Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Running on Empty with Two-Lane Blacktop

Years ago, when I was interviewing for a job with B-movie mogul Roger Corman, he insisted I read and prepare to discuss with him Siegfried Kracauer’s Theory of Film. As his subtitle, The Redemption of Physical Reality, suggests, Kracauer saw film as fundamentally a visual medium, one that captures photographically the way the world looks and moves. Of course I felt obliged to read this ponderous tome from cover to cover, and waited for my chance to have an in-depth discussion about its merits. But, though I got the job, Roger never mentioned Kracauer again.

I brought up this little story when I interviewed one of Roger’s many famous alums, the cult filmmaker Monte Hellman. Monte, who had been fairly detached throughout most of our conversation, suddenly sat up and took notice. He explained that throughout his career he had spent a good deal of time talking to interviewers like me, and that it was rare for him to learn anything new. But I had managed to surprise him. He’d had no idea that Roger was interested in Kracauer’s Theory of Film, but said:  “That happens to be one of my Bibles, so I’m very amazed at that.”   

My own hunch is that Roger, who loves being au courant about intellectual matters,, had picked up on Kracauer through Monte himself. Back in the early days, while preparing to make one of Roger’s cheapie films, the two had together driven Highway One from Carmel to San Francisco. A lot of their talk involved their feelings about Nietzsche, but I suspect Kracauer raised his head as well.

In any case, I thought about Kracauer recently while watching Monte’s most well-known film, 1971’s Two-Lane Blacktop. As Charles Taylor explains in his fascinating chronicle of movies in the Seventies, OpeningWednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You, Two-Lane Blacktop was not an indie but a genuine studio release, bankrolled by Universal Pictures as its response to the success of Easy Rider. Like Easy Rider it’s about young men in motion, traveling aimlessly across the American landscape in search of  . . . whatever. Instead of motorcyles, the taciturn characters known only as The Driver and The Mechanic roar through the Southwest in a souped-up ’55 Chevy sedan. There’s also a young woman, equally adrift, who’ll hook up with any male who happens by. Then there’s G.T.O., a middle-aged would-be hipster in a spiffy canary-yellow muscle car. He’s as talkative as the others are silent, but his self-aggrandizing stories don’t usually convey the ring of truth. A challenge is issued, and the race is on. They’ve wagered their cars’ pink slips, so the outcome ought to be important.

Except it’s not. Monte’s original cut ran 3 ½ hours. Contractually he was obliged to get his film under 120 minutes, and so he did. But what he cut was surprising. Gone were most of the film’s racing footage and the drama of combat behind the wheel. Monte retained instead the dingy diners, the small town gas pumps, the tedium of going nowhere for no particular reason. The cast was unusual too, featuring musicians James Taylor and the Beachboys’ Dennis Wilson along with another acting novice, Laurie Bird. Only the blabby G.T.O. was played by an experienced actor, the marvelously manic Warren Oates. The result is less a story than a haunting mood piece. 

Here’s a viewer comment I found on IMDB:  “This is either the best film I've ever seen, or just an interesting exercise in film-making that is ultimately of little value. The problem is that I can't decide which.” But Kracauer would have been proud.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Matthew Bourne Runs Away with The Red Shoes

The Red Shoes started out as a story by Hans Christian Andersen, dating back to 1845. The dour Danish writer—whose fairytales were far grimmer than those of the brothers Grimm—conjured up a pair of demonic dancing slippers that destroy a young girl’s life: she can’t remove them, even after she’s chopped off her own feet. I’m not a fan of the Andersen story, but I can’t help loving the 1948 English film from the powerhouse team of Emeric Pressburger (love that name!) and Michael Powell.

This cinematic Red Shoes becomes the tragic story of a ravishingly beautiful ballerina -- flame-haired Moira Shearer -- torn between true love (in the person of a shy young composer) and artistic ambition (personified by the impresario of a prestigious dance company). The film, released not long after the dark days of World War II, was an opulent Technicolor fantasia, full of bravura dancing and big gaudy emotions. It adapts the gist of Andersen’s story into a ballet within the movie, the star vehicle that ensures the ballerina’s fame and undermines her human existence. One of its many charms is the casting of such bona fide ballet maestros as Robert Helpmann and Léonide Massine in featured roles. But the central focus of The Red Shoes is Shearer as Victoria Page, desperately dancing for her life. Many little girls who were enrolled in dancing classes saw the film in the 1950s, and they’ve never gotten over its impact.

A 1993 attempt to turn The Red Shoes into a Broadway musical gathered such stellar behind-the-scenes talents as Jule Styne (composer), Marsha Norman (lyricist), Stanley Donen (director), and the dance world’s Lar Lubovitch (choreographer). Even Flying by Foy, the outfit that has helped generations of Peter Pans soar aloft, got involved. But it was all for naught: the show lasted for a total of five performances.  

Now along comes Matthew Bourne to usher The Red Shoes into a new era. (It had an award-winning run in London, and I saw it during its U.S. premiere, at L.A.’s Ahmanson Theatre. By now it’s doubtless dancing its way to New York.) Bourne is a choreographer, but one who hails from an unconventional background. Totally without traditional ballet training, he became obsessed with dance as a young boy enamored with MGM musicals. His inspiration was Fred Astaire, not Rudolf Nureyev. He formed a dance company while still in his teens, but didn’t actually study dance (at the Laban Centre for Movement and Dance) until the ripe old age of 22. His breakthrough was an astonishing 1995 production of Swan Lake that featured  male swans. Many of the full-length ballets he’s done since have set familiar tales like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Carmen in detailed social settings. (His version of Cinderella, for instance, takes place during the life-or-death London blitz of World War II.)  Some of his inspiration still comes from the movies. One of my favorite Matthew Bourne ballets is derived from Tim Burton’s film, Edward Scissorhands. 

As someone who grew up immersed in modern dance, not ballet, I love the fact that Matthew Bourne doesn’t force every woman’s feet into foot-crippling toe shoes. His dancers are beautifully trained, but they can perform in soft slippers, in high heels, or in bare feet. When his ladies go en pointe, it’s for a dramatic reason. And I also love his feel for the all-encompassing world of movies. His works are not just about purity of movement but also about characterization and stage design. No surprise: the name of his company is Adventures in Motion Pictures.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Steve Buscemi: A Guy Without a Ghost of a Chance

It all started when I was booked to appear on Illeana Douglas’s podcast, I Blame Dennis Hopper (about which more later). Illeana is both an actress in films and a lover of films, and her enthusiasm has led me to check out several movies that feature either her or her beloved grandfather Melvyn Douglas (who won his first Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 1963’s Hud and his second for 1979’s Being There). That’s how I came to watch Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World (2001), in which Illeana plays an ultra-sincere but naïve art teacher who interacts with the film’s heroine in an important way.  

Ghost World, based on the comic book by Daniel Clowes, is the story of two brand-new high school graduates, Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson). Awkward social outcasts, they strike a rebellious pose, priding themselves on being too good for their classmates as well as the residents of their non-descript suburb. (Note to Angelenos: the bleaky contemporary streets can be found in Santa Clarita.) For a while the film goes on in this vein, showing the two girls making vague attempts to find work and an apartment to share, while unleashing catty remarks on anyone who comes within earshot. But things start to change when, just for the hell of it, they play a dirty trick on a lovelorn man who’s had the bad sense to put a personal ad in the local paper.   

That ad is placed by an obsessive record-collector named Seymour, and he’s played by Steve Buscemi, an actor who is always worth watching. Gradually Enid comes to know Seymour. Though he’s dweebishly unattractive and acutely conscious of his own failings, he has a passion for early jazz that’s contagious. While Rebecca works at her dreary job and obsesses about the amenities of her future apartment, Enid is soaking up new aesthetic ideas. These contribute to the work she does in the summer school art class she must take in order to complete her graduation requirements. She’s got real talent, but her unorthodox approach is going to set her up for eventual failure. 

Meanwhile, she’s coaching poor Seymour in finding love, only to become acutely jealous when he seems to have succeeded. The relationship of these two—the rebellious young woman and the morose, anxious middle-aged man—plays out in surprising ways, and ultimately becomes the film’s heart. 

Birch, so memorable as Kevin Spacey’s disillusioned daughter in 1999’s American Beauty, is a memorable presence. But for me the movie belongs to Steve Buscemi, who seems as though he can’t help attracting odd and remarkable roles. In many of them, he dies in grotesque ways—see him ending up in the woodchipper in the Coen Brothers’ Fargo. Sometimes he gets away with murder (check out his role as Mr. Pink in Reservoir Dogs and his recent TV portrayal of a corrupt politician in Boardwalk Empire), but whether he’s fundamentally cowardly or fundamentally brutal he generally comes across as a nogoodnik. That’s why I cherish his rare lovable role, like that of the nebbishy Donny, sidekick to John Goodman’s Walter, in The Big Lebowski. As Seymour in Ghost World, Buscemi is capable of bursts of destructive rage. But for the most part he’s a good guy who knows he’s a loser. He badly wants love, and is capable of great tenderness when he thinks he’s found it. But things never quite seem to resolve in his favor. Having learned from his example, Enid may eventually finds her way out in the the larger world. But alas poor Seymour—he remains stuck in place.

For Illeana Douglas, who introduced me to Ghost World.