Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Morning After Leaves the Viewer a Little Fuzzy

Sidney Lumet is one of the great American directors. Network, Long Day's Journey into Night, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon--just a few mentions of his amazing filmography illustrate his place in the directing pantheon. So what could he do with a screenplay from a one-and-done producer turned writer, set in a city 3000 miles from his normal New York City milieu?

 Jane Fonda plays Alex Sternbergen, stage name Viveca Van Loren, who wakes up from an alcohol induced blackout to find she's in bed with a murdered man. It's interesting to revisit this premise because it's a familiar inciting incident. HBO's excellent The Night Of has young Nasir as its did-he-or-didn't he protagonist, and of course for the Corleone family Tommy Hagen gets the crooked congressman under his thumb with a frame for murder. However, just as Alex stumbles through the film in a chemically induced haze, so does the film lack clarity of purpose.

As a thriller, it never quite gets the tension to take hold until the final showdown. There are too few characters to make an effective whodunit. Alex's attempt to flee plays as farce. It provides the bare bones of a procedural, but there are too few dots to connect. I've seen it described as a neo-noir, and it does have a certain fatalist point of view, but perhaps the label might fit better if Jeff Bridges' washed up cop Turner Kendall were the lead and Alex the femme fatale.

But he is not. It's Alex's choices that lead the film from point A to point B, and it's in Fonda's performance that the Lumet magic appears. He films her in long, unbroken shots that serve as visual monologues. She goes from confusion to terror, hangover to humor all within the same scene. It's a brilliant partnership.

 Lumet also comes to a compromise with LA as a setting. Lumet's best work is in his home town of New York, and he films LA as if using outsiders' impressions. Everything is lit to the extreme-the sunlight is impossibly bright, interior lights are harsh floodlights, and even Alex's bedroom is a glowing neon pink. At the top of the film Alex awakens to a stripe of bright light clawing its way in through the blinds. There is nowhere to hide in this LA, no shadows to duck into.

There are elements of Lumet's greater, earlier works inside The Morning After. Alex's addiction and broken psyche reflects Mary Tyrone in Long Day's Journey. The question of whether or not Alex's hispanic ex-husband Joaquin can get a fair trial is straight out of 12 Angry Men. Even the motive for the crime, the fear of compromising photos being leaked by a sleazy photographer caught in a media frenzy has a touch of Network about it. If the screenplay had leaned into any one of these ideas further, it might have strengthened the film as a whole.

It's not terribly unique to state that the joy of this film is in the performances. Jeff Bridges provides the only bit of softness in the harsh, jagged LA setting, and Raul Julia does a masterful job of playing both ends against the middle as Joaquin. It's a performance that gains depth once the murder is solved. Lumet was known for directing actors to award nominations and wins, and his influence is evident here. It's just too bad that there were so many missed opportunities in the writing.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

A Poem for Winter Thinking

By the Stream

Paul Laurence Dunbar
By the stream I dream in calm delight, and watch as in a glass,
How the clouds like crowds of snowy-hued and white-robed maidens             pass,
And the water into ripples breaks and sparkles as it spreads,
Like a host of armored knights with silver helmets on their heads.
And I deem the stream an emblem fit of human life may go,
For I find a mind may sparkle much and yet but shallows show,
And a soul may glow with myriad lights and wondrous mysteries,
When it only lies a dormant thing and mirrors what it sees.

Although this winter the streams and rivers I've been seeing have had many more armored knights than white robed maidens. 

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Repost: Noir City Seattle 2011

I'm so behind on my Daily Doses, I thought I'd repost some observations from Noir City a while ago: The two films were "They Won't Believe Me" and "Don't Bother to Knock."  The latter should be more widely available-it's amazing.

It's a drag we didn't have Noir City this past year because there was some venue kerfluffle with SIFF, and they couldn't get the Cinerama up to speed in time.  But next February at the Cinerama should be amazing!  (One of the times I went there, Adam Arkin was two seats down from us and none of my friends knew who he was.  I let them have it!)

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

#NoirSummer : Daily Dose of Darkness 3

What an opener!  The camera slides along the scene--men asleep in hammocks or lazing around, when blam! In a single shot the view moves to the "big house" where a single gun shot rings out and out the front door stumbles a man. Everyone is startled, including the animals. Out follows Bette Davis, and she keeps shooting, over and over again, until she has emptied the gun into the poor sod.  Not only does she shoot him, boy does she ever make sure the job is done!

Then the full moon is briefly obscured by clouds, and when it reappears, it bathes Bette Davis in light, not unlike a police spotlight mounted on prison walls.  She's caught, and she's culpable.

But the scene goes on for her to send her man to say "there's been an accident."  (It reminded me of that old joke, "Your honor, he fell on his knife!"  "Twenty-seven times?!") She's cool and collected, thinking 4 chess moves ahead.  No histrionics or swooning here, there's one person in charge and it's easy to see who that is.

This scene gives the same feeling of tension and "what's going on" that the opening scene of M does-there's the facade of normality but something has gone horribly awry.  We can only hope as curious viewers that the story will flashback to fill us in on what brought the characters to this point.  Playing fast and loose with the timeline is a classic component of noir, and this opener gives us the hint of that.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

#NoirSummer : Daily Dose of Darkness 2

A film takes us on a journey, often from point A to B to C, but not always. This opening scene drops us into the action in progress-no orienting of location or to character.  The engineers are mostly wordless, performing their difficult, dirty work by habit and by gesture. No immaculate sound set and perfectly coiffed hair here-this is where the word "gritty" gets applied to noir.  The men are sooty, the fire smokes. Just as the train's progress seems inexorable, so too does the sound design. The racket is deafening-the men couldn't have a conversation if they wanted to. And the shriek of the train whistle!

This film does not whisk us away to some fantasy where every barista is adorable with a giant NYC apartment, but rather sets us firmly in the real world of hard work. (See also Italian neorealism *name drop*)
The camera attached to the side of the train gives the viewer the feeling of clinging on like a bug.  We get no comfy seat inside, but rather we ride in the "danger zone" where we can sense the speed of the train and the danger of being plunged into darkness.  I was sorry to be watching the clip on my computer rather than in a dark theater for the shot in the tunnel!
And then, finally, after having our nerves rattled by the sound, the speed, and the darkness, the train slows and pulls into the station.  We finally have a signpost-Le Havre.  But where is everybody?  The silence is deafening.