SUNSHINE NOIR: CUTTER’S WAY (1981)

April 19, 2016

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“I have seen people after the war that came from concentration camps, they were violated in their bodies and their minds, and they were contaminated by the violence. They became violent themselves. This is what I wanted to show in Cutter’s Way.” – Ivan Passer

Cutter’s Way is a sickly film, its characters hungover or half in the bag. They have never recovered from the Vietnam War, either from the physical scars from fighting or the guilt from avoiding it. Cutter (John Heard) is the wounded veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress, a ranting paranoiac lost in his own head. His wife Mo (Lisa Eichhorn) nurses the loss of her pre-war husband with drink. Cutter’s best friend is Bone (Jeff Bridges), a lithe golden god who makes a living as a gigolo and occasional boat salesman.  The trio’s blurred vision focuses upon the corpse of a young girl, who they suspect was murdered by local tycoon J.J. Cord (Stephen Elliott). Cord begins to exert an outsized role in their personal mythology, a symbol of the system, the American way of life, that has left them on the periphery.

Their amateur investigation is a half-cocked mess, and twists around into a blackmail scheme. Their dream of justice is obscured by the thick haze of the Santa Barbara summer, but whether or not they have found the true killer, they have recovered a modicum belief, belief which ends in a defining act of violence. United Artists didn’t know what to do with this downbeat drama, and released it with little fanfare in 1981. It has had vocal supporters through the years, foremost among them J. Hoberman, and Twilight Time has released a handsome-looking Blu-ray that should expand its cult.

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The film is based on Newton Thornburg’s 1976 novel Cutter and Bone, originally to be adapted by Robert Mulligan, and with Dustin Hoffman as Cutter. After that fell apart it was packaged with Mark Rydell and Richard Dreyfuss, but that too failed to proceed. Eventually United Artists settled on the Czech emigre Ivan Passer to direct – whose most famous film was still his Czech New Wave comedy Intimate Lighting (1965). He had made four films in Hollywood since, including the hilarious and harrowing heroin film Born to Win (1971, with a great George Segal performance), but none had eclipsed the reputation of his debut. Passer was available and interested, and United Artists just wanted to get the project off their slate. They insisted that Jeff Bridges take the second lead, since he was in UA’s upcoming surefire hit of Heaven’s Gate. They preferred Richard Dreyfuss for the role of Cutter, but Passer was adamant on casting John Heard, after seeing him in a performance of Othello opposite Dreyfuss. Not wanting to lose a third director, UA let Heard have the title role (the title was changed from Cutter and Bone to Cutter’s Way after its initial NYC release). The memorable zither-heavy score is by Jack Nitzsche.

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Passer’s greatest coup was hiring DP Jordan Cronenweth, who veils Santa Barbara in a jaundiced palette – the city seems to expel Cutter and his cronies as a digestive system expels bile. The look of the film was described pungently by J. Hoberman in his Village Voice review: “Jordan Cronenweth’s accomplished cinematography conveys the essence of rot. Everything is orange-gold and subtly synthetic. The film has the burnished Naugahyde look of a sunset seen through the window of a House of Pancakes.” This “orange-gold” was by Passer’s design. He recalled the working process with Cronenweth to Olivier Père:

 The casting director showed me some TV movies and I was impressed by the work of Jordan. I was stunned when I met him because he was around 40 and he behaved like if he was 90 years old! The slowest person in the world! I learned that he was not able to do more than 6 set-ups a day, so I adjusted and did long shoots which I could intercut. It is always very difficult to control the color in a film. We couldn’t paint things like Antonioni. It was too expensive. So we took out one color, blue. There is no blue in the film, which is difficult in California because of the sky. That forced me to put the camera above the eye level, camera is always looking a little down, and you have the sense there is some aesthetic order in the film. Jordan was a real artist, always surprised by everything, like a child. He never made a shot that needed some reshoot or correction.

The color blue is not entirely eliminated — there is some unavoidable sky when Bone takes the murder victim’s sister out for a sail boat ride — but it is conscientiously avoided. Having to point the film slightly downward makes Cutter’s world ever so slightly more enclosed, a path of escape eliminated. Not that he would be capable of going anywhere.

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Cutter is missing an arm, a leg, and an eye, literally half a man. John Heard seems to be channeling some of Iago in his performance, a mercurial manipulator who has both Mo and Bone bend to his will. But he can only bend them so far before they snap, and the cooly self-regarding Bone, played with lizard-slick vanity by Bridges, briefly abandons the cause to to seduce Mo. Mo is in a severe depression throughout the film. She is married to a man she no longer recognizes, in a home that is a memorial to the life she thought she once had. Lisa Eichhorn gives a performance of subdued melancholy, her personality muted and masked by vast quantities of whiskey. She is seeking obliteration and finds it.

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Passer was not fond of the original ending of Thornburg’s novel, considering death-by-redneck too similar to that of Easy Rider, so with screenwriter Jeffrey Alan Fiskin they created a hallucinatory closer in which Cutter madly crashes Cord’s garden party on horseback, and presumed justice is served. It is almost a burlesque of a happy ending, with its last minute rescue and vanquishing of a sunglasses-clad villain. But by this point “justice” has lost all meaning, what with Cutter’s clumsy blackmail attempts and brutal treatment of Mo, while Bone only shows concern for his moustache. As the final credits roll, Cutter’s violent victory feels very much like a loss.

OUT FOR THE COUNT: FAT CITY (1972)

September 22, 2015

Fat_City-742983492-largeFat City (1972) is a major bummer in a minor key, detailing the apathetic lives of a couple of down-on-their-luck boxers in Stockton, California. Director John Huston had been trained as a boxer when he was seventeen, and was still friends with some of his fellow pugs from the Lincoln Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. So he was attracted to Leonard Gardner’s novel of the same name, which captured the lower levels of the sweet science, of callow kids struggling  their way up the card and punch-drunk veterans close to washing out. The film is as stuck in a haze as its protagonists, with neither attaining sharpness or clarity, both shot in the dusky glow of DP Conrad Hall’s cinematography. All of which can be seen to devastating effect in the beautiful new Blu-ray from Twilight Time (available exclusively through Screen Archives).

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John Huston and his producing partner Ray Stark hired Gardner to adapt the screenplay from his novel, and the film started shooting on location in Stockton, CA in June of 1971. The story, such as it is, revolves around two struggling fighters. The first is Tully (Stacy Keach), a drifter and day laborer who dreams of getting back into shape for another run inside the ring. His initial boxing career was ended by booze, which he hit hard after his marriage dissolved. Broke and almost thirty-years-old, all he has left are dreams and alcohol. One day at the gym he meets Ernie (Jeff Bridges), a painfully young kid with a long reach who Tully encourages to pursue a career in pugilism. Tully directs him to his old coach Ruben (Nicholas Colasanto), an amiable bottom-feeder with delusions of championship belts. His eyes light up when he sees Ernie, a handsome white kid who could bring in box office. Tully and Ernie both get in the ring, winning some and losing some, but never getting ahead. Tully spends his free time with Oma (Susan Tyrrell), a similarly afflicted drunk, who is passing the time until her boyfriend Earl (Curtis Cokes) gets out of prison. Ernie takes up with small town girl Faye (Candy Clark), their relationship made out of conversations in parked cars. Poverty is an endless loop, and as much as Tully and Ernie claw against its grip, they always end up broke and looking for another angle.

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It’s a recursive film, with Tully sticking to his routines and hoping for different outcomes that never arrive. He goes from day labor (picking fruits and vegetables) to a grim-looking bar and back home, with an occasional detour to an empty gym. The locations speak more than Tully ever could, as the movie opens with a montage of the  town’s poorest neighborhood, showing a Mission house, a burnt-down home, a bum smoothing his hair in front of a Kaopectate sign, while the locals, , blacks, whites and Hispanics, go about the business of daily life next to the bombed-out homes. In his autobiography An Open Book, John Huston recalled the Stockton neighborhood. where he cast many non-professional actors:

We shot most of the picture on Stockton’s Skid Row. It’s now a thing of the past; they’ve wiped it out. I wonder where all the poor devils who inhabited it have gone. They have to be somewhere. There were crummy little hotels; gaps between buildings like missing teeth; people…standing around or sitting on orange crates; little gambling halls where they played for nickels and dimes. Many of the signs were in Chinese because the area had a large Chinese population. The police were very gentle with the derelicts. As long as they stayed within the sharply defined boundaries of the neighborhood, they could sleep in doorways, wine bottle in hand; if they wandered out, the police simply shooed them back. They were completely harmless, defeated men.

 

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Stacy Keach embodies the defeated man, first seen sprawled in bed in old tight briefs, faded polo shirt, and a stringy receding hairline. His most prominent feature is a scar on his lip, which makes him look like he’s snarling before he even speaks. He’s a natural backslider. His first day back in the gym he pulls a muscle, so ends up at a bar. It is there he meets Oma, a a blowsy broad who dresses as loudly as Edina from Absolutely Fabulous. Susan Tyrrell was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance, and it is a fearless one. She is greasy all over, and shows Oma to be so pumped full of alcohol she’s almost sliding out of the film frame throughout the movie. Oma’s rapport with Tully is like recognizing like, two defeated people pretending to be alive again. The flirtation is invigorating, firing those old synapses, in their brief time together they seem like patients awakening out of a coma. But it’s only a flash, and soon they retreat to their own pockets of darkness.

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DP Conrad Hall does some wonderful things with shadow, including one moving sequence with Ruben, the boxing coach. In the only shot of him at home, he is sitting up in bed next to his slumbering wife, knuckles on chin. His face is edged with light as he expresses his dreams: “This kid could develop. Aw, you oughta see the reach on him. And he’s tall, you know. He put on some weight he could look like a good looking white heavyweight. He could draw crowds someday, if he ever learned how to fight. Maybe he can if he just listened to me and let me put everything I know into him. Sweetheart, you awake?” She is not awake, having missed his fantasies for what we assume is the umpteenth time. Ruben turns off the lamp, and smokes his cigarette in the dark, the tip of it lighting up just before a cut. Ernie is not much of a fighter, but this is a ritual Ruben clearly most go through to justify his work, one of the many rationalizations that keep these men and women going. Tully constantly claims he can get back into fighting shape while Ernie talks himself into loving and marrying Faye, despite having known each other briefly, mostly by the sides of roads.

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Fat City is made up these rationalizing rituals, the little motivational tactics that get us through bad days. It’s easiest when another person is there to hear them, even if they aren’t paying attention. The saddest and most beautiful performance of the film comes from Sixto Rodriguez (not the Searching for Sugar Man guy, but an ex-boxer), whose character is completely alone. He plays Lucero, a veteran Mexican fighter brought to Stockton to face Tully. He arrives on a Greyhound bus, pisses blood, starts the fight, and gets knocked out. After the bout he wordlessly strolls out of the theater hallway, impeccably tailored. The ceiling lights start turning off in succession above him, a theatrical send-off for the end of his career, and quite possibly his life.   Rodriguez was an ex-boxer who fought under the nickname “Kid Sixto”. He compiled a career record of 28-12-3, with 7 knockouts. The 6′ 1″ Puerto Rican’s last fight was in 1964 when he was 27, a 10 round victory over Norman Letcher in San Francisco. Rodriguez was 34 when Fat City was being shot, retired for seven years already. So he already knew how it felt on that last walk, when all you had known, all you had trained for, fades to black.

 

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JUST VISITING: STARMAN and THE TALE OF THE PRINCESS KAGUYA

December 9, 2014

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Inside each hand, a miracle. Starman (1984) and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013) both envision the ineffable, of presences that transcend our earthly domain. But both also celebrate the joys allowed to those bound in flesh, of Dutch apple pie and a frolic in the woods. Odd things happen when movies are viewed in quick succession. As I watched Starman and Kaguya, their stories seemed to be the same story. Both features follow an alien lifeform adapting to Earth. In Starman it’s a crash-landed alien anthropologist trekking back to his rendezvous point, while in Kaguya it’s a princess who was discovered inside of a bamboo shoot, and presumed to be a gift of the heavens. There are comic fish-out-of-water segments in adapting to their new environments, as well as doomed romances that spark and snuff out due to the whole long-distance relationship problem (it’s tough when you’re in different galaxies). But they are bittersweet films, ones that make the transcendent visible, only for it to disappear in the end.

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Starman (1984) was a cursed property at Columbia Pictures. It was the project the studio chose to make instead of E.T. They were developing both, but the head of the studio at the time, Frank Price, prioritized Starman. Spielberg moved E.T. to Universal, where it became the highest grossing film of all time up until that point. Trying to escape the stink of lost money, Columbia shelved Starman for a year, until it was resurrected by John Carpenter, who had just directed the Stephen King killer car adaptation Christine (1983) for Columbia. It was a change of pace for Carpenter, who had not strayed too far from his horror wheelhouse. He was a student of film history though, and admired how the studio directors could have a go at every possible genre, often in the same year. On Starman, Carpenter tried to make his Capra movie. He told New York Magazine that:

Starman meets this widow, played by Karen Allen, and falls in love. But he’s an alien, and she doesn’t know how to react. It’s like Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night. I wanted to create that same kind of romantic tension.

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Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen) is speechless to discover her dead husband alive in her living room. The “Starman”  had crash landed in the field outside her house, and taken on human form by melding itself with her husband’s DNA.When she recovers from the shock, she realizes that this is an impostor.  The eyes are glassy and blank, his movements ungainly and staccato, like a baby bird. His English vocabulary was gleaned from the album included in the Voyager satellite, their communication reliant upon body language and intuition. Jenny, still in mourning, is hypnotized by this specter, and reluctantly helps him on his trip from Wisconsin to Arizona — where he will rendezvous with his mother ship and return home. Despite the sci-fi trappings, the bulk of the film is a road trip romantic comedy in the It Happened One Night mold. They are a duo thrown together by circumstance who flirt their way across the U.S., with Jenny initiating him into United States culture. He learns to kiss from studying the late show on TV of From Here to Eternity. Shot on location in Monument Valley and the Meteor Crater in Arizona, along with stops in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, it’s Carpenter’s most American movie. And he doesn’t move the camera too much, keeping things in medium shot and letting the landscapes and actors do the work. And Jeff Bridges, who was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, is entrancing. He’s an actor that allows you to see him think – which is essential for the part of a quickly adaptive alien being. He’s constantly computing, weighing and evaluating, conveyed in his bird-like head bobs and the gentle querying in his gaze. Karen Allen is quite moving as his straight woman, her arc from exasperation to indulgence to affection demonstrated in her wide-set searching eyes. For a feel-good romance, Starman is awfully downbeat. The government is an exploitative war machine chasing Starman to use him as a lab rat, while the romantic union is an impossibility. They live on separate planes, the gorgeous heartbreaker of an ending closing in on Allen’s face, expressing a terrible kind of wonder and loss.

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The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, the latest and probably final film from anime master Isao Takahata, is another tale of a fantastic visitor who embeds themselves in human concerns. It is based on a tenth century Japanese folktale, one of the oldest narratives in the culture. It concerns a lowly bamboo cutter who finds an infant the size of his thumb inside of a glowing stalk – named Kaguya. He brings her home and raises her as his own. She grows at an exponential rate, so the local children nickname her “Little Bamboo”. The bamboo cutter is convinced the gods desire the child to become a princess, and feel confirmed in that fact when he is gifted with a treasure. He tears his family away from their country home and tries to raise her as a noble, with plucked eyebrows and deference to her elders. Instead, Kaguya would rather be chasing kittens and tending to her garden. She pines for home and her childhood love Sutemaru, until one day she is forced to return to her real home, a place not of earth or of heaven.

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The animation is drawn in with colored pencil and watercolor, a vibrantly beautiful aesthetic. The lines are loose and flowing, and the delicate, minimalist aesthetic seemingly leaves landscapes half formed, as if developing along with Kaguya. When she dreams of escape from her gilded city cage, the form deteriorates into rough sketches. As she imagines herself running away, bull-headed through the city streets and back to the country, her body is formed by a few strokes, the forest rendered in thick lines of charcoal, the world seemingly convulsing around her. It’s a tour de force sequence, and one that shows Kaguya’s control. Starman is a victim of circumstance, but Kaguya can shape the environments in which she lives. When required to take a husband, she puts them off with impossible tasks, guaranteeing herself a preferred life as a spinster, tending her gardens and living inside her head.

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Kaguya’s departure to her home world is remarkably similar to that of Starman. There is an approaching cloud that resolves into an interstellar conveyance, one which elicits awe and dread. This is the final departure, the end of transcendent possibilities. In both we are granted the POV of the humans who are left behind, left with our conflicted emotions and vulnerable bodies. Starman is an essentially optimistic film, Jenny left with a hopeful gaze into the future.  The ones Kaguya leaves behind are bereft, left with nothing but memories of their miraculous child, now gone forever. What in Starman is a possibility, in Kaguya is a rebuke.

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THE FILMS OF ROBERT MULLIGAN, PART 4

March 13, 2012

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This the final post in my series on the films of Robert Mulligan. Click for parts onetwo and three.

As much as Robert Mulligan is associated with the South, for To Kill a Mockingbird and The Man in the Moon, he was actually born in the Bronx. A few years after his tepidly received L.A. noir The Nickel Ride (1975), he adapted Richard Price’s Bronx-set second novel, Bloodbrothers, which was released in ’76 (the film came out in September of 1978). An epithet-laced trawl through an Italian working class family, Mulligan toned-down the language (from the book’s first page: “His hand smelled from that oily shit inside Trojans”), but captured the twitchy, carnal energies that fueled such texturally dirty talk.

Robert Surtees, who had shot Mulligan’s Summer of ’42 (’71) and The Other (’72), returns as the director of photography, although the the gauzy images of those films are replaced with hard-edged, dark blue tones. Clearly Mulligan was impressed with Jordan Cronenweth’s similarly detailed work in Nickel Ride. The film opens in a helicopter shot of a smoggy Bronx as night falls, crossing highways and subways until there is a cut to a crane shot that eases onto the facade of Banion’s Bar, seemingly the palpitating heart of the borough.  This amiable joint, the local watering hole for the construction worker’s union, is named after wheelchair bound Irish carouser/owner Banion (played with immense warmth by Kenneth McMillan) who trades handjob jokes and chummy backslaps with the volatile De Coco brothers, the insecure macho teddy bears whose family is the center of the film.

Banion’s is more home to the brothers than their walk-up apartments, filled as they are with the disheartening markers of adulthood like children, wives and bills. Tommy De Coco (Tony Lo Bianco) and his brother Chubby (Paul Sorvino) are the patriarch of a struggling clan, with Tommy’s wife Maria (Laila Goldoni) on the brink of a nervous breakdown, while his fragile, feminine youngest son has been browbeaten about his weight into anorexia. Tommy’s hope lies with his eldest, Stony (Richard Gere), a handsome, reassuringly hetero playboy who is about to enter the construction union. But alas, Stony has dreams of escape, implied in the cut from Banion’s to the elaborately outfitted cavern-disco he frequents, with faux-stalactites dripping from the ceiling in honor of his own raging, confused hormones. Focused by the straight talk of liberated chick Annette (an inflammatory Marilu Henner) Stony shirks construction for a job as a recreation assistant at the local hospital, fulfilling his dream of working with kids. Tommy is incensed, and Stony has to choose between family or freedom.

The script by studio veteran Walter Newman (Ace In the Hole) is overstuffed with incident (and received an Oscar nomination for it), and Mulligan embraces the abundance by pushing for an across-the-board hysterical style of acting. This is grating and invigorating in turn, with Tony Lo Bianco performing as an over-gesticulating stereotype, while Paul Sorvino’s papa bear routine secrets away layers of pain that well up in his often overfilled eyes (although he does have the benefit of the most emotionally naked monologue in the film). Richard Gere is effective in mumbly James Dean mode, a figure of naive charm starting to become aware of a world outside the Bronx. Although, as with all of Mulligan’s coming-of-age films, this knowledge is rife with dangers. Just as William and Jane fly away into uncertainty in The Pursuit of Happiness, so do Stony and his brother drive off into the unknown, with only a few bucks to their name, but a dream of independence just over the horizon.

There is none of this richly moving ambiguity in Same Time, Next Year, a stodgy farce that Mulligan cranked out quickly the same year. It was released in November of 1978, only two months after Bloodbrothers. It was based on a hugely successful Broadway play of the same name, about two lovers who meet once every year for a one-night stand. Written by TV scribe Bernard Slade (The Flying Nun, The Partridge Family), it ran for close to 1500 performances and netted Ellen Burstyn a Tony Award. For the film, Slade wrote the screenplay and Burstyn returned to play the role of Doris. Charles Grodin, who played George in the stage version, was replaced by Alan Alda.

It is nothing more than a filmed version of the play, taking place almost entirely in a hotel room, with little choreography inside the frame. It’s mostly Alda and Burstyn jawing back and forth at each other.  Robert Surtees returns as DP (his final film credit), and it contains the warm, nostalgic filtered light of Summer of ’42, but is only shown to its full beauty in a few exterior shots. The play itself is a clunky contraption, revisiting the lovers every five years or so, larded with cheap signifiers to denote each era. In the 60s, Burstyn dons Native American dress and talks about protesting, while Alda slides into a suit and talks about voting for Goldwater. The characters get lost in symbolism, and never crackle with erotic intensity (which comes with casting Alan Alda). The film was then of course nominated for four Oscars.

Mulligan, now deep into his 50s, began to slow down his working pace considerably. He had made ten features in the 60s, and six in the ’70s, but would go on to direct only two films in the ’80s, before capping his career with The Man In the Moon in 1991. He was still garnering awards and praise, so it is likely Mulligan could have been more productive if he so chose. But with the  turn to Jaws-imitating blockbusters, perhaps there were just not many appealing projects offered to him. His next feature, the supernatural romantic-comedy Kiss Me Goodbye (1982) would tend to affirm this theory.

Never one for “high-concept” plots, Mulligan has here agreed to direct a very loose adaptation of Dona Flor And Her Two Husbands (1976), about a woman whose dead husband begins to haunt her when she is to marry again. At the time of its release, the original was the most successful film in Brazilian history. It seems Mulligan could only make his kind of intimate drama if it had this kind of box-office goosing gimmick. And despite how ill-suited he was to this kind of genre mash-up, it ends up as a diverting treat, if not at the top-tier of his accomplishment.

He’s helped by a game cast, first and foremost Jeff Bridges, whose uptight Egyptologist at the Met Museum honorably channels Cary Grant’s similarly anal scientist in Bringing Up Baby. While not matching Grant’s athleticism and uncanny comic timing, Bridges does have a talent for embattled exasperation, his expression one of barely concealed disgust. And as Grant is drained by the  kookiness of Katherine Hepburn’s wealthy family, so is Bridges of his rich fiance, Sally Field. Field is innocuous in her usual chipper munchkin routine, so Claire Trevor (as her mother) easily sashays away with the show in her final feature film. It is worth watching just to see her grand industrial-strength bitchiness cut Bridges down to size. James Caan, as Field’s ghost husband, is woefully miscast as a charismatic Broadway choreographer, but he is nothing if not game, which could be said for this entire film, a modern contraption that Mulligan manages to make look towards the past. The film performed modestly at the box-office, finishing with $15.78 million, right in between Death Wish 2 and the re-issue of Star Wars (according to Box Office Mojo).

Then came the longest layoff in his career, six years, before he agreed to make Clara’s Heart (1988) for Mary Tyler Moore’s production company, MTM. He was clearly only willing to make films on his terms at this point, and this coming-of-age tale returns to his favored themes of maturation and disillusionment. Based on the novel by Joseph Olshan, it follows teenaged David (Neil Patrick Harris, in his first screen role), as he grapples with the death of his baby sister and the resultant crack-up of his parents’ marriage. He turns to his Jamaican nanny Clara (Whoopi Goldberg) for stability and strength. I harbored fears that this would devolve into one of those Hollywood wish-fulfillment fantasies where the kindly black character solves all of the rich white people’s problems, but thankfully, things simply get more complicated from there.

Mulligan had the good fortune to hire Freddie Francis (The Elephant Man) as his DP, and the film includes some of the most emotive set-ups of his career. In the opening sequence, Mulligan and Francis hold a close-up of David as a funeral ends, with flashes of black tuxedos passing him in the foreground. It is an image of a boy made scattered and incomplete by mourning. Later, they execute another shot of incompletion, during one of his parents’ arguments. In one long take, the mother is sitting screen right in a living room, the father to the left, in his study. The rooms are separated by a wall, so each are ensconced in their separate worlds. This image alone defines the dissolution of their union, and yet another rupture in David’s life.

His relationship with Clara is fraught, as he transitions from bratty teen to the realization that she is the only stable part of his life. They test and circle each other, waiting to expose each other’s vulnerabilities, as their racial and class boundaries are forefronted by Mulligan (the cut from David’s suburban mansion to the Jamaican neighborhood in Baltimore acts as a closure – there is not easy passing between these two zones). They develop their own wary love for each other, and by the time Clara reveals her own past traumas (that are as vast and unresolved as David’s), they accept each other for the imperfect, guilt-ridden creatures that they are. This is Mulligan’s kind of (ir)resolution, the recognition of limitations his own happy ending. So he ends it with another close-up of David, this time free and clear of all obstructions, aside from the ones in his memory. The film bombed, earning just over $5 million (right behind the Chuck Norris cheapie Hero and the Terror) and earned no Oscar nominations.

The Man in the Moon is a distillation of this theme of irresolution, one which opens with the idolized older sister saying, “sometimes things just don’t make sense, and all of a sudden, I get scared.” As with the opening shot of Bloodbrothers, Mulligan has his DP (Freddie Francis this time), crane his camera down into the film’s thematic heart, instead of a bar, it’s a screened in porch. This downward craning shot also has an echo in To Kill a Mockingbird, in which the camera descended a tree and outlined the main drag of the town, before backtracking to introduce Scout. The Man in the Moon‘s shot reveals another headstrong tomboy, Dani (Reese Witherspoon, who, like NPH, makes her screen debut. Mulligan was an ace talent scout). She is listening to Elvis’ “Loving You” for the umpteenth time, and is chastised by her older sister Maureen (Emily Warfield), who a few moments later will discuss her undefinable fear.

The story is utter simplicity, but rendered with subtlety in Jenny Wingfield’s original script (her first). Dani is in the process of trashing her Elvis posters and fixing her attentions on a real live boy – the dreamy new neighbor Court (Jason London). He literally crashes her childhood idyll, jumping into a swimming hole she had considered her own private domain. This rupture spurs Dani’s maturation, and engages her in a world of petty jealousies, shocking violence, and unutterable tragedy. All of Mulligan’s coming-of-age stories are steeped in death, the loss of innocence revealing the world in all its unresolved, unanswerable reality. Dani, as with Scout, or William (Pursuit of Happiness), or Hermie (Summer of ’42) has the veil removed from their childhood games, and they shift from a mythologized childhood to fraught adulthood. This transition is made visible Mulligan’s through subjective camera, the low-angles in Mockingbird and the idolizing slow-motion of ’42 changing to sober eye-line matches and close-ups.

Dani is visualized in tracking shots, speeding from house to lake in frolics of determined intensity. The first is seen before her initial encounter with Court at the lake, the last in a mournful sprint from her first funeral service. She opens by racing to something, and ends by sprinting away, into the unknown.  There is also a visual rhyme to that opening crane shot, which has its correlate in the shattering closer. The camera drifts towards the front of the house, reversing the opening shot, before cutting to the interior. It floats past the newborn baby and settles on their  Mom and Dad in bed, as Dani asks (offscreen): “Marie? Is it always going to hurt this bad?”. The implicit answer is in their father’s face, played so engagingly laconic by Sam Waterston, who has an inexplicable smile on his face as he turns and faces his wife, happy to be at home, regardless of the tragedies outside.

This reverie stops as Mulligan cuts to a static shot of the walled-in patio, where Maureen is combing Dani’s hair. Now the dreams are in the interior of the house, and the adolescents outside are growing into the no-nonsense world of static two-shots:

Dani:  “Sometimes, I think that nothing’s ever going to make sense again”

Maureen: “Maybe life’s not supposed to make sense.”

Dani: “Doesn’t that scare you?”

Maureen: [whispered] “Yes, it does.”

Maureen’s tossed-off lines at the beginning of the film, meant to assuage Dani’s own insecurities, are now repeated, and have accrued layers of resonance. It is one of those scenes that can reduce me to tears, regardless of how many times I’ve seen it, which has made this particular transcription particularly vexing.These lines are an acknowledgment that there is no governing logic to our lives, but whatever happens, that it can be endured with grace. There is no better way to encapsulate his extraordinary career than those words of Dani and Maureen, in their brave resignation.

So, watch some Mulligan.