Saturday, October 31, 2015

He Was On The Moors

It was a moment of truth. There I was, doing the dishes late one night when suddenly the realization entered my head out of nowhere. “AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON really is better than THE HOWLING.” And that was it. Since I hadn’t even been thinking at all about either film I paused to consider this and accepted the thought as correct. Maybe I felt conflicted about the decision since the game of which werewolf film was the better one was something I had long turned around in my head for the obvious reasons—each released in ’81, each at least as much of a comedy as a horror film and the two of them containing what were at the time somewhat revolutionary werewolf transformation effects. Not to mention that the directors of the two films, John Landis and Joe Dante, are both friends so who knows what sort of joking rivalry has occurred because of this. I feel a little bad because Joe Dante has always been supportive of this blog. My feelings for his films don’t diminish, they never will, but nevertheless in this case I had to accept the truth.
Backpacking through Europe, friends David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) are in a desolate area of Northern England when they receive a chilly reception in the very small town on East Proctor. Leaving fast, they are warned to stay on the road keeping clear of the moors and they soon learn why when they are attacked by a giant wolf. Jack is brutally killed with David only injured by the time the townspeople show up to shoot the presumed wolf and he doesn’t learn what really happened until he wakes up in a London hospital several weeks later. But it’s not the whole story and as he begins a relationship with sympathetic Nurse Alex Price (Jenny Agutter) he soon finds out what really happened when the undead Jack pays him a visit, telling David that he’s bitten by a werewolf and unless he takes his own life he’ll turn into one himself upon the arrival of the next full moon. David of course doesn’t believe this and as his curious doctor (John Woodvine) investigates what really happened in East Procter the arrival of another full moon gets closer.
Part of the surprise of the revelation I had was how AMERICAN WEREWOLF has been, for no particular reason, one of those films that I’ve always liked but just haven’t seen very much over the years. Hey, it happens. I’ve returned to multiple Joe Dante films frequently and maybe I’ve just lumped the Landis in with all his others of the ANIMAL HOUSE school. INTO THE NIGHT may always be my favorite (sentimental reasons and all) but AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, released in August 1981, plays like his best film now, as arch and scary as it should be while still maintaining a genuine feel of unpredictable danger over thirty years after its release. There’s really no point in comparing the two but it’s still interesting--THE HOWLING has jokes all over the place but takes the situation Dee Wallace is going through totally seriously. WEREWOLF, on the other hand, takes the plot seriously as some of the characters do but in addition to the wisecracks coming from the characters offers a fatalistic sense of humor regarding Jack’s situation that sets it apart. It’s absurd, of course, just as absurd it would be if you or I heard that an old college friend had suddenly turned into a werewolf but Jack doesn’t really deserve anything more than that anyway.
AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON was conceived and written by Landis long before he actually made it, probably when he was around the same age as the characters. Since he was just a kid and at that age you have very little idea of, well, anything, (not that I have much more of an idea now) it makes sense that the main characters and a certain portion of the film itself is that way. “Eventually it becomes less comic than callow,” said Janet Maslin in the New York Times but this seems to be part of the point already, that David barely can comprehend what he’s going through—it’s a second puberty for him—and he has no awareness of what’s really going on beyond just enough self-deprecation to rightly think of himself as a schmuck so when his dead friend turns up in a zombified state he naturally just jokes with him. Even when he calls home late in the film and only speaks to his little sister, when he tells her to pass along a message to their parents that he loves them she doesn’t even think he’s being serious. It’s not an intellectual approach, like Mike Nichols would at least attempt with WOLF over a decade later, but David isn’t an intellectual guy.
The film is at a reserve as John Landis films often are, with what could almost be called a pure apathy toward humanity. But the DRAGNET-like aesthetic of many of his other films isn’t as prevalent here, he almost seems that much more insistent about the material maybe because it was his own. You could call it a world view: whether you deserve it or not, shit’s gonna happen, you’re gonna fuck up because of that (“Whatever happens, it’s your/my fault.”) and other people are going to get hurt in the process. As soon as Jack gets attacked David runs away (so much for Save the Cat, but who cares) and it’s not exactly noble but it is human. Soon after both likable characters are introduced at the start one of them is killed off just like that, complete with a look at the body that in a very flat way removes all ambiguity whatsoever which is almost more shocking than the brutality of the attack itself. Since we lose a few weeks in the narrative the character is buried before we ever realize it, not time for Jack to mourn since he’s missed it already. It’s a heavy concept (and, considering we’re talking about John Landis and what happened to him in subsequent years, one that goes considerably beyond the scope of this film) and it makes sense for it to be about a character who is in no way prepared to grasp that.
That ambivalence towards the lead character goes perfectly next to the balance of comedy and horror along with a form of guilt still feels dangerous; those Buñuel-inspired nightmares begin to seem more and more unnerving so even something about the clip of THE MUPPET SHOW in one of them comes off as slightly sinister. The arch jokiness with the use of songs that have “moon” in the title and the recurring Landis joke of using SEE YOU NEXT WEDNESDAY as a film title, here turned into a porno, contrasts nicely with the dry English drawing room humor of the two investigating officers (reminiscent of Donald Pleasence in the underappreciated RAW MEAT which was also partly set in the London Underground). With the only sense of majesty and fate coming from Elmer Bernstein’s brief but effective score there’s no sage wisdom coming from any experts so all anyone knows is what they half remember from old movies that starred either Lon Chaney, Jr. or Oliver Reed, except for course for the secrets being kept by the denizens of the Slaughtered Lamb in East Proctor where there’s no food to be had. Of course, the bravura scenes that you probably remember years after your last viewing are still spectacular; the legendary (and Oscar-winning) Rick Baker transformation which clearly shows just how painful it is, with no one to witness Jack’s plight except for that smiling Mickey Mouse figurine watching, sort of this films version of the Happy Face in THE HOWLING is still a triumph. And the attack scene in the deserted London Underground with some of the showiest camerawork Landis ever used is still genuinely unnerving in how quickly the tension escalates. The balancing act of comedy and horror is of course no big deal anymore but the deadly dark blackout humor (“That’s not Winston”) of Jack’s first night out still feels relentless. The film keeps insistently moving forward, unapologetic for the nastiness maybe because it’s confident there’s not going to be an easy out. There’s really only one way for all this to end.
When Jack makes a brief, aborted attempt to kill himself (right after calling home to a 516 area code; come to think of it, he does seem more Long Island than Westchester) it’s a moment so thrown away you might forget it was even there; as guilty as he may feel he still can barely comprehend the thought. Stanley Kubrick once named AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF one of his favorite films and maybe part of the reason was that in spite of its willful immaturity because it seems to subscribe to his famous quote about the universe being not hostile but ‘indifferent’. And the film is indifferent to what any of the characters are going through, whether David or one of the unlucky extras in Piccadilly Circus near the end, since it has to be. It even offers its own version of Kubrick’s Grady sisters from THE SHINING in two girls who appear out of nowhere to incessantly giggle at David for no apparent reason. But there’s no one around to explain it to him. As always, the world doesn’t care.
By this point no doubt remembered for this film more than being a DR. PEPPER pitchman (not to mention the short-lived SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER-inspired sitcom MAKIN’ IT) David Naughton brings just the right spirit to the part, likable and confused, partly knowing and of course partly baffled all the way to when we last see him in human form. More likable than I can imagine the character was on the page, he turns him into an everyman, just one who happens to be irrevocably fucked. The forever cheerful Griffin Dunne plays off him beautifully and, yes, it’s hard not to wish that we could see the version that has David and Jack touring Italy without tragic incident. As for Jenny Agutter, this film may be only one reason why people of a certain age like me have been in love with her for decades but she always plays it totally grounded. Even if she is a device in terms of how perfect she is, the dream girl who throws herself at the lead, it somehow feels true coming from her. On revisiting the film John Woodvine gives maybe the most underappreciated performance in it, almost for reasons that have nothing to do with the plot; he’s a character who has reached the breaking point of English politeness and it’s as if the mystery of David feels tangible, even if it is ludicrous, and his full commitment brings a genuine sense of gravity to it all. There are too many bit performances to single out—Brian Glover and David Schofield as two Slaughtered Lamb patrons are favorites as well as Frank Oz in his dual role as both the unfeeling consulate representative and, thanks to the MUPPET SHOW stock footage, Miss Piggy. I imagine he may have filmed this during production of THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER and that sounds like a great idea for a double bill to me.
Now, I may be a schmuck myself and there may be a degree of identification that led me to the conclusion I arrived at. But AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON still has that feel of danger mixed in with the humor in every scene, all respect to Joe Dante and THE HOWLING of course. In a way it feels like other John Landis films but maybe it’s the only one that feels like more than that. Maybe one thing I flashed on when I had that thought while doing dishes was the famous ending, as abrupt and jarring (in the best way) as you can imagine. David’s happy ending was Alex trying to help and declaring her love for him which at least was more than Jack ever got, or probably was ever going to get, from the legendary Debbie Klein. Maybe things just tend to reach a point where someone cries for you but that’s the best you’re going to get. You’re fucked and there’s no way out of it. Cue the music. And beware the moon.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

She Is On Her Side

Yes, I watch TCM a lot and, yes, it’s probably on right now behind me but the recent Trailblazing Women series has been knocking it out of the park even more than usual for the channel. Hosted by the great Illeana Douglas with an impressive array of guests the series explores the path women have taken over the past hundred-plus years in the film industry, including success and some that have unfortunately fallen by the wayside and making it very clear that this path of history deserves notice. Just to mention a few titles, Ida Lupino’s OUTRAGE was extremely powerful, getting to revisit Elaine May’s THE HEARTBREAK KID was a revelation and my first ever viewing of Shirley Clarke’s astonishing PORTRAIT OF JASON…well, we’ll have to talk about that another time. One unexpected pleasure came on Independent Classics night and my first viewing of Claudia Weill’s GIRLFRIENDS, a film I had only vaguely heard about in passing and one I found myself surprisingly drawn to within minutes. Picked up by Warner Bros. and released in 1978, it’s a film that takes certain Woody Allen-Paul Mazursky preoccupations of the time and turns them into its own thing while clearly being an influence on some people who have emerged in the years since. Filmed on a low budget in 16mm it has a grimy look which goes perfectly with the grimy 70s New York feel of the time, almost as if we might bump into Jill Clayburgh from AN UNMARRIED WOMAN coming around a corner. But the empathy it shows for all of its characters and its casual way of telling the story makes it unique and affecting.
Aspiring photographer Susan Weinblatt (Melanie Mayron) thinks she’s finally making some headway in her profession when her closest friend and roommate aspiring writer Anne (Anita Skinner) announces that she’s impulsively marrying her boyfriend Martin (Bob Balaban) leaving Susan in their new apartment all by herself. As Susan struggles with finding work and the pressure of being broke her friendship with Anne begins to be more distant as well.
It’s hard not to think of Noah Baumbach’s FRANCES HA in terms of the set up and maybe a little of Nicole Holofcener’s WALKING AND TALKING, incidentally also playing in the series, but GIRLFRIENDS (screenplay by Vicki Polon, story by Claudia Weill & Vicki Polon), grounded in the scuzzy 70s set in the dirty streets of New York is its own thing, always genuine and even during its lighter moments continually grounded in the struggles of its lead character along with her frustrations at feeling alone while just trying to get ahead somehow. It captures the mixed feelings that are sometimes inevitable when something exciting happens to a close friend—marriage, baby, whatever—and you know immediately that nothing is going to be the same again, how even when Anne insists she’s going to keep writing with a baby on the way Susan knows not to buy it. It makes a point of the tension that silently hangs in the air when you don’t have anything left to give a person and you don’t know how to tell them that.
With a gentle score by Michael Small which complements those feelings, the movie catches just the right feel of loneliness when everything is crumbling around you and you don’t want to be around people so you can feel ‘better’—you just want to be left alone (he wrote, alone in his apartment) no matter how hard it is to avoid feeling sorry for yourself. Some of the fashions and details are certainly dated--it occurs to me that we’ve lost a way to depict tension between friendships since we can’t have scenes where people are looking at vacation photos via slide projector anymore--but everything about it is still natural; the feelings ring true, the awkwardness is still genuine in how it presents the wars you fight with your friends and yourself as well. Whether autobiographical or merely full of details that have been closely observed, there’s a quiet sensitivity to it and yet a messiness to the lives that makes it clear these people are trying, like the character who seems set up as Susan’s rival who turns out not to be that at all, even if they’re screwing things up at the same time. It’s clearly a low-budget production so it sometimes looks raggedy and the framings are closed in to the point that the late 70s city life going on around it is always secondary but it really does feel like a peek at a way of living for artists in a certain kind of city that has long since gone away.
“What are you doing?” is the first line spoken after the opening credits to Susan, a character who barely knows what she’s doing, barely ever feels comfortable in her own skin. She’s in her twenties, when everything feels fucking awkward in trying to figure out the people around you (that awkwardness doesn’t go away but the 20s are still their own thing) and it’s definitely not a rose-colored look at being that age. As directed by Weill it continually offers a clear display of narrative economy while always keeping the characters at the forefront and it doesn’t need to be more--yes, it saves money to only see Anne’s wedding through the photos that Susan took but the visual of Susan painting her apartment right after it, painting over what she thought was going to be her life, says so much more. The New York of GIRLFRIENDS is a city where everyone is drifting, even the people who already seem to have it all settled are drifting, trying to fight their loneliness just as Susan is still becoming who she is and worried about who she never became with not much in her fridge other than a couple of Hershey bars.
No one knows any better since miscommunication between people always seems to be happening already, no one can be the all-knowing mentor for her since they’re just as screwed up. Even Eli Wallach’s Rabbi who comes off as a voice of reason at first surprisingly has other things on his mind. The storytelling is casual in terms of how much time obviously passes but it makes sense that it always feels like a cold wintery February considering how unwelcoming so much of the outside world is. The dialogue is filled with sharp, offhand asides along with occasional unexplained details to make the characters that much more vivid; everyone is flawed but layered, including how Christopher Guest’s potential boyfriend is kind of a dick but he’s just charming enough. When he calls Susan out on a few points during an argument he’s not always wrong (one minor detail I like—the phone number he uses to call his mom has a 914 area code, meaning it’s in Westchester where he presumably grew up) and he even knows just the right type of gesture to make in the end. “Maybe I just like him a lot,” Anne says about the man she’s going to marry and as skeptical as Susan is maybe that’s as close as you can ever get.
Tension over one of her photos missing from a show is diffused almost immediately by gallery owner Viveca Lindfors who harshly tells Susan to grow up but she treats her fair—to some people, there’s a limit when it comes to drama, after all so you need to step back and remember what matters. In that way, GIRLFRIENDS feels honest. Not everything gets taken care of but maybe a few steps forward for yourself, knowing that certain people are going to be around for those moments, is a start. And hoping that certain friends will understand. Reportedly Stanley Kubrick was a fan and during an interview promoting THE SHINING called it “one of the very rare American films that I would compare with the serious, intelligent, sensitive writing and filmmaking that you find in the best directors in Europe…It seemed to make no compromise to the inner truth of the story, you know, the theme and everything else.” GIRLFRIENDS is short and slight on the surface but layers of the characters have stayed with me making it more resonant and the film is continually surprising even after several viewings down to the subtle ambiguity of the final shot. Things seem like they’re picking up for Susan at the end, partly because she’s managed to get there by doing it herself, but who knows. She’s still who she is. We’re still who we are.
Melanie Mayron is just fantastic in the lead, bringing the right amount of likable energy and gradual strength, remaining endearing through all of her flaws even while you can feel Susan’s depression poking through at just the wrong times. The cast filled with a few familiar faces and some unknowns who also stand out (Anita Skinner was also in the 1983 thriller SOLE SURVIVOR and apparently nothing else; Gina Rogak who plays the more worldly Julie has no other credits) and director Weill turns it into an engaging ensemble. Eli Wallach is quietly affecting, letting us see just enough loneliness in him without trying to defend his actions. Bob Balaban, presumably still with a CLOSE ENCOUNTERS beard, and Christopher Guest both lend strong support with likable quirks and just enough to let us see how their behavior could get on anyone’s nerves. Amy Wright is also particularly good as a drifter Susan impulsively allows to move in and Kenneth McMillan has an endearing bit as a cab driver.
According to a 1980 profile in People Magazine Claudia Weill grew up in Scarsdale (“solid Jewish upbringing” is the phrase used), just like I did. This fact has nothing to do with anything but I can’t help but think how going from that town to the cold outside world where you have to grow up whether you want to or not is a feeling I can remember and one which is very much felt in this film. After GIRLFRIENDS Weill helmed the 1980 Jill Clayburgh vehicle IT’S MY TURN (never released on DVD so I’ll have to do some hunting; the People article indicates that it was a problematic shoot) and then moved on to directing TV including several episodes of THIRTYSOMETHING, where she was presumably reunited with Mayron. She also directed an episode of GIRLS a few years back and Lena Dunham has spoken at length on her love for this film. After years of unavailability GIRLFRIENDS actually is on DVD and can be ordered from the Warner Archive. The inclusion of the film in the Trailblazing Women series on TCM is deserved, hopefully exposing it to people who also never caught up with it. It also bodes well for what else might be in store when the series will return over the next two Octobers, presumably again hosted by Illeana Douglas who will hopefully be seen even more on TCM in the future. Even her discussions with guests before and after the films have felt longer and more fleshed out then they usually do on the channel, a choice which has helped the series have that much more of an impact. As an example of the Trailblazing Women series GIRLFRIENDS serves as, among other things, a reminder of how there are always films out there that feature distinctive voices which deserve to be discovered again, moving beyond just the sanctioned ‘classics’ whatever those are supposed to be. On its own it shows how hard things can be, whether between friends or just yourself, but every now and then we can spot the small possibility of moving forward. Which would include, hopefully, seeing more films as well.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

One More Day Of Summer

Isolation. It’s something I think about, maybe more than I should. Maybe because it’s a feeling that too often I can’t quite shake as I try to figure out what the hell I’m doing, what the next day is going to be. Sometimes that feeling stays with me deep into the night as I can’t sleep or early in the morning when I also can’t sleep staring at the ceiling, with an idea of where I’m going but a little scared that I’m really going nowhere at all.
Sam Raimi’s FOR LOVE OF THE GAME opened in September of ’99, less than a year after the release of his previous effort, the acclaimed A SIMPLE PLAN. The film has all the markings of an old-school movie star vehicle even though the star in question, Kevin Costner, seemed like he was nearing the end of that run during the period, with the dust of THE POSTMAN from a few years earlier still on him. The fall of ’99 was a memorable time for films—BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, THE LIMEY, FIGHT CLUB, THREE KINGS—but FOR LOVE OF THE GAME is almost insistently square in comparison as if part of the design was to try to emulate what a Douglas Sirk baseball picture starring Rock Hudson in 1958 might have been. It never comes close to being quite that extreme but there still isn’t a cynical bone in the entire film and considering it’s about a character who feels like he’s a relic of the past it maybe makes sense that it seems to belong in another time. It’s kind of forgotten by now, certainly when compared to the other Costner baseball films BULL DURHAM and FIELD OF DREAMS, but there’s an earnest spirit to it and it’s also certainly notable as another example of Sam Raimi testing himself as a director, pushing himself to do something different while he moved further away from horror films into the big leagues.
Veteran Detroit Tigers pitcher Billy Chapel (Kevin Costner) is nearing a crossroads in his life, possibly nearing the end of his career. It’s the end of another disappointing season for the Tigers, the owner Gary Wheeler (Brian Cox) is on the verge of selling the team and his girlfriend Jane Aubrey (Kelly Preston) has decided to take a job in London which will finally put an end to their rocky relationship. As he takes the mound for the last time that season, playing against the Yankees on their home turf, he begins to flashback to all the previous crossroads of his life, including the path his relationship with Jane has taken and how he’s gotten to the mound that day. Only as the game goes on he doesn’t notice right away that not a single Yankee has managed to get on base.
There’s a recurring theme of endings throughout FOR LOVE OF THE GAME (Screenplay by Dana Stevens based on the novel by Michael Shaara), mentions of how summer is coming to a close and you’d better have that fun now while the sun is still up there. Watching the film now makes me think about my own baseball past since if you’d met me when I was a little kid that’s what I probably would have been talking about. I’m not sure when that went away—maybe somewhere around the 1981 strike and then I started paying attention to films instead. Sure, it takes me half a second to say yes when a certain friend with access to really good seats asks if I want to go see the Dodgers but as for actually following what’s happening during the season I’ve long since accepted that my interest has gone away. I wonder what happened to all my issues of Baseball Digest. Every spring I briefly think that maybe I’ll pay more attention that year, then I glance at the sports page maybe once and every September I realize that once again it didn’t happen. FOR LOVE OF THE GAME is about the coming of autumn, about the realization that summer, in whatever form it takes, can’t go on forever and maybe, just maybe, you don’t need to be alone for the remainder of the journey. It’s maybe a little too old-fashioned, a little too stuffy and, at 137 minutes, it definitely takes its time. The baseball scenes in particular are extremely well-shot by Raimi and cinematographer John Bailey but it’s still hard not to think that the script needed another run through the typewriter to smooth over some issues—maybe it’s just old-fashioned enough that ‘typewriter’ is the right word to use.
The film is definitely a star vehicle with the goal of making Costner into as much of a Gary Cooper figure as possible, the one noble man in a cynical world. That’s maybe the smartest way to approach it and Raimi, filming his first movie in widescreen, uses the frame not to emphasize any visual trickery that you’d expect from him like POV shots of a baseball hurtling towards home plate, but to focus on the star’s place in that cynical world, a place that as the film begins he feels extremely left out of. The celebrity that comes from his fame, with autograph hounds sometimes lurking about, seems to make him feel that much more isolated from everyone else as if he doesn’t quite know what that makes him—maybe it’s as much of a metaphor for Costner’s own stardom in 1999. As a director Raimi is continuing to develop here, as he finds a middle ground between the visual madness of his early films and the low-key nature of A SIMPLE PLAN. Since the film is about Costner, not those fastballs, the camera stays on him, framing him in the most iconic way possible. And the star is up for it, there’s a confidence to his very presence, a character worn down by the end of his career but with enough awareness of who he is to know what he’s still capable of—interestingly, unlike BULL DURHAM or TIN CUP this film isn’t about a Costner character who has to face what it is to be a failure but a success who must face what he still has inside of him, if there’s even anything still there at all.
The film is entertaining and put together in a slick, big studio way with a swelling Basil Poledouris score at the right dramatic moments but still feels a little stilted, the flashback sequence as the game proceeds a little too calculated as it becomes clear the romance is going to have more importance than his baseball career. Something’s missing to make the story more resonant—some reports have Annette Bening apparently turning down the female lead in favor of AMERICAN BEAUTY; I doubt she regrets that choice but she would have given the film an extra sense of gravity that Kelly Preston doesn’t really provide. Everyone is so well dressed throughout that in my memory it winds up becoming, baseball scenes aside, a film about pretty people wearing a lot of sweaters set to the ember glow of sunset. Even the sets look immaculate as if the love scenes are being shot in a movie where Kevin Costner plays a movie star playing a baseball player. There’s an Adult Contemporary vibe similar to the THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR remake with Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo that opened the previous month back in ’99 but that movie had heat. In this case, the continuous onslaught of cover songs of familiar favorites by the likes of Lyle Lovett wind up making me think that my sister is going to enjoy this film more than I will. You can almost feel too much effort in trying to make some of the love story work, to make the relationship have more edges than are ever there but it’s really the expected developments—the meet cute, the daughter she didn’t tell him about, the big fight. It feels like the long dialogue scenes underwent multiple rewrites to shore up holes in the plot and Billy’s one instance of playing around made to seem as benign as possible, like if you weren’t paying close attention you may not realize what he’d done.
But just when I can feel the creakiness Raimi suddenly makes his presence known, even in a subtle way of framing, and the film comes alive. Maybe just a love of baseball allowed him to respond to what needs to happen to allow for the miracle of a perfect game, giving us moments such as the he visual representations of Chapel shutting out all the noise around him and “clearing the mechanism” before pitching. One prolonged shot near the end as he mentally prepares for one final inning is flat-out elegant in its shifting composition and the way the camera slowly moves into place is as carefully assembled as any of the EVIL DEAD craziness only not trying to be showy about it. In spite of who the main character plays for none of the film is set in Detroit but the choice feels appropriate both for Michigan native Raimi and so the team can feel appropriately part of old school baseball, a reminder of when the game didn’t stink as Brian Cox’s owner believes. What with the total decency of John O’Reilly as Billy’s catcher and sidekick (not a shred of Reed Rothchild in there) as well as the New York hotel bellman asking Billy to “take it easy on our boys today!” it’s surprising Raimi didn’t bring in a kid selling newspapers with headlines about the big game shouting “Extra! Extra!” Certain bravura moments of filmmaking stand out in particular such as a climactic shot of a ball in play apparently nowhere near anyone, taking on all the significance of the 2001 monolith for those few seconds. The film even has a nice rebuke at the end to the early belief that the game stinks in the Yankee fan seen booing throughout the game who finally applauds Chapel for what he’s done which, let’s face it, is what would really happen (well, maybe not if he played for Boston).
Watching the film for the first time in several years I was expecting a voiceover narration at the start so I must be confusing that with FIELD OF DREAMS but in this case the film seems to know it’s not necessary, instead playing to some sort of yearning we have for baseball deep down, for those memories of going to the park with our dad. Maybe one of the best things about the film is that it keeps those feelings about family and the past, internal, never putting them into words—this is cinema, after all—while feeling free to put the plot stuff about the corporate takeover of the team or the predictable romance into dialogue. The other stuff is private and no one else’s business. The film remembers that even if Billy Chapel is pitching that perfect game he’s not the only one out there on the field; he’s dependent on his teammates and the film knows that even if you’re not winning the pennant maybe, just maybe, there can be a day where you don’t suck. Considering my mood lately, that’s just about the most optimistic message I can imagine so maybe I’m ok with there being a movie where the Yankees aren’t the good guys. When Raimi finally isolates his star from everyone else in a key moment after the big game the camera keeps its distance at first, giving him some deserved privacy. He’s all alone, knowing only that he’s all alone, and as he finally breaks down sobbing the moment is so effective that if it had been what the film had truly been building towards it might have been genuinely transcendent. Of course, it couldn’t do that and the final scene where all of these concerns are basically dropped so we can get the “I’ve always been alone, now I don’t want to be, I need you, I love you, yadda yadda yadda.” It comes off as rote in comparison, but there was that moment. Sometimes when we’re by ourselves it’s all that matters.
Kevin Costner plays Billy Chapel with just the right amount of nobility and cockiness, playing him as totally comfortable in his own skin and willing to be the monument that Raimi is pointing his camera up at—it’s nice to be reminded of why I liked Costner in the first place. Kelly Preston is likable as she’s often been but not really in his league—when Costner interacts with certain other actors like John C. Reilly or Jena Malone as Jane’s daughter the scenes just pop more and some of Preston’s best moments are silent ones when she’s by herself watching the game on TV. Brian Cox makes the most of his one big scene as the team owner with almost more decency than you can believe and even his dialogue-free cutaways as he watches the game unfold are genuinely affecting. JK Simmons, a few years away from playing J. Jonah Jameson in Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN, is the manager of the Tigers, the now-familiar Daniel Dae Kim from LOST appears briefly as an ER doctor, Laura Cayouette of DJANGO UNCHAINED is a masseuse and Ted Raimi is a gallery doorman. Vin Scully is in there too, calling the game of course, and making the most of his chances to describe what Billy Chapel must be going through as he gets closer to the final out. He mentions calling the famous Don Larsen perfect game way back in 1956 which blows my mind a little and since he may not be calling Dodger games much longer looking at it now his presence in the film seems to matter that much more.
As I write this another post-season is heating up (go Mets) and I’m paying a little bit of attention but not that much. There are movies to go see, after all. FOR LOVE OF THE GAME recalls an echo of my own attachment to the game and maybe I’m responding to Raimi’s own apparent sentimental attachment to it as well--he veered back a little closer to his earlier work with 2000’s THE GIFT just over a year later before he went into SPIDER-MAN land. For me, that echo is a distant one at best--no point in talking about my father or how I bawled immediately after the first time I saw FIELD OF DREAMS because that’s none of your damn business. But I’m reminded that Yogi Berra just died, yet another reminder of the past receding further and further away and one quote that stood out to me when I was reading the obits was, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Along with its portrayal of the glory and simplicity of the game I suppose that’s one of the things FOR LOVE OF THE GAME tries to remind us to do before winter comes. It’s not so easy to get rid of that isolation, particularly when you’re so used to it. But maybe sometimes you need the optimism that things can change.

Monday, October 12, 2015

A Position Of Responsibility

Maybe friendship is impossible in the end. I suppose all we can really do is accept that some of them are transitory, that some people just aren’t going to be around forever and maybe that’s for the best. Life has to keep moving forward, after all.
Trying to please someone else can be the enemy of creativity as well as the enemy of freedom. You need the freedom to do otherwise, to not give a shit about what anyone is going to say or think about it. Easier said than done sometimes, of course. There are always going to be idiotic opinions out there. But there’s also going to be that crippling fear from deep down inside that can prevent you from writing a coherent sentence. That can be the worst fear of all, the kind that can strangle your insides late at night while you can’t fall asleep. Likewise some of the very best films are effused with the feel of that burst of creativity that somehow anything is possible. “I wish I could be this free,” I wrote of Elliott Gould’s Philip Marlowe in THE LONG GOODBYE for this blog nearly six years ago. A lot has happened in my life since then and I wish I could say that I felt like I’d gotten an inch closer to that feeling. It is possible, however, that the cult of Robert Altman has grown even stronger in that time. Criterion has released NASHVILLE on Blu, I’ve actually had multiple people ask me when the same is going to happen to McCABE & MRS. MILLER (like I would know), the not-easy-to-see CALIFORNIA SPLIT which also deserves to be on Blu has gotten renewed acclaim and “THE LONG GOODBYE is Popular Again” proclaimed a headline in The New York Times last year leading me to wonder exactly when it hadn’t been. I’m fairly certain that even QUINTET has a cult by now and I’m tempted to write about that one simply out of the sheer perversity of the idea.
MASH, of course, was too big a hit when it was released to ever get the chance to be considered a cult film and it long ago stopped being something that was only thought of in the context of Robert Altman. That’s unavoidable, really—even if it isn’t the syndication powerhouse it once was the now-classic TV version of MASH has long since become one of those comfortable old chairs to sit down in late on a Sunday night. That’s not the case with the movie and Robert Altman was never one to make a film actually seem comfortable. Long since eclipsed by the show, not to mention other Altman films, and much more of a broad comedy than his films often are it’s possible that the concept we think of as “MASH” has become so ubiquitous that the film has somehow become underrated if not simply dismissed. It may not have been his first film but it’s just about the first one we think of as a ‘Robert Altman’ film, the one where he planted his flag in the ground once and for all. Maybe there are some growing pains in there but even if it isn’t his best or most enjoyable in its own unfettered way it feels like one of the most freewheeling, undiluted forms of Robert Altman Cinema that we ever got.
It’s not that there’s even really a plot but you know the plot anyway: Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland), Trapper John (Elliott Gould, with giant mustache) and Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt) arrive at the 4077th M*A*S*H unit during the Korean conflict and from the very first minute treat nothing and no one with any form of seriousness or respect with the exception of their jobs of course, trying to ignore the insanity of the war and the military all around them. Looking back at the film now, without the context of Vietnam that was so all-important when it came out, it plays as the birth of a new genre: Altman. It also comes off as a rough version of the series that the entire planet is familiar with by this point, which I suppose it is, with an episodic feel to its narrative, almost mini-sitcom episodes that are held together by the famous P.A. announcements (certainly lifted for the similar running gag in MEATBALLS and probably something else I’m forgetting). It really does feel like some sort of late 60s underground comedy that got produced at a major studio almost by accident and became a big hit when no one was looking.
The legend of MASH (of course titled M*A*S*H everywhere else in the world but in the actual film) is well known by now, based on the book by the pseudonymous Richard Hooker (which I read a hundred years ago, so memories are vague) and with a screenplay credited to Ring Lardner Jr. who won the film’s sole Oscar even though barely anyone gave it a second glance while they were shooting the thing. Robert Altman was hardly the first choice for the job and was willing to take advantage of how the studio was supposedly distracted by their other, bigger, war films—PATTON and TORA, TORA, TORA. Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould supposedly didn’t trust their director at first and tried to get him removed. Many of the other actors were first-timers, left to run wild under Altman’s direction on the set in Malibu Creek State Park (I imagine BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES filming over the hill at the same time) and as chaotic as the production may have been the finished product was a smash beyond what anyone would have expected. It also quickly became legendary for beating Mike Nichols’ much more expensive CATCH-22 to the screen by several months—the unfavorable New York Times review of MASH (Kael and Ebert liked it considerably better) when it opened in January 1970 even refers to that one as “the legendary unfinished movie”—it finally came out that June and Altman, the one who wound up with a hit movie, hung a banner in his office reading “Caught-22”.
Even now, the Altman-ness that is obvious in almost every frame of MASH is overwhelming, the sometimes half-heard overlapping dialogue is so prevalent that we need to focus in order to keep up with that action with a feel so chaotic that his legendary lack of interest in the script (and I imagine the book as well; he certainly never had much good to say about the show) is always evident. While watching it for the umpteenth time I still find myself noticing actors on the edges of the frame doing something unheralded. To call MASH offensive (or misogynistic or blasphemous or whatever other element you want to obsess over) almost seems to be missing the point as it’s the rare film that says Fuck You to the humorless establishment and can back up its own viewpoint. You’re going to make us stay in this hellhole, it’s basically saying, this is the way it’s going to be. For a little while, anyway. The “regular Army clowns” are beneath contempt, especially the hypocritical Frank Burns who seems to represent Nixon or just the overall Republican establishment in general (H. Richard Hornberger, the real Richard Hooker, described himself as a conservative Republican; Altman and what we think of as the later Alan Alda-controlled years of the TV show feel like different angles from the left), helpless to it all as the camp essentially becomes a drunken sex club run by a commanding officer who isn’t a flake so much as totally apathetic to just about everything that happens.
According to the film, there’s no reason why there are casualties beyond the basic stupidity of war but it’s not anti-war as much as anti-military, anti an establishment that hasn’t earned to right to say otherwise. Back home has to be forgotten about—Hawkeye even tells one nurse that of course he’d rather be making love to his wife and Roger Bowen’s Henry Blake makes it a point not to include that word when he’s talking who sent his new jacket. Nothing matters but the particular moment, an idea made clear by having Dago Red (the film’s nickname for Father Mulcahy) help out at a crucial moment instead of giving the last rites to a soldier who’s already expired—one’s dead, one’s alive and the difference needs to be clear. It cuts through the shit just as well as the nurse who helpfully asks, “How do you want your steak cooked?” to Trapper. It really can be just that simple if everyone works together. Because if you don’t take part in that you’ll just wind up like Bobby Troupe’s bitter sergeant (“Goddamn Army”) who gets to do nothing but drive Hawkeye and Trapper around Tokyo as they act like schmucks. If only it could always be that simple. And, really, it should be.
The offensiveness of MASH is unavoidable feels more anti-hypocrisy than sexist or anti-religion. There are no sacred lambs since nothing is sacred. If the war is going on with blood spurting from the necks of soldiers than nothing can be, just as Hot Lips needs to realize that she isn’t any more sacred than everyone else, that she’s just like them. The most horrific action towards her oddly gives her more of a chance at redemption than the reprehensible Frank Burns (Robert Duvall, who seems to become Burns to an almost unnerving degree) ever gets. His devotion to religion is just as open as Dago Red but there’s something hypocritical about it—the actual chaplain is almost one of the gang in comparison, maybe because they can tell he’s coming at it from a genuine place; he speaks the same language they do and never tries to present himself as a saint but he’s the real deal and they recognize that. Maybe people don’t always recognize that in MASH--several months back the film played on TCM and I decided to check out the TCM Party hashtag to see what people were saying. It was a holiday weekend, a Sunday night, and I was surprised to find that as the film went on things were getting testy, that some people were complaining about the sexism and how horrible the film was because of that. Nothing was resolved, nothing was settled, life went on and those unfamiliar Twitter accounts disappeared, probably muttering “Goddamn Army.” The Frank Burns of the world, the ones that make it impossible to get anything done.
Since the film feels like the very beginning of what we know as the Altman style there’s a willful immaturity in that freedom that is absolutely undeniable and the occasional ‘movie movie’ dramatic stings aren’t too far off from Mike Nichols using “Also Sprach Zaratusta” in CATCH-22, actually. The brief snatches of flashback and flashforwards add to the collage feel, almost as if the events of the film are being remembered by Hawkeye in 1970. The film remembers what has to be remembered and even ignores the worst thing that happens, a plot line the final film leaves dangling—one quick scene near the end has the gang playing poker ignoring, but stealing quick glances at a body being driven away in the background, which some accounts say in deleted footage was the houseboy Ho-Jon who was earlier removed to fight and later returned as a casualty. Even if we don’t know who it is, we can see that they’re turning their backs on it. It may be cruel to the dead but in order to get to the next time they have to save one of them it’s necessary.
MASH feels scrappy, almost as if the grubby look comes from bad film stock while the other films got the good stuff. It goes by in a flash—considering how a TV show got 11 seasons out of this scenario it’s surprising to remember how the film seems to abandon the pretense of even being about the camp sometime after the halfway point, particularly with the Tokyo trip and drawn out football game. Each time I see it I wish it could be longer, so some of those good times could go on longer—I guess if I want that there’s always the show but, of course, not really. It’s willing to cross over the border in ‘borderline offensive’ more than a few times and absolutely gleeful about doing so (now the dubbing into Japanese when Hawkeye and Trapper are driven past the golf course, that’s pretty juvenile stuff). It might be cruel but maybe less cruel than sending people off to war and what people get upset about in MASH says something about what they’re willing to get upset about in the world.
When someone’s departure orders come in and it’s time to leave there’s not very much for anyone to say. Just like the end of a friendship. I’ve been watching CALIFORNIA SPLIT lately because MASH isn’t the only Altman I look at, after all, and I can’t help but think that these two featuring Elliott Gould along with THE LONG GOODBYE in the middle form a trilogy about the impossibility of friendship how it can be impossible to keep those plates spinning without certain resentments boiling over eventually. Even with Tom Skerritt’s Duke getting shunted off to the side for the Hawkeye-Trapper double act (like the first best friend at college who gets a little forgotten when the cooler guy shows up) MASH is the most frivolous, which makes sense, there’s not enough time for anything to come to a head which happens between Phillip Marlowe and Terry Lennox, then with George Segal’s Bill and Elliott Gould’s Charlie in SPLIT. In MASH it’s all cut off abruptly which is almost as painful. “I knew that all this was too good to last,” is a key line in Bogdanovich’s THEY ALL LAUGHED which feels like one that could easily appear here as well. Compared with the Altman that had yet to come MASH is minor and maybe almost too juvenile at times. But it’s also fearless in every single frame. It all ends before they want it to, before we want it to. But as we can tell the last time we see Radar (this incarnation of Radar, of course) a piece of that spirit that Hawkeye brought to the 4077th survives.
That freedom is there in the double act of Sutherland and Gould, each playing off the other beautifully as a true extreme of cool and a comedy team that was maybe only possible viewed through the Altman prism—the only other film the two made together was Irvin Kershner’s S*P*Y*S released in 1974 which may not be quite as bad as its rep but it’s no MASH. Going through all the inspired moments by the large cast may require mentioning everyone named in the large cast—some of them wind up jumping out at me when I’m seeing the film again and I wind up just watching for them during that viewing. Certainly Sally Kellerman, Oscar nominated for playing Hot Lips (her last name seems to be either Houlihan and O’Houlihan depending on the actor talking) and as brilliant as she is in her legendary breakdown to the uncaring Henry Blake some of her best moments are behind that surgical mask, her hugely expressive eyes revealing what’s going on and what’s really important in this insane asylum masquerading as a hospital. Roger Bowen sends himself into a beautifully zen state as Henry Blake, Rene Auberjonois brings utter goodness to Dago Red and David Arkin as Staff Sergeant Vollmer (also “I can remember when people just had jobs” in THE LONG GOODBYE) lurks around the edge of the frame in what may be countless scenes, forever befuddled and unsure what’s really expected of him. Michael Murphy’s appearance during the Tokyo segment is brief but feels important in part of making it the first ‘Altman’ film. Sometimes the little things are important.
And, yes, there’s the series that followed a few years later which the director had no involvement in, the one that a friend of mine who of course prefers the film and shall go unnamed here recently observed, “Watching that show always makes me feel like I’m being molested by my uncle.” Of course, that’s the very thing I’m going to think of whenever I flip by it here on out and I hope that would please Robert Altman. I’ll admit that I like the show better than she does in the way of that comfortable old chair I described earlier but for me MASH the film cuts deeper and is always weirdly life-affirming in a way that is sometimes exactly what I need. It’s nasty, it’s immature and yet it’s gaining for me as the years go on—it goes by in a flash, Hawkeye and Duke are sent home, probably before they’d prefer deep down and it reminds me of how much life is transitory. Friendships end before you’re ready. They bring you these moments that always stay with you but you can’t hold on to them. It’s impossible. A reminder that the game of life is hard to play and I’m going to lose it anyway, but fuck it, you know? I have to do something, to try for a few of those moments myself. That is all.