Friday, September 30, 2011
Daydreams And Traffic
Over the years of going to video stores there have always been those films which I kept putting off renting, always going with another choice and thinking that I’d get around to that other choice eventually. Of course, with a few of these titles I put it off for so long that over the past several years those video stores suddenly closed and I realized I’d missed my chance, particularly with a few of the ones that I knew would never come out on DVD. One of those was certainly Alan Rudolph’s 1977 mood piece WELCOME TO L.A. which always looked like something I would be interested in. So why did I keep putting it off? Beats me, but it was one of those I would sometimes keep an eye out for in VHS racks, until out of nowhere the American Cinematheque ran it in the spring of 2010 and I gladly drove across town to the Aero in Santa Monica to finally take care of this nagging itch. What I got was a film which was certainly evocative in ways I expected from a late 70s film produced by Robert Altman while still containing numerous elements that made it frustrating as well, combining the misty romanticism I associate with Alan Rudolph, very much present and accounted for in his directorial debut (not counting the 1972 horror film PREMONITION which I’ve never seen) with a misanthropic feel that doesn’t always quite come together. At the very least it feels true to itself but what Rudolph’s approach was going to ultimately become still feels it’s being developed so as a result I find myself appreciating the film more than I actually like it. I may even prefer thinking about it to actually watching it.
There isn’t exactly a storyline to synopsize but suffice it to say it involves several people in L.A. drifting in and out of each other’s lives as well as each other’s beds. Much of it focuses on songwriter Caroll Barber (Keith Carradine with soul patch, making his second appearance in a film on this blog) coming home for the first time in several years to visit his wealthy father Carl Barber (Denver Pyle). There’s ambitious and strait-laced Ken Hood (Harvey Keitel) who works for Carl, his wife Karen (Geraldine Chaplin) who seems to like spending much of her time riding around in taxis, needy real estate agent Ann Goode (Sally Kellerman), the young maid Linda (Sissy Spacek) who Ann hires to clean the Echo Park apartment she’s rented for Carroll, photographer Nona Bruce (Lauren Hutton) who has been having an affair with Carl, effervescent agent Susan Moore (Viveca Lindfors) who clings to Carroll as much as she can and finally famous singer Eric Wood (Richard Baskin) who Carl has hired to put some of Carroll’s songs down on tape.
WELCOME TO L.A. seems like a film only to be watched alone during a late, possibly drunken night, which would maybe be ideal for such a film about lonely souls in the city during the zoned out 70s. It draws you in but it also feels a little too half-sketched as if instead of scenes it’s more interested in the moments it drifts through, the whole dreamy gestalt of the oddness and the staring and the drinking and Viveca Lindfors gesticulating wildly. The actors seem keyed in to the approach but there doesn’t seem to be enough for them to get engaged with as would sometimes be the case in Rudoph’s later, thematically similar films (not to mention a few Altman directed himself, particularly SHORT CUTS) as if he wasn’t experienced enough yet to shape things into the hoped-for improvs which might have helped, with a few of the characters drifting out of things for too much of the running time. Much of the dialogue comes off as blatant statements of themes, in some ways indicating how these people are disconnected from each other but it doesn’t always help them to become distinctive characters.
I like Rudolph’s work at times (after all, I wrote a favorable piece about MRS. PARKER AND THE VICIOUS CIRCLE recently and REMEMBER MY NAME which immediately followed WELCOME is particularly good as well—it’s been a while, but I imagine I’d also have good things to say about the likes of TROUBLE IN MIND, LOVE AT LARGE and AFTERGLOW. And let’s not forget his cameo in THE PLAYER) but at this stage still very much a disciple of the Altman approach it feels like he wasn’t as in control of his surroundings as he was later on, even in a few of his films that also didn’t quite work. The confidence doesn’t seem to be there yet in WELCOME TO L.A., the overall result is just a shade too thin as much as there are times when I can poke through the mist of what the characters are saying to each other and get hypnotized by the late 70s ennui, with the gazing, the brooding, as they wonder why they’re unloved, sometimes while lying right next to the person they love. It just doesn’t always hold--it’s not a problem that it can be tough to track some of the relationships and their statuses whether at the beginning, middle or end but it is a problem that it feels a little like Rudolph never bothered to explain his overall concept to anyone else. I would say that certain plot threads are left hanging like Carrol’s relationship with his father since Pyle seems to drop out of the movie about an hour in, giving up on his son in favor of employee Keitel, but that would imply that the plot is what it’s meant to be. The dreamy nature is sometimes broken by Chaplin’s deliberately unpleasant sounding cough which she takes on for a stretch in the middle, something that seems indicative of the film overall. Some of it is just too vague, too harsh, as hypnotic as it sometimes is. I don’t particularly like the experience of watching it but at the same time I feel a little haunted by it. Maybe I understand it, even if I can’t explain it. I’m writing this on a Friday night, so what do you expect? Maybe this is what L.A. is anyway.
The film is also noteworthy for spotlighting the talents of Richard Baskin, music supervisor of the NASHVILLE soundtrack—that night at the Aero was actually a tribute to Baskin, with both films being shown. He appears in NASHVILLE as Frog being berated by Henry Gibson during the opening section and in WELCOME TO L.A. he and his songs are a recurring presence throughout, with Baskin himself playing a famous singer everyone seems to know, hired on to perform the songs allegedly written by Carradine’s character and the ballads are so prevalent that there’s no way for this music, at home in no decade other than the 70s, droning (so much that should be a capital D) on endlessly in and out until it feels like we’ve heard some of the songs half a dozen times, to not affect whatever your opinion of the film will be (incidentally, Baskin appeared as musical guest on SATURDAY NIGHT LOVE around the time this film was released in a show hosted by Sissy Spacek, no doubt as promotion for it and the soundtrack album). It’s interesting to read comments out there on how much people seem to positively hate listening to him but without these songs the movie would simply be something else altogether, for better or worse. There’s a genuine yearning in there and, honestly, they stick with me enough that if the soundtrack became available on CD I’d want to have it. Baskin’s own life may very well be a key inspiration anyway, given that it’s a film about a songwriter who is the heir to a fortune just as Baskin, son of one of the founders of Baskin Robbins, himself is. There are clearly mirrors here, presented in a haze of Carradine’s character always drinking, unable to connect or communicate with anyone including these women throwing themselves at him, his music being sung by someone else, the movie itself seeming to exist in a haze through this city of one night stands that Baskin sings about.
As for the film, it’s a sort of jigsaw of characters trying too hard in love, in sex, and moments occasionally poking through to indicate what the meaning of it all is. Geraldine Chaplin speaks of being the only person in a movie theater at one point and it almost seems like she could be talking about this film, unspooling to audiences consisting of single people who take away from it all whatever they see of themselves in what’s onscreen. Daydreams and traffic, says Sally Kellerman of her reluctance to take the freeway in Los Angeles since it doesn’t let her daydream and that seems to be a metaphor for the movie itself. Instead of taking a straight route it wants to wander, get lost in certain moments and more than a few times these detours are pretty damn annoying, with characters meeting and being drawn to each other whether they should be or not. “I think we’re fast becoming old friends,” Kellerman tells Keitel when she’s trying to ingratiate herself after they’ve only just met, not very likely when none of these people even feel comfortable with themselves. Part of me wants to ascribe a word like ‘playful’ to it but in actuality the film isn’t really a pleasant enough experience for that. Still, that doesn’t mean there isn’t some truth to it in some way.
Probably the one thing about the film which stays with me above all is its recurring use of characters briefly breaking the fourth wall. It’s subtle at first—it’s not clear if Chaplin is even talking to herself, to a cab driver or to us—and one early occurrence involving Sally Kellerman happens so fast it almost plays as subliminal or an endearing mistake so the first few times I almost wasn’t even sure if it happened but it soon becomes certain this is part of the very fabric of the film. These characters that can’t connect with each other, who have no idea how to react to each other’s feelings, are in fact letting us in on their own secret, revealing something to us that they can’t share with anything else. One particularly surprising nude scene seems representative for how bare the film is meant to be, how awkward and haunting it really is. Maybe what you’re meant to take away from the deliberately enigmatic final shot that plays through the end credits is that you can’t strain yourself to make sense of L.A., to over explain it, to try to convince people who you want them to think you are. All you can do is find some kind of peace within yourself.
The performances are very much a part of the rhythm of the piece but it still feels like Rudolph isn’t using them as well as he would have a few years later even though the lack of chemistry, of connection, in every scene seems totally intentional. Keith Carradine is internal in his mannerisms and he’s meant to be, Geraldine Chaplin seemed to find her groove with the director big time in the following year’s REMEMBER MY NAME. Harvey Keitel offers an earnest charm which eventually pokes through his businesslike exterior and one moment by himself in an elevator excited about some good news is just about the most likeably human moment the entire film. Sally Kellerman is also particularly good in portraying her own desperate loneliness and Sissy Spacek’s waiflike nature is used to good effect (plus she’s nude part of the time, so I guess program this on a double bill with Michael Ritchie’s PRIME CUT). John Considine affects a pretty dead on portrait of 70s L.A. sleaze as Kellerman’s husband and not appearing as much as I’d like is the memorably beguiling Diahnne Abbott, of TAXI DRIVER and THE KING OF COMEDY, as one of Carradine’s conquests and she somehow seems to capture something just right in what the tone should be.
The movie may be forgotten by most of the world but it still feels important that I was finally able to see it. Very recent I was in Rocket Video, an L.A. rental store that is sadly going out of business and was having a closing sale. I went to look for rarities and instead of DVDs that I knew would be easily found elsewhere I was going carefully through their VHS racks in search of titles that are most likely becoming increasingly rare as time goes on. Near the very end of my hunt, right there among the Ws in the Drama section, I saw their copy of WELCOME TO L.A. and without even thinking I snagged it immediately. I’ve watched it and the tape doesn’t seem to be in very good shape—I’m not even sure if it would be a good idea to watch it again in this player—but for all I knew this was going to be the last time I’d ever see it in a video store. And sooner or later I might need to drift through it again on nights when I have that particular feeling. Hey, you never know.