Sunday, March 27, 2011

Something Wild (1986)

Girls of the World Ain't Nuttin' But Trouble

directed by Jonathan Demme
starring Jeff Daniels, Melanie Griffith,
Ray Liotta

"You're a great girl. You've got a few problems but you're a great girl."

Any guy who says he's never done a Wile E. Coyote over the cliff in pursuit of a girl like Audrey is either lying or packing more fudge than a scoop of Rocky Road. Something Wild is the straight male experience encapsulated: it's what happens when the Girl of Your Dreams appears out of nowhere to grab you by the balls and bust you out of that straitjacket you call your normal self. One hit of the funky stuff and, before you know it, you're soaring through clouds, giggling like a schoolgirl who just got diddled by the hot new guidance counselor as you're looking down, watching your attention-less existence get tinier and tinier.

That's what Jonathan Demme captures perfectly in this light comic wheelie around the outskirts of Femme Fatale City. All it takes is one half-assed display of rebellion — skipping out on his lunch check — for Charlie (Jeff Daniels) to get picked up by Melanie Griffith's kitten-voiced wet dream Audrey. She practically kidnaps him from his day job and, as she's tossing the baggage of his white-collar life out the window of her car with a bottle of Seven Crown glued to her lips, you're wondering along with Charlie: just how far is her attention-whore-passing-as-free-spirit thing gonna go? Well, first, she sharpens Charlie's skills in the art of lying — how to bullshit one's boss while handcuffed to a motel bed, how to escape an Italian restaurant with an angry cook at your heels. Then, she tosses her new pupil into the deep end: she takes him home to Mom and passes him off as her husband.

And that's where Audrey finally emerges from under that black vixen wig. Turns out she's neither nut nor Barbara Stanwyck, but a good-hearted blonde who's made her share of fuck-ups and spent life with her legs wrapped around the wrong guys. Of course, as real life often has it, her journey of reinvention isn't complete without dragging some hapless men through the mud for fun. (So a few proprietors get stiffed along the way; so Charlie endures potential arrests and a near-beatdown — big whoop!) At least in Hollywood's version, it leads to his own personal discovery as well.

Besides, Demme pulls off a neat little hat trick. That breezy '80s comedy formula that lulled you into a sense of security — horndog impetuousness as a means of injecting life into the wrinkly gray hide of Reagan's America? (Complete with hip, lovable blacks as window dressing?) Well, it skids hard into a brick wall about halfway through. And that brick wall is Ray (Ray Liotta), a steely-eyed psycho who just happens to be Audrey's real husband, heretofore unmentioned. Hubby's a stick-up man fresh out of the can, determined like hell to get his wife back — as determined, in fact, to shed the skin of his last few years spent rotting in the pen as Audrey and Charlie are to be reborn. (In liberal Demme's view of America, everybody in mainstream — read: white — society wants to escape their pasts.)

Demme seizes the occasion of Charlie and Audrey's visit to her high school reunion to bring the past vs. present theme right to the surface. ("Spirit of '76 Revisited," indeed.) And his blend of the comedic surface with the gradual blossoming of those darker, more desperate undercurrents is so skillful, in fact, that — like Charlie himself — you don't see what's coming until it's right upon you. Ray Liotta couldn't have been better suited to the embodiment of said undercurrents if he'd been born Dennis Hopper. He clashes with all that joyous-lovebird spontaneity around him — he's all calculated eyeballing and practiced charm; far too smooth in his movements, his physicality. Clearly, the mental rehearsals for the re-wooing of his wife have gone into overtime. And we don't doubt for a second any of the sinister shit that Ray's used-car-salesman smile keeps hinting at. The key, though, is that Ray's as true-blue as Charlie is. Like Hopper's Frank Booth pining for Dorothy in David Lynch's Blue Velvet, this is true love — true love the only way a violent sociopath knows how to express it. It's that same helpless floating feeling that Charlie's just begun to experience, except Ray first felt it long before and he hasn't crashed back to earth yet. Doesn't Charlie know that Audrey probably gives most men the willingness to "do whatever it takes"? Does he really think he's the only one, that he's special?

Turns out: Ray the Ex-Con would quite literally kill for the Norman Rockwell married life that Square Charlie — the movie's true Unconventional Soul — could do perfectly well without. That's no screenwriter's cute idea of irony, that's Demme extending his clear-eyed humanity to all the characters, not merely the ones with whom we're "supposed" to identify. He's no less an auteur with this, a "mere '80s comedy," than he was at the helm of Silence of the Lambs or Philadelphia, and his touch is there with every stroke, every nuance. The catty glances Audrey exchanges with the pregnant wife of an old classmate at the reunion? Pure Jonathan Demme. The absolute cupcake of a blonde teen stuck behind her gift-shop cash register — a future Audrey creaming her panties over Ray, hilariously desperate for a journey of her own? Pure Jonathan Demme. The way the framing suggests that Charlie's left arm has been "cut off" as Audrey seems to be sailing out of his life for one brief, miserable instant? Audrey fluttering off like a fart in the wind and sending Charlie into a Vertigo tailspin, chasing after "Lulu" lookalikes in the street? That priceless look of realization on Ray's face? Demme, all the way. 

Something Wild remains an exemplar of the great cinematic theme of the Ronnie Raygun years: the previously untested values of Clean-Cut Preppie America coming face to face with the Evil Empire lurking right in our own backyards. (Drug-sniffing perverts in Blue Velvet, Fright Night's charming next-door vampire in the middle of suburbia, vigilante mobs and all-around art-community weirdos in Martin Scorsese's After Hours.) But where After Hours and Blue Velvet represented a return (of sorts) to the status quo, Something Wild at least has Charlie declining to put those white-collar handcuffs back on, after all is said and done.

And take it from a former corporate drone: young, firm-breasted Melanie Griffith or no young, firm-breasted Melanie Griffith — that stands as its own romantic triumph.

©2011 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Sudden Impact (1983)

Sam Peckinpah, Thou Art Vindicated

directed by Clint Eastwood
starring Clint Eastwood, Sondra Locke,
Pat Hingle, Bradford Dillman, Paul Drake

Funny how tastes change. I first saw Sudden Impact as a wee tyke during its initial theatrical run. (Naturally, my mom took me to see it.) And, after Halloween and The Fog and watching William Hurt smash through glass to get some of Kathleen Turner's Body Heat, Sudden Impact became the film I couldn't stop babbling to my confused classmates about between sips of CapriSun. Suddenly, dust colored my E.T. doll and my collection of Hot Wheels — I was too busy playing with the right-wing vigilantism that San Francisco's downest-and-dirtiest cop so unambiguously shook his pom-poms in favor of. I bounded through the house with toy pistol in hand, pulsating with medieval emotions stirred up by the film's climactic boardwalk shootout, blowing away scumbag after scumbag (in actuality, our Siamese cat) in an awesomely orchestrated orgy of exploding squibs and backward-flying stunt doubles. Other kids wanted to be Luke Skywalker or Han Solo? Pfft, other kids were gay. I wanted to be Dirty Harry Callahan, a fucking righteous dispenser of ask-no-questions frontier justice.

Of course, I was a child then. Now, I'm all grown up — a man, alright? And this man has no choice but to grind underfoot the rose-colored shades of childhood nostalgia and publicly admit that the Dirty Harry films — with the exception of the Don Siegel-helmed original — are strictly Shit City. Gabbage.

Mind you, it's not that I suddenly object to all that wiping-out-the-scum-of-society stuff that caused critics to label the Dirty Harry franchise "fascist." Pissing off conservatives takes neither effort nor imagination — time and again, Republican hackles have been raised by the most innocuous things on the planet. Pissing off liberals, though — inducing supposedly well-read college graduates to label you an enemy of social progress — well, that was Inspector Callahan's stock in trade; something much trickier to pull off. If you're, say, Don Siegel or Sam Peckinpah, it probably means you're giving voice to a worldview other than the one held dear by the Hollywood set — and doing so in a matter-of-fact way devoid of condescension or easy moralizing. Refusing to simplify human nature for pampered idiots who never actually rub elbows with the unwashed proletariat they so passionately champion/decry from the perch of their senior-year dissertations and Salon op-ed pieces — yep, that'll get mouths foaming every time.

And it's not that I now object to the violence in these films — hell, I like violence in films. Violence is a needed fantasy, demanded by our own savage breasts and wet dreams of personal retribution against exes and obnoxious neighbors and needle-dick bosses. Sure, Axl Rose told us that "vicarious existence is a fucking waste of time" but let's face it — vicariously plugging a sneering rapist full of .44-caliber holes and foiling asshole bank robbers while tossing off terse one-liners is nothing less than the raging blood inside our collective morning wood. Violence in the right directorial hands is cathartic. Balletic. It's the sauce on the rigatoni, the freckles on the redhead, the guaranteed come shot that makes the guns-and-machismo porn of the action genre worth sitting through — if we're being honest with ourselves.

Thing is, the violence in the Dirty Harry sequels doesn't go far enough — it doesn't resonate. There's no social context for the wave of crime that Harry finds around every corner, in every diner and every bank — a social context that might lend some gravitas to Harry's one-man mission to clean up the streets. If Dirty Harry's world more closely resembled our own, we'd have a supercop as stymied and as troubled by sociopathy and random violence and increasing dehumanization as we are. Flashes of self-doubt — "Am I certain that punk whose sternum I just air-conditioned was the right guy?" "Am I sure I'm not twisting the law to fit some darker psychological purpose of my own?" — would not only render him flesh-and-blood but would mirror our own concerns about the potential that all cops have for abuse of power. His need to wipe out that which bedevils him would be the same impulse that fuels our fantasies of vigilance — those instincts of middle-class keep-me-safe-ism that keep us voting for law-and-order types who promise to build more prisons and put more cops on the street. And then, we might have something to chew on once the credits rolled.

In Sudden Impact, though, the baddies are so carelessly, casually drawn that it's hard to tell whether Eastwood the director wanted to wrap things up so he could hit the golf course by 3 p.m., whether the script was a first draft scribbled on toilet paper between shit-bombs in a men's room on the Warners lot, or whether the actors were just bottom-drawer leftovers from the Bad Guys Casting Co. Even in the real world, our rapists and robbers and pseudo-revolutionaries — however worthy of lifelong imprisonment, castration or a Sundance indie marathon they might be — generally have a personal need to do what they do. They're disgustingly, uncomfortably human; the black-sheep kin that Abe the Accountant has no choice but to acknowledge with a shudder and the shame of an averted gaze. Here, though, their scumminess isn't a feature of their personal derangement or their need to make the world suffer for their drunken-whore mothers and absentee daddies — it's simply setting up those paper targets for Harry to blow holes in. So what do we get? We get a post-Seventies black robber who can't even call Harry "sucka" and make it sound convincing. We get cackling, eye-bulging psychos who cry out "Get the biiiiitch!" and return to rekindle the rape-flame of several years past for no other reason than to conveniently place themselves within Harry's reach. Forget plausibility. Forget motivation. Forget three-dimensionality. Good little boys and girls have come to see the man with the big gun put the bad guys in the dirt, Hollywood, and we don't have time for any of your god-durned fancy-pants complications or ambiguities or moral implications.

Harry lets the Sondra Locke character go once he knows that she's been the one going around blowing the balls off of her former attackers. And the film sanctions this — stupidly. Not because said rapists didn't have some form of retribution coming, but because the film paints using the simplest fucking Crayola colors imaginable and doesn't have the brains or the moral honesty to make us question whether or not there might be the potential for something darker in this woman's psyche. Sudden Impact presents us with two supremely damaged individuals — self-righteous, humorless robots with no friends, no semblance of a normal life spent in the regular company of other human beings. Clearly, these are people who live for the almighty kill, fueled by a messianic attachment to the unquestionable rightness of their beliefs. Basically, either character is about a hair removed from your garden-variety fundamentalist whack-job or abortion-clinic bomber. So low are the film's expectations for its own audience that it figures it can just give us a cardboard killing machine with the slightest wisp of motivation, stamp "hero" on his (or her) forehead, and we'll buy right into it.

In Dirty Harry's world, only two types of characters exist: cardboard cut-outs of American regular-ness whose deaths spur Harry on to his next orgy of violence and scumbags who Harry must gun down. Harry barely even stops to notice the deaths of his friends and partners — not much longer than it takes for him to pause and scowl. The worst, by far, was Tyne Daly in The Enforcer. Here's a woman who gets gunned down her first week on the job, trying to save a wishy-washy mayor with a bad comb-over from hippie-terrorist kidnappers and all she gets for her trouble is a slight grimace from Harry as he stands rigid over her bullet-riddled body — a grimace so slight it could just as easily have been triggered by shitty reruns of Three's Company or indigestion from too many lunchtime hot dogs.

And poor Albert Popwell. He graduates from foiled bank robber who "gots ta know" in the first film to sadistic pimp who gets blown away in Magnum Force to twitchy sell-out in The Enforcer to the plot device he plays here: Harry's token black buddy who stops by just to get called Sambo by our band of thugs and have his throat slit. Well, how else are we going to nudge Harry toward that big come shot of vengeance that the film's been pumping us up for, right? (Never mind the fact that Harry actually shows more rage at what the pricks did to his still-living bulldog.) Black characters are great in that way — when they're not pimps, G's or dealers, that is. We screenwriters don't have to spend a week taking notes in Compton for "research" — we just tell the audience that Leroy is our hero's best bud, no matter how contrived or unconvincing said friendship may be. When you need to jolt the audience with a bit of tragedy, or show 'em what your villains are capable of without killing any meaningful characters (or adorable pooches), just off the black guy. Works every time.

The end result is the kind of action film that a genuine artist like Sam Peckinpah was accused of making: nihilistic, meaningless violence in service of some vague cinematic "fascism" — essentially, I Spit on Your Grave cleaned up for the Age of Reagan, with the same level of moral intelligence (bad) and none of the tits or all-around sleaze (worse). It's the kind of film that brazenly steals diamonds from the display cases of its betters and figures you won't notice the bits of broken glass inside the ring box — hey! there's Sondra Locke shooting her mirror reflection in post-homicidal disgust just like James Coburn in Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid! how 'bout that climax on an out-of-control merry-go-round just like in Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train! Well, here's my come shot — and I can't make this any messier: it's clichéd, underwritten, lamely staged horseshit like Sudden Impact that ultimately destroyed the American action film. Bye bye, Peckinpah and Walter Hill and William Friedkin; hello, Jackasses Who Would Pass Off Ben Affleck As a Bank Robber or Will "Clean Rap" Smith As the Pop-Eared Savior of Humanity.

So Sondra Locke killed those who wronged her and she's morally spotless. What happens when this damaged wreck of a human being decides to shift her definition of what "being wronged" is? What if, years down the road, she ends up in a relationship with a man who tires of her android self-righteousness and dumps her for another woman? What if that, too, is considered grounds for a .38-caliber hole in the family jewels once the label of "abandonment" or "emotional abuse" has been slapped on it? What makes this wronged woman any more righteous in her killing than any other kind of wronged person — is being a victim of rape all it takes?

Would 1983 audiences have been justified, then, for cutting down Warner Bros. execs in cold blood due to this film's rape of their precious two hours?

©2011 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic
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