Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Making Things Move

We all have regrets. Like this one time at a party I met Mary Kay Place and didn’t ask her about MODERN PROBLEMS. But certain memories stay with you. It’s a long time ago now but I was in the second row at the New Beverly for the packed 2008 screening of Joe Dante’s legendary THE MOVIE ORGY, directly behind several well-known people in the front which of course included Quentin Tarantino, some years before he completely took over the place. I don’t know what they were talking about but it could have been just about anything and all I know is that at one point Tarantino was heard by me to exclaim, “I love MODERN PROBLEMS!” in case you were wondering how he felt about that particular Chevy Chase vehicle I sometimes wonder about. And the existence of MODERN PROBLEMS has long seemed like some sort of private joke between me and, well, I’m not really sure. Maybe LexG and other people who remember MODERN PROBLEMS. The film actually did pretty well when it opened on Christmas Day 1981 but not many other people ever seemed to like it, let alone love it. Chevy himself has always been dismissive, although a near-fatal electrocution he suffered on the set might have understandably soured him on the whole thing. The film was directed by Ken Shapiro, who he had a history with going back to his pre-SNL days of the Channel One Theater and THE GROOVE TUBE but after this they never worked together again and Shapiro never made another movie. If I bother to think about MODERN PROBLEMS for more than a minute the whole thing feels stranger and stranger, possibly a darker satire begun by various National Lampoon-related personnel as an R-rated comedy that was later smoothed down to a PG which meant a kid like me could have gone to see it. Revisiting the movie now makes me think I maybe shouldn’t have been allowed anyway since there are enough remnants of that more adult tone still in there. And though it’s never as funny as I’d like, enough random laughs come through to make me watch it again once in a while even as I wonder why I’m watching it again. Why am I watching it again, anyway? These are the riddles of MODERN PROBLEMS.
Max Fiedler (Chevy Chase) is an air traffic controller living in Manhattan dealing with all the stresses of his life, including his girlfriend Darcy (Patti D’Arbanville) suddenly picking up and moving out with no notice. Driving home one night he finds himself behind a tanker truck which spills a mysterious green sludge onto his car and, not knowing that the truck is actually carrying nuclear waste, Max suddenly finds himself imbued with telekinetic powers to move objects and make things happen at his choosing. Attempting to get Darcy back into his life, the two of them head for a weekend outing at a house belonging to old friend Brian (Brian Doyle-Murray) who now lives with Max’s ex-wife Lorraine (Mary Kay Place) but things are soon tested by the arrival of self-help author Mark Winslow (Dabney Coleman) who makes no secret of the contempt he displays towards Max and his own interest in Darcy with Max beginning to lose it, finally making no secret about what sort of powers he has.
Apparently director Ken Shapiro described MODERN PROBLEMS (I’m guessing in the press materials) as “CARRIE meets ANNIE HALL” which isn’t a bad pitch and sounds like it could have been one of the fake movies made by the Woody Allen character in STARDUST MEMORIES. Written by Shapiro & Tom Sherohman & Arthur Sellers, tonally it’s a film that falls somewhere between the R-rated approach of ANIMAL HOUSE and the more kid friendly MEATBALLS, a stopover before GHOSTBUSTERS made things acceptable for all, post-John Belushi and all that drug humor. Somewhere in there is the grubby sexism of the National Lampoon fuck-the-world nastiness that was the forte of some of these people and maybe it needed Harold Ramis to figure out the right sort of balance when he directed Chevy in the first VACATION a few years later bringing an almost nostalgic, as well as therapeutic, approach to the sacred cows being satirized while still pausing for the fate of the dog that Clark Griswold forgets to untie from the car. The bones at the heart of MODERN PROBLEMS feel like the story of people (well, men) who grew up in the 60s trying to figure out what to do once they get to be 35 and the ‘80s begin, terrified by how fast things are changing but especially by women who have their own thoughts and the other men who might be showing an interest in that. Which is a more adult concept than gaining superpowers but it’s a fair guess that the studio wanted the potential wackiness of Chevy becoming imbued with telekinesis to be the draw so someone like me could see it and since SUPER FUZZ hadn’t turned up on HBO yet what else were they supposed to do?
So MODERN PROBLEMS doesn’t feel made entirely without thought, even while it plays like the director wanted things to be as broad as possible at every conceivable moment. At least it’s weird, although this means there’s not much in the way of a consistent tone with a few of the supporting performances containing bits of interesting characterizations up against the lead role played by Chevy that never feels completely formed. One line blatantly tries to sell us on his hapless likability as if forced to by studio notes when his friendly ex-wife Mary Kay Place calls him, “a prince who thinks he’s a frog.” But he just seems like a drag a lot of the time, the film resisting making him the smarmy Chevy of Weekend Update and CADDYSHACK in favor of a regular guy who can say all the right things to a mannequin that he can’t say when his girlfriend is actually in the room but they can’t make him likable. He’s kind of a jerk but the film doesn’t come up with enough ways to make him an interestingly flawed jerk so all that’s left is his insecurity even if you’d think that the portrayal of what would now be thought of as toxicity could maybe even add to the satire. With everything that’s going on around him so much of the time, Chevy is kind of left glaring at it all.
There is an idea somewhere in all this of a guy who has to confront his own self-hatred before finally being able to open up himself to the love of his girlfriend but the focus is really more on the next big comic setpiece. The Vincent Canby review in the New York Times mentions “four short but hilarious sequences” sprinkled throughout and I could probably guess at what they are (sadly, Canby isn’t around anymore to confirm), like the brief stop in traffic during the opening credits where everything seems to go wrong which isn’t bad in a silent movie way or maybe the early scene at a restaurant, also played without dialogue, when Max catches the eye of a woman who it turns out is on a date followed by a chain reaction of other people catching the eye of someone at another table. It’s not badly done even if the blocking of the people at the other tables doesn’t feel quite so elegant but it does present this world where everyone doesn’t just want to be with another person, they want to be another person entirely and Max can’t even admit that to himself. All this feels like it’s going for a point, along with the portrayal of the word of bitter, exhausted air traffic controllers which conceivably represents all of society falling apart while still never very well developed.
Scattered in among the various elements like the annoying would-be romantic rival Barry played by Mitch Kreindel (maybe best known for trying to pick up Peter Sellers’ Chauncey Gardner at the embassy party in BEING THERE) or pieces of dialogue like when Brian says that Mark Winslow is “always one step ahead of the Village Voice”, the film seems to want to spend more time on Max getting acquainted with his newfound powers and one imagines Ivan Reitman taking mental notes while watching it on how to adjust the tone when making a PG supernatural comedy. More random are possibly some of those other short but hilarious sequences which Canby was referring to, like Chevy causing chaos at the ballet (the ballet star is named Stolichnaya, ha ha) or maybe even be causing Barry to suffer a horrendous, and gory, nosebleed at a restaurant, which is actually much more unpleasant than I ever thought at the time and something that probably wouldn’t have been done just a few years later, even if the guy is going after Max’s girl and from the film’s point of view kinda sorta deserves what’s coming to him—he also reminds me of someone so maybe I’m projecting just a little, but we don’t need to go into that. Some of this is at least in the ballpark of funny if not actually funny, among several ideas that are half-formed like the sight gag of the first look at the beach house which isn’t that good a joke anyway but then the film is still stuck with it.
Max is allegedly the nice, normal guy but he’s miserable, up against the supporting characters who are everything he’s not. Girlfriend Darcy just wants to live a normal life, to love him and maintain her own career at the same time but he doesn’t know how to communicate with her and even when he uses his new powers to pleasure her in bed (another reminder of how I saw this PG movie at a certain young age) he’s still unfulfilled by the whole thing. Ex-wife Lorraine wants to avoid negativity and is excited to try something new, old friend Brian is able to laugh at his sexual misfortune in Vietnam and Dabney Coleman’s Mark Winslow, a prick right from his first line of dialogue, is all about taking everything for himself, a self-help author whose selfishly hostile approach seems designed to turn people against each other. On the other hand, he’s the one who gets the line, “Life sucks so why not be a schmuck?” which really doesn’t seem like all that bad a philosophy to maintain at certain times.
All of this leads to the final half-hour where everyone meets up at Brian’s beach house and Max starts to crack up giving us the long dinner scene where Max finally shows everyone his powers with things becoming more about the complicated special effects than the jokes but it still feels like not very much happens even if, in fairness, the film does give us a look at Dabney Coleman’s ass. The idea of an EXORCIST spoof only about battling one’s own demons isn’t bad but it still feels a little rushed through with Chevy’s possessed nature in the last third meaning that it doesn’t feel like he’s even present much of the time and a few of the characters just drop out of the movie entirely. Of course, it all leads to the climactic drug humor involving “voodoo powder” plus Chevy’s “I LIKE IT!” declaration that everyone seems to remember and when you think about it, if this isn’t cinematic immortality what is?
The homophobia of the leather bar/book party and casual racism in the portrayal of Nell Carter’s live-in Haitian housekeeper Dorita is all worth pointing out although a brief kitchen scene with Carter, Mary Kay Place and Patti D’Arbanville likely qualifies the film as passing the Bechdel Test, if we’re keeping track of such things. Maybe it’s an issue of energy in the way some of these short sequences, as Vincent Canby referred to them, just abruptly happen with no time given to building to anything so it’s like the film is missing a big setpiece in contrast to all the smaller setpieces. Whether or not MODERN PROBLEMS should be called good, it still fascinates in a certain nasty, sleazy way and considering how many people refer to this as one of the worst comedies of Chevy’s career/SNL alum history/all time, I guess my feeling would be that there’s almost something perversely comforting about it by now. Even the “Gonna Get It Next Time” theme by The Tubes that plays over the credits is still pretty catchy and the way it gets worked into Dominic Frontiere’s score helps it stick in one’s brain for the next forty-plus years. It’s a better film than FLETCH LIVES, at the very least. In the end, MODERN PROBLEMS is only 92 minutes so all this is over with pretty quick but also, maybe more importantly, separated from all these years after seeing it as a kid a few of its problems are more relatable than I ever expected.
This is still fairly early in the Chevy Chase movie star run and much as I like FOUL PLAY or SEEMS LIKE OLD TIMES not to mention CADDYSHACK I’d argue that there isn’t a really sharp cinematic characterization from him until the first crack at Clark Griswold in 1983. There’s something in his look at the time as he wreaks that brings the right sort of madness to the moment where he wreaks havoc but when things need to be momentarily normal it’s like he doesn’t always know how to portray such a simple moment. Up against all that, Patti D’Arbanville (never mind the Andy Warhol background or relationships with the likes of Cat Stevens and Don Johnson, her film & TV career feels like the definition of random) displays a sweetness and even perceptibility at times even if the part is basically The Conflicted Girlfriend. Maybe she’s no Beverly D’Angelo as these things go but she still brings to it whatever emotional stakes the movie actually has. Mary Kay Place, from that party once upon a time, is always an engaging presence somehow creating a fully fleshed character out of not much at all, plus Brian Doyle Murray gets a few moments as well; the shot when he continues to cut his food as someone hovers above them at dinner even gets me to laugh out loud.
But it’s still not much of a surprise that the whole thing is stolen by the great Dabney Coleman who gives the funniest performance that is so good he even manages to perfectly time the moment near the end when he gets by a wave right after turning around as he marches out to the ocean. He has some of the best dialogue too, making the material feel stronger than it is with one particularly good scene when he recites a list of his favorite things out on the beach with a pronunciation of the name “Martin Scorsese” for the ages, maybe the single best moment of the entire film.
In the parlance of our times I suppose parts of MODERN PROBLEMS qualify as problematic, not that there’s any point in spending too long on such things. It’s unavoidable that Christmas 1981 feels like a long time ago now, for lots of reasons. The Belushi-Aykroyd NEIGHBORS was also playing then and did slightly better business but they both feel like a couple of the stranger SNL-connected product to ever get out there. It is an odd product of its era, down to the strange coincidence of being about an air traffic controller came out just a few months after Reagan fired the air traffic controllers when they went on strike so even the film couldn’t anticipate what sort of problems the modern ‘80s were going to include. Ken Shapiro died in 2017 having moved to Las Cruces some years before. Chevy is still Chevy, or at least he appeared to be the last time I checked his Instagram account. Also worth pointing out is how much used DVDs of this film out there seem to be going for so presumably someone else is still watching this thing. Maybe Tarantino can write about his love for it in his next book. For now, I guess the only thing to do is figure out a way to move on past all those regrets from long ago, some of them more substantial than having to do with people I met at parties. Of course, some of those problems are more modern, and painful, than others.

Thursday, February 16, 2023

As Far As You Can

Until shortly before I wrote about it some years back, I’m not sure I’d even heard of Claudia Weill’s GIRLFRIENDS but the cult seems to have grown since that time which likely comes from airings on TCM which is where I first saw it, rep screenings at places like the New Beverly in L.A. and Metrograph in New York, a Criterion Blu-ray loaded with special features as well as every time someone on Film Twitter discovers Stanley Kubrick was a big fan. This newfound rep is well deserved, since GIRLFRIENDS is a wonderfully insightful look at female friendship and having to sometimes keep going on your own that still feels relatable forty-five years after it was released. See it if you haven’t. So far there hasn’t been the same level of appreciation for IT’S MY TURN, the one and only other feature directed by Claudia Weill which followed in 1980 and is probably now best known for giving the world the adult contemporary staple that is the Diana Ross song of the same name. In the years following, Weill continued to work in television and theater along with teaching at various universities but there haven’t been any other features, which seems at least partly due to a horrible experience with producer Ray Stark on this film, as discussed by her in the 2021 Vanity Fair article “Promising Young Women”. This of course is unfortunate for all sorts of reasons, not the least that it would have been nice to get more films along the lines of GIRLFRIENDS if on a larger scale and while IT’S MY TURN never becomes as effective as that debut, it does display its own kind of potential in a lightly enjoyable way that now plays as an early version of the sort of thing the likes of Nicole Holofcener would go on to do. The difference is this one was made by a big studio and produced by people who would maybe be more at home with, say, a plot driven script of the sort someone like Ray Stark was probably used to. As a result, the film that came out of this feels like it’s fighting against any semblance of high concept in the story line and maybe plays as most comfortable when it’s in no rush whatsoever. Running only about ninety minutes, the film never quite surpasses the feeling of being a little too slight but is still quietly satisfying in a modest, hopeful way.
Mathematics professor Kate Gunzinger (Jill Clayburgh) has reached a crossroads in her life, with a stable but not exactly passionate relationship with divorcee Homer (Charles Grodin) but when she travels to New York for a weekend for a job interview and to attend the wedding of her father she meets the son of his new wife, ex-ball player Ben Lewin (Michael Douglas). The two of them hit it off immediately but with so much of each of their own lives in flux Kate has to quickly decide if leaving the unrewarding stability of Homer is worth trying to make something with Ben work.
IT'S MY TURN is uneven, not to mention uneventful, a little too much of the time with a tone that never becomes consistent enough to settle down in but it’s always pleasant with a performance by Jill Clayburgh that holds much of it together by sheer force. The screenplay is by Eleanor Bergstein who later went on to write DIRTY DANCING which makes it easy to wonder how much autobiography can be found in both to pair them together. It’s a film loaded with character beats and dialogue that always seems to be searching for layers but the most effective and comfortable moments that come out of Weill’s direction seem to be when it simply breathes, just willing to linger on a close-up of Jill Clayburgh and do nothing else. Her innate relatability always has just the right effect and the actress was phenomenal at infusing tangible life into deceptively small character moments although when she has to go for more broadly comical bits here of the stumbling in her heels variety it can look like she’s trying too hard, causing the film to seem uncertain about its own tone as well. “Why are your clothes so dumb?” Michael Douglas asks her in one scene out of nowhere, referring to all those scarves she drops even in the opening shot and you can see in her eyes how upset this makes her as well as getting her to wonder why she makes things like that more complicated than she needs to. The film has a casual approach and it makes the people around her believable but it doesn’t always keep them complete fleshed out beyond those moments where they suddenly make sense, leading to dialogue that sometimes feels straining for the answer of what the scene is supposed to be about. The right elements are there and it maintains a lightly enjoyable, springtime vibe but still feels like an idea that isn’t completely formed yet.
In spite of such drawbacks, the film is so modest that it hardly seems like the sort of thing worth getting upset over but some of the critical response when it was released in October 1980 comes off as a little too nasty for something so small and sincere. The Razzie nomination for Worst Screenplay barely even seems worth acknowledging while Roger Ebert just seems mildly annoyed by the whole thing in his two star review and he’s not even wrong about everything he says but there is the feeling of going slightly overboard with the criticisms. All this aside, IT’S MY TURN plays like a charmingly low-key character piece that wants to be a commercial romantic comedy but the plot doesn’t quite have to juice to get it there. It’s a light piece of work, with a bouncy score by Patrick Williams (many film & TV credits, including for USED CARS and HERO AT LARGE around this period) that feels like it would be right at home as the theme to an MTM sitcom of the time but in this context feels like it’s straining a little too hard for a certain tone. There’s potential in the setup that maybe lacks a real narrative spine to go with the character approach and feminist thematic focus, so while there’s always a believably honest sense of inner life to the main character it still feels like something is missing.
Still, it has Jill Clayburgh so maybe not much more is needed. At the very least it’s always her movie, letting the actress own the screen as someone you want to follow while hoping Kate makes the right choice. Michael Douglas, during the period when he was still getting his movie star sea legs by playing supporting to female leads in films like this, THE CHINA SYNDROME, COMA and even ROMANCING THE STONE, matches up well with her playing someone equally at sea in his own life—we don't know the full extent until near the end—looking for something that makes him feel as good as when he played ball. He brings a welcome energy and you can always feel Douglas trying to make the scenes work, as if trying to needle Clayburgh in character to add chemistry to their relationship. This is especially spotlighted during a stretch of the film that goes on for roughly ten minutes with the two of them in her hotel room, doing little more than flirting, kissing, talking, bickering, then agreeing to table things and the patience the film displays at times is admirable with a flow to how these moments are just allowed to happen. If it had kept this going for much of the running time, maybe even turning that one night into the entire film like the Richard Linklater BEFORE series did much later on, instead of getting bogged down in side issues and characters who get introduced then disappear, it might have been something really special. Some of those scenes end practically before they’ve even begun, abruptly cut short before there can be any real emotional effect, making one wonder why the film bothered with them at all unless it was simply to get the movie to feature length. It’s the inner workings of the chemistry between Clayburgh and Douglas that the movie feels like it wants to explore, one which is worth exploring with a tension to it all as he challenges her but it still feels effortless and could likely support the entire movie if it wanted to spend that much time with them.
It does make sense that the main character in a film who is a math professor would be meant to represent some sort of metaphor for how all those complex equations related to how screwed up their life is, that no matter how expert they are in mapping these things out they’re still going to be groping in the dark like everyone else when it comes to actual life. An early shot of Clayburgh traversing an overly complicated garage layout just to get home to the loft she shares with Homer work perfectly as a symbol for how much she’s making her life a little more complicated than they need to be, just like how much mater on she keeps offering more suggestions on how she and Douglas can rearrange their flights home, always looking for the logic and numbers more than anything that emotionally makes sense. All of this feels like it’s trying to tie into the questions of how can a woman have it all in the feminist discussions of the time, the inherent awkwardness in these relationships, especially when she brings up the question of how many people are really in the bed she’s sharing with Douglas. When the film is willing to stay with them, in no rush to get anywhere else, it has a life. The lack of effort apparent in their chemistry matches up nicely with the scenes she shares with Charles Grodin, playing it charming but charming in the style of someone on cruise control, who doesn’t need to try any harder beyond making the unwanted jokes before going back to his own stuff, never wanting things to get too serious since that would cause everything to change, all coming out of the realization that a lot of space in a relationship isn’t the most fulfilling thing.
Among the prominent New York locations that appear (Marshall Brickman’s SIMON can be spotted playing at Cinema II across the street from Bloomingdale’s) is an extended sequence set at Yankee Stadium where Ben takes Kate to what turns out to be an Old Timer’s Day featuring the likes of Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Whitey Ford among many others which would likely be a treat for any longtime New Yorker/Yankee/baseball fan--according to imdb, filmed at the actual old-timers day on June 21, 1980 when I was likely across town being taken to see the Broadway musical BARNUM for my birthday. The ex-ballplayer played by Michael Douglas is right there alongside them, of course still looking pretty young and trim (a shoulder injury ended Ben’s career, so we’re told). Kate asks someone how old you have to be to be an Old Timer and she’s told, “Not old. Just finished,” which is a little on the nose but still a reminder of how you have to decide if you want to be finished or not. The sequence goes on much longer than necessary since it doesn’t really serve any real purpose past a certain point—again, it feels like stretching things out to get to the 90-minute mark—but it does tie into the overall theme of Ben being someone who was forced to give up his career but still has to live the rest of his life. It all doesn’t necessarily have to be etched in stone for Kate who still has the power to change things. What’s missing is a way to somehow firm down the concept beyond various scenes that serve as little more than casual get-togethers and dinners where people get acquainted. In spite of what the basic logline sounds like it might be it never becomes a movie centered around a wedding or even the weirdness of two kids of an older married couple falling for each other. “I love you, sis,” is a pretty good line that goes by fast so the whole thing is basically a nonissue and even when the actual ceremony comes the sequence is over with pretty quick. The film is more about the chemistry that quickly develops and the question of whether their lives will allow it to keep going. Through all this, moments of sensitivity stick out even if they don’t feel quite connected to the whole, like Steven Hill and Beverly Garland excusing themselves from their wedding when she sees he’s feeling tired, a small moment where something goes unspoken that becomes much more effective than all the conversations whether it’s not entirely clear what dialogue is specifically referring to and what we’re supposed to take from it.
So, in the end, what does IT’S MY TURN have? It has Jill Clayburgh, during that brief moment in time when ‘Jill Clayburgh movie’ qualified as a subgenre and her inherent likability is what carries it, the vulnerability she displays is what makes us root for her. It also offers a glimpse at the potential Claudia Weill displayed as the ‘70s turned into the ‘80s but there wasn’t going to be much of a place for this kind of movie for the next few years but she always seems focused on bringing a sensitivity to things, one series of silent looks between various characters displaying more sensitivity than all of those longer dialogue scenes. It even gives us a look at more relaxed versions of Michael Douglas and Charles Grodin than they got to do at other points through the years. The result may be too vague to fully connect so IT’S MY TURN feels mild and maybe a little small in the end, one of those films where just as it feels like things are beginning to build so they can pay off, that’s when the end credits roll. But it does contain an earnestness in the way it explores someone facing the need for change in their lives even when they don’t realize that’s what they need, the way Charles Grodin’s Homer is perfectly happy to remain in a cruise control status. People in your life are going to make changes, even if you’re not ready. And, by the way, you should too especially if you feel like you’ve been settling. Through all this it’s hard not to have the feeling that this film is compromised in a way that at least diluted the intended effect; in the Vanity Fair article Weill talks about a shadow cut being prepared at the same time without her knowledge during the editing process so it’s hard to know how compromised the release version might be. Of course, it’s always possible that the script wasn’t strong enough or Weill’s lack of experience working on a studio film was a factor but the lack of consistency makes it easier to believe in the possibility of things being messed with, whether by Ray Stark or the studio. Having said this, all we can really go on is the final film which has more than enough to defend it at least partway. It’s about that point in your life where you suddenly find yourself asking, “Is it over? Am I done? Is anything else going to happen to me or is it all set? Can I still do something to change things?” That’s one thing you realize. People in your life are going to make changes, even if you’re not ready and, by the way, you should too. Especially if it feels like you’ve been settling.
The material may not be there in the way it was for Jill Clayburgh in some of her best films like AN UNMARRIED WOMAN and STARTING OVER but even during moments where the plot seems to be straining to explain her feels she always feels so relatable that it elevates things closer to where it needs to be. Even when a scene doesn’t quite click what’s always most important is that sense of yearning in her eyes. Some of Michael Douglas’ character almost is played between the lines or in asides meant to explain him a little too easily, how he is looking for something to care about now since baseball is no longer there, while Charles Grodin in a more relaxed mode than he often is paints a fleshed out portrayal of someone who simply wants to be comfortable. The always dependable Steven Hill and Beverly Garland aren’t quite around as much as you’d expect them to be but they bring some added gravitas to the family relations. There’s also early appearances by Daniel Stern (like in the previous year’s STARTING OVER, playing a student in a classroom) and the recently departed Charles Kimborough (also briefly in, what do you know, STARTING OVER) plus Dianne (spelled Diane) Weist in her first film, introduced as a close friend and is allowed to make a nice impression but not much more than that, really one moment where she offers some boilerplate advice then that’s about it.
Based on the two movies we got it’s hard not to wonder what other films made by Weill might have been, something that combined the best of GIRLFRIENDS with the slicker production values of the second film and seeing that she placed PHANTOM THREAD on her recent top ten Sight & Sound list makes me wish even more that we’d gotten a streak of romantic comedies from her through the years. Plus according to Wikipedia she’s from Scarsdale so that makes me even more willing to defend her. To get back to the Ray Stark angle, in his recent book CINEMA SPECULATION Quentin Tarantino refers to him as “one of the town’s biggest bullies, and he was responsible for mangling more films than an El Paso drive-in movie projector” so one assumes he’s heard a few stories about the producer who died in 2004. Maybe some of them were even about this movie. Tarantino also refers to GIRLFRIENDS briefly in his book as part of a list of key titles of the era’s ‘New York low-budget aesthetic’ he would encounter during his formative years and a Claudia Weill double bill was part of the schedule at the New Beverly Cinema a few years back during a month devoted to female directors with IT’S MY TURN shown in 16mm, apparently the only print that was available. I was there that night and so was, among others, a certain Oscar nominated writer-director of a popular mystery franchise. The film doesn’t even seem to have done all that bad at the 1980 box office (taking in more than STARDUST MEMORIES, less than OH, GOD! BOOK II) but only that song has really survived in pop culture which makes sense considering how tough it is to get it out of your head. More recently the film has turned up on Tubi where a lot of buried and forgotten Columbia titles can be found. In the end, what IT’S MY TURN has along with the lead performance and sheer display of potential is that small glimmer of hope that can be found it those odd weekends when someone unexpectedly appears. Sometimes the answer is simpler than you realize. And that’s when the real work begins, if you’re lucky. Which doesn’t always happen. Hopefully it does. These days I'm trying to remember that.

Saturday, November 19, 2022

The Roads Are Straight

Thinking about movement right now. What I’m doing. How much has happened and what hasn’t and what causes me to feel like I’m still in the same place. I’m thinking about a lot of things these days, there just haven’t been any realizations, at least none I want to share here. Because things have changed. Maybe they’ve changed too fast. And, whether you like it or not, feelings fade away but there’s a lot I don’t want to get into right now. Even the thought of going to the movies doesn’t do very much for me these days which may be my inner snob waiting for the Arclight or Vista to come back. At least there’s still the New Beverly, a place that I’ve been going to long enough by now that I’ll even see things I’ve already seen there for the sheer pleasure of the experience. My first ever viewing of Monte Hellman’s TWO-LANE BLACKTOP happened there long ago, paired with CISCO PIKE which at a certain point became another one of my obsessions. Soon after the place reopened in 2021 post-lockdown there was another viewing of TWO-LANE BLACKTOP, this time paired with COCKFIGHTER which also was directed by Monte Hellman and starred Warren Oates. But deep down I was there to see TWO-LANE BLACKTOP again. It’s a film I still think about and seeing it after a year of being stuck at home was a reminder of what it can be like to get lost in such a movie when it’s there in front of you, to dream of being that free along with the limitations of that freedom which eventually become clear as they always do. Hitting the road without a care of where I’m going still sounds nice but it’s not going to happen right now. Maybe watching this film late at night, because this is a perfect film to put on late at night, helps me do it in my dreams. But where do I go next? Is there an answer? Maybe I’m searching for that too. Searching for why I still do certain things.
Monte Hellman directed TWO-LANE BLACKTOP which has long been famous, or infamous, as the movie Esquire put on the cover not long before it was released in July 1971, nominating it as ‘the movie of the year’ as if trying to will it into becoming the next big thing and even published the entire screenplay inside. None of this helped the film when it opened and didn’t do much business—several good reviews are excerpted on Wikipedia so it wasn’t a total rejection—but interest grew through the years and by the time the belated video release came along in 1999, apparently delayed due to pesky music rights, the cult was there waiting. This is a film that feels like it was made for people who are willing to wait. Even though this emerged during the post-EASY RIDER period the film still manages to feel outside of the time it was likely meant to capitalize on while still fully a part of that, more about people drifting away from the mainstream than heading towards the counterculture who may have been attracted to it. And even though I wasn’t around at the time to speak to how all this might have felt, right now when TWO-LANE BLACKTOP plays the reaction I always have feels like the real deal as I drift along like these people in my own form of isolation. Only, like I already said, I’m not going anywhere right now.
The Driver (James Taylor) and The Mechanic (Dennis Wilson) are driving through the country east from California in a modified ’55 Chevy, picking up money from street racing. At a certain point they pick up The Girl (Laurie Bird) who is allegedly hitchhiking but just settles down in their car with her duffel bag not saying a word. After passing by the talkative G.T.O. (Warren Oates) a few times in his own fast car which is of course a G.T.O., they agree to a bet: race to Washington DC for pink slips to see who’s faster with The Girl still along for the ride and the two in the Chevy even willingly stop when G.T.O. needs to have some work done on his own car. But as the race goes on and signs of darkness begin to appear, it becomes less clear just what the prize of their race really is.
Driving can be about getting lost in what’s in front of you while staying focused on the road, the horizon. Getting away from somewhere, even if you’re going nowhere. When I think about driving long distances it’s never the music heard in all those montages that comes to mind. It’s the wind, the silence, the sound of the engine and the hope for what may come around the next turn. TWO-LANE BLACKTOP has this feeling, caught somewhere between semi-documentary realism and some vague memory of a dream I had long ago, somehow finding just the right way to take its visuals and turn them into a new kind of poetry. The shots, the moments, the glances, even the non-actor awkwardness of some of the line readings so if you get into the rhythm of the piece, willing to sit back and just listen, the right effect can hit, helped by a script (screenplay by Rudolph Wurlitzer and Will Corry, story by Will Corry) which is sparse yet tight in its look at the days when so much out there still felt empty.
The two leads in that ’55 Chevy, known to us only as The Driver and The Mechanic, barely speak unless it’s about the car, The Driver not even bothering to answer questions unless they’re being asked by somebody who knows what they’re talking about. The Mechanic is maybe a little more friendly and forthcoming with The Girl left wondering why nobody answers her questions. When she mentions how she wishes they were still back in Santa Fe nobody says anything at all but it makes perfect sense since these guys never want to be back anywhere. G.T.O., along with his stylish sweaters that seem to change supernaturally, talks and talks over and over again, looking for someone who will listen to all the stories he tells about a past he’s creating in his own head. Somehow I suspect there might even be some truth in all these crazy lies he spins out that might lead to the secret of where he really comes from but we never find out.
At times it all feels as blank as the characters whose names we never know, letting us fill in all those blanks however we want. Names would tell us too much about them anyway. All we need to know is what we know, all we need to know is who they are inside those cars. Even while James Taylor and Dennis Wilson stare straight ahead barely exchanging a word the personalities of The Driver and The Mechanic still bubble up a little letting us see signs of some hostility that might be coming between them, the more easygoing nature of The Mechanic sometimes making itself known when The Driver isn’t around to cool things off, only a few words about how the car sounds as a reminder that they’re practically in the middle of one long test drive across the country. But placed up against them Warren Oates as G.T.O. feels like the opposite of that blank even if we never learn a single thing about him that we can believe. There’s nothing like Warren Oates on the screen, there’s nothing like the sight of his smile, letting us get sucked into that charm while still tempted to keep our distance. And there are few sights ever seen in a film as serene as Oates just standing at a gas station, drinking a Coke, in no rush to get anywhere in the world and the calm that comes from the film as it pauses for this, just like it pauses for all sorts of things around these people to let us sit still and take in that quiet. It’s perfect for a film about the things you do and you know why you do them, you just can’t put it into words. If you could, you’d have to stop.
Maybe as far as Universal goes this was an attempt to make a road movie of the moment, with famous musicians helping aim it at the youth market and, who knows, maybe they thought Monte Hellman just might be the next big thing but what it becomes both reflects back on certain films of the past—maybe by Antonioni, maybe by Bresson, it doesn’t matter—while still very much a part of what the future to come in ‘70s cinema. But what all this becomes really is its own thing, as individual as any of these characters. The way Hellman and cinematographer Jack Deerson view the four leads through the Techniscope frame makes them look like immortals forever moving through the Zen state the film achieves, even if they never quite do it for themselves. They stick to the country roads as if they have no choice, the cities out there always talked about in the abstract as someplace they might go, they could go, as if crossing those borders would be an end to all this. Instead they stay out there, passing through Santa Fe which appears to be bustling during the day but is hardly a big place and, like I imagine about many of the stops in the film, still looks pretty much the same after all these years, a reminder how during some of my visits I’ve even seen the occasional girl on the street there asking for change who looks like she could be out of this film. Thinking about that, I give them some change. Ironically for a film with a delayed video release due to music rights, so much of it is quiet and wants to be quiet, James Taylor insisting the radio be turned off because “it gets in the way”, Laurie Bird quietly singing something like “Satisfaction” to herself and the tape deck of relaxing tunes Warren Oates has ready for whatever any passenger wants to hear.
G.T.O. himself suggests Washington DC when asked where they should race to—he even says the name unlike anyone ever has—and one of my favorite moments of performance is the pause Oates makes after making that suggestion as if he needs to think about what he just said for a second. The feeling of the road out there becomes a necessary part of the texture and there’s no sign of Route 66 neon kitsch, it all has a natural feel as if the celluloid itself is somehow connected with all those earth colors, all those places that have blended in with the land. As for the actual races, they’re barely brushed past and the only thing I get from them is how The Driver always wins and that’s it. The cockiness they display feels like they’re pulling a scam on whoever they’re racing but maybe The Driver really is just the best there is. The only opponent who gets any attention is played by screenwriter Rudolph Wurlitzer, last seen in a bar getting chewed out by his girlfriend but if the fight is because he just lost all his money or something else, we never know. Taylor’s driver gives him a look at least acknowledging something but there’s no camaraderie. By the end, The Driver is taking bigger risks with what he’s betting which would have to lead to a bad end at some point. Or maybe it never ends.
The people on the road play as a reminder of a time when hitchhiking was much more of a thing, or at least so I’m told. The Girl is barely even seen trying to thumb any rides, she just gets into her various modes of transportation as if her presence in them is pre-ordained. G.T.O.’s statement that he’s been picking up ‘one fantasy after another’ is one of those pieces of enigmatic dialogue that really sticks with me, maybe because I’m not quite sure what he’s getting at with that guy who may be freshly escaped from the mental facility or Harry Dean Stanton’s cowboy who’s looking to be a little too friendly. Maybe G.T.O. is just looking for the right real person to tell his stories to, just the right one to make a connection with. The residents of the small towns they pass are just as suspicious of them not because they’re hippies but likely because they’re from somewhere else, presumably any of the big cities. That small, desolate Oklahoma town which seemingly contains nothing but empty buildings with windows to stare through is just something to escape from especially when the people there start to wake up, almost like a reverse horror movie.
But that town is just a brief stopover. It’s the movement that makes TWO-LANE BLACKTOP what it is and it’s not always an easy movie to find your way into but the way falling into those rhythms becomes so hypnotic makes it one of those films that make me always trying to figure out what it is, knowing that I’m connecting with it somehow. There’s no point in spending much time on EASY RIDER comparisons since they have such different goals, although it interests me that the characters in both films travel west to east, going the opposite you’d expect a cross-country movie to go. What we think of as the world of the time isn’t much of a factor and the reminders we get of that are never very positive with The Girl’s brief mention of the Zodiac Killer and the closest to an appearance by an actual hippie, not counting how the guys are mistaken for them, is the one guy G.T.O. picks up who turns out to be the most nihilistic presence in the film, seeing no point to anything since we’ve only got 30 to 40 years. The scene cuts out fast, one of a few points when it’s like the film has decided to just get to the next scene, but it not only makes me think about the reality of the people in this movie who didn’t make it anywhere near that long but how the clock is running out faster than G.T.O. realizes. Giving a ride to an old woman and silent little girl heading to a cemetery is one more reminder of the dead end he refuses to acknowledge. The hippie says he believes his story but couldn’t care less. The old woman doesn’t hear a single word he says, even if it’s the one thing he tells a passenger that tries to make himself seem like a swell guy. Self-mythologizing only gets you so far.
All this raises the question of how much actual meaning there is in dialogue we know is a lie but the cryptic nature of so much of the dialogue means that every line feels like it could be enigmatic even if it isn’t anyway. Maybe it’s G.T.O. trying to tell himself something to avoid saying the truth. And so much is also found in those silences, coming from two guys who know each other and don’t talk as opposed to the one guy who’s by himself and only wants to talk. No matter who she’s with The Girl seems like the girl she is but the few times she smiles she seems like a different person. By a certain point she seems older and more knowing, or maybe that’s when she just decides she doesn’t want to be caught between the guys in these cars, between anyone. She doesn’t want to go somewhere, she just wants to keep going. When she’s alone with The Mechanic they can actually laugh, play music and talk, maybe even take some pleasure in the coming dawn when the sun rises. The vibe gets more intense when The Driver gets her for a few minutes, their scenes veering between chemistry and veiled hostility that they’re not clicking the way each of them want to. Attempting to show her how to drive of course becomes a love scene as if he doesn’t know how to make it anything else and when he decides not to bother it can’t help but recall how John Wayne quickly gives up on showing James Caan how to shoot in EL DORADO, that late Howard Hawks display of his code of professionalism turning into the way The Driver and Mechanic live by their own code which isn’t quite Hawksian, their energy not quite always the same even as they are clearly always determined to get the job done. It’s just the job is one of never stopping. And The Girl doesn’t get to be part of that.
They never really become a threesome which means the addition of G.T.O. doesn’t turn them into a foursome either. For a few minutes in almost total darkness somewhere in the middle of nowhere they seem to gel but even that sense of camaraderie is brief, never going past tentative. “Here we are out here on the road,” G.T.O. says as if he’s looking for a bonding session and The Driver seems to humor him for a few seconds. It would be nice to think they speak the same language but they really don’t at all, not the way Driver barely talks and definitely the way he doesn’t want to listen, never speaking the same language except when they talk to The Girl about the places they could go. They at least agree on how they want to avoid the people in those small towns, G.T.O. the one who calms down the situation with one local while waiting for his hamburger and Alka-Seltzer and for a brief moment he not only talks his way out of trouble for them, that tale he spins for the local becoming his own fantasy of what he probably wishes they could be. It only makes sense for them out there on the road until it doesn’t, until the reminders of the world start to become impossible to ignore and as it goes on those signs of hostility and death seem to get darker each time I rewatch the film. Maybe this prefigures an end they’re going to face long after the credits have rolled. They each want to possess The Girl in their own way but in the end she doesn’t even want that bag she’s been spending the movie lugging from one car to the next, finally shedding it like an unwanted skin as if realizing her true self will be possessing nothing at all and having no one possess her. She doesn’t want to be defined by anything or any of them, she just wants to be somewhere else entirely away from any of them, the only place she can be herself. Whatever her name is.
The way they are, sticking to themselves, is the only way it can be. And The Driver, who maybe could try being a little less of a prick, can’t keep on brooding that way forever just as The Mechanic isn’t always going to hold back his own true feelings, the way Dennis Wilson plays certain moments as slightly wounded sticking out more and more. G.T.O. is never more truthful (probably) then when he’s talking to The Girl while she’s sleeping, speculating about the life they could have in Arizona that would keep him from going “into orbit”, for once spinning a lie out of a possible future that won’t happen, not a past we can only wonder about. That light cocktail music in the early morning hour, maybe this is what G.T.O. really wants to listen to and maybe it’s still playing in his head as he quietly jokes about “champagne, caviar, chicken sandwiches under glass” before settling on his eggs over light. They’re all trying to convince themselves of something right up until the final shot, as close as the film will ever get to an end but, come to think of it, there wasn’t really a beginning either. They were all just there and the ending is one the film itself eventually forces literally since these characters will never allow it themselves. “Those satisfactions are permanent,” G.T.O. says in his last scene to the soldier he picks up, to himself, to no one, after spinning one more story and he knows he’s going to be out there a while longer.
That meeting point of the arthouse and the grindhouse is a reminder of how Monte Hellman’s involvement with the start of Quentin Tarantino’s career, serving as executive producer on RESERVOIR DOGS, makes perfect sense. But there is so much confidence found in each shot that categorization doesn’t matter. The film is whatever you want it to be. Speaking of which, even more than EASY RIDER one comparison that comes to mind is VANISHING POINT which opened earlier the same year then much later on was eventually more or less deified in DEATH PROOF. I’ve watched that film several times over the years and, yes, the car chase stuff is impressive and, yes, I like Barry Newman but each rewatch makes it feel like a movie that’s trying too hard to say something while saying nothing at all. TWO-LANE BLACKTOP in every ounce of the texture found in every moment always seems pure. “You can never go fast enough,” says The Driver, one of the few things he seems to say willingly, and maybe there once was a time when I would say that you can never see enough films but all this makes me ask why I’m still writing since there are days lately when I honestly can’t find the answer. Maybe some of it is about realizing what you’ve lost, or never got, as if trying to drive further away from that feeling. After many viewings I still don’t know why they keep driving, just like I still don’t know why I’m writing about all these movies. Maybe because I haven’t gotten to the last one yet and maybe I could say you can never see enough films. Then there are the days when I think about what I’ve lost and maybe the writing is my own way of driving further away from that feeling. Or maybe I’m just trying to find it again. After many viewings of TWO-LANE BLACKTOP, not to mention countless other films, I still don’t know why I do this, I still don’t know why I’m writing about them. Maybe the answer is always the same. Maybe what The Driver really means is that you can never go far enough. And maybe you can never go back to where you were. But that doesn’t mean there’s going to be anywhere else either.
The performances may not always matter but their faces do, along with the way they interact with each other or even just by themselves so what we get from them is ingrained in the rawness of it all. And the performances do matter even if so much of the time they stay in their own heads anyway, which means the few times James Taylor actually seems to look at Dennis Wilson it causes a jolt to the senses. The very nature of the way Taylor plays The Driver as Taylor gives next to nothing to anyone else he interacts with except for maybe when he talks with Wurlitzer putting on an act and changing his demeanor in an instant. Against this Dennis Wilson plays everything with an affable nature as someone who mostly seems interested in nothing but getting under the hood to check out what sort of condition his car, anyone’s car is in, his small chuckles shared with no one and even talking about straining his neck the same way he talks about problems with the car. When the mood starts to turn you can sense in his movement how much The Mechanic is holding back on what he’s thinking, getting even quieter than he already was. Inhabiting The Girl with an impenetrable quality that fascinates on every viewing, Laurie Bird can’t really be called a natural actor since she’s not an actor at all (she was also in Hellman’s COCKFIGHTER and, more surprisingly, played Paul Simon’s girlfriend in ANNIE HALL and that’s it for film credits) but there is something in how she carries herself and often just focuses her eyes on someone, never quite seeming like the same person from scene to scene. Which is the way people sometimes are which makes her that much more real and never just The Girl of their dreams each of these guys might want her to be. It helps us remember all the little things she does as we realize in the end that maybe we never understood anything about her at all. Reflected against the three of them, it’s Warren Oates who provides the real sense of personality, star power and, especially, humanity that exists here, making you want to just listen to his stories about where he's been, never mind how true any of it is or how much we ever know about him. The more he talks, the more of an enigma he becomes, more than any of the others maybe because we’re still searching for whatever truth can be found in there. It’s an unforgettable performance that is tough to shake, haunting in the pain you suspect is behind the glory of that smile, wondering just how far he’s gone to try to get away from wherever he once was.
A lot has happened, nothing much has happened at all. Some people are gone. Monte Hellman died in 2021. Several of the people in front of the camera already passed away some years back--Laurie Bird took her own life in 1979, Warren Oates had a heart attack in 1982, Dennis Wilson drowned in 1983. Of course, James Taylor is still going strong. One other interesting name in the credits is associate producer Gary Kurtz who died back in 2018 and his involvement interests me since he went on to be co-producer of AMERICAN GRAFFITI, a film not only also largely about driving in a way that reflects off each other but one that used the very same ’55 Chevy, that time driven by Harrison Ford’s Bob Falfa. Which means there’s some DNA of TWO-LANE BLACKTOP passed down to AMERICAN GRAFFITI, which means that some passed down to STAR WARS, possibly most strongly felt in the sense of movement brought to it by George Lucas and maybe Kurtz as well, that sense of going forward, of an unmistakable aesthetic where every single shot and cut builds up into that feeling of forward motion that irrevocably leads you somewhere far away from the starting point and you couldn’t go back even if you wanted to. Only one of these movies turned out to be the beginning of a future we still have to deal with but up against all of that TWO-LANE BLACKTOP is a film I always want to get lost in, get lost with, especially on those late nights. That feeling is one reminder of why I still want to go to the movies and get lost in those images in front of me, hoping for images that I want to get lost in. It’s a high I’m forever chasing, looking for the next film that I can’t shake, even while I still wonder what I’m trying to say with all this. It’s like a feeling of forever searching for the names of the people we never got to know because of the lives we chose to lead. And then on to the next film, the next race. There’s no choice. Everything else is far away.

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Other Ways Of Being Intimate

Let’s back up a little. Recently, thanks to a few of the streaming services out there I was able to watch FIVE EASY PIECES, THE LAST DETAIL and THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS all close together. Two directed by Bob Rafelson, one by Hal Ashby, all starring Jack Nicholson, making me think about the creative forces behind these films and how they helped turn the actor into the icon he quickly became. But wait, that’s not the place to begin. Earlier in the summer, while visiting Santa Fe for a week, I sat outside each night to watch the sunset while reading Matthew Specktor’s excellent ALWAYS CRASHING IN THE SAME CAR, a series of personal essays which ties in his own life and history through the stories of various figures with their own L.A. connections. These names included Tuesday Weld, Frank and Eleanor Perry, Carole Eastman, Hal Ashby and others so for a short time each night looking out at that spectacular New Mexico view, the L.A. past got seared into my brain which meant for a few moments it was like I’d never really left. And with screenwriter Carole Eastman comes thinking of director Bob Rafelson leading back once again to that masterpiece FIVE EASY PIECES they made with Jack Nicholson.
But to go back much further in my own history all this gets me thinking about MAN TROUBLE, a now forgotten comedy the three made together much later on but also one of the first films I ever saw in L.A. back then, my first time at the glorious Village Theater in Westwood. The theater was too good for that film. With over 1,300 seats, it was certainly too big at least for the amount of people who showed up that night. While this marked the end of the collaboration between these three key figures of ‘70s cinema it all came at the beginning of my own L.A. story so, as usual, I missed out on the cool stuff and was far too young to grasp the significance of this so had no real appreciation for how notable this reunion really was. As a film, MAN TROUBLE is, well, not very good. Maybe this is putting it mildly. The film contains promising elements, certainly starting with the people who made it along with a cast that should very well make it bulletproof but almost nothing about the movie clicks and it never develops any consistent tone or rhythm plus for an alleged comedy it contains very little in the way of actual laughs or even charm. There’s a kernel of an idea even in the title, of a woman dealing with all the men in her life and the realizations these conflicts lead her to, but the film never seems to do much of anything with that. Something about it stays with me and I’ll get to the reasons for that eventually but right now all we have is the film, one that does little else beyond serve as a misbegotten latter day collaboration between some very talented people and as a memory from a time in my life that also now feels very long ago.
Classical singer Joan Spruance (Ellen Barkin) has just split with her conductor husband when her apartment is burglarized. Understandably nervous that someone is stalking her, she takes advantage of her sister Andy (Beverly D’Angelo) going out of town to stay at her house and for protection hires a guard dog from a service run by Harry Bliss (Jack Nicholson), currently dealing with a bad marriage. Harry and Joan hit it off, helped by his not mentioning that he’s married, but during all this Joan still deals with threatening phone calls, the strange disappearance of her sister and the realization that a figure the papers have dubbed the Westside Slasher might now be after her as well.
Even looking at it now FIVE EASY PIECES is a remarkable film, a character study that digs deep into the persona that is Bobby Dupea as played by Jack Nicholson and his intense self-loathing, backed up by the phenomenal Karen Black as the girlfriend he treats so terribly. Rafelson provides an intense focus to it all with his direction and the script by Carole Eastman is so incisive in its portrayal of such alienation that its strongest moments, such as the legendary diner scene with the side order of toast being insisted on, never really leave you. Back in those days the writer often went by the pseudonym Adrien (or Adrian) Joyce, with other prominent credits during this period including the screenplay for Jerry Schatzberg’s PUZZLE OF A DOWNFALL CHILD as well as the ‘English dialogue’ for what remains one of my very favorite films, Jacques Demy’s MODEL SHOP. But it’s FIVE EASY PIECES that she’s known for which among other things plays now as one of the definitive portrayals of the onscreen Jack Nicholson persona and all the possibilities of what could really be done in a movie found in the glory days of ‘70s cinema. MAN TROUBLE doesn’t really have much to do with any of those things and even after several recent viewings part of me is still trying to clarify just what it is beyond an attempt at a light, goofy comedy that contains traces of what could be a more intricate character piece if you peer close enough, made by people who are probably more at home with much darker material. At the very least there’s a specificity to the dialogue at times that helps it seem like it’s coming from a personal place, at least on an observational level for the screenwriter, along with a certain low-concept vibe to the setup which at times approaches being charming in a zero stakes way.
This comes especially when the two leads are first sizing each other up while spending an evening out at Yamashiro getting drunk on sake so it’s tempting to say that a movie doesn’t need much more than Jack Nicholson and Ellen Barkin flirting with one another. For a brief stretch Jack feels dialed in to the moment, Barkin gives off that bashful smile of hers and for a few minutes all we have to do is watch them be charming so there’s nothing wrong with any of this. The dialogue allows them to circle each other, wondering if any of this is a good idea, while we know all too well the secrets hanging in the air so there’s a pleasure to them just hanging out and eventually hooking up. Somewhere in all this is a character piece which unfortunately has to give way to a plot that becomes sillier and more nonsensical as it goes on, or maybe it should be referred to as several plots since there’s a few, spending long, baffling stretches on things like blackmail and other secrets being kept to the point that it would be appropriate to ask what any of this is really about, particularly a lengthy hospital sequence in the second hour where some of all this comes together, but not really.
This was Eastman’s first screenplay credit since 1975’s THE FORTUNE which also starred Jack (and Warren too) and was directed by Mike Nichols, a screwball farce that to this day hasn’t been seen by many people and it’s a handsome, expensive looking production that never comes together, maybe notable now because of the production design along with an austerity that was a part of the Mike Nichols approach of the time but that’s about it. MAN TROUBLE is also in the screwball vein although never as ambitious but the pieces never click. Maybe Bob Rafelson wasn’t the right director for this sort of material and much of the time there’s a sense of flailing about a little too broadly, like an overly serious person trying extra hard to prove how funny they really are with an overall feeling to the performances that everyone needs to calm down a little. There are enough odd quirks that feel like if you squint you can make out the general tone it’s going for, like Veronica Cartwright as Joan’s best friend spending much of the movie on crutches with a cast on her leg, apparently due to a lawyer falling on her while sunbathing, and the actress doesn’t even do very much in the film but makes an impression solely by being Veronica Cartwright since this is the sort of movie where certain people are in the movie because, well, they just are. There’s also a certain nudnick nature to the dialogue which at times feels like it’s scrambling around in the dark searching for punchlines which it at least an attempt at approaching a certain irritating charm but while all this gives the script a unique flavor the film barely seems to catch any of it. In his book Matthew Specktor comments on Eastman’s proclivity for odd character names through her films and there is a certain pleasure to monikers like Harry Bliss, Joan Spruance, Redmond Layls and Helen Dextra but it makes me wish there was more to each of them beyond that. It’s an issue of tone and the film never seems to find it, feeling so low on tension that at times the looseness makes it feel like a bunch of friends getting together to make a movie on a whim, the way Jack’s old pal Harry Dean Stanton turns up playing the wealthy boyfriend of Joan’s sister in a role I’m not sure he’s totally right for but, in fairness, it’s not like we want to complain when Harry Dean Stanton turns up in any movie.
Jack is top billed and these days especially it’s hard to complain about a film starring Jack Nicholson but his presence does help diminish the idea of a film being about women’s problems with men, like in the title of the thing. Ellen Barkin makes sense as the lead, a woman who has always tried to use her own intellectualism to talk her way around the inevitable flirting and avoid what she refers to as ‘conflictual situations’ as if trying to rationalize everything in her life only to finally discover that it never made any difference, surrounded by men like the ex-husband played by David Clennon, the nice guy always getting the brush off played by Michael McKean (two more examples of how this should be a film made even better by its cast but that’s not the way it goes) and the new guy in her life who doesn’t even bother to mention that he’s married. It makes all the more sense that she wouldn’t want to be like her self-absorbed, man hungry sister played by Beverly D’Angelo, the sort of person ready to automatically act unimpressed by anyone who dares speak to her. Separate from all this is Harry’s wife Adele played by Lauren Tom who gets one of the big running gags of the film in how he insists on calling her ‘Iwo Jima’, a joke that might not go over so well these days but none of their scenes develop into anything beyond the hostility so any reason why they ever got married, even a comical one, is just left hanging there. Tom, who just a year later had one of the lead roles in THE JOY LUCK CLUB, does manage to give the performance some dignity but there’s still not much to it beyond wondering why any of these scenes felt like a good idea.
It's a comedy from the people who made FIVE EASY PIECES that opens with an animated title sequence which isn’t necessarily a bad sign in itself but it does say something about how maybe these were the wrong creative types to make this sort of movie. When Twentieth-Century Fox released it in July 1992 they didn’t even bother screening it for critics. It stands to reason that Nicholson was demonstrating loyalty to his old colleagues Rafelson and Eastman, and he presumably received whatever his fee was at the time, but the question was why this movie go made and not some of the other unproduced projects mentioned in Specktor’s book. Various stars and directors were attached to the project over the years and in some frank quotes to the Los Angeles Times shortly before release the normally reclusive Eastman insisted that this was never designed to be a reunion and seemed aware that maybe it shouldn’t have been saying, “Bob and I would kiss each other if we ran into each other on the street, but we probably shouldn’t make a movie again,” which suggests there were conflicts on this production that goes beyond anything she would give a quote on. So it’s a valid question why Rafelson chose to make this beyond commercial reasons or just an excuse to work with old pals since his earlier films never really demonstrate much in the way of broad comedy or farce. Time and again there are attempts at laughs which may not have been much on the page but even though you can tell what the joke is supposed to be it still gets fumbled in the timing, one more reminder that Rafelson just isn’t a director for this type of humor, even when it’s a joke that isn’t all that good to begin with. There’s never any real sense of flow to the pacing and with some abruptness at various points in the narrative the film ultimately feels sliced down to roughly 98 minutes to get it over with as fast as possible, which includes rolling the end credits before the final sequence has ended. Also not helping is a score by the legendary Georges Delerue, who died four months before the film’s release, which tries so hard to be ‘funny’ that it takes a tone which is already a little too broad and heightened to start with then pushes it up beyond any reasonable point.
Something like FIVE EASY PIECES or THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS (not written by Eastman, but just go with it) felt like films that were made by people who had to make them. MAN TROUBLE feels like it was made by people who decided to make…something. And there’s nothing wrong with making a film that doesn’t want to be earth shattering. But it’s hard to find ideas here beyond the broad feminist strokes that would have allowed it to work. Harry shows Joan how to train her dog, she frets about while in the house alone late at night, they hit it off then they don’t but time and again while watching MAN TROUBLE you could ask, what is the point of a given scene? What is the conflict? What is any of this really about? Part of the movie can just be taken as a lark, looking at the way the two sexes deal with each other in a world where ads for slasher movies with women getting hacked up apparently play on TV all the time, but that’s not a good enough answer plus it also comes with a few straight suspense scenes like where Barkin gets terrorized by the stalker coming at her with an ax. Any thematic intents aside, in the middle of such a light tone it feels wildly out of place so once again just raises the question of what the overall tone is supposed to be, another indication that maybe this was a film being made by people who weren’t agreeing on things. It’s hard not to read more into what all this could have been—in addition to focusing more on the women it could have asked the question, what is the Jack Nicholson persona in the 90s? How does that relate to who women are at that point in time? Can he treat them any better than the way he treated Karen Black back in 1970? So help me, in the Me Too era this wouldn’t be a bad idea for a remake, not that there’s much value in the IP. Maybe at its heart is an old school, screwball ‘dog plays matchmaker’ sort of thing but even the dog, much as the characters gets attached to him, never has much presence either.
In my mind it’s like all through the career of Bob Rafelson, from his early Nicholson films (including EASY RIDER which he produced) all the way to the likes of BLACK WIDOW and MOUTAINS OF THE MOON that came later, he explores character through genre and are about people so lost they end up wandering, possibly going too far in the end. There’s no wandering in MAN TROUBLE. Everyone is already where they want to be, right Los Angeles, with one key location right in the heart of Hollywood down the block from Miceli’s (now I want to go over and get their chicken parm). At one point Jack Nicholson even references the main house as being up on Mulholland Drive, a reminder that for all I know he lives right around the corner from where the scene in question was being shot. A few years later, Rafelson reteamed with Nicholson one more time on BLOOD AND WINE which is an enjoyable nasty, if minor, neo-noir that didn’t do much business and didn’t get much of a release by Fox Searchlight even though you’d think the presence of Jack Nicholson would have gotten them to put in a little effort. MAN TROUBLE was a high-profile flop in the middle of summer while BLOOD AND WINE just sort of slipped out unnoticed but it’s definitely worth seeking out if you haven’t seen it. Carole Eastman didn’t write that one but the most interesting similarity is how it also features a Jack Nicholson character in a bitter, loveless marriage (Judy Davis in BLOOD AND WINE is portrayed as more sympathetic than Lauren Tom in MAN TROUBLE, whatever that’s worth) which makes me think of Bob Rafelson’s first wife, Toby Carr Rafelson, who worked behind the scenes with him in a way possibly similar to the Peter Bogdanovich-Polly Platt dynamic during what can really be called his strongest period, FIVE EASY PIECES, THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS and STAY HUNGRY. Her other credits include working as production designer on Martin Scorsese’s ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE as well as Jack Nicholson’s directorial effort GOIN’ SOUTH. So the similarity between the films along with wondering about this history raises questions that MAN TROUBLE is not really substantial enough to answer, even as Joan comes to the conclusion that she doesn’t need to please any of the men in her life and never did. Or maybe these questions don’t even need to be asked. It’s just MAN TROUBLE, after all, which is just a reminder that we were robbed of the promise of what once sounded like a potentially delightful Jack Nicholson-Ellen Barkin romantic comedy, a movie that is, or should be, about finding ways of being intimate through trust and truth. At least, I think that’s what it wants to be.
If it’s a question of tone than part of it has to be the way the actors are directed and how they all go together. There’s an argument to be made that the films where Jack Nicholson sports a mustache (THE LAST DETAIL, THE BORDER, THE PLEDGE) have a little more edge to them, somehow preventing him from falling back on his usual tics but this film doesn’t do much to help that theory. Still, you watch him for a few isolated minutes here you might think it’s a better movie than it is, the way he always seems ready to dive in and look like a crazy person if need be with undeniable glimmers of that sharp coming timing when you least expect it. There are also such glimmers in Ellen Barkin, at her best here when she’s relaxed but at times feeling like she’s not getting the right direction. Revisiting THE BIG EASY recently was a reminder that Ellen Barkin in that film is one of the reasons the motion picture camera was invented in the first place and getting her in another romantic comedy should be flawless but the film around her doesn’t offer the support that she needs. Beverly D’Angelo, another personal favorite now and always, has moments but they seem isolated, never giving her enough of a chance to take over a scene the way her character seems to want to. Maybe the film just needed more of those moments and figure out how to use them, like the way everything stops to let Harry Dean Stanton’s lawyer played by Saul Rubinek compliment Barkin on the time her saw her perform the Battle Hymn of the Republic at the Hollywood Bowl and when he begins singing it himself it feels like the sort of effortless digression the movie could use more of. Paul Mazursky turns up too and, like a number of other actors in the film who maybe aren’t always seen at their best, at the very least it’s nice to have him around for a few minutes.
But to go all the way back to 1992 once again, MAN TROUBLE somehow managed to play for two whole weeks at the Village (23 years after EASY RIDER opened there, which likely interests no one but me). The theater is miraculously still open, although Westwood mostly feels like a ghost town these days when I get over there; the exclusive run of LICORICE PIZZA in 70mm late last year was a nice reminder of how cool it once was to go to the movies in the area. But, and here is where my own memory kicks into place, walking out of the theater that night long ago I fell into a brief conversation with a woman who said she was friends with Carole Eastman and felt so bad about how the film we’d just seen had turned out. I’m not sure any reply I made was that interesting but the very idea of chatting with someone at an L.A. theater who knew the screenwriter was then such a new concept to me and there’s no more to the story than that but to this day I can’t help but wonder, who was this woman? How well did she actually know Carole Eastman? She seemed interesting in our brief talk and for all I know is a name I would now recognize. It would be funny if it turned out to actually be her, going out incognito to see her own movie, but somehow I suspect this wasn’t the case. This is all a long time ago but enough time has passed that I feel bad for the people who made it too. So I’m left wondering about a lot of things, including the writer who is a key figure in the mythology of such an important period in Hollywood history but still remains such a figure of mystery. Matthew Specktor doesn’t spend much time on MAN TROUBLE in his book and it’s not like there’s any reason for him to but after reading it I was compelled to order a used DVD of the film for a long overdue revisit. The day the disc arrived, July 23rd of this year, Bob Rafelson died and may he RIP. It didn’t seem right to put that one on right away so I watched FIVE EASY PIECES first, then followed it with MAN TROUBLE which makes for one hell of a double bill, let me tell you. Does any of this matter? Does MAN TROUBLE matter? Does any of the past thirty years since I saw MAN TROUBLE matter? It feels like an important memory, in ways I can’t even explain, all attached to what is a totally forgettable movie. And yet, I’m forced to remember it. I’m forced to remember all of it. I’m not sure any of this matters at all but as long as I’m still thinking about it I suppose it does. Just like these movies still do. Just like my life.