Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Back At That Pool Again

Things change. That’s what happens as time goes on, like it or not. Films, on the other hand, don’t change. How much they mean to you can change and some matter even more as the years go by, while others fade away. In those cases, it’s often for the best. The reasons for all this become more clear as the films in question start to make more sense to the person you’ve grown into. And there are always reasons. Certain films deserve those reasons.
Watching SUNSET BLVD. again and, say what you will about him, but Joe Gillis apparently had a couple of B-pictures to his credit and I respect that. It seems to matter. He was in the Writers Guild, after all, which counts for something. And every morning lately when getting on the 101 North from Franklin I look over at the Alto Nido apartments across the way and give Joe a little wave, imagining him inside working on those original stories that are never going to get him anywhere. It’s left ambiguous just how good Joe Gillis ever was as a screenwriter but suddenly watching the film this time it feels more apparent than ever that none of the ideas for scripts that he’s sitting there pounding out are any good. None of them. They’re all just the work of somebody trying to come up with something, anything, and winding up with nothing. And if he ever got the chance to pitch the story of the film he’s the main character of, he should still bring in Billy Wilder & Charles Brackett to do the real work. But if we were ever meant to believe that Joe was a great writer, or even a halfway special writer, this would be a very different film. I wouldn’t think about him as much, that’s for sure. Paramount reader Betty Schaefer, one of ‘the message kids’, knows Joe by reputation as someone with talent so maybe he did have some even if it’s slipped away by the time the movie starts, drained out of him. “It’s from hunger,” Betty says about his BASES LOADED outline, which could also be a decent review of plenty of movies from the past thirty years or so. Whatever work Joe did on Norma Desmond’s version of SALOME doesn’t seem to have impressed C.B. DeMille either but maybe we can chalk that up to whatever Norma insisted he put in there. Maybe. Joe’s narration of his story gives the impression of someone with a knack for churning out sentences that contain a punchy, colorful flavor but maybe also with a hard-boiled edge that’s putting a little too much effort into the phrasing. Regardless, he was still trying. He didn’t want to go back to that copy desk in Ohio. And even though he says he was on his way out of town I’m still not convinced that Joe Gillis was really going to leave.
Of course, people do leave. I know that all too well by now and maybe I shouldn’t make any promises about my own future. Norma Desmond definitely would never leave, especially since she could never possibly imagine a world other than what she knows. We also don’t know just how good an actress Norma was during her own heyday but the way DeMille speaks of her makes me think there was something, even if he was the one who did much of the shaping of that persona. And she feels like a star, no matter how much her own madness informs that. You meet these people in Hollywood. They’re a star, they’ve been a star, they have that power and they drag you into their web if that’s what they want. Of course, Joe Gillis is the one I still relate to, even if I’m closer to Norma’s age by this point and it is certainly Joe Gillis in the first ten minutes of the movie that I’ve felt like more than a few times over the years. In my apartment, trying to write, trying to figure out if it’s any good, trying to avoid the truth of it all and I can’t see what’s coming around the corner. Along with that money problem you constantly need to worry about. Plenty of Billy Wilder’s SUNSET BLVD. is about a Hollywood that’s no longer there but some of it still is and so much of it still hurts. It understands those moments when you just know you could never be anywhere else. And who can really say what sort of Hollywood isn’t there anymore? The way it is, we either deal with it or we don’t. It’s just that sometimes we’re not sure why we still do.
Flashing back from the body of a Hollywood screenwriter discovered in a fancy Beverly Hills swimming pool, we meet Joe Gillis (William Holden) at the end of his financial rope, unable to sell any story ideas and finance guys after his car. On the run from them he quickly turns into what he thinks is an old, abandoned mansion on Sunset Boulevard only to discover that it’s populated by silent film queen Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) who lives there with butler Max (Erich von Stroheim), waiting for her comeback, waiting for nothing. She enlists Joe to help out with a script she’s working on, a remake of Salome, but soon enough Joe realizes that he can’t leave. And why would he. But an encounter back in the real world with friend Artie Green (Jack Webb) and his script reader girlfriend Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) becomes a reminder of what he’s missing and when he tries to do something about it, that new script turns into something else entirely.
I have no idea how many times I’ve seen SUNSET BLVD. by now. Of course, I could say that about plenty of films. But this one feels different. Like only the very best do, this is one that’s become something different as I’ve gotten older, what started as something great has only gotten better, deeper, funnier, scarier. It felt even darker to me this time and it hadn’t been that long since I’d last watched it. What the film means has shifted, looking at it from the outside at somewhere I wish I could be to it turning into a view of a place I have a different perspective on now. And it also says something that SUNSET BLVD. is one of the best films ever made, as close to perfect as can be, with some of the most biting, quotable dialogue ever and it’s still maybe only the third best film ever made by Billy Wilder but I’m willing to have discussions over official rankings. Right from the first moment everything about SUNSET BLVD. is perfection, that narration, the acerbic rhythm of the dialogue in the studio exec’s office, that cynical tone Joe Gillis holds onto as he enters the mansion for the first time, just assuming that it will be enough armor against these two people. He has no idea how much more they know than him and he has no idea just what sort of power Norma is going to have each time she enters a room, the power she still has when she leaves. One of the things that makes it great is those shifting perspectives, the way it allows us to consider the narrative from each of the main character’s viewpoint and the comedy within it, as well as the horror, feels absolutely, scarily true.
But what is truth in Hollywood? What makes you connect with anyone? Just as many days I pass by Joe’s apartment building I’ve also driven down Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills, presumably passing the 10000 block where Norma’s mansion was. I also worked for several years at Paramount when most days I would take a walk around the lot during lunch, looking up at the giant soundstages, passing Robert Evans’ office, glancing up at the readers’ department where Betty Schaefer worked. I loved working at Paramount, a major studio that really is in the heart of Hollywood where such a place should be in our dreams. Paramount means even more because of SUNSET BLVD. Most of the film defiantly stays put in Noma Desmond’s mansion, that crumbling world where time stopped in the late 20s and to realize the clock has kept turning after all would be too horrible to confront. Realism is a factor in a film like this involving such larger than life figures, but those times when you suddenly find yourself in certain big houses up in the hills of Beverly Hills or Hollywood, realism has very little to do with things anyway. “Is it a black comedy?” Cameron Crowe asked the director in his book “Conversations with Wilder”. “No. Just a picture,” was the reply. He was right. Of course, it is a comedy, it is a drama, it is a noir, it is a horror movie, it is a damning look at what Hollywood does to people when they’re not looking. In Wilder you get the truth and from that truth comes the cynicism people still talk about when it comes to the director. The acerbic comic tone, the cruelty, maybe even the misogyny in its portrayal of ignoring the inevitability of age. Maybe this is correct, maybe it’s avoiding how much that tone feels like it comes from a jilted romantic or someone who is becoming more accepting of the way the world really is. ‘Curdled Lubitsch’ is how Andrew Sarris once described the Wilder approach, adding ‘romanticism gone sour’ but that isn’t how SUNSET BLVD. plays, a film that has long since moved on from na├»ve hope that you’re going to change the world. Even the 22 year-old Betty Schaefer seems to be approaching her writing career on a completely pragmatic level.
As for realism, the elegance found in the best of Lubitsch isn’t always so lifelike itself so maybe what Wilder brings is an appropriately rational cynicism, as if Lubitsch was about all the grace in the world while the best of Wilder can be about wondering how the grace was lost. Joe Gillis, after all, has been around Hollywood long enough to feel this way with some reason, to still be trying but to know what the odds really are. Cecil B. De Mille, at least as portrayed here, has an idea of how things really are and even he only has so much power. The film doesn’t hate Norma Desmond but it also knows she’s too far gone to be saved as Joe (or Wilder, or us) sadly shakes his head, that the past itself is way too far gone, and all it can really do is give her that moment of glory near the end when she’s too far gone to even fully understand it. The humanity is there and even Joe tries to offer that to her as he pleads with her near the end, before he's killed and even in his narration afterwards. He knows how much it means to her for the cameras to roll. He even seems to know that, in the end, her story is going to be more important than his own.
“They’re dead! They’re finished!” shouts Norma about the movies early on. Her viewpoint is because of all that dialogue but it’s nothing new. Someone, maybe me, could be shouting that about them even now. The movie knows how eternal the town is, or at least was then, how much this is all going to go on. The sympathy is shown to Norma, at least partly because Joe doesn’t ask for it. Whether or not he deserves it, he really doesn’t care. And just how strange it is, in that mansion. The film doesn’t waste a moment, mapped out in that brilliant script by Wilder and Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman, Jr. whose involvement apparently boiled down to supplying part of the premise which gave him a credit meaning that he’ll forever be one of the writers of SUNSET BLVD, one of the greatest movies ever made. Which of course makes me wonder, just what have I done lately? It even seems important that this film marked the end of Wilder’s collaboration with Brackett for reasons that have always seemed a little unclear, even when one of them got asked about it. The storytelling carefully reveals one layer at a time almost before you realize it just as Max made up Joe’s guest room hours before he knew he was going to stay. It can be easy to forget in all this madness about Norma’s pet monkey who died right before Joe showed up. He becomes the new monkey and never even realizes it, at least until it doesn’t matter anymore.
And it’s a film about people who are waiting, so much of it is about that waiting. “Waiting for the gravy train,” as Joe Gillis puts it and it’s what almost all the people in SUNSET BLVD. seem to have in common. Everyone is waiting, even De Mille is waiting to shoot the next scene when we first see him. Norma Desmond is waiting too, waiting for that phone call she’ll never get about her big comeback. The first ten minutes out there in the world Joe is either trying to avoid people or get their attention and it all gets him nowhere. Once he finds himself in the world of Norma he’s just waiting to leave. Even though he has nowhere to go. Deep down don’t we all believe that something like this is going on in Beverly Hills right this minute? Money is just as much a factor with Joe needing it for his car what indirectly leads him into Norma’s driveway in the first place. But it’s not the only factor. Norma has so much money that she doesn’t care about it and at a certain point Joe doesn’t care about all that money either. The very nature of him prostituting himself, if that’s what we’ll call it, goes beyond the money. It’s not a movie about money, after all. It’s about wanting to be known in the end, whether as a star or just one more name in the credits.
And it’s about waiting through all those beginnings and endings. Maybe I’m thinking about a little of both right now, maybe because of my own extremes I’ve had the past few years. We meet Joe Gillis at his own end just as we meet Walter Neff near his end at the start of DOUBLE INDEMNITY. Both films lead right into a flashback structure although it’s not as clear at first in SUNSET BLVD who the real main character of the film is. As for beginnings, Betty Schaefer is apparently no more than 22 and in such a hurry that it would be easy to believe her if she admitted that becoming a writer was more important than her marriage to assistant director Artie Green (or, really, anyone). She probably has lots of opinions on films she’s seen recently like THE HEIRESS and A LETTER TO THREE WIVES that she can’t share with Artie but Joe would be ideal on an intellectual level if she could ever get him to stop talking around the subject. And she helps him want to write again, really write, at least for a little while, the way she gets into his brain and makes him want to do it, to overcome all those ways people never have any idea who writes a movie, that obsession he can’t seem to shake and is keeping him from ever actually really leaving. She knows all the plots, after all. She knows what he wants. Joe’s more romantic relationship with her isn’t quite the same as Walter Neff getting close with Lola Dietrichson played by Jean Heather in DOUBLE INDEMNITY but they serve a similar function as a reminder of the innocence that was once there, both young women seemingly offering the lead a way out of situation they’ve gotten themselves into, or at least a reminder that there really is some kind of innocence left in the world, no matter how much each of the men are already just too far gone.
The New Years’ Eve sequence even plays now as a funhouse mirror version of the end of THE APARTMENT which wouldn’t even be made for another decade, someone this time returning to a person for the absolute wrong reasons unlike what Shirley Maclaine’s Fran Kubelik would do much later. But back to the cynicism or at least back to trying to understand if there is any humanity in SUNSET BLVD, anyone onscreen Billy Wilder really cares about. He seems to know that caring about Joe is like caring about himself and that will only get him so far. Betty is young and she’ll be fine, Joe knows that he doesn’t need to worry about her. Norma, along with a little bit left over for Max, is where his affection goes even if she’ll never be aware of it and likely never care. She’s the one who’s going to get it somehow and in that is a reflection of his own feelings for the movies and for the town named Hollywood that he lived in, as much of a sewer as he understood it to be. SUNSET BLVD. is a film like no other about what it is to be in Hollywood and the choice to remain. Norma was discarded by the town. And in the final shot she envelops it.
Billy Wilder very likely means more to me than any other director. He made films the way I want them to be and make sense in a life that I sometimes find myself caught up in, like it or not. Hoping I get to the right ending, unlike Joe, whether still in Los Angeles or not. No other film seemed to understand Hollywood quite this way until the 2001 appearance of David Lynch’s MULHOLLAND DR., named for another road up the hill and several years after Lynch had already taken the name of the much talked about Gordon Cole from SUNSET for a character he played in TWIN PEAKS. The best Hollywood movies, even when they classify as comedies, are really horror films in their way. I’m also still a little fascinated by Robert Aldrich’s THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE which plays as some sort of odd mashup up SUNSET BLVD and VERTIGO even while never nailing down the tone beyond just coming off as sort of weird. A brief redo of the small piece of young Gloria Swanson footage from the unfinished QUEEN KELLY that appears briefly in SUNSET also turns up in Lynch’s even darker more extreme INLAND EMPIRE and the way his outlook has been inspired by Wilder becomes more crystalized the more each of their obsessions seem to mirror each other, effortlessly finding the horror of the real human feelings below the comedy. And SUNSET BLVD. is this original, pure distillation of that view. Even now, in a time when we don’t know how much longer there’ll even be a Paramount, it still matters, at least it does in my dreams.
The compassion the film shows may be for Norma and she may be the one who takes over the final image but it’s William Holden as Joe who holds it all together with a grounding that helps us understand and every single moment feels completely genuine. He has to be as cynical as he is, as dismissive of Norma and Max, so dismissive that he doesn’t realize how deep he’s in until it’s too late, with a believability to his desperation seen just under the surface and to play any of that from a remove would cause it to collapse. His determination is just as strong as that self-loathing and few other actors in 1950 would have been able to give his answer of “Constantly” to the question “Don’t you sometimes hate yourself?” just the right indication that he’s joking but not really joking, not when it comes to this. Maybe it would make sense for the character to be a little younger than Holden projects but that grouchy humanity he brings is essential for holding his presence down just as Gloria Swanson shoots everything else around her off into space, overwhelming each moment even as I sometimes notice how tiny the 4’11 actress really was. The intensity of every look she gives makes it seem like it wouldn’t be allowed to look at anyone else when she’s in frame, plus how much of her performance can be found in each gesture she makes, especially the way she pulls Joe towards her at the end of the New Years’ sequence, making it clear who really has had the power between the two of them all along. The movie really is the two of them but surrounding them with the intensity of Erich von Stroheim who the more you watch the more you pay attention to how much he’s holding this madness that he’s in charge of together plus the way he says the name “Gordon Cole” is one of those things impossible to forget. Nancy Olson may be the ingenue but she never comes off as too innocent, simply looking for the right way to get in a little bit more, knowing what she wants but never guessing just how far she will wind up peering into the town she’s always known.
Bringing it back around to each time I look across the 101 at the Alto Nido Apartments, SUNSET BLVD. reveals a truth that always feels like a reminder both of what I want and what I desperately want to avoid. And it’s also a reminder that, well, even Joe Gillis had those B-movie credits. This makes me wonder just how Billy Wilder thought of Joe Gillis, even in a self-deprecating way. He’s searching for the answers to why he’s still trying to do all this and if Wilder went through this sort of period during his early days in Hollywood, I’m sure he understood. Maybe this feeling is part of why I return to Billy Wilder films so much, pretty much all of them (well, maybe not THE EMPEROR WALTZ), even the few I’d just as soon do without. That look at a humanity that combines glaring in the mirror with unrequited self-hatred with desperately trying to hold out a little bit of hope. Sometimes that happens in Wilder’s films. Sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes it’s a draw. But that’s what so much of life becomes. Waiting for that one thing. That one moment. If we’re lucky.

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.