Friday, November 19, 2010

A Wim Wenders Film - PARIS, TEXAS

The film opens with a mysterious figure.  Not too unlike someone from the Old West, but less mythical, more contemporary: a skinny guy (Harry Dean Stanton) in a beard, a baseball cap, a suit.  He wanders into some seedy bar on the outskirts of civilization (or west bumble-hell Texas) and collapses.  He's awoken by some German doctor who finds a card in his pocket, and it's for a man in Los Angeles - the bearded man's brother.  This man, Walt (Dean Stockwell), comes out to Texas to find him and bring him back to some kind of civilization.  Travis, soon thereafter sans beard but still a mustache, can't really remember where he was coming from, or quite where he was going except... yeah, there was this town, called Paris.  Not Paris, Paris, but Paris, Texas (this quasi-joke comes up as part of an anecdote Travis has regarding his father), and he has a small lot of land on an abandoned lot that he owns.  But really where he needs to go home is to his son, Hunter, who is now 7 and hasn't seen his father since he was 3.  Neither can really remember each other when they see one another, though the bond is there, rekindled a little as it is, basically, a sweet little kid.

This is a tale that is crushing with its bittersweet flavor.  Depending on the scene, more sweet, or more bitter.  It is a tale of loss, but it's a strange thing: seeing the film for the first time, and what Wenders and writer Sam Shepherd do with the story, it doesn't feel that sad, at least at first.  To be sure there are some moments; when Walt is telling Travis about the kid at a diner- and this is when Travis is still in his 'What's dialog?' state of being- tears well up and he sheds a few at this news.  But, and perhaps it's cause of the kid being there (and it being such a shockingly good child actor, of whom are always in short supply), it feels genuinely sweet and, somewhat, innocent.

Yet it's here, typing this and pondering the movie more, that it is one of the most tragic tales of family outside of a Bergman film.  More to the point, perhaps it was Ozu's big-time influence on Wenders that made things seem so... simple watching it.  And yet it's a simplicity that covers over the complexity of what's really going on, how deep the wounds go.  This isn't usually what one sees in Ozu, such deep pain, and it's surely more in line with Shepherd, who is renown for his plays about familial dysfunction.  But Paris, Texas has the haunting, or haunted, quality of a down-and-out blues song.  This might explain the Ry Cooder music, with a slide guitar that emphasizes, yes, the West and Texas, but also, again, loss.  The feeling of mystery about Travis' circumstances, where he's been for four years, aren't of quite as much of a concern as what got him to start off on a four-year lost-world odyssey in the first place.

The climax of the story is likely to be most satisfying on the surface as a way of explaining what happened, but that's not what makes that last half hour so overwhelming.  It's... everything.  The direction of those scenes where Travis finally meets up with his former love and the real mother of their child, Jane (Natassja Kinski), is very crisp and the shot compositions are framed to such a point that everything that matters is the emotion and the characters' faces.  The cinematography by one of the greats, Robby Mueller, gives subtle but distinct colors on Travis talking on one side and the bright light (at first) on Jane on the other side, and then the much sadder/contemplative state when the room goes dark and the two can see one another.  And of course the writing, made up of the kind of monologuing that could be over-written and stagey but for Shepherd is handled with such intimacy and detail where one pictures everything that Travis says.

Yet for how much I adored the story, and how Wenders found a way to give equal time to the wonderment of dry and vast images of Texas and the open road - and to allow Mueller to use a painterly eye for lighting that is both naturalistic and ethereal like a not-quite-noir- of the eyes and part of a face in a rearview mirror on top of the screen and the road filling the rest of the frame, the melancholy state of the shots AND to the story that needs to be told, it's for me an actor's movie.  The backdrop is sincere and important, as it's an America of emptiness and decay and people who are trying to make it and sometimes just can't.  And it's this that Shepherd places his characters, and that the actors fulfill them all so richly.

I should just get on with it as, despite as good as Dean Stockwell is and for her few moments Aurore Clement as well, and how spellbinding and (when her outer layer of her "profession" is let go) tender Kinski makes Jane, it's the Harry Dean Stanton show for me.  There isn't a person that I know, and I certainly wouldn't want to know anyone but, who finds Stanton less than likable.  He's one of the character actors that defined the past fifty years, from biker movies to Two-Lane Blacktop to Wild at Heart and as recently as Big Love.  But his work as Travis is what sets him apart as something of an underrated national treasure alongside someone like George Carlin.  To be sure Shepherd can get a lot of credit for the shaping of the character on the page, or Wenders for having the wherewithal to reach out to Stanton for what is for him a kind of rarity: a lead performance.  But damn it all if it isn't the performance that makes it such a complete work of art.  And it is.

Travis is such a broken being, but not a "bad" person, at least at the state he's in when the film is set.  The whole thing urges for a repeat viewing, or multiple viewings, to really get deeper into what Stanton is doing with this character.  I knew that every little look or hesitation, or that moment early in the motel room where he looks at a mirror and then just leaves to go walk back out in the desert, was important, but it's all apart of a greater work here.

Travis has an odd way about him, or just a little off-kilter, like the way he sings Mexican folk songs as he washes dishes and puts away shoes shined, or tries to be the "rich" dad by advice from the housekeeper.  But the tragedy is there with Stanton in his performance, and comes out only fuller still in the second half of the movie.  By the time the story leads to the scenes in Houston, where confrontation and an attempt at redemption of some kind happen, Stanton is on top of it, alive in every frame, even when he seems to look subdued.  It's one of those performances you want to take home and marry.

This heaping of praise shouldn't diminish what else is great here (one might think I was comparing him to Daniel Day Lewis or something, which I'm not, that is not yet).  Paris, Texas takes a beautiful, sobering look at what happens with the ghosts of memory past, and that it's unpredictable in how it makes its turns, not in bold melodramatic strokes but more reasoned, realistically simple and sometimes painful ways, is brave to boot.  You feel shaken by it once it ends, yet it never goes so far over the top into hysterics.  It is what is promises to be: a modern Western-Drama character study that eschews most of the genre requirements, directed by a European with a precise sense of visual space and time, and what haunts us and terrifies us the most: losing it all.

Monday, November 15, 2010

James L. Brooks' BROADCAST NEWS (1987)

Most romantic comedies, you know what you'll get.  Matter of (mostly) fact, you'll know what you'll get for most of the beats to go along with the story in the first fifteen minutes.  Broadcast News eschews that expectation just a bit by giving a prologue where we see the main characters as kids, specifically we see how Young Aaron is beaten up at his graduation only to give the putdown that his bullies "won't make more than 19 grand a year!", and how Young Jane spends her nights staying up late writing news reports.  Cut ahead to adulthood and the two of them are working together at a news station.  We know this as writer/director James L. Brooks puts the title card "Future News Reporter" and "Future News Producer" under the kids.  They're those kind of people.  Not so hard to peg down in conventions of usual cinematic tropes of romantic comedies.  Not even when a typical leading-man figure in Tom - a seemingly natural newsman - takes or tries to take center stage in a triangle of Tom-Jane-Aaron.

Broadcast News handles two subjects with such class and ease, and a distinction for what makes each subject appealing for a grown-up audience, that it's irresistible, if only for those who are jaded after so many movies over the years giving us characters we are told told to care about and just don't.  One of these are the relationships, plain and simple.  Good characters just feel natural to their circumstances.  There is a scene somewhat early in the story where after Jane has bombed at a speaking engagement about the declining quality of TV (bombed in that practically everyone walked out) Tom, the one who was watching and truly engaged, goes out to dinner with Jane.  They wind up back at her apartment bedroom, but it's a mostly innocent conversation.  'Mostly' in that there is some minor sexual tension- or, no, not tension, just an air of comfortability of two people who are attracted to each other but don't act on a thing - and the conversation is on what Tom has been doing at his previous station, his nerves about moving on, not being able to write, etc.  There is an understanding between the two, and they never say a thing that feels untrue to who they are.

Having characters this good, or just mature in their own way, seems to be a rarity in movies that have a "light" quality.  And indeed there isn't anything totally light about the other subject of the film, which is news.  It isn't Network, that is to be sure, it doesn't have the teeth to lunge for the jugular like Lumet/Chadayefsky had.  And yet I think the romantic relationship that's contrasted with the 'news' portion of the story works better for Brooks as his scope of the news- coming from someone that has been in TV for a while before going into movies- is with a touch that is strong but not scathing.  The view of the news is that of, for its period, clarity: news is, as Tom puts it, about something of a 'salesman' thing to it, of the newsman putting the information but it having to be the person saying it to connect with the audience, but it's also about the conviction of a good story, which Aaron and Jane know very well.   A masterful touch is to have the most purely suspenseful moment having to do with a last-minute change to a newspiece (gotta include the Norman Rockwell and all) that becomes a photo-finish thing with Joan Cusack running through an obstacle course of a hallway to get tape in time.

There is also in the 'news' portion of the movie some more sobering passages to it.  Aaron (Albert Brooks) wants to get on the air again as an anchor and it's just one of the hardest things to figure as he hasn't done it in years.  Tom gets to him with the 'salesman' angle, helpful as he is, and there is a wonderfully sad-funny scene where he starts sweating profusely during a regular read-through of the night's news, and things turn to chaos behind him as he keeps going forward.  Later in the story there is drama- not the manufactured kind in most rom-coms of a third-act change-up but a real 'uh-oh'- as cut-backs happen at the station and people lose their jobs.  This, as with other scenes in the movie, carry and air of tricky balancing that JL Brooks manages like an assured acrobat, juggling the comedic touches to the story with how real everything is, how... adult and reasonable, but how unreasonable feelings sprout up.

The characters, again, are what make this kind of movie.  From the big three of the story to smaller characters, even Jack Nicholson's glorified bit part as the big-time nightly news anchor (his one scene where he appears off-news-camera is hilarious), these are richly and carefully drawn characters.  Sure, there may be one or two many moments where Jane just bursts out into tears.  Maybe I don't know enough news producers who have emotionally-fragile states of being.  Maybe it's meant to contrast how sarcastic/cynical Aaron is and calm/assured/sweet Tom is.  And Jane in the middle, a smart, tough, hyper-articulate gal who gives directions precisely to cab drivers and can be extremely on edge in a producer-studio.  Especially insightful and engaging are those scenes between her and Aaron, where Holly Hunter and Brooks have that real connection as actors and it translates so well with the characters. It's there too between Jane and Tom, though perhaps there is something to what Aaron goes on about Tom, "He's not the devil, he's not evil, he just lowers standards, just a little bit, a salesman."

I didn't expect to be drawn so much into the conflict, but there you go.  These are newspeople who have their own share of neuroses and moments where they can be unbearable- more to themselves than to others or the audience, such as when Aaron sulks half the time after not getting to go on air with a special live report, only to chime in on the phone with such good nuggets that feed right over to Tom in the studio- and we want to see them, come out with what they want, or perhaps what they deserve, in the end.  The news backdrop is sincerely interesting and Brooks likes the dynamic of producers-bosses-anchors-reporters, yet it's ultimately a character piece.  That William Hurt makes his character so likable, genuinely so with an air of conventional charm that isn't there with Albert Brooks (though his Aaron makes things up with self-deprecation and cynicism) is a further challenge to the conventions of the piece.  The love triangle that's there has deep feelings of fun and dread, that Jane knows at some point she just may have to choose.  But for a while, we're just along for the ride.

It's like a light-dark-romantic-not-romantic-sort-of-satirical comedy-drama.  If it only tightened a couple of spots (those of which I'd need a fine-tooth comb to really find), maybe give a couple more scenes to Nicholson and cut a little of the random crying, it'd be one of the very best of its almost un-genre-fiable kind of the 80's.  It's a character piece for those looking for something a little edgier, but not too far.  It makes a good mid-way point between fluff of the period like, I dunno, Working Girl, and Network.  Or, to put it another way, As Good as it Gets.