Monday, June 30, 2014

How We Lower Our Sights

June 17, 1994: the now-legendary O.J. Simpson slow speed Bronco chase. The world was riveted. Everyone was watching. And yet you just know that there were a few people out there who missed it because they were in a movie theater seeing Mike Nichols’ WOLF which opened that day. The summer of ‘94 is a time that I have particularly vivid recollections of since I was actually working at a bookstore job in Brentwood. It was in the same shopping plaza where Nicole Brown stopped off for Häagen-Dazs on the way home, right across the street from Mezzaluna and just a few blocks away from 876 S. Bundy Drive. Kind of like being in Dallas when the assassination happened, if you get my meaning. I’ve got a few stories that I used at cocktail parties through the years about encounters I had with certain people connected to what had happened (ask me some other time) but none of them have to do with the Bronco chase since I wasn’t around--I had the day off, part of which was spent across town in the first showing of WOLF at the Cinerama Dome earlier that afternoon, of course. But the fact remains that this is one of those things where the release of the movie has been inexorably tied into what was happening that day and for all we know caused the film to slip through the cracks for some people. Ultimately making a not-bad, not great $65 million at the box office, WOLF is a good film, one with goals and thoughts behind it but for a variety of reasons feels like something that was aiming at multiple targets and didn’t quite hit each of them. Compelling all the way through but maybe not completely fulfilling, twenty years later it still engages with a wit to its look at the world that helps greatly. It’s clearly from another time—very much a pre-O.J. film released just as O.J. happened, if you will, and even if Mike Nichols’ ultimate goal in exploring the material doesn’t feel one hundred percent clarified it plays now as refreshingly adult even if the intellectualization behind the approach doesn’t hold all the way to the end.
Shortly after being bitten by a wolf up in Vermont while driving home New York book editor Will Randall (Jack Nicholson) is informed of the termination of his position after billionaire tycoon Raymond Alden (Christopher Plummer) has bought up the company. He’s even faced with the humiliation that protégé Stuart Swinton (James Spader) is to replace him and although immediately resigned to this fate Will’s personality soon begins to undergo extreme changes which leads to learning a secret involving wife Charlotte (Kate Nelligan) and his decision to finally take action over his place at the company. Things change for Will even more when he meets Alden’s wild card daughter Laura (Michelle Pfeiffer), finding in her another person he can actually talk to and connect with, just as the animal side of him brought out by the wolf bite is beginning to make itself known.
Not even 15 minutes into WOLF Jack Nicholson’s Will Randall lays out an intriguing thesis: “You could make the case that the world has already ended. That art is dead….that instead of art we have pop culture, daytime TV, gay senior citizens, women who have been raped by their dentists confiding in Oprah, an exploration in depth of why women cut off their husbands’ penis…” Spoken by a character who believes with reason that his world is about to collapse in on itself, it partly works as what WOLF is about but even more than that is a reminder of how the film opened on one of the key pop culture events of the last decade of the twentieth century, an event that led to most of us hearing the name “Kardashian” for the first time, where everything would become one giant hellish reality show. The end of the world, you could say. Bit player Allison Janney (THE WEST WING still five years in the future), presumably playing some sort of la-di-da New York media type, tries to naively argue that money doesn’t imply ruthless ambition which is something that even the hardened billionaire she’s talking to doesn’t try to deny. WOLF is aware that polite, pipe-smoking way of doing business is fast on its way out, equating what is to come with a certain animalistic way of humanity, where talent doesn’t matter anymore, where the notion of civility flat out doesn’t matter. The “old fashioned way” of begging isn’t how it’s done anymore and what happens to Will isn’t just inevitable but in some ways actually for the best if this is what the world is to become, turning him into a wolf but also a man, with a capital “M”, for the very first time and not just a polite suit.
On a conceptual level WOLF plays as a horror film made by someone with no particular affinity for the genre or even awareness of how to pull off things like jump scares but is presumably attracted to the concept anyway, possibly with other goals in mind. Kubrick’s THE SHINING, coincidentally also starring Jack Nicholson, certainly contains elements that allow it to fall into this category and based on WOLF I don’t think that Mike Nichols has disdain for horror so much as him never having given the subject much thought at all. It really feels like Mike Nichols making a Mike Nichols film set in a Mike Nichols world where people drink fresh ground coffee from Zabar’s invaded by something else, a straight horror film crossed with the metaphor of embracing one’s inner beast in this day and age. There’s a constant feeling that the director is trying to bring something to the material above and beyond just shooting the script he was given (more than you could maybe say about several other latter day Mike Nichols films) it’s just that he’s not sure exactly what that should be. Since it doesn’t seem to know the basic pattern of a horror film it doesn’t know what clichés it should or shouldn’t ignore which allows for its own unique approach how characters interact in ways. The themes are there, very much so, but it also feels like through multiple rewrites and reedits and working out the effects and all that by a certain point exploring the metaphorical implications had to be dropped in favor of just making the film and getting it finished. Which had to be done, of course, and it’s not particularly surprising that the result isn’t a straight ahead horror film that goes heavy on the gore.
What Mike Nichols is interested in is going to be more interesting than what he’s not, what he can immediately connect with is going to be that much more tangible cinematically. But it does leave WOLF slightly wanting in the end, an array of engaging elements dropped during the second half as the film closes in on a conflict with just a handful of characters along with a climax, apparently greatly reworked during production, that is maybe a little too rote in how some of it plays out. Nichols seems to embrace the imagery and how the mood brought on by Ennio Morricone’s score affects the multiple helicopter shots gliding through New York at night (something else that gets me to think of THE SHINING) plus to his credit makes the ‘Jack Nicholson is a werewolf!’ element of it all much more low key and ambivalent than you would expect. But it’s almost a shade too polite making the occasional overly hyper zoom to underline something feel not quite right as Nichols searches for something to do with his camera. The wit and energy of the publishing house setting is what has the most zip to it all and, maybe like Nichols, I’m more intrigued by how the great director of photography Giuseppe Rotunno shoots the famous Bradbury Building (a familiar L.A. location even though the film is set in New York) than the delirium of the wolf’s runs through the woods at night.
As the film goes on the camera seems to push into close-ups more and more, omitting the world around the few characters, and since Nichols is definitely a director who knows what to do with close-ups, that’s where he finds the most to be interested by. When he’s not in his element the ideas just aren’t there in the same way so when the climactic action kicks in it feels like he’s finally agreed to make the film the studio probably wanted all along. The werewolf makeup effects feature the expected strong work by Rick Baker (along with some intriguingly subtle changes to Nicholson over the course of the film) but I don’t think Nichols has much interest in that either. It’s the intimate moments that have the most impact, such as Nicholson’s confrontation with Spader at a urinal that includes a particularly good offhand mention of “asparagus” to cap the scene. In comparison, the climactic showdown is a little more what’s expected and while it actually doesn’t go on forever like such a sequence might today in my memory it sort of seems like it does. It’s not a bad climax, as these things go, it’s professionally done. It’s the climax to a movie. It just may not have been the right climax for this movie as much as it was the right climax for a major star vehicle released in the summer of ’94.
Much of it remains intriguing, more on a human level than anything and thanks to the lunchtime conversation between Nicholson and Pfeiffer few other films ever made have made me want a peanut butter and jelly sandwich so badly. As the connection builds between Will Randall, a good man fighting against the wolf inside him, and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Morose Pixie Dream Woman he simply tells her exactly what’s happening to him, with no thoughts of trying to conceal the truth like other films might waste time with. She accepts it, with thoughts of supernatural never coming into the dialogue and the chemistry between the two actors as they play this material is palpable, unexpected in how it comes off. Elaine May reportedly worked on the script (credited to Jim Harrison and Wesley Strick) and the recognizable sharpness of her dialogue brings the drama into focus so it pops for much of the first half even during the small moments like the dryness of Ron Rifkin’s doctor or how Will is continually trying to talk his way around what’s obviously happening, looking for some sort of rational explanation that “medical science has overlooked”. The bulk of his drawn out visit to Om Puri’s Dr. Alezais is almost too sedate in comparison blatantly laying out the themes in a way that feel designed to get people to check out of the film for a few minutes. Maybe Dick Miller’s Walter Paisley from THE HOWLING wouldn’t have been such a bad idea here (Nicholson and Miller together would at the very least be a cool Corman connection) and while WOLF definitely gets points for taking the serious approach, it that sense it doesn’t always have the right maverick sensibilities to fully click.
It’s an understated, mannered film about a world that is beginning to burst apart at the seams but no one reacts to such changes with anything other than mild puzzlement, another element that removes the events from horror movie logic—the matter of fact response by David Hyde Pierce (FRASIER had just completed its first season when this was released) to Will no longer needing his glasses and the cop played by David Schwimmer (right before FRIENDS premiered) more concerned about his handcuffs than the impossible event he’s just witnessed happen. Even the police investigation during the final third as Richard Jenkins’ detective comes to the hotel room to inform Randall of the brutal murder of the wife who has been having an affair with a younger man (yet more shades of O.J., even if the reality of that event doesn’t quite match up) is portrayed as dry as possible so the big final showdown between werewolves, a word that I’m not sure is ever spoken, can’t help but seem ordinary in comparison. A widely circulated still not in the film showing Nicholson about to transform while Pfeiffer lays beside him in bed speaks to how low key the approach ultimately became. Once the subtext becomes text and the transformation as actually taken place it’s not as intriguing anymore. But the film’s own curiosity about its themes remains intriguing throughout. Just as Will Randall tries to piece together the truth of what’s really happening to him it’s a film that is always trying to understand what it is and it makes the end result that much more compelling even if it doesn’t always hold.
Jack Nicholson gives an intriguingly low key performance, not only going against the expected but seeming continually engaged, just as curious about how to explore what’s happening to Will Randall as the character is, always holding the reality of the film together. Michelle Pfeiffer makes sense out of what seems to be practically an impossible role, barely a person at all, giving both her co-star and the film a surprising amount of empathy, indicating how she’s just off enough herself to be the right woman for him and it’s maybe one of her most underappreciated performances. James Spader approaches his role as trying to be the uber-version of his familiar yuppie scum portrayal—compared with characters he played both before and after this I don’t know if that quite comes off but it is a nice turn, playing him as an asshole who not only knows he’s one but revels in the mindgames that it entails. Christopher Plummer brings the expected chilly intelligence to his billionaire that balances just enough disinterest in all this publishing stuff to get momentarily amused by the back-stabbing around him while Kate Nelligan as Randall’s wife has kind of a thankless role but she nevertheless kills it in her last scene. Nichols makes something out of the bit roles as well, particularly Ron Rifkin, David Hyde Pierce and Eileen Atkins as Randall’s loyal secretary. Playing a stock investigating cop role, Richard Jenkins becomes an unexpected off-kilter glue for the film in its last half hour, a refreshing link to the real world while the plot gears of the climax have to turn and Elaine May makes an uncredited vocal appearance as a hotel phone operator—hearing her chipper voice immediately after a brutal werewolf attack says about as much about the dual nature of the film, and the approach taken to it, as anything.
WOLF is a film that I still feel an inquisitive fondness for as I continue to try to find my way through it, trying to understand what it is as it fights against expectations. The end result may be uncertain, it may be battling against its own two halves, but it seems fascinated by that battle. The incessant, haunting score composed by Ennio Morricone which provides the film with an undeniable shade of melancholy that I don’t think is present otherwise feels like a part of that battle as well. But melancholy for what—for Will Randall? For the unexpected romance between the two leads? For revisiting this film 20 years later? It’s about a lot of things that don’t exist anymore, whether the idea of a summer movie aimed at adults, a portrayal of a New York media world that I imagine would be somewhat different now or just people in the world in general. Maybe it’s a reminder of what things were like for a brief period back in the early 90s. One of the final images of the film indicates that the transformation we’ve been witnessing for the past two hours is now complete. If a similar transformation began within the world we live on June 17 1994, I can’t help but worry that we still haven’t witnessed the end of that particular metamorphosis.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

A Very Accurate Word

Quite a few years ago, longer than maybe I’d care to admit, I went to my friend Dani’s birthday party in Griffith Park one afternoon. Because Dani always had a knack for doing this sort of thing at his events part of the day involved him pairing people up together so they could go off by themselves to various corners of the park and, well, analyze each other. Take my word for it, if you knew Dani this wouldn’t seem at all odd. I was paired up with a woman I’d never met named Jill Soloway and in all honesty much of what we talked about has long since left me but I do remember that our conversation was intense, satisfying and somewhat cathartic. If I had known then that she was going to go on to be one of the main creative forces behind one of the best television shows of the aughts, SIX FEET UNDER, maybe I would have written some of it down. I also probably would have tried a little better to stay in touch with her, but never mind. All this time later I still run into Jill Soloway in random places every few years and get a vague look of recognition on her face which is better than nothing from the writer of the “I’ll Take You” episode of SIX FEET, I suppose. After working on several other series through the years including UNITED STATES OF TARA and DIRTY SEXY MONEY, 2013 saw the release of Soloway’s first feature film as director, the unexpected and piercing AFTERNOON DELIGHT for which she won the Best Director award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and was also named by no less than Quentin Tarantino as one of the best films of the year. A comedy that always remembers to keep genuine emotions in mind, a character study which never holds back on all the flaws of the people in it, it’s a brave and admirable piece of work. That it’s mostly set pretty close to my neighborhood makes it that much more interesting for me, set in a world that I recognize but am not really a part of, fitting since it’s made by someone who I’ve met but can’t honestly say I know.
Upscale Silverlake wife and mother Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) is feeling listless in life with her one child no longer a baby and husband Jeff (Josh Radnor) focused more and more on his app-heavy business with even sex between the two of them not really happening anymore. After a trip to a strip club with some of their friends to spice things up where Rachel is given a lapdance by a stripper named McKenna (Juno Temple) she can’t get the stripper out of her mind and manages to figure out a way to meet up with her again. One thing leads to another and once McKenna finds herself in a jam Rachel brings her home to stay for a few nights until she finds a place to stay. Soon enough Rachel learns that McKenna isn’t just a dancer but a full-fledged ‘sex worker’ as she calls it leading to things becoming even more complicated when McKenna inserts herself into the lives of some of Rachel and Jeff’s friends as well.
“A job does not define who you are,” says Rachel at one point to defend stripper/‘sex worker’ McKenna, leaving it unspoken that she can’t define herself anymore and is drawn to McKenna in some sort of friend/protector/mother/lover combo that she can’t come close to putting into words. Feeling rudderless as she watches life go on outside of her like the car wash she goes through in the first scene, she’s trying to change her own narrative without knowing why and she can’t even find the correct lies to explain what she’s trying to do with McKenna, let alone the actual truth as if she’s wondering, If I don’t feel like myself anymore, can I be someone else? Almost never willing to let a laugh go by without adding an extra layer to the moment, AFTERNOON DELIGHT takes the inherent gimmickry of its story and turns it into something genuine and honest, not going for the easy laughs that you’d expect from a movie that contains the line, “The stripper is in the maid’s room?” while also resisting the obvious melodrama that could occur. When Jill Soloway appeared at a Cinefamily screening of AFTERNOON DELIGHT this past January as part of their Underseen & Overlooked of 2013 series during the Q&A afterwards she talked about how the likes of John Cassavetes and Hal Ashby had been influences on her in making the film. Other directors including Paul Mazursky come to mind as well which might just be me pigeonholing the film as a Silverlake-set DOWN AND OUT IN BEVERLY HILLS with a sex worker (even Josh Radnor’s app invention is like a modern day equivalent to Richard Dreyfuss’ coat hanger business) but regardless such comparisons manage to make AFTERNOON DELIGHT even better, revealing just how much it fits into its own world combing its influences with the unique style of its writer-director and a tone that fascinates me even more.
It takes what would be just the expected laughs that turn up throughout and goes deeper, aware that these characters feel certain things that they don’t know how to put into words, they all have fucked up feelings that they don’t know how to express. AFTERNOON DELIGHT is compelling and alive while also possessing a tone that allows it to be its own thing with a script that is tight and to the point yet always loose enough to explore the characters, to remember that more than anything it’s about those characters. It respects all of them, even the ones who seem like mere caricatures at first, and yet knows that it can only probe so deeply to find out the real secrets, learn what isn’t being said. The interactions never feel easy and the film is much more interested in exploring the faces seen in the Cassavetes-like giant close-ups of her actors than in turning it all into one giant farce, particularly during the extended women & wine sequence where Rachel completely breaks down in front of her so-called friends. An up close connection to McKenna’s world also turns out to be a step too far for Rachel, not as cool for her or as potentially hilarious for us either leading to the undeniable discomfort that can be felt when things go wrong. You can never be certain how much you’re going to get to know some people. Sometimes you realize you didn’t know them at all.
It’s a film about connections natural or forced, in general or at this specific point in time and fittingly the first word we hear is an automated voice stating “connection”--the film being very much set in a world of Twitter and apps and blogs (“Name one good thing that’s come from blogging,” Jeff the app inventor dismissively states) that isn’t secondary to its main concerns as much as a believable acknowledgment that it’s how we’re living right now, particularly in the way Rachel describes her present day existence as being “online” and nothing more. The dialogue throughout is razor sharp and as much as it does feel like a film made by a writer willing to allow a certain amount of improv from the actors Soloway continually displays not only a director’s eye but also a soul that causes her to care for all of her characters. She makes use of the space in the architectural beauty they live in, placing the characters opposite each other in the frame but also with an eye for the little details sprinkled throughout, the quick shot of flies on lox as a brunch party dies down, the look on Hahn’s face as she lies in bed post coital while Radnor collects some change from the side table. That particular shot is a sly, subtle illustration of how much it feels very much about the female point of view while still being very aware of the men around them shrinking into beta maledom—in this film it’s the guys who hug when greeting each other, not the women. Even the deleted scenes on the DVD reveal bits that would have brought out such details if they had remained—one particular shot might have been my favorite moment in the entire film if it had stayed in.
Maybe this particular subgenre, if there even is one, could be termed Silverlake mumblecore along with some SIX FEET UNDER that’s certainly in its DNA and the details feel right, whether the presumably ad-libbed dialogue talking about my favorite local taco place or even the radio in Rachel’s car that’s tuned to KCRW because, well, of course it is (speaking of which, the soundtrack is very KCRW-friendly in all the best ways). Even if I’m not in a place in life to relate to all of it the characters and their world feel continually real, they feel like people, fucked up as they might be which makes something like the reality disconnect in Judd Apatow’s THIS IS 40 all the more plain. That film has an angry encounter with fellow parents as well only in that case the ultimate goal is basically wacky improv whereas in AFTERNOON DELIGHT it strips away the stereotypes to the point where we can’t judge them so simply anymore. The well-off lives of Rachel and Jeff crossed with her own uncertain sexual obsession brings Blake Edwards’ “10” to mind as well—ultimately McKenna is about as much of a blank for Rachel as Bo Derek is for Dudley Moore and in both cases the hoped for connection turns out to be something very different. AFTERNOON DELIGHT could have been played as straight comedy (it certainly still qualifies for the term) and nothing more but it digs deeper, exploring what’s really going on under the skin of the characterizations. Even Jane Lynch as Rachel's therapist, which almost seems like the sort of role you can fill in yourself, plays as much more earnest and genuine in addition to her ultra-sharp comic timing (plus the way Jane Lynch says ‘quinoa’), than you would expect. The film doesn’t answer certain questions and stays in my brain longer as a result. The final shot feels like the most perfectly natural place to leave it on, a feeling that the lead character has genuinely earned, showing us who the movie is about, what it took to get to this place and how much the feeling really matters.
Kathryn Hahn (who, if I’m going to be honest, has ranked third or fourth on my list of pretend girlfriends for some time) has already proved herself to be that sort of actor who can effortlessly go between comedy and drama and here she’s phenomenally brave down to the little physical touches, bringing every palpable ounce of Rachel’s own daily awkwardness to life. Juno Temple balances between showing us just enough of McKenna to flesh her out and yet still keeping her an enigma, playing moments in ways that seem specifically designed to throw the other actors off balance while keeping the character totally unapologetic and refusing to allow the film to judge her. Temple is absent from the chummy DVD audio commentary between Soloway and Hahn which feels weirdly appropriate as if it keeps the actress an enigma as well. Josh Radnor plays the distracted puzzlement around the whole situation just right, giving him the chance to show more range than he was ever able to do on HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER and when he finally lays in on Rachel about whatever she’s done he does a great job. It’s a terrific cast all around—Michaela Watkins has been a secret weapon in various films and TV shows lately and here she continually adds layers to what at first seems like simple comic relief while Jessica St. Clair has a completely effortless style as Rachel’s best friend. John Kapelos, familiar from many credits including THE BREAKFAST CLUB is one of McKenna’s clients, balancing the tightrope between sleaze and just a guy who’s perfectly happy to pay for her. Correctly, the movie doesn’t judge him either.
Near the end of the DVD audio commentary Soloway and Hahn talk about the film playing at the Los Feliz 3 which was actually where I saw it. Just another reminder that it’s a world I partly recognize and that I hope there are more films to come from the director in this oddly personal Cassavetes-Mazursky-Edwards vein. And it hasn’t escaped my attention that this is a film featuring strong female characters written and directed by a woman—that fact should be more incidental than it is in 2014 but unfortunately I suppose it still isn’t. If someone is going to create roles this good for someone like Kathryn Hahn not to mention other underutilized actresses out there like Illeana Douglas and Lisa Edelstein it might as well be her. Right now she’s producing a series for Amazon that she created entitled TRANSPARENT and the way things are now in getting films made I can’t say I blame her but, regardless, Soloway is a voice that I hope we get more films from. I hope some of them are set in Silverlake too. At its best AFTERNOON DELIGHT is clever and funny but also intense, satisfying and somewhat cathartic. Just like that long ago day in Griffith Park. And this time around, I know that I’ll remember it.