Each chair at Film Forum has been endowed. I sit in the same seat every day (fifth row, all the way to the left; the exit sign provides a glimmer of ambient light for note-taking) directly behind chairs bought in honor of Brazilian spitfire Carmen Miranda and Soviet dogmatist auteur Dziga Vertov. And what of the seat in which I am actually parked? I get up and look on the back at the tiny brass label. I have spent the better part of a week “sitting on” she of the alluring gap-toothed smile, iconic 1970s movie and modeling career, and recent Hormone Replacement Therapy Endorsatrix Lauren Hutton.
With this knowledge I see the whole experience with new eyes. Things seem fresher. Why, there are even some new selections on the pre-show tape: Take The A Train and The White Cliffs of Dover. I watch Maxi-Length Down Jacket’s back intently while the latter song plays. Its history seems so distant for me as to be medieval (even though I was born less than 20 after the end of World War II, the last year of the Baby Boom according to some demographers), but for her it must take her back. She was, at the very youngest, in her late teens when this wishful picture of peace and bluebirds was in rotation on the radio. People needed such rosy visions back then, I suppose, what with everyone aware of the war that was consuming the attention and resources of the public at large, with everyone worried sick about sons and brothers and husbands and friends fighting overseas. Good thing those days are past and we have NOTHING WHATSOEVER TO WORRY ABOUT!
I’ve been trying to parse the recondite logic behind pairing these two films today. It’s quite bizarre because they contradict. One is a direct refutation of the other. Good news out of the way first: Bullets Over Broadway is fabulous! Exponentially better and funnier and more beautiful to look at and terrifically well-acted than I remember. Dianne Wiest’s grande dame Helen Sinclair and Jennifer Tilly’s lollapalooza gun moll Olive are sublime. And the script (co-written with Doug McGrath) is tight and funny and has none of the runny, maddening, improvisatory quality of other films. If this is what having a collaborator does for Woody Allen (Manhattan and Annie Hall were written with Marshall Brickman), then he should never be without one.
Chazz Palminteri, playing mob henchman Cheech, assigned to guard Olive while she mangles her way through a Broadway part, is soon helping playwright John Cusack rework his script, turning it from serviceable into a work of art. But Olive is ruining everything with her proactive lack of talent. So he whacks her with the final words, “You’re a horrible actress.”
This central contention of the movie—that he has killed her with neither qualm nor remorse because art and the making of same is not subject to the morals of man (a deadly serious belief albeit played for comedy here)—seems noteworthy in light of Everyone Says I Love You, which is a lousy, shitty movie in precisely the way that would involve a thug’s slug. Everyone Says I Love You is a sloppy insult whose cracks and flaws are spackled over with fistfuls of money and sundry diversions in the form of real estate porn (it’s a love letter to the Upper East Side, right down to the immigrant nannies and Jamaican nurses of Mt. Sinai), some calling-in-favors flashy cameos (Itzhak Perlman on violin!), and Drew Barrymore’s astonishing (even to this fag) breasts. As my friend, Nextbook regular Jesse Green, when we saw the film together when it was first released, said about an ice-pink, boat-neck satin number Drew wears, “Who was the nipple wrangler for that dress?” They are truly amazing. Why are all the straight boys not still talking about them? I cannnot get them out of my mind!
But I digress. The movie is a musical wherein otherwise non-musical characters break into song. It’s like a pageant of the Post-Skill era. This is one time Woody Allen’s characteristic elitism fails him, and in completely the wrong way. One can almost see him responding to the unctuous wheedling of casting directors, persuading him to employ this hot young thing or that one. So there are dewy and delightful Natalie Portman and Edward Norton! Almost to a person—with the exception of kittenish Goldie Hawn—these actors can’t sing. Warhol was at least being ironic when he dubbed his rag-tag troupe of semi-talents Superstars.
Put aside, if you can (you won’t be able to, trust me) the aneurysm-inducing faux-roistering You Can’t Take It With You cacophony of the spoken scenes with their halting and muddled improvised dialogue. Forget the afterthought that is the camera work. The film’s cardinal sin isn’t even Allen’s brazen plagiarism of creator Dennis Potter’s unique twist on musical theater of having characters break into song, (although that’s pretty chutzpahdik). No, what so rankles is that Allen misses the point of the entire art form. What Potter was trying to achieve—and what every musical director and producer from Vincente Minelli to the Freed unit, even up to the massively annoying Lars von Trier, knew and executed by employing stars anointed with actual talent—is that the impulse to sing, that almost unendurable groundswell of emotion that would lead one to break the Fourth Wall of space-time and open one’s throat also by definition, according to the physics of the musical theater universe, possesses a transformative power. One becomes a perfect instrument of the emotion moving through one’s body. You are made beautiful, at least in voice. So that in those moments that you realize that if you were a bell you’d go ding-dong-ding or you can’t help lovin’ dat man of yours, what pours out of you are the perfect phrasing and honeyed tones of Howard Keel and Dinah Shore (or if you’re Natalie Wood, Deborah Kerr, of Audrey Hepburn, of Marni Nixon) Not, emphatically NOT the croaky documentary stylings of Edward Norton (who further appalls during a number set to My baby Just Cares for Me set in Harry Winston, where he dances self-consciously and like a goofball, as if to say “This is stupid and aren’t dancers just a stupid bunch of homos?”). Otherwise, you’re just in the shower.
Play It Again, Sam was actually directed by Herbert Ross, who went on to make the approximately perfect Pennies From Heaven. What? Were they not speaking by this point? Why didn’t Allen consult him. The generally very talented Kenneth Branagh made a similar travesty of the movie musical with the mediocre numbers with which he peppered his lousy Love’s Labour’s Lost. It’s a mystifying infraction for both these men, since no one’s sensibilities would be more mortally offended if you said to either Allen or Branagh, who clearly revere the respective realms to which they have devoted their lives, “I’m just gonna turn on the camera and shoot some shit,” or “I dunno, it’s just Shakespeare…how hard it be?”
The answer of course is Very Hard! It takes effort and rigor. That’s why we don’t generally spend more than five seconds watching children who have put thumbtacks on their shoes to “tap dance,” unless it is our own eight-year-old. Otherwise, it’s Cheech’s bullet for you, my friend, and there’s not a jury in the land that would convict you. (In truth, I’ve always had a bit of trouble with that pronouncement about art and artists being immune to the petty concerns of morality, or the need to be kind or fair or anything other than obliteratingly self-involved. It has always struck me as the rationalization that goatish, flesh-pressing painters, writers, and musicians trot out in order to cheat on or sock their long-suffering wives and girlfriends.) But the rigors of creativity—the self-doubt, the revising, the solitude—do require a kind of self-consumption. It comes at a cost; a cost that isn’t for everyone. At the end of Bullets, John Cusack’s character realizes it’s not a price he’s willing to pay. “I’m not an artist. There, I’ve said it and I feel free.”