Monday, February 5, 2018
No matter how much time goes by, we still find ourselves trying to impress certain people. Even when they’re out of our lives, even when they’re already gone. Nora Ephron worked with both stars of THE POST over the years in addition to being friends with director Steven Spielberg, so the film’s dedication to her at the end can be easily explained, particularly since it involves a world she knew all too well. But I also wonder if among those other reasons Spielberg was paying tribute because he wanted to make a film Ephron would have approved of, not just shake her head condescendingly wondering why he was wasting his time with this or that, the sort of things that the New York literary elite would have brushed aside. I take some comfort in this possibility, the idea that even Steven Spielberg wants to be invited to the smart kids’ table. Or maybe he wants to do what he can to insure that other people will actually be sitting at that table in the future. After all, these days it’s looking a little iffy. THE POST is about this but it’s also about how the past matters, both in the big ways that shaped our lives which we need to remember as well as the little details that once made up pieces of the world but no longer exist. Those things meant something and were maybe more important than we ever paid attention to. And once we stop paying attention, that’s the ballgame. Of course, THE POST is also about moving beyond the past but more importantly it’s about saying Fuck You to certain people who want to do away with such ideals, which right now is an entirely warranted response as well. It could have even shouted that a little louder, as far as I’m concerned.
Just as Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) is about to place her paper on the NYSE, classified documents that were part of a Pentagon Vietnam study smuggled out of the Rand Corporation by Defense Department analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) appear in The New York Times. Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) is immediately envious, always looking for something to get in the paper and when the Times comes under injunction the chance to run more findings in the Post is too good to be true. So when the documents are secured from Ellsberg thanks to Post assistant editor Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk), Bradlee is determined to go to press immediately but when board members try to argue against it out of fear of what this could mean for the paper legally in addition to jeopardizing the impending IPO, Kay Graham has to decide which side she’s really going to be on and what sort of newspaper she wants this to be.
Katharine Graham wakes up with a jolt at the beginning of THE POST as if from a bad dream, just like many of us have been doing for the past few years now. Going from a nightmare into a nightmare. Graham doesn’t appear at all in the film of ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, of course, not counting the somewhat crass reference to her courtesy of John Mitchell and it’s a safe bet people viewing that film for the first time in recent years might not know the significance of this “Mrs. Graham” they’re talking about, the one Jason Robards’ Ben Bradlee doesn’t want a certain reference to in a family newspaper. William Goldman, interviewed in the book “The Craft of the Screenwriter”, confirmed that there was a scene featuring Graham in his screenplay at one point, with the role possibly to be played by Alexis Smith, but he was a little in the dark as to why it wasn’t used. Certainly the film was already long with a lot of dates and names to keep track of but it does sound like a good opportunity for a star cameo to put a spotlight on this particularly important figure who did play a role in the proceedings. So as it is ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, which plays in the film as about as perfect a screenplay as you can imagine, will in some ways always be thought of through certain images—Woodward & Bernstein walking through the newsroom, Deep Throat in that empty parking garage in the middle of the night, watching TV in Ben Bradlee’s office—specifically, images that involve the men who were in the middle of the story. Watching it in 2018 is a reminder that the women in the film are there to either be flirted with or get answers from, none of them with the power to actually do anything about Nixon. And suddenly it’s hard not to think about the key figure missing from that perfect film.
Written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, and by now famously a spec script by Hannah that sold only days before the 2016 election, it’s very possible that over time THE POST will retreat to the shadow of that other film although if the worst thing you can say about something is “it’s not as good as ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” then maybe that’s not so bad. It’s certainly much more of a character piece, focusing on Katharine Graham who as the film sees it is a woman who has always willingly been a mere observer being kept off to the side where the women in that world are supposed to remain but is now being forced into finally taking action. So while the importance of the Pentagon Papers is greater than simple McGuffin and the film doesn’t ignore the fault of previous administrations before Nixon came along, even if he is the big game, the focus of THE POST remains elsewhere, whether a reminder of the first amendment or the state of women’s liberation in 1971 as Katharine Graham’s awareness of what was around her finally began to take shape, always keeping the character beats up front.
The tight timeframe gives the story a focus and while Spielberg doesn’t direct this in the style of a 70s film, not like Fincher went full Pakula with ZODIAC, he uses his own camera-heavy approach to focus on the analog details that were everywhere at the time, down to the typewriters and rotary phones, the way Bob Odenkirk’s Ben Bagdikian begins to reach out to that pneumatic chute as the edited story is sent off to press or even when he fumbles for change at the pay phone when he leaves the office to make an important call (I like when he has to call back from another line and uses the pay phone furthest down in the row). It’s a film about the impulse of chasing the story just as ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN was about the cool, careful intellect of the process. In directing that film, Alan J. Pakula was always methodical in his framing even when things moved, whether those long dolly shots across the newsroom or the gradual zoom into Redford during the legendary Dahlberg phone call. Spielberg is a little more freewheeling, moving the camera everywhere at times, moving the actors into the shot together, following them as if he knows at certain times that they don’t want to be followed. Mixed in with the continually sharp dialogue there’s a looseness to even small moments of the sort that hasn’t been felt in any Spielberg film in decades, maybe not since one of the films he actually made in the 70s; there are a few beats where it almost feels like he decided not to go for another take with more precise timing, instead keeping in a little of the messiness that’s bound to happen against such a tight deadline. The details often feel tangible particularly in the Post newsroom even if there are times when the settings, both interior and exterior, almost have an overly shellacked feel (this also goes for Michael Stuhlbarg’s heavily made-up look as Abe Rosenthal) as if to give the appearance that the whole thing was shot on a studio lot, which it really wasn’t, with even the various newspapers handled by everyone throughout look a little too neatly pressed even if they are meant to be freshly printed.
Still, the speed helps even if Spielberg gets a little too broad with his staging at times such as the reporters peering into a box with the Pentagon Papers as if it contained the Sankara Stones. As seriously as he takes the issues he still can’t quite repress how much he responds to the boys’ adventure aspects of chasing the story so he clearly identifies with Bradlee and Bagdikian and Ellsberg and the interns from both the Times and the Post running through the streets; even when the Post intern arrives at the gates of the holy goddamn New York Times it’s hard not to think of the young Spielberg sneaking onto the Universal lot long ago. In comparison, the portrayal of Katharine Graham’s rarified world of parties and dinners at Art Buchwald’s house is kept at more of a distance even if her awakening is where the real conflict is, sprouting from the theoretical debate with Ben Bradlee over how they’re going to run the place which up until now has just been a casual series of debates, laughing over their own disagreements. That’s what the focus really is more than the subject of Vietnam and the papers (THE PAPERS was actually the title at one point; hard not to wish they could have come up with something that had a little more pizazz) which answers the question of why it’s not a film that focuses on The New York Times, which did after all publish them first. Some reports have the Times as not being too thrilled by all this, but I’m not so crazy about certain articles they’ve run lately so that doesn’t concern me. The point is to pay attention to the past as more than just photos hanging on a mantle, to remember the potential folly of playing it safe and ignoring what the real purpose of a place like this is. To make sure the people know.
When we’re in the offices of the Washington Post or going over the papers in Ben Bradlee’s townhouse with that rush of putting together the story in the air the film is at its best. Just as we saw at the start with Ellsberg beginning his report after witnessing combat up close, it’s the typewriter as weapon, even if some people type faster than others, and these scenes are good enough to overshadow the weaker points. As prologues without any of the main characters go at least the opening Vietnam sequence is short and to the point but (a) it’s a little extraneous, an attempt to shoehorn action into a talky piece (b) the use of “Green River” probably breaks some sort of cinematic law and (c) it was shot at the SUNY Purchase campus (not far from White Plains, where the Washington Post offices were filmed) and some things simply can’t be forgiven. And while Bradlee’s daughter selling lemonade to the other reporters gives us the exchange “What kind of lemonade?” “The one with the lemons in it.” as a reminder that sometimes the answer to what you’re searching for is pretty obvious, the cuteness still feels shoehorned in. Besides, Kay Graham’s granddaughter turns up in an earlier scene and it’s probably for the best to stop at only one cute kid in your Nixon movie. Graham’s big scene with her grown daughter Lally (Alison Brie, who for some reason I didn’t even recognize on my first viewing but she catches just the right east coast country club vibe) is also a little too obvious in its insistence of nobility but it’s still about a woman finally realizing the sort of person she’s supposed to be it’s also about the concept of grace and giving consideration to how we should approach such things in life. The willingness to being open to the challenge of what’s to come. To the very idea of thought.
So I get why some of these scenes are there even if it’s not how I would do it. There are still moments like the relaxed vibe of the early Bradlee-Graham breakfast and the way Spielberg holds this shot, making a few slight moves, for over three minutes which these days is the sort of directorial choice that deserves a medal. And not only does the second hour play beautifully at times as the debate of whether to go with the story escalates, all the activity showing in detail the actual physical process of putting together the paper and running it through the press is so lovingly shot that it almost qualifies as porn for anyone who cares about this tribute. And it is a tribute just as Graham asks Bradlee “What’s next?” at one point presumably as an Aaron Sorkin shoutout and though a TV is spotted playing Jules Dassin’s NIGHT AND THE CITY (Dassin was blacklisted, which seems mildly pertinent in a film involving Nixon) I can’t help but wish Spielberg had gone with a film directed by Sam Fuller, something he’s actually done before, and THE POST seems designed to run on a double bill with his great journalistic history lesson PARK ROW anyway. Or maybe SHOCK CORRIDOR would have been the correct parallel to draw for what it’s like covering Washington these days. There’s a lot to be cynical about when dealing in this world but it’s not in Spielberg’s wiring; he knows that the darkness in the world is there, he’s not that naïve, but actually presenting such things can force him to bend over backwards, going against the pureness of his cinematic nature. The score by the 85 year-old John Williams helps immeasurably with this balance, bringing to it a mixture of the sense of conspiracy from his Oliver Stone scores with the insistence of the deadline and the optimism that there might be some light to come out of all this. When the press run finally begins what he does there is glorious. Even a few of the source cues by Williams that can be heard on the soundtrack album feel like he’s inserted some amusing pastiche of easy listening tunes circa ’71 and more than that clumsy placement of Creedence Clearwater Revival at the start, he remembers what was in the air then which in itself provides an invaluable sense of texture to that part of history.
Because what is right is so clear to anyone watching it’s maybe not the most layered conflict Spielberg has ever dealt with but he has other fish to fry anyway and the film isn’t even looking to impugn anyone we don’t already know about—Bradley Whitford as Post board member “Arthur Parsons” is playing a composite, I imagine to protect the guilty and his overall condescension towards Graham is probably given one overly broad dismissive of women line of dialogue too many in this quasi-MAD MEN world but right now at a time when it seems to have been spiraling into outright hatred of women maybe it’s not really that much. The phrase “arguments on both sides” even turns up in one debate of whether or not to run the story, as if to remind us of just how repellent such a phrase sounds right now. I’m all for the message and because of the people involved this is the sort of film I was hoping might be my favorite of the year and, well, it’s pretty good. If anything, it’s a reminder of how Spielberg is one of the best at staging the simple art of people talking and how he stages them in relation to each other but it’s also a film meant to get us to cheer, a passion play designed for anyone who believes in what’s being stated so clearly, anyone appalled by what’s going on in the world now. We know that Kay Graham is going to do the right thing, we just need to hear her say it, we desperately need to hear those reasons and why this matters. And it’s not going to happen in the real world at the moment so at least it’ll happen here. The portrayal of Graham feels like a combination of elements of the real person, all the Streep tics that we can catalog and a little of Hillary for that matter which also feels right for the moment; a certain shot involving her near the end is probably a step too far but right now I’m willing to let it slide. Come to think of it, Katharine Graham is seen waking up twice in the film. The first time she’s uncertain of everything around her. The second time she’s ready. It’s a reminder that sleep isn’t always so easy these days but it’s also telling us that eventually we need to wake up.
It may be true these days that one of the things you're going to say about a Meryl Streep performance these days is how she gives what is very much a Meryl Streep performance but she still controls each scene here with the preciseness found in every moment as Graham navigates her world, considering the colleagues who may or may not be with her in this as her initial hesitation builds up into absolute certainty. Even down to the silent moments like when she quietly registers the news Abe Rosenthal is receiving about the injunction against the Times, she builds her performance as Graham into someone ready to make the decisions she does. Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee slightly takes a backseat to her which is perfectly fine and he’s clearly enjoying himself playing a guy who’s enjoying himself loving nothing more than chasing the story and how much he lives for this while bouncing off Street in their scenes together. He seems to love playing out scenes with all the actors in the film as he commands the room, working off their own rhythms and relaxing into the portrayal with the confidence that he’s the one in charge. Sarah Paulson as Bradlee’s wife gets her one big speech about how brave Kay is which seems deliberately placed as if she’s the heir apparent to Streep herself while Bob Odenkirk plays each moment like his entire life has been building up to this story so that simple “Yeah…” when Ellsberg asks him if they’re publishing the papers speaks volumes. Damn, Odenkirk is good in this. It’s a very strong cast, no surprise, with each of the major supporting players getting their moments including Bruce Greenwood as Robert McNamara, David Cross, Carrie Coon, Tracy Letts, Matthew Rhys, Bradley Whitford, Zach Woods and Jesse Plemons.
The past matters. The ghosts of stay with us as we learn from them, realize what we did wrong and, by a certain point, try to understand how much we need to improve. And maybe some sort of acceptance can come out of those regrets so we can move on. Because you can’t stay in the past, after all, no matter how much you want to. THE POST tries to remember this in its insistence that the truth never gets buried but although the necessary message gets across it never really probes deeper beyond the page one headlines, to use the parlance of the subgenre. The final moments even offer the reminder of the real life sequel still to come, essentially going with the ROGUE ONE ending to send things out on an anticipatory beat as the end credits roll and it’s kind of cool but still gimmicky enough that it dilutes the message a little. Although it also works as a reminder that the next big thing is coming, it always is. And maybe when it does something good may come of it and you’ll wind up impressing the right person if you’re ready. It’s a long shot, one that these days seems to be getting longer all the time. But I guess you never know.
Sunday, January 28, 2018
In a lengthy profile on Robert Altman that ran in The New York Times on June 20, 1971, the director stated, “Nobody has ever made a good movie. Some day someone will make half a good one.” The following day I was born, emerging reluctantly into this world where no good movie had ever been made. A few days after that, Altman’s new film McCABE & MRS. MILLER opened in New York and he proved himself wrong. As far as I can tell, I was not taken to see it. Disappointments like that began early in life.
Regardless, every time I see McCABE & MRS. MILLER feels like the first time. I’m not sure if a Robert Altman film exists that doesn’t somehow transform as you get older and move further through the world but McCABE seems to do this more than the others. The world becomes richer, each shot becomes more layered, the characters become deeper as I cling to them, searching for them through all that hazy Vilmos Zsigmond photography and fuzzy audio that you might not hear all of at first. It took me 23 years until my actual first viewing, during a weeklong Warren Beatty series at the now closed Festival in Westwood leading up to the release of LOVE AFFAIR—this reminds me that LOVE AFFAIR, mostly forgotten these days, is roughly as old as McCABE was at the time which is all a little too depressing to contemplate. Already familiar then with some of Altman, I still wasn’t quite sure what to make of the film even as some of the imagery stayed with me long after, particularly from the ending, waiting for me to revisit and experience it again. Now all these years and however many viewings later, I still can’t get enough of McCABE & MRS. MILLER which seems to become something else every time through each new glimpse. However great it already was the film gets better, truer and more tragic as I try to fight through my own mist, forever becoming even more clueless about everything around me.
A mysterious gambler known as John McCabe (Warren Beatty) arrives in the tiny mining community of Presbyterian Church and soon asserts himself among the citizens, eventually acquiring several prostitutes that he brings to the town community begins to grow. After rejecting an offer of partnership from the local hotel owner Sheehan (René Auberjonois), McCabe is soon approached by Mrs. Constance Miller (Julie Christie), an experienced prostitute herself who has just arrived in town with an even better offer for partnership to bring in more, better girls and put together a high class establishment. The town continues to grow as their business booms and McCabe is soon approached by representatives of the powerful Harrison Shaughnessy mining company, looking to buy out their interests along with the mines to essentially take control of the town. But when McCabe acts a little too cavalier in the hopes of getting even more money out of them, Mrs. Miller warns him of what’s about to happen and McCabe soon realizes that his life may be in jeopardy with no chance to talk his way out of it.
Civilization evolves. Times change. People leave. And not only is there nothing we can do to stop this, it’s very likely the things we contribute to the world will be forgotten before anyone realizes it. The tiny northwest town of Presbyterian Church in McCABE & MRS. MILLER (screenplay by Altman and Brian McKay, based on the novel “McCabe” by Edmund Naughton) slightly resembles the MASH 4077th but it’s only partly about the community that emerges from the people who arrive there for whatever reason. Other Altman films keep the focus on the ensemble and how they relate to each other in whatever the distaff environment is but in this case the film is also about the title characters who for their own reasons remain separate, isolating themselves because that’s who they are. At the end of MASH everything cuts off when Hawkeye and Duke go home and it all just stops. In McCABE that loss is more complicated and much more painful, reaching for some kind of connection that never quite happens between the title characters.
It seeps into the look of the film courtesy DP Vilmos Zsigmond that was famously achieved through filters and a ‘flashing’ process during much of production which involved briefly exposing the negative to light in order to drain a certain amount of color out of the film. The riskiness in even attempting that has become part of the film’s legacy, the burnished look to give the impression it was somehow actually filmed way back then becoming at least as important as the star power of Warren Beatty which has led to various unwatchable video copies and problematic 35mm prints over the years--compared to the stunning Blu released by Criterion, the older Warner DVD really does look like mud and at an American Cinematheque screening a few years ago the theater announced they had to go through multiple prints before finding one good enough to show. The look of McCABE & MRS. MILLER makes more sense as the film goes on, as the town gets built up and we get used to it, we understand it even more and become attached to this place. It becomes part of the film and there’s nothing else quite like it.
It may not be the best Altman film (possibly NASHVILLE, but who’s to say) and I’m not sure I can call it my favorite (because, after all, THE LONG GOODBYE) but as much his directorial style was still forming at this early date it still feels like the most crystalized version we ever got of his approach to telling a story, to revealing who the people in front of his camera are and the world they inhabit. The Leonard Cohen songs used throughout as the score serve as the soul of it all, becoming as integral to the setting as the wind blowing through the air while transcending whatever they were first meant to be. Cohen’s “The Stranger Song” plays over the opening credits and serves as the only explanation of McCabe’s character that’s required and the haunting “Winter Lady” with those chimes heard off in the distance sounding like the entire summation of the regret of a life of experiences that was never fully allowed to happen. It all makes the film feel like a dream in a way, one where you’re never quite sure if you want to remain but you desperately hope you won’t wake up just yet. Altman himself called it an anti-western, a concept that I imagine meant more at the time when John Wayne was still making movies than it does now, but it almost plays as more of a non-western, merely a film set in the west of 1902 that trades off of certain familiar iconography while still becoming something else.
In its freeform way the film discards the clichés you expect from these archetypes in favor of who they really are when those personas are done away with whether the gunfighter that McCabe may or may not be, the whore (with a heart of gold), the comic relief, the hired killers, each of them never entirely what they’re supposed to be. In the end, Altman works with the genre on his own terms just as he always would. His version of the west starts off as one of the grimiest, muddiest environments ever seen onscreen with everyone gradually getting cleaned up as the town grows and the nature is taken away until a snowy climax where it overtakes that setting, becoming more bucolic as the violence gets more prevalent all in the middle of a nature that simply doesn’t care. Along with the music it’s also the silences that the movie fixes on where everything seems to stop, as if Altman realized while walking around those woods how absolutely quiet it could get and was determined to capture that allowing us to get a feel of what it’s like up there the rhythms are its own. Maybe more than any other Altman film this is one where he seems willing to expand its own pacing, to step outside of whatever is going on so this place and what it’s like to be there can be felt almost in ways that can’t be expressed.
Although not produced by Warren Beatty, making this one of the handful of post-BONNIE AND CLYDE titles he only acted in, it still feels of a piece with many of his iconic characters and the way they connect to each other as if in some sort of decades-long meta narrative. With McCabe muttering to himself while wearing his giant bearskin coat he seems to automatically assume the role of a leader in this hellhole that he helps turn into civilization, a star among bit players. It makes the film feel like it belongs equally to him as Altman, maybe more than any other top-billed star who worked with the director. Just as Beatty’s George Roundy in SHAMPOO would a few years later, John McCabe is able to talk a good game in a room and take charge at his own level even if he can never go beyond it due to his own foolhardiness. His ambition seems to stop at the belief that if he orders a round of drinks that alone will insure never ending loyalty and if he keeps talking they won’t realize how full of it he is. But McCabe doesn’t even know simple arithmetic, just as George Roundy had no idea about the specifics of getting a bank loan, and Mrs. Miller knows immediately how much he’s all talk and she wastes no time in calling him out on it. Possibly the only person he’ll listen to for more than a few seconds, she actually has an idea of how capitalism works and how to serve the market, while his first instinct when someone tries to reasonably negotiate with him is to repeat that damn “If a frog had wings joke…” for the hundredth time. The way he acts, the other people in the town are barely worth his attention so when he’s immediately assumed to be one ‘Pudgy’ McCabe who killed a man named Bill Roundtree in a card game through mysterious circumstances, he never confirms or denies those suspicions. Clearly, all that matters is they never know anything more about him, maybe even nothing more than he knows about himself.
If anything, he admits to himself that he’s got poetry but it’s only when he’s all along spitting out “Freezing my soul” to no one without even trying when thinking of her. And the more desperate he gets the more he tries to talk himself out of that desperation, as if all he’s got is what he can’t express like the poem Bonnie Parker read to Clyde Barrow or the poem that John Reed in Beatty’s REDS spent years obsessing over. Mrs. Miller keeps whatever her own poetry is to herself as if to emphasize the subtext of how much this film is also about Beatty and Christie as a couple, they go together. They’re the stars in this town but they’re a couple who are perfect but can never say the right thing to each other out of simple fear, simple stubbornness. Rene Auberjonois’ Sheehan tries to talk McCabe into being a partner before she shows up but he clearly doesn’t have the magnetism for him to care. Mrs. Miller does and is able to convince him through her own insistence but she’s still lost elsewhere in her own head, trapped in the opium daze that she doesn’t want to step out of and maybe that’s how it always will be for her. It’s never quite clear what their relationship is beyond at some point they start sleeping together and he’s paying her for it—it would be nice to think he’s the only one allowed such privilege but this is left ambiguous at best. It’s as if they want to be more than partners (‘comrades’ would have been the phrase in REDS), but it isn’t something they can ever say out loud. Of course, there’s only one ending any of these Beatty characters can come to, unless we’re talking about ISHTAR, and McCabe is sadly more foolish of any of them while still possessing the most determination in how he refuses to accept the inevitable. For a period of time he gets to drunkenly walk through the town like he owns it, which he sort of does, and what it becomes is largely due to his boastful nature anyway, just like the gangster he would later play who would one day get the idea to build up a town called Las Vegas in the middle of nowhere and that place would keep going after he disappeared from the world too.
It’s a wilderness that’s going to be destroyed just as the very idea of money and the lack of any real connection because of that is going to destroy the people, particularly these two people. Those that don’t care become part of the system. Those who try to somehow stay pure, whether it’s because they’re too stupid or not, pay the price. “He hasn’t got the brains,” one of the company men says about McCabe and we don’t want to admit how much we know he’s right. McCABE & MRS. MILLER may be about the impossibility of avoiding capitalism no matter how far you go or just avoiding what’s destined to happen to you, even out in the middle of nowhere, but it’s about the humanity hiding away from that world found there too, about how Mrs. Miller wolfs down that eggs & stew in an awe-inspiring way as McCabe, understandably mesmerized by her eating as well, sticks with the raw egg and whiskey he seems to entirely subsist on (eggs aside, the few mentions we get of what’s being served at Sheehan’s makes me glad I don’t have to try any of it) and outwardly she’s the most pragmatic of anyone in that town when it comes to how to survive but she eventually lets others see that humanity whether it’s McCabe or when she talks to Shelley Duvall’s widowed mail order bride even if she is only lost in her opium daze. It’s a town in the middle of nowhere that essentially turns into civilization, complete with segregated slums populated by the Chinese and a black barber who arrives with his wife and in the end have no problem with stepping away from the crowd while the church that shares the name of the town that is empty, unfinished, a shell like a façade on a backlot. In a west where the growing corporation does their business by sending out hired killers the faith is a shell anyway. In the end, there’s just the people who do their best not to notice.
Because this is Altman no scene feels like any other and there’s not a location in the town that feels used in the same way twice, each scene giving us this town from a different vantage point. It’s not always clear how much time the film spans, again just like a dream, and Altman’s habit of punctuating moments with zooms or other effects are at their very best here, always knowing just the right beat to end things on. He doesn’t go with the typical cinematic fantasy of old west prostitutes and everyone in the film, including Mrs. Miller referring to herself, calls them whores so I suppose we shouldn’t mince words but the men of the town never seem to have any complaints and every single one of them seems to know exactly who their character is even without an audible word of dialogue. When several of them join in on a chorus of “Asleep in Jesus” during a funeral scene and a pair of glances are exchanged between a pair of characters that almost becomes a fourth wall break about the inevitability of what's going to happen next, for a few moments this muddy masterpiece becomes one of the greatest works of art I’ve ever seen. It’s a film where all of the elements come together in a way that transcends merely thinking about genre even if it’s not always clear just how all those pieces are meant to fit.
There is the feel that you have to fight through that dialogue at times, the famous audio track that never becomes very clear but when William Devane gets one of the biggest chunks of dialogue of the entire film in his one scene as the lawyer (named “Clement Samuels” which presumably indicates how much he should be trusted) who McCabe goes to consult with it’s as if Altman is revealing all that dialogue for what it really is, just a lot of talk, so there was never any reason to listen to it. It’s the images and sounds that he’s interested in, the people who wander past while Warren Beatty is determined to take center stage that he’s interested in and he’s perfectly happy to let those images wash over so you can be devastated in the end. The one total innocent in the film, a cowboy played by Keith Carradine known only as “Cowboy”, has the most simple goal in the film so naturally he’s going to pay for it in the end, a reminder of the America that sprouted an extra head in summer 2015 and the one who confronts him even looks like a product of all that. Each time I see the film, when those outside forces enter and I know what it’s all leading to, my heart sinks a little. But that’s what the future is.
At one point it was called THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH WAGER then the rather dull JOHN McCABE before settling on the title it will always have, the one that makes the most sense. The title characters will only get together in a formal sense and unlike the myth presented in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, another film where The Woman with the Past stays indoors as the final shootout takes place, there’s not even a goodbye. McCabe, always looking to keep things on his own terms finally realizes that it’s not up to him anymore and the middle men who come to negotiate (it’s an Altman film so the ineffectual guy in a suit has to be Michael Murphy, even in the old west) eventually becoming the killers led by the imposing Hugh Millais emerging in a giant coat just like McCabe so he looks just as absurd but also just as ready to take over this town. As McCabe finally takes some action the snow endlessly falls and McCabe becomes one with the nature but the town, never even noticing this, moves on. They don’t need him anymore. And the haze that Mrs. Miller looks at the world through as she keeps to herself, too often fixed on her opium, overwhelms any other dreams she has when she tries to get through to McCabe or reading one of her books or simply listening to her music box. She can’t stop what she knows is going to happen and she’s unwilling to fight against the pain so she simply drifts off, Julie Christie when she’s last seen serving as the old west Starchild in the Altman-Zsigmond version of the end of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (this has to be one of the best shots ever in a film, I'm sure of it). A person becomes part of where they are. They transform. Sometimes they get swallowed. Sometimes it’s inevitable.
The way Robert Altman films these two leads catches what they bring to the characters precisely and no one ever used them the way they are here. Much of Warren Beatty’s performance seems to depend on how many other people he’s in the frame with to relate to, always looking for the next game of chance, always looking for the next person to impress so when he’s left alone the character is at sea, which is when Beatty displays a vulnerability that he rarely ever has. And Julie Christie as Mrs. Miller seems to make the most sense when she’s left alone in the frame. She’s not trying to win anyone else over so it makes her even more tragic, fighting with herself over how much she’s actually caring about this guy with her cockney accent and how little good any of her hard work really is. Every single supporting actor is memorable as well, particularly René Auberjonois but there’s still John Schuck, Michael Murphy, Keith Carradine with the greatest “Aw, shucks” demeanor anyone ever had and, goddamn, the arc of Shelley Duvall who first arrives in the town as the mail order bride of Bert Remsen. As well as the icy pragmatism of Hugh Millais as the hired gun named Butler who arrives in town to “hunt bear”, maybe not quite seven feet tall as he’s described but wearing a coat that outmatches McCabe’s and not budging for a second in how much he can intimidate him just by sitting there. There’s not a face on the screen that doesn’t burrow into us, even if we never learn their name. Joan Tewksbury, later the screenwriter of NASHVILLE, is onscreen for mere seconds as a Harrison Shaughnessy employee and gets across the coldness of ever trying to deal with such an organization with no intent of ever helping anyone at all.
There are nights when I watch some of this film again, getting caught up in the staggering richness of the world it presents, and it’s a reminder that we have to drift through events in life by ourselves and much as we want to hold on to certain people it never seems to work. If I listen to Leonard Cohen singing “Sisters of Mercy” again for a few seconds I might think otherwise. That feeling passes quickly. But maybe it’ll come around again. As for Robert Altman films that were still to come, the ramshackle nature of the setting and almost comical extravagance of the costumes at times anticipates Altman’s POPEYE a decade later, a film my mother actually did take me to, and it plays like the more hopeful mirror image of McCABE & MRS. MILLER. But this isn’t the time to go back to the past. Right now, I just know that even as we remember those people they remain an illusion, little more than a memory that if we’re lucky we can hold in our hand. There are nights when I can accept that but the inevitability of it all still hurts. And it’s still true, from the day I was born all the way to now, all the way to infinity. Freezing my soul.
Sunday, December 31, 2017
There were so many things wrong with this past year that I wouldn’t know where to begin. Some of them were out in the world and you know what those are, some of them were a little more personal. Part of the problem these days is that I’d rather spend as much time as possible with nothing but films on the brain but that’s more impossible than usual, not just because you have to deal with normal life stuff but because of how much of the real world right now is so fucking horrible and it may just be getting worse. In the framing device of Brian De Palma’s CASUALTIES OF WAR a few newspaper headlines are spotted that trumpet Nixon’s resignation, making clear not just the time frame but the specific context of the moment. It is, without a doubt, the end of a long and painful narrative. But the story that follows makes it clear that it will always be impossible to wipe away certain nightmares. It’s even worse when we’re in the middle of them. CASUALTIES OF WAR is a brave film from De Palma, one where out of necessity he strips away some of his tricks, pieces of the cinematic puzzle that he excels in putting together that I love in favor of telling a horrific story in the most pure, cinematic way possible. It contains echoes of some of his other work but in a way that forces one to reexamine his own preoccupations with the inability to save someone and make things right. It plays like a film he needed to make, not one that he wanted to make. Sometimes in life that’s the way it works, much as we’d rather not worry about anything at all for as long as we possibly can.
Soon after arriving for combat duty in Vietnam, Pvt 1st Class Eriksson (Michael J. Fox) is rescued during a nighttime patrol by his Sgt. Meserve (Sean Penn) after getting stuck in a tunnel hole. Soon after, Meserve’s best friend Brownie (Erik King) is killed in an ambush and when word comes in that he didn’t make it Meserve has changed. Leading his squad (also including Don Harvey, John C. Reilly and John Leguizamo) on an assignment, Meserve announces they are going to liven things up by ‘requisition’ a girl, kidnapping her, to do with as they please. No one believes it but Meserve does exactly that, kidnapping a girl named Than Thi Oanh (Thuy Thu Le) from her family home and leading her on a trek through the mountains, finally stopping at an abandoned hut with the intent of raping her. Eriksson balks at this order but no one else does and all Eriksson can do is remain nearby, listening to her screams. But once the time comes to fulfill their assignment Eriksson must wrestle with if he can help this girl and if there’s anything he can do about what he knows is going to happen.
Based on a New Yorker article by Daniel Lang about an actual event in 1969 with a screenplay by David Rabe, it’s hard to imagine CASUALTIES OF WAR ever being a sizable hit, even in the late 80s when the likes of PLATOON, FULL METAL JACKET and others were around, even when Michael J. Fox was one of the biggest stars in the world and even with one of the biggest raves that Pauline Kael ever wrote during her entire career. Already an admirer of the director, she calls it “the culmination of his best work” and De Palma was clearly taking advantage of the success that the all-holy THE UNTOUCHABLES brought him. It’s an admirable use of that power, one that was probably never going to result in widespread success and when the film opened in August 1989, the same weekend as UNCLE BUCK, it came in fourth. This was once a summer movie, a film that presents a Vietnam where you either embrace the death and hatred all around or you refuse to give into that darkness. But it’s impossible to get away totally unscathed. We barely know Meserve at first, only that he saves Eriksson’s life and he seems just like one of the guys, over there and trying not to get killed. When his friend Brownie is killed and Meserve simply states, “He’s dead,” to report on his progress he may as well be talking about himself. And when the local village is suddenly declared off limits which means no visit to the nearby brothel, that’s it for him. In a one-two punch Vietnam has taken away his friend then taken away his dick and none of it makes any sense. So what he does is not just fighting back against the locals but the military for their rules, for trying to impose some sort of order in this situation where his friend was killed. The moral code of CASUALTIES OF WAR is basically, things matter to you or they don’t. What Eriksson witnesses isn’t about war or anything resembling humanity, it’s about a hatred that has been born, a hatred that wants to do nothing more than burn down everything taking everyone else with them.
This isn’t one of the De Palma films I return to very often, for reasons that I imagine are obvious. Possibly because he’s aware of how this story has to be treated he seems to hold back his style at times, leaving the satire and archness we associate with his work in that quest for total cinema far behind. But each scene is never less than totally alive as if he’s always stripping it down to the necessary beats of who each of these guys are parts that come as close to De Palma letting the actors tell the story than ever before while at the same time his use of the Scope frame has never been quite as intimidating as it is here, making the horror even more in your face. Even the opening ambush just launches us into this nightmare before we can even orient ourselves and the first half hour is in some ways the most ‘normal’ war movie part with a few of the performances, particularly Penn and Don Harvey, almost feel too big for the room. It’s that giant close-up of Sean Penn shaving that becomes one of the first hints that something is going on and even isolated in the frame separate from the other guys he’s retreated into his own head, no real interest in their assignment anymore, the fact that he’s going home in the next 30 days totally unimportant. Presumably due to the influence of screenwriter Rabe (who, according to Vincent Canby in his New York Times review, “disassociated” himself from the finished film due to liberties he felt De Palma took) the middle section where the squad stops at an abandoned hut to do what they’re going to do to her feels almost completely like a one act play, one where the other soldiers are proudly playing the roles of the tough guys, and De Palma never tries to subvert this feeling either in the staging or the way the actors play it.
Or maybe I just can’t help but think of the real world right now and how for people like Meserve they’re all just nasty women deserving of that treatment. Meserve tries to tell him that counting on each other should be enough. Eriksson knows that it’s more than that. It has to be. Up against Michael J. Fox’s everyman, Penn revels in his power, Don Harvey is the brute (Kael compares his looks to Lee Marvin in her review and now I can’t see anything else), John C. Reilly asking for a beer over and over is the stupid one and John Leguizamo is a weakling, just wanting to go along with the guys. They’re the group of guys you’d encounter in the worst dive bar imaginable. And she isn’t anything to them, she’s just a bitch, a whore, simple collateral damage in this film made by a director who has certainly been accused of hostility towards women himself and could very well be making this film in order to show people who the real misogynists are. The way a few of the actors play it in the climactic trial, you’d think they were being accused of ignoring ‘Keep off the grass’ signs. Eriksson jerks awake after the ordeal hearing her screams in his head, shades of the end of BLOW OUT, the film that ended with that real scream retreating from the real world into the universe of bad movies and, truthfully, right now I don’t even find Sean Penn and Don Harvey overplaying it by a certain point. After the present world and all the hatred that’s been let loose, their behavior is perfectly believable in all their hatred. They’re people who don’t give a fuck, they just want to blow up the world and everyone around it. Nothing matters anymore for them, nothing but the pain they can inflict. In her final moments it’s very easy to view the girl they kidnapped and raped as being emblematic for what was done to that country but she’s also just a girl so to these guys that makes her even worse, maybe less than nothing.
It’s a film where even the biggest scene in the movie feels intimate in the way it’s shot since De Palma holds so tight to the point of view and what really matters, that it’s not about the fucked up battle but about the girl and Eriksson’s failure to save her so the giant APOCALYPSE NOW explosion barely even matters, not after what’s just happened. Quentin Tarantino has called it the greatest film about the war which doesn’t surprise me since I imagine the tight focus of the plot with just a few clearly defined setpieces would appeal to him. It’s not the epic phantasmagoria of Coppola, the this-is-the-way-it-was gestalt of Stone, the iconic coldness of Kubrick. For De Palma the reality isn’t as important, only the facts, only the moments. It’s not about asking those big questions about how pointless and futile the war was since what would be the point, anyway. In some ways it’s difficult to reconcile how deliberately dissatisfying it is since there’s never going to be any sort of catharsis, not even from Eriksson’s determination or the trial that results. But never fully breaks away from his own personal style, even finding a way to shoot the two dialogue scenes with the superiors—played, respectively by Ving Rhames and Dale Dye, each of whom would both be in De Palma’s MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE—in a way that adds to the intimidation Eriksson feels with one appealing to his emotion, one to the cold hard facts and shot in a way that seems to escalate the senseless nightmare of it all.
By the time we get to a key suspense sequence involving a long, unbroken take and an attempt on Eriksson’s life the way the shots are laid out beat by beat gives the impression that the director is enjoying himself and for once getting to do what he’s best at. He needs that relief and so do we, just as Michael J. Fox coming at Penn and the other actors plays like him letting loose some of the anguish he was really feeling. Due to the nature of the story it doesn’t build to a giant confrontation and by the time it gets to the trial the film is essentially over so it spends as little time as possible on this (it’s hard to imagine De Palma finding anything less visually interesting than a courtroom; naturally, some of his next film BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES was set in one too and we all know how that turned out). It’s the whisper Penn famously makes to Fox that’s going to haunt us, the worst thing imaginable that we’ll never know (as revealed in the documentary DE PALMA, in one take Penn whispered “television actor” at him which for him I guess would count). CASUALTIES OF WAR is not perfect and in some ways it can be difficult to reconcile its sheer unpleasantness with the bravura cinematic vocabulary that we want, that we crave, from Brian De Palma. That doesn’t make it any less essential or necessary. We need that whisper in our ear terrifying us. Maybe it’ll get us up again in the morning in 2018.
In “The Devil’s Candy,” the book on the making of THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES, De Palma expresses regret over making a few changes after an unsuccessful preview and felt that it didn’t make any difference in the end; I imagine that this might be what the “Extended Cut” of CASUALTIES that was released on DVD is which, full disclosure, I haven’t seen. Early on a few of the guys try to convince Eriksson that sometimes all you have to say to someone is, “Sorry about that,” whether you give a shit or not. But to De Palma, this is a world where “I’m sorry” might be the most useless thing you can ever say. Because there’s no real way to express the guilt you feel and there’s nothing different you ever could have ever done. The Morricone score always lingers above the characters, desperately searching for humanity, and even the brief track “Requiem for a Dead Cherry” as it’s called on the soundtrack album epitomizes the messiness of a dumb kid who was alive just a few seconds earlier, that he still deserves to be mourned. The big speech Fox gives about how it all maybe matters more than we ever know sounds like it belongs on a stage but it still matters. As the Morricone score tries to provide a benediction to the character in the final scene, his encounter with a girl who resembles her this time features her voice being dubbed by Amy Irving, a voice from De Palma past including starring in another film that ended with a bad dream, one that she was left having to find some way to move on from. Maybe that’s one way of trying to say it won’t be so easy. Because some bad dreams never end and this film’s version of a bad dream is the ultimate version of that. Brian De Palma’s films seemed to step back from such total darkness after this but the punishment that CASUALTIES OF WAR doles out for what’s been seen is harsh and deserved. And it may never be enough.
One of several excursions into drama that Michael J. Fox took in between FAMILY TIES seasons and before the BACK TO THE FUTURE sequels he doesn’t have the fierceness that Sean Penn has but he’s not supposed to. And his best moments are the wordless ones where his character looks totally lost, truly baffled by what’s happening. He’s going after someone who saved his life, after all, and you can feel him summoning all his courage to look some of these more powerful personalities in the eye, to not let them push him around. Sean Penn is the larger presence, after all, and I don’t know if he ever really looks like the twenty year-old that dialogue says he is but his ferocity comes full bore in the midst of all this madness as if this is the first time in his life that he’s found such clarity. In her only film Thuy Thu Le is as haunting as she needs to be, infusing someone we never get to know with the pure terror in her eyes that seems like nothing any human has ever experienced before. Don Harvey (also in THE UNTOUCHABLES, recognizable from DIE HARD 2 and even recently on THE DEUCE) as Clark is the most terrifying bully imaginable, John C. Reilly makes it seem like we’re witnessing the birth of Reed Rothchild as he keeps repeating how much he’d like a beer and John Leguizamo sells his quiet confusion and desperation with unexpected power in just a few short scenes.
There’s a friend of mine who earlier this year posted on Twitter about a screening of BLOW OUT she attended at Cinefamily, that place which is no more, and how enraged she became, “physically shaking with anger” as she put it, by people who were laughing at the end of the movie, a movie that ends with a scream as a woman is killed that the film’s main character is forever haunted by just like Pvt. 1st Class Erikksson is. She didn’t specify but I’m going to guess the people laughing were guys. And fuck ‘em. They don’t deserve De Palma. Hopefully if another movie theater ever opens in that place those people won’t show up but it feels like that laughter has grown over the past year throughout the real world, a world that CASUALTIES OF WAR wants to reflect as a reminder of the worst parts of humanity whether in war or elsewhere. With the Ennio Morricone score acting as a sort of benediction as the final lines of the film are spoken I don’t know if it really offers any closure beyond just saying, “It’s all going to be fine.” Which wasn’t exactly the takeaway of the nightmares at the end of films like DRESSED TO KILL or CARRIE. On the other hand, De Palma got to make the movie, so there is that. That may be the one real concession the film makes to the very concept of moving on, putting things in the past. I don’t know if that’s possible myself. The past happened and we’re haunted by it. It stays with us in our dreams as we wonder how things could have gone different. And there’s nothing that can ever be done, just as we never got that chance in the real world. But we still dream anyway. Right now as the New Year begins I guess we have to.
Saturday, December 30, 2017
There is truth and there are details. The truth is that shortly after seeing THE FORCE AWAKENS when it opened back in December 2015, I collapsed on the sidewalk sobbing. This is the truth. The details behind that, in all honesty, have nothing to do with the film. At the time I was going through a few things (aren’t we all; like much of life, some of those things continue) but we don’t need to go into what they are. Nevertheless, the other secondary truth is that I still didn’t think THE FORCE AWAKENS was particularly good, playing as an empty homage to what STAR WARS is apparently supposed to be with director J.J. Abrams bringing less visual style to the series than anyone has ever done; this is the only STAR WARS film where characters go from one planet to another and you can’t tell the difference. This is all a lead up to recalling how my initial response to STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENANCE wasn’t quite so dramatic. It’s not that I thought it was particularly great or even good so much as that it simply was. But I’ve been forced to have a response to it ever since and to this day it feels like that will never end. May 1999 is a long time ago now but I remember so much. The unending wait for that film, the awareness that it was coming, the trailer, the second trailer, the toys getting released, that damn line of people waiting on Hollywood Boulevard to get tickets for the first show at the Chinese (which I didn’t get, so my first viewing was the second showing at 3:30 AM). And then the movie. It was all a long, grueling process that maybe drained out a lot of optimism in the film geek circles. By 2005 when REVENGE OF THE SITH hit that was mostly gone and there was a vague feeling we just wanted to get the damn thing over with already. The Chinese wasn’t even showing it. But to go back to ’99 is the reminder that STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE is not what we wanted it to be but in some ways it’s exactly what it’s supposed to be. It may not be good, but it is pure. This part gets forgotten.
Not much happens in STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE and in many ways that makes it the perfect film for 1999, a period where no matter how much was really happening it seems like nothing compared to now. Of course, there were many better films. ELECTION, THE LIMEY, THE INSIDER, EYES WIDE SHUT, FIGHT CLUB, MAGNOLIA, THE STRAIGHT STORY, THE MATRIX, THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, THE SIXTH SENSE, OFFICE SPACE, GALAXY QUEST, the remake of THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR. Not a bad year as things go but, regardless, THE PHANTOM MENACE still doesn’t go away. The characters in the film don’t know what’s coming and at the time we didn’t know what was coming either. What that was became clear by the time Lucas made REVENGE OF THE SITH and with the war on terror in full swing gave the film a fair amount of metaphor to dig into, as obvious as it was. In THE PHANTOM MENACE that metaphor hasn’t taken shape yet which means a good deal of stalling, an empty film that is mostly about stage setting, filling in a few blanks and appealing to little kids. And more CGI in every frame than we could possibly imagine at the time.
When the Trade Federation blocks all access to the peaceful planet of Naboo, Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan MacGregor) are sent there as representatives of the Galactic Senate in an attempt to negotiate and prevent a full scale invasion of the planet. But when Federation representatives immediately attempt to have them killed the Jedi escape to the planet where, joined by a native Gungan named Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), finally make contact with Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) and escape Naboo. But when a ship malfunction strands them on the planet Tatooine they soon encounter a young boy named Anakin Sywalker (Jake Lloyd), a slave who lives with his mother Shmi (Pernilla August) owned by junk dealer Watto who Qui-Gon, accompanied on the planet by the Queen’s handmaiden Padme (also Portman), soon comes to believe is the one spoken of in a prophecy to bring balance to the force. As he anticipates, Anakin turns out to be their best hope to make it to the Republic capital of Coruscant where Naboo Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) awaits Amidala in a desperate attempt for action to be taken and put a stop to the invasion.
Thus concludes just about the most useless paragraph ever written on this blog. Is there really anything left to say about this film? Maybe more to the point, is there anything new to say? You could easily fill a book with all the facts and opinions and feelings surrounding this film, I’m just not sure if it would be anything we haven’t heard. At the very least, in this case writing out a brief plot summary is a useful way to determine just how problematic this storyline is in terms of, well, telling a story. With the film so broken up into separate pieces there’s no one single person to lock into as a lead, no one to really connect with. There’s a reason why people respond to Mark Hamill gazing at the binary sunset way back when and even if the result had been better, and I like the film more than some, it still never feels like there’s a protagonist to follow through the film. The Jedi are essentially monks, Amidala’s plotline is based on a twist which keeps her as a sort of abstract concept for much of the film and Anakin is a little kid who we’re meant to feel sympathy for but, well, we all know his future. When first introduced, Luke Skywalker was as much of an avatar for Lucas as AMERICAN GRAFITTI’s Curt Henderson or even the character of THX-1138, each of them dealing with the ambivalence of whether or not they want to leave home but the closest this film has is a young boy living as a slave on a desert planet who is abruptly taken away from his mother so it’s not quite the same thing in terms of audience identification. As much as the film is packed with incident much of it feels clinical, concepts in search of a story.
There are good things to say about THE PHANTOM MENACE at the very least in terms of sheer ingenuity and the way it just throws us in to the middle of the action seems more radical now, even more than it did in the original movie. Lucas was still using film at this point, at least part of the time, and there’s a crispness to the imagery at times particularly when there’s something tangible in the frame as opposed to all those green screen shots—at other points where I suspect he was trying out digital (and Ewan McGregor looks considerably different) the look doesn’t fare so well. But he clearly still knows how to compose a shot so it often feels like he’s using the right angles to tell the story even if there’s not as much pulp flavor to the way things are staged as he might have done in the 70s. It’s the overall flatness of what the scenes become that is the problem which is helped by some enjoyably dry humor in the early dialogue between the two Jedi (sadly, I’ve never been successful at making “There’s always a bigger fish” into my own personal catchphrase) at least there is until there isn’t. The story is vague enough that it doesn’t stand on its own so there have to be allowances made for how things may or may not pay off later. Lucas wrote this screenplay himself and while there was a big deal made about Lawrence Kasdan returning to the franchise in recent years with this film I can’t help but wish that he’d sat down in a room with Willard Hyuck & Gloria Katz, who worked extensively on STAR WARS uncredited as well as writing TEMPLE OF DOOM, to maybe add some Howard Hawksian flavor to the dialogue and plot mechanics in order to loosen things up but it feels like the emphasis on effects in every shot are designed to prevent such a thing from happening (Lucas had produced the flop RADIOLAND MURDERS for Hyuck & Katz in 1994 so maybe that soured him on any potential collaboration).
Looking at STAR WARS ’77 (Don’t make me call it A NEW HOPE, I hate calling it A NEW HOPE) these days it strikes me how much is left vague. The beats of the story were figured out and clearly magic was accomplished in the editing room but it’s clear that one thing which appealed to people was the potential richness of the universe and how much was left unanswered about it. Of course, more sequels means filling in some of those blanks and having to answer some of the questions there might be in terms of how things work, what people do for a living—are there newspapers? Is there entertainment? Do people live in fear of the empire and nothing else? The concept of government was vaguely answered in the first film and Lucas’s depiction of how fascism can rise in a galactic senate where almost nothing can ever get accomplished becomes clear in the later films. But it’s possible that the dreamlike flavor which can be found in the original trilogy, set far away from the capital of Coruscant and other such places, was ideal in leaving those explanations vague just as the first film never needed an explanation of The Force that was any more complicated than a single sentence. So the explanation of ‘midichlorians’ as Gui-Gon describes them to Anakin to ground The Force is some sort of science is an even greater mistake, almost willingly blurring the lines between the fantasy we thought this was with a stab at hard science fiction, grounding what was once meant to be oblique in a way that hurts it in the long run.
What’s even more strange is how much of THE PHANTOM MENACE (and for the record I still like that title, much more than a few of the others) is still legitimately dreamlike much of the time with images that almost manage to justify the existence of all this new technology, whether the view of Coruscant outside of the Jedi Temple, the underwater sea creatures chasing the Jedi in their transport or just the character design of Darth Maul who has famously little screentime but each second he’s onscreen is still arresting just from his presence. But in addition to the introduction of midichlorians to the mythology is what Shmi claims is the virgin birth of Anakin so along with the presumably virtuous Jedi who are essentially monks (unless you want to believe that Qui-Gon and Shmi Skywalker spent the night together, which seems like a possibility) and a group of children in the other main roles you have a film with no sex drive and no other sort of drive to the film, one where everyone comes off as so virtuous that you wonder if laughter even exists in the Star Wars universe and the tone becomes stifling as if none of the actors can breathe while reciting dialogue against all those green screens. Too much of it plays as a kids movie, as opposed to how the earlier films seemed to be aimed at kids of all ages, and the level of humor is mostly a reminder of the goofiness that can be found throughout Lucas’ brief filmography only not at its best here. Of course, it’s also a kids’ movie with extensive dialogue about senate politics and trade negotiations which is a balance that sometimes plays as flat-out odd. At the very least, it provides more complications to the plot than I would have expected and I always remember the friend who told me about seeing the film after smoking weed all day then when the opening crawl began with its intricate details about trade negotiations thought, “Oh fuck, I need to pay attention.” But there’s an irreverence needed to maintain that balance which never appears, a sense of fun missing that doesn’t even seem to be part of the original intent. The film is so focused on the big moments courtesy of the groundbreaking effects that it forgets to find pleasures in the small moments, the character bits so famous from other films throughout the series which would mean more than any spectacular effect ever would. Simply put, THE LAST JEDI, to name another film, fucks. THE PHANTOM MENACE doesn’t.
But this is pure Lucas uncut for all that’s good and bad about it in a way that the following prequels weren’t, probably because of whatever course correction was done with discarded plot elements and characters pushed to the background after the response to this film. Not all of these choices can be defended particularly the, um problematic depictions of the likes of Jar Jar and the Trade Federation, each almost designed to recall stereotypes that you might have found in cheesy serials made during the Golden Age of Hollywood but since the film was made in the 90s it can’t really be defended (this could probably be said about Watto too but I have a soft spot for the guy, I can’t help it). But just as Yoda makes his comment about how always two there are, a master and an apprentice are such halves found throughout the film whether the two identities of Amidala, the two Jedi or the people of Naboo and the Gungans living underwater, a symbiosis that effect each other as the Jedi point out but they still remove Anakin from living with his mother because of Qui-Gon’s certainty, whatever that really is, as if to say that since he’s deliberately breaking apart a symbiosis which may be his undoing, along with the rest of the Jedi. Along with these themes is the film’s undeniable grandeur, particularly during the pod race which is still a phenomenal set piece today, even if the film does stop for it. But it contains just the right pacing and cinematic ingenuity just as some of the imagery seen on the city planet of Coruscant which resembles the covers of science fiction novels I only half remember from when I was a kid.
During the best of these moments I get lost in just the vibe of it all and John Williams infuses even the quietest moments of his score with a true sense of myth as well as the way the music seemingly screams out “DARTH MAUL!” at that famous appearance as the doors open. Deep down I think the “Duel of the Fates” track and the imagery of the climactic Light Saber duel was what I imagined in my head for all those years when we wondered if there would ever be another movie. But it’s a little too episodic, things are broken up a little too much as if for all that was done in post-production some details were paid attention to more than others, like the Yoda puppet which is such a letdown (maybe the look is just more appropriate in the organic setting of Dagobah) that it almost feels like Lucas wanted to prove that the character would be done better digitally. The climax is broken into four separate places of action, which is fine, but the freneticism of the editing causes the Williams score to be constantly broken up, starting and stopping throughout so there’s no flow to the action in the way there is in the final Death Star battle STAR WARS or the desperate escape that climaxes EMPIRE. Individual moments hit like the icy coolness of Darth Maul bouncing his saber off the force field as he waits, but it never snowballs into a series of events that flow effortlessly from one beat to the next.
That’s part of the thing with STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE. Everything feels so hemmed in, there’s no sense of joy to the filmmaking and there’s not enough of a real sense of these worlds even when it’s presumably filmed on location whether Italy or Tunisia. As miserable as Lucas may have been at Pinewood back in ’76 there’s a sheer feeling of kineticism throughout that film in the camerawork and the way the actors play all that dialogue which was supposedly unreadable that it all somehow popped. THE PHANTOM MENACE feels like a movie where every day was finished on time and they got what was needed. And that’s it. In some ways, it’s a revolutionary piece of work and looking at just about any random comic book sequel now shows how much Lucas was ahead of the curve. But the film seems to think that revolutionary effects work and unique cutting patterns are all that is required. It hints at what we responded to in the first place, there are vague echoes if we look, but it’s not enough. Near the very end of EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH we’re finally told why Qui-Gon didn’t disappear when killed in this film and why Obi-Wan did back in ’77, something I think we’d long since stopped wondering about. The moment rushes by too fast for us to really register the implications of all this but one of the things it feels that the STAR WARS saga is really about more than anything is the idea of wrestling with the past and what it really meant, fearful of what we’re going to lose, worried about rushing too fast into the future. One of the key images of the film is even of Anakin as he stands alone, uncertain of whether to take the path to becoming a Jedi or stay with his mother who tells him that you can’t stop change, “any more than you can stop the sun from setting.” Qui-Gon Jinn for that matter reminds apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi to be aware of the future but always live in the moment and he knows that’s the only place you can find peace. These are themes that Lucas has explored in his films since before he thought of STAR WARS and now we’ve projected our own versions of that onto whatever these films mean for ourselves in our lives. They’re ideas that remain in STAR WARS even now. At the very least, THE PHANTOM MENACE raises these questions. But maybe not much more than that.
More than any other actor here, Liam Neeson is the one who seems at ease among everything going on infusing his character with a total inner life and finding more between the lines on the page than you’d ever expect. Up against him Ewan McGregor is cooped up in the ship on Tatooine for so long that there’s not much for him to do. He’s definitely energetic and has the air of someone who wants more to do which at least makes sense for the character but he mostly comes to life during the final light saber battle. Natalie Portman seems a little lost with steely determination coming through as Amidala but bland confusion of what she should be doing in various shots while in the Padme guise. Pernilla August also finds weight in her role while Ian McDiarmid projects the right sort of icy cool as this bad guy in plain sight—Lucas really hit the jackpot by casting him back in the 80s. Considering how distracted much of the film is, some of the other performances don’t register very much. Sometimes this doesn’t matter and Samuel L. Jackson playing Mace Windu clearly has little idea what’s going on and particularly care since he’s got dialogue with Yoda in a STAR WARS movie but Terence Stamp just looks confused, no direction, no idea how anything he’s doing fits into anything. As Anakin, Jake Lloyd is a kid. Not the best kid actor I’ve ever seen, not the worst. In some ways his awkward uncertainty is right for the direction we know the character is going. Let’s leave him alone. Even the occasional bit parts which feel like they’re not played by professional actors whether the cameos by Lucas’s kids (can hardly blame him for doing that) or even the old woman who says “Storm’s coming up, Annie, you better get home quick!” on Tatooine give the film its own unique feel, an awkwardness that almost becomes the most human element found in the entire film.
The truth is I don’t need to see the STAR WARS films I’ve already seen before much anymore. Sure, it’s nice to have those Despecialized Editions around just in case but in many ways there isn’t anything left for me to take from them. There’s so many other films to see. But, yes, this one is still there. It will still loom large. It’s not a question of whether STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE is a good film. It doesn’t really matter anymore and if we’re going by Art or Not Art it qualifies as Art. That in itself doesn’t mean it’s good either. Anyway, there’s no point in getting into why I collapsed on the sidewalk that night back in December 2015. Not much has happened since then and in other ways way too much has. Certainly we now live in a world where Qui-Gon’s line “The ability to speak does not make you intelligent,” has more truth than I ever thought possible. And at least in December 2017 we all got a pretty great STAR WARS movie that I really do look forward to multiple viewings of. I wonder what sort of metaphor the world will provide future films that get made in this saga although it’s starting to look like STAR WARS will outlive everyone I know. And by this point it’s ok with me.