Wednesday, February 28, 2007

159. The Long Haul

I done a bad bad thing last night: started Robert Altman's Nashville (1975), but couldn't bring myself to finish it. I tried, I really did. But--as I confessed in my Altman in memoriam last November, "As the '70s circus rolled on, I found myself missing his bulls'-eyes [such as Nashville], instead lingering on the ones that sometimes seemed like feature-length outtakes fiercely proud that no one was watching ... ." I went on to observe, "The Altman I held was one slippery fish, either too big to hold on to or too ugly to handle. I didn't always love his movies, but I did always want to see them," concluding that "after a while, it seemed I didn't need Nashville and company." Ahem. For once I wasn't lying, not even to me.

Of course, I feel bad about leaving Nashville so soon, giving it only thirty minutes or so; but, as my wife announced, "If it's going to go on like this for another two hours, I'm leaving." So maybe a part of me was trying to please a fellow viewer--but no; I cannot keep living an Altman-esque lie: It wasn't my wife, or the hour, or the relative humidity. It was the movie, just too annoying, an exercise in the incidental and the underwhelming, with a blaring condescension toward all those twanging hicks.

And despite the fact that I'm sure I missed plenty, that last crack tells me something more important than any clear, critical response I can muster: I simply waited too long to see it. Back in 1975, when I was a freshman in college, I probably would've loved every moment. I'm the guy who saw Buffalo Bill and the Indians twice, a movie that critiques American history and identity as subtly as a Robert Crumb cartoon explores sexuality. But that's no insult: I still love Crumb, too--but even more so in 1975, I might argue, if only because such loud wet razzberries sprayed over the blinking face of that idiot America were so damn satisfying back then. My literary heroes were Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (Breakfast of Champions) and Hunter S. Thompson (pick yer favorite Fear and/or Loathing); and Harlan Ellison made all kinds of sense simply because he edited SF anthologies with the words "dangerous" and "visions" in their titles; and National Lampoon magazine's and Saturday Night Live's nastiest swipes seemed not only hilarious but perfectly reasonable. I was a card-carrying member, all right--and I admit I still am, sort of; but ... What? Why couldn't I finish Nashville last night?

Somewhere or other (I think it was in a book of sayings about getting older that was given to me when I turned forty--the title, I believe, was When You Consider the Alternative ... , and featured a cemetery on the cover)--someone said, "Life is a continual process of becoming tired." Is it that simple? Again, as my wife, an elementary-school teacher, explained, "I hear this kind of thing all day at work [overlapping talk punctuated by shouts and mutters]; I don't want it in a movie." Oh, the geezerdom of it all! We were both becoming tired--and does that mean, Best Beloveds, that we are simply, properly alive? Is it fitting and just to be annoyed by a Robert Altman movie?

I'm afraid so. But even as I pressed the EJECT button I promised I would one day return to Nashville, if only to see what else Shelley Duvall was going to wear--I searched online (without success) to share an image of her, frighteningly thin (Keith Carradine's character observes, "You stay on that diet, honey, and it's gonna kill you."), with short shorts and gigantic platform shoes, Olive Oyl's body and Astro Boy's feet. And Henry Gibson was great, as always, and I know there's a Really Big Show to look forward to. But last night, Nashville felt like Howard Hawks without a plot, and while Altman's rakish take on the midpoint of that fullt-tilt gonzo decade may be pitch-perfect, I was too, um, alive to handle such a high and strident tone. Maybe some Saturday morning; that time of day on that day of the week has always been bright and alert for me--cartoon time, of course, perhaps the best venue for Nashville's Dixie calliope cavalcade.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

158. Departed

For years now I have kept in my head a memory of an editorial in Famous Monsters of Filmland in which Forrest J. Ackerman, writing to parents, insists his magazine is not the source of its child-readers' anxieties, that the actual blame for nervous tykes goes, of course, to the real world of the early 1960s, a duck-and-cover nightmare that tops any fright the rubber-masked creepy-crawlers of Horrorwood could ever stir up. I don't know where this editorial appears--if it does at all; still, I have an image of it in my head, the text accompanied by, naturally, a patented grainy FM black-and-white photo of a mushroom cloud, wide as Mr. Sardonicus' grin, dingy as a gravedigger's gloves.

Faithful readers of this site will attest to my penchant for discussing the delicious thrill of cinematic scares, the typical Boomer caress over the pulp surface of memories of Saturday matinees gone by, the--I will admit--self-indulgent gushing over low-budget Gothicism, from Tinglers to Saucer-Men, from Basil Wolverton to Frank Frazetta. And I will also admit this can grow a bit silly--and yet: since starting this paragraph I wandered over to Wikipedia to check up on various of these dark corners--E.C. Comics, Creepy and Eerie magazines--and five minutes in their company was enough to soften my disdain, even to retrieve my fond admiration.

What is going on here? In part, it is simply my heart--"dark and drifting, and unsatisfied" (to misappropriate a Springsteen line)--trying to lay it all out; but in arranging everything there in front of me I linger, and recall, and won't let go, until I have once again written myself into reconciliation with the solitary pleasures of a monster-ridden life.

Which brings me back to Forry Ackerman and the (imagined?) editorial. I was watching Moonlight Mile (2002), in which a young man (Jake Gyllenhaal), his fiancee newly murdered--while he continues to live with his would-have-been-future in-laws (Susan Sarandon and Dustin Hoffman)--must cope with their shared loss--and the secret he keeps: that he had broken off the engagement days before her murder. As Joe wears his early-'70s mourning suit and slips half-consciously into his father-in-law's determination for them still to go into the commercial real estate business together ("and Son" already added to the sign), he does his best to hide away and take care of Ben and his writer wife, Jojo. But his self is forced into uneasy sleep and he struggles to fall in love with a local woman (Ellen Pompeo), whose own fiance is MIA in Vietnam. On the surface it is an indie soaper, but Joe's short-of-breath posture and frozen smile brought me up short: I knew that feeling, the only one required to keep it together, while my own dearly departed, still alive back there in the mid-'60s, as real as Forry Ackerman's mushroom cloud--realer, right there in my house--haunted me more every year, until I began to see myself as a lonely boy about to become a lonely man. Now there's something to be afraid of.

And as I stumbled, peering in the dimness of adolescence in 1971, I think I may have looked a little like Joe, realizing I was surrendering to others' pain and loss--my mother sicker every year, my father finding less and less work, our almost-middle-class life balanced at the edge of what looked to be a long, ugly drop. So watching Moonlight Mile I was able to hear that clock-in-cotton muffled heartbeat under the floorboards, the guilt unwarranted, but the deed still done, the Joycean dead haunting every muscle as I tried to make one simple lifting motion--but man it was heavy, if I may sound like the early '70s.

At the end, as Joe and Jojo look up at the camera, I could hardly look back, at last happy for them (and for me), the car for one and her typewriter for the other at last moving, getting somewhere, going home; and even though broken things persist--the daughter was shot in a "family restaurant" across the street from her father's business, and the window remains boarded up (until at the end Ben plunks a fifty on the counter, 90 cents for the ice-cream cone and the change for a new window)--and the promises of the past can become threats--Ben's office is on one of those Main Streets that commercial real estate developers like him killed in the '80s--you can still turn away every once in a while, and look up and smile. As Jojo tells Joe, "You find your home, and it may not be what you thought--you know; color's off, style's wrong ... but there it is anyway and to hell with you if you can't take a joke." Movies keep wanting us to "learn about loss," as DeNiro's Max Cady intones, his voice gritty as a dustcloud, but Moonlight Mile bestows the blessing of learning how to lose and come out of it alive, in one home or another.

Monday, February 26, 2007

157. "I'm the boss, I'm the boss, I'm the boss, I'm the boss ... "

So, for the second time, the Pharisees summoned the man who had been blind and said: "Speak the truth before God. We know this fellow is a sinner."
"Whether or not he is a sinner, I do not know, the man replied. "All I know is this: Once I was blind and now I can see."

--John IX: 24-26

Monday, February 19, 2007

156. Hollywoodtown

(I haven't read fifteen words in a row about Hollywoodland (2006), so I once again permit myself to indulge, in titular humility, my blissful ignorance.)

Something about Hollywoodland kept my attention--more: Made me lean toward it, eager to allow it to move like a Philip Marlowe stroll down those mean streets, not only to dead ends but dead men themselves, "heavier than broken hearts," as Marlowe cracks wise somewhere in The Big Sleep. While lowlife private dick Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) looks closer and closer at the bad things--and gazes off into the middle distance where worse ones lurk--and as George Reeves (Ben Affleck), weighted down by his Superman costume, strums his blue guitar and bids adios before accepting a final naked kiss--punctuated by a splatter-pattern, over and over--I moved even closer to the slowly familiar world director Allen Coulter was making.

Or was that re-making? Where had I seen this before? Of course, one noir's bound to look like another--and that's OK; originality is not as welcome as we'd like to insist it is, at least not when we're at the movies, where the succession of images must at once surprise and fulfill; can I refer to it as "the familiar reborn"? It's Chaplin always wearing the baggy pants and skittering around corners and peering just so at some everyday injustice before taking decisive action; but each time he does so he must work subtle changes to the routine, both satisfying our need for comfort through repetition [1] as well as re-animating our interest. So Hollywoodland's mere devotion to noir wasn't exactly the source of my latest bout of cinema deja vu. No, a melody I already knew was being covered here, and the more I listened to the tune--with just enough vibrato and a hint of down-the-corridor echo to the horns--the clearer it grew.

Of course, the song was straight out of Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974), with certain added touches here and there that Hollywoodland provided for its own arrangement. I must admit to being a bit slow on the uptake, because the moment of clarity occurred for me late in the picture. Simo (and isn't that as silly a name as Nicholson's "Gittes"?) has been, in a satisfying, duly-noted noir manner, beaten both physically and psychically, driven down by chains to the face (not quite a knife to the nostril, but still too close for both detectives' comfort) and by the tawdry details of the case; and the weary acceptance of his complicity in the mess he has stirred up saps him into sleep, rest for the weary at last--and then the phone rings, and he winces and touches the chain-marks, and slogs on. This also happens to Gittes, ready to put his watery mystery aside, his pajamas cool and his bed inviting--but sleep is out of the question, because venality and loss never rest, so why should the yeggs who trail after?

Hollywoodland is full of such points of contact, from its ripe colors to its mournful soundtrack, from its twisted sexuality to the deep but distant sound one makes when falling into conspiracy's well. But it adds something Chinatown considers only with the most jaundiced of eyes: parenthood. For Polanski's movie, parents and their children are the cause of the problem; in Hollywoodland, they emerge as the solution. Here, the detective matters as much as the dead man; and while we are shown Reeves in extensive and varied flashbacks and what-ifs that compose one of the film's two poles, the pull of the other grows stronger, until the focus of the film becomes Simo and his child. Simo is divorced, with a Leave-It-to-Beaver son who burns up his Superman costume--on the living room sofa, no less--in mute protest over the death of his hero [2]. Simo is as puzzled by this as he is over Reeves' death; and as the movie goes on, trying to solve the second mystery solves the first.

Reeves is also a son, his ghost haunted by his mother [3], still alive and determined to enshrine her superhero--without affection, it seems, and without mourning. Reeves is cut loose from all bonds, both personal and professional; and to expose us to the pain of this unmooring, Affleck gives the performance of his career in a role he seemed meant to play: an affable cipher who knows it, and knows he can fight it for only so long [4]. Reeves gets sadder and sadder, our washed-up double, the Sad Sack/Clark Kent we suspect we might be, once the wrong cards are dealt.

Our sympathy for Reeves is interestingly filtered through Simo's growing attraction--at first to the moolah, then to the point of honor it represents for him, finally to something more, as Simo, down there at the bottom of the shamus barrel, digs deep for a truth that will make him seem real, to his son and himself. Chinatown may be closer to noir's unhappy heart, cynicism masking the loss, hysteria driving the denouement. But in Coulter's picture the losses are a given, and the dead man tells enough tales into Simo's ear that the detective is able to pry himself free of the mystery and leave it unsolved. Throughout the picture we get different views of Reeves' death. The trite facts do not change, but sometimes it's one murderer, sometimes another. Finally, though, Simo can stand in front of Reeves' house one more time and see it as "simple" suicide, and reconcile with himself for having been so much like Reeves' mother at the start, so that he eventually can become something his son needs.

The film's last shot is of Simo approaching his son--but there is no embrace, no swell of violins letting us know everything will turn out. It seems enough that this strange noir narrows the focus at the end just enough to let Reeves be, and to make a step toward something else. Before Simo visits the house that last time, he watches a test reel of Reeves proving to his would-be pro-wrestling backers that he can hack it. It is a grainy, jumpy whisper of another '50s tale of loss, Requiem for a Heavyweight, and as Reeves poses and rolls in his yard, his attitude game but his face betraying a grimace (earlier, he had been injured in a car accident), we can tell that nothing's left. With a final broad stroke of the true noir brush, Simo becomes Reeves' only friend, almost an alter-ego. Or perhaps they both realize they have been Clark Kent all along, driving one to oblivion and the other to reconciliation.

I will not push too hard for the Simo-as-Clark-Kent version; just let me point to the only truly significant moment in the Kill Bill movies, when Bill describes Kent as the imposter, noting that the other superheroes start out as puny Peter Parkers but become super, while Superman's true self is the hero, with Kent merely endured so that Superman can be himself. It is as close as Tarantino gets to a moral concept, one that implies the price you pay for long journeys: You can as easily become an exile as an explorer. In Hollywoodland, both Reeves and Simo pass through this Purgatory of identity; and, sentimental dope that I am, I refuse to leave either of them entirely in the flames. The movie ends with a long, drawn-out sigh--and I think that was me, keeping my fingers crossed that at least one of them gets a chance to wash up and go home. Reeves' girlfriend, Toni Mannix (her real name; noir may be less fictional than we think), [5] tells him, "Nobody ever asks to happy later," but it seems that Simo, at least, is willing to wait.

[1] As our best fiend, Freud, puts it, the urge toward order is simply a manifestation of "the compulsion to repeat."

[2] When his show was cancelled, Reeves also burns his Superman outfit--in the backyard bar-b-que--but with relief.

[3] After a fall while filming an episode of his TV series, Reeves jokes, "I'd like to thank the Academy and the good folks of Galesburg, Illinois, without whom all this would not have been possible." Once again, our fair town is immortalized in the movies--more than you'd think, if you do at all. According to Wikipedia, Reeves' mother was born in Galesburg, although George grew up in Woolstock, Iowa. In the film, his mother arrives by train, presumably from Galesburg. The details of her whereabouts at the time are not clear for me, but all I care about is that Hollywoodland joins that Honor Roll of Movies That Mention Galesburg, the Shining Rail-Gem of the Midwest.

[4] There's another story here in the easy conflation of Affleck and Reeves, producing a kind of brother-son faced with his own tabloid-typecasting, able to reveal himself only as Superman, "a strange visitor from another world," and no kidding. Again, Affleck's performance is a sad and beautiful thing, as he uses Reeves to show us what's been done to him.

[5] And before I forget, Mannix is played with always-true tones by that beautiful person, Diane Lane.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

155. Rating Game Redux 5: Love's Labours Recycled

I am a terrible terrible person, a lazy lazy man. There; repeating things twice not only makes them so, but makes them go away. So now I can (a) follow up on the previous musical posting while (b) foisting off stuff I've already done for my local paper and wife, in that order, if I may be discreet.

The most recent Ratings Game list is "Best Love Songs." As usual, one may be the loneliest number, but three remains the toughest; still, here it is:

"My Funny Valentine"
A breathless ode to passion in the light of human imperfection (first sung on screen by Judy Garland to Mickey Rooney in Babes in Arms/1939), this song asserts everyone can love and be loved. It always "makes me smile in my heart," especially Chet Baker's cover, although Elvis Costello risks a go and almost succeeds.

On the other hand, what to sing when love fades? Hoagy Carmichael claims the melody came to him all at once, like a gift, while he was walking down a street in Bloomington, Indiana. There’s actually a plaque at the site--and well there should be. Wikipedia reports over 1800 recordings, and Mitchell Parish's lyrics guarantee that this "memory of love’s refrain" will continue as long as lovers continue to part. The definitive cover is impossible to name, although Nat "King" Cole may win by default; still, I'm partial to Willie Nelson's minimalist take.

"I Put a Spell on You"
As good as The Police's "Every Breath You Take" and Springsteen's "I'm on Fire" may be in capturing obsession's wide-eyed grimace, this tune, definitively covered by the unhinged Screamin' Jay Hawkins as a voodoo-blues creep-out, nails love's worst impulses like a coffin lid: "I don’t care if you don't want me, I'm yours anyhow." Yikes.

Honorable Mentions: "All You Need Is Love," "Blue Moon," "September Song," "Love and Happiness," "A Kiss to Build a Dream On," "Brown-Eyed Girl," "Besame Mucho," "All Is Full of Love," "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes"

And on a personal note: Every year I put together a Valentine's CD for my wife--although now that she has an iPod, is such a cumbersome method of transmittal obsolete? I hope not: It's too much fun finding silly cover art.*

This year it's Two for the Road; and here's the playlist:

Give The Girl A Kiss/Bruce Springsteen
Sea Cruise/Rico
We're Going to Be Friends/The White Stripes
Sea Of Love/Phil Phillips & The Twilights
Reet Petite (The Sweetest Girl In Town)/Jackie Wilson
Why/David Byrne
Vision Of Love/Explorers
Secret Love/Ry Cooder & Manuel Galban
All Of Me/Willie Nelson
Linger In My Arms A Little Longer, Baby/Peggy Lee
Touch Of Loving/Bobby Sykes
Pennies from Heaven/Louis Prima
Breathe/The Silent League
Tango/坂本龍一 (that's all I can tell you)
Smoke Gets In Your Eyes/The Platters
Girl From Ipanema/Stan Getz
Au Fond Du Temple Saint/David Byrne
Sweet Love On My Mind/Jimmy & Johnny
Sweet Nothin's/Brenda Lee
Fleeting Smile/Roger Eno
Here, There And Everywhere/The Beatles
My One And Only Love/Chet Baker
The Best Is Yet To Come/Nancy Wilson
Take Me Home/Crystal Gayle
Two for the Road/Bruce Springsteen

Aw; now ain't that cute.

So forgive me my lack of industry; let's just live in the love, my funny valentines. Besides, "There's nothing you can do that can't be done."

And last but never least: Happy Birthday, dear Mimi. Happy Birthday to--who? You. (Beeg kees, leettle kees, leettle kees, leettle hug, beeg hug, beeg kees.)

*Both images in this posting come from James Lileks' site; I provide a link to it from this blog. So thanx and a tippo to my favorite boomer web-attic, with deconstructions. (Sometimes, late at night, when the matchbooks are all ironed and the Bubble-Duds folded neatly away, I swear I can still hear the distant calling of Meat! Meat! Meat!)

Saturday, February 03, 2007

154. Just Play

I'll admit it: Film is not merely a gazing game. Sometimes I hear things, a tune I can't get out of my head--but in a good way, a beloved melody--OK, "unchained"; and any key I want it in, it sustains.

Better yet, listen to this:

I would sit, seven years old in 1964, in my rocking chair--that's right, Boomers, like JFK, just gone; and what's left? Meet the Beatles, spinning over and over, that perfect A side--"I Want To Hold Your Hand," "I Saw Her Standing There," "This Boy," "It Won't Be Long," "All I've Got to Do," "All My Loving"--then flipside--"Don't Bother Me," "Little Child," "Till There Was You," "Hold Me Tight," "I Wanna Be Your Man," "Not a Second Time"--and I'd deejay the album, talking fast between tracks--then be The Beatles themselves (Paul, mostly, obviously)--my hair pushed down on my forehead, almost mop-topped, my eyes straining up to catch a glimpse of it--singing every song, alone in the corner of the living room with the record player, sotto voce joy deep in my heart.

How much fun was it to be a Beatle? We thought we knew, until they really showed us, almost right away, in A Hard Day's Night, released the same year as that first "official" Beatles album. I don't recall if I saw the movie in 1964, but of course have run into it a number of times over the years; and the older I get the more sentimental my smile at their beaming faces, flushed with being The Beatles, glad simply to be there. John winking at us like Bugs Bunny, whatever script and structure just something for him to fiddle with and happily confound, his nose stuck against the Coke bottle--get it!--and Ringo telling the reporter he's neither mod nor rocker but mocker--get it!--and George observing Ringo's pile of fan mail--"He's got a large family"--get it!--and Paul insisting that his grandfather is clean, and we get it--or we'd like to. It's The Beatles, though, who really do, all of it, and we're happy simply to watch them getting it. I saw it again a week or so ago, and sometimes had to look away, foolish and misty-eyed; getting soft. John and George gone, two of all things that must pass; but for a few minutes there Richard Lester followed them around as they sported in his movie, real mixers, in black and white, the way I picture Penny Lane and the last light slanting along Abbey Road.

And can I bear one of these days to watch Let It Be, filmed just six years after we'd met The Beatles and already down that long and winding road? Today, six years doesn't seem like much, but the Beatles came when I was seven and went was I was thirteen--and that is a long time, if I may indulge in gross understatement. From genuine little kid to the first year of high school--from toting around my Johnny Seven gun, posing with my cousin Ed in front of the flag in our front yard--and sent home early from school (like every other little kid in America) to find my mother crying in front of the TV over what happened in Dallas, November suddenly cold all over that day--to one last afternoon in eighth grade when I pulled out my toy soldiers to play Army and found myself suddenly bored, and knew there was no turning back; Gomer Pyle couldn't fool me anymore, just because he was the only jarhead in the whole damn country who never had to ship out. We were all tuned in by 1970, whether we knew it or not.

So I'll let myself strain a little under the weight of A Hard Day's Night's hand-held, long-gone spree. I sang those songs the whole time first go around, then started again--after having tossed them out for a few years, in college; and looking back, I wonder how desolate something must've been for me to have had enough of them. But they wouldn't go away; they were too surprised by joy--and maybe self-aware and even almost already jaded, but still ready to chuck it all for a giggle in a joint surging with girls--and John exults, "Please sir, sir, can I have one to surge me sir, please sir?" and he has only sixteen years left, so why not? Plenty of hard days to go around from 1964 to 1970 (and so on), and everyone deserves a dash and a romp before the house lights go up.

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