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.


ace said...

That's a great post. Here's my off-the-point observation. Why is it that internet etiquette seems to require SPOILER WARNING!!!!! before any observation about any movie. I think it's because internet anonymity allows people looking for people to yell at to complain in comments that the movie has been spoiled because they know something about it. People who like to yell at people get to do it on the internet with a convenience never known before. Someday, someday soon I hope, SPOILER WARNING!!!!! will go the way of all cap emails.

Like I said, great post. Now I know I'd like to see Hollywoodland some day.

Is there somebody playing the actress who played Lois? I always found her intriguing.

Paul J. Marasa said...

Thanks for the kinds words, ace. As for "spoiler warnings," I must admit I do that myself sometimes; this time around, I assumed anyone interested in Hollywoodland already knows George Reeves committed suicide under suspicious circumstances. And I don't know why other sites warn about spoilers, but I do it as a courtesy to someone who hasn't seen the picture. (In fact, I'll avoid reading a review if it tells me it contains spoilers.) Again, given my inclinations, I guess I should have included a spoiler warning with Hollywoodland; but whenever I do, I promise not to shout.

By the way, my parenthetical comment at the start of the posting was simply to imply that my comparisons to Chinatown may not be original, but since I hadn't read any criticism on Hollywoodland, I could proceed in blissful ignorance of my own un-originality.

By the way #2: The lack of spoilers in this kind of writing may also be due to the convention in scholarly film ciriticism, where "knowing how it turns out" is a moot point. In that world, Hollywoodland and Hamlet get the same treatment. Imagine trying to write an English paper without letting your readers know everyone dies at the end of Hamlet--curses! Spoiled again!

As for Lois Lane: Wikipedia has thorough entries (gee, what a surprise) on everyone associated with the TV series. Phyllis Coates played Lois--and, at George Reeves' insistence, received equal billing with him--for the first season, then was replaced by the Lois everyone knows, Noel Neill. In Hollywoodland we see very little of Lois; there is a funny "outtake" as Jimmy flubs a line and Reeves--ah, but I won't spoil it for you. Suffice to say it's a rare moment of levity in a sad movie. A Lorry Ayers plays Coates in Hollywoodland. THe Internet Movie Database informs us she was "Scarred Older Alessa" (!) in Silent Hil.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to your post I finally rented Hollywoodland this past weekend... and forgot what you had posted about it. I am happy to see that, rereading it, we both see the parallels to Chinatown. It struck me about an hour into it.

You forgot to mention that in both movies there are characters telling the private eye, "You don't know what you're getting into." That seemed to fall flat in Hollywoodland, however, as it didn't have the payoff Chinatown had (the sister/mother thing).

What you call a parenthood angle, I call a hero angle. After all, every son expects his father to be a hero. And I found it interesting that the call to heroism in the P.I.'s life was mirrored by the Hollywood heroism of Geroge Reeves in his role as Superman. A nice bit of parallelism. That scene where a bemused Reeves greets the kids gathered at the window is memorable. I found myself thinking, "Forget your high-falutin' acting aspirations and just be content to play the hero for those kids. After all, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry did honor to the job."

I also liked that grainy home movie sequence of Reeves doing wresting moves("You watch this and tell me what you think") and the grimace, which led to the PI's acceptance that it was a suicide after all.

Hollywoodland is a great neo-noir. The fact that it seems a lot like Chinatown doesn't detract, in my opinion. - Wes Clark

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