Wednesday, September 12, 2018
We don’t want the truth. We’d rather just glide along in denial because the alternative is too painful. And if we’re forced to confront it there’s always the possibility we won’t be able to recover so maybe we never really do. It’s easier to simply dive into the water and forget about it all, hoping the few seconds it takes to swim from one end to the other will somehow carry us beyond, letting the beautiful days go on forever. In some ways, it’s better than really knowing. Released in 1968, THE SWIMMER never stops haunting in its avoidance of the truth, a great film although also one where the imperfections become apparent but maybe that makes it more alive, more willing to let you really confront it. Sometimes the perfect films can be a little dull anyway. Trying to rationalize its story is pointless since THE SWIMMER is never about figuring out that puzzle. You just have to accept the puzzle that will always be part of your life, one which you may never come close to figuring out.
Turning up at an old friend’s house one beautiful summer afternoon, Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) uses the pool and catches up with the couple who live there but soon figures out that by passing through other yards with pools in the town he can essentially ‘swim’ home, taking a route which he instantly names the ‘Lucinda River’ after his beloved wife who he says is waiting for him. He sets off on the journey, encountering other people who live nearby including a few other old friends as well as the delighted surprise of a girl (Janet Landgard) who used to nurse a crush on him back when she babysat his kids and is now grown up. But as the day goes on the mood of the people he encounters, including a former lover (Janice Rule) who has never forgiven him for leaving her, begins to darken with some not so happy to see him at all and it becomes clear that what might be waiting for Ned Merrill at home will not be what he claims.
Deceptively simple as it begins, THE SWIMMER quickly gains in power and sneaks up on you as you discover what it really is. Things are too good to be true at first, as they should be, the way they usually seem on a summer day when you’re catching up with old friends that have been nowhere near the wreckage of your life. “We’ve missed you,” one of them says, although they never spend much time pressing him for details. They’re the people who are only part of the good times and just like in a dream they say things exactly the way you want them to. It’s a world where everything works out, but that dream soon shifts and the talk becomes all hostility and hushed conspiratorial tones, nothing where it should be, no one left to help. THE SWIMMER itself is like a dream but one that soon turns into a nightmare crossed with the aesthetics of a late 60s TV movie, one where the blocking is sometimes awkward and the acting by a few of the bit players a little too stiff, one where you can no longer tell if you’re on a set or location or maybe trapped somewhere in between.
That dream state holds all the way through as Burt Lancaster’s Ned Merrill encounters a horse out in a field, almost as if he himself caused it to materialize and he races it for a moment, as if to become one with the horse, to experience all the glory of feeling alive and it’s the way he believes the world always is, all laid out for him. But this version of reality crumbles and as much as he offers up his recurring toast of “Here’s to sugar on our strawberries” it becomes clear that what he has is anything but. Directed by Frank Perry, at least up to a point, with a screenplay by Eleanor Perry based on the short story by John Cheever, the production also included reshoots handled later on by Sydney Pollack. Some of the details of the troubled shoot can be found in the comprehensive special features on the Blu-ray of THE SWIMMER put out by Grindhouse Releasing but in the end there’s just the film, as strange as it is, as upsetting as it is. The final result is at its best extremely powerful even when it’s hard to pin down exactly why, always compelling even as a hushed quiet falls on a scene, as those small details that don’t quite connect haunt us since we somehow know that they would lead to the very thing we want to avoid.
It’s easy to see how the world of THE SWIMMER might have been among the inspirations for MAD MEN although one never imagines Don Draper having so many past acquaintances he would be happy to see. Set among the upper crust east coast milieu, some of those friends of Ned Merrill’s are fellow country club types used to the old way of doing things who don’t let the bad news concern them. It’s close enough to where I grew up in suburban New York that I can understand some of the feelings once removed, a SECONDS vibe of a man thrown out of his golden cage that is the only world he knows and unable to ever return. But it’s more than that, just as the poster tagline asks us, “When you talk about THE SWIMMER, will you talk about yourself?” as we wonder about all those people we’ve encountered and what they were really saying to us at those crucial moments, as you wonder what happened to your life on that path between houses. The film gets at the minutiae of those feelings and though it spends maybe a few minutes too long on Ned Merrill running through fields in glorious slow motion, in his current mindset he’s living much of his life in glorious slow motion already, strangely attuned to oddities in nature he encounters as if somehow connected to them as well as a reminder of how out of time he is. He’s already been ejected from this world, like the pool he’s told about that filters out nearly all solid matter and he’s trying to fight his way back in, not knowing where anything is anymore. Insisting that he’s a ‘very special human being’ with a purpose no one else can understand, one party guest played by Joan Rivers falls under that spell for half a second then gets what he really is, just another guy making the moves on her, like any guy at one of these suburban parties looking for the next drink. And when his daughters’ former babysitter practically refers to him as a god, telling him about the shirt she once stole from his closet the praise reinvigorates him for a few minutes but she finally sees him for the empty shirt he really is as well. We follow Ned Merrill partly because of his charisma (and, after all, because he’s Burt Lancaster) but by a certain point it’s hard to ignore how off he seems, how much he repeats certain phrases and how out of place he becomes standing around in nothing but that bathing suit, everyone around him looking for ways to avoid stating the obvious.
Each pool that he stops at for a swim becomes a reflection of his world, his mind, his fears, his entire existence in one form or another. The carefree teenagers, the older nudists who seem to feel that the world is theirs to do with, the old friends who are drinking, drinking, drinking (several people in the first scene are heard to say, “I drank too much last night,” an echo of the Cheever story’s opening line). Naturally, what looks to be the biggest pool he encounters is also the empty one, as empty as his quest ultimately is and he tells the boy who lives there with unseen parents jet setting around the world that “If you make believe hard enough that something is true than it is true to you,” which sounds like the worst piece of advice imaginable to give to a sad and lonely little boy come to think of it. But, in the end, that’s what Ned Merrill is anyway. When asked about his wife and daughters as he swims further down the river named for his beloved wife, Ned Merrill keeps repeating, “Lucinda is home, the girls are playing tennis” almost robotically by a certain point, as if he’s planted that information in his mind and refuses to believe otherwise, the truth that he’s become convinced exists.
He already thinks of himself as apart from everyone else, refusing that he’s ever going to become ordinary while some of the people around him are content to merely drink and get older, having gotten what they wanted and with no reason to go anywhere else. This adds to the sense of loneliness in between the homes, none of them really seem next to each other, adding to the unreal feeling of the entire journey. Characters gaze up at the blue sky of a day you’d think would never end but the darkness begins to fall in the film almost before we realize it, the chill begins to emerge and even Ned Merrill can’t keep up his veneer of happiness forever, with it becoming more and more clear that everyone he encounters knows something about him they’re not putting into words. Even some of the awkwardness in the film, like how much of his travels with Janet Landgard’s Julie Ann Hooper feels almost too sickly sweet with a good portion of it playing as cobbled together in the editing room via dubbed in lines after the fact but is itself like an idealized dream, all soft focus and praises exactly what you want to hear. Some dialogue implies that he’s been gone a while but he has no idea how much time has passed, where he is in time and no one else seems quite sure, either. Nothing much ever changes in the suburbs, anyway.
Determining who shot every inch of footage may be a crapshoot but I suspect that Frank Perry, along with wife Eleanor, had more of an interest in capturing that cockeyed local Connecticut vibe searching for the idiosyncratic, oddball touches of those parties and their guests. The colors seem to pop in the right Kodachrome way as if we’re watching super 8 home movies of these parties with everyone a little too happy as they wave at the camera and even quickly brushing on the inherent racism in that closed off world. Plus after stopping in at the Bunkers’ with Julie Ann where all his old friends were so welcoming, the nightmarish party thrown by the classless Biswangers (“those awful people” as we hear about them earlier, played by Dolph Sweet and Louise Troy) is that much worse with the hosts clearly showing off how well they’ve got it now with their party guests drinking, falling into the pool and shoving caviar down their throats, the sort who have presumably driven in from the outer boroughs and, god forbid, will migrate up to the suburbs themselves eventually. It’s as if Frank & Eleanor Perry (who later collaborated on LAST SUMMER and the great DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE before divorcing in 1971; Perry also directed PLAY IT AS IT LAYS in 1972 and, much later, MOMMIE DEAREST) knew deep down that the only way to live around there and survive was to ultimately disappear.
The scenes apparently directed (uncredited) by Sydney Pollack feel like he zeroed in more on the performances and the reverie in the lead character’s own mind but his staging also plays as more confident particularly during the extended sequence where Ned Merrill encounters former mistress Shirley Abbott, played the first time around by Barbara Loden but taken over in the reshoots by Janice Rule (Jimmy Stewart’s fiancé in BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE). Introduced reading the January 1967 issue of Films and Filming, Rule plays the part as giving into her own vulnerability until she just can’t take it anymore, unrelenting she gets in finally cutting down this former lover who’s suddenly turned up in her backyard uninvited as brutally as possible, saying just the right things to utterly destroy him. Running over 15 minutes the scene is practically its own short film, enormously powerful and continually fluid in the way it plays, resisting turning into a soap opera by the different layers each actor brings to the confrontation leading to how ordinary, and how cowardly, their affair sounds no matter how much he’s elevated it to myth in his own mind. Possibly just like the rest of his life.
The episodic nature means that the tonal shifts possibly caused by the reshoots aren’t as noticeable but but throughout there’s a vibe of that late 60s creative experimentation in the air, a period of filmmaking when reality could be fluid, so at its very best the film locates that middle ground between the dreamlike and the mundane so it knows when to pause for the quiet in the air, when to hold on his face. And the climactic visit to the community pool that Ned Merrill is so desperate to use that once he gets there appears to be both fairly normal and also a total glimpse into hell (I’ll always remember how, during my long ago first viewing, everything suddenly clicked together at this moment—I guess that’s how vivid some of those afternoons at the local pool are in my memory), even if it’s just a suburban hell. Capturing that nightmarish feel of him reduced to this place, forced to wash his feet in order to be worthy of entering this pit and practically reduced to groveling before the working class we can imagine he’s always condescended to. There’s nowhere left for him to go.
Maybe all of the pieces of THE SWIMMER don’t fit, like the occasional editing during dialogue scenes that appear designed to cut around weak performances, sometimes arrhythmic pacing and even the very first moment of dialogue feels like it contains lines have been looped in after the fact. The score by Marvin Hamlisch (his first) contains lovely melodies that tie in perfectly with the psychology of the lead character but it also goes a little too big at times as if the composer was determined to create the greatest, most emotional score ever heard in a film, which in itself is also kind of correct in addressing Ned Merrill’s mindset. His own story becomes mythic in his mind and that’s what the film becomes as well, impossible to shake and it’s possible that it might play best when watched late at night while drifting off to sleep so the next day you can try to figure out what you just saw. It’s an extended TWILIGHT ZONE episode where we know the twist that’s coming, we just don’t want to admit it any more than he does. In some ways THE SWIMMER wrenches so deep down that it’s difficult to know what to say about the film since it’s all right there, a reminder of how much I might be as delusional as he is. And, messy and pieced together as it might be, kind of a masterwork because of how much it connects to those feelings. And I’m pulled back to it, searching for those answers that linger in the air. The very style of it becomes unpredictable and truly uncommon so it’s not a film about naturalism but about the fond memories we have, the embarrassment, the sadness and the moments we desperately wish we could go back to and make them right. Looking for reality there is a waste of time and thinking back on it, I wonder what the reality of some of my own past ever really was, anyway. All I know is, you can never swim back.
What Burt Lancaster does here is a staggeringly brave performance, unflinching in becoming Ned Merrill, literally just about naked in only that bathing suit which gives him nowhere to hide, no tricks to rely on, only the grace displayed each time he dives into the water. We see the man’s magnetism and how he can take command of a room, everyone hanging on his every word which makes where we can see it going that much more painful and he allows himself to collapse, his very presence gradually shrinking down until there’s almost nothing left as if the actor’s own spirit has left the frame. Much of it is a one man show but those faces popping up along the way add to that feeling of loneliness with the no nonsense vibe of Janice Rule matching him, as if unwilling to meet his gaze when he needs it the most. The best brief appearances throughout include Marge Champion whose “God, I hate Columbus,” early on could be the best line in the film, Diana Muldaur as an old acquaintance delighted to tell Ned that she’s now available, Bill Fiore & Jan Miner as a working class couple ready to let Ned know what they really think of him and Joan Rivers as that party guest in her first film role, unable to hide her interest in talking to this strange and possibly unique guy in just a bathing suit saying things she’s never heard until she realizes there’s nothing special about him at all.
Sure, we could ask where the hell Ned Merrill is coming from when he suddenly appears to dive into that first pool in the first scene but the answer doesn’t make any difference. It’s about the fear of running into those people, of what they might think of you, of those late night phone calls where they cut you down, the fear of losing someone to the wilds of Connecticut, all those insults we think are happening over in the next yard. Once several years ago after a screening of THE SWIMMER at the New Beverly I was walking up the aisle next to Clu Gulager (because it was the New Beverly and of course Clu Gulager was there) when he turned to me and said, “That was a strange movie.” I agreed and then he added, “But, you know, all movies are kind of strange.” I think about this all the time which I guess means I think about THE SWIMMER all the time too, stopping off at different houses each time in my memory. There are better films that I never say that about but there aren’t many that stay with me and want to be so protective of. In that sense, this 95 minute movie based on a 12-page short story set over a single afternoon becomes as much of an epic as I’ve ever seen, with all of the emotion that might be possible. And it’s one that I can never quite shake, as much as I keep trying never to admit the truth.
Tuesday, August 28, 2018
This has been a long, hot summer of very little sleep. Hot during the day, a little less hot later on and too much on my mind. There’s the world, sure, but there’s also trying to figure out just what the hell happened. I finally drift off eventually, somehow at some point, but I don’t even remember my dreams very much anymore which could be why I’ve been feeling so blank during the day. I can’t even decide what I’m preoccupied by. Except for the obvious.
If it’s true that Robert Altman films often become something different each time you see them then I’m not sure what that means for the future of my BREWSTER McCLOUD viewings. It’s a film that, more than most, seems determined to defy anything you expect from it. Sometimes I think I have a handle on what it might possibly be saying. Sometimes after watching it again I’m not sure what the hell I was thinking. By this point I’m still not sure what I’ve decided but I’m fairly certain I love it anyway. Released in December 1970, it was Altman’s first film to come after the blockbuster success of MASH and could loosely be described as being in a similar comic vein but the film seems determined not to give a viewer the same kind of satisfaction, remaining intentionally obstinate in refusing to explain itself. It’s a film that wants to ask what freedom is and can be while still being fully aware of the dangers of what that freedom can result in, the mistakes you’re destined to make causing you to crash back down to earth. On the other hand, I could be wrong about all of this. And if that’s the case, I’ll watch it again to come up with some other idea.
Brewster McCloud (Bud Cort) secretly lives in a fallout shelter in the Houston Astrodome, building a device which will allow him to achieve flight and “fly away”, while watched over by the mysterious Louise (Sally Kellerman) who acts as some kind of protector for him out in the world, keeping a firm hold on his innocence. Meanwhile, a series of strangulations in the city where the victims are found with bird droppings on their faces mystifies the local police so they call in the ultra-cool cop Frank Shaft (Michael Murphy) from out of town and he insists on getting right to work with no time for ingratiating himself with the local politicos. As Brewster continually avoids detection by the Astrodome security guard he meets up with comely tour guide Suzanne (Shelley Duvall) who has her own plans for him without being aware of the complete truth of his situation.
That may count as some kind of half-hearted plot summary but it’s entirely possible that there’s no real way to say exactly what BREWSTER McCLOUD is about. It has an undeniably counterculture feel which sets it right in the time it was made, displaying total contempt for any possible concept of authority whether cops, security guards, or anyone who has taken it upon themselves to make life hell for other people in the world. I hadn’t turned up yet in 1970 but the film feels like a representation of a time when everyone was smoking pot and watching things fall apart as the 60s ended so they simply said, fuck it. This gives the tone an undeniable bitterness displayed towards the world, towards those in power and at the whole damn unfairness of it all but at the same time the film moves along seemingly without a care in the world displaying a free-wheeling vibe of whatever might be possible, down to messing with the lion in the MGM logo or stopping the opening credits and starting them back up again when it’s good and ready.
The victims of the strangler are all found with bird shit on them and the crimes are justified in the film’s view (so is the birdshit), since no one else is going to do anything about these people, after all. Whatever Brewster might actually be responsible for, in the eyes of the film he’s a total innocent and that naïveté allows him to glide through his existence with everything working out for him like magic, at least partly because of Kellerman’s mother figure/fallen guardian angel (literally)/whatever she is, watching over Brewster clad only in a trenchcoat, at one point stripping down and singing “Rock-a-Bye-Baby” while she bathes him and carefully explains the dangers that sex poses to freedom even if for some people it’s the closest to flying that they’ll ever know (I’m still not sure I follow all this, but never mind). As if to kinda, sorta tie the rambling storyline together, Rene Auberjonois plays a lecturer explaining birds and their similarities to human behavior as if to explain the character’s actions, gradually taking on the mannerisms of a bird as Brewster gets closer to finishing his flying machine.
The screenplay is credited to Doran William Cannon who also wrote the legendary SKIDOO who later said in the New York Times that Bob Dylan told him the BREWSTER script was “perfect” but by all accounts Robert Altman, as you would expect Robert Altman to do, pretty much tossed it out the highest window (for one thing, that script was apparently set in New York) and did whatever he wanted. The off-kilter look at the world is certainly reminiscent of SKIDOO but this film has a lighter touch and feels more effortless in that Altman way as bonkers as it is, as indecipherable as it is, so everything flows together and it really is a film where it feels like anything could happen. The location shooting in Houston offers its own unique vibe with extensive looks at the flat landscape of the city and around the Astrodome including a side trip to the Astroworld amusement park (opened in ‘68, closed in ’05) seemingly for no reason other than it was there and it’s easy to believe that the film has a great deal of meaning to anyone from there.
For the most part, BREWSTER McCLOUD is inscrutable as well as more than a little insane but since the lecturer advises at the start to ‘draw no conclusions or the subject would cease to fascinate us’ maybe that’s for the best and we shouldn’t try to figure any of it out. Maybe the film is simply a look at what innocence might be, has to be, in a totally corrupt and decadent world. The victims of the killer are mostly horrible people out solely for what benefits them and an early shot of a newspaper headline where Spiro Agnew even declares “Society Should Discard Some U.S. People” is a reminder that they each represent different parts of Nixon in some way or another. In a BREWSTER McCLOUD reboot set in 2018 (hey, I’ve heard worse ideas by now) they’d represent someone else, of course, and they’d probably be even more deserving. More than anything, they’re done in by their own hubris, whatever that might be. One of them happens to be none other than Margaret Hamilton as the wealthy Daphne Heap who sings a terrible rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner at the Astrodome wearing ruby slippers (or “red rhinestone shoes” as they’re called here; there are other WIZARD OF OZ allusions but it’s never quite clear what to make of them) and even screams out the N-word at one point.
Michael Murphy is the hotshot cop Frank Shaft, flown in from San Francisco to investigate the killings in a brutally deadpan BULLITT parody right down to the wardrobe but also one scene where he questions a butler that practically goes into Abbott & Costello territory regarding how tall a suspect was. It’s never clear why the films is partly made up of a BULLITT parody but considering what else is in it this makes about as much sense as anything, played in a manner which suggests that Altman thought BULLITT was a load of crap which is all well and good (photos exist of a smiling Steve McQueen with Altman on the set of THE LONG GOODBYE, so I guess he didn’t take it personally) but the answer doesn’t really matter anyway and the end of the plotline is all about doing away with that kind of empty heroism. Besides, no one that cool can keep it up forever. It’s a digression just as everything in the film is a digression, like Stacy Keach as wealthy miser Abraham Wright buried under mounds of old-age makeup which takes up enough of the first part of the film that it’s almost terrifying to contemplate that this might turn out to be one of the main characters. Of course, some of these things don’t have much payoff at all, like Jennifer Salt’s health store employee and her insistence on pleasuring herself since Brewster is never going to do it as well as the disappearance (and presumed death) of one key character who we never hear about again but that’s the sort of movie it is.
In the wake of MASH, this was early enough in Altman’s career that his style is still developing with lots of zooms and frames crowded with people like you’d expect from a Robert Altman movie in 1970 and though the look hasn’t fully matured into what it would become in his next few films even here the framing is always adventurous, always looking for an unexpected way to stage a scene. There isn’t a single uninteresting shot in the whole film from how he shoots the Houston landscape to the way the layout of the Astrodome is explored as if it’s a world unto itself or each time he finds new ways to have Sally Kellerman suddenly appear when you least expect it, including bathing in a fountain with the visible scars of where her presumed wings used to be. With so many MASH alums turning up in a similar comic vein and a few later Altman regulars appearing for the first time it feels a little like his own version of the Preston Sturges rep company, down to some fast patter and even the running gag of G. Wood’s police captain, who isn’t all that different from his performance as Colonel Flagg in MASH, always getting the name of his underling played by Corey Fischer wrong. The whole thing works more as an Altman kaleidoscope than a straight comedy (still, I have admiration for the timing of a particular pot joke at one point) but this is hardly a bad thing and there’s always beauty to be found in the druggy, scattershot vibe with songs mostly written by John Phillips that go perfectly with the sadness poking around the edges of the frame particularly “White Feather Wings” sung by Merry Clayton and the way it soars makes us want to soar, just as Brewster hopes to.
The joy also comes from the actors who are perfectly attuned into that vibe whether John Schuck’s dopey eagerness or whatever Corey Fischer is doing in the corner of the frame that I keep discovering on multiple viewings but particularly the debut of Shelley Duvall as Suzanne Fairest, the Astrodome tour guide who instantly latches herself onto Brewster playing it as kind of a living Raggedy Ann doll (she has a giant Raggedy Ann mural in her apartment and it’s even how she appears during the curtain call finale) but also very much the girl we fall in love with and somehow manage to screw things up irrevocably when it seemed like we couldn’t do anything wrong. In discovering Duvall for this film it’s like Altman wants to shoot her from every conceivable angle, including upside down, to explore all the possibilities in what she can do, to find every possible reason for falling for her. She even has a MASH poster in her apartment as if she’s the one character Altman would want that kind of approval from and Suzanne isn’t even bothered that Brewster is trying to steal her car and it’s not her car anyway, leading the cops on a chase which she charmingly calls a ‘race’ later on. That all makes what inevitably happens so goddamn sad since you know Suzanne is going to end up with her ex-boyfriend who was once an artist but has now willingly joined the establishment which is a clear sign that he’s an awful person, a Republican or a big fan of the Monkees, robbing her of every spark of life she ever displayed during her best moments but even if it’s going to get her the money she wants at least she kisses the guy immediately after vomiting. He deserves worse but it’s better than nothing.
Most of the characters in BREWSTER McCLOUD seem worried about keeping up appearances of what they’re supposed to be and the real idea of freedom comes not from flying but the realization that you don’t have to worry about that any longer, like the wife of one of the victims (played by Anglin Johnson, making an impression with barely any dialogue in her only film appearance) who never bothers hiding how happy she is that her abusive husband was just brutally killed. It’s some sort of statement on the world, at least the way it was then with a Jesus/Manson figure seen being led away by the police as if the film wants us to figure out which is which (as much time as the film spends on the investigation, it pretty much discards all police characters as irrelevant in the end). Of course, we’re far away from that 1970 context now but since things don’t make any sense at the moment it all still works as whatever statement it could be.
The BULLITT parody includes that car chase which comes complete with a Lalo Schifrin soundalike score and Shelley Duvall buckling her seatbelt instead of those hitmen, pretty much throwing away the complicated staging of such a thing as the goof you’d expect Altman to treat it as and he almost seems more interested when Duvall in her Plymouth Road Runner and Sally Kellerman in her Gremlin are screeching around the massively empty Astrodome lot each with total looks of glee on their faces. And the movie itself is like an empty parking lot, one where the director can do whatever he wants via his muses and not worry about a thing. As far as messages go, it also feels a little like Altman’s response to any idealized Steven Spielberg portrayal of the glory of staying young only this is before Spielberg which makes as much sense as anything considering how inscrutable it all is. In the end, you can find something in life that works but you have to toss that innocence aside eventually. Brewster says that he’s building the wings to fly away, seemingly never realizing that there’s never going to be any way out of the Astrodome, just like there’s no way to really fly away from real life. The rest of the world so you just have to decide what your own personal version of flying away is. And even then, there are no guarantees.
Trying to reconcile any form of reality with this is a waste of time but what BREWSTER McCLOUD does have even with all that Altman snarkiness is the sense of freedom and occasionally cutting through all the nonsense to those moments of bliss, of genuine emotion. One particular shot of Duvall where she couldn’t be more beguiling almost makes me want to cry for all it stirs up deep down but Kellerman’s reaction to something at one point is just shattering, even if the true significance of what’s happened is not entirely clear beyond the basic idea of betrayal and that Brewster is never again going to be what he could have been. Her exit from the Astrodome, and from the film, as “Last of the Unnatural Acts” sung by John Phillips plays, is haunting as if it was transmitted from outer space, Altman finding lyricism here that there was no place for in MASH, an otherworldly look at the moment and it’s almost as if from then on the characters in his films were given permission to be something else, not bound by our rules. The sometimes slapdash nature of the film means that the moment still still feels spliced in, almost as if the moment was shot just because Altman figured it out one day while checking out the location so he just did it. Much of it has that spur of the moment feel while at the same time there are moments like when Brewster makes two separate confessions through careful cross-cutting by Lou Lombardo, who also edited THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE for Sam Peckinpah the same year, which is simply masterful. Much of the film seems to have been made up of pieces put in there just for the hell of it and it’s a movie of pieces, making up some kind of partly explainable whole. And by the time we get to an end which is both glorious and brutal it’s also kind of a goof, a joke. But it’s his joke.
BREWSTER McCLOUD may not the best Altman film or my favorite Altman film or even the most Altman film made by Robert Altman, but it’s likely the one that gives less of a fuck than any of them and even during an ending where it’s impossible not to think of the Fellini influence it still plays completely as its own thing. It’s an angry film, but one that was made after exhaling for a moment and realizing how little any of it matters anyway. And part of me wonders if it makes more sense than I want to admit. That’s the thing about regret. When you have those people in your life you feel insulated somehow, you think everything’s going to be ok. But it doesn’t last and you can’t have it both ways. And that’s when you fall. What you have to do then is go with the flow since we’re all going to lose in the end. But maybe there’s a way to do it and be part of the circus as the best possible version of what you can be anyway.
One thing about the various performances is the level of human connection it gives us to go along with the absurdity and how well it ties into the Altman vibe, with Bud Cort perfectly in sync with that as he shows off a very particular delusional innocence with his glasses a key part of that performance and it’s easy to see the beginnings of what he would do for Hal Ashby in HAROLD AND MAUDE just a year later. Sally Kellerman brings the right sense of caring and effervescence to her indecipherable character, while Shelley Duvall is a miracle of a screen presence with such joy at times along with her own calculations when she reveals what she really wants. Along with the likes of John Schuck and Corey Fischer there’s the poker face of Michael Murphy who doesn’t let up the McQueen skewering for a second even at his final moment, William Windom’s unrelenting officiousness as Houston official Haskell Weeks and Rene Auberjonois as he continually bounces off the vague story points to take his lecturer as far in the direction of transforming into a bird as humanly possible.
Being certain of saying anything about this movie is probably a lost cause but you could also say the same thing about life or tomorrow or just walking down the street. Sometimes we find a dream right in front of us and we become that dog chasing a car who wouldn’t know what to do if he caught it. Either we regret that we couldn’t make the leap to fly away or there was no way to stay up in the air where we would have been free. Then again, if I smoked pot regularly maybe I’d have a better idea. It’s that sort of movie. Maybe you just need to figure a way to keep your feet on the ground and the birdshit off you and that’s all there is. Maybe there’s nothing to say and Altman just finished this film then took off to make McCABE & MRS. MILLER, released only six months after this film opened, while anyone tried to figure it out. There’s nothing like BREWSTER McCLOUD, even among films that came out in the crazy year of 1970, and the still-available Warner Archive DVD is worth getting since you could always use another Robert Altman film close by to obsess over. Maybe one of these days I’ll dream about my own version of the movie, where some of it gets crossed with my own cast of characters. That is, if I ever fall asleep but I’ll probably screw things up then, too. Of course, the summer does end eventually. Maybe that’s what I really need to be worried about.
Sunday, August 12, 2018
There are those moments when you connect like you thought you never would. For a brief period of time everything is the way it’s supposed to be. It’s not just about the good things. It’s about that connection. You’ve both felt the pain and it stays there deep down, but it’s so hard to reveal that truth. You want to believe it will lead to a greater connection that will somehow heal the pain and hurt. It doesn’t, of course. It never lasts. Maybe opening up is never worth it anyway.
Sydney Pollack’s film of THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY?, based on the Horace McCoy novel, was released in December ’69 and it almost feels like one of the first real 70s movies, that period when it seemed like anything resembling a happy ending was illegal. Starring Jane Fonda right at the start of the massive acclaim both she and Pollack would receive over the decade to come, it’s a searing look at the American Dream as well as the rot which sets in when there’s nothing left of it and nowhere else to go. The older I get the easier it can sometimes be to pick out which films play like the real thing in their fatalism and which ones are mostly made up of hollow cynicism. It’s very possible that THEY SHOOT HORSES is about as unrelenting a film as I can think of—simply calling it “depressing” almost feels reductive—but the pitch is always right, it feels correct in its portrait of a world that can only ever care so much and sometimes you realize will never care again. However accurate the portrayal of the period is, the world of the film always feels lived in which adds immensely to the bleakness and those convictions hold all the way to the very final image. Produced by ABC Pictures, it hasn’t always been an easy film to see (to the point that back in the early 90s Sydney Pollack himself had to spearhead a restoration so the film could be released on laserdisc) so possibly the film’s legacy has been hurt simply due to lack of availability. But once seen it’s impossible to shake, a true stunner with some of the best work in the careers of all involved.
In 1930s Los Angeles with the Depression in full swing, Robert Syverton (Michael Sarrazin) wanders into the La Monica Ballroom situated on the Santa Monica pier and is immediately recruited to take part in the big dance marathon that’s about to begin, partnered up with a bitter young woman named Gloria Beatty (Jane Fonda). The other contestants include the delusional actress Alice (Susannah York), a former sailor (Red Buttons) as well as very pregnant Ruby (Bonnie Bedelia) and husband James (Bruce Dern) along with many others, each of them desperately coveting the cash prize the contest promises. With emcee Rocky (Gig Young) in charge at the microphone, the marathon begins with the crowds soon starting to grow and challenges being added. As the weeks go on, the contest continues and even as more couples drop out it doesn’t seem like it will ever end.
The word brutal rarely comes to mind when thinking of the films of Sydney Pollack and a full decade after his death he’s probably remembered as a director with a filmography consisting of a certain smooth, easy listening professionalism featuring music by the likes of Dave Grusin backing up that vibe along with a deceptively simple, inquisitive feel to the storytelling. But more than that it feels like the basic theme which most often attracted him was the conflict that arises between a man and a woman who hopefully come to a mutual understanding in the end. It’s as if during rewrites of these films he was always asking the question of what the conflict really was and kept arriving at the same answer. The dance marathon of THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY? (Screenplay by James Poe and Robert E. Thompson, from the Horace McCoy novel) uses that basic framework as its spine with most of the film taking place in this giant set where we can never leave with the two leads literally draped over each other at times as they try to stay awake out on the dance floor. The film contains that central relationship but it also has bigger things in mind than any mere romance as if it knows that such a pairing is never going to be enough to make it through this world. In other hands the claustrophobia would become too much and the visual repetition would grind the film down but Pollack along with DP Philip Lathrop (too many other credits to list but also POINT BLANK and THE GYPSY MOTHS during this period) always keeps the camera active, never staying the same place for long and as wrenching as it sometimes is to watch you can’t take your eyes off these people as they keep struggling.
With a burnished look to the images the direction is intense but never showy, the camera always knowing just where it should be and looking at the film now, it’s a reminder that Pollack understood how to use the 2.35 Scope frame for telling the story using his actors and their faces like few other directors ever have. There’s a clarity to it, every shot is layered, he knows what the story is and finds it in those faces just as he finds the rhythm of how incessant all this must be, down to every last cut. He’s always keeping the characters alive even in the back of shots as we feel their exhaustion and desperation, that blaring siren alerting contestants to the start and end of each break time eventually becoming the most horrific sound imaginable. By the end the sound becomes something else altogether and it’s never going to stop. Often coming to a mutual understanding can help his characters move beyond their troubles but not here, there’s no chance, with the hours of the contest going on, the days going on, as they become sleep deprived beyond comprehension. They’re all trapped, every single one of them.
It’s a film that is at times overwhelming in how it almost forces you to keep watching but it also has that sense of yearning for something better if you can only keep going just a little while longer and it cuts deep, placing you right alongside those people who have no place left to go beyond the hell they’ve arrived at as they spend as long as possible denying the truth. This is the end for them, out on the Santa Monica pier with nowhere left to go before the end of the world. It feels a little more exaggerated than what’s described in the book but intentionally so while highlighting the futility of it all, moving up to the very edge of all-out surrealism without fully tipping that hand and keeping the genuine horror in check as total exhaustion seeps in. In 2018 it’s a world of extended cruelty for all of us anyway, one giant episode of reality TV, so if the film ever felt too outlandish in how far it pushes them or even how it portrays the regular people cheering them on in the stands, it doesn’t anymore. It’s a fairly liberal adaptation of the book, keeping some of the basic structure and details while finding the focus through the characters and it might be even darker, if that’s possible, building up the story through the exhaustion that seeps into those faces and in what they don’t say. At the very beginning each one of the contestants we’re about to know are all lined up to take part like characters at the start of a TWILIGHT ZONE episode unaware of what the twist is going to be and not knowing the all-out hell they’re about to be placed in the middle of, the cheering audience members literally throwing coins at them on the floor as they perform or eat their meals while standing up, waiting for them to keep going. It could be a microcosm of Hollywood, of America, of the world, of what people really are deep down, whether they’re the ones still trying against all reason or the ones who have simply given up and want to do nothing more than endlessly watch.
As played by Michael Sarrazin, Robert is basically the audience surrogate and we see as much though his eyes as the film will allow. He’s a dreamer who needs to learn to stop dreaming and most of what we ever learn about him consists of what he says about the things he’s read or seen, not what he’s done. He just hopes to maybe someday do some of it. Aside from a key brief childhood flashback all we know about him is his fixation on the ocean that he loves so much, dreaming of getting to see the sun set over it, straining for beauty as if that’s going to give him the answer he’s looking for. That includes the enigma of Jane Fonda’s Gloria, already hard as sandpaper after striking out in the movie business and openly hostile to everyone around her, seeing right through Robert’s fanciful stories and nothing but contempt for Bonnie Bedelia’s pregnant contestant Ruby for having the tenacity to bring another life into this world without any idea of what to do with it. You never know what’s behind that anger beyond a desperation you can certainly understand and she has no illusions of what this could all lead to beyond the hope of that prize money but she has nowhere else to go anyway.
The film keeps some of the others alive throughout whether the sailor played by Red Buttons who’s shaved a few years off his age or Susannah York’s deluded actress, the desperation of each of them becoming more and more haunting. But it still comes back to the two leads and how willingly Robert attaches himself to Gloria without question, telling her “You’re my partner” at one point displaying a loyalty she can barely comprehend so naturally she feels that betrayal when there’s the hint of him straying in another direction. Almost none of this is ever spoken aloud, just the silent dream of the sort of life they could possibly have if they hadn’t met in this hell, how everyone just assumes they’re always going to be this ideal couple. So much of the storytelling occurs in their glances at each other, the exhaustion and desperation in their eyes which can’t be faked. “What the hell, forget it,” Gloria spits out at one point when someone isn’t quite following what she’s saying. It might as well be her mantra. As far as she’s concerned, there’s almost nothing that Robert could ever do that would be right. Except for the last thing.
Aside from the stylization of certain flash-forwards hinting at the inevitable which feel somewhat of the time, the film contains such energy through all the extreme desperation that it hasn’t really dated and the way it keeps things moving makes us feel that exhaustion without a doubt. The pep of the early sequences falls away fast leading to the unbelievably agonizing derby sequences where the already tired contestants have to race around the track together which become in their endless exhaustion the most nightmarish view of trying to somehow stay alive in this world imaginable.
It’s almost as if we’re in the middle of that track going around in circles with them, falling over with no strength to get up and by the time the film reverts to momentary slow motion late in the film during the second derby it’s as if the sweat and ooze are literally pouring off of the image, the film refusing to let us go of us. A few montages along the way help speed up certain beats in the story (Pollack was always good at montages), almost as if to give us a small taste of relief but it never lasts for long with Gig Young’s emcee Rocky always looking for the narratives to sell the contestant’s stories to the crowd and forever shouting “Yowza! Yowza!” to get everyone to cheer louder and louder until all we want is for him to shut up. He;s in charge so he knows this isn’t reality, just like what we know of as reality TV today isn’t, but he’s the one who gets to be in control. All that matters is if he gets the crowd to believe it.
THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY? is a staggeringly great film (which received nine Oscar nominations, the most ever for a film not also nominated for Best Picture) and it might be too much for some but so what. At its most extreme moments it gives in to the frenzy that builds up through the incessant use of music the contestants are dancing to and how insistently upbeat it has to stay to keep the crowd going with the occasional pulling back to a state of calm for the slow number “Easy Come, Easy Go” which becomes as much of a theme of the film as anything. Easy come, easy go, that’s the way it is in this world, that’s all you can depend on. There’s no point in expecting anything else. None of the dancers have to stay there, but they can’t think of any alternative. There’s nowhere else to go. “I’m tired of losing,” Gloria insists at one point but even that’s not enough when actually winning isn’t even an alternative. And how much do you really want the pain to go away, anyway. A pivotal scene with the two leads near the end (which, unless I’m mistaken, is one of the few moments that plays out largely the way it does in the book) makes it clear that the kindest thought you can have for someone is never going to be enough. For a film coming from the man who would later make TOOTSIE there’s no comfort level at all, no respite but it still doesn’t feel cynical. It’s just despairing. And necessary. And I believe it. It’s a romance where there’s only the shred of a connection but you know there could be more, somehow, if only but there’s still only the inevitability in where this all leads. The very brief flashback at the start showing Robert’s childhood feels innocent but that feeling is over quickly and we’re reminded of it near the end in a dream image that collides with reality. It’s saying that we always were who we are. And as much as we try to change that, we’re only really dancing in place, waiting for the inevitable. And there’s nothing we can do about that, much as we may dream otherwise. Because the pain doesn’t go away. This is humanity, after all.
Jane Fonda is phenomenal as Gloria, putting everything into the character and bringing a searing intensity to the resentment she feels towards pretty much everyone. Even a tiny head shake she does at one point to indicate her non-response to something speaks volumes and you could almost swear the moment had dialogue but she puts it all in her look and every tiny gesture she makes. Michael Sarrazin (lots of now-forgotten movies from around this time but he was in THE REINCARNATION OF PETER PROUD and THE GUMBALL RALLY, among others; he even hosted SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE in 1978) is sort of a more emotional version of Fonda’s brother Peter and he plays much of the role through his eyes, not wanting to admit how much he’s really trying to look at her, coming off as haunted right from the beginning by a past we never hear about. It’s as if he’s been able to deny what it all did to him up until now and the contest irrevocably takes care of what little hope he had left. Gig Young, the film’s lone Oscar winner out of nine nominations, is also remarkable to watch with the humanity he brings to his sleazy essence almost in spite of himself, a Satan who realizes he has to deal with all the damn paperwork and actually show some sort of compassion to get the damn show on. That carny life is everything Rocky knows so he’s an expert on how to get people to believe in the show and if he ever stops it he’ll die. Susannah York (also nominated but lost to Goldie Hawn in CACTUS FLOWER) is flat out possessed as hopeful actress Alice, Red Buttons brings every ounce of his eager to please persona to the part as it gradually slips away until we watch the life literally drained out of him. Just the look on Bonnie Bedelia’s face as Ruby speaks volumes of where she’s come from even before the contest starts and in her best moment sings an enormously sad version of “The Best Things In Life Are Free” for the crowd while looking like she’s going to collapse at any second with the stubborn defensiveness of Bruce Dern as her loyal husband backing he up all the way. Every familiar face that turns up in the crowd adds to the overall effect of this horrific world so there really are no bit roles whether Madge Kennedy as the old woman rooting for Gloria and Robert, Michael Conrad as one of the judges on the floor or the ever-present Al Lewis always at Gig Young’s side, absolutely perfect for the milieu but really pretty much everyone in the film is down to every single dancer out on the floor.
THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY? is still not the easiest film to see but the Kino Lorber Blu-ray which came out last year containing multiple commentary tracks that originated on the old laserdisc is highly recommended. And, in the end, it really is about the man and the woman. Which I guess makes it like other Sydney Pollack films, after all. And, besides, something has to get us to that title. But the film still knows that relationship is just a small part of a world locked in a hellish cycle of entertainment for all that will never end. Just as what Robert really wants is to hear the waves crashing, to get a glimpse of the sun out on that horizon, because that’s where the hope is, it still may not be enough and in the end even that’s taken away from him. Maybe the film is really just about all those regrets that you can never do anything with, the way Robert tells Gloria how he’s just trying to look at her face near the end but it still isn’t enough. Maybe I once knew a girl scarily like Gloria so some of this stings all the more. Maybe I was once this guy. It all ended differently, of course, but still not well. Maybe that sort of connection could never end any other way. But you still try and sometimes you have to try again. And, really, I’m trying. By this point that’s about all any of us can do.
Thursday, July 19, 2018
With a new onset of depression because of the world, because of people, because of everything falling apart, comes yet another run of watching Billy Wilder films that I’ve already seen countless times. It’s just what I need to do. And when that happens there’s no avoiding the point when I eventually wind up back at KISS ME, STUPID. At the very least, the Blu-ray put out by Olive Films is so sparkling that I can’t remember the film ever looking so good, as stunning as you can imagine the glory of early 60s Black & White Scope to ever be. It makes me want to love the film that much more in all its sleazy glory and by this point I may actually be getting closer to doing that. But it’s possible the film works more as a statement of themes, particularly Billy Wilder themes, than an actual presentation of them. KISS ME, STUPID is an admirable film, it’s a crazily brave film, but it’s open to question just how much of it actually qualifies as funny. It was a troubled shoot which had to be restarted when original star Peter Sellers suffered a series of heart attacks several weeks into filming which resulted in being replaced by Ray Walston in the lead role and when the film was released at the end of 1964 the negative response included a condemnation by the Catholic Legion of Decency which called it “a thoroughly sordid piece of realism which is esthetically as well as morally repulsive.” Sounds pretty good to me.
Throughout his career Wilder’s examinations of sex (or, more to the point, fucking) and duplicity (or, more to the point, fucking) had teetered on the edge of his acerbically cynical view of the world and this time he either fell in or simply, willingly, jumped. It’s that kind of movie, although we’ve long since passed the point when any random sitcom episode goes several steps further. And looking at it now, particularly on this Blu-ray, it’s still not top tier Wilder but you could say that about a lot of films; maybe part of the issue is that it’s a sex farce that never offers much comic momentum and at times has a sandpaper harshness that borders on the unpleasant. I keep hoping for it to become snappier, punchier, maybe even more endearing and it never quite happens but I’ve still developed a love, or at least a continued fascination, for it anyway. Wilder himself never warmed up to the film much in later years, even in Cameron Crowe’s “Conversations with Wilder” (“I have some questions about KISS ME, STUPID, if that’s okay.” “It’s not okay, but ask them.”), but it’s still an unblinking look at the relationship between fame and sycophancy, desire and pragmatism, lust and partnership. And, of course, fucking which the film pretty much states is the only way to ever get anything done in this world. Maybe one of these days the problems I’ve always had with it will disappear, if only a little. Even with KISS ME, STUPID, I have to hope.
After finishing a stint at the Sands in Las Vegas, superstar entertainer Dino (Dean Martin) heads for L.A. to tape a TV special but a problem on the road forces him to detour through the small desert town of Climax, Nevada where amateur songwriter Orville J. Spooner (Ray Walston) along with best pal Barney Milsap (Cliff Osmond) are always working on new songs in the hopes of striking the big time. The sight of Dino passing through gets Barney to hatch a plan to keep him around so he’ll be forced to hear their songs and want to buy them but when the immensely jealous Orville realizes his wife Zelda (Felicia Farr) is already a huge fan of Dino whose proclivity means he has to have it every night he suddenly wants no part of this. So Barney comes up with another idea to get rid of her for just the one night and bring in Polly the Pistol (Kim Novak), a waitress and sometimes more than that at the local roadhouse the Belly Button (“Drop In and Get Lost”), to impersonate Zelda, catch Dino’s eye and help close the deal.
It’s a film where Kim Novak plays a woman hired by a husband to take on the role of his wife for an unsuspecting mark which sounds familiar although maybe it only seems like every Kim Novak film recalls VERTIGO in some way, as multiple viewings of THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE have reminded me. It could even be argued that KISS ME, STUPID (screenplay by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond based on the play L’ora della Fantasia by Anna Bonacci) is the Billy Wilder equivalent of VERTIGO, a sort of ultimate expression of what women represent for men and how those men react to their duplicity in the end. With Hitchcock this leads to madness; in the case of Wilder, it’s mainly befuddlement. Either way, no one comes out of it looking very good and there’s never going to be any real answer. If this film doesn’t rank as high in the Wilder filmography as something like THE APARTMENT, well, that’s the way it crumbles, cookie-wise and maybe it’s a missing a sharpness to go along with the acknowledgement of the true pain that comes along with any obsession, the bitterness that is integral to any real love. Instead it keeps things a little too broad, a little too brazenly arch while taking way too much time getting from one point to the next. It might be a stretch to say his films are only ever interested in the deception that arises between men and women but the subject ranks pretty high up there, the disguises becoming inevitable, the deceit the only way to the truth in the lives they lead. The sprawling big city of THE APARTMENT (and VERTIGO, for that matter) here becomes the stark, wide open Nevada desert, no reason to stop there unless you have to, nothing to do there but watch the TVs in the window of the local hardware store and dream about the outside world. Maybe as settings go, Wilder never quite figured out why anyone would ever willingly stay there.
The character of Polly the Pistol doesn’t even appear until just past the forty-five minute mark so she isn’t quite as integral to this world view, almost as if unless she enters by happenstance through a side door she isn’t going to matter. It’s Dino who we meet first, a reminder of how he pretty much owns his world particularly in the spectacular opening which gives us the greatest look at our fantasy of Dean Martin’s Las Vegas act as we’ll ever get to see (if it isn’t quite the real thing, who cares). But the film settles in for way too long in the tiny desert home belonging to Walston and Farr’s married couple celebrating their anniversary, his immense jealousy over his wife at everyone quickly becoming repetitive so it’s a relief when Dino finally drives into town, still wearing his tux from the night before. The Dean Martin portrayal of “himself” is remarkable, presumably not the real guy so much as the most lascivious version that we imagine him to be, not a care in the world beyond the next bottle and the next girl, the sleaziest possible LARRY SANDERS SHOW version of himself thirty years early. That seeps into the whole film and he wastes no time sprinkling his cigarette ashes or groping every woman he comes into contact with and in this harshly monochromatic Panavision world the skeezy vibe his very presence gives off fits perfectly. This is America, a place where there’s always a western on TV (in what feels like a continuation of a joke from THE APARTMENT with the addition of Polly’s parrot Sam exclaiming “Bang! Bang!” to underline the point ) and the bleakness of the American Dream means that sex gets in the way, it always gets in the way, but Dino can do whatever he wants whether he wants to or not, especially since if he doesn't he wakes up with a splitting headache. Wilder still had to hold back on the language at this point but the meaning of whatever the dialogue is gets pushed as far as it can possibly go. “It’s not very big, but it’s clean,” Orville tells Polly the Pistol when she enters his home. “What is?” she asks suspiciously, every syllable given emphasis so there’s no mistaking the joke.
It’s a world where the glitz and the mundane always go together, you just have to figure out which one to focus on and that makes sense giving KISS ME, STUPID an edge over a few other Wilder titles which play too bland and shallow now, particularly something like THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH which doesn’t have much aside from CinemaScope and Marilyn Monroe. This film came about nine years later and the take on marriage is one that doesn’t flinch, as overbearing as things sometimes get and much as it never fully escapes the stage roots of the material (an Italian play set in the 19th century, previously made into the 1952 Gina Lollabrigida film WIFE FOR A NIGHT) the scope compositions that Wilder pulls off in that tiny house are never less than spectacular, as if he loves nothing more than telling his story by lining up these insufferable people next to each other. There’s an undeniable formality to how each moment is structured which is consistently a reminder of Wilder’s brilliance, particularly in the way it lays out a definite beginning and end to the dinner sequence. The exteriors barely seem to matter in comparison, with shots of the town sometimes on location and other points clearly on a soundstage with backdrops representing a desert that go on into infinity. He’s much more interested in the layout of the Spooner living room which features a Victorian love seat for three, perfect for placing Dino next to Polly the Pistol as Orville sits behind them pretending not to notice, so by a certain point that loveseat with every ounce of tension surrounding it becomes as important as the bell tower was to Hitchcock, the perfect symbol of what’s keeping them apart and what is eventually going to bring them together.
But running a few minutes over two hours there’s a little too much dead air in the film as if the breakneck speed of Wilder’s ONE, TWO, THREE a few years earlier caused his subsequent films to all slow down, that metronome Orville dotes on during his piano lessons set at too slow a speed. Except for Dean Martin’s behavior and some moments from Kim Novak where you almost can’t believe that she’s making the most unexpected reaction seem so perfect, the film never achieves the manic feel it should have and for a film that got people so upset over the mere suggestion of sex, it still needs to loosen up. Even the comically bad songs written by the duo that they they’re trying to get Dino to hear, an early version of Beatty and Hoffman in ISHTAR and actually pieces by George & Ira Gershwin pulled from their files of unused material, feel like they could have used an extra satirical zing to make them really pop with the slight running gag of the line ‘I’m da Vinci without the Mona Lis’’ in one of the songs as big a laugh as they ever get. As the film moves deeper into the night and Dino begins to drink the wine flowing from that long phallic bottle of chianti out of Kim Novak’s shoe that twisted feeling begins to emerge and Novak really begins to finally take center stage as well, until this day she never imagined what it might be like to have a song written for her. It gives the film a soul in addition to its sleaze while her character’s ‘bad cold’ always making us aware of the bodily functions of it all. The scam in Wilder’s follow-up THE FORTUNE COOKIE was funnier in some ways while still being just as sparse and acerbic but since it removed sex from the equation maybe not as interesting; it’s as if when you remove the lust from desires in life, who really cares. THE APARTMENT’s C. C. Baxter was in over his head in all that office sleaze but there was a soul to him of trying to make his way through that muck. The characters in KISS ME, STUPID are much broader and desperate, which makes sense for a farce, but aside from Polly the Pistol there’s not as much to explore with them, Dino a force of nature who practically seems immortal, Orville set in his ways of jealousy, his wife Zelda so oblivious that her sweetness seems almost misguided.
This is all morality as Wilder sees it and in Glenn Erickson’s DVD Savant review of the old DVD he went into detail on how the ending had to be changed when the film was released so it could receive MPAA approval. The new Blu only contains Wilder’s preferred version, and Erickson also points out a few other alterations in his updated review, but I can’t help but think that while the intent of Wilder’s first version is correct for the film the reshoot gave him the chance to sharpen some of the dialogue around it, including an improved Beatles reference, and some of that actually helps but I guess it wouldn’t be a film to have complicated feelings over without an alternate version of something to quibble over. Ultimately, KISS ME, STUPID is a dirty joke about marriage and love and sex and the messiness that surrounds all of that, examining what devotion is really meant to be while being forever unsure about which side of a woman is the Madonna and which is the Whore. The way Wilder seems to have looked at it, the only possible answer was to throw up his hands in confusion. It’s up to Orville to find his own self-respect and the realization that he shouldn’t pimp out his wife even if she isn’t really his wife. The women themselves may have other things in mind but never mind about that. But the film makes it clear that you can’t impersonate yourself, that you are who are, even if you’re Dean Martin, the only character here who doesn’t have the luxury of becoming someone else since everyone already thinks they know him. The best thing for him to do is take advantage of that. The best thing for everyone else to do is figure out some sort of middle ground.
The funny thing is that for all of the sex in Wilder (or, at least, discussion of sex) there’s relatively little kissing as if the greatest displays of love in his films render such a gesture almost irrelevant. What’s important is the bitterness that leads up to those kisses, Wilder’s grace note late in the film of Orville walking alone through his empty house, building to the hope of the banter, to the final declaration to shut up and deal when we know that kiss is coming anyway. Maybe that’s why one character’s confusion during the final moments makes it just about the most charming bit in the entire film. The last line, which gracefully dispenses with pages of exposition, serves as the Billy Wilder version of what Nicole Kidman would say to Tom Cruise decades later at the end of Kubrick’s EYES WIDE SHUT. The intent is the same. Just the rhythm is different. KISS ME, STUPID may not be perfect but it is pure. It says, this what the world is, this is what people are. Sure, they’re selfish, they look out only for themselves and they will take what you got from you. Maybe the best in life you can hope for is that somehow something good will come from that.
Kim Novak may not be the lead but she gives the movie and its comedy an extra edge when she finally turns up, never afraid of the trashiness and brining an undeniable blank to her character, particularly the resigned expression on face gazing upward resigned to her life and always the one to watch in the frame even when she isn’t speaking. It’s as if she’s fighting back at her own persona even as Wilder is intent on digging deeper into it and it turns her into the most soulful and fully realized character in the film, finding an intensity to this hooker with a cold, all too aware that she’s being used as meat, that, crazy as it sounds, almost feels as close to a Brando performance as we ever got in a Billy Wilder film. Up against her, and everyone else for that matter, Dean Martin is fearless, not worried one bit how he’s coming off since he knows everyone loves him anyway. He plays every scene always ready to hit the ball back at everyone, reveling in this version of himself. How this would have all been affected if Peter Sellers had played Orville is something we can only dream about and Jack Lemmon would have been maybe too obvious in the role but it’s also possible that as great as Ray Walston is in other films, whether THE APARTMENT or FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, maybe he works best as a supporting character. He brings the necessary pathos to the role but also an array of broad gestures and mugging which would seem more appropriate on the stage so anytime a scene cuts to someone else it’s almost as if we’re getting a breather. He’s still somewhat dialed down next to Cliff Osmond as Barney who really doesn’t hold back on playing to the back of the house while Felicia Farr, also Mrs. Jack Lemmon, comes off as a completely wholesome girl next door and the one person in the film who isn’t any sort of grotesque, finding a way to make her presence endearing and even a little unpredictable. Henry Gibson is seen briefly as a customer at the Belly Button and Mel Blanc appears as local dentist Dr. Sheldrake, presumably related to the various Sheldrakes from other Wilder films, keeping his current patient in hysterics with his bad jokes. He’s presumably also the voice of Polly’s parrot Sam, left alone to watch westerns all through the night shouting “Bang Bang!” at the set the whole time.
The films of Billy Wilder have meant different things to me as time has gone on. Once they were established classics I was introduced to, then they became models of the screenwriting and filmmaking form, pieces of craft to learn from. And now as I get older and more at sea in the world I connect with them more and more, reminding me of my dreams, of my failures, of what I have sometimes reached for, how I fucked it up and if it’s at all possible to be a better person when I try again. I still don’t have the answer which may be why I keep returning to them. Sometimes it feels like I’m that one lone waiter at the start of KISS ME, STUPID standing stone faced through Dino’s act while everyone around him is in hysterics, a reminder that sometimes this is a world where everyone else is getting the joke and it’s on you to figure it out. KISS ME STUPID is not perfect for a number of reasons, and this Blu is even so clear that for the first time ever I spotted a crew member clearly visible through a crack in the set at around the 38 minute mark. But even when it strains for certain laughs it’s honest, maybe in the way that only Billy Wilder knew how to be. I still love the film with passion and complications even though I feel like I sometimes need to ignore that crack in the set. Just as Polly the Pistol seems to be searching for hope through her eyes that have all but given up, the film knows where to find it. And so the depression continues, at least until the next song begins.