Saturday, January 24, 2009

the postman always rings twice, by bob rafelson

The Postman Always Rings Twice is a novel that's been made into a movie not once, not twice, but four times. Clearly there's something in the story that continues to captivate the minds of audiences... or, at the very least, the minds of filmmakers. The makers of the 1981 version (which we watched this week for Film Club), however, seem unable to effectively locate whatever that compelling element might be—they end up chasing down a few different narrative paths, diluting their energy and losing momentum at every turn.

The setup is certainly fecund enough: we open with shiftless drifter Frank Chambers, played here by Jack Nicholson.

Chambers agrees to work at a service station that's owned by local entrepreneur / ethnic stereotype Nick Papadokis.

It's pretty evident from the outset that Frank has taken this job not because he aspires to mechanichood as a career but because he wants to fuck Papadokis' wife, Cora, played here by Jessica Lange.

Now, I'd argue that there's some miscasting here. Both Frank and Cora, we later learn, are impulsive, brutish, and more than a little bit dumb—so when Nicholson plays Frank as impish and Lange plays Cora as icily elegant, it doesn't, for my money, work. (If I were remaking the film today, I'd get Joaquin Phoenix and Rose McGowan—two dim-witted-looking actors who basically ooze erotic energy.) In any case, if we set aside these quibblings, we can see that we're left with a dramatic structure that's basically sound—it's a garden-variety love triangle. From a narrative perspective, it works. If you want to make an erotically-charged thriller—and it seems, at the outset, that this is what director Bob Rafelson and screenwriter David Mamet are out to do—then all you really have to do is lay out the promise of some forbidden fucking among charismatic protagonists and, as long as you delay the payoff for long enough to generate some dramatic tension, the script basically writes itself.

David Mamet is a world-famous, award-winning screenwriter and playwright, so I know that he knows some basic methods for generating dramatic tension. And so I'm surprised to see him throw away a lot of opportunity by having them fuck within the first twenty minutes of the film:

Hrm. OK—the film, at this early point in its development, has made only one promise to the audience, which is that we'll get to see Lange and Nicholson transgress on camera. When the filmmakers deploy this plot point so early, without a suitable period of tease and buildup, it feels, frankly, like the narrative equivalent of sex without foreplay.

Granted, the buildup is only one half of the narrative arc of the romantic triangle—there's also all the drama inherent in dealing with the aftermath. Again a number of ready-made dramatic situations present themselves: one expects to see scenes wherein Papadokis grows suspicious, perhaps a scene where we get some sense of the risk involved in his reaction, eventually a big reveal... they're cliches, admittedly, but they're cliches because, frankly, they work. Maybe Mamet thinks they're too cheap. He must think something, because he eschews every one of these scenes, in favor of focusing on Frank and Cora's attempt to run away to Chicago.

This plan is unclearly motivated—we're not sure, at this juncture, exactly what kind of future either Cora and Frank envision—and their decision to break the plan off and return to life at the motel is equally unclear. It's not long after that that they begin to plan to kill Nick, although in the absence of the scenes I talk about above—the ones that establish that Nick might be suspicious, and the ones that establish his suspicion as a threat—the decision to kill him seems effectively arbitrary. I'm willing to be sympathetic to characters who give in to selfish lust (if they're charismatic enough) and I'll even be sympathetic to them being forced to murder someone if there's a self-preservation angle—but take that angle away and they simply seem like utterly amoral figures, driven to kill out of simple nihilism. (Which is not to say that you can't make a film exploring that idea—take Badlands as perhaps the most successful example—but this film ain't Badlands.)

So, anyway, yes, the film does away with all the setup and has Cora and Frank kill Nick, shortly before the halfway point in the film. Not long afterwards, they're tried and eventually acquitted. The film has thrown away enough narrative elements that it's managed to compress a pretty basic three-act story into 1:20 of run-time, leaving it with roughly another forty minutes to... do what, exactly?

It's easy to view that final forty with something like hope, to believe that Mamet and Rafelson have telescoped the meat-and-potatoes of the murder plot because they something up their sleeve for the second half of the film. Whatever it has in mind, however, doesn't quite come off: the film never regains narrative momentum, and we're left with a series of odd little left-turns like Frank running off with the circus for a week and having a romance with Angelica Huston, who plays a sexy lion-tamer. No, seriously:

It's a curious choice, and it's not the only curveball that the film throws us in its final third. It seems almost like the film does these things in order to not have to do something else. If we ask ourselves this question—what isn't the film doing?—it becomes evident that it almost never shows us are scenes of Cora and Frank happy in their post-Nick home, and in fact spends much of its narrative energy contriving reasons for one or the other of them to be away. This could be read as a failure of nerve: it's not too hard to imagine a squeamish filmmaker balking at the opportunity to show a pair of unrepentant killers happy and in love. One could also, of course, read it as a sort of moralizing critique: an indicator that neither Frank nor Cora have thought through a vision for a sustainable future together.

There is, ultimately, something interesting about that read, which imagines that Rafelson and Mamet are attempting to set up a tension between the directed, criminal-minded lust of Frank and Cora's "courtship" and the ambient malaise of their post-trial "relationship." This read is aided, a smidge, by Rafelson's use of longtime Bergman collaborator Sven Nyquist as the film's director of photography: true to form, Nyquist shoots the film less as a noir and more as, well, a Bergman-esque European relationship drama:

This read generates a certain degree of promise, but the film never figures out exactly what it wants to do with this tension (if in fact it is intending to present it at all), and it never confidently establishes a coherent stance towards Frank and Cora—even at the film's conclusion, it's still unclear whether we're meant to feel sympathy for them or hold them in judgment. It reaches the end of its run-time and allows a more-or-less chance event to simply wipe the questions off the table.

So, in conclusion: a curious and frustrating film, but one that made me think about two things: 1) how an audience responds to a charismatic criminal couple— either by judging them, or by developing sympathy for them, and 2) how filmmakers approach the long-term success or failure of romantic relationships born in the heat of an impulsive moment. I do believe there are good films that deal with this exact pair of questions—Badlands (1973) is one, and my pick for next week, Bonnie and Clyde (1967) may be another. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

the big sleep, by howard hawks

So last week, after a brief holiday hiatus, Skunkcabbage and I returned to the business of Film Club. The last film we looked at, The Maltese Falcon, featured Humphrey Bogart playing private detective Sam Spade, and we decided to carry on in that vein this week, taking a look at Bogart playing private detective Philip Marlowe in Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep.

I often think of a movie's plot as consisting of all the narrative "questions" that are unanswered at any given moment. In order for a film to be plot-driven, it needs to have at least a few questions "open" (unanswered) at each moment of its run-time; that's what keeps viewers curious and invested in seeing how the story turns out. Watching The Big Sleep, however, is like seeing this principle in total overdrive. The film dumps so many questions in your lap, and has so many of these questions "open" at any given moment, that to even try to hold them all in your head is nearly impossible without a notepad.

The film opens with Marlowe being called to the home of one General Sternwood, who wants him to investigate a scheme in which someone is blackmailing one of his daughters, Carmen. This leads to some obvious questions: Who is blackmailing Carmen? Why? What do they have on her? Before Marlowe leaves, the film throws a few more in our direction: What's the deal with Sean Regan, Sternwood's companion, who has mysteriously vanished? Why does Vivian, Sternwood's other daughter, seem to take such an interest in trying to figure out why Marlowe's been hired?

Once the investigation begins, the questions really begin piling up. Who killed this guy?

Or this guy?

What's gangster Eddie Mars' relationship to all of this? What about Joe Brody, another blackmailer? What about Mars' wife, who appears to also be missing? By midway through the film has so many "open" questions that its plot begins to resemble a kind of porous texture, shaped almost entirely by the narrative gaps that its puzzles define.

Most of these questions, although not all of them, do eventually end up answered, although the answers aren't particularly satisfying or memorable. (I watched the film twice this month, and even with it fresh in my memory I'd still struggle to answer all of the questions I listed above.) But the film is still totally enjoyable and entertaining, and this led me to realize that The Big Sleep is not actually plot-driven, but rather character-driven. The real pleasure is not in navigating and decoding the puzzle-structure but rather in watching Philip Marlowe, as embodied by Bogart.

When writing on The Maltese Falcon, I wrote that male viewers watching the film are likely to have the experience of wanting to be Sam Spade. That experience is redoubled here: watching The Big Sleep is like browsing through a primer on how to perform the codes of masculinity. (In this way, they can be seen as forerunners of the Bond films, which serve something of the same cultural purpose.) The Big Sleep teaches men how to dress, drink, and smoke, how to remain cool under pressure, how to be funny, and how to gather and synthesize information. It teaches men how to throw a punch: well as how to take one:

Above all, it teaches men how to flirt. Director Hawks stacks the deck a bit in this regard, placing Bogart / Marlowe in a universe pretty much universally inhabited by charismatic (and receptive) women. To close, then, here's a brief gallery of some of the women Bogart encounters, opening with the most notable of the batch, the stunning Lauren Bacall:

And now the rest:

Whew. OK, so, next? Next we're sticking with noir, but we're leaving the 1930s and 40s (where we've been parked since, wow, October!). We'll be checking out the 1981 version The Postman Always Rings Twice, featuring David Mamet's adaptation of the James M. Cain novel.

Want more on Big Sleep director Howard Hawks? Film blog Only the Cinema is currently doing an "Early Hawks Blog-A-Thon," devoted to writing on Hawks films that predate Bringing Up Baby (1938). Check it out!