"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Saturday, April 23, 2022

Licorice Pizza


Filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson was born, raised and continues to live in the San Fernando Valley in California. It has and continues to provide a source of inspiration for some of his most personal films, including Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999), Punch-Drunk Love (2002), and Licorice Pizza (2021). He even shot parts of his adaptation of the Thomas Pynchon novel Inherent Vice (2014) in the Valley. Why does PTA return to this place repeatedly? Beyond the convenience of shooting close to home, he is fascinated by the towns and the people that inhabit them as evident most significantly with Licorice Pizza, a nostalgic look back at the area, focusing on the burgeoning romance between two young people in 1973.
 
This is a largely plotless film that follows the misadventures of Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), a 15-year-old high school student, and Alana Kane (Alana Haim), a 25-year-old woman. He’s an aspiring actor with several projects already on his resume and she works for a photographer. They meet at his school during class photo day and immediately starts hitting on her. Initially, she’s repulsed by him but gradually he wears down her resistance through sheer force of will and she finds herself intrigued by his tenacity.
 
Gary is bursting with youthful confidence, ready to take on the world and launch his next entrepreneurial scheme, whether it’s selling waterbeds or opening a pinball emporium. Alana already seems resigned to her lot in life when she tells him, “I’m going to be here taking photos of kids for their yearbooks when I’m 30. You’re never going to remember me.” This is such a sad admission for someone so young.

At the end of their initial encounter and after repeatedly insulting Gary, rebuffing his advances, Alana walks away, giving a little smile and a shake of her head that is handled beautifully by Alana Haim. It’s a wonderful, little moment in a film full of them as we see how Garry has gotten to her and she’s smitten. The film examines the push-pull of their courtship. He’s a hopeless romantic and she’s a jaded cynic. She knows that this can’t go anywhere because of their age difference, but is intrigued enough by his impressible attitude that she wants to see how it all plays out.
 
Soon, Alana finds herself caught up in Gary’s infectious optimism and the rest of Licorice Pizza follows these two and their wild misadventures as they navigate the will they or won’t they fall in love journey we’ve seen before albeit through PTA’s unique filter. Much has been made about the age gap between the two lead characters and PTA seems acutely aware of this, deftly handling their romance in a way that is sweet while eschewing anything overtly sexual.
 
After the initial meet-cute between Gary and Alana, the film stumbles and loses its way for a moment with a baffling scene where we see Gary’s mother (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) handle public relations for a local Japanese restaurant owned by an American (John Michael Higgins) and his Asian wife (Yumi Mizui). He speaks normally to Gary’s mom but to his wife in a cartoonish Asian accent that comes off as offensive. This scene is jarring in tone and content compared to the rest of the film. What is the point of it other than showing us what Gary’s mom does for a living? What are we supposed to take away from this scene? People were racist back in the ‘70s? It serves no real purpose and temporarily breaks the enchanting spell of the film. The same could be said about a weird, random moment later when Gary is suddenly and literally yanked from a scene by the police who mistakenly arrest him for murder. No reason is given and it is never addressed again.

Like he did with Punch-Drunk Love, PTA casts unconventional actors for his leads. Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim aren’t your typical handsome Hollywood actors – hell, they aren’t even actors at all, but rather normal-looking people that could’ve come out of the 1970s. For two people whose first time it is acting in a film Hoffman and Haim have wonderful chemistry together and are believable in their respective roles as they aren’t saddled with actorly affectations that can happen to professionally-trained actors at that age.
 
Gary talks a good game but doesn’t really know what he wants to do as evident with all the endeavors he starts but doesn’t stick with – acting, waterbed salesman, pinball emporium manager – but that’s okay, that’s what you’re supposed to do. You are supposed to try all kinds of things and have all kinds of experiences. That’s called growing up. Alana is self-aware and acknowledges how weird it is that she’s hanging out with Gary and his 15-year-old friends. She may not have it all figured but she’s trying and this journey she takes is one of the most fascinating aspects of Licorice Pizza.
 
PTA deftly chronicles the ups and downs of their relationship, from getting to know each other only to back off when faced with obstacles such as jealousy and rivals for their respective affections. They are both young and still figuring out how to communicate with each other and sometimes mixed messages are conveyed such as Alana overcompensating for her attraction to the younger Gary by getting briefly involved with a much older man, Jack Holden (Sean Penn channeling William Holden), an actor in the twilight of his career. This segues into a memorable vignette involving a veteran filmmaker (played by Tom Waits no less) who coaxes Jack into performing a wild stunt. He may be much older than Gary but he’s just as immature as Sean Penn illustrates masterfully with a deliciously eccentric performance.

Another memorable sequence comes when Garry and his friends deliver a waterbed to the house of famous hairdresser turned movie producer Jon Peters (a hilariously arrogant Bradley Cooper) who proceeds to go on about his very famous girlfriend Barbra Streisand and threatens them if they mess up assembling his waterbed. Bradley Cooper’s take on Peters is equal parts comical and frightening – a Hollywood mogul high on his own supply and with a raging ego to match it.

Hoffman does an excellent job conveying the awkwardness of being a teenager because he is one. He also exudes the arrogant confidence of youth. Gary hasn’t been beaten down by life yet and has no fear of failure. Haim’s performance epitomizes that weird zone of being in your mid-twenties where she’s out of school but hasn’t settled on a profession. Alana is no longer a child but doesn’t quite feel like an adult either. Her relationship with him only complicates things.
 
Licorice Pizza
perfectly captures what it means to be young with your whole life in front of you and not knowing what you want to do with it as evident in the montage of Gary’s burgeoning waterbed business set to “Peace Frog” by the Doors where we see his growing attraction towards Alana and vice versa. PTA remembers the age when you thought 30-years-old and over was ancient and a lifetime away. He also captures the awkwardness of youth, saying the wrong thing at the wrong moment, succumbing to petty jealousy and feeling insecure about yourself. Licorice Pizza is PTA’s most unabashed romantic film since Punch-Drunk Love and a love letter to the place he’s lived his entire life. Much like Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), PTA has crafted an affectionate hang-out movie bathed in the warm, comforting glow of nostalgia for the ‘70s.


Saturday, March 19, 2022

Tequila Sunrise


Robert Towne needed a box office hit. By 1987, the legendary Hollywood screenwriter, who rose to fame in the 1970s with the likes of The Last Detail (1973) and Chinatown (1974), was in director’s jail after his debut, Personal Best (1982), flopped at the box office and he went through a messy legal battle against studio executive David Geffen. He was trying to get his second directorial effort, Tequila Sunrise (1988), off the ground and knew he’d need bankable movie stars in the lead roles. He managed to secure Mel Gibson, Michelle Pfeiffer and Kurt Russell who were all coming off successful high-profile hits with Lethal Weapon (1987), The Witches of Eastwick (1987) and Overboard (1987), respectively. They jumped at the opportunity to work with someone such as Towne, drawn to his well-written screenplay. The end result is a gorgeously shot neo-noir with a love triangle that tests the friendship between two long-time friends on opposite sides of the law.
 
Dale “Mac” McKussic (Gibson) is a high-end drug dealer that is supposedly retired even though Nick Frescia (Russell), head of narcotics for Los Angeles County, runs into him at a drug deal. They are friends from way back and so Nick lets him go before the bust goes down, however, Mac knew it was coming and got rid of the drugs. One gets the feeling from the casual way they interact with each other that they’ve crossed paths many times before this incident. Mac escapes and just makes his late reservation at his favorite posh restaurant run by Jo Ann Vallenari (Pfeiffer), who catches the eye of both him and Nick. The rest of the film plays out a twisty cat and mouse game as Nick is torn between busting his friend and trying to save him while Mac is torn between doing one last drug deal and his love for Jo Ann – the person that puts their friendship to the test. As the film progresses, various characters’ true motivations come into focus and we see if Mac is smart enough to stay one step ahead of the Columbian drug cartel he works for, the DEA and hold on to Jo Ann.

All three lead actors exude sex appeal like crazy and part of the thrill of watching Tequila Sunrise is how these three movie stars interact with one another, breathing life into Towne’s wonderful prose. Michelle Pfeiffer’s Jo Ann is no damsel in distress. She’s a strong woman who easily holds up to questioning early on from federal agents who grossly underestimate her fortitude as evident in a beautifully acted and written scene where Jo Ann expertly turns the tables on the Feds to Nick’s bemusement. She’s suave and knows how to deal with her classy clientele but isn’t snobby either. With her beautiful smile, Pfeiffer makes Jo Ann very charismatic and sexy. It is easy to see why Mac and Nick find her so alluring. In turn, she is drawn to Nick’s charisma and Mac’s vulnerability.

With his slick, Pat Riley hairdo and shark grin, Kurt Russell’s Nick is a super confident lawman that is great at his job as he is very perceptive and savvy, which comes from years of experience and knowing what goes on in his own backyard. The actor gives his character just the right amount of cockiness so that he doesn’t come across as arrogant. This plays well off J.T. Walsh’s humorless federal agent intent on busting Mac regardless of Nick’s friendship with him. Russell has a wonderful scene with Pfeiffer where Nick comes clean and explains why he got romantically involved with Jo Ann and the cocky façade comes down to reveal a brutally honest person not afraid to be vulnerable in front of her. He didn’t just get close to her to get close to Mac. He genuinely loves her and is willing to put all his cards on the table. Russell shows an impressive range in this scene but, like Jo Ann, you’re still not quite sure if he is 100% genuine and not playing an angle.
 
Mel Gibson’s laidback drug dealer is an excellent counterpoint to Russell’s gregarious lawman. Mac plays things close to the vest and Gibson gives little away which keeps us guessing as to how his character is going to evade the cops and not get killed by his South American counterparts. His performance may not be as flashy but it has a brooding intensity that is fascinating to watch. He can go back and forth between showing Mac’s day-to-day routine (work at his legit job and hang out with his son) and the aspects of his drug dealing trade and show how they inform his character.
 
The always reliable Arliss Howard is excellent as one of Mac’s drug contacts who is constantly trying to get him to do another drug buy but he’s savvy enough to know that this guy is bad news. Howard’s character comes across as amiable enough but it isn’t too hard to figure out his character is probably an informant trying to set up Mac. He’s a little too eager to do business and this ultimately tips his hand.

The great Raul Julia shows up partway through as the DEA’s Mexican counterpart but with a secret agenda of his own. The actor looks like he’s have all kinds of fun with his role, breaking out into song on two separate occasions for no reason at all, taking over the scene for a few seconds. He really gets to sink his teeth into the role once his character’s true identity is revealed.

Character actor extraordinaire, J.T. Walsh is excellent as a slimy DEA agent that immediately butts heads with Nick who is much smarter and has no problem rubbing the man’s nose in it. Walsh is a master of simmering rage, glowering constantly as his character is constantly outsmarted and proven wrong.
 
Tequila Sunrise is beautifully shot by the great cinematographer Conrad Hall (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) as evident from the stunning sunset featured in the background of a scene where Nick and Mac are captured in silhouette talking on the beach. It’s an excellent scene as the two men sniff each other out to figure out what the other knows and to tell each other to back off in so many words. We get a real indication of what’s at stake and it’s not just their friendship but potentially Mac’s life if he doesn’t play his cards exactly right as he’ll either get busted or killed.

Robert Towne based the Tequila Sunrise screenplay on the courtship of his wife. In the mid-1980s, he frequented chef Piero Selvaggio’s Valentino restaurant in Santa Monica. He would arrive late and talk with Selvaggio’s wife Luisa. She would end up leaving her husband for Towne. At one point, he moved to Paris to help Roman Polanski on the script for Frantic (1988) and met producer Thom Mount. He told him about his script for Tequila Sunrise and after reading it took it to Warner Bros. The studio agreed to do it if Mount could attract a movie star. Mount and Towne approached Harrison Ford while he was making Frantic with Polanski and he agreed to do it but as they got closer to principal photography he pulled out as he didn’t think he could play Mac.
 
Towne liked Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon and approached him about playing Mac. He flew to Australia to meet with the actor who asked him, “How do you feel about actors watching dailies?” to which Towne replied, “Fine,” and he agreed to do it. Mac was based after “one fellow in particular who was in that line of work, and who was experiencing the same painful difficulty of extricating himself from it,” Towne recalled. He wrote the role of Nick with Kurt Russell in mind and on then-L.A. Lakers head coach, and close friend, Pat Riley, while also being inspired by a close friend who was an undercover narcotics cop for the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. He initially wanted Riley to play the part because of the way he “very carefully holds himself together – his necktie tight, his hair slicked back – so that he looks like he’ll never come unglued, he never seems stressed.” Riley turned it down and Alec Baldwin was considered before Towne decided to go with Kurt Russell who he introduced to Riley and proceeded to adopt his look. Towne saw Michelle Pfeiffer in Alan Alda’s Sweet Liberty (1986) and liked the “disparity between public and private behavior” in the role and cast her as Jo Ann.
 
Tequila Sunrise was financed independently by Mount with a negative pick-up for Warner Bros. It was only Towne’s second directorial effort, the first being Personal Best, which was a notoriously difficult shoot that resulted in the filmmaker liberating the negative of the picture while David Geffen said he stole it. The studio had to step in and make peace between the two men. As a result, Mount wanted to surround Towne with seasoned crew members and hired Richard Sylbert to design Tequila Sunrise. He had worked with Towne previously on Chinatown and Shampoo (1975) and they were good friends. Sylbert had also worked as a studio executive and, according to Mount, “understood the process from top to bottom. So you were hiring, not a production designer, not even a co-producer, you were hiring like this Renaissance maniac who was your partner in the movie, in every way.”

To save money on the $38 million budget, Sylbert found a large, old empty warehouse, instead of a soundstage, in Santa Monica to house the production offices and build sets. For the look of the film, Sylbert chose the colors of the Tequila Sunrise drink and the Los Angeles sunset – gold, orange and red. According to Mount, “Richard understood that the drink was the color key from the very beginning.” Sylbert based Jo Ann’s restaurant on Valentino’s and Matteo’s, an Italian restaurant in West L.A. It was built in the warehouse over eight weeks. He also helped design the menu and chose the cuisine. Towne even brought in Giuseppe Pasqualato, a former chef at Valentino’s to cook on set, which also had a functioning bar.
 
Filming began in February 1988 in the South Bay section of L.A. and lasted 68 days. Ten days in, cinematographer Jost Vacano was fired as his gritty, realistic style was not the tone Towne was after – rather a more romantic vibe. He called Conrad Hall, his first choice that was nixed by the producer, and within 24 hours was on the set.
 
Tequila Sunrise received mixed to negative reviews from critics at the time. Roger Ebert gave the film two-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, "Tequila Sunrise is an intriguing movie with interesting characters, but it might have worked better if it had found a cleaner narrative line from beginning to end. It’s hard to surrender yourself to a film that seems to be toying with you." In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, "Here the problem seems to be the fatal collaboration of a good writer with a director who wasn't strong or overbearing enough to pull him up short. The movie has the fuzzy focus of someone who has stared too long at a light bulb." The Los Angeles Times' Sheila Benson wrote, " It’s enough to send you out of the theater thirsty. Unfortunately, it sends you out hungry too, for a whole movie to offset this upscale grazing." In his review for the Washington Post's Hal Hinson wrote, "In Tequila, the divisions between business and pleasure, love and friendship break down, and the breakers...do it beautifully, with sweet talk, tough talk and hot kissing."

Tequila Sunrise was the box office success Towne needed but he didn’t direct another film for ten years – Without Limits (1998). He kept busy, though, thanks to a lucrative partnership with Tom Cruise, contributing several screenplays for the movie star in the 1990s, including Days of Thunder (1990), The Firm (1993), and Mission: Impossible (1996). Tequila Sunrise is a fascinating battle of wills. We have three highly intelligent people trying to figure out each other’s motives. It becomes complicated when mixed with emotions as a love triangle develops and clouds judgement. As one character says late in the film, “Friendship is all we have! We chose each other!” This is a film about friendship and loyalty. This is what motivates the three lead characters. Nick tries to save Mac from getting killed or busted as the drug dealer is his friend. Mac finds a way out of the drug dealing business as he loves Jo Ann. She loves Mac and doesn’t want him to get hurt. For a neo-noir it is lacking that fatalistic streak that runs through many of them. Towne is a little too enamored with the romantic aspects of his script to convey a convincing doomed protagonist that is a hallmark of the genre. Gibson’s Mac is a little too slick, a little too sure himself for anything really bad to happen to him and that is perhaps the film’s only glaring flaw in an otherwise wonderful, sun-drenched cinematic cocktail.
 
 
SOURCES
 
Lazar, Jerry. “Towne’s Country.” Chicago Tribune. December 4, 1988.
Mount, Thom. Audio Commentary. Tequila Sunrise DVD. 1988.
 
Sylbert, Richard & Sylvia Townsend. Designing Movies: Portrait of a Hollywood Artist. Frager. 2006
 
Turan, Kenneth. “Robert Towne’s Hollywood Without Heroes.” The New York Times. November 27, 1988.

Friday, February 18, 2022

Desperado

In 1992, independent filmmaker Robert Rodriguez made his feature film debut with El Mariachi, a $7,000 action movie that showed a stylistic flare beyond its meager budget. It made the rounds at several film festivals with a lot of media attention on the self-assured young man and the incredible story of how he made a movie for so little money. Naturally, Hollywood came calling and initially Rodriguez resisted, making Roadracers (1994) for the Showtime cable television channel after his deal with Sony Columbia Pictures was put on the back burner due to scandal. He eventually made Desperado (1995), a sequel to Mariachi that not only saw him working with a significantly larger budget of $7 million, but with movie star Antonio Banderas.


The film begins almost as if we are in a Quentin Tarantino film with a grungy gringo (Steve Buscemi) walking into a Mexican bar. He proceeds to tell a story about how he witnessed a massacre in a similar bar by a mysterious man. Rodriguez cuts back and forth between the storyteller and what happened at the bar to the strains of “Jack the Ripper” by Link Wray.
 
What is immediately clear from this opening scene is how far Rodriguez has progressed as a filmmaker. The screenplay is well-written as Steve Buscemi delivers his hilarious monologue with gusto. The director’s technique has also gotten better as the opening gunfight is stylishly choreographed with the El Mariachi (Banderas) dispatching bad guys like something out of a 1980s action movie as a shotgun blast sends a goon hurtling through the air.

It is interesting to note that Rodriguez not only plays up the mythic quality of El Mariachi, introducing him walking into a bar in slow motion in the shadows so you never get a good look at his face, but also has fun with the character as well, showing him playing with his band in a nightclub over the opening credits. El Mariachi even has time to stop a bar fight by striking a patron with his guitar without missing a beat. Rodriguez reveals that this sequence is a dream as we see the villain from El Mariachi appear in the nightclub and we flashback to the end of that film.
 
Another façade is stripped away when it is revealed that the story Buscemi’s character told was exaggerated for effect – he’s El Mariachi’s hype man. Armed with a guitar case full of weapons, the musician cum killer is working his way through the Mexican criminal underworld to find and kill Bucho (Joaquim de Almeida), the man responsible for his wife’s death. Not surprisingly, the crime lord is surrounded by an army of flunkies, chief among them Navajas (Danny Trejo), a man armed with a seemingly endless supply of throwing knives. El Mariachi is aided in his quest for revenge by Carolina (Salma Hayek), the beautiful local bookstore owner who patches him up whenever he’s wounded (which is often).
 
In the film’s second action sequence, Rodriguez really cuts loose as he transforms Banderas into a two-gun-toting action hero in the tradition of John Woo’s heroic bloodshed films. Apart from doves flying in slow motion, it features many of Woo’s trademark action flourishes but with a cheeky sense of humor as El Mariachi and the last man left search frantically for a weapon that has bullets before he eventually breaks the man’s neck to the strains of “Strange Face of Love” by Tito & Tarantula. It is a beautifully choreographed action sequence that demonstrates his skill as not just a director but as an editor as he times the cuts to the rhythm of the action. When it comes to action editing is everything and Rodriguez understands this intuitively.

Rodriguez cast Antonio Banderas at just the right time in their respective careers. The former needed to cast a movie star and the latter was looking for a change of pace having just come off the big budget adaptation of Interview with the Vampire (1994). Banderas not only has the charisma to carry the film, he also demonstrates an ability to go from dramatic moments to comedic ones with ease. He also showed his ability to handle action, transforming himself into a credible action star. The actor also has wonderful chemistry with Salma Hayek as their characters develop a romantic relationship over the course of the film.
 
Desperado was Hayek’s first mainstream, Hollywood role, cast by Rodriguez against the wishes of the studio. The impossibly beautiful actor holds her own against the likes of Banderas as she demonstrates a light, comic touch and dramatic chops when Carolina explains why she is complicit with Bucho’s dealings with the town, aiding and abetting his drug operation in order to survive. She forces El Mariachi to realize that his desire for revenge is not the only reason to take out Bucho – it would also free the town of his tyrannical hold on it. He is a tragic hero and she gives him a reason to keep on going after he fulfills his goal.
 
Desperado would mark the beginning of a long-running collaboration with several actors, including Banderas, Hayek, Cheech Marin, Danny Trejo, and Quintin Tarantino, who he met on the film festival circuit while promoting El Mariachi. He made Tarantino the lead on his next film, From Dusk Till Dawn and has often featured him in cameos where he delivers a monologue and is then killed off in gruesome fashion. Marin and Trejo make quite an impression with the former playing a grinning bartender that meets his fate at the hands of the El Mariachi and the latter in a silent role as a deadly assassin brought in to take out the film’s hero but in an unexpected twist is taken out prematurely through a comic case of mistaken identity.

 
After the success of El Mariachi, Rodriguez was eager to make a sequel and capitalize on his new deal with Sony Columbia but the studio put on the brakes while they dealt with the Heidi Fleiss scandal that broke in early summer of 1993. She was a high-end madam that facilitated call girls to several of Hollywood’s elite and a list of her clients, which included at least two studio executives, appeared in the press. At the time, producers Carlos Gallardo (who starred in El Mariachi), Elizabeth Avellan, and line producer Bill Borden had already begun pre-production and realized that the film was on hold until the scandal blew over. Never one to be idle, Rodriguez shifted gears and accepted another gig making Roadracers that he shot in less than two weeks in January 1994 for $1 million. It was his first Hollywood production and working with a union crew. He was struck by how wasteful and slow studio productions were as he was used to collaborating with a small, hand-picked crew that worked fast. It would give him a taste of what he would be in store for when working for Sony.
 
By the summer of 1994, Rodriguez finally got the greenlight to make his Mariachi sequel, then known as The Return of El Mariachi but soon changed to Pistolero during production and eventually became Desperado. Ironically, this was due in large part to his future employer – Bob and Harvey Weinstein – who approached Sony executive Stephanie Allain at the Cannes Film Festival telling her what a fan they were of El Mariachi and how they would be more than happy to make the sequel with Rodriguez.
 
The studio wanted a name actor cast in the lead role and Allain suggested Antonio Banderas but Rodriguez was hesitant to cast a non-Mexican in the part. Undeterred, Allain showed Banderas El Mariachi and he loved it. He said, “I thought, ‘This guy has incredible energy.’ It reminds me of the first films I did with (Pedro) Almodovar. Not in his style, of course. But it’s like, you know, the same thing, when you don’t have any money and you’re working outside the studio, with no trailer, no nothing, just waiting on the corner to do your shot. And I thought, ‘Wow! That’s the kind of cinema I would like to do again.’” She told Rodriguez this and he agreed to meet with the actor.

Rodriguez and Avellan saw a rerun of Salma Hayek on comedian Paul Rodriguez’s talk show from 1992 where she talked about changing Hollywood’s refusal to cast Latina actresses. The next day, Avellan called her and asked her to audition for the female lead in Desperado. In addition to competing with many other Latina actresses, auditioning many times and performing several screen tests, she was up against the likes of Cameron Diaz who the studio liked as, according to Hayek, “her last name was Diaz, so they said she can be Mexican.” Originally Raul Julia had been cast as Bucho and Rodriguez had scheduled principal photography around his availability but when he suffered a stroke that preceded his death, he was replaced by Argentine actor Joaquim de Almeida.
 
On Desperado, Rodriguez was working with a significantly larger budget of $7 million and returned to Acuna, Mexico to use the same locations he had on his first film. It was a challenging shoot with cast and crew members staying on both sides of the border and filming equipment shipped in from both Mexico and the United States. During the first week of shooting the studio was not happy and threatened to fire people until Rodriguez showed them dailies and cut together a couple of trailers to give them a taste of what he was doing.
 
In addition, the studio insisted on using department heads and imposed a more traditional studio structure, which Rodriguez balked at having been used to working with a small crew and doing a lot of the different jobs himself. Gary Martin, head of physical production at Sony, was being told exaggerated stories that the filmmaker was “throwing a lot of tantrums and kicking cameras” on location with key crew members, such as director of photography Guillermo Navarro, ready to quit. Avellan claims that Borden was the source for a lot of disinformation and discord, creating problems on the set. Borden even played Gallardo, Avellan and Rodriguez against each other. When Allain called Avellan and asked her about these rumors she responded that everything was fine and defended Rodriguez. Avellan told Rodriguez about Borden and they decided to keep a close eye on him.

Hayek remembers that the film’s steamy sex scene her character has with El Mariachi was not in the screenplay and was added after a screen test. To try and make her as comfortable as possible, Rodriguez filmed it on a closed set with just him, Avellan and Banderas but Hayek found it a difficult experience nonetheless.

Martin met with Avellan and told her that Rodriguez would not be editing the film himself as he had done on El Mariachi and told her, “Honey, just like when you go to a beauty parlor and somebody does your nails because they specialize in that and somebody does your color because they specialize in that, it’s the same in the movie business.” Insulted, Avellan said nothing in order to keep the peace between Rodriguez and the studio but inside she was fuming. Post-production began in November 1994 in Los Angeles with the studio finally allowing Rodriguez to edit his own film but only if he did it there where they could keep an eye on him. Rodriguez said:
 
“They just didn’t want me to have that much control, but they let me do it. That was a big mistake because it sets another precedent. If my next movie hadn’t been Desperado, if I had done one of the really big budget movies they were offering me, I would have lost that control.”
 
His studio experience on Desperado soured the filmmaker on ever working in Hollywood and convinced him to put down permanent roots in Austin. With his deal done with Sony, he made his next film, From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), for indie film darlings Miramax who gave the kind of creative freedom he craved.

Desperado garnered mixed to negative reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave it two out of four stars and wrote, "Rodriguez has a lively color sense, a good feel for composition and a willingness to put the camera anywhere it can possibly go. What happens looks terrific. Now if he can harness that technical facility to a screenplay that's more story than setup, he might really have something." In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, "Overdependence on violence also marginalizes Desperado as a gun-slinging novelty item, instead of the broader effort toward which this talented young director might have aspired. It's still clear that Mr. Rodriguez has a talent for fancy directorial footwork and that his movie has its fiery moments. But not even a Mariachi in Mr. Banderas's league can get by on looks alone."
 
In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, "if you’re not a fan of huge explosions, oversized weapons and people getting sliced and diced in all kinds of ways, Desperado doesn’t have a lot more to offer." The Washington Post's Desson Howe wrote about Rodriguez's jump from indie film to his big budget remake/sequel: "the commercial transition has been remarkably successful. This is primarily thanks to Rodriguez, who not only retains the original movie's kinetic flair, but takes it further. Finally, Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman gave it a "B" rating and wrote, "The dawdling pace has us lingering a little too much over Desperado‘s primitive human dimensions. Still, when Rodriguez unleashes a scene with Banderas leaping backwards from one building to the next, or with a couple of mariachis launching rockets from their guitar cases, he’s a true corker. The action, in all its demonically outlandish wit, is its own show."
 
At the time, Desperado was a breath of fresh air in the action genre by starring a Latino actor with a predominantly Latino cast that also had universal appeal. In many respects it is a modern western with El Mariachi as a lone gunslinger that walks into town and rids it of the bad guys. Much like one of his cinematic heroes, director George Miller, Rodriguez draws inspiration from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces with El Mariachi as this mythic figure that makes the hero’s journey to redemption. In this respect, Desperado is part Mad Max myth-making and part John Woo action melodrama. Rodriguez gives this template a novel spin by having his film showcase Latino culture and present a hero that can be celebrated, which was largely absent in the mainstream at the time. It can’t be stated enough how significant an achievement that was back then or even now for that matter. Like, Evil Dead 2, Desperado is the rare successful remake/sequel hybrid that manages to not alienate fans of the first film while appealing to people who haven’t seen it. The film demonstrated that Rodriguez could work with bigger budgets and movie stars, paving the way for a fantastic career that he made his way.
 

 
SOURCES
 
Frederick, Candice. “’The Studio Wanted Cameron Diaz’: Salma Hayek on the Role that Changed Her Life.” Elle. October 15, 2020.

Leydon, Joe. “Cranking up the Volume.” Los Angeles Times. November 27, 1994.
 
Macor, Allison. Chainsaws, Slackers and Spy Kids: 30 Years of Filmmaking in Austin, Texas. University of Texas Press. 2010.
 
Martinez, Jose and Christian Divine. “Hispanic Blood: An Interview with Robert Rodriguez.” Creative Screenwriting. December 21, 2015

Friday, January 21, 2022

The Razor's Edge


After starring in several successful comedies in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Bill Murray wanted to try something different. He wanted to flex his acting chops and do something more dramatic. He wanted to make a passion project of his, an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s 1944 novel The Razor’s Edge, the spiritual journey of its protagonist Larry Darrell. The book had already been adapted into a well-respected film in 1946, starring Tyrone Power and Gene Tierney. Not surprisingly, no Hollywood studio was interested in making the modestly budgeted film until Murray’s former Saturday Night Live cast member, Dan Aykroyd, cut a deal with Columbia Pictures. They would bankroll The Razor’s Edge (1984) if Murray would star in their summer blockbuster Ghostbusters (1984) alongside Aykroyd and Harold Ramis. Murray agreed and got to make his film, but the big question – would anyone want to see it was quickly answered upon its theatrical release. It received mixed to negative reviews and flopped at the box office, only making half of its $12 million budget while Ghostbusters was a massive success.
 
It is the early days of World War I and the United States has yet to throw their hat in the ring but gear and supplies are being donated to aid their future allies. Best friends Gray Mautrin (James Keach) and Larry Darrell (Murray) have volunteered to accompany an ambulance overseas and help the cause. When we meet Larry he’s the sarcastic wisecracker we’ve come to expect from Murray as he dabbles in bits of physical comedy, flirting with longtime sweetheart Isabel Bradley (Catherine Hicks) and close friend Sophie MacDonald (Theresa Russell) – two women that will feature prominently in his life.
 
There is a feeling of hopeful idealism in these scenes as we see the idyllic home he’s leaving behind for the grim, meat hook reality of the war. The tone of the film changes immediately once Gray and Larry arrive at the battlefront and meet their no-nonsense commanding officer Piedmont (Brian Doyle-Murray). They are told that their squad has been depleted and are given sidearms even though they are neutral participants in the war. Murray doesn’t say anything – no witty, snarky comments a la Stripes (1981) – just a worried expression on his face that seems to say, what the hell did I sign up for?

He says very little for most of the WWI sequences as we see Larry take everything in and get the lay of the land thanks to Piedmont’s tough love approach. He also experiences the horrifying effects, transporting the wounded and the dying from the battlefield to a nearby first aid station. Gone is the wisecracking Murray as Larry does everything he can just to survive. The actor does an excellent job of conveying the utter despair Larry feels after what he’s seen.
 
The war sequences are among the strongest in The Razor’s Edge, especially the last one where Larry and his squad are caught out in the battlefield and find themselves facing insurmountable odds. Larry is wounded and Piedmont is killed saving his life. After the danger has passed, Larry delivers a stirring anti-eulogy for his fallen comrade that is the one Murray gave his SNL castmate John Belushi when he died. It is a powerful and moving moment as it is something real and authentic captured on film.
 
Larry returns home from the war and finds himself adrift in life after being deeply affected by his experiences overseas. He spends the rest of the film finding himself by shedding his trappings of wealth, by working menial jobs and living in modest accommodations in Paris. This comes at a cost as his friends and family reject his new bohemian lifestyle, including Isabel who cannot understand why he is willing giving up his wealthy life of privilege. He tells her, “I got a second chance at life. I am not going to waste it on a big house, a new car every year and a bunch of friends who want a big house and new car every year!” She returns to the States and marries Gray while Larry continues his spiritual journey, gaining life experiences such as working in a coal mine where he meets a man that extols the virtues of India, which becomes Larry’s ultimate destination and the source of the spiritual enlightenment he seeks.

The always reliable Theresa Russell is excellent as one of Larry’s closest friends that goes on her own harrowing journey. There is a scene where a grief-stricken Sophie tearfully tells Isabel about her husband and son dying in an automobile accident that is raw as she chastises the nuns at the hospital in an understandable outpouring of grief. How does she find the will to live after such a horrible event? As a result, she numbs the pain that comes from a catastrophic loss by losing herself in alcohol and prostitution. Russell and Murray have wonderful chemistry together and her impressive dramatic chops forces him to up his game in their scenes together. The sequence where Larry gets Isabel to quit drinking and prostitution are well done as Murray uses his easy-going charm to incredible effect. This is the film at its most romantic as we see these two characters falling in love in Paris. Larry brings her back from the brink in a way that is quite moving.
 
One must give Murray credit, he gives the role everything he has in what was obviously a labor of love but he wasn’t a good enough actor back then to know when to tone down his comedic shtick and this results in an uneven performance. At times, he can’t quite cut loose of the broad physical comedy that made him a star, such as a scene where Larry runs from a gaggle of poor children begging for money on the streets of India. It must’ve been hard to let go of comedic tendencies that came so naturally to him. It would be years before he’d try it again and was more successful as the scary mob boss in Mad Dog and Glory (1993), but it wasn’t until he made Rushmore (1998) with Wes Anderson that he was experienced enough as an actor to modulate his performance to accommodate the tone of a given scene.
 
Filmmaker John Byrum met Bill Murray in New York City in 1974. The two men hit it off and wanted to work together but the opportunity wouldn’t arise until almost 10 years later. Byrum was interested in adapting W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge but assumed that 20th Century Fox, the studio that released the 1946 adaptation, still had the rights. When he approached the studio, they wouldn’t even take a meeting with him and after doing more digging found out that the rights had reverted to the Maugham estate. Unfortunately, recording industry executive Bob Marcucci had already acquired them. Byrum struck a deal – he would write the screenplay for no fee, for a 50-50 partnership and the right to direct. Marcucci agreed and in 1982, Murray joined the project after Byrum gave him a copy of the book. He wanted to make the film after reading 50 pages, drawn to the project as he was getting offered the same kind of scripts repeatedly and wanted to try something new.

Byrum asked Murray to write the script with him and the two men worked on it for a year-and-a-half. Murray suggested writing in bars and restaurants as he believed “that good things come from difficult conditions, and I thought that no matter how badly we did, at least we’d have the experience of trying to concentrate on one thing while being distracted all the time.” To this end, they went to all kinds of places in Manhattan, New Jersey and upstate, southern New York. They wrote in spas near San Francisco and even a monastery in Ladakh, India during a religious war!
 
Byrum and Murray approached several studios but none were interested as they felt that no one wanted to see the comedian in a serious role. Dan Aykroyd was working on a script for an ambitious comedy called Ghostbusters that was generating a lot of interest around Hollywood and Columbia Pictures made a deal to bankroll The Razor’s Edge if Murray also starred in Ghostbusters. Murray agreed and started filming the former soon after.
 
It was a tough shoot lasting five months. The production fell behind schedule while shooting the war sequences. As Byrum said at the time, “To set up an explosion takes time. Then the wind might shift and destroy the shot, and you have to rewire all the explosives and organize the extras.” They shot for a month in Paris and then three hard weeks in India. At one point, a crew member attempted suicide and another developed such a crippling drinking problem they had to be sent home. Many got food poisoning with Byrum himself losing 12 pounds. While all of this was going on, the studio kept asking when they would be finished as they were eager for Murray to start shooting Ghostbusters.

As soon as principal photography was finished, Murray flew to London where he saw a rough cut of the film and then got on the Concord where he flew to New York City. He got off the plane, went straight to Madison Avenue and 62nd Street, and donned his Ghostbusters outfit. “A week before I had worked with yellow-hat lamas in the Himalayas,” he remarked in an interview.
 
Most film critics at the time were not kind to The Razor’s Edge. Roger Ebert gave it two-and-a-half stars out of four and wrote, “I didn't feel that the hero's attention had been quite focused during his quest for the meaning of life. He didn't seem to be a searcher, but more of a bystander, shoulders thrown back, deadpan expression in place, waiting to see if life could make him care.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin called it, “slow, overlong and ridiculously overproduced.” The Washington Post’s Paul Attanasio wrote, “Murray's style into the '20s is jarringly bizarre. Murray puts his comedy together with riffs drawn from contemporary popular culture, in the way a modernist sculptor welds fragments found in a junkyard. Much of the humor of The Razor's Edge simply isn't intelligible within the context of the period; he's a Connecticut hipster in President Hoover's court.” Finally, in his review for the Chicago Tribune, Gene Siskel gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, "If Murray's young Ghostbusters fans do go to see The Razor's Edge, they will receive a pleasant, thought-provoking surprise, a film that gently asks us to consider lifestyles other than the one into which we were born."
 
The Razor’s Edge is an impressively staged and beautifully shot period film directed by John Byrum (Heart Beat) and shot by Peter Hannan (Withnail and I) that gives a real sense of place. The film juxtaposes the opulent wealth of Larry’s friends back home with the physical limits he pushes himself for spiritual enlightenment. He makes an arduous journey through punishing environments, constantly pushing himself, testing his limits.

While hardly the cinematic disaster that it has been regard as over the years, it isn't that successful either. Chalk this up as a noble failure. Murray's heart was in the right place but he miscast himself in the lead role of Larry Darrell, a man who finds himself thrust from the upper crust of society to the battlefields of WWI where he is forever changed by the horrors he witnesses, motivating him to find personal enlightenment in India. Timing is everything and at the time of its release mainstream moviegoing audiences did not want to see Murray in a serious role. As a result, The Razor’s Edge tanked at the box office the same year that the crowd-pleasing Ghostbusters was a huge hit. To be fair, Murray hadn’t developed the dramatic acting chops to pull off a role like Larry Darrell. He delivers an uneven performance in an uneven film. Understandably, disappointed with its reception and disenchanted with making movies, Murray took his family to Paris and except for a cameo in Little Shop of Horrors (1986), didn’t act for four years.
 

SOURCES
 
Crouse, Timothy. “Bill Murray: The Rolling Stone Interview.” Rolling Stone. August 16, 1984.
 
Pollock, Dale. “Bill Murray on The Razor’s Edge After Ghostbusters.” The Victoria Advocate. October 29, 1984.
 
Weinstein, Wendy. “John Byrum Traverses The Razor’s Edge.” The Film Journal. September 1984.

Friday, December 17, 2021

JFK


There’s only one thing everyone can agree on regarding the assassination of American President John F. Kennedy: he was killed on November 22, 1963. Everything else around this watershed event in American history has been subject to intense debate and one that has provoked people to question their own beliefs and those of their government. Yet, for such a highly publicized affair there are still many uncertainties that surround the actual incident. Countless works of fiction and non-fiction have been created concerning the subject, but have done little in aiding our understanding of the assassination and the events surrounding it. Oliver Stone's film JFK (1991) depicts the events leading up to and after the assassination like a densely assembled puzzle complete with jump cuts and multiple perspectives. Stone’s film presents the assassination as a powerful event constructed by its conspirators to create confusion with its contradictory evidence, to then bury this evidence in the Warren Commission Report, which in turn manifests multiple interpretations of key figures like triggerman Lee Harvey Oswald. JFK offers a more structured examination of the conspiracy from one person's point of view where everything fits together to reveal a larger, more frightening picture implicating the most powerful people in the United States government.
 
Stone’s film filters an examination of two conspiracies, one to kill the President and one to cover it up, from one person's point of view — Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) — the New Orleans District Attorney who then assembles all the evidence at his disposal to deliver a powerful and persuasive case for a conspiracy to kill Kennedy. Stone saw his film consisting of several separate films: Garrison in New Orleans against Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones), a key figure in the assassination, Oswald’s (Gary Oldman) backstory, the recreation of Dealey Plaza, and the deep background in Washington, D.C. JFK is the mother of all paranoid conspiracy thrillers, the ultimate one man against the system film with Garrison taking on the establishment, attempting to uncover one of the most nefarious plots in history. It created such profound shockwaves in the real world that Stone was criticized and vilified in the press.
 
“God, I’m ashamed to be an American today,” says Garrison when he finds out that Kennedy has been shot and we see people in the bar he’s in applaud the man’s death. Stone and cinematographer Robert Richardson desaturate the colors in the 1963 scenes, which creates a somber tone as the country reacts to the Kennedy assassination.

Six years later, the color returns to the film as Garrison shares a plane ride with Senator Russell B. Long (Walter Matthau) who plants the first seeds of doubt in the District Attorney’s mind about the Kennedy assassination. He points out that Oswald was a lousy shot and couldn’t have made all those shots in that time with that kind of accuracy. He also scoffs at the “magic bullet” theory – that one bullet created seven wounds and came out in pristine condition. “I’d round up 100 of the world’s best riflemen. Find out which ones were in Dallas that day. You’ve been duck hunting. I think Oswald is a good old-fashioned decoy.”
 
This encounter provokes Garrison to go through all the volumes of the Warren Commission Report and find that, “Again and again credible testimony ignored, leads are never followed up, its conclusions selective, there’s no index. It’s one of the sloppiest, most disorganized investigations I’ve ever seen.” He concludes that this was by design: “But it’s all broken down and spread around and you read it and the point gets lost.” He continues to dig deeper and the testimony of Lee Bowers (Pruitt Taylor Vince), who hints at another shooter on the grassy knoll, is the final straw.
 
Garrison walks the streets of New Orleans with two of his investigators Lou Ivon (Jay O. Sanders) and Bill Broussard (Michael Rooker), recounting Oswald’s time in the city in a brilliantly written and performed monologue (one of many). He points out to them that Oswald, a supposed communist sympathizer, spent his time in the heart of the government’s intelligence community with the FBI, the CIA, the Secret Service and the Office of Naval Intelligence all within spitting distance of each other. As Garrison tells them, “Isn’t this seem to you a rather strange place for a communist to spend his spare time?” He tells them that they are going to reopen the investigation of the Kennedy assassination and this is where the film really begins to gather narrative momentum.

Garrison starts interviewing people that had some link to the conspirators, namely Clay Bertrand a.k.a. Clay Shaw, which gives Stone the opportunity to trot out a parade of name actors such as Jack Lemmon, John Candy and Kevin Bacon to portray a very colorful cavalcade of characters. The interviews paint a vivid picture of David Ferrie (Joe Pesci) and Shaw working with Oswald. Stone uses Bacon and Lemmon to detail the conspiracy on a local level, expounding a ton of expositional dialogue brilliantly, while Candy’s hipster lawyer conveys the danger Garrison faces digging into the murder of the President.

Stone presents a series of lengthy dialogue-driven scenes conveying an incredible amount of information in palatable fashion by having recognizable actors as his mouthpieces while dynamically shooting and editing them. He has a character spout a fact or theory and then cuts to a dramatic reenactment that depicts it in black and white and/or different film stock, often blurring the line between fact and fiction, which is the point. In a case as complex as this it is hard to discern which is which as witness testimony conflicts one another making it difficult to make sense of it all.
 
A great example of this is the sequence where Garrison and his team explain Oswald’s background leading up to the assassination with Stone cutting to staged footage, actual documentary footage and the famous Life magazine cover photograph that cemented Oswald’s guilt in the public’s mind but might be a doctored image. It is a bravura sequence that marries complex editing, pasting together all kinds of different formats, with past events being discussed in the present with many characters talking as the conspiracy deepens and the thriller elements take hold. It culminates with Broussard disbelievingly saying, “We are talking about our government!” to which Garrison replies, “No. We’re talking about a crime, Bill. Plain and simple…We’re through the looking glass, here, people. White is black and black is white.”
 
The scene where Garrison first meets Shaw is a fantastic clash between two characters as the former goes after the latter who defiantly deflects and denies any involvement in the assassination plot. During the conversation, Stone intercuts footage that shows he is lying or, at least, that is Garrison’s interpretation. Tommy Lee Jones is brilliant here as he changes tone on a dime, going from amused elegance to angrily indignant and back again all the while maintaining an air of cultured sophistication. Finally, Garrison tires of his act and accuses him of killing Kennedy. When Shaw finally leaves, he gives parting pleasantries but Jones gives Costner a lingering, threatening look. From this point on, the pressure on the D.A. and his team increases as the powers that be attempt to discredit him.

Stone’s portrayal of Garrison is reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) – the last honest man in government – and he tries to temper this by showing the trouble he faces at home as his wife (Sissy Spacek) complains that he’s never around anymore and that he cares more about the Kennedy assassination than his own family. She is the film’s weakest character whose sole purpose, initially, is to provide strife on the home front. Stone then has her come around to her husband’s way of thinking after he tearfully tells her late one night that Robert Kennedy has been shot and killed. She admits he was right all along and they make love in a scene that is unnecessarily maudlin. These scenes feel shoehorned in and take away from the main thrust of the film. Stone is on more comfortable ground when he returns to more familiar turf as we see the press arriving in droves to Garrison’s office, making it impossible for he and his team to get any work done. Funding for his office has dried up and he is forced to use his own savings to keep the investigation going. We also see infighting among his staff and Ivon and Broussard butt heads as we see the latter scared off the case.
 
Another bit of tour-de-force acting comes from Joe Pesci in the scene where Ferrie rapidly unravels as he fears for his life based on what he knows about the plot to kill Kennedy. Ferrie gets increasingly manic as he rattles off the people and organizations involved, getting worked up until he utters the iconic line, “It’s a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma!” It’s hyperbolic and over-the-top to be sure but it does illustrate how complex the assassination plot is with fake Oswalds and conflicting eyewitness accounts. After the incredible outburst, Ferrie winds down as Pesci elicits sympathy for this terrible man who is under a lot pressure and is incredibly paranoid. This scene threatens to throw the film right off the rails as Pesci goes for it, acting his ass off, chewing up the scenery in breathtaking fashion.
 
The centerpiece of the film is when Garrison travels to Washington, D.C. to meet with an ex-high-ranking CIA officer known only as Mr. X (Donald Sutherland). In this bravura sequence he lays out the motivation for killing Kennedy including how and why. It’s an incredible amount of dialogue and Stone wisely cast a skilled actor such as Donald Sutherland to convey it in a coherent and engaging way. X lays out the most important aspect of the assassination: why? “The how and who is just scenery for the public. Oswald, Ruby, Cuba, the Mafia – keeps ‘em guessing like some kind of parlor game preventing them from asking the most important question – why? Why was Kennedy killed? Who benefitted? Who has the power to cover it up?”

X posits that Kennedy was killed because he wanted to break up the CIA, make peace with Russia and end the Vietnam War, which not only pissed off a lot of powerful people but would cost a lot of money as he tells Garrison, “The organizing principle of any society, Mr. Garrison, is the war. The authority of the state over its people resides in its war powers.” He encourages Garrison to “come up with a case. Something. Anything. Make arrests. Stir the shitstorm. Hope to reach a critical mass that’ll start a chain reaction of people coming forward. Then the government’ll crack. Remember, fundamentally, people are suckers for the truth.” This is the film’s idealistic mission statement. Judging from the critical reaction towards the film, Stone certainly succeeded in stirring up the shitstorm and in the court of public opinion he helped reshape the perception of the Kennedy assassination.
 
These increasingly dense and dynamic exposition scenes lead up to the mother of all courtroom scenes as Garrison goes in knowing he’s going to lose and goes for it anyway. It is Costner’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington filibuster moment by way of Gary Cooper as Garrison debunks the Warren Commission Report’s account of Oswald by audaciously showing the real Zapruder film that depicted the Kennedy killing in real time. Stone edits in recreation footage with actual footage of the assassination as Garrison lays it all out. The filmmaker also recreates Kennedy’s controversial autopsy and shows actual photos of the man taken at the time.
 
This scene involves a massive amount of dialogue and information to convey and Costner handles it like a pro, making this exposition compelling, especially at the end when the actor performs his final speech without the aid of intercutting other footage. It’s Costner out there on his own, even getting emotional towards the end at the most powerful moment when Garrison address the jury, “Show this world that this is still a government of the people, for the people and by the people. Nothing as long as you live will ever be more important. It’s up to you.” And with that last line, Costner breaks the fourth wall. That line is meant for us and is one of the most moving parts of Garrison’s speech.

While attending the Latin American Film Festival in Havana, Cuba, Stone met Sheridan Square Press publisher Ellen Ray on an elevator. She had published Jim Garrison's book On the Trail of the Assassins. Ray had gone to New Orleans and worked with Garrison in 1967. She gave Stone a copy of Garrison's book and told him to read it. He did and quickly bought the film rights with his own money. The Kennedy Assassination had always had a profound effect on his life and he eventually met Garrison, grilling him with a variety of questions for three hours. The man stood up to Stone's questioning and then got up and left. His hubris impressed the director.
 
Stone was not interested in making a film about Garrison's life but rather the story behind the conspiracy to kill Kennedy. To this end, he also bought the film rights to Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy by Jim Marrs. When Stone set out to write the screenplay, he asked Columbia University’s Professor of Journalism Zachary Sklar to co-write it with him and distill the Garrison book, the Marrs book and all the research he and others conducted into a script that would resemble what he called "a great detective movie." Stone told Sklar his vision of the movie: "I see the models as Z (1969) and Rashomon (1950), I see the event in Dealey Plaza taking place in the first reel, and again in the eighth reel, and again later, and each time we're going to see it differently and with more illumination.”
 
Sklar worked on the Garrison side of the story while Stone added the Oswald story, the events at Dealey Plaza and the "Mr. X" character. To tell as much of the story as they could, Stone and Sklar used composite characters, a technique that would be criticized in the press, most notably the "Mr. X" character played by Donald Sutherland and who was a mix of several witnesses and retired Air Force Colonel L. Fletcher Prouty, an adviser on the film.

In 1989, Stone met with the three top Warner Bros. executives – Terry Semel, Bob Daly, and Bill Gerber – who had been interested in his work for some time. At the time, Stone was trying to make a film about Howard Hughes but Warren Beatty owned the rights. Stone then pitched JFK to them in 15-20 minutes: “I told them I wanted JFK to be a movie about the problem of covert parallel government in this country and deep political corruption.” Semel remembers Stone asking them, “’Are you concerned politically? Would it affect your company? Are there negative reasons why you wouldn’t do it?’ My immediate reaction was, ‘No, we should do it.’ If it’s entertaining and it’s intriguing, a great murder mystery about something we all cared about and grew up thinking about, why not?” A handshake deal was done and the studio agreed to a $20 million budget.
 
Stone could have shopped JFK around in the international market but chose WB because, “I knew the material was dangerous and I wanted on entity to finance the whole thing and the history of WB, given Terry Semel’s record of political films (All the President’s Men, The Parallax View and The Killing Fields), was my first choice.” Kevin Costner signed on to play Garrison in 1991, which pleased the studio who wanted a bankable movie star attached to the project. In addition, independent producer Arnon Milchan came on board as an executive producer and doubled the budget allowing Stone to cast a star-studded supporting cast around Costner.
 
Stone ambitiously wanted to recreate the Kennedy Assassination in Dealey Plaza and his producers had to pay the Dallas City Council a substantial amount of money to hire police to reroute traffic and close streets for three weeks. He only had ten days to shoot the footage. Getting permission to shoot in the Texas School Book Depository was more difficult. They had to pay $50,000 to put someone in the window that Lee Harvey Oswald was supposed to have shot Kennedy. They were allowed to film in that location only between certain hours with only five people on the floor at one time: the camera crew, an actor, and Stone. Co-producer Clayton Townsend has said that the hardest part was getting the permission to restore the building to the way it looked back in 1963. That took five months of negotiation.

Filming was going smoothly until several attacks on the film in the press surfaced in the mainstream media including the Chicago Tribune, published while the film was only in its first weeks of shooting. Five days later, the Washington Post ran a scathing article by national security correspondent George Lardner entitled, "On the Set: Dallas in Wonderland" that used the first draft of the JFK screenplay to blast it for "the absurdities and palpable untruths in Garrison's book and Stone's rendition of it.” The article pointed out that Garrison lost his case against Clay Shaw and claimed that he inflated his case by trying to use Shaw's homosexual relationships to prove guilt by association. Other attacks in the media soon followed. However, the Lardner Post piece stung the most as he had stolen a copy of the script. Stone recalls, "He had the first draft, and I went through probably six or seven drafts.”
 
The film depicts the events leading up to and after the assassination as a densely constructed story complete with jump cuts, multiple perspectives, a variety of film stocks and the blending of actual archival footage with staged scenes dramatized by a stellar cast of actors. This blurring of reality and fiction by mixing real footage with staged footage makes it difficult to discern what really happened and what is merely speculation. Stone does this to create what he calls "a countermyth to the myth of the Warren Commission because a lot of the original facts were lost in a very shoddy investigation," and simulate the confusing quagmire of events as they are depicted in Warren Report. Stone creates different points of views or "layers" through the extensive use of flashbacks within flashbacks. Stone has said that he “wanted the film on two or three levels — sound and picture would take us back, and we’d go from one flashback to another, and then that flashback would go inside another flashback ... I wanted multiple layers because reading the Warren Commission Report is like drowning.” This technique conveys the notion of confusion and conflict within evidence
 
Kevin Costner acts as the perfect mouthpiece for Stone’s theories. The auteur’s infamously forceful directorial approach to his actors pays off here as he reins in the Costner’s usual tics and mannerisms. Stone was no dummy — he knew that by populating his film with many famous faces, he could make the potentially bitter pill that was his film that much more palatable to the mainstream movie-going public. The rest of the cast is phenomenal. Gary Oldman delivers an eerily authentic portrayal of the enigmatic Lee Harvey Oswald. Tommy Lee Jones is note-perfect as the refined, self-confident businessman, Clay Shaw. Even minor roles are filled by such name actors as Vincent D’Onofrio, Kevin Bacon, Jack Lemmon, and Walter Matthau.

The film throws many characters at us and it is easier to keep track of them by identifying them with the famous person that portrays them. Stone was evidently inspired by the casting model of a documentary epic he had admired as a child: “Darryl Zanuck's The Longest Day (1962) was one of my favorite films as a kid. It was realistic, but it had a lot of stars ... the supporting cast provides a map of the American psyche: familiar, comfortable faces that walk you through a winding path in the dark woods.” Future biopics with sprawling casts, like The Insider (1999), and Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), and The Good Shepherd (2006) would use this same approach.
 
Seeing JFK now, one is reminded that first and foremost, it is a top-notch thriller. There are so many fantastic scenes of sheer exposition that would normally come across as dry and boring but are transformed into riveting scenes in the hands of this talented cast. For example, the famous scene between Garrison and X (Sutherland) where the mysterious man lays out all the reasons why Kennedy was killed and how is not only a marvel of writing but also of acting as the veteran actor gets to deliver what is surely one of the best monologues ever committed to film.
 
Once the film was released in theaters, it polarized critics. The New York Times ran an article by Bernard Weinraub entitled, "Hollywood Wonders If Warner Brothers let JFK Go Too Far.” In it, he called for studio censorship and wrote, "At what point does a studio exercise its leverage and blunt the highly charged message of a film maker like Oliver Stone?" The newspaper also ran a review of the film by Vincent Canby who wrote, "Mr. Stone's hyperbolic style of film making is familiar: lots of short, often hysterical scenes tumbling one after another, backed by a soundtrack that is layered, strudel-like, with noises, dialogue, music, more noises, more dialogue.” However, Roger Ebert praised the film in his review for the Chicago Sun-Times, saying, "The achievement of the film is not that it answers the mystery of the Kennedy assassination, because it does not, or even that it vindicates Garrison, who is seen here as a man often whistling in the dark. Its achievement is that it tries to marshal the anger which ever since 1963 has been gnawing away on some dark shelf of the national psyche.”

Rita Kempley in the Washington Post wrote, "Quoting everyone from Shakespeare to Hitler to bolster their arguments, Stone and Sklar present a gripping alternative to the Warren Commission's conclusion. A marvelously paranoid thriller featuring a closetful of spies, moles, pro-commies and Cuban freedom-fighters, the whole thing might have been thought up by Robert Ludlum.” On Christmas Day, the Los Angeles Times ran an article entitled, "Suppression of the Facts Grants Stone a Broad Brush" attacking the film. New York Newsday followed suit the next day with two articles – "The Blurred Vision of JFK" and "The Many Theories of a Jolly Green Giant.” A few days later, the Chicago Sun-Times ran an article entitled, "Stone's Film Trashes Facts, Dishonors J.F.K." Stone even received death threats as he recalled in an interview, "I can't even remember all the threats, there were so many of them.” Time magazine ranked it the fourth best film of 1991. Roger Ebert went on to name Stone's movie as the best film of the year and one of the top ten films of the decade.
 
Stone paints his canvas with broad brushstrokes and powerful images. This isn’t a documentary or even a docudrama. It is a fever dream straight out of Stone's head. He’s a Baby Boomer upset that the death of Kennedy obliterated the idealism of the '60s and uses the film to vent about it. JFK is an important work in the sense that it accurately portrays the assassination of Kennedy as a complex public event surrounded by chaos and confusion. Stone’s film presents an intricate conspiracy at the source of the killing with one main protagonist who exposes the conspiracy to be an intricately constructed coup d'état. JFK takes a larger, confrontational stance by boldly implicating the government in the conspiracy and the mainstream media in conspiring to cover it up. Stone is using the persuasive power of film to reach the largest number of people he can to wake them up and to reveal how they have been deceived by higher powers. There is no mistaking the importance of the assassination of Kennedy in American culture. Based on the excitement that surrounded Stone's film, the American public was still greatly interested in the event with more and more people believing in a plot to kill the President. Kennedy's death continues to intrigue and interest people who are more open to the idea of a conspiracy that this film openly advocates. For better or for worse, it helped cultivate a conspiracy culture that has only grown larger and more unwieldy with the rise of social media. JFK continues to serve as a powerful piece of cinematic agitprop whose conspiracy theories can be questioned and criticized but its power as an engaging and moving thriller cannot.
 

SOURCES
 
Fisher, Bob. “The Whys and Hows of JFK.” American Cinematographer. February 1992.
 
Petras, James. “The Discrediting of The Fifth Estate: The Press Attacks on JFK.” Cineaste. May 1992.
 
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