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.