Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Arthur Penn's MICKEY ONE

And the RIP continues!  This time for Arthur Penn, and his obscure 1965 film, Mickey One

Arthur Penn's film Mickey One, starring Warren Beatty, has been compared in its approach to visual atmosphere and the unconventional cutting and slow-and-fast motion of the piece to the French New Wave.  That is it was compared to the New Wave back when there wasn't anything else to really compare it to.  Penn may have been fans of the Nouvelle Vague (he took over Bonnie and Clyde a couple of years later when Truffaut and Godard turned down the chance to direct), but I'm not totally sure the comparison could apply, except in that both French New Wave and Mickey One try to buck cinematic formula and show the particular way in such a feverish approach that is easy to replicate but hard to truly understand where it comes from.  For me, Mickey One is a kind of anomaly in movies at the time it was made: fierce, darkly funny, uncompromising, a little pretentious, a little far-fetched, and wonderfully expresses the state of mind of its character.

If it reminded me of anything specifically it might be Repulsion only with the mob put in place of just random 'things' and men to be paranoid about.  But what is Mickey One paranoid about?  That's not even his name; Beatty plays this Polish-American Average-Joe who happens to be a stand-up comic (though far from great, at best he can get a gin joint on its laughable side), loses big time at a game of craps and becomes the target of some really bad cats in Detroit.  He hops on a train and scoots over to Chicago, where he lays low - by this he lays on the low side of the class system, at first with no money, then a garbage job at a restaurant, and among the dregs of society.  And then one night he's in a club where a fairly terrible comic is on stage, and with only a few people around Mickey heckles in such a way as to get more attention with his jokes.  It's then he gets the bug back to go on stage... but at what cost?  Mostly to his sense of self-preservation.

This movie is I suppose a thriller, but it is not really a lot like the other thrillers around the time it came out.  It's like a mis-begotten love-child of film noir and jazz (actually this might call to mind comparison to one French film, Elevator to the Gallows, if only as both films have real jazz guys playing on the soundtrack, Miles Davis for Malle, Stan Getz for Penn).  It's a film luxuriating in its dark contours, the black and white a little grainy but not so much as to take away from Beatty's profile.  What makes both the film-noir aspect of a man-on-the-run from nefarious characters and low-lifes, or from the jazzy improvisation of the camerawork and editing a little not-entirely-accurate, is the bizarre nature of characters Penn throws in (or, most likely, dictated by the script by Alan Surgal).

Take this crazy contraption that is made up by the character Katamari Fujiwara plays in the film (though the actor himself didn't make it, it wouldn't be beyond reason that he could have by how he comes off on screen).  He first appears to Mickey as a random guy slamming together trash cans like cymbals.  Then he makes up this thing, which is like if one of those guys you see in the street playing five instruments at once got all industrial.  It's a "Yes" machine, which I guess is made for the audience watching in oddly rapt attention to exclaim "YES!" at the level of detail to it: it plays cymbals, it plays piano by levers attached to boots slamming against keys, it does all kinds of things... until it somehow sets on fire and the fire trucks come to put it out, creating a massive lot of foam-bubbles all over the place, swallowing up Fujiwara's contraption.

What does this have to do with anything in the plot of Mickey One trying to evade the mob?  Really, I don't know for sure.  The same could be said for random things like Mickey having to clean up his apartment room and it being shot at 16fps (a comical fast-speed to be sure in this case).  Or the same could be said for the cut-away to a surreal scene involving a dozen people jumping on trampolines outside near a river in Chicago.  Other things do make sense in the way of mis-en-scene, like when Mickey first gets off the train (and later on in the film as well) with a large car-compactor and its claws and suction-cups that attach cars to be destroyed.  The industrial chaos of this environment, how crude and black and harsh it all seems, goes together well with the mental state of Mickey's in the film.  It also makes for a weirdly hilarious moment where it looks like Mickey is running from the claw trying to catch him.  If only he'd been in Toy Story he could go on to a better place...

Penn's film isn't entirely bizarre or carnivalesque, though this is what it's attempting most along with the on-edge and sense like out of The Trial of a man on the run from forces he can't quite perceive (i.e. paranoia).  There is room for a little conventional romance - that is as much as could be allowed in a story where Mickey can't relax for too long.  He tries to get along with this girl, played by Alexandra Stewart, but at a critical point in the film even his trust in her gets compromised.  There is a solid story in the film, as Mickey gets around to being close to a big deal to do comedy/song/dance at a club, but it's a) not enough money that he'd need to pay off the gangsters after him, who seem to be almost anyone and everyone depending on the scenery, and b) the guy running the club is hooked up with the mob itself.  There is this story, but in reality Penn is more concerned as a director with revealing the psychological state of not just the lead but also what this dark side of town represents.

Penn shoots in certain scenes, such as when a girl is revealing all of her bits in a run-down burlesque, the faces of those watching, shot in close-ups that are meant to be unflattering.  Other times characters are revealed watching, observing, maybe spying and waiting to pounce on Mickey, and maybe just apart of the scenery.  The whole mood is tinged with a sense of "nothing's right here", and the cinematography and editing keeps one in suspense.  Nothing is really too predictable.  By the nature of how Mickey sees things, and by proxy how we see things, the milkman could be the one to do the big-fat-kill just around the corner.

 In some sense there is a neo-realist element to the picture; most of the characters like the vagrants on the streets or those in the clubs don't look at all like actors but local Chicagoans down on their luck or just looking for some quick cash working on a movie.  And then of course there's the music that gives the mood of the piece that hard-American-times feeling of Americana, and the locations bringing out the dark corridors of jazz beats and like, existentialism, man.  Even the stand-up scenes take on a surreal flavor, in part due to how they're cut to bring out only some of the punchlines (albeit there is one very funny scene with Beatty and an over-solo-ing drummer on stage), and especially when the effect of a spotlight comes into play: Beatty is there, on stage, nothing but a spot-light roving around without anyone elses voice, like some mad device from hell out to get Mickey for... well, his life, really.

And as for the man at its center?  Warren Beatty carries this picture as perhaps his un-seen breakthrough as an actor (the 'seen' one would probably be Splendor in the Grass... or even Bonnie and Clyde?) as he takes the film to where it needs to go as the one guy we can try and get behind.  He is flawed, he's made big mistakes, and he can be rude and brash and un-trusting with the ones he's around.  But Beatty also has a natural ability to somehow get likability, or something that seems identifiable or that the audience can latch on to (or just enjoy watching), and this is the start of a series of characters he'd play in his career who are go to some real depths of living (McCabe and Bulworth first jump to mind).  He's kinetic and exciting, charming and humorous, gets the right kind of paranoia across amid the stylization Penn is after, and one hopes that for all of the moments where he could, should, get caught and it to be the end, for him to see it through to the finish.  Indeed this is what the end, as odd as it is, has best with Beatty in its corner.

The film has some rough patches in how it cuts together in a few scenes.  Like jazz not every improvisation grabs the viewer up to saw 'whoa'.  It seems also somewhat illogical that Mickey wouldn't just flee again (though, perhaps, like a ghost possession, he thinks they'll follow wherever he goes).  Yet I really admire the film for its daring to go with the character's psychology and turn it into a film-noir really on the edge of society.  That it came out of the (then-crumbling) Hollywood system goes to show it as one of the underrated (or just over-looked) films that broke out of the 'Golden-Age' and looked ahead to the future.  As a pre-amble to Bonnie and Clyde and a tribute to The Trial, it's really a lot of fun, and important in 60's film history.

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