Saturday, April 30, 2011
Only Two Routes Of Escape
You may have noticed that I haven’t been posting very much lately. I don’t know if that’s going to change any time soon. Sure, I wish I could write something about a movie several times a week but too many things are distracting me lately. Money running out, no sign of a job. Fun stuff like that. I’m really not sure what I’m going to do right now. The other day I had the idea that I should just stop writing this blog once and for all. A few times I even decided how that was exactly what I was going to do and since I’m just a few away from my 500th post I guess the perversity of the idea kind of appealed to me. Sure, it would be nice to accomplish hitting number 500 but anyone who knows me could tell you that I've never been much for accomplishing things. Some time ago I’d even picked out the movie that I wanted to write about for that 500th post, something I love, something that in writing about it would have been, for me, a total celebration of the joy of cinema. Now I wonder if that's ever going to get done. The other night I posted the question on Twitter and got quite a few people saying I shouldn’t quit, including some who actually make their living as writers, which was honestly more than a little flattering. But considering that writing this blog is just about the only thing I have going for me at all right now the very notion that I’m thinking about ending it probably indicates that stuff is going on. And I don’t want to stop writing it. I’m just not sure I can do it. So what do I do? I don’t know. Right now I guess I’m trying to write something to see if I can still write about anything.
I’ve lost track of James Toback's career in recent years but I’ve long had an interest in his work partly because of the intensely personal nature of much of it and partly because of some of what I’ve learned about the man from his own published diaries, particularly the one that was featured in the filmmakers on filmmaking forum “Projections 4” which documents his various activities during 1994 detailing his life, insecurities and projects that were in development during that time, several of which closely involved Warren Beatty. What he nakedly reveals here about who he is, even more than his films ever do, was something that on occasion through the years I would find myself re-reading certain sections of while looking for inspiration towards my own writing. Near the beginning of his 1983 film EXPOSED the writer/director himself appears as a college professor (he perfectly casts himself as a pretentious liberal arts snob) lecturing how the western world is breaking down and how there are only two routes of escape from that world—art and romantic love. About as blatant a case of stating a film’s themes flat out at the top (there’s also some notations on TOUCH OF EVIL on the blackboard behind him which, considering the plot of EXPOSED, intrigues me), being spoken by the writer/director directly to the gorgeous lead Nastassja Kinski sitting before him in that classroom who barely seems to be paying attention anyway but will soon be forging her own route of escape from her world. EXPOSED is undeniably compelling much of the time but it’s also kind of baffling partly because it seems like two or three films (or maybe more) combined into one within a fast 98 minute running time, its elements thrown together in a way which isn’t entirely satisfying. But nevertheless there is something I’ve found intriguing about it as if propelled by the intensely personal nature of what it's attempting to explore, with Toback telling the story from his own perspective as he observes the sort of woman in this world who fascinates him and how, from his perspective, those women probably feel they are viewed by the world. I felt mixed when seeing it a year or so ago but found myself looking at it again recently, maybe because a few elements are staying with me for better or for worse. The film may be slightly messy and lopsided but it definitely always has something going on even if it isn't quite always clear exactly what that is.
After we briefly witness an act of terrorism which results in the destruction of a restaurant in Paris we settle down into the story of U.S. college student Elizabeth Carlson (Nastassja Kinski, here with the first name still spelled as 'Nastassia') who has reached a point in her life where she has begun to feel like a ‘caged animal’ so she decides to leave her posh school and Wisconsin family farm behind to seek out her fortune in New York. Her wallet is stolen almost as soon as she gets there but she quickly finds a job as a waitress and soon after that she is discovered by photographer Greg Miller (Ian McShane) who promises to make her a model. Almost in a whirlwind she is world famous, making covers of magazines and jetting off to foreign locales for shoots but soon she is approached by a mysterious individual named Daniel Jelline (Rudolf Nureyev), a violinist who has something entirely different in mind for her life, leading to a path that will take her directly to a notorious terrorist known as Rivas (Harvey Keitel) who has his own ideas for Elizabeth.
Adding to the interest for me personally is how for years I always remembered EXPOSED as being the other film playing in the twin where I saw RETURN OF THE JEDI during opening week way back in ’83. This seems a little fitting since EXPOSED feels more than a little like a 70s film slightly stranded in the 80s, a strangely intense character study of a MAHOGANY-like rise to the top of the fashion world combined with a director’s (understandable) fascination with his female lead all mixed in with a terrorist plot on the outskirts of the BLACK SUNDAY/NIGHTHAWKS school as everything gets played against a backdrop of its own somewhat strange unreality (do you believe Kinski is a Wisconsin farmgirl? On the other hand, does it really matter?). It’s a film which contains a narrative that could conceivably span about four hours considering how much seems to happen along with a certain degree of filmic awkwardness evident in Toback’s direction whether in coverage or scenes played entirely in master shots as well as his own idiosyncratic tendencies like the doo wop music heard that also turns up in a few of his other films. There’s a movie somewhere in all this and it’s a really good one but I’m not sure if it’s quite the one that actually got made. The always curious Elizabeth played by Kinski navigates this world in which she is forced to deal with these men who want to dominate her, beginning with the professor played by Toback as well as her dominating father played by Ron Randell then proceeds to move up the food chain leading to the terrorist Rivas played by Keitel who of course was the Toback surrogate in FINGERS (“They all make you,” someone says to her at one point referring to all the men in their lives which could be what the film is really about as much as anything) but much of the narrative feels a little too fractured to fully succeed.
Some of this is fascinating at least partly due to Kinski and how we follow Elizabeth through her story along with how Toback uses her in the frame. In fairness, it’s hard not to be drawn into watching everything she does. Some of it is also fascinating due to the writer/director’s staunch refusal for the viewer to ever get too comfortable in any of its settings before wrenching us forward towards the next section or even stopping the narrative dead for a ten minute-plus stretch as Elizabeth gets to know the next man in her life. There are odd touches I found weirdly endearing such as Kinski and another model going to a McDonald’s in Paris to eat but too much goes unexplained--who exactly is Jelline, anyway?—and I’m not sure what to make of the bizarre notion of terrorists recruited from the modeling world which more than anything may just be a metaphor for what Elizabeth's self-made path is leading her to. The movie stops for both Nureyev and Keitel’s characters to seduce Elizabeth in their own way but the equivalent for McShane’s character feels too abbreviated and I wonder if the ambitious structure needed a stronger director to clarify some of the story points or maybe the overall narrative would simply have worked better in novel form. Or maybe that four hour version I’m imagining would clear a few things up.
Whether Toback would want to hear it or not, the best films which have his name on them are the ones which he was merely the writer on—-THE GAMBLER and BUGSY, to name a few. As a director he definitely knows how to play the dynamics of certain individual moments and there’s an undeniable feel of inevitability to everything that happens which results in a palpable feeling of dread--in this context even the shot of a Concorde landing is somehow hypnotic. And he also continually keeps the tension going with the male world forever trying to assault Elizabeth in their own way, down to a few shady street characters hassling her on occasion—these moments have a genuinely real quality as if Toback had them happen without telling the actress ahead of time. Maybe for the writer/director trying to weave all these themes together in a cohesive manner art and romantic love are actually the same, meaning that the concept of a relationship between a man and woman can be an art in itself. But in the end none of that can help her because without even knowing it she’s still trying to figure out who she is versus how she’s seen by all these men in her life. Some of this isn't as effective as it should be and if what happens between Elizabeth and Jelline is supposed to be some kind of touching romance it doesn’t work at all, playing more as someone who is brainwashing her into becoming a terrorist instead of going up against one. The climax is too abbreviated and based on what's here maybe Toback just wasn’t the sort of filmmaker to try putting together a car chase so the end leaves it all on an unresolved note but there’s the possibility that Elizabeth is finally realizing that she needs to figure out who she is, not who she is to all these men around her. It's frustrating, compelling and maybe a little fascinating. In the end, I don’t know if EXPOSED is even a film that comes together, but it feels worth seeing it again with the very slight hope that I might somehow find out. And maybe it would help me figure out certain women who I've played my own bit part in the lives of in the process.
The film itself may have its problems but none of them have to do with Nastassja Kinski who is amazing to watch every moment of the way so it's impossible not to completely fall for her as a screen presence, whether dancing with freewheeling abandon around her apartment to Betty Everett singing the Shoop Shoop Song or reacting to everything happening to her with total nonchalance. She's mesmerizing to watch and makes me wish that we could have gotten many other movies that were about nothing but her. On a very minor note it occurs to me that both this film and the following year’s remake of UNFAITHFULY YOURS contain elements that set her against the world of classical music and she certainly goes well in that glamorous milieu yet at the same time she seems somehow free enough in her behavior that I could believe she would break away from this script, storyline and everything that her director was asking of her if she were only allowed to. Rudolf Nureyev smolders with his unusual Langella-as-Dracula-like presence but while he obviously has a certain magnetism it doesn’t particularly translate to the screen (maybe Langella would have been a good idea) so it makes the big dramatic centerpiece involving his character–coming after the whirlwind plotting the movie basically halts for this ten minute scene as she gets to know him and while that sounds intriguing in theory it causes everything about the film to pretty much stop dead, turning this film which feels like the narrative equivalent of a game of 52 pick up in how it’s been edited to fall to pieces for too long a stretch. It rises up again when Keitel enters the picture late in the game and even if his terrorist doesn’t seem like it has much to do with real life—good as he is, there’s an unmistakable tinge of ‘special guest star Harvey Keitel’--the actor is extremely strong in his role, making what isn't all that logical totally compelling nevertheless. With such lopsided plotting coming from the story it feels like certain characters are introduced and then seemingly dropped from things before they’ve ever really been established or even allowed to make much of an impression, like Ian McShane’s photographer and James Russo’s restaurant manager. On the other hand Bibi Andersson brings a great deal of emotion to her small role near the beginning as Elizabeth’s mother, seeming like she’s in the middle of playing the lead role in her own film that we never get to see. Familiar faces that appear during the New York sections include Murray Moston of TAXI DRIVER and AFTER HOURS (“I could go to a party. Get drunk. Tell someone. Who knows?”) as a hotel manager and Tony Sirico of later SOPRANOS fame as a shoplifter in a record store.
As I write this I think about how EXPOSED may not be all that successful a film but as I write about it more, I find myself watching sections of it more and I gain in appreciation in how this movie really is its own unique piece of work, something I genuinely, truly respect. I'd gladly watch the entire thing again right now. And it gets me to remember that in some ways it’s more challenging, more rewarding to write about such movies that are problematic (some, like this one, still unreleased on DVD) than the ones which work perfectly—lately I’ve been trying to make my way through writing about NETWORK in a tribute to Sidney Lumet but really, what is there to criticize about NETWORK? EXPOSED may be flawed but it is valid as a creative work, valid enough anyway that I find myself watching it several times to try to figure out just what the hell it is. “You watch movies as you write about them, the more you become aware of how good they are. Or, sometimes, the flaws that hold them back.” That was something I wrote on Twitter a few nights ago out of nowhere when feeling particularly frustrated by everything going on (I’d maybe had a few drinks beforehand, but can you blame me?). Something else I wrote that night read “I can be as fascinated by bad movies as much as anyone. But I want to love movies. I want to inhale them like crack while I love them.” In some ways I suppose that EXPOSED and RETURN OF THE JEDI, along with all films that would conceivably fall in between those two, are always playing in the twin cinema in my brain as I forever try to work them out. And I want to keep on exploring them. I want to keep inhaling these movies as much as possible and in order to do that I have to (and genuinely want to) keep writing all this. So I’m not going to stop and I don't think there's any way that I possibly could. But I may have to ease up on all this, maybe for a period not write as much as I sometimes have, while I try to figure out my life. And maybe I’ll get to no. 500 yet. After all, as it's sometimes been said, there are always possibilities.