Motion/Captured Must-See: Roadblocked by the letter 'R'
In which our reviewer struggles with writer's block and reviews two great films
This isn't going to be your typical entry in this column so far, but then again... this is a very free-form column, so I don't think it should be a huge issue. Besides, you're going to get two reviews for the price of one here, so even though it's taken a while to get to this article, I hope it'll end up being worth it.
A couple of Thursdays ago, I took the night off to go see The Cinemapocalypse at the New Beverly. I'll have more to say about the films I saw at that event in an article coming soon, but for now, I mention it only because I was at the concession stand between films in the double-feature, talking to my friend Damon, and he was mercilessly busting my balls, as friends are wont to do.
"So, tell me, Drew... how many times have you seen 'Howard the Duck'?"
"Well, keep in mind, Toshi's a fan and since they sent it to the house, he's watched..."
"Just a number. How many times?"
Sigh. "I dunno. Eight? Nine?"
[more after the jump]
"So you've seen 'Howard the Duck' nine times... but you've never seen 'Rules' even once?"
See, "Rules Of The Game" just played at the New Beverly a few weeks prior, and I knew it was playing and meant to go, but... well, I didn't. That's how it happens a lot of the time, especially once you've got a family. Other things simply take precendence. My excuse for not attending was that I own it on DVD, and I told Damon I'd watch it at home instead. And... I didn't.
"You won't. You'll watch... what did you watch last night?"
"Uhhh... I was working on my DVD column and..."
"I didn't ask you why. I asked you what."
Sigh again. "I watched the Keanu Reeves version of 'Day The Earth Stood Still.' And, god, that was..."
"That was terrible. And now you've seen that one more time than you've seen 'Rules Of The Game.'"
The day before The Cinemapocalypse, I put up my last Motion/Captured Must-See, which was "Q - The Winged Serpent." And I sat down to re-watch the film I'd picked for my 'R' entry on the list when I got home from the event. And even as it played and I started to make my notes on the article, there was a voice at the back of my head. A voice that sounded suspiciously like Damon.
"You know... 'Rules Of The Game' starts with an R."
Aw, hell. See, that's what happens when you confess gaps in your film knowledge to your film geek friends. After all, "Rules" is one of those titles that routinely comes up on any serious list of the best movies of all time. Paul Schrader, when he put together his canon of important films, named it the single best film ever made. What could be more of a must-see than that?
That little voice hasn't shut up, either. In fact, it roadblocked me completely. I've been struggling since then to get this piece written. Ridiculous, I know. This isn't legally binding. I doubt anyone out there is hanging on my choice for this particular entry on this particular list. And yet... a rancid, rotten, rapidly-crippling case of writer's block set in.
So today... a compromise.
Instead of just reviewing "Rush," the movie I'd originally chosen, I'm going to write up both movies. One's been a favorite since I saw it over fifteen years ago, and the other has instantly taken its rightful place on my personal list of the best films I've ever seen.
It may be hard to believe, but there was a point in the early '90s when Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jason Patric were two of the best actors working. One performance after another, they gave everything they had, and the results were often electrifying. So when the two of them finally went head to head in Lili Fini Zanuck's film adaptation of Kim Wozencraft's book "Rush," working from a perceptive script by novelist Pete Dexter, it turned out to be a perfect storm. Rewatching the film, I was struck again by what a heartbreaking love story it is, and by just how great the two of them really were.
Wozencraft's book told the true story of what happened when a female undercover narcotics officer fell in love with her partner and with heroin in equal passion. As with most "based on a true story" movies, I don't really care what's true or what's not. All I care about is the film and how it plays, and even if "Rush" isn't factually accurate, it's emotionally accurate, and the cumulative power of the film is devastating.
Jason Patric stars as Jim Raynor, an undercover narcotics officer who has spent months integrating himself into the drug scene in a small Texas town in the '70s. And Raynor's the kind of guy who naturally fits into the scene. He's got the hair. He's got the attitude. And, as it happens, he's got the habit. When his immediate superior, Captain Dodd (the great Sam Elliott at his rangiest) tells him to pick a partner, Raynor resists at first. That's until he gets a look at a class of cadets and lays eyes on Kristen Cates. And that first view of Jennifer Jason Leigh is a killer. She's so young. So robust. The picture of health. It may be the best she's ever looked on film. And as soon as she's introduced to Raynor, it's all downhill.
Kristen's a good cop, earnest and absolute in her intentions, and at first, she's drawn to the danger of the assignment. She sees Raynor as someone to emulate, someone who she wants to learn from. And he sees her as good cover, someone no one would suspect of being the heat. And they're both right, too, at first. They need each other, and the more they dig into the assignment, the more they realize there's no one else in the world who they can really trust. So that need becomes want, and they fall into bed. And once they're intimate, Raynor introduces Kristen to his real love, the reason he works the job... the drugs.
There is a tradition of anti-drug cinema, of course, stretching back to the pre-Code era in Hollywood, and there are any number of different angles that filmmakers traditionally use to illuminate just how terrible drugs are. The most potent anti-drug films are the ones that simply present the experience without editorial. Finger-wagging tends to have the opposite effect from what's intended. To her credit, Lili Fini Zanuck made a film that started from a fairly radical position: drugs aren't the problem at all. Her film is more an anti-drug war movie, a film about the human toll that a completely wrong-headed policy takes on a society. She presents plenty of needles and damage done, of course, but the failings here aren't because of the drugs... these are human failings, human problems. Zanuck isn't concerned with addiction so much as she's concerned with what drives people to that place. And she's not interested in grand statements about drugs as a whole. She's interested in this one story, these two people, and what happens between them.
And that's where Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jason Patric really pay off in terms of casting. The two of them seem to be caught up in a contest to see who can deteriorate the furthest over the course of the film, and it's easy to get a sense of how these two are pushing each other, destroying one another and themselves. They both get so far into the job that they forget who they are, becoming the roles that they're playing. And although I'm writing about the characters, the same might be true about the actors as well, and you can almost view this as a cautionary tale about method acting. Letting yourself feel these things, pushing yourself to these extremes... it takes a toll. And the more of it you allow into yourself, the more likely it is that it will ultimately destroy you.
There are some other great performances in the film. Max Perlich plays Walker, a low-level drug dealer who becomes one of Raynor and Kristen's most valuable snitches, not entirely of his own free will. I don't understand what happened to Perlich's career. He's a unique presence, and for some reason, he had a hot couple of years and then settled into a long and distinguished track record of junk. Greg Allman never really had much of an acting career, but he probably could have if this film's any indication of what he can do. He's creepy as Gaines, the big fish that they're chasing, but there's also some ambiguity to the work he does. Is he a drug dealer? The film never quite answers that question, and it's better for it. William Sadler makes a really freaky appearance as a guy who manufactures his own drugs, and who forces Kristen to sample a custom-designed specialty of his. But my favorite of the supporting players has to be Special K. McCray as Willie Red, who only has one scene in the film, but it's a grrrrreat scene.
Kenneth MacMillan's warm, lush photography and Paul Sylbert's authentic, low-key production design both help establish a time and place for the film, and Colleen Atwood's work in wardrobe is equally subtle but correct. Maybe the most famous element of the film is the song "Tears In Heaven" by Eric Clapton, who wrote the score. The song was quite famously dedicated to his son, and it took on a life of its own, but it was written for the film, and it delivers a powerful emotional charge when you see it in context. Overall, "Rush" is an underrated film that's aged very well, and it captured two incandescent talents at perhaps their most potent moment.
Jean Renoir's "La Regle Du Jeu," better known to English-speaking audiences as "Rules Of The Game," is not at all what I expected it to be. Then again, I'm not sure what I expected.
Some films... even great films... feel like homework by the time you finally approach them. Who do you know who happened to be flipping through channels and went, "What's this movie? "Citizen Kane"? Never heard of it. Guess I'll check it out." By the time you see that film, you've digested it already in some way. Hype or reputation or parody or reference or review. For some people, it's literally homework in film studies classes, overanalyzed to the point where it's not a film, it's an exercise. Who gets to have a pure experience with that? Who gets to watch it as a movie?
For me, "Rules Of The Game" is a film I missed in my first year film studies class in college. I think I was busy getting high in Mr. Evil's dorm room (seriously... dude's name was Mr. Evil), and I decided to skip the French period picture thing. That was my thought process. And in the discussion afterwards, I saw a professor selling the film reeeeeal hard and a classroom full of kids who didn't really get it.
Since then, I've just never taken the moment to catch up. I've seen other Renoir. But never this one. And so in my head, I built it up as something that would be an inevitable sit, a tough sit. And I put it off. Criterion put out that great blue-plastic DVD package of the film, and I bought it the day it came out and put it on my shelf where I could proudly look at it and think, "Yep, I'll watch it someday!"
Now I'm almost 40. I've been writing about film for a living... as my primary craft... for a decade now... and I finally sat down to watch it in my house. My kids, plural, asleep at the other end of the house, my wife there, too. Domestic. Settled. After a fairly turbulent ride. I've come a long way from that kid who skipped college classes in pursuit of practical experience, time and again, to a guy who moved cross country and sort of sacrificed what little shambles of a personal life I had for a constant non-stop work ethic that's made for a really crazy professional ride. The life experience that's brought me to this place has made me very cynical and times and then stripped me of that cynicism at other times. I've got complicated feelings about my every workday, but only in the sense that I hope I'm making the most of every platform available to me as a writer.
"Rules Of The Game" is not a film that should be shown in colleges, but only because I don't think it's a young man's movie. I think it is a film that reveals a great forgiving knowledge of the weaknesses of men and women, and the way the collisions of money and power and sex and opportunity all create a decadent wading pool, both on small scales and large. It's a devastating portrait of French surrender, of national moral collapse. It's small wonder it was met with anger and fury when it premiered. It's a mirror no society would want to confront, a damning exploration of what it means to grow disconnected from basic moral responsibility. What it's like to sell out right and wrong for comfort and copulation. It's a base movie, a coarse movie, exqusitely directed. And Renoir plays a major role in the film, a sort of rotund Satyr-as-Greek-chorus who dances around the edge of the scene, pushing buttons, making comment, stirring the pot in small ways and large. It's a great performance, sly and modulated in a way that sets the tone for everyone around him. He's directing the movie from within, and it's a pretty wonderful example of a filmmaker onscreen.
And watching it twice in a weekend, as I did, the thing that struck me is that "Rules Of The Game" is certainly not homework. It's a lively, vulgar, passionate film. There's a pulse to it, seething, watching these ridiculous people celebrating nothing, running out of control on the grounds and under the roof of a sprawling country estate. There is a large-scale sweeping curiosity to the staging of the film, like it can't look away from the carnival of carnal partnerships inovled in the weekend, and it's to Renoir's credit that I don't know if it's all a set or a location or what or where they shot. It's sold so well, and it's all staged with such vigor, that I absolutely buy it as a place, as a captured portrait of a world in tableau. Keep in mind, this movie was made in 1939. Hitler was already on the move in Europe. The idea of decadence leading to a dangerous collapse was not much of a stretch, and Renoir takes to task these people dancing in the acid rain, but without putting a name on it. The brilliance of the movie is that if you're outraged by it, chances are you should be. Renoir wasn't making this movie as comfort food or as simple comedy of manners. He takes these relatively mundane and inane events, part of a weekend for a group of social miscreants who hide their lack of normal moral compass behind their money and their group acceptance of the way of doing things. The "rules of the game" are complicated, and most of the weekend seems to be about people breaking those rules and what sort of consequence there is for that.
And did I mention it's funny? Because it is. It's staged as farce. Characters sort of gallop about noisily at times, and it's all spirited and there are these barrages of rapid, witty dialogue. And the flirting and the sneakng and the seducing and the coercing... all of it, Renoir captures with a specific, focused eye, and no one is spared. It's not just the upper class that Renoir roasts. He pays just as much attention to the "invisible" servant class, too, determined not to villify the moneyed or to only point them out. He sees how bad behavior echoes through a society, and he seems to lose his faith in others over the course of this one, And it's no one thing that Renoir presents in moral horror... it's a continuum.
Hopefully, now that I've published this piece and finally seen that particular film, I'll be able to get back onto my schedule with this series. I hope so. There are some good films coming in the last couple of weeks of the first batch of "A - Z' titles, and then once we're not bound by alphabetical order, I've got some really good titles planned. I'm eager to get further into this series, and I hope you guys continue to join me as I do.
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