Posts Tagged ‘Harry Dean Stanton’


The Good Life does not the good beginning have. There’s some voiceover narration employing the word “oftentimes,” and I’m thinking, “Oh, please.”

Miraculously, that teaser of a soliloquy, delivered by the protagonist, is the only false note. Once we’re past it, this quickly becomes a hella good movie. Plus, it incorporates the wonderful piece of oratory from Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.

Jason (Mark Webber) is grand – the character and the actor, both. A painfully responsible young man, he parents his giddy, flaky mother. As if that weren’t enough, Jason also looks out for Gus (Harry Dean Stanton), an aging movie projectionist who can’t get over the death of his wife, among other things. Jason visits the beautiful old theater daily for the increasingly unrealizable purpose of keeping Gus on the rails.

The conversational topic is heroic pilot Amelia Earhart.
Gus: “They say she wore men’s underwear.”
Jason: “Who’s they?”
Without copping any kind of attitude, he says it all in two words. “Who’s they?” Jason is truly cool. As we used to say in the Sixties, he has his shit together.

He also survives brutalization by a psycho football player, and turns out to have a shocking medical problem. I remember hearing about a boy whose parents gave him, for Christmas, the same gun used by their other son to commit suicide. That may have been the inspiration for this package left to Jason by his dead cop father. He keeps it in a drawer, unopened, for quite a while. I know the feeling. I’ve received letters that needed to sit around and mellow; that couldn’t be opened until the right psychological moment. It’s all pretty grim, actually.

Then beautiful, mysterious Frances (Zooey Deschanel) comes along. At first, she seems like a blessing. There’s a scene between her, Jason, and Gus that rings true for anybody who has taken care of someone with a deteriorating mind. But heaven never lasts. Though Frances claims Jason as her soulmate, it is, unfortunately, his soul upon which she makes several demands. Frances is like Henry Miller’s wife, the legendary June: a totally unreliable fabulist and a magically irresistible femme fatale. There are such people, and one who’s really good at it can captivate victims of either gender, at will.

Half of Jason’s monumental obligations vanish when his mother finds a man, who will now presumably bear the burden of her unstable ways. As soon as Jason formulates in his own mind the intention to leave town, Gus dies. I can relate to that, too. I had a cat once, a creature of already-proven weirdness, who heard me talking on the phone about finding him another place. He sickened and died within days.

The truth comes out, about Frances, and it’s bad. But I like the ending.

Written and directed by Stephen Berra

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Ostensibly, Echo Park is about the difficulties of living and working in LA, as experienced by aspiring showbiz types. In a city where every dog groomer or cop is really an actor or a writer, with their minds on something else, a lot of things are done differently than in someplace normal. Also, of course, the movie is about how your family is the people you find.

May (Susan Dey) and her son live in a rickety old house that’s been divided into apartments. So much of this is familiar to anyone who has been forced by economic necessity to find a housemate to share the rent. Who can forget the sinking sensation when you open the door to the first of a dismal parade of interviewees?

Eventually, Jonathan (Tom Hulce) shows up. May says, “I thought you were somebody else.” He says, “Even I think I’m somebody else sometimes.”

Michael Ventura wrote this movie, and that’s why it’s so good. It really is, though of course not everything is due to the genius of the script. Hulce, for instance. It pains me to bring in this cliché but he has quirky charm and to spare. Plus, he gets to do his maniacal laugh. This is a very funny movie with as much physical humor as great dialogue. Without being corny, it has a lot of heart. For instance, the easy way in which Jonathan befriends the boy Henry, by giving him a new name: Hank. What eight-year-old could resist?

May, unfortunately, has issues. She tells her girlfriend that Jonathan is “not the kind of guy I do it with. He’s nice.” The kind of guy she does it with is August (pronounced ow-goost) the body sculptor from Austria who already lives in the adjoining apartment.

Jonathan moves in with May and her son. August helps carry Jonathan’s stuff inside. At night, they’re all out on the steps, and May and August are playing footsie. To have sex, she brings him to her place. He mauls her around like a rag doll and my question is, after all that booze, why isn’t she throwing up? Meanwhile, poor Jonathan has to listen to this raucous carnival of carnality.

Jobwise, Jonathan ( who is actually a writer) drives a ridiculous pizza-mobile. His boss is cadaverously fearsome Vinnie, as portrayed by Timothy Carey. Although I always think he’s Harry Dean Stanton. Separated at birth? Check it out:

August has invented a device that taps the energy created by people working out at the gym, and stores it in batteries. He has kind of an orgone-ish theory of body building, A proponent of the “holy act of masturbation,” he discusses his philosophy unrestrainedly.

May finally gets an audition, which turns out to be for strip-o-gram dancers. Convincing herself that it will be a steppingstone to Hollywood recognition, she takes the job, and I’m not going to tell you any more than that. Except that my favorite scene is her audition, when the strip-o-gram entrepreneur (John Paragon) teaches her how to strip. It’s one of those immortal movie moments.

Related: Michael Ventura: An Appreciation
by Pat Hartman, first published in Salon: A Journal of Aesthetics

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