Friday, September 12, 2014

The Ephemeral Is Eternal

“This is an age of movies for children, but it will pass.” Paul Mazursky said that in a 1984 People Magazine profile of John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands. Putting aside how the idea of that magazine doing an article on those two now seems like it comes from an alternate dimension, Mazursky’s statement sounds like something looking hopefully towards a future that never actually came to pass. After a long, loud summer at the movies it only seems more so. Also out of place back in 1984, not to mention right now, was James Bridges’ MIKE’S MURDER starring Debra Winger which barely even got released at the time. Opening in 80 theaters in March of that year on the same day as Tom Hanks’ starring debut SPLASH, MIKE’S MURDER quickly disappeared in spite of it being Bridges’ followup to the hit URBAN COWBOY where he and Winger had first worked together. By this point Winger was even hotter after AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN and TERMS OF ENDEARMENT but if MIKE’S MURDER is remembered at all now it’s often more for what happened to it than the actual film—after a test screening that the director himself once called “disastrous” the film underwent massive reediting essentially reworking the sequence of the film, straightening out what was originally intended to be a non-linear structure. Scenes were cut, others were reshot and John Barry was brought in to replace the original music score by Joe Jackson. None of the extensive changes did much good in terms of the response when the film eventually was released over a year later--Vincent Canby in the New York Times was mostly dismissive and even now Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide calls it “one of the worst films by a filmmaker of Bridges’ stature” adding that the only reason the film didn’t receive a BOMB rating is because “several critics thought highly of it”. Over two years after it opened a New York Times TV listing of an airing advised readers to ‘skip it’ leading Pauline Kael to write on the film for the first time, imploring anyone to “please don’t skip it” and essentially giving it a rave, calling it Bridges’ “most original and daring effort”.
The film never really expanded to a wide release and maybe Warner Brothers was more than happy to let it just fade away into one of those clamshell cases their VHS tapes used to come in but often that’s what happens to movies out of time. This was certainly one of them, a 70s neo-noir character study turning up well into the following decade when people wanted, well, SPLASH. Now, 30 years later, the film still has some (if not many) people who think “highly of it”, occasionally turning up in message boards to ask if the Warner Archive which has made the release version available might put out the original cut one day. Even if what we have now isn’t what it was originally meant to be MIKE’S MURDER remains an original; sad and piercing, an L.A.-set mood piece that could be paired with something like NIGHT MOVES but also at its heart a true character piece that’s not about solving a mystery but about the lack of connection you ever really have with people you meet in this town. It’s a flawed film, a sad film as well as a fascinating one as well that in addition to featuring one of the very best Debra Winger performances gets at yearning and loneliness in Los Angeles in a way that few films have ever attempted, let alone express any interest in. It nails how empty the town can seem late at night when you know the phone isn’t going to ring. Whatever its problems and whatever went on in the cutting room it’s a film with a soul deep down than you can’t quite shake.
Brentwood bank teller Betty Parrish (Debra Winger) has had a longtime on-again, off-again (but mostly off-again) fling with Mike Chuhutsky (Mark Keyloun), a tennis instructor and small-time drug dealer who drifts in and out of her life. Shortly after he drifts into it once again, Betty receives a phone call telling her that Mike has been murdered, something going wrong on one of his drug deals. As Betty tries to piece together who Mike was and what he may have been into she learns surprising details about his life without realizing that what he was doing may have placed her in jeopardy as well.
Even though it runs under a minute and a half, the MIKE’S MURDER theatrical trailer contains a number of shots not seen in the finished film, almost as if it’s advertising a different version entirely—even seen out of context a few shots seems more stylized than anything in the final film, making me wonder if this is a clue towards how the original version may have played and it could be argued that the trailer fills in some exposition that the movie itself never quite gets around to. Even if MIKE’S MURDER (also written by Bridges) can’t be called of the great Los Angeles movies—in this form it’s possibly too disjointed to achieve that label—it allows for a look at the city that few other films provide finding the balance between those houses up in the hills that we wish we lived in and those places we probably shouldn’t be finding ourselves late at night where certain drug deals or who knows what are going on. The film’s portrayal of gays, particularly Paul Winfield's record producer, feels both sympathetic and matter-of-fact as well as if being presented by somebody from the inside who fully understands it.
All through the film Bridges pays attention to these people, to their glances, their silences, their surroundings—the few moments of watching the massive chili burgers being made at a Tomy’s (not Tommy’s, the name of the ones I’ve been to—looking up the name, this may be Culver City) early on almost feels like a short film in itself, a reminder that I used to eat those burgers years ago but don’t think I could do it now without fear of a heart attack. Even a brief scene in a sushi place is a reminder of how early 80s LA just the idea of eating sushi was. The Brentwood setting is certainly an echo of when I worked in that part of town (yes, I’ve written about that recently but sometimes in my head I just get drawn back there). MIKE’S MURDER is around a decade before I turned up but it still seems like much longer. Mike’s apartment is at 1020 Granville Ave. (just a short drive over from Bundy, incidentally), Betty mentions jogging up Barrington and it makes me wonder what was really going on with certain people I encountered, people I never knew as well as maybe I wanted to. Even the connections I don’t have intrigue me as a result like the extensive location shooting down in Venice, a place I’ve never spent that much time in and haven’t even known someone who lived there since the mid-90s. A drive down Sunset occurs around the same places where the car chase in AGAINST ALL ODDS, released just one week earlier back in ’84, took place and that’s a slick, enjoyable film (one I should write about, but another time) but the L.A. of MIKE’S MURDER feels like a city that I recognize even now, one that is lonely, sometimes a little too overcast in the middle of the hot days and some nights that go on longer than you’d like.
Along with that examination of the city it’s a character study, probing into the close-ups of Debra Winger’s Betty Parrish as she tries to find out about Mike, not just his murder. She doesn’t really know anything about him. She doesn’t even know why he talked about her to people. He doesn’t seem good enough for her, like he’s trying too hard in his little jokes, but he does represent something that she can’t explain, maybe because it helps her feel like something more than a humdrum bank teller waiting to hear about a promotion that probably isn’t any big deal. As it is, she’s barely present when talking to friends and most of her connection to the world seems to be from her answering machine, even as people try to look at her through their own prism whether windows, video cameras or the photos Mike’s friend Sam incessantly snaps of her without even asking first. Betty, who can’t even feign interest in what her artist friend is pretentiously yammering about over sushi for more than a few seconds, and her teacher friend Patty who doesn’t do anything crazier than order extra onions have no place in this scene. Nobody wants to discover that they’re one of the Rosencrantz/Guildensterns of the world but that’s what the characters of MIKE’S MURDER seem to be quietly--or in some cases not so quietly--dealing with and that’s what L.A. sometimes turns you into. And part of that feeling is learning how little you even knew about how you fit in to certain lives like what Betty finds out about Mike. It almost makes sense how it never feels entirely explained just how much she really knew him. “You still living in the same place?” Mike asks Betty after not seeing her for months. “Same place,” is her reply and it feels like an exchange from my life. Maybe it’s the structural reorganization that makes things feel a little unclear as if whatever happened between Betty and Mike outside of the tennis court feels like somewhere between a one-night stand and something else—-dialogue seems to reference a trip out to Catalina although that’s all we ever hear of it--but how much is never entirely clear and some shots only seen in the trailer certainly indicate more.
Some of the seams from whatever happened in the editing room show at times, like a scene that introduces Paul Winfield which not only seems to play much of its dialogue offscreen as if looping in new stuff after the fact it probably could have been easily lost anyway. The film’s second hour after Betty learns of the murder apparently all takes place during one day and for reasons I can’t quite pin down I wonder if this would have flown better in a flashback structure —that the titular murder was also graphically seen in some form (including being glimpsed in that trailer) is certainly an indication that it once played like a considerably different movie. Since the main character is where much of the interest lies when the focus moves away from her to scenes involving Mike’s friend Pete played by Darrell Larson the interest doesn’t hold, as if the movie is trying to convince us that there’s more plot than there really is. Music by Joe Jackson was dropped—although the album billed as the film’s “soundtrack” came out anyway and listening to just one track makes me imagine how different the film would have been with it—in favor of a new score composed by John Barry but while it’s well done is almost too familiar, too BODY HEAT while still getting at something within these people and the feelings they just can’t shake. It’s the moments that linger, the loneliness in the air, even the detour into the party made up of early 80s performance art, another place where Betty is observed through the prism of video cameras—it’s one of those early 80s films where you can tell the decade hasn’t fully decided what it wants to be yet, just like Betty hasn’t decided who she is—that you remember. This is the 80s in L.A., the film seems to be saying—drugs (“the only thing that matters,” Mike’s friend Pete cries) and videotape.
In this context, the stripped-down climax as Betty’s home is invaded by one last strand of her connection to Mike is queasily effective, selling us the isolation of Betty’s tiny house and keeping to her point of view, as Darrell Larson’s Pete screams “You’re like all the rest!” when she’s about to betray him. “No,” she as if to simultaneously mollify him and deny the real truth to herself, that her relationship with Mike could never really turn her life into anything more special than it is. There’s a bluntness to the way Bridges plays the suspense, he knows exactly how to stage the moment and not suddenly turn the film into something else. “Where’re you going, Mike?” she asks early on as she drives him, her voice indicating she wants to know more than whatever his destination might be. And she never really gets the answer. It’s not about solving Mike’s Murder. Betty’s even told she doesn’t want to know anyway. It’s about the realization that there can be no solving the mystery of Mike. We don’t get those answers. We rarely do. Some brief connections are just never what we want them to be. Chaz Jenkel’s “Without You” played over the end credits sounds a little incongruous after the ending but it serves as a reminder of when it was heard on the radio earlier as Betty drives Mike up to the house on Doheny. It’s those songs that stay in your brain because of those moments that remain with you because of that other person for reasons you never fully understand. Maybe since things are missing those moments are what MIKE’S MURDER can be in the end which if anything is a lot more than some films have.
Without having to be an appendage to the likes of Travolta or Gere it allows for MIKE’S MURDER to give us a Debra Winger performance that is totally untethered, allowing us to simply observe what makes Betty unique enough that someone like Mike is drawn to her but also what makes her completely ordinary as well and it’s that strength, that defiance, which holds the film together, regardless of what happened in the cutting room. Paul Winfield (reportedly essentially playing himself—the film is partly based on what happened to someone he knew) is searing in his own intensity as well, much of his performance in just one extended scene. “Help yourself, everyone else does,” he says to Betty, a person resigned to being host of the neverending party, shrewd enough to understand his connection with Betty and how they’re both in love with the same person while very much aware that it’s never something they can fully explain to each other. Much of the rest of the cast is made up of unknowns although Brooke Alderson as Betty’s friend was also in URBAN COWBOY and William Ostrander as one of Mike’s friends was Buddy Repperton in CHRISTINE. Mark Keyloun, a Barry Miller-type whose other credits include SUDDEN IMPACT from around this time, plays Mike as the enigma he has to be but is maybe too callous, too immature. We don’t quite see what everyone else does but we know they believe it. In comparison, Robert Crosson as Mike’s quiet photographer friend Sam who has his own feelings for Mike is where we get the true amount of regret and loneliness from. That’s where the sadness lies. Maybe it makes sense that Mike would never pick up on what all these people around him are feeling but it still feels like a void at the center.
It’s an ongoing question—what is better, the quality film that doesn’t have much staying power or the flawed film that even months later we can’t quite shake, wondering about the holes in there. What are movies in the end, really? What do we take from them? When the film came out Bridges was quoted as saying, “I think this is a better picture than it was and I never would have allowed it to be released otherwise” but let’s not forget that he was in the process of publicizing the picture at that time. Betty plays the straightforward chords on her piano—a remnant of the non-straightforward original structure—the one with the C scale out of tune that Mike spoke of, her life out of tune. It’s a movie about being an adult. In some ways, a film about lost innocence, how that innocence is impossible. Whether we’re seeing what the movie was meant to be might be open to question—interestingly, also from Warner around this period was Jonathan Demme’s SWING SHIFT, another film with a female lead which went through a similarly protracted postproduction process leading to people through the year’s wondering what might have been. The final moment of the only MIKE’S MURDER we’ve ever seen feels a little like a reshoot, whether it was or not, to give us some semblance of hope in a story that really can’t have any. In some ways that final moment feels like an acceptance of loneliness. Sometimes you have to do that in L.A. Like the song over the end credits, certain people stay with you in moments like that whether you want them to or not. There’s not as much hope found there as there usually is in an age of movies made for children but how important that is in the end is maybe up to you.


Beveridge D. Spenser said...

I remember going to see this shortly after it came out at a Cambridge art house. It seemed like a very "art house" type of movie, for some reason. I remember it as a drug-deal gone bad kind of thriller, just barely bookended by the Debra Winger stuff. I wonder what I would have thought of the nonlinear version.

Joe said...

So glad I discovered this piece after reading another one of your wonderful reviews. I like this movie a lot and love the way you zeroed in on its unique portrait of loneliness.
When Warner Bros. gave the movie its abortive ‘test’ release one of the theaters was a multiplex in Connecticut - rather than an art house - so it was clear the movie was being dumped. I had written a favorable review & a publicist for the theater chain set up a phoner with Debra Winger. Her passion for the film and Bridges was obvious but she also made it clear she knew the movie was doomed. I thought at the time it was apropos that we only connected on the phone since that was one of the themes of the film.
A year later I was invited to the big New York City press junket for Bridges next film ‘Perfect’ - a different sort of disaster - and it pleased me that I was able to tell Bridges and his producer partner Jack Larson how much I liked ‘Mike’s Murder.’

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Joe, your comment makes me want to watch this again since it's been a few years. Thanks so much for reading! Fascinating to hear this about the phone interview. Amazingly, to this day I have never seen PERFECT. Maybe I should finally take care of that one, even if I know what I'm getting into.