Deciphering the Code of Cinema From the Center of Los Feliz by Peter Avellino
Saturday, May 31, 2014
Look How Far It Got You
Even if I don’t hang out at Ye Rustic on Hillhurst anymore or go to various parties throughout Silverlake with the same people I still see some familiar faces from those days every now and then. There’s one woman who I don’t see much at all beyond the odd Trader Joe’s sighting but I know she has a kid now, a few years old by this point. Looking at photos of her on Facebook I see a different person than I knew, or at least thought I knew back in the days when I couldn’t imagine anyone ever seeming more deadpan in life than she was. We were never close but I suppose thinking back on it now she’s one of those many people who pass through your world that you only ever know slightly but still think fondly of. People who show up in your life for little more than random appearances wind up making an impression. So I guess because of that whenever I look at Sarah Polley’s unpredictable, enigmatic, take-no-shit character in 1999’s GO I’m always reminded of that woman. It makes me think that much more fondly of the film as a result. Even though it makes no sense, it makes me think that much more fondly of her too. People are unpredictable. You didn’t know them then. You don’t know them now. You never will.
Written by John August and directed by Doug Liman, GO turned 15 this year, released in April 1999. Looking back, I think of that period as being a pretty carefree time in my life but that’s a lie. I know that I was worried about lot of what was going on. For one thing, NEWSRADIO was canceled right around then. Probably other stuff was happening too, but never mind. That’s what memory does. Enough time goes by, you’re not sure what really happened anymore. I’m still not sure about a lot of things. GO feels like a part of that time for both me and films that were released then, an offshoot of the effect Tarantino and PULP FICTION had on the world but it manages to siphon off the correct elements from that film to go correctly with its own particular style, coming up with its own overall tone in the process. There’s not that much of a story and not very much is resolved in the end to come out of that slight story, giving the whole thing a no consequences, live-to-rave-another-day vibe. The film just happens to be set on one of those days.
It’s the Christmas season in Los Angeles. Supermarket employee Ronna Martin (Sarah Polley) is behind on her rent and takes over the shift of Simon (Desmond Askew) who is going off to Vegas for the weekend with his ‘mates’ (Taye Diggs, Breckin Meyer, James Duval). The sudden appearance of actors Adam and Zack (Jay Mohr and Scott Wolf) looking to score off Simon leads Ronna, accompanied by friends Claire (Katie Holmes) and Mannie (Nathan Bexton), to seek out Simon’s dealer Todd Gaines (Timothy Olyphant) for a favor. But circumstances cause Ronna to try to pull one over on Todd which leads her to an even larger plan to score some more quick cash at the big Christmas rave happening that night. Meanwhile, Simon, who’s using Todd’s credit card, is off on his own adventure in Vegas involving a mishap on a strip club while Adam and Zack are trying to make good with the cop Burke (William Fichtner) they’re working undercover for but it turns out he has yet another agenda in mind for the evening.
The use of the Columbia logo at the very beginning of GO as it blends in with the sounds of a rave over the opening credits perfectly encapsulates the approach of the film, how things are always unexpectedly moving forward before you’re fully prepared, not quite knowing what’s ahead, not taking a moment to think of the consequences. During the period of the mid-to-late-90s when films trying to be in the Tarantino vein went way too overboard on the snarky violence GO walks a tightrope that keeps its tone somehow blithe and effortless. It’s funny but not snarky, edgy but never too nasty, always active and energetic. So much of the film looking at it again now remains enjoyably off-kilter and unpredictable in the very best ways right from the start, its propulsive style keeping things moving no matter what through every beat of the sly, offhand dialogue punctuated by the occasional out of nowhere burst of intensity. Even if things wind up not turning dangerous there’s always the feel in the air that they can.
A slicker, more plot-driven look at the scuzzy end of L.A. nightlife than the Liman-directed SWINGERS from three years earlier, the go-for-broke vibe the director brings to GO along with the AVID hiccups in the cutting style provided by Stephen Mirrone (who won the Oscar for editing TRAFFIC not long after this) is always well-executed, always with a purpose. The way August’s script crosses from one of the stories to the other, hip-hopping around the timeline, feels totally effortless while maintaining a loosey-goosey approach to its plotting that feels somehow correct—there’s a reason why Adam and Zack show up at the rave and it’s a funny one but still pretty irrelevant in the end and even the way two characters during the Vegas section are sidelined almost immediately from food poisoning (“I told you not to eat that shrimp”) adds to that unpredictable feeling as if even the film is a little surprised by who’s about to take center stage. Even the digressions, more than a few of them involving Nathan Bexton’s Mannie, feel totally a part of it all because if this film can’t have a digression involving an imagined conversation with a cat, what film can?
The non-linear narrative approach dividing the three sections felt very Tarantino at the time, even if he wasn’t the first to do that and the dark comedy, offhand violence as well as the handful of pop culture references (that the film never explains a certain Omar Sharif joke makes it funnier) certainly add to that familiar feeling but never takes it to such a dark place that would seem wrong for the material, threatening to go as far as some movies from that period did but not getting there because no one in it is really capable of those kinds of actions anyway. Their lives aren’t even fully real yet, like the story Taye Diggs’ Marcus is being told by Breckin Meyer that actually happened to him. Some of the characters are likable, some are idiots, some of them are clearly trying just a little too hard to seem like something that they’re not and more than a few I would never want to ever meet but the film has an affection for all of them, misplaced as it sometimes might be. And as loose as it might feel at times there is genuine skill evident in Liman’s direction with a point-of-view that always feels present, adding to the danger and dreamlike feel. There’s a skill to how he approaches each scene in the staging that stands out now, always making this world feel that much more filled in He even handles the repetition in the overlapping correctly. Looking at the film from all this distance now it occurs to me how the age gap between some of the characters makes the film caught between the vibes of Gen X and Gen Y, even if that specific term hadn’t been coined yet, which goes perfect with the off-kilter vibe. The film’s one real ‘adult’ (a strip club owner, of course) is left outside of all this with nothing to do but complain about how the world’s become a place where people get ahead just because of someone else’s incompetency. GO doesn’t see anything wrong with that. Its characters aren’t aware, at least not yet, of the alternative.
Along with the PULP FICTION vibe it’s also a little like the brief gangbanger scene from Liman’s own SWINGERS taken to feature length and the similarities to that film (including a similar poster; no shared cast members though) make them complement each other in intriguing ways. They not only both have 818 jokes—the one in SWINGERS is better, but no big deal—they each take a side trip to Las Vegas that runs close to a third of the running time. Unlike SWINGERS, Vegas in GO feels like its own world somehow cubed—nothing really matters and you can do anything you want, steal a car, get in a car chase, fire a gun, and there are no consequences. With the lives of everyone in it feeling somehow temporary, heading towards a destination that is uncertain, there are no real consequences in GO either. It’s not that kind of film. At a certain age, on a certain night, even if you’re almost in a car crash you sometimes never quite pay attention to those things. GO is minor but it seems ok with that. It has a first film feel, even if it wasn’t Liman’s first film, but it has the right energy to culminate in the ‘surprises’ that Claire talks about in the brief flash-forward that opens the film. It has a life to it all, even down to the winding down hungover feel of the last ten minutes when two characters unexpectedly sit down to breakfast. And it’s strangely optimistic too with the one totally selfless, honest action that happens between two people who never fully know what’s going on. Things are unexplained, then moved on from before they get fully clarified. “Girl in ditch, our problem. Girl out of ditch, her problem,” says Jay Mohr’s Zack to Scott Wolf’s Adam to clarify their position in things when they’ve gotten out of their jam. There’s only so much you can do, so far you can go, in just a few seconds. You do have to deal with your own problems before the sun comes up, after all. Even at the end, the final shot creeps in closer to the location for no particular reason but doesn’t pause. No point in stopping. No point in ever stopping.
It’s a film containing multiple performances that make me want to say, “Well, that person steals the show.” Sarah Polley seems to have left acting behind by now and I look forward to whatever she’s up to next but her work here sets the film apart more than it would have otherwise. She doesn’t have a dull moment here, there’s not a single gesture or inflection in her voice that doesn’t add to her characterization in some way. Frankly, the only thing wrong with the film, as fun as it is, is not only that Ronna isn’t in it the whole way through but that we didn’t get more films with this character—it’s a combination of character and performance but more than anyone else in the film I want to know what her story is beyond the film. Just her body language in a late scene as she limps her way through the supermarket again says so much and it’s a performance with an energy that feels completely daring. Katie Holmes, who seems to play every scene wondering what she’s doing there, matches up well with her as the presumably more straight-laced Claire as does Nathan Bexton who spends pretty much every moment he’s around blissfully unaware of anything around him.
Timothy Olyphant is particularly strong, without a line or reaction shot that is quite what you’d expect it to be while straddling the divider between sharp comic timing and a genuine sense of danger. Desmond Askew’s cockiness is continually enjoyable while even though there doesn’t seem to be much to Taye Diggs’ character on the page past his speech about tantric sex he brings his part a sly intelligence that mixes well with his co-stars. Jay Mohr and Scott Wolf play off each other just right as the bickering couple caught up in one thing after another on this night and this section still plays as a little progressive. Plus there’s Mohr’s mangled pronunciation of ‘bouillabaisse’ too. The unpredictable behavior of William Fichtner during the would-be drug bust and later on opposite Jane Krakowski at that early Christmas dinner adds a whole other element of nervous comedy to the film and I especially love the unexpected intensity in Krakowski’s eyes when she insists on how fast they’re climbing on the Confederated Products ladder. J. E. Freeman is the calm of the entire film as the pissed off strip club owner in his speech about how you get to the top in this world and Melissa McCarthy turns up in what looks like her first feature appearance showing how you absolutely nail a role with less than a minute of screentime.
GO is a movie that reminds me of possibilities that were once there. It resists the darkness. Maybe it was easier to do that in those days. There is the L.A. centric nature to it, as well and as someone who lives right near a JONS but always goes to the nicer supermarket slightly further away I will always have a fondness for how the crappy supermarket is named SONS with the correct sort of lettering in the sign. It reminds me of how freaky things can be, that feeling in your twenties where, just thinking you’re going out for the night, you can find yourself in a strange apartment somewhere almost before you know it. Of how you can do something stupid but you’re young so, well, what’s the worst that can happen? When I think about how young I was when I first came to L.A., how stupid I was, it scares the hell out of me. I never did more than wander through a rave-type atmosphere once or twice (Since I’ve never done ecstasy or most other drugs either, how accurate is all how the movie portrays it? Beats me) but there’s an authenticity to this world. Ronna being so young, another piece of her backstory I wish we could know about, actually also reminds me of another girl I knew way back when, who was probably also way too young to be living on her own the way she was and I suspect may have had a few nights like this one that I was never privy to. She’s elsewhere now, also with a kid incidentally, and I think she’s happy. I hope she’s happy. It’s not 1999 anymore. Things change.