Archive for John Travolta

Forbidden Divas: May I Use Your Ocean?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on July 10, 2019 by dcairns

David Melville Wingrove returns with another, and particularly extreme, shameful pleasure from the more disreputable vaults of film history…

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

May I Use Your Ocean?

“I’ve never had cheap sex before. I was sort of looking forward to it.”

–          Lily Tomlin to John Travolta, Moment by Moment

“We all have ideas,” says Lily Tomlin’s gal pal several aeons into the trash classic Moment by Moment (1978). “Sometimes the real talent is knowing not to do anything with them.” At some point in the late 70s, producer Robert Stigwood had the idea of casting his hot young discovery John Travolta in a steamy tale of intergenerational romance with the alternative comedienne and would-be film star Lily Tomlin. The movie was written and directed on a vast budget by Tomlin’s life and production partner Jane Wagner, who had never directed a movie before and has – oddly enough – never directed another movie since. The result was a critical and box-office bomb of apocalyptic proportions, one that almost ended the careers of everybody involved with it only a few years after they began. What is astonishing to realise today is that…yes, Moment by Moment actually is as bad as critics and audiences in the 70s thought it was. That being said, it is still a vastly more enjoyable movie than Saturday Night Fever or Grease.

In a truly inspired stroke of miscasting, the sassy and sparky Tomlin plays a bored and blasé Beverly Hills housewife who is starting to find her life a bit empty. OK, she drives a stylish silver-grey Mercedes and owns a palatial beach house in Malibu that is exquisitely decorated in stripped pine and muted tones of white and beige. (It boasts the single best fireplace I have ever seen in any film.) She has an adorable white Maltese dog called Scamp – who gives the most assured and convincing performance in the film by a long chalk – and spends her time shopping at Gucci and Hermès and other fancy stores along Rodeo Drive. But truly, what is life when one is lonely and neglected and unloved? Lily’s husband, a construction tycoon, is boffing a girl young enough to be their daughter. Her name is Stacy and she resembles a giant animatronic Barbie doll. Poor bereft Lily breaks down in tears every time she thinks about it; be warned that she appears to think of very little else. But it has never occurred to her (incredibly) that she might commit any sexual indiscretion of her own.

One afternoon, she goes into Schwab’s Drugstore to buy some sleeping pills. As she does not have a prescription, the pharmacist refuses to give her any. It seems she is the one person in the whole of Beverly Hills who cannot simply bribe a doctor and get an unlimited stash of pills on demand. Suddenly, a handsome young street hustler comes bounding up and offers her some. He follows her out to the beach house and they soon become lovers. He is played by John Travolta and his name is Strip. The name of Lily’s character, by the way, is Trish. All the characters in Moment by Moment have names so determinedly cool and casual that you long to meet somebody called Euphemia or Marmaduke, if only for the sake of a little diversity. But in fairness ‘Strip’ is an eminently sensible name for this young man; that is pretty much all he does for the length of the entire movie. Virtually every scene in Moment by Moment involves John Travolta stripping down to a pair of skimpy briefs. I can think of no other non-pornographic film in which the hero wears so little without also yodelling and swinging through the jungle on a vine.

It is clear from the outset that Trish and Strip are made for each other. The two lovers sport an identical unisex haircut and you keep expecting them to remark that they both go to the same stylist, so how is it they have never met before? That would be a considerable improvement on anything they do say. The dialogue in Moment by Moment does not seem to have been written so much as improvised by members of the Andy Warhol Factory on a day when the drugs were running low. Whole stretches go by in which one lover utters a non sequitur and the other repeats it back dumbly. “Do you belong to the Automobile Club?” asks Trish when Strip’s car breaks down. In a flash of rapier wit, he answers: “Do I look like I belong to the Automobile Club?” When the lovers eat lunch on the veranda of the beach house, Strip asks Trish meaningfully: “Is that tuna?” Overpowered by his romantic badinage, she replies: “Yes, it’s tuna.” It might be amusing to stretch out a conversation like this for an hour or even a whole day. But midway through Moment by Moment, you feel as if you already have.

Nothing in the film can compete, for sheer hilarity, with the scene where Strip shows up at the beach house and asks Trish if he can use her ocean. She loves him, of course. But she feels self-conscious about him too. Not about the gaping gulf between his and her socio-economic status, but about the wide gap in their ages. One afternoon, a friend drops by for a visit and Strip comes in with some groceries. Trish is abashed and pretends he is the delivery boy. In another cringe-making scene, she takes Strip as her date to an exhibition of ‘Footography’ that consists of a gallery lined with photos of people’s feet. To be honest, I can think of far worse artistic concepts and at least a dozen of them seem to be in this movie. Trish is mortified when he takes two glasses of champagne off a tray at the same time. When the glitterati start to stare, he ditches her and storms off into the night. We pass the time by wondering exactly who Moment by Moment was ever made for? I can think of no audience for it apart from adolescent girls and middle-aged gay men. At no point does it seem like the brainchild of a high-powered lesbian couple.

The critic Boyd McDonald wrote of Robert Ryan that he was one of the few actors who could convincingly play a heterosexual. On the basis of their work in Moment by Moment, neither Tomlin nor Travolta is in any danger of challenging him for the title. Moaning about the woodwork in her home, Trish’s pal remarks: “Cedar always looks like a big empty closet.” Dare I say the closet in this movie appears to be bursting at the seams?

David Melville

They Go Boom #2

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 1, 2018 by dcairns

The second film in our accidental Vilmos Zsigmond/Nancy Allen double feature, theone actually shot by Vilmos, was, of course, Brian De Palma’s BLOW OUT, which is one of his NON-Hitchcockian thrillers. It meshes BLOW UP and THE CONVERSATION, Chappaquiddick and the JFK assassination, a few good ideas and some great execution with a lot of stupid ideas and a little stupid execution… as a political thriller it’s missed the bus to Pakulaville, but it does sport a charming and unaffected performance from John Travolta. I like some of his affected perfs too (American Crime Story!) but it’s interesting to see him looking and sounding human. He does have one terrible bit though…

We open with a film-within-a-film —  a slasher movie which we’re meant to find cheesy, yet De Palma can’t resist serving up long, bravura steadicam shots which kind of confuse the issue — parody cheese or real cheese? Also, this is the only bit where Pino Donaggio’s score works at all — it’s a kind of imitation Morricone/Goblin sound, again making the exploitation nonsense seem more distinguished than we’re meant to find it. From here on, EVERY TIME Donaggio crashes the soundtrack, it’s ruinous. I love love love his DON’T LOOK NOW music, but everything he did for BDP is noxious, especially the PSYCHO strings in CARRIE. Come to think of it, CASUALTIES OF WAR is a defensible film until the final scene where Morricone destroys it with syrup. De Palma has great taste in composers but lousy taste in music, it seems.The bit where Travolta is recording wind sounds at night is just gorgeous — ridiculous splitscreen/diopter shots, macros closeups of recording kit, rich sound design and a stunning location. The fatal “accident” outcome of this scene — a car’s tyre explodes and it crashes into the river, drowning a political hopeful and nearly killing his girl-of-the-moment — is the least interesting thing about it, but that’s OK.

From here on in, the film is in big trouble. BDP has written a nitwit role for his wife and, credit where it’s due, Nancy Allen totally commits to playing it to the hilt. She has concussion/shock when we first meet her, but when she recovers she just gets worse. Travolta’s solicitude for her character is endearing, but inexplicable, and this is going to kill the film’s ending.De Palma hasn’t got half enough story to make a feature film, so he pads it out two ways — he inserts an irrelevant flashback of Travolta working as a sound man for the cops, and he shows his baddie, John Lithgow (yay!), killing a couple of women, once as a case of mistaken identity when stalking Allen, once to suggest the action of a serial killer so that when he eventually does kill Allen, the investigators will be confused. Obviously, killing three women is riskier than killing one or two, as Lithgow eventually learns, but we can’t ask for De Palma thrillers to make sense.

The surveillance flashback is a way for De Palma to exorcise the memory of PRINCE OF THE CITY, which he was all set to direct before for some reason getting kicked off it and replaced by Sidney Lumet. But then Lumet got kicked off SCARFACE and DePalma took over that one, so they’re even. (See also: William Goldman was pissed about Bryan Forbes redrafting his work on THE STEPFORD WIVES, but got to doctor Forbes’ script for CHAPLIN in revenge.) The only effect of this backstory is it makes the police reluctant to help, a device BDP had already used for Jennifer Salt’s journalist in SISTERS. At this point, he’s not so much recycling Hitchcock as himself.

The movie further stretches credulity by having Travolta rephotograph frame enlargements of a Zapruder-type film printed in a news magazine, which shows the “accident,” and rephotograph the pics on an animation rostrum, creating a new film which magically syncs with his sound recording (using the crashing car’s impact with the water as sync plop). None of this is technically very plausible, but it’s accomplished largely without words, and is fun to watch.In Mark Cousins’ Scene by Scene interview with Kirk Douglas, the crumbling legend is shown a scene from BDP’s THE FURY, and briefly covers his eyes. Asked about it afterwards, he says “I don’t like my face” — not, I think, an expression of modesty or self-loathing, just an honest response to his director making him look silly in slomo. Similarly, Travolta’s excellent work is marred horribly by 100fps shots of him HUFFING — puffing out his cheeks and expelling air from his lips, making them ripple like thick wet carpets being shaken. A hideous and preposterous sight at what is meant to be the movie’s emotional climax.

But, you know, there are great bits, as there usually are with De Palma.

Damn You, Television!

Posted in FILM, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , on March 10, 2016 by dcairns

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Now we’re hooked on American Crime Story, AND we have a new series of Better Call Saul to contend with.

Sensibly diverging from the American Horror Story format, ACS benefits from a tighter focus — nothing is permitted which doesn’t further the basic story of the OJ Simpson trial, though as judge and jury discovered to their cost, that means that almost anything happening in twentieth century America can be ruled relevant. Even the future is included, since head writers Larry Karaszewski & Scott Alexander manage to shoehorn the Kardashian family in on the pretext that their dad was OJ’s friends and one of his lawyers. The kids’ glee at their fathers’ meaningless and distressing fame is either the Secret Origin of the Kardashian Family — how they learned the wrong lessons at a damagingly early age, or else it’s proof that the tendency to regard celebrity as equivalent to sainthood was already engendered. O.J.’s acquittal for murdering their mother’s friend would thus seem like ultimate proof of this value system, so that Kim K. can this week dismiss a thoughtful comment by Chloe Grace Moretz with the devastating rejoinder “nobody has heard of you.”

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It’s interesting to me how the show has seamlessly maintained a high standard of writing even when the head writers hand over duties to the B-team (The Knick was also good at this), though I do find the direction slightly more variable. Ryan Murphy favours propulsion, his vigorous camera movements rushing the story onwards. Anthony Hemingway, known for The Wire and whose RED TAILS I thought was really terrible, has a tendency towards slightly meaningless show-off shots, but I found by his second episode I was even enjoying these, The contrast in style between this and his feature film suggests he was really being heavily sat on by George Lucas and his cohorts. And then John Singleton contributes one episode executed in a slick, almost classical manner that looks admirably restrained by comparison.

The idea of cinematic TV is interesting — I wonder if any of these guys would find a natural home on the big screen. Singleton has had the most distinguished career, but it’s been very erratic. The tighter discipline of TV, where the director is more like a studio employee in the old days, choices confined to guiding the actors and placing the camera, may suit such filmmakers better than a medium where they’d be responsible for everything. Although not having George Lucas sitting on you must help too.

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The ensemble here is too good to pick favourites. John Travolta has taken some flack for his expressionist perf, and for looking “like haunted spam,” but I find his choices both bold and amusing. It’s true, he doesn’t quite look human anymore, and maybe he’s adapted to looking like an artfully-chewed pencil eraser by developing a manner of acting — all precise, prissy gestures and words bitten off delicately like umbilici — to suit his new, biomechanical instrument. We will see more of such post-human performances as the twenty-first century nears its apocalyptic climax, an event which will no doubt be documented by American Crime Story around about season 5.