The Atlantic Ocean was something, then

I have a strange history of not watching Louis Malle & John Guare’s ATLANTIC CITY — or, as the print used in my rather poorly-transferred DVD inexplicably calls itself, ATLANTIC CITY, USA. I think I’ve started watching it twice… once was probably on BBC2’s Film Club in the eighties, or around then. I think the way the movie doesn’t insist that it’s heading anywhere (though it is), and doesn’t seem to care if you’re watching, allowed me to drift off. But those are now qualities I value highly, and bits of it certainly stayed with me. In the last few months I picked up both the DVD, and the book Malle on Malle, secondhand, so it was clearly time.

I really enjoyed it last night. It reminded me a lot of the later TROUBLE IN MIND, from Alan Rudolph, only staged against a documentary backdrop (urban renewal in the titular city, with the crew rushing from site to site to catch demolitions in the background of its scenes, rather than attempting to transform a modern city into a place of near future/alternate reality possibilities. Both movies seem to enjoy an Altman influence, direct in the case of Rudolph, maybe just more zeitgeisty in Malle’s case, but actually stronger — a network narrative of interconnected characters whose paths criss-cross — crime — jazz — Americana.

Burt Lancaster always seems like a dreamer to me — you sense immortal longings. This is what led him, in real life, to make movies with European arthouse guys. His character here is a bullshitter, dreaming up a “romantic” past as a boardwalk gangster. His longings are for a past that never was: aspiration turned inside out into nostalgia. Circumstances finally allow him, in a crazy and ironic way, to play the hero in his own life. Burt gets several of the all-time great closeups. With Burt, the dreaminess perfectly counterbalances the acrobaticism, slightly in abeyance here. But he still has that precision of movement that makes you think of his athletic grace. Each gesture is powerful yet delicate, like a martial artist crossed with an assembly line robot and taught to dance.

Susan Sarandon is also really good. There are awkward old guy and young girl moments to get across, but Burt is still, in Fiona’s view, a viable leading man in his late sixties, and the script is so good, and of course Sarandon is not into Burt the way he’s into her… the voyeuristic element reminded me of Duvivier’s PANIQUE (and its remake, MONSIEUR HIRE, made nine years after AC) which is a possible influence since Malle seems more open to ’40s French cinema than the Cahiers mob (I can’t seem to refer to them collectively without making them sound like gangsters), who had a few favourites but mostly saw that school as an old guard to be replaced — by them.

All Sarandon’s early roles seem to be about her breasts, which is a bit embarrassing now because spectacular talents like hers are more unusual than spectacular breasts like hers. There’s generally a pathetic excuse, like the spilled wine in THE HUNGER that makes it absolutely necessary for her to become topless. Here she works in an oyster bar and spends her evenings rubbing lemon juice on herself at the window to eradicate the fishy smell. “How does she manage to get oyster on her ARMS? or her TITS?” asked Fiona.

Oh, and of course we were delighted to spot Wallace Shawn, poised to slip the script of MY DINNER WITH ANDRE to his director, and the exploding head guy from SCANNERS (the movie was made with Canadian tax shelter money). The guy, Louis Del Grande, proves he’s no one-tricky pony by playing a guy whose head does NOT explode. Although I admit we were waiting for it to happen.

ATLANTIC CITY, USA stars the Swede; Janet Weiss; Linda Loman; Inspector Ginko; Eden; Lizard; Lt. Bert Samuels; Quentin Hapsburg; Gold Leader; Dr. Bill Michaels; Vizzini; Felix Leiter; and First Scanner.

7 Responses to “The Atlantic Ocean was something, then”

  1. chris schneider Says:

    Leave us not forget the first-rate John Guare, who wrote the script for ATLANTIC CITY and would later go on to write SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION. I think I first began to like Sarandon in the ATLANTIC CITY scene where she’s hauled out of the casino and kicks a potted plant in frustration. It’s also nice the way The Breast Scene combines both cleavage and that aria about a chaste diva from NORMA. Oh, yes, and my first reaction, upon seeing ATLANTIC CITY, was that it was built around the implied pun of dealing (drugs) and dealing (cards).

  2. They actually recorded the aria specially, Malle says, because they couldn’t buy an existing recording. And then, since they’d hired an orchestra for the day, Michel Legrand wrote lots of dramatic music for it, which Malle then cut from the film, feeling a bit ashamed. But it’s that kind of 70s cinema that really doesn’t want a big score, even if it’s (another pun) ABOUT a big score (drugs).

    Guare is remarkable: three screenplays, all ones for the ages. He prepared another film with Malle, a true story about a con artist, to star Belushi & Ackroyd, but it fell through after the former’s death.

  3. David Ehrenstein Says:

    When Susan Sarandon looks at Burt Lancaster and says “Teach me stuff,” it’s an Ultimate Movie Moment. Everything in this film works beautifully, from that great anti-couple to Tobert Joy as he ex with a one-way ticket to hell, to the use of a pre-Trump Atlantic City. We used to go there on mini-vacations back in the 50’s and the hotel balcony where one scene is enacted is a place I used to play in as a child, As for Michel’s score it all comes ogether beautifully in the grand finale.

  4. “Knowledge or wisdom?”
    “BOTH!”

    I kept remembering William Goldman’s reported experience in Atlantic City, asking a bellhop where he might find a bookstore. Blank look, followed by “Porno stuff’s out back.”

    But Malle’s view is oddly warm, he brings an outsider’s eye but he’s not judgemental. Trump is hovering just out of frame, though, ready to pounce on the ruins.

  5. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Goldman’s a disgusting creep of the first rank. DON’T GET ME STARTED

  6. I saw the film as teenager in an ex-vaudeville house. Also? I am high.

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