Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Two from Joan Diddion at Anthology

The Panic in Needle Park (1971) - Anthology Film Archives

Has drug addiction become date movie fare in the 21st century? Last night's screening at Anthology of Jerry Schatzberg's grim portrait of a heroin addicted couple was packed with couples, both gay and straight, seemingly prepared for the story of a romance put through its ups and downs, but triumphant in the end. By the credits roll, all couples were stumbling out of the theater, unsure of what they just saw and why they saw it. While Sid and Nancy has a kind of romantic rock and roll allure to its sordid true life story, Panic in Needle Park is one of the worst relationship movies of all time. The cryptic final shot is the perfect coda to both a harrowing journey through the sordid world of addiction and the story of a perfectly mismatched couple who can't seem to kick each other.

Helen (Kitty Winn) and Bobby (Al Pacino) "meet-cute" through a pot purchase by Helen's boyfriend (Raul Julia), who has just forced her to have a back alley abortion. When she goes to the hospital for internal bleeding, the boyfriend splits, Bobby visits her, and the two begin a flirtatious, whirlwind romance. Helen goes from blissfully ignoring Bobby's heroin use, drug dealing, and petty thefts to becoming actively involved in all three illicit activities; her introduction to heroin is wholly self-guided, in an effort to get closer to him. Things go from bad to worse as she turns to prostitution, with Bobby's approval, to earn money for their next fix (Paul Sorvino plays a john, Sarno regular Joe Santos a vice cop), and a kindly detective offers to look the other way on a vice charge if she helps him capture Bobby in a sting operation. A rather straight-forward narrative is made more vivid by verite cinematography, most effective in the harrowing scene of Bobby's OD (a scene that Tarantino clearly borrowed elements from for a similar scenario in Pulp Fiction), and gritty locations, including the notorious Needle Park itself on the upper west side and the sleaziest rundown apartments and hotel rooms you've ever seen.

Al Pacino may have gone on to The Godfather, and he delivers a great performance here, but the film belongs entirely to Kitty Winn as Helen. Known primarily today for her rather thankless role as the family friend in The Exorcist and its ill-advised sequel, Winn won the Best Actress award at Cannes for her work here. Somehow she was passed over for an Oscar nomination. What makes Winn's performance such a winner is the personality she brings to a character that is actually criminally underdeveloped. We care about Helen, despite the fact that she has another addiction problem: men. She simply cannot be without a man in her life, making the transition from one boyfriend to the next out of necessity for companionship and a roof over her head. As bad as things get with Bobby, she just cannot bring herself to leave. Hardly a feminist figure of the early 1970s. What is going through this woman's head? We never really know, but ultimately it doesn't much matter, as the viewer feels for her entirely, hoping for her escape from both unhealthy habits. Winn's performance was named one of the 100 best-ever by Premiere Magazine. I would agree. It is a singular piece of dramatic work that deserves more attention, and should have led to a more lucrative career.

Play It as It Lays (1972) - Anthology Film Archives
Never has a mental disintegration been as self-indulgent and narcissistic as in Play It as It Lays, adapted by Diddion and husband John Griffin Dunne from her novel of the same name. While the novel has received rave reviews over the years, critical consensus on the film version is that the story of film star Maria Wyeth Lang's whirlpool descent into herself is not as effectively told. Considering the novelist herself wrote the screenplay, perhaps what should be taken away from both works is there is little of substance in either of them. Maybe this is the precise point, as Diddion's tale takes place in the superficial world of Los Angeles, specifically Hollywood, but there should be at least some suitable depth to these characters if we are to care enough about them to continue watching. Most everything Maria and her confidante, B.Z., say is in prolonged monologues, supposedly giving their words weight when in fact it gives us time to realize they are saying absolutely nothing.

Tuesday Weld, continuing to break from her sex kitten roles from years before, reunites with her Pretty Poison co-star, Anthony Perkins, as Maria and B.Z. Boy I wish their second collaboration was as good as Noel Black's film. While they still have superb chemistry together, and the final scene between the two of them is the closest the film comes to drawing an emotional response, one still doesn't much care for these two pampered Beverly Hills nitwits. Now, one doesn't have to like characters in a film, but it helps if they are compelling enough to hold interest for an almost 2-hour production. Weld is charismatic and attractive, but her performance is inconsistent, as is the characterization. Tammy Grimes has much fun as Perkins' wife Helene, and it's interesting to see biker-movie regular Adam Roarke as Maria's egotistical misogynist director husband (his frequent exploitation co-star Jeremy Slate was in fact Grimes' ex-husband at the time).

It was films like this, The Last Movie, and A Safe Place (also with Weld) that rang the death knell for independent productions of the 1970s, and frankly when presented with those three misfires, it's no great loss. Only John Cassavetes really continued making films on his own, while most of the film school generation (De Palma, Scorsese, Lucas, Coppola, Bogdanovitch) would graduate to bigger and better things with the studios. Play It borrows its editing style and prose from the films of BBS, the original bad boy independents of the late 1960s-early 1970s, which by this time was old hat and frankly not as original or provocative as it was wannabe-hip. Director Frank Perry, so great with his previous literary adaptations (1969's Last Summer and 1970's Diary of a Mad Housewife), was probably the wrong choice for this project, with its slow pace and toying with chronology and memory. There are sublime moments to be found in Play It as It Lays, but they are so infrequent that it's tough to remember them in the wake of the surrounding mess.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Thoughts on viewings of September 16

Port of Shadows (1938) - Film Forum

In the pantheon of French classics of the 1930 that receive much credit for influencing scores of filmmakers, The Rules of the Game (1939) and Grand Illusion (1937) get the lion's share of attention, as they perhaps should. But for sheer entertainment value, Marcel Carne's Port of Shadows stands head and shoulders above both of them. Restored by StudioCanal and the Cinematheque Francaise, a revival print of which was debuted at MoMA's To Save and Project Festival last fall, this unusually neglected mood piece may finally get the wider audience it deserves through Film Forum's week-long engagement.

Screen legend Jean Gabin stars as a deserter soldier who wanders into Le Havre, a port town where he is seeking to escape the country and seek his fortune elsewhere. Accompanied only by a stray dog who has picked him for its master, he stumbles into an unusual gang of society rejects, including a wistful artist and an alcoholic thief. He also finds love with Nelly (the wonderful Michele Morgan), herself hoping to escape the clutches of her repulsive guardian (Michel Simon), who is hiding a sinister secret involving a local pimp and a two-bit gangster eager to prove his machismo. There's romance and intrigue aplenty, of course amidst the fog and requisite titular shadows.

What sets Port apart from the pack are its proto-noir elements. The morally ambiguous hero with a shady past, the smoky femme fatale (here mixed with the good girl), the sordid crime plot, that eerie lighting that casts shadows everywhere and on everyone, they're all here, years before they would become de rigeur in classics of the genre. French critics in the Cahiers du Cinema film journal coined the term "film noir" to describe a distinctly American kind of film, forgetting (or perhaps ignoring) that the style and storytelling staples of the genre seem to have begun in their own country. Perhaps the reason for this is the checkered distribution history of Carne's film, banned in 1939 for "immoral values" and heavily edited since. Not so in this restoration marrying the original negative with missing scenes culled from a safety positive. Here in full is Gabin's angry, defiant performance, exhibiting an indefinable sexuality; Morgan, with full lips and an unusual beauty all her own; the deliriously moving musical score; the calculating evil of Simon, cloaked behind the persona of a withered old man. It is all here, waiting for you to discover, until Thursday September 20. Oh yes and the dog actor is a pip, too.

Walk on the Wild Side (1962) - Anthology Film Archives

Celebrating the American screenwriter with their continuing "From the Pen of..." series, Anthology Film Archives paired two wildly different films tonight. Walk on the Wild Side, a later period Edward Dmytryk melodrama, is no doubt the most accessible of the pair, and it screened to a surprisingly packed house. In the early 1930s, Texas drifter Dove Linkhorn hitchhikes to New Orleans to find his long-lost love, Hallie, with vixen Kitty Twist tagging along for the ride. They separate at the cafe of Teresina, a Mexican woman who helps Dove place want ads in the paper for Hallie. Little does he know they are being intercepted by the new head honcho in Hallie life, Jo Courtney, a tough as nails madam who counts on the French girl's sophisticated charms with the customers to keep the lights on in her brothel. Needless to say, the soap suds flow and Kitty returns in a third act that really does deliver a punch.

Laurence Harvey, a handsome leading man to be sure, is still unbearably dull, and he is a poor romantic match with Capucine (who detested her kissing scenes with him). It probably doesn't help that he is surrounded by so many colorful women who also act circles around him. Starting with Jane Fonda. As flirty rapscallion Kitty Twist, Fonda appears in one of her earliest Hollywood roles and threatens to walk away with the film at times. She has frankly never looked sexier, and it's one of her two best roles of the 1960s (the other, in They Shoot Horses Don't They?, earned her an Oscar nomination). It's startling to think that after playing this sexually vivacious troublemaker, Fonda would be stuck in thankless ingenue roles for the better part of the decade. And then there is Capucine. Divinely talented, tragic Capucine. Groomed by the film's producer, Charles Feldman, to be a star in America, she is one of the screen's most unjustly forgotten beauties. Her soulful eyes and exquisite lips sometimes obscure the fact that she is acting her heart out as tortured Hallie. Her career did not go where it should have, and she took her own life by jumping from her 8th floor window in 1990 (the same year as her co-star, Barbara Stanwyck's death). It makes her performance here that much more poignant. Anne Baxter initially seems woefully miscast as the young Mexican cafe owner, but does her best with what amounts to kind of a thankless role. She is sadly a long way from Eve Harrington. Barbara Stanwyck does far better work in the ultimately most complex role of the lesbian (bisexual?) whorehouse owner, in her last great film performance before going the TV route on "The Big Valley". Stanwyck is snide and vindictive, coy and loving, and ultimately devastated by her rejected love for Hallie.

Now for the script, as that was the purpose for scheduling the film in the first place: adapted from a novel by Nelson Algren, John Fante's screenplay is really kind of astounding in what it gets away with in 1962. A few years away yet from the loosening of screen morals, Fante has a field day with Fonda's sexual come-ons (including one memorable seduction scene with right-hand man Richard Rust, himself a future director) and doesn't hold back nearly as much as one would expect with the lesbian aspects of the story. In spite of some ridiculous lines ("I'm sorry I ruined your day...by asking you to marry me."), the script is ultimately saved by the actors bringing it to life. Add to this pulpy mix a sterling score by Elmer Bernstein, including a soulful title song crooned by Brook Benton, and an absolutely spellbinding credits sequence, starring a black cat, designed by the great Saul Bass, and you have a pretty consistently entertaining winner.

The Loved One (1965) - Anthology Film Archives

Who in Holy Hell decided to produce, write, direct, and act in this? The Loved One is the most gleefully wrong-headed film to come out of Hollywood in the 1960s, ahead of its time then and probably still so now. While it will surely continue to fly over the heads of viewers unprepared for the onslaught of nutty satire, such creative minds as John Waters and the writers on "The Simpsons" have clearly taken a few hints from Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood's clever (?) script poking fun at every sacred cow imaginable in 1960s California. Let's set the stage, 1965: director Tony Richardson was fresh off a 1963 Oscar win for Best Director for Tom Jones, the script's novel source material was written by Evelyn Waugh, author of the sophisticated "Brideshead Revisited", up-and-coming cinematographer Haskell Wexler signed on to shoot in glorious black-and-white, and you have the screenwriter of Dr. Strangelove and the author of "A Single Man" collaborating on the screenplay. What could possibly go wrong?

Robert Morse (so good now on "Mad Men" as elder statesman partner Bert Cooper) is British emigre Dennis Barlow, arrived in the City of Angels to visit his distant uncle (John Gielgud), who works as an English dialect coach with a major Hollywood studio. When he is unceremoniously let go, he hangs himself from his pool's diving board (the film's co-editor, Hal Ashby, would revisit similar imagery in Harold and Maude), leaving Dennis to plan the elaborate funeral and take up employment at a pet cemetery. But it is at the lavish Whispering Glades cemetery, overseen by a larger than life Reverend (Jonathan Winters, who also plays the Reverend's brother Henry), where he meets the lovely Aimee (Anjanette Comer, before The Baby), a cosmetician for the deceased with a peculiar fetish for death. To give away much more of the ridiculous plot would be criminal, but let's say that the best moments involve Aimee's co-worker Mr. Joyboy (Rod Steiger, given special billing and stealing the movie out from under everybody) and his mother, who absolutely inspired Edith Massey's "Egg Lady" in Pink Flamingos.

Just knowing that Southern and Isherwood co-wrote the script should be a bulls'-eye indicator of what to expect, or not to expect, from this film. Amidst the odd smattering of cameos (James Coburn as airport security, Roddy McDowall as a studio executive, Milton Berle as a husband trying to force his hysterical wife to remove their dead dog from the house, Liberace as a coffin salesman, Tab Hunter as a cemetery tour guide) are pointed critiques of organized religion, the studio system, the vanity of wealthy Californians, TV commercials, capitalism, the publicity machine, misguided heterosexual machismo, I could go on. In one example of the film's script eerily predicting the future of satirical comedy, political correctness is embraced by the employees of Whispering Glades, who prefer the word Caucasian to white because it sounds "less offensive". For 1965, it's also rather surprising to see as much bold sexual imagery as there is in this film, especially considering it was coming out of MGM; in one sequence, nude statues come to life and begin writhing and in some cases performing veiled sex acts with one another. It all becomes a little much to take after a while, especially at an inflated 122 minute running time. Believe it or not, there was even more footage left on the cutting room floor, with more celebrity cameos, including Jayne Mansfield. The film really picks up speed in its final act, where Anjanette Comer is really given a chance to shine her best in an extended nightmarish sequence that does indeed recall Strangelove. And something must be said for a movie that also features Joy Harmon as a brain dead starlet, the amazing gravely-voiced Lionel Stander as a "Dear Abby"-type columnist posing as a Hindi guru, and Paul Williams pre-songwriter fame as a boy genius rocketing corpses to the stars. You have been warned, and possibly properly intrigued.