Archive for Alan J Pakula

A One-Way Ticket to Pakulaville

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 4, 2018 by dcairns

THE PELICAN BRIEF (1993), Alan J. Pakula’s second-last film isn’t interesting in itself. It shows its director revisiting the past glories of ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, with Washington locations, crusading reporters, underground car parks, conspiracies. It’s very glossy and well shot and cut, but John Grisham’s book, at least as adapted by screenwriter Pakula, is diffuse and ineffectual. Splitting the action between Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington’s characters for the first half undercuts any forward thrust, and we keep cutting away to other characters on top of that. The movie also begins way too soon, with the assassination of two supreme court judges… it then has to tread water for half an hour before the assassination of another character who’s actually a character, as well as being someone connected to one of our protagonists.

The comparisons to ATPM just show up how unexciting the thriller became in the nineties (I don’t think it’s recovered, either). Here’s a movie where we know exactly who will be alive at the end, who will be dead, and who will be disgraced (Robert Culp, I’m looking at you). You don’t know that for a second in ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, even though it’s a true story and you literally know how it turns out. It feels full of uncertainty and possibility.It’s nice that Pakula was still working at this stage, but unfortunately the cinema of the era didn’t tend to allow the interesting choices that enlivened his ’70s work (THE PARALLAX VIEW would surely have been impossible), so he was walled in by artificial genre and commercial constraints. I’m looking at my cat right now, who is lying very happily in a shoe box that’s much too small for him. Cats like confined spaces. Artists, not so much.

The plot gets underway with Supreme Court justices being murdered. President Culp doesn’t really want to the truth to come out (Culp is culpable) and tells his intelligence men to lay off — the scene with the most contemporary relevance. Law student Julia Roberts cracks the case with a bit of research (in fact, all she finds is a possible motive). She’s sleeping with her professor (Sam Shepherd) — and this is quite normal and OK in the world of this film — so she tells him, he tells a friend in DC, and is promptly assassinated. Julia goes on the run and has to enlist crusading reporter Denzel Washington to help.

The story is a bit implausible, but also a bit boring, which is a terrible combination. It’s all very well made, with the occasional nice touch, but it can’t transcend its Grishamite limitations. But here’s a nice dissolve from assassin Stanley Tucci leaving the site of one SCOTUS killing, disguised as a jogger, and entering a porno theatre disguised as a big old gay homosexual to kill another SCOTUS ~ Later, Robert Culp gets maybe the best closeup of the year 1993 ~Features Erin Brockovich, Malcolm X, Chuck Yeager, Alex Cutter, Frank Boggs, Caesar Flickerman, Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, Dr. Emilio Lizardo and Death.

I’ve never seen Pakula’s CONSENTING ADULTS but for some reason I saw PRESUMED INNOCENT at the cinema when it was new. It seemed sexist, and Pakula seemed to be stuck making John Grisham and Scott Turow adaptations, which seemed slightly worse than directing episodic TV. I feel he could have had more fun on The X-Files, which he practically invented with ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN.THE DEVIL’S OWN got terrible reviews in the UK (Hollywood films always get Irish political things horribly wrong; Pakula’s late works, being generally inoffensive, got fairly forgiving notice usually, but not this one). Like TPB it has an overblown, schmaltzy James Horner score, where early Pakula benefited massively from the subtlety of David Shire and the aptly-named Michael Small.

When this came out, we’d just had the embarrassing BLOWN AWAY (how’s that for a tasteful title for a movie about a mad Irish bomber?) and the critics reviewing TDO reminded us that the Guinness in BA looked like weak tea, which was a bit unfair because the stout in TDO looks approximately like stout. There were also reports, I seem to recall, of bad behaviour from the film’s stars, particularly in the form of jealousy from Harrison Ford over his young co-star, Brad Pitt. This certainly seems to have left its mark on the film.Pitt plays an IRA man with an enthusiastic go at a Belfast accent. Having seen his father murdered as a boy, and being a fugitive in his homeland after a gigantic, ludicrous gunfight, he’s sent to the US to purchase guns for the cause from gangster Treat Williams. His political sponsor has him billeted as a houseguest of Irish-American cop Ford, on the grounds that this will make great cover. It also irretrievably makes Ford look a sucker, which may have started the trouble with him.

For the next HOUR of screentime, Pitt’s plotline fails to proceed while Ford gets a series of action set pieces showing his unbelievably exciting life as a cop. These don’t progress the narrative, of course, because they have nothing to do with the narrative. Something showing Pitt in danger of being rumbled by his host would have been more to the point. And something showing a developing bond between the characters was surely needed. We do see them play pool and exchange light-hearted racist taunts with some Italianamericans, but that’s all.It’s only when Pitt’s cover is blown and his criminal activities endanger Ford’s family that the film finds its feet again, at which point it promptly shoots both of them, as well as everything else in sight. “I told you before,” says Pitt, soulfully, “this isn’t an American story, it’s an Irish one.”

It bloody is an American story, though. Look who’s alive at the end.

Stars Han Solo, Tyler Durden, Mary Boleyn, Mickey Nice, Critical Bill and Arthur Dent.

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True to Type

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , on November 20, 2018 by dcairns

We watched Steven Spielberg’s THE POST and then moved on to its sequel, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN which, unusually for a sequel, was made forty years earlier. And it turned out to be the week screenwriter William Goldman died. ATPM is one of his best pieces, though he complained that writing it was very tough. It got him an Oscar, though, so that seems reasonable.

Comparing the two films was interesting. THE POST is solid stuff, as conventional as you’d expect from the Spielberg-Hanks-Streep teaming: “entertaining” is a very good word here. It has a certain forward impetus and there are nice bits of visual storytelling amid the gab and Spielberg’s skill at moving actors around as he moves his camera around is apparent. Hanks is fine, but no Jason Robards. Streep is great value. Alison Brie and Sarah Paulson are wasted but Bob Odenkirk gets some good business.

Kaminski shoots it in shades of gun-metal blue (not an obvious seventies look — more like DIE HARD) with the usual Spielberg God-light blasting over everyone’s shoulders but with crunchier blacks to point up all that clandestine power and subterfuge.

As a political response to the current times, it’s perhaps too polite, and you notice that when previous filmmakers like Pakula and company wanted to address the current situation, they addressed the current (or very recent) situation. They didn’t look back forty years for an peudo-analagous moment.

The great thing about a lot of seventies cinema is, it doesn’t seem to care if you’re watching. A friend said that about THE EXORCIST. Even THE EXORCIST, which wants to scare you, doesn’t really care if you’re watching or not. Your choice, it shrugs.

WHAM!

In THE POST, you can see the wheels go round: literally, with the fetishistic hot press shots of newspapers rolling out into the world. In ATPM, the source of dramatic tension is harder to place: in this one, typewriter keys descend from nowhere in abrupt, slamming ECU. The mechanism is concealed, off over there somewheres. Unlike Spielberg, Alan Pakula doesn’t seem to be trying to create tension, but there is nevertheless some crackling energy force underneath it all, created invisibly by the actors, the frame, the lighting.

I’m curious to look at Pakula’s later work for the Late Show Blogathon: I’m worried that he’ll have felt compelled to amp up the dramatics in his later thrillers, and I’m certain the scripts won’t be as good.

The secret wonder ingredient here is cinematographer Gordon Willis, who bonded with Pakula even more than with Coppola on THE GODFATHER — he seems to have shot nearly everything Pakula made (plus a bunch of key Woody Allens). He was a kind of Prince of Darkness, happy to let expensive sets and actors drop off into Stygian gloom if it served his sense of the scene. When he filmed car interiors, he let other cars serve as the light source, which meant the characters could cease to be visible even as outlines for long stretches or movie and road.

He doesn’t go looking for beauty: the Washington Post interior is as flat as it ought to be. But then he seizes passing opportunities for visual grace, and creates surprise with unexpected splashes of light, colour.

The tamped-down performances and low-key lighting are enhanced by David Shire’s muted score, so that nobody seems to be trying to make this a thriller, but everybody seems to be succeeding.

Poor old Goldman had to try to please the original authors, who were also the main characters, a star who was also the producer, another star who was Dustin Hoffman, and Pakula, who couldn’t make up his mind. It must have been a huge relief to him to realise he could cut the story off half way through, before it got to the part everybody watched unravel in the news. His script unfolds in a rash of names, names leading to more names, with ellipses used so boldly we fear we may not keep up. Maybe THAT’S the source of tension: our fear that we’re not equal to grasping Watergate. Thankfully, we have Deep Throat to keep us straight: “Forget the myths the media’s created about the White House. The truth is, these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.”

This felt like a good film to be watching right now.

THE POST stars Forrest Gump, Florence Foster Jenkins, Bunny Yeager, Jimmy McGill, Gerald Burlingame and Unikitty.

ATPM stars Jeremiah Johnson, Ratso Rizzo, Max Corkle, Det. Milton Arbogast, Henry Northrup, Cable Hogue, Georgia O’Keeffe and Tector Crites, or do I mean Hoover Shoates?

A One-Way Ticket to Pakulaville

Posted in FILM, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 31, 2015 by dcairns

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I watched THE PARALLAX VIEW, directed by Alan Pakula — excuse me, Alan *J* Pakula — because I figured it might serve as a surprise entry to Seventies Sci-Fi Week —

— one should always have Surprise Entries. I remember reading the line-up of a season of science fiction films programmed by David Cronenberg, and they were ALL surprise entries, from Robert Wise’s HELEN OF TROY (“Indistinguishable from FLASH GORDON” — nice try, but FLASH goes like a train — maybe SIGN OF THE CROSS would be a better fit) to TAXI DRIVER (“A better version of BLADE RUNNER than BLADE RUNNER.”)

— you see, I was remembering the Parallax Test scene and thought it was a movie about brainwashing, but I think that scene is probably just testing the subject’s emotional responses to words and images. It’s not the full Ludovico. To be a science-fiction film, the movie would have to take the speculations around Lee Harvey Oswald and Sirhan Sirhan and spin them into an elaborate speculative fiction. And the speculation would have to be based on altering present conditions. The Manchurian Candidate does this. It’s based on the way captured Americans were “brainwashed” — ie tortured into submission, in reality — during the Korean War, but it speculates that somebody could be mentally adjusted and become an unconscious assassin, a human bomb waiting for a post-hypnotic suggestion to trigger detonation. That phenomenon had never been witnessed — so far as we know — so the Condon book and Frankenheimer-Axelrod film could be termed sci-fi.

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THE PARALLAX VIEW instead shows an organisation recruiting subjects who would make suitable lone gunmen, based on their psychological profiles, and also supplying patsies. No such organisation is known to exist — apart from possibly the CIA and a few organisations like it — but it certainly COULD exist. No adjustment of present social conditions or our understanding of scientific principles or our mastery of scientific techniques would be necessary for this film to come true.

Now I just scared myself.

The reason I misremembered the movie, which I have seen several times, is that it’s somehow elusive in the memory. And a little hard to concentrate on, as if the Hitchcockian, paranoid thriller were a slightly inapt match for Pakula’s offbeat, observational style (and we should maybe refer to the director as Pakula-Willis, since cinematographer Gordon Willis is such a central, essential contributor to Pakula’s best work). The script is by David Giler and Lorenzo Semple, with uncredited assist by Warren Beatty’s close buddy Robert Towne.

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I had forgotten some good stuff — Hume Cronyn plays by far the best character (almost the only character, after Paula Prentiss’s one scene). I had forgotten there’s a hyperbolic barroom brawl that wouldn’t look out of place in a Hal Needham movie. I remembered that there was a car chase that’s similarly out-of-place. But the good action stuff is when Pakula defies genre by sitting the camera well back and calmly watching, chin resting on knuckles, as a human life is snuffed. The skirmish atop the Space Needle at the start, and the floundering fight in the flooding river, a huge damn venting a wall of spume in the background. The documentary distance adds a sense of reality, and therefore danger. (Obviously Pakula is doing this partly so he can cover up Beatty’s substitution by stunt double Craig Baxley — excuse me, Craig *R* Baxley — but the point is he makes a stylistic feature out of it.)

A different kind of distance afflicts our relationship with Warren Beatty’s character, a classic seventies alienated douchebag — Beatty cheerfully plays his more obnoxious traits to the hilt. The fact that he spends very little time in the movie with anyone he can relate to at all makes it a little hard to see him as other than an articulated shape. And I think the film has a hard job recovering from the Parallax Test in the middle, since it’s such a tour-de-force. We go from a montage masterpiece back into what is merely a very  good movie. And nobody seems to know who is responsible. Don Record did the title designs and seems to have had a role designing it. John W. Wheeler edited the movie as a whole. Did they collaborate or was the whole sequence farmed out to Record?

It reminds me of Chuck Braverman’s amazing opening sequence to SOYLENT GREEN, which IS a seventies sci-fi movie.

Now go do what you have to do.