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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: Sadie

At the beginning of a movie, you look for little indicators that you’re in good hands. It could be a neatly-choreographed action scene, an actor’s brilliant monologue, or a fantastic “How did they do that?” camera move.

In Sadie, I got that feeling from a plate of Ritz crackers. We’ve just met the 13-year-old title character (played by Sophia Mitri Schloss) in the trailer park where she lives, along with her school chum Francis (the wonderfully deadpan Keith L. Williams) and his laid-back grandfather (Tee Dennard). Francis disappears into a trailer and reappears a minute later carrying the tray of crackers (can’t swear it’s Ritz, could possibly be Cheez-Its), which he offers to his pals. No one calls attention to this, or makes a joke of it; it stays in the background, and it tells you something about Francis, and the community in the park, and that somebody behind the camera has an eye for details.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Save Scarecrow Video! The next evolution of Seattle’s home video legend

Seattle’s Scarecrow Video, arguably the greatest video story in the known universe, has been holding out against the changing habits of film viewing due to the onslaught of streaming video and digital distribution.

Today, Scarecrow announced The Scarecrow Project, which will transition the business to a non-profit organization. It’s the next step in preserving the amazing collection of movies on Blu-ray, DVD, laserdisc, and VHS: the largest single collection of physical home video in the United States, including thousands of movies and other programs no longer available in any format.

The project was initiated by the employees themselves, led by Joel Fisher and Kate Barr, who are going forward with the help of local and national advisers, including Tim League, the founder and CEO of the Alamo Drafthouse.

I myself worked at Scarecrow back in its glory days of the 1990s, where I was a manager on the inventory team during the launch of DVD and the bankruptcy of the store under its original owner, George Latsiois. Scarecrow has weathered a lot of changes and come through them all thanks to the commitment of its employees and its owners, who have always seen the film as more than simply a business. The current owners, Carl Tostevin and Mickey McDonough, have kept the store running despite falling rentals and sales. They now hand the reigns over to the next generation.

Viva Scarecrow!

Go to The Scarecrow Project on Kickstarter for more information and to support the project.

The complete press release is printed below.

See also Moira Macdonald’s story for The Seattle Times and my feature on the future of the independent video store for Indiewire.

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Metro Classics save summer?

As the dearth of current film commentary here might suggest, the summer movie season has been largely ignorable; at least, I for one have largely ignored it. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t movies worth seeing and talking about. Nine of them are coming up on Wednesday evenings at Landmark’s Metro Cinemas in the U District—4500 Ninth Ave. N.E., to be precise—as the summer edition of the Metro’s ongoing “Movie Classics” repertory. The films are mostly first-rate. The only drawback is that none will be projected via 35mm prints; all presentations are digital. Tickets are $10.50 general, $8.25 for students with ID, $8 for children and senior citizens. (Landmark Discount Cards accepted.) Showtimes and information: (206) 781-5755 or www.LandmarkTheatres.com

The series kicks off with Rebecca (Aug. 3, 6:45 & 9:10 p.m.), the first Alfred Hitchcock film to be made in America—in 1940—and the only one to win the Oscar for Best Picture. Actually, the statuette went home with producer David O. Selznick (who’d claimed the same award the previous year for Gone With the Wind), and for better or worse, Selznick was an equal partner in the film’s creation. The production is lavish, more so than almost any other Hitchcock picture, with an all-star cast headed by Laurence Olivier as Maximilian de Winter, the master of Manderley, and Joan Fontaine as the lady’s-companion he takes as his second wife. She’s a shrinking violet so lacking in force of identity that, in both film and the Daphne du Maurier novel, she is given no name; whereas both novel and film bear the name of the first wife, deceased under mysterious circumstances, whose spirit remains strong as ever. Judith Anderson is chilling as Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper and chief acolyte of the dead woman, and George Sanders couldn’t be bettered as “cousin Jack” hovering on the periphery. Also, not to give the wrong impression, Fontaine is superb in limning the second Mrs. de Winter; she, too, should have been Oscared—and was, the following year, for her performance in another Hollywood-British Hitchcock movie, Suspicion.

The spirit of a beautiful woman dead under mysterious circumstances also haunts Laura (Aug. 10, 7 & 9 p.m.), the great 1944 mystery cum film noir cum perverse romance that haunted director Otto Preminger, too: it came early in his film career and conventional wisdom holds that he never topped it. Gene Tierney plays the title part (seen in flashbacks, up to a point…) and, as the police detective investigating the murder, Dana Andrews makes what could have been a conventional heroic role a study in nicely calibrated unpleasantness. Vincent Price and, again, Judith Anderson supply expert support as two of the people closest to Laura, but the movie belongs to Clifton Webb’s Waldo Lydecker, the waspish Manhattan columnist who fancies himself the only person who really knew her. This was Webb’s belated movie debut (he’d been a dancer for decades), and it’s a tour de force. He and Preminger were Oscar-nominated, and Joseph LaShelle won for his Black-and-White Cinematography.

Gilda (Aug. 17, 7 & 9:10 p.m.) is Rita Hayworth’s most iconic movie, the one featuring her stripping off arm-length gloves as she musically assents to the putting of the blame on Mame. This—like another 1946 movie, Notorious—is a noir with a difference: the action is set principally in a South American city, where Hayworth is married to suave, dueling-scarred casino operator George Macready. Macready’s character (great name: Ballin Munsen) also has taken gambler Glenn Ford under his wing, unaware that Rita and Glenn were once an item. It’s a fine, silky intrigue, sleekly photographed by noir-director-to-be Rudolph Maté. Director here was Hungarian-born Charles Vidor (no relation to King), whose best picture may have been the 1941 Gothic number Ladies in Retirement.

No, not everything in the series is noirish. My Night at Maud’s (Aug. 24, 7 & 9:10 p.m.) was the international breakthrough effort of the late Eric Rohmer, albeit the fourth film in his cycle of “Six Moral Tales” (just before Claire’s Knee). Jean-Louis Trintignant stars as an earnest, just slightly complacent Catholic whose tidy purchase on all the essential aspects of his life and belief is profoundly shaken by his encounter with a free-spirited divorcée (Françoise Fabian). Marie-Christine Barrault co-stars.

Sullivan’s Travels (Aug. 31, 7 & 9 p.m.), written and directed by Preston Sturges, is one of Hollywood’s best films about Hollywood. It also shapes up as a classic screwball comedy which suddenly isn’t funny at all—and that, in this case, is quite a good and startling thing. Joel McCrea (a long-underrated actor who was in an amazing number of good-to-great movies) stars as a successful musical-comedy director who decides he has to make a Significant Statement, a post-Depression allegory entitled “O Brother Where Art Thou?” In preparation, he hits the open road as a hobo—with entourage. His traveling companion is played by Veronica Lake, who, with This Gun for Hire and The Glass Key in the offing, was having her best year. The nature of the film gives short shrift to Sturges’s glorious stock company of juicy character actors, but Robert Greig does get a chance to shine as Sullivan’s butler.

Rosemary’s Baby (Sept. 7, 6:45 & 9:15 p.m.), Roman Polanski’s first American film, kept the summer of 1968 chilly and still stands as a demonically effective thriller—and a brilliant social satire of the time. Based on the Ira Levin novel, the movie focuses on a newlywed couple—Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes—who luck into an apartment in a venerable building on the edge of Central Park (yep, The Dakota, home variously to Lauren Bacall and Lennon-Ono), then begin experiencing some very creepy goings-on. Polanski’s direction and Oscar-nominated script are spot-on, and the idea of casting such cozy old character-actor veterans as Maurice Evans, Ralph Bellamy, Sidney Blackmer, and Patsy Kelly in key roles was absolutely inspired. Among them, Ruth Gordon reigns in the role of a lifetime, which brought her both an Academy Award and a Saturday Night Live host gig.

The series winds up with three distinguished and challenging arthouse classics. Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Véronique (Sept. 14, 7 & 9:10 p.m.) has Irène Jacob playing two young women who never meet—except for one near-mystical moment—yet just may share a soul. Best film of 1991 in my book. Céline and Julie Go Boating (Sept. 21, 7 p.m. only) is a three-hours-plus voyage into the imagination and the very nature of fiction, directed by Jacques Rivette and co-starring Juliet Berto and Dominique Labourier. Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Sept. 28, 7 p.m. only) goes Céline and Julie eight minutes better and seems to abandon fiction altogether in meticulously recording the utterly mundane life of an almost defiantly dull Belgian woman, albeit one incarnated by the enchanting Delphine Seyrig. It’s maddening or mesmerizing, your call. But you’ve never seen anything like it.

Originally published in Straight Shooting, July 26, 2011