Wednesday, March 29, 2017

BRUNDLEFLY, "FUZZ", ... AND THE CREATIVELY DANGEROUS ART OF THE ADAPTATION - by CEJ


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FUZZ (1972)  

Dir. - Richard A. Colla
Cast: Burt Reynolds, 
Rachel Welch, Jack Weston, 
Tom Skerritt, Yul Brynner
Screenplay - Evan Hunter 
From "Ed McBain"'s novel
Music - Dave Grusin
Dir. of Photography - Jacques Marquette
Edited by - Robert L. Kimble
Running Time: 92 mins.
Release: 7/14/72
Dist.: United Artists

GullCottage rating 
(***1/2 on a scale of 1 - 5)



    It's amazing how a "nothing" film can ... what? "Take a nothing day and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile?". Ehhh, no! That was a good one. But we were gonna say "... can surprisingly leave a life-long indelible impression". Ultimately it's unfair to label any film as "nothing". So forgive us for using that word when more accurately what we're talking about is a film which perhaps in the context of cinema history ends up "slipping between the cracks" of most of the world's notice, and in time becomes either a cult title to a small group of admirers, a personal fave to an individual, or a long sequestered "guilty pleasure" - something one is almost mortified to admit to others that you not only like, but actually love. And which you treat with an almost "watch it in the wee hours", "hide it on your hide drive where no one can find it" stigma of something akin to hentai torture porn. Hey, remember waaay back when it was considered un-cool to dig Dino De Laurentiis' FLASH GORDON? Well, add Dino's KING KONG, DUNE and THE WHITE BUFFALO to that list for us. But try not to despise us for the confession. Anyway ..

     A film which certainly doesn't rate as a "guilty pleasure", but which does cover both sides of the aforementioned street for us personally (the one of leaving a life-long creative mark, and the other of falling between the cracks of celluloid history) was / is 1972's FUZZ - directed by Richard A. Colla. And if Colla's name just seems somehow familiar, but you can't quite put your finger on where you've heard it, it's because you've actually seen it a bazillion times over, even if it never consciously registered. He's the former DAYS OF OUR LIVES soap opera actor who went on to become one of the most popular and ominpresent directors in all of 1970s and 80s TV-dom, helming (among many others) multiple episodes of MacGYVER, HUNTER, MURDER SHE WROTE, MIAMI VICE, and (of course) that venerable fan-boy fave, the original BATTLESTAR GALACTICA.


     Oh, and if this written mash-up of FUZZ personal commentary in particular, and commentary on the art of filmic adaptation in general, seems vaguely familiar to a handful of people out there, that's because the inspiration to "flesh out", do an "extended" or "director's cut?" (ha! ha!) version of a few thoughts banging around inside the noggin, was born upon making a couple of responses on the Facebook page thread of writer Paul Rowlands earlier today, where a few folks got into a social media discussion concerning FUZZ. As it would be extremely rude (or even worse - "very uncool" - there's that phrase again!) to Bogart the thread with EVERYthing the discussion triggered within us, we figured it would be more apropos to just blog it out here where anyone who wishes can read it at their leisure - all at once or in pieces. And chop it up, chew it up, and digest or spit out whatever suits or doesn't suit 'em as they wish.

     If you get the chance though, you definitely need to check out Rowland's incredible MONEY INTO LIGHT online film magazine which includes a fascinating and informative collection of essays and articles by the man himself, as well as a veritable film school's worth of interviews with cinema legends the likes of Mark Pellington, Alex Proyas, John MacNaughton, George Armitage, Nancy Allen and more. Anyway ...


     Based on Ed McBain's titular 1968 novel (one of his long series of "87th Precinct" mystery / crime thrillers featuring Detective Steve Carella and crew), the main plotline / conflict of 1972's FUZZ concerns the efforts of Carella (portrayed by Burt Reynolds) and his team (which includes Rachel Welch, Tom Skerritt and Jack Weston) to unravel an extortion plot designed by "The Deaf Man" - the criminal mastermind who appears in six McBain novels to date, and in the film is essayed by the forever cool, sophisticated, and here surprisingly funny Yul Brynner. This time around "The Deaf Man" threatens the assassination of a number of high ranking city officials if a predetermined ransom isn't paid by his deadline. And while racing against time (and bureaucracy) to prevent the murders, a couple of other subplots to divide the attention of Carella and his team include a string of neighborhood park robberies and sexual assaults, as well as a disturbing wave of arson attacks carried out against the homeless - a subplot which would kinda / sorta be borrowed / lifted in 1995's similarly toned MONEY TRAIN.


     We remember first (sort of ) seeing FUZZ at the drive-in. "Sort of" because it was the third of three features that evening, and, as was usually the case at that young age, we fell asleep not long into the film. We first saw it in it's (edited) entirety a couple of years later when it debuted on the ABC Sunday Night Movie. Anyone else out there old enough to remember that weekly TV staple? At any rate, to this day we love Ed McBain's 87 Precinct novels. We grew up on them. And realizing that FUZZ was based on a series of them is one of the reasons we came to do so. We remember later discovering with delight that the gritty, pulp-centric McBain, and the more "legit" and literary-praised Evan Hunter (the author of the acclaimed STRANGERS WHEN WE MET, THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, MOTHERS AND DAUGHTERS, THE PAPER DRAGON, and the screenplay to Hitchcock's THE BIRDS) were one and the same.

     As far as a love of the creative arts goes, FUZZ would also be one of the first film scores we ever noticed front and center. And that opening Main Title cue on the El train is still of the utmost musical bad-ass-ed-ness to this day! The film's score was by Dave Grusin, who we'd then learn had written the themes to some of our favorite TV series over the years including  IT TAKES A THIEF and THE NAME OF THE GAME; and who, over the next three successive years, would bang out some of our favorite alternately jazz / orchestral / funk-influenced film scores such as THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE ('73), THE MIDNIGHT MAN, THE NICKEL RIDE and THE YAKUZA (all '74), and THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR ('75). An interest in Grusin in particular would lead us to a wider interest in his non-film jazz works, which in turn would then lead to an even wider and greater love of jazz and other musical genres in general. So yeah, in the end 1972's FUZZ held (and still holds) a great deal of creative-world nostalgia for us.


FUZZ composer Dave Grusin: (clockwise) THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE (1973),
THE YAKUZA (1974), THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975)

     But we're not gonna pretend either. The fact is FUZZ is a film which on the whole was pretty much dismissed (and even dissed) by many critics at the time, ... although Roger Ebert went against the grain as he found it surprisingly charming and engaging because of the three-dimensional nature of it's characters. It remains a film which oddly still doesn't get a whole helluva lotta love from contemporary cineastes - perhaps most damningly so from those McBain fans who see it as an erroneously too comical perversion of the original source material; they feeling this way even though "McBain's" novel was adapted into screenplay form by none other than "Evan Hunter" himself. Personally we think many of those feelings are themselves erroneously based upon a nostalgic love of McBain's novels in general, and less on the merits and / or demerits of the filmic version of FUZZ in and of itself. Try this on for size ...

     In 1969, during an interview with the New York Times Book Review, author James M. Cain was asked about his opinion on the variable quality of "What Hollywood had done" to his books throughout the 1930s and 40s - among them THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, MILDRED PIERCE and DOUBLE INDEMNITY. And Cain's now legendary (and quite common-sense) response was ...

     "People tell me, don’t you care what they’ve done to your book? I tell them, they haven’t done anything to my book. It’s right there on the shelf".


James M. Cain's THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946),
DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), MILDRED PIERCE (1945)

     And therein lay our opinion on the film version of FUZZ ... and general filmic adaptations on the whole. While a film should certainly remain faithful to the core "central nervous system" of the novel (or other source material) on which it's based, we also have to realize that films, books, graphic novels, plays and more are all very different mediums with their own strengths and weaknesses in and out of their preferred environs. For example, while it's wonderful to read a play, it works best before a living, breathing and interactively responding audience. As such an actor may alter / adapt his or her performance in said play from day to day in response to the reaction of that audience. Also as such sometimes a film version of something will by necessity also be a literal "adaptation" in the truest sense of the word - wherein changes must be made in order for it to survive in an environment into which it was not originally born, nor in which it was initially intended to thrive.

     If a story was originally written for radio, for example, the challenge for film is to now make the narrative visual rather than aural. And with a novel, where much of the character motivations are internal, a film must now seek to somehow explain in an externally visual manner why those characters are doing what they are doing, as you can't always have their thoughts projected to the audience in convenient "voice over" narration. In such instances this may at times (often to the extremely vocal chagrin of some) predicate that the novel become a mere "jumping off point" from which something totally new and "all it's own" must be created, ... but which will still incorporate the (for lack of a better term) "DNA" of that original source material.

David Cronenberg and "Brundlefly" friend: THE FLY (1986)
   
     Sometimes this works out wonderfully and artistically as with David Cronenberg's remarkable 1991 adaptation / reworking of Burroughs' genuinely un-filmable NAKED LUNCH. Realizing Burroughs' original 1959 novel (actually less a "novel", and more a collection of loosely connected short stories and vignettes meant to be read in any order - as the main character is a junkie writer who astrally - or maybe even physically - leaps from locale to locale) was impossible to faithfully translate to film, Cronenberg decided to treat it as (his own word here) "Brundlefly".

     Those who recall Cronenberg's 1986 reworking of THE FLY realize the big difference between the "man and fly exchanging heads" scenario of the original 1959 film, and Cronenberg's mid 80s era take, is that, within the telepod in Cronenberg's version, man (in the personage of Jeff Goldblum's scientist Seth Brundle) and fly don't "exchange" anything. The DNA of both are rather combined. And what eventually emerges over time (revealing itself not unlike the slow onslaught of cancer or AIDS consuming the body) is a hitherto non-existent creature / combination of the two. In like fashion Cronenberg's treatment of Burroughs' NAKED LUNCH takes the character, tonal, thematic and some narrative elements (or "DNA" strands if you will) of the original book, then splices them into another wholly other "DNA" sequence: this new sequence being an original Cronenberg narrative which includes the genes of those personal themes for which his films have always been famously known - chief among those themes the notion that the mind and the body are inexorably connected. And that if there is any pronounced change in the one it will majorly effect the other.

(L to R) David Cronenberg with "Brundlefly"-esque friend, and Peter Weller: NAKED LUNCH (1991)

     If one does a quick mental review of the director's previous RABID, THE BROOD, VIDEODROME, SCANNERS and even THE DEAD ZONE, then fast-forward ahead to his yet-to-come DEAD RINGERS, M. BUTTERFLY, CRASH, eXistenZ, and even A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE and EASTERN PROMISES, one sees this to perhaps be the predominate single thread thematic truism of this director's entire career. So, NAKED LUNCH the film becomes 50% Burroughs and 50% Cronenberg. And while some purists may not have dug that ratio, William Burroughs himself sure as hell did! He loved the film.

Stanley Kubrick's Arthur C. Clarke "Brundlefly" gene splice - 2001 (1968)

     Other adaptations which have also successfully done the "Brundlefly", 50 / 50, source material / film maker cinematic telepod gene splice, include John Sturges' big screen version of Paul Brickell's THE GREAT ESCAPE, and even Stnaley Kubrick's adaptation / Borg-like assimilation of Arthur C. Clarke's original story "The Sentinel" into what eventually became 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.  This kind of creative genetic manipulation doesn't always end happily ever after however. On occasion the 50 / 50 "Brundlefly" fusion can create a "What the f**k where they thinking?" deformed monster of a mess. And for proof of this one we point to the fact that one probably isn't going to find too many who disagree that 1992's film version of Stephen King's THE LAWNMOWER MAN, or Roland Joffe's 1995 "rethink" of Nathaniel Hawthorne's THE SCARLET LETTER, are among the best worst examples out there. Hell, even Stephen King himself has never been shy in vocalizing his personal disappointment with Kubrick's adaptation of his THE SHINING, which, while a fantastic and intense film, certainly is more "Kubrick" than it is "King".

Brett Leonard's Stephen King / "Brundlefly" gene splice - THE LAWNMOWER MAN (1992)

     We think it's fair to say that FUZZ falls somewhere in the middle. It's not a brilliantly unique reworking of McBain's original material, but, contrary to the social media trollings of some, it's far from an irredeemable piece of cinematic crap. So get that out of your head. With FUZZ (once again in particular), and adaptations (once again in general) it's also very important to remember and consider the era in which the film was / is made. During the late 1960s / early 1970s Hollywood was in a very uncomfortable state of trying to find it's "new self" after the formerly successful studio system had recently crashed, burned, and imploded with the force of a collapsed star, after massively budgeted, career destroying box office failures such as DOCTOR DOLITTLE, CLEOPATRA , HELLO DOLLY and PAINT YOUR WAGON triggered an industry-wide outbreak of commercial and creative self-doubt.

     During this same time American film makers were becoming hugely influenced by the French New Wave: that rough-and-tumble, often hand-held, "on the fly" visual style created in the 1950s, but later popularized around the world with films like Truffaut's JULES & JIM. This wave would even have an impact on Orson Welles, who (forward-thinking craftsman he always was) in 1958 borrowed the still-nascent Euro-born visual aesthetic in remarkable fashion, and to great success, for use in his own TOUCH OF EVIL.


     Meanwhile "back at the ranch" (so to speak) the U.S. film industry of the late 60s / early 70s had also fallen under the spell of gritty "youth centric" films such as EASY RIDER, FIVE EASY PIECES, THE GRADUATE and WILD IN THE STREETS. And films such as FUZZ (and M*A*S*H and THE HOSPITAL and MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED) were made in the slipstream of this era. It's a fair bet that studios and film makers at this juncture were very concerned that a "straight ahead" Ed McBain-like police procedural might not be accepted by the new young audience which at the time was plugging into an extreme counter-culture vibe. So with FUZZ it isn't a far stretch to understand how a decision may have been made to stress more of McBain's iconoclastic and (at times disturbingly) quirky elements to the point of those elements (admittedly) now and then perhaps being stretched a bit too broadly for the film's own good. No, we never said FUZZ was perfect, or what some might consider a classic. But it is a solid film.

(L to R) M*A*S*H (1970), THE HOSPITAL (1971), MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED (1976)

     As iconoclastic social satire, M*A*S*H and THE HOSPITAL, by the very nature of their life-and-death setting / scenarios, allow a bit more thematic "elbow room" to be surreal. As a result a degree of deliberately larger-than-life absurdity works in those films, predicated on the fact that the intense pressure-cooker situations in which those films' characters find themselves have induced a degree of mental madness within those characters. 1976's MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED (starring Bill Cosby, Harvey Keitel and Rachel Welch, and set within the high stress, life-and-death world of ambulance drivers), and Sidney Lumet's now-classic NETWORK, both also allow for this bit of surreal "mental madness" elbow room. And while the theme of "urban cops in the field" is surely capable of inducing a degree of mental imbalance within those characters (and this is touched upon in Robert Aldrich's 1977 adaptation of Joseph Wambaugh's THE CHOIRBOYS), the uber real world scenario and tone of FUZZ proves an at times tenuous fit with that M*A*S*H / THE HOSPITAL sense of "over the top"-ness. But don't unfairly beat up on FUZZ. Because it's maybe / maybe not balancing act of molding and bending material to appeal to the sand-shifting nature of the industry at the time, wasn't unique.  Numerous books, plays and other narrative material of the day did the same.

JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (1973)

     Certainly sci fi films like THE OMEGA MAN (a VERY 70s-ish rendition of Richard Matheson's classic novel I AM LEGEND), and "Rock Operas" like JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR and GODSPELL (both trippy new versions of the biblical Christ story) did so, as did others. And some of those films have survived the great litmus test of time while others have not. We therefore once again think it fair to say that FUZZ fell (and continues to fall) somewhere in the middle ground.

     FUZZ sure as hell isn't a perfect film. But, taken within the era-shifting context of that always-challenging "Brundlefly" adaptation conundrum, we feel Richard Colla's alternately rollicking, suspenseful, disturbing, and damned funny slice of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct "shared universe" is a filmic Vaulted Treasure deserving of a bit more retrospective respect than it's ever truly received. And we're hoping to place a few more bricks on the "Respect" side of that scale. Anyway ...

     Such is our opinion.  And we're fairly certain "The Deaf Man" wouldn't have a problem with that. If on the other hand you do, ...

     ... then we recommend you tell him yourself.  Heh, heh!


           
                                                                                                                               CEJ