AS FAKE NIHILISM ENTERS ITS INEVITABLE NOSTALGIC PHASE (IN WHICH, INSPIRED BY UPCOMING EXTERNAL EVENTS, I CREATE MY FIRST COMPLETELY SELF-REFERENTIAL SEGUE OF THE DAY: 2/23/17)

Since Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty are going to represent the Oscar for best film this year, in honor of the 50th anniversary of Bonnie and Clyde failing to win any major Oscars, I thought I would celebrate this, nihilism’s most fabulous celebration of itself yet (those occasional Sex Pistols’ reunions, always being minus Sid Vicious, the only one stupid or committed enough to off himself, are bound to go on paling by comparison), by linking back to my 2014 mini-reviews of both Bonnie and Clyde and The Miracle Worker.

I don’t usually get this lazy. But the open war between Donald Trump and the Security State has left me exhausted from fiercely resisting the temptation to start a political blog (don’t worry, I’ll fight it off in the end…I know when it’s the Devil calling), and finding it a little hard to concentrate on my usual insistence on celebrating all that is Great and Good in the face of Imminent Doom.

One thing which came up in my modest research to assure myself that I had my facts straight on what exactly Beatty and Dunaway would be presenting, was the reminder that Dunaway’s performance-for-the-ages in Bonnie and Clyde lost Best Actress to Katherine Hepburn in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

Dissing terrible Oscar choices is not something I usually go for and nothing against that fabulous Yankee-est-Yankee-Ever Miss Kate. But if anybody wants to suggest that might be the worst, most gutless snub of all time, they won’t get any argument from me.

The girl from Two Egg was robbed (as she would be again on Chinatown)!

And the one they threw at her for doing what any good actress could have done in Network ain’t no kind of makeup.

As we say in North Florida...That’s all’s I’m sayin’!

PAINTING THE DAYTIME BLACK…ROSANNA ARQUETTE GOES SOUTH OF THE BORDER, TAKES OFF ALL HER CLOTHES (Noir, Noir, Noir: 1st Feature)

[NOTE: Time for a new category, explanation to follow….]

The Wrong Man
Director: Jim McBride (1993)

You will start out standing
Proud to steal her anything she sees
You will start out standing
Proud to steal her anything she sees
But you will wind up peeking through her keyhole
Down upon your knees

“She Belongs to Me” (Bob Dylan)

Alternate unused title: “You Wish She Belonged to You (And You’ll Keep on Wishing, No Matter What)”

(Beware: Spoilers included!)

WRONGMAN1The great lie in the American version of the modernist myth (well, other than it being somehow “modern”), is that we’ve cast off the old Puritanism and traded it in for our new, liberated selves.

Fat chance. We’re Americans and we’re stuck with who we are. Last I looked, even our porn is grim. Take out rock and roll and maybe very early New Orleans jazz and it’s been one long march to the reaper, hat in hand, for four hundred years, though at least now, in the new millenium, the march is growing shorter, day by day.

When it comes to writing about art at length, however, as opposed to preaching about the state of the world as an occasional aside, I prefer to ac-cen-tu-ate the positive. If paid up members of the heavily industrialized crit-illuminati didn’t keep bringing my mood down, I’d be a regular ray of sunshine around here. That’s why I’ve mostly stayed away from noir, film or otherwise. There’s a roadside bar between here and town. If I want to encounter the dark side of the American dream I can stop in any time. Since I don’t drink, ain’t any good at schmoozing, and am a long way past my high school social or physical reflexes being anywhere near their prime, I reckon I could get rolled by the dark side quicker than just about anybody.

So I doubt I’ll be dwelling on this, but I’m not immune to noir-ish charms, if that’s what you want to call them, and I’ve decided that whatever I’m not immune to, I shouldn’t be too proud to write about.

My first visit with The Wrong Man in twenty years seems like a good place to start.

The film shares a name with a classy affair by Alfred Hitchcock, which came out in 1956. That one rates a full point-and-a-half higher on IMDB, doubles the rating on Rotten Tomatoes, is taken quite seriously by many serious people and, even with Vera Miles’ great, unnerving performance as a woman driven to the nuthouse when her husband is wrongly accused of murder, is about one-tenth as destabilizing as this Clinton-era sleaze bucket from a mid-level Hollywood pro that was apparently made for Showtime but also played at Cannes, which is pretty destabilizing all by itself.

Is it any good?

I have to say I think so, which I think is the most you ought to ever be able to say about any noir after a couple of viewings twenty years apart.

The story is simple but deceptive. After twenty years I remembered basically where it went…

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…but very little about how it got there (and, really, not as much about the ending as I thought). But, either way, it didn’t feel like anything that would fall apart on a dozen viewings, which is the other thing you have to be able to say about a noir to start deciding if it’s any good, let alone really good.

So check back with me about ten viewings from now on that.

I promise it won’t take twenty years…or two hundred.

One thing I can say is possible is that I might get tired of Kevin Anderson, who plays the nominal lead and sustains a narrow range of slightly befuddled expressions throughout, whether by choice or typecasting I bet his own mother couldn’t say. One thing I can say for certain, is that I won’t get tired of John Lithgow or Rosanna Arquette, who enter about fifteen minutes in and proceed to both take over the screen and make all that simplicity very, very deceptive indeed. I mean, I won’t again forget the beginning…

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…Or, bang, bang, bang, that it can’t be reconciled with that ending in the imagination the way Arquette miraculously reconciles it on-screen.

Between times, in the heart of the movie, it’s all faces. Basically, those three.

There’s an occasional Mexican thrown in, mostly policemen, and well played all around. But, mostly, it’s three souls truly adrift in a strange land, every part of which is made stranger by their continued presence. The land’s not haunting them, they’re haunting it…or anyway Lithgow’s Phillip Mills and his “wife,” Arquette’s Missy, are. Anderson’s Alex Walker is caught in the wash, running from the Mexican police because he’s wanted, in classic dream-logic noir fashion, for a murder he didn’t commit. Mills and the girl he keeps calling his wife (whether she really is or not and what it would mean if she either is or isn’t, are some of the dozens of things I feel certain are worth pondering in this particular dream), don’t know what he did and don’t care, at least not until the very end, when, by means entirely persuasive without being entirely logical, they come to care a little.

Meanwhile, he’s a fish on a hook and they like taking turns jerking the line and watching him flop.

What sort of complicates things is that Phillip himself is a fish on another hook. That’s the one Missy keeps yanking on and that’s the real narrative here. It’s all about the hook-pulling and the triangulation of those three faces. One which hardly changes…

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One which shifts almost entirely between degrees of suspicion…

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And one which is on the hunt for endless kicks….

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and, hence,can hardly stay still for a second…

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I don’t really know of any equivalent to what Arquette does in this movie. She’s a purely sexual being, playing somebody who can’t add two and two and wouldn’t bother to try if she could. She’s crazy as a loon. And, except for maybe when she’s stripping to James Carr’s version of the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody,” drifting in on the kind of station you can always tune in on the radio playing in your dream version of the Mexican boonies, in a scene that, by the time it arrives, is as likely as the sun rising in the east tomorrow….

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or wondering if her “husband” is dead…

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or pulling a gun on him, when it turns out he isn’t…

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,..she’s kind of klutz.

She’s also got the fashion sense of an attention-starved four-year-old….

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She lies the way the living breathe and the dead sleep…constantly and naturally….

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. And, if you don’t like the one she just told, she’s got another, even better one, waiting right behind it.

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Oh yeah, she also sucks her thumb when she’s riding around in the backs of cars….

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fans her crotch for the bus crowd when the night’s too hot….

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and is good at exactly one thing, which is making everybody sweat…

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…including whoever is on the other side of that camera there.

She’s Carroll Baker in Baby Doll and Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde and Melanie Griffith in Something Wild, only with the ante upped and all rolled into one. Any hint of artiness has been replaced by pure crass.

Sort of like you imagine it would be, if you ever met this girl in “real” life and were stripped of any protection or pretension mere civilization might offer.

One reason she’s so good at the one thing she’s good it, is that she’s only interested in two things: nailing everything on two legs (as long as she doesn’t have to chase it…too much work, she’d much rather you just keep popping up in her car or wandering back to her bedroom)

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and being cared for (which is why you are always going to have to put up with her current man until you prove you’re somehow better for her)…

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About these issues, she is passionate and relentless.

You can see where this might lead to complications. Anything that happens along, she can talk her husband into giving it a ride, even if (maybe especially if) the police are after it.

Then what?

A movie, that’s what. A real movie sort of movie, made up out of purely sordid but tangible dreams. The kind Quentin Tarantino is always bragging so much about wanting to make but never quite does, and, if it’s true that he turned down Arquette for the lead in Pulp Fiction in favor of Uma Thurman, then he’s even more of a coward than I think he is, which, until now, I didn’t even consider possible.

There’s no real hope of romance or redemption in The Wrong Man: Hollywood kind, pulp fiction kind, or any other kind. I’m not even sure a sane person would wish those things on any of the people involved. Certainly no sane person would want to be caught dead in a hotel room with them.

But the thing is, the characters are human size, even if the situation isn’t. To some degree, they are even likable. You there, with your sanity, wouldn’t want to be caught standing next to them when the bullets start flying. But you can see how it might happen just the same.

As I said, Kevin Anderson’s Alex is a pawn in all this. The movie is about faces and his hardly changes expression. Arquette and Lithgow are familiar. He’s not. They have histories as actors, even if those histories mean next to nothing here. They’re old pros stealing scenes from the nonentity as easily and thoughtlessly and greedily as their characters steal his character’s soul.

Or at least they make it seem that way and without a hint of professional slickness showing anywhere. They’re caught in a project that’s part road movie, part southern gothic (with as much dream-sharp dialogue as Tennessee Williams ever gave anybody), part neo-noir, part south-of-the-border wet dream (I think I had this exact one when I was in the tenth grade), part soft-core porn flick, part made-for-cable-because-there’s-no-more-drive-ins-for-it-to-play extravaganza, with a real actress standing in for the various cable-ready Playmates of the Month, most of whom weren’t built as well, nearly as anxious to show it off or anyways capable of making a bareback ride on John Lithgow seem like something a girl might just naturally want to do.

So they take one piece of Old Hollywood advice that for all I know may be taught in chic acting schools as well.

If you take the part, whatever it is, sell it.

The result is a movie that starts running when they show up and, for all the laughable complaints about “slow pacing” from the peanut gallery at IMDB and elsewhere (I’d bet ninety-nine out of a hundred paid up members of the crit-illuminati would say the same if they ever deigned to watch it in the first place, because they would surely have their defenses up every second of the way), it never sets its feet again. It just keeps leaping and crawling and pointing its toe, searching for something solid underneath,  until the very end, when it turns into genuine tragedy of the kind that classic noir almost never achieved, even in the rare instances where it was tried (I’m always amazed at the number of fake happy endings Old Hollywood noir could snatch from the thinnest possible air).

And that’s what makes this one a little shocking–the running and running and ending up in a place where the earth seems very far away. Arquette’s Missy Mills screams over her husband’s congealing corpse because she may have no more idea than we do whether he deserved it or not, but she knows in an instant that she’ll never find another sucker quite like him.

The closest she could hope to come is moving down the track, too fast for her to catch up to and too broke to make it back on his own. And just because she sucks her thumb once in a while doesn’t mean she doesn’t hurt as much as you do buster!

Well, anyway, that’s what I’ve made of it so far.

I’m not worried, though. I’m sure I’ll understand the rest eventually. In twenty years or two hundred.

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(In case you are wondering, that’s Missy’s “Yeah, I banged the kid last night, and I’m thinking of running off with him. But don’t worry, I might change my mind at the station right before they shoot one of you for the murder you either did or didn’t commit and I’m sure whatever I do it will be worth it” look.)

[NOTE: This has never been released on DVD as far as I can tell. There’s currently a copy on YouTube for those who are into downloading or watching on-line. I’m, uh, not recommending it or anything. Because, really, it could make your day or rot your liver. View at your own risk.]

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (The Miracle Worker Comes Back Around)

The Miracle Worker (Arhtur Penn, 1962)

BLFJ (Bright Lights Film Journal): Yes, and very unique, remarkable given where and when it was made. I also think that, to an extent, The Chase, which is the next film of yours I wanted to talk about, comes directly out of it. Both The Left-Handed Gun and Mickey One touch on this idea of there being a particular kind of violence lurking in American society, and that seems to come to the fore in The Chase.

Arthur Penn: Yes, I totally agree. What we’re doing however, is leaving out one other film, which is The Miracle Worker, which had its share of, how shall I say, positive violence, in the sense that Ann Sullivan [sic], in the film Anne Bancroft, was determined to penetrate the slowly dying intelligence of this child, and get through to her the concept that language was the symbol for idea. So they were a series of fairly vigorous films.

BLFJ: The Chase was set in a small Texas town….

(Source: Bright Lights Film Journal Interview with Arthur Penn (director of The Miracle Worker), in 2009….Note the difference in what the filmmaker wants to talk about and what the really important person in the conversation, the interviewer, wants to talk about.)

“I know people who re-view The Miracle Worker every year.”

(Source: David Thomson, Have You Seen….?, 2008)

Let me just say that people who “re-view” (I think that means “watch”) The Miracle Worker every year have a value system I don’t really comprehend.

I watch it every five or ten years depending–always with trepidation.

I’ve never been able to treat a visit with human pain after the manner of a holiday, like getting out a Sunday suit once a year for Easter.

It happened this week was the time for one of my very occasional visits with Arthur Penn’s 1962 film. The timing was due in part to just-because-it-had-been-a-sufficient-while-and-the-mood-arose, and in part because They Shoot Pictures Don’t They just released their annual, ever-fascinating compilation of all the critics’ lists that seek to name the very best films, which is by far the most thorough-going of its kind.

Once again, Penn was represented on a list of a thousand only by Bonnie and Clyde. That film is certainly worthy–and pretty well placed at #219 (up a not particularly meaningful two spots from last year). But it says quite a lot about the particular mindset that dominates arts criticism in general and film criticism in particular, that a film which mythologizes and heavily romanticizes two historical characters who, by star Warren Beatty’s own admission at the time, were in fact “a couple of thugs,” (an admission with which Penn, in an interview separate from the one quoted above, heartily concurred) can place so routinely high, while a film by the same director which, if anything, is even better-made, and celebrates two accurately portrayed historical characters, who, by their collective example as teacher and student, helped create hope out of the darkest despair for literally millions of people who might have otherwise been abandoned, gets no love at all, says….

Well, something.

I didn’t really watch the film in order to get at any new feelings about the crit-illuminati. Anybody who reads this blog with any regularity will have a pretty good idea of how I feel about that subject already.

However, I did want to watch it this time around with a specific eye toward its value as a film, which is another way of saying I wanted to view it as objectively as possible as a film that compares favorably–or unfavorably–to the sort of films that tend to excite critical passions.

I won’t lie. Pure objectivity isn’t something I generally strive for or even think is realistic. I certainly didn’t achieve it this time. Point of fact it was pretty well gone by the time the opening credits finished rolling.

Objectivity. Distance. Whatever name you care to put on it. All that went right out the window in the first few minutes because I was immediately reminded of what is so easily forgotten when I let the film sit on the shelf for a decade or so. Before it is anything else, Penn’s take on The Miracle Worker is that of a Gothic horror story, straight out of Poe, Shelley (Mary, not Percy) and the Bronte Sisters and conceding nothing to any of them.

Because until Annie Sullivan comes to redeem her, Helen Keller is a monster–one who threatens not lives and limbs (after the manner of Frankenstein or the Terminator) but hearts and minds (after the manner of Heathcliff)–not least her own.

That she’s a monster–and that Penn, along with playwright and script-writer William Gibson, saw that side of her and tapped into it–is evident until almost the very end. The scenes where Helen–supposedly well on her way to being civilized–drops her napkin on the floor, capture the exact beats of a horror film. They also magnify those beats a thousand-fold because, by now, we know Patty Duke’s Helen Keller is not only a monster.

She’s also a terribly–and justifiably–frightened little girl.

In the review from which I quoted above, Thomson (normally wooden-headed even by crit-illuminati standards) contends that the fight over Helen folding her napkin is the most violent scene Penn ever filmed.

That’s a mouthful because Penn was basically responsible for breaking down the really significant barrier between abstract distance and in-your-face realism in American film. The bullet he put in the face of an innocent civilian in Bonnie and Clyde‘s first act of overt violence really was a watershed.

But it’s also true–if by “violence” we mean (as I’m not sure Thomson does, but go with me here) full exposure to fear.

During the famous nine-minute scene where Duke’s Helen is desperately trying to escape the room in which Anne Bancroft’s Sullivan is trying equally desperately to hold her, anyone who isn’t in denial about the film being after something far more than “uplift” has to know just how much is at stake.

Helen Keller in that moment clearly believes–has somehow intuited after the manner of gifted children everywhere, whether or not they can see, hear or speak–that her choices are stark. Escape that room or end up in the asylum where we know–and must believe that she somehow knows–her parents are already thinking of sending her.

Annie Sullivan in that moment clearly knows–as we know–that Helen’s escape from that room would actually lead to the end she dreads. That if she gets out of that door she’ll be confined to the very darkness she’s certain she’s trying to escape.

It’s the overt terror of a horror or suspense film turned inwards.

And, having played the scene together hundreds of times on Broadway (and done God knows how many re-takes on the film set), Bancroft and Duke don’t simply act like they’re doing it for the first time or making it anew. They act like they’ve been transported into the minds and bodies of Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan and taken to a room where much more than themselves are at stake–which I suppose is just a way of saying they transcend “acting”–as indeed they do throughout the film.

Sorry, but what is Bonnie and Clyde–or ninety percent of the other films on TSPDT’s list–next to that? What is it next to just that, which is by no means the whole–or nearly the whole–of what The Miracle Worker is about (one could write a nice, lengthy treatise on Annie Sullivan’s arrival at the train station as a version of the western stranger, coming to save the town…take a look at how it’s shot some time)? Certainly Sullivan herself–in this film and more than likely in life as well– is as convincing a version of the American obsessive as Ahab or Ethan Edwards. (If that quality is sometimes missed, it might be because her obsessive streak is moving her towards the light rather than the darkness–not a journey any modern intelligentsia is likely to be comfortable with, I’m afraid.)

The Miracle Worker was Penn’s second film. He ended up being a very fine–if not very prolific–filmmaker. I’d argue 1976’s Night Moves, at the very least, should be getting plenty of recognition on these lists (it doesn’t), and nearly all his films have more than a little to recommend them.

I’d certainly rank all I’ve seen ahead of The Blues Brothers, for instance (which checks in at 936 and, yes, which I like).

But he never had a subject to match this again.

Very few filmmakers have.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say in five or ten years when it’s time to approach it again.

 

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (In Which I Tackle the Age-Old Question Which I Just Now Thought of: Can We Thank Two Egg For the Decline of Western Civilization?)

Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Two Egg is a small town in the Florida Panhandle. At least I think it’s still there. If it is, then it’s probably still about thirty miles from where I spent my high school and ju-co years–and still about eighty miles from where I live now.

When I moved to the Panhandle in 1974, it took about five minutes to have the significance of Two Egg transmuted by cultural osmosis.

Faye Dunaway was from there.

As far as I could ever tell, that and the fact that Dionne Warwick’s grandmother lived in Cottondale were not things anyone–newcomer or native–were ever specifically told. You hit the county line (or the hospital delivery room) and within no more than a handful of heartbeats you acquired the knowledge.

Neither fact was as much a point of pride as a source of amazement.

Sort of like: “If you can make it from here, you can make it from anywhere!”

Faye Dunaway “made” it in 1967 when she starred in–and discombobulated–a relatively unpretentious (though highly effective and well made) art film called Bonnie and Clyde.

I hadn’t realized just how thoroughly she discombobulated it until this week when I saw the film for a third time (the first having been somewhere near the dawn of the video age in the eighties and the second having been about ten years ago), and then watched the “making of” dvd extras (where Dunaway specifically states that she drew on her North Florida roots for her interpretation of Bonnie Parker) for the first time.

I suppose I always “recognized” her Bonnie on some level.

She’s a fairly common southern variation on a fairly common type. I haven’t spent any real quality time in Texas, where the real-life Bonnie Parker was from. But every place I have spent quality time–Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina–I’ve known versions of her.

And Dunaway nailed her. Even down to the fake southern accent real southerners learn from Hollywood.

Normally, that would have meant nothing more (or less) than a great performance in a Hollywood movie. But Bonnie and Clyde resonated far beyond any of that–and, to judge by fairly recent reactions here and, in a supreme example of maroon logic, here, it still does.

Since I’m sticking to my own “impressions” I won’t delve into the culture wars that developed around the film in its own time. Fun stuff, but beyond the scope of this post (though it was interesting to discover that Pauline Kael, in her famous New Yorker review, which just about everyone agrees turned the movie’s critical and commercial fortunes around when it seemed headed for the oblivion of cult-hood, was as convinced of the real and irreversible cultural damage done by 1964’s Dr. Strangelove, as conservative blue-noses were of the damage done by Bonnie and Clyde).

Kael didn’t think much of Dunaway’s performance. I can’t say I blame her.

Wherever you happen to find her, that girl is always disruptive. I think what Dunaway got about her was that for her “character”–unlike everyone else being portrayed in the movie–the only real perdition is boredom. And that she always thinks (or at least hopes) that the next bank she robs or the next man her Clyde shoots in the face or the next visit to the old home place, will be her ticket out.

She got that Bonnie Parker wasn’t sorry so many people ended up dead in her wake–that her only real regret was that the path she took didn’t get her where she thought she wanted to go. I suspect Dunaway–unlike everyone else in the highly skilled cast–also got that the person she was playing would have cared less for what big city intellectuals thought of her.

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Just so long as they were paying attention.

And–like her real life counterpart and like almost no one else in the history of the movies (including, for the rest of her career, Faye Dunaway)–she radiated sex (what Americans are really afraid of though, of course, like most blue-noses, we just love porn) the while.

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Whatever was disorienting about the movie at the height of the Viet Nam disaster–whatever was read or mis-read into the film’s portrayal of events that had already been blurred by mythology–Dunaway’s performance, straight out of Two Egg, is the only element that hasn’t long since been swallowed up by the ever-receding, porn-and-gore edges which have rendered Bonnie and Clyde‘s once shocking violence tame and its identification with murderous psychopaths routine.

What was really shocking about Bonnie and Clyde then and now is that it scraped just far enough below the surface to reveal that the essential glory of democracy is also its abiding horror.

Practically anybody is liable to get the idea they are worth something….if only they can grab a headline.