Thursday, February 28, 2019
Whatever you think this has all been about, you’re mistaken. You can’t help it if you weren’t there. That’s not your fault. And it has to be true that some of the films you’re going to connect with, especially when you’re younger, are those films you connect with the most deep down because of some primal experience. You saw it with your dad, you saw it on a date, you saw it in a very special theater on a very special night with the greatest audience imaginable. If you haven’t had these experiences, sometimes a film eludes you. This is all my way of saying that I’d never given much thought to BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID beyond its status as a legendary screenplay by William Goldman. Checking it out on TV or video through the years it seemed to me that it was fun but maybe a little thin and frankly I had little to no emotional response at all. And I accepted that maybe I had to be there at the time but I was just born a few years too late. Look, I’m not perfect but we knew that already. So what I’m saying is that getting to see the film for the first time in 35mm recently at the grand re-opening of a certain revival house here in town knocked me out, revealing it to be a work of depth and maturity to go along with all those famous wisecracks that had never really clicked this way for me before. I’m still thinking about how much it affected me and why. Sometimes in this life you eventually connect with something even if it is years later, which is maybe all that matters.
Shortly after Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) returns to Hole-in-the-Wall with the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford) to reunite with his gang, they start up again with an idea to rob the Union Pacific twice, once for each way on its route. But the second attempt doesn’t go as planned not only due to Butch using too much dynamite on the safe but when a posse emerges clearly prepared to begin chasing Butch and Sundance through the landscape until they’re caught. Soon after their narrow escape, Butch decides to make good on his plan to take off for Bolivia and the two of them set off with Sundance’s girl Etta Place (Katharine Ross) coming along. But Bolivia isn’t what they expect it to be either and even as they start up robbing again it becomes clear how much times are changing and that it’s not going to be possible for them to run far enough to get away from all those people intent on chasing them until the deed is done.
John Wayne couldn’t have starred in this film. That’s one thing I kept thinking. In some ways BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID doesn’t feel anything like the westerns being made in the 60s, let alone earlier, whether John Ford or CAT BALLOU, and is maybe more of a buddy movie than truly part of that genre, not as interested in the expected tropes that so many of them are. These characters have lived in this world so long that they’re no longer particularly impressed by whatever the west represents and even when Butch talks about returning to his hideout in Hole-in-the-Wall he doesn’t seem to be doing it for any reason other than it’s what he knows. That seems to be what the film is about as much as anything—you can’t change. You can’t become anything else other than what you already are. Right from the opening credits of its wistful silent movie showing what these guys represented long ago, it’s clear how much the film is also about the end of something and how no matter what there’s nothing you can do to stop the future, no matter how far you run. And along with that I kept thinking how this was a western which couldn’t have starred John Wayne, even if he was a movie star who changed less than anyone over the course of forty-odd years. Of course, Wayne didn’t appear in every western made in Hollywood through the decades but except for maybe Roy Rogers-type stuff it’s almost like he could have starred in any of them with enough alterations to the script, even if he was wrong for the part, that’s how steadfast the genre was. Butch and Sundance are nothing like what Wayne represented, willing to run, willing to fight dirty and live by their own rules, which is a spirit that enters the film as well. They may technically be bad guys but that’s not how they think of themselves and neither do we so we love them anyway. They never represent anything else in my mind other than the legends they already are at the start and it plays like the beginning of the modern film hero living in the guise of wisecracking irony that several years later became solidified at the beginning of the Lucas-Spielberg era.
But there’s an added depth to these two which comes from their friendship and jovial nature, fearless in the face of each new obstacle, even if they are baffled by certain new developments it never slows them down. Most westerns we think of all seem set in that post-Civil War, pre-1900 era which in that mythos seems like a world without end. BUTCH CASSIDY feels younger in spirit while still just as intent on burning down that era as the same year’s THE WILD BUNCH was and the two do have a few vague similarities (TRUE GRIT was one of two Wayne westerns to come out in 1969, also the year of MIDNIGHT COWBOY and EASY RIDER, and of course it’s very much set in the familiar old west he was a part of) but this film is more wistful, not as angry, not as determined to clutch on to what’s slipping away. These guys are focused more on what they can still do instead of the world around them. As Sherriff Bledsoe played by Jeff Corey tells them in no uncertain terms when they roust him out of bed in the middle of the big chase, their day is over and if there was ever a chance to change with the times they missed it so now it’s too late. And in that sense BUTCH CASSIDY is a way to spend two more hours putting that off, putting off adulthood and the real world and everything all that represents in the hope you just might be wrong about what’s really coming.
Even removed from any context, BUTCH CASSIDY plays now as a hugely entertaining movie that has aged beautifully, an enjoyable lark with just enough of an undercurrent that offers a sense of how transient everything really is. The clanging of the locks at the bank Butch is checking out at the beginning serves as a sign that the glory days are over (or maybe they were just seen in the later prequel BUTCH AND SUNDANCE: THE EARLY DAYS that didn’t star Newman and Redford), burnt into ember along with the sepia-toned introductions of the two stars which eventually gives way to full-on color, turning the myths they already are into a present they can’t run away from. You can’t stop the future from happening and even as those signs begin to appear along with a near-mutiny within the Hole in the Wall Gang they’re simply intent to press forward and avoid thinking about it even as they take a few minutes to enjoy the bicycle that represents the future, the future they want no part of. George Roy Hill’s direction always seems effortlessly bemused by the duo, content to keep them in the frame no matter what’s going on as a reminder of how joined together they are and how much the title represents what the film really is. Even when Katharine Ross’s Etta Place agrees to travel to Bolivia with them regardless of the consequences, it’s the two of them framed together against her alone in a shot. Even if she’s technically Sundance’s girl it almost doesn’t matter; she knows which pairing is the real partnership here.
But along with its focus on the leads is a cockeyed view of the west populated by people who have no interest in things like joining a posse anymore and George Roy Hill always enjoys giving someone a few seconds to highlight their own preoccupations while never too impressed by everything else that’s happening, Cloris Leachman’s prostitute who Butch picks to hid upstairs with them or Henry Jones’ bicycle salesman using his opportunity to get the attention of the crowd. These are the sort of pleasures that Hill always brought to his best films through pure observation of character, the rust belt America of his later SLAP SHOT eighty years ahead of time. It never takes a break, with moments like that cut to the big explosion they don’t see coming surprising us with that big laugh, and the expected plot beats during the big heists are dispensed with quickly to get to the big chase which unexpectedly takes up much of the running time on its own and isn’t even scored as if just like the characters the film itself is so thrown by these developments it doesn’t know how to react. The future is mostly faceless with Lefors who leads the posse and railroad tycoon E.H. Harriman never actually seen but they’re each so vivid in how they’re talked about that all we need to know is they just want Butch and Sundance gone, no matter the cost, just to save any trouble later on. It’s the beginning of what the world is becoming in the twentieth century; these guys are nothing more than an annoyance to them and you just know George Furth’s Woodcock who worries about “poor Mr. Harriman” having his train robbed is someone who the big boss probably couldn’t care less about either. None of the little people are going to matter in the future and they’re the ones the film has affection for.
With those adversaries mostly unseen, the structure of the William Goldman script where ‘much of what follows is true’ as the opening title card tells us (we can say the same of our own lives as well) is all about the two guys named in the title, about the fictions they create in this buddy relationship that is so surface they’re still learning new things about each other, little things like their names. But they’re so easygoing, even down to Butch having no problem with Sundance having met Etta first, that their friendship only becomes more endearing, whether it’s their constant bickering during the chase or the way the film brushes over the good times of their stopover in New York via montage on the way to Bolivia. Like most films a little light on plot this lack of real incident is felt in the back half but this one gets away with it, partly because of how the Bolivian robbing montage is assembled, partly because a few scenes with Strother Martin yammering on helps any movie and partly because even though we know what’s coming in the last ten minutes, by that point we love them. The slow motion killings in the big Bolivia showdown are very much of the time, coming two years after BONNIE AND CLYDE and the same year as THE WILD BUNCH but it’s all for one of the only really serious moments in the film, a clear sign that no matter what they do now there’s no going back, there’s no changing. If that other film was called THE WILD BUNCH this one is THE LAID BACK DUO, more likable and endearing only not as eager to pull the trigger. But at the end of each film they still wind up in the very same place.
The legacy of BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID is unavoidably connected to Goldman writing about it in his essential memoir “Adventures in the Screen Trade” as well as the later “Which Lie Did I Tell?” and if you haven’t read them but have interest in any of this, you absolutely should. “Screen Trade” even includes the full script of the film, complete with all of his descriptive passages and for all his “Nobody knows anything” talk there’s the sense in all his talk about the dos-and-don’ts screenwriting that he was saying these are the things you need to do but I can’t tell you in what order or where and sometimes who the hell knows why. But he just knew. That’s why he was William Goldman, I guess. BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID has many things thanks to what he wrote but what it doesn’t have is bullshit and the movie always knows how to add to what’s on the page, whether the timing in those laughs, the boom we hear in the gunshots or whenever it takes just a few seconds to dote on Conrad Hall’s cinematography, so the way the sunlight shoots through the fence as Paul Newman and Katharine Ross ride on that bicycle seems more miraculous each time I watch it.
There’s something about what it all represents to me and even while the mildly haunting easy listening vibe of the Burt Bacharach score locks the film into when it was made it’s in the best possible way as if that sound represents trying to hold on to some small semblance of that carefree feeling, literally running from the future, while knowing deep down that it’s impossible. The way it drops out all sound aside from that music during the Bolivia robbing montage makes me think Steven Soderbergh was directly influenced when he occasionally did the same thing in the OCEAN’S films, just one small influence films of that time have seeped into his work, a reminder of how everything was changing during that period. Looking at BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID now is a reminder of what movies were about to become and I guess what part of me wishes they still were. As much as I hate to admit it, by now it’s as much a part of the past as the old timey silent film that plays over the opening credits. It’s a shame that this has to happen, but it’s inevitable.
The two lead performances find the perfect balance in all this from how relaxed Paul Newman is in his confidence and how the charm of Robert Redford goes with how antsy he gets at times, still young enough that he can’t always relax into the moment especially when Butch isn’t as worried as he is. We can always see the wheels turning in Newman’s head no matter how small the stakes as he tries to find the bright side in each situation while coming up with his next plan and for me it may be his most effortlessly enjoyable performance. Redford plays it always hoping that his coolness holds, with Sundance self-aware enough to know how good he is but still worried that might not be enough especially if swimming is involved but you always feel his loyalty--he might argue with Butch but he won’t question him. It’s as if whenever Redford calmly smiles, like when he waves at Harvey Logan insisting on the knife fight, you just know everything is going to be ok and he couldn’t look more at home as this guy. The two of them go perfectly together and with Katharine Ross as well with a calmness always felt in her performance that grounds the high spirits among the trio as if she’s a person whose mind is always made up each time she speaks. She’s the one who seems fully aware of the inevitability of what’s coming which is why she’s willing to only go so far with them on the path they’re headed down, no matter what her feelings for each of them are. Some of the best moments from other actors in the film whether Strother Martin, Jeff Corey, George Furth or Ted Cassidy all go by pretty fast since the focus is never away from the leads for long—the familiar Percy Helton gets neither credit nor audible lines for his tiny role as Sweetface, sent outside to point Lefors in the wrong direction, but his body language in the payoff to the scene makes him unforgettable. It’s a movie filled with moments like that which makes it such a joy.
As for the other thing, this wasn’t about any of that. It was about my returning to BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, a film that turns 50 this year, a little older than I am now. It won four Oscars, for screenplay, cinematography, score and the song “Raindrops keep Falling on My Head” which is likely the first thing connected to this film I ever had any awareness of. But more than all this was about a film that suddenly, finally, meant something to me. The way some films just have to, sooner or later. There are times in this life when you try to hang on to something, but it’s always going to blow away. So maybe what’s left is the hope of finding something new to hold onto. And there’s still the hope to see these things in a theater, if that’s ever possible, to finally have this revelation and I’m not kidding when I say this was one of the best 35mm prints I’ve ever seen in a revival house. That’s the thing, though. You have to keep hoping, even up until the end, and no matter how much trouble you find yourself in with any luck you won’t do anything else as long as you’re still alive.
Friday, January 18, 2019
Everything makes sense when you look back on it. The truth was right there in front of you as you kept waiting, hoping that it would all turn out otherwise. Maybe it was just inevitable. Bob Fosse’s film of CABARET is always aware of that truth of what’s going on and how we don’t know, how we try to avoid it. It’s a film unlike any other, part musical, part drama but really a look at why the two are separated and how it can be the only way to reconcile the dreams that never emerge out there in the real world. And the things that you avoid until you no longer can. Maybe certain aspects of the history it explores causes the film to stand out more now than it has in years but I’m not sure how much time I want to spend analyzing that aspect. Maybe it just happens anyway. It’s a film of passion and yearning that grabs hold and refuses to let go. If it did, the movie would simply fade away and it refuses to ever do that.
In 1931 Berlin, Brian Roberts (Michael York) arrives from Cambridge to complete his doctorate and hopefully make some money giving English lessons on the side while soaking up some of the wild life of the town. Taking a room in a boarding house, he befriends Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli), an American who makes a living as a performer at the Kit Kat Klub, a cabaret always presided over through each act by the Master of Ceremonies (Joel Grey). Brian and Sally grow close immediately, even as her attempts at seducing him lead their relationship somewhere unexpected. As Brian begins teaching English out of Sally’s room his students include Jewish department store heiress Natalia Landauer (Marisa Berenson) as well as gigolo Fritz (Fritz Wepper) who quickly develops an interest in her while keeping a secret of his own. Meanwhile, Sally’s involvement with Maximillian von Heune (Helmut Griem) whose extreme wealth courtesy of his family may be just what Sally is looking for but it soon complicates things between her and Brian. As all this is going on the Nazis are beginning to make their presence known in the city, starting off as a fringe party blithely dismissed by Maximillian and others but soon becoming a growing presence which Brian starts to realize he can no longer completely ignore.
Whether or not CABARET strictly qualifies as a musical, the genre is very much where its heart is and even as the opening credits roll in silence, no overture or fanfare as you’d expect from this kind of film, it embraces the very idea of theatricality while fighting against the concept. There’s no distance. We’re there. Released in February 1972, CABARET is a rigorously entertaining movie that is continually alive through every scene with a dangerous energy, funny and stylish, shocking and upsetting, never easy, the cloud of the future always hanging over every moment as the characters try to think about anything else and another song starts up out of the dreams buried in their desires. The film keeps the musical numbers inside the cabaret of the title almost entirely in this adaptation of the Broadway musical (to cover the extensive writing credits that span the history of the material, screenplay by Jay Allen from the novel “Goodbye to Berlin” by Christopher Isherwood based on the play “I Am A Camera” by John Van Druten and the 1966 musical, book by Joe Masteroff with songs by Kander & Ebb), an approach that makes the Kit Kat Klub almost feel like a completely separate reality at first, lorded over by a Master of Ceremonies who doesn’t seem like he’d belong anywhere else but his silent asides indicate that he understands more about what’s going on in Berlin than he’ll ever let on. He tells the audience –which is us, of course—to leave your troubles outside, life in there is beautiful. We believe him at first but the real world is going to find its way in eventually, there’s no avoiding that.
If the later PENNIES FROM HEAVEN—not to mention the 2002 film of CHICAGO which wears the CABARET inspiration on its much less impressive sleeve—was about the secret yearnings of the characters coming out in song it’s as if this film is more about their desires, what they keep hidden deep down almost unwilling to admit to themselves, as if to uncover the truth of what they’re not seeing around them and it finds a dividing line to that reality unlike any other musical before or since. Sally Bowles is the center of all this even though she’s really just one of the crowd onstage when first spotted and even later on when she gives a giant Liza performance onstage to a disinterested audience there’s nothing more than a smattering of applause. She’s living her life as whatever Louise Brooks figure she wants to be, blithely referring to herself as “a most strange and extraordinary person” and her life is built around waiting for the big thing she’s determined is going to happen to her. It’s always the seduction and what she can get out of it, her life philosophy always to pounce, to forget the father who does nothing but hurt her no matter how devoted she is. She stands below a railway bridge late at night when a train passes and screams as loud as she can when no one will ever hear as if this is the one moment in the day when she can let the real truth come out. Everything is just a game otherwise with no consequences and when someone comes to her with a serious question about love she doesn’t know how to react. Even when the comical bits seem centered all around Minnelli’s timing and presence it fits since, after all, Sally’s the one who wants to be the center of attention. If she isn’t, what’s she even doing there? She latches on to Brian instantly even as she never waits for an answer to any question she asks him, maybe because he’ll actually listen, and he’s a lead character in a musical with no involvement in the music or singing at all, not quite a cipher but the songs are really about her and her dreams and what’s around them more than they’re ever about him as if the film itself doesn’t have the interest in anything otherwise.
Fosse’s SWEET CHARITY from a few years before this was his debut as a film director and is stylized and audacious, fascinating in many ways but with musical numbers that are wildly overblown and, ultimately, it looks like a 60s movie. Coming at the very beginning of the more adventurous 70s, CABARET doesn’t look like any other movie at all. Stunningly photographed by the great Geoffrey Unsworth it goes right for the sleaze found in that darkness with the camera darting around and a clutter giving every scene a particular tempo, always looking for just the right body movement to focus on but also another way to get us in closer to the actors. Every shot matters, even if it’s just the way the light catches someone onstage and every cut found through the editing by David Bretherton, whether during musical numbers or simple dialogue, feels like it has an added power to whatever two images are going together. A cut in a Bob Fosse film is like an electrical charge that surges from one shot to the next and the film moves like a rocket, no desire to linger just as Sally Bowles herself always wants to move on to the next opportunity, the next seduction, so when the film slows down for a confrontation you feel how antsy she is at being forced to actually deal with what she’s done. Even the way dialogue scenes play out through the movement of the characters gives the film a special rhythm, a 30s Lubitsch comedy that doesn’t have to worry about censors yet still knows to tip toe around those subjects that need to be avoided anyway. It’s the awkwardness that builds during the impromptu English lesson party scene and the interactions that build from it, through Brian’s growing horror over Sally’s behavior that he can’t do anything about.
But when it comes to cramming us into the dark, tiny space of the Kit Kat Klub to get a glimpse of the musical numbers, as both director and choreographer (“dances and musical numbers staged by” is the official credit) Fosse zeros in to find the cinematic line between giving us the bodies and holding the shots on their faces to basically let them explode onscreen. It’s like we’re watching them from the third row of the cabaret itself, maybe with part of some guy’s head in view, which gives each number an immediacy and the songs pulsate in a way to make it feel like no other musical ever. The way Joel Grey commands with his smarmy laughter during the introductory “Willkommen”, the independence that bursts out of Minnelli during the early “Mein Herr” number or her joy at singing “Maybe This Time” with all the hope in the world for her foolishness. And the way Minnelli and Grey cavort together during “Money Money” in perfect step with each other going as big as conceivably possible but we never lose sight of how each number relates to the bigger picture. It’s not just about the songs or even going for some sort of perfection with the dance moves but the dynamism that erupts from them, the complexity of one dance onstage late in the film that combines the sexual fluidity of the story being told with what is happening outside as the threat grows. The crassness gives them a charge that lends the whole film a sinuous vibe, the freedom coming out of that morality which the future is going to sadly emerge from. We’re aware of the sleaze in those numbers as much as we can feel the yearning always underneath.
Of course, the infamous “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” sequence is the one song not performed in the Kit Kat Klub; everything feels carefree for much of the film so it makes sense that when music is finally allowed to penetrate the outside world, emerging seemingly from out of nowhere, it’s really just the characters who have momentarily forgotten about what’s happening around them in early 30s Germany, as we have to, as we want to. When the first lines of the song are heard as that seemingly angelic face begins singing and we get the close-ups of all the other people in this beer garden joining in as it becomes clear what’s really going on. One old man silently sits in the middle of it all, fully aware of what it means and this greatest horror of the film is goddamn chilling, driven home by the silent acknowledgment by the Master of Ceremonies of what we’ve just seen. The film takes a turn in the final third as Brian begins to realize that what’s happening can’t be ignored and waved off like some tried to do and the other tenants of the rooming house who once seemed so friendly but suddenly sound like people these days watching a certain news network, aren’t going to shut up anytime soon. Suddenly it’s clear that there’s no hiding, not in the cabaret, not anywhere.
Just as something else is really going on in 1931 Berlin, each of the main characters are hiding their own secrets deep down, just as Fritz is hiding a secret under his gigolo front that he forces out through his romance with Marisa Berenson’s Jewish heiress. We know all too well that whatever happens after the end of the film with them isn’t going to be good but the point is that the film knows and it also knows there’s nothing that can be done about it. Of course there’s what Sally and Brian are keeping from each other as well and one brief sequence late in the film is so haunting, almost shot to be a fantasy that Sally is having, but by this point there is no real line between the two in her head and the 70s darkness it gives off plays as if we’re following her deep down into her soul where she makes that final decision. Michael York’s Brian is presumably the Isherwood surrogate as well as the identification point for the audience but it’s Sally and her view of the world that Fosse latches on to so the film does as well, come what may. Sally pines for that glory of hoping to become an actress as the world burns around her and she’s happy to do it, that one piece of carefree music on her record player she always listens to is what’s in her head, unable to change. But she’s still the one willing to admit that things aren’t going to turn out so well for her and Brian if they do what he’s asking, even if she leaves certain things about him unspoken during their big fight. In his own way Brian, as if we’re watching them from the third row maybe with part of some guy’s head in view, is just as blind to the truth of those dreams as the wealthy Maximillian is about the truth of what’s coming. Like his notions of a trip for that threesome to take to Africa, no thought given to the future, it’s a world where no one needs to give permission but the fantasy of that threesome, let alone the fantasy of simply Brian and Sally living a normal life, is one that can’t be sustained.
Fosse’s direction makes every scene play like a lightning bolt and you almost can’t even pin down what it is he’s bringing, only that anyone who’s ever tried to replicate it has just offered mere flash. He brings a focus to every moment that gets right to the heart of the desperation in the middle of that sleaze, never turning away from the characters so when the camera focus on Sally’s face shifts slightly as she makes a declaration, the jolt that movement creates combined with the look on her face at that precise instant is otherworldly. Fosse knows that love is fucked up and incomplete and if you could really put any of it into words there’d be no point in singing about it (not to mention writing about it) at all. Not a complete love, anyway. The final understanding between them is so unspoken that Brian doesn’t even get a real exit from the film, certainly not the way we see him arrive in Berlin at the beginning. Neither Sally nor the film sees him off, no real interest in him anymore and the big final number isn’t just about Liza singing that particular song but about that acceptance, about staying in that place regardless of those consequences and who knows what but embracing it. To her that’s freedom, even if the instincts that she’s talked about are clearly not doing her much good and she’s already literally slept through the greatest display of Nazism in the film. All that matters as she sings the big title song near the end is this is where she can be the star she has to believe she is, at least in her own head, belting out that reminder of how she wants to live as if she’s desperately trying to remind herself of the reason. That’s where life is, that’s where she is and the idea is reflected back at us so we’re reminded who else is there and maybe they always were. Like the best films it changes on each viewing as something else stands out. It gains in power. It hurts more.
As an honest admission, to me Liza Minnelli was always from ARTHUR. That’s the film I knew her from, that’s the film I’ve seen countless times since forever. To others she was something else, something more than that, but I’m sort of out of that demographic. But you know what, watching CABARET again, I get it. It’s a phenomenal performance and the film basically becomes one with Liza Minnelli every time she’s in a scene whether the way she freely takes over a roomful of people or the desperation in her lowest points with Brian as she avoids putting into words the truth that she knows deep down but still can’t admit to. But during each spectacular musical number it’s the way she turns herself into the icon she wants to be but up there on stage even if no one notices it’s all that matters and it’s felt in every movement up there onstage. It feels like the character of Brian can never match this no matter how much he tries but this makes the steady presence of Michael York bounce off her just right and he’s always playing it as how restricted he is deep down while still so eager to please. For a brief time Brian is able to feel like he belongs in Berlin among these people and it relaxes everything about York’s persona until the reality of everything hits home. The charm of Marisa Berenson stands out as well just as Helmut Griem as Maximillian and Fritz Wepper as Fritz each display their own kind of German cockiness, each finding different ways to deal with their own hidden side. And the unrelenting stage presence of Joel Grey, smiling and smarmy through every song, doesn’t stop, lifting each number to an energy level the stage can barely contain. Somewhere along the way it takes the turn from show biz ham to something else altogether and we don’t even realize this until it’s too late.
CABARET is also known as the film with the most Academy Awards—8 in total, including Fosse, Minnelli, Grey, cinematography, editing and the song score—that didn’t also win Best Picture, which of course went to THE GODFATHER that year. Regardless, CABARET is a remarkable film, through each musical number, through each time Brian tries to understand Sally once and for all but fails, all the way through to that final image. It stares right back as you try to face the future and accept what might never be, even as you can’t move on, even as you still feel that pain. You know what looking back means but even the present hurts. And you’re afraid that tomorrow is going to hurt even more. After all, nothing makes sense when you look forward since all you can do is foolishly hope and try to ignore what you’ve already done. Even when things are at their worst and there’s no going back, you still have to think maybe this time. Maybe.
Monday, December 31, 2018
Endings do happen but not only do we not always get to decide them we usually don’t even get a say in whether anything really ends. We spend so much time in life searching for a certain connection that sometimes when we’re right in the middle of the thing really happening we just lose sight of it. But we still dream. We are who we are which means we have to face up to what we’ve done and where we failed. And we still hope that it might all turn out ok with us in the end. Even if we have no say in what happens at the end of a year.
But going back much further, it still strikes me as a little odd that my mother took me to a Robert Altman film when I wasn’t even ten years old but the film in question was POPEYE so I guess that’s all right (I don’t think she liked it, but never mind about that). POPEYE opened at Christmastime 1980 and is famously lumped in with directorial follies of that HEAVEN’S GATE era even though it did pretty well, even though it did considerably better than FLASH GORDON which opened the week before. It’s still an odd duck, for the world and for me, and in my own head it’s become the rare film which combines the feeling that comes from those Altmans I’ve discovered as an adult with the unavoidable nostalgia factor of certain films seen when I was growing up. This one is better than a few I can think of, at the very least. And since POPEYE was the first Altman film I ever saw, obviously it was, somehow deep down it feels like that affected the way I approached other films by him when I saw them years later so in some ways it was the best possible intro to his work; along with the Trojan horse of a star from one of my favorite shows at the time it was filled with that sprawling visual style, an idiosyncratic tone and feel unlike what any other director would have done with the basic idea of a Popeye movie along with a very Altmanesque supporting cast of people cramming the frame which of course included the astounding Shelley Duvall the same year as THE SHINING which, needless to say, I hadn’t seen at that point. I’ll never say that POPEYE is one of my very favorite films by Robert Altman, let alone one of my favorite films in general, and there are times watching it that I sort of need to take a break almost from pure exhaustion. It’s a lot, after all. But thanks to the performances and songs, not to mention the the pure artistry involved, I still have a fondness for the sheer defiance it displays in presenting this totally off-kilter world where just maybe the unexpected connections you dream of may still happen even if in the most shambling way imaginable.
Arriving in the seaside town of Sweethaven, a sailor man named Popeye (Robin Williams) rents a room at the Oyl household, intent on continuing the search for his long lost pappy. But his arrival coincides with the engagement of family daughter Olive Oyl (Shelley Duvall) to Bluto (Paul Smith) but when she tries to run off from the oncoming wedding she and Popeye discover little baby Swee’Pea (Wesley Ivan Hurt), an adorable tyke who has been abandoned but instantly brings them together. The three become a makeshift family, much to the rage of Bluto, who immediately takes away the protection he was providing the Oyls with from the local tax man but when boarder Wimpy (Paul Dooley) discovers the special power Swee’Pea has it catches Bluto’s attention which leads to them bringing the child to the mysterious Commodore who runs Sweethaven and no one has ever seen.
Sometimes I’m not sure what to think of POPEYE. Who knows what anyone thinks of it these days even as I want it to become one of those Robert Altman films that becomes something else each time out letting me see it through an entirely different prism the way his best films do but maybe POPEYE can really only be one thing. Even though it’s a would-be blockbuster so expensive that it came from a pair of major studios it’s a cartoon-turned-giant-musical-comedy unlike any ever made while also very much a Robert Altman film (it’s also not QUINTET, but the quality of that one is a debate for another time) which partly means that it doesn’t seem to care how big it all is, willing to focus on the smallest thing in the frame while madness of all kinds goes on around it. The film did fine when released, it just wasn’t a blockbuster and along with some less than stellar reviews--Leonard Maltin’s BOMB rating seems overly harsh--wound up having the stink of a flop so as things went it was Altman’s last film for anything resembling a major studio for some years afterward. Robin Williams himself used it as an easy punchline for a long time but that seemed to fade away by a certain point maybe as he realized how special the whole thing really was. Or maybe it was how Altman’s stature seemed to grow as the years went on, maybe it was Generation X or Paul Thomas Anderson or whoever growing up and appreciating how flat out weirdly endearing it really is. Or maybe they just couldn’t get any of those songs out of their head, which is perfectly understandable. I know I still can’t.
With a screenplay by Jules Feiffer based on the E.C. Segar character and songs by Harry Nilsson, POPEYE is very much a kids movie for adults, designed for me then but still appealing now, maybe hurt by an undeniably lumbering quality it has that does become a little tiring and it might even qualify as a film that I sort of love but never particularly want to sit all the way through at one time. But then there are those moments where the emotions behind the music take hold and the way Altman lets certain moments just happen almost out of nowhere between the characters it becomes clear how much the film is really about the affection it has for almost everyone onscreen in this bizarre world, its understanding of how much they yearn for something better in this place. Saying there isn’t any other film like it might not be enough for some people. But it’s true.
The brief cartoon at the start that also cleverly supplies the Paramount logo draws that line in the sand while making sure we never forget where all this originally came from. There was no way to make Robin Williams look completely like a cartoon and I vaguely remember trying to reconcile that in my head as a child. But the way it makes this cartoon world flesh is part of how defiant the film is in obliterating that line between the two and the town of Sweethaven is a miracle of production design by Wolf Kroeger, a giant outdoor set in Malta which is still there as a tourist attraction. When the dawn breaks and the town anthem heard for the first time it becomes magical in its depiction of this bizarre population made up of whatever this town is supposed to be. There’s no way to fully understand this reality so we just accept it, the characters living their lives and going about their routines almost in a cartoon loop that we fully witness as they take place. This is most keenly felt in the organized chaos that Altman allows, the expert choreography of Popeye’s first dinner at the Oyl house, unable to get a word in or find a place to sit or get something to eat as the family squabbles around him. The rhythms of how the film is staged and cut within scenes always gives it a unique tempo, everything going on with the way it’s seemingly framed by Altman helps to give life to every single movement so the feeling of the place is always tangible. They’re cartoon characters but there’s still a humanity in all their pratfalls and over-the-top reactions with an astonishing level of detail in every shot, felt in moments like Bluto lumbering threateningly through the party as he counts off those flower petals, everyone terrified of him, as if Altman decided the way to express this cartoon feel wasn’t through visual effects but instead to use the purity of the filmmaking to bend the laws of physics as far as possible and this turns it all into a fully fleshed world.
The cinematography by the great Giseuppe Rotuno helps us feel the essence of the town and the wood the houses were built with and the sea beyond, a look typical for Altman in how it retains the telephoto quality of keeping everything in wide shots with very few close-ups. But it also feels more deliberate than the sprawl of some of his other films as if a decision was made to let us seek out and be able to find specific pieces of clutter in the frames which goes perfectly with the idea of a comic strip, unlike the mistiness of McCABE & MRS. MILLER that makes that film seem so much like a dream. Altman always, however feasibly possible, keeps characters alive in the corners of the Technovision frame acting like the animated figures they are, and those details are always essential in this ramshackle film with those buildings that each look like they might collapse at any minute and moments of inspiration that go by so fast we can barely believe we’ve seen it which includes painting the set and all the clothing red for a shot lasting a mere few seconds at one point. Even as it turns me into a kid for a few minutes I start thinking about other Altman films to compare it with, placing Popeye and Olive’s relationship up against some of his other not-quite romances. So it’s not quite a kid movie rewrite of McCABE & MRS. MILLER—I kind of wish it really was—but that film is still what comes to mind in the yearning found in the simmering hostility which turns into a sort of love that can’t be put into words. In this film they’re just able to find the way. I’d love to see a double feature of POPEYE and McCABE, the two romances set in distaff communities found in an almost impossible location, although I’d imagine a few parents bringing their kids might not be so happy.
There’s not much of a plot and who cares, avoiding the easy solution of Popeye eating spinach for every fight by making this essentially a prequel that presents his love for that particular vegetable as an inevitability which hasn’t happened yet, so the story ultimately hangs on how Popeye, Olive and Swee’Pea become a family. It’s not something that happens in one single moment, so Popeye and Olive go from bickering to loving each other without even realizing their feelings, it’s just the way it’s supposed to be, the way she ends their ‘phooey’ argument with a tiny, gentle little kiss. This goes perfectly with the songs—because, in case it’s been forgotten this is a fully fledged musical—that are almost like ditties that never quite turn into full melodies (the end credits suite offers a chance to really hear the lyrical quality that they might have) but reveal the hearts of the characters anyway particularly something like the lovely duet “Stay With Me” where the two of them sing gently to Swee’Pea practically whispered. But I still get a charge from Popeye shouting “I Yam What I Am” in that song and I love just watching Robin Williams charge through everyone during that number which is shot in the wide Altman style, not at all visually distinguished in how it’s filmed from a distance but I love it anyway.
The steady tempo of the “Everything is Food” number early on is one of the best examples of how each cut to another part of the restaurant adds to the scene, giving the film the same energy the town has, and the famous “He Needs Me” number sung by Duvall’s Olive Oyl is almost like pure cinema in its simplicity, holding almost entirely on her and the wistful joy at the connection being hoped for, her shadow sometimes filling out the space nearby and her gaze at Popeye as she moves around hiding from him is like a form of heaven. For a few minutes the film becomes the perfect symbiosis of director, star and music which provides the undeniable sweetness of POPEYE and how for once in an Altman world this kind of selfless connection can be made with no strings attached. Coming in at a little under two hours there are maybe a few too many songs particularly in the second half as if they couldn’t decide on which one to cut or maybe they’re just too close together which I suppose is what happens when you don’t have much of a plot, even if it doesn’t matter that you don’t have much of a plot.
Popeye is a loner at first, someone who I guess has been traveling from port to port in his tiny boat, not feeling like he belongs at first and even sleeps in his hammock above the bed while rooming at the Oyl house as if he can’t even bring himself to pretend to be part of a community. This is also certainly not the first Altman lead character to mumble to himself, whether John McCabe or Philip Marlowe and it seems like some kind of kismet that he made this film because of that, making him the perfect director not just for the world but for the character alone. And for all of its scale the film is at its best when simplest, when it’s just Popeye and Olive bickering over taking care of Swee’Pea and a little too often all that other noise gets in the way. As much as it willingly ignores the laws of physics that effort is sometimes a little too evident and as crazy as the gags are, you sometimes feel the effort all those artisans put into it.
The specific editing within certain scenes to give it the right surreal comic strip style is counterbalanced by just how long the damn thing seems to go on for and, yes, that includes the climax featuring slow moving boats heading for the big fight with Bluto we all know is coming, although any appearance by an Octopus is always welcome, and it all just kind of abruptly ends the way an actual Popeye cartoon would because how else should it end. It even feels a little like POPEYE goes against basic screenwriting formula since Popeye doesn’t even make the choice to finally try some spinach so some of that greatness is thrust upon him but he achieves it anyway and, besides, Bluto had it coming. Ultimately, it finds the happy ending for all those couples in Robert Altman films who weren’t allowed to get one and that’s really all that matters. POPEYE isn’t perfect. It isn’t THE LONG GOODBYE or NASHVILLE or McCABE & MRS. MILLER. As far as sheer weirdness goes, it may not even be BREWSTER McCLOUD. With POPEYE you feel the effort a little too much and there are sequences like the boxing match where I’m focusing on how much effort went into building this set and shooting it than actually paying attention to the movie. But each time I’m still a little amazed at it all, marveling at how they could have possibly pulled this off. Besides, if POPEYE was perfect and not this ramshackle oddity unlike anything else then it wouldn’t do us much good at all, no matter what our age is.
Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall are spectacular, each of them embracing the need to inhabit these characters making their surface quirks an integral part of everything they do and say. Robin Williams in his first film is jittery rawness in projecting each side of his character, the sweetness that comes out when he and Olive connect but also the angry side always ready for another fight, especially if someone is coming after Swee’Pea. Shelley Duvall is just about otherworldly in how she brings life to the very essence of Olive Oyl, never winking, treating every absurd situation as if it’s the most understandable thing in the world. I love everything she does here but everyone in the large cast is tireless in the energy they bring to making this world come alive, even the ones who barely get a line of dialogue. This includes Paul Dooley with the perfection to his walk and mannerisms who couldn’t be a more perfect Wimpy, Roberta Maxwell’s unending exclamations of surprise as Nana Oyl, Donovan Scott as Castor Oyl, David Arkin in his final film once again playing someone a step behind everyone else as he always did for Altman, Dennis Franz is one of the toughs and Wesley Ivan Hurt (Robert Altman’s grandson) as Swee’Pea is one of the most adorable babies ever seen in a film. Ray Walston’s late appearance Poopdeck Pappy is a reminder of how much more of an old-school musical guy he is when placed up against the rest of the cast and he seems to get Robin Williams to almost change the register on how he approaches things for a few minutes plus it’s almost perverse how he gets maybe the oddest song to perform since it’s barely a song at all and the great Donald Moffat (RIP) is memorable as the tax man, who would probably charge me a nickel not-mentioning-him-until-the-end-of the-paragraph tax.
Maybe the happiness the film makes me feel almost makes me sadder, maybe because I’m not back watching it again on a cold day in Yonkers Movieland screen #3, even if my mother wouldn’t want to see it again, maybe because of what hasn’t come true. Thinking of the past can do that. Many years after that first viewing I was at an Altman tribute where I found myself sitting in front of Vilmos Zsigmond and Paul Dooley who for all I know had never met but were exchanging Altman stories, the man who was once Wimpy saying, “We were over there six months, we had Fellini’s crew,” as he recalled the past he once experienced on this film. Even now I think of that when I see all those Italian names in the end credits. You always want to find that connection to your past in search of a future but maybe the severing is inevitable. Everything ends. You just don’t get to decide when that happens. So here I am looking to the future, wondering what kind of future there is. I just know, like it or not, I am what I am. I also want to claim that it’s ok with me, to reference what really is my favorite Altman film, but the truth right now is I’m not so sure. Maybe I’m somewhere in the middle. Right now it’s probably the best I can hope for.
Saturday, December 29, 2018
There I go again, trapped on the floor in a fetal position. That’s basically where I’ve been for the past year. It happens. So that’s where I am, wondering where this is all going. But I’m trying, I really am. We try to fight our way through these feelings, to somehow understand them and hopefully come out the other side in one piece. I’m getting doubtful of that happening by this point. There’s been too much pain, too many mistakes, too much regret. Too many things not said. I blame myself, partly. Not entirely, but of course we all need a little help to make the mistakes we have to live with.
Whatever else you want to say about the films he made, Burt Reynolds will always mean something to us. We’ll always dream of speeding off with him, whether he’s the Bandit or J.J. McClure, hearing that laugh of his as we evade another Smokey. But there’s that other Burt with the vulnerability we know is there, not too far down under the skin. The injured Lewis of DELIVERANCE who spends much of the second half of that film out of commission with his bravado no good against the elements, trying to begin his life anew after a divorce in STARTING OVER, even the look of anger on his face when that guy tells him off in BOOGIE NIGHTS and he can’t hold it in anymore. The 1983 Blake Edwards remake of THE MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN that Reynolds starred in came near the very end of his superstar run of several films a year, seemingly going back and forth between action, whether comical or hard-boiled, and attempts at something more sensitive. Two halves of the coin, almost as if one of them was the way he wanted to be seen, one was the way he really felt. Speaking as a Blake Edwards adherent, this is one of those movies I pull out again every few years hoping it will click into place but by this point I’ve accepted it as an odd anomaly as well as a film that comes off as strangely personal. It’s a difficult film to pin down, almost defiant in how it avoids making an actual statement about the truth of its main character but if anything, it has soul in how willing it is to acknowledge the pain that can sometimes come from just from walking down the street.
The funeral of sculptor David Fowler is attended by a wide array of women. One of them is his analyst Marianna (Julie Andrews) who tells us the story of David (Burt Reynolds) and his continual quest for women including an escapade down to Houston where he gets involved with the wife (Kim Basinger) of one of his benefactors, the former prostitute (Jennifer Edwards) who becomes his assistant and a woman (Marilu Henner) he tracks down as part of his never ending pursuit of what he believes are the perfect pair of legs. As David’s therapy sessions with Marianna continue, circumstances cause their relationship to shift and she finds herself willingly becoming another one of those women loved by him.
THE MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN is an odd film, a remake of someone else’s and yet an obvious continuation of themes explored by the director a few years earlier in “10”. The 1977 Francois Truffaut original of the same name is oddly not credited here although the way it’s billed as “A Blake Edwards Film” as opposed to the usual credit above the title (such as “Blake Edwards’ CURSE OF THE PINK PANTHER”) that so many of his films during this period featured is an indication of the lineage. It’s recognizable as a piece of work by Blake Edwards regardless, but one that feels like it has deliberately stripped away the energy they usually contain, possibly in an attempt to be faithful to the spirit of the original but also with an eye towards exploring these themes with more seriousness than he had done before. But it feels like something is missing, whether the sort of comic setpieces he’s a master in pulling off or the specific narrative goal towards something like seducing Bo Derek, almost as if it wants to deny us what a film directed by Blake Edwards should be in the first place. Always moving at a slow, gradual pace through the episodic storyline there’s no real momentum to the narrative and it’s the sort of film where you always feel like you’re a half-hour in, no particular rush to get to any sort of plot. You’d expect it to play as comedy, which is certainly how it was sold, and some of it does but that’s not really what the goals of the film are and it doesn’t even seem interested in exploring these possibilities anyway. At one point David picks up a prostitute (played by Jennifer Edwards, daughter of the director who appeared in several of his films) and takes her home but after some conversation instead of having sex with her she becomes his assistant only to be tracked down by her pimp later on in a supermarket where she knocks him out with a frozen leg of lamb. This last part sounds like a typical Blake Edwards setpiece but in this film we only hear about it afterwards—if it turned out something was shot and cut, I could believe it—and the film is clearly more interested in the drama of their initial encounter where he acts paternal towards her as they discuss one of his sculptures and she reacts as if no one ever asked her about such a thing before.
That subdued conversational mode continues throughout and it’s just about the quietest film I can think of, always focused on the tortured ponderings as David Fowler moves from one woman to another with occasional panic attacks, in some cases doing whatever he can to meet them. Maybe it isn’t accurate to say all of the dialogue in the film is spoken in a slow hushed whisper but that’s sure what it feels like, all set in a L.A. west side that is so hermetically sealed it’s like the air’s not getting in with a Blake Edwards vibe of wealth, white wine and valium, where people idly jet off to Switzerland for a few weeks, everyone is relaxed and no one is happy in spite of it all. Even the main theme by Henry Mancini feels more ominous than his usual light confections, as if more appropriate for a mid-70s thriller where somebody drives through the snow up to a haunted New England mansion over the credits, the feeling of dread for what’s coming always left hanging in the air. It wants to laugh at times but can’t get over the sadness of the inevitable. Shot by the great Haskell Wexler, it’s one of the few Blake Edwards films not in widescreen which alone gives it a different feel, a soft naturalism but also a much more visually straightforward look which would feel like it was draining the life out of scenes if everything wasn’t already so quiet. It’s almost as if the lack of that framing removes a tool from Edwards’ creative arsenal giving this film a lack of dynamism as the scenes softly move forward, connecting but just barely and the film almost evaporates while it plays.
Compared with the original where the lead played by Charles Denner worked a relatively normal profession in Montpellier, Burt Reynolds as David Fowler lives in the Blake Edwards version of the world so he’s a wealthy sculptor in Malibu or thereabouts. In the Truffaut film the main character attempts to write his memoirs in an attempt to make sense of his life but here that sculptor goes into analysis, the result of his insecurity and panic attacks. Therapy is a continuing theme in Edwards’ films even when the subject is Commissioner Dreyfus being driven insane by Clouseau in the PINK PANTHER series and THE MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN takes the concept further in that Edwards actually wrote the screenplay with his own analyst Milton Wexler along with son Geoffrey Edwards. It’s all done in very straight-faced fashion, taking this level of depression and insecurity seriously while always searching for the next available woman and the therapy becomes the driving force of the plot even while still somewhat episodic, occasionally drifting off into digressions like an actual therapy session would, then returning back to the home base of Julie Andrews’ couch. At one point the film pauses for him to go grocery shopping, one of the most relatable moments in there and I wish the movie had lingered a little longer in such touches but instead it moves on to the next conquest or just discussions about them. The dryness extends to the doctor played by Julie Andrews doctor consulting with her own analyst about him, which makes me think of Lorraine Bracco going to see Peter Bogdanovich in THE SOPRANOS only without any satirical archness, all purely analytical as they discuss his situation with great earnestness. Flashbacks to his childhood (including the de rigueur scene of losing his virginity to a prostitute which is all sepia tone and soft focus) are largely taken from the original film and the film doesn’t use that much from the original, but still enough to make for an interesting point of comparison.
Just as the film seems to be settling into its own groove the pace picks up on a trip to the opening of a commission in Houston where Kim Basinger turns up as Louise, the frustrated wife of a local benefactor, a sequence of events that actually has an equivalent in the original but it’s the section that feels most comfortably like a Blake Edwards film, the energy rising each time she turns up to always insist on having sex in the most daring place possible and this is where things come to life while also seeming dangerous enough that the film can’t entirely go along with the joke, knowing that this is one of many ways that the main character is playing with fire. Some of it still plays a little dry but Basinger provides a comic energy that almost seems out of another movie altogether and it’s also at times a reminder that Edwards, particularly when it comes to farcical bed hopping, always knows how to get the point of a scene across in one shot if necessary. Along with hiding in closets and getting his hand glued to his mouth, along with a dog glued to his other hand, the peak maybe comes when Reynolds has an encounter with a parking attendant played by Ben Powers munching on a snickers that builds to both men talking with their mouths full, making perfect sense to each other. The moment goes by fast but suddenly it feels like the film has come alive from the comic possibilities that Edwards has worked out with both actors, getting the timing just right and for a moment it actually gets me to laugh out loud. Even though Basinger turns up again later on (for a threesome, no less) this section is so isolated from the rest of the film that it could almost be part of something else altogether, as if for the director the parts involving the therapy were a film he felt he needed to make but this was the one he actually enjoyed making. Maybe that’s the difference between a Blake Edwards film and a film that belongs to Blake Edwards.
The original film acknowledges the pain that gathers from living this kind of life filled with connections that are only temporary and the main character even keeps a drawer full of letters from ex-lovers wanting to know what happened. But this one just has melancholy with a lead who is unable to give up the idea of more women while at the same time hating leaving the women he’s with but we never hear much about what they think of all this with a few brief appearances by Cynthia Sikes as someone who he’s ‘kind of, semi-living with’ and the character is presented as an equal to him in some ways but she moves through the film so fast the relationship barely seems clarified for him or her or us, the concept of commitment blithely accepted as impossible. Part of the point is that Reynolds loves these women and the way he sees them is as much his vision of the world as the sculptures he creates and even at his worst the film is never particularly critical of his behavior at all. His unrequited pursuit of them, bordering on stalking in some cases, means the film has more problems than it did even then 35 years ago but of course in every way this is a director and star coming at it all from a different generation and mindset although oddly in her opening narration when Julie Andrews discusses what he meant to all these women who loved him she then adds, “Well, yes, to me, too.” The film makes it clear that it’s about the poetry which comes from how he sees them and experiences them just as much as the sex but when her final narration talks about how they were all soft clay to be molded by him I wonder if that might not be the goal of some women out there, even if the molding is done by Burt Reynolds.
All those poetic descriptions whether coming from him or Julie Andrews’ narration shows off Edwards’ inherently literate nature to his word usage and it all feels personal, particularly when David is curled up on the couch, terrified to even move, as if this office is a womb that he doesn’t want to depart. He’s too desperate to uncover further memories of his mother who he still has more of an attachment to than any long gone girlfriend, immediately associating the memory of seeing her in the bath one day right after seeing up his analyst’s dress, an event which turns out to be the catalyst for his rejuvenation, their affair and, most importantly, being able to work again. This all seems to be holding back from a true revelation, maybe because it puts Edwards out of his comfort zone and the result is somewhat stifling as if he’s trying to analyze material that doesn’t have enough weight to warrant it. In some ways it feels like the movie never fully comes together because he’s holding back his instincts in favor of this strict therapeutic approach that he’s decided on, even as the relationship goes from doctor-patient to lovers. Edwards’ later SKIN DEEP released in 1989, which itself began life in script form as a direct “10” sequel, feels like a more broadly comical remake of this remake, also about a bearded creative type going through severe psychological problems and though it’s as episodic is also much more broadly comical as well as intentionally redemptive in its storyline, hitting on answers this film avoids and it that sense this allows the plot to actually build to something. All this makes me think about my own stabs at therapy and maybe it got me to stop drinking (although that’s another Blake Edwards film entirely) but I’m also aware of the limitations of where the process went, of what I didn’t talk about, what I didn’t admit to myself even while trying to. These were my fears of trying to confront what I wanted and where I screwed up, mistakes that I’m still brooding over now. This film acknowledges the screw ups and the limitations but narratively speaking feels like a dead end.
In some ways the film wants to take itself to the logical extreme of what Dudley Moore was pursuing in “10”, literally falling down a mountainside, before he came to his senses. THE MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN, a downer released by Columbia Pictures during Christmastime 1983, would be darker if it wasn’t so self-servingly morose, the lead character floating through the world in his private, wealthy bubble, unable to see past the periphery. Gallows humor is totally at home in a Blake Edwards film but this one puts too much emphasis on just the gallows. The broad comic stunt as Reynolds attempts to cross a street early on becomes something very different near the end, as if the message of the film is simply that life is funny, just as love is funny, in how far you may be willing to go to find that ideal...until it’s not. You have to pick a side of the street or, ultimately, it’ll be too late. And the film embraces the character a little too much as this truth becomes evident, unable to ever treat him otherwise. As quiet as it is, as out of touch as it feels (for 1983, never mind now), there’s still something genuine in those yearnings here, the film just isn’t able to arrive at any sort of answer. The film shows Blake Edwards trying to sort something out, even if he can only partly put it into words what it means to pass that next woman on the street. Maybe it’s just the mystery of being alive.
The more sensitive side of Burt Reynolds’ star persona will maybe always be underrated—possibly Alan J. Pakula’s STARTING OVER (a huge hit in its day, now sadly forgotten; see it if you haven’t) is the best example of it but however much THE MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN succeeds in what it’s going for is largely due to him as for is largely due to the pure ease he projects and I’m not sure who else at the time could have played this role in a way that was so truly, genuinely, emotionally naked. There’s something to his performance here (this came between STROKER ACE and CANNONBALL RUN II, his last films for Hal Needham), the way he reveals himself through his pure physicality that displays an enormous amount of freedom in how he desperately wants to curl up on that therapist couch and never leave, the way he relaxes when easing into scenes with one of his female co-stars during their first encounters. Plus how relaxed he is playing dialogue with Julie Andrews who maybe is playing a little of herself in the way she was with Blake and how much gravity she brings to the material from her innate sensibility. Even when the material isn’t entirely engaging, Reynolds’ connection with his co-stars is felt particularly with Marilu Henner (who mentions that she has a great memory which the actress somewhat famously does, adding to the intimacy of the whole thing) as well as Kim Basinger, who reteamed with Edwards a few years later for BLIND DATE, and here more than just about anyone is always doing something unexpected to add to the danger of what she’s getting him to do.
So there I am. At the end of a year when I saw Burt Reynolds speak after a screening of his latest film THE LAST MOVIE STAR then a few months later we all said good bye to him, before he got to film his role in the new Tarantino film that might have given him one last shot of glory. Once upon a time in Hollywood he really was the greatest movie star, after all. The framing device of The MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN sometimes returns to a shot of David Fowler considering a slab of granite and what to make of it, unsure how to proceed. The original film comes to a conclusion made by the main character’s editor as his book is being published that his search for happiness among all those women was misguided considering how much can be found in one person but in making his own film Edwards seems to disregard any such quest for a Rosebud and for him the real unanswered mystery comes from the quest of who those legs really belong to, who they ever belong to. And just like them we never get any answers beyond the complex and unreadable beauty of the sculpture that the film closes on, the one he was presumably pondering all that time, forever inspired by all those women. Of course, things never make sense. And when it ends it hurts, all the way down to the bottom. So I’m still on the floor, trying to remember that there are no answers. There’s no redemption. There’s not even an end. A year goes away and there’s nothing that can be done about what didn’t happen. There’s just you.