Thursday, April 17, 2014

Fair Weather, Friends, and Two Garys

In 1955, the highly touted musical IT'S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER left a discouraging set of damages behind after its disappointing theatrical engagement. Its studio, MGM, lost faith in the film, burying it in a double feature pairing with the drama BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK, and declared a loss of over a quarter of its $4 million budget. Its president, Dore Schary, who had previously nixed original plans to reunite all three leads from the hit ON THE TOWN to star in this project, would be replaced as studio head a year later, partly due to this film and other underperforming releases. Its producer, Arthur Freed, saw his reputation diminished at MGM, with only one last hit project, GIGI, to emerge from a body of well-respected but poorly-performing musicals until his last producing credit in 1962. And its directors, Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, saw their already tense friendship destroyed after over a decade of successful collaboration. As such, if you told any of these individuals in the immediate wake of their bad feelings that their film would see its reputation redeemed half a century later, it would be taken as cold comfort. If you were to go on to tell them that it would directly inspire one of the best movies of the early 21st century, and perhaps indirectly inspire another, they would probably think you were insane, or having a laugh at their expense. Yet at least 2 out of these 3 foundations are fact, and the remaining third is open to interpretation - which of course, is what I'm here to provide.

Strikingly dark in its subject matter for the cheery '50's climate it was released into, IT'S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER spends a fateful day and night with three WWII buddies (Gene Kelly, Michael Kidd, Dan Dailey) on their promised 10 year reunion agreed upon after their raucous night returning home in peacetime. They will discover shortly upon meeting again that they don't care for each other's company, and as they go through the remainder of the evening, realize they don't care much for the people they've become either. Their existential self-discovery is molded through the intervention of big business advertising, television, and organized crime, forces that in the years to follow, will only intervene even harder in all of our lives. Many critics have noted its outright bitter tone that only sporadically gets broken up with moments of pure joy, such as its opening musical number and Kelly's later solo tap-dance-in-roller-skates number. Nathan Rabin's terrific revisitation for The Dissolve boils it down nicely: "[It] purposefully, brilliantly denies audiences much of what they’d come to expect from musicals, such as likeable protagonists and an upbeat sensibility." The two films I wish to bring into the discussion easily suggest the same kind of foiled expectations in their ostensible fields of comedy.

Allow me a brief diversion to introduce two small but key elements to the wild threading I will be engaging in later on.

Sidebar #1: The diminished world of Los Angeles repertory filmgoing made a dramatic turn upwards in 2007. In the wake of the untimely loss of New Beverly Cinema proprietor and programmer Sherman Torgan that summer, this tragedy was quickly countered with a heartfelt convergence of community and industry alike to preserve his legacy, with Quentin Tarantino stepping in as landlord to the building to seal its protection from unimaginative retail development. Later that fall, Hadrian Belove and his trusted friends established CineFamily at the Silent Movie Theatre, and introduced an unparalleled slate of eclectic programming that has become the envy of many film lovers across the world. These events in turn brought an exciting contingent of high-profile talent who came to watch and support these screenings, and sometimes present films themselves, bringing long-unprecedented visibility to these venues and others like them. Going to watch old movies became a cool activity again!

Among the luminaries at the forefront of screening and being seen at screenings in the salad days of this "movie revival" revival were a foursome enjoying banner popularity in 2007: Edgar Wright, coming off great reviews for his action comedy HOT FUZZ; Jason Reitman, preparing to release his second film, the teen pregnancy comedy JUNO; Diablo Cody, the screenwriter of JUNO, whose colorful personal history made her the alternately beloved/maligned "It" girl of the season; and horror maverick Eli Roth, who shares a birthday with Wright, and joined with him in contributing segments to the exploitation homage GRINDHOUSE. From roughly the fall of 2007 to the summer of 2008, before all disembarking for their own projects, these four were the base of an unofficial Rat Pack of Repertory: all of them were allowed to program their favorite movies at the New Beverly for two-week stretches, and were often spotted in the audience during other shows and personal appearances at the Bev and Cinefamily, graciously engaging with fans, including myself, and sometimes getting into animated discussions about the films that had just played that night.

Sidebar #2: There was a little-seen 1997 comedy by TV veteran Gary Rosen called HACKS (released to DVD as SINK OR SWIM), in which a group of struggling TV writers (including Stephen Rea, John Ritter, and Dave Foley) witness a mysterious encounter during their poker game, and once separated, spend the remainder of the night inventing stories inspired by what they saw while getting caught up in their own odd encounters.  To paraprhase Bryan Callen in WARRIOR, I remember it being very unmemorable; Keith Phipps' A.V. Club review kindly chalked it up as a "nice try" at best. But the central idea of how motivated writers can take the same source material and spin it in completely different directions was something I did successfully take away from the film, so on that level, it is not a complete failure. So I'm giving it due as building material.

As such, I put forth that this essay should not be viewed as some sort of SAT-level syllogism stating that Film A = Film B = 2/3 Film C, nor one of those "President Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy" rundowns, but more of a deep musing on that notion of how Great Minds Think Alike. Indeed, reading the transcript of some Twitter banter inspired by a joke about Disney's OLD DOGS, these are minds destined to be Awesome People Hanging Out Together.  IT'S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER did not screen during this period of social fellowship among these filmmakers, at least not to my knowledge. But considering the film literacy among all four of these people, and that 3/4 of them are involved the films to be discussed here, it is certainly within the realm of possibility that it was discussed among them during one of their outings, or perhaps they all gathered to watch it at home during some VHS-Night-of-the-Stars. It's Tiger Beat-level speculation of the lowest relevance, but hey, it's fun!

"I’ve always been the sort of person to dwell a little too much on the past but so much time has gone by since I left the town I grew up in that any ghosts left back there when I moved away have reverted to being little more than tiny pieces of memory rummaging around the back of my head. I’ve long since moved onto other hopes, other women, other regrets, other dreams that never quite worked out. You get older but those things still chase after you in the dead of night, the girls in question still pop their heads up when you run into them at the exact wrong time." - from Peter Avellino's THE WORLD'S END review

Edgar Wright's THE WORLD'S END is not only one of the best films of 2013, but it has the added benefit of being extremely rewarding to those with a small-c catholic film and cultural education. If you devour the special features in the Blu-Ray edition, such as the commentary tracks or the "trivia subtitles" option, you will get some teasing hints about the previous works that are integrated within. Last August, to promote the impending theatrical release, Wright again mounted a two-week festival of films at the New Beverly which he considered influential upon the finished storyline (and which, full disclosure, I provided some assistance with in print location and trailer programming). Some choices covered certain elemental strains within his film, such as the all-in-a-night adventure (AMERICAN GRAFFITI, AFTER HOURS) or the paranoia of the loss of individuality (INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS) or of self-destructive behavior (WITHNAIL & I), and even the end of civilization (LAST NIGHT). Two desired choices, Bryan Forbes' original THE STEPFORD WIVES and Jason Miller's THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON, were unfortunately unavailable to play. However, he stated that the combo that best embodied the whole of THE WORLD'S END was a pairing of THE BIG CHILL, hinting that his film would take a step above Kasdan's Baby Boomer drama and allow the corpse that brings the reunion together to be actually present to witness his friends' ambivalent feelings about his memory and their lives, and IT'S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER. Having now watched both films over three times, I dare say that while Wright's clever comedy of angst amidst an apocalypse is indeed a perfect beast made up of parts from these varied bodies of work, it is built upon the sturdy skeleton of Kelly & Donen's earlier film.

"We all make our lives into our own personal mythologies. The songs we know by heart, the films we’ve seen countless times, the fond memories we have of a fun night with a friend that years later you discover the other person barely even remembers at all...I guess that’s the way it always is if you feel like you’re stuck back in a certain place, wishing that you could stay there to get one more shot at a party with a certain girl before the millennium hits and everything gets ruined." - from Peter Avellino's YOUNG ADULT review

Meanwhile, back in 2011, where most of the attention in the film community was taken up either by the complacent nostalgia of THE ARTIST and THE HELP or the existential questions of THE TREE OF LIFE and MELANCHOLIA, director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody, reteaming after their successful collaboration on JUNO, took the truly ballsy step of asking audiences to find kinship and empathy with a destructive monster who seemingly could not or would not repent for their damage. YOUNG ADULT was my admittedly contrarian pick for the year's best movie, and it too has been the object of multiple viewings on my end. Interviews given by Cody stated there was not so much a direct filmic inspiration for her screenplay, that it was moreso drawn from personal thoughts about vicarious living, fiction writing, and social media. But, applying the GMTA principle from earlier, however unconscious it may have been, kinship can be found to the earlier and later films. YOUNG ADULT does not have the fractured group dynamic of WEATHER or END, but all three works feature a self-destructive protagonist mired in self-loathing over the failed promises of the past, returning to a place that was better left behind, and bringing chaos in their wake. The filip of the two latter films' lead characters being named Gary King and Mavis Gary is an especially tingling convergence.

So getting back to that skeleton from earlier, to show you just how close the movies hew...

  • The similarities between IAFS and TWE start at the very opening, as they both present happy flashbacks to the past -- of Kelly, Dailey, and Kidd bonding in wartime and enjoying their armistice pub crawl, and of Pegg, Frost, and Considine bonding in high school and enjoying their post-graduation pub crawl. [While yes, there are five main fellows in TWE, the most important dynamic is between these three, especially's the spoiler...Freeman and Marsan don't wholly survive their adventure.]  After this flashback, and some present-day background scenes, the events of IAFW and TWE will transpire over a single fateful evening.
  • This is followed in all three films to a look at their mundane present, the roots of their alienation from each other, and the spark of their reunion.  -- a written reminder for the IAFS gang, an effective coercion for the TWE gang, an unexpected baby-shower invite for YA. We also get our first hints about just how bad things have gotten for our protagonists -- Kelly with his money troubles, Pegg in what appears to be a 12-step circle, Theron a model of inertia in a well-appointed apartment.
  • As the characters reunite, old wounds and buried personal resentments quickly come to the surface, since nobody has really become what they aspired to before. Notably, in the male-driven films, both gangs feature an uptight brown-shoe personality (in IAFS, Dailey; in TWE, Frost) who has so buried themselves in work they have become estranged from their spouse, and worse, initially refuse to join the boys in drinking. Theron in YA may not have a crew per se to reunite with, but her initial conversations with Wilson show her desperate to pull him back into her orbit and make him remember highlights of their past that really aren't highlights to him, and her chance reunion with schoolmate Oswalt finds them quickly trading barbs about each other and how everyone else in their world has contributed to their misanthropy, in a sense reigniting what could have been in their youth.
  • "You know what? Let's drink to old Bootsie."
    "Who? Who's old Bootsie?"
    "You know. Don't you remember? Bootsie. That kid in our outfit who was always tripping over everything. From the south. We always used to toast old Bootsie. Don't you remember? It was good luck, and then we always used to laugh."
    "I don't know."
    "Sure. Come on, Doug. Old Bootsie."
     -- dialogue from IAFW

    "Drink up. Let's Boo-Boo."
    "Boo-Boo'? What is that?"
    "You remember 'Let's Boo-Boo'. You know, from Mr. Shephard's classroom, it said on the wall 'Exit, Pursued by a Bear', you know, from that Shakespeare play?"
    "'A Winter's Tale.'"
    "Yeah. What was it called?"
    "'A Winter's Tale.'"
    "That's it. And if we needed to make a quick getaway, we'd say: 'Exit, Pursued by a Bear'. And then, it was: 'Exit, Pursued by Yogi Bear'. And then, it was just, 'Let's Yogi and Boo-Boo'. And then, 'Let's Boo-Boo'."
    -- dialogue from TWE

    "You know, there's a lot of things you shouldn't bet on. Like that Shakespeare quote, for instance. It ain't 'The Tempest,' Act 2, Scene 7, it's 'As You Like It,' Act 2, Scene 7. 'Hey-ho, sing hey-ho unto the green holly / most friendship is feigning, most loving, mere folly.'"
    -- dialogue from IAFW
  • As the IAFS gang are in an actual musical, they occasionally take a moment to sing about their past and its contrast to the present ("I Shouldn't Have Come" and "Once Upon a Time (Up In Smoke)"). The two Garys (Pegg and Theron) may not sing directly about their past, but are very much attached to mixtapes they made long ago in their youth, and still own cars that allow them to be played while the world has abandoned physical media as a source of driving music. They also wreck their initial cars and require the use of a second. Oh yes, and of course they're never without a drink.

  • To varying degrees in each film, the characters are all confronted by a creeping force of corporatism and conformity that seek to control their circumstances. It's a three-pronged assault in IAFW, as Kelly is pressured by the mob to have his boxer throw a fight, a chance encounter with a TV producer inspires a craven talk show host to force a second reunion among the disillusioned trio for a ratings grab, and Dailey's despised advertising client Klenzrite just happens to be that program's sponsor. In TWE, even before the vast scope of influence of "The Network" is revealed, there is the observation by the group about the increasing "Starbucking" in their lives, from pub layout to beer flavoring to car designs. Starbucking has also been very much at work in Theron's hometown of Mercury in YA, as her old flame blithely rejoices in the arrival of Chipotle and KenTacoHut while they drink in a very market-researched and franchised sports bar.
  • While earlier the two gangs of male friends have only found common ground in their mutual dislike of their ostensible leader, they come around to turning the microscope on themselves. In IAFW, this reckoning comes in the impressively synchronized song-and-dance number "Once Upon a Time (Up In Smoke)", as each sings about the personal disappointments that have weighed upon them. In TWE, there's no production number (unless you count the first fight with the Blanks in the bathroom), but a few bars and beers into their pub crawl, the disappointments of the gang in themselves versus each other begins to dominate the conversation. Theron does not openly share her disappointments until the closing climax, but every so often she drops hints about it, such as when she admonishes her parents to remove the photos of her in her first failed marriage from their wall.
  • As the events of their day get increasingly heavy and their anger intensifies, the previously teetotaling Dailey and Frost fall off the wagon in a speedy and spectacular fashion.
  • "I fucking hate this town!"
    -- dialogue from TWE

    "I hate this town! It's a hick, lake town that smells of fish shit!"
    -- dialogue from YA
  • Each protagonist engages in a romantic pursuit of a partner that initially is clearly not interested in reciprocating (Kelly to Charisse, Pegg to Pike, Theron to Wilson), and the latter movies have the added detail of that partner being an individual from their past, while Kelly, arguably, yearns to recreate his own through playing up the charm that he possessed in the past. The paths obviously diverge therein, becausewhile Charisse finally warms up to Kelly, the two Garys will not succeed in reobtaining their past mates, though the friends on the side get an unexpected benefit as Pike warms up to long-crushing Considine, and, for one night, long-crushing Oswalt will enjoy intimacy with Theron.
  • Those Blanks in TWE are able to take a lot of punishment and keep coming back for more. For that matter, so do those handsome dancers in IAFW Dolores Gray keeps violently rebuffing.
"Blanks a lot, but no Blanks"?

  • Each protagonist soon realizes the full power of their outside threats, yet refuse to capitulate to them, endangering their friend circle. Kelly, though ostensibly doing the right thing by refusing to fix the fight, has effectively performed a selfish act in the service of his ego, and puts a target on his back by snubbing the Mob, who follow him all the way to the scheduled TV broadcast, putting his buddies in harm's way. Pegg, though ostensibly doing the right thing by continuing the appearance of the pub crawl to keep the Blanks at bay, has effectively performed a selfish act in the service of his alcoholic quest, and puts targets on everyone's back as that mob in turn keeps following them through town, causing two friends and a former ally to be subsumed by the Blanks. Theron may not be in mortal danger like Kelly and Pegg, but she's is so determined to follow through on her selfish desire to win back Wilson that when she reveals all at the baby shower, she is definitely harming the peace of his marriage and the community's opinion of her parents, who are present to witness her meltdown.
  • Confessions:

  • Each film offers a large final confrontation between the protagonist and the forces against them. In IAFW, Kelly and company openly acknowledge to a potential world audience (at least the world of NYC) their life's failings, and refuse to participate or be co-opted by all three of the networks they've previously been in service to - television, advertising, and organized crime. A huge fight breaks out, uniting the men in the manner they previously experienced in the armed forces, and while the criminals and the advertisers yield, Gray, representing the most obvious "network" in the battle, goes ahead and co-opts the fracas to reinforce their worth to the rest of society. In TWE, Pegg, Frost, and Considine openly acknowledge to a potential universal audience their life's failings, and refuse to participate or be co-opted by The Network. Seeing as they have waged many fights before this final face-off, The Network yields completely, giving up on offering any worth to the whole of society. In YA, Theron openly acknowledges to her former world of high school acquaintances and elders her life's failing, which, in some contrast to the men, was her desire to become part of the ordinary "network" of mommy goods and suburban living that her longterm relationship and pregnancy promised. She tries her best to provoke a fight, but no one will engage her. Thus, while she yields the situation by leaving the shower, she de facto refuses (though it is more of an acceptance) to participate in that life, a decision inadvertently reinforced after spending the night in intimacy with Oswalt and having a disastrously enabling conversation with Oswalt's sister.
  • I think I will let Peter Avellino have the last words on the ending convergences:

    "The joint revelation the three men make at the end feels quietly satisfying...[they] have all realized once again that they really will be 'friends until they die' but they’ll still have to move towards the future without going back. As they seem to have discovered, there’s no returning to what once was." - from Peter Avellino's IT'S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER review

    "Gary King’s business in Newton Haven is finished, sort of like everything Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg were trying to say about their own pasts with these three films is finished. My business in Scarsdale has long since been finished there too. No one’s waiting for me back there. But we each need to face up to our past in our own way. The future, meantime, is a sort of oblivion where if we’re lucky we can figure out what our own happy ending is."

    "I only wish Mavis well and even though she’s probably just going to go right back to her apartment I hope she realizes all the possibilities she now has in front of her, now that maybe she’s finally able to move on from the nineties and her past. And even more than the booze, I hope she gives up all that fast food and reality TV. It would really be for the best in the long run."

"Hey, I remember old Bootsie. The kid from the south that was always tripping all over himself?"
"Sure. His name was George something-or-other."
"Bootsie. Brown?"
"No, no. George Barry." 
"Barry! That's it!"
"We were always toasting him. It was good luck or something."
"I don't know."
"I remember. When we landed at Anzio on the beachhead, he fell over his big feet and fell flat on his face. We followed him down. We thought it was orders. The machine guns opened up to let us have it, but we were down flat."
"That's right. That idiot saved our lives."
"Gee. Old Bootsie."

Three movies, similar but all distinct, with common threads but sometime conflicting patterns, done by great artists in their prime. All of them now among my favorite films of recent memory. As I hope they may be to you as well, especially if you've invested the time in reading this long wonky bit of folderol.

These stories may not have saved my life, but they all made it an awful lot better. So if there's a reason to be putting them together in this awkward reminiscence, I suppose it's to make sure their wonderful similarities are never forgotten like ol' Bootsie almost was. 

And that, friends, is worth raising a glass.