Thursday, March 31, 2016

All Those Chances

The first time I ever came to Los Angeles old enough to drive I went looking for Johnie’s Coffee Shop, that key location in the film MIRACLE MILE. Imagine my disappointment to discover the place wasn’t really open all night as portrayed. An early reminder that movies can lie or at least exaggerate. Suddenly I blinked and found myself a few blocks away years later, somewhere around 2001, at a LACMA screening of the film which featured an appearance by writer-director Steve De Jarnatt. During the Q&A I got the feeling that certain questions being asked were things people had wondered about for years, obsessing over the movie like an old paperback you read over and over looking for more clues to put everything together. After the film we walked outside to Wilshire where we essentially found ourselves on the set of the film we had just seen and as we stood there waiting for the light to change everyone started to laugh. I blinked again and found myself here, now, still thinking about that film. MIRACLE MILE is heading towards three decades old. I’ve worked right down the block from where it’s set, I’ve been to the County Museum of Art many other times since and I’ve even had a friend who lived nearby in Park La Brea, one of the other key locations. Now I live twenty minutes away from that stretch of Wilshire (traffic allowing, of course) and still pass through it on occasion, the film is in the past yet it seems right there all the time. I’m not sure when that happened.
Now the film has been rescued from the purgatory of old VHS tapes and full-frame DVD by a gorgeous Blu-ray that came out in 2015 (as did De Jarnatt’s previous film CHERRY 2000) reigniting some of the thoughts I’ve had about it over the years. The question I asked that night had to do with the oddness of the opening narration, including a brief opening shot which gives the presumably mistaken impression the whole thing might be a flashback. De Jarnatt acted a little sheepish about this issue, saying he’d fix some things in the first ten minutes if he could and to be honest I always felt kind of bad for bringing this up, even apologizing to him for it years later via Facebook. He said that wasn’t necessary although on the Blu-ray commentary he brings up the possibility how that opening shot, which if you’ve seen it you know couldn’t possibly take place during the body of the film, could be a sort of out maybe allowing for the possibility that the whole film is a dream or other unexplained scenario. I like this answer. Much of the film has a dreamlike logic anyway and looking at it that way opens up the possibilities of what it all means, what MIRACLE MILE can ultimately be in the back of your own mind. Enough of Los Angeles is like a dream anyway and if you find yourself out on the streets between 3 and 6 AM when everything outside your car window looks like outtakes from THE OMEGA MAN you can believe this. Besides, no one ever said a single thing in life was ever going to make sense.
If ever a movie seemed designed to be watched totally cold, with no awareness of what’s coming this would be the one, not that most people would get the chance to do this. I think of the plot of MIRACLE MILE, what happens to trombonist Harry Washello (Anthony Edwards) after he meets and possibly blows it with the girl of his dreams Julie Peters (Mare Winningham) during a visit to Los Angeles, and I think about what could have happened if it never takes the jarring shift it needs to take from the off-kilter romance of the first section to the dangerously panicked thriller it quickly becomes. I think about how Harry in his narration said he waited thirty years to meet Julie, as if his life isn’t really getting started until that moment, as if his very world isn’t really getting started until then, but none of that does any good. We spend too much time looking back. It’s what happens. We think of regret, of what might have been. We find ourselves staring back at a point we just left, wondering about whatever unfinished business we left there that no one else is ever going to care about. Written by its director, MIRACLE MILE was picked long before it was made by American Film magazine as one of the ten best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood. Its long development process included being part of a potential TWILIGHT ZONE film as well as an incarnation with a lead character written as older and possibly for Gene Hackman returning to town looking for his ex-wife. We’ll never know what that version would have been but ultimately it doesn’t matter. The MIRACLE MILE we do have features someone still close to youth, right around 30, someone who’s maybe been living in the past too much already. And on the cusp of grasping onto something, willing to finally take that chance for a future when it all comes tumbling down around him almost as if the world has chosen to end simply because he’s finally taking some sort of action.
There’s an immediacy to every single moment in MIRACLE MILE, grounded in the feelings of what our own reality is, what it has to be, along with an incessant dreamlike tone where not everything is going to be explained. It also contains a certain neon-strobed feel to its nighttime vibe of a down and dirty 80s genre piece that recalls any number of other up-all-night movies from that decade—it’s definitely rooted in the time from the prevalent nuclear feel which made slightly turned it into a period piece when the Berlin Wall fell as well as a few spare articles of clothing some people wear but so what. It’s compact as it’s forced to be by the almost real-time plotting and yet somehow all-encompassing of life down to the very smallest details. Much of what causes it to stick in the brain are those vivid little touches like the offhand visual of Harry dumping all that cream into the coffee during his initial panic—meant to resemble a mushroom cloud, according to De Jarnatt on the Blu-ray commentary and the frame always seems loaded with symbols whether you want to read into them or not. Even the occasional unexpected extra in the corner of the frame who stands out for mysterious reasons could mean everything or nothing.
The undeniable, unexplainable paranoia kicks in early after we’re feeling relaxed by the automatic chemistry of the two leads and it never goes away but always remains grounded by the reality of the nightmare. It’s especially good during the extended Johnie’s sequence which could easily serve as a stage play or, as the director also points out would be right at home in a vintage TWILIGHT ZONE and the film knows how to draw out the odd feeling on the back of your neck of when you’re out there on the street at 4:30 AM and something’s wrong you can’t quite shake. That roving Steadicam creeping along following Harry as well as the floating, otherworldly Tangerine Dream score kicking along and the nagging worry of doubt as to what’s really happening, that this can’t all be true, that there has to be some sort of mistake like fingernails digging deeper into our skin. Even the low-tech nature of a few of the effects shots have a kick that adds to the momentum as the movie ticks forward towards the inevitable. After his first, best hope at an escape the main character never even gets further than a few blocks, perfect for a nightmare in the early morning hours where you wind up running so fast to get away that you go absolutely nowhere.
How much the film pays attention to its own geography is something there was no way I could have known about when I saw it way back in May 1989 at the White Plains Galleria (a twin which closed long ago but the mall is still there). I certainly didn’t know I was still going to be thinking about the film all these years later but I still loved it as maybe only a kid who experiences a film like this all by himself can love it. I felt like the only one who had discovered it but I wasn’t, of course--I even remember around that time day I met someone who claimed to have seen it five times during its brief theatrical run. But even now that I’ve been there of course the correct geography adds to the reality as well how little ground is ultimately covered in this attempt at a getaway, perfect for a nightmare where you wind up running so fast that you go nowhere. The way it is here is the way the area still looks to me in my mind even if it isn’t that way anymore, the darkness that was once around there, the now-gone LACMA parking lot that I remember from a date long ago after seeing Blake Edwards’ THE PARTY. The Pan-Pacific Auditorium that Harry is playing a benefit for was destroyed by a fire in ’89 literally days after the film opened (of course, I didn’t know that then either), Park LaBrea has had more buildings put up around it (I played tennis in courts that are no longer there) and construction of the Academy Museum at the old May Company building in the middle of it all continues. Johnie’s, also seen in RESERVOIR DOGS and THE BIG LEBOWSKI, has long since only been used as a film location and as it turns out I never wound up going there to eat, late at night or otherwise. The site is now a historical landmark and the Googie architecture makes it notable, of course, but the fact that MIRACLE MILE was filmed there is a perfectly good reason as well.
Anthony Edwards successfully walks a tightrope of being an outsider you can tell his character has always been with the Hitchcockian everyman he needs to be right at that moment—even his suit is almost a goofball version of Cary Grant’s in NORTH BY NORTHWEST—and he helps us understand the lies he winds up telling some people about what’s going to happen since the truth itself is almost impossible to say out loud. Not getting as much screentime, Mare Winningham paints a picture of a loner as well—in another movie it might be clear just what a goofball her character probably is and a loner as well, living with her grandmother in a strange city. It’s to the movie’s credit how much it pays attention to the supporting cast no matter how little time there is for them--John Agar and Lou Hancock are Julie’s grandparents, Denise Crosby is the mysterious Landa with the mobile phone that may or may not confirm what’s happening, Robert DoQui is the cook at Johnie’s, O-Lan Jones is the waitress (there is no greater coffee shop waitress than O-Lan Jones) and Kurt Fuller is the disbelieving Gerstead, pissed at Landa for getting him up so early. There are too many others to mention but they all not only come off as fully-formed in their brief screentime but I still wonder what some of their backstories are. Raphael Sbarge, the voice of Chip on the phone, has recently been the human form of Jiminy Cricket on ONCE UPON A TIME and even that seems like an extra layer to his casting now. It says something about MIRACLE MILE and how it’s stayed with me that as much as I’m aware of the reality of film production and whatever must have been in the script if I ever met a few of the actors like Denise Crosby or O-Lan Jones deep down I’d still want to ask them about their characters and what must have happened in deleted scenes I’m certain never actually existed. Somehow I need to think they do.
I had a dream the other night. There's no point in describing it but the very end, right before I woke up, was a moment of such clear cinematic paranoia that days later I still can't shake it as a reminder of not being entirely sure of where I’ve been, of where I am. Maybe like this film. “All those chances…” exclaims Winningham’s Julie Peters near the very end and, of course, we don’t need any elaboration from her. We all have those chances that we fucked up and will never get back. That’s the way it goes. Each time I see the film it occurs to me that the final moment between the two main characters goes by faster than I expect it to and there’s no real chance to pause the moment before we get to the end, to the final bang. Not being able to connect it to the opening shot in a literal way doesn’t bother me anymore now, if it really ever did. In some ways I can take the opening shot as a sort of alternate path taken, maybe winding up at the bottom of the La Brea tar pits, maybe into infinity, maybe just in the dead of night wondering about the woman you screwed up with. Maybe in each of those endings there can be a small piece of hope. After all, the world’s probably going to end in L.A. anyway. Sometimes in life something happens and you think, this is it. This is the way it’s going to be. But everything changes one way or another before you’re ready for it. Life becomes more complex. What happens next isn’t really up to you. Ultimately, nothing ever is.


C. Nelson said...

This film leaves an indelible impression. A companion piece to INTO THE NIGHT-- as they both reveal that infinite, lonely, spooky emptiness that was Los Angeles after hours in the mid-to-late 80's. The sprinklers washing the streets of Ave. of the Stars late at night, little puddles of light reflecting off of glass-- huge pools of un-illuminated darkness.
I think it's this personal ennui, and odd loneliness that permeates LA, especially in the wee hours. MIRACLE MILE captures this personally.
And the dream opportunities, like missed chances, mirroring each other.

Anyway, keep up the reviews-- I can always relate to them.

le0pard13 said...

Love this movie. Perhaps because I worked nearby (still do) to 'The Miracle Mile' neighborhood during this '80s that this look-back fever dream of a film still registers. Steve De Jarnatt got so many things right about the period, and this area of L.A. Every so often I go right past this corner of Fairfax and Wilshire, now a filming set for rent to any studio that would use it, and that cafe just brings back a bittersweet smile to my face. I think if my kids ever ask me about this era, I'll just point them to MIRACLE MILE. As always, Peter, simply a wonderful write up.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Many thanks to you guys for these comments, I'm gratified that you liked the piece so much. It means a lot.