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Genevieve Bujold

Trouble in Mind

[originally published in The Weekly, March 26, 1986]

“When I wrote the script it was never as exotic. It was more a straightforward kind of movie. Which it still is. It just takes longer to get straight.”

That’s Alan Rudolph talking about his movie Trouble in Mind, which he wrote “with Seattle in mind” and shot here a year ago this month. How well you take to its exoticism and how patiently you wait for the straightforwardness to assert itself will depend on your tolerance of, or enthusiasm for, Rudolph’s highly stylized brand of filmmaking. I happen to consider him one of the most dynamic, and certainly most distinctive, of modern American filmmakers, and find that his latest feature combines the haunt and vibrancy of Choose Me with the fleetness and wit of Songwriter. That opinion may be disputed. What no one will dispute is that Trouble in Mind makes more exciting use of Seattle as a movie location than any other film ever shot here.

Not that the setting is supposed to be Seattle. Rudolph calls his mythical location RainCity and, as one of the characters reads early in the film, “Above all, the city is a promise of something better—the faint perfume of tomorrow’s fortunes.” That phrase is less likely to have been written by a chamber-of-commerce flack than by a film critic with a deeply ingrained sense of what The City has meant in countless motion pictures about the loss of American innocence. RainCity is the city of film noir, a maze of rain-slicked streets all perversely aspiring to be alleys, of cafés and nightspots and timeless temporary rooms where furtive life hedges its bets and keeps an eye out for the main chance.

Rudolph himself notes that Trouble in Mind‘s characters have been created “out of the movie myth more than the life myth.” The film gets under way with the hero’s release from prison. Hawk (Kris Kristofferson), a former police detective, has spent eight years inside for a vigilante killing. Back in the city, he holes up in a room over Wanda’s Café—Wanda (Geneviève Bujold) is a pal from the old days—and ponders his options. Become a sort of shadow agent for the police? Or sign on with Hilly Blue (Divine), chief mover and shaker of the RainCity underworld these days?

Then fate deals a wild card. Out of the piney woods come Coop (Keith Carradine), a brash young drifter, and Georgia (Lori Singer), the common-law wife he parks in a camper outside Wanda’s while he embarks on a new career in urban crime. Hawk takes one look at the blond waif with baby son in her arms, and our Bogartian hero’s a goner.

The elements of the story are familiar, but Rudolph weaves his own inimitable spell with them. The characters’ trajectories keep crossing, and glancing off one another, according to a cockeyed choreography that speaks to an appreciation of mood, place, and emotional imperatives over the mechanics of plotmaking. Film noir, with its penchant for the ritualized intercourse of strangers and its air of stories that pass in the night, is after all a natural stomping ground for the writer-director of Choose Me, that mating dance of love-seekers beguiled into aesthetic and emotional synchronicity.

***

Choose Me made sad, unexpectedly sweet comedy out of the elements of despair; in its more sardonic way, Trouble in Mind is also a comedy. Its passages of real or potential violence tend to leap into hysterical slapstick. Thieves and fences pull guns over a Chinese dinner; the convergence of emotional itineraries in Wanda’s Café leads to a flailing punchup and giddy verbal crossfire. On a more sober level, irony and goofiness keep swapping valences: Hawk’s fixation on the bucolic airhead Georgia at once signals that he has begun to “get some heart,” as Wanda once ruefully advised him, and proves his undoing at several levels of absurdity.

In some ways, Trouble in Mind represents a slight falling-off for Rudolph. Although the possibility of death runs riot in this movie, there never seems to be quite as much at stake as there was in the much less sanguinary Choose Me. Some of the comedy is just exasperatingly silly (especially when John Considine, an old comrade from Rudolph’s apprenticeship with Robert Altman, turns up as a gangster rival of Hilly Blue’s), and Lori Singer’s wood sprite, for all her efforts to suggest a kind of animal innocence and purity, mostly comes off as a poor-man’s Daryl Hannah.

But such weaknesses are far outweighed by the film’s myriad beauties. The fiercely ambivalent relationship of Wanda and Hawk is grounded on shared history the more evocative for our never quite knowing what that history was. Joe Morton, who played the silent black extraterrestrial in John Sayles’s The Brother from Another Planet, limns a fascinating portrait of Solo, Coop’s lethal, aphoristic tutor in crime, who speaks in quasi-Oriental arboreal metaphors and sets a death trap with sharpened bamboo. (First approached by the jitterbug Coop in Wanda’s Café, he says, “Impatient, eh?” and makes two declarative sentences out of it.) Above all, there is Rudolph’s tirelessly inventive camera eye (abetted by cinematographer Toyomichi Kurita, making an auspicious debut), which stimulates and rewards the viewer’s own imagination with every adroitly selected angle and mythmaking movement of connection.

The narrative in no way insists on it, but this movie takes place in an environment entirely its own. There’s almost a science-fiction air to this world—”low-tech science fiction, emotional science fiction,” Rudolph is quick to qualify. The action appears to be taking place in the near future. There’s a militia parading in the streets; the bills we glimpse in Hilly Blue’s wallet at one point are multicolored, a visual cross between Canadian currency and Monopoly money; jurisdictions are discussed in terms of “sectors” rather than counties or states. Yet the silhouetted specters of uniformed men in a railway station, the lipstick and mannerisms of a diner waitress, the Forties cut of Hawk’s fresh-out-of-prison suit and black shirt, all lend a flavor of period piece—an acid flashback from the pre-acid past.

RainCity itself, though kissed with the bloody blush of neon, retains, like its real-life prototype, an atavistic memory that it was carved out of mountain and forest. Between criminal endeavors, Solo scribbles and murmurs a prose poem about “a dream of trees,” and after all the guns have gone off and the blood has been spilled, the film leaps exultantly to high country and cloud for a mysteriously beautiful coda.

I congratulated Rudolph on this ending, even as I noted, “I find it terribly moving, yet I really can’t say quite why.” He thanked me and confessed that he didn’t quite know why, either. Being unable to account for the beauty he’d created didn’t seem to bother him much. No reason why it should.

Copyright © 1986 by Richard T. Jameson

Review: Swashbuckler

[Originally published in Movietone News 51, August 1976]

In this life sure things are rare, and it were churlish not to pay tribute to one when found. Very well, then: see James Goldstone marked down as the director of a given film and rest assured it will be a shambles. Not that a mindless pirate picture would be the easiest project to bring off in the Seventies with a modicum of style and dash—commodities almost in shorter supply than sure things. But even if a director were capable of steering round the improbabilities in a pirate-meets-girl, pirate-foils-nasty-dictator, pirate-gets-girl-without-losing-a-PG-rating script, he’d still have to do something about making other generic conventions seem effortlessly natural: conveying a sense of fun and exuberance that would make those nonstop guffaws over the joys of fighting, guzzling and wenching seem other than forced, or the absence of any notion of danger—even when the air is full of live steel and cannonaded masonry—seem the only proper response to a world made for devil-may-care adventure. A gregarious raconteur like Raoul Walsh has it in his blood; a Michael Curtiz can cram his frames and send them hurtling after one another with such dizzying stylishness that any feeling of extravagant artifice all but becomes a virtue; even when a stolid craftsman like Henry King is in charge, the solemnity of his responsibility in marshalling a big-budget period picture lends a narrative stability of its own. Goldstone doesn’t come near suggesting any of these guys (although at one point he keeps the duelling Peter Boyle and Robert Shaw out of sight behind a staircase, and if you happen to spot their shadows on the wall amid the clutter of extras, you might feel generous enough to count it as failed-Curtiz) and, worse, has no consistent idea what to do on his own hook.

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The New Life Begins: Dantean Obsession in ‘Obsession’

[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]

Once you’ve experienced the multiple twists and revelations in the last reel of Brian De Palma’s Obsession, and you think about what’s gone before, the basic storyline appears not only terribly contrived but in several ways downright impossible. But the film nevertheless works by the sheer power of a marvelously inventive, multi-layered screenplay brought to life by the simultaneously literary and stylistic genius of one of the most important young American directors. A story as involved and rich as Paul Schrader’s scenario must be firmly grounded in explicable plot; but Vilmos Zsigmond’s richly suggestive cinematography and Paul Hirsch’s relentless-pace editing, under the careful and inspired direction of De Palma, mix memory and desire even more effectively than Schrader’s story. The ultimate achievement of Obsession is not a matching of style to content so much as a resolution of content into pure style.

Inferno

At its most immediately obvious, the film’s title refers to New Orleans businessman Mike Courtland’s fixation on, first, the death of his young wife Elizabeth in a 1959 kidnap plot; second, his guilt for her death, in having delivered false money to the kidnappers; and, third, the stunning resemblance of a young Florentine art student, met 16 years later, to his dead wife. Court’s is the central experience of the film, the one which most drives its development.

Yet a second association with the idea of “obsession” arises when Court’s psychiatrist describes the student, Sandra Portinari, whom Court has brought back from Florence to his home, as having become “obsessed” with the idea of Elizabeth, to the point of hoping completely to replace the woman she so dramatically resembles. (This is the turning-back point for those who have not seen Obsession; reading on can irreparably harm one’s experience of the film.) When, toward the end of the movie, we learn that Sandra is really Amy, the daughter of Court and Elizabeth presumed killed with her mother 16 years earlier, we perceive yet another obsession motivating her: a methodic repetition of the events of 1959, with the hope of either restoring lost certainty of a father’s love or confirming forever his guilt and avenging herself on him for her mother’s death.

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Dizzle and Drizzle: DVDs of the Week

The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle (Tribeca)

The feature debut of award winning short film director David Russo begins as a journey through the strange life of late-night janitors and ends up a very different kind of odyssey. Marshall Allman is the cubicle monkey Dory, a “Data Meister” who flips out at work and ends up with a janitorial service that cleans up after a market research firm working on an experimental (and, it turns out, highly-addictive) “self-heating cookie.” Given that the cleaners like to sample the goodies left out in the offices, they make perfect test subjects: oblivious, unwitting and unlikely to sue.

Janitors unite (sort of) in Little Dizzle

The side-effects of these chemical-laced snacks are unusual to say the least, at least for the men: cramps, cravings, hallucination and finally giving birth to a living creature. Really: they poop out a little blue fish-like creature. It sounds funny and much of the time it is—Russo has a grand time with this misfit community of night-workers and much of the humor of their work and their social fun and games is drawn from his own years as an after-hours janitor. Plus it delivers one of the great lines of the year, spoken as a couple of janitors peer over what they assume is a weird blue poop left in a toilet: “You guys name your dumps?” “The great ones name themselves.” But when those men face the life that came out of their body, flipping and squirming and gasping for life before expiring, the primal force of those unformed, confused emotions—helplessness, loss, the primitive biological imperative to protect this thing, as alien as it is, that came from their body—is terribly touching.

Russo hasn’t quite mastered narrative but his compassion for the characters is genuine and the spiritual hunger of these dropouts flailing around for meaning and direction—Dory sampling his way through the faiths of the world, trying each on like a new suit and seeing how it fits, and alpha janitor O.C. (Vince Vieluf ) turning his work into outsider art—has an authenticity to it. And then there is the deliriously imaginative imagery created largely by Russo in the distinctive, largely hand-made animation style of his shorts. Even when they create their own little film within the film, like the pixilated swim of the fish from the barroom painting through Dory’s chemical-addled consciousness, they are less special effects than dreamy side-trips through experiences we don’t usually get in indie features. Russo doesn’t strive for verisimilitude or realism, he embraces the unreality of their break with the real world. The fishes, however, are both real and unreal, glowing and hyper-present, natural and unnatural, flopping around like a desperate creature trying to escape a terrifying situation, as vivid and organic as Lynch’s Eraserhead baby.

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Review: Coma

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August, 1978]

I have this fear of doctors. I don’t know whether it comes from a low pain threshold or from years of horror movies. I thought the only genuinely scary scene in The Exorcist was Regan’s spinal tap operation. So Coma was halfway home with me before it ever started: I came ready to be scared to death, knowing that the film’s milieu alone would be enough to do it. Even so, Crichton didn’t really score as many frissons as he might have; and the film ends up a minus rather than a plus, chiefly because of a storyline more devoted to its red herrings than to its corrosive moral implications. The early sequences place us firmly in a world of moral dilemmas, questions that promise some kind of integral relevance to the ordeal we know must come. How far can a woman distance herself from a man in the name of independence before she ceases to be a reasonable, loving human being? How embroiled in hospital administration politics does a young doctor become before he loses sight of the humanism of his calling? What is death? Who should play God? Is abortion for reasons of personal convenience a moral action? … But except for the whodunit’s guilty party’s speech, toward the end, about how “someone has to make these decisions,” the film’s goings-on are never effectively related to the moral questions that abound in its universe.

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