Friday, September 30, 2011

Daydreams And Traffic

Over the years of going to video stores there have always been those films which I kept putting off renting, always going with another choice and thinking that I’d get around to that other choice eventually. Of course, with a few of these titles I put it off for so long that over the past several years those video stores suddenly closed and I realized I’d missed my chance, particularly with a few of the ones that I knew would never come out on DVD. One of those was certainly Alan Rudolph’s 1977 mood piece WELCOME TO L.A. which always looked like something I would be interested in. So why did I keep putting it off? Beats me, but it was one of those I would sometimes keep an eye out for in VHS racks, until out of nowhere the American Cinematheque ran it in the spring of 2010 and I gladly drove across town to the Aero in Santa Monica to finally take care of this nagging itch. What I got was a film which was certainly evocative in ways I expected from a late 70s film produced by Robert Altman while still containing numerous elements that made it frustrating as well, combining the misty romanticism I associate with Alan Rudolph, very much present and accounted for in his directorial debut (not counting the 1972 horror film PREMONITION which I’ve never seen) with a misanthropic feel that doesn’t always quite come together. At the very least it feels true to itself but what Rudolph’s approach was going to ultimately become still feels it’s being developed so as a result I find myself appreciating the film more than I actually like it. I may even prefer thinking about it to actually watching it.

There isn’t exactly a storyline to synopsize but suffice it to say it involves several people in L.A. drifting in and out of each other’s lives as well as each other’s beds. Much of it focuses on songwriter Caroll Barber (Keith Carradine with soul patch, making his second appearance in a film on this blog) coming home for the first time in several years to visit his wealthy father Carl Barber (Denver Pyle). There’s ambitious and strait-laced Ken Hood (Harvey Keitel) who works for Carl, his wife Karen (Geraldine Chaplin) who seems to like spending much of her time riding around in taxis, needy real estate agent Ann Goode (Sally Kellerman), the young maid Linda (Sissy Spacek) who Ann hires to clean the Echo Park apartment she’s rented for Carroll, photographer Nona Bruce (Lauren Hutton) who has been having an affair with Carl, effervescent agent Susan Moore (Viveca Lindfors) who clings to Carroll as much as she can and finally famous singer Eric Wood (Richard Baskin) who Carl has hired to put some of Carroll’s songs down on tape.

WELCOME TO L.A. seems like a film only to be watched alone during a late, possibly drunken night, which would maybe be ideal for such a film about lonely souls in the city during the zoned out 70s. It draws you in but it also feels a little too half-sketched as if instead of scenes it’s more interested in the moments it drifts through, the whole dreamy gestalt of the oddness and the staring and the drinking and Viveca Lindfors gesticulating wildly. The actors seem keyed in to the approach but there doesn’t seem to be enough for them to get engaged with as would sometimes be the case in Rudoph’s later, thematically similar films (not to mention a few Altman directed himself, particularly SHORT CUTS) as if he wasn’t experienced enough yet to shape things into the hoped-for improvs which might have helped, with a few of the characters drifting out of things for too much of the running time. Much of the dialogue comes off as blatant statements of themes, in some ways indicating how these people are disconnected from each other but it doesn’t always help them to become distinctive characters.

I like Rudolph’s work at times (after all, I wrote a favorable piece about MRS. PARKER AND THE VICIOUS CIRCLE recently and REMEMBER MY NAME which immediately followed WELCOME is particularly good as well—it’s been a while, but I imagine I’d also have good things to say about the likes of TROUBLE IN MIND, LOVE AT LARGE and AFTERGLOW. And let’s not forget his cameo in THE PLAYER) but at this stage still very much a disciple of the Altman approach it feels like he wasn’t as in control of his surroundings as he was later on, even in a few of his films that also didn’t quite work. The confidence doesn’t seem to be there yet in WELCOME TO L.A., the overall result is just a shade too thin as much as there are times when I can poke through the mist of what the characters are saying to each other and get hypnotized by the late 70s ennui, with the gazing, the brooding, as they wonder why they’re unloved, sometimes while lying right next to the person they love. It just doesn’t always hold--it’s not a problem that it can be tough to track some of the relationships and their statuses whether at the beginning, middle or end but it is a problem that it feels a little like Rudolph never bothered to explain his overall concept to anyone else. I would say that certain plot threads are left hanging like Carrol’s relationship with his father since Pyle seems to drop out of the movie about an hour in, giving up on his son in favor of employee Keitel, but that would imply that the plot is what it’s meant to be. The dreamy nature is sometimes broken by Chaplin’s deliberately unpleasant sounding cough which she takes on for a stretch in the middle, something that seems indicative of the film overall. Some of it is just too vague, too harsh, as hypnotic as it sometimes is. I don’t particularly like the experience of watching it but at the same time I feel a little haunted by it. Maybe I understand it, even if I can’t explain it. I’m writing this on a Friday night, so what do you expect? Maybe this is what L.A. is anyway.

The film is also noteworthy for spotlighting the talents of Richard Baskin, music supervisor of the NASHVILLE soundtrack—that night at the Aero was actually a tribute to Baskin, with both films being shown. He appears in NASHVILLE as Frog being berated by Henry Gibson during the opening section and in WELCOME TO L.A. he and his songs are a recurring presence throughout, with Baskin himself playing a famous singer everyone seems to know, hired on to perform the songs allegedly written by Carradine’s character and the ballads are so prevalent that there’s no way for this music, at home in no decade other than the 70s, droning (so much that should be a capital D) on endlessly in and out until it feels like we’ve heard some of the songs half a dozen times, to not affect whatever your opinion of the film will be (incidentally, Baskin appeared as musical guest on SATURDAY NIGHT LOVE around the time this film was released in a show hosted by Sissy Spacek, no doubt as promotion for it and the soundtrack album). It’s interesting to read comments out there on how much people seem to positively hate listening to him but without these songs the movie would simply be something else altogether, for better or worse. There’s a genuine yearning in there and, honestly, they stick with me enough that if the soundtrack became available on CD I’d want to have it. Baskin’s own life may very well be a key inspiration anyway, given that it’s a film about a songwriter who is the heir to a fortune just as Baskin, son of one of the founders of Baskin Robbins, himself is. There are clearly mirrors here, presented in a haze of Carradine’s character always drinking, unable to connect or communicate with anyone including these women throwing themselves at him, his music being sung by someone else, the movie itself seeming to exist in a haze through this city of one night stands that Baskin sings about.

As for the film, it’s a sort of jigsaw of characters trying too hard in love, in sex, and moments occasionally poking through to indicate what the meaning of it all is. Geraldine Chaplin speaks of being the only person in a movie theater at one point and it almost seems like she could be talking about this film, unspooling to audiences consisting of single people who take away from it all whatever they see of themselves in what’s onscreen. Daydreams and traffic, says Sally Kellerman of her reluctance to take the freeway in Los Angeles since it doesn’t let her daydream and that seems to be a metaphor for the movie itself. Instead of taking a straight route it wants to wander, get lost in certain moments and more than a few times these detours are pretty damn annoying, with characters meeting and being drawn to each other whether they should be or not. “I think we’re fast becoming old friends,” Kellerman tells Keitel when she’s trying to ingratiate herself after they’ve only just met, not very likely when none of these people even feel comfortable with themselves. Part of me wants to ascribe a word like ‘playful’ to it but in actuality the film isn’t really a pleasant enough experience for that. Still, that doesn’t mean there isn’t some truth to it in some way.

Probably the one thing about the film which stays with me above all is its recurring use of characters briefly breaking the fourth wall. It’s subtle at first—it’s not clear if Chaplin is even talking to herself, to a cab driver or to us—and one early occurrence involving Sally Kellerman happens so fast it almost plays as subliminal or an endearing mistake so the first few times I almost wasn’t even sure if it happened but it soon becomes certain this is part of the very fabric of the film. These characters that can’t connect with each other, who have no idea how to react to each other’s feelings, are in fact letting us in on their own secret, revealing something to us that they can’t share with anything else. One particularly surprising nude scene seems representative for how bare the film is meant to be, how awkward and haunting it really is. Maybe what you’re meant to take away from the deliberately enigmatic final shot that plays through the end credits is that you can’t strain yourself to make sense of L.A., to over explain it, to try to convince people who you want them to think you are. All you can do is find some kind of peace within yourself.

The performances are very much a part of the rhythm of the piece but it still feels like Rudolph isn’t using them as well as he would have a few years later even though the lack of chemistry, of connection, in every scene seems totally intentional. Keith Carradine is internal in his mannerisms and he’s meant to be, Geraldine Chaplin seemed to find her groove with the director big time in the following year’s REMEMBER MY NAME. Harvey Keitel offers an earnest charm which eventually pokes through his businesslike exterior and one moment by himself in an elevator excited about some good news is just about the most likeably human moment the entire film. Sally Kellerman is also particularly good in portraying her own desperate loneliness and Sissy Spacek’s waiflike nature is used to good effect (plus she’s nude part of the time, so I guess program this on a double bill with Michael Ritchie’s PRIME CUT). John Considine affects a pretty dead on portrait of 70s L.A. sleaze as Kellerman’s husband and not appearing as much as I’d like is the memorably beguiling Diahnne Abbott, of TAXI DRIVER and THE KING OF COMEDY, as one of Carradine’s conquests and she somehow seems to capture something just right in what the tone should be.

The movie may be forgotten by most of the world but it still feels important that I was finally able to see it. Very recent I was in Rocket Video, an L.A. rental store that is sadly going out of business and was having a closing sale. I went to look for rarities and instead of DVDs that I knew would be easily found elsewhere I was going carefully through their VHS racks in search of titles that are most likely becoming increasingly rare as time goes on. Near the very end of my hunt, right there among the Ws in the Drama section, I saw their copy of WELCOME TO L.A. and without even thinking I snagged it immediately. I’ve watched it and the tape doesn’t seem to be in very good shape—I’m not even sure if it would be a good idea to watch it again in this player—but for all I knew this was going to be the last time I’d ever see it in a video store. And sooner or later I might need to drift through it again on nights when I have that particular feeling. Hey, you never know.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

More Honor Than A Winner

It wasn’t much of a surprise when after the emergence of Quentin Tarantino in the 90s with RESERVOIR DOGS and, especially, the massive success of PULP FICTION that we were treated to a wave of films featuring hired killers, snappy patter and blood-infused jet black comedy. That’s just what Hollywood does. My own recollection is that some of these offshoots are better than others with more than a few never even making it beyond the ranks of a miniscule theatrical release and shelves of video stores in those pre-DVD days. A few probably have minor cult followings of their own by now. Most are already forgotten and were probably never very good to begin with. At the very least several of them managed to find their own unique spin on the formula while also providing parts for actors who might not have gotten such chances otherwise and I have to admit that maybe enough time has gone by that some of them provide a certain kind of nostalgia for me.

Released in September 1996, 2 DAYS IN THE VALLEY is fifteen years old now and though it never comes close to the best of Tarantino the film has a certain slick, fast-paced quality with a tight construction that is enough to make it genuinely entertaining at times. Since I have my own ambivalent feelings about the place I do sort of wish that the film had more to say about the valley as promised in the title. Unless it has to do with work I never want to go there very much, so naturally I’ve had several jobs there over the years and I can understand about what it’s like to get stuck there. But whatever it may promise, the film doesn’t seem to have that much to say about what it’s like to live there beyond the tentative nature of people drifting past each other in daily life and how the place can prevent people from staying true to what they really are deep down. It might not even be that much of a stretch to say that it could just as easily be called 2 DAYS OVERLOOKING THE VALLEY considering how much of it takes place up there in the hills overlooking it all and doesn’t even go north of Ventura Blvd into the more middle class sections all that much (in ‘96 we still had to wait for Paul Thomas Anderson to make his presence known for the definitive cinematic look at the valley). Revisiting it years later does offer a reminder of why people paid so much attention to Charlize Theron right off the bat while also offering a clearer picture of both the film’s strengths and drawbacks. It’s a movie that ultimately wants to be about the losers finally coming out ahead which makes it somewhat endearing but it still feels like it could have used a little more weight, raising the question of how much can happen in a minute to change your life but the answers it comes up with are a little too gimmicky. Too bad, because as anyone who’s spent time in the valley certainly knows, a minute can be a very long time.

The plot revolves around several different groups of people. There’s the hitmen team of Lee Woods (James Spader) and Dosmo Pizzo (Danny Aiello) who pull off the job of killing Roy Foxx (Peter Horton) as ex-wife Becky (Teri Hatcher) lies in bed next to him, knocked out by an injection Lee has given her. There’s gorgeous Helga Svelgen (Charlize Theron), Lee’s girlfriend who figures into the job somehow. There’s art dealer Allan Hopper (Greg Cruttwell), in immense pain from a kidney stone and his beleagured assistant Susan Parish (Glenne Headly) who are taken hostage by Dosmo after he escapes an attempt by Lee to get him out of the way. There’s washed-up film director Teddy Peppers (Paul Mazursky) who is trying to put a few last things in order before blowing his brains out and in trying to give away his dog encounters nurse Audrey Hopper (Marsha Mason), Allan’s step-sister. And there’s the two cops, ambitious Wes Taylor (Eric Stoltz) and hot-headed Alvin Strayer (Jeff Daniels), who stumble on to the murder scene and figure into it all. Of course, many of these various people come together in unexpected ways.

Tone is difficult, one of the toughest things of all for a movie to nail and a few of those post-Tarantino films would take some kind of misstep along the way, maybe being a bit too mannered with its approach, too obvious with pop-culture references or sometimes taking the darkly comic nihilism a step too far, one too many brains splattered against a wall. One of the strengths of 2 DAYS IN THE VALLEY, written and directed by John Herzfeld, is that it’s actually pretty successful with its own tone for the most part, managing to capture that feel of the sun hanging in the sky during another hot day out there in Studio City as a touch of darkness hangs in the air while feeling set more in the ‘real’ world than these things sometimes are and making the choice to keep away from pop culture references. Another is momentum and the film does know to keep things moving right off the bat, packing its narrative into a deliberately tight timeframe according to the title (although it does leave the valley on at least one occasion), slamming from one scene to the next while also continually willing to observe the behavior of the various actors in a way which brings a welcome energy throughout. There’s also a good amount of snappy dialogue (“I hate when people ask if they can ask me a question”) and some interesting use of locations from a massage parlor Stoltz takes an interest in to one of those massive parks Mazursky visits early on as well as vantage points from the hills overlooking the valley which always seem inherently cinematic-- mention also should be made of D.P. Oliver Wood who frames his Scope shots to give a feel of genuine expansiveness to the entire film along with providing the various leads with close-ups that may be among the best some of them have ever had (particularly Theron, no surprise) and helps to make the characters seem that much more vivid.

Having said all that, one thing which stuck out to me on this viewing was just how thin 2 DAYS IN THE VALLEY is at times. True, for a film in which not very much happens it does have a nice, snappy pace and a game cast working at full throttle. But the expected complications never quite twist around as much as might be expected and the overall design doesn’t quite feel as layered as it should. There are certain surprises but some of what happens is just a little too easy, the way people wind up intersecting never coming off as the jolt it should be. The characters seem to casually meet up with each other as opposed to colliding with them and there’s also a late-in-the-game McGuffin which has such a ‘so what’ tinge to it it’s as if it was added several drafts in to give a legitimate reason for the climax to take place. Maybe it’s that the film is trying a little too hard to get the plot to connect up while not taking advantage of tertiary characters or situations on the sidelines for any statement it wants to really make about ‘the valley’ and what it represents to take hold. Some bits like a random cutaway to Lawrence Tierney (like Stoltz, a carryover from Tarantino) in a hotel room complaining about the noise caused by the fight upstairs offers a hint of that sort of thing but the movie could use more of it and it stays with the main players too much for that to ever happen.

Along with several TV movies to his credit, Herzfeld had years earlier also directed the notorious John Travolta-Olivia Newton John comedy TWO OF A KIND which interestingly went unmentioned in the 2 DAYS press materials that referred to the film as his feature directorial debut—the Los Angeles Times even ran an article at the time calling him on it. As effective as the flashiness and energy often is the film also has a certain shallow quality of the sort that I think Tarantino is unfairly accused of at times and, at the very least, some of the attempts at genuine depth to the characters feel a little underdeveloped as if another draft or two was still needed. There are themes in 2 DAYS IN THE VALLEY of people who have to make the decision of whether or not to change who they are, of so called-losers going up against so called-winners, of certain people finally getting their comeuppance in their homes up in the hills and of beauty being overwhelmed by ugliness as represented by the fate of the utterly stunning Charlize Theron, looking fresh out of the Replicant vat in that skin-tight outfit until she takes her own game one step too far. As well-paced as it is some ends feel a little too loose and a few things make me wonder if the movie was cut down at points—much of the growing connection between Mason and Mazursky’s characters feels truncated whether it was or not since she we never get to hear the backstory behind the person she’s visiting in the cemetery or even get a good reason why she correctly determines to all that he’s suicidal. The way the film discards a few of the main characters before the climax is also frustrating, particularly in the case of Daniels which just makes his character arc seem muddled and incomplete.

If it’s an attempt at interlocking narratives where the game of 52 pick-up all comes together in the end that’s one thing, if it’s Altman-style anecdotes where we don’t need to necessarily follow people all the way to the end that’s another and if 2 DAYS IN THE VALLEY is trying to do both I’m not sure it totally pulls off that balance along with some comedy that’s a little too obvious like Aiello’s hitman who’s afraid of dogs and decides to cook for himself while holding his gun on his hostages—in fairness, Aiello manages to makes these scenes work pretty well and for some reason I particularly like when he asks if they have any rapini for what he’s preparing. The movie also has some pretty bad music, particularly a needlessly distracting song played on the soundtrack as Mazursky puts a gun to his forehead in a cemetery ready to blow his brains out, totally wrong for such an emotional moment and it’s the sort of choice that dilutes the entire film as a result. It’s surprising to learn that Jerry Goldsmith of all people composed a score which was rejected and based on the clips found on Youtube what he provided (more emotional, less arch and for all I know not at all what Herzfeld wanted) it clearly would have made it a different film, for better or worse. Maybe it would have provided the sort of depth that I wish it had. Maybe that’s not what it was going for anyway. But there is an undeniable energy and momentum to 2 DAYS IN THE VALLEY—it moves, it’s never dull and at times really is enjoyable in a late 90s Tarantino knockoff kind of way. Plus it has that famous fight between Teri Hatcher and Charlize Theron, a pretty awesome scene which makes me wonder how I can even think to say anything bad about the film at all. I like 2 DAYS IN THE VALLEY, I really do, I just wish that maybe a few extra blanks had been filled in to make it even richer. I can certainly relate to the quixotic thought that a loser may indeed have more honor than a winner, as Mazursky’s washed-up director states at one point or of the frustration Teri Hatcher’s Olympic skier feels with having come in fourth place several times running. It’s something that one needs to remember in this town, as you’re trying to make your way down one of the side streets in North Hollywood, doing anything you can to get back to Los Feliz before nightfall. Trust me, I always do the best I can to be out of the valley after the sun goes down. It just seems like common sense.

As strong as the entire cast is, it’s clearly Charlize Theron who stands out not only because of how absolutely stunning she is but because of how much her genuine, unusual presence really pops off the screen, bringing an intensity to her role that makes you always wonder what’s going on with her and what she’s thinking. It transforms the movie into something more than it might have been otherwise, taking what might have been a standard neo-noir femme fatale role and turning it into something unexpected, all the way up to her very last moment which has always stayed with me through the years, looking like the utterly damaged porcelain doll that she really is. James Spader, with that stopwatch he uses to always giving his prey one more minute, is as queasily intriguing as you would want him to be and he plays the part effectively but as scripted he never really has a single human response to anything so the character feels like more of a construction, the post-Tarantino hired killer that he is, than a living, breathing person. Teri Hatcher nicely balances the possible duplicitous feelings going on within her good girl exterior, Danny Aiello takes what might be the most clichéd role (hired killer nice guy) and manages to give him depth, Glenne Headly endearingly bounces off of him, Greg Cruttwell sells the agony his art world prick is going through while Eric Stoltz and Jeff Daniels build enough tension between the two of them that it’s too bad it’s never really paid off—Daniels, an obvious case of casting against type, in particular makes his underwritten part fascinating and deserving of his own movie. Mazursky, possibly building off any personal feelings of where his career really was in the mid-90s, is simply dynamite, just about the single best performance here with a pain in his eyes no one else approaches and it’s hard for me not to root for him to regain the dignity his director has obviously lost. It’s also interesting that Aiello played what was essentially Mazursky’s surrogate role in the 1993 comedy THE PICKLE and the physical resemblance between the two allows for an interesting effect, providing some extra tension in their scenes as if there’s much more going on than is being spoken. And there’s also Marsha Mason, directed by Mazursky years earlier in BLUME IN LOVE, who provides a nicely sensible balance to the rest of the danger that is felt with Aiello holding the gun on them and she correctly seems like more of a normal person than these movies usually have. A few of the smaller roles pop out as well--playing an idiot actor who smilingly says the worst things imaginable to Mazursky, personal favorite Austin Pendleton absolutely nails his one scene (plus one small extra beat later on) big time, Kathleen Luong brings a beguiling ambiguity to her Vietnamese masseuse and making “special appearances” are Louise Fletcher as a landlord and Keith Carradine as a valley police detective.

I don’t know if I’m always thinking ‘this is a nice place to live’ like Daniels barks out at one point since that’s not always what comes to mind when I drive down certain streets, but I guess I can understand. He was born there, he stays there, it’s what he is. 2 DAYS IN THE VALLEY does get me to feel strangely nostalgic for those days in a way that I’m still trying to figure out but thinking about how much it’s a part of that time reminds me that while some of these films were being made Quentin Tarantino himself was stepping away from this approach as would become evident with the following years much more contemplative JACKIE BROWN, underappreciated in its time but by now it almost feels like there’s more passion for it out there than even the legendary PULP FICTION. But for a few years in the nineties this kind of approach to dark, violence infused comedy just seemed like part of the pop culture beast, when the thought that there would only be a minute to change our lives still seemed prevalent. Now that I’m older I know it takes a little longer. One of the final images of the film has someone heading to the future, for one more chance to do better than fourth place, regardless of what it’s taken to get there so I suppose you could say that 2 DAYS IN THE VALLEY is really about finding some kind of hope in the possibilities of what still might come in the future regardless of what’s already happened in the past. Now that I think about it, there are far worse things to take away from a movie.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Ecological Balance

As autumn begins, so does the new TV season, one which I have a somewhat greater interest in than I usually do, but let’s leave that aside for the time being. Recently I was told that someone I know slightly saw NETWORK for the first time and hated it. I really don’t know what to say about this. If I knew the person in question better I could take some guesses but…really? NETWORK? Were they expecting a broad comedy? Were they not approaching it in the context of the time it was made? Do they just not understand anything about anything? Has NETWORK really become obsolete for some people out there? And in asking these questions have I in some way become like William Holden’s Max Schumacher, wondering what the hell has happened to the world?

Earlier this year, even before the April death of legendary director Sidney Lumet, there was a period where for whatever reason I found myself watching NETWORK quite a lot. I’m still not sure why. Maybe because as I get older, becoming more attuned to everything going on, it’s like the movie crystallizes more and more for me. When I was younger I think I had found myself looking at it as a sort of past version of the future to come—of course, that doesn’t make very much sense since NETWORK (and please don’t think this is meant to be any sort of definitive look at the film. It may not even be my own definitive look at it) is very much set during the time it was made in, with not only numerous topical references (has any other movie ever mentioned PHYLLIS?) but specifically dated through ’75-’76 so we can track the months of the storyline. We’re now more than a few years past the point where much of NETWORK can be taken as any sort of satire anymore, not in a world someone on a reality show commits suicide which is followed by a special where the other people on the program talk about it. Not where CNN chooses to devote most of its coverage on a single day to the death of someone like Anna Nicole Smith. It made slightly more sense for the so-called entertainment-related news show I worked for at the time to devote as much attention to it as they did but not that much more. And now, several years after her death, Anna Nicole Smith already seems to be totally forgotten probably because she was someone who, after all, never actually did anything.

It also might be my favorite Sidney Lumet film, the one I find myself drawn to watching the most, more than 12 ANGRY MEN, more than DOG DAY AFTERNOON—I’m not necessarily saying it’s his best and, admittedly, there are still a few titles I have to get around to but there may be some irony in how it’s not only more associated with the man who wrote it, Paddy Chayefsky, but it’s one of a handful of films which has an authorial “by” credit attributing that writer immediately following the film’s title. But maybe to say that would be to ignore just how much Sidney Lumet really did when he directed NETWORK. It might be an interesting assignment for anyone to compare it to, say, the Arthur Hiller-directed THE HOSPITAL which was also written by Chayefsky and, for that matter, features a similar possessive credit. It’s not even all that hard to imagine that Lumet might have been a possibility for that film at one point and certainly Hiller has never been anyone’s idea of a grand visual stylist—there’s a considerable lack of discipline in that film’s direction but he clearly knew enough to keep out of the way of the text as well as hold his camera on George C. Scott during his biggest scene (“WE KNOW NOTHING! WE HEAL NOTHING!!”) so it clearly wasn’t just a case of a hack shooting coverage and following the script. Still, NETWORK not only seems to me to be a better script than THE HOSPITAL (all the murder mystery stuff in that film is never really my favorite), there’s also so much visual confidence in the film displayed in how Lumet is willing to do nothing but just hold on the faces framed within those offices they make their hatchet-job decisions in amidst the jungles of Manhattan. Aside from what might be an extraneous twenty seconds as the camera pans across Elaine’s during Max and Diana’s first date (which I’m glad is there anyway for the brief piece of 70s singles bar vibe it offers) there’s practically not a wasted frame in the film and his dry yet humane style which is deceptively complex in its framing means that NETWORK has aged fascinatingly well, moving from the send-up it once may have been into the mirror it acts as now where real life simply can’t be ridiculed anymore.

I’m not sure there’s anything to be gained from breaking down the plot and I certainly don’t want to spend time comparing certain characters to some possibly deranged individuals actually out there in the world. But since it seems there are people out there who still haven’t seen it yet here goes. Admittedly, this is partly for my own amusement. When legendary UBS Evening News anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is informed that his tenure is coming to an end due to declining ratings he promptly goes drinking with network news chief and old friend Max Schumacher (William Holden) where he jokingly, drunkenly muses about how high the ratings would be if he killed himself on the air. The next night he goes on and announces that he is going to do exactly that the following Tuesday. (“Howard just said he was going to blow his brains out next Tuesday,” one of the few people in the control booth actually listening to him calmly reiterates). He is relieved of his duties immediately but convinces Max to give him one final night to sign off. So he goes on and claims that he made the threat simply because he “ran out of bullshit” after which he is yanked off once again but not before Max, enraged over what is about to be done to his news division by the conglomerate CCA which has recently purchased IBS, lets him remain on the air to say whatever he wants. Nevertheless, Beale’s outbursts get the attention of network programming head Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) who convinces corporate manager Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), who is in the middle of consolidating all activity in the network to conform to corporate standards to maximize profits, that there might be something in keeping him on the air. Schumacher and Christensen spend the night together but the situation escalates, resulting in Beale going on the air in a total frenzy, going on and yelling “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” By this point Beale is a national sensation who people everywhere are drawn to and his show is no longer The Nightly News but “The Howard Beale Show” a part of the entertainment division with Schumacher fired and Christensen firmly in charge although soon enough the two have begun a full-fledged affair. Christensen takes advantage of this success by launching new shows that continue her hot ratings streak including “The Mao-se Tung Hour” a chronicle of a terrorist group known as the Ecumenical Liberation Group and their criminal activities. But soon things begin to go wrong when Beale goes on the air to protest a deal which will allow CCA to be taken over by a Saudi Arabian conglomerate, leading to the CCA chairman Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty) to be brought in from on high. But he has his own agenda and launches Beale on a new and even more surprising crusade.

I think just spending a few minutes writing that out has increased my appreciation even more for how dense the storytelling of NETWORK is, for how expertly every beat and character are laid out by Chayefsky, not to mention how much dialogue within its ultra-lengthy monologues that could very easily be referencing right now, down to a mention of hiring writers for what is essentially a reality program decades before there even was such a phrase--a recent article in the New York Times (you know, the Holy Goddamn New York Times!) which discusses some of his detailed notes made as he was writing the script couldn’t be more valuable to read now. It’s been pointed out by others before me how the basic setups of both NETWORK and THE HOSPITAL (as well as Chayefsky’s THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY, also directed by Arthur Hiller) similarly revolve around men who are operating under a delusion but NETWORK cuts a little deeper, probably because of its own maker’s closeness to the subject. It strikes me that both Lumet and Chayefsky were of a similar age, both old enough to consciously remember a world without TV and both there at the point of its inception into mass media, each working in the format’s early days to great success and no doubt they witnessed what had happened to the form as it moved past the days of serious drama in live TV down through insipid sitcoms and where it was by the time this film was made. The two male leads of NETWORK are not quite mirror images of each other but they do of course have a generational commonality and by a certain point the narrative seems to shelter them from each other, almost as if it would be a violation to keep them in the same frame. As a matter of fact, Faye Dunaway’s Diana Christensen is never even in the same scene as Howard Beale which has long intrigued me, although dialogue indicates they interact (there’s even a still of the two together but beats me if this is a cut scene) and as she gets closer to Max Schumacher the narrative pulls away from Beale as any sort of human figure. He’s totally mad and there’s no point in observing him at any other time so all that matters is when he’s on television, dummy.

Coming from Chayefsky’s words NETWORK was and is about not only what television is becoming but also society is becoming, which is almost the same thing anyway. Beale has gone insane but in the madness is something that people are clearly responding to since it’s someone to articulate their rage as Diana’s analysis tells her—it’s really hard not to bring certain current events into this. From the vantage point of the film, television drives somebody crazy and that madness drives the society viewing him back to television all the more. I may be wrong but I sense slightly more anger coming from those words he wrote than from Lumet’s interpretation of them, essentially making the director the Max Schumacher to the author’s Howard Beale. Diana Christensen doesn’t seem to understand a single word he’s saying to her during their final scene, looking at him as if he’s saying he’s about to get on a rocket to Pluto. She doesn’t get it and the movie doesn’t even want to offer the glimmer of a possibility that she ever might. But it feels like Lumet wishes that she would. I look around the way the world is right now and I don’t even know if I have it in me to be mad as hell anymore. I’m just really fucking sad about it all. I suspect, even as far back as 1976, Sidney Lumet was as well but maybe, just maybe, he had the glimmer of hope that when Max Schumacher exits the frame, never to be seen again, he was possibly able to find some glimmer of hope in his winter years as he turned his back entirely on this universe he had spent all of his professional life in. As for Chayefsky, we of course lost him in 1981, far too soon. Just over a year after CNN launched, just over a month before Entertainment Tonight began, at the dawn of Reagan, before the internet, before all the real life Howard Beales and Mao Tse-Tung Hours came to the forefront of it all. He was needed. He still is.

Every single performance stay with me right down to the tiniest of phrasings from the way Finch says “Shrill, shrieking fraud,” Duvall screaming “IT’S A BIG TITTED HIT!!” or the way the phrase “since man crawled out of the slime,” oozes it’s way out of Ned Beatty’s mouth as if he really has been around long enough to have first hand knowledge. Faye Dunaway, in a role that uses every ounce of her physicality like no other ever did, fully embraces the skin and dark soul of Diana Christensen and won her Oscar, Peter Finch who embraced utter madness like few others ever have onscreen received his posthumously (I doubt the average person knows Finch from anything else now. I wrote about THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE once if anyone’s interested) while Beatrice Straight with her “winter romance” howl probably still has the least amount of screen time for any winner but she is unforgettable.

Robert Duvall oozes true, genuine icy viciousness through every deliberate phrasing he has (“Intractable and adamantine”) and it may very well be one of his most underappreciated performances. But for me it’s William Holden, who lost the Oscar to Finch, that is the streak of greatness in the film over all the others, delivering a searing portrait with every inch of his booze-lined face revealing a phenomenally humane portrait of this flawed, desperate man who is trying to come to grips with what his place in the world has become with the end of everything he’s ever known. Ned Beatty also received an Oscar nomination for his CCA Chairman/Face of God in what is essentially one scene, Wesley Addy of KISS ME DEADLY is the network president who has essentially allowed his balls to be cut off and Marlene Warfield is activist Laureen Hobbs whose fiery rage gets channeled into where her ratings are headed. Lance Henriksen, also in DOG DAY AFTERNOON and PRINCE OF THE CITY for Lumet, is uncredited as one of the lawyers negotiating with the Great Ahmed Kahn and though some sources have Tim Robbins as one of the assassins at the very end I’m going to go ahead and say that isn’t right.

When you think about it, NETWORK ends where it ends way back in ’76 and thirty-five years later we still have to deal with that as more and more of the ‘simple human decency’ in society gets drained away. There’s a circular nature to Chayefsky’s story in how things ultimately play out—it’s a movie that begins with someone about to be taken off the air due to lousy ratings and ends with them finally taken off the air for lousy ratings. But I suppose when it comes to television, there never is very much in the way of progress and I remember the time when I worked at the entertainment news program which I will not name, a period of several years during which things seemed to shift things towards a nastier, much more toxic direction and the death of Michael Jackson was certainly one of the catalysts of that happening. The following weeks after that were one of the more intense periods I can remember while working there and the day before the funeral I was called into the office of the executive producer, a Diana Christensen in real life if there ever was one, after a minor error which I had been involved with had made it on the show for one of the feeds. Getting screamed at by her was an almost unspeakably terrifying experience, sweat dripping down my face like Robert Hays trying to make the landing at the end of AIRPLANE! as I wiped my brow with cheap napkins until she barked at me to stop that and said I wasn’t getting fired but that I had to do….better. I was dismissed at some point but to this day I actually have no recollection whatsoever of leaving her office, after which I went off to be alone and, well, collect myself. Later that day the Executive Producer’s number two who had also been in that meeting, less of a Christensen type who I sometimes saw a glimmer of humanity in, told me since she thought I had handled myself well. I never asked her exactly what she meant by that since I couldn’t possibly imagine how. And since I was laid off about six months after that, it really doesn’t matter anyway. I suspect NETWORK will continue to tell me things as I get older facing my own dreams of youth lost (“Was I ever that young?”) and the world continues to change. It may not be something that I’m looking forward to but I guess I have no choice but to just wait and see what’s going to happen. Along with waiting for what the reaction is going to be the next time someone I know sees it for the first time and what that may really mean in the end.

Friday, September 16, 2011

No Romance Of Old Money

Lately there have been more than a few nights where I’ve found myself staying awake maybe later than I should be. Not really doing much of anything you understand, just not sleeping, faced with those feelings of loneliness that come on at a certain hour, staring at the ceiling, waiting to see if the TCM Open All Night bumper has aired yet and when it does I try to force myself to shut the set off. Sometimes that happens, what can I say. Back during my extended period of unemployment I had rediscovered the pleasure of going to the Dresden late on weeknights for a drink or two, spending money that I really shouldn’t have. There was just something appealing about the old school noir vibe of being there as things were winding down, Marty & Elayne finishing up their final set as the bar emptied out and I would just sit chatting with the attractive bartender I know who works there. Of course, the irony is that now I have a little bit of money to spend more freely but since I actually have to wake up at a certain hour in the morning I’m not as willing to go out for a few late drinks. So I just sit at home brooding instead, thinking about how nice it would be to be out with someone that late, to wash away the regret I sometimes feel during those hours and wonder what I can still make of the few minutes the day has left.

It’s a safe bet that if there’s ever an Avco-Embassy logo at the start of a movie I’m going to like what I’m about to see. Someone could probably come up with an exception to that rule but regardless I always get a little tingle in the back of my head whenever I see it familiar from when I was younger, a feeling of genuine comfort that automatically tells me everything is going to be all right for the next few hours. In my dreams, I can see some of those titles. PHANTASM. MURDER BY DECREE. ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK. THE HOWLING. TIME BANDITS. SUPER FUZZ. SWAMP THING. WINTER KILLS. HOPSCOTCH. Even CARBON COPY, why the hell not. It’s nice to know that there are still some other films with that logo out there that have fallen through the cracks somehow, ready to still be discovered. Better late than never, I guess. Case in point among those Avco-Embassy releases would be Harold Becker’s THE BLACK MARBLE, based on the novel by Joseph Wambaugh who also wrote the screenplay. Released in 1980 the film is so low-key it feels like a whole new word needs to be invented to describe the particular mood it gives off and combined with that is the naturally manic energy of female lead Paula Prentiss, one of my favorite actresses, who seems dialed down so much that it’s almost like more of a real person than she ever played and it gives me a whole new level of appreciation of how good she was. It’s a cop movie, yes, but one with not much more action than the average episode of BARNEY MILLER. Instead it maintains its own relaxed, oddball tone that plays as so unique it makes it a little tough to classify the film—just calling it ‘quirky’ doesn’t do the job and I’m not sure that anyone who would want the movie to have a little more oomph in the end might not be wrong. But it does have numerous charms that make it unique and, either way, I’m glad I finally saw it.

Hollywood police sergeant and proud Russian-American A.M. Valnikov (Robert Foxworth) is a mess. Drinking way too much vodka every night, barely able to walk around during the day without looking like he’s going to keel over, he’s assigned a partner in one Sergeant Natalie Zimmerman (Paula Prentiss) who knows exactly what sort of shape Valnikov is in and is none too happy about it. Meanwhile, down on his luck dog trainer Philo Skinner (Harry Dean Stanton), deep in debt to the mob, has come up with a plan to make some quick money by kidnapping a beloved show dog belonging to heiress Madeline Whitfield (Barbara Babcock) who he assumes wouldn’t have any trouble coming up with the ransom. But very quickly things don’t go as planned and when Valnikov begins to investigate just as he’s in the middle of trying to get his new partner to warm up to him, he really has no idea what he’s getting himself into.

There are elements to THE BLACK MARBLE that make me like it just on principle—Los Angeles, bleakly humorous character study, Paula Prentiss. There’s a certain quiet intelligence to the way it’s all put together and maybe I found myself responding to some of these parts purely for my own reasons. Hey, look--I’m just sitting here, looking for movies that might interest me, movies with a pulse, movies with people, movies that aren’t remakes, movies that exist beyond providing an excuse to make me pay extra for a 3D surcharge. At this point it’s been many, many months since I saw a film in 3D and that’s a streak I’ll be happy to keep going. They don’t make movies like THE BLACK MARBLE anymore. It takes a pleasure in its characters paying attention to each other, learning about each other, that simply doesn’t happen. Strongly character-based (the plot synopsis above is fairly short for a reason), it’s low key and quiet as well maybe a little too sedate particularly in the first hour with possibly a few beats that feel missing—if there’s going to be dialogue where somebody complains how crazy another character is it would probably help to actually see a decent example of this since Foxworth plays Valnikov as more of a severely depressed alcoholic than a crazy loose cannon (the opening scene involving him embarrassing himself in public almost feels like an attempt to remedy this). As much as director Becker mentions the phrase ‘dark comedy’ on what I heard of the DVD audio commentary it still feels a little like a looser approach would have brought out the comic tension in a way to get to that darkness the film is going for. For a fair amount of time the tone is maybe a little too mild except for the dangerous unpredictability that comes from the escalating desperation of Stanton’s Philo Skinner and his threats over the phone to Babcock’s increasingly despondent Madeline Whitfield.

Ultimately the film finds what it needs to be which is the genuine chemistry between the two leads so it has no problem interrupting its ‘plot’ for a long stretch to do nothing but focus on Valnikov and Zimmerman as they begin to finally connect and know each other, coming alive for the first time. Placed up against this, when certain darkly comic anecdotes drift through the police station, as if part of a more ‘wacky’ 70s dark comedy about cops, they really don’t fit. Small of scale and seemingly set in a Los Angeles so barren compared with the way it is now that it feels like the entire film is taking place during a long weekend where most people have blown town (there are some nice views of what the city looked like then too--Valnikov lives up near the Alto Nido apartments, familiar from SUNSET BLVD). An often quiet movie with a lilting Maurice Jarre score poking through on occasion to underline Valnikov’s romantic notions, THE BLACK MARBLE is about people in the midst of disillusionment, drifting into middle age with not much to show for anything they’ve ever done and no longer certain where they’re going—a few of them even have children who are mentioned but don’t seem to be part of their lives at all and they’re certainly not as close to them as Madeline Whitfield is to her beloved prize dog Vicky. The closest it ever comes to an action scene is all about how out of shape the two involved are, one agonizingly chasing the other very slowly through an enclosed space and it’s an extremely well-staged, suspenseful sequence. The tone is sly, allowing us to find our way into it and even when in one scene involving Pat Hingle playing an informant whose excessive scratching gets both Foxworth and Prentiss to start scratching as well, but the movie never seems to go out of its way to underline the joke.

Becker, who made this shortly after THE ONION FIELD which was also based on Wambaugh (he’s also made the likes of likes of TAPS, SEA OF LOVE and MALICE and I may as well come clean that not only have I never read Wambaugh, I’ve never seen THE ONION FIELD. I’m sorry.), directs things in a very clean style with relaxed Scope compositions courtesy of the great DP Owen Roizman, willing to let the actors play scenes out while at the same time knowing exactly where to place his camera at certain moments to provide the maximum amount of tension where there might not be otherwise. Per an interview with Becker, it’s Quentin Tarantino’s favorite film of his which doesn't seem like much of a surprise (I can imagine the Coen Brothers being fans as well what with the whole kidnapping subplot) and a line can easily be drawn from what develops between the mature pairing of Foxworth and Prentiss here to Pam Grier and Robert Forster’s relationship in JACKIE BROWN. It’s also refreshing to see a film, and one from 1980 yet, where a cop is paired up with a woman and not only is it never an issue she’s also portrayed as having a slightly harder exterior than the male half of their partnership as well. When she does warm up to him it never comes at the expense of what’s been established while also revealing more of who she is. One character asks why some people seem to always be the ones to pick the black marble, the one that indicates bad luck. In the world as presented here, that seems to be just about everyone. Within the pokiness of its rhythms THE BLACK MARBLE maintains an affection for its characters as well as an awareness of how to change things, to let your place in the world become what you make of it—you can blame everyone else for your troubles like Stanton’s character continually does, you can curl up and hide like Babcock’s desperate heiress or you can hopefully find the right person to express yourself to, take that chance, embrace the moment when violin music swells up. It’s satisfying and I love the way that final shot holds through the credits. It helps the movie and these two people stay with me.

Not an actor whose film work has become the most well-known part of his career, Robert Foxworth takes on this role willingly looking as bad as possible during his first scenes but the way he’s portrayed parallels how Zimmerman comes to see him—more than anything, Valnikov’s inherent decency ultimately comes through, particularly in the kindness seen inn his eyes. Foxworth’s likability adds to how his pride over his Russian-American heritage never feels gimmicky but rather a key part of who he is. In one of her last feature appearances, and I guess you could call it her final lead role, Paula Prentiss’ more relaxed style combined with that amazing voice of hers reveals a side to her talent unlike what’s found in some of her best-known (and nuttier) roles—she feels settled in, that much more assured of herself than maybe she did earlier in her career. She sells her performance just by how her voice seems to soften every time she calls her partner “Valnikov” as the film goes on and a moment like how she insists on drinking vodka during their dinner because she’s thirty-goddamn-nine years old just reminds me how crazy I am about her. The way she looks at Foxworth as he pulls up to his place for their night together is one of those moments where I once again wish we had twenty more movies starring her. As for Harry Dean Stanton, if you’re a fan of his (and who isn’t?) and you’ve never seen this film, you really should with him turning in what is almost the definitive Harry Dean Stanton portrayal of a noir loser, as vivid as Elisha Cook Jr. in THE KILLING while selling the thin line between how desperate he is and how stupidly dangerous he could possibly be if given the chance. Barbara Babcock offers a touching portrait of genuine loneliness as Madeline Whitfield, expressing more emotion than she seems to know what to do with and becoming increasingly desperate to save the creature who means more to her than anything in the world. It’s a small cast beyond the leads but a number of familiar faces turn up in brief performances particularly Christopher Lloyd, visible for only an instant but instantly recognizable as a mob collector and James Woods, one of the leads in THE ONION FIELD, appearing several times as a street violinist who plays for the cops in what feels very much like an in-jokey cameo.

Some of the revelations which come to light involving how Valnikov is haunted by recurring dreams of a certain rabbit are very well played by Foxworth but as the film went on I found myself less interested in this background and more involved with what was currently going on around him. Ultimately it’s some of these tonal and pacing issues which make me wonder if a more finely attuned hand could have somehow made this very good, now sadly neglected film, even better (as a public service, I should point out that there are a handful of moments which would probably upset people sensitive to the treatment of dogs in films, although nothing disturbing is ever actually shown). But the best parts of THE BLACK MARBLE live up to how vivid these characters become in the film’s quiet ambitions as they try to get through their own days, making the decisions they force themselves to make. Do we pick the black marble or does it get handed to us? Which choice am I making when I lie awake late at night wondering what’s going to come next? I’m still trying to find out the answer.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

You're Just Glad You Heard It

It seemed like I was going to get to see Peter Bogdanovich’s THE THING CALLED LOVE, a romance set in the world of country music starring River Phoenix and Samantha Mathis, when it opened back in August 1993 but things didn’t work out that way. Mostly because it didn’t really open. I was actually in New Mexico that particular week, noticed that it was opening on Friday and then when I flew back to L.A. there was no sign of it. Looking up the stats, the film did in fact open on 490 screens in the southwest on August 27 (same day as Blake Edwards’ final film SON OF THE PINK PANTHER, speaking of directors I maintain a certain interest in), but it didn’t do very much business and that seems to have been about it for a theatrical release. To my knowledge the film has never had a single showing in L.A., even at the American Cinematheque, and when I saw it on video months after the fact it didn’t make much of an impression. Regardless, the version released on DVD was slightly expanded into a directors cut although I get the feeling few out there have bothered to take notice. Offering a genuine sense of affection for its world and characters THE THING CALLED LOVE is very pleasant but maybe not very much more than that—it’s pretty slight overall and maybe a little ordinary in how it tells its story although much of what seems to have been added consists of grace notes which are a big help in what sort of effect the film ultimately has. And looking at it now I can’t help but connect myself with how I was right around the age of the lead characters when it was made and somehow the film seems more meaningful to me as a result. Even if I’ve never really spent any time at all in Nashville.

The summer of ’93 was actually the time when I first moved out to Los Angeles, probably too young and stupid to know what I was doing. A lot of time has passed since then, enough that recently I was watching CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM and wondering who the 40ish love interest in the episode was played by only to shout out, “Holy crap, that was Samantha Mathis??!!” when the credits rolled and the name went by. She still looks pretty great, don’t get me wrong, it just isn’t the same. I’m getting old. Time has gone by. Maybe my memory from then of gazing at Mathis on this movie’s poster in the Los Angeles theaters where it would never play combined with how vivid my recollections of that summer still are is what causes THE THING CALLED LOVE to have a certain added resonance with me regardless of my own lack of interest in country music. As much as things never quite seem to fully connect as much as they should it’s clear that Bogdanovich never wants to settle on anyone being a simple stock characterization which is probably what the film has going for it more than anything else. Plus it marks the final lead role for River Phoenix who died just a few months after the abortive release something that seems to make the film more significant in a way that I still can’t fully express. It also remains the last film directed by Peter Bogdanovich for a major studio (to date, I’ll hopefully add) and while an ‘is that it?’ response to the movie may be understandable, for him just observing these people doing the best they can in life seems to be enough. During the film’s very best moments maybe it’s enough for me to.

Aspiring songwriter Miranda Presley (“No relation”--Samantha Mathis) leaves New York and heads to Nashville hoping to break into the music business. Soon after she gets there Miranda tries out at the famed Bluebird Café run by the stern but fair Lucy (K.T. Oslin) and the people who begin falling into her life include Linda Lue Linden (Sandra Bullock) who latches onto Miranda as a best friend almost immediately, good-natured Kyle Davidson (Dermot Mulroney) who makes no secret of his crush on Miranda and, most importantly, brooding James Wright (River Phoenix) who may be the most talented of any of them. In spite of the interest James has in Miranda being evident immediately the relationship isn’t easy in getting going and as they grow closer some of James’ other interests may derail where things are going for them before it even gets started.

Country music of course played a part in Bogdanovich’s THEY ALL LAUGHED (a film I love more and more all the time), set in a New York where more people seem to be interested in it than ever happens in real life. Taking place in a city where country music really is a big deal, THE THING CALLED LOVE (written by Carol Heikkinen) dials down the manic screwball behavior the director is sometimes known for to focus on character dynamics that still feel very much like other films the director has made, if not also taken from a few Lubitsch films made in the 30s that he’s seen a million times. Nothing extraordinary happens during the running time to make it play out all that differently from what you’d expect but he’s clearly just interested in the telling of it, the lived-in feel of the setting and just observing these characters in their good ways and petty ways as well. Miranda goes to Nashville, pursues her music and makes friends but she doesn’t go on spectacularly wacky adventures, she doesn’t get into any real trouble even when the cops are called after she breaks into a car to leave a demo tape and never encounters any really bad people—she simply goes there and lives her life. You can tell Bogdanovich is touched by the hopes of these people and for the most part he shoots his film in a very simple style, maybe almost too simple in how it does its best to play many scenes out in master shots, eschewing a standard touristy look at Nashville (a few second unit-type shots excepted and there are never any stock Southern stereotypes) in favor of just soaking in the environment that the characters actually spend time in. And it never tries to depict its world with the bigger than life flavor of something like URBAN COWBOY—even the Bluebird Café, where much of the action takes place, is set in a pretty normal shopping mall although Bogdanovich can’t seem to resist the occasional quirky touch to keep the local flavor coming like the wacky motel room Miranda stays in or how she goes to a barber who claims he once cut Elvis’s hair. There’s also maybe a slight feeling that Bogdanovich is so intent on playing things in such a naturalistic fashion dependant on how the actors are playing the scenes that he’s holding back on adding a little more oomph to some scenes. When at one point he stages a minor traffic accident followed by something that diffuses all tension immediately the moment plays with a nimbleness that few other directors would have attempted and it’s too bad this sort of energy isn’t around a little more during the film.

It’s a small story, with the presence of River Phoenix maybe placing more weight on every scene he's in than the movie can handle (in a way, like how THEY ALL LAUGHED had to deal with the spectre of Dorothy Stratten, murdered after shooting wrapped) and it’s hard not to think about what his particular approach here is or what may have been going on between takes. Reviews like Roger Ebert’s, written after Phoenix’s death, seemed to treat the movie as nothing more than a search for evidence of drug use and I don’t really know what to say about this except that it’s not something I can bring myself to do, although the actor does look older here than he really was—certainly also older than a few of the films he made not too long before this—and there’s a moodiness to his screen presence here which suggests an actor who is maybe distracted but also one who is doing whatever he could to keep his the role he’s playing from being just a standard movie star love interest. His chemistry with Mathis is edgy, uncertain, with the two leads (who did become a couple afterwards and Mathis was there that final night at the Viper Room) appearing to still be feeling each other out in the final scenes and there is a palpable uncertainty evident in their energy even when things are going well for the couple. If the script was ever designed to play as more of a standard romantic comedy that’s clearly not where things ended up.

In directing the film Bogdanovich seems content to let his camera hold on his leads as they gaze at each other through their music, inserting his own touches within the frame where he can, in particular a sequence at a drive-in (just like Bogdanovich’s TARGETS!) where John Ford’s THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE is showing, a film about a romantic triangle playing in a film about a romantic triangle (“The oldest story in the book” as Phoenix’s character says, acknowledging the clichéd nature of what we’re watching) and when the two of them come up with their own song about the classic western together it’s one of the sweetest passages of the entire film--falling for each other through music, kind of like AT LONG LAST LOVE! And as ordinary as some of the film may look the location of Phoenix’s house, nestled right next to some train tracks, is almost unbearably romantic and when the director’s own voice is heard during this section on the radio as a disc jockey (just as it is in THEY ALL LAUGHED) it almost plays as an indication that a moment like this is really the reason he’s making the movie to begin with.

Much as I may connect it with a certain point in time for myself THE THING CALLED LOVE isn’t really locked into 1993 or Generation X or anything like that so it never feels like a country music REALITY BITES. What the film does do is offer a feeling of freedom, of the time when you’re young when you’re still trying to figure things out and you haven’t looked down from that tightrope yet to fully understand how difficult what you’re trying to do is with relationships that are kind of messy, such as the obstacles that keep the two girls from becoming the best of friends that the overly friendly Linda Lue would like them to be—the lone wolf New York nature of Miranda is something I can understand. Sometimes the person who’s going to change your life can walk right in front of you at a moment’s notice and even when the credits roll it isn’t entirely clear on which direction certain parts of this dynamic are going to go. It wears its heart on its sleeve, expressed by Mulroney in saying that he loves country music because of how simple it is without any sarcasm, it either makes you laugh or cry. It almost could just as easily be the director talking about the Hollywood Golden Age films he misses and listening to him on the audio commentary where he points out scenes shot not in Nashville but back in Hollywood soundstage at Paramount makes what he’s doing sound all the more quaint. THE THING CALLED LOVE is maybe a little too plain in its storytelling but within that simplicity is an exploration of people who are ultimately complex, each for reasons of their own, and not always that likable as they try to discard their past in favor of the future they think they need. And sometimes when you set out to begin your life, you later realize that it’s actually started even before you were ready but, as Mulroney’s character points out at one point, you’re just glad you heard it anyway. I can understand. It’s small but it’s sweet. It’s too goofy at times but it feels hopeful, even if it is a little tentative about that. It sits back and lets the music happen, it lets the words and feelings flow from their eyes. Maybe that’s not such a bad quality to have.

River Phoenix is top billed but it really is Samantha Mathis’s movie. Never really as glammed up as she appears on that poster Mathis takes control of every shot she’s in with a combination of fierce determination and fear that she has no idea what she’s really doing. With not much of a backstory outside of a few lines and that Yankees cap she determinedly wears Mathis has a tentative enthusiasm and awkwardness that is totally endearing, ideal for what the film needs. She may not have become the big star it seemed like she was going to for a few minutes but I’m glad there’s this performance by her, as well as that giant close-up when she leans down at Phoenix during one love scene and recites Robert Graves (an added moment according to the commentary, so thank you to Peter Bogdanovich for that). As for Phoenix there’s always something going on with him onscreen and some of it is hugely moving now, like how he can make his character’s feelings known for Miranda just by the way he says her name. But it still feels like there’s a layer somehow missing from the performance as if they never found the right hook for the character and it never quite comes together as well as something like his downright haunting work in Nancy Savoca’s vastly underappreciated DOGFIGHT. Sandra Bullock is cute as a button playing Linda Lue and it’s no surprise she emerged soon after this (If I squint I can see a touch of Cybill Shepherd in how Bogdanovich directs her—maybe in Mathis as well), Mulroney brings the right sort of likable nature to his out-of-place Connecticut kid even if it’s clear why he comes in second to James, Anthony Clark is Linda Lue’s boyfriend Billy and singer K.T. Oslin makes for a reliable voice of reason as Lucy, owner of the Bluebird Café. Trisha Yearwood also turns up, one of several real-life figures making cameos. I’d say more about the songs, some of which were written by the actors who perform them, but I’m the last person who should be offering critiques on country music although the Mathis-Phoenix duet of “Blame It On Your Heart” is pretty catchy.

I drove across this country by myself when I moved out to California, leaving the Twin Towers which appear in the opening shot of this film behind me, a past being left in favor of the future I was searching for. Nashville wasn’t on my agenda, of course—when I hit that town I just kept on moving down Rt. 40 without stopping. I think of those days and I think of the road out in front of me, the future out in front of me. I was younger then, with all the hope in the world. Stupid of me, I know. My own feelings about THE THING CALLED LOVE have little to do with the actual film, I’ll admit that, but there’s something to be said about figuring out how to press on, to keep moving forward, moving past writing what’s just a novelty song to writing something that comes from actual life experience and that in itself can be ‘a good start’. I still haven’t become a disciple of country music but I can say that I appreciate what this film is trying to say, probably even more now than I ever did.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

At One Time Or Another

Yes, I may defend the films of Blake Edwards more than most people but that doesn’t mean I’m always going to let things slide when it comes to a few of them. Sure, I said a few halfway generous things about A FINE MESS and when it comes to SON OF THE PINK PANTHER, his unfortunate cinematic swan song, I at least tried to approach the film in a charitable way in order to place it in the context of his entire career. But I’m on record as having less kind things to say about the likes of MICKI + MAUDE and BLIND DATE so even I’ve got my breaking point and that may be where SUNSET comes in. Pairing two big stars the director had worked with in the past—namely, Bruce Willis and James Garner—while both exploring a piece of Hollywood lore and attempting a melding of genres SUNSET has ambition but it feels like an almost total washout, a film with such a surprisingly lethargic feel throughout that it just feels dead almost from the very first scene. So little of it works to the point that it becomes not only a bad film but a genuinely curious one as if somebody just stopped paying attention to what was going on during the production. Admittedly, there are a few elements found in there which make me almost sympathetic to what was being attempted but maybe even those could be considered a reach and probably just proves that I can’t bring myself to ever be too negative towards his films. Still, I guess this one comes pretty close. I saw it on opening weekend way back at the end of April 1988 and even at that young age I didn’t think it worked though it was difficult for me to really understand why. Now, all these years later, looking at the DVD for my very first viewing since then I was more than willing to keep an open mind but remember what I said about the very first scene? That’s about as long as my optimism lasted.

Hollywood, 1929: Famous cowboy movie star Tom Mix (Bruce Willis) is ordered by his studio head Alfie Alperin (Malcolm MacDowell), powerful producer and former screen comedian himself, to star in a movie based on the exploits of Wyatt Earp (James Garner) with the legendary lawman even coming to Hollywood to serve as technical advisor. The two men hit it off and when Earp is asked to do a favor for long ago lady friend Christina (Patricia Hodge) who just happens to be Alperin’s wife, involving her son Michael (Dermot Mulroney) Mix tags along as he begins to show Earp around Hollywood. But what happens instead soon leads to a discovery of murder and the two men, along with studio publicist Nancy Shoemaker (Kathleen Quinlan) and Cheryl King (Mariel Hemingway) who is a close acquaintance of the murder victim, find themselves in the middle of a wide-ranging Tinseltown conspiracy.

Like several of Blake Edwards’ other films, SUNSET opens with a sequence which turns out to be part of a movie being shot--the moment we hear ‘cut’ happens coincides with the director’s onscreen credit--setting the stage for the world of artifice this is set in, a Hollywood world of mirrors, where no one is what they seem, legend or not. This is one of several elements in the film where I found myself vaguely reminded of certain plot beats from other films by Edwards, rhythms which should feel comfortable in this context and recognizably a part of his work but it feels like the proper inspiration never hit in writing this screenplay (Edwards receives sole credit, based on the unpublished novel by Rod Amateu) to make this work on its own. There’s a surprising lack of engagement—a feeling of dead air that can’t even by found in some of the more manic films he directed that people hate—and by a certain point it really does feel like he was simply content to get the scenes as written in the can with little fuss and move on. For long stretches there’s very little in the film to point to as stylistically resembling one of his films outside of the expected Scope use, a few scene transitions and introducing Mariel Hemmingway in a pageboy haircut and dressed as a man to insert the requisite male-female gender confusion. Scene after scene just lies there and in spite of an intriguing cast few people get a chance stand out, especially surprising considering how actors in other Edwards films often make huge impressions in just a single scene.

Bruce Willis had worked with Edwards the previous year on BLIND DATE which implies the two men got along yet looking at this film now (I may as well point out that the credits for SUNSET bill it as “A Hudson Hawk Production” three years before that film was released), his presence is kept so low-key that even though it’s only his second starring role in a feature it feels like little more than a walkthrough for the actor on the level of what he’d later do in WHOLE NINE YARDS-type projects, maintaining the absolute minimum of interest and though we see Tom Mix do a few trick stunts on his horse no one seems to have thought to really work this stuff into the movie and the laid back personality he projects never seems like somebody who would even bother to show off in this way. Tom Mix objects to Wyatt Earp’s arrival which is immediately followed by the two getting along immediately upon meeting nevertheless, but it’s all kept on a level of mild banter at best so no real chemistry ever develops, there’s no real spark to any of their scenes beyond just a feel of geniality. It’s as if, mirroring how it plays in the film, Willis himself found out that he was going to be sharing the spotlight right before shooting started so he agreed to show up and get along with his co-star but not do much more than that. As a result Garner, who almost seems to be playing it as if he showed up with only a day’s notice to do a favor for his old friend, just runs off with the film by effortlessly by injecting what little charm there is all on his own from the first moment he appears. As weak as some of the material might be, he does a strong job with what turns out to be the lion’s share of the dramatic stuff as well, with Willis either absent or off to the side at points where you’d expect him to be in the middle of all the action. It’s hard not to wonder what problems were apparent in the script and what was changed later on in editing—we never even meet the murder victim so it’s tough to have much of an interest in why she was killed and when another key character dies offscreen late in the film, almost never to be mentioned again, it feels like the movie has just lost interest in its own story. Or was never clear on what it was in the first place.

Vincent Canby in his New York Times review called SUNSET such a mess that he “thought the projectionist had misplaced a reel, but he hadn’t” which says something about how the various parts of the story never really connect but more to that point there’s just no life to any number of individual scenes to give things a tangible reality, none of the joy found in other films where Edwards seems to love letting things play out in long takes. And from this, no consistent tone ever really develops. The basic concept of these legendary figures teaming up sounds like a romp, if not a flat-out comedy, about the good old days of picture-making and that sort of feel seems injected sporadically but at the same time much of what goes on is surprisingly nasty and unpleasant—lots of talk of rape and that sort of thing—which drains any possibility of charm out of the would-be banter. “Half the movie wants to be cheerful and the other half seems morbid and disenchanted,” said Roger Ebert in his mixed review but reading that sentence strikes me that if a film correctly executes such an array of tonal shifts that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. SUNSET, on the other hand, quickly just becomes too disjointed, too disinterested with itself, too lackadaisically drifting from one scene to the next, never seeming to remember to keep us interested in the story. No actual rhythm ever takes hold--even the 1983 Edwards remake of THE MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN, which I don’t really like very much, feels like it’s slow and sedate for reasons that are at least connected to what the movie is trying to be. Here, it’s just a mish-mash of tones and plot strands that never seem to come together. Too many elements feel either half-hearted or glossed over like Earp flashing back to what really happened during a certain shootout as he watches the reenactment filmed and there is a feel that the film really wants to be about how looking back through rose-colored glasses eventually puts forth the lie that is history (“Give or take a lie or two” is the oft-repeated refrain which was even used on the film’s poster and some other pertinent dialogue ties into this as well) but the movie never does enough with any of this for it to develop into a coherent theme.

There are tantalizing glimpses of what might have been an interesting storyline, like a visit to a brothel where the girls all look like movie stars that makes me wonder if James Ellroy stumbled across this on cable while writing the novel of L.A. CONFIDENTIAL and the sight of the legendary Wyatt Earp in an airplane probably makes SUNSET unique for that reason alone. It also strikes me that casting James Garner as Wyatt Earp is pretty great in concept too but I guess I should finally give John Sturges’ HOUR OF THE GUN a try if I want some satisfaction out of that. And there is a certain amount of intrigue present during the climactic sequence set at the Academy Awards where certain revelations come to light, many of which surrounding the sourness felt in the portrayal of McDowell’s obviously Chaplin-like figure—I imagine partly meant to be what if he had retired from acting to run United Artists—which inserts a backstory seemingly based on the Thomas Ince case, filmed by Peter Bogdanovich as THE CAT’S MEOW. I don’t know if this is meant to be the director offering his own opinion on Chaplin or just a general exploration of a particularly dark chapter in early Hollywood. Maybe it makes the most sense to look at it all as a very dark attempt by Edwards to place the most beloved icon in Hollywood history (as well as a legendary comic figure, making me wonder if there’s any of Edwards’ feelings about Peter Sellers in there as well) at the center of the sleaze, cruelty and nastiness that infiltrates it and has always been there, no matter how glitzy it may always appear from the outside. It’s certainly a consistent theme from the man who made THE PARTY and S.O.B. but there’s no darkly comic kick to it this time, let alone any grudging affection that can be found at the bottom of this particular cocktail, so it all comes off as maybe a little too dark—Alfie Alperin, seen in his comic guise as “The Happy Hobo” is so obviously meant to be Chaplin that it almost just becomes kind of a head-scratcher. Was Edwards trying to get back at him for something from decades past? And yet, even within such a muddled concept some of it feels surprisingly poignant--when a major character makes a dying confession late in the film the moment plays as not only strangely and surprisingly disarming, it allowed me to suddenly feel sympathy for what is essentially one of the film’s villains. Because this film that I had felt so disengaged from was somehow able to pull this off I found myself suddenly both achieving a certain amount of respect for it but also feeling bad that it didn’t live up to this moment more often so it could figure out what it really needed to be mixed in somewhere through all those tonal shifts.

I’ve spent so little time even thinking about Bruce Willis while writing this which has to say something. The book “Returning to the Scene: Blake Edwards Volume 2” by William Luhr and Peter Lehman states that the actor studied several films Mix starred in only to have Edwards direct him to play the part in his own style. Clearly Willis is trying to not play the part as MOONLIGHTING’s David Addison but doesn’t seem to have any other ideas so, with his career-defining role of John McClane still several months in the future at this point, Tom Mix just kind of vanishes into the woodwork. When there’s the would-be showstopper of him dancing a tango at a nightclub it really doesn’t have any effect at all. It’s Garner who has the true charisma and as strange as him playing love scenes opposite Mariel Hemmingway (who's not at all bad and she seems to be trying, but there's not much to work with) he has true screen charisma, sometimes getting laughs or some kind of emotional response out of almost nothing at all. It’s just not enough to save the movie. Malcolm McDowell seems game as the Chaplin-like figure with just the right touch of menace but that it doesn’t seem quite right really isn’t his fault—either his performance or his character just seems like it should be in a different movie. Patricia Hodge plays a sort of regal fragility which seems intriguing but the movie doesn’t have much of an interest in her. Jennifer Edwards, daughter of the director of course, does bring something of a brittle intensity to her role as Alfie’s sister, continually trying to seem more posh than she knows she is and any awkwardness that seems evident—it’s as if the character is acting as much as she is—makes sense, particularly in her final scene. M. Emmet Walsh has some enjoyable moments as the studio security chief (I can’t entirely hate a movie where he and Garner spar with each other), the always welcome Kathleen Quinlan is pretty much wasted as Tom’s romantic interest (her hair doesn’t do her any favors either, even if it is period appropriate) and Joe Dellasandro doesn’t get to make much of an impression as gangster Dutch Kieffer. In what appears to be his first feature, Dermot Mulroney has a role that we hear more about than we ever see so it feels like some of it may have been left on the cutting room floor, Vernon Wells of THE ROAD WARRIOR and INNERSPACE is an Australian tough guy who turns up to fight Willis and Edwards regular Herb Tanney cameos as a train conductor billed as “Steem Tanney”.

The one element of the film I have absolutely nothing bad to say about, which probably comes as no surprise, is Henry Mancini’s score which is particularly good even for him, both bringing much of the drama and suspense that actually feels a part of the story when it’s required and a western theme which is so good, so phenomenally rousing, that I kind of wish a western could be made to go around it—when a full-blown version of it kicks in late in the movie as Tom and Wyatt set out on horses it’s probably the most alive moment in the whole movie and for once totally sells the high-spirited adventure and sheer movie-ness that it’s striving for. Yet another reminder how much someone like Mancini and the rich sense of melody that he could bring to all the films he scored, Edwards or otherwise, is still missed today.

In real life the two men really were in fact friends along with being much older than they’re both portrayed here. They never solved mysteries together but Mix was a pallbearer for Earp when he died in January 1929, as anyone who remembers Robert Mitchum’s narration at the end of TOMBSTONE will confirm. That very little of this particular film has to do with real life, give or take a lie or two, isn’t really that big an issue since it’s all supposed to be fanciful anyway but it does seem strange that the film pretty much ignores that silent films were essentially over by the time the film is set (a reference to “Fox and Chaplin are gambling on sound” doesn’t make much sense at all) and Tom Mix was nearing the end of his superstardom. I can imagine someone regarding SUNSET as elegiac in its look at another age of Hollywood but there really isn’t anything in the actual film to support such a label. I’m not even sure if the title is supposed to reflect the end of that era, coinciding with the beginning of the Academy Awards and the building up of the industry as sound takes over, with the wild days of silent films as represented by Tom Mix serving as the last remnant of the old west that Wyatt Earp represents. That sounds like an interesting concept but I’m not sure it’s really found in this movie, at least not without some digging. Hell, maybe the title is just a reference to Murnau’s SUNRISE anyway. For Blake Edwards, SUNSET feels like a movie that got away from him at some point, made all the more clear by the things in there which do somehow stand out for all the right reasons. When James Garner’s Wyatt Earp at the very end is told, “Come back,” as he leaves and the legend replies with, “You never know,” the moment feels so optimistic and yet sad that it’s nice to imagine these heroes frozen in time, never facing their mortality, living out their legend in a sunset that never ends. Again, that’s not really in the actual movie but sometimes, especially when I’m watching Blake Edwards films over and over, I need to try to find these things anyway.