Monday, October 26, 2015

URBAN COWBOY

    If one cogitates on the most obnoxious elements of the late 1970s, some of the images that slither across the mind will include the assimilation of all the most reactive responses to the women's movement, a fixation with the insolent parts of Elvis Presley's persona, a division of labor between men and women, extremely bad popular music, singles bars, pick-up trucks, mechanical bulls, constant drunkenness, and the state of Texas becoming its own sovereign nation. Could any one motion picture possibly encapsulate all of these components without putting its audience into a condition of extreme catatonia?
   Of course not. That is why it was presumably necessary for Irving Azoff to finance the making of Urban Cowboy (1980). After all, if the public would swallow the scam of disco, surely Azoff could convince a similar sty of idiots that ultra-slick country music (without the western) was worth working oil rigs to raise the money to buy. So he gave us John Travolta in tight cowboy clothes, Debra Winger as a tomboy turned tart, and a soundtrack of some of the most horrible ear-swill ever foisted onto the tape decks of the American public. While Bud Davis (Travolta) holds his long neck beer bottle like the phallic symbol it is, we get to suffer through the most bathetic songs ever to infect the human ear tubes: Jimmy Buffett--"Hello Texas," Dan Fogelberg--"Times Like These," Bob Seger--"Nine Tonight," Mickey Gilley--"Stand By Me," and Johnny Lee--"Lookin for Love" all resonate with an agonizing twitch that neither years nor whiskey can erase. 
   Few movies have been so instantly offensive as Urban Cowboy. None outside the horror genre have ever led to as much in-theatre regurgitation. Once we come to accept the film as nothing more than a 132-minute commercial for Gilley's nightclub (you may remember Mickey Gilley as the least talented of the cousin-hood of Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Swaggart), we then settle in for a bull ride competition between Bud and Wes, the latter being an ex-con who enjoys beating women even more than does Bud. 
   Wes is played by Scott Glenn and it must be admitted that Glenn actually does something with the role. While Travolta sulks and Winger struts, Glenn at least affects some type of personality. When Bud inadvertently whacks him in the back of the head with a hamburger, we know that Wes is going to seriously mess him up. In fact, that would have made a decent movie in and of itself: two hours of Scott Glenn beating snot and mucus out of Travolta, screaming "There's more to acting, boy, than curling your upper lip!" 
   Travolta went on to better roles which revealed that he actually had tremendous skill. But after this dreck and Saturday Night Fever, he came close to presenting himself as a parody of fake style. 
   Addendum: God help us all. The Fox network is releasing a pilot for television of a remake of this movie, which means that with Jim Belushi's help, a whole nation of young whelps are liable to be convinced that large numbers of people actually behaved like these morons. And Azoff will laugh all the way to the laundromat.


Sunday, October 25, 2015

THE NATURAL

   "You got a gift, Roy. But that's not enough. It takes confidence and concentration."
   There's this old story told by Jack Kerouac. This young guy goes searching for the meaning of life. He looks high, low, in between. Finally he finds this mountain on the top of which stands a house that serves as home for the Great Wise Man. The young guy crawls up the side of the mountain, the rains come and batter against him, but his question about the meaning of life is a big question and so the young guy simply will not be deterred. He falls against the front door. The Great Wise Man uncrosses his legs and hobbles over to let the young guy in. They chat for a while about this and that and at last the young guy asks the Great Wise Man, "What's it all about, dude, this thing called life?"
   The Great Wise Man walks over to the window and stares out at the rain, pondering the moment because, after all, this is a heavy question. At long last, the Great Wise Man turns, smiles and says to the young guy, "You know, there sure are a lot of bastards out there."
   Which brings us to The Natural (1984) and the Robert Redford character of Roy Hobbs. Roy has the gift of potentially being the greatest baseball player who ever lived. Unfortunately, there sure are a lot of bastards out there. 
    Roy comes up against a Babe Ruth slab of an oaf on a train ride to Chicago. During a break on the ride, Joe Don Baker, the oaf in question, accepts a challenge from Roy's manager. The bet? My boy can strike out the Babe with three pitches. He does. The onlooking female (Barbara Hershey) has found her man and in short order shoots him in the stomach with a silver bullet. If you're a star athlete on the way up and you want to get sidetracked for more than a decade, this woman will shoot you with a silver bullet. It's what she does. 
   Sixteen years later, Roy returns to the game. He's signed a contract with the Judge, a corrupt pseudo-intellectual who just wants to stay out of working night court and who cares nothing for the game. He's betting on Hobbs to be a loser. The Eye Man Bookie (Darren McGavin) tells Hobbs he's a loser and to insure it, he employs Kim Basinger to seduce him into losing his concentration. Roy Hobbs is twice the age of most of the guys playing and more than one of his teammates calls him "Grandpa." When Basinger feeds Roy a poisoned eclair, his stomach lining ruptures and the doctors finally remove the remains of the silver bullet. The doctor tells Roy he will never play baseball again. That news comes at a bad time because his team, The New York Knights, are in the playoffs and they need one more game to clinch it. Wilford Brimley, the manager, would very much like to win the pennant. About the World Series, he could give a shit. But the pennant is something he would truly enjoy winning. If he does, he gets to keep his interest in the team, sell it to some Wrigley Field line painter, and retire to the quiet life of a modern day farmer. We also have to contend with the Glenn Close character, Iris, a true angel if such things exist. She used to be Roy's girl before he left home and found out, to his temporary display, that there sure are a lot of bastards out there. So Roy gets out of his hospital bed in the maternity ward and plays what will be his final game. 
   You may be tempted to resist the instant charm of this movie because the plot, as I have described it, may feel a bit predictable. If so, I have no sympathy for you. People watch movies they have seen dozens of times over and over again, even though they clearly know how things will work out far in advance, which is one definition of corniness, and yet if those movies were directed by Jean-Luc Godard or Stanley Kubrick, people would insist they were watching them because of the art and skill of the director. But just let poor old Barry Levinson take a shot at art and because the movie is one in which much of what happens can be anticipated, we're supposed to reject it? That, my friends, is a lot of crap. The Natural is not only Levinson's best movie by several light years, it also stands head and shoulders above most other baseball films because the basic plot has almost nothing to do with the excellence of the experience.
   One thing that makes it work with the magic of a grand slam on opening day is the beauty of Redford's acting--nobody, certainly not even Kevin Costner, could have embodied the role with more relaxed panache. The other thing is the first rate script by Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry, based on the novel by Barnard Malamud. The theatrically released version of the film has not one wasted frame. You have to catch each instant of the movement because this movie is all about concentration, confidence and talent and if you blink you will miss something that comes back later. Background dialog--noise on the initial train ride--holds meaning here. That combination of perfect acting and complex writing--makes The Natural--superficially as pastoral as the game it celebrates--that most unlikely of genre films: the suspense/thriller. 
   On a personal level, I happen to agree with the unspoken theme this movie evokes: there certainly are a lot of bastards out there. Most of the time, those villains have some kind of backstory that encourages us to care a bit about them. The Basinger character hints at some of this, but Kim's acting here is so horribly stilted and unerringly manikin-like that we could not possibly care. All but one of the other villains are rotten to the core, their only motivations being their inherent avarice and general contempt for anything decent. 
   The Barbara Hershey character--the woman who shoots Hobbs early on--is the sole exception. Why has she been gunning down these aspiring stars? Why does she use a silver bullet, an instrument usually reserved for destroying werewolves and vampires? How does the end to which she comes actually transpire? Who the hell is she? Is she pure evil or has she been warped by a succession of abusive relationships? What exactly is her story?
   I believe the silver bullet woman represents the great counter-balance to the banality of the main villains. On the one side, we have Eichmann, Goebbels, Himmler and the others. On the other side, we have--what? The collaborators? The isolationists? The profiteers? Perhaps the saboteurs come closest to nailing the comparison. 
    The mere fact that a movie about baseball could lead to such a question is itself a fine recommendation. Combine that with Redford and the script and you'll be on your feet, screaming for some hot roasted peanuts. 

   

Sunday, October 4, 2015

BOB ROBERTS

   In the interest of not only full disclosure but also as a means of boasting my own good taste, I admit that I would spend money to watch actor Tim Robbins breathe hard. As far back as 1984 when I first saw him appear as Officer Swann in the television program "Hill Street Blues," I knew Robbins was a man with a future in the dramatic arts. His character in the episode in question suffered from a stutter, as well as a predisposition toward clean living. He played a rookie who gets raped by a prostitute at a party in the back room of a bar. Unable to live with the shame, he commits suicide. Surrounded by tremendous talent both in front of the camera and behind it, Robbins had a shine that dwarfed everyone else involved in the episode.
   His cinematic accomplishments since then have been inspiring, whether as Nuke in Bull Durham, as Griffin in Robert Altman's The Player, as Andy in The Shawshank Redemption, or as Dave in Mystic River. Tim Robbins grew from strength to strength while evoking a curious sense that he knew just exactly how good he really was. Nothing wrong with that. Ego is the essential juice that flows in and out of the vitals of any artist worth his or her screen time. If on occasion he came perilously close to giving away the fact that he believed himself as talented as we suspected him to be, well, that was just part of his charm. 
   Robbins' father Gilbert had been a singer with the folk group The Highwaymen. The senior Robbins had even managed the folk mecca venue The Gaslight in the village. With those kinds of influences, it felt like not that much of a stretch for Tim to dip his own toe in the musical waters for the Bob Roberts character he introduced on "Saturday Night Live." 
   That last bit of trivia strikes me as ironic because (a) I love the film Bob Roberts (1992) while loathing "Saturday Night Live," and (b) the movie goes out of its way to ridicule the program where the lead character made his name. 
   We could, I suppose, address the inventive way Tim Robbins (and his brother David) utilize elements of the Bob Dylan biopic Don't Look Back, with its cinema verite. We could, beyond doubt, salute the actor-writer-director for the brilliant plot twists within the documentary style. We could, I am certain, stand up and cheer for the way Robbins bites the ass of the news media for its callous approach to leading with what bleeds. We could talk about all those things and others and sway you with wit and erudition. But it will be more enjoyable to convince you that "SNL" is a batch of counter-revolutionary pig swill and that Robbins nails those cretins who slave beneath producer Lorne Michaels and the NBC network.
   In a clear parody of the aforementioned TV program, "The Cutting Edge" gives Bob Roberts a stint as the musical entertainment for the week's show. John Cusack plays the guest host. Here is what the host says:
In the beginning, our great company provided appliances for the neighborhood. We heated your home, we refrigerated your food, and improved the quality of your life. We prospered, and you loved us. And we grew into a large multinational corporation. In fact, we own this very network. Our chief source of income, however, is... the arms industry! Yes, we rely heavily on those fat government contracts, to make these useless weapons of mass destruction. And even though we have been indicted and convicted for fraud several times, you don't hear too much about our bad side, because, well, we own our own news division. Chances are pretty slim that you'll hear reports of our environmental mishaps, or the way we bust those unions. We even have a highly-rated Saturday night show that the public buys as entertainment with a leftist slant.

   Most of the other cast members object that the monologue isn't funny. Well, satire isn't necessarily funny, in the gut-busting sense of the word. Sometimes we smile on the inside. Sometimes we cry. 
    And pathos makes its presence known in this movie. While we may smile at the idea of a Bob Dylan style character becoming a right wing Senatorial candidate, the references to the bard of Greenwich Village do not lead to fits of laughter. At the same time, Robbins gives away his influences--This is Spinal Tap, Don't Look Back, Mad Magazine, the early days of National Lampoon and The Firesign Theater--which were, for want of a better word, occasionally obvious, often insane, and not without some challenging wit and hilarity. 
   The few people who have dealt harsh blows to this film have objected that its subject matter feels dated. After all, the first war against Iraq was such a long time ago and was, they say, a topical matter. What those critics choose to ignore is that we're still dealing with the issues from that time. And besides, folk music is often topical, which does not mean it cannot transcend the time in which it is germinated. Far more to the point, the mechanisms that induced people into falling for the lies of our time are still effective. Be it the oligarchical nature of the global news media with its vested interests in brainwashing the masses, be it the insatiable appetite for sub-sentient entertainment on the part of those among the great unwashed, be it the domination of the education system's a-historical approach to programming young people in the name of "core" principles, or be it the rationalizations of so-called prosperity churches to grab as much gold as you can get--these devices still affect the day to day lives of all the people on this fragile planet. Bob Roberts drops a slippery banana peel in the path of each of these trudging drones. 
   It must also be said that Robbins brought together a formidable cast, most of whom had what amounted to little more than cameo appearances, yet who collectively breathed life into every second they were on screen. Giancarlo Esposito as the "paranoid but correct" reporter Bugs Raplin, Gore Vidal improvising most of his lines as Senator Paiste, James Spader as a local news reporter, Fred Ward and Susan Sarandon as a team of disconnected media stooges, and most especially David Strathairn as the ex-CIA campaign manager who at one point excuses himself from reporters so that he can go pray--these players and the thousands of others overlap one another with such dexterity that the movie literally requires repeated viewings to catch all the dialogue and deeper meanings.
   A great film, well executed. 


   
    

Saturday, October 3, 2015

THE DEPARTED

  I wonder why it is that every time I watch a Martin Scorsese film I am filled with such an overabundance of testosterone that by the time the movie is over I have grown a full beard. When I say "beard," I mean more than gray stubble. I mean a yank of steel wool that reaches to the floor. I mean facial hair laced with cross bones, onyx rings and virgin blood; hair growing from my baby face, curling like a Chinaman's heart valves, lacerated with battle scars and the tint of revenge. Perhaps the reason is the running time, something that with a Scorsese film borders on a full evening, which is fine. I like getting my money's worth. But I suspect that's not the reason for my hormonal surge. The real reason probably lies with the presence, the omnipresence, of machismo surrogates, men such as Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Robert Mitchum, Joe Don Baker--guys who can melt women such as Juliette Lewis with a mere shrug of their hips, leaving those dames in the twitching throes of pre-orgasmic depression. Yeah. Yeah! That's it.
   The other reason--the honest to God reason--is because of guilt. Ah, guilt: that five-letter curse word known to fallen Jesuits and Bible students everywhere. Guilt remains the earthly consequence of sin. And all men have sinned and thus have come short of the grace and the glory of God. Men can come lock you away, deprive you of the company of friends and family, whip you until your flesh wilts and dies. But none of that can break you with the same smiling vengeance as guilt. Guilt will bury you up to your nose and eyeballs, drop a bucket over your head and bang you with a club.
   From what I've read, Scorsese grew up watching gangsters. Doubtless he learned a bit from their presumed style. How does one go about justifying an admiration for their self-possessed glow? I suppose a person with prodigious talent might make movies that deal with guilt while at the same time glamorizing the power those gangsters demonstrate. The director's most ardent fans would likely bray that I am oversimplifying this, or that by engaging in amateurish psychoanalysis, I am diminishing gifts greater than my own. To that I can only reply, "You bet I am, sweetie."
   Having had the insides kicked out of me from time to time, I am in the happy position to assure you that those beatings we have come to expect in movies actually hurt. In my case, they didn't build character or teach me a lesson or toughen me up. They simply hurt. 
   I remember one time, decades ago, I got into a verbal altercation with some mountain of a man inside a bowling alley, said argument culminating in my suggestion that he might enjoy doing something inappropriate with a close relative and so should give it a try since everyone else with the means (and a few without) had done so. To this very day I can still recall how slowly time moved as he lifted me by my neck, high up from the thin carpet where moments earlier my feet had been safely perched, his right hand curling into a tentacled fist, his broken teeth pulling back against his gums as he fired off the cannon at the end of his wrist and knocked me across the room where a friend of his was nice enough to pick me up and then punched me in the chest with an unbroken soda bottle.
   So, yes, beatings hurt. I suspect it hurt when the Martin Sheen character in The Departed (2006) was lifted up by Nicholson's goon squad and hurled off the roof of the building where he broke into pieces on the pavement. Probably it hurt when Leonardo DiCaprio smashed a wiseguy in the head with a beer glass. It appeared to hurt when Mr. French shot a deadbeat in the head and then set his house on fire. 
   Lot of pain. 
   Because pain is notorious for hurting, we have developed a tendency in this country to identify with those who dole out the pain rather than with those who receive it. The cost for the reward of that identification is supposed to be guilt. When we say to ourselves, "Better him than me," we are expected to kick ourselves for such sociopathy. But that is not the way one typically approaches a Martin Scorsese movie. We approach movies such as The Departed, Goodfellas, Casino, and some others, with the expectation--and because the director is an artist, that expectation is reasonable--of feeling as if we are right there in the midst of the action, hanging out with killers, coke heads, arsonists, mutilators, and wise guys. If you find that morally reprehensible, you are not alone.
   So it pains me like a beating in a bowling alley that I must confess that The Departed is brilliant. 
   "Just as every cop is a criminal and all the sinners saints" could be the theme. The fog, blur, translucent overlay of motives of the characters here function as an ode to street confusion. This is not the world where some urban hood breaks into your house because he needs money to feed his habit. This is Boston, baby, and Boston, we are led to believe, ain't for small timers. This world is about power. This is the world where the Local Gun steals micro processors that can launch nuclear warheads and sells them to the Chinese. This crime lord has brains and balls and can smell a cheese-eater a mile away. We have DiCaprio playing a cop who infiltrates the mob and Matt Damon playing a criminal who infiltrates the police. Neither man is what he appears to be, just as neither is necessarily what he wants to be. When DiCaprio screams, "All I want is my identity back!" he means it. 
   None of that should be taken to mean that the director understands women any better than he ever did. We have here the usual assortment of whores and waitresses. Somewhat predictably, Scorsese gives us a female police shrink who exists to (a) create an anticipation for the cop and criminal to unexpectedly discover one another, and (b) to take the offense off the constant menstruation jokes. 
   The Departed is more than merely being there with your wazoo hanging out amidst the fray and fracas. Nicholson has never been more complex, Mark Wahlberg more convincing, Martin Sheen more expendable, DiCaprio more sympathetic, Damon more reprehensible. In short, the acting itself slams you like a slug from a .44. And this is important because these key players' characters all have the intellect and even charisma to make different choices. But their version of morality denies them those choices. To that end, this film comes close to being as cathartic as a Greek tragedy.