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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random moments in film criticism #1

The Getaway is an utter bore.  A failure as drama, as film, as entertainment.  It is morally corrupt, artistically arid, conceptually outdated and in sum as thoroughly unredeemable a piece of shit as has been released this year, and the horror and wonder of it, is that it came from such massive talents.”

The above quote is from the always outspoken Harlan Ellison, writing in the January 19, 1973 edition of The Staff about Sam Peckinpah’s 1972 crime movie The Getaway, starring Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw.  The review is collected in the book Harlan Ellison’s Watching.  As good a quote as any to inaugurate this new blog feature.

Below is a scene from the movie, giving you a little taste of what Bloody Sam did best.  If you haven’t seen it before and plan to, you may want to back off.  Plot lines are resolved and not everyone makes it out alive.  Good scene.

ADDITION:

I think you could argue that Ellison is the godfather of the kind of belligerent, smartypants writing that blankets the internet nowadays.  The sort of hostile over-the-top typing that is frequently mistaken for having an opinion.  The big difference is that Ellison could write and he was informed about his opinions.  He harangued the reader, but it came loaded with just as much brains as brawn.  Most of the time.    

in the walls: bad ronald (1974)

Based on a thriller novel by Jack Vance, who is better known for his science fiction and fantasy tales, Bad Ronald found its way to the screen via the glass teat on the ABC network’s Movie of the Week program.  Yes, the major networks once made movies.  Hard to believe, I realize, in this day of “reality” programming and the like, but it’s true.  Most of the movies produced for ABC–as well as for NBC and CBS–were garbage, fondly remembered now for their camp value and little else.

Every once in awhile, though, something strange and memorable for the right reasons would air–Brian’s Song (1971), Duel (1971), The Point! (1971), The Night Stalker (1972), The Legend of Lizzie Borden (1975), Trilogy of Terror (1975).  And this little curiosity… Bad Ronald (1974).

It’s not a “great” movie by any means, though it sure did make an impact on me when I first saw it as a wee lad.  I have no idea if I saw it when it originally aired in 1974 (I would’ve been five) or when it was possibly rerun not long after.  Whenever it was, I was young and impressionable.

It marked me.

Bad Ronald‘s twisted set-up–a misunderstood teenage boy in the Norman Bates mold kills a neighborhood girl after she taunts him and his domineering mother hides him from the cops within a secret room within the house–gripped me and haunted me for years.  I told friends about this movie whenever I could, but I never met anyone who had ever seen it.  And I suspect many thought I was making it up.

It had been issued on VHS at some point… but I only caught up with it again when it was shown on cable in the late-1980s.  I was disappointed.  Its power had faded.  Like many of the films that make the biggest impact on you when you’re a child, they fail to live up to the significance you’ve given them when you view them as an adult.  You hyped it too much over the years… falling in love with how your skull cinema screened it nightly rather than the less impressive reality.

Nevertheless, after the disappointment of watching it again, I still talked about it to anyone who’d listen.  The premise was just too warped to shelve away.  And the actors involved–Scott Jacoby, the excellent Kim Hunter, a brief straight turn by future comedic bumbler Dabney Coleman, and a young Lisa Eilbacher–all made it impossible for me to dismiss.  It was schlock to be sure.

But it was my schlock.

While the flame of fond memories had dimmed, I looked forward to the day when one of the genre specialist video companies like Anchor Bay or Synapse Films issued a proper DVD of it.  In 2009, Warner Brothers released the movie as part of their worthy Archive Collection.  Like the majority of the discs in this series, the quality isn’t great… we’re talking burned-on-demand discs here… but it’s hard to complain since a movie like this is probably never going to see a remastered release.

Earlier this week I finally showed Bad Ronald to my partner in crime.  It was the first time I’d seen it since the late-1980s.  Surprisingly, I liked it much better this time around.  Sure, on a technical level the movie is unimaginative and symptomatic of the drab, no fuss camera set-ups and lighting schemes so popular at the time in television movies and sitcoms.

But Bad Ronald gets under my skin.  While watching it this week, I was shocked by how vivid many of the scenes, especially the one below with the girl on the bicycle, were to me.

It was like no time had passed….

Not so bad.  Just misunderstood.

Mother sees him with different eyes.

Hopefully, his date will view him differently too.

See the talented young man beneath the awkwardness.

But the “date” goes wrong and Ronald is humiliated.

Best to just take a short cut and get back home…

Unfortunately that short cut intersects with her lifeline…

Triggering a chain of events…

changing the both of them forever.

In time he’ll reflect that it should have ended at that moment.

On the bricks…

His head splattered, his life ended.

Less trouble that way.

But at this moment, not knowing what awaits them in the coming seconds…

Both are grateful to be alive.

Maybe not.

One doesn’t seem thankful at all.

One… only grows angrier…

While one grows tired of the role he’s being forced to play.

How come she doesn’t see his uniqueness?

But she’s not buying it.

He’s just a creep.

What he’ll always be.

The sooner he drops dead… the better.

“Take it back!”

She can’t.

It’s escalated too far for that.

He knows it.

She certainly does.

Now.

Maybe she should have been grateful after all.

Left it at that.

Learned to say “thank you” and bowed out…

Without hurting any feelings.

No one likes to have their feelings hurt.

It hurts more than you can imagine…

It feels like the pain will never end…

Even though it’s been only seconds.

It feels like you’re free-falling…

It feels like you’re being smashed into a million little pieces…

It feels like you’ll never get out of this misery…

It feels so final.

Like your life has just ended.

On the bricks.

But maybe mother can help.

She’s always seen you with different eyes.

Love won’t make it all go away though.

Love doesn’t make problems disappear.

Especially since murder has a way of complicating things.

“We’ll have to hide you.”

Prison will offer no mercy for such a talented young man.

At least all is forgiven.

Maybe in time… others will forget all about it.

They’ll learn to forgive too.

You’ll be able to live in decency and cleanliness!”

There will be plenty of room.

No one will find you.

“It’s the perfect illusion!”

“You must learn to be quiet.”

It’s the only way to survive.

After awhile… couple of months…

People will forget.

Everything will be fine…

“I must be the only one who knows you’re here.”

“Two knocks for danger… four for safety…”

It’s a matter of survival.

There’s nothing to be afraid of…

You’ll leave one day…

One day.

Until then…

It’s best to keep up appearances.

Pretend that this has never happened.

Ronald just never came home.

He could be anywhere.

pelecanos

For fiction lovers, if you aren’t aware or haven’t read George Pelecanos then you are simply missing out on the finest living American crime writer.  Since 1992 when A Firing Offense was published, chronicling the increasingly boozy and dire missteps of private investigator Nick Stefanos (Nick also featured center stage in Nick’s Trip, and Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go before coming in and out of the subsequent books) through the 2006 The Night Gardener (about the return of a serial killer who murdered three people in the 1980s) Pelecanos has charted the through-lines of crime, murder, and the possibility for redemption.  These are moral tales in their way.  Although I would hate to discourage anyone from reading them who loathes the Western genre, in many ways that’s exactly what Pelecanos’ tales of struggle are–urban Westerns.  Much like the best shoot ’em ups (think The Outlaw Josey Wales, Rio Bravo, The Wild Bunch) violence is only one facet, a corruptive end result within a far richer thematic canvass.  The struggle of characters to maintain diginity, honor, and the essential need for comraderie/family in a world seemingly coming undone are the true preoccupations of his characters and of this consistantly fascinating writer.

For the record, I’ve always been partial to the stand alone Shoedog (the first book I read by Pelecanos back in 1997) and the early Stefanos novels, the “D.C. Quartet” books, and the Derek Strange and Terry Quinn series.  Wait!  That’s like all of the books.

I’m a fan.

Sunday the Washington Post ran a lengthy and good profile of Pelecanos… hence the reason for this blog post.  I guess I should also mention that Pelecanos was also a contributing member of the HBO series The Wire… the best damn (non-fantasy) television show ever.  Dont’ agree?  Well, I know this cat named Omar Little who may be paying you a little visit then.  He’s very persuasive.  Very.

I’ve been doing my part in trying to get people to read Pelecanos since I first “discovered” him.  In the last few years he’s caught on with the general public and each book has gotten richer, better, and more complex while still delivering the crime fiction goodies.  But I know some of you still haven’t taken the plunge.  Pelecanos’ new book, The Turnaround comes out in August, so there’s no better time to seek him out.

You can read more about Mr. Pelecanos here:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/07/15/AR2008071502119.html?sid=ST2008071801830&pos=