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Archive for the ‘Actors’ Category

David Carradine and Barbara Hershey in Boxcar Bertha

David Carradine and Barbara Hershey in Boxcar Bertha

No disrespect to Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood, whose filming stretched over many years as the boy grew up. But when some Slate people said it’s “completely unique” and “Nobody else would undertake this project,” I was like, “Just a minute, please.”

David Carradine wrote and directed a movie about Mata Hari, starring his daughter Calista Carradine. It was meant to follow from her teen years to age 41, when the famous spy was executed by a firing squad. The first installment was filmed in 1977, with a couple weeks more of shooting added every year or so, as money was available. Some scenes were shot in Europe and India. It was a monumental passion project, and David Carradine talked about it in his book Endless Highway.

Various journalists have said it was meant to span 30 years. Somebody else reported that it would cover Mata Hari’s life from 15 to 30, and would thus be a 15-year project. There seems to have been confusion. In a 1981 interview, D. Carradine mentioned that even though the subject had been dead for more than 60 years, new facts about her life were still being discovered. He said, “It may be three movies.”

Just before that he said, “The film will probably not exist at a single level or reality.” Which it makes sense to interpret as, it’s a mystery AND a biography AND a war story, or some similar trio of genres. But another writer took that literally and spoke as if the work would actually be three separate movies, and someone else called it a trilogy. And there’s a Carradine quotation about being almost done with the first film, with maybe one more scene to do.

Movie star crush

I fondly remember the TV series Kung Fu, and I’m sure David Carradine’s character Kwai Chang Caine had something to do with the formation of my preferences in men. Later on when the movie Boxcar Bertha came out, it was my favorite for a long time. The picture on this page is from a Playboy photo session commemorating the movie, extra hot because Carradine and Barbara Hershey were deep in love in real life.

What follows is from a 1979 chapter of my book Call Someplace Paradise:

On the way to work night shift, at the Lincoln Boulevard onramp to the Santa Monica Freeway, I saw a family group looking for a ride. They were headed for Hollywood but decided Westwood would do just as well. My front door on the passenger side is still crunched in so they piled in the back with a guitar case and backpack and various other paraphernalia. The man was Bill Sunshine, a filmmaker who documents births, mostly home births, for people who want to relive the moment on video. This is what people get now instead of bronzed baby shoes.

He introduced his wife as Calista Carradine, who plays Mata Hari in her father’s film, which they have been working on since she was a child. The concept is to have the same actress fill all the different age roles by the simple method of shooting the film as she grows up. I read about David Carradine’s ambitious project a couple weeks ago, and said so. Bill Sunshine talked some about the movie and, since I work at the hospital, a little about the advancing age and medical problems of John Carradine. The couple have been married for six weeks and are reduced to hitchhiking because of a drunk driving incident during their honeymoon. The boy, about 9, was introduced as Jason Sunshine. The guitar case contained picnic supplies. They’d spent the day at the beach.

A few months later I was at a screening that David Carradine attended. Though I had watched Kung Fu religiously, I figured half the world probably told him that. So I told him I’d picked up his daughter hitchhiking. In another of his books, The Kill Bill Diary, a page says…

…a promo reel for Mata Hari which I made to show at Cannes in 1980, made up of scenes from the first three years, ’77. ’78 and ’79, starring my daughter, from fourteen years old in India to her execution at the age of seventeen in a forest in Holland….

How did that get published? Mata Hari wasn’t executed at 17. WTF? Anyway, at the international film festival, D. Carradine was given a special award for writing the score of the fragmentary film. Over time, Mata Hari grew its own legend. A lot of people heard of it, few saw any of it. There were disturbing rumors and reports, a mild example being someone’s comment about watching D. Carradine directing a scene where his daughter and a male actor were naked and going at it.

The film was included in a couple of “greatest movies never made” webpages. One of them said the action spanned 20 years, and noted that it was supposed to have been released in the summer of 1998. The reviewer called it “an incredible concept that would have made a groundbreaking film that would have served as a fine legacy to Carradine.” It must have been money that stood in the way of completing and releasing the movie, because the filmmaker lived until 2009. According to IMBD, Mata Hari now seems to be one movie, scheduled for release in December of 2014.

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A woman's faceThe Little Foxes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In A Woman’s Face and The Little Foxes we meet two of cinema’s baddest bad girls: Anna Holm (Joan Crawford) and Regina (Bette Davis.) First, how did they get to be so bad?

Anna was physically scarred in childhood by a fire. Subjected to rudeness and mockery by pitiless smooth-faced people, she decided at age sixteen that if the world was going to be against her, she would be against the world. Consequently Anna embarked on a career of blackmail and presumably other criminal activity as well. Even as an adult, when we are introduced to this woman, she is still mocked by her cohorts on account of her disfigured face and abrasive personality. We understand that her character has been formed by her face, that beneath the scars there is another potential Anna. The cause of her problems is physical and amenable to correction.

Regina’s personality has been formed by different forces. Although quite presentable in appearance and possessing social status, she became embittered about being passed over in her father’s will which divided the estate between her two brothers. Further disappointment came with her husband, who was never sufficiently acquisitive or ruthless in business to satisfy her lust for wealth. The root causes of Regina’s personality could be called sociological. Her situation is the converse of Anna’s: Regina’s hard, aristocratic, disdainful face has been formed by her character.

Anna is influenced by sexual attraction and a certain kind of misdirected loyalty to become the pawn of Torsten Byrig, the lover who “saw the hard shining brightness of her.” He attempts to manipulate her into doing his dirty work, which she goes along with by posing as a governess and planning to kill the nephew who stands between Byrig and a fortune. Like the original causes of her personality, the cause of her willingness to murder a child is also physical (her infatuation for Byrig).

Regina is nobody’s pawn. Instead, she manipulates others. She sends her daughter to Baltimore to convince her husband to return, and attempts to coerce the same daughter into marrying her dumb cousin Leo. She rejects the girl’s young newspaperman suitor out of hand., Regina does not dissemble or pretend to be other than she is – even though her brother Ben repeatedly counsels “softness and a smile,” Regina makes no bones about the fact that she is a disciple of naked power. Her machinations are inspired only secondarily by material greed – her primary focus is hatred for the husband she perceives as weak and worthless. She tells him quite clearly, “I hope you die – I’ll be waiting for you to die” – she despises the man. The murder she commits is rather a sin of omission – she watches as he has a heart attack, spills his medication, crawls up the stairs… throughout all this, Regina sits rigid and implacable. When she’s sure Horace is dead, she makes a fuss and calls for help. Afterwards, when she finds out about the stolen bonds, her manipulations continue – if she’s not cut in for 75% she threatens to put her brothers in jail.

Anna is capable of change. Influenced by love for the boy under her care, and good feelings toward the doctor, Anna becomes a different woman. When her chance to carry out the planned murder comes, a ride in an aerocar, she is unable to proceed. When the second opportunity presents itself – the sleigh ride – she comes to a crux of decision and shoots Byrig rather than allow him to kill the boy. Another change in Anna is that somewhere along the way she has realized that sex does not equal love. Capable of change, Anna is also capable of guilt – after writing a note to the consul warning him of Byrig’s plans for murder, she planned to kill herself. But she is redeemed by love, and admits to the doctor that she just wants to be like the rest of the human race – get married, have babies, and so on.

Regina is not influenced by love for anyone. She probably thinks she loves daughter Zan and has Zan’s best interests in mind when arranging the marriage and scheming for money. She is capable of change only slightly and temporarily – crumbling near the end of the film, she shows unfamiliar weakness and asks Zan to sleep in her room for comfort – but this softness doesn’t last long. In the last shot of the film, Regina’s sinister face, mask firmly back in place, is seen at the window. She is her old self again, the self whose motives are plain. As she has told Zan, “I’m going to get you the world I always wanted.” – the world of wealth and power. She began with these priorities and she ends with them.

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Reason watched: Andy Garcia, Ellen Burstyn, Philip Seymour Hoffman. But mostly Andy Garcia (sigh.)

Michael (Andy Garcia) is an airline pilot, Alice (Meg Ryan) works for the school system, and they have two little girls. They’re both basically very nice people. Alice is a helper, a counselor to teenagers. It’s no wonder she’s burned out and flirting with trouble. For somebody in a position of trust, she lets herself say some indiscreet things. A girl is looking for an excuse to accuse a boy of sexual harassment, and Alice sarcastically suggests that she entice the boy into trying to lift up her skirt. Definitely not cool. But she basically cares, that’s why she got into this line of work. She suffers from the frustration of realizing that some of these kids are beyond help.

When Alice stays out late drinking with a colleague, the excuse to go drinking isn’t the only reason. The friend needs to talk, and Alice wants to help. But she also causes Michael to miss a flying assignment, which is a serious mark against him. Things are starting to come apart.

Sometimes Michael is drawn into Alice’s wild spontaneity, and probably on some level convinces himself that he’s too buttoned-up and conventional, and it’s good for him to have a partner who’s a bit crazy. Their anniversary seems to bring Alice’s discontent to a crisis point. She leads Michael into helping her vandalize a neighbor’s car. This is some over-the-top behavior.

They go on vacation to de-stress. It’s night, and the most gorgeous man in the world, her very own husband, is rowing Alice around on a lake surrounded by sparkly lights. When drunk, Alice is not only bubbly and wildly cute, she can also be a real asshole. She’s standing up in the boat, taking a pugilistic stance, and of course falls in the water and of course he has to dive in and rescue her. Some romantic evening! Consequently, Alice promises to stop drinking so much. Hah.

Michael is such a cool guy. He says ALL the right things. It’s just that he doesn’t know when to stop. The part about responding beautifully when called upon, helping when help is needed and requested, he’s got that right. But he can’t stop there, and is always jumping in to help in situations where the very thing that pisses her off so much is the presumption that he knows better.

I understand Alice’s exasperation, because of an incident that happened. I was in a public place once with a supremely nice guy – very much like Michael in the movie. A stranger did something incredibly rude, behavior I had encountered in the past, and had made myself a vow never to tolerate again. And here it was. The jerk needed to be told what was what, and I was destined to be the one to tell him. If it was just me, I’d have cussed the stranger up one side and down the other.

But the nice guy asked me to let it go, so I did. We walked away. But my sense of mission was thwarted. I wanted a confrontation, wanted to be Woman Hear Me Roar. Of course, on some level, I also really didn’t want the nice guy to see me transmogrify into a raging harpy. But all this anger was still boiling around in me. I didn’t want somebody else to step in and decide what my response to a grievous provocation should be. I didn’t want to be protected by being gently led away. I understand Alice not wanting to be calmed down.

By the way, with such a horrible mother, how did Michael grow up to be so nice? That was surely a triumph of reincarnation over current-life family. If environmental influence were all, Michael would be even more of a mess than his wife Alice. And toward Alice, his mom is the classic poisonous mother-in-law. A quietly persistent bitch is worse than an occasionally flaring-up bitch any day of the week.

Michael arranges for the best alcoholic rehab money can buy. When Alice gets out, she doesn’t want to make love, and doesn’t want anything to do with him outside of bed, either. It’s not fair. That’s one of the horrible things that relatives of addicts need to face. You tried your best, and it still wasn’t enough. The unfairness can kill. He’s an enabler, but only in the most gentle, loving, best-intentioned way. He wants so badly to help, and winds up helping badly. Their troubles are not over. In fact, it gets so bad he has to move out. His good-byes to the children are heart-rending.

Michael comes to hear Alice’s six-month sober speech at AA, and they wind up snogging in the middle of the coffee break. You can tell that they will reconcile.

Loose end – But doesn’t he still have to move to Denver anyway to keep his job? So, does this imply that the family will move to Denver? It would certainly be great to get away from the toxic mother-in-law. Or are we to assume he’s going to take the other career alternative they had discussed, where he stays based in San Francisco and goes to work for a different airline, starting over at the bottom of the seniority ladder? Inquiring minds want to know.

The script was co-written by Al Franken, who had some experience with Al-Anon. He told Entertainment Weekly, ”I really began to understand about people’s pain and suffering and about how families that look normal aren’t.”

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A Home at the End of the World

I watched this because I listened to the audiobook of the novel and loved it, and when I found out there was a movie too, and that Robin Wright is in it, that really put the icing on the cake. I liked her ever since 1984 when the soap opera “Santa Barbara” started on TV.

Michael Cunningham wrote the novel and the screenplay. Cunningham is obviously an expert on the folks who practically invented the concept that, as the film’s tagline puts it, “Family can be whatever you want it to be.” This work comes from a mind saturated with Bloomsbury lore–Cunningham also wrote The Hours, a novel about Virginia Woolf that was made into a movie.

One of the central figures of Bloomsbury was the painter Duncan Grant. Apparently nobody ever said a bad word about Grant. He seems to have been universally loved by males and females alike, and the character of Bobby in A Home at the End of the World is what I imagine Duncan Grant must have been like.

When Bobby is nine, his big brother Carl gives him some windowpane, and they trip in the graveyard. Carl is a really beautiful guy, a true bodhisattva, and his relationship with his brother is probably the one he’s most present for. Of course Carl dies horribly and far too young. But rather than being messed up by that tragedy, Bobby incorporates Carl’s spirit into himself, and becomes exactly the same kind of loving and lovable person. (Carl is played by Ryan Donowho, who was in Michael Pitt’s band Pagoda, and for some reason that doesn’t surprise me.)

Bobby seems to be about 14 when he picks a friend and gets him stoned, out in the midst of lush nature, ahhhhh…..  He lends Jonathan his dead brother’s jacket, and Jonathan lends Bobby his jacket, and their bond is cemented. Jon’s mother Alice walks in on them getting stoned, and to Jon’s flabbergasted astonishment, Bobby induces her to join them. It’s a lovely scene, mother and son handing off a doobie to each other. Even more mind-boggling, Bobby slow-dances with Alice. Then they all dance. This is a dope-positive movie, and there aren’t enough of those.

Bobby pretty much joins the family. When Alice discovers that the boys are fooling around, she’s okay with it, but Jonny is uptight. Bobby is totally comfortable with the relationship. “It’s just love, man.” When somebody else is fretting about something or other, Bobby is likely to say, “This is perfect.” His best line is, and these are words to live by, “You can dance to anything.”

Now they’re grownups. Jonny (Dallas Roberts) has moved to New York. Bobby (Colin Farrell), who looks a lot like that iconic photo of David Foster Wallace, has stayed with his friend’s parents. But they plan to move to Arizona, and the father gently suggests that Bobby needs to be on his own. So he calls Jonathan, who is by now a full-fledged bisexual living in New York with an artistic wild woman named Clare (Robin Wright of course.). These are the kind of people who listen intently to Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” several times in a row. The three of them form a coalition, and Bobby learns that Jon and Clare have talked about having a baby. Clare talks Bobby into losing the hippie look. She cuts his hair, then takes him to bed. It’s his first time with a woman, and his reaction is a bit extreme, unless you factor in the feelings he might be having about betraying Jon. Of course Jon has male lovers, but the woman he lives with is a different case.

And sure enough, Jon is upset with the new closeness of Bobby and Clare. He goes to stay with his parents for a while, and won’t even take Bobby’s calls. But then his father dies, and Bobby and Clare arrive in Arizona to reclaim the lost member of their triad. Clare is pregnant and wants them all to be a family. So they reconcile. Her inheritance will buy them a house.

They abandon New York City and fix up a house in the country, and open a café in town, with Bobby as cook and Jonny as staff. The baby is born. Jon fears that he has AIDS. There’s another exquisitely beautiful, wild, life-affirming scene where the two men dance. They are so hot together, it’s just magical.

There’s a lot of detail passed by in the movie that was probably in the novel – like, who is the baby’s bio-father? And does Jon ever actually get tested for HIV, and does Clare know about his worries; and if the little girl is his, shouldn’t she be tested too? Anyway, Clare and the baby get ready to go on a trip. Everybody pretends to believe it’s just temporary, but she’s leaving Bobby and Jonny alone. But we know Jon is going to die, so she’ll end up back with Bobby and a nuclear family eventually.

People who create unorthodox families are incredibly brave and admirable. It’s mean-spirited to be irritated with these characters because they couldn’t make it work perfectly, all the time. On the other hand, they did make it work amazingly well for an astonishing amount of time, which is more than most of us are equipped or inclined to do. So, bless them.

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Bully

Well, I watched this thing because Michael Pitt is in it. But it’s a movie that really didn’t need to be made. Apparently the whole story is in a book by investigative reporter Jim Schutze. Why anybody thought it belonged on the screen, except as a vehicle for some crude camera angles featuring crotches and butts, is a puzzling question. It’s based on a real event, the murder of Bobby Kent by what came to be called the Broward County Seven, with an amount of verisimilitude that is debated by critics. (Actually, the most unbelievable thing about this film is that it won a couple of awards.)

Basically, it’s the story of two friends, Marty the surfer and Bobby the bully, who has kept Marty in sado-masochistic crypto-homosexual thrall, brutalizing and humiliating him, since they were kids. The director said in a print interview, “Bobby and Marty were such a couple of knuckleheads, they had all these things going on. They posed as a gay couple and they would go to a gay club and hustle gays.”

There’s no doubt that kids do this kind of stuff. I once knew a Vietnam vet, from a typical middle-class “good” family, who as a teenager used to hang out at the Alamo and charge grown men $100 for the privilege of sucking him off. One of his johns even bought him a motorbike. (My friend, of course, denied being anything other than a genuine heterosexual who just needed some walking-around money.) And it wasn’t only the boys who were up to no good. Another of the numerous articles about the film says that the real Ali and Heather, in their first year of high school, were hookers working for a pimp/cop.

A reviewer named Wesley says, “…the parents of these teens were completely non-responsive to all the warning signs of their children’s behavior. This murder could have been completely avoided if just one of them acted but most of them were completely blind to how bad things were getting with their children.” Bullshit. Spoken by a non-parent, for sure. These kids all have Eddie Haskell syndrome, showing saccharine mildness toward the grownups. Having been both a teenager and a parent, I know how easy it is for kids to keep their families clueless. The bully Bobby, especially, is a lamb around his father, who is so supportive he wants to buy his son a stereo equipment business. This kid has everything, and he’s an evil psychopath.

Some small attempt is made to explain how the kids in this crowd got so screwed up. Heather relates how her grandpa killed her grandma and locked himself in the bedroom for two days, drinking and performing necrophiliac acts. That messed up Heather’s mother, and thus, Heather and her brother. But by and large, what we see is kids with an enormous sense of entitlement and plenty of all the allegedly right stuff, including intact families with caring parents who try to do the right thing.

In the most violent scenes, rap music always plays on the sound track. But it would never occur to me to blame or illegalize the ugliest music in the world, just because these assholes love it. What really pisses me off is that these kids are shown constantly smoking pot and dropping acid, as if those are the causative factors that turn them into moral imbeciles. But the film doesn’t mention the steroids that the real Bobby and Marty are both said to have used, and which probably had a much greater effect on their warped personalities. It’s a true insult to the thousands and thousands of marijuana smokers who never did a violent deed in their lives, and to the seekers of spiritual enlightenment through entheogens. Taking LSD isn’t the problem; taking LSD to do stupid stuff like play Mortal Kombat is the problem. Therein lies the true drug abuse.

The trouble starts when Marty acquires a girlfriend, Lisa, who immediately gets pregnant and threatens to break the Marty/Bobby bond. Feeling ornery, Bobby hooks up with Lisa’s best friend Ali. They start off all sweet and nice, but he makes her watch gay porn and punches her, insisting that she say he’s the best she ever had. Lisa later remarks, “He’s too weird even for Ali, and she’s into everything.” Next thing we know, Lisa recruits a whole cabal into her plan to kill Bobby. Two of the kids have never even met him, but hey, whatever.

Michael Pitt shows up as Donny, who likes to have hot wax dripped onto his chest while in flagrante delicto. He also French-kisses a dog. Donny has one of the few comic lines. He’s been sitting around watching TV with clothespins attached to his nipples. When they others start talking about the planned murder he leaves the room saying, “You people need professional help.” Donny gets to vomit, too. In fact, just about everybody gets to vomit in this masterpiece. Marty gets to cry and drool copiously while confessing to Lisa his abject servitude to Bobby. Then she kisses him passionately. Let’s hear it for true love.

The stunningly attractive Kelli Garner, who plays Heather, has crooked teeth and I like it that she hasn’t gotten them fixed. There’s kind of an interesting bit where Marty suggests to his parents that they relocate, not telling them it’s because he badly needs to escape Bobby. But they aren’t interested in moving. Ironically, Bobby’s father thinks Marty is the bad influence on his precious son, and he threatens to move his family to a different neighborhood.

So anyway, the plan to kill Bobby gets underway, and one of the girls has another funny line: “The hit man needs a ride.” The hit man is a supposedly super-tough kid who they bring in as a consultant and backup. Haranguing the little group of deadly clowns, he tells them, “You gotta understand some shit,” and it sounds so bogus. Real, authentic swearers don’t emphasize the swear word itself, they just slip it into the sentence. A real, authentic swearer would say, “You gotta understand some shit.”

Lisa is a total flake, first the cheerleader and chief instigator of the murder, then she immediately falls apart, has olfactory hallucinations, thinking she smells blood; gets all hysterical; and goes around compulsively confessing. Although confessing isn’t the right word, since it’s not remorse she feels, but anxiety lest the body was not adequately hidden. What she’s trying to do is drag yet another girlfriend into it, asking her for a ride to the murder scene to check on things.

Reviewers vary widely in their opinions about how much “exploitation” is involved in Bully. The answer is: lots. For these kids, life is one big orgy. They’re always lying around, minimally clothed or naked, entwined with each other like a nest of rattlesnakes. Some viewers object because Lisa conducts a long telephone conversation, gratuitously topless. It’s hard to understand what the problem is, since her bosom is virtually nonexistent. The guy who plays her cousin has bigger tits, and nobody complains about him being topless in one scene.

For some reason, and I rarely do this, I checked out some of the extra stuff piled onto the DVD. I’d read somewhere that director Larry Clark is a former heroin addict who has done time for shooting someone, so figured I’d see what he had to say, in the attached interview. Forget it! Clark is one of those excruciatingly boring talkers who can’t enunciate two words in a row without interjecting “uh” in between. To hell with that.

Also, there’s a collection of the mug shots or prison photos of the real Broward County Seven. Ho-hum. But here it is, finally, the best thing on the whole disk, a little feature called “How the Actors Landed Their Roles.” Each one of them in turn explains deadpan and matter-of-factly that he or she got the part by sleeping with Larry. Now, that’s funny.

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code unknown

It doesn’t really have an ending. And it confounds all expectations. I think the black kid is going to die. I figure, that’s what the scene with him and white girl in the restaurant is all about. To show that he can be mellow, non-confrontational, sweet, etc. – so that when he is killed, we will care.

Then, the horrible prolonged scene on the subway where the Arab insults and eventually spits on Anne. I figure, she will react to that hysterically, causing her boyfriend to kill the next dark-skinned person he sees – who will just happen to be that guy we have learned to like. But that isn’t what happens. Nothing happens. As we go along, I make up several different endings, none of which is the one provided by the movie.

The other remarkable thing is, it shows the ordinary routine of being smuggled into France and then deported, an everyday occurrence for the Romanians.

Juliette Binoche can look so plain, and also so luminously beautiful. She’s an unparalleled physical actor. The body as instrument, to the nth degree. All the set pieces show her off.  Movies often have those, as actor bait. Write something a real actor would love to sink teeth into, and a real actor with a name will do it for union scale. It happens. It happens the other way, too. The clever producer or director or writer gets with a huge name actor and says, “What do you want to do on the big screen? Sing, tap dance, drown, masturbate? You name it, and we’ll write it into the script.”

For a film, that can be a disaster. But not here. However they came about, these amazing scenes show off so well the genius of Juliette Binoche. The one where she’s listening to a kid being abused in the building. And at her acting job, the locked-in-a-room-by-a-twisto scene. And that off-the-scale scene, more literally a tour de force than many others given the label, where alone on the stage she stomps around being a total uninhibited madwoman, with large awkward movements like Mountain Girl in Intolerance. The viewer is far, far back in the theater. What the hell is that? Is it from an actual play that already existed, or was it created for the purpose of this film?

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bad-timing

Under the credits, a man and a woman wander through a museum in Vienna, comporting themselves like lovers. We get close-up views of luscious romantic Klimt paintings and then – a Schiele canvas, in which a man desperately holds onto a woman who looks very much like she wants to get away.

He is American research psychologist Alex Linden (Art Garfunkel) and she’s an American too, Milena Flaherty (Theresa Russell), who comes and goes across Austria’s border and has a husband over there in Czechoslovakia. Russell is beyond superb. While directing the movie, Nicholas Roeg fell in love with her, and you can sorta tell from the way the whole thing is a showcase to display her. She deserves it. (They got married, had a couple of kids, and divorced.) Her eyes seem to change color in different scenes – there’s one in particular where they are the palest icy blue, yet seem a minute later to be dark.

The first question you have to ask about Milena is, what does she live on? When she moves, she only takes along one small bag. Yet she has fabulous clothes and an apartment full of stuff. Is she a trust fund baby, or does she hold onto the Czech husband because he’s rich, or what? There’s no indication of her ever doing any kind of work. She can get away with being drunk, having irresponsible, impulsive adventures, and so forth. Her source of income isn’t relevant to the plot, but geez.

Along with his research and teaching, Alex Linden does occasional jobs for the US intelligence services. For instance, a spook hands him two files, and tells him to find out if either of the subjects “sniffs cocaine or plays with little girls or boys.” Linden, who should know better, is a poor security risk. He brings files home. He brings home a file on Milena’s husband, which includes her photo and biographical information.

We learn the story of Milena and Linden in flashbacks. In fact there’s probably more cutting back and forth in time than in any movie ever made. It’s pretty disorienting. So go ahead and watch it twice.

In the present, an ambulance takes the overdosed Milena to the hospital. Inspector Netusil (Harvey Keitel) extracts the story from Linden. Milena had called him up and said “I’ll be dead in a minute, I wanted to say goodbye” and of course he went right over. It was no big deal, she’d overdosed before. Linden paints her as a wild woman who denies herself nothing, a woman to whom something dreadful was bound to happen sooner or later.

But the inspector sees a few discrepancies. Linden says he talked on the phone with Milena long after she would have already been comatose. And his car radio is tuned to a station that doesn’t start broadcasting until midnight. And so on. In other words, Netusil suspects exactly what happened. Far from rushing to Milena’s side and summoning help immediately, Linden waited to make sure she would die, and “ravished” her in the meantime.

We see how it went down. When Linden first arrived, Milena was still semi-coherent. Collapsed on the floor, with almost no motor skills left, she managed to get the telephone. Linden pulled the jack from the wall and replaced it later, after it was too late. Looking around the apartment, Netusil somehow intuits all of this. He even seems to have psychic visions that tell him what happened.

Linden puts Milena on her bed, saying “We don’t need anybody else. Just you and me.” While waiting for her to die, “It’s better this way, believe me, there was no other way.” After pacing around for a while, he cuts her clothes off and rapes her inert body, saying “I love you.”

At the beginning of their affair, Milena had pursued Alex, who hung back at first. We see them in happier times. He reads to her from the poetry of William Blake, the verse

What is it men in women do require?
The lineaments of Gratified Desire.
What is it women do in men require?
The lineaments of Gratified Desire. *

A scene where Milena’s in bed with her husband implies that she isn’t getting sexual satisfaction from him, although that’s not the only reason she goes out in search of adventure. He’s 30 years older, for one thing. Once when Milena goes missing for a week, Linden calls her husband, who is bored, dismissive, and contemptuous of this weak American, who can’t muster the necessary intestinal fortitude to deal with such a woman. The husband tells Linden that a man has to love Milena even more than his own dignity. And, as Linden learns, more than he loves being told the truth. She persists in lying about her marital status, and Linden crosses over to Czechoslovakia and bothers some hostile bureaucrats to try and find out if she’s divorced or what.

Linden wants Milena to move in with him, he wants her to return to the States with him and marry him. We sit in on one of his lectures, where he speaks to the students about how we are all spies. He knows all about this, because he spies on Milena a lot, and suffers terribly from jealousy, while she relates to a lot of different men.

But that’s not all. She does heedless things, like burn his car’s upholstery with a cigarette. She can be an embarrassing drunk. In one horrendous scene she’s invited him over. Her place cleaned up as if by the world’s most dedicated housewife, and she’s wearing some kind of mock-sexy outfit and enough makeup to turn her from a flashy woman into a grotesque clown. She’s changed herself into what he seems to want her to be. He leaves, and from the balcony she hurls bottles into the street, yelling at him so the whole neighborhood is disturbed.

Soon their discourse is reduced to “What?” and “Why?” as brilliantly encapsulated in one scene. He wants to possess Milena, who can’t be possessed. “You don’t own me. I don’t own you,” she says. She enumerates some of her priorities – to get up when she wants to get up, and eat when she wants to eat, and not to be with people she doesn’t like. (These are core values I recognize, and I don’t think a person who holds them is necessarily a monster of selfishness.) They have a terrible argument on the stairs and she declares, “I just want to be allowed to give where I can – what I can – to who I can.” What she most likes to give, and there’s nothing wrong with this, either, are the Lineaments of Gratified Desire.

There’s a lot of cross-cutting to emphasize the twinship of sex and death. From Milena’s orgasm to her convulsions on the emergency room operating table. From the couple having sex, to the doctor spreading her legs and going in with a speculum to look for rape evidence. From Milena’s head hanging over the edge of the bed during sex, to the doctors doing the tracheotomy.

With unflagging persistence, the inspector interrogates Linden. He’s fully tuned in to the atmosphere of claustrophobic obsession and sexual pessimism reminiscent of certain Leonard Cohen lyrics. The intuitive genius detective is the role Harvey Keitel was born for, and this isn’t the first time he’s filled it, or the last. Anyway, he’s just about gotten Linden to confess when Milena’s husband appears at the door. More bad timing. She’s alive, and will recover.

I like how the art references in the film hang together. For instance, we see Milena reading The Sheltering Sky, and later we see her with Linden on vacation in Morocco, which apparently was their last happy time. This is where he made the mistake of talking about marriage, which left her completely unimpressed. As he waits for her to die, he plays a record of Moroccan music instantly recognizable as the Master Musicians of Jajouka. Which is ironic, because this is supposed to be healing music. Maybe that’s why Milena survives the drug-induced coma. You’d think the professor would be smart enough not to play the wrong kind of music to die by.

So Linden gets away with attempted murder, and loses Milena of course. There’s a flash-forward to a future scene, when they’re both back in their own country. She gets out of a cab, he gets into a cab. He had asked her to return to the States with him, as his wife. Instead, their only meeting is accidental and brief, and she looks at him with hatred.

*These lines, incidentally also figure in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, where the characters initials (like the author’s) are LGD (for Lineaments of Gratified Desire, of course.)

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