Thursday, November 28, 2019

Jacques Tati | PlayTime

playing with time
by Douglas Messerli

Jacques Tati and Jacques Lagrange, with additional English text by Art Buchwald (screenplay), Jacques Tati (director) PlayTime / 1967

PlayTime, Jacques Tati’s 1967 film, is perhaps his most unusual, in part because the director/actor as the famed Monsieur Hulot alternates between the lead and a supporting figure, and seems to be walking throughout the film through a maze of high-rises that did not truly exist during the time of Tati’s filming. Tour Montparnasse, the tallest building in Paris other than the Eiffel Tower, for example, was not built until 1973, and Tour First was not built until the following year.

     The film also, a bit like Mon Oncle, takes us through a gadget-crazed world, with moderne black plastic chairs covering Styrofoam so that after sitting upon them they pop back into shape, improbably complex entry buzzers that even the doorman hardly knows how to use, brooms with headlights, and apartments with large glass windows without curtains which even the most voyeuristic or exhibitionist-inclined New Yorkers might never have imagined possible.
      As François Truffaut commented, PlayTime is “a film that comes from another planet, where they make films differently.”
      The movie begins in a medium-sized high-rise, which at first site, with nuns walking down the hall, a couple whispering consoling words to one another, the entry of what appears to be a woman in a wheel-chair being taken down the corridor, and a military officer anxiously pacing the hall, seems to be a hospital; yet soon after, when a gaggle of mostly middle-aged American tourists suddenly appear, we recognize it as Orly Airport, and the fun begins, the women mumbling the absurd truisms of so many US travelers—in this case penned by humorist Art Buchwald: “I feel at home everywhere I go,” “Look at how little their cars are!” and “It’s the same everywhere.” Surely Noel Coward had this touring group in mind when, a few year’s earlier, he wrote his satiric musical about travel, Sail Away.
      These women might just as well have stayed home to look at pictures of that beautiful city instead of traveling to it. Indeed, to save money in this highly expensive work (Tati went bankrupt making the film), he often used pictures of the major tourist spots instead of filming them; he saved his camera expenses for elaborate studio-built constructions, described as “Tativille. Besides, his tourists seem more impressed by the futuristic airport light fixtures than in seeing the older Paris neighborhoods. And like small children on a school outing, they are constantly being counted by the tour-guide as if he were their somewhat frustrated teacher having to deal with their stupidities.
      The only tourist he cannot quite keep track of is a younger woman named Barbara (Barbara Dennek) who keeps slightly wandering off to find the “real” Paris, sometimes in the most unlikely places, such as a flower-seller ensconced a street of concrete structures.
       There is no real plot to Tati’s movie. Rather, when he’s onstage, Hulot simply wanders. Why he is determined on visiting the first high-rise, we never quite discover. Yet he must be expected, since a endlessly heel-clicking (a sound device the director had previously used in his Mon Oncle) assistant travels a very long hallway to temporarily retrieve him.
       The clumsy, always umbrella-toting Hulot, is left alone in a large reception room, but still gets lost even in the building’s elevators, and wanders away, much like Barbara—a parallel surely intended—from whatever destination he might have intended to arrive at.
      Yet the small office units, much like cargo containers, he witnesses in his voyage through corporate France says nearly everything. This is not a world big enough to contain the lumpen Hulot and his umbrella.
       In scene after scene, Hulot stumbles through the world in which he seemingly lives, attending with another mad gathering of tourists (this time Japanese businessmen) into a trade exhibition where he, mistaken as a salesman, successfully selling one of the lamps; and later a brand new (they literally finish the décor as the first guests arrive) trendy restaurant, where the waiters serve up food that is never eaten, sprinkling it again and again with lemon and pepper, and in other occasions simply forgetting to serve the orders up. 
     Fortunately, there is also a dance floor where everyone, a bit like in the 1963 movie Charade suddenly takes openly celebrate, Barbara (dressed in a shimmering green gown mocked by the patrons, dressed mostly in black) and Hulot—who along with most the film’s other figures—finally meet up, the perfect pairing, given the fact of her finally being able to discover, so Tati suggests, the “authentic” France—a kind of foolish but just as romantic Maurice Chevalier, stumbling instead of singing his way through the city of light.
      After a brief visit to a friend in the house of windows—perhaps another kind of version of the city of light—Hulot meets up again with Barbara, presenting her with a couple of small memories of his city, primarily a scarf which she proudly dons as her tourist bus back to the airport and numerous cars make a seemingly endless circle as opposed to the wandering paths of their former voyages, that can only remind one of Tati’s later film, Trafic.
      At first, I didn’t know what precisely to make of the film’s title. Of course, “play time” reminds one immediately of children—which all of these characters, in one way or another, are—being allowed to simply “play,” an important development of children in their transition to adulthood. Yet, I finally realized, Tati was also talking about playing with time, allowing oneself to move through space with utter freedom, lacking any certain goal. The characters here, not one of them, know where they are going, only wandering through a kind of new wonderland without knowing the good or bad of that world into which they have entered.
     The openness of Barbara and the gentle, often witless charm of Hulot, are exceptions to the way all the others play with time. And in Hulot, particularly—a role evidently that Tati had tired of playing—everyone seems to recognize someone from their “playing” at life who they know. Throughout Tati’s film people keep coming up to raincoat, umbrella-carrying figures (a British traveler, a black man, a miniature version of Hulot) to greet him, as if in fond-farewell for the bumbling innocent in all of us.

Los Angeles, Thanksgiving, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (November 2019).

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Lasse Hallström | What's Eating Gilbert Grape

traveling horizontally or vertically
by Douglas Messerli

Peter Hedges (screenplay, based on his novel), Lasse Hallström (director) What’s Eating Gilbert Grape / 1993

Swedish director Lasse Hallström is well known for his oddball, yet mostly gentle and sometimes sentimental views of family and community life, beginning with My Life as a Dog, including The Cider House Rules, and Chocolat. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (from 1993) is an important step along that directorial trajectory.
     Certainly, with Johnny Depp as the hero of this tale, Leonardo DiCaprio as Arnie Grape, his mentally disabled younger brother, John C. Reilly as a local commentator, Tucker Van Dyke, Mary Steenburgen as Gilbert’s married secret lover, and Juliette Lewis as the new woman in Gilbert’s life, Hallström could not have gathered a better cast. With the famed cinematographer Sven Nykvist (Bergman’s favorite) and the clever production designer Bernt Capra (father of my Green Integer co-administrator and typesetter, Pablo), the director of this film has some of the very best talents in the industry. The young DiCaprio was nominated for Academy Award for his role as the disarmingly honest Arnie, a grown-up version—he is just turning 18 in this film, despite the doctor’s proclamation that he probably would not live beyond the age of 10—of the younger Arnie of Alfred Hitchcock’s equally oddball, romantic work, The Trouble with Harry—a child, I might remind you who could not differentiate between yesterday, today, or tomorrow.
     In fact, if you think carefully, there are a good number of similarities between the two films. Both involve small US towns (in Hitchcock’s case a kind of Vermont paradise and in Hallström’s an equally small Endora, Iowa—a fictional Iowa town) where in handsome young home-towners suddenly fall in love with outsiders; both films involve the gossip of locals, which is gradually transformed into more caring and comprehending understanding of those among them; and both are filled up with eccentric characters whose lives become almost unbearable in a world were, as the voiceover announces early in this film, “we’re not going anywhere.”
      The “we” of this announcement is not only Gilbert, who works for a small grocer in the center of the town, threatened with extinction by a new supermarket FoodLand on the edge of town (echoing what as happened in so many small US towns when big stores such as Walmart move in), but his two sisters, Amy (Laura Harrington), who is now serving basically as the mother of the tribe, and Ellen (Mary Kate Schellhardt), a younger teenager who still helps in family chores.

    Together they care not only for the troubled Arnie but for the grossly obese mother Bonnie (wonderfully performed by Darlene Cates, who since her husband’s suicide has not left the couch for the last 6 years. One of the quiet rituals of this film is the set table moved over to accommodate the unmovable mother, dressed in a frowzy house-dress from which she has probably never escaped. The movie does not explain her shower and bathroom duties, but the audience and only wonder those issues. Certainly, the house their father has built is suffering from her occasional shuffles from the living room into the kitchen.
     Accordingly, we understand almost immediately “what’s eating Gilbert Grape,” stuck in a place that will not allow him any movement, even away from the desperate housewife which he is seemingly forced into sexual encounters since she is one of the very best customers of his employer Lampson’s.
     Yet the good-looking, in this case slightly red-haired Depp as Gilbert, does his best for his troubled family, helping to call-down his brother from his often attempts to climb the town’s water-tower, and to keep his mother from the town’s abuse for her gargantuan proportions. When Arnie attempts to climb, he helps by singing him down; yet the town leaders are growing impatient with his behavior, and threaten to control the child—even if we and the entire town know he, at 18, is no longer a true child, even if his mind cannot comprehend this.
      Up and down and in-between are the dominate images of this film. If the others are “not going anywhere,” Arnie’s climbing trees and the water-tower are evidence that there are other directions.
The in-between is death by drowning, clearly a metaphor representing the problem of not being able to escape.
     The woman with whom Gilbert is having an affair husband buys his own troubled children a small swimming pool, which he drowns in after suffering a heart attack. Gilbert gives Arnie a warm bath but forgets him there until he discovers the boy shivering the next morning in the now cold water, afraid, surely like his mother, of ever entering the water again. The shock of the event finds Gilbert breaking his very own rules that proclaim, “nobody touches Arnie.” Shocked by his own behavior, he gets in his truck and drives off.
     This movie begins with new possibilities as Gilbert and Arnie stand beside an empty country road to watch the procession of the annual International Harvester Travelall trailers who visit the small town to camp in a nearby recreation location. Arnie is delighted by their arrival, but it is Gilbert who truly discovers another life when he meets the wonderfully open-minded Becky, to whom Arnie runs in despair. Instead of “up-and-down,” the world Arnie has defined as his perimeters, she helps him to perceive a more horizontal movement through space, taking him into the river waters to help cure him of his aquaphobia.
      Back from his own horizontal voyage of guilt, Gilbert attends the primitive birthday party for the child who has lived beyond the prediction of his death. And meanwhile, when Arnie does finally reach the vertical heights of the water-town he has so long been seeking, the moribund Bonnie finally arises from her endless lethargy to, for the first time in years, to horizontally move in an attempt save her son from police detention.
     Gilbert, clearly in love with the adventuresome Becky, dares even to invite her into their troubled home to meet his mother, something he has before dared to do. Bonnie’s gentle statement, “I did not always look like this,” says it all. She recognizes the horrific burden she has been to her own family.
     When the overweight woman finally makes her own vertical voyage up the stairs of the rickety house to the bed she hasn’t used in years, the family finds her the next morning dead. Surely, since they will have to use a crane to remove her from the house, the neighbors will laugh and hoot about the event.
     Once again, however, the family comes together to protect one of their own, removing their possessions from the family home and setting it afire, almost like an Indian cremation event or, perhaps, more closely, to Andrei Tarkovsky’s sacrifice of the grand home in the movie of that same name.
      Yet that event allows the family a new freedom to move in a horizontal direction into the future.
Amy, we are told is now managing a bakery and Ellen is switching her educational goals. Gilbert and Arne wait by the roadside for Becky, who picks them up in her airstream trailer, presumably to take them on a new road in their lives.

Los Angeles, November 26, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (November 2019).

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Lino Brocka | Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Light)

the innocent destroyed by their beauty
by Douglas Messerli

Clodualdo del Mundo, Jr (screenplay, based on the fiction by Edgardo M. Reyes), Lino Brocka (director) Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Light) / 1975

Surely one of the very saddest films ever made, Lino Brocka’s (1939-1991) 1975 masterwork, Manila in the Claws of Light, takes us along for a long tradition of wide-eyed country innocents coming to the big city only to discover how corrupt and destructive that world is.
      One need only think of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, Mário de Andrade famous Brazilian classic fiction Macunaíma, Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, and more recently, John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy and even John Waters’ Pecker, where the young man, sullied by New York scene, takes them all back to Baltimore to reveal their own corrupt proclivities.
      The young would-be hero of Brocka’s work is the beautiful wide-eyed Julio Madiaga (Bembol Roco) come to Manila from Marinduque to reclaim his youthful lover Ligaya (Hilda Koronel), who has been lured away, with approval from her family, by the mysterious Mrs. Cruz (Juling Bagabaldo) who promises the young beauty a job and educational opportunities in the capitol city.
      Just observing Mrs. Cruz’s obsessive appetite for alcohol and other pleasures, we quickly perceive that her business is actually involved with the sex-trade, and that poor Ligaya has been sold in her trip to Manila into prostitution.

    Attempting to reconnect with her, Julio travels to Manila, hanging out in places, such as the ever-present Ah-Tek store (the character played by Tommy Yap), a Chinese immigrant who has apparently taken the unfortunate Ligaya as his favorite “woman.” Julio tracks Mrs. Cruz to the Ah-Tek store, and attempts to enter, but is rebuffed.
     Desperate to survive, Julio, who has been a fisherman previously, takes on the hard tasks of working in construction, forging friendships with several of his fellow workers such as Atong (Lou Salvador, Jr.) who befriends Julio and introduces his to the shanty-town conditions that allow he and his family to survive, while every payday being cheated in their paycheck (given what is described as “Taiwan wages,” instead of full pay). Atong, wrongfully arrested, is later murdered.
     Another construction-worker friend, Pol (Tommy Abuel) serves as Julio’s confidant, offering up important information of how to survive in his friend’s new world, and even helping Julio when he has no other place to sleep. Between them, there is an almost homoerotic relationship, which is made more apparent when, after Julio is fired from his construction job, he is brought, by a passing stranger, Bobby (Joio Abella) into the dark world of Pilipino call-boys whom Bobby’s client’s find Julio very attractive. He is, after all, a truly beautiful innocent, whom anyone with a heart might be drawn to.
      Yet, as we know from the very beginning of this sad tale, Ligaya, once she meets up again with Julio—explaining to him how she has been locked away as Ah-Tek’s lover and explains the full extent of her involvement in Mrs. Cruz’s prostitution ring—that she will not survive. It is left to his friend Pol to reveal the facts of her death.
      Julio’s ineffective attempt at revenge leads to his own death, from the hands of Ah-Tek’s minions.
      This tragic story, so unfortunately, is the story of so very many young people moving from one culture into another in every country in this planet.
     Innocence protected me in my voyage for a year to New York City. But it doesn’t always work out that way.
      One day, as I was walking the streets in the upper 70s streets, just above Harlem, near to where I lived while working at Columbia University—wearing, improbably, white pants and white shirt—a gang of young males surrounded me, promising a violent encounter; but when they looked at me, and saw the innocence of my eyes, they moved away without even touching me. I was mugged once, and the nervous robber who stole my total month’s salary, ran away without harming me, after demanding that I “drop my pants.”
      But clearly, in the long history of the abused young people who naively come to major cities throughout the world, that doesn’t always work. The beauty of innocence can often be overwhelming, but it can also be an entry for extreme abuse. In the tale Brocka tells, based on Edgardo M. Reyes’ novel, the beautiful are destroyed for no other reason than they are so lovely to look at.

Los Angeles, November 24, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (November 2019).

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Jacques Tati | Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (Monsieur Hulot's Holiday)

going hungry
by Douglas Messerli

Jacques Tati and Henri Marquet (screenplay), Jacques Tati (director) Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday) / 1953, revised 1978

In 1953 the actor-director Jacques Tati introduced one of the most likeable, well-meaning, clumsy clowns since the early days of the cinema of Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
     Yet, Hulot was something more than these sad-sack comedians; with his constant, unlit pipe, and his strange tri-cornered hat, he was far more dapper than that Chaplin or Keaton, and despite his
slightly pop-eyed visage, was fairly well-dressed and might almost have been accepted by the terribly bourgeoise society in which he was engaged, in this film, located in Sint-Marc-sur-Mer, primarily at the Hôtel de la Plage—if only he hadn’t present a sense of chaos whenever he appeared: massive windstorms arrive just as he does, terrors of sharks occur when even attempts to take a seaside journey out a small boat which, cracking in half, embalms him into his innards, and major fireworks display occurs when he stumbles into a small beach cottage, not to speak of his constantly puttering Citroën 2CV car for which even dogs won’t rise up from their naps in the street and which constantly collapses into a vehicle unable to go any further.
     Although beneath Chaplin and Keaton’s films there was always a deep sense of satire against the society, these figures’ enormous self-pluck, despite their ineffectual gestures, was at the center of those early US works; for Tati and his Hulot the society itself is the true satiric aim, in this case the endless vacationers, who rather like a horde of lemmings move en masse at the whistle-blow of a train or horn of a bus. It all reminds one somewhat of Noel Coward’s song from his musical Sail Away:

                  Travel they say improves the mind,
                  An irritating platitude, which frankly, entrenous,
                  Is very far from true.

                  Personally I've yet to find that longitude and latitude
                  can educate those scores of monumental bores
                  Who travel in groups and herds and troupes
                  Of varying breeds and sexes 

    Indeed, these travelers, taking the renowned French vacation, seem absolutely unable to speak to one another. The boring round-bellied businessman is called repeatedly to his phone (reminding one a bit of the Hollywood producer in Altman’s Gosford Park). The Major (André Dubois) can only recount his war-times experiences—mostly made-up we are certain—to a couple of elderly British women. The hotel proprietor (Lucien Frégis) clearly hates his waiter (Raymond Carl), a socialist and political pair talk only to one another, and an early dining couple escape the trouble of having to deal with any of the others. Yet all are greedy, rushing each time the bell rings to call them to breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
      Meanwhile Hulot, mostly because of his later arrival to these events—not all of them intentional—basically goes hungry. Both the proprietor and waiter obviously perceive him as a threat to the bourgeois community which they serve.

     Nonetheless, Hulot is loved by the most beautiful woman visiting this small town and he has more in common with the often-mischievous young boys (reminding one of Jean Vigo’s slightly older students in Zero for Conduct) and is popular with the young beach boys as well. It is only the tourists who dislike this foolish man, for the locals realize themselves as fools as well, preening to the beautiful woman tourist, and pretending equally clumsy tricks so that they might cover up their voyeuristic pleasures.
     In an important way, Hulot is almost a radical, shaking up whatever notion of what are the proper—and in this case quite boring—demands. Despite going hungry, it appears that the gangly Hulot goes home quite happily after his visually disastrous vacation. He has made things happen that his elderly hotel visitors might never have otherwise experienced, allowing the wind, literally, in to clean out their dusty lives, along with a true sense of politesse and even courtliness, along with the excitement of a shark-sighting, and the wonderment of fireworks.
     Unlike both Chaplin and Keaton, Hulot is not truly a badly treated fool, but a blind innocent who might even be described by someone like Montaigne as a “holy fool,” a kind of remembrance of Christ. Certainly, he cannot control the increasingly fixated economic world we hear from the radio reports, but he can change water into wine, a few slices of meat into a thousand loaves, and a barren vacation into a celebration. Even if he goes hungry, he is filled with belief in the world, and he stutters home in his 2CV car enjoying, unlike all the others, his holiday. The name Hulot, perhaps not accidently, means, if reversed, in several African languages, “to God.”

Los Angeles, November 11, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Reivew (November 2019).

Sunday, November 10, 2019

F. W. Murnau | Herr Tartüff (Tartuffe)

the bad dreams at home become real
by Douglas Messerli

Carl Mayer (screenplay, based on the play by Moliere), F. W. Murnau (director) Herr Tartüff (Tartuffe) /  1925

Director F. W. Murnau always recognized a good play which he might adapt to the screen, and Moliere’s Tartuffe from 1925 was clearly one of them, as was his next work for cinema, Faust. I use the word “cinema” here more emphatically than I usually mean it, for Murnau’s filmmaking, from the very beginning, was not only an attempt to take dreaming into the everyday lives of movie audiences, but to uplift them; to put their subconscious joys and fears into a near delirious mix of imagination and spiritual uplift.
     Using images from visual art and combining them with detailed realistic setting, yet unafraid of theatrical tropes and melodramatic scenes, Murnau—a gay man who, if he’d lived beyond 1931, might have produced radically campy films worthy of James Whale, Fassbinder and others—turned Moliere’s classic on its head, so to speak, revealing the hypocrisy in all of society instead of just its religiously-inclined central figure.
     Today, in fact, this film has even more significance than it might have at its original showing. It represents, after all, a figure of amazing power—a man who could transform the happily married and clearly bourgeois Orgon (Werner Krauss) into a penitent who, upon his return home wants to remove every object of luxury, including his beautiful wife, Elmire (Lil Dagover), from his house.
     One by one, the wonderful Emil Jannings—one of Murnau’s favorite actors—represented as complete fraud, despite the small booklet of his spiritual prescriptions pasted almost always in this film, to his face. Never was an actor more obscured from the busy work of the camera than in this picture. Gluttony, Lust, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, and Pride are one-by-one trotted out to the reveal the vile nature of the man to whom Orgon has given over his life. This film is a kind a Faust in fomentation, a satiric version of the black contagion of his later villain.
      To save her husband from his new “religious mania,” Elmire, dons her best dress and attempts, quite successfully, to arouse Tartuffe’s not-so-very-hidden passions. Yet even what he might see what is going on before his very eyes, her husband is unable to perceive the truth—always a wobbly thing in Murnau’s movies.
      The hero of this story is actually Orgon’s now unbeloved grandson—after all he has discredited himself by becoming an actor—who returns home to find that the house has been taken over by Orgon’s equally hypocritical housekeeper (the wonderful cabaret singer Rosa Valetti), who with a wink of the eye reveals both her hate and obsequious love of her master, who is now about to leave her his entire fortune. The scene in which he writes his will, while she pretends to dust and clear up his desk, watching him with wide-eyed pleasure and joy, is one of the many wonders of this movie.
      Murnau, from his childhood on, was described as a dreamer, a man who almost daily described to his brother the intense dreams he had had the night before. Films, art, and theater were clearly manifestations of his desire to return to sometimes pleasant tales and nightmares he experienced in his sleep. In this film the “actor” (André Mattoni), who quickly deduces what is going on and, donning a costume out of his stock, becomes a mustachioed film-producer, this time showing the film-within-the-film of Tartuffe, revealing the perfidy of both the “saintly” Tartuffe and Ogron’s housekeeper at the very same moment.
      If Orgon’s wife almost disappears from the film, it nonetheless is clear that the handsome young grandson, a mirror we might say, of Murnau himself, takes center-stage, resurrecting the chaos around him, and moving the film-within-a-film, back into social order.
      As film critic Tristan Ettleman writes:

          The frame story hammers the point home a bit too clearly,
          but nevertheless, it’s a fun bit of metafictional business with
          technical significance. André Mattoni’s grandson addresses
          the camera directly with an intertitle, at one point, asking the
          audience if they had seen what just took place. It’s a fun gag,
          and in this point, Tartuffe illustrates the power of cinema itself.

Los Angeles, November 10, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (November 2019).

Friday, November 8, 2019

Nanette Burstein and Brett Moren | The Kid Stays in the Picture

the kid is gone
by Douglas Messerli

Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen (screenplay and directors, based on the memoir by Robert Evens, with Evens as the narrator) The Kid Stays in the Picture / 2002

Robert Evans must have been the most likeable narcissistic bastards in the world. First, he has the looks of a male movie-star; Norma Shearer spotting him in the Beverly Hills Hotel’s swimming pool immediately demanded that he play her husband, Irving Thalberg, against James Cagney in Man with a Thousand Faces. She was a woman who immediately recognized a handsome man.
     And even before that break, he’d been a child actor in pictures, worked extensively in radio, and helped, with his brother, to develop the women’s fashion company Evan-Picone, introduce women to pants suits and other casual wear.

    Although even he admits he was not a very good actor—at least not in front of the camera—soon after his portrayal of Thalberg, he has hired by another producer baron, Darryl F. Zanuck, to portray the handsome young matador in Hemingway’s film version of The Sun Also Rises. He was evidently so bad that actors Tyrone Power, Ava Gardner, Eddie Albert, and Hemingway himself wrote a telegram to Zanack that Evans had to go or the film would be a disaster. I believe that film was a disaster, but not because of Evans. But the imperious Zanuck flew down to Mexico where it was being filmed, watched Evans perform, and through a bullhorn announced: “The kid stays in the picture,” the name of Evans’ own autobiographical tale and in 2002 the documentary directed by  Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen.
     Made up mostly of still color photos mixed with scenes from the many great movies which Evans was later to direct, this work, on the surface, is not a great piece of film making. Yet the story of how Evans turned from acting to suddenly become the head of the 9th largest studio in Los Angeles, Paramount, which was just bought up at bargain-basement price by Gulf & Western by Charles Bludhorn, who knew absolutely nothing about movies, and who suddenly decided to hire the has-been actor as the Head of Production based upon a newspaper piece regaling Evans’ brash style and career successes.
      Evans, charming as he might have been, was also a determined newcomer and not so stupid. He realized even before he was courted by Paramount, that if you wanted to be a producer, you had to have property instead of actresses and actors, quite the opposite perspective from most of Hollywood producers at the time. He’d already acquired the rights, with the help of his journalist friend (who actually read scripts and the books upon which they were based), to The Detective, and quickly produced a series of Neil Simon movies for Paramount, including Barefoot in the Park and Plaza Suite (neither of which this documentary recalls). These films all resulted in great successes for the studio, but Evans also clearly had more serious things on his mind with Rosemary’s Baby (directed by the man he keeps describing as his “little Pollack,” the great Polish-born director Roman Polanski), whose later independent Evans-production of Chinatown would make him even more famous.
       Rosemary’s Baby would have not survived, given Sinatra’s determination to end his wife, Mia Farrow’s career, had not Evans taken her aside to show her an early edited version which he suggested she would be a shoo-in for the Academy Award (she didn’t win that, but did win The Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year, which certainly did help her career).
     And, then, of course there was his somewhat contentious connections with “the intellectual” Francis Ford Coppola, whose The Godfather 1 and 2 sent the floundering studio off the charts, bringing it from 9 to number 1. Coppola also credits Evans with making important changes to his masterworks.
    Along the way in his rising career were other, often sentimental hits, such as Love Story—whose central actress, Ali MacGraw, Evans married, one of seven wives—none of the others even mentioned in this documentary; the directors claimed that to do so would simply slow down the narrative. Maybe, in fact, Evans’ high-charged story might have benefited by a slightly slower telling pace. I feel we never truly get to know the man who cannot, clearly, ever live with a woman for very long. Why was a truly handsome man, described throughout his life as a most eligible bachelor, never able to sustain a relationship? This documentary only hints at some of the problems.
      The fact that Evans wanted his friend, Alain Delon, rumored often as being a closeted gay man (despite his somewhat homophobic comments) to play the role of Charles "Lucky" Luciano in The Cotton Club, which, when he couldn’t hire Delon, he replaced him with the former gay porn star, bi-sexual Joe Dallesandro, is just a peak into a very complex man.
      Yet despite his obvious bluster, Evans’ sentimental side is well-revealed, particularly in his love for the flower and fountain-obsessed home, which he purchased soon after his quick rise to sudden fame, the former home of Shearer and Thalberg. Those were the days you might buy paradise for $290,000. And it was a kind of paradise that you could never imagine a blustering Trump or other studio heads of the day even able to appreciate. There is something so beautiful and peaceful about that small home that it truly makes you look at Evans anew. If he can describe his former wife Ali as a snot-nosed bohemian, if he can stare down some of the most brutally unsmiling executives in the world, you realize that Evans has heart and a comedic sense of himself which surely does not define any of the other Hollywood moguls.
      Evans, unlike Zanack and so many others, lived for the script, not for gloriously glamourous figures who populated film history. That is also why one so loves this documentary. If it is often a kind of gossip sheet, telling us what we don’t (and sometimes do) want to hear, it is also a tragic tale in which the golden hero falls because of his own hubris.
      The most important thing that brought Evans down was cocaine, which, apparently nearly every wealthy person on Los Angeles’ Westside, in those days of the late 1960s and the decade of the 1970s, imbibed. I get no kick from cocaine (champagne is another issue), but evidently so many of those who could afford that habit did it to excess. And it brought Robert Evans into a freefall in a rather tragic way.
      Trying to raise money for his film, The Cotton Club, after much indecision (Evans himself first wanted to direct it), directed by Coppola, Evans was introduced to the would-be impresario Roy Radin by his cocaine dealer Karen Greenberger. A deal was worked out, although Radin was probably not wealthy enough to later sustain Evans’ and Coppola’s ambitions. Greenberger, paid $50,000 for her connection in the deal, was highly unsatisfied with the money, and worked with others to kill Radin. The lawyer: Robert Shapiro!
      Evans was never charged with any involvement, but his refusal to testify (he claimed the 5th Amendment) and his very connection with the murder trial—as well as the failure of the film at the box-office—brought him his comeuppance. As he, himself, declares: “No one was taking my calls.” He lost his career and his beloved home. Approaching suicidal feelings, he locked himself into a clinic, from which he basically needed to escape in order to survive.
     Even Evans, narrating this film, seems surprised that he did survive, turning sober and providing airtime to proclaim the need to stay away from drugs. Although he had sold his lovely paradise of a house to a wealthy French millionaire, he realized that in order to come back into life, he needed it badly. He was, after all, a true sentimentalist. His good friend Jack Nicholson flew to Paris, “getting down on his knees,” so the voice of Evans proclaims (surely another sentimental exaggeration), to make him sell it back to Evans. It clearly was sacred ground.
      The would-be Thalberg had about $37 in his pocket.
     But just as he needed the spotlight, so Paramount still needed him, and he made a final pact to produce a small number of films for them. A few, Marathon Man, Black Sunday, Popeye, were successful, but others, including another Neil Simon re-do, The Out-of-Towners, and even worse fare were failures.
      In watching The Kid Stays in the Picture for the second time the other day, I was delighted and tearful for this somewhat innovative thinker to Hollywood producing. I certainly did not like all of this “entertainments,” but many of them represented the best of late Hollywood filmmaking. Had the strange business of Los Angeles film gone further in some of the directions that Evans promoted—an emphasis on the script instead of the stars, a commitment to challenging psychological and even sometimes experimental cinema as opposed to the readily accessible standards of movie-making—films might not be in downward spire, which Martin Scorsese, in a recent The New York Times essay declared them to be. I’m not sure I agree with Scorsese. Lots of good films are still being made, and I believe they matter. But Robert Evans, perhaps always “a kid,” obviously truly loved a world in which narrative and acting came brilliantly together.
       I don’t think I might have liked the man, too macho for me, but I do love the attitude and many of his values. And I was disturbed to read of his death, at the age of 89, on October 26th of this year.

Los Angeles, November 8, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (November 2019).

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Martin Scorsese | Mean Streets

the true tragedy
by Douglas Messerli

Martin Scorsese and Mardik Martin (screenplay), Martin Scorsese (director) Mean Streets / 1973

I saw Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets in Maryland the year it was released, 1973. I do remember its endless street scenes in black, green, yellow, red, and sometimes—particularly when the cop cars came around—in white. All the gangster films I’d seen until then had been basically noir films in black-and-white. Here, for the first time in my memory, the evil-doings of mafioso-like figures was painted in the colors of our day, a reality so potent that it would eventually result in some of the best movies of the next decade in Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather 1 and 2. And, of course, from another perspective, Scorsese’s own brilliant Taxi Driver.
     Despite the early years of total bigotry toward Italian-Americans (which continues more-subtly still today), Americans took to Italians, particularly to the actions of the mafia, almost immediately, in part, because that culture so resembles our own claims to this country’s origins; the combination of deep religiosity, dedication to family and friends, an innate sense of honor—however one might define that—along with a love of place (usually a narrow swath of land settled by people like oneself, but sometimes confused with a love of country) along with very large doses of hypocrisy and extreme violence. Aren’t these the ingredients behind absolutely every US Western film?
      As Roger Ebert perceived, however, Mean Streets, unlike the later Coppola films, is not really a story of the Mafia, although those pernicious villains certainly do play a role in the movie. But, rather, this work simply reveals the effects of that world upon the children and young adults who live in their community.
     Charlie Cappa (a very likeable and well-dressed Harvey Keitel), the “hero” of this unheroic film, would like nothing more than to run the bar/male-entertainment joint that he has presumably inherited from his uncle, Giovanni (Cesare Danova). He is a devout Catholic, disillusioned by the church simply because the priests so easily forgive his many sins. A few “Hail Mary’s” is all that he is asked for his often-violent attempts to collect for his uncle’s protection racket. He’s not very good at it, and sometimes manages only to get $20.00 for thousands of dollars of debt. He is even bilked by young students seeking drugs.
     One might imagine him in a happy marriage to Teresa Ronchelli (Amy Robinson), a lovely epileptic, shunned by the community, who lives nearby. But as both know, in the world in which they live, such a relationship would be impossible. And they keep their love silent. In a strange sense, the horrific “Johnny Boy” becomes their symbolic child, a boy which had they birthed, might have grown up in this scratch of the New York landscape just like Teresa’s cousin. And this is the true tragedy behind the basically comedic riffs of Scorcese’s film.
     Charlie attempts to redeem himself, instead, on the street, particularly by protecting Teresa’s young cousin, “Johnny Boy” Civello (and amazing vision of a young Robert De Niro), who is the very opposite of his “protector”—a violent live-wire triggered, like the bombs he tosses into US Mail boxes, to go off at any moment. A bit like John Cazale as Fredo Corleone and the equally over-the-top Cazale as the wild partner to Al Pacino in Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon, Johnny Boy is not an easy person to protect. Certainly, he’s not at all reliable—he owes thousands to nearly everyone—and when any shake-down appears on the horizon, instead of backing away, he becomes nervously ballistic, causing any number of violent battles, more like Irish donnybrooks that Mafioso-like murders. I can’t wait to see Scorcese’s The Irishman, yet another version of the Italian-Irish connections of American immigrants.

    De Niro, this early into his career, already has perfected a role he would play in so many variations: a man so high-wired and near-mad that he almost might be described as “cool.”
     “Johnny Boy” knows that in this world, death is part of the territory. He embraces it as if it were a warm coat to temporarily keep him out of the cold air he inhabits. He knows death far better than he realizes life, and that is his problem and, or course, his destiny. While Charlie attempts to redeem the “mean streets” of this cinema’s title, the “boy” abandons himself to them, drinking in their lurid pleasures, women, money, and momentary friends.
      Strangely enough, however, this highly plotted dichotomy does not at all appear in this film as an effort leaden ambition. As Ebert writes:

     We never have the sense of a scene being set up and then played out;
     his characters hurry to their dooms while the camera tries to
     keep pace. There’s an improvisational feel even in scenes that we know,
     because of their structure, couldn’t have been improvised.

     As startlingly brilliant as Coppola’s films were, this early story by Scorcese of lost men in search of an American Dream, seems to be closer to the actual world in which we all know we live: violent dreamers who barely manage to stumble through their very everyday lives. Nobody in this film is a true hero, and, strangely enough, nobody in Mean Streets is an absolute villain. That is, quite obviously, the real problem.

Los Angeles, November 6, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (November 2019).