Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Beginning Of The World

Sometimes you can find a great deal of enjoyment in a film, even while freely admitting that, yes, there are a few problems in there. There hasn’t ever been much of an audience for Peter Bogdanovich’s NICKELODEON which got pretty lousy reviews and did little business when released in 1976. It’s never been released on video in any form until now and even a Cinematheque screening I attended about six years ago was pretty sparsely populated. But I kind of like it anyway and now that I have the new DVD release I’m sure I’ll willingly look at various sections of it again from time to time. A mostly comic look at filmmaking in its very earliest days inspired by the stories told to the director in interviews by the likes of Allan Dwan, Leo McCarey and Raoul Walsh, much of it is very entertaining but some of its issues come through that make me understand a little of the response it received at the time.

Set during the early days of the movies beginning in 1910, Ryan O’Neal plays Chicago lawyer Leo Harrigan (“H-A-double-R-I-G-A-N. Like the man in the song.”) who literally stumbles into working for motion picture producer H.H. Cobb (Brian Keith) in the fledgling industry and after spending time writing up synopses to be shot, is packed off to California to take care of a unit that has been left without a director. Meanwhile, southern boy Buck Greenway (Burt Reynolds) has similarly stumbled into working for the Patent Agency, the group that is enforcing a monopoly on the theater circuit, and is sent out west to take care of this rival film shoot. But when everyone finally meets, Harrigan thinks that in Greenway he may just have found his new leading man and the two men have to work out their differences regarding each one’s attraction to the beguiling, and blind as a rat, Kathleen Cooke (model Jane Hitchcock).

For much of the time NICKELODEON really does put a smile on my face but I can sense a few of the problems that are there from the beginning. Instead of O’Neal/Reynolds/Hitchcock the director had in mind the younger John Ritter, Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd in the leads but for a variety of reasons these choices were not acceptable to Columbia (Shepherd wound up in TAXI DRIVER for the studio at that very same time). As enjoyable as it is at times, it often feels like the film is trying just a little too hard to be madcap, unlike in WHAT’S UP DOC where it all seemed effortless and this feeling of bending over backwards does begin to be felt by a certain point. The script by Bogdanovich and W.D. Richter isn’t always the strongest with certain things like a running thread involving Stella Stevens, playing another actress in the company, that is done with mostly looks just winds up being not particularly satisfying in any tangible way. The effectiveness of certain sections varies—a setpiece involving a hot air balloon works pretty well in its intricate construction but a fancy dress party that devolves into a huge food fight winds up feeling forced. Much as I like NICKELODEON, there’s a serious structural flaw that for me it can’t overcome: divided into two sections making up the first two-thirds and final third, the film drifts along amiably for most of its running time, then around the eighty minute mark seems to climax and restart as O’Neal & company split from Keith and go off in an attempt to film his own feature-length opus. It’s like beginning a different movie with the characters late in the game and the story isn’t strong enough to hold it. In all honesty, I can remember tuning out at this point when I saw the film several years ago and I tuned out at the very same point this time. The story is coherent and it all makes sense which makes me think that there has to be a solution to this, but I’ve never come up with it. The film rebounds near the end for an affecting conclusion but this third act issue is something that it can’t quite overcome. That finale, set at the premiere of BIRTH OF A NATION, is something that in his commentary Bogdanovich admits is a little problematic today, but the importance of that event does come across. When we glimpse D.W. Griffith come out to acknowledge the cheering crowd who has just viewed his epic, it truly feels like we’re witnessing a moment in history and the entire film is somehow justified. Brian Keith’s impassioned speech about the possibilities there are in the pictures is something I love hearing the actor say and an expression that is so earnest in its love for where the movies came from is tough for me to dislike. Enough of the film succeeds in being entertaining and the long takes, well-executed slapstick and interplay between the ensemble cast is much of the time a good example of what the director could do at his best.

One point of interest involving this DVD is that not only has the film been expanded by Bogdanovich for several minutes to make it a directors’ cut (providing, among other things, some clarification for the Stella Stevens storyline), he has also had its look altered from color to black and white using an extensive digital process that goes beyond just turning the color off—for comparisons’ sake, the shorter, color version is on the disc as well. For the most part the experiment is successful, particularly during the barren Cucamonga sequences which make it seem an ideal companion to the images in THE LAST PICTURE SHOW and PAPER MOON. It also helps the film seems more like a melancholy look at a time long past as opposed to a film made in the seventies, one which in the color version seems cheaper and less resonant. It’s almost as if it finally gives the movie a purpose with this added layer of depth. Some of the details in the comedy are helped too, like how Don Calfa’s performance as one of Keith’s assistants is much more obviously a Buster Keaton homage, something that doesn’t work nearly as well in color. It’s not a perfect experiment, simply because it’s impossible to make it look completely like it was shot in black & white and some sections, particularly during interiors, just look like a color film with the knob turned down. But at least it’s something and ultimately, an improvement.

On the audio commentary the director speaks more than once about the compromises he had to make with this film, mostly referring to shooting it in color and the actors he had to accept (coming off of DAISY MILLER and AT LONG LAST LOVE, he wasn’t the golden boy anymore). Watching the film it’s hard not to wonder how it would have played with Ritter & Bridges instead of O’Neal & Reynolds—possibly better, if you ask me. The two leads we get aren’t bad at all—Reynolds is particularly good at times, truth be told—but like everything around them, you can feel them straining to achieve the light tone a little too much and it never sells the needed feel that these two guys become indispensable to each other. I couldn’t help but picture the two of them going off to their respective trailers between setups without interacting. Jane Hitchcock, who never appeared in another movie, is cute and has a few endearing line readings but she ultimately doesn’t make enough of an effect (and, in truth, I’m not sure I can picture Cybill Shepherd in the role either but I’ll assume that Bogdanovich knew something that I don’t). With these three points of the film’s triangle never fully connecting it feels like a flaw in the movie’s construction that seriously prevents it from being as good as it might have been. Some of the supporting characters making up the film company work better—Brian Keith’s bluster as the studio chief is very enjoyable, Ritter’s eagerness as the cameraman in the role he did get helps numerous scenes throughout and Stella Stevens is able to bring something to all those meaningful glances even if the thread never feels like it pays off to complete satisfaction. Tatum O’Neal’s role isn’t all that different from her PAPER MOON character, but there are points where it feels like she has more energy than anyone on screen. Amusingly, except for the several times her real-life father Ryan refers to her as “little girl” she’s treated no different than any of the adults, making her age a complete non-issue.

Even though it’s not perfect I have a soft spot for NICKELODEON at least partly because of its eagerness to entertain and the love it displays for the myth of the birth of movies as we know them. What it tries to do may not have been enough—maybe part of the problem is by this point its director may have already been a little too disillusioned by the business to make something as nimble as it should have been and the issues I have with the third act are worth mentioning. But it’s an endearing piece of work, flaws and all, and is worth a look for anyone who might be interested. In all honestly, it’s a hard film for me to dislike.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Definitely Not For Public Consumption

North America’s getting soft, Patron, and it’s certainly not helping that we now have a VIDEODROME remake to dread. It was just announced, or maybe I should say threatened, by Universal. Is there even a reason for this? Is this really a title that has any market value? Has the original film even gone into profit? I can’t write about every pointless remake that gets announced just like I can’t write an obit for every notable person who dies. It’s just too demoralizing by a certain point. But this one seems worth a mention not just because of the absurdity of the whole thing but because it almost seems to cross a line in the question of why some people seem to feel that these remakes are necessary anyway. Without David Cronenberg, what exactly are you remaking? And yes, I’m very aware that even he directed a remake, THE FLY, and it was the biggest box office hit he ever had. What he brought to that film made it totally valid. According to Variety, this new remake “will modernize the concept, infuse it with the possibilities of nano-technology and blow it up into a large-scale sci-fi action thriller.” Which of course is just what everyone always felt was missing from the original version of VIDEODROME. Back in ’03 when Variety ran an announcement that another remake of THE FLY was happening (fortunately, it never did) it quoted the would-be director who shall go unnamed (just like I’m avoiding naming the scribe behind the new VIDEODROME) as asking in regards to his big plan for the movie, “Why, in both films did the fly never fly?” Now, ask yourself, was that something that troubled you after viewing the Cronenberg version? Do you really consider that to be a notable omission? And did you ever wonder why VIDEODROME didn’t have more car chases?

The story of cable TV station manager Max Renn (James Woods) and the mysterious signal he stumbles across, VIDEODROME barely played two weeks when it was released at the beginning of 1983, though its influence has undeniably rippled through the years. Some people love it, some despise it (“I can’t cope with the freaky stuff”) and some acknowledge what it is going for, yet still don’t think it works. That’s the thing. VIDEODROME, just like what he did with his version of THE FLY, is such a product of the mind of David Cronenberg that it can’t be remade. Not unless that remake was being created by a filmmaker willing to put their creative self as much on the line, which would of course turn it into something else altogether. And then it wouldn’t be VIDEODROME. It’s what separates the sort of person who would make VIDEODROME in the first place from someone who decides to remake it for reasons that, money aside, totally escape me (“It has something that you don’t have. It has a philosophy.”). If it’s just money, I don’t want to know. If it’s something else, I still don’t want to know.

I’m not saying that VIDEODROME is the director’s masterwork (that might be DEAD RINGERS) but it definitely stands apart as a key work in his career, one that acted as a bridge between the lower-budget genre films he was making before (there’s a vague early 80s Avco-Embassy feel to some of the setup) and his later work which would see him going further and deeper than it is normally felt that one can go in what are usually thought of as ‘horror movies’. The film had a protracted production and post-production process as the director tried to figure out the story he was trying to tell and it’s sometimes difficult to ignore the paths the movie chooses not to go down (Deborah Harry is the female lead, then she disappears. So what really is the nature of her role?), particularly because a number of the official stills that have always been out there are of scenes that do not appear in the final cut. The film’s refusal to help you along in that sense, to be what you think it will be, even what you may want it to be, adds immeasurably to repeat viewings. I can remember long ago watching a rental copy of the film twice over one day, almost as if I was trying to figure out, what is this movie, really? What is it trying to say? What in it is real and what is just a hallucination? Is any of it real? Is there any difference? That compulsive desire continues to this day still with the occasional viewing as I find myself pondering the journey of Max Renn, thinking more about how the world has caught up with this tale and maybe even surpassed it (still, to hell with “modernizing the concept”). Of course, I look forward to the odd bits of dialogue throughout (“You know me.” “Yeah, we know you.”) and no matter what I always finding myself laughing when James Woods takes a moment to try on a pair of glasses at Spectacular Optical and looks exactly like David Cronenberg. That right there probably says more than I’ve ever fully realized.

Maybe this announcement of a remake is somehow meant to be. It’s simply part of the evolution that VIDEODROME--loved and hated, admired and despised--was supposed to go through (“You’ve gone just about as far as you can with the way things are”). More than ever, those who care will know to seek out the correct film and they’re the ones who will be willing to listen to what it has to say. Still, the idea of a remake—and we can always hope it still doesn’t happen--makes me wonder how I’m supposed to feel about the films that get made today. Do I really want to pay money for these things? Do I want to spend my time seeing them? Will I someday wind up going to films solely at the likes of the Egyptian and the New Beverly in search of something that I know won’t just consist of empty calories? Maybe this is my own form of mutation, just like in the film (“You’ll see that you’ve become something quite different from what you were”), and I’m splitting off from the type of person that would ever defend remaking this film or for a second consider viewing it. It’s a rationalization, it’s an attempt to understand someone who thinks so differently from the way I do. It may be the truth.

Long live the New Flesh…I hope.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

This Product Might Be Hazardous To Your Size

Close to thirty years after it was first released to theaters in 1981, THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING WOMAN remains MIA on DVD but lives on playing in the cable TV dead of night and in the memories of all those who remember seeing the props on the Universal Studios tour. I can vaguely remember enjoying it at the time but looking at it again didn’t really do much for me. Since this Lily Tomlin vehicle seems designed for her by partner Jane Wagner, who’s credited with the script, I’m trying to draw a line between it and her disastrous dramatic vehicle MOMENT BY MOMENT but I can’t find much of a link beyond how they both seem designed to do everything possible to display the talents of the star as much as possible. This one just happens to be more in her wheelhouse. But it has very few genuine laughs, there’s not much charm and it never gets into any kind of rhythm. It’s the sort of film whose idea of a big laugh line is someone saying the word “shit”. Granted, I bet I laughed at that then, but things change.

Giving Richard Matheson’s original INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN novel a “Suggested by” credit, THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING WOMAN focuses on Pat Kramer an average wife and mother in suburban southern California living in a development known as “Tasty Acres” whose continued exposure to the products ad exec husband Vance (Charles Grodin) brings home results in her suddenly beginning to shrink. As she rapidly decreases in size, she becomes more and more famous while Vance’s boss Dan (Ned Beatty) puts pressure on him to keep her from revealing the reasons for her shrinking. What she doesn’t really know is that Dan and a group of scientists, all connected to the Organization for World Management, have a plan to use her condition for their own diabolical means.

Bathed in pastel colors and harsh diffusion, THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING WOMAN wants to be a biting satire of American consumerism circa 1981 but the world it presents is so ugly and frenetic that it’s never particularly pleasant to sit through, let alone funny in any real way. No one is particularly likable including Tomlin’s bland heroine (her kids in particular are total brats) and any satire of consumer culture it’s going for feels half-baked, with the film just playing the annoying “Galaxy Glue” jingle multiple times including over the end credits and none of it is as clever as it seems to think it is. Considering the unreal tone it’s going for, it would also make sense if only fake products were seen throughout, but real ones do pop up here and there. So much is constantly going on in each scene but little of it ever registers except for maybe the occasional bit—for whatever reason, seeing a few corporate bad guys off to the side in one scene playing backgammon made me smile, but it’s just a brief moment that the movie barely seems to notice. The film was the directorial debut of the dreaded Joel Schumacher who already had a number of screenwriting credits at this point. He keeps things moving but even at only 88 minutes it feels longer than it is and as a director he doesn’t display much of an eye for comedy or wit, with some labored bits like Pat trying to do housework by herself or getting drenched with champagne during a business dinner just going on and on. Some elements, like the Spanish-speaking maid, haven’t dated so well either for reasons of their own. One thing that did occur to me was that the combination of social satire, slapstick and certain actors makes me think that Joe Dante would have managed to make all this work. INNERSPACE comes to mind and not even just for the shrinking element. Of course, this early in the 80s he wasn’t yet on the studio radar and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was really Jane Wagner and Lily Tomlin who were fully in charge of the project anyway. The one flawless element of the film is everything connected with showing Tomlin shrinking, both the visual effects as well as the various sets and props used to depict it. It’s hard to imagine any of this stuff done better today with CGI. It’s like movies are past making this sort of thing actually impressive anymore.

Part of the idea of making this a full vehicle for Lily Tomlin extends to her playing multiple roles—she also has the supporting role of neighbor Judith Beasley along with making a quick cameo as Ernestine—but she just seems the wrong personality for this Peter Sellers-type approach, or at least she does in this film. So no one thinks otherwise, I generally think that Lily Tomlin is just fantastic and an asset to anything she appears in but her lead role as Pat Kramer is designed to be so much an Everywoman that she never gets to project much of any sort of personality. As a result, it just seems like a waste of her talents. It occurs to me the she never seems to have had a vehicle that was perfectly matched to her comic talents and her most successful roles, from THE WEST WING to her films with Altman, have been more serious or at least has involved material conceived by others. There are a number of good actors in here who are ideal for this type of comedy ensemble—Grodin, Beatty, Henry Gibson, Elizabeth Wilson, John Glover—but they’re all pretty much wasted. Grodin’s best moment is a quick shot of him deadpan, reading a book entitled “Marriage Without Sex.” The one person who really does get a chance to make an impression is the criminally underrated Mark Blankfield (no screen credits since ’03, but you’d know him if you saw him) as a lab assistant and he was just about the only person onscreen who managed to get me to so much as smile for more than a few seconds at a time. For some reason I particularly like when he sings a few bars of “Swinging on a Star” while doing his rounds. Rick Baker plays Sidney the Gorilla, billed as “Richard A. Baker”, deserving every bit of praise possible for the performance and doesn’t look all that different than he did when he played King Kong. Mike Douglas, playing himself in a talk show segment, actually does get a laugh when he rudely interrupts Tomlin to go to commercial and it’s to his credit that he was willing to play such a moment.

I haven’t seen the original movie for years, but my vague recollections are that THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING WOMAN displays a surprising amount of fidelity to the source material. At the very least, it makes a few attempts at serious commentary within a satirical context about where American culture was going at this point, even if it isn’t very successful in this regard. It’s harmless enough and the effects are definitely worth mentioning but ultimately there’s so little charm that it squashes any laughs that it might be going for. It’s no MOMENT BY MOMENT (of course, nothing is) on the bad movie scale but considering it’s one of the few real star vehicles we ever got from Lily Tomlin it does seem like it should probably be remembered as a disappointment.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Entitled To One Weakness

When I went to Santa Fe for a few days I had an idea that I’d get to spend some time watching westerns. It’s hard for me not to want to see a few of them while I’m out there, so I made sure to bring a few extras DVDs with me. As it turned out, my days were fortunately pretty full and by the time I would get a chance late at night I was too tired to commit to one. So even though I’m back now I felt like I had to watch at least one western to make up for that and I decided to make it the most random title possible, a disc that I can barely even remember why I own it. Probably somebody at work was just giving some stuff away one day and I happened to take it at random. So that’s why I decided to sit down and watch THE BRAVADOS, a Gregory Peck western from 1958 directed by Henry King, screenplay by Philip Yordan. So there’s not really any reason why I decided to watch it, but I don’t really need one anyway. It’s a western and I hadn’t seen it. That’s reason enough.

Rancher Jim Douglas (Peck) enters the small town of Rio Arriba the day before a hanging of four outlaws (“two white men, a half-breed and an Indian” played by Stephen Boyd, Albert Salmi, Lee Van Cleef, Henry Silva) is to take place. Not particularly willing to discuss why, he’s there for the hanging and no other reason. The one person in the town who does recognize him is Josefa Velarde (Joan Collins, not a very convincing Mexican) who had some sort of relationship with him five years ago in New Orleans but now finds him a completely different person. The town sheriff can tell that Douglas has a certain interest in the four men, allowing him to get a look at them and he soon warms up enough to go with Josefa to church for the night’s service. But when the hangman (Joe DeRita) shows up he turns out to be an accomplice who stabs the sheriff before being shot but the four of them manage to escape with a hostage. The town races off to catch them but Douglas is intent on leaving on his own time, fully intent on catching the four of them, “if it’s the last thing I’ll ever do.” What he hasn’t told anyone is exactly why he’s so determined to catch them and even if he’s certain that they’re the four men he’s looking for.

THE BRAVADOS is a fairly grim, straight-ahead narrative with a story that continually moves forward while keeping things about as serious as Peck’s performance. The story is fairly free of gimmicks but very quickly it becomes clear that none are needed and that this story of a man so determined that is tightly paced and structured right from the start. It’s also a great looking movie shot in CinemaScope with camerawork by Leon Shamroy that contains much more fluidity and shadings than a number of other early Twentieth-Century Fox entries in the Scope process that I’ve seen, with some genuinely striking location work in Mexico. There’s some great use of color at times as well, particularly in the bluish hue used in the numerous day-for-night scenes. Steadily paced the whole way through with barely a dull moment, if there are any issues I have it’s that the story’s structure has Peck be single-minded to a fault, unwilling to interact with the people around him. There’s a valid dramatic reason for this but it makes for a middle section where maybe there’s not quite enough conflict because there doesn’t seem to be anyone willing to stand up to him. Collins’ character does a little of this but she’s more of a supporting player than a lead, not that the actress would be able to match him if she did have a bigger part. As the town sheriff, Herbert Rudley has a non-nonsense approach to his performance which is helpful in establishing the tone early on but his character is sidelined fairly quickly. I almost want to be flip and say that the revelations about Peck’s character make the whole thing play as a cut-rate version of THE SEARCHERS, but it’s really better than that comparison makes it sound. Ultimately it’s a good film instead of a great film, but at least it is a good film and the mature tone ultimately stands out and causes it to stick in the mind. Even the music, credited to Lionel Newman, adds to the serious approach, not always bursting into a heroic fanfare every time Peck is in action. There is some abruptness at a few points, giving the impression that footage was removed late in the game—it’s only 97 minutes, after all—but overall it feels very tight with a conclusion that’s not what you’d normally expect from such a film yet is still completely earned.

Gregory Peck may not have anyone to play off of here who truly measures up to him—certainly Joan Collins can’t—but he certainly carries the movie on his own. There’s a great amount of confidence in the absolute quiet he plays scenes, particularly early on before we are told anything about him. His early scenes with Collins, where we can deduce on our own that he is unable to return her affections because he’s clearly not the same man she once knew, is a good example of how such an actor can carry a scene by doing next to nothing. The four familiar faces playing the outlaws may be over the top at times but frankly I’ve never been all that upset to see Henry Silva in a movie so I didn’t really care at all. There are also a number of recognizable faces as the townspeople who make impressions in their small roles including the familiar Jason Wingreen (ARCHIE BUNKER’S PLACE and the original voice of Boba Fett) but particularly good is longtime character actor Andrew Duggan as the town priest who knows more about Jim Douglas than anyone. The oddest bit of casting is of course Joe DeRita, later of The Three Stooges, as the hangman. He’s not used as any sort of comic relief but there is certainly something off about him from the first moment he walks onscreen in a way that we can’t put our finger on. It gets us to keep our eye on him when he appears from then on and is certainly a successful bit of casting someone offbeat in a role like this.

It’s the sort of touch that makes any movie stand out, let alone a western from the fifties and yeah, I should probably try to see more of those. It’s not a classic but I always need to remember that there are films in each decade and genre that may not be in their various pantheons but are still worth seeing. Each of these examples have the ability to shed further light onto different film styles, helping to continually learn what makes them work the way they do. I guess THE BRAVADOS is one of those films.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Blood In My Veins

I’m still here. I hadn’t planned on being gone this long but a few things I was working on wound up taking longer than expected and sometimes life just happens. I also took a trip to Santa Fe, just what I needed to clear my head for a few days. It was mostly relaxing but it actually snowed one day, for cryin’ out loud, not the sort of thing I was hoping for. Not to worry, though, I went to the movies. Anyway, along with neglecting the site, this trip meant that I wound up missing a few things here in town, including several nights of the Film Noir Festival at the American Cinematheque. Fortunately I had been able to go a number of times over the past few weeks, an enjoyable reminder of just how much plot some of these films could sometimes cram into the course of 65 minutes with a few of these pictures taking place during one of those nights that seem to last about a hundred hours. My personal favorite of these double bills turned out to be the Anthony Mann-directed pairing of TWO O’CLOCK COURAGE and DESPERATE. The first was one of those enjoyably goofy mysteries taking place over an endless night set in a world with annoying comic relief reporters and cab drivers who look like Ann Rutherford (played by, of course, Ann Rutherford). The second, about a truck driver who winds up way over his head when he flees a robbery that he wasn’t even a part of, was more serious and fatalistic and could almost be considered a minor classic. The night was made more enjoyable by the appearance of COURAGE star Ann Rutherford who had apparently never seen the 1945 film before and in the post-film Q&A told the various tales of playing Scarlet O’Hara’s sister in GONE WITH THE WIND and how she pretty much lied her way into show business.

So just a few hours after landing at LAX on Sunday afternoon I made my way back to the Egyptian for the final night of the festival, billed as a tribute to legendary character actor Paul Stewart (forever known as Raymond the butler in CITIZEN KANE), was a double bill of WALK SOFTLY, STRANGER and CHICAGO SYNDICATE. The second of the pairing, not bad but not great, featured Stewart as crime boss and was most notable for the surprisingly large amount of footage actually shot in Chicago and for the presence of the genuinely striking Allison Hayes of ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN infamy as the female lead.

More interesting than that was WALK SOFTLY, STRANGER, made in 1948 but not released until 1950. Featuring the THIRD MAN team of Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli who apparently shot this first, the film stars Cotten as a man who shows up in the small town of Ashton, claiming to be interested in looking at his childhood home. Saying his name is Chris Hale, he takes a room in the house as a boarder, inquires about a job in the local shoe factory and seeks out the daughter of the shoe magnate, the beautiful Elaine Corelli (Valli) who he claims to have had a faraway crush on when they were children. Elaine takes an interest in Chris and their attraction begins, even as he insists on taking a lowly shipping job in the factory. Of course, we’re never full convinced that he is telling the truth and when he briefly leaves town to go meet his friend Whitey (Paul Stewart) for a certain reason, we find out just who he really is.

A film that is never less than totally engaging, yet it still feels like an even better one is trying to get out, WALK SOFTLY, STRANGER certainly has a plot that is made unpredictable due to its refusal to pin down exactly what the lead’s motivations are and this is one of the best things about it. Exactly how much we should ever trust or believe Cotten’s character is continually open to question. It’s a bit all over the place though, with the hard-nosed noir elements not always mixing easily with the lush approach of the romance which feels more it home in a movie with the name David O. Selznick in the credits. The two leads are responsible for as much of an emotional impact that the story has, yet there’s still something slightly off about the two of them here. Valli certainly doesn’t seem like someone who’d be living in a small town in the Midwest, as much as the script may bend over backwards to come up with reasons and Cotten never seems right playing a tough guy, particularly when he has to spit out nasty dialogue with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. He’s just too genteel a presence for that sort of thing to really work. That’s not to say that the two of them don’t lend the movie a surprising amount of genuine weight and some of the most effective moments of the film are purely silent reactions of Valli at various points, particularly a very long, slow fade out on her early on (I’m trying to see the woman who also appeared in SUSPIRIA in these shots, but it’s not easy). These bits don’t have very much to do with the noir aspect of the film, but they do add an emotional layer to it that it wouldn’t have otherwise with lesser talents. That said, Stewart, playing a cowardly weasel, is actually given the most surprisingly human moment in the entire film when his character, at the end of his rope cuddles a small dog as if looking for some sort of solace in the hole he’s dug himself into.

It’s that type of touch that sets WALK SOFTLY, STRANGER slightly apart from the pack. It’s not the most snappy noir ever but the small-town setting in one of those towns that seemingly existed only in movies combined with the relationship between the two leads gives it a feel that makes it more endearing in its melancholy way as it goes along. Running only 81 minutes, it’s the sort of surprise that the Cinematheque seems to always turn up during these festivals and it was a thrill to see, even with its flaws. Here’s looking forward to the next Noir Fest that they run. As for me, I’ll try to be back here soon.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

A Simple Lack Of Foresight

In 1975, twelve years before the release of ISHTAR, Warren Beatty co-starred with that other superstar, Jack Nicholson, in a film that also focused on a pair of idiots with a woman caught in between. And just like ISHTAR, it was a rather idiosyncratic comedy which also became a pretty big flop following an extremely troubled production. That it was directed by Elaine May’s former partner Mike Nichols only adds to the interest. If THE FORTUNE, written by Carol Eastman under the pen name Adrien Joyce, never became the same sort of pop-culture punchline it’s probably because the film has pretty much been MIA for the past several decades. It’s not on DVD and I can’t even tell if it was ever released on video—at the very least, I’ve never seen it available. It’s pretty surprising that there’s a film in existence starring Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty that no one seems to have ever head of. The average interview with Mike Nichols doesn’t mention it, including an April 12 piece in the New York Times on an upcoming retrospective at MOMA which does, incidentally, include this film in its lineup. Peter Biskind’s “Easy Riders Raging Bulls” seems to say that the film went into production more because everyone was free to do it at that point, not because the script was ready and in fact it seems like the script was never really completed to anyyone’s satisfaction. In 1986 Mike Nichols told the LA Times, “One of the lessons of THE FORTUNE, in my view, and God knows who else’s view, is that it’s not enough just to put together good people. You have to have an idea. You can’t just wait for the idea. I don’t believe in picking fruit before it’s ripe. But you have to either find an idea or forge one eventually.” Fitfully enjoyable almost because of the pleasure in watching the personalities involved, THE FORTUNE isn’t a total misfire but it doesn’t quite stick. It would probably be fun to see it with a big crowd willing to laugh but in spite of the fact that everyone seems to be trying very hard it just kind of drifts away.

In the 1920s, to get around the Mann Act which disallowed women to be transported across State lines for immoral reasons, the already married Nicky (Beatty), unable to get a divorce, has his partner in crime Oscar (Nicholson) marry wealthy heiress Fredericka Quintessa Bigard (Stockard Channing) in a scheme to get at her money and the three take off together on a train heading for California. Soon after they arrive, both men begin to battle for her affections. When they reach their boiling point, they learn certain things about her inheritance and begin to formulate a new plan.

Sort of a Laurel and Hardy short with two really good-looking guys expanded to feature length, THE FORTUNE may be a misfire but that doesn’t mean it’s an unpleasant experience to sit through. Filmed in the same one-take austere style that Nichols employed up to that point, it feels a little dry, as if the director knew to bring his style and the expertise of everyone around him to the material, but didn’t have much of an investment in it. So much of the exposition is spat out in the early scenes but none of it compels and I found myself paying more attention to the production design and the length of shots than what the plot was. With so many extra details like the marveling over an early plane flight it sometimes feels tough to know what we’re supposed to be focusing on anyway. As a result I felt lost early on and it still felt like the story didn’t really start until past the halfway point, an odd thing to say about a movie that only runs 88 minutes. Sometimes the approach works and things momentarily come alive, such as a tango sequence in which Channing moves back and forth between the two men as well as a scenes on a bridge where a traffic jam seemingly appears out of nowhere which apes the Hal Roach style almost better than anything else in the whole movie. There’s some enjoyment in the final section but for what’s supposed to be a madcap farce things stay on a pretty low simmer. When the ending comes it is well done in a way that feels particularly like old school Mike Nichols, but nothing about it resonates in any particular way. The film is insubstantial as air, but it still never has the sort of light touch that would be needed for this to work. Somebody like Blake Edwards might have been a better choice for this type of comedy, although I can’t help but think about how his A FINE MESS has a sort of “Is that really the whole movie?” kind of feel to it as well and not in a good way. It almost feels like the script was in fact never quite completed but the footage was shot and assembled into something more or less resembling a full story. As a result, something is missing that would have allowed it to cohere into a full experience. Supposedly it’s a favorite of the Coen Brothers which doesn’t seem like a real surprise. There are some pieces here that could probably be connected to any number of their movies but it’s almost as if they’re more fans of the idea of THE FORTUNE and its possibilities than the final result.

Beatty and Nicholson obviously seem so familiar with each other but no real chemistry between the two of them as characters ever develops to pull off any type of real Laurel and Hardy interplay. As it is, Nicholson makes more of an impression if only because of his Stooges-level hair which always looks as if he just got out of bed. Channing has her moments but she never quite overcomes having to play a character who ultimately doesn’t register. She also never quite achieved the right amount of screen presence until she got older and reached SIX DEGRESS OF SEPARATION and her long run on THE WEST WING. Here, it’s as if her face doesn’t have enough features in it yet. Florence Stanley has a few moments as the landlady and Scatman Crothers appears briefly as a fisherman in a scene with Nicholson several years before THE SHINING.

There’s not much that I dislike about THE FORTUNE but there’s not much real, genuine pleasure that I got out of it either. There’s not even very much to say about. It does make me more interested to revisit that even more notorious nostalgic 1975 flop AT LONG LAST LOVE but I should probably stop thinking about such things. Anyone interested—and even if I’m mixed about it, the film warrants being interested—would probably want to check it out at MOMA to see how it would play with an audience. It feels more clinical than it should, but I have a feeling that it might improve on repeat viewings. I’d go see it at MOMA myself, but it’s a bit of a drive. If anyone checks it out, please let me know how it goes. It might even be worth it.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Until We Find Something Better

I’d say that I’ve been spending a lot of time lately banging my head against the wall regarding certain women but anyone who actually knows me would probably say that such a thing is about as surprising as hearing me say that I ate lunch or drank some Diet Coke or went to the movies. Hang on, let me pour myself some more Diet Coke. OK, I’m back. I can appreciate how truly personal some of Paul Mazursky’s films are and also think several are genuinely noteworthy even though there are certain things about them I can’t entirely relate to. Part of this is how locked into their era that they are but I also freely admit that I’m not really the ideal person to relate to such incisive looks at the problems of marriage. His 1973 BLUME IN LOVE is consistently interesting and strikingly adult at times, in such ways that the director wouldn’t have gotten it made ten years later, let alone now. Part of that is due to how films have changed, even the ones that Mazursky made. Part of that is for other, more complicated reasons.

The story of BLUME IN LOVE is that of Los Angeles divorce lawyer Stephen Blume (George Segal) who is pining for ex-wife Nina (Susan Anspach) while on vacation in Venice. Told in a fractured narrative style, it has a framework that holds up well today even if the content is considerably dated. How exactly the character got to this place, as well as what a bastard he is, is gradually revealed. When social worker Anspach sits down with musician/drifter Elmo played by Kris Kristofferson at the beginning it’s pretty easy to guess where things are going since no man then or now could measure up to Kristofferson. But instead it’s Stephen himself who is revealed to be the one cheating, with his secretary Gloria (TRUCK TURNER’s Annazette Chase). As he tries to pick up the pieces of his life, Blume takes on a more casual romance with no-nonsense Arlene (Marsha Mason) but he can’t get his love for Nina out of his mind, particularly when she takes up with Elmo. Blume continues to look for ways to get back in Nina’s good graces by befriending her new guy. But even he can’t admit to himself exactly why he’s doing this, leading to a point where there’s nothing more for him to say and he takes surprising action.

The framing section in Italy has a smattering of Fellini but BLUME IN LOVE for the most part feels like Mazursky’s attempt at exploring the concept of marriage and its breakup with the utmost seriousness of a Bergman film. There’s a real sense that he’s trying to go deeper with his examination of the neuroses of these people than he had yet done and the matters of infidelity are never used for laughs like they may have been in his screenplay for I LOVE YOU, ALICE B. TOKLAS. Even the minor recurring character played by Shelley Winters as a woman continually seeking a divorce, one who would probably be used as comic relief in any other movie, is dealt with completely seriously. Marital troubles are of course a recurring theme in the director’s films and the pain that is evident in these characters in this movie in particular indicates that it was something he knew about intimately and warranted such an approach. Even the world of swingers and the 70s Southern California setting that Blume enters are never used for laughs—as strange as they are, he’s genuinely trying to figure them out without losing himself. Mazursky’s take on all this isn’t comic or even particularly affectionate—it’s as if he’s looking at it all with his head cocked, slightly bemused but also trying to accept it all for what it is. There’s a controlled looseness to the structure with scenes that rarely feel the need to rush to their conclusion and in a very European touch the film contains some extremely effective match-cutting as we are transported from Venice to Los Angeles and back again.

The genuine yearning Segal displays in his performance makes it easy to like him even if it’s clear what a prick he is at times and the film never holds back on this. Wisely, there’s never any real explanation given for his affair with the secretary—it seems as if he wouldn’t be able to come up with a decent reason if ever asked and he doesn’t hesitate to bed the character once more before unceremoniously firing her. Even the sequences where he visits his analyst (played by Mazursky's own analyst Donald F. Muhich who recurred in his films) only seem to muddy what’s already swirling around his brain, offering no hint of easy answers. Blume seems to be continually asking other characters what is going on with their relationships without letting things play out to learn the answer for himself. “Where are we?” he desperately wants to know. “We’re where we are,” is the best answer he can ever get. What this all leads to, and no spoilers ahead, is a genuinely shocking development that doesn’t really fly in this day and age, even if we are viewing it through the prism of a film made in 1973. Certainly the interpersonal relationship of a man and woman with a long history is more complicated than what may ever be deemed correct, but I’m still not quite sure how to reconcile this plot point and where it leads in the final section. Anyone who’s seen the film would know what I’m referring to and if they want to offer their own opinions on all this, they’re more than welcome.

The cast is phenomenal, with Segal raw, wounded and desperate, in what may be as good a role as he ever had. Anspach’s role is an interesting opposite to her wife that leaves Woody Allen in PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM with this character given viewpoints that are continually valid unlike in that film where she just wanted to “ski down a mountain laughing like an idiot” or however Woody referred to it. The relationship between the two becomes more intriguing as it goes on with it becoming tougher to tell just how accepting she is of Segal as he tries to make amends. Kristofferson’s casting is most interesting since it’s difficult to imagine him ever interacting with somebody like Segal (or Mazursky, for that matter). The unpredictability of their scenes together (“Are you in love with Nina?” “What does that mean?”) reveals two actors at their very best reveling in playing off of someone totally unlike themselves. When the film focuses on the developing rapport between these three, it’s kind of an early version of Mazursky’s Truffaut homage WILLIE AND PHIL. Marsha Mason is about as good as she ever was in her scenes with Segal but she, as well as her character, is overshadowed by the effect this triangle has. There are some interesting unknown faces throughout that turn up, say some interesting stoner dialogue then disappear, never to be seen again. It’s a done in a way that feels very specific to the time and place, which Mazursky obviously knew very well. He’s in there too as Segal’s co-worker who is more centered, but just as baffled by everything going on around him as the film’s lead is. On a completely random note, I watched this the same day I saw several Noirs at the American Cinematheque, which led to noticing that both BLUME and the 1946 B-movie SMOOTH AS SILK contain scenes where the lead character climbs over a back fence to get into a house and confront someone. For a moment, it was like the two films somehow intertwined in my head, causing some very brief confusion. This doesn’t mean anything at all, but it just seemed like it deserved being pointed out.

BLUME IN LOVE is a challenging piece of work that offers numerous rewards, along with elements that are considerably problematic. The title character’s acceptance of the best way to communicate with his waiter in Italy, showing both men combining languages as they converse, seems to encapsulate much of what the film is about—you can never communicate with somebody in their language until you learn to communicate with them in your own. How this film communicates in its filmic and cultural language to us in the present day with our own is something that I still have to continue thinking about.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Here On Spec

I’ve written about ISHTAR before, but nothing says that I can’t do it again if it feels like the right time. Because ISHTAR is always there, a reminder of days long past as well as where I am in life right now. And over a year after it played at the New Beverly as part of an insanely long evening programmed by Edgar Wright that caused it to not to start until after 1 in the morning—I was long gone by then, having to get up early—it turned up again as part of a double bill playing with another maligned film, JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO. That one has its fans and I know where they’re coming from, but ISHTAR is the one I love. And the damn thing still hasn’t come out on DVD! It wasn’t a big crowd that turned out, but the laughs that came from those people were loud and strong. It was very clear that the audience who turned up to see ISHTAR, the story of songwriters Lyle Rogers (Warren Beatty) and Chuck Clarke (Dustin Hoffman) and their adventures in the Middle East, was loving this film and laughing hysterically at all the right moments.

The standard line among the film’s fans—as far as I’m concerned, don’t listen to anyone who says that its reputation is deserved--is that it’s the first half hour of the film, the New York section, that is its true brilliance. I can’t disagree with that. What’s more surprising is that this stuff is actually packed into considerably less than that, with the two leads agreeing to leave New York by the twenty-minute mark. The legendary troubles the movie went through in post-production are most evident here, considering how fast things movie at this point, with very obviously a lot more to what we’re seeing than the movie gives us—Tess Harper as Beatty’s wife doesn’t get a single line of dialogue and Carol Kane as Hoffman’s girlfriend doesn’t get much more than that. Whether by accident or design, the editing pattern of this first twenty minutes feels the most like other Warren Beatty films and once we move to the Middle East things begin to proceed at a more normal pace of plotting.

There’s always a slight regret for me once we leave New York as I always wish that the whole film could be set there. That may have something to do with the rambling nature and a certain disorganization is apparent--maybe id somebody like Mike Nichols had directed he would have been able to bring more discipline and focus to the story. But considering how the plot of the main section once seemed almost too impenetrable, the through line of Rogers & Clarke becoming the two messengers of God by finding “the map that could cost us Ishtar and enflame the Middle East” has actually greatly improved as the years have gone on, with our awareness of that part of the world even greater, lending it a certain relevancy even now. The very nature of this screwy Hope-Crosby update, with Isabelle Adjani in the Dorothy Lamour role, set in a facsimile of the real world is consistently biting and clever, particularly the deadpan brilliance of Charles Grodin as CIA agent Jim Harrison. And it goes without saying that I love the work of the two leads here with Hoffman coming off as fearless, willing to do anything to let the world know how cool he thinks he is and Beatty projecting this sort of Zen calm throughout, aware of how little impact he has on his surroundings. The pleasures of ISHTAR are, for me, continuous, from the gobs of quotable dialogue—it’s more of a nit-picky nature than laugh out loud that you either relate to or you don’t. I can’t explain to you why “I was wondering who lived here. You ever wonder that about old houses? Who lives in them?” is so funny to me and I think that even if I explained the context it still wouldn’t work. The songs heard throughout by the great Paul Williams are blisteringly funny and several days later I still can’t wipe “Dangerous Business” from my head, not that I want to—after seeing it so many times, I even get a small bit of pleasure from hearing how composer Dave Grusin’s score incorporates it into the melody during the market chase. Best of all, what makes the film most endearing is that moving scene out on the ledge when Lyle and Chuck pour their hearts out to each other, each man without anything left to lose but willing to admit that they won’t settle for less than that nothing. It’s something that I wrote about several years ago and I couldn’t help but be thrilled to see the amazing Kim Morgan focus on that moment as well in her recent Warren Beatty tribute. These guys are unrepentant losers all the way and it was practically criminal to make a movie featuring heroes like that back in the 80s. Looking back at it now, it seems almost heroic.

There was no separating the film from the stories about its production—much of that seems to originate from a legendary New York Magazine article that came out in March of 1987, several months before its release. The film died a quick death at the box office in 1987, almost beaten in its first week by the horror movie THE GATE of all things (I was the one who answered that trivia question at the New Beverly—doesn’t everyone know that already?) That stuff doesn’t really matter to me now. At least, I don’t care enough to go into it. The determination of these guys, as stupid as they are, as untalented as they are, becomes more endearing to me over the years. So help me, it probably becomes more relatable as well. And seeing a 35mm print of it with that amazing Vittorio Storaro cinematography again after nearly 22 years brought me back to those days, making me remember the reasons why I responded to this odd, idiosyncratic piece of filmmaking. I saw it several times then and, I swear, I was tempted to go see it again the second night at the New Beverly. I went elsewhere, but it was honestly something I had to think about. I had wanted to post this on the second anniversary of Mr. Peel’s Sardine Liqueur which was a few days ago—it seemed like the right movie to mark the occasion with--but things got in the way. Because it’s ISHTAR, which went though a few delays of its own, maybe it’s appropriate. But I decided to post it anyway, even if it was late, to freely state how much I love this movie despite what the world says. Those who also appreciate it, as Lyle Rogers would say, really know the lingo.

“That big, dumb, stupid-ass camel! He’d rather just sit there than move when you ask him! He’d rather get shot!”

“Actually, I kind of admire that.”

“Me too.”