Saturday, September 10, 2011
You're Just Glad You Heard It
It seemed like I was going to get to see Peter Bogdanovich’s THE THING CALLED LOVE, a romance set in the world of country music starring River Phoenix and Samantha Mathis, when it opened back in August 1993 but things didn’t work out that way. Mostly because it didn’t really open. I was actually in New Mexico that particular week, noticed that it was opening on Friday and then when I flew back to L.A. there was no sign of it. Looking up the stats, the film did in fact open on 490 screens in the southwest on August 27 (same day as Blake Edwards’ final film SON OF THE PINK PANTHER, speaking of directors I maintain a certain interest in), but it didn’t do very much business and that seems to have been about it for a theatrical release. To my knowledge the film has never had a single showing in L.A., even at the American Cinematheque, and when I saw it on video months after the fact it didn’t make much of an impression. Regardless, the version released on DVD was slightly expanded into a directors cut although I get the feeling few out there have bothered to take notice. Offering a genuine sense of affection for its world and characters THE THING CALLED LOVE is very pleasant but maybe not very much more than that—it’s pretty slight overall and maybe a little ordinary in how it tells its story although much of what seems to have been added consists of grace notes which are a big help in what sort of effect the film ultimately has. And looking at it now I can’t help but connect myself with how I was right around the age of the lead characters when it was made and somehow the film seems more meaningful to me as a result. Even if I’ve never really spent any time at all in Nashville.
The summer of ’93 was actually the time when I first moved out to Los Angeles, probably too young and stupid to know what I was doing. A lot of time has passed since then, enough that recently I was watching CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM and wondering who the 40ish love interest in the episode was played by only to shout out, “Holy crap, that was Samantha Mathis??!!” when the credits rolled and the name went by. She still looks pretty great, don’t get me wrong, it just isn’t the same. I’m getting old. Time has gone by. Maybe my memory from then of gazing at Mathis on this movie’s poster in the Los Angeles theaters where it would never play combined with how vivid my recollections of that summer still are is what causes THE THING CALLED LOVE to have a certain added resonance with me regardless of my own lack of interest in country music. As much as things never quite seem to fully connect as much as they should it’s clear that Bogdanovich never wants to settle on anyone being a simple stock characterization which is probably what the film has going for it more than anything else. Plus it marks the final lead role for River Phoenix who died just a few months after the abortive release something that seems to make the film more significant in a way that I still can’t fully express. It also remains the last film directed by Peter Bogdanovich for a major studio (to date, I’ll hopefully add) and while an ‘is that it?’ response to the movie may be understandable, for him just observing these people doing the best they can in life seems to be enough. During the film’s very best moments maybe it’s enough for me to.
Aspiring songwriter Miranda Presley (“No relation”--Samantha Mathis) leaves New York and heads to Nashville hoping to break into the music business. Soon after she gets there Miranda tries out at the famed Bluebird Café run by the stern but fair Lucy (K.T. Oslin) and the people who begin falling into her life include Linda Lue Linden (Sandra Bullock) who latches onto Miranda as a best friend almost immediately, good-natured Kyle Davidson (Dermot Mulroney) who makes no secret of his crush on Miranda and, most importantly, brooding James Wright (River Phoenix) who may be the most talented of any of them. In spite of the interest James has in Miranda being evident immediately the relationship isn’t easy in getting going and as they grow closer some of James’ other interests may derail where things are going for them before it even gets started.
Country music of course played a part in Bogdanovich’s THEY ALL LAUGHED (a film I love more and more all the time), set in a New York where more people seem to be interested in it than ever happens in real life. Taking place in a city where country music really is a big deal, THE THING CALLED LOVE (written by Carol Heikkinen) dials down the manic screwball behavior the director is sometimes known for to focus on character dynamics that still feel very much like other films the director has made, if not also taken from a few Lubitsch films made in the 30s that he’s seen a million times. Nothing extraordinary happens during the running time to make it play out all that differently from what you’d expect but he’s clearly just interested in the telling of it, the lived-in feel of the setting and just observing these characters in their good ways and petty ways as well. Miranda goes to Nashville, pursues her music and makes friends but she doesn’t go on spectacularly wacky adventures, she doesn’t get into any real trouble even when the cops are called after she breaks into a car to leave a demo tape and never encounters any really bad people—she simply goes there and lives her life. You can tell Bogdanovich is touched by the hopes of these people and for the most part he shoots his film in a very simple style, maybe almost too simple in how it does its best to play many scenes out in master shots, eschewing a standard touristy look at Nashville (a few second unit-type shots excepted and there are never any stock Southern stereotypes) in favor of just soaking in the environment that the characters actually spend time in. And it never tries to depict its world with the bigger than life flavor of something like URBAN COWBOY—even the Bluebird Café, where much of the action takes place, is set in a pretty normal shopping mall although Bogdanovich can’t seem to resist the occasional quirky touch to keep the local flavor coming like the wacky motel room Miranda stays in or how she goes to a barber who claims he once cut Elvis’s hair. There’s also maybe a slight feeling that Bogdanovich is so intent on playing things in such a naturalistic fashion dependant on how the actors are playing the scenes that he’s holding back on adding a little more oomph to some scenes. When at one point he stages a minor traffic accident followed by something that diffuses all tension immediately the moment plays with a nimbleness that few other directors would have attempted and it’s too bad this sort of energy isn’t around a little more during the film.
It’s a small story, with the presence of River Phoenix maybe placing more weight on every scene he's in than the movie can handle (in a way, like how THEY ALL LAUGHED had to deal with the spectre of Dorothy Stratten, murdered after shooting wrapped) and it’s hard not to think about what his particular approach here is or what may have been going on between takes. Reviews like Roger Ebert’s, written after Phoenix’s death, seemed to treat the movie as nothing more than a search for evidence of drug use and I don’t really know what to say about this except that it’s not something I can bring myself to do, although the actor does look older here than he really was—certainly also older than a few of the films he made not too long before this—and there’s a moodiness to his screen presence here which suggests an actor who is maybe distracted but also one who is doing whatever he could to keep his the role he’s playing from being just a standard movie star love interest. His chemistry with Mathis is edgy, uncertain, with the two leads (who did become a couple afterwards and Mathis was there that final night at the Viper Room) appearing to still be feeling each other out in the final scenes and there is a palpable uncertainty evident in their energy even when things are going well for the couple. If the script was ever designed to play as more of a standard romantic comedy that’s clearly not where things ended up.
In directing the film Bogdanovich seems content to let his camera hold on his leads as they gaze at each other through their music, inserting his own touches within the frame where he can, in particular a sequence at a drive-in (just like Bogdanovich’s TARGETS!) where John Ford’s THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE is showing, a film about a romantic triangle playing in a film about a romantic triangle (“The oldest story in the book” as Phoenix’s character says, acknowledging the clichéd nature of what we’re watching) and when the two of them come up with their own song about the classic western together it’s one of the sweetest passages of the entire film--falling for each other through music, kind of like AT LONG LAST LOVE! And as ordinary as some of the film may look the location of Phoenix’s house, nestled right next to some train tracks, is almost unbearably romantic and when the director’s own voice is heard during this section on the radio as a disc jockey (just as it is in THEY ALL LAUGHED) it almost plays as an indication that a moment like this is really the reason he’s making the movie to begin with.
Much as I may connect it with a certain point in time for myself THE THING CALLED LOVE isn’t really locked into 1993 or Generation X or anything like that so it never feels like a country music REALITY BITES. What the film does do is offer a feeling of freedom, of the time when you’re young when you’re still trying to figure things out and you haven’t looked down from that tightrope yet to fully understand how difficult what you’re trying to do is with relationships that are kind of messy, such as the obstacles that keep the two girls from becoming the best of friends that the overly friendly Linda Lue would like them to be—the lone wolf New York nature of Miranda is something I can understand. Sometimes the person who’s going to change your life can walk right in front of you at a moment’s notice and even when the credits roll it isn’t entirely clear on which direction certain parts of this dynamic are going to go. It wears its heart on its sleeve, expressed by Mulroney in saying that he loves country music because of how simple it is without any sarcasm, it either makes you laugh or cry. It almost could just as easily be the director talking about the Hollywood Golden Age films he misses and listening to him on the audio commentary where he points out scenes shot not in Nashville but back in Hollywood soundstage at Paramount makes what he’s doing sound all the more quaint. THE THING CALLED LOVE is maybe a little too plain in its storytelling but within that simplicity is an exploration of people who are ultimately complex, each for reasons of their own, and not always that likable as they try to discard their past in favor of the future they think they need. And sometimes when you set out to begin your life, you later realize that it’s actually started even before you were ready but, as Mulroney’s character points out at one point, you’re just glad you heard it anyway. I can understand. It’s small but it’s sweet. It’s too goofy at times but it feels hopeful, even if it is a little tentative about that. It sits back and lets the music happen, it lets the words and feelings flow from their eyes. Maybe that’s not such a bad quality to have.
River Phoenix is top billed but it really is Samantha Mathis’s movie. Never really as glammed up as she appears on that poster Mathis takes control of every shot she’s in with a combination of fierce determination and fear that she has no idea what she’s really doing. With not much of a backstory outside of a few lines and that Yankees cap she determinedly wears Mathis has a tentative enthusiasm and awkwardness that is totally endearing, ideal for what the film needs. She may not have become the big star it seemed like she was going to for a few minutes but I’m glad there’s this performance by her, as well as that giant close-up when she leans down at Phoenix during one love scene and recites Robert Graves (an added moment according to the commentary, so thank you to Peter Bogdanovich for that). As for Phoenix there’s always something going on with him onscreen and some of it is hugely moving now, like how he can make his character’s feelings known for Miranda just by the way he says her name. But it still feels like there’s a layer somehow missing from the performance as if they never found the right hook for the character and it never quite comes together as well as something like his downright haunting work in Nancy Savoca’s vastly underappreciated DOGFIGHT. Sandra Bullock is cute as a button playing Linda Lue and it’s no surprise she emerged soon after this (If I squint I can see a touch of Cybill Shepherd in how Bogdanovich directs her—maybe in Mathis as well), Mulroney brings the right sort of likable nature to his out-of-place Connecticut kid even if it’s clear why he comes in second to James, Anthony Clark is Linda Lue’s boyfriend Billy and singer K.T. Oslin makes for a reliable voice of reason as Lucy, owner of the Bluebird Café. Trisha Yearwood also turns up, one of several real-life figures making cameos. I’d say more about the songs, some of which were written by the actors who perform them, but I’m the last person who should be offering critiques on country music although the Mathis-Phoenix duet of “Blame It On Your Heart” is pretty catchy.
I drove across this country by myself when I moved out to California, leaving the Twin Towers which appear in the opening shot of this film behind me, a past being left in favor of the future I was searching for. Nashville wasn’t on my agenda, of course—when I hit that town I just kept on moving down Rt. 40 without stopping. I think of those days and I think of the road out in front of me, the future out in front of me. I was younger then, with all the hope in the world. Stupid of me, I know. My own feelings about THE THING CALLED LOVE have little to do with the actual film, I’ll admit that, but there’s something to be said about figuring out how to press on, to keep moving forward, moving past writing what’s just a novelty song to writing something that comes from actual life experience and that in itself can be ‘a good start’. I still haven’t become a disciple of country music but I can say that I appreciate what this film is trying to say, probably even more now than I ever did.