Thursday, December 31, 2015

Vincente Minnelli | Two Weeks in Another Town

roman holiday
by Douglas Messerli 

Charles Schnee (screenplay, based on a novel by Irwin Shaw),  Vincente Minnelli (director) Two
Weeks in Another Town / 1962

A year before 8 ½, Hollywood director Vincente Minnelli filmed a kind populist prequel, Two Weeks in Another Town, to Fellini’s far more complex and visually exciting masterpiece. Based on Irwin Shaw’s potboiler fiction, it’s hard to explain even the title of this work: why Rome is described as a town and how anyone might think the fictional filmmaker Maurice Kruger (Edward G. Robinson)—formerly considered an important director—might shoot a film in two weeks, is inexplicable. But this, after all, is Hollywood—or, better yet, Cinecitta Studios, the home to thousands of badly acted melodramas, as well as great films such as those made by the likes of Fellini and, soon after, Godard.

      Indeed, at moments, Minnelli’s Rome even looks as if it were peopled by Fellini-like grotesques, and as in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, all the beautiful people seem to be dining on streetside terraces, where everyone recognizes those who pass. Here, much as in La Dolce Vita, a jealous wife, Clara Kruger (Clarie Trevor) has been joined by the cosmopolitan beauty, Carlotta (played by Cyd Charisse, attempting a sort of Anita Eckberg imitation), along with a gentle Roman girl, Veronica (Daliah Lavi) and two has-been actors, the elderly Jack Andrus (Kirk Douglas), and a younger bad-boy version of him, Davie Drew (George Hamilton). We realize from early on in the film that there will be some wild parties and long nights ahead.
     The film begins with an absolutely pointless series of scenes in a mental clinic where Andrus has gone after having cracked up, quite literally, by driving a car straight into a wall after a disastrous evening with his former wife, Carlotta. By the time we first encounter him, he’s already been “cured” and is ready for release. With perfect timing his arch-enemy, Kruger, cables him to come to Rome for a small part in his new film—once again a convenience of plot which makes little logical sense. No matter, once the cast has been assembled, we’re finally in for some delights as the actors in this work, one by one, each try to prove that everyone in this world is a creative mess. 
      Indeed, if you look at Minnelli’s film from this vantage point, as a kind of study in modes of bad and over-the-top acting or as a study in talent gone sour, it almost becomes interesting, 
      Trevor as Mrs. Kruger hisses and spits out her vindictiveness, mostly to her husband, before, at the end of the film, turning her medusa-stare to Andrus. Hamilton easily proves that like his character Drew, he cannot seriously act (later proving that comedy was his real talent.) And Kruger, whom the movie represents as a man who has lost any talent he once might have possessed, wanders around the set in Robinson’s paunch body like an old man, the script finally getting rid of him through the accident of a heart attack, so that Andrus can take his place; after all Kruger has long ago taken away even Andrus’ small acting role. Lavi as Veronica does her best to be sweet, but the very idea that she has to make a romantic choice between both of the neurotic actors in the film makes her role nearly impossible.

       Despite the preposterous shifts of intention and even genre—is this a love story, a study in psychological healing, a satire of filmmaking, or just a damn silly melodrama?—Minnelli, great filmmaker that he once was, does his best to detract us from what’s going on through his richly colored images and the spot-on framing of his scenes. A few of them might even hint that he is still at the top of his form; maybe he had simply lost his judgment about the projects he undertook.
     At moments, it is apparent, Minnelli even tries to resurrect some of the fluidity and drama of screenwriter’s Charles Schnee’s 1953 similarly-themed script, The Bad and the Beautiful.  But actor Douglas, this time around, is trying to be one of the “beautiful” people, and doesn’t have enough time as a “director” to become the “bad” (but dramatically good) Jonathan Shields of that earlier work.  Almost as if Douglas cannot find a way out of the stale story in which he’s now trapped, his character, after another bender, tries once again to drive into a wall, this time with his ex-wife beside him in the car. 
      The fact that he doesn’t succeed seems to imply—without logic once again—that he has truly been “cured”; for immediately after he high-tails it out of “town” to return back to the good ‘ole healthy USA, where he intends, apparently, to convince someone of his newly acquired directing talents and, “when the time is right,” to star the slightly reformed Davie Drew in a new film. Now that I think about it, I think I prefer the circus he left behind.

Los Angeles, December 31, 2015

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Alan J. Pakula | All the President's Men

the thriller you’ve already read
by Douglas Messerli 

William Goldman (screenplay, based on the book by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward), Alan J. Pakula (director) All the President’s Men / 1976

For Christmas this year, I bought a DVD of a movie Howard and I have seen numerous times, Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men. Indeed, Howard presumed that we already had it in our rather large movie library, for we think of it as one of our favorites.
      Seeing it again yesterday, I felt it was nearly as fresh as the first time we saw it, although I suppose it seemed even more immediate in 1976, since we had lived in Washington, D.C. during the very years it portrayed. 
     Although after living now in Los Angeles for many years, I have grown accustomed to seeing familiar buildings and sites in the cinema, at the time is was somewhat breathtaking to see that so many of the film’s locations were so very familiar to us. We knew the apartment building wherein the film’s Bob Woodward lives; I’d several times visited the news room of the Washington Post on my way to see book editor William McPherson; and, of course, I’d spent long hours in the Library of Congress; we’d attended so many theater and concert events in the behemoth Kennedy Center. Pakula uses dozens of noted governmental buildings that anyone who has even visited Washington immediately recognizes. So the film seemed to put me, and a great many viewers I am sure, on familiar ground 
      And yet, the story it was telling of high government intrigue and a series of mysteriously labyrinthine acts of deceit and conspiracy seemed to come from some other world, as if someone was telling me a nearly unbelievable story about my own family. And it this sense of displacement, the simultaneous knowing and hardly being able to recognize what I was hearing and seeing that created for me—and for many others who knew the city as well—a sense of awed horror, as if it had been hinted that my uncles and aunts had been involved some vast criminal act and were threatening the lives the entire family if we dared to tell anything we had known about it.

      On the other hand, I had never been an admirer of President Nixon, and certainly did not ever think of him as a friendly uncle; indeed I wanted him, as I believe the film intends, to get caught—just as we know from the beginning of this mystery-thriller he will be. 
     In fact, there is very little mystery about the events the film portrays. I had read The Washington Post every day that the film covers, encountering the gradual revelations that All the President’s Men shows us. Yet, every time I see this film I immediately grow tense, am impatient with Pakula’s steady, slow pace as the two young reporters, Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), work to find a chink in the wall of secrecy that greets their every question. 
      The plot sends them into the vast reading room of the Library of Congress as they flip through book requests to no avail; Bernstein flies to Miami, only to cool his heels in a waiting room ruled by the icy secretary (Polly Holliday); and time and again, doors are slammed in their faces. Even “Deep Throat” (Hal Halbrook) isn’t telling, as he merely confirms or metaphorically steers Woodward  down a different road from one he is traveling: “Follow the money trail.” 
     Throughout much of this “thriller” absolutely nothing happens. Is it any wonder that Bernstein is ready to jump to easy conclusions? I mean, we know they are right in their suspicions. In short, much of tension that this film develops is out of a sense of frustration. And I’ve noted that each time I watch it, I begin to shiver—not just out of the disgust of I feel about the nation’s leaders and their institutions, but simply in anticipation.
      Every time they find one clue, the would-be heroes must seek out yet another, a third. Or they discover the questions they’ve asked were not expressed simply enough. Almost as a joke, William Goldman’s excellent script sends them suddenly into a home where a woman who, appreciative of their writing, is completely ready to talk—only to reveal a few moments later that she is an employee in the department store, Garfinkel’s, and not the government worker they sought.

     Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards, Jr.) at times standing almost as a roadblock, at other times, amazingly encourages his hungry reporters to keep searching, while permitting them to move ahead with the story that, if they’d gotten it wrong, might put the entire journalistic world and the First Amendment into jeopardy. Somewhat like an overprotective father, he pushes and pulls the entity he calls Woodstein in a pattern that reiterates the rocky rhythm of their reportage: one step forward and two steps back.
      Accordingly, when Woodward and Bernstein finally get the goods on Nixon’s administration, no matter what the viewer’s political values, there is such great relief that the truth has finally been outed that he has little choice but to cheer or break out in tears.
     The subject of this film, accordingly, is not at all what it pretends to be: who was behind the Watergate break-in to the offices of the National Democratic Party. Rather, the real object of this film’s intense investigation is not so much political as it is a search for truth, for a reality that within those long governmental halls seems seldom to exist.

Los Angeles, December 30, 2015