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.

 

THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED…AND WHY I WATCHED THEM (March, 2017 Edition)

Previous rules apply… Reverse order. Umpteenth viewing means it’s a lot and too much trouble to count. Etc….42 days, 10 movies)

February 6-Where Eagles Dare (967, Brian Hutton, Umpteenth Viewing)

For the crackerjack plot (not usually the first thing that comes to mind in a thriller). For the headlong fusion of momentum and anarchy that Quentin Tarantino and his arty acolytes are forever running out of breath trying to catch. For Richard Burton’s voice, which could make lines like “Broadsword calling Danny Boy” sing. And for the Polish actress, Ingrid Pitt, who has maybe ten minutes of screen time and who, if she had been allowed to kill as many Germans as the perfectly respectable female lead, Mary Ure, would have been the sexiest thing in the history of film. She’s pretty close as it is.

February 12-The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (962, John Ford, Umpteenth Viewing)

I always watch top-tier John Ford films with an idea of getting to the bottom of them. I never do. What, you think it’s possible to get to the bottom of a film where  Ken Maynard’s seventh billed Doc Willoughby is in a bar, falling off his feet, declaiming “Gettysburg? You’ve heard of Gettysburg? Two hundred and forty-two amputations in one…” and, the fifteenth time you watch it, you realize that he’s just explained why there are so many drunken doctors in post-Civil War westerns? Or that anyone but Ford would have cut the line off so that you never know One What?…Day? Week? Battle? Hour?

Okay, Robert Altman maybe…but he would have insisted on you noticing.

February 13-Dial M for Murder (1954, Alfred Hitchcock, Umpteenth Viewing)

So I can feel chic, of course. Not an everyday occurrence but sometimes even I have to digress from the norm. I save this for the rare occasions when I don’t want to feel like I’m seeing too much of how the world is made. That’s what happens when I watch Andrew Davis’s superb (I’d even say superior) 90s remake, A Perfect Murder. Sometimes you just need to escape into a world where John Williams’ dour Scotland Yard Chief Inspector can handle Ray Milland as he smiles and smiles and remains such a perfect villain you can easily imagine him wanting to off Grace Kelly for God’s sake.

February 19-Run of the Arrow (957, Samuel Fuller, First Viewing)

Because it was mostly unavailable and legendary for decades. And it’s a 50s western. Worth the wait? Yes. The fine performances you would expect from Rod Steiger, Brian Keith, Ralph Meeker. Plus a sympathetic view of not only Native Americans, but the staunchest of the Confederate holdouts and their own curious brand of honor. On a first viewing I didn’t come away thinking I’d seen a masterpiece. But it was moving and intriguing enough for me to know this won’t be my last visit…And, oh by the way, that’s a poster.

February 19-The Lion in Winter (968, Anthony Harvey, Second Viewing)

To see–and hear–Pete and Kate converse. Not as good as Becket (which just missed this list). Not as good as a local stage version I saw a decade or so back. But if you like your politics literate and bit unstable…

February 20-Blow Out (981, Brian DePalma, Third Viewing)

Speaking of unstable. For the modern zeitgeist. For career best performances from John Travolta, John Lithgow and, especially, Nancy Allen (playing the kind of woman who is almost always treated with contempt in American film and American life) and for the one DePalma film I’ve seen that justifies his reputation. I understand the mixed responses, then and now. I didn’t get it the first time I watched it way back when. A subsequent viewing set me straight. This third viewing confirmed its value. The one film from the eighties which had to wait for the world to catch up to it? To everyone’s regret?

Yeah, that could mix a response or two.

February 23-A Fistful of Dollars (964, Sergio Leone, Umpteenth Viewing)

Well, because one of the twitter writers I follow (Mark Harris wrote something interesting about the Man With No Name Trilogy. This is my least favorite of the three by far but it’s still pretty entertaining. I kind of like that it takes a classic, flawless story-line and turns it into a fever dream which might even lift the eyebrow of a modern Hollywood producer.**

I realize that’s saying something.

(**Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, was turned into a samurai movie, 1961’s Yojimbo, by Akira Kurosawa, who later successfully sued Leone for copyright infringement, even though neither he nor Leone ever credited Hammett, or, it seems, quite admitted they borrowed from it.)

February 25-Rush Hour (998, Brett Ratner, Third Viewing)

Because I was flipping channels and it was just beginning. And because the Jackie Chan/Chris Tucker chemistry jumps off the screen every time. It jumps off the way Fred and Ginger and Myrna and Bill still do. Only modern Hollywood would have wasted the new version on two uninspired sequels and left it at that.

March 20-The Law and Jake Wade (958, John Sturges, Umpteenth Viewing)

For perhaps the best of Robert Taylor’s many fine stoic leads. For Richard Widmark’s riveting turn as what amounts to a jilted lover. For the coiling tension in a script that serves as a reminder that spurned friendship can burn as deep as the worst fights between siblings or spouses. For the way Taylor’s shoulders slump at the end of a final showdown that’s on a par with Winchester ’73. (No surprise given John Sturges in the director’s chair.) And for a standout supporting cast, led by Robert Middleton’s sad-eyed outlaw lieutenant and Henry Silva’s messed up kid, always keeping one eye open for the chance to be captain.

March 20-Experiment in Terror (962, Blake Edwards, Umpteenth Viewing)

Crisp. The opening sequence is as good as it gets. It brings the “terror” close enough that it never stops resonating, even in the few relatively mundane spots of what is essentially a well-made procedural. And it’s always worth remembering a time when the sisters next door could be played, believably, by the likes of Lee Remick and Stefanie Powers, even if it comes at the cost of also believing the FBI can protect you.

…Til next time.

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.]