the whole history
of MY LiFE
I got tired of writing about Interesting Films that will never mean anything to anybody, even if they're good, even if everyone agrees they're good and what kind of person wouldn't? So I wanted to do a short series about the films I really love - as in the emotion, the way you'd love a woman or a memory or a time that passed and is never coming back. I wanted to write about the films that have demonstrably meant something to me in my life, that changed my relationship to the world and made me into a person, the only person that I am. I wanted to write about these movies and explain them without any horseshit, explain how film has the ability to get down into a person and do something to them. The six films I'm going to write about in this series changed the whole history of my life.
PART 1: THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE
PART 2: NAKED
PART 3: THE SMARTEST MAN IN THE WORLD
PART 4: METROPOLITAN
PART 5: THE WHITE RIBBON
PART 6: MIAMI BLUES
george armitage, 1990.
"I could have everything and anything that I want, only I don't know what I want."
When I started getting this series together back in December of 2010, this is the movie I was thinking of, the source of the whole concept. It's a funny film to write about because I think that, on some objective level, it's just not as good a movie as the other films in the series. Certainly, Discreet Charm of Bourgeoisie, The White Ribbon and Naked are masterpieces of the "tour-de-force" variety: their genius is startling, even overwhelming, each film clearly the bold vision of singular artist. Metropolitan and The Smartest Man in the World are more modest works, but really impressive films nonetheless; a tiny budget means that Whit Stillman's brilliant debut is occassionally pretty rough around the edges and Errol Morris' short film was one episode of t.v. show among 17 other episodes - even with those handicaps, both movies are undeniably a cut above 99% of films in the history of cinema. Morris is so good he can (and has) tossed off a masterpiece without warning. Stillman's work has proved to be among the most enduring of the early 90's AmerIndie film boom. George Armittage? The Miami Blues director is a bit of an unsolved mystery, his films lack a forceful directorial identity and Miami Blues has a general tone and texture in common with a glut of early 90's films. However, Blues taken along with Armitage's other best films Grosse Pointe Blank and Hit Man, constitutes a body of work good enough that I have to at least suspect him of auteurism. Still, it's weird to put a list together that goes Luis Buñuel, Mike Leigh, Errol Morris, Whit Stillman, Michael Haneke... George Armitage? Is that the name that inspired me to write the most sincerely and personally I ever have written about movies? Is Miami Blues the movie I've thought more about and returned to more in my life than any other? Is a 1990 crime comedy, a failed franchise-starter based on a popular series of beach-read detective novels, a mildly well-recieved film that represents neither the commercial nor critical high-point of the career of anyone involved,* that's the film that means the most to me? Does this film even mean that much to Fred Ward?
But maybe even stranger is that writing about like this seems impossible because to me what it is, is self-evident. I know it too well so whatever I might have to say about it seems obvious and boring; my ideas about Miami Blues more eloquently argued and possessed by the film itself. I once invited Terrence Rafferty to the Jacob Burns Film Center to do an introduction and Q&A for The Rules of the Games. I consider Rafferty to be the greatest film critic of all time - I don't even know who would be in second place** - and a section of his top-notch book, The Thing Happens, is devoted to a lengthy essay on Renoir's film. Our event should have been an amazing discussion: a legendary critic presenting what he considers to be the most interesting film ever made. But it wasn't. And I could feel him getting trapped: he didn't say too much about the circumstances of Renoir taking on the role of Octave himself, just made an allusion to the "well-known stories" about that fascinating production quirk. He mentioned the film's hostile reception and rediscovery, but sped over all of that crucial info because it's well-worn subject matter. His comments were unfocused and weirdly abbreviated. It killed me because not only do I enjoy Rafferty's essay on The Rules of the Game more than I actually enjoy the film The Rules of the Game, but because the audience clearly had no idea what he was talking about and was confused by his seemingly obscure and elusive commentary: the anecdotes and analysis that felt rote and tired to Rafferty were actually completely unknown to his audience. I'm in the same position right now: before I get started, do I really have to give a general plot recap of Miami Blues, explain the role it played in Alec Baldwin's career, mention the production history, explain a little bit about the Charles Willeford novels on which it is based? Isn't that all a little rote? And even beyond all that, isn't what ruins me about the movie, what breaks me, isn't that perfectly encapsulated by a line like "this straight life we've been living gave me a false sense of security, for a second I thought I was some kind of a solid citizen." How could I improve upon that? This movie exists so deeply inside me that writing about it feels redundant, inarticulate, less.
But we can't skip that stuff. We can't skip straight to the "happily ever after" part. Nobody can. Here goes with the rote. The grind. The day to day.
Miami Blues was based on the first novel in a four-book series following Dective Hoke Moseley. Like seemingly every Charles Willeford novel, it was originally called Kiss Your Ass Goodbye until the publishers made him change it. Three of the four Moseley books (Miami Blues, Sideswipe, The Way We Die Now) are structured in the same fashion with the chapters alternating between plot strands following the beaten-down-by-life detective Moseley and the criminals with whom he will at some point come (violently) into contact. The second book in the series, New Hope for the Dead, concerns Moseley's work on cold cases and, narratively, it's a bit of a mess that mainly serves to set the up the 3rd and best of the Moseley books, the brilliantly brutal and beautiful Sideswipe. That's a terribly bland title for such a jolt of a book, but I believe it was originally supposed to be called Kiss Your Ass Goodbye. It's not clear that the producers of film Miami Blues intended to turn their property into a franchise and film the other books as well, but Sideswipe is definitely begging to be made into a movie starring Owen Wilson as the sunny, psychopathic charmer Troy Louden. Maybe the challenge of dealing with the convoluted, wheel-spinning, episodic nature of New Hope for the Dead put the kibosh on their plans - more likely Miami Blues simply wasn't a big enough hit to demand the sequels be made. On an entirely different level, it would have seemed crazy to continue on with the series while leaving behind the breakout star of the film, Alec Baldwin as Frederick Frenger, Jr. (a.k.a. Herman Gottlieb.) Baldwin owns the movie to a point that I can imagine audiences not even understanding that Fred Ward's Hoke Moseley is supposed to be the main character. Baldwin edges Ward in screentime and blows him up in terms of live-wire charisma. He is also slightly better looking. In fact, the only real problem I have with the film is that the balance is all out of wack for the first 20 or so minutes during which Baldwin murders a Hari Krishna, tricks a little boy guarding a suitcase, bullies a concierge, belittles a prostitute, attempts to sell that same prostitute stolen clothes and then finally gets the prostitute to fall in love with him. That's a litany of dirty deeds, but young, impossibly gorgeous Baldwin just flashes his baby blues and no one in this life or the next could resist his charms. Ward's Moseley barely stands a chance. It doesn't help that Ward's first few scenes are filled with goofy, tonally imbalanced comedy that awkwardly condense (and alter) large chunks of the book in order to set up non-essential (but wise) plot changes. Miami Blues is Hoke Moseley's book, but it is undoubtedly Alec Baldwin's movie.
The plot somewhat mimics the book's structure, cutting back and forth between scenes of restless Baldwin's Frenger attempting to settle into a new life in Miami and the slovenly Ward's Moseley slowly hunting down the airport Krishna's killer. When Moseley gets too close to cracking the case, Frenger follows him home, brutally assaults him and steals the poor sap's gun, badge and even his false teeth. From there, Frenger starts pretending to be a cop - at first, he uses his new credentials and standard issue revolver to help him pull off crimes; later he simply begins to do an excessively erratic and violent impression of a police officer, clipping petty crooks over minor offenses, even randomly executing a bookie. But by the end of the movie, Frenger (sans badge or gun) is cautioning a ridiculous convenience store stick-up artist to not go down the same path he took, urging the redneck kid to not make the same mistakes and live a clean life. Meanwhile, Moseley steps into every trap Frenger sets for him, his part of the plot being little beyond a series of humiliations: first, Frenger gets the drop, steals his most essential items and leaves him in the hospital. Next, Frenger tricks a corrupt vice cop (played by Paul Gleason) into believing that Moseley is horning in on his kickbacks. The pissed viceman thrashes Moseley on the very day he gets out of the hospital. Moseley's co-workers put up demeaning carictures of him in his office at the police station, his new partner (Elita Sanchez, a Cuban unfortunately played by the extremely not-Cuban Nora Dunn) looks down at him, Frenger even inadvertantly cracks a case he's been fruitlessly pursuing for six months. The film makes a couple major changes to the book that actually improve story, even if they throw the Moseley stuff off balance. It's true that the film loses a lot of interesting secondary business including fascinating true crime stuff like the bits explaining how the Krishnas aren't devoted accolytes at all, but druggie sleazebags using a religious exemption as a loophole to get around panhandling laws. Also, Frenger is repeatedly described as a massive workout freak musclehead - that's clearly dropped in favor of the muscular, but not juiced up Baldwin physique on display in the film - although some of the dialog about his physical strength ended up in the script. Most notably, the Elita Sanchez character, essentially Moseley's co-star in the novels, is pared down to a few appearances that stick out for being pointless non-starters - their relationship is weirdly, almost pointedly underdeveloped, like Arimtage couldn't bring himself to entirely leave her out of the story but also simply didn't have any time to follow on any Moseley/Sanchez tangent. Dunn is also such a cold fish that I'm not sure she would have even managed a spark with Baldwin - opposite Ward, there's no hope. Moseley's partner Bill Henderson is a similarly important/underdeveloped supporting character, but Armitage at least casts Jonathan Demme mascot Charles Napier in the role, so his few scenes are memorable. Unlike Dunn, he's also perfectly cast.
The final major change concerns the backstory of a Susan Waggoner, the naive prostitute played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. It's amazing that in the preceding paragraph (back on page one), I didn't mention her because the character is only the whole goddamned movie. If you boil it down to basics, Miami Blues is the story of a man for whom everything falls into place just up until it all goes spectacularly wrong (Frenger) mirrored against the story of a man who can't do anything right except for the things that really matter (Moseley.) But what it really is, is the story of a teenage girl who wants to believe she's found the right guy and the guy who just can't get there, where she needs him to be. The film and Leigh's brilliant performance rewrite the character almost entirely. In the book, she's more calculating and streetwise, coming from a background of white trash depravity and not entirely concerned that Frenger isn't exactly who he says he is. I couldn't believe it the first time I read the book having already seen the film a dozen times, but in the novel, the murdered Kirshna is her brother with whom she's had an incestuous relationship. Frenger just happens by freakin' coincidence to get sent her as an escort a couple hours after he murdered her brother. And then Hoke meets Frenger not because of any detective work on his part, but because the musclehead is hanging around when Moseley goes to do a standard interview the victim's sister! As I mentioned, the change works in the film's favor two-fold: for one, Moseley gets to do some modest detective work by tracking Frenger to his hotel room (from the airport shuttle) and finding a discarded sport jacket seen worn by Frenger at the scene of the crime - his decision to go see Susie is based on the fact that he figures out Frenger had company in his hotel room and wants to talk to the only person who has seen the Krishna killer up close and personal. Second, the changes dull the sharp edges of Susie and make her sympathetic, sweet and as close to innocent as a mid-level prostitute can be. Susie's childlike innocence as played by Leigh gives the film much of the ethereal, yearning tone that constantly creeps in around the edges. Without it, following more closely to the book, the film would be down to earth and lacking in the strange faint and then overpowering transcendental qualities that give it such a unique feel. The books are special in their own way, but their focus on the domestic minutiae of Moseley is powerful and emotional in a much more feet-on-the-ground kinda way. Through Leigh's Susie, Frenger becomes a true tragic hero and not just a really great villain. Again, this ends up being at the expense of Moseley's character and it's exactly what I'm talking about when I say that it would have felt insane to produce sequels without Baldwin and Leigh reprising their roles.
I don't think the almost spiritual aspects of Frenger's downfall as Armitage tells it are an accident either. Losing the intriguing bits about the Krishnas being scummy frauds means the film throws out the most prominent example of the novel's undercurrents about belief in general being a fraud. The book evinces a cynical skepticism evident not just in faux Krishnas invading airports and public parks for a quick buck, but Moseley's indifference to "serve, honor and protect" credos and Frenger's entire unstable identity. In the book, everyone is a hyopcrite, lying to themselves or too tired to lie to themselves anymore. By contrast, Armitage's Frenger and Susie are characters who really, truly want to believe, even if they have only the dimmest understanding of themselves and their feelings. In Armitage's story, Frenger becomes a less of a con artist covering his tracks with a web of poorly considered lies and more of a lost soul who genuinely can't find his place in the world or maybe just can't accept the villain he really is deep down. Susie's plan to buy a burger world franchise reads in the book like little beyond a pathetic, hare-brained business plan, the kind of dispiriting capitalist dream an amoral not-too-bright schemer would have. Step one: sell body. Step two: sell soul (suckers. that soul isn't worth anything.) In the film, it feels like an almost touchingly simplistic vision of a stable future for a woman who has little means to attain such a modest end. The soundtrack contributes to the weirdly spiritual tone: Norman Greenbaum's hokey gospel-tinged cash-in Spirit in the Sky plays over the opening and end credits, Desmond Dekker's ska classic The Israelites pops in at a key moment. Greenbaum, a Jewish guy with zero belief in Christian ideology, wrote Spirit in 1969 to snare the dollars of the hippies-for-Jesus faction - there's a punishingly earnest quality to the song that easily plays as disingenuous in normal settin; over a brutal crime drama, the earnest/disingenuous tone adds a dimension of instability and exhiliration to the film's overall ideas about the slippery line between believing and wanting to believe. The Israelites concerns the spiritual transcendence that can come with being mercilessly worn down by the daily grind of life - again, it would be tempting to say that both songs provide an ironic contrast to the crime story, a deliberate counterpoint to the film's plot, but they both end up embodying what I think Armitage is really getting at: Frenger's story is not lurid, it is tragic. Of course, all this needs qualifying. Armitage builds his film on tensions and is careful to never let one competing element overwhelm another. It strikes a precarious balance: tension between the gritty crime story and the spiritual aspects, tensions between the brutal violence and charming comedy, tensions between who Frenger is and who he wants to be, tensions between the purity of Susie’s feelings and the moral panic Frenger forces her into, tensions between Moseley’s slovenly ramshackle demeanor and his essential excellence, tensions between what is fair and what it true.
And now maybe I've gone too far in the other direction and lost the thread of what this whole series is about: what just kills me about this movie. I think that, ultimately, it's a question of identification. What I mean is, there is no character in the history of cinema or literature with whom I have ever identified more deeply than Frederick Frenger, Jr. Now, it might seem a little strange to say that I identify deeply with a man that I have just outlined to be a sociopath, a desperate, flailing criminal liar who accomplishes little beyond destroying his own life. I'm not shying away from that: Frenger's troubling qualities are the ones with which I identify most. He has a restless insecurity that never allows him to settle into being himself: the only line ever written by any author ever anywhere that matters is "I could have everything and anything that I want, only I don't know what I want." This is a line that I have repeated to myself endlessly throughout my life. The first half encapsulates the fact that I have been successful at almost anything I have ever attempted, there are almost no goals that I have set for myself that I have failed to attain, no pursuits and ideals that exist beyond my grasp. But, goddamn if I can ever actually set goals, pursue any clear endpoints or develop any ideals. Since childhood I have been plagued by cynicism, doubt and self-loathing, I simply cannot settle into being myself. At times I am not sure exactly who it is I intend to be or just what it is I am trying to accomplish by being alive. If only life were as simple as wanting things. In the scene where Frenger delivers the line, he asks Suze to tell him about her middling dream of opening a burger world. "Well, you buy a franchise, you hire a bunch of teenagers to work there so you can pay them nothing and then you watch them like a hawk or they will steal you blind -" Just before she speaks, she takes a deep breath, smiles to herself and then launches into it as though she has been waiting her whole life for that moment, waiting her entire life to find a person to share her dreams with. Frenger cuts her off - he wants to know why she wants these things. What's the endgame? The essence of existence, of working and being, is almost entirely alien to him. He can't understand how anyone would consent to live that way - he laughs in her face, takes another swig of his beer and assures her that they're going to "jump straight to the white picket fence part" of her dreams. His cocky delusion that skipping to the end will bring him satisfaction elides his internal struggle: everyone seems like suckers to live the way they do. He'll just grab what he wants. Why do people want what they want? Why can't his desires be as simple as Susan Waggoner's?
I constantly butt heads with reality and, like Frenger, my response is the ease and comfort of pathological lying. I would like to say that this habit is totally in the past - I have made many efforts to curtail it - but the impulse to control reality through generating new false narratives comes naturally to me. Why should reality not be what Frenger says it is? Yes, there are frequently utilitarian purposes to his prevarications: Frenger lies about his childhood or being an aerobics instructor to evade Mosely and the judgement coming down the pike - he also uses his status as a fake cop to more effectively commit crimes - but at a certain point, the allure of unreality overtakes him and he's no longer pretending to be a police offficer for any personal gain. He senselessly shoots the bookie and tries to save the soul of convenience store stick-up man for reasons that could not possibly benefit him. When he lies to Suze and tells her vinegar-satured pie is "great - one of her best ever" while coughing and choking it down, his lie comes from a genuinely good-hearted impulse - can we fault him for being nice about his pseudo-wife's terrible cooking? But the truth matters, not just to Hoke, but Suze who wants to believe in the evasive con artist claiming to love her. He can only control reality so far and it invariably slips out of his grasp. Who is it that he wanted to be again? What is the everything and anything that he wanted? I suppose you could accuse me of romanticizing simple cowardly, self-serving behavior and, sure, why not, that's what I'm doing. But I'm not asking you to like Frenger or even me, I'm telling you why I identify with this film. The terrifying flipside of Frenger's existence is that he simply is who he is, that he's a horrible person and there's no way for him to take control of himself. I've certainly felt that way, helpless to be anything but the rotten person I am, the mean-spirited, self-centered liar who aliennates everyone around him, especially those who want to believe in him. I would like to think that I have options other than lies, options other than a falsified reality that will inevitably break, but what if I don't, what if I can't ever assume a new identify? What if I can't be anyone but myself simply because I don't know what I want? What makes Frenger tragic to me is the helplessness he exhibits in the face of his own nature and the ineptitude of his fantasies in dealing with his restless dissatisfaction with existing. But what are my options? Buy a burger world, hire a bunch of teenagers to work there and watch them like a hawk or they will steal me blind? Or should I sit in a cubicle all day?
I felt these fears more deeply when I was younger. It's a funny thing that has happened as I've aged and begun to identify less with Frenger - I wish I could say I made the conscious decision to become a better person, but the opposite is true: I spent most of my 20's being the absolute worst person I could be, extravagantly indulging my worst tendencies, ugliest philosophies and most destructive behaviors. I didn't have an epiphany, I didn't work towards anything, I just changed. I can attribute a lot of it to marrying I woman with whom I am desperately in love and starting a family with a little son who rules. But there's also something else going on. A new dimension of appreciation opened up for me with Miami Blues in that as I've come to identify with Frenger less, I've begun to indentify with Moseley more - not because Moseley is some content family man who acts with a moral clarity. In fact, the opposite is true: Moseley is divorced, his teenage daughters are strangers and he lives in a seedy motel full of Cuban emigres for free because the management wants a cop around at night. There's a funny thing about the nature of Moseley's character that I am not entirely sure I can articulate, but I'll try. When I saw the movie Bug, I spent the first 20 minutes thinking "Man, that seems like the life, living in a rundown motel in the middle of nowhere, eking out an aimless existence, working a pointless job and subsisting on beer and cigarettes and drugs." And that might sound like I was romanticizing that kind of dingy life in a Bukowski-esque way, but that's not what it is - somewhere in the back of my skull, I feel an admiration for people content with living lives that truly don't matter, people just of the edge of totally disappearing, but not consumed with despair or self-pity or (even worse) nursing fantasies about the amazing life they could be living if they just wrote their screenplay or met the right woman or went back and got their Masters. Moseley, in some way, embodies a more functional version that kind of existence, a total contentment of decripitude. A seedy motel, a pork-chop dinner, an ex-wife, a thankless job, a couple of cold beers. That appeals to me. That possibility that you can find contentment in a life that would disappointment most, the ability to escape the panic that defines, harrasses and immolates Frenger. When I was young I was Frenger, the man who fears, who can never believe in buying a burger world, the life built on lies and the amorality that compels you to cut in line. As I age, as I change, I connect more and more with Moseley, the man who has learned how to do little beyond exist. But he exists perfectly.
Moseley - and especially the gruffly charming Ward as Moseley - walks through a world that's full of shit and it doesn't bother him. He's got clarity and calm even as the misfortune rains down on him. He's not worried about it anymore. He acts. He thinks. He exists. If it weren't such a cliched, over-wrought, over-thought thing to write, I would be tempted to label Hoke's composure as "Zen-like," if only because of the self-abnegation and concept of "work for work's sake" at the core of Buddhist principles. At one point in the film, he finds an insulting caricature pinned up in his office presumably by his fellow officers who think he's ridiculous for having had his gun, badge and teeth stolen by Frenger. He newly appointed Elitza Sanchez looks on dubiously as he tears the drawing down in a rage. He suddenly turns to her: "I know you think I'm a weak suck, but there's a sicko out there with my badge pretending to be a cop." His tone finishes the sentence for him, an unspoken "- and I'm going to get the son of a bitch that did this." I'm not sure what happened, but now I feel like Moseley. Whatever garbage rains down on me, I look at my life and it doesn't affect me. It's a strange transition to have made, from the restless helpless unfocsued aspiration of Frenger to the unflappable gutter-clarity of Moseley. I didn't get where I wanted to be by pursuing it. I didn't end up with a white picket fence because I worked in burger world or because I figured out how to game the system and jump straight to the white picket fence part. My wife, my son, my work, my thoughts, I don't worry, I don't lie, I act. I'm who I am, dammit, not who I dream of being. I'm sure a lot of folks still think I'm a joke, a weak suck... but I get my man, every goddamned time.
Somebody cue Spirit in the Sky. I'm not sure I mean that sarcastically, even slightly.
~ MARCH 21, 2015 ~
* It comes close for Armitage, but Grosse Pointe Blank was a bigger movie by any standard. It certainly made more money and has more general pop cultural notoriety - Grosse Point Blank seems to have even gotten slightly better reviews, although it's essentially a toss-up on that count. We can agree though that for stars Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alec Baldwin, producer Jonathan Demme (Stop Making Sense, Rachel Getting Married), editor Craig Mckay (Something Wild, Silence of the Lambs) and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto (Devil in a Blue Dress, The 6th Sense, Philadelphia) this film is probably a footnote in their careers. Even Fred Ward has The Right Stuff and Henry & June - and Tremors is a more beloved cult action-comedy.
** Ok, ok - it would be Francois Truffaut or Andre Bazin.