Sunday, May 6, 2012

Iconic scenes: Anguish, the fourth wall, music, commies, and Drexl

Different film scenes will resonate with different viewers. That sensation will depend on script, pacing, actor's performance, and the viewer, if not all of those. While some are widely hailed and become emblematic of the whole film or even the entire genre of film and/or the director's or actor's career, such as Clint Eastwood's "Go ahead. Make my day!" moment in Sudden Impact, others are not nearly as well known but tend to deliver on less spectacle and more execution, from my perspective. For example, I don't recall the "Make my day!" moment nearly as fondly as a scene from a few moments earlier in the film, when Harry Callahan and the assistant DA are stuck in an elevator with a former suspect (and friends) and Callahan obliquely but forcefully threatens the crook's life, while the DA shakes his head at Harry's repetition of the same approach that caused them to lose the case. That minute of screen time tells you everything you need to know about Harry, his approach to police work, and both the street and city hall's opinion of him and his methods. Furthermore, it does so with excellent dialogue by both Eastwood and Carmen Argenziano as Asst. DA D'Ambrosia ("You're a class act, Callahan. A real class act.")

Of the many scenes that people remember from Schindler's List, the one that sticks with me the most is the final scene with Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) as his workers are seeing him off before the approaching Red Army arrives, and he begins to realize that he managed to save these few hundred people, but that there was more that he might have been able to do:

Sadly, this clip ends before Neeson really makes it into the crescendo of his performance here, as he reaches for his watch and his car, thinking about how many lives he could have saved by bartering them as he had so many other personal effects. The anguish that plays on his face at this moment is both heart-rending and magnificent, as it is easily the actor's greatest performance, and is perfectly set off by Itzhak's (Ben Kingsley) repeated calm and earnest assurances that he had already done a wonderful thing in the face of so much horror and death. If being hypercritical, one could almost accuse Neeson of emoting, but if you watch closely, I think it's obvious that he's staying within the confines of the largely unemotional Schindler who is attempting to argue his case that he should have done more and is failing in the face of overwhelming emotion at his own realization and the tsunami of guilt that has finally swept in. The steady camera work, brilliant performances, and mournful, elegant score by John Williams combine to make this a scene that is both painful to watch and completely enthralling. I'm not one that tears up easily during emotional scenes (I once saw Schindler's List, Philadelphia, and Geronimo in fairly rapid succession with a friend; I think I was the only person in all three theaters who wasn't sniffling by the time we walked out) but this one grabs me in a way that few other moments have.

That's a fairly lengthy scene which needs that length to deliver its full impact, as the point is driven home, again and again, of what had been done but what could have been done. In marked contrast, the following scene is easily my favorite moment in Trading Places and takes place over the course of about 10 seconds. In it, Randolph Duke (Ralph Bellamy) is explaining the business of Duke and Duke, commodities brokers, to Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) whom the brothers have recruited off the street as a kind of social experiment to see if they can make him a "successful executive":

I've seen this scene somewhere between 50 and 100 times and, without fail, I crack up every time Eddie Murphy breaks the fourth wall and looks at the camera (in fact, I'm giggling right now...) There's a 20-minute dissertation contained in that look of disgust, bemusement, disbelief, and frustration. In many ways, it's similar to Bugs Bunny's frequent use of the same technique in some of the best of the Looney Tunes shorts, where he turns to the viewers, quietly making the deal that both he and the audience are about to entertain themselves at the expense of everyone else in the scene, because both the central figure and the audience are (at least at this point) far smarter than the rest of the cast. This is script, actor, and director finding a moment that nears perfection, which wouldn't have been possible without excellent restraint on the part of the latter two. While it was the bombast and profanity that made Murphy famous (and occasionally infamous), it was subtle moments like this one that displayed his true comic genius and which made him a true joy to watch in both film and his stand-up routine for a number of years.

A moment late in the film, The Commitments, is iconic for me because it sums up everything that the film is about and releases it in a blast of energy that shows no restraint at all. In it, the band identified as the "guerrillas of Dublin soul" by their manager, Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkin), has found their legs after a few performances and is sharing a deep bond with their audience in a small club in town, while waiting for a promised appearance by Wilson Pickett to join them on stage. As Eddie semi-frantically searches outside for Pickett's limo and intercepts a couple of the local media coming to see the band (but mostly Pickett), The Commitments give it their all on stage:

The cast is a mix of local actors and local musicians from Dublin (amazingly eagle-eyed viewers will recognize the far left backup singer, Bronagh Gallagher, as Rosanna Arquette's friend, Trudi, from the adrenaline shot scene of Pulp Fiction), so it was quite easy for the band to demonstrate a very genuine look at the local music scene and the toll it can take on lives that are already often examples of Thoreau's "lives of quiet desperation" (or not so quiet.) Even though most of the band detests lead singer Deco Cuffe (an astonishing 16-year-old Andrew Strong), the director takes time to look at the glances of admiration they cast at him while he and they are in the throes of performance. At that time, everyone: band, band audience, and film audience are on the same page and "it's all about the music, man!" The fact that the director can cut away a couple times to maintain the Pickett subplot without losing the energy of the band on stage is part of what makes the whole scene work, both alone and within the thread of the film entire.

In contrast to that explosiveness, the next scene is an extremely subtle one and it may resonate with me at least as much for political and history geek reasons as for that of performance and script. Reds was a personal project of Warren Beatty about the life of John Reed during World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution. As he was producer, director, co-writer, and lead actor for the film, it's no surprise that it tends to emphasize his understated method of performance and deep knowledge of both the character and the times in which he lived (something probably instilled in him by Stella Adler and similar to DeNiro's famous approach.) The scene, the pertinent part of which begins at 7:30 of the following clip and runs for about a minute, is a perfect example of that:

World War I was, indeed, about profits and control of the colonial empires from which those profits largely flowed. The fact that Beatty keeps the camera at a distance in order to emphasize the hypocrisy and ignorance of the super-patriot Liberal Club and only to close on Reed (Beatty) as he utters the one-word line and then sits with an expression of mild disgust on his face is emblematic of that knowledge that was in plain sight but which so many refused to acknowledge. There is a multi-layered context here and Beatty's presentation of it is not necessarily an easy one to grasp, unless one happens to share both the actor's and the character's rather cynical estimation of the world, which I do, because it demands that the average viewer not only throw off what is probably a lifetime of education promoting World War I as a "good war", but also reject the standard American obeisance to the military as the ultimate expression of service to both community and the American ideal. The fact that the entire film is about just such a realization by Reed, that his ideals soar far beyond the realities of human action, makes it that much better.

Finally, we come to Gary Oldman's greatest role. Oldman has a long career going back to Sid and Nancy and continuing up through his latest starring role as Jim Gordon in Christopher Nolan's Batman films. For the most part, he tends to follow one of two trends: either he has a complete grasp of the inner workings of the character and fills the role as if born to it or he seems to feel that the character must be played in a certain way and is determined to ham it up to push that "way" as far as it can go or at least until he runs out of scenery to chew. Examples of the latter include his Count Dracula in Dracula, Dr. Zachary Smith in Lost in Space, and Carnegie in The Book of Eli. Examples of the former include Jim Gordon, George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and Drexl Spivey in True Romance:

Oldman has one other brief scene near the beginning of the film, making his screen time a total of about 8 minutes but this is, by far, his greatest performance of his entire career, in my opinion. He so inhabits the character of Drexl that you lose Gary Oldman, which is not always the case and a rare phenomenon with any "name" actor. True Romance was a Quentin Tarantino script, even though Tony Scott directed and, as usual with Tarantino scripts, the dialogue is entrancing and the actors are given plenty of red meat with which to work. Oldman takes advantage of all of it, not attempting to dispel the obvious tension and expectation of violence that Clarence Worley (Christian Slater) expects, but instead embracing it like one fencer to another, determined to overwhelm his younger opponent with his control of the environment. He shows off an easy release and, indeed, enjoyment of said tension after he thinks the physical confrontation is concluded with the line: "He musta thought it was White Boy Day. It ain't White Boy Day, is it?" Marty (Paul Bates) doesn't even have to ask what, exactly, White Boy Day is. That's simply Drexl being in control and everyone having to answer to him in one way or another.

These are the moments which make writing about film genuinely fun. I'll probably touch back on this fairly soon, as I have a library of such moments in my head that I can recall quite readily (typically much to the chagrin of those around me.)

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