Sunday, September 16, 2018

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


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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)

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     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     

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