Sunday, September 16, 2018

"I NEVER MET ANYONE WHO REALLY CHANGED THEIR LIFE" / MAMET TAKES MANHOOD TO "THE EDGE" - by CEJ


________________________________________________

VAULTED TREASURES: MOVIES YOU NEVER KNEW ABOUT, YOU FORGOT, 
... OR YOU FORGOT TO LOVE MORE THE FIRST TIME AROUND!


THE EDGE (1997)

Dir.  by - Lee Tamahori
Written by - David Mamet
Music by  - Jerry Goldsmith
Director of Photography - 
Donald MacAlpine
Edited by - Neil Travis 
Production Designer - 
Wolf Kroeger
Costume Design - 
Julie Weiss

Running Time: 117 mins.
Release: Sept. 26, 1997 
20th Century Fox

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

__________________

 
     That whole "I never actually met anyone who ever really changed their life" thing is a bit of dialog Alec Baldwin says to Anthony Hopkins in 1997's THE EDGE. If you're a writer phrases tend to pinball around in your head and psyche the way lyric combinations do within those of songwriters, color fusions do for illustrators, and myriad possible light refractions and bendable optical effects are always tantalizingly dancing before the mind's eye of a photographer. That particular snippet of dialog from THE EDGE - courtesy screenwriter / playwright David Mamet - has been ricocheting and pinging around inside my noggin a lot over the last week or so I guess because I'm in the process of attempting that very thing right now. Regardless of how old you are I've always felt the phases of one's life are like a pair of pants which, just as when a child grows, one outgrows and thus finds the need for a bigger one - both pants and life.

     It's a generally accepted literary truism (and yes, I consider great plays and screenplays bonafied literature) that Pulitzer prize winning playwright, screenwriter, essayist, director and more ... oh hell! let's just call him "Renaissance man", shall we? ... David Mamet is a great writer. But I honestly don't think many who parrot back that sentiment realize just how truly great. His original screenplay THE EDGE is a perfect example of why I think this way. Many will say, "Yeah, THE EDGE is a great suspense actioner with some fantastic dialog, but it's no GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, SPEED THE PLOW, OLEANNA or even THE VERDICT or HOMICIDE". But, no, it actually really is.

David Mamet

     It's not unlike that thing we mentioned before in that other chat. Y'know, what Stephen King called working with "bound feet"- where an artist is asked to create / be themselves / let it all hang out, sure, ...  BUT!!! within the strict confines of a particular medium or media. And how sometimes those constraints can ironically have the positive effect of funneling down, ... or more accurately "reducing" down that artist's thematic sensibilities until it's the most concentrated of elements like a great sauce prepared by a master chef. No time or luxury (especially with something like a screenplay) for self-aggrandizing "Look 'Ma, I'm a writer!"-type grandstanding. It's gotta be all about the characters and their struggle. And if you're a helluva writer, then within the 100 - 120 page confined arena of a script your voice is still going to come through loud and clear. In fact if you're that good, ... and Mamet certainly is, ... you can sometimes come through even more loud and clear for an audience who may otherwise not have been attuned to hear things under a different set of circumstances.  For me Mamet's THE EDGE is among the best examples of this "bound feet" / "concentrated sauce" scenario. The reason is simple, if not so easily achieved by us other mere mortals ...

Mamet's measure of a man: THE VERDICT (1982)

     If you look below the surface and to their core sooo damned many of Mamet's stories are about "the measure of manhood". There's usually a dual look at what society at large considers manhood (which is usually tethered to a certain kind of success), against a more internal / personal realization which, when you truly possess such, it doesn't matter a damn what the rest of the world sees or knows. It's what the man in the mirror sees and knows which compels you.

     I probably wouldn't engender too much opposition in saying the play / film GLENNGARY GLEN ROSS (1984 play/ 1992 film) is perhaps the all around epitome of this Mamet-esque concept while THE VERDICT (1982) might be the obvious filmic epitome. In GLENNGARY social / financial success becomes the manhood measure. And it becomes it to such a degree that normally (whom we'd consider) decent people are willing to stoop to the worst of lows to achieve it. The salesmen of GLENNGARY, while more socially respected than say the straight-up criminal hustlers of AMERICAN BUFFALO ('75 - play / '96 - film), HEIST (2001), THE UNTOUCHABLES (1987) or REDBELT (2008) are ... . Well, in Mamet-land their game is ultimately the same, and often for the very same reasons of prestige, power and respect as that of the more criminally cliched'.

     On the other hand you also have those Mamet men like Paul Newman's Frank Galvin in THE VERDICT, Kevin Costner's Elliot Ness, Chiwetel Ejiofor's Mike Terry from REDBELT, or Robert DeNiro's "Sam" in RONIN (1988) for whom the same kind of moral conflict into which Richie Roma, Shelly Levene, Al Capone and Teach & Donny are tossed causes these fellows to not only not want to gravitate towards the dark side of manhood, but - for very diverse personal reasons - ends up causing them to want to become a better man for their own sakes and no one else's.

Mamet's "measure of a man": GLENNGARY GLEN ROSS (1992)

     Now, yeah, I already hear the comments of "Well, y'know, THE VERDICT and RONIN weren't actually original Mamet scripts, they were adaptations - the former based on a 1980 novel by lawyer Barry Reed, and the later on an original screenplay by J.D. Zeik.". And yeah, yeah, I know. But both scripts quite legendarily very much became Mamet's own. With THE VERDICT Mamet wrote the original first script, which was so damned gritty and unglamorous in it's depiction of the turnaround of alcoholic ambulance chasing attorney Frank Galvin, it was despised and rejected by producer's Richard Zanuck & David Brown and original director Arthur Hiller. And numerous actors, directors and writers (among them Robert Redford, Jay Presson Allen, Sydney Pollack and James Bridges) came and went during the early stages of pre-production until Sidney Lumet and Paul Newman ultimately decided they preferred Mamet's take on the material best of all.

Mamet's measure of a man: THE UNTOUCHABLES (1987)

     In the case of RONIN, while the original script was by WITCHBLADE's J.D. Zeik, director John Frankenheimer always insisted that "not a line of Zak's script was shot" and that it was Mamet's stem to stern rewrite which added most of the memorable subtextual material to DeNiro's "Sam" character. While Frankenheimer always felt the credits should have read "Story by J.D. Zeik / Screenplay by David Mamet", on RONIN Mamet used the pseudonym "Richard Weisz" in keeping with his standard practice of only attaching his real name to projects where he was the single writer.

     At any rate Galvin, Elliot Ness, Terry and "Sam" are all men who - for those diverse personal reasons - seek to change their lives. They're tired of what they are. They've outgrown their former existence and they want, ... no, they need new ones. In Mamet's THE EDGE Hopkins' Charles Morse is the definitive version of the Galvin / Terry / "Sam" "Mamet-man", and Baldwin's Bob Green becomes the epitome of the opposite more negative Levene / Teach & Donny side of the manhood coin.

Mamet's measure of a man: THE EDGE (1997)

     Anthony Hopkins' is billionaire bookworm Charles Morse, who accompanies his fashion model wife Mickey (portrayed by fashion model legend Elle Macpherson) on a photo shoot to a remote Alaskan lodge. Also present are Mickey's photographer Bob Green (Baldwin) and a magazine crew entourage which includes Bob's assistant Stephen (Harold Perrineau). Upon coming across the striking photo of a local bear hunter legend named Jack Hawk (Gordon Tootoosis), Bob decides to find him in order to convince him to be in their shoot. He convinces Morse to join him and Stephen on the day-long adventure. And while on a short flight en route to Hawk's cabin their prop plane becomes the victim of bird strike and goes down in the wilderness, killing the pilot and leaving city boys Morse, Bob and Stephen to survive all on their lonesomes.


     Morse's book-wormish nature ends up being the trio's greatest asset as for awhile he's able to "MacGuyver" them sufficient food and shelter. But even his box of "Trivial Pursuit"-like survival factoids seem to meet their match when the three eventually become the stalked prey of a regional killer bear ('ol "Bart the Bear" from Jean-Jacques Annaud's THE BEAR - '88 and Ed Zwick's LEGENDS OF THE FALL - '94). To add to the mix, Morse has become convinced that Bob is having an affair with his wife, and that Bob may be planning on using their present predicament to stage an "accident" wherein Morse will be conveniently taken out of the picture.

     It's never explained how Hopkins character became a billionaire - through old money or the sweat of his incredibly resourceful mental brow. But right from the git-go of the film we realize he's a man who is absolutely not content with his present life. To this notion most of the audience of course says, "Are you kidding! He's got EVERYthing - money, power, a gorgeous wife!". But (and it's very much to Hopkins credit for being such a damned fine "internal" actor that) while this mental state of unrest is never explicitly verbalized, we, from the very first time we meet him, obviously understand that Morse is on edge. "On edge" about the possibility of his wife's infidelity, yes. But obviously about much more.


     His young trophy wife is almost the literal definition of a trophy or a totem in the most obvious sense. But she's not all. A totem or trophy is all that his wealth in general seems to mean to him at this point. There's the fleeting hint that Charles has always been a lonely and otherwise unpopular individual save for his wealth. And that he aches for the chance to know of his own value as a person period apart from his fame and fortune in the same way a "trust fund baby" might want to change their last name, move into a tiny apartment and "start from scratch" in order to prove a sense of worth to themselves. But however Morse reached this life point of discontentedness (through his own fault over time or not, we just don't know) all of that around him has become mere totems - mere artifacts which once maybe meant something, but have since become near idolic and meaningless in the same way a national flag or the Lord's Prayer can for some lose all meaning, ... if there was any there to begin with.


      Director Lee Tamahori's film of Mamet's script is rife with totemic subtext and images. The very first image we see after the film's initial fade in is that of the tail of a private jet owned by Morse. This is the first totem / trophy we become aware of concerning his success in the eyes of the world. As Morse's wife Mickey frolics (and maybe flirts) with friends, the plane's mechanic makes comment about how much he'd love to get his hands on her. Then after Hopkins inquires what the hell he's referring to, the mechanic responds "The plane of course. What'd you think I was talkin' about?". At this point we come to realize Mickey is another totem / trophy in Morse's life. And that, hey, he may just be unduly worried and insecure about her love and faithfulness. Hell, maybe he even married her in the first place to placate that feeling of "outsider-ness", thinking that she would give him entree' into the world of the genuinely popular and loved. There's an intriguing litany of possibilities Mamet allows us to read into Charles Morse. But when all is said and done for whatever reason he is not happy in his life regardless of what the rest of the world sees or thinks it may know about him.


     The opening credit sequence - accompanied by a lush, gorgeously ballsy big-skyish, Jerry Goldsmith Main Title piece- takes us on a flight (in that prop plane which will go down later in the film) to the remote Alaskan lodge owned by Styles - portrayed by Peckinpah stock company fave L.Q. Jones of THE WILD BUNCH, THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE and PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID. Then as the plane lands - it's pontoons skidding the river before the lodge - director Tamahori, who earlier proved his understanding of dichotomous interpretations of modern manhood with his 1994 breakthrough film ONCE WERE WARRIORS, explicitly proves his understanding of Mamet's version of the same with a set of two camera moves which set the visual thematic for the remainder of the film.

Jake's (Temuera Morrison) twisted notion of "the measure of a man"
in director LeeTamahori's brutal yet insightful ONCE WERE WARRIORS (1994)

     THE FIRST is as the camera pans from the landing plane to the grizzled face of lodge owner Jones. As it does so it dramatically pivots around him - signalling that we've just shifted / crossed into another world, another realm, another life arena where the rules, criteria and yardstick determining "the measure of a man" are vastly different from the one in which we just left. It's kind of / sort of the hairy-chested, spinach eating version of "We're not in Kansas anymore", but that we're now in a place where that which made you slick, successful, a titan of industry and / or a hit with the chicks "back there where you come from" no longer matters a damn in this primal survival-of-the-fittest landscape ready, willing and eager to cleanly strip away - in the heartbeat of a proverbial "New York minute" - your outer veneer of b.s. to revel what truly lay beneath.



     THE SECOND camera move (following immediately on the heels of that first pivot) is as the camera lovingly descends the length of an actual Native American totem pole in front of the lodge in the same way it longingly caressed the tail of Morse's jet but a few filmic moments earlier at the airport. With these two opening images the dichotomous definitions of "success" and "true manhood" are cleanly delineated, and the contest to determine both are about to begin in an inhospitable and unforgivingly feral arena - a mashup of one of the most brutal regions of mother nature combined with the most primal inclinations of human nature when plunged into a kill-or-be-killed scenario. With all of this in place, and with our guys finally stranded in the wild, it is then approximately halfway into the film's 117 min. running time where / when that most Mamet of pivot points occurs in the aforementioned conversation between Hopkins and Baldwin. That bit I've always considered among the most heartbreaking dialog exchanges in all of 90s cinema, ... if not in modern film period: Baldwin's existential admission that  "I never actually met anyone who ever really changed their life".


Tamahori (top), Baldwin and Hopkins on THE EDGE

     With all stripped away Hopkins' Morse decides to no longer be a slave to popular conception and expectation - to that of society's or to his own. When he determines that he's had enough running in place and frantically hanging on and paddling just to survive, and he says that line featured so prominently in the film's original trailer, " ... 'cause today I'm gonna kill the mother f**ker!", he's not just talking about the stalking bear any more than Andy Dufresne's escape from SHAWSHANK was about getting out of prison. Yeah, it was about escaping a "life sentence", but not just that of four physical walls.

     Interestingly I've always seen the gender flip side of men like Morse and Dufrense in women like THELMA & LOUISE (1991) - as Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis enter into the harsh near biblical wilderness / arena of the American Southwest and find their outer definitions and conceptions of "womanhood" (both that of society's and their own) burned away. We see this as little by little they choose to lose the totems which earlier in the film meant so much to them - things such as jewelry, makeup and mirrors. This is perhaps most poignantly driven home in the scene (right before we enter the beginning of the film's 3rd Act) where at a desert gas station Sarandon's Louise exchanges the last of that which reminds her of her previous life - her bracelet - for the most practical of human necessities, a hat to protect her from the desert sun.

     On a very personal level of artistic admiration (and more than a little writer-ly envy) if there was ever someone I'd tout as being "another Mamet", ... . And I hate to use that phrase as it kind of demeans a person into not being an original self, ... but for the sake of verbal shorthand, I'll do it, ... it would be writer Callie Khouri.

Callie Khouri (left) and THELMA & LOUISE (1991)

     Her scripts to THELMA & LOUISE, the underrated SOMETHING TO TALK ABOUT (1995) and even DIVINE SECRETS OF THE YA-YA SISTERHOOD (2002) (written for the screen and directed by Khouri, based on the novel by Rebecca Wells, and which some critics found to be a bit of a hot mess) are all ultimately about taking responsibility for one's own sense of "womanhood" and sense of self regardless of society-at-large's definition. From there her characters then begin the often not-simplistic-or-easy-but-ultimately-rewarding course of changing their lives.

     Pulp material can be a powerful container with which to carry and deliver subtextually loaded material. Check out the novels of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Stephen King for proof of this. Or socially trenchant films like the original PLANET OF THE APES, Marvel's recent BLACK PANTHER or the more subtextually heavy pulp novelish scripts and films of Philip Kaufman - like 1974s arctic adventure THE WHITE DAWN, THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES (1976) and his 1978 redo of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. Hell, his 1983 film version of Tom Wolfe's THE RIGHT STUFF even carries the exact same Mamet-like conundrum / query under it's celluloid skin of "What is it which truly determines the measure of a man - is it outward success (represented by the media fame and hero-making of the Mercury astronauts) or inward personal achievement (encapsulated by Chuck Yeager's continued - mostly unknown - attempts to 'find where that demon in the sky lives on the Mach meter')?". 


     Anthony Hopkins' Charles Morse has always been the epitome of this for me. He knows because David Mamet knows and Lee Tamahori knows. And, if we're listening to that inner "voice" we too know. In the end it's all about facing down and conquering the beasts of one's own fears and / or own stagnant existence

     In THE EDGE, ... in the end ... Morse's code comes down to the fact that ...

     Life doesn't change the man. The man changes his life.

     Now, let's go out there, set the trap, and kill the mother f**ker!



                                                                                                                    CEJ     

Monday, August 27, 2018

NEIL SIMON TRIBUTE: "THE PRISONER OF SECOND AVENUE" (1975) - IT AIN'T CAPRA, BUT IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE ... WELL, NOT REALLY, BUT YEAH, KINDA - by CEJ



________________________________________________

VAULTED TREASURES: MOVIES YOU NEVER KNEW ABOUT, YOU FORGOT, 
... OR YOU FORGOT TO LOVE MORE THE FIRST TIME AROUND!



THE PRISONER OF 
SECOND AVENUE (1975)

Dir. & Prod. by - Melvin Frank
Screenplay by - Neil Simon,
Based Upon His Play 
Music by  - Marvin Hamlisch
Director of Photography - 
Philip Lathrop
Edited by - Bob Wyman 
Art Director. - E. Preston Ames
Costume Design - 
Joel Schumacher

Running Time: 98 mins.
Release: March 1975 
Warner Bros. Pictures

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

__________________


     Okay, oddball analogy ahead! If there was ever a "George Gershwin" or "Miles Davis" of American theater, I always felt it was Neil Simon. You know, someone who approached theater - that which many for so long considered the members-only purview of the high falutin' "learned aficionado", then (in Simon's case, like a bespectacled, Depression-era-born-in-the-Bronx, Jewish Prometheus), swiped it's artistic fire from Olympus ... . I mean, from The Great White Way, ... and brought it down to the shirt-stained, concrete-and-parking-meter world of the Great Unwashed. For that I'll be eternally grateful as I honestly don't think today we'd have a Steppenwolf Theater, Groundlings, Upright Citizen's Brigade or numerous other companies had we not first had a Neil Simon. I guess his passing hit me more personally and poignantly than I figured it would because I was (and still am) one of those concrete-and-parking-meter-raised "Unwashed" who in his younger years didn't know (or give) a damn about theater until Neil Simon's wit regarding, and compassion for, the human condition tickled my funny bone, scratched my brain, and goosed my gluteus literarius into making me want to know, do and be more within a creative existence of my own.

Neil Simon (1927 - 2018)

     Why something becomes a personal favorite "whatever" is an extremely subjective psychological, emotional, part nature / part nurture, ... and hell, maybe even part spiritual ... mumbo-jumbo mashup. And as such, while I too love Mr. Simon's more popular plays and films like THE ODD COUPLE, BAREFOOT IN THE PARK, THE OUT-OF-TOWNERS and BILOXI BLUES as much as the next fan, my all time favorite remains THE PRISONER OF SECOND AVENUE. Essentially it's a hilarious story about a guy who has a nervous breakdown. And what the hell's funny about that, right? Well, more accurately (as if that first description wasn't dark enough) it's about a man who feels as though he's losing his manhood - his sense of purpose for being - and he doesn't know what to do about it.

     Simon wrote THE PRISONER OF SECOND AVENUE back in the "suck it up and man it out" days before clinical depression was accepted by the general public as a genuine mental disorder with psychological, genetic and environmental causes. And while it first debuted as a very successful play in 1971 (starring Peter Falk & Lee Grant, and directed by Mike Nichols - Wow, what a trio!), it was the 1975 film version - directed by Melvin Frank, and starring Jack Lemmon & Anne Bancroft - which proved to be my gateway drug into Simon's den. Then as the years passed, that patented uncut bag of canny dialog, uber-perceptive characterizations and more I first sampled on SECOND AVENUE would, in other stories spooled from the typewriter of the Bronx Bard, become my own personal stash of SuperFly TNT. Oh, what the hell! I figure as long as we're talking about the era of the 70s, why not? Haha! But I digress.


     Anyway, Lemmon and Bancroft are slightly upper middle class couple Mel & Edna Edison - who live comfortably enough on the Upper East Side "until" Mel loses his job during the 70s recession, finds that at his age he's unqualified for any other kind of work, then gets caught up in a discombobulating emotional centrifuge of trying to maintain his dignity as a husband and as a man while finding himself for the first time needing to reach out to others for help, including his older brother Harry - portrayed by Broadway actor / director Gene Saks.


     "Until" is in quotations above because the fact is even before Mel loses his job there are indications that he is (in his own words) "slipping" and becoming mentally and emotionally "afraid" in life in general. During one earlier fateful evening when unable to sleep he confesses to Edna how he feels the world is closing in on him.  And it is in this retrospective light it dawns on us that the action of Mel's firm kicking him to the curb after 22 years was merely the catalyst which ignited / brought screaming to the surface the condition Mel had been so good at hiding for so long.

     The play and film refer to Mel's malady by 70s era nomenclature - a "nervous breakdown'. But with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight we well recognize the unspoken opponent with which he "goes to the mats" as being what today would be diagnosed as depression. As such, given the delicacy of the subject matter (even terror of it as exemplified in one particular late night scene), and considering the era in which the film was made, the kindness, humor and intelligent social foresight with which Simon and director Frank treat the characters, narrative and said subject is nothing short of jaw-dropping. This is why the film continues to blow me away to this day.

     Unlike other more simplistic, if enjoyable, comedies about hard times falling upon the well-to-do (and FUN WITH DICK AND JANE - '77, TRADING PLACES - '83, and THE NEW AGE - '94 are the first which spring to mind, ... although Mel & Edna are no where near as well off as the characters in those films), THE PRISONER OF SECOND AVENUE doesn't feature a pair of smug and selfish dilettantes, as do those others, who deservedly crash and burn because of a self- delusional sense of entitlement.


     Lemmon and Bancroft are decent hard-working people who take the bus, do their own laundry, manage to make ends meet, and every now and then can take a vacation. So, while fate seems to enjoy the sight of it's size 12 Doc Marten lodged firmly up Mel's ass, we absolutely do not. And as Murphy and his ever escalating law proves itself stubbornly in flux in the Edison's lives, we can kind of understand rather clearly and easily why - combined with the crumbling of Mel's mental and emotional building blocks - he, in an Ahab-like act of rebellion comes to declare an ultimately impotent war against the City of New York in particular, ... and the world and fate in general. Yeah, we get it!

Mel Edison (Jack Lemmon) declares war on the entire world
   
     Via watching THE PRISONER OF SECOND AVENUE roughly 30 times in one month on HBO as a(n) (admittedly odd) kid, Simon's film would - along with Spielberg's THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS and Blake Edwards' THE RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER (both of them not only rife with, but dependent upon "snappy dialog") become among the first movies I memorized. It was certainly the first play, as I later discovered upon picking up the published version at the Willingboro Public Library. And as the film remained faithful to the text of the original work, that weird kid would also unexpectedly become the beneficiary of a nifty early lesson in the craft of visually adapting source material as he realized the movie version, while near verbatim dialog-wise, had "opened up" the story geographically by placing selected (and additional) sequences outside the limited logistics of a single apartment interior stage setting.


     My stepdad was an interstate trucker. And I'll never forget watching the relationship strain between him and my mother over a particularly harrowing span of time for our family when during a months-long Teamsters strike a) he literally risked death by taking non-Union hauls in order to keep from losing our home, and b) my mother went back to school then took crappy job after crappy job to keep the family financially together when even non-Union trucking gigs proved unavailable. I'd seen the film version of Shakespeare's THE TAMING OF A SHREW in school, and was amazed at how much the character interplay at times reminded me of my parents and their friends. But THE PRISONER OF SECOND AVENUE was much more contemporary and specific in that regard.


   
     Whereas SHREW reminded me of real life, SECOND AVE was much more real life. And that was a huge revelation to a young and creatively hungry mind at the time familiar with little more than James Bond and Ray Harryhausen movies or the occasional Saturday afternoon Amicus or American International horror double bill. As I already knew of Simon's THE ODD COUPLE from the movie and TV series, I set out to learn more of him, then over time as a result ended up branching out and falling in love with other playwrights such as Sam Shepard, August Wilson and David Mamet. So, thanks, Neil, for escorting me into that world which, while still at a young age, made me want to strike out and try my own hand at spinning prose and doling out dialog.

     Those who are observant realize how an ever recurring theme within the work of Shepard, Wilson and Mamet is that whole "definition of manhood" thing - and the dichotomy between the real vs. illusionary concept which society at large tends to claim is real. This theme very much runs through the central nervous system of THE PRISONER OF SECOND AVE. But whereas with the other writers it tends to be examined in a dark, often profane and even spiritually broken manner, with SECOND AVE. it's done in a damned hilarious one. It may be cliche' to say "this one makes you laugh and cry". And yeah, I hate that hoary, overused P.R.-sounding, dusty horsesh*t verbiage too.  But in this case it's no dusty horsesh*t.


     Unexpected (and particularly heartbreaking) in this regard is how Bancroft's Edna becomes the family anchor as Lemmon's Mel looses his mental and emotional grip. Then later, as the mounting pressures on her (which includes not only keeping things financially afloat, but keeping Mel from slipping into crippling depression) begins to take their toll, it's Mel who begins to bounce back in time to keep her from falling.


     There's a wonderful story for grown ups here - stunningly written, performed and narratively braided within the lush, full and flowing locks of comedy and pathos. It's a masterclass in damned good writing for actors, and damned good actors performing damn well written material.

     If you've never seen THE PRISONER OF SECOND AVENUE, I can't urge you enough to give it a look-see. I think you too will come away saying the same as did numerous critics during the time of the play's original debut: that the great "joke writer" Neil Simon had impressively come of age at a time when society at large needed his alchemical mix of belly laughs and sincerely earned crocodile tears more than ever. Don't let this PRISONER escape.

     Sorry, couldn't help it.  ;)

Urban "American Gothic" via Neil Simon

     And, oh yeah ..

*Nifty Trivia: THE PRISONER OF SECOND AVENUE's costume designer is future BATMAN FOREVER, FLATLINERS, FALLING DOWN and PHANTOM OF THE OPERA director Joel Schumacher. The film also famously features two future Oscar winners in a couple of their earliest roles: Sylvester Stallone as the young "Street Punk" Jack Lemmon (kind of accidentally) mugs in Central Park, and F. Murray Abraham as Lemmon's cab driver in the opening title sequence.

     Gene Saks, who portrays Lemmon's brother, Harry, directed Simon's THE ODD COUPLE and BAREFOOT IN THE PARK on Broadway. And the voice of Lemmon and Bancroft's unseen upstairs neighbor (the inspiration for FRIENDS "Mr. Heckles"?) is character actor Joe Turkel - perhaps best known as "Bartender Lloyd" in THE SHINING and Dr. Eldon Tyrell in BLADE RUNNER.

     There was a theatrical revival of the play in 2010 starring Jeff Goldblum & Mercedes Ruehl.
Would have loved to have seen that one!

(Top) Lemmon's Mel mugs "Street Punk" Stallone,
(Bottom L to R) Peter Falk & Lee Grant - 1971 / Mercedes Ruehl & Jeff Goldblum - 2010

                                                                                                                                    CEJ
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Thursday, April 26, 2018

SH*T OR SHINOLA? NOTE FROM A PAYING CONSUMER: "DEAR MOVIE SNOB, NOBODY REALLY GIVES A DAMN WHAT YOU THINK" (With respect this includes you, Mr. Cameron) - by CEJ



________________________________________________

VAULTED TREASURES: MOVIES YOU NEVER KNEW ABOUT, YOU FORGOT, 
... OR YOU FORGOT TO LOVE MORE THE FIRST TIME AROUND!


     Remember in FIELD OF DREAMS when James Earl Jones' character Terence Mann says how baseball has served as signposts throughout history? Well, movies (all kinds of movies) do the same. There used to be this awesome antique / collectibles shop near South St. in Philadelphia. I believe it's (surprise, surprise) a restaurant now. But, as a history nut over the years I'd picked up a number of great things there including an actual newspaper published during the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition - which is where Alexander Graham Bell first introduced his "telephone" to the public. Those who know a little about historical architecture know that up until maybe one hundred years ago - and perhaps even sooner - many buildings used newspaper as insulation. Pressed hard over the years between horizontal layers of brick and morter, some of the inner layers of that insulation were protected from the corrosive effects of air and sun, and - not unlike the JURASSIC PARK mosquitoes trapped in amber - when uncovered years later they too were found to contain a detailed DNA sampling - but in this case that of a city's history.


     Anyway, the gentleman who owned the place (... and damned if I can remember his name right now; he was an awesome fella!) had these three original (not reprints, mind you) 1976 KING KONG posters by illustrator John Berkey. Y'know, the awesome one to the Dino De Laurentiis film which everyone hated, with Kong astride the World Trade Center towers - Jessica Lange in one furry hand and an exploding fighter plane in the other. As a child I'd owned a mini promo version of that poster - one you got for free by cutting a coupon out of a comic book then sending it to the Paramount promo office in New York. I'd long since begun collecting full sized movie posters, but I'd never managed to pick up the Berkey KONG one sheet let alone an original. So, I wanted to buy one of 'em, ... but he wouldn't sell it to me, saying he'd promised all three to one guy who couldn't afford to get them at the time, but promised he'd come back on payday Friday.

     I was a little confused (and maybe even a bit miffed) at first - kind of wondering why the hell one person should get to corner all three of them. Miffed that is until the shop owner explained the guy's story. That KONG film was the last movie his parents took him and his two brothers to see before they split up. It was the very last thing they ever did as a complete family. And he wanted to give a poster to each of his brothers that upcoming Christmas (and keep one for himself) as a reminder to them all - and they all had kids of their own now - as to how important family truly is. WOW! I was floored and said, "Holy crap! You can't argue with that".  Now, ...

     The general consensus at the time of KING KONG's release (and many still feel the same about it today) was that it wasn't / isn't a very good film. Surely not on par with the 1933 Cooper / Schoedsack original or even Peter Jackson's 2005 redo. And sure as hell not something most would consider "important" or of "quality". That assessment of which begs the question as to "What then constitutes a 'good' or 'important' film - either for / towards an individual, for / towards an audience in general, or for / towards the cinematic art form itself?". Not trying to get all American Film Institute or IFC here, but ...

Dino's KING KONG (1976) - "Sh*t or Shinola?" Like it or not, it's all relative, ... and relative!

     There are those - film makers, film critics, and the average social media commenting "John and Jane Q. Public" who, based upon their frequent tweetable comments, seem to feel that there are such things as "quality film making" and "shit film making". And while I don't disagree with that, they also seem to equate what they call "important film making" with "quality", and in auto-pilot mode also tend to equate "fun and / or (a critic's favorite put down) 'disposable' films" - or at least what they consider to be too much or too many of them - with "shit film making". I don't agree with that. But, okay, let's follow that thread of "logic" for a minute. When we do we kind of come full circle back to, "Okay, so, once again what then qualifies as an 'important' film or film making", and what qualifies as 'shit films' and 'shit' film making?".  If "important" is too weighty a term for some, then feel free to swap it out with the word "serious". So, what constitutes serious or important film making? Where is the scale, and who creates it? Is it some electoral college decided-upon conclusion, or the opinion (the Roman coliseum "thumbs up or down", or even pseudo-holy sanction) of a critic, a film maker or some film school syllabus; and usually a critic, film maker or film school considered to be "important" or "serious" themselves / itself?

"Sh*t or Shinola?" - (clockwise) SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017),
 BLACK PANTHER (2018), THOR: RAGNAROK (2017)

     Obviously I'm here referencing a recent quote made by TERMINATOR / TITANIC / AVATAR writer & director James Cameron (it's above there) regarding the recent popularity of superhero movies, and referencing how this quote has been meme-ified and is presently making the social media rounds as if a dire warning proclaimed hither and yon from the mouth of Paul Revere. However, since this isn't national "Let's Beat Up On Jim Cameron Day", I'm also gonna include others who've made similarly (in my opinion) snobbish - if genuinely heartfelt and sincere - remarks of their own along these lines in recent days. And yes, that includes you too Dustin Hoffman, Martin Scorcese, ... and more than a few personal social media friends whose comments scroll across my feed daily. Now, ...

     I've always felt that if let's say you're nervously sitting in a hospital waiting room on one of those too small / too damned uncomfortable plastic chairs while a loved one is in the O.R., and either THE ENGLISH PATIENT or LIAR, LIAR comes up on TV, ... well, which film will probably be more "important" to you at that time? Which will help you decompress a little, and give you the second emotional wind you may need to (as Etta James once musically preached) "Get you through the night". And which may scare the crap outta you, and which will at that particular time and place dig into those psychologically and emotionally raw areas which at present perhaps need more healing and salving, ... or (at the very least) anesthetizing ... rather than dissection and probing with blunt-edged instruments?

The "importance" of being earnestly Carrey - LIAR, LIAR (1997)

     So, "importance" or a "good" or "bad" film, or a "film of worth" or "shit film making" or "mindless and disposable" all ends up being relative to the person and the context in which that person is viewing the film, does it not? Now, that's a microcosmic (or individual) version of a truism. But the macrocosmic (more societal / global) equivalent can be seen in how those "fun", "disposable" and "shit" genre films always see a spike in popularity during times of social unrest - be it the loooonnng run of Universal horror films which became popular in the days between WWI and WW2, the loooong run of (some would call 'em) "empty headed musicals" during the Second World War, the run of cheesy nuclear terror-based sci-fiers during the Cold War 50s, the politically and philosophically loaded  sci fi of the 1960s - 70s (y'know, 2001, PLANET OF THE APES, LOGAN'S RUN, ROLLERBALL, DAMNATION ALLEY, etc.), and on through our superhero movies of today.

Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) - at the time of its release slammed by some
as "the grimmest film I've ever seen", "morally prententious" and "a shaggy God story"

     Keep in mind too how ... every ... single ... one ... of those runs had their more snobbish cinematic detractors who felt those films were destroying quality film making as it was known, or at the very least were just individually shitty films in and of themselves. Such views would run the gamut from Time Magazine's more diplomatic manner wherein it referred to 1931's DRACULA with Bela Lugosi as "Not as good as it ought to be", and the Chicago Tribune labeling it as "Too obvious" and with "... it's attempts to frighten too evident", to the more brutally slung slings and arrows hurled at Kubrick's 2001 by noted personalities such as famed historian, social critic and (who comes up with these designations anyway?) "public intellectual" Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who derided Kubrick's now-classic sci-fier as "Morally pretentious", "intellectually obscure" and more.

The horror of American, then later German, eugenics experiments of the 1930s is implicit (and explicit)
in ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932), based on H.G. Welles' THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU 

     Repelling further down that rabbit hole, and using Mr. Cameron's word "fatigue" as our tether, how and why is it that the aforementioned cine-arbiters of good and decent taste never seem to ask, "Do you yet have Rom Com fatigue" or "Films Based upon Plays fatigue" or "Historical Drama fatigue" or any other subject matter fatigue based upon a particular kind of source material? No one will deny that within those various sources / subjects, and within the films based upon them, lay a vast array of topics, subtopics, socio-political observations, humor and more, because that's the case with any source material. Yes, even including comics in general and superhero comics in particular. So, maybe scratch that retort off the list. Also if one takes the time to count, you'll note that there are no more comics-to-film adaptations during any given year than there are "Plays to Films", or "True Stories to films" or any other kind of film.

Historical Drama "fatigue"? No, not really - (L to R) GOODBYE, CHRISTOPHER ROBIN (2017),
PROFESSOR MARSTON AND THE WONDER WOMEN (2017), MARK FELT (2017)

     Continuing along with those very basic math skills one also has to note / keep in mind that out of approx. 200 films released in a given year, at most four to six of 'em will be major superhero movies. The only difference (and admittedly a big one!) is that at this point in time those comic adaptations / superhero movies are among the most popular and lucrative ... just as were the Universal horror films (and their endless line of years of sequels and spin-offs) in their day.


     There's a difference between personally not digging something, or even being personally tired of it, and writing something off as "... hyper-gonadal males without families doing death-defying things for two hours and wrecking cities in the process". I've always referred to that as "pulling a Dr. Smith". You remember how in the old LOST IN SPACE tv series whenever Jonathan Harris as Dr. Smith was afraid or nervous or whatever, he'd pull young Will Robinson in front of him and say "Don't hurt the boy" or "You're making the boy nervous and afraid". Essentially attempting to save face and / or legitimize his own personal ... whatevers ... fears, hang ups, etc. onto the canvas of someone else. Y'know, spread it around so it doesn't look like it's just him, but that he's only being logical in a manner in which every rational thinking person would agree.

     People do this every damned day with religions and political ideologies. I mean, how many people begin a debate with "Liberals / Conservatives always do and say such and such" rather than with "Me personally, I believe ..."? So, it's kind of a "no duh!" or no brainer, isn't it, that if the "Dr. Smith dodge" (or more accurately "self delusionary Dr. Smith dodge") is going to be employed often unconsciously by religious and political folk, that said brand of human nature "logic" will also find its way into other scenarios as well, including that of film criticism?

     Maybe "hyper-gonadal" guys in spandex is all that you see based upon your own personal life long combination of nature and nurture, but (as with those three KING KONG posters) others may very well see something entirely different based upon theirs. In the X-MEN films some saw for the first time in mainstream media stand-ins and representations of themselves as those who had long been marginalized from, and even cut out of, society because of race, gender, sexual orientation or because they may have been overweight or had some kind of physical handicap. When in the very first film the blue-skinned Mystique beats the hell out of a bigoted senator while saying, "People like you were the reason I was afraid to go to school as a child", that's powerful stuff.

More Historical Drama "fatigue"? No, not really - (clockwise from top) DARKEST HOUR (2017),
THE POST (2017), DETROIT (2017), DUNKIRK (2017)

     If you can watch BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE or CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR and come away from them blind to the fact that both are hardcore (if stand-in / representational) analogies of a post 9-11 America where citizens are divided on "Where do you draw the line between bonafied security and xenophobic fear?", then I think you just weren't paying attention. Or if you can come away from a viewing of BLACK PANTHER and not see a serious discussion among all of the "hyper gonadal" derring-do about the dangers of geopolitical isolation, and one's own national culpability in helping to create what many might call a "terrorist", then I say you either weren't sharp enough to pick up on those obvious thematics, ... or (perhaps more likely) you just never saw them because you never expected or even wanted to see them in that which you assumed - and therefore viewed - as "disposable" if fun Zowie / Pow! fodder.

Safety and security from terrorism vs. xenophobia
and isolationism - BATMAN V. SUPERMAN (2016) 

     Not liking or being tired of something is fine. That's cool! That's okay! That's one's individual right! But the final judge and jury is ultimately the paying consumer, and not necessarily the film maker or the critic or the studio guy or gal who sees films for free via advance screening invites. So, it ends up being that consumer (and hey, I'm one of 'em) who has the right to say to Cameron, Scorcese, Hoffman and others, "Hey man, as much as I love and respect you and your work, I really don't give a f**k what you think when it comes to what I put my hard earned dollars down for". Y'know, "Where do you get your own artistic hyper-gonads big enough where you think you should be telling me what kinds of films as an audience I should be seeing?".

     Shakespeare's plays were performed for the masses - often in theaters of which the 1970s and 1980s equivalents would have been "grindhouse" movie joints. In a 2008 interview with film critic / cinema historian Elvis Mitchell, Tony Award-winning actress Joan Allen mentioned how her career alma mater - Chicago's legendary Steppenwolf Theater Company - was established so that blue collar working stiffs and their families might have affordable entertainment alternatives on a Friday night. And hell, even the New Testament of the Bible was originally written in Koine Greek - the vernacular of the average person on the street, rather than Classical Greek - that of the more upper crust elite. Hey, you remember I said I was a lifelong history nut, right? That's where that little tidbit came from. Hehe!

Safety and security from terrorism vs. xenophobia and
isolationism - CAPT. AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016)

     As such, I'll borrow elements of Cameron's "fatigue" memo for my own purposes and say how I'm personally pretty damned tired of today's self-appointed "arbiters of good taste", ... those self-believed-to-be elite "quality police" who somehow, and for some inexplicable reason, seem to think they've been bequeathed the right to set the artistic bar for others simply because it wasn't like this back when they grew up or when they first got into the business. Times change, and the film industry, like any evolving life form, must change with them. Either that or the organism eventually dies. Biology calls it the "The Edge of Chaos".

     The idea is that too much stimulation or change at once will kill an organism because it hasn't had the time to physically adjust to the new environment. But not enough stimulation or change will just as readily kill the organism because if it remains stagnant for too long it will become weak and diseased, and in some respects it will begin to start feeding upon itself then cease to exist in that environment where others have been able to make the evolutionary shift. Life therefore thrives and grows and evolves most effectively in a constant ying / yang state wherein that lifeform / organism is constantly (even forcefully) encouraged to change and adapt. The creative arts are the exact same way.

     Try to remember how when people bitched about the 80s era Spielberg / Lucas-like movies "taking over", for its own survival the industry was forced to seek alternatives, and ultimately the independent movement (as well as attendant film channels and film festivals) burgeoned as never before. The same thing here, people. The only consistent thread in an ever-changing industry is the concept that everything changes, and that a new kind of film will force the previous generation of films and film makers to up their game in order to remain not just commercially but artistically viable. When we fail to remember this we end up very much like that 100+ year old, "near-hermetically sealed from air and sun" newspaper I purchased from that antique / collectible shop. It's a fascinating as hell time capsule of a previous era. But that's all it ends up being - a fascinating time capsule.  


Safety and security from terrorism vs. xenophobia and
isolationism - BLACK PANTHER (2018)

     Hey, I'm not gonna pretend that big bucks aren't driving every Tom, Dick and studio exec's (hey, that rhymes) desire for their people to "Get me one of those comic book movies or TV shows right now!". But you really can't bitch and moan about the four to six comic book movies out of 200 movies per year being the cause of that mindset. That happens with any type of film which hits big. How many GODFATHER and SHAFT and JAWS and EXORCIST and STAR WARS clones and sequels and more did we see in their wake? And before you get that "Hollywood sucks, give me the independents any day of the week!" smug look on your face, also remember on that independent cinema side of the coin how many "Get me one of those!" knock offs and wannabes followed in the stripstream of SEX, LIES & VIDEOTAPE, MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING and others. And how now everyone just wants another GET OUT.

     Part of show business is indeed business. And some cineastes (both fans and film makers) may say "We want to see more non cookie cutter movies". But if you don't support them with your hard earned "e pluribus unum" you make it difficult for more of them to be made and / or widely distributed. Case in point: within the last six months Paramount ate the big one when they released three such "non cookie cutter" films in a row - MOTHER!, SUBURBICON and DOWNSIZING - and no one went to see them. Then when they chose to release ANNIHILATION overseas directly to Netflix rather than theatrically, there was a scream from holy hell directed at the studio for "Not having faith in a difficult to market film". But they'd just released three difficult to market films which no one ended up giving a damn about. And they weren't big budgeted films either. So, they didn't need to make back TRANSFORMERS or AVENGERS dollars.

(L to R) MOTHER! (2017), DOWNSIZING (2017), SUBURBICON (2017)

     I realize it's a very frustrating time for many within the industry, but choosing the recent popularity of those "four to six per year" superhero movies as the "three legged dog dujour" to kick and blame isn't fair, ... or even accurate.

     Hey, I've got my ticket for AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR - IMAX 3D - for opening day tomorrow morning at 9:AM. I'm going with my mother. She was always my first audience. As a child when I read comic books, then started writing and drawing my own, then later took an interest in writing short stories and eventually screenplays and more (hey, I even precociously attempted to write a novel when I was 12), she was always the first person to see the latest project or newest draft. Oh, and it's also kind of neat and nifty that the very first anything of mine I ever saw published was an illustration I did of  INFINITY WAR's mondo villain Thanos - it surprisingly published in a national art newsletter / magazine of the day. So, mom knew who the bad-assed Thanos was long before many others even heard the name. In fact, as I was a serious comic book nut back then, she today is probably the only grandmother who knows more about the Marvel Universe and it's denizens than her grandchildren - my nephews.

Thanos. No, not by me. Hardly! This is by artist Freddie Williams II

    Long before the young'uns she even knew the more "obscure" characters like DOCTOR STRANGE. And she's certainly got ground on them in being long familiar with the more harder-edged characters they're far too young for at present - folks like GHOST RIDER, LUKE CAGE, BLADE and THE PUNISHER. So, all of this personal hot air and reminiscence to get across the point that for me those "hyper-gonadal" comic book movies in general, and Marvel films in particular, are kinda / sorta my personal version of those three KING KONG posters in that these films have personal, historical and even socio-political resonance and importance to me even if they may not hold that kind of spot in the artistic / creative central nervous system of a James Cameron or others. As for the socio-political thing, feel free to check out a GullCottage piece penned on BLACK PANTHER a few months back.

     Mom and I did GUARDIANS 2, LOGAN, WONDER-WOMAN (yeah, I know, she's D.C.), SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING, THOR: RAGNAROK and BLACK PANTHER on opening weekend. And we'll continue with INFINITY WAR.

     Cineastes and snobs be damned! And that's with all due respect and love to Messers. Cameron, Scorcese, Hoffman and the rest of the gang. Hey, like 'ol NATTY GANN said during her famous journey ...

     "You're not the boss 'a me!".

     Just sayin'.


                                                                                                                      CEJ

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

"SEARCHING FOR DEBRA WINGER" (2002): SELF-DETERMINATION (AND CALLING OUT THE BULLSH*T!) YEARS BEFORE #MeTOO - by CEJ



_____________________________________________



SEARCHING FOR 
DEBRA WINGER (2002)

Written & Directed by - Rosanna Arquette
Produced by - Rosanna Arquette, Kristina Birkmayer, David Codikow, Mark Cuban, Patty Long, Todd Wagner, Happy Walters
Music Super. - Jojo Villenueva
Cinematographers - Jean-Marc Barr, Olivier Boucreux, Cort Fey, Joey Forsyte, Nathan Hope, Micheal Wojciechowski
Editor - Gail Yasunaga 
Set Decor. - Carisa Rosenthal, Joanna M. Wright
Running Time: 98 mins.
Release: May 2002 (Cannes) 
July 2002 (U.S. theatrical)
Dist: Lions Gate Films

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


VAULTED TREASURES: MOVIES YOU NEVER KNEW ABOUT, YOU FORGOT, 
... OR YOU FORGOT TO LOVE MORE THE FIRST TIME AROUND!

     Searching for a poetic reference I've got to go with the biblical one about "a prophet without honor in his own country" - with the definition of "prophet" being the strictest one as in an oracle who divined something which most others at the time did not, could not, or just plain refused to see as that which inevitably very soon would be. In such light it's hard to believe that a film featuring Frances McDormand, Charlotte Rampling, Whoopi Goldberg, Meg Ryan, Selma Hayek, Kelly Lynch, Alfre Woodard, Venessa Redgrave, Diana Lane, Tracy Ullman, Sharon Stone, Ally Sheedy, Theresa Russell, Holly Hunter, Laura Dern, Patricia & Rosanna Arquette, and Debra Winger among others (and hell, that's only half the list!) could be considered "obscure" or "relatively unknown" for so long. But such is the case with Rosanna Arquette's feature length documentary SEARCHING FOR DEBRA WINGER.


     While it debuted "Out of Competition" at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, then later enjoyed a limited theatrical run through Lions Gate Entertainment, I became familiar with this compressed cinematic gem via Leonard Maltin's now defunct weekly TV series SECRET'S OUT back when the show ran on the (old version) of Reelz Channel in the early 2000s. A couple of years later I'd stumble across a $3.00 DVD copy in a supermarket cheapie bin (the modern day "Well of the Souls" of cinematic treasure troves!), and snatch it up. But watching it now in the slipstream of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, it's nothing short of jaw-dropping to look back 15 years and see how, not unlike life in general (and hey, with women ... and Debra Winger in particular), Arquette's film has only improved with age. Now, that's not just because it concerned itself with addressing certain facets of #MeToo and #TimesUp long before those hashtags became front page news, but more because SEARCHING FOR DEBRA WINGER even now manages to supersede them as a rallying cry for action over talk. Stick with me a few minutes and I think you'll understand and agree. Watch this pearl of a film for yourself, and I promise you'll agree even more.


     Upon release there were a few critics who felt Arquette's compilation of one-on-ones with various actresses was, yeah, insightful and in spots even intriguing, but that her cinematic and interview style were "choppy" and at times even "sappy" and unprofessional. I heartily disagree, ... though I can understand why some could misinterpret things as such.


     First off, what's the film about? Well, that's one of those questions wherein on the surface you have one answer as to "Why did the filmmaker set out to make this thing in the first place?", but on another level you have the more bonafied "Okay, I get that, but in the end what's really going on here?" aspect. And those aren't always the same thing. Y'know, as "about" and the "meaning" and / or "truth" of something is often found "in between the lines" of the obvious. And how sometimes that which is between those lines will be subtext written (for all intents and purposes) in invisible ink only later made see-able on the parchment pages via the greatest of reagents - the simple passage of time. In fact often it can be only through said passage of time that even those who are the subjects of / within a documentary (and in some cases even the film makers) can clearly come to see and understand those previously invisible / "between the line" layers themselves. The context of time can often (intentionally or not) change the meaning.


     SEARCHING FOR DEBRA WINGER is the working definition of a famous quote by Orson Welles wherein he stated "In a fictional film the director is God, but in a documentary God is the director" - meaning that a good documentarian will allow the film to take her/ him where it decides it wants to go, ... which may not necessarily be to the final thematic location of the filmmaker's originally mapped-out intent.

     This trip begins with Rosanna Arquette having just crossed the 40 year mark. And, while at said particular life point she's never felt more comfortable within her own skin, she at the same time surprisingly finds herself not as fulfilled in her creative career existence. She wonders, as do many at that life bridge, if it's because she's unable to find a balance between career and motherhood. Or maybe it's that the film industry itself is unfulfilling. Maybe it's always been a b.s. of a sham, ... a two dimensional mirrored construct that she didn't realize or allow herself to see as such in her younger years. Perhaps it's all just in her head as the not atypical musings of a mind approaching midlife. Or could it likely be a combination of elements of all of the above?

     Always wondering why actress Debra Winger (of URBAN COWBOY, AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN and TERMS OF ENDEARMENT fame) chose to essentially retire from the business five years prior - when she was around the same age Arquette was approaching at the time she decided to make this film - our director sets out to interview over 40 actresses on two continents over the course of a year, beginning each sit-down by asking each woman why they feel Winger may have left the biz; then ultimately by film's end having a chat with Winger herself in order to ask the same.


     It's not too difficult to see why a few critics jumped the gun in using the word "sappy", because during the first 20 or so mins. of its 98 min. running time, the film does at first appear as though it's going to be little more than an hour and a half of actresses feeling guilty about not spending enough quality time with their children. Now, granted, that's not an unimportant subject to those within the families of those actresses, but (no disrespect intended) it's not necessarily a gripping topic to the average viewer. However, shortly thereafter the Orson Welles adage thematically kicks in, and things take off (or "evolve" might be more accurate) into a stream of (stream of consciousness?) subjects of discussion which have since proven to have major ramifications within the film industry of 2018.


     In this light perhaps one of the most fascinating and admirable things about the film is in what it doesn't do - in that it doesn't turn into a screed about how all men in the film industry are evil. Which is not to say there aren't more than a few horror stories along those lines to make one's toes curl and flat out enrage the hell out of you.

     Because Arquette opts here to use much of (what other film makers might consider) "B roll" footage ... . Y'know, the more unplanned and off-the-cuff material; ... that which was recorded as the interviewer and interviewees were grabbing a smoke and prepping for their official sit-down talks ... . Because she uses that with other footage captured in restaurants and bars after a meal and a few drinks or bottles of wine have been summarily consumed, and everyone is loose, open and honest as hell ... . Well, this is where, how and why the topics of discussion become "no bullsh*t within these borders" extremely frank and honest, and at times brutally so.

     The film is rated "R", and it's not only because of the plethora of F-bombs dropped like V2s in a re-enactment of the London Blitz, but more so because of unexpurgated discussions about studio execs approving or disapproving of an actress in a role because of her "audience fu*kability quotient", or Patricia Arquette recalling expressing her open disgust on a film set when a producer (who in retrospect sounds a helluva lot like Harvey Weinstein) attempted to fondle a crewmember's vagina, then asked an actress to smell his fingers.


     Not shy about dropping names, Winger herself relates how, while enjoying working with a consumate filmmaker like Taylor Hackford on AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN, she also had the experience of former Paramount Studios co-head Don Simpson knocking on her hotel door one night during the shoot to offer her pills which could help her "lose some of the water retention" he felt was making her look too heavy in front of the camera. At that moment Winger decided - for better or for worse - that she wouldn't ever play the game by Hollywood's rules. So, yeah, some of the talk in the film ain't pretty. But in spite of this however the conversations ultimately lead towards, while yeah, being pissed at that kind of sh*t, and not wanting to put up with it, the more proactive "out flanking" maneuver of battling that kind of behavior and mindset by (and this is a huge topic for those who know me) seizing control of one's own destiny.


     Whoopi Goldberg and Frances McDormand (and McDormand's interview is candidly conducted in a ladies room at Cannes) talk about the need to outlast the executive a**holes who will eventually fall from power - as the film biz is one wherein a studio mogul at the top of the food chain one week can be (and often is) out on their ass the very next when new corporate interests take over the lot. And for those paying attention, and for others scratching their heads, this very much throws into context McDormand's words just a couple of months ago when she accepted her Oscar for THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING MISSOURI.

     Hayek talks of the need for women to become the producers of their own material rather than sitting around to be "rated" as attractive or not, and waiting for someone else to give you a role of which you can be proud. At a dinner table Martha Plimpton and Ally Sheedy effectively remind those in attendance of the importance of sometimes saying (and I'm paraphrasing) "Screw characters who are so-called 'role models' and 'strong representations', because once a certain age threshold is reached by an actress those roles fall out of favor and out the reach". They say instead "Lets create roles / characters with whom the average person of any given age or social level can identify". Y'know, real normal people like the kind you and I bump into on the street, at work and in the supermarket every day.


     In fact the only one here who has any (what could be considered) uber negative things to say about men in the industry is actually the only man interviewed in the film - late cinema critic & historian Roger Ebert, who effectively (and accurately) rails against those action franchise roles which, while enjoyable, and while they have their place and even importance, are ultimately often little more than "substitute male" fantasy fodder for pubescent boys. And he happens to express this opinion while at Cannes standing before a promo display of Angelina Jolie's first TOMB RAIDER film.


     It might be a bit of a stretch to say that the SEARCHING FOR DEBRA WINGER interviews became a "galvanizing agent", or that they "led to" a desire for a new generation of women in Hollywood to want to seize more control of their professional (and yes, personal) destinies as did that earlier Stanwyck / Davis / Hayworth generation of the 1940s. But I do believe it's more than coincidental that around the same time as this docu's filming and release a number of women had just recently founded (or were in the process of founding) their own production companies for the very same reasons. Among those companies were Salma Hayek's "Ventanarosa" - which would go on to produce 2002's multi-award winning FRIDA and TV's UGLY BETTY; Drew Barrymore's "Flower Films" - responsible for NEVER BEEN KISSED, DONNIE DARKO and CHARLIE'S ANGELS; and Sandra Bullock's "Fortis Films" - the entity behind PRACTICAL MAGIC, HOPE FLOATS, MISS GONGENIALITY, TV's THE GEORGE LOPEZ SHOW and others.


     Shortly thereafter, as other actresses also neared their own 40-year thresholds, and wanted to see more realistic roles for women of all ages, they too became the masters of their own destinies in creating those roles. And the results of their desires would be the establishment of Reese Witherspoon's "Pacific Standard Company" (GONE GIRL, WILD, BIG LITTLE LIES), Queen Latifa's "Flavor Unit Entertainment" (THE COOKOUT, BEAUTY SHOP, and TV's SCREAM), and Nicole Kidman's "Blossom Films" (RABBIT HOLE, THE FAMILY FANG, and BIG LITTLE LIES - this in conjunction with Witherspoon's company).

FRIDA (2002), CHARLIE'S ANGELS (2000), HOPE FLOATS (1998) 

     Yet another generation / wave of women-owned production houses would follow in the wake of the previous - among these newer ones those owned by Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Banks, Taraji P. Hensen and Natalie Portman - and which would be responsible for even more recent fare such as I, TONYA, the PITCH PERFECT series, PROUD MARY, JANE GOT A GUN and more. And sure as hell as I type these final paragraphs, yet even another wave or two of companies are in the process of sprouting to life to fill the ever-increasing product demand void brought about by the implementation, global growth and popularity of streaming services such as Neflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and others - all of these women-owned production houses following similar suit in an insistence to both create more wide-ranging roles for women as well as to help eradicate incidents of sexual harassment and other forms of gender and age-centric abuses within the industry.


     Oh, it's also noticeable (and again, I believe more than coincidental) that shortly after the SEARCHING FOR DEBRA WINGER interviews, actresses such as Jane Fonda and Debra Winger herself decided to end their self-imposed retirements in order to take on some of these more diverse, newly created roles in both film and television - the kind of which didn't really exist until after the WINGER interviews and release of the film. So, while I don't necessarily think Rosanna Arquette's 2002 documentary was the catalyst behind the (as Melanie Griffith dubbed it during a dinner chat) soon-to-be "Evolution Revolution", I genuinely believe Arquette managed to here capture as "lightning in a bottle" the overwhelming zeitgeist during a time in which a great deal of frustration,  personal and career self-reflection, and even anger was coalescing for many women in the industry, and being packed like gunpowder into the barrel of a newer era where the old rules of the game would eventually become no longer acceptable.

Anne Hathaway and Debra Winger in Jonathan Demme's RACHEL GETTING MARRIED (2008),
written by Jenny Lumet

     Watching SEARCHING FOR DEBRA WINGER in 2018 is like watching the glowing hot coals onto which recent incidents such as the Harvey Weinstein scandal, and the successes of female driven projects such as WONDER WOMAN and BIG LITTLE LIES, would be the gasoline tossed onto them. And, as with the future visions of any "Prophet without honor in their own country", those visions and opinions passionately expressed in this rarefied brand of documentary in retrospect now seem obvious and inevitable, though a relatively short time ago this was hardly the case.


     As such a great deal of high praise is due to Rosanna Arquette as director for "following her gut" in allowing this gritty, low budget and at times raw-but-stunningly-realized film to evolve and assert its own broader themed (and ultimately more globally encompassing) self, rather than to settle for being a more tunnel-visioned examination of her own personal journey and angst in search of creative fulfillment. The best documentaries are those wherein the film maker is brave enough to let themselves get out of the god*amn way, and let the film speak for itself. And in being confident enough to do so Arquette's SEARCHING FOR DEBRA WINGER has also (perhaps ironically) become the very answer of / to her own said personal journey / quest - this while simultaneously serving as a thematic lamp post for others hacking their way along the same pathway. It is without a doubt Arquette's bravest and most lasting filmic achievement to date. For me it's a filmic achievement which instantly raised her artistic "street cred" to new levels. And ...

     ... one of which I think deserves yet another rewatch tonight.


                                                                                                               CEJ