Archive for June 1, 2010

Inappropriate Smiles

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 1, 2010 by dcairns

Inappropriate smiling is a recognized symptom of psychiatric disorder. It’s also a useful tool for an actor, since in that profession one must appear not only truthful but interesting (a tall order: name one modern politician who succeeds at both).

Christopher Walken is the master of the I.S. Check out his reaction to the news that his condition may be terminal, in THE DEAD ZONE. No wonder Herbert Lom looks alarmed. And in A VIEW TO A KILL, he grins in disbelief at the exact moment he realizes he’s about to plunge to his death from a helicopter. Suave.

I’m getting seriously into Frank Perry now — with MAN ON A SWING he demonstrated an ability to make the policier genre jump about in unfamiliar ways, while PLAY IT AS IT LAYS manages to make most of the New Hollywood of the 70s seem rather generic and adolescent. TAXI DRIVER is brilliantly made and fascinating to watch, but it’s not terribly mature compared to Perry’s film. That shouldn’t invalidate it, in a sense the film is about juvenile frustration raised to a pitch of psychosis, and a more considered or distanced stance wouldn’t put us in the driver’s seat, as it were. But Perry is dealing with less extreme people, while still following them into the darkest imaginable places.

DOC is a different matter, in that it’s a western, albeit a revisionist, method-actor-driven, psycho-political western. Stacy Keach is Doc Holliday (not as skinny as the other characters say he is, but nevertheless perfection), Faye Dunaway is Kate Elder, Harris Yulin is Wyatt Earp.

To take Yulin first — former newspaperman Pete Hammill’s script characterizes the marshall as a politician first and a killer second, and Yulin plays the fellow with a steely, psychopathic focus that’s suprising to me, since I only knew the guy from NIGHT MOVES. I’d assumed Yulin was a featured character star in lots of movies, but really this is his biggest role. He’s amazing. There’s this moment, when a Clanton provokes Earp —

— and in a second, Earp will turn round with that expression on his unblinking face, and the guy visibly jumps. Face of a turtle, big eyes like windows into Hell. Counter-type-casting at it’s best.

HOW TO NOT BLINK: while making WESTWORLD, Yul Brynner taught Richard Benjamin how to fire his gun without flinching: you basically play Russian Roulette, spinning the chamber and playing target practice, never knowing whether the gun will fire or not. Eventually you’re brain gives up on being surprised, and you can fire the gun without your face noticing.

Keach is also great at not blinking, which is part of what makes his lizardlike cool so mesmeric. You can’t take your eyes off the bastard. Keach has for too long been a sort of second-string hero type, now slipping into not-too-interesting character parts, when his real talent should have been focussed by the kind of unsympathetic/unheroic lead roles abounding in the 70s. For some reason he got this and THE NINTH CONFIGURATION and FAT CITY and not enough others.

Here’s Keach’s reaction to being warned not to show up at the OK Corral, “Because I don’t want you to get killed.”

A textbook Inappropriate Smile.

Even Faye gets in on the act. Her face is as usual all over the place, she’s so in the moment she basically lets it off the leash altogether and allows the various muscles to run amok over the corners of her mouth and eyes. When she first meets Doc she’s a filthy prostitute in a filthy cantina, being pawed by a filthy Clanton. Doc wins her in a hand of cards, then demands a hot bath. The proprietor says there’s no hot water.

“Then light a fire and heat some!” bellows Doc. “I gotta wash this bitch.”

Dunaway’s reaction:

She likes it!

Perry’s work here is excellent, pretty traditional filmmaking but with direct cuts substituting for every other kind of transition. A scene of Earp campaigning for public office seems inspired by DA Pennebaker’s Kennedy doc PRIMARY — it certainly aims for docu-style jitteriness. And the movie is unflinching in its pursuit of Hammill’s goal, to shave off the myth and give us a sense of ignoble history. In a way, by ascribing psychological motivations to figures who survive only via the record of their actions, the movie is serving up a new myth, but it’s one that does seem plausible. The dust and profanity are only a cosmetic alteration, but the film does have a genuinely radical take on the genre.