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Archive for the ‘Immortal Dialogue’ Category

Some are great standalone lines. Some are perfect in the context of the situation, in the film.

“This is Hollywood. We don’t like liars.”
Knocked Up

“I’m sorry.”
“I’m glad to hear it. I wish it were enough.”
Johnny Skidmarks

“There’s something about collaboration that brings out the worst in writers.”
Starting Out in the Evening

“You’re still the nicest person I ever met, even if you’re not dying.”
The Good Life

“You mustn’t kid Mother, dear; I was a married woman before you were born.”
The Women

In House of Games, written and directed by David Mamet, it’s the climactic confrontation scene. Mike starts out thinking he’s still scamming Maggie. Soon, however, he comes to understand that she knows everything, and her intention toward him at this point is potentially homicidal. You can see the realization dawn on him, and he says,
“You’re a bad pony, and I’m not gonna bet on you.”

“I like it. I want more.”
Christopher Walken in Brainstorm. For some reason the delivery of that line just knocked my socks off.

“What fresh hell is this?”
The character is quoting Dorothy Parker, though it sounds like Shakespeare.
War of the Roses

“You can dance to anything.”
A Home at the End of the World

Kid to mother “Why can’t you make anybody love you?”
Later she tells him, “It’s not my job to make somebody love me. Love isn’t a trick you play on somebody.”
The Buddy System

A falsely imprisoned alleged terrorist, to a fellow convict –
“You’re better off being guilty. Al least you get some respect.”
In the Name of the Father

“If you saw that on television you would laugh.”
Knocked Up

Joey is in the hospital, victim of an attempted murder by a hired killer his wife hired because of his constant cheating. His mother visits, scolds him, hits him.
Joey: “Hey, Mama, please, I got a bullet in my head.”
Mama (swats him again): “You should have two bullets in your head. Three bullets. Four bullets.”
I Love You to Death

The cop thinks a killer is putting on airs, and takes him down a peg.
“You’re about as mysterious to me as a blocked toilet is to a fuckin’ plumber.”
Insomnia

“We came over to sit. That’s what people do when tragedy strikes. They come over and sit.”
Lars and the Real Girl

A Gypsy to a cop who is threatening him –
“By jeez, you’re a brave man. I wouldn’t argue with you sir, I wouldn’t. For you’re a brave man always.”
Into the West

“When you throw a stone into a lake, it’s not happy until it hits the bottom. Make sure he doesn’t drag us all down with him.”
Into the West

“You want me to stop smoking pot because there’s an earthquake every ten years?”
Knocked Up

“If my life were a movie, this would be the end.”
The Good Life

“I lied to you when I said that I would never lie to you again.”
The Good Life

“If we don’t meet, this allows the possibility that it could have been perfect.”
Bad Timing

about the French-
“They have a whole relationship to dairy products which I don’t understand.”
French Kiss

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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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celebration

This subtitled Danish film is described on the box as a “viciously funny satire.”  Well, okay, but I wouldn’t want anyone to watch it with the expectation of laughing.

It’s kind of in the same genre as The Exterminating Angel, and Savages – where a bunch of high-class people are prevented from leaving a social occasion. It just goes on and on and becomes the dinner party from hell. Same genre too as Jacob’s Ladder, The Business of Fancy Dancing (to name only two that come immediately to mind) – where a scene may or may not be part of the narrative, the “real” story.  It might also be a hallucination of how someone wishes things would be, or how they could have been or would have been, or how they were on some archetypal, mythical level.

It’s also a prime illustration of how European cinema is different.  This thing starts off slow, you get lots and lots of character delineation, but no real clue about what’s going on except it’s some tycoon’s 60th birthday and the whole family is in the process of gathering.  So far it all seems kind of pointless.  An American film would have begun with artistically morphed footage of the dad molesting the twin children, starting off with a bang, right under the credits.  “Put the fire up front” is more of an American concept – it works well, but this slow approach works great too, if you’re willing to invest some attention and patience.

Still, I almost gave up on it – I think what kept me hooked was Michael’s outrageous behavior.  Then after a while, Helene started to captivate me – not what the character did, so much as the actress herself.  Great face.

And it becomes clear that another sibling, Linda, has recently killed herself.  So everybody’s tiptoeing around that, and apprehensive about what this loose cannon Michael is going to do because, knowing him, he is sure to find a way to ruin things.

But as it turns out, quiet, mild, reasonable Christian is the one who drops the bomb.  Standing to give a speech at the birthday dinner, he asks Dad to pick – he has a speech in each hand.  (You gotta wonder what the other speech said.  If the father had chosen that one, were they both the same anyway?)  Christian accuses the father of sexually abusing him and his sister when they were young.

Helene clinches it by reading Linda’s suicide note to the group.

The house staff contributes to the trauma by stealing everybody’s car keys so they all have to stay and witness the trouble.

Most memorable line of dialogue:  Christian says to his father “I’ve never understood why you did it,” and the answer is, “It was all you were good for.”

Michael beats the crap out of father and finishes up by pissing on him.  It’s a relief to finally understand the anger of Michael.  He’s always known something was wrong in the family but could never get anybody to talk about it.  Maybe a little jealousy because he knows the twins were chosen for something he was left out of…..however, even he is not aware of this.

The final scene is a true work of art.  Everybody is gathered around the table for a sunny breakfast. Faces are soft and relaxed.   Helene is not a tortured, aging wild child, just a pretty lady.   Michael is still an obnoxious asshole, but not a truly hostile or violent one.  The father has one of the grandchildren on his knee.

All this is what Christian hallucinates when unconscious, or maybe a kind of group hallucination, shared among the siblings, of what their family life could have been. Here’s the way it should have been.

The father apologizes, and says he understands that none of them is ever going to want to see him again.  He says, “You’ll always be my children – and I have loved you and love you, no matter where in the world you are or what you do.”  Just what everybody wants to hear from his parents.  Now we know for sure this scene is a fantasy.

The father addresses Christian: “You fought a good fight, my boy.” Even in Christian’s own fantasy there is ambiguity. This line from his dad seems to be a compliment, but carries two stings in its tail.  First, it implies that Christian has lost:  “Good game” is, after all, something a winner says to a loser.  Christian lost because, while he may not have had the will to kill his father himself, he knew that giving Michael the information would get the job done.  So Christian is not as righteous as maybe he likes to think.  Also, there’s the sexual double entendre, as in “My butt-boy.”

Michael suggests that the father leave so the rest of them can eat their breakfast. The old man asks his wife if she’s coming. “I’ll stay here,” she says. Two layers: indicates she’s on the side of the rest of the family, united in shunning him.  And, she’s not going to commit suicide or die of grief on his account.  Dad exits through the patio doors where the flood of illumination is coming from – he goes into the light, get it?

Their names, as are appropriate in this genre, are symbolic –
Linda – beautiful.  At least her twisted father found her so, and later her brother
Christian – the one who tries to be forgiving and good. One who has fought the good fight, as even his father finally recognizes, in his fantasy anyway.
Helene – a character who makes her mark on history
Michael – an archangel – didn’t he slay a dragon or a demon something? Is Michael associated with vengeance in church mythology?

We’re not sure if Christian might also have made it with Linda. If he did, it was obviously consensual. Still wrong, but at least not rape or exploitation. Maybe it was just a fantasy – either way, good old straight arrow Christian would feel just as guilty anyway.

Or maybe most of the movie was Christian’s hallucination or fantasy. Maybe he chickened out and never read the accusatory speech at all. Maybe he did read the other speech, and it was different. Maybe the whole thing never happened.

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What is it with people, anyway? The film industry spends millions to deliver experiences that will take us out of the boring everyday world. That’s one of the things we pay for, when we go to the movies. So, why complain about the lack of verisimilitude in a work of fictional cinema? Look at it this way: if absolute factual accuracy is essential, why not just watch documentaries instead? There are thousands of great ones out there. It would take a lifetime to watch just the best, and several more to watch the rest. So go away and quit picking on Scott Rosenberg.

He wrote Things To Do in Denver When You’re Dead (1995), and remarked in the DVD version’s supplementary material, “I created a language, I created a subculture,” crediting Vietnam-era military slang, biker slang, and stuff he made up on his own. Well, some critics had a cow about the film’s language. Not the cussing, but the vernacular. M.V. Moorhead, for instance, called it “gaudy, self-conscious slang…” The well-respected Kenneth Turan described it as “a wacky kind of pumped-up slang laced with mysterious, evocative phrases…” Another commentator wrote of “dumb new slang phrases,” and so on.

Two different things are going on here: an accusation that certain terms used by the characters are inauthentic; and an assumption that making up vocabulary for a movie is somehow not okay. Where did that idea come from? Who knows? Writers do it in novels all the time. Look at that Jerzy Kosinski book where a serial molester lays out his entire bizarre personal dictionary of rape-related terminology. William Gibson makes up words, and so does Norman Spinrad. Tolkien made up a whole language. One of the greatest speculative fiction books ever, Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, requires the reader to scale the heights of a steep learning curve just to get past the first page. And James Joyce? Don’t get me started. The point is, extensive use of self-referential slang occurs in works of fiction, whether presented in print form or on film. What’s the problem? It’s all part of being, as one reviewer put it, “hyper-stylised.”

In real life, some people do speak in impenetrable patois. In real life, small subgroups do have their own languages, sometimes specific to the locale. Maybe I’m wrong to assume that the authors of police procedurals engage in research, but let’s say they do. In a detective novel I read once, when the cops were on the job but out of uniform, they called their attire “soft clothes.” In no other crime novel have I encountered that term for plainclothes or civvies. Somewhere in America there probably is a police department where they say “soft clothes.” In various detective tales, when the cops go after the bad guy they call him the perp, the doer, the unsub… Apparently the worlds of crime and law enforcement both are rife with slang.

In writing the dialogue for Things To Do in Denver When You’re Dead, did screenwriter Rosenberg make it all up? And if he did, so what? The second question has been answered.

One of the expressions peculiar to the movie is “Give it a name,” which betokens affirmation and endorsement. It means “You got that shit right,” “Tell it like it is,” or “Word.” It seconds the motion on a thing that needed to be said. And if it wasn’t already in use before Rosenberg adapted it, well, it should have been.

Actually, the phrase itself has been around for quite a while, although with a different and more direct meaning. In the Charles Dickens novel Hard Times, published in 1854, a bartender asks a customer what he’ll have. Will it be sherry? “Give it a name,” he says. In the short story “Ulysses and the Dogman” by O. Henry, we find these lines:

“S-h-h-h!” said the dogman, signaling the waiter; “give it a name.”
“Whiskey,” said Jim.
“Make it two,” said the dogman.

The term is also used the same way, coincidentally, in the great Ulysses of James Joyce.

“Arrah, give over your bloody codding, Joe,” says I, “I’ve a thirst on me I wouldn’t sell for half a crown.”
“Give it a name, citizen,” says Joe.
“Wine of the country,” says he.

BUCKWHEATS

This expression seems to bother some people a lot, but don’t blame Scott Rosenberg. A contributor to the online Urban Dictionary notes that the word was used back in 1979, in a Season 5 episode of the TV series “The Rockford Files.” In that context, it’s defined as “a series of small painful beatings administered in such a way as to inflict maximum pain without causing permanent damage or desensitizing the recipient. Implies endless pain.” The dialogue quoted is, “Give me the name, or it will be a long night of buckwheats.”

In Things, the old guy, Joe Heff, who explains a lot of this stuff enlightens his fellow loafers in the diner. A sentence of buckwheats means the victim is to be executed in an excruciating and lingering way, such as having a bullet fired up his ass, which results in a fifteen-minute death scene.

The 1999 edition of The Mafia Encyclopedia by Carl Sifakis includes the term, but of course the film had already appeared by then. What I don’t know is whether the 1987 edition contained it. This page from the Sifakis second edition describes several gruesome buckwheats hits, and seems to imply that the term has been around for a long time. It’s also found in Pete DeVico’s 2007 book The Mafia Made Easy: The Anatomy and Culture of La Cosa Nostra.

In Things, there’s a very effective scene where The Man with the Plan mimics and mocks the dread that Jimmy will feel and have to live with, never knowing what his fate will be. The Man trembles and stutters, “Buckwheats. Or maybe not! Maybe, yes, maybe, buckwheats, may maybe buck buckwheats, or, no.” I’m guessing the Mafia, never renowned for sensitivity, coined the term based on the movie character Buckwheat, in the old Our Gang comedies. This was a black kid whose fearfulness was expressed in various ways. His hair would stand on end, or he’d turn white from fear (primitive SFX, done with the film’s negative.)

Back in 2001, Dan Rather told an interviewer how the cowardice of his network superiors forced him to cover a story against his will. He said, “What happened is, they got the willies, they got the buckwheats, their knees wobbled…” My theory is, he’d seen Things To Do in Denver When You’re Dead, and meant that his bosses were shaking and stuttering, pretty much like the demonstration given by The Man with the Plan. Of course Rather was publicly scolded by African Americans for using an offensive racial slur. Question: why didn’t Rather’s remark draw criticism for insulting people with a certain name? Maybe Willie Nelson should sue.

There’s a rather cryptic mention in a 1982 New York Times article on the theater, covering a revival of the play Rose-Marie, which was first staged in 1924. It refers to the question of whether “Leslie Shreve’s curse of ”Buckwheats!” made Lady Jane an endearing creation.”

There’s no doubt that Things contributed to the popularity of the word. In 2005, someone’s comment about a hoax website claiming Christopher Walken would run for president was titled, “Buckwheats for Bush?” In 2006, in a forum discussing favorite music choices, one writer seemed to take for granted that people would understand what was meant by the comment “I suggest buckwheats for everyone who contributed to the list.” In a 2007 discussion we find this line: “That piece of anal excretion that was speaking up for the murder cult leader needs a buckwheats.”

In the same year, elsewhere online, there’s this: “It’s buckwheats for him, innit. Apparently, that’s an Americanism for being shot up the arse. With a gun, like.” Also in 2007, the following contribution was made to a serious discussion of the merits of a Swiss-made weapon: “Legend has it that Pancho Villa got his buckwheats with a number of Mondragons!” A humorous 2007 blog entry by Steve Graham says, “So anyway, this chicken had to be dealt with. I’m talking buckwheats. Because if I let him get away with this, soon everyone would think they could crap in my yard.”

In 2008, a political discussion site includes the sentence, “It’s buckwheats fo’ ya!” On another site, in a discussion about surveillance and related matters, someone named Jsin wrote, “In ten years the oil wars will be in full swing, the feds will not know shit, and your pixels will be dead. The worse that can happen is someone will know you and remember you pissed them off for some reason… Then ya know it’s just buckwheats.” In the same year, this remark showed up in another discussion group: “The fact that these punks made a video with the intent of putting it on the internet cements our feelings on the issue – buckwheats. All of them.” Elsewhere: “And this one goes right between Obama’s beady eyes…This next one is buckwheats! Right up Olbermann’s bunghole…”

A few more recent examples of contemporary use: “That dude that did this is gonna get buckwheats…” “This was a buckwheats hit to Toshiba, plain and simple buckwheats.” Writer Bob Murphy, when considering the case of Ralph “Bucky” Phillips, titled his piece “Buckwheats for Bucky?” Here’s the one I relate to, from a poem by Katrina Rasikari:

My God do I miss you!
Life is pure buckwheats without you!

Video gamers have enthusiastically adopted the term, as explained by another entry in the Urban Dictionary: “A person who has called buckwheats on another player will often avoid other players, ignore easy kills, and disregard danger to oneself in order to punish their enemy for some perceived slight.” There is, in fact, a website called Buckwheats.org that has to do with gaming. And there’s a site called La Familia, in support of one subgroup of the players of Shadowrun, a “punk game set in an alternate near-future.” Its lexicon defines buckwheats as “a vengeance murder involving torture, mutilation and a slow death,” and offers as an example of usage, “He died buckwheats.”

Another gaming site elaborates by explaining that buckwheats “is usually reserved for traitors, informers, welchers, and other people who need to serve as an object lesson… The look on the victim’s face is usually good for a nightmare or two.” Other random outbursts found on similar sites include “Buckwheats for that guy,” and “I have one word for you: ‘Buckwheats!'”

BOAT DRINKS

Moving on to a more pleasant topic, screenwriter Scott Rosenberg absolutely did not invent “boat drinks.” This term is the title of a 1979 song by Jimmy Buffet, whose lyrics include the lines

Waitress I need two more boat drinks
Then I’m headin’ south ‘fore my dream shrinks

A boat drink typically contains rum, and comes with a little umbrella or some other decoration. There’s a difference between boat drinks and, for instance, the self-medicating shots of hard liquor slugged down by a dock worker after a day of brutal labor. Boat drinks are luxury. They serve not as an anesthetic for the woes of life but as enhancement to an already high level of satisfaction. A fellow named Mark Knowles wrote, “There is something special about boat drinks, because ‘boat drinks’ is really a state of mind rather than a particular drink.” In the film, it’s an all-purpose salutation and expression of good will and fellowship. Andy Garcia, who should know, said “boat drinks” is a metaphor for heaven.

IT IS WHAT IT IS

Things To Do in Denver When You’re Dead contains a multitude of colloquialisms, both traditional and invented for the occasion.

Assigning Jimmy to detain and frighten the fiance’ of his son’s ex-girlfriend, The Man says, “It’s just an action, it’s not a piece of work.” In other words, yes, get violent, but no, don’t kill the guy. “Piece of work” is, of course, a familiar construction. The first thing you think of is Shakespeare – “What a piece of work is man, how noble in reason.” And there are a whole lot of other ways to use it. But Scott Rosenberg may have originated this one.

Also, it appears that he invented “Blood runs when the time comes,” which Joe Heff quotes portentously as the first rule of life. It sounds like something that genuine bad guys would have thought up, but apparently it is made up. The saying has been used in a song, “Hell Bound” by Helder which probably was written since the movie came out. Here’s the verse:

we’re never satisfied
but tonight we go with the tide
blood runs when the time comes
I’m gonna stick to my guns

“Bangtail” is standard black American slang for prostitute, but “lunchy” may be a neologism, at least the way it’s used here. It’s how the old guy describes Bernard. Looking it up, we find meanings like mediocre, stupid, dull-witted, and irresponsible. While Bernard is all those things, I think “lunchy,” as used here, is short for “out to lunch.” It’s an expression we’ve all heard, and it implies something stronger than any of those other qualities: namely, a connection with reality that’s tenuous, if not completely severed.

And here’s an expression known to probably everyone: “It is what it is.” Somebody could write a book on that one. I know I could. So, what I’d like to say here is, don’t pick on Things To Do in Denver When You’re Dead. It is what it is, and that’s damn good.

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RELATED: Things To Do in Denver When You’re Dead

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Andy Garcia and Steve Buscemi and Christopher Walken – three of my “if he’s in it I’ll watch it” actors. Not to mention, great dialogue and a story line that never quits. This one is definitely a keeper.

The most interesting thing about it is the character of Jimmy (that’s Garcia). He’s a decent guy in a place and time where decency is a scarce commodity. He studied to be a priest, but lost the calling and became a gangster, but then he lost that calling, too, and turned “citizen” and started a business. His company is called Afterlife Advice, and the time frame of the story is back when videography was still done by professionals. The videos made by the dying people are one of the best things about this movie, and nobody who discusses it mentions them. One viewer grouches that the film’s title doesn’t make any sense, which seems kind of obtuse. Obviously, one thing to do in Denver when you’re dead is provide your relatives with guidance from beyond the grave. Half a dozen of these vignettes are interspersed throughout. It’s art within art, like the dancing plastic bag in American Beauty. Come to think of it, The Dreamers uses the same device, with clips from classic films that reflect the story, or complement it, or comment upon it.

At work, Jimmy has the gravitas of a funeral director. With friends, he’s demonstrative. I can’t remember a movie where so many straight guys hug so many other straight guys. For an example of his style, I like the conversation with a gay colleague who shows him an ad layout. Jimmy is not impressed. “Every fag in the world is good at this kind of shit, and I gotta wind up with one that’s klunky?”

In one conversation, there’s a reference to Jimmy’s boat fund. This establishes him as a man with hopes and dreams, a future with something in it that’s innocent and nice. What this means in filmic terms, of course, is that he doesn’t have a future. What he does have is integrity. When things go south in a big way, he does his best to look after the people who are in jeopardy because they trusted him. Everybody’s always telling him how different he is, like, how noble. (Being told such things must make life difficult for anybody who really is noble.) They call him Jimmy the Saint.

He’s a guy who, as Damian Cannon put it, “treats everyone without judgment and tries to be all things to all men.” Jimmy can function in any surroundings, and the way he does it is not by changing, but by being his same self everywhere, and it works. There are such people, and they’re fascinating. I imagine Duncan Grant having the same kind of low-key magnetism. He was a painter, related to Virginia Woolf. In all the millions of words written by and about the Bloomsbury Group, nobody ever went on record as disliking him. It’s so easy to envision Andy Garcia as Duncan. Grant was mostly gay, but that’s exactly the point about this kind of charisma. It can be found in anyone – straight male, straight female, gay male, gay female – and it envelops everyone. Even psychopaths will sometimes, though not always, respond to the aura of a person like Jimmy.

Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead became, from the first, one of my all-time uber-favorites. I’m gonna go on record that this is a great fuckin’ movie. After the third or fourth time I saw it, I went online and looked at comments by regular people and criticisms by critics. Taking note of their objections, I watched the movie again. Directed by Gary Fleder, it was written by Scott Rosenberg, supposedly in two weeks. Once that becomes public knowledge, some smarty-pants critic will always say “The script was written in two weeks, and it shows.” Actually, some incredible scripts have been swiftly written. John Byrum wrote Inserts over a weekend. The creation of one of these self-contained, self-referential worlds is best done in an intense burst. Philip K. Dick wrote that way, too.

Reviewers make fun of the home-brewed gangster slang, but I don’t see anything wrong with it. I went pretty far into the linguistics angle, far enough to write a whole separate piece about it. Another thing the opinionators like to say about Things is that it rides on the coattails of Reservoir Dogs, copying Tarentino’s mood, style, etc. And who is anybody to accuse Rosenberg’s script of being derivative, anyway, when Reservoir Dogs provided such a renowned example of plagiarism? And – here’s the interesting part – Things was written first. Take that, Reservoir Dogs.

So. Two toughs approach Jimmy with an invitation that can’t be refused. He’s been summoned by his old mentor, The Man with the Plan, a quadriplegic crime boss played by Christopher Walken, who has never been more menacing. Walken does put some strange emphases on words. But it doesn’t matter. He’s the creepiest. The Man is sentimental about his deceased wife, and that’s related to the old-time connection with Jimmy somehow.

The Man confides to Jimmy that his son Bernard is “crazy as a shithouse rat” – and you’ve got to respect him for that. Not many parents can admit that their kid is a serious mess. Bernard has become especially deranged since his longtime girlfriend broke up with him. He expresses his grief through gratuitous violence against random victims, but The Man isn’t so much bothered by that, as by his son’s most recent indiscretion. Bernard hopped the fence of a schoolyard and interfered with a little girl, in full view of dozens of witnesses, which got him arrested. The Man has a plan for his boy’s rehabilitation, and wants Jimmy to recruit some muscle and make it happen. He presents Jimmy with the news that he’s bought the note on Afterlife Advice from some other gangster, so basically, Jimmy really doesn’t have a choice. The Man even sweetens the deal by offering $50,000, which Jimmy can split with his helpers as he sees fit.

The new boyfriend is on his way to Denver. This suitor is to be intercepted, convinced to quit the relationship, and turned around and pointed back to where he came from. “It’s just an action, not a piece of work.” They’re not to kill the orthodontist, only rough him up enough so he’ll go away and dump the woman. Bernard will then get her back, and be happy, and give up the egregious misbehavior. That’s the plan.

Jimmy can relate to Bernard’s problem, because he too is in love. He’s just met the very beautiful sweet innocent yet so sexy Dagney (Gabrielle Anwar). She is lovely and very slinky. Her thighs don’t touch when she walks. She looks like the mermaids painted by fairy tale illustrator Arthur Rackham. There is something fetchingly weird about her top lip, like collagen gone wrong. Dagney is made for candlelight or anyplace else where she can glow softly. The first question Jimmy asks her is, “Are you in love?” because if so he’ll back off. He smells her hair – it’s a fucking shampoo commercial now? But here, as in so much of what we call art, superficial things signify deeper truths. Even though we don’t like to admit it, scent plays a big part in attraction. Because of their relative heights, his nose happens to be in line with her hair, but it’s her he’s smelling.

Some viewers have complained about the rather goofy pickup dialogue sequence, but when people scope each other out as candidates for carnal interaction, the words don’t matter. I mean, you’ve got to say something. The real action is in the looks and the moves, the vibe. Later on he says to her, “You’re a thing to be amazed by,” which is not bad, as declarations of love go. One online critic complains about Dagney’s voice. Picky, picky.

So Jimmy goes to collect the helpers he needs. Franchise is an extensively tattooed biker type, who now has three kids and another one on the way. His wife doesn’t want him to have anything to do with it, but of course he needs the money.

One guy is called Pieces, although when they go see him, he insists “My name is Olin.” He doesn’t want to be called Pieces any more. He has a circulation problem that makes his fingers and toes fall off. But I don’t think the nickname came from the medical condition, I think that’s a grotesque coincidence. I bet he got the nickname way back, in prison, or long before. Olin Pieces is something even kids could think of. (If I misheard the name and it isn’t Olin, then, as Emily Litella would say, Never mind.)

The third recruit is a black guy called Easy Wind, and the fourth is Easy Wind’s natural antagonist, a headcase called Critical Bill, because critical is the condition in which he tends to leave his opponents. He works for an undertaker. Jimmy and Franchise arrive to find him in boxer training mode, using a corpse for a punching bag. Jimmy catches Franchise’s eye with that conspiratorial, slightly rueful, yet indulgent “whattaya gonna do” smile that one parent might flash to another when their kid does something typical, slightly reprehensible, but nonetheless cute. A Johnny Cash song blasts from the stereo, and Bill coordinates his punches with the rhythm as skillfully as any good percussionist who complements the beat of the band’s main drummer.

Bill explains to Jimmy that this new exercise program is actually healthy. Since he’s been on it, he hasn’t beat up any live people. “It keeps my powder dry,” he says. Which is actually a stupid analogy. Dry is the condition in which powder is supposed to be kept, so it can be ignited and explode at will. Wet powder is the kind that isn’t dangerous. So it doesn’t make sense, which is why it’s good dialogue for this character, who is basically dumb as a box of rocks. Here’s a real-life example. I once interviewed a conscientious apartment building manager, who wanted to emphasize how very much the place had improved since he took over. “I turned it around 360 degrees,” he said earnestly. No doubt he had heard of situations being turned around 180 degrees, and figured, if that was good, then 360 degrees must be twice as good. He was clueless in regard to the fact that if something rotates 360 degrees, it’s right back where it started. This is the kind of thing Critical Bill would doubtless also say.

They’re going to set up a roadblock, with two team members posing as police officers. Billy begs to be one of them, promising to behave himself and let Pieces do all the talking. Against his better judgment, Jimmy gives in. There’s that pesky decency again, wanting to give the guy a chance. Big mistake.

Jimmy spends a night with the beautiful Dagney, and then it’s time to rock’n’roll. The crew stakes out the road. Pieces and Critical Bill are in a squad car, Jimmy and Franchise are in a truck (which is where the “cops” are supposed to bring the victim to be beaten up.) Easy is in a car. They wait and wait, and then it’s night, and then it starts to rain. When the orthodontist finally shows up and gets stopped, he doesn’t believe they are cops, and smarts off to them. He won’t get out of his van, and of course Critical Bill loses patience and goes berserk. Jimmy can’t see any of this, he’s relying on Easy’s radio report from his vantage point. For some reason, Easy downplays the degree of resistance the victim is putting up, and the loss of control experienced by Pieces and Bill. When Billy threatens the victim with a knife, Pieces points his gun at Billy. The crazed paramilitary fanatic seems to back off, but the orthodontist is stupid enough to mouth off one more time, and Billy stabs him fatally. Suddenly, a woman appears and screams. It’s Bernard’s ladylove, who has been sleeping in the back of the vehicle. Totally startled, Pieces shoots her fatally.

Jimmy and his friends take the bodies to the funeral home to be slid into a trick coffin along with a legitimate corpse. Jimmy calls Dagney but there’s no answer. He goes to see The Man with the Plan, who is now attended by a corrupt cop, Lt. Atwater. The Man’s for-old-time’s-sake sentiment just barely allows him to spare Jimmy’s life. “We go back,” he says. He tells Jimmy to “put it in the wind” – accept banishment instead of death. He has 48 hours to get out of Denver. “It’s the milk of human kindness I’m giving you,” The Man says. But the other four fuckups are history. Like the standup guy he is, Jimmy says “It wasn’t their fault. They were following my orders. I take full responsibility.”

Personally, I think Easy should be assigned a large part of the blame. When the “action” went down, and he was the one who could see what was happening, he should have apprised Jimmy sooner. But he waited till the situation was catastrophic, then reported to Jimmy, “They fucked it.” Then he descended on Pieces and Critical Bill, throwing all the blame solidly on them.

Anyway, The Man sentences the four accomplices to “buckwheats,” this gang’s term for execution in the most painful way possible, generally with a hot lead suppository inserted at high velocity, if you get my drift. The victim takes fifteen or twenty minutes to expire, and it’s not pretty. Jimmy meets with his crew at the cemetery to give them the news, and they ask if he is also condemned to buckwheats. Jimmy the Saint is a guy who, generally, tries to be as honest as he can, but this is a dilemma. He lies and tells them the same fate awaits him. Or maybe he figures The Man lied to him and he’s dead meat too. Which may explain his reaction when Lucinda shows up on the street covered with bruises.

Lucinda is the junkie prostitute Jimmy is sort of a big brother to. In a typical interaction, she hits him up for money and he warns “You’d better stay clean.” Lucinda wants to get out of the life and find a straight job, but most of all she wants to have a baby, because that might keep her off heroin. This has the unmistakable ring of truth to it. It’s an unfortunate fact that people have babies for the most putrid reasons. Anyway, one of Lucinda’s regulars had beaten the shit out of her. Jimmy takes her to the office building where they guy works. They bust into a conference room where he roughs up the john in front of everybody and tells them why. Pure wish-fulfillment. Haven’t we all dreamed of such a magnificent act of revenge? Even as the security guards drag Jimmy away, he’s still holding onto the scumbag by the neck, dragging him along too. Would Jimmy have made this magnificent gesture in the normal course of events? Or is he extending himself because he’s under sentence? It’s the kind of thing somebody would do, knowing he only had a couple of days left to live. I know I have my list, and you probably do too.

To deal with the four marked men, an extremely skilled contract killer known as Mr. Shhh is called in. This is where it all starts to go a bit over the top, but then again, isn’t that what movies are for? This one does depict a strange moral universe. Even Mr. Shhh is not one-sided. He gratuitously breaks up a 4-on-1 alley fight – maybe because he has a shred of decency, maybe just to keep in practice.

In the latest viewing of Things, I paid more attention to such matters as composition, etc. Looking at it as a graphic novel, I really get it. Scenes are framed like the panels in a noir “comic” book that has nothing funny about it. The set decoration is expressive. In the funeral home, when the crew fight over whose fault it all was, the background is a window made up of many small squares, all red, backlit so you get the feeling of the flames of hell. In The Man with the Plan’s house, he and Jimmy talk against a similar backdrop, a window with numerous small panes, only this time there are red and white squares, like a chess board for the deadly game they’re playing. I was amazed, at the end, to see so many music credits flow by. I hadn’t realized I’d heard anywhere near all those songs. The selections in the sound track fit in seamlessly, always a propos and never obtrusive. And in the club, the live band is Buddy Guy. Excellent choice.

Jimmy knows a black crime boss who owes him a favor, so even though the gangster doesn’t like Easy, he agrees to protect him. Besides, this gangster likes The Man with the Plan even less, so there is the principle of, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

Jimmy meets with Pieces, to pay him off, but he says no, keep the money – “You do something good with it.” This is quite a scene, actually. Pieces has no intention of running, and he explains why. It’s a great thing for a person to be ready to die because he feels like he really lived. How many of us can say the same? That’s the gist of the Pieces philosophy. Maybe this explains why, when Mr. Shhh shows up to execute Pieces, the contract killer complies with his request to “do it quickly.” No buckwheats here.

Jimmy’s in the diner when in comes Bernard, who doesn’t yet know that his ex-girlfriend is dead. He’s upset because he can’t get in touch with her. The softer side of Bernard shows, and he swears he doesn’t mean anybody any harm. He just wants to hear her say in her own voice that things are okay with her and the new guy. (Well, duh, you’d think it would be obvious.) “Her happiness is more important to me than my happiness,” he avers. Jimmy’s natural, instinctive compassion battles with disgust for this pervert, who is the cause of everything going to hell. He knows that Bernard is sincere in this moment, but also knows he’s full of shit, because he can’t help himself and will surely go on being more erratic. This conversation is one of the most fascinating scenes in the movie.

The person with no intention of going gently into that good night is Critical Bill, who turns his apartment into a fortress and, clad in jungle-commando drag, sustains himself on speed. He also pees in a gallon milk jug and keeps it on top of the refrigerator. Perhaps because going into the bathroom would require leaving his post, perhaps for some other reason. Regardless of the fact that he begged to wear a police uniform and take a more active part in the roadside “action,” he tells Jimmy, “It was irresponsible of you to put me out on point.” We all know people like this. Nothing’s ever their fault. Critical Bill also tells his side of the story concerning the rumor that he’s a fecal freak. Setting the record straight, he assures Jimmy that he actually only ate shit once, only a tiny little portion, and it was on a bet. For $500, who wouldn’t?

Mr. Shhh shoots up a whole nightclub full of people to get to Easy. Franchise packs up his family, ready to leave town. He accuses Jimmy of not being as nervous as a fellow buckwheats candidate ought to be, and naturally he’s pissed. Jimmy goes to see The Man with the Plan and asks him to spare Franchise’s life for the sake of his wife and kids, which is a mistake. Jimmy sees The Man’s corrupt police lieutenant talking to Dagney, confronts him in a parking lot and beats him with a bat. They end up back in the presence of The Man, and Jimmy berates him for having Franchise killed when he’d said he wouldn’t. Here comes one of the most-quoted lines of dialogue.

“You gave me your word,” the outraged Jimmy says.

“Jimmy, don’t you see? I’m a criminal. My word doesn’t mean dick.”

The Man humiliates Jimmy and directs the thugs to kick the shit out of him. Dagney is threatened with dire consequences if Jimmy doesn’t get out of town for real this time. Yes, he still has the option to escape, but he’s now sentenced to live in constant fear, knowing that The Man might change his mind any day and have him killed either quickly or slowly. And he’s not to take the woman he loves with him, or he will definitely be killed, after watching her die in some gruesome way. This is another similarity with Inserts, where the director who has failed to please his criminal overlord is punished by having his film released in a form he loathes. He’ll have to live on knowing, as the boss says, “It wasn’t what you wanted.” The Man with the Plan is going to make Jimmy live on in circumstances where he doesn’t dare include Dagney in his life.

Knowing that his days are numbered anyway, Jimmy decides to do the worst thing he can to The Man. He kills Bernard. I have to say I didn’t see this coming. I never thought Jimmy the Saint would do such a thing. There may be a continuity problem. After killing Bernard, Jimmy dragged him out of the car and threw his cap after him. But a bit later, he drives past the goons who are still waiting for Bernard outside the bowling alley, and frisbee-flings the cap at them. Maybe he went back and got it.

Meanwhile, Mr. Shhh nails Critical Bill, and it’s spectacular. As he approaches Bill, the knife slides down his sleeve and into his hand like a burgeoning erection. Here’s a neat parallel – Bill winds up being killed by Mr. Shhh because he can’t resist mouthing off one last time, which is the same way the orthodontist got himself killed by Bill. Neither of them can keep their mouth shut when appropriate. Then it’s Jimmy’s turn to die – but not before he knocks up Lucinda and makes an Afterlife Advice video for his kid.

This film popularized, though it didn’t invent, the term “boat drinks.” It’s kind of an all-purpose expression of camaraderie, a salute to a utopian future, like “Next year in Jerusalem.” At the end, there’s a heartbreaking scene where Jimmy and his crew of four are out sailing on a beautiful day in a tropical climate, enjoying “boat drinks.” The film started with a scene of blissful innocence, the little girls jumping rope on the playground. It concludes with a scene of blissful innocence, the friends in their floating Valhalla. Even in heaven, Critical Bill has a knife in his hand.

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NOTE: Michael Oppermann quotes an interview in Melody Maker which isn’t online: Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg said, “I lost my father after a three-year battle with cancer. Rather than writing directly about that experience, I decided Denver would be a metaphor for terminal disease. It’s like, 30 minutes in, these guys have seen a ‘doctor’, and he’s told them they’ve got days to live”
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Some are great standalone lines. Some are perfect in the context of the situation, in the film.

“You are French, and not in the best sense of the word.”
Two English Girls

“He had an ethical bypass at birth.”
Wall Street

“I’m all growed up and haired over.” Lily (Amy Irving) to her overprotective daddy
Honeysuckle Rose

“You know what? I am better than you.” Michael (Nicholas Cage) to the bad guy
Red Rock West

“At least it’s about a kid.” Joe, giving his lady friend’s son a copy of The Painted Bird
The Buddy System

“Ya know, from where I sit, Kay is steppin’ way outta her range with that woman.”
Desert Hearts

“How do you fight a helicopter with bows and arrows?”
“How you gonna beat an enemy that fights helicopters with bows and arrows?”
Garden of Stone

“If I gotta be afraid in order for your argument to work, you ain’t got no argument.”
Medium Cool

“We’re more fucked than a whore at closing time.”
Dead Man

“Long time no see, Ms. Parker.”
“I’m handling it.”
Desert Hearts

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