More Than Meets The Mogwai

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Shots taken from FAMILY PLOT (Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

"Miami Vice": The Dutch Oven (directed by Abel Ferrara)

The bloody, unrelenting imagery and inimitable brand of New York grind-house sleaziness apparent in Abel Ferrara’s first two features (I’m subtracting the porno here, not because it’s insignificant, but simply because I’m not familiar with it) would seem to make Ferrara an unlikely candidate for primetime television, but keeping in tune with the unpredictable nature of those films, he found himself helming two episodes of “Miami Vice” in 1985 for executive producer Michael Mann. It’s been quite a while since I’ve seen his first season episode, “The Home Invaders”, but I seem to recall that his second and last, “The Dutch Oven”, was the better one of the two, but still entirely compromised and hampered down by the fact that Ferrara was working with an established cast and crew already set in their ways of working together (and having major success in doing so).

If anything, these exercises gave Ferrara the opportunity to hone his craft significantly with much larger budgets than he had been accustomed to (save for, maybe, Fear City) and establish a certain degree of credibility that surely would have eluded him had he continued on with his underground opuses, and refused these forays to Hollywood. And, of course, as he once told an interviewer, all he had to do was mention “Miami Vice” to get a good table at a restaurant.*

Originally airing six days before Halloween in 1985, “The Dutch Oven” marked a narrative departure in the series, as it followed the moral quandary of one Detective Trudy Joplin (Olivia Brown), a peripheral character in most of the episodes who must struggle with the decision of when to put her badge away when she’s off the job, after being confronted with Adonis, a suave drug dealer acquaintance (played by Giancarlo Esposito, marking his first time working with Ferrara) of David (Cleavant Derricks), an old flame that she’s just begun to relight. The predictable results being that she’s unable to split these two sides of herself, but does the right thing anyway in setting up a sting operation with Crockett (Don Johnson) to nail the conniving Adonis, even if it means the termination of her relationship with David. An overblown scene with Lieutenant Castillo (Edward James Olmos) serves to highlight Trudy’s professional attitude towards the whole affair, as he allows her the chance to leave the case because “she’s too close”; she vehemently refuses.

[Incidentally, this scene reminded me of how terrible television acting can be, and not even a talented filmmaker like Ferrara can curb the short time schedules and bad habits of the principal actors. If, for any reason these episodes stand out awkwardly in Ferrara’s filmography, it is because of the lack of depth in performances such as these, hardly the degree of intensity that he’s able to encourage and propagate in his more personal projects.]

The real tour-de-force of the episode, however, is the pre-opening credits before Trudy must shoot a rip-off artist after a high-speed car chase through the neon streets (which ultimately results in the clichéd dilemma of the “loose cannon” cop being reprimanded for his/her so-called inattentiveness and recklessness “on the job” – the less said about this plot constraint, the better!).

But, back to the opening moments, before the Jan Hammer credits: for casual viewers of the series (like me), seeing blue face paint and a bleached blonde wig applied to the actress who portrays Trudy doesn’t mean a whole lot, so we’re led to believe that she’s simply a prostitute. Following this, there’s a brief mosaic set to a pop song with such lyrics as “Women who sip champagne / Women who feel no pain / Women in Discos / Bringing Man to his Knees” over several elaborately dressed hookers eyeing potential johns, with Trudy remaining indistinct between them until Crockett pulls up to set the undercover ruse in motion. Is it entirely unreasonable to believe that this brief scene, which lasts only a minute or two, can somehow carry the rather Ferrara-esque notion that certain men will trick themselves into believing that they’re in control of the women they believe they're exploiting, when just the opposite is true (consider the exchange between Adonis and Trudy much later on, in which he explains how Trudy is playing both men – or perhaps, all three in David, Crockett, and Adonis -- in order to obtain what she wants); in other words, could this be foreshadowing similar thematic territory that Ferrara would later mine in his masterpieces of the 1990s, in particular New Rose Hotel? Obviously, a scene like it was probably in Maurice Hurley’s teleplay, as that’s the way television must work in order to be efficient, but Ferrara’s roving camera eye seems to convey all of the above in a manner that manifests the possibility that an intelligent auteur can leave his distinctive mark on a program transmitted through the glass teat.

*Portion of the interview in question -- from the British Horror Magazine “The Dark Side” -- reprinted in Brad Stevens’s indispensable study of Ferrara, “The Moral Vision”, published by FAB Press in 2004.

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Friday, March 03, 2006

"Sissy's Roles" (1977) - Robert Altman Meets "Saturday Night Live"

Without the proper context, a partial list of hosts of “Saturday Night Live” in its sophomore year could almost deceive someone into thinking that there’s some long lost Robert Altman opus out there. Such distinctive Altman regulars as Karen Black (Nashville), Shelley Duvall (very nearly every film of his 1970s output), Elliot Gould (M*A*S*H; The Long Goodbye; California Split), Sissy Spacek (3 Women), and Lily Tomlin (Nashville; Short Cuts; the upcoming A Prairie Home Companion) all took turns presiding over the show during its 1976-1977 season. Altman only contributed to the Spacek episode, but in this short film he gave audiences an invigorating, if ephemeral, glimpse into his then upcoming 3 Women by combining footage from that work with snippets of Alan Rudolph’s Welcome to L.A., a production he helped to get made for his former assistant director.

First airing on March 12, 1977, the episode also contained another pre-filmed short subject, directed by Gary Weis, in which a baton-twirling Sissy Spacek pantomimed to David Bowie’s “Fame”. But in the last half hour, Spacek introduced a “home movie” by Robert Altman, and set the stage for a truly avant-garde work that was heretofore unprecedented in his oeuvre. This television oddity also marked the first time he worked in the medium since before M*A*S*H, his breakthrough counterculture hit from 1970.

Heard on the soundtrack in the opening scene – which un-squeezes the 2.35:1 anamorphic dimensions of 3 Women, considerably narrowing the frame, and making it all too easy to demarcate which footage is which -- one can hear the voice of Altman as he calls out before the clapper during the scene in which Shelley Duvall and Spacek converse over vanilla milkshakes: “Here she goes…Action!”. A country jingle faintly strikes up, which will continue throughout the two minute and eighteen second short. Comprised of twenty-one shots, Altman hints at the “identity theft” at play between Duvall and Spacek in 3 Women during this most unconventional trailer. Spacek introduces herself to off-camera persons -- first as Ann Goode (Sally Kellerman’s character in Welcome to L.A.), then Linda (her real name in that film), Pinky (“but my real name is Mildred…” from 3 Women), and finally, Virginia (in Rudolph’s picture) – resulting in a contradictory concoction of filmic scraps that rejects any attempt at narrative coherence.

Next, Altman plays a game of call and answer with the editing. Spacek picks up a telephone receiver in one shot, and then responds to herself in a different voice in a different room from the different picture. This action is repeated once again, during which Altman underlines the difference in Spacek’s reaction, before using a moment in Rudolph’s film in which Keith Carradine deadpanns over whether Spacek can use his phone. This seemingly incongruous series of recurring actions and reactions continues on for the final minute with Duvall telling Spacek that she can share her closet contrasted with a similar moment from Welcome to L.A. Altman finishes off the piece with several revealing shots of Spacek in various stages of undress, with the indelible image of Spacek slinging her panties over a wire hanger -- before cutting to her washing dishes and meekly humming a country tune.

Altman’s exercise in montage subtly connects both films in a myriad of ways, with the least common factor being the use of the same actors and actresses. There’s a similar sensibility in the devotion given to actress Spacek in both Rudolph and Altman’s films that makes the interconnectedness seem organic. And while I don’t mean to inflate this brief work with more importance than there should be, I do think that the film works on three concurrent levels: 1. a tribute to his recent actress’s range and capabilities; 2. a nonconformist’s attempt at splicing together two films for his own unique version of coming attractions; and 3. a repetitive, discordant mix of the thematic concerns Altman was focusing on at the time of post-production on his most feverish dreamscape on celluloid -- 3 Women.