Saturday, December 31, 2016

With Equanimity

In many ways 2016 was about searching for some kind of reason for being. I don’t know if I succeeded. The year has washed up on the shore of pain and regret and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it anymore. “I wish I wished for things,” Ryan Gosling’s private detective Holland March muses near the beginning of Shane Black’s THE NICE GUYS, presumably while thinking about how soon it’s going to be until his next drink. THE NICE GUYS came out in May of this year and, yes, I was there for the very first showing at the Cinerama Dome. I even ran into some people I knew there because of course I did. It’s many months later now, it feels like many years later and I’m somehow still wishing for things but just as often I’m trying to see the point of all that.
In spite of its critical acclaim (along with some less than stellar box office), everyone seemed so focused on how much THE NICE GUYS fit alongside other scripts written (or co-written) by Shane Black which we venerate daily whether LETHAL WEAPON or THE LAST BOY SCOUT or, during our crazier moods, THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT that nobody seemed to pick up on how it may turn out to be as close as we’ll ever come to getting a third J.J. Gittes film. At least sort of, plotwise anyway--that fabled never-made final chapter of the CHINATOWN saga was going to somehow involve air in Los Angeles, following the water and oil-related storylines of the earlier films, set at some point after the no-fault divorce law was put into effect. The issue of smog, courtesy of the all-powerful auto manufacturers, plays a role in THE NICE GUYS although matters related to divorce surprisingly don’t figure in very much, even though it does get a passing mention. Holland March even makes a reference in narration to “a guy in a local retirement park” who passes cases his way which could maybe, kinda plausibly, be a retired Gittes hopefully living a comfortable life somewhere off screen and free of his demons as he’ll ever be.
Those demons have transferred over to the younger generation by the time of this film’s version of 1977 but in spite of any CHINATOWN connections, intentional or otherwise, THE NICE GUYS is very much a Shane Blank buddy comedy filled with the appropriate amount of violently funny nastiness and gunplay along with a hint of the holiday season near the very end just in case we thought he’d forgotten. To make an honest admission, I like THE NICE GUYS which I knew I would when I sat down in the Dome but even I won’t make the case that it’s without flaws. The film doesn’t play as freewheelingly effortless as Black’s 2005 film KISS KISS BANG BANG does and shooting much of it in Atlanta, presumably to keep the budget down, doesn’t exactly help provide the feel of Los Angeles, 1977 or otherwise. After multiple viewings I’m still not sure if the plot entirely tracks all the way through even if I’m not all that worried about this (my all-time favorite action movie plothole is in LETHAL WEAPON 2, which Black only has a co-story credit on). Period detail is also a little scattershot, not quite down to ANCHORMAN level but it still feels like if more attention had been paid to this it would only have helped to flesh out the world of the film. But I still like THE NICE GUYS and get a little more attached to it on each viewing. It’s not one of the best films of the year and I won’t even call it my favorite film of the year. But it is a small piece of comfort food at the moment as we continue to try to wish for things.
Los Angeles, 1977—After porn star Misty Mountains is found dead in a car crash, private detective Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is following a lead involving a girl named Amelia (Margaret Qualley) who may have been involved somehow. But soon after tough guy enforcer Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is paid by Amelia to get March to stop, which he does. But Healy soon changes his mind show up at his place looking for Amelia. So Healy enlists March to help him out with the detective’s daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) tagging along, leading down a path of porn and dead bodies, resulting in Amelia’s mother Judith Kutner (Kim Basinger), who works for the Department of Justice, hiring them to find her and put a stop to this.
For one thing, it’s hard to keep from wishing that the next Shane Black film will be The Great One. At the very least, we cherish the ones we have. THE NICE GUYS (which Black co-wrote with Anthony Bagarozzi) is smooth and enjoyable but also a little messy which I mean in the nicest way possible and I’m not sure I’d want something created by Shane Black to be any different—even KISS KISS BANG BANG has more flaws than I think some of its fans are willing to admit. It’s as if Black has willingly made the plot structures of his films more precarious over the years as if he’s cracked the code of his own plotting but is searching for ways to muddy the waters a little, more willing to accept the bitterness of the emotions they contain. The first LETHAL WEAPON is a true product of the 80s but it’s also almost exactly what it was supposed to be, with a certain amount of griminess in the material made palatable for audiences by director Richard Donner’s pop style in preparation for the increasingly larger-than-life approach ultimately taken in the follow-up films Black largely had nothing to do with. His material has gotten darker as time has gone on, as if he’s witnessed more of the pain underneath all those Hollywood parties he’s thrown at his mansion and had to do something with all that sleaze. Come to think of it, I went to a few parties at his house circa ’98-’00. I wish I had better stories than I do but I did see the sun rise there at least once so I guess that’s not so bad. There’s genuine regret in the backstory of some of his characters—hey, even Tony Stark in Black’s IRON MAN 3 was appropriately damaged. Holland March can’t stop drinking after the death of his wife and I suspect Jack Healy has a few cobwebs during all those years he wasn’t drinking Yoohoo that he never talks about.
The pleasures of a Shane Black film feel like a rare thing these days, as more and more action films feel simultaneously less humorous and increasingly empty, not a shred of wit or cleverness. Black revels in this—he clearly doesn’t care if you’re offended by a gag and he’d probably be fine if you were. Worried about the extra who gets shot in a scene and we never hear about again? That’s just life in the big city. I miss movies like this. It was more about the flashiness at one time—Riggs talks about getting famous if they bring down the bad guys, “we do shaving ads and shit, girls, money…” but back in the 70s these guys don’t have such high aspirations. They’re just trying to get through the day and even when they succeed, it doesn’t matter if anyone else knows. Even when Jack Healy reveals the big story of his past the person listening is fast asleep anyway. As it turns out his big motivation is as pure as I can imagine—he likes his apartment (located on top of the Comedy Store, however that works) and doesn’t want to move. You live long enough in Los Angeles, you just want to keep to yourself, stay where you live and occasionally emerge to go to a big party where they have whores and stuff (don’t say “…and stuff”). As party scenes go it’s not exactly Z-Man’s in BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS—after all, I’ve been to parties where they dance to Earth, Wind & Fire but this is the first time Earth, Wind & Fire played the party--but it’s still not bad.
Black almost seems amused by his own plotting, knowing that we’re going to need to get from one point to the other so he just has some fun with it. At one point when March kicks things to the next scene by actually doing something smart it turns out he’s wrong anyway. Even a certain dream sequence winds up having plot significance in the end, it was just the most unexpected way to get there and it’s that sort of creative choice which gives THE NICE GUYS the right sort of edge, the slight touch of anarchy balancing out the conspiracy. The presence of Kim Basinger in scenes with Russell Crowe automatically serves as an L.A. CONFIDENTIAL homage (RIP Curtis Hanson) although the less convoluted plot of this film still feels somewhat murkier, maybe a little too much. Basinger is essentially this film’s Noah Cross but it’s not helped by her weak performance as if she wasn’t entirely clear on how she fit into the plot—maybe another scene or beat or something was needed to smooth this out.
Black’s directing style definitely feels more settled than it did back in KISS KISS BANG BANG as if he’s focusing on his actors and telling the story than in just doing things for wacky effect so the elevator scene simply becomes about their quiet reactions to the mayhem outside and we don’t need anything more than that. He doesn’t always nail things (a better visual stylist might have done more with the gag of a rotating car during the climactic shootout) but every now and then he sets up a gag perfectly and while I’m not sure Shane Black has ever learned what actually happens to people when they fall from great heights I wouldn’t have it any other way. The energy keeps the film going past other flaws and I can’t even quite always pinpoint what they are--maybe part of the problem is shooting the film digitally (the first film shot digitally by the great Philippe Rousselot, incidentally) since even if it’s sunny California I never quite picture the 70s as this bright and gleaming. The film is often at its best when the scene is nothing more than the characters bickering while hanging out drinking in the afternoon and at times that vibe is all I want from THE NICE GUYS. Maybe that’s why the late action scene involving the house getting sprayed with machine gun fire is one of my least favorite stretches. For once, I’d like a little more ROCKFORD FILES and not as much Joel Silver but it’s still close enough. The mayhem of the climax works better, maybe because there’s enough comedy mixed in and there’s something about how things play out which is very satisfying.
“Are you a bad person?” goes one question and that’s the question the characters seem to be quietly asking themselves. Black’s treatment of women in his films kicked off with the nude Amanda Hunsaker plunging to her death at the start of LETHAL WEAPON and the opening corpse this time around is not dissimilar only with an added twist. KISS KISS BANG BANG openly addressed how much women in Los Angeles are regularly tossed aside and THE NICE GUYS is clearly set in that world as well, no closer to having an answer and complete with a key female character this time around who has openly embraced the conspiracy. But as the film’s opening makes clear, that sleazy L.A. world is unavoidable, even if you’re safe in your bedroom. You can hide it under your bed if you want but there’s no stopping it when it literally crashes into your world, which it’s probably going to do. The fantasy is going to turn into some sort of reality eventually. It’s just up to you at that moment how you deal with it. That’s what makes you a human being. Or maybe just not a bad person. I don’t like THE NICE GUYS as much as I want to but it’s hard for me not to love it.
The pairing of Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling works beautifully—Crowe feels totally relaxed and assured, giving one of his best performances with expert timing. Gosling, the Lou Costello to his Bud Abbott, displays physical comic prowess which is at times awe-inspiring. Angourie Rice, forever glaring at Gosling as his daughter, matches them line for line. Margaret Qualley has a knack for spitting out lots of exposition as the mysterious Amelia qhile Matt Bomer and Beau Knapp are both effective in their villain roles even if they’re not quite Taylor Negron in THE LAST BOY SCOUT (few henchmen are, you have to admit). Keith David is slightly wasted as one of the other bad guys but it’s still nice to have him around particularly when he just shrugs in response as his partner freaks out about something. Like everyone in this movie, he knows there’s only so much you can do.
Al Green sings “Love and Happiness” over the end credits, a perfect reminder of what there’s not enough of in the porn-soaked world of Los Angeles that Shane Black gives us but sometimes if you're with the right person you can remember the good things in the world. That's why Philip Marlowe wanted his cat back, after all. Appropriate for the detective genre, nothing really changes just like J. J. Gittes couldn’t do anything to help Evelyn Mulwray in the end. Daughters wind up dead. The powerful don’t get punished. You jumped off that roof for nothing. In the context of all that, the completion of Jackson Healy’s arc makes perfect sense at the end of 2016. Simply put, after noticeably turning down offers throughout the film at the fadeout he’s drinking again, ready to be partners with Holland March and presumably spending many afternoons doing just that. After all, some things are enough to get you to start drinking again anyway and if they’re not, I don’t know what to do with you. For the record, I stopped back in April. There were reasons, it’s a long story. Maybe I’ll start again tomorrow. Maybe what 2017 becomes will make me have to. I make no promises. Either way, whether it’s 1977 or 2017 the bad guys don’t lose. It’s the nice guys who fuck up and forever wonder if they’re a bad person. The best you can take with you is the knowledge that sometimes certain things do work out. Even if all you’ve got is all you’ve got. It’s something. It’s the search for those moments where you actually feel useful and make you want to wish for things. Those moments may be small ones and they’re hard to come by but they’re possible. I hope.

The Next Thing That Happens

If this hasn’t been a year about death, about the end of everything we’ve ever known, I don’t know what it is. But the question is what to do once the world ends. That’s something I’ve been wondering a lot, the past few months especially. “I wish I’d been here then,” goes a line in THE MISFITS, that legendary film directed by John Huston and written by Arthur Miller. It refers to another time when things were allegedly better, when there were more possibilities on the horizon of that desert as far as the eye could see. The thing is that much of THE MISFITS is made up of such key lines, maybe what you’d expect from this particular playwright, exposing all his demons in a screenplay written specifically for his emotionally troubled wife, fraught with all the meaning in the world and whatever you want to read into it. It plays as if this dialogue wasn’t meant to be spoken in a film at all but in some sort of theater-cinema hybrid written to play out on the biggest stage ever created in the history of the world. As great as some of it might be THE MISFITS is a problematic film, just as it’s an extremely problematic world, a film with a legacy that has made it bigger than it was, almost as if it was designed to become that in the first place. If THE MISFITS falters, if it feels like the film turns down the wrong road at a certain point, in some ways that almost feels right and it’s a reminder of how often we go down the wrong road ourselves, trapped on our own path of forever searching for the wrong thing. It makes the film feel all the more true somehow, becoming a dream of what we wish for even if we can never quite put it into words. So much is a dream anyway. And there are no easy answers.
Released in early 1961, if THE MISFITS is remembered at all these days much of the reason is the history which surrounds it, particularly involving the legendary stars above the title who as things turned out didn’t live for much longer afterwards, eerily fitting for a film focused so much on death. Clark Gable, in particular, died mere weeks after completing work on it and Marilyn Monroe was gone less than two years later so the film could almost be read as being about the end of the Golden Age of Hollywood and everything it represents as much as John Ford’s THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE was. But shot out on location away from Hollywood it’s also about the end of all sorts of things--stardom, legend, love, dreams, America, the world and the small matter of life itself. Reading up on the production is a reminder that any history of THE MISFITS might be more interesting than the film itself due to Gable’s health, the fragile nature of Monroe’s state and the larger-than-life personality of its director—maybe this is the one they should have made a movie about instead of THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL. Even certain photographs taken of the actors on location manage to enshroud the entire production on the level of Myth. THE MISFITS is set entirely in Nevada—Reno, specifically—among people who have arrived there because they don’t belong anywhere else, just as the jigsaw pieces of the main titles don’t connect. But I’m not even sure how much that matters since even though the film was shot out on location it’s almost set in another place altogether, a stark black & white dimension where the stars aren’t acting these roles but were instead reincarnated into this alternate world and these are the lives they’re now leading, with the unavoidable shroud of fate always before them. As a story THE MISFITS may not be about as much as it appears to be at first but as a movie it’s almost about everything.
In Reno to finalize her divorce, Roslyn Tabor (Marilyn Monroe) is staying with best friend Isabelle Steers (Thelma Ritter) when she meets cowboy Gay Langland (Clark Gable) and his best friend Guido (Eli Wallach). Even though Guido was the one who met her first, Roslyn is clearly drawn to Gay and the two of them move in to Guido’s never-finished house together. Gay soon has an idea to head out to round up wild mustangs and they recruit another cowboy, Pierce Howland (Montgomery Clift) to join in. But things begin to change when Roslyn learns the reason why they’re trying to capture these horses in the first place, sparking an unavoidable conflict between her and the three men.
Years after they happen you remember moments. Those little moments you shared with a person and even after they’ve decided how much they hate you those moments are impossible to forget in the middle of the night, keeping a stranglehold as you try to make it until the next morning. In the end those little things mean more than anything else that’s happened in your life. Just as every single moment in THE MISFITS is swirling with import through each gesture and line of dialogue. At times the film feels so overwhelmed by itself that it loses track of what it wants to be, which itself makes a certain amount of sense because it’s about pieces that don’t entirely fit together. It’s as if Arthur Miller always had a focus on what his theme was while writing the script, he knew who he wanted to write about, but while fighting his way through the complex emotions of the characters too often lost track of where he was going with the story, focusing on moments over the actual plot particularly during the final half hour when it feels like some beats are repeated a few times too many. One of the leads even drops out of the film around the halfway mark, never to be seen again, instead becoming attached to another group where they may be just as much an odd one out, another piece of a jigsaw puzzle that doesn’t quite fit. There’s a goal the film seems to have about coming to some sort of peace with what you’ve lost, even if you’re not sure that you believe it for more than a moment, and that people are going to drop out of your life no matter what. Maybe none of those things ever mattered anyway. “Maybe all there really is is the next thing. The next thing that happens. Maybe you’re not supposed to remember anyone’s promises,” Marilyn’s character muses to Pierce, to herself, to no one at all. There’s nothing to ever be gained from depending on others. People leave. They’re going to wind up hating you. Everything ends.
The black & white look is harsh and the film feels free, undeniably modern even if it’s about people willingly stuck in the past. It’s easy to imagine another director of the time shooting this in color and CinemaScope, framing everything like the play that Miller may have imagined it as, more interested in the gimmick of the stars and the spectacular nature of the climax. Instead Huston uses his frame to capture the small moments, the intimacy and awkwardness of the characters together in the frame. One imagines him standing there directing the film, staring coldly at these characters with every ounce of compassion he never reveals to anyone else. The filmmaking never feels bolted down as a result even if it sometimes becomes an allegiance of words and imagery that doesn’t always go together smoothly. You can almost feel the struggle of whether THE MISFITS wants to be a director’s film or a writer’s film and considering all the dialogue which sounds like it’s meant to be played out on a stage it’s as if the frame is continually searching for its own proscenium arch but slightly missing it. Another version of THE MISFITS by another director might have been more normal, maybe even more palatable but Huston continually gets in so close it’s as if you’re drinking right next to them, not sure if you want to stay there or flee.
Every scene makes an impression on its own but the story is also too vague at times maybe a few too many rambling monologues by the characters during general drunkenness; like Rosalyn’s divorce present, it’s a beautiful car with barely any miles on it and a few noticeable dents. THE MISFITS is a very good film that clearly wants to be the greatest film—producer Frank Taylor even told a reporter for Time Magazine that it was an attempt to make “the ultimate motion picture”—and maybe its biggest flaw is that it falls short of that impossible goal. But in some ways the messiness is essential as if it loses track of itself in a drunken reverie and that certain amount of unreality becomes haunting, a coldness which balances out the character’s lack of direction with the harsh reality that rears its head unexpectedly. Moments feel important but it’s not always clear exactly why, with that jangly Alex North score making me feel uneasy. Some of Huston’s best directorial moments seem to come out of nowhere shot in an offhand way, almost before we realize they’ve happened like when Montgomery Clift enters the film late and we hold outside a phone booth as his cowboy heartbreakingly calls his mother on the phone or Gable bluntly lecturing Monroe about the importance of death. Even the famous paddleball scene which may be an attempt to give this film its own version of Marilyn standing over the subway grate in THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH almost feels kind of sad the longer it goes on as if the real Marilyn Monroe has somehow wound up in this two-bit Reno bar and all she has left is men grabbing her ass.
“Here’s to your life, Roslyn. I hope it goes on forever,” toasts Guido, played by Eli Wallach who of course nearly did live forever, unlike Marilyn. Arthur Miller wrote this for her and their marriage fell apart. Much of the film is about the impossibility of ever understanding her, Miller seeming to represent each of these three men splintered off trying to connect with her and only sometimes coming close. A more straightforward plot might not have bothered with the Montgomery Clift character, focusing on a strict Rosalyn-Gay-Guido triangle, but Clift brings a heart to it, a vulnerability as if he’s going to fall apart at any moment but deep down he’s stronger than the other two, facing the truth of where their lives are. So much of the film is just about studying the actors in the frame, like how soft the focus sometimes goes on Monroe, whatever the real world reasons were for this. It’s possible that she never got to play a fully fleshed out human being as much as she does here unlike a few of those Twentieth Century-Fox star vehicles that I’ve never been crazy about, even if in the context of this film she’s supposed to be something none of the others can ever pin down. When she dances with Eli Wallach the effect she gives off is almost startling as if Monroe is trying to keep herself from suddenly having another nervous breakdown while in the middle of a take, her own demons always at the forefront of her mind. The film often feels transmitted to us from another dimension, there’s an intensity it has which goes beyond simply what the material is.
After the visual intensity of the Mustang hunt, Monroe’s big speech near the end where she lets loose all of her fury on the three men is played with the actress far away from the camera, almost as if the film is keeping its own theme out of reach, never to be fully understood. Maybe Huston simply decided the moment didn’t play well in close-up, maybe it’s about how all these men are keeping this woman at a distance. “She’s crazy. They’re all crazy,” Guido says to dismiss her after she’s rejected him and that’s the easiest thing in the world to do, after all, to stop trying to understand them while waiting for them to understand you. Instead it’s easy to go after a phantom, like the mustangs they try to capture for dog food, so few horses there that it barely seems worth it, that the only thing they seem to know how to do barely even exists anymore. “Better than wages” is the phrase Gay repeats like a mantra as if he’s trying to convince himself, that it’s the only way to “just live”. In Reno you can eat whenever you want, own a bunch of clocks that don’t work and live in an unfinished house where you can live an unfinished life unlike the real world where you recite the way things never really were, like Rosalyn has to do at her divorce hearing. That’s the place where every man who meets Roslyn, who as far as we know is just Marilyn Monroe, instantly falls for her placing all their dreams and regrets on her face. Clift’s Pierce unloads the story of his life on her lying near a pile of empty beer cans and says he loves her only hours after the meet, something he may not remember the next day anyway. Guido, desperately trying to impress her, asks for her to say his name ultimately unable to hide his bitterness. Only Gay seems to know how to crack the code of her sadness while also challenging it with his own beliefs but it’s still tough to know how he’s going to hold onto her after the film ends.
The very last moment of the film is as famous as anything about it, feeling a little like it was always designed to end at this point but maybe rewrites of the scenes leading up to it causes the dialogue to play like the scene is reaching for a transcendent feel it doesn’t quite achieve. Of course it turned out to be the final screen moment of the two stars onscreen so in some way THE MISFITS was able to become what it wanted to be. It may not be the ultimate motion picture but even when the story loses track there’s not very much like it. The film is a code which can’t quite be cracked, just like Marilyn can’t quite be cracked and never will. It makes me question what matters and how we can connect with another person, if we ever really can. And how we go on living knowing what there is to come. It’s not about whether THE MISFITS is good or not but it is a film that I could watch five times this year, then five times next year and it will have a totally different effect on me, whether I’ve changed or not. I wonder if I will. The film, meanwhile, will still be a work of art. It just lives.
The performances are a reminder of how it’s a film deliberately trapped between eras, Clark Gable’s old school MGM experience up against the Actors Studio training of the other stars. Gable is phenomenal, his strength and vulnerability coming through in every line reading. Up against him, up against everyone, Monroe is otherworldly in displaying her innocent trust of everyone, smarter than any of them think but still lost and never thinking beyond the next thirty seconds. It matches perfectly with the sensitivity displayed by Montgomery Clift and the growing anger of Eli Wallach. Thelma Ritter brings a healthy dose of pragmatism, gladly seeing through everyone and enjoying herself. Kevin McCarthy briefly appears as Monroe’s husband with a fair amount of his miniscule screentime played looking at his back. It still gives us the idea that there could be a whole movie around that marriage and how he probably never understood her any more than anyone ever does.
“What if he died?” Rosalyn asks Gay right after Pierce is hurt at the rodeo. Well, we all know the answer to that already. THE MISFITS is a movie about death, one that seems to be all too aware of the inevitability deep down. So maybe there’s no happy ending here. Maybe there’s no happy ending anywhere as much as we can sometimes pretend otherwise. And if the film doesn’t always connect and if it doesn’t feel very satisfying after that last moment just like when you reach the end of a year you dwell on all those missed chances and all the times you found yourself staring at the wall, asking for help in a world where there’s no one around to listen. For me this has been a year of picking up shards of broken glass with my bare hands. And I think they’re going to get sharper next year. Until then, I’ll have to find another way to be alive once the world ends. If that’s possible.