Jose Alvaro Morais’s first feature, O bobo, winner of first prize at the Locarno film festival, is set during the onset of the right-wing backlash against the Portuguese revolution in 1978. A group of friends are staging a play adapted from Alexandre Herculano’s novel The Jester–a mythic romance built around scenes from Portuguese history–in the abandoned film studio Lisboa Filmes. The film alternates between scenes from the play and the intrigues among the friends who are putting it on–including the murder of the instigator of the project, whose body is discovered in the studio during the rehearsal of the final scene. Six years in the making, the film presupposes a certain knowledge of Portuguese culture and recent history that I don’t have; but though I occasionally found myself at sea in following all the significations, the beauty of the mise en scene and Mario de Carvalho’s photography, and the grace with which Morais negotiates between different time frames and modes of narration kept me entranced. Combining the meditative offscreen dialogue of a film like India Song with the use of a historical play to investigate national identity (as in Raul Ruiz’s Life Is a Dream), The Jester offers a complex, multilayered view of revolutionary retrenchment that is worthy of standing alongside some of the best films of Manoel de Oliveira. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday, July 22, 6:00, and Sunday, July 23, 1:00, 443-3737)
From the July 21, 1989 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
LET’S GET LOST
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Bruce Weber.
“Can you carry a tune? Is your time all right? Sing! If your voice has hardly any range, hardly any volume, shaky pitch, no body or bottom, no matter. If it quavers a bit and if you project a certain tarnished, boyish (not exactly adolescent, almost childish) pleading, you’ll make it. A certain kind of girl with strong maternal instincts but no one to mother will love you. You’ll make it. The way you make it may have little to do with music, but that happens all the time anyway.”
This is jazz critic Martin Williams 30 years ago in a Down Beat review of It Could Happen to You: Chet Baker Sings. By this time, the youthful Baker had already established a reputation as a jazz trumpeter of some promise, and later in the same review, Williams concedes that as an improvising musician, he has a “fragile, melodic talent” that is “his own,” even if he “has hardly explored it.” The same strictures might apply to Let’s Get Lost, Bruce Weber’s spellbinding (if simpleminded) black-and-white documentary about the life, times, and last days of Chet Baker. The movie has a number of things going for it, but music plays at best only an incidental role.
Deliberately or not, the film actually acknowledges this. Although we hear a great deal of Chet Baker’s singing and trumpet playing, it’s almost completely relegated to the status of dreamy background music; a talking head invariably takes over after a few bars, and the music — which seldom continues for the length of a whole solo, much less an entire number — is meant to function only as moody accompaniment to the gab in the foreground. (The only scene that contains a complete number shows Baker in close-up, at far from his best, singing “Almost Blue” at a Cannes nightclub in 1987, not long before his death at the age of 58.) We do hear snatches of Baker’s playing from much of his career, but curiously enough — or perhaps not so curiously — these snippets don’t include any of what most jazz aficionados would regard as his most important work, his strikingly innovative recordings with Gerry Mulligan’s pianoless quartet in 1952.
Listening to some of those sides recently, I was newly struck by their Spartan rigor. Without a pianist or guitarist feeding them chords, Mulligan and Baker — modernist in the bone-dry ironies of their solos and contrapuntal duets, yet traditionalist in their melodic sources — sound like the musical equivalent of tightrope walkers without a net. Set off by the gentle growls of Mulligan’s baritone sax, Baker’s trumpet, which was always a much richer instrument than his voice, combines some of the cushiony tone of Miles Davis with a lyricism harking back to Bix Beiderbecke; and if the overall range of invention is fairly narrow (as it always would be), there’s hardly a trace of the little-boy pathos that would later come to dominate his work. For all its deceptive simplicity, it doesn’t work as cocktail music or ambience, which is conceivably the reason Weber hasn’t included even a sample of it on his sound track; for better or for worse, one has to listen to this music straight, without mixers or chasers.
The obsession with Baker that permeates Let’s Get Lost has much more to do with his power as an icon than his talent as a musician. “He was bad — he was trouble and he was beautiful,” declares a female admirer early on in the movie, and this seems to sum up Weber’s infatuation as well. A clean-shaven Adonis who embodied many of the same 50s myths that circulated around James Dean (a comparison that was enhanced by Baker’s taste for fast- moving sports cars), and who still sang with an Elvis-like sneer when he appeared on Steve Allen’s TV show in 1968, Baker became a junkie early on, and the remainder of his life, as depicted by the film, was an endless string of speedballs, busts, relapses, deportations, broken relationships, and related vicissitudes. When Baker won first places in the Down Beat polls during his mid-20s –a s trumpet player in 1954 and 1955, and tying with Nat “King” Cole as best male singer in 1954 — he had arguably passed his peak already, but his image and legend kept him going for at least three more decades.
As jazz journalist Mike Zwerin put it, “The creases on his face multiplied and deepened and his lips turned in over the dentures he had worn since his teeth were knocked out by angry dealers in San Francisco. He began to resemble an old Indian, the last of a tribe that had seen a heap of suffering. He looked like he needed taking care of and he did and there were always people around to do it.”
By the time Weber came to make a movie about Baker, in 1987-88, his face resembled a relief map and his manner was that of a burnt-out hipster on his last go-round. The poignance in the difference between the Adonis and the human wreck that emerged from him is what the movie exalts and circles around in endless morbid fascination; and thanks to the spell exerted by Jeff Preiss’s noirish high-contrast photography and the background purrings of Baker himself, it is very difficult not to share the fascination. But sharing the fascination entails involvement in a romantic cult of personality that cheerfully acknowledges all of Baker’s many shortcomings — his wife-beating, for instance — without letting them interfere with an unbridled adoration of his persona.
As Pauline Kael (among others) has pointed out, the movie is fundamentally about Chet Baker the fetish, the love object, so it shouldn’t be surprising that it comes across as a personal scrapbook. There’s a striking disingenuousness in the way that Weber, offscreen, asks Baker’s mother, “Did he disappoint you as a son?” (”Yes,” she replies, “but let’s not go into that”); he virtually encourages some of Baker’s former wives and lovers to trash one another. Baker’s daughter by his third marriage recounts with visible relish stealing clothes and jewelry when she was 14 from the jazz singer Ruth Young, who supplanted her mother in Baker’s affections; Baker’s first two wives and eldest son declined to be in the film, but his third wife and at least three girlfriends are interviewed at length. Clips from a couple of dinky films that Baker appeared in — Hell’s Horizon (1955) and an unnamed Italian pop item of 1959 — as well as a Hollywood picture, All the Fine Young Cannibals (1960), allegedly inspired in part by his life, are offered reverently as supplementary objects for contemplation.
In his lengthy analysis of the appeal of Judy Garland to gay men in his book Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society, Richard Dyer places particular emphasis on Garland’s “emotional quality,” her vulnerability and suffering, her courage in continuing to perform publicly in spite of her many problems (”marriage, weight, drugs”), the ordinariness of her MGM image, her androgyny, and her expression of camp attitudes. With the exception of weight problems and camp attitudes, the sources of Baker’s appeal as a romantic image are nearly identical — so much so that when I originally saw Let’s Get Lost last fall at the Toronto film festival, I described it to friends as “The Judy Garland Story.”
Since then, Weber’s film has gone on to become an enormous cult success in New York, although I’ve seen little evidence that the cult in question is exclusively or even specifically gay. What this may suggest is the resurfacing of what could be described as a “gay sensibility” in mainstream terms — a phenomenon that is also apparent (albeit somewhat differently) in the undertones of recent hits like Rain Man, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Batman, where most of the significant erotic tensions exist between men rather than between men and women. Perhaps it’s a side-effect of the enormous wave of psychosexual repression brought about by AIDS in the populace as a whole, but it appears that homoeroticism has been assuming a centrality in mainstream culture and is only called into question when it is overtly perceived as “gay.”
Weber’s work as an art and fashion photographer and his previous film Broken Noses, a documentary about little boys in a boxing match, illustrates the same sensibility; the issue isn’t Weber’s sexual orientation or that of his audience, but the notion of what’s fashionable and alluring that informs his work. In some respects, Let’s Get Lost could be regarded as a dumb film about a less than brilliant individual, but this has so little relevance to its unmistakable appeal that I feel like a spoilsport for bringing it up. It’s certainly dumb, for instance, for the film to give us a vest-pocket history of stars appearing at the Cannes Film Festival over the years — a history justified solely by Baker’s appearance at a nightclub during the festival in 1987 (where he incidentally remarks on the noisiness and inattention of his audience). But emotionally and fetishistically speaking, the archival Cannes footage makes perfect sense because it helps to establish Baker as a Cannes star in his own right, right up there with Jean Cocteau and Brigitte Bardot — a star not because of his talent but because of the romantic investment that Weber has in his image, even in its degradation.
The film draws much of its appeal from the colorful gallery of friends, groupies, and diverse hangers-on (including a litter of adorable puppies) accompanying Baker and the film crew on his travels. Jazz trumpeter Jack Sheldon offers a couple of hilarious deadpan monologues about Baker, and Ruth Young — a singer, like Baker, in the Chris Connor/June Christy mode, and judging from the limited evidence a much better one than her former boyfriend — shows an equal amount of liveliness and intelligence; a few of the others have pertinent things to say as well, but most of the commentary is as walleyed and as bubbleheaded as the film itself — full of awe about very little, unless one confuses the idea of Chet Baker with Baker himself.
A decade ago Wim Wenders embarked on a related sort of project, when he and the late Nicholas Ray, who was dying of brain cancer after a comparably disheveled life, made a film about Ray’s last days entitled Lightning Over Water. While Ray was a much more important figure in film than Chet Baker was in jazz, his achievements were many years behind him when this filmic act of witness was undertaken; and even though Wenders’s attitude toward Ray as a spiritual father was every bit as romantic as Weber’s attitude toward Baker, the film didn’t deal with its subject in such a seductive way.
Stark, painful, and upsetting in both of its two released versions (the first of which is currently available on tape), Lightning Over Water was more an act of defiance than a tribute — on Ray’s part as well as Wenders’s — and it raised more questions than it answered, with none of the dreamy conceits that make Let’s Get Lost so appropriately titled. A failure almost by definition, it was nevertheless a serious effort that commanded respect and attention, if not love. Let’s Get Lost exudes as well as commands a great deal of love, but respect and attention are not what it has to offer.
Derek Jarman’s kaleidoscopic experimental film–a dark, poetic meditation on Thatcher England–is visionary cinema at its best. A work that manages to combine more than a half century of home movies of Jarman’s family, a documentary record of industrial and ecological ruin, and sustained looks at Jarman regulars Tilda Swinton and Spencer Leigh, the film was shot in Super-8, transferred to video for additional touches and processing, and then transferred to 35-millimeter. The results are often astonishing and spellbinding. Over an evocative narration by Jarman (which includes apocalyptic quotes from such poets as T.S. Eliot and Allen Ginsberg) and stirring uses of music and sound effects, images in black and white, sepia, and color explode and merge with mesmerizing intensity and build toward a powerful personal statement (1987). (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday and Sunday, July 15 and 16, 6:00, 443-3737)
From the Chicago Reader (July 7, 1989). — J.R.
GREAT BALLS OF FIRE
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed by Jim McBride
Written by Jack Baran and McBride
With Dennis Quaid, Winona Ryder, Alec Baldwin, John Doe, Lisa Blount, Stephen Tobolowsky, and Trey Wilson.
Given that Jim McBride’s film debut was a pseudodocumentary designed to look real (David Holzman’s Diary, 1968), and was followed by an actual diary film that was made to seem fictional (My Girlfriend’s Wedding, 1969), it should be no surprise that Great Balls of Fire, which purports to be a biopic of rock-and-roller Jerry Lee Lewis, is actually a musical-comedy fantasy about virtually imaginary characters.
For those who accept the a priori assumption that most movies are simply dreams and lies, this is only business as usual; in fact, in playing fast and loose with the facts McBride and his longtime collaborator Jack Baran are working in a grand tradition peopled by the makers of most other simpleminded Hollywood biopics. The difference here is that the falsity of their concoction is made nakedly apparent: at least two-thirds of the picture resembles a feature-length music video, patterned in some ways after the rock musicals of 30 years ago. Loving You (1957), the first Elvis Presley movie in color, is the prototype that comes to mind, although McBride and Baran give Great Balls of Fire (ostensibly based on the recent biography of the same name) a parodic gloss that contrasts with the relative innocence of what was probably Elvis’s best movie. (The principal trope they take from this form is the musical montage sequence showing the singer’s meteoric rise, with periodic cuts to the respective positions of his latest hits on the Billboard charts; but the other cliches are equally apparent.)
Unfortunately, this absence of innocence gives most of the movie a note of condescension that interferes with our belief in the characters — not only Jerry Lee Lewis himself, as played by Dennis Quaid, but also his 13-year-old bride Myra (Winona Ryder), his cousin Jimmy Swaggart (Alec Baldwin), and all the other principals. To his credit, McBride makes no bones about his focus being on the legend of Jerry Lee Lewis rather than his life, though it can be argued that (probably thanks to the pressures of test marketing and the ratings board) the movie isn’t faithful to the legend, either. While the movie can certainly be enjoyed as both a showcase for Lewis’s music (performed by Lewis and lip-synched by Quaid) and a limited stylistic exercise, its distance from its subject still takes an enormous toll.
One can perhaps get a better idea of what led to this impasse by considering Jim McBride’s checkered film career as a whole. It can more or less be divided — after a certain amount of boiling and scraping — into two parts: One part features McBride the underground, mainly New York-based independent (roughly 1967-’73), who received only marginal distribution while acquiring the reputation of a maverick for articulating a radical side of the 60s counter-culture that was unseen in Hollywood movies of the same period. The second part of McBride’s career features McBride the personal director working within the no less treacherous and decidedly less personal Hollywood mainstream (roughly 1974 to the present), making movies that are seen much more widely by people much less likely to identify his films with their director.
The films of McBride’s first period, all of which might be said to be part of an American offshoot of the French New Wave, are David Holzman’s Diary, My Girlfriend’s Wedding, Glen and Randa (1971), and Pictures From Life’s Other Side (1971). After a transitional film — a very funny soft-core sexploitation comedy called Hot Times (1974), with characters based on the leading figures in Archie comics — 12 years passed during which McBride worked on unfilmed projects and wrote the uncredited narration for the release version (i.e., the studio re-edit) of Samuel Fuller’s 1980 feature The Big Red One. Then, after this long stretch in the wilderness, McBride directed the three features for which he is best known today — Breathless (1983), The Big Easy (1987), and now Great Balls of Fire – as well as “The Once and Future King” (1986), a first-rate half-hour episode for The Twilight Zone made shortly before that TV series expired, about an Elvis impersonator magically meeting and eventually supplanting his idol back in 1954, the last McBride work that I’ve really liked.
There are certain constants that bridge both parts of McBride’s career — a humorously ironic and slightly off-kilter absorption in the everyday that revels in the exotic peculiarities of the commonplace; a Rabelaisian gusto in the depiction of sex and sexuality; and an attitude toward culture that seeks to extract the essence of a period in comic book terms. But there’s still a strong discontinuity between his two periods that’s pointed up by a steady drop in ambition and quality over the last three features.
As a longtime admirer and supporter of McBride’s earlier work, I’ve made a concerted effort to look at the bright side of this development. After all, audiences really responded to The Big Easy, and his work now reaches a public that is astronomically larger than it was in the 60s and 70s. It’s also clear that in order to reach this position, he’s had to make major adjustments in both his style and vision. But two successive and despairing looks at his new feature have convinced me that it is not only a bad film, but something rather close to a hateful one.
The disconcerting thing about Great Balls of Fire is that it’s getting so much promotion — much more than any of McBride’s previous pictures — yet it is conceivably the least contemporary movie he has ever made. Set between 1956 and 1958 (after a brief prologue in 1944), from the time when Jerry Lee Lewis first became famous to his first major setback (when he was deported from England because of his controversial marriage to his 13-year-old second cousin), the story seems to be taking place on another planet. Despite some fleeting indications of sensitivity and thoughtfulness in the script and direction, the distance between the movie and the milieu it depicts is so pronounced that when, in the last half hour, the film becomes momentarily “serious” and the characters finally need to be perceived as something other than caricatures, they simply aren’t there. McBride does manage to coax some striking comic mugging out of Winona Ryder (Beetlejuice, Heathers), which is particularly striking during Myra’s wedding ceremony — but this fails to contribute anything to the coherence of the character. And most likely due to restrictions imposed by the movie’s real-life models and its PG-13 rating, the sexual gusto of McBride’s earlier work, which gave even the relatively impersonal The Big Easy much of its appeal, is conspicuously toned down.
According to Murray Silver — who wrote Great Balls of Fire with Myra Lewis — the picture’s most glaring departures from reality concern Myra herself, as well as her parents, Lois Brown (Lisa Blount) and J.W. Brown (John Doe), Lewis’s onetime bass player and manager. The film makes no allusion, for instance, to the fact that Myra was raped at the age of 12, and that she married Lewis the following year, according to Silver, because she was afraid it was her only chance — that she was “damaged goods.” Silver objects in particular to the movie’s suggestion that Myra’s mother helped to foster the relationship which led to the marriage, as well as to the movie’s depiction of the couple’s wedding night, in which Jerry Lee angrily mutters, “You don’t move like no virgin.” It’s true that he later repents, proclaiming “I don’t care what you did before me,” but when he carries her off to the strains of “Tara’s Theme” from Gone With the Wind, the movie’s jeering attitude toward the inner lives of its characters — which simultaneously masks and accounts for its remoteness from the redneck milieu — is made especially apparent.
It could be argued that this cheerful contempt for the world (if not the music) of Jerry Lee Lewis, which regards every character as a geek, is more honest in some ways than the bogus “sincerity” of a biopic like Lady Sings the Blues, which undoubtedly wreaks as much havoc on the facts about Billie Holiday. No one seems to find the real-life Lewis very likable apart from his music, and in order to give him some charisma in the movie, McBride and his collaborators may have had to lessen the stature of the people he was associated with.
But the indifference to the “real” Jerry Lee Lewis isn’t the movie’s creation, either. Although I haven’t read either Silver’s book or Nick Tosches’s more fanciful account of his life, it appears that the interest in Lewis from the outset has been for “good copy” rather than facts or understanding. Silver claims that perhaps the most famous Lewis legend — piqued that Chuck Berry was scheduled to follow him in concert, Lewis set fire to his piano, declaring, “Top that, nigger!” — has no basis in fact. Faithful to the legend, the movie reproduces this episode, but then manages to remove about half its voltage by changing Lewis’s exit line to, “Follow that, killer!”
In fact, Lewis’s relation to his black influences is one of the many things that the movie shows some confusion about. In the prologue, little Jerry Lee crosses the railroad tracks in Ferriday, Louisiana, with his cousin Jimmy Swaggart to hear a black blues band playing in a shack for wildly gyrating dancers — a scene that is every bit as phony and cliched as the ones that follow. “Let’s get out of here!” says Swaggart. “It’s the devil’s music — I can feel it!” But Jerry Lee stays, and a dissolve from the black pianist’s left hand to Jerry Lee’s 12 years later makes the essential point about where much of Lewis’s music came from. (Later, a record producer defines Lewis’s piano style by saying, “You take a white right hand and a black left hand, and what have you got? Rock ‘n’ roll.”) This certainly improves on the glib all-white context given to Elvis in Loving You, but unfortunately, having made the point about Lewis’s musical origins, the movie can’t (or won’t) delve into his relations to black people beyond this point. (On two occasions, Lewis is seen driving past identical civil rights demonstrations, but the movie is careful not to offer even a clue to what Lewis thinks about this activity.)
McBride’s predilection for cultural detritus is everywhere apparent — in Jerry Lee and Myra’s compulsive taste for bubble gum and other pink objects (convertible, house, cotton candy), in allusions to Superman and the H-bomb, and even in one English journalist’s indignant defense of Liberace the “artiste” over Lewis’s boogie-woogie — but the studied ignorance about the various milieus involved makes these gags effective only in the crudest way possible, without a hint of genuine observation or nuance. Like the use of “Tara’s Theme,” these details usually point to the filmmakers’ feelings of superiority to what they’re showing — an attitude that would itself make some sense, however objectionable, if what they were showing didn’t seem so jerry-built and unconvincing. (The unanimous hostility of the London audience to Lewis is a case in point — a scene so lamely imagined and realized that one suspects even a Sam Katzman quickie like Don’t Knock the Rock would have handled it better.)
The best parts of the movie are the musical numbers, which enable McBride to take his greatest liberties with verisimilitude with the least amount of derision toward his subject and (more implicitly) his audience. He clearly enjoys Lewis’s style as a performer, which Quaid does a good job of imitating, and while I regret that the movie manages to leave out my favorite Jerry Lee Lewis number — his pile-driver version of “Mean Woman Blues,” which is even better than Elvis’s original recording — the sizzling climactic rendition of “Real Wild Child” helps to make up for it. Otherwise, when it comes to treating the rock ‘n’ roll and tacky Americana of roughly the same period, Hairspray has this movie beat by miles.
Directed by Jack Arnold and scripted by Ray Bradbury (though his hand isn’t readily apparent), this scary black-and-white SF effort from 1953 was shot in 3-D, and on occasion it’s shown that way. Richard Carlson and Barbara Rush star, and there’s a chilling cameo by an oversize extraterrestrial eye. 81 min. (JR)