Thursday, March 23, 2017

EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULLS

   Through a series of odd events, I was in attendance at a Christmas party in the Hollywood Hills stretch of the Santa Monica Mountains in the year 2000. Knowing full well I was making a mistake by doing so, I couldn't resist the opportunity to theoretically schmooze with writers, directors, actors, composers and possibly a gaggle of moguls. The woman who invited me earned her living repping a variety of hotshot musicians who provided smarmy soundtracks to medium budget romantic comedies. She had encountered me winning a game of eight ball at a star bar on Vine and thought my impression of Fred C. Dobbs was hilarious. (Note: Fred C. Dobbs was a character played by Humphrey Bogart in the movie Treasure of the Sierra Madre.) The young man I was slaughtering at pool did not share her admiration and she thought it best that we get away before he carried out his threat to do to me what the bandits did to Dobbs in the movie.
   The valet took the keys to her Lexus and together we strolled by the lush garden up the wine-colored walkway to what I suppose was the front door. She pressed the intercom button and the door tilted open, revealing a room bathed in dark orange. It looked like a magnificent dark room where photographers might work, but it was actually just the entryway to the rest of the house, possibly the largest house ever to permit my humble entrance. Once we felt our way through this room, another door swung open and the brightness off the outdoor pool glared through the glass walls and I found myself temporarily separated from the agent. In such a situation--not that I have been in that many such situations--I did what I always do: I adopted a false persona. 
   I pretended to be the Warren Beatty character in the movie Mickey One. Please understand that I am no Warren Beatty. But I had seen the movie for the second time recently and it was weighing on my mind and the suit I had fallen into resembled the one Mickey wore, so that was what I did. And so no sooner did a horde of unemployed actors swoop up the agent woman than a couple young guys positioned themselves on either side of me and continued their conversation as if I was not standing between them. You know the type. Right. I introduced myself to the one on my left. "I'm Mickey," I said. "I'm the king of the silent pictures. I'm hiding out until the talkies blow over. Will you leave me alone?"
   The two bozos exchanged a nervous glance and wandered away. 
   The agent returned immediately with an older woman on her arm. "Gladys, my deah," she said. "I'd like you to meet--My goodness, I never did get your name?"
   Sticking with the Warren Beatty concept, I switched movies. "Clyde Barrow. This here's Bonnie Parker. We rob banks. Now you might as well know, I ain't much of a lover boy." 
   Gladys didn't seem to know quite what was going on, but to her credit the agent picked right up on it and asked Gladys if she had a cigar, which, strangely, she did not.
   It should be noted at this point that my memory is somewhat selective. Half the time I could not tell you my own middle name, but I can remember the words to any song I've ever heard and most of the lines in any movie I've ever seen. It's a curse. The curse, for me, is that the rest of the known universe does not possess this ability and so I often recede into my own social hole, which is fine by me, at least most of the time. In this case, however, I should have been projecting my own personality. Being vastly out of my element, I pulled the chicken switch instead and remained in various characters throughout most of the evening, much to the dismay of the people who were trying harder than they should have to be nice to me. 
   Word got around and I found myself standing at the poolside bar trying to teach my gin and tonic to stay cold. After a few minutes of watching the ice swirl in the glass, I realized a man standing next to me was looking at me as if I might be a science experiment. 
   I spun to face him. He smiled. "You like the women here?" he asked.
  I wasn't about to let the Beatty fixation get away just yet. "You ever listen to women talk, man? Do you? Because I do, till it's running outta my ears! I mean I'm on my feet all day long listening to women talk and they only talk about one thing: how some guy fucked 'em over, that's all that's on their minds, that's all I ever hear about! Don't you know that?"
   The man took me by the hands and said, "I'm Arthur Penn. There's someone I'd like you to meet."
   If the name means nothing to you, I will explain. Arthur Penn was an amazing movie director. His credits happened to include Mickey One, Bonnie and Clyde, and--inexplicably--Penn & Teller Get Killed
  For a moment I thought that maybe this person holding onto me was as much a loon as myself and perhaps had deluded himself, or, on second thought, that he was some aging hipster who was playing the same kind of game I was. I studied his face a few moments longer and realized that I was in the hands of greatness and therefore allowed him to spin me around where I stood face to face with the man whose characters I had been embalming all evening.
   He did not introduce himself, for there was no need. He just said, "I was listening to you earlier. You're good. I mean, I think you're good. He is good, isn't he, Arthur?"
   Let me say this: Warren Beatty is and was one fine looking fellow. He looks just like he does in the movies. And he really has perfect hair. He is so good looking that even men want to sleep with him. I can't imagine what women feel.
   Before Arthur had a chance to confirm or deny my goodness, I jumped into my own personality and revealed for all to see just why it is often more wise to pretend to be someone else. What I said to Warren Beatty--Warren Fucking Beatty!!!--was: "It all started with you and Arthur Penn. You guys completely changed the way people understand motion pictures. Without you guys, sure, I know, Godard, Truffaut, all that French New Wave stuff, yes, but they were just giving us back movies from the Forties. You guys took what they were doing and Americanized it and made movies real in ways they never had been before, at least before fucking Spielberg and Lucas ruined it for everyone with goddamned blockbusters."
   Beatty smiled at me. He smiled the gracious smile one delivers to an orphan on Christmas. He said, "Arthur, do you have that phone number for me?"
   And with that they were gone. I never did reconnect with the agent woman. I had the valet call a taxi for me. 
  Why the hell is he telling us this?
  I am telling you this true story because I want you to watch the documentary film Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (2003). The lovely and irreplaceable Lisa Ann bought a copy for me a few Christmases ago. This is not quite as good as A Decade Under the Influence, which came out the same year. But Lisa Ann bought me the former and not the latter and now that she has passed away, I may very well watch that movie at least once a month and so should you, at least until you come to believe that Warren Beatty, Arthur Penn, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Robert Altman, Paul Schrader and others between 1967 and 1980 made the best movies ever made. You may even get a sense as to how the blockbuster crippled Hollywood. 
   And if you ever run into the agent woman, tell her she owes me cab fare.
  P.S.: I love you, Lisa Ann, with all the love in the world.

Monday, March 6, 2017

LOLITA

   The writer hereby speculates that we were not necessarily intended to like the movie Lolita (1962). That is not to say that director Stanley Kubrick (who only used twenty percent of novelist Vladimir Nabokov's adapted screenplay and wrote the rest himself) did not want us to enjoy the movie. I mean that he did not intend for us to approve of it. The only people Kubrick hoped would approve of it were the Catholic Legion of Decency and the souls behind the Hayes Code. It is fair to say that neither group had the director on their Christmas list, but the movie was released with the consent of the Production Code of America, in large part because producer James Harris and Kubrick worked with the director of the PCA, Geoffrey Shurlock. Kubrick tried his damnedest to convince Shurlock that this movie about pedophilia was no such thing. It was actually a dark and smart comedy that poked fun at a middle-aged professor's fascination with a young girl. 
   Shurlock was not immediately convinced. 
   Kubrick upped the young girl from twelve to fourteen and made sure his casting director, James Liggat, gave the title role to a relative unknown, in this case a seventeen-year-old named Sue Lyon. He also made certain that the role of the curious professor, Humbert Humbert, went to an actor whose career was in decline, in this case, to James Mason. (Granted, the other actors Kubrick wanted all turned him down--David Niven, Rex Harrison and Noel Coward among them). Casting Peter Sellers in the role of Clare Quilty was expected to take the edge off as well.
   But what really got the film into the theaters was the tone of the movie. Instead of Humbert and Lolita doing the nasty under the sheets, the sexuality was rather more implied and that is one of the reasons why, despite not approving of the movie--even after fifty-five years--we can at least like it. In fact, that is one of the reasons the genius of Lolita endures. 
   When we meet the young Dolores (Lolita), she is tanning in the backyard in a bikini. Humbert rents a room from the girl's mother, Charlotte (Shelley Winters). To be close to Lolita, Humbert pretends to care for Charlotte. But being the academic type, he cannot help but write the truth of his feelings in his diary. When Charlotte discovers how Humbert actually feels, she runs out into the street where she meets with a prompt demise. 
   The closer Humbert gets to Lolita--and her attempts at flirtation early on suggest that she has been to the movies a few times herself--the more she is compelled to manipulate him without giving him precisely what she believes he wants. He has custody of the child and when she behaves as a girl of her temptations reasonably might, Humbert writhes with visible and expressed jealousy. 
   Depending upon one's own personal chemistry, one might find Lolita's rebuffing to be exactly what the oldster has coming. One might also feel a bit of pity for the professor. It is unlikely one would feel both, at least simultaneously. 
   It is only once we recognize the danger that the long-lingering playwright Quilty presents to Lolita that we begin to reluctantly join motivation with Humbert. But even then we risk being taken in by the charm that Sellers brings to his character. When Humbert arrives at Quilty's house with the intent of murdering him, Humbert demands to know for certain if this strange fellow is in fact Quilty. Sellers replies, "No, I'm Spartacus. You come to free the slaves?" (Two years earlier Kubrick had directed the film Spartacus.)
   Our allegiances are never solid. They cannot be because the story keeps shifting us until we begin to sense that this is not a comedy--dark or otherwise. This is a classic tragedy lacking only a hero to provide catharsis. 
   Although Lolita was technically Kubrick's fifth feature-length film (preceded by Killer's Kiss, The Killing, Paths of Glory and Spartacus), this was the first time the director used his tremendous talents to affect what I have referred to elsewhere as a Stanley Milgram type of audience manipulation. By dazzling us with directorial expertise, he establishes his authority just as Milgram's instructors established theirs with white lab coats. Instead of telling us "The experiment must continue," Kubrick tells us, "You must see what happens next."
   Just as with Milgram's subjects, once we become slowly aware that this was an experiment--only a movie--we feel even more wrecked than we did when we allowed ourselves to believe it was happening. When Milgram's "teachers" believed they were shocking the "learners" with high voltage electricity, they did so because following orders gave them more comfort than refusing to do so would have. When we see that what Humbert feels for Lolita is more love than lust, we gain an insight that is every bit as disturbing as Milgram's revelations.


Sunday, March 5, 2017

A LITTLE COURAGE IS ALL WE LACK: ANOTHER REVIEW OF BONNIE AND CLYDE

A little bit of courage is all we lack
So catch me if you can, I'm goin' back

   --Carole King, "Goin' Back"

   First there was then. Now there is now.
   As usual, we begin with now.
   More than one million Americans marched on Washington D.C. on January 21, 2017, in response to the ascension of the illegitimate existence of Vladimir Trump. Those people could have spent their Saturday out watching horrible movies or listening to mindless pop music. Instead they properly allowed their outrage to channel into action and made their way to the city of lies to somewhat politely thumb their noses at the administration of insanity. A similar number, albeit, in smaller groups, marched on their cities and state houses to let the rulers know that the presumed popularity of extremism in this country is not so popular after all and that we are not going to put up with it.
   These ongoing protests have had their value: Vladimir Trump goes crazier every day, a condition which does not necessarily make the world safer but which at least tells our friends that they should not judge us by the actions of a handful of lunatics who may have voted for the "scumbag," as the beautiful Maxine Waters calls him.
   Only one thing would have made me happier. I would have been delighted if all those millions of pissed off people had taken one extra step forward and marched right into the White House, dragged that crazy bastard out of the Oval Office and done to him what the Italians did to Mussolini. 
   Do you have any idea how easy that would have been to accomplish--even metaphorically? The people were already there. All that was necessary was to move their feet one step closer. The Secret Service, the National Guard, the Armed Forces of the United States could not--and probably would not--have harmed anyone, much less everyone. I don't know how many people can fit into the Oval Office, but I imagine the room is durable for up to one or two hundred. Just walk in--don't even knock--find Il Duce hiding beneath his desk with his unsecured cell phone and his hyperactive thumbs plumbing out some moronic tweet, call the loser up top and explain that it is time for him to leave voluntarily. "Vlad, man, the joke is over. You proved to our satisfaction that a foreign power can indeed do a coup d'etat on us, and we thank you for that lesson. But now you have to go. Go back to south Florida where the idiots still love you. Go copulate with that dimwit Rick Perry and vacation in El Paso, if you like. Go do a golden shower on Stalin's tomb. But you have to leave. There are millions of us outside. Your money can't save you from an ass-whooping, if that's the way you want it. But you are going out that door, one way or another. We don't want to have to get mean."
   That is what they do in real countries. In 1968 the communist party of Czechoslovakia replaced the USSR's puppet with Alexander Dubcek. Dubcek pushed practical reforms, which would, as he put it, place “a human face” on socialism. He established “a humanistic socialist democracy which would guarantee, among other things, freedom of religion, press, assembly, speech, and travel.” Granted, the stinking Soviets crushed the rebellion, but that did not come as a surprise to the Czechs. Yet they fought anyway. They had courage.
   In 1989 Chinese students marched on Tienanmen Square in Beijing, knowing full well they would be destroyed. They did it anyway. They did it because they did not want to die as cowards. 
   But Americans, militarily, are a bunch of pathetic cowards and always have been. 
   Watching the march on Washington, I was hoping we might have evolved from the days of dropping bombs on unarmed civilians and actually mutate into passionate and reasonable humanoids. Committing genocide against indigenous natives, dragging across the ocean slaves from whom we built our economy, dropping nuclear weapons on a country that had already surrendered, massacring people in Indochina, Latin America, the Middle East--we are the punks of the world, a pack of gangland hoodlums taking over neighborhoods owned and operated by crippled old ladies. 
   So it should not have surprised me much that we didn't have the courage to throw that rancid real estate king back out into the vomit-encrusted gutter where his parents no doubt conceived him. 
   Please do not take it that I am calling for the violent overthrown of the United States Government. Such a call to action would be highly illegal. I would never suggest such a thing and neither should you. 
   I am, however, very much suggesting that people are a lot more powerful than they may believe. The realization of that real power scares us sometimes, especially when we learn how incredibly easy it is to cultivate it. When we grow disgusted by the leadership of the major political parties in this country pretending to look after our interests, it may occur to us that we are the only real caretakers of our own interests. Expecting billionaires to care about the sick and the poor is ridiculous. They don't even care about one another. Why would they care about you and me? 
   But don't take my word for it. Just think back on those fiery words of days gone by:
When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

   Such a plea to return to the days of Jeffersonian democracy sounds quaint, no doubt--sincere, perhaps, yet quaint. I should know. I am the king of quaint.
   As such, I am also here to convince you to watch the movie Bonnie and Clyde (1967). 
   As this review is written, the United States is only one of several global entities hellbent on blurring the distinctions between global criminality and business as usual. Today federal and international laws exist to further that blurring so that no one is accountable for the subjugation of the poor except--legally--the poor themselves. Keep the masses doped on heroin, Scientology and the latest technology and they won't have the presence of mind to deviate. They will go along with the same tired line of nonsense that declares "Every man a king."  Horatio Alger's potential lies within us all? Well, at any rate, it certainly lies.
   Such was not always the case. 
   Bonnie Parker's mother was a seamstress. Her father was a bricklayer. Clyde Barrow's parents were sharecroppers. By the time the Great Depression officially hit in 1929, neither had the slightest prospects for survival.
   In director Arthur Penn's version of the lives of these two (using a script by David Newman and Robert Benton, doctored by Robert Towne), there is an early scene where Clyde is downing a cola with Bonnie. He tries to impress her with his toughness by admitting that he has been in the State Penitentiary for armed robbery.
   "What's it like?" she asks.
   "What? The penitentiary?"
   "No. Armed robbery."
   At this point the audience has been quite properly assured that Bonnie and Clyde is a different kind of film. Bonnie's face flashes the delight of hybristophilia. 
   When the movie was first released, audiences expressed confusion. Was it a comedy? Was it a celebration of the counterculture? Was it seditious?
   The movie had those elements. But this film shot across the seats of the cinema theater and the echo of its ricochet still resonates. The fate of these two young people (the movie legend was "They're young. They're in love. The kill people.") came ordained from the instant they met. This was not some (comparatively) silly James Cagney or Edward G. Robinson picture with an artificial morality attached to appease the public. This was real life through a camera lens and nobody gave much of a damn whether the public approved of it or not. This was a successful attempt at art. The public be damned.
   I think of Bonnie and Clyde as the movie Parker and Barrow would have made of themselves. As such it is a third person narrative where the "warts and all" attitude uses the skin flaws to show the beauty beneath. During one scene where the Barrow Gang have pulled off the side of the road for a family argument with the police in pursuit, Bonnie insults Clyde about his sexual impotence. No sooner do the words leave her mouth than she knows she has gone too far, that she has wounded him unfairly. As Bonnie, Faye Dunaway's instant facial expression conveys that realization with as much honesty as Clyde's (Warren Beatty) ultimate reaction: he just stands there, immobilized not by the truth of the statement but by the fact that his partner would actually say it. The violence to which some people took exception was simply sprinkled around such life details the director, writers and Beatty himself gently crammed into this film. 
    Bonnie and Clyde, unlike various global industrial concerns, do not claim that their crimes are on the whole good for society. These two were not the couple version of Pretty Boy Floyd, who actually was something of a Depression-era Robin Hood. They committed their crimes for the excitement, the bonding, the spoils. And if their limited class consciousness reminds them that they are "just folks" (as they assure the Gene Wilder character in the process of stealing his automobile) like everybody else, they are long in ambition and just smart enough to know that they have no other way out of the West Dallas slums that spawned them. 
   Some talk was popular at the time of this movie's release that the writers played loose with the facts. The C. W. Moss character, for instance, did not exist. He was a composite of several gang sidekicks, most notably one named Deacon Jones, who traveled with the gang for less than a year. Texas Ranger Frank Hamer was real, the only falsities in his presentation being that he was a sexist who retired from the Texas Rangers rather than work for a woman. 
   In the shooting version of the script, Clyde is impotent, although, in the only truly corny scene in the movie, he manages to pull through to fulfill his obligations and finds that he did just fine. The reality is that the original script had Clyde as inviting the C. W. Moss character to a menage with Bonnie and himself. The real world reality was that while in the state pen, Barrow was repeatedly raped by another convict. Clyde killed that man rather than suffer continued abuse. 
   But worrying over such details is as silly as arguing over which CIA operatives murdered John Kennedy or whether the real Richard III was very much like the one Shakespeare wrote about. Bonnie and Clyde, the movie, has its bona fides in place and needs to offer no apologies for inaccuracies. It is indeed the story the way the two of them would have wanted it told. That, of course, is exactly why the movie, to this day, can make us uncomfortable. 
   Unease after fifty years is remarkable. What else is remarkable is that all the people involved in the movie--except possibly Morgan Fairchild, the body double for Dunaway--came together with such integral perfection. The writers wanted Truffaut to direct. He turned them down, as did Jean-Luc Godard. Even Arthur Penn himself tried to bail out, having worked earlier with Warren on the under-appreciated Mickey One. Even the studio, Warner Bros., lacked faith in the film, possibly due to some early critical pans. Beatty threatened to sue the studio and rather than be sued, head Jack Warner demanded the movie receive a proper release. Pauline Kael wrote a lengthy and brilliant review of the movie. The film is now more of a legend than the people who made it happen.
   The artistic and commercial success of the movie is one of those rare things, like the discovery of radium or the development of the internet. It seems so obvious now that we have it.