Thursday, June 29, 2006

A Few Thoughts on Movies I've Watched Until I'm Blue in the Face

In high school, I used to tell people that my idea of heaven was watching great movies over and over again, and I wasn't kidding. To me, at that time, there seemed few pleasures greater than to be treated to repeat viewings of Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, A Clockwork Orange, Nashville, and Taxi Driver, which I think I considered more or less the pinnacle of great filmmaking (still do, in some ways.)

Back then, of course, there were no VCRs, and the only way to fill a real cinema habit was either the theatre or commercial-clotted network TV, so there were a number I paid to see over and over.

You know what still amazes me today? At the age of 16, I sat through two back-to-back showings of Nashville. I met a guy at a party a few weeks back who told me he has yet to make it through one time. I don't think I could still do it. The reason I did it was because I was going to review it for a school newspaper and wanted to, you know, really, really get into it, which I did, although I can assure you I didn't know what it was about. All I knew was that it was big and I loved it. I loved the sheer scope of it, the hugeness, the multiple stories, the overwhelming ending - whatever political message it was sending was a little beyond me, although I think I patched together something that sounded intelligent from all the other reviews I read (and I read every single one). That review never ran, by the way, because I spent so much time rewriting it.

I paid to see Blow Out six or seven times, as I did Raiders of the Lost Ark, Poltergeist and E.T. Those all had kind of the same thing going for them: they were either great blockbusters or cinematic amusement-park rides, and as soon as I finished I wanted to take another spin. It took a long, long time for them to get old.

The arrival of the VCR brought on a new period of obsession, in which it was entirely possible to watch the same movie over and over, to the point of exhaustion. Once I watched Manhattan every morning before work for a couple of weeks. There is a vast period of time in the late 1980s when it seemed all I ever watched were Mean Streets, Citizen Kane, Blue Velvet -- especially Blue Velvet -- or House of Games.

None of these, though, come even close to the Big Kahuna of my Moviewatching: Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky. I have easily seen that film at least 50 times, which is probably more than May, I would guess. I rented it very much on the spur of the moment, vaguely recalling some review of it by Stanley Kauffmann, and I seem to recall starting it while reading a newspaper. It hooked me very quickly; I think probably because of John Cassavetes' great performance (one of the greatest in screen history, I think, depending on how you judge these things - for all I know he was just playing himself.)

Cassavetes plays Nicky, a low-level mobster who is rightly paranoid that a contract has been placed on his life. In desperation, he calls his life-long friend Mikey, played by Peter Falk, who agrees to help get him out of town. Actually, Mikey is helping to set Nicky up - his goal is to steer Nicky in the path of a hit man. Over the course of a long night in the ass-end of Manhattan, the two carouse the bars, movies, convenience stores, stop by to see one of Nicky's old girlfriends, and just generally thrash out their lives together, which basically amounts to Nicky the Dom and Mikey the Sub. Nicky is the natural-born leader, the charmer, the guy who can get away with everything; Mikey is the follower who wishes he was like him and cleans up after him. To be Nicky's best, most reliable friend means being his doormat -- deep in middle age, Mikey has grown tired of the act, and tired of who he has become.

Their relationship is a lot like that between Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) and Charlie (Harvey Keitel) in Mean Streets, with which it makes a nice double-bill - the tangled relationship between the edgy, high-flying risk-taker and the guy who holds back and plays it safe..

I could probably come up with a dozen reasons I find every viewing of this film fresh and revelatory. One, as I said, is the performance of Cassavetes, which doesn't even really seem like acting; he just seems to have absorbed himself into the part - or maybe the part was shaped around him, I don't know. (I don't always care to know about the making of films I love.) Everything about him is sudden and spontaneous; that scene in the beginning where he suddenly breaks into tears, then quickly recovers. All through it he goes back and forth between being this absolute, utter jerk and then begging for forgiveness - and this is another layer of fascination for me, the psychology of the story, of this trapped animal. Does Nicky know Mikey is setting him up? Yes and no - he fears it, certainly, and that suspicion shapes his behavior. It's as if all the way through he's torn between thinking "I have to be nice to Mike; he's the only friend I've got" to "Mike has set me up; I may as well treat him like I always have" to "Maybe he set me up and maybe he hasn't - who knows? Let's tempt fate and see what he does." I once wrote somewhere that he's like a man on a tightrope who can't resist shaking his own wire.

There have been other times I've watched it focusing entirely on Falk, wondering if he didn't possibly give the greater performance of the two - the straight man role, the reactive role, and of course his character has been shaped by that role, by always being Nicky's second.

There have, also, in case you're wondering, been times when I thought I had completely overreacted to this crappy little film that never gets more than two and a half to three stars in all the film guides, and which has a terribly ragged look to it, and which I believe Leonard Maltin says features some of the worst lighting, cinematography and editing imaginable, and which John Simon hated. Then it starts, and I get involved, get captivated all over again -- and that ending, where Nicky is pounding on Mikey's door as he gets gunned down, just knocks me out every time.

It's the most powerful movie I've ever seen.

I was inspired to write this because recently asked a number of directors and critics to cite the movies they've seen the most.

This is a great question, and people should ask it more - it says a lot more about you than your top ten. Anyone can come up with a list of classics, but the movies that keep pulling you back and won't let you go are really something else altogether.

Or, what is more likely the case for this crew, these are the kinds of movies people wish they had made.

Some comments:

*When a number of these people talk about watching a movie over again, they mean just seeing it nine or ten times. Pikers.

*Anchorman director Adam McKay's opinion of Alexander Payne's Election echoes mine: "I think because it's funny and about a high school, people tend to treat it lightly, but I think it's a heavy hitter masterpiece." Absolutely. It's about the decline and fall of a nice guy, a popular high school teacher stuck in the career pit, watching enviously as an annoyingly perfect student prepares to soar past him.

It's one of the great American films about ambition and adulthood, and I think it's as close as anyone will ever get to Preston Sturges. There was something Roger Ebert said one time, I forget what exactly - something along the lines of "The test of an unforgettable movie is if you remember a character's name years later." Or maybe I just said that. Anyway, the annoying student played by Reese Witherspoon is named Tracy Flick.

*Peter Farrelly, director of There's Something About Mary and Kingpin (which I told someone earlier today was the funniest movie I've ever seen) likes Jonathan Demme's Something Wild. Me too. I think of it as one of the near-great road movies.

*I like Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, too, but I've never really totally grokked Michael Sragow or Terrence Rafferty's love for it. "No other film has such an inside-outside reach." I may watch it again with those words in mind.

*The same goes for Barry Lyndon, which In The Company of Men director Neil LaBute calls "the most distinctive and beautiful re-creation of period on film, bar none," and notes "the way Kubrick slowly reverse zooms on the opening shot of many scenes, unveiling each new 'chapter.'" All I remember is that it has the greatest shot in history of a kid falling off a horse.

*I love Dana Stevens, whose late and lamented website "The High Sign" went belly-up when she became a hotshot New York Times critic. Alas, the love is not returned: "I don't think I could love anyone who didn't love [Nagisa Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses.]" This is a super-graphic Japanese fuck film shot in day-glo pornovision that ends in gory castration, and I think I took almost as many smoke breaks getting through it as I did Pasolini's Salo. I remember being impressed in a kind of once-is-way-more-than-enough way.

But at least Dana's seen it 50 times. That's a love and obsession I understand and respect.

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