Monday, May 11, 2015

Ideal But For The Writing

If I could I would just sit here and write. Write a script, then another script, then several ridiculously long blog posts, I’d go back and forth doing all that without a care in the world. If only I didn’t have all that other stuff on my mind. I watch a film about a writer it makes me want to write more. It makes me want to be a writer more. And when I say ‘writer’ I don’t mean I want to go to bars and get into fights, although that sounds pretty cool. I mean the dream of a life where I can be in the most relaxing environment possible and do nothing but write, to let whatever’s in my head explode out on to the page (or the computer screen, but you get the idea) and just keep doing that. The times that I can’t write, when I feel absolutely strangled by whatever’s consuming my brain, where nothing comes to me no matter how hard I try to pound it out of me, can be the worst. But those times pass, or at least I hope they always will. I’ve even still got my old typewriter around here on the off chance I ever need it. Somewhere at the bottom of a drawer I even have some extra ribbon that I picked up once, you know, just in case. I don’t expect that to happen any time soon since it’s of course more practical to do it this way on the laptop but maybe that dream is just part of being a writer, the dream of feeling that much more like one.
Whether it’s the lingering shots of typewriters in Cronenberg’s NAKED LUNCH or Jack Nicholson working on his ‘new writing project’ in THE SHINING I’ll take any film about a writer which is probably why I’ve returned to Mike Hodges’ PULP on occasion through the years. I do this even if it has a lead character who states at the start that he doesn’t go for the romance of those typewriters, instead dictating his hackwork out loud so someone else can type it for him. I also do it even though the very odd PULP, released in 1972, is a movie that I still can’t entirely wrap my brain around. A followup for Hodges and star Michael Caine to their previous collaboration, the all-holy GET CARTER, it’s about as far away in tone from that film as you can imagine which could very well have been part of the idea but the 95 minutes of PULP are almost too disarming, the film slips away from cohesion just a little too quickly. But even if it doesn’t entirely connect the oddball tone is genuinely unique and there’s something about the film that makes me want to poke further into whatever the hell it is. Deemed a ‘minor masterpiece’ by Time Magazine (I don’t think I can go that far) the film has enough of an off-kilter slant that gets me to want to keep giving it a try and I haven’t yet ruled out that in five or six more viewings it might totally click for me. I guess that’s the foolish optimism of a writer, the sort that makes you think for a few minutes that what you’re working on might actually be good.
Mickey King (Michael Caine), having long since abandoned his wife and kids back in England, is living the life of a writer “somewhere in the Mediterranean”, churning out pulp novels under various pen names without a care in the world. One day after finishing his latest tome, “The Organ Grinder”, he is approached by a mysterious gentleman named Ben Dinuccio (Lionel Stander) with an offer to ghostwrite the memoirs of an unnamed famous person. Not knowing anything more than this, King is sent on a trip where he will be contacted with further instructions. After the first person who King suspects of being that contact turns up dead under mysterious circumstances, King is finally approached by the beautiful Liz (Nadia Cassini) who reveals that King’s assignment will be to write the memoirs of retired movie star Preston Gilbert (Mickey Rooney). The actor is famous for playing gangsters but be had actual mob ties as well, including certain people who may be concerned about just what Gilbert, and King as well, plans to put into the book.
Each time I see PULP I feel a rush during the first few minutes set in a typing pool as various women react to Mickey King’s overbaked prose, the way the the pounding of the keys going in and out of the soundtrack displaying such filmic confidence that it grabs the attention immediately. It always makes me think that the whole thing is going to click this time around, the way a film about a writer should, but what follows seems to go against such expectations almost immediately. “She was wearing nothing underneath,” is the very first thing we hear in PULP, one of those lines in Mickey King’s book getting dictated by him, but what we soon learn is in the world of PULP no one has anything genuine underneath, including its lead character. Mickey King has created this identity of various nom-de-plumes as he lives his life after leaving his family and previous career, working as a funeral director, long behind only to now find himself right back in pretty much the same game as the bodies begin to fall around him. His dream isn’t to write well as much as to write pulp as fast as possible anyway, at least as fast as world record holder Earl Stanley Gardner, no interest in the romanticism of working on a typewriter and whether this means he’s an actual writer at all feels open to question. He knows the plots but he doesn’t have the ability to probe any deeper than that and figure out what’s really going on in the mystery he’s investigating. Maybe a code that’s a little too tough for me to crack, PULP is an extremely odd heffalump of a movie with sly asides and unexplained occurrences in almost every scene scattered throughout a plot that almost seems deliberately obscure in its story points that aren’t always audible in dialogue (even the New York Times review mentions an issue with the soundtrack). What’s being said often gets drowned out by a Michael Caine voiceover narration intending to explain it all better but of course it never really does, resulting in my spacing out for a few minutes and suddenly wondering what exposition I’ve missed, followed by my attention being grabbed by yet another digression.
Very slight and almost more of a short story than a full narrative, it’s a film about a writer who wants nothing more to dash off stories that move fast and get to the point stuck in a narrative that meanders, wanders around, introduces characters who never quite pay off and doesn’t arrive at a conclusion so much as a dead end. With the likes of Rooney, Stander and Lizabeth Scott around it’s like we’re viewing the ghosts of pulp past, or at least of Hollywood past. Everything feels offhand—a few comical car crashes early on feel like they could have been assembled with more Blake Edwards-finesse but the film is so loose that it makes sense they don’t have such precision. Even a time jump about midway through that makes it feel like the film has just jumped over a portion of the plot but there’s not that much of a plot anyway, with whole sections seeming to go by without very much of importance happening at all. It almost seems designed to frustrate any fan of GET CARTER, looking for more of that cool style and nastiness. Caine is cool, of course, drifting through every scene as he sizes up whoever he’s up against. He always wears the same white corduroy suit, thinking he’s one step ahead of everyone when it’s actually the opposite, unaware of whatever’s going on, just assuming that he’s floating above everyone with his own brand of aloofness, wondering when the plot is going to kick in. And it really doesn’t, not when the first dead body turns up and not when a key death takes place about an hour in—finally it seems like the story is moving into high gear but it doesn’t really happen even then. Maybe in a film that features a police lineup of priests during the hunt for a killer that’s the wrong thing to look for anyway. After multiple viewings I’m still a little hazy on a few points but it’s in the asides that PULP offers pleasure, sometimes quite a bit of it, if you’re into that sort of thing.
It’s a film that is maybe best viewed during the day while you’re already on your third vodka & tonic, waiting for 5:00 so the real drinking can begin. Complimenting that vibe, Hodges’ direction always seems to be looking for the most off-kilter way to film a scene giving more import to what’s in the background than the plot points, stopping for a few minutes so we can intercut between the vain Rooney primping while getting ready and the bored Caine waiting for him. The visual style somehow seems extremely offhand while calculated all at once, seeming to revel in shooting dinner table scenes as the actors peer at each other with their own agendas and spout off the acidic dialogue from his script. Even the narration (which, for the record, includes a few homophobic asides about a possible bad guy he encounters) that often goes against what we see reveals that Mickey King may be a hack a few steps behind everyone but he has a certain way with the words on occasion. “I flipped on the light and showed her the door. I had my pride,” as he does the exact opposite when finding a beautiful woman in his bed, as I imagine any writer would actually do. The filming in Malta helps to give the production a distinct vacation vibe as if Hodges and Caine decided to take a few weekends in an exotic locale to make a quickie before moving on to their next big project, giving the whole thing a genuinely offhand flavor but stays maybe a little too much at a remove, with characters that never seem to serve much purpose beyond being mysteriously ornamental and the shadowy figures pulling the strings of the plot never becoming characters at all. Maybe that’s part of the point too—the writer in question never seems to get that he barely ranks as a character in the story from their point of view.
Maybe the plot loses me a little too often but certain moments keep me going all the way to the end, individual shots grab attention on their own, even certain extras who don’t do more than pass by the frame feel like they deserve praise. Much of the shell game of the first half doesn’t really lead anywhere but then again much of the shell game of the second half doesn’t lead anywhere either aside from the end credits. Even the tone is a little too inconsistent ranging from amusingly sly to maybe a little too comically broad but there’s a conviction to all that casualness that makes it feel like a genuine world view. The washed out look of the cinematography, even on the DVD, seems appropriate. It’s not really a spoof but it’s…well, at least PULP is its own thing. In some ways it’s the deliberate opposite of GET CARTER while also serving as a response to that film—both films are extremely dry in their approach too all that violence only PULP doesn’t see much reason to get upset about any of it. GET CARTER is about the title character played by Caine returning home and the nastiness that results from that. PULP is about its lead character staying as far away from where he’s come from as possible which leads to a more pleasant sort of oblivion, but it’s an oblivion nevertheless.
Many of the characters in PULP seem happy to be trapped in this purgatory while others desperately wander through it, wondering what happened to their lives while George Martin’s lite AM score plays on without a care in the world. As King realizes, sometimes in life when you’re looking for a story all you wind up with is just enough to get you lost in the fog. Caine punches a face on a poster at the start which proves to be a nice bit of foreshadowing but makes just about as much of a difference that he could even make to the real thing. The film could make for an appropriate double bill with John Frankenheimer’s similarly screwy 99 AND 44/100% DEAD starring Richard Harris, a film also from the early 70s with a tone that doesn’t quite come together and with lead actors that look exactly alike. Either way, PULP causes a question mark to form over my head while at the same time I appreciate its gallows humor and its belief that just because you think you know all the plots doesn’t mean you know how they’re going to turn out. The life of being a writer, I suppose.
Just like GET CARTER, the climax of PULP features a showdown on a desolate stretch of beach—the end of the world, nowhere else to go, the perfect place to keep the most horrible secrets of the past buried. The film is set in a kind of paradise disguised as purgatory where there’s no way to have any effect over the bigwigs pulling the strings. Like INHERENT VICE, the shadowy villains barely seem to care since they know they’re going to get away with it. Like Roman Polanski’s own film about a ghost writer the plot was set in motion before the lead character ever got involved. “Cheers,” the final image seems to be saying as the figure behind it all (apparently a comment on a prominent Italian figure at the time; to me, he looks like Charlie Bluhdorn) raises his glass at the end, having just lured an animal to his doom. “We don’t have to give a fuck about you.” All part of the life of pulp.
The name Mickey King almost promises that it’s going to be a quintessential Michael Caine role which doesn’t quite happen as he continually gets the rug pulled out from under him but he goes along with the gag totally. And he does look pretty damn cool in that suit, it has to be said. Mickey Rooney is so dynamic as the ultra-crass movie star in the George Raft vein that it’s a shame he isn’t around for longer. He knows who this son of a bitch is and plays him just right with enough secrets simmering under the surface that he makes us want to hear them in that book. Lionel Stander is enjoyable as always as Dinuccio while Lizabeth Scott as Princess Betty Cippola in her final film basically glides through every one of her scenes without a care in the world knowing that she has at least as many secrets as Preston Gilbert but no one is thinking to ask her. Nadia Cassini as Gilbert’s kept woman Liz makes enough of an impression that I wish she didn’t just fade into the woodwork near the end while the enjoyable familiar characters actors who turn up throughout include Al Letteri (of THE GODFATHER and Peckinpah’s THE GETAWAY) as Miller, Amerigo Tot and Leopoldo Trieste (each from THE GODFATHER PART II) as well as Luciano Pigozzi of Mario Bava’s BLOOD AND BLACK LACE who I imagine was cast for his resemblance to Peter Lorre.
Even if Hodges and Caine made an ideal pairing unfortunately the two have never worked together again after the flop of PULP. Among Caine’s similarly forgotten titles from a few years later is Peter Hyams’ PEEPER, another noir homage which is more of a spoof but also pretty forgettable unlike the unexplained tone of PULP which at least sticks to the ribs. Hodges, in the meantime, is probably best known for directing 1980’s FLASH GORDON but that’s another story entirely. Still, thinking about the disarming nature of PULP does make me curious to revisit the director’s odd, slow I’LL SLEEP WHEN I’M DEAD which reunited him with his CROUPIER star Clive Owen and in a similar vein refused to follow up the earlier film with the same kind of bang. That’s the funny thing with storytelling. Sometimes you can’t help but do the exact opposite of what’s expected of you. Sometimes the best things come out of that. Of course, sometimes you just wind up thinking, “What the hell were they going for here?” Funny thing is, when all is said and done I’ll probably wind up seeing PULP as many times as I’ll see GET CARTER. Where the film ends up makes a certain amount of sense, at least as being a writer goes; after all the unrewarding nonsense you’re left sitting there, ignored, stealing from real life, lifting from what you’ve already written before (maybe Mickey King is a real writer after all), all in a desperate attempt to make yourself seem cooler than you really are. And it’s all kind of muddled anyway. Somebody may politely ask, “Where do you get your ideas from?” but, really, nobody cares. All that’s left to do at that point is just start again, hoping for the best. As always.


L. Rob Hubbard said...

More Hodges of note is his adaptation of Michael Crichton's THE TERMINAL MAN and BLACK RAINBOW... I won't dare bring up MORONS FROM OUTER SPACE, however...

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

And believe it or not, I still haven't seen those. There's always more to see.