Tuesday, February 25, 2014
Drunk on Foolish Pleasures: Fearless
... and so begins Fearless, the little-seen but terrific Peter Weir film that proves that, when pressed, the man who served up the hushed sanctimony, false piety, and utter hypocrisy of Dead Poet's Society could return to the spirit of his earlier masterpieces Picnic at Hanging Rock and Gallipoli.
I have written before of some teachers' fascination with Dead Poet's Society. Apple is currently using a long sound bite from the film to advertise their new line of iPads. That commercial makes me nauseous; when I see it, I want to throw up from atop a wooden desk shouting “Captain, my captain!”
I find myself impossibly divided when it comes to Weir and his somewhat schizophrenic resume. I love The Truman Show and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. I scratch my head at Green Card and The Mosquito Coast. Dead Poet's Society is the worst. Fearless is one of his best.
Max is hailed as a hero and is hounded by the press. The little boy he saved does not want to leave his side. The airline's psychiatrist (John Turturro) can’t reach him; his business partner’s skeevy lawyer won’t leave him alone. Max begins a friendship with another survivor, Carla (Rosie Perez), who lost her baby in the crash and is nearly comatose with grief. While at times he seems almost blissfully content with his new lease on life, Max's personal life and mental health are in shambles.
Critics responded well to Fearless in 1993, but it’s one of those films that seems to drop off the radar after its initial release. I think I know why. When the film was released on DVD, the studio was test-marketing a new, bare-bones discount-priced slate of movies; to keep them cheap, the movies were only released cropped. So this gloriously shot widescreen film – a film that muses about the beauty of life on this planet and includes one of the most riveting and effective plane crash sequences ever filmed -- was ONLY RELEASED CROPPED. When word of that indignity reached me, I opted out of buying the film. I think many collectors had a similar reaction. In addition, the film does not play often on cable or broadcast television. Finally, Warner Archive has released the film the way it’s meant to be seen – on high-def, widescreen Blu-ray. It looks great.
The structure, maturity and depth of the film and its characters reveal that is based on a novel. Have you ever noticed that when a film is a little more intellectually rigorous, a little more detailed, a little more peopled with real-feeling characters… in short, a little more BETTER… that it is often based on a novel? In fact my one quibble with Fearless (a somewhat unclear passage as we follow the breakdown of Bridge's marriage) seems to stem from the fact that novels have a lot more space and breathing room to handle certain elements of plot. Telescoping the marriage stuff for the sake of a movie reveals a tiny hole in the construction of the narrative. No big deal.
Like many of my favorite films, Fearless features a deep bench of wonderful supporting performers. John Turturro plays a well-meaning but ineffective therapist (apparently, he has written a book.) Benicio Del Toro plays a well-meaning but ineffective husband. Thomas Hulce plays Brillstein, one of the slimiest lawyers in movie history: a man who thinks admitting, "I know, I'm the worst!" somehow absolves him from guilt. I guess Brillstein feels it’s okay to be an amoral weasel, as long as you’re no hypocrite about it – which is odd, since what he mostly seems to do is try to get his clients to lie. Even Rondi Reed, one of my favorite performers from Chicago's famed Steppenwolf Theater Company turns up as a survivor with a single line of dialogue.
Rosie Perez deservedly received an Oscar nomination for her performance, making this one of the few times that Uncle Oscar has gotten it right. Perez lost, however, to ten-year-old Anna Paquin's convincing portrayal of a ten-year old in The Piano, making it the 118,751th time that Uncle Oscar has gotten it wrong.
Heaven's Gate, Tron, Starman, Jagged Edge, Tucker: The Man and His Dream, The Fisher King, The Big Lebowski, The Contender, The Door in the Floor, Crazy Heart, and True Grit. The man has made 71 movies: what a body of work.
The Big Lebowski and Fearless are Jeff Bridge's two finest performances. Max Klein and Jeff Lebowski have nothing in common—they do not look, act, dress, talk, react, dance, eat, drink, or kiss in the same way—yet these movies were released only five years apart. This is testament to Bridge's range. It is more than a mere "lose yourself in the character or costume or makeup" stunt; both characters are still recognizably Jeff Bridges. This is a hard quality to describe... perhaps it’s a combination of talent and presence.
So here we have that rare Hollywood film that treats us as adults, features career-best performances from two actors, and provides intellectual fodder for the viewer to chew on for weeks on end... What are those who have never seen Fearless waiting for? No seriously, I want to know. (That’s why we have a “Comments” function.)
ONE MORE THING: As I write this, I am in my classroom. The administration recently installed motion sensors that control the lights and the heat. If a room is vacant for ten minutes, the lights and heat go out. Apparently, my typing is not motion-riffic enough to cue the sensors that I am still in the room. So riveted was I writing about this terrific film, I did not even notice that the lights were off and ventilation system had stopped! I finished writing this, freezing and in the dark... Few films can inspire such strict attention.