Sunday, April 24, 2016

Movies of today

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2003)

A few weeks ago I went to a screening of Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men at the Cinematheque. I’ve read about this film ever since I became interested in movies, but I’d never had a chance to see it before. Just one of those things, I supposed. It was worth the wait – the film is one of Ray’s most powerful, melancholy works.

Before the screening, Cinematheque programmer James Quandt stood up and talked about the print. He said that in the course of putting the Ray season together, he’d discovered that The Lusty Men had become extremely hard to find. Specifically, he’d only been able to locate four prints of the film: two in 16mm, one in Belgium, and the one we were about to see. He apologized for what he called the “fair” condition of the print. It was mostly OK, but looked at times as though it was falling apart on the screen. Maybe from the pressure of being the only 35mm Lusty Men on the continent.

The Lusty Men

Well, this was the same weekend as the global protests against the war in Iraq, and any number of other things that count for more than the fate of an old movie. But I was fairly stunned at this revelation. The Lusty Men is part of the standard vocabulary of movie writing, referred to routinely as an important, even necessary film. I don’t ever remember reading about it being particularly rare in the way that, say, Vertigo was for a while. Maybe the truth is people haven’t realized. Maybe the movie’s slipped from our grasp, and we haven’t noticed.

If the movies were just about the art, maybe we should put creation on hold for a few years and just pour the money into safeguarding the art we already have. Of course, it’s more about the commerce. And art doesn’t function with such rationality anyway.

The threat to The Lusty Men illustrates one of the ways in which the fate of movies seems to me an unusually random thing. Another example is how slight changes in audience perception or acceptance make a huge difference – economically of course, but also in the judgment of history. Take a film like Narc, which opened this January. I was reading about it for months before the release – about the buzz from Sundance, about how Tom Cruise loved it, about how it reinvented the genre and was going to get an Oscar nomination at least for Ray Liotta and maybe for much more than that.

Well, the awards all passed Narc by, it didn’t get much of an audience, and that’s that – we’ll never ever hear much more about it. There have been hundreds of such movies – bathed in promise for a little while, but ending up in obscurity. But if things had gone a little differently, who knows?

I thought Narc was a pretty generic movie, tiresomely shot, and it made no impact on me at all. Ron Shelton’s current film Dark Blue is a much more interesting entry in the same vein. This movie never had any pre-release buzz at all, and the conventional wisdom is that anything getting its premiere in February can’t be worth too much. But it’s an entirely engrossing, muscular film, even if it flirts with melodrama a bit too openly.

Dark Blue

I don’t know much about director Ron Shelton, but based on what I know, I like the idea of him. He’s usually made movies set around sports, to the point where he seems almost obsessed: White Men Can’t Jump (basketball), Cobb and Bull Durham (baseball), Tin Cup (golf), Play it to the Bone (boxing). But he also made Blaze, about Southern politics in the 1950s, and he wrote Under Fire, the movie about journalists in 1979 Nicaragua. This seems to demand some remark about the axis between sports and politics, but I’m not sure what that should be. Maybe Shelton is primarily interested in exploring the nuances of a structure, people functioning within (and testing the edges of) a set of rules – sports and politics being two convenient vessels for this project.

And now he’s taken on the workings of the notorious Los Angeles Police Force, depicted here at the height of its notoriety – the five days leading to the Rodney King verdict (and ensuing riot) in 1991. Kurt Russell (in career-best form) plays one of those patented movie cops who’s gone way over the line and rationalized it to the ultimate degree. As in Training Day, there’s a younger partner who’s struggling with the ethos. The movie immerses itself in the cop culture with a fastidiousness reminiscent of Sidney Lumet movies like Prince of the City and Q&A, but there’s a greater relish to it. Of course, there’s nothing new about the lovable rogue either, but Shelton paints an entire machine of winks and nods, a community in which the backslapping and citations barely hold self-loathing and mutual betrayal at bay.

Shelton films the whole thing in a zippy, documentary-flavoured style, which achieves a substantial payoff at the end, where the verdict comes out and the streets go haywire. Truth is, I’m not sure the juxtaposition with the King incident really counts for much. It’s mainly a backdrop (although a terrific one which underlines the awfully fragile state of the LAPD’s relationship to the community), and as such the film can be accused of exploitation. But at the risk of sounding cynical, can’t they all nowadays?

The Life of David Gale

Take for example Alan Parker’s The Life of David Gale, in which Kevin Spacey plays a former anti-death penalty activist who’s now on Death Row himself, and Kate Winslet is a reporter running round trying to save his hide as time runs out. The people who hate this film really hate it. Roger Ebert gave it zero stars, and wrote: “this movie is about as corrupt, intellectually bankrupt and morally dishonest as it could possibly be without David Gale actually hiring himself out as a joker at the court of Saddam Hussein.”

But Ebert’s primary objection turns out to be ideological: “I am sure the filmmakers believe their film is against the death penalty. I believe it supports it and hopes to discredit the opponents of the penalty as unprincipled fraudsters.” The problem, I think, is that Ebert approaches the movie as a serious work, rather than as a piece of trash. I thought Parker’s last two films, Evita and Angela’s Ashes, were about as wretched as it gets, and thus I now expect nothing from him except flashy tackiness. With this mindset in place going in, David Gale turns out to be a reasonable piece of corn, nothing more. Given advances in preservation technology, we’re assured of having it with us forever, but we really won’t need it.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Movie passions

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2003)

I’ll admit to a slight jealousy of people who completely immerse themselves in a fictional world: who watch the movies or TV shows until they’ve memorized them, read every relevant publication, start their own websites, passionately debate minutiae with fellow fans, attend conventions and – if their dreams come true – get married to someone who’s just as nuts about the whole thing as they are. Currently, of course, the main focus for such activity is the second Lord of the Rings movie – The Two Towers. To me, it’s just another movie at best, and that’s the healthier approach to it, all things considered. I do hate to miss out on a good time though.

I’ve been through various obsessions with one mythology or another, with all the symptoms: the list making, the cataloguing, the accumulation of memorabilia. As a kid, I was into Disney – really into Disney. At 5 or 6, I could tell you who provided the voices for all the characters, and I was pretty well up on the animators too. That evaporated when I was 7 or 8, to be replaced by the British TV show Doctor Who.

Getting into movies

For those who don’t know, this was a weekly half-hour show chronicling the adventures of a “Time Lord” who traveled through space and time in a spacecraft that, from the outside, looked like an old-fashioned police phone booth (Doctor Who is the sole reason why anyone under the age of 40 knows there were ever such things as police phone booths). Whenever the lead actor quit the role, the Doctor would regenerate into a new body and personality, thus allowing the show a new lease of life. My primary interest in it coincided with the dashing Jon Pertwee, after whom the actors became ever more lightweight. The show petered out in the mid-90s, although one often reads about plans for a revival, or a big screen version.

This broadened into an interest in science fiction generally. I’ve read a lot of Asimov and Heinlein and the others, but all before the age of 11 or 12. Of course, much of the genre is quite violent and/or sexual, so I was really getting away with something. Then, around the time of the first Star Trek movie in 1979, I became a Trekker. This seems now like a backward step – I think maybe keeping up with the entire genre was too arduous. I started buying movie magazines just for the Trek articles, and it’s really around then that I became seriously interested in film as a whole.

I can still remember drawing up one of my first film want-to-see lists, which included such gems as Private Benjamin and Hopscotch. The first adult-rated movie I sneaked into was Altered States; the second was Heaven’s Gate. Of course, Heaven’s Gate is famous for being a movie that no one went to see, so my wayward streak must already have been taking shape. I got into foreign movies around the same time, and since then – for over twenty years now – I’ve kept my passion for film burning pretty steadily. My records show there was a period of several months in 1984 when I hardly watched any movies at all, but I’ve completely forgotten what that was all about.

Repeat viewings

The main characteristic of my film thing has been a desire to see just about everything, which has consistently kept me from multiple viewings, intensive background reading, or from watching all those extras that come with DVDs (I’ve never listened to any of the commentary tracks on any of the disks I own). I’ve written before about the fatigue that sometimes accompanies this tendency. Without question, I’d like to linger more, to contemplate, to debate, to go back, to look again. But I haven’t done the latter since Bamboozled. A friend of mine recently went to see Talk to Her twice within the same week, placing a second viewing ahead of The Hours and Gangs of New York and About Schmidt and numerous other recent releases he hadn’t seen. This struck me as a Don Quixote-like endeavor – noble, and completely impractical.

Even so, I think I generally squeeze out some reasonable engagement with what a movie is all about (otherwise of course, there really would be no point at all). But I’m not best suited to films of sprawling complexities and multi-layered back stories and dozens of characters – the kind of movie where aficionados pore over detailed notes on the web and compare it to the book in painstaking detail. I went to see the first Lord of the Rings film, with its lengthy opening narrative about the origin of the rings and the lords of darkness, throwing around names and defining the parameters of its imaginary universe. I remember saying to myself: what the hell is all this about. By the time it got to Bilbo Baggins and his eleventy-first birthday, I’d had enough already. But I stayed, for the dullest sixteen – uh, sorry, three hours of last year.

I swore I wouldn’t be coming back for the other two movies and by golly I meant it. Nothing about the reviews for The Two Towers changed my mind. But then, just like its predecessor, it started to get nominated for awards – Golden Globes, and then Oscars. And I couldn’t stand not seeing one of the five Oscar-nominated movies – I haven’t been in that position for decades. So I went for it, despite severe misgivings.

The Two Towers

It helped that by the time I got round to it the theater was almost empty. I could spread out and enjoy the extra-large supply of snacks I’d smuggled in. Initially, I wondered whether I’d have enough to get me through the experience. The movie starts up right where its predecessor left off, with no recap or summary, and I’ve forgotten most of what I needed to know.

But ultimately it didn’t matter. The Two Towers is essentially a series of one-off action sequences, with far less exposition and dialogue than the first movie. It’s all well staged, and on this occasion I found myself better able to appreciate the unique fusion of spectacularly authentic New Zealand landscapes with digital and other wizardry: it’s a far more tangible-feeling fantasy than most of the genre. New cast members like Bernard Hill and Miranda Otto add to the gravity and nuance that others detected in the first film. On the whole, it didn’t feel like a minute over, well, three hours.

Of course, the only reason I enjoyed the film is that it allowed me to ignore all the Tolkienish elements I have no patience for. Whether this makes it a good or a bad adaptation, I don’t know. I would go online and research what the Tolkien crowd is saying about it, but I don’t have the time.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

About Jack

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2003)

Alexander Payne made an amazing leap in 1999 with Election, a film that may well have deserved the Oscar that year. It’s wise and nuanced and complex, with scintillating characters and dialogue. And completely easy to watch. Almost no one makes art like that. A few years later, he’s back with About Schmidt, set again in his home state of Nebraska, but with an added element that surely says all you need to know about Payne’s post-Election credibility: it stars Jack Nicholson.

I don’t mean to take a cheap shot when I say that there’s a problem with any movie that casts Nicholson as an insurance executive who’s let all his chances get away from him. Some of the greatest performances come from casting against type, and Nicholson’s work here is a superior piece of acting, no question about it. But there’s no point pretending we watch movies in a vacuum. Star image contributes to the fabric of a film as surely as the lighting or the music. And About Schmidt has a problem: almost every element of Nicholson’s well-established persona works against the role he’s playing.

Who’s this woman?

For example, Nicholson says in voice over, talking about his tired 42-year-old marriage, that he wakes up every morning and wonders who this old woman is in his bed. June Squibb, the actress playing his wife, is just two years older than Nicholson, so she’s certainly an age-appropriate partner for him. But it’s impossible not to think of his affair with Lara Flynn Boyle and other facets of his legendary reputation. The relationship with Squibb becomes easy to chuckle at and to treat as fanciful, whereas Schmidt’s sense of entrapment should surely be painful.

The problem intensifies once Schmidt’s wife dies. He goes to seed for a while, then sets himself a mission – to abort his daughter’s forthcoming marriage to a man that Schmidt thinks is an idiot (Hope Davis and Dermot Mulroney play the couple). He sets off in his Winnebago, reliving some past memories along the way. But Nicholson’s presence skews the film to the point that you don’t know how to take it. In some ways, Schmidt is clearly a creature of his environment, sharing the same basic values, generating the same banal remarks. On the other hand, he senses himself slipping out of sync with those surroundings, and becomes preoccupied by time running out. Nicholson, though, is so inherently out of sync that you can’t help perceiving it as an abstract rather than as an emotional dilemma. The movie, broadly speaking, is about Schmidt’s attempts to find equilibrium after he’s forced into a new phase of his life. But with Nicholson in the role, there’s no possible equilibrium.

Some critics feel more strongly about this than I do. David Edelstein in Slate compared the film to watching an episode of The Twilight Zone: “A Nicholson who doesn’t unleash the full force of his libidinous counterculture energy,” says Edelstein, “is a Nicholson unrealized.” I don’t think that’s quite right – Nicholson kept it bottled up in The Pledge, with great success. But that film was dense with mythmaking – it didn’t need verisimilitude in the way that About Schmidt does.

Every man’s reasons

Another problem with About Schmidt is that it’s primarily a dramatic piece (I think so anyway – the Golden Globes categorized it as a drama rather than a comedy), but it evokes laughs at every turn, and I’m rather uneasy about the source of those laughs. Basically, the film patronizes Midwesterners, reducing them to shallow nincompoops who live entirely through clich├ęs and lack any philosophical perspective on their idiocy. To take one example out of many: in a bedroom decorated with Mulroney’s childhood mementos, the camera sticks on a shot of a certificate he earned for perfect attendance during some low-grade two-week college course. It gets a big laugh from the audience. But it tells us nothing new about the character, and it’s just an easy little dig at a culture that would recognize such limited accomplishment, and of a person who would accept it as a compliment. Fine, but as laughs go it’s like stealing candy from a baby, and where does it get you?

In slightly more considerate hands, About Schmidt might have drawn on Jean Renoir’s famous dictum (I apologize for once again using one of the most over-quoted lines in cinema): Every man has his reasons. Schmidt thinks Mulroney’s character is a fool who’s unworthy of his daughter, and he dreams of sabotaging the wedding, but in the end he keeps his mouth shut and plays along. “Look at these people!” he declares vis a vis Mulroney’s family, but there’s no substantive way in which he’s better than them (unless, of course, you see him as Jack Nicholson rather than as Warren Schmidt). Indeed, maybe that’s the main thing Schmidt should have been forced to realize. Either way, Renoir’s philosophy underlay Election far more than it does About Schmidt.

But the film has any number of compensations. It has terrific attention to detail, and you’ll seldom get such an authentic whiff of mid-price hotels and restaurants, of officers and trailer parks and living rooms. And reservations aside, it is often very funny. It sets its own pace, never breaking away from Schmidt himself, maintaining a kind of shocked geniality that may well sum up the mid-West.

Letter from Africa

And the film has a highly beguiling voice over, as Schmidt sets out his life in letters to a 6 year old African boy that he’s sponsoring for $22 a month. The device provides yet more incongruity, as Schmidt recounts mundane local details to a little boy who has no possible sense of the culture (always ending with a banal closing such as “Hope things are fine with you.”) We only ever see the boy in a photograph, yet in some weird way he’s the second most indelible presence in the movie (Kathy Bates’ much-praised turn as the mother of the groom was too familiar for my taste, and the rest of the cast isn’t really given enough to work with.) Schmidt’s connection with the kid actually is something that does set him aside – it’s his main claim to transcend his surroundings. Which is why when the movie makes this explicit in its final scene, it’s an intensely moving moment for Schmidt, and I think for most of the audience as well.

Nicholson’s career is so rich that he doesn’t need to add to it, and yet About Schmidt may win him a fourth Oscar. He may deserve it, and yet however strongly one assesses his acting, the fact remains that the film might have worked better with a less known actor in the role. But then it might also have been dumped straight to cable. Reading this article over, I feel I’ve understated the enjoyment I got out of the film. But after Election, we were entitled to expect something amazing. As much as Nicholson plays against type, in the end he does the film a big disfavor. He makes it just too easy to watch.