Wednesday, December 27, 2017
When Things Don't Fit Precisely
You need time. That’s what you need to remember. Maybe a year ago I tried watching Lawrence Kasdan’s film of THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST for the first time in ages but couldn’t do it. Something about it felt too stifling to me, the anguish too buttoned down and I couldn’t continue. Maybe a year ago wasn’t the right time to watch a film having to do with pain and loss. It probably isn’t now either, but never mind. Trying it again recently via the Blu-ray that the good people at Warner Archive put out earlier in 2017, the film immediately felt like a warm bath and I was completely receptive to the mood it gave off while at the same time still aware of its shortcomings. I know they’re there but in spite of this the film has a humanity to it that I can’t shake and while it’s about people struggling with loss it’s not about loss but how you force yourself to hold on to certain things, drowning in them until you don’t have a shred of emotion left to give anyone. And it’s about what you’re supposed to do next. It’s a film I wanted to live in for a little while and just try to center myself within its calm while getting to know the characters once again. Maybe I’m just as much of a screw up as some of them are anyway. Of the films that Kasdan has directed which also include BODY HEAT, THE BIG CHILL, SILVERADO and WYATT EARP this might be the one I feel the most affection for. It’s still hard to let go of all that pain sometimes. I’m feeling it right now just as many others are.
Around a year after the brutal death of their young son in a robbery, Macon Leary (William Hurt) is informed by wife Sarah (Kathleen Turner) that she is leaving him to try to find some sort of future for yourself. Macon, the writer of a series of travel guides for reluctant travelers called “The Accidental Tourist” is left to his own devices in their home when the need to have his dog boarded while on the road leads him to meeting Muriel Pritchett (Geena Davis) a dog trainer who is more than willing to help out and soon her own designs on Macon are made clear. Once he finally lets her in on his past after meeting her sickly young son, their relationship develops. But when Sarah reenters Macon’s life he is tempted to leave Muriel and finds himself having to decide if he is going to face the future or return to another version of the past.
Based on the novel by Anne Tyler with a screenplay by Frank Galati and Kasdan, THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST lingers almost as if it’s just as reluctant to meet new people as its main character is. Played with wry humor while still observing the drama with a careful eye, it’s a film that is overly precious at times, complete with people who alphabetize the way food is arranged in their kitchen which in itself feels like a neon sign reading QUIRKY as if it’s an early version of what indies became in the 90s, done with a deliberately paced sheen of quality that was still fairly common in the 80s. But it’s a film that always feels lived in, one where you get a sense of the wood and leaves and even the clothes the characters are wearing so it always feels real and comfortable, it always feels like a film I want to settle down in. While somewhat calculated, it still has an uncertain pulse that is just as unpredictable as people often are as they desperately try to keep moving, looking to find a reason to.
After spending a few scenes with Macon Leary it’s a little surprising that he was able to even partly break away from his siblings at all, how he could possibly have broken away from that routine. Each of them are terrible with directions even when going to the local hardware store, making him the perfect author for his travel guide series, and they literally speak their own language while playing their own self-made card game every night. They’re only as different as how they apply condiments to their baked potatoes but it’s one of the small pleasures that this is the sort of film that takes a minute to show such things. Macon walks through life like in those first groggy seconds after you wake up and there’s forever a formality to the way he speaks including referring to someone by their name; even when he calls loved one on the phone from overseas in a display of affection he may as well be ordering insurance. Even when he breaks his leg or throws his back out none of it affects his mood much at all. When he drives through Muriel’s lower class neighborhood in an attempt to alienate her further the film pauses as he looks around at people presumably worse off than he is and you just know that he has no idea how to relate to any of them. Muriel is, yes, a sort of early version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl with quirky mannerisms and a quirky son who is allergic to seemingly everything. But she has a vulnerability to go along with her freely singing out as she washes dishes, the feeling that she knows she’s trying too hard on occasion. The film never denies that in some ways Macon and the much more orderly Sarah were always perfect for each other as if she was able to provide the direction in his life. “Not really,” she answers when Macon asks if she’s living with anyone and you just know that she’s had stuff going on that she wants to tell him, that she needs him to know, an adult female who she approaches life in a reasonable, logical way and is just as lost as anyone else.
Looking over the films Kasdan has directed it can be difficult to tell exactly how they fit together unless you take into account his recurring cast members or maybe just a vague interest in ensemble stories. As a screenwriter on things like THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and up to the new STAR WARS films the work feels like it comes from a different person, maybe one willing to get a little looser; his own films never play so lighthearted even when he’s trying to. As a director he always seem most comfortable at taking a low key approach that goes well with a film mostly populated with white people wearing sweaters and the one great visual flourish in THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST comes at the very beginning when his own credit is seen with an effects shot of a plane shooting through the clouds, a clever depiction of how Macon Leary sits through life while nevertheless shooting forward against his will. Even what appears to be a complicated tracking shot during the wedding sequence is really all about Hurt’s face in close-up and what he’s seeing so although the Panavision framing occasionally makes use of the family members relating to each other it’s mostly a film about William Hurt and what he sees around him, down to the very last shot, no matter how good the other actors are. Even the two female leads never seem to attain control of it in the same way, even when they’re in close-up since it keeps so much to his point of view. They women never actually share an onscreen moment together, even though we hear about it happening, and the film is unwilling to break away from him. But maybe more than anything it’s a film that always feels willing to pause and soak in moments of silent contemplation to let the John Williams score take over, with the Baltimore setting providing a certain old world east coast flavor and though the story spans several seasons maybe what I think of most when the film comes to mind are those leaves on that wet street as Muriel walks off to her car after a session training Macon’s dog Edward as the voiceover comments but avoids facing the reality of her presence directly.
At times it works best as a very dry comedy, particularly when Amy Wright’s fussbudget sister matches up with Bill Pullman’s interest in her, his eagerness to actually enter this world and be part of this family continually baffling Macon. Ed Begley, Jr. as one of the brothers also gets a moment that I love where he mentions that he makes bottle caps (“It’s not as exciting as it sounds”) although considering it’s a film about people whose young son was shot in the head during a robbery it feels a little strange to see it in the Comedy section in video stores. The tone always wants to hold steady as if avoiding that real emotion that maybe the world wants to stay away from as well. The stifling nature keeps the pain at a distance but it’s always there. The extensive deleted scenes on the Blu, ported over from the older DVD, make it clear that there was a lot that could have gone in, particularly in the case of two confrontation scenes between Macon and Sarah are collapsed into one at the beginning, which makes sense for pacing reasons even if it keeps Kathleen Turner out of the film for over an hour. It also deletes some of her character’s bleakest dialogue as if trying not to take the pain she must be feeling too far, things that you wouldn’t blame a grieving mother to actually say. Even if it never quite goes too far into that darkness the way editor Carol Littleton paces things is impeccable in getting just the right tone. The film is found in the looks the characters give each other between the words and it almost believes they have strength when they’re able to look someone in the eye, waiting for them to return their gaze. Always waiting.
The film remains amused by the characters but never mocks them and the affection is clearly genuine, but it also knows to not spend too much time with some of those elements since it knows things can’t be fixed by any one thing, whether Edward the dog, Muriel’s son Alex or any of the family members. The last half hour makes an excursion to Paris that leaves them behind, isolating Macon with just the women in his life and even here in the romantic place on Earth the landmarks are kept in the background to focus on their faces. It says something that one of the key uses of a location is when Macon and Muriel stop in at a Burger King on the Champs-Élysées, something that even Vincent Vega in PULP FICTION never did, with the Arch de Triumph far in the background and even the final scene is on a fairly anonymous side street. Kasdan practically turns over the last few minutes of the film to John Williams, providing one of his most underappreciated scores, and he lifts the emotion as if desperately trying to reach the characters to get them to move forward, that there really are reasons to keep going. No matter what happens in life, people move on from where they were. Sometimes they get drawn into a new place simply because it’s where they need to be and it all clicks together when they make that revelation. Things change in life. They have to.
THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST is the sort of film that used to be more common from major studios, a prestige picture meant to have the sheen of ‘quality’ that used to be an expected thing from films that used to come out at the end of the year by major studios looking for Oscars, one featuring white people wearing sweaters and all that. And yes there are moments where it feels too calculating in search of those things. But what sticks with me is the feeling that there will always be a hole, that some things can never be fully reconciled and you either accept that or not. “Ever since Ethan died I’ve had to admit that people are basically bad. Evil, Macon.” If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past few years it’s that nothing is as true as this. People revel in this fact, it brings them joy. And I’m not sure the movie ever really tries to refute this. It just tries to move on to things you can actually change. Maybe in that sense it tries to be hopeful and if it succeeds at all, it’s because it makes me believe that one person can be that way. Maybe two. We’ll have to wait and see about three. It doesn’t make that decision for the world but for one character. You try to accept that and move on with the hope that maybe there will be one person who can be part of the world you try to make for yourself. You yearn for that, you try. Eventually life goes on, even with the baffling appearance of joy on occasion, but it’s never easy.
William Hurt acts like his very soul is unmoored and that he doesn’t even know how to stand in a room anymore, playing his behavior with a dryness but also soulful enough that connecting with someone else is almost an impossibility yet playing it with a wryness that shows how he’s able to stand outside of himself just enough to get how absurd it all is. Geena Davis might be remembered for playing the quirks in her Oscar-winning role but what stands out for me now is how genuine it is, the silences as she seemingly waits for Macon to finally make up his mind about, well, anything. It’s also a small surprise that she doesn’t really have a ‘big’ scene—her response to a possible breakup is presented in a brief flashback that may not even be real—and even the small touches she brings to moments, like how she clearly really likes that dog, add up. It may not be my favorite Geena Davis performance and I’ll probably always wish Sigourney Weaver had won for WORKING GIRL but her vulnerability is always a reminder of what can still be found out there in the world. I’m sure Kathleen Turner knew that Muriel was the flashier role but she balances out with a maturity and confidence of someone who in some ways will always know Macon better. In some ways it’s a character who is through with arguing after all that’s happened but her eyes indicate how much pain there is, something that can never be fixed no matter how hard she tries. There’s also pleasure coming from Ed Begley, Jr. and David Ogden Stiers as Macon’s brothers and Bill Pullman underplays very nicely as his publisher but it’s Amy Wright as his would be spinster sister who really pops and for a character meant to be totally predictable, every line reading from her is somehow unexpected making it even more clear how any sort of debate to get her to change her ways won’t do any good.
Maybe real communication with other people you think you’re close to is impossible. Maybe it always will be. The extras on the Warner Archive Blu-ray are pretty much ported over from the old DVD and the extensive deleted scenes (including a phone call Macon makes to Muriel from the top of the World Trade Center during a panic attack) shows how delicate the tone was, what needed to stay in this essentially character-driven piece to get the balance right. The picture on this Blu captures not just the feel in the air but the mood that is so crucial to what the characters are feeling, whether it’s their irretrievable loss or the small sense of hope that they might be able to bring themselves to aim for. You can’t get rid of pain any more than you can get rid of people. And you feel that pain these days, especially right now, especially for the past year, the year before that and possibly the year to come. But no matter what there will always be totems of your own past out there to guide you. And with luck they’ll point the right way. Life may sometimes be about that pain but it’s also about how much you try to let go of things if you’re willing to walk away. It’s hard to do that and it still hurts more than you can ever put into words. No matter how much time has gone by.