Tuesday, May 31, 2011
When you think about it, what does it matter what a person says about a movie anyway. Maybe it matters a lot, maybe I write all this because I’m always trying to figure out what exactly some of these movies mean to me. Why I connect with them. Why I’m moved by them. Why I’m fascinated by some of them. Why I need to see some of them over and over. Sometimes I see a film for the first time and I actually don’t want to try to break it down, instead I’d rather just let it linger in my brain, to see if anything about the movie is going to stick. And I wonder if some of these films just shouldn’t be analyzed at all. And there’s Brian De Palma’s 2002 thriller FEMME FATALE, which seems almost designed to be analyzed as much as possible and yet the very idea of that seems almost seems pointless, ludicrous as if the movie should be taken just the way it is no matter what you think of it. Sometimes I see the film mentioned among De Palma’s worst and I suppose I sort of get it considering certain revelations regarding the nature of what’s going on. I understand why people get so upset about it and if you’ve seen it you probably do too, whatever your own feelings are. As the years have gone on, the overriding arc of Brian De Palma’s films have seemed to move from the cynicism of his younger days into a more romantic, hopeful view through the prism of his recurring themes where what was once futile is allowed to have a brighter outlook and FEMME FATALE feels to me like a culmination of everything he has explored through his films, both the ones he also wrote and otherwise. It’s very carefully controlled even for him and yet it feels completely to me like the work of a free man, unencumbered by the necessities of ‘plot’ as if he’s realizing at long last why he wanted to make movies in the first place. No surprise, it pretty much did zero at the box office when first released but no matter what some people out there seem to think of it, as time goes on the more I feel certain that there are few films that I love quite as much as this one. In fact, I think it’s pretty close to being perfect. And that’s just the way it’s going to have to be. Maybe I’m wired differently. Maybe I’m wired wrong. Those who have seen it may understand that it has a story which is difficult to synopsize with any real coherence but, really, why should such a thing be a prerequisite, anyway? And what does it matter why you love a particular movie?
The beautiful Laure Ash (Rebecca Romijn, then still with the ‘Stamos’ in her name) is a key component in a jewel heist taking part in the Cannes Film Festival. The job ends with her double-crossing several of her colleagues but although she gets away she is stranded in Paris without a passport. After an unnerving encounter with a pesky photographer named Nicolas Bardo (Antonio Banderas) who takes a sudden interest in her Laure suddenly finds herself confused for a woman who looks exactly like her, one who has recently undergone a horrific tragedy in her own life. Using the resemblance to her advantage, Laure takes the woman’s passport and recently purchased plane ticket to the U.S. and leaves. On the plane in the guise of the grieving woman she meets a wealthy American businessman named Bruce Hewitt Watts (Peter Coyote) who begins to comfort her as she breaks down in phony tears. Cut to seven years later--Laure is now Lily, married to Watts who has just been named the U.S. ambassador to France which forces her to return to the country for the first time since the job just as her past is rising up to seek her out once again and that very same photographer is about to get much more than he bargained for in this next encounter...
There’s no way to write out some of that plot, let alone the points that I haven’t covered, without acknowledging how most of it sounds patently absurd but in the best De Palma tradition FEMME FATALE never seems to deny this, simply proceeding forward with all the screwy conviction in the world and you’re either going to get in the out-of-control car to go along with it and the risk of getting caught in a fiery wreck or you’re not. Simple as that. I suspect my own fascination with Brian De Palma’s films will never die, just as I find his stylistic thrillers that play as much as possible with structure endlessly fascinating within their bounds of experimentation, of sleaze, of filtering themes which are certainly recognizable from certain other directors through his own point of view, part satiric, part provocation and all somehow strangely meaning every single frame one hundred percent through the characters he guides through these bizarre storylines. And those figures somehow manage to stay with me through the years from the insistence of Jennifer Salt repeating “There was no body because there was no murder” at the end of SISTERS, being forever haunted by that little girl who won’t stop staring at Angie Dickinson in the elevator in DRESSED TO KILL, the earnest doofus nature of Craig Wasson in BODY DOUBLE and, of course, the torture John Travolta is forcing himself to go through at the end of BLOW OUT. Even the whining of Lolita Davidovich in RAISING CAIN, dealing with a husband who she has somehow never realized is totally insane, falls into this category and that particular film is maybe the most radical movie De Palma has ever taken towards such structural madness and even the director has stated some dissatisfaction with how that turned out. FEMME FATALE reigns in those furthest extremes somewhat back in towards an approach that is a little more deliberately structured yet somehow much more daring. In the end the overall effect is more rewarding than a few of his other films which seem to basically throw up their hands when the credits roll, aware they’re never going to give the viewer the satisfaction they would expect and in a strange way it’s much more hopeful than he maybe was willing to allow before as if he’d finally figured out a way to let in some light for the characters he was gleefully moving around like pieces on a chess board. But instead of a retreat from the basics of his style FEMME FATALE embraces every ounce of ridiculousness it can with every ounce of enthusiasm De Palma can display from laying out these sequences, of forcing us to wonder just where the hell this could all possibly lead to next. Fifteen minutes in there’s no way a first-time viewer could guess where this will all lead to by the one-hour mark and there really are very few movies that one could seriously say that about.
And more than any other of his thrillers of this ilk FEMME FATALE really does seem to hit the reset button every fifteen minutes or so as it moves on to a new section and at times to a new point of view, through the various incarnations of Laure to Nicolas Bardo and back again, water forever being poured, nothing quite explained at first. It all lays out as parts of a collage, much like that piece of art that photographer Banderas is spending years working on, as De Palma (he has sole screenplay credit) lays out this story of this beyond gorgeous blonde who wants to be this femme fatale, who believes that she as, acting as she thinks she’s supposed to up against a guy trying to atone for what he’s done but is always one step behind, just as almost every other man who falls for such a woman in every single noir ever made. De Palma takes from what he’s done before, what he’s been influenced from Hitchcock or Powell or whoever as he moves through his long takes, split screens and endless stretches of having the dialogue drop out all in his pursuit of total cinema with a complete awareness and even mockery of this level of auteur—hard not to love a film with a gag where a film gets shut off at its gala premiere the instant the director’s credit is onscreen. And it’s a style that is always aware of how he’s laying out the information and how much we’re going to register--in the DVD special features he points out one bit of business that is supposed to be a big revelation near the end yet he’s already placed it in full view right in the center of a shot without anyone realizing. Even now, getting close to a decade since it opened when I watch it I’m still discovering subtle clues and pieces of foreshadowing laid in throughout, with the 1.85 frame the director uses this time out continually active. Combining that with influences that seem to come from some unexpected places, like the fight seen entirely in shadow as the lead watches that seems like a possible reference to Minnelli’s TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN (which shares nothing in common plotwise with FEMME FATALE but it still seems like the two would make an intriguing pairing as a double bill), it all provides a continued high that is there right from the start with the approach taken to the opening heist sequence—in almost any other film starting things off with such a bravura sequence would reduce the impact of everything still to come. But FEMME FATALE is not any other film.
As the lead character referred to in the title is introduced during that heist the film drops us into as soon as the opening credits have ended we’re delayed in getting a full look at her face when instead there’s a close-up of her camera in front of it, as if an acknowledgement of how this film really will be entirely from her perspective, in every way that implies. Dropping us into this extended sequence with only the information we absolutely need to know given, scored by Ryuichi Sakamoto to a Bolero-like waltz (slyly called “Bolerish” on the soundtrack album, actually) making clear the seduction going on both within what is occurring between both the lead character and the equally stunning supermodel played by Rie Rasmussen wearing the diamonds in question as well as the seduction of the audience, getting sucked into this heist as if floating through it, with every single shot and edit emitting a sinuous elegance that rarely ever happens, that maybe only this particular director is really capable or interested in, anymore. Along with that feel is a mixture of the beauty of Paris and a few streets that probably don’t get filmed in very much—regardless, it’s an enticing look at the city and Coyote’s character going on about the things he loves in France feel like De Palma letting his own feelings be known, as if saying he’d be more than happy to make films there forever if he could.
The deadpan nature of how the narrative glides into its ‘seven years later’ section seems to sidestep any possible questioning—is this movie taking place in the future now? Has she really been pulling off such a charade this long?—almost as if it wants us to get lost in this imagery, in the deceitfulness of the character of Laure/Lily and how she twists things into her favor, particularly when she finally begins dealing with Bardo the paparazzi and gladly revealing everything about herself because she has absolutely no reason not to. And what she does deserves all that attention. You mean the motion picture camera wasn’t invented in the first place simply to photograph Rebecca Romijn-Stamos doing that striptease? Do you ever think that you’ll convince me otherwise? With a look brought to the film by cinematographer Thierry Arbogast that is impeccably immaculate, so sharp I feel like I could step into the frame to make a move on Laure in that sleazy club if I wasn’t so intimidated by her. The big twist near the end (I’m trying to go light on spoilers, as perverse as such a concept might be when it comes to this movie) is certainly a deal breaker for many people and again, I get why but not for me—not only is its very nature laid out within the film’s first moments but it seems absolutely consistent given the film’s theme and ultimately it twists itself into becoming the theme for pretty much Brian De Palma’s entire directorial output as well. The film is so loose, so enjoyable, it works completely and totally. FEMME FATALE is a game. It’s a waltz. It’s joyous. It’s ridiculous. Maybe I should hate it. And yet I can’t think of a single thing about it I would want to change (just to complain about something, the Warner DVD screws up some of the subtitles, including a key moment near the very end so if there’s ever a Blu-ray hopefully that will be fixed). Watching FEMME FATALE is like getting a buzz from the finest whiskey known to man only without the burden of actually drinking the booze. No hangover here—the rush from this film can stay with me for days. And I never want it to end. The filmography of Brian De Palma simply wouldn’t be complete without it.
Rebecca Romijn, in her first lead role after doing not much filmwise beyond the one-line role of Mystique in Bryan Singer’s X-MEN (does a recurring role getting married to David Spade on JUST SHOOT ME count?), was reportedly cast after the attached Uma Thurman dropped out after getting pregnant but watching every single movement made as Romijn slinks through the frame without fear it’s impossible to imagine anyone else. The actress finds something strangely real within unreality of every single identity she has, bringing a sense of joy and undeniable intensity. When she riffs on something she’s heard Barbara Stanwyck say while watching DOUBLE INDEMNITY on TV you can tell she absolutely means it. And looking at those close-ups of her, well, I may as well admit that she’s so fucking hot I almost can’t take it. As she says in her most famous line here, “You don’t have to lick my ass. Just fuck me.” And she gets away with it. It should put her in the pantheon. Spitting “Fuck you,” at his co-star just before moving in for the kiss, Antonio Banderas doesn’t have as much to work with in his supporting role but he seems totally game and sells how quickly he falls into this quicksand without even realizing. Peter Coyote ideally presents the presumed decency of his ambassador with a touch of suspicion, the very imposing Eriq Ebouaney oozes deadly charisma as heist mastermind “Black Tie”, Rie Rasmussen more than lives up to how willing De Palma’s camera is to gaze at her as Veronica, the model wearing all those diamonds, and the always welcome Gregg Henry doesn’t have much to do beyond give that glare of his but boy, is it cool. Director Régis Wargnier along with star Sandrine Bonnaire appear premiering their own film EAST-WEST in the opening sequence (it was made several years before, actually) and Romijn’s then-husband John Stamos can be heard uncredited on the phone as Bardo’s agent.
The lyrical piano theme that works its way into Sakamoto’s score seems to echo back through to the films he made in the 70s and early 80s, that seems to echo back into my brain of some other film I’ve long since forgotten yet will always remember. I don’t understand it, but it feels like something I know down to my bones. Just as I feel some connection to the films made by this director and, yes, maybe this is an impossible film to write about. How is it even possible to explain the meaning I get out of all this madness? Only that within what a turn-on this is there’s a sort of glorious redemption that comes off of it, of good coming from evil and a form of hope that comes from all of the sin the director puts on the screen. The inherent absurdity of it all can’t be denied but so what? The film’s final image is kind of a joke, as much as the film itself is, but a pretty great joke just as the film itself is. Also, it occurred to me last year when it was screened at the New Beverly on a double bill with BLOW OUT how much the ending is meant to be the polar opposite of that film in how the final beat is the final touch on a creative work which the whole movie has been building to. In the earlier film it’s beyond tragic, beyond cynical. Here, it’s irrational yet glorious, a total vindication and willingness to find beauty in the absurd, a group of images put together by its director in pursuit of a total picture. And with FEMME FATALE, he succeeds and by the end it feels like a summation of all his previous films in a way that few other directors ever really achieve or even have a chance to attempt and it’s gotten to the point that there are few films I love quite as much. Watching it makes me want to dance with joy at the end in a total celebration of cinema and all that’s good about it. I love this film. I’d fuck it in the back of a sleazy bar with French techno music blaring if I could. As far as I’m concerned if you don’t like this film, you have no interest in Brian De Palma. And if you can’t get swept up in this delirium then I’m not sure what sort of interest you have in films in the first place. Because when you really come right down to it, if you become willing to open yourself up to this sort of madness then all of cinema can be a dream. FEMME FATALE is cinema.
And that makes 500 posts.
Tuesday, May 24, 2011
It’s been getting some press but I’m not sure how much the news has really gotten out there that at this point in time the world famous Grauman’s Chinese Theater has either been sold or is in the process of being sold by Mann Theaters which has owned the property since 1973. In spite of the history and legendary status of the movie palace it’s easy to see how financially speaking it can be somewhat problematic for the place to make its nut every week particularly in recent years when most of the business in the neighborhood, not to mention the bookings of the biggest tentpole films, has migrated over to the nearby Arclight. Some showings I’ve gone to have been so sparsely attended that it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that a friend and I could have had an enjoyable game of catch in the middle of a movie and not disturbed anyone. To say nothing of how I’m fairly convinced that a fair amount of the tourists who come by to look at the hands in cement in the famous courtyard are never even aware that this is an actual operating movie theater. And even if it has landmark status does that automatically mean it can’t be changed into something else? I can’t even tell. So I get it. I can understand why someone might think to do something here. But the concern is what.
Part of that concern comes from how the theater is being sold to producers Don Kushner and Elie Samaha. Samaha, as some may aware, is known as a nightclub owner (spoofed years ago in the form of the character played by Chazz Palminteri in A NIGHT AT THE ROXBURY) who a number of years ago got his own production company named Franchise Pictures going with a number of films released, mostly through a distribution deal with Warner Brothers. In the interest of full disclosure: in the 90s I worked for a film company which went on to do business with Samaha after I left. That transition was happening while I was still there and I’m pretty sure I shook hands with the guy several times but I really don’t have any dirt or special insights into anything connected with this. I am, however, a curious party in the sense of how and why the films produced by Franchise got made since most of them were total garbage—3000 MILES TO GRACELAND, A SOUND OF THUNDER, the remake of GET CARTER, the remake of THE IN LAWS, THE WHOLE NINE YARDS, THE WHOLE TEN YARDS and, maybe most notoriously, BATTLEFIELD EARTH. Frankly, even the Franchise logo was ugly and garish, as if shot off a VHS dupe. In his memoir “What Just Happened?” producer Art Linson writes of his dealings with Samaha and the way his business seemed to operate, allowing him to pre-sell the films to such an extent that would allow him to be in the black before cameras ever rolled. Much of his interest in what he was putting his name on seemed to be purely financial and, I assume, getting in close with celebrities. Linson implies that he had little to no interest in the actual content of the films and concludes about Samaha’s business practices, “How long he can pull this off is hard to say.” Not too long, as things turned out, due to various legal charges of fraud involving allegations that he inflated the budgets of these films. I will not delve into these matters here although his name has remained as producer on various direct-to-DVD projects over the years in addition to being involved with several clubs. That right there is where a great deal of concern comes in for Grauman’s Chinese.
One interesting by-product out of making movies from what in some cases were the personal pet projects of various stars, however, was that the presumed lack of interest in the person doing the bankrolling seemingly allowed a few genuinely interesting films to get made. Linson wound up producing the David Mamet-directed HEIST and SPARTAN for Franchise, the Robert De Niro-starrer CITY BY THE SEA was at least respectable and maybe particularly interesting was the Sean Penn-directed Jack Nicholson drama THE PLEDGE. Part thriller, part intense character study and all deadly serious every single moment, the very nature of the film feels like it could have been looked at as a potential prestige project to get its leading actor another Oscar, possibly released limited at the end of the year for Oscar consideration. Instead, THE PLEDGE was basically dumped into almost 1,300 screens in the dead of January 2001 with little fanfare marketed as a thriller starring Jack Nicholson (it finished 11th for the weekend, ultimately taking in $19 million in the U.S.) and the nature of the film means that if you were only half paying attention you might mistake it for one of those snowy thrillers released in the cold of winter I sometimes have a fondness for, which it really isn’t at all. The films received some good notices but the unrelenting tone probably made it a difficult movie for anyone to get behind, probably getting a response of ‘Nicholson’s good, the movie not so much’ or ‘ehh, it’s kind of a drag’, which it sort of is but it’s still an unfair moniker to attach to such a carefully crafted piece, maybe similar to the ‘so what’ response the recent De Niro drama STONE received. Interestingly, that was also a deadly serious piece character-study-disguised-as-thriller about a law enforcement officer facing retirement and it was also something which deserved better than it got. THE PLEDGE is a valid film to admire but an extremely difficult movie to feel anything like affection towards and is almost intentionally designed to frustrate anyone watching it. In short, it’s the sort of film that a major studio never releases anymore and I would imagine that the only reason Warner Bros. released it in 2001 was because they were contractually obligated to. And to bring it around, I saw this film at Grauman’s Chinese, at a fairly empty late afternoon show one day when I wasn’t doing anything else. If I recall, my reaction to the film was kind of muted but a few things in it always stayed with me and I certainly could respect what Sean Penn was going for, if nothing else. Plus I have always remembered how some of its stark imagery played on the huge screen of that grand movie palace, just the way movies are meant to be seen in the first place. Maybe that’s a little of what I’m trying to get at here in my concern for what is going to happen to the famous landmark and maybe the greatest theater in the world, a place where I saw some of the biggest films of the past twenty years but also a place where I saw movies like THE PLEDGE. Some of those stick out to me too.
Reno Police Detective Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson) is facing retirement, looking back at a life behind him and at a life in front of him that seems to promise nothing but quiet fishing when at his raucous retirement party word comes in of a murdered young girl. Though he’s basically retired anyway, Jerry insists on going out to the scene and when he informs the girl’s parents is faced with a grieving mother (Patricia Clarkson) who insists he promise that he will catch her daughter’s killer. When a suspect (Benicio Del Toro) is found and after questioning takes his own life it seems like the case is all wrapped up but Jerry, who bails on the fishing trip to Mexico that was given him at his party, is unconvinced and continues the investigation even though he’s retired, getting no help from his former fellow detective (Aaron Eckhart) or captain (Sam Shepard). The trail of looking for a “giant” who he believes the murdered girl had befriended takes him to a quiet community where he buys an old gas station in the hopes that the killer might be nearby. He befriends a local bartender named Lori (Robin Wright Penn) who has a little girl and soon has them moving in with him to the house behind the gas station where Jerry, possibly losing it, possibly drinking too much, may be formulating a plan to use Lori’s little girl to catch the killer he believes is still out there.
It’s a curious thing when it comes to how to respond to a film which is meant to be unsatisfying, meant to be unfulfilling in a way that goes beyond the tragic conclusion of something like director Penn’s own acclaimed INTO THE WILD and THE PLEDGE is a film that dares to leave its audience frustrated not because of ambiguity but because of how its ending is so inevitable right from the start—literally, since it opens with a flash-forward—that it leaves us with a lead character who because of his own increasingly mental instability is a extremely difficult one to willingly follow behind through this story. It’s not just a question of likeability--INTO THE WILD may have been downbeat and that character was hardly noble in some of his actions, but there was certainly a clarified emotional response that someone could have at the end of it. THE PLEDGE (Based on the novel by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, screenplay credited to Jerzy Kromolowski & Mary Olson-Kromolowski), on the other hand, is a film with practically no comparable emotions and certainly no moments that would ever provide a relief from the bleakness of being shown crime scene photos of murdered young girls. It’s obviously more of a character study than a thriller and as a matter of fact in one of his few interviews on the film I could find Penn mused, “It's really a retirement-crisis story disguised as a thriller. I didn't get the retirement-crisis story financed, if you know what I mean. But I got it shot.”
But as much as Penn is interested in how the space around his film’s lead character affects his actions he’s just as interested in the periphery of the frame that comes from the people who come into contact with him, the unwashed humanity in the non-professional actors he uses in bit roles, obviously fascinated by their faces and also the rogues gallery of familiar names he uses in supporting roles, some who just appear in a single scene. It’s a quandary because I want to say that THE PLEDGE, at 124 minutes, is maybe too long, too wandering, too at times fascinated with the stylistic tics its director (who doesn’t appear onscreen) brings to scenes and I almost want to say that certain sections, like Nicholson’s visit to a nameless psychologist played by Helen Mirren, could be removed entirely yet I can’t help but think that such scenes are integral to the overall effect that THE PLEDGE gives off, one that isn’t ever as rewarding as I think it could be yet one that I’m never quite able to shake. And it does have an effect, strikingly so, given to it by the uncharacteristically stark score by Hans Zimmer and Klaus Badelt as well as the truly evocative cinematography by Chris Menges which allows me to feel what the weather is like in a given shot down to my bones and the size of the anamorphic imagery adds immeasurably to the effect the film has, even if it’s one that I kind of wish wasn’t there, even if I wish the film would be a little more ingratiating because, well, that’s what we sometimes want from films. It doesn’t mean that we’re right.
Even if he was forced to shoot it on the cheap in Canada (like several of the Franchise films were—Ontario does not make for a convincing South of France in THE IN LAWS) Penn certainly gets a great amount of mileage from the locations, getting lost in places like the turkey farm owned by the parents of the murdered girl and by a certain point it’s the mixture of the beauty of the nature with the grimy desolation felt in such environments that becomes partly what the film is about as well and certainly one of the things that Penn has an interest in pointing his camera at more than anything that occurs in the narrative—during a point of tension where Nicholson has to get somewhere fast you can sort of tell the “thriller” element is one of those things which engages the director the least and it’s interesting to look at the trailer which is valiantly trying to sell it as a standard genre piece as much as humanly possible. Instead, Penn is interested in zeroing in on the increasing instability of this lead character of a man who can only see a future in which he’s an old man, desperately looking for a reason to exist, possibly losing his mind, possibly drinking too much, contrasted with the people around him who can never understand what he’s going through particularly because he doesn’t either.
Putting this all together as if defiantly insisting that he’s making his movie in the 70s, Penn takes this all deadly seriously right down to every sigh taken by every character and to every single young girl that plays a role in the story who seem deliberately portrayed as angelic innocence personified, like Pauline Roberts playing the daughter of Robin Wright Penn’s character. Observing Jerry’s actions like when he ridiculously sets up a swing set right by the highway as if setting her there as bait it goes beyond questionable movie logic into a realm where we just don’t want to be around this guy, that we wish he’d go away, that we never think that a decent, well-meaning character who is supposedly the good guy would ever be like this and yet…we never really know. “Nobody particularly cared to hear his life was utterly valueless,” goes Chayefsky’s narration in NETWORK and maybe that’s something that occurs to me when watching THE PLEDGE as well and it’s a world in which there’s no avoiding what the fates have in store for you. There’s no way out of this, no hint of closure like you’d get on an episode of CRIMINAL MINDS, just a feeling of a man who can’t let go of what he had, of dreams lost, of this promise he once made, of a life that to him has never been as fulfilling as he thought it should be so he’s looking for some reason to go on beyond the fishing in Baja everyone thinks he should resign himself to. The deliberate lack of release makes it more frustrating than compelling (which it still is a good deal of the time) and yet, without that lack of release there is no movie, or at least not a movie that we haven’t seen before. I’m glad THE PLEDGE exists, as difficult as it is, as unrewarding as it is. Sometimes these movies need to be there, even if they don’t make it easy on us and I guess I sort of wish we could live in a world where movies like this released by major studios, accidentally or otherwise, played on giant screens like at Grauman’s Chinese just a little more often.
Playing this part with next to no consideration towards vanity and an intensity that is truly palpable, Nicholson is astounding and there has rarely been a director who seemed as fascinated by photographing him yet at the same time paying as little attention to making him ‘Jack’ as Sean Penn does, even down to how he sometimes seems fascinated by photographing the back of his head, and you can feel the actor energized by the chance to do something a little different. While writing about REDS recently I pointed out how when he wears a mustache it’s often the sign of a slightly different, nervier persona for him and this certainly qualifies. He received much greater acclaim for the comedy ABOUT SCHMIDT several years later, much of it based on how he was supposedly playing things against type (I love that movie, incidentally, and it also beginning at the point of a retirement would make the pairing an interesting double bill) but it just seems unfair that the world seemed to ignore just how brave and how truly against the grain was this performance that he had already given. In the end, Jerry is given no speech to explain things, not even allowed much of a background in dialogue beyond a line where he calls himself a ‘two-time loser’ at marriage and by the end he seemingly has nothing left to say anyway, no defense he can offer for why he’s done what he’s done, beyond what he has left in his own mind to mutter to himself endlessly. Among the large cast surrounding him, Robin Wright Penn is effective is a problematic role, de-glamorized as much as humanly possible and it works about as well as it could. Playing a grieving father Mickey Rourke is absolutely shattering (goddamn, just look at his eyes) and does more with just a few minutes of screentime than most actors do with entire movies. In addition to Mirren, Eckhart (particularly good), Clarkson and Shepard, Michael O'Keefe is the murdered girl's grieving father, Vanessa Redgrave is her grandmother, Benicio Del Toro is an Indian who everyone believes is the killer, Harry Dean Stanton is the owner of the service station Jerry buys and Tom Noonan appears as a mysterious figure in a role no doubt meant to call to mind certain other characters the actor has played in the past like in MANHUNTER.
I’m still a little surprised that a book never came out of the story of Franchise Pictures (journalist Kim Masters seemed to be taking a particular interest a number of years ago) and its legal troubles but maybe by a certain point it just became old news. And now, there’s what will possibly happen to Grauman’s Chinese. There are rumors going around that there will be attempts to turn it into a Studio 54 kind of nightclub and there’s nothing in Elie Samaha’s history that indicates he’d have much of an interest in simply running a movie theater but nothing at all is confirmed. And with those buying it remaining silent, it’s very hard to protest rumors. But I’ve heard scuttlebutt that the city very much wants to keep it from ever becoming a nightclub—to do so would require lots of permits of course—not to mention how word is the police and fire departments have their own reasons for not wanting this to happen which of course don’t have much to do with preservation. I’ve been told that there are people out there with an interest in this who are keeping a very close eye on this. I know that it’s an open question of what can be done with the Chinese just as I know we’re talking about matters of money and real estate and Mann Theatres certainly can’t be forced into maintaining ownership of the property. I just hope it’s remembered how much this place means to Los Angeles, to Hollywood, to the history of the movies in general and just how important that is. At one point in THE PLEDGE Jack Nicholson’s Jerry Black mentions how a particular sight was so horrific explaining it by saying “because we hardly dared to look ourselves,” an unusual turn of phrase which stays with me right now since I can’t help but be worried that it would be allowed to become a place that we as film lovers would hardly dare to look at. I hope that it’s simply allowed to remain the greatest movie theater on the planet, even if in a somewhat different form which doesn’t tamper with the integrity of the building. As far as I’m concerned, Grauman’s Chinese is a cathedral, a holy place and it should remain that way. Of course, I’m powerless to do anything about it if something else does happen, just as Jerry Blank ultimately is in his hunt for this killer he’s searching for. So for now, all I can do is hope, keep an eye on what’s going on and be grateful that I’ve been lucky enough to have seen as many movies in that grand place as I have. Including THE PLEDGE.
Tuesday, May 17, 2011
When I think about it now, I feel sort of lucky that while growing up I was able to see a number of Blake Edwards films when they were first released. Sure, I may have been a kid who wasn’t really the audience for such things but I honestly believe that such an exposure at that age allowed me to develop a growing awareness of his particular style and in doing so, allowed me to begin to learn something about any director having a particular style. Simply put, the films of Blake Edwards were a key part of the beginning of my own cinematic education. Now less than six months after his death and going on several decades past the final film he ever made, that very style I associate with him already seems to feel that much more a part of the past, of a different world of movies than the one that’s out there now. His penultimate directorial effort SWITCH came right at the end of a surprisingly prolific streak that occurred through much of the eighties and is now twenty years old, released on May 10, 1991. I saw it on opening weekend and looking at how the film has held up it’s interesting to consider both how its sexual politics were a part of its time and how some of what it tries to say seemed out of another era even then, making it in some ways kind of an old man’s movie. Mixed in with that vibe is an ad agency plotline that might make it seem even older than it is, like something out of the Rock Hudson-Doris Day era or maybe even something that Edwards himself would have directed back in the sixties. Considering the high level he reached a few of the other times he explored the battle of male-female identities SWITCH is a mixed bag if there ever was one, containing a story that is unfortunately weaker than it should be but the snap associated with Edwards is present throughout and it also has an absolutely amazing lead comic performance by Ellen Barkin which helps smooth things past any number of its flaws. But even though such flaws are certainly evident in the final product it can’t be said enough how much Edwards’ basic filmmaking style, as classical in nature as it may be, still contains an undeniable elegance that really hasn’t dated at all. Or at least, it shouldn’t have dated. It’s tough for me to tell with these things anymore.
Male chauvinist ad exec Steve Brooks (Perry King) is lured to a private party with three former girlfriends including the wealthy Margo Brofman (JoBeth Williams) only to learn that their plan is to murder him for what he’s put them through. Which is exactly what happens, resulting with Steve taking several bullets to the chest. Once in purgatory, God (heard as both a male and female voice) informs Steve that he has amassed enough credits to get into heaven except for the minor problem that not a single woman has ever liked him. Steve convinces God to let him go back to earth for one more chance for this to happen but the Devil (Bruce Payne) insists on making his task slightly harder—namely, making him return to earth as a woman. Which is exactly what happens to his surprise, in the form of a beautiful blonde who decides to call him/herself Amanda (Ellen Barkin) and soon the reborn Steve is convincing best friend Walter (Jimmy Smits) and everyone at his old job that ‘she’ is in fact Steve’s long lost half-sister. Blackmailing Margo into buying a full wardrobe, Amanda takes over Steve’s ad agency job and sets out in search of a woman who’ll like ‘her’ while fending off the lewd advances of every man in sight—including one-time best friend Walter.
Somewhere out there I imagine a graduate student working right now on their thesis which goes into detail on how no matter how much of a master Blake Edwards was, no matter how much genius he sometimes displayed in his comedy, he simply wasn’t so great when it came to endings. If it’s a woman, I hope to marry her. One of several films he made with a final section that seems to drift off as the credits roll when we’d probably prefer some kind of slam-bang conclusion, SWITCH is an interesting example of how good Blake Edwards could be while at the same time also displaying any number of the weaknesses evident in his work. Themes of sexual identity is definitely a subject he’s explored in the past, particularly with VICTOR/VICTORIA, but the way he lays things out in the script for SWITCH it never seems like he’s just going over well-trodden material again so it’s at times much sharper than might be expected. The rhythms are there and it actually has considerably more oomph than a number of other films Edwards film made around this period. Scenes on their own continually crackle with actors that are always playing well off each other and even some of the smaller parts are well cast. There’s also a literate flow to the dialogue that feels like it couldn’t have come from anyone else but Edwards in all the best ways—I’ve always particularly liked a runner where people repeatedly compare Steve’s disappearance to Gauguin (“Who?”). But while the pacing and staging are there the story is weaker than it probably should be, as if Edwards had the basic idea laid out in his head when he sat down to create the script but simply never came up with a strong enough story to go with it—while writing the above synopsis it felt like there was a point where I wasn’t sure what else to say about where the plot actually goes, which is kind of how it feels while watching the film. Amanda doesn’t start work at the ad agency until around the forty-five minute mark and the amount of time she spends on the make for lesbian perfume exec Sheila Faxton (Lorraine Bracco) feels more like wheel-spinning of the picture’s own particular interests than it does any sort of necessary plot development.
In some ways that plot, whatever there is of it, never even really seems to get going at all so by the time the film moves into the the final stretch as it rushes to the ending what the story ultimately builds to makes thematic sense but it still doesn’t feel entirely earned and the movie feels a little like it’s missing some sort of farcical setpiece or payoff that never occurred beyond the requisite bar fight. Hey, I like the chaos that erupts from bar fights directed by Blake Edwards as much as anyone and there are plenty of other moments throughout that pop with the snap that comes from his best work—as a director here he feels very much on his game, laying out sequences in his patented master-shot style making full use of the Scope frame with some terrific composition work courtesy of cinematographer Dick Bush. It’s just that it ultimately feels as if he didn’t have much to say about the male-female dichotomy beyond the basics of his own thesis and after an initial rant about the way women should be allowed to talk among men the film seems to lose the desire to dig into it, instead choosing to go with things like a one-on-one basketball game between Barkin and Smits. Trust me, no Blake Edwards film was ever made better by the inclusion of a one-on-one basketball montage. These misgivings nag at me even while I still find great pleasure out of long stretches during multiple viewings and truthfully, it actually works pretty well during the early stages when the plot isn’t as much of a concern, from Barkin’s introduction to her first meeting with Bracco which is around the halfway point.
Maybe part of what I respond to is just the retro vibe combined with the Edwards stylistics clicking their way through the laughs and banter. Even if the story doesn’t hold he still knows how to work out individual scenes and to allow his actors tiny bits of business within them which is almost good enough for me. Considering the one last film which followed for him two years later, the unfortunate SON OF THE PINK PANTHER (and I can’t even bring myself to fully hate that one), looking at this film’s best moments now gives the whole thing a feel of one final enjoyable pratfall taken and one last cocktail downed before the bar finally closes. Since there are many drinks consumed here by Barkin and Smits’ characters in their local hangout Duke’s, as should be the case in a Blake Edwards film, it’s only fitting. Even the film’s somewhat insular feel seems somewhat appropriate—it’s set in New York but aside from some location work it always feels kind of like we’re in that zoned-out Blake Edwards world of Beverly Hills or Brentwood and maybe that should bother me more than it does but as time goes on the more it simply plays to me like his view of the world being presented, one that may be imagined from the backseat of a limo with cocktail music playing but another car is going to crash into it soon enough right before we cut away to the next scene which will make it all ok.
What helps immeasurably, and in some ways is what really makes the movie much more than it would have been otherwise, is a spectacularly funny performance by Ellen Barkin as Steve/Amanda, a chauvinist in the body of a gorgeous woman who works every bit of awkward physicality imaginable while in the process of discovering his/her own sexiness and it comes off as absolutely fearless in terms of how far the actress is willing to go with it. If this sort of performance were recognized more by the Academy and the film had ultimately been better received it’s easy to imagine Barkin getting Oscar buzz for her work here—as it is, she only received a Golden Globe nomination. She goes perfectly with the director’s acidly comic house style and I can’t help but think they each brought out the best in each other during the making of the film. I’ve never met Ellen Barkin, which just seems hugely unfair. She’s so good and so weirdly, mind-bogglingly sexy here looking ready to burst out of some of those outfits she wears that it makes it all the more disappointing that the film around her never quite lives up to the potential of just how good she is. But the script never really does enough with the basic setup of the character’s own response beyond the surface of dealing with sexist come-ons, all that hair she now has and the endless running gag of trying to walk in high heels. Barkin is skilled enough to sell the physicality so it works longer than it probably should, but only up to a point. It sort of keeps things as basically about a guy who looks in the mirror and sees a beautiful blonde staring back at him as opposed to really following through on the potential of the idea in a way that would live up to, say, the sexual confusion felt by James Garner’s King Marchand in VICTOR/VICTORIA. Maybe Edwards really did ultimately express all that he had to offer on the subject with that film after all.
There’s still a surprising amount of teeth to some of it, particularly when Amanda discovers what has happened after a particularly drunken night in a scene that you probably wouldn’t get from a romantic comedy these days, but there’s also the feel that it pulls a few punches at times like a sex scene involving Barkin and Bracco which was apparently cut down to little more than an ellipsis with a hasty voiceover placed over it. A few plot elements also feel left hanging (some stills showing scenes not in the final film do exist) such as the recurring appearances by Bruce Payne’s Devil in different guises sprinkled throughout, including in drag, which never has any sort of payoff. There’s even a slight feeling of songs being inserted into the soundtrack where they aren’t needed (quite a few dopey pop songs heard coming from radios throughout) in place of the expected Henry Mancini score as if the production is trying to bring the tone slightly more up to date. Much of the lovely, strangely haunting Mancini score on the CD, which I’ve always liked, doesn’t even seem to be present in the film and there was actually a second soundtrack album of pop songs released as well.
And much as I may like some of the actors here, it really is Ellen Barkin’s show. Jimmy Smits is pleasant company in what is really the James Garner role (both in reference to VICTOR/VICTORIA and just the 60s ad agency comedy aesthetic in general) but while he’s amiable enough his acting style is maybe a little too naturalistic to bring it the needed snap. It’s interesting to contrast him with Tony Roberts, who seems much more of the school that allows him to bring those rhythms to his dialogue and reactions in his role as the ad agency boss—he even walks funny. JoBeth Williams (who gets maybe the most notorious line of dialogue) and Lorraine Bracco play well off Barkin even if their character’s seem kind of left hanging there by the script. Lysette Anthony of HUSBANDS AND WIVES and Victoria Mahoney are Williams’ partners in crime, Kevin Kilner of ALMOST PERFECT is the new sleaze at the ad agency and even Jim J. Bullock works pretty well in his one scene as a phony psychic. Catherine Keener has some nice moments in an early role as Steve’s secretary who has her own surprising response to learning he’s gone and Téa Leoni nails the right not-that-dumb tone of the “Dream girl for November” who unconvincingly claims she liked Steve, putting on some kind of outer borough accent in her film debut. Michael Badalucco makes an early appearance as a construction worker and Edwards regular Dr. Herb Tanney plays a judge, billed as Savant Tanney.
The man-woman question seems to come down on the female side of things and even if the film does make sure to have God made up of both sexes the one who lists all the worst things about being a woman is, after all, the very male Devil. Maybe all that says more about Blake Edwards than even he realized. In all honesty, I’m very close to insisting that the film is underrated or at least not as deserving of the easy dismissal it’s always had since it contains too many examples of Edwards as true comic stylist but it just falls short. The overall design of the piece is undeniably the work of Blake Edwards but it doesn’t have the structural integrity of his best films and the feeling at the end that Edwards is insisting on a degree of normalcy to come out of Steve/Amanda’s situation is just no fun at all since too much of the film has gone against that grain. Still, I’m glad we have SWITCH and maybe that’s why I’m slightly kinder to it than I should be. It’s flawed, definitely, but it has enough elements that remind me why I responded to Edwards’ filmmaking style way back then in the first place and why they still mean something to me now but I guess I’ll have to keep the admiration I feel to myself.
Friday, May 13, 2011
There are times when looking at the blank page in front of you can be just about the most daunting thing imaginable and there are some films which are so imposing that you don’t know quite where to begin, but no matter what you ultimately have to focus on what you respond to in such a film. Just remember, you don’t rewrite what I write and in the end I’ve rarely seen one that provides me with such a rush of the thrill of pursuing a goal, the thrill of writing, the thrill of accomplishing such things because it’s what you believe in, as Warren Beatty’s REDS does. In some ways it makes sense to look at Beatty’s massive epic as part of a direct thematic thread, from his own point of view, on the conflict between art and politics as well as the continuing struggle of various people mixed up in those two ends of the spectrum. My personal favorite SHAMPOO (written by Beatty and Robert Towne, directed by Hal Ashby) presented the artist in the form of hairstylist George Roundy drowning amidst the changeover from the sixties to the seventies and the still remarkable BULWORTH (screenplay by Beatty & Jeremy Pikser, directed by Beatty) features a title character who suffers a breakdown and rediscovers his own political beliefs in the form of an art that comes out of that breakdown. Along with a political and individualistic strand which has continued through various other films of his (even—no, especially—Elaine May’s ISHTAR which does sort of play like the right sort of comic chaser to follow it) REDS feels like one giant debate on how to possibly mix those two worlds and while it may not necessarily come to any kind of solution as to just how to reconcile those two themes beyond simply stating that a person ultimately is the sum of what they are most passionate about, almost thirty years after it was released in December 1981 it nevertheless plays as an awe-inspiring achievement. It’s a film made by someone who isn’t making a statement so much as asking even why he wants to make that statement and why it matters so much to him. “I never editorialize,” Beatty as John Reed tells Diane Keaton’s Louise Bryant at one point in regards to his writing. When she points out that he just has, he immediately corrects it. REDS wants to state what has happened in the history it presents and yet also tries to explain its own interest in the subject, providing its story with an undeniable point of view that takes it beyond many such epics which offer similar ambition but rarely such a similar amount of actual ideas.
I didn’t have a pass for this year’s TCM Festival but I spent enough time that weekend in the vicinity of the event that I could tell those in charge were doing a great job, that everything seemed terrifically well-organized and I hope to be able to spend more time there when it’s held again in the future. I went over to check out the scene a few times and got to run into a few people I know as well as several I was very glad to meet for the very first time, people who were there for the simple reason that they loved movies. Good company to be in. The festival seems to be designed for people coming in from out of town which is fine and going to a bunch of movies in Hollywood would sound like a pretty nice vacation to me if I lived somewhere else. As for me, REDS was the one I wanted to make it into more than others not only because that’s a film which rarely ever gets screened—at least partly due to the extreme length I imagine, as well as possibly the somewhat daunting subject matter—but also because the director and star himself would be appearing for a conversation with Alec Baldwin, co-host of TCM’s weekly series “The Essentials”. During the talk Beatty himself mentioned how some of the film now plays as surprising in terms of how much time it takes, how much detail it is sometimes willing to go into to make a certain point. He’s right, but much of the way the film is assembled is striking in how absolutely fast it moves, in a way of fractured montage which is somewhat familiar from a few of his other films through the years—for fun sometime, compare the sequences of Louise Bryant being indoctrinated into the Greenwich Village lifestyle or Reed and Bryant getting sucked into obsessively covering the Russian Revolution near the end of Part 1 with the opening twenty minutes of Rogers & Clarke writing songs in ISHTAR, a film Beatty only produced and acted in (but didn’t write or direct, at least not in name) but certainly one that shares more than a few of his fingerprints. Maybe REDS has become underrated through the years because of how daunting it may be just to sit down and watch it, but while it’s undeniably long, dense and exhausting it’s certainly never dull as well as always being compelling, unstoppably proceeding forward through each section with a great deal of passion evident in every frame as if made by someone totally consumed with getting this story onto celluloid. Late in the film John Reed as played by Beatty is looking beyond worn down by what he’s been going through and that is certainly felt by the viewer as well but no matter what the rewards that REDS offers is undeniable. There are few films like it, which at least partly has to do with how it was willed into being by a star who was using his own position of power to get it to happen—after all, you don’t get to approach a subject like this on this scale without a great deal of clout and money behind you to begin with. It’s a film about youthful passion and coming to a realization later on of just what happens when that passion collides with the realities of what the system can do to you.
On the one hand, REDS is the story of John Reed (Warren Beatty), the man who wrote “Ten Days That Shook The World”, the famous account of the Russian Revolution as well as his romance and marriage to writer Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton), following their turbulent relationship among the radicals of Greenwich Village through the rise of communism over events that led to the Portland-born Reed buried in the Kremlin following his death. But the more I watch it, the more I pay attention to the intensity of the film, the more it becomes clear how much the final film really is about Warren Beatty’s own interest in Reed than it ever is in Reed himself. And along with that, it’s presumably about Beatty’s own relationship with Diane Keaton as he tries to sort out his own interest in Reed and how these relationships can be reconciled with his own life as actor, as filmmaker, as artist and whatever thoughts he may have had at the time in going down the political road. Warren Beatty has spoken about how to him REDS is about the clashing of art vs. politics and that dichotomy is felt all through the film from the very beginning when the two lead characters are introduced and continues through every scene, right down to even a simple letter that is written from Reed (which includes the phrase “politics sure plays hell with your poetry”) that veers from the larger themes of a political convention to the intricacies of how a certain poem has to be reworked. Louise Bryant is introduced attempting to explain the concept of why certain photographs in an art gallery are “blurry” to the high-toned denizens of Portland, Oregon who can’t grasp the concept and when she first catches sight of John Reed his one word explanation of what he believes is the goal of the war being fought--“Profits.”--gets across immediately how such themes that were relevant in 1915 were still relevant in 1981 (not to mention when the film is seen today) and almost feels like its own comment of how to quickly establish things in screenwriting shorthand. As a director Beatty seems very aware that there’s only so much information the viewer can process so he chooses to get across the idea of all that information instead so beyond the didacticism in the screenplay by Beatty and Trevor Griffiths (with contributions by others, including Elaine May and Robert Towne) is a directness to the dialogue and situations that let it all flow with its recurring use of phrases such as “What as?” or Jack Nicholson’s Eugene O’Neill insisting on a glass for his bourbon that always knows how to cut to the chase in every small plot point.
Yes, the prospect of following Reed and Bryant into Russia as communism emerges sounds a little like the cinematic equivalent of eating vegetables but as lengthy as REDS is (195 minutes, complete with intermission), as didactic as some of it might play out of necessity, the film is always extremely entertaining (even funny on more than a few occasions) and never plays as some musty story of people from a distant age we could never identify with. Part of this is the ingenious tack of laying out its story through the point of view of the ‘witnesses’ who turn up throughout offering part exposition, part commentary as Greek Chorus, mixing together what they couldn’t forget if they tried with what they’re not sure if they’re remembering at all and of course sometimes contradicting each other. And it presents its historical period in a way that seems undeniably modern, with a literate point of view that places it apart from such other epics, as if the David Lean of DOCTOR ZHIVAGO has been tossed into a gene splicer with THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS and I’m well aware that I’m not the first person to think of it this way. The ‘witnesses’ make it all the more vivid, even when the person in question has only a slight relation to the events—Henry Miller in particular had nothing to do with these events but in some ways what he offers provides more clarity to the actions that we’re seeing than anyone, such as his comment about how he thinks there was just as much fucking then as there is now comes of as perfect to remind us how these events the people doing these things weren’t just as we picture them in Victorian era-type photographs. They were loud, they were passionate and the way they’re presented here helps them feel all the more immediate through every single argument we see them have or the undeniable intensity as covering the revolution draws John Reed and Louise Bryant closer together. That moment where she unexpectedly thanks him for bringing her along followed by the sound of the crowd in the factory meeting is about as thrilling a transition as I’ve ever seen and says more than any lengthy speech would ever be able to.
Detailed in an excellent Peter Biskind article in Vanity Fair a few years ago (much of the material transposed to the author’s recent Beatty bio “Star”) the fascinating story of how REDS was made makes clear that the massive scale of the production was something that both wouldn’t and couldn’t be approximated if such a film were made by Beatty or anyone else today. The prominence of CGI would be unavoidable but it seems particularly interesting to me that (as far as I can tell, anyway) there isn’t even any use of matte paintings or similar usage of opticals, devices which would certainly give it all more of a traditional “movie” feel. REDS is the rare epic of this type not filmed in full anamorphic Panavision, keeping things in the more square 1.85 ratio (very much unlike any number of films also photogaphed by master cinematographer Vittorio Storaro) as if Beatty as director isn’t interested in all the ephemera which would adorn the frame in the wider format. He’s interested in the people, their faces and their immediate relationship with what is around them instead of concentrating on the grand, sweeping vistas used to impress the viewer for the sake of just making everything seem big. And yet even when certain moments do focus on the likes of the two leads it’s not just about coverage that gives their close-ups the scale of all around them is always evident. Through its sprawling narrative that spans the globe with its many characters and lilting Stephen Sondheim score, it’s about their idealism however naïve they may be at times about what this could all lead to—it certainly isn’t about some kind of wrongheaded glorification of communism, not in the slightest. Forget about politics for the moment—the film nails the invigorating feeling of being a writer, being a journalist, of discovering that sort of glory with someone you care about. The haunting cameo of a silent boy who Louise encounters near the end which has been seen as representing the child Reed and Bryant never had just as the chandelier he kept banging his head into in their St. Petersburg apartment represented the normalcy they were avoiding but I also looked at the child has representing the spirit of Jack Reed himself, the innocence which had once been there and been wiped away, yet maybe in this one moment before his death he was somehow allowed to linger as a reminder of that time. “You don’t rewrite what I write” is the mantra which climaxes the character during his most intense argument with those who are distorting what he truly believes, the exact phrase also heard much spoken by him much earlier. Reed (and Beatty) may have been forever altered by what he’s witnessed and reported on but he is who he is, it’s just that by a certain point it’s as if he’s able to understand that much more just why he feels this way, why he felt that way to begin with.
It’s a fair argument that Warren Beatty as John Reed ultimately is more Warren Beatty than John Reed (and it’s impossible to avoid pointing out how this is one of several films in which Beatty presents himself as a sort of sacrificial lamb to the world) but it makes sense considering how much we’re able to lock into the driving, unstoppable intelligence of his behavior, to see how his own magnetism is drained down in the latter stages and how much passion is still evident by the time we reach his big final argument on the train. And it sells how much effect he has in Louise Bryant who as played by Diane Keaton is simply wonderful, magnetic, flighty, insecure and ultimately surprising in how committed she is to her own cause, to finding her own level of seriousness in her own life beyond just being a writer and the “amiable sort” that she seems to be like to some, as well as to Reed. Jack Nicholson, forever looking for a glass to drink that bourbon, is the very essence of quiet intensity as Eugene O’Neill who is also in love with Bryant (Nicholson with a mustache always does seem to signify a slightly different Jack in terms of performance) and Oscar winner Maureen Stapleton spits out every single one of her beliefs as Emma Goldman with all the bitter conviction in the world. Jerzy Kosinski brings an incisive intensity to his performance as Zinoviev who becomes Reed’s key debater during his stay behind the iron curtain and even the smaller roles played by the likes of Paul Sorvino and Edward Herrmann all seems like they’re occupied by people who have their own stories going on through this massive tapestry. Other familiar faces that appear, sometimes fleetingly, include M. Emmet Walsh, Ian Wolfe, Shane Rimmer, Max Wright, George Plimpton, William Daniels, R. G. Armstrong and Beatty’s BONNIE & CLYDE co-star Gene Hackman, in for two scenes as magazine editor Pete Van Wherry.
The talk with Warren Beatty and Alec Baldwin was originally supposed to take place before the film but moving it to after was a wise choice, allowing a more relaxed pace for the talk, which they joked Beatty had only said yes to showing up for so long as Baldwin would agree to appear in his next film. “Making a movie for me is very similar to vomiting,” he stated, apologizing for giving us that mental picture. “You don’t like to vomit, but you know you may feel better if you do,” and the loose, freewheeling discussion between the 74 year-old Beatty and Baldwin covered points on the making of the film (some of this can also be found in the DVD documentary but he has so rarely discussed making this film so it was a thrill to hear him talk about it anyway) along with veering into the current state of both the film industry and politics (“To serve in public office now makes one more a ratifier than a leader,” observed Beatty). In addition to discussing his own initial interest in making “a three and a half hour movie about a communist who dies” and listing off the number of places they shot the epic (I think he named at least twenty different locations all over the world) he offered praise for both the film’s editor Dede Allen and particularly co-star Diane Keaton. Of course, the two were involved at the time the film was made, a subject that arose when Baldwin carefully attempted to ask about the nature of directing someone who you’re having a certain kind of relationship with. They surprisingly opened things up to the audience for a Q&A which allowed for even more interesting anecdotes including when Beatty was asked about Gene Hackman and told a story about first working with him on LILITH, letting him realize how good Hackman was when Beatty realized how much better it make his own performance as well. Incidentally, he seemed reluctant to specify the film he was referencing by name but Baldwin did it anyway to his chagrin, leading to Beatty to recall how Sammy Cahn once told him that the poster should have read, “LILITH. You thimply musth thee.” It was probably funnier when spoken by Beatty, but I had to get it in here. And asked when he would make another movie he pointed out that being the father of four teenagers was like being in charge of four middle eastern countries but he not only said he would make another movie but then added that he may in fact make several more movies. When his 1998 satire BULWORTH was briefly referenced the mention got appreciative applause for how well it’s aged. Nice to know that I’m not the only one who feels that way about the film and I hope the response will get him to want to start work on whatever that next movie will be as soon as possible.
In the end the film received 12 Oscar nominations but only three wins—Storaro for cinematography, Beatty for directing and Stapleton for supporting actress—and lost Best Picture in what was considered an upset to CHARIOTS OF FIRE which may have partly led to how the film has seemed slightly forgotten through the years. And maybe there is a sense of incompletion when the end credits roll on REDS as a few of the witnesses offer their final thoughts but maybe that sense of incompletion is what the film is ultimately about as well, signified by that unfinished poem John Reed always seems to carry around with him as if to remind himself that he still hasn’t completed it, an interesting comparison point to how Beatty’s Clyde Barrow responds to the poem written by Faye Dunaway’s Bonnie Parker near the end of their movie that does lend a sense of finality to things. The equivalent in REDS is reduced down to one word between the two leads (“comrades”) as if there’s no other way for Beatty-as-Reed to sum up all his feelings about the intermingling of art, politics and all the people who come into contact with the two sides. Maybe Beatty never quite figured out what that poem was supposed to be either and for him making this movie was a way to answer that. I know that I’ve had more than a few of those unfinished poems in my own life so maybe the idea of what is always there, never completed, is what I respond to more than anything. It’s that sense of connection, that sense of reaching for something even if you can’t put it into words that is part of what allows REDS to survive almost thirty years after it was released. Getting to see it at the TCM Festival capped off by Warren Beatty himself was a very welcome reminder of that.