Fleurs du Malaprop

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I once spoke to an actor, Emily Bruni, who had worked for Alan Rudolph (in INVESTIGATING SEX, which never came out in the UK at all) and I asked her what his direction was like. “He just made us all feel incredibly loved — and that was his direction,” she said.

I am curiously up-and-down with Rudolph. There are films of his I love — CHOOSE ME, TROUBLE IN MIND, THE MODERNS, MRS PARKER AND THE VICIOUS CIRCLE, AFTERGLOW, INVESTIGATING SEX. Then there are films he didn’t write, which seem like work-for-hire and which I never care for — ROADIE, ENDANGERED SPECIES, SONGWRITER, MORTAL THOUGHTS. But then there are films which he did write which are personal but where the alchemy just doesn’t seem to come together right — WELCOME TO L.A. (turgid), REMEMBER MY NAME (dour), MADE IN HEAVEN (compromised by studio interference), LOVE AT LARGE (uneven), EQUINOX (shapeless) and especially BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS (a book I love, and a director I love, but they don’t come together at all).

This might not strike some people as strange at all, but usually when I like a filmmaker I like everything they do, or near enough. My early practice loving the compromised films of Orson Welles probably stood me in good stead here. But I can’t love the Rudolph misfires — they grate too much. Maybe he loves his actors a little too much, and doesn’t always filter their excesses (though I really like AFTERGLOW for the Nick Nolte and Julie Christie stuff, the young couple are a bit irksome, especially Lara Flynn Boyle). But then again, he has drawn some career-best work from a wide range of players.

So to TRIXIE, where Rudolph evidently loved the hell out of Emily Watson, who plays a cop/security guard who gets mixed up in a murder case. Trixie mangles the English language, which is the one joke about her, and it’s a joke that works much better with a supporting character than it would with a lead. So the flaw is in the writing to begin with. One-note characters are delightful when done well — you just keep hitting the same button whenever they show up, and the predictability and inflexibility of the character because a source of pleasure. But you can’t play that card with your protagonist — they need a second dimension, possibly a third. Trixie does have other layers, but the need to have her jam a malapropism into every line — “You can’t drink yourself into Bolivia” — obscures them.

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Then there’s the performance. Watson had just made a big splash in BREAKING THE WIND WAVES, a film I hate (every story point is repeated three times in three consecutive scenes, because the movie thinks we’re stupid), but it’s an undeniably ballsy perf. I once had a drink with another actor who had auditioned for that role, who did a bitterly twisted parody of Watson’s delivery, right there and then at the bar, which was startlingly accurate. She decimated the performance, not by caricaturing it, but by reproducing it exactly, affirming the Warhol line that “the best form of parody is the thing itself.” But I still think it was a bold piece of work.

Well, Watson is big as all outdoors in TRIXIE, but it doesn’t work so well. Firstly, she augments her Amurrican accent by chewing gum, a trick borrowed from the Kenneth Branagh school of verisimilitude. So now we have a character constantly masticating while mangling her dialogue, which is a bit much. And then, visually, the approach seems borrowed from Burt Young (above) — Watson can somehow protrude her eyeballs, as if she’s clenching her skull until they pop out. It seems like she might sock her co-stars in the jaw with these great orbs. Everything that’s going on underneath the actorly tricks is fine — there are still moments which fascinate. But the pyrotechnics and schtick seriously get in the way.

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(I think Nick Nolte’s only good Rudolph performance is in AFTERGLOW, btw. He’s a man who has been known to overplay, as we know, and Rudolph seems to encourage or at any rate allow this. His best moment here is simply staring in astonishment at Watson, which feels just right, although you wonder why nobody else was equally amazed at this freak in their midst.)

What the role demanded was a sort of Giulietta Masina or Rita Tushingham — a female clown. Those actors are rare. But, frustratingly, the movie features one in a supporting role — Brittany Murphy is delightful in this, big and broad and goofy but NOT ANNOYING with it. When she’s around you can see the movie this could have been.

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14 Responses to “Fleurs du Malaprop”

  1. Made in Heaven wasn’t written by Alan Rudolph, although I think with things like the Ellen Barkin character, he was definitely doodling in the margins. Also, Heaven and Love at Large were both mangled by the studio. Heaven ends on a freeze frame and voiceover (a desperate act) and Love at Large had two whole subplots cut out where we followed the characters’ dream lives.

    I don’t see anything wrong with loving some Rudolph films (I love the same ones) and not liking others, I think it’s the same with his mentor Robert Altman, who made some of the greatest (Nashville, Long Goodbye) and some film that just don’t work (Pret a Porter and ugh! Beyond Therapy)
    As you say, it’s an alchemy, and a far more delicate alchemy than, say, a more generic thriller.

    Rudolph pitched Afterglow as about a character stuck in the past, a character who lived in the moment, a character who lived in the future, and a character in a void. But of course it’s about much more than that. Whereas Trixie was pitched as being about a group of slick clever characters who all lie, and one who misspoke nothing but the truth. And that’s really all it is.

    Breakfast of Champions worked for me when I was a teen, then I read the novel…OTOH Luc Moullet loved it
    http://howlingwretches.blogspot.de/2012/12/two-responses-from-filmmakers-to.html

    I wish he’d got the chance to do a few more films.

  2. I guess my problem may be to do with the truthful character in Trixie being portrayed via the most contrived performance. I think you need someone more like a conventional movie star who can just be themselves, while doing the stuff dictated by the script.

    Rudolph is apparently still out there, trying to make a kind of follow-up to The Long Goodbye with Elliot Gould. Which I would be delighted watch, but as Pauline Kael might put it, there ain’t no way.

    Stop Press: I finally caught up with Investigating Sex (2001) and loved it, and will write something on it soon.

    I like what Moullet says — I just wish I saw the same film he saw.

  3. Remember My Name is my hands-down favorite. Rudolph said he was thinking of certain Joan Crawford movies — probably A Woman’s Face. But he also adapts dramatic tropes from Rivette — which isn’t surprising considering that his star also starred in Noroit.

    The Use of Alberta Hunter is striking.

    This is the only film Tony and Berry Perkins made together. Both gone now: he from AIDS, she from 9/11 (she was in one of the planes that struck the World Trade Center.)

    Investigating Sex aka Intimate Affairs can be seen on line. It’s quite entertaining, and features a brief and rather witty turn by Nick Nolte and Tuesday Weld. As she has officially “retired” this is The Last of Tuesday.

    All his other films are worth a look especially Choose Me and
    The Moderns

  4. re: The Moullet review, it’s like Mark Cousins on the Jess Franco/Orson Welles Don Quixote. To see things though those eyes

    Did you see The Secret Lives of Dentists? That, for me, was probably the best non-Rudolph, Rudolph film. with a script by the great Craig Kelly. It’s pretty good, if not first rate. It mixed the dreamy quality of Rudolph’s personal films with a story that was much more grounded, less whimsical. It could almost pass for a ‘normal film’
    Unfortunately those nightmare dentistry scenes mean it’s a difficult one to revisit.

    In the early 2000s he was also supposed to do a family drama with Stallone called Iron Man (good title) But now he sticks to painting.

    I was kind of impressed, that for a man who has made so many films about infidelity he’s been married to the same person for 40 years

    I’d been avoiding Investigating Sex (another good title) in case it was another Trixie, but as it’s got a pass I’ll order it up. Thanks

  5. I’m about to watch Secret Lives — I will be able to say I’ve seen all his significant films, I think, then — but I must give Remember My Name another shot. I think I was disappointed that it didn’t offer the pleasures of Choose Me and Trouble in Mind, and that’s not really a fair way to judge it if that isn’t its goal.

  6. Remember My Name and Trixie are the two he wrote that I haven’t seen yet. I loved Welcome to LA right away, but Love at Large and Equinox took two tries for me to warm up to. Tricky tonal shifts, for sure. I need to watch Afterglow and Breakfast of Champions a second time, because they both eluded me on a first go around. Investigating Sex, however, I loved on first sight. Still haven’t tried any non-Rudolph Rudolph.

  7. I think you’ll probably come around to Afterglow or at least the Christie bits. I can’t imagine ever adapting to be able to enjoy Breakfast of Champions, but you never know…

  8. Yeah, Rudolph and Vonnegut do not seem like a good match on the face of it. I was going to mention that one reason I like Love at Large is that it was filmed in two places where I’ve lived (Portland and Crooked River Ranch in Oregon), so there’s that. I hadn’t heard about the cut dream lives that James S mentioned, and would love to see that version!

  9. I haven’t ever heard of it being restored. It may have hastened Debra Winger’s withdrawal from the business. Certainly being in a film that gets mutilated like that can’t be good for your morale.

    Rudolph originally scripted BOC for Altman to do in the 70s. I like to think that version would have been more deadpan, which is the manner of the book. Altman + Vonnegut = *might just work*.

    The great mysterious unmade Rudolph film is his adaptation of Gary Larson’s The Far Side cartoons. “It’s the one thing I can imagine myself making that could be hugely popular,” he said at the time.

  10. I can’t see a follow-up to The Long Goodbye. If it was done with Gould it might end up being more a new era cousin to The Late Show.

    To James S: Did you have to remind me of Beyond Therapy? The most notable bit I remember were the numerous audible car crashes that to me were a comment on what was unfolding on the screen.

  11. I have entirely forgotten Beyond Therapy except I remember some ennervating music. Pret a Porter is fresh in memory, marking the return of Altman’s leering misogynist side, which thankfully slunk off afterwards, never to return.

  12. “Breaking the Wind/Waves”
    Ah, thank you. Even after 26 years, my American husband is *still* baffled by the British devotion to fart jokes. But of course we know, don’t we, that there are virtually no situations or experiences in life that cannot be restored to proper perspective by the unexpected rectal zephyr.

  13. Well, that’s a very flatulent movie, in my opinion. My hope is to kind of make the joke lodge in people’s minds so they can’t think of it without a slight smile.

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