nagging feeling of how this all really is kind of wrong. The vibe is slightly sleazy even before the seduction happens—I mean, how else is a comically awkward scene with two middle-aged men walking around a beach with their topless daughters, even if it is a nude beach, supposed to play? Though it came five years later it’s easy to imagine how much the film was trying to ape Blake Edwards’ success with “10”, a film which felt more at home in the 70s it was made in than this film probably did as the world was turning towards the Reagan-crazed 80s. Even a sweatsuit that Caine wears at one point reminds me of how Dudley Moore was dressed while on the beach in that film, expressing the awkwardness at being involved with a beautiful goddess in such a paradise. But the “10” fears of mid life crisis felt somehow more tangible and though this film makes stabs at such points too often it feels trapped in a farcical vein so when more serious plot points come into it late in the game it doesn’t quite hold. Not to mention how the stunning Bo Derek was very much an adult in both age and how she behaved. Michelle Johnson is beyond cute and adorable in every possible way, at times a delight to watch both with (very flimsy) clothes and without, but since she’s still obviously a girl—gorgeous, yes—she’s maybe just young enough to make things slightly uncomfortable. Maybe because of that it makes sense how there doesn’t seem to be much motivation on her part beyond just being a cute girl who likes to jump up and down when she gets excited, adding to Caine’s exasperation. All of that said, it can’t be stressed enough how the actress fearlessly dives into playing her various nude scenes with all the glee imaginable almost more than just about any other young actress seen in the decades since has done and it really is totally admirable. Maybe these scenes don’t even make up that much screen time, but the moments certainly stand out. Demi Moore, in comparison, seems visibly uncomfortable in the one scene she has at the nude beach, looking like she’s strategically placing her long hair in front of her breasts as much as possible and it’s easy to get the impression that she really doesn’t want to be there shooting this stuff.
In his autobiography “What’s It All About?” Michael Caine offers that he thought the script was very funny, fondly recalls the making of the film itself with the exception of breaking his toe when shooting one nighttime beach scene and though he enjoyed spending time down there in Rio, writes of his ambivalence towards the enormous wealth he saw existing so close to the massive poverty in Brazil. He also recalls how he felt that director Donen went too far with how much he had Johnson go topless and in comparing it to how things played in the French version, “What had seemed so innocuous …had been made suddenly vulgar and gratuitous in our film.” He also refers to the eventual “vehemence of the critics” when the film was released but closes the chapter by noting with pleasure that the film ultimately made a lot of money worldwide, ultimately seeming pleased by the final result.
And really, I can’t help but think that Michael Caine (sometimes wearing giant glasses here, sometimes not) is entitled to express pleasure with how the film turned out, at least from his vantage point, playing this particularly delicate situation in a way that somehow keeps him endearing and sympathetic all the way through (and, since I made the “10” comparison, probably more sympathetic than Dudley Moore would have been) while playing each scene with expert comic timing. He’s approaches everything with such a particularly lightfooted nature that considering Donen was the director it got me to imagine how well the actor would have worked starring in a film made by him back in the MGM era or in the more fanciful 60s—maybe he didn’t have the singing pipes but he definitely had the comic ability along with knowing how to underplay the more serious stuff in just the right way. The charming Michelle Johnson, billed in one of the trailers as “The brightest new star of 1984!” may not have become quite such a big deal following the film’s release (later credits include FAR AND AWAY, WAXWORK and a scene opposite Meryl Streep in DEATH BECOMES HER that I’ve always liked) but her uninhibited screen nature is hard to miss and her possible lack of experience seems to add to how endearing she becomes as the film goes on. In addition to being beyond beautiful she doesn’t appear at all intimidated by the big star she’s playing opposite—it’s as if the actress wants to please Caine in how she plays off him in their scenes as much as her character wants to please Matthew. And in her enticing naiveté there’s maybe a touch of selfishness that seems totally believable, at least from my own experience.
Joseph Bologna plays the snappy patter better than the serious stuff and in some ways as an actor to him everything is snappy patter--he likes to make a big thing out of saying he’s going to make a salad. Valerie Harper as the dissatisfied wife is just a little too unpleasant (and I like Valerie Harper—when she’s in scenes with Bologna here it provides an odd link to the film of Neil Simon’s CHAPTER TWO) but her seriousness does help to drive home a few of the film’s themes in her big speech near the end while the young Demi Moore, who starred with Caine years later in the heist film FLAWLESS, doesn’t get to do much beyond brood about the affair she knows is happening behind closed doors. It kind of makes sense—from the point of view of her character there’s nothing funny about what’s going on—but at times it makes things too much of a drag and it feels a little like she’s not getting any real direction to play things otherwise. The title song is kind of annoying in a way that I still can’t get out of my head and the scenes are filled with lots of enjoyably gentle Bossa Nova-type tunes which, since I like my Sergio Mendes & Brasil ‘66 as much as the next guy, I don’t really mind.
Vincent Canby in The New York Times had basically nothing good to say about it, saying “there’s not a single funny or surprising moment in the film,” adding that it’s “not simply humorless. It also spreads gloom.” This really seems like a case of a film just rubbing people the wrong way at the wrong point in time. Boy, the 80s were sometimes really annoying. Maybe I shouldn’t defend the film to any great extent but though the final result doesn’t feel as effortless as it should the best parts are enjoyable enough that I never minded anything about it much at all, particularly coming in the middle of a week like this. Maybe I liked spending 100 minutes down in Rio. Maybe I like Michael Caine and his sharp coming timing. Maybe I just enjoyed being entranced by Michelle Johnson. Maybe, as a result of all this, I don’t have very much bad to say about BLAME IT ON RIO. I’m only human.
Monday, September 27, 2010
With the recent start of the Fall TV season it can be hard for someone of my age not to flash on memories of television long since past, if only for a few moments, remembering the time when the start of the new season was a big deal. As if preparing BATTLE OF THE NETWORK STARS lineups in advance each network launched all of their Still the One/Proud As a Peacock/Be There campaigns with all their big stars joined together in some kind of ridiculous We Are The World setup where they pretend to be singing some idiotic jingle. Of course, this nostalgia really has more to do with the comforts of childhood and the past rather than any actual quality. Because, let’s face it, they weren’t all THE ROCKFORD FILES and TAXI in those days, that’s for sure and just as plenty of TV shows now suck (just about all the new shows this year seem pretty bad), plenty sucked back then too. Just the nature of the suckage has changed. I may have fond memories of sitting down to watch an all new episode of THE ROPERS way back when but I’m more than happy to leave all that in the past. After spending an evening recently watching the amazing BOARDWALK EMPIRE pilot directed by Martin Scorsese followed by a particularly fantastic episode of MAD MEN there’s almost nothing to be nostalgic for. Sure, I wouldn’t have wanted to watch either of those shows when I was eight but I’m not eight anymore so there’s nothing wrong with having higher standards.
Case in point: BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY, the late 70s revival of the famous character for the STAR WARS generation. Yes, I have Dynamite Magazine-infused memories of watching this show and loving it and yes, I get a small thrill every time I hear William Conrad intone, “The year is 1987!” in that great title sequence and yes, I’ll probably have a crush on Erin Gray until forever. I guess those memories are why I once bought the complete series on DVD for a pretty cheap price but when I put in an episode to watch all I could think was…oh, man, this is bad. I couldn’t get through a single hour of any episode I tried even a few I had particularly fond, if vague, memories of. But at least I have the title sequence which is all I suppose I’ll ever need to remember this show by. And, even stranger, the box set includes the theatrical version of the pilot film, a release to theaters which occurred months before the TV premiere. I actually have no memory of it playing theaters when it opened in March 1979 (this must be before I was paying attention to such things) and it almost seems hard for me to believe it actually happened. But several people have confirmed its existence for me and Box Office Mojo reports that it grossed $21.6 million, not bad for the time, and I suppose it’s no stranger than the release of the BATTLESTAR GALACTICA movie, also from Universal, which occurred after that show had already aired. The theatrical version of the BUCK ROGERS pilot film is slightly different from what later aired on NBC in the Fall of that year, with differences that included a few extra scenes and some slight editorial alterations so I guess you could say that the DVD box which announces it as “The Complete Epic Series” isn’t at all correct and maybe it would have been best for Universal to have included both versions for completist’s sake. I wonder if they ever even realized there were alternate cuts. This sort of thing might seem unnecessary to the casual fan but when it comes to these touchstones of childhood it’s easy to pick out the tiny things--to nitpick big time, it always annoys me how they usually remove the famous Universal logo at the tail of these shows (like on the ROCKFORD discs), instead playing the current Universal fanfare as each episode begins, since that button at the end of each end credit sequence is to me as much a part of each series’ identity as anything. Clearly I have problems and haven’t grown up as much as I would like to think. That’s just the way it goes.
After blasting off in a space shuttle in the future year of 1987 Captain William “Buck” Rogers (Gil Gerard) is blown off his trajectory where his ship is frozen and he is returned 500 years later. But before he makes it to Earth his ship is discovered by the villainous Draconians led by Princess Ardala (Pamela Hensley) and her second in command Kane (Henry Silva) who immediately hatch a plan to use Buck’s return as a way to launch their invasion of Earth to break through their defense barrier. Once Buck returns he encounters Col Wima Deering (Erin Gray), Dr. Huer (Tim O’Connor), the computer disc administrator known as Dr. Theopolis (voice by Howard F. Flynn) as well as everybody’s favorite wisecracking robot Twiki (body by Felix Silla, voice by Mel Blanc). The unknowing Buck is immediately suspected of being a spy for the Draconians but when he learns the truth of exactly what year it is he has his own desire to find out what happened to the world he once knew and once Ardala and Kane make an allegedly ceremonial visit to Earth he has no idea that he is being used as a pawn.
Let me just say one thing first since it’s just about the first thing anyone ever mention when it comes to this movie: the opening title sequence set to the Stu Phillips/Glen A. Larson composition “Suspension” sung by Kipp Lennon (essentially a slowed down version of the familiar theme set to lyrics) involving Buck’s dreams of various beautiful women including Gray, Hensley and others--check out those glasses!--while he’s in his frozen hibernation is the damndest thing I’ve ever seen. Depicting what we’re told in the narration in Buck drifting “through a world in which reality and fantasy merged into a timeless dream” it has nothing to do with the rest of the film or show or anything else in the history of time as far as I can tell, playing like some lame attempt to do a Bond title sequence but coming off as just kind of weird for what’s supposed to be a kids film and has the late 70s tinge of somebody doing too much coke somewhere. I wonder how Erin Gray feels now about those few seconds where she has to do that Farrah thing with her hair. Hang on, let me watch it again. As for the rest of the film directed by Daniel Haller (lots of episodic television as well as a few features including 1970’s THE DUNWICH HORROR with Sandra Dee and Dean Stockwell) and written by series Executive Producer Glen A. Larson and Leslie Stevens, well, the simple way to put it is that it’s not very good, coming off as sort of workmanlike and uninspired.
It’s not like there’s anything particularly terrible about it but much of the time it just doesn’t really do anything for me and though I may have more of a sentimental attachment to this than Larson’s BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (why this is a Rosebud and that isn’t, I have no idea) that show/film always seemed to have much more going on storywise at any given point. This pilot feels a little like it didn’t get the various elements quite right-- not introducing any element of futuristic Earth until fifteen minutes in feels like some sort of mistake and when we get there it’s never as enticing as it probably should be, coming off as if they couldn’t decide to make it a LOGAN’S RUN-type futuristic utopia or a more darker setting similar to the desperately fleeing GALACTICA characters. This future Earth is, we’re told, unable to fully deal with the outside elements with discussion of trade disputes and pirates blocking shipping lines so food can’t get through (hey, just like in THE PHANTOM MENACE!) but this future Earth which has all its major decisions made by computers just doesn’t come off as very interesting to me. This computer council has to authority to decide Buck’s fate while everyone just sits around? Can’t they think for themselves? Is this who Buck is supposed to fight for?
Much of the 25th Century shown is depicted with bland sets and even a little bit of location shooting involving the Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles (Hey, it looks futuristic!) as well as what seems like the same matte painting effects angle of the main headquarters shown about thirty times. There’s also a fairly lengthy stretch as Buck goes off into the forbidden territory of old Chicago in search of his past leading to an attack by some OMEGA MAN-type ghouls but since it doesn’t really result in anything beyond Buck admitting that everyone he once knew is really gone (what is referred to as “the holocaust” occurred on Earth sometime after he left) I kept wondering why we weren’t being shown cool futuristic stuff instead. The bits of that future we get, like the ceremonial dance at the party, is all pretty goofy anyway and not really anything to be impressed by. Buck leads the princess out on the dance floor to “get down and boogie” so he can show all these stiffs how things were done back in the 20th, since he’s now the only real man left around.
Obviously this was made for an much younger demographic than I am now—and made over thirty years ago now, for that matter—but it’s still all pretty cardboard and stilted so while I won’t criticize it for trying to appeal to kids I will criticize it for being bad. Coming in just under ninety minutes the whole thing is pretty choppy—I wonder where the commercial breaks were in the network version and though it feels like more of a complete narrative than the GALACTICA movie, as lame a story as it is, it still doesn’t really end, just sort of setting itself up for all of Buck and Wilma’s adventures to come. It’s weird to be writing this movie in the first place since it’s obviously not even a movie. It’s a TV show and a cheesy late 70s TV show at that. The nostalgia vibe given by these space battles and the old “Filmed in Universal City!” sheen is something that I’ll gladly acknowledge (just a shot of those spandex uniforms with the colors on the arm is enough to give me pleasant feelings of childhood) but they don’t disguise how this is all pretty lackluster stuff with lame plotting, unimaginative sets (those fun old blinking lights are seen) and a weird paucity of supporting characters, as if Larson decided that GALACTICA was too overpopulated (which it kind of was) and decided to overcompensate. Or maybe he was just trying to make this one cheaper from the outset. Some points developed later in the series were obviously still being worked out—the setting was made into more of a utopia with things like the forbidden city being dropped and at this point Twiki mostly communicates by using the famous “Biddi Biddi Biddi” sound, though a few wisecracks are tossed in at random (I believe his first spoken line is “L’Chaim”) as if it was a last-minute idea. Extra jokes for the kids, I guess. The effects are par for the course for the Glen Larson assembly line from this period but some of the matte paintings are admittedly pretty cool and provide the sort of evocative feel this show needs that probably exists only in my memories.
But just so it doesn’t seen like I’m being a total grouch about all this and maybe some of this is nostalgia talking—to me, Gil Gerard and Erin Gray really are fun to watch as Buck and Wilma. In some ways, they actually are as good as I remember this show being, coming off as likeable, energetic, playing off each other well with sparks flying and if given a good enough script their banter could have really developed into something. They even manage to avoid looking ridiculous when kneeling down to Twiki to have a conversation with Dr. Theopolis. Plus I just enjoy watching the beautiful Gray just strut around in her uniforms (get a good look at those nails of hers too) so at least there are still a few positive elements to it all. Tim O’Connor turns up on occasion to give some exposition as Dr. Huer but it occurs to me now that I’m not really sure what his character is supposed to be, beyond just a benign authority figure. Pamela Hensley (among her credits, a particularly good ROCKFORD FILES—it looks like she was a contract player at Universal) seems to let her looks and ridiculous costumes do most of the work for her and it feels like there’s a tiny spark missing from her character. As attractive as she might be, she’s no Erin Gray. She also shows about as much skin as any number of outfits worn by female guest stars on the original STAR TREK series but, I guess because this was the 70s, her costumes look just a little too stupid. She still looks good, though and reappeared on the series a few times. Henry Silva skulks around seeming vaguely annoyed—it almost reads as if the actor is using his annoyance at playing second in command to this actress who hasn’t earned the right to play such a large role into his character who feels exactly the same way about the princess. “Special Guest Star” Joseph Wiseman appears very briefly as King Draco. The exciting score by Stu Phillips provides the film with much of the energy it really does have and watching it now there’s a lot of enjoyment found in his various versions of the famous main title that pop up throughout.
As the talking computer disc Dr. Theopolis tells Buck at one point, “The past is gone,” and watching this movie that isn’t really a movie reminds me that the past really is gone and that for better or for worse network television isn’t like this anymore. The time for this sort of unpretentious adventure show that’s sci-fi or otherwise, at least the kind that I would ever want to watch, has long since passed and even if not much about BUCK ROGERS is any good, deep down I know that there’s something comforting in it all. When it went to series, episode titles included “Space Vampire,” “Unchained Woman,” “Planet of the Slave Girls” and “Planet of the Amazon Woman”. I guessing they don’t all live up to how good they sound. When it returned for its second season in the Fall of 1980 the show’s format had changed into a GALACTICA/TREK sort of thing causing me to tune out instantly and I probably wasn’t the only one. Whether it’s significantly better or worse, I really don’t have much interest in finding out. Why is it that so many shows from around this time period went through drastic changes of the format in its second year, leading to the implosion of what were established hits? Anyway, that second season was somewhat abbreviated (the 1980 actors strike was a factor) and the show was not renewed for a third. The world moved on and I moved on. Except, of course, for buying this DVD box set which wasn’t something I really needed to do. There was an anniversary revival screening of this pilot film at the Cinematheque back in 2004 and I unfortunately wasn’t able to go. As these things go, it’s pretty terrible stuff. It’s best left in the past. I really never need to see it again. If it’s ever shown somewhere in L.A. at any point in the future I’ll do everything humanly possible to be there.
Thursday, September 23, 2010
I’ve got a few bones to pick with the American Cinematheque these days and I say that as somebody who has been faithfully, eagerly going there for years, since back in the days before they made their permanent home at the Egyptian. For one thing, there was the opening night of their recent weekend tribute to John Carpenter at the Egyptian. It was an ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK/L.A. double bill featuring a Q&A with the director in between and, no surprise, the place was pretty much packed. Good for them, except when EXCAPE FROM NEW YORK started I realized that the film was being shown via digital projection. So what does that mean exactly, just a Blu Ray DVD? I don’t know, but I had no interest in seeing how it looked to find out. Now, I’m a reasonable guy but as far as I was concerned this was a very unreasonable thing so I went out to find out what was going on, but the guy at the box office had very little interest in engaging in the subject with me, instead quickly refunding my money without much comment. Sure, I could have stayed. I could even have gone around the corner for a drink and returned for the Q&A and screening of ESCAPE FROM L.A. But the vibe had sort of been killed. If you’re in a theater to see ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK if it isn’t on celluloid with the old school Avco-Embassy logo attached to it then as far as I’m concerned you’re not seeing ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK. Projecting a DVD is fine if you’re hanging out in someone’s backyard or having wine and cheese with friends at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery (annoying hipsters aside) but I’d like to think that the American Cinematheque, which should be the finest outlet for film revivals in the country would be above this sort of thing for a major retrospective unless there is absolutely no other option. But it's a fair question to ask--since they didn't make a big deal about it, is this going to be a more common occurence?
If there really aren’t any available prints, possible since EFNY is a nearly thirty year-old low-budget film without a big studio to watch over its legacy, then that’s some kind of cinematic crime. Which of course isn’t the Cinematheque’s fault but I still call dirty pool on the Egyptian’s part since they stonewalled on answering the question of whether they were showing a print on their Facebook page, burying the answer deep in a thread (saying that Carpenter approved the presentation. I still don’t care) and not even posting a sign at the box office to explain what was being screened and why. You’d think at the very least that would have been the courteous thing to do for members who were there. That digital glare coming from the screen apparent as soon as that MGM.com logo flashed onscreen (enough of a lame giveaway) was like some kind of punishment for my having gone to the trouble to show up at all. So what I’m saying is, if it has to be done, let the customer know. Maybe everyone who stayed had a great time, maybe I was the only one who complained and left. It doesn’t mean I was wrong. The one person I talked to who stayed didn’t seem too jazzed by the quality of what he’d seen and from what I heard the Sunday night screening of HALLOWEEN apparently also shown via Blu Ray. I’m glad I didn’t leave the house for that.
My other minor issue with the Cinematheque these days is how in their schedule for the Carpenter series their listing of it referred to his BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, screened on Saturday that weekend with THEY LIVE, as “a great guilty pleasure” and this just bugged me right from the get-go. What exactly makes BIG TROUBLE IN LITTE CHINA a guilty pleasure? It’s not a so-bad-it’s-good sort of thing. It’s not a film that you laugh at. It’s a film that’s exactly what it’s supposed to be, a fun and wild ride with characters you have a blast spending time with. What exactly is the purpose of deeming something a guilty pleasure, anyway? Is it meant to mitigate guilt over not watching RULES OF THE GAME instead? Is RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK a guilty pleasure? Is NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD? THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY? BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA is a massively enjoyable film that had the bad luck of being a huge flop when it was first released over July 4th weekend in 1986 (I was in camp at the time so I can’t be blamed), but the cult has only grown stronger through the years. I could believe that somebody seeing it for the first time now wouldn’t believe you if you said that it came in 12th place for its opening weekend (seriously, 12th! Even then I never got what the world saw in THE KARATE KID PART II). It’s not a perfect film, I will say that, and I could imagine a first-time viewer getting a little lost in all the hysteria onscreen. But it plays great with a crowd and I’m not entirely kidding when I say that part of me wishes there could always be a theater somewhere playing BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA. For the record, I did go back on Saturday night where a brand new 35mm print screened and it looked absolutely gorgeous (THEY LIVE wasn't a new print but looked just great), all the proof needed to show how beautiful celluloid can look and how joyous it can be to see this legendary piece of entertainment under the best possible conditions. Now, I haven’t been everywhere and done everything and it’s not Carpenter’s best film but it is just about his most successful at creating pure, unadulterated enjoyment. So is calling it a guilty pleasure for being exactly the film it should be with all the craft imaginable just a touch disrespectful, as if the Cinematheque is trying to make some sort of excuse for showing a popcorn movie?
As much fun as it is, I can see how it may have been difficult for Fox to correctly market this film that may conceivably have been goofier than the studio would have wanted and, by extension, how it may have been difficult to get people to see it. I can imagine it being pitched as a kung fu version of RAIDERS with lots of mystical elements (and, obviously, I have as little experience with the Asian films that may have inspired BIG TROUBLE as I do with the old time serials that RAIDERS took a cue from) tossed into its own unique tone—kind of spoofy, but not really with lots of action along with the humor. But for a first time viewer it can be a little like getting thrown right into the deep end with very little getting adequately understood beyond the mumbo-jumbo and a pre-credit sequence added after the fact to try to explain a few things not really helping (it probably wouldn’t matter if you just started the movie on the first shot of Burton’s truck on the road). In truth I still kind of glaze over some plot points of BIG TROUBLE and focus on the characters, laughs and mayhem but of course I’ve seen it many times by now so I don’t really need to worry about the plot anymore. It may be flawed but it delivers a huge amount of enjoyment and there’s nothing to feel guilty about it saying that. As Jack Burton would say, it’s all in the reflexes.
I’m not even sure, can I actually summarize the plot? Truck driver Jack Burton (Kurt Russell), having recently made a shipment into San Francisco, tags along with pal Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) to meet Wang’s childhood sweetheart Miao Yin (Suzee Pai), who is just traveling to America for the first time. Members of the vicious Chinatown street gang the Lords of Death turn up out of nowhere and kidnap her sending Jack and Wang on a chase to Chinatown where they soon find themselves in the middle of a vicious gang war and a presumed encounter with the reclusive David Lo Pan (James Hong). Soon, with help from lawyer Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall), the mysterious Egg Shen (Victor Wong) and others they soon realize that Miao Yin’s green eyes have made her desirable to Lo Pan for reasons of his own which they have yet to learn and they soon set out underneath the streets of Chinatown to get her back.
Well, that’s sort of it and I know that I’ve left a lot out but, hey, you didn’t come here to read a plot synopsis anyway. Begun as a western then changed to a modern day setting through extensive rewrites (unique screenplay credits: Screenplay by Gary Goldman & David Z. Weinstein, Adaptation by W.D. Richter—he’s who is really responsible for what’s here) BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA races through many sections until exposition is spewed out so fast it can be tough to keep track of it all and eventually all you can really do is smile and go along for the ride if you’re willing. Do all the details matter? Probably not. All I know is that I’ve seen it so many times in revival screenings and on video that by this point I’m just happy to hang out with these characters. There’s so much going on in any given scene with Carpenter’s Scope frame maybe more cluttered than usual (photographed by Dean Cundey) that it’s easy to forget how much fun certain elements are ahead of time—on this viewing I found myself taking extreme pleasure in Egg Shen’s sardonic way of revealing just about any piece of information he has to dole out (“Now for some more bad news. READY?”). The enormous skill displayed in how Carpenter stages his action or even just people getting from one place to another is also something to take pleasure in.
When Jack Burton swings the Pork Chop Express into a tiny alley where he and Wang fully get swept up into things it’s a pretty obvious backlot set as if Carpenter doesn’t want to deal with any kind of reality at all here more than he has to, having fun creating this immensely stylized, foreign world that the American Caricatures of Jack Burton, Gracie Law and Kate Burton’s Margo Litzenberger of the Berkeley People’s Herald find themselves in the middle of. And through the slivers of mysticism are miles and miles of quotably addictive dialogue (Don’t you want to hear more of what Jack Burton spews into his CB when he’s out there on the road? I know I do) and just about everyone in the movie with lines gets to say something which at the very least gets me to smile if not laugh out loud. Kurt Russell as Burton with his John Wayne-twang remains a surprising performance in how completely willing the actor is to look like a total idiot, never really wanting to accept how “out of place” he is and yet at the same time the actor has possibly never been more likable. Of course, when he’s finally given the chance to be ultra-cool it happens to be when he’s got lipstick slathered all over his face and Russell has my eternal respect for being willing to do that. Burton doesn’t understand the strange world swirling around him (“China is here”) but he does develop a certain appreciation of what he sees as the pillars of heaven are shaken while remaining completely and totally himself, an individual at sea in a very strange place—may the wings of liberty never lose a feather, indeed. Never without something to say or another glance to toss at somebody there’s probably not another Russell character I’d rather hang out and have a beer with—let’s face it, Snake Plissken probably wouldn’t have much use for you and me. Carpenter never seems to take any of this seriously, while at the same time treating this universe of Chinese mysticism with total respect. The pacing really is nonstop through every scene so by the time the film reaches its huge showdown climax it always gets a massive smile out of me.
The enjoyment is there in every single scene with every bit of invention from all involved and let me be clear: I do love this movie which has a genuine desire to entertain, a complete love of cinema without a bit of cynicism but looking at things from a screenplay point of view there are a few small problems I have. John Carpenter’s films have always been somewhat emotionally aloof with the exception of STARMAN and maybe even PRINCE OF DARKNESS but this seems to go with his rock ‘n roll approach to things. The more I think about it the more the steady, tub-thump rhythms associated with his movies in the scores he composed make his pacing seem like that of a metronome. In BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA once the film hits the ten-minute mark that metronome is instantly sped up and kept there for the duration, making things move fast but maybe it could have used a little more variation in the pacing and honestly, every now and then I do wish that it could just ease up for a moment or two. To use one of the most famous examples from the 80s blockbuster formula, BACK TO THE FUTURE is a pretty shallow movie as well but Marty McFly’s attempts to get his parents together give it an emotional hook for people to follow and I’m not sure that BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA really has that. Dennis Dun’s Wang speaks convincingly about his relationship with Miao Yin but considering her abduction is the reason the entire plot is taking place she’s never a real character, given next to no actual dialogue and it’s almost easy to forget just why everything is actually happening (on the DVD commentary with Carpenter and Russell the two men allow that any criticism saying no one ever seems in jeopardy is kind of valid). Even the bad guys never come off as all that evil, as much as the dialogue tries to convince us otherwise.
While watching it this time I also felt the desire to have a little more screen time between Kurt Russell’s Jack Burton and Kim Cattrall’s Gracie Law to allow those two an extra chance to spar with each other and maybe set off a few extra sparks. The chemistry they display in their scenes shows they could do it but Carpenter never seems to want to pause for this sort of thing. I don’t really care about clarifying the plot anymore but I would like to spend more time with the characters and considering the running time is 99 minutes it probably wouldn’t damage things too much. It’s all subjective of course but the deleted scenes on the DVD feature a few extra bits that I honestly think would have helped the film and made these characters even more fun to hang with if they had been included (for one thing, I like when Jack Burton pauses in mid-conversation to compliment Margo on the paper she works for). W.D. Richter’s screenplay for the 1973 comedy SLITHER (containing much of the sort of dialogue in this film and which deserves to be much better known than it is) also has engaging characters mixed up in a plot that seems to go in circles and it’s lots of fun too…but while watching BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, a film I’ll freely say in casual conversation that I love, it’s just good enough that I can’t help but wish it had something extra to make it just a little more satisfying.
It’s a massively enjoyable cast to hang out with as they infiltrate the Wing Kong Exchange. Kurt Russell as Jack Burton (“Who?”) is a total blast, Kim Cattrall, maybe never sexier, is enjoyably feisty adding the right touch of 30s screwball flavor and Dennis Dun’s earnestness is a big help in getting us to believe a lot of what we see. James Hong, in one of his very best roles ever, displays perfect timing through all of his careful dialogue as Lo Pan and Victor Wong doesn’t have a single moment where you can guess how he might say a given line. There’s something about his very presence that though his character isn’t supposed to be a God, if that was revealed at the end I could believe it. Kate Burton (who I’m pretty sure I just spotted at the Hollywood Trader Joe’s) spits out all of her lengthy dialogue effortlessly as Margo and Donald Li’s sly likeability as Eddie, new maitre’d at the Dragon of the Black Pool (“And a whole lot more”) is the perfect example of a side character who I look forward to seeing more each time I return to this movie. Carpenter’s score, in association with Alan Howarth, is perfect for the feel of that sped up metronome with the keyboard sound being just right to combine the familiar feel of the director’s approach with this strange new world. And the main title theme under the opening credits as Kurt Russell drives into San Francisco but never heard otherwise is so damn cool and I’d almost be embarrassed to say how often I cue up the piece on my ipod just for the pure pleasure of hearing it once again.
And it’s a pleasure like that which forever sticks in the brain with BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA along with the faint vibe of the mystic heard as Jack Burton walks off into the night at the end, a vibe which stays alive every time I return to this movie. And seeing that beautiful print was such a massive treat I hope that what happened at the Egyptian on that Friday night was an aberration. Here’s the thing: I know there’s no stopping digital projection. For one thing there’s the growing number of films being shot in digital, the number of theater chains projecting in digital, the difficulty that can arise for a revival house to sometimes secure actual film prints. There’s no stopping the progress of technology for better or for worse. But beyond simple nostalgia I honestly think there might be something to the theory that something can be more pleasing to the eye when the flicker of celluloid is there that makes viewing the film that much more alive, to say nothing how it’s that much more of a reminder of what it was like to see the film when it was first released. I don’t know. It’s just a theory. But as somebody on my Twitter feed said, “I'd rather watch a terrible print of a film at a repertory screening than a Blu-Ray” and that’s the way I’ll feel until the black blood of the earth engulfs us all.
And I also have a feeling that there might be a point in the future when projecting on film may be the more specialized way of doing things and theaters that actually choose go to the trouble of doing it well will be that much more high-end as a result. The quality of film prints is still there, certain directors are still insisting in shooting on film and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’m seeing film projected at the Arclight much more than a year ago when digital seemed to be getting more common there. Just as the New Beverly does, the American Cinematheque should really make it a point to focus on projecting film just as they should strive to be the model for any type of revival cinema in the country. (I’m flashing on Gina Gershon in THE INDSIDER: “Our standards have to be higher than anyone else’s because we are the standard for everybody else.”) Otherwise it’s just, well, video projection and I’ve got a few friend’s houses I can go to for that. And since the new print of BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA that they did screen was as immaculate as it was, I say screw digital projection.
The irony in all this is something that I didn’t even point out earlier. BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA was a huge flop when it was first released way back in the summer of TOP GUN and ALIENS. Given Hollywood accounting, who knows if it’s even gone into profit by now yet the demand for it is obviously strong enough that Fox struck a new 35mm print so it could be seen as good as possible unlike how ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK was presented. But John Carpenter’s BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA has obviously lasted and it’s almost absurd just how purely, cinematically enjoyable it is, a display of its director maybe having fun in creating the world it presents in a way that was never really seen again. Even if I do have a few problems with it. And those problems have nothing to do with guilt. Besides, anyone who really does love movies would know that there should never be anything to feel guilty about them anyway. Hopefully this film will continue to last, defying the expectations of ’86, just as film itself will hopefully last and defy the expectations of all the people expecting the antiseptic nature of digital projection—or, as it should be called, video—in the future. But as Jack Burton himself would say as he turns down the chance for one last kiss from Gracie Law, Never can tell.
“Ok. You people sit tight. Hold the fort and keep the home fires burning. And if we’re not back by dawn…call the President.”
Monday, September 20, 2010
It’s interesting how any number of big stars from the 70s started to drop away by the time the 80s hit. With some of them it may have been personal issues, with others various career troubles, others just kind of drifted out there until finally reemerging at some point in the back end of the decade as if they realized people might actually forget who they were. By the time SEA OF LOVE hit theaters in September 1989 Al Pacino had been off screens since REVOLUTION four years earlier but of course no one has ever seen REVOLUTION (I sure haven’t) and before that it had been two years since SCARFACE and, whatever else you want to say about it, I always wind up separating that role in my head from the rest of Pacino’s career as if Tony Montana is his own separate entity somehow. So although he had been working on the stage, the perception certainly was that he had been off the radar for some time. Once SEA OF LOVE happened it was as if he’d never been away and you can almost see the star’s screen career get reenergized before your eyes while you watch it. The unofficial start of the next stage in his career, it really is the turning point where the younger, scrappy Pacino morphs into the older, gravely-voiced Pacino. With the film becoming a sizable hit it led to a strong run over the coming decade for him that included playing people like Ricky Roma, Big Boy Caprice, Frank Slade, Carlito Brigante, Vincent Hanna, Lowell Bergman and of course the return of Michael Corleone. SEA OF LOVE isn’t a great movie and maybe plays now as sort of semi-dated, late 80s pre-BASIC INSTINCT filler but since it knows enough to focus on the character story at is center instead of the main plotline gimmickry it works pretty well throughout. All right, I may as well admit it: I’ve got enough of an attachment to this thing that I think it’s kind of awesome, with terrific chemistry between the two leads and a story that knows how to keep propelling itself forward.
Just as he celebrates his twentieth year on the force, alcoholic New York Police Detective Frank Keller (Al Pacino) is investigating a man’s murder, found shot dead in his bed with a 45 of “Sea of Love” playing nearby. The presence of the record makes Keller think that it happened on some sort of date and when a second turns up it reveals various connections between the two men including how they had both recently placed rhyming ads in the personal making him think that the killer might be a woman. Shortly after Keller teams up with Queens Detective Sherman Touhey (John Goodman) to investigate he comes up with an idea to place their own rhyming ad in the paper with the hopes of getting fingerprints from a wine glass and nailing the culprit. One of his dates, Helen Cruger (Ellen Barkin), seems so unimpressed by him that she doesn’t even stay long enough to have a drink but a later chance encounter with Frank seems to change her mind about. Frank is of course instantly attracted to her as well but with no fingerprints to go on as much as he’s falling for her he still can’t fully allay his suspicions that Helen might be the very killer he’s looking for.
Brooding around at the forefront of SEA OF LOVE’s story is the vibe of loneliness in the big city as people drift down the dark streets with the feeling that none of the characters are ever going to really know each other, desperately going from one blind date to another but sometimes doing nothing but going home and doing some hard drinking into the wee hours. Considering much of it was shot in Toronto with lots of interiors it actually pulls off the New York feel pretty well, with director Harold Becker (THE ONION FIELD, TAPS, MALICE) clearly doing what he can to maximize the shooting time in New York as much as possible so every shot is framed to take in all the flavor it can. The crux of the screenplay written by Richard Price is ultimately a shade gimmicky—Helen is either the killer or she isn’t, right?—but while the script keeps the suspense going and the director keeps the tension building as well as it can (for several reasons, somebody watching this film for the first time now will probably piece things together pretty quickly but I’ll avoid spoilers anyway) so it works well enough that plausibility can almost be forgotten for a few minutes. Becker clearly knows to keep the story grounded so it’s really just about this guy trying to keep going through every drink he takes and find a way to make this impossible relationship he’s found himself in the middle of to work.
What’s most memorable about SEA OF LOVE is Pacino stumbling around, looking for something to say to this woman he’s both drawn to yet unsure of, while at the same time trying to figure out his own life. He’s a drunk who is vastly flawed as a person but the movie deliberately shows some good sides to him and Pacino makes him vulnerable enough to give the feeling that if he can get through this it will be worth it. Maybe Frank Keller’s particular obsession with this case has to do with his own loneliness, seeing how close he might actually be getting to ending up like one of the victims in his case, or maybe just the fear of ending up old, drunk and alone like his father played by William Hickey (actually, a whole movie with just the two of them sounds like a good idea). Either way, he’s very aware that he’s just another lost soul in the pre-internet New York, one of many people out there looking to drunk dial an ex-wife in the middle of the night and it’s ultimately Pacino’s total commitment in playing these elements that helps me to brush past some of the film’s missteps. One of the best things I can say about Becker’s direction is how confident he seems to be in letting the actors work together within scenes, whether it’s Pacino and Barkin setting off sparks or just hitting pause on everything to let John Goodman take control of the room and sing a verse of the song everyone’s talking about. Part of my fondness for the film to this day is how seeing it back then was really the first time I got to experience what Al Pacino could do in the present tense, in a New York that was very familiar to me, allowing me to just be amazed at how awesome he was. Having Ellen Barkin in there, never sexier in that red jacket of hers, didn’t hurt it either.
It’s not a landmark piece of work but it’s almost as if it wasn’t trying to be that anyway. It’s easy to imagine a version of this film that attempted to be the ultimate look at New York singles life while providing a hugely dramatic character study that could have given Pacino his first Oscar and Price’s screenplay was actually much more of a character study in earlier drafts before things were reworked. Instead, it goes for being a more traditional sex-drenched potboiler as well as a showcase reminder for how great its star can be, matched up with a female lead who doesn’t come into the story until nearly forty-five minutes in but has the confidence to look him in the eye and match his tension in scene after scene. And maybe sometimes that potboiler feel is all a film needs to be and how it works so well certainly sets it apart from the zillions of late-night Cinemax rip-offs. For the record, the sex scenes here get the job done fairly well with incessant saxophone score by Trevor Jones (which probably turned up in lots of trailers afterwards) and what I’m guessing is an Ellen Barkin body double, but aren’t really anything all that spectacular—that’s something Paul Verhoeven was definitely much more interested in when he worked with this sort of material a few years later.
I highly doubt the people making this movie were thinking of the production as a dry run for Pacino to see if he wanted to get back in the game again but looking at it now that’s almost what it really is. After all the tension his very presence has provided all the way through, the actor’s relaxed and joking nature in the final scene, maybe moreso than he’s ever been seen like this, feels totally genuine as if playing this part has caused him to realize how rewarding it is to be Al friggin’ Pacino starring in a movie. Watching it again this time I realized how much the very end is kind of a carbon copy of the final shot of TOOTSIE, letting the lead characters disappear off into the crowd as the credits roll (damn, somebody on the imdb message board already picked up on this) but I honestly found this kind of comforting, giving the ending a feel of genuine satisfaction in a way that one sometimes could get from what got released during this era. There’s not a huge amount to say about SEA OF LOVE as a film and it’s not without certain flaws, but as an enjoyable thriller and showcase for its stars in the end it’s exactly what I want it to be. I guess I sort of love it. It’s not a great film in any sense, but sometimes you love what you love.
There’s no two ways about it: Al Pacino is flat-out fantastic as Frank Keller, biting into this juicy Richard Price dialogue while sending this movie to another level and through his peering eyes (cop’s eyes, he’s told) you can see the desperation as he looks all around him, worried that he won’t escape this vortex he’s created for himself. Ellen Barkin is also terrific, combining a natural working class vibe with a sexy elegance while looking great in a way that can drive me crazy with those off-kilter looks. The natural tension she offers brings the right kind of ambivalence to this character, a single mother who sleeps around more than she seems willing to talk about (Jacqueline Brookes’ two-line appearance as her mother indicates a lot going offscreen) and may have even darker secrets to her as well. John Goodman was just beginning to break out at this point and he’s an extremely likable voice of reason as the partner with his own flaws. William Hickey nails his one real scene as Keller’s father and Richard Jenkins gives an effective slow burn vibe as a fellow investigator who married Keller’s ex-wife. Deborah Taylor has a sharp bit as a woman who sees through her blind date’s charade immediately and among the many familiar faces who turn up John Spencer is the Lieutenant, Michael Rooker is a cable TV repairman, Barbara Baxley is the next door neighbor of one of the victims, Christine Estabrook is a Miss Lonelyhearts-type hopeful date and Samuel L. Jackson plays, um, “Black Guy”. Watching his appearance in the first five minutes now makes you half expect that he and Pacino are going to team up to chase the killer somehow. Keller’s ex-wife is referred to but never turns up; Lorraine Bracco actually played the role (well, who else would have been given the part of Pacino’s ex-wife in 1989?) in scenes that were cut from the release version. They were restored for network airings—I’m pretty sure I’ve still got a tape of that around here—but aren’t on the DVD.
It’s not a perfect film at all and let me just say that, in spite of what a certain early scene claims, NO ONE living in 1989 New York wouldn’t know what Phil Rizzuto looked like. That’s really always bugged me. Still, I’m surprised now to look up the Vincent Canby review in The New York Times where he refers to it as “a really quite bad movie” which frankly seems like an overreaction even if it does have a few flaws. I suppose, for me, that this moderately scaled thriller from a time where this sort of thing was fairly common somehow feels just right. The film’s cinematic ambitions are modest, it’s filmed in a number of cost-effective Toronto interiors, isn’t all that visually dynamic and its modest scale might not allow it to play all that well these days. But in his comeback role Al Pacino is truly great, Ellen Barkin is truly hot and the two of damn make a damn good screen couple (they would appear together again in OCEAN’S THIRTEEN) while the movie also seems refreshingly adult now in its look at loneliness and dissatisfaction while approaching middle age. Though it’s not without problems I can’t bring myself to say very much bad about it. Maybe sometimes you like these things more than they might deserve but when the movie has earned that kind of attachment to it through the years that response doesn’t need any defending as far as I’m concerned.
Friday, September 17, 2010
Like most people do, I’ll sometimes look up people on the net who I once knew, via Google or Facebook or whatever and recently I entered the name of someone into Facebook who I knew in college a long time ago but haven’t spoken with for decades. We weren’t that close and since she’s not the sort of person with hundreds of friends on there I would feel strange trying to add her but I was still curious where she was in the world. In doing this I managed to stumble across information that this girl’s twin sister, who I met and hung out with on a few occasions, had sadly died earlier this year. This of course struck me as very sad, not only because of my distant, yet fond memories of the two of them but it just seemed absolutely horrible to imagine one twin losing another so young. And yet I still couldn’t bring myself to contact her, merely remaining uncomfortable having stumbled onto her (open) Facebook wall to learn the news of how she had recently spent the first birthday without her sister. Oddly, my recollections of them have always pretty vivid, maybe a little more than other people I slightly knew way back then and I even named characters after the pair when twins appeared in a few scripts of mine. I didn’t even know them all that well. Maybe neither one ever remembered me much at all. Maybe I knew them mostly in my own head. Maybe I still don’t even know the women I know right now. I only know that once you’ve known a few of them, and once you don’t anymore, you never quite feel the same after that. It all just strikes me as so sad.
I first saw David Cronenberg’s DEAD RINGERS late in the afternoon on opening day back in September 1988. I had already been a fan of the director from seeing THE DEAD ZONE and THE FLY in the theater, as well as catching up with the earlier ones on video. Various articles around the time had given me an insight into the level of the man’s intelligence and I can even recall an extensive interview he gave in Fangoria (possibly with Tim Lucas) in which the director expressed genuine reticence about this film being covered in the magazine at all. That was a period when plenty such films were making claims that they were ‘nor a horror film’ when in fact they obviously were but as it turned out, in Cronenberg’s case he was absolutely right. When I left that first viewing I felt truly emotionally shattered in ways that I couldn’t even put into words, that maybe I still can’t put into words. It wasn’t a film which brought me to tears (and I’ll freely admit when that happens), it was that something about the experience seeped down into my bones, something about loneliness and everything associated with it that I couldn’t quite comprehend. Yes, folks, that’s the sort of high school kid I was. Shouldn’t I have been going to see DIE HARD for the ninth time? I can’t remember anyone else feeling the way I felt about the film at the time but, after all, it’s not the sort of film that teenagers willingly go to. I’m not sure that it’s a film that anyone goes to. Interestingly, when the film was released in that quiet month of September its “From the Director of THE FLY” ad campaign actually got it to open in first place on opening weekend and considering the defiantly uncommercial nature of the film it was selling this almost seems like a bizarre joke, maybe even one worthy of Cronenberg’s dry nature. Sure enough, by the third week it had already fallen down to fourteenth place, ending with a domestic gross of $8 million. But the critical reception was mostly solid and Jeremy Irons’ lack of an Oscar nomination for Best Actor has always rightly been seen as an embarrassment. With this work clearly placing him on another level than where he was previously, David Cronenberg would never be thought of as just a director who shouted “More blood!” on his film sets again.
For a long time after I would refer to DEAD RINGERS as one of my favorite films—BRAZIL was up there back then, BARTON FINK was too—but somewhere along the way a shift occurred as other films possibly overtook during my film education and I found myself even returning to a few other Cronenberg titles, particularly VIDEODROME, much more. Before a recent viewing it had been quite a few years since I had seen it and to be honest I was a little reticent to watch it at all. Part of this was the concern that the film wouldn’t have anywhere near the impact it once did—considering how I responded that day, there’s no way it really could—and I was almost willing to have it simply remain in memory. But part of the reason was also was that I knew what I was in for in watching it. Even though there are a few light-hearted moments in its running time it’s possible that there are few other more depressing films that I have ever seen, almost more than I really wanted to deal with at this point in time. But then I finally slipped the Criterion disc into the player because, well, I just felt like I had to. And, yes, the film didn’t work for me the way it once did. Maybe I had long since moved past the feelings of September 1988 towards other realms but it nevertheless remains quietly remarkable, a genuinely daring attempt by its maker to take themes that are associated with ‘horror’ and move them in another direction in a way that few others would ever attempt. It doesn’t matter if it’s his best film but it remains a remarkable achievement.
Identical twins Elliot and Beverly Mantle (Jeremy Irons) run a successful gynecology clinic in Toronto known as The Mantle Clinic with the quiet side habit of ‘sharing’ some of the women who are their patients. Both men immediately find themselves fascinated by their new patient, famous actress Claire Niveau (Geneviève Bujold) who they determine to have an extremely rare abnormal reproductive system of three doorways. Elliot takes Claire as his lover under the guise of being Beverly and soon passes her along to Beverly since the two “share everything”. Though noticing that his personality changes make him seem “subtly schizophrenic” Claire never suspects anything is amiss though ultimately learns the truth. She takes Beverly back but soon enough has to leave on another job, having already started him on a dangerous pill addiction which only exacerbates his precarious state. As Beverly’s complete mental collapse gets progressively worse, Elliot has no choice but to join his dear brother in the experience in an attempt, as he puts it, to “get synchronized”.
Looking at it now, DEAD RINGERS (screenplay by Cronenberg and Norman Snider based on the book “Twins” by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland with elements taken from the real-life case of Stewart and Cyril Marcus) plays as a genuinely brave attempt by its director to meld the vaguely science-fiction themes he had woven through the likes of THE FLY and SCANNERS with a more mature approach, stripping everything of the truly strange drama down to basically people talking in rooms, mainly seen in close-ups. In every scene there is a particularly deliberate approach to both language and direction and, twin effects work aside, only the occasional striking visual such as the cardinal-like operating gowns to give the subtle impression that there is something unfamiliar going on. Unlike a few of Cronenberg’s other films, DEAD RINGERS is mostly set in the real world (one particularly Cronenbergian dream sequence excepted), just one that the two leads, who can never totally be apart from one another, have no real place in. The hermetically sealed universe the twins have created for themselves in their ultra-sleek apartment and cold, clean offices they work in can’t fully hold them as they fall apart within this carefully controlled frame and lose control of what they have built for themselves. It all just strikes me as so sad.
Part of the director’s conceit of neither of these twins being all good or bad may not be as revolutionary a concept as it was back then but that almost seems beside the point. The degree of the illusion works so well that within minutes it’s easy to forget how these roles are only being played by one actor—the two characters are easily differentiated in large ways and small through both performance as well as the script and even with more advanced technology today it couldn’t work any better. Just as Beverly’s good, possibly more feminine, side is slightly negated from his taking part in the deception of Claire to begin with (not to mention any that went on in the past), Elliot’s prickish side is slightly overshadowed by how absolutely devoted he is to his brother no matter what, making for characters who are not only complex but fascinating and increasingly tough to pin down—appropriate considering how there’s two of them, each slightly melding into the other’s personality. And both possibly slightly coded as gay as well in spite of their seduction of various female patients—Beverly freaks out when the possibility is suggested and Elliot’s prissy nature of always watching LIFESTYLES OF THE RICH AND FAMOUS says just about as much. Of course, that it’s tough to get a handle on either one is part of what makes the film so fascinating. If they were simpler, then the emotions would be simpler and the film would be simpler. Elliot isn’t very likable at all but about as loyal to his brother Beverly as any film character has ever been, which is definitely undeniable. And through this actress entering their lives they have to finally confront their own fear of women in dealing with how this particular one, addicted to pills as she might be, is more human, more feeling, more together than even the two of them put together. The warmth brought by both this character and actress (in itself interesting, due to Bujold’s somewhat chilly nature) is deliberately lost when the character departs the story for a stretch and she really is missed. Claire Niveau might very well be a crazy actress with numerous problems of her own, such as a somewhat masochistic nature, but she at least seems like someone you could engage with in a conversation if she was willing, unlike either of the Mantle twins. She’s a whole person.
The way that Cronenberg utilizes what were complex visual effects for the time to portray Irons as two people also reveals a lot about his approach—a few shots stand out (particularly one late in the film of the two of them moving through several different rooms) but it probably says something that watching it now I picked up on a few that never even jumped out at me years ago, maybe because I was so fascinated with what was going on between the characters (compare this to the Robert Zemeckis approach, which too often focuses on the coolness of the technology at the expense of everything else). Now that I think about it, it wasn’t just the loneliness that stayed with me about DEAD RINGERS through the years, let alone those effects, but its portrayal of intimacy as well, undeniable whether it’s the two versions of Irons in close discussion or one particular scene with Bujold, heartbreaking when she says how never being able to have a child means that she’ll “never have been a woman at all, just a girl”. Those two conflicting feelings take hold throughout, emphasized through Howard Shore’s score which is coldly heartbreaking down to its very essence. The intimacy also extends to the very carefully controlled coverage all through with even scenes in large restaurants staying focused on the few characters, to the point that when a bit player gets such a close-up at one point it feels like some sort of violation or error on Cronenberg’s part.
But right now I’m also wondering to what extent the film is about that fear of women, looking at them as something other—certainly one particular examination scene that anyone who’s seen the film will remember takes the concept of discomfort to a whole new level (this will certainly never be thought of as a Friday night date movie). Elliot even refers to the “Mantle Brothers Saga” at one point as if he is attempting to create his own narrative, his own myth between him and his brother, with every woman who stumbles into things as some sort of bit character for them to utilize in their story however they wish. Beverly Mantle’s ultimate experiment in creating his torture device-like “Surgical Instruments for Operating on Mutant Women” makes it clear that to him (if not to both brothers) all women are mutants, experiments for each of them to work on. That his designs are ultimately co-opted into a work of art is ironic considering how we’re told he’s “not into art” and maybe DEAD RINGERS is, among other things, about the crashing together of art and science in the mind (indeed, both Beverly Mantle and artist Anders Wolleck who design the pieces work in front of audiences—Beverly for an operating room theater as Elliot narrates and Wolleck does it as ‘part of his show’) and if only the Mantle twins had focused their energies in some other way, if they had been able to figure out how to each be one person, they could even have been artists. If properly melded together, they could even have become David Cronenberg.
Unlike a few of his other more “genre” films not everything about DEAD RINGERS has aged in ideal fashion and in certain ways I was slightly expecting that, though it should be said that when the rest of the film is as good as this one, small pieces that don’t quite fit do have a tendency to stick out. The seeds of Jeremy Irons’ later Boris Karloff-style hamminess are sometimes evident, brilliant as he is, and the brief stabs at humor related to the needs of the female patients with MURDER SHE WROTE-style shoulder pads don’t play as well as the more finely-drawn satire in other Cronenberg films. (As far as dry humor goes, one clever touch is the slightly racist comment to an Asian pharmacist who Elliot calls by the wrong name that “I always get you confused.”) It also feels like Beverly goes off the deep end just a little too abruptly when Claire departs and in this strangely alternate world of Cronenbergian language that part of their downfall comes from pill addiction, even if it does have basis in the real-life case of the Marcus twins, feels a little too normal, almost too pat an explanation for the complexity of what is found within the director’s schism. Beverly’s ultimate operating room breakdown is maybe slightly hurt in how you’d think someone would have noticed his state by then but it’s genuinely powerful nevertheless, a harrowing portrayal of a mental collapse right in front of us and that’s what sticks in the brain long after the film has ended.
It probably says something that while not technically an original (it is officially based on a book, after all, though that seems to be more for legal purposes than anything, with both works essentially inspired by the original case) after the release of this film it was over a decade until Cronenberg attempted an original screenplay again, with the films in between being straight adaptations as well as one (the unfortunate M. BUTTERFLY, which reunited him with Irons) that he didn’t even write. And I would go further to say that for well over a decade some of the films that followed this one (NAKED LUNCH, CRASH, EXISTENZ, SPIDER) come off as more ‘nice, little movies’ in comparison with the genuinely harrowing mental depths of DEAD RINGERS. A strange label to give a few of these titles with their own twisted elements but there is the feel that with this film the director went as far as he could go with his thematic concerns maybe making it the ultimate David Cronenberg film for all time. It’s the last of several films during the 80s in which his protagonist(s) come to an unfortunate, if inevitable, end and as admirable as it was for him to go against the norm in that decade it’s possible that maybe after this one, which approaches a level of emotional devastation that the others really only hint at, he had said all he need to say.
There’s no avoiding how extraordinary Irons is in this performance and it would be too easy to simply lay on the adjectives. I’ll just say that rarely is there such a perfect melding (there’s that word again) between director, star and material as there is here and the ultimate effect it gives off plays as if the actor understands this material more than could possibly be put into words. It says something that when Irons won the Oscar he deserved for this film several years later for REVERSAL OF FORTUNE he made it a point to thank David Cronenberg. I can distinctly remember applause occurring at this moment as if the audience knew exactly what he was talking about. Bujold is greatly affecting as well bringing a particularly real level of closeness to her scenes with Irons, making the odd grounding she gives to things missed when she departs for a little while. Much of the film keeps with these three characters but Heidi von Palleske makes a strong impression as Cary, a sort-of girlfriend of Elliot’s (“I didn’t realize you two were so friendly.” “We’re not so friendly.”) whose place in the screenplay is never quite defined—she’s barely introduced, coming off as something as an appendage then she reveals more brains and intuitiveness than other films probably would have bothered with such a minor character. Stephen Lack, star of Cronenberg’s SCANNERS, turns up in a brief but crucial appearance as artist Anders Wolleck and Jill Hennessy, alongside sister Jacqueline, makes her film debut as one of a pair of twin hookers ordered up by Elliot.
DEAD RINGERS stays with me, just like the memory of knowing those twin girls at college long ago, just like the memory of other girls I can think of. If you have some sort of relationship with a woman where things get cut off there’s going to be a hole, which I suppose is what I was thinking more than anything as Beverly contemplated losing Claire. I suppose that even in his madness, I understood. Losing one of those girls, even the ones you know casually, can sometimes hurt and you spend hours, days, weeks, years wishing you could talk to her again. By now, that girl who tragically lost her sister several months back has drifted off into my past just like numerous others I once knew. But those women linger in my brain, staying with me, just like the most powerful elements of DEAD RINGERS, one of the most coldly emotional films I’ve ever seen, continue to stay with me no matter how many years go between viewings. Right now, I’m not even sure if I ever want to see it again. I know that I’ll never be able to shake it.