Tuesday, November 21, 2017

A Beatty low spot

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2001)

Nowadays, if I can, I stay away from bad movies. Seems obvious, but it took me decades to attain that kind of restraint. As recently as two years ago, I fell prey to The Mod Squad. Just the merest glimmer of possible interest, just one mildly approving critical voice, one quirky scene in the trailer, and I’d be there, never having learned from my past mistakes. But I knew I’d turned a corner when I let Mission to Mars, directed by the mighty Brian de Palma, pass by unseen, yielding to the consensus of the bad reviews (despite some clear-cut dissenting opinions). True, I watched that film on cable later on, but I think it’s legitimate to apply a lower standard once you’ve paid for the TMN subscription. Ironically, I thought it was pretty good – I should probably have gone to the theater after all.


Despite this discernment, there was never any question of my staying away from Town and Country. Forget all the lousy reviews, all the gossip about how the film went over-budget and missed twelve scheduled release dates due to re-shooting and re-editing and corporate nervousness. Warren Beatty has always fascinated me, and I treat his movies – as I have Woody Allen’s for years now – as an exercise in keeping the faith.

Throughout his career, Beatty has worked at a very deliberate pace – usually taking at least a few years between movies, sometimes five or six. Sometimes, he ends the silence with a film of huge ambition, easily justifying the sense of a Kubrick-like gestation period. Reds and Bulworth were examples of this, as in a somewhat different way was Dick Tracy. And don’t forget that he’s one of the very few actors to have been nominated for an Oscar in four successive decades (Bonnie and Clyde, Heaven Can Wait, Reds, Bugsy). But equally as often, Beatty returns with films that are sappy or loose or at best blatantly minor – Ishtar, Love Affair and now Town and Country.

Those films, like Heaven Can Wait and his earlier The Fortune, were either explicit remakes of earlier movies or knowing throwbacks to earlier sub-genres. It’s as though Beatty couldn’t help following up an act of boldness or daring by regressing to the safety of the tried and true, except that he must realize his choices are so tried and true they’re verging on the decrepit. At the time of Bulworth, stories emphasized how he’d immersed himself in black culture, hanging out with a string of rap stars. Town and Country only leaves the white enclave to make dubious jokes at the expense of foreign accents: it’s filled with people Beatty’s known for twenty or thirty years, and even has a role for Charlton Heston (just as in Love Affair he cast Katharine Hepburn).

Away from the real world

Beatty must be the ultimate Hollywood establishment figure – he’s been a leading man for forty years, he’s Shirley MacLaine’s brother, he’s slept with leading actresses from just about every decade of sound cinema, except maybe the 30’s, and he work frequently plays off the fact that we know all this about him, even as he feigns reticence in interviews. He has a hesitant style, as though just feeling his way along, but he’s held his own and more with many of the leading power brokers of our time, and as recently as last year allowed speculation to swirl around the idea of his running for president. He’s known for the labyrinthine nature of his deal-making process, for always having another angle, and his career certainly supports the notion that he may frequently have been up to something we can’t quite figure out.

Town and Country is directed by Peter Chelsom rather than by Beatty himself. Beatty is claiming to be merely an actor for hire, but the movie sure doesn’t look like it, and Chelsom is keeping his distance from the press. Beatty plays a well-to-do architect, married for twenty-five years to Diane Keaton, who messes everything up by sleeping with a cellist (Nastassja Kinski), Keaton’s best friend (Goldie Hawn) and a couple of others. It’s based in the plush Manhattan of many Woody Allen movies, with frequent digressions to second or third homes – the “real world,” as we might call it, is represented by the likes of doormen and the comic foreigners I mentioned already.

The film is incoherent in the extreme, with Beatty seeming to go through the motions – there’s no sense of relish to any of his pursuits, nor to anything he does really, and it’s the same with everyone else in the movie. This might connote a theme of disillusionment – some kind of critique of the character Beatty played in Shampoo, with the excessive opulence forming a metaphorical prison. As you can see, I’m trying to be as open-minded as possible, but if the movie had any such intentions, they’re not achieved. The hiring of Chelsom, who’s mainly worked in Britain and never on anything close to this kind of scale, would only make sense if he was supposed to bring some kind of outsider’s perspective to the material, but nothing like that is evident. Instead, Chelsom fails even to punch home the (oddly) simple comic set pieces – Beatty falling off a roof, that kind of thing.

Bridget over Beatty

I didn’t laugh at all, except maybe during the sequences with Heston and his foul-mouthed wife, played by Marian Seldes. I assume the intention here was to introduce some colorful side characters, reminiscent of a Preston Sturges movie maybe. The stuff’s so dumb and silly that it acts as a respite from the pervading dullness, which is not the same as saying it’s actually any good.

The following day, I saw Bridget Jones’ Diary, which has much better writing and acting than Town and Country, and provides some genuine laughs, and overall feels quite invigorating by comparison. Right now, if you’re looking for viable adult comedy, Bridget easily wins over Beatty. But despite this mediocre experience, I’ve retained my faith. And I’m expecting to be here in 2004 or so, taken aback by his newest change of direction, and reflecting how Town and Country suddenly seems rather intriguing after all.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Sex games

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2001)

It’s a little hard to make sense of director Wayne Wang’s career, but he clearly deserves credit for trying out new rhythms. He spent his first decade primarily in an Asian-American niche, then broke out with Smoke, a film of great ambition and startling shifts in quality. The movie owed a lot to its co-writer Paul Auster, a debt that became even clearer when Auster and Wang co-directed Blue in the Face, a collection of odds and ends assembled around the set of Smoke. Wang then made Chinese Box, a film set against the independence of Hong Kong that burst with symbols and metaphors and parallels – it never felt close to being as coherent a structure as a box, but it always provoked and diverted, and it made full use of Hong Kong’s gaudy mixed-up energy. The best performance in the film was by Maggie Cheung, as a live-wire entrepreneur masking a troubled history, and Wang next decided to explore the female spirit further in Anywhere but Here; however, despite that film’s sincere immersion in the characters, Wang seemed only to steer it along the most obvious emotional highways. It’s conceivable that the formidable Susan Sarandon proved too strong a personality to respond to Wang’s seemingly gentle style.

Indecent proposal

His new film The Center of the World is also in large part an exploration of a woman, played here by Molly Parker as a stripper who accepts $10,000 to spend the weekend in a Vegas hotel room with an aimless young dot.com millionaire (Peter Sarsgaard). The deal requires an obvious degree of submission on her part, but she sets out some ground rules: no kissing on the mouth, no penetration…the film’s emotional tension mainly involves whether or not these strictures can remain intact – something that he (believing himself in love with her) pushes for and that she resists. Inevitably, the film spends a lot of time simply observing Parker as she poses or dances or carries out various sexual acts. John Harkness in Now remarked on this in (I think) rather rude terms: “When the camera gets in close to the not quite pretty and extremely freckled Parker, and all that pixillated grain shows up, you start wondering if Sarsgaard may have had some kind of childhood sexual fixation on oatmeal.”

But surely this is deliberate. At one point, we observe Parker at length as she applies her make-up for the evening – we see her rub masking cream on a particularly pronounced freckle near her mouth and transform herself from a distinctive woman into a Stepford-like creation of unnaturally white skin and disturbing red lips. Parker never seems particularly comfortable with the (essentially familiar) role – Carla Gugino, in a brief supporting role, stakes out a more interestingly ambiguous portrait of self-exploitation. But Wang presumably got what he wanted – a deliberately uneasy fusion of actress and role, preventing easy voyeurism by the viewer.

Dot.com legends

The film was released here on the day John Roth announced his retirement as CEO of Nortel, which isn’t a bad coincidence. Sarsgaard’s character is running from the pressures of an IPO that will exponentially increase his wealth – he misses a key meeting with the investors, but later learns (via a voice mail message) that the deal went ahead anyway, shot through the roof, and increased his wealth twenty-fold. Now doesn’t that sound like last year’s story? I doubt very much whether Wang wished his film to become so quickly dated – it’s shot on digital video, with a pervasive immediacy and intimacy: it’s all about today rather than yesterday. But maybe he got sort of lucky. With a little distance from the dot.com bubble, we can see how much the whole thing depended on a cult of virility. There were never, of course, as many dot.com millionaires as you’d have thought from the media stories, and now that many of those that did exist have gone back to zero, I wonder what they miss most – the money or the legend? Sarsgaard’s character falls right in line with movie archetypes from the frontier sheriff to the spaceship captain.

The result is that The Center of the World ends up playing two rather desperate myths off against each other, not surprisingly forcing a draw. He says the center of the world is the computer; she says it’s the female anatomy. This implies a fixed opposition that doesn’t really exist – Sarsgaard’s playing of the character is so openly needy that it’s hard to believe he means what he says. And Wang provides enough information on Parker to let us know she harbors uncertainty over the path she’s following. In the last scene, Sarsgaard’s still reaching out to her and she’s still hiding behind a pose. Superficially he looks like the patsy. But what is she holding back for? Is she hurting him, or herself?

The film makes good use of its Vegas setting, especially a recurring cityscape including a faux Statue of Liberty, a faux Eiffel Tower and a rollercoaster: an incoherent jumble of cultural references, squeezing the world into a few blocks. The characters barely leave the hotel room, but it’s possible to feel how Vegas’ extremely mixed messages (simultaneously a Mecca to some and a hellhole of crassness to others) influences their positioning. In this regard, the film recalls how Wang drew on similarly evocative environments in Chinese Box particularly.

21st century

But the film generally feels thin and underdeveloped – and it’s reminiscent of earlier Wang films in this regard too. The truth is: two people playing sex games can hardly avoid making for an interesting movie, and I’m not sure The Center of the World does much more than cover the bases. The ad quotes Ebert and Roeper hailing the film “A Last Tango in Paris for the 21st Century,” but if so that only tells us to expect an artistically parched 21st century. As further evidence, the duo also considered The Claim to be a McCabe and Mrs. Miller for the 21st century. I shudder to think what the 21st century’s L’Avventura or Breathless may look like.

Last Tango in Paris has a density of interrogation that goes far beyond Wang’s film. And I haven’t mentioned yet that The Center of the World’s website apparently includes a rather nifty interactive sex feature with a digitally created hooker. To me that sounds like Wang has too much willingness to experiment. Last Tango’s Bernardo Bertolucci may not be the man he was, but I don’t think he’s quite reached that point yet.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Modern musical

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2001)

There’s a new musical to write about – Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge. It’s a frantically paced story of love and loss in 1900 Paris, with Nicole Kidman as the cabaret star and Ewan McGregor as the starving artist who falls for her, even though she’s in the grip of a jealous baron who can break the show.

I get to write about musicals so seldom – a reference point seems even more necessary than usual. A few months ago, I was watching Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon, which is probably my favourite of all movie musicals. When I’d finished, I was so exhilarated (this on a ninth or tenth viewing) that I rewound the tape to show my wife two things that sum up my love for the movie. First – Fred Astaire’s rendition of “By Myself,” filmed in one smooth unbroken take as he ambles along a railway platform. Second, his more energetic “Shine on your Shoes” number, in which he taps and leaps around a vast varied set of props. This too is shot in very few takes, and provides a sense of unbroken movement, but I was struck by one point at the end where Minnelli does make a cut, coinciding with a key transition point in the score, setting up a new camera angle and rhythm that electrify the routine’s final section. I doubt there’s anything technically that hot about this edit, but if anything about the framing or the timing weren’t exactly that, it would jar. Its greatness lies in invisibility.

The Band Wagon

For me, The Band Wagon is one of Hollywood’s happiest accidents – not that I don’t think Minnelli and the crew knew what they were doing, but I always think the end result has a sublimity that transcends anything they could specifically have had in mind. It’s just a simple fable about a fading song and dance man who comes back to Broadway to star in a pretentious “modern version of Faust” that’s an instant flop, then saves the day by retooling the show into an old-fashioned vaudeville revue. One of the things that intrigues me is that the reversal into simpler and happier showbiz values is so comprehensive that it comes to represent some kind of world view – Astaire and Cyd Charisse get together at the end, but never talk about love, only about showbiz (in a Howard Hawks movie this could be a randy metaphor but in The Band Wagon it seems like a vaguely traumatic displacement). Around the time he made the film, Minnelli was starting to digress from musicals to make intense psychological dramas like The Cobweb and Lust for Life, and it’s not stretching things too much to see The Band Wagon as a study in various kinds of derangement, made delicious by the fact that it’s simultaneously as poised and alluring as anything could be.

The Band Wagon is just one example of what movie musicals never do anymore; it exhibits complete mastery over a genre, and then goes further. Every time we get a musical now it’s an event in itself, just by virtue of being a musical, and there’s no possibility of just playing it straight. Lars Von Trier in last year’s Dancer in the Dark deconstructed the genre – it was an interesting film, but surely the project was too inherently marginal to engender real excitement. Evita was just too much of everything all over. For me, Woody Allen got surprisingly close in Everyone Says I Love You, Maybe it helped there that Allen didn’t seem to have taken that much more care over the film than he does over his normal efforts – at least it didn’t seem paralyzed and squeezed by the technical demands.

Your Song

Moulin Rouge seems to aspire at times to avoid cutting altogether – through computer-aided swoops across space and time, the film creates one continuum of experience after another. At other times Luhrmann hardly lets a single image hold the frame for a second, throwing together breathless montages of incident and rushing color; the early scenes in the club really do evoke Impressionist paintings come to life. When it’s firing on all cylinders, the film seems madly in love with the process of image making, with the evocation of panache and emotion and excitement. Although notionally set in 1900 Paris, the film is hardly tied to that period in its sensibility – most prominently in the music, which encompasses a selection of pop standards from Bowie to Nirvana. Catherine Tunnacliffe in Eye suggested that the  film’s meaning – as a kaleidoscope of imagery and music from the past 100 years – might have been clearer if it had been released, as originally planned, in the final days of the year 2000: “Luhrmann accurately identifies the 20th century’s main obsession – glamour – and Moulin Rouge elevates superficiality to high art.”

This is maybe most striking in how the film constantly hammers on the supposed transcendent beauty of Elton John’s “Your Song” – for purposes of the movie the lyrics are written by McGregor’s character, and they’re constantly referred to by the characters as a beautiful evocation of a purer sensibility. This is so overdone and self-evidently suspect that the film indeed seems to be laying its superficiality bare. But what kind of achievement is that really? And so goes my reaction to the whole film – nothing in it seems intended to be taken at face value, and yet no other value is proffered. Take the casting for instance. Nicole Kidman’s rather neutrally pretty features and alabaster reticence hardly serve to create a specific presence – she serves as a Lulu-kind of concoction. And Ewan McGregor goes through the movie looking much too pleased with himself. The supporting players are more vibrant, but whoever heard of a musical without stars?

A thousand words

It was long ago established that a picture is worth a thousand words, and Moulin Rouge now confirms that a picture may also be worth a thousand pictures. Current technology and expertise allow the flow of Luhrmann’s imagination to be presented on screen virtually unimpeded. If your imagination happens to fall within the exact same contours as his, then I imagine Moulin Rouge may seem a perfect film. Otherwise you may just wonder what you’re supposed to do with the thing. In its second half especially, I thought the film frequently committed the cardinal sin of being profoundly repetitive. Everything in it seems profoundly necessary in that you feel the weight of Luhrmann’s commitment and ambition to every moment, but this entails, of course, that the whole thing seems entirely dispensable. I hate to sound like the kind of traditionalist old fogy that the bright new vision of Moulin Rouge might have hoped to sweep aside, but Minnelli and Astaire achieved much more with less. There’s real joy and sadness in The Band Wagon, sometimes simultaneously, and I still long for a new musical that can come close to that.