Wednesday, April 24, 2019

To The Gates of Ecstasy

Sometimes the hardest thing in life can be figuring out where you are and where you should go next. And sometimes you have to ask yourself whether you really know another person at all. In the 1970 Irvin Kershner film LOVING, George Segal plays someone who has long since forgotten what it means to be aware of what you’re reaching for, let alone whether you have the capacity to know another person, to love another person. Kershner is now best remembered for directing THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, but before that was responsible for oddball titles along the lines of S*P*Y*S and THE EYES OF LAURA MARS. The earlier LOVING is more of an idiosyncratic character piece, not a great film since the overall thrust of the narrative is possibly too minor but still a memorable example of simply observing someone and the crumbling world around them while desperately trying to stay afloat among their own mistakes. Despite a running time of less than 90 minutes with a plot that might seem a little too slight at first, it’s a film that gains in complexity as you reflect back on it with even the smallest moments containing surprising resonance. In some ways a 1970-set episode of MAD MEN scored with easy listening music, it’s a film that refuses to offer any answers or sense of relief, merely showing how screwed up all this is.

As commercial illustrator Brooks Wilson (George Segal) awaits news on whether he has gotten an important account with trucking company Lepridon, he is constantly moving back and forth over tensions between wife Selma (Eva Marie Saint) who is pressuring him to make the decision on buying a bigger house and mistress Grace (Janis Young) who is threatening to finally leave him is he doesn’t leave his wife, along with married friend Nelly (Nancie Phillips) who is always just a little too happy each time she and Brooks run into each other. While waiting to learn how an important meeting with Mr. Lepridon (Sterling Hayden) himself went, Brooks takes Selma to a party at a nearby friends’ house where all of the worlds of the women in his life prepare to suddenly collide.

With a story that takes place over just a few days, LOVING is a film that plays as a long, uncertain drag on a cigarette, just as George Segal does in the opening shot as we’re dropped into the middle of it all. It makes no apologies for its lead character while presenting every horrible thing he does up close, somehow aware that we’re sadly going to identify with him whether we like it or not. Segal’s everyman quality has an innate relatability so he never has to work on being likable but between this and BLUME IN LOVE the actor is still pretty close to being the patron saint of 70s guys who are total shits to the women around them, no clue whatsoever of the damage they’re really causing. And as a story, screenplay by Don Devlin based on the novel “Brooks Wilson, Ltd.” by J.M. Ryan, it never needs to pass judgement, merely remaining close by to watch as he digs himself deeper. It’s a film about a man who tries to deal with everything around him by simply avoiding dealing with any of it, whether the pressures of his profession or his women or his screaming kids or even the neighbor dropping by with thinly veiled hostility. He relates to his kids the most while quietly observing them from a distance and is more interested in getting his wife to pose in photo mockups for his jobs instead of actually interacting with her, essentially turning his marriage into something else using the excuse of art, no real use for whatever she might be otherwise. Everything he does seems to be about avoiding the issue of what he really wants as he tries to find a way out of the next conversation.

There’s a cold, wintery feel to the film helped by the chill brought to it by the great cinematographer Gordon Willis, the likes of KLUTE and THE GODFATHER still to come for him at this point, which helps keep it from playing too much like a nasty sitcom and in its darkly funny way captures a very particular ’69-‘70 feel of east coast clutter whether New York or suburban Connecticut. The details always feel tangible down to the quiet of an elementary school at night or even the way Brooks works with a nude model at home as his daughter sits close by, a reminder of the looseness in the air at the time. That slightly dreamlike quality every movie from the period seems to have for me is there as if each shot is somehow searching for a sense of peace beyond anyone’s reach with the location photography in New York particularly evocative; according to some sources the construction site where the Lepridon meeting takes place is apparently the future World Trade Center while the late afternoon light of the opening credit sequence where Segal and his mistress argue in the city streets contains a particularly loose quality as if some of it was maybe filmed with hidden cameras. It all captures a sense of the isolation that can be felt even when the other person is right next to you and the film is filled with people talking around each other, never quite connecting in the moment for the right reasons, everyone friendly towards spouses who aren’t their own so every bit of dialogue is almost just a placeholder until the next confrontation. Even looking at a possible house to buy becomes a brief unexpected encounter between a divorcing couple (the wife is played by Diana Douglas, mother of Michael, displaying a mournful bitterness that she can’t quite conceal) looking to unload the place, yet another reminder of the wreckage always taking place around the corner. It’s a world where everyone is focused on their own thing, no memory if they’ve met you before and real communication is almost impossible.

The story may be slight but the approach isn’t so it becomes as much about the interactions and the small gestures found in moments as anything. Sheldon Patinkin, artistic consultant at Second City and Steppenwolf, is credited with “Background Improvisations” and I’d love to know more about the story behind what appears to have been an intricate process so the bit players in the frame wouldn’t just be extras (one of those extras appears to be an uncredited M. Emmet Walsh, visible as a waiter in a few shots). The film always seems to be observing people listening to others or being annoyed by a nearby conversation, paying more attention to their glazed expression than the words, trying to figure out what might be said to get through the next moment without another drink, the nervous laughter hanging in the air a few seconds too long. Some of the best moments are simply when it holds for a few extra seconds on behavior, particularly in the case of Eva Marie Saint’s Selma angrily grabbing an uneaten dinner plate after a few tense words with her husband or blithely dancing with someone at the big party, as if to remind us what the supposed hero of this story is throwing away.

As a result, Kershner’s direction forces us to find what’s important in each shot and this approach possibly plays as a little too casual in its storytelling at times; when a character turns up unexpectedly at one point the film doesn’t even do anything to punctuate the moment with an explanation of why that person is suddenly there, not quite clarifying who knows who. Even some of the dialogue at times feels a little too cryptic in the way it reaches for some greater thematic element in just about every scene so the trail to that meaning at times feels lost. Maybe because Eva Marie Saint, excellent here, is essentially the co-lead the mistress character of Grace played by Janis Young is left as a mostly silent figure so that actress doesn’t get a chance to make much of an impression. In some ways this makes sense since she’s just a vision in Brooks’ mind, a photo he projects on the wall to gaze at, willing to throw everything away for her for nebulous reasons. Even though she has some dialogue almost none of it makes any sort of an impression so she’s always a symbol of something never clarified but maybe that’s the point too—all Brooks wants is something other than this normal life and the only truth that ever seems to matter to him is what he thinks the other person wants to hear.

But, just like the game his daughters play in one scene, this is a film where adulthood is one big staring contest with a lead character determined to see how long he can go without committing or admitting to anything at all, contradicting what he said a few scenes earlier to keep whoever he’s talking to on his side, miserable in the drudgery of the suburbs and dreaming of a barefoot artists’ life in the city. The hostility over what he’s facing in the moment, even if it’s as petty as the way he’s treated at a private club where he’s not a member, is all he ever wants to focus on and when someone calls him ‘middle class’ as he hesitates at making a big decision it’s just about the biggest insult of all. As Segal’s Brooks desperately attempts to find common ground with Sterling Hayden’s Lincolnesque paragon of virtue by talking about his love of trucks it feels like for a minute we’re seeing the real person fighting to be heard through the boozy haze but I’m not even sure about that. Maybe he doesn’t know anymore either.

It’s such a short film that a full third of the running time is taken up by the climactic party which doesn’t bother me at all since as party scenes go this is a great one, the sort of thing you remember about the film years after the rest has been forgotten and it serves as an untethered microcosm of this adult world that once existed where everything comes to a head in Brooks’ life. This is real ICE STORM territory with at least one offscreen action that is undeniably horrific and the party comes to a halt as everyone stops to stare at what’s accidentally being caught by a special home video camera nearby but in the world of this film is presented as just another Saturday night. Some of the side touches creep me out, particularly that kiddie record with the “pussy’s in the well” refrain as everyone watches the deed occur and I’m almost waiting for it all to become more nightmarish than it does although what happens is still pretty bad, a game of who’s going to pass out first, who’s going to drink too much, who’s going to fuck someone else’s wife. “It’s just a party,” as someone defensively tries to say near the end and it’s a film about a sloppy drunk in a world of sloppy drunks and the only thing to do according to most people in it is just go on with the party until you can’t anymore. Along with that easy listening score by Bernardo Segall which finds a melancholy that the main character can never quite grasp for himself, one of the key images seems to be that painting of haunted faces staring back at Brooks in a gallery window which is what the Saturday night turns into, all those faces becoming the other party guests until it’s just his own wife staring back, seeing him for who he really is, trying to talk his way out of where he’s wound up even after the truth is revealed.

George Segal is now mainly known for his sitcom persona so it can be remarkable to revisit some of his work from this era where he seems so committed to this portrayal that you can feel how much this guy has curled up inside of his brain to shut everything else out so no one can find him, the edge in that hostility always near the surface and he’s particularly convincing as someone who’s quickly downed a few too many martinis in the middle of the day due to his own hatred of it all. Playing against him as someone always ignored, Eva Marie Saint is particularly good here, extremely effective as someone holding back her own anger and doing whatever she can to get things back to normal amid all those signs that she deserves better than this. Along with the physicality of the towering force that is Sterling Hayden in his brief role there’s the slightly dangerous comic presence of Nancie Phillips always looking to ‘have lunch’ with Brooks alongside David Doyle as her simmering husband and the pragmatic calm of Keenan Wynn as Brooks’s agent. The film also contains a number of interesting faces throughout to add to the New York vibe including an early appearance by Roy Scheider, who decades later worked with Kershner again on the pilot for SEAQUEST DSV, plus Sherry Lansing who stands out in a tiny role, introduced as unexplained arm candy but playing it like she’s more on the ball than how the part was written. Her oddly flirtatious vibe mixed with a knowing gaze seems like someone I’ve met in passing at parties and never had any relationship with beyond odd drunken moments one of several things here that makes it one hell of a movie for someone who doesn’t drink anymore but occasionally thinks back on that mindset, reminded of what once happened that can’t be undone.

It’s the sort of film which plays as if there’s not much there at first, the end credits rolling before you’re really prepared, but gains in your head afterwards particularly during repeat viewings. LOVING is a film that makes its statement and doesn’t wait around, so even though we want to see what happens, we don’t need more than we get. These days it feels like the basic plot structure of so many films is that everything needs to be cleared up, the protagonist has to fix everything he’s done wrong. There needs to be hope, there needs to be closure, so from our present mindset it’s as if the finish of this film essentially comes at the end of the second act. But LOVING was released in early 1970, the artificiality of the previous decade turning into a hangover that lingered into the next so it’s all about being uncertain, all about taking a leap only to find when you do it it’s the worst decision imaginable and the anger toward you never ends. It may be a slight story but it’s not a slight movie, just as the anger towards us is felt longer than we ever expected. It’s an idiosyncratic character piece directed by Irvin Kershner that deals with the complex emotions of how fucked up everything is which, come to think of it, could also be used to describe THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, which itself doesn’t offer any simple answers to the truth that’s been learned. But, as other films have proven, answers are boring anyway so maybe the line between LOVING and that other film he made later on isn’t as great as it seemed at first. These are films where answers don’t matter since the truth is clear anyway. Maybe you always know the way things really are deep down and since you can’t just keep standing where you are the only thing you need to figure out is where you’re supposed to go next. And, if you’re lucky, who’s going to go there with you.