Saturday, September 04, 2010

Joaquin, Are Ya Goofin' On Tony?

One of my more anticipated flicks for this coming fall season is Casey Affleck's directorial debut I'm Still Here. For those of you who have been living under the proverbial rock for the last few years (or who just don't give a damn), Affleck has spent that time chronicling the sudden career change of his brother in law Joaquin Phoenix from sensitive, brooding actor to rap star/self-destruction artist.  The film purports to offer an in-depth examination of Phoenix's supposed lost years...except for the fact that most pundits have been crying fraud since near the beginning of this whole escapade.  Shortly after Phoenix began appearing in his newly bearded and weight-padded guise (with his brother in law constantly in tow, camera in hand), word began to spread that the whole thing was a publicity stunt.

If this was true, Phoenix did his best to dispel the rumors with his now semi-legendary appearance with David Letterman.  Ostensibly appearing to promote his then new project Two Lovers (recommended, by the way), the sunglasses-wearing former heartthrob barely mentioned the film, briefly discussed his retirement from acting, and acted generally evasive for the entirety of his segment.  Letterman has usually received kudos for frying Phoenix alive, but Joaquin actually served up a fairly stinging repudiation of Dave's condescending manner (albeit in a much less palatable manner).

After that appearance, Phoenix continued on his tour of small clubs, rapping to often befuddled audiences, while Affleck continued to shoot his every move.  But the general hubbub over his bizarre behavior seemed to die out fairly quickly.  The general consensus was that the stunt was cute for a minute, but that it had now grown self indulgent and tiring.

Which leads me to ask: could Andy Kaufman have survived in the modern world?  And is Joaquin Phoenix actually the long lost son of Tony Clifton?

During his all too brief stay in this friendly, friendly world, Kaufman’s trompe le monde attitude turned failure and self-destruction into high art.  Bored with the success of his Foreign Man character (which he later modified for his Taxi's iconic Latka Gravas), Kaufman slowly began to amp up the antagonistic parts of his stand-up act.  During college tours, he would stick it to rowdy audiences in search of his easily marketable impressions by reading long sections of The Great Gatsby to them.  For an extended period , he indulged his love for the dialectic moral aspects of pro wrestling (and his lust for rubbing up against women) by declaring himself the Intergender Wrestling Champion, grappling with willing female antagonists during his act and on talk shows and culminating in his infamous feud with Memphis's King of Wrestling, Jerry Lawler. (For more on this period, check out this excellent compilation of real applications from women who sought to wrestle Andy:

But Tony Clifton was his crowning creation, an opportunity for Kaufman's id to run wild. While Andy's benign moon face and childlike glee tempered many of his more confrontational bits, Tony Clifton's massive boiler, roadkill hairpiece, sagging jowls and nasal twang worked just as well to alienate audiences.  Kaufman would often have Clifton open for him, baiting the audience with his horribly off-key standards and sub-borscht belt riffs.  Seeing Kaufman's antics afterward was a relief.  The joke, of course, was that Kaufman and Clifton were the same person.  Kaufman would appear as Clifton in public, denying any knowledge of his supposed alter ego; he even famously wrote Clifton appearances into his Taxi contract, mystifying cast mates by appearing in full Clifton regalia on those shooting days and annoying the hell out of everyone.  But eventually, word of his true identity leaked out, so Kaufman's partner in crime Bob Zmuda began to portray Clifton, often appearing on stage with his pal to further spook the skeptics.  Back then, the general public had no idea who Zmuda was, so the ruse worked.

The apex of the Clifton character was to be a feature film (The Tony Clifton Story) which would tell the tale of his illustrious and depraved life.  The climax of the film was to feature a pullback shot in which Kaufman would appear as himself to explain that Clifton later died of lung cancer at Cedars Sinai hospital.  The film was never produced, as (in a darkly ironic twist) the generally clean living Kaufman later died of lung cancer at…Cedars Sinai hospital.

So look at the stories of Andy Kaufman and Joaquin Phoenix.  Could Kaufman have pulled off Tony Clifton for any amount of time in today’s mystery-deprived world?  Would he have been dismissed as a sham within a day or so of Clifton’s first appearance?  Is Phoenix actually paying tribute to Kaufman/Clifton with this latest venture?  Or has the former heartthrob stepped all the way through the looking glass and truly embraced his new career?  It’s possibly instructive to note that one of Kaufman’s defining mass media appearances was his confrontation with Jerry Lawler (following the King’s supposed breaking of Kaufman’s neck) on…Late Night with David Letterman. 

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

"I'm an American!"

"That's right, Jack. The man is clear in his mind, but his soul is mad. Oh, yeah. He's dying, I think. He hates all this. He hates it! But the man's a...He reads poetry out loud, all right. And a voice...he likes you because you're still alive."
-The late, great Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now.

It's intriguing to look back at George Clooney's career and think that much of his original appeal (and a sizable portion of his continuing appeal) was based on his Cary Grant-esque killer looks, his old school romantic panache and his steely leading man demeanor. Sure, his humanitarian work has come to define a large part of his public persona, but there’s a reason why the Ocean’s 11 films (even the unloved middle child that is Ocean’s 12) are some of the most profitable films on his resume. If you’re in that particular groove, there’s an undeniable vicarious pleasure in seeing Clooney as the coolest player in the game, deftly leading his rogues gallery through labrynthine twists and turns. Always winning, always coming out on top.

What makes this aspect of his persona so fascinating is how it bumps up against what he has seemingly always done well, if not to greater acclaim. Over the course of the last fifteen years, Clooney has become a master of cinematic regret. Those same steely good looks and insouciant charm have come to double as effective pieces of a mask that many of his characters wear, one which hides seeming oceans of suffering and existential angst. The world weary protagonists of Michael Clayton and Up in the Air are perhaps his most heralded recent turns in this vein, but he also mined similar territory in the 2005 double whammy of Good Night and Good Luck (his Fred Friendly a downtrodden idealist in the CBS corporate machine) and Syriana (as the Clayton precursor and black ops specialist Bob Barnes). He pines after a dead wife in Soderbergh’s Solaris reboot and punctures his own gold lusting bravado in Three Kings. Hell, even From Dusk ‘Til Dawn’s Seth Gecko is stabbed with regret at that film’s conclusion as he sends Juliette Lewis on her way to freedom, the realization of his true fate in El Rey (Tarantino’s callback to the grisly, and unfilmed, conclusion to Jim Thompson’s The Getaway) slowly, horrifically dawning on him. And the driving force behind Danny Ocean’s drive in the aforementioned Rat Pack revamps? The loss of his beloved wife to a sleazy hotel magnate.

Clooney’s mastery of the art of regret is on full display in Anton Corbijn’s outstanding The American. His veteran hitman/weaponsmith has made a career of keeping the world at a distance with an icy veneer, although as the film’s opening scene intimates, said veneer is beginning to crack (and I don’t just say that because the action opens in snowy Sweden). One of Clooney’s main strengths as an actor is his ability to underplay, to let long stares tell more than any dialogue could. It’s a technique that he uses extensively through The American, his rampant (and justified) paranoia forcing him to stare down each corner, each situation, each budding human relationship for their potential danger (his precautionary murder of a female companion in those opening moments haunts him for the duration of the narrative). His Jack/Edward (it’s never made clear if either is his real name) has senses so finely tuned to their surroundings that he has difficulty truly enjoying any of them. Corbijn spends most of the film building up the gradual breakdown of this defense system. Clooney slowly befriends the town priest (Paolo Bonicelli), playing against stereotype by not giving in to easy confession, but still forming an altogether different bond with the old man, who has his own wellspring of regret with which to deal. During his second sexual encounter with local prostitute Clara (the luminous Violante Placido), Clooney methodically moves through several sexual positions, but it’s her initially denied kiss that is the stunning apex of their coupling. When, in a moment of genuine happiness, he cracks a smile near the film’s end, the cumulative effect is explosive.

For the most part, the formula is nothing new, especially in the hitman genre. But Corbijn knows this; he’s more concerned with how the tale is told, and this is where The American really shines. Last week, on the heels of seeing the aggressively stupid Piranha remake, I decided to cleanse my palate by finally watching Spielberg’s The Sugarland Express, which I’ve had on DVD for years. It was such a pleasure to see Vilmos Zsigmond’s expertly composed cinematography, to see shots that told a coherent, yet still bold, daring and interesting visual story. In the same manner, Martin Ruhe (who also lensed Corbijn’s Ian Curtis biopic Control) uses the full extent of The American’s scope frame to let the visuals do most of the storytelling. Beginning with the opening credits, words, objects and people are often deliberately filmed off center, almost pushed aside by the inky darkness of the credit roll, the lush Italian mountains and the desolate, eerie interior of a village café. Much as Carlo Di Palma turned the back of Monica Vitti’s head into a sensuous and erotic tumble of amber waves in Red Desert, Ruhe focuses on shooting Clooney from behind, or in Leone-esque extreme closeups. This latter method is explicitly referenced midway through the film when Jack/Edward sits in a café where Henry Fonda’s brutal initial appearance in Once Upon a Time in the West plays on the television screen behind him. But Ruhe also peppers the film with very formal compositions; I can’t remember the last time I was this intrigued by so many side profile shots. At the same time, he shrewdly uses expressionist color fills during the night scenes to lend a palpable sense of forboding (as the late Robert Krasker would tell you, night filming on cobblestone streets is one of the best cheap visual effects you can find). It’s a visual tour de force, a triumph of control and form in a cinematic landscape too often littered with haphazard visual hack work.

So what of the Dennis Hopper quote from the opening of this essay? Upon some reflection, I was struck by the (probably unintended) parallels between Clooney’s Jack/Edward and Hopper’s famous Apocalypse Now cameo. Both men pose as American photojournalists; although Coppola later claimed that the Photojournalist was based on the real life journalist Sean Flynn, there have also been anecdotes about early plans to have Hopper’s camera be empty, his true profession and motivation left in doubt. Both Jack/Edward and the Photojournalist are reaching the end of their tenures, both burnt out by the insanity of their respective businesses. Although the aforementioned quote is Hopper describing Brando’s decaying Kurtz, it could also be an accurate read of Jack/Edward: a romantic, poetic soul falling apart from the madness of a lifetime of killing, a man constructing the means of his own destruction. Hollow men, indeed.

But even if that comparison falls somewhat short, it doesn’t take away from the power and excellence of The American, surely one of the finest…um, American films of the year.