Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Television Review: TALES OF THE CITY (1993, Alastair Reid)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 360 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Laura Linney (ABSOLUTE POWER, MYSTIC RIVER, THE TRUMAN SHOW), Olympia Dukakis (MOONSTRUCK, DEATH WISH, SISTERS), Donald Moffat (THE THING, ALAMO BAY), Chloe Webb (SID AND NANCY, GHOSTBUSTERS II, TWINS), Marcus D'Amico (SUPERMAN II, 'Hand Job' in FULL METAL JACKET), Billy Campbell (THE ROCKETEER, Coppola's DRACULA), Thomas Gibson (EYES WIDE SHUT, 'Greg' on DHARMA & GREG), Paul Gross (MEN WITH BROOMS, COLD COMFORT), Barbara Garrick (THE ICE STORM, THE FIRM, DOTTIE GETS SPANKED), Rod Steiger (DUCK YOU SUCKER, John Flynn's THE SERGEANT, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT), Robert Downey Sr., County Joe McDonald (of Country Joe and the Fish), Parker Posey, Paul Bartel, Ian McKellen, Mary Kay Place, Karen Black, Michael Jeter (TRUE CRIME, JURASSIC PARK III), Stanley DeSantis (THE AVIATOR, BOOGIE NIGHTS), Marissa Ribisi, Janeane Garofelo, and many others. Based on the book by Armistead Maupin. Cinematography by Walt Lloyd (KAFKA; SEX, LIES, & VIDEOTAPE; PUMP UP THE VOLUME, TO SLEEP WITH ANGER).
Best one-liner: "Come on, and try not looking like Tricia Nixon reviewing the troops."

"We don't have people like her in Cleveland." –"Too bad for Cleveland!"
Capturing 1970's San Francisco with genuine loving care and paying no heed to the social mores of standard network broadcasting, TALES OF THE CITY arrived on the scene in 1993 to critical praise and a fair amount of controversy (it was funded by Channel 4 and televised in the U.S. on PBS). I've watched it many times over, and I'm unsure if a series has ever quite so wonderfully, wistfully, and mystically captured the experience of moving to a big city and spreading your wings. TALES OF THE CITY is life in transition–

Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney) comes all the way from Ohio to emerge from her chrysalis: she becomes an independent young woman of her own construction- adapting and absorbing, but never mimicking, never losing her sense of self (or her housecoat that looks like a mattress cover!):

Note housecoat.

Mona Ramsey (Chloe Webb, in an electrifying performance) has lived in San Francisco long enough to traverse her life with complete confidence and quaalude-tempered charm, but recently she's been thirsting for something more, maybe even that house in Pacific Heights…or perhaps she’d settle for a few dear friends:

Webb and Marcus D'Amico's Michael Tolliver polish off some Chinese takeout.


Edgar Halcyon (the lovably gruff Donald Moffat) finds himself nearing death.

Years of inhibitions have calcified like a disease, and he yearns for one final last (or is it the first?) affair de coeur before he's just a heap of moldering dust.

These characters (and many more- from Thomas Gibson's leering scamp:

to Marcus D'Amico's cheerful Florida boy to Billy Campbell's earnest gynecologist:

to Paul Gross' self-possessed waiter to Barbara Garrick's meandering high society wife in crisis to Stanley De Santis' awkward loner) all find themselves affected, in one way or another, by the epicenter of it all: Miss Anna Madrigal of 28 Barbary Lane (played with tranquil aplomb by the devoted, maternal Olympia Dukakis).

With all of these beings (and even the era itself) in transition, Madrigal becomes their guardian, their friend, and their icon- representing the human ability to break free of one's self-imposed limitations and redefine oneself, to build a community. There’s a spiritual element to it all, with Madrigal’s parable of lost Atlantis and her desire to congregate like-minded individuals, but there’s a profound goofiness as well, from Parker Posey’s Snoopy-obsessed party girl:

to Karen Black as herself (at a fat farm!) to Paul Bartel & Ian McKellen as the height of snobbery:

The height of snobbery and loving it.

to Mary Kay Place’s ludicrous roundtable of rape.

Which is funnier than it sounds.

The work explodes with these juxtapositions- profundity and disco; tourist hotspots and dubious holes-in-the-wall; dance competitions and suicide hotlines; epochal, life-changing events and casual conversations struck up at the supermaket; serious, kitchen-sink drama and an atmosphere that occasionally smacks of VERTIGO fused with ALICE IN WONDERLAND – and, as such, it's a true portrait of the city and a tribute to those irresistable souls who inhabit it…

-Sean Gill


6. BLIND FURY (1989, Philip Noyce)
7. HIS KIND OF WOMAN (1951, John Farrow)
8. HIGH SCHOOL U.S.A. (1983, Rod Amateau)
9. DR. JEKYLL AND MS. HYDE (1995, David Price)
10. MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL (1997, Clint Eastwood)
11. 1990: BRONX WARRIORS (1982, Enzo G. Castellari)
12. FALLING DOWN (1993, Joel Schumacher)
13. TOURIST TRAP (1979, David Schmoeller)
14. THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1973, Richard Lester)
15. BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986, John Carpenter)
16. TOP GUN (1986, Tony Scott)
17. 48 HRS. (1982, Walter Hill)
18. ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO (2003, Robert Rodriguez)
19. TALES OF THE CITY (1993, Alastair Reid)
20. ...

3 comments:

J.D. said...

Wow, talk about a blast from the past. I haven't thougth about this miniseries in ages and your review certainly brings back memories. I had forgotten what a killer cast was in that one.

There is a wonderful lived-in feel like these characters have been around for ages, long before we catch up with them and that they'll exist long after the final image (and the sequel that came later). This miniseries creates a world that you just want to lose yourself in for a few hours.

Sean Gill said...

It really is such an effortlessly natural, lived-in world, as you say- and I never tire of revisiting it, making a point every few years to re-immerse myself (or show it to new friends).

I've seen the sequels- I don't know if you have- but though they're not HORRIBLE, the loss of key actors and increasingly silly plotlines guarantees that they'll never stand beside the first.

J.D. said...

I think I've only seen the first sequel but not the one afterwards and it has been a looong time so it would be looking at 'em brand new. But the first one is burned in my memory.