Thursday, June 15, 2017
There’s no particular need to defend BEVERLY HILLS COP II. It comes from the absolute dregs of the 80s and Tony Scott, rest his soul, gave us that one-two punch of TOP GUN in ‘86 followed by this film serving as a cinematic illustration of just how rotten the decade was in all its MTV glamour. Funny thing is, I never have any desire to see TOP GUN again, and don’t bother asking me, but BEVERLY HILLS COP II is one that I feel a little more ambivalent towards. As a matter of fact, I’ll gladly watch it right now if you want. The film was a big enough hit when it came out over Memorial Day weekend 1987 although it was never the meteor crashing to earth that Martin Brest’s original film was when released at the end of ’84. As much as that film was the absolute peak of Eddie Murphy Mania, today it plays like a modest, pleasantly enjoyable movie bolstered by the explosion of his star power along with a few fantastic supporting performances by both good guys and bad.
Now celebrating its 30th anniversary, Part II isn’t really the same thing for a variety of reasons, chief among them being that’s not what you hired Tony Scott for. If you’d seen TOP GUN or THE HUNGER or, I’m assuming, commercials he’d directed you got him for pure visual power. What Scott brought with him was a new eye to material which could somehow elevate the storytelling through sheer force, not necessarily for character work or opening up new possibilities to the concept. And there aren’t any particularly memorable new characters or elements in BEVERLY HILLS COP II unless you want to count the sheer presence of Brigitte Nielsen, not that she ever really does that much in the film. Earlier concepts for sequels included a version set in London but as it was finally made the film clearly isn’t supposed to be anything new or different. It’s supposed to be More. For one thing, when they go to a strip club this time around it’s a high end strip club (where a Coke costs seven dollars). And even though that cockiness to the filmmaking borders on an arrogance at times it does have that pop energy brought to it by Tony Scott and his crew. Instead of just using it as a showcase for Eddie Murphy and his routines the director makes it a full-fledged movie. Comedy is secondary, not to mention any semblance of social commentary, and it all feels like a story made up by a couple of 12 year-old boys looking to make their own BEVERLY HILLS COP sequel. That’s probably exactly what producers Don Simpson & Jerry Bruckheimer wanted but it damn well moves, containing immense energy like a freight train built with a Ferrari engine burning through that hazy, smoky imagery in almost every shot. Like I said, I’ll gladly watch it again right now.
As Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy) is involved in undercover duties back in Detroit, his friend Captain Bogomil (Ronny Cox) in Beverly Hills is investigating a series of Alphabet robberies in the city led by the mysterious blonde Karla Fry (Brigitte Nielsen). After being suspended by the new hard-assed police chief (Allen Garfield) angered by the lack of movement in the investigation, Bogomil is gunned down on the street with a ‘B’ left on his body signaling that the bandits have struck again. So Axel flies into town immediately to team up with friends Billy Rosewood (Judge Reinhold) and John Taggart (John Ashton) to catch the bandits. Their investigation leads them to the Beverly Hills Shooting Club where Foley encounters Fry who is in fact working with Maxwell Dent (Jurgen Prochnow), the mastermind behind the crimes. On the trail of what their plan really is, Foley, Rosewood and Taggart begin to put the pieces together to take them down.
Out of total curiosity, the other week I ran a “Which film says ‘The 80s!’ the most?” poll on Twitter placing this film up against COCKTAIL, ROCKY IV and THE SECRET OF MY SUCCESS. The three other choices were fairly random (ROCKY IV won; I would have gone with THE SECRET OF MY SUCCESS) but I thought that BEVERLY HILLS COP II might have done better with its slickness and gleeful immaturity. For a movie where we get a title card identifying ‘BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA’ twice in the first ten minutes to clarify things for anyone not paying attention I’m still not sure it actually makes a lick of sense. Seriously, writing that summary above was harder than I thought and one of the best things to say about the plot (story by Eddie Murphy & Robert D. Wachs, screenplay by Larry Ferguson and Warren Skaaren) is that it moves so fast you might not bother to ask questions. For one thing, I’m not sure how the police in Beverly Hills are investigating what they believe to be a series of ‘Alphabet Crimes’ after a single robbery (of course, the imdb goofs page is way ahead of me on this) and at least once someone says the ‘Alphabet Killer’ even though no one’s actually been killed as if the full plan for the bad guys hadn’t been totally worked out as the script was presumably being rewritten during production (shoutout to whoever got Agatha Christie listed as an uncredited writer on the imdb page, presumably a reference to her novel “The ABC Murders”). Captain Bogomil gets several bullets fired into him at close range without being killed which doesn’t make the bad guys particularly competent at their jobs. At one point there’s talk of stopping the impending ‘E’ crime, but I’ll be damned if I can figure out what happened to the ‘D’. What I’m saying is, this is not exactly an airtight story although I doubt anyone outside of maybe Roger Ebert has ever cared.
The big surprise is that the film isn’t as funny as you’d think an Eddie Murphy movie from the 80s would be since it’s more interested in the action, the smoke, the pureness of the imagery. The bigger surprise is watching the film now in 2017 it’s not that big a deal since as much as it feels like ‘the 80s’ the pure style of Tony Scott’s direction means that it hasn’t dated as badly as other films from around the same period. His visual approach became more complex over the years but here entire scenes are framed almost like a series of paintings depicting life in Southern California--Jessica Ritchey (@Ruby_Stevens) on Twitter pointed out they’re like Patrick Nagel paintings, which is dead on. But it’s also much looser than I remember with a relaxed vibe to it all, even down to the cigars some characters are smoking in scenes which feels like they just happened to be holding them as the cameras started to roll. The bulk of Eddie Murphy’s improvs where Axel Foley talks his way into places feels like second rate material this time around but since there’s no need for tension between Foley, Rosewood and Taggart anymore the chemistry between them makes it almost a hangout film in a Hawksian sense, even if it is much flashier and anarchic than Hawks would ever do. The looseness of the way the guys start humming the theme to “The Dating Game” at one point feels like it was totally made up on the spot, which Judge Reinhold confirms on the DVD and even his reaction to John Ashton falling in the swimming pool looks totally genuine.
Compared to the first film which was grounded in a fairly believable world upended by the lead character, II is all flash and everyone, including the few people we see in Detroit, feel part of the same universe so the fish out of water concept of the original is pretty much forgotten about (even more than the first film, it doesn’t differentiate very much between Beverly Hills and Los Angeles anyway, not that I could tell the difference seeing it at Yonkers Movieland). It’s not about reality in any form and it doesn’t care. The comedy part of all this is clearly outside of Tony Scott’s wheelhouse (the bit in the strip club where Foley claims that Taggart is actually Gerald Ford isn’t much but at least it’s an attempt) and he doesn’t seem to know how to direct the day players who are straight men to Murphy’s routines; it helps immensely when it’s someone who already knows comedy like Paul Reiser or Gilbert Gottfried; in his scenes with them Murphy isn’t even the big personality in the scene and he seems to enjoy how the dynamic suddenly shifts. The film is gleefully immature and ultimately hollow at its core but somehow feels strangely innocent much of the time, not a care about anything beyond creating its own world while barreling forward.
The visual flash manages to mask how flimsy the story is, a reminder of how as Tony Scott got better scripts to work with (THE LAST BOY SCOUT, TRUE ROMANCE, CRIMSON TIDE, MAN ON FIRE) the better and more layered his films became. As chase heavy as the film is there’s also a lot of dialogue used to explain byzantine the plot involving the alphabet crimes and breaking the complex code the bad guys leave behind (much of the heavy lifting done by Alice Adair, as Bogomil’s daughter—the one female character who’s not a bitch or a slut so all she does is provide exposition) giving the impression more is going on than there really is with information occasionally shoehorned into scenes as if put in there at the very last second. I think I can follow it all but, nah, I can’t. But barely any of it matters anyway, since it focuses mainly on being enough of a clone of the original whether it makes sense to be or not, so a flashy 80s montage of Axel driving around Beverly Hills immediately after visiting Bogomil in the hospital feels a little out of place. A big thing is made out of the bad guys getting the address of where Foley is staying but instead of ambushing him there in the dead of night they follow him to strip club owned by one of the other bad guys where they try to gun him down. As much as they glower while acting European, the bad guys don’t really do very much in between robberies and while I doubt anybody was worried about Axel Foley in the first film there was still an undeniable tension in how Steven Berkoff and Jonathan Banks would sit there simmering as he talked, a believable threat hanging in the air which this film never bothers to attempt. For all everybody remembers Murphy’s ‘grooming services’ line while sizing up Brigitte Nielsen’s Karla Fry at the gun club there’s not much interaction between him and the bad guys at all. Some of that stuff is pretty crass anyway, with Foley referring to her as a bitch even before finding out who she really is and the overall tone of misogyny that runs through the entire film would probably get more than a few angry online pieces written about it today. Oddly the film rushes through the visit to the Playboy Mansion, complete with Hugh Hefner cameo, and the sequence feels pretty shoehorned in. Even at that location the movie doesn’t linger, ready to move on to the next chase not wanting to hang around.
As a lengthy aside, the recent 30th anniversary of BEVERLY HILLS COP II reminds me that the film opened less than a week after Elaine May’s legendary ISHTAR which was roundly trounced by it at the box office. Just a few weeks ago ISHTAR ran at the New Beverly (paired with A NEW LEAF) and played like gangbusters to the packed house, a welcome reversal of what happened in ’87 but also a reminder of how which of these two films was the perfect one for that moment. They actually have oddly similar climaxes each featuring the leads heading into battle heavily armed and of the two the movie which has the characters admit that they’re prepared for the worst isn’t the one from the director of TOP GUN. There’s never any doubt about winning in BEVERLY HILLS COP II but in its commentary on Reagan-era foreign policy ISHTAR is more open to the individual and what it means to be a loser and a pawn in how the corrupt system views you. COP II is somewhat more apolitical beyond its generic embracing of ‘the 80s’ and everything insidious that stands for, including guns, fast cars and women told to keep quiet but as much of a maverick as Axel Foley is supposed to be it’s still about upholding the system and preventing the evil foreigners of the world from using American might to get rich for themselves around the world. In ISHTAR the glory isn’t in money or even victory but in simply getting to do what you want in the world, whether the establishment is happy about that or not. Both films clearly have a love for their main characters but ISHTAR loves the losers that they are and the film is about reveling in your expected failure because you’d rather have nothing than settle for less. BEVERLY HILLS COP II is about victory since failure is never a possibility and it highlights the emptiness of the film in the end. Which made it perfect for the decade because nothing of value can ever come after that empty glory.
Quentin Tarantino likes it, saying in a Video Watchdog interview on sequels back in 2012, “it’s gorgeous looking and cinema is very much involved”. He likes ISHTAR too, for the record. I’ve grown to like BEVERLY HILLS COP II myself in its slick, ultra dumb-dumb way over the years since the slickness at least feels genuine, unlike a lot of really crappy action movies I can think of. There’s beauty in this junk so its own excitement about itself is part of what makes it work so well, a complete film world created by Tony Scott along with cinematographer Jeffrey L. Kimball and his multiple editors along with a Harold Faltermeyer soundtrack which in addition to the various songs and expected umpteen reprises of “Axel F” seems largely inspired by the track “The Duke Arrives” from John Carpenter’s ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK score. I wouldn’t want to live forever in this but an afternoon wouldn’t be so bad. For all the action and movement and crashing through parking meters as cars barrel down sidewalks, it’s really about the sensation of that ferocious imagery, not about any sort of suspense. The final shootout seems pretty brief for what you’d think would be a grand confrontation between hero and villain but why draw it out. As for the legendary Taggart line after he blows away a certain bad guy at the end, it’s pretty memorable in its brevity. It’s a good line. It’s a pithy line. And it’s also pretty awful about the worldview being stated. But hey, it was the 80s. The last line of the film is “Who’s that black guy?” spoken by the guy whose house he was using and it feels like the only truly racially tinged moment of the film, that ‘he doesn’t belong here’ inherent in the conflict which the film never addresses and doesn’t seem to care.
The funny thing is that the movie is pretty much the high water mark of Eddie Murphy, Superstar as we knew it then. COMING TO AMERICA was the following year and an even bigger hit but it at least involved Murphy playing a different sort of character. That was followed by HARLEM NIGHTS and at that point the cracks were beginning to show. But with James Ingram’s “Better Way” playing us out as the end credits roll, the cockiness of BEVERLY HILLS COP II is so assured that it feels like the vibe is going to go on forever, as if Paramount was ready to have them start production on Part III a week later. For what we knew of as Eddie Murphy in the first ten years of his career, it was never close to this high again. Everything ends eventually, we just don’t know it until it’s too late.
When there’s a giant close-up of Eddie Murphy laughing during the opening credits it’s as if he knows that’s why the movie is being made. He’s coasting here and it’s not like there’s much that could be said to be actual character work. Murphy is even effective during the quiet moments in the first film but this film has no quiet moments. In the way he directed his star Martin Brest was interested in behavior. Scott wants the movement. But going with the hangout vibe he does seem to enjoy playing off his main co-stars, a reminder of how well Judge Reinhold and John Ashton played off each other as these guys, adding immensely to how much fun the scenes are. If they ever decided to spinoff the two characters in their own film—and I wonder if that was ever brought up—it probably wouldn’t have been enough without Murphy but the two of them are ideal together here. There’s not much to say about Brigitte Nielsen in terms of performance but Tony Scott really does know how to shoot her. If only he could have figured out how to do more with her signature “Good bye” line but maybe what we got was the most effective way to do it and hidden in the shadows Jurgen Prochnow doesn’t make much of an impression at all. There’s not much to say about them, as much as the movie tries to convince us they’re important--I’m not even sure if CSI’s Paul Guilfoyle gets any actual dialogue as arms dealer Nick Thomopolis. On the other hand, Dean Stockwell barely does anything as his secondary bad guy but even his flat line readings have a touch of eccentricity. As new Beverly Hills Police Chief Lutz, Allen Garfield shouts so much you almost remember him more than anyone else in the movie, Robert Ridgley of BOOGIE NIGHTS is the Mayor of Beverly Hills while actual cop Gil Hill of the Detroit Homicide Division again plays Foley’s captain back home. Paul Reiser, then hot off ALIENS, again plays Axel’s friend Jeffrey, this time getting his own brief subplot, Gilbert Gottfried is accountant Sidney Bernstein and a very young Chris Rock appears briefly as a parking valet at the Playboy Mansion.
There finally was a BEVERLY HILLS COP III directed by John Landis a full seven years later and it’s not remembered for very much other than being bad (and a George Lucas cameo) so not much needs to be said about it. In 2013 there was even a pilot for a BEVERLY HILLS COP series meant for CBS that wasn’t picked up, featuring Murphy as Axel Foley working with son Aaron Foley, played by Brandon T. Jackson. I’ve seen it and, trust me, not much needs to be said about that either. Rumors of a fourth film still crop up occasionally but maybe one reason why it hasn’t happened is that it needs to figure out what the BEVERLY HILLS COP franchise is and I’m not sure there’s an answer to that beyond, “Eddie Murphy ad-libs his way through an action-comedy in 1984.” Which was great then, sure, but outside of that context it’s pretty much empty sensation. But taken by itself, BEVERLY HILLS COP II, defiantly staying back in the decade it was made and working today as a Tony Scott film. As immature as it is, there’s a likability and a glee that Michael Bay, the next step in the Simpson-Bruckheimer visual evolution, has never managed. No, there’s not much point in defending it but sometimes you watch what you watch anyway. Maybe to reclaim those feelings of being back there even though it’s never a place I want to visit. Maybe to wish it had all been a little better.
Monday, June 5, 2017
I was driving around the other day. I don’t do a lot of driving lately or at least I try to do as little as possible. But this day was different. And at a certain point I found myself near a certain area, a part of town I’ve always liked and a part of town I have a recent history with. But I couldn’t go there right now. I knew I couldn’t. I couldn’t even drive through it at top speed. So I turned right on 3rd and got out of there. You have to know when it’s ok to get close again. And right now it’s not.
It’s never certain who is going to be remembered. A few months back the New Beverly Cinema ran a series of several Frank Perry films leading me to make the observation on Twitter that if Michael Ritchie is like Hal Ashby’s scrappy younger brother then Frank Perry is the cousin out on Long Island who never calls (there are endless possibilities for this New Hollywood line of thought—Paul Mazursky is the family friend who moved out to the coast and is thinking of coming back, Larry Peerce is stuck in a crappy sublet on the west side). Anyway, so I go for the jokes everyone will get. Frank Perry, to somehow find a way back to him, died in 1995 and presently has the bad fortune to have his best remembered film also be his most notorious, specifically MOMMIE DEAREST, and however much we may want to assign blame to him for everything surrounding that is a discussion for another time. That film wasn’t part of the series at the New Beverly and the one night I made it there the place was packed for what was to me one of the most interesting pairings—1970’s DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE is an unsung near-masterpiece as far as I’m concerned and close to impossible to find these days. I’m not quite as effusive over his 1972 film PLAY IT AS IT LAYS, which has never had an official video release in any format, and though it’s a hard film to pin down looking at it again years after my first viewing it’s growing on me. I think I needed to go through some stuff for that response to happen. Maybe I’m still going through some of it, which helps some more.
See, it’s the freeways. That’s what I always remember about PLAY IT AS IT LAYS, the story of Maria Wyeth (Tuesday Weld), a sort of actress who spends her time drifting aimlessly through her days in Hollywood, aware that her marriage to film director Carter Lang (Adam Roarke) is falling apart and the only person she can connect with is her gay friend B.Z. (Anthony Perkins), Carter’s producer who shares her own fatalistic view of life. For a long time after I first saw PLAY IT AS IT LAYS (screenplay by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, based on Didion’s novel) just about the only thing I remembered were shots of the L.A. freeways that the main character is constantly driving on, going as far as the eye can make out, disappearing into the prevalent 70s smog and making me wonder who all those people were driving on those freeways way back then. Released in October 1972 and presumably set in 1972 (costumes by Joel Schumacher which is about as 70s a screen credit as you can get), something about the very tone of PLAY IT AS IT LAYS makes it instantly dated just as many films from around that time are and not simply because of abortion subplots. It really couldn’t be set during any other time and makes me wonder about how much changed between then and when I first showed up in town, something about the mood, the behavior, the language. In both novel and film the freeways are always referred to by their names as in the Harbor Freeway or the Ventura Freeway, not the 170 or the 101 like we do today but I’m really thinking about more than that. Have I ever actually encountered anyone like these people? The narrative is deliberately fractured as if meant to be nothing more than a zoned out version of the L.A. montage at the start of BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS stretched out to feature length on white wine and pills, the world of L.A. on all those freeways happening without you while you endlessly stay holed up in your apartment as you wonder when the story is really going to start. One scene, one moment, one drip of the faucet spilling over as the sun beats down or the rain falls, one reel change to the next. We either accept Maria (“pronounced Mar-eye-ah, to get it straight at the outset” as we’re told in the book) searching for the reason on the freeway as if all those roads will lead to some sort of answer or we don’t and she couldn’t care less what we do.
With a framing device showing Maria in some sort of LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD-type institution after the fallout of the shocking ending, no one else is seen there but even Maria barely exists as it is. All that matters is she’s alone. Just about all we know with any clarity through the bulk of PLAY IT AS IT LAYS is that she drives, driving endlessly, even changing a flat out on the freeway all by herself. Whoever she is, at the least she’s the star of the two films Carter directed, one a motorcycle picture called “Angel Beach” and the other simply called “Maria” which apparently consists of Maria talking about herself and nothing else. This more than anything seems to have led to success for Carter instead of her as we see him quizzed on a chat show about the reality of what he was filming. But PLAY IT AS IT LAYS isn’t interested in examining the line between film and reality almost as if it knows what a waste of time that is. It’s not a film about films. Maria may be a blank, having emerged from nowhere, placed up on a pedestal for people to analyze her as if she was the reason the male gaze was created. We barely know anything about Carter’s third film, the one he’s making, beyond that it’s shooting out in the desert and the female lead is a clear stand-in for his ex-wife. It’s as if he’s unsuccessfully trying to steal her soul for this new film, aware that their marriage is over but clearly lost without his muse to do whatever he tells her, not an idea in his head beyond how many camera set-ups he can get in and hoping he’ll be praised for it. In David Thomson’s introduction to the novel, he speculates that Carter’s directing career may not last for long—even this early there are signs of how some of those achieving some success in the New Hollywood may crash and burn. None of the characters even seem all that interested in the films they’re making and everyone else they come into contact with is either on the fringes of Hollywood or the fringes of their own world. Film as art is incidental, it’s just a medium that lets you confuse someone with the image you project on to them as you try to figure out what was never real in the first place just as Maria’s fabled hometown of Silver Wells literally doesn’t exist anymore. Even she doesn’t know for sure who she is. When she briefly goes looking for the past out in the desert she doesn’t find anything or anyone to help her and there’s nothing to be found anyway, what once happened lost behind the present where there are never going to be any answers.
Either you’re going to accept that this is a memory piece and not wait for the plot to kick in so your questions will be answered or you’ll throw up your hands after the first twenty minutes. It’s up to you. What are you really looking for anyway, relatability? At one point Maria gets a new apartment so she won’t have to deal with her mail—in the book it’s because a sink backs up which I still can’t decide if it makes more or less sense—and the path she takes, with no real destination and no particular idea of where to look, makes it almost the inverse of Perry’s film of THE SWIMMER from a few years earlier which was partly reshot by others after being taken away from him by star Burt Lancaster. In that film the journey of the main character is both real and metaphorical but there’s an odd TV movie sheen to the whole thing that the film can’t quite overcome, making the unreality of it play almost as an overlong commercial where something is slightly off. I still love THE SWIMMER (which is one I need to get around to eventually) and there’s something undeniably familiar about its suburban hostility for me whereas PLAY IT AS IT LAYS feels both more correct in tone and completely alien at the same time, a film that resists being loved and couldn’t care less about it. This isn’t a world I know in the slightest but it’s also intentionally alienating as if it knows it needs to be observing things not from the outside but from inside Maria’s own head.
The film was made a year after Perry’s divorce from wife Eleanor, essentially the key creative partner of his earlier work, but regardless a number of Frank Perry films from before and after the split, including THE SWIMMER, are about the dead end you find when examining your life and how you react to that revelation, even the forgotten 1987 Shelley Long vehicle HELLO AGAIN (speaking of forgotten 80s movies that I actually saw in the theater). PLAY IT AS IT LAYS finds a cinematic entry into what almost seems like an unadaptable book by facing what was deliberately fragmented head on. I imagine that the screenplay was as lean as the novel which would make sense and at least in the language a fair amount survives the adaptation including one of my favorite lines in the narration where Maria talks about how her father owned the town of Silver Wells adding, “He bought it or won it, I don’t know and it doesn’t matter to you.” Those are the sort of details of memory that get forgotten and we’ll never know what really went on. The film provides us with little tangible information forcing us to piece together who the characters are by ourselves as if we’ve been dropped into a party where everyone else already knows each other so the private jokes don’t make sense. That’s the world it is anyway, one where we often don’t really know who we’re lying next to, no matter how intimate we think we are. Even sex is all about yourself instead of the other person even though everyone always wants to know if you’re fucking someone and what it’s like to fuck them anyway.
Frankly it’s a little tough to decide if I actually get any pleasure out of the film because it’s so constricting or if I’m just fighting my way through an attempt to understand it. The film is like a dream that I don’t particularly enjoy but feels necessary, essential to understanding something that I haven’t been able to resolve. It’s off-putting and humorless but the card shuffle of a narrative somehow makes sense. Like Maria doesn’t seem to care about anyone who would have any interest in trying to impress her, I’m not sure if the movie cares about what you think either. Which is the way it should be. Perry’s direction feels like an organic part of this world, thoroughly understanding and yet you feel the remove. He was a New Yorker, born and died there, so it’s as if he’s just a visitor in this place, a little fascinated by the world and understanding it even though he doesn’t want to get too close to these people, a little bit horrified. He comes off as ambivalent at best about Los Angeles and the surrounding desert, contemptuous of Hollywood and maybe uncertain how he feels about films in general. It even feels separate from however Joan Didion may have felt about all this as if Perry wants to still be able to question what he’s not as close to. Incidentally, MOMMIE DEAREST may be the only other California-set piece in his filmography and of course that one is set in the ugliness of the film business too—Perry’s like a Paul Mazursky without the ability to laugh at himself. The emotional distance of his deceptively simple direction makes clear how much it represents Maria’s own point of view of the world, picking up on the little things around her that no one else could and a three card monte cutting style which continually goes back to small details of the past, just like things we remember ourselves. The cinematography by the great Jordan Cronenweth has a flat, commercial look perfectly captures that zoned out vibe of pills and California wine and it interestingly came a decade before he shot BLADE RUNNER, another film showing people drifting through Los Angeles as they await their expiration date which will come sooner than they want. B.Z. has shut out life around him so much that he almost seems like the one replicant not looking to extend his lifespan. The things he’s seen that people wouldn’t believe aren’t anything he wants to remember.
Of course, it’s a movie that contains very little of people saying what they mean. They’re all holding it back, with relationships that go by so fast you don’t even know what they are beyond a random fuck, refusing to reveal in their pill-popping stupors and when a semblance of honesty is revealed it’s dragged out of the person almost against their will, tired of fucking around. It’s a valid question to ask what matters between you and the people close to you as you feed off each other in that ongoing contest to see who’s more depressed, who’s closer to that scream out into the void. Faces drift in and out and they’re not always explained—for that matter, until I read the book I wasn’t even certain B.Z. and Helene were married, not that whatever I picked up on really matters and the book doesn’t shed all that much more light onto the situation anyway—it even makes sense how in some group shots Carter and Helene are next to each other leaving Maria and B.Z. off to the side, exchanging their looks of how they’re above it all. They’re not living, they’re outside of their own world and yet willingly a part of it, willingly allowing every ounce of humanity to be drained out of them. Drifting to different men with her husband still nearby because what else is there to do, Maria has nothing aside from the driving and she sees it all as pointless as the woman who sweeps the dirt on the porch of that house out in the desert. There is no past, just like Silver Wells no longer exists, there’s not even any evidence of it. Nothing applies, she concludes, unable to reconcile the child she didn’t have, unable to deal with the mentally challenged daughter she does have which all just leads to more emptiness. She’s as much of a blank as that past is, as the desert is, no chance of getting any answers. And there may not be any to get. A few scenes are set in what looks to be possibly the beach house from THE LONG GOODBYE and isn’t that supposed to be my film? What the hell is PLAY IS AS IT LAYS doing encroaching on my own cinematic fantasy? But that doesn’t matter. Deep down Maria knows you’re holding all the cards no matter what. You just have to realize that. Whether you care is something else entirely.
And because I have this vague idea of Tuesday Weld as someone who deliberately eschewed the spotlight it makes her very presence here that much more real as if she’s exactly this person using the blankness of her face, revealing everything and nothing with only the pauses between what she’s saying giving any clues. Anthony Perkins plays B.Z. with a focused ennui to every movement, coming to life when Maria is nearby and says anything at all, even if he doesn’t know what she’s talking about at first, simply going through the motions the rest of the time. The naked bitterness in much of his dialogue contains more honesty than anything else in the film; when asked if he gets tired of doing favors for people the way he says his reply, “You don’t know how tired” sounds like he could be referring to anything from every Norman Bates joke he’s heard to any of the certain secrets he’s been carrying around since who knows when. Together the two of them find a human connection that almost makes their dialogue irrelevant, we can tell everything from their private glances even while their closeness feels totally private. They barely even seem like they’re acting when they’re together, almost as if this is who they really were between takes on their previous team-up PRETTY POISON a few years earlier. Faced up against the oddball energy of some of the smaller roles, particularly Chuck McCann as the abortionist’s assistant who talks about looking for a new car, Adam Roarke as Carter is such an appropriate blank it makes sense that I don’t buy much of anything creative in him when Maria isn’t around. That tension breaks through the monotony of all those little moments where as much as the characters talk they don’t say anything at all and as Helene, Tammy Grimes plays much of her part as if nothing could break through that insufferable finishing school accent almost as if barely a single line of dialogue she has even matters. But her performance makes perfect sense when placed up against the line near the very end of the book, “Maria thought she had never heard anyone scream the way Helene screamed,” and based on the way Grimes screams when it comes there are few moments from any other film adaptation that has as much pure faithfulness to the source as this does.
All that matters is she’s alone. Maybe that’s the real happy ending. I’m not even sure how much I like thinking about it, in the same way I barely want to ever think about the past. But it stays in my head, shot by shot. After all, what other choice is there but to remember, to try to face those memories, to try to understand another person as much as you won’t get an answer, aware that you’ll never feel whole again. Fighting through it can be like trying to regrow a missing limb because there’s never any real answer. Which is a reminder that I’m currently working out in Burbank and every day I cut through Griffith Park to get there. All that greenery helps for a few minutes. Maybe that’s an answer for how to survive this town while you’re still here. Just avoid the freeways.