Thursday, September 7, 2017

To Win Without War

There is no humanity without the awareness of cruelty. As much as we want to believe in reason, in goodness, we have to remember otherwise and understand that it may not get any better. That’s just the way some people are. John Frankenheimer’s SEVEN DAYS IN MAY was released in early 1964 and is meant to take place in the near future although it’s barely evident from watching the film. A date seen on a map possibly sets it in 1970 but there’s very little that would actually qualify it for some form of science fiction aside from the usage of video monitors for tele-conference purposes. The very concept of television and how it relates to people is something of a recurring image throughout Frankenheimer’s career and though SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, recently released on Blu-ray by Warner Archive in a stunning new transfer, is only a film about The Future in the loosest sense beyond an “all this could happen tomorrow…” feel the basic idea of how much would eventually play out on television wasn’t too far off. Frankenheimer was an extremely cultured, intelligent man, almost intimidatingly so but in spite of how much the film believes in a certain degree of justifiable paranoia he clearly also subscribes to the notion that the human brain is something which can eventually be won out by rationality. So he got some things wrong. On this particular point, if only for the optimism that he possessed, maybe he shouldn’t be faulted.

After a disarmament treaty with the Russians is ratified, the poll numbers for U.S. President Jordan Lyman (Frederic March) are at a record low. Almost by accident, Director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colonel Martin “Jiggs” Casey (Kirk Douglas) stumbles onto a few seemingly random pieces of information—a betting pool among high-ranking generals of the upcoming Preakness Stakes, the existence of a military base he was unaware of, which leads him to consider that there may very well be a secret plot led by the popular General James Scott (Burt Lancaster), the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, to stage a coup which will remove Lyman from office. With enough evidence and anecdotal information to at least convince the President of the possibility, Lyman sends various close allies off on secret missions to investigate and use what they know about Scott, including whatever may have happened with his former mistress Eleanor Holbrook (Ava Gardner), to discover the truth behind the plot and do whatever they can to stop what’s happening before it’s too late.

Based on the novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II with a screenplay by Rod Serling, SEVEN DAYS IN MAY is pure paranoid reportage, in some ways an extension of the hysteria portrayed in Frankenheimer’s previous film THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE but more grounded, more aware of the flaws within people that could lead to such potential calamities. The possibilities of what the end result might be are potentially far worse on a global scale, any satirical exaggeration in the earlier film is buried in favor of deadly seriousness with him taking one of the best scripts he ever had to work with and presenting it cleanly, briskly, tautly, always aware of what is at stake. There’s very little in the way of scale other than a small riot filmed in front of the actual White House and the closeness gives a feel of immediacy to every scene which hides how much is staged on sets, hinting at gigantic developments but only showing the briefest of glimpses. It’s a film set in a grown up world, a foreign concept right now, made by grown-ups, the premiere just days before Frankenheimer’s thirty-fourth birthday in ’64 and his total sense of focus is evident, throughout, each scene directed in a way that allows for total clarity as if it really is his own eye peering at every shot, waiting for what the characters are going to do next, every cut displaying a sign of his passion for the world to remind us how important it is to know what may possibly happen.

It’s essentially a thriller that mostly involves people conferring in rooms and the few traditional suspense beats are relatively low key but always compelling, its visual style consistent with other Frankenheimer films in how characters are often framed in relation to each other making every dialogue exchange even more intense. The overall feel is a little nightmarish at times, partly because of the Serling dialogue but also because of the claustrophobia felt by this insular world with certain elements offering a feel of ellipsis possibly for budget reasons but also possibly because the movie knows that it’s not really about the escape from the secret base in the middle of the desert. The plotting also keeps things close to the vest at times as to exactly what sort of plans are in motion with characters kept offscreen for stretches to add to their intrigue and if there’s more to a key plane crash than just an accident we never hear about it. Ava Gardner, the one prominent woman in the cast, is in for a few scenes as Scott’s ex-mistress with information that may be used against him which in one sense feels like an excuse to stick a semi-love interest into the picture and it’s a little soapish in how it plays but the subplot also becomes a reminder of the real world out there beyond the corridors of power, something that’s been discarded in favor of the job that never ends.

The heroes are conflicted, believing so strongly in the rules of their world that they can’t accept that something might come along to upend all of that until they have no other choice. Kirk Douglas’ Jiggs might not even be a ‘hero’ at all, ambivalent at best about the treaty and the information he’s passing along, while March’s President Lyman isn’t as torn about what he believes but he’s just uncertain enough about what he needs to do that it’s believable he won’t be strong enough in the end, firmly aware that even if he’s done the right thing it could still be his downfall. So it makes sense that the only person totally assured in what he’s doing is Lancaster’s General Scott, a few shots framed directly behind him that place us literally in his headspace as if a reminder that to him, his head is where the wisdom flows from, his decisions are what should be obeyed. The paranoia always in the air brings an otherworldly quality to the narrative helped by the rich, weighty intelligence of the Serling dialogue, every utterance with all the significance imaginable bringing a certain big budget TWILIGHT ZONE vibe to it. It’s made almost made more unsettling by how there’s nothing supernatural going on, events that can be explained if only they can be understood. As grounded as it is there are still a few elements that feel part of the ZONE/MANCHURIAN DNA to keep us uneasy and even Scott’s overcooked proclamations goes perfectly with his point of view as well as odd touches that skirt that vibe, particularly Andrew Duggan as one of the unknowing colonels at the secret base playing part of his role as if he’s in a slight daze, slowly waking up to the realization that there’s something off about it all.

It’s a version of the MANCHURIAN kaleidoscope that’s a little closer to the real world, the suggestion that Raymond Shaw play a game of solitaire turned into continued attempts here to have Edmund O’Brien’s alcoholic Senator Clark investigating the secret base to have a drink instead, to forget about all those things he’s being told are happening. When all else fails here the conspirators resort to simple gaslighting (“I’m afraid your memory fails you, Mr. President.”) which certainly helps to tie the film in to the world of 2017 even more. The crumpled piece of paper that might be a clue reveals more than any possible futuristic technology and all these TV monitors meant to show us what’s going on only make the true allegiances that much murkier although the thematic conclusions the film reaches courtesy of President Lyman, stating that the enemy isn’t Scott and his supporters but instead the paranoia of the nuclear age may seem na├»ve today, not when we have a major political party seemingly intent on stripping away all rights of a large amount of the populace. But this President, and the film as well, correctly labels it a sickness, the product of minds filled with desperation and impotence. There is the dream buried in the aspirations of the people who made this film that someday this can all be fixed, maybe someday this hatred can be wiped away, maybe someday Jiggs will redeem that raincheck Eleanor Holbrook keeps alluding to. There’s no point in waiting after all. We have to fight for the future, not stand around assuming it’s going to happen. Because that’s when the end comes.

Right now we live in a world beyond satire but this film is from another time, an extension of the live TV plays where Frankenheimer got his start, as well as films from long ago which aspired to people who might, just might, display the potential to be better, of what you’re tempted to do, and the good you might actually be capable of, when you’re down at the bottom of the barrel. The overall message is essentially pacifist but while still aware that the military is a reality it's purely, simply hopeful that one day we may be able to move past certain things. It’s also from another time when not only might certain love letters possibly incriminate somebody the people who have them actually have to think about it. What they have is dignity, something the traitorous Scott doesn’t possess nor does he care about, freely shutting somebody out the instant they start talking about ‘the Democratic way’ and the conservative commentator played by Hugh Marlowe of course folds under pressure instantly. Jiggs is human enough that he needs to take a gulp of that scotch before putting his suspicions into words and he agonizes over the choice he has to make, a reminder that it’s usually the good ones who argue over the morality of how to achieve their goals.

Very much a product of the Kennedy years, made pre-Dallas but released after and the specifics of the future don’t matter since Frankenheimer had no idea what was coming, no idea what would happen to JFK, no clue that in just a few years he would be accompanying RFK to the Ambassador. He couldn’t have known that one day there would be someone in power basing his decisions on what the TV ratings would be just as much of General Scott’s plan depends on being seen by the nation on television, the best way imaginable for a God (or a monster) to be anointed, at least until Facebook and Twitter came along. You shouldn’t have to wait for the future to happen before something is done but sometimes we’re forced to live with the consequences of those who didn’t act when they could have. The final words heard in the film immediately after a speech that sums everything up and states exactly what we want to hear (and, goddamnit, watching it now almost brings tears to my eyes) are of an announcer stating, “Ladies and gentlemen, that was the President of the United States.” With the final crash of Jerry Goldsmith’s brief score we are assured. It would be a nice feeling to have right now in the version of the future we’re living in, but I suppose we really do need to think of this as science fiction.

It’s a phenomenal cast. Burt Lancaster brings all his power and cagey intellect, spitting out the ferocity of his speeches without a care what the answer will be, the smugness of Scott daring the other person to even try to disagree. Frederic March is total dignity, coming off as someone you could imagine as weak but what he does he’s the strongest of them all, willing to keep from blinking and the power in his eyes and the uncertainty as well. It’s Lancaster and March who get the big confrontation of the entire film with each of them simply brilliant in how they come at each other. It was Kirk Douglas who reportedly realized as they were making the film that he had the lesser part so it could be argued that he visibly transfers that frustration to his performance of a man straitjacketed by what he’s compelled to do and the immense guilt he feels even though he knows what’s right, his silences left hanging there as he becomes more anguished over which side he’s on. As the woman who Scott won’t even say a word about when her name comes up, Ava Gardner plays her role a little like Ava Gardner as Ava Gardner Movie Star, waiting at a party with a drink in her hand to film her Special Guest Appearance. On the audio commentary Frankenheimer refers to difficulties with Gardner and she doesn’t always seem as confident as her co-stars; you can feel the director forced into coverage during a few of her scenes to help them play out. The great Edmond O’Brien received the one acting nomination for this at the Oscars and he’s electrifying, in some ways playing the audience surrogate, the one person in the film who appears to feel mortal, trying to keep his flaws in check for a little while to get the job done. Plus there’s also Martin Balsam, Whit Bissell, Richard Anderson (RIP), George Macready (also in PATHS OF GLORY and TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN with Douglas), Colette Jackson as a girl in an El Paso bar wondering about the nearby secret military base (she pops so instantly that on the audio commentary Frankenheimer wonders what happened to her; sadly, she died in ‘69 with only a few other credits) and an unbilled John Houseman, pitch perfect in his first film as an Admiral holding back the truth of what he knows about the plot.

People are who they are. And that’s what they want to be. Sometimes I wish it wasn’t true, but it is. The new Warner Archive Blu lives up to the importance of SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, with a transfer that is a huge improvement over the old DVD playing like a crisp new 35mm print after watching a muddy TV broadcast. Plus it contains the illuminating audio commentary that Frankenheimer recorded several years before his passing (he was one of the best at this—he remembers f-stops on certain shots, for crying out loud) and I wish he was still around to tell us more stories about this film to maybe shed more light on the path that led us to where we are right now with people who want nothing more than to be in command, just like the general working under Scott who we’re told subscribes to “out and out fascism”. At the very least, the people in this film seem more intelligent than certain people in the real world these days; certainly the film has better dialogue. So maybe that means there’s hope. Because right now we’re forced to deal with the madness while the intelligence that people like John Frankenheimer and Rod Serling delivered to the world gets left behind. Which is where we are right now. In the future.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Circuses Are Past History

Like the man says, the past is a foreign country. My own past in Los Angeles is of little interest and the more time goes on, the less any of it matters except in the most insignificant way imaginable. Way back in the 90s I always enjoyed going to the mall in Century City, partly for the movies and the bookstore, partly for the food but also because of the vibe of the place. I certainly got more than a few celebrity sightings there (Janet Leigh and Jamie Lee Curtis together was one of the best) and maybe to me the design of it seemed like what I had always imagined Los Angeles, or maybe just that generic southern California vibe, to be. The mall has been totally redone now so it doesn’t look like that anymore and by a certain point I stopped going to that part of town anyway. I miss it but that’s the way it goes.
One particular point of interest that was always attached to my fondness for the place is that it’s also where much of CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES was filmed, the location meant to represent the future world of the film’s “North America 1991” as the opening title put it, an indication that the country may not even be the United States anymore. Presumably they knew something about the future even if the years were slightly off.

The Twentieth Century Fox studio is right nearby—just up the street is where Fox Plaza aka “the DIE HARD building” would later be built—and the mall actually sits on what used to be part of the backlot so they didn’t have to travel far to use that location. Because of the extensive redesign of what’s now called “Westfield Century City” there’s not much left that’s recognizable, the mid-century modernistic feel to the place scrubbed away in favor of a certain plastic Kardashian vibe which somehow feels even more oppressive. The bridge that goes over Avenue of the Stars is still there of course even though the ramp leading up to it is new and though the staircase where Roddy McDowall’s Caesar makes his speech at the end is gone the building directly behind him is actually still there—I knew it as a Bank of America back in the 90s, now it’s something else. And there’s not even a plaque or a signpost or a statue there to indicate that this is the spot where the apes took over. But I guess it doesn’t matter. As far as CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is concerned, the future is now the past which in some ways means that the present is now the future, which is all it ever becomes.

North America, 1991 – Roughly twenty years after he acquired the baby chimpanzee offspring of Cornelius and Zira, the apes from the future, circus owner Armando (Ricardo Montalban) travels to the city with the now-grown ape Caesar (Roddy McDowall) at his side to advertise his upcoming show. But what Caesar encounters is a fascistic world where apes were turned into pets after the deaths of all cats and dogs but are now servants, essentially slaves to humans with Governor Breck (Don Murray) in charge of Ape Management which is designed to condition all simians so they will do the jobs they are trained for. Though Caesar is well aware he needs to not speak for fear of being discovered the treatment he witnesses soon causes him to shout out. In the melee of people convinced they have just heard an ape talk he is soon separated from Armando, who tries to take responsibility for what was heard, and Caesar is forced to blend in with the servant apes, soon even finding himself a slave under the command of Breck himself. But when the truth of what has happened to Armando is revealed, Caesar soon realizes that he has no choice but to take action and plot revolution.

The previous two films in the APES series, BENEATH THE… and ESCAPE FROM…, climaxed with the violent deaths of its main characters which in the first sequel was immediately followed by the total destruction of the entire planet. This apparently qualified each of them for a G rating but, hey, it was the 70s. CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, released in June 1972 and the fourth film in the series out of five, not only went beyond what even the MPAA was willing to hand over a G rating to it had to undergo considerable alterations during post-production to make it palatable for even a PG. After all, it depicts what is essentially a successful armed slave revolt that brings down the human race, which even in the 70s may have been considered a little much for kids. But it’s clearly a low budget armed slave revolt and considering that there are only a handful of locations actually used in the film we sort of have to take its success on faith, through dialogue telling us what will happen after the credits roll. Even after countless viewings I’m still a little unsure about the about the exact geography of the film’s primary location as depicted, presumably to make the area seem bigger than it is but it’s to the film’s credit how much it sidesteps issues of technology for this film set in the future such as how there’s not even a single automobile seen in the entire film. But science fiction or not, CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES isn’t about detailing a futuristic world or even presenting an ape revolt as it is detailing its own subtext, something which may have been in the air when the film was made and in some ways still is.

There’s surprisingly little in the way of plot with the three acts of the screenplay by Paul Dehn (who had also worked on the previous two films) serving as essentially capture, slavery and revolt. And that’s it. Most of the exposition is packed into what Ricardo Montalban’s Armando has to tell Caesar the film’s start (really, you’d think he’d have told him all this ahead of time) so we don’t ask too many questions about how much it remains consistent with the other films. It doesn’t match up exactly anyway, forced from a continuing storyline that backed into what it became by the destruction of the world in the far off future as seen at the end of BENEATH, creating a time loop that never made any sense even on a science fiction level but we just go with it. It’s one of those things that make the flawed storytelling of all the films put together so compelling that certain elements meant to connect can never be fully reconciled. The future of 1991 as presented is clearly a cold world as if without their pets any shred of kindness or even humanity has been wiped away from these people, almost in a very early CHILDREN OF MEN sort of way. It turns out no children are even seen in this film anyway but it feels like a safe bet that if there were they’d be just as bad as their parents. The recurring imagery of waves crashing up to the surf from earlier films are nowhere to be found and in its place is a world of metal and concrete, no joy, nothing but business.

“Circuses are past history,” a guard awkwardly states early on which in the context of the actual 2017 has turned out to be close to true with Ringling Bros. closing down this year. Of course, in our real world that’s a reminder of increased attention paid to animal rights and how people don’t like clowns very much anymore. In this film’s future the very concept of a circus is almost a symbol of all things pure, of art, joy and knowledge having been done away with. Which, looking at it again in the context of the real 2017, doesn’t seem so far off either. Even the concept of space travel, that symbol of optimism where the entire APES series began, is now little more than a place that astronauts have brought viruses back from. The slave outfits given to the simians are somewhat obviously meant to foreshadow the color schemes they would evolve into by the time of the original film far off in the future while most of the humans are all dressed in oppressive black as if they have no color in their lives to lose. The pleasures they now have are totally sterile with even cigarettes apparently having been made too safe to ever enjoy again. Everyone, every human, seems either angry, unpleasant or simply arrogant. The few we see out and about in this futuristic shopping plaza are clearly part of whatever the upper class is, living in paranoia as if they know the revolution is inevitable, the less fortunate ones tossed further down by their service jobs being taken over by the ape slaves.

It’s difficult to tell if things would be such a police state even if the apes weren’t around and Governor Breck is concerned with little other than maintaining his power, barking out orders to underlings. Even one command to “simplify that last paragraph” in a speech makes clear than anti-intellectualism is now the order of the day. Thought doesn’t matter anymore. Only adherence does. Only loyalty. In his paranoia Breck serves the function of Dr. Zaius from the original film only without the intellect, which makes him a perfect human leader. For a film that has to present a future on a tight budget (reportedly $1.6 million; by this point the budgets for each sequel were getting progressively smaller) it’s clear enough to be understood immediately. It’s a fascist world and it deserves to have a revolt by the apes. Plain and simple. With much of it shot on location (in addition to Century City, a few scenes filmed at UC Irvine) there are only a few sets that seem to have been built, the masks on many of the background apes are worse than ever and even if global ramifications of what happens are bigger than ever the plot is the slimmest of the five films, fitting nicely into the 87 minute running time. But it’s so effective in its stripped down way that very little of that matters.

Director J. Lee Thompson was a workhorse of a filmmaker, with a career going from the 50s to the 80s that included THE GUNS OF NAVARONE and the original CAPE FEAR but also a lot of sludge. Whether he responded here to the themes or even took the production limitations as a challenge there’s more ferociousness and energy felt here than in a number of his big budget prestige pictures. Along with DP Bruce Surtees (whose work during this period included DIRTY HARRY and NIGHT MOVES) brings to every scene an immediacy that the earlier films in the series never had, whether handheld cameras to make the ape riots resemble newsreel footage or shots which accentuate the coldness of the architecture. They seem energized by how to shoot Century City with the austerity of every sharp angle lending itself to the minimal plotting, looking for the hardness in the angles everywhere and makes the world seem that much more foreboding; it’s the only APES film after the original which feels like it contains a genuine point of view to how it’s shot with the total darkness during night scenes handled particularly well. One imagines John Carpenter seeing the film in ’72 and ideas forming in his head for how he could expand on these themes and visuals but the film is still no slouch.

It’s a film with not just blunt power but full on anger that goes beyond the satire of the concept into pure documentation of the horror, knowing there is only one side and this is the way it’s supposed to be. While the ham-handed protests meant to reflect Vietnam demonstrations in BENEATH felt hackneyed, in this film the imagery emerges perfectly out of where the story has gone. And with the somewhat liberal African-American MacDonald is the only character in the movie who seems to put actual thought into his actions and opinions but while he may be in a position of power he still hasn’t achieved any form of respect. “What’s he, like apes or something?” “Yeah, don’t it figure?” goes an exchange between two guards talking about him, a clear sign that apes may have been moved over to the bottom of the human food chain but old-fashioned racism among humans is still there. There’s no longer any one clear voice of reason with any authority whether the calm, collected president played by William Windom in ESCAPE or even a scientist like Eric Braeden’s Dr. Hasslein in that film who even as the bad guy had a point of view, ugly as it was. Even Caesar is without any real guidance whether Armando or the absent Cornelius and Zira so there’s no longer wisdom to pass down to the younger generation. Guards dressed like Nazi Stormtroopers patrolling the apes combined with the subpar masks of the background apes somehow add to that nightmarish quality. Even on its own level I still have a few plot questions but it doesn’t really matter since having it all match up with the correct timeline isn’t important. Just as the repeated sounds of ‘No!’ are used to mollify the apes from their conditioning and gets repeated when Armando eventually uses the same word to plea for his life, it’s a movie about imagery and sound connecting to the ideas of which the only real answer reached is this is a world that deserves toppling. And since no one else is going to rise up, it may as well be Caesar, the one already named for a king.

The minimalism gives the film an objective and a total sense of focus, helping the movie age well although what it is makes it sometimes more compelling than what it does; even at 87 minutes you can tell there’s not much story so all the sneaking around Caesar does can’t always hide how listless it is, the electrocution sequence feels muddled in a way that hurts what follows and the disobedience section gets short shrift maybe because the film just wants to get to the revolt by that point. But the appearance of a special unrated version on Blu-ray a few years back makes some of these flaws seem minor considering what it turns the film into, dispensing with the original conciliatory speech that had to be cobbled together in post to soften the ending along with some of undeniably shocking violence during the revolt and even a few additional music cues that feel like they were dropped for just sheer intensity almost as if the film itself is shouting at you to understand the message. The overall feel of the last half-hour, not just that final speech, is much harsher and bloodier almost to the point of genuinely wanting the audience to rise up. In just about the most shocking newly added moment to this version Governor Breck takes a gun from a guard (hey, at least he’s willing to do things himself) and shoots a gorilla right in the face, firing directly at the camera, in effect firing it at us. The message is clear. We are the apes. It’s the real monsters, whether they’re the fascists, the Nazis, the republicans, who all need to be taken down. And there should be no sympathy for them.

That jangly score by Tom Scott which, based on the Film Score Monthly soundtrack release, had a fair amount unused which may have been for the best although while the silence in certain scenes adds to the minimalism, a few parts are still too dry as a result. There’s more of it in the unrated version and in both is transformed from atonal bombast into an instantly recognizable Jerry Goldsmith track from the original (part of “The Search Continues” on that soundtrack album) at the very end to signify that the new world is born. I wish there was more information out there on this version—was it basically just sitting in a vault at Fox since the early 70s? Did the studio really make them take out music cues that were too upsetting? Is this really Thompson’s preferred version of the film? But it does manage to make the film feel as complete as it ever will, much more than the 4:30 movie that it’s always been in my memory. Thompson confirmed in Eric Greene’s book “Planet of the Apes as American Myth” that the film was based on the Watts riots and there had certainly been other forms of civil unrest during the years in between. Watching it now, I can’t help but view it with a whiff of Stonewall as well. The revised ending which was once all that was known pulls back and so does BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES, the next and last in the series also directed by Thompson, which is pretty kid oriented as well as more hopeful but it is a sequel to this film’s theatrical cut after all. But that’s another story. Considering other films that were made in the early 70s—DELIVERANCE, for one, opened a month later—what they changed it to it passed for a happy ending. Of course, maybe we’re living in a world where an ape did take over after all, just not an intelligent one. After all, as this film and recent times reminds us some people were not born human.

Clearly reveling in the chance to play a new character in the series, so much of Roddy McDowall’s performance is in his movement and eyes, letting the silences play out as if he’s just waiting for his character’s explosion at the very end. It’s one of McDowall’s finest moments but even the small touches stand out particularly when he and Don Murray take a moment to just stare at each other as Caesar chooses his name, everything imaginable stated in that silence. I can’t help but imagine the two actors finding that bit of business on the set and suddenly not caring about anything else in the scene going on around them. Murray, once opposite Marilyn Monroe in BUS STOP and currently on TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN as the boss of Dougie Jones, has stated that he deliberately rehearsed his dialogue in German to give it the proper cadence when he translated it back and it provides the right tone for his performance which gives each moment he plays the exact amount of contempt for all necessary. Even at the very end Breck’s arrogance won’t let him break eye contact with the ones about to do him in, making him seem somewhat braver than certain real life versions do these days. Returning as Armando, Ricardo Montalban dives right into the insane amount of exposition he has to spit out in the opening minutes with a passion which would defeat other actors, proving how good he was at dealing with preposterous dialogue and the character’s own true passion of what he believes in the midst of pure hatred is always evident. Hari Rhodes, also in Sam Fuller’s SHOCK CORRIDOR, provides a weighty middle ground of humanity in the film between the emotion and cold, calculated hatred bringing unshakable moral authority even when he knows there’s only so much he can do to change things, Natalie Trundy, wife of producer Arthur P. Jacobs who played several roles in the APES franchise, is the female ape Lisa and the icy oddness of Severn Darden, who returned in BATTLE as did Trundy, coming off as the most vicious kind of simple, pragmatic evil.

My own past doesn’t matter. Only the present does and what sort of actual future we’re really going to get, who can say. As far as the recent reboot/prequels go, I liked RISE, thought DAWN was pretty terrible and I’m moderately sort of ok on WAR even though it’s little more than empty spectacle. There’s not very much in the new film to discuss since aside from the effects there’s nothing there, as empty and hollow as you’d expect from an effects extravaganza made in North America 2017. But to this day I’ll still occasionally watch one of the sequels from the original five-film cycle, even the ones I never think are any good, maybe for some twisted nostalgia of how daring movies like this were sometimes allowed to be. CONQUEST feels compromised in some ways and it’s clearly aimed at kids but the film has a danger to it which in some ways makes it more appropriate for kids than any of them. They need to learn who the bad guys are, after all, and why such a revolt happens. It’s never too soon to be aware of such things, especially these days.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Between Planes

Deep down, part of the problem is all the waiting. You know you need to stop doing it but you can’t. And there’s nothing you can do about it except everything imaginable. But for now, let’s go back a very long time to way before the world ended, maybe longer than I want to admit, since it makes sense to start there. The occasion was a massive Billy Wilder retrospective at the Film Forum in New York which for all I know I’ve mentioned before. The double bill that day was ONE TWO THREE and LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON, two Wilder films I had never seen although that aside I can’t think of any particular reason for pairing them together. The problem, which anyone familiar with the films will understand, was that I saw ONE TWO THREE first. Fairly close on the list to being one of my favorite Wilders by now it’s definitely one of the fastest, hell it’s one of the fastest movies ever made. So following it up with a much slower, virtually languid romance may not have been ideal. But that’s the way I saw them that day and that’s the way it goes. And now that LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON has been released on Blu via Warner Archive that’s about the best possible reason to finally see it again after all this time. In addition to its considerably staid pacing, there’s a slightly different feel compared to other Wilder films as if he’s trying to find a balance between misanthropy and romance that would actually make sense in his filmic world. It’s so reflective at times that it’s practically about the very act of reflecting. Even now I can’t entirely get on board with all of it but if you don’t insist on comparing it to the Wilder I know and love that feels more intent on cutting into the way our works really works, falling into its melancholic rhythms becomes a little easier. Looking at it now is a reminder of what it’s like to fight your way through a cynical world, one in which lying might be the only way to make it through the day. While waiting for someone to come around.

Parisian cello student Ariane Chavasse (Audrey Hepburn), forever curious about the cases her private detective father Claude (Maurice Chevalier) is working on, overhears him talking to a new client known only as Monsieur X (John McGiver) who has been told of his wife’s affair with rich American playboy Frank Flannagan (Gary Cooper). When the client proclaims that he will show up at their rendezvous and shoot Flannagan (“In that case, you leave me no choice. I must insist on being paid right now,” Claude Chavasse calmly replies), Ariane becomes desperate to stop this and when she is unable to get the police to help shows up at the hotel suite herself. She prevents the crime but her mysterious nature intrigues Flanagan who insists on seeing her again. They do and have a brief, passionate affair even though she refuses to tell him so much as her name and he soon departs to continue his jet set life. When Flanagan returns to Paris a year later and they meet again she not only still keeps her name secret to keep his interest begins telling him stories about her supposed love life based entirely on what she’s read in her father’s voluminous files of adultery. But the more stories Flanagan hears from her, the more determined he becomes to find out who this mysterious girl really is.

The opening spells it out: an establishing shot of Paris which is revealed to be a mere drawing, followed by multiple drawings of other views of the city displayed out on a Parisian street. In other words, within the real city is a fantasy city, whichever one you want it to be. It’s a visual statement of theme of the sort that we don’t usually get from Wilder but maybe he’s saying that this is the Paris he remembered from when he first encountered it long ago or possibly even the one he wished had always been there. For me LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON doesn’t belong in the upper echelon of Wilder films; there’s a grace to its style that is insistent about itself but it never seems to flow in the right way even though the veritable catalog of preoccupations on display makes it essential. It also marked the beginning of his collaboration with co-writer I. A. L. Diamond and except for the immediate follow-up WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, the partnership would continue all the way to the end with 1981’s BUDDY BUDDY. So something different is felt here, a definite shift away from the strain of certain mid-50s Wilder titles with a sudden ease felt to the storytelling as if settling in to a style that fits, finding a comfort level to this new approach that makes it clear the movie is in no rush to get away from itself.

It’s still a black & white world, not the hard-bitten one of DOUBLE INDEMNITY, SUNSET BOULEVARD and ACE IN THE HOLE but one that’s more romantic in its accepting of the very concept of loneliness, as if dreaming of a grand romance that never quite took place. From this point on there’s a good deal of reflection in Wilder’s films with characters trying to come to terms with what never was or will never be. They’re facing middle age or beyond, often while staying in hotels somewhere feeling like the world is passing them by as the realization hits that they may be forgotten. Of course, for much of LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON the male lead never seems to have these concerns and just about the biggest problem that anyone has ever had with the film involves the age difference between the leads, specifically Audrey Hepburn being 28, presumably playing younger, and Gary Cooper being 56 and looking at least a few years older. It’s almost impossible to think about the film without acknowledging that, yes, he looks too old to be playing this rogue even if he does carry with him enough self-confidence to be believable as a rakish world-class playboy. Wilder’s first choice was Cary Grant, although I can never quite see him in this role regardless of age and let’s save the issue of Audrey Hepburn being paired with so many older men in her films for another time. The movie certainly doesn’t ignore the matter and the story seems designed for that anyway. “Aren't you a little too young,” he asks her. “Aren't you a little too old,” she says back to which he understandably replies, “That hurts.” Which doesn’t excuse or justify it, only to point out what the story is, of someone older trying to hold onto the younger person looking up to them and in a sense yearning for the past. It can be a nice dream, anyway.

Clearly meant as a tribute to the sparkling champagne feel of the films of Ernst Lubitsch, Wilder’s hero and teacher, director of the NINOTCHKA screenplay that he wrote with Charles Brackett, LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON was also the second of three 1957 releases for Wilder coming between the gargantuan THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS and the compact, much more characteristic WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION. After the likes of SABRINA and THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH, each based on popular Broadway shows, LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON (screenplay by Wilder & I. A. L. Diamond, based on the novel by Claude Anet; the novel had been previously filmed in Germany as ARIANE in 1931) feels closer to his own personal style for the first time in a few years with an extra level to all the melancholy. You’d expect technicolor from a romantic comedy make in 1957, not the black & white look courtesy of DP William Mellor (who also shot A PLACE IN THE SUN and GIANT, among others) and while there’s a coyness to LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON in its opening narration by Maurice Chevalier that introduces us to romance in Paris (one of multiple such Wilder beginnings) along with the husband and wife known only to us as Monsieur and Madame X as if the film doesn’t want to reveal the names of all involved to us, there’s a gloom over much of it that almost overrides the humor of the piece. Flannagan decides to call Ariane “Thin Girl” since she won’t give him her name but it could easily be Sad Girl, since she spends most of the film desperate for connection with just about anybody, trying to achieve some form of happiness in a world where it seems like everything has already been decided. Her semi-boyfriend from the conservatory never seems interested in her at all until she begins to lose interest in him and the cello she carries around everywhere is like an albatross; the film seems to be saying her art is holding her back from life.

The way it plays, LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON is almost too relaxed at times to the point that it feels like a few laughs are missed due to deliberately lackadaisical line readings. Technically it’s a comedy but some of the best dialogue exchanges seemingly waft into the frame and out again, lost in the mist, trying to infuse itself with the spirit of Lubitsch as if Wilder wants nothing more than for that feeling to somehow survive into the era of rock n’ roll. Instead of floating through the air like some of the best of Lubitsch does it drifts in a rowboat, just as the characters do at one point, almost not moving at all. Individual moments have zip and the dialogue often brings just the right flavor particularly Ariane’s call to a policeman who refuses to put a stop to matters involving adultery in Paris, of all cities. But Lubitsch films back in the 30s which featured the likes of Cooper and Chevalier were around 90 minutes, sometimes 80. LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON stretches out to 129 and you feel every minute of it. The extra running time does give the film a certain added weight beyond the frothiness but maybe it’s almost asking too much of the simple story of the “Two people who met between planes,” she says, trying to talk herself out of thinking anything else of it. It’s missing the acidity of the best parts of SABRINA; at the very least, Hepburn and Bogart in that film felt like they were in the same frame together. You can feel the movie reaching for the great strain of romance and it doesn’t feel as attached to the schematics of the plotting as a few later Wilder-Diamond scripts do but it still feels like it’s trying to pack too much of significance into the material, like the key music cue near the very end which seems deliberately turned up loud in an attempt to make it the most romantic gesture of all time. The exact specifics of their relationship are kept oblique enough that maybe no one in the late 50s was offended but some dialogue muddles things enough that it’s unclear what exactly their relationship has been and what we should even want it to be.

Some of the best bits of business are isolated within scenes like Gary Cooper on a Dictaphone, yammering away like Americans in Wilder films sometimes do along with a very early version of the importer-exporter joke from SEINFELD decades later. Plus there’s the familiar Wilder plotting of someone in disguise only here it’s the simplest and in some ways most complex version of it since it’s merely Ariane as herself but not revealing anything at all, not even giving away her name, afraid she’s simply too dull for a man like this. “I baffle you?” she asks him at one point, unable to believe it. The best moments are so crystalized in their elegance that I wish it could get a move on already—I guess all these years later even when I’m not watching it right after ONE TWO THREE there’s still the wish that it would pick up the pace a little. Elegance is wonderful but there’s a little too much starch in the film’s clothing and for a film involving trysts that have to be finished by a certain time, hence the title, it isn’t in any rush at all and, unusual for Wilder’s normally tight plotting, a few stray elements here like the woman in the suite next door to Flannagan could easily be dropped.

But touches like the close up of Hepburn framed against Cooper’s reflection have such an impeccable effect that for a few moments the mood the film is going for is achieved. It might be one of the most deliberate shots in all of Wilder who more often would go for the general oppressiveness of his framing even in CinemaScope. And the gypsy band that follows Cooper around through the film, essentially a musical Greek chorus, transforms from a mere running gag into the insistently romantic soul of the film when he begins to obsessively play the recording Hepburn has made listing off her ‘affairs’ over and over again over the course of an evening, nothing else in the world on his mind and the greatest excuse imaginable for drinking as much as possible. For once it feels like the perfect mixture of Wilder’s sensibilities with his hero Lubitsch and almost nothing else in the film has this effect, nothing else matches its pain while infusing it with the right sort of refinement (Cameron Crowe put it best: “Most directors would simply send the leading man to a bar. They are not Wilder.”). The word I think of when the film comes to mind is misty, a black & white feel that washes away in memory immediately after seeing it also how much of the time Gary Cooper is photographed keeping him in shadows and mist in an attempt to keep us from thinking too much about his age so it’s as if we never get a clear shot of his face and though the best moments sing the whole somehow congeals into an overly thick pudding. There’s an undeniably rich flavor to it but the details feel lost. The movie lives by its own code in its own world all according to Wilder’s belief in the romance of Paris, as if this is the only place on the planet where such a thing is even conceivable. And there’s not a moment of patience for Ariane’s humorless boyfriend who turns his nose up at the standard “Fascination” heard over and over through the film, saying it lacks any musical merit whatsoever. Whether it’s his youth or his stuffiness the movie knows that if you can’t love that piece of schmaltz, apparently designed to be nothing more than the last piece of music heard before making love, then can you really love anything at all. Or anyone.

When the final scene breaks away from all those interiors and emerges to a train platform outside suddenly the shift in location brings an all new energy to the film, a sudden immediacy that is undeniable and feels alive in a way the rest of the film doesn’t. Suddenly the romance between the two doesn’t feel clinical and there’s one close-up of Hepburn that is so heartbreaking I almost don’t know what to do with it. I’m still not sure if I buy the ending, whether narration meant to molly the code or not and like where the characters end up at the end of SOME LIKE IT HOT, here we have a case where the two leads that have fallen in love have barely even met as they head off at the end of the film, no idea who the other really is, no idea where they’re going. But, hey, nobody’s perfect. It’s a film more at home in the old world so naturally the man is the one who makes the final decision but at least it’s someone taking action. We live too much of life between planes, after all. Waiting for that next trip, for the right person to finally make that decision. LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON is a cynic trying desperately to believe, to allow for the possibility of love, of attachment, in all its truth and deception before it becomes too late and fitting for a film that is so much meant to be a tribute to Lubitsch which in itself is a form of going back to the past, it has no interest in the concept of Tomorrow. It’s merely a portrayal of the way things should be. How much the film really believes this I’m not quite sure, but it tries.

So much of the film is about close-ups of Audrey Hepburn anyway, about wanting to fall in love with her and the insanity of the men who won’t just as it’s about Wilder expressing the ultimate feeling of love through her and the grace that comes through whenever she’s onscreen. Even when she realizes that Gary Cooper is actually interested in her it’s her vulnerability, the desire to actually be a part of the world, that’s felt in every single one of her movements. Kept at such a distance in the shadows Gary Cooper is often in his own bubble apart from her and sticking a flower in his ear doesn’t do any good in making him seem any younger. But he finds his character in the beats between the dialogue with the split second he takes to consider the ad slogan “Pop in for a Pepsi” (since he works for Pepsi, it only makes sense that the lead character of ONE TWO THREE works for Coke; maybe that’s the reason for the double bill) smartly displaying his remove from everything around him. His devil may care nature so clearly espouses Wilder’s world view that when he actually begins to care about something, needing to find out about this girl, it plays. He just always seems way too old and there’s not much that can be done about that. Maurice Chevalier, representing all things French, suggests a nimbleness that the rest of the film never quite achieves but it still makes me wish that we could follow him and observe a few of his other cases when he’s on the job while John McGiver as Monsieur X, in just about his first film, perfectly captures the screwy cuckolded nature just a few steps behind everyone else. All he needs to do is learn about what Paris really is, the film seems to say, and he’ll be fine.

That’s the problem with eternal fantasies sometimes, eventually they get matched up with a truth that is going to grow more painful and maybe that’s why you wait. But it’s your own damn fault. Bosley Crowther raved about the film, calling it a “grandly sophisticated romance” to the point that you want to tell him to calm down already. Billy Wilder himself wasn’t as enthusiastic later on after its box office disappointment with the sad observation, “I got Coop the week he suddenly got old.” It’s possible that when LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON was released it may have been out of step with things. It certainly has nothing to do with the world now. Just as a film, it’s problematic and in some ways the imagery is also problematic what with all that mistiness as if it’s trying to hide what it really is but you’ve never see it look this stunning and kudos to Warner Archive on the new release. If anything, it’s one of the most underrated looking of all Wilder films and you can hardly blame him for mostly wanting to most stick to black & white for years after this. But going back to that day when I first encountered LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON immediately after ONE TWO THREE, it seems so long ago. It is. And I try really hard but I can’t quite recreate the memory in my head. There was even a woman I sat next to and in between films I talked to her about them. I never even found out her name either, so I’ll always wonder who she was. I wouldn’t mind recreating that day, to go back there knowing all I’ve learned since. Those days stay with you, after all. While you continue to wait.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Kneeling On Broken Glass

You try to avoid certain things. Doesn’t mean you’re going to be successful. A NEW LEAF was shown first at the Elaine May double bill some weeks back and after it was over even though we were having a great time my friend insisted on moving seats before the next one due to a woman sitting behind us who had been laughing very loudly and noticeably through the whole film. To be honest, while I’d heard her it hadn’t bothered me very much since, after all, the response was sort of warranted. But my friend insisted so we moved seats closer to the front as ISHTAR began…then within moments another woman who was also now directly behind us began to laugh loudly and noticeably through the whole film. And we laughed too, as did the rest of the packed house, because this was ISHTAR after all. Just like in the great, great, great A NEW LEAF, you desperately try to avoid certain things in life in the pursuit of what you think you want but you just wind up running right into them anyway. Sometimes it’s inevitable.

As is generally the case with Elaine May films, her directorial debut A NEW LEAF has long been the subject of controversy surrounding its making and even Vincent Canby reported there was “something of a cloud” hanging over it in his effusive March 1971 review in The New York Times. May spent a long time shooting and cutting the film with her version not only considerably longer but also darker, involving the murderous fantasies of the lead character taken to their presumably logical conclusion. It seems very unlikely at this late date that we’ll ever get to see this footage so the version of A NEW LEAF we have is the one we’ll always know and the only one we can really judge. The full house that night seemed ok with this considering how the entire audience, not just that woman behind us, spent the entire film in hysterics and frankly it was one of the most joyous experiences I’ve had in a movie theater in a long time. There are few films like A NEW LEAF, a film which somehow becomes better and funnier the more I see it, the more I grow closer to the pain and desperation felt by the characters. Maybe the earlier version was darker and maybe the acceptance its main character arrives at near the end made some of that more complicated but the undeniable sweetness found in the release version still has something that we respond to for a reason. Say what you want about people who laugh a little too loud, if there were more packed revival showings of Elaine May films then maybe the world would be a better place during this horrible time.

Living a life of luxury off his trust fund with zero responsibility, Henry Graham (Walter Matthau) is one day stunned to learn that he has absolutely no money left. Desperate to keep his standing in life the way it is, he strikes a deal with his wealthy Uncle Harry (James Coco) to borrow $50,000 and helped by trusty butler Harold (George Rose) sets out to find and marry a rich woman within six weeks, one who no one will miss, then soon after murder her. Just before the time is up Henry meets the very wealthy Henrietta Lowell (Elaine May), a lonely botanist who lives in a giant estate all by herself and her servants. But once Henry gets around her loyal lawyer Andy McPherson (Jack Weston) who is desperate to hold onto his control over Henrietta he ingratiates himself fully into her life and finances, proceeding with his plan to do away with her.

The way Henry Graham obsesses over keeping his beloved Ferrari alive when we first meet him says it all, determined to keep what he has at any cost no matter the inconvenience. When he’s told the absolute truth that it’s all over he refuses to hear a word of it, eventually accepting his fate so he wanders the streets repeating “I’m poor” over and over again while visiting his favorite haunts for the last time. He has no idea how to do anything other than live the life he’s been living, one of bravely doing nothing but persisting in his devotion to “keep alive traditions that were dead before you were born” as faithful butler Harold puts it. From the very beginning, the language of the script by Elaine May (based on the short story “The Green Heart” by Jack Ritchie) lays all this out and is essential in our understanding of what Henry is, of the exactness of this world, the ever-repeating all-purpose phrase “carbon on the valves” to explain what’s always wrong with his car, something to talk about when there’s nothing to talk about and he has nothing to talk about except himself, barely able to maintain interest when there’s someone else in the room concerned about whatever their own version of carbon on the valves might be.

As director, Elaine May is fascinated by Henry Graham just as she would later be fascinated by Mikey and Nicky or Rogers and Clarke of ISHTAR or Charles Grodin’s Lenny Cantrow from THE HEARTBREAK KID in all their horribleness and desperation. The men are where her interests lie and while we can bemoan the fact that no Elaine May film would pass the Bechdel Test that’s just the way it is. What sets A NEW LEAF apart from her other directorial work is how her role in the film serves as an extension of that fascination of the male lead, peering up at him over her glasses, completely unaware of what he’s really thinking. This is the only film Elaine May directed that she also appeared in, waiting until close to the half-hour mark for her introduction as all at once she presents herself as the perfect mark and the one person who he can never quite figure out. The men in Elaine May films are generally baffled by the women in their lives if not flat out angered by their behavior for reasons that go beyond the mere use of sex, usually resulting in sheer terrified cluelessness. Matthau’s initial search for a bride leads him to Renee Taylor’s desperate widow undressing to his total horror and May plays the moment as totally understanding the desperation felt by both people. Henrietta Lowell can’t even hold a cup of tea without dropping it or eat a meal without emerging from the table with a pile of crumbs on her lap, discussing her love for Mogen David’s extra heavy Malaga wine with soda and lime juice with such a look of ecstasy on her face looking up at the total revulsion on his. And she’s enraptured by this attention as if no one has ever asked what her hopes and dreams are which may or may not be the same thing anyway as if somehow believing right away that they’re perfect together, knowing that he’ll be the one to cut the price tags off her clothing even if she doesn’t realize he only does it out of disgust. And when he tries to fix the Grecian-style nightgown on their honeymoon (“Henrietta, where is your other arm?”) the physicality of the moment between the two of them as he tries to get her to fix the problem is as perfect as an Astaire-Rogers dance routine right down to his final reaction to her appearance while also revealing the futility of her ever trying to sexualize herself in front of him no matter now desperately she tries.

Maybe the only director it makes any sense to compare May’s filmmaking approach to is her ex-partner Mike Nichols whose own early films often contain a certain distance from the material, an austerity to his storytelling through the widescreen frame and a dryness felt within the surrealistic tone he strives for. But even though May as director doesn’t go for strict realism, with the actual world of 1971 never much of a concern, any satirical point found within the frame almost feels incidental as well. Instead she moves the camera in closer to the characters, showing us the flopsweat on their brow and the desperation in their voices becoming increasingly palpable. Barely a scene goes by where it doesn’t feel like you’re being choked by the sheer tension of the moment. In some ways her films almost seem designed to complement films Nichols had already made while also comedically challenging him as if they’re actually taking part in a very complicated Nichols-May routine of her own making designed to reveal his iconic male leads for what they really are in all their selfishness. THE HEARTBREAK KID is a natural follow up to themes explored in THE GRADUATE and the movie star double act that includes Warren Beatty of ISHTAR is an obvious pairing with the even more problematic THE FORTUNE. The much darker MIKEY AND MICKY set entirely over one night feels like a distorted mirror of the cynicism of CARNAL KNOWLEDGE and its storyline which spans years but it’s more difficult to find one to compare A NEW LEAF to, whether by Mike Nichols or anyone else, directed by May in a style which feels detached but always in the service of the desperation of the characters, somehow mixed in with an undeniable sweetness that goes beyond the jokes, a balance between being aware of the horrifically cold nature of most people while trying to discover their goodness as well.

It’s not plot she’s interested in as much as the behavior, the reasons for their mannerisms more than where it’s going to lead. Of the four films May has directed (to date, I will stubbornly state), THE HEARTBREAK KID is the only one with a story that could be said to flow steadily from start to finish. The pacing in A NEW LEAF is definitely loose in comparison, maybe partly because of the post-production issues, but the tone always seems just right, not playing as a sixties sex farce or light screwball fare but something else with an intensity to each joke, that the response to it could cause everything in the world to come crashing down. Even the nitpicky nature of the May dialogue defies simple description even down to the small moments of Henry Graham referring to Henrietta as “feral” or the way he accuses a stuck-up hostess of having an “erotic fixation” on her carpet. And while we’re at it, let’s talk about how Jack Weston references the Canary Islands in both this and ISHTAR for some reason—an early version of the ‘on spec’ line from ISHTAR can be heard here as well. However erratic it feels, that can barely even be called a criticism since it becomes part of the film’s own idiosyncratic nature. It plays best in the first hour when the individual scenes have the most focus, the dryness of Henry Graham’s confrontation with money man Beckett, his proposal to Henrietta while kneeling on broken glass or the increasing desperation of Jack Weston’s lawyer trying to prove what he’s up to and the story becomes noticeably choppy once it hits the second hour, presumably where most of the cuts came from, which means Weston in particular drops out of the picture abruptly.

Even the staging of scenes has a certain casualness due to the framing (shot by Gayne Rescher, later the DP of STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN) that makes it seem totally natural, if not completely accidental, whether in the middle of an argument or even Matthau not paying attention to what May is doing on the other side of the shot. When there’s more activity in a scene that can lead to a little too much clutter which in itself can lead to its own pleasures particularly when the disrespectful servants throw a surprise party for Henry right before he fires them. The film wouldn’t have the same tone without that scattered vibe anyway and even just the simple absurdity of Matthau asking a couple he meets, “Are you related to the Boston Hitlers?” is the right display of the casual apathy of this world but also seems like it was slipped into the script to see if anyone was paying attention. The final moments are a little rushed and the last ten or so minutes leading up to it aren’t the strongest part of the film but the way it isolates Henry and Henrietta from all the other plot complications helps it achieve a transcendence that maybe wasn’t what May had in mind but is about as pragmatic, accepting and, yes, romantic as anything I’ve ever seen.

Henry Graham’s lack of interest in women, let alone anyone else, is something the honeymoon sequence sidesteps and the idea of sex plays very little role in May’s films except for THE HEARTBREAK KID. For Elaine May marriage isn’t about sex or even the possibility of betrayal via sex the way it was portrayed in Nichols’ HEARTBURN, written by Nora Ephron from her own novel, which like A NEW LEAF also contains a protracted wedding sequence in a New York apartment involving a couple who have only recently met. Instead the idea of companionship between men and women, feels like something else altogether for her as if to say that for her, love is never what you planned. All that matters is Henry finally sees her as human which oddly gives it a similarity to the much later Mike Nichols film WHAT PLANET ARE YOU FROM? which in its portrayal of a rushed, seemingly incompatible marriage as its story line could almost be considered his belated response to A NEW LEAF, just not anywhere near as successful (but like A NEW LEAF, it’s also pretty odd, I’ll give it that much). In the end what Henrietta gets him to admit to himself, and to her, is what matters just as what he’s done for her has gotten him close to that kind of immortality he was talking about. Granted, A NEW LEAF plays differently at home without people around you screaming in hysterics and it’s those small touches that stay with you all of this making it, even in this allegedly abbreviated form a comic masterpiece but it feels like to call it one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen might be underselling it. With some comedies you hit a wall after multiple viewings because you know all the jokes and there’s not much to get out of it after that which is never the case with this film. There’s not a laugh in there which feels dishonest, it all comes genuinely from the character and a tone which is unlike anything else. Or maybe it’s just a miracle, fully deserving of its own kind of immortality. Even if Elaine May has never been particularly happy about it.

There are few things as joyous as seeing Walter Matthau in a film, a joy that increases as time goes on. The canny intellectualism of his presence combines with an unmistakable snobbery, as if he considers it an insult to look another person in the eye with the timing of each gesture always impeccable and it’s as if he falls into synch with his co-star without intending to. And there are even fewer things as joyous as seeing Elaine May in a film, compounded by how we never got enough of them. Right from the first moment we see her there’s barely a word or movement she makes that you’d expect down to the way she perks up when she tries telling Henry about something she’s excited about, looking up at him with a total sense of yearning. They go beautifully together and I wish they’d made another ten films. Instead, all we got was their segment in CALIFORNIA SUITE which I guess is better than nothing. It’s an unforgettable supporting cast as well--George Rose is a wonder as the ever-efficient Harold and deserves to be ranked among the great movie butlers of all time, Jack Weston is like a terrified bull frantically barreling through scenes with his palpable desperation that he can never quite hold onto and Doris Roberts kills in her few scenes with the wanted sly winks she gives Matthau. Especially good is the pitch perfect exasperation of William Redfield, later of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, as money man Beckett who calmly, desperately, tries to explain to Graham that he is indeed truly, genuinely broke and receiving nothing but grief for doing his job.

But I may as well come clean. When I mentioned that I was going to see A NEW LEAF the night before to a woman I know she proceeded to quote dialogue from the film for the next five minutes and frankly the only thing preventing me from attempting to kiss her right then was that, well, we were talking on the phone. But maybe it was just plain fear as well. Moving seats between films is a little easier, after all. So we try to keep things alive. Feelings we have about people, relationships that cause us to scream in the middle of the night. It’s not always easy to keep this going A NEW LEAF is unique in its observance of the world as well as a reminder that things aren’t always going to go the way we want. And that double bill was also a reminder that maybe the cult of Elaine May is growing, helped by someone like Colin Stacey who actually flew in from out of town for the double bill (it was a pleasure to meet him; he’s at @bcolinstacey on Twitter and tell him Mr. Peel sent you) after selling ‘written and directed by Elaine May’ t-shirts which use the MIKEY AND NICKY font on his website. According to some reports even Walter Matthau liked the studio cut of A NEW LEAF better while the few extant comments from May in public appearances of course still make us want to see more – “It was a love story, but what was interesting was that he murdered a guy. And (the studio) took the murder out and we went to court because I had script approval and the judge saw the movie and he said, ‘It’s such a nice movie, why do you want to sue?’” So maybe there is a hole at the heart of the film which we can only ever guess at. And never think that I don’t feel a certain amount of guilt praising a film that the great Elaine May took a studio to court over. If I hadn’t already seen ISHTAR so many times back in the day I would say that this would be the Elaine May film I’d want to see the most simply out of the pure pleasure of it. But maybe someday it’ll catch up. A NEW LEAF has a sort of truth to it, more than most films do, let alone just the comedies. Sometimes we’re faced with the fraud that we are. And all we can do is hope that someone loves us anyway. And besides, there’s always going to be a hole in life. A hole that’s filled with what you’re afraid of. What you’re trying to avoid.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Expert Tutelage

There’s no particular need to defend BEVERLY HILLS COP II. It comes from the absolute dregs of the 80s and Tony Scott, rest his soul, gave us that one-two punch of TOP GUN in ‘86 followed by this film serving as a cinematic illustration of just how rotten the decade was in all its MTV glamour. Funny thing is, I never have any desire to see TOP GUN again, and don’t bother asking me, but BEVERLY HILLS COP II is one that I feel a little more ambivalent towards. As a matter of fact, I’ll gladly watch it right now if you want. The film was a big enough hit when it came out over Memorial Day weekend 1987 although it was never the meteor crashing to earth that Martin Brest’s original film was when released at the end of ’84. As much as that film was the absolute peak of Eddie Murphy Mania, today it plays like a modest, pleasantly enjoyable movie bolstered by the explosion of his star power along with a few fantastic supporting performances by both good guys and bad.

Now celebrating its 30th anniversary, Part II isn’t really the same thing for a variety of reasons, chief among them being that’s not what you hired Tony Scott for. If you’d seen TOP GUN or THE HUNGER or, I’m assuming, commercials he’d directed you got him for pure visual power. What Scott brought with him was a new eye to material which could somehow elevate the storytelling through sheer force, not necessarily for character work or opening up new possibilities to the concept. And there aren’t any particularly memorable new characters or elements in BEVERLY HILLS COP II unless you want to count the sheer presence of Brigitte Nielsen, not that she ever really does that much in the film. Earlier concepts for sequels included a version set in London but as it was finally made the film clearly isn’t supposed to be anything new or different. It’s supposed to be More. For one thing, when they go to a strip club this time around it’s a high end strip club (where a Coke costs seven dollars). And even though that cockiness to the filmmaking borders on an arrogance at times it does have that pop energy brought to it by Tony Scott and his crew. Instead of just using it as a showcase for Eddie Murphy and his routines the director makes it a full-fledged movie. Comedy is secondary, not to mention any semblance of social commentary, and it all feels like a story made up by a couple of 12 year-old boys looking to make their own BEVERLY HILLS COP sequel. That’s probably exactly what producers Don Simpson & Jerry Bruckheimer wanted but it damn well moves, containing immense energy like a freight train built with a Ferrari engine burning through that hazy, smoky imagery in almost every shot. Like I said, I’ll gladly watch it again right now.

As Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy) is involved in undercover duties back in Detroit, his friend Captain Bogomil (Ronny Cox) in Beverly Hills is investigating a series of Alphabet robberies in the city led by the mysterious blonde Karla Fry (Brigitte Nielsen). After being suspended by the new hard-assed police chief (Allen Garfield) angered by the lack of movement in the investigation, Bogomil is gunned down on the street with a ‘B’ left on his body signaling that the bandits have struck again. So Axel flies into town immediately to team up with friends Billy Rosewood (Judge Reinhold) and John Taggart (John Ashton) to catch the bandits. Their investigation leads them to the Beverly Hills Shooting Club where Foley encounters Fry who is in fact working with Maxwell Dent (Jurgen Prochnow), the mastermind behind the crimes. On the trail of what their plan really is, Foley, Rosewood and Taggart begin to put the pieces together to take them down.

Out of total curiosity, the other week I ran a “Which film says ‘The 80s!’ the most?” poll on Twitter placing this film up against COCKTAIL, ROCKY IV and THE SECRET OF MY SUCCESS. The three other choices were fairly random (ROCKY IV won; I would have gone with THE SECRET OF MY SUCCESS) but I thought that BEVERLY HILLS COP II might have done better with its slickness and gleeful immaturity. For a movie where we get a title card identifying ‘BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA’ twice in the first ten minutes to clarify things for anyone not paying attention I’m still not sure it actually makes a lick of sense. Seriously, writing that summary above was harder than I thought and one of the best things to say about the plot (story by Eddie Murphy & Robert D. Wachs, screenplay by Larry Ferguson and Warren Skaaren) is that it moves so fast you might not bother to ask questions. For one thing, I’m not sure how the police in Beverly Hills are investigating what they believe to be a series of ‘Alphabet Crimes’ after a single robbery (of course, the imdb goofs page is way ahead of me on this) and at least once someone says the ‘Alphabet Killer’ even though no one’s actually been killed as if the full plan for the bad guys hadn’t been totally worked out as the script was presumably being rewritten during production (shoutout to whoever got Agatha Christie listed as an uncredited writer on the imdb page, presumably a reference to her novel “The ABC Murders”). Captain Bogomil gets several bullets fired into him at close range without being killed which doesn’t make the bad guys particularly competent at their jobs. At one point there’s talk of stopping the impending ‘E’ crime, but I’ll be damned if I can figure out what happened to the ‘D’. What I’m saying is, this is not exactly an airtight story although I doubt anyone outside of maybe Roger Ebert has ever cared.

The big surprise is that the film isn’t as funny as you’d think an Eddie Murphy movie from the 80s would be since it’s more interested in the action, the smoke, the pureness of the imagery. The bigger surprise is watching the film now in 2017 it’s not that big a deal since as much as it feels like ‘the 80s’ the pure style of Tony Scott’s direction means that it hasn’t dated as badly as other films from around the same period. His visual approach became more complex over the years but here entire scenes are framed almost like a series of paintings depicting life in Southern California--Jessica Ritchey (@Ruby_Stevens) on Twitter pointed out they’re like Patrick Nagel paintings, which is dead on. But it’s also much looser than I remember with a relaxed vibe to it all, even down to the cigars some characters are smoking in scenes which feels like they just happened to be holding them as the cameras started to roll. The bulk of Eddie Murphy’s improvs where Axel Foley talks his way into places feels like second rate material this time around but since there’s no need for tension between Foley, Rosewood and Taggart anymore the chemistry between them makes it almost a hangout film in a Hawksian sense, even if it is much flashier and anarchic than Hawks would ever do. The looseness of the way the guys start humming the theme to “The Dating Game” at one point feels like it was totally made up on the spot, which Judge Reinhold confirms on the DVD and even his reaction to John Ashton falling in the swimming pool looks totally genuine.

Compared to the first film which was grounded in a fairly believable world upended by the lead character, II is all flash and everyone, including the few people we see in Detroit, feel part of the same universe so the fish out of water concept of the original is pretty much forgotten about (even more than the first film, it doesn’t differentiate very much between Beverly Hills and Los Angeles anyway, not that I could tell the difference seeing it at Yonkers Movieland). It’s not about reality in any form and it doesn’t care. The comedy part of all this is clearly outside of Tony Scott’s wheelhouse (the bit in the strip club where Foley claims that Taggart is actually Gerald Ford isn’t much but at least it’s an attempt) and he doesn’t seem to know how to direct the day players who are straight men to Murphy’s routines; it helps immensely when it’s someone who already knows comedy like Paul Reiser or Gilbert Gottfried; in his scenes with them Murphy isn’t even the big personality in the scene and he seems to enjoy how the dynamic suddenly shifts. The film is gleefully immature and ultimately hollow at its core but somehow feels strangely innocent much of the time, not a care about anything beyond creating its own world while barreling forward.

The visual flash manages to mask how flimsy the story is, a reminder of how as Tony Scott got better scripts to work with (THE LAST BOY SCOUT, TRUE ROMANCE, CRIMSON TIDE, MAN ON FIRE) the better and more layered his films became. As chase heavy as the film is there’s also a lot of dialogue used to explain byzantine the plot involving the alphabet crimes and breaking the complex code the bad guys leave behind (much of the heavy lifting done by Alice Adair, as Bogomil’s daughter—the one female character who’s not a bitch or a slut so all she does is provide exposition) giving the impression more is going on than there really is with information occasionally shoehorned into scenes as if put in there at the very last second. I think I can follow it all but, nah, I can’t. But barely any of it matters anyway, since it focuses mainly on being enough of a clone of the original whether it makes sense to be or not, so a flashy 80s montage of Axel driving around Beverly Hills immediately after visiting Bogomil in the hospital feels a little out of place. A big thing is made out of the bad guys getting the address of where Foley is staying but instead of ambushing him there in the dead of night they follow him to strip club owned by one of the other bad guys where they try to gun him down. As much as they glower while acting European, the bad guys don’t really do very much in between robberies and while I doubt anybody was worried about Axel Foley in the first film there was still an undeniable tension in how Steven Berkoff and Jonathan Banks would sit there simmering as he talked, a believable threat hanging in the air which this film never bothers to attempt. For all everybody remembers Murphy’s ‘grooming services’ line while sizing up Brigitte Nielsen’s Karla Fry at the gun club there’s not much interaction between him and the bad guys at all. Some of that stuff is pretty crass anyway, with Foley referring to her as a bitch even before finding out who she really is and the overall tone of misogyny that runs through the entire film would probably get more than a few angry online pieces written about it today. Oddly the film rushes through the visit to the Playboy Mansion, complete with Hugh Hefner cameo, and the sequence feels pretty shoehorned in. Even at that location the movie doesn’t linger, ready to move on to the next chase not wanting to hang around.

As a lengthy aside, the recent 30th anniversary of BEVERLY HILLS COP II reminds me that the film opened less than a week after Elaine May’s legendary ISHTAR which was roundly trounced by it at the box office. Just a few weeks ago ISHTAR ran at the New Beverly (paired with A NEW LEAF) and played like gangbusters to the packed house, a welcome reversal of what happened in ’87 but also a reminder of how which of these two films was the perfect one for that moment. They actually have oddly similar climaxes each featuring the leads heading into battle heavily armed and of the two the movie which has the characters admit that they’re prepared for the worst isn’t the one from the director of TOP GUN. There’s never any doubt about winning in BEVERLY HILLS COP II but in its commentary on Reagan-era foreign policy ISHTAR is more open to the individual and what it means to be a loser and a pawn in how the corrupt system views you. COP II is somewhat more apolitical beyond its generic embracing of ‘the 80s’ and everything insidious that stands for, including guns, fast cars and women told to keep quiet but as much of a maverick as Axel Foley is supposed to be it’s still about upholding the system and preventing the evil foreigners of the world from using American might to get rich for themselves around the world. In ISHTAR the glory isn’t in money or even victory but in simply getting to do what you want in the world, whether the establishment is happy about that or not. Both films clearly have a love for their main characters but ISHTAR loves the losers that they are and the film is about reveling in your expected failure because you’d rather have nothing than settle for less. BEVERLY HILLS COP II is about victory since failure is never a possibility and it highlights the emptiness of the film in the end. Which made it perfect for the decade because nothing of value can ever come after that empty glory.

Quentin Tarantino likes it, saying in a Video Watchdog interview on sequels back in 2012, “it’s gorgeous looking and cinema is very much involved”. He likes ISHTAR too, for the record. I’ve grown to like BEVERLY HILLS COP II myself in its slick, ultra dumb-dumb way over the years since the slickness at least feels genuine, unlike a lot of really crappy action movies I can think of. There’s beauty in this junk so its own excitement about itself is part of what makes it work so well, a complete film world created by Tony Scott along with cinematographer Jeffrey L. Kimball and his multiple editors along with a Harold Faltermeyer soundtrack which in addition to the various songs and expected umpteen reprises of “Axel F” seems largely inspired by the track “The Duke Arrives” from John Carpenter’s ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK score. I wouldn’t want to live forever in this but an afternoon wouldn’t be so bad. For all the action and movement and crashing through parking meters as cars barrel down sidewalks, it’s really about the sensation of that ferocious imagery, not about any sort of suspense. The final shootout seems pretty brief for what you’d think would be a grand confrontation between hero and villain but why draw it out. As for the legendary Taggart line after he blows away a certain bad guy at the end, it’s pretty memorable in its brevity. It’s a good line. It’s a pithy line. And it’s also pretty awful about the worldview being stated. But hey, it was the 80s. The last line of the film is “Who’s that black guy?” spoken by the guy whose house he was using and it feels like the only truly racially tinged moment of the film, that ‘he doesn’t belong here’ inherent in the conflict which the film never addresses and doesn’t seem to care.

The funny thing is that the movie is pretty much the high water mark of Eddie Murphy, Superstar as we knew it then. COMING TO AMERICA was the following year and an even bigger hit but it at least involved Murphy playing a different sort of character. That was followed by HARLEM NIGHTS and at that point the cracks were beginning to show. But with James Ingram’s “Better Way” playing us out as the end credits roll, the cockiness of BEVERLY HILLS COP II is so assured that it feels like the vibe is going to go on forever, as if Paramount was ready to have them start production on Part III a week later. For what we knew of as Eddie Murphy in the first ten years of his career, it was never close to this high again. Everything ends eventually, we just don’t know it until it’s too late.

When there’s a giant close-up of Eddie Murphy laughing during the opening credits it’s as if he knows that’s why the movie is being made. He’s coasting here and it’s not like there’s much that could be said to be actual character work. Murphy is even effective during the quiet moments in the first film but this film has no quiet moments. In the way he directed his star Martin Brest was interested in behavior. Scott wants the movement. But going with the hangout vibe he does seem to enjoy playing off his main co-stars, a reminder of how well Judge Reinhold and John Ashton played off each other as these guys, adding immensely to how much fun the scenes are. If they ever decided to spinoff the two characters in their own film—and I wonder if that was ever brought up—it probably wouldn’t have been enough without Murphy but the two of them are ideal together here. There’s not much to say about Brigitte Nielsen in terms of performance but Tony Scott really does know how to shoot her. If only he could have figured out how to do more with her signature “Good bye” line but maybe what we got was the most effective way to do it and hidden in the shadows Jurgen Prochnow doesn’t make much of an impression at all. There’s not much to say about them, as much as the movie tries to convince us they’re important--I’m not even sure if CSI’s Paul Guilfoyle gets any actual dialogue as arms dealer Nick Thomopolis. On the other hand, Dean Stockwell barely does anything as his secondary bad guy but even his flat line readings have a touch of eccentricity. As new Beverly Hills Police Chief Lutz, Allen Garfield shouts so much you almost remember him more than anyone else in the movie, Robert Ridgley of BOOGIE NIGHTS is the Mayor of Beverly Hills while actual cop Gil Hill of the Detroit Homicide Division again plays Foley’s captain back home. Paul Reiser, then hot off ALIENS, again plays Axel’s friend Jeffrey, this time getting his own brief subplot, Gilbert Gottfried is accountant Sidney Bernstein and a very young Chris Rock appears briefly as a parking valet at the Playboy Mansion.

There finally was a BEVERLY HILLS COP III directed by John Landis a full seven years later and it’s not remembered for very much other than being bad (and a George Lucas cameo) so not much needs to be said about it. In 2013 there was even a pilot for a BEVERLY HILLS COP series meant for CBS that wasn’t picked up, featuring Murphy as Axel Foley working with son Aaron Foley, played by Brandon T. Jackson. I’ve seen it and, trust me, not much needs to be said about that either. Rumors of a fourth film still crop up occasionally but maybe one reason why it hasn’t happened is that it needs to figure out what the BEVERLY HILLS COP franchise is and I’m not sure there’s an answer to that beyond, “Eddie Murphy ad-libs his way through an action-comedy in 1984.” Which was great then, sure, but outside of that context it’s pretty much empty sensation. But taken by itself, BEVERLY HILLS COP II, defiantly staying back in the decade it was made and working today as a Tony Scott film. As immature as it is, there’s a likability and a glee that Michael Bay, the next step in the Simpson-Bruckheimer visual evolution, has never managed. No, there’s not much point in defending it but sometimes you watch what you watch anyway. Maybe to reclaim those feelings of being back there even though it’s never a place I want to visit. Maybe to wish it had all been a little better.