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

 

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Underrated 1998 Cinema

originally published on Rupert Pupkin Speaks, April 2018. 

During the summer of 1998, I worked a rather menial retail job and came home in the evenings and watched movies on my tiny bedroom television. I’d just finished my first year of college. I thought I’d feel different, more adult, but the shock of being right back in my old room, with my old stuff, erased that confident sense of adulthood I’d gained after a year on my own. I turned to the video store for solace.

I’d come home with stacks of VHS tapes from multiple rental stores (I had three within a two-mile radius) and watch them until I fell asleep in a puddle of Doritos and ennui. I rented anything that struck my fancy. I pursued director filmographies. I tried to find the best/worst movie in the store. I also stalked the new release shelves and looked for overlooked oddities. And from this summer of obsessive moviewatching I chose zero films for this list. Not one.

I don’t know where I was going with that story actually. It seemed like a good intro at the time. Maybe my point is that the 1990’s offered so much unique and underappreciated cinema that now is always a good time to catch up on the stuff you missed. We’ll go with that, but feel free to inject your own interpretation. Here are a few picks that you might want to put in your own VHS stack to watch tonight. Modern malaise, after all, wasn’t isolated to 1998.

Zero Effect (Jake Kasdan, 1998)

zero effect underrated 98Poster child for underappreciated 1990’s cinema alongside Joe Versus the Volcano. I exited the theater on opening night convinced the film would be a huge success. I’m still waiting.

Bill Pullman gives the performance of his career as a reclusive and socially inept Sherlock Holmes who hires Ben Stiller to be his Watson/administrative assistant. The hopelessly neurotic detective fails to function outside his investigations, but a burgeoning relationship with prime suspect number one (the deft and underappreciated Kim Dickens) threatens to deconstruct his barriers between work and life.

The film wanders through genres like Holmes through opium dens of ill repute. It’s a personality-driven dramedy and thriller. Movies that defy easy categorization often fail to find their audience, and I think that’s ultimately why Zero Effect fell through the cracks. Jake Kasdan’s film constantly undermines expectation in both form and function. One might consider this on the same frequency as Grosse Pointe Blank – a film that reveals a beating human heart beneath a familiar and palatable genre-based exterior.

zero effect bill pullman

Zero Effect has been made available on DVD once again from the beautiful people at Warner Archive. 

 

The Big Hit (Kirk Wong, 1998)

the big hit 1998 posterSpeaking of goofy, let’s talk about the John Woo, Terence Chang, Wesley Snipes-produced The Big Hit, an action film that dares to ask the question: How much self-awareness and masturbation humor can one audience tolerate?

I’ve never had a good handle on this film’s popularity (or lack thereof). I know I’ve always enjoyed it precisely because it dares to be 100% obnoxious and not give a damn. Like this is just the way movies were in the 90’s. I also worry that when the asteroid hits, future civilizations will find only copies of this movie to paint a picture of life in 1998. Consciously clunky jokes, stage-y action scenes and random Elliott Gould sightings. Put-upon Mark Wahlberg’s Melvin Smiley leads dual lives with different girlfriends as a hitman and as a not-hitman. A big deal goes sour and Melvin unfairly takes the fall. This requires him to shoot a lot of guns and dodge a lot of bullets.

To best summarize why I like this film, allow me to select a snippet from Roger Ebert’s overall negative review. He says, “I guess you could laugh at this. You would have to be seriously alienated from normal human values and be nursing a deep-seated anger against movies that make you think even a little, but you could laugh.” Roger, I watch a lot of movies that make me think. I watch a lot of movies that don’t make me think. The Big Hit is one of the select few movies that make me think about how little I actually need to think.

the big hit 1998

The Big Hit is available on Blu-ray. And thank goodness for that.

 

Belly (Hype Williams, 1998)

belly 1998Avant-gard Blaxploitation? Hyper-extended rap video? Music video director Hype Williams’ only big screen feature weaves stunning visual imagery into a rather rote narrative about anti-hero drug dealers slipping into a grizzly criminal underworld for which they’re not appropriately prepared.

Belly’s sensational indulgence in style over substance presents itself in frame one. The film opens with crushed blacks, neon light, glowing eyes, a club scene set to Soul II Soul’s “Back to Life.” Visuals override narrative. They override everything but an emotional reaction to the image itself. We’re left with fleeting moments of serenity and bursts of violence. Often the dialogue isn’t even intelligible – either as a result of the speech patterns of Nas, DMX’s muted gravel tones, the multitude of Jamaican accents – and it doesn’t even matter. Williams trains his camera on experimental visuals coupled with an aggressive hip-hop soundtrack. More than a music video, but less than a feature film.

The intersection of ineptitude, hyper-realism and genius cool. I’ve gone back and forth on this film a couple of times. After my last viewing, I’m back to calling this a near masterpiece of pop-culture auteurism.

belly 1998

Belly is available on Blu-ray, but it could use a Criterion release to juice it’s prestige a bit. 

 

New Rose Hotel (Abel Ferrara, 1998)

new rose hotel 1998Less a narrative than an experience, a sequence of vignettes told through voyeurism, found footage, security cameras, digital sunsets, and Dutch angles. Challenging in its raw simplicity, but compelling due to the force of images. Ferrara’s ill-received but fearless film deserves a re-evaluation. In many ways, New Rose Hotel shares the same DNA as Hype Williams’ Belly in that it foregrounds the artifice of cinema to make a simplistic story more impactful.

Willem Dafoe plays small. Christopher Walken goes broad. Both men give confident, heartbreaking performances. But their excellence is expected; it’s Asia Argento upon which this whole film hinges. She sells Ferrara’s contorted premise about a pair of long-play corporate schemesters attempting to steal a scientific genius away from his family and employer. She’s the lynchpin, the chanteuse, the bait in this transaction and she delivers her lines with naiveté and guile – the viewer never knows how much she understands about the nature of these shady dealings. Without Argento’s performance the film falls apart in a heap of pretentiousness.

Ferrara wants to convey the duplicity of the image, the ways a filmmaker can manipulate signs and symbols and thereby the audience. This reflects the potency of the William Gibson source material as well as Ferrara’s brash confidence. New Rose Hotel takes the shape of a kinetic three-person chamber drama or one-act play about the male code of honor and female objectification. It’s an enigmatic film that further reveals itself through multiple viewings.

new rose hotel 1998

New Rose Hotel is barely available on DVD, let alone a Blu-ray. A movie with this brand of visual style deserves something better.

Monument Ave. (Ted Demme, 1998)

monument ave 1998Time for a slow jam that slipped under most everyone’s radar. I only caught up with it recently when I went back to watch some 1998 films that lingered in Watchlist purgatory.

Instead of a hyperactive style or an amalgamation of genre (as has been the trend on my Underrated 98 list so far), this low-key Boston mob flick satisfies due to a surprising lack of narrative. Monument Ave. isn’t about double or triple crosses—merely the morality of inaction. Leary gives a strong performance as Bobby O’Grady, a middling member of an Irish neighborhood gang run by Jackie O’Hara (Colm Meaney) who must choose whether or not to act when Jackie kills one of Bobby’s old buddies. Denis Leary’s Hamlet. A strong supporting cast, including Famke Janssen, Billy Crudup and Marin Sheen, props up the comedian’s surprising turn.

Contrary to genre expectations, there’s no scheme. No plot gone wrong. Childhood friends grow up in a rough and tumble neighborhood and eventually become consumed by the violent elements that have always threatened to invade their lives. Ted Demme’s film reminds me of the kind of creative, character-driven dramas that dominated the 1970’s. Monument Ave. appears aimless in ambition, but resonates emotionally due to the weight of O’Grady’s guilt and ultimate release from these shackles.

monument ave 1998

At least Monument Ave. is semi-available on DVD. It’s OOP but still readily available secondhand. It’s one of those movies that will just disappear and few would notice. 

Thursday (Skip Woods, 1998)

thursday 1998 posterThe Pulp Fictioning of the 1990’s continued through the tail end of the decade. The lasting legacy of Pulp Fiction wasn’t just brutal criminals swinging Grade-A overworked dialogue; it was also about the criminal element broaching the everyday. The “Royale with Cheese” effect

In Skip Woods’ Thursday (his only outing as director), Thomas Jane plays Casey Wells, a false everyman, newly married and living as an architect in posh suburbia – albeit with an uncertain nefarious past. When old buddy Aaron Eckhart floats into town, this uncertain past manifests in the form a trunk of heroine, a missing bag of cash and a procession of ne’er-do-wells on his doorstop. All the while, our protagonist must convince a social worker that he fosters an environment fit for adoptive child rearing.

This low-budget gem boasts standout set pieces, including a spectacular opening volley of comedy and carnage where Eckhart shoots up a convenience store over an overpriced cup of coffee. Just when you think the movie has gone sufficiently off the rails, Mickey Rourke shows up as a crooked police officer named Kasarov. The dialogue and surprising direction during the final third make this one of the better Tarantino-lites to come downthe pipe during the latter half of the decade.

thursday 1998

Unfortunately Thursday is only available in a German DVD or a UK Blu-ray release. Apparently Europeans appreciate this movie more than we do. Shame on us. Go region-free, people. It’s the only way to movie. 

 

Shattered Image (Raul Ruiz, 1998)

shattered image 1998File under “movies I’d completely forgotten about but felt like a really big deal at the time.” Fatter than you’d probably imagine, this file of mine contains a whole slough of a certain kind of movie I devoured in the 1990’s – barely-released indie thrillers. Shattered Image stands out (now that a Letterboxd list of movies from 1998 has jogged my memory) as a film that people loathed upon release. Chilean director Raul Ruiz made this one final attempt at breaking into the American market. Blurbs like “the execution is bad enough to put you off movies for good…” from Edward Guthmann of the San Francisco Chronicle sent him scurrying back to Chile, never to return.

I can’t tell you with any certainty if Ruiz’s Shattered Image functions as an homage or a tongue-in-cheek parody of Hitchcock. Misdirection and confusion seem to be his primary tactics. The film gives the viewer zero footing, and Ruiz flaunts the nonexistent barrier between reality and a De Palma-esque dreamstate. Is Jessie (Anne Parillaud) a ruthless hitwoman or a paranoid schizophrenic on her Jamaican honeymoon? Does Ruiz suggest the existence of a third reality? Is this an atmospheric, obtuse art film or a mangled Hollywood production by an experimental director who found himself at odds with the American system? Does Billy Baldwin have any idea what year it is? How much dialogue can be whispered in one film?

That said, does any of it even matter when Shattered Image proves to be so wildly eccentric and impossible to decipher? Yes and no. This is about the many and varied personalities within us that inhabit the same space. I think. You know what? Forget everything I just said. Just get lost in Shattered Image and see where it takes you.

Shattered Image 1998

Shattered Image is available on an old school Full Frame DVD. An abomination. It’s also available, from what I can tell, on a widescreen DVD that looks exactly like the elder Full Frame. 

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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! 

 

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First Watch Club June 2018

I watched a bunch of theatrical releases and rewatched a number of 2017 offerings this June. As a result my First Watch Club June feels a little light in the loafers, but make no mistake — these are four films worth your time.

My daughters being home from school cuts into a ton of personal movie watching time. Plus they don’t go to sleep until the sun goes down. What madness is this? You’re 6 and 9. GO TO BED. I need to move further east in this time zone where the sun goes down at 5pm.

Alas, they’re a lot of fun and I don’t really mind. I just need them to get a little older so they can watch all these movies with me or at least choose to ignore me. I’m leaving one of my first-time watches off this list because it’s a Cinema Shame and I’ll be writing up a more lengthy report on that one in due time.

4. The In Crowd (Mark Rosenthal, 1988)

The In Crowd 1988Joe Pantoliano plays a 1960’s TV teen dance party emcee. That should at least pique your interest in this obscure gem directed by the screenwriter of The Legend of Billie Jean, Superman IV and Star Trek VI. The film remains, perhaps unjustly, Mark Rosenthal’s only directorial credit.

The In Crowd is an earnest and entertaining film about teenage love and optimism at the dawn of the rock and roll era. That it was never released on DVD probably has to do with its soundtrack, which features dozens of 1960’s chart-toppers that might have caused licensing trouble for home video release.

Promising high schooler Del (Donovan Leitch) dreams of appearing as a dancer on “Perry Parker’s Dance Party.” Despite being mocked by his friends and stepsister (sexual tension between these two, by the way) for even considering such a thing, he sneaks on set and into a show recording. He turns out to be a skilled dancer and slips in as the partner of dream girl Vicky (played by Daisy Runyon, she of the “Couple of wavy lines” scene in Ghostbusters). The two become romantically entangled while her Fonzie-like former boyfriend and dancer (Dugan) looms over their courtship.

At a crossroads in the film, Del’s friend Popeye clarifies a choice bit of subtext. “Dancing or fighting. What’s the difference, right?” This leads us to the scene that best represents the film’s tone. The angry Dugan confronts Del in his home. The film had been leading us toward certain fisticuffs, but instead of bloody knuckles the two teenagers engage in a righteous and unexpected living room dance battle. In many ways it’s a double slice of nostalgia. Though the film lusts over the rock and roll 60’s, it’s a fully realized 80’s film in terms of form and fun. Some might quibble over the lack of closure, but that would have undermined The In Crowd’s message that even if the show ends, the rock and roll goes on.

Here’s the opening sequence to this unfortunately unavailable teen dramedy.

 

3. Les Vampires (Louis Feuillade, 1915)

les vampires 1915Clocking in at a total of 400 minutes, Louis Feuillade’s second silent serial masterpiece has run in fits and spurts throughout the month, and while I’m just wrapping up the final few episodes I’ll sneak into this June countdown.

I find it overall slightly less impressive as an achievement in silent cinema than Feuillade’s Fantômas, which blew my mind. So it’s all relative.

Les Vampires is a fast-paced and highly entertaining serial that oozes atmosphere and influenced dozens of subsequent films in both style and substance. Part of the joy is recognizing the source of certain references throughout the history of more recent cinema. Most importantly, I finally fully understand Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep.

Les Vampires is available on beautiful Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber. 

2. He Walked By Night (Alfred L. Werker, Anthony Mann, 1948)

he walked by night 1948Soggy, narrative-driven police procedural turns into a gripping thriller, inspires Jack Webb to make the Dragnet TV series. Two scenes set this film apart — the chase through the LA storm drains and a cringeworthy, bowel-clutching segment where Richard Basehart digs a bullet out of his side. It’s all silence, and squishy noises and Basehard grimaces. It’s visceral and unforgettable cinema.

The film’s overbearing silence (there’s largely no score) contributes to the tension as does the steady and stoic camera that makes a study of the face and psychology of a murderer. If you didn’t know John Alton’s name before this film, you certainly learned a thing or two about light and shadow. A clinic in cinematography.

Classic Flix released a wonderful restoration of the public domain film last year. You won’t regret paying a few extra bucks to see the film without the mud slapped all over your screen.

1. Five Corners (Tony Bill, 1987)

Five Corners 1987John Patrick Shanley’s screenwriting debut focuses on the lives of teens coming of age in the Bronx during the 1960’s. John Turturro plays an unhinged youth who was sent to prison for trying to rape Jodie Foster. Tim Robbins plays the born-again revolutionary who clubbed him with a lamp to prevent the rape.

Directed by Tony Bill (My Bodyguard, Crazy People), Five Corners dwells on the time and place and imagery. Shanley’s script sounds like a play — which makes perfect sense as he was an accomplished playwright before trying his hand at screenwriting. As a result some of the dialogue feels stage-y and artificial. If you’re watching this for verisimilitude, you won’t find it — unless you’re looking at the details.

I found the artificiality provided a greater clarity of message as the movie unfolds in vignettes aimed at nostalgia and breaking down Boomer nostalgia, in ways not entirely dissimilar to The Big Chill. Instead of looking back, however, Five Corners depicts that era in the moment as filtered through the memory of John Patrick Shanley, one of our most vibrant contemporary voices. Shanley would go on to win an Academy Award for Moonstruck and write and direct Joe Versus the Volcano before largely abandoning Hollywood for the stage.

Image released a nice Five Corners Blu-ray in 2011 that has apparently gone out of print. You can still find this disc in the wild and the lackluster DVD is still widely available. 

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First Watch Club: May 2018

I don’t normally talk about theatrical releases in this space, but I feel forced to mention that I saw Solo: A Star Wars Story twice in the theater. In a fair world, it would totally have a spot on this list. I’m already calling it violently underappreciated and if you want to have some actual fun in the movie theater in 2018, you should go. You don’t have to be a Star Wars fan. In fact, if you don’t have any preconceptions about what this movie is *supposed* to be, you might even enjoy it even more. Ehrenreich and Glover give referential performances, but they each inject much of their own personality, and I’m excited to see how their frenemance blossoms in the planned future Solo films.

In the absence of Solo, what you will notice about my May 2018 First Watch list is that it features three musicals. Spoiler alert: the next Cinema Shame podcast will feature a conversation with Jessica Pickens about classic Hollywood musicals. I watched a lot of musicals last month. It just so happened that three of them made the list alongside another future Cinema Shame podcast spoiler.

First-Watch Cinema Club: May 2018

#5. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Stanley Donen, 1954)

seven brides for seven brothersKnowingly(?) cringe-y sexual politics scattered throughout a colorful, imaginative 19th century wife-grabbing musical romcom. Elaborate dance choreography and inventive depth of staging make this a memorable classic Cinemascope musical. Still — hard not to question how the movie played the lady stealing with such a straight face.

Jane Powell carves her own slice of female empowerment in a movie about “just needing a man.” It’s a wonderful performance. I also can’t stress enough how this wouldn’t normally be my cup of tea, but there’s something totally charming about the relationship between Keel’s woodsman and Powell’s love-struck cook.

This movie proved to me that Stanley Donen really was a wizard. Now’s the perfect time to pick this one up for a first time viewing since Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was just released on a Warner Archive Blu-ray and it’s a wide margin better than the DVD.

#4. Footlight Parade (Lloyd Bacon, 1933)

footlight paradeBusby Berkeley out the wazoo. Elaborate, mass kaleidoscopic choreography scattered throughout a passable showbiz tale that provides the venue for Jimmy Cagney to do some hoofing in a not-so-vaguely racist grand finale.

I oversimplify.

The end of this film is a 40-minute four-course feast for the eyes and ears. Joan Blondell and Cagney needed 200 movies together. They’re positively combustive on the same screen. Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Frank McHugh, Guy Kibbee round out the impressive cast.

I dare you to watch this and not feel conflicted about having “Shanghai Lil” being stuck in your head for three days.

Footlight Parade is available on a 4-movie Busby Berkeley TCM DVD Collection. 

#3. Fantomas (Louis Feuillade, 1913-1914)

fantomasRather than treat the Fantomas films as separate entries, I’ll tackle them all individually, but as one continuous serial, as it was intended.

Fantomas I: In the Shadow of the Guillotine

Stoic, early silent narrative camera can’t quite keep up with Feuillade’s ideal pacing and style. It’s something akin to the silent film equivalent of the cart before the horse. The narrative techniques have yet to develop the necessary language to match Feuillade’s ambition.

Solid opening Fantomas entry suggests room to grow as Feuillade pushes the language of narrative film in interesting ways. Excellent introduction and establishment of Fantomas as a legendary evil mastermind.

Fantomas II: Juve Against Fantomas

Fantomas #2 gives us a far stronger inspector/nemesis relationship by foregrounding Inspector Juve rather than Fantomas’ machinations. More engaging start to finish with a better cinematic pace. Narrative polish that feels way ahead of its time for 1913. Feuillade’s made huge strides between these first two episodes.

Fantomas III: The Dead Man Who Killed

This one gets dark. Fantomas wears skin gloves made from a dead man to leave false fingerprints and truly becomes the twisted evil worthy of a serial detective story. Feuillade weaves multiple narratives and establishes a larger Fantomas network of villainy. Plus a twist ending. Top notch serialized silent entertainment.

Fantomas IV: Fantomas Against Fantomas

In the realm of the image, this fourth Fantomas left a potent legacy. The bloodstained wall where Fantomas entombed one of his victims must have left scars on unsuspecting 1914 viewers. Very Edgar Allan Poe. Dual pit traps abruptly ends the episode with a haunting final message.

Ultimately falls short of the narrative admiration earned in Part III, but still incredibly advanced and layered. Feuillade has proven himself influential in nearly every genre that would form during these early days of cinema. He is horror, suspense, spy and police procedural. They all owe something to Fantomas.

Fantomas V: The False Magistrate

I don’t even know what to think about early silent cinema anymore. I once believed that the pre-1920’s era consisted largely of whimsical vignettes and static-shot mugging as filmmakers worked on ironing out the techniques that would guide narrative cinema through the 1920’s.

It’s generally not too difficult to keep up with a silent film what with our brains already trained to navigate rapid editing and layered narrative. The nature of the production itself — the title cards and deliberate miming — gives the viewer ample time to process the on-screen events. Don’t get me wrong, I adore great silent cinema, but misdirection was rarely a strength. The False Magistrate weaves such a complex tale of crossing and double-crossing and red herrings that I had to rewatch multiple segments because I couldn’t believe what Feuillade accomplished in a film from 1914. (For the record, some of them didn’t quite add up… specifically as the motivations of our heroes are concerned.) Still, I’ve never seen anything like it from this era.

Some of the Fantomas V becomes bogged down in text and letter reading — and much of that became necessary to detail Fantomas’ complex web of lies and intrigue with a number of segments missing from the print. Ultimately that makes this film hard to rate as a standalone entry. I’ll tell you one thing though — you’ve never seen anything like what Feuillade does to the man stuck in the bell tower.

The final confrontation doesn’t disappoint, and the aftermath is a solid kick in teeth, re-establishing Fantomas as the greatest criminal mastermind of all time. Essential viewing for film fans interested in the roots of all narrative filmmaking.

Fantomas is available on a Kino Lorber Blu-ray. 

#2. Broadway Melody 1940 (Norman Taurog, 1940)

Astaire’s good, you know, but I couldn’t take my eyes off Eleanor Powell. I didn’t miss Ginger when the two of them appeared on-screen together. She seems to bring more elegance out Fred, whereas Ginger harnesses some playfulness.

My first exposure to Eleanor Powell, somehow. I discussed how she mesmerized me in the Cinema Shame podcast, but maybe it bears repeating. She’s a revelation and I wish the Astaire/Powell coupling had born more fruits, but Broadway Melody of 1940 offers a tantalizing morsel of what could have been a long and fruitful partnership. Though the two of them might have danced the other into the ground due to their perfectionist natures.

Broadway Melody of 1940 appears on Warner Archive DVD.

#1. Rififi (Jules Dassin, 1955)

As a huge fan of Jean-Pierre Melville’s French crime films and Jules Dassin’s Night and the City, it’s inconceivable that I’d not bothered to watch Rififi until Kerry Fristoe (@echidnabot)  swapped me some Cinema Shame during the May prompt.

Dassin escaped his Hollywood blacklist by traveling to France to make films where sane individuals didn’t care about such things as attending meetings related to communist activity in the 1930s. Rififi serves as a potent response to the unfortunate hand he’d been dealt. The film’s grim, disillusioned tone feels angry, perhaps even fatalist. What it does so well, however, is establish characters of both likable and unlikeable qualities and eventually depict individual revelations of their true selves. Charm and charisma turn into cowardice and malice. A face-value cretin becomes the film’s lone representation of altruism.

The legendary 32-minute silent heist scene has the power to change cinematic frames of reference. There’s a reason that Rififi has been billed as the greatest bank heist in cinema history. Dassin’s girtty city noir lived up to the hype.

Rififi is available on Criterion Blu-ray and DVD.

 

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A bl-g about classic and not-so-classic movies, music and nostalgia by James David Patrick