Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Michael Cimino (1939-2016): An Appreciation

By Steve Evans
Today let's talk about promises unfulfilled. This is mostly an excuse to scribble a bit about the director Michael Cimino, who died July 2 with his age in dispute. He told interviewers through the years that he was born in ’52, but sometimes he said ’48, while official records state his birth as Feb. 3, 1939. That would have made him 77.
The essential thing anyone needs to know about Cimino is he produced, directed and co-wrote The Deer Hunter (1978), which took five Academy Awards, earned Christopher Walken an Oscar, put Meryl Streep on the map, was John Cazale’s final film (he never saw the finished picture) and ranks among Robert De Niro’s greatest work. The Deer Hunter is one of the best films ever made and has been on my own Top 10 list since I first saw it 38 years ago on opening week. Now, if you absolutely had to know two things about Cimino, the other would be he also directed Heaven’s Gate, which did not win any Oscars, lost many millions of dollars, destroyed Cimino’s career and contributed to the collapse of United Artists, one of the original Hollywood studios. UA was founded by Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith, so it had been around for awhile.
Explaining the failure of Heaven’s Gate is an essay unto itself and others have explored this topic better than I, with my limited time and lack of inclination. I will note only that the film is worthy of viewing and ripe with great moments, though as a whole undone by Cimino’s notorious hubris, an inflexible and obsessive pursuit of excellence, and unchecked access to studio money, which financed an ungodly complex and multilayered plot that audiences, with their gnat-like attention spans, did not want to see. That's the short version of the folly that became Heaven's Gate. (For a deep dive into the fallout, read Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and Steven Bach's Final Cut: Art, Money, and Ego in the Making of Heaven's Gate, the Film That Sank United Artists.)
So Cimino’s professional life, it can be said, is one of disappointment and unfulfilled promise. He never again hit the artistic triumph of The Deer Hunter and the failure of his follow-up essentially doomed him. I encourage you to read about the last years of Michael Cimino. Variety.com ran a good obit this morning.
On the flip side, Cimino never promised me he’d surpass The Deer Hunter. I’m not sure anyone could. I’d like to explain why this is an essential film, though mostly why it impaled itself through my mind, and that is why I pay tribute to Cimino today. His career was like a bottle rocket – burning fast, red hot and quickly extinguished.
Unlike most critics and film historians, I never thought The Deer Hunter was “about” the Vietnam War. Rather, it is about three men of identical working-class backgrounds but with markedly different personalities, and how they each cope with horrific, life-altering circumstances as a consequence of going to war. It’s really a look at masculinity, of what it means to be a man and how a man responds to impossible situations.
Seeing the Deer Hunter, I most wanted to be like Robert De Niro’s character and nothing like John Cazale’s character, Stan, who doesn’t even go to war.
Stan represents the weak male, the ineffectual hanger-on whose identity depends on the men he can surround himself with. The central characters played by De Niro, Walken and John Savage (a last minute replacement for Roy Scheider, who quit the production and opted, instead, to star in Jaws 2, for crissakes) -- all present variations of masculinity and how war either defines or destroys it.
While the film itself remains a devastating emotional experience, it also has the distinction of containing the single greatest sequence of unbearable intensity and suspense in the history of motion pictures. Period. I refer, of course, to the infamous sequence where De Niro, Walken and Savage are held in a Vietcong POW encampment, forced to play Russian roulette for the gambling amusement of their captors along the most desolate stretch of rat-infested river ever seen in film. They are slapped and taunted repeatedly, guns held to their heads, as the lead tormentor screams “Mau!”
I should mention that I have seen close to 15,000 motion pictures during a lifelong love affair with the cinema. Never have I seen a more terrifying and emotionally exhausting sequence than the Russian roulette tortures endured by the protagonists of this film. It ranks among the most brilliantly constructed 15 minutes of film in the history of the medium.
This picture is unusual for its time in the intensity of its patriotic fervor and religious faith, core pillars of the steel mining town the protagonists call home. But neither God nor country offers salvation. It comes only through De Niro’s daring rescue of his friends and downriver escape. Again, that Russian roulette sequence. I actually cheer when De Niro blasts a hole through the head of his hateful captor and all hell breaks loose.
And after the war, their patriotism remains undaunted, though there’s little evidence to suggest their country remembers the sacrifice.
I saw this picture when I was 15 years old and it haunted me for days afterwards. Whenever I’ve seen it in the 38 years since, I’ve found myself in the same vise-grip of total involvement. The Deer Hunter holds up.
It seems every time I view the film I challenge myself to a different question. Three decades ago, as a boy, I wondered how I would handle myself in the same circumstances as these men. Today I know the answer. The film helped me understand the only motivation a man needs to survive. Not for God. Not for country. For my children, my friends and myself. When art helps us achieve that level of clarity, the artist has really accomplished something.
When the world screams "Mau!"
I say, "Yeah? Bring it."
Thank you for a masterpiece, Mr. Cimino. I’m no longer wondering what you might have done, only grateful for what you did.
Cinema Uprising copyright © 2016 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Bringing Up Baby for Hepburn's Birthday

By Steve Evans

Bringing Up Baby (1938), our film du jour, sets the gold standard for goofy laughs sparked by effervescent leads – Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, born 109 years ago today.

The fiery Hepburn steals the show as a ditzy heiress, but more specifically portrays the kind of woman I’ve been attracted to all my life, which is to say witty, bright-eyed, fun-loving and half-crazy. Grant plays a perpetually perplexed paleontologist trying to recover a missing dinosaur bone (an "intercostal clavicle" if you must know) and instead gets caught up in misadventures with Miss Hepburn. Hijinks ensue and, yes, love can’t be far behind.

Director Howard Hawks didn’t invent the screwball comedy, but he damn-sure perfected it with this film. Peter Bogdanovich essentially remade the picture as What’s Up Doc? (1972), although Babs Streisand and Ryan O’Neal can scarcely compare to their predecessors.

Hepburn had already won her first Oscar when Bringing Up Baby was made and she’d go on to win three more. Her Academy Award-winning record still holds today. She married only once, in 1928, and slipped down to Mexico six years later to secure a quickie divorce. It’s well known that Spencer Tracy was the love of her life, though the alcoholic Tracy never divorced his wife, and he and Hepburn never lived together. For a legendary Hollywood love affair, it seems the romance was also tragic, as Hepburn described Tracy as “tortured” and she put her career on hold in the 1960s to care for him in the final five years of his life.

Fiercely independent and possessed of a wanderer’s spirit, Hepburn is widely credited as a proto-feminist before there was a word for such wonderful women. She also single-handedly popularized the wearing of pants by women in the 1930s.

Her work in Bringing Up Baby is nothing short of magical. This is unsurprising when we realize the script was written especially for her with dialog suited to her personality. Hepburn’s seemingly clueless character is such a pain in the ass it’s a testament to her charm that we love her, anyway, and root for Cary Grant to come to the same realization. Their destination may be inevitable, but the journey is absolutely hysterical. This is a great film; one of the finest comedies the cinema has given us. No babies were harmed in the making of this motion picture. Truth be told, the film features no babies in the traditional sense at all.

If life could be more like a movie, I would want to exist in this one.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2016 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.  

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Dali Dreams

By Steve Evans

Today being Salvador Dali’s birthday, our film du jour might be Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog; 1929), which he co-directed with fellow Surrealist Luis Buñuel. And you should check out this silent short, widely available online. It's one of the more interesting cinematic experiments conceived by Dali, who died in 1989. But right now let’s look at Dali's contribution to Spellbound (1945), a lesser film from Alfred Hitchcock starring Gregory Peck as a mental patient who fears he’s committed a murder and Ingrid Bergman as the psychiatrist trying to help him.

The film quotes Shakespeare at the opening (The Fault... is Not in Our Stars, But in Ourselves...), setting the stage for an ambitious look at psychoanalysis. Instead, Spellbound soon dives into what I can only charitably describe as stagey melodrama. It’s mostly a dull film. Redemption comes in a stunning dream sequence designed by Dali, replete with his signature melting objects and hallucinatory imagery. Hitchcock always worked with the best talent money could buy, and here his work with Dali constitutes a real save, because without it Spellbound is of interest only to Hitchcock compleatists.

The famed dream sequence lasts a mere two minutes, but was rumored to have been 20 minutes long before producer David O. Selznick demanded major cuts. Selznick and Hitchcock clashed frequently throughout the production and they never worked together again, although five years earlier Hitch had delivered a Best Picture winner to Selznick with his first American film, Rebecca.

Decades later, Peck conceded in an interview that he and Bergman had enjoyed a brief, torrid affair during the filming of Spellbound. Bergman was relentlessly unfaithful to her doctor husband throughout her 13-year marriage, finally divorcing him in 1950 to take up with Italian director Roberto Rossellini, who she divorced in 1957. Peck’s marriage lasted another 10 years after his dalliance with Bergman and he married a French journalist the day after his divorce was final. I mention this merry-go-round of musical beds only to underscore how life often imitates art, as the plot of Spellbound reveals, and that in this particular case the goings-on behind the camera were more interesting than the story being filmed in front of it. Except for that Dali dream sequence.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2016 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Wake up! It's time for Sleeper (1973)

By Steve Evans 

Woody Allen’s Sleeper (1973), our film du jour, tells a Rip Van Winkle tale of a neurotic little man (played by guess who?) put into cryogenic sleep and awakened 200 years later into an incompetently managed police state, which is sorta what we can expect if wee Donny Trump gets elected. Sleeper is straight-up slapstick, with sight gags reminiscent of the silent era. Devotees of silent film will discern bits of Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton throughout Sleeper, although Woody has said he made the picture in tribute to Groucho Marx.  Woody’s character is more like Chaplin, though – a spry Everyman tangling with an impossibly obnoxious bureaucracy run by idiots. Co-stars Diane Keaton, fresh off her performance in The Godfather and in an altogether completely different role.

The humor of Sleeper would not work nearly so well without the wonderful music score, featuring Woody on clarinet performing with the New Orleans Preservation Hall Jazz Band playing Dixieland like they’re on fire. I miss Woody Allen being silly.

All aboard the Orgasmatron.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2016 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.