Thursday, December 29, 2011

Into The History Books

There was a surprise treat for the New Beverly audience at the recent screening of THE BAD NEWS BEARS during the Wright Stuff III festival. At the very end of the 35mm print, past the credits, past the Paramount logo, past the MPAA card all of a sudden there was a short, silent teaser for what at the time of BEARS’ release was the upcoming remake of KING KONG, simply consisting of a COMING FOR CHRISTMAS tag, a shot of the famous early teaser poster and a crawl including the famous “Dino De Laurentiis presents the most exciting and original creation of all time…” spiel. A definite reminder of how much that film was being pushed back then—looking up the dates, THE BAD NEWS BEARS came a full eight months before KONG’s release—but also how for some people, including myself, that ad campaign may live in the memory more than the actual film.

I’m a few years too young to feel nostalgia for the actual experience of seeing the film at the time but I guess we need to blame my parents on this one for not taking me. I do, however, have vivid memories of that actual poster, the design of which has its own fascinating history, particularly the sight of a giant billboard for it which may have been in Times Square though even that part of it is hazy. You don’t get marketing images like this anymore and the evocativeness of the poster remains slightly haunting for me even now, partly because of the particular location of where Kong is, partly because of how the extravagance of the image doesn’t in any way match up with what occurs in the film but also partly because of the sheer detail in it that means I could easily gaze at the thing for hours. Maybe because of how vivid this image remained in my brain it wasn’t until years later I realized that aside from chunks seen on TV through the years I’d never seen the actual film in full from start to finish. I’ve seen it several times by now—oh, if only to see a 35mm print of it though—and I have a fondness for the movie even though I’m still not sure of just how good it is. It’s one of those offshoots of the 70s as well as a display of the madness of its producer that makes the insistence on what will make everything about it spectacular not just bizarre but endearing. Is this version of KING KONG an embarrassment or just a curiosity? Has the world chosen to divide their KONG allegiances between the other two versions? Would people simply prefer to forget about the associations they have with where the final sequence takes place? It’s safe to say that it’s my second favorite King Kong movie of all time, but I’m well aware that I may be in the minority in this matter. I can only speak for myself.

Petrox Oil exec Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin) sets off from Indonesia on a chartered vessel in search for a mysterious Indian Ocean island where he is convinced no human has ever set foot and he will discover an unlimited supply of oil for his company. But he doesn’t account for stowaway Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges) a paleontologist who believes he knows something about the history of the island and that it contains something else altogether. Matters are made even more difficult by the discovery of a life raft containing aspiring actress Dwan (Jessica Lange), a beautiful blonde who is the sole survivor of a yacht that exploded out on the water. Wilson is insistent that nothing will stop him from finding his oil on this island but when they get there they find something else entirely—a giant wall and a tribe of natives who in fact worship the beast Prescott was referring to…the one and only Kong (um, Rick Baker or, as I suppose I should put it, "WITH SPECIAL CONTRIBUTIONS BY RICK BAKER).

As directed by John Guillerman, the ’76 version of KING KONG comes off as a combination of craftsmanship and showmanship that is at times truly majestic presented in a widescreen, old-school way that doesn’t really exist any more. Guillermin certainly knows how to compose a shot, even if it does feel a little like his actors are left to figure out their characters on their own—unlike the movie star archetypes of THE TOWERING INFERNO which he co-directed this time he has actors who seem willing to disappear into the characters they’re playing and even if part of the reason he was hired was due to the success of that film—“Hey, let’s get the guy who just made something else with a really tall building!”—this time he has a producer in De Laurentiis who seems more interested in making the production value seem as sumptuous as possible, not quite always so soundstage bound. But mixed in with that undeniable epic scope are a number of elements that give the end result an overall effect of at least a partial ha-whaa??? response from anyone watching it. You can feel how much money has gone into this production and the location work always utilizes every inch imaginable of where they were shooting in Hawaii, New York and wherever else. Having said all that there’s the matter of Kong himself, the creation of Carlo Rambaldi and portrayed by Rick Baker in a monkey suit which plays as if the filmmakers wanted to do something much grander but ultimately couldn’t come up with a better idea.

There’s also a giant 40 foot robot portraying Kong, spotted when he’s unveiled for the crowd in New York which apparently was a big part of the ad campaign at the time, but he’s seen so briefly that it just plays as awkward as if the crowds of people are running screaming from, well, a barely mobile giant mechanical gorilla. Whatever the true intentions behind building it were it seems to have just worked for publicity. I’m no Japanese monster movie expert but no matter how slick the photography by Richard H. Kline is—I’m particularly impressed by the scope of some of those fog bank shots—it’s hard not to think that we’ve suddenly stumbled into a film with a much skimpier budget and you could probably say that, no matter what, a guy in a monkey suit is always going to look kind of like a guy in a monkey suit. To be totally fair, the monster isn’t at all without character but when Kong finally enters the frame after his prolonged buildup the effect is so incongruous that it’s almost baffling (apparently Mario Bava, unwilling to travel to American, turned down the effects job which sounds like a potentially fascinating alternate history), making the entire experience that much more unique all by itself.

Combined with the presentation of the title character there’s the odd effect in the screenplay by Lorenzo Semple Jr. that combines the myth and majesty that the basic KING KONG story is for all of us, that 1933 movie I watch almost in a trance every single Thanksgiving trying to recreate my lost youth, with an odd tone of satire from simply the name Dwan (“like Dawn except that I switched two letters”) to its focus on making the oil crisis of the time such a central plot device to the point that I’m honestly not sure what the overall precise tone is supposed to be. It’s a remake where the jumping off point is a character setting off for the glory of oil as opposed to the glory of picture making, which makes it already more cynical even before the title has come on screen—Fred Wilson is just about the schmuckiest bad guy in the history of movies, unable to go for five seconds after making a proclamation without somebody correcting him or otherwise being proven wrong and a clear representation of all the evils of Nixon-Ford-era capitalism with little patience in the people around him who are actually interested in the facts (Greg Ferrara at Cinema Styles once took an enjoyable look at this element of the film. Based on the banners seen when Kong is about to be unveiled, the film is basically saying that Petrox and the U.S. are one and the same in what they represent, plundering far off lands for the destruction of all that is good in the world. Along with the cynicism there’s the feeling that the film trying to make the story more “realistic” by discarding the dinosaurs of the original so Kong just fights a giant snake this time around but I’m not sure a version of KING KONG that focuses aesthetically believable satire is the wisest way to go. Incidentally, this is the one KONG movie where we actually see him on the boat after being captured on the island, being brought back to the mainland, actually showing us something that maybe didn’t always make complete sense in the 1933 original but it also might be the most forgettable stretch of the film.

Comparisons to the ’33 original don’t need to be dwelled on--the story approach is such that there’s not much in the way of direct hommages aside from a version of the log scene and (I suspect) the abducting of Dwan from that deserted bar she and Jack stop in. But I wonder, when different people think of KING KONG, in their minds do they focus on the part on the island or the New York finale? Maybe because of my own Thanksgiving associations with the original when I was growing up in New York I’ll always flash on that stuff first (I imagine that with Peter Jackson it’s the exact opposite and I never got the idea that the New Zealander was at all interested in the city beyond being able to present his own fanciful version of the place) and when this Kong hits the Big Apple it’s responsible for some of the most memorable sequences in this version as well. There is some awkwardness to the pacing that makes me wonder about scenes that were cut out late in the game to get it down to 134 minutes--after the steady buildup towards introducing Kong it seems to rush through everything on the island with him and Jessica Lange’s Dwan in only a handful of scenes—maybe without any dinosaurs there’s just not as much to do with him there. And when we hit New York it feels like there’s more of a conscious attempt to keep things hurtling towards the climax that everyone knows is coming—I don’t have much of a desire to spend a lot of time observing the inner workings of the New York Mayor’s office but this stuff does feel truncated and reading up on the network TV version which apparently contained an extra 45 minutes there may be some truth to this. Makes sense that they made these cuts and, after all, who would ever want to sit through a three-hour KING KONG? As for the climax at the World Trade Center it’s obviously not what’s seen on that poster but in some ways it’s even more haunting, even with a few close-ups of Kong gazing at Dwan that I think are the least successful in the film.

The implications of everything surrounding this climax are so great that I almost hesitate to say too much about it. We all have our own feelings when we see the World Trade Center, of course. But I can’t help but think about how we have a movie where everything ends up bad in the end without even any “Twas Beauty Killed The Beast” moralizing--the title character is left sprawled on the pavement, one of the leads is never referred to again after he’s killed off, the island has been abandoned with the natives left to become burnt-out drunks as Jack Prescott predicts and the media (not to mention thousands of New York extras) swarms around everywhere at the base of the Twin Towers like the vultures they clearly are. And suddenly this movie that maybe has always been looked at as kind of a joke by people doesn’t seem so goofy after all. “No one cry when Jaws die,” said De Laurentiis to Time about his Christmas present to the world several months before it was released. “But when the monkey die, people gonna cry.” That quote has become somewhat legendary partly due to turning up in a Saturday Night Live sketch around the time featuring John Belushi as the producer. I don’t cry, but when he stands up there at the top of the WTC and pauses to look up at the moon I feel for the guy, remembering that his love for Dwan works out the same as it does for every girl I’ve ever fallen for so I suppose I remain haunted by this KONG in a way unlike any of the others. It’s the ’33 that I’ll continue to watch once a year and any other remake doesn’t really matter to me. This one has a soul. It may be a spectacularly flawed soul but in the dark of night you ultimately respond to what haunts you and what will remain forever swirling around somewhere in a subconscious that you’ll never fully understand.

As for the leads, you can’t say that De Laurentiis wasn’t at least a little original in the casting of his grand epic. Jeff Bridges makes his hippie paleontologist intelligent and likeable, never playing any of this as a goof at all. He sells you in his total belief of this monkey. Charles Grodin may be playing a moron, but an oddly endearing one as well maybe because never once is he allowed to be right about anything. How can we hate him when he’s never much of a threat? He’s not evil, just a massive putz. Maybe this sort of bad guy was only allowed in the seventies. Jessica Lange, playing the one person in the world whose life was saved by DEEP THROAT, is beautiful and totally committed but the performance has a slightly odd effect as if she’s playing an actress who is playing this ditz in a movie being made in a movie. Regardless, it’s pretty clear why Kong falls for her. When she quietly offers a toast to all the sons and daughters of King Kong she’s totally endearing. Backing up this trio, clearly one of the stranger in film history, is a strong supporting cast (hey, remember character actors?), even though by necessity they’re all basically dropped once the film leaves the island. Rene Auberjonois with his pipe and booze is particularly enjoyable as if he’s making up the character for his own amusement and John Randolph has some nice moments as the captain. Ed Lauter, Julius Harris and Jack O’Halloran are in there too. As Kong, Rick Baker is probably the unsung hero of the film and is clearly doing everything he can to sell the effect but one thing that helps him is certainly John Barry’s score which staunchly avoids any archness that might be in the air to concentrate on the adventure of it all, as if all he’s decided to do is focus on the ludicrous majesty seen on that poster and he’s more responsible than anyone for selling the tragedy at the end. Plus I always enjoy listening to “Kong Hits The Big Apple”, the source track on the album for when the ape is introduced to the New York public. It’s pretty cool.

Is it all right that I like this movie? Maybe I’m still dreaming of what I see when I look at the poster, remembering what it was like to gaze up at that billboard many decades ago. Not that it matters, but I was one of the few people who actually saw KING KONG LIVES in a theater when it opened ten years later—has there ever been a more forgotten sequel? KING KONG, on the other hand, is remembered even if it is as an oddity for any number of reasons, including how it was an attempt at an effects extravaganza just half a year before things really did change with the release of STAR WARS, the success of which no doubt baffled the old world ideals of producers like Dino De Laurentiis. Times were changing and it made this KONG that much more of an instant relic. Since there’s been another version of it since with effects that really were state of the art, it’s even more of one now. But as long as there’s that poster, that John Barry score, the sight of Jessica Lange and every other ludicrous moment that combined makes this movie into the oddball, endearing experience that it is then, at least for me, this particular Kong will always live.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

To The Ends Of The Earth

The world keeps turning. On the day of the recent New Beverly double bill of THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG and CHUNGKING EXPRESS it rained, which couldn’t have been more fitting for several reasons. Because of the title of that first movie, yes, which seemed to provide just the right mood in the air but also because at some point that afternoon I remembered that the occasion marked the second anniversary of another series of days when it rained in Los Angeles, when just a few weeks shy of Christmas I was laid off from my job at an unnamed entertainment news TV show and sent off into the wilderness. Someone who I was getting to know around that time helped me out more than anyone did that weekend, to remind me of what else I had in my life, to let me know that it ultimately didn’t matter. I’ve always been grateful to her for that, maybe more than she’s ever known. Now, two years later, I’m employed again but she’s elsewhere in the world and I guess I miss her terribly. And here I was, going to see Jacques Demy’s 1964 French musical THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG which I suppose is one of my favorite movies, one about love and wistfulness and memory and trying to let go of certain memories so you can move on. Demy’s films are about some of those possibilities of what can happen when you walk down the street, of who else might still be around the corner in life. It’s that feeling in the air of knowing that chance you take when you go up to speak to someone for the very first time.

I’ve seen UMBRELLAS numerous times by now, starting from a re-release way back in ’96 at the now recently closed Laemmle Sunset 5 and while I always love it this viewing didn’t significantly alter what the movie has become for me. But as some of the best works of art do I think it’s gaining as the years mercilessly press on, revealing more of what it says about love and happiness—or what those things can mean to us, anyway—and how downright unforgiving the passage of time can really be when it comes to what we perceive as our relationships. The basic story is about as simple as you can get yet the overall effect it gives off is as complicated as real emotions often are. The occasion of the screening at the New Beverly was part of The Wright Stuff III, director Edgar Wright’s latest series at the theater but unlike his first two festivals which were made up of some of his favorites, this time he chose to focus on films that he hadn’t gotten around to seeing yet. He said that he even owned several of the titles being screened on DVD but had been holding off until he had a chance to see them on 35mm in a theater and while he solicited many people for possible titles, this was one film which was solely his idea. The undeniable delirium of THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG, with colors designed to pop off the screen probably shouldn’t be experienced any other way, certainly not contained by a mere TV screen.

In the small seaport town of Cherbourg, France, seventeen year-old Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve) and twenty year-old Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) are madly in love even though Geneviève’s mother (Anne Vernon) who runs the tiny shop known as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is opposed to it because of he lack of status of auto mechanic Guy who lives with his elderly aunt Elise (Mireille Perey) and her caretaker Madeleine (Ellen Farmer), who clearly has feelings for him. Soon enough it doesn’t matter anyway with Guy’s draft notice coming in. He departs, but not before he and Geneviève have spent the night together. With Guy off at war and Geneviève facing the reality of her pregnancy, alone except for the endless pressure coming from her mother she suddenly becomes open to the interest of wealthy jewel salesman Roland Cassard (Marc Michel) who has his own designs on her.

It’s not a complicated story and isn’t meant to be (in discussing it I may be a little liberal with spoilers here, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet please beware). I also wonder how many people at the New Beverly that evening, there to see a film being introduced by Edgar Wright, even knew that this film was not only a musical but actually contains no spoken dialogue at all, with every word in fact sung essentially in the style of an operetta in a cacophony of lyricism which refuses to ever stop—wisely, the movie even pokes some fun at this idea in the very first scene. If you showed somebody only the first third of UMBRELLAS you could understand how they would think this is pure drippy sentiment with candy-coated colors and expressive beats of the two lovers essentially floating down the sidewalk with nothing on their minds but the simplicity, the perfection of their love which they seem to feel operates outside of the world and whatever anyone else has ever experienced. The ecstasy is undeniable as well as unapologetic. The beauty of Catherine Deneuve can’t be ignored.

THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG is really the only one of Jacques Demy’s films which has been known at all in the annals of pop culture due to its musical uniqueness, two songs (“Watch What Happens” and “I Will Wait For You”) that have been covered numerous times by various vocalists and of course the luminous Catherine Deneuve. I don’t know if it’s my favorite of Demy’s films—in some ways I respond more on a personal level to LOLA and the widescreen sprawl of his Deneuve musical THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT fills me with a sort of joy that is almost impossible for me to describe, messy as I know some of it is. But THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG is the one where everything seems to crystallize, where the intensely stylized universe of Demy seems absolutely right within a narrative that he stays focused on like none of his other films ever do--he receives sole credit for the script but due to the nature of it Michel Legrand seems almost as responsible and credit should also go to cinematographer Jean Rabier who previously photographed the black & white BAY OF ANGELS for Demy. This film was originally photographed on a type of Eastman stock that proved problematic later on which necessitated an extensive restoration but regardless, the colors seep into your subconscious like something out of a dream in a way that feels more otherworldly than simple Technicolor which makes the effect it has that much more unique, displaying the bright colors of youth before it turns into the more realistic acceptance of what follows. Every hair is in place, every piece of clothing seems to go just right with the room a particular character is in, every gesture seems carefully thought out and every moment feels perfectly arranged, even down to the matching cuts of the embracing lovers at a key moment in their story. And as things begin to turn when they’re apart it’s almost a shock. “Absence is a funny thing” as Geneviève sings about Guy, wondering why he’s fading away from her, not even able to fully understand the transitory nature of what she’s feeling (“People only die of love in the movies,” Geneviève’s mother once says to comment on her daughter’s heartbreak). All she ever seemed to know about Guy was that she loved him totally and absolutely which is all she ever seemed to ever say to him. So what else is there when that feeling goes away?

The war separates Geneviève and Guy, life separates them, the passage of time separates them with that Splendor in the Grass of it all. Whose fault is it? Who makes the right choices? Was Guy even able to write to her more than he did? Was Geneviève simply panicking, succumbing to pressure? Has a wedding ever seemed as purely tragic as it does here? Her mother comes off as overbearing but she also isn’t entirely wrong in being protective of her daughter’s naiveté and yet it’s a key to the complexity of the film that she openly regrets parts of her past while still sending Geneviève down the same path. Roland Cassard isn’t exactly a bad guy either but part of that may be colored for me from the first time the character ever appeared. As famous as THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG might be it’s not widely known that the film is essentially a follow-up to Demy’s LOLA, the non-musical black & white film made in 1959 in which Marc Michel first appeared as the character—in that film he also becomes acquainted with a widow who Geneviève’s mother seems undeniably reminiscent of, another indication of the recurring ideas and images that move through his filmic world. Here we meet Cassard several years later, obviously having prospered in whatever shady diamond trade he fell into after the end of that film and he seems to have moved on from the heartbreak of Lola but he’s never forgotten her. Even the recurring musical theme that is a part of much of his dialogue returns from the earlier film which was also scored by Michel Legrand.

Some places, like the film’s Wikipedia page, refer to UMBRELLAS as being the middle part of a trilogy also including LOLA and THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT, although this film and ROCHEFORT actually share no characters. To make it even more complicated, the title character of LOLA actually returns herself much later on in 1969’s MODEL SHOP (that last film even has a reference in dialogue to the lead character in BAY OF ANGELS—the ongoing universe of Demy’s films where characters influence films they don’t even appear in continues to fascinate me). Leaving aside the idea of recurring characters, I’ve sometimes thought that CHERBOURG and ROCHEFORT could be looked at as the first two parts of a trilogy that was never completed. The first film is about loss, the second film is about recovery—even the youthful characters which include Deneuve are older than the young lovers here, a little more used to heartbreak—and I still can’t help but imagine a never-made third musical collaboration between Demy and Legrand, preferably featuring Catherine Deneuve somewhere in the cast, that would have been some sort of final step in that process of life. The characters of CHERBOURG never recurred through Demy’s other films but when in MODEL SHOP Lola looks through a photo album and speaks of her past it still frustrates me that she never comments on the photos of Cassard that are there. His story ends here and there’s a certain subtext to his motivation in courting Geneviève as if it’s nothing more than, “I didn’t get Anouk Aimee? Fine, I’ll take Catherine Deneuve!” He was once a poor schmuck who couldn’t get a girl. Now he essentially helps himself to the most beautiful girl imaginable.

One bonus to Edgar Wright’s week of programming at the New Beverly was bringing in special guests to help introduce the films he had never seen. Before this screening we got MAD MEN creator Matthew Weiner who during his talk remembered some of the countless films he saw at that theater decades earlier and they also mentioned the dialogue reference to the film we were about to see on MAD MEN a few years back. Correctly deeming it “pure cinema”, Weiner also focused some of his talk on how the theme of modernization becomes more prevalent as the film goes on, which for me is as much of an indication of the passage of time as anything, how the world irrevocably changes for the two leads. The gleaming white service station where the film concludes is certainly a switch from the musty old garage where it begins and the umbrella shop itself is seen being converted into an appliance store complete with front loading washing machines. I wasn’t sure how the New Beverly audience would react and I think my own defensiveness of this meant that I wasn’t able to get as swept up in it as I sometimes do at home. And after a small amount of initial laughter from the New Beverly crowd at the beginning, once the movie poked fun at its own self in the early scene where the mechanics talk about how they don’t like the opera because there’s too much singing it felt like they were with it and the applause that rose up at the end felt genuine, not just out of politeness. Even the friend I had met there who really had no idea what she was about to see liked it very much as well, which made me happy. It was also a little surprising how much the film and the world of Wong Kar-wai as viewed in CHUNGKING EXPRESS which followed seemed to go together and the next day on Twitter he called it the perfect double bill and, after all, the sort of uplift provided by these films doesn’t happen every day. “I’m not unhappy,” says one character at a crucial point near the end as she cries, unable to express exactly what she’s feeling after being asked multiple times through the film if she is happy or sad, which probably says as much about the worldview of Demy’s films as anything. Sometimes I start crying at the opening of this damn film. That didn’t happen that night. I think I was just too nervous someone was going to see me.

It’s somewhat unusual to discuss the performances in UMBRELLAS partly due to how everyone in the cast is dubbed, not doing their own singing, but also because the focus obviously goes to one person and with Catherine Deneuve playing one of the heads here, almost impossible to talk about anyone else. She’s so beautiful, so ethereal, so heartbreaking. Matthew Weiner commented on how her face “is the story” which is true but of course it’s only half of the film. Nino Castelnuovo isn’t quite that equal, but he’s no slouch either and he particularly plays things with just the right intensity to sell things later on when the character is drifting to a bad place. Anne Vernon keeps things from being too overbearing while Marc Michel seems like he’s deliberately withholding some of the past uncertainty which remains buried down within Roland Cassard. As for the other woman, Ellen Farner doesn’t have very many screen credits but she couldn’t be more beguiling at certain moments as Madeleine. the way she brushes her hair back from her head when sitting dressed in orange in front of that orange outdoor café is especially fetching and it’s to the film’s credit—it’s essential, actually—that it never feels like Guy is settling by ending up with her.

Jacques Demy’s best films stay with me like few others do, remaining in my thoughts as I drive around this city, haunted by a few of those women who aren’t around anymore, forever thinking of certain places like the cutaways to a few locations Geneviève and Guy walked through at the height of their reverie. Some of Michel Legrand’s music here continues to haunt me as well, not just the lyrical passages but even some of the transitions which always seem to completely speak of the concept of fate, like the slow, calliope style of the main theme when Guy returns in the rain, a carnival that is on the verge of finally dying down, how the turning wheels are moving towards what is pre-destined. It wasn’t until about three or four viewings of THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG until I realized one of the keys to its depth actually occurs in the opening scene when Guy is asked to stay a little late at the mechanic’s to look at a car the vehicle in question actually belongs to Roland Cassard who appears in the shot unannounced and at that point not yet introduced. It’s as if everything is fated right from that moment: somehow, even if no one realizes it, Roland Cassard is going to prevent Geneviève and Guy from being together. The film is aware of this, but it can’t do anything more than simply observe, reminding me of that Kubrick quote which states the world isn’t hostile but indifferent. The film is brutal that way, maybe never more than when Guy declines Geneviève’s offer in the final scene to meet the child that is his. Not just for the obvious reasons but how the way the moment plays he not only declines to meet her but in shaking his head declines to continue the musical phrasing begun in her question. Instead the beat just lingers there, uncompleted and with that any bond that was ever there between them is forever broken. He has his wife and son, she has her daughter, Mercedes and husband who is nowhere to be seen. Make of this what you will. The complicated, unresolved ecstasy of the final shot is not even allowed the luxury of a THE END title card as if to remind us that their lives are going to go on after the movie ends, forever apart. All that appears, in the U.S. version anyway, is a notice at the bottom of the screen, crediting those responsible for the English subtitles. It appears prior to the fade out and even before the final bars reach their crescendo so the way it intrudes feels as invasive as anything in how it seems to coldly state, “If you wanted a different ending, too bad. That’s all there is.” Lovers drift apart. People never see each other again. Life goes on. The world keeps turning.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Getting Into Semantics

Writing about comedy can sometimes be a challenge because you naturally want to be able to say something more than simply “It was funny” or “It wasn’t funny.” There are films I love where even I haven’t come up with more to say than that so if there’s something extra going on between the laughs it can certainly help but, of course, sometimes a joke is just a joke and not much else—not that there’s anything wrong with that, at least not all of the time—but sometimes even jokes can dig a little deeper. Even better is when it becomes evident that there’s a consistent comedic point of view at work, turning those jokes into more than they seemed at first. When done right the result can be extremely rewarding, taking whatever the film or TV show is beyond just a mindless joke machine and ultimately becoming into a true expression of sensibilities. Is all this just a colossal example of overthinking on my part? Maybe, but that’s just what I do.

With a career that has spanned for decades there’s probably quite a story to be found in the career of Andrew Bergman—director, screenwriter, playwright, novelist, film historian and once dubbed “The Unknown King of Comedy” by New York Magazine. His director credits aren’t that extensive but there are several titles among them which people, including myself, have an ongoing fondness for particularly THE FRESHMAN and HONEYMOON IN VEGAS. He also wrote the story and co-wrote the screenplay of BLAZING SADDLES when he was 27 (oh dear lord, are you serious? What have I done with my life?), was one of the writers on the fondly remembered SOAPDISH as well as being responsible for the screenplay of FLETCH. And of course he wrote the all-holy THE IN-LAWS which I could easily write an entire post on just quoting lines from it (“There are flames on my car!!”) but as some might know I also have a particular fondness for the 1986 comedy BIG TROUBLE, a Falk-Arkin reteaming he also wrote and was the original director on before being replaced by John Cassavetes, ultimately using the W.C. Fields-inspired pseudonym “Warren Bogle” in place of his screenplay credit. I know it’s kind of a mess, but my attachment to that film remains and I choose to believe he’s a big reason for that. But regardless of the film there’s an undeniable combination of satire and spirit found in his work which always manages to turn everything about the end result into something truly unique. More than most other screenwriters who seem known for comedy, Bergman seems to love the sheer use of language, forever getting caught up in the nitpicking of what the flow of certain words can mean a discussion of who “they” is referring to in THE FRESHMAN comes to mind) and through this shining a light on the peculiarities of his characters each of which, even the bit parts, are always allowed their own quirks. This sort of wordplay may be a little out of fashion by now—the Coen Brothers are among the few who ever attempt it, particularly when they’re in BURN AFTER READING territory—but such a display of twisted humor makes Bergman about as close as we’ve gotten in modern times to a Preston Sturges and it’s a combination of dialogue and character in a way that doesn’t really happen anymore. Maybe it’s just not allowed to happen. One of the apparently now hidden titles in Bergman’s career would have to be SO FINE, his directorial debut released in September 1981, which feels slightly forgotten now and has only ever got a DVD release through the Warner Archive. Never approaching the hysterical plot complications of THE IN-LAWS, the film is ultimately kind of slight but has enough genuine laughs throughout that the more I watch it the more I feel like overlooking some of its shortcomings. I mean, there is something to be said about a film that makes you laugh. And SO FINE does at the very least have that.

New York dressmaker Jack Fine (Jack Warden) is in big trouble with very large, very intimidating loan shark Mr. Eddie (Richard Kiel), so mean and powerful that he has his own parking space on the street reading “Tow Away Zone Except for Mr. Eddie.” Taking over the business and insisting that capital be raised fast Mr. Eddie forces Jack’s bookish son Bobby (Ryan O’Neal), a literature professor at Chippenango State College (“Learn so ye may know”), to come work for the company even though he has absolutely no experience in the clothing industry whatsoever. But when Bobby meets Mr. Eddie’s Italian wife Lira (Mariangela Melato), a strikingly exotic beauty who tells him “I fuck around” about a minute after they meet the mutual interest is undeniable. Soon enough Lira is throwing herself at Bobby in her town house and when he frantically attempts to flee in her clothes early one morning without getting caught by Mr. Eddie he accidentally invents a new kind of special jeans with something very special in the rear. The success of what they dub “So Fine” sends the Fine business into the stratosphere and puts their money troubles to an end. But there’s still the issue of what will happen if Mr. Eddie finds out about Bobby and Lira which could prove far worse than what he ever threatened to do to his father.

Some films set in New York during the first years of the 80s can be odd to see now since the tone of the decade at that pre-Madonna stage hadn’t fully taken hold yet and it always feels a little like the world is still trying to shake off some kind of Studio 54-induced hangover which definitely feels like the case here. Featuring a sequence set in a disco and storyline designed to skewer whatever was going on in the fashion world at the time, maybe these elements are ultimately kind of incidental to SO FINE, a pretty silly yet spirited movie set among the messiness of what appears to be a cold New York winter with characters who don’t give a moments thought to knocking over perfume bottles while barging through a department store. Bergman’s films present a screwy look at the world often with a lead character just a little more in the dark than everyone else is to what’s going on and who suddenly finds himself in the thick of all the insanity of the world that everyone has already been caught up in. In the case of SO FINE that figure is Ryan O’Neal’s Bobby Fine, wearing glasses as if the actor is still meant to be a Peter Bogdanovich surrogate but not really given much in the way of a character to play to make him into the sort of weakling who needs to overcome fears and insecurities. All he really does is quote literature and even though some of that stands out as if it’s what he’s going to use to save his father’s company but really he just lucks into his good fortune in a way that seems to make about as much sense as the rest of all the madness.

Maybe one thing about 1981 is that it was a brief period where somebody in Hollywood that it was a commercial idea to make an R-rated sex comedy. Well, Blake Edwards’ “10” had happened, so maybe that has something to do with it. SO FINE has a certain European feel, undoubtedly aided by a score by Ennio Morricone of all people and though I only have a vague awareness of sex farces made in France or Italy during the 70s nevertheless it feels a little like that’s what the film, written and directed by Bergman, seems to be going for—just because of the tone if the end credits revealed it to be a flat-out remake of something from Europe I wouldn’t be that surprise. To go along with this feel, gorgeous female lead Mariangela Melato is so enjoyably over the top in how she throws herself at O’Neal that it plays a little as if she’s the sex-crazed secondary role before the ‘normal’ girl shows up for the romance. But normalcy never really enters this film and that very concept seems wrong for Bergman anyway—it strikes me that a regular female love interest never really turned up in one of his films until possibly Sarah Jessica Parker in HONEYMOON IN VEGAS. SO FINE is set in a world of madness from the get go, with even the dull academics at Bobby’s college playing as slightly screwy in their own way. Unlike the unexpected twists which pop up in several of his other screenplays the impression SO FINE gives is that Bergman didn’t want to overcomplicate the plot of what was going to be his directorial debut so things never start twisting around like a pretzel in the way you’d almost expect. Running just over 90 minutes, the movie is so light and airy it almost floats away and any social satire that could be mined out of the success of the jeans during the “You’ve got the Jordache Look” pop culture of the time is almost incidental—even if they do inspire pratfalls by hapless men walking past beautiful women on the street they’re just jeans after all, even if they are designed to look like it’s revealing a girl’s ass, and it only seems to take up about fifteen minutes of the middle of the movie anyway. It does feel like the film could have done a little bit more with certain things, whether the collegial or garment industry settings or and some of the humor is of the time, like a few blatantly homophobic jokes tossed in there. I probably shouldn’t admit how much I laughed out loud at one particular line Jack Warden has when they enter Mr. Eddie’s club but it is something that Jack Warden says, after all. He really did know all about delivery.

But if there’s a list of films that are still pretty funny despite their shortcomings SO FINE would have to be on it and by a certain point the amount of jokes that hit is surprisingly consistent. Maybe getting laughs out of how scary Richard Kiel can be made to seem is hitting the broad side of the barn but regardless—whether we see how he takes out his anger on a pinball machine or how he helps himself to a piece of chocolate cake it all gets me to burst out into laughter just sitting here all by myself. As is sometimes the most hidden and most rewarding parts of any Andrew Bergman film, a few of the best lines also seem to float in from out of nowhere like how as O’Neal’s Bobby wonders if the mobsters shooting at him are students the dotty old poet he’s driving offers, “Must be upperclassman, I would think” or the random beat of O’Neal nervously noting the presence of curtains hanging in the windows in a limo he’s just entered. The way the recurring appearance of a desperate salesman played by Mike Kellin in the Fine offices pays off is nicely done as well and the way Bergman pauses the spiraling plot to have him talk about the multiple wives he’s had that have died is just another example of how the nit-picky nature to his dialogue works so well. Anything having to do with the plot of the wild overnight success of the So Fine jeans, if that part of the movie can even be called a plot, pretty much stops at around the hour mark as Mr. Eddie goes on the hunt for Bobby leading to a prolonged opera climax with a few of the leads assuming roles onstage and a few out-of-period backdrops falling into view—a nod to A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, I assume. Even with running commentary from some of the college professors of the ‘A kind of sudden burst of surrealism!’ sort it never quite builds up the steam it needs—maybe Verdi’s Otello is a little too funereal for the pace of a madcap comedy but it keeps a smile on my face all the way up to the end. When the final scene happens it always makes me wish the movie could go on a little bit longer. It’s not great. Truthfully, I wish it was better. It still makes me laugh. It’s totally cockeyed in all the right ways.

Ryan O’Neal doesn’t have much of a character arc (like, say, the comparable character Henry Winkler plays in NIGHT SHIFT) but he seems ideally cast for someone sleep-walking his way through life who gets woken up almost accidentally by being tossed head first into this situation. When Melato’s Lira seductively strips down in front of him and says, “I’m a very unhappy woman,” the way he nervously responds with “You are?” has to be proof of how good a comic actor he can be at the right moments. Jack Warden’s continually energetic performance may not be as legendary as his work in USED CARS from the previous year but not only does it seem impossible for him to reach the end of a scene without getting a laugh the film this is all once again proof that few other actors have ever been able to swear quite like he did. Richard Kiel, whose character presumably has no relation to the Mr. Eddy played by Robert Loggia in LOST HIGHWAY, seems totally game, always willing to do whatever he can to get a laugh as Mr. Eddy no matter how silly he looks in doing it. Mariangela Melato, known over here for starring in multiple films for Lina Wertmüller as well as, yes, FLASH GORDON, is ridiculously gorgeous and very funny as well. She seems totally fearless in her own way, using every bone that she’s aware of to throw herself at Ryan O’Neal with all the abandon possible. Come to think of it, I don’t mind hearing her swear either and when she does it certainly results in one of the biggest laughs in the film. In a smaller role, Fred Gwynne doesn’t have much to do as the stuffy college chairman, but he makes what would be a dullard in most hands somewhat endearing. The familiar-looking faces that turn up throughout (it probably only seemed like Irving Metzman, seen here as the Fine company accountant, was in every movie shot in NY during the 80s) include Tony Sirico of THE SOPRANOS as one of Mr. Eddie’s goons, John Stockwell of CHRISTINE and later a director as a college student and the instantly recognizable Anita Morris as one of the So Fine Dancers during the big montage.

SO FINE is pretty silly stuff. I don’t even really know what else to say about it beyond how silly it is and how, ultimately, I was even a little surprised at how much it still makes me laugh. Maybe some of it is kind of endearing since this sort of satirical look at the past is always going to seem kind of quaint. Besides, when’s the last time you heard the “Look for the union label” jingle in a movie? Hell, when’s the last time Ennio Morricone worked it into his score? Within the screwy nature of the approach and Melato gazing at O’Neal with those huge eyes and Jack Warden trying to give people he talks to a pen, there’s a spirit to it all which feels totally absent from comedies these days. Andrew Bergman seems to have been quiet since directing the 2000 Jacqueline Susann biopic ISN’T SHE GREAT (you don’t need to worry about that one) and that can’t be a good thing. It occurs to me that many comedies these days are either about maintaining the status quo in the end or learning to be a better person than the slacker you were at the start. Bergman’s world, as filtered through his films, feels more adventurous as if it knows enough to acknowledge that once the particular madness has infiltrated the lives of the people it’s thrown into chaos it can never fully leave. Considering how Bobby Fine is falling asleep in the middle of a faculty meeting when we first meet him and where he soon finds himself this can only be a good thing, even if he is desperately running for his life some of the time. “How long have the streets been fucked up like this?” inquires a certain someone when they find themselves in a famous setting during the final scene of SO FINE. It’s one of the biggest laughs of the entire film and it may as well be what Andrew Bergman is asking about the entire world as well. And you can tell that he loves it.

Monday, December 5, 2011

We Are Who We Are

A film about looking back towards the past and desperately trying to find a way into whatever the future will be, GARBO TALKS doesn’t have much to do with the holiday season but in its own sentimental way it is about family and that combined with how it takes place during a cold New York winter made me want to take another look at it at this time of the year. Maybe I thought it would be a sort of substitution for any of the family members I knew I wouldn’t be seeing and, fitting for a movie that seems to take place in a dusty, worn down world, since it’s never been released on DVD I had to make due with a dusty, worn down used VHS tape purchased at the Rocket Video closing sale. If you just happened to start watching GARBO TALKS without knowing anything about it you could hardly be blamed for thinking that the film, released in October 1984, was helmed by a typical journeyman of the Herbert Ross-Arthur Hiller school, presumably hired to bring life to what could very well be thought of as a Neil Simon knockoff script. But you’d be wrong because, somewhat surprisingly, GARBO TALKS was directed by none other than the great Sidney Lumet in what I assume was an attempt at a change of pace for the filmmaker, a gentle story which doesn’t have very much in common with any of his other films beyond its look at family dynamics and a particularly vivid New York portrayal. It’s a mildly sweet, somewhat aimless film about mortality and coming to terms with where one’s life has ultimately ended up, in many cases nowhere near the luxury apartments you may once have dreamed of living that overlook the great city down below. The nostalgia people feel in the film is also something made more bittersweet now considering the amount of people associated with it who are no longer with us--Sidney Lumet of course died earlier this year and both stars of the movie, Anne Bancroft and Ron Silver, tragically succumbed to cancer over the past decade. Of course, the legendary figure referred to in the title died less than six years after this film’s release as well. If there’s somebody out there who hasn’t seen this film since it was released there’s probably only one thing they remember about it which I’ll get to soon enough and I don’t want to make it seem like I’m saying this is one of the most unjustly neglected Sidney Lumet films but at the very least it has been forgotten. So it makes just as much sense to look at it now. Hell, the holidays are coming up. Like I’m going to be tough on this film?

Gilbert Rolfe (Ron Silver) is a Manhattan accountant who spends more time than he would like dealing with the antics of his mother Estelle (Anne Bancroft), stubbornly forever getting into trouble by getting thrown in jail for picketing various causes and she’s also just about the world’s biggest fan of Greta Garbo. The relationship is going along as it always has along while Gilbert deals with various problems in his own life including being given a smaller office at work by his overly officious boss Shepard Plotkin (Richard B. Shull) and his wife Lisa (Carrie Fisher) who would be perfectly happy to movie back to her home in Beverly Hills. But things soon change when Estelle is diagnosed with a brain tumor and only given several months to live. Out of nowhere, she reveals her one desire: to meet Garbo before she dies. Gilbert begins his quest to find the reclusive legend, getting spunky co-worker/aspiring actress Jane Mortimer (Catherine Hicks) to help him, as he desperately tries to locate the famous star and bring her to his mother before it becomes too late.

In spite of its plot GARBO TALKS isn’t about death so much as simple resignation, of an awareness that, yes, we’re all going to the same place in the end but maybe we can find a way to not hate ourselves while we’re getting there. It’s a film set in a New York of forgotten rooms containing neglected black & white photos of long ago on the walls, populated by forgotten people who just seem worn down by life’s missed opportunities--the aging paparazzo played by Howard Da Silva who Gilbert hires to help him doesn’t want to be involved with this messiness anymore, his father Walter (the always great Steven Hill) looks back on his ruined marriage to Estelle with wistful regret and even Harvey Fierstein’s Fire Island denizen isn’t the expected over the top stereotype, just another lonely soul in this world who says he doesn’t care about sex anymore and just wants to find somebody to talk to.

Actually, the whole film seems to be set in a world of people who hate to eat alone, who seem to want nothing more than to just get a sandwich with someone. Anne Bancroft’s Estelle Rolfe desperately dreams of meeting Garbo to bring some sort of focus to everything that occurred during her existence and her son ultimately uses it as a chance to find some focus in his own life, to not get dragged down into that level of resignation in his soul-sucking accounting job where he’s been moved to a windowless office without even being asked. Some of this really is a little like wannabe Neil Simon without all the incessant one-liners so early scenes involving Bancroft’s Jewish mother who gets repeatedly thrown into jail, refuses to cross picket lines and thinks nothing of confronting construction workers who are whistling at the girls down below play a little more forced than when the film is able to relax and just go with the emotions. There are also comical stops on this tour of remnants of another time that include a photographer’s agent (Dorothy Loudon, the original Miss Hannigan in the Broadway run of ANNIE) astonished that someone wants to hire one of her clients and a batty old actress played by Hermione Gingold in her final screen appearance, all framed by a blaringly upbeat music score by Cy Coleman that seems a little too insistent on slathering as much charm as possible, with a few pieces that feel like they could have been used during segments of some sort of PM Magazine-type show around the time. A good amount of the plotting in the screenplay by Larry Grusin is a little too rote and when Gilbert begins his search for Garbo he never seems to formulate a precise plan so much as just throwing stuff at the wall to see what will stick and a few stretches do feel a little like the movie treading narrative water such as where he becomes a delivery man to try to get into her building, even if it does add to the ongoing narrative subtext of the upper class forever separated from everyone down below. In fairness, what Gilbert does in his quest feels like a fairly realistic approach to the matter in the pre-internet world but it never feels all that satisfying in how it comes across when the solution to this mystery finally presents itself.

If anything sets GARBO TALKS apart from how it would have played if directed by someone with a completely nondescript style it’s an undeniable level of sensitivity brought to the material by Lumet. There’s a genuine sense of yearning that’s always felt in the characters, whether focusing on Silver’s hangdog expression when he doesn’t get any sleep but also paying attention in his close-ups to moments like Steven Hill’s genuinely affecting regret over what went wrong with his marriage, although it’s not seen to best advantage on this ancient VHS tape, which seems to crop the 1.85 frame—there was a recent TCM airing which I’m guessing looked better but power outages from the recent L.A. winds caused me to miss it. Always better at dealing with absurdity that emerges from a situation within his naturalistic style in films like DOG DAY AFTERNOON or NETWORK it’s clear that the director isn’t really the one to go to if you’re looking for flat-out comedy but when he’s willing to dial things down, like how Catherine Hicks’ Manic Pixie Dream Shiksa is never played too broad, the film achieves a nice, pleasant vibe. And Lumet demonstrates his innate narrative economy, as aimless as the plotting sometimes is, with occasional cutaways back to Bancroft in her hospital room to chart how she’s getting progressively worse. The cold, snowy New York location work is vividly presented along with a brief tour of some New York bookstores around Fifth Avenue that provide some particularly pleasant flashbacks in a Sunday Times Arts & Leisure section sort of way. All this builds to what is sort of the raison d’etre for the whole film (spoilers ahead, if you care) which is Bancroft’s one-take seven minute monologue when she finally meets Garbo in her hospital room, essentially telling her entire life story and how the legend always seemed to play a part--she even references the famous final shot of QUEEN CHRISTINA which ‘went on and on and on’ and what we get to witness is essentially the exact opposite of the frozen visage which ended that film. On one level it overwhelms the smallness of the material and it’s easy to imagine someone arguing that you should simply cut away when Bancroft looks up and sees her—it does feel more than a little like a blatant full court press for an Oscar nomination (didn’t happen, sorry) and maybe is a bit much particularly since by this point in the movie Gilbert really has become the lead character. But at the same time it gives a genuine sense of purpose to all the running around and when Bancroft in the afterglow of meeting her idol tearfully remembers, “She said that we were very much alike,” well, I’ve got a mother. I can’t help it, I kind of tear up. I could spend more time nit-picking about some things but GARBO TALKS is ultimately such a gentle, well-meaning film that there doesn’t seem to be much point and is a nice reminder of a time when people still cared about the long ago movies of classic Hollywood, about that Hollywood that doesn’t exist anymore. It’s minor and, yeah, nobody ever really wants a nice, minor Sidney Lumet film but if he wanted to give it a try in between some of his more serious minded projects there’s no point in criticizing the result too much.

Considering how our mental picture of Ron Silver (RIP) throughout his career may always be as a cocky, well-dressed guy with a beard it’s a nice change to see him clean-shaven playing a total mensch, a completely decent person. His unblinking eyes sell the big speech he has to give late in the film and that one detail is all he needs to provide the moment with all the emotion necessary, setting the performance apart from the rest of his career while also showing just how good an actor he really was. Anne Bancroft (also RIP), while impossible to ever dislike here, has a role that is maybe a little too familiar in its broadness but maybe because of how much emotion comes through in the final stretch that’s maybe all that seems to matter. Catherine Hicks, who I’ve always had an odd fondness for, is downright pixieish in a completely charming and unforced way while Carrie Fisher, much as she seems to be obvious casting as a Beverly Hills Jew, comes off totally flat as Gilbert’s impatient wife with no real variation from one line reading to the next in that zoned-out way I suppose she sometimes affected during the RETURN OF THE JEDI days. It’s not that she plays the role as a selfish bitch, it’s that she doesn’t seem to play it as much of anything and it leaves a small hole in that section of the film. The eternally underrated Steven Hill (all hail Adam Schiff) is extremely affecting as the ex-husband and some of the familiar faces who appear throughout also add a great deal of color particularly the always welcome Richard B. Shull as Gilbert’s smiling cobra boss. Mary McDonnell can be spotted very quickly as a Shakespeare actress if you look fast enough and appearing in cameos as themselves during a MOMA reception are the likes of Adolph Green, George Plimpton, Liz Smith and Michael Musto (Michael Musto in a Sidney Lumet film—that has to be good for some kind of trivia question). Apparently an uncredited Betty Comden appears as…well, if you know what the title is you can probably guess.

In its own humanistic way GARBO TALKS focuses on individuality and how ultimately to get by from day to day some people need to step in line with the rest of the world while others couldn’t do it even if they tried. Some people take life as it comes, some make waves. Both ways of doing things can be valid. “I allowed it to happen,” says Gilbert repeatedly about what was done to him at his job by an eternally smiling prick, a realization he finally comes to. If the last scene says anything, it’s that once you’re willing to take that leap and make a few waves what you’re looking for might appear right in front of you at a moment’s notice. It reminds me of a few things that happened to me at various points in my life. Of course, I probably screwed up every single one of those opportunities but as well all know life isn’t always as simple as it is in the movies. Still, it’s nice to dream.