Thursday, March 5, 2015

In Harmony With Our Desires

I’ve had those moments. Maybe you have too but in Los Angeles they seem all the more tactile in their unreality. Those moments, maybe late at night, maybe in the middle of the afternoon, where everything that has ever seemed absolutely correct is there right in front of you in a way that can only be described as purely, unaccountably cinematic. It doesn’t last very long—maybe nothing ever lasts very long—but it happens. For just a few moments, you were alive. But eventually all you have is the memory. Nothing more. Because no matter how much real life gets crossed with movies it’s impossible for real life not to win out. Eventually there’s another person in front of you. Until, of course, there isn’t. “The Cinema substitutes for our gaze a world more in harmony with our desires,” goes the alleged André Bazin quote that opens Jean-Luc Godard’s CONTEMPT, adding that the film is the story of that world. CONTEMPT is film crossed with life and the utter impossibility of the two co-existing.
When I think of Godard I remember a night long ago at the Nuart when I was there to see BAND OF OUTSIDERS. The place was packed for this rare chance to see it in a theater. People were literally sitting in the aisles. The film started and it was immediately apparent this was a scratchy old print, maybe even 16mm, and looked practically unwatchable. Since I’d already sat through the first film on the double bill (Melville’s LE DOULOS) and had seen a scratchy 16mm print of BAND OF OUTSIDERS before, probably at college, I bailed about twenty seconds in. No point in waiting to see if it got better. Walked to my car, then as I drove past the theater I witnessed what appeared to be a mass exodus of people also bailing on that scratchy print. I can’t help but imagine Godard himself amused at the sight of hundreds of people fleeing a screening of one of his films but at the same time viewing them as unworthy just because they didn’t like the way it looked. In other words, there’s no way to win with him. Just thinking that makes me feel like I’m back in film school again and I’d rather not have to relive that nightmare, thank you very much. I’d like to imagine someone in that crowd made it to one of the recent Aero screenings of his newest film GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE which I unfortunately missed. Sorry, it was unavoidable. But for that matter, all these years after that night I now have a pristine quality Criterion Blu of BAND OF OUTSIDERS close by and wonder why I don’t watch it more. Maybe I’m just older now.
Maybe what we really need is a film about Godard in Hollywood. Reportedly Coppola brought him over as he attempted to expand Zoetrope during the making of ONE FROM THE HEART, resulting in Godard shooting footage on the set during production. I like to imagine him stopping off at Pink’s for lunch one day while he was over here. The notion of Coppola’s utopian would be-studio achieving the sort of success that would have allowed Godard to actually make a film in Hollywood is a fascinating one but of course he had already confronted the prospect of such a thing and what that could possibly mean for him. That would of course be CONTEMPT (LE MÉPRIS), based on the novel “Il Disprezzo” by Alberto Moravia, made in 1963 but unreleased in the U.S. until the very end of 1964, the story of writer Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) hired by American film producer Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance) to do a rewrite on his filming of The Odyssey, currently being directed by the legendary Fritz Lang (Fritz Lang). Paul is married to the gorgeous Camille (Brigitte Bardot) who he loves and she loves everything about him completely…until, suddenly, she doesn’t. As Paul attempts to navigate the impossible waters of Prokosch’s personality in making this film he must face up to whatever he may have done that led to Camille feeling such utter contempt for him.
The youthful exuberance of BREATHLESS and BAND OF OUTSIDERS might be the most purely enjoyable of Godard’s films from this era, they’re the ones that people seem to return to the most but CONTEMPT, whatever sort of elaborate prank on the director’s part that it is and almost known more for that famous poster featuring artwork of its iconic star, has always had more pull for me even if it isn’t my ‘favorite’ of his. But it probably is. Described by Godard himself as “an Antonioni film shot by Hawks or Hitchcock” both the story and the filmic language is relatively straightforward—as Godard films go it’s probably his slickest as well as his closest approximation to what we imagine a ‘real’ movie to be, photographed with every ounce of spectacular lusciousness by Raoul Coutard in color and Scope. The tracking shots alone in this film haunt me in how beautiful they are. And yet it’s a film that could only be made by this director, a glorification of the goddess Bardot as well as an examination of how the world, or just Godard himself, looks at her. Plus it’s an extended meta-gag of film vs. reality as well as a brutal examination of what that means. Piccoli’s screenwriter is the obvious surrogate for the director but Godard seems to be fighting against making him anything resembling a hero, not only taking who I imagine would have been the focus in the script and shifting it through the making of the film to female lead Bardot, her love for him, her hatred, her silent pleading to him not to fuck this up.
It isn’t hard for Godard’s camera to keep that harmony with his female star not only because it’s Bardot after all but because the male lead as played by Piccoli is such a schmuck, a screenwriter more interested in looking for ideas in movies he wants to see than in the ‘reality’ in front of him, more interested in discussing the bizarre Marlene Dietrich western RANCHO NOTORIOUS (which is a pretty good movie, but not that good) with the great Fritz Lang than his masterpiece M but more importantly how he fucks up his own marriage for reasons that he can’t even see. He loves everything about Camille’s body, he “loves her totally”. She’s a body to him and she’s happy to be a body for him, she’ll do anything for him, she’ll willingly get down on her knees for him, because she knows deep down that he thinks of her more than that. Until he takes it a step too far and fucks it up, all for Prokosch who doesn’t even bother to keep his interest in Camille a secret. He loses her. He can’t get her back and there’s nothing he can do about it. If he didn’t fuck it up right then he would have eventually. There are parts throughout CONTEMPT that I know deep down I can’t quite grasp due to my eternal singledom and that’s my problem. But more than anything else, the feeling it gives off that I understand down to my bones is that you expect the disaster. Deep down, you know you’re going to fuck things up. Then you do and you’re still clueless about what you may have done. As everything falls apart for Paul, we get quick flashes to moments we’ve seen that illustrate this, as well as a few we haven’t, done in a cutting style that almost makes me queasy in how unnerving it is, in a way only personal flashes in your head of your own fuck-ups do. There’s no way to win but you were going to screw it up anyway. There was no stopping it.
Along with all this are the playful touches that lay bare just the process of the film itself so the artifice is obvious, we know that it’s never anything other than a movie—the opening shot that also displays the filming of a tracking shot as the detailed credits are read aloud. A musical performance in a theater with obvious tracking of the singer, maybe the one sequence closest to early Godard in its playfulness, never even tries to be ‘real’. Cinecitta is portrayed as an empty ghost town of ruins with posters of HATARI! and PSYCHO scattered around. Jack Palance, the ugly American producer, represents the end of cinema while Fritz Lang, a God himself making this film about Gods for a man who is nothing of the sort walks among them. He even recites his famous opinion of what CinemaScope is good for is this film shot in CinemaScope almost better than any other film shot in CinemaScope ever was. Bardot is introduced in a scene supposedly there to appease the producers upset at the lack of Bardot nudity and no matter how blatant it is feels essential. Piccoli’s screenwriter is caught outside of these struggles and a part of it as well, a man who not only lives in movies but can’t see what’s in front of him. He makes the same mistake concerning Camille twice and that second strike is clearly enough.
It’s a portrait of self-loathing for Godard, loathing for making this film, for all I know even loathing for casting Bardot as his wife instead of his own then-wife Anna Karina. He lives through the movies. Even when they’re alone that’s how they live. She puts on a wig and wants to be someone else (Anna Karina, maybe). Never removing his hat even in the bathtub, he wants to be Dean Martin in SOME CAME RUNNING but he can’t and as much as he tries to rationalize it to himself he wants the money this job could give him, communist party card or not, caught between the art of the God Lang and the checkbook/ego of false God Palance, unable to decide for himself which side he should be on or for what reasons. The middle third of the film is basically Bardot and Piccoli alone in their apartment as everything breaks down and the way that half-hour goes, of every excruciating inch of this argument between the two of them scene is shot going through every emotion imaginable, observing them from a distance and when the camera finally moves in to close-ups as their discussion becomes more intimate keeps them deliberately separated. For this half-hour the apartment is the universe, a distance between them vaster than any CinemaScope vista could ever express.
Beyond each of those arguments of film vs life, why Paul & Camille’s marriage collapses vs why Odysseus’ marriage collapses in trying to sort out the story of this film and the playfulness of how CONTEMPT is about watching Bardot, as well as Bardot’s ass, and it knows this. It’s about how she feels about that as well, how she feels about being so dismissed as just a body by her so-called intellectual husband who doesn’t deserve her (it seems like a joke in itself that the film totally ignores whoever the stars of this filming of The Odyssey are—actors can be dismissed as she proves otherwise). Placed up against the jaw-dropping images of Capri filmed in Casa Malaparte to represent Prokosch’s villa, Bardot is just as beautiful and the film seems to understand that she should be worshipped just as we worship the beauty of those majestic cliffs, yet Paul doesn’t. The hauntingly unforgettable Georges Delerue score (prominently featured in Scorsese’s CASINO) deliberately overplayed to heighten the feel watching over it all adds to the majesty just as the statues, the scenery, the gods, watching over it all this madness which in this villa feels like it’s set at the edge of the world, the end of all art, life, film, reality. Paul is a deliberate cipher in the end, as much as we or Camille would wish otherwise, without the backbone to stop what happens—the climactic delirium of the climax of Vincente Minnelli’s TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN which seems to anticipate CONTEMPT is numerous ways is here just cut off abruptly.
In the end we’re left with someone who won’t give us any clue to what his feelings really are, beyond presumably checking to see if RIO BRAVO’s still playing when he gets back to Rome. The final line of dialogue we hear in the film, “Silencio”, is of course the exact same last line heard in Lynch’s MULHOLLAND DRIVE (I’m hardly the first to notice parallels between the two) also one of the best films that ever looked at the line between the fantasy of film and the harsh reality surrounding that dream. At the end of the dream that’s all there can be. Before Paul leaves, Fritz Lang tells his that he’s filming Odysseus’ gaze upon seeing his homeland but the best we can tell when the shot plays out is that they’re filming him from behind staring out at the water, no gaze ever visible. Which makes as much sense as any relationship—what we think is safe is really just a void. Or maybe that void is the meaning Godard wants to pretend we’re supposed to get out of it. It’s the meaning we seek in every hoped-for connection that eventually crumbles to pieces.
However much this is Bardot giving a performance or simply going along with what Godard wants she feels totally in synch with her director. Whether she’s a great actress or not, the film is partly about staring at her blank face anyway and her inexpressiveness can be as telling as the monolith in 2001, just as it should be, and there’s forever the hope that she might actually smile again—a joking gesture she makes to Fritz Lang at one point feels out of character but whether it was off the cuff or not doesn’t matter. It reveals more than she’ll allow to Paul at that point. This winds up placing even more distance between us and the actor presumably playing the Godard surrogate and everything is done to make Michel Piccoli not come off as the cool Belmondo-type. He never can be, much as he might want to, but the actor brings a humanity to the character nevertheless as if the character/the actor has discovered he’s not really the ‘lead’ in his own movie and has to do something about it. The intimidation of Jack Palance expressed through his secretary, well played by Georgia Moll, is appropriately confounding so his bullying and false intellectualism towards Piccoli is always nerve-racking. Fritz Lang, who in real life had already directed his final film, seems patiently willing to do whatever Godard wants of him while carrying himself as a man who knows all but the absolute unknowable and he’s content with that. “You must finish what you start,” he declares at the very end and maybe that’s all we can ever try to do.
Now I may think that Godard’s CONTEMPT is one of the best films ever made but, to steal a line from Howard Beale, what has that got to do with the price of rice? To say that I love CONTEMPT is equal to me saying that I have near zero confidence in anything I even try to write, let alone awareness of how to do anything better next time. There are infinite ideas to express about CONTEMPT but in the end there really is just what we see so it’s a film with a fascination that persists. Even if it is a film about bafflement, confusion, obsession, there’s a love in there, a yearning for what is never going to be. But it’s also hard not to look at this film and think of Truffaut’s famous 1973 letter to Godard calling him out on acting like “a shit” in response to Godard’s letter where he writes on his low opinion of DAY FOR NIGHT. Truffaut asks why he’s wasting his time seeing films he hates that will fuel his hatred: “Why? In the hope of finding something that will fuel your contempt for the rest of us, that will reinforce your new prejudices?” I suspect the use of this film’s title in that question was unintentional but it does make a point and Truffaut certainly seems like the one in the right. There’s no use in getting into Godard’s work in recent years since it’s so obscure, there’s so much I haven’t seen yet including GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE (I’ve also never seen all of the English language version of CONTEMPT which removes the element of different languages being spoken from this story of people who aren’t speaking the same language. In clips it seems totally wrong, but perversely amusing). There’s also no point in dwelling on the personalities of either Godard or Bardot in recent years. Maybe it’s best to leave them back in the sixties, still waiting at Casa Malaparte. As for the meaning of CONTEMPT, well, we look for poetry in life, sometimes desperately. It doesn’t mean we find it, even if we’re with the one woman we want to be with, even if she’s the most beautiful woman in the world. You can find several of those in Los Angeles. Sometimes she just happens to be who you’re talking to during one of those moments where everything seems right. It may only be a fantasy and the feeling certainly never lasts but for those few seconds you no longer can tell where the film you’ve been obsessively watching ends and real life begins.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

One Night You'll Wake Up

According to a date visible at a subway stop during its last moments, Michael Mann’s COLLATERAL ends early on the morning of January 25, 2004. I imagine that this is an accidental reveal of when the scene was actually shot more than anything since that day was a Sunday, meaning Jada Pinkett Smith’s prosecuting attorney most likely wouldn’t have had to pull an all-nighter before court that morning. But the date does make a certain amount of sense regardless since, after all, January is the month where we all think about how far we haven’t come and the possibility of hope for the coming year, something I imagine might have been on the mind of the film’s lead character. And sometimes at the end of January we wish that we could start the whole thing over again. Over ten years on, COLLATERAL barely seems two years old even though so much has happened since it was released in August 2004, so much has changed both in the world and in the careers of the various people involved. And so much has changed regarding the concept of films being shot digitally, with this being an early example of that approach since it’s the first one shot on the Viper FilmStream HD and that alone makes it very much a product of when it was made—you could easily film more or less the same script (allowing for the existence of Uber, of course) but the look of the piece would never be the same. The technology has changed too fast and as much as I’m one of those hardcore film people even I have to admit the look that technology Michael Mann insisted on plays as perfect for COLLATERAL, it makes its view of Los Angeles that much more unique and catches this particular moment in time just right. Hell, the Michael Mann view of the city isn’t ever based in reality anyway, what with Amy Brennenman’s bookstore clerk in HEAT somehow able to afford the most spectacular view you’ve ever seen. Likewise, geography doesn’t always make sense in COLLATERAL and I still wonder about the magic pathway Jamie Foxx’s Max takes to Jada Pinkett Smith’s office that seems to remove all traffic from the Harbor Freeway. Even visually speaking Mann doesn’t go much for strict realism—the city at dusk here almost looks more like dawn to me and makes this particular view of the city which has appeared in so many other films that much more dreamlike. And within this Mann-infused metropolis is the test the lead character goes through, the one that reminds him the year has already started. That the clock is ticking, as it always does.
Immediately after L.A. cab driver Max (Jamie Foxx) hits it off with justice department attorney Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith) he picks up a new fare, a mysterious gentleman named Vincent (Tom Cruise) who offers Max a deal to drive him around all that night so he can take care of certain business dealings. Max quickly, and fatefully, learns that Vincent is actually an assassin, in town to make five stops to do his job before morning. Now he’s going to hold Max to the deal they’ve made and as the LAPD in the form of Detective Ray Fanning (Mark Ruffalo) gets on the trail of the taxi Max finds it increasingly harder to escape whatever Vincent has planned for the rest of the night.
Almost no one saw Michael Mann’s latest film BLACKHAT, a box office disaster when it was released in January, but I did. And I even liked it. Actually, I know a few people who both saw it and liked it just as I did but there weren’t many of them and that’s the way it goes. For an early stretch of that film’s plot it takes us to Los Angeles, Koreatown more specifically, and of course for a few minutes it gives us that comfortable feeling of classic Mann territory, the sort of L.A. that only he knows how to put in front of the camera. It’s the first time I truly, genuinely responded to a Mann film since COLLATERAL and the director’s chucking over film for digital when he made that film which was so controversial then remains so now. I won’t claim that it’s hard not to want more of those jaw-droppingly beautiful anamorphic cityscapes of the masterwork that is HEAT but at least we got it that one time. As much as I’ll always prefer that film look what sets Mann apart is that unlike many other directors is how willing he was to dare to make COLLATERAL not look like film at all and it turns the movie into something else entirely, going far beyond a plot that, while enjoyable, might be a little too familiar at times in its genre tropes. Mann simply seems more interested in the vibe, the moments, the looks between the characters, the new images the digital cameras can capture, than all the plot stuff anyway.
Revisiting COLLATERAL over ten years on makes me pay attention to the mood of the city more than that plot, causing a flashback to how close to when it came out I worked for a period at a swing shift job down near the airport. Like Max and his skills at knowing how long it takes to get to certain places, knowing just how to get lucky with the lights, it was a job I was good at and hated. Hated it so much that when a more promising opportunity that actually paid less came up I leapt at it, leaving that period of staying up well past the early morning hours behind me. But for those several months I drove home in the post-midnight hour, the cityscape looming in front of me in the dark. I didn’t exactly linger in places but my memory of those endless drives home was that they seemed more like COLLATERAL than HEAT and there’s a feel that you get driving through certain parts of Los Angeles late at night that it nails better than any other film. Maybe I’d rather live in the anamorphic universe of HEAT but even so the Los Angeles of COLLATERAL falls somewhere in between reality (or as close as you ever get to reality in L.A.) and Mann-World, a place where the geography doesn’t always make perfect sense—looking up how Mann would sometimes combine multiple locations into one confirms this—and a hospital apparently has visiting hours that go beyond last call at a jazz club. If he says that’s the way it is in his vision, that’s the way it is.
With a screenplay credited to Stuart Beattie (both Mann and Frank Darabont reportedly worked on it as well) COLLATERAL is the rare Michael Mann film that only exists in one version, no after the fact tinkering to be done by him for either video or TV. Whether this is because of any satisfaction Mann had with the film or not the film is tightly paced almost to the point of making the bulk of it an extended climax to a sprawling epic that we never got to see the first two-thirds of. It makes the rhythms exciting, unexpected, what we assume is a leisurely detour becoming tense within just a few seconds. All the talk of jazz makes it feel like Mann himself is riffing (“behind the notes”) in making this film, a down and dirty changeup as opposed to the concerto that is HEAT—in spite of it being known for early digital use there are sequences shot on film and because of this even the visual style is continually reenergizing itself, adapting to what the particular scene needs. It’s not his shortest film (let’s not forget THE KEEP, even if Mann wants to) but it does feel like he’s using the framework of the plot to deliberately go against the sprawling epic feel we expect from him to make something more compact, noirish even and it gives the film a tightness, a different kind of energy. There’s very little lingering in scenes like can often be found in his films--the nature of the narrative means there can’t be and it energizes things enormously. It offers a clarity to every single moment in Mann’s direction that continually holds to a point of view in individual moments and doesn’t stop. And it’s about these two guys caught up in the midst of all this, how the spectre of death that is Vincent is the catalyst to wake Max up from that endless drive in his taxi around the city. I never feel any sympathy or grudging fondness for Vincent but he knows the buttons he’s correctly pushing and in the moment when he tells Max that if they get out of this alive he should call her you can tell that he means it.
Maybe the parts of COLLATERAL have a greater effect than the whole but that feel of riffing is there even from the very start—except for the opening beat of Vincent, the first twelve minutes works as a short film unto itself and a pretty great short film at that. The connection Max and Annie quickly develop feels genuine, every inflection feels absolutely real. Maybe there’s a subtext in how the two actors are each the same color, placed up against the Great God Cruise in the climax, but maybe that doesn’t matter since that surge we feel in Jamie Foxx’s Max at the end of it is felt so strongly. It hasn’t even hit the fifteen minute mark and in some ways that’s all I really need. But since the film moves on from there it offers enough moments to more than justify continuing—the locations, that feel of the L.A. night, those long, narrow streets of the mid-city area, the lazy talk at a jazz club, that turns into something else without blinking, the unexpected confrontation Vincent has with a few muggers, the bridge going over one of the freeways that Vincent confronts Max on.
And even when the film works in the plot point of the Feds gearing up to move in on Max it feels like Mann is just as interested in exploring the surroundings of late night L.A., if not more so, with the evocative punch of what’s out there in the night. Bruce McGill’s line of “some are asleep, some are awake” lets us in on the full world surrounding all of this. Part of this section is almost a little too plot heavy but again I zero in on the mood it gives off, how the director makes this club allegedly somewhere down on Rodeo feel like it’s located on the outer rim of the free-floating planetoid that is Los Angeles as the music wafts through the air, never stopping. Mann seems to kick back and let us observe the machinations of all these pieces coming into play as they track Max’s cab and I’m not really sure if all the factions zeroing in on the Koreatown nightclub entirely works. Outside of Ruffalo we really don’t have that much of an investment of any of them but maybe that’s the point considering how they’re all rendered dead or irrelevant as we race off to the climax. As it is it’s a mesmerizing sequence just to watch and listen to, as if Mann is more into the pureness of the movement, the music, the confusion of the crowd, the reactions of the people closing in on each other than any interest getting the strict plot across. Just like when you leave a club, you still feel the daze after it ends.
As Max races through the empty downtown streets to get to Annie on time the James Newton Howard score—for once, overtaking the expected use of songs from Mann—seems to anticipate the Batman theme in the Christopher Nolan films, the first of which would arrive a year later. That climax of course is the big sticking point most people seem to have with the movie and, to be honest, I don’t have a very good argument for this but I can’t imagine another way I’d want to film to end either. It’s what the story has been naturally building to after all, it’s what the challenge Max is facing is building to. Plus, I’m not sure there’s any other city where such coincidences feel so natural. The movie isn’t about Max saving Annie and living happily ever after with her anyway, but instead facing down this guy who’s challenging him, making him want to accomplish something (“What the fuck are you still doing driving a cab?”) for once. Chasing down Vincent even means that Max actually winds up calling Annie, even if it wasn’t for the reason any of them would have expected. Yes, you feel the plot gears clicking along but it’s expertly done and the climactic action beats are actually more abrupt than you’d expect—the endless John Woo bullets flying doesn’t interest Mann. I mentioned earlier how I’d almost be happy if the film ended at the ten minute mark, right at the point where there’s a beat of hope for the first time in forever for Max, even if he has no idea what he’s going to do next. But by the end he’s managed to do something more, he’s done what seems like the most impossible thing in life—to say ‘Go fuck yourself’ to what’s crushing you deep down. The end of the film strands Max and Annie who knows where somewhere on a subway going to Long Beach, trying to flag down a ride. And they don’t know what’s going to happen next. Maybe that’s the best possible feeling you can have in the early morning hours of a new day in Los Angeles.
Looking at it now, this feels like a Tom Cruise performance that marks the end of a period when he seemed willing to take chances and work with strong directors that would push him (the whole Tom & Kate thing arrived about eight months later, marking the start of a new period in both his stardom and his film work). His portrayal of Vincent works with our own perception of his personality veering from being disarming to unnerving to total lack of comprehension of how normal people behave since he really does seem not quite human even as a few glimmers begin to poke through against his wishes. Jamie Foxx is flat-out great, playing a man who has made himself small, who has allowed himself to ignore any intelligence he has while repeating his same old boasts with just the right amount of puny bravado, forever convincing himself how temporary all this is. Jada Pinkett Smith does her best work ever during the first ten minutes as if Mann is letting her do something she’s never done before and it feels like the work of an actress that we never got to see again. As the plot gears that have to kick into place Mann lets the supporting cast do strong work making their parts into something with just a few minutes of screentime in some cases—Mark Ruffalo brings an energy to the plot beats that show the gears clicking in his head. Javier Bardem delivers exactly the right quiet menace as Felix, Barry Shabaka Henley brings unexpected depth to his one scene as Daniel indicating a life that didn’t quite happen and Bruce McGill nails his federal agent who doesn’t even know that the climax of the action movie he only thinks he’s the lead character of has already started. Jason Statham’s bit at the very start remains about as funny now as it did in 2004—he looks like he’s on his way to the first scene of another TRANSPORTER sequel. Or maybe it ties in with the chronology of the FAST/FURIOUS movies somehow.
Max closes the door of his cab and the whole world outside shuts off. That makes sense. I write in various places and if I have to I’ll bring the laptop down to Starbucks but I work best in my apartment. Shut off from the world. No chance of being disturbed. Just like his cab is Max’s own private, very small, domain where it’s just him and his private island, like the one Marion Crane spoke of long ago. Ten years from now, Vincent observes, most people know exactly where they’ll be. That’s part of why I left that job at the time. Now as I write this it’s over ten years later and I still feel a little stranded out there in my own version of Max’s taxi. All we know about ten years from now is that critical reappraisal on BLACKHAT will have happened. Early on Vincent tells Max the story of the guy on the L.A. subway who dies and no one notices so his body just keeps riding around the city. This would make more sense in New York where the film was originally set but never mind—is Max going to be a dead guy riding around L.A. and no one notices? Am I? Is one of the greatest fears that one day you’ll be doing nothing but talking about your one moment of glory, long after ‘the season had passed’? At the beginning of this piece I went on about what January does to you but I’m actually finishing writing this in February which means the year is already happening, the clock is already ticking. And it’s going to continue to, which maybe scares me more than anything right now.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Anything That You Can't Avoid

Time goes on and you don’t know what to do with it so one day you wake up and you have vivid memories of things that happened twenty years ago. But in those recollections you’re not even a kid anymore but an adult with actual bills and responsibilities. The nostalgia for yourself has already shifted. And you’re thinking of a few of those paths you never quite went down from the girl you met at a party and just assumed you’d see again but never did to that other girl who years after you last had a drink with her stumble across a photo of with her newborn baby on the internet or that girl who used to live in your building who you still half-expect to get a call from one of these days saying that she’s back. The memories all swirl together and movies are a part of that which means sometimes I find myself back during opening night of PULP FICTION at the Chinese because that seems like a pretty good place to be stuck in. But you can’t be stuck there, any more than you can go back and find one of those girls from long ago. You’re stuck now in the mysteries of now, the films of now. Plus I’m stuck in my apartment trying to figure out what to make of INHERENT VICE. This shouldn’t have been that much of a problem. Paul Thomas Anderson’s last film THE MASTER affected me and glommed onto my gut like few films have done in the past decade and I’m still hypnotically drawn to it. In comparison I am drawn to INHERENT VICE and feel like I’m finding my way in there slowly although the film’s deliberate impenetrability makes that difficult, much as it might seem like the sort of film that I can get a hold on pretty easily. But I have seen INHERENT VICE five times by now and I can say this with absolute assurance: I’m getting close to having an opinion on the thing.
You know that I’m not going to be able to summarize the plot of how in 1970 P.I. Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) who lives down in Gordita Beach and how his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katharine Waterston) comes by and asks him to look into the case of her missing millionaire boyfriend Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) and Doc’s continuing run-ins with cop Bigfoot (Josh Brolin) and how all this and more seems to be connected to the enigmatic warning he receives as a P.S. on a note to “Beware the Golden Fang”. I mean, you know that, right? Not even the moderately detailed plot summary on the Wikipedia page is much help and I’m fairly sure it gets a few things wrong anyway. But I imagine the plot is meant to be only about as clear as what Doc jots down in his notepad--“Something Spanish”--so never mind. All you really need to know is that I was there at the Cinerama Dome on opening weekend to see it in 70mm. I mean, of course I was. What could Doc Sportello have seen at the Dome in 1970? Maybe PAINT YOUR WAGON, maybe DARLING LILI but it’s doubtful he would have wanted to go to either. Anyway, I saw it there just like I saw THE MASTER there in 70mm on opening weekend. Unlike THE MASTER, I didn’t go back in a trance the following day faced with an absolute need to experience it once again. This time, I felt lost even as I was exiting the theater. And not just in terms of the plot although I certainly felt that but I also felt like something wasn’t getting across as if I had to be around in 1970 for total understanding (making me recall Peter Fonda’s remembrance of the time as being a place where you ‘knew the language’ in THE LIMEY) or maybe I needed this film’s version of one of those glossaries they handed out to explain DUNE on opening night. I wasn’t sure what to think, how much this was meant to be arch, how much a satirical glance back, how much a yearning examination of why certain things were the way they were and are the way they are.
Anderson adapted the screenplay from the novel himself and I may as well fess up that the bulk of my experience with Thomas Pynchon, mostly due to pure intimidation, comes from the sight of Denise Crosby reading the Cliff’s Notes to GRAVITY’S RAINBOW in Steve DeJarnatt’s MIRACLE MILE. At the very least I can pick out a few of the presumed influences in INHERENT VICE whether THE LONG GOODBYE or NIGHT MOVES or CISCO PIKE or THE BIG LEBOWSKI or random episodes of THE ROCKFORD FILES. Someone I know on Twitter compared a lengthy section to a sequence in Billy Wilder’s BUDDY BUDDY so let’s toss that one in too while we’re at it because that makes as much sense as anything. But all that aside, it’s the issue of trying to figure out just what INHERENT VICE is beyond the surface, making it seem like a feature length equivalent of the scene where Bigfoot drags out telling Doc something almost to the point of insanity then when he finally does say what happened he adds an additional comment that causes it all to make even less sense. Mix, shake, stir, so we feel just enough disorientation of a long dialogue scene with Doc and someone else immediately followed by him returning home to a phone call from that very same person with even more information. It’s only slightly more important that Doc pieces the plot together than you or I do and he’s definitely trying.
Aesthetically speaking, INHERENT VICE is absolutely its own thing leaving much unexplained down to if Joanna Newson’s enigmatic Sortilège is narrating the movie for us, if she’s narrating it for Doc as a sort of friendly angel in his own head or even if she exists at all whether she’s seen when other people are around or not. I’d be perfectly happy to have her narrate my life. Such ambiguities that might not lead to any clear-cut answer does make it feel of a piece with Anderson’s approach to THE MASTER while attempting to stay somewhat faithful to the book he’s adapting as opposed to the more freeform original screenplay of the earlier film. Both films contain lingering stretches of pure cinema combined with long scenes that focus on nothing more than the faces in the room as they talk to each other. Even the very concept of establishing shots are discarded as irrelevant with nothing more important than those massive close-ups and the mystery of what goes on behind them.
That extension of Anderson’s filmmaking style is a reminder of how his interests have moved away from the flamboyance of the endless tracking shots in BOOGIE NIGHTS and MAGNOLIA and few other directors (and DPs-- Robert Elswit is back for this one after sitting out THE MASTER) have shown such pure skill at filming those close-ups, although the preponderance of similar shots of Joaquin Phoenix in these two films suggests to me that Anderson had gotten a little too set in his ways on how to frame him about midway through this shoot and never wavered from that. When certain cinematic reveries that seem like they can only come from this director do come into play they seem to matter all the more—they’re not just showboating for the camera but recounting something that means so much more it hurts. They’re those moments that we’re reaching for in our heads trying to understand them, trying to know how we fucked things up and wishing we could get back there.
The address 4723 Sunset is given for a crucial scene which actually isn’t far from where I live and doesn’t look at all in 2015 like it does in the film’s 1970 (the scene was filmed in Pomona) but who knows if it really looked like that then anyway, just like how when you go back somewhere hoping for a sliver of times past all that really does is fuck with your head anyway. Fittingly the rain-drenched discovery of 4723 Sunset is maybe my single favorite moment from any film in 2014, more than anything in Best-Film-Of-The-Year UNDER THE SKIN, a hauntingly beautiful memory as Shasta runs through the rain while Neil Young’s “Journey Through The Past” plays and it for just a moment everything in the world is absolutely the way it should be. The moment plays as its own short film, sort of the INHERENT VICE equivalent of the “Get Thee Behind Me Satan” department store sequence in THE MASTER, but it’s also an unexpected, not totally explained memory of past love just like Freddie Quell was forced to recall, even if whatever happened between Doc Sportello and Shasta in the past was more of them drifting apart that Freddie Quell’s fleeing his love Doris Solstad in the middle of the night for reasons he didn’t understand. I’m not sure if one is necessarily more painful than the other, just as Doc and Freddie share last names that are at least vaguely similar. Does Doc care more about Shasta than Freddie Quell cares about Doris? It’s not a stretch to think that Doc is lying there thinking of Shasta at the beginning when she appears in his apartment. In Los Angeles, that’s how this sort of reappearance usually happens anyway.
But INHERENT VICE is a vibe unto itself. For me the funniest moments are so offhand that I wonder if anyone else even notices them. In spite of what was speculated leading up to release there’s really not that much LONG GOODBYE or BIG LEBOWSKI and comparisons to FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (book and/or film) have more to do with explorations of what was lost of the 60s by the time 1970 hit than anything else. The film is partly about ‘the loss of the 60s’ but goes further than that as if it possesses an awareness that something is dying and it can’t be stopped. Somehow there seems to be another Manson reference in dialogue that I hear on each new viewing, a reminder that things are only going to get worse from then on. Like CISCO PIKE, a film that has all the driving around that I only imagine happens in INHERENT VICE, everything has already come crumbling down. Much as I want there to be more reveries, I want Doc to drive past some of those billboards in ZABRISKIE POINT or MODEL SHOP. In ways that I only partly understand, more than anyone Paul Thomas Anderson’s views of California, whichever the era he’s presenting is, is a presentation of the state, that California in our mind, that feels like the California that was there decades before I showed up, or maybe makes me think of pieces that I saw when visiting long ago. Maybe Johnny Greenwood’s score helps it haunt the back regions of my memory even more than those songs do. Whatever’s in the air is tangible.
One actual location we do get is the exterior of Parker Center which is currently empty and may not be long for this world, which feels pertinent to everything else the film wants to say, about what the ultimate goal of the people in charge really is, the ultimate goal of the massive conglomerate all-reaching Golden Fang in its pursuit of vertical integration combining the drug addicts and the recovery and the real estate thanks to what Reagan has already done and will continue to do. To keep the rich further apart from all the others who have to pay them rent and make sure that Mickey Wolfmann, who for reasons of his own suddenly wants people to be able to live ‘for free’, comes back into the fold falls back in line with all that. A key figure behind it all works at the law firm of Voorhees-Krueger which says something about their ultimate real estate goals for the city, an approach which continues to this day and something that Doc Sportello certainly can’t do anything about. The endless explosion at the end of ZABRISKIE POINT happens offscreen here. It has to. Unlike everyone else in Doc’s world Bigfoot is stuck in between, the middle class Joe who doesn’t fit in with either side, much as he may want to, and there won’t be any place for him in that future. He doesn’t know who he is, only that he doesn’t belong to any of that. “What a wonderful world this would be,” goes the line in the famous song during an exchange near the end as Doc removes himself from this once and for all. As lighthearted as the moment is, it feels like a dirge for what can’t be stopped. “You’re doing good, Doc,” Sortilège encouragingly tells him at one point. But there’s only so much he can ever do. Just like Freddie Quell had to in the end, there’s nothing Doc can do about any of it beyond to just keep moving forward, whether Shasta’s back together with him or not, staying observant of what’s on all sides, maybe because that’s all anyone ever can do.
Joaquin Phoenix makes Doc Sportello half ahead of everyone, half behind everyone but mostly in his own head as the character tries to follow along with whoever else he’s in the scene with. It’s a performance made up of those small, unexpected actions and goes perfectly with the film. The gears in the characters head click away as they’re meant to so he can figure things out but in a way that only makes sense to himself, never knowing if even the people closest to him will reveal everything. Josh Brolin takes every moment where Bigfoot has to face off with Sportello and dives in fearlessly, every gesture revealing something about Bigfoot’s desperate squareness, his haircut irrevocably altering the shape of his head as well as his own personality, how what’s going on is making less and less sense but he can’t tell anyone. I’m still unconvinced on Brolin’s final moments which don’t quite land for me but that’s minor—as bigfoot he’s a desperate force of nature and we can feel how he’s close to cracking eventually. Everything done by the name actors during the long stretches of endless exposition don’t always play beyond the droning although even what doesn’t work is sometimes unexpected--Owen Wilson’s several extended scenes are mostly played in a hypnosis-inducing whisper and yet the way Wilson inserts a few carefully odd bits of syntax into his phrasings always gets me to follow along a little further.
Katherine Waterston as Shasta provides the uncertain grace the film needs, visions of all that is good even if we can tell there’s much more going on under the surface while there isn’t a single phrasing or glance that Joanna Newsom makes as Sortilège that doesn’t make me want her around more. Just let her the way draws out saying, “Doper’s ESP” remain in my head for now and all time. And there’s the delights of the actors who glide in briefly, sometimes for just one scene—Serena Scott Thomas as Mrs. Wolfmann, Jeannie Berlin as Aunt Reet, Hong Chau as Jade, Michelle Sinclair as Clancy Charlock (her final moment is one of my favorite of the film, one of those moments of dialogue, music and silent reflection that works beautifully), Sasha Pieterse as Japonica Fenway, Martin Short as Rudy Blatnoyd, D.D.S. and maybe most unforgettably Eric Roberts as Mickey Wolfmann who with just a few lines offers a tragedy to this fallen figure who doesn’t seem to know why he’s done what he has, only that he’s not allowed to do it anymore. As a key figure beyond it all Martin Donovan is pure ice, a bland Noah Cross who doesn’t need to be a villain. He doesn’t need to care that much. The likes of Doc Sportello are never going to be enough to interest him for very long anyway.
Even Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies are memories now, at least for me. There was a near-riot that occurred on opening weekend of BOOGIE NIGHTS at the now-gone Hollywood Galaxy when the film broke midway, jeopardizing going next door to the Chinese afterwards to catch DEVIL’S ADVOCATE. And then I blinked my eyes to suddenly find myself here writing about this new film. I’m feeling right on the verge of saying I love INHERENT VICE but it may take at least one more viewing to know for sure. Maybe two. I may need to write a whole other piece on it. For now, it stays just as alive in my head as those memories of unavoidable melancholy that I can’t shake no matter how late it is and what I need to dig out of the film to love it may still be buried a little further down (“Does it ever end? Of course it does,” to steal a line from Sortilège). Sometimes when you love something it’s tough to know right away. I may change my mind about all this within five minutes and I’ll be able to declare just how close it ranks to the likes of BOOGIE NIGHTS and THE MASTER. My mind may never change. For now, this is me. But there’s never anything as inevitable as change.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Slower Than The Other

The notion that nothing really makes any sense isn’t a bad way to start off the year. Maybe realizing that can free you, keep you from the crippling fear that you’re not going to accomplish a damn thing by the time December comes around again. Sure, it’s a little self-defeating when you come right down to it, but what isn’t? I could just as easily talk about why I haven’t been posting anything in the past few months but no point in going down that road, at least not right now. A few years back I started writing a piece about Arthur Penn’s NIGHT MOVES which is a longtime favorite of mine, put it aside, never backed it up and then lost it when my last computer died. C'est la vie. I know what that piece was going to be about and I actually always thought it was coming along pretty well. But it’s not what I’m writing about right now because, of course, things change. On the other hand, it’s the exact same thing I’m writing about deep down. You think things change in this town but maybe they don’t. Nothing is ever clear enough to know for sure.
Just as L.A. private investigator Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman) discovers that his wife Ellen (Susan Clark) is having an affair he takes on a case to find teenage runaway Delly Crastner (Melanie Griffith). His path leads from Delly’s alcoholic mother (Janet Ward) to movie stuntmen Delly’s been involved with all the way out to Key West on the trail of her where he encounters Delly’s stepfather Tom Iverson (John Crawford) and his mysterious ladyfriend Paula (Jennifer Warren) who know all too well what Delly’s been up to. But what seems to be cut and dried in Harry’s investigation turns out to have much more going on than he first realizes.
The smooth jazz of Michael Small’s main theme kicks in at the start and right away it’s hard for me not to get sucked into NIGHT MOVES, to feel that mid-70s L.A. vibe, the washed-out, laid-back nature of it all but while the film is almost compulsively rewatchable—I’ve seen it multiple times just in theaters by now—it never becomes easy. It never wants to become easy even down to how the narrative seems to deliberately drift in nowheresville for a long stretch until we find out that it isn’t, of course it isn’t, that important events were happening right in front of us only neither we nor the lead character ever noticed. That murkiness never entirely goes away after repeated viewings along with the films undeniable portrayal of the bitter feel that the world is passing you by, or maybe has passed you by already. NIGHT MOVES might be best known these days for introducing the legendary declaration that Eric Rohmer’s films are “like watching paint dry” to the world and it’s an existential film about a character who hates existential films so much that he can’t even see that he’s in one, let alone the truth about the case he’s allowed himself to get close to. Actually the script is filled with lines like that one, each of them fraught with meaning and symbolism. They seem designed to aid the film in a quest to become the most 70s of all 70s films with its combination of character study, angst and conspiracy. As soon as Melanie Griffith’s Delly meets Harry she blurts out that she figures he likes things to stay the way they are—maybe she’s already been hanging out with way too many 40 year-olds.
Delly’s right about him of course and Harry certainly doesn’t want to give up his practice like his wife wants him to but I suspect for him ‘things the way they are’ was actually a long time ago. Or maybe never, indicated by his preoccupation with a famous chess match from long ago he’s always recreating on the tin board he carries around that went bad. Harry figures the player who lost regrets it and so does he, even though he wasn’t born yet. He’s trying to recreate a past he wasn’t around for, trying to prevent a tragedy that he never could have, so it’s no surprise that one of the film’s other most memorable exchanges involves discussing his memory of several Kennedys. And if there’s a more defining line for what we think of as that filmic decade (pre-’77, anyway) than Harry’s declaration that nobody’s winning the football game he’s watching on TV, “One side’s just losing slower than the other,” I can’t think of it. Alan Sharp’s screenplay is taut and piercing in that way with a brilliantly wavy structure that keeps you off kilter as much as possible while the direction by Arthur Penn (who Hackman worked for previously in BONNIE AND CLYDE and later in TARGET) lends the utmost clarity to that murkiness, always aware of what’s in the frame that you’re not supposed to notice, never wanting to admit to itself that there’s not much hope at all. BONNIE AND CLYDE might be what Penn will always be remembered for but NIGHT MOVES, still hidden away from the mainstream, stings more each time I watch it. It knows the way things are but wishes otherwise.
With locations in Malibu, up over Sunset and out in the valley NIGHT MOVES feels like a key Los Angeles film of the period (that Rohmer film is playing at the Magnolia Theater in Burbank, which was long gone by the time I showed up) and of course it’s an appropriate conundrum that no more than half the running time is even set there. For me, it almost makes sense how much of the rest of it is set down in Key West, a place I’ve never been to and don’t expect that to change any time soon so it just makes me more wary--Florida being a mirror of LA, an unfamiliar one for both Harry and myself--continuing to search for clues in every scene as we spend all that presumed downtime spent drinking with Paula at Tom Iverson’s. NIGHT MOVES would certainly work as the more serious half of a double bill with THE LONG GOODBYE (or, to get very recent with it, INHERENT VICE) and the various films in question certainly share the same decade as well as a protagonist’s own relationship to that decade as he drifts through the narrative, powerless to affect what’s really going on. Harry Moseby wants to be Philip Marlowe (or maybe Sam Spade, the name thrown at him by Harris Yulin’s Marty Heller who is sleeping with Harry’s wife) but he can’t get out of whatever inner monologue is going on inside his head that would allow him to notice the truth, any truth. He doesn’t see what the case really is that’s happening around him is about--everyone in the movie apparently knows each other and Harry doesn’t even seem to realize this much. “He didn’t see it,” Harry says when he talks about that long ago chess player as if recounting his own greatest fear, not knowing it’s already come true.
The immediate context of the film is the 70s hangover of the 60s, the depression, the feeling that there’s no way out—even Harry watching film dailies of an accidental death in a car offers a certain Zabruder frisson to it. Everyone in the film, the teenage Delly included, feels old already and they always seem to have some booze close by. Harry’s wife even shouts at him that he’s ignoring their problems “so you can pretend you’re solving something,” as if putting off some unknown inevitable. Not at all one for self-introspection, Harry couldn’t even follow through on a key mystery of his own life when he sought out some answers as he reveals at one point. Chuckling at the bio rundown of someone’s past, he reacts violently when someone does the same to him--the rundown of his own life isn’t a place he wants to visit. He can do the job, he can tracks down Delly, but he never thinks about what comes next. “You’re asking the wrong questions,” he’s told at a key point but his mindset doesn’t allow him to even consider what the right ones might be. Marty Heller, even with his willingness to see Rohmer films and casual affair with Harry’s wife, seems the most together person in the movie even with his limp, maybe because he has a cat. On the other hand, maybe that’s Philip Marlowe’s cat from THE LONG GOODBYE and Heller found him while he was making his way out to find Marlowe at Roger Wade’s house further down the beach. But now Marty fucking Heller has the cat, not to mention Harry’s wife. That doesn’t do us any good at all.
More than anything else, NIGHT MOVES is about loss which is what so much of noir is about anyway. Irretrievable loss that may or may not be pinned on you but it doesn’t matter in the end. The loss of Harry’s youth, his football past, his failing marriage, the case that’s swirling away around him. Harry loses those things because he doesn’t see what’s going on right outside of frame. Sometimes he doesn’t even see what’s right in front of him. He expects things to be straightforward. “You mean you’re gonna solve the case and find the booty?” the more-or-less femme fatale says to him near the end knowing that it isn’t that simple, also knowing that she’ll never convince him otherwise. I talk about what NIGHT MOVES means, at least to me, but I’m ignoring just how good a film it really is in the moment, how expert Arthur Penn is in expressing these themes right down to the blunt effectiveness of the climax. The McGuffin that barely even figures in to the finale that takes place mostly on a boat appropriately called the Point of View (maybe a little too obvious, but it still gets the point across) is discarded as meaningless to us as it always was, certain questions are finally answered but of course those only lead to more questions. That imagery of the final shots, a reminder of how you regret what you weren’t around for leading to screwing up what you are there for, leading to more regret and you couldn’t have changed anyway. You’re trapped in a never ending circle.
Not long ago someone I know who worships Gene Hackman mentioned they still hadn’t seen this film. Seriously, this aggression must not stand. NIGHT MOVES doesn’t just contain Hackman’s strongest work it features one of his most purely vulnerable performances as if he understood the worldview of Harry Moseby almost more than he wanted to admit. It’s a great piece of work, forceful and vulnerable, tough and always human. Jennifer Warren who, if I’m being honest, is one of the key reasons I’m continually drawn back to the film maybe best known today for playing Paul Newman’s ex-wife in SLAP SHOT here makes Paula one of the great noir creations. She takes someone who we can’t pin down right away partly thanks to all that hair she’s hiding at first but everything about her combined, her attitude, her looks, her drinking, her crappy car and making her truly enigmatic as well as fascinatingly memorable. I always want Harry to stick around Key West just a little longer with her but I guess that just makes me watch the entire film once again. “They really get to you, don’t they,” Harry Moseby observes at one point. Yeah. Along with strong work by Susan Clark as Moseby’s wife (when I think of the film I always half-remember this as Joanna Cassidy for some reason), John Crawford, Harris Yulin, Edward Binns and Janet Ward there’s the young Melanie Griffith who in this early role is extremely strong as Delly, nailing just how enticing she is along with her own fragility (some brief nudity by Griffith here—maybe I shouldn’t be asking how old she was) and a young James Woods is just great as an ex of Delly’s named Quentin, making me wonder if it was a favorite performance of another Quentin once upon a time.
The fatalistic nature of NIGHT MOVES needs to be washed down with a few shots of scotch and yet the film always sends a charge through me, a reminder of how alive a film from this era could be along with how well it plays now. “I know it doesn’t make much sense when you’re 16, but don’t worry. When you get to be 40…it isn’t any better,” Harry tells Delly when he attempts to console her. That’s certainly still true. So there are periods like these days where NIGHT MOVES just fits right in with my mood and as much as I watch it I’m still not quite able to know what to make of what happens. I mean, I pretty much know. I just don’t want to admit it. After all, NIGHT MOVES is about how you avoid the truth even when it’s being told right to your face. It’s about how you can never get anything to work because, well, you are who you are and you’re going to screw it up no matter what. It’s also one of the best films made by the people involved and, I imagine, still one of the most underappreciated films of the 70s a time when none of these films had happy endings. This thing came out in the summer, for crying out loud, released by Warner Bros. It opened the same week as NASHVILLE and, if the dates are correct, less than a month after FRENCH CONNECTION II (which has sort of a happy ending, but just barely after what Popeye Doyle’s been through). It also opened just days before the release of JAWS, a film that coincidentally also has a climax set out on the water featuring a FRENCH CONNECTION cast member but one with a considerably more upbeat result. Sometimes I watch JAWS endlessly but right now, during the first weeks of this new year, NIGHT MOVES is up there at the top of my DVD pile, lingering, daring me to watch it again. You never find out all the answers. You’re just left going in circles. What happens after the white-out to end credits is up to you. At the very least, I’d like to think that’s the case even if I know the truth. But I’m trying.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Ephemeral Is Eternal

“This is an age of movies for children, but it will pass.” Paul Mazursky said that in a 1984 People Magazine profile of John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands. Putting aside how the idea of that magazine doing an article on those two now seems like it comes from an alternate dimension, Mazursky’s statement sounds like something looking hopefully towards a future that never actually came to pass. After a long, loud summer at the movies it only seems more so. Also out of place back in 1984, not to mention right now, was James Bridges’ MIKE’S MURDER starring Debra Winger which barely even got released at the time. Opening in 80 theaters in March of that year on the same day as Tom Hanks’ starring debut SPLASH MIKE’S MURDER quickly disappeared in spite of it being Bridges’ followup to the hit URBAN COWBOY where he and Winger had first worked together. By this point Winger was even hotter after AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN and TERMS OF ENDEARMENT but if MIKE’S MURDER is remembered at all now it’s often more for what happened to it than the actual film—after a test screening that the director himself once called “disastrous” the film underwent massive reediting essentially reworking the sequence of the film, straightening out what was originally intended to be a non-linear structure. Scenes were cut, others were reshot and John Barry was brought in to replace the original music score by Joe Jackson. None of the extensive changes did much good in terms of the response when the film eventually was released over a year later--Vincent Canby in the New York Times was mostly dismissive and even now Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide calls it “one of the worst films by a filmmaker of Bridges’ stature” adding that the only reason the film didn’t receive a BOMB rating is because “several critics thought highly of it”. Over two years after it opened a New York Times TV listing of an airing advised readers to ‘skip it’ leading Pauline Kael to write on the film for the first time, imploring anyone to “please don’t skip it” and essentially giving it a rave, calling it Bridges’ “most original and daring effort”.
The film never really expanded to a wide release and maybe Warner Brothers was more than happy to let it just fade away into one of those clamshell cases their VHS tapes used to come in but often that’s what happens to movies out of time. This was certainly one of them, a 70s neo-noir character study turning up well into the following decade when people wanted, well, SPLASH. Now, 30 years later, the film still has some (if not many) people who think “highly of it”, occasionally turning up in message boards to ask if the Warner Archive (which has made the release version available) might put out the original cut one day. Even if what we have now isn’t what it was originally meant to be MIKE’S MURDER remains an original; sad and piercing, an L.A.-set mood piece that could be paired with something like NIGHT MOVES but also at its heart a true character piece that’s not about solving a mystery but about the lack of connection you ever really have with people you meet in this town. It’s a flawed film, a sad film as well as a fascinating one as well that in addition to featuring one of the very best Debra Winger performances gets at yearning and loneliness in Los Angeles in a way that few films have ever attempted, let alone express any interest in. It nails how empty the town can seem late at night when you know the phone isn’t going to ring. Whatever its problems and whatever went on in the cutting room it’s a film with a soul deep down than you can’t quite shake.
Brentwood bank teller Betty Parrish (Debra Winger) has had a longtime on-again, off-again (but mostly off-again) fling with Mike Chuhutsky (Mark Keyloun), a tennis instructor and small-time drug dealer who drifts in and out of her life. Shortly after he drifts into it once again, Betty receives a phone call telling her that Mike has been murdered, something going wrong on one of his drug deals. As Betty tries to piece together who Mike was and what he may have been into she learns surprising details about his life without realizing that what he was doing may have placed her in jeopardy as well.
Even though it runs under a minute and a half, the MIKE’S MURDER theatrical trailer contains a number of shots not seen in the finished film, almost as if it’s advertising a different version entirely—even seen out of context a few shots seems more stylized than anything in the final film, making me wonder if this is a clue towards how the original version may have played and it could be argued that the trailer fills in some exposition that the movie itself never quite gets around to. Even if MIKE’S MURDER (also written by Bridges) can’t be called of the great Los Angeles movies—in this form it’s possibly too disjointed to achieve that label—it allows for a look at the city that few other films provide finding the balance between those houses up in the hills that we wish we lived in and those places we probably shouldn’t be finding ourselves late at night where certain drug deals or who knows what are going on. The film’s portrayal of gays, particularly Paul Winfield's record producer, feels both sympathetic and matter-of-fact as well as if being presented by somebody from the inside who fully understands it.
All through the film Bridges pays attention to these people, to their glances, their silences, their surroundings—the few moments of watching the massive chili burgers being made at a Tomy’s (not Tommy’s, the name of the ones I’ve been to—looking up the name, this may be Culver City) early on almost feels like a short film in itself, a reminder that I used to eat those burgers years ago but don’t think I could do it now without fear of a heart attack. Even a brief scene in a sushi place is a reminder of how early 80s LA just the idea of eating sushi was. The Brentwood setting is certainly an echo of when I worked in that part of town (yes, I’ve written about that recently but sometimes in my head I just get drawn back there). MIKE’S MURDER is around a decade before I turned up but it still seems like much longer. Mike’s apartment is at 1020 Granville Ave. (just a short drive over from Bundy, incidentally), Betty mentions jogging up Barrington and it makes me wonder what was really going on with certain people I encountered, people I never knew as well as maybe I wanted to. Even the connections I don’t have intrigue me as a result like the extensive location shooting down in Venice, a place I’ve never spent that much time in and haven’t even known someone who lived there since the mid-90s. A drive down Sunset occurs around the same places where the car chase in AGAINST ALL ODDS, released just one week earlier back in ’84, took place and that’s a slick, enjoyable film (one I should write about, but another time) but the L.A. of MIKE’S MURDER feels like a city that I recognize even now, one that is lonely, sometimes a little too overcast in the middle of the hot days and some nights that go on longer than you’d like.
Along with that examination of the city it’s a character study, probing into the close-ups of Debra Winger’s Betty Parrish as she tries to find out about Mike, not just his murder. She doesn’t really know anything about him. She doesn’t even know why he talked about her to people. He doesn’t seem good enough for her, like he’s trying too hard in his little jokes, but he does represent something that she can’t explain, maybe because it helps her feel like something more than a humdrum bank teller waiting to hear about a promotion that probably isn’t any big deal. As it is, she’s barely present when talking to friends and most of her connection to the world seems to be from her answering machine, even as people try to look at her through their own prism whether windows, video cameras or the photos Mike’s friend Sam incessantly snaps of her without even asking first. Betty, who can’t even feign interest in what her artist friend is pretentiously yammering about over sushi for more than a few seconds, and her teacher friend Patty who doesn’t do anything crazier than order extra onions have no place in this scene. Nobody wants to discover that they’re one of the Rosencrantz/Guildensterns of the world but that’s what the characters of MIKE’S MURDER seem to be quietly--or in some cases not so quietly--dealing with and that’s what L.A. sometimes turns you into. And part of that feeling is learning how little you even knew about how you fit in to certain lives like what Betty finds out about Mike. It almost makes sense how it never feels entirely explained just how much she really knew him. “You still living in the same place?” Mike asks Betty after not seeing her for months. “Same place,” is her reply and it feels like an exchange from my life. Maybe it’s the structural reorganization that makes things feel a little unclear as if whatever happened between Betty and Mike outside of the tennis court feels like somewhere between a one-night stand and something else—-dialogue seems to reference a trip out to Catalina although that’s all we ever hear of it--but how much is never entirely clear and some shots only seen in the trailer certainly indicate more.
Some of the seams from whatever happened in the editing room show at times, like a scene that introduces Paul Winfield which not only seems to play much of its dialogue offscreen as if looping in new stuff after the fact it probably could have been easily lost anyway. The film’s second hour after Betty learns of the murder apparently all takes place during one day and for reasons I can’t quite pin down I wonder if this would have flown better in a flashback structure —that the titular murder was also graphically seen in some form (including being glimpsed in that trailer) is certainly an indication that it once played like a considerably different movie. Since the main character is where much of the interest lies when the focus moves away from her to scenes involving Mike’s friend Pete played by Darrell Larson the interest doesn’t hold, as if the movie is trying to convince us that there’s more plot than there really is. Music by Joe Jackson was dropped—although the album billed as the film’s “soundtrack” came out anyway and listening to just one track makes me imagine how different the film would have been with it—in favor of a new score composed by John Barry but while it’s well done is almost too familiar, too BODY HEAT while still getting at something within these people and the feelings they just can’t shake. It’s the moments that linger, the loneliness in the air, even the detour into the party made up of early 80s performance art, another place where Betty is observed through the prism of video cameras—it’s one of those early 80s films where you can tell the decade hasn’t fully decided what it wants to be yet, just like Betty hasn’t decided who she is—that you remember. This is the 80s in L.A., the film seems to be saying—drugs (“the only thing that matters,” Mike’s friend Pete cries) and videotape.
In this context, the stripped-down climax as Betty’s home is invaded by one last strand of her connection to Mike is queasily effective, selling us the isolation of Betty’s tiny house and keeping to her point of view, as Darrell Larson’s Pete screams “You’re like all the rest!” when she’s about to betray him. “No,” she as if to simultaneously mollify him and deny the real truth to herself, that her relationship with Mike could never really turn her life into anything more special than it is. There’s a bluntness to the way Bridges plays the suspense, he knows exactly how to stage the moment and not suddenly turn the film into something else. “Where’re you going, Mike?” she asks early on as she drives him, her voice indicating she wants to know more than whatever his destination might be. And she never really gets the answer. It’s not about solving Mike’s Murder. Betty’s even told she doesn’t want to know anyway. It’s about the realization that there can be no solving the mystery of Mike. We don’t get those answers. We rarely do. Some brief connections are just never what we want them to be. Chaz Jenkel’s “Without You” played over the end credits sounds a little incongruous after the ending but it serves as a reminder of when it was heard on the radio earlier as Betty drives Mike up to the house on Doheny. It’s those songs that stay in your brain because of those moments that remain with you because of that other person for reasons you never fully understand. Maybe since things are missing those moments are what MIKE’S MURDER can be in the end which if anything is a lot more than some films have.
Without having to be an appendage to the likes of Travolta or Gere it allows for MIKE’S MURDER to give us a Debra Winger performance that is totally untethered, allowing us to simply observe what makes Betty unique enough that someone like Mike is drawn to her but also what makes her completely ordinary as well and it’s that strength, that defiance, which holds the film together, regardless of what happened in the cutting room. Paul Winfield (reportedly essentially playing himself—the film is partly based on what happened to someone he knew) is searing in his own intensity as well, much of his performance in just one extended scene. “Help yourself, everyone else does,” he says to Betty, a person resigned to being host of the neverending party, shrewd enough to understand his connection with Betty and how they’re both in love with the same person while very much aware that it’s never something they can fully explain to each other. Much of the rest of the cast is made up of unknowns although Brooke Alderson as Betty’s friend was also in URBAN COWBOY and William Ostrander as one of Mike’s friends was Buddy Repperton in CHRISTINE. Mark Keyloun, a Barry Miller-type whose other credits include SUDDEN IMPACT from around this time, plays Mike as the enigma he has to be but is maybe too callous, too immature. We don’t quite see what everyone else does but we know they believe it. In comparison, Robert Crosson as Mike’s quiet photographer friend Sam who has his own feelings for Mike is where we get the true amount of regret and loneliness from. That’s where the sadness lies. Maybe it makes sense that Mike would never pick up on what all these people around him are feeling but it still feels like a void at the center.
It’s an ongoing question—what is better, the quality film that doesn’t have much staying power or the flawed film that even months later we can’t quite shake, wondering about the holes in there. What are movies in the end, really? What do we take from them? When the film came out Bridges was quoted as saying, “I think this is a better picture than it was and I never would have allowed it to be released otherwise” but let’s not forget that he was in the process of publicizing the picture at that time. Betty plays the straightforward chords on her piano—a remnant of the non-straightforward original structure—the one with the C scale out of tune that Mike spoke of, her life out of tune. It’s a movie about being an adult. In some ways, a film about lost innocence, how that innocence is impossible. Whether we’re seeing what the movie was meant to be might be open to question—interestingly, also from Warner around this period was Jonathan Demme’s SWING SHIFT, another film with a female lead which went through a similarly protracted postproduction process leading to people through the year’s wondering what might have been. The final moment of the only MIKE’S MURDER we’ve ever seen feels a little like a reshoot, whether it was or not, to give us some semblance of hope in a story that really can’t have any. In some ways that final moment feels like an acceptance of loneliness. Sometimes you have to do that in L.A. Like the song over the end credits, certain people stay with you in moments like that whether you want them to or not. There’s not as much hope found there as there usually is in an age of movies made for children but how important that is in the end is maybe up to you.