Friday, July 21, 2023

Notes on Film: Never Stop Discovering

 by Anthony King

You never know when you'll find your next favorite movie.

I'm fortunate enough that Patrick gives me space to write about whatever I please. Most of the time I use this column as a sounding board or a way to process nagging thoughts. Regular readers know I like to float down the river of existentialism. I only wish life was easy enough for me that I could see everything in black and white. Then there are times where life is easy going; no pressing issues to get my heart a'racing; everything seems black and white momentarily, however brief. As a side note, a hearty thanks to our friend Louis Viljoen who tossed out a suggestion of watching and writing about Danny Cannon's Phoenix (1998). I'd never even heard of the movie until now, and with a cast that includes names like Liotta, LaPaglia, Huston, Baldwin, Piven, Esposito, Murphy, and Noonan I wonder why I've never heard of this. Louis, I'll report back next week! In the meantime, let's go this direction.
I have a podcast called the Cult Movies Podcast where we talk about movies in Danny Peary's books and then offer up pairing recommendations. Much of my movie-watching comes down to Blu-rays I'm reviewing or pairing ideas for the podcast. I try to use that opportunity to watch things I'd never seen before, and, more often than not, I tend to seek out lesser-discussed films. I've discovered some real gems in the process. Robert Clouse's Darker Than Amber (1970) starring Rod Taylor, Cross My Heart (1987) starring Annette O'Toole and Martin Short, The Minus Man (1999) starring Owen Wilson, Janeane Gaofalo, and Brian Cox, and Daniel Mann's Matilda (1978) starring Elliott Gould are some that come to mind. I've written about how I need to slow down in my quest to watch as many movies as possible or spend more time rewatching the ones I love. I feel like I've done a little better this year because, let's be honest, when I'm on my tenth movie of the two-day weekend I'm a little burned out and not giving the film my full attention. That said, I have become better at being a little more decisive about what to watch. In the past I'd watch something just because everyone else was, even if I had no intentions of watching said movie. Denis Villeneuve's Arrival (2016) comes to mind. I'm not into sci-fi movies, and I knew I wouldn't like it. I was right. I hated it. Now, though, I'm not going to watch a movie if I don't want to. There's no need in going into a movie with a preemptive bad attitude.
Then there are filmmakers whose filmographies I want to complete, but sometimes there will be stinkers along the way. This year I'm going through all the Wes Craven movies I haven't seen. There is only one film left in the ones I haven't seen that I'm not looking forward to. Music of the Heart (1999) doesn't look good, and I really don't want to watch it. I suppose I don't have to watch it. But I'm going to. There are also filmmakers who I love but whose movies usually take a second watch to really appreciate. David Lynch is one of those directors for me. I didn't like Mulholland Drive (2001) or Eraserhead (1977) upon first watch. Now Mulholland Drive is one of my all-time favorites, and Eraserhead is the weirdest masterpiece I've ever seen. While I liked Wild at Heart (1990) the first time I saw it (on 35mm as part of a double with Gun Crazy (1950) no less) I didn't love it. I recently watched my Blu-ray of Lost Highway (1997) and hardly liked it. I can almost guarantee, though, I will LOVE both the next time I watch them, because that's how my relationship with David Lynch movies goes.
Robert Altman is another one for me. We all know The Long Goodbye (1973) is one of the greatest neo-noir movies ever made, but I didn't love it the first time I saw it. Like many Altman films, TLG is heavy on the vibes and I wasn't expecting that from a private eye story. Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982) is a perfect example of this. Not everyone is going to enjoy this movie because it's very strange. The first time I saw Come Back it left me scratching my head. Now it's a movie that lives in my head forever because, like most Altman films, it assembles one of the greatest ensemble casts ever (Cher, Sandy Dennis, Karen Black, Sudie Bond, Kathy Bates, Marta Heflin, and Mark Patton). There are few Altmans that left me cold the first time I saw them. Gosford Park (2001) and Images (1972) are two that I knew were good but couldn't fully appreciate them for one reason or another. And, dare I say, I HATED Popeye (1980) when I saw it in high school. Then there are some big ones I haven't seen yet: The Player (1992), Nashville (1975), Short Cuts (1993), 3 Women (1977), plus 45 other Altman films. All this to say, there hasn't been one Altman film that I immediately fell in love with the first time I watched it. Until now.
The Company (2003) is the last movie in Altman's filmography I expected to love on the first watch, yet here we are. Nothing could be more misleading about the movie than the Letterboxd header picture of James Franco and Neve Campbell snuggling on the couch, and a synopsis that reads, “Ensemble drama centered around a group of ballet dancers, with a focus on one young dancer who's poised to become a principal performer.” First, James Franco is barely in the movie (thank god). Second, the synopsis makes it sound too much like Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan (2010), a movie I very much enjoy but is nothing like The Company. While this could be considered a typical Altman film populated with a troupe of actors, along with a couple bit players, the only recognizable actors here are Campbell, Franco, and Malcolm McDowell. The rest are real life dancers and instructors from Chicago's Joffrey Ballet. Again, this does not scream favorite film. I do love ballet and Neve and McDowell, but nothing on the surface is what I love about movies. Yet this is now, and probably will always be, my favorite Robert Altman film.
The film opens on an abstract dance with mesmerizing lighting and hypnotic, thumping music. From then on the film carries a bit of a behind-the-scenes documentary feel as the viewer becomes privy to “vignettes” of auditions, rehearsals, and meetings. Separating each of these vignettes are performances from the Joffrey Ballet. Different arrangements of Rodgers' and Hart's “My Funny Valentine” are threaded throughout the film (like “The Long Goodbye” in TLG), elevating the story to impossibly romantic heights. Unlike Black Swan or any number of movies revolving around artists, we don't see any backbiting or eye-scratching drama behind the scenes. While we can assume it's there, The Company is less centered around a single performer rising to the top and the casualties left in her wake, and more focused on the company as a whole trying to put together a season of performances. I love a movie about putting on a show, and The Company shows not only what's happening on stage but what's happening in the boardrooms. Malcom McDowell is hamming it up as the artistic director of Joffrey, and presents his character as fickle yet not monstrous. The movie as a whole and the people on the screen are warm and inviting. It's thrilling to watch creators bring their work to life.

The older I get the more I'm starting to appreciate the vibes-only type of movie. I don't know if I need to watch California Split (1974) again because, like Patrick, I don't love the stress created by a gambler's demise. As much as I like the big booms and blood and scares, I love just getting comfortably lost in a film. The Company is one of the ultimate examples of such a film, and this is one I'll be going back to over and over again.

No comments:

Post a Comment