Monday, June 5, 2017
Not That It Matters
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.