Quentin Tarantino Spotlight
I’ve got Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino on my mind these days, mostly because of a statement the younger filmmaker had made about Scorsese some years ago.
They’ve always been linked, these two. Tarantino had been anointed by more than a few as “the next Scorsese” with his 1992 directorial debut, Reservoir Dogs. Dogs’ mix of unrepentant low-lifers and profanity-as-gutter-poetry dialogue harkened some reviewers back to Scorsese’s own breakout nearly twenty years before: Mean Streets (1973). Tarantino himself has often cited Scorsese as one of the filmmakers whose work has had a “huge” influence on his own filmmaking (along with Howard Hawks, Brian DePalma, and Sergio Leone).
I’ve tried to run the quote down to make sure I have it exact (I’d hate to stir up a fuss with a bit of misremembering), but haven’t been able to trace it. It would’ve been after the releases of Tarantino’s Kill Bills (Vol. 1 – 2003; Vol. 2 – 2004) and Scorsese’s Howard Hughes biopic, The Aviator (2004). Tarantino said something to the effect that he didn’t want to wind up in his later years like Scorsese making movies about Howard Hughes.
I don’t know if Tarantino was suggesting Scorsese had passed his peak, or that he’d reached a point in his career where he had to make movies – as Tarantino once said of a certain tier of directors – “…to pay for (his) pool.” Or, perhaps the notoriously motor-mouthed filmmaker was just on a jag and his tongue got a little in front of his head. Whatever: dig, observation, or slip of the tongue, I remember thinking it wasn’t particularly flattering. Or fair.
Since then, Scorsese’s filmography has been extended by the Oscar-winning The Departed (2006 – which also copped him the Best Director trophy); the Rolling Stones rockumentary Shine the Light (2008); his biggest hit in the thriller Shutter Island (2010); the docs A Letter to Elia (about director Elia Kazan), and Public Speaking (about writer Fran Lebowitz) (both 2010); the pilot for the HBO series Boardwalk Empire (2010 – for which he won an Emmy); the HBO doc George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011 — named among the Top Five Documentaries of the year by the National Board of Review); and, of course, Hugo, The Wolf of Wall Street and Silence, which received multiple Oscar nominations including two Best Director nods for Scorsese. That’s almost as much directorial work as Tarantino has turned in since — and including — Reservoir Dogs 27 years ago.
But as much as Tarantino might have been influenced by Scorsese, and for all the comparisons made — at least early in Tarantino’s career — between them, it is, at best, a tenuous, wholly superficial connection. Lean back and squint, and maybe they look related. Close up; not so much.
Scorsese had been a frail and sickly child, unable to run the vibrant streets of his Little Italy neighborhood like the other kids. Instead, there were hours spent in front of the TV with the then movie-heavy New York channels. His father, a film buff, tried to compensate for young Scorsese’s home-bound days by taking him to the local movies houses, sometimes twice a week or more. Between what he caught on TV and what his father exposed him to at Manhattan cinemas, Scorsese was introduced to a wildly eclectic range of films and filmmakers at an early age, from Ford and Fuller to Powell and DeSica; Hollywood schlock like Land of the Pharaohs (1955) to the dark poetry and startling color palette of The Red Shoes (1948).
He may have been too often stuck in his family’s lower East Side apartment, but he was not oblivious to the world around him. He soaked up the drama, the humor, the color of the New York streets, of the urban Italian-American experience, came to understand the double-edged sword of family/tribal loyalties — how they brought belonging but also how they stifled and strangled, and how they could cultivate a culture of compelled, sacrificial self-destruction. After years percolating and ripening, that sensibility would become one of the most vivid and integral textual colors — almost a character in itself — in movies like Mean Streets, Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990), and others. It morphed and mutated, transposing itself to the Boston crime scene for The Departed, and to a New York long gone and nearly forgotten in The Age of Innocence (1993) and Gangs of New York (2002).
He acquired more than a passion for movies from his upbringing. His was also a spiritual family, devoutly Catholic, and that sensibility imprinted on Scorsese’s creative self just as deeply as his feel for The City and his sense of his Italian blood. It was a feeling held deeply enough that Scorsese considered the priesthood as a vocation, even attended seminary school for a year. He never gave up his spiritual quest, continuing his investigation of conscience and soul, of spiritual uplift and human foible, in his films, sometimes overtly (The Last Temptation of Christ ; Kundun ), sometimes obliquely (Mean Streets’ Charlie [Harvey Keitel] oblivious to the paradox of trying to stake out his nobility amidst the ignobility of his street hood existence). “My whole life,” Scorsese has said, “has been movies and religion. That’s it. Nothing else.”
He gave up pursuing one passion — religion — for another, dropping out of his studies for the priesthood to study film at New York University.
In the early 1960s, the two great centers of film study were NYU and the University of Southern California, but their philosophies were markedly different. Admittedly speaking purely in broad strokes, USC looked at film as a trade (unsurprisingly as the USC film program had been co-founded by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences), concentrating on practical skills and the business of making movies; NYU looked at film as an art — film not just as a form of entertainment, but as a means of personal expression. NYU was the perfect greenhouse for the soulful Scorsese.
At NYU, Scorsese’s already broad film sense was widened still further. The French New Wave, the cinema verite documentary movement — all made their mark on the avid young film student. Look at Mean Streets with Scorsese’s bio in mind, and it’s impossible not to see the interplay of Italian neo-realism, French New Wave, and cinema verite combining with Scorsese’s view-from-the-stoop of life on the New York streets, and his own search for a spiritual centeredness in a non-spiritual world.
His appetite for all things cinematic was — and remains — voracious. Ben Kingsley, who plays film pioneer Georges Melies in Hugo, recently told USA Today, “We overuse the term until it’s meaningless, but Marty truly is passionate, especially about the legacy of movies…I’m not sure there’s a movie Martin hasn’t seen.” In 2011, Sight & Sound posted a video interview with Scorsese where he commented on the passing of British director Ken Russell. Watch how easily Scorsese references Russell’s obscure early work, the black & white shorts done for the BBC profiling figures from the arts like Isadora Duncan, Rosetti, Sibelius, Coleridge. What strikes me watching that clip isn’t just how Scorsese’s knowledge of cinema seems bottomless, but how he also seems well-acquainted with the subjects of Russell’s BBC works. It’s not hard to imagine the self-admitted obsessive watching Russell’s film on Sibelius, say, then, ignited by what he saw, going on to read up on the Finnish composer, listening to recordings of his work, and on and on and on.
At a purely intellectual level, Scorsese’s closest filmmaking relative would be, to my mind, Woody Allen. Though stylistic and thematic opposites, both inform their films not just with their passion for classic and art-house cinema, but in drawing from centuries of western art, culture, and thought. Allen digs into it all — philosophy, spirituality, psychology, the whole shmear of western intellectualism — and boils it down to an on-the-nose joke (in Hannah and Her Sisters , Allen’s character grapples with the idea of persistent evil in the world, asking his father how God could permit the existence of Nazis; “How the hell do I know why there were Nazis?” his father replies, “I don’t even know how the can opener works!”). Scorsese dips into the same, big pool, only instead of a joke, brings it to a tragic — and often violent — demonstration of human frailty and fallibility (Mean Streets’ Charlie doomed by his self-appointment as savior to Robert DeNiro’s reckless, impulsive Johnny Boy).
If he somewhat resembles Woody Allen intellectually, the course of his career mirrors, to some degree, that of his good friend Steven Spielberg. Thematically, they’re night and day. Even Spielberg at his darkest believes in an ultimate demonstration of good, whereas Scorsese’s work usually works from the idea that we’re born into shit, then things go downhill from there. They’re polar opposites stylistically as well. Spielberg is a classicist and will take a graceful dolly shot over a smash cut any day. It’s hard to imagine Spielberg putting together a sequence as fragmented and fevered as Ray Liotta’s coke-fueled, rock-scored down-spiral into Goodfellas’ climactic dope bust.
But they are both cinematic adventurers. It came late to Spielberg. Liberated from an over-reliance on audience-friendly fantasy and romanticism by the grim material of Holocaust drama Schindler’s List (1993), Spielberg has since felt free to follow his interests, light and dark, through an impressive, increasingly eclectic body of work ranging from the Capra-esque The Terminal (2004) to the controversial political thriller Munich (2005); from the breezy chase flick Catch Me If You Can (2002), to his disturbingly brutal re-envisioning of World War II in Saving Private Ryan (1998).
The difference is Scorsese has always been such an explorer, adamantine in chasing off after whatever engaged him oblivious to its commercial appeal. Look at just his early years: he pinballed from the Mean Streets of New York to the sun-baked southwest in one of the best women’s movies of the 1970s, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), then back to New York for the near-surreal Taxi Driver (1976), then a jump back in time for the period musical New York, New York (1977), and then off to San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom to film the final performance of The Band for the rockumentary The Last Waltz (1978).
He didn’t hit the mark every time: New York, New York‘s pair of unlikable lead characters (played by Robert DeNiro and Liza Minelli) left audiences cold; some felt his Ophuls-influenced The Age of Innocence could have used a little less Ophuls and a little more Scorsese heat; by his own admission he was trying to make too big a movie for too little money in The Last Temptation of Christ; his remake of Cape Fear (1991) — one of his few admitted mercenary forays into the commercial mainstream — doesn’t have the same low-key queasiness of the 1962 original; Gangs of New York has a second-act sag; Leonardo DiCaprio comes close but doesn’t quite cut it as Howard Hughes in The Aviator…
But the point isn’t that he’s made a number of flawed films. The point is that despite Scorsese’s close identification with violent crime stories, almost three-quarters of his nearly 30 theatrical features are about something else: romance, music, history, the quest for spiritual inner peace. Hugo is his passionate tribute to the medium which has meant so much to him.
As the range of his interests has widened, his technical ability has also grown, sometimes in quantum leaps. Look at the rough-edged, near-documentary feel of Mean Streets, then look at Raging Bull seven years later, exchanging Streets’ lurid neon colors for Bull’s harsh black-and-white, the gritty hand-held camerawork of the former for balletic swoops and swirls inside the boxing ring. Then jump ahead again for the Ophuls-like classicism of The Age of Innocence, and then again to see him take command of CGI for Gangs of New York and The Aviator, growing so deft in its application he knew how to use it to sweeten even a naturalistic, contemporary work like The Departed, adding a computer-generated rat scurrying along assassinated Matt Damon’s apartment balcony as a punctuation mark to a film about betrayal layered on betrayal layered on betrayal.
Nearly every review of Hugo calls it an uncharacteristic work for Scorsese; that the last thing anyone expected from Martin Mean Streets/Taxi Driver/Raging Bull/Goodfellas/Casino/The Departed Scorsese is a gentle, lovely, period piece dedicated to childhood wonder and curiosity. But looking at his body of work, in its supposed uncharacteristic-ness Hugo is actually quite in character for the filmmaker; it’s right in line with his willingness to follow his own sense of wonder and curiosity, to tell a story he hasn’t told before in a way he hasn’t told one before. His use of 3-D for the film — a first for Scorsese — is considered the best application of the process since James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), even by Cameron himself, who has called it “absolutely the best 3-D photography that I’ve seen.” This, too, is quite in keeping with Scorsese’s ongoing evolution — Scorsese remaining the committed, voracious student he was in his NYU days. “The fun part,” Scorsese told USA Today recently, “is trying new things. It’s still magic. Someday, movies will just be holograms. I’d like to make one of those, too.”
Hugo also showed — despite what Tarantino might have meant those years ago — that Marty’s still got it.
From the ground up, Tarantino is a different animal. But then, he’s traveled a wholly different route to the director’s chair than Scorsese.
Scorsese was born to a tight-knit family in what is certainly one of the most colorful — to say the least — cities in the world as well as being, inarguably, a cultural and media Mecca. Tarantino, in contrast, was born in Knoxville, Tennessee. He never knew his father, and his teen-aged mother relocated them to a drab, downscale Los Angeles neighborhood when he was two. He was lousy at school, felt very much the loner, the outsider, finally dropping out before finishing high school. He found company with comic books and TV, famously taking a job as a clerk at Video Archives, a video store in Manhattan Beach.
Video Archives was Tarantino’s NYU. He became a connoisseur of cinematic junk food, fed on a steady diet of Hollywood classics mixed with grindhouse cinema. The way the UCLA tradesmen could talk about Hitchcock and the NYU cineastes about Trauffaut, Tarantino could talk about splatter-master Herschel Gordon Lewis, and the subtle differences between the low-budget chop-socky flicks turned out by the Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest. “When people ask me if I went to film school,” Tarantino once said, “I tell them, ‘no, I went to films.’”
He had a passion for cinema and an almost frightening gut-level understanding of how movies worked. And, as Peter Biskind put it in a 2003 Vanity Fair profile of Tarantino, “(he) could write like an angel, Richard Price on acid, providing a heady mix of B-movie attitude and nouvelle vogue cool…”
During his video store days he hammered out the screenplays for True Romance (1993) and Natural Born Killers (1994). In 1990, he landed a job at Cinetel, a production company, and when he couldn’t get Romance financed to make himself, his Cinetel contacts got the screenplay into the hands of director Tony Scott, who picked up the rights.
Scorsese’s first film had been the self-financed, little-seen indie, Who’s That Knocking On My Door? (1967), and his second feature was a hunk of drive-in fodder for low-budget king Roger Corman called Boxcar Bertha (1972). Scorsese’s career didn’t break big until Mean Streets the following year. But high school drop-out Tarantino had hit the big time while still in his 20s with that first sale to a major director.
Two years later, he made his directorial debut with Reservoir Dogs. Scott’s rendering of True Romance followed the year after that, and provocateur Oliver Stone added to Tarantino’s cachet with one of the most controversial releases of 1994, Natural Born Killers. That same year, Tarantino entrenched himself indelibly as one of the enfants terrible of the ‘90s indie scene with his second directorial effort, Pulp Fiction. The film copped seven Oscar nominations and a win for Tarantino and co-writer Roger Avary for Best Original Screenplay.
Like Mean Streets, for all the buzz Reservoir Dogs had generated, it hadn’t been a particularly big hit, or much of a hit at all, pulling in less than $3 million. But Pulp Fiction was a monster, grossing $108 million domestic, and nearly doubling that worldwide, against a budget of just $8 million. For years, Pulp Fiction, the first indie to cross the $100 million box office barrier, would hold the record as highest-earning indie release.
In contrast, it took Scorsese three decades to hit the magic $100 million number. Prior, he’d done no better than moderate hits, and had actually produced a fair number of duds like New York, New York ($16.4 million against a budget of $14 million), and King of Comedy ($2.5 million/$20 million). Even some of his most memorable works were no better than mid-rangers. Goodfellas, for example, had done a respectable but hardly towering $47 million; Taxi Driver did $28 million (roughly equivalent for its time); and Raging Bull had been considered something of a stiff, earning $23 million against an $18 million budget. In fact, until the early 2000s, Scorsese’s biggest hits hadn’t been his more personal films, but his gun-for-hire gigs: The Color of Money (1986) at $52 million; the remake of Cape Fear at $79 million. It wasn’t until The Aviator that Scorsese finally turned in a big earner ($102 million).
Early success turned out to be a double-edged sword for Tarantino. He followed Pulp Fiction with his first non-original project, Jackie Brown (1997), an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch. While Jackie Brown was Tarantino’s homage to grindhouse era blaxploitation flicks, it also turned out to be his most — for lack of a better word — human effort. It lacks — to its credit — the video store sensibility underpinning all of his other work, and has, reflectively, been considered one of his most overlooked and underappreciated efforts.
It was also rated — quite unfairly — a flop. Jackie Brown earned $40 million against a budget of $12 million, which is an ROI any producer would be happy with. But judged against the high orbit performance of Pulp Fiction, it looked like a loser…maybe even in Tarantino’s eyes. Biskind quotes a Tarantino associate as saying, “I think he (Tarantino) thinks he fucked up.”
It’s easy to look at Tarantino in the years after Jackie Brown and judge him to be a guy who couldn’t come up with the answer to, “ What do I do now? ” He wrote, working on the scripts for Inglourious Basterds and the Kill Bills; he palled around with friend and fellow filmmaker Robert Rodriguez in Rodriguez’ home ground of Austin, hanging out with film geeks and running mini-film festivals of obscure video-store-back-shelf directors, and he pursued another of the passions of his youth — acting — although judging by the pasting he took from critics as the villain in a Broadway revival of Wait Until Dark, it was hardly one of his strong suits. He seemed to be doing everything but make another film.
The perceived failure of Jackie Brown may have left him gunshy. Biskind quotes a Tarantino friend as saying, “He doesn’t trust himself as an artist to be able to make something that is not popular.” And, from Uma Thurman: “(Quentin) was waiting for something to be extraordinary, something he could top himself with, to pull him out of his house.” It would be six years before another Quentin Tarantino movie hit theaters.
This is not to say that Scorsese, in contrast, was one to respond to disappointments with Tibetan monk-like philosophical equanimity. Hardly. Biskind, in his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, reports Scorsese reacting to box office duds like New York, New York and Raging Bull with self-medication, therapy, failed relationships, violent outbursts. Yet the ever-obsessive Scorsese, even while still choking on the commercial failure of one film, seemed to already be chasing his next one, typically a project just as risky and daring as the one which had just withered and died at the box office. Within the six years after his first and biggest failure — New York, New York — Scorsese turned out the rock documentary The Last Waltz the following year in 1978, Raging Bull in 1980, and The King of Comedy in 1983. Though highly respected now, at the time they were, in fact, a string of box office duds which extended into 1985 with After Hours. It was a losing streak Scorsese didn’t break until 1986’s The Color of Money.
When Tarantino did come back with the Kill Bills, it was with an even stronger commitment to the hyperbolic grindhouse/graphic novel sensibility which had flavored Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. It was not just a matter of the filmmaker turning for his comfort zone, but an acknowledgment that this was where his fan base lived. Biskind quotes another Tarantino friend: “Quentin has always felt that his core audience is adolescents, geeky boys.”
Tarantino held fast to that sensibility thereafter through Grindhouse, the 2007 homage to the films of his video store clerk days done in collaboration with Robert Rodriguez; and Inglourious Basterds, his biggest commercial hit ($120.5 million), and a critical triumph. Inglourious received eight Academy Award nomination,s including Best Picture and — for Tarantino himself — Best Screenplay, his first Oscar nods since Pulp Fiction. After the so-so returns of Kill Bill (Parts 1 & 2 grossed a combined $136 million against a combined $60 million budget) and a flop with Grindhouse ($25 million against $67 million), Basterds seemed a confident reclaiming of his King of the Indies status.
It is that sensibility — more than temperament, more than style, more than career course — which is the defining difference between the two filmmakers.
Back in the mid-1990s, filmmaker/author John Sayles was interviewed by Entertainment Weekly for one of those what’s-wrong-with-the-movie stories they do periodically (again, I hope I’m not misremembering something from an article I can’t run down). Sayles was comparing the filmmakers who’d come up in the 1960s/1970s with the following generation, using Scorsese as an example of the former. Though he didn’t mention Tarantino by name, I couldn’t help, based on the thrust of his comment, but think at the time Tarantino was at least one of the filmmakers Sayles had in mind.
Sayles said something to the effect that the difference between the generations was Scorsese made movies inspired by what he saw on the New York streets from his apartment window, while the new, young breed of filmmakers made movies inspired by Martin Scorsese movies.
Tarantino talks of “the movie-movie universe, where movie conventions are embraced, almost fetishized (i.e. Kill Bill), as opposed to the other universe where Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs take place, in which reality and movie conventions collide,” but, with the exception of Jackie Brown, there’s actually very little reality in any of his movies. The only difference between Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, and the likes of Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds, is one of degree, not nature.
The hoods and tough-as-nails situations and brutal/comedic dialogue of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction offer a patina of at-first-glance Mean Streets realism, but that’s all it is: a veneer. They don’t have so much in common with Mean Streets as they do with Sin City, the 2005 neo-noir Frank Miller adapted from his own graphic novel, which was co-directed by Robert Rodriguez, Miller, and Tarantino (billed as “special guest director”).
Sin City — like its source material — mimics, in high style, the visual tropes of noir, but in its hyperbolic characters and story-telling, it misses the heart of what post-war noir was all about. True noir was not the freak show Sin City is, but was often about how one misstep, one bad break, one lapse in judgment could take Joe (or Joan) Anybody down a domino fall of faulty remedies and cover-ups which only made bad situations tragically, lethally worse. Fed on post-war disillusionment, noir was all about there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-you. Sin City, on the other hand, is a universe which can only exist on Miller’s pages and their screen offspring.
Tarantino’s crime films are the same. They ape the tough, streety tropes of Scorsese, but, at heart, they’re confections — comic books for young adult males inspired by a thousand nights of grindhouse grotesques and cheap drive-in thrills, Mix Mastered into Tarantino’s own, unique funny/scary/suspenseful/gag-inducing puree. The situations and characters may be more familiar than the sword-wielding assassins of Kill Bill, but like the denizens of Kill Bill, they cease to exist once the projector closes down.
What makes them work is Tarantino’s utter conviction in their reality, however unreal they may be. Tarantino is like a kid playing Let’s Pretend; in that moment of pretending, the most outlandish scenarios — fighting off monsters, taking Pork Chop Hill — are, for that kid, real. It’s Tarantino’s sincerity in his craziness that makes the crazy play, backed by an awesome ability with actors (he’s probably resuscitated more veteran actors’ careers than rehab), a gift for clever plotting, and the ability to make his “fuck”-filled dialogue play on the ears like great rock ‘n’ roll.
I’m not arguing who’s the better filmmaker. These are both tremendously talented guys, but despite the linkage film writers built between them at the beginning of Tarantino’s career, they are talented in distinct, separate ways. Scorsese is the baker telling you the difference between French and Italian pastry, while Tarantino is explaining why Hostess cupcakes are better than Tastycake’s. It’s not a question of “better”; it’s a question of taste.
What’s undeniable, in Scorsese’s case — and he has the benefit of a fifty-odd year career to make the point for him — is that he has created a lasting body of respected work, and that he remains a vital, exploratory filmmaker at an age when most directorial careers are slowing down, if they haven’t died completely. Hell, considering the changes in the American movie industry over the course of his career combined with his own rises and falls, Scorsese should get a special Oscar just for surviving this long.
Tarantino’s place in the American film canon is still an open question. He may very well wind up like one of his idols — Howard Hawks — in that he finds a comfortable, clearly defined niche, settles in there, and mines it comfortably for the course of his career. Which, as Hawks showed, is not necessarily a bad thing. Cautionary note: by the time Hawks remade Rio Bravo (1959) for the second time as Rio Lobo (1970), he was also showing how getting too comfortable in a niche could lead to staleness, to a dulling feeling of this-feels-awfully-familiar. We’ll have to wait and see.
In the meantime, there’s always been room for both breeds of filmmaker in the American mainstream: the artist who sometimes manages to also entertain, and the entertainer who sometimes manages to create art.
- Bill Mesce
For more on Bill Mesce’s writing, pick up Idols, Icons, and Illusions and Reel Change: The Changing Nature of Hollywood, Hollywood Movies, and the People Who Go to See Them. Both paperback editions are available on Amazon.
Bad Boy Robert Mitchum and the Soul of a Poet
A Look Back at the Career of Robert Mitchum
The title of Lee Server’s acclaimed 2002 biography, Robert Mitchum: Baby I Don’t Care (MacMillan), offers a perfect encapsulation of the eponymous actor: a hard-partying Hollywood Bad Boy who didn’t give a damn what moralizing finger-waggers thought of him, or what his peers in the movie business thought, or the press, or even the public. He was going to go his own way and to hell with you, and anyone positioning themselves to make strong objection was just as likely to get a punch in the nose as shown the actor’s broad back. He worked hardest at conveying the idea that the thing he did for a living – acting – was also the thing he cared least about; an impression that may have been his most convincing performance.
The Bad Boy part of Mitchum’s reputation was honestly come by. As a youth, he’d been booted from more than one school, hoboed around the country, boxed (thus his distinctive battered pug’s profile), and even done time on a southern chain gang. It was a background which left him with a rebellious, take-no-guff streak he never lost, even as a movie star. Two years after his star-making turn in Out of the Past (1947), he was famously busted for marijuana possession and even did a few months at a California prison farm (the conviction was eventually overturned although this wasn’t the same thing as Mitchum being innocent; he did smoke grass and continued to do so well into his AARP years). On 1955’s Blood Alley, he threw a crew member into San Francisco Bay. In 1968, as public opinion swung against the Vietnam War, Mitchum was advocating a policy of, “Nuke ‘em all.” In 1983, promoting the miniseries The Winds of War, Mitchum got into hot water for making anti-Semitic remarks, then refused to apologize even though they were made in jest and the actor had a number of close Jewish friends. According to Server’s book, the actor smoked to his dying day—literally — although he was suffering from emphysema and lung cancer.
Sometimes his rebelliousness could take on a noble hue according to Jean Simmons, his co-star on 1952’s Angel Face, and her then-husband, Stewart Granger, both of whom told the tale in the 1987 documentary series, Hollywood, the Golden Years: The RKO Story.
Mitchum had a scene calling for him to slap Simmons across the face. The actor — who was often quite courtly around his female co-stars — tried to fake the slap. Autocratic director Otto Preminger demanded Mitchum slap Simmons for real, then called for take after take. As Simmons’ face began to swell from the repeated blows, Mitchum decided enough was enough, turned and gave Preminger a how-does-it-feel slap across his face. The infuriated director stormed up to RKO’s executive offices and demanded Mitchum be fired from the picture. At the time, Mitchum was the closest thing the floundering RKO had to an honest-to-God marquee-value star and it was explained to the director that if anybody was going to leave the picture, it was going to be Preminger.
But the actor had a softer side as well, one few saw. He wrote – and recorded — a variety of music including an oratorio produced by Orson Welles at the Hollywood Bowl. He collected quarter horses. His four-time leading lady Deborah Kerr told of Mitchum reciting self-penned poetry to her during the shooting of The Sundowners (1960). Dwight Whitney, in a 1969 TV Guide piece, sensed this something else buried behind the actor’s defiantly disinterested front, writing that somewhere inside Mitchum “…lies imprisoned the soul of a poet.”
As for the indolence Mitchum affected and often bragged about, and his feigned indifference to his profession (“Movies bore me, especially my own”), this, too, was true – Sidney Pollock, his director on The Yakuza (1974) compared him to “an extremely powerful but lazy workhorse” — but only to a point. In his tenure at RKO from the mid-1940s well into the 1950s, this “lazy” actor was a studio reliable, often pumping out several films each year, once even working on three films simultaneously. Despite making noises several times in his later years about retiring, he kept appearing on either the big or little screen nearly every year of his life.
He would say he only made movies for the money, or to meet sexy women, or to score pot, and certainly bland time-killers like Young Billy Young (1969), The Good Guys and the Bad Guys (1969), The Wrath of God (1972), The Amsterdam Kill (1977), and Breakthrough (1979) – to name just a very few – seemed to substantiate his point. But despite claiming he just “took what came and made the best of it,” he also regularly gravitated to artistically ambitious projects and their demanding directors i.e. The Night of the Hunter (1955) and Charles Laughton; Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) and John Huston; The Sundowners and Fred Zinneman; Ryan’s Daughter (1970) and David Lean. The Blood Alley incident notwithstanding, more typically he was a no-fuss-no-muss performer, on time, not only knowing all his lines but usually the lines of everyone else. “I’ve survived,” he once said, “because I work cheap and don’t take up too much time.”
Stylistically, he was, in many ways, the first “modern” movie actor which is why his performances still hold up decades later. He didn’t look like other actors of his time and certainly not like those of the generation before, didn’t sound like them, didn’t move like them. What one actor did with a sob, he did with a small sigh; where another actor needed a few lines, Mitchum could give the same sense with a slight shrug. Look at his breakthrough performance in The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) as a WW II infantry officer during the meat grinder Italian campaign. Sitting over the letters he’s writing to families on behalf of the dead, his broad shoulders sag just a little, his deep, slow voice gets a fraction deeper and slower — “I know it ain’t my fault that they get killed,” he tells war correspondent Ernie Pyle (Burgess Meredith), “but it makes me feel like a murderer” — and that’s all it takes to convey a man both bone-weary and heartsick over the letters he’s written today, and the letters he knows he’ll be writing tomorrow, and the day after that and on and on.
His battered boxer’s looks, a voice that could seductively purr or fall into a thick, liquory rasp, his hooded eyes looking down from atop a massive chest combined to give him an intimidating physical presence more lithely athletic actors – Fairbanks, Gable, Flynn, Lancaster – didn’t have. He was threatening in a way they weren’t, and, more than that, there was something unmistakably carnal about him. The sight of Mitchum, his bare skin gleaming with swamp water, shot in a severe up-angle by director J. Lee Thompson in Cape Fear (1962), his lazy eyes gleaming as he stalks Gregory Peck’s daughter in the Georgia backwoods is a portrait of something primordial, of a walking, lusting, unrestrained id.
“Up there on the screen,” he once said, “you’re thirty feet wide, your eyeball is six feet high…” That in mind, few actors of his time understood, as he did, the value of stillness on the screen. He seemed fully aware of how much presence he radiated, how little he had to do to pull focus: a nod of the head, a raised eyebrow accompanied by the slightest dip in his voice. He walked off with Cape Fear, taking it away from star (and producer) Gregory Peck; not an inconsiderable feat considering Peck would win the Best Actor Oscar the next year for To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). Mitchum has a scene in a bar sitting across from Peck as he explains the why and how behind his vindictive campaign to destroy Peck and his family. The heart of the scene is two long, almost uninterrupted takes – a near-monologue done in close-ups. Watch his puffy eyes switch from sadistic glee to ice-cold hate, the lazy drawl of his voice slide from malicious amusement to blatant threat. The adjustments are incredibly small, yet laser-focused enough to burn a hole through the screen. In the light-hearted Western El Dorado (1966), using the same economical style, he was one of the few actors who could hold the screen against the iconic John Wayne. He found the humor in Leigh Brackett’s spry script without ever overtly playing to the joke. In a scene largely crafted by himself, he plays against his own he-man lady killer image as he sits in a bath embarrassed by the woman friend who must pass through the room, pulling a hat down low over his head, covering his face with his hands and muttering, “I’ll close my eyes.”
Throughout his career, he worked across the spectrum of genres, although never as prolifically as he did during his years at RKO: Westerns both period (Blood on the Moon, 1948) and contemporary (The Lusty Men, 1952), war movies (One Minute to Zero, 1952), dramas (Till the End of Time, 1946), romantic comedies (A Holiday Affair, 1949), but making his biggest impression in a series of film noirs which, in the late 1940s/early 1950s, had become the troubled studio’s mainstay.
Characteristically, Mitchum talked them down, saying, “RKO made the same film with me for ten years. They were so alike I wore the same suit in six of them and the same Burberry trench coat.” Nevertheless, he was anointed a leading man – and created a never-forgotten noir icon – in Out of the Past (1947). That would be how the young Mitchum would be remembered, in his fedora and trench coat, a smoldering cigarette dangling from his lips. There had been noirs before Mitchum, and there’d be a long parade of noirs with and without Mitchum after Out of the Past, but the movie and Mitchum’s Jeff Bailey became the genre’s gold standard. Addicted to one of noir’s most toxic femme fatales (Jane Greer), Bailey is doomed and knows it, is resigned to it, scratches around for whatever little triumph he can find amidst his ruination. When Greer frets, “I don’t want to die!” Mitchum’s Bailey replies in that resigned, prosaic way only Mitchum could, “Neither do I, baby, but if I have to, I’m gonna die last.”
Because he made so many indifferent movies, and his style was so minimalist, the precision of his work was often missed; Mitchum bios often use the words “underrated” and “underappreciated.” But he never walked through a film (though he would often say otherwise), and in even some of his weaker movies he showed a depth he was rarely given credit for. Not as a Stranger (1955) was a forgettable Noble Young Doctor sudser, but Mitchum still has his moments. In his best one, he stands over an operating table, having failed to save the life of the older doctor (Charles Bickford) who has been his doting father-like mentor. Cloaked in a surgeon’s cap and mask, Mitchum has nothing to work with but his eyes, but he offers up two, bottomless abyssals of heartbreak.
In the first years after he left the RKO stable, he produced a gallery of solid work ranging from “merely” entertaining (The Enemy Below, 1957) to notable (The Sundowners; Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison; Home from the Hill, 1960), but chief among them were two Villain-Hall-of-Fame-caliber performances in The Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear.
Mitchum would often say his Reverend Harry Powell in Night of the Hunter was his favorite role, and understandably so. To truly understand his performance is to be impressed with its deftness for Charles Laughton, in his only directorial effort, is not rendering reality, but a child’s fairy tale complete with guardian angel (Lillian Gish) and boogie man. Mitchum smoothly morphs from fire-and-brimstone preacher showing the battle between Good and Evil with locked fingers tattooed “Love” and “Hate,” to something less than human skulking in the shadows of Gish’s yard as he stalks two children in her charge, howling like a wounded animal when he’s sent running by a blast from feisty Gish’s shotgun.
The Night of the Hunter has always had more artistic stature than Cape Fear, but the latter is surely the more viscerally delicious watch. The best way to measure Mitchum’s portrayal of total depravity as vengeful convicted rapist Max Cady is to run it up against Robert De Niro’s take on the same character in Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake. Brilliant though De Niro can be, his busy performance, his spindly form, his cartoonish southern accent are outgunned by Mitchum’s stillness, his Tiger tank massiveness, his lazy, raspy drawl: “I got somethin’ planned for your wife and kid that they ain’t nevah gonna forget. They ain’t nevah gonna forget it…and neither will you, Counseluh! Nevah!” One IMDB poster commenting on both performances put it best: “Robert De Niro acted scary, Robert Mitchum was scary. Makes all the difference in the world.”
By the 1960s, a middle-aged Mitchum was getting saggier in the jaw line and thick in the middle, and the memorable roles now came few and far between. Though he’d continue to appear in film and TV shows into the year of his death, his best late-career performances came in the 1970s with three aces in a row: The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), The Yakuza, and Farewell, My Lovely (1975). The paunchy Mitchum was perfect for the rumpled Philip Marlowe in Farewell; he could’ve been playing a worn-out, older version of one of his 1950s noir characters. And director Sidney Pollock managed to get the best out of his lazy workhorse in the Japan-set Yakuza, with Mitchum as a man caught between conflicting loyalties and cultures, his still broad shoulders sagging under the weight of the unintended damage he inflicted on a Japanese family during the post-WW II occupation. Mitchum’s Harry Kilmer is nearly broken by the wrongs he cannot right, and the despair of trying to find an honorable end to a tragedy which seems only to compound with each attempt to do so.
But the best of the lot – and one of his all-time great performances – was as Eddie “Fingers” Coyle, a bottom-tier Boston hood who has spent most of his life “…watchin’ other people go off to Florida while I’m sweatin’ out how I’m gonna pay the plumber.” There may be no better portrait of life at the lowest levels of organized crime, and his Eddie Coyle is at once reprehensible yet pitiable, a small-timer victimized by big-timers, double-dealing Feds, and his own bad luck.
Mitchum worked so long – over a half-century – and made so many movies that even after stripping out the misfires and the duds, one is still left with a sizable body of impressive work representing every stage of his career, and a gallery of some of the most memorable characters in the American film canon. Not bad for an actor who never claimed more than minimal talent or interest in his profession, pretending he’d more-or-less walked through his career, a 50-odd year journey of which he said, “I never changed anything, except my socks and my underwear.”
- Bill Mesce
‘Weathering With You’ Isn’t Quite the Storm It Wanted to Be
Makoto Shinkai’s Weathering With You delivers a gorgeous film that doesn’t quite resonate as much as it wanted to.
Climate change and global warming have been topics of concern and discussion for years now, with melting ice caps and rising ocean temperatures being some of many signs. Director Makoto Shinkai — acclaimed the world over for his 2016 work Your Name — aims to show just how at the mercy humans are to the weather with his newest animated film, Weathering With You. Although he presents a visually stunning depiction of Mother Nature in all her various moods, Weathering With You ultimately lacks the storming power it seeks to bear upon its audience.
Tokyo has been having a particularly rainy year, seeing precipitation almost every day and nary a sight of the sun or clear blue skies. It’s during this unusual time that high school boy Hodaka arrives in the metropolis seeking escape from the suffocating life he had on his island. The young teenager naturally has trouble finding his bearings on his own in the oftentimes unforgiving hustle and bustle of the city. It’s in these early scenes that Weathering With You has some of its strongest moments, depicting the uglier side of Japanese society not often seen in anime, while also highlighting Hodaka’s strength of character to make it on his own.
As Hodaka gradually carves out his own place in the city, he eventually has an encounter with a young girl named Hina. Matching her sunny and cheerful disposition, Hina has the ability to make it stop raining and have the sunshine in very localized spots by praying to the sky. In a place where the rain never ceases, it’s easy to see why Hodaka latches onto Hina to use for the greater good (while also making a little pocket change along the way).
“The hand-drawn rain is downright mesmerizing in all its forms — fierce and calm — while the sunshine that follows seems to hang in the air caught by the leftover humidity.”
Gloomy skies and damp grounds can take their toll on one’s mood and psyche, which someone who lives in such a climate can surely relate to. Even the briefest moments of sunshine revitalize us and give a glimpse of the “light at the end of the tunnel.” Hodaka and Hina’s “100% Sunshine Girl” services to those in need of that light boldly underscore that fact, and make for a strong argument for how the weather affects us all beyond its objective physicality, along with providing some much-appreciated levity to the story.
That power of weather is beautifully illustrated by CoMix Wave Films’ stupendous animation efforts. The hand-drawn rain is downright mesmerizing in all its forms — fierce and calm — while the sunshine that follows seems to hang in the air, caught by the leftover humidity. Tokyo itself isn’t to be outdone either, with its streets running the gamut between peaceful neighborhoods to grimy and dark back alleys with dilapidated buildings. The animation is punctuated by the return of Japanese band RADWIMPS, who create numerous memorable tracks to complement the wild swings in mood that weather can elicit.
That makes it all the more unfortunate, however, that the greater narrative is so weak.
The progression of Weathering With You is made painfully obvious right from the outset of the story — so much so that it’s hard to wonder if it’s actually the set-up for a bait-and-switch. As a result, much of the first half of the film is simply waiting for the other shoe to drop, making it difficult to really settle in and become intimate with its characters.
This would be less of an issue if the cast had smaller interactions that were a delight to watch, but they fall short in that regard as well. All of the characters have a charm to them for sure — with Hina’s younger elementary school brother, Nagi, putting modern playboys to shame being a particular standout — but the story never quite makes a compelling case as to why they are as close as they are, especially Hina and Hodaka. They’re fun enough to watch be together, but don’t quite make that emotional attachment with the viewer that the story wants to create.
That lack of an emotional connection is distinctly felt in Weathering With You’s second act, when unnecessary confrontations and bizarre plot directions converge to create an artificial sense of stakes amidst a central conflict that would have been fine on its own. What’s meant to strengthen the impression of the characters’ bonds instead cheapens it, undermining the already faulty progress the first half did make. The result is a narrative that’s hard to care about, although its ending does leave the viewer with some potentially interesting questions to ponder.
Weathering With You is far from a bad movie, however. It has a clear direction and vision with a message to say about our climate crisis. The characters are endearing enough, and there are a handful of heartfelt scenes because of that. It also cannot be understated just how drop-dead gorgeous the animation is. The story, however, is simply too straightforward for its own good, resulting in an experience that is at times enjoyable, and at others plain boring.
And that’s only when being judged in a vacuum on the movie’s own merits. When compared to Shinkai’s recent masterpiece that is Your Name, it’s hard to see Weathering With You as anything but a disappointing follow-up. That’s perhaps the film’s greatest weakness, but fortunately, it’s one that Shinkai’s next work won’t have, and we can still look forward to it because of that fact.
Let’s Remember Why ‘Tremors’ is a Beloved Cult Hit
The monster movie that breaks new ground.
Tremors, 30 Years Later
Thirty years ago, this week, one of the best films of 1990 was released.
Tremors didn’t make a big splash in theaters. The film ended up grossing $16,667,084 at the domestic box office, which while making a profit due to its $11 million budget, was still below projected numbers. To be fair, this was a film about carnivorous subterranean worms— and it didn’t help that it was dumped in the cold of winter during what is arguably the slowest time of the year for the box office. Thankfully, however, Tremors found a second life on VHS where it became one of home video’s biggest success stories. More importantly, Tremors become a beloved cult hit.
Much has been said about the cast of Tremors which I’ll get to shortly, but what stood out the most watching it again, is the screenplay from S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock, who both previously penned Short Circuit and Batteries Not Included. Sure, Tremors is a B movie, but it also boasts a tightly-knit script in which every scene; every action; every story beat; and every line of dialogue sets up a chain of events that gives every character a motive and reason to react the way they do. And despite one poorly executed sequence (I’m referring to the pole-vaulting montage), Tremors is a lean, mean movie without an ounce of fat to be found anywhere else.
The plot isn’t complex per se, but there’s something oddly comforting in the simplicity of it all. Tremors takes place in the Nevada desert near a small town called Perfection with a population of only 14 residents who are left to defend themselves against the deadly subterranean creatures. It’s the perfect setting for a monster film since the town itself is isolated. And with only one road leading to civilization, the openness of the desert landscape enhances the desolation of it all. And since the town of Perfection is so far removed from the rest of society, it soon becomes clear that nobody will ever come and save them. Instead, the townsfolk must work together; overcome the odds, and destroy the creatures. And when that fails, they must attempt to scale the rocky mountaintop where the worms are unable to travel underground. It’s getting there that becomes the problem.
Val and Earl
At the heart, and at the center of the eccentric cast of characters is Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward playing Valentine McKee and Earl Bass, a pair of modern-day cowboys working as handymen who become would-be heroes when they stumble upon the shock-sensitive killer worms. Over the years, the two actors have become less renowned for their comedic roles, but Tremors if anything, showcases their talent and range. And while Kevin Bacon with his sexy smile and pretty boy looks is by far the biggest star; it’s their irresistible chemistry that brings their characters to life. They make such a great comedic team and if you replaced Ward with any other actor at the time, there’s no guarantee that Tremors would have been this much fun to watch.
In fact, the two actors work so well together that Fred Ward provides a much better foil for Kevin Bacon than Finn Carter’s Rhonda, a.k.a. the underwritten love interest who is assigned to travel to the town and monitor the seismology readings in the desert. Not long after Rhonda arrives, the people in the town start disappearing – or worse, they end up dead, leaving very little time to establish any chemistry between her and Val— thus making the big kiss, in the end, feel a little out-of-place. But don’t blame the screenplay writers— the original ending of Tremors featured Val and Earl riding off into the sunset, with no hint at any potential romance between Val and Rhonda. Unfortunately, test audiences were not pleased and somehow the producers convinced the filmmakers to quickly reshoot the final scene— just another one of many examples of why studios should not rely on any focus group to provide feedback. In the end, the love interest feels somewhat lost in the shuffle.
The Gummer Family
It doesn’t take long before it becomes apparent that there’s something unnatural roaming the desert and feeding on human flesh. Once Rhonda checks her readings and determines that the threat is coming from underground, Tremors begins to slowly open up and introduce us to the supporting cast which includes Reba McEntire and Michael Gross as the Gummer family, a pair of overzealous, gun-crazy survivalists. McEntire and Gross are so good here, they essentially steal the spotlight from the rest of the cast. In one of their most memorable scenes, the two are forced to take shelter in their basement and defend themselves against one of the giant man-eating worms— and just when it looks like they are going to run out of ammunition, the camera pans left to reveal the bunker holds enough guns and firepower to accommodate a small army. It’s just one of many examples of how Tremors takes a simple concept and maximizes it for full effect.
As much as Tremors is remembered today for the performances of Bacon and Ward, it’s the work of the entire cast that brings the movie to life. It really is great casting considering the small budget, and everyone pulls their weight, serving up the quick-witted dialogue in a way that makes it all feel more natural– and yes that even includes Robert Jayne as the annoying teenage brat, Melvin Plug. I especially like the performance by Victor Wong, a character actor who had roles in films like 3 Ninjas and Big Trouble in Little China. Here he plays the ill-fated Walter Chang who is killed in a scene that features some of the film’s best special effects.
Director Ron Underwood
Tremors was the first movie Ron Underwood directed and by far his best. Now known as a go-to director for many successful TV shows, Underwood keeps things moving briskly and finds new clever ways to draw out tension with impressive camera work, especially the shots that show the point of view of the creatures as they stalk their victims. Along with Cinematographer Alexander Gruszynski, Underwood frames his exterior shots in a way that constantly reminds viewers how small the town is and how isolated it is. It’s also worth noting how difficult it is to shoot a horror movie outside in the middle of the desert where you can never truly escape the sunlight, and yet director Ron Underwood uses the setting to his advantage and frames his actors in such a manner that the landscape emits a general feeling of emptiness, which both mirrors the town’s small population and the people themselves who are desperate for a change.
Tremors evokes the populist spirit of ‘50s and ’60s B-movies without ever resorting to parody, nor does it ever feel familiar. Instead, Underwood reinvigorates its genre tropes with a finely balanced combination of horror and humor— and despite its tongue-in-cheek script, Underwood never allows it to venture into full-on camp. There is tension and suspense in every one of the action scenes and like many classics that came before it, Tremors focuses less on its oversized monsters and more on their victims and how these people react to attacks by these giant creatures. Even in the bright daylight, Tremors manages to create enough suspense to keep viewers at the edge of their seats.
Apart from taking inspiration from classic monster movies, Tremors owes a lot to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws— so much so, that the original title for Tremors was actually Land Sharks. Much like how the shark in Jaws travels underwater while stalking its prey, in Tremors, the 30-foot-long carnivorous worms known as Graboids, travel underground. And like Jaws (arguably the quintessential B movie), the creatures in Tremors are rarely seen. Instead, the largely invisible creatures can burrow fast enough to devour the entire town if given the opportunity— making them deadly and genuinely menacing.
Another clever inclusion by the screenplay writers was the idea to have these Graboids respond to seismic vibrations. While blind and unable to track their prey’s scent, they do have acute hearing, which means any slight movement or sound can cost you your life. In arguably the best scene of the entire film, Kevin Bacon’s Val is left to stand completely still and silent while the worm-like creatures who circle his feet reveal their razor-sharp fangs as they desperately search for their next victim.
It’s a credit to the creature design that I never once questioned the reality of the Graboids. Along with a team of over 50 visual effects wizards, the filmmakers were able to bring their creations to life with a mix of old school prosthetics, animatronics, and computer-generated imagery. Tremors may be at times funny, but this isn’t the sort of film that has viewers pointing at the screen and laughing at obviously cheesy effects. Make no mistake about it: the monster effects by Tom Woodruff and Alec Gillis (who previously worked on Alien and The Terminator) is truly impressive, especially given the limited budget they had to work with.
The one and only aspect of Tremors that I’ve never liked was the music heard at the start and at the end of the film. To my surprise, I later learned that composer Ernest Troaost’s musical score for the film went mostly unused since the studio didn’t like it and, later they hired composer Robert Folk to write a new score. Only a few of Troost’s country-themed songs made it into the final cut and sure enough, they are the songs I dislike. That said, Folk’s compositions perfectly match the visuals and heighten the suspense during the film’s most action-packed scenes.
Tremors wasn’t in any way groundbreaking since it borrowed liberally from many other monster movies, yet somehow the film became such a hit, that it spawned four direct-to-video sequels (Tremors 2: Aftershocks, Tremors 3: Back to Perfection, Tremors 5: Bloodlines and Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell)— a direct-to-video prequel (Tremors 4: The Legend Begins), and even a television series. More so, the success of Tremors resulted in many copycats but none of them (save for James Gunn’s Slither) have been able to perfectly match the potent mixture of sharp dialogue, deadpan humour, and horror.
It’s easy to see why Tremors ultimately became a success and why it remains a fun and engaging experience, decades later. The plot is fully realized constantly keeping things exciting. It has plenty of spectacular set-pieces, thrilling action scenes, and plenty of quotable throwaway dialogue. Along with the charismatic cast, superb direction, great script and terrifyingly real effects, Tremors stands the test of time. Many have tried to match Tremors but most have ultimately come up short. Movies like this come around once every few years.
- Ricky D
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