Tuesday, May 24, 2011
Old Enough To Remember
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.