Archive for Robert Evans

Southern Discomfort

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 22, 2021 by dcairns

END OF THE ROAD (1970) is certainly an extraordinary thing. Terry Southern adapting a John Barth novel (to Barth’s eventual dismay) and Aram Avakian directing it.

Avakian isn’t a well-known name: he only directed four films. I enjoyed his laid-back thrillers, COPS AND ROBBERS and 11 HARROWHOUSE. I haven’t seen LAD: A DOG, made eight years before this. The guy never seemed to get any momentum going.

But as an editor he was a star: he cut JAZZ ON A SUMMER’S DAY, THE MIRACLE WORKER, LILITH, MICKEY ONE, and Coppola’s YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW. All of them dazzling works from a vision-mixing standpoint. He’d periodically break out of cutting into directing and then get shoved back into the editing suite. After this, Coppola got him to cut THE GODFATHER but Robert Evans fired him — Evans’ memoir says Avakian was going behind Coppola’s back, saying the film wouldn’t cut. Evans had some rushes assembled, proving him wrong, and showed him the door. I find this unlikely. Avakian was, after all, Coppola’s ally going into production, so a scenario where Evans fires a Coppola crony is readily explained by Evans wanting more influence on the film. Evans lies quite a lot elsewhere in his book.

Anyway, END OF THE ROAD shows an artistic ambition not on display in the nice thrillers. And I’m guessing not in the dog movie. The montage — a pyrotechnic, hallucinatory phantasmagoria of abstraction and dissonance, unsettles and dazzles. The performances go right to the edge, then over it. Stacey Keach and James Earl Jones who should by rights be our points of entry and identification, swing wildly through a dizzying repertoire of funny voices and bizarre line readings. Keach is the catatonic patient quicky revived by Jones’ unorthodox methods/madness.

As screenwriter/producer, Southern is on particularly indulgent form. I haven’t read Barth — I feel like I should now — but Southern appears to have transformed an early, comparatively naturalistic book into something a little more like later Barth, but a lot more like mid-period Southern (the film makes me wish Avakian had been entrusted with The Magic Christian).

Keach and Jones’ funhouse lunacy — it’s a toss-up which of the two is more disturbingly demented — is joined with a terrific, naturalistic performance from Dorothy Tristan, and a creepy one from the excellent Harris Yulin, who seems to be trying to bridge the chasm of performative styles on display. It’s absolutely never boring. Profoundly alienating, technically stunning, infuriatingly incoherent, yes. Boring, no.

What put me off was the glib, jokey end-note, which follows a horrific botched abortion scene — the swerve into tragedy after surreal farce was effective and I could go with it, but the cheap wink at the end ruined that — it’s of a piece with Southern’s other repulsive violations of taste/the audience apparently elsewhere in his oeuvre, particularly the comic treatment of the heroine’s suicide in the novel Blue Movie and the film THE LOVED ONE — both motivated by out-of-character nastiness from the male lead, both ghastly — both moments that really make you wonder about the guy.

I recall a student making a short film in his first year which rather upset everybody, and he was kind of proud of himself, when a colleague, who’s more combative than me, told him he had to take responsibility for the emotions he was evoking, and they had to achieve something. Just showing that he could make us uncomfortable wasn’t a positive achievement in itself. Possibly a lesson Southern and Avakian needed to learn. Avakian perhaps did.

Gordon Willis shot it (Michael Chapman operating) and it looks AMAZING — his first feature and he’s already doing his toplight thing. Robert Q. Lovett cut it, a future Coppola guy. FFC essentially crewed THE GODFATHER from this movie.

Pickups

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 30, 2021 by dcairns

I’d heard something or other about THE COTTON CLUB ENCORE, Francis Ford Coppola’s re-edit of his embattled 1984 production, but it was Meredith Brody in Bologna I guess two years back who said it was much more interesting and worthwhile than all the various tinkered versions of APOCALYPSE NOW, and this planted a seed. I wanted to see it. Finally I bought a copy.

I always rather liked the original — it was the first Coppola I was old enough to see at the movies, I guess.

I can’t be sure of my memories of it, but I think it actually played better shorter. Coppola thinks the new cut plays shorter despite being longer, because the story’s clearer. But clarity isn’t everything. Sometimes puzzlement is more engaging. And anyway I’m not convinced this version is any clearer. Still, I’m glad to have seen it because it has more musical numbers.

Coppola got embroiled in the film in the first place because producer Robert Evans couldn’t figure out how to pull off a movie about the Club with Richard Gere, who refused to play a gangster, would only play a musician, the problem being that no white musicians played the Club. I hate to say it, but Coppola didn’t really solve that problem. Gere glides around the outskirts of the story, vanishing to Hollywood to become a star offscreen, romancing a gangster’s moll, and the movie offers us no reason to care about these characters, cute though they are, well though they wear Milena Canonero’s clothes. In 1984 I probably wasn’t aware that this plotline was a Methuselah-old pulp standard, one which Tarantino would feel the need to explode in PULP FICTION with the Travolta-Thurman story.

I did notice, though, that Gregory Hines and Lonette McKee’s love story (now promoted to the cover image/poster) was actually ABOUT something, and connected to the Cotton Club, even if it didn’t quite have all the moving parts a story needs to have. The Hines character’s relationship with his brother (real-life sibling Maurice Hines) added some complication.

Gere’s character also has a brother, played by Nic Cage — whose storyline which does manage to involve the club, and ends dramatically. But we never learn Gere’s reaction to the conclusion of that yarn, which shows just how uninterested in him the film is.

Bob Hoskins and Fred Gwynne (who Coppola hired over Evan’s furious objections: “No Munsters!”) improvised a great scene, the standout in the film, and had Coppola been on top form or able to work with some freedom, they could and should have been invited to improvise a half dozen more. Those guys should have been in more movies together.

The other best non-musical scene is with Laurence Fishburne, though his character’s arguing that he doesn’t have any choice but to be a gangster because society is racist… well, his character seems to believe it, and he argues it with panache. It’s good when characters can give a good account of themselves.

In building a musical that isn’t a musical (no bursting into song except during performance scenes) that connects to the social events of the time, Coppola seems to have taken CABARET as his model — understandably, since the Bob Fosse beat him to a Best Director Oscar in 1973. My dim memory tells me that the balance of songs and story in CABARET is much more successful, the two seem genuinely planned to go together whereas ENCORE has some songs which, lovely though they are, just happen. The strongest deja vu moment was when Fishburne and his gang beat up a nasty Club employee — it felt weirdly like the Nazis beating up the bouncer. A strange connection to make.

Coppola films some of the dancing extremely well, and other bits he hacks up into closeups of feet and stuff. Even aged seventeen I knew that was wrong. And there are lots of MONTAGES, usually a sure sign of a film in trouble. They’re very pretty, but they’re period pastiche filmmaking designed to glue together a disjointed narrative.

It’s a shame to feature mob boss Dutch Schultz so prominently and not include his last words (“A boy has never wept nor dashed a thousand kim…”) but in fairness its difficult to see how the authors could have worked them in meaningfully. Intercut them with Cab Calloway’s scat singing?

The elusive onstage/offstage conversion does finally happen, though, right before the end creds (which are beautiful, a bunch of spare montage elements) — Coppola intercuts a stage number with “real” action at Grand Central Station and blends the two into something really magical. Coppola’s best endings are usually based on cross-cutting, aren’t they?

THE COTTON CLUB stars Zack Mayo; Josephus; Ellen Aim; Louise Little; Lou Landsky; Sam Starr; H.I. McDunnough; Louis B. Mayer; Herman Munster; Specialty Dancer – ‘Beale Street Blues’ (uncredited); Delores Dodge; Billy Bump/Billie Bump; Jimmy Jump; R.M. Renfield; Kane; Momo; Baby Houseman; Joe – the Hustler; Gloria Capulet; 1st Sgt. Braxton Rutledge; Dicky Speck; Gus Fring; Grandpa Booker; Mary Corleone; and Stokely Carmichael.

Mata Hardly

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 16, 2019 by dcairns

Yes. Yes. DARLING LILI is very interesting. I didn’t feel any of the bits worked, exactly, but they were interesting bits.

It’s kind of fascinating that in 1968, when they were planning this film, they thought Julie Andrews would be good casting as a German spy. Or they thought that would be a good change of pace for her, anyway. And within her range. And it might be, but then you’d have to do something with the idea.

We don’t at any point in the film consider WHY Lili Smith is a spy — we’re told she’s half-German, and that’s it. She also has a devoted German spymaster, Jeremy Kemp (very good perf: obviously he’s in love with her). But there’s nothing else. As far as we can tell, she doesn’t ever question it.

Lance Percival rehearses Blake Edwards’ bit from his special Oscar acceptance.

(But what I viewed is the 2hr 16 min director’s cut available to me, not the 190 min roadshow version. The version I saw needs MORE shortening to move efficiently — but maybe if you added back at least some of the footage Edwards himself deleted, it would attain virtues more important than efficiency.)

It’s commonplace for these kind of stories, going back at least as far as DISHONORED, to feature characters throwing aside patriotism in the name of love, but we have no idea if Lili is patriotic about Germany while she’s going around singing patriotic songs about England as part of her cover. So does her apparent change of heart mean anything?

But the other side of the conflict, the love story, is equally undercooked. Rock Hudson shows up with a gypsy band to take Julie for a picnic at 3 a.m., which is quite dashing. But then we never hear them talk. What do they have in common? Can we watch this relationship develop and get a sense of when the lady spy’s performance of romance starts to shade into the real thing? Never happens. Instead there’s a long farce scene of her mercilessly prickteasing him and trying to provoke him into giving away military secrets. While, in a node to past Blake Edwards, not one but two Incompetent French Detectives bumble about on the roof in the pouring rain. Nice to see Jacques Marin, who seems to be turning up in everything I watch this year, and Andre Maranne (so good as Herbert Lom’s assistant in the later PANTHER films), but when you have TWO I.F.D.s as a team, maybe some of Clouseau’s desperate inner tension is lost (pace Sellers, he KNOWS he’s an idiot, but he’s trying all the time to stop everyone else noticing — and because he’s an idiot, he never gives up, even when it should be obvious that the gig is up).

The funny thing in this film is the perpetually squiffy Lance Percival as T.C. Carstairs. Rock Hudson at one point says his name is Twombly-Crouch, but then he never says it again and my dream of hearing Rock Hudson repeatedly say Twombly-Crouch is cruelly shattered. Percival gets the best dialogue — a perfect Wodehousian pastiche of blithering idiocy fighting its way through ferocious affability and a haze of alcohol. An entire film about Twombly-Crouch would be nice and now I have to see more Percival, I’ve neglected him. I don’t think I even noticed he’d died in 2015.

Remarkable how Edwards, at various points in his life an alcoholic, a pill-popper, a compulsive philanderer, is just as gleeful in his drunk jokes as his nervous breakdown jokes and his physical pain jokes.

I was a bit surprised to see Julie Andrews do a striptease here. I knew that S.O.B. was heavily inspired by this production but I still wasn’t expecting a flash frame of Mary Poppins’ left nipple. I put it to you that nobody expects that, ever. Except possible Blake Edwards, but even then I wouldn’t speak with certainty.

Maybe the edgier bit is Andrews WATCHING a striptease. Very intently.

Edwards certainly liked spending money! Although he didn’t want to film in Europe owing to weather considerations. But it seems like Ireland was the only place to shoot WWI planes, and not many places look like Paris. Although, owing to rioting French students, a lot of this was shot in Brussels. Doubtful if studio sets would have been cheaper.

Anyway, the massive scale of the production, with Edwards’ typically elegant filming style, results in every scene packing a lot of lustre. There are very good bits. But because the characters are basically puppets and nothing is at stake — the outcome of the war never felt urgent or important to me — this is another war where nobody gets hurt — no story momentum is built up. And whenever a problem appears — how can Julie spy on Rock for both sides at once? — it’s dropped while we get a song, an aviation sequence, and perhaps a reprise. (It’s not clear why the Incompetent French Detectives never consider that Julie might be the female enemy spy confidante of Rock they’re seeking. Well, they ARE I.F.D.s, I guess.)

Apart from being a German agent who betrays her lover to get secrets from him, Julie’s character also frames him and an entirely innocent stripper for treason, which you would expect would get them shot. To save them, when she has a change of heart, she flees to Switzerland, which it’s argued MIGHT save Rock, though this sounded ropey to me. Then there’s an action sequence involving planes and a train, which seemed wrong from the start, since again Rock and Julie are not free to interact — he’s up there and she’s down here. Well, I say “here,” I mean on the way to Swistzerland.

It’s not even a proper musical, in a way. The numbers are all performed on stage, when actually bursting into song in the middle of a scene might help this movie maintain its souffle-like attitude of floating above the mire of war. And might help bind the songs to the action. In CABARET, which makes the same exact approach seem brilliant and innovative, the songs seem to comment on the action and are perfectly placed in the story. Here, they always feel like interruptions, except for maybe the saucy song which makes a key character point and may be one of the rare instances on record of nudity being essential to the plot.

This film just missed being the perfect thing to have on a marquee in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD. Robert Evans was too busy messing about with it so it didn’t come out until the following year. But if you want to watch the death of Old Hollywood (“Even the way it died is beautiful” ~ David Lynch), here it is. Even though the talents involved were not old and would go on to do lots more — this KIND of film was finished.