Thursday, August 3, 2017
Deep down, part of the problem is all the waiting. You know you need to stop doing it but you can’t. And there’s nothing you can do about it except everything imaginable. But for now, let’s go back a very long time to way before the world ended, maybe longer than I want to admit, since it makes sense to start there. The occasion was a massive Billy Wilder retrospective at the Film Forum in New York which for all I know I’ve mentioned before. The double bill that day was ONE TWO THREE and LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON, two Wilder films I had never seen although that aside I can’t think of any particular reason for pairing them together. The problem, which anyone familiar with the films will understand, was that I saw ONE TWO THREE first. Fairly close on the list to being one of my favorite Wilders by now it’s definitely one of the fastest, hell it’s one of the fastest movies ever made. So following it up with a much slower, virtually languid romance may not have been ideal. But that’s the way I saw them that day and that’s the way it goes. And now that LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON has been released on Blu via Warner Archive that’s about the best possible reason to finally see it again after all this time. In addition to its considerably staid pacing, there’s a slightly different feel compared to other Wilder films as if he’s trying to find a balance between misanthropy and romance that would actually make sense in his filmic world. It’s so reflective at times that it’s practically about the very act of reflecting. Even now I can’t entirely get on board with all of it but if you don’t insist on comparing it to the Wilder I know and love that feels more intent on cutting into the way our works really works, falling into its melancholic rhythms becomes a little easier. Looking at it now is a reminder of what it’s like to fight your way through a cynical world, one in which lying might be the only way to make it through the day. While waiting for someone to come around.
Parisian cello student Ariane Chavasse (Audrey Hepburn), forever curious about the cases her private detective father Claude (Maurice Chevalier) is working on, overhears him talking to a new client known only as Monsieur X (John McGiver) who has been told of his wife’s affair with rich American playboy Frank Flannagan (Gary Cooper). When the client proclaims that he will show up at their rendezvous and shoot Flannagan (“In that case, you leave me no choice. I must insist on being paid right now,” Claude Chavasse calmly replies), Ariane becomes desperate to stop this and when she is unable to get the police to help shows up at the hotel suite herself. She prevents the crime but her mysterious nature intrigues Flanagan who insists on seeing her again. They do and have a brief, passionate affair even though she refuses to tell him so much as her name and he soon departs to continue his jet set life. When Flanagan returns to Paris a year later and they meet again she not only still keeps her name secret to keep his interest begins telling him stories about her supposed love life based entirely on what she’s read in her father’s voluminous files of adultery. But the more stories Flanagan hears from her, the more determined he becomes to find out who this mysterious girl really is.
The opening spells it out: an establishing shot of Paris which is revealed to be a mere drawing, followed by multiple drawings of other views of the city displayed out on a Parisian street. In other words, within the real city is a fantasy city, whichever one you want it to be. It’s a visual statement of theme of the sort that we don’t usually get from Wilder but maybe he’s saying that this is the Paris he remembered from when he first encountered it long ago or possibly even the one he wished had always been there. For me LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON doesn’t belong in the upper echelon of Wilder films; there’s a grace to its style that is insistent about itself but it never seems to flow in the right way even though the veritable catalog of preoccupations on display makes it essential. It also marked the beginning of his collaboration with co-writer I. A. L. Diamond and except for the immediate follow-up WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, the partnership would continue all the way to the end with 1981’s BUDDY BUDDY. So something different is felt here, a definite shift away from the strain of certain mid-50s Wilder titles with a sudden ease felt to the storytelling as if settling in to a style that fits, finding a comfort level to this new approach that makes it clear the movie is in no rush to get away from itself.
It’s still a black & white world, not the hard-bitten one of DOUBLE INDEMNITY, SUNSET BOULEVARD and ACE IN THE HOLE but one that’s more romantic in its accepting of the very concept of loneliness, as if dreaming of a grand romance that never quite took place. From this point on there’s a good deal of reflection in Wilder’s films with characters trying to come to terms with what never was or will never be. They’re facing middle age or beyond, often while staying in hotels somewhere feeling like the world is passing them by as the realization hits that they may be forgotten. Of course, for much of LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON the male lead never seems to have these concerns and just about the biggest problem that anyone has ever had with the film involves the age difference between the leads, specifically Audrey Hepburn being 28, presumably playing younger, and Gary Cooper being 56 and looking at least a few years older. It’s almost impossible to think about the film without acknowledging that, yes, he looks too old to be playing this rogue even if he does carry with him enough self-confidence to be believable as a rakish world-class playboy. Wilder’s first choice was Cary Grant, although I can never quite see him in this role regardless of age and let’s save the issue of Audrey Hepburn being paired with so many older men in her films for another time. The movie certainly doesn’t ignore the matter and the story seems designed for that anyway. “Aren't you a little too young,” he asks her. “Aren't you a little too old,” she says back to which he understandably replies, “That hurts.” Which doesn’t excuse or justify it, only to point out what the story is, of someone older trying to hold onto the younger person looking up to them and in a sense yearning for the past. It can be a nice dream, anyway.
Clearly meant as a tribute to the sparkling champagne feel of the films of Ernst Lubitsch, Wilder’s hero and teacher, director of the NINOTCHKA screenplay that he wrote with Charles Brackett, LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON was also the second of three 1957 releases for Wilder coming between the gargantuan THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS and the compact, much more characteristic WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION. After the likes of SABRINA and THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH, each based on popular Broadway shows, LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON (screenplay by Wilder & I. A. L. Diamond, based on the novel by Claude Anet; the novel had been previously filmed in Germany as ARIANE in 1931) feels closer to his own personal style for the first time in a few years with an extra level to all the melancholy. You’d expect technicolor from a romantic comedy make in 1957, not the black & white look courtesy of DP William Mellor (who also shot A PLACE IN THE SUN and GIANT, among others) and while there’s a coyness to LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON in its opening narration by Maurice Chevalier that introduces us to romance in Paris (one of multiple such Wilder beginnings) along with the husband and wife known only to us as Monsieur and Madame X as if the film doesn’t want to reveal the names of all involved to us, there’s a gloom over much of it that almost overrides the humor of the piece. Flannagan decides to call Ariane “Thin Girl” since she won’t give him her name but it could easily be Sad Girl, since she spends most of the film desperate for connection with just about anybody, trying to achieve some form of happiness in a world where it seems like everything has already been decided. Her semi-boyfriend from the conservatory never seems interested in her at all until she begins to lose interest in him and the cello she carries around everywhere is like an albatross; the film seems to be saying her art is holding her back from life.
The way it plays, LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON is almost too relaxed at times to the point that it feels like a few laughs are missed due to deliberately lackadaisical line readings. Technically it’s a comedy but some of the best dialogue exchanges seemingly waft into the frame and out again, lost in the mist, trying to infuse itself with the spirit of Lubitsch as if Wilder wants nothing more than for that feeling to somehow survive into the era of rock n’ roll. Instead of floating through the air like some of the best of Lubitsch does it drifts in a rowboat, just as the characters do at one point, almost not moving at all. Individual moments have zip and the dialogue often brings just the right flavor particularly Ariane’s call to a policeman who refuses to put a stop to matters involving adultery in Paris, of all cities. But Lubitsch films back in the 30s which featured the likes of Cooper and Chevalier were around 90 minutes, sometimes 80. LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON stretches out to 129 and you feel every minute of it. The extra running time does give the film a certain added weight beyond the frothiness but maybe it’s almost asking too much of the simple story of the “Two people who met between planes,” she says, trying to talk herself out of thinking anything else of it. It’s missing the acidity of the best parts of SABRINA; at the very least, Hepburn and Bogart in that film felt like they were in the same frame together. You can feel the movie reaching for the great strain of romance and it doesn’t feel as attached to the schematics of the plotting as a few later Wilder-Diamond scripts do but it still feels like it’s trying to pack too much of significance into the material, like the key music cue near the very end which seems deliberately turned up loud in an attempt to make it the most romantic gesture of all time. The exact specifics of their relationship are kept oblique enough that maybe no one in the late 50s was offended but some dialogue muddles things enough that it’s unclear what exactly their relationship has been and what we should even want it to be.
Some of the best bits of business are isolated within scenes like Gary Cooper on a Dictaphone, yammering away like Americans in Wilder films sometimes do along with a very early version of the importer-exporter joke from SEINFELD decades later. Plus there’s the familiar Wilder plotting of someone in disguise only here it’s the simplest and in some ways most complex version of it since it’s merely Ariane as herself but not revealing anything at all, not even giving away her name, afraid she’s simply too dull for a man like this. “I baffle you?” she asks him at one point, unable to believe it. The best moments are so crystalized in their elegance that I wish it could get a move on already—I guess all these years later even when I’m not watching it right after ONE TWO THREE there’s still the wish that it would pick up the pace a little. Elegance is wonderful but there’s a little too much starch in the film’s clothing and for a film involving trysts that have to be finished by a certain time, hence the title, it isn’t in any rush at all and, unusual for Wilder’s normally tight plotting, a few stray elements here like the woman in the suite next door to Flannagan could easily be dropped.
But touches like the close up of Hepburn framed against Cooper’s reflection have such an impeccable effect that for a few moments the mood the film is going for is achieved. It might be one of the most deliberate shots in all of Wilder who more often would go for the general oppressiveness of his framing even in CinemaScope. And the gypsy band that follows Cooper around through the film, essentially a musical Greek chorus, transforms from a mere running gag into the insistently romantic soul of the film when he begins to obsessively play the recording Hepburn has made listing off her ‘affairs’ over and over again over the course of an evening, nothing else in the world on his mind and the greatest excuse imaginable for drinking as much as possible. For once it feels like the perfect mixture of Wilder’s sensibilities with his hero Lubitsch and almost nothing else in the film has this effect, nothing else matches its pain while infusing it with the right sort of refinement (Cameron Crowe put it best: “Most directors would simply send the leading man to a bar. They are not Wilder.”). The word I think of when the film comes to mind is misty, a black & white feel that washes away in memory immediately after seeing it also how much of the time Gary Cooper is photographed keeping him in shadows and mist in an attempt to keep us from thinking too much about his age so it’s as if we never get a clear shot of his face and though the best moments sing the whole somehow congeals into an overly thick pudding. There’s an undeniably rich flavor to it but the details feel lost. The movie lives by its own code in its own world all according to Wilder’s belief in the romance of Paris, as if this is the only place on the planet where such a thing is even conceivable. And there’s not a moment of patience for Ariane’s humorless boyfriend who turns his nose up at the standard “Fascination” heard over and over through the film, saying it lacks any musical merit whatsoever. Whether it’s his youth or his stuffiness the movie knows that if you can’t love that piece of schmaltz, apparently designed to be nothing more than the last piece of music heard before making love, then can you really love anything at all. Or anyone.
When the final scene breaks away from all those interiors and emerges to a train platform outside suddenly the shift in location brings an all new energy to the film, a sudden immediacy that is undeniable and feels alive in a way the rest of the film doesn’t. Suddenly the romance between the two doesn’t feel clinical and there’s one close-up of Hepburn that is so heartbreaking I almost don’t know what to do with it. I’m still not sure if I buy the ending, whether narration meant to molly the code or not and like where the characters end up at the end of SOME LIKE IT HOT, here we have a case where the two leads that have fallen in love have barely even met as they head off at the end of the film, no idea who the other really is, no idea where they’re going. But, hey, nobody’s perfect. It’s a film more at home in the old world so naturally the man is the one who makes the final decision but at least it’s someone taking action. We live too much of life between planes, after all. Waiting for that next trip, for the right person to finally make that decision. LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON is a cynic trying desperately to believe, to allow for the possibility of love, of attachment, in all its truth and deception before it becomes too late and fitting for a film that is so much meant to be a tribute to Lubitsch which in itself is a form of going back to the past, it has no interest in the concept of Tomorrow. It’s merely a portrayal of the way things should be. How much the film really believes this I’m not quite sure, but it tries.
So much of the film is about close-ups of Audrey Hepburn anyway, about wanting to fall in love with her and the insanity of the men who won’t just as it’s about Wilder expressing the ultimate feeling of love through her and the grace that comes through whenever she’s onscreen. Even when she realizes that Gary Cooper is actually interested in her it’s her vulnerability, the desire to actually be a part of the world, that’s felt in every single one of her movements. Kept at such a distance in the shadows Gary Cooper is often in his own bubble apart from her and sticking a flower in his ear doesn’t do any good in making him seem any younger. But he finds his character in the beats between the dialogue with the split second he takes to consider the ad slogan “Pop in for a Pepsi” (since he works for Pepsi, it only makes sense that the lead character of ONE TWO THREE works for Coke; maybe that’s the reason for the double bill) smartly displaying his remove from everything around him. His devil may care nature so clearly espouses Wilder’s world view that when he actually begins to care about something, needing to find out about this girl, it plays. He just always seems way too old and there’s not much that can be done about that. Maurice Chevalier, representing all things French, suggests a nimbleness that the rest of the film never quite achieves but it still makes me wish that we could follow him and observe a few of his other cases when he’s on the job while John McGiver as Monsieur X, in just about his first film, perfectly captures the screwy cuckolded nature just a few steps behind everyone else. All he needs to do is learn about what Paris really is, the film seems to say, and he’ll be fine.
That’s the problem with eternal fantasies sometimes, eventually they get matched up with a truth that is going to grow more painful and maybe that’s why you wait. But it’s your own damn fault. Bosley Crowther raved about the film, calling it a “grandly sophisticated romance” to the point that you want to tell him to calm down already. Billy Wilder himself wasn’t as enthusiastic later on after its box office disappointment with the sad observation, “I got Coop the week he suddenly got old.” It’s possible that when LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON was released it may have been out of step with things. It certainly has nothing to do with the world now. Just as a film, it’s problematic and in some ways the imagery is also problematic what with all that mistiness as if it’s trying to hide what it really is but you’ve never see it look this stunning and kudos to Warner Archive on the new release. If anything, it’s one of the most underrated looking of all Wilder films and you can hardly blame him for mostly wanting to most stick to black & white for years after this. But going back to that day when I first encountered LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON immediately after ONE TWO THREE, it seems so long ago. It is. And I try really hard but I can’t quite recreate the memory in my head. There was even a woman I sat next to and in between films I talked to her about them. I never even found out her name either, so I’ll always wonder who she was. I wouldn’t mind recreating that day, to go back there knowing all I’ve learned since. Those days stay with you, after all. While you continue to wait.
Wednesday, July 12, 2017
You try to avoid certain things. Doesn’t mean you’re going to be successful. A NEW LEAF was shown first at the Elaine May double bill some weeks back and after it was over even though we were having a great time my friend insisted on moving seats before the next one due to a woman sitting behind us who had been laughing very loudly and noticeably through the whole film. To be honest, while I’d heard her it hadn’t bothered me very much since, after all, the response was sort of warranted. But my friend insisted so we moved seats closer to the front as ISHTAR began…then within moments another woman who was also now directly behind us began to laugh loudly and noticeably through the whole film. And we laughed too, as did the rest of the packed house, because this was ISHTAR after all. Just like in the great, great, great A NEW LEAF, you desperately try to avoid certain things in life in the pursuit of what you think you want but you just wind up running right into them anyway. Sometimes it’s inevitable.
As is generally the case with Elaine May films, her directorial debut A NEW LEAF has long been the subject of controversy surrounding its making and even Vincent Canby reported there was “something of a cloud” hanging over it in his effusive March 1971 review in The New York Times. May spent a long time shooting and cutting the film with her version not only considerably longer but also darker, involving the murderous fantasies of the lead character taken to their presumably logical conclusion. It seems very unlikely at this late date that we’ll ever get to see this footage so the version of A NEW LEAF we have is the one we’ll always know and the only one we can really judge. The full house that night seemed ok with this considering how the entire audience, not just that woman behind us, spent the entire film in hysterics and frankly it was one of the most joyous experiences I’ve had in a movie theater in a long time. There are few films like A NEW LEAF, a film which somehow becomes better and funnier the more I see it, the more I grow closer to the pain and desperation felt by the characters. Maybe the earlier version was darker and maybe the acceptance its main character arrives at near the end made some of that more complicated but the undeniable sweetness found in the release version still has something that we respond to for a reason. Say what you want about people who laugh a little too loud, if there were more packed revival showings of Elaine May films then maybe the world would be a better place during this horrible time.
Living a life of luxury off his trust fund with zero responsibility, Henry Graham (Walter Matthau) is one day stunned to learn that he has absolutely no money left. Desperate to keep his standing in life the way it is, he strikes a deal with his wealthy Uncle Harry (James Coco) to borrow $50,000 and helped by trusty butler Harold (George Rose) sets out to find and marry a rich woman within six weeks, one who no one will miss, then soon after murder her. Just before the time is up Henry meets the very wealthy Henrietta Lowell (Elaine May), a lonely botanist who lives in a giant estate all by herself and her servants. But once Henry gets around her loyal lawyer Andy McPherson (Jack Weston) who is desperate to hold onto his control over Henrietta he ingratiates himself fully into her life and finances, proceeding with his plan to do away with her.
The way Henry Graham obsesses over keeping his beloved Ferrari alive when we first meet him says it all, determined to keep what he has at any cost no matter the inconvenience. When he’s told the absolute truth that it’s all over he refuses to hear a word of it, eventually accepting his fate so he wanders the streets repeating “I’m poor” over and over again while visiting his favorite haunts for the last time. He has no idea how to do anything other than live the life he’s been living, one of bravely doing nothing but persisting in his devotion to “keep alive traditions that were dead before you were born” as faithful butler Harold puts it. From the very beginning, the language of the script by Elaine May (based on the short story “The Green Heart” by Jack Ritchie) lays all this out and is essential in our understanding of what Henry is, of the exactness of this world, the ever-repeating all-purpose phrase “carbon on the valves” to explain what’s always wrong with his car, something to talk about when there’s nothing to talk about and he has nothing to talk about except himself, barely able to maintain interest when there’s someone else in the room concerned about whatever their own version of carbon on the valves might be.
As director, Elaine May is fascinated by Henry Graham just as she would later be fascinated by Mikey and Nicky or Rogers and Clarke of ISHTAR or Charles Grodin’s Lenny Cantrow from THE HEARTBREAK KID in all their horribleness and desperation. The men are where her interests lie and while we can bemoan the fact that no Elaine May film would pass the Bechdel Test that’s just the way it is. What sets A NEW LEAF apart from her other directorial work is how her role in the film serves as an extension of that fascination of the male lead, peering up at him over her glasses, completely unaware of what he’s really thinking. This is the only film Elaine May directed that she also appeared in, waiting until close to the half-hour mark for her introduction as all at once she presents herself as the perfect mark and the one person who he can never quite figure out. The men in Elaine May films are generally baffled by the women in their lives if not flat out angered by their behavior for reasons that go beyond the mere use of sex, usually resulting in sheer terrified cluelessness. Matthau’s initial search for a bride leads him to Renee Taylor’s desperate widow undressing to his total horror and May plays the moment as totally understanding the desperation felt by both people. Henrietta Lowell can’t even hold a cup of tea without dropping it or eat a meal without emerging from the table with a pile of crumbs on her lap, discussing her love for Mogen David’s extra heavy Malaga wine with soda and lime juice with such a look of ecstasy on her face looking up at the total revulsion on his. And she’s enraptured by this attention as if no one has ever asked what her hopes and dreams are which may or may not be the same thing anyway as if somehow believing right away that they’re perfect together, knowing that he’ll be the one to cut the price tags off her clothing even if she doesn’t realize he only does it out of disgust. And when he tries to fix the Grecian-style nightgown on their honeymoon (“Henrietta, where is your other arm?”) the physicality of the moment between the two of them as he tries to get her to fix the problem is as perfect as an Astaire-Rogers dance routine right down to his final reaction to her appearance while also revealing the futility of her ever trying to sexualize herself in front of him no matter now desperately she tries.
Maybe the only director it makes any sense to compare May’s filmmaking approach to is her ex-partner Mike Nichols whose own early films often contain a certain distance from the material, an austerity to his storytelling through the widescreen frame and a dryness felt within the surrealistic tone he strives for. But even though May as director doesn’t go for strict realism, with the actual world of 1971 never much of a concern, any satirical point found within the frame almost feels incidental as well. Instead she moves the camera in closer to the characters, showing us the flopsweat on their brow and the desperation in their voices becoming increasingly palpable. Barely a scene goes by where it doesn’t feel like you’re being choked by the sheer tension of the moment. In some ways her films almost seem designed to complement films Nichols had already made while also comedically challenging him as if they’re actually taking part in a very complicated Nichols-May routine of her own making designed to reveal his iconic male leads for what they really are in all their selfishness. THE HEARTBREAK KID is a natural follow up to themes explored in THE GRADUATE and the movie star double act that includes Warren Beatty of ISHTAR is an obvious pairing with the even more problematic THE FORTUNE. The much darker MIKEY AND MICKY set entirely over one night feels like a distorted mirror of the cynicism of CARNAL KNOWLEDGE and its storyline which spans years but it’s more difficult to find one to compare A NEW LEAF to, whether by Mike Nichols or anyone else, directed by May in a style which feels detached but always in the service of the desperation of the characters, somehow mixed in with an undeniable sweetness that goes beyond the jokes, a balance between being aware of the horrifically cold nature of most people while trying to discover their goodness as well.
It’s not plot she’s interested in as much as the behavior, the reasons for their mannerisms more than where it’s going to lead. Of the four films May has directed (to date, I will stubbornly state), THE HEARTBREAK KID is the only one with a story that could be said to flow steadily from start to finish. The pacing in A NEW LEAF is definitely loose in comparison, maybe partly because of the post-production issues, but the tone always seems just right, not playing as a sixties sex farce or light screwball fare but something else with an intensity to each joke, that the response to it could cause everything in the world to come crashing down. Even the nitpicky nature of the May dialogue defies simple description even down to the small moments of Henry Graham referring to Henrietta as “feral” or the way he accuses a stuck-up hostess of having an “erotic fixation” on her carpet. And while we’re at it, let’s talk about how Jack Weston references the Canary Islands in both this and ISHTAR for some reason—an early version of the ‘on spec’ line from ISHTAR can be heard here as well. However erratic it feels, that can barely even be called a criticism since it becomes part of the film’s own idiosyncratic nature. It plays best in the first hour when the individual scenes have the most focus, the dryness of Henry Graham’s confrontation with money man Beckett, his proposal to Henrietta while kneeling on broken glass or the increasing desperation of Jack Weston’s lawyer trying to prove what he’s up to and the story becomes noticeably choppy once it hits the second hour, presumably where most of the cuts came from, which means Weston in particular drops out of the picture abruptly.
Even the staging of scenes has a certain casualness due to the framing (shot by Gayne Rescher, later the DP of STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN) that makes it seem totally natural, if not completely accidental, whether in the middle of an argument or even Matthau not paying attention to what May is doing on the other side of the shot. When there’s more activity in a scene that can lead to a little too much clutter which in itself can lead to its own pleasures particularly when the disrespectful servants throw a surprise party for Henry right before he fires them. The film wouldn’t have the same tone without that scattered vibe anyway and even just the simple absurdity of Matthau asking a couple he meets, “Are you related to the Boston Hitlers?” is the right display of the casual apathy of this world but also seems like it was slipped into the script to see if anyone was paying attention. The final moments are a little rushed and the last ten or so minutes leading up to it aren’t the strongest part of the film but the way it isolates Henry and Henrietta from all the other plot complications helps it achieve a transcendence that maybe wasn’t what May had in mind but is about as pragmatic, accepting and, yes, romantic as anything I’ve ever seen.
Henry Graham’s lack of interest in women, let alone anyone else, is something the honeymoon sequence sidesteps and the idea of sex plays very little role in May’s films except for THE HEARTBREAK KID. For Elaine May marriage isn’t about sex or even the possibility of betrayal via sex the way it was portrayed in Nichols’ HEARTBURN, written by Nora Ephron from her own novel, which like A NEW LEAF also contains a protracted wedding sequence in a New York apartment involving a couple who have only recently met. Instead the idea of companionship between men and women, feels like something else altogether for her as if to say that for her, love is never what you planned. All that matters is Henry finally sees her as human which oddly gives it a similarity to the much later Mike Nichols film WHAT PLANET ARE YOU FROM? which in its portrayal of a rushed, seemingly incompatible marriage as its story line could almost be considered his belated response to A NEW LEAF, just not anywhere near as successful (but like A NEW LEAF, it’s also pretty odd, I’ll give it that much). In the end what Henrietta gets him to admit to himself, and to her, is what matters just as what he’s done for her has gotten him close to that kind of immortality he was talking about. Granted, A NEW LEAF plays differently at home without people around you screaming in hysterics and it’s those small touches that stay with you all of this making it, even in this allegedly abbreviated form a comic masterpiece but it feels like to call it one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen might be underselling it. With some comedies you hit a wall after multiple viewings because you know all the jokes and there’s not much to get out of it after that which is never the case with this film. There’s not a laugh in there which feels dishonest, it all comes genuinely from the character and a tone which is unlike anything else. Or maybe it’s just a miracle, fully deserving of its own kind of immortality. Even if Elaine May has never been particularly happy about it.
There are few things as joyous as seeing Walter Matthau in a film, a joy that increases as time goes on. The canny intellectualism of his presence combines with an unmistakable snobbery, as if he considers it an insult to look another person in the eye with the timing of each gesture always impeccable and it’s as if he falls into synch with his co-star without intending to. And there are even fewer things as joyous as seeing Elaine May in a film, compounded by how we never got enough of them. Right from the first moment we see her there’s barely a word or movement she makes that you’d expect down to the way she perks up when she tries telling Henry about something she’s excited about, looking up at him with a total sense of yearning. They go beautifully together and I wish they’d made another ten films. Instead, all we got was their segment in CALIFORNIA SUITE which I guess is better than nothing. It’s an unforgettable supporting cast as well--George Rose is a wonder as the ever-efficient Harold and deserves to be ranked among the great movie butlers of all time, Jack Weston is like a terrified bull frantically barreling through scenes with his palpable desperation that he can never quite hold onto and Doris Roberts kills in her few scenes with the wanted sly winks she gives Matthau. Especially good is the pitch perfect exasperation of William Redfield, later of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, as money man Beckett who calmly, desperately, tries to explain to Graham that he is indeed truly, genuinely broke and receiving nothing but grief for doing his job.
But I may as well come clean. When I mentioned that I was going to see A NEW LEAF the night before to a woman I know she proceeded to quote dialogue from the film for the next five minutes and frankly the only thing preventing me from attempting to kiss her right then was that, well, we were talking on the phone. But maybe it was just plain fear as well. Moving seats between films is a little easier, after all. So we try to keep things alive. Feelings we have about people, relationships that cause us to scream in the middle of the night. It’s not always easy to keep this going A NEW LEAF is unique in its observance of the world as well as a reminder that things aren’t always going to go the way we want. And that double bill was also a reminder that maybe the cult of Elaine May is growing, helped by someone like Colin Stacey who actually flew in from out of town for the double bill (it was a pleasure to meet him; he’s at @bcolinstacey on Twitter and tell him Mr. Peel sent you) after selling ‘written and directed by Elaine May’ t-shirts which use the MIKEY AND NICKY font on his website. According to some reports even Walter Matthau liked the studio cut of A NEW LEAF better while the few extant comments from May in public appearances of course still make us want to see more – “It was a love story, but what was interesting was that he murdered a guy. And (the studio) took the murder out and we went to court because I had script approval and the judge saw the movie and he said, ‘It’s such a nice movie, why do you want to sue?’” So maybe there is a hole at the heart of the film which we can only ever guess at. And never think that I don’t feel a certain amount of guilt praising a film that the great Elaine May took a studio to court over. If I hadn’t already seen ISHTAR so many times back in the day I would say that this would be the Elaine May film I’d want to see the most simply out of the pure pleasure of it. But maybe someday it’ll catch up. A NEW LEAF has a sort of truth to it, more than most films do, let alone just the comedies. Sometimes we’re faced with the fraud that we are. And all we can do is hope that someone loves us anyway. And besides, there’s always going to be a hole in life. A hole that’s filled with what you’re afraid of. What you’re trying to avoid.
Thursday, June 15, 2017
There’s no particular need to defend BEVERLY HILLS COP II. It comes from the absolute dregs of the 80s and Tony Scott, rest his soul, gave us that one-two punch of TOP GUN in ‘86 followed by this film serving as a cinematic illustration of just how rotten the decade was in all its MTV glamour. Funny thing is, I never have any desire to see TOP GUN again, and don’t bother asking me, but BEVERLY HILLS COP II is one that I feel a little more ambivalent towards. As a matter of fact, I’ll gladly watch it right now if you want. The film was a big enough hit when it came out over Memorial Day weekend 1987 although it was never the meteor crashing to earth that Martin Brest’s original film was when released at the end of ’84. As much as that film was the absolute peak of Eddie Murphy Mania, today it plays like a modest, pleasantly enjoyable movie bolstered by the explosion of his star power along with a few fantastic supporting performances by both good guys and bad.
Now celebrating its 30th anniversary, Part II isn’t really the same thing for a variety of reasons, chief among them being that’s not what you hired Tony Scott for. If you’d seen TOP GUN or THE HUNGER or, I’m assuming, commercials he’d directed you got him for pure visual power. What Scott brought with him was a new eye to material which could somehow elevate the storytelling through sheer force, not necessarily for character work or opening up new possibilities to the concept. And there aren’t any particularly memorable new characters or elements in BEVERLY HILLS COP II unless you want to count the sheer presence of Brigitte Nielsen, not that she ever really does that much in the film. Earlier concepts for sequels included a version set in London but as it was finally made the film clearly isn’t supposed to be anything new or different. It’s supposed to be More. For one thing, when they go to a strip club this time around it’s a high end strip club (where a Coke costs seven dollars). And even though that cockiness to the filmmaking borders on an arrogance at times it does have that pop energy brought to it by Tony Scott and his crew. Instead of just using it as a showcase for Eddie Murphy and his routines the director makes it a full-fledged movie. Comedy is secondary, not to mention any semblance of social commentary, and it all feels like a story made up by a couple of 12 year-old boys looking to make their own BEVERLY HILLS COP sequel. That’s probably exactly what producers Don Simpson & Jerry Bruckheimer wanted but it damn well moves, containing immense energy like a freight train built with a Ferrari engine burning through that hazy, smoky imagery in almost every shot. Like I said, I’ll gladly watch it again right now.
As Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy) is involved in undercover duties back in Detroit, his friend Captain Bogomil (Ronny Cox) in Beverly Hills is investigating a series of Alphabet robberies in the city led by the mysterious blonde Karla Fry (Brigitte Nielsen). After being suspended by the new hard-assed police chief (Allen Garfield) angered by the lack of movement in the investigation, Bogomil is gunned down on the street with a ‘B’ left on his body signaling that the bandits have struck again. So Axel flies into town immediately to team up with friends Billy Rosewood (Judge Reinhold) and John Taggart (John Ashton) to catch the bandits. Their investigation leads them to the Beverly Hills Shooting Club where Foley encounters Fry who is in fact working with Maxwell Dent (Jurgen Prochnow), the mastermind behind the crimes. On the trail of what their plan really is, Foley, Rosewood and Taggart begin to put the pieces together to take them down.
Out of total curiosity, the other week I ran a “Which film says ‘The 80s!’ the most?” poll on Twitter placing this film up against COCKTAIL, ROCKY IV and THE SECRET OF MY SUCCESS. The three other choices were fairly random (ROCKY IV won; I would have gone with THE SECRET OF MY SUCCESS) but I thought that BEVERLY HILLS COP II might have done better with its slickness and gleeful immaturity. For a movie where we get a title card identifying ‘BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA’ twice in the first ten minutes to clarify things for anyone not paying attention I’m still not sure it actually makes a lick of sense. Seriously, writing that summary above was harder than I thought and one of the best things to say about the plot (story by Eddie Murphy & Robert D. Wachs, screenplay by Larry Ferguson and Warren Skaaren) is that it moves so fast you might not bother to ask questions. For one thing, I’m not sure how the police in Beverly Hills are investigating what they believe to be a series of ‘Alphabet Crimes’ after a single robbery (of course, the imdb goofs page is way ahead of me on this) and at least once someone says the ‘Alphabet Killer’ even though no one’s actually been killed as if the full plan for the bad guys hadn’t been totally worked out as the script was presumably being rewritten during production (shoutout to whoever got Agatha Christie listed as an uncredited writer on the imdb page, presumably a reference to her novel “The ABC Murders”). Captain Bogomil gets several bullets fired into him at close range without being killed which doesn’t make the bad guys particularly competent at their jobs. At one point there’s talk of stopping the impending ‘E’ crime, but I’ll be damned if I can figure out what happened to the ‘D’. What I’m saying is, this is not exactly an airtight story although I doubt anyone outside of maybe Roger Ebert has ever cared.
The big surprise is that the film isn’t as funny as you’d think an Eddie Murphy movie from the 80s would be since it’s more interested in the action, the smoke, the pureness of the imagery. The bigger surprise is watching the film now in 2017 it’s not that big a deal since as much as it feels like ‘the 80s’ the pure style of Tony Scott’s direction means that it hasn’t dated as badly as other films from around the same period. His visual approach became more complex over the years but here entire scenes are framed almost like a series of paintings depicting life in Southern California--Jessica Ritchey (@Ruby_Stevens) on Twitter pointed out they’re like Patrick Nagel paintings, which is dead on. But it’s also much looser than I remember with a relaxed vibe to it all, even down to the cigars some characters are smoking in scenes which feels like they just happened to be holding them as the cameras started to roll. The bulk of Eddie Murphy’s improvs where Axel Foley talks his way into places feels like second rate material this time around but since there’s no need for tension between Foley, Rosewood and Taggart anymore the chemistry between them makes it almost a hangout film in a Hawksian sense, even if it is much flashier and anarchic than Hawks would ever do. The looseness of the way the guys start humming the theme to “The Dating Game” at one point feels like it was totally made up on the spot, which Judge Reinhold confirms on the DVD and even his reaction to John Ashton falling in the swimming pool looks totally genuine.
Compared to the first film which was grounded in a fairly believable world upended by the lead character, II is all flash and everyone, including the few people we see in Detroit, feel part of the same universe so the fish out of water concept of the original is pretty much forgotten about (even more than the first film, it doesn’t differentiate very much between Beverly Hills and Los Angeles anyway, not that I could tell the difference seeing it at Yonkers Movieland). It’s not about reality in any form and it doesn’t care. The comedy part of all this is clearly outside of Tony Scott’s wheelhouse (the bit in the strip club where Foley claims that Taggart is actually Gerald Ford isn’t much but at least it’s an attempt) and he doesn’t seem to know how to direct the day players who are straight men to Murphy’s routines; it helps immensely when it’s someone who already knows comedy like Paul Reiser or Gilbert Gottfried; in his scenes with them Murphy isn’t even the big personality in the scene and he seems to enjoy how the dynamic suddenly shifts. The film is gleefully immature and ultimately hollow at its core but somehow feels strangely innocent much of the time, not a care about anything beyond creating its own world while barreling forward.
The visual flash manages to mask how flimsy the story is, a reminder of how as Tony Scott got better scripts to work with (THE LAST BOY SCOUT, TRUE ROMANCE, CRIMSON TIDE, MAN ON FIRE) the better and more layered his films became. As chase heavy as the film is there’s also a lot of dialogue used to explain byzantine the plot involving the alphabet crimes and breaking the complex code the bad guys leave behind (much of the heavy lifting done by Alice Adair, as Bogomil’s daughter—the one female character who’s not a bitch or a slut so all she does is provide exposition) giving the impression more is going on than there really is with information occasionally shoehorned into scenes as if put in there at the very last second. I think I can follow it all but, nah, I can’t. But barely any of it matters anyway, since it focuses mainly on being enough of a clone of the original whether it makes sense to be or not, so a flashy 80s montage of Axel driving around Beverly Hills immediately after visiting Bogomil in the hospital feels a little out of place. A big thing is made out of the bad guys getting the address of where Foley is staying but instead of ambushing him there in the dead of night they follow him to strip club owned by one of the other bad guys where they try to gun him down. As much as they glower while acting European, the bad guys don’t really do very much in between robberies and while I doubt anybody was worried about Axel Foley in the first film there was still an undeniable tension in how Steven Berkoff and Jonathan Banks would sit there simmering as he talked, a believable threat hanging in the air which this film never bothers to attempt. For all everybody remembers Murphy’s ‘grooming services’ line while sizing up Brigitte Nielsen’s Karla Fry at the gun club there’s not much interaction between him and the bad guys at all. Some of that stuff is pretty crass anyway, with Foley referring to her as a bitch even before finding out who she really is and the overall tone of misogyny that runs through the entire film would probably get more than a few angry online pieces written about it today. Oddly the film rushes through the visit to the Playboy Mansion, complete with Hugh Hefner cameo, and the sequence feels pretty shoehorned in. Even at that location the movie doesn’t linger, ready to move on to the next chase not wanting to hang around.
As a lengthy aside, the recent 30th anniversary of BEVERLY HILLS COP II reminds me that the film opened less than a week after Elaine May’s legendary ISHTAR which was roundly trounced by it at the box office. Just a few weeks ago ISHTAR ran at the New Beverly (paired with A NEW LEAF) and played like gangbusters to the packed house, a welcome reversal of what happened in ’87 but also a reminder of how which of these two films was the perfect one for that moment. They actually have oddly similar climaxes each featuring the leads heading into battle heavily armed and of the two the movie which has the characters admit that they’re prepared for the worst isn’t the one from the director of TOP GUN. There’s never any doubt about winning in BEVERLY HILLS COP II but in its commentary on Reagan-era foreign policy ISHTAR is more open to the individual and what it means to be a loser and a pawn in how the corrupt system views you. COP II is somewhat more apolitical beyond its generic embracing of ‘the 80s’ and everything insidious that stands for, including guns, fast cars and women told to keep quiet but as much of a maverick as Axel Foley is supposed to be it’s still about upholding the system and preventing the evil foreigners of the world from using American might to get rich for themselves around the world. In ISHTAR the glory isn’t in money or even victory but in simply getting to do what you want in the world, whether the establishment is happy about that or not. Both films clearly have a love for their main characters but ISHTAR loves the losers that they are and the film is about reveling in your expected failure because you’d rather have nothing than settle for less. BEVERLY HILLS COP II is about victory since failure is never a possibility and it highlights the emptiness of the film in the end. Which made it perfect for the decade because nothing of value can ever come after that empty glory.
Quentin Tarantino likes it, saying in a Video Watchdog interview on sequels back in 2012, “it’s gorgeous looking and cinema is very much involved”. He likes ISHTAR too, for the record. I’ve grown to like BEVERLY HILLS COP II myself in its slick, ultra dumb-dumb way over the years since the slickness at least feels genuine, unlike a lot of really crappy action movies I can think of. There’s beauty in this junk so its own excitement about itself is part of what makes it work so well, a complete film world created by Tony Scott along with cinematographer Jeffrey L. Kimball and his multiple editors along with a Harold Faltermeyer soundtrack which in addition to the various songs and expected umpteen reprises of “Axel F” seems largely inspired by the track “The Duke Arrives” from John Carpenter’s ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK score. I wouldn’t want to live forever in this but an afternoon wouldn’t be so bad. For all the action and movement and crashing through parking meters as cars barrel down sidewalks, it’s really about the sensation of that ferocious imagery, not about any sort of suspense. The final shootout seems pretty brief for what you’d think would be a grand confrontation between hero and villain but why draw it out. As for the legendary Taggart line after he blows away a certain bad guy at the end, it’s pretty memorable in its brevity. It’s a good line. It’s a pithy line. And it’s also pretty awful about the worldview being stated. But hey, it was the 80s. The last line of the film is “Who’s that black guy?” spoken by the guy whose house he was using and it feels like the only truly racially tinged moment of the film, that ‘he doesn’t belong here’ inherent in the conflict which the film never addresses and doesn’t seem to care.
The funny thing is that the movie is pretty much the high water mark of Eddie Murphy, Superstar as we knew it then. COMING TO AMERICA was the following year and an even bigger hit but it at least involved Murphy playing a different sort of character. That was followed by HARLEM NIGHTS and at that point the cracks were beginning to show. But with James Ingram’s “Better Way” playing us out as the end credits roll, the cockiness of BEVERLY HILLS COP II is so assured that it feels like the vibe is going to go on forever, as if Paramount was ready to have them start production on Part III a week later. For what we knew of as Eddie Murphy in the first ten years of his career, it was never close to this high again. Everything ends eventually, we just don’t know it until it’s too late.
When there’s a giant close-up of Eddie Murphy laughing during the opening credits it’s as if he knows that’s why the movie is being made. He’s coasting here and it’s not like there’s much that could be said to be actual character work. Murphy is even effective during the quiet moments in the first film but this film has no quiet moments. In the way he directed his star Martin Brest was interested in behavior. Scott wants the movement. But going with the hangout vibe he does seem to enjoy playing off his main co-stars, a reminder of how well Judge Reinhold and John Ashton played off each other as these guys, adding immensely to how much fun the scenes are. If they ever decided to spinoff the two characters in their own film—and I wonder if that was ever brought up—it probably wouldn’t have been enough without Murphy but the two of them are ideal together here. There’s not much to say about Brigitte Nielsen in terms of performance but Tony Scott really does know how to shoot her. If only he could have figured out how to do more with her signature “Good bye” line but maybe what we got was the most effective way to do it and hidden in the shadows Jurgen Prochnow doesn’t make much of an impression at all. There’s not much to say about them, as much as the movie tries to convince us they’re important--I’m not even sure if CSI’s Paul Guilfoyle gets any actual dialogue as arms dealer Nick Thomopolis. On the other hand, Dean Stockwell barely does anything as his secondary bad guy but even his flat line readings have a touch of eccentricity. As new Beverly Hills Police Chief Lutz, Allen Garfield shouts so much you almost remember him more than anyone else in the movie, Robert Ridgley of BOOGIE NIGHTS is the Mayor of Beverly Hills while actual cop Gil Hill of the Detroit Homicide Division again plays Foley’s captain back home. Paul Reiser, then hot off ALIENS, again plays Axel’s friend Jeffrey, this time getting his own brief subplot, Gilbert Gottfried is accountant Sidney Bernstein and a very young Chris Rock appears briefly as a parking valet at the Playboy Mansion.
There finally was a BEVERLY HILLS COP III directed by John Landis a full seven years later and it’s not remembered for very much other than being bad (and a George Lucas cameo) so not much needs to be said about it. In 2013 there was even a pilot for a BEVERLY HILLS COP series meant for CBS that wasn’t picked up, featuring Murphy as Axel Foley working with son Aaron Foley, played by Brandon T. Jackson. I’ve seen it and, trust me, not much needs to be said about that either. Rumors of a fourth film still crop up occasionally but maybe one reason why it hasn’t happened is that it needs to figure out what the BEVERLY HILLS COP franchise is and I’m not sure there’s an answer to that beyond, “Eddie Murphy ad-libs his way through an action-comedy in 1984.” Which was great then, sure, but outside of that context it’s pretty much empty sensation. But taken by itself, BEVERLY HILLS COP II, defiantly staying back in the decade it was made and working today as a Tony Scott film. As immature as it is, there’s a likability and a glee that Michael Bay, the next step in the Simpson-Bruckheimer visual evolution, has never managed. No, there’s not much point in defending it but sometimes you watch what you watch anyway. Maybe to reclaim those feelings of being back there even though it’s never a place I want to visit. Maybe to wish it had all been a little better.
Monday, June 5, 2017
I was driving around the other day. I don’t do a lot of driving lately or at least I try to do as little as possible. But this day was different. And at a certain point I found myself near a certain area, a part of town I’ve always liked and a part of town I have a recent history with. But I couldn’t go there right now. I knew I couldn’t. I couldn’t even drive through it at top speed. So I turned right on 3rd and got out of there. You have to know when it’s ok to get close again. And right now it’s not.
It’s never certain who is going to be remembered. A few months back the New Beverly Cinema ran a series of several Frank Perry films leading me to make the observation on Twitter that if Michael Ritchie is like Hal Ashby’s scrappy younger brother then Frank Perry is the cousin out on Long Island who never calls (there are endless possibilities for this New Hollywood line of thought—Paul Mazursky is the family friend who moved out to the coast and is thinking of coming back, Larry Peerce is stuck in a crappy sublet on the west side). Anyway, so I go for the jokes everyone will get. Frank Perry, to somehow find a way back to him, died in 1995 and presently has the bad fortune to have his best remembered film also be his most notorious, specifically MOMMIE DEAREST, and however much we may want to assign blame to him for everything surrounding that is a discussion for another time. That film wasn’t part of the series at the New Beverly and the one night I made it there the place was packed for what was to me one of the most interesting pairings—1970’s DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE is an unsung near-masterpiece as far as I’m concerned and close to impossible to find these days. I’m not quite as effusive over his 1972 film PLAY IT AS IT LAYS, which has never had an official video release in any format, and though it’s a hard film to pin down looking at it again years after my first viewing it’s growing on me. I think I needed to go through some stuff for that response to happen. Maybe I’m still going through some of it, which helps some more.
See, it’s the freeways. That’s what I always remember about PLAY IT AS IT LAYS, the story of Maria Wyeth (Tuesday Weld), a sort of actress who spends her time drifting aimlessly through her days in Hollywood, aware that her marriage to film director Carter Lang (Adam Roarke) is falling apart and the only person she can connect with is her gay friend B.Z. (Anthony Perkins), Carter’s producer who shares her own fatalistic view of life. For a long time after I first saw PLAY IT AS IT LAYS (screenplay by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, based on Didion’s novel) just about the only thing I remembered were shots of the L.A. freeways that the main character is constantly driving on, going as far as the eye can make out, disappearing into the prevalent 70s smog and making me wonder who all those people were driving on those freeways way back then. Released in October 1972 and presumably set in 1972 (costumes by Joel Schumacher which is about as 70s a screen credit as you can get), something about the very tone of PLAY IT AS IT LAYS makes it instantly dated just as many films from around that time are and not simply because of abortion subplots. It really couldn’t be set during any other time and makes me wonder about how much changed between then and when I first showed up in town, something about the mood, the behavior, the language. In both novel and film the freeways are always referred to by their names as in the Harbor Freeway or the Ventura Freeway, not the 170 or the 101 like we do today but I’m really thinking about more than that. Have I ever actually encountered anyone like these people? The narrative is deliberately fractured as if meant to be nothing more than a zoned out version of the L.A. montage at the start of BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS stretched out to feature length on white wine and pills, the world of L.A. on all those freeways happening without you while you endlessly stay holed up in your apartment as you wonder when the story is really going to start. One scene, one moment, one drip of the faucet spilling over as the sun beats down or the rain falls, one reel change to the next. We either accept Maria (“pronounced Mar-eye-ah, to get it straight at the outset” as we’re told in the book) searching for the reason on the freeway as if all those roads will lead to some sort of answer or we don’t and she couldn’t care less what we do.
With a framing device showing Maria in some sort of LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD-type institution after the fallout of the shocking ending, no one else is seen there but even Maria barely exists as it is. All that matters is she’s alone. Just about all we know with any clarity through the bulk of PLAY IT AS IT LAYS is that she drives, driving endlessly, even changing a flat out on the freeway all by herself. Whoever she is, at the least she’s the star of the two films Carter directed, one a motorcycle picture called “Angel Beach” and the other simply called “Maria” which apparently consists of Maria talking about herself and nothing else. This more than anything seems to have led to success for Carter instead of her as we see him quizzed on a chat show about the reality of what he was filming. But PLAY IT AS IT LAYS isn’t interested in examining the line between film and reality almost as if it knows what a waste of time that is. It’s not a film about films. Maria may be a blank, having emerged from nowhere, placed up on a pedestal for people to analyze her as if she was the reason the male gaze was created. We barely know anything about Carter’s third film, the one he’s making, beyond that it’s shooting out in the desert and the female lead is a clear stand-in for his ex-wife. It’s as if he’s unsuccessfully trying to steal her soul for this new film, aware that their marriage is over but clearly lost without his muse to do whatever he tells her, not an idea in his head beyond how many camera set-ups he can get in and hoping he’ll be praised for it. In David Thomson’s introduction to the novel, he speculates that Carter’s directing career may not last for long—even this early there are signs of how some of those achieving some success in the New Hollywood may crash and burn. None of the characters even seem all that interested in the films they’re making and everyone else they come into contact with is either on the fringes of Hollywood or the fringes of their own world. Film as art is incidental, it’s just a medium that lets you confuse someone with the image you project on to them as you try to figure out what was never real in the first place just as Maria’s fabled hometown of Silver Wells literally doesn’t exist anymore. Even she doesn’t know for sure who she is. When she briefly goes looking for the past out in the desert she doesn’t find anything or anyone to help her and there’s nothing to be found anyway, what once happened lost behind the present where there are never going to be any answers.
Either you’re going to accept that this is a memory piece and not wait for the plot to kick in so your questions will be answered or you’ll throw up your hands after the first twenty minutes. It’s up to you. What are you really looking for anyway, relatability? At one point Maria gets a new apartment so she won’t have to deal with her mail—in the book it’s because a sink backs up which I still can’t decide if it makes more or less sense—and the path she takes, with no real destination and no particular idea of where to look, makes it almost the inverse of Perry’s film of THE SWIMMER from a few years earlier which was partly reshot by others after being taken away from him by star Burt Lancaster. In that film the journey of the main character is both real and metaphorical but there’s an odd TV movie sheen to the whole thing that the film can’t quite overcome, making the unreality of it play almost as an overlong commercial where something is slightly off. I still love THE SWIMMER (which is one I need to get around to eventually) and there’s something undeniably familiar about its suburban hostility for me whereas PLAY IT AS IT LAYS feels both more correct in tone and completely alien at the same time, a film that resists being loved and couldn’t care less about it. This isn’t a world I know in the slightest but it’s also intentionally alienating as if it knows it needs to be observing things not from the outside but from inside Maria’s own head.
The film was made a year after Perry’s divorce from wife Eleanor, essentially the key creative partner of his earlier work, but regardless a number of Frank Perry films from before and after the split, including THE SWIMMER, are about the dead end you find when examining your life and how you react to that revelation, even the forgotten 1987 Shelley Long vehicle HELLO AGAIN (speaking of forgotten 80s movies that I actually saw in the theater). PLAY IT AS IT LAYS finds a cinematic entry into what almost seems like an unadaptable book by facing what was deliberately fragmented head on. I imagine that the screenplay was as lean as the novel which would make sense and at least in the language a fair amount survives the adaptation including one of my favorite lines in the narration where Maria talks about how her father owned the town of Silver Wells adding, “He bought it or won it, I don’t know and it doesn’t matter to you.” Those are the sort of details of memory that get forgotten and we’ll never know what really went on. The film provides us with little tangible information forcing us to piece together who the characters are by ourselves as if we’ve been dropped into a party where everyone else already knows each other so the private jokes don’t make sense. That’s the world it is anyway, one where we often don’t really know who we’re lying next to, no matter how intimate we think we are. Even sex is all about yourself instead of the other person even though everyone always wants to know if you’re fucking someone and what it’s like to fuck them anyway.
Frankly it’s a little tough to decide if I actually get any pleasure out of the film because it’s so constricting or if I’m just fighting my way through an attempt to understand it. The film is like a dream that I don’t particularly enjoy but feels necessary, essential to understanding something that I haven’t been able to resolve. It’s off-putting and humorless but the card shuffle of a narrative somehow makes sense. Like Maria doesn’t seem to care about anyone who would have any interest in trying to impress her, I’m not sure if the movie cares about what you think either. Which is the way it should be. Perry’s direction feels like an organic part of this world, thoroughly understanding and yet you feel the remove. He was a New Yorker, born and died there, so it’s as if he’s just a visitor in this place, a little fascinated by the world and understanding it even though he doesn’t want to get too close to these people, a little bit horrified. He comes off as ambivalent at best about Los Angeles and the surrounding desert, contemptuous of Hollywood and maybe uncertain how he feels about films in general. It even feels separate from however Joan Didion may have felt about all this as if Perry wants to still be able to question what he’s not as close to. Incidentally, MOMMIE DEAREST may be the only other California-set piece in his filmography and of course that one is set in the ugliness of the film business too—Perry’s like a Paul Mazursky without the ability to laugh at himself. The emotional distance of his deceptively simple direction makes clear how much it represents Maria’s own point of view of the world, picking up on the little things around her that no one else could and a three card monte cutting style which continually goes back to small details of the past, just like things we remember ourselves. The cinematography by the great Jordan Cronenweth has a flat, commercial look perfectly captures that zoned out vibe of pills and California wine and it interestingly came a decade before he shot BLADE RUNNER, another film showing people drifting through Los Angeles as they await their expiration date which will come sooner than they want. B.Z. has shut out life around him so much that he almost seems like the one replicant not looking to extend his lifespan. The things he’s seen that people wouldn’t believe aren’t anything he wants to remember.
Of course, it’s a movie that contains very little of people saying what they mean. They’re all holding it back, with relationships that go by so fast you don’t even know what they are beyond a random fuck, refusing to reveal in their pill-popping stupors and when a semblance of honesty is revealed it’s dragged out of the person almost against their will, tired of fucking around. It’s a valid question to ask what matters between you and the people close to you as you feed off each other in that ongoing contest to see who’s more depressed, who’s closer to that scream out into the void. Faces drift in and out and they’re not always explained—for that matter, until I read the book I wasn’t even certain B.Z. and Helene were married, not that whatever I picked up on really matters and the book doesn’t shed all that much more light onto the situation anyway—it even makes sense how in some group shots Carter and Helene are next to each other leaving Maria and B.Z. off to the side, exchanging their looks of how they’re above it all. They’re not living, they’re outside of their own world and yet willingly a part of it, willingly allowing every ounce of humanity to be drained out of them. Drifting to different men with her husband still nearby because what else is there to do, Maria has nothing aside from the driving and she sees it all as pointless as the woman who sweeps the dirt on the porch of that house out in the desert. There is no past, just like Silver Wells no longer exists, there’s not even any evidence of it. Nothing applies, she concludes, unable to reconcile the child she didn’t have, unable to deal with the mentally challenged daughter she does have which all just leads to more emptiness. She’s as much of a blank as that past is, as the desert is, no chance of getting any answers. And there may not be any to get. A few scenes are set in what looks to be possibly the beach house from THE LONG GOODBYE and isn’t that supposed to be my film? What the hell is PLAY IS AS IT LAYS doing encroaching on my own cinematic fantasy? But that doesn’t matter. Deep down Maria knows you’re holding all the cards no matter what. You just have to realize that. Whether you care is something else entirely.
And because I have this vague idea of Tuesday Weld as someone who deliberately eschewed the spotlight it makes her very presence here that much more real as if she’s exactly this person using the blankness of her face, revealing everything and nothing with only the pauses between what she’s saying giving any clues. Anthony Perkins plays B.Z. with a focused ennui to every movement, coming to life when Maria is nearby and says anything at all, even if he doesn’t know what she’s talking about at first, simply going through the motions the rest of the time. The naked bitterness in much of his dialogue contains more honesty than anything else in the film; when asked if he gets tired of doing favors for people the way he says his reply, “You don’t know how tired” sounds like he could be referring to anything from every Norman Bates joke he’s heard to any of the certain secrets he’s been carrying around since who knows when. Together the two of them find a human connection that almost makes their dialogue irrelevant, we can tell everything from their private glances even while their closeness feels totally private. They barely even seem like they’re acting when they’re together, almost as if this is who they really were between takes on their previous team-up PRETTY POISON a few years earlier. Faced up against the oddball energy of some of the smaller roles, particularly Chuck McCann as the abortionist’s assistant who talks about looking for a new car, Adam Roarke as Carter is such an appropriate blank it makes sense that I don’t buy much of anything creative in him when Maria isn’t around. That tension breaks through the monotony of all those little moments where as much as the characters talk they don’t say anything at all and as Helene, Tammy Grimes plays much of her part as if nothing could break through that insufferable finishing school accent almost as if barely a single line of dialogue she has even matters. But her performance makes perfect sense when placed up against the line near the very end of the book, “Maria thought she had never heard anyone scream the way Helene screamed,” and based on the way Grimes screams when it comes there are few moments from any other film adaptation that has as much pure faithfulness to the source as this does.
All that matters is she’s alone. Maybe that’s the real happy ending. I’m not even sure how much I like thinking about it, in the same way I barely want to ever think about the past. But it stays in my head, shot by shot. After all, what other choice is there but to remember, to try to face those memories, to try to understand another person as much as you won’t get an answer, aware that you’ll never feel whole again. Fighting through it can be like trying to regrow a missing limb because there’s never any real answer. Which is a reminder that I’m currently working out in Burbank and every day I cut through Griffith Park to get there. All that greenery helps for a few minutes. Maybe that’s an answer for how to survive this town while you’re still here. Just avoid the freeways.
Monday, May 8, 2017
wrote about it, one of the highlights of the recent TCM Classic Film Festival for me was the new restoration of the 1931 version of THE FRONT PAGE which I had never seen all of before, being mostly familiar with the 1974 Billy Wilder remake and especially Howard Hawks’ HIS GIRL FRIDAY which turned the lead reporter character into a woman and made it a full-on romantic comedy. But THE FRONT PAGE ’31 was a minor revelation, sharply drawn featuring some wonderful character actors as well as a finely honed sense of place which gave me a window to this particular world more than I had ever felt with any other version. And although the source material is largely confined to the age in which it originated, during the cable boom of the 80s it did inspire one more film which I didn’t bother to mention last time around. If SWITCHING CHANNELS is remembered at all these days it’s as the film Michael Caine had to drop out of because he was stuck filming JAWS THE REVENGE, also the reason he was unable to accept the Oscar he won that year. But that aside, this fourth celluloid version of THE FRONT PAGE has been erased from all memory, the sort of thing that maybe gets a brief mention in career summaries of the people involved and not much more. Released by Tri-Star in March 1988 just a few months after the acclaimed BROADCAST NEWS, even then it looked like not much more than an also-ran. My vague recollection is that when Kathleen Turner appeared on Letterman to plug the film and he remarked on the similarity she simply replied, “It’s funnier than BROADCAST NEWS” to which Dave laughed in her face. Now, it’s possible my memory is faulty on this point but regardless you’d better be able to back up such a claim even when you’re in publicity mode and that’s a tough one to pull off. For the record, SWITCHING CHANNELS isn’t funnier than BROADCAST NEWS. It’s isn’t funnier than a lesser MARY TYLER MOORE rerun. It isn’t even funnier than a ninth season episode of MURPHY BROWN. It did open the same day as the Richard Pryor vehicle MOVING, so at the least it has an outside shot of being the funniest movie released that week.