BIG BAD LOVE AND DONALD TRUMP COMETH (And Then There Was Hollywood: Sixth Rumination)

Big Bad Love (2001)
D. Arliss Howard

I’m not prepared to bet on it yet, but Donald Trump’s election and subsequent administration may end up being the kind of watershed that will make the future ask how this came to be. A lot of art that’s been made in the last few decades might wind up being viewed through the lens of whether it had its finger on those elements of the American pulse–traditional and modern—that made Trump not so much possible as inevitable.

If that comes to pass, Arliss Howard’s Big Bad Love, based on some short stories by the dissolute Southern writer Larry Brown (Mississippi Division, and I know, “dissolute Southern writer” is a serial redundancy), might be an interesting place to start.

I first heard about the movie when Greil Marcus praised it in one of his Real Life Top Ten columns just after its 2001 release. It stuck in my memory because Marcus wrote of Rosanna Arquette (an ongoing concern of this blog, see HERE,  HERE and HERE) that she was “alive on the screen as she hasn’t been since long before the black hole she hit with Desperately Seeking Susan, the passionate woman of The Executioner’s Song and Baby It’s You stepping out of a 20-years-older version of herself.”

Now that I’ve finally seen the movie, I can say that Arquette is certainly more alive than anyone else around her–just as she was in The Wrong Man, Black Rainbow, After Hours, Pulp Fiction (where Tarantino’s choice of Uma Thurman in a role Arquette auditioned for represents his biggest failure of nerve in a career that’s been defined by cowardice) and, come to think of it, Desperately Seeking Susan (where Arquette was touchingly vulnerable and Madonna was saved by the chance to be herself, something no other film, including her various vanity projects, has offered to date).

Except for Madonna being herself, and John Lithgow in The Wrong Man, though, she never had much competition.

Here, the competition is fierce. Howard, Paul LeMat, Debra Winger and especially a revelatory Angie Dickinson make up a spectacular ensemble. If the writing had allowed them to breathe, they might have turned this into a great movie.

As it stands, we have what we have, which is a well-wrought, but finally empty version of an oft-told tale, the standard dissolute Southern writer’s take on his own southernness, dissolution and writerliness, filtered through the travails of trying to find a combination that will impress a Yankee editor. There’s a near-tragedy thrown in. Then a full-blown tragedy. Howard, playing the lead, is especially impressive in his ability to allow a man who is no more damaged after the near and full tragedies than he was before. Less lively maybe, but no more damaged. Dickinson, unfortunately, does not get much chance to show us how the damaged man’s mama responds to his near and real tragedies, which is disappointing because they’re written in her face before they happen.

All of which leaves us with a series of moments, some quite brilliant, all finally devoid of hope or meaning.

It is, however, the kind of world where Donald Trump might become President some day, even if none of these folks (observed? or dreamed up to please the Yankee editor? even the late Larry Brown may not have known). I mean, hell, if this is what they think of us, why not bite their ankle just once and vote for somebody who will pee on their heads too?

I’m not saying I approve, just that I understand.

As for the movie itself, and taking it strictly as a movie and nothing else, it does lead to the question of whether Arquette’s character–the only one who will ever have a lease on anything you would call a life, new or otherwise–is an expression of the writer, the actress or the moment. It’s her meat. Weird stuff has never thrown her (heck, when she worked for Scorcese and Tarantino, she was the only one who wasn’t thrown, not that I didn’t enjoy watching some others give it a go and maybe even convince themselves they had turned the trick, at least after the reviews came in). She gives brief flickers of life to the movie in the same way that her character would give life to those of such dreary, interesting characters as we meet here, or even to their real life counterparts if anybody this dreary was ever really interesting.

Debra Winger, for instance, doesn’t get lost here. We’ve always known that she–Winger, not her character–is capable of nearly anything. But even Debra Winger can’t resolve the contradiction between the kind of grounded realism her character represents and the existential despair a dissolute Southern writer (in this case her character’s husband–based, of course, on the writer himself) must practice twenty-four/seven if he’s to gin up the blend of authenticity and sympathy-for-that-fella-who-knows-the-devil that will create the space for near and real tragedies to occur without costing him his chance at twenty pages in The New Yorker. Arquette–playing a character who is just as recognizable–sails past all that, out into a world of her own, the very one she would have to create if by chance she were ever stuck in the world the movie can’t quite bring itself to convey, let alone the one it invents as a replacement.

So, on a first viewing at lest, I value the movie most for that. It provides another tiny bit of color in a mad mosaic–all her own–which Arquette has built, piece by piece, ever since The Executioner’s Song. One that adds up to a strange, alternative world where it never matters who the President is because no one remembers his name.

She’s Gloria Grahame, fifty years on.

Except it’s the crit-illuminati‘s job to notice such things and how can they when the new President is busy taking a leak on their heads and calling it tears?

I’m glad I got acquainted with this bit of Arquette’s journey. But I have to admit she’s the only reason I would ever subject myself to all those dreary, interesting people twice.

 

MY FAVORITE POST-MILLENNIAL TELEVISION SHOW (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

Medium (2005-2011)

…or, as I like to call it, Purgatorio.

I mentioned a while back that my favorite television show is The Rockford Files and there’s no real second. On an All-Time basis, that will always be true.

On the narrow basis of the new millennium though, my favorite show is Medium. And, again, there’s no real second.

It should be pretty obvious from those selections that I’m not especially enamored of the “narrative” shows that have come to dominate critically approved television since the dawn of The Sopranos.

Never fear. I’m used to being at odds with my fellow Earthlings. And if there’s one element that lifts Medium well above other recent shows I like, follow and write about (mostly Homeland and The Americans), it’s the unusual and serious degree to which is does not take Civilization for granted.

Even so, Medium should not work. It shouldn’t work in general and it really shouldn’t work on me.

It’s a mix of genres to which, taken individually, I’ve shown a lifetime of indifference, and, taken as a whole, tend to mutually repel each other–horror, paranormal, law and order, family drama, kitchen sink humor. Many of the elements within those genres that normally send me off to do the laundry or plot grisly murders are present in force: holes in logic, normalization of gore, the long-suffering teenager, the inquisitive child, the bickering couple.

And yet….

This time, on this show, it all works.

Some of it is the lead actress, who I prefer to call by her right title: The Unimpeachable Patricia Arquette. I watched a few shows with a friend of mine once and, in about Season One, Episode Three, he pointed at her on the screen and said “She’s frustrating!”

Exactly.

You know, like a real person in your life.

I could have looked at my friend (or any friend) and said “I often feel the same way about you.” And all of my friends could say the same of me. This is the only show I’ve ever watched where the cast (as opposed to a likeable lead, James Garner maybe) feel like friends. Sofia Vassilieva, twelve-playing-ten when the show began, eighteen-playing-sixteen when it ended, got both the teen wannabe and the actual teenager just right. Jake Weber got the put-upon husband just right (and boy, it’s hard to be more put-upon than having three daughters who are all psychics and the mom they got it from constantly awakened by nightmares of brutal murders which she feels compelled to solve in a manner that relies more on relentless will than careful detection). Maria Lark was a flat-out miracle as the inquisitive child. The rest of the cast was spot on as well. High profile guest stars like Arliss Howard and Anjelica Huston (in recurring roles), or Rosanna Arquette and Kelsey Grammer (in inspired one-offs) never felt like stunt casting.

It all worked and it all worked from the first episode.

Throw in better-than-good writing and the consummation of an idea which has dominated television for a decade-and-a-half now–a crazy white woman is what stands between us and chaos!–and you have high quality entertainment guaranteed as a baseline.

But Medium goes a bit beyond that. It poses–by accident or intent I can’t say–interesting questions.

What does it say about us that the best depiction of modern American normalcy on television in the new century, if not the history of the medium (no pun intended), shows a family of psychics (based on a real life model), where Mom spends her nights dreaming of horrible death and her days stalking the killers, while her daughters work out whether its ethical to pick the answers to homework math problems from normal Dad’s temptingly available head?

Nothing entirely good I suspect. But nothing entirely bad either. And a post-millennial show that offers some sort of hope in the madness is no small thing. After all, what really makes Homeland and The Americans (and, I suppose all those other quality shows I’m always hearing about) compelling is that, under all the effort at preservation on display, it’s the real message that resonates.

We’re screwed.

With Medium it’s….more complicated.

Hence Purgatorio.

In this show, the focus is on the living. But the drama resides with the dead.

And what the dead are seeking when they seek out Allison DuBois, is, if not redemption, then at least resolution. She doesn’t get visited by those who pass quietly in their beds. She gets visited by murder victims. And there are an awful lot of them.

Underneath the occasional bows to formula (even this premise can’t be endlessly inventive in an episodic format), and the pressing concerns of every day life, accurately, annoyingly, joyfully portrayed, what never wears smooth over seven seasons is the constant presence of violent death in the most ordinary suburban setting. Allison DuBois’s head is a war-zone.

Phoenix, with it’s built-in dynamics of immigration, drugs, sunlight, desert air, is an inspired setting even if it’s just by virtue of being the real Allison Dubois’s hometown. It’s normalcy with an edge, the kind of edge that has always existed in border towns when the border is in dispute as our southern border has periodically been and certainly is now.

But what makes the show compelling for me whenever I revisit it at length (as I’ve been doing recently) is the nagging conscience of Civilization, the search for order that seems to lean Catholic (I have no idea whether DuBois or the show’s creators are religious, only that religion’s concerns are, for once, represented as human concerns) but can’t quite get a grip in the modern sunlight.

Nor can it be dismissed. Every day in Medium, like every day in the “real” world, the sun goes down. Allison’s crazy dreams haunt a present that has been designed to dispel them. The character’s dogged will is that of a Crusader, a will that could only be produced by a religious impulse–when it annoys us, we call it fanaticism, when it frightens us, we burn people at stakes–even if no particular faith is espoused.

So underneath all the lovely writing and wonderful acting and skillful appropriation of ancient dread for a modern setting, the real heartbeat of Medium is the nagging, frustrating truth that animates all worthwhile art, serious or popular:

Without Meaning, there is no Life.

[NOTE: I have no idea whether the real life Allison Dubois is an actual physic or whether psychics really exist. I also have no interest in knowing. The key to any good show is whether it works on its own terms. By that measure, Medium works wonderfully well.]