Monday, May 8, 2017

Doing Nothing To Prevent It

The past gets forgotten. Films get forgotten. That’s just the way it goes. Even good films that were hits back in their day fall through the cracks. And then there are the bad ones which you may remember with a touch of fondness because you saw them when you were young and stupid and didn’t know any better. These aren’t films that are hurting anyone but they’re not doing much else either, eventually becoming little more than used VHS tapes that you can buy cheap at a video store going out of business, star vehicles made in between the hits that the stars are actually remembered for. The 80s were loaded with them and now, decades later, sometimes you see one of these things again for no particular reason other than to confirm your suspicion that it probably really wasn’t very good back then even when you maybe had an ok time watching it. Nothing wrong with checking to be sure, of course. Even bad films deserve the benefit of the doubt.
As I wrote about it, one of the highlights of the recent TCM Classic Film Festival for me was the new restoration of the 1931 version of THE FRONT PAGE which I had never seen all of before, being mostly familiar with the 1974 Billy Wilder remake and especially Howard Hawks’ HIS GIRL FRIDAY which turned the lead reporter character into a woman and made it a full-on romantic comedy. But THE FRONT PAGE ’31 was a minor revelation, sharply drawn featuring some wonderful character actors as well as a finely honed sense of place which gave me a window to this particular world more than I had ever felt with any other version. And although the source material is largely confined to the age in which it originated, during the cable boom of the 80s it did inspire one more film which I didn’t bother to mention last time around. If SWITCHING CHANNELS is remembered at all these days it’s as the film Michael Caine had to drop out of because he was stuck filming JAWS THE REVENGE, also the reason he was unable to accept the Oscar he won that year. But that aside, this fourth celluloid version of THE FRONT PAGE has been erased from all memory, the sort of thing that maybe gets a brief mention in career summaries of the people involved and not much more. Released by Tri-Star in March 1988 just a few months after the acclaimed BROADCAST NEWS, even then it looked like not much more than an also-ran. My vague recollection is that when Kathleen Turner appeared on Letterman to plug the film and he remarked on the similarity she simply replied, “It’s funnier than BROADCAST NEWS” to which Dave laughed in her face. Now, it’s possible my memory is faulty on this point but regardless you’d better be able to back up such a claim even when you’re in publicity mode and that’s a tough one to pull off. For the record, SWITCHING CHANNELS isn’t funnier than BROADCAST NEWS. It’s isn’t funnier than a lesser MARY TYLER MOORE rerun. It isn’t even funnier than a ninth season episode of MURPHY BROWN. It did open the same day as the Richard Pryor vehicle MOVING, so at the least it has an outside shot of being the funniest movie released that week.
Christy Colleran (Kathleen Turner), hotshot anchor for the all-news cable channel SNN returns from a two-week vacation in Canada where she announces to the horror of boss and ex-husband John L. “Sully” Sullivan IV (Burt Reynolds) that she’s quitting the news game and marrying sports equipment tycoon Blaine Bingham (Christopher Reeve). But the day she stops by to break the news happens to be the very same day convicted cop killer Ike Roscoe (Henry Gibson) is set to go to the electric chair and Sully uses the opportunity to delay Christie’s departure so she can interview Ike and get his sad story on the air, predictably enraging Attorney General Roy Ridnitz (Ned Beatty) who is dead set on preventing the Governor from pardoning Ike. As the clock ticks down to the execution, they race to get the interview on air while at the same time Sully continues to do anything and everything to keep Christy from leaving town.
At some point in the past I’ve heard SWITCHING CHANNELS mistakenly referred to as a Cannon film which it isn’t although when you watch the film you kind of get why. Mostly shot in Toronto with a few Chicago exteriors there’s something slightly off about the whole thing with a slapdash, undeniably fake vibe as if it was actually made overseas somewhere, maybe directed by someone not quite familiar with the language so they don’t know to get certain nuances right. Director Ted Kotcheff certainly spoke English; he’d made the excellent FIRST BLOOD several years earlier as well as the comedy FUN WITH DICK AND JANE a decade previous but the work here feels tone deaf as if he never quite got a handle of how to play the farcical elements even if, to his credit, there are moments that play like at least he studied HIS GIRL FRIDAY a few times. In his recent autobiography “Director’s Cut” (which, just from glancing through it, looks like a very engaging read), Kotcheff mainly focuses on the reported strife between the two leads—Turner wasn’t happy with Reynolds as the replacement for Caine—and concedes that the film didn’t really work, calling the end result “apple juice rather than champagne”. Comedies are binary, he says, they work or they don’t and though it’s nowhere near the worst thing ever SWITCHING CHANNELS never really does. If anything at all, it’s most interesting as a screenwriting exercise designed to see how much it can remain faithful to the source material while updating it for modern times. Jonathan Reynolds (credits include the Blake Edwards comedy MICKI + MAUDE as well as, gulp, LEONARD PART 6) wrote the screenplay with the Hecht-MacArthur original given credit and in fairness it actually does come up with a few clever ways to bring the story into the modern age and still kinda, sorta make sense; certainly there’s nothing wrong with updating the premise to a cable news setting or the copier in place of the roll-top desk or the defense attorney pleading for justice in the place of street walker Molly Malloy. It’s just that everything seems heightened up a little too much in every single scene so the tone never seems quite right, it never seems believable even as broad comedy.
It’s also kind of sterile as a little cheap looking (or, as the Variety review pointed out, “production looks a little thin around the edges”) and just not as funny as it should be. You could say that the jokes are sitcom level but this was when CHEERS was on the air so let’s say they’re the level of an ABC sitcom circa 1980 with dialogue containing various references to jockstraps, Al Capone’s vault and multiple uses of the word ‘yuppie’ as a punchline. The frenetic tone doesn’t always match up very well with the three leads either, each of whom seems smarter than the material they have to play as well as the characters they’re supposed to be. The dialogue is missing the needed sharpness and while some of it, including the key phrase “Gentlemen of the press”, comes from previous versions some of it isn’t with a little too much crassness at times along with some misguided sentimentality as well. The visit with the condemned killer in this version and HIS GIRL FRIDAY is an interesting point of comparison; in FRIDAY Rosalind Russell as Hildy Johnson brings the barest hint of emotion to her deliberately flat dialogue, never going too far to betray how she feels, as a reporter would presumably do. Kathleen Turner’s Christy Colleran, meanwhile, is all empathy telling Henry Gibson’s Ike Roscoe “You don’t deserve to be executed,” which feels a little too much like editorializing and doesn’t leave much room for any subtext between the two actors. When Hildy Johnson leaves the jail cell she tells the killer, “Good-bye, Earl…and good luck,” which in the world of Howard Hawks is as powerful as a tearful embrace. The way SWITCHING CHANNELS adds extra emotion to the beat through the dialogue and how the actors are directed makes the moment fall flat. HIS GIRL FRIDAY is always about Hildy Johnson but in SWITCHING CHANNELS the focus is never strong enough to know for sure.
The Chicago setting is a carryover from the play and it makes just as much sense for SNN to be there as it does for CNN to be in Atlanta but it never seems like a global news organization, even with joking dialogue about all the Chicago fires they put on the air, focusing so much on local politics and cartoonish cutaways to people who supposedly live in the city. It’s sort of a reminder of that more innocent time when CNN was the sole all-news channel but it still never feels like the real thing and even the setpiece of the execution being filmed by the media who race into the jail scrambling to get a good look plays more as sitcom than something trying to be a NETWORK-type satire. Of course, a politician doing something blatantly evil in full view of the world isn’t such a crazy thing anymore but it still has no particular bite. Whether because of the structure forced on it by the previous versions or because it wants to be just a farce and nothing more, the film has nothing really on its mind, no greater point to make.
Maybe that’s part of the problem—the source material is a comedy about people who populate a very specific world and how they make that world (the names have been changed from THE FRONT PAGE for no clear reason, but this in itself isn’t a sacrilege). In its treatment of certain characters whether Ralph Bellamy’s Bruce Baldwin or the villainous Sheriff in any of them it makes it clear how they haven’t earned the right to be in that world. Here Christopher Reeve’s Blaine Bingham is more narcissistic than anything but the film’s portrayal of him almost wants to hold back on making him too much of a boob so when he pauses to admire the Chicago Picasso sculpture for a few seconds he doesn’t seem like that bad a guy. They’re just broadly drawn figures in a movie dumbed down from the material with myriad plot holes somehow trying to cover up that a state governor somehow wouldn’t know that an execution is taking place (I’d also imagine that a news anchor’s contract wouldn’t just let her leave on a moment’s notice and take a job in another city, but never mind) and since it’s based on an old movie anyway nobody did any research so the movie would attain the right sort of verisimilitude. When Burt Reynolds dismisses the idea of covering a summit in Belgium because no one knows where it is I can’t help but imagine Albert Brooks’ Aaron Altman from BROADCAST NEWS watching this and fuming at how his world is being depicted. The film isn’t smart enough to earn its own cynicism. Plus there’s that whole 80s day-glo sheen which makes all the fashions ugly to look at and while it makes sense that the large cast of reporters scrambling for the story would mostly be blow-dried nitwits, it still doesn’t make them interesting. Naturally the lead character is no longer the only female reporter in this world, with added bickering between the TV and print reporters but even the few comments on sexual politics are kept on the surface but in this film everything is anyway. The 80s were glossy and sleek and ugly but SWITCHING CHANNELS never wants to go any further than the surface in its commentary. I really don’t miss that decade.
It’s tempting to say that the film would have worked better with Michael Caine but it’s not like everything he actually made was always a winner (although later in ’88 he did wind up in a good remake of a comedy, DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS) so we’ll never know. The template of THE FRONT PAGE really comes into play in the second half, moving over to the bland setting of a press room across from the jail and immediacy of it brings energy but never much in the way of laughs although surprisingly the Roy Bensinger equivalent is more of an anti-TV snob than the expected gay caricature, one of the low points of the Wilder version, so at least there’s something in the movie’s favor. But you can feel the strain of the film trying too hard to make this all play big and wacky so overly broad attempts to humiliate Blaine (sending him up in an elevator since he’s afraid of heights) or keep Christy from leaving (having underlings buy up seats on every flight leaving Chicago) don’t give the serious moments much credibility. Even the Michel Legrand score (with theme co-written by Legrand and Neil Diamond—NEIL DIAMOND?!) is way too over excited and the big band vibe maybe dates worse than anything else in the film. Since they got Michel Legrand maybe the whole thing would play better dubbed into French anyway but the timing would still feel off since it’s still lacking the correct metronome feel that would allow for everything to build to just the right explosion that the film never manages (I don’t want to be that hard on Kotcheff since, after all, FIRST BLOOD is pretty great). Even the few stabs at Chicago flavor never come off as authentic, partly because so much was shot in Canada (one of the Toronto locations is recognizable from turning up in Cronenberg’s DEAD RINGERS, released the same year) partly because it doesn’t seem to come from somebody who’s actually been there. It doesn’t seem to be interested in what the world it portrays really is since it’s all farce, when THE FRONT PAGE was what that world meant to the people in it. It’s the epitome of a film you kind of like when you’re younger, like I was when I saw it opening weekend, then you revisit it much later in life and are reminded how much of a line is to be drawn between the films that work and the ones that don’t, the ones that become more than they were ever meant to and the ones that recede into the distance. But hey, I was just a kid. I learned a couple of things eventually.
The three leads are all lively, I’ll say that, but they’re each kind of acting in their own movies. This was right around the peak of Kathleen Turner’s stardom and she always has presence and energy but seems a little too aloof at times as if she’s above all this nonsense which maybe she is; she was also somewhat famously pregnant during filming and as ungallant as it may be to point out that the giant blazer she wears through much of the film doesn’t quite cover up the fact (her costumes and hair aren’t so great either, if I can be real snippy about this). Burt Reynolds is pretty much playing Burt Reynolds, off in his own world and not always paying much attention to the other actors but he still probably has more energy than anyone else here even if it’s a little too much of a Hal Needham energy when maybe a few touches of Alan J. Pakula wouldn’t be so bad. Christopher Reeve gets the lesser role, as this part is going to be in any iteration of this material and maybe it’s the lasting fondness we all have for the guy but since he never comes off as shallow as the character he’s playing his few stabs at callousness never wind up meaning very much. It’s Ned Beatty who gets the most juice out of this and as over the top as he is, even doing a double take while eating popcorn, he still gets closer to the right tone than anyone else while Henry Gibson’s best moments are when he holds things back like when he quickly answers a few questions right before getting into the electric chair. George Newbern, also in the FATHER OF THE BRIDE remake, is Reynolds’ assistant and Charles Kimbrough, later of MURPHY BROWN, is the governor. Among the multiple Canadian actors in the cast is Joe Silver, a familiar face from David Cronenberg’s SHIVERS and RABID as well as, oddly, the film of DEATHTRAP which starred Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve.
Dedicated journalism is probably needed now more than ever but maybe this film isn’t the best example to use of that fact even though Ned Beatty’s corrupt state attorney, clearly meant to be an uneducated thug, doesn’t seem so bad right now and I couldn’t help but notice that the actor who plays his underling oddly resembles Paul Ryan. The 80s may not have been so great but maybe it’s not a good idea to compare them with where we are right now. As for SWITCHING CHANNELS, Sheila Benson’s review in the Los Angeles Times speculates that the thought process behind it is “the same kind of wishful thinking that produced the Alexander Haig presidential campaign” which, frankly, isn’t much better than a few similar lines in the film. Roger Ebert liked it considerably better, one of a number of films where Roger’s opinion now seems somewhat mystifying although he spends an odd amount of time in his review complaining about the absence of the play’s famous last line even though the way the plot goes there’s no way it could be in there anyway and HIS GIRL FRIDAY certainly got along ok without it. The film also pretty much marked the end of the A-list for the two male leads although Turner, with THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST and THE WAR OF THE ROSES coming up as well as the voice of Jessica Rabbit, still had a few years to go before V.I. WARSHAWSKI took care of that. Ted Kotcheff, meanwhile, went on the following year to direct WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S which of course everyone on the planet remembers. There’s nothing particularly tragic about SWITCHING CHANNELS being forgotten but it’s also not quite a career low for anyone involved and, hey, even bad films sometimes deserve a little love. You may even secretly like it and watch it late at night as some sort of comfort food. We all have those movies. It may even be closer to the reality of what goes on at certain news networks these days more than we realize. Still doesn’t make it any good, of course.

Friday, April 28, 2017

For Things That Used To Be

When we last left Mr. Peel at the end of Vol. 1 of this report, he was racing down Hollywood Blvd to the Egyptian with a few of the most interesting (if not always successful) titles of the TCM Classic Film Festival still in front of him…
The big event at the screening of THEODORA GOES WILD wasn’t the movie itself but the introduction by Illeana Douglas in which she took it upon herself to announce an impromptu seventh inning stretch and lead the packed house in a singalong of, not “Take me Out to the Ballgame”, but the much more appropriate “Singin’ in the Rain”. And everyone did just that, making for one of the most blissful moments of the entire festival, a reminder to all of us that we were among friends. The extremely nutso screwball comedy THEODORA GOES WILD starring Irene Dunne and Illeana’s grandfather Melvyn Douglas was followed at the Egyptian by one of the most eagerly awaited of the festival, a nitrate screening of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s BLACK NARCISSUS. Running into some people on the way in led to following them up to the balcony where over on the other side was my friend Marya and others shouting my name but I had no idea why—I later found out that they were pretty much shouting the names of everyone they knew who was up there and it was almost like most of the people I knew at the festival were there to see BLACK NARCISSUS, all up in that balcony. My own personal drama involving someone else up in that balcony was going on right at that moment, but never mind about that, and there was an excitement in the air because of this screening and it was as if we were also aware that there was only so much time left, as if the festival was reaching the top of the rollercoaster right at that moment. And of the 3 nitrate screenings I attended, BLACK NARCISSUS was easily the most powerful, with truly stunning imagery found in those colors that was like being touched by the hand of the god of cinema itself. Full disclosure, this was my first ever viewing of the film and more than following the story I found myself stunned from the imagery, my jaw agape from shot after shot and a few of those images are still with me. This was pure cinema and it was hard to shake. When the film ended the weather was surprisingly cold and windy out on Hollywood Blvd and it was as if BLACK NARCISSUS was following us out there, refusing to let go its grip on us.
But the night ended. And then there was Sunday. You begin to feel it, knowing that the end is near but you’re fighting through that exhaustion. This is the sort of day where you may plan on certain things but that doesn’t mean they’re going to happen. As a result, I didn’t make it to any of the early 9AM screenings but fortunately I was there for the restoration of the 1931 version of THE FRONT PAGE which I’d never seen even though I’ve read the play, even though I’ve seen HIS GIRL FRIDAY about fifty times and the 1974 Billy Wilder version more than a few as well. The screening was introduced by Academy preservationist Heather Linville and Academy Film Archive director Mike Pogorzelski who went into detail on the restoration which went far beyond just cleaning up the look of the film, revealing that to make multiple negatives for foreign releases the general foreign version was essentially an alternate version—the U.S. release had used the best takes of each scene and the foreign version which required a complete different negative had to use other, lesser takes so not only did the film look inferior due to dupey public domain transfers, the takes in the film itself were inferior whether for reasons of performance or even camerawork and that has been the version widely seen through the years, something which has now been rectified. Directed by Lewis Milestone, THE FRONT PAGE ’31 may not be as breezy or charged as HIS GIRL FRIDAY but very few films are and as a direct adaptation of the play comes off as a fully realized world. It’s not so much a star vehicle and since the importance of even the side characters feels that much greater it gives the material a depth that I’ve never felt in any of the later adaptations. For the first time in all my years being familiar with the material I felt like I’d really been given a look at the newspaper world of Chicago in the 20s by people who’d been there and I look forward to further viewings alongside HIS GIRL FRIDAY in the future to compare.
Early Sunday afternoon Hal Ashby’s THE LANDLORD was playing at the Egyptian with Lee Grant in person and it was near the top of my list ever since the schedule was announced which, of course, means that I missed it. Hal Ashby, wherever you are, please forgive me. But this was maybe that point I reach every year where I’m feeling like maybe I haven’t spent enough time seeing other things so I opted for the conversation in Club TCM with Dick Cavett being interviewed by Illeana Douglas. Since I’d missed the films that Cavett had introduced over the weekend I can’t regret it my choice, listening to him talk about the time he slipped some jokes into Jack Paar’s hand right before he did his show to the legendary introduction he wrote for Paar when a certain famous guest was on (“Here they are, Jayne Mansfield”) along with stories about Groucho Marx (of course), a long tale involving Marlon Brando and the paparazzi, visiting Stan Laurel at his tiny apartment in Santa Monica and even meeting Bob Hope when he was a kid growing up in Nebraska. They’re all stories that I’m certain he’s told more than a few times in the past but the way he told them was everything you would want Dick Cavett to be. There was also wonderful rapport between him and Illeana Douglas who as usual was one of the best TCM hosts of the entire weekend, serving as an ideal straight man for Cavett who near the end willingly ignored the instructions to wrap up so he could get in one more hysterical story about Jack Benny.

I may have lingered a little too long in Club TCM talking to people which means by the time I got back over to the Chinese 6 to see DETECTIVE STORY, also with a Lee Grant appearance before the film, it had already filled up (Lee Grant and I were apparently destined to never meet at this festival). So instead of trying to race over to the Egyptian for WHAT’S UP DOC? which I’ve seen at least ten times already, I went with HELL IS FOR HEROES, even though Bob Newhart had canceled, even though no one else I knew was in there. But hey, it was Don Siegel and I’d never seen it, this was going to be a good use of my time no matter what.
France, 1944 – near the town of Montigny, a squad of soldiers from the 95th Infantry expecting to go home soon is forced back to the front lines, badly outnumbered as they desperately try to hold off a larger contingent of Germans ready to attack. With screenplay by Robert Pirosh and Richard Carr (story by Pirosh), 1962’s HELL IS FOR HEROES avoids spectacle in favor of a dry, no-nonsense approach which always seems ready to go off the rails due to the intensity of Steve McQueen’s presence and his always icy glare at anyone who tries to say more than a few words to him. Clocking in at just under 90 minutes and shot in black & white by Harold Lipstein, the film has an undeniable immediacy right from the star as if a direct outgrowth of live TV and the undeniable humanity felt in the supporting characters, whether the coolness of James Coburn or Mike Kellin writing to his kids back home makes each of them fully dimensional. Bob Newhart, given an ‘introducing’ credit, plays a reluctant member of the squad forced into combat duty with little more than clerical experience and it oddly prefigures his role as Major Major in the Mike Nichols film of CATCH-22 a decade later. Newhart spends part of his screentime essentially doing versions of the telephone routine from his stand-up act, attempting to provide false information to any Germans who might be listening and it makes for an enjoyable, if unexpected, detour from the main drama. But even with this there’s an intensity to HELL IS FOR HEROES that only grows as things get more desperate, holding tight on the drama right down to the very last shot as if it’s saying that all some of the greatest sacrifices can really do is make way for the next stage of the battle so the war can go on. The conflict hasn’t ended but the film has made its statement. A blunt instrument of a film that lets you feel the anguish of the characters through Siegel’s expert staging of the action, the ultimate effect of HELL IS FOR HEROES is like a sharp knife to the gut. It’s not the widescreen boys’ adventure of THE GREAT ESCAPE, to use another McQueen-Coburn WWII film, but a much harsher look at the nastiness and desperation of heroism.
Theater #1 at the Chinese 6 for HELL IS FOR HEROES wasn’t very crowded, no doubt because of Bob Newhart’s cancellation, but Ben Mankiewicz still gave his introduction 110% talking mostly about the star who wasn’t there and telling us that he’d been looking forward to his appearance, mentioning how he had wanted to speak both before and after the film to avoid any spoilers in his anecdotes. Much of the film is set at night mostly because of the extreme heat out in the location near Redding, California and it was filmed right during the period when Newhart was really starting to be in-demand for his stand-up services so every day he would try to talk Don Siegel into killing him off, without success. The scenes where he basically incorporates his act into the film are definitely incongruous considering the tone—Siegel himself is quoted in the book “Don Siegel, Director” by Stuart M. Kaminsky as not thinking very much of the Newhart scenes saying his role "took us out of the realm of realism--but the bits still work, not only providing a touch of comic relief (for lack of a better term) up against the forceful barking of someone like the sergeant played by Harry Guardino (later in Siegel’s DIRTY HARRY) but another reminder that these guys are human and even though they’re outnumbered are trying to use any idea they have to get the job done. Even the Steve McQueens of the world need help from the Bob Newharts, after all.
So I didn’t regret getting to see that one bit, even if I had been shut out of DETECTIVE STORY. And this led to the final film, a nitrate showing of LADY IN THE DARK because following a hard bitten war film from the 60s to a woman’s picture from the 40s which is somewhat, um, flamboyant at times is always the way to go. LADY IN THE DARK was directed by Mitchell Leisen who even though his reputation has grown over the years may be best remembered for angering the likes of Wilder and Sturges for how he filmed their scripts for MIDNIGHT and REMEMBER THE NIGHT, spurring them into directing for themselves so they could protect their scripts. Released in 1944 in Technicolor, LADY IN THE DARK stars Ginger Rogers (in her second appearance of the festival for me after RAFTER ROMANCE, funny how that happens) as a fashion magazine editor who reluctantly looks into psychoanalysis to understand her dreams and make sense of her past. It sounds fascinating and in some ways it was fascinating. Martin Scorsese had spoken well about it during his speech extolling the virtues of nitrate a few days before calling it one of his favorites, I’ll grant that, but there’s also the Leonard Maltin review calling the film “intriguing but ultimately ponderous” which having seen it I now think is dead on--in his podcast reviewing the festival he mentioned missing the screening but called it “one of the most garish movies ever made” which also sounds about right. An adaptation of a Broadway musical (songs by Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin) which apparently ditches most of the music yet keeps a certain musical flavor as well as a potential screwball approach somehow turns it all into a dreary tone which approaches the funereal at times, feeling like a film made by a director getting the chance to do anything he wanted and just going too far with all the wrong choices (maybe I prefer Leisen in black & white—one of his to seek out is the 1935 Carole Lombard romantic comedy HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE). To be honest I felt myself checking out of the film before the 40 minute mark, any interest I’d had beyond the nitrate imagery completely evaporated and mostly watched the rest of it as some sort of perverse intellectual exercise.
Yes, there was laughter from the audience at certain lines that could now be considered problematic in how regressive they are in their sexual politics but this isn’t really worth getting into although those touches made the somewhat daring, to be fair, staging seem even that much more incongruous. It has style, but no discipline. It has extravagance, but no wit or enjoyment. I kept imagining Billy Wilder in 1944 miserably watching this thing in a Paramount screening room right in the middle of working on DOUBLE INDEMNITY and unable to leave because the head of the studio was sitting behind him. Instead of getting too negative about it all I’ll just say that it wasn’t one of my favorite films of the festival but since I can’t imagine when else I’m ever going to see a nitrate print of LADY IN THE DARK I’m not going to complain. In all seriousness, if you’re at all interested in the film and ever get the chance (there’s never been a video release in any format) by all means find out for yourself. I may not join you for a second try, however. Based on the Twitter response, people were pretty divided on it and it says something about the TCM Festival that I wish it had been scheduled earlier just so I could get into this with others who were there. We could’ve chosen sides for a debate and everything.

Instead of feeling a slight letdown I went off to the closing night party, to say goodbye to certain people and try to avoid admitting that this was all ending just a little while longer. The total count for me at this year's festival was 14 films and there could have been more but there’s no way to see everything just as there’s no way not to have a tinge of regret of what you missed, with LAURA and THE LANDLORD and the midnight shows and those other talks in Club TCM and who knows what else. The frenzy at the TCM Classic Film Festival as you try to get from one film to the next isn’t just about nostalgia. It’s that undeniable ephemeral quality you get from those gorgeous nitrate prints, it’s the buzz of being in a packed house of people who are just as thrilled to be there as you are. It’s about how much these films are still alive and vibrant, how much they can mean and the thrill of discovering one of them for the first time. Anyway, it’s now several weeks later. The excitement surrounding the festival has calmed down. But in my head part of me is still back there with the people I spent so much time with in that oasis in the middle of Hollywood away from the rest of the world, excited for all the films we were seeing whether comedy or otherwise and it takes some time for that rush to die down even as I look forward to next year. Maybe it never really does. Hopefully it never will.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Once in a Blue Moon

The theme of the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival was Comedy in the Movies. This meant Lubitsch, this meant Sturges, this meant Danny Kaye and Harold Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy and The Marx Brothers. And also something like Don Siegel’s HELL IS FOR HEROES, a down and dirty WWII film which of course isn’t a comedy but does feature an early appearance by Bob Newhart who in a few scenes even does versions of his famous telephone routines right in the middle of this rather sober war picture. It was an inspired choice for the festival to explore how comedy can turn up unexpectedly in certain films and Newhart himself was even set to appear at the screening until news of the death of his best friend Don Rickles came in on Thursday of that week and the expected cancellation was soon announced. The screening went on anyway to what was not exactly a packed house; certainly no friends of mine were there to join me. But the film revealed its power anyway. Comedy intrudes on life under odd circumstances just as life intrudes on comedy even at a film festival that is as much of a vacation from the real world as this one is.
I’m just starting to accept the idea that the TCM Classic Film Festival is done again for a year. It can be hard to explain. For a few days you’re taken over by the festival in this web of films on Hollywood Boulevard, seeing films you love, seeing films for the first time, all through that rush of cinema with people who care about them just as much as you. Yes, when you live in L.A. you get chances to see films like this most nights but it’s almost like the festival has a certain electricity which adds immeasurably to the enjoyment. It’s an extension of what the network does on the air every day but expanding it and providing a reminder of what these films mean to people. Since over a hundred titles are shown at the festival, with at least five sometimes going at once there are possibilities for all sorts of festivals in there. The classic oldies of CASABLANCA/SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN/THE MALTESE FALCON/DR. STRANGELOVE were a part of it this year so every now and then you might want to revisit one but there’s also the elusive titles that don’t turn up very much even at revival screenings in L.A. and there are sometimes going to be tough choices to make, a few things you’re forced to pass on. Plus you need to keep an open mind for the films you might be walking into on the spur of the moment and it might turn out to be something that will knock you out unexpectedly. Find the right combination of all these things, you’ll find your own perfect festival and you won’t regret it.
Considering how wide ranging the selections can be the idea of a theme to this festival is always a little odd, even though a focus on comedy isn’t a bad thing these days; of course, along with the extensive lineup of comedies there were also such titles as THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, DAVID AND LISA, THE CHINA SYNDROME (with Michael Douglas in person) and the opening night red carpet selection IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT which featured an appearance by Sidney Poitier. HELL IS FOR HEROES, to name one, was billed under the sub-category ‘Hey, That’s Not Funny’, which featured comic actors in more serious roles. Real life also intruded on the festival in the form of the recent passing of Robert Osborne, the face of the network since it first went on the air in 1994. Before the festival even officially began, a public memorial for him was held in theater #1 of the Chinese 6 to allow various TCM employees, as well as festivalgoers, to share their own memories of Osborne who will always be thought of, as Ben Mankiewicz put it, as “the face, heart, voice and soul of TCM.” Speakers included Diane Baker of MARNIE legend, a friend of Robert’s for over 50 years who recalled the lunch they had in New York just a few months ago where she knew that it would be the last time she would ever see him. Not only was the festival dedicated to him, Osborne’s presence was continually felt down to photos of some of his favorite films decorating the walls in Club TCM, ranging from ALL ABOUT EVE to THIS IS SPINAL TAP.
What his absence will mean for the future of the network was something which came up at the press conference the day before the festival began, with several questions exploring how Osborne’s presence would continue on the channel; a few suggestions from some of the media present included reusing old intros of his in a new context but it still seems to be an idea in progress. Diehard Bruce Springsteen fan Ben Mankiewicz, almost the de facto face of the channel by now even though this is never emphasized, compared it to when E Street band member Clarence Clemons died and various people took over for him but there could never be one single person to replace Clarence Clemons. The immediate future of the channel was an ongoing subject at the press conference as well, including the growing Filmstruck website along with mentions of upcoming programming to commemorate the 70th anniversary of HUAC and the continuation of the Trailblazing Women in Film series--a new incarnation of longtime TCM series The Essentials has been announced since the festival, to feature Alec Baldwin as host, an indication that the network is proceeding forward. The matter of the occasional appearance by movies from recent decades continues to be brought up but it was stressed that they are well aware of what the ‘sweet spot’ is for what sort of film belongs on TCM.

It’s also clear that the festival itself is continually evolving as it has to, a reminder that it began way back in 2010 almost at the moment when studios were about to make 35mm prints sparse to favor digital projection. While two Cinerama presentations were on the program down the street at the Cinerama Dome this year, certainly the big news of the festival was that the recent renovation of the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theater which included retrofitting the projection booth to screen the famously combustible and unstable nitrate film stock with director Alexander Payne in particular given credit for the idea to get what was called 'a massive undertaking' to finally happen. Although there was a special Cinematheque showing of a nitrate print of CASABLANCA last November, this was the first time the format really got a spotlight in the huge theater and to display how these prints themselves really are works of art as it was described. Availability of certain titles is an ongoing issue for the festival and it’s not like there are DCPs available for every film let alone 35mm prints but no matter how important some of the digital screenings are, like this year's restoration of PANIQUE, I still wish there could be one more house equipped for film again at the festival to make it that much more special. At times it’s the 35mm prints shown in the nooks of the smaller theaters where the real flavor of the festival can sometimes be found; maybe because of the big titles and classic oldies that gets shown there the main Chinese Theater (now officially the “TCL Chinese IMAX” but please don’t make me call it that) winds up having the most tourist oriented flavor during the festival and it’s sadly not equipped to run 35mm anymore regardless.

One of the places that does screen 35mm is the infamous theater #4 up in the Chinese 6, always the smallest theater used by the festival only seating 178, and which has become its own sort of clubhouse in recent years due to how it would automatically fill up for certain noir and pre-code titles. After reaching a breaking point last year due to how fast the 1933 pre-code DOUBLE HARNESS filled up almost instantly for both showings certain changes have clearly been made to the decisions of what gets shown in theater #4 and some of them have clearly been moved down the street to the Egyptian meaning the private members vibe went away but it’s hard to complain about actually getting into see certain films. Although, that said, the crowds didn’t always show up regardless of where they were and I honestly felt a few pangs of sadness when my friend Marya, aka @oldfilmsflicker, tweeted from a relatively empty theater #4 while waiting to see King Vidor’s STREET SCENE (and here’s her own review of that film) which under other circumstances I might have tried to get to myself. It can sometimes feel a little strange to be off at the Egyptian away from the main action which admittedly doesn’t make any sense but it worked for the best and hearing from people who were spending most if not all of certain days in the Egyptian gave the place its own vibe and without shutting so many people out turning it into an all-new alternate track of the festival, the heart and soul of glistening black & white and occasionally stunning color.
And although the events, discussions and appearances by big names are so crucial to the vibe of TCMFF it’s the films which we’re there to see, after all. So after the tribute to Robert and Bruce Goldstein’s annual trivia contest “So You Think You Know Movies” (for the second year in a row I was on the team that won; let’s just assume I was integral to the victory) and as the red carpet for the opening night attraction IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT began across the street from the Roosevelt, I made my way down Hollywood, passing Don Rickles’ star where many flowers had already been left, towards the Egyptian. While titles like SOME LIKE IT HOT and HAROLD AND MAUDE played at the Chinese 6 both of my choices further down the street where there was a good deal of 35mm being screened—LOVE CRAZY was from MGM in 1941, one of multiple pairings featuring William Powell and Myrna Loy, a screwball comedy of marriage almost being broken up going to absolutely ridiculous extremes and much funnier than I expected making it an ideal way to start off the festival. As we were told we would find out during the intro by Dana Delaney, this film was the one time William Powell ever appeared without his mustache (and we did indeed find out why) plus like any good film from around 1941 it features Elisha Cook Jr. as an elevator operator. Second that night was the first of the nitrate screenings, Hitchcock’s 1934 version of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, a first viewing for me and introduced by Martin Scorsese, an appearance only announced earlier that day, who spoke with all the passion that you’d expect from him about the importance of being able to see these films in this format, speculating that he had even seen this very print, originally struck back in 1945 for David O. Selznick, back in the 70s. Getting a laugh from the mention of how flammable these prints are--“It decomposed and turned to powder…and the bigger problem is, it blew up.”--and while pointing out how good safety film stocks became, to him nitrate has “a different kind of beauty. Nitrate has a luminosity to it. Images are lustrous, they’re glowing in a way that safety stocks and digital can never quite duplicate.” He recalled a long ago nitrate screening of Lubitsch’s THE STUDENT PRINCE as “a revelation” and praised the other nitrate titles on the schedule, such as LAURA calling it “one of the most haunting uses of black & white ever made” and recalling how he once saw BLACK NARCISSUS sitting in the third row of a giant theater and how it looked like 3D. He closed with a mention of Robert Osborne, saying that “there wasn’t any better way to celebrate him than these nitrate screenings, the original way they were meant to be seen.”
Friday, the first full day, began at 9 AM at the Egyptian with RAFTER ROMANCE a very enjoyable pre-code romantic comedy starring Ginger Rogers and Norman Foster as two people who have to share an apartment in 12-hour shifts but when they meet in real life they have no idea the other person is the roommate they despise and you probably can see where this is going but so what, plus best of all a really good supporting performance by Robert Benchley. Before it screened, Leonard Maltin led a discussion focusing on the legal history of the film which kept it out of circulation for around 60 years, a reminder of how much TCM has contributed to making sure certain films stay alive. Moving over to the Chinese 6, there was the digital restoration of John Huston’s BEAT THE DEVIL, just about the driest comedy ever made, which featured a conversation with script supervisor Angela Allen followed by Julien Duvivier’s devastating PANIQUE in another digital restoration. Made in France in 1946, it was a film which just about no one in the audience (which included 102 year old Norman Lloyd, because the festival wouldn’t be complete without him around) had ever seen before and it was preceded by a discussion between Bruce Goldstein and Simenon’s son Pierre Simenon, son of author Georges Simenon who wrote the book the film was based on, freely admitting that his father never had any particular interest in films. Made in the shadow of the war's end, PANIQUE is a despairing film in what it says about the country where it is set (since almost no one has seen this film yet, I'm going to hold back one discussing it at length--suffice to say that I recommend it) and the way it plays for us now in 2017 gives the climax that much more power. After this, it was definitely time for more comedy and although personal favorite BROADCAST NEWS was coming up in Chinese #1, I’ve seen roughly several hundred times and that’s why I missed out on the surprise appearance by Albert Brooks. But there was a silent Lubitsch I’d never seen complete with live piano accompaniment so it was back down the street to the Egyptian. It wasn’t the first Lubitsch of the day, that was ONE HOUR WITH YOU which I had passed on and I was glad I made it over for SO THIS IS PARIS, the first silent Lubitsch I’d ever seen, a romantic comedy about marriage which contained some odd similarities to LOVE CRAZY but it was everything that I wanted from early Lubitsch, feeling breezy and effortless and always completely elegant in the best ways.
Late Friday afternoon I took a break, which you need to do at certain points although I did stop in to see GRACE OF MY HEART director Allison Anders give a spirited introduction to WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? out at the Roosevelt swimming pool, getting into the whole Team Bette vs. Team Joan thing which has gotten much more attention lately thanks to FEUD; ribbons taking sides had been handed out to festival attendees the other day and I’d asked for a Team Aldrich ribbon, sadly without success. Friday night in the Chinese (passing up LAURA in nitrate but I have to live with that choice) was HIGH ANXIETY featuring Mel Brooks interviewed before the film by Ben Mankiewicz, who did a valiant job in actually trying to interview him even if it did involve tossing his note cards on the ground at one point, a sign that he was going to have no use for them. The 90 year-old Brooks spent a good amount of the time standing up and started with a long story about a prank he pulled during an early writing job at Columbia Pictures which I’m not sure had anything to do with anything, then moved on to a tale about a long lunch with Hitchcock, an impression of Tony Curtis, telling Ben his tie was too dark and even a little bit on HIGH ANXIETY itself, including memories of his legendary co-stars as well as the nerve-wracking screening for Hitchcock himself, who he called the greatest motion picture director ever. We even got the origin of the legendary line, “Those who are tardy do not get fruit cup” going back to his Aunt Martha back in Brooklyn, and his own amusement in seeing the title referenced in unexpected places in real life since, after all, they just made it up for the movie. “I’m glad I did all this research,” cracked Ben at the end but it was clear the audience had no problem with all the digressions and the film of course played like gangbusters.
Early Saturday morning began with THE COURT JESTER at the Chinese, introduced by Illeana Douglas and special guest Fred Willard (honestly, I don’t know if Danny Kaye does much for me even with the whole ‘vessel with the pestle’ thing but if Fred Willard likes him…) followed by a screening up in theater #4 of Frank Perry’s DAVID AND LISA, not at all a comedy but for me the right soft of discovery, recently namechecked by Jessica Lange’s Joan Crawford on FEUD as one of that year’s Best Director nominees. Although I unfortunately missed the discussion featuring star Kier Dullea, I was glad to see the film which was even oddly reminiscent of Larry Peerce's interracial drama ONE POTATO TWO POTATO which was part of last year’s festival, both being early 60s and indie along with a sense of earnestness to the message which may be dated right now but is still part of its power, along with an excellent early performance by Janet Margolin, one of those actresses we never got to see enough of now best known for Woody Allen’s TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN and ANNIE HALL. If the film was flawed at all it still showed how much talent Frank Perry had as a filmmaker and how underrated he is these days (an idea for future festivals: more Frank Perry).
And there was the return to TCMFF of 95 year-old Carl Reiner who not only appeared last year to talk about DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID, just the day before he had been part of a joint ceremony with son Rob to put their hands in the cement out in the Chinese courtyard. THE PRINCESS BRIDE, directed by Rob, was shown later that day and on Saturday Carl appeared before his film THE JERK, interviewed by Ben Mankiewicz in a discussion a little more subdued than Mel Brooks but talking about the making of Steve Martin’s first starring vehicle, along with taking pride in his daily anti-Trump tweets. Asked why Steve Martin had picked him to direct the film, “Well, he’s one of the smartest people I know,” adding that Steve had certainly been aware of him since he’d worked with Rob on the Smothers Brothers back in the 60s. Incidentally, the ‘to the end of this fence guy’ in THE JERK is Rob Reiner? How did I never know this? He talked about bits of business that Steve Martin would suddenly add to scenes when they would decide to do one more take and Reiner spent maybe a little too much time telling us the jokes in the movie we were about to see but it’s Carl Reiner, it’s hard to get too upset at the guy.
Incidentally, seeing HIGH ANXIETY and THE JERK so close together made for an interesting comparison of the films by the two friends, made just a few years apart. Both have extreme high points along with multiple jokes that will never fully escape from my brain but neither is their best work among the films they’ve directed--I’ll go with YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN for Brooks and maybe THE MAN WITH TWO BRAINS for Reiner but ask me again sometime. Both are credited to multiple writers that include the stars (HIGH ANXIETY written by Brooks, Ron Clark, Rudy DeLuca, Barry Levinson; THE JERK story by Steve Martin & Carl Gottlieb, screenplay by Martin, Gottlieb, Michael Elias) and each film is almost a little too slapdash at times, becoming pretty much just a series of gags over any plot. The zoom happy look of HIGH ANXIETY gives it a stock 70s flavor—BLAZING SADDLES and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN are downright elegant in comparison--even if there are Albert Whitlock matte paintings to give it a certain bigger than life flavor along with the always striking Hyatt Regency in San Francisco. The best moments, like the great under-the-table scene with Cloris Leachman and Harvey Korman tweak the Hitchcock material just right, finding ridiculousness in the brilliance of that director and even random bits of business like the fruit cup or every excitable exclamation by the always underappreciated Ron Carey get me to laugh. THE JERK is maybe the funnier of the two even if it’s still more of a series of sketches than a complete film and some of the most offhand bits (“St. Louis?” “No, Navin Johnson.” or even “Getting around the crap.”) as well as things like Navin’s determined excitement at possibly living in the gas station men’s room or just the sight of M. Emmet Walsh running are the best. It still makes me laugh more than not and ultimately the film has a sweetness to the relationships that keeps it from becoming too cruel. We all just want to ‘be somebody’, after all, and I guess I’ve reached the age where Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters singing “Tonight You Belong to Me” is kind of endearing. Carl Reiner even mentioned the direct connection the two films have by assigning Mel Brooks total credit for coming up with the name ‘Navin’.
There was no real need for me to see THE JERK again, but it was hard to complain and I got to see it at the Chinese. But there was more to come including more nitrate, more comedy, as well as that war movie featuring Steve McQueen and Bob Newhart.

Mr. Peel will return in Vol. 2 of the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival report.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Not Just In Hollywood

Don’t look back. That’s the first thing to remember. Because nostalgia is a dead end and that’s just the way it goes. But RULES DON’T APPLY may for all we know turn out to be the last piece of work we ever get from Warren Beatty, not counting opening envelopes at the Oscars, so it’s hard not to consider how it fits in with the rest of his filmography. There’s the biopics he’s made such as BONNIE AND CLYDE, REDS and BUGSY but he didn’t direct each of those and this isn’t really a biopic anyway. Looking deeper, one could connect it to portrayals of the past that he’s depicted, whether real or imagined in films like REDS and DICK TRACY. It’s not nostalgia that these films are interested in but the pure essence of memory, of remembering, and the trap it can become as we grow older. Along those lines, you could say that it’s the man coming full circle, portraying what he was when he first came to Hollywood, how much of the world lay before him and his greatest fears of where he might end up, as well as what he might leave behind. Someone on Facebook suggested to me that REDS and DICK TRACY paired with RULES DON’T APPLY could form a trilogy entitled “Do Look Back” which I like because, after all, you’re going to. Even if you shouldn’t look back, you have no choice. The goal is just to avoid living in those memories since many of them are probably wrong anyway. So even though I said you shouldn’t look back we all know that you’re going to no matter what anyone says. The rules don’t apply, after all.
It’s safe to say that the RULES DON’T APPLY we got was not the Howard Hughes movie from Warren Beatty that we expected but it does feel like the film Warren Beatty wanted to make. Instead of another biopic what we got instead was a pleasant, endearingly clumsy comedy but the film also feels almost achingly personal if not somehow autobiographical. Beatty has famously had a Hughes project on the boards for decades, at least as far back as the HEAVEN CAN WAIT days, so the whole thing has become legend; I first got to see it last fall on the Fox lot a few weeks before release, complete with post-film Q&A (that was pretty cool, I have to be honest) and there were other such screenings around this period as the Thanksgiving release date approached. I mention all this mainly because considering how the film ultimately did pretty much nothing at the box office maybe most of the people who wanted to see it, the ones who had been waiting for years, had already gone to one of those screenings. Maybe the story of a crazy rich guy fucking with people’s lives isn’t as charming as it may have been at another time but maybe the audience for it has gone away since it’s been some years since BULWORTH by this point, not to mention certain other films and now we have to explain who Warren Beatty is to people of a certain age. But, in the end, we have the film. RULES DON’T APPLY is lots of things. It’s goofy, it’s befuddling, occasionally genuinely affecting and a little all over the place. Even people who’ve confessed to me that they love the film also admit they know it’s kind of a mess. And along those lines maybe it’s completely unfettered Warren Beatty. Instead of the grand final statement that maybe we were expecting it’s a film that doesn’t seem worried at all about impressing anyone and is perfectly content to amuse itself, in no rush to get to the point and without a care in the world. So while not without problems it also feels pure and about as personal a film released by a major studio these days as you can imagine.
Los Angeles, 1958 – Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) has just taken a job working as a chauffeur for the legendary Howard Hughes (Warren Beatty) and one of his first assignments is to drive young actress Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) around town as she arrives in Hollywood on the Hughes payroll. Both of them come from religious backgrounds and both of them have to deal with being at Hughes’ beck and call at all hours. Frank is ambitious and tries to get Hughes interested in a real estate deal while Marla has little to do but wait for a screen test that she begins to believe may never happen. But as they get sucked further into the Hughes orbit they also have to deal with the growing feelings they have for each other which they can’t bring themselves to admit.
Some of the best moments in Warren Beatty films, directed by him or otherwise, often boil down to just him and one other person, often another woman, feeling each other out as they try to figure out how to make the needed connection, how to move forward to the next step. That’s all that matters, even if you’re having this fight in the middle of the Russian Revolution, even if the conflict in the scene only lasts five seconds. When you’re with that other person, you just need to figure out what the correct rules are and they don’t need to work for anybody else. “The rules don’t apply to you,” Frank Forbes tells Marla Mabrey after getting to know her and this is exactly when the phone rings to summon her to finally meet with the great man. When you’re ready it’ll be time, the film is saying. RULES DON’T APPLY contains many elements familiar from other Warren Beatty films—Hollywood (and Los Angeles), Las Vegas, filmmaking, politics all mixed in with the awkwardness and love that occurs between two people. It may not be an ultimate summation of his films but there are certainly echoes and it’s hardly a surprise since these are the same things he’s been preoccupied with all along.
Even without the “Never check an interesting fact” quote attributed to Hughes seen at the start it would be clear that sticking close to real events here never seems to have been part of Beatty’s intent. The biopic ground on Hughes was covered pretty considerably in THE AVIATOR over a decade ago and RULES DON’T APPLY (story by Beatty and Bo Goldman, screenplay by Beatty) is interested in Hughes but more than the specifics of his story it’s also interested in what surrounds him, whether the method of how the actresses working for him are paid, the guidelines Frank has to follow in driving them around or just the details of late 50s Hollywood and the brighter world everything about that represented. Even the issue of Hughes’ hearing is there but just barely and it also brushes past key public events to the aftermath, focusing on the people near Hughes who have no idea how to pin him down and no choice but to follow orders. The film delays his introduction but even afterwards lets him stay in the shadows thanks to DP Caleb Deschanel, keeping him lost in reveries of the past, forever talking about how young he was when his daddy left him the business and what that meant to him, refusing to sell the company which would mean losing the family name. It becomes Warren Beatty examining himself and his own past at least as much as Howard Hughes; when George Roundy is finally pinned down in SHAMPOO about his compulsive womanizing he admits that keeping all of them in his life “makes me feel like I’m going to live forever” which is something Howard Hughes (at least, this portrayal of Howard Hughes) is trying to do in his own way as well, the sight of Hughes with reels of film playing in front of him recalling how Beatty shot endless miles of footage for something like REDS. He describes himself as “more of a son than a father” keeping himself forever young in his mind, an alternate Charles Foster Kane who acquires people, airplanes and banana nut ice cream instead of endless statues in the quest to replicate what can never be found again to make sure his name doesn’t die. He talks about the concept of DNA, first identified around this time, obviously talking about what he wants to keep alive and it’s what drives him, forgetting that you can’t hold back the things that are going to make you old, whether you like it or not.
The two young leads also feel like a part of Beatty, each representing where he came from in some way, Frank Forbes looking to get ahead in the world and Marla Mabrey, from Virginia just like the man opposite her playing Hughes, confused about what she’s doing there to begin with and uncertain what she has to offer; like Beatty’s Lyle Rogers in ISHTAR she protests that she can write songs but isn’t a singer and not really sure what she wants to be. The two of them dwell on the similarities of where they came from with their religious backgrounds in common and both growing up with one bathroom in the house, each trying to deal with how what you want to give isn’t what people want from you, but uncertain what to do with all the feelings they can’t bring themselves to discuss. Their scenes together have energy almost as much as their first encounters with Hughes feel so tentative as if they barely know what to say in their first scenes playing opposite Warren Beatty. But there’s also a certain sharpness missing from the comedy here and while watching these scenes I sometimes get lost in the dream of what if Beatty had turned some of this over to Elaine May for a dialogue polish to help things (once or twice the syntax to the dialogue has a certain Aaron Sorkin twang not to mention the alliteration of character names; Sorkin worked uncredited on BULWORTH but nothing has leaked out about him on this one).
And yet, even during these moments the film has its own shaggy vibe as if it has no problem waiting for one of the characters to get to the point, particularly the way the first scene between Frank and Hughes holds in one long, extended take waiting for the jokey revelation of the legendary Hercules aircraft in front of them. The film always has something slightly unexpected in each scene and while it’s not as compulsively cinematic as the other films Beatty has directed which inspire multiple viewings of each of them, much of the time it’s pleasant enough along with a certain edge that makes the emotions messier and more complex than you’d maybe get from a filmmaker with a more straightforward goal in mind. It acknowledges that trying to figure out what you’re becoming isn’t always easy to grasp on to. Marla, the self-proclaimed songwriter sings what is in effect the film’s title song for both men with the film not worried at all that we’re hearing the whole thing more than once and it’s even a little sloppier the second time with the key lyric ‘but we haven’t long at all to find our destiny’ hanging in the air. Even the framing device leading into the main story set in Acapulco in 1964, relatively simple when compared to the witness interviews which structured REDS, is part of this feel of groping for answers—how did I get here? How did I get further away from who I thought I was? Is it possible to grow up, grow older, becoming who you were going to be, without feeling some sliver of regret?
Just as the characters are constantly trying to figure out Howard Hughes, figuring out the rhythms of RULES DON’T APPLY isn’t always easy but also feels part of the Beatty modus operandi siphoning each scene down to its essentials, even if it needs to be no more than a few seconds long. It does make sense for things to seemingly spin out of control as the characters get drawn further into the world of Hughes, as if Frank and Marla are getting sucked into their own futures against their will but it doesn’t always feel shaped quite right, certain scenes managing to be either too long or too short. One thing other Beatty-directed (and otherwise) films have in common is their forward momentum, from opening sections of REDS and Elaine May’s ISHTAR, to the nonstop pace of BULWORTH and the ways scenes in DICK TRACY feel designed to replicate a daily newspaper strip. In comparison, RULES DON’T APPLY putters along enjoyably but it all seems shaggy in its pacing, jumping forward when we want to get acclimated, slowing down when it needs to speed up. The tone even veers all around; unexpected broadness which has always been found in his films—even REDS has a few laughs—extends to the injuries from a horrific plane crash (I’m assuming the same one portrayed at length in THE AVIATOR) being brushed past to turn the aftermath into something out of a Laurel & Hardy short. The sudden love scene between the 80-ish Beatty and under-30 Collins willingly defies anyone who might object to the match in how comical it is but it’s not clear if the movie is aware that anyone might have an issue with the pairing. Not to mention the sometimes odd, unnecessary beats in the middle of scenes which makes the whole thing all the more eccentric. Just as in other Beatty films big names appear in small roles, sometimes very small, and I can hardly blame them for wanting to work with Beatty but it still feels like we’re not getting the significance some of these people who are based on real figures have to the Hughes world and clarification on the subplot involving Paul Schneider would maybe help too—it’s presumably meant to recall the Clifford Irving scandal (which happened several years after the film ends but never mind) but I still have some questions.
All this is not to say that RULES DON’T APPLY doesn’t have pleasures because it does, many of them seemingly out of nowhere from its odd humor showing the obsessiveness of Hughes—when we hear the reading a letter about a missing cat we know it’s just one of many—and his determination to keep out of sight of anyone else in the world. There’s a lyrical feel at certain points which almost come out of nowhere, emotions for the characters which are messy like emotions in life are messy, showing the way you deal with someone when you can’t say what you’ve been meaning to say for so long so the cruelty comes out instead. I saw RULES DON’T APPLY theatrically twice—the pre-release screening at Fox and then in a nearly empty theater at the Grove on a Sunday morning and both times my reaction was mostly the same, enjoying the pokiness but unable to deny some of its limitations and yet as the film got closer to the end I found myself surprisingly moved by it all. The child who comes into play in the final minutes pays off the constant stream of reasons Hughes has given why he’s always avoided this, serving as this film’s version of the young boy who hands the cup to Diane Keaton at the end of REDS (“I don’t even know, did they ever have any children?” one of the witnesses of that film asks about John Reed & Louise Bryant as the end credits roll) and even recalling DICK TRACY in the way he shouts “Kid!” at the kid in question. When confronted with the sense of possibility of what he never allowed to enter his life due to his obsessive micromanaging he comes back to life, if just for a few minutes. The film almost seems to build to his calm, accepting response of “So do you,” to something the kid tells him and the moment hits like a thunderbolt, a realization of something that he never even considered. Some Ennio Morricone music from the Italian TV movie PANE E LIBERTA is tracked in during the final moments to give the emotion that extra push and it’s possible that very little of this has to do with Howard Hughes. If anything, it has to do with whatever Hughes meant to Warren Beatty and how he saw his own story in this mythology. And it’s hard not to think about how much the film is really about him and maybe even an alternate universe of what he would have been if he’d never met Annette Bening (quite good here as Marla’s mother, although she’s not around for long) and if this is his last film then it’s as if the final two shots are Beatty today passing his own blessings back through the years to the person he once was and what he would eventually really become.
The most RULES DON’T APPLY scene in all of RULES DON’T APPLY might be when Hughes flies off to nowhere in particular with Frank and a British colonel played by Steve Coogan. It feels like it’s there because Beatty liked it but it also feels like a depiction of Beatty as a filmmaker—it shows Hughes taking his madness to the limit and Frank’s response to that but also Beatty’s own goals for this film taken to their extreme. As he bursts out in song with an Al Jolson number to the horror of the two men, almost recalling ISHTAR in a certain way, while barely keeping control of the plane he chuckles to himself almost as if he’s just glad he’s finally making this movie. So there’s not a thing to worry about except to make sure that no one changes who you are because if they do you’ll become something else. Someone who has to follow the rules. The film knows that Hughes is crazy. And brilliant. But even more than any of that, the only thing which really matters is what goes on behind closed doors between two people, away from the rest of the world.
Whether Beatty is playing Hughes in his own personal fog or some sort of alternate universe version of Beatty himself he finds the line of craziness, keeping in his own world while forcing a connection with another actor in the scene and timing that correctly keeps them off guard. You can almost see his brain working through those silences and he correctly keeps him always a little impenetrable. Alden Ehrenreich is relaxed and confident as Frank, always engaging with the other actors while showing no fear, always determined in his expression to not lose sight of what he thinks is what he needs. Lily Collins displays an innocence mixed with insecurity along with just the right amount of smarts all mixed in with the right screwball flavor when it’s needed and ready to explode when the arguments need to crackle. Matthew Broderick as fellow Hughes driver Levar makes the most of his chances to really throw dialogue back at Beatty while Oliver Platt gets a few scenes to bellow like he did in BULWORTH. A number of the other big names are in there only briefly including Alec Baldwin, Candice Bergen, Dabney Coleman and Martin Sheen making as much of an impression as they can. There are some pretty fascinating possibilities around the edges of this real life story that the film skates past—look up the story of Hughes associate Robert Maheu, played here in just a few scenes by Baldwin and you’ll want to see that film. Also notable is the appearance by producer (there are many listed) Steve Mnuchin as one of the Merrill Lynch executives, who can be seen silently sitting there as Oliver Platt desperately tries to talk to Hughes on the phone and is currently the Secretary of the Treasury. I suppose drawing the direct line between Howard Hughes and certain people in our lives right now is unavoidable.
Like Robert Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE, RULES DON’T APPLY concludes in Mexico on a note where someone realizes that there’s nowhere to go but forward. And like that Altman film, “Hooray for Hollywood” is heard at the start and very end (well, the very end of the closing credits, anyway). I don’t think Beatty is intentionally recalling his McCABE & MRS. MILLER director here or anything else of that sort but the forlorn piano version is kind of a reminder that the film is about something definitively ending. It’s not that hard to draw parallels to this film and any number of other latter day appearances by legendary stars whether Chaplin’s LIMELIGHT, which also paired him with a much younger female lead, or Cary Grant’s final film WALK DON’T RUN where he was the one responsible for putting the two young lovers together. In some ways, RULES DON’T APPLY is about the unavoidability of The End but it’s also about how all you can do about the past is acknowledge it from a distance and wish it well. Now just watch Beatty announce a new film tomorrow and throw this whole theory out of whack. The film may have been a flop but I never count him out. For him the rules don’t apply, after all. Because every now and then you have to look back to understand how you got where you are.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Seven Like A Gatling Gun

The music plays in your head over and over. Only you can hear it. I was talking to someone on the phone the other night and before I even realized it the conversation took a turn towards my becoming semi-confessional about a certain subject. I wasn’t sure if I should be talking about such things yet at the same time I didn’t really care. But later on, even right now, I find myself insecure about all this not because I said what I said but because I didn’t say enough. Even in the middle of what I was confessing I felt myself semi-censoring the truth in an attempt to leave who I was talking to out of this personal narrative and how she fit in with it. If I had, if I’d totally opened myself up, what would she have said? So now I’m wondering about fear and where all of that ever gets us. I can ask myself what do I really want and I can even answer that but will I be telling myself the truth? And do I even really know the answer?
Sometimes when a person disappears from your life it’s like you’re missing a limb. Out of nowhere that sense of connection you once had is gone, that feeling which made the emptiness in your life a little more nourished. You feel incomplete. Robert Altman’s CALIFORNIA SPLIT understands that feeling of incompleteness, of the desperation of what the hell are we looking for. The film feels like the secret code to unlock so much of the Altman mythos yet it’s somehow become a deep cut in the director’s extensive filmography, an A-side turned into a B-side, for no apparent reason other than lack of availability presumably due to music rights issues which is a damn shame. The films surrounding it during the same period—McCABE AND MRS. MILLER, THE LONG GOODBYE, NASHVILLE—have become venerated by now, deservedly so. Released by Columbia Pictures in 1974, CALIFORNIA SPLIT also deserves to be on that list but right now it’s as if the film wasn’t allowed to ever escape the clutches of the early 70s. There was never a VHS and the one DVD release actually removed several minutes to help get around the music rights and it’s out of print now anyway. When the film played on TCM a few years back during a night hosted by guest programmer Bill Paxton (RIP) who discussed it with host Robert Osborne (RIP) what was shown seems to have been the complete film except it was cropped to 1.85 instead of the full Panavision 2.35 frame, tampering with that badly needed widescreen Altman vibe. Which isn’t good enough. CALIFORNIA SPLIT remains elusive, out of our reach, just like that high of pure connection we always find ourselves hoping for. So aside from anything that may exist within the bootleg grapevine the best we can do for the moment is wait for the occasional screening at a place like Cinefamily, which did play it recently and I was there, of course I was there, even though I’d seen it before. I just needed it right now. And in the middle of everything going on lately I walked out of that screening totally exhilarated. That feeling doesn’t last, of course, but there’s a reason why we chase that high whether cinematic or otherwise. It’s important even if we know it’s fleeting. It’s never going to be anything but fleeting, of course, especially when you feel incomplete.
Meeting one night after a scuffle at a poker table, Bill Denny (George Segal) and Charlie Waters (Elliott Gould) begin a fast friendship bonding over all the things they can bet on whether cards or the horses. Bill, working at a magazine, is the would-be responsible one who actually worries about how deep in the hole he’s getting with his bookie while Charlie, the real pro at this stuff, is the one who seems to float through the world looking for more and more stuff to put his money down on. Bill gets sucked into Charlie’s world, including hanging out with two female friends Barbara (Ann Prentiss) and Susan (Gwen Welles) who work as prostitutes but gets more determined to win big, hocking many of his belongings and the two men set out for Reno looking to finally score at the card tables.
The friendship between the two guys just happens. That’s probably the way it’s supposed to be. Bill and Charlie don’t even really meet, they just find themselves at the same bar after the poker game and they start at it like it’s the most natural thing in the world, drinking, looking for things to bet on, talking over each other, talking over other people in that Altman patter. They bet on who can name the seven dwarfs, “Here comes seven like a Gatling gun,” Bill drunkenly spits out ready to list them, then unable to get past just a few (“That’s four.” “That’s three.”). Searching for those names, groping for the next bet, the film is really George Segal and Elliott Gould sitting at that bar, the coolest guys anywhere, and it doesn’t need to be much more than that. They also get beaten up together by the guy who lost the poker game as soon as they leave that bar but it almost doesn’t matter. It chains them together on this hot streak of a friendship and you feel Bill desperately trying for this partnership, you feel Charlie gliding along from one bet to the next just as he presumably always does. Since it’s an Altman film, there may very well be a good deal of improv mixed in with the screenplay by Joseph Walsh but it knows to focus on the desperation the characters always feel whether at the card tables or not, unable to keep a straight face about it for very long. On the surface CALIFORNIA SPLIT is about gambling and what that means but it’s also about friendship and everything that means, made clear in the quickie how-to movie on poker Charlie Waters stops to watch at the start. “Every player plays for himself,” is pointed out in the narration, almost a warning of what this world is really like and how a partnership, no matter how much the two of you can insist on it, is really just an illusion, you can only ever play just for yourself. The rush of CALIFORNIA SPLIT doesn’t just catch the fever of making those bets but that feeling of wanting to be in synch with another person so badly that it happens but of course that can never last, no matter how cool the two of you can be sitting at a bar for a few minutes, gliding along thinking all is well. I don’t know if the 70s were always this desperate and aimless or if it’s just what looks like the Robert Altman 70s, everything drenched in smoke and booze and Froot Loops and beer while floating through the world discovering that everyone is apparently named Barbara. CALIFORNIA SPLIT moves like a rocket even if it’s a patchily assembled Robert Altman rocket where it feels like story chunks were pulled out at random but everything comes together, everything about it clicks.
“Avoid conversations about matters not related to the game,” goes another line in that how-to doc about playing poker. Of course, that’s impossible. It’s impossible to avoid the way things are, even though they try, Bill sneaking off from his real life and Charlie avoiding anything that might be an actual responsibility. It’s not even clear what Charlie does for a living, if he even does anything at all beyond just betting, observing, going to the track, knowing how to read the faces of everyone around him. His behavior is all he’s got and he’s not going to change any more than he’s going to even consider changing seats on that bus to the track when he’s asked—everyone else there is either willing to do it or not based on their own reasons, none of which makes sense to anyone except for them. Altman doesn’t ask why, he doesn’t try to explain it, he knows that people don’t really change and I’m not sure there’s another film where Altman loved the faces he got to work with, whether the main characters or just people sitting around the card tables, as much as he clearly does here. Unlike the dreamy look of THE LONG GOODBYE courtesy Vilmos Zsigmond zooming in and out of the frame there’s a harshness to the look of SPLIT courtesy DP Paul Lohmann (who also shot NASHVILLE for Altman; later credits include HIGH ANXIETY, TIME AFTER TIME and MOMMIE DEAREST), a scorched out mid-70s L.A. setting, the stoner vibe of the earlier film turning into a harsher cigarette smoke hanging in the air and everyone seems hungover through the entire film, just waiting for the next drink, the next nicotine high, the next roll of the dice. I’d almost want to live in this film if it wasn’t for all that cigarette smoke but I know Altman wouldn’t want to make it easy for me.
Forever in search of more cash to bet with, George Segal’s Bill doesn’t know what he wants, he’s just caught up in trying to win as he looks for a good reason to flee from his job and not go broke. It’s like he suddenly depends on the hot streak that’s kicked off with this new friend of his and when Charlie disappears at one point he has no idea how to get the feeling back. Even when he finds himself alone with the more than willing Gwen Welles the first shot of reality into the situation causes him to flee. She’s almost like a little girl in her footie pajamas and doesn’t seem to have any idea what a real date is anyway but she’s also not swept up in that fear—‘those are the chances you have to take’ she says about going off to Hawaii with a man she’s never met, but even when he’s right there with her Bill has no idea what he really wants. Ann Prentiss’ Barbara is clearly the most stable person in the film in comparison, never worried about anywhere she’s going and just sailing through life, looking for nothing but her TV Guide. The two women at least have each other but when it comes to the two guys Bill can’t quite figure out Charlie who’s almost too much of a force of nature, forever determined but easily distracted as if he’ll put all the money he has into the first slot machine that comes along. If we were going to talk plot structure, which we’re not, I’d argue that since the film is Bill’s story we should never see Gould’s Charlie in a scene without Segal but I’d never expect Robert Altman to have much interest in those rules.
Besides, it makes sense that we see Charlie on his own, particularly during the second encounter at the racetrack with the poker player who beat them up which is one of the most purely satisfying scenes in the film between Gould’s admiration at the first punch thrown and the bathroom fight that follows with all the believable clumsiness and pure determination that makes it clear this is one guy who doesn’t give up. “Stick some toilet paper in your nose, it stops the bleeding,” Charlie tells the guy lying on the ground right before he leaves, as if that’s nothing less than his very philosophy of life. There’s an anger to Charlie that Bill doesn’t quite see, enough anger to stare down a guy holding a gun on him, enough anger that it’s not even clear how much he cares about anything beyond the split second of the win even more than the money. He’s got that rhythm ticking away in his head that Bill can’t quite hear and maybe that’s for the best. They may talk about partnership, they may need the other one as they sit at that bar but ultimately each of them pushes the other away, knowing they have to play for themselves, just like Charlie talks that woman heading out to the track on the bus played by Barbara London (another Barbara; everyone’s named Barbara) out of betting on his horse. After disappearing for a few days Charlie shows up out of nowhere telling Bill about a dream where he won big in Tijuana only to go there and lose it all. “You weren’t in the dream, William,” when Bill asks why he couldn’t have gone too. We all live in our own heads. We’re never really with the other person.
CALIFORNIA SPLIT is like that zone between your own personal hot streak and the feeling of walking out into the harsh morning light by yourself, having lost it all. Segal and Gould together in the frame here is like they got the two of them at the exact right moment and no one else is allowed to be near the groove they’re in—the appearance of Altman regular Bert Remsen as a cross-dressing client of the two girls is maybe even more uncomfortable than any of the humiliations in MASH maybe because that sort of punchline to the scene never comes and one imagines Robert Altman loving the response of an audience who’s not sure if they’re supposed to laugh, thrown by the presence of another person who is just as scared and desperate to figure things out as the leads of the film. Altman, who we kind of know wasn’t exactly the sweetest person himself, doesn’t care about making these guys endearing and it makes them that much more human. In a 70s film like this one you can feel the cynicism and desperation in the air and yet it feels so fucking life-affirming in every grubby desperate face. Maybe it’s the exhilaration of that last half-hour in Reno in the way it builds, from Gould describing the other people around the poker table to the steely determination of Segal to the last big streak with that Phyllis Shotwell jazzy music (one of the reasons for the rights issues) burning all the way through it. There’s no grand crescendo to that climax, just the ongoing rush of it all as if to drive home that there’s never one big moment of that special feeling. It doesn’t come, even when you get what you think you want, just that splash of cold water on your face and where you think you’ve ended up. CALIFORNIA SPLIT glides all the way through. It isn’t just one of the best Robert Altman films, looking at it now with the world it portrays almost seeming like science fiction it feels like a fucking miracle and the shabbiness it contains is absolutely beautiful.
George Segal and Elliott Gould are on fire in this film, doing some of the best work they’ve ever done. Segal’s everyman covers the range of his desperation whether baffled at his surroundings or laser focused during a game to at times barely responding at all because his character is so drained. There are times where it looks like Segal is doing less than he’s ever done in any other film, just sinking away into himself with nothing left but the truth of his soul. Gould seems ready to explode as if everything he’s been muttering to himself as Philip Marlowe can’t be held in any longer and from his one armed piccolo player routine to the way he and he alone calls Bill “William” as if to make his friend feel that much more special he knows how to play people. “There ain’t nobody there!” he shouts at a car in Reno, for a brief second synching up with the song on the soundtrack, as if he’s a ghost floating through the world of the film and the film we’re watching. Ann Prentiss (Paula’s sister and she looks just like the sister of Paula Prentiss) brings a genuine edge to her quirkiness making it all the more unpredictable and Gwen Welles who also memorably appeared in NASHVILLE combines a sense of being truly beguiling with something else deep down that we can’t quite peg as if there’s something off but we’ll never know the truth. The way she waves at George Segal as he drives off is the stuff entire essays are written about.
Jeff Goldblum, looking about 12 years old, appears as Segal’s boss while screenwriter Joseph Walsh who was one of Craig T. Nelson’s buddies in POLTERGEIST watching football (he’s the one who shouts “I bet my life on this game!”) also plays Segal’s bookie. There’s not a false note in his performance as if he’s been on the receiving end of these diatribes himself and it gets an extra edge out of Segal’s performance for this scene with a growing awareness of how deep into this he really is. Jack Riley gets one of the film’s biggest laughs in his brief appearance as a bartender and the barmaid in the Reno section is played by Barbara Ruick, yet another Barbara and the wife of John Williams who had scored IMAGES and THE LONG GOODBYE for Altman. Her pleasure at Gould’s descriptions of the other poker players around the table looks totally genuine and it’s all the more shocking to learn she died of a cerebral hemorrhage while on location in Reno. The simple dedication to her as the end credits roll—“For Barbara”—maybe causes some confusion due to the running gag in the film of multiple Barbaras as if it’s just one more joke and that in itself almost seems like an extra tribute to her from Altman. He doesn’t mind if the real meaning isn’t clear. You have to find the real meaning for yourself.
Whether or not the rules of poker apply to real life that doesn’t mean you can always follow them. The way you really are is going to get in the way no matter what. As the film opens the two guys silently walk past each other, not having met just yet. At the end one of them walks off away from the other. And they never really did meet. The three Robert Altman-Elliott Gould films could also be said to make up an informal trilogy about friendship and its ultimate impossibility. In MASH it ends when they’re thrust apart by greater forces, in THE LONG GOODBYE the pairing is destroyed by selfishness and in CALIFORNIA SPLIT it ends because it has to. There’s no way to keep going, much as we want that feeling of these guys singing “Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown” to go on forever. You may never be complete, but sometimes all you can do is spin the wheel and who the fuck knows. So please, Criterion or somebody, figure out those music rights and give us the whole thing on Blu. Until that happens, we may need someone to screen this film at least twice a year so we can get our fix. Because we need to be able to remember those people, the ones who have shouted “Fuck you!” at us the loudest. In some ways, being able to remember them is the only way to keep trying.