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Monday, February 27, 2017

THE BIG CHILL

   "May you live in interesting times" is said to be a seminal Chinese curse. The time--though not the curse--has eluded us of late. I would place the demise to be May 1985, but whatever the specifics, more erudite minds than mine have pegged the end of our enlightened era at the mid-1980s. Two movies that featured actor Tom Cruise hammered in the nails. Top Gun was a Pepsi commercial intended as overt propaganda in support of a President looking for a war and The Color of Money, which was intended to be nearly everything it turned out not to be, was a cooptation and slap in the mouth of Hollywood talent of years gone by, as well as of the radical dreams they inspired.
    But if directors Tony Scott and (inadvertently, one assumes) Martin Scorsese pounded the nails, it was the unfortunate Lawrence Kasdan who shot movies in the frontal lobe with the abysmal film blanc The Big Chill (1983).  
   Former idealistic teenagers from the late 1960s get together in contemporary settings to mourn the loss of their best and brightest friend Alex. The friend had the most promise and consequently didn't amount to much, whereas all the others did quite well by themselves and spend the rest of the movie (the song "You Can't Always Get What You Want" plays at the funeral) bemoaning how they are having a hard time getting over being the sell-outs they happily became. Think of it as The Breakfast Club for thirtysomethings. 
   The cast cannot be faulted for the pathetic choice of subject matter. Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt, Tom Berenger, Mary Kay Place, Kevin Kline and JoBeth Williams offer more than is expected of them by the Carson Company (as in Johnny Carson, who, whatever his skills at delighting late night TV viewers, was as square as a peg. Indeed, the entire film reeks of being exactly what the squares thought the people of the 1960s were all about). 
   Kasdan was completely in his element here. Before embalming the cast of this film, he had amassed a strong reputation among studios that loved blockbusters with his screenwriting of The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Body Heat, and Continental Divide (the latter his apparent attempt to embalm John Belushi pre-mortem). Kasdan went on to exploit all he could get out of his Star Wars tie-ins despite having worked on both Silverado and I Love You to Death, two movies even more lacking in soul than The Big Chill. 
   Kasdan is all about the shine. When we glimpse a coffin, we are supposed to imbue the inhabitant with unearned grace because of the number of people who attend the funeral. When Scott Glenn saddles up, we are intended to admire him because of the revolver he polishes. When Han Solo remarks something glib, we are supposed to swoon in anticipation of the shared looks of the supporting actors. It's all shine and it adds nothing to the value of movies. It does save a writer from having to do the hard work of thinking up something original, or something to which the audience can feel by way of empathy or confusion, or something that has not been accomplished in quite the same way before. 
   The Big Chill is a cynical sellout to a Reagan-era pack of salivating sheep ready to slurp up any swill the master would sling together. For those of us who spent much of our formative years in movie houses with our eyes wide in wonder of the exploits of Bonnie and Clyde, of Billy and Wyatt, of Alvy and Annie, Kasdan's movie was a below-the-belt blow that I for one still reel from thirty-four years later. 
   Thirty-four years? Seriously? 
   I watched Warren Beatty on the Oscars thing last night. Here is a man who has been more things to more people than almost anyone else in Hollywood history: actor, director, producer, stud, philosopher, historian, heartthrob and genuine talent. And yet some schmuck hands him the wrong envelope and he gets treated like garbage by a pack of ignorant loudmouths who have never seen a great movie in their rancid little lives, or if they had seen one, they wouldn't know what was so great about it. The whole idiotic affair completely overshadowed his onstage partner Faye Dunaway, who for her work in Network alone deserves to be not only worshiped but studied. Host Jimmy Kimmel (who otherwise did a fantastic job of making the four hour presentation about the show rather than himself--hint to Ellen DeGeneres) blew all the great work he had done by going for a cheap laugh at Beatty when what he should have done was to just shut up and let the actors work it out, which is what happened anyway. 
   So, yeah, thirty-four years and I'm still nursing the wounds to my presumably sturdy sensibilities. 
   What we watched last night on the Academy Awards was revelation unspoken. We saw, for one thing, people defying the present political administration in the most poetic of ways, rather than in the exploitative manner he reserves for his own enemies. We also saw black people getting nominated for their roles in contemporary films. Maybe films such as Moonlight, Fences, and Hidden Figures will inspire a much-needed renaissance in the film industry. The edginess of the subject matter won't do it, just as the superior talent of the acting won't do it, just as the excellent scripts won't do it--though all three issues helped make these three movies the deserving successes that they are. What it will take is a sensibility among directors who are able to convince decision makers at studios that movies are more than merely mirrors of the times in which we live. Sometimes, when the right combination of elements coalesce, a movie can change the way we experience those interesting times in which we live. And that is not a curse at all.

ANIMAL CRACKERS

   Wherein Captain Spaulding (Groucho Marx) is an African explorer who returns from the wild, attends a gala, and tries with his brothers to retrieve a stolen painting from the palatial Mrs Rittenhouse. 

Sample rant: "Well, art is art, isn't it? Still, on the other hand, water is water. And east is east and west is west, and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce, they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does. Now, uh... Now you tell me what you know."

Animal Crackers (1930) was not the Marx Brothers' best movie (that would be either Duck Soup or A Night at the Opera), but it usually appears first alphabetically and so you owe it to yourself to at least watch it. Certainly you would not want to go through life without having heard "Hello, I Must Be Going" and "Hooray for Captain Spaulding." Groucho proves himself an amiable roustabout as well as quite the dancer. Harpo plays the harp, Chico knocks out a number on piano, and Zeppo plays the straight man. Based on the stage play by George S. Kaufman. 
   If you need another reason:

Capt. Spaulding: One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don't know. Then we tried to remove the tusks. The tusks. That's not so easy to say. Tusks. You try it some time.
Roscoe Chandler: Oh, simple: "tusks."
Capt. Spaulding: [shakes Chandler's hand] My name is Spaulding. I've always wanted to meet you, Mr. Chandler. As I say, we tried to remove the tusks. But they were embedded so firmly we couldn't budge them. Of course, in Alabama the Tuscaloosa, but that is entirely ir-elephant to what I was talking about.


   Directed by Victor Heerman.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

CAREGIVER

Scene 1.

[Mel, a man in his late fifties, is lying on a narrow bed gazing at a copy of The New Yorker magazine. He is gazing at it, one page at a time, his expression somewhere between a lack of comprehension and vague annoyance. Sitting on a stool near Mel is Leo, his son. Leo is studying Mel's face for some type of positive reaction. As the moments clock by, Leo struggles to control his impatience. At last, Mel puts down the magazine.]

Mel: What kind of magazine is this? A comic book?

Leo: It's The New Yorker, dad. 

Mel: I can see that. Lots of cartoons, huh?

Leo: That's my short story in there.

Mel: I see that, Leo. I see that.

Leo: Well?

Mel: They pay you to write that?

Leo: Yes, they paid me. They paid me a lot.

Mel: Good. They ought to pay you.

Leo: The New Yorker, dad, it's a big deal.

Mel: Yes. 

Leo: Somehow I thought you'd be more impressed than this.

Mel: Well, I'm not. Come here a second.

[Leo leans in. Mel whacks him on the head with the magazine. As he does, Tonya, Mel's wife and Leo's mother, enters the bedroom.]

Tonya: I guess you didn't like it.

Leo: He didn't like it.

Mel: I didn't read it.

Tonya: Then how can you say you don't like it?

Mel: Was there something you wanted?

Tonya: It's time for your medicine.

Mel: Who are you? Nurse Ratchett? I don't need any medicine.

Tonya: Leo, please explain to your father that--

Mel: The boy can speak for himself.

Leo: Do you want your medicine?

Mel: I'll let you know.

[Tonya and Leo exchange a look. She sighs and exits.]

Mel: She gone? [Leo nods.] Give me that morphine.

[Leo takes the small plastic bottle from the dresser.]

Leo: You need this or you want this?

Mel: Squirt some under my tongue and shut up.

Leo: [Administers dose.] The pain bad?

Mel: [Swallows it] No, the pain's good. Reminds me I'm still alive. Truth is I don't feel sick. I can still kick your ass.

Leo: I know.

Mel: Damn right, you know. What's that song on the box?

Leo: "Rank Strangers."

Mel: Stanley Brothers. See? I knew what it was. How much they pay you?

Leo: For the story? Twenty-five hundred.

Mel: Dollars? Give me a cigarette. They pay you that kind of money, you can spare your old man a smoke.

Leo: I can't do it. You'll have to make do with the dope.

Mel: Is it like that guy Stephen King?

Leo: The story? Not much, no.

Mel: It's not one of those horror stories?

Leo: It's a just a story about--You can read it when you feel better.

Mel: Don't you go confusing yourself into thinking this is self pity, boy. But I won't be feeling better. This is as good as it's going to get. [Tosses magazine onto the floor.] I want you to take care of Tonya for me.

Leo: We're a long way from that point.

Mel: I can't get out of this bed. I use a pan. I'm on morphine. I have lung cancer. You were there with me. You remember what the oncologist said? She said to make me comfortable. You know what that means? It means there's nothing anybody can do. You think one more cigarette is gonna kill me? 

[Leo thumbs one out of a pack, lights it for him.]

Mel: We have some money in the bank. Tomorrow you're gonna go with Tonya and she's going to give you power of attorney. You know what that means?

Leo: Mom can take care of herself just fine.

Mel: Your mother is unbalanced. You must have noticed.

Leo: She's fine.

Mel: Some guy called the other day. Told her she'd won a recreational vehicle.

Leo: When was this?

Mel: Told her she could come pick it up but first he needed her bank information for tax purposes. 


Leo: Oh no.

Mel: I was listening on the line. I cussed that bastard a blue streak. Leo, she does that kind of thing all the time. Runs in the family.

Leo: I didn't know that.

Mel: We don't tell you everything. 

Leo: I guess you don't.

Mel: Tomorrow. Don't forget.

Leo: I don't mean to beat this to death--

Mel: Then don't.

Leo: I thought you would be proud of me.

Mel: For that story? I'm glad for you. You used to write those little things for the radio, you remember?

Leo: That was a long time ago.

Mel: You were in high school. What did they call those?

Leo: Just segues between songs.

Mel: They paid you for those. 

Leo: First writings I ever had. . .published.

Mel: How's your real job going?

Leo: I quit.

Mel: Oh? Your mom's not the only psycho in the house.

Leo: I'm going to take care of you--and mom. Full time.

Mel: You go with her tomorrow. Tonya and I already talked about it. You'll pay the bills--don't overpay them. Just pay what the bills say. The car insurance comes due in two months. Property taxes won't be up until first of the year. Wait. February. I don't know why it's February. Pay the income taxes at the last minute. One other thing.

Leo: Okay. You sure mom knows about this?

Mel: If you mean do I think she'll remember, I plan to remind her tonight. And in the morning. But there's one other thing.

Leo: You just can't say you're proud of me, can you?

Mel: I could. Truth is that in a lot of ways you have been a good son. You didn't stay out late getting stoned or whoring around, as far as I know. You always were a hard worker. How long have you been--were you with the firm?

Leo: Nine years to the day.

Mel: Nine years. And you quit. Maybe you did the right thing. We could have brought somebody in.

Leo: Who? I'm your only child, remember?

Mel: I remember.

Leo: What's the other thing?

Mel: Your mom's pregnant.

Leo: What?

Mel: You got no sense of humor at all, do you? I want you to call my brothers and let them know what's going on with me. I don't want to talk to them myself. Greedy bastards'll be tripping over each other to stick it to you. Ray will be the worst. He may be my brother, but you remember this: he's a self-centered prick. Earl's almost as bad. He invented the hard luck story, the little shit. Those two don't get squat, understand?

Leo: You have a will?

Mel: It's with the lawyer. Copy in the safe. You don't worry about that. Whatever's left, you use it to take care of your mom. Whatever's left after she dies, if there's anything, that's yours. 

Leo: [Takes Mel's hand] I'll do my best, dad. Mom won't want for anything.

Mel: Here she comes.

[Tonya returns]

Tonya: Honey, it's time for your medicine.

Mel: I guess you better give it to me then.

Leo [As Tonya reaches for the morphine]: Dad just had a dose.

Mel: I think I would know, wouldn't I? Tonya, just squirt some under my tongue.

Leo: You're going to overdose.

Mel [Accepts the dose from Tonya]: Ummm. Yummy. Hey, you know Stephen King here wrote a story?

Tonya: I know. It's beautiful. So much better than those horrible things you used to write.

Leo: The music reviews?

Mel: They always stiffed you for those.

Leo: I was paid.

Mel: Couldn't quit your day job, could you?

Tonya: Did you tell your father about leaving the firm?

Mel: He told me. Whew. That last dose was a good one.

Tonya: Leo, let's leave your father to his rest.

Mel: Where's that liquid Xanex? My nerve's are shot.

Tonya: I think you've had enough for now.

Mel: You afraid I'm gonna die? Jesus! You afraid I'll be too stoned to remember my last days after I'm dead? Give me the goddamned Xanex!

[Leo opens the drawer, takes out the bottle, gives Mel a small squirt.]

Mel: You guys go on and busy yourselves. I'm going to enjoy the show. Leo? What song they playing now? 

Leo: "Bean Blossom." 

Mel: Ah, Bill Monroe. [He falls asleep.]

Tonya: Honey?

Leo: There's no music, mom. It's just a game we play.


Scene 2.

[Leo and Tonya are sitting at the kitchen table sipping coffee. The room is filled with flowers and get well cards.]

Tonya: How did the calls go with Ray and Earl?

Leo: I can see why dad doesn't want anything to do with them. Have they always been such jerks?

Tonya: Ray was very interested in me. Before I met your father, that is. When Mel came home from the war and I caught a look of him in his Air Force uniform, I forgot all about Ray. I suppose he's still bitter.

Leo: That was a long time ago.

Tonya: And Earl? I never knew him very well. He was always so shy. I would come over to visit your father and Earl would go hide in his room.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

HANNAH AND HER SISTERS

   One of the most intelligent and mature movies of Woody Allen's career, as well as one of his most accessible, Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) blows apart the anhedonic nebbish of his best early films and resolves that the meaning of life is life. 
   The movie concerns Hannah (Mia Farrow) and her sisters Lee (Barbara Hershey) and Holly (Dianne Wiest) and the men who keep messing up their lives as those men try in vain to remain relevant. Hannah is married to a well-off accountant named Elliot (Michael Caine) who is in love with Lee. She is involved in an odd relationship with Frederick (Max von Sydow), a frustrated but gifted artist many years her senior. Holly exploits Hannah's need to be liked by hitting her up for permanent loans as she struggles to find her purpose in life. Holly has even survived a date with Mickey (Woody Allen), who just happens to be Hannah's ex-husband. If this description sounds soap opera-esque, the characterizations run infinitely more deep than that. 
   Part of what makes this movie so special and spectacular is the way plot and characterization become one and the same. Everyone here is searching for something. If you asked each person, she or he would give an answer specific to that character. By the end of the film, however, we recognize that they have all been seeking the age-old question: what is the meaning of life? Just as in real life, not everyone arrives at an answer. Von Sydow's character is perhaps the most sympathetic because as he loses Lee, we ache with the knowledge that she has been his sole (soul) connection with the world outside his home studio. His self-analysis gets projected out at the world--and not in a favorable way--to the point where he watches television just to have something that makes him feel superior. 
   While I will resist giving away more of the story, I will tell you that the story appears to have been extremely important to the director. Gone are the self-conscious camera angles and affinity for black and white cinematography. Nowhere do we find the homage to foreign filmmakers. What we do get are living, breathing people with honest problems that materialize through deception, desperation, exploration and even a bit of procreation. This was a major evolutionary leap in Allen's development. By the mid-1970s, he had already joined the ranks of the world's best filmmakers (Kubrick, Kurasawa, Bergman, Fellini, Vargas, Altman, Godard). With Hannah and Her Sisters, he became a stylist of the tallest order.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

NASHVILLE

   I suppose these days everyone has their favorite something: favorite football player, favorite pop singer, favorite pest control expert. My favorite things have always been people--at least, certain people--and that is why, if pressed, I would select Robert Altman as my favorite movie director and Nashville (1975) as my favorite film. Altman populated his motion pictures with so many people that a first-time viewer might assume that some of them were extraneous. But such things rarely exist in his movies, and they certainly do not exist in Nashville. Even a small child resting on his daddy's shoulders in a crowd scene after a country star has been assassinated at a political music festival exudes substance. I have noticed that many people confuse substance with explicit meaning. Naturally, I disagree.
   It is not my purpose here to confuse Altman's style with absurdist works such as Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, mainly because I have always found Beckett to be obvious and boring. Neither does he come across as some pretentious polecat in the spirit of James Joyce, whose writings always struck me as being in need of a decoder ring. If Altman's directorial style does have a literary equivalent, it might be a blend of Eugene Ionesco and Philip Roth, but even that fanciful thought still misses the mark. The most clear explanation I can offer is that he caught all the minute details of human interaction and adhered them to the old adage that comedy is tragedy plus time. When Keenan Wynn's character, Mr. Green, receives the news that his wife Esther has passed away, Scott Glenn's military character rushes up to him to babble out some wonderful--i.e., meaningless--good news. As Mr. Green strains to absorb the unexpected loss of his wife, the camera stays on the two men, neither of whom is reading the cues of the other, leaving us to struggle with the reverse of the adage. Throughout much of the movie, tragedy is comedy minus time. 
   Most directors--even some good ones--would not have had the imagination to conceive such a scene. But even those who might have found it within their abilities would not have been able to follow it up by having Mr. Green vindictively chase down Shelley Duvall who, as L.A. Joan, was more interested in chatting with men in the local music business than with caring about her dying Aunt. 
   It is no coincidence that we never meet Aunt Esther.
   We also never meet Hal Phillip Walker, the disembodied voice who is campaigning for President of the United States on the Replacement Party ticket. His long-winded witticisms come at us throughout the movie via a sound system atop an old campaign van winding its way through the city. Walker believes the National Anthem is a stupid song, that all the lawyers should be thrown out of Congress, and that churches should lose their tax-exempt status. He also believes that Christmas smells like oranges. In short, his message is one of populism. Released between Watergate and the American Bicentennial, Nashville summed up precisely where our country existed at that time.
   But such a statement fails to do justice to Altman's film, or to Joan Tewkesbury's screenplay, or to the brilliance of the casting and the performances the director allowed to flow from such heavyweights as Lily Tomlin, Ned Beatty, Henry Gibson, Michael Murphy, Shelley Duvall, or any of the twenty-plus other actors prominently featured in this film. In this movie (which Altman called a musical, what with more than one hour of the total running time being devoted to mostly unappealing countrypolitan drivel, much of it written by the actors themselves, with the rest penned by Nashville stalwart Richard Baskin), we encounter people who are so beaten down by the lives they consciously created for themselves that they are largely unaffected by the public execution of the country star for whom they have all clamored, Barbara Jean, played to perfection by Ronnie Blakley. To quell any emotional response the crowd might express, or to seize an opportunistic moment, Albuquerque (Barbara Harris), who has been looking for a break since the festival began, takes the microphone and howls out a Gospel version of the only really human song in the film, Keith Carradine's "It Don't Worry Me." The audience eats it up. After all, they came to be entertained. 
   Five years after this movie came out, Mark David Chapman shot John Lennon to death. Some reporter called Altman and asked if he felt any responsibility for Chapman's actions. Altman, whose actual reaction can only be imagined, told the story that he answered back, "Do you feel any responsibility for not learning the lessons of Nashville?"