Category Archives: Cinema Shame

Rambo: First Blood Part II: Cinema Shame

I’m constantly a step behind my own Cinema Shame prompts. I see no reason to start now as I watched Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) for the July summer blockbuster Shame prompt. I scanned numerous lists of the biggest and best “summer blockbusters” and I came away with one movie — the only movie on any of the “best of” lists I’d not seen. First Blood Part II shot to the top of my Netflix queue. (Yes. I still rent physical media.)

first blood part II

I attribute the non-watch to the proliferation of Rambo parody. Beyond First Blood, the reputation for John Rambo’s exploits have become infamous. I’m a fan of the first. I’ve seen Hot Shots Part Deux and the UHF Rampo sketch. What more would I need to know about First Blood Part II than Weird Al’s fakey pectorals?

Nothing. Not a damn thing.

The parodies of Rambo: First Blood Part II don’t expend any creative energy in elevating the original film into the realm of spoof. It’s all right there in glorious, over-the-top 1985 action spectacle and mindless explosions. Did I mention mindless explosions? Because you’ve never seen explosions quite this mindless.

Let’s go to the tape. Get it? Mindless?

If you didn’t know any better, *that’s* the parody. Obviously.

Rambo: First Blood Part II offers nothing even resembling the gravitas of the original First Blood, which has a purpose and reason for existing. It highlights the disillusionment and perverse treatment of our returning Vietnam veterans while providing a few action/thriller beats.

Of course, Part II still treats us to gripping Stallone monologues about being unwanted at home, about being one of “the expendables.” (SPOILER ALERT FOR FUTURE MOVIE FRANCHISE.) That’s just lip service lending a sliver of credibility to the impossible one-man cinematic demolition crew that is Rambo. Richard Crenna also returns as the inconsequential voice of reason, but nobody ever listens to him.

first blood part II
Rambo not listening to Richard Crenna’s Trautman.

The First Blood Part II Mission

In order to justify the extreme violence you’ve got to motivate your unhinged protagonist by giving them targets of the most inarguably egregious personage. This time Rambo journeys to Vietnam to find potential POWs. He’s plucked from a prison camp to do one last job for his country.

Not only does he get to extract vengeance against the Vietcong, but also the Russians (!) because they’re propping up the communist regime with weapons and masochism and then they kill his new Vietnamese girlfriend/contact (they had such a quaint meet-cute) as they’re trying to escape. OH NO THEY DIDN’T.

It’s like the 1970’s and 1980’s got together and manufactured the most despicable enemy imaginable (and cast the reliable Steven Berkoff as the main baddie). Rambo’s not done, however, because it turns out his own country sent him there to  corroborate the politically convenient story that they’re not leaving hundreds of POWs behind enemy lines. (Of course they are.)

And we all know what Rambo gets like when he’s angry.

The First Blood Part II Stupidity

The absurdity doesn’t stop with the action on screen, however. Everything about this movie skews absurd. Vietnam is apparently only the size of a couple of city blocks because Rambo just keeps bumping into everyone he knows ALL THE TIME. I’m also quite fond of this observation written by Vincent Canby in the New York Times:

Rambo, as personified by Mr. Stallone, isn’t a man who needs the love of others. He loves himself quite enough. There’s also the comforting presence of the camera, which behaves like someone obsessed. It caresses Mr. Stallone’s face and body with an abandon not seen on the screen since Josef von Sternberg made movies with Marlene Dietrich.

Rewatch First Blood Part II with the von Sternberg/Dietrich comparison in mind. You’re taken to entirely transcendent levels of cinema. The notion that Stallone was responsible for filming himself a la the way Josef von Sternberg fetishized Marlene Dietrich will make your brain melt. (The directorial credit goes to George P. Cosmatos, but come on, folks, we all know he’s just a puppet regime.)

The screenplay by Stallone and James Cameron can’t be bothered with subtleties when there’s more communists around to make puddles of goo. Let me give you a sample of this entirely scripted dialogue. Rambo and his guide Co are on a boat headed back from the “non-existent” POW camp with a wounded POW in tow to share on show and tell day back at the base. One thing leads to another and the boat explodes. Rambo swims to shore and Co says, “Rambo, you made it!”

Let me be clear, it’s not like Rambo just popped up and surprised her on shore. She watched him swim from the boat to the shore, a good fifteen seconds of observing, only to exclaim, with much enthusiasm, that Rambo had indeed “made it!”

I’m not going to sugarcoat this. First Blood Part II is incredibly stupid, but stupid in a way that recalls B-movies with production budgets (and talent) much lesser than their aspirations. And it’s certainly not that Stallone had any mind towards making a parody of the original. Don’t think for a second this has any of the self-awareness Joe Dante used when he brilliantly parodied Gremlins with Gremlins 2.

Stallone plays First Blood Part II 100% straight. Therein lies the blunt-force beauty of this almost tone-deaf orgy of explosions and insensitivity. Gleefully preposterous and mindlessly entertaining. I hated it and I couldn’t help but be entertained. I’ll let you reconcile whatever happened in between.

(Bold/linked denotes watched)

Five Easy Pieces
Lifeboat
Stop Making Sense
The Black Pirate
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Paris, Texas
Wuthering Heights
Paper Moon
Sunrise
The Conversation
Victor/Victoria
Once Upon a Time in the West
Ikiru
Help!
Heaven Can Wait

Cinema Shame Monthly Prompts:

January Prompt: Shame Statement
February Prompt: An American In Paris
March Prompt: The Crimson Pirate
April Prompt: Once Upon a Time in the West / Heaven Can Wait
May Prompt: Shame Swap
June Prompt: Musicals! 
July Prompt: Summer Blockbusters
August Prompt: Ebert Brings the Love/Hate

James David Patrick is a writer. He written just about everything at some point or another. Lately it’s been all about movies. Follow his blog at www.thirtyhertzrumble.com and find him on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.

Disclaimer: I earn rewards from DVD.Netflix.com, which has thousands of movies to choose from, many that you won’t find on streaming services. I do this because having physical media is important. The notion of “everything available all the time” with streaming is a myth. We are our own best curators. #PhysicalMedia #DVDNation #ad

 

Paris, Texas: Cinema Shame

To spice up my 2018 Cinema Shame proceedings I turned to my savvy Twitter feed. I asked anyone listening to share a list of their favorite movies so I could choose one that I hadn’t seen. One such suggestion came from @emily_dawn who heartily recommended Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984). Another guy who happened to be a big fan of this one? Roger Ebert. It’s convenient when one of my scheduled watches overlaps a Shame Prompt. 

Also, I love when I receive a Criterion disc in the mail from Netflix. Something about it restores a sliver of my faith in humanity.

Cinema Shame: Paris, Texas

I’ll even admit that my limited exposure to Wim Wenders could be considered shameful in its own right. Unless you count his body of work with U2 (music videos and documentaries) I’d only seen Wings of Desire (1987) and even that was only given audience because I had to witness the supposed greatness behind the mind-numbing remake City of Angels (1998).

By the way, I highly recommend the beautiful, dreamlike video for U2’s “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)” which also happens to reunite Wenders with Paris, Texas‘ Natassja Kinski.

In these Cinema Shame confessions of mine (and especially in the Cinema Shame podcast), I like to discuss the reasons for which a movie like this (a movie adrift in my Watchlist for so long that it grew barnacles) had remained unwatched. Commitment. I just couldn’t commit. I knew too much without knowing anything at all. I’d even had conversations about the film with friends who’d called to talk about Paris, Texas because they’d just watched this “brilliant” film and assumed that I’d seen it, too.

I’m coming clean. My relative silence on the topic wasn’t introspection, but ignorance. I couldn’t admit I’d never seen Paris, Texas. I’m usually pretty candid about the movies I haven’t watched? So what was so special about this one? I hate to kill a party before it even gets going, but I’m not sure I have an answer.

Instead, let’s talk about color.

paris texas nastassja kinski

How the Color of Paris, Texas directs our reading of the film

Paris, Texas isn’t so much a narrative film, but a glimpse into the irreparable connection between three lost souls. Shot like an elegy and languid in all the right places, Wenders tells a story of fractured humans, nothing more. It’s as simple as it is insightful about the capacity for regret and forgiveness and the remote possibility of redemption.

Wim Wenders and screenwriter Sam Shepherd set out to make a truly American film — one that prominently features the American west. Wenders said it was an opportunity to explore the realm of John Ford in one of his own films.

Having watched the interview with Wenders included on the Criterion Collection disc in which he discusses his motivation for making the film I had to go back for a rewatch specific scenes. I didn’t have time for a full redux (perhaps because my first viewing rendered me a puddle of emotions); I just wanted to see Robbie Müller’s use of color one more time.

harry dean stanton paris, texas

Travis’ Introduction

The opening sequence depicts Travis Henderson (Harry Dean Stanton) wandering the desert in a red hat with an empty gallon jug of water (cap, blue). He finishes the last of his water, discards the jug, continues walking. The red cap stands out against the brilliant, towering blue sky, white clouds and desert landscape.

It’s the distinctive red cap that directs our reading of the  introduction to Wenders’ American film. It’s up to us to figure out what the director and his beloved American screenwriter (national treasure?) want to say about this idea. What is it to experience “America”? 

Throughout its 147 minutes, Wenders’ color palette says as much about the inner lives of these characters as their actions. Paris, Texas reflects the declarative that film is first a visual medium, and that dialogue is merely a collection of words on a page until it’s placed into visual context.

Meticulously shot by cinematographer Robbie Müller, it’s almost incomprehensible to consider that, as Wenders confesses, the cast and crew arrived on location without any specific plans about what they were to shoot. Wenders waited until he’d rehearsed the scene on location before choosing how or what to shoot. The director resisted the urge to storyboard anything.

The Breach of “Reality”

After the silent, four-minute sequence of Travis walking through the desert, the dehydrated traveller enters a bar and collapses. When he wakes up, he’s laying in a doctor’s office shrouded in green. The American dream wears red, white and blue. The truth behind the dream is sickening and gangrenous. At the same time, however, the way Wenders uses green appears otherwordly, like something out of stylized science fiction.

The viewer begins their interpretation of Paris, Texas as a film that reflects something honest about the American spirit of pride and resilience — the red, white and blue color palette, the vistas and wide open spaces of the American west. Wenders then goes about subverting this assumption.

paris, texas 1984 green

Travis’ brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) arrives to shepherd his brother back to Los Angeles. Travis refuses to talk, refusing to put into words the path that led him to this moment. The audience knows nothing, yet they assume the best of Travis. Much of this has to do with cinematic convention. The amnesiac wanderer as been reborn as a kind of Christian saint, absolved of his sins, baptized by his spiritual journey.

Walt can’t coerce Travis onto an airplane back to L.A. Wenders portrays Travis’ eccentricities — refusing to fly or to talk, demanding to find the same rental car to complete their journey back “home” — as a quirky, spiritual lightness. As a result the audience again sides with Travis and becomes aggrieved by the reasonable frustration that wells up in Walt. The two then embark on a road trip, a distinctly American cinematic trope that arose from the country’s car culture and expansiveness.

It’s no surprise then that the palette once again skews red, white and blue. Pay attention to the obvious choices made by the director. Recalling the Travis’ red cap, there’s the bright red pants worn by the rental car agent. The uniform blue of all of the rental cars. An American Airlines plane that lingers in the background.

Collision of Complexity

Even the good old American road trip can’t escape the creeping terror. Green invades the idyllic palette whenever there’s a breach in the artificial American ideal. A rift between the brothers, any kind of stagnation on Travis’ road to redemption. A phone call home to Walt’s (French) wife at a gas station, for example. She presents a threat as the guardian to Travis’ abandoned son.

Red, white and blue has not been usurped, but rather contextually muddied. The audience, too, begins to witness the rift between the brothers as we learn that the catalyst for Travis’ disappearance may not be so easily cleansed.

Green appears whenever the rigors of reality blemish the pretense. This can be read within the context of the story but also as a commentary on American film industry during the 1980’s itself. Having emerged from the New Hollywood of the 1970’s, the cinema of the 1980’s presented a glossy brand of reality disconnected from Reagan-era trickle-down prosperity, disconnected from the fundamental experience of an average human living in the America of the 1980’s.

The Establishment of Home

Eventually the pair of brothers return to Walt’s home in Los Angeles. Travis reunites with the son he’d abandoned under cloudy circumstances four years ago. The son became the charge of Walt and his wife. When we first meet Walt’s Parisian wife, she’s standing on a green carpet — a transgression from unfettered Americana. The home and its family, however, displays red, white and blue all over.

The boy wears a red and white shirt beneath blue denim overalls. A white house with red window curtains. Blue bedspreads. The boy pretends to drive a red Volkswagen while retreating from his unfamiliar biological father. Travis’ eccentricities once again emerge as he polishes and arranges the family’s shoes outside on a stone wall and they are, not surprisingly, red, white and blue (and cowboy).

paris, texas shoes

Walt shows some old 8mm home movies of Travis with his wife. Desaturated red, whites and blue — Travis wears a green jacket. We’re conditioned by this point in the film, whether we know it or not, to recognize that the green acts as a specter, lording over happiness, over idealism. Even in these happy “memories,” the end has already been written.

paris, texas color

Only a thesis-length project could adequately explore the Wenders strikingly surgical use of color in Paris, Texas. I’ve lost my traditional way, it seems, in this Cinema Shame essay, but I was so struck by the look of Paris, Texas that I can’t stop replaying individual moments on a loop.

In Seeking of Honesty, a Schism

I’d like to fast forward a bit. We’ve not yet learned the hows or the whys of Travis’ earlier disappearance. He soon endears himself to the boy through a series of events that humanize him in the eyes of his son. He plays a gentle and willing submissive, allowing the boy’s grudge to play out. And then he suggests a trip to find his ex-wife, the boys’ mother.

Wenders punctuates the suggestion and plan of action with color, of course. What could be more American than a Carhartt jacket, red shirts, blue jeans, red sneakers and a blue truck parked underneath a series of Los Angeles overpasses. Note, however, the green camouflage pants.

Green once again commandeers Paris, Texas when Travis forces Hunter to call “home” to explain their disappearance, thereby indefinitely severing ties with his adopted parents. This gut punch of a scene lingers, well after the gangrene dissipates because the conflict, the wayward trajectory of these narrative never sees resolution. The boy doesn’t contact Walt or Anne again.

It’s partially narrative convenience. It’s not their story. But it’s also an effective way to increase the stakes of their plan. Travis is unhinged and not entirely fit to shepherd this boy along on a trip with no certain terminus.

Travis locates the peep-show club at which his former lover works. Even in this dilapidated neighborhood where dreams have gone to die, Wenders still dots the tarnished landscape with red white and blue. Blue car, blue wall mural. Red sign. A muted and eroded American dream.

paris texas houston

The Confrontation(s)

Inside, when he finally locates Jane (Nastassja Kinski), she’s wearing a red sweater, bathed in light from a led lampshade. The couch, the curtains, the table, the telephone all red. Even though he can see her, she cannot see him. Travis wants to talk, but refuses to admit his identity or say the things he’s come to say. He tentatively indulges the fantasy for awhile before dropping the phone connecting him to the woman in the peep-show booth and escaping the painful artificiality. He is unable to breach the facade.

Does he merely want to experience her one last time through the guise of the rose-colored memories that pre-date the still unknown inciting event?

A night of drink and slumber in a laundromat brings about a shift in determination and a shift in color palette. Travis drinks in a dimly lit bar. Red shirt flanked by dark brown and black, reds and blues beyond in the exterior beyond the bar.

Travis leaves Hunter at a hotel to wait for his mother’s return. In the hotel listening to the message Travis recorded explaining his actions, Hunter’s clad in black, dark jeans. Despite the red socks, the frame has also shifted to blacks and whites. You’ll still note the purposeful placement of a bottle of Heinz ketchup on the TV behind the boy.

paris, texas hunter

Travis, meanwhile returns to the peep show to confront Jane, finally, with the truth — a brilliantly composed and staged conversation between two broken individuals. Travis struggles. He cannot look at her while he speaks because he’s not strong enough to see her as he relives his transgressions and lays his soul bare. Travis, too, has undergone a transformation — his sense of purpose, his steely, focused gaze emerge from behind the guise of the lovable, witless eccentric.

And Finally, Truth

Color has disappeared entirely. Jane wears a striking black sweater, foregrounded against white. Travis, shrouded in black and shadows, holds a white phone. Every detail, every morsel of set direction has been managed to support Wenders’ vision.

As an audience we too feel a cathartic exposure to the truth as Travis usurps our expectations. Surely, we thought, whatever he did couldn’t have been all that bad. On the contrary, Wenders asserts, as he pulls the mangled rabbit from his hat.

In direct correlation with the new greyscale color palette, the conversation — Travis’ story — is cold and clinical. He’s turned the peep-show booth into a confessional. He can’t look at Jane while he details every transgression that shattered their life together. The seeing of truth versus the acceptance of shallow falsehoods becomes never more apparent during this climactic exchange.

A transparent wall literally separates the two in the booth. He can see her, but chooses not to. She cannot see him even though she desperately tries to orient herself by playing with light and shadow in order to see his face. As she tries, coming closer to the window and turning out the lights it’s not her face we see anymore. It’s the face of Travis reflected in the window.

She has him offered some forgiveness and solace even though he cannot forgive himself. Then the dynamic shifts. She bares her soul and cannot look at him. Wenders then shoots the scene with her facing away from the window. We finally see her reality — an unfinished wall, sheets of insulation and also another comment, perhaps, on the artificiality of this business of making movies.

Denouement and Quiet Anarchy

Without a shot-by-shot analysis of this scene I’m not prepared to dissect it any further. It’s meditation captured on film. Silence and breath being as important as the words on the page. At the conclusion, we’re exhausted, almost relieved to have been released from the scene’s grasp.

Jane reunites with her son in the hotel while Travis watches from the parking lot below. The color returns. I have no doubt by this point that you’ll guess the dominant color as Travis views the mother-son reunion.

Don’t overlook, however, the blue of the night’s sky and the traces of orange/red on the horizon. This is another collision of emotion and subtext told through color.

The reunion of Jane and Hunter represents a schism in the American norm. What does it mean for them? What does it mean for Walt and Anne, Hunter’s actual caregivers? We’re given no clues as to how this plays out from this moment. By confronting truth and seeking redemption, Travis has thrown the notion of the nuclear family in Paris, Texas — even the pretense of one — into chaos.

Thank you @emily_dawn for finally giving me the impetus and courage to sit down and watch the unforgettable Paris, Texas. 

2018 Shame Statement Update:

(Bold/linked denotes watched)

Five Easy Pieces
Lifeboat
Stop Making Sense
The Black Pirate
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Paris, Texas
Wuthering Heights
Paper Moon
Sunrise
The Conversation
Victor/Victoria
Once Upon a Time in the West
Ikiru
Help!
Heaven Can Wait

Cinema Shame Monthly Prompts:

January Prompt: Shame Statement
February Prompt: An American In Paris
March Prompt: The Crimson Pirate
April Prompt: Once Upon a Time in the West / Heaven Can Wait
May Prompt: Shame Swap
June Prompt: Musicals! 
July Prompt: Summer Blockbusters
August Prompt: Ebert Brings the Love/Hate

James David Patrick is a writer. He written just about everything at some point or another. Lately it’s been all about movies. Follow his blog at www.thirtyhertzrumble.com and find him on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.

Disclaimer: I earn rewards from DVD.Netflix.com, which has thousands of movies to choose from, many that you won’t find on streaming services. I do this because having physical media is important. The notion of “everything available all the time” with streaming is a myth. We are our own best curators. #PhysicalMedia #DVDNation #ad

 

Heaven Can Wait: Cinema Shame

Cinema Shame: Heaven Can Wait

A belated entry for the April Cinema Shame prompt — movies from the TCM Film Festival. 

It’s inevitable that TCM Film Festival attendees miss movies they want to see. With so much programming going on at once, it’s impossible to see everything. It’s the beautiful agony of the TCMFF. During this past festival in April of 2018, I was unable to view a little movie starring Warren Beatty called Heaven Can Wait (1978), a film I’ve long intended to watch and often just confused with Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978). While I was still in L.A. for the festival, I placed Warren Beatty and Buck Henry’s Heaven Can Wait at the top of my Netflix DVD queue.

heaven can wait dvd netflix

Let’s start with expectations. Nine Academy Award nominations causes certain assumptions — for better and worse. I knew that Harry Segall’s play of the same name served as the source material for both this and Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941). So, a super Oscar-bait-y version of a beloved, offbeat 1940’s comedy, likely without the comedy. Because comedies don’t receive Academy Award nominations.

heaven can wait

I forgot to take into consideration that this was still the 1970’s, and in the 1970’s anything could happen in terms of creative possibilities and critical reception. Heaven Can Wait actually emphasizes the screwball nature of the production.

An argument could be made that this 1978 version feels more daffy than the original adaptation. Due in no small part to daffy Warren Beatty, playing loose and care-free with his character. Let this be a reminder that daffy-mode Warren Beatty was a gifted comic actor and we should do a better job of appreciating his gifts in 2018 and forevermore.

Beatty plays Joe Pendleton, a veteran quarterback and the surprise leader of a Los Angeles Rams team destined for the Super Bowl. One fateful morning, Joe’s motorcycle meets a semi-truck, and an overzealous guardian angel (Buck Henry) plucks Joe from his body before the flatline.

heaven can wait 1978
Buck Henry and Warren Beatty argue the finer points of pre-death soul snatching in an early scene from Heaven Can Wait.

Pendleton arrives in the afterlife demanding a second opinion because goddammit he’s got a Super Bowl to win. Upon further review by Mr. Jordan (James Mason), Joe had another 40 years to live. The trouble? His body’s already been cremated. Major clerical faux pas.

Mr. Jordan arranges a workaround. Joe’s given another chance to live by taking control of the body of a man already destined for an early demise. After declining a number of options, he ultimately accepts the rather ship-shape body of millionaire industrialist Leo Farnsworth who’d just been poisoned by his wife Julia (Dyan Cannon) and her lover/his secretary Tony (Charles Grodin).

heaven can wait 1978
Charles Grodin and Dyan Cannon plot their “murder.”

The narrative remains largely similar to Here Comes Mr. Jordan with a few important tweaks. The character of Joe Pendleton has been made an American football player instead of a boxer and small aircraft pilot. This shift amplifies the absurdity by placing this industrialist/millionaire turned NFL owner and eccentric professional athlete within a multi-ethnic team setting.

Heaven Can Wait, as a result, creates a number of forces opposing Joe’s attempt to once again become an NFL quarterback. There’s racial and class tension playing out in the background of Joe Pendleton’s comeback as Leo Farnsworth. One can even sense whiffs of conversations that would later take center stage in Warren Beatty’s Bulworth (1998).

heaven can wait 1978

The supporting cast further enhances the screwball touches. Dyan Cannon and Charles Grodin carry on like a pair of whirling dervishes in the background of Joe’s/Leo’s story. While Warren Beatty plays whimsical (almost reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart in Harvey), Cannon and Grodin go full screwball manic as they mug and flummox through a parallel narrative in which the certain dead come back to life. The unusual love triangle makes for an especially memorable scene where Joe/Leo barges in on some post-coital adultery to discuss business. Tony hides behind the curtain, and Beatty flies through his agenda without missing a beat.

heaven can wait jack warden
Jack Warden, Warren Beatty and James Mason in Heaven Can Wait (1978).

It’s the ever-steady presence of Jack Warden as the Rams’ trainer that serves as the perspective of the audience and grounds the fantastical film in some sense of realism. As the role of skeptic and confidant (once he’s been convinced of Joe’s return as Leo) Warden acts as a counterbalance to the film’s whimsy — his deft ability to exist simultaneously in a screwball comedy and a melodrama reflects our skepticism and ultimate desire to accept the high-concept premise.

Heaven Can Wait becomes something else as it explores the romance between Joe/Leo and Julie Christie’s activist Betty Logan. I’m not certain the shift in tone benefits the rest of the film, but it provides essential dramatic conflict during the final act of the film as the screwball comedy shifts toward a lite romantic melodrama.

Christie plays her character with dire straightness. So too does James Mason, but his Mr. Jordan has tongue firmly in cheek. When the dramatic incident occurs that rips Joe out of his temporary body and into another, it’s his burgeoning relationship with Betty that provides the conflict to create tension in these final scenes.

here comes mr jordan
The Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) finale.

In this instance Here Comes Mr. Jordan succeeds in establishing the relationship as an organic driving force within the narrative — the weight of which doesn’t quite manifest within Heaven Can Wait. At least not until the final few scenes require that extra gravity. Otherwise the finales play out in relatively parallel facsimiles — with the nature of the sporting events providing some eccentricities of character.

Heaven Can Wait’s Shame! Verdict

Despite these final act quibbles, Heaven Can Wait rewarded my impromptu Shame! confession. (It was not an original inclusion on the 2018 Shame Statement.) The heavily nominated film exceeded my expectations — and I can finally stop lumping it into a confused amalgam of unwatched movies with “Heaven” in the title.

I have to wonder if that’s an unconscious deterrent. Days of Heaven (1978). Far from Heaven (2002). Heaven’s Gate (1980). All unwatched. On the other hand I believe in watching Pennies from Heaven (1980) and My Blue Heaven (1990) at least once a year. Maybe that makes me pious after all. Or at the very least a big Steve Martin fan.

heaven can wait saxophone
Not exactly the sexy sax.

I’m also somewhat inclined to learn how to play the saxophone poorly. It’s one hell of a character-defining detail, supplying both whimsy and beautiful, tone-deaf musicality. These details are comedic gold.

Heaven Can Wait is unfortunately only available on a passable Paramount DVD release. The film seems ripe for a Criterion Blu-ray. Paramount has licensed a number of films to them in the past. I’d love to dig a little deeper into the production of this film considering it’s roots and remake status.

Disclaimer: I earn rewards from DVD.Netflix.com, which has thousands of movies to choose from, many that you won’t find on streaming services. I do this because having physical media is important. The notion of “everything available all the time” with streaming is a myth. We are our own best curators. #PhysicalMedia #DVDNation #ad

2018 Shame Statement Update:

(Bold/linked denotes watched)

Five Easy Pieces
Lifeboat
Stop Making Sense
The Black Pirate
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Paris, Texas
Wuthering Heights
Paper Moon
Sunrise
The Conversation
Victor/Victoria
Once Upon a Time in the West
Ikiru
Help!
Heaven Can Wait

Cinema Shame Monthly Prompts:

January Prompt: Shame Statement
February Prompt: An American In Paris
March Prompt: The Crimson Pirate
April Prompt: Once Upon a Time in the West / Heaven Can Wait
May Prompt: Musicals! 

 

Once Upon a Time in the West: Cinema Shame

Cinema Shame: Once Upon a Time in the West

Scratching an entry off my 2018 Shame Statement that also qualifies for the April Shame Prompt.

Seeing as how the April prompt concerned movies screened at this year’s Turner Classic Movies Film Festival in Hollywood April 26th-29th, I had a distinct advantage of attending the festival. So any movie I hadn’t already seen fulfilled the requirement. This year I first-watched 10 movies at TCMFF, but it seems only logical that I grapple (finally) with Once Upon a Time in the West — a movie I’ve owned on both DVD and Blu-ray for at least 10 years, but never watched.

There’s nothing easy about committing to a 175-minute movie. I even considered missing out on the chance to see Once Upon a Time in the West at the TCL Chinese Theatre. Which is pure insanity.  I blame “festival brain” which clouds rational thought. I should love everything about this movie. I just needed to place my posterior in the seat. So I did, at 9:15 am on Sunday with a big bag of popcorn and my Ray-Bans obscuring the sleep deprivation in my eyes.

At Once Upon a Time in the West at 9:15am on 4 1/2 hours sleep and feeling hungover without any alcohol..

From the opening minutes on the IMAX screen at the TCL Chinese Theatre, the sweeping vistas and vintage Leone closeups made me feel like I was experiencing the most cinematic thing ever committed to film.

The film’s opening is a nearly wordless 15-minute sequence in which three gunmen (Jack Elam, Woody Strode and Al Mulock) do nothing more than wait for the arrival of another character on a train platform in a remote frontier station. Before you express your disinterest, would you believe me if I told you it was my favorite 15 minutes of movie I’ve seen in recent memory?

John Sayles introduced Once Upon a Time in the West as one would ride a horse.

It is of course, for you Western fans, a reference to the opening of High Noon — where three malcontents similarly await a train’s arrival. John Sayles, in his introduction to our screening of Once Upon a Time in the West, described how Sergio Leone, Dario Argento an Bernardo Bertolucci cobbled the narrative out of bits and pieces of their favorite classic Westerns. In doing so, these three Italian auteurs may have made the final stand in the classic Western era. What more needed to be said after Once Upon a Time in the West?

The most remarkable aspect? In creating this tapestry, they’ve so masterfully woven the story and influences together that the viewer stops looking for the connective tissue and just basks in atmosphere and spectacle.

Leone reportedly wanted Once Upon a Time in the West to be a metatextual conclusion to the Dollars Trilogy. He’d wanted to cast Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach as the gunmen in this opening sequence. When Eastwood declined, Leone scrapped the notion and cast the veteran Western actors Elam, Strode and Mulock instead. Losing perhaps his connection to Dollars, but extending his reach further into the history of the genre, recalling films beyond his own.

Leone increases the tension through the use of sound (and the absence of) and anticipation. A squeaky door. A windmill in need of some oil. Ambient cooing of a bird in cage. Footsteps. Spurs on a wooden floor. The gunmen idle, awaiting that train that will carry their unknown target. Elam tracks a fly buzzing over his face. Strode stands beneath a drip and collects water in his hat. Mulock cracks his knuckles. Each action contributes to Leone’s isolated soundscape, meticulously crafted through post-production foley recording.

The audience brings their own expectations into the scene. The audience assumes that the men anticipate the arrival of Charles Bronson’s character, and the longer we wait the greater the anticipated payoff.

The train arrives just under 10 minutes into the film. The door to a freight car opens, causing Elam to flinch. An attendant tosses out a single box and then the train begins to depart.

The gunmen gather on the craggy platform, facing away from the train. Finally we hear a new sound — the first hints of a Morricone score — a harmonica. The ne’er-do-wells pause. Elam’s expressive eyes rise in acknowledgment of the music.

A distant figure appears on the far side of the tracks as the train vacates the station. Perspective dwarfs the shadowy figure in the background, but the specter of Bronson — the on-screen persona and the legend built by 12 minutes of anticipation — looms large.

once upon a time in the west bronson

I won’t spoil it for you when I say that the hero survives the first scene of a 3-hour film. Bronson dispatches the gunmen — in a classic Leone showdown — and then the movie begins.

once upon a time in the west

If it sounds like I’m gushing, it’s because I’m absolutely gushing. I could go on like this describing two or three more sequences from this film that similarly stir my cockles.

Once Upon a Time in the West depicts three conflicts that take place in and around the fictional town of Flagstone. There’s a financial tycoon Morton hires a cold-blooded blue-eyed assassin Frank (Henry Fonda) to eliminate the McBain family standing in the way of a potentially valuable piece of property — a narrative that’s become complicated by the arrival of a New Orleans prostitute (Claudia Cardinale) who claims to be McBain’s wife. Frank frames local bandit Cheyenne (Jason Robards) for the McBain family massacre.

henry fonda once upon a time in the west

Meanwhile, a mysterious outsider, the Bronson character (later dubbed Harmonica by Cheyenne) tracks Frank — with eyes on an uncertain vendetta to be paid. Harmonica and Cheyenne become unusual allies against Morton and perhaps reluctant defenders of McBain’s widow.

John Wayne in John Ford’s The Searchers, a film that’s also felt throughout Once Upon a Time in the West.

John Ford ectoplasm oozes all over this film — but we’re seeing John Ford through a disillusioned gaze. A look back at the old West filled with decay and lacking the proper delineation between hero and villain. There’s plenty of villain, but Leone dispatches the notion of a pure hero. Even the heroes in Once Upon a Time in the West are part scoundrel. They’ve taken on the role of hero because their interests align with the moral right as perceived by the audience.

Despite the 176-minute runtime, Once Upon a Time in the West never feels aimless. Leone allows the audience to dwell on the hardened faces of his characters just as he embraces the beauty and desolation of the natural landscape. Every frame feels pointed towards their inevitable fate — a fate that echoes that of the American old west and the Western genre. Assimilation or elimination by the progress brought about by industrialization and the spread of civilization.

In cinematic terms, the audience’s interest in the genre declined with the rise of the blockbuster. Galaxies far, far away opened up with the help of increasingly elaborate special effects.

The Western genre met a kind of end as the 1960’s came to a close. Once Upon a Time in the West represented a master’s final volley, the last word on the matter. In many ways the genre represented a uniquely American romanticism about the wide open spaces, a limitless potential — but also the dark underbelly that went along with it. A blank canvas for starkly moral fables about good and evil. After Once Upon a Time in the West, westerns began to more fully embrace the “anti-Western” trend that had been growing since the early 1950’s.

After the success of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), the 1970’s saw a wave of Western Revisionism and uninhibited creative freedoms in films like Little Big Man, El Topo, McCabe & Mrs. Miller before the genre rode off into the sunset almost entirely at the start of the 80’s.

el topo (1970)
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s trippy revisionist Western El Topo (1970)

If this is the end of the Western genre proper, I can’t imagine a more fitting conclusion. After Once Upon a Time in the West there really wasn’t much more to say. Or at the very least it feels that way.

2018 Shame Statement Update:

(Bold/linked denotes watched)

Five Easy Pieces
Lifeboat
Stop Making Sense
The Black Pirate
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Paris, Texas
Wuthering Heights
Paper Moon
Sunrise
The Conversation
Victor/Victoria
Once Upon a Time in the West
Ikiru
Help!

Cinema Shame Monthly Prompts:

January Prompt: Shame Statement
February Prompt: An American In Paris
March Prompt: The Crimson Pirate
April Prompt: Once Upon a Time in the West

 

 

 

Stop Making Sense: Cinema Shame

Cinema Shame: Stop Making Sense

Scratching another entry off my 2018 Shame Statement.

I love experiencing live music — there’s so much more revealed about the band and the eccentricities of the music than what can be conveyed through a studio recording. A recording mutes personality, often diluting aural idiosyncrasy in favor of glossy palatability.

Concert films, meanwhile, have never been much more than a filmed concert for me. A concert on film is nice, but it’s not like you’re actually experiencing the live show. You’re watching a recording, just as you’re listening to a recording on an album. The music’s not too loud. The beer’s not too warm. The cat on the couch next to you is far less annoying than the drunken malaprop that’s singing all the wrong words to your favorite songs and invading your space.

So what I’m saying is that there’s benefit to a filmed concert — accessibility, convenience — but I’ve never seen a concert film that struck me as pure cinema. Until now.

But push this meditation on “the concert film” aside to consider why it’s absurd that I’ve never before watched Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense.

The damning evidence. My most spun vinyl record:

talking heads - stop making sense

If we’re gauging my musical tastes and allegiances based on the lists every music fan makes, Talking Heads would also appear in my Top 10 albums (Remain in Light), Top 5 favorite bands/artists, and log at least 3 or 4 tracks in my Top 100 favorite songs.

Hence my shame.

At some point I arbitrarily decided to wait to see Stop Making Sense until I could see it on the big screen. I made this determination because of my aforementioned thoughts on concert films. I wanted to feel present at the original venue. Unfortunately my repertory migrations never allowed such a thing to happen. Finally, I broke down and popped in the Blu-ray disc. The time had come to break the seal.

stop making sense title

After the credits (I have always loved this font) David Byrne steps up to the microphone. At best he saunters. All we see are his white sneakers and the cuff of the pants from his now famous grey suit. He sets a boombox down next to the microphone stand, presses play and starts strumming a low-key rendition of “Psycho Killer” along with the music emanating from the tape deck.

The boombox cannot, of course, project sound throughout a concert venue in this fashion. In this instance, it’s a Roland TR-808 drum machine, spilling through the venue’s speakers. The drum machine rat-a-tat echoes like gunshots — Byrne staggers. He envisioned this as an echo of the ending to Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless as Jean-Paul Belmondo has been ambushed by gunfire.

This is a visual cue, seemingly a comment on the nature of pre-recorded music in an new age — one marked by a shift towards consumerism and ownership. Even the music at a Talking Heads concert comes pre-recorded these days. My concerns about the cinematic nature of Stop Making Sense disappear.

Here’s the opening of the film:

Within the last few years, I’ve come to prefer to this version of “Psycho Killer” to the studio recording. The down-tempo pace and David Byrne’s foregrounded vocals over acoustic rhythm guitar and the drum machine change our emotional response. I’ve always admired Talking Heads’ ability to craft mid-tempo pop music. Songs that feel faster and more accessible than they really are. This highlights that phenomenon by taking arguably the band’s widely recognized track and rendering it a completely different beast. A minimal and more deliberate “Psycho Killer” feels like a dirge rather than a ditty.

As this opening set continues, more members of the band join Byrne on stage. First Tina Weymouth on “Heaven” then Christ Frantz on “Thank You For Sending Me an Angel” and finally Jerry Harrison on “Found a Job.” As the band grows, so too does the additional equipment and musicians that appear on stage.

The band finally reaches maximum capacity when it launches into “Burning Down the House.” (The original 1985 home video release has the band performing “Cities” first, however.) It’s a cathartic moment, a build to a euphoric release both for the listener and the band. After the incomplete band migrates through stripped down versions of the tracklist, everyone on stage lets loose in the complete ensemble. Wait for David Byrne to unleash fury during the extended finale and outtro.

Demme’s influence on the film becomes apparent during this sequence as well. He’s not focused on the music. Each band member’s personality becomes the most important aspect of the film. We all know “Burning Down the House” — and the music becomes something more like a score to a Jonathan Demme movie about a band called Talking Heads rather than our single reason for watching.

Not only is this the best seat in the house; you’re the only viewer. You are omniscient, standing on stage and witnessing musical genius at play through a macro lens. You might not care about Talking Heads’ music, but I find it hard to believe you could watch this film and not respect David Byrne’s and the band’s cerebral ability to command a stage. He’s some unique brand of buttoned-down mania.

Byrne’s wardrobe also provides a glimpse into his mental acuity when it comes to music and performance. His “big suit” grows larger as the concert progresses. The suit become an icon for the film — and even appeared on the movie poster. Eventually he comes back on stage engulfed by the suit. His comically tiny-looking head sticking out through the engorged jacket. He doesn’t call attention to the changes, he’s just shrinking as the concert rolls along.

david byrne's suit stop making sene

Byrne later explained his methodology: “I wanted my head to appear smaller and the easiest way to do that was to make my body bigger, because music is very physical and often the body understands it before the head.” He said he was inspired by Japanese theater — Noh, Kabuki and Banraku — when creating the costume. The manipulation of audience response through artificiality.

I’ve watched dozens of films as a result of this Cinema Shame exercise and I’ve ultimately loved a great many of them. Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense, however, just became the first film I can’t comprehend not having in my life. It’s almost like I hadn’t even really heard the soundtrack. The film’s opening and the gradual gathering of bandmates gives extra context to the sparse compositions that begin the album. I’ve heard so much more in the music now that I’ve seen the concert film.

That is something I never thought I’d say.

2018 Shame Statement Update:

(Bold/linked denotes watched)

Five Easy Pieces
Lifeboat
Stop Making Sense
The Black Pirate
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Paris, Texas
Wuthering Heights
Paper Moon
Sunrise
The Conversation
Victor/Victoria
Once Upon a Time in the West
Ikiru
Help!

Cinema Shame Monthly Prompts:

January Prompt: Shame Statement
February Prompt: An American In Paris
March Prompt: The Crimson Pirate