On Peter Sellers in Being There

Being There is playing at BAMcinématek Sunday May 15th.

Peter Sellers’s performance in Being There is one of the wonders of the movies. It is a wonder of personality, in its disparity to Sellers’s actual, miserable self; a wonder of skill, as a peerless feat of subatomic finesse; a wonder of cinematic history, in contrast to Sellers’ most iconic works of slapstick (which are no less nuanced themselves); a wonder of comedy, for remaining funny without trading a genuine moment for a laugh; and a wonder of compassion.

As a force of apolitical virtue, Sellers’s Chance is a standout personage in Ashby’s ouvre. Harold, Maude, Elgar (The Landlord), Buddusky (The Last Detail), and of course Woody Guthrie glean much of our support simply by playing for the right (i.e. Left) team. That is surely an asset to actor-audience relations. But in Being There, Peter Sellers, virtually a cipher, had to cook without gas. That there is wonder number six. Without lifting a finger, he protests harder and more thoroughly than Jane Fonda in Coming Home.

And who, exactly, is Chance the Gardener? Actually, a better question might be what is Chance the Gardener? An idiot, a retard? A Freaky Friday kid in grownup clothing? E.T.? It’s hard to imagine a precedent, which gives credence to the theory (totally my own, I admit) that the being of inquiry is on top of everything else a wholly original creation, a lone dot off the axis of tradition and unique on screen. I could go on, but I figure seven is a good number for wonders.

By now we know the “real” Peter Sellers – whatever that means – eluded filmmakers and journalists so completely, one could argue he went to his grave without leaving behind any record of his true off-camera self. Then again, for a man born – at least in his own mind – with a camera watching his every move, maybe there never was a real Sellers to begin with. If there is any clarity to be had in all this, I’ve always thought, maybe a touch too optimistically, it was waiting for us at the tail end of Sellers’s career, in the Being There blooper reel we’re treated to at tail end of the film.

I like to think that’s the real Sellers, laughing his mask off.

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On Robert Duvall in Get Low

Get Low is a misshapen, well meaning, squishy-hearted half-feature that’s both too short and way, way too long. But Robert Duvall is in it.

Mr. Duvall is one of those actors that makes everyone around him look like they’re in a very good high school production of The Glass Menagerie, that is to say, ridiculous. A few scenes into the picture, it becomes clear that alongside Duvall even Sissy Spacek and Bill Murray – on his own one of the cinema’s great miniaturists – can’t find their way to the buried, haiku-essence of things. But not our Bobby. Before he opens his mouth, Duvall lets you know just where his nerve endings are, and after only a few shots-worth of his company, he manages to unfurl himself out like a map. For the rest of the picture, he goes about dropping hints – and always indirectly – to the buried treasure.

In real life, closed off people don’t tell you who they are. They hide. In movies, where we have to see inside of people, weak actors try to cheat around it. They give their astringent, opaque characters unearned changes of heart brought on, generally, by trembling strings, the love of a good woman, or the pressures of running time. This is why no one who saw Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People will ever forget it. She never once condescended to the level of her character’s “arc,” but instead built wall upon wall upon wall, until, near the end of the picture, and at the absolute precise moment, she shattered the whole edifice and – without the help of strings – there she was. Ah. Of course. It was you all along.

In Get Low, Duval is working with a similar mechanism. A lesser actor (one, say, who worshipped Daniel Day Lewis,) would have emphasized the odd-duck, Boo Radley elements of this character, declaiming his weirdness through the picture. But not our Bobby. He reveals by showing us how he conceals. Soon the patterns emerge. A little later we begin to understand. And by the end of the picture, we’re convinced we saw something invisible. 

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Life During Wartime

Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime is that rare thing, a sequel that actually outstrips its predecessor.

I must say, I was rooting for it. I always thought Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse had been unfairly lumped into “The Films of the 90s,” an estimable category, but ultimately not fit for notable one-offs. Dollhouse was as singular as it was representative. Combining a sense of playful extroversion with a whole lot of suburban misery, the film struck a chord most black comedies of the era (and boy, there were many) did not. It was dark as hell, but illuminated from within, thanks mostly to Heather Matarazzo, the film’s slackjawed star. No matter how much grime Solondz asked us to swallow, little Matarazzo was there with a spoonful of Sweet’N Low. She was just too pathetic not to root for. Or to want to root for.

That quality was sadly absent from Solondz’s next films, HappinessStorytelling, and Palindromes. After Happiness, a blend of Bergman and John Waters, you started to think the guy was turning into a one trick pony of shock. Then inStorytelling the horse died, then, in Palindromes, he beat it. It was enough already with the perverts. We got it.

Life During Wartime contains its fair share of dead-horse-beating, but it’s far more patient than Happiness, the film that introduced us to these losers back in 1998. The difference, I think, is that in Life During Wartime, Solondz is as interested in figuring out how his sickos cope with their shame as he is in the shame itself. Happiness, for all its empathy, was really about swinging from shame to shame and cringe to cringe. Like in a horror movie, we wanted to cry, “Don’t go in there!” or in this case, “Don’t molest him!” After a while, Wartimestarts pushing up against the same difficulty, but until then, it’s a carefully balanced spinning-plate act. Right when you think a ceramic is going to slip to its belabored and miserable death, Solondz reaches out a hand and gives it a lift. Jokes keep the picture buoyant – and they’re good jokes – whereas in Happinessthey seemed only to fling the muck. Oh, but enough of that. When you have Allison Janney, Michael Lerner, and (my darling) Charlotte Rampling, who needs to worry?

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Within the first fifteen minutes, I fell into a deep sleep and dreamt I was sitting in a movie theater watching a movie – a romantic comedy, actually – about two mostly normal people of slightly-above-average intelligence, a man and a woman, who meet at a party thrown by a mutual friend. After a few glasses of wine, it comes out that both were only pretending not to know the other for fear of embarrassing themselves in the event that one remembered meeting the other and the other one didn’t. Laughing at the ridiculousness of this, the woman reaches across the buffet table for a spring roll and suggests they relocate to a couch in a far corner of the room, where it’s quieter. The man agrees. A short time later, with more wine behind them, he learns that she likes Borges, and she learns that he likes that she likes Borges. The floodgates open. They move from literature to film to the small restaurants in the uncharted neighborhoods of their vast city, and then, almost accidentally, she mentions something intimate about her last boyfriend, a guy named Ben, a Jungian dream analyst. Almost immediately, the woman tries to change the subject. But sensing her need to stay on Ben, her new friend steers the conversation back to where she abandoned it, and then stops. Was he being too pushy? If she changed course, was it a faux pas to change it back? But it didn’t matter; she was already back to Ben. With mounting intensity, she describes the apartment they shared overlooking the opera house, the operas they saw, the operas they planned to see, and soon she’s crying. Flummoxed, the man tries a joke – and then instantly regrets it. He was trying to cheer her, but did it come off as callous? Without time to explain, he is interrupted by Lucy, his high school girlfriend. Or were they never reallytogether together? And what was she doing there? At this, the woman across from him looks up, her face wet with tears, and Lucy, sensing she has disturbed a private exchange, throws out a heap of apologies and flees the room, knocking over a small Deco footstool by the door. “That’s a lovely piece,” the man thinks, and he looks down. Wiping her face with the back of her hand, the woman, smiling quite beautifully, insists that he go to Lucy. But he says he’d rather not. She tells him he should. He insists again, then she insists hoping to induce him to insist harder, which he does, then I woke up. There was still two hours to go.

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Is Albert Brooks a Genius?

I’ve been thinking about Albert Brooks since he told The New York Times he has a novel in the works – his first. Days later, I’m certain Albert Brooks is the most underrated Brooks in show business history. Richard Brooks is the most overrated.

Mel and James L. have been given their kudos, but Albert, somehow, has been passed over. How to explain this? The law of averages, I think. Brooks has directed only seven films, and he’s missed as many times as he’s hit. There’s really no mediocrity to be found in Real LifeModern RomanceLost in America, Defending Your LifeMother, The Muse, or Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World; they’re either crisply brilliant, full of clear, persuasive satire – or they thud. Perhaps this is why he’s scored an undeserved zero in the cultural impact department.

But they scales ought to be tipped in his favor. Real Life, his debut feature of 1979, is unacknowledged parent of the (now-tired) relay of media-savvy, wink-to-the-camera mockumentaries, the sort we like to trace back to This is Spinal Tap. While its true the genre has been around for longer than that – I think Bunuel hit on it the earliest, in 1933, with Las Hurdes: Tierra sin Pan – it’s only in the last decade that our interest in observing what the camera does to innocent people has hit its satirical stride (i.e. “The Daily Show,” “The Office,” and reality television). And it was Albert Brooks, not Christopher Guest, who saw it coming.

But more than simply being there first, Real Life said it best. With its combination of witty, “bad filmmaking” camera jokes (consistently subtle enough to come across as credible), and its patient, slow burn handle on psychological deterioration, Brooks’s movie is a comic amalgam of The Truman Show andNetwork. It’s obvious, watching the film, that Albert Brooks has watched a lot of television and a lot of people.

Have I mentioned Brooks has the leading role? Well, he does, and he’s dazzling in it, even more dazzling than he was in Broadcast News, a performance that earned him an Oscar nomination in 1987. Playing “Albert Brooks,” Albert Brooks, in Real Life, constructs one of the shrewdest self-parodies I’ve ever seen. And not the ironic self-parody – the one that actually congratulates the actor for having a sense of humor about himself – I’m talking about the one that levels the distinction between performer and performance. Unlike many actors-playing-themselves, Brooks invests so much intensity into his screen-self that it becomes almost impossible not to believe you’re watching the real Albert Brooks too. And in a film about manufacturing reality, that’s an essential – and indeed courageous – line to blur. Now that is spinal tap.

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Notes for a Blogpost on The Kids Are All Right

On a plane, hours delayed. Exhausted, but must write something about this heartening, misshapen movie.

Moment to moment the love shone through, and in a picture about love, that’s what you want. Still, could have used a bit of smoothing out. Naturalism no excuse for lumpiness. Why so long here? So short there? Why so little of that character and so much of that one? Why inject three-act arcs in into an honest, anti-Hollywood affront to the well-told story? (Also, lessons to be learned from Mike Leigh. When characters are given strong enough intentions, they can meander a little.)

However. Many howevers. However: points for things we’ve never seen. New ground broken? Lesbians watching gay porn and other bold (gratuitous?) sex scenes. Grownup fucking, but childish attitudes (slack filmmaking, or thematically relevant? Too late to decide.) Another however: Annette Bening’s thoughtful performance (however within however: tonally out of sync with the rest of the picture, as if she stepped out American Beauty. Yes, good, but turn down volume.)

Bit of context. Descendant of Mazursky. California liberals asking, “How much cool is too much?”cf. Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Well observed local ephemera: Acai, Whole Foods, compost, give strong sense of time and place. How many movies pick settings that matter? Kudos.

Beating a dead hobbyhorse: Julianne Moore. I told you it was hype. Next to Annette Bening her deficiencies are easier to spot. Annette is a listener, a reactor, makes strange and memorable choices. Understands her relationship to the satire. Julianne too often playing attitudes. Blase, etc. Do we really know who she is? Feel what she fears? Want what she needs?

In the end, these people live. Though the drama is limited to a few situations, many of which are not explored to satisfaction, one comes to know the family intimately. One could imagine the movie going on indefinitely, just as losing twenty minutes may not have affected much. Bening’s work is crucial. She pumps the blood. Without her, you have skits tied together with frayed strings.

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Solitary Man

I love Michael Douglas.

I admit, it hasn’t been easy. I’ve had to come around to it. Back in the eighties/nineties, films like Fatal AttractionWall StreetThe War of the Roses, Basic InstinctFalling Down, and Disclosure – made almost in succession – made it almost impossible to remember the Michael Douglas of Romancing the Stoneand The Jewel of the Nile’s Douglas, a version of the actor it was fun and easy to love. No controversy there.

Then Fatal Attraction came – and it came hard. No one expected it to get made, let alone get made the way it did, but less than no one expected it to be the hit that it was. Suddenly Douglas’s smarm, heretofore the subject of jest (Stone,Nile), was downstage center, and because it was the eighties, it was very, very real. We knew the guy. After his Academy Award winning performance in Wall Street a year later, it was official: the new Michael Douglas was here to stay. Thus the brand: a smoothie know-it-all (generally a success, generally wealthy) brought down to earth by his urges. It worked every time. Why? A combination of his “I know you and I’m better than you” smile and his God-given carnal swagger. One look at this guy and we knew just how he got so high and just how he’d fall so low. His whole story written all over him.

But the eighties ended. People lost their interest in the big guys. In the full bloom of the 1990s, they wanted to see little guys. Or, in the case of The American President, big guys made to seem completely commonplace. And Michael Douglas, whose age was softening crucial angles, was the perfect candidate. To his persona of power, he could add just a faint touch of humility. The role of President was hardly a leap.

But the apotheosis of Michael Douglas came in 2000 with Wonder Boys. Just add Romancing the Stone to Wall Street to The American President – a movie from each phase in his film career – and then – something new – a touch of crisis (he’s actually losing his famous mojo here) and you have Douglas 4.0. My favorite version.

It’s the version on display in Solitary Man. But unfortunately, our man Mike is out there on his own. The film is shapeless, meandering, both self-congratulatory and self-pitying, and worth it just to watch Michael Douglas. This is no great performance – I’m sure of that – but it’s Michael Douglas and he is good at what he does.

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Marilyn Monroe


Marilyn Monroe

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The Silent Treatment

“The American silent cinema of the 1920s gave us three great comedians,” wroteDave Kehr in last week’s Times, “Harold Lloyd, whose hyperkinetic optimism seemed the perfect embodiment of his epoch; Charles Chaplin, whose Victorian sentimentality was just a touching bit behind it; and Buster Keaton, who was so far ahead of his time that we’re still running to catch up with him.”

What is it about this period in film history that invites such useless debate? You never hear anyone debating Cary Grant vs. Humphrey Bogart, or Howard Hawks vs. Alfred Hitchcock. But when it comes to Chaplin and Keaton, it always gets hot. Why?

Don’t get me wrong. I love heat. Crave it. But where there’s smoke there’s not always fire. Exhibit A: Dave Kehr. Is Lloyd’s hyperkinetic optimism relevant only to his epoch? Is Chaplin’s Victorian sentimentality really his defining characteristic?

To those who have seen Speedy and Safety Last, the ridiculousness of the Lloyd remark is self-evident. The famous scene of Lloyd slipping from the hands of a giant clock ticking a hundred stories above the pavement is simply ageless. Comedy – silent or otherwise – has hardly produced a more eloquent expression of our most basic fear. Lloyd’s films were time and technology obsessed, slapstick comedies à la Dziga Vertov. Nothing could be more modern.

Now for Chaplin.

When oh when oh when can we retire the Chaplin/Sentimental polemic? What good has it done us? (I find it curious, by the way, that Chaplin’s team has not devised a counterattack. You never hear them nail Buster Keaton for, say, his simplicity. Like the Los Angelenos in the L.A./N.Y. debate, they are rarely on offense.) Taking this angle with Chaplin is as fruitless as condemning Billy Wilder for being cynical. It is merely a fact of his sensibility and speaks neither for or against his genius.

It is fashionable for “serious” film scholars – often highly analytic types who eschew sentiment – to raise themselves above the Chaplinesque masses by way of extolling Keaton’s craft. There is a utilitarian function to this; not only is “craft” the domain of the educated elite, it’s a hell of a lot easier to write about. Let me be clear: I mean no disrespect to Keaton – only to those who champion him at The Tramp’s expense. They have obviously never stopped to marvel at the mind that made dancing feet out of two bread rolls. Sentimental? I call that surrealism.

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