Thursday, June 25, 2015

Wide Open Spaces

Our last view of Don Draper was on a cliff somewhere near Big Sur in 1970, a moment of total peace leading to the eureka of the legendary ‘Hilltop’ Coke ad in his mind. And as significant as that is, as perfect an ending as it remains, there are things we’ll never know. We’ll never get to see how things went between him and Peggy when he returned. We’ll never find out what happened to Megan’s acting career, or to the long-departed Sal for that matter. We’ll never know if Don watched ALL IN THE FAMILY when it came on or what he thought of NETWORK. And we’ll never know what he thought of Antonioni’s ZABRISKIE POINT, which had of course opened in February 1970, months before the series finale even took place. If Don had seen it, and since way back in season 2 he talked about LA NOTTE it’s possible he might have, it’s not at all a stretch to think something in the film may have helped to trigger the odyssey he took during the final episodes. Of course, whether he would have even made it much past the first half hour is open to question. Maybe he might have even decided against going at all after reading the review in The New York Times where Vincent Canby called it “a movie of stunning superficiality”. Roger Ebert, for his part, declared it “silly and stupid” but it’s not as likely that Don Draper would have been looking up film reviews in the Chicago Sun-Times.
45 years later, ZABRISKIE POINT has its admirers or at least a few people who feel like they have to see it again and again in an attempt to pierce the skin of what it’s trying to say. Or at least there’s me, maybe trying to figure out just what this film, released a little over a year before I hit the scene, is still doing in my brain. ZABRISKIE POINT was the one film Michelangelo Antonioni made in the U.S., coming off the huge acclaim and success of BLOW UP several years earlier. His own anti-narrative approach combined with the facilities of MGM at his disposal makes the film unique, a foreign film made in the U.S., a Hollywood studio picture made by someone with total power and yet zero interest in making a ‘Hollywood’ film. It’s a time capsule now whether it’s an accurate portrayal of the era or not as well as a film that possibly hates itself for existing. That it even got made was maybe only possible at that specific moment in time, when the studios were desperately trying to figure out what would possibly make money, that brief period when they were all trying to recreate EASY RIDER but it turned out most everyone wanted to see AIRPORT. In the first half of season 7, set in early 1969, Don Draper went to see Jacques Demy’s MODEL SHOP would could almost be considered the anti-ZABRISKIE POINT, a film made by a foreigner that finds beauty where Antonioni categorically rejects it, specifically in the city of Los Angeles and some of its people. He apparently not only doesn’t like it there, the feelings seem to go deeper than that as if he’s getting fuel out of his own hatred for the place and everything it represents, striving to find ugliness within beauty. Whether he’s arguing against the very nature of consumerism, everything about the capitalistic way of life found there or if he simply doesn’t like mid-century modernist architecture is something I’m still a little unsure about. In some ways I’m still unsure what to make of ZABRISKIE POINT even after all this time. But as a song that Don Draper once shut off reminded us, Tomorrow Never Knows.
After walking out of a protest meeting saying that he’s ready to die for the revolution, “but not of boredom”, Mark (Mark Frechette) is thrown in jail when trying to bail out a friend arrested at a demonstration. Soon after he purchases several guns for his involvement with the campus protests. When he gets caught up in one of the riots and pulls his gun, a cop is shot although it’s unclear if Mark is the one who pulled the trigger. Meanwhile Daria (Daria Halprin), working as a secretary for the Sunny Dunes Real Estate company, is driving across the desert to a Phoenix meeting involving her boss, Sunny Dunes executive Lee Allen (Rod Taylor) and who is in the middle of a massive project to build a resort out in the desert for the rich to live and play away from the smog of the city. On the run from the police, Mark steals a small plane and flies out over the desert where he eventually encounters Daria, buzzing her car in an act of flirtation. The two talk and eventually find their way to Zabriskie Point, the lowest spot in the United States, which represents something they’re about to discover together.
Before his death director Krzysktof Kieslowski talked of making a trilogy depicting Heaven, Purgatory and Hell—he reportedly wanted to set the last film in Los Angeles, but it may not have been necessary since in some ways Antonioni had already made that film as ZABRISKIE POINT. Written by Antonioni, Fred Gardner, Sam Shepard, Tonino Guerra and Clare Peploe, it’s America (or, more specifically, Los Angeles and the nearby desert) as stark landscape, full of billboards and smog and freeways and guns and factories (including a sign for Bethlehem Steel, a company that was a plot point on a season one MAD MEN). The imagery is placed up against what was going on at the time which is something that Antonioni seems to only partly understand, taking two non-entities meant to represent the struggle going on between the separate halves of this world and they don’t seem much different from the mannequins featured in a Sunny Dunes commercial that we see. It’s the stark Antonioni look at the world with all the alienation that exists crossed with a cinema vérité look at the surroundings crossed with the undeniable awkwardness that becomes apparent the instant the lead character speaks his first line of dialogue.
And as much as the prolonged opening sequence which features actual revolutionaries of the time arguing over their goals (including Kathleen Cleaver and several Black Panthers) it’s not clear whether Antonioni has any actual interest in the politics of the day or if he just wants to show the futility in what was happening then in order to display some combination of contempt, pity and hatred for the people who live in this world. He never quite seems interested in what the lives of any of the characters would be like just as he’s not particularly interested in the geography of the city or what surrounds it, what it’s really like to live there or even the simple passage of time. There are protests on the unnamed campuses which contain what appears to be some actual documentary footage (Kent State happened several months after the film’s release), Vietnam is mentioned on the radio and anyone wearing a uniform, whether a police officer or even a lowly security guard, is a flat out Bad Guy. The revolutionaries, meanwhile, don’t seem to have any alternatives beyond their bickering. The film feels like it wants to be of the moment and yet it has little interest in strict realism—the majority of the story seems to be set over one day but it would have to be an impossibly endless one considering how much transpires before the sun goes down. Maybe the very nature of Los Angeles renders all of that irrelevant to Antonioni and soon after Mark flies off, giving us some impressive looks at the freeways below (including where the 10 connects with the 110, showing us how different downtown looked back then) the film soon leaves the city behind almost entirely.
The desert is where it heads to, breaking away from all that, and just as the real place is, ZABRISKIE POINT the film is also a blank for you to put anything you want onto it but after many viewings it still feels a little too much like an ink blot that isn’t formed enough for me to make a guess at. With some of Antonioni’s films a complex response isn’t the problem, letting me to soak into LA NOTTE as I ponder everything in life imaginable while losing myself in all the imagery. My continued reaction to ZABRISKIE POINT is more complicated as I’m always trying to find something in there to latch onto, mesmerized by certain moments but I find myself getting lost amidst all the dialogue that I can’t quite make out, but it doesn’t matter anyway, along with all that Pink Floyd music on the soundtrack.
Questions about plot and character are basically admitting that I’m thinking too much about realism but I can’t help it. Does Mark really know how to fly a plane or in the Antonioni universe does he just climb in and start it up? Daria is temping at Sunny Dunes then in the blink of an eye has some sort of relationship with Rod Taylor’s Lee Allen-- is she a private secretary he’s taken a friendly interest in? Something more personal? The real estate office is an intriguing, if fairly simplistic, metaphor (with a muzak version of the old standard “Don’t Blame Me” playing in the lobby—don’t blame Sunny Dunes for what they’re doing, that’s someone else’s problem) and the imagery of Rod Taylor looking out at the desert that he hopes to develop has a power to it, we feel how conflicted he is as the deal is possibly falling apart but too much isn’t clarified. Basically this film’s version of Don Draper, it’s frustrating how much his few minutes of screen time imply an unexpected dimension to things which never feels resolved, placed up against the blank personas of the two leads that presumably represent the blanks of the youth. Elements throughout are intriguing but not entirely clarified--Daria goes looking for a town she doesn’t know the name of, presumably where some sort of meditation center is, only to learn she’s already there and encounters a group of feral kids roaming around but never the person she’s looking for, ends abruptly too. Too often, the points are obscured or obvious and some bit parts that are clearly meant to portray the crassness of Americans, like a pair of tourists whose only response to the beauty of Zabriskie Point is that a drive-in would do great business there, feel like they belong in one of Richard Lester’s SUPERMAN sequels.
The leads are blanks and the plot they’re in is a blank, with a meaning that falls between nothing and something, whatever you want it to be. For all that’s said about whether or not Mark shot the cop ultimately the answer to that doesn’t matter. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. He doesn’t seem to care and maybe the film doesn’t either. After Mark decides to return the plane to Los Angeles and Daria’s response to the aftermath of his decision, there is of course the legendary ending of ZABRISKIE POINT which involves a house growing out of the natural rock as if like an alien virus, the most stunning piece of architecture you’ve ever seen and a desecration of the earth all at once, looking out over the desert which represents the Eden they’re hoping to destroy. Daria spots a few women lounging near the pool without a care in the world, presumably the wives of the executives meeting inside, and we can barely make out what they’re saying but it doesn’t matter. They’re not human. The endless explosion and materialistic aftermath set to Pink Floyd’s “Come In Number 51, Your Time Is Up” that we get to witness during this climax may be the only thing some people know about the film, is its own APOCALYPSE NOW ending years before Coppola got his shot at it. Multiple angles on that house, a TV, a refrigerator, a closet full of clothes, a loaf of Wonder Bread, magazines, an enormous bookcase (Books? You lost me, Antonioni. What’s wrong with books?), everything about the evils of capitalism done anyway with. I’m never bored by it for a second and yet there’s a poison to the film that I can’t deny, it’s a film about what it hates and doesn’t offer much of an alternative.
That’s all how I feel. It’s the truth. But the more I watch ZABRISKIE POINT the more I’m drawn to it, fascinated by it. There isn’t another film like it, not even other Antonioni films. Forget the acting, forget the story, just watch the film and the jaw-droppingly astonishing cinematography both in the city and desert by Alfio Contini. Freeze on any random shot. Construct any film around that shot. Find the story, the meaning, in that moment, how the people connect with the environment from moment to moment. Maybe it does what a film should do. I can watch ZABRISKIE POINT compulsively knowing that it’s ugly and beautiful and haunting and essential. It’s a Los Angeles that I don’t want to visit and yet I know I live there and don’t want to be anywhere else. I can’t stop watching it because I’m trying to figure it out while as much as I don’t want to hear the message I suspect there’s some truth to it. The movie goes out there in a way few films ever do, even if it does go too far out on the ledge, with billboards that are everywhere and the messages the give off creates everyone’s lives, so they want nothing more than lots of mayo on their sandwiches. If the imagery was meant at time to portray any sort of exaggeration, whether satirical or otherwise, it doesn’t play as that now and a few brief moments in gun stores are even sadder in that realization. It feels like for the director it boils down to two sides: the revolutionaries who are fighting over nothing as the cops close in while the rich are interested in just getting richer (of course, the more things change…). No matter how irrevocably dated it may be in every sense of that word it feels like it still means something now.
But there is the feel that Antonioni began the film with the idea that he hated what he was portraying and never changed his mind which gives it all an unfortunate sense of stasis. The film begins with its male lead turning his back on organized revolution and ends with the female lead, the one who has an eye towards the future unlike the self-destructive Mark, turning her back on both the more organized power structure and her own fantasy of destroying it. It’s a reflection of the time she spent with Mark and how they each viewed the desert—she saw peace, he saw death. In the end, turning your back from that hate towards the sunset, towards the promise of a new day, might be the healthiest response. But maybe that message isn’t enough. The other key scene in the film is the legendary orgy (because just as the explosion is ZABRISKIE POINT, the orgy is as well) where she and Mark begin to make love in the sand, leading to countless other people just appearing, joining in with them. The sequence features members of the Open Theater, a New York experimental group, and it seems to signify both everything and nothing imaginable.
Whether by accident or design many of the others involved could almost be doubles for Mark and Daria as if the film is saying that the future begins here thanks to these two meeting up in this place, that they are in effect everyone, in addition to how we’re basically watching a lengthy orgy sequence. It makes me think of the famous Coke ad, the one Don Draper apparently came up with, which was conceived a year after ZABRISKIE POINT played theaters and the message it gives off of hope and inclusion is the polar opposite. Don Draper’s idea presumably led him back to the world of advertising, yes, and however cynical that might be is open to debate. But however poisonous Antonioni clearly believed creating such a message that way was, it’s also a very clear message. With ZABRISKIE POINT Antonioni is presenting a question mark without either a clear question or answer. Maybe if Don Draper saw the film he realized that he needed to get his message across. And as Joan Holloway (well, maybe someone else too) once said, the medium is the message.
If Antonioni wasn’t interested in having actors for his leads, is it necessary to discuss the performances? When Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin, both dead in the eyes, finally come together out there in the desert, exchanging dialogue about heroes and villains that’s supposed to mean everything it’s as much of a void as what they’re staring out at. They may be unknowns, they may both be good looking, but it’s all one big blank, an intentional void at the center of the film. In fairness, they both have a few off the cuff moments that feel slightly genuine even while neither one ever seems entirely sure how to compose themselves in front of the camera. The endlessly silent, enigmatic looks Daria Halprin gives off during the last 20 minutes almost pays off but maybe you just need Monica Vitti for that to work. And as beautiful as she is, she's no Monica Vitti. Along with the few beats that Rod Taylor gets to do something with here and there, character actor Paul Fix (many western credits as well as playing the Enterprise doctor in the second STAR TREK pilot “Where No Man Has Gone Before”) in his brief role as the Ballister café owner brings an undeniable feel of truth to what he’s saying about what’s happening to his town but naturally the film loses interest in him pretty quickly.
One person who might not be in the film is Harrison Ford even though various sources have him appearing briefly although though no one can say where—apparently he did audition for the film just as he almost played the lead in MODEL SHOP, another way the two films can be connected. Incidentally, the film has a fascinating history, more than I can go into here ( for starters, the Sept 1992 Film Comment article Michelangelo and the Leviathan: The Making of ZABRISKIE POINT by Beverly Walker is particularly valuable) as do some of the people who were involved—Antonioni’s next film in 1975 was the acclaimed THE PASSENGER starring Jack Nicholson. Frechette and Halprin eventually broke up after living together for some time in a commune. Frechette was later arrested after a bank robbery along with two other members of that cult and died after a suspicious weight-lifting accident in prison. Halprin married Dennis Hopper and had one child before their divorce in 1976 after which she co-founded the Tamalpa Institute which focuses on expressive arts education and therapy. Rod Taylor’s career continued on after this, making his final appearance playing Winston Churchill in INGLOUIOUS BASTERDS. He sadly died earlier this year at age 85.
Then again, maybe Don Draper didn’t see ZABRISKIE POINT after all—maybe MAD MEN actually exists somewhere within the film’s continuity which would let Don and Rod Taylor’s Lee Allen meet up eventually. Maybe it would turn out Elizbeth Reaser’s Diana who Don became briefly obsessed with is actually Daria’s older sister so Don and Lee hire INHERENT VICE’s Doc Sportello to find both of them. See, I really have been thinking about all this way too much. I can’t find confirmation that originally Antonioni wanted to end the film with a plane sky-writing “FUCK YOU AMERICA” but one interesting point about is that the ending on the U.S. DVD is apparently not his preferred version, instead an alteration that MGM made at a certain point during the film’s unsuccessful release. It seems that while his curtain call had a reprise of the Pink Floyd track fade up during the ‘END’ title card, MGM inserted a newly written Roy Orbison track (which is not mentioned during the song listings in the opening credits) ‘So Young’. It brings a feel of serenity and acceptance to that final moment, in how the lyrics try to convince us that “Zabriskie Point is anywhere”—oddly, the lyric “If you live just for today/today will soon be done” ties in with much of Don Draper’s philosophy through the years—but it feels like the opposite of anything the film itself is trying to say. Antonioni’s ending is more insistent, more of a piece with what we just saw, as if saying that the revolution of the mind can somehow continue into the real world. Either way, as Daria drives off into that sunset she’s heading towards the 70s which I suppose in the context of this film means she drives off to nowhere. Maybe when it comes to ZABRISKIE POINT the best thing to do is just kick back with the desert footage, absorb yourself in the music and try not to reconcile the myriad elements because you really can’t, not with a straight face anyway. Like when I watch this film and find myself wondering, what does anything mean? Does anything really matter while these billboards are starting down at me? Maybe if I ever figure that out I’ll never have to see ZABRISKIE POINT again. But I don’t know what the point of that would be.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Greener On Every Side

POLTERGEIST and E.T. feel irrevocably connected to each other and that’s just the way it is. The reasons are obvious and just as intertwined, particularly that Spielberg suburbia north of Los Angeles in some Simi Valley neighborhood that I’ve never ventured, making it feel as if both films are taking place right down the street from each other. They each also came out in the summer of ’82, only a week apart--POLTERGEIST came first, notching a strong opening weekend even though it was released the same day as the all-holy STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN while E.T. had it a little easier the following Friday opposite GREASE 2. E.T. owned the world in the blockbuster summer of ’82 but doesn’t seem to have the same sort of cachet these days, maybe because it’s too sentimental, maybe because everyone just had enough of the thing by a certain point. It’s also long been blamed on the concurrent box office failures of the R-rated BLADE RUNNER and THE THING that same month and those films becoming officially sanctioned classics by now feels like someone atoning for some sort of cinematic sin that was committed (in truth, I’m kind of an E.T. agnostic but that’s a conversation for another time).
In addition to its ongoing popularity POLTERGEIST maintains an unending air of mystery due to people wanting to know just what went down on set between producer Steven Spielberg, who had not yet begun principal photography on E.T. at the time, and director-of-record Tobe Hooper with many reaching the conclusion that the fingerprints of Spielberg are just too obvious to ignore. But people still ask those questions, as if trying to solve the unanswered mysteries of our own childhood, something we really should have moved on from long ago, holding on to the hope that someone who’s still around will eventually write a tell-all book or do an audio commentary. There are films I’ve seen way too many times by now to get much from and POLTERGEIST may be one of them—it’s basically the equivalent of an Eagles song that I wish the classic rock station would just stop playing already. So is there anything left to say about POLTERGEIST or is it an evergreen beyond any sort of commentary?
There’s definitely not much point in spending time on a plot synopsis about the Freelings of the Cuesta Verde Estates and how their idyllic suburban existence is shattered when supernatural forces apparently abduct daughter Carol Anne, leading to the horrible secrets they discover about their beautiful home. A look at the doing away with of 60s ideals and how 70s cover-ups gave way to the corruption of the 80s, the decade is clearly forming in POLTERGESIST. With a plot (story by Steven Spielberg, screenplay by Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais and Mark Victor) that focuses on the tearing apart of the family in the one place where everything is supposed to be secure, it’s about an America that just wants to put the past away and sell out so everything can look the same, letting them just fall asleep in front of the TV, which is the one part of the house that matters most, after drinking too much beer. Unlike, say, the working class middle American couple played by Richard Dreyfuss and Teri Garr in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson’s Diane and Steve Freeling apparently have some sort of counter-culture past that they’ve buried except for those nights when Diane brings out the joints while Steve reads about Reagan to rid himself of the way he was back when he ‘had an open mind’ once and for all (while A GUY NAMED JOE, later remade by Spielberg as ALWAYS, plays on the TV). Presumably this was a past when 16 year-old Diane gave birth to their first daughter, now 16 herself--I always imagine there was a break after having Dana so young considering the gap between her and the other kids so she never seems to be treated as more than a visiting relative by the family. Whatever the story is involving Dana it feels like the stuff that would interest Spielberg the least and it’s a background that feels drained out as the running time goes on in order to make them basically another suburban family in the movies.
That background at least roots POLTERGEIST in some sort of time-frame, even if it doesn’t matter that much; both films may be set in the early 80s but E.T. doesn’t have much interest in the specifics of the era beyond pop-culture ephemera and makes no bones about how its adult characters are essentially as irrelevant as the teachers in old Peanuts cartoons. POLTERGEIST, on the other hand, while it contains some of those same pop culture signposts (did the Freelings really let their kids see ALIEN?), is about the terror and desperation felt by the adults in trying to protect their children while feeling very much aware of the yuppie rot sprouting up at the beginning of the Reagan era to terrorize the American Dream. Everything’s going to be ok, says E.T., childhood can be eternal if you want it to be and that’s all that matters. POLTERGEIST seems to know that it’s not so easy. It’s a film that doesn’t have any answers. The film’s best, most potent moments are when the adults realize just how powerless they really are.
The director gets “A Tobe Hooper Film” during the opening credits but they also take the time to declare itself “A Steven Spielberg Production” at both the beginning and close of the film and I wonder if that’s a violation of some DGA bylaw. Of course, I’m hardly the first person to speculate who really directed POLTERGEIST and there’s not much point in pretending to reach a grand conclusion in regards to who’s responsible for what. There are elements that feel like Hooper, much as they’re overshadowed by the film’s producer. But it’s all just guesswork. Of course, different people who worked on the film have provided different answers when asked through the years and each one of them would have a different perspective anyway—Jerry Goldsmith, for one, was quoted as saying he never worked with Hooper at all and since Spielberg’s regular editor Michael Kahn cut this film (E.T. was in other hands) that of course causes one to reach certain conclusions.
Whatever the absolute truth is, the lived-in world of POLTERGEIST brings to it the right tone and adds immeasurably to its believability. The cluttered Freeling home has a natural feel that every Spielberg family, doesn’t right down to the eerie quiet after the kids head out to school. The plotting never feels too calculated and gets down to business surprisingly fast, with a pace that makes every second count as the tension of the first half-hour builds and we get to know the family (makes me think of that early scene which has always concluded with an odd edit—it’s been there whenever I’ve seen it in 35mm too). The film shows its affection for them while still maintaining a playful way of teasing us, whether the iconic use of that clown doll seated near Robbie’s bed or even that shot of the chair immediately after it’s pulled across the floor which makes it seem like an actual character for a brief instant. The film clearly enjoys itself in laying out the jump scares—even after all these years, when the big tree attack first happens it always occurs a few beats before I think it will. We know it’s happening eventually but Robbie doesn’t and the lack of buildup at that particular moment, almost as if the movie is willingly jumping ahead of itself, works beautifully. There is the feel that we’re also skipping past a few big chunks to keep up that pace—I always imagine more scenes of Steven at work and I can’t help but picture somebody ripping ten pages of emotional breakdown and police investigations out of the script during filming to cut to the chase faster, reminding me of how the original cut of THE EXORCIST cut out the doctor’s examination because William Friedkin knew all that was just a waste of time.
The pop nature of POLTERGEIST means there isn’t that much of a feeling of dread in this suburbia outside of ominous clouds telling us what’s coming—Steven Freeling may drink too much beer but this isn’t THE SHINING, after all. Even when the door is opened for the big rescue of Carol Anne we’re greeted with wind and flashing lights instead of horrific imagery to keep everyone away. But amidst all the light and sound and ILM effects work and monologues from Zelda Rubinstein’s Tangina Barrows it’s surprisingly small scale for what was once thought of as a summer blockbuster so what sticks out are the small moments that build to the gradual fracturing of this family, showing that in the Spielberg universe that’s a more horrifying occurence than anything having to do with the supernatural. Whatever the true motives of the spirits they’re nothing compared to the real world personified by the great James Karen (previously in ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN and later in NIXON, making him as ideal a figure of big business corruption imaginable) as Steven’s boss Mr. Teague—his phrasing of how they’re moving the cemetery by stating, “It’s just…people.” is so beautifully cold in how he can’t even refer to the residents of that cemetery as “they”. Things. Not individuals. They don’t matter.
There are points when I’m most interested in the characters are just being observed during the silent moments, particularly the kids, holding on Oliver Robins’ Robbie as it creates almost a full character arc out of that silence or Dominique Dunne’s Dana crying that she can’t stay in the house any longer. And maybe because the iconic nature of Zelda Rubenstein’s Tangina has become so connected to the franchise I now find myself wondering more about less flashy spinster Beatrice Straight’s pre-GHOSTBUSTERS parapsychologist Dr. Lesh and her flask of whiskey, an interesting type of character that summer movies don’t care about anymore, one who doesn’t get to do much in her last moments onscreen beyond stare lovingly at this couple, a fulfilling life that she in her stuffy academia never got to experience. Again, these outside forces are almost more of a threat to the family like Lesh’s colleague Marty (played by Martin Casella, Spielberg’s assistant on RAIDERS) wrongly raiding the Freeling’s fridge late at night looking for a steak. It’s not his house--then again, the house doesn’t belong to any of them--but he’s even more of an intruder than the Freelings are and he pays the price for it. Plus tying it all together is the score by Jerry Goldsmith (presumably because John Williams was on E.T.) which feels almost psychically connected to the characters in its emotion—if it’s not one of the best Goldsmith scores ever it at least contains one of the best cymbal crashes in a Goldsmith score ever. We never follow Diane into the closet when she goes to retrieve Carol Anne but that score almost convinces us we have, it tells us what it looks like, what it feels like.
It’s a case where I’m not entirely sure if POLTERGEIST still works because I’m so damn familiar with it or if it just works. Even after all these years I’m a little hazy on the whole go into the light/don’t go into the light confusion that throws things for a loop briefly during the Tangina setpiece, as if they’re just trying to give that part of the plot busy work before the inevitable happens. It doesn’t matter, I suppose. Whatever the parental origins, it’s hard enough to make a film that works as well as this one does after all these years. Plus it takes cojones for any film to reach a narrative point where anyone would by any logic would ever go back in the house after what’s happened, allowing the climax to take place. Maybe we buy it because the film knows it has to happen, for this family to break away from Cuesta Verde completely in the end it has to isolate them from the experts who supposedly knew everything and even their annoying neighbors who couldn’t care less. Maybe I buy it because I’ve seen the film so many times already.
The climax finally pays off a lot of what we’ve been waiting for, including the attack of JoBeth Williams which skirts the edge of R-rated sleaze, something you can imagine Tobe Hooper doing something with if he could have, but avoids it in favor of the ROYAL WEDDING-styled effects as she’s dragged up to the ceiling. Maybe they’re Spielberg ghosts, so they wouldn’t be interested in that sort of thing anyway. The climax throws everything it can at both us and the family, as if the ghosts know this is their one last chance, and it does it in the best ‘haunted house’ fashion. Maybe any problems that occurred during production helped to allow the film to be that much more effective, that much more human, making all those special effects having even more of an impact at times. And whoever it was specifically responsible for directing James Karen’s wordless final scene, the result is every bit as memorable as the quite frankly jaw-dropping implosion of the house. One friend of mine has long been convinced that Dominique Dunne’s Dana, seen incessantly eating at various points, is pregnant throughout the entire film and I’m pretty sure he’s right. She’s her mother’s daughter after all and she’s got a giant hickey on her neck at the end to prove it, just like the one Diane’s father used to check her for. The world of POLTERGEIST is one big circle and no matter how much we try to flee to some lush suburbia to avoid who we are there’s no escaping the past. We’re part of the family we’re born into and eventually we all have to deal with the bodies that have been buried a little too close whether we deserve it or not.
Again, part of the success of the film lies in the performances which keep things grounded during those stretches when the effects threaten to take things over. JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson are always a completely believable couple and so much of how they interact with each other feels totally genuine. Points to the film as well for giving Williams a slightly stronger role and she’s just wonderful while Nelson never seems afraid to let his vulnerability come through. The kids are most effective when they’re not trying to be movie-cute, when it seems like the camera is just catching them, Heather O’Rourke during certain playful moments, Oliver Robins and his voice cracking during his whispered conversation with Beatrice Straight late at night, Dominique Dunne keeping her secrets while still very much just a teenager. The adults playing against them—Straight, Karen, Rubinstein and Richard Lawson—help keeping things immeasurably grounded and are a big part of why the effect of the film still holds, from our childhood all the way to us finding ourselves relating more to those adults in various ways. And for a film reference that has nothing to do with STAR WARS action figures Joseph Walsh, screenwriter of the Robert Altman gambling classic CALIFORNIA SPLIT (which Spielberg almost directed), is the one who shouts, “I bet my life on this game!” during the remote control battle at the start.
Thinking back to the summer of ’82, POLTERGEIST and E.T. have always been connected in my head as well even though I’m pretty sure I never saw POLTERGEIST until it hit cable a year later. I’m guessing my parents felt the film, originally given an R rating by the MPAA before it was downgraded to a PG, was too much for me. So my initial memories are from watching it on TV but I’d imagine that along with BLADE RUNNER and THE THING multiple viewings helped to serve as a sort of gateway drug for me towards darker films, even if POLTERGEIST seems to belong to the school of the family friendly Spielberg multiplex of the 80s than the pages of Fangoria. The silence at the end right before the end credits roll, as if the movie is stopping on an unresolved note more than actually reaching a true climax, feels appropriate for a film that seems to end with the characters turning their back on the outside world, on technology, on the future, on the 80s. That could never last forever, of course, but it’s a nice final shot. As the credits roll the Goldsmith score tries to tell us that the family will endure, complete with little girls laughing at the very end and we can believe that as long as we want. What came next, aside from real life tragedies and eternal queries about the production, has mostly been tossed aside which is almost surprising considering how even the JAWS sequels are used as punchlines nowadays. The non-Hooper/Spielberg (but with the same writers) POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE is mostly forgotten now and a second sequel made by others was compromised by the death of Heather O’Rourke several months before release. That one’s pretty much forgotten too. Not to mention a recent remake but I don’t care about that and you don’t either so it doesn’t matter. At this point in time POLTERGEIST is pretty much at the breaking point where I’ll never need to see it again. But eventually I’m sure I will anyway, on one of those nights where I want to remember what it was once like to go to the movies during the summer. Those mysteries stay alive in your head, whether you want to keep the ghosts that are in there buried or not.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

All The Same Color

We’re waiting. At least, some of us are waiting. For the new Warren Beatty film, that is, and just about all anyone seems to know is that it’s about Howard Hughes, has no title, has already been shot and will be released…well, that we don’t know yet. It will be the first time Beatty has appeared on screens since way back in 2001’s TOWN & COUNTRY, which was pretty much a wipeout disaster for all concerned, so bad even I couldn’t find very much good to say about it. Plus it will be the first time he’s directed since 1998’s BULWORTH was released to considerable acclaim, maybe giving us the hope that it wouldn’t be so long until the next one. So much for that. Even now I can remember reacting so strongly to BULWORTH when I saw it opening day that when Beatty placed his hands in the cement at Grauman’s Chinese about a week later I had to be there to get a glimpse and somehow try to shake his hand, which I actually did. I even pilfered one of the BULWORTH posters that was taped up to the barricades at the event and it hung on my wall for years.
Historically speaking, BULWORTH arrived at an intriguing point—the other two films that opened the weekend it went wide were the Roland Emmerich GODZILLA, which is probably even worse than TOWN & COUNTRY, and Terry Gilliam’s film of Hunter S. Thompson’s FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS. So that’s Memorial Day 1998 according to Hollywood: a lousy attempt at capitalizing on a known property (common use of the term ‘reboot’ was still several years away) and two films which, even if they can be classified as comedies, display genuine political goals detailing how far America had come since the sixties and the way things came crumbling down soon after. Seventeen years old now, BULWORTH hasn’t yet received extensive reappraisal and is maybe even a little forgotten except maybe as ‘the film where Warren Beatty raps’, as if things have changed too much in the political sphere for anyone to really care about it anymore. But it remains a fascinating document of Beatty, his beliefs, his filmmaking, as well as playing as a vibrant pre-9/11 satire on just what America was focused on during the 90s. The only DVD available isn’t anything special—recent HD airings on HBO look much better—and there’s still no sign of a Blu-ray. The film has aged, of course it has, and maybe too much of the political conversation has changed for it to do otherwise. But there remains enough potency within the ideas it puts on the table that there’s still a certain amount of danger to it. It remains a film that matters, even if it isn’t talked about very much these days.
March, 1996: On the eve of the California primary, Democrat Senator Jay Billington Bulworth (Warren Beatty) is at the end of his rope both financially speaking and in his soul, wracked with guilt over how he’s sold out all the values of where he came from. So he arranges a hit on himself to take place in Los Angeles during his campaign while having the insurance company he’s in the pocket of raise up his life insurance policy for his daughter. When he arrives, drunk and knowing the end could come at any time, he decides to do the only thing he can think of: speak his mind. He does this to a congregation in South Central and a gathering of entertainment executives in Beverly Hills. But after a night partying at a private club with several women including Nina (Halle Berry) he heads for a fundraiser at the Beverly Wilshire where he suddenly decides to take his message to the next level.
BULWORTH opened in May 1998, on the day after two major pop culture events: the final episode of SEINFELD and, reported late that night, the death of Frank Sinatra. I was younger then. You’re probably supposed to be younger when you experience any sort of political satire, when the ideas can seep into you like a sponge, when you still are able to maintain any sort of belief that actual change can occur. That got drained out of me sometime in late 2000 but BULWORTH and the feelings it infused in me mattered for a little while. Things are even more different in 2015 as I scan my Twitter feed and see talk of the death penalty, willful congressional roadblock, tuition hikes and of course health insurance which is part of the conversation in BULWORTH but it feels very different now in a world of Citizens United. The early scene where Jay Bulworth, his mind in a tailspin, surfs through channels on his TV could easily be made a hundred times longer now, all the voices getting louder in this day and age. As fast and as up to the moment as it is BULWORTH recalls the past, it feels haunted by the past, just as an early image in the film seems to deliberately recall a photo in Hunter S. Thompson’s FEAR AND LOATHING ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL ’72. Placed up against the photos in Bulworth’s office of certain legendary figures that shot also serves as a reminder of Beatty’s own political past back when he campaigned for George McGovern. Of course, the election of Nixon in ’68 was depicted in SHAMPOO which ended with Beatty’s George Roundy standing on that hilltop all by himself, nowhere else to go. That earlier film served as a post-Watergate look at the path America had traveled since Election Day ’68. BULWORTH, set two years before it was released, is taking a look at a much more recent past and, of course, little had changed in the meantime except for maybe the start of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. But it’s not a look at the past as much as simply fixing the narrative at a particular point in time; the character of Bulworth may be fictional but other names we hear bandied about certainly aren’t. It’s the real world but it’s the real world of the 90s where not very much happened from our vantage point in the U.S., it was the ‘vacation from history’ as it’s sometimes been called, where we thought all we had to fear was that doorstep to a new millennium. Everything was fine, to use a word repeated in an early BULWORTH scene as a deflection to saying anything else, recalling George Roundy’s use of the word ‘great’. In the 90s, everything was ‘fine’. We didn’t know otherwise.
The story may not be new—the basic ‘man hires someone to kill him then can’t call it off’ hook was also the plot of the first WHISTLER film back in the 40s, for one thing—but Warren Beatty takes the idea and makes it his own, mixed in with all sorts of feelings he must have had about where things had gone since the 60s, through the Reagan era and into the 90s. He is Bulworth, after all. The farcical complications familiar from SHAMPOO are amped up to the level of the most manic Preston Sturges film possible and framed against the overall seriousness it goes for the comedy by the throat. The feverish desperation of the main character is almost matched by the desperation of the film to get its point across, moving so fast that it acts as a visual representation of that mindset; other films officially directed by Beatty, whether REDS or DICK TRACY, feel energetic but maybe overly formal. BUGSY and LOVE AFFAIR (produced by Beatty; directed by Barry Levinson and Gordon Gordon Caron, respectively) feel a little too much like a wealthy movie star relaxing in the back of a plush Cadillac. BULWORTH, on the other hand, feels like that movie star getting out of the car and starting to run alongside, knowing that’s the only way this film can possibly work, telling the Steadicam operator to follow along with him and swirl around as fast as possible in that after hours club. The manic feeling never lets up which feels perfect for the extremely tight narrative. Edited by Robert C. Jones and Billy Weber, every scene feels stripped down to its absolute essentials and it doesn’t stop moving. It’s the cinematic equivalent of running out into traffic and in its determination to never play it safe BULWORTH isn’t just funny, it’s exhilarating. Seventeen years on, it plays like an absolute whirlwind, each of its very serious ideas mixed in with the laughs in a way that sticks. As Bulworth becomes more manic in his behavior it digs into not just the anger at the way things have gotten but always maintains an odd affection for its side characters, at least the ones who aren’t defined by their finely tailored clothing. “SOCIALISM!!!” he shouts during his rap to the crowd at the Beverly Wilshire, knowing for them that’s the scariest thing of all. Beatty’s previous film, LOVE AFFAIR, was an unsuccessful remake that was maybe a little odd in its out-of-touch mustiness. As much as BULWORTH may have in common with other films in his career it’s a genuine step forward for him as a director, trying to make the film as entertaining as possible but never the safe crowd pleaser something like HEAVEN CAN WAIT or DICK TRACY might have been. It’s a film that wants to go out onto the ledge, it needs to in order to make any sense.
The fractured cutting style and plotting in Beatty’s films can possibly be traced back to SHAMPOO which he produced and was directed by Hal Ashby who passed away in 1988. It can still be found in REDS (a little bit in Elaine May’s ISHTAR too) and fits in perfectly with the comic-book stylings of DICK TRACY. But it’s BULWORTH that, as much as the Ashby flavor is prominent, becomes more feverish in its delirium that that director ever went for. It’s freewheeling in the best sense—Beatty moves his camera more than he ever has so the film never stops almost as if by the time they hit the cutting room one of his edicts was just to keep it going no matter what and the fever pitch is perfect for the tone. There is a definite Preston Sturges vibe, absolutely, but with an added intensity as if Beatty’s not just looking for the characters to crowd around him in the frame shouting but to focus on their isolation as well, the stunned blankness in their expressions, waiting for just the right puff of smoke to emerge from Oliver Platt’s frantic lips. He’s finding the story in them just as much as in his own exhausted face. The improv nature extends to that silence, particularly in a beat I’ve always liked where Halle Berry and Jack Warden sit across from each other with nothing to say. It’s short, but feels essential in this film about communication or the lack thereof. Fittingly, neither the film nor Bulworth ever flat out states what drives him to this manic behavior but we know. The man is introduced sobbing, at the end of his rope, nowhere else to go, wondering how the hell to figure things out anymore. What he does begins to free him, as awful a rapper as he is (shades of ISHTAR) and he remembers who he once was, what he wanted to fight for in the first place, knowing that there isn’t any time left. Halle Berry’s Nina looks him in the eyes and correctly guesses his age, totally unafraid. Maybe he’s inspired by her—hey, there are worse reasons—but while Bulworth’s embrace of hip hop and the African American world is ridiculous and foolhardy it has to be those things, he has to look that way for the film to work. Even if I never go south of the 10 and aren’t even sure if I should be writing about this movie all I know is that BULWORTH sent a surge through me on opening day when I saw it back in ‘98 in a way few films have ever done. That surge isn’t as strong when I watch it now, too much has been beaten out of me, but I can still remember the feel of that electricity of when I was younger and wish that it could matter more.
All these years later I sometimes look at it uncertain that every beat really works as well as it should and considering the tightrope the film walks maybe that’s unavoidable—the cell phone that loses reception as it nears South Central, entering my least favorite stretch of the film that plays maybe a little too tone-deaf, not quite getting the right balance of cluelessness from the correct characters. And I’m no longer convinced that any real world politician who decides to pull a Bulworth, so to speak, is really going to be what people want. I’d love to be proven wrong, though. In a certain sense BULWORTH really is from another time, far removed from the world it represents when certain feelings were definitely in the air, when a mention of O.J. still had definite sting to it. Coming so soon after the car crash death of Princess Diana the paparazzi/assassin dichotomy was also unmistakable (“Shoot him!” shouts Nora Dunn’s reporter at the stalkerazzi who we’ve long assumed to be an assassin) and that imagery is both more potent as well as even more obvious now, maybe because in the TMZ world it hardly seems to be an issue, sad to say. It’s a reminder that a version of BULWORTH today would be even more intense but also a reminder of how much of its time the film is. BULWORTH is already frenzied enough for starters, whether in the character’s endless speech in his full hip-hop guise or the constant rap music music or the manic camera movements or Oliver Platt frantically screaming at people or even master cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s use of color which indicates all this isn’t supposed to be naturalistic anyway.
There’s a desperation to BULWORTH of the good kind. George Roundy in SHAMPOO never seems to realize that what’s going on actually matters until the very end when he’s about to lose his one last chance. Jay Bulworth, however, is in the midst of that realization at the very beginning until it sends him over the edge and it’s almost as if we only ever see the real Bulworth (i.e. Beatty) for just a few seconds at the very end of the film. Coming partway between the 1992 L.A. riots, prominently mentioned, and when 9/11 changed things even more, it seems to make sense that the film is set during the ’96 campaign, when nobody really seemed to care, released on a day when much of the news was focused on how much everyone hated the SEINFELD finale. The script (story by Beatty, screenplay by Beatty & Jeremy Pikser) is carefully assembled, never stopping with the sharpness of the dialogue underlining the determination of the characters all the way through, adding to the forward motion. Even if the long speeches Bulworth appropriates from others aren’t exactly Chayefsky they’re not supposed to be and to do otherwise would rob them of their messiness, their desperation to get the point across. With all the possible assassins swirling around maybe the film tosses in one or two elements more than are necessary, or maybe that it knows what to do with, like the C-SPAN crew following Bulworth’s campaign that seem to drop out at a certain point; maybe after reality TV hit the movie would have made even more of all that.
Maybe there’s no other way to keep it simple and the idealism displayed in some of the conclusions it reaches is a good kind, a healthy kind, a reminder that it’s just a fable since it has to be (another justification for Storaro’s color scheme); there’s no way we’re ever going to get a Bulworth in the real world. If you accept Warren Beatty films as consisting of their own narrative, DICK TRACY and LOVE AFFAIR end somewhat traditionally with the hope of love and (possibly) family. BULWORTH leaps on from that as if asking, well, what else is there in the world? The glorious Ennio Morricone score, representing the 60s idealism now reborn, seems to answer that mixed in with the rap soundtrack through the end credits, both of them belonging together, a musical fusion of the ‘everybody’s gotta keep fucking everybody ‘til we’re all the same color’ that Bulworth declares the future has to be. The power of Morricone along with the glorious voice of Edda dell’Orso (familiar from many scores by the composer including ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA—maybe that could be an alternate title for BULWORTH) acts as a sort of benediction from the Gods of Cinema. Only the people who are really in power don’t care anything about that. The imagery of the tragic ending (although I really do wish Paul Sorvino wasn’t in the scene; that’s all I’ll say about that) harkens back to the framed photos on Bulworth’s office wall, another reminder of decades long past since the notion of political assassination in America never seems to be considered anymore. Whatever we’re supposed to think at the end it doesn’t definitely tell us what actually happens beyond a refusal to go with the expected Capraesque ending (or like THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT, written by Aaron Sorkin who reportedly worked on this script as well). It doesn’t completely go the direction of THE PARALLAX VIEW either—the final shot of the Rastaman played by Amir Baraka is in front of Cedars Sanai as if he’s holding a lone vigil down below, unknowing of what the future holds, imploring Bulworth to be a spirit not a ghost. As the credits roll, all that matters is that for a few minutes he was one. It’s a start.
Every single one of the actors are so much of the film. Beatty clearly loves them and they’re all doing some of their best work. His own performance here is possibly his loosest ever, maybe not the first time he’s been willing to look foolish onscreen but you can tell that he’s daring himself not to look down from the tightrope he’s walking on. When he laughs you can feel his exuberance after he thinks everything has been cleared up and every moment onscreen is about that sense of freedom, about letting go. Halle Berry has maybe the toughest role—sometimes it almost seems like she only has dialogue in about two scenes, even if I know that isn’t true—but it’s some of her best work, keeping her character strong by seemingly never breaking eye contact with Beatty, daring him to start talking to her even more, daring him to do what he’s talking about. Oliver Platt plays his part as if all he wants to do is wrestle the film to the ground and he kills it, just as the pre-SPORTS NIGHT Joshua Malina brings impeccable timing to his befuddled aide, desperately trying to get a hit of that coke. There’s Paul Sorvino bringing just the right arrogance to his insurance company rep, the low-life bafflement of Richard Sarafian’s slovenly ‘weekend research project’ contact and while some reports have Don Cheadle unhappy with playing a drug dealer in the film but his one big speech still plays as potent. There are tons of people I’m happy to see in this film, too many too mention, whether the brief appearance by the unbilled Paul Mazursky or the great Jack Warden as Eddie Davers—it’s just nice to have his avuncular presence on hand, yet another connection to SHAMPOO. Laurie Metcalf and Wendell Pierce feel underused as the C-SPAN crew but they each have strong, funny moments. Larry King turns up too, as he did in so many cameos around this time, as does Jann Carl at the debate—as a personal aside, one of the only regrets I have from working at the entertainment news show I used to be employed at was never asking her about this. She was always very nice too.
Political satire can’t really happen anymore, not just because studios these days would most likely not even want to try to market them but because real life has become its own satire, the oft-used line that NETWORK doesn’t even play as comedy anymore. Various reports had it that Beatty was only able to make the film at Fox because of a lingering deal that allowed him to make something, anything, as long as it stayed within a certain budget. I doubt that particular studio was happy with what they got. BULWORTH is many things. It’s a companion piece to SHAMPOO (I wish it was the middle part of a trilogy—then again, maybe that was REDS) but it can’t really be said to be a culmination of Beatty’s work since in many ways that was REDS. BULWORTH is him still fighting to be in there, still fighting to make a film that matters, still fighting to prove that he matters, one final absurdist scream in the night. One final attempt to prove that he’s not just a ghost that lives up on Mulholland Drive, but a spirit with a drive to make one more film that can be mentioned in the same sentence as Hal Ashby. He succeeded, but we’re still waiting. Waiting for one more film. Waiting for the promise in BULWORTH.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Ideal But For The Writing

If I could I would just sit here and write. Write a script, then another script, then several ridiculously long blog posts, I’d go back and forth doing all that without a care in the world. If only I didn’t have all that other stuff on my mind. I watch a film about a writer it makes me want to write more. It makes me want to be a writer more. And when I say ‘writer’ I don’t mean I want to go to bars and get into fights, although that sounds pretty cool. I mean the dream of a life where I can be in the most relaxing environment possible and do nothing but write, to let whatever’s in my head explode out on to the page (or the computer screen, but you get the idea) and just keep doing that. The times that I can’t write, when I feel absolutely strangled by whatever’s consuming my brain, where nothing comes to me no matter how hard I try to pound it out of me, can be the worst. But those times pass, or at least I hope they always will. I’ve even still got my old typewriter around here on the off chance I ever need it. Somewhere at the bottom of a drawer I even have some extra ribbon that I picked up once, you know, just in case. I don’t expect that to happen any time soon since it’s of course more practical to do it this way on the laptop but maybe that dream is just part of being a writer, the dream of feeling that much more like one.
Whether it’s the lingering shots of typewriters in Cronenberg’s NAKED LUNCH or Jack Nicholson working on his ‘new writing project’ in THE SHINING I’ll take any film about a writer which is probably why I’ve returned to Mike Hodges’ PULP on occasion through the years. I do this even if it has a lead character who states at the start that he doesn’t go for the romance of those typewriters, instead dictating his hackwork out loud so someone else can type it for him. I also do it even though the very odd PULP, released in 1972, is a movie that I still can’t entirely wrap my brain around. A followup for Hodges and star Michael Caine to their previous collaboration, the all-holy GET CARTER, it’s about as far away in tone from that film as you can imagine which could very well have been part of the idea but the 95 minutes of PULP are almost too disarming, the film slips away from cohesion just a little too quickly. But even if it doesn’t entirely connect the oddball tone is genuinely unique and there’s something about the film that makes me want to poke further into whatever the hell it is. Deemed a ‘minor masterpiece’ by Time Magazine (I don’t think I can go that far) the film has enough of an off-kilter slant that gets me to want to keep giving it a try and I haven’t yet ruled out that in five or six more viewings it might totally click for me. I guess that’s the foolish optimism of a writer, the sort that makes you think for a few minutes that what you’re working on might actually be good.
Mickey King (Michael Caine), having long since abandoned his wife and kids back in England, is living the life of a writer “somewhere in the Mediterranean”, churning out pulp novels under various pen names without a care in the world. One day after finishing his latest tome, “The Organ Grinder”, he is approached by a mysterious gentleman named Ben Dinuccio (Lionel Stander) with an offer to ghostwrite the memoirs of an unnamed famous person. Not knowing anything more than this, King is sent on a trip where he will be contacted with further instructions. After the first person who King suspects of being that contact turns up dead under mysterious circumstances, King is finally approached by the beautiful Liz (Nadia Cassini) who reveals that King’s assignment will be to write the memoirs of retired movie star Preston Gilbert (Mickey Rooney). The actor is famous for playing gangsters but be had actual mob ties as well, including certain people who may be concerned about just what Gilbert, and King as well, plans to put into the book.
Each time I see PULP I feel a rush during the first few minutes set in a typing pool as various women react to Mickey King’s overbaked prose, the way the the pounding of the keys going in and out of the soundtrack displaying such filmic confidence that it grabs the attention immediately. It always makes me think that the whole thing is going to click this time around, the way a film about a writer should, but what follows seems to go against such expectations almost immediately. “She was wearing nothing underneath,” is the very first thing we hear in PULP, one of those lines in Mickey King’s book getting dictated by him, but what we soon learn is in the world of PULP no one has anything genuine underneath, including its lead character. Mickey King has created this identity of various nom-de-plumes as he lives his life after leaving his family and previous career, working as a funeral director, long behind only to now find himself right back in pretty much the same game as the bodies begin to fall around him. His dream isn’t to write well as much as to write pulp as fast as possible anyway, at least as fast as world record holder Earl Stanley Gardner, no interest in the romanticism of working on a typewriter and whether this means he’s an actual writer at all feels open to question. He knows the plots but he doesn’t have the ability to probe any deeper than that and figure out what’s really going on in the mystery he’s investigating. Maybe a code that’s a little too tough for me to crack, PULP is an extremely odd heffalump of a movie with sly asides and unexplained occurrences in almost every scene scattered throughout a plot that almost seems deliberately obscure in its story points that aren’t always audible in dialogue (even the New York Times review mentions an issue with the soundtrack). What’s being said often gets drowned out by a Michael Caine voiceover narration intending to explain it all better but of course it never really does, resulting in my spacing out for a few minutes and suddenly wondering what exposition I’ve missed, followed by my attention being grabbed by yet another digression.
Very slight and almost more of a short story than a full narrative, it’s a film about a writer who wants nothing more to dash off stories that move fast and get to the point stuck in a narrative that meanders, wanders around, introduces characters who never quite pay off and doesn’t arrive at a conclusion so much as a dead end. With the likes of Rooney, Stander and Lizabeth Scott around it’s like we’re viewing the ghosts of pulp past, or at least of Hollywood past. Everything feels offhand—a few comical car crashes early on feel like they could have been assembled with more Blake Edwards-finesse but the film is so loose that it makes sense they don’t have such precision. Even a time jump about midway through that makes it feel like the film has just jumped over a portion of the plot but there’s not that much of a plot anyway, with whole sections seeming to go by without very much of importance happening at all. It almost seems designed to frustrate any fan of GET CARTER, looking for more of that cool style and nastiness. Caine is cool, of course, drifting through every scene as he sizes up whoever he’s up against. He always wears the same white corduroy suit, thinking he’s one step ahead of everyone when it’s actually the opposite, unaware of whatever’s going on, just assuming that he’s floating above everyone with his own brand of aloofness, wondering when the plot is going to kick in. And it really doesn’t, not when the first dead body turns up and not when a key death takes place about an hour in—finally it seems like the story is moving into high gear but it doesn’t really happen even then. Maybe in a film that features a police lineup of priests during the hunt for a killer that’s the wrong thing to look for anyway. After multiple viewings I’m still a little hazy on a few points but it’s in the asides that PULP offers pleasure, sometimes quite a bit of it, if you’re into that sort of thing.
It’s a film that is maybe best viewed during the day while you’re already on your third vodka & tonic, waiting for 5:00 so the real drinking can begin. Complimenting that vibe, Hodges’ direction always seems to be looking for the most off-kilter way to film a scene giving more import to what’s in the background than the plot points, stopping for a few minutes so we can intercut between the vain Rooney primping while getting ready and the bored Caine waiting for him. The visual style somehow seems extremely offhand while calculated all at once, seeming to revel in shooting dinner table scenes as the actors peer at each other with their own agendas and spout off the acidic dialogue from his script. Even the narration (which, for the record, includes a few homophobic asides about a possible bad guy he encounters) that often goes against what we see reveals that Mickey King may be a hack a few steps behind everyone but he has a certain way with the words on occasion. “I flipped on the light and showed her the door. I had my pride,” as he does the exact opposite when finding a beautiful woman in his bed, as I imagine any writer would actually do. The filming in Malta helps to give the production a distinct vacation vibe as if Hodges and Caine decided to take a few weekends in an exotic locale to make a quickie before moving on to their next big project, giving the whole thing a genuinely offhand flavor but stays maybe a little too much at a remove, with characters that never seem to serve much purpose beyond being mysteriously ornamental and the shadowy figures pulling the strings of the plot never becoming characters at all. Maybe that’s part of the point too—the writer in question never seems to get that he barely ranks as a character in the story from their point of view.
Maybe the plot loses me a little too often but certain moments keep me going all the way to the end, individual shots grab attention on their own, even certain extras who don’t do more than pass by the frame feel like they deserve praise. Much of the shell game of the first half doesn’t really lead anywhere but then again much of the shell game of the second half doesn’t lead anywhere either aside from the end credits. Even the tone is a little too inconsistent ranging from amusingly sly to maybe a little too comically broad but there’s a conviction to all that casualness that makes it feel like a genuine world view. The washed out look of the cinematography, even on the DVD, seems appropriate. It’s not really a spoof but it’s…well, at least PULP is its own thing. In some ways it’s the deliberate opposite of GET CARTER while also serving as a response to that film—both films are extremely dry in their approach too all that violence only PULP doesn’t see much reason to get upset about any of it. GET CARTER is about the title character played by Caine returning home and the nastiness that results from that. PULP is about its lead character staying as far away from where he’s come from as possible which leads to a more pleasant sort of oblivion, but it’s an oblivion nevertheless.
Many of the characters in PULP seem happy to be trapped in this purgatory while others desperately wander through it, wondering what happened to their lives while George Martin’s lite AM score plays on without a care in the world. As King realizes, sometimes in life when you’re looking for a story all you wind up with is just enough to get you lost in the fog. Caine punches a face on a poster at the start which proves to be a nice bit of foreshadowing but makes just about as much of a difference that he could even make to the real thing. The film could make for an appropriate double bill with John Frankenheimer’s similarly screwy 99 AND 44/100% DEAD starring Richard Harris, a film also from the early 70s with a tone that doesn’t quite come together and with lead actors that look exactly alike. Either way, PULP causes a question mark to form over my head while at the same time I appreciate its gallows humor and its belief that just because you think you know all the plots doesn’t mean you know how they’re going to turn out. The life of being a writer, I suppose.
Just like GET CARTER, the climax of PULP features a showdown on a desolate stretch of beach—the end of the world, nowhere else to go, the perfect place to keep the most horrible secrets of the past buried. The film is set in a kind of paradise disguised as purgatory where there’s no way to have any effect over the bigwigs pulling the strings. Like INHERENT VICE, the shadowy villains barely seem to care since they know they’re going to get away with it. Like Roman Polanski’s own film about a ghost writer the plot was set in motion before the lead character ever got involved. “Cheers,” the final image seems to be saying as the figure behind it all (apparently a comment on a prominent Italian figure at the time; to me, he looks like Charlie Bluhdorn) raises his glass at the end, having just lured an animal to his doom. “We don’t have to give a fuck about you.” All part of the life of pulp.
The name Mickey King almost promises that it’s going to be a quintessential Michael Caine role which doesn’t quite happen as he continually gets the rug pulled out from under him but he goes along with the gag totally. And he does look pretty damn cool in that suit, it has to be said. Mickey Rooney is so dynamic as the ultra-crass movie star in the George Raft vein that it’s a shame he isn’t around for longer. He knows who this son of a bitch is and plays him just right with enough secrets simmering under the surface that he makes us want to hear them in that book. Lionel Stander is enjoyable as always as Dinuccio while Lizabeth Scott as Princess Betty Cippola in her final film basically glides through every one of her scenes without a care in the world knowing that she has at least as many secrets as Preston Gilbert but no one is thinking to ask her. Nadia Cassini as Gilbert’s kept woman Liz makes enough of an impression that I wish she didn’t just fade into the woodwork near the end while the enjoyable familiar characters actors who turn up throughout include Al Letteri (of THE GODFATHER and Peckinpah’s THE GETAWAY) as Miller, Amerigo Tot and Leopoldo Trieste (each from THE GODFATHER PART II) as well as Luciano Pigozzi of Mario Bava’s BLOOD AND BLACK LACE who I imagine was cast for his resemblance to Peter Lorre.
Even if Hodges and Caine made an ideal pairing unfortunately the two have never worked together again after the flop of PULP. Among Caine’s similarly forgotten titles from a few years later is Peter Hyams’ PEEPER, another noir homage which is more of a spoof but also pretty forgettable unlike the unexplained tone of PULP which at least sticks to the ribs. Hodges, in the meantime, is probably best known for directing 1980’s FLASH GORDON but that’s another story entirely. Still, thinking about the disarming nature of PULP does make me curious to revisit the director’s odd, slow I’LL SLEEP WHEN I’M DEAD which reunited him with his CROUPIER star Clive Owen and in a similar vein refused to follow up the earlier film with the same kind of bang. That’s the funny thing with storytelling. Sometimes you can’t help but do the exact opposite of what’s expected of you. Sometimes the best things come out of that. Of course, sometimes you just wind up thinking, “What the hell were they going for here?” Funny thing is, when all is said and done I’ll probably wind up seeing PULP as many times as I’ll see GET CARTER. Where the film ends up makes a certain amount of sense, at least as being a writer goes; after all the unrewarding nonsense you’re left sitting there, ignored, stealing from real life, lifting from what you’ve already written before (maybe Mickey King is a real writer after all), all in a desperate attempt to make yourself seem cooler than you really are. And it’s all kind of muddled anyway. Somebody may politely ask, “Where do you get your ideas from?” but, really, nobody cares. All that’s left to do at that point is just start again, hoping for the best. As always.