Monday, December 14, 2015

Not In That Direction

Maybe nothing hurts as much as friendship. Sometimes it’s not even clear if you’re more alone when you’re by yourself or with a certain friend, if you even understand that friend. No one can be cruel to you like a friend is. No one can kill you like a friend does. And then one day you find yourself alone in a movie theater, no one to share that popcorn with, but it is one of the best places to be alone after all. Maybe it makes the most sense to see a John Cassavetes film when you’re by yourself, any Cassavetes film, whether he directed it or just acted in it. Throughout November the New Beverly ran a series of films that John Cassavetes ‘only’ appeared in—some pretty interesting titles in there including Don Siegel’s THE KILLERS, the 1958 western SADDLE THAT WIND, the star-packed TWO-MINUTE WARNING, a midnight show of THE FURY (which I missed, dammit) and of course Robert Aldrich’s THE DIRTY DOZEN but for me the main attraction was Elaine May’s MIKEY AND NICKY which may be the ultimate John Cassavetes film of any that he didn’t direct. There’s no other film quite like MIKEY AND NICKY, a film I’ve only seen a handful of times scattered throughout the years, but it always seems to be burrowing in my head as certain random moments and lines of dialogue never entirely go away.
The production of the film is somewhat notorious, maybe overshadowing what it actually is and it can be argued that parts of the end result are a kind of a mess with at times choppy pacing as well as certain transitions that are a little too haphazard but I’m not sure how much that even matters to me. Maybe the distinct lack of perfection evident in the final product makes it matter even more, makes me love the film more as I cherish those raggedy moments. It might be a slippery slope to deem the film a masterpiece because of that messiness (having rewatched it recently, I’d definitely assign that label to May’s THE HEARTBREAK KID) but the moments that have haunted me for years are still there and on revisiting it, much older than my first viewing on VHS long ago, there are more of those moments than ever now. As a meditation on what friendship and guilt can mean deep down when you're staring at yourself in the mirror at two in the morning, as an acknowledgement of death sometimes being right outside the door it might be, I may as well say it, one of the best films I've ever seen. Besides, who needs a movie that isn’t a mess, that isn’t this fucking alive, anyway? Maybe that’s part of what makes it hurt so much, as these things sometimes have to, way down there in the middle of the night.
After stealing some money small-time mobster Nicky (John Cassavetes) is hiding out, certain that a hit has been put out on him. He calls his friend Mikey (Peter Falk) for help and he shows up right away to try to hide him. With a hitman (Ned Beatty) on their tale Nicky leads Mikey off into the night and early morning hours of bars, buses, a cemetery as his paranoia grows, as Mikey’s impatience with his old friend grows and the tension between the two old friends reaching a boiling point.
There I was at sitting at the counter at Fred 62, a few days after the New Beverly screening, eating my pancakes and pouring cream in my coffee when I flashed on a certain scene in MIKEY AND NICKY involving cream in a coffee shop. Of course I did. It might be a long time before I put cream in my coffee and don’t think of this movie and what Peter Falk does in that scene, one of those things that you do for your friends when no one else is going to help, when you’re just about at the end of your rope and terrified about what comes next. The continual sense of danger all famously feels like Cassavetes, as if he’s who you’d assume was the director if there were no credits, and yet it’s unmistakably different, under Elaine May’s eye playing as more judgmental to these guys responding to the world around them and yet strangely even more affectionate, wanting to desperately love them in spite of it all. It seems to stay a few feet away from them much of the time, unlike some of those giant Cassavetes close-ups, remaining a little distant and yet always fascinated. There is humor in it, a sort of dark comedy of its own sort and yet playing as totally, completely tragic as well, keeping us continually off guard as if it quietly knows if things are really comic or tragic but isn’t going to tell us just to make it easier.
In addition to her partnership with Mike Nichols, various acting roles through the decades and numerous screenplays, both credited and uncredited, we have four films directed by Elaine May—A NEW LEAF, THE HEARTBREAK KID, MIKEY AND NICKY and ISHTAR. That’s all we’ve got. Based on that evidence we could maybe call her a female director more interested in the men in her films—Matthau and Grodin in A NEW LEAF and THE HEARTBREAK KID of course but also the double act of Beatty and Hoffman in ISHTAR and the two leads in this film. Falk’s Mikey and Cassavetes’ Nicky are each a nightmare in some way, calling each other by the names in the film’s title as if they’re still kids, messing around with each other and having the same arguments they did thirty years ago with the very same resentments still bubbling up in their fights. The tension builds almost faster than we expect in almost every scene with moments that feel like they’re somewhere between what’s written in the script and improv that’s just happening. Cassavetes staring at Falk for a very long moment maybe with suspicion but maybe not—“What’s the matter, is my face dirty?” Falk asks him as he tries to deflect—or Falk sitting in a dark kitchen while Nicky screws his mistress just a few feet away. In these moments whoever is on camera just sitting there, sizing up the situation, letting the tension build to an almost unbearable degree, with May just leaving the camera rolling looking for that behavior, waiting for them to do something, anything, to break that moment.
Rewatching ISHTAR for the hundredth time, with MIKEY AND NICKY fresh in the brain, her directorial style feels more at home when it’s just two people staring each other down—during the more cluttered sequences in ISHTAR it all becomes maybe too frenetic (I still love ISHTAR, but that’s a topic for another day). MIKEY AND NICKY is controlled and yet always feels like it’s about to boil over, we’re just waiting for the explosion, for the gunshots to ring out. Falk’s Mikey is desperate to maintain what little hold he has on his world even if it’s just a front of responsibility, knowing that he’s just a middle man with nothing he can control but the wife at home and constantly worrying that whatever his best friend does in the next thirty seconds could mess it all up. Cassavetes’ Nicky is an impossible mess, insulting the people he shouldn’t be insulting as if trying to avoid the biggest disaster imaginable by running right towards it, the sort of guy who does something horrible then tries to explain it by saying, “I didn’t know that was gonna happen,” then while joking about it gives you the biggest drunken bear hug imaginable. I sure wouldn’t want to know Nicky but the way Cassavetes describes that all-night movie theater he wants to take Mikey to—“Double features and they got cartoons, they have fifteen minutes of coming attractions! They got a candy counter that’s open all night long. It’s got ice cream sandwiches, everything. The works!”—makes me desperately want to go with him (or maybe Cassavetes in the real world) to see a kung fu movie at a grindhouse for a few hours. But their friendship makes sense as only certain friendships do—they’re a part of each other after all, they’re the only ones alive who know how certain things long ago went down. The two of them make up their own world together during their long, seemingly endless night, riding the bus, getting into fights out in the strangely empty streets with the fight just continuing until the next one begins.
In comparison, Ned Beatty’s hitman is the opposite—a loner, no recognizable personality at all, no chemistry with anyone he talks to, refusing to pay for a driver to help get the job over with faster—even his car has a headlight out as if he’s only one-half of any sort of personality—the sheer boring drudgery of a hitman has never been this drying amusing. The women in these guy’s lives are for the most part Elaine May-types, turning their scenes into very dangerous versions of routines she might have once done with Mike Nichols. It’s a feminist film in a way, lending an extra layer to how these guys are observed and while maybe May isn’t as interested in making a film about these characters since she already understands them and their comical personas almost seem trapped here against their will. Nicky’s lady friend played by Carol Grace (Mrs. Walter Matthau but also, and maybe somewhat pertinent, one of Truman Capote’s inspirations for Holly Golightly) talks about how she’s interested in what’s happening in the world, as if she’s a pet apologizing for learning how to talk—“I guess most girls are pretty dumb,” she says to Mikey, terrified while trying to go along with what he’s saying about women. Mikey’s wife played by Rose Arrick (Dustin Hoffman’s mother in ISHTAR) seems more like a mother not quite following along with the story her son is telling. The friendship between the two guys with so much history where it’s not clear at the start of the film how long it’s been since they’ve seen each other, so precarious we don’t in spite of what we know is coming we don’t know, they fight with each other while understanding each other like nobody else does. Fitting for a friendship with death surrounding it, maybe it’s been surrounding them their whole lives, trip to the cemetery, facing the past. Standing over his mother’s grave Nicky muses, “It’s hard to talk to a dead person, there’s nothing in common,” which was always one of the most memorable lines to me but could also be the film’s mantra—Nicky is closer to being a dead person than he’s willing to admit but it doesn’t really matter since sometimes there’s not enough in common with another live person either. Mikey doesn’t want to get caught up in wondering what happens after you die since he believes that you die and that’s it, it’s over. Sometimes when you’re staring at the ashes of a friendship you just wonder what happened. Does it matter? Did it matter?
Much of what is known about the legendary production of MIKEY AND NICKY now, along with May’s current directorial reputation, possibly originates in an infamous New York Magazine article from March 1987 (“The Road to ISHAR” by David Blum) about the bad word of mouth surrounding that upcoming summer release—it didn’t help matters and the film never really recovered from what got out there. As background the article discusses the production of the earlier film during which May apparently shot 1.4 million feet of film, three times the amount for GONE WITH THE WIND (when Judd Apatow’s THE 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN hit the 1 million mark during shooting champagne was reportedly sent to the set; the approach presumably turns out better for some than others) and one story about May continuing to photograph a blank wall after the two stars have wandered off that has been retold a million times by now. There’s not much to be found from whatever press the film got during its belated (and miniscule) release in 1976—Vincent Canby’s review in The New York Times makes no mention of any troubles, praising Elaine May but concluding, “It took guts for her to make a film like this, but she failed.” Whatever the reality of the production—and it feels like not much official has been said by anybody since that article aside from some comments May herself made during a talk with Mike Nichols that ran in Film Comment—the final result is seemingly long and rambling but actually tightly plotted, always focused on what it should be even if it’s the minutiae of any given moment (the version shown at the New Beverly was around 106 minutes; maybe because a May-sanctioned cut didn’t surface until the 80s there are several different running times listed). Very little of what happens can qualify as ‘plot’ anyway, with Nicky continually pulling Mikey away from what’s supposed to happen--an interesting comparison in terms of the mob world might be Cassavetes’ own GLORIA which is messy and idiosyncratic in ways of its own.
The most crucial plot revelation is dropped in almost casually during the first half hour anyway as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world and throughout it feels as if some of the narrative is being constructed from all that footage—random lines of dialogue are seemingly looped in after the fact, pieces of information spoken off camera. Various scenes even drift off just as the tension is building with a few transitions that feel almost strangely abrupt at best while making the scenes feel incomplete at worst but somehow that feeling it’s being held together by scotch tape splices on the print only adds to the scrappiness. Much of the film was shot in Philadelphia with a little in L.A. but it doesn’t seem to be set anywhere in particular, an anonymous downtown of bars and coffee shops with its own Elaine May-style contradictions like how Ned Beatty is told he has to go north to get to South Street. This mood filled with smoke, booze and desperation in the air is what sticks in my brain as much as anything, with vague recollections of visiting family members in places like Queens and Long Island I almost imagine this is what the 70s was really like—grim and miserable and alive, a real-life version of whatever bar Archie Bunker went to down the street with music from a tiny AM radio crackling through the air. The one exception to that feeling is a bar with an African-American clientele that opens with The O’Jays playing on the jukebox as the mid-70s extras dance and until Nicky starts making trouble, which is of course what he does, it’s the closest to any sort of happiness the film and the world it’s in ever depicts.
Every single one of the faces in the film adds to the weariness with some of them just there to be slapped around by either Mikey or Nicky for insisting on rules that don’t matter, a few of them ready to do the slapping--M. Emmet Walsh has a memorable bit as a bus driver; William Hickey and legendary acting teacher Sanford Meisner are the mob bosses waiting by the phone to hear the hit has been done. As dryly effective as some of the performances are, the film of course belongs to Falk and Cassavetes, to every moment they scream at each other, both of them seeming like they haven’t slept a wink through the entire length of this marathon shoot. It’s the focus on the two guys, on their friendship and whatever that means, whatever it ever meant and what it has to mean in the end—just as Rogers & Clarke sang over a decade later in ISHTAR, honest and popular don’t go hand in hand. It’s one or the other and if a friendship doesn’t survive that, tough. Peter Falk and the shattered moral compass of Mikey, caught between his responsibilities and the ghosts of his past, John Cassavetes playing Nicky like a man possessed by his own fear, sometimes refusing to even admit that he has that fear. All of the tensions building throughout explode in a fight between the two of them, which is also one of those scenes that seems to stop without a real ending so this stretch of the back end is one of the more frustrating parts of the film—the scene where Nicky goes home desperately looking for his estranged wife played by Joyce Van Patten is my least favorite in the film (not her fault) maybe because I’m losing patience by that point, maybe because in playing out the scenario of the estranged wife dealing with the no-good husband at the door it’s the one scene in the dangerously unpredictable film that goes exactly the way you think it will. I’m more interested in the danger that hangs in the air during a relatively superfluous scene as Nicky wanders into a candy store run by an immediately suspicious proprietor looking for ice cream and claiming he promised his nephew he’d “bring him a comic book” or the conference between Mikey and some of his mob cohorts, involving some very Elaine May-dialogue of whether a hitman can circle a block without alerting nearby security on patrol.
That final section building up to the ending where Falk tells his wife the story about his past that he’s kept from her, the one story that matters the most, haunts me, just as the very final moments haunts me. He tells her a lot of things he claims, but he hasn’t told her the one thing that may have meant the most, who he is with her, who he is with Nicky. The scene, like the entire film, feels like a long dark night of the soul with dawn slowly breaking as the end gets closer, but no hope in this sunlight beginning to appear. He can tell her things that he can’t tell Mikey because he has to tell someone but it almost doesn’t matter since it doesn’t mean what it does to him. MIKEY AND NICKY is about finding someone you can trust in this life only you never really can find someone you trust, at least you never know for sure. Even if you do that may not be enough. No one’s ever going to know what’s deep down in the pit of your soul anyway. Mikey asks his wife “Will you go to bed?” once more at the very end when there’s nothing else to be done. For once, he really needs to be alone. The things you do for your friends.
The New Beverly, a place I’m sure Nicky would try to drag Mikey to, ran the film on a double bill with MACHINE GUN McCAIN starring Cassavetes in the title role (also with Peter Falk and Gena Rowlands; fun and with a great Morricone score) as well as the Looney Tunes short RABBIT FIRE—that’s the one with Rabbit Season-Duck Season--which seemed perfectly chosen to go before a film which largely consists of John Cassavetes and Peter Falk shouting at each other. Part of the complicated history of the film is that original studio Paramount seems to have no ownership on it anymore—any posters from the original theatrical release can’t even be found online. It just adds to the mystique of MIKEY AND NICKY and makes it that much more of an outlier, a film that exists on its own in a world of its own. (When the Trailblazing Women series returns to TCM next year it would be a perfect choice, even if it is about two men) Considering the place I’ve been in lately, something about the film feels almost too close to me right now. And with the end of the year coming I’m feeling like I want to grab that coffee shop guy like Peter Falk does and tell him to give me some fucking cream as I try to figure out what happened. I won’t, of course, maybe because I’m more Cassavetes at the end pounding on the door, knowing what’s coming, not even thinking of running away, just screaming for that friend, for anyone. But maybe find some peace as the sun rises, try to make peace with the demons of the past, try to make peace with all those fuck ups that were probably my own fault all along. By myself.

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