Monday, April 30, 2012

Now More Than Ever

When I was first discovering certain Robert Altman films years ago some of them already felt like relics of another time, radio transmissions from a world gone by. The Los Angeles depicted in THE LONG GOODBYE in particular has always seemed distant, not in any way resembling the town as I know it. Now Altman’s Hollywood satire THE PLAYER, released in April 1992, is twenty years old and I’m forced into thinking of this film that I saw on opening night at the Beekman in New York in a similar way. It makes sense, I suppose, the way time just keeps moving forward. The industry as presented in THE PLAYER (even if it is a satirical, exaggerated representation of what it was then) isn’t quite the same anymore and it occurs to me that if the film had been made just a few years later some of the references that are dropped would have been substantially different. But in ’92 we hadn’t yet gotten to FRIENDS and PULP FICTION, the explosion of CGI and comic book movies. It really was a movie of its time—one reference to Scorsese’s CAPE FEAR was shot months before that film even opened making it seem all the more current and Rodney King even gets mentioned in dialogue which must have been a little surprising when the film hit theaters right around the time of the L.A. riots. Even the logo of the film’s nameless studio—“Movies. Now more than ever!”—feels like it comes from another era considering all that has changed in the multimedia landscape of today with pre-sold concepts of remakes and board games so much a part of the grand design. A substantial box office hit on the arthouse circuit THE PLAYER was officially deemed as Altman’s grand comeback after over a decade out of the limelight. Never mind that he had been working pretty steadily throughout the 80s (as far as I’m concerned, the HBO series TANNER ’88 remains one of his best works) suddenly he seemed relevant again and continued to work steadily right up to his death in 2006 after helming A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION. Now that he’s gone and we’ve been forced to get used to a world without him I wonder what else he could do with what the landscape has become out there. THE PLAYER, big a hit as it was, isn’t my favorite of the director’s (neither is his blockbuster MASH, for that matter) but considering that changes that are continuing to occur out there in Hollywood and beyond I feel like we still need him. Now more than ever.
Studio executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) is living the high life, listening to pitches from writers all day long and spending nights with girlfriend Bonnie (Cynthia Stevenson) who also works at the studio as a story editor. But out of nowhere it seems that his job is being put in jeopardy by the arrival of the rising Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher) over from Fox, an exec who has his own ideas of how writers should be dealt with. Also, a steady stream of threatening anonymous postcards begins to unnerve Griffin and he begins to believe that they come from a disgruntled screenwriter upset at him for never getting back to him about a pitch. Going through his own call logs he comes to believe that the postcard sender in question is a writer named David Kahane (Vincent D’Onofrio) and after a phone call to Kahane’s mysterious, Icelandic girlfriend June Gudmundsdottir (Greta Scacchi) he drives out to the Rialto in Pasadena where Kahane is seeing THE BICYCLE THIEF to have it out with this writer once and for all…
The word was out when THE PLAYER opened, there was excitement in the air felt even on opening night in New York from that lengthy opening shot that repeatedly comments on how it’s an opening shot to the endless stream of cameos that occur from start to finish (far too many to name, with some having actual speaking parts and others little more than extras), including a string of Altman regulars which maybe makes it feel even more in the past than it actually is, not that I’m ever going to complain about Elliott Gould turning up. The release of the film came just a few months before the premiere of THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW on HBO, another behind the scenes look at Hollywood with real people playing themselves not always in a flattering way and regardless of whether there was something in the air it was like the beginning of true meta as we now know it in pop culture. For Altman this conceit was probably born during the production of TANNER ’88, his HBO series detailing the campaign of a presidential candidate played by Michael Murphy which mixed real-life figures such as Bruce Babbit and Kitty Dukakis into the fictional storyline in a way that was a little startling at the time. I don’t know if THE PLAYER is quite so incisive—maybe it really wasn’t even then, much as everyone seemed to think it was—but as broad as the satire might be the film is still very funny throughout and it’s easily one of Altman’s most effortlessly entertaining pictures.
The director’s visual style eschews his expected anamorphic look in favor of concentrating on star Tim Robbins as Griffin Mill in the frame, seeming interested in his lead actor in a way that I don’t think he always was, while still keeping his camera forever active throughout scenes, zooming in everywhere to poke at all the elements within a shot. As glorious as his wandering camera can be at times here his method feels more controlled than it sometimes does with a blue-tinged hue involving layers, glass, water, the different kinds of water Griffin Mill is always ordering, the slippery score by Thomas Newman (his later Oscar-winning score for AMERICAN BEAUTY in utero, you could say) accentuating the mood through a soundscape that gives a feel of being forced to swim through all this Hollywood madness, always in danger of drowning even in four inches of dirty water. The frame is always active in a way that shows Altman at the top of his game whether it’s two characters confronting each other, something going on in the periphery of a shot or that look Robbins always has on his face as he tries to figure out this mysterious woman from Iceland (Is she from Iceland? Did she say that?). I forget what piece on the film at the time pointed out how Altman never seems to shoot Griffin Mill’s office the same way twice (I wish it had been me) through the numerous scenes that take place there and in adding to our continual feeling of disorientation it forces us to make our own way through this world that we’re peering into. And it’s a world where nothing is real anyway, just as the mysterious June Gudmundsdottir almost seems like she was designed by Griffin Mill in his own head as if there’s going to be a twist where she’s revealed as completely imaginary. This isn’t at all the case, of course, it’s made very clear that she’s real and yet nothing about her is real. Maybe she is imaginary after all, since she’s just a character in a movie.
With a prominent flag seen in a shot at the very end, THE PLAYER came at the tail end of Reagan/Bush and it’s hard not to think of how much had changed since Altman last directed for a studio twelve years before (all hail POPEYE). There’s nothing really sympathetic or likable about David Kahane and Griffin Mill, always in search of Happy Endings, no doubt believes it’s the winners are the ones who really matter. Who’s going to miss one less screenwriter? Plus, as gets stated in dialogue anyway, if you don’t suffer maybe it wasn’t a crime after all. Griffin Mill behaves as if he’s the hero in his own proto-noir storyline, underscored by all those posters of old movies sprinkled around the studio that I doubt almost anyone there has ever seen, yet films are all they know anyway (“Can we talk about something other than Hollywood for a change?”). People seem to answer every single mention of a film, no matter how tenuous it may be to the actual discussion, with a query about how much it made and Richard E. Grant’s character is repeatedly telling the real Andie MacDowell that she shouldn’t live in Montana since it “ended Cimino”. Maybe I’m the same way. There are lots of references adding to the house of mirrors feel, even down to how the then-recent remake of D.O.A. gets mentioned by studio chief Brion James (cast by Altman because he was so well known for playing villains) who was actually in that film. But the past doesn’t matter any more than old movies do or any screenwriters do—anybody know who Joe Gillis is?—just as June has no particular feelings for the departed Kahane since she’s ‘somewhere else already’.
THE PLAYER may be a period piece by default by this point and I don’t know if its earth-shattering revelations about the industry go much further than test audiences dictating how films should end but as far as I’m concerned it’s forever rewatchable, if only to see moments like the scene where Peter Gallagher’s Larry Levy cynically describes the uplifting films that could easily be made out of articles in the newspaper or simply the sight of Burt Reynolds muttering ‘asshole’ after Griffin Mill walks away. Or about twenty-five other things I could easily name. There’s a sense of joy felt in how Altman is putting this all together that goes beyond that famous opening shot, down to how he shoots what has to be one of the greatest sex scenes of all time and does it in a way unlike any other. And when Tim Robbins as Griffin Mill lists off the various elements that a commercial film needs to contain he makes it sound flat-out insidious yet is so calm and rational about the process…which maybe makes it seem all the more true in Hollywood. It’s one of those ironies that this film whose plot turns on a disgruntled screenwriter was made by a director who always had somewhat complicated relationships with his writers which in turn mirrors Larry Levy, itching for a way to cut writers out of the creative process. But however much the actors improvised—a huge amount, no doubt—the solid foundation in Michael Tolkin’s screenplay (based on his novel) gave the director something immeasurably strong to work off of with its solid structure, like how the HABEAS CORPUS pitch introduced as a joke dovetails into the ending. It’s slightly more grounded than I remember the novel being yet still stylized in its own way so that it really isn’t some kind of ultra-incisive look inside the business. It’s an exaggeration, a glimpse at the absurdity which is still there, even if the game has changed. And besides, I’m not sure that there’s anything in this film which sounds as absurd as a movie made out of BATTLESHIP featuring aliens. With some of its screenwriters coming off as disgruntled or desperately pitching lame-sounding story ideas (“Who plays the sons?”) and executives who barely seem to care about what the movie is as long as it contains the right elements to make money THE PLAYER is saying that every side is responsible for the madness. And we’re all kind of trapped. The clapperboard that comes in on the opening shot feels like it’s there every day in Hollywood anyway. And, as far as Hollywood is concerned, it’s there in the rest of the world as well.
Taking a character who is essentially a shallow prick, the intelligence in Tim Robbins’ face as Griffin Mill is undeniable and makes him that much more dangerous. He’s not a dumb guy and Robbins makes it clear that he knows what THE BICYCLE THIEF is, even if it’s not something that Mill would ever get made. Throughout every calculating moment as his hair gets more and more unkempt Robbins is amazing, giving what is still one of his very best performances and keeping him somewhat relatable no matter how hateful he ultimately is, making his work here as integral to the movie’s success as anything. As June Gudmundsdottir, the pragmatic anarchist who never finishes her paintings and doesn’t go to the movies, Greta Scacchi is hypnotic, essentially a total enigma that we can never fully get since it’s never clear just how much she knows or what she doesn’t want to know. In the large supporting cast Fred Ward is particularly enjoyable as studio security chief Walter Stuckel, approaching each scene as if he’s chomping into a huge side of beef, enjoying the hell out of bouncing around in Griffin Mill’s office chair. Also doing strong work are Peter Gallagher, Whoopi Goldberg, Brion James, Cynthia Stevenson, Dean Stockwell, Richard E. Grant, Sydney Pollack and Dina Merrill. Seen in early roles are Jeremy Piven, offering to take some of the visiting Japanese execs for Sashimi and Gina Gershon who gets nice moments in an early role as a d-girl who reacts enthusiastically when just about any movie is mentioned. Michael Tolkin and brother Stephen are the Schecter Brothers, Buck Henry’s pitch for THE GRADUATE PART 2 is always a favorite moment and so is CARNOSAUR director Adam Simon’s pitch for the science fiction film with the two suns. As for the many, many surprise cameos, Malcolm McDowell in particular stands out during his encounter with Griffin Mill as does John Cusack who nails the awkwardness at having to deal with such a guy in just a few seconds.
So THE PLAYER was twenty years ago. Things have changed in this town since then. I showed up, for one thing. I got to see a few films at the Rialto, now closed, but never ventured around to the back. Just trying to be safe. And I’ve never been to a desert hideaway like the kind Griffin whisks June off to but I have been to places in L.A. that feel like they exist ‘only in the movies’. You’re here long enough, or even just a brief period of time, you can’t avoid those moments. Watching THE PLAYER again I was suddenly struck by how Thomas Newman’s faux-uplifting closing theme actually isn’t all that different from the composer’s later uplifting theme for THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION which also starred, whaddya know, Tim Robbins. Nothing against that movie, of course, but I wonder if Robert Altman ever noticed the similarity and how it was used in what has to be one of the most uplifting movie endings of the past twenty years. I suspect Griffin Mill, for one, would have approved. The Griffin Mills are still out there but there is a difference since for them movies aren’t needed ‘Now More than Ever!’ anymore. In 1992 and a few years after the studio heads may have been able to say that they were trying to make films by the new Frank Capras, John Fords, etc. even if they were still just trying to make the same old crap. By now, of course, the jig is up. It’s all theme park rides and they don’t need to try to hide it anymore. Bad guys win. They still do. That’s their Happy Ending. Only by the time he made THE PLAYER I suspect Robert Altman had figured out a way not to be bothered by it anymore and maybe that’s part of why the movie is not as bitter as it might have played in other hands, why the insidiousness of the industry is seen as strangely likable as it slithers along like a snake. And it still is. Anyway, see you in the next reel. I’ve got a screenplay to work on.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Easier To Go Forward

The street I grew up on back in Scarsdale feels like a dream now. I haven’t been back in a long time—the house was sold years ago. The last time I was there, before the end of the 20th century, I found myself walking on the street past the house right around dusk. There clearly wasn’t anyone inside so I didn’t go knock on the door—I doubt I would have anyway—but the eerie nature of the light at the hour on that late fall day is there the instant I close my eyes and maybe it makes sense to me that it almost feels like I’m remembering a dream that I had. Maybe remembering years past in that way is just what I need to do.
From long ago memories of Scarsdale to the present events of Hollywood where the Third Annual TCM Classic Film Festival was recently held and I was able to pull myself away from watching TCM to actually go there to see a number of movies, presented both digitally and on actual 35mm film. The way events are scheduled in multiple places all at once it would be impossible for any one person to see everything they would want to see but my weekend included TWO FOR THE ROAD which featured a talk with director Stanley Donen (celebrating his 88th birthday!) beforehand, CHINATOWN which featured a talk with Robert Evans and Robert Towne, an early Saturday morning screening of WHO DONE IT?, THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR with an appearance by director Norman Jewison, the great noir GUN CRAZY with star Peggy Cummins in person, the very nasty Anthony Mann noir RAW DEAL as well as a screening of a beautiful 35mm print of ANNIE HALL in Grauman’s Chinese which was practically a religious experience for me. Just about the biggest surprise of the weekend for me was the stunningly good 1933 William Wyler film COUNCILLOR AT LAW starring John Barrymore. Clearly based on a play (by Elmer Rice) and yet totally cinematic in every single shot, with rat-a-tat dialogue coming at such a fast clip it made my mouth drop open in awe. Part of the pleasure came from how I decided to check this one out almost on impulse. You should do that, you should be willing to try a film you know nothing about at a festival like this. Of course, you also go to see films that you’ve seen many times in the past and that was one of the reasons why I passed up what sounded like a pretty fascinating rare Clara Bow film that several people I knew were going to in favor of a late Saturday night screening of a 35mm print of John Frankenheimer’s SECONDS. For me, there wasn’t very much choice in the matter.
A film that has moved from obscurity and odd footnote in Rock Hudson’s career to genuine cult item SECONDS is unrelenting, unapologetic and one that can never be shaken off easily (“One of the most depressing science fiction films ever made” said Danny Peary in “Guide for the Film Fanatic” and the argument could be made that you don’t even need the ‘science fiction’ part of that statement) no matter how hard you try. Originally released in 1966, SECONDS is an enormously powerful work for any number of reasons but I’ve always felt a slight connection to it since a key location in the film, the house where the character played by John Randolph lives, is located in Scarsdale right around the corner from that house where I grew up. This is one case where I don’t have to use my dreams to see my old neighborhood since it’s right there in black & white a number of years before I was even born. When I met and interviewed John Frankenheimer soon before his death in 2002 (which I’ve written about here if you’re curious) I tried to get across how much this particular film, about someone from Scarsdale who winds up in California, means to me. I probably didn’t do a very good job, but it’s difficult to put into words everything about SECONDS anyway.
Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph), a nondescript bank vice-president who lives in Scarsdale with his wife, has a slip of paper shoved in his hand with an address on it. For several nights Hamilton has been getting phone calls from an old friend who he knows to be dead, directing him to “The Company”. Hamilton soon learns the secret, that The Company is an organization devoted to helping people restart their lives, faking their death and through an extensive series of surgeries providing them with a new identity. Hamilton is now Antiochus ‘Tony’ Wilson (Rock Hudson), a painter who lives in Malibu and soon begins a relationship with a woman named Nora (Salome Jens), a free spirit he meets on the beach who also has left an old life behind. But Wilson/Hamilton finds it difficult to adjust to this new life and soon realizes he needs some answers about his old identity, no matter what the cost.
At times terrifying, surprisingly emotional and startlingly experimental for any period in Hollywood history, it strikes me that SECONDS could have been presented in a somewhat blatantly satirical style that wouldn’t necessarily have drained away its larger points—it was certainly an approach taken when Frankenheimer made THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE and the Jeff Corey scenes here certainly flirt with that tone—but there’s an undercurrent of searing desperation coming from its main character, searching for something that can possibly never be achieved, making it clear that within the material (screenplay by Lewis John Carlino, based on the novel by David Ely) this was certainly something that Frankenheimer responded to in a way that went beyond looking to play the material for arch social commentary and I suspect it was the same for others involved, particularly Rock Hudson. For that matter, along with the unforgettable imagery of the Saul Bass opening credits (seriously, all hail Saul Bass now and forever) is the title that declares it as “THE JOHN FRANKENHEIMER FILM” an unusual piece of phrasing that makes it stand out all the more. I guess it’s the same for me too, even if it really is a response that only I have--even watching it now after repeated viewings in the past I still find myself slightly distracted during the opening scenes in Scarsdale, wondering if my old house might be spotted in the corner of the frame as John Randolph’s wife drives him home (extreme nitpick: the house is close enough to the village that he really could just walk home from the train station but never mind) and the giant close-up of the phone that he is waiting to hear ring even has the correct prefix for the town. The way the house is photographed feels a little like a prison in itself, closing in on the empty lives of the couple who live there, strangers to each other, with the desperation of that deadness in John Randolph’s eyes telling us all we need to know about why he makes the choice he does--the scene in the bank at his job is brief enough that the staging doesn’t make a big thing of it, but I can imagine Arthur Hamilton driven to a state of near-catatonia based on hearing the sound from that security buzzer all day long alone.
Along with the film being proof that few directors have ever been as good as John Frankenheimer at depicting increasing paranoia even when surrounded by what appears to be a crowd of friendly faces, the black & white cinematography by the great James Wong Howe is also key to that feeling of absolute unease there right from the beginning in an unnerving sequence set among the bustle of Grand Central along with this company and its mysterious room of men just sitting there, waiting, that uses somewhat nefarious means to procure their clients. Even when Hamilton is reborn as Tony Wilson in the figure of Rock Hudson what you’d imagine as the eternal serenity of Malibu instead feels isolated, dead, no life anywhere, pouring rain instead of enveloping sunlight. It’s hard to imagine any type of artist, real or fake, getting any inspiration by that environment and Wesley Addy’s continual drone as his manservant John seems to make it even worse. There’s nothing there for him, any more than there is in Scarsdale, because there’s nothing in Hamilton/Wilson that has any idea how to find that life anyway. Aided by the eerie desolation of the score by Jerry Goldsmith, the mood holds and never fully goes away as if any chance Hamilton/Wilson ever had to achieve his dreams was left in the dust with other youthful delusions long ago before the film ever started, the time when he really needed to have a dream of something, anything, in the first place.
As devastating as it ultimately is, I do wish the middle section of SECONDS were a little stronger to live up to what surrounds it, as well as the powerful work as Wilson by Rock Hudson whose face is never even seen until close to the forty minute mark. It’s more a problem of what isn’t there than what is—dramatizing a void isn’t easy, after all—and maybe placing two extended sequences involving the lead character getting intoxicated back to back needed to be separated by something more to balance them out, something we never see that might help to inform the character of his place in all this. But even these sections display Hudson in a way that he was probably never seen in his career otherwise—the actor’s innate buttoned down persona clashes in just the right way with the free love environment of the Santa Barbara wine festival making him seem all the more out of place (a sequence expanded on the DVD version to include nudity, giving this 1966 film an R rating) and, as someone who has an odd interest in party scenes, watching him get progressively drunker during the gathering at his house gives me a true feeling of unease that I rarely ever get from such sequences (maybe I’ve been this way myself once or twice, even if they weren’t parties in Malibu) and by a certain point the desperation he shows feels absolutely genuine as if ‘acting’ had nothing to do with this. It really is as if both Frankenheimer and Hudson joined forces in their own heads to portray any momentous feelings of self-loathing they ever got from catching themselves in the mirror after a few too many drinks at some Malibu soiree which is in some ways what the film becomes about as much as anything.
SECONDS is about what you never find, never achieve and the longing for what you can never quite put into words. Maybe if you do find the words, you know that you can never possibly share them with anyone. The haunting final image is never explained—it doesn’t need to be, of course, since I would imagine anyone seeing the film could understand a sliver of what it represents. Apparently there was a scene where Wilson encounters a small child on the beach which would have corresponded to it and maybe was in fact the moment I wonder is missing there in the middle. Another sequence where Wilson visits Hamilton’s daughter and husband who actually get mentioned several times, played by Frankenheimer’s wife Evans Evans and Leonard Nimoy, was cut from the film and the footage is now sadly lost. Some of these gaps do make it feel like there were concerns over the bleak tone during the editing stage but regardless the impact it ultimately achieves is never lost.
As an added bonus for the TCM screening the introduction included an appearance by actor Richard Anderson who plays Dr. Innes during which he touched on how the director had told him at the time how much he related to the concept of starting over with a new life, indicated by his recent marriage to third wife Evans Evans who he remained with until his death. On the DVD audio commentary (highly recommended, as is “The Films of Frankenheimer” by Gerald Pratley for more thoughts from him on the film) the director also reveals that Wilson’s beach house was also his own beach house and though he doesn’t really get into it more than that says a great deal of the personal connection he must have felt to the material, whatever his own personal demons may have been. You could take SECONDS as simple science fiction cautionary tale, a parable for Hollywood turning someone into a movie star, Rock Hudson sublimating his true self for that stardom—when Wilson goes to visit Hamilton’s wife I can’t help but think that it has a tinge of secrecy to it, what Hudson himself was keeping secret at the time. Or you could take it as simply a statement as saying you can’t simply turn your back on your identity. This is all just one life. You can’t suddenly change course via smoke and mirrors. You are what you’ve been. You are who you are. When Rock Hudson and Wesley Addy drive away from the Hamilton house late in the film I find myself searching the corners of the frame again to see if I can tell what street they’re on. I’m fairly certain that at one point they actually do pass my house but the camera is facing in the wrong direction, towards the other side of the street. It’s frustrating to think of how close the film comes to showing what I want to see. Kind of like life.
When I first encountered SECONDS way back in college on a 16mm print I hadn’t really seen much of the other work Rock Hudson is famous for, whether the comedies with Doris Day or the dramas with Douglas Sirk. Now that I have, his work here only improves for me as time goes on with the desperation you can feel he’s holding deep down, always there, the need to care for something that he can never fully get a hold on. He’s just amazing. As is John Randolph as the Hamilton half with those ‘silences’, as Hamilton’s wife describes it, a huge part of both their work here and even if they never quite seem like the same person that is after all the point. The eyes of both men, the desperation to jolt some life into themselves is undeniable and the extended take as Randolph is asked about what he really has in his life as he makes the decision to go forward with the procedure is a truly great piece of work. Salome Jens exudes a great deal of sensuality as Nora, a figure who might be almost too ideal for Wilson and when she turns and shrieks “Just who the hell do you think you are?” at this man who, after all, doesn’t really know anymore it feel like about as devastating a moment as I can imagine. The very strong cast also includes Frances Reid is also extremely affecting as Hamilton’s wife, still unsure of whatever happened to this man she married long ago, Wesley Addy’s uneasy calm as John frankly scares the hell out of me at times, Murray Hamilton is Charlie Evans and Khigh Dhiegh, also in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, is a Company employee helping to indoctrinate Wilson into his new identity as a painter. Jeff Corey is Mr. Ruby and Will Geer (repeating “Anything…at all?” as he convinces Hamilton) is the Old Man, both there to talk Hamilton into what they already know he’s going to do—interestingly, Randolph, Corey and Geer were all blacklisted, yet another real-life parallel to read into this story of a person forced into another identity.
I’ve seen SECONDS a number of times over the years and after one viewing several years ago it occurred to me that there was no way I could ever fully identify with being part of a married couple in Scarsdale moving into a disgruntled middle age. But I could certainly recognize at least a little of what that concept meant, having spent more years in that town than I would care to admit. But I now know that I will never fully grasp it because, after all, it was another life. For all I know, I’ll never be there again. But even on a Saturday Night in Hollywood at the TCM Festival during a weekend where I didn’t feel quite as alone as I often do, I got the chance to once again see SECONDS, understanding it just a little bit more and what it says about the things we desire in this life. The film already meant a great deal to me on that day I met Frankenheimer but deep down I can feel it mean increasingly more to me as time goes on. Maybe that’s what it’s supposed to do. Remind you of the hope you still need to have, of those things in life that you always need to wish for. Even if they are always just out of reach.

Monday, April 23, 2012

You Can't Have Everything

I got lost in a reverie the other night. Really, I try not to let that happen very much since I don’t like thinking about the past. But I found myself drifting into memories of my old hometown movie theater, the Scarsdale Plaza, a place I have many fond memories of going to. Originally opened in 1931 and featuring 1,149 seats (according to the Cinema Treasures page), for the bulk of my childhood it was a second-run house—at one time prices were 99 cents for all seats (that’s how long ago this was) but that amount of course went up over the years. With films usually playing for a week unless they were held over, I saw the place packed to the rafters on some Saturday nights as well as afternoons when there was barely anyone else there other than me. The Plaza is also the theater where I went to the movies by myself for the very first time on an odd occasion when they played a double bill (something they never did) of TOP SECRET! and AIRPLANE! in the fall of ’84. I must have told my parents I was going to a friend’s house. Do other people remember the first time they went to the movies by themselves? Did they tell their parents where they were going? Were they afraid? Were they worried somebody would think what they were doing was strange? The theater is long gone now, replaced by apartments and I haven’t had the opportunity to go back since that happened. Maybe I’ll return someday but I don’t look forward to seeing what the site looks like now. I’d rather it stay the way it is in my memory. Not much can be found on the internet about the theater’s long history, which included live performances long ago, but one odd footnote about the place was how it served as the location for the Fine Young Cannibals “Ever Fallen In Love” video from the SOMETHING WILD soundtrack, so at least for me there’s an actual record on film of what it looked like. I also have an ‘E’ from the marquee that must have fallen down one day, picked up by me and slipped under my coat as I kept walking. I still have it. I’m even looking at it now as I write this.
One film that I didn’t see at the Plaza (which may mean that it never played there, but who knows) was Woody Allen’s THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO, released in early 1985, but watching the film again recently made me think of going to that theater back in those days when having such a place in my hometown really did seem a little magical. That’s not a feeling I have anymore when I go to the movies. Part of what happens when you leave your hometown, part of what happens when you grow up I suppose and that magic begins to dwindle. I feel lucky to have a single-screen theater like the Vista right down the street from me and I love going there but it’s not quite the same. It never is. PURPLE ROSE has the bittersweet feel in how if you reach out to touch one of these films you believe that everything you ever dreamed of can come true. It can’t, of course. Not that way anyway. But sometimes when you get lost in those movies, even the silly ones, maybe especially the silly ones, at the right moments nothing ever seems completely impossible.
Cecilia (Mia Farrow) is a waitress in New Jersey during the depression with a cruel, loutish husband named Monk (Danny Aiello) and very little to look forward to but going to the movies at the local theater, a modest movie house known as the Jewel. She finds herself particularly loving the latest attraction, an RKO lark named THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO. She sees it twice in two days and then, on a low after being fired from her job and knowing that Monk is cheating on her, she goes to sit through it again. And again. And again. Until out of nowhere the pith helmet-wearing character Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels), “poet, adventurer, explorer of the Chicago Baxters” stops what he’s doing in the middle of the story and, deciding he has to meet this woman who has sat through the film so many times, steps down off the screen and whisks her out of the theater (“I’ll go get the manager!” a helpful usherette calls out to the house). The other characters are no longer able to continue the story and when word gets out to Hollywood about what has happened Gil Shepherd (also Daniels) the actor who played Tom flies to New Jersey with the film’s producer in an attempt to find Tom and get him back in the movie. But Tom has already fallen in love with Cecilia and refuses to go back. But when Gil falls for her as well Cecilia finds herself having to make the ultimate decision between reality and fantasy.
So much of THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO is right there at the beginning in a simple close-up of Mia Farrow’s face, staring longingly at the poster for this film that she hasn’t seen yet. We know she will, we know she’s already in love with everything that it represents to her. As becomes clear from the excerpts of it we see, the film in question may be presented as silly from our perspective but Cecilia’s attachment to it certainly isn’t. A New York of fantasy, a world of fantasy, populated by people living glamorous lives that are all she’s ever dreamed of. The basic conceit of PURPLE ROSE is of course famous from Buster Keaton’s SHERLOCK JR. and was used again later on in LAST ACTION HERO but consistent with Woody Allen’s other forays into magical realism (particularly last year’s acclaimed MIDNIGHT IN PARIS) there’s no attempt by the story to explain how the character of Tom Baxter has been able to emerge from the film. A few reporters on the scene at the theater are heard questioning how it could have happened (“This could be the work of reds or anarchists!”) but for the most part the happening is immediately accepted by all, with Gil’s agent simply stating, “In New Jersey anything can happen.” The character of Tom Baxter has done it, case closed, with lots of offhand asides continually addressing the screwy logic of it all that could come from no one else. Even Gil Shepherd isn’t amazed by the occurrence so much as annoyed at what it all could do to his career.
The second film in which he doesn’t appear, THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO is one of Woody Allen’s shortest films and also feels like one of his most concise in terms of laying out its plot and thematic goals in an extremely swift manner, with not a single beat feeling wasted or superfluous. I’d forgotten how soon it is into the film when Tom Baxter enters the real world but it feels like a model of laying out the information in a way that it doesn’t need to be a second longer and the first twenty minutes are just about as expert a stretch of storytelling that the writer-director has ever accomplished on film. And taking a look at random scenes throughout the film reveals how he’s directing it to emphasize characters at certain points in the narrative, doing much more than just plunking down the camera as people sometimes seem to think he does. The way the baffled audience members of the Jewel react to what has happened (“I want what happened in the movie last week to happen this week, otherwise what’s life about, anyway?” asks one desperate woman rushing out of the theater) combined with how the characters of the titular film deal with the situation, stranded in that penthouse set due to what a ‘minor character’ has done and unable to move forward to the next scene (“What if all this just a matter of semantics?”) is not only eminently quotable but oddly touching as well, with the idea that those onscreen yearn for our real world just as we yearn for the fake one. And in the relationship between Cecilia and Tom it becomes truly heartfelt, Woody Allen exploring his own thoughts regarding reality vs. fantasy, moving effortlessly through the absurdity of a movie character who doesn’t know how you make love if there’s no fade out mixed with the wistful dreams of owning a white telephone.
Barely able to pay attention to her waitress job for more than ten seconds without talking about which movie stars are married to each other Cecilia, essentially a version of one of Fellini’s heroines, isn’t a total innocent and at least she knows that movie-like talk of ‘We’ll live on love’ ultimately won’t do any good. She’s all too aware of the reality of the depression around her with a meager waitress job and lout of a husband, in an impossible situation, not even knowing how to possibly do anything to change it as much as she may dream that she can. The cinematography by the great Gordon Willis (his final collaboration with Allen) paints the harsh reality and gorgeous fantasy in the right way and no amount of CGI could make the lightning-fast emergence of Tom from the screen ever seem more impressive than it is here. The silvery black and white look of the film within the film makes it clear how magical all this can be no matter how artificial it may seem, making it all seem like a dream that you want to remain a part of. But you can’t. Tom is the real innocent of the two, not even realizing the money in his pocket is fake, and when he pays a visit to a church he confuses the concept of God with the men who wrote the film he fled out of, an interesting contrast with Gil Shepherd’s continued insistence that he has an actor ‘created the character’. Maybe thinking a screenwriter actually has power is the surest sign of innocence of all come to think of it but amusingly both men get upset whenever someone refers to Baxter as ‘a minor character’, the only thing they ever seem to agree on.
One of the few films that Woody Allen has ever displayed pride in during interviews (“It was the one which came closest to my original conception,” he has said), THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO really does gain on repeat viewings as I get older, telling me more and more about my own obsessions with any random film that I feel drawn to over and over again—if you’ve already seen it you already know how bittersweet it ultimately really is and the emotion that comes out of this absurdity always feels genuine, even when the movie pauses for a beat like in the throwaway joke of the matire’d at the Copacabana realizing that the plot is being chucked out. The sense of wishing for something other than what you’re stuck in is palpable even when just played for a joke (“I met a wonderful new man. He’s fictional, but you can’t have everything.”) and because of this the ending, controversial for some, feels absolutely correct. You can’t escape into what is ultimately just a fantasy, at least not for good, even when it’s right there in front of you and there really isn’t any other way for the story to resolve itself. Unlike numerous other films where Woody Allen ends things on a hard cut to black leading into his familiar-looking credits in this film he instead allows a gentle fade out to occur over the final image as a way of providing some kind of comfort, this film’s own version of the famous last shot of NIGHTS OF CABIRIA, as if to say that if nothing else Cecilia has this. This is the only place she’ll need to be. Sometimes when I’m in the right movie theater it’s the only place I need to be as well.
It’s tough to determine what might be Mia Farrow’s best work in all of her Woody Allen films but this one certainly ranks up there right from that first glimpse of her and showing how eager she is to be in that theater on opening night. Naïve and hopeful, beaten down by her marriage and the depression but a certain glow as well that you can see what the fictional Tom Baxter responds to. She’s just wonderful in this film. Jeff Daniels replaced Michael Keaton (who was a little too modern, apparently) ten days into shooting and he nails the nails the ‘poetic idealistic quality’ of Tom Baxter in a way that feels effortless, a wide-eyed innocent in every possible way in every gee-whiz gesture, not even understanding the concept of someone in the real world who would fight dirty. And as the Gil Shepherd half of the equation never at all seems like the same person, balancing a desperate cockiness that he clearly feels he’s earned even if no one else does with a slight tinge of terror that this scandal really could end his career. Danny Aiello’s Monk never seems like anything other than a lout, but he’s an oddly human lout, swinging from believably threatening Cecilia and desperately trying to get her to stay in a way that feels genuine as well. Up on the screen in the RKO production of THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO are the likes of John Wood, Edward Herrmann, Deborah Rush, Van Johnson, Milo O’Shea and Karen Akers, each responding to this interruption in their set narrative with absolute perfect comic timing and I only wish we could cut back to them a few more times. Dianne Wiest makes her first appearance in a Woody Allen film as a hooker who unknowingly encounters Tom Baxter, doing more with her eyes in one close-up while trying to figure out what the deal with this guy is than some actors do with an entire performance. The very familiar Irving Metzman (few things say ‘filmed in the New York area during the 80s’ like the presence of Irving Metzman) is the theater manager, Michael Tucker is Gil’s agent, Mia Farrow’s sister Stephanie plays her onscreen sibling and Gleanne Headly is another one of the hookers in the brothel. Also noteworthy is Dick Hyman’s original score, one of the few in a Woody Allen movie during the past thirty years and it captures the feel of the movie in the movie and the chaos all around it just right.
I still dream of certain nights at the Plaza, some of them with my family, some of them with friends, some of them alone. If you find me in just the right mood you’ll be able to get me to recite the recording heard whenever I called the theater. You might have to wait until I’ve had a few drinks for when I’ll be willing, but the memories of that place stay with me every day and when Cecilia gazes desperately at her dark movie theater late at night, dreaming of nothing but being inside, I really do understand. Sometimes it’s the best escape from a world where things don’t always have a way of working out right and THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO will continue to be a reminder of that. Sometimes I just need to remember that no matter how old I get, I’ll know that sometimes sitting in a movie theater by myself as the celluloid flickers away really can be…heaven.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Against The Tides Of Injustice

After a recent night of Billy Wilder films on TCM which included the documentary BILLY WILDER SPEAKS this seemed like the right time to immerse myself in some of his films, maybe as a way to get some inspiration on an idea I’m mapping out. Which doesn’t mean there’s a good reason why I grabbed my DVD of his version of THE FRONT PAGE from the top of a pile, but maybe it helps to know that sometimes even Gods like Billy Wilder are imperfect. Released in 1974, his version of the classic play came after the flops of THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES and AVANTI! so the idea of a Jack Lemmon-Walter Matthau reteaming in the thick of a post-THE STING environment probably seemed like a sure thing. The thing is, since Wilder and co-screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond were working from a text that was already pretty famous the act of inserting their own dialogue into the structure makes the result a somewhat odd hybrid and it never really takes hold the way it should. There are occasional laughs throughout THE FRONT PAGE but mostly I watch it with a smile on my face, enjoying the actors and the dialogue while waiting for the frantic pace that never quite comes. Running 105 minutes the film feels a little lumpy, never quite achieving the needed manic feel and that combined with a few pieces of miscasting makes THE FRONT PAGE feel like something that is pleasant, nice to have around, but not very much more. Of course, lesser Wilder is still better than no Wilder at all so I try to keep that in mind.

Writing a summary of this plot seems a little silly because, after all, how do you not know the plot of THE FRONT PAGE by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, classic of the American Theater? Anyway, here goes: In June 1929 just as convicted cop-killer Earl Williams (Austin Pendleton) is about to be hung for his crime, Hildy Johnson (Jack Lemmon) star reporter for the Chicago Examiner informs his editor Walter Burns (Walter Matthau) that he is quitting, leaving town for Philadelphia that night to start a new life and marry movie theater organist Peggy Grant (Susan Sarandon). Walter is desperate to do whatever he can to get Hildy to stay but when circumstances cause Earl Williams to attempt an escape Hildy, visiting his old press room at the courthouse, finds himself in the middle of it all and he may be the only one to get the story that Walter desperately needs.

Although previously filmed in 1931 by Lewis Milestone, the most famous version of THE FRONT PAGE on film is of course the spin brought by Howard Hawks to the material when he made HIS GIRL FRIDAY in 1941, turning the Hildy Johnson character female and it may even have been an improvement on the basic material. The result is still one of the funniest, fastest movies ever made and certainly one of the greatest romantic comedies of all time. Out of necessity it omits the famous closing line of the play (“The son of a bitch stole my watch!”) but everything about it works tremendously well with the pairing of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell proving almost perfect. Restoring the specifically male editor-reporter dynamic THE FRONT PAGE ’74 feels like an attempt by Wilder to make a more faithful version of the original while at the same time rewriting most of the dialogue, jerry-rigging the narrative into a Lemmon-Matthau vehicle in a way that never seems entirely right, particularly since the character of Walter Burns doesn’t even turn up at the story’s primary location until pretty deep into the film. With much of the narrative packed out of necessity into a tight time frame any version of THE FRONT PAGE needs to move fast, lightning speed rapid fire dialogue all over the place, but for whatever reason Wilder either avoids this or never quite gets the pace going at the right tempo so his film never picks up the head of steam that it badly needs. The lack of overlapping dialogue, even when all the reporters are barking what’s happening into their pressroom phones, that is so ingrained in the basic material (such a conceit is not only all over HIS GIRL FRIDAY it’s part of the stage directions in the original play) has often been seen as the primary flaw in the film but this never seemed to be a problem in the second half of Wilder’s own ONE TWO THREE as James Cagney barked nonstop orders at a never ending stream of new characters without catching a breath (like that film, Wilder does get a laugh here from the repeated use of people saying, “No comment”). Here it just feels like an issue of pacing from the get-go—at times when the film cuts from one shot to another the pause between words couldn’t be more evident—and the lack of speed makes the whole film run several minutes longer than it probably should. At least. There’s a vibrancy to it all that is somehow missing and even if it would be unfair to call THE FRONT PAGE an old man’s movie it still feels just a little too staid.

But having said all that THE FRONT PAGE isn’t at all badly made, with colorful dialogue throughout and may even look the best of any of the films Billy Wilder made in color—Jordan Cronenweth’s anamorphic compositions have an undeniable richness to them and Henry Bumstead’s sets are extremely detailed with the newsroom of the Examiner in particular such a good set that it’s a shame more of the film couldn’t have been set there. Even some of the additions to the basic material are strong, particularly a psychiatric evaluation of Pendleton’s Earl Williams by a strict Freudian (Martin Gabel) as Vincent Gardenia’s sheriff looks on. A few of the best touches in the film, like the early headline reading, “Cop Killer Sane, Must Die” are clearly the work of Wilder-Diamond and to give it a few more points there is a definite sense of camaraderie displayed in these men that feels genuine, where you can feel the love Wilder has for these reporters, this profession, particularly as they all join in on a chorus of “Wedding Bells Are Breaking Up That Old Gang of Mine” to bid Hildy farewell. Another nice musical interlude is organist Sarandon singing along with a bouncing ball on “Button Up Your Overcoat” as a movie theater audience joins in with her is a sweet moment, even if it doesn’t have much to do with anything. But there is also a crass undercurrent of unpleasantness in the film, some coming from dialogue that feels a little too coarse for even Wilder, as well as a touch of homophobia—“Never get caught in the can with Bensiger” is Hildy’s warning to a rookie about the mincing reporter played by David Wayne and it’s maybe a little too nasty.

On the other hand the treatment of the film’s women, which you’d expect to be somewhat problematic coming from Wilder just a few years after the ex-wife character in THE FORTUNE COOKIE, is actually more interesting—there’s no judgment felt towards Carol Burnett’s hooker Molly Malloy (Burnett’s performance is another matter entirely) and while it’s easy to say that the film has no interest in Hildy’s fiancée Peggy it’s also true that Susan Sarandon is given just about the only actual close-up in the film, right at the moment she realizes just how much a part of this (men’s) world Hildy really is and how she will never be a part of it. There’s at least a sliver of affection evident for her character, more than there is even in the original play, but there’s nowhere to really go with any of this subtext since the plot has to take precedence. And the more I look at the film the more impressed I am in the way Wilder maps out scenes—he frames much of the film in wide Scope shots, often letting the actors play out the scenes together but this approach is deceptively simple as well—when Hildy is finally being confronted by Peggy it involves some of the sharpest staging in the film, subtly using the angles to both present Hildy’s fire coming back and to separate her in the framing from the two men. In jumping into the story already in progress and never looking back it’s as if he wants to make this look at the past play with as little sentiment as possible, almost as if the events are being unfurled in the style of a news report. Maybe the idea was to provide a counterpoint to the nostalgic approach of THE STING (a few anachronisms also turn up, like a James Cagney impression done a few years too early) even if he part of Wilder’s attraction to the material was based in his roots as a reporter back in Vienna—some of that nastiness certainly makes sense coming from the director of ACE IN THE HOLE and the two would actually go well together on a double bill. Those roots are felt throughout anytime we hear these reporters playing a little loose with the facts as well as during the opening title sequence showing the type for a headline make up leading to the presses rolling, which feels so affectionate (even how the type is seen in reverse feels like it resonates with the themes of truth being presented) and I imagine it made Sam Fuller smile as well but the rest of the film doesn’t offer that feeling. I wish that feeling was there a little bit more and things at the end are wrapped up a little too easily as well, with a ‘What Happened to…’ closer that feels like the studio was worried the ending as it was played a little too spare (the famous closing line is there, so at least there’s that). There are pleasures found in THE FRONT PAGE and I certainly can’t say that I dislike it but the end result is not only undeniably slight it may be the one Billy Wilder movie that isn’t really all that essential, there isn’t much for him to really say here that hasn’t already been said either in his own films or in the original text of the source for that matter. Maybe part of the problem is that the basic material is so perfect that unless you’re going to put a definite spin on it, like HIS GIRL FRIDAY did, it’s simply a case of adjusting something that hasn’t been broken. And Billy Wilder was better than that.

Walter Matthau is, little surprise, pretty much perfect as Walter Burns, ideal casting and ready to spit out a new line or insult whenever he can, totally unwilling to quit no matter how hopeless things seem. Jack Lemmon as Hildy Johnson works the words in the script as hard as Matthau, although maybe playing the basic drama of the situation more at times than the farce of it all. Still, he gives the material what little emotion that can be found here—the moment when he says to Matthau “You know I wouldn’t do that,” at the very end does feel heartfelt—but it’s also a basic problem in that Walter Burns is supposed to be the older guiding hand to the younger Hildy Johnson so casting two people that are obviously peers kind of messes with that, as much as they try to make Lemmon seem younger than he is. As Peggy, Susan Sarandon is left slightly stranded by her role, that one close-up aside, but she displays a huge amount of charm in her scenes and looks so much like she belongs in an actual 30s movie that it seems kind of a shame there wasn’t more of a part for her to play. Carol Burnett is pretty terrible, screeching like in a sketch on her show, the one element here more than anything that seems tonally off and it doesn’t feel like she’s getting any direction to bring it down. Apparently when the film once was shown on a plane Burnett was actually on she got on the intercom to apologize to everyone for her performance. The terrific supporting cast of reporters and others who wander into the press room includes Charles Durning, Allen Garfield, Herbert Edelman, Dick O’Neill, Harold Gould, Paul Benedict, Cliff Osmond and Vincent Gardenia, particularly funny as the corrupt sheriff especially when he whines, “Why is everybody picking on me?” With dead-on comic timing as the condemned killer Austin Pendleton, always a personal favorite, probably walks off with the whole film and makes the way he slyly tosses off his dialogue seem effortless.

One other version of THE FRONT PAGE that I haven’t brought up yet is 1988’s SWITCHING CHANNELS (directed by Ted Kotcheff and starring Kathleen Turner, Burt Reynolds and Christopher Reeve) which moved the whole concept into the cable news world, bringing back the Hildy Johnson-as-female spin. I actually took a look at it for the first time in years not too long ago and realized that while it’s pretty terrible the film is also surprisingly faithful to the basic FRONT PAGE/HIS GIRL FRIDAY template. It just shows that as much as I may have issues with the Wilder version it’s clearly not something where thought wasn’t put into the approach and its best moments are indicative of what a master he was, even when working in a minor key such as this. Plus it’s impossible for me to completely dislike a movie where writers, willing to claw and scrape and lie as much as everyone else around them, are the heroes. It’s also a nice reminder in this modern computer age that the clacking of a typewriter is sometimes the most wonderful sound of all, almost as wonderful as hearing dialogue that comes from Billy Wilder.