Monday, May 7, 2012
Anyone overly interested in avoiding genre’s inherent potential for absurdity would probably be best served avoiding the screenwriting services of Eric Red, here teaming up with Bigelow for the second time after Near Dark (1987). The story the two come up with is full of echoes of what will always be Red’s most memorable creation, even more than Near Dark’s redneck outlaw vampires, Rutger Hauer’s title villain in The Hitcher (1986). Plucked from urban legend, and juiced up with the invincibility of current screen boogeymen The Terminator, Jason, and Freddy, The Hitcher seems to have been resurrected here in the unlikely form of Manhattan commodities trader Eugene Hunt (Ron Silver). Though completely different in appearance from Hauer’s roadside hobo, this expensively coiffed and dressed character has the same modus operandi, fixing on and then obsessively pursuing a single person, in this case rookie NYPD officer Megan Turner (Jamie Lee Curtis). As Megan empties her service revolver into a supermarket stick-up man (Tom Sizemore), we can see the watching Eugene, up to then among the innocent bystanders, snapping. After he manages to pocket the felled gunman’s piece, landing Megan in trouble with Internal Affairs, he begins to pursue her, first in courtship, and then in a slasher-style rampage that targets her friends and family.
Not surprisingly, Silver’s attraction to his quarry is overtly sexual, a dynamic that the same-sex relationship in The Hitcher, between Rutger Hauer and C. Thomas Howell’s young hero, could only nervously tiptoe around. The underlying idea, though, seems to come from the same dark place, and in just as disturbingly prophetic a fashion of later events in Red's life, after his career had long since subsided into a straight-to-video Hollywood Babylon. With this real-life connection, it's tempting to detect real insight in his scripts into the superhuman villains, but too often their obsessiveness and near-supernatural powers functions as no more than a free pass for lazy writing, waiving the screenwriter’s obligation to figure out how to allow his villains to return from apparent doom for another round with the hero. The Hitcher, and to a lesser degree Near Dark, transcended these problems by playing them out in eerily isolated desert settings where nearly anything seemed possible, but in Blue Steel’s urban jungle, they pile up like unpaid traffic tickets.
Blue Steel isn't about its villain, though, but Curtis' heroine, and for all of the flaws weighing down the movie around her, the performance still stands up as a proud moment for the actress and her director. Other than Frank Serpico, there aren't many believably more idealistic new police recruits than Megan Turner, and for an actress who's often seemed suspiciously unfeminine to a vigilant American public, this "woman in a man's world" role is as good a way as any for Curtis to confront head-on perceptions of her. For Bigelow, too, who's even more often had to face down chick-flick expectations, Curtis' character now looks like one of Bigelow’s bolder stabs, alongside Angela Bassett's great, unfortunately non-career-making turn in Strange Days (1995), at creating a credible female action hero, as far away as possible from today’s "Halle Berry in fetish gear" paradigm. The action itself is all the more impressive now in its clear and confident staging, enough that I half wish I could have seen them in isolation, so that Bigelow really would seem like some latter-day daughter of Sam Peckinpah, investing far more of herself in these shootouts and chases than typically seems thought possible of these bread-and-butter movies.
Bigelow and Red's script doesn't make Curtis' protagonist wait very long before discovering her new boyfriend's true nature, which leaves the story with nowhere to go except up against a brick wall of credibility that The Hitcher never had to worry about. And while I can easily imagine Larry Cohen, around the time of God Told Me To (1974) or Q: The Winged Serpent (1982), or Abel Ferrara following up Ms. 45 (1981) or Bad Lieutenant (1992), making a happily sleazy piece of pulp from the same story, Bigelow’s myth-making images just blow up all of its imperfections to a point past where they could be easily ignored. For one, there are the scenes involving the abusive marriage between Megan’s parents (Louise Fletcher and Philip Bosco), a subplot that might have seemed like a good idea but is so sketchily written as to increasingly undercut any claim the movie plausibly had to commenting on gender roles. And, as said before, The Hitcher provides exactly the wrong template for this story’s villain. Though Silver certainly manages to play a memorably creepy, repellent character, there’s little here that believably connects to what we might know or think we know about either serial killers or stockbrokers, even if drawing a line between the two professions might seem more appealing these days..
Whatever you might think of Point Break, Kathryn Bigelow’s follow-up three years later, its stew of Buddhism, surfboards, Nixon masks and Gary Busey somehow held together, and straddled a balance between acknowledging its own absurdity and taking itself seriously enough to work, in a way that seems beyond this movie. Blue Steel, though, now looks like a much less successful pass at the same basic theme- of a woman striving to get ahead in a male-dominated law enforcement establishment- taken up with so much more gravity and subtlety by Jonathan Demme in The Silence of the Lambs, also three years later. Not that I would expect, or even necessarily want, subtlety from Kathryn Bigelow. But as far as putting the lie to her quick anointment as a new master of action back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Blue Steel suggests some of the pitfalls I can only hope she’ll avoid in this second wave of her career. If nothing else, we can safely assume Eric Red (last responsible for writing and directing 2008’s Famke Janssen-starring 100 Feet) will play less of a role in it than before.Blue Steel willfully courts comparison with where Bigelow then was in that first breakout stage of her career, as a woman who causes male incomprehension and rage when she picks up their traditional prerogatives of violence and guns. Blue Steel’s failure doesn’t make me angry, but it does leave me not quite understanding where it all went wrong, and hoping that Bigelow, now, better understands that herself.
Monday, March 19, 2012
Spotting artwork and titles on theater marquees showcased in other movies is always good diversion for cinephiles, with the apex of the game probably being Shaft (1971), but clearly this Metropolis artwork's appearance in director Fritz Lang's later, terrifically entertaining and pulpy Spies was something other than location shooting happenstance.
Saturday, March 10, 2012
All that being said, what I didn't expect to see to see in the film was this:
Which might not be very clear, so here's a detail:
And this is what the tiny, inky little figure up there leaning on the railing of the bridge does next:
Without already having seen the movie, you might not have guessed that my screen-captures don't show a suicide attempt, but rather a publicity stunt, an attempt by Steve Brodie (George O'Hanlon) to show that he's "a real character." There can't be many filmmakers not named Sam Fuller who would so blithely, in the first few minutes of their movie, show a man who's been told "Jump off the Brooklyn Bridge" immediately decide to follow this advice, just for the sake of becoming famous or, at least, rating a few inches in the morning edition. What you can hopefully see is that the figure in the images isn't O'Hanlon, or any stuntman standing in for him. The man leaping off the bridge is a cartoon, and he's the only one to appear in what is otherwise a decidely live-action, low-tech movie.
It's not hard to appreciate that this low-budget production, made without stars and largely on one set, couldn't afford to film any such elaborate and dangerous stunt at night and outdoors. Fuller might have decided that, if his little movie couldn't afford to show this act at all credibly, it would at least show Brodie's faux suicide in full, instead of from a tighter shot of O'Hanlon jumping from a soundstage-bound small section of "Brooklyn Bridge" set, another conceivable but less imaginative economy-scale option. The result is a brief but unmistakably bizarre moment in which a B&W period film is seemingly invaded by a figure from a Keith Haring drawing, which promptly turns back into the man being toweled off here-
- who needs nothing more than a stiff drink to get over falling "only 120 little feet."
I'm probably giving this little scene far more attention than it could ever deserve. It probably doesn't even take up a minute of screen-time, and is hardly the best thing Fuller has to offer here; that distinction would probably go to a pitched street battle shot completely in one take, something that's all the more thrilling for how much less easy it must have been to pull off in 1952. Maybe worth even more than any individual examples of cinematic gymnastics is Fuller's love for his subject, and his own original occupation, of journalism. I don't think it's necessary to remind anyone who might be reading this why Fuller's declaration of intent should be all the more moving, and disquieting, for us now.
At least this moment stands out as the weirdest in PARK ROW, which is no mean feat for a Sam Fuller movie. It's like the Lascaux cave painting to the Sistine Chapel ceiling of any Robert Zemeckis movie from THE POLAR EXPRESS (2004) on. To be sure, I do know Fuller was not the only director, pre-CGI to drop animation into his movies as something other than itself; Fritz Lang did, for one, and then there's the pterodactyl-like creature flying around in the background at one point in CITIZEN KANE (1941). There's something about Fuller's casual use of the technique, though, placing it front and center and as no more than a quick fix to a technical solution, that's very integral to him. Not a small part of PARK ROW's spirit, as in any good Sam Fuller movie, is how comfortably his seriousness about saying something lives alongside his fearlessness about how he says it. Just as one of his characters could quite casually jump off the Brooklyn Bridge just for the hell of it, so Fuller could easily and almost unthinkingly jump over the line between live action and animation, between what could be considered a "real movie" and what could not.
You can order a MOD edition of PARK ROW here, through the Warner Archive Collection.
Monday, March 5, 2012
Abused and deceived by film industry insiders, eventually left shocked and scarred, Maria Schneider’s heroine in Wanted: Babysitter could not help but remind me, by the end of this 1975 thriller, of the late actress herself at several points in her dizzying 1970s career arc. Most glaringly, there’s Last Tango in Paris (1972), where Schneider’s work playing opposite Marlon Brando and being directed by Bernardo Bertolucci prepared her to become a star, and just as unprepared to survive the experience unscathed. The Passenger (1975) produced her second great role, one she later preferred to what she called the “ ‘70s kitsch” of Last Tango in Paris, and a seemingly far happier on-set experience. This and Wanted: Babysitter were destined to be mostly followed, however, by several years filled with stories of lost roles and struggles with substance abuse. When she did return to steady work, it was in less widely seen productions like Jacques Rivette’s Merry-Go-Round (1981), but perhaps, hopefully, more happily than under the spotlight which had followed her since Last Tango.
It’s more than a year now since, on February 3, 2011, we lost Maria Schneider, only 58 years old, and her absence from both this and last year’s “In Memoriam” section of the Oscars confirmed how willing many in the film industry still are to ignore and forget her.Against this backdrop, Wanted: Babysitter may now be of more interest than it ever was before. It’s no neglected classic, but it does at least do an admirable job of preserving this unique performer’s all-too brief moment of stardom.
Unlike Schneider’s two most celebrated films, Wanted: Babysitter gave commercially calculated, bread-and-butter material, if to far less actual commercial effect than Last Tango. It did once again allow her to work with a name European filmmaker, but this time one whom, in Rene Clement, may have allowed time to pass him by in a way which hadn’t yet happened for Bertolucci and Antonioni. Like all of his projects since the 1960 Alain Delon classic Purple Noon, Wanted: Babysitter is a thriller, engineered for trade with names cherry-picked from the casts of recent box-office hits. Peaking with the star-studded Is Paris Burning? (1966), his dartboard approach to casting had apparently declined enough that by 1975 he was willing to give Schneider, then and now best known as a Brando co-star, a shot at more or less carrying a film herself. As Michelle, her most recognizable co-stars, at least for American viewers, are Robert Vaughn, as Hollywood star Stuart Chase, and Vic Morrow, playing a stuntman also, helpfully, named Vic. European audiences also would have recognized Sydne Rome, the blue-eyed, blonde-haired star of Roman Polanski’s What? (1972) here cast for contrast against the brunette Schneider, as Ann, the duplicitous friend of Schneider’s character, Michelle.
Or, at least, audiences could have recognized these familiar faces if they’d gone or been able to see Wanted: Babysitter in the first place. I’m not sure it received any U.S. release at all, and whatever business the film did in Europe wasn’t enough to dissuade Clement from making it his last, spending the next and last two decades of his life in retirement. The producer, Carlo Ponti, might have hoped that audiences seeing that title, and Schneider and Rome’s names below it, would imagine a taboo-breaking, Lolita-lite sex farce, and turn out in droves accordingly. That strategy clearly didn't satisfy everyone, however, since it's also seen release as Scar Tissue, a title inspired by a very minor plot point but more importantly suggesting a thriller instead of erotica.
In fact, Wanted: Babysitter is unwisely light, at least in the version I saw, on both sex and violence. Schneider isn’t “wanted” in the same way she had been in Last Tango in Paris; as a sculptor who supports herself by taking care of wealthy people’s children, she’s recruited by her friend Ann to babysit a young boy who’s actually been kidnapped by Morrow and Vaughn. While they negotiate a ransom from the boy’s rich father, Michelle and the kid are mostly left alone, locked into an old dark house in a quiet neighborhood of Rome. For at least half of whatever paying audience attended in the ‘70s, this was likely not why they had bought tickets to the suggestively titled new vehicle for Last Tango in Paris’ female star. The villains’ conspiracy eventually falls apart exactly as you’d expect and want from a kidnapping movie, but it’s never as uninhibitedly thrilling as one of the gialli no doubt shooting next door to Clement in 1975 Rome.
Wanted: Babysitter is not, I should probably add, a terrible movie. It’s hard to fairly judge or fully enjoy watched on the DVDs available in North America, which are terrible, full-frame transfers of TV prints or videotapes (the source for the murkiest images here), but the basic competence of Clement and a team of collaborators culled from some of European filmmaking’s finest still shines through the audiovisual murk. It’s a rainy Sunday kind of an entertainment, a meeting of high standards of craftsmanship and realistic goals that’s never in much danger of embarrassing itself.
If anything does raise Wanted: Babysitter above its modest ambitions and even more modest accomplishments, it’s the real-life associations that over time have forcibly attached themselves to a movie that on its own merits has barely been noticed. Simply the sight of Maria Schneider and Vic Morrow on screen together, and in service of a story filled with cynicism against the movie industry, does far than anything in the script or direction to justify the movie’s dour and exhausted mood. And knowing that Clement would never work again, and Schneider rarely in a starring role in a project this mainstream, makes Michelle the babysitter’s final moments of traumatized survival much more affecting than might have occurred to anyone at the time looking at the completed film just to figure out how they were going to make back their money.
And, as I first wrote, it is finally most valuable as a Maria Schneider film. In the wake of Last Tango, she was sometimes treated, in reviews which now read as astonishingly sexist and condescending, as a footnote to Bertolucci and Brando’s success. In a role which has her mostly isolated, and without any “romantic” interest, it’s easier to see a real talent and presence, out of the reflected glare of a heavyweight Hollywood co-star. From its misleading and faintly absurd titles to its underachieving delivery of genre thrills, Wanted: Babysitter is a prime candidate for being forgotten by time, and it’s fulfilled that fate for the most part. As the expose of the evils of kidnapping and the foibles of the film industry which was released, barely, in 1975, it may not be particularly worthy of any place in our memories. Since February 3, 2011, however, Wanted: Babysitter has not been a movie about any of those things, but rather one about the lost talent and beauty of Maria Schneider, and for that it is worth remembering.