The Dubious Legacy of the First Die Hard

Fashionable movies often suffer the same fate as fashionable clothes. If one forges something of a new and fresh style, it's all the rage when it comes out. People can't get enough of that fresh new funkiness, and its popularity inevitably spawns a tide of imitators looking to recycle the formula for success. Then times passes, styles change, and when you look back at the originator, it's surrounded by so much excess and so many inferior carbon copies, it's impossible to see how innovative that first style-setter was.

Written by the late Carrie Fisher, 1990’s Postcards from the Edge is a fun take on a unique mother-daughter relationship. In an interview with the Columbus Dispatch in 2012, Fisher claimed that the movie wasn’t autobiographical, but at times it’s hard to separate the fictional story of a drug addict actress and her famous mother from the real-life, sometimes rocky relationship between Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds.
Directed by Mike Nichols, the legendary director behind The Graduate, Postcards from the Edge is a fun dark comedy with a touch of drama. In other words, perfect material for the director. The acting is loaded with A-list talent and, as such, is superb. Some actors, like Gene Hackman and Richard Dreyfuss, seem to have believed in the material so much that they took what amounts to glorified cameos to be in the movie, despite being top draws at the time. Dennis Quaid is perfect as a sleazy sex-maniac producer. And Meryl Streep was born to play Suzanne Vale, the daughter of Shirley MacLaine’s Doris Mann. MacLaine is wonderful, of course and some of the best quips in a movie full of great verbal barbs are given to her.
The story is about artifice in nearly all of its forms, and how it gets in the way of real, honest human communication. On one level, we have the obvious artifice of Hollywood. Suzanne has sort of fallen from grace as a Hollywood starlet and is working on various low-budget movies. How much of this is to blame on her drug use isn’t made explicit, but we can guess that it probably had a lot to do with it.
But, of course, Suzanne and Doris’ performances extend far beyond the movie set. For them, everything, every moment around other people, but especially each other, is a performance. Boy, does MacLaine deserve a lot of credit for bringing nuance to such a self-involved character. So much of this material could have gone the way of caricature, and easily, if it hadn’t been for the strong writing and directing and acting.
Perhaps the most revealing scene in the movie, save the mother and daughter’s final confrontation near the end of the movie, comes just after Suzanne has been released from rehab. Of course Doris puts together a lavish party with plenty of Hollywood types attending. The mother and daughter each take turns singing for the guests. It’s clear that both of the characters are most comfortable, most “themselves” when performing. And when they sing we see the vulnerability, the raw emotion and the heartache that both characters are full of come bubbling to the surface. Maybe “You Don’t Know Me” was a bit too on the nose for Suzanne’s song, but it’s thankfully one of the few very obvious parts of the movie.
After Suzanne overdoses and is (thankfully briefly) seen in rehab, the premise of the story kicks in: Suzanne wants to get back to work on a new film, but the production company’s insurance people won’t take the risk of having her on set unless she stays with a “responsible party,” and by that they mean a parent, and since her mother is the only one in town...well, you get the idea. Her mother is an alcoholic and part of the humor of the situation is that she’s hardly a “responsible party.”
Everything leads to the Big Confrontation, of course, the moment when both characters drop their sarcasm and humor and bon mots and really bare their souls to each other. This is necessary, of course, if their griping at each other throughout the movie is going to have any meaning. During this final scene, we have some of the most piercing lines. “You only remember the bad stuff, don’t you,” Doris says to Suzanne and, gee, what adult son or daughter can’t relate to the feeling that they’ve been way too hard on their parents? And Suzanne gets hers in too: “You want me to do well, just not better than you.” Well. Of course there’s a tearful reunion at the end and things get a bit overly-sentimental, but it’s touching in its way and we realize that stripped of all their defense mechanisms, there’s real, intense love between this mother and her daughter.
Monday, 23 January 2017 00:00

Mick Jagger's Great Performance

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According to Erving Goffman’s theory of dramaturgy, everyday human interactions are a kind of performance. An individual’s personality changes based on the situation, context, relationship to the person being interacted with, etc. Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s film, Performance, shot in 1968 and released in 1970, is an extreme but extremely effective illustration of dramaturgy at work.

Performance was the first film as a director for Donald Cammell, who also wrote the script. (One of many rumors about the film holds that the script was co-written by co-star Anita Pallenberg, though she wasn’t credited.) It was also the first time at the helm for Nicolas Roeg, who was brought on as co-director because, though Cammell was good with directing actors, he needed help with the look of the film. Because Roeg had twenty years of experience as a camera operator and director of photography (including second unit work on Lawrence of Arabia), the movie looks amazing. The color palette is always vivid, especially the reds, which nobody except perhaps Argento would later use as effectively.

The film opens with quick shots of rockets exploding in the air followed by an overhead shot of a chauffeur driven car, which is intercut with Chaz (James Fox), who we’ll soon find out is a brutal, terrifying enforcer for a ruthless gang boss, having rough sex with a beautiful woman in his London apartment. Chaz, a former prizefighter, lives in a world of unbridled masculinity and unquestioned heterosexuality, and he takes this role very seriously. Chaz is so hyper-masculine, in fact, that he actually loves the brutality of his job. Early on, we’re treated to a montage of several scenes wherein Chaz shakes down people who have crossed his boss Harry Flowers (Johnny Shannon) in one way or another. In one particularly memorable scene, Chaz is shaving a limo driver’s head while a couple other goons pour acid on the car, ruining it. Chaz momentarily considers pouring some of the acid on the limo driver’s head, but the goons remind him that they only have enough for the car. Chaz casually figures maybe next time. There’s a weird professionalism about the scene and even if there’s a cynical sarcasm when Chaz tells the goons, who are helping Chaz put shaving cream on the poor bastard’s head, “No soap on the gentleman’s collar,” the goons obey him. The role of a professional, someone who is by the book, even if that book is quite askew, is something that Chaz takes great pride in.

But Chaz’s professionalism gets tested when Flowers sets his sights on acquiring a gambling business owned by Chaz’s former childhood friend and later boxing rival Joey Maddox (Anthony Valentine). Even after viewing the film twice, I’m not quite sure what happened between Chaz and Joey, except that probably Joey beat Chaz in a boxing match, and maybe he cheated. It’s kind of vague, like a lot of the movie. Anyway, the point is that Chaz really, really dislikes Joey, and Flowers realizes that this is going to be way too personal for Chaz and tells him to sit this one out. But Chaz just can’t keep out of it. When Chaz goes rogue and pays a visit to Joey, we get the first hint of Chaz as a person who’s capable of going beyond his strict social roles. His ego overwhelms his otherwise very strong impulse toward conformity.

Chaz’s confrontation with Joey goes about as well as you might expect, with Flowers chastising him and giving the nod to Joey to exact revenge. Ambushed by a couple of Joey’s guys and stripped down to his underwear and whipped with a belt, not only is Chaz beaten, but the masochistic act is a direct challenge to his masculinity. To really drive the point home, Roeg and Cammell intercut the belt whips with pictures that Chaz has of himself in various places around his apartment: pictures of shirtless Chaz, of Chaz in a fighting stance with boxing tape around his hands. Quite heavy-handed, yes, but it does the trick. Chaz’s hypermasculinity is perhaps the biggest put-on in his life.

Chaz, always good at what he does, manages to trick Joey’s goons into thinking he’s passed out and then overpowers them. Quickly dispensing with the goons, he points his gun at Joey and says one of my favorite lines in a highly quotable film, “I am a bullet,” and fires. I don’t know exactly what’s meant by this, if indeed anything concrete is actually implied, except perhaps that Chaz has fully and enthusiastically taken on another role: that of the total embodiment of violence and revenge.

So all this business of killing one of his gangster boss’s associates certainly isn’t good for Chaz. He’s certain he’s a dead man, so he mixes toothpaste and red paint and puts the gunk in his hair to disguise himself as a redhead and thinks about getting out of town, but at the train station, he hears a guy talking about a basement room in an old mansion that’s just become available. The building is owned by a guy named Turner (Mick Jagger), a famous musician who hasn’t released any new music in years. Chaz figures that this vacated room might be a good place to lay low while he gets a friend of his to retrieve some cash he’s saved up, so that he can get a fake passport and get the hell out of the country. In order to fit in with the “bohemian” atmosphere, Chaz poses as a juggler, a ruse that Turner and his two female companions immediately see through.

From there, the movie really kicks into its exploration of roles and rules, gender fluidity and sexual politics. Where does one person’s performance and the other’s begin? That kind of thing. Pherber (Anita Pallenberg), a stunning blonde, very feminine, is Turner’s main companion while Lucy (Michèle Breton) is a kind of free spirited hippie who seems to have kind of wandered into the scene. Lucy is interesting because, in addition to being quite beautiful, she’s Jagger’s doppleganger. She looks like him, her body is as boyish as his is girlish. She is as masculine as he is feminine. Turner is the one who wears makeup, while Lucy wears none. This was all pretty extreme as far as late 60’s identity politics went. Pherber explains Jagger’s Turner quite concisely when she says, “He’s a man, a male and female man.” Pherber sees this as the only authentic way to live, to not deny any portion of your personality. But, of course, Turner’s act is just as self-conscious as Chaz’s hyper-masculine stance. It’s the kind of thing that gives him a mystery, a power, especially over women.

In the climax of the movie, Pherber and Turner feed Chaz mushrooms without him knowing at first, only telling him when he’s deep into his trip, and it’s here where Chaz’s personality totally breaks down and something he said to Turner the day before, “I’ve got to fit in, Mr. Turner,” is amped up and he fits in by becoming, for one night at least, a member of bohemia, something he had despised only hours before. Pherber and Turner begin by taking the polaroid that Chaz will need for his fake passport. But they make the pictures intentionally artsy, really just to fuck with him. They dress him up as a noirish gangster, make double exposures on the film. When Chaz says that he just needs a regular photo, Turner replies, “What photo, of who?” which is really the crux of things. Which Chaz? Which Turner? Which Pherber? Is it all a performance or can we find something authentic underneath, at the base of things. Is there a “real” Chaz? Is there a “real” Turner?

The movie doesn’t answer this question, but it seems to weigh heavily on the side of yes, there is a sort of  “authentic” self but it’s a deeply buried thing. The movie seems at least on the verge of arguing that personality is always situational, that people are never really themselves, never simply masculine, never simply feminine, perhaps paradoxically, never simply androgynous either. But it also argues the opposite: that there is an authentic self to be found somewhere in the unconscious mind.

By the end of the film, both Turner and Chaz seem to respect each other’s performance, and perhaps even understand each other a bit. Androgynous Lucy, who loathed Chaz the gangster, slips into his bed after he’s coming down from his mushroom trip, but at first it’s Turner getting into bed with Chaz. For no more than a second and a half, we see Turner get into bed with Chaz, but when Chaz turns around to see who got into bed with him, and it’s Lucy. The transition from Turner to Lucy is seamless. Not only do Michèle Breton and Mick Jagger look so much alike, but the scene is editing in a way that the audience is actually surprised by the transition. Chaz even mentions that her skinny frame and her small breasts make her look like a boy, but whereas he might have reacted to that violently in the past, he’s very matter of fact about the observation now.

For whatever reason, Performance is almost as well known for the legend that surrounds it as the film itself. Unfortunately, much of the rumors and controversy surrounds lead actress Anita Pallenberg, who had a long association with the Rolling Stones. She was a model who first dated Brian Jones, but left him for Keith Richards after Jones became physically abusive. In Richards’ autobiography, Life, Richards wrote that Jagger and Pallenberg had an affair during the shooting of Performance. For her part, Pallenberg denies the affair. There have also been rumors that Jagger and Pallenberg actually had sex while filming their scenes, but no footage of this has surfaced.

One of the stranger parts of the Performance mythos is the story of Michèle Breton, who played Lucy. Performance is the last of three film credits for her, though if you blink, you’ll miss her in Jean Luc Goddard’s Weekend. Essentially this was her only feature film role with any meat to it. Her role as Jagger’s female doppelganger is small but very important. A teenage runaway, Breton was heavy into drugs. Living in Kabul some time after filming Performance, it was there that she finally quit drugs, after a bad LSD trip. She was alive at least until 1982, when Mick Brown tracked her down for his book Performance: A - Z. She was living in Berlin. After that, who knows. I couldn’t find an obituary for her, so one assumes she’s still alive. Whatever happened, her story is that of someone whose star shone brightly for a very short time and then quickly flickered out. But what a star, what a light.

Friday, 16 December 2016 00:00

Quick Hit: Doctor Strange

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The Marvel brand is a fairly homogeneous one.

Well, it was the muddled mess I'd been told to expect, but it has its virtues. Briefly:

WB & DC have presented a clear introduction to, and launching point for, their combined cinematic universe. This is the universe that all movies will co-exist in moving forward. After seeing the movie, something bothered me. It’s not that the movie is bad (which it is), nor that it has a nonsensical plot (which it does). After stewing on it for a couple of days, it is clear to me that WB & DC have made a conscious decision for the DC Cinematic Universe (DCCU). For inexplicable reasons that decision is to place the DCCU in a Bizarro universe.

Let me step back here. I questioned even writing a review. I thought, “What more can I say about BvS that hasn't already been said? And do I even want to say it?” That's maybe the biggest indictment against BvS. My reaction was so “meh” that I question if it is even worth discussing this movie. I could have talked about Mad Max Fury Road for days. I could and did talk about Star Wars The Force Awakens for weeks. But BvS is so mediocre, it doesn't seem worth the time. It is neither bad enough to warrant a scathing review, nor good enough to be worthy of mounting a defense.

Big Ross joins the CC2K Star Wars discussion with this SPOILER filled essay.


Still with me? OK. Of the many opinions being voiced about Star Wars The Force Awakens (TFA hereafter), one I’ve heard here on CC2K and elsewhere is that it is great fun, feels like a Star Wars movie, but is such a rehashing of Episode IV (and other elements of the original trilogy) it may as well be a remake. If it’s not clear, this last bit is a negative thing. CC2K alum Joey Esposito went so far as to say realizing this broke his heart. This is something I want to discuss a bit more.

First of all, I loved TFA. I had a blast watching it, and rode a high that lasted the rest of the day (and enjoyed it tremendously on a second viewing). Tony Lazlo nailed it when he said it looks and feels like a Star Wars movie. Abrams and company managed to capture that old magic, and that accomplishment alone is worthy of praise. And while others find reason to complain about the plot/remake aspect of TFA, I can’t say that I do.

I realize that I wrote recently about being worried that TFA would pull a Jurassic World and play the nostalgia card (for the record, I can’t believe how much I nailed that; I should go buy a lottery ticket or something), but in hindsight, I can’t say I’m surprised. Star Wars hasn’t been the vision of an imaginative, daring young filmmaker for a VERY long time. And once it was bought by Disney, and they announced they would make Episodes VII-IX, the chances of it ever being that again were slim to none.

One thing I’m sure of is that geeks and nerds the world over, ever since the announcement of Episode VII said the same thing. “It can’t be worse than the Prequels.” These words were spoken with hope tinged with desperation. I’m sure Disney execs said the same thing, but with none of the hope or desperate quality. For them it was simple determination driven by the fact that they invested an astronomical amount of money into acquiring Star Wars. Now that they had it, they were going to be damn sure that they were going to make a profit off of it. That meant one very simple thing.

There is absolutely no way they would give Episode VII over to some daring young filmmaker with a vision. It doesn’t matter if it was the greatest pitch in the history of Hollywood. Daring and different would be received as risky, and risky is the very last thing Disney would want. So they brought in Abrams, who proved he could not only reboot another venerable sci-fi franchise with Star Trek, but launch it to new heights. So we got TFA, and the rehashing of plotlines and elements from the original trilogy. Familiarity, nostalgia, these are safe bets. Sound investments.

I’m not saying you can’t or shouldn’t be sad that TFA wasn’t daring and new and different. But really, can you blame them?

And Now for Something Completely Different

I want to defend the use of Starkiller Base in the context of the movie. Rumors of yet another superweapon circulated in the leadup to release, seeming to be confirmed by the image on the poster. Having seen the movie, we know that The First Order built an uber Death Star. We can complain about the absurd physics of it, though in a universe where ships the size of X-Wings can make hyperspace jumps and maneuver the way they do in space and planet atmospheres, StarKiller Base is par for the course. No, I want to justify its existence altogether. I think there’s is an in-movie reason for seeing a superweapon built for a third time.

Imagine you are the command structure for a military regime bent on galactic domination and subjugation. Option A is to build an armada of ships so vast, an army of soldiers so extensive that you can deploy them, conquering and holding hundreds of worlds in star systems scattered throughout the galaxy. The logistics of this seem if not impossible, then unmanageable. How big would a military force have to be? Would they have to be in constant motion, moving from system to system quelling rebellion after rebellion and quashing resistance wherever it arises? How quickly do your troops burn out from constant deployment? How do you maintain your fleet of ships? How many resources does it take? Isn’t there an easier way?

Enter Option B. A nuclear option of sorts. Instead of the costly, logistical nightmare of conventional interstellar warfare, you build a superweapon. A battle station that can destroy whole worlds, or entire star systems in a single stroke. You demonstrate the power of such a weapon, relying on the fear you inspire with your willingness to use it to keep systems in line.

Maybe it isn’t just preferable, but necessary. Or simpler, easier, or more cost-effective. And yes, maybe some lucky, Force-sensitive pilot blows up the first station you build, but until that moment it was working! Would military commanders or political leaders give up on the idea so easily? Think of the real world politicians and the war on terror. The setting, enemy, and circumstances have changed over the years, but the answer trumpeted by some leaders has been the same. Whether it’s been Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, or Syria; Al Qaeda, Saddam Hussein, ISIS, or Assad; the solution has been unchanged. Air strikes. Invade. Troops on the ground. A surge, a sustained surge, a new surge.Remove Hussein from power. Remove Assad from power. Again and again and again, the same solution to solve these problems. Is it any wonder the despotic rulers of The Empire and The First Order are so quick to keep going back to the superweapon well?

The Force Awakens is finally in theaters, and the spoilery discussions are starting to roll out online. We here at CC2K were so moved by J.J. Abrams' revitalization of the Star Wars universe that we convened an emergency session of four of the original founders of the site -- Tony Lazlo, Rob Van Winkle, Lance Carmichael and the Red Baron. Together we talk about what we liked and didn't like about the seventh entry in the Star Wars series, as well as what we hope to see in future installments.


Big Ross debates with himself whether or not to be worried about the upcoming return to that galaxy far, far away.

Over the weekend the official poster for Star Wars The Force Awakens was released. On Monday the final trailer for the film debuted during Monday Night Football, was shortly thereafter released online, and the internet (rightly) lost its damn mind in response. Oh, and tickets for the movie officially went on sale, and sites like Fandango promptly crashed do to the hordes of rabid Star Wars fans clamoring to get opening night tickets. It’s safe to say that the stakes for this movie couldn’t be any higher.

Which begs the question (at least in my own mind), should we (I) be worried about it? What if it’s terrible? Or (possibly worse) just mediocre? And do I have any reason to think that, or should I trust my feelings that, as the trailers promise, the first Star Wars film in a decade(!) is going to be as amazing as it looks. To try and sort through all of this, I’ve decided to argue with the only true worthy opponent I have: myself. I’ve color coded my arguments in a manner I think you’ll easily understand. Let’s begin! Oh, and there may be some SPOILERS that come up, so be warned!

Black Maria staff writer Kyle Turner discusses the Merchant-Ivory adaptation of The Remains of the Day, recently released on blu-ray from Twilight Time.