Saturday, April 22, 2017

Once in a Blue Moon

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Not Just In Hollywood

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

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Seven Like A Gatling Gun

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

Sunday, March 5, 2017

What Civilized Society Calls Justice

Things change. They don’t change at all. Over a year since its release it feels a little like we never actually talked about Quentin Tarantino’s THE HATEFUL EIGHT. Sure, we’ve had discussions regarding various things surrounding the film going back to the initial leak of an early draft of the script which temporarily canceled the project—I received it from a few people but under those circumstances I could never bring myself to read the thing. Attention was also paid when it started up again and Tarantino himself directed a live reading of the script featuring many, but not all, of the actors who would eventually appear in the film. And then by the time it was finally coming out the talk focused on the 70mm release and all the issues surrounding that including how it didn’t get booked into the all-important Cinerama Dome because THE FORCE AWAKENS was set to play there. That’s the film more people were paying attention to over Christmas 2015 anyway but now maybe we can go back to THE HATEFUL EIGHT since I’m still trying to figure it out myself.
Whether intentional or not, the film plays like after DJANGO UNCHAINED Tarantino decided that while he’d loved making a western the epic sprawl of the whole thing may have become a little too unwieldy, Oscar for Best Original Screenplay or not, box office success or not. This time he tightens things down setting much of it in a single location, forcing a specific structure to the story and mostly implying the grand epic going on outside in the world of the film, to focus simply on what’s happening to the characters right at the moment. Filming it in 70mm affects it, more than I think was really discussed beyond the surface, and it definitely affects the way the story is told although as much as I loved someone, anyone, trying to accomplish that sort of thing at this late date and as stunning as it looked when I saw it at the DGA Theatre maybe selling the release so much on that presentation wasn’t the greatest idea. Maybe, just maybe, like the film geek-centric approach of GRINDHOUSE what was being sold to the masses was simply something people didn’t care much about. But now maybe we can move on from that. THE HATEFUL EIGHT was about certain things when Tarantino wrote the various drafts of the script and when it was finally made. Maybe it’s about other things now, in 70mm or otherwise.
Of course, you know the plot or you wouldn’t be reading this, but just in case—as a blizzard is about to hit in late 1800s Wyoming, bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L.Jackson) trying to get a few bodies back for his reward, hitches a stagecoach ride with fellow bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) who is taking the still alive-outlaw Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Red Rock to hang. They’re soon joined by Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) also on his way to the town to assume the job of sheriff, or at least that’s what he claims. But with the blizzard coming down fast they bunk in at Minnie’s Haberdashery to stay at least until morning. They have no choice, even though Minnie and her regulars strangely aren’t there—only a Mexican who calls himself Bob (Demián Bichir) running the place in their absence along with Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) who identifies himself as the hangman heading to Red Rock, cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) and General Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern) formerly of the Confederacy who more than any of them just wants to be left alone. With little to do but try to keep warm, things seem suspicious but Warren and Ruth have no choice to stick around waiting for the blizzard to die down and for whatever’s going to happen to happen.
I got in two 70mm viewings at the time and even after the second was still unsure how I felt. The friend with me for the second viewing, the one at the DGA, speculated that the film played like it needed one more draft. And I’m still not sure that he was wrong. But THE HATEFUL EIGHT is not easy. It’s not meant to be, even if it was designed to be shown in the most old school style with all sorts of ballyhoo imaginable. It also may be the most difficult Tarantino film to get comfortable in since for much of the lengthy running time it’s hard to imagine ever actually wanting to be in this place with these people—it could have been done with a 78 minute running time but then it wouldn’t be able to trap us there. It’s a hangout movie where we don’t want to hang out with any of the characters. I’m definitely settled into its rhythms now that I’ve seen it a few extra times but there’s also the blunt truth that the film feels more appropriate at this moment. Things were different back during Xmas 2015—maybe not better but different enough that if it had come out one year later as things all around us have turned into the carnage in Minnie’s Haberdashery it might have all made more sense.
Unless I’m mistaken, the exact time period of THE HATEFUL EIGHT is never specified, only that it’s set some years after the Civil War. Long enough for things to move on but not long enough for the worst memories to be forgotten, the tensions of the era still falling to the ground as fast as that blizzard. The past is barely past and there are a few lines, beyond just the expected use of the n-word, that make my ears perk up a little more now. Chris Mannix with the anger of his Confederate past refers to suspicion of newspapers printed in “Washington D.C.” dragging out those two letters out making it clear what he thinks of the so-called real news that he’s been reading as things get too close for comfort in that stagecoach before trying to diffuse that tension by protesting, “You got me talking about politics!” as if that’s going to actually ingratiate him to anyone. The anger that Major Marquis Warren still has is there, simmering, with his Lee Van Cleef pipe close at hand constantly figuring out how to use that anger so no one can get the better of him ever again. And once we flee the snow into the uneasy atmosphere of Minnie’s Haberdashery, the ugliness only grows and the anger doesn’t have to be spoken out loud but of course that’s exactly what happens. Since everyone is trapped there’s no time element, just the awareness that things are going to boil over at some point and, appropriate for a western, several characters mention how they’re willing to wait until it does. The silences hang there as well and some of them don’t even bother to waste much energy claiming they are who they say because what’s to be gained.
For a movie in which at least a few of the characters are understandably paranoid (a word spoken, possibly anachronistically) about the immediate situation a surprising number of them seem to know, or at least have heard of, each other but that still doesn’t relax anyone. The two bounty hunters begrudgingly agree to watch out for each other as Chris Mannix reacts to their stalemate with an “Ain’t love grand,” a phrase spoken in THEY LIVE, another film about trying to determine who you can trust and it’s not even the most pertinent John Carpenter film referenced here. Even the names are murky--Domergue is pronounced several different ways and I’m pretty sure none of them are how namesake Faith Domergue of THIS ISLAND EARTH was ever referred to. As straightforward as John Ruth’s name is he’s still oddly called Bob a few times which he angrily corrects and his nickname is “The Hangman” even though part of the point of that moniker is he’s just a guy who delivers outlaws to a hangman, never doing the job himself while the hangman they meet in Minnie’s Haberdashery…well, you get the idea. “That’ll be the day,” Ruth spits out just as John Wayne once did in a certain John Ford western and the bounty hunter is so assured of his personal code that he just assumes everyone else has agreed to it too, just as he clearly wants to believe in the mythology of Major Warren’s Lincoln Letter, a cherished piece of correspondence from the beloved President that he keeps by him at all times, because what other truth could there be?
Kurt Russell plays the part with a little bit of that BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA twang back in his voice and the west Ruth lives in is basically the John Wayne mythology, one where you just know he wouldn’t shoot someone unarmed or in the back. At one point he even wipes a piece of food of Domergue’s face, a small piece of affection towards the woman he’s taking to her death which is definitely not going to be returned. Maybe it says something about Tarantino’s supposed dislike for John Ford, that this stuff about code and honor is all nonsense and even though he comes off as a guy who’s cracked a book or two in his time Ruth never seems as clued into the reality of things around them as Major Warren seems to be as if he knows from his own history that he can never afford to relax for as long as it takes to drink a cup of coffee. Walton Goggins’ Chris Mannix, meanwhile, is the son of the man who was the leader of the Confederate renegade army ‘Mannix’s Maurauders’ a name which recalls Sam Fuller’s MERRILL’S MARAUDERS—a World War II film, yes, but either way the Fuller America is a scrappier, much more incendiary mythology of America where the hatred can’t avoid bubbling to the surface sooner or later. For all the film’s focus on family, whether fathers, mothers or siblings, John Ruth never says anything about that as if he’s just been floating above history and never believes he has to get personally involved.
I don’t claim to be an expert on spaghetti westerns, even though I’ve seen a few that don’t have the name Sergio Leone on them, and I’m also not particularly versed in the sub-sub-genre of westerns set in the snow—there’s certainly McCABE & MRS. MILLER but that doesn’t seem to be much of a factor here. The Grindhouse aesthetic you’d maybe expect with crazy zooms, grainy Techniscope photography isn’t the approach taken here at all, with the use of 70mm becoming its own style. Putting aside all of the accoutrements of overtures and intermissions the grandeur does affect the film, it gives the whole thing a certain visual weight that makes every shot matter. And for all the surprise over Tarantino filming in 70mm but setting much of it in a single large room, there hasn’t been much talk of how that’s clearly affected the visual approach to that interior and while certain profile shots are very Tarantino-esque it always avoids standard coverage, there’s a decided lack of cutaways to characters listening to others talking unless it’s absolutely necessary. The stage play-like approach makes it extremely controlled in allowing for what we’re seeing or deliberately not seeing, as well as feeling that cold as we see their breath while they speak or getting us to wonder what that stew tastes like (seriously, I really want to know) as the actors play off each other-it’s not blithely cutting in closer to speed everything up. This keeps us correctly off balance and it’s for the best anyway since certain reactions at crucial points would reveal too much but of course it also means that we sometimes lose track of characters for way too long. Various silent glances register differently on multiple viewings when we can pay more attention to what they’re not doing and, I swear, it sure looks like Bruce Dern glances right at the camera around 37:05, an almost subliminal tell of what General Smithers is keeping from us. Close-ups are doled out carefully but they’re there which partly feels like a Leone approach but also works as its own thing—even if he has less to do than anyone I get the feeling Tarantino loves finding as many crevices as he can in Michael Madsen’s face and he clearly revels in the cracks of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s features covered in blood or otherwise. We want them to go outside and take in the glorious vistas but similar to how Paul Thomas Anderson’s THE MASTER was really looking into the faces Tarantino it’s all about those faces and the hatred behind them.
From the angle where we get our first look at the interior of Minnie’s Haberdashery there’s something deliberately unwelcoming about it allowing us to soak in the unease immediately, an oppressive feel that never really goes away. On first viewing the later flashback to a normal day in the life of the place (featuring Dana Gourrier as Minnie, who I wish there was more of, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN’S Gene Jones as Sweet Dave and the now obligatory Zoë Bell cameo) comes as a genuine breather after the downright oppressive feel after so much time in that darkness which seems to be part of the point as well. Watching that section again now that difference is felt even more, flashing back to a more innocent time, almost as if they were shooting this section on a totally different set. It’s a fanciful multicultural portrayal of the old west and whether it has anything to do with reality or not it seems like a nice place to be. It’s a picture of a more innocent time which we can picture for ourselves, the 90s, the early 2010s, pre-June 2015, pre-August 2015, pre-Election Day 2016, hanging out with our friends, joking around talking about movies and everything seems ok, no awareness of what’s coming. Yes, there are reminders of things like racism around us—if Minnie really did have that ‘no Mexicans or dogs’ sign up once upon a time she’s not exactly a total innocent, making me think of the fabled ‘FAGOTS – STAY OUT!’ sign which apparently hung in the West Hollywood Barney’s Beanery until 1984. You can take down those signs but it doesn’t mean that everything is cleared up. Doesn’t mean that we can fall asleep any easier tonight since that hatred is just lying in wait.
A few of the actors still don’t get to do very much even with that lengthy running time—Tim Roth, for one, is given a few enjoyable monologues done Terry-Thomas style after his introduction but after that doesn’t make much impression at all, certain characters forced to stay silent for a little too long in that second half standing up against a wall with nothing to do. Maybe there was some stuff left out, maybe there’s some things in there we don’t need—technically there are two versions of the film with the one available on DVD & Blu the standard release cut (167 minutes) while the roadshow 70mm version, overture, intermission and Cinerama logo aside, is only slightly longer so the differences between the two versions seem to be relatively minimal almost as if Tarantino made one of them slightly longer just because he could and have a little extra fun with the whole thing. In theory that roadshow cut could give us another version to buy at some point but I’m guessing it will have the same release date of a KILL BILL: THE WHOLE BLOODY AFFAIR Blu that we’ve all stopped holding our breath for. But what’s a Tarantino mythology without footage being withheld from us, after all.
It isn’t always as good as its best moments and a few points feel even weaker, RESERVOIR DOGS in the old west but not really. As punchy and dense as some of the dialogue is at times it also sounds a little too familiar to anyone who knows the Tarantino parlance, maybe a reminder that it needed the one extra polish my friend suggested. The confrontation between Samuel L. Jackson and Bruce Dern that leads up to the intermission (in the roadshow cut, anyway) is honestly my least favorite scene, as well played as it is by the two actors, feeling shoehorned in there no matter how much the film needs this sort of reminder of all the things that have led some of these people here; some Bruce Dern dialogue heard on the soundtrack CD that was cut from the film might have helped the buildup to it. But even with the weaker points we still get Robert Richardson’s stunning cinematography both outdoors and indoors adding to the hellish cold and placed up against it is the pure scorching fire that is the original Oscar-winning score by Ennio Morricone who brings to the film a spectacular main title along with that ticking feel that burrows underneath the film, a clock ticking down continuously as if just waiting for the brutality to reveal itself. There are also several Morricone tracks from John Carpenter's THE THING and one from EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC in there—the brief use of HERETIC music is appreciated because that score is all-holy but it’s the tracks from THE THING which make the most sense here, almost becoming part of the text itself coming from another film set in the remote cold with Kurt Russell, another film where you can’t trust who you’re trapped with, making THE HATEFUL EIGHT in part a prolonged examination of that film from an alternate genre perspective or maybe just the western that John Carpenter never made. Like other Carpenter films it’s a story mostly set in one place trying to keep out a greater force only in this case it’s not just the blizzard (referred to as a ‘white hell’ which itself brings to mind THE WHITE HELL OF PITZ PALU, referenced in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS—movie titles are part of the Tarantinoverse before movies are even invented) but the world itself with all the hatred and racism imaginable.
Carpenter’s THE THING of course featured an all-male cast so the presence of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Daisy Domergue who is at least as nasty as everyone else could almost be a commentary on what that film was missing, as if a demonstration of proof that the hatred which takes over everyone makes any specific treatment of her as a woman of secondary concern so the hatred consuming humanity is what really takes precedence. When she gently sings “Jim Jones at Botany Bay” for a moment strumming that guitar, John Ruth drops his hostility towards her for a moment and look where it gets him. “We’re gonna die...we ain’t got no say in that,” is heard near the end just as “We’re not getting out of here alive…but neither is that thing” was uttered near the end of THE THING. Major Warren’s Lincoln Letter is the false symbol which asks the question that stands for much of the film, either saying that the final image is either an expression of hope between these two guys who have always been on opposite sides or a realization of that lie, saying that hoping for any better is just a waste of time. I’m not sure I want to say which side I’m leaning on right now, but the answer doesn’t make me happy. The evil of the past is what makes the present after all and maybe the best way to look at the future is to laugh at it, showing no fear. There’s no chance of getting out of this alive, anyway. But, as another film once reminded us, neither is that thing. Maybe that right there is a sign of hope.
No one person gets the star role but Samuel L. Jackson takes full command of the frame, energized by this part and with total confidence in each gesture right down to his silences, figuring things out before anyone else is, as Tarantino points his camera directly at him assured in the history of his anger and just as assured in his righteousness. Kurt Russell with that enormous mustache thingamajig seems to love settling back in his scenes and playing off the other actors and he brings to John Ruth a cocky determination that shows how he’s keeping a close eye on everything in front of him but never anything else, right through to his very last moment which maybe more than anything reveals so much about who he is. In some ways it’s Jennifer Jason Leigh who really gets the showcase part you’d almost expect more of the actors here would have, taking being chained to Kurt Russell for most of the film and on repeat viewings we can see just how much she’s willing to sit back, crack a few jokes and wait for what she knows is going to come without fear, opening her mouth to get a taste of the falling snow while waiting to reveal her true feral nature. We never know what she’s done specifically to face the hangman’s noose but by the end we have no problem believing it. Veering from comic doofiness to deadly seriousness from moment to moment, Walton Goggins becomes the spirit of the film, even if it is a nasty, racist spirit unable to wipe away the war between the world and his father in his head, firmly believing that the renegade army was justified. Among the other guys, Bruce Dern has maybe less screen time than any of them but he still gives the most underappreciated performance in the film, the n-word is the nastiest coming from him just as the desperation when he thinks he might hear something about his son is palpable and the way he wraps his mouth around some of Tarantino’s words has more fury than it does from anyone else. And his scene with Channing Tatum making a crucial star cameo drives home much of the thesis. He doesn’t care about anyone else, certainly not anyone dying. Land of the free, after all.
As we wait for the day when THE HATEFUL EIGHT finally plays at the Cinerama Dome (I know one person who saw it there at the premiere and I’m still jealous) we can remember the majestic 70mm images at the film’s opening, a reminder of the cold, uncaring nature that continues amidst all this hatred. By the time we reach the end of the last chapter we don’t emerge back out into the snow as a brighter morning dawns, but instead stay on all their bloody faces where the darkness remains. I’m still dealing with a few things in there but right now the film makes perfect sense to me. These are characters who have done too many things, hurt too many people for it all to be wiped away and there can’t be peace, just as we can’t wipe away the ugliness of the modern world and a so-called president who proudly mocks the disabled. Looking all around you see reminders of how much they hate you, how much they hurt you and how much they want to kill you. It’s the unanswered question of what civilized society calls justice and if the possibilities of that civilized world can ever be attained. “Justice delivered without dispassion is always in danger of not being justice,” one character observes but of course it’s up for debate if that person really meant what he said and, in the end, the film seems to say that dispassionate justice isn’t possible anyway. One of the Morricone pieces from THE THING titled “Despair” is heard near the end at a very crucial point as a character tries to answer for himself the all-important question, Who Are You? How much of a person are you, really? At the very least, movies do have the power to change for us deep down as times goes on. But nobody ever said that people change too.