Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Questions We Can't Ask

Change is inevitable, like it or not. Even now. Especially now. If we’ve learned one thing over the past year it’s that eventually everything goes away. People and place disappear, and there’s no going back to the way it was. So when it comes to the future, figuring out what to hold onto is never easy. And when it comes to the past, understanding how much certain things actually mattered can make little sense. If only I could have figured it all out sooner.
The 1979 romantic comedy STARTING OVER is a reminder of this, a look at middle-aged angst and the struggle to hold onto some kind of hope, to not give into the way you think it has to be. A well-received box office hit at the time with a couple of Oscar nominations, for the most part it’s an enjoyable film with fairly sharp dialogue and well-drawn characterizations even if it does feel a little soft for this day and age. Looking at the film again recently it’s become the sort of ‘70s comfort food which has been nice to have around for late night viewings, maybe as some sort of primal return at this point in time to what I once thought adult life was supposed to be and maybe deep down still wish really was. Even watching the film now there are bits and pieces around the edges of the frame, department stores and the like, that provide a late ‘70s nostalgia rush of what the world looked like through my eyes back then that would be nice to live in for a few minutes. These days we wish for a lot of things.
When Phil Potter (Burt Reynolds) splits with wife Jessica (Candice Bergen) after she has an affair he leaves New York and heads up to Boston, taking an apartment near welcoming brother Mickey (Charles Durning) and wife Marva (Frances Sternhagen). Setting up his new life which includes attending a church support group for divorced men, Phil finds himself at Mickey’s for dinner one night which turns out to be a setup with schoolteacher Marilyn Holmberg (Jill Clayburgh). After their extremely awkward introduction Phil displays his interest but wary of how recently he’s been separated Marilyn turns him down when he asks her out. He finally talks her into it and their relationship begins but just as it gets going Jessica, now achieving success as a songwriter, reenters the picture leaving Phil to decide which way he really wants his life to go.
STARTING OVER was directed by Alan J. Pakula, more than several steps removed from his paranoia-infused trilogy of KLUTE, THE PARALLAX VIEW and ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN earlier in the decade, but it’s likely more notable now as the first feature screenplay by James L. Brooks, coming after a long stretch in television that most famously included being one of the creators of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. Looking back at the film over 40 years after it was released there are echoes here of the sitcom dating world that Brooks had already explored but it’s clearly intended to move things into a more grownup, therapeutic vein, ready to take advantage of the R rating even if the closest it comes to earning it is a couple of f-bombs. But when it does use them it’s memorable, especially during the unexpected meet cute between the two leads that plays a little as something that Brooks had dreamed of writing for Mary Richards all those years so with that along with a more relaxed pacing away from the sitcom world the film is able to take its time through the language used by the characters as they try to figure each other out. It’s done in a style that now feels like an early version of some of the films Brooks would later make whether TERMS OF ENDEARMENT or BROADCAST NEWS all the way up to his final film (to date) HOW DO YOU KNOW, with the neuroses of the characters always apparent but not as intentionally quirky as they would later become.
As for Pakula’s directing style, he’s clearly working in a more relaxed key than what he’s famous for with a sense of control to the filmmaking that feels like he’s dipping his toe into an unfamiliar style while trying not to upset things too much. The year before this film he directed the western drama COMES A HORSEMAN (one of many first time viewings from this past year during quarantine) which has a certain Sydney Pollack quality to its romantic sweep but STARTING OVER is closer to the the ‘70s Neil Simon-Woody Allen vein while taking a quieter, more mannered approach to the material, taking its time with the one liners about the singles world and viewing that battle of the sexes through the insecurity everyone is fighting. Based on the novel by Dan Wakefield, the film is grounded and feels like part of the real world, or at least a relatively plausible late 70s romantic comedy real world, one where Phil Potter writes articles that appear in airline magazines for a living, which sounds like a movie job if there ever was one, and even if his ex-wife is in the process of becoming a successful singer-songwriter it still manages to feel somewhat relatable.
This is also a mustache-free Burt Reynolds, clearly part of an attempt to branch out from car chases even toning down his laugh so the result is likely the most subdued performance the actor ever gave during his superstardom period or at least the most successful example of displaying a more sensitive side to that star persona. It’s not the only time he went clean shaven for a movie but here it feels like watching a man who has had his armor removed so it causes his entire body to droop, not quite knowing how to move himself anymore and he uses that for the character, uncertain how to sit down or at times even talk to another person. It’s felt in the way he seems to crumble in a few key moments when his charm doesn’t work, finding a love letter to his wife that includes the word ‘evermore’, and you can feel everything in him collapse. Those bastards probably always include the word ‘evermore’ in those letters. It’s a discomfort that is even felt in the divorced men’s church group he tries to connect with as they all talk around each other, fighting off the women’s group waiting for the next hour in the hall, the sense of fear of what’s out there coming from everyone always around.
That body language matches up well with Jill Clayburgh, two years after she and Reynolds starred together in SEMI-TOUGH (another first time viewing during quarantine) and coming one year after her performance in Paul Mazursky’s AN UNMARRIED WOMAN the actress is perfect for Reynolds here in the way she’s ready to challenge him, playing what is in some ways an extension of that character while fighting against the heartbreak she figures is inevitable. In one scene Phil shows up at her place to find Marilyn essentially in the middle of a date with herself and there’s the feeling of a life fully lived off camera where she has fought to become her own person, a single woman with her own valid viewpoint that has nothing to do with what the male lead is going through, even determined to stay home in her glasses and robe rather than go out there and have the same bad night one more time.
The fall-winter setting as photographed by Sven Nyquist takes the story through Thanksgiving and into the Christmas season giving the film an undeniable coziness, a feeling so prevalent that if this had been made during spring or summer it might have been a totally different movie. Shots only call themselves out on occasion, one moment circling around the despondent men in the support group the most impressively cinematic flourish of all, but the element that sticks out more than anything is the prevalent sense of quiet through the film, the way it holds on Phil’s nervousness or the half empty restaurants where the camerawork gradually becomes more intimate through the scene. This also includes the whisper Candice Bergen seems to speak in as the ex-wife whenever she shows up, the movie half-treating her newfound success as a joke, a bored, aimless woman who cheated on him and doesn’t want anything more than what she’s grabbed for herself. It’s as if the character got the idea to pursue music from a few viewings of ANNIE HALL but still wants to use him for her songs and, I suppose, the vaginal orgasm she proudly tells him about in one scene. But the film also knows how to use the intensity of Bergen’s very presence to let us believe how much Phil is drawn to her so she becomes more than just a running gag even as it builds to her big scene, likely the reason for her Oscar nomination, where she overdramatically belts out her latest song to her ex-husband’s astonishment. It’s one of the best moments of the film thanks to the fearlessness of that performance, not holding back and doing it all for him while still taking no notice of him in that moment at all, with the stunned look on Reynolds’ face making it just about the biggest, most rewarding laugh in the entire film.
One scene at a nursery school shows Clayburgh’s Marilyn working there, showing her kids the best way to let out some anger and this is also a film about people who sometimes need to be reminded that they aren’t kids anymore while still trying to understand the best way to reveal their feelings. The look at the dating world is very much a product of that decade with the always welcome Mary Kay Place turning up ready to pounce on Reynolds as soon as she meets him for their blind date but unlike AN UNMARRIED WOMAN, which Roger Ebert seems to spend much of his review comparing this to, it doesn’t seem interested in making some all-purpose grand statement about the period or the singles world, let alone feminism, as much as just the individual insecurities of the various characters. Even with a valium joke that feels as late 70s as it gets and probably got the biggest laugh at the time, the focus is more on the inner workings of the characters, the things they are drawn to and what causes those neuroses. It’s not all that far removed from the world of Brooks’ TV work but it is an expansion of those themes with the extreme mellowness of the Marvin Hamlisch score that I can never quite get out of my head feeling like it’s from a lost MTM sitcom because of course it does and Marilyn hooking up late in the film with a basketball player also feels like something Mary Richards or Rhoda Morgenstern would have spent an entire episode on.
But it really does feels like the first step in the direction that the films later directed by Brooks would take, the specific nature of all the quirks becoming more pronounced and comical later on. Maybe the biggest difference in the Pakula directing style is that this filmmaker seems inclined to underplay things at key moments and brings to it a sense of low key class that permeates the overall feeling, some of the most cutting dialogue in the film spoken no louder than a whisper. Other directors might have gone for a broader Neil Simon style but here the sense of quiet becomes so prevalent with the feelings playing as that much more intense; oddly, while watching Pakula’s THE PELICAN BRIEF recently for the first time in ages this very same type of whisper coming from the performances in a few scenes stood out to me but here it feels more surprising in looking for a way to find what the characters are holding back, what they’re afraid of and the dumb mistakes they’re always trying to keep from making yet again.
Maybe that’s why some of the moments that always stick with me aren’t jokes so much as simple bits of behavior whether Clayburgh during some of the moments when she thinks no one is looking, the completely genuine warmth of Charles Durning, Reynolds sitting awkwardly at the start of his date with Mary Kay Place (“The place we’re going specializes in duck,” he tells her in a moment I always enjoy) or Bergen’s aside about a song while she’s in the middle of singing it. Since the characters are more than just types there’s an unpredictability to them that keeps the movie alive and it goes by in the blink of an eye even if the way it keeps the plot spinning longer than it needs to, whether plausible or not, becomes a little frustrating. If it has to be compared to AN UNMARRIED WOMAN, then I think of the clarity of the deadness in Jill Clayburgh’s face as Michael Murphy makes his confession to her, but STARTING OVER is more about talking its way through all that uncertainty so it’s not as angry, instead trying to look for that connection while afraid to find out if it’s actually going to be there.
Things never stay the same, even if they should which is something we know now more than ever. In many ways STARTING OVER is a nice film about realizing that, moving away from the cynicism which might have been more apparent if the film had been made earlier in the decade to actually finding an answer to the question of why they need to change in the first place. Both sides are afraid. And, as the movie seems to think, it will never work if they’re not afraid. The trick is to face that fear and take the risk to be happy, not miserable, to refuse to let yourself stay at home forever, having dinner with yourself. By the time Brooks got to BROADCAST NEWS some years later, this formula be perfected, but the way it plays here still in development is rewarding in itself. It says something about the time it was made that the last line of the film isn’t so much a joke as a warm payoff to a crucial plot thread. It almost feels like that final moment, and maybe the rest of the film, needed something a little punchier to drive the point of it all home. But it’s still nice. That’s ok, too.
If the film is in some ways a star vehicle for Burt Reynolds then it’s also about showing just how vulnerable he can be onscreen. He embraces that, fully invested in every moment while taking his insecurities and trying to find the likability in all that. The chemistry he shares with Jill Clayburgh is perfect for this, allowing him to carry each scene but also giving her the chance to take what he’s doing and make it even better, as if challenging the script just as much as her character is challenging him. Her moments are the most genuine in the film with a naturalism to those quirks and it makes everything between them matter that much more so we want it all to work out with them, even as we don’t know why he doesn’t automatically see that. The intensity of Candice Bergen’s ice queen mode mixed with her own awkwardness around Reynolds adds to what is happening between the two of them and gives her performance a gravity; even if she’s funny in a scene it’s never just a joke. It’s a terrific supporting cast with the always smiling face of Charles Durning, the way Frances Sternhagen spits out “Why? Because she doesn’t have large breasts?” when Phil hesitates on asking Marilyn out along with the intimidating energy that Mary Kay Place brings to her few scenes. Austin Pendleton, who appeared with Durning the very same year in THE MUPPET MOVIE, is the most memorable part of the support group playing someone who has married the same woman four times but Wallace Shawn and Jay O. Sanders are in there as well and Daniel Stern, the same year as BREAKING AWAY, appears briefly playing one of Phil’s students.
On a personal level that feels extremely random, there are my own distant memories of when STARTING OVER was playing in theaters way back before I ever saw it even if they barely matter. I wasn’t old enough to see it at the time but I was also aware that I wasn’t old enough to see it yet something about the advertisements caused it to represent to my young mind what movies aimed at adults were supposed to be. The advertising campaign, including commercials that showed Burt Reynolds snapping Polaroids of a woman in the shower (probably the broadest moment in the whole movie), likely made an impression. This is what life is going to be like when you grow up, I must have thought. This is the way things are going to be. As you’d expect, this did not turn out to be the case. But since it’s a film partly about learning how to stop holding onto the past, thinking back to the past seems to matter somehow. And now I’m forced to face it as a film I’m watching now in the world of adults that really exists. And all the pain that comes with it. So much has changed in the past year and it’s not that I even wanted certain things to be the same but this was still a surprise. I’m not so sure what some of it is anymore, what it is about escaping to New England. Those answers never feel very clear. In addition to Oscar nominations for Clayburgh and Bergen (sorry, Burt), the box office for STARTING OVER ranks among other 1979 hits such as MANHATTAN and THE IN-LAWS but now feels so forgotten that Pakula’s Wikipedia page doesn’t mention it outside of the filmography. It apparently even opened the same day as Blake Edwards’ “10”, that other film about white middle-aged dating angst which apparently was all anyone thought about back in the late ‘70s. This was a long time ago.
Burt Reynolds followed up the success of this film with the likes of SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT II and THE CANNONBALL RUN, then a few years later famously turned down the chance to reunite with Brooks, making his directorial debut, when he was offered the role of Garrett Breedlove in TERMS OF ENDEARMENT to work with Hal Needham yet again on STROKER ACE, likely the worst career choice he ever made. Hell, it’s probably one of the worst career choices anyone in Hollywood ever made. We still love Burt anyway. After all, everyone has that time in their lives when they turn down TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, if you know what I mean. And sometimes we just need to forget the past and accept that everything changes. And try to be thankful you knew some of those people, some of those women, at all. Which may be the only hope these days of ever actually starting over.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Out Of Respect

Memories fade. Just like films do. But of course there are films, just like certain memories, that still matter to us no matter how much time goes by. Sometimes they mean even more. They remind us of where we came from and why we want to be who we are in the first place. And they remind us of who we never became, making us think of what we did with our lives, if we really belonged somewhere and all the ways we screwed up while flying too close to the sun. And there’s no way to get back without feeling that pain. In those memories are the films that mean the most to us, giving us what we want from them, our dreams, our fantasies, the life we aspire to, the joy of being whatever we wanted to be, even if it was the very worst version of ourselves. The hope that we belong. At the start of his documentary A PERSONAL JOURNEY WITH MARTIN SCORSESE THROUGH AMERICAN MOVIES, the director quotes Frank Capra saying, “Film is a disease. When it infects your bloodstream it takes over as the number one hormone. It plays Iago to your psyche. As with heroin, the antidote to film is more film.” Capra was right, of course, because through that sickness of film we get better each time we see a new one, then the next film infects us even more, grabbing on to those dreams. But film is also food, at least it is for me, and the very best films nourish us, make us feel richer inside. These are the films that mean the most of all as we desperately try to remember.
Because as much as we might want to think that it doesn’t matter, facing the past is unavoidable. No matter how much we shouldn’t dwell on it we wind up going there, trying to understand what our past really was. One of my own personal flashbacks that feels like a dream now is the day back in May of ’89 when I saw Martin Scorsese shooting a few scenes from his new film, witnessing greatness happening in front of me. If you’ve seen that film, and of course you have, you assume the scenes in question take place out on Long Island in the Five Towns but they were actually being shot over in plain old New Rochelle in Westchester County, not far from where I lived in Scarsdale. The film didn’t have an official name at this point but since it was based on the Nicholas Pileggi book “Wiseguy” and there was an unrelated TV show with the same name, not to mention the recent Brian De Palma comedy WISE GUYS, it would likely be called something else. One crew member said the name was going to be “Made Men” but of course that changed by the time the film called GOODFELLAS came out a year and a few months and a lifetime later. But that night no one in the crowd watching knew this was going to be GOODFELLAS. That night it was just another movie, an idea that seems impossible now.
GOODFELLAS is one of the most purely enjoyable, addictive films imaginable but even that doesn’t sound like high enough praise. Even saying that it’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen barely seems like enough but every single moment becomes its own drug, powerful enough to give me multiple rushes as I get sucked further and further into it over countless viewings. There’s a freedom to each moment which maybe means more right now than ever but that makes it even more powerful, an unrelenting energy that can’t be shaken. These are awful people, yes, but there’s a joy found in each shot, an excitement that keeps the camera moving to catch just the right snatch of conversation, the right glimpse of nasty behavior. The film never stops. I never want it to stop. If it ever stopped, it wouldn’t be GOODFELLAS. Based on the true story of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and the years spent in the mob alongside the likes of Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro), Tommy De Vito (Joe Pesci), the boss Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino) and wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco), showing us how Henry rises in the ranks moving to bigger scores, getting thrown in jail and back out again until it all comes crashing down because of how he couldn’t stop, couldn’t stop the drugs, the fucking around, couldn’t stop thinking that this would never end. With a screenplay by Pileggi & Scorsese mixed together through all the improvisation and embellishments with editor Thelma Schoonmaker making every single moment explode as it all connects, the film catches the feel of being in that life like no other with a power that keeps it going, never letting us catch our breath and it gets us to understand the appeal of how beautiful it can be to say go fuck yourself to everyone, that this is my life and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.
“It was when I met the world,” Henry Hill tells us in that neverending voiceover about his first encounter with Jimmy Conway and that’s what it was like seeing GOODFELLAS when it finally opened in September 1990, thirty years ago. Thirty years. Within its totally unapologetic look at this world is the feeling of total freedom coming from Scorsese in how it’s all filmed, an excitement as if this is one long musical number with lots of criminal activity and food mixed in. Right from the start just before a trunk is opened when Joe Pesci pulls out that enormous carving knife, courtesy of his mother as we later learn, the movement seemingly timed perfectly with the camera panning away unimpressed, not bothering to linger as if to say it’s just a knife, what do you care. Every movement in the film and cut and action down to the tiniest gestures by an actor counts just as much, everything feels absolutely real, every laugh is bigger than expected because of the absurdity of how real it is. Every shot is part of that whirlwind, the feeling of being at home in the Bamboo Lounge with everyone there greeting Henry, giving us a taste of that freedom we all want out of life. In that one shot Scorsese places us in Henry’s point of view moving through the place past everyone then before we realize what’s going on puts Ray Liotta there in the shot to haggle over those fur coats, a moment that places us both inside and outside of the action all at once, maybe one of the best examples of doing whatever he wants to make this film and it probably breaks some sort of rule but what the fuck are rules, anyway? It’s the freedom that it shows off in being able to observe yet bring us right in there, presenting every moment as a document not just of the mob world but the feeling of being inside of it with the people around you that you think are the ones you’re loyal to, but you can never be sure.
Henry Hill knows this because he’s watching, always watching. That’s what he’s doing the first time he’s seen as a boy, when the film cuts right from the director’s credit to the close-up of his young eyes doing that watching, a reminder of whose eyes all this is about just as much Henry Hill, wanting to be nowhere else but across the street hanging out with those wise guys who seem to control the world. He grows up and watches when the deals are made, when the beatings happen and during those few moments confronted with his own awfulness he doesn’t do anything. It’s just onto the next score, the next card game, the next night out at the Copa and when called out on this by Catherine Scorsese as Tommy’s mother for never saying anything, just listening to them, he doesn’t even know how to react. His life is his own movie, these guys seem to want to mythologize everything they do into the movies even while sometimes telling us that things don’t happen the way they do in the movies. You can spend your life watching and Henry Hill wants to do that, maybe he’s even ok with doing only that since not being fully Sicilian will always keep him a little bit on the outside, always watching a little but as long as he’s close it means he gets to be somebody, whatever that means, living this life without a care, his friend Tommy making that legendary “How am I funny?” challenge to him and it’s all one big test that he cackles through. All of this information seen through those eyes of course gives it a documentary feel but one that’s combined with the flourishes of the stylization that Scorsese brings to each moment so everything goes together but, hell, you could say that we all see the world stylized in our own way crossed with the reality that’s there. This is just as Henry Hill sees it but it’s also the director’s version of that, filming all this better than anyone else possibly could, paying attention to every little detail so it all matters. Every moment is all about what happens in it so the way he famously doesn’t bother with matching, no point in keeping track of the exact location of a cigar between cuts, instead caring about the emotional connection between every single shot, those small touches to connect them together and the frenzy throughout it all keeps those moments alive, always adding to the reminders of how much we feel at home at least until it all goes wrong.
Everyone around Henry is watching people too, everyone is watching everyone, keeping tabs on each other, the wheels turning in Jimmy’s head as Cream plays on the soundtrack, the undeniable rage of Tommy when the wrong thing gets said to him, Paulie’s accusatory looks when he insists that he’s not going to die in jail, Karen and her eyes like Liz Taylor that finally catch Henry’s attention, the way Illeana Douglas looks at her with a tinge of sympathy at the wives’ get-together. Even the shots of small children that pop up throughout peering into this world to get a look at what Henry is part of, witnessing the behavior in front of them that they can barely comprehend. So many Scorsese characters through the years are about watching people around them with those giant close-ups of the eyes of Travis Bickle through the steady buildup to the madness that TAXI DRIVER culminates in. Even the growing freneticism of AFTER HOURS as Griffin Dunne’s Paul Hackett becomes increasingly paranoid over what any random person is thinking as they hold their glare on him, the dark comedy of that film seemingly informing how GOODFELLAS pushes that feeling to make the danger seem all the more real, when after fucking with so many people Henry Hill is the one being fucked with, drugs and helicopters everywhere, and he doesn’t find it so funny anymore.
The way the film tells us everything is never about plot but it is about the sheer amount of information in the voiceover, all the names we’ll never keep track of, the incessant and unending details of it all and, if you dig in between those lines, even a fondness for some of the people he’s ratted out. It’s the memory of the lives they lead, the diners they hang out in, all those nights of playing cards that lead to the worst of what we see in Tommy’s response to the one person who talks back to him. Those details matter as much as anything whether it’s the restaurant that will inevitably be run into the ground or the new couch in Henry and Karen’s home, so the specifics of the all-important Lufthansa heist and who has to do what barely make a difference. What matters is their world and how much of it appears to be set below all those overpasses and elevated trains always looming above, these guys ruling their own subterranean world in the outer boroughs as people overhead drive through to Manhattan or the rest of the world out there that doesn’t matter. It all makes me think how it’s been so long since I spent any time there that in my mind it’s always 1979 in Queens. Part of this is my own memory of visiting family who lived out there back then, part of it is this film. It probably has changed by now but I don’t have to believe it.
The men are in charge, always ready to snap back at the women if they get out of line not to mention fuck around on them, but it’s clear that the few people we see from the real world people aren’t much better, the way Karen’s mother screams at her and the normal, clean cut guy across the street who turns out to be a total piece of shit with no clue what he’s messing with. Some of the best moments hold a few seconds too long on the simmering rage that comes out of that especially from Tommy, not even letting his date get away with finding Sammy Davis Jr. attractive. The casual racism of these guys isn’t dwelled on but it’s there so when the one friendly civilian in the whole film is an African-American doctor taking pity on Henry with some valium the kindness stands out even more (the doctor is played by the now-familiar Isiah Whitlock Jr. the same year he turned up briefly in GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH which makes him, as far as I know, the only person who appeared in the two best films of 1990). The women accept the reality of all this but not always without a fight and when the film unexpectedly shifts to Karen’s point of view as she’s introduced in the middle of her first date with Henry it’s a jolt, one of the most important cuts in the whole film in telling us that someone like her notices what’s going on with Henry, the danger of it all attracting each of them to the other. And she willingly becomes a part of it, ready to hang on to the gun Henry used on the face of the guy who assaulted her to drive home the connection between them but so much of the dialogue in the entire film is about that give and take, the women always more than ready to laugh at all this even when there’s a joking-but-not-really vibe to the laughter on both sides. The instantly legendary Steadicam shot through the Copacabana is filmed like a dream for Karen, seducing her as she floats along with Henry leading her to the table just for them suddenly appearing in frame, but of course ending one of the greatest shots of all time on the glorious image of Henny Youngman there to tell a joke about all those fights between men and women that never end. The one sighting of him that I ever had in my life was at the Carnegie Deli, because of course it was. The things you remember.
There’s a danger always around that comes with that energy, those screams of agony carrying over into the next scene mixed with the comfort level that makes it all so welcoming in spite of everything. The smell of cigarette smoke and coffee always hovering in the air in all those bars and diners plus the pitch perfect feel of Morrie’s wig commercial so the New York flavor is always tangible, it feels like every TV is turned to Channel 11 WPIX with the local ads endlessly blaring between Abbott & Costello. And there’s all that food, both in the very careful way it’s all prepared (How many onions are too many, anyway? How much should you balance that out with the razor-sliced garlic?) along with the simple, perfect slam cut to dinner at Paulie’s and that giant plate being brought over to the table, one of the greatest in a movie already filled with the most memorable transitions in all of cinema. Even all these years later I still dream about this food, including when it's mixed in with the drug-induced frenzy of the big final day, the paranoia of those helicopters always on Henry's mind but always circling back to the the sauce that has to be stirred for that glorious final feast. Even the brief glimpse of the dinner has that feeling with Karen insistently and nonsensically telling her daughter “Please don’t feed the dog from the table from the plate on top of it,” easily one of the greatest lines in the whole film that passes by almost unnoticed, one of the best reminders that the food and all that nitpicking in the out of nowhere dialogue that probably wasn’t scripted is just as important as everything surrounding it. These things matter just as much as the drugs that have to go out to Pittsburgh, all part of this world which, in the end, is what Henry knows and it makes him the perfect person to share it with us.
The film does stop even if Henry Hill doesn’t want to stop, he just wants to keep talking about how great all this is. He’d talk after the credits if he could. But every Martin Scorsese picture stops eventually, that point in his movies when everything suddenly gets quiet, when the camera is no longer moving and the music cuts off to let us know things won’t be the same after. It’s the blandness of the office setting in that scene when Henry and Karen confer with the federal agent about witness relocation with no more hyperactivity between the cuts and the angles so cinematically it’s all just dead, all of the excitement turned off at the moment as everything reset in the zoom in/dolly out in the diner. Even today, GOODFELLAS feels like the most quintessentially Scorsese of all Scorsese films. It’s not a culmination of everything he does since it was too soon in his career at this point but it does feel like a fulfillment of all that promise of everything he was doing up until then, a perfect combination and renewed sense of freedom unlike anything his films had expressed before, mixing his life and the films he cared about leading to every Scorsese ending that cuts to the credits with the main character isolated, hidden away from the world and everyone he ever knew as things go on without him, forced to reckon with the actions of his life even while never fully admitting what was so wrong about it in the first place, never apologizing for who he chose to be.
There’s no introspection to any of this, that’s what Martin Scorsese films written by Paul Schrader are for. Instead the feeling is sheer, dazzling exhilaration mixed with a reportage that always keeps an unapologetic distance no matter how repellent the behavior is. Starting with his remake of CAPE FEAR released only fourteen months later Scorsese shifted the aspect ratio for the majority of his films to 2.35 Scope and the feel of them largely got slicker, bigger, often reveling in the movie-movieness of it all. GOODFELLAS holds onto the roughness so it feels perfectly at home on those streets, with all these people that it loves and hates at the same time. Even with the backing of a major studio the film often feels like it was made on the run, desperately keeping any anachronisms out of frame but in the end who cares if a license plate falls off, not when everything else matters so much more. The deeper meaning comes not from anything these people say or do but from the music that, just as it does for any of us, means whatever you want it to mean when the mix tape of a life is put together. Jerry Vale performs at the Copa, Bobby Darin is heard as dinner gets prepared in jail, Nilsson to get Henry going at 6:55 AM, Donovan singing in “Atlantis” about being way down below the ocean. That’s where these guys are anyway, in their world below all those overpasses ready to bash in the head of anyone who tells them to go get their shinebox all the way to the haunting, wordless sounds of the “Layla” piano break as we view Jimmy’s carnage, that point when the good times are over and there’s nothing left to do but look at all those dead bodies, people too stupid to have known it was going to end like this but you feel a tinge of sympathy anyway. All they wanted was the world, after all, they just couldn’t keep quiet about it.
And it’s the Billy Ward and his Dominoes version of “Stardust” that plays when the film flash forwards to Henry as an adult in 1963, a song that came back again a few years later in another version at the very end of CASINO, each time reflecting back on each other. The lyrics say it all about the dreaming of a song, the stardust of yesterday, the music of the years gone by and all that, how this film looks back with all the joy but also an emptiness felt, asking what did it all mean and there’s no answer except for what’s in those words. That’s the past, remembering those days of thirty years ago. What it meant was what we saw, what we experienced, what we thought we had until all that is left is the dream of getting it back. Of course, at the end of the film when he’s fled from the life into the bland nothingness of witness relocation Henry Hill hasn’t learned anything and he still doesn’t care. He just knows that he misses it. As far as he’s concerned the life as a schnook is just one more beating he has to take.
The charm of Ray Liotta comes through just as much as the rage, putting so much in his eyes, the eyes doing that watching but also as he crosses that suburban street with the gun in his hand and his unstoppable energy keeps going all the way through, walking that tightrope of being us, the audience surrogate, understanding what this all is but still loving it, embracing this world as long as it lasts. Robert De Niro takes what is basically a supporting role and makes it more crucial than you ever expected, a symbol of the star power that Henry wants but De Niro is willing to stand off to the side in scenes sometimes laughing his ass off, just waiting for the fight moment when he can explode in moments like the way he won’t stop when laying in on Johnny Roastbeef about that damn Cadillac. It’s the little moments in the small things he gets annoyed by as well as the small, unsung pleasure found in the way De Niro says the word ‘hoof’ in a certain scene. Joe Pesci in his Oscar-winning role brings all the power imaginable, embracing the simmering rage that builds as Tommy sits there, waiting for his moment, even during the casual joking with his mom and during all those viewings over the years it's those moments that stand out at least as much as the rest of it along with the unexpected shame in getting blood on Henry’s floor. Lorraine Bracco and her own eyes do just as much, almost like she's out of a silent movie at times and she becomess the counterpoint to everything Henry does as she stands off to the side watching, forcing him to take some accountability and during the growing desperation that becomes so palpable during her best moments she seems absolutely possessed. It’s that feeling of anger bubbling up that makes every moment genuine and even when it feels like Paul Sorvino is doing almost nothing in his scenes, which I mean in the best possibly way, when his head moves an inch it means everything and whatever he isn't saying is right there in his look. Just like the songs, there are way too many people to mention in their small roles but there’s the unforgettable Chuck Low as Morrie, Frank Sivero as Frankie Carbone with the Mutt and Jeff act in his scenes with Pesci along with Kevin Corrigan as Henry’s brother stirring that sauce. And there’s the women who get caught up in all this particularly Welker White as the babysitter intent on retrieving her hat or Debi Mazar stumbling as she backs up when Henry approaches her but especially Illeana Douglas, not that I have any idea who that is, who has only a few lines but just as much as the best performances in the film not only clearly gets the joke but knows exactly how far to take it and how dangerous that can be.
As a film, GOODFELLAS is everything. It still feels like everything, all these decades later. There’s no way to put all that it means to me into a few paragraphs, the excitement and dream of this life mixed in with the ugliness of it all. But I don’t need films to make me feel better. I need them to make me feel alive, to find that life in every other film that I see, searching for that next hit. To nourish me. To remind me. To keep the disease that is film going inside of me. The legend of Martin Scorsese is undeniable by now but even on that the day he was directing scenes in New Rochelle (this included the phone booth scene where Henry picks up a sobbing Karen followed by stuff outside of her house nearby) he was no doubt as obsessed as always, watching it all come together, turning this into the masterpiece that it became. A film that asks what did you want out of the world and how close did you come. And how many ways did you manage to fuck it all up. There’s nothing redeeming about Henry Hill, not at all. Is there anything redeeming about you or me? Is there anything redeeming about that one person you can’t stop thinking about? Looking at it now, looking at it always, GOODFELLAS is about where the world was going. It’s about where the world is now. Strip it all down, sell it for parts, let the people die, take the money. Who gives a fuck, what are you gonna do, complain? Right now that destruction is the American way.
This is a film about where all that came from, where the people in this world came from. “Prejudiced against Italians,” the New Yorker in me sometimes thinks, hearing it in Joe Pesci’s voice, flashing back to the afternoon when I took my dad to see this film. Once I posted a photo on Twitter of myself taken long ago and someone asked why I looked like an extra in this movie. Hey, when you’re an Italian-Jew named Peter, not Paul, that grows up in New York it comes with the territory. It’s a feeling I’ve had a few other times over the years but we won’t talk about that right now. Flying too close to the sun gets you hurt and the pain doesn’t go away. With Tommy’s brief appearance dressed as a gangster of the old school to fire his gun at Henry at the end that's right out of THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY it’s as if Scorsese is saying every film made since that one (not to mention the birth of sound with THE JAZZ SINGER, playing on the TV for Karen earlier) has been building to his. He’s saying this film, this life, is every film and every life. And he's right. But that shot of Tommy is also the past, firing at Henry, firing at us, never allowing us to forget who we were. Because you can’t outrun your own past any more than you can outrun all the films you’ve ever seen and why would you want to. The past barely matters at all. It matters more than anything. Knowing that both things are true may be the only way to move forward.

Monday, August 31, 2020

From Now On That Counts

The deepest conversations I’m having these days are late at night, when it feels like the connection is strongest because why not just be honest and say what you really feel at that hour, even if a phone call is the closest you’re actually going to get to these people. Because, especially at a time like this, words matter. Friends matter. People matter. Love matters. That fight to make things better matters. But there are times when all those words, all those offers of connection, only help so much because you still find yourself alone. These days, we’re forced to be alone anyway. More than anything right now is the feeling of how empty things are without people around, whether they’re friends, family, certain women or whoever. And it hurts more all the time. There’s a scene early in Martin Ritt’s EDGE OF THE CITY when Sidney Poitier, the young Poitier with all the fire and energy in the world, lays it all out for his new friend played by John Cassavetes. You have to make a choice, he says, when it comes to which way to go in life. You can go with the men and you’re ten feet tall or go with the lower forms and you’re down in the slime. But the choice to be alone, he says, is the worst. The thing is, we don’t really have that choice right now so we’re trapped all alone with seemingly all that goddamn hate of the lower forms the only thing in sight. And it feels like there’s nothing we can do to get rid of it.

Released in 1957 when Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called it an “ambitious little film” before settling into an undeservedly mixed notice, EDGE OF THE CITY is small but powerful and it deserves to be better known these days. My own first viewing was at the annual Noir City Festival some years back and it’s arguable if the film really qualifies as part of that genre (somebody get Eddie Muller on the phone to give us a definitive answer) but it absolutely knocked me out, one of those times when the second movie on a double bill comes up and the rest of the night instantly gets forgotten. Even if it doesn’t fall into that category, since it’s really more of a post-ON THE WATERFRONT social drama, the film offers a sense of humanity that finds its way into every scene making it feel alive, infused with that black & white location footage of New York from this period that I have a real jones for as if the very notion of seeing that era in color would be some sort of affront. Looking at EDGE OF THE CITY in the present time gives it an extra power while still making me aware of some of its drawbacks but even they help me understand what those themes really mean and how much they resonate. The film has a tangible sense of realism that’s felt throughout and an earnestness in how the characters interact that for a few moments almost make me feel hopeful about the possibilities in the world. Almost. As EDGE OF THE CITY reminds us, things can never be that easy. Not in 1957, definitely not in 2020.

A young man calling himself Axel North (John Cassavetes) shows up at the freight yards of New York looking for a job. He is assigned to the team of Charlie Malick (Jack Warden) unloading crates off trains but he soon befriends Tommy Tyler (Sidney Poitier) another supervisor at the yard who manages to get Axel transferred over to his team, away from the bullying Malick. Their friendship quickly develops with Tommy helping Axel find a room to rent and, with his wife Lucy (Ruby Dee) assisting, introduces him to their friend Ellen (Kathleen Maguire), a schoolteacher who he quickly hits it off with. But when Charlie Malick catches on to the secret that Axel has been keeping from everyone, including his real name, and begins extorting part of his pay for staying quiet, Axel soon fights back leading to tragedy which forces him to decide if certain things are more important than the choice to keep running from his past.

From its very first moment, EDGE OF THE CITY is dynamically compelling with an energy and electricity to every scene, fast and to the point while still lingering for moments of intimacy between the characters that grow in power as the film reaches its climax. This is a movie that feels like it’s about to burst with the sense of life it has, made by people quickly building up to the great work they’re going to do and so much of that talent is already on display. For Martin Ritt, this was his feature debut after directing for television with his career sadly getting sidelined by the blacklist for several years in between but much of the film crackles with the immediacy of a live television broadcast in the best sense, marking the beginning of a filmography that would last over thirty years. Sidney Poitier made this between the likes of THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE and THE DEFIANT ONES while for John Cassavetes it predates his own directorial debut SHADOWS by two full years, each bringing enormous power to their performances and the chemistry between them is totally genuine. Even if EDGE OF THE CITY isn’t the best known work of the people involved during this period the undeniable sense of humanity at its core has a true power even now from the main titles by Saul Bass, the jangling music by Leonard Rosenman, the tabloid harshness of the black and white cinematography by Joseph Brun as well as the extraordinary work by the actors involved. More than just a simple story of friendship and the unavoidable issue of race, within EDGE OF THE CITY is a yearning quality of asking if only things could be different. If only. If only there wasn’t so much hate and fear always getting in the way of the possibility for a decent life. If only you could say how you really feel and who you really are. If only there weren’t people so determined to make it all worse.

And with a screenplay by Robert Alan Aurthur based on his teleplay “A Man is Ten Feet Tall” (which starred Poitier, the only actor to reprise his role here), the power of the film stands out even more because of how much it knows to spend time with those relationships as they get deeper, staying with them during the good times which gives the film a looseness to help set it apart from ON THE WATERFRONT, the easiest film to draw a comparison to. The main characters are so vividly drawn in how they go together that it’s easy to wish this was just a hangout movie following Tommy and Axel with their girls as they go out dancing and bowling, their scenes always playing out in a relaxed, natural way. Each of these actors go together, they get the jokes they’re making between the lines and the sense of yearning is felt every time the film pauses for those quiet character beats, seeming totally free within the moment. Of course this is the point, that life should be like this but the film knows it can’t be since that hatred is always hanging over things, the ugly racism of certain people always making it clear who they really are in this film that’s largely about people trying not to give into the darkness that’s always lingering nearby.

It’s a short film, only 85 minutes, but never in a rush and one brief scene is nothing but the two friends talking and laughing as they eat their lunch on top of a train car, the Empire State Building visible behind them. For a long stretch the plot barely even matters since it’s all about what they come to mean to each other, two guys who become friends in spite of what divides them racially, each standing out in the world around them for their own reasons. Tommy wastes no time in revealing his goodness and seems to be liked by almost everyone around him but Axel in particular displays a sensitivity that could be coded as gay, Jewish or maybe just a blacklisted screenwriter of the time, running from his past with those secrets that are tied into the conspiratorial nature of some early dialogue that could mean anything before we know what’s really going on. Of course he’s unable to escape who he is and what he’s done, eventually forced to confront the greatest source of hate around him to prove he can move forward. The question of what the world does to an individual, to make a person feel truly alone, is all over this post-blacklist film, asking how brave can you be and how willing are you to do the right thing no matter the consequences. As an actor Jack Warden was part of that world too, appearing in episodes of live TV as well as playing one of the 12 ANGRY MEN the same year as this film and the nastiness of his performance now plays as an unmistakable avatar for the hatred that oozes out of people prominent in our world right now. Certain words notably aren’t used in dialogue here, even if Richard Widmark already screamed the n-word right at Poitier in his debut film NO WAY OUT seven years earlier, but when Warden’s Charlie Malick calls Tommy “the blackest ape I ever saw” right to his face followed by just shouting the word “BLACK” at him nothing else is necessary. What he really means can be heard loud and clear.

In moments like that the anger is palpable and ugly but the film is equally unafraid of the pain caused by it and doesn’t hold back. Axel calls his parents, just wanting to hear their voices and unable to speak to them, driving his mother sick with grief not knowing what she did wrong and in the world of this film it’s the women who are really forced to deal with the weight of the world around them with her desperately wondering what she did to her son, the tentativeness of Kathleen Maguire’s Ellen talking about the social issues on her mind but especially the painful realism of Ruby Dee as Tommy’s wife Lucy, each of them seeming more aware of the troubles that are really out there. They’re not as willing to laugh it off as quickly as the men do over their post-dinner cigars, the way Poitier seems to dare Warden to say what he really thinks. The film is all about finding those moments, the way it pauses for a look Maguire gives early on mentally preparing herself for the first date with Axel, so even the briefest looks between the characters always mean something. “It’s important to me what happens to you,” a line of dialogue from one to another that feels so open and honest in the simplicity of the statement it’s impossible to imagine it in a film these days.

The momentary frenzy as the opening credits begin try to give it that feeling of immediate jeopardy with a punchy, tabloid flavor to those shots of the New York skyline that’s not what the movie really is let alone qualifying as noir. Even if it is a film about someone who only knows what it is to feel alone, a very noir concept if there ever was one, and he does have dark secrets that are gradually revealed but none of them are quite as melodramatic as you expect, understandable guilt involving the brother he loved more than anything and parents who he feels could never love him enough with still another secret that he keeps hoping he can outrun. This isn’t a world of active corruption so much as total uncaring passivity with the actor who plays the boss at the freight yard never revealing a speck of emotion about anything really going on there. The darkness of the genre is easily found in all that fear and hatred but the sense of hope still pokes through with the scene where Axel and Tommy first get to know each other out by the water, literally at the edge of the city, one of them getting the other to open up just enough to let the friendship begin. Martin Ritt’s directorial career became seemingly gentler over the years after this film all the way to his final work STANLEY & IRIS, two films made decades apart that each deal with social issues but ultimately are about one person desperately reaching out for a connection to help another and face their greatest regrets. If EDGE OF THE CITY is the beginning of his visual style it often seems no more complex than putting two people together in the frame, forced to understand each other, but the rawness gives it a vitality that I’m not sure his later films had to this extent so in its best moments this always feels genuine and real. The films directed by Martin Ritt are portraits of individuals and how they fit into the world they occupy, trying to hold onto who they are as well as what the right way to prove your worth is which goes beyond simple issues of genre into the question of what is right and how we can bring ourselves to face the next day.

As powerful as EDGE OF THE CITY is, there’s still a sense of formula within the narrative that dictates which direction the story is forced to take so no matter how good Poitier is, no matter how much his character means, it’s hard not to want the film around him to be more than that. He’s playing someone with depth and dimension but, after all, he’s still at the mercy of the film’s plot as well as the person who wants nothing but to destroy him. Part of the well-meaning idealism of the film’s message feels grounded in that era but looking at the film now, over sixty years after it was made, becomes a reminder that Black Lives, after all, do matter even when they’re only fictional and their inherent goodness should serve as more than just a lesson to the someone else in the film. This lingered in the back of my head the first time I saw the film those years ago and the ambivalence I feel about it is still there now even as recent tragic losses in the real world have made it clear how much power those people who leave us too soon can have. The genuinely progressive messages of the past still make sense now, even as we realize how much further we have to go beyond them to continue to fight back against that hate.

Along with all this, the plot itself isn’t quite airtight particularly how late in the film a certain character could simply go to the cops rather than take the direct action he does but the code of the film’s world that Tommy has established says that a man needs to stand up for himself in a definitive, physical way for the ending to really mean something. Things like this maybe hold EDGE OF THE CITY back from being a true classic when viewed now, but it still could be called at least a minor one or at least the very best film imaginable that you hope to discover in the back half of a Noir City double bill. Those films, after all, are the ones that sometimes affect us the most and in spite of whatever flaws may be there this one still contains an undeniable sense of humanity that shines so bright it can’t be ignored. The film allows for the feelings to play out whether the fear in John Cassavetes’ eyes or especially the sheer fury displayed by Ruby Dee during her own key scene late in the film as well as the power of the ending with the final bars of Leonard Rosenman’s score drilling those feelings deep down. Through all this, EDGE OF THE CITY is a great, emotional film that doesn’t hold back. Every moment of it has the feeling of absolute humanity and it’s the sort of film I wish that I could show to all those people who aren’t around right now to remind us of how good things could be in our dreams when we aren’t alone.

Every inch a movie star here, Sidney Poitier is so relaxed and natural that it’s a wonder to see, displaying his love for the people around them and bringing such a feel of humanity in how he displays that with even the tiniest gestures. The jittery nerves displayed by John Cassavetes go perfectly with that, taking the rhythm their scenes have and letting himself relax into their scenes together, building his character scene by scene to let both his pride and sadness come through all at once. Against all this, the bully that the great Jack Warden plays comes in like a freight truck in every scene, not a shred of likability, just pure bullying nastiness and still totally real. Ruby Dee takes a part which at first isn’t much more than playing Poitier’s wife that she turns it into a powerful reminder of everything that can be lost while Kathleen Maguire has a totally relaxed and engaging screen presence, revealing her shyness but also her intellect so you can tell that there’s much more to her character than just waiting around for a man to enter her life. Ruth White and Robert Simon are also enormously effective in their brief but crucial scenes as Axel’s parents making them more than just the way he describes them, yet another reminder in this film of the good things that are still out there in the world.

At a crucial moment late in EDGE OF THE CITY one character desperately exclaims, “This doesn’t make any sense.” That’s right, it doesn’t. Hate doesn’t make sense. And Hate doesn’t care. We have plenty of evidence of that these days so looking at this film now, right now, in 2020, maybe this one moment is what stands out more than anything. In 2020 when hatred and ignorance are causing things to get worse and people to die. You want to be able to laugh at them, those lower forms of animal life as Tommy Tyler calls them, the ones who don’t care about anything good but they still come at you with all their hate. EDGE OF THE CITY plays right now as someone desperately reaching out for a connection to find the goodness in the world, the good people, the ones who are out there, to help you make a choice, to be your own person and not so alone. It’s a nice thought and a reminder of the strength in this film with the hope that maybe things can still change for the better.

Friday, July 31, 2020

Drifting Through Eternity

Well, we didn’t know this was going to be the future. Stuck like this, away from the people we’ve known and care about. But even now they stay with us as we close our eyes, wishing we were back with them. It’s the naiveté of youth, I suppose, the dream that you grow up and as the future appears the world will grow with you, eventually turning things into that life one dreams of. But the real future, the one we’re going to get, is always closer than we think and those people just get further away. So by the time we actually get there, it’s too late to do anything about it. That’s when we realize there’s no one else around.

Brian De Palma’s 2000 film MISSION TO MARS is set in what was then the future. But revisiting this film during its 20th anniversary is not simply about addressing when it opened but how it actually begins in the year 2020, on June 9th to be exact although the preciseness of the date serves little purpose. It’s still a pretty familiar looking future except that people appear to be drinking boxed beer at a crowded barbecue which, boxed beer aside, hasn’t been happening or at least it shouldn’t—I was going to add that we’re also not going to Mars anytime soon but there’s actually a mission happening, go figure, even if there won’t be any humans onboard. Living in this actual time as we are, if you call this living, we already know that the 2020 of this film has little to do with the reality we currently know even if the film doesn’t spend much time on Earth. My main recollections of seeing this film opening night way back in March of that year at the El Capitan on Hollywood Blvd. are that the packed house violently booed when the end credits rolled and someone threw what looked like a Snapple bottle at the screen. But time changes things. For one, this is a film where a character gets marooned all alone and who the hell knew back then that the very idea of isolation would turn out to have the most to do with what life in 2020 really is. Like many films that have been loudly rejected on opening night, MISSION TO MARS is more interesting than that initial response indicated and even though it does still have more than a few issues, it’s a film striving to be about hope and connection in a way that makes me think a little more fondly about it these days. There’s a lot to figure out right now about the way things are going and even if there aren’t any real answers in the film I’m watching, there’s always the dream that maybe something can still be found there.

As the first ever crew on the surface of Mars explores the red planet, they discover the possibility of water which would allow for earth colonization. But when they try to investigate, the entire team except for Commander Luke Graham (Don Cheadle) is wiped out by a mysterious vortex of massive size leaving the lone astronaut remaining stranded there. When news of this reaches the World Space Station via a message that indicates Luke is still alive, plans for the next ship for Mars are changed to turn it into a rescue mission which will include Commander Woody Blake (Tim Robbins), wife Terri (Connie Nielsen), Phil Ohlmeyer (Jerry O’Connell) and Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise), who gave up his own shot at commanding Mars One when his wife Maggie (Kim Delaney) fell ill and soon died. But months later when their ship begins to orbit Mars things immediately don’t go as planned and once the team reaches the ground to search for Luke, they soon discover the existence of a massive stone face which may lead to the answer of what sort of life once existed on that planet and what may have really happened to it.

For one thing, it’s definitely the second best Brian De Palma film with the word “Mission” in the title but this is of minor importance. Even after all this time MISSION TO MARS is still a tough one to figure out, a film which on the surface doesn’t seem to be anything other than a showcase for spectacular digital effects but somewhere deep down feels like it has other goals in mind that it hasn’t entirely worked out. Maybe it wants to be more of an interior journey into outer space but even with several big names in the cast the characters are never interesting enough to warrant this approach so what’s left becomes the focus on those effects and the way De Palma builds his own visual methods around them. Right from the very first moment as the title flashes onscreen a rocket blasts off, only to be revealed as a toy in a suburban backyard giving the impression the film wants to play with our expectations, finding a way to turn kid stuff into the adult regret of lost dreams and back again, to understand what the dream in those toys meant in the first place. It’s an idea that doesn’t feel entirely formed and the film is forced to pay more attention to all that hardware while still looking for ways around all the expected tropes, like how in place of the expected spectacular launch sequence is a simple transition to the surface of Mars done with a cut from a playful footprint in a backyard on Earth. This is an attempt at hard science fiction which at times seems more interested in finding unexpected ways to tell the story rather than acclimating us to the drama at hand and plays at such a distance that it’s a little too easy to check out early on. There’s no mission control populated with familiar character actors, no cutaways to worried loved ones back home, no bogus conflict between the astronauts played by big names and even an early sequence involving cross cutting that plays with notions of time within the narrative for reasons that still seem a little hazy.

A few plot points, like how Cheadle’s command will presumably be joined at a later date by Mars II commanded by Robbins, seem vague in the way they’re casually discussed but I’m not sure it matters and I’m not sure the director really cares about making such generalities clear. Complicated exposition gets doled out in a way that hasn’t taken into account what anyone watching the film doesn’t know so not enough of it registers, lost to whatever De Palma is actually interested in focusing on. Even when the film opens with one of his patented endless Steadicam shots it’s not about the technology surrounding a Mars launch but the simple act of the astronauts socializing at a farewell barbecue, giving us more info about the relationships than the actual mission which is fine but the mundane setting doesn’t seem to warrant such a complex visual approach (which features a cut partway through as if a decision was made in editing to rush things along) and it also makes the film feel unexpectedly small with the interactions never registering all that much as the camera swirls around them. There’s so little drama in the friendships of the main characters which means right from the start we’re facing a Brian De Palma film where everyone gets along, no ominous foreshadowing in the air, so earnest that the scenes barely seem about anything.

The way the writing credits read (screenplay by Jim Thomas and John Thomas & Graham Yost, story by Lowell Cannon & Jim Thomas and John Thomas) along with the very nature of the project (presumably inspired by the Disneyland ride that closed back in ’92 but it has the Touchstone Pictures logo) one imagines many, many drafts of various scripts written but the story still feels either not quite smoothed over or maybe had whole sections deleted for whatever reason. One major plot point is even relayed via news delivered remotely at another location and there’s something to be said about how the film seems more interested in dwelling for a long moment on the sight of Armin Mueller-Stahl silently drinking a cup of coffee than the spectacular landing we didn’t get to see. But the question is are there really plot points to this film or just several specific events leading up to the final revelation. So much of what appeals about films directed by Brian De Palma more than the necessities of story structure is his portrayal of the madness that surrounds the main characters as they try to make sense of this increasingly insane world while the plot happens around them. The characters in this film are all good and pure, which makes sense since they’re astronauts, but the earnestness doesn’t feel all that fleshed out as if he doesn’t quite know how to make it ever seem genuine. They can each be described simply via who means the most to them, nothing more; Woody and Terri are the happy couple, Jim is sad because his wife died, Luke misses his son back on Earth and Phil is the joker who constructs the DNA of his dream woman using M&M’s in zero gravity. There’s no real conflict between the characters at all beyond how to address whatever any given immediate issue might be, saying things like “Let’s work the problem” as they get to it, all of them so idealized as heroes that there isn’t much else to them beyond the perfection. These are the types who normally get sacrificed, if not totally destroyed, in the cruel world of De Palma films so maybe in being forced to portray people without flaws it removes all the fun and doesn’t replace it with anything particularly interesting.

This has never been a director known for showing much interest in healthy relationships between men and women (maybe with the exception of Kevin Costner as Eliot Ness and Patricia Clarkson as “Ness’ Wife” in THE UNTOUCHABLES) which makes it feel like there’s not much to portray here beyond the simple idealization. Tim Robins and Connie Nielsen are played as being totally devoted to each other, such a mirror image of Gary Sinise and his late wife played in flashback by Kim Delaney that it almost feels a little confusing as if husband-wife missions have somehow become a NASA requirement in the future. But even if the perfection plays like a neon sign that something bad has to happen, this is still a rare Brian De Palma film with next to no cynicism, no irony or real sense of the fates conspiring against all the goodness in the universe. Even when a sacrifice has to be made, even when an American flag is planted upon arrival at the new planet, it seems to insist on holding onto some kind of optimism so the movie is never embarrassed by its own inherent dorkiness coming out of the science fiction technobabble or how much these people love each other as if it wants to actually believe in this dream of everything being ok.

In spite of what feels like his reputation as a director only interested in the camera, dialogue does matter in De Palma films but in a very musical sense so if the words and images don’t go together then there’s no way for it all to flow. Here it feels like a lack of drama coming out of all that vaguely specified scientific exposition and declarations of friendship, some of which is at least partly necessary but too often gets me to zone out so not enough of it registers and even some of the big statements in the dialogue that are clear don’t seem to matter beyond the moment they’re spoken. In some ways the framing of how people are placed together in a given shot becomes what matters more than the words, as if all the main audio were shut off the film would make about as much sense as it does now. But the narrative by itself remains a little too thin, a novella slotted into what needs to feel epic so clocking in at a fairly brisk 113 minutes, which includes a lengthy end crawl, the film always moves but sometimes a little too quickly from one incident to another with occasional fades to black to divide each section that play a little as an excuse for leaving out bits of connective tissue. But it’s not the amount of plot that matters as much as the pacing which gives the feeling that the movie could use more breathing room, more moments of the characters simply getting lost in the majesty of it all and maybe even one or two scenes of non-cryptic exposition to really clarify things. The few moments the film does dwell on the Mars landscape feel right for the dissonant alien feel particularly when it pauses to reveal the scale of the massive vortex and as always De Palma, with editor Paul Hirsch (whose work with the director goes all the way back to HI, MOM!; to date, this is their last film together), knows how to maneuver his pieces into place but there’s an elegance missing, no way to enjoy the small touches in between the big moments which gives the pacing a stop-start quality. The purest De Palma films often flow beautifully from shot to shot with grace notes that could only come from this director but maybe with all this reliance on technology, effects and a plot which doesn’t feel entirely formed that just can’t happen as much as it should. Even when there’s a sense that it wants to linger within the imagery a little more to get lost in the vastness of space the film resists, maybe to avoid playing as too similar to 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY or maybe just a desire to simply keep things moving.

It’s the score by the great Ennio Morricone (RIP) that gives the film much of the soul it does have, while maybe overreaching in assuming any emotional connection we have to these characters. It’s a little ONCE UPON A TIME IN SPACE in the way it searches for the emotion found through the discovery in a different way than the usual John Williams majesty and the overriding emotion that it projects feels like it’s about yearning so the film becomes about yearning as well, the hope of what can possibly be found out there supplanted with suspense music that features a prominent haunted house organ underscoring the danger always nearby. These emotional touches lend a humanity to the thinly drawn characters, a reminder of how Morricone never scored simple plot beats and even when working on undeniably trashy films he always went beyond simple emotion and beauty into examining the very idea of how the characters are affected by Fate. His music always played like it was what he responded to in a film deep down in his soul, using the themes he created to infuse the religion that is Cinema and transform it into something greater. What he brought to MISSION TO MARS is almost too noticeable at times and in some ways the old-fashioned quality clashes with the futuristic setting but it doesn’t hold back in its quest to provide a clarity to the answers that are beyond anything one could imagine and in helping us begin to actually understand those emotions maybe that’s as close as we’re ever going to get.

But to bring up music that has nothing to do with Morricone, the zero gravity sequence with Van Halen’s “Dance the Night Away” playing as the Mars II centrifuge spins serves as a break from those more stately moments. It’s the sort of long take we want from this film, done with just the right sense of the old De Palma funkiness that lets him play with the three-dimensional quality to bring something extra to the Kubrick nature of the moment as if pausing the movie just for the sheer pleasure of doing it. The staging during moments like this is impeccable in the way only he knows how to do but the film still feels like it’s missing a human connection between those shots. De Palma’s visual approach over the decades has often been about pure emotion, not logic, which is when his films work best but this one has to spend time on the science of all that hardware whether it interests him or not and the balance feels lost more than it should. At times those darkly comic touches come through, particularly during the nastiest death early on that has just the right kick, but too often it doesn’t feel like there’s enough inspiration to the way scenes are staged; an early conversation between two people is shot with simple, dull over-the-shoulder angles and one later moment even pulls out the old visual trick of a character suddenly revealed to be standing behind someone else in the immediate foreground likely cribbed from Argento. It was also used in RAISING CAIN and FEMME FATALE but the giallo-styled frisson of the moment here feels strangely timed wrong as if the gimmick just didn’t fit the scene, no matter how the staging was adjusted and it becomes another one of those occasional touches that don’t quite belong.

The effects driven plot points that lie within the sometimes iffy, circa-2000 CGI have a largely ‘shit happens, then more shit happens’ approach to the storytelling which at times feels too mechanical, things going wrong before it’s been made clear what’s supposed to go right. But during the big midpoint setpiece when Mars II has to be abandoned as it attempts to enter orbit and the disaster which follows this all comes alive, finding the balance between the technology and what the director knows how to do. Shot by shot it’s easily the purest De Palma sequence of the entire film, building to a literal cosmic joke (plus answering why one of the presumed leads gets an “and” billing in the credits), and the whole sequence even feels more like a dream than anything else in the film in showing the helplessness of trying to reach something that is so close yet so far and there’s not a thing you can do about it. And in many ways the scene is not about trying to reach Mars at all but a reminder of how little power love has in the grand scheme of things even as you hold onto it as tight as you can, desperately looking for the right answer when everything else is falling away and if only this could have been fleshed out more. In our real 2020 it feels like loneliness is unavoidable but this is a film that wants to reject that through the pure love it portrays and even the way Don Cheadle compares the union he creates with the plant life on Mars to a marriage, that companion who gives you oxygen. And when they’re gone you gasp for air, wondering how to breathe. Deep down the movie wants to find a way to fight through that loneliness, even in the way Mars and Earth ultimately depend on each other, with the planet that could rightly be called the younger sibling arriving in search of all the answers to be found.

The year it was released, the main competition for MISSION TO MARS was the Val Kilmer-starring RED PLANET, a more straightforward genre piece (ok at best) which wound up not opening until November and didn’t do as much business but then again neither one could really be called a box office success. This film is definitely the more ambitious of the two even if what finally gets revealed makes me wonder how much was cribbed from whatever science fiction novels by Clarke or Asimov or whoever that I never got around to when I was reading this stuff in my pre-teen years. The climax makes sure to spell everything out as clear as possible, no Kubrick ambiguity here and all presented in the style of a three dimensional IMAX museum film complete with narration that the film would have been better off without (or, to bring up a movie that came out over a decade later, maybe done more in the style of TREE OF LIFE) to make sure everyone in the audience gets it but of course that was never going to happen. Then again, it took several viewings for me to get a handle on another plot point involving the key to establishing communication with life on the planet, again zoning out during more of that exposition, so what do I know. The action taken by Sinise to embrace his destiny after learning the truth is also somewhat reminiscent of the denouement of STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, another film with considerable flaws but its own charms that always makes me want to try to accept the film a little more. It may seem strange to have Kim Delaney receive prominent billing for playing Sinise’s wife in such a tiny part, seen more or less entirely in flashback, but she does get the big speech seen on an old video, to say that the answers we’re looking for are not about chaos but connection, how life reaches out for life and accepting that idea can allow us to finally move forward. The moment seems deliberately tossed off but it is the main verbal expression of the film’s theme along with a simple but emotional expression of thanks between two people at the end that echoes an identical beat in the closing moments of THE UNTOUCHABLES.

In some ways the film plays like a true oddity now, a giant effects movie from a major studio without action, adventure or any sort of real antagonist and the thing that unlocks the mystery in the end comes from working out an equation. Whether because of the reliance on the visuals, the thinly drawn characters or how tight a timeframe so much of it takes place in, the desired emotional payoff at the end doesn’t really happen and yet within all the awkwardness is an optimistic sweetness about the potential of humanity that goes beyond the usual STAR TREK speechifying to make me want to defend it a little more. Part of that is because of touches that can be found during certain random moments that really feel like they come from the director, how he seems to want to express certain feelings through those long unbroken takes, split diopter shots to connect the characters and De Palma zooms that only he could be responsible for which express more humanity all these years later than the overwhelming CGI the film chooses to dwell on. And in the bookending final image really does transform the stuff of children into a realization of what can really be out there for the adult willing to strive for it. It takes us away from the loneliness once and for all while keeping the spirit of that close to be willing to go on to the next part of the adventure. And, hopefully, find a way to continue on.

All that hardware becomes a reminder that there are many wonderful performances in Brian De Palma films it’s just that, Sean Connery aside, they’re more the kind that Pauline Kael raved about than the sort of thing the Academy recognizes. So while this is a film with solid actors doing largely solid work when they can make the dialogue register, I can’t help but shake the feeling that they did this for a chance to be in a big Brian De Palma film more than anything but every now and then there’s a looseness to moments during those long takes that don’t feel entirely scripted which lets a little bit of humanity poke through. Gary Sinise finds the sad calmness in what he does as if so much of his arc has to be played out through silence and, in a way, he’s the only one who seems to be working out all those complex problems in his head. Much of the time Don Cheadle feels like he doesn’t have any real character to play at all but he also gets the one moment of true emotion in the film near the end, which plays as weirdly genuine while Connie Nielsen and Tim Robbins each project intelligence but little registers beyond a basic sense of decency. Armin Mueller-Stahl is unbilled and an odd choice for his character actor-authority figure reeling off exposition that we probably need to retain but the words never seem vivid enough. Maybe this part should have been played by more of an extrovert (now I’m picturing Dennis Franz in space) but maybe it’s an issue with the entire film that it needed to find a way for the performances to really matter even with all those effects, to find a way to make the words pop in a way that would engage with all the majesty around them and then the ending would have really paid off.

The soundtrack album featuring the Ennio Morricone score is a somewhat hodgepodge of a listening experience with one track running just over thirteen minutes but the final piece, titled “All the Friends”, is a quiet, gentle rumination that feels like what the film was really trying to contemplate. Or maybe it’s the film that I imagine is trying to poke through. The technology of the future as presented in MISSION TO MARS ultimately seems incidental but what it wants to say, especially via the ANNIE HALL-styled montage at the very end, is that what matters is the people we’ve known, the experiences we’ve had, the ones we’ve loved. I’m not sure if other composers would have latched on to this idea to such an extent which is what always seemed to give such power to the scores Morricone wrote. We can go as far as we want to in this universe, and hopefully we will, but it’s the people you’ve known that mattered and will continue to. It’s a nice idea, one that I wish really clicked in this film, and it’s what I keep reminding myself during the actual year 2020 as I don’t see any of those people, not really. It’s like what we see when we close our eyes, the flashes of our lives, the people we care about and wish were here, is what 2020 is all about. Because so much hurts right now, there’s so much emptiness without them. Admittedly, part of all this is all about finding a way to somehow understand a film made by a director whose body of work means a great deal to me. Maybe it’s a search for an emotional connection that says more about me right now than what can be really be found but there’s always the hope that the answer will present itself. Anyway, it’s a nice dream to hold onto.