Monday, July 5, 2010

First Time For Everything

Since I wrote about meeting Paula Prentiss at the American Cinematheque tribute to her husband Richard Benjamin I think he probably deserves a little equal time. The night was meant for him, after all. So I’ll start by mentioning that as much as I’m sometimes not crazy about driving all the way across town to the Aero in Santa Monica, a double feature of Richard Benjamin films featuring a Q&A with the actor/director is definitely one way to get me make that trip. And a pretty unusual double bill too, of WESTWORLD and DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE, a pair of films that don’t really have much in common at all beyond sharing an actor. The chance to see him speak was pretty enticing too because, after all, how many stories must the guy have? He could probably command an entire dinner party all by himself with tales of the people he’s worked with through his career.

The first film of the evening was clearly the more famous of the two, but probably because of its place in pop culture more than its actual content. Michael Crichton’s 1973 theatrical directorial debut WESTWORLD can easily be seen as a forerunner for the sort of themes the author/director later explored in JURASSIC PARK with the technology it presents very much playing like an early version of the character Arnold Schwarzenegger played in THE TERMINATOR, not to mention any number of other films that fuse human and android. The film is extremely dated at times, like we’re being presented with a futuristic version of the eye-piercing garishness of 1973, as well as being extremely light on plot but this filmmaking approach turned out to play much better on the big screen than I imagined it would and while it may not be a film which necessarily shows off the talents of its star who was being paid tribute to that night it was nevertheless a good choice to revisit in this context.

Some time in the near future (or I suppose the near future for 1973), friends Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin, with giant mustache) and John Blane (James Brolin) travel to Delos, a high-tech amusement park for adults which consists of three sections—Romanworld, Medeivalworld and, their destination, Westernworld, where you can live out all your fantasies of what it’s like to live in one of these places among the locals who are all played by very advanced robots. The two friends soon begin to take advantage of every part in this western town, including tangling with a gunslinger played by Yul Brynner in his MAGNIFICENT SEVEN getup. But behind the scenes the technicians running Delos begin to notice problems with the robots as some sort of “disease” seems to be spreading through them that they are unable to stop. Almost before they realize it the robots have entirely taken over Delos with no one able to shut them down, meaning that Peter and John are in for quite a surprise when they wake up one morning.

WESTWORLD never did all that much for me on TV, I’ll admit, maybe because the plotting is so simple that it perhaps wrongly gives the feeling that there’s not really all that much to it. Seeing it in a theater with no distractions like you would get at home is a considerably different experience because its very sparseness allows the viewer to think about everything they’re seeing, to focus on the process of what is being presented to illustrate just how this park works. With a running time under 90 minutes, the three acts of the film basically make up the introduction to Delos, the breakdown of its systems and finally the chase. The lead characters don’t even have to deal with anything resembling real conflict until a full hour into the movie as we tag along with them through their western adventures (shootouts, jailbreak, bar fights) with scenes depicting the breakdown in Delos and the scientists attempting to deal with it done in an intentionally colorless style as if to avoid playing it like a disaster movie. In its straight-ahead fashion, it’s an early look at the now familiar concept of putting too much faith in computers, even if the ideas are still being formed. No money men are present, just the scientists and even they seem to have given over much of how the almost totally automated resort is run by the computers, ‘almost as complicated as living organisms’ and we’re even told that some of those have been designed by other computers (hard for me not to wonder about certain things like what sort of waivers people would have to sign before going to such a place but maybe it’s best not to dwell on that point). So the scientists, usually the ones who can be depended on in this sort of movie, are totally clueless at how to deal with this metamorphosis the computers are going through, which is essentially a very early computer virus--‘life finds a way’ said Dr. Ian Malcolm in that other Crichton tale of an amusement park run amok several decades later and these machines have somehow found a way as well.

Crichton’s directorial style is an interesting combination of elements—the gaudy look of the future according to 1973 glimpsed in the opening scenes slightly carries over into how all of the sets in the parks seem to be intentionally shot in a somewhat flat style, as if to emphasize their artificial nature (maybe that was how MGM films often looked during this period anyway, but it still works here). Much more interesting are the eerie sections of the park late at night as the ‘cleanup’ occurs, removing the various robot bodies gunned down during the day, which feels very much like the sort of mood that John Carpenter later specialized in and the unstoppable nature of Yul Brenner’s gunslinger comes off as very much an early inspiration for both Carpenter’s Michael Myers and James Cameron’s Terminator. A slight glowing in the robot’s eyes feels like the forerunner of a similar tactic in Ridley Scott’s BLADE RUNNER as well. With no kids to annoy the adults paying high prices and no long speeches about the morality of everything that’s allowed, WESTWORLD is both an obvious antecedent to JURASSIC PARK but also somewhat the opposite. With its occasional pausing to let us take in the dead eyes of its robots (that’s what they call them—no fancy terms like androids or replicants) it’s as if the film is allowing the viewing to consider for themselves the morality of all the ‘fun’ killing, jail breaking and sleeping with prostitutes (the most prominent played by Linda Gaye Scott, seen briefly in Blake Edwards’ THE PARTY) that goes on. And when the movie turns into the chase, we’ve learned enough about what’s gone wrong in the park that it becomes genuinely suspenseful.

WESTWORLD is definitely thin on the plot front but the approach it takes as just a presentation of the nature of this park makes it more interesting than it might have been if it had been swamped by story. Whatever it did inspire in future science fiction concepts explored further by directors like Carpenter, Cameron or Paul Verhoeven in ROBOCOP, some of it still remains striking on its own. The genuine strangeness that results when the Gunslinger is damaged during the big climactic chase is particularly effective and the way he begins malfunctioning is truly creepy. As Brynner continues the pursuit there’s something unexplainably off in a way that the Terminator never is and the movie sells us on how we can’t be sure what he’s going to do. Apparently the point of view shots used were the first film to make use of such digital imagery but in spite of this breakthrough it’s not all about effects as much as it is the mood that Crichton successfully sells. One of the film’s most effective shots, when it gets confirmed for one character just how much things have gone wrong in the park, is also one of its simplest and it’s to Crichton’s credit that he had such a sharp eye. Once the chase begins there’s no more than a few minutes of dialogue—if that much—in the final third and what’s maybe most surprising about seeing WESTWORLD now is that considering it was made by someone who began as a novelist, it feels like a genuine attempt to make an actual movie, not just a filmed version of a book. It’s more interested in telling its story visually instead of with words and as slim as that story might be when looked at today it has my respect for doing that.

The big star is top billed as the Gunslinger but Yul Brynner has literally a handful of lines as the robot version of his MAGNIFICENT SEVEN visage--Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator practically had Paddy Chayefsky-length monologues in comparison (our current Governor was once attached to a remake of this and that casting always seemed a little too on the nose to me). It’s all in the way he moves and it’s a great use of the actor as iconic figure with some fantastic close-ups--Crichton and cinematographer Gene Polito definitely know how to place him within the frame to maximize his presence. Benjamin and Brolin make an enjoyable pair and the surprise waiting for them is still pretty effective even though the way it goes against expectations probably wouldn’t be as much of a shock to a first time viewer as it may once have been. Benjamin seems like particularly appropriate casting for the seventies, a time when a lead character in a science fiction film could have been such a schnook. Dick Van Patten plays one of the tourists in the park and STAR TREK’s Majel Barrett is Miss Carrie, the madame in the local brothel. The score by Fred Karlin is also quite effective in a jangly way—like the film, it’s sort of done as a western but not really.

Because it deserves to be mentioned, Frank Perry’s 1970 film DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE was the second film shown that night and it’s a fascinating, very darkly comic exploration of a woman trapped in a marriage to a man who essentially treats her as a servant and her attempt to have an affair with an artist which doesn’t go much better. Benjamin plays the husband opposite Carrie Snodgrass, who earned an Oscar nomination and is borderline brilliant in the lead role. Snodgrass sort of dropped out soon after this film, getting married to Neil Young and not appearing in anything for several years when she returned in De Palma’s THE FURY, after which she worked regularly in film and TV until her death in 2004. I actually remember her from a particularly effective guest shot on THE WEST WING in 2003 and seeing her in this early leading role makes me think that if she had kept on working after this film she would be widely known today as one of the key actresses of the 70s. I hope to see DIARY at some point again but it’s long out of print on VHS now and not on DVD. It deserves much better.

Richard Benjamin appeared between films with Larry Karaszewski, co-screenwriter of ED WOOD and THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT, for an enjoyable discussion that went on for quite a while, though not much time was spent on the movie we’d just seen. Of course, it’s not like there was a lot for Benjamin to say about the dramatic challenges in playing his character but having said that he seems like particularly appropriate casting for the seventies, a time when a lead character in a science fiction film could have been such a schnook. Benjamin mostly spoke wistfully about Brynner and director Crichton, both of whom are no longer with us, specifically recalling going to lunch with his co-star at a sushi restaurant on Pico and that the top-billed actor had no problem with so few lines of dialogue, basically feeling that stars should never say a lot. Karaszewski delved into DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE about which the actor claimed that he just approached it as a comedy while shooting it, never considering the darker elements until later on. Other subjects discussed when they opened things up to questions included his cult TV show QUARK, THE LAST OF SHEILA, working with George Burns on THE SUNSHINE BOYS, Woody Allen on DECONSTRUCTING HARRY and the process of getting Peter O’Toole to star in his directorial debut MY FAVORITE YEAR. Most surprisingly, Benjamin revealed that they offered the role to Albert Finney first.

As long as the talk went for (and I doubt anyone there would have minded if they’d gone on longer) not that much was said about WESTWORLD, possibly because there really wasn’t that much to say about it. It might not be the film to display the particular dry humor that we always associate with this actor (for that, I got to see LOVE AT FIRST BITE at the New Beverly recently) but while Benjamin may have been secondary to the success of WESTWORLD, something I could believe he was very aware of, it could be seen as an example of an actor like him bringing a little something extra that may not have been there on the page. He didn’t transform the piece but he wasn’t hired for that anyway. What he did do was bring an extra level of humanity, something that is essential when dealing with a technology-driven story like this and in some ways that’s the sort of personality we don’t get to have in these films anymore. As for the film, the future presented in WESTWORLD works best when seeing it in a theater where its best moments remain effective and entertaining, leaving what followed in the genre much later a lot to live up to. As for the people there that night, Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss make it worth driving all the way across town.


Otto Mannix said...

Let's not overlook an important side-note about DIARY. The band in the party scene is none other than ALICE COOPER, at their craziest, just before they got big! Their concerts at that time really were as wild as that.

I saw Westworld at the theater upon release. At ten years old, i was blown away by that movie. We stayed and watched it twice. And later went to see it again. Having seen it very recently, i can say that it tops Jurassic with ease.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Good point about DIARY. If I'd written a full piece on it I definitely would have mentioned that, but I'd love to see it again first.

If I'd seen WESTWORLD when I was ten I would have thought it was the best thing ever too. And it's nice to see that it's still pretty good.

le0pard13 said...

Okay, I wasn't ten when I saw this, but I did see it in first run '73. Give Crichton credit for effectively delivery a feeling of dread for the hero and audience with this one, and for influencing future filmmakers down the line. I always thought it was clever to use Yul Brynner's iconic character from the Magnificent Seven. It was a good throwback in time device to sell the future scenario. And Brynner was great in it as he could only be. He didn't need lines to convey mechanical malice. Just those looks. They don't make his kind anymore ;-). Thanks for this, Mr. Peel.

p.s., as you can see, I'm playing catch-up :-).