Thursday, May 31, 2018

Audient Auteurs: Elaine May

This is my fourth month of Audient Auteurs, a 2018 series in which I watch two movies per month by a director whose work is unfamiliar to me. Yes, I skipped January.

We were spared four white men in a row, and three Frenchmen in a row, when my expected May target, Jacques Rivette, had one of his two movies disappear from Kanopy between when I first checked on it in April and now. Which is just as well, because a) that movie was nearly four hours long, and b) it allowed us to finally bring a woman (not to mention an American) into the series.

Elaine May was not one of three women I had on my original shortlist, however. Those other three -- Agnes Varda, Chantal Akerman and Lina Wertmuller -- have all been presenting me difficulties on the sourcing front, though I should be able to get Varda at least in a month or two when Faces Places becomes available for rent. May actually came to mind as an afterthought. She is the second straight month of something, as she follows our April auteur, Robert Bresson, as another subject of a recent marathon on the Filmspotting podcast.

May's much smaller filmography as director -- she made only four features -- made me originally question whether she was appropriate for this series. But hey, if she's good enough for Filmspotting, she's good enough for me. And when I could find one of her movies on Kanopy and another for rental on iTunes, it worked out perfectly for me to tackle half of her filmography.

May is not probably known first and foremost as a director, but as half the comedy team of Nichols and May, that Nichols of course being Mike Nichols, director of The Graduate and others. They met during their involvement in a Chicago improv troupe in the 1950s and ultimately splintered off into their own enormously popular act, both writing and performing their sketches. Which they subsequently abandoned at the height of its popularity only four years later. Apparently, they both wanted to become filmmakers, as May also developed a distinguished writing career that featured, among others, the Warren Beatty hit Heaven Can Wait and a couple of Nichols-directed features, The Birdcage and Primary Colors. She received Oscar nominations for the first and third of those. It seems likely she would have had a longer directing career except for what happened with the second film we're going to discuss today. She's also the first subject of this series who is still alive (age 86 as of this writing).

If I'd seen either of her first two features, A New Leaf (1971) or The Heartbreak Kid (1972, which the Farrelly Brothers eventually remade), I might have quite a different idea of her style as a director, one that might have made it easier to produce a "take" on May. The two I did see gave me the impression of a director capable of a wide range of things ... though not all of them good.

Mikey and Nicky (1976)

May's third feature is a big turn away from the comedic sensibilities that informed her career as a sketch performer and her first two movies. In fact, it reminds me quite favorably of the directing work of one of its two stars, specifically the only film of his that I really like.

That star is John Cassavetes, who plays Nicky, a low-level hoodlum with a price on his head after he ripped off some gangsters. Mikey (Peter Falk) is his childhood friend who is also in with the same criminal syndicate, but is not implicated in Nicky's double crosses. Whether Mikey is trying to steer Nicky clear of danger, or directly into it, is something Nicky spends most of the movie trying to determine. The story takes place all in one night as Mikey and Nicky change locations around New York City, which move them closer to and further away from a hapless hitman played by Ned Beatty.

When you watch a movie like Mikey & Nicky it seems almost impossible to reconcile the fact that it was directed by a woman. Although there are female characters in the film, at its core it's a story of two men in a relationship at a point of particular vulnerability. Nicky knows he's got a price on his head and doesn't know who to trust, but he feels he can only turn to Mikey, even if he knows he may not fully be able to trust him. After all, they have a shared history that gets teased out in the dialogue over the course of the evening, which includes friends and family members long since dead, not all of whom died under pleasant circumstances.

Why it's not stereotypically "female" is because of the G-word: "gritty." This is a film that looks like it might have had its celluloid intentionally damaged or afflicted with lint or scarred with so-called "cigarette burns" (thanks Fight Club) just to make it look more grungy. And you've got two truly streetwise and intense actors here, one of whom made films that were very similar to Mikey & Nicky. Cassavetes is of course thought of as a filmmaker first and an actor second, but this film reminds me how good he was in the latter role. As the man on the run, he's truly desperate and untethered and cracking apart at the seams. No one can wear a pained smile like Cassavetes can, and he wears it nearly throughout this film, giving off the impression that his eyes are boring through the artificiality of these interactions while his mouth holds the smile for the purpose of keeping up appearances and pretending he doesn't know what's what. As he starts to catch on to the idea that Mikey might not be there as his friend, he shifts to calling on their personal history to try to prevent Mikey from taking the action he fears Mikey will take, without naming that action in so many words. It's a desperate cry for help from a man who refuses to beg, and whose speed in belittling his friend in mixed settings during happier times may have turned Mikey against him.

The saga they go through is by turns symbolic and absurd. They spend time sussing each other out in a hotel room, in which Nicky at first refuses to open the door to Mikey, so sure is he that Mikey is bringing his doom with him; Mikey has to practically beg Nicky to let him leave so he can go to a pharmacy to get medication for Nicky's painful ulcer. Then the action shifts to a bar, where an assassin may or may not be coming for him. Spooked, Nicky gets the urge to leave and take them to an all-night movie theater, but they also spontaneously jump off a bus to go visit Nicky's mother's gravestone. Later, they pay a visit to Nicky's damaged lady friend, with whom he's cheating on his wife. And oh yeah, did we mention Nicky has a child that's less than a year old? A bizarre scene plays out here as it does later at Nicky's own house with his estranged wife. The whole thing goes humming along on a flow of great dialogue and a vibe of apocalyptic doom.

In terms of Cassavetes' filmography, I was reminded most of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, not so much because the plots are very similar (to my recollection, they aren't), but just because of how much I love them both. When I did a similar examination of Cassavetes back in the Getting Acquainted series (see here for that post), I waded through two Cassavetes films that didn't really connect with me before getting to Bookie, which knocked my socks off. Mikey & Nicky knocked my socks off equally, but in this case, it was my very first exposure to May, and set some very high expectations.

Ishtar (1987)

Expectations that, unfortunately, were not at all satisfied by the second movie I watched. Which might have been expected, given its reputation as an infamous turkey. Ishtar is often cited when people are looking for a good go-to example of a famous flop, and I can still remember reading the review of it when it was released, back when I was in my early teens. The Boston Globe critic at the time, though the internet refuses to reveal to me who it was, wrote approximately this in a capsule review: "One star for Dustin Hoffman. One star for Warren Beatty. No stars for anything else."

And yet Ishtar has also been reconsidered over the years, to the point that some critics now consider it a worthwhile exercise at worst, and possibly a misunderstood comedic gem. It was in that spirit that I finally saw a movie I had been curious about seeing for some 31 years, which had been hard to get your hands on until recently. I'm not sure why May had to wait 11 years to make her next film after Mikey & Nicky, but having seen Ishtar, I can kind of see why she never made another one.

May is back in comedic mode after her single-film departure, but it's almost a slapstick kind of comedy, deaf in its tone about ethnic issues and, well, pretty much everything else as well. Its two superstars play a pair of would-be musicians, though in a bit of honest self-assessment, they are really only good at the writing part, as they can't sing and can only play instruments functionally. If they see clearly about their own performing abilities, they're deluded about their writing abilities, as the opening sequence in which they try to hash out the lyrics for a song called "Dangerous Business" amply demonstrates. These guys, in fact, don't appear to be good at much of anything. But they do get an opportunity to ply their "trade" when they are dispatched to perform at a club for American expatriates in a fictional country near Morocco called Ishtar, which is on the verge of political upheaval.

The less said about the rest of the plot, the better. Let's just say that a blind camel factors in prominently. Said camel is the result of a misunderstanding of a code word meant to be used as part of a communication with a potential revolutionary. Why are these bozos involved so closely in political revolution? It's the result of a chance contact with a beautiful spy at the airport (Isabelle Adjani) and an ongoing contact with an American CIA agent (Charles Grodin). There's a lot of bad singing, wandering around in deserts, and Hoffman pretending he can speak in the tribal dialect of nomadic Africans, which results in some of the movie's least sensitive and groan-worthy passages.

The ingredients for something funny are present in Ishtar, but Ishtar is not funny. I've heard the arguments that it's fully intended as a satire, I mean even beyond the ways it is superficially supposed to be a satire. But layers upon layers of theoretical comedic intent don't actually make me laugh, and I feel really bad for Hoffman and Beatty, who do really give it their all. I only think they're actually worthy of about three-quarters of a star each, though, as I could only bring myself to give Ishtar 1.5 stars on Letterboxd.

I'm not really sure who I'm doing in June. It could be Varda, it could be some other Frenchman, or it could be another auteur I haven't even thought of yet. Stay tuned.

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