Monday, January 31, 2011

Amid The Chaos Of That Day

During all the countless times I’ve gone to the movies at the Vista Theater over the years, not once has a cute girl ever suddenly tried to strike up a conversation with me in the middle of a movie leading to going for pie afterwards and beyond. You’d think by this point there would have been something close to it, but nope. True, I once sat next to the actress who played Arnie Becker’s ex-wife on L.A. LAW, but that’s not the same thing, is it? Of course it happens to Detroit resident Clarence Worley when he goes to the theater on his birthday and the Vista isn’t even anywhere near Detroit, it’s right down the street from where I write all this at the place Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards intersect, but never mind. I’ll try to keep the dream alive. The bad news for the WILD AT HEART/TRUE ROMANCE double bill on January 26 as part of Edgar Wright’s The Wright Stuff II series at the New Beverly Cinema was that the secret guest had to cancel after coming down with a cold. Everyone there could probably guess that person would have been TRUE ROMANCE screenwriter Quentin Tarantino who had been there the previous week to talk about DIRTY HARRY but what are you gonna do? The good news was that when WILD AT HEART ended the entire theater was given the shock of a surprise appearance by none other than David Lynch and Laura Dern, appearing from the back door of the theater like they were guests on The Tonight Show to graciously speak and answer questions for fifteen minutes or so. Apparently even Edgar Wright, who had planned to spring only Laura Dern on us, was himself surprised by the director being there and the entire packed house rose to their feet to give Lynch a standing ovation. After that no one had any right to complain about who didn’t show up and let it be said once again how much I love the New Beverly.

But if Quentin Tarantino did decide to come down to the theater at the last minute, how late would the evening have gone in the end? It could very well have been one of the greatest nights for film geeks in the history of Los Angeles and we would all have had to quit after that, knowing that it would never come anywhere close to that good again. So we were never faced with that dilemma but the sold out house did get the chance to see a 35mm print of the Tony Scott-directed TRUE ROMANCE which was good enough for me particularly considering how some of those bright colors of its narrative intensity popped off the screen and as nice as the film might look on DVD it’s definitely not the same. I hadn’t seen TRUE ROMANCE in a theater since its original release way back in ’93 and by now I’ve seen the unrated cut on various video/DVD releases so many times that returning to the R-rated version (the only kind available on 35mm, naturally) was a little disorienting. But while watching the film in the shadow of WILD AT HEART—to be honest, never my favorite David Lynch film and that’s coming from somebody who worships the man—in spite of the late hour I found myself truly loving TRUE ROMANCE more than I had in years and was in many ways a reminder of some of my own innocent dreams of another time, maybe also way back in ‘93. We’ll never know exactly what the film would have been like if Tarantino had directed his own script instead of Tony Scott but so what—the movie was a hugely entertaining thrill when it came out and it still is today. And to think I almost didn’t go that night because I wasn’t really in the mood to leave the house. That definitely would have been a mistake.

Detroit comic book store employee and Elvis lover Clarence Worley (Christian Slater) is enjoying a Sonny Chiba triple bill by himself on his birthday when the beautiful Alabama (Patricia Arquette) sits near him and strikes up a conversation. They hit it off immediately but after spending the night together Alabama reveals that she is actually a call girl hired as a birthday present. In spite of this she admits her love for him and he does the same for her. They marry right away but, after being goaded on by what is the vision of presumably Elvis Presley (Val Kilmer) in his head Clarence goes to meet her pimp Drexel (Gary Oldman) so she can be free and clear of him. The meeting results in a blood bath with Drexel and his cohorts killed by Clarence but as he tries to get Alabama’s belongings out of there he actually winds up with a suitcase filled with cocaine. The two soon decide to get out of town and head for Hollywood to try to sell the stash, stopping off at Clarence’s father (Dennis Hopper) before they leave. But the mob, in the person of the powerful Vincent Coccotti (Christopher Walken) and others, are on the hunt for Clarence and they’re willing to chase him wherever he is to get their merchandise back.

And that’s just part of it. Released in September 1993, the film came at a time when we’d already seen RESERVOIR DOGS and become forever addicted to RESERVOIR DOGS so with PULP FICTION still a year in the future this was a way to keep the cinematic rush that the Tarantino syntax provided going. If it was ever a question of how much his style would be accepted commercially the answer at the time seemed to be indicated in how little the film, which feels designed to play like gangbusters for a crowd, really made. It did nothing, just over $12 million, and just for fun sometime go look up the 1993 films that did more business. UNDERCOVER BLUES opened the same day and did slightly better. HOCUS POCUS did better. So did WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S II. Christ, LIFE WITH MIKEY made a little more money. Of course, by the time PULP FICTION was released it seemed like everyone was ready for the potent mix Tarantino had to offer with all the unexpected bursts of violence that come from nowhere during the laughs and that one was pure and uncut, no big-studio gloss about it (on another night of the festival Wright mentioned that Tarantino once told him that “TRUE ROMANCE had to flop so PULP FICTION could be a hit.”). The geek-heavy tone of pop culture in the internet age has caught up with the manic nature of Clarence Worley by now as well and Edgar Wright in his introduction felt that his own films bore more than a little influence of the thematic line that went from Woody Allen’s idolization of Bogart in PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM to this film’s worship of Elvis. Maybe there never was a correct way to sell TRUE ROMANCE commercially but regardless the film does seem like Tarantino’s most accessible, straight-ahead storyline for a mass audience that he’s ever attempted and the way it plays, just about the only thing in it which seems to go against expectations of any sort in Tarantino fashion would be the sly way it removes the hero from the climactic action almost entirely. His out-of-sequence screenplay (this wouldn’t be a big deal at all if it were made now) was rearranged into linear fashion by Tony Scott but this structural alteration doesn’t really damage things at all, not something I’d imagine you could say if the same were done to RESERVOIR DOGS, PULP FICTION or KILL BILL.

I admit, I’m one of those people who’ll always bitch about how extreme Tony Scott sometimes goes with his visual overkill. Having said that, I may as well state flat out that I enjoyed pretty much everything about his recent UNSTOPPABLE and it almost goes without saying here that while his glossy, smoke-filled fast-cut style is very much present in TRUE ROMANCE (though certainly no longer anywhere near as extreme as it once seemed) there’s an infectious enthusiasm to just about every single moment of the running time. The story moves like the most enjoyable ride on a runaway missile imaginable and even through the most brutally violent stretches it feels like the director is just so happy to be working with this material, loving all the actors in the frame as new plot elements begin to pile up, as he at times crashes in and out of scenes abruptly to keep it all moving as fast as possible. For this one time in Scott’s career my critical faculties slip away and I really don’t think that’s just because of my love for Tarantino’s script. It’s also due to the energy, the fervor, the joy of making this thing that feels crammed into every single Panavision frame. The film is violent, absolutely. But the overall impression that comes from it, helped by the Hans Zimmer score (as well as the musical derivative from BADLANDS which isn’t really homage as much as a flat-out acknowledgement), is a genuine sweetness that goes against the expected action movie feel. The relationship between the two leads infects a sense of love over the entire film, providing even the massacre at the end with an angelic quality, certainly aided by the endless amount of feathers floating down in its aftermath, giving it all an infectious optimism that seemed to reemerge as I watched the film at the New Beverly. Practically everything about it comes together and it’s a fantastic piece of work.

Very much played like a slice of wish-fulfillment, as if dreamed by a lonely geek while seeing a boring movie by himself on some lonely afternoon, the Tony Scott version of TRUE ROMANCE doesn’t seem to have much to do with any version of real life and even the sunny world of Hollywood is presented in fanciful style, including sticking Burbank’s Safari Inn right in the middle of Sunset Blvd., not to mention where it apparently thinks the Vista is located. Since it’s really a fairy tale anyway, it really doesn’t matter. Scott interprets Tarantino’s words with a genuine sense of freedom, with his style very much at the forefront and yet it never gets in the way of what the actors are doing. It feels like he loves giving every single one of them, even the bit players, a chance to shine while they’re onscreen. What is sometimes referred to as the Sicilian scene, featuring Dennis Hopper as Clarence’s father and Christopher Walken as mobster Coccotti facing off, is of course legendary by now and even if it feels a little designed to be ‘the best scene in the film’, well, it is. Both actors are flat-out brilliant here in every way—seriously, there are inflections in both their voices at certain points that I find just beautiful—and it’s not only the strongest part of any film Scott has ever directed, as far as I’m concerned placing the selection from Delibes’ Lakme (of course familiar from his own THE HUNGER) over Hopper’s final speech in the single best filmmaking choice he’s ever made. It removes what I imagine (maybe incorrectly) as the cold, deadpan way Tarantino would have shot it, taking what is wickedly offensive and, though that musical reminder of why the character in question is saying what he’s saying, turning it into something genuinely heartfelt and beautiful. The scene runs over ten minutes and I feel like I could sit here right now and watch it another ten times.

The Tony Scott gloss is definitely always there but it never overwhelms things and it’s maybe the one film he’s ever made that could actually be called somewhat nimble. It’s like he’s gotten reenergized as a filmmaker by these characters, these words, by the chance to linger on shots of Patricia Arquette’s Alabama, adorable as she sits there watching A BETTER TOMORROW II, by Bronson Pinchot nervously whispering, “You want me to suck his dick?” into the phone, by every single moment that Brad Pitt’s stoner on the couch has. It’s like he’s read Clarence’s speech to Saul Rubinek’s Lee Donowitz where he lists off MAD MAX, THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY and RIO BRAVO as what he thinks “movies” really are then decided that he wanted this one to deserve to be part of that list no matter what. The elements all come together beautifully with individual sections like the amazingly ferocious motel room confrontation between Arquette and pre-SOPRANOS James Gandolfini and the way all the dots get connected by the time it reaches the hotel climax works just beautifully. So well in fact that, as Edgar Wright pointed out in his intro, Tony Scott has redone the exact sort of standoff he does here from himself for a few of his later films including ENEMY OF THE STATE. Maybe looking at it now TRUE ROMANCE is more of a carefree fun time than a few of Tarantino’s own movies which are able to leave a mark on my soul in a way this one doesn’t, but so what. It’s a glossy interpretation of his writing which means that even if it’s not Tarantino it’s still the best possible pure Hollywood version of Tarantino that anyone ever made. And for this one time, maybe it’s close enough.

Looking at the theatrical version again after all this time is frankly is a slightly different overall experience and the shorter cut with a few less gunshots and beats of extreme violence feels just a little too abrupt at times. Some of the most extreme dialogue was also cut out in the quest to get an R—this was a reminder of how back then I barely understood why Samuel L. Jackson was even in the movie considering how much his one scene had the ax taken to it and this version of the scene now played just as abrupt as I remembered. Even a few stray bits of dialogue seemed to be missing from the R cut, like Saul Rubinek sceaming “Take your fucking SAG card and burn it!” at Bronson Pinchot. Interestingly, during the climax of the unrated version Chris Penn’s Officer Dimes is shot in anguish by Alabama but in the R cut he’s taken out by one of the mafia goons played by Paul Ben-Victor. I’m still not sure how I feel about this alteration but can’t help but wonder if this is one case where the theatrical version worked a little better, maybe thinking it would make more sense for both Clarence and Alabama to be left out of everything going on between the cops, mobsters and Donowitz’s bodyguards entirely, keeping them as angels allowed to float outside of it all. I’m not saying I’m right but I’m putting that question out there.

It feels like going over each performance that I love in full detail would make this piece twice as long, but it can’t be stated enough how joyous it is to watch the people in this film, characters vivid enough so that they seem like they’re the leads in their own movie played by actors who all rise to the occasion big time. Christian Slater may not be the most convincing shy geek ever (not the least convincing either, though) but his energy and desire to be just as cool as the King carries through the whole movie, no doubt helped by all that sugar he keeps pouring in his coffee and he’s matched by Arquette who is just amazing, playing things sexy, coy, funny, desperate and, when it’s needed, ruthless. I mentioned Hopper and Walken but how about the rest—James Gandolfini’s monologue about the first time you kill somebody, Saul Rubinek’s Joel-Silver-meets-Oliver-Stone producer, Michael Rapaport’s puppy dog earnestness, Anna Thomson’s disinterested bar floozy, Gary Oldman’s oozingly nasty pimp, Chris Penn and Tom Sizemore’s buddy cops (like Rubinek & Pinchot, I’d watch a TV series starring these guys). Among the obvious references, tiny things jumped out at me for the first time on this viewing--while the mobsters are getting ready for the climax one of them played by Kevin Corrigan does a quick "You talkin' to me?" riff while Victor Argo, who actually was in TAXI DRIVER, sits off to the side, chuckling.

If Quentin Tarantino had plans to reveal any TRUE ROMANCE secrets that night I guess we’ll never know, but he’s certainly said a great deal about the movie elsewhere by now including the DVD commentary where he openly speaks at length about how personal certain parts of it are for him. Some of what he says reveals just how what he wrote goes beyond just being an extension of that fantasy of sitting next to an amazing girl in a movie theater who likes the same things you do, but that still remains very much a part of its appeal. Frankly, the thought of it right now seems like just about the most wonderful dream imaginable. TRUE ROMANCE is going on eighteen years since its release which means that more time has gone by than had passed since the death of Elvis himself when the movie opened, a thought that pretty much blows my mind. And after all these years, I still haven’t ended up with a girl to sit next to when I go to the movies at the Vista, which makes me want to take a minute to pause and contemplate a hell of a lot of things that have gone on in my life. But I suppose that seeing TRUE ROMANCE again that night at the New Beverly reminded me that lots of things are still possible, that there is still hope every time I go back into a movie theater that a girl like that may someday appear and, for a little while, its genuine exuberance made me feel young again. Or at least younger than I am now.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Good At What He Does

“I’ve always thought that all good movies are westerns in one way or another,” Walter Hill told the sold out crowd at the New Beverly Cinema on January 24. Maybe not the exact quote but that’s close enough, although he allowed for the caveat that he’s not as sure about that theory as he used to be. But even if that statement is something of an exaggeration, don’t you want your action films directed by somebody willing to draw that kind of line in the sand? Isn’t that what love of pure cinema is all about? It was another night of the Edgar Wright-hosted The Wright Stuff II series and the occasion was a screening of his 1978 action film—considering what he said I suppose we should call it an urban western—THE DRIVER. Looking out at the large crowd, Hill commented that it was the largest audience in America the movie ever had, there to see the film with writer/director Hill in attendance along with associate producer Frank Marshall and stars Bruce Dern and Ronee Blakley. Whether it was or not, what got screened was an absolutely beautiful print of a movie that didn't get much attention at the time and deserves to be better known today, one of those seventies films that have undeservedly fallen through the cracks, but survives as a genuine example of individual style from that period. Only his second film as director from a screenplay he wrote himself his skill and confidence as a filmmaker, his own innate Walter Hillness shall we say, is already there, present and accounted for. The effect the movie gives off hangs like smoke in the air through much of its running time as you are simultaneously gripped by the action and hypnotized by the vaguely defined story of characters whose names are never revealed but whose actions say everything we ever need to know about them. It seems deliberately designed to strip everything you’re going to get from this storyline down to its essentials and then once it is as bare as it could possibly be Hill strips it down some more. Supposedly the title character played by Ryan O’Neal only speaks 350 words in the entire film but I’ll bet that if Hill could have figured out a way to make it even less he would have done so.

A nameless getaway driver (“The Driver” – Ryan O’Neal) pulls a job in which he’s seen by a mysterious woman (“The Player” – Isabelle Adjani) but his expertise allows him and his fellow crooks to elude the police. However, the detective hot on his trail (“The Detective” – Bruce Dern) is certain The Driver is the one he’s looking for and is willing to do anything he can to take him down. When The Player refuses to identify The Driver for reasons of her own, The Detective comes up with a plan to enlist certain crooks to pull off a bank robbery he is engineering just so he can take him down once and for all. But The Driver just might be a few steps ahead of their never-ending game of cat and mouse.

It’s easy to see some of the influences beginning with the French crime films of Jean-Pierre Melville and maybe a little of Richard Stark’s Parker in the character of The Driver with the trashing of a bright orange Mercedes playing like a distinctive touch out of POINT BLANK. Some of the elements also feel like they come from different parts of Hill’s own career, including being on the crew of BULLITT—he downplayed this during the discussion, saying he was really just involved with crowd control during the shooting of the famous chase—and some of the train station locker stuff here recalls certain plot machinations of THE GETAWAY which he wrote the screenplay for. With these various influences part of the mix it’s clear that Hill’s unique approach to making action movies is clearly still developing here so it’s not the ultimate Walter Hill film that he might have made out of the basic concept a few years later when there was more confidence in how far he would try to take his stylistic risks. But regardless, there’s still something addictive out of moving through the evocative downtown L.A. of the 70s which has that naturalistic feel of films from the era while seemingly defiant about having nothing to do with reality--The Driver seems to drift alone from job to job, room to room, doing nothing but listening to a little tape recorder playing cowboy music (until the very end, Dern only refers to him as things like ‘cowboy’ and ‘desperado’), waiting for that next time he can prove once again that he’s the best getaway driver around as if forced to exist in some kind of purgatory where he’s the only one who matters. The dumb thugs who actually pull these jobs are never portrayed as the type of true professional he is and the movie seems totally disinterested in the actual robberies anyway—for the most part we just the tail end of them as the crooks in question begin to make their getaways, instead focusing on the driver waiting outside. The movie seems to thrive on that sort of thwarting of expectations—considering how dynamic the chase scenes are and how at one point Dern tells him, “I really like chasing you,” it seems somewhat perverse that the movie is about his pursuit of O’Neal but the two of them are never involved in one of those action scenes together. Just as The Driver spends much of his down time in tiny rooms doing nothing this grinning Cheshire Cat of a cop who believes that the sports page is the best part of the paper because it tells you the winners and losers seems to do all his business out of Torchy’s Bar, waiting to figure out the best way to make his move, to take down this cowboy who’s never been caught, as he puts it.

It’s made all the more odd by the casting—the legendary Dern of course fits perfectly into this mileau, but O’Neal is an odd fit, almost deliberately so. In spite of what his reputation might be to some, I say he’s a good enough actor that I can buy him when he doesn’t flinch as shotguns are being fired at the getaway car he’s driving but he’s still got that lightweight Ryan O’Neal face, making it all the more fascinating how little he really does say and, as Edgar Wright himself pointed out in the discussion, it’s refreshing to see a lead in an action movie who refrains from tossing out a one-liner after blowing somebody away. O’Neal seems to spend almost half his screen time responding to something said to him with just a silent glance followed by him turning and walking away--maybe the best example of that is when asked if he wants to pay an extra dollar for a TV in his crummy hotel room. The very French Adjani feels just as out of place in this environment but the fact that you wonder what she’s doing here makes her that much more intriguing while the honey-voiced Ronee Blakley (as “The Connection”) also doesn’t seem like who would normally be playing this part considering her sweet, down home Shelley Duvall-like demeanor but maybe because I connect her with that 70s Altman aesthetic it seems to fit a little better than O’Neal, one more unexplained quirk that makes the film that much more unique.

Supposedly Steve McQueen was somebody Hill tried to get for the role of The Driver, which is really no surprise at all, but then the whole thing might have come off as somewhat more normal, not quite so idiosyncratic it is now. It plays more than a little like an odd work that is partly European and partly American, partly arthouse and partly drive-in but really, I suppose, just kind of uncut Walter Hill, a pure examination of these fascinating characters who live in a world that occupies his own head. At 91 minutes it’s very short—I’ve seen the film before but on this viewing I was so caught up in the plot that I was actually surprised when I realized we were about to arrive at the conclusion—and it does maybe feel like it’s building to one final chase that doesn’t get to happen, probably the one between the two leads we never get, but its quiet mood lingers in the brain with a cool vibe that you don’t ever want to shake. The guys are cool. The women are cool. For once in a movie, I kind of want to be like Ryan O’Neal, encountering all the elegance that Isabelle Adjani exudes as she wanders around the Westin Bonaventure Hotel. It’s all surrounded by some of the best car chase action through the empty streets of downtown L.A. you can imagine, showing both how good Walter Hill was at doing this sort of thing and how much more effective it was back in those pre-CGI days when it felt like there was actual danger in these stunts—one in particular near the end looks genuinely dangerous. The chases are mostly unscored but the evocative, largely atonal music by Michael Small still feels different from a lot of action films of the time. Either way, THE DRIVER is a deliberately stylized adult fantasy land, framed within that 70s feel so it almost has a feel like nothing else, a world of people who always wear the same outfits, of men who say little, elegantly-dressed women in slacks keeping their attractiveness at play while letting their eyes tell everything. Some of it is about this style that the director puts onscreen more than anything, infusing the characters with that style but some of the Melville films have a similarly unexplainable vibe to them that I remember more than anything else long after I’ve seen them as well. It’s pure cinema in some ways, always willing to express its coolness as an extension of how its maker sees his world. The end hints that this is all going to be a never-ending cycle for these guys and maybe for the director that’s just the way it should be.

While speaking about his star during the discussion Hill had nothing but praise for O’Neal’s performance but allowed that his presence was maybe something the movie was never able to overcome for people, which frankly isn’t at all invalid considering how when Ryan O’Neal shows up you almost automatically expect something else than what’s here. Regardless, there’s not a moment where he betrays the character, letting his eyes do the talking as much as possible and it results in a strong portrayal. As for Dern, holy cow, is he a joy in the film. He’s the one who gets the dialogue and he has a blast with it, talking as much as he can, totally cocky, but still trying to figure things out so he can finally get his man. He clearly loves playing this part and you can tell the audience loved him as well. At one point during the train sequence he takes somebody down and everybody cheered. Why? Because it’s Bruce fucking Dern, that’s why. Adjani exudes a cool sophistication and genuine elegance with just a single glance within scenes while Blakley pops off the screen with her off-kilter nature. Even though she only has a few scenes her last, which trades off a certain kind of deadly silence, is one of the very best and most purely ruthless moments in the entire film. Also appearing as Dern’s fellow cops are the very familiar Matt Clark from BUCKAROO BANZAI as well as a million other things and Felice Orlandi, probably most recognizable from playing Renick in BULLITT.

I’ve seen Bruce Dern speak before at the New Beverly and it’s such a thrill to get to see him again. I could listen to him talk about, well, anything for hours. But Walter Hill? Walter friggin’ Hill? Walter Hill walks the earth? He takes off his sunglasses? I’m sure I wasn’t the only one hugely excited to see him there and I doubt that even a complete transcript of the discussion (it doesn’t seem to be on Youtube—wasn’t somebody there taping it?) would adequately indicate the sheer joy of getting to hear these guys talk about how they work together. Even if everything Hill said didn’t totally shed light on things (“I’m not sure I’m smart enough to answer that,” he replied to one of Wright’s penetrating questions about the film’s style) sometimes what he did say was enough. And as the post-film Q&A went on he did seem to warm up to things, speaking of his love for actors, the way the car chases were intricately laid out, the perils of shooting in downtown L.A. back in the 70s. Early on the studio wanted Robert Mitchum to play Bruce Dern’s role and Hill met with the star for about six hours once over some vodka to discuss it and one of Hill’s most emphatic speeches of the night was a long dissection of why Mitchum would have been wrong for both the part and the film. As for Dern, just about every single thing he said spoke of his love for working with Hill and his filmmaking style, sometimes offering praise for a few films that he wasn’t even in and pointing out how at one point in THE DRIVER he holds on an actor during a particularly tense moment, essentially yelling with all the passion of a love for this film imaginable how any other director would have cut the camera right then. Frank Marshall mentioned how he gave up a relaxing summer in Malibu for night shoots downtown and Ronee Blakley spoke about how thrilled she was to see the film again, telling a story about how she felt The Connection should always carry a gun though her director disagreed but I just spent most of the time amazed that Barbara Jean from NASHVILLE was right there. I think I had to restrain myself from going up and bowing down before her because of that. At one point Wright even asked Hill about a certain shot he particularly admired, one where Bruce Dern is waiting for something that isn’t coming with some of his fellow cops in the background, and Hill complimented him for noticing. In some ways, it’s a perfect example of the director’s skill, how he can pack in a huge amount of narrative economy into just a few seconds. In terms of the film’s realism, Hill made no bones about it--the characters never-changing outfits are very much meant to be uniforms that reveal who they are as much as anything and since The Detective’s actions were never meant to represent actual law enforcement procedure there was no advisement along those lines from the police on the film either. The director also wanted Tuesday Weld for the part Isabelle Adjani played but EMI, who had put up half the money, wanted a European name in there and Hill wound up removing some of her dialogue when she had trouble with the English. He offered that it’s her casting as much as anything which he feels contributes to people getting a European vibe from the finished film. Due to its incessantly stark nature I say they would have gotten it anyway, but never mind. Maybe it is a combination of the elements. Maybe it’s just pure, uncut Walter Hill, pure style, pure character, pure cinema.

And it’s clear that the film has itself been imitated more than a few times—Wright pointed out that Hill could probably get some money out of the video game simply called DRIVER and I also couldn’t help but wonder about the similarity between Ryan O'Neal's jacket-and-shirt-no-tie thing and Robert De Niro's look in HEAT--granted, O’Neal keeps a few more of the buttons undone, but still. While looking up stuff on the film afterwards I couldn’t help but notice that Tara King, the frizzy haired hotel clerk here, plays a similar role in 48 HRS. but her hair isn’t quite so frizzy in that film and elements like that along with the recurring use of Torchy’s Bar (according to Hill in the Q&A it was only the real place two of the times he used it) provides a glimpse into the eccentricities in Hill’s work that I think have gone overlooked in people focusing on their sheer kickassness which they do have, no question about it.

The second film of the night was another 70s auto special—Steven Spielberg’s DUEL. That film’s director of course didn’t show up although Wright did read an email he had received from him that day. But as good as that was it was really THE DRIVER which made the impression on me that night along with the experience of hearing what the man who made it had to say. Hill came off as laconic as I sort of expected he would be based on his films and to be honest—I don’t mean this in a bad way at all—I got the feeling that if you got to have dinner with him and had a conversation about life or anything else he wanted to talk about, you’d get some better answers to questions about his films than if you asked him directly. Maybe it’s something I think about more as I get older but I think there’s something to be said about films—any kind of films—that reveal parts of the people who made them and we don’t have to be specifically told why that is. At the least the people at the New Beverly got a small inkling of what a conversation with him would be like so it says something about the genuine admiration from Edgar Wright and that audience I was a part of that he made the decision to return to the theater several nights later for THE WARRIORS, also part of Wright’s series. I don’t know if every good film really is a western or not but there’s something about the experience of getting to see a movie like THE DRIVER with a big crowd that makes you believe that every good film is made by somebody with the kind of passion somebody like Walter Hill can bring to them. Something like that reminds me how much I absolutely love movies.

Monday, January 24, 2011

In All This Excitement

If only I could have seen DIRTY HARRY when it was released in 1971 to fully understand just how the movie played back then but that it’s still thrilling to see now has to say something. As social drama, the film isn’t exactly nuanced which certainly hurts its credibility and the way it takes a real life case that was still ongoing at the time in the exact same city the film is set in to use for popcorn thrills still feels more than a little bit wrong, only adding to the undeniable aura of dark, anamorphic nastiness that permeates every single frame. But in spite of all this I can’t help but continually realize as I watch it how, as an incessantly forceful piece of work, it’s just so damn good, it really is. Don Siegel’s DIRTY HARRY could be considered many things, whether a genuine right-wing tract or just a desperate howl over what was happening to America in general around this time framing old against young, establishment versus radicals who wanted to take things over. Or if you just want to ignore all that and look at it as a straight action movie about a cop who just happens to be more interested in protecting the innocent and punishing the evil than in any ‘rights’ the guilty might have, a true urban western, there’s that too. It also provided the basic template for just about every other cop movie made during the next twenty years and beyond so some of what was groundbreaking at the time may now play as cliché, but so what. What it achieves was proven once again with the showing of an absolutely beautiful print as part of director Edgar Wright’s The Wright Stuff II series at the New Beverly Cinema and the first night I attended. Wright was there on Jan. 18th to introduce the film to the sold out crowd, along with seeing it from the front row, and brought out surprise guest Quentin Tarantino to discuss it with him both before and after the screening. No surprise, Tarantino had a lot to say. And there’s a lot to say about this movie.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone out there doesn’t know the plot of the film but I just went for a walk with someone who hadn’t seen it so they exist. She’s still a nice person, though. Anyway: In San Francisco, a young woman is murdered by a killer who calls himself Scorpio in a letter to the police, in which he demands payment of $100,000 or his killings will continue. SFPD Inspector Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood), known throughout the department as “Dirty Harry” is assigned to the case, but his captain forces him to take on rookie Chico Gonzalez (Reni Santoni) as a partner. When an attempt to catch Scorpio (Andrew Robinson) goes wrong, the maniac kidnaps another girl and demands an even greater ransom. Harry is the one assigned to deliver the money but even though Scorpio is captured things don’t quite go as planned and due to legalities the District Attorney is forced to set him free. Harry is enraged by what the system is allowing to happen, but of course Scorpio’s plan doesn’t end there.

What sticks in the brain after seeing DIRTY HARRY is all that grime and sludge that seems to ooze out of the frame, somehow making the gorgeous city of San Francisco not all that attractive a place to be. It’s photographed in anamorphic Panavision, unlike the comparable BULLITT from three years earlier and while that film feels more open-aired in its Bay Area compositions, DIRTY HARRY’s well framed Scope use somehow feels more crammed in, narrower, meaner. Basically the entire film looks to be shot in location with the obvious exception of the bank robbery sequence filmed on the Universal (not Warner) lot and the city somehow feels more horizontal than it does in any other film, odd considering what our normal perception of the place is. The numerous views we see from high above making it seem strangely flat and spread out as if its citizens are all insects in this massive landscape, ready to be mowed down by Scorpio as he lingers on a rooftop waiting to take down as many innocent lambs as possible.

Contrary to what the normal perception of it might be, the film isn’t without its lighter moments and there is humor in the character of Harry Callahan, like his desire to finish that hot dog before the bank alarm goes off and that degree of likeability along with how he takes care of those bank robbers with his .44 Magnum gets us on his side right away even the character’s supposed racism is done with more of a wink than anything (the one friend of his we ever meet is black, of course). We can see glimpses of the more relaxed Callahan who was once married but much of that has been buried by the overwhelming feel of the madness that’s happened to the world, to this San Francisco that’s been overwhelmed by all the hippies who as this film portrays them have gotten progressively skuzzier in the years since the summer of love, as if they’ve managed to wipe away everything that was ever serene and normal in this beautiful city. Seriously, the black & white, Mancini-infused EXPERIMENT IN TERROR was only nine years before this? VERTIGO was only thirteen?

The square white guys Callahan has to deal with in his job like John Vernon “as the Mayor” and John Larch’s police chief (Larch somehow seems like he only belongs in the world of 60s detective shows) are for the most part totally ineffectual at even having an idea of how to deal with the city they’re allegedly in charge of, totally incapable at dealing with the mad killer Scorpio who seems to represent everything anybody who voted for Nixon fears about the younger generation, distorting the peace symbol for his own means. For the most part a straight ahead narrative dealing with Harry’s pursuit of Scorpio, the film focuses on the case at hand than the more relaxed BULLITT does and it makes sense. Harry, working overtime even though he knows he’ll never get paid for it, has nothing else other than this case, no restaurants to go to with friends where a jazz combo is playing, certainly no women in his life (the sequels made him more of a stud, of course) and he can’t even seem to imagine wanting anything else. Even the one person in the film who seems like he might really become his friend sensibly decides he doesn’t want any part of all this. “No reason for it, really,” he says about his wife being killed by a drunk driver and in a world where that happened, where a mad killer is set free, he seems to have come to the absolute realization that there’s no reason for anything so by a certain point there’s no need to listen to those who rank above him that say otherwise.

The plots of each Dirty Harry entry always seem to feel like a number of elements sort of slapped together in the pursuit of a storyline and that’s a little true of the original as well but it easily works the best here with a script (Story by Harry Julian Fink & R.M. Fink, Screenplay but Harry Julian Fink & R.M. Fink and Dean Riesner, with uncredited contributions by none other than Terrence Malick and John Milius, who is the one responsible for the “Do you feel lucky?” speech) that is truly tight, lean and always knows how to push exactly the right buttons—along with one memorable exchange that was specifically parodied years later in THE NAKED GUN, of course. While introducing the movie Tarantino placed it into the context of the political shitstorm that resulted at the time, how it appealed directly to the far-right Americans that had voted for Nixon (“the tea baggers of the time” was the phrase he used, I believe) and were absolutely terrified by what to them had happened to the country over the past few years, with the particular city this film was set in seen as ground zero of all that was immoral. Addressing the mindset of the critics back then Tarantino mentioned if you go and read what people like Pauline Kael said about it, “You won’t know what the fuck they’re talking about,” since now it plays so much as a basic cop-movie plot we’re very used to, albeit an extremely effective one. And, yes, Kael called it a “right-wing fantasy of that police force as a group helplessly emasculated by unrealistic liberals,” and at one point adding that it’s a “stunningly well-made genre piece,” but you can kind of tell she hates it. I’m not sure how seriously I can bring myself to take it as political tract in either a 1971 or a 2011 world (maybe more than DEATH WISH, but I don’t know if that’s saying much), but simply as a cop thriller where its lone hero who everyone can depend on decides to take care of things on his own in the style of a classic western story the thing is goddamn gangbusters.

In his autobiography “A Siegel Film” the director pretty much downplays these elements in a ‘we were just trying to tell a good yarn’ sort of way, saying that he and Eastwood never had any political discussions at all (John Milius is also never mentioned in regards to the rewrites that occurred) but Peter Bogdanovich has written of recalling Siegel saying, “I don’t know WHAT people are going to think of this,” so there can’t be any doubt that he was aware of what he had. In 1972 Siegel told The New York Times, “I'm a liberal. I lean to the left, and I don't make political movies. I was telling the story of a hard-nosed cop and a dangerous killer. What my liberal friends did not grasp was that the cop is just as evil in his way as the sniper,” also adding in how he saw himself as a rebel, “I resent authority.” In some ways I can accept the film as more of a story of one man turning against the system he has attempted to be a part of, feeling he can only adhere to his own rules but more than that I wonder if it’s a statement made by a left-leaning filmmaker (working with others who, Milius included, certainly had different viewpoints) who was basically throwing up his hands, admitting that he didn’t know what to do about things anymore and asking the question of what could really be done. Maybe he simply wasn’t entirely aware of how much power the question he was asking about the world would have at the time.

It’s not a perfect movie partly for reasons having to do with the real world, which the film is a somewhat skewed mirror image of—considering the Scorpio plotline was pretty blatantly inspired by the actual Zodiac case the whole thing plays as kind of crassly exploitative if you really start to think about it (inspiring the scene in ZODIAC where Mark Ruffalo as David Toschi walks out on it five minutes in during that film) and the way the film stacks the deck in terms of the legalities during that scene with Josef Sommer’s D.A. feel ready-made for parody now—“implausible,” as Kael called it, but I doubt most people cared. That the judge who says everything Harry’s done to apprehend Scorpio is inadmissible in court gets introduced as teaching classes in “constitutional law at Berkeley” feels pretty designed to get a rise out of a certain audience the film is obviously aimed at, still fuming over the weasel muttering “I have rights” as Harry approaches him on that football field. And one imagines that the police could be a little more effective in letting the media know about this guy they’ve been forced to release instead of totally turning their backs while he goes wandering near playgrounds, but maybe I’m just overthinking things. The thing is, the way Siegel keeps the whole thing moving forward at a queasy, propulsive rate is massively effective in its grimy way and just as an action/thriller it can’t be stated enough times how truly effective it is, how well staged whole sections are and how much it knows how to get the blood boiling from the tension in builds. It’s an ugly movie, yes, but its ugliness feels absolutely right for what it wants to be and it’s maybe even a little beautiful in how it just makes me sad for the whole world.

Even when we think the movie is going to somehow let us off the hook, we’re wrong—it’s like a sigh of relief when Scorpio never puts his gun to the head of one of those terrorized kids on the school bus but then one more kid fishing by a creek appears for him to get a shot at, to keep this horror going for as long as possible. The extended sequence of Callahan being sent throughout the city from one phone booth to the other as he tries to deliver the ransom is phenomenally well-executed with amazing nighttime cinematography by Brice Surtees, one of those long sections of a movie without any score that I kind of love. It stretches out the suspense to the absolute breaking point, building to an absolute fever pitch in the classic football stadium scene as Harry finally confronts this killer in person that seems designed to play to any point of anger we’ve been feeling up to that point, knowing just what we want to see happen. Seriously, I want Callahan to press down harder on his leg. I don’t want him to stop and the film is doing everything within its expert power to make sure I feel this way. The scene ends with that astounding helicopter shot which allows us to finally exhale in the midst of all our rage, pulling back to reveal hero and villain, alone in that massive stadium, this arena the modern action movie has suddenly turned into and because of this power would never be anything else ever again.

But what struck me more than anything on this viewing structurally was how it proceeds to the final showdown and the way it pulls this off is pretty close to perfect. It had actually been some time since I’d seen the movie so I couldn’t remember exactly how it plays things when Callahan makes the decision to go after Scorpio himself. Does he go somewhere and mutter a line of dialogue? Does he go to clean out his desk first? Stop at a bar for a drink? Catch a glimpse of himself in the mirror? Pause for a moment after getting into his car? Nope—he’s just there, on that overpass off the Sir Francis Drake Blvd. exit, waiting like a mythical giant for that school bus and there’s no one left to stop him or yell about procedure. Trim and efficient in terms of narrative, it’s a hugely powerful moment of a sort that movies of any kind rarely achieve. As great as his smile after “Do you feel lucky?” is, as powerful as his stepping down on the wound plays, right here is where Clint Eastwood becomes a legend once and for all, the legend that he still is today. Early in the movie Clint Eastwood responds to something Harry Guardino’s captain says to him by spitting out, “That’ll be the day,” just as John Wayne said it in THE SEARCHERS (well, Buddy Holly had to get it from some place, didn’t he?) and it really seems to underline how much the film represents a sort of grabbing of the torch away from the older star for the new guard.

At this point Wayne had recently enjoyed maybe his greatest career triumph with winning the Oscar for TRUE GRIT and was moving into the final stage of his career. But the western was rapidly dying out by ’71 and DIRTY HARRY came along with a star famed for western roles but was now hitting the urban mean streets of the time—after the movie Tarantino pointed out the transition over multiple pictures of Eastwood as star in the Leone westerns, then playing the Arizona lawman (or cowboy, essentially) who goes to New York in Siegel’s COOGAN’S BLUFF. By DIRTY HARRY, that transition from the frontier to the city is complete and this film was ready to take things further than had ever gone. Whatever the terms ‘cop movie’ or ‘action movie’ meant before, it would never be the same thing again (as an aside, considering what an action landmark it is and city it’s set in it’s surprising to realize what the movie doesn’t have—I can’t remember, but except for the spoof in THE DEAD POOL is there a film in the Dirty Harry series with an old-fashioned car chase?). Wayne himself made a few so-so stabs at the formula of the modern day cop movie (I still kind of like McQ, though) and his final film, 1976’s THE SHOOTIST, was of course directed by Don Siegel. It’s like at the end of his career Wayne wanted to be more Eastwood than the Duke but as we all know when it comes to each of those men there’s really only one.

DIRTY HARRY led to four sequels, none of which were directed by Siegel unfortunately, spanning all the way to 1988 as well as countless imitations or whatever you want to call them, resulting in idiocies like 1986’s COBRA which not only had the gall to cast Reni Santoni as Sylvester Stallone’s partner but put Andrew Robinson in there as a whiny (presumably liberal) bureaucrat, for all I know to say that the Scorpios of the world had managed to infiltrate the system. All a film like that ever does is show how good DIRTY HARRY really is and how hard it is to come anywhere close. The final beat of it is of course right out of HIGH NOON, but it doesn’t matter because the film that has been building up to this moment is so powerful that it transcends simple homage. It’s just what absolutely has to be.

What can really be said about Clint Eastwood as Harry Callahan by this point, playing the role that provided the perfect outlet for his screen presence, even more than he was able to do in the Leone westerns? The way he moves across the frame, letting nothing ever stop him, is undeniably powerful but seeing it on the big screen also spotlights just how likable he is when given the chance, a few of the offhand smiles he gives to people and his gentle way of talking to Lyn Edgington as Gonzalez’s wife. He seems like the sort of guy who it would be fun to have a beer with, as long as you catch him in the right mood that is but when that anger boils up in him he shows what Callahan has really become deep down. Placed up against him is Andrew Robinson as Scorpio, terrifyingly unforgettable in how he barely seems human, instead coming off as this unspeakably weird, sniveling, cowardly, evil force of nature, spitting out phrases like “oinker” to Harry and, really, who wouldn’t want to pound the hell out of the guy themselves? Paying attention to what he’s doing, every non-panicked line of dialogue he has seems to be some sort of test to whoever he may or may not be threatening as we waits to make his move (“My wife’s brother. I hit her. So he hit me. Several times,” he says to the liquor store owner who chuckles his approval) and it makes every quiet moment he has, not that thee are many, dangerously unpredictable in a way that is rarely ever seen from movie villians. Several of the other supporting actors seem deliberately cast in a way to not let them make much of an impression with Tarantino after the movie observing that “Harry Guardino is second billed and you forget about him even when he’s onscreen” and some of these authority figures do manage to disappear in that way.

Reni Santoni does do a very good job as Harry’s partner, selling how capable he ultimately can be and how intellectually curious he is as well but certain people in small roles, likable and villainous, are allowed to make a strong impression throughout. I kept noticing how Siegel seems to direct his actors at times as if they should actually be thinking about what they’re saying to someone, making even bit players somewhat multi-dimensional. The most unsung character, of course, is Lalo Schifrin’s amazing score, with a main title them that is as super-cool as you would expect but becomes truly unforgettable with the recurring driving force of Scorpio’s Theme along with those female voices presumably wafting through that characters head playing over and over until you can’t forget it, as much as anything helping to transform Siegel’s look at urban madness into a true modern day classic.

Speaking after the movie over the course of what was probably nearly an hour, Tarantino remembering seeing it as a kid when it was first released and covered just about all the bases imaginable from placing it in the context of both Siegel’s and Eastwood’s career, addressing the unmistakable visual style the film has when compared with such square-looking cop dramas from the period released by the likes of Universal (with Siegel’s MADIGAN correctly cited as one of the chief culprits in this regard). Tarantino also went into various socio-political elements of how the movie was aimed right at Nixon’s America who believed that San Francisco was the root of all evil in terms of the times while pointing out how there’s really no way to fully understand how different all this was at the time since so many movies and TV shows have aped various cop and serial killer elements that seemingly began here. Both men spoke admiringly of Albert Popwell, this film’s bank robber who utters the immortal phrase “I gots to know” and who appeared playing different roles in each other film in the series except for THE DEAD POOL. The name Popwell, of course turned up in Wright’s HOT FUZZ as the name of the sergeant with the ‘great, big bushy beard’. Tarantino also spent some time criticizing the first Harry followup MAGNUM FORCE, which he called a counterpoint sequel made more for critics of this film instead of its fans and both seemed to agree that considering how Siegel’s film ends this is one of a few films (along with HALLOWEEN, to name another) that would probably be more effective today if there were never any sequels at all.

Second on the bill that night (and it turned out to be a very late night, so many thanks to Phil and Jackie of the New Beverly for the ride home) was the early 70s buddy cop movie THE SUPER COPS which starred Rob Liebman and David Selby (recently seen in THE SOCIAL NETWORK as the Winklevoss’s attorney) and, like THE FRENCH CONNECTION, was actually based on true events. Directed by Gordon Parks and never released on video in any format, the film isn’t exactly a hidden masterpiece-- Neither a totally kick-ass action movie nor a totally rollickingly hysterical display of anarchy it’s still kind of fun in its scrappy early 70s way with enjoyable work from the two leads. Eighty-seven year-old screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr (a legend for things like THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, THE PARALLAX VIEW, FLASH GORDON and, of course, the BATMAN tv series) spoke before the movie, recalling his participation in a blunt, old-school way at one point basically saying, “I wrote a script, turned it in, there were no notes, I never met Gordon Parks, they shot the script.” That’s not an exact quote, but you get the idea. David Selby was there as well to speak at greater length after the movie with Edgar Wright, recalling making the movie with fondness but a little hazy on the reasons for certain difficulties that arose during production which resulted in the plug getting pulled while they were shooting in Brooklyn and eventually beginning again at the MGM lot in Culver City. For other thoughts on both of these movies as well as more of the fun going on at the New Beverly during this festival check out Dennis Cozzalio’s piece at his always terrific blog Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule.

Maybe most surprisingly that night was how Quentin Tarantino admitted that he’d never seen THE SUPER COPS, even though he’d always wanted to. It just proves that everyone still has movies they need to see, so whether it’s encountering this one for the first time or returning to DIRTY HARRY once again there are still discoveries to be made in these films, rewards to be found in that celluloid to remind you how amazing it can be to spend time in a movie theater. And it’s important to go and once again discover why something like DIRTY HARRY is able to maintain such power nearly forty years after it was first released. Nights like this courtesy of Edgar Wright and the New Beverly can be the right way to remember.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

To Have A Soul

Bullitt buying groceries. For some reason, that’s what I always think of. In the middle of this film with one of the most celebrated car chases ever put on celluloid, as well as a few other pretty damn great sequences as well, I always find myself thinking about those tiny moments of behavior from Steve McQueen that we get to witness throughout as we do nothing more than observe the man who is Bullitt. Patting down his hair, that gesture of grateful thanks to that nurse who brings him some food and that glare in his eyes every time he stares down Robert Vaughn. And of course that way he stacks up those TV dinners in the tiny shop across the street from his apartment, not paying any attention to what they are but he knows that he’ll need to eat something when not dealing with the annoyance of the whole Johnny Ross case or dallying with Jacqueline Bisset during nights out. BULLITT director Peter Yates died at the age of 81 on January 9, 2011 and looking over the titles of the films he made reveals a genuine range and a few surprises as well, the sort of directorial craftsman who probably isn’t allowed to exist today. THE HOT ROCK, THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE, MOTHER JUGS & SPEED, BREAKING AWAY, EYEWITNESS, SUSPECT, just to name some of the others. Some people might mention KRULL, but let’s not dwell on that. One day in Grand Central way back during the Fall of 1986 I happened to witness the filming of a spectacular Hitchcockian stunt for the climax of his thriller THE HOUSE ON CARROLL STREET. Not the best film he ever made (certainly not among the worst ever made by anyone, either) but because of that memory I can’t quite dislike it.

And there was 1968’s BULLITT, a film which maybe has become a little too ubiquitous through zillions of TV airings over the years (“We now return to BULLITT, already in progress,” as Clarence Worley once put it) and I’ll always remember how it was once playing on a local station when I received just about the worst phone call I’ve ever gotten. And there was also that viewing at Grauman’s Chinese back in ’98 which remains one of my favorite afternoons ever in that theater. I’ve seen this film so many times, getting lost in the mood, lost in that car chase, lost in that Lalo Schifrin easy listening score that I probably hum in my sleep by now. The movie often gets broken down to the elements of just the chase and McQueen’s star power with the rest of it possibly getting unfairly dismissed as dull but watching it now, long past the time you’d think it would have any surprises for me, I found myself studying what Yates was doing within each scene and my opinion of it suddenly became greater than it had ever been before.

BULLLITT does have a plot (screenplay by Alan R. Trustman and Harry Kleiner, based on the novel “Mute Witness” by Robert L. Pike), all set over the course of a single weekend, it’s just usually forgotten or barely ever followed. But just for the fun of it, let’s give it a try: San Francisco police lieutenant Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) is assigned to protect a mob witness named Johnny Ross in town at the behest of powerful Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn), an ambitious politician looking to take down “the organization”. The witness is sequestered in a sleazy hotel and Bullitt sets it up so he alternates shifts with he and the men in his unit. But late that night after Bullitt goes out to dinner with girlfriend Cathy (Jacqueline Bisset) and other people, two gunmen burst into that room in an attempt to kill Ross. As he is being taken to the hospital Bullitt’s fellow officer tells him that Ross had undone the latch on the door to allow the gunmen to get in. Chalmers blames Bullitt, but Bullitt knows that there’s more going on here and when the witness Ross dies from the gunshot wounds, he arranges with the hospital to misplace the body so the investigation can continue. As Bullitt continues to avoid the arrogant Chalmers he also becomes increasingly aware that the gunmen are still after Ross and may be looking to take down Bullitt as well to put an end to things. I think I’ve got the plot down, just like I think I follow along when everything is finally explained. I think. I won’t worry about it right now.

So much of the film has what seems like a relaxed, observational nature that it can be easy to miss how careful and controlled the direction always is, beginning right from the groove of the stylized main title sequence set in Chicago. Watching it this time I found myself becoming aware of how much Yates is always showing exactly what he wants you to see, whether taking in the feel of San Francisco in almost every single shot or the quiet, measured looks that characters are always giving each other in ways that tell the story more than any words ever could, like that silent glance between McQueen and doctor Georg Stanford Brown when they overhear Robert Vaughn asking for him to be replaced. The director appears to be always engaged by the environment that surrounds his film’s lead character whether watching his discomfort at being among those society ladies, observing the wide array of extras out in front of the Hotel Daniels or at the airport during the climax. And there are touches like that steady camera movement into the diagram being made up to identify a suspect as the Hotel Daniels night man describes him, bringing it closer to us just as the clarity of the case is coming into focus for Bullitt himself. When the movie kicks into gear it’s laid out beautifully—his pursuit of one of the gunmen through the hospital is like a model for how to put together this kind of sequence (Editor Frank P. Keller won the Oscar and he deserved it) and the airport climax has lost none of its power, as clear as it is how Michael Mann aped more than a little of it for the ending of HEAT. And yes, that famous chase is truly astounding, whether it has to do with correct geography through San Francisco or not. The more I watch it, the more I hear the incessant sounds of that Ford Mustang’s engine reverberating through my skull, the more I can’t possibly turn away from the screen even if I become increasingly aware of the obvious continuity errors, like the recurring appearance of a single green VW Beetle on what is probably the same stretch of street used multiple times. But, frankly, I really don’t care and things like this only manage to make me pay more attention to every single shot, every single effective edit, as I become ever more appreciative of what it achieves.

And though some of the most legendary sequences of the film are cannily played out with no music at all I just worship that score by Lalo Schifrin with its lovely AM radio-ready source tracks and super cool suspense cues as well--I still remember the audience at the Chinese beginning to applaud as “Shifting Gears”, that steady buildup to the car chase, began. I’ve bought two separate CDs of this music in the past and since Film Score Monthly has recently released a third, I’ll probably get that as well. The upbeat “On the Road to San Mateo” reminds me how truly enticing Schifrin driving music always is and the flute-heavy “A Song For Cathy,” the piece played by the jazz combo during the restaurant scene is a favorite as well. I just love this almost entirely dialogue-free section as we observe everything going on at this evening out from a distance with McQueen accidentally getting bopped by one of those menus, those glances between McQueen and Bisset as well as just the ultra-cool vibe in the air. I wish I could go to this restaurant with a girl who looks like Jacqueline Bisset. I always imagine the two of them are still relatively early in their relationship and Bullitt’s attitude towards his girlfriend in regards to his work is more than a little dismissive, saying, "It's not for you, baby," with her own job that seems to involve creating art for the world under the watchful eye of commerce (“It costs money to have a soul”) something that he obviously has no interest in. She might be somewhat frivolous in comparison as she sits at his breakfast table, but she’s clearly no dummy and was bound to be exposed to his world somehow sooner or later as it eventually happens. Some of Bisset’s dialogue during their roadside confrontation is of course a little too on the nose but the way Yates stages this saves things—the landscape no longer seems as lush and carefree as Bisset herself had been up to this point, instead replaced by a harsh landscape with a neverending traffic crawl as their argument is framed against the imposing sight of Hunter’s Point Naval Shipyards in the background. It reveals just how harsh and closed in some of what surrounds the beautiful city of San Francisco really is, how much closer that ugliness is to her than she ever realized and it can never be seen any other way ever again.

I’m not the first person to notice the obvious connections between BULLITT and DIRTY HARRY with both cop films sharing San Francisco, Schifrin and the same studio logo at the beginning but the shift in tones between the two is a little shocking considering they were only made three years apart. Any lilting peace of what we imagine the carefree 60s are that can be found in the air, however briefly, as Frank Bullitt crosses these city streets seems to have totally vanished by the time Harry Callahan turned up, in a world that has practically become one giant Altamont in comparison. It makes me wish all the more that we’d gotten a few other BULLITT films to add to the change but I guess I’ll have to just live with the daydream of Frank Bullitt and Harry Callahan eyeing each other with suspicion as they pass each other after separately being chewed out by the mayor over in city hall…maybe Bullitt would share an elevator with 5th Battalion Chief Mike O'Hallorhan of the SFFD on some other occasion as well. In the end, we probably learn as much about Frank Bullitt as McQueen’s eyes ever tell us through the course of the film, but he seems like a genuinely decent guy who chooses to do his job with as little BS as possible, knowing that following orders from those willing to kowtow to politicians isn’t ever going to do any good.

The cop movie formula is still being developed here and in some ways Robert Vaughn’s Chalmers is more of a villain than the person Bullitt ultimately has to gun down—Chalmers isn’t corrupt, he’s just more interested in money and power than actually chasing down justice, which is made clear from the last thing we ever see him doing and he’s the kind of suit who makes an offer of possible success and an absolute threat sound like the exact same thing. The bad guys the police have to go after are taken as a given in this world but the politician behind it all is looking to crack the Ross case for no reason other than his own glory and, not knowing why this working-class cop wouldn’t want some of that as well, is willing to obstruct his job however possible all while driving around with a “Support Your Local Police” sticker on his bumper. It’s up to Bullitt to get the job done however it needs to be done even if in the end, staring himself in the mirror, he knows that he can’t possibly answer what the purpose of that job really is in the end. At least Jacqueline Bisset is nearby, asleep in the next room, so we’re able to leave the character with that small piece of hope.

There’s no getting around it: Steve McQueen is just about the coolest guy there ever was, ultra-confident in every move he makes wearing that turtleneck and that stare he gives makes you certain that he knows what he’s doing every step of the way as murky as the plotting seems at times. He dismisses Vaughn and various other superiors around him who want him to just step in line, to do his job to the best of his abilities as long as it’s on their terms, but I couldn’t help but notice how he’s nothing but absolutely courteous to just about everyone he meets who has nothing whatsoever to do with this scummy world he works in and reading up some things on McQueen, that sounds a little like how the actor behaved when it came to studio execs versus every day people as well. Jacqueline Bisset, coyly eating that shredded wheat for breakfast, is absolutely beguiling (certainly her appearance in THE DEEP, the other film she starred in for Peter Yates, is somewhat legendary as well) and while she of course gets the one scene which really is kind of preachy in a writerly way, her genuine charm always comes through. Robert Vaughn is legendary here, adding a level of slime to a line like, “In your parlance, you blew it,” in a way that has never been heard before and every single nasty gesture he makes is a little fascinating. The familiar faces like Simon Oakland and Vic Tayback are the dependable stoic types we always want them to be, although I can’t help but think that Norman Fell is a little upstaged by how thin his tie is. Turning up pre-stardom, Robert Duvall’s brief screentime as a cab driver who helps Bullitt piece together the case is now slightly distracting and it’s also a little weird that he’s fifth billed but I always like how he says, “Take care, Lieutenant,” to McQueen the last time the film’s star gets out of his cab. Don Gordon, also by McQueen’s side in THE TOWERING INFERNO, is partner Delgetti and by this point I can’t think of anyone else who I’d want to see standing next to Bullitt during this investigation. I once saw Don Gordon at Nate ‘n Al’s sitting just a table away from me having breakfast with people and seeming like he was having the greatest time in the world. Goddamn it, I wish I’d said something to him.

Peter Yates was, at his best, a very good director who made some films that won acclaim—BREAKING AWAY—a few decent programmers—I always kind of liked SUSPECT—and several 70s titles that deserve to be better known now than they are—come on, go put THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE, THE HOT ROCK and MOTHER, JUGS AND SPEED on your Netflix queue, you’ll be happy you did. But BULLITT, for me at least, is one where everything seemed to click and is the rare film that I can honestly say is gaining in resonance for me as the years go on and I find myself understanding its lead character a little more. Maybe this is just a personal response to the world and era it portrays, even if it is a sort of easy-listening car chase fantasy land of the late 60s in a beautiful city. And it’s a type of filmmaking that I respond to more and more as I get older, even if it is very much a Hollywood-infused carryover of New Wave elements that place it in the time it was made. But I love how this movie that I’ve seen so many times still has things in it for me to discover, each new viewing giving me a greater understanding of why its hero is who he is and how he gets things to work in the world around him in spite of every obstacle placed in front of him. That has to be the sign of a great film right there, directed by somebody who knew how to give it the right kind of staying power, to give this film something that causes it to continually play in some back corner of my mind as I continually return to it, already in progress.

“Time starts now.”

Monday, January 17, 2011

Now's The Time To Be One

So I’m sitting here, staring straight ahead. Pretty much out of ideas. I’m feeling pretty much done with the whole thing, even as I continue to look for a job. All I know is that when faced with the terrifying prospect of being a p.a. on some crappy reality show I begin to wonder if I should just give up, get the hell out of Dodge, move to a place like Santa Fe where it’s much quieter. Of course, I know for a fact that the movie theaters there are pretty lousy so that might not actually do much good. Maybe I’m stuck here. The other night I went to an art gallery opening where I spent some time chatting with this girl who seemed pretty cool and actually interested in talking to me but at the end of it all when we said good night I wasn’t really sure what I was supposed to do. Ask her out? Get her number? Act like a cool guy who isn’t broke and jobless? Maybe I was misreading the signs. I wasn’t totally sure that she was even single. It doesn’t matter anyway. So I sit here. Occasionally leaving, buying groceries, going to the movies, going on long walks, wondering how long some of these walks might end up being. And then when I’m done walking sometimes I sit here, staring straight ahead.

For a few years in the early aughts following their smash success with 1999’s AMERICAN PIE the brother team of Chris and Paul Weitz moved away from teen comedies towards what appeared to be a latter day Billy Wilder kind of thing, creating mainstream character driven pieces that had a certain amount of depth to them, willing to infuse what appeared to be romantic comedies on the surface with the right kind of darkness, the mixture of sweet and sour. That seems to have ended as each brother has branched out into separate directing careers helming would be franchises (THE GOLDEN COMPASS, THE VAMPIRE’S ASSISTANT) as well as sequels in series that had already been established (ECLIPSE, LITTLE FOCKERS) which seems sort of like a case of little risk, big-ass paychecks for a reward. It’s kind of a shame because while 2004’s IN GOOD COMPANY, which Paul wrote and directed by himself, was never quite as effective as it maybe should have been this approach seemed to really click when the pair traveled across the pond to make the Nick Hornby adaptation ABOUT A BOY. The film did fairly decent business along with receiving strong reviews and even an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay but has always felt more than a little underappreciated maybe because Universal decided to make it a sacrificial lamb by opening it directly opposite ATTACK OF THE CLONES in May 2002. That counter-programming approach of Hugh Grant vs. STAR WARS worked pretty well with NOTTING HILL in 1999 but not having Julia Roberts this time around probably made the competition a little too lopsided. It’s really too bad, because ABOUT A BOY is a lovely film with it’s own kind of charm, serving as a terrific showpiece for Hugh Grant in a story that contains a surprising level of seriousness. More than any film they’ve been involved with before or since the Weitzes offer an approach to this film that consistently brings a true visual intelligence to a story that is after all mostly people talking in rooms. I wish there were more movies like it being made now which contained characters genuinely willing to contemplate things in life, even if they were used solely as sacrificial lambs against giant blockbusters. After all, there’s gotta be something else to go see sometimes, right? I only wish.

Well-off Will Freeman (Hugh Grant) lives a leisurely life in London doing very little beyond watching TV, listening to music and going out on dates with women that rarely lead to a second date, by his own choice. After a brief, nearly accidental, relationship with a single mother shows him the benefits of coming off as a good guy, he decides to peer into the world of single mothers by pretending he has a child of his own. Going out on a few dates with one of them leads him to encountering 12 year-old Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), the lonely son of Fiona (Toni Collette) who herself is going through a massive depression. After Will aids in rescuing Fiona after a botched suicide attempt, Marcus gets the bright idea that if this new guy dates his mom that will solve all their problems and she’ll never try this again. When Will tries to brush them off after one lunch date Marcus quickly figures out his charade of not actually having a kid but the two of them soon begin an odd friendship nevertheless. And when Will finds himself attracted to yet another single mother named Rachel (Rachel Weisz), he has to convince Marcus to take part in one more charade in an attempt to not seem like the total blank he really is.

Some of the pleasures of ABOUT A BOY may be minor but as its story goes on the film becomes genuinely satisfying, going to emotional levels that help place it in a considerably different category than the incessantly upbeat scripts Hugh Grant has played in several times for Richard Curtis. I like a few of those movies, don’t get me wrong, this one just seems to go a little deeper beyond a timeworn moral that friendship will solve everything and maybe because of its acknowledgement of what a certain sort of self-imposed isolation into ‘island living’ can do to a person I find myself returning to it more as time goes on. Merging its sly humor with a suicide attempt by one of the leads, depression amidst the holidays and genuine sense of resignation in life through what the characters are going through, Wilder’s THE APARTMENT is definitely an influence but ABOUT A BOY’s striking rhythms, dual narration and anamorphic visual stylization make it also easy to imagine that the Weitz Brothers had a DVD of CASINO right by their side all during making it and this seems to have inspired them in all the right ways. In a time when way too many characters in films turn out to be total ciphers, here’s one where the lead is intentionally a blank, gladly doing “nothing” as he goes by himself in his own kind of island living with no particular goals to doing anything beyond that until he finally comes to the realization that he has to do something, to feel something. Of course, unlike me this guy’s got plenty of money though I have known a few people out there just content to not do much of anything and while I may have a few more goals in life than Will does lately I can identify with this aimlessness, of drifting, of dividing your day into “units”, as if making it a point to avoid thinking about anything else. It’s something I can feel my life becoming more and more just as Will quietly seems to realize what he’s in danger of turning into—the backstory involving his father having made his wealth by writing one cheesy Christmas song is touched upon in just a few brief moments in dialogue, allowing the continued looks on Hugh Grant’s face whenever that song is heard to do the rest of the work with nothing more needed to be said.

Unlike the book which was set in the early 90s—the death of Kurt Cobain occurs during the narrative—the film isn’t as locked into 2002 quite as much but it occurs to me that the nature of the online world by now would give Will even less of a reason to go out into the world than he does here. He’d probably be on Facebook every hour and give that as even more of a reason not to deal with people in person. The character’s isolation seems a bit much at times considering how you’d think he would be close friends with at least somebody—the relationships with the few people we do see are never really explained which is fine—but I can actually understand this feeling of getting into your late thirties and not even wanting to try anymore, not wanting to go out to meet people, not wanting to risk anything as far as that goes, since by this point it feels much more likely that you’ll just wind up getting hurt in the end. I think I understand that last past most of all. One difference between Will and myself is that I’ve never been much for daytime TV even when unemployed but that aside, I get it, I really do. And seriously, just leave me alone, I’ve got Netflix movies to finish. The whole thing kind of cuts deep for me, being forced to acknowledge to yourself how you might really be a blank without anything to say to make you interesting and get any particular girl to like you. What would I really tell that woman from the other night or the ultra-cute waitress at the Dresden who I’ve become smitten by? I don’t think mentioning this blog is ever going to do much good.

There’s also the film’s other lead in Nicholas Hoult’s Marcus, a kid who is genuinely sad and alone but since he hasn’t had everything beaten out of him by the world just yet he’s admirably trying somehow to figure out what to do about it. The hell of dealing with other kids in school is really only briefly touched upon but this is still is the rare movie that seems to acknowledge how shitty a time childhood can really be. Part of the goal of the story from Hornby’s novel seems to specifically be to avoid what it automatically sounds like it will be about so fortunately the prospect of Will and Fiona becoming a couple never seems likely for a second, keeping things all the more unpredictable and the friendship that develops is ultimately extremely satisfying. There’s a spirit that infects the movie all through the song score by Badly Drawn Boy with the recurrence of the song “Something To Talk About” (a GRADUATE influence in how it repeats, I suppose) staying with me in particular. The ambitious visual style doesn’t always feel completely disciplined—like the mirror shot in the hair salon where the camera moves from Will in the frame to a female extra behind a pillar for no reason—but the willingness of the Weitzes to make the film this way makes it different, makes it alive, so you feel every bit of the desperation and loneliness and desire to be alone through every shot. Ultimately, part of what makes ABOUT A BOY so satisfying is that it doesn’t have to destroy the character of Will to provide him with a feel-good ending like some bogus Chris Columbus movie—actually, I’ve never seen NINE MONTHS, which Grant starred in, but maybe that’s what I’m thinking of. What I’m trying to say is that the film never cloyingly becomes about somebody who hates holding a baby, as what happens here early on, but then learns to love holding a baby. Will doesn’t need to change everything about Will but sometimes in life a little connection, a willingness to make the plotline in your life complicated and to mean something, to help you genuinely grow as a person among other people, isn’t really so bad. The rewards of ABOUT A BOY are, in the end, relatively minor and maybe don’t add up to much more than discovering the desire to close ones eyes while singing a certain song, but they are rewards nevertheless. Even if things feel just a little too happy in the end—the directing pair on the DVD audio commentary can talk about the final shot being a 400 BLOWS homage all they want but a freeze frame ending of somebody smiling is still just a little too cut and dried—there is enough messiness along the way, enough of an acknowledgement of all the crap that’s out there, so those rewards mean something. It’s not a great film but it is good enough that it feels like it’s being made by somebody building towards making a great film which makes the more recent output by the brothers that much more of a shame. Granted, I haven’t seen LITTLE FOCKERS yet, but still.

Hugh Grant does some of his best work here, burying that FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL charm as much as possible and making palpable how closed off he wants to be while paired up against the very talented Nicholas Hoult (also seen in THE WEATHER MAN—the two might be an interesting double bill) who here maybe gives one of the strongest, least cloying performances by a child actor in the past twenty years. Toni Collette never overplays Fiona’s daffiness while Rachel Weisz totally sells how special her character potentially can be to Will in relatively little screen time. Overall, there’s a sensitivity in how the actors are directed that allows respect for everyone, even the bit players (somehow I suspect that if I knew more BBC shows there would be more actors here I’d recognize), a refreshing change from how one of the Richard Curtis scripts will get a cheap laugh out of somebody having blue hair or whatever--I actually really do like a few of those movies, but those touches can sometimes really bug me. One of the things that makes ABOUT A BOY so special is how it seems to genuinely like everyone and acknowledge that they each have their own stories, their own reasons for being worried about leaving the house at the beginning of the day.

I go for walks. I shop at Trader Joe’s. I watch DVDs. I watch TCM. I drink coffee. I work on this blog. I write other things. I obsess over certain girls who have been a part of my life in the recent past. I go for walks in my neighborhood up to the Albertson’s on Hillhurst and back to my apartment, staying within my own island. And I do look for jobs but nothing I’m willing to mention on that front, at least not right now. Maybe there never will be. On the other hand, as I write this, Paul Weitz is reported to be reuniting with FOCKERS star Robert De Niro for the drama ANOTHER NIGHT, which he’ll be directing from his original script. So maybe there is hope out there, hope for some decent movies to be made, hope that at some point in the future I’ll wake up into a day that I find myself actually looking forward to. Right now, I suppose, all I have is the ability to imagine the joy of closing my eyes while singing a favorite song, lost in some sort of reverie that right now I feel I can only imagine, dreaming of a life I hope that I will someday get to live.