Wednesday, May 20, 2015

All The Same Color

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

Monday, May 11, 2015

Ideal But For The Writing

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

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Long Enough To Be Anything Else

Norman Lloyd gave away the end of LIMELIGHT and I didn’t care. Not that I should care, since when you’re Norman Lloyd you can pretty much do anything you want. Plus if, like me, you’ve waited this long to see LIMELIGHT then any risks you take are on you. Besides, a film is more than how it ends, at least that’s how it should be. This event happened partway through the second day of the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival which by that point was already a whirlwind and there I was, about to see Charlie Chaplin’s LIMELIGHT for the very first time, preceded by a discussion featuring the legendary Norman Lloyd who appears in the film. One story he told required revealing how it ends and, yes, when he started I was taken aback that Lloyd would actually do this but let me go back a little first. It’s impossible to cover the entire TCM Festival since it’s impossible to experience the entire TCM Festival. There are always going to be films that you don’t see, appearances you don’t make it to, people who you know that you barely get to see. The blogger meet-up at the Formosa the night before it all starts organized by my friend @oldfilmsflicker takes care of that last part since once it all begins you just have to hit the ground running and not look back. This sort of marathon viewing used to be something I did much more of but you can’t keep that insanity up forever. Patton Oswalt, in his recent book “Silver Screen Fiend”, writes about attending a massive Hammer Films festival put on by the American Cinematheque (in the years before they took over the Egyptian and Aero) that took place over two consecutive weekends way back in ’95. Probably not much of a surprise but just as Patton Oswalt was I was there for every single film they played. As far as I remember, he and I never met but I look back on something like that with a combination of amazement at how I actually did that and wondering just what the hell I was thinking. I could never do something like that again now otherwise I’d go stir crazy but for whatever reason the TCM Classic Film Festival is an exception I’ll gladly make. To be honest, it was a glorious weekend.
The theme for this year’s festival which ran from March 26-29 was “History According to Hollywood”, a subject broad enough that you and I could easily program our own series filled with completely different selections. Certainly the inclusion of several John Ford films throughout was a worthy choice as were things like the recently discovered 1919 Harry Houdini film THE GRIM GAME. One point of controversy about this year’s selections were certain newer titles— in particular, Steven Soderbergh’s OUT OF SIGHT (shown with editor Anne V. Coates in attendance which is a good enough reason for me) and APOLLO 13 for its 20th anniversary with a Jim Lovell appearance. The year was also made notable by the unfortunate absence of TCM host Robert Osborne for health reasons. These subjects came up during the “Ask TCM” panel on Thursday afternoon in the Club TCM area of the Roosevelt Hotel where attendees got to ask questions of various bigwigs from the channel. It was very clear how much TCM really means to people and I guess it means something to me too since I’ve got it playing on the TV behind me right this second. As the opening night party kicked off, the big red carpet event for THE SOUND OF MUSIC was happening right across the street at the Chinese—I wasn’t there for that and that’s ok but since it’s my mom’s favorite movie I have nothing bad to say about it. I was introduced to the Bogart’s Gin sponsoring the festival so I had the first of quite a few gin & tonics over the weekend and the fun began. One obvious way my TCM Festival experience differs from others is that since I live in L.A. I already get a pretty good selection of films to see every week anyway so the chances are better that there are going to be films I’ve seen before, prints I’ve seen before. And I’d rather see 35mm prints, always. Yes, you can’t avoid the awful spectre that is digital projection no matter how much I wish things were otherwise. But my own desire to see these 35mm prints, the way the films were meant to be seen, combined with the chance to see films I’ve never seen before at all sometimes sends me away from the massive main theater at the Chinese where many of the popular choices play and upstairs to the smaller multiplex area where the funkier titles often turn up. That approach began right off with the double of the 1949 noir TOO LATE FOR TEARS (which in fairness I had already seen, but it’s so much fun) starring Lizabeth Scott who was shamefully ignored during the In Memorium segment at this year’s Oscars followed by a first viewing of the powerful BREAKER MORANT which was introduced by director Bruce Beresford.
By the time LIMELIGHT came up on Friday in theater #6 at the Chinese multiplex it was well into the day which for me started with the special presentation “The Dawn of Technicolor” at the Egyptian, an eye-popping examination of the early history of the Technicolor process and business with jaw-dropping clips of now-unknown movie musicals from the early sound era. I moved down the street to the Chinese 6 for a digital restoration of the excellent Michael Curtiz western THE PROUD REBEL starring Alan Ladd and Olivia de Havilland. LIMELIGHT came immediately after and it happened during one of the most packed blocks of the festival--Ann-Margret appearing with THE CINCINNATI KID, a digital restoration of Orson Welles’ CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT, YOUNG MR. LINCOLN with Peter Fonda appearing to talk about his father Henry, among others. I went with LIMELIGHT, not only because I’d never seen it and it was about time I had but because I didn’t want to go this entire festival without seeing Norman Lloyd, who has recently celebrated his 100th birthday, speak at least once. Norman Lloyd who at one point during a story about his early days paused to mention about someone who appeared briefly in the telling, “And that woman was Katharine Hepburn…who had yet to make a picture.” In most stories that would be the climax but here the young Katherine Hepburn was merely an aside. Such is the life of Norman Lloyd. There was no real reason why I should have picked LIMELIGHT but for whatever reason it seemed to make sense.
Much as he should be represented at something like the TCM Festival I’ve never had much to say about Chaplin before. It’s safe to say that many people of my generation have never had much to say about Chaplin before. At this point in time much of his work seems to act as little more than part of a Film History 101 syllabus—THE KID, CITY LIGHTS, MODERN TIMES, various shorts, you deal with the political fallout surrounding THE GREAT DICTATOR and then you move on, maybe back to Buster Keaton since you’d rather be watching THE GENERAL anyway. My favorite Chaplin is MONSIEUR VERDOUX, the first viewing of which is one of those memories I need to write about sometime, and since it doesn’t feature his Little Tramp character barely seems to qualify as what we think of as a ‘Chaplin’ movie. Chaplin’s LIMELIGHT, originally released in 1952, also isn’t a Little Tramp film and yet unlike MONSIEUR VERDOUX it may be impossible to consider it at all without taking his voluminous history into account. Whatever someone knows about Chaplin is likely going to inform their response to this particular film which makes it all the more fascinating in itself. Or maybe part of why I found it so fascinating was how sincere it was, how unconcerned with how old-fashioned, even for 1952, that it might be. Did part of my response how to do with my own indifference towards Chaplin? Was I confronting whatever that legend really is today or did it somehow go beyond that?
The plot is simple: It is London, 1914. Legendary music hall comic Calvero known as “The Tramp Comedian” (Charlie Chaplin) is nearing the end of his time, often drunk and with very little demand for his talents anymore when he happens upon a depressed young dancer named Terry (Claire Bloom) who has just tried to kill herself. Nursing her back to health Calvero helps restore Terry’s self-confidence and resume her dancing career. But her attempts at doing the same for him don’t prove as successful and as much as she falls in love with the much older Calvero even her attempts at featuring him in the ballet she’s been chosen to star in isn’t enough no matter how great the love between them grows. Along with that plot which mostly focuses on its two leads, the visual presentation is just as simple—the film opens with the camera moving into the setting and the final shots have the camera pulling back from the last moments which is maybe about as visually flashy as it ever gets. Chaplin once famously said, “I don’t need interesting camera angles, I am interesting.” Which is consistent with his approach to LIMELIGHT, a film which presents its story in plain, clear fashion but is a complex portrayal, as piercing as staring down into Chaplin’s own soul. A title card at the beginning tells us the film is “a story of a ballerina and a clown…” but even more than that it’s about Chaplin himself, his iconic persona, his career, his life, his own past and the way he looks at the world--I imagine it’s not at all coincidence that it’s set in 1914, the year he made his first film.
Much of the dialogue is so blunt in its statements about the glories and pain of living that the film can’t even really be said to contain subtext since it’s all spoken out loud so plainly by the characters already. Even with a few brief ornamental passages showing off the theater scene of London as well as several extended ballet sequences just about any cinematic trickery is entirely limited to Chaplin’s own comic antics. And of course Chaplin is right--he is interesting; his physicality is always fascinating to watch throughout the film and not even just during Calvero’s routines. It shows us who Calvero is through just his movements as much as anything even with all the lofty statements about life that he makes and this helps, possibly because on occasion the tone of Chaplin’s voice almost seems a bit too harsh for the moment. Aside from the two leads everyone is very much a supporting player, including the great Norman Lloyd as the sympathetic ballet director (my favorite moment of his is a silent beat when he pops a piece of candy in his mouth). Even the famous appearance by the great Buster Keaton for a sequence which teams the two legends up together for the first and only time is totally in support of Chaplin—he’s not even given a character name, just “Calvero’s Partner” but I suppose it’s not really needed since of course we know who he really is anyway. And Keaton himself seems totally aware of this in his performance which makes his visible onscreen feelings towards his co-star all the more touching.
As Calvero states near the end, “We’re all amateurs. We never have time to become anything else.” It’s one of any number of lines in the film that could be considered an authorial statement if not his own feelings about everything surrounding what he’s observed in life—the phrase “the melancholy of twilight” is heard at one point which could easily have been an alternate title of the film. So nakedly sentimental that it almost seems redundant to even point that out, the film is the work of someone who has accepted things while continually on the verge of tears over how beautiful life is. It’s a film about looking back made by someone aware that the world is very much moving forward beyond him. Calvero is worried that his is a type of performing that no one wants anymore, exactly what Chaplin is clearly worried about as well, and I suppose that means even more now that the world really has moved away from whatever he represented. At one point a character, not him, offers the observation, “What is more eloquent than silence?” as if he’s remembering what has really been lost in the type of filmmaking he knew best. To give a reason for disregarding charity Calvero offers, “It’s the tramp in me,” which is a clear reference to his famous character but also can be used to explain his own stubbornness, why he can’t make this film anything other than what it is. Calvero’s stage persona is clearly an alternate version of that, as if it’s the one Chaplin would have taken on if he had lived during that era instead—even the plot point involving Calvero changing his name so no one will know it’s him onstage is an interesting choice for this Chaplin film where he is basically playing another version of Chaplin. What we see of his act is never particularly funny, or at least isn’t in this day and age, and these scenes go on way too long but maybe that’s beside the point—it’s a depiction of Chaplin playing Calvero basically playing Chaplin.
Seemingly unencumbered by what a 1952 film is supposed to be and with much of the running time set in Calvero's tiny apartment, the deceptively simple visual style is a reminder that Chaplin as director hadn’t changed his ways at all in 30 years. A few moments that can almost be called clumsy on a basic filmmaking level, maybe a reminder that his style didn’t always translate to the modern era, almost make me more supportive for it because it reminds me the film always totally means what it’s saying about, well, everything. To both Chaplin and Calvero, the young, unsullied Terry is clearly meant to represent all that is good in the world, as well as how dangerously close an artist can come to losing their way through despair and hopelessness. He has to stop her from hating herself because of her past—it’s a film set in his own past that’s partly about the fear of being held back by that past, held back by some horrible form of regret that sometimes in life we can’t do anything to shake and it paralyzes us—in Terry’s case, literally. Totally angelic in every single one of her actions towards Calvero, it makes her more of a symbol that a person although Bloom makes her fully human in her performance. Ultimately, the film rages against her initial sorrow over “the utter futility of everything”, getting her to want to fight for happiness. The film seems to say that the search for meaning is a waste since the answer is right there in front of us all the time already--art has meaning, love has meaning. In the end, what matters more than anything is that we’ve gotten to experience just a little of this.
Reading up on how the production was relatively straightforward for Chaplin, who in earlier years didn’t hesitate shooting scenes hundreds of times, doesn’t affect our perception of the film but it is a reminder of how he had changed. Going out of style which is true now and I imagine had occurred to him then. It’s a film that means what it says, is a blunt statement by its legendary star-director of, well, everything he felt about performing, comedy, about the glory and pain of life, whatever that is, that he had learned up until that time. Adding to how personal it all clearly is, his son Sydney plays the key role of Neville the composer who is a possible love interest for Terry while his children Geraldine (her first film appearance), Josephine and Charles, Jr. appear in small roles. Chaplin also doesn’t always adhere to strict realism and his famous hesitation towards using sound is recalled in Calvero’s stage performances where we don’t hear the audience (i.e. laughter) until it’s absolutely necessary (i.e. everyone applauds so we know they love him) although the fantasy nature of some of these scenes leaves the necessity open to question as well. Like he did many years ago, Chaplin is experimenting not only with the basic use of sound but also the cinematic necessity of sound. If the result isn’t always elegant it doesn’t seem to matter.
LIMELIGHT feels designed to be a final work but although it didn’t turn out to be Chaplin’s last film (A KING OF NEW YORK and A COUNTESS FROM HONG KONG followed after his exile from the United States) it was the last one he made in Hollywood, much of it was filmed at the Chaplin Studios just a few blocks away from where the Chinese 6 now is, which makes it an end in itself. Maybe the only way that the film could be more nakedly about Chaplin himself would be if he had gotten up to deliver a speech at the premiere in 1952 and promptly fell over dead (he didn’t, for the record), making the story he was telling well and truly complete. Norman Lloyd spoke of the film but also his friendship with Chaplin during his talk with Bruce Goldstein of New York's Film Forum before the film started. Afterwards Lloyd stayed to see the film and I may as well admit that the story he told got me on its side before the lights even went down—I haven’t earned the right Norman Lloyd has to give away the film’s ending (if you must, here he tells pretty much the same story at the Academy in 2012) but it involved Buster lending unexpected assistance to Chaplin during the filming of the ending and the mental image brought on by one legend selflessly helping out another got me unexpectedly emotional even before the film had started. I didn’t care that the ending had been given away. Suddenly, at that very moment right before the lights went down, the ending was the film.
By total happenstance, my next choice after LIMELIGHT was Buster Keaton’s own STEAMBOAT BILL, JR. complete with live orchestra, giving me a chance to get the full Buster dose that LIMELIGHT only hinted at. There was more to come that weekend with other films I hadn’t seen before--it says something about me that I passed on THE PHILADELPHIA STORY in favor of my first-ever viewing of 1953’s HOUDINI because it was a last minute inclusion due to having to cobble together a print from various sources and I wanted to see it looked like (it looked fine and, as cheesy as it was in its early 50s studio gloss, I’m glad I saw that movie too). And there was more through the next few days —THE BANK DICK with TCM favorite Illeana Douglas interviewing W.C. Fields’ grandsons, Christopher Plummer speaking before THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING, the delightful pre-code DON’T BET ON WOMEN, the early John Ford AIR MAIL. I reacquainted myself with Preston Sturges’ glorious CHRISTMAS IN JULY which I think is gaining for me as time goes on, a screening of PSYCHO that featured a very enjoyable introduction by Edgar Wright, a Club TCM discussion with the legendary Shirley MacLaine (I had missed her appearance before a screening in the Chinese of THE APARTMENT, one of my only true regrets of the weekend) the astounding “Return of the Dream Machine”, a hand-cranked projector show giving us the chance to see early silent with some jaw-dropping footage and was certainly a highlight of the festival. The closing night selection, for me anyway, was a screening of the 2014 restoration of Vittorio Di Sica’s MARRIAGE ITALIAN STYLE in the main Chinese theater that featured star Sophia Loren appearing with TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz for a loose, engaging talk before the screening. The crowd loved Sophia, obviously, but it occurred to me as the De Sica film played, and I liked it very much, that of all the times I had been to this glorious theater I had never seen a film quite like this there. It was a near-religious experience comparable in its own way to seeing LIMELIGHT in that much smaller theater—both experiences were hugely moving for me and both served as a reminder of why I was there in the first place, a reminder of how ridiculously huge my love of film can sometimes be.
All that was left following Sophia Loren was the closing night party, more drinks with that Bogart gin and getting to spend a little more time with some of the people I’d been spending time with over the past few days. Of the memories I’ve taken away with me from that weekend LIMELIGHT seems like a special one—there was even the unexpected bonding I had a day later with someone I only know slightly over how much me had loved it as well. It’s the sort of memory that gets me to still miss the TCM Festival a month later but you have to get back to reality eventually, I suppose. But there was the chance to see these films, to love them, to have them stay with me. To not forget Chaplin. Or Keaton. Or Sophia Loren. Or John Ford. Or Lizabeth Scott. As I walked off that night from the closing night party to the subway nearby I felt a surge through me over how much I loved the films I’ve seen, how much I love so many films and how happy I am that it’s given me the chance to meet more people who feel the same. And TCM is still playing behind me as I write this. Sometimes it’s ok to feed an addiction like films just as it’s a good thing to be reminded that maybe you should return to those Chaplin films that you haven’t seen in years to see what they might have for you at this point in life. And realize that they’re about much more than just the ending. It’s about how those endings, those films, stay with you no matter what. And that love continues.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Good News Is No News

Maybe things don’t change. Several years go by, you turn around and suddenly you’re back in the same place. Not long ago I took a look at NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN for the first time in several years. Beats me why it had been so long but maybe that’s what you sometimes need to do with Best Picture winners, to somehow remove them from that Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. And watching it again I’m not sure the film has deepened so much as it just plays as a cold reminder of how good it always was. The bleak hope that permeates the action, the absolute cynicism which resides deep down inside of it, has only become more acute. You revisit a film away from the hype it can be a little easier to see what’s really going on in there. Maybe I’m just a little older now, too. The pitch-black comedy sprinkled throughout NO COUNTRY doesn’t keep it from being all too aware of the nastiness in the world, the inevitability of the bad shit coming down and there’s not a thing you can do about it because eventually you’re going to lose that coin toss. Like it or not.
When it comes to cynicism, sometimes the question might be how far is too far. After directing his first film THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR in 1941, Billy Wilder spent much of the following decade directing films that (with the exception of the Technicolor Bing Crosby vehicle THE EMPEROR WALTZ) for the most part became progressively darker, more probing into the deep recesses of the human spirit in ways that were sometimes comic, sometimes not so, culminating in the masterpiece that is SUNSET BOULEVARD in 1950. At a certain point in the 50s things seemed to shift for him, the films becoming more openly commercial, star vehicles, comedies, a number of them based on commercially successful stage plays. Coming right in between these two periods was maybe his darkest of all, ACE IN THE HOLE, an original screenplay that went further down into the depths than he ever had and ever would again. Since he left us several years before NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN we’ll never know just what Billy Wilder would have said about it but ACE IN THE HOLE certainly gives me an idea. Long after my first viewing of the film years ago at a massive Wilder retrospective at the Film Forum in New York, ACE still hits me right in the gut, to steal a line from its lead character, every single time I see it. It probably is Billy Wilder’s most cynical work or at the very least his bluntest argument for what humanity is capable of, taking any foul mood he developed in the wake of World War II when he toured the aftermath of the Nazi atrocities and pushing those thoughts to its extreme. There is goodness in ACE IN THE HOLE, there are people who have goodness in them, but they’re mostly powerless and the film discards them essentially because they have no place in what it believes the world is turning into. Which I suppose is how it is.
Exiled to New Mexico after no other paper will hire him, reporter Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) has been cooling his heels at the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin for a year, waiting for the big story that will launch him back to the big city. Then out of nowhere that story drops in his lap, almost too perfect—in tiny desert stopover Escudero local tourist shop proprietor Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) has become trapped in a cave-in. His wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling) wants to use this as an excuse to finally escape the marriage and that nothing town but Chuck convinces her that she stands to gain from all this as well. As his stories begin to turn up in the paper and the crowds start to appear he also gets the local sheriff (Ray Teal) to go along with his plan to drag out the rescue of Leo and make it the biggest spectacle around. Only Chuck goes a little too far with his plan, putting the perfect grand finale of the big carnival that’s sprouted up in jeopardy.
“I can handle big news and little news. And if there’s no news I’ll go out and bite a dog,” Chuck Tatum tells his new boss Jacob Q. Boot (Porter Hall) to sell himself. Maybe ACE IN THE HOLE isn’t a cynical film as much as it’s about a cynical man and the world he creates out of that cynicism. Somewhat based on the real life case of Floyd Collins, who Tatum even mentions at one point as something long-forgotten, ACE IN THE HOLE is very much the work of Billy Wilder and could have been a dark comedy, a very dark comedy. There are certainly points in the film where it really can’t be considered anything else. Maybe that’s cynicism or maybe it’s just reality. In Cameron Crowe’s “Conversations With Wilder” the director tries to downplay that aspect of his films then allows, “Maybe ACE IN THE HOLE,” which does seem a little like an understatement. He was a newspaperman himself in Vienna long ago, after all, so he must have understood where Chuck Tatum was coming from, desperate to get out of Albuquerque “which is pretty Albuquerque” as he tells it and back to New York where he can finally get his chopped chicken livers. Lorraine admiringly mentions to Chuck who’s been pounding away at his typewriter all night that “he sure can make with the words,” something Wilder always certainly had a knack for.
ACE IN THE HOLE (written by Wilder, Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman) came at a crucial juncture in Wilder’s career—after the all-holy SUNSET BOULEVARD and Wilder’s break with screenwriting partner Charles Brackett who he had worked with since the late 30s. After several films with various writing partners he eventually joined forces with I.A.L. Diamond for 1957’s LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON and the two remained together from then on. But ACE is Wilder’s breaking off with Brackett, breaking off with a half that maybe he felt shackled to at that point—Brackett had apparently wanted nothing to do with DOUBLE INDEMNITY due to its seamy content. With ACE Wilder takes no prisoners, biting into this tale with all the ferociousness imaginable and absolutely unapologetic for the journey it takes, although since the reporter’s byline is actually “Charles Tatum” maybe that first name is some small acknowledgement to his former partner. Either way, the overall effect as more and more people turn up to gawk at what’s happening is unrelenting and Wilder never came anywhere close to it again. The black and white harshness of the New Mexico setting makes it one of the most distinctive looking Billy Wilder films but also one of the most characteristic, a reminder of how anti-color Wilder was for a very long time—New Mexico in its full glory can be a very serene place to visit but that wasn’t how he apparently saw it. There’s no serenity here, no goodness, the Indian spirits people speak of are only meant as warning signs. And if Escudero isn’t swarming over with the masses ready to buy, buy, buy it’s just a barren stretch of emptiness and nothing else.
A flop when it was first released (Paramount also tried it under the title THE BIG CARNIVAL but it didn’t help) ACE IN THE HOLE has never been one of the best known films by Billy Wilder, presumably because it wasn’t an easy film to see for a long time—there’s a readily available DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion now but it never even came out on VHS. It’s an interesting comparison to the acclaimed SUNSET BOULEVARD from the previous year—not only is that film funnier, setting the story in what is essentially a gothic mansion in the middle of Beverly Hills makes it immediately foreign to most people, they can watch it at a remove knowing they’re never going to turn out like William Holden’s Joe Gillis (well, maybe some of us would-be screenwriters do). ACE IN THE HOLE is set out in the middle of the country and dialogue even reels off how many states the multitudes are swarming in from, a reminder that the people watching the film are who Wilder is pointing his finger at, they’re the ones coming whether by car or the ‘Leo Minosa Special’ train that stops nearby to pay to see the spot where the helpless man is trapped. He’s right of course and he still is now—he’s showing us the future of reality TV and cable news networks devoting endless coverage to missing planes. Wilder is toying with the audience as much as Chuck is, he’s the one who moves it all forward. “I’ve met some hard boiled eggs in my time but, you, you’re twenty minutes,” Lorraine tells Tatum (now and forever my favorite line) not with calculation so much as admiration. Her face long since having turned into one giant sneer to go perfectly with her bleached blonde hair, she’s a true noir creation who never seems to have even realized it and she learns fast thanks to his teaching. Chuck is happy to take her along as he pulls the strings on what happens to her husband—I’m your pal, he tells the trapped Leo and the poor guy never even realizes he’s in a Billy Wilder film where those rules don’t apply. “She’s so pretty,” Leo tells Chuck about the wife who has nothing but disdain for him and Wilder immediately dissolves to her proudly watching giant carnival trucks that read “The Great S&M Amusement Corp.” drive on in, a series of two shots which proclaims Wilder’s feelings about relationships between men and women more succinctly than just about anything else in his career.
If there’s a flaw in the film that sometimes nags me in the back recesses of my brain during some viewings it’s that Wilder is almost trying too hard to make this all so venal, bending over backwards just a little too much to display Chuck’s nastiness in risking Leo—but that still doesn’t mean Wilder is wrong in what he’s showing us. After money, after glory, after the Pulitzer, Chuck gets the carnival to seep into everyone, just like that damn novelty song “We’re Coming Leo” that eventually gets heard on an endless loop which is brilliant in its awfulness—after only thirty seconds it’s trapped in our head forever. Lorraine’s earlier joke that they’ll bring a brass band out for Leo essentially comes true in the worst way possible. With the sheriff and his trusty rattlesnake on Chuck’s side no one has a chance. Loyal photographer Herbie (Bob Arthur) is only too happy to go along with Chuck, not thinking of anything beyond that. Radio interviewers covering the scene don’t do much other than say how ‘wonderful’ this rescue operation is while asking witnesses how ‘wonderful’ they think it is too. The visiting press from his beloved New York that Chuck is only too happy to thumb his nose at never get anywhere close to the man in jeopardy they’re on the scene to cover. Leo’s father is mournfully hopeful, but powerless. All his mother, without an audible line in the whole film, can do is pray. The countless masses are represented by the visiting Federber family, led by a goofball father (Frank Cady) who works for Pacific All Risk Insurance--Fred MacMurray’s insurance company in DOUBLE INDEMNITY--and Wilder seems determined to put them into as many shots as possible. They’re the “Mr. & Mrs. America” Chuck speaks of—not unfeeling but gullible, suckers, just looking to go along for the ride at the carnival and not knowing any better.
Closer to Wilder’s own viewpoint is Porter Hall’s newspaper editor/publisher Mr. Boot, who serves as much of a conscience to the main character as Edward G. Robinson does in DOUBLE INDEMNITY--representing all that is noble in the world, maybe overly cautious with his belt & suspenders but a man with decency as well as the ability to express what the other characters can’t. Cunning as Chuck can be, even Boot knows how good a reporter he is, just one that doesn’t think his plan through enough to know that instead of saving Leo they’re doing the exact opposite, winding up killing a man just as much as Fred MacMurray’s Walter Neff did. That drill set up far above Leo making that continuous pounding is like a clock of doom, marking every second closer to his demise and ultimately driving him mad. The talk of the Indian spirits that caused the cave-in in the first place is forgotten about. Clearly, the spirits of capitalism are even worse. “Everybody’s paying for it,” Lorraine says to justify the carnival being built around them and that’s all that matters. Even the more lighthearted moments of Hugo Friedhofer’s score manage to sound like a march towards doom. ACE IN THE HOLE was released in 1951, a timeframe even alluded to when Tatum shouts at Boot that it’s “the second half” of the twentieth century and his loyal assistant Herbie wants to get going, not back to the antiquated world that Boot represents. “Going where?” the editor sadly replies. Going to 2015, I imagine. It’s almost more potent when viewed today because of how long ago Wilder knew the way things were going. Any film that tries to emulate ACE IN THE HOLE, like Costa-Gavras’ now-forgotten 1997 drama MAD CITY, just comes off as old news in comparison, ready to wrap fish in.
But in 1951 ACE IN THE HOLE may have been as far as Wilder or anyone could have gone which may account for Wilder’s retreat to commercial stability. He wanted to keep his career going, after all. STALAG 17 followed a few years later. A big hit based on a hit play. The likes of SABRINA and THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH followed that, big glossy movies meant to be hits and they were and eventually we got THE APARTMENT but that’s another story. Maybe ACE IN THE HOLE just left him with nowhere else to go with those themes so when that happens you kind of need Audrey Hepburn. ACE IN THE HOLE is definitely a look at how Wilder saw America in 1951 and how he saw humanity itself, for that matter. Whether that view was cynical or merely pragmatic could be argued. Either way, it’s clear that the director wishes otherwise so the young photographer Herbie could just stay at his desk in Albuquerque and never be exposed to what Tatum has engineered, so Leo could actually make it out whether Lorraine sticks around or not. “I’m sorry,” Leo says during his final moments when confessing his sins. We know that has nothing to be sorry for so the camera is correctly on Chuck at that point, who of course does. Several years later Wilder adapted his visual style to the arrival of CinemaScope and even continued to work largely in black & white as long as he could, so his harsh visuals were still there. But nothing topped this one. The legendary final shot and line of THE APARTMENT could be said to represent all that is good in the world, the best of what we can ever really hope to achieve in life. The devastatingly unflinching final shot of ACE IN THE HOLE is maybe how it all inevitably turns out because sooner or later you’re going to go too far in that quest for your own personal glory. That’s the way it is.
You can feel the hunger Kirk Douglas brings to Chuck Tatum, not thinking of the consequences of his actions until it’s too late and he’s every bit as determined in performance as Tatum is to get back to New York. As feverish as he is at times it all seems totally genuine, down to the newspaperman’s bones--he hasn’t quite become Kirk Douglas doing Kirk Douglas yet. It’s one of my favorite performances by him and the grip he maintains on this determination is palpable down to the very last second. Jan Sterling and that sneer trapped on her face matches him totally word for word and the wheels turning in Lorraine’s head as she realizes what she can really gain from all this are just about visible. A brief shot of her near the end of turning away from a window as she learns something says it all. The various character actors throughout all pop in their roles—Gene Evans, star of Sam Fuller’s PARK ROW and THE STEEL HELMET plays the deputy sheriff—but the total decency in Porter Hall’s newspaper editor stands out to me, particularly in contrast to the villains and more comical roles (including in DOUBLE INDEMNITY) the actor played during his career. He has maybe four scenes but throughout them, including his very last moment and final dialogue onscreen, he gives the film its humanity as well as its genuine hope for the future that it wouldn’t have otherwise.
Sometimes I visit Billy Wilder’s grave at the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery and for whatever reason this is the film I think about the most when I do. Of course, no one cares anymore how much ACE IN THE HOLE flopped when it came out and by a certain point maybe he didn’t either. One source has the director, after musing over how the film lost him power at Paramount declared, “Fuck them all--it is the best picture I ever made.” Even Charles Brackett wrote about it with admiration. I’m never sure what my pick for the best Billy Wilder film is and if you ask I’ll probably give you a different answer on a different day but this one is certainly in the running. As much as I cherish THE APARTMENT which I’ll sometimes name as my favorite film, as enjoyable as DOUBLE INDEMNITY always is, I suppose I look at ACE IN THE HOLE with all its bitterness about the world and think about what films really mean to me, why this one affected me so much back then and why it continues to now. It remains in my gut as I wonder if I’m getting more cynical as time goes on or just more aware of how the world really works and how it’s affected by all the Chuck Tatums out there. Maybe more than anything, it’s a reminder of how Billy Wilder’s films matter more as time goes on. That’s the sort of change I can live with.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Going On Pure Instinct

You need to find your own way. That just flashed in my head for no particular reason. Well, actually, there probably were a few reasons but sometimes things just don’t work out the way you want them to. Some time ago I had coffee with a person I knew at film school, an institution the name of which shall not be spoken here. It was a horrible time for me, remains a horrible time thinking back on it and this was the first time I’d seen this person in years so when he spoke about how well he regarded me I was honestly kind of baffled. Why am I thinking all this? Damned if I know. Memory is weird.
But since all this has come to mind naturally I find myself thinking of Andrew Bergman’s THE FRESHMAN, a film set partly in a film school, taking place around a world of film and a lead character who without even realizing it is forced to consider what kind of man he wants to be. I wish I could have come up with that sort of decision then. This was his first completed directorial effort after 1981’s SO FINE (the production of 1986’s BIG TROUBLE, which he began directing but didn’t finish, is another story entirely) and Bergman’s films—actually, in saying the phrase ‘Bergman’s films’ it’s hard not to think for a brief instant that you’re referring to the other one—often have a tendency to seem too slight, too simple, but then they grow on you, the jokes becoming stronger on repeat viewings, the jokes behind those jokes become more clear. And there’s an affection towards the characters that maybe you didn’t immediately latch on to, making you want to linger with them for just a few minutes longer past the end credits. Plus there’s the wordplay inherent to his screenplays which seems like such a lost art now. Few screenwriters in the modern era have achieved such a Sturges-like way of understanding language the way Bergman has but as a director he sometimes found a way to integrate that language with his own peculiar visual style. THE FRESHMAN, slight as it might seem at first and may really be, is possibly the best example of that. I wish we had more like it.
Leaving his home in Vermont to study film at NYU, freshman Clark Kellogg (Matthew Broderick) arrives at Grand Central and is immediately corralled by overly friendly Vic (Bruno Kirby) who takes off with all of Clark’s belongings as soon as they arrive at his stop. He tracks him down soon enough and in place of giving back his money Vic offers Clark a job with his uncle, Carmine Sabatini (Marlon Brando) a mysterious importer also known as Jimmy the Toucan who has a striking resemblance to the most famous movie mobster of all time. Carmine offers Clark a job running errands, the first being to pick up a Komodo dragon from the airport for mysterious reasons. Soon enough Clark has also met Carmine’s daughter Tina (Penelope Ann Miller) who takes an immediate shine to him. It doesn’t take long for Clark to realize that he’s in over his head, that there’s more going on than anyone will tell him and even his animal rights activist stepfather Dwight (Kenneth Welsh) is immediately suspicious. But it seems there’s no way out for Clark as the reason for the Komodo dragon’s presence becomes clear.
Some of Bergman’s best work has the same conceit—the (relatively) normal lead is thrust into a situation in which the entire world suddenly becomes so insane that he must either become part of that insanity or die. That’s essentially THE IN-LAWS, that’s his 1981 directorial debut SO FINE and even the aborted BIG TROUBLE which he eventually took his name off of (still, it has its fans; as I’ve said before, I’m one of them) has some of that in its mixed up DNA. THE FRESHMAN finds that insanity in the world of film and how people in the real world relate to it, especially when someone who is the spitting image of one of the most iconic film characters of all time is right in front of them. It has no relationship with the Harold Lloyd classic of the same name yet it still feels appropriate as some sort of homage and with both films being about an innocent trying to find his way in the world it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to pair the two on a double bill. Released in July 1990, THE FRESHMAN came over ten years after the Bergman-scripted THE IN-LAWS and with the star power of Brando is very much an attempt to do a similar type of story, one which may not hit the high points of having Alan Arkin stare into space as Peter Falk attempts to explain something totally insane to him but it also feels more elegant, sweeter somehow. It’s a better made film, with Bergman as director paying more attention to the look and feel than IN-LAWS director Arthur Hiller ever did. Shot by William Fraker, the way Brando is photographed at times comes off as a canny spin on the classic Gordon Willis--GODFATHER look, keeping him and his eyes in shadows as Broderick, and maybe the audience as well, is never quite sure just how far this joke is supposed to go which itself almost seems part of the joke.
The elegance makes the wordplay even more effective and that combined with things like the sight of Brando ice-skating gives the film its own sly tone just as much as the name of a character from A NIGHT AT THE OPERA pops up out of nowhere or even the music heard from the band as they play off Maximillian Schell’s Larry London when he welcomes the guests to the Gourmet Club. It’s a ridiculous movie, one where an entire setpiece involves a mall of people screaming when a lizard appears but it’s also one that has Brando involved in one of the most obvious, blithely absurd running gags imaginable. And the movie seems overjoyed that it’s letting this happen. Bergman loves getting actors to dig into his language, the nitpicking of if there is any difference between Leo and Big Leo, the precise syntax used by Penelope Ann Miller as she describes the Mona Lisa’s extended visit to the U.S. or even the very first words uttered by Brando in the film which seem designed to throw us for a loop even more than his very presence has done already.
For all the controversy at the time of Brando giving an interview saying how much he hated working on the film (which he later recanted) there’s not a shred of that in the finished product. He’s kept offscreen for much of the first half, really limited to two lengthy scenes with Broderick and while even now I still don’t know what to make of some of it and there could have been a danger of him nuking one of his most famous roles, along with what are presumably a few ON THE WATERFRONT nods in the dialogue at the very end because, well, why not? But it becomes positively graceful, with even small movements containing laughs. You can feel Sabatini’s mild annoyance at people about to tell him who he looks like and his presence is felt when he isn’t even around as if he would barely be able to disguise his contempt for the insufferable film professor Fleeber, whose teaching style seems to be to insist that his students regurgitate his own pretentious opinions as giant portraits of famous directors stare down at them in presumed agreement. As awful a person as Fleeber is (and, good as Paul Benedict’s performance is, my own personal experience says that they could very well have made him even worse—trust me, I know) he is right about this odd movie Clark finds himself in the middle of, maybe not quite KISS ME DEADLY, but it definitely blends film and real life--“one and the same,” he tells Clark--together and the screwy view of the world that Andrew Bergman takes during the film’s best moments, really the best moments of any of his films, are sublime. He looks at the world with a cockeyed glance, serving as the normal person who wonders what is so wrong with everyone else.
Even the film’s screwy take on animal rights activism which might upset some people today never goes against its essential humanist bent—personality-free stepfather Dwight is so consumed by it that he has no concept of humanity anymore, certainly no idea how to deal with his own stepson. The Sabatini clan may be morally slippery but at least they do what they do out of a passion for the world around them. Maybe one of the things THE FRESHMAN is about is discovering the people in this world who can appreciate simple poetry alongside you, without insisting on the way things should be for their own didactic, selfish purposes. You have to figure some people you meet in life out for yourself just like you have to figure out who you are. Even if you’re never entirely sure whether you’re part of the joke.
THE FRESHMAN may be slight and minor while at the same time made into more than what it would have been with any other actor. Marlon Brando’s performance seems even more special now, more surprising, as the legend of THE GODFATHER has only grown and this film has been slightly forgotten about. He’s willing to mess with his own legend but he never trashes it. It’s a sweet performance, a sly, nimble one in every little gesture he makes and in some ways gives us a happy ending to Vito Corleone that the Don never fully got (Maybe because the release of PART III was imminent at the time, a lengthy disclaimer during the end credits tries to mollify this and in doing so makes more of a direct reference to the film name and character than the actual film ever does). Matthew Broderick may be way too old for the part, although considering who he was co-starring with I doubt he cared, but he’s letter perfect and it ranks with ELECTION as one of his very best performances, just the right amount of befuddlement and intellect. It’s a terrific supporting cast too—possibly the best work Penelope Ann Miller ever did, the unbridled enthusiasm of Bruno Kirby (a GODFATHER PART II alum, don’t forget), Frank Whaley and his hairspray as Clark’s roommate, the detestable snobbery of Paul Benedict’s Fleeber, the glee in Maximilian Schell’s ‘Larry London’ as the repeats the same sentence over and over alongside B.D. Wong as his assistant as well as the sight of Bert Parks performing “Maggie’s Farm”. David Newman’s bouncy score is something that I still can’t quite get out of my head after all these years and sounds more than ever like he was told to emulate the then-hot Danny Elfman but Newman knew that Elfman was really just doing Nino Rota anyway so that’s what he secretly did.
At some point in June 1989 I was downtown one day and when heading back home through Grand Central I saw signs that this was going to be shooting the next day. I asked a friendly crew member if Brando was going to be there, but no dice. It’s a vague memory now. I also saw this film with my dad which now seems somehow fitting. No particular point to be made with that but there you go. Incidentally, Andrew Bergman’s next film was HONEYMOON IN VEGAS starring another GODFATHER alum, James Caan. I’m still waiting for his collaboration with Pacino. Anyway, on another recent morning I woke up and felt a little better. Well, maybe that’s not entirely true. But I know I’m here. I have friends. I’ve done things. “So this is college. I didn’t miss nothin’,” Brando’s Carmine Sabatini muses while looking over Broderick’s threadbare dorm room. Maybe that’s part of my problem. I always feel like I’m missing things. In some ways the message of THE FRESHMAN is that the best way to deal with it all is just to make the best decision in your heart, go with the madness and accept what comes. I’m not sure I can do that yet but I’ll try to keep it in mind as I desperately continue to try to find my own way.