Deciphering the Code of Cinema From the Center of Los Feliz by Peter Avellino
Wednesday, May 20, 2015
All The Same Color
We’re waiting. At least, some of us are waiting. For the new Warren Beatty film, that is, and just about all anyone seems to know is that it’s about Howard Hughes, has no title, has already been shot and will be released…well, that we don’t know yet. It will be the first time Beatty has appeared on screens since way back in 2001’s TOWN & COUNTRY, which was pretty much a wipeout disaster for all concerned, so bad even I couldn’t find very much good to say about it. Plus it will be the first time he’s directed since 1998’s BULWORTH was released to considerable acclaim, maybe giving us the hope that it wouldn’t be so long until the next one. So much for that. Even now I can remember reacting so strongly to BULWORTH when I saw it opening day that when Beatty placed his hands in the cement at Grauman’s Chinese about a week later I had to be there to get a glimpse and somehow try to shake his hand, which I actually did. I even pilfered one of the BULWORTH posters that was taped up to the barricades at the event and it hung on my wall for years.
Historically speaking, BULWORTH arrived at an intriguing point—the other two films that opened the weekend it went wide were the Roland Emmerich GODZILLA, which is probably even worse than TOWN & COUNTRY, and Terry Gilliam’s film of Hunter S. Thompson’s FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS. So that’s Memorial Day 1998 according to Hollywood: a lousy attempt at capitalizing on a known property (common use of the term ‘reboot’ was still several years away) and two films which, even if they can be classified as comedies, display genuine political goals detailing how far America had come since the sixties and the way things came crumbling down soon after. Seventeen years old now, BULWORTH hasn’t yet received extensive reappraisal and is maybe even a little forgotten except maybe as ‘the film where Warren Beatty raps’, as if things have changed too much in the political sphere for anyone to really care about it anymore. But it remains a fascinating document of Beatty, his beliefs, his filmmaking, as well as playing as a vibrant pre-9/11 satire on just what America was focused on during the 90s. The only DVD available isn’t anything special—recent HD airings on HBO look much better—and there’s still no sign of a Blu-ray. The film has aged, of course it has, and maybe too much of the political conversation has changed for it to do otherwise. But there remains enough potency within the ideas it puts on the table that there’s still a certain amount of danger to it. It remains a film that matters, even if it isn’t talked about very much these days.
March, 1996: On the eve of the California primary, Democrat Senator Jay Billington Bulworth (Warren Beatty) is at the end of his rope both financially speaking and in his soul, wracked with guilt over how he’s sold out all the values of where he came from. So he arranges a hit on himself to take place in Los Angeles during his campaign while having the insurance company he’s in the pocket of raise up his life insurance policy for his daughter. When he arrives, drunk and knowing the end could come at any time, he decides to do the only thing he can think of: speak his mind. He does this to a congregation in South Central and a gathering of entertainment executives in Beverly Hills. But after a night partying at a private club with several women including Nina (Halle Berry) he heads for a fundraiser at the Beverly Wilshire where he suddenly decides to take his message to the next level.
BULWORTH opened in May 1998, on the day after two major pop culture events: the final episode of SEINFELD and, reported late that night, the death of Frank Sinatra. I was younger then. You’re probably supposed to be younger when you experience any sort of political satire, when the ideas can seep into you like a sponge, when you still are able to maintain any sort of belief that actual change can occur. That got drained out of me sometime in late 2000 but BULWORTH and the feelings it infused in me mattered for a little while. Things are even more different in 2015 as I scan my Twitter feed and see talk of the death penalty, willful congressional roadblock, tuition hikes and of course health insurance which is part of the conversation in BULWORTH but it feels very different now in a world of Citizens United. The early scene where Jay Bulworth, his mind in a tailspin, surfs through channels on his TV could easily be made a hundred times longer now, all the voices getting louder in this day and age. As fast and as up to the moment as it is BULWORTH recalls the past, it feels haunted by the past, just as an early image in the film seems to deliberately recall a photo in Hunter S. Thompson’s FEAR AND LOATHING ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL ’72. Placed up against the photos in Bulworth’s office of certain legendary figures that shot also serves as a reminder of Beatty’s own political past back when he campaigned for George McGovern. Of course, the election of Nixon in ’68 was depicted in SHAMPOO which ended with Beatty’s George Roundy standing on that hilltop all by himself, nowhere else to go. That earlier film served as a post-Watergate look at the path America had traveled since Election Day ’68. BULWORTH, set two years before it was released, is taking a look at a much more recent past and, of course, little had changed in the meantime except for maybe the start of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. But it’s not a look at the past as much as simply fixing the narrative at a particular point in time; the character of Bulworth may be fictional but other names we hear bandied about certainly aren’t. It’s the real world but it’s the real world of the 90s where not very much happened from our vantage point in the U.S., it was the ‘vacation from history’ as it’s sometimes been called, where we thought all we had to fear was that doorstep to a new millennium. Everything was fine, to use a word repeated in an early BULWORTH scene as a deflection to saying anything else, recalling George Roundy’s use of the word ‘great’. In the 90s, everything was ‘fine’. We didn’t know otherwise.
The story may not be new—the basic ‘man hires someone to kill him then can’t call it off’ hook was also the plot of the first WHISTLER film back in the 40s, for one thing—but Warren Beatty takes the idea and makes it his own, mixed in with all sorts of feelings he must have had about where things had gone since the 60s, through the Reagan era and into the 90s. He is Bulworth, after all. The farcical complications familiar from SHAMPOO are amped up to the level of the most manic Preston Sturges film possible and framed against the overall seriousness it goes for the comedy by the throat. The feverish desperation of the main character is almost matched by the desperation of the film to get its point across, moving so fast that it acts as a visual representation of that mindset; other films officially directed by Beatty, whether REDS or DICK TRACY, feel energetic but maybe overly formal. BUGSY and LOVE AFFAIR (produced by Beatty; directed by Barry Levinson and Gordon Gordon Caron, respectively) feel a little too much like a wealthy movie star relaxing in the back of a plush Cadillac. BULWORTH, on the other hand, feels like that movie star getting out of the car and starting to run alongside, knowing that’s the only way this film can possibly work, telling the Steadicam operator to follow along with him and swirl around as fast as possible in that after hours club. The manic feeling never lets up which feels perfect for the extremely tight narrative. Edited by Robert C. Jones and Billy Weber, every scene feels stripped down to its absolute essentials and it doesn’t stop moving. It’s the cinematic equivalent of running out into traffic and in its determination to never play it safe BULWORTH isn’t just funny, it’s exhilarating. Seventeen years on, it plays like an absolute whirlwind, each of its very serious ideas mixed in with the laughs in a way that sticks. As Bulworth becomes more manic in his behavior it digs into not just the anger at the way things have gotten but always maintains an odd affection for its side characters, at least the ones who aren’t defined by their finely tailored clothing. “SOCIALISM!!!” he shouts during his rap to the crowd at the Beverly Wilshire, knowing for them that’s the scariest thing of all. Beatty’s previous film, LOVE AFFAIR, was an unsuccessful remake that was maybe a little odd in its out-of-touch mustiness. As much as BULWORTH may have in common with other films in his career it’s a genuine step forward for him as a director, trying to make the film as entertaining as possible but never the safe crowd pleaser something like HEAVEN CAN WAIT or DICK TRACY might have been. It’s a film that wants to go out onto the ledge, it needs to in order to make any sense.
The fractured cutting style and plotting in Beatty’s films can possibly be traced back to SHAMPOO which he produced and was directed by Hal Ashby who passed away in 1988. It can still be found in REDS (a little bit in Elaine May’s ISHTAR too) and fits in perfectly with the comic-book stylings of DICK TRACY. But it’s BULWORTH that, as much as the Ashby flavor is prominent, becomes more feverish in its delirium that that director ever went for. It’s freewheeling in the best sense—Beatty moves his camera more than he ever has so the film never stops almost as if by the time they hit the cutting room one of his edicts was just to keep it going no matter what and the fever pitch is perfect for the tone. There is a definite Preston Sturges vibe, absolutely, but with an added intensity as if Beatty’s not just looking for the characters to crowd around him in the frame shouting but to focus on their isolation as well, the stunned blankness in their expressions, waiting for just the right puff of smoke to emerge from Oliver Platt’s frantic lips. He’s finding the story in them just as much as in his own exhausted face. The improv nature extends to that silence, particularly in a beat I’ve always liked where Halle Berry and Jack Warden sit across from each other with nothing to say. It’s short, but feels essential in this film about communication or the lack thereof. Fittingly, neither the film nor Bulworth ever flat out states what drives him to this manic behavior but we know. The man is introduced sobbing, at the end of his rope, nowhere else to go, wondering how the hell to figure things out anymore. What he does begins to free him, as awful a rapper as he is (shades of ISHTAR) and he remembers who he once was, what he wanted to fight for in the first place, knowing that there isn’t any time left. Halle Berry’s Nina looks him in the eyes and correctly guesses his age, totally unafraid. Maybe he’s inspired by her—hey, there are worse reasons—but while Bulworth’s embrace of hip hop and the African American world is ridiculous and foolhardy it has to be those things, he has to look that way for the film to work. Even if I never go south of the 10 and aren’t even sure if I should be writing about this movie all I know is that BULWORTH sent a surge through me on opening day when I saw it back in ‘98 in a way few films have ever done. That surge isn’t as strong when I watch it now, too much has been beaten out of me, but I can still remember the feel of that electricity of when I was younger and wish that it could matter more.
All these years later I sometimes look at it uncertain that every beat really works as well as it should and considering the tightrope the film walks maybe that’s unavoidable—the cell phone that loses reception as it nears South Central, entering my least favorite stretch of the film that plays maybe a little too tone-deaf, not quite getting the right balance of cluelessness from the correct characters. And I’m no longer convinced that any real world politician who decides to pull a Bulworth, so to speak, is really going to be what people want. I’d love to be proven wrong, though. In a certain sense BULWORTH really is from another time, far removed from the world it represents when certain feelings were definitely in the air, when a mention of O.J. still had definite sting to it. Coming so soon after the car crash death of Princess Diana the paparazzi/assassin dichotomy was also unmistakable (“Shoot him!” shouts Nora Dunn’s reporter at the stalkerazzi who we’ve long assumed to be an assassin) and that imagery is both more potent as well as even more obvious now, maybe because in the TMZ world it hardly seems to be an issue, sad to say. It’s a reminder that a version of BULWORTH today would be even more intense but also a reminder of how much of its time the film is. BULWORTH is already frenzied enough for starters, whether in the character’s endless speech in his full hip-hop guise or the constant rap music music or the manic camera movements or Oliver Platt frantically screaming at people or even master cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s use of color which indicates all this isn’t supposed to be naturalistic anyway.
There’s a desperation to BULWORTH of the good kind. George Roundy in SHAMPOO never seems to realize that what’s going on actually matters until the very end when he’s about to lose his one last chance. Jay Bulworth, however, is in the midst of that realization at the very beginning until it sends him over the edge and it’s almost as if we only ever see the real Bulworth (i.e. Beatty) for just a few seconds at the very end of the film. Coming partway between the 1992 L.A. riots, prominently mentioned, and when 9/11 changed things even more, it seems to make sense that the film is set during the ’96 campaign, when nobody really seemed to care, released on a day when much of the news was focused on how much everyone hated the SEINFELD finale. The script (story by Beatty, screenplay by Beatty & Jeremy Pikser) is carefully assembled, never stopping with the sharpness of the dialogue underlining the determination of the characters all the way through, adding to the forward motion. Even if the long speeches Bulworth appropriates from others aren’t exactly Chayefsky they’re not supposed to be and to do otherwise would rob them of their messiness, their desperation to get the point across. With all the possible assassins swirling around maybe the film tosses in one or two elements more than are necessary, or maybe that it knows what to do with, like the C-SPAN crew following Bulworth’s campaign that seem to drop out at a certain point; maybe after reality TV hit the movie would have made even more of all that.
Maybe there’s no other way to keep it simple and the idealism displayed in some of the conclusions it reaches is a good kind, a healthy kind, a reminder that it’s just a fable since it has to be (another justification for Storaro’s color scheme); there’s no way we’re ever going to get a Bulworth in the real world. If you accept Warren Beatty films as consisting of their own narrative, DICK TRACY and LOVE AFFAIR end somewhat traditionally with the hope of love and (possibly) family. BULWORTH leaps on from that as if asking, well, what else is there in the world? The glorious Ennio Morricone score, representing the 60s idealism now reborn, seems to answer that mixed in with the rap soundtrack through the end credits, both of them belonging together, a musical fusion of the ‘everybody’s gotta keep fucking everybody ‘til we’re all the same color’ that Bulworth declares the future has to be. The power of Morricone along with the glorious voice of Edda dell’Orso (familiar from many scores by the composer including ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA—maybe that could be an alternate title for BULWORTH) acts as a sort of benediction from the Gods of Cinema. Only the people who are really in power don’t care anything about that. The imagery of the tragic ending (although I really do wish Paul Sorvino wasn’t in the scene; that’s all I’ll say about that) harkens back to the framed photos on Bulworth’s office wall, another reminder of decades long past since the notion of political assassination in America never seems to be considered anymore. Whatever we’re supposed to think at the end it doesn’t definitely tell us what actually happens beyond a refusal to go with the expected Capraesque ending (or like THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT, written by Aaron Sorkin who reportedly worked on this script as well). It doesn’t completely go the direction of THE PARALLAX VIEW either—the final shot of the Rastaman played by Amir Baraka is in front of Cedars Sanai as if he’s holding a lone vigil down below, unknowing of what the future holds, imploring Bulworth to be a spirit not a ghost. As the credits roll, all that matters is that for a few minutes he was one. It’s a start.
Every single one of the actors are so much of the film. Beatty clearly loves them and they’re all doing some of their best work. His own performance here is possibly his loosest ever, maybe not the first time he’s been willing to look foolish onscreen but you can tell that he’s daring himself not to look down from the tightrope he’s walking on. When he laughs you can feel his exuberance after he thinks everything has been cleared up and every moment onscreen is about that sense of freedom, about letting go. Halle Berry has maybe the toughest role—sometimes it almost seems like she only has dialogue in about two scenes, even if I know that isn’t true—but it’s some of her best work, keeping her character strong by seemingly never breaking eye contact with Beatty, daring him to start talking to her even more, daring him to do what he’s talking about. Oliver Platt plays his part as if all he wants to do is wrestle the film to the ground and he kills it, just as the pre-SPORTS NIGHT Joshua Malina brings impeccable timing to his befuddled aide, desperately trying to get a hit of that coke. There’s Paul Sorvino bringing just the right arrogance to his insurance company rep, the low-life bafflement of Richard Sarafian’s slovenly ‘weekend research project’ contact and while some reports have Don Cheadle unhappy with playing a drug dealer in the film but his one big speech still plays as potent. There are tons of people I’m happy to see in this film, too many too mention, whether the brief appearance by the unbilled Paul Mazursky or the great Jack Warden as Eddie Davers—it’s just nice to have his avuncular presence on hand, yet another connection to SHAMPOO. Laurie Metcalf and Wendell Pierce feel underused as the C-SPAN crew but they each have strong, funny moments. Larry King turns up too, as he did in so many cameos around this time, as does Jann Carl at the debate—as a personal aside, one of the only regrets I have from working at the entertainment news show I used to be employed at was never asking her about this. She was always very nice too.
Political satire can’t really happen anymore, not just because studios these days would most likely not even want to try to market them but because real life has become its own satire, the oft-used line that NETWORK doesn’t even play as comedy anymore. Various reports had it that Beatty was only able to make the film at Fox because of a lingering deal that allowed him to make something, anything, as long as it stayed within a certain budget. I doubt that particular studio was happy with what they got. BULWORTH is many things. It’s a companion piece to SHAMPOO (I wish it was the middle part of a trilogy—then again, maybe that was REDS) but it can’t really be said to be a culmination of Beatty’s work since in many ways that was REDS. BULWORTH is him still fighting to be in there, still fighting to make a film that matters, still fighting to prove that he matters, one final absurdist scream in the night. One final attempt to prove that he’s not just a ghost that lives up on Mulholland Drive, but a spirit with a drive to make one more film that can be mentioned in the same sentence as Hal Ashby. He succeeded, but we’re still waiting. Waiting for one more film. Waiting for the promise in BULWORTH.