Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Film Review: BARFLY (1987, Barbet Schroeder)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 100 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Mickey Rourke, Faye Dunaway, Alice Krige (CHARIOTS OF FIRE, SLEEPWALKERS), Jack Nance (ERASERHEAD, TWIN PEAKS), J.C. Quinn (THE ABYSS, DAYS OF THUNDER), Joe Unger (TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 3, ROAD HOUSE), Gloria LeRoy (THE DAY OF THE LOCUST, THE NIGHT THEY RAIDED MINSKY'S), Sandy Martin (BIG LOVE, REAL GENIUS), Frank Stallone (Sylvester's brother), Pruitt Taylor Vince (WILD AT HEART, DEADWOOD). Cinematography by Robby Müller (PARIS, TEXAS; DEAD MAN, DANCER IN THE DARK, BODY ROCK, TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A.). Music by Jack Baran, John Lurie, Produced by Francis Ford Coppola, Menahem Golan, Yoram Globus, Tom Luddy, & Fred Roos. Written by Charles Bukowski (FACTOTUM, HOLLYWOOD, POST OFFICE, HAM ON RYE).
Tag-line: " Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must lead."
Best one-liner: "And as my hands drop the last desperate pen, in some cheap room, they will find me there and never know my name, my meaning, nor the treasure of my escape."

BARFLY is not a pitiful, kitchen sink drama about down-on-their-luck losers. It's not sappy award-season fodder, manipulatively constructed for tugging upon heartstrings and emptying tear-wells. And it's not some slacker ode, designed as a pat on the back for white-bred goof-offs who occasionally daydream about what it'd be like to take a week off work to go on a bender. BARFLY is sincerely dangerous and dangerously sincere, and it is because BARFLY is a philosophy. BARFLY is about winnin' one for the bums, even if that means yankin' the pillars of civilization down on all our heads. It's about taking one's intellect- a genius that could surely have moved mountains– and applying it instead to more expedient techniques for fucking with the night bartender at the local saloon (played with knuckleheaded élan by Frank Stallone).

Its dipsomaniacal protagonist, Henry Chinaski (a recurring Bukowski alter-ego– well, let's just be honest and say 'a Bukowski with a different name'), is played by Mickey Rourke with lunatic gusto which ever threatens to escape the mere confines of the cinema-frame.

He lurches about like a movie-monster, dragging his feet like Frankenstein, teetering on his haunches like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, leering like Dwight Frye. He is a gutter-poet, an amateur street-fighter, and a professional drunk.

Ostensibly, he stands for nothing, but, in a way, he stands for everything. He is that rare negative man, he who defines himself by what he is not. Is he a simple misanthrope? Does he just hate people? "No, but I seem to feel better when they're not around," he mumbles. Does he simply hate 'the powers that be,' the cops? "I don't know, but I seem to feel better when they're not around."

His entire life is a war waged against the status quo, the skirmishes and campaigns of which take place in stagnant, lonely flophouses; noxious, grotty gin-joints; and desolate street corners at 3:00 in the morning. His many victories against society are private ones- they are not sung from the rooftops or celebrated annually by giggling schoolchildren– they're for himself, and for himself only. A wry, split-lip smile reflected back by cracked, dirty mirror.

It takes a certain breed of self-assured filmmaker (Mike Leigh and his 1993 film NAKED also come to mind) to construct a film whereupon the protagonist begins the film as a (self-described) "asshole," spends the entire film being an asshole, and finishes the film as an asshole. Then, as you leave the theater, you realize that you're an asshole. I guess it's kinda counter-intuitive to the Hollywood formula.

Well, Golan & Globus were willing to take a chance, and it was on French filmmaker Barbet Schroeder (KOKO, A TALKING GORILLA; MORE!; REVERSAL OF FORTUNE; TRICHEURS), for whom BARFLY was a seven-year labor of love. It was also quite nearly a labor of flesh: upon learning of Cannon's financial difficulties, Schroeder was told that BARFLY may have to be pushed back on the schedule. Seizing the moment (and a Black & Decker saw), Schroeder burst into Cannon's offices, threatening to cut off his own finger if the film were delayed yet again– the reasoning being that the film was a part of him, just as real and as tangible and as vital as a finger. Needless to say, Golan and Globus found a way to massage the numbers and the film was made.

"I remember ordering a draught, barkeep. What, are you out of brew, or has that lobotomy finally taken hold?" In case it was not already evident, I love BARFLY. It's Mickey Rourke distracting Frank Stallone and chugging purloined Schlitz, straight from the tap:


It's Jack Nance shuffling and skulking around in a moth-eaten, flea-bitten suit, rumpling his jowls in that odd, furtive way that he does:

It's the fact that every time a pile of cash is shown (which is actually several times), you can plainly see that it's a pile of one-dollar bills (Golan & Globus weren't kidding about being underfunded!).

It's Faye Dunaway, without makeup, restraint, or a sense of balance...and somehow looking more beautiful than ever.

And she's stealing unripened corn from the stalk ("I love corn. I wanna pick some corn."), and given the trigger-happy cops that are around, she's risking her life for it, to boot! It's the paramedics arriving and berating you for your dirty undies, even though they look as if they haven't bathed in weeks. It's Stallone and his short fuse, beating (and sometimes getting beaten) to a pulp and screaming un-ironic rejoinders such as "I'll have this fag licking my balls in five minutes!" or "I'd hate to be you if I were me."

Stallone: possibly unaware they were making a movie.

It's the tone of John Lurie's sleazy sax dripping out of a ramshackle jukebox. It's a crestfallen old man on the street who feels like a useful member of society for the first time in years when he's asked for a light. It's Roberta Bassin's evil eye bearing down on you from the other end of the bar. It's the old-timer with the DTs, who must fashion a sling from his scarf in order to drink a shot without spillage. It's Rourke's road rage against a couple of yuppie assholes. It's the barfly (Dunaway) versus erudite (Alice Krige) catfight, with clumps of hair, slashing nails, and cultural superiority hanging in the balance! It's another round, for all my friends! It's Robby Müller's gorgeous cinematography which must be seen to be believed- the glimmer of neon through beer suds, the stale air of the dive bar, the sunlight streaming into a flophouse. As was the case with Dunaway's appearance, the sleaze and sludge of the world of the barfly has never looked quite so appetizing, (yet, nor has it ever looked quite so dismal!).

Now, I had the opportunity to see BARFLY as part of the recent Lincoln Center "Cannon Films Canon" retrospective, so I'd like to make a few observations about the event itself. Barbet Schroeder introduced the film, sharing the classic Black & Decker tale of it's conception and expressing his admiration for Bukowski. After these few words, he walked over and sat down next to me for the screening. He slouched down in his seat, folded his hands, and watched the film with a stern, thoughtful intensity. Now, there are many moments in BARFLY at which one cannot help but laugh. It ain't exactly mainstream slapstick, but I think we can all appreciate the subtle hilarity of Mickey Rourke telling Frank Stallone that his "momma's cunt stinks like carpet cleaner!", the way he blows a double-handed kiss to an adversary:

the sheer volume of spurting blood after he's beaten by Faye Dunaway's purse, or when he lurches into the wrong apartment, and, after confronting the existential terror of his inexplicably altered surroundings, immediately commences raiding the 'fridge. But there's also a great humanity here, and by no means is this a laugh-a-minute yuckfest. Schroeder's observational style shows us everything, but passes no judgment. Regardless, I began to feel self-conscious, chuckling at the wreckage with the director's severe countenance sitting beside me. (Thankfully, at the Q&A after the film, Schroeder spoke of how American audiences 'got' the film and its sense of humor, whereas the European crowd saw it as dark social tragedy, á la THE GRAPES OF WRATH or something.)
After the film, there was a brief conversation between Schroeder, Golan, Globus, & producer Tom Luddy. I must make a note here of how Golan and Globus come across– Globus is no-nonsense, the numbers man. Dressed in a well-tailored suit, but completely unpretentious, he stands in stark contrast to his cousin Golan. Even at 81, Golan comes across as the smooth operator, the storyteller, the scarf-wearing artiste with all the sophistication of a European auteur, yet with the same 'aw, shucks' sincerity that must've successfully pitched BREAKIN' 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO to distributors. I'm planning on writing more about seeing them speak in a later post, but for now I'll limit the comments to what happened after the BARFLY screening:

When asked if BARFLY received any Oscar nominations (it didn't, but Schroeder is an Oscar-nominee, and his films have certainly been well-nominated), Schroeder shrugged his shoulders and said he had no idea. He could care less about accolades at this point- he feels as strongly about the film now as he did in the days that he made it. Who cares if it was nominated for Oscars? It's especially refreshing given that he's actually been nominated, thus having earned the right to give a shit about the Oscars if he so chooses.

Schroeder spoke a little about the real Bukowski- the careful, coaxing process of making the film, given his harsh "anti-any-sort-of-authority" stance. He spoke about Godard's theft of Bukowski's intellectual property (as Godard was wont to do) in EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF, and how he was able to wrangle 'subtitle' credit for Bukowski. He talked for a bit about the Golden Horn, the bar at which the bulk of BARFLY was shot, and how it used to be a 'luxury' bar that Cary Grant once drank at, and how the clientele were recycled as extras in BARFLY! Everything was shot on location- the flophouse was really next door, and the back alley (and site of Rourke vs. Stallone brawling) was really the alley behind the bar.

Tom Luddy described how difficult it was to convince Dunaway to go without makeup, as she was extremely averse to the idea, despite all sorts of buttering up about her 'natural beauty' and so on. Finally, he convinced her to shoot screen tests- both with and without makeup- and told her she could choose. They screened both tests for Faye, and she wisely (but unexpectedly!) picked the one without makeup.

Menahem Golan bragged about how well BARFLY did on VHS, and how much money they ended up making on the "ill-fated" endeavor. (Of course, they immediately invested it in a pile of other projects, many of which bombed and soon sealed Cannon's fate- but they went out in a blaze of glory, dammit!) He also spoke of how difficult it was to drag Mickey Rourke to the Cannes film festival- he finally had to buy him a Rolls-Royce to convince him! "But that's Mickey..." Golan trailed off, smiling. Then everyone railed for a bit about how it's out-of-print on DVD and should be released by Criterion, but that it's up in the air now with MGM's purchase of the Cannon catalogue and subsequent bankruptcy.

This was the extent of the Q&A, but in all, it was a fantastic evening– BARFLY and Robby Müller's squalidly elegant cinematography on the big screen, and with Schroeder, Luddy, Golan & Globus there to share their insights and enthusiasm. Quite possibly an all-time top 100 movie.
In a similar vein, I also recommend such all-time favorites as: FAT CITY, STREET TRASH, BASKET CASE, UNDER THE VOLCANO, THE MISFITS, and THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE.

-Sean Gill


J.D. said...

Agh, I'm insanely jealous you got to see this on the big screen and amid cinematic royalty! "Another round, for all my friends!" indeed!

Great film that really captures the grubby, skid row vibe of Bukowski's prose. I always feel like I need to take a shower after watching this film... or get a Tetanus shot... or both.

And I love, love how the film begins and ends with a slow tracking shot into and then out of the bar with Booker T. and the MGs playing over the soundtrack. Awesome.

Sean Gill said...

Certainly a fine time, and now that I've got my tetanus shots, I'm fully recovered. And the cyclical opening and closing shots are truly a thing of beauty.

I'd like to see more Schroeder (I've already seen IDI AMIN DADA, KOKO, MAITRESSE, and TRICHEURS) and I think the BUKOWSKI TAPES, REVERSAL OF FORTUNE, and possibly the absurd-looking KISS OF DEATH or SINGLE WHITE FEMALE are going into the queue. Thoughts?

J.D. said...

SINGLE WHITE FEMALE is a good, pulpy fun but I'm bias as I have a cinematic crush on the lovely Jennifer Jason Leigh. I heard she's single now...