Thursday, June 15, 2017

Expert Tutelage

There’s no particular need to defend BEVERLY HILLS COP II. It comes from the absolute dregs of the 80s and Tony Scott, rest his soul, gave us that one-two punch of TOP GUN in ‘86 followed by this film serving as a cinematic illustration of just how rotten the decade was in all its MTV glamour. Funny thing is, I never have any desire to see TOP GUN again, and don’t bother asking me, but BEVERLY HILLS COP II is one that I feel a little more ambivalent towards. As a matter of fact, I’ll gladly watch it right now if you want. The film was a big enough hit when it came out over Memorial Day weekend 1987 although it was never the meteor crashing to earth that Martin Brest’s original film was when released at the end of ’84. As much as that film was the absolute peak of Eddie Murphy Mania, today it plays like a modest, pleasantly enjoyable movie bolstered by the explosion of his star power along with a few fantastic supporting performances by both good guys and bad.

Now celebrating its 30th anniversary, Part II isn’t really the same thing for a variety of reasons, chief among them being that’s not what you hired Tony Scott for. If you’d seen TOP GUN or THE HUNGER or, I’m assuming, commercials he’d directed you got him for pure visual power. What Scott brought with him was a new eye to material which could somehow elevate the storytelling through sheer force, not necessarily for character work or opening up new possibilities to the concept. And there aren’t any particularly memorable new characters or elements in BEVERLY HILLS COP II unless you want to count the sheer presence of Brigitte Nielsen, not that she ever really does that much in the film. Earlier concepts for sequels included a version set in London but as it was finally made the film clearly isn’t supposed to be anything new or different. It’s supposed to be More. For one thing, when they go to a strip club this time around it’s a high end strip club (where a Coke costs seven dollars). And even though that cockiness to the filmmaking borders on an arrogance at times it does have that pop energy brought to it by Tony Scott and his crew. Instead of just using it as a showcase for Eddie Murphy and his routines the director makes it a full-fledged movie. Comedy is secondary, not to mention any semblance of social commentary, and it all feels like a story made up by a couple of 12 year-old boys looking to make their own BEVERLY HILLS COP sequel. That’s probably exactly what producers Don Simpson & Jerry Bruckheimer wanted but it damn well moves, containing immense energy like a freight train built with a Ferrari engine burning through that hazy, smoky imagery in almost every shot. Like I said, I’ll gladly watch it again right now.

As Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy) is involved in undercover duties back in Detroit, his friend Captain Bogomil (Ronny Cox) in Beverly Hills is investigating a series of Alphabet robberies in the city led by the mysterious blonde Karla Fry (Brigitte Nielsen). After being suspended by the new hard-assed police chief (Allen Garfield) angered by the lack of movement in the investigation, Bogomil is gunned down on the street with a ‘B’ left on his body signaling that the bandits have struck again. So Axel flies into town immediately to team up with friends Billy Rosewood (Judge Reinhold) and John Taggart (John Ashton) to catch the bandits. Their investigation leads them to the Beverly Hills Shooting Club where Foley encounters Fry who is in fact working with Maxwell Dent (Jurgen Prochnow), the mastermind behind the crimes. On the trail of what their plan really is, Foley, Rosewood and Taggart begin to put the pieces together to take them down.

Out of total curiosity, the other week I ran a “Which film says ‘The 80s!’ the most?” poll on Twitter placing this film up against COCKTAIL, ROCKY IV and THE SECRET OF MY SUCCESS. The three other choices were fairly random (ROCKY IV won; I would have gone with THE SECRET OF MY SUCCESS) but I thought that BEVERLY HILLS COP II might have done better with its slickness and gleeful immaturity. For a movie where we get a title card identifying ‘BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA’ twice in the first ten minutes to clarify things for anyone not paying attention I’m still not sure it actually makes a lick of sense. Seriously, writing that summary above was harder than I thought and one of the best things to say about the plot (story by Eddie Murphy & Robert D. Wachs, screenplay by Larry Ferguson and Warren Skaaren) is that it moves so fast you might not bother to ask questions. For one thing, I’m not sure how the police in Beverly Hills are investigating what they believe to be a series of ‘Alphabet Crimes’ after a single robbery (of course, the imdb goofs page is way ahead of me on this) and at least once someone says the ‘Alphabet Killer’ even though no one’s actually been killed as if the full plan for the bad guys hadn’t been totally worked out as the script was presumably being rewritten during production (shoutout to whoever got Agatha Christie listed as an uncredited writer on the imdb page, presumably a reference to her novel “The ABC Murders”). Captain Bogomil gets several bullets fired into him at close range without being killed which doesn’t make the bad guys particularly competent at their jobs. At one point there’s talk of stopping the impending ‘E’ crime, but I’ll be damned if I can figure out what happened to the ‘D’. What I’m saying is, this is not exactly an airtight story although I doubt anyone outside of maybe Roger Ebert has ever cared.

The big surprise is that the film isn’t as funny as you’d think an Eddie Murphy movie from the 80s would be since it’s more interested in the action, the smoke, the pureness of the imagery. The bigger surprise is watching the film now in 2017 it’s not that big a deal since as much as it feels like ‘the 80s’ the pure style of Tony Scott’s direction means that it hasn’t dated as badly as other films from around the same period. His visual approach became more complex over the years but here entire scenes are framed almost like a series of paintings depicting life in Southern California--Jessica Ritchey (@Ruby_Stevens) on Twitter pointed out they’re like Patrick Nagel paintings, which is dead on. But it’s also much looser than I remember with a relaxed vibe to it all, even down to the cigars some characters are smoking in scenes which feels like they just happened to be holding them as the cameras started to roll. The bulk of Eddie Murphy’s improvs where Axel Foley talks his way into places feels like second rate material this time around but since there’s no need for tension between Foley, Rosewood and Taggart anymore the chemistry between them makes it almost a hangout film in a Hawksian sense, even if it is much flashier and anarchic than Hawks would ever do. The looseness of the way the guys start humming the theme to “The Dating Game” at one point feels like it was totally made up on the spot, which Judge Reinhold confirms on the DVD and even his reaction to John Ashton falling in the swimming pool looks totally genuine.

Compared to the first film which was grounded in a fairly believable world upended by the lead character, II is all flash and everyone, including the few people we see in Detroit, feel part of the same universe so the fish out of water concept of the original is pretty much forgotten about (even more than the first film, it doesn’t differentiate very much between Beverly Hills and Los Angeles anyway, not that I could tell the difference seeing it at Yonkers Movieland). It’s not about reality in any form and it doesn’t care. The comedy part of all this is clearly outside of Tony Scott’s wheelhouse (the bit in the strip club where Foley claims that Taggart is actually Gerald Ford isn’t much but at least it’s an attempt) and he doesn’t seem to know how to direct the day players who are straight men to Murphy’s routines; it helps immensely when it’s someone who already knows comedy like Paul Reiser or Gilbert Gottfried; in his scenes with them Murphy isn’t even the big personality in the scene and he seems to enjoy how the dynamic suddenly shifts. The film is gleefully immature and ultimately hollow at its core but somehow feels strangely innocent much of the time, not a care about anything beyond creating its own world while barreling forward.

The visual flash manages to mask how flimsy the story is, a reminder of how as Tony Scott got better scripts to work with (THE LAST BOY SCOUT, TRUE ROMANCE, CRIMSON TIDE, MAN ON FIRE) the better and more layered his films became. As chase heavy as the film is there’s also a lot of dialogue used to explain byzantine the plot involving the alphabet crimes and breaking the complex code the bad guys leave behind (much of the heavy lifting done by Alice Adair, as Bogomil’s daughter—the one female character who’s not a bitch or a slut so all she does is provide exposition) giving the impression more is going on than there really is with information occasionally shoehorned into scenes as if put in there at the very last second. I think I can follow it all but, nah, I can’t. But barely any of it matters anyway, since it focuses mainly on being enough of a clone of the original whether it makes sense to be or not, so a flashy 80s montage of Axel driving around Beverly Hills immediately after visiting Bogomil in the hospital feels a little out of place. A big thing is made out of the bad guys getting the address of where Foley is staying but instead of ambushing him there in the dead of night they follow him to strip club owned by one of the other bad guys where they try to gun him down. As much as they glower while acting European, the bad guys don’t really do very much in between robberies and while I doubt anybody was worried about Axel Foley in the first film there was still an undeniable tension in how Steven Berkoff and Jonathan Banks would sit there simmering as he talked, a believable threat hanging in the air which this film never bothers to attempt. For all everybody remembers Murphy’s ‘grooming services’ line while sizing up Brigitte Nielsen’s Karla Fry at the gun club there’s not much interaction between him and the bad guys at all. Some of that stuff is pretty crass anyway, with Foley referring to her as a bitch even before finding out who she really is and the overall tone of misogyny that runs through the entire film would probably get more than a few angry online pieces written about it today. Oddly the film rushes through the visit to the Playboy Mansion, complete with Hugh Hefner cameo, and the sequence feels pretty shoehorned in. Even at that location the movie doesn’t linger, ready to move on to the next chase not wanting to hang around.

As a lengthy aside, the recent 30th anniversary of BEVERLY HILLS COP II reminds me that the film opened less than a week after Elaine May’s legendary ISHTAR which was roundly trounced by it at the box office. Just a few weeks ago ISHTAR ran at the New Beverly (paired with A NEW LEAF) and played like gangbusters to the packed house, a welcome reversal of what happened in ’87 but also a reminder of how which of these two films was the perfect one for that moment. They actually have oddly similar climaxes each featuring the leads heading into battle heavily armed and of the two the movie which has the characters admit that they’re prepared for the worst isn’t the one from the director of TOP GUN. There’s never any doubt about winning in BEVERLY HILLS COP II but in its commentary on Reagan-era foreign policy ISHTAR is more open to the individual and what it means to be a loser and a pawn in how the corrupt system views you. COP II is somewhat more apolitical beyond its generic embracing of ‘the 80s’ and everything insidious that stands for, including guns, fast cars and women told to keep quiet but as much of a maverick as Axel Foley is supposed to be it’s still about upholding the system and preventing the evil foreigners of the world from using American might to get rich for themselves around the world. In ISHTAR the glory isn’t in money or even victory but in simply getting to do what you want in the world, whether the establishment is happy about that or not. Both films clearly have a love for their main characters but ISHTAR loves the losers that they are and the film is about reveling in your expected failure because you’d rather have nothing than settle for less. BEVERLY HILLS COP II is about victory since failure is never a possibility and it highlights the emptiness of the film in the end. Which made it perfect for the decade because nothing of value can ever come after that empty glory.

Quentin Tarantino likes it, saying in a Video Watchdog interview on sequels back in 2012, “it’s gorgeous looking and cinema is very much involved”. He likes ISHTAR too, for the record. I’ve grown to like BEVERLY HILLS COP II myself in its slick, ultra dumb-dumb way over the years since the slickness at least feels genuine, unlike a lot of really crappy action movies I can think of. There’s beauty in this junk so its own excitement about itself is part of what makes it work so well, a complete film world created by Tony Scott along with cinematographer Jeffrey L. Kimball and his multiple editors along with a Harold Faltermeyer soundtrack which in addition to the various songs and expected umpteen reprises of “Axel F” seems largely inspired by the track “The Duke Arrives” from John Carpenter’s ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK score. I wouldn’t want to live forever in this but an afternoon wouldn’t be so bad. For all the action and movement and crashing through parking meters as cars barrel down sidewalks, it’s really about the sensation of that ferocious imagery, not about any sort of suspense. The final shootout seems pretty brief for what you’d think would be a grand confrontation between hero and villain but why draw it out. As for the legendary Taggart line after he blows away a certain bad guy at the end, it’s pretty memorable in its brevity. It’s a good line. It’s a pithy line. And it’s also pretty awful about the worldview being stated. But hey, it was the 80s. The last line of the film is “Who’s that black guy?” spoken by the guy whose house he was using and it feels like the only truly racially tinged moment of the film, that ‘he doesn’t belong here’ inherent in the conflict which the film never addresses and doesn’t seem to care.

The funny thing is that the movie is pretty much the high water mark of Eddie Murphy, Superstar as we knew it then. COMING TO AMERICA was the following year and an even bigger hit but it at least involved Murphy playing a different sort of character. That was followed by HARLEM NIGHTS and at that point the cracks were beginning to show. But with James Ingram’s “Better Way” playing us out as the end credits roll, the cockiness of BEVERLY HILLS COP II is so assured that it feels like the vibe is going to go on forever, as if Paramount was ready to have them start production on Part III a week later. For what we knew of as Eddie Murphy in the first ten years of his career, it was never close to this high again. Everything ends eventually, we just don’t know it until it’s too late.

When there’s a giant close-up of Eddie Murphy laughing during the opening credits it’s as if he knows that’s why the movie is being made. He’s coasting here and it’s not like there’s much that could be said to be actual character work. Murphy is even effective during the quiet moments in the first film but this film has no quiet moments. In the way he directed his star Martin Brest was interested in behavior. Scott wants the movement. But going with the hangout vibe he does seem to enjoy playing off his main co-stars, a reminder of how well Judge Reinhold and John Ashton played off each other as these guys, adding immensely to how much fun the scenes are. If they ever decided to spinoff the two characters in their own film—and I wonder if that was ever brought up—it probably wouldn’t have been enough without Murphy but the two of them are ideal together here. There’s not much to say about Brigitte Nielsen in terms of performance but Tony Scott really does know how to shoot her. If only he could have figured out how to do more with her signature “Good bye” line but maybe what we got was the most effective way to do it and hidden in the shadows Jurgen Prochnow doesn’t make much of an impression at all. There’s not much to say about them, as much as the movie tries to convince us they’re important--I’m not even sure if CSI’s Paul Guilfoyle gets any actual dialogue as arms dealer Nick Thomopolis. On the other hand, Dean Stockwell barely does anything as his secondary bad guy but even his flat line readings have a touch of eccentricity. As new Beverly Hills Police Chief Lutz, Allen Garfield shouts so much you almost remember him more than anyone else in the movie, Robert Ridgley of BOOGIE NIGHTS is the Mayor of Beverly Hills while actual cop Gil Hill of the Detroit Homicide Division again plays Foley’s captain back home. Paul Reiser, then hot off ALIENS, again plays Axel’s friend Jeffrey, this time getting his own brief subplot, Gilbert Gottfried is accountant Sidney Bernstein and a very young Chris Rock appears briefly as a parking valet at the Playboy Mansion.

There finally was a BEVERLY HILLS COP III directed by John Landis a full seven years later and it’s not remembered for very much other than being bad (and a George Lucas cameo) so not much needs to be said about it. In 2013 there was even a pilot for a BEVERLY HILLS COP series meant for CBS that wasn’t picked up, featuring Murphy as Axel Foley working with son Aaron Foley, played by Brandon T. Jackson. I’ve seen it and, trust me, not much needs to be said about that either. Rumors of a fourth film still crop up occasionally but maybe one reason why it hasn’t happened is that it needs to figure out what the BEVERLY HILLS COP franchise is and I’m not sure there’s an answer to that beyond, “Eddie Murphy ad-libs his way through an action-comedy in 1984.” Which was great then, sure, but outside of that context it’s pretty much empty sensation. But taken by itself, BEVERLY HILLS COP II, defiantly staying back in the decade it was made and working today as a Tony Scott film. As immature as it is, there’s a likability and a glee that Michael Bay, the next step in the Simpson-Bruckheimer visual evolution, has never managed. No, there’s not much point in defending it but sometimes you watch what you watch anyway. Maybe to reclaim those feelings of being back there even though it’s never a place I want to visit. Maybe to wish it had all been a little better.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Not That It Matters

I was driving around the other day. I don’t do a lot of driving lately or at least I try to do as little as possible. But this day was different. And at a certain point I found myself near a certain area, a part of town I’ve always liked and a part of town I have a recent history with. But I couldn’t go there right now. I knew I couldn’t. I couldn’t even drive through it at top speed. So I turned right on 3rd and got out of there. You have to know when it’s ok to get close again. And right now it’s not.

It’s never certain who is going to be remembered. A few months back the New Beverly Cinema ran a series of several Frank Perry films leading me to make the observation on Twitter that if Michael Ritchie is like Hal Ashby’s scrappy younger brother then Frank Perry is the cousin out on Long Island who never calls (there are endless possibilities for this New Hollywood line of thought—Paul Mazursky is the family friend who moved out to the coast and is thinking of coming back, Larry Peerce is stuck in a crappy sublet on the west side). Anyway, so I go for the jokes everyone will get. Frank Perry, to somehow find a way back to him, died in 1995 and presently has the bad fortune to have his best remembered film also be his most notorious, specifically MOMMIE DEAREST, and however much we may want to assign blame to him for everything surrounding that is a discussion for another time. That film wasn’t part of the series at the New Beverly and the one night I made it there the place was packed for what was to me one of the most interesting pairings—1970’s DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE is an unsung near-masterpiece as far as I’m concerned and close to impossible to find these days. I’m not quite as effusive over his 1972 film PLAY IT AS IT LAYS, which has never had an official video release in any format, and though it’s a hard film to pin down looking at it again years after my first viewing it’s growing on me. I think I needed to go through some stuff for that response to happen. Maybe I’m still going through some of it, which helps some more.

See, it’s the freeways. That’s what I always remember about PLAY IT AS IT LAYS, the story of Maria Wyeth (Tuesday Weld), a sort of actress who spends her time drifting aimlessly through her days in Hollywood, aware that her marriage to film director Carter Lang (Adam Roarke) is falling apart and the only person she can connect with is her gay friend B.Z. (Anthony Perkins), Carter’s producer who shares her own fatalistic view of life. For a long time after I first saw PLAY IT AS IT LAYS (screenplay by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, based on Didion’s novel) just about the only thing I remembered were shots of the L.A. freeways that the main character is constantly driving on, going as far as the eye can make out, disappearing into the prevalent 70s smog and making me wonder who all those people were driving on those freeways way back then. Released in October 1972 and presumably set in 1972 (costumes by Joel Schumacher which is about as 70s a screen credit as you can get), something about the very tone of PLAY IT AS IT LAYS makes it instantly dated just as many films from around that time are and not simply because of abortion subplots. It really couldn’t be set during any other time and makes me wonder about how much changed between then and when I first showed up in town, something about the mood, the behavior, the language. In both novel and film the freeways are always referred to by their names as in the Harbor Freeway or the Ventura Freeway, not the 170 or the 101 like we do today but I’m really thinking about more than that. Have I ever actually encountered anyone like these people? The narrative is deliberately fractured as if meant to be nothing more than a zoned out version of the L.A. montage at the start of BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS stretched out to feature length on white wine and pills, the world of L.A. on all those freeways happening without you while you endlessly stay holed up in your apartment as you wonder when the story is really going to start. One scene, one moment, one drip of the faucet spilling over as the sun beats down or the rain falls, one reel change to the next. We either accept Maria (“pronounced Mar-eye-ah, to get it straight at the outset” as we’re told in the book) searching for the reason on the freeway as if all those roads will lead to some sort of answer or we don’t and she couldn’t care less what we do.

With a framing device showing Maria in some sort of LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD-type institution after the fallout of the shocking ending, no one else is seen there but even Maria barely exists as it is. All that matters is she’s alone. Just about all we know with any clarity through the bulk of PLAY IT AS IT LAYS is that she drives, driving endlessly, even changing a flat out on the freeway all by herself. Whoever she is, at the least she’s the star of the two films Carter directed, one a motorcycle picture called “Angel Beach” and the other simply called “Maria” which apparently consists of Maria talking about herself and nothing else. This more than anything seems to have led to success for Carter instead of her as we see him quizzed on a chat show about the reality of what he was filming. But PLAY IT AS IT LAYS isn’t interested in examining the line between film and reality almost as if it knows what a waste of time that is. It’s not a film about films. Maria may be a blank, having emerged from nowhere, placed up on a pedestal for people to analyze her as if she was the reason the male gaze was created. We barely know anything about Carter’s third film, the one he’s making, beyond that it’s shooting out in the desert and the female lead is a clear stand-in for his ex-wife. It’s as if he’s unsuccessfully trying to steal her soul for this new film, aware that their marriage is over but clearly lost without his muse to do whatever he tells her, not an idea in his head beyond how many camera set-ups he can get in and hoping he’ll be praised for it. In David Thomson’s introduction to the novel, he speculates that Carter’s directing career may not last for long—even this early there are signs of how some of those achieving some success in the New Hollywood may crash and burn. None of the characters even seem all that interested in the films they’re making and everyone else they come into contact with is either on the fringes of Hollywood or the fringes of their own world. Film as art is incidental, it’s just a medium that lets you confuse someone with the image you project on to them as you try to figure out what was never real in the first place just as Maria’s fabled hometown of Silver Wells literally doesn’t exist anymore. Even she doesn’t know for sure who she is. When she briefly goes looking for the past out in the desert she doesn’t find anything or anyone to help her and there’s nothing to be found anyway, what once happened lost behind the present where there are never going to be any answers.

Either you’re going to accept that this is a memory piece and not wait for the plot to kick in so your questions will be answered or you’ll throw up your hands after the first twenty minutes. It’s up to you. What are you really looking for anyway, relatability? At one point Maria gets a new apartment so she won’t have to deal with her mail—in the book it’s because a sink backs up which I still can’t decide if it makes more or less sense—and the path she takes, with no real destination and no particular idea of where to look, makes it almost the inverse of Perry’s film of THE SWIMMER from a few years earlier which was partly reshot by others after being taken away from him by star Burt Lancaster. In that film the journey of the main character is both real and metaphorical but there’s an odd TV movie sheen to the whole thing that the film can’t quite overcome, making the unreality of it play almost as an overlong commercial where something is slightly off. I still love THE SWIMMER (which is one I need to get around to eventually) and there’s something undeniably familiar about its suburban hostility for me whereas PLAY IT AS IT LAYS feels both more correct in tone and completely alien at the same time, a film that resists being loved and couldn’t care less about it. This isn’t a world I know in the slightest but it’s also intentionally alienating as if it knows it needs to be observing things not from the outside but from inside Maria’s own head.

The film was made a year after Perry’s divorce from wife Eleanor, essentially the key creative partner of his earlier work, but regardless a number of Frank Perry films from before and after the split, including THE SWIMMER, are about the dead end you find when examining your life and how you react to that revelation, even the forgotten 1987 Shelley Long vehicle HELLO AGAIN (speaking of forgotten 80s movies that I actually saw in the theater). PLAY IT AS IT LAYS finds a cinematic entry into what almost seems like an unadaptable book by facing what was deliberately fragmented head on. I imagine that the screenplay was as lean as the novel which would make sense and at least in the language a fair amount survives the adaptation including one of my favorite lines in the narration where Maria talks about how her father owned the town of Silver Wells adding, “He bought it or won it, I don’t know and it doesn’t matter to you.” Those are the sort of details of memory that get forgotten and we’ll never know what really went on. The film provides us with little tangible information forcing us to piece together who the characters are by ourselves as if we’ve been dropped into a party where everyone else already knows each other so the private jokes don’t make sense. That’s the world it is anyway, one where we often don’t really know who we’re lying next to, no matter how intimate we think we are. Even sex is all about yourself instead of the other person even though everyone always wants to know if you’re fucking someone and what it’s like to fuck them anyway.

Frankly it’s a little tough to decide if I actually get any pleasure out of the film because it’s so constricting or if I’m just fighting my way through an attempt to understand it. The film is like a dream that I don’t particularly enjoy but feels necessary, essential to understanding something that I haven’t been able to resolve. It’s off-putting and humorless but the card shuffle of a narrative somehow makes sense. Like Maria doesn’t seem to care about anyone who would have any interest in trying to impress her, I’m not sure if the movie cares about what you think either. Which is the way it should be. Perry’s direction feels like an organic part of this world, thoroughly understanding and yet you feel the remove. He was a New Yorker, born and died there, so it’s as if he’s just a visitor in this place, a little fascinated by the world and understanding it even though he doesn’t want to get too close to these people, a little bit horrified. He comes off as ambivalent at best about Los Angeles and the surrounding desert, contemptuous of Hollywood and maybe uncertain how he feels about films in general. It even feels separate from however Joan Didion may have felt about all this as if Perry wants to still be able to question what he’s not as close to. Incidentally, MOMMIE DEAREST may be the only other California-set piece in his filmography and of course that one is set in the ugliness of the film business too—Perry’s like a Paul Mazursky without the ability to laugh at himself. The emotional distance of his deceptively simple direction makes clear how much it represents Maria’s own point of view of the world, picking up on the little things around her that no one else could and a three card monte cutting style which continually goes back to small details of the past, just like things we remember ourselves. The cinematography by the great Jordan Cronenweth has a flat, commercial look perfectly captures that zoned out vibe of pills and California wine and it interestingly came a decade before he shot BLADE RUNNER, another film showing people drifting through Los Angeles as they await their expiration date which will come sooner than they want. B.Z. has shut out life around him so much that he almost seems like the one replicant not looking to extend his lifespan. The things he’s seen that people wouldn’t believe aren’t anything he wants to remember.

Of course, it’s a movie that contains very little of people saying what they mean. They’re all holding it back, with relationships that go by so fast you don’t even know what they are beyond a random fuck, refusing to reveal in their pill-popping stupors and when a semblance of honesty is revealed it’s dragged out of the person almost against their will, tired of fucking around. It’s a valid question to ask what matters between you and the people close to you as you feed off each other in that ongoing contest to see who’s more depressed, who’s closer to that scream out into the void. Faces drift in and out and they’re not always explained—for that matter, until I read the book I wasn’t even certain B.Z. and Helene were married, not that whatever I picked up on really matters and the book doesn’t shed all that much more light onto the situation anyway—it even makes sense how in some group shots Carter and Helene are next to each other leaving Maria and B.Z. off to the side, exchanging their looks of how they’re above it all. They’re not living, they’re outside of their own world and yet willingly a part of it, willingly allowing every ounce of humanity to be drained out of them. Drifting to different men with her husband still nearby because what else is there to do, Maria has nothing aside from the driving and she sees it all as pointless as the woman who sweeps the dirt on the porch of that house out in the desert. There is no past, just like Silver Wells no longer exists, there’s not even any evidence of it. Nothing applies, she concludes, unable to reconcile the child she didn’t have, unable to deal with the mentally challenged daughter she does have which all just leads to more emptiness. She’s as much of a blank as that past is, as the desert is, no chance of getting any answers. And there may not be any to get. A few scenes are set in what looks to be possibly the beach house from THE LONG GOODBYE and isn’t that supposed to be my film? What the hell is PLAY IS AS IT LAYS doing encroaching on my own cinematic fantasy? But that doesn’t matter. Deep down Maria knows you’re holding all the cards no matter what. You just have to realize that. Whether you care is something else entirely.

And because I have this vague idea of Tuesday Weld as someone who deliberately eschewed the spotlight it makes her very presence here that much more real as if she’s exactly this person using the blankness of her face, revealing everything and nothing with only the pauses between what she’s saying giving any clues. Anthony Perkins plays B.Z. with a focused ennui to every movement, coming to life when Maria is nearby and says anything at all, even if he doesn’t know what she’s talking about at first, simply going through the motions the rest of the time. The naked bitterness in much of his dialogue contains more honesty than anything else in the film; when asked if he gets tired of doing favors for people the way he says his reply, “You don’t know how tired” sounds like he could be referring to anything from every Norman Bates joke he’s heard to any of the certain secrets he’s been carrying around since who knows when. Together the two of them find a human connection that almost makes their dialogue irrelevant, we can tell everything from their private glances even while their closeness feels totally private. They barely even seem like they’re acting when they’re together, almost as if this is who they really were between takes on their previous team-up PRETTY POISON a few years earlier. Faced up against the oddball energy of some of the smaller roles, particularly Chuck McCann as the abortionist’s assistant who talks about looking for a new car, Adam Roarke as Carter is such an appropriate blank it makes sense that I don’t buy much of anything creative in him when Maria isn’t around. That tension breaks through the monotony of all those little moments where as much as the characters talk they don’t say anything at all and as Helene, Tammy Grimes plays much of her part as if nothing could break through that insufferable finishing school accent almost as if barely a single line of dialogue she has even matters. But her performance makes perfect sense when placed up against the line near the very end of the book, “Maria thought she had never heard anyone scream the way Helene screamed,” and based on the way Grimes screams when it comes there are few moments from any other film adaptation that has as much pure faithfulness to the source as this does.

All that matters is she’s alone. Maybe that’s the real happy ending. I’m not even sure how much I like thinking about it, in the same way I barely want to ever think about the past. But it stays in my head, shot by shot. After all, what other choice is there but to remember, to try to face those memories, to try to understand another person as much as you won’t get an answer, aware that you’ll never feel whole again. Fighting through it can be like trying to regrow a missing limb because there’s never any real answer. Which is a reminder that I’m currently working out in Burbank and every day I cut through Griffith Park to get there. All that greenery helps for a few minutes. Maybe that’s an answer for how to survive this town while you’re still here. Just avoid the freeways.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Doing Nothing To Prevent It

The past gets forgotten. Films get forgotten. That’s just the way it goes. Even good films that were hits back in their day fall through the cracks. And then there are the bad ones which you may remember with a touch of fondness because you saw them when you were young and stupid and didn’t know any better. These aren’t films that are hurting anyone but they’re not doing much else either, eventually becoming little more than used VHS tapes that you can buy cheap at a video store going out of business, star vehicles made in between the hits that the stars are actually remembered for. The 80s were loaded with them and now, decades later, sometimes you see one of these things again for no particular reason other than to confirm your suspicion that it probably really wasn’t very good back then even when you maybe had an ok time watching it. Nothing wrong with checking to be sure, of course. Even bad films deserve the benefit of the doubt.
As I wrote about it, one of the highlights of the recent TCM Classic Film Festival for me was the new restoration of the 1931 version of THE FRONT PAGE which I had never seen all of before, being mostly familiar with the 1974 Billy Wilder remake and especially Howard Hawks’ HIS GIRL FRIDAY which turned the lead reporter character into a woman and made it a full-on romantic comedy. But THE FRONT PAGE ’31 was a minor revelation, sharply drawn featuring some wonderful character actors as well as a finely honed sense of place which gave me a window to this particular world more than I had ever felt with any other version. And although the source material is largely confined to the age in which it originated, during the cable boom of the 80s it did inspire one more film which I didn’t bother to mention last time around. If SWITCHING CHANNELS is remembered at all these days it’s as the film Michael Caine had to drop out of because he was stuck filming JAWS THE REVENGE, also the reason he was unable to accept the Oscar he won that year. But that aside, this fourth celluloid version of THE FRONT PAGE has been erased from all memory, the sort of thing that maybe gets a brief mention in career summaries of the people involved and not much more. Released by Tri-Star in March 1988 just a few months after the acclaimed BROADCAST NEWS, even then it looked like not much more than an also-ran. My vague recollection is that when Kathleen Turner appeared on Letterman to plug the film and he remarked on the similarity she simply replied, “It’s funnier than BROADCAST NEWS” to which Dave laughed in her face. Now, it’s possible my memory is faulty on this point but regardless you’d better be able to back up such a claim even when you’re in publicity mode and that’s a tough one to pull off. For the record, SWITCHING CHANNELS isn’t funnier than BROADCAST NEWS. It’s isn’t funnier than a lesser MARY TYLER MOORE rerun. It isn’t even funnier than a ninth season episode of MURPHY BROWN. It did open the same day as the Richard Pryor vehicle MOVING, so at the least it has an outside shot of being the funniest movie released that week.
Christy Colleran (Kathleen Turner), hotshot anchor for the all-news cable channel SNN returns from a two-week vacation in Canada where she announces to the horror of boss and ex-husband John L. “Sully” Sullivan IV (Burt Reynolds) that she’s quitting the news game and marrying sports equipment tycoon Blaine Bingham (Christopher Reeve). But the day she stops by to break the news happens to be the very same day convicted cop killer Ike Roscoe (Henry Gibson) is set to go to the electric chair and Sully uses the opportunity to delay Christie’s departure so she can interview Ike and get his sad story on the air, predictably enraging Attorney General Roy Ridnitz (Ned Beatty) who is dead set on preventing the Governor from pardoning Ike. As the clock ticks down to the execution, they race to get the interview on air while at the same time Sully continues to do anything and everything to keep Christy from leaving town.
At some point in the past I’ve heard SWITCHING CHANNELS mistakenly referred to as a Cannon film which it isn’t although when you watch the film you kind of get why. Mostly shot in Toronto with a few Chicago exteriors there’s something slightly off about the whole thing with a slapdash, undeniably fake vibe as if it was actually made overseas somewhere, maybe directed by someone not quite familiar with the language so they don’t know to get certain nuances right. Director Ted Kotcheff certainly spoke English; he’d made the excellent FIRST BLOOD several years earlier as well as the comedy FUN WITH DICK AND JANE a decade previous but the work here feels tone deaf as if he never quite got a handle of how to play the farcical elements even if, to his credit, there are moments that play like at least he studied HIS GIRL FRIDAY a few times. In his recent autobiography “Director’s Cut” (which, just from glancing through it, looks like a very engaging read), Kotcheff mainly focuses on the reported strife between the two leads—Turner wasn’t happy with Reynolds as the replacement for Caine—and concedes that the film didn’t really work, calling the end result “apple juice rather than champagne”. Comedies are binary, he says, they work or they don’t and though it’s nowhere near the worst thing ever SWITCHING CHANNELS never really does. If anything at all, it’s most interesting as a screenwriting exercise designed to see how much it can remain faithful to the source material while updating it for modern times. Jonathan Reynolds (credits include the Blake Edwards comedy MICKI + MAUDE as well as, gulp, LEONARD PART 6) wrote the screenplay with the Hecht-MacArthur original given credit and in fairness it actually does come up with a few clever ways to bring the story into the modern age and still kinda, sorta make sense; certainly there’s nothing wrong with updating the premise to a cable news setting or the copier in place of the roll-top desk or the defense attorney pleading for justice in the place of street walker Molly Malloy. It’s just that everything seems heightened up a little too much in every single scene so the tone never seems quite right, it never seems believable even as broad comedy.
It’s also kind of sterile as a little cheap looking (or, as the Variety review pointed out, “production looks a little thin around the edges”) and just not as funny as it should be. You could say that the jokes are sitcom level but this was when CHEERS was on the air so let’s say they’re the level of an ABC sitcom circa 1980 with dialogue containing various references to jockstraps, Al Capone’s vault and multiple uses of the word ‘yuppie’ as a punchline. The frenetic tone doesn’t always match up very well with the three leads either, each of whom seems smarter than the material they have to play as well as the characters they’re supposed to be. The dialogue is missing the needed sharpness and while some of it, including the key phrase “Gentlemen of the press”, comes from previous versions some of it isn’t with a little too much crassness at times along with some misguided sentimentality as well. The visit with the condemned killer in this version and HIS GIRL FRIDAY is an interesting point of comparison; in FRIDAY Rosalind Russell as Hildy Johnson brings the barest hint of emotion to her deliberately flat dialogue, never going too far to betray how she feels, as a reporter would presumably do. Kathleen Turner’s Christy Colleran, meanwhile, is all empathy telling Henry Gibson’s Ike Roscoe “You don’t deserve to be executed,” which feels a little too much like editorializing and doesn’t leave much room for any subtext between the two actors. When Hildy Johnson leaves the jail cell she tells the killer, “Good-bye, Earl…and good luck,” which in the world of Howard Hawks is as powerful as a tearful embrace. The way SWITCHING CHANNELS adds extra emotion to the beat through the dialogue and how the actors are directed makes the moment fall flat. HIS GIRL FRIDAY is always about Hildy Johnson but in SWITCHING CHANNELS the focus is never strong enough to know for sure.
The Chicago setting is a carryover from the play and it makes just as much sense for SNN to be there as it does for CNN to be in Atlanta but it never seems like a global news organization, even with joking dialogue about all the Chicago fires they put on the air, focusing so much on local politics and cartoonish cutaways to people who supposedly live in the city. It’s sort of a reminder of that more innocent time when CNN was the sole all-news channel but it still never feels like the real thing and even the setpiece of the execution being filmed by the media who race into the jail scrambling to get a good look plays more as sitcom than something trying to be a NETWORK-type satire. Of course, a politician doing something blatantly evil in full view of the world isn’t such a crazy thing anymore but it still has no particular bite. Whether because of the structure forced on it by the previous versions or because it wants to be just a farce and nothing more, the film has nothing really on its mind, no greater point to make.
Maybe that’s part of the problem—the source material is a comedy about people who populate a very specific world and how they make that world (the names have been changed from THE FRONT PAGE for no clear reason, but this in itself isn’t a sacrilege). In its treatment of certain characters whether Ralph Bellamy’s Bruce Baldwin or the villainous Sheriff in any of them it makes it clear how they haven’t earned the right to be in that world. Here Christopher Reeve’s Blaine Bingham is more narcissistic than anything but the film’s portrayal of him almost wants to hold back on making him too much of a boob so when he pauses to admire the Chicago Picasso sculpture for a few seconds he doesn’t seem like that bad a guy. They’re just broadly drawn figures in a movie dumbed down from the material with myriad plot holes somehow trying to cover up that a state governor somehow wouldn’t know that an execution is taking place (I’d also imagine that a news anchor’s contract wouldn’t just let her leave on a moment’s notice and take a job in another city, but never mind) and since it’s based on an old movie anyway nobody did any research so the movie would attain the right sort of verisimilitude. When Burt Reynolds dismisses the idea of covering a summit in Belgium because no one knows where it is I can’t help but imagine Albert Brooks’ Aaron Altman from BROADCAST NEWS watching this and fuming at how his world is being depicted. The film isn’t smart enough to earn its own cynicism. Plus there’s that whole 80s day-glo sheen which makes all the fashions ugly to look at and while it makes sense that the large cast of reporters scrambling for the story would mostly be blow-dried nitwits, it still doesn’t make them interesting. Naturally the lead character is no longer the only female reporter in this world, with added bickering between the TV and print reporters but even the few comments on sexual politics are kept on the surface but in this film everything is anyway. The 80s were glossy and sleek and ugly but SWITCHING CHANNELS never wants to go any further than the surface in its commentary. I really don’t miss that decade.
It’s tempting to say that the film would have worked better with Michael Caine but it’s not like everything he actually made was always a winner (although later in ’88 he did wind up in a good remake of a comedy, DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS) so we’ll never know. The template of THE FRONT PAGE really comes into play in the second half, moving over to the bland setting of a press room across from the jail and immediacy of it brings energy but never much in the way of laughs although surprisingly the Roy Bensinger equivalent is more of an anti-TV snob than the expected gay caricature, one of the low points of the Wilder version, so at least there’s something in the movie’s favor. But you can feel the strain of the film trying too hard to make this all play big and wacky so overly broad attempts to humiliate Blaine (sending him up in an elevator since he’s afraid of heights) or keep Christy from leaving (having underlings buy up seats on every flight leaving Chicago) don’t give the serious moments much credibility. Even the Michel Legrand score (with theme co-written by Legrand and Neil Diamond—NEIL DIAMOND?!) is way too over excited and the big band vibe maybe dates worse than anything else in the film. Since they got Michel Legrand maybe the whole thing would play better dubbed into French anyway but the timing would still feel off since it’s still lacking the correct metronome feel that would allow for everything to build to just the right explosion that the film never manages (I don’t want to be that hard on Kotcheff since, after all, FIRST BLOOD is pretty great). Even the few stabs at Chicago flavor never come off as authentic, partly because so much was shot in Canada (one of the Toronto locations is recognizable from turning up in Cronenberg’s DEAD RINGERS, released the same year) partly because it doesn’t seem to come from somebody who’s actually been there. It doesn’t seem to be interested in what the world it portrays really is since it’s all farce, when THE FRONT PAGE was what that world meant to the people in it. It’s the epitome of a film you kind of like when you’re younger, like I was when I saw it opening weekend, then you revisit it much later in life and are reminded how much of a line is to be drawn between the films that work and the ones that don’t, the ones that become more than they were ever meant to and the ones that recede into the distance. But hey, I was just a kid. I learned a couple of things eventually.
The three leads are all lively, I’ll say that, but they’re each kind of acting in their own movies. This was right around the peak of Kathleen Turner’s stardom and she always has presence and energy but seems a little too aloof at times as if she’s above all this nonsense which maybe she is; she was also somewhat famously pregnant during filming and as ungallant as it may be to point out that the giant blazer she wears through much of the film doesn’t quite cover up the fact (her costumes and hair aren’t so great either, if I can be real snippy about this). Burt Reynolds is pretty much playing Burt Reynolds, off in his own world and not always paying much attention to the other actors but he still probably has more energy than anyone else here even if it’s a little too much of a Hal Needham energy when maybe a few touches of Alan J. Pakula wouldn’t be so bad. Christopher Reeve gets the lesser role, as this part is going to be in any iteration of this material and maybe it’s the lasting fondness we all have for the guy but since he never comes off as shallow as the character he’s playing his few stabs at callousness never wind up meaning very much. It’s Ned Beatty who gets the most juice out of this and as over the top as he is, even doing a double take while eating popcorn, he still gets closer to the right tone than anyone else while Henry Gibson’s best moments are when he holds things back like when he quickly answers a few questions right before getting into the electric chair. George Newbern, also in the FATHER OF THE BRIDE remake, is Reynolds’ assistant and Charles Kimbrough, later of MURPHY BROWN, is the governor. Among the multiple Canadian actors in the cast is Joe Silver, a familiar face from David Cronenberg’s SHIVERS and RABID as well as, oddly, the film of DEATHTRAP which starred Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve.
Dedicated journalism is probably needed now more than ever but maybe this film isn’t the best example to use of that fact even though Ned Beatty’s corrupt state attorney, clearly meant to be an uneducated thug, doesn’t seem so bad right now and I couldn’t help but notice that the actor who plays his underling oddly resembles Paul Ryan. The 80s may not have been so great but maybe it’s not a good idea to compare them with where we are right now. As for SWITCHING CHANNELS, Sheila Benson’s review in the Los Angeles Times speculates that the thought process behind it is “the same kind of wishful thinking that produced the Alexander Haig presidential campaign” which, frankly, isn’t much better than a few similar lines in the film. Roger Ebert liked it considerably better, one of a number of films where Roger’s opinion now seems somewhat mystifying although he spends an odd amount of time in his review complaining about the absence of the play’s famous last line even though the way the plot goes there’s no way it could be in there anyway and HIS GIRL FRIDAY certainly got along ok without it. The film also pretty much marked the end of the A-list for the two male leads although Turner, with THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST and THE WAR OF THE ROSES coming up as well as the voice of Jessica Rabbit, still had a few years to go before V.I. WARSHAWSKI took care of that. Ted Kotcheff, meanwhile, went on the following year to direct WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S which of course everyone on the planet remembers. There’s nothing particularly tragic about SWITCHING CHANNELS being forgotten but it’s also not quite a career low for anyone involved and, hey, even bad films sometimes deserve a little love. You may even secretly like it and watch it late at night as some sort of comfort food. We all have those movies. It may even be closer to the reality of what goes on at certain news networks these days more than we realize. Still doesn’t make it any good, of course.

Friday, April 28, 2017

For Things That Used To Be

When we last left Mr. Peel at the end of Vol. 1 of this report, he was racing down Hollywood Blvd to the Egyptian with a few of the most interesting (if not always successful) titles of the TCM Classic Film Festival still in front of him…
The big event at the screening of THEODORA GOES WILD wasn’t the movie itself but the introduction by Illeana Douglas in which she took it upon herself to announce an impromptu seventh inning stretch and lead the packed house in a singalong of, not “Take me Out to the Ballgame”, but the much more appropriate “Singin’ in the Rain”. And everyone did just that, making for one of the most blissful moments of the entire festival, a reminder to all of us that we were among friends. The extremely nutso screwball comedy THEODORA GOES WILD starring Irene Dunne and Illeana’s grandfather Melvyn Douglas was followed at the Egyptian by one of the most eagerly awaited of the festival, a nitrate screening of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s BLACK NARCISSUS. Running into some people on the way in led to following them up to the balcony where over on the other side was my friend Marya and others shouting my name but I had no idea why—I later found out that they were pretty much shouting the names of everyone they knew who was up there and it was almost like most of the people I knew at the festival were there to see BLACK NARCISSUS, all up in that balcony. My own personal drama involving someone else up in that balcony was going on right at that moment, but never mind about that, and there was an excitement in the air because of this screening and it was as if we were also aware that there was only so much time left, as if the festival was reaching the top of the rollercoaster right at that moment. And of the 3 nitrate screenings I attended, BLACK NARCISSUS was easily the most powerful, with truly stunning imagery found in those colors that was like being touched by the hand of the god of cinema itself. Full disclosure, this was my first ever viewing of the film and more than following the story I found myself stunned from the imagery, my jaw agape from shot after shot and a few of those images are still with me. This was pure cinema and it was hard to shake. When the film ended the weather was surprisingly cold and windy out on Hollywood Blvd and it was as if BLACK NARCISSUS was following us out there, refusing to let go its grip on us.
But the night ended. And then there was Sunday. You begin to feel it, knowing that the end is near but you’re fighting through that exhaustion. This is the sort of day where you may plan on certain things but that doesn’t mean they’re going to happen. As a result, I didn’t make it to any of the early 9AM screenings but fortunately I was there for the restoration of the 1931 version of THE FRONT PAGE which I’d never seen even though I’ve read the play, even though I’ve seen HIS GIRL FRIDAY about fifty times and the 1974 Billy Wilder version more than a few as well. The screening was introduced by Academy preservationist Heather Linville and Academy Film Archive director Mike Pogorzelski who went into detail on the restoration which went far beyond just cleaning up the look of the film, revealing that to make multiple negatives for foreign releases the general foreign version was essentially an alternate version—the U.S. release had used the best takes of each scene and the foreign version which required a complete different negative had to use other, lesser takes so not only did the film look inferior due to dupey public domain transfers, the takes in the film itself were inferior whether for reasons of performance or even camerawork and that has been the version widely seen through the years, something which has now been rectified. Directed by Lewis Milestone, THE FRONT PAGE ’31 may not be as breezy or charged as HIS GIRL FRIDAY but very few films are and as a direct adaptation of the play comes off as a fully realized world. It’s not so much a star vehicle and since the importance of even the side characters feels that much greater it gives the material a depth that I’ve never felt in any of the later adaptations. For the first time in all my years being familiar with the material I felt like I’d really been given a look at the newspaper world of Chicago in the 20s by people who’d been there and I look forward to further viewings alongside HIS GIRL FRIDAY in the future to compare.
Early Sunday afternoon Hal Ashby’s THE LANDLORD was playing at the Egyptian with Lee Grant in person and it was near the top of my list ever since the schedule was announced which, of course, means that I missed it. Hal Ashby, wherever you are, please forgive me. But this was maybe that point I reach every year where I’m feeling like maybe I haven’t spent enough time seeing other things so I opted for the conversation in Club TCM with Dick Cavett being interviewed by Illeana Douglas. Since I’d missed the films that Cavett had introduced over the weekend I can’t regret it my choice, listening to him talk about the time he slipped some jokes into Jack Paar’s hand right before he did his show to the legendary introduction he wrote for Paar when a certain famous guest was on (“Here they are, Jayne Mansfield”) along with stories about Groucho Marx (of course), a long tale involving Marlon Brando and the paparazzi, visiting Stan Laurel at his tiny apartment in Santa Monica and even meeting Bob Hope when he was a kid growing up in Nebraska. They’re all stories that I’m certain he’s told more than a few times in the past but the way he told them was everything you would want Dick Cavett to be. There was also wonderful rapport between him and Illeana Douglas who as usual was one of the best TCM hosts of the entire weekend, serving as an ideal straight man for Cavett who near the end willingly ignored the instructions to wrap up so he could get in one more hysterical story about Jack Benny.

I may have lingered a little too long in Club TCM talking to people which means by the time I got back over to the Chinese 6 to see DETECTIVE STORY, also with a Lee Grant appearance before the film, it had already filled up (Lee Grant and I were apparently destined to never meet at this festival). So instead of trying to race over to the Egyptian for WHAT’S UP DOC? which I’ve seen at least ten times already, I went with HELL IS FOR HEROES, even though Bob Newhart had canceled, even though no one else I knew was in there. But hey, it was Don Siegel and I’d never seen it, this was going to be a good use of my time no matter what.
France, 1944 – near the town of Montigny, a squad of soldiers from the 95th Infantry expecting to go home soon is forced back to the front lines, badly outnumbered as they desperately try to hold off a larger contingent of Germans ready to attack. With screenplay by Robert Pirosh and Richard Carr (story by Pirosh), 1962’s HELL IS FOR HEROES avoids spectacle in favor of a dry, no-nonsense approach which always seems ready to go off the rails due to the intensity of Steve McQueen’s presence and his always icy glare at anyone who tries to say more than a few words to him. Clocking in at just under 90 minutes and shot in black & white by Harold Lipstein, the film has an undeniable immediacy right from the star as if a direct outgrowth of live TV and the undeniable humanity felt in the supporting characters, whether the coolness of James Coburn or Mike Kellin writing to his kids back home makes each of them fully dimensional. Bob Newhart, given an ‘introducing’ credit, plays a reluctant member of the squad forced into combat duty with little more than clerical experience and it oddly prefigures his role as Major Major in the Mike Nichols film of CATCH-22 a decade later. Newhart spends part of his screentime essentially doing versions of the telephone routine from his stand-up act, attempting to provide false information to any Germans who might be listening and it makes for an enjoyable, if unexpected, detour from the main drama. But even with this there’s an intensity to HELL IS FOR HEROES that only grows as things get more desperate, holding tight on the drama right down to the very last shot as if it’s saying that all some of the greatest sacrifices can really do is make way for the next stage of the battle so the war can go on. The conflict hasn’t ended but the film has made its statement. A blunt instrument of a film that lets you feel the anguish of the characters through Siegel’s expert staging of the action, the ultimate effect of HELL IS FOR HEROES is like a sharp knife to the gut. It’s not the widescreen boys’ adventure of THE GREAT ESCAPE, to use another McQueen-Coburn WWII film, but a much harsher look at the nastiness and desperation of heroism.
Theater #1 at the Chinese 6 for HELL IS FOR HEROES wasn’t very crowded, no doubt because of Bob Newhart’s cancellation, but Ben Mankiewicz still gave his introduction 110% talking mostly about the star who wasn’t there and telling us that he’d been looking forward to his appearance, mentioning how he had wanted to speak both before and after the film to avoid any spoilers in his anecdotes. Much of the film is set at night mostly because of the extreme heat out in the location near Redding, California and it was filmed right during the period when Newhart was really starting to be in-demand for his stand-up services so every day he would try to talk Don Siegel into killing him off, without success. The scenes where he basically incorporates his act into the film are definitely incongruous considering the tone—Siegel himself is quoted in the book “Don Siegel, Director” by Stuart M. Kaminsky as not thinking very much of the Newhart scenes saying his role "took us out of the realm of realism--but the bits still work, not only providing a touch of comic relief (for lack of a better term) up against the forceful barking of someone like the sergeant played by Harry Guardino (later in Siegel’s DIRTY HARRY) but another reminder that these guys are human and even though they’re outnumbered are trying to use any idea they have to get the job done. Even the Steve McQueens of the world need help from the Bob Newharts, after all.
So I didn’t regret getting to see that one bit, even if I had been shut out of DETECTIVE STORY. And this led to the final film, a nitrate showing of LADY IN THE DARK because following a hard bitten war film from the 60s to a woman’s picture from the 40s which is somewhat, um, flamboyant at times is always the way to go. LADY IN THE DARK was directed by Mitchell Leisen who even though his reputation has grown over the years may be best remembered for angering the likes of Wilder and Sturges for how he filmed their scripts for MIDNIGHT and REMEMBER THE NIGHT, spurring them into directing for themselves so they could protect their scripts. Released in 1944 in Technicolor, LADY IN THE DARK stars Ginger Rogers (in her second appearance of the festival for me after RAFTER ROMANCE, funny how that happens) as a fashion magazine editor who reluctantly looks into psychoanalysis to understand her dreams and make sense of her past. It sounds fascinating and in some ways it was fascinating. Martin Scorsese had spoken well about it during his speech extolling the virtues of nitrate a few days before calling it one of his favorites, I’ll grant that, but there’s also the Leonard Maltin review calling the film “intriguing but ultimately ponderous” which having seen it I now think is dead on--in his podcast reviewing the festival he mentioned missing the screening but called it “one of the most garish movies ever made” which also sounds about right. An adaptation of a Broadway musical (songs by Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin) which apparently ditches most of the music yet keeps a certain musical flavor as well as a potential screwball approach somehow turns it all into a dreary tone which approaches the funereal at times, feeling like a film made by a director getting the chance to do anything he wanted and just going too far with all the wrong choices (maybe I prefer Leisen in black & white—one of his to seek out is the 1935 Carole Lombard romantic comedy HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE). To be honest I felt myself checking out of the film before the 40 minute mark, any interest I’d had beyond the nitrate imagery completely evaporated and mostly watched the rest of it as some sort of perverse intellectual exercise.
Yes, there was laughter from the audience at certain lines that could now be considered problematic in how regressive they are in their sexual politics but this isn’t really worth getting into although those touches made the somewhat daring, to be fair, staging seem even that much more incongruous. It has style, but no discipline. It has extravagance, but no wit or enjoyment. I kept imagining Billy Wilder in 1944 miserably watching this thing in a Paramount screening room right in the middle of working on DOUBLE INDEMNITY and unable to leave because the head of the studio was sitting behind him. Instead of getting too negative about it all I’ll just say that it wasn’t one of my favorite films of the festival but since I can’t imagine when else I’m ever going to see a nitrate print of LADY IN THE DARK I’m not going to complain. In all seriousness, if you’re at all interested in the film and ever get the chance (there’s never been a video release in any format) by all means find out for yourself. I may not join you for a second try, however. Based on the Twitter response, people were pretty divided on it and it says something about the TCM Festival that I wish it had been scheduled earlier just so I could get into this with others who were there. We could’ve chosen sides for a debate and everything.

Instead of feeling a slight letdown I went off to the closing night party, to say goodbye to certain people and try to avoid admitting that this was all ending just a little while longer. The total count for me at this year's festival was 14 films and there could have been more but there’s no way to see everything just as there’s no way not to have a tinge of regret of what you missed, with LAURA and THE LANDLORD and the midnight shows and those other talks in Club TCM and who knows what else. The frenzy at the TCM Classic Film Festival as you try to get from one film to the next isn’t just about nostalgia. It’s that undeniable ephemeral quality you get from those gorgeous nitrate prints, it’s the buzz of being in a packed house of people who are just as thrilled to be there as you are. It’s about how much these films are still alive and vibrant, how much they can mean and the thrill of discovering one of them for the first time. Anyway, it’s now several weeks later. The excitement surrounding the festival has calmed down. But in my head part of me is still back there with the people I spent so much time with in that oasis in the middle of Hollywood away from the rest of the world, excited for all the films we were seeing whether comedy or otherwise and it takes some time for that rush to die down even as I look forward to next year. Maybe it never really does. Hopefully it never will.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Once in a Blue Moon

The theme of the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival was Comedy in the Movies. This meant Lubitsch, this meant Sturges, this meant Danny Kaye and Harold Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy and The Marx Brothers. And also something like Don Siegel’s HELL IS FOR HEROES, a down and dirty WWII film which of course isn’t a comedy but does feature an early appearance by Bob Newhart who in a few scenes even does versions of his famous telephone routines right in the middle of this rather sober war picture. It was an inspired choice for the festival to explore how comedy can turn up unexpectedly in certain films and Newhart himself was even set to appear at the screening until news of the death of his best friend Don Rickles came in on Thursday of that week and the expected cancellation was soon announced. The screening went on anyway to what was not exactly a packed house; certainly no friends of mine were there to join me. But the film revealed its power anyway. Comedy intrudes on life under odd circumstances just as life intrudes on comedy even at a film festival that is as much of a vacation from the real world as this one is.
I’m just starting to accept the idea that the TCM Classic Film Festival is done again for a year. It can be hard to explain. For a few days you’re taken over by the festival in this web of films on Hollywood Boulevard, seeing films you love, seeing films for the first time, all through that rush of cinema with people who care about them just as much as you. Yes, when you live in L.A. you get chances to see films like this most nights but it’s almost like the festival has a certain electricity which adds immeasurably to the enjoyment. It’s an extension of what the network does on the air every day but expanding it and providing a reminder of what these films mean to people. Since over a hundred titles are shown at the festival, with at least five sometimes going at once there are possibilities for all sorts of festivals in there. The classic oldies of CASABLANCA/SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN/THE MALTESE FALCON/DR. STRANGELOVE were a part of it this year so every now and then you might want to revisit one but there’s also the elusive titles that don’t turn up very much even at revival screenings in L.A. and there are sometimes going to be tough choices to make, a few things you’re forced to pass on. Plus you need to keep an open mind for the films you might be walking into on the spur of the moment and it might turn out to be something that will knock you out unexpectedly. Find the right combination of all these things, you’ll find your own perfect festival and you won’t regret it.
Considering how wide ranging the selections can be the idea of a theme to this festival is always a little odd, even though a focus on comedy isn’t a bad thing these days; of course, along with the extensive lineup of comedies there were also such titles as THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, DAVID AND LISA, THE CHINA SYNDROME (with Michael Douglas in person) and the opening night red carpet selection IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT which featured an appearance by Sidney Poitier. HELL IS FOR HEROES, to name one, was billed under the sub-category ‘Hey, That’s Not Funny’, which featured comic actors in more serious roles. Real life also intruded on the festival in the form of the recent passing of Robert Osborne, the face of the network since it first went on the air in 1994. Before the festival even officially began, a public memorial for him was held in theater #1 of the Chinese 6 to allow various TCM employees, as well as festivalgoers, to share their own memories of Osborne who will always be thought of, as Ben Mankiewicz put it, as “the face, heart, voice and soul of TCM.” Speakers included Diane Baker of MARNIE legend, a friend of Robert’s for over 50 years who recalled the lunch they had in New York just a few months ago where she knew that it would be the last time she would ever see him. Not only was the festival dedicated to him, Osborne’s presence was continually felt down to photos of some of his favorite films decorating the walls in Club TCM, ranging from ALL ABOUT EVE to THIS IS SPINAL TAP.
What his absence will mean for the future of the network was something which came up at the press conference the day before the festival began, with several questions exploring how Osborne’s presence would continue on the channel; a few suggestions from some of the media present included reusing old intros of his in a new context but it still seems to be an idea in progress. Diehard Bruce Springsteen fan Ben Mankiewicz, almost the de facto face of the channel by now even though this is never emphasized, compared it to when E Street band member Clarence Clemons died and various people took over for him but there could never be one single person to replace Clarence Clemons. The immediate future of the channel was an ongoing subject at the press conference as well, including the growing Filmstruck website along with mentions of upcoming programming to commemorate the 70th anniversary of HUAC and the continuation of the Trailblazing Women in Film series--a new incarnation of longtime TCM series The Essentials has been announced since the festival, to feature Alec Baldwin as host, an indication that the network is proceeding forward. The matter of the occasional appearance by movies from recent decades continues to be brought up but it was stressed that they are well aware of what the ‘sweet spot’ is for what sort of film belongs on TCM.

It’s also clear that the festival itself is continually evolving as it has to, a reminder that it began way back in 2010 almost at the moment when studios were about to make 35mm prints sparse to favor digital projection. While two Cinerama presentations were on the program down the street at the Cinerama Dome this year, certainly the big news of the festival was that the recent renovation of the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theater which included retrofitting the projection booth to screen the famously combustible and unstable nitrate film stock with director Alexander Payne in particular given credit for the idea to get what was called 'a massive undertaking' to finally happen. Although there was a special Cinematheque showing of a nitrate print of CASABLANCA last November, this was the first time the format really got a spotlight in the huge theater and to display how these prints themselves really are works of art as it was described. Availability of certain titles is an ongoing issue for the festival and it’s not like there are DCPs available for every film let alone 35mm prints but no matter how important some of the digital screenings are, like this year's restoration of PANIQUE, I still wish there could be one more house equipped for film again at the festival to make it that much more special. At times it’s the 35mm prints shown in the nooks of the smaller theaters where the real flavor of the festival can sometimes be found; maybe because of the big titles and classic oldies that gets shown there the main Chinese Theater (now officially the “TCL Chinese IMAX” but please don’t make me call it that) winds up having the most tourist oriented flavor during the festival and it’s sadly not equipped to run 35mm anymore regardless.

One of the places that does screen 35mm is the infamous theater #4 up in the Chinese 6, always the smallest theater used by the festival only seating 178, and which has become its own sort of clubhouse in recent years due to how it would automatically fill up for certain noir and pre-code titles. After reaching a breaking point last year due to how fast the 1933 pre-code DOUBLE HARNESS filled up almost instantly for both showings certain changes have clearly been made to the decisions of what gets shown in theater #4 and some of them have clearly been moved down the street to the Egyptian meaning the private members vibe went away but it’s hard to complain about actually getting into see certain films. Although, that said, the crowds didn’t always show up regardless of where they were and I honestly felt a few pangs of sadness when my friend Marya, aka @oldfilmsflicker, tweeted from a relatively empty theater #4 while waiting to see King Vidor’s STREET SCENE (and here’s her own review of that film) which under other circumstances I might have tried to get to myself. It can sometimes feel a little strange to be off at the Egyptian away from the main action which admittedly doesn’t make any sense but it worked for the best and hearing from people who were spending most if not all of certain days in the Egyptian gave the place its own vibe and without shutting so many people out turning it into an all-new alternate track of the festival, the heart and soul of glistening black & white and occasionally stunning color.
And although the events, discussions and appearances by big names are so crucial to the vibe of TCMFF it’s the films which we’re there to see, after all. So after the tribute to Robert and Bruce Goldstein’s annual trivia contest “So You Think You Know Movies” (for the second year in a row I was on the team that won; let’s just assume I was integral to the victory) and as the red carpet for the opening night attraction IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT began across the street from the Roosevelt, I made my way down Hollywood, passing Don Rickles’ star where many flowers had already been left, towards the Egyptian. While titles like SOME LIKE IT HOT and HAROLD AND MAUDE played at the Chinese 6 both of my choices further down the street where there was a good deal of 35mm being screened—LOVE CRAZY was from MGM in 1941, one of multiple pairings featuring William Powell and Myrna Loy, a screwball comedy of marriage almost being broken up going to absolutely ridiculous extremes and much funnier than I expected making it an ideal way to start off the festival. As we were told we would find out during the intro by Dana Delaney, this film was the one time William Powell ever appeared without his mustache (and we did indeed find out why) plus like any good film from around 1941 it features Elisha Cook Jr. as an elevator operator. Second that night was the first of the nitrate screenings, Hitchcock’s 1934 version of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, a first viewing for me and introduced by Martin Scorsese, an appearance only announced earlier that day, who spoke with all the passion that you’d expect from him about the importance of being able to see these films in this format, speculating that he had even seen this very print, originally struck back in 1945 for David O. Selznick, back in the 70s. Getting a laugh from the mention of how flammable these prints are--“It decomposed and turned to powder…and the bigger problem is, it blew up.”--and while pointing out how good safety film stocks became, to him nitrate has “a different kind of beauty. Nitrate has a luminosity to it. Images are lustrous, they’re glowing in a way that safety stocks and digital can never quite duplicate.” He recalled a long ago nitrate screening of Lubitsch’s THE STUDENT PRINCE as “a revelation” and praised the other nitrate titles on the schedule, such as LAURA calling it “one of the most haunting uses of black & white ever made” and recalling how he once saw BLACK NARCISSUS sitting in the third row of a giant theater and how it looked like 3D. He closed with a mention of Robert Osborne, saying that “there wasn’t any better way to celebrate him than these nitrate screenings, the original way they were meant to be seen.”
Friday, the first full day, began at 9 AM at the Egyptian with RAFTER ROMANCE a very enjoyable pre-code romantic comedy starring Ginger Rogers and Norman Foster as two people who have to share an apartment in 12-hour shifts but when they meet in real life they have no idea the other person is the roommate they despise and you probably can see where this is going but so what, plus best of all a really good supporting performance by Robert Benchley. Before it screened, Leonard Maltin led a discussion focusing on the legal history of the film which kept it out of circulation for around 60 years, a reminder of how much TCM has contributed to making sure certain films stay alive. Moving over to the Chinese 6, there was the digital restoration of John Huston’s BEAT THE DEVIL, just about the driest comedy ever made, which featured a conversation with script supervisor Angela Allen followed by Julien Duvivier’s devastating PANIQUE in another digital restoration. Made in France in 1946, it was a film which just about no one in the audience (which included 102 year old Norman Lloyd, because the festival wouldn’t be complete without him around) had ever seen before and it was preceded by a discussion between Bruce Goldstein and Simenon’s son Pierre Simenon, son of author Georges Simenon who wrote the book the film was based on, freely admitting that his father never had any particular interest in films. Made in the shadow of the war's end, PANIQUE is a despairing film in what it says about the country where it is set (since almost no one has seen this film yet, I'm going to hold back one discussing it at length--suffice to say that I recommend it) and the way it plays for us now in 2017 gives the climax that much more power. After this, it was definitely time for more comedy and although personal favorite BROADCAST NEWS was coming up in Chinese #1, I’ve seen roughly several hundred times and that’s why I missed out on the surprise appearance by Albert Brooks. But there was a silent Lubitsch I’d never seen complete with live piano accompaniment so it was back down the street to the Egyptian. It wasn’t the first Lubitsch of the day, that was ONE HOUR WITH YOU which I had passed on and I was glad I made it over for SO THIS IS PARIS, the first silent Lubitsch I’d ever seen, a romantic comedy about marriage which contained some odd similarities to LOVE CRAZY but it was everything that I wanted from early Lubitsch, feeling breezy and effortless and always completely elegant in the best ways.
Late Friday afternoon I took a break, which you need to do at certain points although I did stop in to see GRACE OF MY HEART director Allison Anders give a spirited introduction to WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? out at the Roosevelt swimming pool, getting into the whole Team Bette vs. Team Joan thing which has gotten much more attention lately thanks to FEUD; ribbons taking sides had been handed out to festival attendees the other day and I’d asked for a Team Aldrich ribbon, sadly without success. Friday night in the Chinese (passing up LAURA in nitrate but I have to live with that choice) was HIGH ANXIETY featuring Mel Brooks interviewed before the film by Ben Mankiewicz, who did a valiant job in actually trying to interview him even if it did involve tossing his note cards on the ground at one point, a sign that he was going to have no use for them. The 90 year-old Brooks spent a good amount of the time standing up and started with a long story about a prank he pulled during an early writing job at Columbia Pictures which I’m not sure had anything to do with anything, then moved on to a tale about a long lunch with Hitchcock, an impression of Tony Curtis, telling Ben his tie was too dark and even a little bit on HIGH ANXIETY itself, including memories of his legendary co-stars as well as the nerve-wracking screening for Hitchcock himself, who he called the greatest motion picture director ever. We even got the origin of the legendary line, “Those who are tardy do not get fruit cup” going back to his Aunt Martha back in Brooklyn, and his own amusement in seeing the title referenced in unexpected places in real life since, after all, they just made it up for the movie. “I’m glad I did all this research,” cracked Ben at the end but it was clear the audience had no problem with all the digressions and the film of course played like gangbusters.
Early Saturday morning began with THE COURT JESTER at the Chinese, introduced by Illeana Douglas and special guest Fred Willard (honestly, I don’t know if Danny Kaye does much for me even with the whole ‘vessel with the pestle’ thing but if Fred Willard likes him…) followed by a screening up in theater #4 of Frank Perry’s DAVID AND LISA, not at all a comedy but for me the right soft of discovery, recently namechecked by Jessica Lange’s Joan Crawford on FEUD as one of that year’s Best Director nominees. Although I unfortunately missed the discussion featuring star Kier Dullea, I was glad to see the film which was even oddly reminiscent of Larry Peerce's interracial drama ONE POTATO TWO POTATO which was part of last year’s festival, both being early 60s and indie along with a sense of earnestness to the message which may be dated right now but is still part of its power, along with an excellent early performance by Janet Margolin, one of those actresses we never got to see enough of now best known for Woody Allen’s TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN and ANNIE HALL. If the film was flawed at all it still showed how much talent Frank Perry had as a filmmaker and how underrated he is these days (an idea for future festivals: more Frank Perry).
And there was the return to TCMFF of 95 year-old Carl Reiner who not only appeared last year to talk about DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID, just the day before he had been part of a joint ceremony with son Rob to put their hands in the cement out in the Chinese courtyard. THE PRINCESS BRIDE, directed by Rob, was shown later that day and on Saturday Carl appeared before his film THE JERK, interviewed by Ben Mankiewicz in a discussion a little more subdued than Mel Brooks but talking about the making of Steve Martin’s first starring vehicle, along with taking pride in his daily anti-Trump tweets. Asked why Steve Martin had picked him to direct the film, “Well, he’s one of the smartest people I know,” adding that Steve had certainly been aware of him since he’d worked with Rob on the Smothers Brothers back in the 60s. Incidentally, the ‘to the end of this fence guy’ in THE JERK is Rob Reiner? How did I never know this? He talked about bits of business that Steve Martin would suddenly add to scenes when they would decide to do one more take and Reiner spent maybe a little too much time telling us the jokes in the movie we were about to see but it’s Carl Reiner, it’s hard to get too upset at the guy.
Incidentally, seeing HIGH ANXIETY and THE JERK so close together made for an interesting comparison of the films by the two friends, made just a few years apart. Both have extreme high points along with multiple jokes that will never fully escape from my brain but neither is their best work among the films they’ve directed--I’ll go with YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN for Brooks and maybe THE MAN WITH TWO BRAINS for Reiner but ask me again sometime. Both are credited to multiple writers that include the stars (HIGH ANXIETY written by Brooks, Ron Clark, Rudy DeLuca, Barry Levinson; THE JERK story by Steve Martin & Carl Gottlieb, screenplay by Martin, Gottlieb, Michael Elias) and each film is almost a little too slapdash at times, becoming pretty much just a series of gags over any plot. The zoom happy look of HIGH ANXIETY gives it a stock 70s flavor—BLAZING SADDLES and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN are downright elegant in comparison--even if there are Albert Whitlock matte paintings to give it a certain bigger than life flavor along with the always striking Hyatt Regency in San Francisco. The best moments, like the great under-the-table scene with Cloris Leachman and Harvey Korman tweak the Hitchcock material just right, finding ridiculousness in the brilliance of that director and even random bits of business like the fruit cup or every excitable exclamation by the always underappreciated Ron Carey get me to laugh. THE JERK is maybe the funnier of the two even if it’s still more of a series of sketches than a complete film and some of the most offhand bits (“St. Louis?” “No, Navin Johnson.” or even “Getting around the crap.”) as well as things like Navin’s determined excitement at possibly living in the gas station men’s room or just the sight of M. Emmet Walsh running are the best. It still makes me laugh more than not and ultimately the film has a sweetness to the relationships that keeps it from becoming too cruel. We all just want to ‘be somebody’, after all, and I guess I’ve reached the age where Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters singing “Tonight You Belong to Me” is kind of endearing. Carl Reiner even mentioned the direct connection the two films have by assigning Mel Brooks total credit for coming up with the name ‘Navin’.
There was no real need for me to see THE JERK again, but it was hard to complain and I got to see it at the Chinese. But there was more to come including more nitrate, more comedy, as well as that war movie featuring Steve McQueen and Bob Newhart.

Mr. Peel will return in Vol. 2 of the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival report.