Thursday, April 21, 2011


Inspired by the wonderful Old Spice Commercials with Terry Crews, here's a little series I might do from time to time, double reviews with an actor, director, writer, whatever, since double is better than one.

This week: John Cassavetes - the actor, not the director:

In the book 'Cassavetes on Cassavetes' (or as close to an autobiography we have of him, which is an interview with film professor Ray Carney), Cassavetes mentions that before Faces the only two films he had anything to do with that he was proud of were Shadows- which, naturally, was his first feature and one of the few cinematic examples of something like jazz (true improv)- and this film, Edge of the City.  Maybe it was due to the subject matter, being about something simple (two guys from different backgrounds working as longshoreman who become friends just based on getting along and mutual trust and respect) with the more 'topical' stuff (racism, class) being secondary.  Or it was because it's a film much like On the Waterfront that gives its characters room to have realism unlike melodramas of the past?  Or it's just cause he's that damn good in the film, and knew it while making it.

A scene early on with Axel North (real name Axel Nordman), who seems adrift in the night in New York City and calls up his parents who are in Indiana (though we don't know what at the time), seems to indicate what Cassavetes might have found in the project so worthwhile.  Here he gets to behave moreso than traditionally "act", which is like being himself.  In this scene with the phone call he covers the phone receiver and speaks, but no one on the other end can hear him, and it's a very sad and tense exchange of words as the son can hear but the parents cannot.  It's a scene like this that shows Cassavetes in a sensitive moment, vulnerable, which helps a great deal once he's set against the man he works for, the brutish and unsubtle racist Charles (Jack Warden).  Luckily at the job he meets an upstanding guy, Tommy, played by Sidney Poitier, and the two become close friends almost by chance (Tommy trying to get closer and closer to the sorta sky Axel).

 Seeing these two actors together, and how well they're able to work with the natural dialog by Robert Alan Arthur that allows them to speak more like regular people from the period than like movie characters, is what really makes this movie.  Some of the story gets a little far-fetched in the third act (how simply a key character is laid to waste in a fight), but director Martin Ritt never loses sight of how Poitier and Cassavetes behave around each other.  One is more reserved (and for good reason, being a war deserter and with a bad secret from his past with his younger brother, "the only person I ever loved"), and one more outgoing in his friendliness (Tommy being a guy who likes to hang out, talk, romance with the ladies).  And for the time period it set an example that other films needed to try and steer towards: not being overtly anti-racism, though the film has some of that, but just showing clearly how people can get along, as people.  Poitier would a year later try a little more for this in The Defiant Ones.

Watching Cassavetes is also a key to the film's success; when he tells Poitier the story about his brother, suddenly the film slows down from the pace it has when Tommy is in charge of the conversation as a warmhearted (if sometimes pushy) kind of guy.  It's a story that allows Cassavetes room as an actor, the kind which would probably influence him with his own actors.  Also another scene that displays how generous he could be and how spot-on (or just effortless) his timing was is when he talks with the girl Tommy tries to set Axel up with, played by Kathleen Maguire.  He seems so out of the loop of it, but as a genuine and nice guy he's able to connect with her.  As an actor he also lets us know how messed up Axel really is, sometimes without having to say anything - just a look would do, though Tommy sometimes asks for more.  And in the last act, it gets to a point that has some of the finest work Cassavetes ever did.

Ritt understands how this world works, how people can either get along together, or not as the case with Jack Warden.  He seems to be such a sonofabitch, kind of like Lee J. Cobb in Waterfront only less of a higher-up kind of guy.  Even he as a cartoonish villain comes off genuine in how he reacts to things.  It says a lot when a director can get a one 1/2 dimensional character to seem convincing.  Edge of the City has that, as a kind of character-driven noir film.

As another film in a long-line, much like Orson Welles did for many years, done more-so to pay the bills for the next feature film as director than for any kind of real 'passion' for the project, Machine-Gun McCain acts, walks and talks like a gangster genre picture.  And from Italy no less.  It has a similar kind of beat to it like Point Blank where you have a real tough guy gangster (Cassavetes) who is out of jail and has some payback to deliver to a super-criminal organization and based more on principle than anything else.  He decides to pull a rather crazy casino-heist job, but not with the same kind of crew or expertise that Ocean's Eleven might've had.  No, instead, when not laying his hot Euro-girl (Britt Eklund), he's preparing by himself to bomb the shit out of the casino and make off with the cake in a rather twisted premise.

Giuliano Montaldo's film is spare on character exploration - this is not the kind of film that Cassavetes would make himself, not in a thousand years - but is good on making things 'cool' in the heist-movie sense.  The little we know about Hank McCain is just enough to keep the story going.  There is some supporting character stuff with Peter Falk's gangster who is in some heat over some bad business going on behind the scenes (lots of tense shouting going on in some of these scenes, it looks fun to play but who knows on Italian productions), and absolutely nothing really to Eklund's character.  I wondered throughout the film why she would go on with all of this what Hank was doing.  Who is she and what is he to her?  I guess who cares ultimately except as someone to carry the explosives and drive the car in a clinch.

More interesting in the film, though sadly underused, is a character Gena Rowlands plays (both Falk and Rowlands being Cassvetes regular players) who was an old flame of Hank McCain's way back when, and Rowlands gives this character a lot of unexpected depth in just five minutes of screen-time.  She shows up since Hank needs some help in the last act of the story, and their chemistry on screen (notwithstanding being real life husband and wife) is electrifying, and she has a dangerous quality that speaks of being a femme fatale but a really good egg to the right people.  A scene right after this when she's being questioned by some hoodlums on the trail of McCain is perhaps the best scene of the movie; how much of this was some decent direction or just Rowlands way about the scene I don't know.

Cassavetes, too, thankfully, helps anchor the film when it could get into a lull.  He has some kind of concentration about him, whether he's scoping a joint out or gambling at a casino table or if he's talking with a few lunkhead lowlife criminals who are plotting a caper that they want to include him on, that makes Machine Gun McCain so enjoyable.  The story itself is just okay, it moves along at a decent enough pace, but it's mostly just an excuse for the action to take shape (which, admittedly, once you see what McCain has in store in this heist, it's really one of the more incredible and daring scenes in heist movies from the time).  But with the star there, it's an odd but compelling presence that makes the film itself much tougher.  There's one scene especially where McCain pulls out his machine fun (hence the name), and it's a scene of dark, intense power, mostly from him saying little at all.


(Hey, it was 4-20, why not see a movie with the word 'Weed' in the title?  ... not quite what one might be expecting, and definitely NOT a stoner movie, but... whatever)

While I wish I could do describing and admiring Floating Weeds justice, I know I'd be far from being able to write about it with such love and admiration and spot-on clarity that Roger Ebert had with his review.  But, I can try, anyway.  This is a film, gorgeous in compositions (it's Ozu though so 'duh') and wonderful in its pacing, that much like Late Spring is filled with sadness but leveled by a contemplation of what comes with people's decisions in life and where it takes them.  In this story it's about an acting troupe that descends on a small fishing village and the actor Komajuro (the amiable except when he isn't older man with a past played by Ganjiro Nakamura) reconnects with a woman who mothered his child, and the child now full grown thinks he's his uncle. But Komajuro has a new flame in the acting troupe who gets jealous of his affections for his son (who is not too subtle for affection for him), so she, Sumiko, comes up with a scheme to get another of the girls to seduce his son Kiyoshi.

Now, most of what I just typed you could find on IMDb's plot synopsis.  What about the film itself?  Well, how much more can be said about Ozu in general that hasn't been said, and this film being a quintessential work in a body of films that go from one to the next with the same approach visually - people talking to each other but in breaking the 180 degree rule by having them speak to the camera with very little change in eyeline, the ground-level camera almost like a baby viewing things or a little animal, and no panning or moving the camera (for Ozu it might as well be still photography but with some animated actors - and minor changes in theme. 

Or a more practical question: where are his eyeballs??
Floating Weeds' pleasures are in seeing the little moments of comedy spike out, like a bit of "eww gross girl" comedy with one local resident with bad teeth who tries to hit on one of the actors, or just some of the dialog that goes on with the troupe that feels real and intimate.  And Ozu doesn't shy away from moments that are just flat-out adorable (hey, he's Japanese after all) like when the little kid is performing on stage and statching at all of the sushi bits.  And the supporting characters all have scenes and moments where they get to breathe as real characters, such as the three male actors who sit around at night wondering what to do with their time before the troupe eventually, possibly, won't go together again (I can't really repeat the dialog here, it'd rob the scene of its amusement and pathos).

Yet there's also a pleasure to be had with the dramatic part of the story too.  The story didn't quite grab me, though I was certainly never bored, until about the halfway point; up until then the father coming to see his boy again after so long and there being that connection was pleasant and moving, but nothing so special as to make me amazed.  It wasn't until the element with the girls in the troupe, specifically that of Machiko Kyo's character Sumiko came in, that the film picked up dramatic steam.  And even then Ozu wouldn't kick things too far into the melodramatic soap-opera turns.  That's something that is so wonderful about him, and it's something in his other masterpieces Tokyo Story and 'Spring': he cares about all his characters, especially the screwed-up girls who get no respect from their 'Master' Komajuro, to cheapen things.  Or perhaps it's a Japanese-restraint kind of thing; what lies underneath is so raw and passionate that is just has to burst out sooner or later.

Sumiko's plan ultimately backfires with the stalwart and pissed-off Komajuro (and Ozu is so good with this that he lets his actor make it so electrified, which Nakamura is more than aptn to do), and we see one of the high points of dramatic tension come out in a scene between Komajuro and Sumiko in an outdoor scene in the rain.  Why are they apart arguing like they are?  Later Komajuro gets mad at the girls, both Sumiko and the younger Kayo, but those scenes he's closer to them and lets them have it.  But this time they're arguing back and forth (lots of "whores" and "bitch" goes out, something unexpected for me), and the rain keeps pouring as they're under an awning.  And Ozu only cuts maybe once or twice in the scene, mostly it's just a medium master shot of the girl on one side and the older male master on the other.  Maybe it's a suggestion of nature being a much stronger force than they can try and combat.  Or they just don't want to get wet.  Either way, it's the kind of scene I want to revisit just for the sake of studying why it's choreographed that way, and what psychological effect it has.

"Do you really want to hurt me?" "Believe me if it wasn't so soggy I would!"
One of the really masterful touches in the film is how Ozu illustrates this place that they're at, this muggy seaside village where most of the time it's wet or people are sweating, and the film even begins with someone saying "It's hot, it's going to get hotter" as if it'll go into a Do the Right Thing storyline.  And oddly enough at first I thought the film would take on the quality of being on vacation - like the guy who throws around fliers for people to come out to the show and makes a big number of just handing out fliers, something sweet and out of the ordinary - though later it takes a different turn that I could have thought.  Ultimately what happens at the end, what decisions the father makes with this family and messed up situation he's made of things, is fascinating and sad, but what I loved was how there's a foundation for everything that's happened and that this dramatic upheaval comes down to something as contemplative as the shots of what's outside: the flowers, thee statue by the ocean, the buildings in perfect synchronicity.

You probably might need to be in a certain open frame of mind for a movie like Floating Weeds; those who come to it and a few minutes in and say "it's too slow" should shut it off and be done with it, cause it won't get particularly "faster".  It's a filmmaker who wants to absorb the audience into a frame of mind to take in a drama that is hard and brutal, but is told with an elegance that makes you ponder the world and the people in it.  It may have a few little moments that don't add much to the main story, but it's hard to complain when so much of the film - and shot in color that makes everything vibrant but only so much that we understand what color can do, the bright primary ones and the more faded blacks and browns, the contrast so brilliant here especially from a director mostly in black and white his whole career - is so well done.  It's tender, tragic, with a sliver of hope near the end but so bitter that its sweetness if hard to see as that train pulls away into the night. 

Or, to put it another way, it's a film about putting on a "show", of life that is, and its a minor masterpiece in form.