Criminal: Rumble Fish

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Hours are like diamonds, don't let them waste

Time waits for no one; no favors has he

Time waits for no one, and he won't wait for me – The Rolling Stones

Time. Once you hit the teen mark in life – what a beautiful horrible time that is. Dreamy and crazy and banal and violent – in action or in mind – melodramatic and real and hormonally addled. In the case of Rusty James – sometimes not so smart, but oftentimes intensely poetic – in movement, in words, in the way you look at your surroundings – be it your drunken dad’s apartment, your girlfriend’s intelligent beautiful face, your older brother’s odd, sad, sleepwalking swagger, and listening to that older brother even if you don’t understand half of what he says. And then there’s those brightly colored rumble fish in the pet store… they need to be free. And they have very little time.

Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish presents and ponders these dreamlike feelings of teen-hood as an expressionistic mood piece – a reverie that feels of this world and out of this world but so rooted in an emotional truth that the picture, at times, feels Shakespearean.

The start of my piece on Francis Ford Coppola's masterful, beautiful "Rumble Fish" -- in Ed Brubaker's next Criminal -- read the rest in the newest issue --  look for it today.


Sight & Sound: My Talk With Tarantino

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Out now! The Newest Sight & Sound with my interview with Quentin Tarantino. Quentin and I dig into a lot. You do not know just how thrilled I was about our Ralph Meeker discussion and DiCaprio’s discovery of him, among other things...

"Across an effusive nine-page interview with Kim Morgan, Tarantino unpacks the alternative history he invented for his star creation, shares the deep-Hollywood tales he gleaned from Bruce Dern and the late Burt Reynolds, and explains how both DiCaprio’s discovery of Ralph Meeker and Brad Pitt’s father’s love of TV westerns fed into DiCaprio’s characterization."

Buy a digital copy or look for on US newsstands....


Ten with Tarantino: Once Upon a Time ...

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Excited to announce this film series --  starting tonight

In anticipation of Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood, Quentin curated ten films from the Columbia Pictures library -- the dates ranging from 1958-1970. Ten films that influenced his masterful movie. I've joined Quentin to dig in and discuss these fascinating movies (our conversations all shot at the fabulous New Beverly Theater) so please, do yourself a favor, and check out these pictures.

Watch on the Sony Movie Channel from July 21-25 -- the series airs five nights, in more than 80 territories worldwide. There's also some sneak peek scenes from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, opening this Friday, July 26.

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Here's the list of movies:

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969; director: Paul Mazursky)

Cactus Flower (1969; director: Gene Saks)

Easy Rider (1969; director: Dennis Hopper)

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Model Shop (1969; director: Jacques Demy)

Battle of the Coral Sea (1959; director: Paul Wendkos)

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Getting Straight (1970; director: Richard Rush)

The Wrecking Crew (1968; director: Phil Karlson) Hammerhead (1968; director: David Miller)

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Gunman’s Walk (1958; director: Phil Karlson)

Arizona Raiders (1965; director: William Witney)

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Be there or be square!


Rip & Tuesday: Farewell, Rip Torn

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Farewell to a goddamn original, baby. Rip Torn, whose career lasted from the 1950s and into the 2000's has left us and there are many roles I want to write about -- Payday, Maidstone,  Sweet Bird of Youth, Coming Apart, Cross Creek, The Man Who Fell to Earth... and so much more, but here's one I love of early Rip Torn -- on the early 60s TV show Naked City. He tore up the small screen here... He was one of my favorites. Won't be another one like him ever again.

Young and beautiful oddballs Tuesday Weld and Rip Torn -- together -- in sickness and in health. Underscore sickness.  Madly in love, madly in lust, the actors play two recently married, demented hillbillies in heat like ardent caterwauling kitties -- cute as hell but dangerous to disrupt lest you’d like your eyeball torn out of your socket. Gorgeous, wild-eyed sociopaths (named Ansel and Ora Mae) driving down from the hills of Arkansas and into the mean streets of New York City, they yell about traffic, argue over dolls, fix their sites on wedding rings, grab guns and gobble frog legs cooked up by Torn in their dingy motel room. They also get it on -- obviously. After child bride Tuesday playfully antagonizes Rip, laughing and hitting him with a pillow, they fall to the bed in a haze of pillow feathers, picking feather from hair, lip and lashes. And then kiss passionately.

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We don’t see them consummate their lust further than that. We don’t need to because it’s all there. But we see them kill. They shoot a police officer, a guy selling a gun, customers, and workers in a bank, among other victims who are also assaulted for their car or punched for money and attacked for dynamite.  Yes, Rip Torn manages to steal some dynamite if that’s not poetic enough considering his presence. And when she, Weld, witnesses any of this mayhem, we see Tuesday get turned on by it. This is not some movie I dreamed up. This is an episode of a television show that those familiar with it surely know what I’m talking about, and one that likely lodged in many lucky kid’s minds after he or she switched on their parent’s GE console in 1962.

Riptorn1This was the third season of the excellent, influential television show Naked City -- episode 13 -- entitled “A Case Study of Two Savages,” scripted by Frank Pierson (who would later co-write Cool Hand Luke and Dog Day Afternoon) and directed by William A. Graham (who directed series like 12 O’ Clock High, The Fugitive and the TV movie, Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones). As with many Naked City stories, this one (from 1962) dared to not only shock early TV viewers with its outburst of violence, but offer little relief or explanation about such real-life occurrences inspired from the outside world (this one, by Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate who had rampaged only a few years earlier and who are mentioned in this episode specifically.) The influential, gritty and still-hard hitting Naked City (created by Stirling Silliphant, who later wrote In the Heat of the Night), shot on location in New York City (the series was inspired by the superb 1948 Jules Dassin noir, The Naked City, which was inspired by famed NYC photographer, Weegee), offered no easy condemnations of the criminal’s actions and instead a cynical, searching dose of complexity and shading. There’s a lingering question that hangs over many episodes featuring future movie stars (just to name a few: George C. Scott, Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, James Coburn, Burt Reynolds) -- Why? And that why is not answered. It’s never going to be answered.

As the two young ones drive into the city, the narrator attempts to present some reason for their casual approach to killing, Torn’s in particular: because men are born to kill. It’s only that society has progressed and kids might have been raised semi-right (and Torn’s character ain’t), that they might overcome the killer instinct. As he intones:

“15, 000 years ago, man came out of the caves. Today, whenever we encounter the violence and the savagery to which belonged to those times, all we can do is marvel at how far the human race has come in only 15,000 years. When Ansel Boake was four-years-old he killed his first thing: one of his mother’s chickens. After Ansel killed his mother’s chicken, his father thrashed him. By the time he was 16, Ansel had thrashed his father. Ansel Boake had no friends, he never learned to read, he never held a job longer than three months. But he could wander in the woods without a compass and not get lost. He could live off the land, killing food with gun, knife, snare, fishhook or rock or his bare hands equally well. Ansel Boake met Ora Mae Youngham eight days ago. Six days, fourteen hours and nine minutes ago, they were married. In the last six days, fourteen hours and nine minutes, Ansel Boake and his wife Ora Mae have shot and killed a filling station attendant in Frankfurt, Kentucky during the course of a hold-up, knifed a motel manager in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and shot and killed a hitchhiker they picked up in Elizabeth, New Jersey.”

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And then they drive into the city … oh, boy. While the show’s lead, Det. Adam Flint (Paul Burke) has run into a drugstore while his partner, Det. Frank Arcaro (Harry Bellaver) waits in the car, Arcaro notices an automobile next to him with a broken plate. Arkansas. He nicely warns the drivers. He’s just letting them know. Ansel quarrels, alarmed or maybe just itchin’ to kill, and he shoots an officer dead. He also shoots Arcaro. Bang. Bang. It’s a stunning moment to see straight away, loyal viewers wondering if Rip Torn just iced a favorite character. Arcaro doesn’t die, but he’s later seen in the hospital, high on morphine talking about how his mother made sure he wore clean underwear every day as a kid (an intriguing moment of vulnerability), and then asks Flint, Why? “Find out why that character shot me. It’s on my mind. Why?” Flint becomes obsessed, even a bit crazed, trying to find out. Meanwhile, Ansel and Ora Mae wander around the city, taking a carriage ride (Ansel drives the horse and whips it, which feel perverse when Torn does it), robbing a bar, a gun store and stealing a car. By the time they decide to rob a bank, Flint’s caught up to the lovers and suddenly the near hour-long running time feels too short. Ansel’s shot dead and Ora Mae sobs over his body. It’s done? We want more of them.

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What a sight, those two massive talents – these two one-of-a-kinds. Titans. The future Pretty Poison and that sexy hothead who later bashed Norman Mailer’s head in with a hammer. Man, they should have made a movie together. They did, The Cincinnati Kid, but that wasn’t together. But they should have done something like this again. They’re just burning with charisma here. Two brilliant actors in their youthful prime, already notoriously tempestuous and unpredictable off-screen, not quite knowing the cult figures they’ll become a few decades later. They are so believably psycho, yet so watchable that they feel dangerous to desire (and many desired Weld at this time; getting turned on by Torn must have been a radical jolt). And though playing backwoods scumbags, the actors brought such counterculture hipness and unusual feral intensity to their parts that you had to wonder what people were thinking as they watched in their living rooms. Do I like them? Terrence Malick would weave his transcendent tale later.

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Invading Gotham from the country, Weld and Torn mirror the city’s instability, darkness and kink. They’re scary. They’re beautiful. They’re sexy. How can they not be? The show had to know by casting Torn and Tuesday as thrill killers, the viewers would feel a stirring that made them either exhilarated or uncomfortable. Torn’s cocked-eyebrow handsomeness, his native Texan authenticity, his puckish sometimes demonic grin, his eyes, brooding to laughing to inviting to downright insane is electric bouncing off of Weld’s teenage talent and loveliness, her lushness and mysterious eyes, sometimes placid, sometimes excited, her curiosity and, here, kittenish sexuality mixed with her intelligence and her weird, fascinating wickedness -- she can be sweet as pie but also, wonderfully, not right in the head. We’re drawn to this pair, they promise sex but they also promise violence. We wonder why they’re so fucked up. (We wonder if we’re fucked up) We’ll never know. Nor does Naked City, which, once again, asks, why?

Burke understands the reasons why Ansel shot everyone else (to steal), but why Arcaro? He asks the girl: “Your husband shot him also. Why?” Ora Mae answers: “I don’t know. Just for the hell of it, I guess.”

From my Kill or Be Killed essay.


Criminal: Woman on the Run

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Out today! Ed Brubaker's newest Criminal in which I write about Norman Foster's atmospheric, gorgeous & moving "Woman on the Run" starring Ann Sheridan in one of her greatest performances. Order here

From my piece:

"Ann Sheridan (the “Oomph girl!” – a moniker she detested. She once said: “Oomph" is what a fat man says when he leans over to tie his shoelace in a telephone booth.”) gives one of her greatest, perhaps her greatest performance here: Tough, but vulnerable, jaundiced but sophisticated, she’s able to light up when she really starts to see that her marriage has been muddled by a dreary fog. And they both (she and her husband) let it happen. It’s powerful and disarmingly moving that the picture’s finale occurs on what’s often representational of love: a rollercoaster (up and down and up and down and a lot of screaming and laughing and fear) and Sheridan is so moved to finally see her husband, that she screams his name with fear and love. It’s a beautiful moment... 

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"Sheridan plays a woman who appears to have a hard heart tamped down by disappointment and marital atrophy – but as the movie reveals, she is full of love and understanding once she really opens herself up again. Marriage is viewed through a dreamy, demented landscape here, but it’s part of the institution’s tumultuous journey. A key moment in Woman on the Run occurs when, before Frank flees, he’s asked by an inspector if he’s married. His answer: “In a way.” Yes, in a way. But by the end of the movie, what that really means, romantically, is, it’s their way."

Read the whole essay here

 


Happy Birthday, Marilyn Monroe

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One of the most arresting images I’ve ever seen of Marilyn Monroe came not from a movie or newsreel footage or one of her many photographs. It came from a blanket.

Driving through Death Valley on a long road trip, I stopped in a tiny town for gas and a cold drink. Few seemed to live in this town: it served as a pit stop, a place to either check your radiator or check your mind (or, in my case, both) — one of those locales that offer such a bare minimum of services that a candy bar has never tasted so good. Delirious from hours of 70 mph signposts, I stumbled back into my car, feeling as if modern civilization had melted around me. For months, I’d been working on a piece about Marilyn (a cover story for Playboy . She was never pleased about that centerfold, though she handled it with great spirit, as nothing to be ashamed of ).

Marilyn had been on my mind nearly every day. And then … there she was. Driving away, I spied Marilyn on the side of the road, 20 feet from the gas station. With a mixture of excitement and a strange sadness, I jumped out of the car and stared. Her face was hanging from clothespins, blowing in the breeze, next to an open garage. A warm blanket in the hot sun, set against the blue sky, flapping and undulating in the merciful wind, her face changing shape and expression. This desolate desert Marilyn, so frank and alone, just hanging there, cleared away all the clutter of so many T-shirts, stickers, shower curtains, pillows, purses, wall clocks, and coffee mugs — all those Marilyns you walk right past in any given gift shop on Hollywood Boulevard. A little hypnotized and maybe a little crazy, I thought of how Marilyn described herself, as the woman who “belonged to the ocean and the sky and the whole world.” I had to film it.

That was the summer of 2012, the 50th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s passing, a year when Marilyn was on many people’s minds, whether they wanted her there or not. I did want her there, so much so that I was flooding my mind with all things Marilyn, which, given the seemingly infinite amount of material out there, isn’t hard to do. Reading and rereading the books and biographies, rewatching her movies, staring at her photos, and visiting the Hollywood Museum’s Marilyn exhibit (where, among other personal effects, dresses, shirts, telegrams, prescription pill bottles, and notes to Dr. Greenson were on display), I became consumed, as so many have before me.

Out there in the desert, I thought of Marilyn and John Huston’s gorgeous sad end of the line, The Misfits — one of my favorite Marilyn performances and movies. And, again, I thought of the other misfit, Marilyn. I thought of her marriage to Arthur Miller (and I thought of my own marriage which was worrying me ... and staring at the lonely blanket of MM, for the purpose of decoration and for the purpose of warming a stranger, almost brought me to tears).

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End of the line ... Her once hope-filled marriage -- this brilliant, world-weary, haunted, mischievous, smart, artistic woman emulates The Misfits fading cowboys. A movie star in a cruel industry wondering how much time she has left. But still a movie star for sure, but one beset with a gorgeousness that's a little beautifully worn, wise. a little, almost, sick of herself. Troubled ... Which, to me, makes her all the more beautiful. Real. And real life spilled into the picture with Miller — sick of her marriage, but really did she want it to end? Probably she did. Perhaps she didn’t. One thing is for sure: the movie had to end. The marriage had to end too.

Marriages end in Reno. They start there too but they end in that dusty strange place. As Marilyn said:

“When we were first married, he saw me as so beautiful and innocent among Hollywood wolves that I tried to be like that. I almost became his student in life and literature . . . But when the monster showed, Arthur couldn’t believe it.” “I disappointed him when that happened. But I felt he knew and loved all of me. I wasn’t sweet all through. He should love the monster, too. But maybe I’m too demanding. Maybe there’s no man who could put up with all of me. I put Arthur through a lot, I know. But he also put me through a lot.”

Indeed he did. But Marilyn is so charitable here. As Miller, said, “I had no inkling of what to do or say anymore and sensed she [Marilyn] was in a rage against me or herself or the kind of work she was doing. She seemed to be filling with distrust not only for my opinions of her acting [in The Misfits], but also for Huston’s.” Her rage. In herself in Miller. Her distrust."

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He had “no inkling” what to say but he has a pretty good inkling regarding her rage ... take a look deeper regarding that rage. And those reservoirs of rage under that beautiful blonde face and body is why she is brilliant in the movie. It’s hard to know what to say. Just let Marilyn release it. So as Monroe screams, in her big, blistering moment in The Misfits, filmed in a haunting, almost unmerciful long shot, making Monroe a speck of blonde hair and denim in the desert while the men observe and comment on her words from afar — Ii’s perfect. And so powerful. She has to scream, almost an invisible creature in the desert and the dust as the men look with differed expressions. She needs to be heard. Monroe hollers:

"Killers! Murderers! You're liars! All of you, liars! You're only happy when you can see something die! Why don't you kill yourself to be happy? You and your God's country! Freedom! I pity you! You're three dear, sweet, dead men!” 

She understood those words. Miller must have too. And we do too... We try to understand and we never forget Marilyn.

Why is this so? Why Marilyn? I’m not entirely certain unless it’s because she’s so ever-present that you start to project your own qualities and feelings onto her. The more you study her, the more you excavate her history and personae, the more you find yourself using her as a mirror, and the more you find that she reflects something back at you. It seems silly at times, this obsession, this rendering, this exorcism: she’s just a movie star. Yet “her story continues to grow,” as S. Paige Beatty reflects in American Monroe: The Making of the Body Politic (1995):

"And as it grows it assumes new meanings and possibilities. Those who tell Marilyn’s tale negotiate myriad ways of being in America past and present. The dreams, conspiracy theories, photos, tributes, postcards, and refrigerator magnets run together with increasing speed only to crash in a heap of detritus at the feet of the angel of history. Looking back over her shoulder, Marilyn rushes forward, compelled by the wreckage piling in her wake."

Beatty wrote this beautiful passage almost two decades ago, and Marilyn’s still rushing forward, still looking over her shoulder nearly 20 years later. It’s doubtful she’ll ever stop.

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That year of 2012 Marilyn deluge found her gracing magazine covers from Vanity Fair to Playboy, and starring in a new documentary (Love, Marilyn) as well as several new books (Marilyn by Magnum, Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox, and a rerelease of Norman Mailer’s Marilyn, with photographs by Bert Stern from her last sitting). She inspired a storyline on the TV series Smash, a line of MAC makeup (the color collection was referred to as “distinctly Marilyn”), and starred as ghost spokeswoman for a lovingly crafted, surprisingly moving Chanel No. 5 commercial, which used her famous, provocative answer to the question of what she wore to bed: “Just a few drops of Chanel no. 5.” Chanel surprised viewers with Marilyn’s own voice, taken from an interview conducted soon before her death, as if she were speaking from the grave. And Marilyn loomed large, quite literally, when in a 26-foot tall, 34,000-pound statue, “Forever Marilyn,” was moved from Chicago to downtown Palm Springs, her white Seven Year Itch dress fluttering and enormous. Marilyn was not only everywhere that year: she was elevated, in stature and in sophistication.

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Now that the anniversary had passed, the flood has slowed but had not let up. In March 2013, a 33-page comic book titled Tribute: Marilyn Monroe, written by Dina Gachman, illustrated by Nathan Girten, and colored by Dan Barnes, was released. The comic covered the star’s sad, glamorous and tumultuous life: her humble, heartbreaking beginnings when she was shuffled through foster homes, her young marriage to Jim Dougherty at age 16, her divorce, her early modeling career, her struggle and rise in Hollywood, her famous marriages to Joe DiMaggio and Miller, her movie roles, and her eventual downfall. It’s a sensitive, celebratory ode to Monroe, with some charming, unexpected details that prove Gachman did her homework: for instance, the fact that teen Norma Jeanne cooked peas and carrots because she liked the colors (something ex-husband Dougherty relayed in an interview), and the story of how Marilyn and her early roommate, Shelley Winters, got drunk with Dylan Thomas, who then crashed into Charlie Chaplin’s tennis court.

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I was worried, for a moment, when I read Gachman’s Indiewire essay, in which she admits that, upon receiving the assignment to write about Marilyn Monroe, she didn’t have a “huge amount of respect for her.” But, predictably, extensive reading and research resulted in a newfound appreciation and admiration of her intelligence and talent. In Tribute, you can sense Gachman wanted to do Marilyn justice, and with the fresh, excited perspective of a newly christened devotee. “I really fell in love with her,” she writes.

And new love is refreshing. One would think that this woman — the woman Mailer so eloquently called “more than the silver witch of us all” — had already been represented to death. And yet, she remains, decades after her death, enthralling. Ubiquity may cause some to take Marilyn for granted, or even to become tired of her, but it will never, ever diminish her. Andy Warhol, the first artist to put her in what was, essentially, a comic-book setting, knew it right away. His Marilyn Diptych (1962), created weeks after her death, with its rows of colorful Marilyns juxtaposed with the inkier, moodier black and white Marilyns, is a prescient, powerful work. Placing a picture that already seemed like a relic (a va-va-voom publicity shot from Niagara) into a modern pop art tableau, he exposed her timelessness and her versatility. Each of the 50 duplicate images, on closer inspection, are different.

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It’s easy to say that the two halves of the picture represent the two sides of Marilyn: one side the bright star, the other the darker, moodier Marilyn who is fading away. But the work is more surreptitious than that. Warhol seemed to know instinctively that the viewers would project their own thoughts on her image. Helpless victim, powerful sex goddess, movie star, beauty icon, camp icon, cartoon — we take her in many ways, positive, negative, or a mixture of both. Warhol, bless him, catapulted Marilyn into the modern era after she lost the ability to do it herself (and, rest assured, she would have).

What did Marilyn want us to see? Well, of course, we’ll never really know, and that is an enormous part of Marilyn’s power. You can see this in her work in front of the camera, as a brilliant, creative photographer’s model, with, among other greats, Andre de Dienes, Eve Arnold, Milton H. Greene, Bruce Davidson, Richard Avedon, Erich Hartman, George Barris, Bert Stern, Phil Stern, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dennis Stock, Philippe Halsman, Elliott Erwitt, Douglas Kirkland, and Inge Morath (who shot some of the more powerful photos of Marilyn alone and with her husband Arthur Miller as their relationship was disintegrating — and, who, interestingly, became Miller’s next wife). Morath loved photographing Marilyn. Most photographers did. As Eve Arnold said:

"I never knew anyone who even came close to Marilyn in natural ability to use both photographer and still camera. She was special in this, and for me, there has been no one like her before or after. She has remained the measuring rod by which I have — unconsciously — judged other subjects."

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Marilyn died young and beautiful, but she still inspires, beguiles, and offers new gifts, like that cheap blanket I encountered in the middle of nowhere.

I hope that blanket is keeping someone warm at night, as Marilyn famously claimed her work failed to do: “A career is wonderful, but you can't curl up with it on a cold night.” But thank God for that career — the movies, the photographs, the life. Even after tragically expiring on that lonely mattress, nude, in her rather humble Beverly Hills hacienda, she never lost her mythic power. In her last picture, The Misfits, Montgomery Clift’s cowboy poignantly and revealingly tells Marilyn’s Roslyn, “Don't you let them grind you up. Hear?” Decades later, we still hear you, Monty. 

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Jump Into the Fire: GoodFellas

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"Rock ‘n’ roll is an attitude: it’s not a musical form of a strict sort. It’s a way of doing things, of approaching things. Writing can be rock ‘n’ roll, or a movie can be rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a way of living your life.” – Lester Bangs

“I thought of it as being a kind of attack… Attacking the audience. I remember talking about it at one point and saying, ‘I want people to get infuriated by it.’  I wanted to seduce everybody into the movie and into the style. And then just take them apart with it. I guess I wanted to make a kind of angry gesture.” – Martin Scorsese (Conversations with Scorsese, Richard Schickel)

GoodFellas is music. It’s like a concept album. I don’t know which album specifically – but an album all its own.

And it’s not just a Martin Scorsese mix-tape, it’s something the director manipulated through his vision – as his own production – he laid the tracks. Romance, sex, menace, murder – he thought of the music intertwining in the scenes, commenting on characters and actions, music moving alongside the characters, getting into their heads. He wrote the music into the script before shooting. He was thinking in pictures and thinking in music. And he crafts a kind of magic here that vibrates. It’s the double album with the epic scope of “Exile on Main Street” (even if none of those songs are in the movie – it’s songs from “Let it Bleed” and then Mick Jagger’s solo record “Memo From Turner”) but then of course it’s, among many others, Harry Nilsson and the Cadillacs and George Harrison and Muddy Waters and Tony Bennett and Cream and Derek and the Dominos and The Crystals and Donovan and Sid Vicious singing “My Way” because there is no way that movie is gonna end with Sinatra singing it (no offense to Frank). And that’s just the half of the music. It’s an album I can listen to over and over and never grow tired of it. It pulls a lot out of me – it’s still dangerous, soulful, sexy, scary, innovative, crazy…

This is not to glamorize GoodFellas – the end result of the movie is a brutal, bloody, sad decline –  a giant stumble from an illusory life of “brotherhood” and into dishonor, the end of a marriage, the end of an era.

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When people think this movie is some kind of guidebook to cool (as cool as many of these guys look – check out Ray Liotta’s sharp-suited, sexy-as-hell introduction, with the camera tilting up adoringly), or the way tough guys should behave, they’re not getting it, they’re not getting what Scorsese pulls on all of us here, they’re not even remembering the ending. It’s Joe Pesci as Tommy’s dark “funny like a clown” humor proving to be deadly – once poor, timid Spider decides to stick up for himself, he’s done for. It’s your wife flushing the cocaine down the toilet because that is the only sensible thing to do and then yelling at her because that’s the only source of income you’ve got. It’s Henry Hill saying this as the movie’s nearing the end:

“If you’re part of a crew, nobody ever tells you that they’re going to kill you, doesn’t happen that way. There weren’t any arguments or curses like in the movies. See, your murderers come with smiles, they come as your friends, the people who’ve cared for you all of your life. And they always seem to come at a time that you’re at your weakest and most in need of their help.”

And Scorsese said as much in Richard Schickel’s “Conversations with Scorsese:” “Everyone paid for the privilege eventually. The danger of the picture is that young people could look at it and think, Hey, what a great life. But you’ve got to see the last hour of the picture when things start going wrong in a big way.” But – Jesus – the goddamn excitement of the movie, even when everything is falling apart, it’s still so breathtaking to watch. And at times, so darkly funny you have to catch yourself. And once you start watching, you can’t turn it off. You’re not skipping to better songs on the album. Every song is great and the structure is so perfect- You’re hooked.

GoodFellas is a gangster picture, of course, but it’s a rock ‘n’ roll movie if I ever saw one. At times it’s, in an oblique way, one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll movies ever made, which may sound hyperbolic because, yes, there are actual, direct rock ‘n’ roll movies that are great (and Martin Scorsese had made a few of them – The Last WaltzNo Direction HomeShine a LightGeorge Harrison: Living in the Material World…) There’s also Jailhouse RockA Hard Day’s NightPurple Rain… There’s The Girl Can’t Help It. There’s PerformanceEasy Rider (where creepy Phil Spector memorably shows up), HeadTommyQuadropheniaThis Is Spinal Tap … the list goes on and on, I am missing many here … But GoodFellas makes me feel like I’m not just inside the lifestyle of a rock star, but inside the songs, the sex, drugs, romance, violence and downfall. The paranoia. The combined power of cast and crew pulls me into its thrall. But as flashy as the characters are in the movie, as they live a rock star life, it’s the creators who are the real rock stars: Scorsese, co-screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, and editor Thelma Schoonmaker. These artists are swaggering with style, but never style over substance. They, in fact, transmutate style into substance – the sensory/sensual overload is a weapon. And it is meant to be. The characters in GoodFellas are sensualists, some are also sociopaths, but they do indeed have soul – dark as it is, paradoxical as it is.

Pauline Kael, whom I admire, was mixed on the movie and said this, “Is it a great movie? I don’t think so.” (She’s wrong! It’s more than a great movie, it’s a landmark) However, she goes on to say, “But it’s a triumphant piece of filmmaking – journalism presented with the brio of drama. Every frame is active and vivid, and you can feel the director’s passionate delight in making these pictures move.” Passion. Yes. And this passion is so important here. Her piece is called “Tumescence as Style” – I think this is meant as an insult – tumescence – but I love how swollen and engorged the picture is, so alive and scary, ready for sex or on the verge of limp death – shambling towards doom. That is what we return to. And it is through that passionate, sensual style – the excitement of the soundtrack, the colors, the groundbreaking camera moves and “The life” that are such a huge part of it. I was thrilled to see it turn up again in two other Scorsese masterpieces, Casino (epic sibling to GoodFellas), and The Wolf of Wall Street (the scrappy, silk-suited bastard brother to GoodFellas). Watching Scorsese’s virtuosity – the zooms, the dolly/zooms, the freeze-frames, the variable speed shots, THAT tracking shot set to the Spector-produced “Then He Kissed Me.” Scorsese is creating his own Spector-like wall of sound (and image) in GoodFellas, or Brian Wilson producing the album “Pet Sounds” or “Good Vibrations” – the ingenuity of it all, the obsessive attention to detail. But – those sounds and those images in your brain – it’s gorgeous, but it’s got to be hard, too, carrying all that around on your own.

And as I said: It’s not for show, it lends feeling and weight and emotion to the proceedings: It’s like an injection of a drug and cruises, quickly, through your bloodstream. It’s a thrill.

As I write this, I think of Lorraine Bracco’s Karen – and, to my mind, we, the viewer, are Karen – and Henry – we are seduced by the bright lights, the power, the violent power of it all. There’s some part of us that wants to partake, our blood rushes, our heart pumps. Scorsese knows this, after all why do people live lives like this? He sees this as seductive, as dangerous as scary. Scorsese described how he saw these men in his introduction to Nicholas Pileggi’s 25th-anniversary edition of Wiseguy:

“I wanted to stay as close to the facts as we could. There was a natural rise and fall narrative there, but that wasn’t what made it special. It was the places, the restaurants and bars, the food they ate; the clothes, the sense of style; the gestures, the body language, the way of being with one another; the ease with which they committed murder. On the one hand, an immersion in detail that was sensual and documentary at the same time; on the other hand, a forward propulsion that moved with their energy and exhilaration, and then with their paranoia and stone-cold fear.”

Stone cold fear. It all goes bad. But Scorsese sees that you’re attracted to it – until you can take only so much. That’s the thing – we, again, like Karen, start to think… how far would we go with this? She was taken in by the excitement and romance – that date set up with the historic tracking shot into the Copacabana tuned to “Then He Kissed Me” – walking through the service door, through the kitchen, Henry knowing everyone (“Every time, you two! Every time!”) – the table floating in, especially for him, like he’s royalty. Or as Scorsese said, his “Valhalla.” The “Court of kings.”

Karen feels like a princess. It’s so romantic and no one can deny it – even when she asks what he does for a living and he answers “Construction.” We laugh knowing, yeah… that’s not all together true. The song swoons: “All the stars were shining bright and then he kissed me…” Well, that is perfect. Too perfect of course. Move forward in time to Sunday, May 11th, 1980, 6:55 am, the bravura sequence which serves almost as a short film all its own but fits seamlessly within the movie – Harry Nilsson’s fantastic, nervous breakdown of a love song, “Jump into the Fire” starts the ball rolling, excitedly amping up the harrowing, sometimes hilarious proceedings. (All of the songs, from “Monkey Man” to “Mannish Boy” to “Magic Bus” to “Memo From Turner” to “What is Life” have a stream-of-consciousness, mood-altering power, overlapping to underscore, comment and echo Henry’s mind) Henry is seeing helicopters, picking up guns, grabbing and snorting cocaine, meeting his mistress, instructing the babysitter, making sure his brother stirs the sauce, etc. and so on… music is all over the place, but there’s something about Nilsson scream/singing: “We can make each other happy!” almost like a threat. As if screaming is the only way he’ll be able to shout out all the dysfunction to delusionally convince himself these two will ever be happy again. Of course, they won’t be.

Karen’s a romantic to some degree, likely a girl staying up at night as a young woman listening to records, dreaming of love, but also not taking shit from a guy who jilts her (as she does so beautifully when Henry dodges her: “You’ve got some nerve standing me up. Who do you think you are? Frankie Valli or some kind of big shot?!”). In the Scorsese world, she’d be listening to Phil Spector produced songs (which are already dysfunctional and dangerous and yet swooningly romantic – songs written and produced by a psychopath) but there’s a sensuality and danger in those songs there that Scorsese well understands (think of the opening to Mean Streets with “Be My Baby,” a song Brian Wilson said was like having your mind revamped.”) And then there’s, Scorsese, who, perhaps, like Henry, watched the wise guys from his fire escape ladder, saw the Cadillacs, the shiny sharkskin suits with his own score playing in his head. You feel all of this swirling together – the characters, the creator, the music – and Karen is key to understanding the attraction. The songs and dates and sexy temperaments and crossing the street to pistol whip an asshole, things that we know are red flags, they pull Karen in (“I know there are women, like my best friends, who would have gotten out of there the minute their boyfriend gave them a gun to hide. But I didn’t. I got to admit the truth. It turned me on.”) And they pull the viewer in too.

But it’s not all fireworks and bravado – it’s something much more totemic, and essential, rhythmic, choral – something in our very life blood. We want to feel alive, on fire, and GoodFellas makes us, at the very least, live vicariously through these cock-of-the-walk men who live life on their own primal terms, just as we would like to. Take for instance, the Billy Batts/Tommy get your shine-box scene. Do you know how many women relate to this moment? The condescension of Batts towards Tommy? How he’s telling him to know his place and then making him feel hysterical for becoming so pissed off about it? (Forget any idea that women can’t understand this picture…) Tommy’s reaction before the murder – we get it, we even relate to it. Of course, until we can no longer and watch the destruction. Like any great dramatic rock band story, there’s a downfall.

The Band breaks up…

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Scorsese meticulously maps out each betrayal, he choreographs them: each of them as dazzling a set-piece as the adrenaline-pumping “Side A” tracks he presented us with – the pink Cadillac with two dead bodies laid to rest as Derek and Dominoes’ lush piano coda from “Layla” begins, moving to the bodies in the garbage truck, the cranes jib down and push into a meat-freezing truck, all the way to the frozen body of Carbone. This is a song that makes you want to cry, Clapton and Duane Allman working together here – Allman’s sweet slide guitar and Jim Gordon on piano (I will add here that Gordon also played drums on two other GoodFellas’ tracks – let me know if there are others – Nilsson’s “Jump into the Fire,” and Harrison’s “What is Life” – and in real life, suffered from schizophrenia and murdered his mother. He, like Spector, is currently in prison. Also, reportedly, by some insiders including Rita Coolidge, he stole that piano coda from Coolidge, his ex-girlfriend. The dark resonance to this beautiful song has so many layers it’s kind of mind boggling). And so here we are, looking at all of these sleazeballs dead and feeling it. I mean, really feeling it, beyond who they are because do we really feel for them? I don’t know – it feels more as some kind of sad statement about life. Of what we stupidly reach for. Of our mistakes. Another beautiful moment is when Scorsese shoots a close up of Robert De Niro (cued to the opening chords of Cream’s “The Sunshine of Your Love”) at 32 frames per second so the camera can linger just oh-so-long in the glint of his eye – so he can bronze the moment Jimmy the Gent decides he doesn’t need living partners – or liabilities. He might as well keep the Lufthansa bounty all to himself. Another – Billy Batts is murdered to Donovan’s elegiac, epic “Atlantis,” an unexpected, genius decision that felt so surprising and yet so perfect the first time I saw it, I could never think of the song the same way again. It’s a sad song about a disappearing continent, a disappearing culture. Pesci kills a made man thinking he’s invisible. “Hail Atlantis!”

Scorsese also takes us down with Karen and Henry, we experience (in one of the most suspenseful scenes in the film) Karen almost getting killed with great ease by Jimmy as he offers her “…some beautiful Dior dresses…” for free – if only she would go into a dimly lit warehouse where ominous silhouettes await her.  She comes out of this encounter, trembling and joining Henry in the driveway in a perfect symmetrical callback to the moment where Henry, like a focused, fast-walking knight in shining armor met her in the driveway after swiftly beating her offending neighbor to a pulp. This is the end, my friend, and Scorsese makes sure to rhyme with the opening thrills: Henry was getting hundreds of dollars when he was a kid, parking Caddies for the mob and now, when he goes to Paulie he is worth just that: a few hundred dollars. That is all he will harvest.

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Oaths of loyalty are overturned, once more, in symmetry – Henry came out of jail, and into that fellowship, with a few words of advice from Jimmy “Never rat on your friends” and now, in the final act, he will.

Loyalty, family, identity and homeland will be foregone. Fingers will be pointed, like muzzles. Each of them, an assassination in court – each of them underlined by the camera pushing in – killing what is left of the life and the lights and the glory. And then Scorsese caps it all off with a POV shot of Tommy – gun straight at us, firing.

You’ve been hooked, lifted and dropped to the ground. And it is then that we figure it out: these songs, this album, like most of the best music, is about heartbreak. “You can jump into the fire, but you’ll never be free.”


Rest in Peace, Seymour Cassel

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Here's my New Beverly piece John Cassavetes' romantic, poignant, emotionally volatile and movie-drenched, "Minnie and Moskowitz -- one of my favorite Seymour Cassel pictures. May the great man Rest in Peace. 

“I wish my life was a non-stop Hollywood movie show. A fantasy world of celluloid villains and heroes. Because celluloid heroes never feel any pain and celluloid heroes never really die.” – The Kinks, “Celluloid Heroes”

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Movies set you up. That’s what movie lover Minnie Moore (Gena Rowlands) emphatically states to her older friend and co-worker, Florence (Elsie Ames), after the two women spend an evening out watching Casablanca. They drink wine in Florence’s dark little apartment and they talk; they talk like real women. It’s a disarmingly frank discussion between a much older woman with a younger woman about sex, men, doing what they can to please men (who seem to want everything from them, their heart, their soul, as Minnie states, only to learn men really don’t want it when they finally get it), loneliness and… movies. And yet, that “set up,” that fantasy, hangs over Minnie and Moskowitz in a complicated manner that neither damns the siren call of cinema nor negates their delusional pull. Perhaps we need movies. Perhaps we need them to realize we don’t need to believe in them? Perhaps to realize they’re often lovely, but often a lot of lovey bullshit? That’s how beautifully complex writer director John Cassavetes makes Minnie and Moskowitz  – it’s just not that simple. Nothing in the Cassavetes universe is that simple.

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As Minnie says: “You know, I think that movies are a conspiracy. I mean it…. They are actually a conspiracy because they set you up, Florence. They set you up from the time you were a little kid. They set you up to believe in everything. They set you up to believe in ideals and strength and good guys and romance and of course, love. Love, Florence… So, you believe it. You go out. You start looking. Doesn’t happen and you keep looking…. There’s no Charles Boyer in my life, Florence. I never even met a Charles Boyer. I never met Clark Gable, I never met Humphrey Bogart. I never met any of them… They don’t exist, Florence. That’s the truth. But the movies set you up. They set you up and no matter how bright you are, you believe it. ”

Minnie’s monologue is a potent clarification within a movie full of movies, a movie in which characters go to the movies, talk about movies, even drive past movie marquees. And that the film, set in Hollywood, was a studio picture, a supposed “youth movie” (if Lew Wasserman had his way) and also, according to Cassavetes’ biographers, a movie inspired by the director’s own courtship with his real life wife Gena Rowlands. It’s both a valentine and a warning tale. Don’t believe all that movie mush but don’t deny your feelings either. Don’t harden. Don’t get cynical. Don’t shove it all away. Love is the thing, but how we get there is a frustrating almost violent struggle. It is not gorgeous, suave and smooth, like Charles Boyer; it’s embarrassing, volatile and weird, like Seymour Cassel.
 
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The picture works as a subversion of the romantic movie and the screwball comedy in that the “opposites attract” story is layered with pain, alienation and often at times, violence. The beautiful, blonde museum worker, Minnie, in opposition to the scruffy, long-haired, unpredictable Seymour Moskowitz – a man whom she states straight to him, is not her romantic ideal – could not be any more different. But Seymour is not going to take no for an answer.  And that’s where the movie builds and spirals and literally screams into another realm – where the adorable troublemaker woman, Katharine Hepburn of Bringing Up Baby, will win Cary Grant by following him, nearly stalking him and perpetually putting him in peril, becomes the obnoxious almost unlikable man Seymour, who causes fights and arguments at every turn. A man we’re not sure about. Should Minnie even succumb to this guy? Is this healthy? I believe Cassavetes would say yes. After all it’s a version of him (and that marriage lasted until his death). But as a movie, we’re not so sure how this will end up, making it extra poignant and multidimensional. We’re happy they will feel happy, but… will it last?
 
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Well, who knows? And considering Rowlands’ Minnie has been contending with so many messed-up, oppressive and abusive suitors at least Seymour sticks up for her, clumsily, when the moments arise (and they arise a few times, sometimes, his own fault). When she returns home after her night with Florence, a man is in her apartment. That man turns out to be her married boyfriend Jim (played by Cassavetes), whom she thinks she loves. What does he do? He hits her and knocks her on the ground. Why? Because he’s jealous (he justifies his behavior with the “I love you so much I just get jealous” routine.) Of course he’ll go back to his wife (after his wife attempts suicide) and Minnie’s left both depressed and disgusted. Then, in a standout scene, there’s another man (in a complicated scenario, he’s an accidental date) who berates her after she says she’s not interested in him over lunch. In a funny, sad and acerbic moment with a magnificent Val Avery as the never-in-a-million-years potential partner, Minnie listens to all he can give her (he’s very aggressive and nervous about this) only to get hollered at upon rejection: “Blondes. What is it with you blondes? You all have some Swedish suicide impulse? Huh? I took a blonde to lunch once, next think you know she wanted me to kick her… Bleached blonde, 90 dollar a week worker. I just wanted to take you out! Give you an education! Show you there’s a little love and understanding left in the world!”

And that’s where Seymour steps in to save the day. You know, like in the movies. Sort of. He really starts driving poor Minnie insane, even when he takes her to Pink’s (there are so many wonderful Los Angeles details in this movie). Seymour has just freshly arrived in L.A. from New York where his dating life wasn’t exactly aces either. But we learn that he does have at least one thing in common with Minnie – he loves movies too. The picture begins with Seymour watching The Maltese Falcon and also having a conversation with a fellow loner, in this case a stranger in a diner played by the brilliantly bizarre Timothy Carey (who adored working with Cassavetes). Carey is the unforgettably named Morgan Morgan and in a magnificently manic, sweaty scene, talks and yells about a lot of things: Aging, the kind of women he likes, his wife’s death… and again, movies. Seymour asks: “You like movies? I just saw a movie called The Maltese Falcon. You ever see that?”

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Morgan Morgan: “Uh-uh. I don’t care anything… I don’t know anything about cinema. I don’t like it. Bunch of lonely people, looking up. Forget about it.

Seymour: You don’t like Bogart?

Morgan Morgan: I only like one: Wallace Beery

See, even Morgan Morgan likes one movie star.

By allowing all of these scenes to unfold with remarkable but very real people, movies and real life intertwine in Minnie and Moskowitz showing both the naturalism and uniqueness of everyday individuals. Real people may not be movie idols, but they’re often interesting and different. And scary. Seymour’s love for Minnie verges on the frightening. He violently threatens, fights, yells and punches things in her bathroom (reminding me of the rage-filled, frustrated love outburst in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love only, Adam Sandler’s Barry Egan explodes with violence from repression whereas Seymour is constantly at full volume). Seymour exclaims: “That’s what happens when you love someone! You punch doors! You make a fool of yourself!"

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But there’s a lot of tenderness here too. And, in one scene, while watching Casablanca together. Seymour tells her that she looks like Lauren Bacall from the side. She smiles and leans her head on his shoulder. Movies. When they take a night swim, they return to her apartment and she begins singing the song she sang earlier in the film with loneliness towards Jim: “I love You Truly.” But this time Seymour sings along. It’s a lovely moment and it’s another movie moment. The song is indeed evergreen, many singers have sung it, but I thought of Ward Bond and Frank Faylen lovingly serenading James Stewart and Donna Reed on their wedding night in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Cassavetes loved Capra.

From Ray Carney’s “Cassavetes on Cassavetes”: “I loved Frank Capra when I was a kid. I saw Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and I believed in it. I believed in the people in our country and our society. I believed that the rich were not that bad and that the poor had a gripe, but that people could come together and that made America a better place for me to live in and be proud of. And every Capra film I’ve ever seen showed the gentleness of people. There were corrupt people within that framework, sure. The poor people were always oppressed, but they were oppressed with such dignity and loveliness that they were really stronger than the rich; the rich had to be educated. I grew up with that idea. I grew up on guys that were bigger than life. Greenstreet, Bogart, Cagney, Wallace Beery. Those were my favorite guys. I’d think, God, what a wonderful life they had – to have an opportunity to stand up there in front of people, in front of a camera, to express yourself and be paid for it, and say things and have it mean something to the audience.”

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Movies a conspiracy? Is it a wonderful life? Like Capra, John, Gena, Minnie, Moskowitz, Florence and Morgan Morgan, it’s never that easy to answer.


Criminal 3: The Color of Money

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Out now in Ed Brubaker's Criminal number three...

I dig into Martin Scorsese's The Color of Money -- a strangely under-discussed Scorsese featuring a wonderfully weird Tom Cruise before he was doing wonderfully weird and Paul Newman in all of his wizened movie star glory. This is like a samurai movie with pool cues for swords... it's also something of a vampire story ... I love it.

Order here.