Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Mystical Optimism

Life may be what you make of it, even if it never becomes what you want it to be. But you try. You have to try even if you wind up wondering, was that really my life? It’s hard to understand just about anything sometimes. Released in September 1996, Allison Anders’ GRACE OF MY HEART was never a big hit but it’s lingered in the memory like a favorite song that only a few other people seem to know about. Lovingly crafted, it’s a film that contains a certain amount of messiness but more often than not it’s the endearing kind, the sort of messiness that seems pure, almost like going through the clutter of your own memories as you try to sort out exactly how certain things happened over the course of time. Willing to embrace the melodrama, the film is completely heartfelt and sincere about itself so its portrayal of how the simple act of creativity can really truly matter to a person rings genuine. And even more than that it contains a lead performance by Illeana Douglas that is so raw and powerful it transforms everything about the film around her. It’s not just a film but a searing melody coming from the soul of her screen presence and it makes the film something it wouldn’t have come anywhere close to otherwise. The events in GRACE OF MY HEART matter just like the events of your own life matter, the regrets that are portrayed leave a mark and it avoids breezy nostalgia of the eras it depicts in favor of something deeper. It portrays a life where true creative expression is the ultimate good as we try to figure out what kind of life we’re living while we fight our way through it all.
Illeana Douglas writes about the making of GRACE OF MY HEART in her new memoir, the highly recommended I BLAME DENNIS HOPPER and it’s only one of the many stories she has to tell. She writes about the challenge of working with Robert De Niro on the remake of CAPE FEAR, going days without eating while filming ALIVE and the freedom Gus Van Sant gave her during the making of TO DIE FOR. But she also talks about her childhood, the background of which explains the book’s title, along with her early days of discovering movies at the drive-in as well as deeply affecting recollections of her relationship with grandfather Melvyn Douglas including her formative experience visiting him on the set of his late-career triumph in Hal Ashby’s BEING THERE, the film that won him his second Oscar, where she also had a memorable encounter with the film's star Peter Sellers. This turned about to be one of only several meaningful and often fortuitous brushes with legendary figures in her life that she details including an unfortunate phone call with Billy Wilder (who at another point she correctly refers to as God), a lasting friendship with Roddy McDowall and an unexpected run-in with a presumably hungover Lee Marvin on a New York sidewalk early one morning. She also discusses her own passion for movies and why they mean so much to her, how that connection helped transform her into who she ultimately became and it’s a beautiful, funny, inspiring read, one of the best such books in a very long time. It’s a must for anyone who loves films and a reminder of why they can mean so much as we watch them so obsessively. Her book is a connection to GRACE OF MY HEART as well, it deepens how much the film clearly meant to those who made it, a film in which you can feel the undeniable yearning of its lead character just as you can feel the yearning of Illeana Douglas in the stories she tells about her own life. “I don’t have a song in me,” declares the lead character she plays in the film at a crucial stage, just before writing the ultimate song within her. Sometimes the very thought that we don’t have any songs left in us is the most frightening thing of all.
In the late 50s, steel heiress Edna Buxton (Illeana Douglas) uses an impulse choice during a music competition to sing a song that allows her to win the contest, throwing her into the New York world of hustling for success as a singer and songwriter. With no one looking for girl singers anymore, Edna hooks up with Brill Building producer Joel Milner (John Turturro) who wants her solely for her writing talent and changes her name to the more enticing “Denise Waverly”. As her success as a songwriter grows she begins to take more chances with her work and meets the more socially minded songwriter Howard Cazatt (Eric Stoltz) who she teams up with. The relationship soon turns into a marriage with a baby and as the 60s press forward with the music business changing with Denise meeting famed California rocker Jay Phillips (Matt Dillon) as she records her most personal song ever. But when her relationship with Jay sweeps her away into a new life far away from New York, Denise begins to lose track of the creativity she was once so passionate about.
It can be argued that GRACE OF MY HEART tries to cover too much ground, tries to hit too many highlights of the decade as things move from early 60s Brill Building to late 60s Malibu and beyond. However much it can be seen as an accurate depiction of the setting and period, the film manages to transcend such concerns by knowing to focus on the story of Denise Waverly as things rapidly change around her. “You can be dramatic as long as it’s truthful,” the lead character declares at one point and GRACE OF MY HEART achieves a mixture of being a film which not only displays a love for the music but also for the act of creating that music. Writer-director Allison Anders brings to the material both a sensitivity and excitement, showing how creativity can come from what appears around us as well as the yearning we feel inside. It’s a film that loves the people in its world, just as Anders seems to love placing Illeana Douglas up against her co-stars in the frame so they can play off each other and the result becomes hopeful, sad and raw all at once.
There’s an undeniable energy through much of the film and it feels as excited to explore this world of jazz clubs and recording studios through Denise Waverly’s eyes with an optimism coming from its portrayal of her, a lead character with two names from two worlds trying to find herself in this world even when she’s told by someone that she doesn’t have that ‘grace’. Instead of trying to make it an all-encompassing look at the period the film sees the magic in simply letting some of the songs play out as the lives are lead and the characters discover them for the first time so we share their pleasure in creating them, knowing they’ve discovered something special. The recreations of that era’s sound capture part of the soul of that music without sounding like spoofs or hollow tributes—fitting for the movie, all the songs seem to share the inescapable feel of yearning—and the introduction of Denise Waverly’s own personal anthem “God Give Me Strength” (a collaboration between Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello) when Matt Dillon’s Jay Phillips enters the story turns what seems to be a minor moment at first into an absolutely shattering sequence, of a connection that suddenly develops from an unexpected glance between two people. The scene as it turns out is powerful, such an exhalation of all the themes that have developed up until then that the movie peaks and there’s almost nowhere else dramatically to go from this private triumph.
It’s moments like that which stay with you in GRACE OF MY HEART even without Illeana Douglas doing her own singing which has always played like the biggest flaw in the entire running time, as if we’re being deprived of a crucial nerve in the film’s bloodstream. Maybe it’s a case where certain scenes, even specific moments, are better than all the connective tissue so the end result plays a little like we’re seeing extremely tantalizing sections of a much longer story. Coming in at a few minutes under two hours some holes can be felt and there is the feel that it’s maybe trying to cover too much ground (of course, one’s reach should exceed their grasp and all that…) so when it becomes clear that the Brill Building section is ending it’s hard not to think that we’re watching the final episode of a long-running series about New York songwriters in the 60s that we never got to see every episode of (there’s a thought—Denise Waverly running into Don Draper in a bar late some night in ’63). It’s like the film we’re gotten attached to has ended without warning and is suddenly restarting which becomes frustrating—the transition is almost too abbreviated, the rhythm doesn’t feel quite right and races to the tragedy almost too fast. Every now and then a moment that sticks out where it feels too rushed or how maybe the film is trying a little too hard for period detail, just like how it’s not really Douglas’ voice singing, it’s as if the movie comes within reach of the greatness being portrayed in the “God Give Me Strength” number but falls just short. Deleted scenes on the DVD may have fleshed some elements out that feel slightly hanging in the release version—executive producer Martin Scorsese’s regular editor Thelma Schoonmaker worked on this film and you can feel the tightness at times particularly when the pacing rushes through an affair with Bruce Davison’s disc jockey so fast that it barely seems to qualify as a relationship but even this manages to make sense in the film’s collage-like approach. Sometimes the people you haven’t spent that much time with fuck you up the most, after all.
But GRACE OF MY HEART’s awareness of itself is important as is the emotion is displays. It matters just as much as the conscious echoes of other films, particularly A STAR IS BORN (presumably the 1954) and the obvious real-life inspirations whether Carol King, Lesley Gore or Brian Wilson. Several of the actors makes hard not to connect it to other films as well, intentional or not, whether Patsy Kensit providing a connection to Julian Temple’s 50s-set rock musical ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS, Matt Dillon playing a California rocker just like his brother Kevin did in Oliver Stone’s THE DOORS and even an appearance by David Clennon provides a direct link to BEING THERE, the film Illeana Douglas once visited her grandfather on the set of and which in her book she writes about how it has continued to turn up in her life unexpectedly. And the awareness is also revealed in how Jay tries to talk Denise into making an album that can be ‘more personal’ because she’s a woman and it feels like that’s what the movie is as well. The film is unafraid of any sensitivity, showing how Denise has to overcome how the industry doesn’t want girl singers, fighting to get a song to tell a girl’s story since it’s not about the guy and even the touch of casual sexism tossed into some dialogue. Douglas stresses in her book that part of the goal was to make a woman’s picture and it’s correctly unapologetic about that. One shot of Douglas and Dillon embracing late in the film stuck out to my on a recent viewing as I realized how long it went on and how insistent the moment seemed to become about their closeness. It’s easy to imagine that most directors wouldn’t have lingered on the shot as long as Anders does, to stress the yearning in that moment, a reminder that for all of the references to other things and people all swirling around it the film is sometimes about nothing more than reaching for that person in front of you, hoping that moment will last and knowing it can’t. The yearning cuts deep and stays with me, just as some of the lyrics in “God Give Me Strength” that play in my head over and over again as I do my best to forget some of the past.
But even more than that is Illeana Douglas since there is no film without her, she is the film just as much as anything that Allison Anders brings to it and the way the director uses her is a reminder of that. You fall for her instantly and in scene after scene she keeps giving you reasons to fall for her even harder. Every moment coming from her huge eyes means something, every time she breaks out into a huge smile means that much more, every time she brings an unexpected laugh to a scene means that much more. You fall in love with her very presence just as you know that most of the men in Denise Waverly’s life aren’t worthy of her either—I’ve seen the film enough by now that I’m certain Eric Stoltz’s Howard doesn’t deserve her even as I can’t decide if that’s my reaction to the character or Stoltz’ deliberately unlikable performance. Some of the best supporting work comes from the people in the margins – I almost referred to one actor in the film as ‘underappreciated’ but the truth is the film is filled with underappreciated people with lots of interesting faces in small roles and some pertinent cameos particularly Jennifer Leigh Warren, Bridget Fonda, Chris Isaak, Lucinda Jenney and Richard Schiff (ask me my story about Schiff and his appearance in this film sometime).
The unexpectedly fragile innocence Matt Dillon projects as Jay Phillips becomes sadder to me each time I see the film and Patsy Kensit is particularly good as the foil for Douglas after the characters’ initial coolness towards each other; you can feel the friendship clicking in their scenes together, their rapport feels totally genuine. Maybe best of all aside from the lead performance, John Turturro is particularly memorable as the Phil Spector-like producer (fortunately the real Phil Spector is actually referenced so we don’t have to worry about that possible future for the character) coming off as appropriately larger than life but always grounded—considering how big he plays it, I’m not sure Turturro has ever seemed as relaxed and as natural as he does in this film. What develops onscreen between Douglas and Turturro becomes the real chemistry of the film which pays off when he returns near the end for a dynamite prolonged confrontation scene done entirely in one shot, the film’s own version of Tommy Noonan yelling at Judy Garland near the end of A STAR IS BORN. Of course, Illeana Douglas channeling Judy Garland makes you think of Liza Minnelli in Scorsese’s NEW YORK NEW YORK which not only adds to the mirrors in this context, it’s a reminder that in the incarnation of the oft-told showbiz story we’re being told here Illeana Douglas surpasses each of them, earning a beautifully haunting final shot in which every conceivable emotion that’s been building up over the past two hours washes over her face and it’s nothing less than a triumph.
Sometimes, in the blink of an eye, things in life suddenly become clear. But too often that clarity goes away as fast as it turned up. That’s what you reflect on at the end of the year, I suppose, when you can’t stop dwelling on what went wrong. In her book I BLAME DENNIS HOPPER, Illeana Douglas writes about how GRACE OF MY HEART has endured in some unexplainable way, that people have taken it to heart no doubt because they see something of themselves in her journey. It’s a reminder of the things you need to strive for, that you can’t let them just fade away as the years go on no matter what happens. You need to hang onto that as much as possible if it’s what you feel deep down. And you still need to find out who you are, what your life is and whether or not you can find the strength, as well as the grace, to move on in this world.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Not In That Direction

Maybe nothing hurts as much as friendship. Sometimes it’s not even clear if you’re more alone when you’re by yourself or with a certain friend, if you even understand that friend. No one can be cruel to you like a friend is. No one can kill you like a friend does. And then one day you find yourself alone in a movie theater, no one to share that popcorn with, but it is one of the best places to be alone after all. Maybe it makes the most sense to see a John Cassavetes film when you’re by yourself, any Cassavetes film, whether he directed it or just acted in it. Throughout November the New Beverly ran a series of films that John Cassavetes ‘only’ appeared in—some pretty interesting titles in there including Don Siegel’s THE KILLERS, the 1958 western SADDLE THAT WIND, the star-packed TWO-MINUTE WARNING, a midnight show of THE FURY (which I missed, dammit) and of course Robert Aldrich’s THE DIRTY DOZEN but for me the main attraction was Elaine May’s MIKEY AND NICKY which may be the ultimate John Cassavetes film of any that he didn’t direct. There’s no other film quite like MIKEY AND NICKY, a film I’ve only seen a handful of times scattered throughout the years, but it always seems to be burrowing in my head as certain random moments and lines of dialogue never entirely go away.
The production of the film is somewhat notorious, maybe overshadowing what it actually is and it can be argued that parts of the end result are a kind of a mess with at times choppy pacing as well as certain transitions that are a little too haphazard but I’m not sure how much that even matters to me. Maybe the distinct lack of perfection evident in the final product makes it matter even more, makes me love the film more as I cherish those raggedy moments. It might be a slippery slope to deem the film a masterpiece because of that messiness (having rewatched it recently, I’d definitely assign that label to May’s THE HEARTBREAK KID) but the moments that have haunted me for years are still there and on revisiting it, much older than my first viewing on VHS long ago, there are more of those moments than ever now. As a meditation on what friendship and guilt can mean deep down when you're staring at yourself in the mirror at two in the morning, as an acknowledgement of death sometimes being right outside the door it might be, I may as well say it, one of the best films I've ever seen. Besides, who needs a movie that isn’t a mess, that isn’t this fucking alive, anyway? Maybe that’s part of what makes it hurt so much, as these things sometimes have to, way down there in the middle of the night.
After stealing some money small-time mobster Nicky (John Cassavetes) is hiding out, certain that a hit has been put out on him. He calls his friend Mikey (Peter Falk) for help and he shows up right away to try to hide him. With a hitman (Ned Beatty) on their tale Nicky leads Mikey off into the night and early morning hours of bars, buses, a cemetery as his paranoia grows, as Mikey’s impatience with his old friend grows and the tension between the two old friends reaching a boiling point.
There I was at sitting at the counter at Fred 62, a few days after the New Beverly screening, eating my pancakes and pouring cream in my coffee when I flashed on a certain scene in MIKEY AND NICKY involving cream in a coffee shop. Of course I did. It might be a long time before I put cream in my coffee and don’t think of this movie and what Peter Falk does in that scene, one of those things that you do for your friends when no one else is going to help, when you’re just about at the end of your rope and terrified about what comes next. The continual sense of danger all famously feels like Cassavetes, as if he’s who you’d assume was the director if there were no credits, and yet it’s unmistakably different, under Elaine May’s eye playing as more judgmental to these guys responding to the world around them and yet strangely even more affectionate, wanting to desperately love them in spite of it all. It seems to stay a few feet away from them much of the time, unlike some of those giant Cassavetes close-ups, remaining a little distant and yet always fascinated. There is humor in it, a sort of dark comedy of its own sort and yet playing as totally, completely tragic as well, keeping us continually off guard as if it quietly knows if things are really comic or tragic but isn’t going to tell us just to make it easier.
In addition to her partnership with Mike Nichols, various acting roles through the decades and numerous screenplays, both credited and uncredited, we have four films directed by Elaine May—A NEW LEAF, THE HEARTBREAK KID, MIKEY AND NICKY and ISHTAR. That’s all we’ve got. Based on that evidence we could maybe call her a female director more interested in the men in her films—Matthau and Grodin in A NEW LEAF and THE HEARTBREAK KID of course but also the double act of Beatty and Hoffman in ISHTAR and the two leads in this film. Falk’s Mikey and Cassavetes’ Nicky are each a nightmare in some way, calling each other by the names in the film’s title as if they’re still kids, messing around with each other and having the same arguments they did thirty years ago with the very same resentments still bubbling up in their fights. The tension builds almost faster than we expect in almost every scene with moments that feel like they’re somewhere between what’s written in the script and improv that’s just happening. Cassavetes staring at Falk for a very long moment maybe with suspicion but maybe not—“What’s the matter, is my face dirty?” Falk asks him as he tries to deflect—or Falk sitting in a dark kitchen while Nicky screws his mistress just a few feet away. In these moments whoever is on camera just sitting there, sizing up the situation, letting the tension build to an almost unbearable degree, with May just leaving the camera rolling looking for that behavior, waiting for them to do something, anything, to break that moment.
Rewatching ISHTAR for the hundredth time, with MIKEY AND NICKY fresh in the brain, her directorial style feels more at home when it’s just two people staring each other down—during the more cluttered sequences in ISHTAR it all becomes maybe too frenetic (I still love ISHTAR, but that’s a topic for another day). MIKEY AND NICKY is controlled and yet always feels like it’s about to boil over, we’re just waiting for the explosion, for the gunshots to ring out. Falk’s Mikey is desperate to maintain what little hold he has on his world even if it’s just a front of responsibility, knowing that he’s just a middle man with nothing he can control but the wife at home and constantly worrying that whatever his best friend does in the next thirty seconds could mess it all up. Cassavetes’ Nicky is an impossible mess, insulting the people he shouldn’t be insulting as if trying to avoid the biggest disaster imaginable by running right towards it, the sort of guy who does something horrible then tries to explain it by saying, “I didn’t know that was gonna happen,” then while joking about it gives you the biggest drunken bear hug imaginable. I sure wouldn’t want to know Nicky but the way Cassavetes describes that all-night movie theater he wants to take Mikey to—“Double features and they got cartoons, they have fifteen minutes of coming attractions! They got a candy counter that’s open all night long. It’s got ice cream sandwiches, everything. The works!”—makes me desperately want to go with him (or maybe Cassavetes in the real world) to see a kung fu movie at a grindhouse for a few hours. But their friendship makes sense as only certain friendships do—they’re a part of each other after all, they’re the only ones alive who know how certain things long ago went down. The two of them make up their own world together during their long, seemingly endless night, riding the bus, getting into fights out in the strangely empty streets with the fight just continuing until the next one begins.
In comparison, Ned Beatty’s hitman is the opposite—a loner, no recognizable personality at all, no chemistry with anyone he talks to, refusing to pay for a driver to help get the job over with faster—even his car has a headlight out as if he’s only one-half of any sort of personality—the sheer boring drudgery of a hitman has never been this drying amusing. The women in guy’s lives are for the most part Elaine May-types, turning their scenes into very dangerous versions of routines she might have once done with Mike Nichols. It’s a feminist film in a way, lending an extra layer to how these guys are observed and while maybe May isn’t as interested in making a film about these characters since she already understands them and their comical personas almost seem trapped here against their will. Nicky’s lady friend played by Carol Grace (Mrs. Walter Matthau but also, and maybe somewhat pertinent, one of Truman Capote’s inspirations for Holly Golightly) talks about how she’s interested in what’s happening in the world, as if she’s a pet apologizing for learning how to talk—“I guess most girls are pretty dumb,” she says to Mikey, terrified while trying to go along with what he’s saying about women. Mikey’s wife played by Rose Arrick (Dustin Hoffman’s mother in ISHTAR) seems more like a mother not quite following along with the story her son is telling. The friendship between the two guys with so much history where it’s not clear at the start of the film how long it’s been since they’ve seen each other, so precarious we don’t in spite of what we know is coming we don’t know, they fight with each other while understanding each other like nobody else does. Fitting for a friendship with death surrounding it, maybe it’s been surrounding them their whole lives, trip to the cemetery, facing the past. Standing over his mother’s grave Nicky muses, “It’s hard to talk to a dead person, there’s nothing in common,” which was always one of the most memorable lines to me but could also be the film’s mantra—Nicky is closer to being a dead person than he’s willing to admit but it doesn’t really matter since sometimes there’s not enough in common with another live person either. Mikey doesn’t want to get caught up in wondering what happens after you die since he believes that you die and that’s it, it’s over. Sometimes when you’re staring at the ashes of a friendship you just wonder what happened. Does it matter? Did it matter?
Much of what is known about the legendary production of MIKEY AND NICKY now, along with May’s current directorial reputation, possibly originates in an infamous New York Magazine article from March 1987 (“The Road to ISHAR” by David Blum) about the bad word of mouth surrounding that upcoming summer release—it didn’t help matters and the film never really recovered from what got out there. As background the article discusses the production of the earlier film during which May apparently shot 1.4 million feet of film, three times the amount for GONE WITH THE WIND (when Judd Apatow’s THE 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN hit the 1 million mark during shooting champagne was reportedly sent to the set; the approach presumably turns out better for some than others) and one story about May continuing to photograph a blank wall after the two stars have wandered off that has been retold a million times by now. There’s not much to be found from whatever press the film got during its belated (and miniscule) release in 1976—Vincent Canby’s review in The New York Times makes no mention of any troubles, praising Elaine May but concluding, “It took guts for her to make a film like this, but she failed.” Whatever the reality of the production—and it feels like not much official has been said by anybody since that article aside from some comments May herself made during a talk with Mike Nichols that ran in Film Comment—the final result is seemingly long and rambling but actually tightly plotted, always focused on what it should be even if it’s the minutiae of any given moment (the version shown at the New Beverly was around 106 minutes; maybe because a May-sanctioned cut didn’t surface until the 80s there are several different running times listed). Very little of what happens can qualify as ‘plot’ anyway, with Nicky continually pulling Mikey away from what’s supposed to happen--an interesting comparison in terms of the mob world might be Cassavetes’ own GLORIA which is messy and idiosyncratic in ways of its own.
The most crucial plot revelation is dropped in almost casually during the first half hour anyway as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world and throughout it feels as if some of the narrative is being constructed from all that footage—random lines of dialogue are seemingly looped in after the fact, pieces of information spoken off camera. Various scenes even drift off just as the tension is building with a few transitions that feel almost strangely abrupt at best while making the scenes feel incomplete at worst but somehow that feeling it’s being held together by scotch tape splices on the print only adds to the scrappiness. Much of the film was shot in Philadelphia with a little in L.A. but it doesn’t seem to be set anywhere in particular, an anonymous downtown of bars and coffee shops with its own Elaine May-style contradictions like how Ned Beatty is told he has to go north to get to South Street. This mood filled with smoke, booze and desperation in the air is what sticks in my brain as much as anything, with vague recollections of visiting family members in places like Queens and Long Island I almost imagine this is what the 70s was really like—grim and miserable and alive, a real-life version of whatever bar Archie Bunker went to down the street with music from a tiny AM radio crackling through the air. The one exception to that feeling is a bar with an African-American clientele that opens with The O’Jays playing on the jukebox as the mid-70s extras dance and until Nicky starts making trouble, which is of course what he does, it’s the closest to any sort of happiness the film and the world it’s in ever depicts.
Every single one of the faces in the film adds to the weariness with some of them just there to be slapped around by either Mikey or Nicky for insisting on rules that don’t matter, a few of them ready to do the slapping--M. Emmet Walsh has a memorable bit as a bus driver; William Hickey and legendary acting teacher Sanford Meisner are the mob bosses waiting by the phone to hear the hit has been done. As dryly effective as some of the performances are, the film of course belongs to Falk and Cassavetes, to every moment they scream at each other, both of them seeming like they haven’t slept a wink through the entire length of this marathon shoot. It’s the focus on the two guys, on their friendship and whatever that means, whatever it ever meant and what it has to mean in the end—just as Rogers & Clarke sang over a decade later in ISHTAR, honest and popular don’t go hand in hand. It’s one or the other and if a friendship doesn’t survive that, tough. Peter Falk and the shattered moral compass of Mikey, caught between his responsibilities and the ghosts of his past, John Cassavetes playing Nicky like a man possessed by his own fear, sometimes refusing to even admit that he has that fear. All of the tensions building throughout explode in a fight between the two of them, which is also one of those scenes that seems to stop without a real ending so this stretch of the back end is one of the more frustrating parts of the film—the scene where Nicky goes home desperately looking for his estranged wife played by Joyce Van Patten is my least favorite in the film (not her fault) maybe because I’m losing patience by that point, maybe because in playing out the scenario of the estranged wife dealing with the no-good husband at the door it’s the one scene in the dangerously unpredictable film that goes exactly the way you think it will. I’m more interested in the danger that hangs in the air during a relatively superfluous scene as Nicky wanders into a candy store run by an immediately suspicious proprietor looking for ice cream and claiming he promised his nephew he’d “bring him a comic book” or the conference between Mikey and some of his mob cohorts, involving some very Elaine May-dialogue of whether a hitman can circle a block without alerting nearby security on patrol.
That final section building up to the ending where Falk tells his wife the story about his past that he’s kept from her, the one story that matters the most, haunts me, just as the very final moments haunts me. He tells her a lot of things he claims, but he hasn’t told her the one thing that may have meant the most, who he is with her, who he is with Nicky. The scene, like the entire film, feels like a long dark night of the soul with dawn slowly breaking as the end gets closer, but no hope in this sunlight beginning to appear. He can tell her things that he can’t tell Mikey because he has to tell someone but it almost doesn’t matter since it doesn’t mean what it does to him. MIKEY AND NICKY is about finding someone you can trust in this life only you never really can find someone you trust, at least you never know for sure. Even if you do that may not be enough. No one’s ever going to know what’s deep down in the pit of your soul anyway. Mikey asks his wife “Will you go to bed?” once more at the very end when there’s nothing else to be done. For once, he really needs to be alone. The things you do for your friends.
The New Beverly, a place I’m sure Nicky would try to drag Mikey to, ran the film on a double bill with MACHINE GUN McCAIN starring Cassavetes in the title role (also with Peter Falk and Gena Rowlands; fun and with a great Morricone score) as well as the Looney Tunes short RABBIT FIRE—that’s the one with Rabbit Season-Duck Season--which seemed perfectly chosen to go before a film which largely consists of John Cassavetes and Peter Falk shouting at each other. Part of the complicated history of the film is that original studio Paramount seems to have no ownership on it anymore—any posters from the original theatrical release can’t even be found online. It just adds to the mystique of MIKEY AND NICKY and makes it that much more of an outlier, a film that exists on its own in a world of its own. (When the Trailblazing Women series returns to TCM next year it would be a perfect choice, even if it is about two men) Considering the place I’ve been in lately, something about the film feels almost too close to me right now. And with the end of the year coming I’m feeling like I want to grab that coffee shop guy like Peter Falk does and tell him to give me some fucking cream as I try to figure out what happened. I won’t, of course, maybe because I’m more Cassavetes at the end pounding on the door, knowing what’s coming, not even thinking of running away, just screaming for that friend, for anyone. But maybe find some peace as the sun rises, try to make peace with the demons of the past, try to make peace with all those fuck ups that were probably my own fault all along. By myself.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

He Was On The Moors

It was a moment of truth. There I was, doing the dishes late one night when suddenly the realization entered my head out of nowhere. “AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON really is better than THE HOWLING.” And that was it. Since I hadn’t even been thinking at all about either film I paused to consider this and accepted the thought as correct. Maybe I felt conflicted about the decision since the game of which werewolf film was the better one was something I had long turned around in my head for the obvious reasons—each released in ’81, each at least as much of a comedy as a horror film and the two of them containing what were at the time somewhat revolutionary werewolf transformation effects. Not to mention that the directors of the two films, John Landis and Joe Dante, are both friends so who knows what sort of joking rivalry has occurred because of this. I feel a little bad because Joe Dante has always been supportive of this blog. My feelings for his films don’t diminish, they never will, but nevertheless in this case I had to accept the truth.
Backpacking through Europe, friends David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) are in a desolate area of Northern England when they receive a chilly reception in the very small town on East Proctor. Leaving fast, they are warned to stay on the road keeping clear of the moors and they soon learn why when they are attacked by a giant wolf. Jack is brutally killed with David only injured by the time the townspeople show up to shoot the presumed wolf and he doesn’t learn what really happened until he wakes up in a London hospital several weeks later. But it’s not the whole story and as he begins a relationship with sympathetic Nurse Alex Price (Jenny Agutter) he soon finds out what really happened when the undead Jack pays him a visit, telling David that he’s bitten by a werewolf and unless he takes his own life he’ll turn into one himself upon the arrival of the next full moon. David of course doesn’t believe this and as his curious doctor (John Woodvine) investigates what really happened in East Procter the arrival of another full moon gets closer.
Part of the surprise of the revelation I had was how AMERICAN WEREWOLF has been, for no particular reason, one of those films that I’ve always liked but just haven’t seen very much over the years. Hey, it happens. I’ve returned to multiple Joe Dante films frequently and maybe I’ve just lumped the Landis in with all his others of the ANIMAL HOUSE school. INTO THE NIGHT may always be my favorite (sentimental reasons and all) but AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, released in August 1981, plays like his best film now, as arch and scary as it should be while still maintaining a genuine feel of unpredictable danger over thirty years after its release. There’s really no point in comparing the two but it’s still interesting--THE HOWLING has jokes all over the place but takes the situation Dee Wallace is going through totally seriously. WEREWOLF, on the other hand, takes the plot seriously as some of the characters do but in addition to the wisecracks coming from the characters offers a fatalistic sense of humor regarding Jack’s situation that sets it apart. It’s absurd, of course, just as absurd it would be if you or I heard that an old college friend had suddenly turned into a werewolf but Jack doesn’t really deserve anything more than that anyway.
AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON was conceived and written by Landis long before he actually made it, probably when he was around the same age as the characters. Since he was just a kid and at that age you have very little idea of, well, anything, (not that I have much more of an idea now) it makes sense that the main characters and a certain portion of the film itself is that way. “Eventually it becomes less comic than callow,” said Janet Maslin in the New York Times but this seems to be part of the point already, that David barely can comprehend what he’s going through—it’s a second puberty for him—and he has no awareness of what’s really going on beyond just enough self-deprecation to rightly think of himself as a schmuck so when his dead friend turns up in a zombified state he naturally just jokes with him. Even when he calls home late in the film and only speaks to his little sister, when he tells her to pass along a message to their parents that he loves them she doesn’t even think he’s being serious. It’s not an intellectual approach, like Mike Nichols would at least attempt with WOLF over a decade later, but David isn’t an intellectual guy.
The film is at a reserve as John Landis films often are, with what could almost be called a pure apathy toward humanity. But the DRAGNET-like aesthetic of many of his other films isn’t as prevalent here, he almost seems that much more insistent about the material maybe because it was his own. You could call it a world view: whether you deserve it or not, shit’s gonna happen, you’re gonna fuck up because of that (“Whatever happens, it’s your/my fault.”) and other people are going to get hurt in the process. As soon as Jack gets attacked David runs away (so much for Save the Cat, but who cares) and it’s not exactly noble but it is human. Soon after both likable characters are introduced at the start one of them is killed off just like that, complete with a look at the body that in a very flat way removes all ambiguity whatsoever which is almost more shocking than the brutality of the attack itself. Since we lose a few weeks in the narrative the character is buried before we ever realize it, not time for Jack to mourn since he’s missed it already. It’s a heavy concept (and, considering we’re talking about John Landis and what happened to him in subsequent years, one that goes considerably beyond the scope of this film) and it makes sense for it to be about a character who is in no way prepared to grasp that.
That ambivalence towards the lead character goes perfectly next to the balance of comedy and horror along with a form of guilt still feels dangerous; those Buñuel-inspired nightmares begin to seem more and more unnerving so even something about the clip of THE MUPPET SHOW in one of them comes off as slightly sinister. The arch jokiness with the use of songs that have “moon” in the title and the recurring Landis joke of using SEE YOU NEXT WEDNESDAY as a film title, here turned into a porno, contrasts nicely with the dry English drawing room humor of the two investigating officers (reminiscent of Donald Pleasence in the underappreciated RAW MEAT which was also partly set in the London Underground). With the only sense of majesty and fate coming from Elmer Bernstein’s brief but effective score there’s no sage wisdom coming from any experts so all anyone knows is what they half remember from old movies that starred either Lon Chaney, Jr. or Oliver Reed, except for course for the secrets being kept by the denizens of the Slaughtered Lamb in East Proctor where there’s no food to be had. Of course, the bravura scenes that you probably remember years after your last viewing are still spectacular; the legendary (and Oscar-winning) Rick Baker transformation which clearly shows just how painful it is, with no one to witness Jack’s plight except for that smiling Mickey Mouse figurine watching, sort of this films version of the Happy Face in THE HOWLING is still a triumph. And the attack scene in the deserted London Underground with some of the showiest camerawork Landis ever used is still genuinely unnerving in how quickly the tension escalates. The balancing act of comedy and horror is of course no big deal anymore but the deadly dark blackout humor (“That’s not Winston”) of Jack’s first night out still feels relentless. The film keeps insistently moving forward, unapologetic for the nastiness maybe because it’s confident there’s not going to be an easy out. There’s really only one way for all this to end.
When Jack makes a brief, aborted attempt to kill himself (right after calling home to a 516 area code; come to think of it, he does seem more Long Island than Westchester) it’s a moment so thrown away you might forget it was even there; as guilty as he may feel he still can barely comprehend the thought. Stanley Kubrick once named AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF one of his favorite films and maybe part of the reason was that in spite of its willful immaturity because it seems to subscribe to his famous quote about the universe being not hostile but ‘indifferent’. And the film is indifferent to what any of the characters are going through, whether David or one of the unlucky extras in Piccadilly Circus near the end, since it has to be. It even offers its own version of Kubrick’s Grady sisters from THE SHINING in two girls who appear out of nowhere to incessantly giggle at David for no apparent reason. But there’s no one around to explain it to him. As always, the world doesn’t care.
By this point no doubt remembered for this film more than being a DR. PEPPER pitchman (not to mention the short-lived SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER-inspired sitcom MAKIN’ IT) David Naughton brings just the right spirit to the part, likable and confused, partly knowing and of course partly baffled all the way to when we last see him in human form. More likable than I can imagine the character was on the page, he turns him into an everyman, just one who happens to be irrevocably fucked. The forever cheerful Griffin Dunne plays off him beautifully and, yes, it’s hard not to wish that we could see the version that has David and Jack touring Italy without tragic incident. As for Jenny Agutter, this film may be only one reason why people of a certain age like me have been in love with her for decades but she always plays it totally grounded. Even if she is a device in terms of how perfect she is, the dream girl who throws herself at the lead, it somehow feels true coming from her. On revisiting the film John Woodvine gives maybe the most underappreciated performance in it, almost for reasons that have nothing to do with the plot; he’s a character who has reached the breaking point of English politeness and it’s as if the mystery of David feels tangible, even if it is ludicrous, and his full commitment brings a genuine sense of gravity to it all. There are too many bit performances to single out—Brian Glover and David Schofield as two Slaughtered Lamb patrons are favorites as well as Frank Oz in his dual role as both the unfeeling consulate representative and, thanks to the MUPPET SHOW stock footage, Miss Piggy. I imagine he may have filmed this during production of THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER and that sounds like a great idea for a double bill to me.
Now, I may be a schmuck myself and there may be a degree of identification that led me to the conclusion I arrived at. But AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON still has that feel of danger mixed in with the humor in every scene, all respect to Joe Dante and THE HOWLING of course. In a way it feels like other John Landis films but maybe it’s the only one that feels like more than that. Maybe one thing I flashed on when I had that thought while doing dishes was the famous ending, as abrupt and jarring (in the best way) as you can imagine. David’s happy ending was Alex trying to help and declaring her love for him which at least was more than Jack ever got, or probably was ever going to get, from the legendary Debbie Klein. Maybe things just tend to reach a point where someone cries for you but that’s the best you’re going to get. You’re fucked and there’s no way out of it. Cue the music. And beware the moon.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

She Is On Her Side

Yes, I watch TCM a lot and, yes, it’s probably on right now behind me but the recent Trailblazing Women series has been knocking it out of the park even more than usual for the channel. Hosted by the great Illeana Douglas with an impressive array of guests the series explores the path women have taken over the past hundred-plus years in the film industry, including success and some that have unfortunately fallen by the wayside and making it very clear that this path of history deserves notice. Just to mention a few titles, Ida Lupino’s OUTRAGE was extremely powerful, getting to revisit Elaine May’s THE HEARTBREAK KID was a revelation and my first ever viewing of Shirley Clarke’s astonishing PORTRAIT OF JASON…well, we’ll have to talk about that another time. One unexpected pleasure came on Independent Classics night and my first viewing of Claudia Weill’s GIRLFRIENDS, a film I had only vaguely heard about in passing and one I found myself surprisingly drawn to within minutes. Picked up by Warner Bros. and released in 1978, it’s a film that takes certain Woody Allen-Paul Mazursky preoccupations of the time and turns them into its own thing while clearly being an influence on some people who have emerged in the years since. Filmed on a low budget in 16mm it has a grimy look which goes perfectly with the grimy 70s New York feel of the time, almost as if we might bump into Jill Clayburgh from AN UNMARRIED WOMAN coming around a corner. But the empathy it shows for all of its characters and its casual way of telling the story makes it unique and affecting.
Aspiring photographer Susan Weinblatt (Melanie Mayron) thinks she’s finally making some headway in her profession when her closest friend and roommate aspiring writer Anne (Anita Skinner) announces that she’s impulsively marrying her boyfriend Martin (Bob Balaban) leaving Susan in their new apartment all by herself. As Susan struggles with finding work and the pressure of being broke her friendship with Anne begins to be more distant as well.
It’s hard not to think of Noah Baumbach’s FRANCES HA in terms of the set up and maybe a little of Nicole Holofcener’s WALKING AND TALKING, incidentally also playing in the series, but GIRLFRIENDS (screenplay by Vicki Polon, story by Claudia Weill & Vicki Polon), grounded in the scuzzy 70s set in the dirty streets of New York is its own thing, always genuine and even during its lighter moments continually grounded in the struggles of its lead character along with her frustrations at feeling alone while just trying to get ahead somehow. It captures the mixed feelings that are sometimes inevitable when something exciting happens to a close friend—marriage, baby, whatever—and you know immediately that nothing is going to be the same again, how even when Anne insists she’s going to keep writing with a baby on the way Susan knows not to buy it. It makes a point of the tension that silently hangs in the air when you don’t have anything left to give a person and you don’t know how to tell them that.
With a gentle score by Michael Small which complements those feelings, the movie catches just the right feel of loneliness when everything is crumbling around you and you don’t want to be around people so you can feel ‘better’—you just want to be left alone (he wrote, alone in his apartment) no matter how hard it is to avoid feeling sorry for yourself. Some of the fashions and details are certainly dated--it occurs to me that we’ve lost a way to depict tension between friendships since we can’t have scenes where people are looking at vacation photos via slide projector anymore--but everything about it is still natural; the feelings ring true, the awkwardness is still genuine in how it presents the wars you fight with your friends and yourself as well. Whether autobiographical or merely full of details that have been closely observed, there’s a quiet sensitivity to it and yet a messiness to the lives that makes it clear these people are trying, like the character who seems set up as Susan’s rival who turns out not to be that at all, even if they’re screwing things up at the same time. It’s clearly a low-budget production so it sometimes looks raggedy and the framings are closed in to the point that the late 70s city life going on around it is always secondary but it really does feel like a peek at a way of living for artists in a certain kind of city that has long since gone away.
“What are you doing?” is the first line spoken after the opening credits to Susan, a character who barely knows what she’s doing, barely ever feels comfortable in her own skin. She’s in her twenties, when everything feels fucking awkward in trying to figure out the people around you (that awkwardness doesn’t go away but the 20s are still their own thing) and it’s definitely not a rose-colored look at being that age. As directed by Weill it continually offers a clear display of narrative economy while always keeping the characters at the forefront and it doesn’t need to be more--yes, it saves money to only see Anne’s wedding through the photos that Susan took but the visual of Susan painting her apartment right after it, painting over what she thought was going to be her life, says so much more. The New York of GIRLFRIENDS is a city where everyone is drifting, even the people who already seem to have it all settled are drifting, trying to fight their loneliness just as Susan is still becoming who she is and worried about who she never became with not much in her fridge other than a couple of Hershey bars.
No one knows any better since miscommunication between people always seems to be happening already, no one can be the all-knowing mentor for her since they’re just as screwed up. Even Eli Wallach’s Rabbi who comes off as a voice of reason at first surprisingly has other things on his mind. The storytelling is casual in terms of how much time obviously passes but it makes sense that it always feels like a cold wintery February considering how unwelcoming so much of the outside world is. The dialogue is filled with sharp, offhand asides along with occasional unexplained details to make the characters that much more vivid; everyone is flawed but layered, including how Christopher Guest’s potential boyfriend is kind of a dick but he’s just charming enough. When he calls Susan out on a few points during an argument he’s not always wrong (one minor detail I like—the phone number he uses to call his mom has a 914 area code, meaning it’s in Westchester where he presumably grew up) and he even knows just the right type of gesture to make in the end. “Maybe I just like him a lot,” Anne says about the man she’s going to marry and as skeptical as Susan is maybe that’s as close as you can ever get.
Tension over one of her photos missing from a show is diffused almost immediately by gallery owner Viveca Lindfors who harshly tells Susan to grow up but she treats her fair—to some people, there’s a limit when it comes to drama, after all so you need to step back and remember what matters. In that way, GIRLFRIENDS feels honest. Not everything gets taken care of but maybe a few steps forward for yourself, knowing that certain people are going to be around for those moments, is a start. And hoping that certain friends will understand. Reportedly Stanley Kubrick was a fan and during an interview promoting THE SHINING called it “one of the very rare American films that I would compare with the serious, intelligent, sensitive writing and filmmaking that you find in the best directors in Europe…It seemed to make no compromise to the inner truth of the story, you know, the theme and everything else.” GIRLFRIENDS is short and slight on the surface but layers of the characters have stayed with me making it more resonant and the film is continually surprising even after several viewings down to the subtle ambiguity of the final shot. Things seem like they’re picking up for Susan at the end, partly because she’s managed to get there by doing it herself, but who knows. She’s still who she is. We’re still who we are.
Melanie Mayron is just fantastic in the lead, bringing the right amount of likable energy and gradual strength, remaining endearing through all of her flaws even while you can feel Susan’s depression poking through at just the wrong times. The cast filled with a few familiar faces and some unknowns who also stand out (Anita Skinner was also in the 1983 thriller SOLE SURVIVOR and apparently nothing else; Gina Rogak who plays the more worldly Julie has no other credits) and director Weill turns it into an engaging ensemble. Eli Wallach is quietly affecting, letting us see just enough loneliness in him without trying to defend his actions. Bob Balaban, presumably still with a CLOSE ENCOUNTERS beard, and Christopher Guest both lend strong support with likable quirks and just enough to let us see how their behavior could get on anyone’s nerves. Amy Wright is also particularly good as a drifter Susan impulsively allows to move in and Kenneth McMillan has an endearing bit as a cab driver.
According to a 1980 profile in People Magazine Claudia Weill grew up in Scarsdale (“solid Jewish upbringing” is the phrase used), just like I did. This fact has nothing to do with anything but I can’t help but think how going from that town to the cold outside world where you have to grow up whether you want to or not is a feeling I can remember and one which is very much felt in this film. After GIRLFRIENDS Weill helmed the 1980 Jill Clayburgh vehicle IT’S MY TURN (never released on DVD so I’ll have to do some hunting; the People article indicates that it was a problematic shoot) and then moved on to directing TV including several episodes of THIRTYSOMETHING, where she was presumably reunited with Mayron. She also directed an episode of GIRLS a few years back and Lena Dunham has spoken at length on her love for this film. After years of unavailability GIRLFRIENDS actually is on DVD and can be ordered from the Warner Archive. The inclusion of the film in the Trailblazing Women series on TCM is deserved, hopefully exposing it to people who also never caught up with it. It also bodes well for what else might be in store when the series will return over the next two Octobers, presumably again hosted by Illeana Douglas who will hopefully be seen even more on TCM in the future. Even her discussions with guests before and after the films have felt longer and more fleshed out then they usually do on the channel, a choice which has helped the series have that much more of an impact. As an example of the Trailblazing Women series GIRLFRIENDS serves as, among other things, a reminder of how there are always films out there that feature distinctive voices which deserve to be discovered again, moving beyond just the sanctioned ‘classics’ whatever those are supposed to be. On its own it shows how hard things can be, whether between friends or just yourself, but every now and then we can spot the small possibility of moving forward. Which would include, hopefully, seeing more films as well.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

One More Day Of Summer

Isolation. It’s something I think about, maybe more than I should. Maybe because it’s a feeling that too often I can’t quite shake as I try to figure out what the hell I’m doing, what the next day is going to be. Sometimes that feeling stays with me deep into the night as I can’t sleep or early in the morning when I also can’t sleep staring at the ceiling, with an idea of where I’m going but a little scared that I’m really going nowhere at all.
Sam Raimi’s FOR LOVE OF THE GAME opened in September of ’99, less than a year after the release of his previous effort, the acclaimed A SIMPLE PLAN. The film has all the markings of an old-school movie star vehicle even though the star in question, Kevin Costner, seemed like he was nearing the end of that run during the period, with the dust of THE POSTMAN from a few years earlier still on him. The fall of ’99 was a memorable time for films—BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, THE LIMEY, FIGHT CLUB, THREE KINGS—but FOR LOVE OF THE GAME is almost insistently square in comparison as if part of the design was to try to emulate what a Douglas Sirk baseball picture starring Rock Hudson in 1958 might have been. It never comes close to being quite that extreme but there still isn’t a cynical bone in the entire film and considering it’s about a character who feels like he’s a relic of the past it maybe makes sense that it seems to belong in another time. It’s kind of forgotten by now, certainly when compared to the other Costner baseball films BULL DURHAM and FIELD OF DREAMS, but there’s an earnest spirit to it and it’s also certainly notable as another example of Sam Raimi testing himself as a director, pushing himself to do something different while he moved further away from horror films into the big leagues.
Veteran Detroit Tigers pitcher Billy Chapel (Kevin Costner) is nearing a crossroads in his life, possibly nearing the end of his career. It’s the end of another disappointing season for the Tigers, the owner Gary Wheeler (Brian Cox) is on the verge of selling the team and his girlfriend Jane Aubrey (Kelly Preston) has decided to take a job in London which will finally put an end to their rocky relationship. As he takes the mound for the last time that season, playing against the Yankees on their home turf, he begins to flashback to all the previous crossroads of his life, including the path his relationship with Jane has taken and how he’s gotten to the mound that day. Only as the game goes on he doesn’t notice right away that not a single Yankee has managed to get on base. There’s a recurring theme of endings throughout FOR LOVE OF THE GAME (Screenplay by Dana Stevens based on the novel by Michael Shaara), mentions of how summer is coming to a close and you’d better have that fun now while the sun is still up there. Watching the film now makes me think about my own baseball past since if you’d met me when I was a little kid that’s what I probably would have been talking about. I’m not sure when that went away—maybe somewhere around the 1981 strike and then I started paying attention to films instead. Sure, it takes me half a second to say yes when a certain friend with access to really good seats asks if I want to go see the Dodgers but as for actually following what’s happening during the season I’ve long since accepted that my interest has gone away. I wonder what happened to all my issues of Baseball Digest. Every spring I briefly think that maybe I’ll pay more attention that year, then I glance at the sports page maybe once and every September I realize that once again it didn’t happen. FOR LOVE OF THE GAME is about the coming of autumn, about the realization that summer, in whatever form it takes, can’t go on forever and maybe, just maybe, you don’t need to be alone for the remainder of the journey. It’s maybe a little too old-fashioned, a little too stuffy and, at 137 minutes, it definitely takes its time. The baseball scenes in particular are extremely well-shot by Raimi and cinematographer John Bailey but it’s still hard not to think that the script needed another run through the typewriter to smooth over some issues—maybe it’s just old-fashioned enough that ‘typewriter’ is the right word to use.
The film is definitely a star vehicle with the goal of making Costner into as much of a Gary Cooper figure as possible, the one noble man in a cynical world. That’s maybe the smartest way to approach it and Raimi, filming his first movie in widescreen, uses the frame not to emphasize any visual trickery that you’d expect from him like POV shots of a baseball hurtling towards home plate, but to focus on the star’s place in that cynical world, a place that as the film begins he feels extremely left out of. The celebrity that comes from his fame, with autograph hounds sometimes lurking about, seems to make him feel that much more isolated from everyone else as if he doesn’t quite know what that makes him—maybe it’s as much of a metaphor for Costner’s own stardom in 1999. As a director Raimi is continuing to develop here, as he finds a middle ground between the visual madness of his early films and the low-key nature of A SIMPLE PLAN. Since the film is about Costner, not those fastballs, the camera stays on him, framing him in the most iconic way possible. And the star is up for it, there’s a confidence to his very presence, a character worn down by the end of his career but with enough awareness of who he is to know what he’s still capable of—interestingly, unlike BULL DURHAM or TIN CUP this film isn’t about a Costner character who has to face what it is to be a failure but a success who must face what he still has inside of him, if there’s even anything still there at all.
The film is entertaining and put together in a slick, big studio way with a swelling Basil Poledouris score at the right dramatic moments but still feels a little stilted, the flashback sequence as the game proceeds a little too calculated as it becomes clear the romance is going to have more importance than his baseball career. Something’s missing to make the story more resonant—some reports have Annette Bening apparently turning down the female lead in favor of AMERICAN BEAUTY; I doubt she regrets that choice but she would have given the film an extra sense of gravity that Kelly Preston doesn’t really provide. Everyone is so well dressed throughout that in my memory it winds up becoming, baseball scenes aside, a film about pretty people wearing a lot of sweaters set to the ember glow of sunset. Even the sets look immaculate as if the love scenes are being shot in a movie where Kevin Costner plays a movie star playing a baseball player. There’s an Adult Contemporary vibe similar to the THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR remake with Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo that opened the previous month back in ’99 but that movie had heat. In this case, the continuous onslaught of cover songs of familiar favorites by the likes of Lyle Lovett wind up making me think that my sister is going to enjoy this film more than I will. You can almost feel too much effort in trying to make some of the love story work, to make the relationship have more edges than are ever there but it’s really the expected developments—the meet cute, the daughter she didn’t tell him about, the big fight. It feels like the long dialogue scenes underwent multiple rewrites to shore up holes in the plot and Billy’s one instance of playing around made to seem as benign as possible, like if you weren’t paying close attention you may not realize what he’d done.
But just when I can feel the creakiness Raimi suddenly makes his presence known, even in a subtle way of framing, and the film comes alive. Maybe just a love of baseball allowed him to respond to what needs to happen to allow for the miracle of a perfect game, giving us moments such as the he visual representations of Chapel shutting out all the noise around him and “clearing the mechanism” before pitching. One prolonged shot near the end as he mentally prepares for one final inning is flat-out elegant in its shifting composition and the way the camera slowly moves into place is as carefully assembled as any of the EVIL DEAD craziness only not trying to be showy about it. In spite of who the main character plays for none of the film is set in Detroit but the choice feels appropriate both for Michigan native Raimi and so the team can feel appropriately part of old school baseball, a reminder of when the game didn’t stink as Brian Cox’s owner believes. What with the total decency of John O’Reilly as Billy’s catcher and sidekick (not a shred of Reed Rothchild in there) as well as the New York hotel bellman asking Billy to “take it easy on our boys today!” it’s surprising Raimi didn’t bring in a kid selling newspapers with headlines about the big game shouting “Extra! Extra!” Certain bravura moments of filmmaking stand out in particular such as a climactic shot of a ball in play apparently nowhere near anyone, taking on all the significance of the 2001 monolith for those few seconds. The film even has a nice rebuke at the end to the early belief that the game stinks in the Yankee fan seen booing throughout the game who finally applauds Chapel for what he’s done which, let’s face it, is what would really happen (well, maybe not if he played for Boston).
Watching the film for the first time in several years I was expecting a voiceover narration at the start so I must be confusing that with FIELD OF DREAMS but in this case the film seems to know it’s not necessary, instead playing to some sort of yearning we have for baseball deep down, for those memories of going to the park with our dad. Maybe one of the best things about the film is that it keeps those feelings about family and the past, internal, never putting them into words—this is cinema, after all—while feeling free to put the plot stuff about the corporate takeover of the team or the predictable romance into dialogue. The other stuff is private and no one else’s business. The film remembers that even if Billy Chapel is pitching that perfect game he’s not the only one out there on the field; he’s dependent on his teammates and the film knows that even if you’re not winning the pennant maybe, just maybe, there can be a day where you don’t suck. Considering my mood lately, that’s just about the most optimistic message I can imagine so maybe I’m ok with there being a movie where the Yankees aren’t the good guys. When Raimi finally isolates his star from everyone else in a key moment after the big game the camera keeps its distance at first, giving him some deserved privacy. He’s all alone, knowing only that he’s all alone, and as he finally breaks down sobbing the moment is so effective that if it had been what the film had truly been building towards it might have been genuinely transcendent. Of course, it couldn’t do that and the final scene where all of these concerns are basically dropped so we can get the “I’ve always been alone, now I don’t want to be, I need you, I love you, yadda yadda yadda.” It comes off as rote in comparison, but there was that moment. Sometimes when we’re by ourselves it’s all that matters.
Kevin Costner plays Billy Chapel with just the right amount of nobility and cockiness, playing him as totally comfortable in his own skin and willing to be the monument that Raimi is pointing his camera up at—it’s nice to be reminded of why I liked Costner in the first place. Kelly Preston is likable as she’s often been but not really in his league—when Costner interacts with certain other actors like John C. Reilly or Jena Malone as Jane’s daughter the scenes just pop more and some of Preston’s best moments are silent ones when she’s by herself watching the game on TV. Brian Cox makes the most of his one big scene as the team owner with almost more decency than you can believe and even his dialogue-free cutaways as he watches the game unfold are genuinely affecting. JK Simmons, a few years away from playing J. Jonah Jameson in Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN, is the manager of the Tigers, the now-familiar Daniel Dae Kim from LOST appears briefly as an ER doctor, Laura Cayouette of DJANGO UNCHAINED is a masseuse and Ted Raimi is a gallery doorman. Vin Scully is in there too, calling the game of course, and making the most of his chances to describe what Billy Chapel must be going through as he gets closer to the final out. He mentions calling the famous Don Larsen perfect game way back in 1956 which blows my mind a little and since he may not be calling Dodger games much longer looking at it now his presence in the film seems to matter that much more.
As I write this another post-season is heating up (go Mets) and I’m paying a little bit of attention but not that much. There are movies to go see, after all. FOR LOVE OF THE GAME recalls an echo of my own attachment to the game and maybe I’m responding to Raimi’s own apparent sentimental attachment to it as well--he veered back a little closer to his earlier work with 2000’s THE GIFT just over a year later before he went into SPIDER-MAN land. For me, that echo is a distant one at best--no point in talking about my father or how I bawled immediately after the first time I saw FIELD OF DREAMS because that’s none of your damn business. But I’m reminded that Yogi Berra just died, yet another reminder of the past receding further and further away and one quote that stood out to me when I was reading the obits was, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Along with its portrayal of the glory and simplicity of the game I suppose that’s one of the things FOR LOVE OF THE GAME tries to remind us to do before winter comes. It’s not so easy to get rid of that isolation, particularly when you’re so used to it. But maybe sometimes you need the optimism that things can change.