Thursday, March 31, 2011
Every now and then I find myself looking at Youtube clips of Ennio Morricone conducting some of his work in concert which are generally being held way off in Europe somewhere. Featuring legendary selections like “The Ecstasy of Gold” from THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY or the most famous theme from DUCK YOU SUCKER aka A FISTFUL OF DYNAMITE and others, viewing these heartbreakingly beautiful selections from films—spaghetti westerns, cop movies, giallos, whatever—that are often dismissed as junk at worst and sometimes fodder for parody at best is something I find stirring in a way I can hardly even express. Some of this music never seems as appreciated as it should be but here it is being performed for people who love it, with beautiful sopranos belting out those wordless arias, placing all this amazing music in a context of culture and beauty. And when I watch some of these clips, wishing I could actually be in one of those far off places to see one of those concerts in person, something about it all just seems so right. When I see KILL BILL by Quentin Tarantino I feel like I’m seeing a film made by somebody who understands this, somebody who also looks for the beauty that can be found in the unexpected corners of these films. And yes, while completely loving how flat-out enjoyable they are as well. KILL BILL is a film made by somebody who feels nothing but passion for those movies and refuses to look at them as frivolous camp or something to make fun of, but rather as something beautiful in a way that only he can really express. These are movies, with real passion to them that can be found in every ounce of action, drama and total sleaze they contain. In making something like KILL BILL—the complete KILL BILL—Tarantino elevates those movies to the level they already are in his mind. The way it should be.
It wasn’t until recently that I learned the part of Estaban, the eighty year-old Mexican pimp who directs The Bride towards Bill during the latter stages of the film was originally supposed to be played by Ricardo Montalban. When Montalban was unable to make a cast read through Tarantino had Michael Parks, already cast as Ranger Earl McGraw, assume the role for that one occasion but was so blown away by what the actor did he changed plans on the spot, having Parks ultimately play both roles. It sort of makes sense that Montalban was going to be Estaban since he was the right age for it and it also ties back to the use of a certain famous quote at the very beginning of VOL. 1. But I can’t help but wonder if his very Ricardo Montalbanness would have been a problem here, that the joke of his appearance in the scene would have stood out more than anything. Parks, on the other hand, is damn near brilliant and completely disappears into the role—even though I see it listed in the credits I still can’t quite believe it’s him and I love how the movie stops at this crucial juncture to let us meet this guy, to allow him to take his time with every syllable he reveals to The Bride. By this point it’s almost as if KILL BILL has moved beyond mere references for the sake of a joke into something deeper about the characters that have risen out of the ashes of these references. It’s like that infamous deleted scene showing David Carradine’s Bill fighting Michael Jai White, cut from VOL. 2 and found on a deleted scene on the DVD—not only is there no good place for it in the film but it’s done in such a goofy way that it clashes with everything around it and the right choice was made to simply have the scene shrivel up and die on the cutting room floor. KILL BILL needed to become something greater than those references until all it could possibly do was transcend them on account of its own power. The way it should be.
It’s a nice daydream to imagine Miramax actually attempting to release the complete KILL BILL way back in 2003 as one full movie, maybe taking a stab at doing some sort of old school roadshow release to make it a true event, to underline what an epic this was and push for a bunch of Oscar nominations while they were at it, not just a pair of action movies released six months apart. On the other hand, this is one occasion where I can’t blame anyone for wanting to play things a little safe and make their money back. The way things played out back then was probably for the best and the cliffhanger as seen in the release version worked like gangbusters at the time, only increasing the anticipation for what Vol. 2 would contain. Viewing it all as a full movie with a number of years distance part of me now wishes that this hadn’t been the case, that the surprise the movie ultimately leads to in its final chapter, the one that places everything that has happened in a different kind of perspective, could have been kept from us just as it was kept from The Bride. To be honest, I can’t say it works better right now any more than I was able to proclaim that the version of BLADE RUNNER without the narration worked better than the original release with it. It’s still there in my head, just the way that coda in VOL. 1 of KILL BILL always will be in some way. But to see the film in this original form, to get an idea of what it may have been like in that alternate universe, was a wonderful thing. Taken all at once it’s a feast, an absolute feast of pure cinema.
So now, as the grand finale of his month of programming at the New Beverly Cinema, Quentin Tarantino has presented KILL BILL: THE WHOLE BLOODY AFFAIR (or, as I suppose it should simply be called, KILL BILL) with tickets selling out so fast that extra dates had to be added by the theater later on. Acting fast I managed to get one for opening night, which just happened to be Tarantino’s birthday. As it turned out, the celebration part of the day was held at the first show in the afternoon, where Tarantino introduced the film and Julia led the crowd in singing Happy Birthday to him. In comparison, the evening showing was uneventful, unless of course you count the fact that we were getting to see the full KILL BILL which was of course more than good enough for me. Funny, even though because of the late ending of the 2:00 show, the film began closer to 8:00 than the scheduled start time of 7:00 everything there couldn’t have been more orderly, a credit to the New Beverly but also maybe because a great many of the people there that night were familiar with how things work at the theater so everyone behaved. It wasn’t even all that rowdy a crowd during the film, as if since everyone there had probably seen it already we were all studying it as close as possible (one person who got a round of applause both times her name appeared onscreen was Tarantino’s late editor Sally Menke). The screening was preceded by a few things presumably picked by Tarantino himself to go with the movie and very obviously had a great deal of pertinence—an animated ad for Dr. Pepper, a ROLLING THUNDER TV spot, trailers for the likes of COFFY, STING OF THE DRAGON MASTERS, THE MILLION EYES OF SUMURU, THEY CALL HER ONE EYE and, yes, SHOGUN ASSASSIN—actually, their placement before the film seemed so right it wouldn’t be such a bad idea if they were all played at every screening of KILL BILL ever held from here on out. Incidentally, the version of THE WHOLE BLOODY AFFAIR shown was not just what premiered at Cannes back in ’04—it was the actual print, only screened a handful of times since, complete with a Cannes Film Festival logo at the top and French subtitles through the entire running time, adding an additional level of internationalism to this globe-trotting epic—for those curious, the subtitle for the Pussy Wagon was “BAISODROME” and for whatever reason the name Beatrix was always subtitled as “Beatrice”, not that I spent much time focusing on those subtitles. Anyway, so KILL BILL has now been seen in its proper form as KILL BILL: THE WHOLE BLOODY AFFAIR, playing at the New Beverly in what I suppose should be called its premiere theatrical engagement and while I don’t know what the future of this version of the film is going to be in terms of any subsequent releases I don’t think it’s at all a stretch to basically say right now, that this is the movie. There is no VOL. 1 and VOL. 2. There is just KILL BILL.
The differences may be few—and, for the record, there are no changes to the overall chapter structure—but they are absolutely crucial. The plot, of course, is the same. When a pregnant woman who we know only as The Bride (Uma Thurman) is beaten and shot in the head just as she’s about to be married, but when she wakes up from her coma four years later she sets off on a roaring rampage of revenge against the people who did her wrong, her former colleagues in the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. Jetting off to Okinawa where she acquires a samurai sword from the legendary Hattori Hanzo (Sonny Chiba) The Bride sets off after the names on her list: (1) O-Ren Ishi (Lucy Liu) (2) Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox) (3) Budd (Michael Madsen) (4) Elle Viper (Daryl Hannah) and (5) the main one she’s after, the legendary Bill (David Carradine). And since revenge is a forest, as we’re told by Hattori Hanzo in a line not included in THE WHOLE BLOODY AFFAIR things are not presented to us is simple linear fashion.
The more I think about it, the stranger KILL BILL seems to become, with the world it’s all set in never fully explained and yet at the same time it all makes perfect sense. There’s such an energy given to every single moment, a richness felt in how this entire world and the people who occupy it were all created that is continually exciting and addictive. In some ways it is a kind of updating of the 70s Grindhouse aesthetic Quentin Tarantino grew up with just the way that the likes of STAR WARS and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK were meant to be updates of old time serials. But it becomes much more than that, almost as if it’s Tarantino’s own personal tour of these movies as filtered through memories of his own adolescent daydreams and its characters as they swirled through his head in the dead of night. But he’s not thinking of those characters in their films, but what they meant to him and how they might exist outside of those ninety minutes they’re seen in--there seems to be a recurring theme in his films of the characters being caught in between their own missions, the big epic movies we’d imagine them as the lead characters of, and instead of that the film we get to see is the one that pulls these characters away form the restrictions of their narratives. Whatever big action movie the Deadly Vipers were ever a part of is something that only Tarantino has ever been privy to in his own mind. What we see here comes before and after. And whether the intermission is fifteen minutes (and, in case you were wondering, there was one at the New Beverly right after The Bride states, “They’ll all soon be as dead as…” which is probably where you expected it to be) or six months the effect is not entirely unlike what was done later on with the two films in GRINDHOUSE—the first half is the fun stuff and the second half tries to dig a little deeper as if trying to figure out just what the hell these movies—as well as any sort of obsession with them—really means anyway.
On the one hand, the clean break between the two volumes was ideal for the original theatrical releases (so ideal that it still feels natural to continue making references to them as two volumes and I may have to), dividing the fun stuff with the more introspective character elements after we’ve already gotten to meet them. The thrust of the story balances its key inspirations of Asian Cinema and spaghetti westerns, dropping a piece of score that comes from genre (including numerous Morricone cues) right into a scene taking place in the other, along with drops of blaxploitation (since this film follows JACKIE BROWN it seems to make sense that the Bride’s confrontation with Vernita Green comes first in what we get to see) and even a riff of flat-out horror with The Bride getting the drop on Michael Bowen’s Buck scored to music from Lucio Fulci’s THE PSYCHIC and all. The first half seems to be all style and no emotion but it isn’t really that at all, every moment affected by The Bride’s first waking moments where she wails as she comes to her realization from clutching where her baby used to be. Once during my numerous viewings at the Vista back in ’03 there was a girl sitting next to me who I didn’t know and I noticed undeniable tears streaking down her face during this scene. This isn’t camp for Tarantino, this isn’t spoof and it isn’t just flashy excitement. As absurd and fantastical as this entire world may be, he means every second of it, he means every ounce of pain and regret the characters feel along with how that affects what they do in response.
When VOL. 1 opened in the Fall of ’03 it played right down the street from me at the Vista—you know, the one where Clarence Worley met Alabama. The Pussy Wagon was famously parked right out front during the run and I went at least once a week each week it played, over and over, and to this day when I listen to “Urami Bushi” which plays over the end of both films I find myself back in that theater watching those credits roll as that song echoes against the walls. To this day I get such exhilaration out of the rollercoaster of that first half, starting right from the suburban set brutality and dark humor of the fight with Vernita Green leading up to the necessary cruel note it ends on. But there’s also such warmth in the droll humor found in the first scene of Sonny Chiba’s Hattori Hanzo leading up to the undeniable, emotional frisson felt in the air as we head up to his attic to get a look at those samurai swords. The Bride’s battle with the Crazy 88s at The House of Blue Leaves is a genuinely phenomenal piece of filmmaking, a veritable master class in action filmmaking in this day and age, but actually even more addictive for me is the build up to the fight–the continued musical trail as the Bride arrives in Tokyo beginning with the GREEN HORNET theme, moving to the Crazy 88s entering the club all through the preciseness of that De Palma-like Steadicam shot as the 5 6 7 8’s play and we follow Julie Dreyfus’s Sofie Fatale through the club is like pure, uncut cinematic crack for me. And much as I love that first half, there’s something about VOL. 2 I find myself drawn to more and in some ways it can be as easy to drift into its more languid vibe while watching at home as JACKIE BROWN is. It’s not as fun as VOL. 1, no, but it doesn’t have to be. The second half dispenses with the flash and chooses to zero in on the unspoken guilt Michael Madsen’s Budd feels for his role in the Two Pines massacre, willing to literally clean up shit because he knows he deserves to, yet still unwilling to go quietly when The Bride finally comes for him. Maybe because it’s what he knows how to do, maybe because he believes it will absolve him. The remarkable cinematography ( by Robert Richardson, absolute aces all the way through) takes hold for me here, playing off a more blatant spaghetti western fashion than in the first half with the characters faces filling the frame like they hadn’t before. Maybe part of this is my own personal preference of filmmaking styles--when it comes to Asian/Kung Fu cinema, I’m a little lost, I admit and here I’m totally drawn in to an extent that even now I find a little surprising. Even the music seems to go beyond the surface, with such mind-bendingly beautiful tracks like a piece from the giallo THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARDH by Nora Orlandi mixed in with a little original score by Robert Rodriguez lends it an extra level of emotion that is maybe nowhere else to be found in Tarantino’s films. And moving from what has to be the greatest buried alive sequence in cinema history to trapping us with Budd in his scummy trailer of his—it feels a little awesome that this globe-trotting epic spends so much time in this enclosed space and the way Tarantino lays out the ultra-nasty fight scene between The Bride and Elle within this space (how a director shoots physical action within such a space is always a good test of their skills). When we finally get that face to face confrontation I’m not sure that anything tops seeing David Carradine as Bill methodically make those sandwiches using that enormous knife (carefully cutting the crusts off) but just watching the way he continually downs that tequila while sparring through this dialogue with Uma Thurman is a little mesmerizing. I always found it kind of interesting how Tarantino expressed a desire to make a faithful adaptation of CASINO ROYALE (this is back before that reboot happened, of course) because I can’t help but think that there’s a tinge of the confrontation between Bond and Vesper Lynd in that book in the isolation of The Bride and Bill in the final stretch of KILL BILL, not building to the final fight we may be expecting, but the final confrontation between these two people, this man and woman, all that this long, epic tale finally comes down to and what it needs to be.
The differences in THE WHOLE BLOODY AFFAIR kick off right at the top with the “Revenge is a dish best serve cold” epitaph (“Old Klingon Proverb”) replaced with a dedication to Japanese director Kinji Fukasaku. The anime sequence depicting the ‘origin’ of O-Ren Ishhi is slightly longer with considerably extra gore but the greatest, and probably best known, alterations come during the legendary House of Blue Leaves sequence, which a friend showed me the long version of several years ago, it is in full color and slightly longer, with more carnage and even an additional earlier comical beat with the kid who The Bride confronts at the end. Maybe this is sacrilege, but I wondered then and I wonder now if the shorter cut isn’t slightly better simply because it’s just a little tighter, a little punchier. The early beat with the kid just feels unnecessary, as if it’s an attempt at a running gag that never quite becomes one—if anyone thinks that I’m looking for a less violent KILL BILL that’s not where I’m coming from at all and I should add that I’m totally in favor of the extra beat showing what else happens to Sofie Fatale later on, even if it does cause an unfortunate continuity error. As for the color, however, I always wondered if having most of it in B&W made the later color shot showing the full result of the carnage in all its glory wasn’t a good thing. It is, yes, but having seen it all on the big screen now, I just love it this way, it seems more pure, all that carnage is overwhelming in the best possible way and that wide shot still possesses all the power it always did. Now, am I hesitating in fully praising this, wondering if it isn’t better a little tighter? Yeah, I admit, I am. But keep the color. It feels absolutely essential. Obviously, the changes to VOL. 2 are nowhere near as extensive, possibly limited to some extensions to the Road to Salinas sequence which helps immeasurably to give it the right kind of Peckinpah vibe. Naturally removed from this version are the epilogue to Part 1 and prologue to Part 2 since in this context they serve no real purpose anymore. They’re not needed but in a nitpicky way I’ll say that I honestly miss the glimpses of other passengers with their own samurai swords on the Air O flight as The Bride jets towards Tokyo. Of course, there is only one final crawl, now longer in order to account for everything in the two halves. I suspect there may be a few small differences here and there I’m missing—although it looked to me that the blinking shot where we go back to color from black & white is no longer there since that change doesn’t need to happen. How’s that for anal?
As forever rewatchable as it might be, KILL BILL is a film that makes heavy analysis somewhat daunting (and I can’t even bring myself to try doing it at the moment) since so much of it seems to be a part of its maker’s own head and for all I know may even be reflected in a number of the films he screened over the past month, maybe even BLUME IN LOVE for all I know, at the New Beverly (Needless to say, the credit during the end crawl for the theater we were seeing the film in and its late owner Sherman Torgan received a round of applause as well). You could almost say that every film he has ever loved is reflected in his movies in one way or another. It’s absolutely clear how much he loves putting together something like the Pai Mei training sequence and getting to use all those zooms as if making his own little 70s kung fu movie but he never loses his own film in all that. Like most other people I’d probably love it if the Pai Mei section were twenty minutes longer but Tarantino winds up ending the sequence before we expect, taking what seems to be both tribute and character background and suddenly stunning us with actual plot when we go back to the present, a subtle example of how good a screenwriter he really is beyond all the dialogue everyone loves that is both underappreciated and totally undeniable. The Hattori Hanzo section starts off with The Bride saying the simple word “Domo” to the man, with him not knowing this is anything other than a good-looking American tourist. At the end of the sequence, when she has earned his full respect, The Bride leaves him with the exact same word. What starts out as something simple turns out to have great meaning behind it but ultimately things circle back to find the depth in that simplicity. Once when he was introducing films at the Alamo Drafthouse Tarantino stressed, “Laugh when it’s funny. Not to show that you’re superior to the movie — none of you people are superior to these movies.”
This is Uma Thurman’s greatest role and she more than lives up to it, playing every ounce of fiery passion, always keeping this larger-than-life assassin totally and completely human, even while fighting her way through the Crazy 88s, making her one final move against Elle Driver or when she looks at Bill for the last time. The Bride becomes a legend as we watch her and Uma Thurman is that legend. As Bill, when David Carradine is onscreen I can’t do anything but sit there, watching him in awe and he more than lives up to what is delivered when he finally makes his delayed appearance in the flesh. One small moment I have a fondness for is the way Carradine stands there regarding Michael Madsen during their final moment together (“So I guess, we'll... just see. Won't we?”) and it always feels to me like the actor himself is looking at him with just as much affection and admiration as Bill is regarding his brother with. And as that brother Budd the phenomenal, beyond cool Michael Madsen, looking up at that onscreen brother with those beady eyes, is maybe the most underappreciated of anyone in this film with even his tiny gestures as he mixes that nasty looking margarita infusing every fiber of his being with who this guy is. Daryl Hannah playing Elle Driver gives off an absolute coolness in that suit she wears to Budd’s trailer, an imposing ferocity as she strides down that hospital corridor whistling Bernard Herrmann and watching every second of the actress in this role feels like she’s diving off a cliff without checking to see if there’s water below—even the way she crosses her leg is somewhat hypnotizing. The film is filled with faces that Tarantino holds on with total love for his actors—Sonny Chiba’s majesty, Julie Dreyfus’s odd officiousness that turns to terror as Sofie Fatale, the unforgettable Chiaki Kuriyama as Go Go Yubari, Larry Bishop’s “Calendar time for Buddy!” Michael Parks in both those roles he plays. Lucy Liu almost feels like the one thing in the movie that dates it at all now since she feels like she was cast due to being hot in the first years of the twenty-first century, but even she brings a memorable feeling of a crumbling porcelain doll during her final moments. There are probably too many other bit players to mention--Laura Cayouette appears as the stripper Rocket who I mention mainly because I met her at a party once and with me asking lots of questions about this film and displaying my probably too-extensive knowledge she said I reminded her of a certain somebody. She was probably just being nice, but it was still pretty cool.
My own feeling now is that this is KILL BILL, this is the movie and hopefully at some point this is how it will be considered. So hopefully at some point soon that will happen. It’s at least simple as far as the film goes—do some cleaning up involving the credits, like how there’s still a Vol. 1 seen at the beginning (the title THE WHOLE BLOODY AFFAIR is never seen on the actual film) along with any other such small fixes that are needed and the Weinsteins, presuming they have the domain over the title, should be ready to go. Re-release it. And I’m not talking about Blu-ray, I don’t care about that. Open it at the Cinerama Dome. The Ziegfeld in New York. Places like that. Let it be rediscovered. Make it an event. The film deserves it. Anyone who wants to see it deserves it. Let them be exhilarated by this love of cinema, something that as far as I’m convinced would be an absolute good. The way it should be.
Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Chilly winds may blow, but they weren’t strong enough to allow me to make it down to the New Beverly so I could see PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW when they ran it at midnight recently, even if it was showing twice over that particular weekend. At least I got to see it at the theater when Quentin Tarantino ran it in ’07 and here it was back as part of his March Madness series but though I wanted to go again this time things sadly just didn’t work out that way. Make no mistake, I’m pretty sure there’s no way I could make a strong argument for 1971’s PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW as a good movie in any way whatsoever but it does have a certain odd pull to its weirdly innocent sleaze that makes you go “huh?” as you watch it, wondering if you missed someone explaining a vague plot point while distracted by all those girls walking past the camera. Plus there’s Angie Dickinson, looking so mind bogglingly sexy here that it’s enough to make me completely despondent that I wasn’t around way back then to meet her at the time. It just seems so unfair. The first film directed by the famed Roger Vadim (lover of Catherine Deneuve, husband of Brigitte Bardot and Jane Fonda, among others) after BARBARELLA, that alone makes PRETTY MAIDS of interest but maybe even more intriguing is that it was produced and written (from the novel by Francis Pollini) by legendary STAR TREK creator Gene Roddenberry with the film’s basic view of women in general making me think a little more about the way certain female characters were treated back on the original STAR TREK, what with Marla McGivers allowing herself to be dominated by Kahn Noonien Singh and all that. Not to mention all those memorably skimpy outfits the various women were dressed in on that series and even William Ware Theiss, the show’s costume designer, performed that task here with Angie Dickinson, to name one, wearing something during much of her big seduction scene that is about as alluring an outfit as she ever wore onscreen. It’s certainly a weird movie…but how much of that weirdness is intentional looking at the film now is probably open to debate since at least some of it is made even stranger due to now looking back at it forty years after it was made. If I’d made it to the New Beverly I might have attempted to lead a discussion group afterwards to see just what the hell people thought about this thing but I couldn’t so I decided to watch it at home. It just seemed like it needed to be done.
At carefree, laid back Oceanfront High School the big man on campus is guidance counselor/football coach “Tiger” McDrew (Rock Hudson, with a mustache that probably deserved its own screen credit) beloved by all with a wife and daughter as well but with a certain secret habit of bedding female students during private testing periods on the side. Among the make students, one he has a particular fondness for is Ponce de Leon Harper (John David Carson) who is just about the shyest most awkward kid around when it comes to girls (“I’m seventeen years old and I haven’t even so much as touched a girl’s breast yet” he tells Tiger) and currently being driven even crazier by the arrival of beautiful substitute teacher Miss Smith (Angie Dickinson). Things only seem to be getting worse for Ponce when he stumbles across the dead body of pretty young Jill Fairbutt, found strangled in the boys room with a note reading “So long, honey” attached to her bottom. The police, led by Captain Sam Surcher (Telly Savalas) come to investigate but with the principal (Roddy McDowall) muttering “She was really a terrific little cheerleader” over and over the school tries to deal with the shock. But as Tiger works to set up a certain private study session between Ponce and Miss Smith, more dead girls begin to pile up, each one with a new note pinned to them, and everyone begins to worry how all this is going to affect morale for the big game.
One key issue in films can be tone and the thing is that PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW never quite establishes a clear one so as a result there’s very little logic to anything that happens on any level. For the most part it’s a sex comedy, sort of, and there’s definitely a number of actual (or at least would-be intentional) laughs but it all has such an odd, airless feel, photographed in a flat manner that makes it feel like a TV production that somehow got out of hand with all the nudity and sleaze. There’s a bizarrely detached feel that is only aided by how much of the dialogue seems to be dubbed in a hollow style with all that Lalo Schifrin la-la-la music of the time continually wafting through the air, complete with that title song “Chilly Winds” performed by The Osmonds of all people. There’s just not much style to it, or at least not the right style and Vadim seems more interested in photographing the girls than in making the story particularly coherent. It doesn’t quite seem like any of it is set on planet Earth but maybe it’s just the visual representation of a teenage boy circa 1970, or maybe that of a middle-aged director and producer trying to push the Hollywood envelope circa 1970 as well, with the camera leering as much as possible at every girl who wanders past the camera wearing short—really short–skirts along with Angie Dickinson playing someone who is apparently not even slightly aware of the effect she has on every teenage boy in front of her. To call it a satire seems like an even stranger concept since I’m not exactly sure what the satire is supposed to be unless it’s a look at what the world is seemingly turning into with a fair amount of the dialogue, like Rock Hudson dictating thoughts on how he believes the world he wants to defy is “racing toward a new dark ages”, seeming to strive for some sort of significance but it all just becomes too much of a jumble. Along with all that is the feeling of maybe too much emphasis being placed on Roger Vadim’s own take on America, observing lots of natioanl pastimes like how everyone in this high school (“I believe that this is where it’s at,” Hudson tells Savalas about teaching there as opposed to a university) is getting obsessed over the big game while a number of murders are occurring but maybe the director just didn’t focus on the right elements to make it all cohere. And there’s the undeniable oddness of a film like this coming from a major studio (MGM) which has big stars like Rock Hudson and Angie Dickinson laughing about possibly getting it on with their students—even Daniel Waters didn’t go there when he wrote HEATHERS, a much better film (and considering how PRETTY MAIDS seems like it’s from another galaxy it’s all the stranger to think about how they’re less than twenty years apart) although I do wonder how this film might have been an inspiration for him, if even a small one.
The murder mystery element of the story (despite how some of it may sound, it’s not at all a horror movie or body count picture) is about as strange as anything—no spoilers but you can probably tell who the killer is just by reading the plot summary and it’s never quite revealed so much as it’s just sort of apparent by a certain point. There’s something to the whole film that feels unaccountably off in the plotting as if it’s missing a reel or even just a bunch of random scenes that were lost in a cut down TV version. The climax also feels truncated and somewhat muddled as if a lot of it needed to be pieced together in the cutting room when a key scene didn’t get shot so in the end there’s just kind of a “huh?” vibe as that cheery Osmonds song starts up again when the credits roll. With Ponce’s character arc going from being the one person upset over the way people remember the murdered girl he finds to where he winds up in the end, which I suppose is the film’s take on learning how to be a man in the modern age, the film seems to be about passing the torch from someone who knows how to handle women down to someone younger in order to do what exactly? Learn how to seduce them? Learn how to kill them? Trying to place the film in the pre-ERA context it’s almost as if the people making this film never bothered to consider that any woman would ever have actual thoughts in their head beyond the next guy they could sleep with and it would be one thing if that’s what the film was satirizing…but I don’t think it is. There’s not much point in taking PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW at all seriously in terms of being a worldview which would, frankly, be a little depressing so maybe I should just listen to some more of that relaxing Lalo Schifrin music and just roll with it. It’s a film where as bizarre as Miss Betty Smith’s seduction of Ponce might be, it’s still just about the sweetest scene in the whole movie, which is itself about as twisted as anything I could say about it. Interestingly, the speech Dickinson has during her big nude scene is also her strongest moment in the film, talking about how the one hundred billion stars in the galaxy could easily represent all the men who ever lived but it doesn’t seem to take into account the possibility that those stars could also represent the women, the ones this film seems to think it’s best to just disregard.
The oddness extends to the performances and seeing Rock Hudson with that huge mustache playing someone with his own secrets definitely lends an extra level to things now, but he also seems to be dubbed more than anyone else here and at least partly because of that he feels somehow separate from many of the other actors almost as if he was matted in after the fact. Angie Dickinson displays a great amount of awkward charm in a near impossible role, genuinely enjoyable to watch but also so mind-bogglingly sexy that I almost don’t know how else to say it and maintain any level of seriousness. Playing straight man against all this madness, Telly Savalas seems to nail the right tone more than anyone, which is as baffling as anything since he’s really doesn’t play his role at all different from any of his other performances, coming complete with his usual familiar mannerisms. As Ponce, John David Carson seems at times a little too vacant in his shyness and yet he somehow manages to sell his transformation by the end so it all somehow works even if it isn’t entirely clear what he’s been turned into. Roddy McDowall has some funny moments as the principal, Keenan Wynn is the idiot local chief of police while on the Star Trek side of things James “Scotty” Doohan and Willam Campbell, two-time guest star on the show, have prominent roles as investigators alongside Savalas. Barbara Leigh, later in Peckinpah’s JUNIOR BONNER, is Hudson’s wife while the numerous pretty maids of the title, all truly impressive, include Joy Bang of MESSIAH OF EVIL and THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT’s June Fairchild, complete with a pretty amazing laugh, almost literally bouncing across the screen as Sonny Swangle.
PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW can’t really be called a good film. It may even be a poor film. And yet, there is something oddly enjoyable about it which may come from the weird charm of watching this now-forty-year-old movie and trying to make some kind of sense of it all feels a little addictive as much as I suspect I’m maybe overthinking it all (and it’s available from the Warner Archive if you feel like finding out for yourself). Roger Ebert gave it two stars at the time, not treating it as some bizarre anomaly but simply seeming to feel that whatever the film was trying to do just didn’t work and I suppose it doesn’t but there’s still something strangely compelling about it all. At the very least I can’t think of any other film it even resembles and that includes HEATHERS. Plus it has Angie Dickinson. There’s probably a whole college thesis that could be written about the film’s sexual politics and what exactly both director Vadim as well as the writer/producer who years later was praised for creating a show that stood for a hopeful future for all of humanity might be trying to say with it. It even makes me think about the Roddenberry-produced STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE which I actually just saw again recently and with PRETTY MAIDS in mind I couldn’t help but ponder how in comparison it plays as just about the most blandly asexual movie of all time (twisted thought that just came to mind—transpose this film’s entire plot onto the Starship Enterprise, with Rock Hudson as the Captain, helping a shy young ensign along with all the pretty Yeomen everywhere…). But as I look at the blank faces of all those pretty maids singing the school song near the end as the camera pans over them, well, I’m almost not quite sure what to think about PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW. I’d call it a Southern California time capsule but even with some of the girls offering insights like how their generation isn’t afraid of feeling affection it’s tough to imagine it having much to do with any version of reality ever—and if it can be looked at in that way it just makes the film all the more strangely compelling. Of course, from what I understand things were pretty crazy back in those days so who knows. Even now I almost feel like watching the film once again to try to sort some of it out and if it turns up again at the New Beverly a few more years down the line I may have to do my best to have some of those chilly winds blow me down the street so I can actually be there.
Saturday, March 26, 2011
I wonder if I’m the only person who thought to reread some of Steve Erickson’s excellent novel “Zeroville” on the day news broke of the death of Elizabeth Taylor. The lead character of that book has a giant tattoo on his shaved head of Taylor and Montgomery Clift in A PLACE IN THE SUN and, describing them as “the two most beautiful people in the history of the movies” (the history of the world, it may as well be to the book’s lead Vikram), “Zeroville” essentially presents them as a particular vision of everything Hollywood, along with the movies themselves, represents in the end. And I suppose A PLACE IN THE SUN really is the one film of hers I would choose to watch over and over if given the choice. Of course, much of Taylor’s stardom that I ever experienced firsthand had to do with her as a tabloid figure over the past three decades and that one film aside which probably fascinates me about her more than anything is the period in the 60s when she hooked up with Richard Burton on the legendary production of CLEOPATRA, causing a veritable firestorm throughout the world that never fully subsided. It seems like roughly the following decade for them was spent jetting all around the world making movies, some together and some not, as well as presumably spending lots of time in far off villas in places like islands off the Amalfi coast presumably lounging around with various other multi-national celebrities of the day. I’ve seen very few of the actual films, the sheer number of which surprise me when looking them up, but my interest in all this is really more about what went on during the actual productions and reading an article about what went on during the making of THE V.I.P.’S, to name one, makes me want to enter a time machine so I can go back to hobnob with them, joining in on a few of those many bottles of vodka and Dom Pérignon they consumed daily. It would certainly be preferable than actually watching THE V.I.P.’S, which is frankly a pretty excruciating experience and, honest admission, there are a few well-regarded titles of hers I still need to finally get to but at least I’ve seen GIANT and CLEOPATRA, both of which take up a lot of time. The HERE’S LUCY that guest-starred the pair sounds pretty good as well. And there are titles Taylor starred in through the years that haven’t been mentioned at all in these obits, they’ve just been lost to time and interest, with no late show to run them anymore. People love those films too. Sometimes those films that people love for their own reasons are the ones that mean the most of all.
And right now, as I think of Elizabeth Taylor, I think of a certain girl. I never had a chance with her, I suppose. I mean, I hoped I did. I dreamed I did. But I guess I really didn’t. Of course, there’s no way you can see that when you’re in the middle of it. But she’s gone now, moved in with some guy as of the first of this year so that as they say is that. I don’t know exactly where they moved to and though it’s apparently right nearby she could just as well have moved to Santa Monica. Or Canada. Or Florida. Or Outer Mongolia. Because it doesn’t seem like she’s talking to me anymore. I’ve known her off and on for almost ten years and though it’s always been clear that she’s a little…eccentric in her thinking, both inside and out she’s just about the most beautiful person I’ve ever known. She’s smarter than I am, extremely caring and yet…well, she drives me crazy. Now that I think about it, she actually looks kind of like Elizabeth Taylor. Well, maybe that’s not really true beyond how they’re both brunette, have beautiful eyes and a smile unlike any ever seen before. But maybe that resemblance is enough. Boy, is she pretty. And even now I still don’t feel I know what she ever really thought of me. Sure, she was the one who came and met me for dinner the night I was laid off and through the years we spent much time talking about all sorts of things in life but even now I still wonder if I was just a joke to her, the way it probably sometimes seemed like certain men were just jokes to Elizabeth Taylor. I still can’t quite decide. And I still want to know how, when I used a quote from THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA as the status on my Facebook page that time she was the first person to chime in with a response just a few minutes later indicating that she got the reference. I really don’t get that. She also replied, “Captain Howdy said no” when I quoted from a certain other more famous film but that wasn’t as much of a surprise. But she knew a lot about many other things as well, about books, music, art, the world and she certainly knew how to send my mind to places I could never possibly predict. And come to think of it, she never did give me back that DVD of ROMANCING THE STONE I lent her. Sure, I sort of said she could keep it but I thought we were just kidding. I didn’t know that she’d really move away with it maybe because I thought that as the Audrey Hepburn in this scenario I’d concocted she would eventually realize that I was the George Peppard in all this, the writer who lived in the same building that was always ready to talk at all hours and she’d finally come to this conclusion in an alley in the middle of a rainstorm. Or something like that. But these romantic comedies in real life never do seem to end well, do they. I can’t bring myself to fully express what I think of her here. Or maybe there just doesn’t seem to be much point anymore. I mention all this because like it seems to happen with people sometimes there was one movie that she mentioned she would like to find that was a favorite, namely the 1954 Elizabeth Taylor vehicle RHAPSODY. She never said why and while it’s possible she was just kidding about it I don’t think so. And now I’ve seen the movie, spending every single scene trying to figure out whatever sort of connection she might have made to it and even now, I’m still wondering.
Wealthy and beautiful Louise “Lulu” Durant (Elizabeth Taylor) is living a carefree life of luxury with her father Nicholas (Louis Calhern) in the South of France when she impulsively announces to him that she has fallen in love with promising violinist Paul Bronte (Vittorio Gassman) and that she will be going off with him to the conservatory in Zurich where he studies, joining him as she studies piano for herself but really her main goal is to marry him. Her father, while not forbidding her action, expresses skepticism that she knows what she is doing which seems to be confirmed when she finds that things in Zurich don’t go quite as she planned with Paul spending most of his time practicing and not paying attention to her. She is determined to make things work however but as Paul’s star begins to rise and pianist James Guest (John Ericson) expresses interest as well Louise needs to decide what really matters to her in this world.
It’s kind of sweet that this girl I knew seemed to like this film so much and maybe in some kind of FAHRENHEIT 451 sort of way it’s nice to imagine someone out there who feels passion for every single one of those movies that have been forgotten about, with only some scattered VHS copies out there to confirm they really exist. And maybe she’s not even the only one who feels this way since one comment left where the trailer can be found on Youtube is from someone who calls it “The best film I have ever seen!” That said, even the lengthiest Taylor bios written seem to dispense with RHAPSODY in less than a page, pretty much lumping it in with other such vehicles MGM crammed her into around this time and the actress herself wasn’t all that fond of the film either. And though I’m really no expert on this particular type of MGM romance filmed in glorious Technicolor the basic formula seems apparent enough that there probably isn’t all that much to RHAPSODY that would cause it to stand out from the pack aside from all that music, of which there is quite a bit of (“Melodic interludes bolster soaper” declares Maltin in his two-and-a-half star review). In its broad strokes, the melodrama is fairly standard and it’s certainly not the sort of Douglas Sirk-type approach that would come a few years later and take full advantage of toying with expectations or even doing something interesting with its leading lady. But then again, that’s really not what RHAPSODY is trying to do anyway.
With a screenplay by Fay and Michael Kanin (Adaptation by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, on the novel “Maurice Guest” by Henry Handel Richardson), the film was directed by Charles Vidor, also at the helm of many other Golden Age titles—the most famous of those might be GILDA which come to think of it is a favorite of the girl in question as well (what to make of this particular connection, I really don’t know). On the one hand it’s a film about all the classical music (by Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff and others) performed by both the violinist and pianist battling for Louise’s hand who figure into the plot and for long stretches that’s all you can really focus on, particularly during some concert sequences (one for each of the men) that go on so long it’s as if the movie has forgotten about its story which may be just as well since at certain points you can pretty much see where it’s going anyway. On the other hand, it’s of course about Taylor’s character. When there’s a close-up of her it’s about what she’s feeling. When there’s a close-up of someone else it’s about what they’re feeling about her. And as much as anything it’s about her character’s own attempts to reconcile what this music does to the men in her life and how she can somehow be a part of that world and them as well. As she forgoes the luxury of the Paris she knows for the small city of Zurich where this violinist she’s fallen for is practically a king among those who already know him she discovers almost instantly that her undeniable glamour will keep people interested in her for only so long, especially when she has no particular talent for music herself. Thinking about all this and continually watching these long, loving close-ups of Elizabeth Taylor—there must have been miles of footage shot of her shot, long, dreamy close-ups of her watching the men she loves perform, playing massive emotions to the hilt sitting there during some of these concerts—I continually found myself wondering about the uncommon beauty in my own life who professed to love this film and maybe how she related to it. Was it because of her own insecurities, her own dilemma of trying to figure out what she should focus on in life? Did she identify with worrying that her own beauty wouldn’t be enough to keep people’s interest, possibly refusing to consider what she might have to offer on her own? I can make a few guesses but while a few possible similarities come to mind between her and the character of Louise (as well as the legendary actress playing her) I think I’ll keep certain things to myself. But as for my own connection to this girl I suppose I kept picturing myself as the equivalent of the piano player who falls for Louise, a humorless block of wood with zero self esteem and who dreams one day of being good enough for her. Things haven’t worked out quite as well for me. I’ve written at least one script about her in the past and there’s always the fear I’ll write another, but there isn’t the same sort of MGM to fit these dreams into. And as of now, there’s no longer an Elizabeth Taylor either. Everything ends.
Along with being about endless close-ups of its star, RHAPSODY acknowledges the balance an artist needs to find when it comes to achieving what they want. Sometimes all you need is the glory that you achieve for yourself. But sometimes the only way you can express yourself is to be doing it with someone else in mind as well. And maybe the middle ground in all that, according to where the film goes, is where the most passionate kind of expression of all can emerge from. The emotional dilemma is appropriately earnest for this type of soapy film, the journey of a gorgeous young woman who is willing to give everything up for a man because she ‘needs to be needed’, but quickly realizes that to stay with him means she’s going to be nothing more than an appendage. And it’s all done in that patented MGM house style, obviously never leaving the backlot in Culver City, with exquisite camerawork, everyone including the extras looking perfect and the single room rented by the leads in a boarding house that looks to be the size of a hotel suite. And of course the star of the film, the reason it exists, is always made up to the nines, always looking as beautiful as she could possibly be. There are considerable flaws in the script including how it can’t seem to think of anything else for her to do other than provide inspiration to one of these men, even if putting aside her own self-interests accomplishes more than just having lunches with her father in St. Moritz, and when the pianist James begins to play a greater role in her life after she’s been rejected by Paul during the second half it’s not all that clear why he turns to booze in lieu of his music or anything else—is it just bitterness over how she still loves Paul? Is it his own fears of not being as good as him? Maybe it’s some combination, I guess, but it feels muddied and ultimately causes where the plot goes to not be as satisfying as it should be since he barely seems to have earned Louise’s attention. RHAPSODY is kind of lumpy and unfocused so I can imagine how after making something like A PLACE IN THE SUN with Montgomery Clift and George Stevens there probably wasn’t much at all here to challenge Taylor as an actress. Still, it has a certain amount of old Hollywood charm to its Technicolor lushness and over-the-top emotions so it isn’t really doing anyone any harm. If somebody I’ve been lucky to know in my life has a certain attachment to this film for whatever reason I can’t bring myself to dislike it all that much.
It’s Elizabeth Taylor’s film and she knows how to sell every emotion of this spoiled rich girl trying to find a place for her among these men but who ultimately proves herself to be stronger than either of the two men in her life basically because she’s Elizabeth Taylor. She’s very much a movie star here and she's certainly more interesting than those men ever are—Vittorio Gassmann sells his Mediteranian charisma as well as the ultimate self-interest of his character while John Ericson’s stiffness may be appropriate at times but still doesn’t make for the most charismatic personality to root for. Let’s just say that Taylor had better chemistry with a number of other actors she worked with over the years and, if anything, both actors certainly sell the illusion that they’re actually performing this music which turns out to be the most impressive part of both their performances. As Louise’s father, Louis Calhern is aided by a script that makes him much more sympathetic that the strict patriarch usually seen in this sort of film and the actor is good enough that I don’t automatically think of him as Trentino in DUCK SOUP every time he comes on. That will be what I always remember him from, though, but there’s nothing really wrong with that.
For the record, RHAPSODY is now available at the Warner Archive (I think I may have once told her this) and it also turns up on TCM occasionally but, no surprise, it’s not included in the day long tribute that they have scheduled. But the legend of Elizabeth Taylor will live on, even if most people never hear of this film. A film that I would never have thought to see if not for her, if RHAPSODY says anything it’s that certain women in our lives are worth loving, just as much as loving whatever it is that we do. And if we lose them, well, that’s one type of The End filmed in Hollywood, USA that’s no fun at all. There are more films I would have liked to have shown this girl, more things in life I would have liked to have told her. More I would have liked her to have told me. I was going through some stuff the other day when I found a copy of “Where The Wild Things Are” that she once gave to me as a gift. Inside she inscribed my name adding, “Never grow up! Thank you for being so incredible!” I pretty much sat there for the next hour or so just staring at that. The book is still sitting beside me as I write this now and it’ll probably remain there for the time being, maybe for as long as I’ll wonder if it’s her whenever I see a black VW bug drive by. You don’t forget about such a woman, whether it’s Elizabeth Taylor at her most beautiful or someone you’ve been fortunate to know in real life, forever remembering what it was like to have her look at you and smile. If you have that, I suppose you know what it’s really like to be alive.
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
Sometimes it’s like arguing over James Bond movies really does no one any good. We all have our own preferences, our own dislikes and they each are for our own reasons. Part of this is purely sentimental, having to do with recollections of the first one our parents took us to or whatever. Which is fine. And it’s just a fact that, for me, the early 80s Roger Moore entries were probably my first real exposure to the series, not counting the old intros on the ABC Sunday Night Movie. There were probably multiple viewings of FOR YOUR EYES ONLY on cable and, as a matter of fact, the 1983 OCTOPUSSY was the first one I ever saw in a theater. I’m actually old enough that my first Bond could have come earlier so that I wasn’t ever taken to one before then is a little surprising to me. When I was a kid I was mostly just interested in comedies but even so, you’d think my parents would have thought I might enjoy MOONRAKER or something. But hey, they took me to RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK on its opening weekend when I had no idea what that was so looking back on it now I cut them some slack. Many people out there probably prefer the larger-than-life approach of the two entries directed by Lewis Gilbert, THE SPY WHO LOVED ME and MOONRAKER, with their world domination plots, Richard Kiel’s Jaws and giant Ken Adam sets and sure, I’ll sit through those any old time. But I suppose the slightly grittier straightforward adventure stories of the three with Roger Moore directed by John Glen that followed, each with a fairly serious nature leavened at times by Moore-era silliness are, for me, as comforting as a warm blanket, making me feel all is right in the Bond world in a way I can’t even fully describe. I’m not saying they’re the best. I’m not even saying they’re my personal favorites of the series. I’m just saying that deep down they mean something to me and if that forces me to admit to some affection for the hated A VIEW TO A KILL, which I’ve done before anyway, that’s the way it’s going to have to be.
As for OCTOPUSSY, my fondness for it is such that when I saw the American Cinematheque was running it at the Egyptian on a double bill with THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN as part of an ongoing John Barry tribute (made for a nice Maud Adams pairing as well, with the actress appearing in person between them) I kind of had to go, mainly to see it for the first time in a theater since it opened way back in June 1983. And I still like the film now, even if I’m aware of certain minor drawbacks. Every Bond has some problems mixed in with its good points and OCTOPUSSY is no different but there are enough things about it that work—actually, there are a refreshingly large amount of things that work—that I’m perfectly glad to continue speaking in its favor. And since we’re probably all finished snickering about the title after being used to it for nearly thirty years, I suppose we can focus on the positives by now.
Soon after agent 009 is found killed while fleeing East Berlin with a suspiciously fake Royal Faberge egg on him, James Bond 007 (Roger Moore) is enlisted to aid the Universal Exports art expert (good to know they have one) in investigating when such an egg turns up for auction at Sotheby’s in an attempt to identify the seller. At the auction Bond becomes suspicious of Prince Kamal Khan (Louis Jordan), who seems particularly interested in bidding on the item and, also intrigued by the beautiful Magda (Kristina Wayborn) who accompanies the prince, immediately decides to book the next flight to India (“Yes, I’ve got 55 minutes to make that flight, sir.”) and trail Khan where he soon learns of the Prince’s involvement with rogue Russian General Orlov (Steven Berkoff). Eventually Bond’s investigation leads him beyond simply the egg and its replicas, right to the heart of the smuggling ring in the person of Octopussy (Maud Adams) the mysterious, alluring head of the organization who lives in a palace on her own island where there are apparently no men allowed. She and Bond hit it off immediately but when an attempt on their lives results in what she mistakenly believes to be Bond’s death he uses the opportunity to track Octopussy and her circus troupe back to East Berlin. There he eventually learns that Khan and Orlov’s final goal leads to far beyond simple smuggling and could possibly result in the deaths of thousands along with eventually a shifting of power in Eastern Europe.
Just mentioning that I saw this particular double bill on my Facebook page resulted in a thread of people debating them, some preferring one and some the other, with at least one person chiming in to wonder why we had anything good to say about either film at all. Probably a diehard Connery fan, I’m guessing. For me, while THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN has some enjoyable quirks and nice travelogue bits that stood out on the big screen more than they ever had while watching the film at home, it never seems very interested in the possibilities of its own story, whether it’s that damn Solex device the climax gets centered around or even knowing to take full advantage of the character of Scaramanga, as great as it is to see Christopher Lee in a Bond film. Framed in a flat 1.85 ratio instead of 2.35 for reasons I’ve never understood, the production even seems cheaper than usual, almost like a TV show, and while the print screened at the Egyptian was fine this is one of those movies that will only ever look so good. Coming second, with the huge Egyptian screen widened out for Scope and shown in a very nice print, the John Glen-directed OCTOPUSSY (his second of the series) feels like a more expansive film right from the get go with the right sort of luxury and sumptuousness brought forth that is absolutely appropriate for a Bond film. The action scenes are well-staged, tightly assembled and the lavish feel that sells how we’re journeying to an exotic land plays totally right--the storybookland portrayal of India certainly has nothing to do with reality but it does lend the film its own unusual feel. The film was being made at the same time as the rogue Bond entry NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN that returned Sean Connery to the famous role but missed its hoped-for summer release over production difficulties which are at times apparent in that film. In comparison, OCTOPUSSY has the vibe of a well-oiled machine that makes it feel like the people making it are doing everything possible to make this feel like a pure, uncut James Bond film, with all of the extravagance that implies as well as being one with its own unique quirks.
I’ve said before that FOR YOUR EYES ONLY plays as a near classic hurt maybe by the absence of one dynamite sequence in its second half, something which is interestingly kind of reversed here. For its first hour OCTOPUSSY (screenstory and screenplay by George MacDonald Fraser and Richard Maibaum & Michael G. Wilson, with a few elements from Fleming taken from the stories “Octopussy” and “The Property of a Lady”) is pleasant, enjoyable, diverting, with just the right touches of jet-set elegance coming from the Sotheby’s auction house sequence and our introduction to the luxury palaces of India. There are some decent action sequences—a chase through an Indian marketplace and a MOST DANGEROUS GAME-riff with Bond being chased by Khan and his people through the jungle—along with a particular briskness to the (Cuban-set?) teaser which contains some of the film’s most memorable imagery and is so quick, exciting and to the point watching it now I couldn’t help but be surprised that it was all over before the eight-minute mark. The film even displays a clever appreciation for the Bond of years past with that backgammon scene reminiscent of the way Goldfinger cheated at cards and how Maud Adams plays her first scene with her face amusingly obscured Blofeld-style. It’s all very nice and enjoyable throughout that first half, yet the vibe may be almost a little too pleasant by a certain point and the pacing does begin to lag. But almost as if the film is aware that it needs to hold our attention things begin picking up once the titular character of Octopussy begins to figure into things and once she’s very much a part of the plot the final forty-five minutes turn into a nonstop succession of action scenes with tension continually mounting as the story moves back towards Berlin and Bond has to race against a ticking clock to prevent something unspeakably horrible from happening. As he moves from cars to trains and into a certain infamous clown disguise all the elements combined play as hugely impressive with director Glen keeping the frame active throughout utilizing elements like that yo-yo blade with great effectiveness. Plus, for me having various characters racing around inside a train and fighting on top of it is just the sort of thing I love in a film like this, what can I say. The complete film doesn’t work quite as well as FOR YOUR EYES ONLY and in some ways is a more mild effort as well, maybe a somewhat deliberate pulling back from the nastiness of that effort as if they wanted to resist going too far in that direction (which the series ultimately did anyway, but that’s another story). But like what the films seemed to be doing during this stage which I always think of as Moore’s elder statesman period there seems to be an emphasis on Bond having to use his wits more than usual, pulling back from the near fantastical elements of the ones that Lewis Gilbert directed. The single biggest gadget in the film is that mini plane used during the teaser and even though Q has a somewhat enlarged role this time out being sent to India to work with Bond (although I doubt Desmond Llewelyn actually went there himself) there’s no one crucial gadget that the plot winds up turning on, which is frankly fine with me. I admit that I like when Bond is more stripped down like this, forcing the character to figure out what to do on his own and it makes things that much more suspenseful.
It’s even the rare Bond film to resist killing off its secondary girl when her plot function is basically completed—it’s nice to have her around anyway but in addition to taking advantage of her Wayborn's athleticism but it also means that Octopussy’s circus troupe isn’t just populated by a bunch of nameless extras and, besides, since the film isn’t just casually killing off characters as is often the case it feels like there’s a little more to be emotionally invested in this time around (interesting to compare this to the next film, A VIEW TO A KILL, which probably has more sacrificial lambs than any movie in history). And Moore’s obvious comfort with Maud Adams is evident from their very first scene—the film compresses their ease with each other by having her explain their unknown history together in the form of what is essentially the Ian Fleming short story “Octopussy” (originally published along with the short story “The Living Daylights”). It feels a little shoehorned in and the way the speech is cut feels a little like they’re trying to get through this as fast as possible but it still holds, her past makes the character part of this world and you can easily accept their immediate interest in each other, something that has to happen considering they don’t meet until past the halfway point. It’s hard to really believe that these two people have never met before, maybe a residue of her GOLDEN GUN appearance, but even so the effect it gives off seems just right.
Like just about every Bond film ever the plot isn’t quite airtight— I always kind of glaze over at the explanation of this odd criminal ring involving these beautiful women, a circus troupe and “the revival of the old Octopus cult”, I will admit. Moving things back to India for the climax feels slightly awkward but at least it does allow for the thrilling plane climax which is still impressive to look at today. And, admittedly, some of the film has that expected Moore-era goofiness, with that Tarzan yell (we really didn’t need that) and one wonders exactly how Bond manages to recognize his own theme when it’s played for him upon his arrival in India. Plus I suppose that one drawback to having the film named after one of the main characters is that we don’t get the pleasure of having somebody state the film’s name in dialogue for no particular reason. But I guess you can’t have everything and much of the film has aged pretty well with very little, aside from those garish red spandex costumes worn by some of Octopussy’s guards, causing it to feel dated at all and it just seems to exist within its own timeless exotica vibe. Sure, it crams in the 80s cold war elements as most of the Bond films generally did during this period (with the expected appearance by Walter Gotell’s General Gogol) whether it was necessary or not but here it pays off big time with the introduction of the dynamic General Orlov who as played by Steven Berkoff probably wished that the sets were even bigger so he could have more scenery to chew. His legendary “THE WEST IS DECADENT AND DIVIDED!” speech fittingly takes place in a giant Soviet war room, almost the only type of setting that could possibly contain him as he screams this and the extravagance of the set feels like the right kind of old school approach to bring to mind the 60s heyday of the series.
And as the second half gradually builds to Bond trying to track down that bomb at the U.S. air base in Germany Moore’s growing hysteria is almost surprising considering how Bond barely seems to bat an eye even when a secondary character gets killed off in certain movies (such as what had already been seen that night in THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN, to name one). Sure, he’s trying to save his own skin here as well but where Connery would have upped the anger if he’s ever done such a scene the Moore version of Bond, famously buried under that clown makeup which adds an extra twist to things, plays the total desperation and is probably more emotional here than the character ever had been seen before (or since, probably). Maybe this grounded sense with stakes that seem absolutely believable even on the pulp level of the Bond series is something I’ve always responded to and maybe it just affects part of what I always find myself responding to in the series as a whole. I suppose I’m fine with the goofiness but would still like some seriousness to my pulp instead of the camp that gets emphasized in certain entries which may be why I’ve never been as crazy about THE SPY WHO LOVED ME as the rest of the world seems to be. OCTOPUSSY isn’t in the top ranks of the Bond films but the right sort of tonal balance is maintained throughout so discovering how well it still played returning to it now was somewhat gratifying. Maybe it was the summer release, but the film wound up doing better business than the unofficial NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN ($67 million to $55 million—in fact, no other Bond film did as well until the release of 1995’s GOLDENEYE) and for me OCTOPUSSY has aged much better as well. NEVER SAY NEVER has its qualities but momentum isn’t one of them and just as a pure James Bond film with the right amount of action and suspense OCTOPUSSY wins hands down. For me, something about the effect it gives off is just kind of endearing.
Yeah, Roger Moore’s getting older here. And so what. I still enjoy watching him in this film, as clearly bemused and enjoying himself as he is at times. He even seems more engaged by the various actors he’s working with this time around than he has on occasion and he knows to totally kill all pretense at the lightness when things begin to look grace—it feels like they deliberately pulled back from the ruthlessness displayed at some points in FOR YOUR EYES ONLY, but the seriousness is certainly there. Maud Adams was maybe never the greatest actress but I’ve always had a certain fondness for her maybe because she got to be in two of these movies. She exudes the right kind of intriguing elegance as Octopussy, not seen until more than an hour in, with a certain amount of assertiveness to the character as well so whenever she’s onscreen I don’t mind it one bit. Watching them back to back makes it clear that Adams is much more effective here than she was as Andrea Anders in GOLDEN GUN, which makes me wonder how much more John Glen was attentive to her needs as director than Guy Hamilton was. (Someone even asked about the differences between the two men during the Q&A, but her answer didn’t shed very much light on things. The discussion was pleasant but uneventful. She seems like a nice woman.) Louis Jordan maintains the right kind of evil smarminess throughout as Khan, relishing every ounce of his dialogue and making it clear that no one is more amused to say the name “Octopussy” than he. His sly style is just the right counterpoint to Berkoff’s manic ravings and maybe because this film is slightly forgotten about at times it feels like these are a few of the more underappreciated Bond villains in the run of the series—seriously, why hasn’t Steven Berkoff gotten a statue erected in his honor for his performance as Orlov? Kristina Wayborn manages to combine her acrobatic playfulness with a touch of alluring gravity to her presence and I’m kind of surprised she didn’t wind up as a regular on a nighttime soap after this-she’s definitely pleasing to the eye and even when she’s essentially an extra in the second half she still has a definite screen presence. Tennis pro Vijay Amritraj smiles genially and gives Bond shoulder rubs as trusted Indian contact Vijay (they went to a lot of trouble choosing that name—there are tennis jokes as well) and, among the various regulars who appear, Robert Brown makes his first of four appearances as “M”.
And since he was really who was being paid tribute to that night I should mention John Barry’s score, which maintains an exotic vibe as we travel through India and along with the expected use of the James Bond Theme he hits just the right tone for the B action motif which recurs throughout—I suppose that deep down to me this seems like the perfect music for Roger Moore to fight to. I don’t even really mind the Rita Coolidge-performed main theme “All Time High” (unsurprisingly, no mention of the title in the lyrics) and this seems like one of those times where a softer Bond theme seems to actually go with the movie almost as if it’s the musical equivalent of the cool glamour that Maud Adams exudes. During this viewing I also found myself fixated on a particularly lovely instrumental of that theme which pops up during Bond’s outdoor dinner with Magda—the cue is unfortunately not on the soundtrack album but there’s something about the vibe it gives off which has the right kind of elegance that I somehow connect with my own memories of seeing movies like this when they were first released way back when. It’s a comforting feeling which reminds me how I was affected by them at the time and what I think of them now, with some of these movies forever being projected in the back of my head as I return to the multiplexes of my childhood in some dream I barely remember. Of course, there are times when certain films are probably best left in memory but when I return to something like OCTOPUSSY in a theater once again I’m reminded that some of them really were pretty good after all, even when it's something like this one which is kind of a silly, minor thing to defend. Or maybe it really isn’t silly or minor at all because in a way that I can only partly understand this is a film that still means something to me. And I suppose it always will.
Sunday, March 20, 2011
Gator McKluskey has just learned that his brother was killed by the crooked sheriff over in Bogan County. Sure, Gator is doing time in an Arkansas prison for moonshine but so what—he overpowers a guard and to the thumping power of that Charles Bernstein track Quentin Tarantino used in both KILL BILL VOL. 1 and INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS makes his way for the fence. Gator doesn’t make it out of there, of course, but soon enough he’s made a deal with the Feds that sets him loose, ready for revenge as he sets off in the car they’ve given him. As we hold on the star in a big, shining close-up as he clearly revels in being behind the wheel once again, Gator takes off his jacket and tie, beginning to relax. He smiles as the car radio plays, guns the engine and just for the hell of it, leads some cops on a chase. Shortly after that, he stops off in the local town to chat with some cute girls who are excited to see him. As Gator acts all charming and everything the dialogue fades low and the music comes up because what’s being said isn’t important—we just know that Burt Reynolds as Gator McKluskey is definitely the man and from here on we’re going to be with him every step of the way. Since Tarantino has used music from it in two of his films now (a little more the second time around) it’s no surprise that Joseph Sargent’s 1973 action movie WHITE LIGHTNING was one of the films programmed in his March Madness festival at the New Beverly Cinema. The other movie on this bill was the Jeff Bridges-starrer THE LAST AMERICAN HERO, making for a fun night with lots of car chases, lots of moonshine and lots of Ned Beatty who appears in both films (beautiful print on the second film as well, my first ever viewing of that one). Tarantino wasn’t there to introduce the pairing the night I went—when he does show up he likes to keep things on the down low, not announcing it beforehand—but getting to see something like WHITE LIGHTNING on the big screen was more than enough.
As I was saying about the plot, when Gator McKluskey (Burt Reynolds, clean shaven), breezily doing time for moonshine, doesn’t make it over that fence searching for revenge (“No sheriff is gonna kill any brother of mine.”) he makes a deal to go undercover for the feds to expose corrupt Bogan County Sheriff J.C. Conners (Ned Beatty) and reveal the names of others who are trafficking in moonshine over in that county as well. He soon teams up with contact man Dude Watson (Matt Clark) as well as trusted Roy Boone (Bo Hopkins) but even as Gator starts to get friendly with Roy’s girl Lou (Jennifer Billingsley) he begins to feel conflicted over what he’s supposed to be doing about the people he meets as he makes his deliveries. Meanwhile, the sheriff is on to Gator and he’s determined to keep things in his town the way they are any way he can.
With literally dozens of film & TV credits to his name, director Joseph Sargent made WHITE LIGHTNING the year before he helmed the classic THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE, a movie that depicts its New York City with a similar kind of vividness that the south of WHITE LIGHTNING, filmed entirely on location on Arkansas, is portrayed. While there isn’t any direct line to draw between the two films as I was watching it this time it occurred to me how the extremely vivid sense of place that connects both films makes them stand out in their own way, adding to the enormous rewatchability each film has maybe more than anything else. I’ve seen PELHAM countless times through the years and its very New Yorkness is something I connect with instantly down to my bones every single time. Now, the most time I’ve ever spent in the South has been when passing through so for me watching WHITE LIGHTNING is practically like watching a foreign film in comparison. While I can’t speak to the degree of authenticity to the world it presents, one where the lead character offhandedly comments “Lee’s a lot better than Grant” at one point, what is portrayed feels so vivid, so accurate that I wonder if I’d grown up there instead I may have become as addicted to it as I’ve always been to that movie set in a New York subway. There’s a lived in quality to every single scene in WHITE LIGHTNING, written by William W. Norton, that feels organic to where the story is set in a way that you don’t often get from movies that have far greater ambitions than this one ever does. Even some of the specific locations are at times striking, like the house with a porch that overlooks a cemetery and the action scenes consistently make interesting use out of wherever the cars are speeding through. It’s this feeling that makes the movie and the actors fit into this place in a way that seems so natural that I can believe that these guys were really out going around delivering moonshine while the crew set up for the next scene. I suppose WHITE LIGHTNING is an action movie and some of the car chases are pretty great but what I took from it more was the vibe of just these characters in scenes together, sweating as much as they do—there’s a lot of sweat in this movie, a LOT of sweat, all the more noticeable on the big screen. The plot never quite kicks into gear as much as it seems it will at first, with no one showing up to remind Gator if his mission or anything like that and any conflict the character seems to be going through about informing on the people he’s getting to know seems to be only brushed on, forgotten about if you go for popcorn refills. The plot turn of what Gator does after briefly meeting somebody who once knew his dad is so tossed off it could be easily missed. Just the casual nature of the moment where Reynolds plays the scene with this bit player sticks with me more than what he decides to do afterward and ultimately it’s things like that in addition to the car chases which stay with me most of all when I think about the movie.
Like I said, I have no particular first-hand affinity for the south but this sort of honest depiction, even if it is just for a popcorn movie, feels totally missing from movies today. Everyone in the film, even the bad guys, is totally and believably human (no lame good ol’ boy stereotypes here), sometimes making asides about offscreen events that aren’t completely explained and have nothing to do with the plot but it makes everything seem that much richer. It’s an earnest depiction of these people and the place, with odd touches like those students in the cafe who seem slightly confused by Gator’s momentary interest in them as well as the unexpected innocence shown by the interest in Gator from those girls at that home for unwed mothers where he’s brought to recover and in never seems smarmy in the slightest. It’s not a case of presenting this Arkansas as a better way of life in a glory-of-the-south kind of way especially with this Sheriff who is worried about integration and the hippies coming to teach in the schools, it just feels casual and matter of fact. This is a bad guy who we hate from the moment we first see him in the opening scene but he’s not some master villain with a big plan--he just wants to keep lording over his district the way he always has without the Feds getting in the way and some of the undercurrent to all this feels like it could even be taking place today. WHITE LIGHTNING isn’t a great movie and it’s not even all that slick a movie—some of the conflict just kind of drifts away in the end a little more than I’d like and compared to the moody day-for-night photography I pointed out recently in DARK OF THE SUN, when it’s used here it comes off looking like bad lab work on the big screen (definitely not the New Beverly’s fault—aside from this, the print looked just fine) and it’s almost impossible to tell what’s going on during this section. A handful of what look like editorial shortcuts during some action scenes indicate that the film didn’t have all that big a budget but the most memorable stunt involving Gator’s car trying to reach a certain barge is so effective—and one that was apparently a mistake—that it manages to work almost better than if the stunt had gone perfectly. Sometimes those accidents are the moments that work best.
But even with some flaws, it’s the charisma of the character of Gator McKluskey that sells the film along with the down and dirty excitement of all those car chases. Considering how much Bo Hopkins resembles Jerry Reed (granted, a more serious version of Jerry Reed) and that this is a film about Burt Reynolds going up against a southern Sheriff the film does come off as a more serious, dry run for SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT but its earnestness makes it seem like it’s aimed more specifically at this market than the broad laughs of the SMOKEY films. It even allows for some quiet moments near the end, as Gator comes to a realization how little he really knew his brother and how he was the only one who ever tried to accomplish anything in his family. What the hell does it mean, Gator asks, and he never comes up with an answer, unless it’s simply to have one final chase with Ned Beatty. Maybe all that matters is that he came to a point where he was able to ask. Not exactly something you’d expect from a car chase picture called WHITE LIGHTNING. At one point early on Gator tells the Sheriff that there are only two things in the world he’s scared of—women and the police, to be specific. Bandit probably wasn’t afraid of anything and in some ways it makes the more human, flawed Gator McKluskey that much cooler. Bandit would probably never need my help in a jam but the less perfect Gator would. And if there were ever some weird circumstances where I found myself down in rural Arkansas in the 70s, I’d be proud to try to lend him a hand.
Damn right Burt Reynolds is Gator McKluskey and he’s pretty great, a total star every second he’s onscreen making every moment counts whether during the action scenes or the quiet moments. Sometimes Burt overdoes things with that laugh of his and all that, but here it always plays as just right. Ned Beatty is just amazing, totally believable during every moment and painting a portrayal of bland, lived-in evil in a way that you rarely ever get—the complete and total opposite of Buford T. Justice, it probably goes without saying. Jennifer Billingsley almost comes off as a peripheral character who becomes the main love interest out of nowhere, as if the actress herself has decided to drift to the center of the frame and the movie just decided to roll with it. When she brings breakfast out to Gator I can’t remember ever noticing a female lead’s dirty felt more than I notice hers. It’s a touch that only adds to the sexiness she oozes—she seems real, she seems like she’s really a part of this place. It’s a terrific cast all around, featuring strong work from Bo Hopkins, Matt Clark, Diane Ladd (billed as Diane Lad), Louise Latham, Dabs Greer and R.G. Armstrong who has a particularly funny response when asked if he’d like a certain knife shoved up his ass—you bet that got a huge laugh at the New Beverly. And that’s apparently Ladd’s daughter Laura Dern, uncredited in her film debut, playing her own onscreen daughter in the background of various shots.
It was mentioned before, but there’s an undeniable full-bodied nature to that Charles Bernstein score—damn, this music has a pulse—which combines dynamic action cues with a down home, good time feel to much of it as well. The feel from those blaring horns in the more bombastic cues (like the one that turns up in both KILL BILL and BASTERDS) aren’t even all that different from the feel David Shire brought to his PELHAM score for this director, an intriguing comparison point as if he just liked the sound, one of the reasons I love films like this from the seventies. Burt Reynolds’ strong run in that decade continued along after the release of WHITE LIGHTNING which included making his directorial debut for the return to Gator McCluskey in GATOR, released three years later. I still haven’t seen that one (which Jerry Reed is actually in) but looking the film up it doesn’t seem to be as well liked. And of course there was the Bandit, which shot his stardom to a whole different level. I still like that one too. In some ways WHITE LIGHTNING does feel a little tossed off like it was never meant to be anything other than a Burt Reynolds programmer and maybe that’s all they had in mind. But getting to see it at the New Beverly it’s clear that this movie remains strong, remains fun and remains a reminder of the kind of star Burt Reynolds once was and I suppose in some ways will always be. Combining all that action with a lived-in flavor that just feels genuine it’s a movie that in the end plays out as something more than it might otherwise have been. And there’s nothing at all wrong with that, then or now.