There I was, back in May 2002, alone with John Frankenheimer interviewing the man in his living room. It’s not necessary to say how nervous I was beforehand—this was, after all, the director of BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ, SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, SECONDS, GRAND PRIX, FRENCH CONNECTION II, BLACK SUNDAY, along with many others—but as much as I had prepared, as much as I had to ask him, there were a few topics that I wasn’t sure if I should even try bringing up. Since part of the interview was covering the role of politics in his career he didn’t hesitate to mention Bobby Kennedy, a friend who he had actually driven to the Ambassador on the night he was assassinated. But there was also a film he had made just a few years earlier that even then had achieved a certain kind of notoriety and I was hesitant to go there. As things turned out, I didn’t have much to worry about. Throughout our talk the man couldn’t have been more gracious with me and then there came a point late in the interview when he was talking about a wide, general range of topics having to do with the film industry, talking about how hard it is, how you have to persevere and then out of nowhere he stated (I’m writing this entirely from the vivid memory of the moment which has always stayed with me), “…and I honestly have to say that making THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU was the most horrendous experience of my life. Any time, anywhere. I felt lost. I felt totally, totally lost. There was a point in the middle of making that movie where we had no script. And we didn’t know what was going to happen. Who was going to take over the island or anything. But I brought a writer over to work on it and somehow I got through it. I may have ruined it, but I got through it.” At that point I removed my jaw from the floor, picked it up and muttered something like, “I would imagine that any questions about that movie you just wouldn’t want to get into.” To which he replied, “Well, you just couldn’t print it. But you want to come back up here again sometime, we’ll do it for the time capsule.” Frankenheimer died two months later. Damn it, I would have loved that interview. He seemed like an amazing man.
So fifteen years after its release on August 23, 1996 and several years now past the deaths of its director and most iconic star, what are we to make of this version of THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU? On the one hand, it’s not an uninteresting piece of work with a uniquely bizarre tone, memorable Stan Winston makeup on the creatures, the hand of Frankenheimer’s gripping visual style continually in evidence and, of course, an expectedly odd (and by now somewhat infamous) Marlon Brando performance as the titular doctor. On the other hand…where can I really start except to say that the film feels like the work of someone who was, well, lost. Totally, totally lost. Whether it’s his worst film is arguable (few have probably ever seen THE EXTRAORDINARY SEAMAN which would be a contender, trust me) but regardless of where it ranks in his long career rarely has there been a film from a director of his stature that, however it managed to happen, has somehow come out as such a mess.
After surviving a plane crash somewhere in the southern Pacific U.N. negotiator Edward Douglas (David Thewlis) is picked up by a boat by a man who calls himself Montgomery (Val Kilmer) and taken to the island owned by the mysterious and legendary Dr. Moreau (Marlon Brando). Though initially intrigued by the beautiful Aissa (Fairuza Balk) Douglas is soon made suspicious by Montgomery’s odd behavior and strange surroundings. When he finally encounters Moreau, Douglas becomes fully aware of the reasons for the island’s secrecy, learning the horrific truth of the half-human, half-animal creations that the doctor has given life to through his experiments and now controls through a form of shock therapy causing them pain so they will remain subservient. As the weeks goes on and any attempt Douglas makes to escape is proven futile it soon becomes clear that Moreau, who tries to remind his children that his law ‘is necessary’, doesn’t have the control of them that he thinks he does leading to a complete breakdown of that law and a revelation of what may be in store for Douglas if he is unable to find a way off the island away from this madness.
As time goes on the full scope of John Frankenheimer’s career becomes even more fascinating, particularly as you move beyond the dramas and action films one might associate with him at first glance to certain unexpected titles that become all the more strange when they’re combined with the serious approach that always seemed to work best for him. There have been so many rumors and stories about the production of DR. MOREAU (the third official filming of the original H.G. Wells novel, following Earl C. Kenton’s ISLAND OF LOST SOULS in 1933 and Don Taylor’s THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU in 1977), which Frankenheimer took over from HARDWARE director Richard Stanley several days into shooting, that it becomes tough to address the film since it really does seem like a case of someone losing control of a production in ways that go beyond simply critiquing a directorial style. Whether you think it’s ‘bad’ or not just isn’t an adequate description. Even before Brando makes his delayed entrance things begin to go south as if the movie is losing its grip on where the focus should be and while it might be tempting to look at it as the madness of the production (apparently so chaotic that Stanley is rumored to have snuck on to the set in full makeup to observe things) representing the madness of the narrative it never comes off. As things progress it begins to fly off the rails in a sputtering kind of way as if it’s just trying to spin its wheels so certain necessary story beats can occur, actors can make their appearances and it can all wrap up when it’s gotten to feature length.
There are glimmers of a decent story that is naturally inherent in the material and there is intrigue early on when Douglas first encounters Montgomery on the way to the island. Whatever Kilmer’s reasons for deciding to take the supporting role (some reports have him wanting a smaller part after being served with divorce papers), at first it comes off as the more intriguing choice since he’s not just straitjacketed playing the good guy and I particularly like an early moment where the character just drifts off while giving his backstory, as if even he’s forgotten what led him to this insanity. But these tantalizing hints never build to anything and when Brando finally appears it really just seems to become about this actor hijacking the film more than an examination of an island where madness has begun to reign. It’s as if the rewrites that happened after Frankenheimer came on (final screenplay credit goes to Stanley and Ron Hutchinson) bled so many things out that there wasn’t much of a story left beyond Thewlis expressing anguish at the twisted horror he witnesses and the plot mechanics of the creatures figuring out how to take over. It’s never boring—a film with all these elements tossed in really couldn’t be and if somebody likes it as just an insane, creature-filled darkly comic nightmare I’m not sure I’d try to say that they’re wrong. But very little about it works, becoming a mishmash of weird actor choices like Kilmer’s prevalent blue material wrapped around his arm or the ice bucket Brando wears in one scene combined with Stan Winston creature makeup that seem to belong in a movie with an entirely different tone.
With Brando in the title role it’s tempting to draw a twisted APOCALYPSE NOW parallel to all this or even read it as some kind of satirical take of things we might have imagined were happening on whatever island he was on for all those years but those possibilities probably aren’t what Frankenheimer, never someone you go to for broad satire, would be interested in. Brando, with his bizarre buck teeth and maybe playing things in a slight Charles Laughton-like manner with his British accent plays what should be a man who believes he has become God in a light comic fashion, unconnected to much of what anyone else is saying or doing. There is something to be said for little bits where he’s demonstrating to some of his ‘children’ what atonal music is, but for the most part he seems determined to detach himself from any sort of expectations that people would have from him in this role in favor of this stuff and it comes off like he’s making a jokey ‘special appearance’ in what’s supposed to be his movie. Ultimately, this promising collaboration between a director and star who conceivably might have worked together thirty years earlier (Imagine--Brando in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE! Frankenheimer directing REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE!) just becomes not much of anything, a big missed opportunity with maybe the director deciding at a certain point that it wasn’t worth the trouble to try to get the lead actor to behave otherwise.
It’s also necessary to mention the character of Moreau’s silent, diminutive double (Nelson de la Rosa, certified by Guinness as the smallest man on Earth), who remains by his side and at one point is playing piano alongside the doctor, a dynamic which of course later reappeared as the much more famous Mini Me as played by Verne Troyer in the AUSTIN POWERS movies (also released by New Line, interestingly). It can’t really be fairly said that Mini Me is a spoof of this since it’s not as if the concept is played all that straight in MOREAU anyway but as much as Brando does seem engaged by de la Rosa, who is an intriguing presence whenever he gets a close-up, it still feels like one of many things just tossed in by actor, director or script to somehow find a hook, some kind of through line which never really happens and as a result a number of potentially interesting elements come off as flat in spite of all the bizarreness, so it feels like any given scene has been put on film in spite of itself, that they had all these actors had spent so much time getting into the heavy creature makeup so something had to be shot. There’s very little sense of pacing or a narrative building into anything—the story is framed by an opening and closing narration by Thewlis to drive certain points home but there’s also a chunk of out of nowhere voiceover at the halfway mark as if it was trying to bridge scenes that were never even shot.
Some of the effort does come through like the impressive production design filmed down in Australia and if there is chaos at least it’s a believable chaos even if it hasn’t been organized right and there are striking touches like how Balk seems made up to deliberately resemble the famous “Afghan Girl” cover of National Geographic. But there’s nothing really there beyond the madness, the weirdness and timeworn thematics of what someone, whether human or beast, will do to survive, so the way certain characters are ultimately dispatched it’s as if the rewrites caused them to be unable to figure out what to do with them or if whichever actor in question was nearing the end of their commitment. Putting aside the makeup there’s some pretty bad early CGI sprinkled in there to aid with creature movement, an energetically propulsive score by Gary Chang who worked with the director several other times and there’s no doubt that Frankenheimer’s compositional sense is as visceral as always—few others have even been able to frame two individuals, one standing behind the other’s shoulder, quite so well.
THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU never really becomes a chore—frankly, it doesn’t go on long enough for that to ever happen (the Director’s Cut on DVD which restores some brutality and gore runs 100 minutes, compared to 95 minutes for the theatrical cut) and I can appreciate how it offers a certain kind of visceral feel at times with a crass, yet hard-edged feel of violence and gore reminiscent of some of Frankenheimer’s earlier work possibly combined with a hint of the madness he himself may have witnessed at points back during the end of the sixties. But all of the screaming and madness as it tries to determine if these creatures are animals or men just leads to a bummer dead end. Ultimately there’s no one to focus on, no one to care about and as much as some of it does manage to be strangely entertaining I can’t think of very much about the film that I actually like or enjoy.
Brando and Kilmer are very much in their own world, as if they weren’t even acting opposite a few of the people they share the screen with. Brando, as fascinating as it may be to watch whatever he does however bizarre his appearance is throughout, is just too out of synch with things and Kilmer (who many of the accounts seem to blame for a lot of the unpleasantness that went on) ultimately has so little presence for a long stretch of time that when he attempts to take things over later on it just doesn’t have any impact and though it seems interesting to have him playing a sort of successor to Brando (complete with him even doing an impression) it all just has a ‘so what’ feel. Thewlis, who replaced Rob Morrow when Stanley left and has said some pretty nasty things about Frankenheimer in interviews, emotes with all the anguish he can muster and seems intent on putting some kind of character into the tiniest of gestures but maybe the actor just doesn’t seem the right leading man for this particular film. Many of the actors buried in makeup, like Ron Perlman as the Sayer of the Law, are pretty much stranded with nothing to play. Surprisingly, it’s Fairuza Balk, who is kind of wasted as the mysterious Aissa and by some accounts tried to flee when Morrow did, who seems to be trying the most to do something that’s actually part of what this film is becoming. It’s a valiant attempt and is probably ultimately in vain but at least it’s something.
By now the film is probably just an odd footnote in the careers of the principles but it also seems notable for how several of those involved are now no longer with us—not just the director and star but also Stan Winston and cinematographer William A. Fraker (he does an excellent job here, particularly in shooting the creatures) who even then were still very active. Time goes by fast, that’s for sure. As for Frankenheimer, it’s nice to imagine that this experience lit a fire deep down making him determined that this wasn’t going to be his final film and two years later he was back with the Robert De Niro action film RONIN, which as far as I’m concerned is flat out awesome—of course, he was also doing some excellent work in cable TV around this time as well. Among the many things I took away from the man that day with him in his living room was how truly, unexpectedly human he came off in that moment where he spoke of his experience on this production. I’ll never know the particular side of the story he hinted at or how that would have lined up with whatever Richard Stanley’s side of things might be but as much as DR. MOREAU falls apart it never feels like the work of someone just going through the motions. If he failed, if he made it into something it shouldn’t have been, well, at least he was striving for something. When I think of that it always makes me want to defend the film a little even more, as foolhardy as it might be to try. It’s difficult to say much of anything about THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU, let alone things that are good, partly because for me that next interview that never happened will always be kind of hanging there. Ultimately a pretty big mess, the film is unsatisfying like much of life is unsatisfying. But we somehow still have to get through it. We may ruin it, but we get through it.
Monday, August 22, 2011
I haven’t traveled anywhere this summer—getting a job just as it began pretty much put the kibosh on that. Not that I’m complaining, mind you, I’m very happy to be employed but I am sorry that I didn’t manage to get out of town for a few days, maybe go visit my sister and her family. Her two girls are growing up fast, something which I’m sure comes as a surprise to absolutely no one who has kids and I really would like to see them again, whenever that will be. One morning not too long ago I was talking with the older one on the phone one morning as I was driving into work and for no particular reason I began telling her about the various sights as I headed into the valley so I mentioned Universal Studios which she had definitely heard of because of the theme park, of course followed several minutes later by Warner Brothers and then the Disney lot. I had to explain that this wasn’t actually Disneyland I was passing but when I told her this was where things like MARY POPPINS were filmed she was impressed anyway saying, “That sounds like the best drive to work ever.” She’s probably right too and I loved hearing her say that. It makes me hope that I’ll get the chance to introduce her to a few films as she gets older. What would I show her? What’s appropriate? What would she even like? I guess I’m the wrong person to ask.
One that occurred to me, since it probably occurs to anyone trying to think of the right movie to show to girls, was Jim Henson’s LABYRINTH which for all I know she’s probably seen anyway. The film seems to be known to enough people by now—no, scratch that, it seems to be LOVED by people now—that you’d think it was a big hit when it opened 25 years ago on June 27, 1986 but it actually came in 8th place for the weekend with total box office stopping dead at $12.7 million, considerably less than what Henson’s THE DARK CRYSTAL had made several years before. A pretty strong cult has developed around it but who knows when or how—there was a limited theatrical release a few years back for the 20th Anniversary, Diablo Cody selected it as when she was programming a festival at the New Beverly, a pretty great joke referencing it on an episode of FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS and the film has even inspired an actual masquerade ball called Labyrinth of Jareth—the next one is being held in L.A. in July 2012! And yet for something that feels such a part of the decade in all our Generation X memories it’s actually one of those fantasy films that doesn’t feel rooted in the 80s much at all, even with all those David Bowie songs. There’s a vibe which keeps it somehow out of time which seems perfect considering how the film’s opening shot presents things in a way that doesn’t make it apparent right away when the film is set. The film maybe seems even more special now than it ever did and makes clear just how much Jim Henson really is desperately missed, over twenty years after his death. It’s not without some drawbacks but within a story that is in part about what the nature of such stories really are and what they can mean is something that makes it extremely rewarding on repeat viewings. In comparison, the recent film version of WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE—a book that was very obviously a key inspiration for LABYRINTH and Maurice Sendak even receives an onscreen acknowledgement—was something that seemed to have its heart in the right place but lacked a decent narrative to go with its effects and earnest tone. That film came out less than two years ago and I remember next to nothing about it while though LABYRINTH may not have made the strongest impression on me whenever I first saw it on video, years later there were snatches from it that still lingered in my head as if I’d been watching it every day. These things are harder than they look, I suppose. But I do wonder who the ideal audience for LABYRINTH is in 2011 and beats me if it’s something my nieces would even respond to—is it a film for a roomful of girls at a slumber party or is it for a roomful of people who watched it while growing up and are sitting around at 3AM getting stoned? I mean that in the most benign way, of course and the movie seems to invite this kind of audience with its story of a girl stranded between stories that belong to kids and aspects of growing up which can never be avoided. The tone is somewhat unique in how it combines these pieces but then there’s also…well, what the hell are we supposed to say about those pants that Bowie’s wearing? You probably know what I’m talking about. Since any fondness I have isn’t connected to specific memories and I do my best to run away from these kinds of movies from the 80s this must mean that there’s something special about LABYRINTH, a film aimed at children but I still kind of like watching now.
Teenage Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) lives a life where she buries herself in her fantasy world but she still sometimes has to deal with her baby brother Toby as well as her father and stepmother. After arriving home late to babysit for him yet again she speaks aloud a plea she presumably remembers from her book “The Labyrinth” for the goblins to take Toby away. Little does she suspect that the goblins are actually listening and when they do just that the Goblin King named Jareth (David Bowie) appears to tell her he has only done what she asked. When she pleads for Toby’s return, the Goblin King tells Sarah that if she can make her way through his Labyrinth to his castle in 13 hours he will return Toby to her. If not, Toby will become one of the goblins, belonging to the Goblin King…forever. Sarah soon sets off into the labyrinth in search of the right direction, but confronted with numerous tests and tricks at every turn she quickly realizes that this will not be as easy as she first thought.
It’s funny, I had the idea to write about LABYRINTH since I realized I had the disc lying around, now I’m sitting here trying to figure out why I even own this DVD. It’s not really an issue of nostalgia since I didn’t see it in the theater—I was actually in camp at the time, so you can’t pin the poor grosses on me. Even if I’d gotten the chance maybe I wouldn’t have gone anyway since at that time I was sort of at the age where I’d moved beyond the work of Jim Henson (trust me, as a little kid I was absolutely nuts for the Muppets) and I was still several years away from gaining a new appreciation of it all. I suppose like many people of my generation I desperately wish I could have told him what he meant to me. Anyway, it’s a difficult film to discuss because like any dream the film somewhat defies an attempt to break down its story construction (screenplay by Terry Jones, story by Henson and Dennis Lee) on a rational basis. It’s a case of a film where once you get past the ingenuity of the Henson Studio’s work, it makes sense to focus on the subtext over other things because, well, the film’s story is pretty much all subtext, all the drama basically taking place in this one girls head as she faces the conflict of her past and present, the conflict of her obsession with the fantasy world prefers to remain in—a melding of the various books she buries herself in and other items seen as the camera pans across her room early on—with the responsibilities of the real world that are going to come into play whether she likes it or not. Everything that’s going to happen is laid out, from the very first lines of dialogue through the various book seen in Sarah’s bedroom as well as a few ornaments and only paying so much attention to rules or logic the film ultimately becomes its own thing, sort of a cross between a Bowie concept video album—I just flashed on the Julien Temple short JAZZIN’ FOR BLUE JEAN that he starred in a few years before this—and a creative exploration by Jim Henson (as well as others involved including screenwriter Jones and Executive Producer George Lucas) using his expertise in the world of puppetry to examine some of his own feelings about the power of myth and how he reconciles them to the real world. The playful tone all the way through lets it stand out, discarding the more anarchic elements of the Muppets in favor of a tone that serves this film and its non-Muppet creatures much better than THE DARK CRYSTAL which in spite of its ambitions I kind of remember as being an overly serious slog (I haven’t seen it in years, so who knows). In comparison, LABYRINTH always feels curious and hopeful about what’s coming next, as if the representation of a child who is always asking the right questions, looking for the best solution.
And it’s about a girl, stranded between pre-teen years and the full-on teenage life she doesn’t seem to have much interest in, willingly isolating from everyone around her and probably also focused on memories of her late mother, an actress whose photos adorn her bedroom—some have pointed out that the man in them might be Bowie which adds to the mystique. Sarah’s experience makes her determined to figure things out on her own, as if realizing that things aren’t fair, that you sometimes do need someone around you to help get you through the labyrinth that is life until the point where ultimately it’s all up to you to take a leap of faith, regardless of the consequences. Jennifer Connelly, then in that Leone-Argento muse period, is absolutely perfect casting for this, beautiful yet still somehow relatable—a dream girl who you wish wouldn’t ignore you because hopefully you’d actually have things to talk about. As an actress she’s totally ideal—immature yet still curious, young yet possessing a gravity beyond her years and as an actress I found myself continually aware of a certain technical expertise, how well she was playing what during much of this shoot must have seemed totally illogical. With the exception of the final confrontation there really isn’t a big show stopper in all this which is maybe a little too episodic by a certain point, but beats stay with me through their imagination and ingenuity--the hands that grab her as Sarah falls down a hole, the choice between the two doors, the path across the Bog of Eternal Stench which does exactly what you think it will to anyone who falls in (Hey! That’s cute Jennifer Connelly you’re messing with! Don’t be mean!). As well as the various musical interludes both from Bowie’s Jareth and the marionette-styled Fire Gang each of which begin so slyly that it’s as if the movie has decided to be a musical without actually saying so. David Bowie singing with goblins really is pretty awesome and I’m not sure I’ve ever gotten “Magic Dance” or the end credits version of “Underground” out of my head and I don’t mind one bit. There’s also how Jareth tries to distract Sarah as she moves through the labyrinth in ways that represent the paths her life could take if she doesn’t take some form of responsibility for her brother, and also for herself, possibly culminating in the reveries of the masquerade ball where Sarah, dressed as the sort of princess she probably dreams of being, encounters Jareth and faces the possibility of getting lost in these fantasies, not yet knowing how to reconcile them with responsibility.
Paired up with Sarah for much of her journey is the dwarf Hoggle (performed by Shari Weiser with the voice of Brian Henson), maybe someone with less self esteem than any creature ever seen in a fantasy film, always conflicted in his allegiance and clearly having no idea how to handle this girl who’s actually being nice, as if he can’t imagine why someone would want to be friends with him. I can’t help it, I just feel sorry for the guy—hell, I probably identify with him more than I want to admit—and his dilemma plays as more affecting every time I see the film. Much as I may like the beast Ludo and the gallant Sir Didymus, as well as a few of the other characters who turn up to aid Sarah, they don’t really stick in the memory as much as the film would probably like (to say they don’t measure up to the friends Dorothy Gale makes in Oz is probably the most unfair comparison of all time) and I don’t even know if someone who says that the gentleness of LABYRINTH might be a little too benign is necessarily wrong—you can almost feel Henson pulling back from some Monty Python-styled anarchy that Terry Jones might conceivably have tried to work into the construction of certain scenes. The film is also episodic to the point that I never feel like I need to see the whole thing in one sitting and as much its said how there’s a ticking clock for Sarah there never seems to be all that much jeopardy which could be kind of the point anyway—as much as she worries about how scared Toby might be when he’s with the goblins he’s having much more fun than he was with her. Even the tone isn’t entirely consistent considering the overly manic nature of the final battle which probably could have been cut down by half. But her final confrontation with Jareth in his castle among the M.C. Escher-styled steps going every which way is effective enough on its own, given the extra layer of Bowie singing “Within You” serving as a reminder of where all these myths and fantasies Sarah has to learn how to confront are really coming from.
Up against Connelly, who is probably better than anyone else then or now would be, is David Bowie who is basically David Bowie, often playing his mild bemusement as willingly testing Sarah more than any sort of evil which he really isn’t and he’s maybe a presence more than anything else, with the various songs he sings, that wig and, well, those pants with a considerable bulge that’s more than noticeable (I really want to know, did anybody say something while watching dailies?) playing as more memorable than much of his performance. But maybe that’s the way it should be since he’s not really supposed to be a form of evil Sarah needs to vanquish--her final choice is set up in the film’s first moments as something she not only needs to remember but also fully understand the meaning of (“You have no power over me…”). The way the crucial moment plays out may be a little too abrupt and unsatisfying but it’s not a dealbreaker considering how charming much of the film really is. The final moment also sort of discards any bittersweet feelings in favor of a more conventional happy ending but it’s all a fantasy anyway and I always love how that closing version of “Underground” kicks in so I really don’t mind it. LABYRINTH could never be made today, at least not the way it is. Not only is it too gentle in tone with a decided lack of crassness it seems completely defiant in not trying to explain itself. It’s essentially a dream film but that doesn’t disregard what happens in it. What she goes through makes the character of Sarah into the person she’s eventually going to become.
Directing his final film before his tragic death in 1990, Henson’s style may be a little too casual and yet he constantly seems willing to allow his audience to discover certain things within his frame beginning with that opening shot which doesn’t reveal where we are right away on their own. The intelligence inherent in what he’s at least trying to get across makes it such a shame that we never got to find out what else Henson would have had to offer the world in films or otherwise. I can see how some might look at the film as maybe a little too ‘nice’ because of that style and maybe leaves part of what the film is supposed to mean somewhat hanging. Does Sarah want to be her mother? Does she want to get out of this small town? Who is Jareth really supposed to represent to her? Will she eventually grow up and start going out with much older men who resemble him? Sadly, we will never know the answer to these questions, but I have a feeling she grows into someone resembling certain girls I’ve known, ones I never really had a chance with. Maybe I get more out of this movie than I ever realized before now. Whether my nieces would as well, I don’t know. Maybe someday I’ll find out. Maybe I’ll be left to enjoy LABYRINTH on my own. For now, “Magic Dance” just started up again so I think I’ll sing along. Like those goblins, sometimes I can’t help myself.
Friday, August 12, 2011
It’s strange how even though I’m driving a convertible now it took me several weeks before I ever bothered to put the top down. The normalcy of everyday life doesn’t really put me in the mind of doing it and maybe by a certain point I was just putting off the first time, nervous about doing it somehow, maybe wondering if I was the sort of person who should even be driving a convertible. And besides, what if I couldn’t get it back up? What the hell was I going to do then? Yeah, I worry about these things. On the other hand, I wondered what the point would be of owning a convertible in Los Angeles if I didn’t do something about it so on a recent Saturday I drove down to Santa Monica where I pulled over to the side of the road, summoned all my meager courage and flicked the switch for it to go down. For the first few moments I was kind of taken aback with that decidedly unfamiliar sensation of having nothing but the sky over me as I drove. But soon San Vicente took me to Ocean then as the car headed down the California Incline towards the PCH the Beach Boys came on the oldies station I had on singing “God Only Knows”. For that one single moment in my life, everything felt right. Everything was beautiful. I drove up to Malibu, the wind blowing, the radio playing, as I thought about this place along the Pacific that for a long time I had lived relatively close to but had spent very little time in. I suppose the parts of L.A. I’ve always had interest in exploring have been more inland but when I drive up there I find myself confronted with my own memories of Blake Edwards films, ROCKFORD FILES reruns and maybe a little of the end of KISS ME DEADLY, wondering what those fantasies have to do with the actual reality. In my dreams I can see myself sitting out on some patio, watching the sun go down, waking early in the morning to see what the beginning of the day feels like when you’re there. But they’re only dreams and to this day when somebody tells me they’re spending some time up in Malibu it always sounds like they’re going to some far off land. That’s what the place always seems like to me.
With each of the New Hollywood directors embarking on their own personal big budget projects during the late 70s John Milius joined in with BIG WEDNESDAY, his grand personal statement, his CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, his NEW YORK, NEW YORK, his DEER HUNTER, his SORCERER—supposedly he even traded points with Spielberg and Lucas on CLOSE ENCOUNTERS and STAR WARS. But the film was a flop when it opened in 1978--the release date is listed as May but it doesn’t seem to have opened in New York until an obligatory run in late July suggesting Warner Brothers never even went fully wide with it. Lucas apparently asked for his points back (nothing can be found on if Spielberg did the same) and it seems more or less forgotten now except for whatever cult has built up out there. Though Milius still had box office successes that were to come in the 80s such as CONAN THE BARBARIAN and RED DAWN his shot at being one of the big guns had passed and with very little activity in recent years he’s possibly best known now as one of the screenwriters of APOCALYPSE NOW as well as the inspiration for John Goodman’s Walter Sobchek in THE BIG LEBOWSKI. A Milius-like figure referred to only as the Viking Man is also a key character in Steve Erickson’s excellent novel “Zeroville” (seriously, go read it), portrayed as a key observer of the changes going on all around, ferocious to his core in his love for film yet helpless to the changes he knows are coming. Forgotten as it might be by the mainstream, BIG WEDNESDAY is at its best a moving piece of work which has fallen though the cracks when 70s films are discussed although since Tarantino had Zoe Bell refer to it as a “classic” in DEATH PROOF that indicates there are some fans out there. It might be a case where the overall work makes more of an impression on me than certain individual sequences do but it still has enough true emotion to what it says that can be found in those reels of footage that convince me of the majesty found in all those waves.
Divided into four parts, BIG WEDNESDAY tells the story of three friends who are the hottest surfers in Malibu, superstar Matt Johnson (Jan-Michael Vincent), responsible Jack (William Katt) and crazy Leroy (Gary Busey), known as the Masochist, who live their carefree life under the watchful eye of their mentor Bear (Sam Melville) who makes their boards and forever tells stories about the glory of the waves. In the first section when we meet them it’s the carefree early sixties where they have nothing in mind but the waves but as the decade goes on and Vietnam enters the picture the friends begin to drift apart, with little but the surfing remaining and it all culminates in Big Wednesday, part of the Great Swell of ’74, the day everything they’ve ever known about surfing has been building to.
Ignoring the usual Frankie Avalon and Jeff Spicoli stereotypes, BIG WEDNESDAY plays like an autobiographical story purposely elevated to the status of myth which could not only be said about pretty much everything John Milius has written or directed but also, I suppose, how just about any autobiographical story could be seen by the person telling it. Written by Milius and Dennis Aaberg, much of the film is light on plot and actual incident, merely presenting the broad strokes of the lives of these three guys and the people connected to them that matter, along with few blanks in those long gaps we don’t get to see that the movie seems to want us to fill in for ourselves like the issue of Matt’s drinking. The opening section, with the long stretches of surfing, hoping for a big Swell, hanging out at the roadside café and the feeling that nothing is at stake makes it all seem like a paradise on earth. When a fight breaks out at a house it’s clear that even if stuff is broken nothing really bad happens, contrasted with a trip out of that insular world soon after to Tijuana where a fight does have real consequences and nothing is really the same after. The expected path taken from the start of the decade to the end, as well as beyond, is very much in there but while it’s tempting to describe the plot as kind of a mashing together of the broad strokes of both AMERICAN GRAFITTI and MORE AMERICAN GRAFITTI it’s not really the goal of this film. Sure, the local burger joint becomes overrun by hippies intent on serving health food instead of ‘animal hostilities’ and Vietnam obviously plays a big part (tying it into APOCALYPSE NOW, of course, though I suppose Milius couldn’t name one of these guys Lance after a close friend since he had already used it for that film) but it never simply goes over the expected sixties cliches of how turbulent times were as the friends fall apart over differing views on the war or protests or whatever. When they spend one night watching reports of the Watts Riots on TV someone mentions how there’s no need to go over seas to fight a war but as close as those events might be it still feels a million miles away from the waves they know. To them, everything is a million miles away from the waves they know.
With a story that begins during carefree times then moving onto the war there’s a slight structural similarity to THE DEER HUNTER (and William Katt’s slight physical similarity to Bruce Dern gives it a COMING HOME connection as well—each of these films were released at various points in 1978) but Milius’ goal is to focus on things beyond what happens in Vietnam. Instead of pinning the blame on the war and everything going on around it, he seems to look at where the path of the three friends leads to as the inevitable passage of time, a journey as unstoppable as the waves that continue beating against the shore, over and over again. It’s all part of the road to manhood as far as he’s concerned, each change inevitable as they confront age, maturity and the world impugning upon their own version of Paradise which ends sooner then they would like. Just a few years after his glory days Vincent’s Matt Johnson goes to see a surfing documentary he’s featured in but nobody cares—they’ve all moved onto who the new hotshot is. Maybe this was just the wrong kind of nostalgia for the summer of ’78 when GREASE was the word but the continued feeling that gradually emerges over the course of the film is tough to ignore. One of the main flaws with BIG WEDNESDAY might be that as genuinely earnest as it is too much of the movie doesn’t really live up to this mythic stature with sequences like a visit to the draft board coming off as more tonally out of step than funny, an excursion to Tijuana which feels too chaotic and a long stretch where they mourn a friend killed in Vietnam but no one watching the film could be blamed for not figuring out who they’re spending so much time who it is they’re talking about. These sequences aren’t exactly bad, there’s just not enough to set them apart from other versions of this stuff we’ve seen before and never sticks in the brain for me as much as the moments when they’re out there on the water.
The use of an omniscient narrator during transitions from one period to another also keeps things at a distance that maybe isn’t totally desirable for us to look at these guys as full-fledged individuals—that voice actually belongs to Robert Englund and he does an excellent job, also appearing onscreen in a small role as one of the friends, maybe the only one of the minor players who really stands out (I like the moment when he says, “Stay casual, Barlow”). His onscreen appearance is so fleeting that there’s no indication that the movie is actually being narrated by him—whether it is or not doesn’t really matter anyway—and as affecting as his phrasings might be it sometimes is still keeps things at a distance from the main characters, which maybe is what Milius wants anyway. There might be an issue of accessibility as well—it’s easy to imagine how anybody of the right age could relate to AMERICAN GRAFITTI in one way or another, but the world of BIG WEDNESDAY feels a little more insular, a code that maybe only can be fully cracked by those who don’t need to be convinced of what it’s like out there on the water. But there is a power to the film even if it only partly has to do with what it was really like up there during that time, with people lined up over the cliffs, gazing at these waves which almost seem to represent the edge of the earth and a dragon guarding the wall there that can only be conquered by these guys who have Bear as the Merlin to their white knights of the Malibu Round Table. The surfing footage that is undeniably thrilling and beautiful with some genuinely astounding photography (all praise to D.P. Bruce Surtees), both far away and close-up right in the faces of the various actors actually out there amid the waves—the influence on Kathryn Bigelow’s POINT BREAK is obvious (both films did actually did a great deal of shooting in Hawaii plus it surely wasn’t an accident that Gary Busey was cast in that film) and even the way Basil Poledouris scores these sequences with undeniable majesty, eschewing the expected pop songs heard at other points here, seems like it was something being recalled in that later film as well. It’s clear that this isn’t always meant to be a realistic look at this world and at certain points when things are going bad the way the day for night photography is done it’s not quite clear what time of day or night it’s even supposed to be. All that matters is the impression that the world is ending and Bear, with his own side narrative of going inland (or selling out, which for him is the same thing) then losing it all, I suppose it is.
The glory days are really taken as a given, only consisting of a brief stretch of screentime and much of the film in the best John Ford tradition feels like a series of greetings, farewells coming off as a long dirge to youth, to good times and ultimately a peaceful acknowledgement that nothing can go on forever but maybe you can come to an acceptance of that and depart with no regrets or looking back. The way certain characters turn up near the end almost makes it seem at first like this is meant to be some sort of fantasy sequence which isn’t really the case since it ultimately acts as the closing chapter of an inevitable rite of passage—the film isn’t about being trapped in the glory days of the past but about making a quite acceptance of how you can cherish what you once had without getting stuck there. The song which plays under the end credits is about as deliberately on-the-nose as anything I’ve ever heard, probably too much so, but like everything in BIG WEDNESDAY it clearly means what it’s saying as much as possible. With just about the worst the guys ever seem to do being a food fight they start in the local burger joint, it’s very much an idealization of surfers and their culture, no doubt about it—getting back to Quentin Tarantino, he once said, “I don’t like surfers. I grew up in a surfing community and I thought surfers were jerks. I love BIG WEDNESDAY so much. Surfers don’t deserve this movie.” But they do have this movie. As I made that drive up to Malibu I found myself wondering about some of those roadside fish places and what possible links there still were to the Malibu of decades past. BIG WEDNESDAY may be one giant mythologizing of it all, painting it as greater, bigger than it really was, but it somehow seems appropriate.
It’s also a film where the waves stay with me more than the actors and maybe for me the most memorable appearance by anyone is that lone surfer seen in the corner of the frame during one of the transitions, a haunting shot at the 38:25 mark which stays with me and says so much. There is beauty in this film but the leads never seem to take control of the screen in the way that you’d want from a film which seems designed to create such stars in the fashion of AMERICAN GRAFITTI—Busey is enjoyably nutso as we’d want him to be, Katt is maybe a little to stoic at times in his straight-arrowness but Jan-Michael Vincent’s self-seriousness does hold, always saying more with his eyes than the character ever seems to know how to communicate otherwise. Lee Purcell and Patti D’Arbanville do manage to make strong impressions in the minor roles of the girls in their lives, Katt’s real-life mother Barbara Hale plays his mother onscreen and Joe Spinell plays a military psychologist (is there a more unexpected role in Spinell’s career?). Frank McRae and Perry Lang who would be seen the following year in the Milius-produced 1941 appear in small roles, John Ford veteran Hank Worden turns up briefly as an ornamental nod to the past and Milius himself cameos during the Tijuana sequence to scream “MAR-I-JUANA!!!” right at the camera.
Whether approaching their appointments with the draft board or marching towards the water with their boards, the three of them marching towards the water on the titular day it’s clear that Milius looks at these guys as another version of the gang in THE WILD BUNCH and a piece of music at the end of the Tijuana section familiar from the end of that movie drives home the way he ultimately feels about these guys…the way he ultimately feels about this mythologizing of his own history. The fact that a photo of himself from these times is shown under his own directing credit says a lot as well. As much as its own earnestness lingers enough of the movie just isn’t quite as strong and I suppose it also contains a sort of instant nostalgia which never seems quite genuine to me--Bear glancing in at everyone dancing as “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” plays at an early party, obviously wishing for this moment to go on forever and knowing it can’t, feels just a little too idealized. But the emotion plays, the yearning nature of trying to connect with those waves plays and while it’s tempting to call some of the Robert Englund narration pretentious (“Who knows where the wind comes from? Is it the breath of God?”), there’s something about these haunting words mixed with this awe-inspiring imagery that stays with me, making me understand why it matters to these characters to dream about a big day in the future which hopefully will come and, as Bear says, you can wipe clean everything that went before it. Maybe that day driving up the coast was my own version of that as well and I was even able to get the top back up when I was inland again, returned from that far off land. I love driving with it down now. I can’t wait to do it again. As for the film, time marches on. BIG WEDNESDAY marches on. The waves will be there.
Wednesday, August 3, 2011
To be perfectly honest, as time has gone on I’ve become less interested in writing about films that I don’t like or sometimes even hate. Frankly, it can be kind of soul-sucking and it’s not how I want to spend my time. Which, of course, brings me to the films of Michael Bay. By this point I suspect that people have just thrown up their hands when it comes to him. Many reviews of his latest, TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON, couldn’t be classified as good but I also got the impression that the people writing them just didn’t see the point in getting upset about all this nonsense anymore or at least not the way they got upset the last time. Or other times in the past. Thinking about him in the context of the third TRANSFORMERS movie and what he seems to have become in relation to film at this point in time I found myself interested in seeing THE ROCK again. Because I kind of hate THE ROCK and I have ever since seeing it on opening night in June 1996, just as I’ve come to hate each of his films. Frankly, I can’t think of a single foot of film he’s ever shot that I’ve actually liked and I suppose there’s something in my DNA that has always refused to find anything good in any of them, as if the very essence of how they’re crafted goes against what I want movies to be. Valid arguments can be made that he does have a distinctive style and the point isn’t without merit but we should always remember that the term ‘auteur’ has nothing to do with whether the movies that person makes are actually any good. Sure, much is made about how he went to Wesleyan and his professor Jeanine Basinger is quoted in places displaying great pride for having shepherded him but all that makes me think of is Alvy Singer pointing out, “Harvard makes mistakes too, you know. Kissinger taught there.” I remember for the year before PEARL HARBOR came out and we were seeing the trailer with that bullshit dive bomb POV shot countless times I felt like I was the one voice of reasons saying how terrible it was undoubtedly going to be, then when it finally came out I felt like I was the one person not jumping up and down in anger because for me the result it was hardly a surprise. But I’ve kept on going. I guess I’m just curious by nature. I even saw THE ISLAND in the theater, at the Cinerama Dome no less—his one flop and therefore one that some people have said was his best film—trust me, it’s still not any good and that statement really doesn’t apply. By the time we got to TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN two years ago I basically said I just couldn’t do it anymore so that’s the one I haven’t seen at all except for a few minutes on cable, not really long enough to form a valid opinion. And while I did actually see DARK OF THE MOON for reasons I won’t get into I am going to refrain from comment. So I’ll stick with the past, that more innocent time before we really understood just who Michael Bay was.
I’m aware that THE ROCK does have its defenders who say…wait, does THE ROCK actually have defenders? Yeah, I guess it does. And sure, it’s big and loud, but is that really the only necessary criteria for these things? Within the basic setup is something that you’d think would appeal to me—elements of DIE HARD and THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE are there, given a certain ‘men on a mission’ framework, but too much of it is written in such an obvious, ham-handed manner, framed around a directing style which never displays much interest at all in pacing or laying out how sequences are going to flow together. You can try to convince me of what’s good about it, but it won’t work. I don’t want to say that his way of doing things as a filmmaker is inherently wrong—for one thing, it would make me sound like a prick who believes everything he was told at film school is the only way to go and in some ways it should be considered a good thing for a director to go against the way it’s supposed to be. That sort of thinking is where things of value can emerge from. It also occurs to me how much the directorial style of Michael Bay which in 1996 seemed like one-half Tony Scott on crack and one half annoying frat dude screaming at me in my face to get excited, isn’t quite so incessant now. This will sound totally unbelievable but at one point I actually spotted a shot involving Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage walking and talking which I swear lasted about a full twelve seconds. No cuts at all. Amazing, right? So the film may not be as extreme as we once thought but much of what gets made now can be said to be even moreso. So has the world just caught up with Michael Bay? Was he actually the progenitor of much of what the action genre and films in general have become? Is Michael Bay really and truly the devil, the way Albert Brooks describes William Hurt in BROADCAST NEWS? I’m not sure how much I want to confront that mystery. I’m not even sure I want to write this to try to find out. You remember what I said about soul-sucking? That’s it exactly.
Brigadier General Francis Hummel (Ed Harris), fed up by what he feels is the government’s to honor the deaths of Marines killed on clandestine missions, takes a group of rogue fellow Marines, steals a stockpile of VX gas, and takes control of Alcatraz, holding 81 people hostage and threatening to unleash the gas using rockets against the city of San Francisco. Chemical weapons expert Dr. Stanley Goodspeed (Nicolas Cage) is brought in to consult but when the Feds realize they need someone with actual knowledge of Alcatraz Island, they have no choice but to turn to John Mason (Sean Connery) a prisoner who has been secretly detained for decades for reasons no one seems willing to discuss. After an escape attempt that leaves much of San Francisco in its wake, he is soon in custody again and when Mason is informed of what is going on it soon becomes clear that he, as well as Goodspeed who is an agent with little field experience, must infiltrate the island along with the SEALs and they may in fact be the only hope for retrieving the gas pellets so they can prevent the rockets from being launched.
Considering it has a running time of 136 minutes I’m a little surprised that summary didn’t need to be longer but of course THE ROCK really doesn’t have much of a story to overly complicate things anyway. The way the plot beats are laid out feel so lopsided and heavy that by the time they actually get to the island I’m already exhausted and wish the whole thing could be wrapped up quickly. Of course, that would imply that the film was being created by people looking for a way to tell their story in the most efficient way possible which is in no way the goal here. For a film dealing with such a tight deadline it freely spends about a half-hour not worrying about it at all but, really, THE ROCK is never meant to be an actual narrative as much as it is an ‘experience’ which we’re meant to be aurally surrounded by with all that THX sound reverberating into our bones. As long as everything that’s happening is totally AWESOME that’s really all that matters. And you know what? I like things that are awesome. Action and hot girls often are. But can’t there be some coherence to any of it? Can’t there be a little more of something underneath the surface beyond what’s aimed at twelve year-olds? Bay, still fresh out from commercials at this point (BAD BOYS, released the previous year, was his debut feature) always seems to have a goal of framing things as tight as possible with our heroes always placed in the shot to be gazed at as, well, heroes and much of the time those close-ups are all that matter to him. I never feel like he’s interested in the spatial relationship between people whether it’s where they are in relation to each other on Alcatraz or just one room away in a hotel suite. And his trumpeted car chase which I’m guessing destroys about ten percent of San Francisco and which has no bearing on anything that happens in the narrative feels laid out in such an endless procession of tight shots that you wonder why they troubled the city by actually shooting it there—to Michael Bay a cable car (it’s an obvious fake) and a VW Beetle with a peace insignia on the side that gets crushed by the Hummer stolen by Connery are all that’s needed to indicate that city anyway. If there could be ten or twelve shots to sum up Bay’s cinematic outlook on life the one with the Beetle would have to be one of them, which has to say something.
It might be a justifiable criticism to say that as director Bay fails on both having the car chase actually matter as well as shooting it in a way to feel like there’s some actual jeopardy beyond the close-ups and loud noises but it’s also just as clear that he’s simply not interested in these points any more than he ever would be in having a character, good or bad, pause for a moment to react to something in a believable way. All that really matters is that the film is barreling forward to the next explosion or gunshot with his patented super-fast cutting to provide the illusion of excitement as opposed to doing anything which would allow it to happen organically. And I totally believe that’s what he wants. With his endless fetishizing of all that military hardware, he’s not interested in continuous action. He’s not interested in the process of behavior of how things get done. He’s certainly not interested in specifics if elements get in his way, like the L.A. skyline can be seen out of a window that’s supposed to be in Washington D.C. And term papers could be written about how bad he is at comedy, with foreigners and gays never too far away as easy targets for jokes.
But to make it clear that I’m not trying to be totally dismissive of everything in THE ROCK, here’s an excerpt from the biography “High Concept: Don Simpson and the Hollywood Culture of Excess” by Charles Fleming, a biography of the now-legendary producer (with Jerry Bruckheimer) who died of a drug overdose several months before this film’s release, just as he and partner Jerry Bruckheimer were in the midst of a comeback that began with the previous years’ BAD BOYS and CRIMSON TIDE: screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh who had been hired to rewrite the script of THE ROCK argued extensively with Simpson over various elements and in that early version the character played by Connery was simply an ex-con who had escaped from Alcatraz. “”I talked to Don extemsively,” Hensleigh said. “I asked him, ‘How can a guy escape from Alcatraz (in the movie) when everyone knows that no one ever escaped from Alcatraz? And if he escaped from Alcatraz, how come no one knows about it? Don had the answer: No one knew he was there in the first place. He was a secret prisoner.” Which of course led to them developing what the character played by Sean Connery ultimately became.
I love that story. In some ways that basic idea is what really started the movie down the path of being something other than expected and there are times when that sort of out-of-the-box thinking when developing a script is where greatness can come from. It makes me wish that the things that came out of that basic idea were anywhere near as intriguing and that the pieces would come together in a more satisfying way beyond the dialogue that feels written all in capital letters (For the record, the screen credits read Story by David Weisberg & Douglas Cook, Screenplay by Weisberg & Cook and Mark Rosner—Jonathan Hensleigh lost out in arbitration. Aaron Sorkin also worked on it and some of his dialogue certainly stands out now). Actually, one of the things about THE ROCK that strikes me now as most interesting in this regard, and that the wasted presence of Michael Biehn as the SEAL commander makes clear, is how the overall structure very much contains a certain resemblance to ALIENS which I can’t imagine is a coincidence—a lead character returning to a place from long ago, video cameras following along with the team being sent in and soldiers who are wiped out partway through leaving a smaller number to deal with the threat alone definitely rang a bell with me this time out. Look, I may hate this movie but I’m not totally clueless as to why it was such a big hit and the anecdote involving Don Simpson, even if it is kind of an exaggeration of whatever really occurred displays a kind of clever showmanship that not only do I not think Bay is capable of, there’s not enough of that in scripts today in general either. Of course, to point out how that sort of ingenuity is absent from the TRANSFORMERS films is probably missing the point since no one is seeing those movies for any reason other than to watch giant robots fighting.
Coming up with how the character of John Mason figures into this scenario is an intriguing concept that also plays on our own awareness of the iconic star playing him (jailed for the first time in ’62, the year DR. NO premiered, ha ha) although I get the feeling that Connery himself had some say in not making it too much like a Bond in-joke (very little in the way of one-liners—when he shouts “I hope you’re insured!” at someone who’s just crashed during the big chase the moment couldn’t be more lame). Maybe partly because of this the character on his own never comes off as compelling as maybe he should be beyond what we’re told about him in dialogue, although the moment when he says “I should have been a poet or a farmer” late in the film sounds like it could be one of the more personal lines of dialogue from Connery’s entire career. It’s not that I ever really mind watching Connery and Cage play off of each other but by a certain point it feels like these potentially intriguing characters are stranded in a middle section with them wandering around the dank bowels of Alcatraz trying to avoid the Marines to the point that it almost puts me to sleep. For an hour it’s like the world’s most annoying frat dude screaming in my face about how exciting the game we’re watching is when it hasn’t even started yet and once it does he just keeps it up at the exact same pace, even during the time-outs, until he abruptly stops without even saying why. Every moment, action-packed or not, feels oppressive as it pounds me down into a stupor, not fun in the least and it isn’t exciting, suspenseful or engaging at all.
The character of General Hummel, which “High Concept” also credits Simpson with being largely responsible for figuring out his motivation, is at least an attempt to do something with a villain other than just another ripoff of Alan Rickman in DIE HARD (his minions, however, are all uninteresting meatheads. Between this and the SEALs that get taken out in a few minutes do actual members of the Navy and Marine Corp take offense at this sort of thing?) but his character ultimately makes little sense and if he can be talked down by Connery’s Mason in just a few lines of dialogue--the movie is actually ambiguous on this point, but it seems a plausible argument for what’s happened--one wonders how committed he ever really was to putting together his plan which just diminishes his entire character. You’d think a buddy could have said the same things Mason does over some beers and all this could have been avoided. And since the motivation isn’t airtight then none of it holds and ultimately all the ponderous slow-mo shots we see during the opening credits meant to represent Hummel’s mindset are just a lot of smoke and mirrors, tricks to make us think the movie is actually going to be ‘about’ something. The movie seems to think that having well-paid actors stand around looking serious and spouting dialogue makes it seem adult but it’s all dumbed down to an eighth-grade level with Bay’s perfect compositions and portentous slo-mo crap becoming more and more redundant until none of them matter, none of them possessing much of a vibrancy beyond the sterility that Bay is infusing them with. The movie also decides to get around the problem many films with such a ticking clock have had, one which means that if a certain bomb is prevented from going off then that can be kind of a comedown. THE ROCK just says screw it and sets off the massive explosion anyway, only to somehow have it not affect anyone. The people onscreen don’t matter—certainly the hostages who have been held by Hummer on Alcatraz the entire time don’t matter since the last time we see them the movie still has about forty-five minutes left to go. The abruptness of various beats holds all the way to the end which doesn’t seem to want anyone to even catch their breath before that dedication card to Don Simpson is rushed on screen and that incessant Nick Glennie-Smith/Hans Zimmer score keeps blaring (please god make it stop) as if it wants everyone to high-five each other all the way to the parking lot. You know those people who get up and leave a movie before the credits begin when it seems like everything has been wrapped up? I suspect Michael Bay is one of those people. Or at least that’s who he makes movies for. People who don’t really want to pay attention or care about anything that’s happening onscreen. Fuck logic. Cue the explosions. Welcome to The Rock.
So this isn’t about the actors and for that matter much of the casting displays a refreshing change from the standard way to go with these things even the way some of them are directed displays some of Bays own considerable limitations with them. Maybe only the seriousness of Ed Harris doesn’t go against the grain of what’s expected and the actor maintains a great amount of seriousness as he clearly tries to somehow get this to work. Playing more of a loose cannon, Connery gives off all the confidence of a star who knows that sometimes all he needs to do is give one of his co-stars a certain look and even if some of the set-up is completely ridiculous he somehow finds a human connection in Mason’s desire to find his daughter. The material is sometimes lousy, but he’s always compelling. Nicolas Cage isn’t quite the bonkers-persona-in-an-action-setting revelation he may have been at the time, fresh off his Oscar for LEAVING LAS VEGAS, but now it does provide an undeniable look at how the action genre has changed since then. After all, is it possible that the use of Nicolas Cage here and in other films during this period is more responsible for changing the tide of what an action movie lead can be than any other star out there? Some of his moments where he does his Nick Cage thing are better than others and there are also hints of what else could have been done with certain touches—his early declaration of being a Beatlemaniac makes me wish that would have been followed through on in a later scene with Connery. It could even have been a nice connection to Connery as James Bond disparaging the group in GOLDFINGER. Much of the rest of the cast is filled by extremely capable actors (several familiar faces, including Xander Berkeley and Philip Baker Hall are uncredited in the end crawl) looking very serious and, I imagine, being extremely well-paid as well. I always like William Forsythe and it’s nice to see him given a solid role but it also unfortunately contains some of the dumbest dialogue imaginable. The much-missed John Spencer seems miscast as FBI director Womack—maybe he just carries too much dignity with him for somebody I’m supposed to hate although I’ll admit that could be the ghost of Leo McGarry appearing before me. Other good actors like Michael Biehn, David Morse, John C. McGinley and Tony Todd are left stranded by their thinly written parts, Vanessa Marcil as Goodspeed’s pregnant wife is basically Simpson-Bruckheimer eye candy while Claire Forlani as Mason’s daughter is at least able to bring a sliver of actual emotion matching Connery during her few minutes of screen time.
I know, I should really learn how to be a guy about all this, take what the movie is, what the filmmaking style of Michael Bay is and just go with it. I’ve long since accepted that THE ROCK, like Bay’s ARMAGGEDON, is on DVD as part of the Criterion Collection ($7.99 for a used copy at Amoeba—the sacrifices I make. As of right now I haven’t bothered with the audio commentary) but I like to think that any profits helped pay for some of the company’s releases I’d be more interested in. I suppose I could point out that I don’t know anyone who actually likes his films but trying to say that reminds me of Pauline Kael’s famous (some sources say incorrect) quote saying that she couldn’t understand how Nixon won since she didn’t know anyone who voted for him. Obviously there are people out there who like Bay’s films. Maybe even closer to me than I realize. Even now I still don’t know if there’s any point in my writing this. The best case scenario would have been that I found myself suddenly developing a new appreciation for what the film accomplishes and how it somehow changed the action genre. Didn’t happen. I still can’t think of anything at all that I like about THE ROCK and I suppose it’s just in my wiring that I simply don’t respond to the aesthetic on a very basic level. But maybe I needed to see it again to somehow try to understand a little better why it is the way it is and the direction films seem to be going in, to see if I can somehow reconcile what they are in my own head with what the world at large seems to want them to be. And maybe I can do this without losing track of what my own opinions are in the process. Because I’m trying. I really am.