Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Thunder Road

"When I'm driving, I got a guy on the radio who talks to me…I can't see him, but he talks to me."
- Cole Trickle (Tom Cruise)

Like his dynamic, rhythmically beautiful The Fan, Tony Scott's Days of Thunder does not have the greatest reputation, even among his admirers. Obviously made to capitalize on the success of Top Gun, reuniting director (Scott), star (Cruise), and producers (Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer) to, what would appear from the outside, lesser commercial effect (though the film was far from the failure many predicted, more than doubling its budget at the worldwide box office). Top Gun was never a critics' darling, but its monumental popularity has ensured it a permanent place in the conversation, while Days of Thunder - so much weirder and more esoteric, nearly the film many perceive Drive to be - has practically been left behind, forever in the shadow of the iconic fighter jet.

Throughout much of the first half, the film lives up to that perception. Dawn-set shots of racetracks anticipate the arrival of Cole Trickle, as if summoned by another character's question, "Who is this driver?" Vrrrroooooommmm and up pulls Cruise in full Movie Star mode, seemingly a lifetime removed from his eager young cadet in Top Gun. This guy had just been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor, worked with Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, Dustin Hoffman, and Paul Newman. And he knows it.


Days of Thunder was not, however, as has been suggested, something Tom Cruise was trapped in. His "Story By" credit (alongside Robert Towne, who wrote the screenplay from there), the only one in his entire career, was not, at least according to Scott, purely a matter of a star managing someone else's idea. "Cruise and Jerry and Don went to a school where you learn to race Porsches," he told Entertainment Weekly. "That's where it all began. They said, 'Fuck, yeah! Let's do a motor-racing movie!" That buoyant spirit carries that first half, as we're left to marvel at Cole's seemingly boundless ambition ("There's nothing I can't do with a race car" is the film's signature line for a reason), his manager, Harry's (Robert Duvall), eternal patience and wisdom, and the entire spectacle that is Nascar, the actual sport of which has perhaps never been depicted better. While television struggles to show it as anything more than cars gradually moving in a circle, Scott gets his camera right down on the racetrack, right up in his drivers' faces, right alongside the cars as they move upwards of 200 mph. And you believe it.

That sense of speed takes on a deadlier meaning once Cole nearly gets killed in a race. He's then transferred to the medical care of one Dr. Claire Lewicki (Nicole Kidman), a neurosurgeon who also happens to be beautiful enough to sleep with Tom Cruise. This element of the film has received its share of guffaws and ridicule from those who tend to believe beautiful women rarely amount to anything substantial, which, even if this particularly sexist view held any water, is actually directly mocked when Cole embarrasses himself by mistaking Claire for a stripper. You could condescendingly say the film knows what it is, and that'd be true, but it doesn't make excuses for it - it just lays it all out there without a care or second-guess in the world. "That's right," it might as well be saying, "this young, beautiful woman is a brain surgeon, and you'd be a fool to question it."


Moreover, their romance contains a heft usually left on the table in these types of pictures. In addition to not considering Claire at all when he puts himself in danger, Cole nearly kills her when he decides to race an annoying taxi driver in the populated city streets, a feat for which she justly rebukes him. Aside from a rather lovely and teasing sex-y scene, Cole and Claire are rarely satisfied with one another. Top Gun's Charlie might have disliked the type of guy Cruise's Maverick was, but Claire is completely opposed to the man Cole is. He only becomes more difficult and more determined. His idea of dates are to go to race tracks and visit fellow drivers. She wonders if he wants anything more in life; he wonders who she's really asking for. Even in their bedroom scene, the most affection she can lend him is physical curiosity - "'How can I be in bed with this guy?'" Cruise asks for her. "I know the answer to that one," she replies. Her brief cheers in the final showdown are less those of a converted fan, and more of someone genuinely concerned for his safety. Before he steps out on the track, they seem to be telling one another, "I love you, but I can't accept you," even as they're withholding even that much. People in Tony Scott movies don't always explain themselves so well, but they do understand one another.


Ignatiy Vishnevetsky's essential piece on Scott, "Smearing the Senses," addresses just this, and provides a window through which all of the filmmaker's work can be viewed and appreciated. An excerpt, describing Spy Game:
The images cut [Redford and Pitt] apart and then the editing glues them back together until it becomes clear that their camaraderie isn't just a question of professionalism, but is in fact an emotional bond existing on some kind of more subtle level. Sure, this is the usual male weepie hokum - but it's in movies more than anywhere else that hokum finds its greatest opportunity to be profound....
Scott's late period is rich with this sort of form-theme-plot unity. His hyperactive, impressionistic style made no attempt to accurately represent physical reality - and the movies, in turn, are about people who establish relationships that transcend physical presence while dealing with some concrete, physical threat which the relationship ultimately allows them to overcome. These are movies about the denial of physical reality made in a style that denies physical reality - and, occasionally, common sense - at every opportunity.

A more fitting description of Days of Thunder, there may not be. Cole, and every other race car driver, forcefully deny themselves the potential physical consequences of their lifestyle. "The only time a driver goes to a funeral is when he's actually dead," Harry says. Scott abstracts the race sequences, never letting us know the context for the race outside of what is immediately surrounding Cole, and relying on Harry to let us know his immediate goals. Yet its physicality is striking; the fragility of the cars, and their drivers, is never forgotten. They are shaken and thrown every which way as their vehicles seem on the edge of exploding at any second. The image above is at once a striking illustration of danger, and a manifestation of Cole's worst fears. Below, Scott throws in light patterns to indicate either nirvana or panic - in both cases, flirting with death, brushing up against the edges of this mortal coil.



While Cole's bond with Claire is more physically manifested, literally (in their sexual contact) and figuratively (by how often Scott places them in the same frame), Cole's with Harry is an ethereal one, lending that very quality that would come to define Scott's later work. Much of their relationship is cemented with Cole in the car, and Harry speaking to him a mile away. Look at that quote at the top of this post - "I can't see him, but he talks to me." Cole is laying in an MRI machine, desperate for someone to say something to him, so accustomed has he become to being alone in a metal box, yet accompanied by a friendly, reassuring voice.




The excitement of the race is gradually whittled away, as we see the addiction to racing and, more generally, to one's ability to survive, erode Cole's relationship with Claire and his rival Rowdy's relationship with everyone. Rowdy's deterministic, "I'll only see a doctor when I'm dying" philosophy nearly kills him. He can't remember winning the Winston Cup; even his own name seems to be slipping. We, too, question Cole's need to get back into the car for one more race. It was one thing for Maverick to funnel that "need for speed" into flying. Theoretically, he'd end up fighting for his country and all that (this isn't really the space to debate military ethics, mind). Cole gets a gold cup. Days of Thunder never really makes some larger moral justification for its sport, the way dozens of basketball, baseball, and football films do - racing brings glory, at most, and not even lasting glory. Racing is cheap, and drivers are disposable, easily replaced or moved between the cars, the real stars. In Scott's opening montage, he gives us a shot of a huge American flag, then a small Confederate one, then a whole line of corporate flags. Racing is deteriorating the type of desire that once fueled American ideology, funneling a hunger for greatness towards outmoded values and commercial exploitation.


Cole is perfect for this world, something of a blank slate, almost purely a bundle of instincts and ambitions. He's like Robert Stack in The Tarnished Angels, the kind of guy who could win the war if he had a war to win. Without one, he's nothing, just a guy with a lot of talent that needs an outlet. "Harry, where'd you say your driver's from?" he's asked, in anticipation of Cole's seemingly heroic arrival. "Eagle Rock," his partner replies. "That's up around Wilkesboro, isn't it?" "No, Glendale. California." "He's a Yankee?" Harry asks. "Not exactly. If you're from California, you're not a Yankee. You're not really anything." It's an easy way to appeal to people predisposed against the very town that produces the entertainment of which they cannot get enough, but it also violently subverts Cruise's archetype before he even gets onscreen. What appears to be a nearly mythological figure is actually just a shell. And he'll have to grapple with that for the rest of the picture.

As a final aside, Quentin Tarantino claims to likened Tony Scott to Douglas Sirk back in the early 90s, and it's one of those things that's stuck with me. Both are obviously marvelous visual directors, and Tarantino mentioned it as a way of saying that cinephiles would only realize later what they had with Scott, but the more I think on it, the deeper that tunnel runs. They're both fascinated with exploring illusions of happiness and archetypes (intense melancholy runs through many of their films), presenting characters at once the way they perceive themselves, and how they're perceived by others, and the slippery bits that fall between each side. Anyway, beyond the comparison to Stack in AngelsDays of Thunder has one of the more Sirkian titles in Scott's filmography (which also makes it one of the better ones); you could line that up alongside many of Sirk's most famous - Written on the Wind, All That Heaven Allows, The Tarnished Angels - and it'd fit right in.

Days of Thunder is far from the most exciting entry in Scott's filmography, let alone his best, but I was really struck by just how strong and affecting it is, and how it really signaled the way for everything he was about to unleash on the world over the next twenty years. It's not just the boldness of his style, his willingness to embrace a certain otherworldly quality in his images - it's the repression, the sincerity, the subversion, the true embrace of that great Ernst Lubitsch maxim, "Every shot is the most important shot." No matter how many of them there are.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Performance


Last weekend, I pulled up Brian De Palma'sPassion on VOD, largely because it was a new release I wanted to get under my belt eventually (and I didn't have nearly enough time to pack in Marketa Lazarova, which I've been dying to see in the month or so since buying the Criterion Blu-ray - but, you know, 165 minutes). I was surprised to find just how much I liked the film, as De Palma is not one of "my guys" by any stretch.

With Passion, De Palma's most melodramatic streak is, if not as perversely indulged as in The Black Dahlia, then certainly presenting a sort of aged exhibitionism, and his aesthetic is beautifully wrought with a thoroughness of form-is-content rigor that is better discussed in Glenn Kenny's review than I could manage here. The key passage is thus:
De Palma's style has always used split-screen, and his compositions often manipulate backgrounds and foregrounds so that one tells an almost completely different story that the other does, simultaneously. Our ways of looking at the world have caught up with De Palma's way of presenting information on a cinema screen. And as I said, it's all pretty exhilarating if you're turned in on that level.

No disagreement from me. Where I sometimes felt De Palma was being...if not excessive, then certainly extra-expressive with such split-screen virtuosities, they did make the kind of wild, inventive use of the frame that one longs for. With Passion, beyond the totally thrilling aesthetic experience they create, there's also a real narrative/emotional/thematic hook to them, as we question just what is being watched, by whom, and where each person in this arrangement is. The eventual payoff these questions anticipate is perhaps predictable (perhaps not), but is at least a cohesive viewpoint, the kind of thing that makes it frustrating when people say it's "got style, no substance," as though the two are so inextricable.

Some of that perceived lack of substance has been said to have come from the performances, namely from the two leads, Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace. Kenny again, setting the stage:
...the ridiculously flat dialogue and almost pantomime performance styles on display in Passion will not come as any surprise to a longtime De Palma watcher, although they are likely to elicit some sort of "That was stupid" reflex in non-adepts.

And then, a series of critics dancing on it...

Richard Corliss, in TIME:
McAdams, usually a winning personality, seems embarrassed by her presence here; and Rapace, who invested a Mensa fury into her Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy, looks frightened, as if assaulted by the camera's glare. 
Lee Marshall, at Screen Daily:
[T]he high-profile casting of Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace in the two main roles works a lot better on paper than it does in practice.... Whereas Kristen Scott-Thomas and Ledivine Sagnier fully inhabited their roles as domineering boss and sexy ambitious but fragile underling [in 2010's Love Crimes, of which this is a remake], McAdams and Rapace never really convince as rich, manipulative and self-assured advertising executive Christine and talented but rather innocent and insecure junior manager Isabelle. McAdams is better though at catching the playful, parody element in her role, something that Rapace, who is all intensity, seems to struggle with.
Guy Lodge, at HitFix, after describing Rapace as "utterly at sea":
No less strangely cast is McAdams, years too young to possess this dragon-in-heels role with the coolly unimpressed swagger of Kristin Scott Thomas. Still, if she seems to be playing dress-up in several scenes, at least she's playing: she deserves a more responsive scene partner when she sweetly bares her teeth and says, "You have talent. I just made the best use of it." 
Jamie Dunn, at The Playlist:
The characters are little more than noir cyphers, but both actors are game and have fun taking turns at playing femme fatale as they cross and doublecross each other throughout the increasingly convoluted narrative.

Review after review, critics are at least rising above Kenny's "This was stupid" prediction, but rarely giving anyone involved more credit than "it looked like they had some fun." Look at the word choices - they "never really convince," McAdams is "too young to possess." These are startlingly normative approaches to cinema, acting, and representation, demanding verisimilitude from a film, and filmmaker, who giddily laughs at the very notion. I would argue that what De Palma and his actresses are up to is far more intriguing, nefarious, and layered than many are recognizing, or what they're asking for. Further, I would submit instead that McAdams' and Rapace's (possible) shortcomings are to De Palma's tremendous advantage.

Danny Kasman's assessment at Mubi is far more attuned to De Palma's wavelength:
Remember how Rebecca Romijn watches Stanwyck in Double Indemnity at the beginning of Femme Fatale, as if taking notes? The characters in Passion have taken notes from Femme Fatale: an abstraction based on a fiction based on a fantasy. It is complex, dextrous, and awkward: Rachel McAdams plays and acts the seductive, power hungry blonde in a performance that is like a kabuki imitation of the type; Noomi Rapace is her underling, friend, object of love and obsession, our heroine and, therefore, at first, directed to act “normally.” (This film's skewering of cinematic female friendship is twisted, sinister, cynical and terribly interesting.) Like in Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, but far more knowingly, cleverly, the director is here forcing a confrontation between two entirely different acting styles and kinds of characters. In Passion, one is ostensibly a hollow signifier, the other our, the audience's, psychological subject, person of empathy. Except the film, lurchingly structured in three fascinating sections, with the middle one styled radically differently, introduces a third character, another woman (which brings the collection to: a blonde, a brunette and a redhead), who begins to appear more normal as Rapace's character enters deeper into the story and begins to be abstracted by the movements and conventions of her plot. 


De Palma has no problem outright saying he felt he could improve upon Love Crimes immediately after seeing it. And yes, Kristen Scott Thomas might be better suited to Christine, an exploitative, manipulative business executive from a casting director's perspective. Thomas is nearly twenty years McAdams' senior, and is perhaps (I've not seen the film) a little bit more believable in the role of someone who has risen to such a position.

De Palma's never been about "believability." McAdams' relative youth actually gives him more to play with, not less, and the extent to which she is posturing as an actress capable of a certain heightened, just-this-side-of-camp performance mirrors the way her character is, in a sense, performing as an executive, as a manipulator, as a sexual deviant, etc. Every stilted, "awkward," pronounced line delivery of hers is the sign of a woman whose construct of herself is inseparable from the real thing. Christine's (and perhaps McAdams') inability to convince us mirrors, and feeds into, the contempt her staff has for her. People have a certain level of respect for somebody who has worked long and hard to get where they are, even if they are unpleasant - Christine commands nothing of the sort.

But she keeps acting the part, down to her costume, or lack thereof. In a film consumed with sex and sexuality, we see Rapace naked, but not McAdams. Let's suppose that she would have been willing - how much does it say about her character that she insists upon covering herself up in the midst of otherwise rather outlandish sexual predilections? "Even the sexual decadence is of the clich├ęd lace and carnival-mark variety," Marshall writes, noting that Christine "lives in an apartment that comes across as a tad too brash and flashy for her character." Which, again, might just be the whole point. As with everything De Palma, style is content. Christine's blonde-blonde hair, pale (sometimes sickly) white skin, red-red lipstick (and sweaters, dresses, and high heels), and black, elaborately-strung lingerie are as much a character-born formation of Powerful Woman as De Palma's inclination towards what he wants to see onscreen. In a recent interview with Film.com, he had this to say about that:
Men have been undressing women in various art forms since the beginning of visual art. You could make this film with two men, but, I mean, all you have to do is look on your television screen or go Googling or pick up a magazine, and what do you see? Women, dressed and undressed. That's what people are interested in.

Of course, De Palma trying to insist that he's just giving the people what they want is sort of laughable in considering a film as weird and alienating as Passion. Since it's also concerned with the recording and representation of oneself through images, though, it's not an unfair place to begin. In fact, the MacGuffin of sorts that sets the entire plot in motion is an ad Isabelle (Rapace) creates, centered around a smartphone, placed in the rear pocket of a shapely pair of jeans, capturing images of guys ogling a woman's derriere. That is what people are interested in. Christine is a reflection of our desires, or what she (and De Palma) perceive them to be. One character says of her that "she gets what she wants," and that may largely come about just as much from giving everybody the image they want.

Isabelle, by contrast, fashions herself a more removed, down-to-Earth, "authentic" "cool boss" type, forever the victim of Christine (until, you know, she's not), and that formation has largely consumed her outward persona. She doesn't know how to land a client at a party, doesn't know how to speak up when Christine steals her idea for an ad, doesn't even know quite how to behave when Christine shares an extended kiss with Dirk, her lover. It's only in private - to her assistant, or to her lover - that we see the truth. She certainly knows what to do and say around a man, and not just any man. Her relationship with Dirk is barely sketched and never described, but it's a whole other dimension to a woman who is apparently too shy to speak to someone at a social gathering. In bed, she's more rawly sexual than Christine's constructed lust, and will slowly unleash a cruelty more personal and pointed than Christine's cold calculations.


The way those two personalities play off one another are key to the film's rather evolved and considered notions of...certainly not good and evil; some reversal of sympathies. Christine may be more outwardly repugnant, unpleasant, and motivated purely by selfishness and greed, but she's never doing any real harm, and is able to view all her actions through the lens of "business." Isabelle, meanwhile, has our sympathies, and we can identify with her more personal motivations, but her ends are drastic and horrific. She's playing the victim just as much as Christine is playing the villain, and her commitment to that role goes down far darker paths.

It's a dicey proposition to try to deduce how much of this is intentional, to what extent the actresses are playing into it, but since when has intent mattered anyway? Christine and Isabelle are playing something they know themselves not to be, and their uncertainties and hesitations are ultimately their undoing. Perhaps that goes for the actresses as well. Part of the challenge of directing is channeling everything an actor has to give - which might include accounting for their weaknesses - towards some artistic effect. However De Palma tuned his instruments, the result is indeed electrifying and playful, but also intriguing, layered, and resonant.