Saturday, January 30, 2010

A Friendly Chat

The Wife(1995)Directed By Tom Noonan
"I want to talk about my feelings!"-Wallace Shawn
Over a decade after his dinner with Andre Gregory, Wallace Shawn finds himself at his psychiatrists snow covered house in the wilderness, where his wife is desperate to meet the psycho-therapist team that's been stealing away so much of her hubby and his time. Julie Hagerty and Tom Noonan (who also directs) are said therapists who were just preparing for bed, when in comes the troubled couple. Shawn wants to leave immediately, embarrassed by the imposition, while his wife stalks room to room like a caged tiger, veering between offensive and polite with every blurted out or carefully chosen word. Hagerty too wants to go to sleep, but is too passive aggressive to kick the visitors to the curb. Noonan on the other hand thinks they should stay long enough to resolve whatever issues need addressing. Shawn: I don't like where this is going. Noonan: It's going where it's going He also enjoys his domination over Shawn and his wife (who he can silence with a whisper or slight gesture) and is titillated in more ways than one by Karen Young's edgy barbs, which she has mostly for psychiatrists and the dopes who go in for such psycho-babble. "What the fuck are you people talking about" is her echo throughout the film. Shawn is a mild mannered and pint up neo-liberal who married a dancer in a bar, one who dominates him just as much as the other characters in the film do, but who comes to represent his anxieties (which are many and varied). If you can imagine "Anti-Christ" without the gore, sex, and supernatural elements you can peer into the power plays present between the two couples in "The Wife". The evening never veers into "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Wolf?" levels of chaos, as the characters rarely reveal any deeper motivations about themselves for than more a moment. With the exception of Shawn who babbles about himself throughout the entire film, much to the other characters devious pleasure or annoyance. Noonan's direction is sparse and reserved minimalism. There is repeated image of the house with the front door open letting light pour onto the snow, of the characters faces distorted in the reflections of their wine glasses like funhouse mirrors, and an upside down reflection of the characters in a frozen lake at night lit only be torch(the place Noonan goes to "be himself"). Light comes and goes as a central theme with the characters submerging into shadows often as their emotions rise up in outbursts. Noonan doesn't stick to this visual pattern enough to become predictable, but uses it as one in a range of subtle tricks to highlight mood and emotion and keep the film from being a play. Noonan is wise enough to let his fellow actors command the screen which is a good choice because between Shawn's groveling, Young's angry philistine emoting, and Hagerty's Quaalude induced bouts of laughter and nervousness, there isn't much room left to do anything but sit at the end of the table smiling like Lucifer and delivering a single sentence of "tell me what your feeling" or "this is really happening isn't it?" Fortunately Noonan can deliver these lines and any others he has with a truly creepy finesse that really does say more with less. Outside of the house as he walks in the snow in his bathrobe, torch blazing in the dark he resembles a saint on a pilgrimage or a serial killer going to bury a body. You never can tell with Noonan. Like a John Cassavettes movie "The Wife" is an actor's showcase and it also ends a bit unresolved, piling up question onto question up into the very last scene. In the final moments Noonan does give himself the spotlight, though he cleverly leaves his face largely in the dark. Another actor or director might complain about the way he is lit in this scene and the lose of potential emotional connection, but its because of this very distance created by the shadows covering his face which make it hard to tell if he's crying, that make the scene so absorbing. It is scenes like this which make "The Wife" attractive; the hazy dance of images between shadows and low lighting and the emotional undercurrents of resentment, love, fear, and loneliness that gush up into view only to disappear again a moment later.

Jonathan Demme Loves American Music

Something Wild(1986)Directed By Jonathan Demme

"You can take the handcuffs off your free now"-Melanie Griffith"Maybe I don't want to be free."-Jeff DanielsI may be mistaken, because I haven't seen all of his films, or even most of them, but it feels like Jonathan Demme put off trying to have this much fun in a movie again until the party sequences in "Rachel Getting Married". A light rom-com beginning where uptight yuppie Jeff Daniels meets punky "free-spirit" Melanie Griffitih, who does incredibly cliche things like throwing his pager out of the window, so he can stop living by the man's rules. The crazy wish-fulfilment scenario of the impish, erotic, impulsive woman only increases, with stealing, skipping out on checks, binge drinking, and lots of sex (left mostly off camera), all in the first few hours of meeting. Halfway through Ray Liotta enters and the movie switched into a kind of brutal thriller, and still works almost flawlessly. Instead of just making a movie that happens to be set in the 80's Demme fully embraces the period, music, dress, and small sub cultures at the peripheral, punks, bikers, early hip hop, reggae, indie rock bands, etc, and films them with a sincere fascination and not just an interest in trendy exploitation. He crafts a great soundtrack here and puts it to perfect use especially in the Reunion sequence when "The Feelies" do a bunch of fantastic cover songs. Cameos from John Waters and Sussie Tissue of "Suburban Lawns" were disappointingly brief, but that's not really a complaint. The unlikely scenario develops and changes, and we lean so much about the characters as the film goes on when it does become full of suspense it's easy to get dragged into their predicament even if you've seen it in a thousand other 80's movies. John Cale of "The Velvet Underground" is responsible for the score, and David Byrne (of the Talking Heads) does the opening song, both of which seem perfect matches for the material here. Demme's love of music is what makes all of his best films shine. I couldnt imagine "Silence Of The Lambs" without Buffalo Bill's dance in front of his mirror. It's this understanding of how to appropriate pop music and perhaps pop culture in general into cinematic terms which "Something Wild's" more than it's romantic odd couple comedy, road movie, and relationship drama origins would suggest. Armond White used the phrase "multicultural heaven" to describe "Rachel Getting Married", and through "Beloved", "Philedalphia", and his various documentaries we see Demme deal with varying levels of success with cultural clashes and struggles, but in this early film like later in RGM he gives into his more Utopian impulses, and creates a diverse patchwork looking America. "Something Wild" appears on screen as America would sound from listening to it's catchiest songs (the one's you secretly howl in the shower or when no one is around). For the most part it is reminiscent of "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" in it's incredible unlikeliness, but more natural, sympathetic, and less juvenile, or like a more emotional less paranoid variation on Martin Scorcesse's "After Hours". All of the characters down to the most minor are sympathetic from Melanie Griffith's mild American prototype Mom who is not ignorant of her daughter's wildness but not judgemental either. Similarly Ray Liotta's sociopathtic husband is not a cardboard barbarian, but the kind of guy you could spend a few hours with, always a little uneasy as to whether they are gonna put an arm around your shoulder or a flick a cigarette into your face. Before Liotta appears on screen the camera fades to black for a second, cuing the film's sea change in tone, which I didn't notice at first, but is a clever device. In many ways this is a standard American romantic comedy from it's time, but in the ways that are most important it's fun, unique and endearing. As the Ebert says, "The accomplishment of Demme and the writer, E. Max Frye, is to think their characters through before the very first scene. They know all about Charlie and Lulu, and so what happens after the meeting outside that restaurant is almost inevitable, given who they are and how they look at each other. This is one of those rare movies where the plot seems surprised at what the characters do." Lots of movies are entertaining, and a good few are intelligent and emotional griping, but this movie just made me happy, from start to finish, which is even rarer. A friend of mine once told me I seemed like "The Violent Femmes type", since we were friends I accepted her slight insult and implication of twee dorkishness. While watching the Something Wild, especially during the Feelies performance, I was flashing to the Violent Femmes music video for "American Music", and remembering how charming and delightful it was. Some may find this "sensibility" annoying or a ploy, to distract from more serious issues or important themes. Such an inability to accept well developed style is not inarguable, I have been a curmudgeon for content over style many times myself. But so much of American popular music is slight, sexual, humorous, and waifash, that I feel it's a significant aspect of our culture worth enjoying on it's own terms. "It's better to be a live dog, than a dead lion"-Daniels. There is nothing wrong with enjoying popcorn-art from time to time. Every honest person enjoys some candy. It's just that one can't live on candy alone. Then again maybe I'm still reeling from Demme's sugar rush tactics here, but basically the movie feels like this extended for an hour and a half: