some of my favorite things #9: something wild (1986)

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“You sure you know what you’re doing?”

“No.”

It’s dangerous revisiting a movie you loved in your youth, but haven’t seen since then. If you’re prone to wallowing in the effluvia of solipsistic nostalgia, you may convince yourself that you can recapture the experience. The movie may be the same, but you aren’t. You can’t return to that original moment when you were first seduced.

One of my favorite movies from the 1980s was Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild. When it came out in 1986, it was a refreshing alternative to pretty much everything else playing and it confirmed that Melanie Griffith was the “It girl” at that time. The movie also resurrected Demme’s career (which had run aground with Swing Shift a few years earlier) and gave us the showstopping feature film debut of Ray Liotta. It was a modest work, but it snapped and never wore out its welcome.

Something Wild–a mix of screwball comedy and crime–was sexy, stylistically hip and contemporary, and its tonal shift at the halfway point was startling at the time. When Liotta makes his first appearance at the school reunion sequence about an hour into the movie, we plunge down the narrative rabbit hole for good. It’s an invigorating feeling because the shift from neo-screwball comedy to the darker, violent material is so seamless. The movie wasn’t static in that first half. Demme and screenwriter E. Max Frye have been testing our footing continuously in little ways. Lulu (Griffith) comes on strong in the early scenes, like an earthy boozy dream girl, yet a softer more introspective side to her personality comes out when she arrives at her mother’s place. Jeff Daniels plays Charles, the ultimate vanilla rich yuppie, a character we should automatically hate, especially after viewing him duck out of a New York City diner without paying his bill in the first scene. What’s remarkable about the way Daniels plays the character and how he’s written, is that Charles is a rather likeable guy. He’s weak and adrift though. One of the great ways Demme and Frye convey this is by never having Charles drive in the first half. He’s always in the passenger seat. Only when he’s forced to take control of his destiny and chase down Ray (Liotta) and Lulu, does he get behind the wheel and take charge. It’s a sort of cinematic shorthand, showing us instead of telling, and it displays Demme’s visual literacy.

I have a weakness for the yuppie in hell storyline, which was quite prevalent back in the 1980s. Risky Business, Into the Night, After Hours, and Blue Velvet all delivered variations on that theme and I loved them all. Something Wild was the most unique for me, however, because Lulu never stayed a cliché. She never remained trapped in one persona or viewed only through Charles or Ray’s eyes. She never remained the fetishistic dream girl and that was significant then… maybe even more so now. She comes on like an uninhibited femme fatale you wanted to run away with, but there’s so much more to her than that. She not your dream girl. She belongs to herself.

Looking at the movie again last night (watching the Criterion Blu-ray), I was struck by how vibrant and fresh it still felt. It was even better than I remembered it being. Here are a few notes from this latest viewing:

1. Demme remarkably never condescends to his characters… or the audience. Whether we’re watching the early scenes of gritty, funky New York City, watching Charles and Lulu on the road playfully interacting with colorful characters, or watching Lulu awkwardly banter with old friends and acquaintances at the school reunion, Demme never cruelly mocks his characters. There’s real warmth in these scenes. It’s Capraesque by way of the Lower East Side, though free of the camp distance that Lynch employed in Blue Velvet with his view of small-town life.

2. The movie looks and feels like authentic America… not Hollywood America. This being a road movie too, we get many shots, courtesy of cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, of open rural spaces, rickety motels, greasy spoon diners, and tourist traps. That’s not exactly fresh for movies, but Demme captures these locales with his characteristically light touch. Certain places, such as the squalid motel where Ray is staying, exude menace, but for the most part Demme keeps it low key. Compare these scenes with Scorsese’s hyperrealism in After Hours. Demme comes off as downright mannered in comparison. We also get a racially mixed America and one were elderly people actually exist and mingle with younger people. Demme’s codified America has vitality and is a telling contrast to the muscle-bound, paranoid, and psychotic Reagan-era fantasies that were the norm at the multiplex at that time.

3. Something Wild does have a dark side. Once Ray memorably appears at the reunion, the cracks begin to appear in the American dream. Liotta is a force of nature here–physical, charming, impulsive, dangerous. Intelligence flickers behind those icy blues eyes, but it’s reptilian. While prodding a clueless Charles about how he met Lulu/Audrey, he feigns camaraderie and amps up the laughter, lulling Charles into a false sense of male bonding. Ray is really laughing at Charles and setting him up for a beating. Perhaps the violence in Something Wild doesn’t have quite the same ferocity it did that first viewing, but it’s still vicious and Liotta’s performance remains threatening as much as it is captivating.

4. The use of color. Having previously only seen the movie on cable television and VHS tape, the look of it never really worked its way into me. The Criterion Blu-ray revealed a completely new aesthetic layer. Demme, Fujimoto, and the set/art/costume departments crowd the frame with hot colors in that first half, then dramatically strip it down for the second. I don’t usually think of Demme as a boldly visual director, but he’s intelligent and nuanced. When he moves the camera in a striking way, it’s for a good reason. Pay attention.

5. The music. This has one of the best soundtracks of its era. “Wozani Mahipi” by South African group The Mahotella Queens, “Someone Like You” by The Knitters, and the substantial contribution from The Feelies during the high school reunion scenes all made big impressions. But the soundtrack as a whole is just great in how it’s utilized. Demme does give a nod to visually showing characters listening to music in their cars, the motel room, or in a liquor store. It’s realistically used, but the songs also color our impressions of who Lulu and the other characters are.

6. Last but not least, there’s sex. Characters fuck in Something Wild and it’s playful, slightly naughty, and served up refreshingly guilt-free. Lulu is obviously a sexual magnet, but Ray is as well, albeit in a more threatening way. When he preys on the naive gift shop girl, who is underage, it feels dangerous… but you also feel her excitement and attraction to the wolf. The scene also gives us a glimpse of how the now wise Audrey (Lulu’s real name) must have felt when she first encountered Ray years ago.

This one is coming to the desert island. For me, Jonathan Demme was never better than here.

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some of my favorite things #8: patricia arquette

I almost got fired for this woman.

It was sometime during the summer of 1993 and I was working at an independent video store in Northwest Portland.  It was a great job and I worked there for years.  Of course, one of the perks was that we’d get free passes to see movies every now and then.  I lucked out and was given one for two to see True Romance at the Lloyd Center Cinemas.  The catch, though, was that I couldn’t leave work early to see it.  I got off at 7:00.  The movie started at 7:30.  I had to race out, jump on a #15 bus and ride it downtown, then bolt onto the MAX and ride that across the river to the cinema, then try to get a seat.  No way was I going to get in that screening on time and I had to see this movie.

It was based on a Quentin Tarantino script, the first release after Reservoir Dogs, and a year or so before Pulp Fiction shook the film world.  It had a great cast and it co-starred the lovely Patricia Arquette, who I’d had a crush on since seeing her in that third Nightmare on Elm Street movie.  We’re roughly the same age (I think she’s a year older) and I was smitten.  I was going to get into that fucking movie.

I left about ten minutes early.  I got in.  I loved the movie.  And I almost got fired the next day when I slunk into the store and was given a serious reprimand by the co-owner who had checked up on me.  I apologized… sincerely… and was grateful to still have my cool job.

But it was all worth it.  She was worth it.

It’s Arquette’s birthday today and she is definitely one of my favorite things when it comes to modern actors.  I don’t like everything she does–she’s woefully miscast in John Boorman’s screechingly earnest Beyond Rangoon–and she doesn’t have a lot of dramatic range.  But so what?  She made for a perfect cinematic dream girl for this movie-mad American male during the 1990s.  And she’s still lovely.

David Lynch obviously thought she made for the perfect object of unobtainable desire in his superbly creepy and sexy 1997 neo-noir Lost Highway, my favorite of his movies.  Playing duel roles in it, duel symbols of a sometimes frightening female sexual power, Arquette entered that rarefied realm of ultimate noir siren.  A siren worth risking it all for.

And like all great cinematic sirens, particularly of the noir variety, she is forever out of reach.

But that’s what repeat viewing was intended for.

some of my favorite things #7: birth (2004)

Jonathan Glazer’s follow-up film to his wildly kinetic crime drama Sexy Beast (2000), Birth (2004), did not receive the same sort of critical love that his debut had in England and to a lesser degree here in the States.  Which is sad, since Birth is just as accomplished, if not in fact the more risk-taking venture.  It’s a chamber piece of exquisite precision, but one that acknowledges that at its core, its narrative is pure, furious operatic melodrama.  That Glazer somehow maintains the film’s dryly comedic and somber tone despite its more outlandish subject matter is  wondrous… dare I say, even masterful.  Scripted by Glazer and Buñuel co-collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière and starring Nicole Kidman, Danny Huston, Lauren Bacall, and Cameron Bright as a strange, off-putting ten-year old boy who claims to be the reincarnation of Kidman’s deceased first husband, Birth treads frequently into strange, uncomfortable waters.  One can’t help but fantasize what Buñuel may have done with the same material.  Birth received mostly mediocre to bad reviews when released theatrically and it was quickly forgotten.  But it seems to be slowly gaining some much-needed reappraisal, like this little nod from David Thomson posted today on the  Guardian site.  Let’s hope that the tide continues to turn.

This clip (weirdly subtitled) is arguably the film’s pièce de résistance.  It begins with the boy, who has been stalking Kidman, being forced by Huston (Kidman’s fiancee) to never see her again.  As the scene continues at the opera, the camera focuses on Kidman’s face as she becomes unmoored in the realization that the boy may be telling the truth about who he really is.

some of my favorite things #6: the cowboys (1972)

I’m not sure how this one slipped by me as a kid.  I’m sure it played on television when I was a youngster–local Portland station Channel 12 was obligated by law to play John Wayne movies every weekend, I think–but I don’t ever remember watching it.  If I did, I blocked it from my memory.

Oh, what a little fool I was.

Having been on a bit of a John Wayne binge of late, I rented the Blu-Ray edition of this and hoped for the best.  I don’t think I’m giving anything away by writing that the film is notorious and legendary in equal measure for being the one where Duke is shot in the back by a dastardly long-haired villain, played by the great Bruce Dern.  It was a jolt back in 1972 and plenty of kids, no doubt, were scarred by seeing the movie icon go down in such a brutal manner.  It’s still a jolt to watch today.

But how was I to know any of it was good?  Most reviews that I’d come across over the years treated it as mediocre late period Wayne.  And people I’ve spoken with who had seen it loved the film, though I suspected they were blinded by childhood nostalgia.

I have to admit it’s a really splendid film, from Mark Rydell’s assured direction to (egads!) John Williams’ appropriately majestic yet lyrical score to the performances from all the kids (half of ’em non-actor rodeo boys) to the stand-out roles by Dern and the great Roscoe Lee Browne, the latter as Nightlinger the chuck wagon man who accompanies the cattle drive.

And then there’s Wayne.

His work with John Ford will always be my favorite–primarily the Westerns–but Wayne’s performance here as rancher Wil Andersen seems the perfect culmination to his long career.  The Shootist (1976) would end up being Wayne’s final performance, of course, but I like the Duke here more.  A bit world-weary but not tainted with cynicism, Wayne seems genuinely comfortable acting opposite the gaggle of cowpokes he’s saddled with, striking just the right balance of obstinacy, fatherly protectiveness, and gentleness we want from our aging cowboy icon.  He wears his heart on his sleeve, but not with the bathetic hard-sell one would expect.  It’s quintessential classic Wayne charisma we get in The Cowboys, but tempered with the wisdom and offhandedness that only a pro can pull off effectively.  There’s insight in them eyes… and when Wayne goes down, it’s crushing.

some of my favorite things #5: the war of the worlds

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Below is one of my favorite first paragraphs.  Reading it again sends a chill through me and makes me want to spend the rest of the afternoon in the book’s clutches.  Can’t think of a better way to celebrate the birthday of H.G. Wells, can you?

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.

some of my favorite things #4: toby dammit (1968)

It’s without a doubt a desert island movie for me.  I’ll leave the other two installments from the Euro horror anthology film Spirits of the Dead (1968), directed by Roger Vadim and Louis Malle respectively, at the pier… but Fellini’s is coming with me.  Vadim’s and Malle’s episodes are perfectly fine from what I remember.  It’s just that Fellini’s tour de force, Toby Dammit, is masterful–seeped in burned-out psychedelia, fueled by a terrific performance by Terence Stamp (was he ever better?), and is truly unsettling as we watch a seedy, boozed-soaked English actor played by Stamp journey to Rome to… well, you’ll have to find out what happens.  Clocking in at around 45-minutes, the short is a nightmarish, blackly humorous downward spiral that delivers in legion what many a longer horror film is limp to accomplish in twice the length.  It also contains one of the great, antithetical interpretations of the Devil ever… albeit one swiped with gratitude from Mario Bava’s equally masterful 1966 film Kill, Baby… Kill! which also featured a little girl in the role of the Great Deceiver.

This clip, showing Toby painfully having to make an appearance at an awards ceremony, is one of my favorite scenes.  And it’s particularly gratifying to view it since it showcases the original soundtrack, letting us finally hear Stamp in his native English tongue.  Currently, the only DVD that is available in the States is of the French soundtrack which is a dub when it comes to the Fellini episode (it should be in Italian, French, and English).

Anyway… enjoy.

some of my favorite things #3: point blank (1967)

John Boorman’s 1967 neo-noir, Point Blank, comes on like a riot, simmers into a coiled narrative fighting stance, then springs into the weird currents of existentialist no exits in its closing, haunted moments.  It’s some kind of pop brutalism, my favorite Boorman film (Deliverance and the flawed The Emerald Forest aren’t too far behind, though), and a wonderfully intoxicating mix of Hollywood action fused with sidewinding avant-garde film techniques.  But most importantly it stars Lee Marvin.  Oozing drop-dead cool and tick-tock detachment, Marvin’s laconic though physically commanding performance holds steady throughout, smoothly delivering that snap, that “it” quality that only the great movie stars are able to harness.  This is an action film when physicality actually meant something, when meat and bone inhabited physical space, and the violence carried with it weight not measured in pixels and glossy poses.

The first video is the original theatrical trailer.  The second one is a short clip from when Walker (Marvin) hits a San Francisco go-go club hunting for the man who double-crossed him.