Sunday, October 16, 2016

Only Deign To Work

Memory. Usually I’d rather just forget everything. I don’t want to think about it, I don’t even want to write about it. Even when it comes to good memories if enough time goes by and certain people you once knew recede further into the past, there can still be the tinge of regret and of the road not taken. Autumn comes and no matter what else is going on I’ll think of New York, not because of Frank Sinatra but because of the excitement I felt back in those days working at a daily entertainment news show for a certain news network. I started that job in a September long ago and to this day during those months I remember the feel of autumn in the air combined with the excitement I felt. I was young, I was hopeful, I was stupid, I would leave the office every night and the entire city was out there, every single possibility was out there. On the same floor where I worked was the long running “Style with Elsa Klensch” and I never paid much attention to it or to her or any of that stuff but it was there with those monitors always displaying what seemed like endless b-roll of fashion shows. How much of this stuff went on day after day? I never found out and I still don’t know. Looking it up tells me that show ran all the way until February 2001 and an article in the New York Observer at the time references how the network “has drastically reduced its fashion-news coverage” which now sounds like a sentence from another dimension. According to Wikipedia the show I worked at in the early 90s (“Showbiz Today” for anyone who remembers that one) had its final airing on, um, September 10, 2001. We know what changed after that but it was already long in the rearview mirror for me by then.
Anyway, that’s the past and no point in dwelling there. The world moves on, after all. But I still get that rush from certain films set in New York that remind me of the hugely tangible feeling of being on those streets when you’re young enough to know you want to reach for something but maybe too stupid to know what the right choices are. Released during the summer of ’06, the film version of THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA is ten years old now and I’m guessing even the world of fashion magazines isn’t the same as it was then--Googling around I spotted a headline which read “How ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ Would Be Different in 2016” and I didn’t click on it since I’ve got other things to do. Putting all that aside, even without all the up to date gadgets that would be used by the characters, revisiting the film now it still feels current as if it’s very much part of this increasingly media intense environment. Not to mention that it barely feels like I’m revisiting this film at all since it’s never really gone away due to constant cable airings and how much it’s generally remembered. As a contrast, the DVD features a few trailers of other Twentieth-Century Fox comedies released the very same summer which serves as proof of how fast these things are usually forgotten. Plus the other film that opened the very same week was SUPERMAN RETURNS which also hasn’t exactly stuck around (that one’s a conversation for another time) and I saw it opening night at the Chinese with one of the most excited audiences imaginable but even then it was clear which film was more satisfying, which one hit the target. THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA isn’t perfect and it’s so slick that maybe there isn’t much to discuss in detail but it gets much of the overall approach just right and it’s just a damn good movie. Maybe not a great one but on a pop level of what a film like this is supposed to be in the best of all worlds it feels almost, pretty much, just right.
Recently arrived in New York and looking to work in journalism, Andrea Sachs (Anne Hathaway) takes a job as second assistant to the all-powerful Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), editor-in-chief of Runway Magazine. Nothing about Andrea fits in at Runway, as she deals with the daily humiliation put forth by Miranda as well as first assistant Emily Charlton (Emily Blunt) who worships everything the magazine represents and dreams of nothing more than the upcoming Paris trip during Fashion Week. But once Andrea begins to find her way at the magazine with the help of art director Nigel (Stanley Tucci) her relationship with boyfriend Nate (Adrian Grenier) begins to suffer and her ability to do the job surpassing even what she thought was possible she finds herself getting sucked into Miranda’s world at the expense of everyone else around her.
But you know this already. Everyone’s seen this film by now, my 12 year-old niece has seen it. It’s one of those perfect lazy Sunday afternoon movies to find on cable just like 2015’s THE INTERN which also starred Anne Hathaway and on a recent Sunday I had absolutely zero problem with finding that one on again. In comparison, THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA (screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna, based on the novel by Lauren Weisberger) is equally pleasant but it’s also meant to be sharper, darker even if it never goes too far in the direction of unpleasantness. Whatever the novel was, and I haven’t read it, the goal of the film is clearly not to blow the roof off of the treatment of assistants in the fashion industry and as dark comedies go it doesn’t go all that far, as if the most hostile physical action in the movie is the way Streep’s Miranda Priestly slams her coats down on the desk in that rapid-fire montage. The punches are even pulled a little when it comes to the worst thing Andy is asked to do she’s asked to do as if to make it not quite so terrible, as if there were a number of script discussions about this plot point but by this point so much of the film is clicking in the right way that it really doesn’t matter. The cutting dialogue keeps things moving through each of Miranda’s fucked up mind games and it feels continually grounded during each of the ridiculous tasks partly because it’s so easy to identify with Hathaway and her own goals.
And tone can be a tough nut to crack. Sure, just because the movie wants to be slick and commercial doesn’t mean it’s easy to pull that off. A little too much one way the whole thing is just too silly, like a bad ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS knockoff. Too much the other way and the dark humor would just become too sour. The Harrison Ford-Rachel McAdams comedy MORNING GLORY which came a few years later is clearly trying to do a similar thing (the two films even share the same screenwriter) and it’s not an unpleasant film in the least but is maybe a little too broad and ultimately insubstantial that there’s a ‘so what?’ feel to the conflict. Even comfort food has to have standards, after all. Whatever the book was, it feels like the goal of adapting THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA was to make it not a revenge piece (bringing to mind how Nigel mocks Andrea’s whining with a ‘poor you’) but to find a way to show how making this hellish job matter, to realize that you’re not forced to live in this world but if you’re going to be there you should at least try to live up to its standards since even fluff can mean something. It’s not about making Miranda Priestly a bitch to be put in her place but to live up to this challenge you’ve created for yourself and keep what you were meant to be in the process. Not easy, but no one said it was going to be.
Directed by David Frankel whose work before this film included the ENTOURAGE pilot, some SEX AND THE CITY episodes and the 1995 Woody Allen-ish romantic comedy MIAMI RHAPSODY, THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA is fast paced to the point that the speed almost becomes the very tone of the film using the breakneck approach established on ENTOURAGE and modifying it here to accentuate the stylishness of this world as opposed to the frenetic handheld feel of that show. The main exception is maybe during the famous scene where Miranda Priestly explains to Andrea with dripping contempt what it is they really do with the word ‘cerulean’ serving as a key part of that explanation and it’s one of the best in the film both in how it’s written and played by Streep with those words slithering out from the contempt she clearly feels for who she’s explaining this to while expertly doing her job at the very same time. The camerawork here goes handheld not in a manic way but just enough to add to the immediate unease that Andy suddenly feels (another headline I spotted was “What That Famous ‘Devil Wears Prada’ Scene Actually Gets Wrong” and I didn’t care enough to click on that either) and even in this scene the film doesn’t linger, moving forward immediately instead of on an expected reaction shot of the person who’s been momentarily rendered irrelevant. The deleted scenes on the DVD include a bit where Stanley Tucci’s Nigel introduces himself to Andrea; nothing wrong with the moment but in the film’s eyes it’s not necessary, pleasantries aren’t required here and you have to run alongside everyone else or you won’t catch up.
Frankel’s direction is continually assured in how to keep moving, like in the extended shot where Simon Baker’s slick columnist makes the move on Andrea as she gets lost in the drunken feel of this power just as he later tells her how sexy it is that she’s becoming part of that world so for those few seconds she sees the appeal in that. In each beat like that the film knows how to keep moving, it continually gets to the point of each scene and the dialogue gets it to the right point. And almost in a musical way it knows when to calm down, to allow for the quietness of Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly to cut through everyone else who knows they don’t have anywhere near the power she does. Streep’s the one who gets the speeches, cerulean-related and otherwise, whether designed to humanize her or add to the inevitable cruelty—Hathaway doesn’t get to say as much, there to merely listen since her place in the world is still being formed with a flashback to the beginning at one point just a few mere seconds as if that memory of what she was is already fading away. Even with the broader moments and the craziness of some of the fashions and yet it still is about the character more than strictly comedy, the world has its own internal logic. You’re either part of it or you’re not. And if you’re not, that’s all. Show yourself out.
Even when dealing with the absurdity of the then-unreleased Harry Potter book Andrea’s victories are small, relatable and for the purposes of the plot, significant. The film doesn’t have a deep or heavy message but it still knows to show how important this is in the way when you’re that young and everything seems so big and possible. All you want to do is not fuck up and you don’t know yet that you will. The feel is underlined by Theodore Shapiro’s score (who also did the score for, whaddyaknow, THE INTERN) which works for a comedy but also as Andy’s own personal soundtrack, as she stares up at the buildings all of this matters. For us, it’s Hollywood fluff. But it’s her story so it means something, as heightened as it is, as much as though we hear about the hours and the stress the glamour of working that job is still what comes across. Maybe it’s more of a coming of age story than satire or even a comedy—maybe it’s just an aspirational thing, since as much as we hear about it things never seem that awful. All we know is that when Andy buckles down and does the work it all looks pretty nice, leading to the Big Question of do you become your job or is your job just what you’re doing while waiting for the next thing. Plus with a few lines it drops in the subtle theme of women in the workplace and it could easily be called more progressive than WORKING GIRL with Sigourney Weaver last seen being told to get her bony ass out of there (and, lest anyone forgets, WORKING GIRL is a favorite of mine). It’s not too hard to imagine that version of this material being made by lesser hands, one that would make Miranda Priestly (or Emily) a one-dimensional bitch to be humiliated and even when Andrea makes her choice she’s not taking back any defense she’s made of her. It’s just not who she is. This all manages to bring a sliver of depth to this lightweight material, knowing that no more than a sliver is needed, dropped in to lines like Nigel’s dream of coming to Paris and actually getting to see Paris—the glamour of such a job letting you travel all over the world but still not entirely part of the world. Without that sliver the movie wouldn’t have turned into the perennial I guess it already is. I’m no expert on what my 12 year old niece should be watching but this seems like a pretty good one.
This film also seemed to mark the beginning of the Meryl Streep renaissance of the past decade or so and as big as this role seems in the surface the quietness she brings to her intensity, even on those rare occurrences where she shows what's underneath, is palpable. Whatever she’s doing, even if it’s just holding out her hand for what she expects to be placed there immediately, all those touches make it the perfect combination of star and larger than life character. Rachel McAdams reportedly turned down the role of Andrea and we’ll never know how that would have been (she wound up doing MORNING GLORY in 2010; let’s just say that film’s biggest issues aren’t her fault) but Anne Hathaway is an ideal audience surrogate, grounding the film with her insecurities in how she’s clearly trying to be better as the film goes on. Her steadiness makes it believable how much she ultimately fits into the world even if she can’t help herself. There are some scenes where Hathaway barely says anything at all, merely listening, and the way she listens helps to keeps the film about her during these moments. The supporting cast hits all the right marks as well—Stanley Tucci is awesome and totally laser focused with his timing with every line he has while the fantastic Emily Blunt brings nuance and believable panic to her innate over-the-topness with such sharpness that it’s still my favorite performance in this film. Simon Baker oozes the smarm of someone who knows exactly how to play this game while even the bit players pop--a few small roles almost feel like they were designed to possibly be played by big names in cameos but so what (a few real life notables do appear in cameos) and of course there’s along with Adrian Grenier of ENTOURAGE as the patient boyfriend pushed to his limits, Tracie Thoms of DEATH PROOF, Rich Sommer of MAD MEN and Rebecca Mader, now on ONCE UPON A TIME.
I’ve said very little about all the fashion, but I’m sure there’s someone else out there who can focus on all that from what I can tell, what Emily Blunt wears does the best job at getting across the exaggeration. And it’s hard not to notice those reminders of how the world really has changed—disparaging references to people forced to work at Auto Universe and TV Guide now sound like people they’re probably lucky to have any magazine job at all. But the world of the film is not so much the glossy New York I remember as it is a New York that I wish I remembered even if it is many years since I’ve been there now and, besides, that was so long ago that I’m not even sure if there’s any point in remembering it all. I’m perfectly ok with remembering a movie like this instead, since it’s a reminder that there aren’t enough like it these days (one I haven’t seen is David Frankel’s later HOPE SPRINGS which reunited him with Street). It goes down so easily that it doesn’t bother me that it never gets too believably dark Yes, there could have been a scene where Andy gets believably screamed at. I’m sure it’s happened in those offices before and it happened to me once at another entertainment news show I once worked at. I got over it. You shake these things off. You have to, while you wonder once again if you’ve become your job or if your job is just what you’re waiting for until the next thing. And while you try to figure that you walk off into the distance to go home at night, looking for a new day. Anyway, to steal a toast from the film, to jobs that pay the rent. That’s all.

Friday, September 23, 2016

In The Light Of Truth

For whatever reason I sometimes think of a declaration remembered from film school, maybe it was said by Dani Michaeli, but it’s so long ago now that who knows. It was a simple statement once while watching a film: “Pans suck.” That’s all it was, probably spoken during a film which contained a camera pan that most likely sucked. And I’ve always remembered that brief utterance, making me think of every bad pan I’ve ever seen, maybe some of them in the context of clunky student films and how false they were. Sure, you could bring up a million examples of good pans by Scorsese or whoever and, really, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to this sort of thing. But maybe there’s some truth to it, that the falseness of a pan is something to avoid and you should find some other way to frame your shot until you’ve figured it out. The reason I’m saying all this is that recently I was watching THE LETTER, a William Wyler-directed Bette Davis vehicle released in 1940, one of those goddamn Warner Brothers epics that opens with the familiar Max Steiner fanfare and everything about it speaks to the quality you’d get from films that were churned out by the studio system. As I get older there’s something about those goddamn Warner Brothers epics that stands out—yes, the familiar actors, but also that studio’s particular type of storytelling, a stylishness which sets it apart from the silvery aura of Paramount or the glistening perfection of MGM. It’s an extremely well-made film, heightened by performances which match the story and tone perfectly. At one point I found myself drawn in and fascinated by the direction, the way Wyler was staging a certain key moment and how the impeccable camerawork added to the way the story was being told. There was an undeniable elegance to every single moment in the deliberateness of the framing that Wyler was bringing to this particular shot. What I’m trying to say, and maybe it says something about the film as a whole, is that THE LETTER has some really good pans.
Late at night on a Malaysian rubber plantation, a man is shot six times by Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis) wife of Robert Crosbie (Herbert Marshall) the estate manager. The man is Geoff Hammond, another British local who Leslie claims entered her house with the intent to make love to her, resulting in what happened. No one disbelieves Leslie’s story and while she is arrested to go to trial no one has any doubt what the outcome will be. Until her attorney Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) learns about the existence of a letter written by her to Hammond, begging him to come to her home that night. And that letter now belongs to his wife (Gale Sondergaard) who has certain demands, leading Howard to refrain from telling Robert what is in the letter while working with Leslie to do whatever he can to suppress it, allowing for her acquittal whatever the real truth may be.
It’s not all about pans, of course. Some might wonder why I’m writing about a Bette Davis film and not immediately focusing on Bette Davis since, after all, a film like this is presumably all about Bette Davis who represents the type of strong woman portrayed during this era, up against the men trying to understand them and the impossibility of it all. Bette Davis was the star, she was why the film existed. Not so much the director or the original source material and certainly not her co-stars who as usual are all dapper gentlemen (some with moustaches, some without) forced to eternally play second fiddle to her, those “he looks thirty-two” types Davis’ Margo Channing later referred to in ALL ABOUT EVE. And I have no problem with writing about Bette Davis. Or Joan Crawford, for that matter, but equal time for her will have to wait until I get around to AUTUMN LEAVES. So in comparison to the star power on hand, maybe pointing out something as presumably insignificant as a pan shouldn’t be that big a deal. That was the job of the people who made this film, after all, to make sure those touches added to making it as good as possible without anyone even dwelling on such things.
And THE LETTER (screenplay by Howard Koch, from the W. Summerset Maugham play and also previously filmed in 1929) is that good, I almost want to say it’s a “cracking good yarn” or something old school like that, as well as a reminder that William Wyler is one of those Golden Age directors not talked about enough anymore. After serving in the Air Force and directing several documentaries during World War II (like George Stevens, documented in Mark Harris’ book Five Came Back) he returned home and took many of his feelings about the experience coming back from the war to make 1946’s THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES. That film won the Best Picture Oscar and is a confirmed classic by now but still feels underappreciated, its post-war context forgotten as other films, possibly made by more esteemed auteurs, have continued to be lionized. That one’s his masterpiece, not so much THE LETTER which may not even be the greatest film made by Warner Brothers during this period but of course they can’t all be CASABLANCA or TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT. But I’ve been watching THE LETTER multiple times over the past few weeks getting lost in its sumptuous atmosphere and found myself with a growing “damn, this really is good” appreciation for what it does, weaving its story through a tight running time of around 95 minutes without an ounce of fat and yet infinitely complex on a thematic and visual level. Frankly, you’d think that’s what more films should be. It’s one of the best examples of this sort of filmmaking that doesn’t get talked about much anymore as the past recedes further into the distance. It’s a great film regardless of when it was made.
It’s also the moon. The moon stares down at the film’s star throughout, recurring in its imagery while silently judging and hiding all secrets. To bring up a film like CASABLANCA, directed by Michael Curtiz, it’s hard to imagine that director ever paying much attention to something as heavily symbolic as the moon. The directness of the storytelling is one of his strong points and in some ways is part of what makes his movies play so well today, almost modern at times. He had Bogart & Bergman in CASABLANCA, he had Crawford in MILDRED PIERCE, John Garfield in the sadly underappreciated THE BREAKING POINT. Compared with the emphasis on that star power, William Wyler’s directorial style in THE LETTER feels somewhat ornate and even a little stately, more about laying out the shots in an elegant way and placing his own leading lady within it. He explores that setting and what it means within the film’s world, allowing for moments where that setting is the story, including the opening which establishes the plantation setting, rubber dripping down while giving us a look at the workers living in their bamboo huts, all that tension hanging in the air.
Because of its appearances in Chuck Workman-type montages, THE LETTER is maybe best known today for the early shot of Bette Davis firing a pistol into her unseen victim as she moves down a small set of stairs, her face a mask of pure determination the whole time. But then beyond the fury of those iconic seconds the camera moves in slowly on her face, no rush to cut away from it, trying to get us to see what is really in there since the film is, after all, about what lies inside that stare. It feels like half the story of THE LETTER is told through those eyes and because of that specifics of plot machinations laid out through exposition don’t seem to matter as much. It’s her face and the people and places around her that matters, just like the deep focus in some of BEST YEARS’s most famous moments which link those characters together. Even during Bette Davis’ multiple lengthy speeches where she describes in detail the events that lead up to the shooting, whatever sort of truth we eventually learn they contain, it’s almost about how she’s saying it and how the men around her are listening as much as the specific words, however elegant the dialogue is. Anything she says, anything she wants others to think is almost covered up by the lacework she seems to spend most of the film busy crocheting, representing those lies that she tries to cover herself with, to avoid the truth of what was in that letter. There’s a clearness to the storytelling which focuses on all this behavior and the movie never wastes any time; even the crucial trial sequence, something that could easily drag down the middle section of the film, is condensed down to a few crucial moments. We don’t even see the cross-examination heard about in dialogue to reiterate what we’ve already heard, only the closing summation by her conflicted friend and attorney which focuses on his own doubts about what he’s being made to do by this woman.
Of course, since this is a film made in 1940 shot on the Warner lot in Burbank its version of Malaysia is probably more Generic Exotic Movie Setting than anything having to do with reality but still presents an evocative look at this place where the English live but in their veiled racism still dream of a more ‘civilized climate’, even as Bette Davis kills a man then proceeds to cook for everyone who’s come over to investigate. When they have to go to the Chinese quarter to retrieve the letter in question, Leslie speaks of never having been there, assuming that it’s ‘a bit creepy’, clearly more interested in being with her friends who seem to have nothing to do but flitter about planning parties. The locals are basically all treated as servants or worse, which becomes part of how it’s obviously dated but also an element of the subtext since it’s those locals treated with such disdain who always seem to be quietly one step ahead of the lead characters. It’s almost as if they’re quietly pulling the strings of the story, waiting things out until the final moments--Sen Yung as Howard Joyce’s clerk who alerts him to the existence of the letter admits to being motivated by money but there’s clearly something more than that being left unsaid. It’s as if the camerawork itself is affected by them, even those pans seem controlled by certain characters to shift the focus back over to them.
Since it’s her vehicle Bette Davis is just about the only character in the film who gets any close-ups—the only possible exception is Gale Sondergaard as Mrs. Hammond (it’s not much of a role beyond her physical presence but Sondergaard herself is an interesting figure, later blacklisted after taking the fifth when being questioned by HUAC), the only other female of importance in the film but one who only appears in a few scenes and with no spoken dialogue in English. She’s basically a stereotypical dragon lady, I guess meant to be Eurasian, with fuzzy motivations at times but it all gives the impression that what plays out between the women, between their stares, matters more than the men around them who talk about nothing but Plot. It’s the unspoken passion involving the man who’s been killed that matters more than the trial or dollar figures bandied about which in the end are really semantics. The men remain off to the side, fretting or drinking (“Mix me another,” one says to the servant as soon as a round arrives) while husband Herbert Marshall thinks a kiss on the cheek from him will make everything all right, trying to deny the obvious truth for as long as possible. He has no idea.
Bette Davis famously shot her big confession near the end for director Wyler under protest, saying no woman would ever look a man in the eyes while she said such a thing. My experience is generally that they have no problem with this when they finally reveal the truth and destroy you, but that’s an argument for another time and maybe that one last ounce of defiance from her is what’s needed here. Besides, that confession almost seems minor compared with the unreality of the final moments however the production might have been forced into such an ending by the production code. The last several minutes are essentially without dialogue, pure cinema, and Bette Davis’ frozen expression involving the mystery of a certain dagger’s return appearance seems to involve an acceptance of destiny. THE LETTER is possibly better as a goddamn Warner Brothers epic than a simple Bette Davis vehicle as if she correctly knew that would be better for her anyway to be part of this film as opposed to fashioning it entirely around her. The very last moments even seem to say that she’s not important anymore, the world has already moved on. As a certain party continues in the background, only the moon knows the real truth and as far as it’s concerned those secrets will be kept.
Bette Davis plays her role with every bit of intensity needed, since much of what Leslie is projecting is a performance anyway, her eyes forever searching for the next piece to keep her lies going, trying to avoid the glare of someone who may call her on it. It’s not about realism, no one ever said a Bette Davis performance had to be about realism anyway, it’s about what she’s trying to express up front while hiding behind that mask which seems to crack more as the film goes on through her own self-loathing and determination to make all this go her way since she can’t imagine any alternative. Herbert Marshall, playing the husband, has no real chance up against her; it’s sort of a thankless role anyway, waiting around to be devastated but he plays it with just the right pitch as if it never occurs to him to consider the real story. As her lawyer and confidant, James Stephenson finds the truth in what also might have been a normal supporting performance designed to fade into the background but he matches her and brings an extra level of tension all on his own, playing it with the unspoken belief that there’s more going on here than any of them can understand hanging through every line, becoming a lesser man than he was before but with no choice in the matter. Stephenson received a Supporting Actor nomination for his performance but unfortunately died less than a year after the film’s release—his one of seven nominations the film received, also including Davis, director Wyler and for Best Picture but all involved went home empty handed.
In the end, guilt matters. What you’ve done matters. Late at night that’s all there really is. Sometimes we gaze up at the moon, hoping for forgiveness and that the past might be wiped away. It doesn’t happen. I’m not sure why I decided to write about THE LETTER but whatever that reason is probably isn’t very important. There’s the skill behind it, the star power, the atmosphere it exudes, the wit in the dialogue. And those pans. Again with those pans. Not very much point in obsessing over pans. Just like there’s not much point in obsessing over the past but that never stopped me before. Sometimes when you try to figure these things out you’re just left with the film and whatever it is as you watch it, never fully understanding why beyond the fact that deep down for you it’s a good thing it’s there. It’s not an answer. Maybe you never get an answer. But it’s better than nothing.

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Standard Of Living

It’s the easiest thing in the world to focus on what’s in front of you, making you miss the bigger picture. Sometimes you realize right away. Sometimes it takes a little longer. Either way, the outcome isn’t going to be what you want. Released in 1966, DEAD HEAT ON A MERRY-GO-ROUND is about just that sort of thing, a heist film with some of the expected fun touches but also a soberness to it that indicates how nasty some of the actions are, that the fun and games of a rollicking mid-60s heist aren’t just fun and games. Plus it has James Coburn, the epitome of cool in this star vehicle that came between the two FLINT films, at the height of his breakout with that enormous toothy smile just flashy enough to almost make you forget what sort of person he’s really playing. The KCET Cinema Series sometimes screens one of his films in conjunction with the James & Paula Coburn Foundation and this past August they played a gorgeous 35mm print of this film, something I had never expected to see. Remembered these days mainly for being the feature debut of a certain other legendary star in a bit role, DEAD HEAT is almost too aloof to be a classic, it’s almost daring you to call it anything other than aloof, never asking for your love but within the fractured quality of its story its own cool rhythm comes to play. It may not be a masterwork of the genre but regardless, there aren’t many days where I’m going to complain about getting to see a 60s heist movie anyway and this one definitely has its pleasures.
Recently released from prison and breaking parole after seducing his psychologist, con man Eli Kotch (James Coburn) begins to put his plan into effect to pull off a master bank heist at the Los Angeles Airport at the exact time the Russian premier arrives for a trip to the city. But first he must pull off a number of smaller jobs to pay for the blueprints that will give him the information he needs for the plan and sets out across the country to begin earning that money. During his travels he meets the lovely Inger Knudsen (Camilla Sparv) under the guise of an intellectual writer named ‘Henry Silverstein’, marries her and continues the con by moving her out to Los Angeles. As he makes his own way out west to assemble his gang of fellow thieves (Aldo Ray, Severn Darden, Michael Strong) for the crime, federal agent Milo Stewart (Robert Webber) who is overseeing the visit by the premier, is working to have the airport tight as a drum for the premier’s arrival and very intent on making sure absolutely nothing goes wrong.
Eli Kotch doesn’t care about anyone else around him, they’re only shadows, just like the shadows seen on a wall in the film’s opening shot as if for him the whole world is just sitting there, waiting for him to take advantage of it all and get what’s his. Written and directed by Bernard Girard (various feature & TV credits, including a number of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS), DEAD HEAT ON A MERRY-GO-ROUND is an odd, chilly film that makes you wonder just when the story is going to start instead of spending valuable time on scenes where apparently not much of anything happens only to discover that was the story, just like how you realize after the fact in life that what you were waiting for already came around. It’s a slippery narrative with an extremely detached layout and manages to be enjoyable even when you haven’t quite caught up to what’s going on. At times it’s as if half the scenes don’t even matter and, of course, they do it’s just not always clear exactly why. Along with the fun, it almost dares to be alienating in its storytelling; much of the pleasure in heist films involves laying out whatever the plan is, so we know what the characters know and even what they don’t, allowing for twists to occur in both directions. “Here’s what we’re going to do,” someone like Danny Ocean will say as we cut to the explanatory montage. Going totally against that grain, part of the goal of DEAD HEAT seems to be to clarify as little as possible as Eli Kotch puts his plan into effect, with what seems like whole chunks of plot skipped over through ellipsis and then offering still less info, never making it clear right away as a new scene begins what exactly is important, what we should be focusing on. One imagines watching the film on local TV with commercials during the 70s just assuming that scenes have been cut but as it turns out everything is right in front all along.
The film leaves it up to us to put the pieces together as Eli Kotch expresses all the confidence in the world without giving away the details even to the people around him. We’ll see the setup of the con, many of which involve getting women to open themselves up to whichever character he’s playing at the moment to take advantage of them, to help him ‘identify their desires’—a southern-accented funeral director from Berkeley, a French-accented shoe salesman from Switzerland who lives in Denver, returning a missing dog to a Boston heiress, but we see almost nothing of the actual jobs being pulled as if that’s secondary to the schemes and once he’s got the plan going the end result is a fait accompli. Characters are introduced, set up, then gone before we realize it, as the film and its lead character speed off to a different locale leaving them behind and clueless as to what really happened. The jigsaw puzzle layout does become clearer over multiple viewings but even then plays as if certain details are left unexplained because the film just isn’t interested in them, even if it would allow for just a little more clarity. But it does give DEAD HEAT ON A MERRY-GO-ROUND its own unique vibe and in some ways is the perfect vehicle for Coburn in his 60s persona. He’s Mr. Iconoclast, not needing anyone around him, facing straight ahead and not looking around for any cars that might be about to hit him as he walks out into the road. Just like he does, the film decides on what’s important and since you’re only an observer you don’t get a say in the matter.
And that main character remains an enigma, given little more than an extended speech in the very first scene in which he reveals a childhood betrayal which no doubt shaped his worldview. It may be the only truthful thing he reveals about himself, presuming he hasn’t simply made it up for the benefit of the prison psychologist he’s using to aid in his early release. Either way aside from that we get next to nothing else in the way of character detail outside a close-up of him staring at a newspaper headline announcing the impending arrival of the Russian premier which must be the date of his job, eyes on that prize, fixed on the goal no matter anything else and it’s the only thing that matters. DEAD HEAT ON A MERRY-GO-ROUND is a good, smooth time that continually clicks along—the pacing never slacks off so there’s a tightness to the direction through each new stage of the plan and it never seems to rest for a second. The jaunty score by Stu Philips keeps it all light hearted but never fully swings as much as you’d want it to in that 60s way as if it wants to keep things close to the vest, never fully indicating what kind of film this is, never wanting to reveal the next crucial twist, let alone what’s going to happen as a result. Eli Kotch talks about playing ‘that invisibility game’ in his cons and he’s right since the shadows he encounters, all those easy marks, never take too much notice of him. He already seems to know how helpful and open the world is going to be whether it’s the women he takes full advantage of or the people he encounters briefly who almost always seem to mention how pleased they were to have met him and help him out, never knowing the fast one he’s pulling on them. He even dismisses worry about how fast he’s putting this heist together, insisting that it can’t wait; you wait around, you get fat, he says. As if to prove his own viewpoint, the entire world around him is going crazy, stuck in their own world of worry about whatever their particular problems are.
It’s a film where almost everything is a put-on, including when one of the crooks is introduced wearing prison garb only to have it revealed to us that he’s working as a Hollywood extra. Even the preparations for the premier’s visit are all about what’s being shown on the surface, how it’s “the standard of living we want to project” and we’re seemingly told more details about the preparations for the visit, which as far as we know is of incidental importance to the plot, than the heist itself. As confusing as it might be the pacing keeps things feeling controlled, so careful that it’s a movie where the heist finally kicks off and the lead basically goes for a quiet stroll with us still not entirely sure what he’s waiting for. DEAD HEAT could have been made by its own lead character—“Eli Kotch” was even the original title—since it gives you pleasure for a little while, pulls a fast one and then that’s it. “Whoever remembers anyone by their name?” one of the women asks which is what Kotch seems to already know and he’s right, just about every choice he makes is absolutely right except for the one thing he doesn’t bother with. When he wins the heart of Camilla Sparv’s Inger Knudsen by pretending to be some sort of intellectual writer named ‘Henry Silverstein’ he doesn’t seem to know how good he has it and how good it can be with her, even if the two of them are only in some tiny apartment where they have to hide the fact that they’re cooking in a place where it isn’t allowed. She even puts on a little performance when they’re staying over at her wealthy employer’s house as if it really belongs to them, playing at the game that he takes very seriously. “Oh, Henry,” she coos to him, as if to foreshadow the final twist. Unable to believe that he’s fallen for her so fast, she couldn’t be sweeter to this total shit and he just doesn’t care. The movie is almost about the behavior that gets put out there for the world to see, whether truthful or not and what it can be during those lonely moments when we let our guard down like how Coburn pauses outside of Sparv’s building when he departs, for a few seconds aware of what he’s leaving behind. For once in a heist film, the suspense almost seems beside the point.
There’s also some neat location work giving us a pretty good glimpse of what LAX looked like back in those days, with the “International Back of Commerce” oddly located on the street level of the famous Theme Building (I always think of it as Encounter and was surprised to discover the actual name, so the things you learn). Even with the Russian premier coming through to this international airport it still seems like a pleasant commuter stopover compared to now. Other portions of the film feel somewhat backlot bound, typical of studio releases of the time, so much so that it’s almost a surprise when actual Boston locations turn up for that section. Because of the 60s vibe and airport setting some have compared it to CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, obviously a much warmer film, but there is also a certain amount of MAD MEN’s Don Draper as well in the behavior of this film’s lead character with his willingness to put on a false front and just take off, forgetting about what’s being left behind, nothing that matters but the possibility of what’s next. DEAD HEAT ON A MERRY-GO-ROUND is a little like the feature equivalent of James Coburn cackling with that huge grin of his only in this case he doesn’t get to hear the punchline to his own joke. And it’s a pretty good one.
As Eli Kotch, Coburn glides through every encounter with all the confidence in the world, making even the smallest moments effective. Once he’s given his first big speech at the start, that’s all we need to know as he uses his sly grin blowing smoke rings, confident that each new guise is going to work like all the others—at one point he even reuses his Australian accent from THE GREAT ESCAPE, not that it’s much better this time around. Camilla Sparv (also in MURDERERS’ ROW and DOWNHILL RACER) doesn’t have much to do but project sweetness and vulnerability but it’s what the part needs, enough for us to remember how much she’s being used. The various other women include Rose Marie in a brief cameo and Nina Wayne (sister of the more recognizable Carol Wayne from Blake Edwards’ THE PARTY; I had to check the credits to make sure they weren’t the same person) who as Frieda Schmid is given some of the cleverest dialogue in the film as her character somehow manages to contradict each thing she says within seconds ("I'm always on time. It's one of my failings.").
As Kotch’s cohorts, Severn Darden (both CONQUEST and BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES, among many other credits) and Michael Strong (Stegman in POINT BLANK) each do something with their thinly written roles displaying quiet nervousness that adds to the tension for their part in the job. But it’s hard to imagine Aldo Ray (who appeared with Coburn in Blake Edwards’ WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE WAR, DADDY? the very same year) doing much less with his own vaguely defined role—by a certain point it’s hard to remember if he even has any dialogue in the film. Along with dependable work by Robert Webber who gets moments of comical impatience in a fairly thankless role and Roy Glenn of GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER as a helpful airport cop, a few familiar faces appear briefly including Vic Tayback and Al Nalbandian, recognizable from small roles in a few Coppola productions (including THE CONVERSATION, AMERICAN GRAFITTI and TUCKER; he still has his own flower stand in San Francisco). In addition, as much as the world already knows, Harrison Ford makes his film debut here as a bellhop who briefly gets confused by Coburn pulling one of his many cons. It’s cool to see him here, but the film deserves to be known for more than that.
Since it’s not a film that warrants a huge response from a crowd I wasn’t even sure how it was playing that night and was pleasantly surprised when the final moment got a big response from the audience—the joke landed, essentially. The KCET Cinema Series screening included an enjoyable talk before the film with DEAD HEAT producer Carter DeHaven (this was his first feature producing credit; others include THE EXORCIST III which sadly did not come up) who discussed convincing a reluctant studio head to cast Coburn in the lead, the changing of the title, how Robert Evans tried to keep then-wife Camilla Sparv from doing the film as well as Harrison Ford getting cast in his first role. It was a stunningly pristine print which didn’t look like it had been played in decades; my thanks again to Lynda Erkiletian of the James & Paula Coburn Foundation for the invite. There’s a chilliness to DEAD HEAT ON A MERRY-GO-ROUND which sets it apart while fitting in perfectly with other Coburn films from the 60s. “It all depends on what you need,” goes a line near the end and sometimes that one thing can be all you think about, where all your focus is so you miss what else is there. Maybe you eventually notice it. Maybe you notice it too late. Sometimes these films keep things so light that there’s no time for such truths but DEAD HEAT ON A MERRY-GO-ROUND has just the right amount of sting to it. Besides, there’s nothing wrong with a little nastiness just when you think things are going your way. Except when it happens to you, of course.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Not Only A Way To Live

Sometimes you wonder if there’s any way to get past something only to realize the true impossibility of ever doing it. Those things never leave you. That’s just the way it is. The 60s could be thought of as John Frankenheimer’s decade with some of his best films coming during that period--THE YOUNG SAVAGES in 1961 followed by the likes of BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, GRAND PRIX and of course the all-holy SECONDS. His last film of that decade was THE GYPSY MOTHS, a nearly unknown film now which apparently never got much of a release by MGM at the time and went mostly unseen for several decades until it came out on DVD in 2002, soon after Frankenheimer’s death. But it’s a lovely, sad film, almost like the end of the road for the world he was portraying in the 60s, much of which was an outgrowth of what he may have thought of as ‘the 50s’ and the America that was being represented. It certainly recalls a few of his other films in what it wants to say about fate, about where you’re going in life, how far you try to get away from yourself and if it’s too late to ever change. That question of can you transform into something else or is the path you’re on already set. Not all of the answers in THE GYPSY MOTHS are ones you want to hear. But sometimes those wishes are just impossible.
A trio of professional skydivers made up of team leader Mike Rettig (Burt Lancaster) savvy go-getter Joe Browdy (Gene Hackman) and the younger Malcolm Webson (Scott Wilson) who travel through the Midwest putting on their show arrive in the small Kansas town of Bridgeville (“If you lived here you’d be home now”) where Malcolm is originally from. They stay with Malcolm’s Aunt Elizabeth (Deborah Kerr) and Uncle John (William Windom), where Malcolm strikes up a rapport with their boarder Annie (Bonnie Bedelia), a local student, and Mike immediately takes a silent interest in Elizabeth as they continue preparations for their big show the next day.
At one time the Kansas small town depicted in THE GYPSY MOTHS might have been filmed mostly on a backlot depicting pure Americana and even the Labor Day excitement of 1955’s PICNIC was drenched in Technicolor stretching as far as the eye could see. But by the time of this film it feels like everything has died off just a little, the warm feeling of community has gone away, even in a town that apparently has a college and missile base everything feels a little bit dead. With screenplay by William Hanley based on the novel by James Drought, THE GYPSY MOTHS is set around the Fourth of July, generally an exciting holiday but that’s never really felt here and any talk of celebration almost comes off as more of an obligation than anything. Looking like the sort of place where trains that go on forever are always passing through, the town of Bridgeville is picturesque but feels stifled as if it’s filled with homes of unfulfilled promises and empty rooms belonging to children who went away but haven’t returned. Only the girlie bar with a ‘THEY SOCK IT TO YOU’ sign out front serves as a reminder of what year it really is and there’s something intentionally stifling about the film as well, even down to dialogue about windows being kept closed. Aside from a brief shot of moths circling the light outside the aunt and uncle’s home the film never bothers with an explanation of the title to underline its themes which are kept deliberately oblique; the interior lives of the characters feel ready to explode but we still don’t learn very much. One person talking about the past is abruptly cut off and there’s no speech drawing in the metaphor to underline why certain things happen so when some of them do talk about their regrets and private fears it’s hard not to wonder about what greater pain they’re leaving unspoken.
A few characters remark to the men how insane what they do is and they’re right but there’s never very much of a response to the obvious and there’s an emotional chill to much of the world of THE GYPSY MOTHS—the house where they stay is forever quiet, as if there isn’t so much as a record player to bring some life into it. There’s mostly sadness and regret hanging in the air even when Gene Hackman’s Browdy tries to take control of the conversation laughing just a little too loud. THE GYPSY MOTHS isn’t top rank Frankenheimer maybe because there’s so much unspoken it makes the film feel almost too constricting but the lack of melodramatic urgency causes the personal nature of the story stand out all the more, making it more satisfying than the Cinerama spectacle combined with the more soapy drama of GRAND PRIX. What we see of the skydiving here is very much an extension of the auto racing in that film, the daredevil nature of attempting to come that close to death. In that case it was more exciting, appropriate for a popcorn movie but this is more fatalistic, as if Frankenheimer was attracted to the material based on the marketable aspect of the skydiving then found himself more drawn to what it all really meant—it says something that the Film Score Monthly CD of Elmer Bernstein’s music contains a few cues of carnival-like excitement that mostly went unused. It’s almost something that can’t be put into a subtle speech revealing why they do it since they can barely put it into words themselves. There’s a lot here you have to take on faith—the sadness, the feeling of loss, with the unspoken thoughts of what didn’t happen.
At one point Burt Lancaster’s Mike Rettig quotes an old friend by calling the act of skydiving “not only a way to live but also way to die…” but even when the actor says this in giant closeup it still doesn’t reveal much about this character who floats above it all in his head anyway, having separated himself from everyone else as if he’s already checked out and is just looking for one more reason to stick around. Gene Hackman’s Browdy might be a little too boisterous in his overzealous nature but he still comes off as the responsible one of the trio. He’s the pragmatist who knows his limitations up there in the sky, not in it for the metaphor but for the money and, presumably, for the good times as long as he’s able to get to church on Sunday to pray away his sins. He talks of wanting to go out to Hollywood to be a stuntman—maybe he’ll get to be Hal Needham. Malcolm, played by IN COLD BLOOD’s Scott Wilson, doesn’t know who he is or what he’s going to be—he only knows who he wasn’t. Bridgeville might have been his home but, to go by the ‘If you lived here…’ welcome sign, it isn’t and he’s wondering what his own limitations are up there. Malcolm tells Rettig, “You can only stay up so long, then you have to come back down” and it’s as if Lancaster’s character is thinking about coming back down for a romance or whatever something deeper it is with the married Deborah Kerr. The romance makes it impossible not to think of the infidelity they already shared in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, only made more frank this time with nudity by both actors in this late 60s film that’s surprising not only due to their age (50s and 40s, for what it’s worth) but also because of its connection to the famous imagery from that earlier film and how there seems to be that much more desperation this time around, the possibility of connection matters that much more. It’s not even clear why they’re so instantly drawn to each other unless it’s some vague awareness they’ve met before in some other film which makes as much sense as anything and they seem to understand each other without knowing why. It’s almost as if when directing their big scenes Frankenheimer kept telling Lancaster and Kerr, “Less, less” to fill in the blanks for ourselves and it somehow works, making the longing in their eyes even sadder. It adds to the inevitably of what eventually happens so you know why it does even though you’ll never know.
The quiet moments through the film are sometimes what linger and John Frankenheimer’s direction is assured enough to allow that to happen, bringing life to even scenes of two characters standing there awkwardly. He knows who these people are, he knows what he wants them to be and the way he frames them, whether he’s shooting close-ups or the stuntwork, is always extremely powerful. Damn, he was good. The skydiving footage and even some establishing helicopter shots never simply feel like second unit work, always adding to the story along with the simple homespun majesty of the Elmer Bernstein score which captures all that longing and regret in the night air. Even if the skydiving footage is secondary to the drama, it’s still jaw-dropping with a few point of view shots that are particularly impressive. But whatever else you want to say, unlike the awesomeness of GRAND PRIX which was really about that spectacle, the heart of THE GYPSY MOTHS is elsewhere even if a few times the film is trying to compensate for what was originally the selling point--one sequence from deep in the film appears to be moved up to the very opening presumably to five us skydiving footage up front since that’s what they were selling. A few rear projection closeups of the actors supposedly skydiving also aren’t so great but whaddyagonnado (of course, professional skydivers did the actual work) and that’s pretty minor stuff. The film always remembers to stay with the characters and only breaks away from them for a runner involving the local high school marching band preparing for the big parade which is cute but maybe unnecessary and a reminder that humor wasn’t always Frankenheimer’s strong suit. Still, the gag makes clear that the seemingly halcyon days of PICNIC in these small towns are over. The outside world is encroaching, filled with all the tragedy and death and cynicism that comes along with that even on the 4th of July and there’s nothing that can be done to stop it. Very little can be done to stop the inevitable and when Lancaster tries to get Kerr to go with him, as if looking for a way to start anew, looking for meaning away from loneliness, maybe part of a dream to transform from moth to butterfly. On a fatalism level THE GYPSY MOTHS is essentially GRAND PRIX meets SECONDS, complete with its own version of ‘the next stage’ as Jeff Corey referred to it in the latter film which feels just as unavoidable this time around even if the emotions attached to it can’t be fully explained.
The film looks at life as three possibilities—taking the path you know you’re destined for, leaving the past behind as you head to the unknown or simply making that unexplainable choice not to pull your chute at the right moment. What really terrifies a person, it asks, being close to death or not living at all? It may be surprising to hear the director on the audio commentary near the end call his film “a positive picture” considering how downbeat much of it is and how devastating what occurs feels in the end. But production began on THE GYPSY MOTHS not long after John Frankenheimer dropped off Robert Kennedy at the Ambassador in Los Angeles for his California primary victory speech, intending to drive him back a short time later. But this event never comes up on the director’s commentary of this film in which people are forced to finally deal with choices that were never made but maybe at the time thinking about the possibilities of that choice was about as hopeful as Frankenheimer was able to get at the time which at least may have been a start.
Looking back at the film all these years after it was made serves as a reminder of these performances but also how the film, coming as the 60s were about to become the 70s works a little as the passing of the torch from a movie star of one age (Lancaster, doing his last of five films with Frankenheimer) to the next (Hackman, in his first of two). Burt Lancaster, gives a moody, wonderful performance which works as a reflection of his work in THE SWIMMER, almost like the next step in his middle aged persona finally coming face to face with what he’s been denying. Gene Hackman, meanwhile, does some of the best of his early work here fully commanding the screen There’s still some raw scrappiness to his presence as late as BONNIE AND CLYDE but here, with THE FRENCH CONNECTION still to come, he seems totally confident bringing an authority to how he works the camera that is already in full bloom here. Scott Wilson, a last minute replacement for John Philip Law who pulled out after an injury, doesn’t have as showy a role but it’s the right sort of quiet, never fully sure if he’s allowed to say what’s on his mind. Deborah Kerr has maybe the most difficult role in what she isn’t allowed to say but there’s a directness to her performance, fully willing to look the other person in the eye while not revealing a thing which goes with the overwhelming guilt her character clearly feels. It’s as if she’s daring William Windom as her husband to say something, anything, to her since she’s not going to volunteer any private feelings but he plays it just right as someone seemingly more interested in his pipe collection than what his wife might have going on. Bonnie Bedelia, apparently in her feature debut, projects curious innocence as Malcolm’s almost-love interest while the awesome Sheree North is the waitress (and stripper) who has no complaints about going home with Hackman for the night.
The problems involving the film’s release (or lack of it) back then extended all the way to the director’s commentary on the DVD which censors out what is presumably a reference to MGM head James Aubrey, presumably done for legal reasons but he’d died in 1994 and by the time these comments were heard by anyone Frankenheimer had passed away as well. But the film is still there, highly recommended for anyone interested in the people involved. Plus for those always hoping that Gene Hackman will make one more film—hey, here it is and still available from Warner Archive. In a subtle, heartbreaking touch near the end—much of THE GYPSY MOTHS is subtle, or maybe ‘subtle in a direct way’ to quote a line of dialogue from it—a handshake between two characters turns into an embrace by the end, yet it still feels like it’s holding back, just like too often we hold things back ourselves in life, much to our everlasting regret. But you can’t get the past back after those times when you’re not very observant, you can’t get what you really want and maybe that one small embrace is the best you can ever hope for. I can’t put the reasons for some things that happen in THE GYPSY MOTHS into words even if I do understand. Sometimes you just don’t have the answers. Frankly, there’s a lot I don’t have the answer to right now.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

All We Can Do

“Most people live in the past,” declares one character in Angelina Jolie Pitt’s BY THE SEA. And it’s true. We spend way too much time in our head on nostalgia, on regret, on those moments when everything came so close. I’d be more than happy to erase whole chunks from my memory but that’s not going to happen. BY THE SEA is set in the past, somewhere in the mid-70s to be more specific, and it feels like it’s made by someone who wants to live in that version of the past, of Antonioni films, of Bergman, of Godard, of what we think of as the glamour prevalent in that age. The film even opens with the early 70s scope Universal logo, as if the entire two hours represents a dream of the opportunity to go back and make movies then. BY THE SEA was either ignored or trashed by most when it opened, barely, back in November 2015 and next to no one outside of the excellent writer Sheila O’Malley said anything positive about it at all. Maybe it was the wrong film at the wrong time, maybe people aren’t looking for that sort of tortured glamour these days, even, or maybe especially, if it does involve Brad & Angie. Now that the Blu-ray is out there, I’m already finding myself returning to it over and over, to a film which is clearly nakedly personal but also, let’s face it, a dream of films that just aren’t made anymore. And I’m finding myself more than willing to live inside it. In many ways, we have no choice but to live in the past, to return to those moments we have guilt over, that we know deep down are our own fault. That’s part of what films are anyway.
Roland (Brad Pitt) and Vanessa (Angelina Jolie Pitt), married 14 years, arrive at a remote seaside hotel in France. Roland, once a successful writer, plans to write a new book there while Vanessa, a former dancer, plans to do nothing at all. As Roland drinks more than he should and accomplishes little aside from his conversations with local café owner Michel (Niels Arestrup), the bored Vanessa discovers a small hole in the wall connecting to the next room over where honeymooning couple Lea (Mélanie Laurent) and François (Melvil Poupaud) are staying. Fascinated by the younger, more exciting couple while her relationship with Roland gets even worse, Vanessa becomes obsessed with watching them through that hole as much as possible. But when Roland finds the hole himself it draws the two closer together and it leads them to getting friendly with that couple, taking whatever game they’re playing a step further towards finally confronting what has happened in their own past.
Roland and Vanessa barely say a word to each other, rearranging their hotel room to suit their needs without speaking. They don’t need to talk and don’t seem to want to but they remain with each other even when they’re apart, one of them trying to write (but mostly drinking), the other hiding in their room in despair, gazing out at the view, gazing at the fisherman who returns to the sea each day. Never in a rush, BY THE SEA settles into this vacation from the world and the days seem to go by in a blur, one spilling into the next. For a while the two of them remain defiant in their quiet hostility towards each other and what they once were, Roland insisting “I was a fucking writer” almost defensively as if to remind himself but also because he knows that Vanessa is waiting to spit back at him that he’s more of a drunk now. And she has even less than that—she even answers a question of what she does since she stopped dancing by simply saying, “nothing” and there’s nothing to replace it for her so even the smallest tasks, leaving their hotel room for a few minutes to walk down that ‘ridiculous hill’ for groceries, seem monumentally absurd to her.
As director of the script that she wrote, Angelina Jolie Pitt doesn’t film the movie as an extension of what her character sees and she isn’t simply playing an alter ego, not in the way that any number of famous star/directors we can think of might. It’s a woman who has nothing to say to anyone but the barest of pleasantries, staying so inside her own bubble that she’s baffled by the strange new sensations of the sounds and smells of where they are. Unlike her, the film itself seems curious about everyone and has a fondness towards them, like that young girl smiling at Vanessa in the grocery store or the charming old couple who tell Roland they’ve been together over fifty years, wanting to simply observe and hold on them for a few extra seconds, quietly luxuriating in the moments of the day. The direction is always alert to these characters, the camera always seems to know where it should be to observe them and there’s a discipline to it, an economy to what shots are held as if it knows when we should keep our distance. The environment all around the hotel is completely tangible to us, the welcoming vibe of the café on the water where Roland spends much of his time or even the fetishizing of their accessories like Roland’s red portable typewriter, clashing with all the more soothing color schemes around them as if an alert from the outside world of what he’s not doing while having gin for breakfast. UNBROKEN, Jolie Pitt’s previous film as director, felt noble but also a little anonymous and maybe held back on where the true drama in the story’s redemption lay. In comparison BY THE SEA always feels thoughtfully elegant in its choices, with a pacing that almost feels musical at times. There’s a deliberate feel to how long the shots are held with editing by Martin Pensa and Patricia Rommel that plays as languid and tight all at once as shots go from one to the next, sometimes lingering when necessary, and a day is gone before we realize it. For a film that seemed to be received as nothing more than an ego trip or vanity project there’s truth in its pain, even if it’s a glamorous pain ready to drift off in an alcoholic haze of the afternoon sun that doesn’t make the hurt go away.
On one level BY THE SEA might be a goof, a kick, nothing more than a dream of being in the world of L’AVVENTURA or CONTEMPT seen through scope imagery thanks to cinematographer Christian Berger who revels in the lusciousness of this tiny bay hidden away from the world. Along with the celluloid ennui to make us think of Elizabeth Taylor & Richard Burton in their late 60s yachting-around-the-world prime (embarrassing admission: I’ve never actually seen BOOM! but have somehow made it all the way to the end of THE VIPs) there’s also, somewhat surprisingly, a certain amount of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? in its portrayal of games between two married couples and of the specific secrets that get revealed. It’s almost a version of VIRGINIA WOOLF not written by Edward Albee or set in academia but somewhere off in the Mediterranean in that late 60s Liz & Dick world although in this case we’re the only ones who find out the secret that the two leads already know. The other couple is much more incidental in this film because these secrets are just for Roland and Vanessa, the sort of things you only find out about somebody past midnight and it sets them apart from the rest of the world. There’s some of Woody Allen’s ANOTHER WOMAN in the basic plot as well (the Blu-ray special features include a visit to Gena Rowlands by the lead couple to receive her blessing, no doubt because of the Cassavetes connection but her lead role in that film certainly comes to mind) and even a slight Hitchcock vibe, not just in the peering next door reminiscent of PSYCHO but in the always careful placing of point of view, particularly through that peephole or even how Jolie Pitt places the hotel and cafe always in relation to each other in the frame, continually keeping the two leads together when all they want to do is stay apart.
But while it luxuriates in those similarities it never forgets that the film is not about simple homage but the escalating tensions that Vanessa is instigating and Roland is trying to avoid. The film manages the tightrope of being that goof and also acknowledging the pain, aware of the loss that has happened, the reaching for some form of happiness that may never come. As CONTEMPT turned into a commentary on Bardot’s beauty, this film gets closer to the female lead in a way that one couldn’t since, after all, Godard wasn’t Bardot and it’s as if Jolie is laying bare the mechanics of her beauty in each close-up. She watches these two normal people (I don’t know how ‘normal’ Mélanie Laurent is, but I guess in this context…) next door without stopping, maybe with fascination, maybe with terror, maybe with hatred, as if they’re a strange lifeforce she’s never encountered. The obsessiveness in her unblinking expression while watching them also brings a surprising wit to it at times—more than expected, it’s a genuinely funny film in a deadpan way, even down to very slight gestures by characters and bits such as the dryness in Roland and Vanessa’s “I’m blowing you a kiss” patter. Plus the bolt of energy the film receives as we see the two of them primp to get ready for their dinner with the other couple, waiting to ply them with liquor, finally a reason for Vanessa to make herself look as good as she can look. Out of nowhere, they’re coming to life as much as the film does, for once they have a reason to become the couple we’ve been waiting to see.
Roland calls Vanessa his inspiration, of course he does, adjusting her glasses that she’s carelessly tossed down as if trying to fix some small part of her. He seems to say it half-jokingly but finally realizes that’s what she really is, while being glamorous and miserable, beautiful and despondent, the past always flashing through her head. “You resist happiness, you’re a good woman,” he tells her and, of course, all of this is the last thing she wants to hear. They shut out everything around them, they’re not even certain of the date of their anniversary, speaking of a past that has been forgotten, finally finding commonality in their tiny power over the purely innocent, uncomplicated happiness of the couple next door who they can spy on and mess with. They’re not turned on so much by watching the other couple make love but how it’s finally something they can share. For once, they don’t have to be alone. It brings them closer together but only so much and eventually they have to really face each other, face her sorrow, face why he can’t confront it. What gets revealed to us near the end is maybe too easy of a revelation in the sense that if you’re trying to guess what the horrible secret is you might be right but on the other hand it doesn’t have to be more than that since what finally gets spoken out loud is simply what it is, devastating to the two of them who know the truth. The film doesn’t hold back the emotion when it counts, in small and large moments, and is never embarrassed to go to those places. Life goes on. Things hurt. Some people always have someone next to them. Some don’t. Some people can move on from pain. Some get destroyed. It’s hard to look at the very last image of BY THE SEA and not think that maybe Angelina Jolie Pitt is saying something about her own marriage but in the context of just the film it’s a reminder of how much it can mean to have someone reaching out to you with a small piece of understanding even as they know you through all your pain and cruelty as they try to help you back to shore, no one else in the world mattering. And that counts for something.
The chemistry between the two leads is natural and unforced, no real surprise—there’s an uncluttered feel to most of their scenes together, even if there are times when it’s a little like Pitt is doing this to do the film with his wife more than anything else, not that there’s anything wrong with that. His pain is felt and vulnerability comes through more than almost ever before but it’s at a slight remove as if he knows that he’s doing Michel Piccoli in CONTEMPT doing Dean Martin in SOME CAME RUNNING. As an actor Pitt seems instinctive, here playing someone trying to stay in control while Jolie as actress keeps in control while playing someone totally instinctive. She’s the one who really inhabits her role, shutting out the world from the vulnerability she wants to keep hidden at all costs while at times scoping out the other person as if contemplating draining them of their blood like she’s Delphine Seyrig in DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS. She’s aware of how she looks and how much of that is a construct as she puts herself together. Just as Clint Eastwood has always known how to frame himself in the most iconic way possible she does the same when the focus is on her (maybe something she learned when Eastwood directed her in CHANGELING), even tweaking her screen presence at times away from that movie star-ness in a way similar to how he’s done it over the years. It makes her more interesting as an actress here than she’s been allowed to be in most of her films from the past decade which is maybe why some of them have been so boring—it turns out the best director for Angelina Jolie is Angelina Jolie. Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud come off just as callow as they should be, playing the younger pair living in their own private well-off bubble, not yet aware of all the pain that’s out there in the world. As the café owner who has to deal with the hard-drinking writer who keeps coming by, Niels Arestrup gives the film its kindly soul and conscience, staring at the photo he keeps of his late wife and calmly waiting things out in this gentle oasis until he can finally join her.
We don’t get what we want. Things are kept quiet. Things explode. Entire worlds end and no one else in the room knows it. Maybe I need a vacation, but I’m here. Just here. Dreaming of being somewhere else, maybe off in Europe, maybe a little day drinking, sitting by the water while trying to write and trying to avoid writing about certain people. I feel like I’m stuck between not wanting to live in the past and being haunted by it. The thing about BY THE SEA is part of it is how much I want to live vicariously through it for my own reasons and part of it is being faced with that view out the window, facing that depression, that feeling when there’s nothing else. We have bad people in our lives sometimes. But we love them anyway. Sometimes we wake up and realize that we’re one of those people. And then we have to press on, even if we’re never really sure how to do that.