Saturday, July 26, 2008

Whether Or Not You Face The Future

For more 80s films that I don’t feel bad about liking, Diablo Cody brought DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN and PRETTY IN PINK to the New Beverly for the final double bill of her Mondo Diablo Festival. Hey, I clearly remember being there at the Lowes 34th Street on opening day for PRETTY IN PINK and I definitely remember that feeling of excitement in the air. It was the time when John Hughes and Molly Ringwald had us in their grip. My first viewing of SUSAN isn’t quite so vivid but considering how many times I must have seen the “Into the Groove” video on MTV it definitely holds a special place in my memories of the decade. Even better, it’s a very special New York movie and is a nice glimpse at a lower Manhattan that isn’t really there anymore.

Directed by Susan Seidelman and written by Leona Barish, DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN holds up surprisingly well, giving us a female lead who figures out how to take control of her life for the first time but refreshingly doesn’t make too big a deal about it. The plot gimmicks of murderer-after-the-emeralds and amnesia are of course old hat, but are wisely presented in the most matter of fact way possible. The amnesia subplot gets discarded surprisingly early, giving the lead character a chance to drive the plot forward instead of getting dragged along and it’s a wise decision like this that the script makes which keeps things consistently moving. But what Seidelman, who had previously directed the ultra-depressing SMITHEREENS in the same environments, brings to the film is an interest in focusing on the funky nature of free-wheeling mid-80s New York (those were the days), especially lower Manhattan, combined with characters who feel like the natural modern equivalent of classic Hollywood screwball comedy. The film was sold at the time as a Madonna vehicle and Susan does in fact seem like what we imagine the pre-stardom Madonna was like, but Arquette is very good, pulling off seeming flighty but never stupid, naïve but never dumb. She goes well with Adian Quinn in their scenes together too. Mark Blum is especially funny as her hot tub salesman husband Gary Glass, but Laurie Metcalf, Will Patton and Steven Wright (“I guess we’re not gonna see Tony Bennett in this place”) all get their moments as well. I particularly like Anna Thomson nee Levine, who had a bit the following year in SOMETHING WILD and played the cut-up whore in UNFORGIVEN, as Susan’s friend Crystal.

In addition to the fantastic main cast, familiar faces seem to pop up every few minutes in small roles that feel oddly ornamental, suchas Ann Magnuson, John Turturro, Richard Edson, Victor Argo and many others. When a barely-visible saxophone player is briefly seen behind a window I thought to myself, “That has to be John Lurie,” and of course it is. It feels similar to the sort of bit roles that would turn up in films that Jonathan Demme would make for Orion over the following few years and there doesn’t seem to be any real connection between SUSAN and the Demme films aside from that there are a number of interesting names in the crew list, especially some who worked for Woody Allen at this time, on films also made by Orion. It’s easy to forget just how good that studio was for a while. For hip filmmakers, there was no better place and it’s hard to imagine how the likable, free-wheeling movie that SUSAN is could have come from anywhere else. Of course, the film’s director helped to bury Orion and her own career when she directed the terrible SHE DEVIL a few years later and Barish only has a few other credits including, um, BASIC INSTINCT 2. It’s too bad and the movie is so likable that I hope the characters in it wound up with happier endings. What did happen to Roberta and Susan anyway? For that matter, what happens to the characters in any of these movies?

DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN was fun to see again, but the main event of the night was of course the appearance of Jon Cryer before the screening of PRETTY IN PINK. The actor seemed very happy to be there and the Q&A with him and Diablo Cody before the film, which touched on all spoiler topics people wanted to know about, covered his casting as Duckie, how Molly Ringwald wanted Robert Downey Jr. in the role and the controversial issue of the ending, which in its original version had Ringwald’s Andie ending up with him instead of Andrew McCarthy's Blaine. Cryer said that while it was cut together, they never really got the right amount of coverage for the scene and it was felt by those who saw it that it didn’t work. It’s always seemed to me that Ringwald had more romantic chemistry with Andrew McCarthy, which may have been connected to her not wanting Cryer in the role and the movie does seem cut to favor McCarthy in the romance department anyway. I also wonder if they went back later to do more with that. The riding stable scene, even though it is referenced elsewhere, has always felt to me like an addition after the fact designed to bolster that romance and it doesn’t really seem to go with the scenes that come before and after it. Either way, Diablo Cody, along with other girls in the audience, let her long-festering displeasure about the ending they went with be known. For his part, Cryer seems to have gotten over it. The reshoot of course included Duckie locking eyes with bit player Kristy Swanson across the room and he revealed that the look he gives to the camera here was something he just happened to do on set as a way of expressing to director Howard Deutch how ridiculous he though it was. One of the most interesting things he mentioned was that during the last week of shooting he was given an early version of the script for SOME KIND OF WONDERFUL, to possibly star in, which he described as being a more FERRIS BUELLER-type comedy with the same basic premise. The script then went through several directors and revisions before winding up back with Howard Deutch to make it essentially PRETTY IN PINK with the sexes reversed. Though Cryer didn’t say it, I’ve always looked at the ending of that film as John Hughes trying to make up for how PRETTY IN PINK turned out. Even if he does get Emmy nominations for a second banana role on a sitcom, Duckie is probably going to be the role Jon Cryer is remembered for and he seems ok with that. He came off as a very nice guy who I half-expected to go around the theater shaking hands with everyone who had shown up.

As for the film, well, it’s PRETTY IN PINK. It’s not my favorite John Hughes film and I don’t get quite so emotionally invested in films that revolve around going to the prom anymore but it’s a nice bit of nostalgia for me and it’s especially fun to see James Spader slink his way through all of his scenes. It’s a sweet, earnest movie and, fashions aside, there’s very little about it that makes me want to cringe. I even still like a lot of the music. I think I’ll be more interested in seeing SUSAN again down the line, but it was still an enjoyable flashback to the decade sometimes best left forgotten. Diablo Cody did a very good job hosting the festival, especially with the Cryer q&a, and it’s nice to see her helping to support the New Beverly. She thanked me from the stage when I called out the title SHADOWS AND FOG which she was having trouble remembering while going through Madonna's filmography but I never actually went up to meet her. Oh well. Maybe another time.

SUNDAY UPDATE: Well, that didn't take long. While shopping at the Target on La Brea, I spotted a tattoo on a female arm out of the corner of my eye and thought, "That looks familiar." Sure enough, it was the tattoo belonging to Diablo Cody. This time, I made it a point to go up to her to say that I had enjoyed the festival very much and that she did a great job with the q&a's. She was very nice, thanked me, we chatted about things like how great the New Beverly is for another moment and that was it. Sometimes L.A. really is a small town.


Unknown said...

Great write-up on these two films! I love DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN and usually catch it whenever it shows up on one my movie channels, which seems like a lot lately. As you point out, it really is a snap shot lower Manhattan that doesn't exist anymore. It's shame that Madonna was never as good in this film again. Of course, it seems like she's playing herself so maybe that's why. I always thought that Aidan Quinn and Rosanna Arquette had great chemistry together in this film. I'd love to see them paired up again.

I was never a huge fan of John Hughes films but PRETTY IN PINK is probably my fave of the bunch. Good cast, great soundtrack... It just all clicks together and looks so effortless. And how many Yuppie scum roles did James Spader play in the '80s?

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

James Spader played many, many yuppie scum roles in the 80s. Or maybe it just seemed that way.

If Rosanna Arquette turns up as a regular on some other prime-time show, which I could believe might happen, it would be a neat bit of casting to bring in Quinn as a love interest. It was great to see how well it help up, glad somebody else feels the same. Many thanks!

Unknown said...

Yeah, Spader really cornered the market in those types of roles in the 1980s. I think that his ones in PRETTY IN PINK and LESS THAN ZERO are my faves. It's too bad that he didn't get the call for BRIGHT LIGHT, BIG CITY and it went to Kiefer Sutherland instead. Huh, maybe Spader was busy.

Your idea of pairing up Rosanna Arquette and Aidan Quinn on a TV show is a good one. Let's hope it happens. I've always found both of them very watchable regardless of whatever they're in.