Friday, December 31, 2010

You Always Know When It's Over

So here it is, the end of the year, and as usual I’m obsessing over my regrets about it all, thinking about the few good things that happened while fixating on the many bad things that did as well. I don’t want to go down the list but I will say that I wish things had gone a little differently, that I’d feel a little further along in where I want to go by now. Sometimes you just can’t know with some people and as a result you wind up lying awake in the dead of night, thinking about them, wondering about the possibility that you’ll suddenly get a text from her. They’re the ones who sometimes make it worth just getting up in the morning but at the same time they still make me want to take a flying leap out the nearest window. What I’m saying is, I guess they just make me grateful to be alive. Just like certain films are able to do, come to think of it. And that’s the sort of thing you find yourself thinking about on the very cusp of the New Year, convinced of everything you haven’t managed to accomplish. Is there any reason why I’m going to remember any of 2010? Well, yes, there are several but those are the very things it would probably be best for me to forget.

See, the thing is, New Year’s Eve ’99 in L.A. it rained all day. It stopped some time around nightfall but it was still pretty wet out. I went to a party, started drinking way too much way too early and things didn’t end well so somewhere in the world there are pictures of me at that party embarrassingly passed out sprayed in silly string. I will not be posting those pictures here, but I digress. It’s a problem sometimes with movies set in the near future when they hit their sell-by date and we’re confronted with a past version of a future that never happened. At least with what’s presented in 2001 it all still looks pretty cool but since we’re now hitting the end of 2010 I suppose it’s safe to say that this won’t be the year we make contact. Kathryn Bigelow's STRANGE DAYS is an interesting case, a film set on the cusp of the then-futuristic turn of the millennium in L.A., a place where it very obviously isn’t raining and the city is in a considerably different state than it was when the date finally rolled around. In real life there also wasn’t some massive celebration on the streets of downtown and considering the city is portrayed as all but in the throes of martial law I’m not sure why such an event would be put on anyway. I know I would have much rather been home watching TCM but then again I’m not the lead character in a Kathryn Bigelow-James Cameron collaboration. An idea clearly born in the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict, it seems notable that the film opened mere days after O.J. Simpson was declared not guilty by a jury of his peers, something which may or may not have had a negative impact on the box office of this racially charged look at the near future and as the city took some sort of other turn in the coming years—at the very least, things kind of calmed down—it soon became clear that this view of a veritable dystopia just didn’t seem quite right anymore. The term “2K” is tossed around to refer to the year 2000, but there are never any mentions of Y2K fears and for that matter there’s nobody bitching about THE PHANTOM MENACE either so those little things get noticed now. I find myself wondering if there are any side details meant to be blatantly futuristic that aren’t anymore but outside of the inherent goofiness in a few of the fashions nothing really jumps out at me and things in the city at least seem to have gotten better than what’s presented here. Then again, have they? I’ve been out of work for a year so the future doesn’t seem too bright to me. At least there’s no rioting in the streets. Is there? Meh, I’m too lazy to go to the window to look. So if these elements are dated then what’s left in the film is primarily a look at what a person is faced with at the point of the New Year, as they realize they are in danger of looking back too much, of getting caught in the reverie of what might have been, as certain women disappear from your life. What once seemed possible no longer is, so a person has to find what else is out there, right? Is such a thing really possible, whether you’re living in the present or the future? Sitting here right now, I’m not really sure.

Late December, 1999, the near future: Los Angeles has practically become a war zone, with cops and tanks on every corner and the smoke regularly rising from the ashes. As New Year’s Eve rapidly approaches, tensions are even higher than usual with the murder of Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer) a rapper who had been garnering increased attention with his anti-LAPD activism. In the middle of all this is Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) an ex-cop who has taken to dealing in black market “SQUID” recordings, events taken directly from the cerebral cortex and placed onto discs, allowing anyone to re-experience what has happened in search of ultimate pleasure or pain. While in secret he pines for a former love, the rising rock star Faith (Juliette Lewis), playing tapes he made of them over and over reliving their love, he spends much of his time with his close friends chauffer/bodyguard Mace (Angela Bassett) and private investigator Max Peltier (Tom Sizemore) who are both aware of what he’s dealing in and try to put up with it. But things soon change when Lenny gets hold of a snuff tape showing the murder of friend Iris (Briggitte Bako) him Lenny to worry that Faith, now tight with manager Philo Gant (Michael Wincott), might somehow be next but he has no idea what the path of the investigation he sets out on along with Mace will lead to, a powder keg that could cause the biggest riot of all time to erupt in Los Angeles on New Year’s Eve before the 21st century is allowed to begin.

STRANGE DAYS went into wide release on Oct. 13, 1995, the same day as William Friedkin’s JADE and Roland Joffe’s THE SCARLET LETTER which has long provided me with the theory that the high profile box office disasters of these three big budget R-rated films (total domestic gross for this one: $7.9 million) all at once at that point in time was some kind of ground zero for the development of major changes in Hollywood in the coming years, resulting in a never ending swarm of lame comic book movies and other pre-packaged concepts that by this point signals the possible death of quality commercial movies. And it’s all the more unfortunate considering how this particular film at time displays genuine cinematic bravery in how everything is put together even within all its dystopian drudgery. Kathryn Bigelow is an amazing filmmaker and STRANGE DAYS, maybe one of the best sustained examples of her talents years before she won the Best Director Oscar, continually provides proof of that. With a screenplay by co-producer James Cameron and Jay Cocks (story by Cameron) everything about it is a hugely ambitious piece of work with undeniable confidence in almost every frame in what feels like an attempt to make the biggest, most important and exciting movie ever made, one that would point the way towards where humanity needs to be going and what it needs to move past. And it does this while giving us the most rocking, extreme entertainment experience imaginable all in an epic running time of nearly two-and-a-half hours which, frankly, seems like it’s that long mainly to remind us of what an epic it is. Make no mistake, it is at times a staggeringly phenomenal piece of work technically speaking, at times overwhelming to watch in its furiously compelling clarity and it makes it endlessly fascinating to watch, no matter what some of its flaws might be. It’s just hard to ignore some of those flaws.

The issues that have dated a few things are there but so are any number of other matters, points which reveal some of Cameron’s own limitations as a storyteller like the runner about Lenny’s taste in ties which has a Screenwriting 101 feel to it along with considerable histrionics in both plot and dialogue (gobs of exposition spat out by characters in a blatantly obvious style, lines like “Memories were meant to fade!” and “This tape is a lightning bolt from God!”) that could very well have come right out of BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS—I may as well mention for the hell of it that Roger Ebert gave STRANGE DAYS four stars, so there you go. As is the case with some of her other films, including BLUE STEEL and POINT BREAK, Bigelow’s undeniable skill behind the camera can sometimes override her ability to adequately address inherent flaws in the material she’s working with. Some of the specifics of Iris’s death in particular are so inherently unpleasant that it just causes things to become kind of a skeevy bummer (that said, points to it for being the rare film to explore such R-Rated sci-fi concepts) and as much as the film tries to make a big thing about the thematics of what can be seen with the naked eye--the very first shot, the nightclub named the Retinal Fetish, even the name Iris--in some ways it feels like a case where so much attention is lavished on the various themes, the production design, the music and just the overall gestalt of the thing that certain little elements like actual human motivation get lost in the process. Mace is a little too much of a superwoman-slash-figure-of-all-that-is-pure-in-the-world (a truly awesome one, granted) and the character of Faith feels particularly like the script never managed to make sense of her which may be partly due to miscasting (I actually think Juliette Lewis is sort of awesome in about 43 different ways as a screen presence and she sometimes drives me a little crazy but I’m still not convinced she’s completely right in this role) but too much of her effect on Lenny has to be taken on, well, faith. Trust me, I’ve gotten massively fixated on certain women myself in the past (shocking, right? And one or two of them may have slightly resembled Juliette Lewis so trust me, I get it) and if you saw the way I behaved you’d think I was a fucking idiot too but it doesn’t necessarily play as drama, at least not how it’s presented here. It feels like the character is missing a crucial beat of calmness between her and Lenny along with all her screaming at him, beyond what we see in the SQUID flashbacks, to provide a kind of understanding to their relationship. As it is, fifteen years after seeing this movie for the first time I’m still not sure what to think about the character at the end (I can’t help but wonder if the final shots of her were tacked on after the fact) and I don’t mean that as a point of interesting ambiguity. It’s just a little frustrating.

The issues with Faith are such a minor point in such an ambitious storyline that it feels strange to be spending so much time on it, but other problems arise throughout resulting in a piece of work so seemingly convinced how it has to be ‘the film of the 90s’ that it kind of drowns in its own self-importance, details like the important activist/singer whose death the plot revolves around but whose music doesn’t sound like anything that would be a hit then or now, not that I know much about rap. All the talk of a CHINATOWN-like conspiracy turns out to be a smokescreen, one provided by both the character making the claims and the film as well, leading to how everything involving Josef Sommer’s Police Commissioner—how much of the story winds up getting resolved—feels like it’s right out of a 70s cop show produced by Universal. Much of the film’s understandable preoccupations with racial politics may very well be rooted in what was going on in Los Angeles throughout the 90s, almost more than the film knows what to do with, but solving it all and quelling the riot still comes down to the decision made by an old white guy which doesn’t seem all that rebellious.

And some of it has to do with the staging as well, like how long Angela Bassett is able to hold certain people at bay during the climax without anyone stopping her and the rioters who all seem to be waiting for their cue for them to begin. And yet, the film is constantly a demo for some of the most amazing camerawork you’ve ever seen—seriously, my total admiration for how Bigelow and her crew shoots some of this knows no bounds—in multiple demonstrations of the first person sensation of being ‘jacked in’, particularly during the astounding almost-opening shot. These sections contain a quality that is truly visceral beyond words and also interestingly sets them apart from how Brian De Palma would have approached such material. If the quality of the script matched Bigelow’s own ambitions as a visual stylist this might very well be a masterwork. On the one hand, it’s continually awesome. On the other hand, it’s kind of a case of substance over, well, substance which displays how Bigelow’s forever compelling vision doesn’t necessarily disguise how she’s not always the best with plausibility and tying everything together (if I wanted to nitpick further I’d wonder about how these professionally made discs—wait, aren’t they black market?—are always referred to as ‘tapes’ which for some reason I find a little distracting). In some ways the entire film now plays as a howl in the night at something that never quite was and even Lenny’s obsession with Faith seems to just fizzle away in the end amidst all the mayhem in favor of Mace. While it may be a truly ambitious attempt to proclaim what the state of the world is like in 1995, transposing things to what it will become by the millennium, it still feels like it’s a statement being made by somebody whose idea of the world doesn’t go beyond the Los Angeles county line. It’s a display of humanity only if by humanity you mean total cinematic awesomeness and lots of nonstop intensity in a future noir urban hellhole, forever obsessed with the people in life you’ll never get back. I’m not saying those things aren’t human but it still feels like it’s missing some key element of genuine feeling, as astounding as every frame is.

It’s another sign of ambition in the movie is how it attempted to feature who was emerging at the time, even if it may have paid the price in how they weren’t really box office names. Ralph Fiennes is a terrific actor and his slippery style makes him ideal when he’s selling his wares but I’m never sure I buy him as a former L.A. cop and his inherently serious nature means he’s not very good at selling those Hollywood movie-style quips he’s supposed to blithely toss off. His weak nature provides an interesting effect, making him sort of the woman in the film when paired up against the much tougher Bassett who, make no bones about it, is pretty fantastic, looking amazing and making me wish that the film had been a hit if only so we could have gotten another ten movies, a few hopefully directed by Bigelow, in which she got to be a similar badass. Sadly we didn’t but she’s still amazing here, lending total conviction to all of her overbaked dialogue and I will simply mention without comment that of all of the tough women James Cameron has created over the years this one, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, is by a long shot, the most feminine and the toughest at the same time as well as being, what the hell, probably the hottest as well. Juliette Lewis is the one with the problematic role but her inherent intensity does shine through and she owns the camera whenever it’s pointed in her direction, it’s just the movie hasn’t figured out what to do with her. Tom Sizemore also has some problematic dialogue (seriously, I think at least half of what he has to say is just him endlessly explaining things) but he does strong work nevertheless and Michael Wincott is as slimy as we ever want a Michael Wincott character to be. Vincent D’Onofrio and William Fichtner are appropriately imposing as the two cops connected to it all (based on D’Onofrio final moments, it’s clear how much Bigelow loves FULL METAL JACKET), Brigitte Bako provides palpable desperation to her few scenes as Iris and Todd Graff from Cameron’s THE ABYSS (and a screenwriter/director in recent years) has one of the film’s most affecting moments as a paraplegic with his own sad addiction to getting jacked in. I should mention that there’s also lots of terrific music always bleeding into scenes including Juliette Lewis singing “I Can Hardly Wait” by PJ Harvey (which is pure dynamite) along with a particularly evocative score by Graeme Revell—I always liked the propulsive force of the car chase after a McGuffin has to be recovered at an impound lot which incidentally is a beautifully sustained section of pure action filmmaking in every possible way.

So? What happens now? I’m feeling like I need to find a way to move forward, to move beyond some of what’s happened in the past year. Hopefully I can at least start to do that. The ending of STRANGE DAYS has what is now an unfortunate byproduct of that kind of feeling, concluding on a point of optimism after the dystopia of the past two-plus-hours with the date of the new century displayed but looking at that date flashed now, eleven years after it was supposed to happen, the hope doesn’t seem to be there anymore. Maybe if I try hard enough deep down, I can somehow find that optimism at midnight when we turn to the very odd sounding year of 2011. I’m glad 2010 is ending. I need it to end. I need to move on. Now I’ll just have to see if I can. After all, memories, certain memories anyway, were meant to fade. It sure sounds cheesy in the context of this film that is considerably flawed while also being somewhat great, but maybe it’s also kind of true. Anyway, Happy New Year. I hope.

Monday, December 27, 2010

That Gift Was Granted

So anyway, Christmas. Not much to say. My annual viewing of ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE. TRUE GRIT twice at the Vista. Seeing BLACK SWAN for a second time. Becoming one of the mere handful of people on the planet who absolutely loves SOMEWHERE. Revisiting a few titles like IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE and GREMLINS along with popping various other Christmas movies into the DVD player at random. Started to watch LOVE ACTUALLY, then realized that I couldn’t deal with all that incessant romantic holiday cheeriness at this point it time—it’s just too damn depressing. Somehow I never got around to watching DIE HARD again this year, but since I’ve seen it about ten million times already that’s all right, there were a few others to make up for it. Not exactly one of the better Christmas movies of all time on either an ironic or non-ironic level, John Frankenheimer’s REINDEER GAMES followed up his late career triumph of 1998’s RONIN and turned out to be his final theatrical release. But not the final film he directed--the excellent PATH TO WAR, an HBO biopic on LBJ, followed premiering shortly before his death in 2002 and I suppose for such a legendary career it’s a somewhat more esteemed note to go out on. But just having REINDEER GAMES tossed in there, essentially a down and dirty genre piece of the sort that he had done a number of times before, indicates the wide, sometimes bizarre range that his long career spanned from when it began way back in the days of live TV. Pushed from a Christmas ‘99 release, which would have made sense, back to February 2000 seeing it at the time was a pretty big disappointment after RONIN and revisiting it now reminds me just how many Ben Affleck movies released by Miramax/Dimension we had to see back in those days. And when this film’s plot begins in prison the sight of the clean-cut Affleck serves as a reminder that we’re a long way from Burt Lancaster doing time in the director’s BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ. It’s still not great—hell, it was probably never going to be great and I kind of wonder if this was the best script he got offered after RONIN or just the best deal—but maybe I’m feeling easy these days amidst the misery of the holidays that I can’t bring myself to mind it all that much. At the very least it has momentum, some decent action and to some extent tries to be a no-nonsense crime thriller without, for the most part, dealing in any postmodern tropes that were becoming all the more common around this time.

Imprisoned car thief Rudy Duncan (Ben Affleck) is just a few days away from the end of his five year stint and looking forward to getting home just in time for Christmas. His friend and cellmate Nick Cassidy (James Frain) is getting out at the same time too and he’s excited to finally meet the girl who he’s been corresponding with for the past few months. But when a prison riot results in Nick getting stabbed and killed, it only takes one look at Ashley Mercer (Charlize Theron) as she waits at the prison gates for Rudy to make the impulsive decision to claim to be Nick. In spite of his charade, the two of them hit it off immediately but things soon take a turn for the worse when Ashley’s brother Gabriel (Gary Sinise) turns up with his gang of toughs intent on using what they believe to be “Nick’s” expertise of a casino security job he once worked to knock off that very casino on Christmas Eve, when they know business will be slow and the place won’t be fully staffed with security. Since nothing Rudy says will convince them that he isn’t really Nick, ultimately he has no choice but to go along with them since it might be the only way he can stay alive.

Actually, writing out that synopsis was harder than I expected and as anyone who’s seen this film knows there are any number of plot revelations I left out. There are the issues of learning who certain people actually are along with just what is really going on in this plot, twists upon twists which become so outlandish that when the final surprises come to light near the end (I guess I’ll avoid spoilers) it’s hard not to ponder just how many things needed to fall into place to make things work as they were supposed to. Frankly, it seems like the most unnecessarily complicated plan in the entire history of heist movies. REINDEER GAMES was written by Ehren Kruger who in the past decade has become one of the most successful screenwriters in the business with his hand in several big franchises and, naturally, he’s become a pretty big whipping boy on the net for a few of these—check out his imdb page to get a look at the hatred. To keep things fair I’ll just say that I’ve liked some of his films, I haven’t liked others and if he’s become a success for whatever reason then good for him (his involvement with writing a remake of VIDEODROME, on the other hand, is pretty indefensible on every possible level so I guess my kindness only goes so far). REINDEER GAMES is so packed with the most wacko plot twists imaginable that if it began life as a spec script by Kruger I could see how it would have read well as a gimmicky attempt to get a reader’s attention, as patently ridiculous as it is with very little happening that ever feels credible on any basic human level. And maybe, since it would be near impossible to make any of this plausible, it’s a spec script that should have stayed a spec script no matter how much skill somebody like Frankenheimer brings to the material.

Compared with the gritty, serious kick-ass action of RONIN this film feels a little more immature, a blatant stab at a movie-movie kind of plot that might not have been worthy of the guy who made THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. It contains his patented forceful style but the whole thing is so goofy that the various elements never really go together. Combine that with the basic believability issues with begin cropping up about five minutes in and it just becomes this oddball thing, a fake movie designed to play late nights on cable from now until the ends of time. Wasn’t there ever a reading of the script with the actors that ended with somebody sitting at the table going, really? Is anybody actually going to buy any of this? Maybe they just liked that they were getting to make an action movie with John Frankenheimer and kept quiet. I’m not sure I would blame them. The Maltin book points out that the actors “all seem to be playing ‘grown-up’ parts from an old movie script” in its one-and-a-half star review, a criticism that isn’t all that unwarranted and also brings to mind that it’s fairly easy to imagine this basic setup serving as part of some fatalistic noir made in the late 40s/early 50s (actually, the more I think about it this non-existent movie it sounds pretty great) with a cast who might have seemed a little more grounded and believable, something most of these actors never fully become. That version probably would have pulled off its story in about eighty minutes as well and maybe wouldn’t have ended in so happy-go-lucky a fashion, just one extra element among many that feels placed in there to make the movie something that it shouldn’t be. After all, who goes to see a hard-boiled John Frankenheimer film hoping that it’ll end with a lead character smiling amidst the warmth of family?

Since the disappointment felt when I saw it on opening weekend isn’t a factor anymore, I won’t exactly say that I’ve grown to like REINDEER GAMES but revisiting it now I found myself getting some enjoyment out of its dopey, over-complicated plot. At least the thing moves, with action that is always well-staged, along with a directing style that continually presents giant close-ups of its tough guys snarling at each other, sometimes with a second tough guy framed behind them snarling as well (Frankenheimer always seemed to love lining up shots like this through the decades), ready to pound the hell out of somebody at a moment’s notice. Even being a little more charitable to it now it’s still awfully long, particularly in the 124 minute director’s cut that can be found on DVD (the theatrical cut is out there too but I watched this one because it’s what he seems to have preferred. It’s also what I happened to have around) and on occasion becomes just a little too unpleasant with its lunkhead bad guys who are more thugs than anything, as if Frankenheimer was ok with making a popcorn movie but wasn’t going to scrimp on how truly viscerally nasty he could make things if at all possible. Considering how freezing it always looks this probably wasn’t the most enjoyable shoot ever (filmed in Vancouver to represent Michigan) and not many movies set in snow have as dirty a feel to them as this one does, with the bitter cold it’s all set in coming off as so palpable that just watching it makes me want to put on a coat. It’s definitely a weird combination of tones and since I’m a dumb guy who never realized until now that this Christmas movie features major characters named Rudy, Nick and Gabriel I suddenly wonder if Frankenheimer, a brilliant filmmaker but never one of the most humorous, ever realized the joke himself (there’s also a Santa’s dwarves/elves runner in the dialogue that never gets its payoff as if he just didn’t didn’t care about that sort of one-liner). I could believe that the script was intended to be a little more arch and fun but he goes for the furious intense action, as pummeling as he can make it. Even if it’s not quite right, it’s still at times an impressive display of craft for the director who turned 70 just before the film was released.

Considering how many double crosses there are, both Frankenheimer and Kruger deserve some credit for it all coming together in more or less a way that can be followed (the whole thing with the Pow Wow safe never seems clarified, however), as blatantly absurd as it all is. Some of the little details manage to have a fair amount of cleverness, like when one of the dumb crooks uses some logical reasoning if a way that feels kind of refreshing and even when it feels a little overstuffed (Dennis Farina’s casino manager seems like a rich characterization who Kruger should have saved for a script where he could have been fully utilized) at least it’s trying to never be dull. So help me, by the time we hit the big heist in the casino with multiple Santas, I’m pretty much with it. And except for one or two unnecessary points, like Danny Trejo discussing an article he’s reading on how Christmas aids the retail economy, not much in the way of Tarantino-era jokiness either. Really, the film isn’t badly done at all--it’s just never believable for a second and the way Frankenheimer directs it he seems to believe that it is. That, combined with how it’s never as much fun as it probably should have been makes me think that maybe it just wasn’t his kind of material. Still, it makes it kind of interesting to pick it apart. REINDEER GAMES isn’t a good movie but it has such a force to all its absurdity making it weirdly enjoyable that I just don’t see much reason to dislike it anymore. Looking up some of the reviews David Edelstein, who more than some critics out there is sometimes willing to give things the benefit of the doubt, seems to be just about the only one not looking to stick it on a worst film’s list, expressing admiration for Frankenheimer’s familiar style and concluding, “The picture is an empty parlor trick, but it’s carried out with a master’s concentration.” The craft to it all displays a professionalism that may not qualify as consciously old school but there’s an undeniable confidence to it which gets the job done, with an eye towards making it all work that doesn’t really seem to be all that present in souped-up CGI-crazed action movies anymore. As a director John Frankenheimer made films that ranged all over the map in terms of quality. This one definitely isn’t in the top half but I wouldn’t put it quite at the bottom either. How’s that for praise?

I’ve got no real beef with Ben Affleck. He seems like a smart guy who genuinely wants to make good movies now. I’d like to think that he took the money he made for this (or maybe it’s just one of several movies he owed the Weinsteins) and got something out of the experience of working with Frankenheimer, lessons he uses as a director now. Not to mention how his performance in THE TOWN feels a little more lived in than his pretty boy just released from prison here, one who barely seems to have spent five hours in lockup let alone five years. He seems totally down with all the physicality the part requires (his director also seems to enjoy working with his angular features within the frame), he’s just too lightweight to ever be really believable and I don’t buy him for a second. I’d still want to ask him about this movie if I ever got the chance. Gary Sinise, almost always a terrific actor, also never really sells that he’s actually this tough guy no matter how many times he snarls and displays how he obviously got pumped up for the role. I kind of half expect there to be another twist where it’s revealed that this long hair biker garb is some sort of disguise (I guess this is a spoiler, but that’s one twist the movie doesn’t have) so ultimately it just feels like a case of miscasting. Charlize Theron has been somewhat unkind about the movie in print (to Esquire – “That was a bad, bad, bad movie. But even though the movie might suck, I got to work with John Frankenheimer. I wasn't lying to myself -- that's why I did it.” So points to her as well) but she really does give the best performance in the film and is kind of awesome, veering between believable vulnerability and total femme fatale, always seeming present and active in scenes. For the record, I should also point out that there are a few nude scenes by Theron as well. Just for the record, you understand. Clarence Williams III, Danny Trejo and Donal Logue play Sinise’s three imposing cohorts and I get the feeling that only Williams knows what to do with all those moments of quiet menace in his close-ups throughout and based on how he shoots him I get the feeling that Frankenheimer really loved working with this guy (both Sinise and Williams, incidentally, also star in the director’s cable movie GEORGE WALLACE and they’re both brilliant in it). Dennis Farina is very enjoyable in what is basically the Dennis Farina role, even if I wish he had more screen time, and for some reason Isaac Hayes turns up for a moment as a prisoner who recites the legendary line, “There’s monsters in the gelatin!” Maybe strangest of all is the early appearance by Ashton Kutcher as “College Kid” who Affleck pulls a bait and switch with at one point in the casino. One quick shot of him talking to an extra when seen at a distant is so strangely phony, like he can’t even pretend to be saying something to another person, almost looks now like it was added after the fact on an episode of “Punk’d” or some late night comedy show.

Just think about this for a second. John Frankenheimer had a directing career which spanned from the likes of Burt Lancaster and Frank Sinatra all the way to Ben Affleck and Ashton Kutcher. Some might see that as a comedown but it’s still impressive nevertheless and of course he made one more film after this starring the likes of Michael Gambon, Alec Baldwin and Donald Sutherland (as well as Gary Sinise, reprising his role as George Wallace in a cameo). PATH TO WAR is of course as different from REINDEER GAMES as possible and yet the fact that he was a director who was attracted to both kinds of material, approaching each with a similar kind of passion evident in the approach, only underlines his wide range of talents as well as what a loss it was when he died. I have a feeling that my sneaking admiration for REINDEER GAMES will only grow as time goes on as I look for disreputable holiday movies to watch over the season. It’s not that good. It’s kind of unpleasant. It’s really nothing that I could or should defend. I guess I don’t really mind it. Maybe Christmas brings that out in you sometimes.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Spurious Perhaps, But Not Turgid

Right around cocktail time on the day the world learned of the death of Blake Edwards I suddenly had a reverie of walking into that hotel bar in “10” down in Mexico where Don the bartender, played by Brian Dennehy, pours multiple Brandys for Dudley Moore’s George Webber. After ordering a double for myself from Don (“Another double, Don,” I’ll say) I suppose we’d commiserate over the loss and maybe a few other familiar Edwards characters would turn up as well. George Webber himself would be nearby with his own double Brandy, ignoring Dee Wallace’s Mary Lewis while maybe still gazing wistfully at Bo Derek’s Jenny blithely dancing in the other room with her wide-eyed husband. The characters from S.O.B. played by William Holden, Robert Webber and Robert Preston would be together on the other side of the bar downing considerably stiffer drinks, having just put six dollars worth of Sinatra on the jukebox. Holly Golightly would of course wander through for a quick drink but not stay long, no doubt on the hunt for Rusty Trawler and she’d probably leave without paying. Jack Lemmon’s Joe Clay from DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES might be sitting uncomfortably by himself at a table in the corner, hopefully drinking something non-alcoholic and still missing his wife who he’s long since lost track of. Ellen Barkin as Steve/Amanda Brooks from SWITCH would be brooding by his/herself, drinking a sixth margarita, ready to knock any one of these men in the face if they try anything. That aside, we’d all be having a relaxing time drowning our sorrows with excessively witty dialogue honoring Edwards flowing out of each one of us like champagne until, I suppose, Chief Inspector Jacques Clouseau shows up (actually, maybe it would be Hrundi V. Bakshi), trips over something and starts a chain reaction that would cause the entire bar to come crashing down and put an end to this impromptu memorial. Which I suppose would be appropriate.

I’ve been trying to work out in my head just what the death of Blake Edwards at 88 means to me. I just know that I want to celebrate his memory, not mourn him. The span of his career as a filmmaker, as a writer, as a craftsman, as a stylist (After all, how many other directors out there have been the primary creative force of a comedy series that essentially spanned a period of nearly thirty years?), combining his love for silent comedies in the purely visual style he emulated numerous times in his own work—notably, his grandfather was a silent film director—with the sparkling wit and wordplay one might associate with the likes of Lubitsch, Sturges and Wilder. He absolutely deserves mention alongside those names and with his passing, since no one has taken up the mantle of that kind of approach in recent years—frankly, I’m not sure anyone would be allowed to even try—it’s like the concept of the sophisticated comedy has officially ended once and for all.

Edwards hasn’t always been as respected as I think he should be which in a sense is partly his own doing—the commercial and critical failure of the non-Sellers PANTHER films, a number of comedies that haven’t aged well, Mickey Rooney in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S. But all you need to do is look at a list of the titles that matter, both comedies and others with a number starring wife Julie Andrews: the Clouseau films, BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, EXPERIMENT IN TERROR, DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES, THE GREAT RACE, WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE WAR, DADDY?, THE PARTY, DARLING LILI, THE TAMARIND SEED, “10”, S.O.B., VICTOR/VICTORIA, SWITCH. And, in truth, there are a few I haven’t listed here, ones that got no mention in any of his obits, that I always find myself getting pleasure from on repeated viewings as well. The more I see some of these films the more I respond to just why they work—the elegance, the intricate structuring of the scripts, the forever acidic dialogue, the true understanding of whatever genre he was working in, the visual formality of his anamorphic framing that would let actors play off each other through scenes as much as possible or be used in a way to allow a joke to work just right. The recurring actors, the party scenes (THE PARTY aside, BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S probably has the greatest party scene ever), the Henry Mancini source music twinkling away in the background through moments of wanton destruction, that sort of zoned-out Southern California vibe that probably seemed otherworldly to me as a kid, as if L.A. really was the promised land I wanted to find myself in. When I worked a job in Brentwood during my first years here I think secretly deep down I sometimes imagined myself as living in a kind of Blake Edwards film. Even now, I listen to close to an unhealthy amount of Henry Mancini, as if trying to force something of the essence from his films into real life.

And through films that are good and bad, slapstick and serious, some of them feel truly personal, almost startlingly so, in ways that are absolutely undeniable through their drunken insanity, painful hangovers and continual bitterness. They’re about people who go through journeys of self-examination, addressing the nature of relationships between men and women not to mention who is sometimes attracted to who, through their frankness at times making it evident just how much time he must have spent in analysis and quite a few of his characters, even Herbert Lom’s Chief Inspector Dreyfus, spend as much time on the couch as possible trying to sort all this out (indeed, Edwards’ own psychoanalyst Dr. Milton Wexler was a co-writer with him on two films). And they’re about how the pain that arises from that anguish, like the desperation of wanting to fuck Bo Derek, sometimes hurts more than any spectacular pratfall ever could.

When it came time for something to watch on that night I was going to go with THE PINK PANTHER, partly because I’ve seen “10” and S.O.B. so many thousands of times by now but at the last minute I decided to go with a more unusual choice, one that represented the sort of Blake Edwards film I was able to experience first hand during that run in the eighties when he worked at an extremely fast clip for any director (A FINE MESS, THAT’S LIFE and BLIND DATE all came out within a seven month time span in ’86-’87, for example). Released in March 1989, SKIN DEEP was near the end of that particularly prolific run, playing now as it did then as a very conscious riff on themes he had certainly explored in the past and if it’s not one of his best films it’s certainly one of his more successful efforts during that period. I think for a while I may have been slightly ashamed by how much I genuinely liked what much of the world probably thought of as a goofy John Ritter comedy but I don’t really feel that way anymore. When I saw it at the time of its release, without knowing how to put it into words I recognized that Edwards was openly exploring some of the same themes as past films and it allowed me to approach it as what I understood was an ongoing body of work. This idea probably opened me up to the concept of a director with a distinctive vision exploring serious themes within the context of a comedy and I think that added to my education of what a personal film really could be, only adding to my continued fondness for it. It’s not perfect for a number of reasons but it has a large amount of genuine laughs, a surprising amount of depth and every frame of it feels completely like a Blake Edwards film right down to its core.

Famed writer Zach Hutton (bearded John Ritter) is being held at gun point by his mistress who has caught him with another woman when his wife Alex (Alyson Reed) walks in on all of them. She immediately kicks him out of the house “lock, stock and typewriter” and divorces him. Zach immediately tries to pick up the pieces of his life, living for a time with Molly (Julianne Phillips) but soon is spending much of his time alternating time between his favorite bar run by friendly but pragmatic Barney (Vincent Gardenia) and sessions with stone-faced psychiatrist Dr. Westford (Michael Kidd) as well as getting involved any number of other women. But he soon finds himself spiraling out of control in doing way too much drinking and absolutely zero writing, eventually coming to the realization that Alex may be the only person who can save him but her bitterness over how things ended means that it may be too late.

Apparently when wife Julie Andrews began to write her autobiography Edwards’ one piece of advice to her was, “Characters are your story,” and even more than his films usually are, SKIN DEEP is all character but it’s also about the very essence of character as well and whether it really is possible to change, a concept impeccably fused through every scene of the story as it explores this theme. Like Edwards, Zach Hutton is a very prosperous creative individual married to a woman who is successful in her own field (Alyson Reed does slightly resemble Julie Andrews, come to think of it) but the conflict he has to face within himself and with his ex-wife is presented as very serious in this movie, one which is of course best known for a certain legendary glow-in-the-dark condom sequence. Very much playing like an attempt at redoing his way-too-low-key version of THE MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN, itself a remake of a Truffaut film (the Edwards version had a bearded Burt Reynolds as a sculptor), SKIN DEEP has Edwards approaching this material with a great amount of spark and energy through farcical situations of Zach drunkenly bedding (or at least trying to bed) one woman after another, variations on material he’s explored before but the pacing is always fast and sharp, with displays of anguish that have a surprising amount of teeth to them as well.

Of course the film has a terrific lead actor willing to make every pratfall required of him by Edwards-- when someone has to get knocked over by a flailing Ritter she can’t just be carrying a few files, her arms have to be overloaded with them before they all go flying. And as for the infamous condom sequence which part of the ad campaign was based around, while it’s probably not as uproarious to watch at home as it was in the theater it is still pretty damn funny. It’s all presented with impeccable narrative economy such as how the immediate flourishing and destruction of his relationship with Molly is dazzlingly well-executed in just a few deliberately similar shots. The laughs veer into drama in rapid fire ways that sometimes seem genuinely disarming all through the continually literate dialogue (maybe I should just make “Not being able to write is like not being able to screw” my motto once and for all) and any number of beautifully turned phrases from Edwards’ ever-present knack to presumably amuse himself by tossing big words or discussions of such phrasings into conversations. I just love the flow of in recounting one story to his psychiatrist, Ritter tells how he tried “to be alert to the narrative possibilities of the evening.” Not to mention the presence of the oft-used phrase, “Nobody’s perfect”, most associated with Billy Wilder of course, but which also turns up in several of Edwards’ films here and there as if he’s always trying to remember that there’s only so much you can do to save yourself.

And, yes, SKIN DEEP focuses largely on the problems of extremely wealthy white people who live in large homes complete with manservants. The plight of the rich is nothing new with Blake Edwards films, of course, whether we’re talking about how Charles Litton’s big problem in RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER is that he’s bored doing nothing but living the high life in the south of France or characters like Zach Hutton here and Jack Lemmon’s near-suicidal architect in THAT’S LIFE! going through problems considerably more desperate. Edwards clearly understood the self-hatred that lurked within the wealthy Malibu/Bel Air milieu as much as he was always trying to make sense of his own depressions and insecurities, at times seeming to view all that wealth around him as if he wanted nothing more than to bring all these mansions crumbling down, letting waves crash into Malibu to wreck homes and expose every bit of rotting hypocrisy that can be found there. There’s also the latest in the long line of sympathetic and layered gay best friends in Edwards films presented in the most casual manner possible, here represented by the interesting pairing of Peter Donat and Don Gordon (Steve McQueen’s partner in BULLITT) and a key death that occurs stood out at the time because it wasn’t the typical AIDS tragedy. Looking at it now, this plays as something which not only doesn’t date the film but also makes the foibles of the characters in question (never specified, just as Edwards must have known his friends went through as much anguish as he did) that much more identifiable, an element which doesn’t badly date things in this well off west L.A. in a way that the fashions do. To be fair of course, any number of his films from various decades feature fashions and references that lock things into their era as much as that bit player in “10” reading a copy of “Rona Barrett’s Gossip”, with SKIN DEEP displaying lots of big hair and shoulder pads on the women and even some of the men’s suits manage to look oddly dated but if SKIN DEEP is going to be a film about a stylized Blake Edwards world of 1989 I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that.

SKIN DEEP has a large number of genuine laughs and the inner conflict of its lead character always feels raw, honest and potent. All this said, the film isn’t perfect, and contains a fair number of the drawbacks people familiar with Edwards’ work would recognize, like my suspicion that only a screenwriter in his 60’s would name a heavy metal band the Moon Rocks, maybe a slight indication that the writer who once identified more with the ‘elevator music’ written by the lead character of “10” was that much more isolated from pop culture by the end of the 80s. Its effectiveness is also somewhat damaged in how surprisingly dingy it looks at times (the Panavision framing as Edwards lets scenes play out in his usual long takes is always impeccable, of course) and there’s a feel around the edges that the budget wasn’t as high as he was sometimes used to. What maybe hurts the film the most is what sometimes hurts any film that amiably drifts along unconcerned about actual plot—by a certain point it realizes that it needs to actually go somewhere and this one slightly fumbles in the home stretch. The occasional presence of what appears to be a false beard on Ritter during the second half—possibly changing from one to the other in the same scene more than once—indicates the possibility of reshoots after principal photography as Edwards was maybe still finding the movie in an attempt to focus more on Zach ultimately choosing to pursue Alex (lengthy aside—examples of severe reediting weren’t all that uncommon with Edwards’ films with several featuring scenes included prominently in publicity that never turned up in the final version, like the sequence in A FINE MESS involving the music box that the entire film was meant to be centered around, but ultimately cut. Trailers for a few other films have tantalizing glimpses of cut scenes forever to be found in the trailers with the occasional remnant still lurking in the actual movies if you know where to look hard enough. For me, I think this has only added to the nature of trying to sort out how character and structure work in Blake Edwards films. End of lengthy aside).

The nonstop speed as it moves towards its conclusion hurts things as well and even when some of the dialogue is surprisingly frank about what the lead character is going through in all the best ways (“I’m so miserable, I want to fucking shoot myself. Only I can’t, because I’m afraid to die,” he desperately reveals to his therapist) that when things are resolved so fast in such a neat way it feels just a little like a reach for a bullshit happy ending. It doesn’t make me dislike the film—the final beats are just fine, actually. But it feels like a case of turning its back on too much of the anguish that propelled Zach’s precarious situation forward and it’s not as effective an ending as it should be. At the movie’s best it’s still the right kind of potent vodka but it still feels like what had the potential to be great just comes off as pretty good. Repeated viewings over the years have only helped to clarify this feeling but I still have a huge admiration for a lot of what the movie achieves and feel it deserves better than it’s gotten. SKIN DEEP is flawed, yes, but it does know to dig deep into its character and is occasionally truly hysterical. Not to mention that with the star and director of this two-decade-old film gone now, listening to the lead character speaking of trying to fix things before it’s too late reminds me how fast time really does move in this forever darkly comic world we live in and makes watching it now all the more wistful an experience.

The cast is just fantastic and every scene demonstrates how much Edwards clearly loved working with his actors, allowing them to continually make a strong impression in front of the camera. John Ritter (who I actually remember seeing a number of times on San Vicente Blvd. in my Brentwood days) does some of his strongest work here in probably the best film role he ever had. As lightweight as his presence might sometimes be he rises to the occasion here totally and completely, tears coming to his eyes while flirting as if just the act of doing this fills him with such indefinable joy he can’t help himself, as well as succeeding in making every inch of his desperation late in the film totally palpable. Plus he pulls off some of the most remarkable physical work of his career and there’s once or twice where I’m a little amazed that they never cut away to let the stuntman take over. He’s also matched well up against Alyson Reed who is more mature looking than the sort of beauty maybe expected to be cast in this film (she seems older than Ritter in every way but if the dates are right she’s actually several years younger) and the film wisely uses her inherently serious nature well, with her character’s bitterness at him in the opening scenes feeling genuine and that carries through the film, always remaining in the back of the mind even as the laughs keep up. Joel Brooks as lawyer/best friend Jake deserves props for the way he says “I gotta get home to the fucking loved ones,” while also standing out in the large cast are Vincent Gardenia as Zach’s loyal bartender, the legendary Michael Kidd as the psychiatrist, Chelsea Field as the brunette in turquoise who Zach makes the mistake of trying to buy a drink for (I once recognized her and blurted out “SKIN DEEP!” to which she responded something like, “Ugh, that was so long ago.” I always had a thing for her), Nina Foch as the angry mother-in-law, Dee Dee Rescher as the wife of Jake who can never stop laughing and Denise Crosby as investment counselor Angela Smith. Herb Tanney, Edwards’ friend and doctor, makes his usual cameo appearance this time playing a Hotel Concierge and credited as ‘Sol Vang Tanney’.

I had the privilege of seeing Blake Edwards at a few events over the years and stood as part of a standing ovation for him several times. The last one was at an Academy tribute only back in September where he spoke in an onstage interview with producer Walter Mirisch before a screening of S.O.B. He was clearly weak but the wit was still sharp and, rather movingly, he managed to rise from his wheelchair to acknowledge the audience after the sold out Academy theater rose for him. Another time I saw him speak was after a screening of WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE WAR, DADDY? at the Aero in Santa Monica, which included a genuinely odd Q&A that he conducted from his seat in the audience, Julie Andrews by his side, and answered one question about his style by simply saying, “I did what I did,” one of those statements that I suppose says both nothing and everything at the same time. But even more cherished than that was his surprise appearance at the same theater after an American Cinematheque screening of THE PARTY a few years back where his presence at the rear of the theater was revealed as soon the end credits finished rolling and the entire audience rose in unison to applaud him for the absolute joy he had just provided for the past 99 minutes. I went to the lobby right after to pay my respects and tried to fumble out words to him of how much I loved his movies, how much they meant to me, but probably didn’t do a very good job of expressing myself. At least I got the chance.

And now I think about how much I love some of these movies, how much they’ve taught me about writing screenplays, their structure, their dialogue, how comedy can be staged, how any kind of genre can possibly be staged and how much I respond to how he tried to explore that indefinable chasm between man and women, madness and sanity, pain and joy, drunk and sober, thoughts that come to mind at times when I meet women like that cocktail waitress I had at the Dresden the other night who was charmingly abrasive in a way that would have made her seem right at home in a Blake Edwards film (maybe I should write my own Edwards-inspired romantic comedy about trying to date her). And I think deep down I emulate some of my favorite films of his more than any other films from any other director. This stuff is a part of me, right down to my core. A number of hours after hearing that he died I sat at my desk and looked at a clip of the quietly touching final scene of THE PARTY, a final scene that bravely allows the hysteria of that remarkable film to die down, coming to a gentle conclusion instead of just going for an obvious final gag. As I watched it and listened to the soothing sound of Mancini’s beautiful “Nothing to Lose” I remembered how those credits rolled the night at the Aero, with Edwards quietly in the back watching unbeknownst to anyone, how much this movie has meant to me every single time I’ve ever seen it and I suddenly found myself crying. I was crying for the loss of this man I never actually knew but who possessed a cockeyed view of the world, and of films, that had come to mean so much to me. And always will. To quote William Holden at the end of S.O.B., “So long, pal.”

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Instinctual Behavior

So I’ve been feeling at sea lately with a lot of lying awake at night and there’s not much I can do about it. Part of it is the whole unemployment thing and continuing worries about money but there have also been various issues with certain women I’ve known over the past year—or even longer—the result of which by this point is driving me to literally curl up in a fetal position with this genuine pain I feel down in the pit of my stomach from it all. It’s not a good feeling. I barely even know how I can try to write at the moment. Look, I know they’re crazy and I just wind up sitting here like Mark Rutland trying to figure them out even though every sane bone in my body tells me I should just run the other way and take up with my dead wife’s cool sister instead. All right, the analogy to real life isn’t perfect but what do you want me to say? I won’t get into specifics with the women in question but I’m just tired of it. I’d like this year to end already so I can move on to…I don’t know what anymore. But I’d also rather talk about an Alfred Hitchcock film because it’s a hell of a lot more interesting than anything I’ve got going on. MARNIE is a film with fervent admirers out there, and I think a few women I know are probably among them, but it’s also been considered a problem film by others though maybe the roots of its problems are part of what makes it so fascinating. The 1964 film is commonly thought of as the one where cracks in the director’s approach and style begin to show, for various reasons that have been speculated out there. These cracks began to show even more in the commonly agreed-on failures of TORN CURTAIN and TOPAZ, to name two films which really are problematic in more than just a few ways. If MARNIE is drastically flawed, and it’s certainly open to debate if it even is, some of those flaws are what makes it so continually intriguing. The perfections in some of Hitchcock’s films make them forever addictive to return to but even if MARNIE isn’t perfect, just trying to figure it out after repeated viewings is illuminating in its own ways and makes it all the more fascinating as a result.

Marnie Edgar (‘Tippi’ Hedren) is a young woman who habitually assumes other identities and appearances to take jobs in various cities, then robbing the safe and fleeing after gaining her bosses confidence. After stealing from a tax consulting firm, she moves to Philadelphia where she applies for a job with Rutland & Co. publishing house under the identity of a widow and is hired by the man in charge, the wealthy Mark Rutland (Sean Connery). Though Marnie doesn’t know it, Rutland’s company actually does business with the tax consultant and, aware of the robbery, he quickly finds himself intrigued by this woman who he thinks he recognizes. They begin a relationship but when she robs the Rutland safe, Mark knows immediately what has happened and isn’t going to let her get away so easily. Meanwhile Lil (Diane Baker), the sister of Mark’s late wife who has long had her eye on him, takes her own interest in what is going on between the pair as well.

It’s considered a problem film for any number of reasons. A problem film due to how it addresses the nature of Marnie’s lifelong problem in simple Freudian terms and her terrified reactions to the color red frankly don’t do much for me, making what should seem like genuine trauma come off as too much of a gimmick for my own taste (for the record, I inquired with the one strict Orthodox Freudian I know and she loves this film, but isn’t all that crazy about this element either). A problem because of portraying the likes of Sean Connery and Alan Napier as wealthy Philadelphians drinking tea and heading off for fox-hunting, an obvious carryover from the original novel’s English setting which exactly place things in any kind of reality. A problem because of the effects work which seems to have had less attention than needed paid to it at a certain point. Various Hitchcock fans have tried to come up with reasons for this obvious artifice through the years speaking of how it symbolizes the falseness of its heroine’s own facade but it’s never been something I’ve bought into and I’m not sure this is all really that much of a problem anyway--for one thing, looking at an older movie with obvious rear screen projection (examples of which can certainly be seen in certain other better regarded Hitchcock films from the period) frankly doesn’t bother me all that much. For another thing, such issues certainly don’t bug me when they’re presented as elegantly as the matte painting of the Rutland & Co. building is on that deserted Saturday (actually, the whole film somehow feels like it takes place on a cloudy, lazy Saturday at 3:30 in the afternoon) with lightning crashing everywhere and everything about the expressionism undeniably works. When they’re achieved as poorly as the not-up-to-snuff matte work of the docks in Baltimore it’s not about artifice or style—it simply plays as design work that isn’t good enough and Hitchcock didn’t feel like coming up with a better alternative, just like the (not effects related) zoom-in-and-out as Marnie attempts another robbery late in the story which for me is a touch that always feels too crass for both the director and the film he’s making.

But here’s the thing—how much do some of these problems really matter in the end? And yes, one can analyze Hitchcock’s own psychology into what were apparently blatant overtures made towards both Tippi Hedren and Diane Baker during production (Donald Spoto, for one, has written extensively about what might have happened) but how much does that really make a difference to how the movie played when it’s viewed in the dead of night? As it moves from a beautifully laid out robbery sequence of the sort that we would expect from a Hitchcock thriller into something different, more internal, MARNIE (screenplay by Jay Presson Allen from the novel by Winston Graham) leads not necessarily to more thrills but to an attempt by Hitchcock to, more than ever before, really delve into the characters that populate his films as if attempting a feature-length extension of that parlor room discussion with Marion Crane and Norman Bates in PSYCHO. Of course, that was also a film where a woman using various forms of a first name that starts with the letter M makes off with her employer’s money, and the path from the sparkling, superficial glamour of something like TO CATCH A THIEF all the way through various films leading up to MARNIE feels like the director getting all the more obsessed with the figures who occupy his movies, particularly the various blondes who are gazed at from behind, as he increasingly tries to examine their actual intent and why they behave the way they do. Why these women (including some of the blondes) intrigue us, drive us crazy, for now and all time, leading of course to one lying awake in the dead of night.

As much as it emphasizes Marnie’s own inner conflict, as well as sister-in-law Lil’s own issues of just lounging around the Rutland mansion basically doing nothing but presumably waiting for enough time to pass to finally pounce on Mark, the Hitchcock-infused, coolly-hued Universal City world of MARNIE is run by men that are forever in charge of the women around them, women who are secretly more together at least on the surface. Marnie certainly keeps her cool in her various guises out in the open and side characters like Mariette Hartley’s Miss Clabon (I find myself wondering how she spends her weekends) or Carmen Phillips as Mr. Strutt’s nameless secretary (who, in saying nothing more than “Oh, Mr. Strutt, don’t you remember? She didn’t have any references at all,” gives what has to be one of the great one-line performances of all time) always seem to be smirking behind the backs of who they’re supposedly subordinate to. Sean Connery’s Mark Rutland is also a few steps ahead of the other men who are either much older (Alan Napier as Mark’s father seems to drift amiably outside of things, never concerned enough to get involved with all this anguish) or, like that guy who tries to get Marnie excited about a Danish, simply not worth an instant of her time but Mark’s greatest flaw seems to be what draws him to Marnie in the first place. He speaks of his interest in zoology and exploring instinctual behavior, how he tries to keep up with his field while keeping what he’s thinking to himself (“I don’t get it.” “You’re not supposed to get it.”). He’s not quite human but Marnie isn’t really either and together they make for a glamorously uncertain couple in this uncertain filmic world. He certainly has all the understandable interest in finally getting this cool blonde into bed but what does he really want when it comes to Marnie as he sits there gazing at her, forever reading his books? What is he looking for, even after he achieves his ultimate demand on her during that ocean voyage? If I knew the answer to that one I suppose I’d be able to unlock whatever remains elusive when the fade out to the film comes, not to mention figuring out some of my own issues with various women who…well, maybe I should avoid thinking about that for the time being.

It’s a Hollywood film with all the artifice we would expect and maybe more so, complete with a main theme for its lead character by Bernard Herrmann which seems to continually threaten to turn into a love ballad for its leads complete with lyrics but nothing in those possible words would ever be something that Marnie herself is looking for. And in every ongoing conversation between the two Mark and Marnie that covers every specific detail in the most literal way possible, including that real-time visit to a Howard Johnson’s for franks and coffee, are scenes that are continually transfixing in the way Hitchcock cuts back and forth between them, digging into how they look at each other, a continuous effect that is as purely cinematic as anything. You don’t have to tell me what Jimmy Stewart sees in Grace Kelly in REAR WINDOW or Kim Novak in VERTIGO so as a result those films, brilliant as they are, don’t have quite the sort of mystery in that department this one does. The grand revelation at the end may not answer everything—just like learning things about certain women in one’s own life never answers everything—but to dismiss this film by saying, ‘oh, the matte shot is phony so the cure is phony’ and reading too much into those elements frankly just bores the living hell out of me. If anything, what happens at the end when Mark Rutland somewhat unconvincingly says, “It’s all over,” to her doesn’t seems like a total cure at all, just a step towards a mutual something between the two, which is maybe the best anyone can ever hope for. Not that I have all that much hope right now. Like THE BIRDS, Hitchcock’s previous film with Hedren, MARNIE ends with her being driven off by a man without a THE END title card to add a sense of relief to the fade out though I guess in this film’s case the resolution of Bernard Hermann’s score sort of provides that. Not everything about MARNIE can ever be fully explained or necessarily defended but I remain pretty much mesmerized by it anyway. Just like I am with…well, yeah.

It occurs to me watching sections of this film again that as great as it is to hear some of the actors spout off this coolly analytical dialogue, I’m continually struck by how just how much Hedren, Connery and Baker are each equally revealing in their own ways during sequences where they have little or nothing to say at all. The way the camera lingers on the safe from Mark’s point of view during the initial job interview as he quietly pieces things together, aided by his director through Hitchcock’s montage with the actor quietly making the decision that it will be “interesting to keep her around” and all throughout the film is an undeniable case of viewing that fusion. A cracked porcelain doll as Marnie, Tippi Hedren is more compelling on each viewing, not as skilled as somebody like Grace Kelly would have been in the part but her own coolness and uncertainty at certain points makes her behavior all the more unpredictable. Sean Connery, still in that jungle cat mode of the early Bond films (this was shot right before GOLDFINGER) plays his role with his eyes darting about inquisitive, continually observing, on to this new employee right from the beginning but toying with her before he closes in for the kill. Diane Baker as Lil is also increasingly beguiling the more I watch the film, bringing intelligence to someone who seems to be written as more spoiled than she presents herself as and the combination of the two provides an interesting effect--she just seems too curious, too inquisitive to do nothing but wait for Mark, which ultimately makes me wonder what her deal is. Her character arc isn’t really completed in the end, and since it’s not her film it doesn’t have to be, so the mystery to her remains, forever to be contemplated. Though the triangle between the three leads is what much of the focus remains on Martin Gabel does a lot with his tiny role as the angry Mr. Strutt, Louise Latham is forever memorable in just a few scenes as Marnie’s mother and Bruce Dern makes one of several Hitchcock appearances in a small but key role as a sailor.

I imagine that a few of the women I know who are obsessed with this movie have a somewhat different take on it than I do but maybe the way male-female relationships are now compared with how they may have been then means that it’s aged in ways that make it both more and less potent than it once was. It remains alive and potent, flawed as some of it might be. Such is the effect of that show, but part of me also can’t help but picture Jon Hamm in Don Draper mode playing opposite Tippi Hedren now but whatever the version MARNIE I’m thinking of, whether it’s in front of me or in my own head, it remains continually fascinating. The images, the delirium, the close-ups of the two leads trying to figure each other out, all keep running through my head as I lie awake in the dead of night thinking about MARNIE, thinking about those women I know and will miss, whether blonde or brunette—much like Marnie herself, the hair colors in real life sometimes change. Since I’m not Mark Rutland, maybe I never really knew some of them as much as I thought I did but it also means that I don’t expect my own version of a fade out to this continuing story to come any time soon.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

To Survive At Any Price

Memory can trap you. It leaves you stranded in your own head, wondering what you did wrong, if you really did do something wrong, what you should have done differently or if you ever had any real choice in the first place. And it just leaves me thinking about regrets, whether it has to do with what I was doing exactly one year ago tonight or something that happened decades ago. Doing nothing but reminding me of all my failures and that’s what I’m sometimes left with in the dead of night.

Everyone’s going crazy waiting to see the Coen Brothers remake of TRUE GRIT featuring Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn, once played by John Wayne in the role that won him his Oscar. I’m practically climbing the walls in anticipation (as for that other Jeff Bridges movie this Christmas, TRON: LEGACY is absolutely fantastic and I wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone). But it’s probably a combination of all these elements it --features—Bridges, Coen Brothers, Western, remake—that people are going nuts about since it’s not like there’s any history of people getting excited when Bridges has done westerns in the past. He was in HEAVEN’S GATE, of course, but that could hardly be called a Jeff Bridges movie and I really do need to get around to seeing Robert Benton's BAD COMPANY one of these days. Just fifteen years ago he actually starred in another one of the more arty examples of the form seen in the last forty years, Walter Hill’s WILD BILL, a film which was released in early December 1995 and quickly forgotten about shortly after. Coming near the end of the brief cycle of westerns that occurred in the wake of UNFORGIVEN, it’s a film whose box office failure ($2.1 million in domestic gross on a $30 million budget) may have helped insure that end but it’s also feels like a case of a director, knowing he may not get too many other chances, using this opportunity to have what he creates serve as a defiant howl in the night to mourn how Hollywood pretty much has tossed the entire genre aside. It’s interesting—when the chance to make westerns came again Lawrence Kasdan went and made an epic three-hour biopic about Wyatt Earp serving as a tribute to the genre and plays as everything he ever wanted to put in there. As for Walter Hill, while he did make the expansive (and problematic) GERONIMO: AN AMERICAN LEGEND in 1993 he also made a biopic which serves almost as the total aesthetic opposite of Kasdan’s approach, playing as lean, mean and flat-out dirty with the actors hemmed in by close-ups within the crowded 1.85 frame and no time wasted on elegiac summations. Because of the setting WILD BILL could also be seen as a rough draft for the acclaimed HBO series DEADWOOD, which Hill was involved with and which I admittedly still haven’t seen enough of, but while WILD BILL isn’t the subversive masterwork I’d kind of want it to be taken on its own it’s a stripped down piece of work which has always kind of stuck in my brain through its own sheer force.

It’s not really a plot that can be summarized—after shooting through some bullet points of the life of Wild Bill Hickok (Jeff Bridges) showing numerous times how he has survived any number of gun battles we settle down with his arrival in the town of Deadwood in August 1876, having recently been told that he is losing his eyesight due to glaucoma. Accompanied by friend Charley Prince (John Hurt) the two men meet up at this destination with Bill’s sometime love Calamity Jane (Ellen Barkin) with Bill having the desire to do nothing except to play a few cards while letting his friends tell stories about the old days. But he doesn’t get to do it for very long because almost instantly the young, callow Jack McCall (David Arquette) makes his presence known and proclaims his desire to kill Wild Bill for the way he treated his mother many years ago. Bill remembers the woman he speaks of but he has no desire to fight this kid, only to drink whiskey and smoke some opium in the town’s Chinese district, getting lost in his own reverie of all his regrets of the past, with maybe no future to look forward to.

At once tight as a drum and yet still feeling as if we were being shown only a piece of some greater narrative (maybe that would be the DEADWOOD series, maybe it would be just more of Bill’s escapades) the film doesn’t really offer much in the way of plot once Bill arrives in Deadwood, instead focusing more on the atmosphere of the place as well as the meaty dialogue chewed up and spat out by the various actors (Hill has sole screenplay credit with the book “Deadwood” by Peter Dexter and the play “FATHERS AND SONS by Thomas Babe given as the sources) with all the vigor imaginable. Just like Sam Peckinpah’s PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID was, in many ways WILD BILL is basically a film about waiting for death. The earlier film’s plot has been described before as somebody who doesn’t want to run being chased by someone who doesn’t want to chase him. WILD BILL, to make a direct comparison, is pretty much about somebody told he’s going to be killed so he sits down to wait for it while the person who makes the threat tries to decide if he’s actually going to go through with it. Unlike Kasdan’s scenic vistas in WYATT EARP this film’s aesthetic feels more than a little like Hill & associates stormed the gates of various studios where standing western sets could still be found at the time and just started shooting scenes, eventually putting all these pieces together in kind of a brutal, yet still elliptical, collage more than anything, certainly not one with a strong narrative but packed into its compact running time is a feel of drifting, of waiting for something to come, a something that in no way is going to be any good. Even the basic ramshackle nature of the filmmaking is visceral by nature with the towns shot through long lenses towards lots of crowds as if to disguise as much as possible the nature of the standing sets. There’s also a particular emphasis on just how much mud there is in the filthy streets of Deadwood, maybe more mud than has ever been seen before in any western and, adding to the uneasy feel of the entire film, an odd shooting style for the multiple opium-enhanced flashbacks which I’m guessing is some form of video or low-res digital.

If there’s anything frustrating about the film maybe it’s that I wouldn’t mind a little more story with a little more for Bridges, playing this fascinating real-life figure, to do—side characters plot what’s going to happen as Wild Bill lingers, drifting in a reverie, remembering what is long past, unable and unwilling to voice all of his many regrets to those around him and maybe the dynamic is a little too internal. Since there’s no real forward momentum there’s very little drama to WILD BILL other than to wait for the inevitable, more of an assemblage of scenes more than a fully fleshed story to give us a picture of this legend of the west along with a score by Van Dyke Parks which along with the use of some period songs (points to Hill for scoring a sex scene between Bridges and Barkin with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”) is more of a soundscape than anything, not the cool grooves usually associated with what Ry Cooder has composed for this director in various films. But when it does work it achieves a certain primal power in presenting a legend who lived a life which was in no way heroic and the killings, when they happen, are just fast, mean and nasty. The movie never wants to explain or apologize for this approach, it just thrusts the viewer full bore into this world of grime, dirt and opium visions, along with forever iconic shots of its lead character, dealing with the past drifting through his head and this kid who may or may not actually be his son, hurtling towards an ending which is, after all, inevitable since by the time he arrives in this town he’s essentially spiritually dead already (The Maltin book suggests that the film could just as well have been called THE ASSASSINATION OF WILD BILL, an amusing suggestion considering the film we actually got with such a title in 1997). Instead of a potentially classical “It happened that way” or “Print the legend” summation this film’s narration concludes with just a few basic details and the ‘just the facts’ nature of what is said seems to fit the film. Few things that end in life can ever be fully complete and maybe that’s what the film is ultimately about. The frustrating degree that it occasionally lingers means that it’s not quite the Fullerian masterpiece I guess I want it to be but WILD BILL is still a film worth admiring.

Since he’s a screen figure everyone is very excited about right now, it’s great to see Bridges in this film playing such an iconic figure. He looks phenomenal in how he’s made up and plays every inch of Wild Bill’s fierce anger and arch humor (“He say what horse?”) in truly pitch-perfect style, with a sense of clarity in his steely gaze seen in some fantastic close-ups that says everything he’s not allowed to in dialogue. He also has one hell of a way of throwing cards down on a table. As Calamity Jane, Ellen Barkin (reuniting with Hill after her memorable work in JOHNNY HANDSOME) is probably better looking than the real-life version ever was but she manages to pull off something different with her naturally off-kilter sexiness here, bringing an odd vulnerability and fierceness to her performance. I like her more here each time I see the film with certain moments where she reveals how much she cares about Bill coming off as genuinely touching. John Hurt (who also narrates and always comes off to me as a gone to seed version of his HEAVEN’S GATE character) disappears for a stretch in the middle but he’s just terrific as Bill’s forever loyal friend, making every thick, rich line he has count in every way possible (“This town, I really think it’s like something out of the Bible.” “What part of the Bible?” “The part right before God gets angry.”). As Jack McCall David Arquette comes off as kind of a proto-Nicolas Cage in his wiry demeanor but even if his tics are pretty familiar by now—I actually kind of remember thinking ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ when the film came out—he still comes off as extremely effective in how willing he is to go up against all these other more experienced actors in such a way. James Gammon is old friend California Joe, the forever beautiful Diane Lane (let’s not forget, Ellen Aim in Hill’s STREETS OF FIRE) is seen in flashbacks throughout as McCall’s mother Susannah Moore, Christina Applegate is a town prostitute who helps out McCall and is fast with a pistol, the great Bruce Dern has a terrific bit as an old man in a wheelchair seeking revenge on Wild Bill and James Remar (of course, Ganz in Hill’s 48 HOURS) is very effective as the slick, well-dressed leader of a gang who gets hired by McCall. Keith Carradine (Wild Bill on DEADWOOD) appears as Buffalo Bill Cody, Marjoe Gortner turns up as a Fire-and-brimstone Preacher and Janel Moloney, later Donna Moss on THE WEST WING, plays a scene opposite Diane Lane in one of the flashbacks.

I suppose there’s a reason why part of this movie resonated so much with me at this point in time. For one thing, films like this can be all the more fascinating almost because they don’t entirely payoff or connect. But, also, in paying attention to Wild Bill Hickok’s memories of his own past brought out in him by how many opium pipes he smokes, the pain that he never wishes to speak of and ultimately doesn’t know what to do with, I’m reminded of what I’m mostly thinking about these days, of the relationships I’m losing for various reasons, the people who wind up infecting your memories until you’re not sure if you can think about anything else. Except for maybe certain films. And just like Calamity Jane wishes that Wild Bill Hickock would let her in just a little bit more (“I think it’s a very sweet and fine thought,” as she puts it, a line reading by Barkin I just love) I find myself faced once again with the reality that in this world there are certain people you’ll get to know, and probably fall for, who you’ll never have the relationship with that you may somehow wish, the sort of wish that hurts you down to your very core even while knowing that person has made you feel all the more alive. It hurts. It hurts hard. And at the same time it still makes you want to get up in the morning, so I guess it’s necessary. And when it comes to a film like WILD BILL, a western that few have ever cared about and one which probably deserves better that it’s ever gotten, that’s what I find myself thinking about.