Thursday, July 31, 2014

How Infinite In Faculty

The night before my birthday in June this year I revisited Jonathan Demme’s STOP MAKING SENSE at the New Beverly. It seemed to make sense for the occasion and this was one of those cases where even though that Talking Heads album had long since been seared into my brain I hadn’t seen the actual film in years. Even though the performance of “Once in a Lifetime” was in heavy rotation on MTV back in the day I think revisiting the number again in context after all this time was almost emotionally overwhelming for me. It is kind of a perfect birthday song, after all, much like how I once decided that Boorman’s POINT BLANK was a perfect birthday film. After all, how did I get here? How old am I now, again? The next morning I drove up to Griffith Park Observatory and looked out at the city, silently thinking about these things, the lyrics continuing to echo through my brain. I dug out an old cassette of the soundtrack and kept listening to the song, wondering about myself just as I imagine anyone in the world wonders about themselves while it plays. It’s still with me now. Maybe more than usual, maybe just as much, as I try to figure out where I’m going. And maybe more than ever it all seems murky, every day another reminder that I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. Some may have forgotten but “Once in a Lifetime”—and, specifically, the STOP MAKING SENSE performance of it—is heard over the opening and closing credits of Paul Mazursky’s DOWN AND OUT IN BEVERLY HILLS, one of the biggest successes to ever come from the director who passed away at the age of 84 on June 30.
I’d heard rumors for some time that Mazursky wasn’t doing well but he fortunately had been able to witness a small sliver of tribute in the months before at a tribute when Cinefamily programmed a few of his films over several nights including an evening where he took part in an onstage discussion with screenwriter Larry Karaszewski, followed by a showing of his 1971 film ALEX IN WONDERLAND. They covered the bases of his career from The Monkees to Fellini to Kubrick to the films he directed and while he was obviously somewhat weak he seemed genuinely pleased to be there and it was a thrill to hear his stories. Several weeks later, Illeana Douglas presented a rare 35mm screening of his 1978 smash AN UNMARRIED WOMAN at the theater, finally giving me the chance to see that film—the DVD is out of print and something should really be done about its availability particularly now. That film isn’t as known these days as well as it deserves to be but maybe that’s one of the conundrums of Mazursky’s career, a director who made films that were smash hits in their time but are maybe so locked into the era in which they were made so haven’t stuck around in the consciousness of filmgoers beyond those who take the time to remember. And now, there really aren’t any directors like Paul Mazursky left at all. Same as it ever was.
Released at the end of January 1986, DOWN AND OUT IN BEVERLY HILLS wasn’t the first picture released by the Disney Studios offshoot Touchstone—SPLASH had come out nearly two years earlier—but it was the first under the Eisner-Katzenberg regime. It certainly feels like the first real Touchstone film in how it featured recognizable stars in big splashy vehicles as a cheery voiceover guy excitedly blurted out “Touchstone Pictures Presents!” in the trailer. It also has considerably more depth to it than the formula eventually allowed but DOWN AND OUT IN BEVERLY HILLS was also an R-rated adult comedy where the gross actually went up in its second week of release (as an aside, I saw it opening weekend—the first Saturday afternoon showing at the Yonkers Central Plaza was sold out. When I returned for the next show it had been moved into one of the big theaters, I think kicking the Rob Lowe hockey movie YOUNGBLOOD into the smaller screen) and went on to be the 11th highest grossing film of the year. It was a different time, of course. DOWN AND OUT is very much a Paul Mazursky film of that different time, comical and poignant, deeply personal, extremely funny at times, unavoidably dated and yet there are scenes that wouldn’t really need to be changed at all if someone were to remake it in 2014. Broader than Mazursky’s 70s output and not as essential now as some of them feel, I’m not sure it’s quite as uproarious as it was in ’86. I’m not sure that matters anymore.
Wealthy Beverly Hills clothing hanger manufacturer Dave Whiteman (Richard Dreyfuss) is feeling unsatisfied with his life, unhappy in his marriage to Barbara (Bette Midler), having an affair with his maid Carmen (Elizabeth Pena), daughter Jenny who refuses to eat and teenage son Max (Evan Richards) going through his own sexual confusion. When one day homeless Jerry Baskin (Nick Nolte), having lost his beloved dog, enters the Whiteman’s backyard to drown himself in their pool. After saving his life, Dave tries to help out Jerry but Jerry soon is changing the lives of the family members in ways that they never would have imagined.
Based on Jean Renoir’s BOUDU SAVED FROM DROWNING and the play by RenĂ© Fauchois with a screenplay by Masursky & Leon Capetanos, DOWN AND OUT IN BEVELRY HILLS has a tighter pace than many of the director’s films, getting right to the point and not overstaying its welcome at 103 minutes. Looking at them now it feels like the Paul Mazursky cinematic view of the world made the most sense in the context of the 70s, in the BLUME IN LOVE and AN UNMARRIED WOMAN period, a decade which he portrays the journey of in his Truffaut homage WILLIE AND PHIL. Coming six years after the release of that film, the more blatantly comical DOWN AND OUT IN BEVERLY HILLS is just as much about its own moment, coming within the ever-growing rot of the Reagan era and the harsh sunlight caking down onto the cement. Maybe it’s because of the weather in L.A. lately but I look at the shots of the Whiteman’s house and surrounding neighborhood and it always seems so hot and garish, no shade to bring a moment of peace to anything. Even though the film is set during the holiday season it never feels that way in the slightest (the inherent Jewishness of the Whiteman family feels intentionally buried as well). Dave Whiteman feels guilt that no one else around him feels, the guilt that no one in the 80s felt—ultimately, the film is about coming to terms with that guilt and doing something with it. He’s another Mazursky protagonist who, as successful as he is, doesn’t understand how he actually got to this place, as certain song lyrics declare, and isn’t sure what to do about it now that he is.
The director clearly looks at Beverly Hills as a place everyone wants to be and when they get there everyone suddenly becomes the same, all with the same gleaming white Rolls Royce, with each person forced to find themselves once again just as Barbara seems to surround herself with mirrors in her bedroom as if to somehow try to remind herself that she’s still a person. In his own films Blake Edwards always gives the impression that he would be perfectly happy to burn that world he lives in and loves down to the ground, letting the homes crash into the canyons below. With Mazursky the self-loathing feels more internal as if he’s trying to knock down the walls that are within himself and come out the other side somehow changed. Achieving his wealth via clothes hangers feels so deliberately absurd that you wonder if to him it makes about as much sense as being a film director.
Even the memories of the director’s past films linger in the air—Dave observes, “It’s like the 60s,” when Jerry takes him down to Venice Beach, that place where HARRY AND TONTO had its final moments, it’s an odd reminder of the past for the director, a place that he hasn’t thought about in a long time. There is screwball at the heart of DOWN AND OUT but for a movie that’s essentially a comedy, an attempt at a light Shakespearean romp, it feels almost surprisingly introspective and curious about its people. From the nitpicky dialogue where characters obsess over enough white meat in their Thanksgiving turkey, Dreyfuss’ aggravation or the growing insanity of the climactic New Years’ Eve party, he laughs don’t interest Mazursky as much as the open therapeutic nature of it, as if the film itself is as thrown by Nolte’s bluntness as the characters are. It’s a film that acknowledges that sometimes people don’t know what the hell to say to each other. The Touchstone formula hadn’t quite been cemented yet so there’s still some ambivalence about it all, particularly concerning him, it’s willing to let itself breathe at times.
What strikes me now is a certain distance I feel from some of it—maybe the 80s broadness gives me bad flashbacks, maybe the fashions do, maybe the more character oriented BLUME IN LOVE sticks with me in the end since it’s that much more about probing into the angst of its lead characters. DOWN AND OUT doesn’t want to go that deep (it does dig deeper than your average studio comedy digs now, to be fair) but it does let the characters deal with each other, making that uncertainty about itself. Plus there’s Mike the Dog playing the family pet Matisse, a joke that shouldn’t work as well as it does, one of the best dogs ever in a movie and could very well be as much of a reason for how big a hit the film was as anything (well, that and the sight of Nick Nolte eating dog food). Maybe I shouldn’t like how much Mazursky uses him as such an obvious button but it works and for that matter few directors were ever so lucky with a dog to cut away to. Matisse even has a dog psychiatrist (played by Donald F. Muhich who played essentially the same role for the director several other times), which plays now as an example of how the film as dated since the joke doesn’t seem as zany as it does then.
It’s one of the problems of the movie now--the sexual confusion of the son isn’t as riotous as it might have seemed then and even if Jerry’s immediate acceptance of him plays as somewhat sweet it does plant the film into the time. But there’s still cockeyed affection for all the people in it and as silly as he might portray some of them you can tell that deep down he likes all of them. Mazursky doesn’t claim to have all the answers (his films are often about people who come to the realization that they don’t have all the answers) which seems brave now when most films seem to want to have a character espouse whatever the theme is. He knew that no one has the answers. We still don’t—revisiting this film in 2014 is an uncomfortable reminder that there seem to be more homeless in my own neighborhood these days than in past years. In the film’s final moments there’s a look on Nolte’s face that displays a certain ambivalence about the decision he’s making, even if he knows that it’s the right one, a moment that I don’t think would have been found in certain Touchstone films later on and almost by itself causes the film to stick more than it might have. It may be one of Paul Mazursky’s minor films but, as broad and commercial as it is, it’s as essential as any of them.
This was actually the first film in several years for both Bette Midler and Richard Dreyfuss so it served as something of a comeback for each of them and they mesh with the style perfectly, both with expert timing and a willingness to dig into these characters, making their interplay achieve a music within the familiarity the characters feel with each other. They’re clearly rendered speechless in some ways by Nick Nolte’s character and that lends an unpredictability to it all since everything he does is totally unexpected, not even aware that he’s in a comedy. He doesn’t reveal anything to us except for that one look at the end so even then Jerry feels like a mystery to us, let alone everyone else and Nolte wisely keeps that enigma going. Little Richard drifts in and out of the film commenting on the action as next door neighbor Orvis Goodnight while Mazursky, who turned up in all his films as well as many others, plays the Whiteman’s accountant.
It had been a long time since I’d seen this film but was able to find a DVD at the Barnes & Noble in the Grove, right near the area of the Farmers’ Market where he famously presided over many breakfasts with friends for years. That seemed fitting--someone I know said that there should be a plaque commemorating him around there and there should, preferably somewhere over near Bob’s Coffee & Doughnuts. DOWN AND OUT IN BEVERLY HILLS was one of Mazursky’s biggest hits and perhaps his last although ENEMIES, A LOVE STORY garnered a good deal of acclaim when it was released several years later. For the record, I also worked a lowly crew position on SCENES FROM A MALL when it shot in Connecticut but I’ve tried to put that out of mind (I don’t blame him). And now, all these years later, I’m still wondering how I got here. Through his long career Paul Mazursky’s films didn’t always connect, with either myself or the rest of the world, but his intensive exploration of personal was at times brave and it was nice knowing that he was there, somewhere in the city of Los Angeles, presumably having breakfast at the Farmer’s Market. In May I tweeted a photo of the wreckage of Hollywood Boulevard as portrayed in the recreation of Saigon in ALEX IN WONDERLAND. Mazursky himself retweeted the photo, adding simply “i was there”. And he was. Maybe, in the end, it doesn’t matter how you got there and whether you belong, something that Dave Whiteman in DOWN AND OUT IN BEVERLY HILLS seems to spend too much time obsessing over. Maybe all that really matters is that you were there, somewhere that mattered to you, and that you spent the time you had doing something. Because, no matter what, there will only ever be a limited amount of time to do it. Same as it ever was.