Wednesday, January 18, 2017

To Hasten An End To History

Facing the future. Right now it’s not an easy thing to do. It’s there in front of us, refusing to get out of the way and it’s very possible we’re fucked. I try to remember that at some point in the future the age we’re living in right now will itself be the past, which is about as optimistic as I can get at the moment. As for the present, HAIL, CAESAR! may not be the best film of 2016 (although I’m not ruling out that maybe it is) but it’s certainly one of my favorites if not my absolute ‘favorite’ whatever that’s supposed to mean anyway. At the very least, no other film in the entire year gave me this much pleasure (a few came close—THE NICE GUYS, yes, and recently there was Jim Jarmusch’s PATERSON) and if other people don’t feel that way, well, they could always just see it again a few more times. As the eternal depression that was 2016 grinded forward something about what the film was saying, or at least said to me, began to feel more and more potent so once the Blu came out it became one of my default choices for what to put on late at night as I refused to fall asleep, waiting for those phone calls I knew wouldn’t come. At some point we’ll hopefully be looking back at this horrible period as the past, just as the unknown future this film’s characters are facing now is the present, more or less. That might be a good thing. Or maybe not. It’s complicated.
HAIL, CAESAR! is of course another test to try to figure out just how much the Coen Brothers mean what they’re saying or if we should stop worrying about all that. Their previous film INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS was also about somebody grinding away through the job that was their life and the life that was their job, not knowing that what’s about to come along will upend their entire universe. In the early 50s Hollywood of this film there are signs of what’s to come and a few implications that none of this is going to last but even though a few of the characters view such events as a given, the Coens seem to be saying that anyone who states with certainty what lies ahead, particularly when it comes from a group calling itself “The Future”, is bound to miss a few details. We always seem to miss things, as it turns out, and they always seem to disappear forever when we’re not looking. In some ways it really is that simple.
In 1951 Hollywood Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the powerful ‘Head of Physical Production’ at Capitol Pictures, is dealing with a wide variety of problems in a typical day, made more stressful by how he is trying to decide whether to accept an enticing job offer from Lockheed which would mean more money and less stress. All at once he has to deal with issues ranging from production of that year’s prestige picture HAIL, CAESAR! starring marquee name Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) to inserting cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) into a swank romantic melodrama directed by the uppity Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) to the impending pregnancy of bathing beauty Deanna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) that has to be kept secret. But everything is immediately exacerbated by the realization that Baird Whitlock has suddenly been kidnapped from the CAESAR set. Mannix scrambles to do something about this while preventing word from getting out as he continues to handle each crisis and try to finally make the decision whether to leave his job for possibly greener horizons.
As usual, the universe created by Joel and Ethan Coen operates by its own rules. HAIL, CAESAR! is a screwy shell game involving its own versions of certain Hollywood legends displaying some affection towards the past but also tweaking it just enough. Mostly set within a single day showing us the workings of Capitol—a massive factory of soundstages which oddly doesn’t appear to include any sort of backlot—although just as something like THE HUDSUCKER PROXY seemed to combine elements of different decades into its late 50s setting the rules of this Hollywood seem to be a little fluid as well such as how Laurence Larentz’s MERRILY WE DANCE looks more like a 30s movie or how I sort of doubt the B-western LAZY OL’MOON starring Hobie Doyle would have received such a gala premiere. But what do I know, right? This is Hollywood, after all. Eddie Mannix was of course the real name of a legendary MGM fixer just as his unseen boss Nicholas Schenck is a reference to the Lowes Inc. president who presumably served in the same capacity as he does here. The story of the real Mannix involves an awful lot of cobwebs and nastiness (the episode of the podcast You Must Remember This focusing on Mannix goes into details on some of the worst of it) so I’m not convinced that the character of the same name being played by Brolin hasn’t been involved in a few such things as well but as presented here even if he’s slapping someone around it’s all in the context of the greater good of the studio, all the better for it to provide that enlightenment and entertainment for the masses.
HAIL, CAESAR! travels from soundstage to soundstage venerating those films I’m constantly watching on TCM but tweaking the people who made them just enough since, after all, they weren’t gods brought down to this world courtesy of MGM. Through this prism of Eddie’s conflict it’s also about figuring out your own place in the world and how the god you pray to relates to that whether it’s real or false or just real to you if it helps you understand deep down how you fit into things. There’s a nimble breeziness to it all as the movie follows Eddie Mannix around, countered by the weighty nature to the conflict, absurd as it all is. After all, he’s a ridiculous character in a ridiculous film dealing with ridiculous problems but in his head nothing about that conflict could be more serious. It’s the question of what does it mean how you spend your day, what does any of it mean. Occasionally I wonder if the film is totally accurate when it comes to period aspect ratios or low long it would actually take for something to happen in the real world but then decide I don’t really care or just remember that Capitol Pictures isn’t the real world as Mr. Cuddahy from Lockheed reminds Mannix and us as well. The film asks which one is the real world but knows the answer is whatever we decide for ourselves.
Like a few others by the Coen Brothers it took more than one viewing for it to fully click for me—maybe two this time. Their films sometimes seem a little thrown together at first, even haphazard in their plotting and this one wasn’t helped by a trailer which didn’t really represent what it actually was. Now, close to a year later like, say, the all-holy BURN AFTER READING (which maybe plays better than ever right now) the film feels like it’s already being undervalued and by this point as I’ve been watching it practically weekly there barely seems to be a single false step, barely a piece that doesn’t go together as I get lost in the Coen wordplay which maybe feels sharper than ever before which a undeniable logic to the ridiculousness which takes each scene to a different level. One small thing I’ve grown to appreciate over multiple viewings is simply watching Brolin’s Mannix listening to other people make their arguments as the wheels turn in his head, trying to make each problem somehow work. And then there are the communist writers who call themselves The Future laying out their own beliefs to the movie star Baird Whitlock who only partly grasps what they’re saying. They react negatively to someone innocently suggesting they’ll ‘name names’ and these writers have presumably been blacklisted but it’s never stated outright, the film is cagey that way. Offering finger sandwiches, smugly proud at whatever meager message they’re sneaking into the films they write they may talk a good game and their credits are impressive (“I wrote ALL the ALL THE WAY pictures!”) but, communists or not, they’re still just schmucks with Underwoods almost as if the film is saying they’re so certain in their beliefs that they can’t have any real answers at all. Capitol Pictures—not to be confused with the Kapital-with-a-K that Baird Whitlock learns about—was also the name of the studio in BARTON FINK so the two films are presumably set in the same universe with a Wallace Beery conference room here to remind us of that actor’s former prominence. Barton himself is nowhere to be seen among these writers, I’m going to guess because he actually did name names when called before HUAC and they won’t have anything to do with him. A shot of waves crashing onto rocks seems like a deliberate FINK echo only with two instead of the one seen in that film—maybe at a certain point HAIL, CAESAR! will turn out to be the middle section of a Hollywood trilogy to give us three rocks that the surf in Malibu crashes up against and we can finally get the long promised OLD FINK, if the Coens are really serious about making it. I continue to hold out hope even though I’m still not sure that they might be joking.
It’s a lot of random silliness which in the end may not be that random or that silly, with narration by Michael Gambon veering back and forth between the life of Eddie Mannix and the events in ancient Rome being portrayed in the Capitol HAIL, CAESAR!, treating one dismissively and one with every ounce of portentous grandeur but seemingly accepting of the glory provided by this movie studio in the end. It’s difficult to spend too much time contemplating exactly what the film is trying to say about this parallel when it seems just as interested in having Laurence Laurentz spend several minutes trying to get Hobie Doyle to say one single sentence, trippingly, to somehow make it seem like the cowboy star belongs in a tuxedo or the sharpness of the wordplay in Mannix’s meeting with the religious figures there to consult on his biblical epic that he hopes will offend no one, a roomful of men searching for an answer to a question they can barely grasp, unable to agree on any one simple theological matter.
And there’s the beauty of Tilda Swinton playing twin gossip columnists that the film basically makes into a throwaway joke or little things like Brolin’s trot as he desperately tries to get away from Thessaly (or is it Thora?) when a phone call comes in. There’s even a details like the Malibu pad Whitlock wakes up in which as fake houses go is about as stunning as the one near Mount Rushmore in NORTH BY NORTHWEST (all praise to DP Roger Deakins, production designer Jess Conchor and everyone involved). And in the middle of all that is simple, glorious moment of serenity as Hobie Doyle waits to pick up the movie star Carlotta Valdez (ha ha) for his premiere and he just takes the chance to twirl his rope, not a care in the world. The later scene with the two of them getting to know each other is apparently as relaxed as anyone in this world can ever get, two people thrown together by their studio for publicity purposes who just click, for once no one onscreen has any worries. The thing is, even if you’re “the guy” you still sometimes wonder how you fit into it all, if people are really paying more attention to someone else. Even Hobie Doyle gets a little insecure by how people are paying attention to something else in the movie he stars in and the characters may sometimes be unsure as to their place in this world but they fit in perfectly to this version of Hollywood, to this world. Sometimes those simple glories in life just happen in a flash and we need to sometimes be willing to let them play out.
All right, I’m not sure if every beat holds and as much as it rushes through Mannix’s day with purpose I can’t help but wish if it could linger for an extra moment here or there, particularly that date with Veronica Osorio’s Carlotta Valdez or even if the film had paused near the end for an actual ‘final’ scene with Hobie. The acclaimed “No Dames” number featuring Channing Tatum doing a Gene Kelly bit which I never dislike and the sill behind it is obvious but it still has a close but no cigar feel for me, playing as even more of a spoof than Scarlett Johansson’s Esther Williams homage and, sure, everyone likes Channing Tatum but either the joke is just a little too obvious or maybe it even comes at the wrong point in the film since I often find myself pausing the film right at this point to take a quick break but if this is my biggest complaint then the film is doing ok.
HAIL, CAESAR! is the rare Coen Brothers film where the guy in a suit behind a desk is actually the lead, even if he does work for someone else behind another desk (hard to tell if he answers to anyone aside from Nick Schenck in NY—is Jack Lipnick still at Capitol in ‘51?) He’s not sure what his place is in the world, in a marriage where he and his wife never even look at each other in their one scene, racked with guilt over his betrayal of her, which is just smoking a few cigarettes, while ignoring the real problems. Hobie tips Mannix off on the uncertain behavior of extras which shows how on the ball he is but also brings up a few questions later on. Is Mannix even a principle at all or just an extra in all of these lives? How much does he, suffering for all of the sins around him, matter? In the Lockheed sales pitch their rep claims to represent the future and though Mannix doesn’t know it the studio he works for won’t be as powerful as it is forever, due to the imminent threat of television and other things, a modern day version of Ancient Rome which will most likely meet the bulldozer like MGM. It’ll all come crashing down, maybe around the point his ten year contract with Lockheed would have ended and even the real Mannix was dead by ’63. But maybe none of that matters. The Coens seem intrigued by the teachings of Professor Marcuse, but maybe feel that ‘the new man’ he talks about is not needed. It doesn’t matter who benefits, like when Danny Kaye has asked Baird Whitlock to shave his back, all that matters is to find what’s right in the world for yourself. To do your job the best you can, whether that job is taking the sins of the world upon yourself or merely the lowly occupation of Movie Star. Faith is a hard thing to come by, maybe harder than ever these days, almost as hard as it is to simply remember what that word is as we literally pray to the god of cinema. “He saw sin and gave love,” is what Baird Whitlock’s Roman centurion declares in his speech, speaking about either Christ or Eddie Mannix, in the search for what seems right.
Josh Brolin is note perfect the whole way through, spitting out his dialogue without a single false note and taking full command of every scene, bouncing off against his co-stars and saving big reactions for just the right moments. He fully commits to Mannix’s uncertainty and with just a glance we can always tell exactly what he’s thinking. Admirably wearing that ridiculous Roman costume for his entire role, George Clooney sails through his movie star role with the right cocky arrogance just as the idiot Baird Whitlock clearly sails through his own life, never thinking beyond the next thirty seconds and even when he learns he’s been kidnapped is never very concerned. He even does a Clark Gable impression at one point too. Alden Ehrenreich, the future-past Han Solo, is the one who practically walks away with the picture in how slippery and confident he makes Hobie Doyle, never the dumb guy some people think he is but always aware of how much he fits into a given situation. The other big names appear briefly, doing enough with that screentime that you wish a few of them could get an entire film, from the way one of Tilda Swinton’s twins pauses before stating the movie title ON WINGS AS EAGLES or the way Ralph Fiennes contorts his mouth utters the word ‘gamey’ or just the way Scarlett Johansson keeps that phony smile plastered on her face during the big Deanna Moran number. Frances McDormand has one scene as editor C.C. Calhoun and there’s the brief appearance by Jonah Hill—I guess a minute of screentime can get you on the poster but I can’t help but think that the big stars billed so high up on the poster recall how Christ himself is just a bit player in the HAIL, CAESAR! being made by Capitol. It almost makes sense how Hobie Doyle is the one we wind up paying attention to. With a few of the big names only in for brief periods of time it’s a few of the supporting players who really pop—Max Baker as the head communist writer, Heather Goldenhersh as Mannix’s loyal secretary, Robert Trebor as the desperately pleading HAIL, CAESAR! producer and Robert Picardo who kills in his one scene as the impatient rabbi (“Eh…I haven’t an opinion.”). Alex Karpovsky doesn’t even get a line as the photographer at the ‘study group’ which makes his glare as he takes George Clooney’s picture even funnier.
For now it feels important to ask if anything really matters anymore even as the waves continue to crash in on the neverending story of Hollywood. Last year may have been of one of the worst years any of us have ever known and now it’s the start of a year that may be even worse so it’s tough to know what to do. Does HAIL, CAESAR! offer any real answers or should I just be glad that I love this film as much as I do and just accept that for what it is? And where do we go from here? Is the ‘new man’ really on the way even if that wasn’t what ‘The Future’ had in mind? On the other hand, as the slogan of Hudsucker Industries once reminded us long ago, the future is now. And right now, at the beginning of 2017, what else do we have but that.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

With Equanimity

In many ways 2016 was about searching for some kind of reason for being. I don’t know if I succeeded. The year has washed up on the shore of pain and regret and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it anymore. “I wish I wished for things,” Ryan Gosling’s private detective Holland March muses near the beginning of Shane Black’s THE NICE GUYS, presumably while thinking about how soon it’s going to be until his next drink. THE NICE GUYS came out in May of this year and, yes, I was there for the very first showing at the Cinerama Dome. I even ran into some people I knew there because of course I did. It’s many months later now, it feels like many years later and I’m somehow still wishing for things but just as often I’m trying to see the point of all that.
In spite of its critical acclaim (along with some less than stellar box office), everyone seemed so focused on how much THE NICE GUYS fit alongside other scripts written (or co-written) by Shane Black which we venerate daily whether LETHAL WEAPON or THE LAST BOY SCOUT or, during our crazier moods, THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT that nobody seemed to pick up on how it may turn out to be as close as we’ll ever come to getting a third J.J. Gittes film. At least sort of, plotwise anyway--that fabled never-made final chapter of the CHINATOWN saga was going to somehow involve air in Los Angeles, following the water and oil-related storylines of the earlier films, set at some point after the no-fault divorce law was put into effect. The issue of smog, courtesy of the all-powerful auto manufacturers, plays a role in THE NICE GUYS although matters related to divorce surprisingly don’t figure in very much, even though it does get a passing mention. Holland March even makes a reference in narration to “a guy in a local retirement park” who passes cases his way which could maybe, kinda plausibly, be a retired Gittes hopefully living a comfortable life somewhere off screen and free of his demons as he’ll ever be.
Those demons have transferred over to the younger generation by the time of this film’s version of 1977 but in spite of any CHINATOWN connections, intentional or otherwise, THE NICE GUYS is very much a Shane Blank buddy comedy filled with the appropriate amount of violently funny nastiness and gunplay along with a hint of the holiday season near the very end just in case we thought he’d forgotten. To make an honest admission, I like THE NICE GUYS which I knew I would when I sat down in the Dome but even I won’t make the case that it’s without flaws. The film doesn’t play as freewheelingly effortless as Black’s 2005 film KISS KISS BANG BANG does and shooting much of it in Atlanta, presumably to keep the budget down, doesn’t exactly help provide the feel of Los Angeles, 1977 or otherwise. After multiple viewings I’m still not sure if the plot entirely tracks all the way through even if I’m not all that worried about this (my all-time favorite action movie plothole is in LETHAL WEAPON 2, which Black only has a co-story credit on). Period detail is also a little scattershot, not quite down to ANCHORMAN level but it still feels like if more attention had been paid to this it would only have helped to flesh out the world of the film. But I still like THE NICE GUYS and get a little more attached to it on each viewing. It’s not one of the best films of the year and I won’t even call it my favorite film of the year. But it is a small piece of comfort food at the moment as we continue to try to wish for things.
Los Angeles, 1977—After porn star Misty Mountains is found dead in a car crash, private detective Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is following a lead involving a girl named Amelia (Margaret Qualley) who may have been involved somehow. But soon after tough guy enforcer Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is paid by Amelia to get March to stop, which he does. But Healy soon changes his mind show up at his place looking for Amelia. So Healy enlists March to help him out with the detective’s daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) tagging along, leading down a path of porn and dead bodies, resulting in Amelia’s mother Judith Kutner (Kim Basinger), who works for the Department of Justice, hiring them to find her and put a stop to this.
For one thing, it’s hard to keep from wishing that the next Shane Black film will be The Great One. At the very least, we cherish the ones we have. THE NICE GUYS (which Black co-wrote with Anthony Bagarozzi) is smooth and enjoyable but also a little messy which I mean in the nicest way possible and I’m not sure I’d want something created by Shane Black to be any different—even KISS KISS BANG BANG has more flaws than I think some of its fans are willing to admit. It’s as if Black has willingly made the plot structures of his films more precarious over the years as if he’s cracked the code of his own plotting but is searching for ways to muddy the waters a little, more willing to accept the bitterness of the emotions they contain. The first LETHAL WEAPON is a true product of the 80s but it’s also almost exactly what it was supposed to be, with a certain amount of griminess in the material made palatable for audiences by director Richard Donner’s pop style in preparation for the increasingly larger-than-life approach ultimately taken in the follow-up films Black largely had nothing to do with. His material has gotten darker as time has gone on, as if he’s witnessed more of the pain underneath all those Hollywood parties he’s thrown at his mansion and had to do something with all that sleaze. Come to think of it, I went to a few parties at his house circa ’98-’00. I wish I had better stories than I do but I did see the sun rise there at least once so I guess that’s not so bad. There’s genuine regret in the backstory of some of his characters—hey, even Tony Stark in Black’s IRON MAN 3 was appropriately damaged. Holland March can’t stop drinking after the death of his wife and I suspect Jack Healy has a few cobwebs during all those years he wasn’t drinking Yoohoo that he never talks about.
The pleasures of a Shane Black film feel like a rare thing these days, as more and more action films feel simultaneously less humorous and increasingly empty, not a shred of wit or cleverness. Black revels in this—he clearly doesn’t care if you’re offended by a gag and he’d probably be fine if you were. Worried about the extra who gets shot in a scene and we never hear about again? That’s just life in the big city. I miss movies like this. It was more about the flashiness at one time—Riggs talks about getting famous if they bring down the bad guys, “we do shaving ads and shit, girls, money…” but back in the 70s these guys don’t have such high aspirations. They’re just trying to get through the day and even when they succeed, it doesn’t matter if anyone else knows. Even when Jack Healy reveals the big story of his past the person listening is fast asleep anyway. As it turns out his big motivation is as pure as I can imagine—he likes his apartment (located on top of the Comedy Store, however that works) and doesn’t want to move. You live long enough in Los Angeles, you just want to keep to yourself, stay where you live and occasionally emerge to go to a big party where they have whores and stuff (don’t say “…and stuff”). As party scenes go it’s not exactly Z-Man’s in BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS—after all, I’ve been to parties where they dance to Earth, Wind & Fire but this is the first time Earth, Wind & Fire played the party--but it’s still not bad.
Black almost seems amused by his own plotting, knowing that we’re going to need to get from one point to the other so he just has some fun with it. At one point when March kicks things to the next scene by actually doing something smart it turns out he’s wrong anyway. Even a certain dream sequence winds up having plot significance in the end, it was just the most unexpected way to get there and it’s that sort of creative choice which gives THE NICE GUYS the right sort of edge, the slight touch of anarchy balancing out the conspiracy. The presence of Kim Basinger in scenes with Russell Crowe automatically serves as an L.A. CONFIDENTIAL homage (RIP Curtis Hanson) although the less convoluted plot of this film still feels somewhat murkier, maybe a little too much. Basinger is essentially this film’s Noah Cross but it’s not helped by her weak performance as if she wasn’t entirely clear on how she fit into the plot—maybe another scene or beat or something was needed to smooth this out.
Black’s directing style definitely feels more settled than it did back in KISS KISS BANG BANG as if he’s focusing on his actors and telling the story than in just doing things for wacky effect so the elevator scene simply becomes about their quiet reactions to the mayhem outside and we don’t need anything more than that. He doesn’t always nail things (a better visual stylist might have done more with the gag of a rotating car during the climactic shootout) but every now and then he sets up a gag perfectly and while I’m not sure Shane Black has ever learned what actually happens to people when they fall from great heights I wouldn’t have it any other way. The energy keeps the film going past other flaws and I can’t even quite always pinpoint what they are--maybe part of the problem is shooting the film digitally (the first film shot digitally by the great Philippe Rousselot, incidentally) since even if it’s sunny California I never quite picture the 70s as this bright and gleaming. The film is often at its best when the scene is nothing more than the characters bickering while hanging out drinking in the afternoon and at times that vibe is all I want from THE NICE GUYS. Maybe that’s why the late action scene involving the house getting sprayed with machine gun fire is one of my least favorite stretches. For once, I’d like a little more ROCKFORD FILES and not as much Joel Silver but it’s still close enough. The mayhem of the climax works better, maybe because there’s enough comedy mixed in and there’s something about how things play out which is very satisfying.
“Are you a bad person?” goes one question and that’s the question the characters seem to be quietly asking themselves. Black’s treatment of women in his films kicked off with the nude Amanda Hunsaker plunging to her death at the start of LETHAL WEAPON and the opening corpse this time around is not dissimilar only with an added twist. KISS KISS BANG BANG openly addressed how much women in Los Angeles are regularly tossed aside and THE NICE GUYS is clearly set in that world as well, no closer to having an answer and complete with a key female character this time around who has openly embraced the conspiracy. But as the film’s opening makes clear, that sleazy L.A. world is unavoidable, even if you’re safe in your bedroom. You can hide it under your bed if you want but there’s no stopping it when it literally crashes into your world, which it’s probably going to do. The fantasy is going to turn into some sort of reality eventually. It’s just up to you at that moment how you deal with it. That’s what makes you a human being. Or maybe just not a bad person. I don’t like THE NICE GUYS as much as I want to but it’s hard for me not to love it.
The pairing of Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling works beautifully—Crowe feels totally relaxed and assured, giving one of his best performances with expert timing. Gosling, the Lou Costello to his Bud Abbott, displays physical comic prowess which is at times awe-inspiring. Angourie Rice, forever glaring at Gosling as his daughter, matches them line for line. Margaret Qualley has a knack for spitting out lots of exposition as the mysterious Amelia qhile Matt Bomer and Beau Knapp are both effective in their villain roles even if they’re not quite Taylor Negron in THE LAST BOY SCOUT (few henchmen are, you have to admit). Keith David is slightly wasted as one of the other bad guys but it’s still nice to have him around particularly when he just shrugs in response as his partner freaks out about something. Like everyone in this movie, he knows there’s only so much you can do.
Al Green sings “Love and Happiness” over the end credits, a perfect reminder of what there’s not enough of in the porn-soaked world of Los Angeles that Shane Black gives us but sometimes if you're with the right person you can remember the good things in the world. That's why Philip Marlowe wanted his cat back, after all. Appropriate for the detective genre, nothing really changes just like J. J. Gittes couldn’t do anything to help Evelyn Mulwray in the end. Daughters wind up dead. The powerful don’t get punished. You jumped off that roof for nothing. In the context of all that, the completion of Jackson Healy’s arc makes perfect sense at the end of 2016. Simply put, after noticeably turning down offers throughout the film at the fadeout he’s drinking again, ready to be partners with Holland March and presumably spending many afternoons doing just that. After all, some things are enough to get you to start drinking again anyway and if they’re not, I don’t know what to do with you. For the record, I stopped back in April. There were reasons, it’s a long story. Maybe I’ll start again tomorrow. Maybe what 2017 becomes will make me have to. I make no promises. Either way, whether it’s 1977 or 2017 the bad guys don’t lose. It’s the nice guys who fuck up and forever wonder if they’re a bad person. The best you can take with you is the knowledge that sometimes certain things do work out. Even if all you’ve got is all you’ve got. It’s something. It’s the search for those moments where you actually feel useful and make you want to wish for things. Those moments may be small ones and they’re hard to come by but they’re possible. I hope.

The Next Thing That Happens

If this hasn’t been a year about death, about the end of everything we’ve ever known, I don’t know what it is. But the question is what to do once the world ends. That’s something I’ve been wondering a lot, the past few months especially. “I wish I’d been here then,” goes a line in THE MISFITS, that legendary film directed by John Huston and written by Arthur Miller. It refers to another time when things were allegedly better, when there were more possibilities on the horizon of that desert as far as the eye could see. The thing is that much of THE MISFITS is made up of such key lines, maybe what you’d expect from this particular playwright, exposing all his demons in a screenplay written specifically for his emotionally troubled wife, fraught with all the meaning in the world and whatever you want to read into it. It plays as if this dialogue wasn’t meant to be spoken in a film at all but in some sort of theater-cinema hybrid written to play out on the biggest stage ever created in the history of the world. As great as some of it might be THE MISFITS is a problematic film, just as it’s an extremely problematic world, a film with a legacy that has made it bigger than it was, almost as if it was designed to become that in the first place. If THE MISFITS falters, if it feels like the film turns down the wrong road at a certain point, in some ways that almost feels right and it’s a reminder of how often we go down the wrong road ourselves, trapped on our own path of forever searching for the wrong thing. It makes the film feel all the more true somehow, becoming a dream of what we wish for even if we can never quite put it into words. So much is a dream anyway. And there are no easy answers.
Released in early 1961, if THE MISFITS is remembered at all these days much of the reason is the history which surrounds it, particularly involving the legendary stars above the title who as things turned out didn’t live for much longer afterwards, eerily fitting for a film focused so much on death. Clark Gable, in particular, died mere weeks after completing work on it and Marilyn Monroe was gone less than two years later so the film could almost be read as being about the end of the Golden Age of Hollywood and everything it represents as much as John Ford’s THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE was. But shot out on location away from Hollywood it’s also about the end of all sorts of things--stardom, legend, love, dreams, America, the world and the small matter of life itself. Reading up on the production is a reminder that any history of THE MISFITS might be more interesting than the film itself due to Gable’s health, the fragile nature of Monroe’s state and the larger-than-life personality of its director—maybe this is the one they should have made a movie about instead of THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL. Even certain photographs taken of the actors on location manage to enshroud the entire production on the level of Myth. THE MISFITS is set entirely in Nevada—Reno, specifically—among people who have arrived there because they don’t belong anywhere else, just as the jigsaw pieces of the main titles don’t connect. But I’m not even sure how much that matters since even though the film was shot out on location it’s almost set in another place altogether, a stark black & white dimension where the stars aren’t acting these roles but were instead reincarnated into this alternate world and these are the lives they’re now leading, with the unavoidable shroud of fate always before them. As a story THE MISFITS may not be about as much as it appears to be at first but as a movie it’s almost about everything.
In Reno to finalize her divorce, Roslyn Tabor (Marilyn Monroe) is staying with best friend Isabelle Steers (Thelma Ritter) when she meets cowboy Gay Langland (Clark Gable) and his best friend Guido (Eli Wallach). Even though Guido was the one who met her first, Roslyn is clearly drawn to Gay and the two of them move in to Guido’s never-finished house together. Gay soon has an idea to head out to round up wild mustangs and they recruit another cowboy, Pierce Howland (Montgomery Clift) to join in. But things begin to change when Roslyn learns the reason why they’re trying to capture these horses in the first place, sparking an unavoidable conflict between her and the three men.
Years after they happen you remember moments. Those little moments you shared with a person and even after they’ve decided how much they hate you those moments are impossible to forget in the middle of the night, keeping a stranglehold as you try to make it until the next morning. In the end those little things mean more than anything else that’s happened in your life. Just as every single moment in THE MISFITS is swirling with import through each gesture and line of dialogue. At times the film feels so overwhelmed by itself that it loses track of what it wants to be, which itself makes a certain amount of sense because it’s about pieces that don’t entirely fit together. It’s as if Arthur Miller always had a focus on what his theme was while writing the script, he knew who he wanted to write about, but while fighting his way through the complex emotions of the characters too often lost track of where he was going with the story, focusing on moments over the actual plot particularly during the final half hour when it feels like some beats are repeated a few times too many. One of the leads even drops out of the film around the halfway mark, never to be seen again, instead becoming attached to another group where they may be just as much an odd one out, another piece of a jigsaw puzzle that doesn’t quite fit. There’s a goal the film seems to have about coming to some sort of peace with what you’ve lost, even if you’re not sure that you believe it for more than a moment, and that people are going to drop out of your life no matter what. Maybe none of those things ever mattered anyway. “Maybe all there really is is the next thing. The next thing that happens. Maybe you’re not supposed to remember anyone’s promises,” Marilyn’s character muses to Pierce, to herself, to no one at all. There’s nothing to ever be gained from depending on others. People leave. They’re going to wind up hating you. Everything ends.
The black & white look is harsh and the film feels free, undeniably modern even if it’s about people willingly stuck in the past. It’s easy to imagine another director of the time shooting this in color and CinemaScope, framing everything like the play that Miller may have imagined it as, more interested in the gimmick of the stars and the spectacular nature of the climax. Instead Huston uses his frame to capture the small moments, the intimacy and awkwardness of the characters together in the frame. One imagines him standing there directing the film, staring coldly at these characters with every ounce of compassion he never reveals to anyone else. The filmmaking never feels bolted down as a result even if it sometimes becomes an allegiance of words and imagery that doesn’t always go together smoothly. You can almost feel the struggle of whether THE MISFITS wants to be a director’s film or a writer’s film and considering all the dialogue which sounds like it’s meant to be played out on a stage it’s as if the frame is continually searching for its own proscenium arch but slightly missing it. Another version of THE MISFITS by another director might have been more normal, maybe even more palatable but Huston continually gets in so close it’s as if you’re drinking right next to them, not sure if you want to stay there or flee.
Every scene makes an impression on its own but the story is also too vague at times maybe a few too many rambling monologues by the characters during general drunkenness; like Rosalyn’s divorce present, it’s a beautiful car with barely any miles on it and a few noticeable dents. THE MISFITS is a very good film that clearly wants to be the greatest film—producer Frank Taylor even told a reporter for Time Magazine that it was an attempt to make “the ultimate motion picture”—and maybe its biggest flaw is that it falls short of that impossible goal. But in some ways the messiness is essential as if it loses track of itself in a drunken reverie and that certain amount of unreality becomes haunting, a coldness which balances out the character’s lack of direction with the harsh reality that rears its head unexpectedly. Moments feel important but it’s not always clear exactly why, with that jangly Alex North score making me feel uneasy. Some of Huston’s best directorial moments seem to come out of nowhere shot in an offhand way, almost before we realize they’ve happened like when Montgomery Clift enters the film late and we hold outside a phone booth as his cowboy heartbreakingly calls his mother on the phone or Gable bluntly lecturing Monroe about the importance of death. Even the famous paddleball scene which may be an attempt to give this film its own version of Marilyn standing over the subway grate in THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH almost feels kind of sad the longer it goes on as if the real Marilyn Monroe has somehow wound up in this two-bit Reno bar and all she has left is men grabbing her ass.
“Here’s to your life, Roslyn. I hope it goes on forever,” toasts Guido, played by Eli Wallach who of course nearly did live forever, unlike Marilyn. Arthur Miller wrote this for her and their marriage fell apart. Much of the film is about the impossibility of ever understanding her, Miller seeming to represent each of these three men splintered off trying to connect with her and only sometimes coming close. A more straightforward plot might not have bothered with the Montgomery Clift character, focusing on a strict Rosalyn-Gay-Guido triangle, but Clift brings a heart to it, a vulnerability as if he’s going to fall apart at any moment but deep down he’s stronger than the other two, facing the truth of where their lives are. So much of the film is just about studying the actors in the frame, like how soft the focus sometimes goes on Monroe, whatever the real world reasons were for this. It’s possible that she never got to play a fully fleshed out human being as much as she does here unlike a few of those Twentieth Century-Fox star vehicles that I’ve never been crazy about, even if in the context of this film she’s supposed to be something none of the others can ever pin down. When she dances with Eli Wallach the effect she gives off is almost startling as if Monroe is trying to keep herself from suddenly having another nervous breakdown while in the middle of a take, her own demons always at the forefront of her mind. The film often feels transmitted to us from another dimension, there’s an intensity it has which goes beyond simply what the material is.
After the visual intensity of the Mustang hunt, Monroe’s big speech near the end where she lets loose all of her fury on the three men is played with the actress far away from the camera, almost as if the film is keeping its own theme out of reach, never to be fully understood. Maybe Huston simply decided the moment didn’t play well in close-up, maybe it’s about how all these men are keeping this woman at a distance. “She’s crazy. They’re all crazy,” Guido says to dismiss her after she’s rejected him and that’s the easiest thing in the world to do, after all, to stop trying to understand them while waiting for them to understand you. Instead it’s easy to go after a phantom, like the mustangs they try to capture for dog food, so few horses there that it barely seems worth it, that the only thing they seem to know how to do barely even exists anymore. “Better than wages” is the phrase Gay repeats like a mantra as if he’s trying to convince himself, that it’s the only way to “just live”. In Reno you can eat whenever you want, own a bunch of clocks that don’t work and live in an unfinished house where you can live an unfinished life unlike the real world where you recite the way things never really were, like Rosalyn has to do at her divorce hearing. That’s the place where every man who meets Roslyn, who as far as we know is just Marilyn Monroe, instantly falls for her placing all their dreams and regrets on her face. Clift’s Pierce unloads the story of his life on her lying near a pile of empty beer cans and says he loves her only hours after the meet, something he may not remember the next day anyway. Guido, desperately trying to impress her, asks for her to say his name ultimately unable to hide his bitterness. Only Gay seems to know how to crack the code of her sadness while also challenging it with his own beliefs but it’s still tough to know how he’s going to hold onto her after the film ends.
The very last moment of the film is as famous as anything about it, feeling a little like it was always designed to end at this point but maybe rewrites of the scenes leading up to it causes the dialogue to play like the scene is reaching for a transcendent feel it doesn’t quite achieve. Of course it turned out to be the final screen moment of the two stars onscreen so in some way THE MISFITS was able to become what it wanted to be. It may not be the ultimate motion picture but even when the story loses track there’s not very much like it. The film is a code which can’t quite be cracked, just like Marilyn can’t quite be cracked and never will. It makes me question what matters and how we can connect with another person, if we ever really can. And how we go on living knowing what there is to come. It’s not about whether THE MISFITS is good or not but it is a film that I could watch five times this year, then five times next year and it will have a totally different effect on me, whether I’ve changed or not. I wonder if I will. The film, meanwhile, will still be a work of art. It just lives.
The performances are a reminder of how it’s a film deliberately trapped between eras, Clark Gable’s old school MGM experience up against the Actors Studio training of the other stars. Gable is phenomenal, his strength and vulnerability coming through in every line reading. Up against him, up against everyone, Monroe is otherworldly in displaying her innocent trust of everyone, smarter than any of them think but still lost and never thinking beyond the next thirty seconds. It matches perfectly with the sensitivity displayed by Montgomery Clift and the growing anger of Eli Wallach. Thelma Ritter brings a healthy dose of pragmatism, gladly seeing through everyone and enjoying herself. Kevin McCarthy briefly appears as Monroe’s husband with a fair amount of his miniscule screentime played looking at his back. It still gives us the idea that there could be a whole movie around that marriage and how he probably never understood her any more than anyone ever does.
“What if he died?” Rosalyn asks Gay right after Pierce is hurt at the rodeo. Well, we all know the answer to that already. THE MISFITS is a movie about death, one that seems to be all too aware of the inevitability deep down. So maybe there’s no happy ending here. Maybe there’s no happy ending anywhere as much as we can sometimes pretend otherwise. And if the film doesn’t always connect and if it doesn’t feel very satisfying after that last moment just like when you reach the end of a year you dwell on all those missed chances and all the times you found yourself staring at the wall, asking for help in a world where there’s no one around to listen. For me this has been a year of picking up shards of broken glass with my bare hands. And I think they’re going to get sharper next year. Until then, I’ll have to find another way to be alive once the world ends. If that’s possible.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Live It Over Again

The opening day audience at the Vista wanted blood. You could sense this in the air. I was in that theater, popcorn in hand, and I wanted it too. It was October ’08. A long time ago now and no time at all. I was standing in line when I realized I had forgotten to call a friend that week to wish her a happy birthday. It was mere days from when I finally joined Facebook. And the election was happening, right in the midst of the financial meltdown and everything else swirling around it. Including, of course, the release of Oliver Stone’s W. which had been raced through production to be in theaters before Election Day and get in whatever Oliver Stone wanted to get in there. It was a film seemingly made for just those few weeks and after that who cared. So that Silverlake audience which had no doubt been simmering all that anger since the end of 2000 wanted blood.
W. the film has been mostly forgotten since those few weeks which I guess isn’t really a surprise since not much blood was ever really spilled during the course of those two hours and you could feel the air go out of the room well before the end credits. As it turned out, that clearly wasn’t what Oliver Stone wanted to do with it anyway. Ask me what Stone’s films mean to me right now and you might get a very long, uncertain answer although I’ll still gladly sit through WALL STREET again anytime. Recently SNOWDEN didn’t get that much of a reaction out of me at all and as for certain comments he’s made in the press, I guess if he wants to vote for Jill Stein that’s what he’s going to do. Thinking back on some of his other films, JFK is a gigantic, manic cry in the night for a utopia that never was while NIXON is this gargantuan crazy thingamajig, long, flawed, big and messy. It’s not a masterwork even if it feels designed to be one but even its clumsiness has power and I can’t imagine it coming from any other filmmaker. The best of Oliver Stone is when he’s more than a little crazy, whether he knows it or not and when he downshifts into a more easy listening mode as he’s done in recent years it doesn’t really do anyone much good. And it’s hard not to want W. to get a little crazier, if not full Strangelovian, since having made the film at that time would seem to imply that’s what it was going to be, to not deny the anger anyone had been feeling during those years. Comparing the two, Stone himself once called NIXON a symphony and W. more of a chamber piece but instead it feels more like a loose jam session by talented musicians ready to swing which gradually, maybe before anyone realizes it, turns into more of a formalized performance of what’s on the page. It’s not in any way bad but still has a certain patchwork feel and never seems entirely complete which may in itself be part of the point but the ‘THIS MOVIE NEEDS TO BE MADE NOW’ aspect feels part of its limitations.
Of course, W. is the story of George W. Bush (Josh Brolin), 43rd President of the United States and his journey from hazing rituals at Yale to aimlessness and drinking while meeting wife Laura (Elizabeth Banks) to quitting the bottle and finding the lord all the way to his position as most powerful leader in the world. It’s as notable for what it leaves out as much as what’s in there whether for legal reasons or if Stone has simply decided that certain details just don’t matter as much. More than anything it’s about a guy who sought glory, whatever that glory was going to be, since in spite of the silver spoon provided by his family was always looked at as the black sheep for reasons never fully articulated to him almost as if his own parents had an OMEN-like premonition about him from birth. So he fights back to achieve that success at any cost, knowing that in this life it’s who’s up on the marquee that matters and if you can present yourself as that winner, you can own the world. His memory is sharp enough that he can always rattle answers off the top of his head whether nicknames of frat buddies or just knowing that Iran and Iraq are two separate places but he’s not particularly interested in the nuances of differentiating those things or what any of these facts might actually mean. The film bounces back and forth between the heavy drinking of his early adulthood and the days in the White House preparing for the Iraq invasion but it never plays as if he’s personally flashing back to those events—he reflects on himself simply through the baseball fantasy of standing out in center field, which he calls his favorite place, forever in search of that empty glory. That’s all his inner life is, at least that’s the way it is through Oliver Stone’s eyes.
Written by Stanley Weiser, Stone’s co-scribe on WALL STREET, with various pieces presumably pulled from multiple sources, the seeds of satire are ingrained in almost every scene and there’s something about W. which feels designed to play as underground, unauthorized and maybe a little dangerous. Even the modest scale of the production, as opposed to the epic feel of NIXON, adds to this but it all quickly becomes overly genteel, Eisensteinian cutaways as punctuation not having the impact they sometimes do in his work. The approach is also a reminder of how certain characters in his films are very obviously meant to represent Stone—he’s not Gordon Gekko and I don’t think of him as Mickey Knox but he is Ron Kovic in a sense, he is the Charlie Sheen avatars of PLATOON and WALL STREET, Jim Garrison seeing the light of the truth of conspiracy in JFK, Frank Whaley’s paramedic in WORLD TRADE CENTER finding a place for himself in the world again, he’s whichever character is being told in giant letters ‘THE WORLD IS YOURS’ whether by Angelina Jolie or the Goodyear Blimp. W. could easily have been even nastier than it is but it’s held back seemingly to bring gravity to the personal drama of quitting drinking and discovering the lord as well as, I suppose, the all-important oedipal drama which allows Stone to connect Bush to himself (as any piece of publicity about the film reminded us, the two men were in the same freshman class at Yale) so for once this not-quite-yet historical figure can serve as his peer, literally, and he doesn’t have to reach too far for the parallels.
As W. begins, everything is already in progress and the meeting we witness isn’t about the invasion of Iraq per se as much as the message the administration is declaring, discussing the creation of the term ‘axis of evil’ and the presumed necessity of what they’re going to do. It’s all about perception which is the reality as we’re later told by ‘analysts’ who are clearly meant to represent talking heads on a certain network who stress that W. ‘didn’t fight in the war but he looks like he did’. He’s for real because of how he looks. It’s that hubris of what the man took from his losses early in life and after that deciding not winning was forever out of the question. The film goes back and forth in chronology but W.’s basic character remains the same, he eats with his mouth full and carries on conversations with his wife while sitting on the toilet just like every other slob, ready to get back to watching sports on TV with his Bologna sandwich and Cheetos for lunch. Stone observes this but keeps his excesses in check mostly limited to a few giant close-ups as punctuation and the sly body language coming from some of the actors. A few moments indicate the film could have gone further, as also seen in a few deleted scenes on the Blu, but instead of outright anger is the feel of blithe amusement mixed with some sadness, maybe coming out of how much Stone relates to W. and the paths the two took in life. Maybe that anger had left Stone by this point, bled out from the failure of ALEXANDER, maybe for him it only applies to the fall of his own youth, from what he portrays in the Oliver Stoneland of PLATOON, JFK, THE DOORS and NIXON when to him it was worth getting angry. Maybe he’s just too aware of what seems to be happening again and again so the movie is more of a sigh than a shout, no thundering John Williams score this time presumably because someone of this intellect doesn’t deserve such a theme. Much of the score is somewhat low key as a result, with one of the most notable musical moments a gentle guitar strumming of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” as the decision to go to war is made, the light glowing from above W. and the certainty of his choice.
The film also divides W. dealing with both his family and his personal cast of characters in the White House, which is enjoyable if not too fiery in its approach. Dick Cheney as played by Richard Dreyfuss seems content to remain in the darkness off to the side since he doesn’t need the spotlight, Toby Jones as Karl Rove telling him what the public wants to hear, Thandie Newton as Condeleezza Rice loyally deferring to everything W. says, like a henchwoman in a Matt Helm movie. The tone sometimes swings all over the place here but at least feels unpredictable as opposed to the family drama which is somewhat more familiar, James Cromwell as George H. W. chastising him while admitting his own limitations in a way his son is unable to do. Brother Jeb, except for a brief teenage appearance during a flashback, is an unseen Chuck Cunningham, off living up to the ever-important family name the way they want. W.’s break from his father is made clear in how he doesn’t want to be called Junior, but is still so desperate to make him proud that he listens to the two devils on his shoulders in Cheney and Rove. They clearly know how to manipulate him and he wants them to, each getting an equivalent scene ending with W. reminding them before they walk off who’s really the decider but their power standing right behind him is unlimited and they know it. He refers to speaking to the “higher father” about what he’s doing instead of his own actual father figure keeping the former President in exile up in Maine, totally forgotten about (as for his mother figure, the line drawn from Caroline Kava in BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY to Ellen Burstyn as Barbara Bush here doesn’t seem that long). To all of them it’s as if W. is a kid who just needs to think that he’s really in charge and all they need to do is follow.
Ultimately, it’s a guy who put his life together, kicking the bottle (and good for him) and finding Jesus, but he’s still the same guy, only more focused and now drinking non-alcoholic beer. That in itself says something about him, desperate to hang on to the guy he was, but you could also say that W. is in some ways a non-alcoholic Oliver Stone film, missing the delirium that almost seems like would be a given. Occasionally it comes together, particularly during Stacy Keach’s two scenes as fictional televangelist Earle Hudd offering spiritual guidance who plays the first with massive close-ups, siphoning himself into W.’s very soul, warning him against the pitfalls of regret. The film’s centerpiece, an 11 minute sequence detailing the arguments of going into Iraq, avoids such tricks intentionally and doesn’t really need them, taking the idea of what were presumably hours of discussion and laying out the arguments as dry and forceful as possible, including Jeffrey Wright’s version of Colin Powell as the voice of reason no one listens to, as persuasive as he is, not having any idea that he’s just a small part of W.’s private oedipal drama. The film focuses on the performances and the words circling around to the same argument over and over (“Drain the swamp,” says Scott Glenn’s Rumsfeld) while Cheney’s ‘We stay’ answer to the question of an exit strategy serving as this film’s version of LBJ declaring ‘Just get me elected, I’ll give you your damn war’ as Richard Dreyfuss gets the icy confidence just right as oil is talked about, oil, oil, OIL! Of course, in the film’s eyes the argument is just an excuse for what W. wants to hear to pull it off for daddy and allow the family to ‘honor our commitments’. It builds up to what may be Brolin’s best moment in the film as he takes control, completely focused and talking that Bush-speak that only he fully understands (“We’re not so sure who the ‘they’ are, but we know they’re there.”) with a total lack of regard for anything other than what he’s already decided. For once the film pulls off the tightrope of that language and the full gravity of what’s happening.
Much is left out, of course. Except for Bush 41 saying how he had to “pull your ass out of the fire in Florida in 2000” there’s no mention of the Florida recount, 9/11 is only referred to in the past tense (and enigmatically in the future during one flashback) maybe because Stone had covered the day in WORLD TRADE CENTER, there’s no mention of Katrina since the film ends before the 2004 reelection campaign, etc etc etc. For the purposes of this film, these are just details we know about already. Aside from one quick montage of war protests there’s not even that much of a feel of the outside world, whether for or against him (again, that part of the film would have been the audience in October ’08 watching it). This could have given the film a more underground, maverick feel but it never quite gets that wild, searching for the middle ground between truth and satire, sometimes coming close to the mark. In a broader sense the film remains compelling over repeat viewings since of course the Oliver Stone version of this story is never going to be a standard cable biopic and it is entertaining, probably better than its rep in the end. The sequences of Bush and ‘his gang’ figuring out how they’re going to approach the process of war are at times particularly sharp and, hey, I like movies with guys in suits talking anyway, it’s just not as fully formed as it maybe should be. There wasn’t time for that anyway since it was roughly five months from start of shooting to release. In the film’s eyes, for all intents and purposes Iraq is the W. presidency and the lightly comical nature of it all makes the film a little like ‘The Bush 43 Follies’ but also in its incomplete nature is maybe just ‘Highlights From W.’ the laughs correctly undercut by the brief scene of him visiting wounded soldiers as everything starts to crumble, trying to keep a brave and noble face on where this all led. Stone can’t satirize this of course and doesn’t try. All the film needs to do for these few moments is observe.
I was just watching a Rachel Maddow interview with Stone from the time of the film’s release where she speculated that Bush simply wanted to ‘be President’ and would pretty much disappear from the public eye when he left office. For what it’s worth, Stone doesn’t seem so sure that he will. I won’t say revisiting W. after all this time gives me nostalgia for any of those days but compared to some of what’s going on now and what might be in the future it doesn’t actually seem so bad. It’s very clear that elements of W. are in there purely for dramatic purposes, certain quotes removed from their original context. Back then we’d maybe heard a few of the ‘You don’t get fooled again’ type phrases a few times too many. Now, of course, all this is in the past. W. sort of comes to a stop near the end as everyone realizes there are no WMDs, ‘nothin’ on nothin’’ as the President puts it, his staff eating pie as the world burns. And when it comes time for an answer without Cheney or Rove whispering in his ear he merely shrugs and has nothing to say. ‘The End’ abruptly flashes onscreen as if the film is telling us, we know that’s not really the end but what more do you need? We were so looking for blood at the time and so desperate to get all that done with that in some ways the film works better now as a reflection of that period than it did then, even if it still doesn’t feel complete. We know the ending anyway, or at least that particular ending. The past always seems more innocent as we get further away and new monsters emerge. The Rosebud in NIXON was that President’s mother, the pain of his poverty-stricken childhood. There are no flashbacks to childhood in W. which could almost mean that he never grew up at all, no Rosebud aside from the warning his father once gave him. The final scene indicates he never even figured out what that Rosebud could have been. In the end, or at least this version of the end, he’s nothing.
As difficult as it clearly was to portray George W. Bush without coming off like an SNL sketch, Josh Brolin does a phenomenal job combining the man’s stubbornness with a genuine need to prove himself, as lunkheaded as he always was going to be in doing so. You can almost see the wheels turning as he does the simple arithmetic in his head to determine each new step and the pride in his face when he assumes command of a room as if pulling off an impersonation of a genius. It’s not quite the real W. but it does communicate the empty essence of his very being. While there isn’t much to say about the character of Laura Bush as presented in the body of the film, written as doing little more than being supportive after their initial meet cute where she displays at least a little independence, but Elizabeth Banks is able to find much of her performance between the lines in her silent gazing while forever remaining by his side. Richard Dreyfuss, the one actor in the film who seems to have publicly spoken about his issues with it, transforms almost more than anyone while still looking exactly like himself, playing Cheney as totally focused, arrogant and quietly dismissive of almost everyone else around him with a dryness to his presence as if there may be intellect in there but definitely no soul to sell. It matches up well against Jeffrey Wright, quietly seething as Colin Powell, clearly aware how much his expertise is being disdained and there’s not a damn thing he can do about it. Tonally speaking some of these performances do waver but I’ll give points to Thandie Newton for going as far as she does as Condeleeza Rice even if she clearly thinks the film is much broader than it is while Scott Glenn is oddly almost too lackadaisical as Rumsfeld whether it’s he or the film holding back a much harsher portrayal. James Cromwell comes off as more of a Bush-type than actually George H.W. Bush (the glasses are right at least) but the inherent decency he tries to project from that man comes through as the future he once foresaw never comes to pass. Though playing a fictional character Stacy Keach manages to find the truth in this material almost more than anyone with even a beat or two of ambiguity in there but no condescension in the religious fervor with how he plays his scenes opposite Brolin and the power from his presence is undeniable.
It’s a film that is more reflective than I gave it credit for at the time, but maybe without that blood spilled even to this day the experience of watching W. will never be as cathartic as I still want it to be deep down. So now we’re here, eight years after all this. As I write this it’s an ugly time. Just revisiting W. is a reminder of where we were then and we don’t know if we’re going to go back to that. Or worse. The fictional Earle Hudd warns W. about the pitfalls of wanting to live your life over again and you can’t live it over again. But you can’t get rid of your regrets either, let alone your dreams of what might have been. Sometimes it’s hard not to let out a scream in the night about it all. I suppose that W., at least as portrayed here, has decided at the end that those things don’t matter since in the future, as he reminds us, we’ll all be dead. In my mind I live those eight years over. I live the past eight years over too. It’s hard not to think about the past and try to put right all those time you fucked up, when you missed what was right in front of you. I suppose we spend way too much time in life missing things. That’s the way we are.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

What That Reason Is

Sometimes films get forgotten. Who knows why, that’s just the way things go. Abel Ferrara’s BODY SNATCHERS never had much of a chance apparently since it never got much of a release. After playing in competition at Cannes in ’93 it slipped into a few theaters in early ’94, as if Warner Bros. was trying to hide it, to at least a few good reviews (including four stars from Roger Ebert) and some positive response. I still remember seeing it in Westwood Village, back when people went to the movies in Westwood Village, and the sheer rush of the film’s most powerful moment (if you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about) caused the audience to burst into spontaneous applause. Partly because of its style, partly because I was the sort of guy to champion films that it seemed like the studio was hiding, I talked the film up a lot back then. Now all these years later it’s become something I haven’t revisited in over a decade at least. Maybe this remake that follows the ’56 and ’78 versions of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS isn’t as good as those two but there are far worse things you could say about any film than that it doesn’t quite live up to a pair of classics. Returning to it again after however many years, if this BODY SNATCHERS has any problem it’s that the very best moments and ideas don’t necessarily make up a completely satisfying narrative in the end and maybe that’s one reason why I sort of forgot about it. But considering the onslaught of thematically empty remakes/reboots/whatevers that we’ve had to deal with in recent years this one is pretty damn near daring in what it even attempts to accomplish. The film is still flawed and either lacks the necessary ‘big idea’ or the one it has is a little too obscured but what’s there is still effective which, especially these days, is better than nothing.
Teenage Marti Malone (Gabrielle Anwar) is traveling through the country with her father, EPA chemist Steve Malone (Terry Kinney), stepmother Carol (Meg Tilly) and half-brother Andy (Reilly Murphy) as Steve investigates possible contamination involving the chemicals used on military bases. When they arrive Steve gets to work in spite of a hostile reception from base commander General Platt (R. Lee Ermey) but is soon consulted by Major Collins (Forest Whitaker) the base medical officer who appears extremely worried about the possible effects these chemicals are having on the people who live at the base. Although Marti quickly makes friends with Jenn Platt (Christine Elise) daughter of the General and helicopter pilot Tim Young (Billy Wirth) they at first are unaware of the changes taking place but quickly start to believe that maybe certain people around them aren’t who they claim to be.
Maybe connected in my mind to how it barely opened, the film feels like some sort of aberration both for Ferrara and the ‘Body Snatchers’ concept in general. Truth be told, I haven’t even seen a new Abel Ferrara film in a long time and by now just the idea of such a thing seems lost to another era, whether grainy videotapes of MS. 45 or half remembered viewings of THE ADDICTION or THE FUNERAL. BODY SNATCHERS came out right around the same time as Ferrara’s other foray into big studio filmmaking, the Madonna-Harvey Kietel team-up DANGEROUS GAME which I also saw (at the Beverly Center; there was a healthy walkout ratio) and have pretty dim recall of. Hey, it was the 90s and odd digressions were actually being made at the studios even if they all didn’t open wide. BODY SNATCHERS (screen story by Raymond Cistheri and Larry Cohen, screenplay by Stuart Gordon & Dennis Paoli and Nicholas St. John, based on the novel by Jack Finney) makes a point to pay homage to the previous films but wastes very little time in taking its own path, not at all a strict redo of what had come before.
Following the earlier two films which took place in a small town and the big city, the setting of a military base lends it a different feel on its own, an enclosed community unfamiliar to the leads and one where you really can’t tell what certain people are thinking. It’s a film with characters who are already withdrawn from each other, led by a teenage girl who refers to her stepmother as the woman who ‘replaced’ her mom as if for her the family she’s a part of has already dissolved into dust and the pod people don’t have to do very much to get their job done. It’s bluntly directed with a spare sense of dread that adds to each scene, containing lots of dead space in the widescreen frame where almost anything could be going on yet in spite of a certain arty nature still maintains as a genre piece that could have easily opened wide and I doubt there would have been rioting in the streets. Elements do feel dropped in from various drafts as if they’re more like pieces which don’t quite make up a complete whole and the myriad writing credits (with a few intriguingly familiar names in there) indicate a project that may have gone through numerous changes but some of those pieces still work in letting that dread seep in, like a particularly sly daycare sequence where every child’s artwork is creepily the same except for one. As it is, the narrative feels sliced to the bone anyway which manages to add to the tension while also providing a certain amount of speed to each event as if the film itself is fully aware that we already know some of these story beats so there’s no reason to dwell on them.
Like the previous two versions, there’s a certain Rosencrantz & Guildenstern approach to the story in how everything has already kicked off by the time the opening credits have rolled and the main characters are separated from the action even more this time so we only get to hear about some of what’s going on at the base. Along with that is a strain of verrrry dark, deadpan humor that the film does a good job in knowing when to undercut with another chill. This is especially evident in the portrayal of Marti’s uncomprehending half-brother, so young that he barely understands anything going on except that his mom has died and if he goes to sleep he’ll die too. The shot of him barely comprehending the nudity of his new ‘mother’ as she approaches him in its perfect form is one of the film’s best moments, a queasy eroticism in a way that few films ever seem to go for. One real problem with the film is that there’s so little happening around the central narrative that there’s only so many places to take it before everything is revealed and it all turns into a third act chase/escape—certainly with the myriad intellectuals of Philip Kaufman’s San Francisco debating things in the ’78 version there was more ‘stuff’ going on. Here there’s a left-right conflict of the EPA chemist representing ‘hippies saving the planet’ with the (then) post-cold war military that clearly wants to be left alone but the conflict never becomes very substantial, much of the EPA angle pretty much leading nowhere plotwise. The real impact comes from the teenage lead character who feels isolated from the entire world already, not feeling at all part of a family that has already broken apart. She doesn’t even know what personality she is yet, let alone what she’s going to become, in contrast with her new friend who rebels against her surroundings yet fully expects to turn into her parents eventually.
It’s also a case of a film building to its fever pitch too soon, but it’s still one hell of a fever pitch, a certain speech by Meg Tilly’s pod person in which she decries the futility of running away since there’s ‘no one like you…left.”. The moment of the big reveal that immediately follows is where the audience applauded long ago and even now the sequence is so effective, so powerful, that it deserves to be ranked among the great moments in horror of the past thirty years. The only problem is there’s nowhere BODY SNATCHERS can go afterwards to top it and part of me wishes it didn’t have to try—if the film ended here I’d be perfectly satisfied although I can understand why a studio wouldn’t want to release a 50-odd minute film where nothing gets resolved. But there is a certain maverick confidence to the film as if it was actually made under the radar during such an alien invasion while it was occurring and at its very best, there’s something seeping underneath each scene that you can feel, something unpleasant which almost matters more than any of the plot. Maybe the film is too underpopulated but the unique approach to the material does offer a new look at how individuality gets stripped away and Ferrara knows where to find the visuals that underline this; one shot dwelling on an American flag being taken down as the sun sets seems to be saying the real invasion is starting now, the idea of that country and its people no longer matters (naming the empty bar the ‘Top Gun’ also has certain connotations and there’s no flashy 80s patriotism to be found here).
That sameness forces us to pay attention to the people, the nervousness that a few of them don’t know how to hide just as he brings an individual feel to this film that’s about it being taken away. In the intimate scene between Marti and her potential love interest played by Billy Wirth where he confesses to killing someone while in Kuwait the film makes the military base setting into something meaningful, as if it’s the regrets which make us who we are more than anything. Just like it’s the music we listen to while hiding away from the world or the crazy persona we put on when we’re behind closed doors with our loved ones or even how much we try to drink away that pain and how no one can take that away from us…or at least shouldn’t. The film is at its best when it veers off course into those digressions, particularly during Forest Whitaker’s two scenes which, isolated from everything else, feel like they could be excerpts from an Abel Ferrara arthouse take on the ‘Body Snatchers’ concept and I’d like to see that film. It’s those moments where I almost can’t explain why they’re so unnerving which cause the movie to stick. Even that tiny little camera move during Meg Tilly’s big speech gives me a chill when I see it all these years later.
Part of it may be how Ferrara’s direction seems to pay less attention to spatial awareness or even daylight continuity than in isolating the actors in the frame and how it’s all presented as if out of a living nightmare, just as he quietly observes the insidious physical process of how bodies are taken over. The physicality of it adds to the dread that continually hangs in the air and even some subtly recurring dialogue turns the casual into almost unaccountably unnerving in a way that can’t quite be pinned down. There’s something unpleasant seeping under the film and even the tiny house where the family stays is framed in ways that make it look like being woken up at 3AM into the most nightmarish situation imaginable. It’s the lack of a real second half which makes it all feel not quite fully formed, like the state of the half-formed bodies of the pod people which get discarded.
So it’s a little bit of a shame that it doesn’t lead somewhere except for the chase with all subtext pretty much done away with, as well as how what happens means discarding some of the best elements for much of the second half. I wish there was a good solution for this aside from rewriting the third act entirely--as it is, one beat implies the possibility of more complications during the final third, then the movie oddly disregards it. It’s all still well executed, if anything, and the look of blackness is expertly achieved by DP Bojan Bazelli with a propulsive score by Joe Delia which adds immeasurably to the atmosphere that almost wafts out of the frame. Put together it feels a little like Ferrara was able to make half of the film he wanted then treated the rest of it as work-for-hire and went along with the compromise. But even a few moments during the final third stand out, particularly one moment where a recently born pod person suddenly rises into frame, the sound work combined with the movement of the actor creating a frisson of the sort that can only be found when a film is even attempting to approach greatness.
Still, there’s that feeling of dread and you can tell that Ferrara never forgets that this is, for all intents and purposes, a horror movie, in moments like when an alien body that isn’t fully formed pops out from under a bed like a monster in a haunted house. There’s also a fair amount of elements taken from the ’78 version, particularly that iconic shriek, as well as a few touches which harken back to the original like how the local bar is oddly empty. It also has an ending that I suppose falls somewhere between the framing device wrap up of the original and the bleakness of the ’78 denouement as much as it’s barely an ending at all. The final sequence manages to be shot in a way that implies a science fiction ZABRISKIE POINT but still feels a little too patchwork to have the full effect. The last half hour is at least cinematic, I’ll give it that much, with at least one plot turn that I’m still surprised made it into a major studio film so what’s there are the pieces of a potential classic but still just pieces. I don’t love the film like I did back then and a few of these flaws stick out to me, but revisiting it now while it still plays like an aberration it feels like one in a few of the best ways possible. It’s made by someone willing to let it be slick like a studio film usually is but also knows to give it enough quirks that you can tell the pod people haven’t fully taken over. Maybe it’s all summed up in the early line where someone says, “You’re scared. Good.” You still have those emotions and that’s the way the film wants it to be.
Part of that reminder of humanity comes from the main cast, particularly Gabrielle Anwar who brings a wounded innocence to Marti, not knowing where she is in life and forced to deal with that even when she doesn’t fully understand what’s going on. And one memory coming back to me now is how I had a crush on her way back then. Terry Kinney seems too young to be her father but that almost seems part of the point with the actor playing much of his part as willingly disconnected from whoever he’s talking to, unable to relate to just about anyone. Christine Elise’s undeniable energy plays well off Anwar as Marti’s new best friend just as Billy Wirth’s aloofness does, lending a distinct vibe to the chemistry each of the actors have with each other while Forest Whitaker nails his two scenes, not letting the full extent of the sheer dread he feels show right away—Ferrara holds on him for a long moment early on to let us grasp this and his line “I’m worried about these…people” is drawn out as if he desperately wants to believe they still are. But Meg Tilly easily gets some of the film’s most powerful moments including her big speech but there’s also a completely wordless moment where she exchanges glances with another woman, presumably a pod person, dealing with a baby crying, which doesn’t even need the science fiction context to be unnerving. It could be anything, whether its two women trapped in this place or two alien beings. It doesn’t really matter. Even one early moment of Tilly in her bedroom when she’s still human feels like a touch that only Abel Ferrara would have encouraged an actor to do, another reminder of how human we can be, unencumbered by inhibitions when we’re in private and how that makes us human as much as anything.
And of course there was yet another remake in 2007 called THE INVASION (directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, partly reshot by others) which even with Nicole Kidman starring already seems to have forgotten by everyone, including by me and probably you, with no sign of even a semi-interested cult around it. There’ll be another remake eventually, you know there will. What Abel Ferrara has had to say about the lack of release of his BODY SNATCHERS in some interviews leads to more questions but still isn’t the ‘Ferrara pissed off the Warner execs’ anecdote that I was expecting, apparently having more to do with skullduggery within the studio at the time than any maverick behavior on his part. But the recent release of a Blu-ray from the Warner Archive means that hopefully this film will still be out there. “You always remember the good things about people,” says Marti at one point, just as I need to remember seeing this film in Westwood long ago, and in some ways the film is about how we need to remember whether it’s the good things about other people or the bad things about ourselves. Like it or not, it’s part of what we hold on to, it’s part of what makes us who we are, even if those other people never know this and even if they never remember the way we feel about them.