Deciphering the Code of Cinema From the Center of Los Feliz by Peter Avellino
Wednesday, March 18, 2015
Going On Pure Instinct
You need to find your own way. That just flashed in my head for no particular reason. Well, actually, there probably were a few reasons but sometimes things just don’t work out the way you want them to. Some time ago I had coffee with a person I knew at film school, an institution the name of which shall not be spoken here. It was a horrible time for me, remains a horrible time thinking back on it and this was the first time I’d seen this person in years so when he spoke about how well he regarded me I was honestly kind of baffled. Why am I thinking all this? Damned if I know. Memory is weird.
But since all this has come to mind naturally I find myself thinking of Andrew Bergman’s THE FRESHMAN, a film set partly in a film school, taking place around a world of film and a lead character who without even realizing it is forced to consider what kind of man he wants to be. I wish I could have come up with that sort of decision then. This was his first completed directorial effort after 1981’s SO FINE (the production of 1986’s BIG TROUBLE, which he began directing but didn’t finish, is another story entirely) and Bergman’s films—actually, in saying the phrase ‘Bergman’s films’ it’s hard not to think for a brief instant that you’re referring to the other one—often have a tendency to seem too slight, too simple, but then they grow on you, the jokes becoming stronger on repeat viewings, the jokes behind those jokes become more clear. And there’s an affection towards the characters that maybe you didn’t immediately latch on to, making you want to linger with them for just a few minutes longer past the end credits. Plus there’s the wordplay inherent to his screenplays which seems like such a lost art now. Few screenwriters in the modern era have achieved such a Sturges-like way of understanding language the way Bergman has but as a director he sometimes found a way to integrate that language with his own peculiar visual style. THE FRESHMAN, slight as it might seem at first and may really be, is possibly the best example of that. I wish we had more like it.
Leaving his home in Vermont to study film at NYU, freshman Clark Kellogg (Matthew Broderick) arrives at Grand Central and is immediately corralled by overly friendly Vic (Bruno Kirby) who takes off with all of Clark’s belongings as soon as they arrive at his stop. He tracks him down soon enough and in place of giving back his money Vic offers Clark a job with his uncle, Carmine Sabatini (Marlon Brando) a mysterious importer also known as Jimmy the Toucan who has a striking resemblance to the most famous movie mobster of all time. Carmine offers Clark a job running errands, the first being to pick up a Komodo dragon from the airport for mysterious reasons. Soon enough Clark has also met Carmine’s daughter Tina (Penelope Ann Miller) who takes an immediate shine to him. It doesn’t take long for Clark to realize that he’s in over his head, that there’s more going on than anyone will tell him and even his animal rights activist stepfather Dwight (Kenneth Welsh) is immediately suspicious. But it seems there’s no way out for Clark as the reason for the Komodo dragon’s presence becomes clear.
Some of Bergman’s best work has the same conceit—the (relatively) normal lead is thrust into a situation in which the entire world suddenly becomes so insane that he must either become part of that insanity or die. That’s essentially THE IN-LAWS, that’s his 1981 directorial debut SO FINE and even the aborted BIG TROUBLE which he eventually took his name off of (still, it has its fans; as I’ve said before, I’m one of them) has some of that in its mixed up DNA. THE FRESHMAN finds that insanity in the world of film and how people in the real world relate to it, especially when someone who is the spitting image of one of the most iconic film characters of all time is right in front of them. It has no relationship with the Harold Lloyd classic of the same name yet it still feels appropriate as some sort of homage and with both films being about an innocent trying to find his way in the world it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to pair the two on a double bill. Released in July 1990, THE FRESHMAN came over ten years after the Bergman-scripted THE IN-LAWS and with the star power of Brando is very much an attempt to do a similar type of story, one which may not hit the high points of having Alan Arkin stare into space as Peter Falk attempts to explain something totally insane to him but it also feels more elegant, sweeter somehow. It’s a better made film, with Bergman as director paying more attention to the look and feel than IN-LAWS director Arthur Hiller ever did. Shot by William Fraker, the way Brando is photographed at times comes off as a canny spin on the classic Gordon Willis--GODFATHER look, keeping him and his eyes in shadows as Broderick, and maybe the audience as well, is never quite sure just how far this joke is supposed to go which itself almost seems part of the joke.
The elegance makes the wordplay even more effective and that combined with things like the sight of Brando ice-skating gives the film its own sly tone just as much as the name of a character from A NIGHT AT THE OPERA pops up out of nowhere or even the music heard from the band as they play off Maximillian Schell’s Larry London when he welcomes the guests to the Gourmet Club. It’s a ridiculous movie, one where an entire setpiece involves a mall of people screaming when a lizard appears but it’s also one that has Brando involved in one of the most obvious, blithely absurd running gags imaginable. And the movie seems overjoyed that it’s letting this happen. Bergman loves getting actors to dig into his language, the nitpicking of if there is any difference between Leo and Big Leo, the precise syntax used by Penelope Ann Miller as she describes the Mona Lisa’s extended visit to the U.S. or even the very first words uttered by Brando in the film which seem designed to throw us for a loop even more than his very presence has done already.
For all the controversy at the time of Brando giving an interview saying how much he hated working on the film (which he later recanted) there’s not a shred of that in the finished product. He’s kept offscreen for much of the first half, really limited to two lengthy scenes with Broderick and while even now I still don’t know what to make of some of it and there could have been a danger of him nuking one of his most famous roles, along with what are presumably a few ON THE WATERFRONT nods in the dialogue at the very end because, well, why not? But it becomes positively graceful, with even small movements containing laughs. You can feel Sabatini’s mild annoyance at people about to tell him who he looks like and his presence is felt when he isn’t even around as if he would barely be able to disguise his contempt for the insufferable film professor Fleeber, whose teaching style seems to be to insist that his students regurgitate his own pretentious opinions as giant portraits of famous directors stare down at them in presumed agreement. As awful a person as Fleeber is (and, good as Paul Benedict’s performance is, my own personal experience says that they could very well have made him even worse—trust me, I know) he is right about this odd movie Clark finds himself in the middle of, maybe not quite KISS ME DEADLY, but it definitely blends film and real life--“one and the same,” he tells Clark--together and the screwy view of the world that Andrew Bergman takes during the film’s best moments, really the best moments of any of his films, are sublime. He looks at the world with a cockeyed glance, serving as the normal person who wonders what is so wrong with everyone else.
Even the film’s screwy take on animal rights activism which might upset some people today never goes against its essential humanist bent—personality-free stepfather Dwight is so consumed by it that he has no concept of humanity anymore, certainly no idea how to deal with his own stepson. The Sabatini clan may be morally slippery but at least they do what they do out of a passion for the world around them. Maybe one of the things THE FRESHMAN is about is discovering the people in this world who can appreciate simple poetry alongside you, without insisting on the way things should be for their own didactic, selfish purposes. You have to figure some people you meet in life out for yourself just like you have to figure out who you are. Even if you’re never entirely sure whether you’re part of the joke.
THE FRESHMAN may be slight and minor while at the same time made into more than what it would have been with any other actor. Marlon Brando’s performance seems even more special now, more surprising, as the legend of THE GODFATHER has only grown and this film has been slightly forgotten about. He’s willing to mess with his own legend but he never trashes it. It’s a sweet performance, a sly, nimble one in every little gesture he makes and in some ways gives us a happy ending to Vito Corleone that the Don never fully got (Maybe because the release of PART III was imminent at the time, a lengthy disclaimer during the end credits tries to mollify this and in doing so makes more of a direct reference to the film name and character than the actual film ever does). Matthew Broderick may be way too old for the part, although considering who he was co-starring with I doubt he cared, but he’s letter perfect and it ranks with ELECTION as one of his very best performances, just the right amount of befuddlement and intellect. It’s a terrific supporting cast too—possibly the best work Penelope Ann Miller ever did, the unbridled enthusiasm of Bruno Kirby (a GODFATHER PART II alum, don’t forget), Frank Whaley and his hairspray as Clark’s roommate, the detestable snobbery of Paul Benedict’s Fleeber, the glee in Maximilian Schell’s ‘Larry London’ as the repeats the same sentence over and over alongside B.D. Wong as his assistant as well as the sight of Bert Parks performing “Maggie’s Farm”. David Newman’s bouncy score is something that I still can’t quite get out of my head after all these years and sounds more than ever like he was told to emulate the then-hot Danny Elfman but Newman knew that Elfman was really just doing Nino Rota anyway so that’s what he secretly did.
At some point in June 1989 I was downtown one day and when heading back home through Grand Central I saw signs that this was going to be shooting the next day. I asked a friendly crew member if Brando was going to be there, but no dice. It’s a vague memory now. I also saw this film with my dad which now seems somehow fitting. No particular point to be made with that but there you go. Incidentally, Andrew Bergman’s next film was HONEYMOON IN VEGAS starring another GODFATHER alum, James Caan. I’m still waiting for his collaboration with Pacino. Anyway, on another recent morning I woke up and felt a little better. Well, maybe that’s not entirely true. But I know I’m here. I have friends. I’ve done things. “So this is college. I didn’t miss nothin’,” Brando’s Carmine Sabatini muses while looking over Broderick’s threadbare dorm room. Maybe that’s part of my problem. I always feel like I’m missing things. In some ways the message of THE FRESHMAN is that the best way to deal with it all is just to make the best decision in your heart, go with the madness and accept what comes. I’m not sure I can do that yet but I’ll try to keep it in mind as I desperately continue to try to find my own way.