Saturday, August 8, 2009
Nasty comments about Woody the person are nothing new; once upon a time, Woody himself made his living as a chief dispenser of them. (Did you hear about the time he beat up the toaster?) But harsh judgements of the artist, though not unheard of, have a weird tendency to build to a sort of crescendo, then to fall away when he has an acclaimed international success big enough to count as a "comeback" (such as 2005's Match Point), only to rise up again, fiercer and more unforgiving than ever. A couple of weeks ago, in the course of lamenting the difficulty that Abel Ferrara's Chelsea on the Rocks has had finding a distributor, Danny Leigh in the Guardian really stuck the knife in: "[Ferrara] and we are left with the exact inverse of the fate of that other New York institution, Woody Allen: a veteran director making films that deserve to be seen, but which no matter how good simply can't get into cinemas." No offense to Ferrara, who is one of our favorite New York street crazies with a camera, but if Vincent Canby were to rise from the dead, the discovery that anyone in the English-speaking world could get away with suggesting that anything his beloved Woody made might have less reason to be shown than anything from the director of New Rose Hotel would only kill him all over again, just so he could spin in his grave. (Vincent Canby is dead, isn't he? I'm trying to cut back on the number of times a day that I have to go running to Wikipedia.)
Another Guardian writer, Andrew Pulver, ain't having it. Pulver writes that "what really makes me sad is that it's now so easy, and so acceptable, to give Allen a hard time. His faltering output in recent years has coincided with a general perception that he's foolish (at best) and a sleazebag (at worst). Of course we can advance arguments that an artist's life shouldn't be confused with their work, but Allen didn't help himself by regularly casting himself opposite nubile young actresses. (Thank God he seems to have packed that in.) He seemed wilfully to want to confuse the two himself; just like, in his 'early, funny' period, he used to get tetchy at people who seemed to think the nebbishy little characters he played on screen could be anything at all like the real Woody Allen. (How could anyone have got that idea?) I prefer to remember the glory days."
It is an honorable sentiment, and it perhaps speak well to the dense variety of Allen's output in the last forty years that we will be able to spend forever arguing about which days those were. (Pulver thinks that Allen's hot streak fell between 1979's Manhattan and Husbands and Wives, his last film with Farrow, which was released into the teeth of the media flare-up over their domestic messiness.) "Now, as the likes of Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood (his direct peers) have put their rowdy youth and questionable escapades behind them, and are relaxing into elder-statesmanship, Allen is heading the other way" in terms of his reputation and public image. That may be a bit much. (And it definitely fails to acknowledge that so many people felt betrayed, and therefore comfortable to judge Allen's morality, back in 1992 because he fell from such a high place in terms of personal reputation: however he compares to Scorsese or Eastwood as a filmmaker, he was, at his peak, an intellectual culture hero of a kind that they never were.) Ultimately, Allen's reputation, like that of every prolific major filmmaker, shifts a little with every new movie he turns out. Which way will it shift after his new Larry David picture sees the light of day? We've got our fingers and toes crossed.
Herzog also just checked in with John Patterson, giving him a quick rundown of the current busy state of his movie career at his Laurel Canyon home, because he still considers himself to be a filmmaker and all this "man of letters" business is making him nervous. Herzog, who credits his global viewpoint to the fact that he "had seen much of the world before I was 20, and I had experienced it in a very fundamental way - being on foot, in Africa, in danger," actually had to take his age into account--he's now 66--when deciding not to imperil his life by shooting some icy underwater footage himself on his Antarctica documentary Encounters at the End of the World. However, he braved New Orleans, Nicolas Cage, and the wrath of Abel Ferrara on the movie he recently finished, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Werner insists that, previous reports to the contrary, this is not a remake or a reboot of or a sequel to Ferrara's 1992 scuzzball classic, which came complete with rape on a church altar, visions of Jesus, and full-frontal Keitel. It seems that producer Ed Pressman owns the rights to the title and just wanted to use it on a new project. "I was assured," says Herzog, "that this was not related to another film of a similar name. I told them, 'If you swear on the heads of your children.' I also had hints from Nicolas Cage that he wouldn't sign unless he knew I was directing, which is a good way to start a film." Herzog was keen to shoot in New Orleans "because, after Katrina, you were in a situation where civil life came to a breakdown. Not merely because the hurricane caused a lot of material destruction, but it also created a collapse of civility - looting and, by the way, the police were heavily involved in that, too." And the producers were hot to shoot there too, because of "the tax incentives."
Herzog is "also in the process of wrapping up another film, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, produced by David Lynch and loosely based on a gruesome matricide in San Diego in the 1980s, starring Michael Shannon...This being a Herzog movie, the suburban footage is interspersed with scenes - visions, perhaps - captured in Central Asia and Peru. He calls it 'sort of a horror movie'." This all amounts to the most time Herzog has spent working with actors and scripts for quite some time, now; most of his filmography for the last several years has been devoted to nonfiction filmmaking. (The biggest and most recent exception, 1996's Rescue Dawn with Christian Bale, was based on the same story that Herzog had already used a decade earlier for his documentary, Little Dieter Needs to Fly.) Not that he sees much difference, of course; this is a guy who, in 1991's Lessons of Darkness, presented footage of the smoking, apocalyptic aftermath of the Gulf War as a science fiction film, and who later, in 2005's The Wild Blue Yonder, intercut NASA footage with film of the actor Brad Dourif improvising a monologue recounting his life as an extraterrestrial immgirant. "The distinction between fiction and documentary," says Herzog, "is the last thing I would spend a sleepless night over."
Some of us who remember reading that interview when it came out, and who also remember reading it again and looking up and thinking, "Nahhhh..." and then reading it yet again, might have assumed that one reason Robyn Snyder finally called the lawyers is that she was tired of her husband constantly spraying her side of the bed with Lysol to try to get rid of the smell of sulphur. So it was a bit of a shock when word hit the papers that the old boy, "who was spotted frolicking with a blonde woman on his $26 million Costa Rican ranch Tuesday, who may or may not be engaged in an affair with a Russian musician...While it's unclear if possible infidelity on the 53-year-old actor's part led to [his wife's] decision to end their marriage, recent photographs of Gibson with women in Boston and Costa Rica, and reports that he engaged in a relationship with Russian singer Oksana Pochepa have fueled speculation that he wasn't faithful." Whatever the case, Gibson is worth an estimated $900 million, Bird on a Wire or no Bird on a Wire, and because Robyn married him in 1980, when his personal assets consisted of a beer cooler, a pair of flip-flops, and 250 complimentary Betamax copies of Summer City, there was no spoilsport pre-nup to nip the festivities in the bud. Stay tuned.
Fat Actor Watch at New York Times: Paper of Record Alleges That When Russell Crowe Sits Around the House, He Really Sits Around the House
Cieply briefly notes that there's a gender-based double standard regarding the weight and age rules in Hollywood so far as leading players are concerned, but after dropping Kathleen Turner's name, he seems to feel that he's discharged his duty, as if the subject bored even him. He seems more taken with the idea that this is an utterly new phenomenon, but despite the historical examples he digs up, that may be a non-starter. "Photos of midcentury stars — Humphrey Bogart, James Stewart, Clark Gable and others — show them to have remained rather gaunt at an age when many of the current crop are anything but." Good thing those photos are handy, since it's not as if movie actors left behind filmed records of their performances so we'd be able to remind themselves what they looked like. That said, it seems a little callous to drag Bogart, one of the best-known victims of cancer sticks ever to go down coughing, into a discussion of how movie stars used to keep themselves svelte. (One well-circulated story has it that, when illness had left Bogie too weak to handle the stairs in his own home, he used to navigate from one floor to another by stuffing himself in the dumb waiter.) It's also worth remembering that Gable, who died of a massive heart attack after completing his last film, The Misfits, had lost 35 pounds on a crash diet to get his weight below 200 before shooting began. If there's any less of that sort of thing going on nowadays because more stars feel comfortable about appearing in public looking something other than whisper-thin, surely it's for the better.
It's also true that, as Cieply would have known if he'd put down the "photographs" and spent a couple of days watching Turner Classic Movies, there have always been counter-examples one could offer to his role call of manly waifs. Wallace Beery never looked as if he'd had trouble locating the desert cart, Spencer Tracey rolled into his onscreen middle age looking as if he'd swallowed a tether ball, James Cagney was getting pretty squared-off by the time of Yankee Doodle Dandy, Robert Mitchum often had an amorphous mass surrounding his midsection that he used to abruptly suck up into his chesticological region whenever he was required to take his shirt off, Gene Hackman's weight always flunctuated, sometimes wildly, depending on just how regular his latest "regular guy" character was supposed to be, and as for Jack Nicholson, in his mid-forties when he more or less officially entered his "middle-aged" period with Terms of Endearment--please. Of course, with movies as with everything else, memory can be a great deceiver. Lawrence Turman, "a veteran film producer who is chairman of the Peter Stark producing program at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts", told Cieply that "“John Wayne always looked a bit portly." I find it disturbing that the Peter Stark producing program at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts can do no better for its chairman than a guy who's never seen Stagecoach. It may be a tribute to the lingering effect of the image that Wayne cast from around the mid-1950s until his death in 1979 that even some professionals think he always looked like that, but I would propose that, unlikely though it may seem, that if Wayne had looked in his youth like a guy who was fated to someday look the way he did in True Grit, he never would have gotten the chance to grow into that later incarnation--at least, not on movie screens.
This still leaves the question of whether some of these stars, heavier though they may undeniably be, are as hideous to behold as Cieply seems to be implying they are. I will confess that when I saw Travolta, say, in the trailer for Pelham, I did not catch myself thinking, "Here comes Wide Load." (I did catch myself thinking, "Get a load of Weird Hairline with his Fu Manchu mustache. Each of us has his issues.) One possibility worth considering is that such stars as Travolta, Washington, and Hanks, who came up in the 1980s, when a perfect storm of society-embraced body issues and new technology in the gym led to a new species of Americans who seemed to be armor-plated in their own skin and muscle, some of whom hastened to show off their new packaging on the covers of magazines, such as that infamous shot of Travolta on the cover of Rolling Stone to promote Stayin' Alive, looking as if his abs were about to jump out of his torso and his brains had already leaked out of his ears. Maybe, having fallen for that when you had the energy and free schedule to pursue it all the way, you have to let yourself go a little later on or else you'll explode. But then, in the interests of full disclosure, I should concede that I am from The South, where we deep fry our veggie plates and the lost causes that we love to get misty-eyed about include our own arteries in their pre-clotted state. Because of my own cultural conditioning, if I had my way, every other movie made since 1984 would have starred Joe Don Baker, and the others would have been divided between Randy Quaid and the late Dub Taylor, with the result that Michael Cieply would be even more confused.
Chan's comments went over well with his listeners but have provoked a fierce backlash from legislators in Hong Kong and Taiwan. One of them, Leung Kwok-hung, insisted that Chan has "insulted the Chinese people. Chinese people aren't pets. Chinese society needs a democratic system to protect human rights and rule of law." Another critic, Huang Wei-che, pointed out that the internationally beloved star "has enjoyed freedom and democracy and has reaped the economic benefits of capitalism. But he has yet to grasp the true meaning of freedom and democracy." Others called Chan's remarks racist. Ironically, Chan's comments received no coverage at all in mainland China itself. Chan is currently in talks to co-star with Will Smith's son Jaden Smith in a remake of The Karate Kid, to be shot in Beijing.
Monday, July 20, 2009
It was twenty-seven years ago last month that John Belushi died, at the age of 33. At the time, Belushi's movie career was approaching a crossroads. At the end of 1981, he had released two films, Continental Divide, and Neighbors, that had an important place in the trajectory of his career--they were the first features he'd done in which he played a clearly defined starring role, rather than as a standout member of an ensemble cast (as in National Lampoon's Animal House and 1941), in a movie that (unlike The Blues Brothers) wasn't a pretested spin-off of something he'd done on Saturday Night Live. Taken individually, Continental Divide was a tepid comedy for which Belushi tried to stretch himself to play a romantic lead, and a flop, whereas Neighbors was a misplayed, sloppy travesty of Thomas Berger's darkly comic novel, which Belushi came to hate, and which actually made some money. Neither film capitalized on what Belushi might have been able to bring to movies, but between them, they seemed to sum up what Belushi (perhaps ill-advisedly) wanted to do, and what the studios, to his horror, thought he was good for.
That tug-of-war was going on as Belushi spent his last days mulling his choice of projects: a comedy based on (or at least yoked to the title of) The Joy of Sex that was being pushed on by the studio, and Moon Over Miami, which the director Louis Malle and the playwright John Guare, fresh from their upscale success with Atlantic City, wanted to tailor to Belushi and Akroyd's talents. (It would have starred Belushi as a small-time con artist employed to help Akroyd, as an uptight FBI agent, cook up an Abscam-like sting operation.) This time, though, Belushi had his own pet idea, a script called Noble Rot that he and Don Novello were adapting from a screenplay by Jay Sandrich called Sweet Deception. If Belushi was disgusted by what the bosses were offering him but nervous about jumping into the art-movie deep end with Malle and Guare, it must have made sense to him to try and work with Novello, a colleague from the SNL days (where Novello, a staff writer, used to pop up in the guise of Father Guido Sarducci), to shape something specifically to what he saw as the true nature of his gifts. Of course, it must have also seemed like a good idea one night to check into the Chateau Marmont hotel and send out for speedballs.
Noble Rot is about Johnny Glorioso, the 30-year-old son of a Northern California winemaker whose wastrel tendencies have made him the despair of his family, though even the cops who hand him over to his father in the opening scenes can't do enough to stress how well-liked he is by everyone and what a lovable rapscallion he is. (They pay tribute to the fighting prowess that made it necessary for four cops to bring him down.) Dad has his own problems. The big wine contest is coming up, and his other son, the responsible one, can't board the plane because he's had an allergic reaction to some seafood. "I can't believe it," he laments. "I got on son who can't eat lobster, and one son that can't drink." He sits Johnny down and tells him that he has to take his brother's place, explaining the importance of the occasion in a speech that also serves as an explanation for the script's less-than-selling title. It seems that every once in a great while, a special grey fungus known as Botrytis cinerea infects grapes which, if they are picked at just the right point, can in turn yield a spectacular wine. Just to make sure we get it, the old man tells Johnny, the black sheep, that he has undying faith in him because he is "my noble rot--my blessing in disguise."
Johnny heads out for the East Coast and finds himself sitting next to Christine on the plane. She is a looker, but when she fails to be dazzled by his line of patter--she asks the flight attendant to find him another seat while he's sneaking a joint in the can--the viewer is clearly supposed to think, "What's her problem?" instead of, "Jesus, if the attendant hadn't found another corner to shove him into, I'd have jumped out in mid-air and taken my chances." Right away, one may pick up on a certain disconnect between how charming Belushi thinks his alter ego would have come across and what's on the page, because Johnny's supposedly funny, seductive conversation peaks with his testimonial in praise of the scintillating quality of the in-flight magazine (he's disappointed to learn that he has to catch a plane whenever he wants to check out the latest issue) and then levels out when he discovers that the movie they're showing is The Deer Hunter. (He's seen it before and thought there'd be more deer hunting in it.)
It turns out that Christine is involved in a diamond smuggling operation. (Her boss is one of those guys whose lines--"I won't involve your young friend anymore. He's served his purposes."--that you can't read without hearing the "MWAAHAHA!" at the end.) She involves Johnny in an elaborate push-pull relationship that is designed to throw off the people on her trail but also seems to speak volumes about the star and co-writer's woman issues. It's also around this point that you begin to notice that, for what's largely a con-game comedy with a character who's supposed to be a wild man in the role of the fall guy, Noble Rot is very short on narrative invention; not a hell of a lot actually happens. Christine keeps pulling Johnny close to her to keep his distracting presence in the game, then pushing him away and vanishing only to reappear, while he stands around with a big question mark over his head. Belushi must have thought that he was making Jay Sandrich's material "his" and making it edgier by making his character cruddier and ruder, and maybe he also sensed that Novello, with his gentle satiric wit, was the right person to reign him back from the going too far over the top and lending the movie some charm. But neither Novello (who would go on to publish the Laszlo Letters series, write and produce for SCTV, and lend his affable presence to many film, TV, and radio roles, but never did get a real screenplay credit or publish anything else with a real plot) nor he had the story sense to replace the scaffolding they were tearing down with a workable replacement.
In place of a story developing, there are several moments where Belushi would have gotten to assert what a wild and crazy guy he was (such as a throwaway moment in which he shows off his idea of a promotional gimmick for his long-suffering dad's winery: T-shirts with the words "GLORIOSO VINEYARDS" surrounded by a skull and lightning bolts). And how hip he is: Christine may be smart and sexy and better able to function smoothly in society than this coarse brute, but she says things like, "This is the 1980s--all you need is money," and she needs reminding who Keith Richards is. ("Yes, of course. Of the music group?") Considering that the Rolling Stones once hosted SNL, and that Robert De Niro, the star of The Deer Hunter, was a friend of Belushi's on the L.A. party scene--he dropped by Belushi's hotel room the night he died--some of the cultural references come across as bits of name-dropping trying to pass for inside jokes. (There are also scripted appearances by Orson Welles and Marvin Hamlisch, who gets to tickle the ivories in a party scene while some lucky bit player tells another, "He wrote The Sting, you know.") As in much of The Blues Brothers, Belushi seemed to be trying to fit into the '80s by claiming to be keeping the spirit of the '60s alive while making something that felt a little as if he and his buddies were trying to become the new Rat Pack.
Noble Rot ends with a final twist that leaves Johnny on top and Christine out in the cold. It's a looking-out-for-number-one conclusion that betrays audience expectations that Johnny will either get something real going with the girl (or any girl) or that he'll come through and win his family's wine the recognition that it deserves, and the fact that Belushi apparently saw it as a crowd-pleasing happy ending shows that he actually fit into the "all you need is money" 1980s better than he wanted to admit to himself. In the whole picture, there's one climactic scene where he gets to really Belushi it up: at the wine-testing, where a French judge overrules the impressed reactions of his fellow judges and bad mouths the Glorioso wine. ("Perhaps 'skunky' isn't the right word. Actually, it tastes more like the fur of a wet dog.") Johnny, of course, goes nuts--you can bet that a glass of wine gets emptied over somebody's head--and delivering a detailed condemnation of the judge that does not neglect to mention France's outstanding war debt. This rhymes with an earlier scene in which Johnny delivers a lengthy monologue describing the horrors of a visit he once made to France, where wandered into an eatery in hopes of getting a hamburger and was grossed out with an offer of head cheese. I don't know what would have happened with John Belushi's movie career if he'd lived longer, but if he'd made Noble Rot, I'm pretty sure that he never would have won a Légion d'honneur medal to clink against Jerry Lewis's.
Last week, various good citizens of these United States participated in a mass public protest that, because of what as near as we can determine was a voluntary decision made by the organizers, went by the name "teabagging." Apparently this was supposed to call up memories of something that happened in Ye Olde Colonial Days, when some drunken vandals dressed as Indians made a mess in Boston Harbor using somebody else's shipment of tea. (Last week's events were given extensive coverage and promotion on Fox News, which as we all know is all about the destruction of personal property and consumer goods by domestic terrorists.) However, the protests also inspired a certain amount of giggle-puss coverage by media people who know that "teabagging" has another meaning, referring to a nonpolitical act that is also sometimes performed by men dressed as Indians, in some cases at the behest of people who've paid them extra for it. It remains unclear whether the people who organized the protests are genuinely unaware of this or if the whole thing was an elaborate bait and switch to get the on-air staff at MSNBC to admit that they knew about it and reveal to the viewing audience what perverts they are.
Of course, a lot of us first learned about "tagbagging"'s dirtier alternate meaning the same way we learned 75% of the filthy things we know, from watching John Waters movies. "Teabagging" surfaced in the sensitive 1998 coming-of-age story Pecker, a movie that we like to think the DeMille of Baltimore made just so that some hardy soul somewhere would approach the box office and say, "May I please have a ticket to see John Waters's Pecker?" (For God's sake, they call him that because he pecks at his food!) The very good people at Boing Boing initiated an e-mail exchange to confirm with Waters himself that it was he who popularized the term, or at least put it out there where the David Shusters of the world could add it to their vocabulary without risking winding up on some out-of-the-way websites of their own. In addition to Waters's reply, Boing Boing has the history-making clip, as well as a useful clip in which Mr. Waters shares his views on the practice of discouraging smoking in theaters.