Monday, January 31, 2011
Amid The Chaos Of That Day
During all the countless times I’ve gone to the movies at the Vista Theater over the years, not once has a cute girl ever suddenly tried to strike up a conversation with me in the middle of a movie leading to going for pie afterwards and beyond. You’d think by this point there would have been something close to it, but nope. True, I once sat next to the actress who played Arnie Becker’s ex-wife on L.A. LAW, but that’s not the same thing, is it? Of course it happens to Detroit resident Clarence Worley when he goes to the theater on his birthday and the Vista isn’t even anywhere near Detroit, it’s right down the street from where I write all this at the place Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards intersect, but never mind. I’ll try to keep the dream alive. The bad news for the WILD AT HEART/TRUE ROMANCE double bill on January 26 as part of Edgar Wright’s The Wright Stuff II series at the New Beverly Cinema was that the secret guest had to cancel after coming down with a cold. Everyone there could probably guess that person would have been TRUE ROMANCE screenwriter Quentin Tarantino who had been there the previous week to talk about DIRTY HARRY but what are you gonna do? The good news was that when WILD AT HEART ended the entire theater was given the shock of a surprise appearance by none other than David Lynch and Laura Dern, appearing from the back door of the theater like they were guests on The Tonight Show to graciously speak and answer questions for fifteen minutes or so. Apparently even Edgar Wright, who had planned to spring only Laura Dern on us, was himself surprised by the director being there and the entire packed house rose to their feet to give Lynch a standing ovation. After that no one had any right to complain about who didn’t show up and let it be said once again how much I love the New Beverly.
But if Quentin Tarantino did decide to come down to the theater at the last minute, how late would the evening have gone in the end? It could very well have been one of the greatest nights for film geeks in the history of Los Angeles and we would all have had to quit after that, knowing that it would never come anywhere close to that good again. So we were never faced with that dilemma but the sold out house did get the chance to see a 35mm print of the Tony Scott-directed TRUE ROMANCE which was good enough for me particularly considering how some of those bright colors of its narrative intensity popped off the screen and as nice as the film might look on DVD it’s definitely not the same. I hadn’t seen TRUE ROMANCE in a theater since its original release way back in ’93 and by now I’ve seen the unrated cut on various video/DVD releases so many times that returning to the R-rated version (the only kind available on 35mm, naturally) was a little disorienting. But while watching the film in the shadow of WILD AT HEART—to be honest, never my favorite David Lynch film and that’s coming from somebody who worships the man—in spite of the late hour I found myself truly loving TRUE ROMANCE more than I had in years and was in many ways a reminder of some of my own innocent dreams of another time, maybe also way back in ‘93. We’ll never know exactly what the film would have been like if Tarantino had directed his own script instead of Tony Scott but so what—the movie was a hugely entertaining thrill when it came out and it still is today. And to think I almost didn’t go that night because I wasn’t really in the mood to leave the house. That definitely would have been a mistake.
Detroit comic book store employee and Elvis lover Clarence Worley (Christian Slater) is enjoying a Sonny Chiba triple bill by himself on his birthday when the beautiful Alabama (Patricia Arquette) sits near him and strikes up a conversation. They hit it off immediately but after spending the night together Alabama reveals that she is actually a call girl hired as a birthday present. In spite of this she admits her love for him and he does the same for her. They marry right away but, after being goaded on by what is the vision of presumably Elvis Presley (Val Kilmer) in his head Clarence goes to meet her pimp Drexel (Gary Oldman) so she can be free and clear of him. The meeting results in a blood bath with Drexel and his cohorts killed by Clarence but as he tries to get Alabama’s belongings out of there he actually winds up with a suitcase filled with cocaine. The two soon decide to get out of town and head for Hollywood to try to sell the stash, stopping off at Clarence’s father (Dennis Hopper) before they leave. But the mob, in the person of the powerful Vincent Coccotti (Christopher Walken) and others, are on the hunt for Clarence and they’re willing to chase him wherever he is to get their merchandise back.
And that’s just part of it. Released in September 1993, the film came at a time when we’d already seen RESERVOIR DOGS and become forever addicted to RESERVOIR DOGS so with PULP FICTION still a year in the future this was a way to keep the cinematic rush that the Tarantino syntax provided going. If it was ever a question of how much his style would be accepted commercially the answer at the time seemed to be indicated in how little the film, which feels designed to play like gangbusters for a crowd, really made. It did nothing, just over $12 million, and just for fun sometime go look up the 1993 films that did more business. UNDERCOVER BLUES opened the same day and did slightly better. HOCUS POCUS did better. So did WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S II. Christ, LIFE WITH MIKEY made a little more money. Of course, by the time PULP FICTION was released it seemed like everyone was ready for the potent mix Tarantino had to offer with all the unexpected bursts of violence that come from nowhere during the laughs and that one was pure and uncut, no big-studio gloss about it (on another night of the festival Wright mentioned that Tarantino once told him that “TRUE ROMANCE had to flop so PULP FICTION could be a hit.”). The geek-heavy tone of pop culture in the internet age has caught up with the manic nature of Clarence Worley by now as well and Edgar Wright in his introduction felt that his own films bore more than a little influence of the thematic line that went from Woody Allen’s idolization of Bogart in PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM to this film’s worship of Elvis. Maybe there never was a correct way to sell TRUE ROMANCE commercially but regardless the film does seem like Tarantino’s most accessible, straight-ahead storyline for a mass audience that he’s ever attempted and the way it plays, just about the only thing in it which seems to go against expectations of any sort in Tarantino fashion would be the sly way it removes the hero from the climactic action almost entirely. His out-of-sequence screenplay (this wouldn’t be a big deal at all if it were made now) was rearranged into linear fashion by Tony Scott but this structural alteration doesn’t really damage things at all, not something I’d imagine you could say if the same were done to RESERVOIR DOGS, PULP FICTION or KILL BILL.
I admit, I’m one of those people who’ll always bitch about how extreme Tony Scott sometimes goes with his visual overkill. Having said that, I may as well state flat out that I enjoyed pretty much everything about his recent UNSTOPPABLE and it almost goes without saying here that while his glossy, smoke-filled fast-cut style is very much present in TRUE ROMANCE (though certainly no longer anywhere near as extreme as it once seemed) there’s an infectious enthusiasm to just about every single moment of the running time. The story moves like the most enjoyable ride on a runaway missile imaginable and even through the most brutally violent stretches it feels like the director is just so happy to be working with this material, loving all the actors in the frame as new plot elements begin to pile up, as he at times crashes in and out of scenes abruptly to keep it all moving as fast as possible. For this one time in Scott’s career my critical faculties slip away and I really don’t think that’s just because of my love for Tarantino’s script. It’s also due to the energy, the fervor, the joy of making this thing that feels crammed into every single Panavision frame. The film is violent, absolutely. But the overall impression that comes from it, helped by the Hans Zimmer score (as well as the musical derivative from BADLANDS which isn’t really homage as much as a flat-out acknowledgement), is a genuine sweetness that goes against the expected action movie feel. The relationship between the two leads infects a sense of love over the entire film, providing even the massacre at the end with an angelic quality, certainly aided by the endless amount of feathers floating down in its aftermath, giving it all an infectious optimism that seemed to reemerge as I watched the film at the New Beverly. Practically everything about it comes together and it’s a fantastic piece of work.
Very much played like a slice of wish-fulfillment, as if dreamed by a lonely geek while seeing a boring movie by himself on some lonely afternoon, the Tony Scott version of TRUE ROMANCE doesn’t seem to have much to do with any version of real life and even the sunny world of Hollywood is presented in fanciful style, including sticking Burbank’s Safari Inn right in the middle of Sunset Blvd., not to mention where it apparently thinks the Vista is located. Since it’s really a fairy tale anyway, it really doesn’t matter. Scott interprets Tarantino’s words with a genuine sense of freedom, with his style very much at the forefront and yet it never gets in the way of what the actors are doing. It feels like he loves giving every single one of them, even the bit players, a chance to shine while they’re onscreen. What is sometimes referred to as the Sicilian scene, featuring Dennis Hopper as Clarence’s father and Christopher Walken as mobster Coccotti facing off, is of course legendary by now and even if it feels a little designed to be ‘the best scene in the film’, well, it is. Both actors are flat-out brilliant here in every way—seriously, there are inflections in both their voices at certain points that I find just beautiful—and it’s not only the strongest part of any film Scott has ever directed, as far as I’m concerned placing the selection from Delibes’ Lakme (of course familiar from his own THE HUNGER) over Hopper’s final speech in the single best filmmaking choice he’s ever made. It removes what I imagine (maybe incorrectly) as the cold, deadpan way Tarantino would have shot it, taking what is wickedly offensive and, though that musical reminder of why the character in question is saying what he’s saying, turning it into something genuinely heartfelt and beautiful. The scene runs over ten minutes and I feel like I could sit here right now and watch it another ten times.
The Tony Scott gloss is definitely always there but it never overwhelms things and it’s maybe the one film he’s ever made that could actually be called somewhat nimble. It’s like he’s gotten reenergized as a filmmaker by these characters, these words, by the chance to linger on shots of Patricia Arquette’s Alabama, adorable as she sits there watching A BETTER TOMORROW II, by Bronson Pinchot nervously whispering, “You want me to suck his dick?” into the phone, by every single moment that Brad Pitt’s stoner on the couch has. It’s like he’s read Clarence’s speech to Saul Rubinek’s Lee Donowitz where he lists off MAD MAX, THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY and RIO BRAVO as what he thinks “movies” really are then decided that he wanted this one to deserve to be part of that list no matter what. The elements all come together beautifully with individual sections like the amazingly ferocious motel room confrontation between Arquette and pre-SOPRANOS James Gandolfini and the way all the dots get connected by the time it reaches the hotel climax works just beautifully. So well in fact that, as Edgar Wright pointed out in his intro, Tony Scott has redone the exact sort of standoff he does here from himself for a few of his later films including ENEMY OF THE STATE. Maybe looking at it now TRUE ROMANCE is more of a carefree fun time than a few of Tarantino’s own movies which are able to leave a mark on my soul in a way this one doesn’t, but so what. It’s a glossy interpretation of his writing which means that even if it’s not Tarantino it’s still the best possible pure Hollywood version of Tarantino that anyone ever made. And for this one time, maybe it’s close enough.
Looking at the theatrical version again after all this time is frankly is a slightly different overall experience and the shorter cut with a few less gunshots and beats of extreme violence feels just a little too abrupt at times. Some of the most extreme dialogue was also cut out in the quest to get an R—this was a reminder of how back then I barely understood why Samuel L. Jackson was even in the movie considering how much his one scene had the ax taken to it and this version of the scene now played just as abrupt as I remembered. Even a few stray bits of dialogue seemed to be missing from the R cut, like Saul Rubinek sceaming “Take your fucking SAG card and burn it!” at Bronson Pinchot. Interestingly, during the climax of the unrated version Chris Penn’s Officer Dimes is shot in anguish by Alabama but in the R cut he’s taken out by one of the mafia goons played by Paul Ben-Victor. I’m still not sure how I feel about this alteration but can’t help but wonder if this is one case where the theatrical version worked a little better, maybe thinking it would make more sense for both Clarence and Alabama to be left out of everything going on between the cops, mobsters and Donowitz’s bodyguards entirely, keeping them as angels allowed to float outside of it all. I’m not saying I’m right but I’m putting that question out there.
It feels like going over each performance that I love in full detail would make this piece twice as long, but it can’t be stated enough how joyous it is to watch the people in this film, characters vivid enough so that they seem like they’re the leads in their own movie played by actors who all rise to the occasion big time. Christian Slater may not be the most convincing shy geek ever (not the least convincing either, though) but his energy and desire to be just as cool as the King carries through the whole movie, no doubt helped by all that sugar he keeps pouring in his coffee and he’s matched by Arquette who is just amazing, playing things sexy, coy, funny, desperate and, when it’s needed, ruthless. I mentioned Hopper and Walken but how about the rest—James Gandolfini’s monologue about the first time you kill somebody, Saul Rubinek’s Joel-Silver-meets-Oliver-Stone producer, Michael Rapaport’s puppy dog earnestness, Anna Thomson’s disinterested bar floozy, Gary Oldman’s oozingly nasty pimp, Chris Penn and Tom Sizemore’s buddy cops (like Rubinek & Pinchot, I’d watch a TV series starring these guys). Among the obvious references, tiny things jumped out at me for the first time on this viewing--while the mobsters are getting ready for the climax one of them played by Kevin Corrigan does a quick "You talkin' to me?" riff while Victor Argo, who actually was in TAXI DRIVER, sits off to the side, chuckling.
If Quentin Tarantino had plans to reveal any TRUE ROMANCE secrets that night I guess we’ll never know, but he’s certainly said a great deal about the movie elsewhere by now including the DVD commentary where he openly speaks at length about how personal certain parts of it are for him. Some of what he says reveals just how what he wrote goes beyond just being an extension of that fantasy of sitting next to an amazing girl in a movie theater who likes the same things you do, but that still remains very much a part of its appeal. Frankly, the thought of it right now seems like just about the most wonderful dream imaginable. TRUE ROMANCE is going on eighteen years since its release which means that more time has gone by than had passed since the death of Elvis himself when the movie opened, a thought that pretty much blows my mind. And after all these years, I still haven’t ended up with a girl to sit next to when I go to the movies at the Vista, which makes me want to take a minute to pause and contemplate a hell of a lot of things that have gone on in my life. But I suppose that seeing TRUE ROMANCE again that night at the New Beverly reminded me that lots of things are still possible, that there is still hope every time I go back into a movie theater that a girl like that may someday appear and, for a little while, its genuine exuberance made me feel young again. Or at least younger than I am now.