1984: choose me
This week, the 'smoke is taking part in a nostalgia-fueled "blogathon" hosted by Forgotten Films to commemorate the cinema of 1984. Over one hundred writers have been enlisted to share their thoughts on such 30-year-old gems as Rhinestone, Blame It on Rio and Cannonball Run II. Be sure to check out Forgotten Films for a full list of the movies being ruminated upon (definitely head over to Pinnland Empire for Marcus' thoughts on Leos Carax's feature debut Boy Meets Girl).
Do you know what it is when you feel something for somebody and you don't know what it is because if you knew what it was you wouldn't feel it anymore?
Why'd I choose Choose Me to write about for this epic 1984-a-thon (other than the fact that Razorback was already spoken for)? I think it's because Choose Me represents a prominent point in the varied career of Alan Rudolph where it looked like his particular brand of fey idiosyncracy might actually be evolving into something interesting. Which I guess is kind of a back-handed way of saying it's probably his best film, since that anticipated evolution never came to fruition. Put together on a tiny budget years before he exposed the secret lives of dentists, the film may not be a masterpiece or even a great film but in retrospect it's miles above his less durable work. Its intimacy makes it more accessible than the sprawling Altman knock-off Welcome to L.A. For all its jazzy lighting, sound stage production,* quirky dialogue and conspicuous self-awareness it refrains from getting too muddled by its own style like follow-up film Trouble in Mind. And although it doesn't seem to have much of an agenda, it has more of a purpose than such impressively detailed yet ultimately fluffy period pieces as The Moderns and Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle.
The film, set in an artificial L.A. around a bar called Eve's on Adams Street (I know, but it's not as grievous a decision as naming the hero "Hart" and the villain "Stone" in The Moderns) is a loose, zoetic celebration of transient love affairs, the ephemeral thrill of "choosing" someone and of being chosen. Not so much the thrill of conquest but rather the alluring prospect that a compulsive bid for connection could result in something pure and instantaneous. The compelling spontaneity of how any given night out will develop provides the film its own fervent pace and expectant tone as the characters come together. Remarkably enough, Rudolph manages to maintain this exciting romantic milieu throughout despite his story dealing with depression and domestic abuse, his mise en scène decorated with the faceless, perpetually wandering "ladies on Adams Street" and his lead cast including a leering John Larroquette.
Inherently elemental to yet weirdly disharmonious with this game of after-hours musical chairs is Lesley Ann Warren's bartender/owner Eve, who's had "too much luck with men" but finds herself unable to settle on any one guy. A former street walker who replaced the original "Eve" when she happened to walk by the bar and see her name on it, she's obviously come a long way under her own power and become successful enough to afford a house and a hot red T-bird, but her independence masks a lonely, vulnerable side which compels her to regularly place calls to a popular radio show hosted by Geneviève Bujold's Dr. Nancy Love. Their on-air communication is mildly antagonistic - Nancy doesn't offer Eve any helpful advice, although Eve seems satisfied to just get her hang-ups out in the open - and becomes outright hostile once the anonymous relationship between the two women becomes a personal one after Nancy, using a false name in order to infiltrate normal people's lives for the sake of "research," answers Eve's ad for a roommate and moves into her home. Nancy's frigid bashfulness as "Ann" isn't merely a guise: her Dr. Love authority completely dissipates when she's not on the telephone, which she prefers since it eliminates the "complexity of faces" - she even refuses to speak with her own psychiatrist in person. As Dr. Love she offers the "sum of her experiences and knowledge" when in truth she has none - her covert surveillance of Eve and the people in her life isn't so much a professional curiosity as an undiagnosed case of voyeuristic infatuation. Which would register as sinister if Bujold, who I've always thought was beautiful without finding her the least bit sexy (even amidst the sexy freakishness of Dead Ringers), didn't imbue "Ann" with such wide-eyed fascination at the various couplings springing up around her. For all her effort at being clinically invasive, observation of her would-be subjects ends up getting turned around on her.
As such, Nancy's involvement is less the main drive of the story than a subplot to the action at Eve's bar,** into which ambles Keith Carradine's freshly-released mental patient Mickey. Adrift until he can come up with bus fare to Vegas, he comes seeking something like the relationship he had with the original Eve, a reminder of "happier times" even though it ended with Mickey killing a man and possibly spurring the original Eve's suicide. There's an immediate rapport between himself and the "new" Eve, although a sincere connection is somewhat waylaid by Mickey's almost incidental seduction of Pearl, played with just the right combination of worldliness and naiveté by Rae Dawn Chong. Mickey is irrefutably the heart of the movie: a self-professed pathological liar, he still perches at Eve's counter across from his Smirnoff shooter and two inches of head reflecting the world weariness of someone who really did pilot jet planes, take part in covert ops for the CIA, spend time in a Russian jail, teach poetry at Yale, break into photo journalism, kill a man in the heat of passion and cool his heals in a mental hospital. His various identities substantiate Rudolph's portrait of Mickey as the epitome of the seasoned barfly, doling out poignant aphorisms, spurning practicality (if he needs to save money, why's he spending it all on booze?) and cultivating an enigmatic air of intrigue. Yet for all his wisdom and mystique he's sadly regarded as something unsubstantial - it's plain to see why Pearl instantly swoons over him but also why, when trouble finds him back at Pearl's house in the form of her husband Zack (Patrick Bauchau), she turns against him in the light of day. Mickey's the kind of guy you take home but don't give a set of housekeys, hence Eve's dilemma over getting into a relationship with another fly-by-night loser: admitting that she might feel anything resembling emotional attachment would just be setting herself up for disappointment once it inevitably evaporates.
Eve's situation is complicated by the fact that she's having an affair with Zack, for his part the most charmingly vile racketeer since Marty Augustine in The Long Goodbye. Zack is like Mickey except more successfully sociopathic, so of course he instantly resents this confident drifter. Tapping into some New Wavy humor, Rudolph has them beat the shit out of each other every time they meet, culminating in an incredibly funny awkward struggle from one end of a narrow hallway to the other. They almost share a David Thewlis-Greg Cruttwell type relationship, except Mickey still clings to romantic ideals a cynical Johnny would almost certainly scoff at (and Zack never resorts to obnoxious giggling). Even in his work for Rohmer and Wenders Bachau's never been better utilized,*** providing Zack a smarmy charisma that's never over-the-top like Divine's art deco gangster Hilly Blue in Trouble in Mind or one-note evil like John Lone's condom king Bertram Stone in The Moderns. To further soften him up and bring some form of empathy between the villain and the women he mistreats, Rudolph has an accidental phone conference with Nancy deeply affect Zack so that later in the film he actively seeks her out so they can talk further, a meeting that ends up postponed due to the hallway fight. My main narrative complaint is that the film seems to be missing a final scene between these two characters, one that suggests an altering of the relationship between Zack and Pearl one way or another: as it is, Mickey and Eve have their suggested happy ending while poor Pearl is left with a grumpy slap-happy philandering criminal husband. But the point of Zack's chance connection with Nancy is clear: even thugs are insecure.
All these romantic and violent encounters are further convoluted by the secret or ambiguous identities of the characters. No one is given a last name. Mickey claiming to have had a score of different occupations one wouldn't typically associate with each other makes it hard for Eve to know anything about him. Pearl is constantly at the bar but Eve never realizes she's Zack's wife, even after Pearl confronts and threatens her. For her part Eve has supplanted the original Eve, whose memory haunts the bar and the film (so much that a series of quick flashbacks are kind of unnecessary), to the point that she could be considered a reincarnation of the first Eve, even possibly inheriting the previous owner's suicidal ideations. Bujold's Nancy/Ann personas are the movie's most schizophrenic. Eve and Pearl are both regular callers into Dr. Love's show but don't recognize her under the guise of "Ann"; on the flipside, since Eve places her calls under a pseudonym it's never explicitly clear that Nancy knows that she's been chatting with her new roommate on the loveline (it's only implied that she understands they're both discussing Mickey without acknowledging it on the air or in private). Nancy, so self-assured as Dr. Love, is a tense wallflower as Ann and constantly doubled by the camera to accentuate these two strikingly different psyches:
Appropriately, it's the fictional Ann who discovers the evidence that all the things Mickey claimed to be - Yale professor, CIA agent caught by the Russians, etc. - are apparently true. The most hedonistic, self-destructive, hurtful, unbalanced individual can turn out to be the most honest, yet despite ducking in and out of little witticisms and philosophies about love, coming off as streetwise and observant (he seems to understand that when "Ann" is going on about Dr. Nancy Love she's really talking about herself, even though he doesn't come out and say it) Mickey's got a little "love problem." Specifically, he falls in love with any woman he kisses and wants to marry her, and he ends up proposing to all three women before the end of the film. Mickey's earnest intentions match Rudolph's own: he's a junkie for the initiation of romantic entanglements even if his history proves the rest of the ride doesn't bode well for him. For all his experience Mickey is ready to make all the same mistakes over again, in danger of playing out his tragic love triangle involving Eve #1 all over again with Zack as his romantic rival and one of them ending up dead. Actually, a more economic ending would have been for Larroquette's barkeep, who's hung up on Eve, to come to violent terms with Mickey (with whom he's had no previous direct encounter). It's to Rudolph's credit that he doesn't fall into anything so obvious, and he even seems to acknowledge that he could have - Larroquette turns up in the climax as if he came in late, rolling his eyes in surrender and pulling away on his bike when he sees Mickey and Eve in each other's arms.
In keeping with the thrill of the late night love encounter, Rudolph suggests through Mickey experience as something happening right now, not restricted to the past. Anything he wants to say he did becomes his new background. He wants to be with a dead woman, here's her replacement. He needs money to go to Vegas, it will come to him somehow. Therefore the woman he's with at any given moment is the one he wants to be with forever - the temporary connection between two people brought together in a barroom setting should last a lifetime, however deeply flawed that logic may be. The opposite of that absurd yet passionate view, though no less sincere, is the intellectualizing of the concept of romantic entanglements on Dr. Love's show. The detached relationships she carries on with anonymous people through the phone (it's notable that there are several calls placed in Choose Me, and Nancy is always on one end of the line, even when the call's not for her) misses the most vital element of a romantic encounter - actual human contact - and experience for Nancy is just a word until Mickey comes along. Nancy believes everything she says even though she largely says absolutely nothing - she's all voice and tone and mood and good intentions, and she gets her callers (and even moreso her staff) to fall under her shallow spell in scenes that play out like an unthreatening Talk Radio. It's no wonder Rudolph hangs the movie on her, since his own confident yet uncommitted approach isn't far away from hers. Like Nancy's radio show, Choose Me is pleasant, romantic and even insightful - until you hang up the phone and think, "Wait - what??"
But then the dispensable philosopy of Rudolph's film is keeping with its idea of fleeting encounters, its aesthetic pleasures derived from the way he follows characters in and out of the bar in a series of lilting crane shots and weaves between different characters' conversations among the artificial sets. If the lengthy plot details I offered might seem tacky or dated, they're at least kept surprising by the director's ability to unexpectedly pick up and drop off his characters at spontaneous moments. I know I'm obligated to refer to this as the "Altman influence" but there's an exquisite restlessness to Rudolph's roaming camera that gives the film an almost ethereal quality. Which isn't to say it floats off into sentimentality. Choose Me is often called a "modern fairy tale" or "urban fable," but I think the best scenes are the least whimsical: Mickey hanging around the bus station offering to help out the inproficient mechanic for a few bucks, the banality of Mickey and Zack's eternal slugfests, the phone sessions between Nancy and Pearl and between Nancy and Eve. That said, a strikingly subtle moment of magic occurs during one of these sessions. Nancy, who's discovered newfound bliss through a romp with Mickey, finds herself being swept up in Eve's description of euphoria of being with a man: for a brief instant as Eve crosses the room while talking, a specter of Nancy/Ann appears standing behind her, her lips syncing with the orgasmic response of Nancy on the other end of the phone (another doubling of the character). This idiosyncratic touch perfectly symbolizes what I meant when I said that Choose Me suggested more interesting work from Rudolph in the future; unfortunately, it was more a harbinger for the narrative incomprehension and stylistic pretension that would define his later work (Equinox, anyone?) In this film at least his hand is subtle - I love the use of old timey film posters in Pearl's apartment when Mickey lets himself in, passing a poster for Don't Bother to Knock, and later when a mirror reveals a victimized movie gal getting slapped next to a banged-up Pearl:
One area where Rudolph's structure doesn't quite work is his building the film around the unmemorable songs of Teddy Pendergrass. Of course Altman used this kind of ploy several times, setting his films to multiple songs (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Nashville, A Perfect Couple) or different versions of a single song (The Long Goodbye, The Company), but Pendergrass' is a more contemporary sound like James Ingram than soulful R & B a'la Al Green (all I could think about when one of the songs started was Eddie Murphy in Delirious talking about Pendergrass' masculine voice that "scares the bitches into liking him"). The choice doesn't pay off nearly as well for Rudolph as his utilization of the songs of blues singer Alberta Hunter in Remember My Name (another halfway decent Rudolph effort with such a similarly demanding first person title that they could go together: Choose Me and Remember My Name).
Still, to quote Pendergrass' eponymous track "You're My Choice Tonight (Choose Me)", for the most part everything in Choose Me feels so right. In some ways, Rudolph's film bridges the gap between the New Hollywood of Altman, Bogdanovich and Hal Ashby and the New American Independent work of Jarmusch, Soderbergh and Hal Hartley. But at best this was a pontoon bridge, a temporary connection broken up and forgotten in favor of films by the more enduring directors who came before and the later ones who took ideas from him and improved upon them. Rudolph would move on to ensemble pieces featuring archaic noir detectives wandering around meeting pointlessly eccentric characters**** - Trouble in Mind, Love at Large and Trixie all make me think of Godard's line from Weekend: "What a rotten film, all we do is meet crazy people." But I can enjoy Choose Me as long as I keep in mind Pearl's revelation about falling in love, experiencing that feeling you can't identify and wouldn't want to because if you did it wouldn't be there anymore. After this, the honeymoon was definitely over...
* In this respect, along with the film being the story of two sets of lovers swapping partners in the big city loosely modeled after classic works by German/Austrian writers (Goethe's Elective Affinities and Schnitzler's La Ronde, respectively) and centered around original songs from a popular recording artist, it's no wonder the movie is often mentioned in the same breath as Coppola's One From the Heart from 1982. Both films have gained second life reputations as underappreciated masterpieces, and I kind of a have a similar feeling about both movies (although I think Choose Me ultimately bests Coppola's film in almost every quality save the soundtrack and cinematography).
** Vincent Canby, who wrote a review positively comparing the film to the then-trendy "adult fantasys" of Beineix, nails it by comparing the dynamic of the bar scenes to William Saroyan. I'd be shocked if Rudolph wasn't influenced by the writer's Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Time of Your Life, with Mickey standing in for sardoic barfly Joe, Eve for the lost Kitty Duval and Zack for Blick, Kitty's abusive bully of a boyfriend.
*** Maybe as Vic in The Rapture: "Is he as bad a boy as I am?" "He's the lord Jesus Christ, Vic." At one point Bachau was up for the lead in Star Trek: The Next Generation - he would have made one slimey Captain Picard!
**** The real head-scratchers on his filmography like sci-fi/horror Endangered Species and rape drama Mortal Thoughts don't help his case any.
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