In a Lonely Place

Bogart with a beautiful woman, Barton with a mosquito — sounds about right.

What says Christmas better than a dark, sweaty noir about a has-been Hollywood screenwriter who may or may not be a vicious killer?

I don’t know what forces prevented me from watching Nicholas Ray’s 1950 masterpiece of paranoia, heartache and broken dreams, but I’m glad I finally got around to it. And about two-thirds of the way through, it struck me that In a Lonely Place would make a smashing double feature with the Coen Bros’ Barton Fink.

The parallels between the two movies are too many to be mere coincidence. In some cases, the Coens have kept elements of Ray’s movie intact, in other cases they’ve ingeniously inverted them.

Both movies are about luckless screenwriters in Hollywood. Lonely Place‘s Dix Steele (a porn name before there was such a thing) is a washed-up has-been, Barton Fink is a neophyte. Both screenwriters are hired to work on a piece of formula garbage they feel they’re above, a situation which brings them both much angst. In both cases, the Powers That Be (the studio people, the producers, the agents, the directors) keep encouraging the screenwriter to take the easy path, follow the formula, don’t get fancy, don’t get artsy, but the screenwriter can’t help himself — he’s a creator, he can’t just churn out a bunch of crap.

Both Dix and Barton consider themselves superior beings in the Dostoyevskian sense, and their sense of superiority gets each of them into drunken brawls. Dix fights with six or seven different guys over the course of Lonely, while Barton confines his brawling to one USO dance. Both Dix and Barton have drunken has-been friends: Dix has his “thespian” pal Charlie Waterman, the kind of actor who goes around intoning Shakespeare in plummy tones while wearing a top coat and carrying a cane, Barton has the Faulkneresque W.P. Mayhew.

And both land in trouble with the police. In Lonely, Dix is too depressed to read the novel he’s supposed to adapt, so he asks a hat-check girl who’s read it to come over to his house and tell him the story. Similarly, Barton Fink, desperate for inspiration, calls Mayhew’s secretary, lover and de facto ghostwriter Audrey Taylor to come over to his place to help him prepare for his pitch meeting. In each case, the poor woman winds up dead, the victim of a brutal murder — Lonely makes its killing the inciting incident while Barton, in true Coen form, makes its murder the end-of-second-act twist. And, in each case, it’s not necessarily clear that the screenwriter is entirely innocent of the murder.

In each movie, the murder of the woman is, largely, beside the point of the story. In Lonely it’s a jumping-off point for the filmmakers to examine the precepts, dreams and flaws of Hollywood; Barton does all that and then goes someplace much stranger. It both expands upon the themes of Lonely, pulling in World War II and the Holocaust, but also makes the story more intimate, burrowing inside Barton’s head, so to speak. In each case, the screenwriters’ struggles with their unworkable screenplays are given much more weight than any murder investigation.

In a final inversion, the producers in the two movies have wildly different reactions to the screenwriters’ final efforts. I’d say more but it would be telling.

Lonely is also, of course, a love story, which, I’dhave to say, Barton is not. It’s a very unhappy love story, which I suppose any movie about a screenwriter in Hollywood would have to be. Dix meets and falls in love with Laurel, the woman who lives across the courtyard from him, partly because she provides an alibi for his whereabouts during the murder. Later, we find that she provided the alibi as an excuse to get to know Dix. This, for me, immediately threw suspicion on Laurel as the killer: no intelligent actress in Hollywood would think she could advance her career by making a pass at a screenwriter.

For more on Barton Fink, I direct you to this analysis. (I can’t believe I didn’t get the fire/water symbolism — it’s not like it’s not referenced in practically every scene.)

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Coen Bros: The Big Lebowski

“Your revolution is over! The bums lost!” images swiped from the excellent Coen resource “You Know, For Kids!”.

NOTE: I have gone over (not to be confused with “micturated upon”) the deeper meanings of The Big Lebowski once before — you may read my previous analysis here.

The Dude is unique in the Coen universe in being a protagonist who is perfectly happy with his social standing. He does not seek money, betterment, achievement, a child, a mate, clean clothes or, really, anything besides a state of blissful intoxication. Anything he does he does because someone else is forcing him to do it. As the Stranger describes him, “he’s the laziest man in Los Angeles County, which would place him high in the running for laziest worldwide.” He’s not particularly interested in saving the kidnapped girl, recovering the stolen fortune or even defending himself from hoodlums. Even his desire to reclaim his soiled rug is something that his bellicose friend Walter puts him up to — if it were up to The Dude, his peed-on rug would be worth it just for the story to tell his bowling buddies.

(It’s also worth noting that, for all the time The Dude spends hanging out in a bowling alley, listening to bowling games of the past and fantasizing about bowling scenarios, we never actually see him bowl.)

The comic conceit of The Big Lebowski is that ambition-free Dude is pressed into service as a Chandleresque detective, a job to which he is spectacularly ill-suited and at which he repeatedly fails. (When Da Fino, the detective in the blue VW, addresses him as a “brother shamus,” Dude recoils in horror.) It takes him a staggering 90 minutes to make a single coherent deduction and snap into action as a genuine active protagonist. Coen fanatics have often expressed mystification over Lebowski‘s relative commercial failure in its theatrical release — how could a movie of such obvious, overflowing brilliance be a commercial failure? And yet, I think the answer may be right here — the most famous commercial liability of all, the passive protagonist.

Many dismiss, or praise, The Big Lebowski as a “shaggy dog story.” These are people with not enough time on their hands. Lebowski is a movie positively overstuffed with meanings, far too many meanings to be gleaned from a single viewing.

WHERE’S THE MONEY, LEBOWSKI? Let’s start with Lebowski’s brilliance as a detective story. Lebowski presents us with a Big Sleep-style mystery: What Happened To The Kidnapped Heiress? But the kidnapping plot, we eventually find, is a gigantic red herring. The real mystery in The Big Lebowski is Where’s The Money? This is not anidle plot-point, it is a key subtext to understanding the importance of the movie. The kidnapped girl is a worthless idiot of importance to no one, but the money, ah, the money, as Mose in Hudsucker would say, “drives that ol’ global economy and keeps big Daddy Earth a-spinnin’ on ‘roun’.” The Big Lebowski is a social critique disguised as a mystery disguised as a stoner comedy.

The key to understanding the social dynamics of The Big Lebowski is to always follow the money. So where is “the money” in The Big Lebowski? (“Where’s the money, Lebowski?” is, in fact, the movie’s first line of dialogue.) The Dude doesn’t have it — he lives in a crappy Venice bungalow and is late on his rent. His friend Walter has his own business, but doesn’t have any appreciable amount of it. Jeffrey Lebowski, despite appearances, doesn’t have it, and his wife Bunny obviously doesn’t have it. The Nihilists don’t have it and neither does Larry Sellers, even though Walter is positive he has it.

The joke is, of course, that no one has it — “the money” belonged to the first Mrs. Lebowski, who is long dead. We don’t know how Mrs. Lebowski got her money — “Capital,” the source of “the money” in The Big Lebowski, is nebulous and taken for granted. “The Money” is like “The Gold” in Eric Von Stroheim’s Greed — it’s not something to be earned, it’s almost a natural resource, something that’s just sitting around waiting for someone to figure out how to get it.

Who has any money in The Big Lebowski? Maud Lebowski, Jeffrey’s daughter, the aggressively “feminist” artist, has some money, but even that is not hers, it’s her mother’s. She hasn’t earned it and seems to be frittering it away on ugly art and an inane lifestyle (the other artist presented in Lebowski is The Dude’s landlord, with his stupefying Greek Modern Dance routine — art doesn’t seem to count for much in the Lebowski universe). The only other wealthy personage in Lebowski is Jackie Treehorn, the pornographer. So: in the world of The Big Lebowski, “Money” is represented by an embezzler, an heir and a pornographer — as harsh a critique of American capitalism as I’ve ever heard.

Everyone else is barely scraping by or actively losing money hand over fist. The indignities heaped upon The Dude in this narrative are great: his house is repeatedly broken into (“Hey, Man, this is a private residence” he lazily chides a trio of armed thugs), his possessions are smashed until nothing is left of them, his car is shot at, crashed, stolen, crashed again, peed in, bashed and finally set fire to. He is punched unconscious, drugged and hit with a coffee mug. The Rich in Lebowski get richer by soaking the Poor, and every transaction between social unequals is a heartbeat away from physical violence. Even Maud, who only wants her rug back, can’t resist using force upon The Dude in order to get what she wants.

(The other thing Maud wants, of course, is to conceive a child. This is a succinct reversal of the argument of Raising Arizona. In the earlier movie, Ed reasoned that the Arizonas [The Rich] deserved to lose a child so that she [The Poor] could have one. In Lebowski, Maud [The Rich] assumes that it is her right to use The Dude [The Poor] as a method to get her own child — in both movies, children are merely another expression of capital [or, as the Dude complains about pornographer Jackie Treehorn, “he treats objects as people, man.”)

THIS AGGRESSION WILL NOT STAND: “Aggression” is a big word in Lebowski. The Dude is, of course, the least aggressive person in the story, yet he invites aggression at every turn, from his friends, his bowling rivals, his various contacts in the mystery. The parallel is drawn to the Gulf War, and if there is a coherent critique of the Gulf War to be found in Lebowski (and I’m not sure there is) it could be better applied to our present situation in Iraq: in Lebowski, aggression is met with violent retribution — but it always falls on the wrong person. Jackie Treehorn wants his money, but his goons beat up the wrong Lebowski. The Dude’s rug is peed on, so he demands retribution from a complete stranger. Jeffrey Lebowski sends The Dude to identify the kidnappers as Jackie Treehorn’s thugs (he won’t take responsibility for The Dude’s rug, but insists that The Dude take responsibility for his missing wife), but finds they are completely different people (and gets his car shot up for his trouble). The Nihilists demand a ransom for Bunny, but cut off the toes of one of their own to prove their seriousness. Walter exacts violent retribution on Little Larry Sellers, but ends up bashing the car of a complete stranger.

This, I think, is the meaning of poor Donny’s death. In times of war, wealthy, powerful men make up their minds to be aggressive (Saddam against Kuwait, Bush against Saddam), but the people affected are always the poor and powerless, people who die without ever understanding what the true cause of the aggression was. In the case of the Gulf War, it was the Iraqi soldiers and civilians who sided with the US, only to be abandoned, in the case of Lebowski it’s poor Donny, who’s salient quality is that he never knows what the hell is going on and who dies, absurdly, of a heart attack during an attack by the Nihilists.

(This is also, I think why Walter compares Donny’s death to the troops lost in Vietnam, although Walter, to be fair, tends to compare everything to Vietnam. He compares Bunny’s kidnapping to Vietnam, he finds service in diners lacking due to his experiences in Vietnam. The Dude chides Walter for this habit, but Walter, I think, is on to something. Bunny’s “kidnapping” can be compared to Vietnam, insofar as it’s a mysterious act of aggression perpetrated by a wealthy man scheming to steal a ton of money and make a poor man pay for it.)

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT: The Big Lebowski presents the widest view of law enforcement in the Coen canon. While not as warm or good as the police in Fargo, the police in Lebowski could at least be described as cheerfully unhelpful. They laugh at The Dude’s problems for the most part, but they don’t actively seek to harm him and they are not shown to be in direct employ of the forces of evil.

That’s LA’s cops, obviously. Malibu is a different story — the sheriff in Malibu is a reactionary hothead, the fascist boot protecting the rights of a pornographer.

Jeffrey Lebowski lives, of course, in Pasadena — but we manage to get in and out of his community without a run-in with the police.

THE MELTING POT: Race and national origin always plays a significant role in the Coens movies, and Lebowski emphasizes this more than ever. Oddly, all the main characters are Polish-American. Donny is Greek, Brandt I’m going to say is a WASP, Bunny is Swedish, the Nihilists are German (as is the administrator for The Dude’s bowling league), Jesus Quintana is Hispanic (and a pedarast), the cops are racially mixed (as are Jackie Treehorn’s goons, and the casts of his porn movies), Maud’s friends are European (one might say “Eurotrash”), the poor owner of the Ferrari is Hispanic, the detective shadowing The Dude is Italian (as is Maud’s chauffeur, although Jeffrey Lebowski’s chauffeur is French). Maud’s doctor is Iranian, and The Dude gets thrown out of a cab driven by an African-American man who likes the Eagles. The only Jew visible is, of course, Walter, who isn’t really Jewish. I wonder if it means anything that the only character identified as Jewish (that is, Walter’s ex-wife) is out of town for the duration of the narrative?

What is the point of this rainbow coalition of characters? Is it merely a comment on the diversity of LA, or is the city in Lebowski meant to symbolize something bigger, the whole of the US, or even the whole of the world? Is Jesus’s florid aggression toward our heroes meant to be an analogue to Saddam’s aggression against Kuwait?

PANCAKES: Nihilist Uli Kunkel favors pancakes for a meal, just as Gaere did in Fargo. I can see no significance here except that “pancake” is a funny word. In The Ladykillers the protagonist favors waffles, which I think explains that movie’s miserable death at the box office.

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Movie Night With Urbaniak: Murder, My Sweet

  and I have this game that we’ve been playing for about 15 years now. It all began in a duplex apartment on 13th Street in NYC. I came up to him at a get-together and said: “Tom Cruise is the Clark Gable of our time.” Urbaniak thought for a moment, the gears visibly processing behind his eyes, and then said “Yeah. Okay.” And then we spent the next half-hour or so trying to link up the stars from the past and the stars of the present. Certain types keep repeating themselves in history, turning up in the same kinds of roles, displaying the same kinds of talents, pursuing their art in the same manners.

Murder, My Sweet is a 1944 adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely. Why is it called Murder, My Sweet instead of Farewell, My Lovely? Well, because RKO Pictures was worried that, with a title like Farewell, My Lovely people might think it was a musical. Why on earth did they think a silly thing like that? Because they made the bone-head mistake of casting fading musical-star Dick Powell as Phillip Marlowe.

This would have been a smashing, head-turning coup if Powell had suddenly transformed himself from affable, aw-shucks boy-next-door into a complex, weary, haunted detective. It would have made Dick Powell the John Travolta of his day, suddenly going from over-the-hill lightweight to crime-movie superstar.

But Powell has nothing going on inside his head. As Urbaniak notes, he’s incapable of simply doing something, he must physically “announce” that he’s about to do something, then advertise that he’s doing it, then congratulate himself for doing it. He doesn’t get angry, he “looks angry.” He doesn’t get rough with a dame, he performs the action of “getting rough with a dame.” He is such a dead-end in terms of inhabiting the character that we ended up spending much of the movie trying to imagine the circumstances under which he got the part. One scenario we came up with was that the director, the capable and efficient Edward Dmytryk, signed on thinking perhaps that Marlowe was being played by William Powell. “Hmm, yes, Bill Powell, that could work, yes,” mused Urbaniak in his best imitation of Dmytryk.

It’s a shame because the script is really good, bristling with all the twists and turns and vivid imagery we expect from the melancholy poetry of Chandler, the direction is crisp and clean, and most of the rest of the casting is wonderful, including Claire Trevor (the Virginia Madsen of her day), Otto Kruger (who would have made a great Bond Villain in another time) and Mike Mazurki (the Big Lug of his time). All these people play their scene effortlessly and with great wit and panache (required tools for Chandler).

Butfor us, a lot of the movie was spent trying to think of who the Dick Powell of today is. It’s a harder task than you might imagine — there isn’t room in today’s movie culture for affable, lightweight leading men. Urbaniak suggested Anson Williams at one point as a possibility, and I countered with Judge Reinhold, but that’s about as close as we could come. Stumped, I moved on to trying to figure out who, today, would be worse casting than Dick Powell in the role of Marlowe. Rick Moranis got a vote, as did Ray Romano and Tim Allen.

PS: One nice thing about watching a Raymond Chandler adaptation on DVD is that you can pause it whenever you want and try to figure out who the hell everyone is and what they’re talking about and who’s fooling whom and what who knows why.

RECOMMENDED: watching a whole bunch of Chandler adaptations and then watching The Big Lebowski. Many of the characters, sets and plot-points of Murder, My Sweet turn up in skewered, inside-out or upside-down versions in Lebowski and watching them in close proximity will help illustrate just how funny and inventive the latter movie is.

NOIR MOVIE NEWS: Urbaniak and I watched Chinatown a few nights ago, and the next night I happened to go see the new In the Valley of Elah. The movie is good but I couldn’t help notice that, somewhere in Act III, detective Charlize Theron gets her nose injured and spends about twenty minutes of the movie with a band-aid across it. The nod to Chinatown seemed too obvious to be a coincidence, but I had to wonder, was the band-aid put in as a joke by writer-director Paul Haggis, or did Charlize Theron insist on getting her face damaged in order to help sell her as a tough detective?

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Movie Night With Urbaniak: Chinatown

 , as you may know, has recently moved to LA. Like any bizzer who moves to LA, he has felt compelled to watch Chinatown. It’s like a trip to the LA History Museum, but entertaining, with sex and murder and incest, which is the way us Neo-Angelenos like our LA history.

I, being an ace Hollywood screenwriter, have watched Chinatown many times, mostly to unravel all the different plot threads. Last time around, for instance, I noticed for the first time that there are, in fact, two mysteries to be solved in Chinatown, which have nothing to do with each other, in spite of involving all the principle characters. There’s the one everyone remembers, about “the girl,” and then there’s the one about “the water thing,” which forms the bulk of the story, but which has nothing to do with the central murder. Chinatown, like any classic noir, is about a jaded detective who stumbles onto a case, which leads him to uncover corruption in the highest corridors of power. But along his way to cracking the first case, this detective also stumbles across a more interesting case. It’s like if the investigators of the 9/11 commission, on their way to investigating Osama bin Laden, found out that George Bush once had an affair with Larry Craig.

Which I’m guessing probably didn’t happen, but I’m wondering now how many hits my blog will now get just for me typing those words.

In any case, it was a change of pace, this time around, to watch Chinatown not so much for story but for the performances.

Our verdict: pretty damn good.

Thinking back over my personal experience of Jack Nicholson’s performances over the decades, and watching this movie on a scene-by-scene basis, I think I have to say that this is probably the best, most detailed, least affected, most well-modulated performance of his career. Just prior to this, Nicholson was a rising star, giving strong character performances in Carnal Knowledge and The Last Detail, and soon after this he gave his career-defining performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The “crazy Jack” performance came to its fullest fruition in The Shining, and then in the 80s he veered from character parts to ever-more “crazy Jack” performances, culminating in 1989’s Batman. But here in Chinatown he’s playing someone very close to himself, yet removed by time and profession. There isn’t a single moment where he calls attention to himself, showboats or plays a “character.” The result is a natural, self-possessed performance that lives and breathes, which is all the more spectacular when you consider that he’s playing one of the oldest roles in movies, the jaded, cynical LA private dick. Plot-wise and tone-wise, Jake Gittes is not too far down the road from Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, and yet Jake is a completely different kind of guy, neat and dapper, ambitious and funny, smart and inventive and nobody’s fool.

Faye Dunaway, on the other hand, seems to be playing someone completely unlike herself, and vanishes into the part. I watched her closely throughout, trying to figure out just what was so strange about her characterization, how different it is from her work in, say, Bonnie and Clyde or Network, how she manages to be so cold, so remote and yet still recognizably human and three-dimensional. Then it occurred to me that it might be her eyebrows, her plucked-out, painted-on eyebrows, such a specific period detail that it removes her character from the 1970s and places her forty years earlier, changes the shape of her face enough to remove memories of past performances, and gives the character the fragile, china-doll (china-doll!) look she requires.

John Huston plays the heavy with such easy grace and sureness, such attention to detail and such confident naturalism, you have no trouble believing that Noah Cross is capable of just about whatever whim crosses his mind. Late in the movie I suddenly thought of Touch of Evil and tried to imagine how Welles would have played Noah Cross, and how very different Chinatown might have played under those circumstances.

At one point in Act III there’s a scene with Nicholson and Dunaway in the front seat of a car. And he’s pressing her on something and she’s being evasive and wrought, and they’ve just had sex a few scenes before, and all the things that have been happening in the story are seeping in between the lines of dialogue, and the actors merge with their characters so completely and I just had to shake my head and think “You know, they really don’t make movies like this any more.”

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