Tuesday, March 20, 2018

I'm Not There

Relatively 4th Street

If Robert Zimmerman did not exist, we would have to invent him. And then we'd have to invent Bob Dylan like he did. Then we'd have to re-invent him. And re-invent him again. And again. And that would only cover his public persona--not the myths and mis-interpretations and the transferences imposed on him by a public trying to possess the unpossessable. F. Scott Fitzgerald said that there are no second acts in American lives. Well, Dylan is somewhere in the dozens now (and we won't even count the Victoria's Secret ads!) in his quest for a place in the American song-book. Todd Haynes has tried to capture some of the sides and asides of early Dylan in the kaleidoscopic and appropriately named I'm Not There (though it could have just have easily been named "It Ain't Me, Babe"

In an attempt to capture Dylan at the creation, Haynes has made the movie episodic, with a collection of stories with a handful of actors playing stages and aspects of Dylan, none of them forming a complete picture, but making a collage of impressions of the artist in his first 15 years in the limelight.

They are: 1) Woody Guthrie--an 11 year old black kid (Marcus Carl Franklin) who rides the rails escaping from a bad situation with just his guitar and his wits to keep him going. He eventually ends up making a pilgrimage to the New Jersey Hospital where the real Woodie Guthrie is dying of TB (Guthrie died in 1967).

2) Jack Rollins--Christian Bale plays the young activist folk singer who ardently sings "finger-pointing songs" and when he finds himself used by political groups, rebels, turns away from them and towards Christian Evangelicism.
3) Robert Clark--Heath Ledger plays an actor who played Jack Rollins in a film, and must deal with the effects of fame, notoriety and their demands on his ideals, private life, and marriage.

4) Arthur Rimbaud--Ben Whishaw plays Dylan the poet, answering straightforward questions at a police booking with wistful asides that aren't really answers (but will do in a pinch). Whishaw has the least to do, and like the next aspect of Dylan gets the lion's share of the best lines.*
5) Jude Quinn--the most hyped stunt-casting of the movie has Cate Blanchett playing Dylan on tour in London, where he is famously heckled by audiences for abandoning folk music for electric rock and challenged by the press trying to understand or categorize this strange creature from the States. This segment is shot in black and white (looking remarkably like the Dylan documentary "Don't Look Back") and heavily influenced by the style of Fellini. Quinn is perpetually bedeviled by esoteric questions that he either dismisses or vaguely answers and rails against the needling inquisition of one reporter (Bruce Greenwood) for whom Quinn writes "Ballad of a Thin Man" in one of the few instances where Dylan's music is used as fore-ground comment.

6) Billy the Kid--Richard Gere plays a Dylan aspect, alone and hiding out in isolation in a freak-filled town called Riddle, Missouri, where he lives under different identities and speaks up for the town when it is threatened by domineering Commissioner Pat Garrett (Bruce Greenwood, again). It's done in the style of Sam Peckinpah in a fever dream with a slow-tracking camera and a wandering editing style, and a narration by Kris Kristofferson (who played Billy in Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, of which Bob Dylan was an integral part.*
And the bizarre thing is, the bloody thing works. It helps to be hip on Dylan or you'll miss some of the in-jokes.** But it's enough Dylan and just enough kinda Dylan that one can't be too anal-retentive about getting the facts right. The film is more about the myth, and the persona and mystique (and expectations) of the artist than the real thing, and the use of Dylan songs edge along and suggest deeper meanings than, say, a cultural mis-fire like Across the Universe (which used its Beatles covers to tell you that A = A). Dylan's songs--some the traditional recordings, some enthusiastic "live" versions, some covers (there's a wonderful segment of Richie Havens and Franklin doing his "Tombstone Blues") form a suggestive background soundtrack, as his music did for us, that suggest but doesn't hit us over the head, with the exception of that "Ballad of a Thin Man" segment.

Does it succeed in explaining Dylan? Nah. Some aspects of him are presented, and the acknowledgement that there ARE aspects puts this head and shoulders above the standard Hollywood "CliffsNotes" bio-pic ("Ali," anyone?). And the film is filled with references and reverberations enough to fill several movies and a few lives, and that is an artistic victory in itself. And the tackling of the splintering of the artist for changing his art and himself--the holding of the mirror up to the flightiness and provinciality of audiences is a brave act, indeed. I came away not knowing Dylan any more than I did, but glad for the journey and reflected on three quotations on the way out.

"I don't think any one word can sum up a man's life" (Citizen Kane)

"He was a man. What does it matter what you say about people?" (Touch of Evil)

"No decent career was ever founded on a public." F. Scott Fitzgerald

* Including these seven Dylan Rules of Thumb:"Seven simple rules of going into hiding: one, never trust a cop in a raincoat. Two, beware of enthusiasm and of love, both are temporary and quick to sway. Three, if asked if you care about the world's problems, look deep into the eyes of he who asks, he will never ask you again. Four, never give your real name. Five, if ever asked to look at yourself, dont. Six, never do anything the person standing in front of you cannot understand. And finally, seven, never create anything--it will be misinterpreted, it will chain you and follow you for the rest of your life."

And, of course, he doesn't follow any of them.

** Dylan played "Alias," a member of Billy's gang, and also created the film's blue-grass score, which included his song "Knockin' on Heaven's Door."

*** My favorites--at a party Quinn is assaulted by the Tommy Boyce-Bobby Hart "I'm Not Your Steppin' Stone" a faux-Dylan piece of silliness performed by the Monkees, and Brian Jones is introduced as belonging to "a really good cover band."

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Wings of Desire

The Story: Wim Wenders' original title for Wings of Desire (his preferred English title) translates to "The Sky Over Berlin."  Far be it from me to second-guess Wenders, but the original belies the Nature of the film. The skies over Berlin are an unbroken line, literally, an open air expanse through which the angels of the tale glide. But the film is one of transitions; everything is bisected and we cross over from one side to the other, breaking barriers as we move along, as easily as the angels walk through walls. We move from the angels' point-of-view to that of the street, while at the same time changing from black-and-white (angel perspective) to color (our reality). Even the city is in a state of flux, divided between West and East Berlin—it was filmed before the Berlin Wall fell—the architectures of the buildings changing, green-space being planted, slums falling, new buildings rising. Everything is changing, and the only way to survive the transition unscathed is to have the grace to fly above it all.

Which is why this story of an angel who chooses this moment to make his own transition, from the spiritual to the tangible, is so special and fascinating.

Along the way, "there are so many good things," moments of poetry, both visual and aural, and everybody has their favorites: the library sequence—the angels hovering over the readers absorbing new thoughts, like it was an exquisite dish; the encounters with poor souls making the path of crossing-over; the dreams; the circus.

And then, there's Peter Falk. If there is a pivot-point for reality and fantasy, it is his performance in this film. Playing Peter Falk (he's called that on-set of the movie he's making, and he's recognized by citizens as "Lt. Columbo"), he is a real actor, playing a movie actor—himself—who also has a special connection to the angels of the film (as do children, who can see them, while the actor cannot). When Wenders offered this part—him—to Falk, I can imagine the actor hesitating for only a second, grasping it. Then, since he was pals and collaborator with John Cassavetes, well-known for on-set improvisation, Falk probably just said, "Yah, what da hell..." and did it.

It's my favorite scene in the film* (so far—I'm still studying this multi-layered gem), when we transition from an empty bus-compartment moving forward (semi-occupied by the angel Cassiel), to a scene of a humble food-stand, as the angel Damiel follows the perspective-lines of the bus on his path to tangible reality. There he encounters Falk, in town performing in a movie, taking a smoke break, getting a warm-up. Falk senses the unseen angel's presence, and engages him in conversation about the joys of life (much to the alarmed curiosity of the cook, who probably thinks this guy talking to himself, is crazy).  It is this encounter that will convince Damiel to "take the plunge" in the very next scene and pursue his desires, that have wings, angels' or no.

Just another in a series of angels, spiritual beings of miracles, who choose, instead to hope, to hope, to hope.

The Set-Up:  The angel Damiel (Bruno Ganz) on his rounds in Berlin, checks on some of his favorite haunts, the flying trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin) and the actor, Peter Falk (Peter Falk). Just when he thinks Life can hold no more surprises, he discovers one more, which sets him on a solid path.


Peter Falk walks through war ruins, which is intercut with Cassiel in an empty bus. 
Falk stops at hot dog stand, Damiel walks by. He - and the hot dog stand-owner - stare in amazement as Falk begins to speak:
FALK: I can't see you, but I know you're here!
FALK: I feel it.
FALK: You been hangin' around since I got here.
FALK: I wish I could see your face...
FALK: ...just look into your eyes and tell you how good it is to be.
FALK: Just to touch something!
FALK: See, that's cold. That feels good!
FALK: Or, here, to smoke, have coffee. And if you do it together it's fantastic.
FALK: Or to draw:
FALK: ...ya know, you take a pencil and you make a dark line, then you make a light line...
FALK: ...and together it's a good line. Or when your hands are cold...
FALK: ...you rub them together...
FALK: See, that's good, that feels good!
FALK: There's so many good things!
FALK: But you're not here - I'm here.
FALK: I wish you were here.
FALK: I wish you could talk to me...
FALK: ...'cause I'm a friend.

Falk stretches out his hand, Damiel grabs it. 
FALK: "Compañero."
Damiel leaves hastily...

Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin)

Words by Peter Handke, Richard Reitinger, and Wim Wenders

Pictures by Henri Alekan and Wim Wenders

Wings of Desire is available on DVD from The Criterion Collection

  * It is echoed later in the film with Cassiel, and again, in the sequel Faraway, So Close!

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Street with No Name

The Street with No Name (William Keighley, 1948) Another of the odd docu-dramas Filmed in the real locations (but not better actors) that studio 20th Century Fox made in the 1940's with the FBI's full co-operation. As with the earlier example, The House on 92nd StreetLloyd Nolan once again plays FBI inspector George Briggs who hires a new agent recruit to infiltrate a violent gangster racket run by one Alec Stiles (Richard Widmark, a year after tearing up the screen in Kiss of Death). Mark Stevens plays the mole, George Cordell, while a young John McIntire (wait a minute, he looks old in this one, too!) is his chief contact with the Feds. The Stiles gang is high on fashion, but low on smarts with the exception of Stiles, who's big on intricately worked out by-the-book schemes, secret rooms inside warehouses and likes to do a lot of whining about his gang, his moll, and probably the government, too, if he actually paid taxes. He takes a personal interest in Cordell (working under the alias of George Manley) and personally hires him as part of his mob.
The movie builds to a violent climax with anybody-who's-anybody in the cast all in the same place dodging bullets and daggers and hiding in all the spacious blackness that director Keighley and cinematographer Joe MacDonald (he shot My Darling ClementineCall Northside 777, and Pickup on South Street) can offer. It's a minor noir, curious only for Widmark's early work and the spare elements of the truthiness at FBI Headquarters, which are less on display than The House on 92nd Street. This would be the last film of its type to have the full co-operation of the FBI until James Stewart starred in The FBI Story in 1959, and, of course the TV series "The F.B.I." starring Efrem Zimbalist, Jnr.
Well...almost. The script for The Street with No Name ended up being recycled for another, better film for Fox, which we'll talk about next week. 

Friday, March 16, 2018

Free and Easy (1930)

Free and Easy (Ed Sedgwick/Buster Keaton, 1930) Gosh, this is a tough one to write and I've been avoiding it for over a year as it is just too depressing. Free and Easy was a couple of films into Buster Keaton's new contract with M-G-M after buying his Keaton Studios, his first "talking" picture, and the first attempt by the studio to "shoe-horn" him into a star of the M-G-M caliber. 

And...they put him into a musical. After all, when something is successful, do something completely different and expect the same results. For all of Irving Thalberg's reputation of being a movie "genius," his work to "improve" Buster Keaton shows him to be not only fallible, but thuddingly so. Of all the pratfalls Keaton took, this one is the most painful to watch...because it's not under his own power.
In Free and Easy, Keaton plays Elmer Butts, a gas station attendant, who seeks to be the manager and very unlikely paramour of Elvira Plunkett (Anita Page), winner of the Gopher City Kansas beauty pageant, who is travelling to Hollywood to seek fame and fortune and/or a movie contract. Along for the ride, chaperoning, is Elvira's indomitable mother (Trixie Friganza) who thinks Elmer is a sap and is in no way shy of expressing that thought...or any other. But, Elmer is smitten, and after nearly being left behind by the train, finds himself perpetually frustrated trying to talk to Elvira.

The description makes it sound like a typical Keaton script, but, this time it's with sound, and immediately, you sense a problem: the timing's off. Comedy has a rhythm and its timing is critical in order to produce a laugh. The hi-jinx getting on the train in the opening scenes all try to play for big laughs, but come up short, and they stutter as the physical comedy that, before, propelled a Keaton comedy is replaced by broad dialogue. The film will improve the ratio a bit as it goes along, but, initially, it's a bit of a shock, especially when compared to the momentum of Keaton's silent's, which were cut to the action, not to the dialogue.

There must always be a rival for the girl's affections in a Keaton film, and it arrives early in the form of a studio contract player named Larry Mitchell (Robert Montgomery in only his 6th on-screen role), who is suave, debonair, and a bit of a cad. He convinces Elvira that he can do great things for her with his contacts in Hollywood, and it may be only a ruse to seduce her (the film is pre-Code, so you could get away with things like that), which puts us clearly on Team Keaton. Even as he bumbles his way through trying to connect with Elvira—he drives her and Mom to a big Hollywood premiere only to not be able to attend with her himself because he can't find a parking space—one senses a change in character under the mis-direction of MGM. Keaton always played something of a rube, but he was always a resourceful one, practically willing himself to get out of predicaments; how he would extricate himself out was always part of the surprise and part of the charm of his work.

He, he's merely hapless—a Kansian lost in the glitter and absurdity of Hollywood (ironically, Keaton actually WAS from Kansas). He's out of his depth in all the shallowness, a decent-enough fellow in an environment where glitz and glamour are what is valued. The conceit of the film is that of What Price, Hollywood (to be filmed two years later)—that Page's Elvira gets to Hollywood where she decides that what she wants is stability, and it is actually the unsophisticated Elmer who gets a Hollywood contract, getting something he doesn't really want, but losing what he does. Career and love go on parallel tracks of desire, but never in the same direction.
Elmer goes skulking around the MGM lot trying to find Elvira while trying to avoid studio security, screwing up shots, destroying sets, and being a typical bull in a china-shop, when he stumbles into an audition with director Fred NibloFree and Easy is full of cameo's by MGM stars and directors that it almost feels like a presentation to its board of directors—who can't seem to get a decent line reading of "Woe is me, the Queen has swooned!" Despite the difficulties with lines, he nevertheless manages to get a featured musical-comedy role—improbably playing against Elvira's mother!—in a large production that's run like a Broadway show—even though it's a movie, it's all presented as if they do it in one amazing shot, without the necessity of editing away (except in the magical way that MGM musicals do).
It's a testament to Keaton's talent that he even brings the musical number off...despite his low bass voice, being "boxed" away for a part of the number, and being "Peter Panned" around on ropes in a weird puppet dance (one could "read" something into that as a comment of the studio's treatment of him, but we'll let that go).

Perhaps we should leave that for the ending, with a successful Elmer in sad clown make-up, bravely keeping the show going on, while holding back tears for his lost lady-love. Sentimentality was never a strong suit for Keaton—that's in Chaplin's bag of manipulations—he would always undercut it with a joke and move on, but, here, the filmmakers linger on the pathos...and it just...feels ...wrong. Sad, yes, but not in the way it's intended. Sad because it's a great comic artist—nay, genius—being misused in a way that he never would have planned at his own studio. But, Keaton was no longer considered an artist, but  just a commodity. And if MGM saw him as a "fall-guy," rather than as a comedian, then he would take the fall. And for a comedy called Free and Easy, that's a tragedy.

Free and Easy did make money, though, which only encouraged MGM to continue their folly. Keaton's next movie, though, would see a return of his comic snap.