Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Last Night on TCM...: Guest Programmer Bill Paxton

One of the most intriguing and entertaining monthly events on Turner Classic Movies' schedule is the Guest Programmer night. It gives viewers a chance to see the films that contemporary actors, directors, and other personalities (critics, bloggers, the viewers themselves) would choose if they could program a night of classic films with significant and/or sentimental value. Not only does it reveal the wide appeal and influence of films of yesteryear, but it provides a window into the off-screen personalities of the programmers, who in some cases you would never guess know the first thing about their cinematic predecessors. There are very few instances I can remember where a guest programmer picked glaringly obvious films of the past (Raquel Welch and Cloris Leachman among them). Tim Roth scheduled the obscure and wonderful British indie Cathy, Come Home (1966), "SNL" funny man Bill Hader selected the oddball Robert Altman offering Brewster McCloud (1970), and of all Preston Sturges' classics, Sally Field picked perhaps the most frequently overlooked, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944). If there is one night to check out TCM, I'd recommend the Guest Programmer schedule. It wisely connects contemporary sensibilities to the sometimes hard to sell world of classic films, making otherwise inaccessible films appealing to a wider audience.

January 7's guest programmer Bill Paxton, best-known for his character roles in the James Cameron films Aliens (1986) and True Lies (1994), is someone I've admired from his work in the self-directed, and still underrated, Frailty (2002) and HBO's engaging polygamy melodrama "Big Love" (2006-2011). With his Midwestern accent and aw-shucks persona, one could easily predict an entirely different lineup of films than the ones he actually did choose to spotlight last night. Paxton made wise selections, two foreign classics and two oft-neglected films of the 1970s New American Cinema.

After discussing his father's love of film influencing his tastes over the years, Paxton introduces Juliet of the Spirits (1965), a film he first saw at 18, driving all the way from Ft. Worth, TX to Hollywood to see it. Even all these years later, Federico Fellini seems under-discussed for my film school tastes. Perhaps it's because the French New Wave, Welles, and Hitchcock seem to receive the lion's share of scholarly attention these days, leaving auteurs previously lauded in the 1970s (Bergman, Truffaut, De Sica) to followers of the Criterion Collection. Unlike other directors of his era, Fellini seems to truly adore film as an artist's canvas. He has tremendous fun with visual style and storytelling, even in frequently incomprehensible films like Satyricon (1969). I will admit, I was not an immediate fan of Fellini's work. It seemed pretentious and rang false when viewed at a young age. As I grow older, revisiting them reveals some of the genuine treasures of world cinema. Once you see and love one of his films, you will want to see all of them. For my money, Fellini's masterpiece is his most personal, Amarcord (1973), a film detailing the beauty and tragedy of wistful nostalgia (and the only Fellini film to bring me to tears), but Juliet, his first color film, is a clear frontrunner in his filmography. All directors should have had such a delightful, masterful introduction to color, but Juliet is a unique beast that continues to reward viewers with multiple viewings. While a few of Fellini's other films have arrived on Blu-Ray, the one that would work as a great test disc for your new player and 16x9 TV would be Juliet, if and when it finally appears on the format. I envy Paxton being able to see this candy-colored wonder on the big screen.

On the evening of their 15th wedding anniversary, Giulietta (Fellini's wife, Giuletta Mesina, one of many cast and character names crossing the line between fact and fiction) and her husband Giorgio have their closest friends over for a surprise party. One of their guests, a renowned medium, oversees a seance that seems to bring a spirit named Iris into the participants' midst. From that moment, Giulietta begins having unusual visions and dreams, connecting her to another realm, perhaps an alternate universe, informed by her distrust of her husband and memories of past and current relationships with family, friends, and lovers. An unusual encounter with an elderly clairvoyant, a visit by a seductive yet sinister Spanish friend of Giorgio's, and an extravagant passion play are only a few of the unusual set pieces Fellini asks the audience to absorb. Juliet is, like most of Fellini's films, not grounded by narrative. He provides the vaguest hint of a story on which to hang his striking visual tableaux, letting his camera run wild capturing entrancing outdoor scenarios and the lavish yet empty homes of the vapid wealthy. His focus on mysticism veers into the ludicrous, not unintentionally, and overall this is not a film that many viewers will like or maybe even be able to tolerate on first viewing. But it just may grow on you as it has on me. Fans of European exploitation will no doubt recognize Milena Vukotic (Blood for Dracula) as Giulietta's maid Elisabetta, Valentina Cortese (The Girl who Knew Too Much) as Giulietta's theatrical best friend Valentina, Mary Arden (Blood and Black Lace) on a black-and-white television set, and of course Sylva Koscina, who began her career in peplums and would continue appearing nude into her 50s, as (surprise) Sylva, Giulietta's flighty and vivacious actress neighbor.

The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) is a decidedly more obscure title that perhaps only Criterion worshipers know about. Paxton saw this film first via an awful quality VHS tape lent to him by Jim Brown, one of his NYU professors (wow, Paxton and I share an alma mater). Taking place near the end of the Spanish Civil War (a conflict that would also influence Spanish cinema through the decade that produced this film), a small village is visited by a traveling roadshow projectionist, carrying a print of James Whale's Frankenstein (1931). The film delights and terrifies the town's children, making the greatest impression on young Ana (Ana Torrent, giving one of the most natural and winning child performances in film), the daughter of Fernando, a local beekeeper, and his wife Teresa. Ana's sister, Isabel, tells her that she has seen the Monster in an abandoned farmhouse outside the village, leading the inquisitive girl to seek out the movie monster for herself. To give away more would take away from the pleasure of experiencing this film for the first time.

A beautiful film about film and its transformative qualities, Beehive remains a relatively undiscovered gem sure to bewitch audiences discovering it for the first time. If you have seen and love Cinema Paradiso (1989) and Pan's Labyrinth (2006), directors Giuseppe Tornatore and Guillermo del Toro borrowed several ideas from this film for their masterpieces. That said, Victor Erice's film is a unique story told primarily from the child's point of view. The young sisters are each other's best friend, forming a camaraderie that feels genuine and sweet. Their relationship with their parents is rarely presented in any detail, though a marvelous sequence of Fernando showing his daughters the different mushrooms growing in the woods around their home is a revealing one. Beautifully photographed and compellingly written, this is a film you will want to own and revisit over time to peel away the many political and cultural layers to be found here. Torrent would return a few years later in Carlos Saura's haunting classic Cria Cuervos (1976), in another bravura performance. It is too appropriate that Criterion has brought both of her wonderful childhood roles to DVD.

Given a choice of a Robert Altman film to program, I imagine Nashville (1975), McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), M*A*S*H* (1970), and The Player (1992) would be the first titles to come to mind, if not Short Cuts (1993) or Gosford Park (2001). But Altman did more films that are forgotten than are fondly remembered. I already mentioned Bill Hader showing Brewster McCloud on his Guest Programmer night (Hader's taste is to be admired), and Paxton's recalling California Split (1974) is a surprise indeed. The Sony DVD is long out of print, and it's a film that's easy to gloss over in favor of, say, Thieves Like Us from the same year. The only way I could have been more surprised would have been if he picked Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982). Actually, I wish he had.

Reuniting Altman with his M*A*S*H* and Long Goodbye (1973) star Elliott Gould and, unusually, marking a collaboration with soap TV producers Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg, California Split is not a favorite Altman of mine. The actors' director liked to tackle genres and subjects he had little to no knowledge of, like the country music world in Nashville and ballet dancers in The Company (2003), though the subsequent films never end up being about their proposed subject. Here he takes on competitive poker playing and, true to form, it's really about male bonding while living on the edge. Gould and George Segal play Charlie and Bill, two card sharks who become chummy after running into each other at a gambling club, where they both are cheating their fellow players. They're tossed in jail and bailed out by Charlie's pals, a pair of goofy hookers named Barbara and Susan. Bill indulges in a bit of hero worship of Charlie, driving him into debt until the pair decide to join forces and trek to Reno for one last big win at a national poker competition.

The lack of narrative has never deterred me from liking an Altman film, or any film, before, but it helps when such a film has compelling characters. There is nothing remotely interesting about Charlie or Bill, and their female counterparts are poorly underwritten. Altman's style of overlapping dialogue is rendered irritating beyond belief when it serves no purpose, uttered by cartoonish characters. Of course, this being Altman, the cast is terrific. In addition to Gould and Segal, you also get two pre-Nashville cast members (Gwen Welles and Jeff Goldblum), Paula Prentiss' tragic sister Ann in her best role, Barbara Colby as Bill's receptionist, a year before her tragic murder while shooting the TV series "Phyllis", loudmouthed redhead character actress Mickey Fox (Caged Heat) in the opening poker sequence, and character actor Tom Signorelli (Alice, Sweet Alice). All in all, though, a pretty stinky blemish on Altman's resume.

The Last Detail (1973) is a pretty wonderful capper for the evening. Hal Ashby, the most underrated of the new American cinema directors of the 1970s, followed up his box office disaster Harold and Maude (1971) with this much more successful and acclaimed feature. An underrated actors' director, Ashby taps into the surprising range of Jack Nicholson, during his best years as an actor, in a touching story of male bonding and companionship. Paxton even goes so far to say this is Nicholson's greatest performance. It's certainly up there. Ashby continued his bounce back into the big time with Shampoo (1975), Bound for Glory (1976), Coming Home (1978), and Being There (1979), but in the process, his earlier work (also including 1970's The Landlord) ended up being glossed over. This is a good straddling line between those two periods of his work in the best decade of his all too brief career.

As punishment for lifting $40 from a charity box, sailor Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid) is given eight years in the brig and a dishonorable discharge. Assigned to take him into custody and drag him to a naval prison are Petty Officers Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) and Mulhall (Otis Young), two grizzled vets anxious to drop the kid off early and use his per diem to have a ball on their way back to base. However, as they develop sympathy for the young man, especially upon learning of his virginity, they decide to throw one last hurrah for him on the Armed Forces' dime. Ashby's typically muted visual style allows the story and characters to come alive in a more vivid way. Nicholson, in one of his most animated angry young man roles, anchors the movie, while Quaid, in his first major role outside of a Bogdanovich film, scored an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of an innocent youngster handed a punishment much more severe than the crime. Poor Young is kinda lost in the shuffle, but makes a fine calming third in this oddball trio.

Last Detail also marks the first collaboration between Nicholson and screenwriter Robert Towne, best known for their work together on one of the best films of the 1970s, Chinatown (1974). Towne's Oscar-nominated screenplay has many colorful dialogue exchanges ("I wouldn't shit you. You're my favorite turd." is a favorite) and vividly captures the anger and frustration of young America attempting to function in the Vietnam era, when military institutions were constantly in question. One of the most underrated films of the 1970s, equally humorous, touching, and timely, this is another one to add to the permanent collection.

Standing back and looking at all four films Paxton chose to program, it's interesting to see that the two foreign films view the world through the eyes of imaginative women, and the two American films focus on male bonding over the course of a journey. His interview segments book-ending this quartet indicate a man in great awe of the master directors of the past, especially their work with actors, and their impression on him becomes clear in the films he's made in the director's chair. I especially loved hearing his gushing love for Jack Nicholson and excited plot summary of Spirit of the Beehive. In summary, a great night spent with Bill Paxton and his love of the movies.

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