ROSANNA ARQUETTE….A HANDY TEN

(Warning: Occasional rough language due to movies being quoted.)

Rosanna Arquette is the only modern actor who is indefinable in conventional crit-illuminati terms and the only artist I know of who consistently broke through the Frozen Silence that descended on the Empire in the eighties (made all the more remarkable by that being the moment her career began).

She might not be the most gifted. There are plenty who think she’s not the most gifted in her own family. But she’s the most disorienting. She might read a bad line straight, just to get it over and done with. Hard not to given the number of bad lines forced on her after Harvey Weinstein ruined her career (you know, “allegedly”).

But she’ll never read a good line straight. I doubt she knows how.

She was partly raised in a commune and I once read/heard that she played in the mud at Woodstock.

Or maybe I dreamed it.

Either way, I choose to believe it.

The only way it would be more perfect is if she was born there.

For the express purpose of destabilizing the future.

The Executioner’s Song (1982)
D. Lawrence Schiller

Originally a mini-series, then edited down to movie length for a Euro-release, later edited back up (though not all the way) for a “director’s cut.” In other words the confusion begins right here, in Arquette’s breakout role as Nicole Baker, the girlfriend and personal addiction of spree murderer Gary Gilmore (they stopped him at two, but he’d have killed everyone in the world to be with her). It’s spare and compelling, one of the best films about the empty moral landscape of post-Viet Nam America. And it establishes one of Arquette’s great themes: She makes men want to shoot other men in the head.

More thoughts here.

(NOTE: This is finally being released in its original form–Blu-Ray, January, 2018. An interview with Arquette is listed in the extras. Those of us who have settled for blotchy, half-audible YouTube downloads all these years can’t wait to hear her say “You and seven other motherfuckers!” the way it was meant to be heard. UPDATE: 1/28/18 I just checked Amazon and the new release is apparently….flawed. Check there before you purchase. In the meantime, the long version is on YouTube.)

Rating as..

Movie: 9/10 (for the original cut, which is the only one I’ve seen).
Rosanna Arquette Movie: 10/10

Baby It’s You (1983)
D. John Sayles

Awe inspiring. Is it a coincidence that the only time John Sayles worked with Rosanna Arquette is the only time he managed to get out of his own way? Or that Arquette is the only post-seventies actor besides Illeana Douglas (also raised in a commune) who “got” the sixties? I mean, how simultaneously liberating and traumatizing it was? Especially for women?

Opinions will vary.

My answers are No, No, No and No.

Not a coincidence that is.

The best film of the 80s and the decade’s best performance.

This one’s readily available….more thoughts here.

Movie: 10/10
Rosanna Arquette Movie: 10/10

“Rosanna” Toto (1982) and
“In Your Eyes” Peter Gabriel (1986)

Arquette had contemporary romantic relationships with somebody in Toto (who cares who….that it wasn’t the guy who wrote the song probably matters to his mother) and Peter Gabriel. In the moment, everyone knew and admitted these songs were about her and couldn’t have been about anyone else. After her star faded, everyone denied it and insisted they could have been about anyone. Of course they did….and, of course they did. No man likes to admit some woman makes him want to shoot other men in the head.

Available on YouTube.

Double Bill:

After Hours (1985)
D. Martin Scorcese

and

Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)
D. Susan Seidelman

The movies that “killed” Arquette’s career. (For details, go here.) In After Hours, she played a kook in a movie about a straight (Griffin Dunne) who keeps bumping into kooks all through one long, dark New York night of the soul. First in a line of tormentors that includes, among others, Teri Garr and Cheech and Chong, she was the only one who got onto the film’s oddball vibe enough to match its Dante-esque pretensions. If Scorcese had been bold enough to cast her in all the female roles the movie might be more than a curio.

Still, her performance is worth seeing, especially in light of its natural pairing with the same year’s Desperately Seeking Susan, a big hit that won her a BAFTA, the biggest “award” of her career (typically, it came for a “Supporting Actress” when she’s clearly the lead) and had her playing the straight to Madonna’s kook.

Is it a coincidence that the only time Madonna was as free on-screen (whether in movies, videos, television interviews or taped live performances) as her obsessively contrived image, was opposite Rosanna Arquette playing a woman seeking a small taste of the same freedom? Or that the only movie where she radiated movie star charisma was this one?

Opinions vary….

The moment in Desperately when Arquette’s repressed housewife, yearning to breathe free, reacts to a simple magic trick, is one of the loveliest in American film and just the sort of scene her tormentor/producers seemed to have bet the Woodstock girl, forever fighting to keep her clothes on, couldn’t play

After Hours 

Movie: 7/10
Rosanna Arquette Movie: 8/10

Desperately Seeking Susan

Movie: 8/10
Rosanna Arquette Movie: 10/10

These are both readily available.

8 Million Ways to Die (1986)
D. Hal Ashby

Filmed within a fast heartbeat of Desperately Seeking Susan. Anyone who thought the shift from The Executioner’s Song to Baby It’s You was shocking should double-bill Susan and this bleak little enterprise sometime.

I just watched it for the first time in thirty years. I remembered it as a hot mess–such a hot mess that I couldn’t really trust my reaction or my memory.

I mean: Rosanna Arquette? Jeff Bridges? Hal Ashby? How bad could it be?

I’m not prepared, on a second viewing, to say it’s a stone cold masterpiece. But it’s got me wondering. No idea how or why I didn’t respond at all back when. I’m sure I wasn’t aware of the spats between Ashby and the studio that resulted in it being taken out of his hands and made just about everyone involved (including audiences) want to wash their hands of the whole thing.

Forget all that. Time has redeemed it. I’ll be watching often, trying to figure out just how much.

But, if it were every bad thing its detractors claim, it would still be here for two reasons:

1) The newly released 30th anniversary DVD has interviews with several of the key players. A year before the Harvey Weinstein revelations (in which she played a prominent role), you can see and hear the career he and his legion of enablers stole from her in every line of her face and every word she speaks.

2) This hot-mess masterpiece has the ultimate Rosanna Arquette line, which is also the definitive noir line. Jeff Bridges’ slightly addled detective finds her in the house of Andy Garcia’s drug dealer (a scintillating, career-making performance), where she’s been taken by force.

And the moment they’re left alone:

“What’s he want?”
“He wants to fuck me and kill you.”

You pretty much have to be there for that, if you want to get Rosanna Arquette.

Because it sounds like a line any good actress could deliver…until you hear her deliver it.

And, to be fair, when it comes time for the men (three in this case) to shoot each other, they mix it up by going for chest shots.

This is now readily available.

Movie: 9/10
Rosanna Arquette Movie: 10/10

Black Rainbow (1989)
D. Mike Hodges

An effective, moody Gothic from the director of Get Carter. For a Brit, he does a fine job of catching the Southern atmosphere. (Arquette has shown a knack for playing hot-to-trot southern chicks–see also The Wrong Man and Big Bad Love.) There is typically fine work from Jason Robards (as Arquette’s father, manager and exploiter) and Tom Hulce (as a small town reporter, trying to get at the truth of a “vision” Arquette’s supernatural medium was granted of a murder). Years before her sister played one on TV, the elder Arquette gets at the quiet heart of a medium’s classic dilemma: someone who hates herself for playing the suckers…only to find even more anguish and confusion when her gift turns out to be real.

On a quick re-viewing, I’m not sure every bit works. But most of it does and the spell is sustained by Arquette’s ability to project her unique combination of sexual arrogance and emotional vulnerability. No one shoots anybody in the head….but one man is shot through her ghost, which is roaming about seeking revenge on Dad for seeing dollar signs in her faraway eyes. And Hulce is prepared to spend his life searching for her, truth be damned.

This is easily available in full screen. For the proper widescreen edition released in Europe, you’ll need a converter or an all-region player.

Movie: 9/10
Rosanna Arquette Movie: 10/10

The Wrong Man (1993)
D. Jim McBride

For once, the movie’s as mind-bending as she is…and she was never more mind-bending than here. By this point fuck me kill you was like a bass line running through her screen presence from movie to movie. The bass line from “Gimme Shelter” maybe.

And while fuck me kill you may be her definitive line, the consummate Rosanna Arquette scene (and noir‘s) comes here, when she bare-backs John Lithgow as he’s crawling to meet room service, just about a hot minute after she threatened to shoot him in the head.

Headspinning.

Available (like quite a few of Arquette’s movies) only for streaming or download on YouTube.

Thoughts here.

Movie: 9/10
Rosanna Arquette Movie: 10/10

Pulp Fiction (1994)
D. Quentin Tarantino

I’ve said it before, I say it again. If Tarantino had switched Uma Thurman’s lead and Arquette’s cameo his whole movie might have come alive, not just the one scene. Instead, he was gutless and too damn stupid to know he was planting evidence against himself.

Else Weinsteined.

Assuming there’s a difference.

Readily available, alas.

Movie: 7/10
Rosanna Arquette Movie: 8/10

Big Bad Love (2001)
D. Arliss Howard

One of those artsy movies that’s so self-consciously unpretentious it defeats itself, despite a fine cast. But it’s a nice coda on Arquette’s Vulnerable Vamp period. The character she plays here has no arrogance. She’s just out for the usual impossible combination of kicks and security. Hence, she delivers real poignance in a movie that too often settles for an approximation.

More thoughts here.

This one is readily available.

Movie: 7/10
Rosanna Arquette Movie: 9/10

Law and Order: Criminal Intent (2005) “Sex Club”
D. Alex Chapple

It was inevitable that Arquette would end up trying to evade Goren and Eames. And that she’d make her attempt in one of the series’ best episodes, one that keeps exploding in your face even on a third or fourth (or probably twentieth) viewing.

Peter Bogdanovich plays a Hugh Hefner style “playboy,” transplanted to New York but with his little black book very much intact (if not in his possession). Arquette plays an upper middle class mom who may, or may not, have been the star of one too many mind-blowing orgies.

The perfect part in other words, and at least some of the raw anger she brought to it might have been aimed at her own exploiters–among whom Hefner (with whom she had a longstanding feud over nude photos he published without her consent) was not least. I have no reason to suspect it was the least bit autobiographical, but it’s hard to believe she didn’t identify on some level.

Movie: 8/10
Rosanna Arquette Movie: 9/10

(Available as Episode 14 from Season 4 of Law and Order: Criminal Intent.)

….As of today, Rosanna Arquette has a hundred and forty-nine acting credits on IMDB. She’s worked constantly, perhaps to compensate for the A-list parts she routinely didn’t get after she rebuffed the industry’s top mover and shaker, perhaps just because she likes working. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a dozen or more golden moments that have eluded me thus far.

I plan to keep looking.

You never know when she’s going to rise up and make one more man want to shoot somebody in the head.

But even if she never has another golden moment or there’s nothing left undiscovered in her vast catalog of mostly cast-off or workaday roles, she’s left something indelible for the future to reckon with.

How many survivors in her generation–molested or unmolested–can say half as much?

Go ahead. Start counting.

You won’t need your second hand.

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.]