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Anatomy of a Murderess: Vertigo

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Warning: The following post spoils virtually everything worth spoiling. Before reading, please watch this 60-year-old movie that you should already have seen by now.
I saw Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects the Friday night it opened in Kansas City in September 1995. I was completely sucked in by Christopher McQuarrie’s intricately constructed plot. Up until the last three minutes, I was locked in to my personal theory that the cop, Kujan (Chazz Palminteri), was Keyser Söze.

I went again with friends the very next night and watched the entire film making mental notes about Verbal’s story and what we’re shown onscreen: That’s real. … That’s bullshit. … That’s real. … Bullshit. Real. Bullshit. Bullshit. In only two viewings in a span of about 24 hours, I had mostly taken apart the puzzle of the film, which over the years remains a taut, effective crime drama, even when you know the twist going in.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, on the other hand, is a film that continues to reveal itself to me a couple dozen viewings later. In its totality the film’s machinery can obscure its various moving parts. Or maybe I’m just slow on the uptake.

Some years ago, in fact, it was only while watching a Hitchcock documentary in which the final scene was isolated that the film’s last shot — of Ferguson (James Stewart) walking out onto the ledge of the mission bell tower — finally landed with me; only then did I realize that he is cured in the end. It’s even mentioned early in the film that it would take a shock or trauma similar to the one that incited his vertigo to jolt him back out of it, and maybe not even then. But I had for some reason repeatedly failed to pick up on the most obvious subtext or even things explicitly spelled out.

I suppose I have been so invested in Ferguson’s point of view for so long that I’ve had a blind spot for other characters and certain plot points — not unlike Ferguson himself. Which is why now, a quarter century or more since I saw Vertigo for the first time, I’m finally coming around to a critical element of the story:

Judy Barton is a sociopath who gets exactly what’s coming to her.

Because Judy (Kim Novak) is a pawn in Gavin Elster’s game and because she dies in the end, one’s impulse is to think of her charitably as a victim. She loves Ferguson — both as Madeleine and as Judy — and we’re persuaded that her feelings for him are genuine. So our own feelings for her are clouded in the end. But she spells it all out for us in her voiceover of the letter she writes but never gives Ferguson:

I was the tool, and you were the victim of Gavin Elster’s plan to murder his wife. He chose me to play the part because I looked like her; he dressed me up like her.

During the film’s climax, Judy’s confirmations sputter out under duress and panic, but movies have trained us to believe the entirety of the information we’re being given, however incomplete, so Stewart’s raw, wrenching “apt pupil” monologue as he drags Judy up the steps of the bell tower becomes the official story of the setup and the crime:

Elster (Tom Helmore) begins an affair with Judy — who falls in love with him, perhaps, or at least attaches herself to him for her own reasons — after which he persuades her to masquerade as his wife, promising that they can run away together after he kills Madeleine.

Elster’s means are definite and his motive only a little less so, but what is the timing of his opportunity? Does Elster discover Judy before or after Ferguson’s accident? At their first meeting, Elster tells Ferguson he’s been back in San Francisco “almost a year.” At the time of the murder, Judy has been in San Francisco for two years at most. But how long has Elster been planning to kill his wife? Did he hate Madeleine, or did he only want her money? How long has he been grooming Judy? Has Judy ever met or seen Madeleine, or does she know her only by hearsay? Does Judy personally have any motive to want Madeleine dead besides love or money? Is Judy truly a doppelgänger for Madeleine, or can she merely pass well enough for neighbors who don’t see Madeleine often because, as we’re told, “she lived in the country and rarely came to town”? Have the neighbors ever seen Madeleine, or is Judy the only Madeleine they’ve ever known? Could the neighbors tell the difference if Madeleine’s photo appeared in the newspaper? Could Ferguson?1

Elster escapes to Europe and leaves Judy behind, secure in the knowledge that she could never turn him in without implicating herself, even if he could be extradited. So we safely assume he was never in love with her, was using her only to facilitate Madeleine’s murder and make Ferguson a witness to an apparently inevitable suicide. Did it never occur to Judy to wonder why Elster would continue making love to a woman in whose face he’d constantly see the face of the wife he murdered? In a movie that hinges on sexual obsession, what does it say about these characters’ depravities that they don’t more cautiously observe the depravity in each other.

In any event — whether she’s cold-blooded or merely slow-witted — Judy must commit herself fully to the deception, lest she be revealed, arrested, tried and convicted as Elster’s accomplice.

So it isn’t just that Judy knows from the start that Ferguson is following her — notwithstanding that he runs the worst, most obvious tails of any cop ever.2 It’s that she’s acting every step of the way, every minute of the day — including when she jumps into the bay, when Ferguson dives in to save her, when he drives her back to his apartment, when he undresses her while she is presumably unconscious.

This post-rescue sequence at Ferguson’s apartment is exquisitely discomfiting, because as we put 2 and 2 together, we’re coming to grips with the idea of James Stewart — in our eyes the most basically decent and upright of all Hollywood stars — as a lascivious creep.3 (In case we thought Stewart’s voyeurism in Rear Window seemed relatively harmless, Vertigo is Hitchcock saying, “Hold my beer.”) We don’t think about Judy in his bed feigning unconsciousness; we think about his eyes and hands on Madeleine’s defenseless body as he removes her wet clothes, his motive and opportunity as he changes out of his own, and the way his eyes continue to undress her after she wakes.

It is at this point that we are most likely blind to the deception — either momentarily or altogether — because we’re both mortified and titillated by the thought of James Stewart, of all people, defiling Madeleine, the mentally unbalanced wife of his friend, in her sleep.

And yet it’s Judy who is in control of this sequence all along.

One wonders, then: Is this the moment she falls in love with Ferguson? Or the following day, when they kiss for the first time next to the crashing waves? And if neither, then when exactly?

Because fall in love with him she does, even as she continues to deceive him, as she also describes in her letter:

I made the mistake. I fell in love. That wasn’t part of the plan. I’m still in love with you, and I want you so to love me. If I had the nerve, I’d stay and lie, hoping that I could make you love me again, as I am for myself … and so forget the other and forget the past. But I don’t know whether I have the nerve to try …

We know even Judy doesn’t believe this last line. It’s the point at which she stops writing and tears up the letter. Because if a young woman has the nerve to surrender her body to two different middle-aged men in order to help the first facilitate a murder, how much nerve does it take to continue loving the second man under a different set of false pretenses?

Also: How long has she been waiting for him to find her?

It’s been at least a year since the murder, since the inquest, since Ferguson’s crack-up, his hospitalization and recovery. Yet after Ferguson first sees Judy on the street and follows her to the Empire Hotel, she doesn’t act shocked to see him. She is completely deadpan when she opens the door, and she quickly falls into the routine of treating him as a stranger, as though all along she has been waiting for her cue to continue the ruse.

There are two quick cuts here — beginning on Judy, reverse to Ferguson over her shoulder, then back to Judy — that preclude the viewer from an unbroken look at her expression. We’re briefly denied Ferguson’s POV, so we don’t see whether her expression breaks at all. Certainly both we and Ferguson are meant to believe that Judy is a complete stranger (although her game is given away to us only minutes later). It seems odd, though, that the surprise of a year doesn’t register on her face even briefly when she opens the door to find him there.

If she had been waiting for him passively, never knowing when or if he might appear, there would at least be some flare of recognition in her eyes. If this is a deliberate choice in Novak’s acting or Hitchcock’s direction, it suggests that she had been at least keeping tabs on him, if not surveilling him outright.

And why wouldn’t she? Otherwise, why stay?

Lots of places aren’t Salina, Kansas, and leaving San Francisco to start over yet again would have been incredibly easy for Judy to do with whatever money Elster may have given her. If she goes even 100 miles in any direction, odds are Ferguson never sees her again. If she goes to any other major city, she can lose herself all over again and become whoever she wants to be.

“The necklace, Madeleine. That was the slip. I remembered the necklace. … Carlotta’s necklace. There was where you made your mistake, Judy. You shouldn’t keep souvenirs of a killing. You shouldn’t have been— You shouldn’t have been that sentimental. … I loved you so, Madeleine.”

Ferguson’s talking about two different things here. True, Judy shouldn’t have kept a souvenir.4 But he is the thing she shouldn’t have been sentimental about, just as he also indicts himself for being so sentimental about Madeleine. He is both the reason Judy stayed and the reason she shouldn’t have.

We are conditioned by the film to feel sympathy for Judy as a tragic figure, in all her guises and situations. She fell in love with or at least placed her trust in the wrong man, a cruel, devious man. As Madeleine, we knew her as a woman tormented by a dark connection to the past, with only one apparent means of escape. She then fell in love with a broken, vulnerable man who could never love her for who she actually was. She submitted herself to that love and eventually got too close to him, close enough for this man, a detective, to uncover her identity and complicity. She fell to her death — a perfect mirror of Madeleine’s fall — so consumed by her own guilt in those final instants that she believed she was being haunted by a spectral manifestation of judgment and damnation.

Judy’s a young woman who got mixed up in something too big for her and paid a high price for her bad decisions.

Judy’s a manipulative temptress who was a willing accomplice to murder, who knew what she was doing all along and believed she could carry on the deception indefinitely.

And once again Professor Carothers’ directive holds true: In Hollywood, women can sin any way they want, as long as they die in the end.
1 Though Judy tells us, “He planned it so well; he made no mistakes,” still more questions exist about just how perfectly Elster timed and executed his plan. For example: How long before the bell tower does Elster kill Madeleine? Is there any window of opportunity before the actual murder during which Judy could tell Ferguson in time to prevent it? Is it only when she’s running up the stairs that she becomes conflicted about her role?
Although Ferguson “witnessed” her leap from the tower and the postmortem examination could confirm a broken neck as the cause of death, wouldn’t the lividity in Madeleine’s body raise questions to the coroner about the time of death? Wouldn’t a toxicology screen also be conducted that would show whether she had consumed alcohol, taken medication, or been drugged? Where in the country did Madeleine live — how close to Mission San Juan Bautista? Did Elster act out a scene with the real, living Madeleine to take her there, similar to the scene Judy was acting out with Ferguson, so he could time the snapping of Madeleine’s neck as closely to their arrival as possible?

2 Side note: You’ll never persuade me that the proprietress of the McKittrick Hotel (Ellen Corby) hasn’t been paid to tell Ferguson that Madeleine hasn’t been in that day, though it would likely come as a shock to her later to learn that she had played a small part in a murder.
3 To wit, an Easter egg of sorts for modern-day viewers: In my most recent screening of the movie, I noticed for the very first time that a copy of Swank magazine — at that time a “men’s lifestyle and pin-up magazine,” though it was reinvented as a pornographic title a couple of decades later — is prominently displayed on Ferguson’s coffee table.
4 Two, in fact. Ferguson doesn’t know that she also kept Madeleine’s gray suit.


Written by Shepcat

September 14, 2018 at 3:38 pm

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Briefly: Vertigo in 70mm

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Saturday night I attended a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, part of Cinerama’s annual 70mm Festival here in Seattle.

I still remember the thrill of seeing the 1996 restoration of Vertigo in its initial release — pristine, vivid and electric. The sound mix was so clean and crisp that Bernard Herrmann’s cue when Madeleine jumps into San Francisco Bay made me literally jump in my seat.

The print screened Saturday wasn’t in great shape, as one so often hopes of such exhibitions — the first two reels in particular were pretty scratchy, there were bad splices throughout, and the projectionist appeared to miss the fifth-reel changeover, which actually was kind of charming. For whatever faults were on display, one feels immediate, if unexpected, nostalgia for film as a physical, mechanical medium in this age when digital production and projection have become the norm.

In any event, the attraction of the evening turned out to be the communal experience of watching Vertigo, which, it occurred to me in the moment, I hadn’t done in years — not as far back as that 1996 release but certainly not since the early to mid-aughts when I lived in L.A. I have watched the film a dozen or more times on video in the intervening years, and much of its midcentury sexual politics and groanworthy dialogue are by now internalized in my viewing experience, so to hear the raucous laughter of a nearly packed house at moments that I’ve come to take for granted was oddly refreshing.

There’s poor, pathetic Midge, pining for a man who just lets himself into her apartment at any time of the day or night without knocking but who will never love her, particularly now that he’s consumed by his obsession.

There’s Ferguson’s savage dressing-down by the coroner at Madeleine’s inquest, his every pointed barb followed by an instruction to the jury not to take it into account when considering their verdict.

There’s Ferguson dragging his reluctant new love interest through an intensive makeover, dictating the specifics of her new wardrobe and makeup, pleading with her to turn herself into a platinum blonde, “Please, Judy. It can’t matter to you.”

But God, the last five minutes of this film.

No star of the golden age is more affable, more approachable, or projects more basic decency than James Stewart. But he is arguably never better than when he portrays a man losing his grip on the end of a rapidly fraying rope. His “apt pupil” monologue as he drags Judy to the top of the mission bell tower is so raw that it guts me every time I watch this movie.

Whatever its faults as a film — whether in the narrative-storytelling sense or the physical-strips-of-celluloid sense — Vertigo always wins me over in the end.

Written by Shepcat

September 9, 2018 at 1:04 pm

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The Limitations and Liabilities of American UX

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“Have you tried turning it off and on again?”
— Roy Trenneman, The IT Crowd

In 1752, a few decades before our founding fathers set down the terms and conditions for the American experiment, Benjamin Franklin harnessed electricity. But it would be the next century before the first machines ran on electric power and perhaps a century more before anyone devised a concept resembling what we now know as a reset button. Otherwise, the founders might have enshrined something like a reset button in our Constitution. Instead we’re left with mere checks and balances, which, while not too shabby as founding ideals go, nonetheless run on slow, outmoded processors and are largely ineffectual for the work that lies ahead.

Checks and balances, when properly employed, can preclude abuses of power — provided they are wielded by people who themselves are not party to those abuses — but only a reset button can reverse the consequences of those abuses once they’ve occurred. And we don’t have a reset button.

A reset button is what this nation will need after the current occupant of the White House is shipped off to the supermax in Florence, Colorado, where he deserves to die eventually. In a cage, separated from his family.

A reset button could in some measurable way undo the damage caused by the lies and crimes and general fuckery of those who have enabled him after they too become guests of the American penal system.

A reset button could invalidate everything that has happened since he took office and send us back to a clearly defined Square One — which, for the sake of argument, could be the state of national affairs as of, say, 9 p.m. Eastern, November 8, 2016, or 11:59 p.m. Eastern, January 19, 2017 — the beginning of an alternate timeline of sorts that allows us not merely to imagine but to experience our nation and the current American moment as it might have been had a narcissistic sociopath, compromised asset and treasonous con man not benefited from and in all likelihood directly participated in the intervention of a foreign enemy to install him as our leader.

But there is no reset button.

Because even if he is ultimately exposed, charged, tried, found guilty and punished for his crimes against America — this man who, ironically, will have benefited from perhaps more measurable, quantifiable due process than has ever been accorded to a convicted felon in this country — he will still have a judicial legacy which cannot be undone. As will the complicit Senate majority leader.

Even if he takes dozens of accomplices down with him — family members, advisors, campaign operatives, political appointees, even other elected officials — there will be limits to what damage can be undone and how. Legislation will still exist that cannot easily be reversed or revised; structures will still be in place that cannot easily be dismantled.

Even when he is replaced by someone more closely resembling an American leader, statesman and public servant, we will still have damaged relations with other nations and their leaders that cannot easily be repaired. Even our allies, as forgiving and understanding as they may be under the circumstances, will still have reason to trust us a little less and be more guarded about our intentions going forward.

There has been willful damage done to our environment that is likely beyond repair.

There are billionaires and corporations — including this alleged billionaire and his foreign creditors, as it were, who benefit from his money-laundering operations because he can’t pay them back any other way — further enriched at the expense of the middle class, the working class, the poor and the weak, for whom there will be no restitution or reparation.

There are lives that have been carelessly or even deliberately harmed by this administration that can’t and won’t be made whole again. There are dead who cannot be brought back to life.

We can’t just revert to the factory default settings that were in place when we first unboxed this corrupted product, this administration that has malfunctioned and deviated from specifications since the moment we bought it.

We aren’t entitled to a replacement under the warranty. At best we’ll end up with a refurbished product and occasional updates to the operating system.

There is no command-Z to undo what has already been done.

There is no reset button.

Written by Shepcat

July 17, 2018 at 11:59 am

Posted in Politics, The Nation

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Donald Trump Dreams

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Donald Trump dreams
of a refrigerator door in hell
(only the door, because hell),
festooned with executive orders —
seemingly reams
of the unseemly things,
inhumane, punitive,
overreaching decrees,
unconsumed by flames
of a thousand degrees —
each brandishing his half-cocked Hancock,
his erratic, seismographic,
autocratic autograph.

But there is no such door,
no magnets, no tape,
no prideful presenter,
no ostentatious display.
For neither the heights to which
Donald ascends at others’ expense
nor the depths to which he stoops to conquer
will matter in the end,
because Fred Trump never loved his son
and isn’t about to begin,
not even beyond the end of time,
not even after Donald arrives
at his rightful place by his father’s side.

Written by Shepcat

June 26, 2018 at 9:05 pm

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Rewind: Magnolia

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I’m going to say a couple of nice things about Magnolia right up front.

First, I will be forever indebted to this film because it reintroduced me to singer-songwriter Aimee Mann, my profound adoration of whom endures to this very day. Within weeks of seeing Magnolia, I had purchased her entire extant catalog, including the ’Til Tuesday stuff of my college days, and her songs were pretty much the soundtrack of my wayward soul during the eight years I lived in Los Angeles. She understood me in a way no other woman in that godforsaken town could be bothered to.

Second, I will reiterate my admiration for Paul Thomas Anderson’s outsize ambition at this early stage of his film career1, if for no other reason than that during those same Los Angeles years, I too had a propensity for throwing myself at my passions fully expecting to crash and burn spectacularly. Magnolia is trying to do so many things. It’s the work of a young man who wasn’t trying to project a film onto the screen so much as leave a Paul Thomas Anderson–shaped hole right in the middle of it and straight out the back wall of the theater.

Because holy fuck, this is some straight-up Wile E. Coyote shit right here.

Magnolia is louder and faster than a film with a three-hour-plus running time has any reason to be, particularly during its first half.2 After a leisurely cold open in which the invaluable Ricky Jay regales us with lurid tales of cosmic coincidence, the movie takes off like it’s gunning for a land-speed record on the Bonneville Salt Flats.

In addition to its occasionally off-putting sound mix, the opening and much of what follows are drunk on the kind of visual acrobatics that were used more sparingly and effectively in Boogie Nights — tracking shots, whip pans, Scorsesean push zooms — as if it’s trying to generate not just unnecessary momentum but all the momentum there is. Robert Elswit and Dylan Tichenor, whose thrilling and nuanced shooting and cutting were the best things about Boogie Nights, seem to be working with a gun pointed at their heads. [Insert here the shot of Dennis Hopper in Speed cackling, “The whim of a madman.”]

Simply stated, Magnolia comprises the interlocking stories of a dozen Angelenos on the worst day of their respective lives. Once you understand that, it should be easy to empathize and sympathize with these characters — and on this second viewing, 18 years older and wiser, I actually could and did — but the film moves so rapidly from the moment we’re introduced to them that it almost deliberately distances us from them.

The one character I have always championed is nurse Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman), in part because even amid the chaos and cacophony of these opening sequences, his love of and care for his patient Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) are immediately apparent. Phil is pure and without agenda and more in control of his own sad circumstances than anyone else in the film. He is, after all, merely a salaried employee called upon to bear the intense grief of an entire fucked-up family.

On the flipside, I am least sympathetic toward male-empowerment motivational guru Frank T.J. Mackey (née Jack Partridge), whom Anderson writes and Tom Cruise portrays as a mutated spiritual descendant of the developmentally arrested caricatures of Boogie Nights. The difference being that Frank’s ambitions peaked later, after he audited a few business courses in college, which emboldened him to revel in his own juvenile douchebaggery to the point of manifesto and monetization.

But while the strutting, oversexed bravado of his public persona is a clear counterpoint to the emotional scars and disavowed past it’s meant to obscure — and to the inevitable crash to come — what’s less clear is the why of it all. If it’s his father, Earl, whom he hates so much — for abandoning his wife and son, leaving young Jack at 14 to care for his mother as she herself was eaten by cancer — why has he made degrading women not just a career but a raison d’être? It’s practically an acknowledgement of the film’s excesses that not only would Anderson make Frank the totemic god of aspiring assholes everywhere but that Frank would evolve to that station for all the wrong reasons.

In between, you have a cast of wayward souls who range from dying to deeply broken to merely dull-witted, and Anderson does connect these lives rather seamlessly, somewhat achieving his stated goal of telling one large story instead of six small ones. It’s just that the choices he makes in the telling often make the story blur in one’s vision.

More so than any other connection, the awkward meet-cute of lovelorn Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) and self-loathing Claudia Wilson (Melora Walters) has about it the air of improvisation, of which I am not a fan, even when practiced by my favorite filmmakers. (I’m looking at you, Marty.) And yet, maybe an air is all it is. Given the participants — shout-out to the earnest, good-natured goofiness that is Reilly’s most prominent trait as an actor (and, one presumes, as a person) — it could be either improvisation or merely writing that gives these scenes, all of which seem to last a beat too long, the impression of improv.

All of this (and more that I haven’t mentioned), however, is merely prelude to Act 3’s rain of frogs, both a literal deus ex machina and yet one that, outside the mere what-the-fuckness of it all, doesn’t affect these lives any more than, say, a major hailstorm would. (After all, it was raining a lot that day to begin with.) Now that Ricky Jay–narrated cold open — composed of anecdotes that, while curious, are each easily explained — seems to be less a comment on the intersection of lives we’re about to witness and more an excuse for the frogs, which cannot be explained at all. They are at once hysterically funny and genuinely terrifying, but what do they have to do with anything other than Anderson’s outsize ambition?

And yet, it’s fair to ask: Would I still admire Anderson as much as I do if he had stripped away all that excess and chaos and cacophony and just told the story straight? On its own, it’s still a marvelous work of narrative structure and human drama, but would I then feel that he wasn’t risking enough? Would anyone care about Magnolia if it weren’t flawed and erratic and polarizing and overreaching but merely the competent work of an emerging talent?

Now that I’ve met it, would I object to never seeing it again?
Random observations:

  • In Magnolia, Anderson’s repertory company shares some nice crossover with the Mighty Mamet Players: William H. Macy, Ricky Jay, Felicity Huffman, Clark Gregg, Philip Seymour Hoffman.
  • One year after the film’s release, Jason Robards would die of metastasizing lung cancer, pretty much the same thing killing Earl Partridge in the film. Robards had in fact recently emerged from an extended hospital stay following a nine-week coma before being offered the film, and the idea that we’re watching him die onscreen — almost literally dying for his art — is enormously affecting.
  • I have to believe that the amount of cocaine Claudia snorts in this one 24-hour period would have killed anyone else on Earth.
  • Luis Guzmán is listed in the end credits as portraying “Luis Guzmán,” which cracks me up more than it probably should.

1 Anderson becomes particularly lovable in this regard when one views the video diary of the making of the film, which contains a scene of him playfully but convincingly berating then-girlfriend Fiona Apple, who appears in the role of “Magnolia Trying Too Hard to Do Too Much.” Ultimately you can’t hate a guy who was that self-aware the entire time.

2 This first half–second half dichotomy in both visual and narrative pacing is a quality Magnolia shares with Boogie Nights, though it is much more pronounced here. Whereas Boogie Nights seems to chase its characters as they spiral out of control in the second half, Magnolia seems to finally apply the brakes to a heedless pace that it was imposing upon characters who were never really moving that fast to begin with.

Written by Shepcat

March 14, 2018 at 1:29 pm

Posted in Los Angeles, Movies

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Rewind: Boogie Nights

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In the wake of my incredibly positive encounter with Phantom Thread (and with Inherent Vice before it), I’ve been circling back to the earlier works of writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson toward either reassessing or confirming my long-held opinions about them.

My second encounter with Punch-Drunk Love, for example, reaffirmed my opinion that Emily Watson was the film’s only redeemable quality and cemented my resolve never to waste another minute of my life on Adam Sandler.

On the other hand, while I didn’t love The Master (my first viewing) — it suffers from Anderson’s tendency to create unlikable, rather than merely flawed, protagonists; in this case, Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell — my wistful affection for the late Philip Seymour Hoffman buoyed my interest in and overall impression of the film.

I can’t believe I’ve been shit-talking Boogie Nights for over 20 years now — when Netflix told me it was released in 1997, I literally went to IMDb for corroboration — but there you have it. Where does the time go?

Friday night marked the first time I’ve screened it since its theatrical release, and while it’s pretty much the film I’ve been remembering in snapshots over those two decades, I’d like to delineate some of those thoughts here.

  • If nothing else stands out in this folly of his youth, I greatly admire Anderson’s visual ambition here — particularly in the first half of the film. For me, the real stars of Boogie Nights are cinematographer Robert Elswit and editor Dylan Tichenor, who execute that vision with a lot of style and invention that I wish the film’s other elements could live up to. There are marvelous, swirling tracking shots, both at the Hot Traxx nightclub and at Jack’s pool party, as well as a shot in the latter sequence in which a character dives into the pool and the camera dives in after him and follows as he swims to the other side.
    As the characters become more manic and unhinged in the second half, though, the visual style seems to follow suit, and — personal preference here — I wish it had maintained its consistency while allowing the narrative to speak for itself.
  • With rare exception, everyone in the movie is a caricature of sorts, lacking emotional intelligence, real intelligence, or both. This might be fine if the film were a straight-up satire of the porn industry (I’m imagining just now what Armando Iannucci might do in that milieu), but it’s foremost a period piece with some dark, dramatic storylines at play, and I’d like to see some actual adults in the room. Even the veterans, the titans of the industry — Burt Reynolds’ Jack Horner, Robert Ridgely’s Colonel James, and Philip Baker Hall’s Floyd Gondolli — speak in the stunted, juvenile language of titillated schoolboys instead of the more clinical language of people who’ve been at the party awhile.
    The film’s protagonist, Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk, meanwhile, is a developmentally arrested naïf, and his best friend and co-star, John C. Reilly’s Reed, is just a straight-up imbecile. Their ambitions seem to have peaked at age 13 and carried over into adulthood. I don’t expect these guys to discuss Hegelian dialectics and weigh in on the economic policies of the Carter administration, but I nearly cheered out loud when Heather Graham’s Rollergirl announces that she’s thinking about going back to earn her G.E.D.
  • My memory of Don Cheadle’s cowboy-outfitted Buck Swope1 being the only character for whom I feel a rooting interest holds firm. When he and Melora Walters’ Jessie St. Vincent fall for each other, it’s the first time the film gives its audience a hopeful outlook for anyone’s future. There is such sweetness between the two of them that I care for them instantly in ways I feel for no one else on the screen.
    The scene of them together applying for a bank loan to back Buck’s dream of owning a stereo store is particularly marvelous in that he is being discriminated against not because he is black or because they are presenting themselves as a biracial couple — it’s about 1982 at this point in the film — but because the loan officer sees Buck as a pornographer while he sees himself merely as a working actor.
  • That said, I found myself this time feeling a great deal more sympathy and affection for Julianne Moore’s Amber. She’s the film’s true emotional center, and I feel I wrote her off a little unjustly and callously on my first viewing. More so than the authority figures onscreen, she’s the one who holds the filmmaking family together, mothering them even as she is denied the right to be a mother to her own child.
    And a special shout-out to Moore for doing a voice here that seems to be a tribute to Nancy Allen in De Palma’s Blow Out.
  • I can’t completely hate a film that finds a place on its soundtrack for Walter Egan’s “Magnet and Steel.” Ditto the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.” Oddly enough, though, there were no licensing dollars left over for the actual song “Boogie Nights” by Heatwave.

Onward to 1999’s Magnolia.
1 I have long had a particular affinity for Cheadle as a fellow Kansas Citian, and only as I was typing this just now did I make the connection that there is a Swope Park in our hometown. It’s merely a remarkable coincidence, though, as the character’s name is a reference to the film Putney Swope by Robert Downey Sr., who also appears in a cameo.

Written by Shepcat

March 10, 2018 at 3:05 pm

Posted in Movies

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A Maow Story — #4 in a Series

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The hardest part is letting go. Still.

As of this writing, it’s been over four months, but I still find myself forced to let go of Maow in moments that no one else would notice, in ways you’d need a microscope to observe. Which on its face is a ridiculous notion, because she’ll never be gone from my memory or my heart. There’ll always be something to remind me of her.

I have a couple thousand pictures of her on my phone and my computer. I have a little wooden keepsake box that contains her ashes. I have a tiny stoppered bottle that contains the little gifts of dropped whiskers and shed claws that she used to leave around our house, for God’s sake.1 I have one of her squeaky-mouse toys that I withheld from the cache that I gifted to Nani in Hawaii; an ornament bearing her likeness, one of two that a dear friend made and sent to Adriane and me last November; the “It’s All About Maow” sign that my niece gave us one Christmas.

Maow’s carpeted tower still stands in a corner of my apartment as a monument to her absence, atop it her blue harness and leash, and the litter scoop that hasn’t made it into the storage closet with the litter box. There’s even one-third of a bag of litter in the office closet that I haven’t figured out how to dispose of yet. To the casual observer, the existence of these durable capital resources might appear to be evidence that I’m thinking of getting another cat, but I have no such plans for the immediate or even distant-ish future. There is no particular imperative for my holding on to them.

But again, there is the occasional instance or moment that drops on me like an emotional anvil.

I finally got around one day to clearing some things off the dining table that had been sitting there since November — detritus, really, was all it was. Plastic bags that had contained items the emergency veterinary clinic had sent home with me. Medication that she had never been administered that I needed to dispose of. Paperwork of absolutely no importance.

The thing that broke me was the small, flimsy cardboard box which had protected the tiny wooden box for her ashes. I was about to break it down for recycling when I saw the label on one end that read “Maow Shepherd” — printed entirely for logistical purposes by the crematory, to clarify to whom her cremains were to be returned — which was all it took to unglue me. The idea that she didn’t merely belong to me (though in fact it was the other way around) but that she was a part of me, that she was family, left me flailing in a pool of tears for the rest of the afternoon. I ended up cutting out the labeled panel of the box before recycling the rest.

Later I found in the office a makeshift toy Adriane had made for Maow — a small ring of twine at the end of a string, attached to a long stick, literally a small, straight, sturdy branch snapped off a tree. There seemed no point in keeping the toy, so I dismantled it and decided to toss the stick outside, back into the wild, as it were. Instead of just heaving it off in any random direction, though, I placed it in the grass directly in front of my assigned parking space. I suppose I thought it might be appropriated for fetch by some dog walker who happened to spot it or transformed by the imagination of a child in need of a wand. In any event, I checked for it every time I parked my car or vacated the space, and there in the grass it remained for a month or so, until one day recently it was gone. Not merely relocated, as was revealed by a scan of the immediate area, but gone. And while I’m not emotionally distraught about its sudden absence, I am nonetheless wistful. About a stick.

Finally, I was taking the train into the city last weekend to meet the guys for drinks, and for the first time in a long time I had worn my herringbone topcoat, sort of dressing myself up a bit even though I was wearing jeans and boots. Anyway, I was sitting there with nothing else to distract me when I happened to spy a hair standing out along the hem of the coat. So I plucked it, and even though it could have come from anywhere, it seemed irrefutable to me that it was a cat hair — a Maow hair — that had somehow clung to the wool of the coat for God knows how many months and survived the move and clung there still as the coat hung in the closet in my apartment until this very evening on which I decided to wear it. I held the hair between my thumb and forefinger for the longest time, holding it up to the light, thinking of Maow but marveling at the resilience of the hair itself, that it had somehow arrived at that moment with me.

I knew I couldn’t hold onto it forever. It was too small and the moment too fleeting. I could put it in a pocket or rub it back onto the hem of my coat where I had found it, but the odds of it holding on were even slimmer than my ability to hold onto it in that moment. Even as I held it, I could lose sight of it in the light just by turning my hand a certain way. I knew that my train ride was brief and that I couldn’t will my fingers to remain pinched, and I wasn’t thinking of all the pictures and all the keepsakes and all the evidence of Maow back in my apartment, but only of that moment and that single hair, until I relaxed my hand and suddenly it wasn’t there anymore.

The hardest part is letting go. Of anything.
1 I’ve always joked with Adriane that I was holding on to Maow’s DNA on the off chance that she could one day be cloned. And wouldn’t you know it — a recent story alleges that Barbra Streisand did just that with one of her dogs that passed away. So maybe now I’m just waiting on the big break that results in an influx of crazy, ultradisposable Streisand dollars.

Written by Shepcat

March 9, 2018 at 12:45 pm

Posted in Continuing Series, Life, Love

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