More Than Meets The Mogwai

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Otto Preminger, 1971


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

These are the Damned: RIVER'S EDGE (Tim Hunter, 1986)

"I'm not being smart
Or trying to be cold on my part
And I'm not gonna wear my heart on my sleeve
But you know people get all emotional
And sometimes, man, they just dont act rational
They think they're just on TV"

--Lou Reed, "Street Hassle"

As far as films centering on abandoned, desiccated youth, RIVER’S EDGE is unique in its objective approach to its teenaged protagonists. There’s not a judgment or an edict passed down by director Tim Hunter, and he generally lets the situation of a murdered high school girl and the ensuing desertion of her fast-decomposing corpse play out amongst a conniving, gossipy, and deeply troubled riff-raff clique. As real life casts a pallor over the loosely based-on-a-true-story narrative, parents are either substance abusers (much like their kids) or can’t seem to find time away from work; they’re left in the margins, allowing for their disturbed offspring to gallivant around their coastal town, ambling for beer and free marijuana from the town loony/fugitive (Dennis Hopper).

In more than a few broad strokes, the film could be said to resemble David Lynch’s BLUE VELVET or “Twin Peaks” (or is it they that resemble RIVER’S EDGE?) for the way there’s an affected surrealistic rendering in one-off shots and off-kilter dialogue (and that’s not to mention the Hopper factor, who, in fact, I prefer here) -- there’s Hopper waltzing with a blonde-haired, blow-up doll; Hopper asking if there are any “Bud in Bottles” to the convenience store clerk (Taylor Negron) after his fellow murderer/fugitive double (Daniel Roebuck) has held up the place; Crispin Glover’s spastic performance as the leader in the clique, an avowed speed freak who unexpectedly takes it upon himself to shield the murderer from the cops, torments their shared friends (Keanu Reeves, Ione Skye, Josh Richman, Roxana Zal) in order to ensure they don't tattle to the cops in the interim before he Figures It All Out.

Reeves and Skye are the conscience of the film, steadily acclimatizing to a newfound relationship bounded by the uneasy connection found in their mutual disturbance in keeping the murder of a friend silent. It’s a problem with modern society, Hunter argues, but there’s not a finger pointed (all of the “society is rundown, ravaged, and disintegrating morally” arguments are otherwise scoffed at by the scene featuring a nerdish student addressing his radically progressive teacher, who dissects the social-political dimensions of a presumably close acquaintance’s death as if it’s an op-ed piece for “The New York Times”) and they’re not all bad apples, even if appearances are to the contrary.

The pea to the paroxysmal Glover's pod is the younger Joshua John Miller, brother to Reeves in the film, but more of a cosmic kin to the former; his exaggerated gait, his unhurried line delivery, and his babyish features make his precociousness into a petty life of crime worth considering if he’s beyond redemption or not (the film’s not telling: after Reeves diffuses an internal combustion inside Miller by wrestling a revolver away from him, Hunter doesn’t feature him in any close-shots and he doesn’t say another line of dialogue, his group shots – as part of the crowd – almost make it seem as if he’s now silently assimilated with everybody else by this unheralded tragedy).

Hunter cleverly inverts certain tropes of classical Hollywood (particularly Nicholas Ray’s seminal REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE), subtly replacing the underlying motive and gestures of its youth; this is not an accidental death caused by a “chicken run”, but an honest-to-goodness homicide that deserves to be brought to the cops as soon as possible. There is no moral quandary presented here, just a couple of teens weaned off of action films and '70s cop shows who misinterpret the situation as one (Glover's character makes comparisons of hiding the murderer to being like an episode of "Starsky and Hutch" and, earlier on, that he "feels like Chuck Norris"). There's an empowerment issue at work here, and as long as the killing is not reported, these kids get to play make-believe.
The music, by Wim Wenders’ regular composer Jürgen Knieper, is bombastic and large, insularly Germanic, stuffy, but gives the film an important counterpoint or counterweight to the metal (mostly Slayer, a pitch-perfect reference) listened to by almost everybody else.

Dennis Hopper (complete with Indian Motorcycle rusted placard on the wall) plays a shadow of his former EASY RIDER, a cousin of the confused stance put forth by the disadvantaged in the film, but as he considers the murder that has caused the abuzz, his ultimate verdict is that his is more genuine because of “the love” held for the woman he killed, an odd, disquieting thing to say, but a truthful, useful key to the stunted emotionality present at any given moment in the teenagers of RIVER’S EDGE.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

(1932 - 2008)

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

David Chase and "The Rockford Files" (Season 5, Episodes 9 & 10: "Black Mirror")

For me, one of the most heartbreaking episodes in all of television’s history is also one of the most unsung.

“Love is the Word”, Season 6, Episode 6 of the perennial private investigator program “The Rockford Files” was written by the sole mind behind “The Sopranos”, David Chase, and directed by one of that show’s greatest assets, John Patterson (he helmed every season closer up until his death of prostate cancer in 2005, “The Sopranos” sixth season finale being dedicated to his memory). It’s a story of the proclamation of a love delayed, as Jim Rockford (James Garner) visits his on-again, off-again psychologist girlfriend Megan Dougherty (Kathryn Harrold, of MODERN ROMANCE) only to discover that his complicated feelings towards her have gone undisclosed for too long, and it’s too late -- she’s set to marry another lover in the near future. He takes her out to a Barbara Mandrell concert, and the performance of one of her renditions stings him to the heart, bitterly. There is little to say on the drive home, and once Rockford’s back to his ramshackle trailer, Garner delivers in a prolonged, meditative sequence that wonderfully exhibits a pained sense of his rugged masculinity, of regret and longing, of kowtowing to the cinematic-archaic code of honor that states a man can’t reveal his true feelings, a code that probably has never existed in the first place. Garner’s so terrific in this episode - hell, in these first ten minutes (before the rote mystery plot kicks in) - that it reminds the viewer of what a privilege it is to see such a big-screen talent on the small screen.

So, as Season Six isn’t yet available on DVD, I retreated back last night to Season Five, almost magically selecting a “Rockford Files” at random, and figuring that the two-parter (read: 90 minutes) “Black Mirror” might be intriguing, I put it on. Credits rolled, and both Kathryn Harrold’s and David Chase’s names came up. It turns out, to my delight, that “Black Mirror” is the precursor to “Love is the Word” – the beginnings of a relationship told within the narrative of a standard private investigator tale that involves a madman terrorizing his blind psychologist.

It all starts out on a luminous Californian beach near Rockford’s home. Rockford literally stumbles onto a sunbathing Dougherty by the missing of a football catch thrown by his venerable pal Angel (Stuart Margolin). She refuses Rockford’s dinner invitations, but the two soon cross paths when one of Dougherty’s psychoanalytical patients begins stalking her, making threatening phone calls late at night (I could swear that former “Rockford Files” guest star Strother Martin was the culprit, by the throaty swagger in the voice of the first call; perhaps he was making an unbilled voice cameo?). Dougherty contacts Rockford after this sudden need of his peculiarly protective, investigative services, and the two are soon in the middle of an affair. She is fiercely combative of his suggestions that he read her patient confidentiality files in order to dig up a clue, but there is soon a break in the case when the bodyguard Rockford hires is assaulted, and an observer in the medical building spotted the assailant as he escaped.

The fact that Dougherty is blind is but an afterthought, only servicing to make her predicament that much more frightening in a WAIT UNTIL DARK fashion. Confusion is stirred at first, as Rockford doesn’t realize she’s without sight on the beach, causing for a jocularly played self-loathing scene where Garner questions whether it was his looks that made her decline his company for dinner. Harrold’s likewise adept in both parts of “Black Mirror”, suggesting a rigid independence and conquering of her so-called disability that can, at times, give way to an equally as strong self-conscious nagging, but only to parties she’s decided are trustworthy (in a frank scene, and the only one in which the origins of her impaired vision is broached, she explains to Jim a former fondness for letting go by driving fast in an open convertible; Jim relents, and borrows a convertible for this purpose). She speaks of the notion that this activity is freeing for her, as for blind people “walls” are the world, that running into one means you must back up and find your way all over again; driving fast means “there are no walls”.

Character actor Leo Gordon plays the bodyguard that Rockford entrusts with the safety of Dougherty, and his numbskull dialogue wouldn’t seem so out of place in the mouth of Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico) from “The Sopranos”, as his double-breasted suit sums up his relentless but turgid energy and ‘40s gentlemanly appearance to a tee; “I bet I know what kind of music you like”, Gordon intones to Dougherty, after informing her that he’s terrified of revealing too much of his true character to even a psychologist off-duty -- “Stevie Wonder?”

After some lethargic attempts at fooling us with red herrings, the true identify of the psychopathic patient is revealed to be Danny Green/Jackie Tetuska (John Pleshette), a conflicted double personality between that of a shut-in loner and a contract killer well known in the underground circuits and amongst Rockford’s friends. A meeting is arranged through Rockford’s police cohort, Lieutenant Becker (Joe Santos, another staple of “The Sopranos), and Dougherty is placed with the man and his hitherto secret identity; Tetuska, the hit man portion of the split personality, is sincere in his statements that he doesn’t recall Dougherty. But some quick thinking on her part jogs his memories to background childhood details otherwise private; afterwards, he catches up to her, but is thwarted by Rockford.

Another aspect of “The Rockford Files” that I’ve always loved is the sense of Rockford’s backwoods network of Los Angeles denizens and close-knit, shady acquaintances. In one pithy, amusing scene, Rockford enlists the aid of a handwriting expert he knew in prison (the offender has left some scribbles on a matchbook inside Dougherty’s apartment). Informing Jim of the death of a mutual friend, Rockford begins to cheerily speak of the well doings of other inmates the two men both knew – before the handwriting expert interjects that those men have since died, too.

Director Arnold Laven (SLAUGHTER ON TENTH AVENUE with Dan Duryea and Walter Matthau; THE RACK with Paul Newman; and, perhaps most importantly, one proponent of the Levy-Gardner-Laven production company that spawned “The Rifleman” on television, and WHITE LIGHTNING and GATOR on the big screen) didn’t direct another “Rockford Files”, but he displays a flare for blue-mood lighting in the silent sequences that occur in the medical building as the troubled individual makes pointed attacks on Dougherty’s life. There’s almost an Italian giallo flourish in the generous splashes of bright color, making for an unrecognizable style from any other episode of the series that I’ve seen.

Chase, Garner, and Harrold would reunite one more time with this dynamic in Chase’s follow-up to “Love is the Word”, the tele-movie “Punishment and Crime” (1996). I haven't seen it, but as it’s apparently a reworking of the Fyodor Dostooyevsky novel that’s reversed in the title, I’m sure it’s of further interest and I look forward to catching up to it once Universal gets to releasing the made-for-TV films.

Labels: , ,

Monday, February 04, 2008

To Live and Die in Las Vegas: William Friedkin and "CSI" (Season 8, Episode 9: "Cockroaches")

It all starts with a slam-bang, high-octane pursuit, kinetically captured by Friedkin’s impulsive ferocity in a manner that doesn’t allow viewers to catch their collective breaths. I’m not a fan of “CSI”, so I couldn’t tell you if car chases are a staple of the series, but I’ll make the claim anyway that they seldom could have achieved the forward-probing intensity of the one present here. It never ceases to amaze me what they can now show on network television, as the close of the chase (before the opening credits) are that of a CGI-rendered body being bloodily splayed open on the scorching, hard asphalt. (It should be noted that this chase is entirely independent of the proper narrative, serving only to produce a corpse for the investigation.) So, in totality, it’s probably the most blatantly Friedkin touch in the entire episode, but this doesn’t denigrate it: it could easily stand alongside the celebrated ones in THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) and TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. (1985), and to a lesser extent, the automobile pursuits in JADE (1995) and his tele-film JAILBREAKERS (1994). At this point, they are the director’s specialty (especially when he tackles action) and the audience expects to be treated to a new interpretation whenever he’s behind the camera.

Surprisingly, as this is a reunion of sorts for the star and director of TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A., William Petersen (as Grissom) is virtually given nothing to do but to gravely issue stern glances at Warrick Brown (Gary Dourdan), the episode’s real focus. As in TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A., Petersen is the older mentor, a character we feel we can never pin down or thoroughly judge. Don’t get me wrong, he’s not a cheat or warped in the same ways the character Richard Chance was, but there’s a degree to which Grissom takes on the status of a big brother with shoes too large to fill. John Pankow occupied that little-brother position in L.A., just as Dourdan represents that here.

A glitzy Las Vegas strip club, run by old-school mob lord Lou Gedda (a latter-day Charles Laughton-esque John Capodice), orchestrates a swindle of overcharging certain high profile patrons the wrong price for champagne after their nights of drunken debauchery with the club’s strippers. When they refuse to pay, it results in a pile-up of broken bones, sliced-up genitalia, and dead bodies. The only witness is a questionable rundown bum (played by an appropriately tattered Dennis Christopher, of BREAKING AWAY [Peter Yates, 1979] and FADE TO BLACK [Vernon Zimmerman, 1980]); I don’t want to stress his importance, but one of the key characteristics of programs like these is the familiar faces of yesteryear’s cinema that turn up from time to time; Christopher’s little more than a red herring, someone who pretends to know more than he does, but his presence is welcome anyway.

Crime Scene Investigator Brown -- who seemingly has had a problem with either drinking or drugs in the show’s history judging by a scene where he hesitates entering the seedy place -- prowls the club as just such a customer, hoping that the crooked powers-that-be may attempt some rough stuff on him. Of course, as Petersen’s Grissom describes, they’re much smarter than that, and they instead eventually take vengeance on Brown in a much more disturbing, earth-shattering way.

Drinking heavily and reveling with one of the attractive dancers (played by Rebecca Budig), Brown finds himself playing into their hand, enabling the underbelly of the unseen forces just enough rope to hang him with. When Brown questions why she works for such an organization, the dancer sticks up for her employees, stating that it’s mobsters like Gedda that built Vegas to be what it was in the first place. Self-deluded as she may be, she’s right, but it’s tough to ascertain if she’s completely aware of her pawn-like status in this private game between Brown and the mob when it’s exposed in a rigidly fatalistic reveal in the final seconds. Friedkin encapsulates this connection between Brown and the dancer by housing their evening spent together in an immaculately white “dream-room” of sorts, where words are reverberated back and a stack of condoms may temporarily take on the visage of a dagger. Friedkin also experiments with flash-frames once again, but instead of CRUISING’s hardcore gay porn inserts, they are inserts inside a sedate scene of a murder-to-be, or a murder-that-has-been.

As in much of Friedkin’s work, there are more questions asked in the end then there are answers, and he certainly knows how to stick the inquisitive dagger deep into the viewer, twisting his almost-consistently constant pessimistic worldview into a series of malleable thoughts and impressions. Tenuous connections that didn’t seem plausible or possible take on considerable meaning once all is said and done, and sinister implications or associations crop up. There’s a rousing finish here that prides itself in feeling fragmentary, and even though there’s supposedly a typical follow-up denouement to the case at the start of the next “CSI”, I doubt I’ll ever watch it. Friedkin challenges the program, and adapts it to suit his own sensibilities, and not the other way around, forcing the other creators, writers, and directors of the subsequent season to play catch-up.