Tuesday, June 30, 2009

An Example Of Human Charm

I wonder how much of a tradition there is of comedians who, years after their death, wind up being known by certain people for certain random films more than anything else. There might be somebody out there who only knows Jack Benny from Lubitsch’s TO BE OR NOT TO BE and that would be their loss. More to the point, are there people today who only know Richard Pryor from SUPERMAN III and if so, what does that say about his legacy? However you look at this, it might be safe to say that whatever Andy Kaufman is remembered for these days, it most likely isn’t HEARTBEEPS, his only starring vehicle (he had small roles in a few other films). Not a box office success when it was released during Christmas 1981, it’s comes off mostly as a curiosity today and in many ways feels misconceived but there is something a little endearing about how odd it ultimately is. It’s at least bizarre in its slow-motion sort of way. I watched it late at night, not a problem because of the brief running time, and its pokiness kind of went well with the hour.

Sometime in the future, a pair of service robots meet while in a factory waiting for repairs. Val Com 17485 (Andy Kaufman) is a valet robot (hence the name) and Aqua Com 89045 is a hostess robot who specializes in poolside parties (again, hence the name). Soon after meeting Val and Aqua fall in love at which point they decide to escape from the factory to discover what is in the outside world. Taking off with robot comic Catskill (voice by Jack Carter, really bad jokes written by Henny Youngman) who communicates only by telling jokes. They create their own robot child that they name Philco, eventually shortened to Phil (which actually kind of resembles WALL-E and is voiced by none other than Jerry Garcia) and set off looking for a place to live and also to deal with their dwindling power supply. Hot on their trail is the Crimebuster, a robot crimefighter who speaks in nonstop law enforcement jargon intent on incinerating everything in its path.

Directed by Allan Arkush, who’ll always be OK in my book for directing the great GET CRAZY, HEARTBEEPS began shooting in June of 1980 but didn’t appear in theaters until a year and a half later. Press accounts of the time indicate that production was interrupted by the legendary 1980 Actors Strike a few weeks into shooting but the brief running time of just over 77 minutes and abruptness of a few plot points gives the impression that it spent a protracted amount of time in post-production as well. The Oscar-nominated makeup by Stan Winston is remarkable, no doubt about it, but the more I looked at it the more I wondered if its extreme complexity may have affected the production to the point that everyone could have become preoccupied with it at the extent of everything else. As a result, pacing and comedy may have wound up taking a back seat. Sold as a comedy, understandable considering it stars Kaufman, a fair chunk of it is played fairly straight. There is the robotspeak of the two leads as well as plenty of attempts at laughs from the Catskill and Crimebuster robots, but by a certain point these things feel like overkill. For the most part it feels like a bit of misguided sweetness not really aimed at children (though there isn’t anything that would be considered inappropriate) and not appealing for adults either. It’s an odd misfire—too earnest and technically impressive to be included in some sort of ‘so bad it’s good’ list but not particularly enjoyable either. Too many things don’t quite mesh--the funky, lived-in feel of this future world (nice use of colors in the repair factory) combined with the woodsy setting at least feels different from other films but it all feels a little random. Written by John Hill (QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER) it’s entirely possible that it would have worked better as a straight science-fiction novel and I can’t help but wonder how Isaac Asimov would have approached this story within the confines of his own Robot Universe. At one point Kenneth McMillan says to fellow repair factory worker Randy Quaid, “You think too much,” and the idea that it’s a film about robots who are unable to think for themselves in a world of humans who have chosen to stop thinking for themselves makes for an interesting subtext but there’s not enough done with the notion. At times it does feel like things are missing, particularly in the party scene which climaxes almost as soon as it starts as well as the film’s ending which is a little too abrupt and unsatisfying, but plotwise there isn’t a great deal going on anyway. There’s an idea in the film that could be something, whether a comedy or not, and I’ll freely admit that particularly near the end I found the romance to be rather sweet (it’s Bernadette Peters--I’m not made of stone), but ultimately it all seems to just become about the makeup.

And with the two leads speaking with the same robotic-monotone for the entire time it affects the pacing drastically making this short film seem longer than it is. Seeing Kaufman and Peters playing their roles like this certainly adds to the curiosity factor but it can be a little tough to take at feature length. The work they do here is interesting (I particularly enjoy watching Peters walk and move throughout) but it winds up slowing the pace down to a crawl, even affecting what the actors playing humans are doing. Arkush’s GET CRAZY is about as fast-paced and anarchic a comedy ever made—I’m not saying that would have been appropriate here but it definitely had a rhythm that this film never seems to find. In addition to supporting players Randy Quaid, Kenneth McMillan, Christopher Guest, Melanie Mayron and Richard B. Shull, we also get Arkush regulars like Mary Woronov, Paul Bartel and a slick-looking Dick Miller making welcome appearances. Ron Gans, who narrated many New World trailers that Arkush cut with Joe Dante when they worked for Corman, is the voice of the Crimebuster. And it needs to be said that this must be the only film ever made where Kathleen Freeman plays a helicopter pilot. In addition to the Winston makeup, there’s some striking matte work by Albert Whitlock (it definitely looks like a real movie) as well as a mention a score by none other than John Williams that combines some gently lyrical passages that sound very much like the composer’s work with some funkier electronic work, similar to what Jerry Goldsmith was doing at the time and it provides the film with most of the bounce that it has.

HEARTBEEPS is stranded somewhere between being a futuristic comedy and an odder, more idiosyncratic piece. It’s at least unique enough that I’m surprised it doesn’t have more of a cult because of how sweet it ultimately is. The film doesn’t quite work but at least a chance was taken. The degree that the makeup overwhelms everything makes it all the more unfortunate that this is one of the few records of Kaufman on film, but maybe he would have even taken pleasure in that element of perversity.

Now I’m just going to hope that Allan Arkush doesn’t see this. I was thrilled that he left comments in my piece on GET CRAZY and I’d rather he read the nice things I write about his movies.


Dennis Cozzalio said...

Speaking of Get Crazy (again), have you seen what's playing at midnight at the Cinefamily on July 18, good Mr. Peel? If not, you should take a look!

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

I've noticed that Dennis, thank you, and I definitely plan on being there! I can't wait!

Captain Terrific said...

About three years ago I saw an emaculate 35mm print of HEARTBEEPS at the glorious Castro Theatre in San Francisco. I hope this print survived the Universal fire of last year! As of late, my prayers have been answered, as GET CRAZY will be screening there August 7th!

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Captain Terrific--

Have a great time on August 7th, but I should mention for anyone reading this that Allan Arkush will be appearing at the Cinefamily's GET CRAZY screening on July 18th! Now I really can't wait for it!