Friday, May 10, 2019
Two years after private detective Harry Ross (Paul Newman) is accidentally shot in the leg while trying to bring runaway Mel Ames (Reese Witherspoon) back from Mexico, he is retired, no longer drinking and living in the guest house of her parents, movie stars Jack (Gene Hackman) and Catherine Ames (Susan Sarandon). When Jack, his cancer no longer in remission, asks Harry to deliver an envelope for mysterious reasons, the errand leads to a surprising encounter with an ex-cop (M. Emmet Walsh) dying from a fresh gunshot wound and firing back, leading Harry to become curious what was so important about that package. As Jack’s health worsens, the case catches the interest of Harry’s ex-partner on the police force Verna Hollander (Stockard Channing), which leads him to seek help from limo driver Reuben Escobar (Giancarlo Esposito) who wants to team up with Harry in the private eye world as well as fellow retiree and old friend Raymond Hope (James Garner) as he investigates the murder which may lead to answers involving the mysterious disappearance of Catherine’s first husband long ago.
Endings come before you know it. In some ways TWILIGHT begins where you might expect a film like it to end, down in Mexico as if it’s the last scene of some NIGHT MOVES/LONG GOODBYE mashup where the main character has hit the end of the line, one fuckup too many and we’ll never return with him to L.A. But here it’s only the first scene (and I doubt they actually went to Mexico to shoot it, but never mind) and unless the rest of the movie is actually part of a dying, drunken haze VERTIGO-style we have to return, you always have to return to L.A., there’s never any escaping once you’ve surrendered to that seduction. You live there long enough you begin to feel like you’re spending much of your time observing the beautiful people from afar and one of them swimming in a pool is a key image in the first few minutes of TWILIGHT, a film partly about staring down at them floating through life as you try to avoid the bitterness which comes with the feeling luck didn’t strike you the same way. Written by Benton and NOBODY’S FOOL author Richard Russo, it’s an easygoing movie but maybe a little too easy without much of a hard bitten noir vibe to go with the storyline and it’s not that there’s a lot wrong with TWILIGHT but there’s not quite enough right with it either. It’s a film made by an older director working with some people close to his own age and it offers a certain amount of gravity to go with that but no real fireworks ever quite take hold, the mystery playing as murky as these things usually do until it all gets simply explained so it’s maybe just a little too clear cut, all the answers put out there. As a result, there’s not quite enough left to chew on, not enough to take away from any given scene beyond the basic plot points with too much of it shot in a fairly ordinary style that lacks a certain texture to give it extra life. There are pleasures found here but they mostly come from just watching Newman and his co-stars play off each other, basically hanging out together in scenes and it’s a pleasant vibe but not quite enough.
It’s a film populated mostly with older people who, rich or poor, are waiting around for nothing in particular, little to do but smoke and play cards and hope they aren’t completely broke as they create their own narratives of the past, hoping no one calls them on what’s being made up and wondering just how much luck, or lack of, played into any of it. Stranded among them, the few younger people in the film seem lost, not a part of this world, nothing but appendages, no real ideas for what their future is supposed to be. The laidback feel extends to how much of the film involves following Harry Ross as he drives from one place to another questioning people, one after the other, basically a showcase for actors to play scenes with Paul Newman but the L.A. locations are missing a distinctive flavor to make them stand out. Even when areas are specified they could have been shot anywhere and with touches like the running gag about a certain place where Harry may or may not have been shot it’s amiable but never quite clicks into place. For one thing, I have the nagging feeling that several of the leading roles seem miscast which means we’re watching great actors play out scenes they never fully inhabit. Newman is a little too neatly pressed and laid back as a worn out drunk, Hackman has the build of someone who could still kick anyone’s ass even though his character is supposedly dying while Sarandon comes off as too jittery for a woman just lounging around the house all day even if she’s not getting the plum roles anymore and trying to light a cigarette while being questioned by Newman feels like a leftover bit of Faye Dunaway business from CHINATOWN. Part of THE LATE SHOW was about how much the town had changed but this time around it doesn’t feel like there’s enough of the L.A. flavor, the details of those crummy valley apartments Harry Ross visits never quite filled in. “Sure beats Los Feliz,” he points out when visiting someone up in the hills above the smog and it’s a great looking modernistic house but the line still sounds like Benton hasn’t driven over to the area anytime recently to be aware of what’s changed.
There’s a maturity hanging over the film involving the ideas of fate and the end coming, they’re just presented too simply as if notes from the studio kept it all from becoming too layered just as the dialogue veers from razor sharp to at times a little too obvious, spelling out all the motivations a little too much. Along with the theme of acceptance that we all run out of luck sooner or later is the notion of how easy it is to be seduced no matter how old you are, no matter how worn down you are by it all, which feels more specific to the fantasy noir vibe the film tries to keep hanging in the air in order to remind us of the differences between the beautiful people, who have their own ideas of what being broke means, and the ones who weren’t so lucky. It’s the sort of thing that I sometimes wonder about myself while stranded in this town and Sarandon gets the big scene to trash her living room when confronted about this, demonstrating what really matters to someone like the movie star she’s supposed to be but it still feels like the film is holding back from the intensity that needs to come out of the moment. Even the plotting is a little haphazard with much of the first half set over one of those movie nights that illogically seems to go on forever, while a number of dissolves and fade outs that recur play as if the film is trying to make the experience somewhat dreamy to go with certain passages in Elmer Bernstein’s score but the device simply halts momentum, the film never quite gathering steam or passion; it was edited by Carol Littleton, no lightweight, but the rhythm moving from scene to scene at times feels off as if some transitional element was cut down. Again, I suspect there were problems but it feels like pieces were removed that might have clarified things or even fleshed them out but for whatever reason the storytelling had to be stripped down to its essentials.
The thing is, noir needs to be something and maybe easygoing isn’t the answer so while it’s not necessary for TWILIGHT to be as fatalistic or cynical as certain genre classics it still needs something else. For a lazy afternoon viewing the film is fine but like Benton’s earlier STILL OF THE NIGHT (another now forgotten thriller, also only around 90 minutes) it’s brisk to the point of feeling a little undernourished. So in spite of the title this isn’t a fatalistic view of the end in sight as much as the pleasant stroll that the final shot becomes, part of a scene that feels tacked on later maybe so the fadeout wouldn’t be quite so downbeat (a few shots not in the film can be spotted in the trailer, including a few from what may have been a darker ending). Part of that might come from how Paul Newman and his relaxed demeanor becomes one with the film, maybe a little too much, but when it comes to what he’s doing in any given shot the film springs to life whether a close-up of him putting the pieces together or even when he rises out of frame leaving his shaking hand in the shot to do the work. It helps us believe this legend playing someone who’s no legend at all, not in his profession and not with the people in his life, just trying to come to some sort of peace with that in the little time he has left while not losing sight of the good man he might almost have been. There’s added enjoyment in his scenes with Reese Witherspoon as the daughter of these two movie stars who knows that she’s just as much a bit player in her own parents’ lives as Harry is, used to not being loved by anyone and already at peace with the feeling since it’s the only way to get through the world. If the two of them had been paired up for the entire film it might have played too much like a 90s spin on THE LATE SHOW but maybe that clash of energies was what it needed. The themes are there and they stand out even more all these years later as I’m further down the line myself but they don’t stick enough. It’s the sort of film that was slightly underwhelming when it was released and is still underwhelming now even as I pay a little more attention to those touches that stick out on each viewing, wishing that it would come together more than it ever does.
That’s the thing about the beautiful people. They do what they want, they believe what they want and they create their own truth. The film begins and ends with a woman asking a man if they love them, each version of the question meaning something a little different, each version of the answer not really mattering. In Los Angeles the truth doesn’t matter anyway, especially when you know what the truth really is. And even the winners run out of luck eventually but you’re still stuck in this town facing the dreams of what you were going to be, the realities of what you never were and all you can do is accept if you really were one of the losers, even if you did decide to finally lay off the bourbon. Gene Hackman’s last moment here as the dying movie star weakly declaring, “I may beat this thing yet,” is his best and one of the most honest the film has, a reminder of how much these people fully deny the truth up until the very end. Which makes sense since it’s a film about endings. Sometimes, especially in L.A., endings that come before you’re ready can feel like they go on for years.
Here’s the thing. I think the three leads are excellent. I mean, of course they are. Paul Newman is that scrappy outsider, even at 73, still commanding the screen and of course one of the beautiful people but he fools us that he isn’t so over multiple viewings he’s the one part of the movie that really crystalizes, his unspoken responses and small gestures always doing more for what’s on the page. Gene Hackman and Susan Sarandon are each able to pierce the screen with a glare when asked an unwanted question or even if they’re doing next to nothing in the frame, Hackman drooping down a little more in each successive scene, Sarandon looking a little more assured at the piano. The scenes have teeth in the way you can sense them putting on their characters in order to spar with him but I still can’t help but think they’re never quite these people. Maybe if Newman and Hackman had switched roles that would have made it more of a follow-up to Hackman’s great 70s detective movie NIGHT MOVES than this one ever is to Newman’s HARPER from the 60s, although he never seemed like a star who would have played this type of supporting role, just as I don’t think of Sarandon as the sort to do nothing but lounge around the pool all day.
Oddly, while the three above-the-title stars get the real fireworks it’s James Garner, not even on the poster (this makes me think there were billing shenanigans; he certainly warranted above the title mention on other films during this period), who casually walks off with the film in his pocket, playing a role that on the surface doesn’t seem all that different from what he did in the ROCKFORD FILES reunion movies made around this time but it fits perfectly and the way he digs deeper in his last scene is electric, giving every word he speaks an extra edge in a way that good ol’ Jim Rockford was never allowed to do. Plus his line, “Funny the things you never think about when you’re buying a house,” is probably the best moment in the film, one more reminder of how the past is always going to catch up to you eventually. Either way, it’s a great supporting cast too with Reese Witherspoon bringing a particular freshness to what otherwise may have just been stock character who knows more than she’s saying (and who, for the record, appears topless early on and I’ve learned recently that this appears to be what some people remember about the film more than anything else) but there’s also Stockard Channing and John Spencer working together before THE WEST WING as well as the oddball characterizations brought to it by Margo Martindale, Liev Schreiber, Giancarlo Esposito and M. Emmet Walsh who doesn’t get any dialogue as the awesomely named Lester Ivar but performs one hell of a death scene. While we’re on this subject I won’t mention who gets the other best death scene, but the way that person falls over in such a mournful style, seeming just so sad and fed up with it all, becomes one of those moments you can’t shake. I still think it comes up short but every now and then the film finds its way there.
It’s still a little too bad that the film wasn’t about the 90s the way THE LATE SHOW was about the 70s, which at least would make it a lovely period piece now beyond just the vibe of the decade or my own memory of seeing it at the Hollywood Galaxy, a place now missed by pretty much no one. One odd addendum to this film is that it actually opened in March 1998 on the same day as THE BIG LEBOWSKI, another neo-noir set in L.A., and TWILIGHT even did a little better that weekend (LEBOWSKI was, of course, what I saw opening day but priorities). But even then it was clear that in their aim to be completely irreverent in displaying their love for the form, the Coen Brothers nailed the absurdity in the genre’s fatalistic worldview and the way to ultimately abide while this film was just a little too polite about it all, wish fulfillment of writing a detective movie for the legend who stars in it but not saying anything that hadn’t been said before. It was forgotten pretty quickly and now, over twenty years after it opened, Newman’s gone. Garner’s gone. John Spencer is gone. Hackman is long retired. Sarandon gets attention for other things, but let’s not talk about that right now. Robert Benton hasn’t directed a film since 2007 (FEAST OF LOVE and, since we’re talking about endings, that was the last to ever play at the much missed National Theater in Westwood. Witherspoon, Schreiber, Martindale, Esposito are all fairly prominent these days but films like this aren't made much anymore and that’s the way it goes. Even the title is now famous for referring to something else entirely. TWILIGHT wasn’t Paul Newman’s last film but it’s still a nice place to leave him and watching it again now is a reminder that he’s starting to become another part of the past that gradually slips away. It always does. Time goes by in this town, much as we want to keep it from happening. But if you’re able to make a certain amount of peace with the past and stay off the bourbon, in the dead of night you just may be able to remember that you did what you could.
Wednesday, April 24, 2019
Sometimes the hardest thing in life can be figuring out where you are and where you should go next. And sometimes you have to ask yourself whether you really know another person at all. In the 1970 Irvin Kershner film LOVING, George Segal plays someone who has long since forgotten what it means to be aware of what you’re reaching for, let alone whether you have the capacity to know another person, to love another person. Kershner is now best remembered for directing THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, but before that was responsible for oddball titles along the lines of S*P*Y*S and THE EYES OF LAURA MARS. The earlier LOVING is more of an idiosyncratic character piece, not a great film since the overall thrust of the narrative is possibly too minor but still a memorable example of simply observing someone and the crumbling world around them while desperately trying to stay afloat among their own mistakes. Despite a running time of less than 90 minutes with a plot that might seem a little too slight at first, it’s a film that gains in complexity as you reflect back on it with even the smallest moments containing surprising resonance. In some ways a 1970-set episode of MAD MEN scored with easy listening music, it’s a film that refuses to offer any answers or sense of relief, merely showing how screwed up all this is.
As commercial illustrator Brooks Wilson (George Segal) awaits news on whether he has gotten an important account with trucking company Lepridon, he is constantly moving back and forth over tensions between wife Selma (Eva Marie Saint) who is pressuring him to make the decision on buying a bigger house and mistress Grace (Janis Young) who is threatening to finally leave him is he doesn’t leave his wife, along with married friend Nelly (Nancie Phillips) who is always just a little too happy each time she and Brooks run into each other. While waiting to learn how an important meeting with Mr. Lepridon (Sterling Hayden) himself went, Brooks takes Selma to a party at a nearby friends’ house where all of the worlds of the women in his life prepare to suddenly collide.
With a story that takes place over just a few days, LOVING is a film that plays as a long, uncertain drag on a cigarette, just as George Segal does in the opening shot as we’re dropped into the middle of it all. It makes no apologies for its lead character while presenting every horrible thing he does up close, somehow aware that we’re sadly going to identify with him whether we like it or not. Segal’s everyman quality has an innate relatability so he never has to work on being likable but between this and BLUME IN LOVE the actor is still pretty close to being the patron saint of 70s guys who are total shits to the women around them, no clue whatsoever of the damage they’re really causing. And as a story, screenplay by Don Devlin based on the novel “Brooks Wilson, Ltd.” by J.M. Ryan, it never needs to pass judgement, merely remaining close by to watch as he digs himself deeper. It’s a film about a man who tries to deal with everything around him by simply avoiding dealing with any of it, whether the pressures of his profession or his women or his screaming kids or even the neighbor dropping by with thinly veiled hostility. He relates to his kids the most while quietly observing them from a distance and is more interested in getting his wife to pose in photo mockups for his jobs instead of actually interacting with her, essentially turning his marriage into something else using the excuse of art, no real use for whatever she might be otherwise. Everything he does seems to be about avoiding the issue of what he really wants as he tries to find a way out of the next conversation.
There’s a cold, wintery feel to the film helped by the chill brought to it by the great cinematographer Gordon Willis, the likes of KLUTE and THE GODFATHER still to come for him at this point, which helps keep it from playing too much like a nasty sitcom and in its darkly funny way captures a very particular ’69-‘70 feel of east coast clutter whether New York or suburban Connecticut. The details always feel tangible down to the quiet of an elementary school at night or even the way Brooks works with a nude model at home as his daughter sits close by, a reminder of the looseness in the air at the time. That slightly dreamlike quality every movie from the period seems to have for me is there as if each shot is somehow searching for a sense of peace beyond anyone’s reach with the location photography in New York particularly evocative; according to some sources the construction site where the Lepridon meeting takes place is apparently the future World Trade Center while the late afternoon light of the opening credit sequence where Segal and his mistress argue in the city streets contains a particularly loose quality as if some of it was maybe filmed with hidden cameras. It all captures a sense of the isolation that can be felt even when the other person is right next to you and the film is filled with people talking around each other, never quite connecting in the moment for the right reasons, everyone friendly towards spouses who aren’t their own so every bit of dialogue is almost just a placeholder until the next confrontation. Even looking at a possible house to buy becomes a brief unexpected encounter between a divorcing couple (the wife is played by Diana Douglas, mother of Michael, displaying a mournful bitterness that she can’t quite conceal) looking to unload the place, yet another reminder of the wreckage always taking place around the corner. It’s a world where everyone is focused on their own thing, no memory if they’ve met you before and real communication is almost impossible.
The story may be slight but the approach isn’t so it becomes as much about the interactions and the small gestures found in moments as anything. Sheldon Patinkin, artistic consultant at Second City and Steppenwolf, is credited with “Background Improvisations” and I’d love to know more about the story behind what appears to have been an intricate process so the bit players in the frame wouldn’t just be extras (one of those extras appears to be an uncredited M. Emmet Walsh, visible as a waiter in a few shots). The film always seems to be observing people listening to others or being annoyed by a nearby conversation, paying more attention to their glazed expression than the words, trying to figure out what might be said to get through the next moment without another drink, the nervous laughter hanging in the air a few seconds too long. Some of the best moments are simply when it holds for a few extra seconds on behavior, particularly in the case of Eva Marie Saint’s Selma angrily grabbing an uneaten dinner plate after a few tense words with her husband or blithely dancing with someone at the big party, as if to remind us what the supposed hero of this story is throwing away.
As a result, Kershner’s direction forces us to find what’s important in each shot and this approach possibly plays as a little too casual in its storytelling at times; when a character turns up unexpectedly at one point the film doesn’t even do anything to punctuate the moment with an explanation of why that person is suddenly there, not quite clarifying who knows who. Even some of the dialogue at times feels a little too cryptic in the way it reaches for some greater thematic element in just about every scene so the trail to that meaning at times feels lost. Maybe because Eva Marie Saint, excellent here, is essentially the co-lead the mistress character of Grace played by Janis Young is left as a mostly silent figure so that actress doesn’t get a chance to make much of an impression. In some ways this makes sense since she’s just a vision in Brooks’ mind, a photo he projects on the wall to gaze at, willing to throw everything away for her for nebulous reasons. Even though she has some dialogue almost none of it makes any sort of an impression so she’s always a symbol of something never clarified but maybe that’s the point too—all Brooks wants is something other than this normal life and the only truth that ever seems to matter to him is what he thinks the other person wants to hear.
But, just like the game his daughters play in one scene, this is a film where adulthood is one big staring contest with a lead character determined to see how long he can go without committing or admitting to anything at all, contradicting what he said a few scenes earlier to keep whoever he’s talking to on his side, miserable in the drudgery of the suburbs and dreaming of a barefoot artists’ life in the city. The hostility over what he’s facing in the moment, even if it’s as petty as the way he’s treated at a private club where he’s not a member, is all he ever wants to focus on and when someone calls him ‘middle class’ as he hesitates at making a big decision it’s just about the biggest insult of all. As Segal’s Brooks desperately attempts to find common ground with Sterling Hayden’s Lincolnesque paragon of virtue by talking about his love of trucks it feels like for a minute we’re seeing the real person fighting to be heard through the boozy haze but I’m not even sure about that. Maybe he doesn’t know anymore either.
It’s such a short film that a full third of the running time is taken up by the climactic party which doesn’t bother me at all since as party scenes go this is a great one, the sort of thing you remember about the film years after the rest has been forgotten and it serves as an untethered microcosm of this adult world that once existed where everything comes to a head in Brooks’ life. This is real ICE STORM territory with at least one offscreen action that is undeniably horrific and the party comes to a halt as everyone stops to stare at what’s accidentally being caught by a special home video camera nearby but in the world of this film is presented as just another Saturday night. Some of the side touches creep me out, particularly that kiddie record with the “pussy’s in the well” refrain as everyone watches the deed occur and I’m almost waiting for it all to become more nightmarish than it does although what happens is still pretty bad, a game of who’s going to pass out first, who’s going to drink too much, who’s going to fuck someone else’s wife. “It’s just a party,” as someone defensively tries to say near the end and it’s a film about a sloppy drunk in a world of sloppy drunks and the only thing to do according to most people in it is just go on with the party until you can’t anymore. Along with that easy listening score by Bernardo Segall which finds a melancholy that the main character can never quite grasp for himself, one of the key images seems to be that painting of haunted faces staring back at Brooks in a gallery window which is what the Saturday night turns into, all those faces becoming the other party guests until it’s just his own wife staring back, seeing him for who he really is, trying to talk his way out of where he’s wound up even after the truth is revealed.
George Segal is now mainly known for his sitcom persona so it can be remarkable to revisit some of his work from this era where he seems so committed to this portrayal that you can feel how much this guy has curled up inside of his brain to shut everything else out so no one can find him, the edge in that hostility always near the surface and he’s particularly convincing as someone who’s quickly downed a few too many martinis in the middle of the day due to his own hatred of it all. Playing against him as someone always ignored, Eva Marie Saint is particularly good here, extremely effective as someone holding back her own anger and doing whatever she can to get things back to normal amid all those signs that she deserves better than this. Along with the physicality of the towering force that is Sterling Hayden in his brief role there’s the slightly dangerous comic presence of Nancie Phillips always looking to ‘have lunch’ with Brooks alongside David Doyle as her simmering husband and the pragmatic calm of Keenan Wynn as Brooks’s agent. The film also contains a number of interesting faces throughout to add to the New York vibe including an early appearance by Roy Scheider, who decades later worked with Kershner again on the pilot for SEAQUEST DSV, plus Sherry Lansing who stands out in a tiny role, introduced as unexplained arm candy but playing it like she’s more on the ball than how the part was written. Her oddly flirtatious vibe mixed with a knowing gaze seems like someone I’ve met in passing at parties and never had any relationship with beyond odd drunken moments one of several things here that makes it one hell of a movie for someone who doesn’t drink anymore but occasionally thinks back on that mindset, reminded of what once happened that can’t be undone.
It’s the sort of film which plays as if there’s not much there at first, the end credits rolling before you’re really prepared, but gains in your head afterwards particularly during repeat viewings. LOVING is a film that makes its statement and doesn’t wait around, so even though we want to see what happens, we don’t need more than we get. These days it feels like the basic plot structure of so many films is that everything needs to be cleared up, the protagonist has to fix everything he’s done wrong. There needs to be hope, there needs to be closure, so from our present mindset it’s as if the finish of this film essentially comes at the end of the second act. But LOVING was released in early 1970, the artificiality of the previous decade turning into a hangover that lingered into the next so it’s all about being uncertain, all about taking a leap only to find when you do it it’s the worst decision imaginable and the anger toward you never ends. It may be a slight story but it’s not a slight movie, just as the anger towards us is felt longer than we ever expected. It’s an idiosyncratic character piece directed by Irvin Kershner that deals with the complex emotions of how fucked up everything is which, come to think of it, could also be used to describe THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, which itself doesn’t offer any simple answers to the truth that’s been learned. But, as other films have proven, answers are boring anyway so maybe the line between LOVING and that other film he made later on isn’t as great as it seemed at first. These are films where answers don’t matter since the truth is clear anyway. Maybe you always know the way things really are deep down and since you can’t just keep standing where you are the only thing you need to figure out is where you’re supposed to go next. And, if you’re lucky, who’s going to go there with you.
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.