Monday, January 30, 2012

FIVE EASY HOT ROCKS

    Stars: Five of five.
    Bob Rafelson's beautiful Five Easy Pieces holds up as well as any picture released in 1970. What there is of a story is timeless, I suppose, but again we find that the new breed had a way of doing things that simply shattered previous preconceptions about how the world works. This movie was not Liz and Dick with Paul thrown into the mix just to complicate matters. On the contrary, this was Jack Nicholson as Bobby Dupea, a gifted pianist who rejects the ultimately insubstantial upper-class life that afforded him the means to become aware enough to shun that very lifestyle. Instead, he takes up with a waitress--we always love a waitress, don't we, guys?--named Rayette, played famously by Karen Black, one of the most self-aware actors of the Seventies. Bobby wanders from oil rig to oil rig, bowling alley to bedroom, swagger to swoon, all in search of the nothingness that refused to elude him back home. Informed that his father is fading fast, he returns home, first without bringing Rayette into the main house and along the way encountering some folks who are so human it hurts. Helena Kallianiotes and Toni Basil (later of "Mickey" fame) are a pair of coupled lesbians looking to move to Alaska where things are clean. Along the way, Bobby, Rayette and these two stop into a restaurant. 
    Bobby Dupea's predicament rings true, not just to folks who have had trouble getting what they want in a truck stop diner, but with a country too stupid to make things easy on itself. 
President: What is it you want, son?
Student: I want us the hell out of Vietnam.
President: Sorry, son. I can't do that. 
Student: Why not?
President: It would make us look weak. Then every tyrant in the world would try to invade us.
Student: Okay. Here's what you do. You pull out all the troops and you tell the rest of the world that the reason you're doing that is so you can drop a nuclear bomb on the country without endangering any Americans.
President: I like your thinking, but--
Student: Then you just never quite get around to dropping it.


    A young Carole Eastman, writing under the name Adrien Joyce, worked with Rafelson on the screenplay. This was an excellent pairing and has as much to do with the artistic success as the acting. Eastman wrote the script in such a way as to liberate the actors rather than tie them down. With so much talent around her, she understood--as did Rafelson, who knew Nicholson from Head--that the best thing to do was to focus on behavior rather than story. Putting people ahead of plot is risky unless the people are exceptionally interesting and played by actors who understand how to free themselves up inside so as to capture the essence of the character without worrying too much about nuance. Nicholson and Black dance through this film as if they instinctively understand that their gifts have been liberated by a benevolent system and the interaction between the two slaps at the heart again and again. 
    But let's not kid ourselves. This is Jack Nicholson's show from start to finish. Stuck in traffic, barking back at a dog, banging Sally Struthers, besting Ralph Waite at pig pong, being taken in by Catherine (Susan Anspach), or defending Rayette against the aggression of intellectualism--Wouldn't you love to hear Pat Benatar sing "Stop using your brain as a weapon"?--Nicholson mesmerizes even as we sense his final descent, a scene you will not like but which you will recognize as entirely appropriate. 
Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider monkeying around


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Sunday, January 29, 2012

F FOR FUN, ORSON WELLES

  Stars: Four of five. 
   In 1969, a young writer named Clifford Irving wrote a book published by McGraw-Hill entitled Fake: The Story of Elmyr de Hory: The Greatest Art Forger of Our Time. The story was phenomenal, recounting the life and times of the man with sixty names who supposedly could reproduce paintings by anyone--and do it before lunch. While monumentally versatile, his specialties included Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani and Renoir. A story goes that he presented Picasso with a forged painting and asked the artist if he remembered painting it. "Oh, yes. I wondered whatever happened to that!" His work was so good he could even fool the subject of his falsification.
    The following year, Clifford Irving, who had written Elmyr's biography, contacted his publishers to let them see handwritten letters from Howard Hughes that authorized Irving to assist with the rich recluse's autobiography. A team of handwriting experts in the hire of the publisher declared the letters genuine. The writing process began and in January 1971 the book was released, startling the public with stories about a man with nine inch fingernails and hair to the floor. 
    What happened next came as something more than a mere shock. A man purporting to be Hughes contacted some friends in the news media and on live TV decried the book to be a pack of lies, the letters of authorization to be forgeries and his association with Mr. Irving to be nonexistent.
    But that could not be, screamed the lawyers for McGraw-Hill. They had deposited three-quarters of a million dollars into a Swiss bank account under the name H. R. Hughes as payment to the subject for release of his story. What the publisher did not know at the time was that Edith Irving--wife of said story forger--had opened a bank account in Switzerland under the name H. R. Hughes. Whoops.
    Enter Orson Welles, a man who got his own start in radio with a faked resume, one which got him into a position with John Houseman to co-create the Mercury Theater, a company in whose employ he did involve himself in the creation of a radio broadcast of another Mr. Well's works, this one called "War of the Worlds," transplanted as it was in this broadcast to the jungles of the state of New Jersey. Orson Welles, the man who would go on to star in and direct Citizen Kane--that Orson Wells--the Orson Welles of The Third Man and F for Fake, among hundreds more--in 1974 released a movie about Clifford Irving writing a book about Elmyr. In other words, we had the third greatest charlatan of modern times filming a movie about a man who, as the second greatest charlatan, wrote a book about the all-time greatest charlatan. The mathematical possibilities alone were staggering. With Welles brilliance with a camera and a brain, the possibilities for fun were indeed endless.
    I feel a bit uncomfortable using the word "greatest" so much in one sentence because, as a much brighter man than I--I think it was the Chamber of Commerce--once said, "Art is not a competition." Of course, having given that matter a bit of thought, I see that art is very much a competition in the sense that artists consume platitudes and flattery the way a fat man with a red nose consumes wine: thirstily. 
Almost certainly Orson Welles


    Regardless of the official ranking of the frauds involved in the telling of the film F for Fake, it must be admitted that one of the requirements for a great film--if perhaps not the greatest--is a brilliant concept. One may chock it all up to coincidence that Welles, Irving and Elmyr all gathered in Mallorca at the same time and seem quite cosy in one another's company. This is, after all, a film about coincidence, which can be understood to be just another word for trickery. 
    In this movie, Welles performs all types of magic--another word for coincidence--from making a key disappear to popping coins out of a child's head, from interviewing Joseph Cotten to making his long-time girlfriend Oja Kodar disappear, presumably so he could hang out with the throng of female sycophants who appear unable to disgorge themselves from Welles and the other glorious frauds. 


    In and of itself, this film does not make sense. Within the historic context of 1969-1973 it still does not make sense. In retrospect or hindsight, the film makes even less sense than it did upon release. And that does not matter at all. Perhaps what the viewer--then and now--must decide is a definition of entertainment. Back at the end of December in this blog I quoted Sean Penn as stating that "If you want entertainment, get two hookers and an eight ball." Within the context of the conversation he was having with James Lipton, the actor went on to say that generally speaking there are two types of entertainment: diversion and engagement. This seems prescient. At a time within the human epoch when the value of something can be called into question because of dueling experts, at a time when creationism is purported to have as much validity as evolution and is merely competing with it in the so-called marketplace of ideas (in which case agoraphobia, or "fear of the marketplace," feels an appropriate reaction), and at a time when the nature of objective reality can be pursed out with a wild collection of lights on a computer screen, or movie screen, or cave wall, then it is possible to look upon the work of Internet people and understand that SOPA, PIPL, and Google's new rules all indicate a huge lack of understanding of what the world wide web is all about. That, or they just don't give a damn.
    Welles made his movie. I watched his movie. I then wrote these words about his movie. You read my words about his movie and were inspired to do something else, something that as of this writing has not logically happened yet but which undoubtedly will. That, friends and family, is the Internet. An artist creates something he thinks of as art. He produces that thing and publishes its likeness upon the Internet, just as someone utilized YouTube to carry the film called F for Fake. Is that an infringement of intellectual property? I would say no and here is why I say that: The Internet has changed the concepts of larceny just as Irving changed them, except in a more multi-dimensional way. When something appears on the Internet and is experienced by others, those others are not necessarily stealing it when they copy it--and I can say this in spite of the fact that copying it may in fact reduce the income of the corporation that claims to own the rights to the original material. The act of redistributing the work in question is called file sharing for a reason. It is sharing a file. The person who put the thing on the Internet knew there was a good chance this would happen, just as the person who made the original work knew there was no reliable way to prevent forgeries of his work. That's right. The production of the film we are discussing which I watched again last night was a forgery. It was not the original. It was a copy of a copy of a copy of the original, although it takes a very discerning eye and ear to tell the difference and ultimately made no difference to me in terms of my enjoyment of the experience, one which was tremendously engaging rather than distracting in the sense of some crap on television. Once the greedy bastards in the entertainment industry introduced compact discs and DVDs, they were consciously and deliberately opening themselves--and by extension their artists--to forgery, to pirating, to theft and impersonation. 
    None of that should be taken to mean that I support the idea of ripping off the artists. I do not. What I do mean is that in my opinion, ripping off means you charge someone else for something that you had no hand in creating. Yep. That's it. If the free and uncharged reproduction of an artist's work is given in good faith to someone via the Internet, that is not larceny because the reproducer and transplanter does not gain monetarily. 
    What has this to do with F for Fake? One might as well ask what the movie has to do with itself. If you are looking for a clear story here, you will be disappointed. If you are instead seeking some beautiful cinematography, some startling images of Welles and friends, some fascinating trickery, then this is a film--or a reasonable facsimile of one--that you will treasure forever. 
de Hory, or someone very much like him.

Groucho   Top Ten Films of 1976   Nudging the Electric Fence
Looking Closer   The Ludovico Treatment   Concentration Camp of the Mind
Shooting Oswald   Who Cares What Movie We Hear?
The Thirty-Seven Greatest Films


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