Wednesday, June 26, 2019

R.I.P., Billy Drago

I was very sorry to hear that Billy Drago died today––prolific character actor, cheekbone wonder, menacing Kansan, and portrayer of exquisite madmen. He was one of my favorite eccentric performers in an A-and B-movie canon (and Cannon) full of them... I've written before that his brilliant volatility ought to have resulted in warning labels on VHS tapes that said "HERE THERE BE DRAGOS."

Some classic roles included when he enforced Al Capone's reign of terror in De Palma's THE UNTOUCHABLES, engaged in complex cartel homoeroticism with Chuck Norris in DELTA FORCE 2: THE COLOMBIAN CONNECTION, preached and handled snakes in GUNCRAZY, led a punk gang against vampire Grace Jones in VAMP, ran an insane asylum in THE HERO AND THE TERROR, slithered through INVASION U.S.A. while testing all the coke, and was a frighteningly pathos-filled john in MYSTERIOUS SKIN, among many, many others. His body of work runs the gamut from arthouse films to workaday TV shows to Cannon actioners to music videos to the only episode of MASTERS OF HORROR deemed too extreme to air (directed by Takashi Miike). In each performance, he imbued his characters with a real, lived-in quality; an authenticity that was sometimes startling, sometimes nightmarish, and always profound. Here's to you, Billy: R.I.P.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Only now does it occur to me... GETTING STRAIGHT

Only now does it occur to me... to say a few words in praise of Harrison Ford's "schmacting"...but mostly to extol the bountiful virtues of not giving a shit.

In 1970, Harrison Ford's credited screen performances included episodes of THE VIRGINIAN, IRONSIDE, MY FRIEND TONY, THE F.B.I., and LOVE, AMERICAN STYLE; and a pair of Westerns nobody saw, one of which was ghost-directed by Roger Corman. Suffice it to say that he wasn't quite yet setting the world on fire. One could theorize that his relative lack of commercial success thus far was rooted in a kind of desperation to give the best, most noticeable performance imaginable, even if the role didn't call for it. In GETTING STRAIGHT––a counterculture campus film by the incomparably creative Richard Rush (THE STUNT MAN, PSYCH-OUT, FREEBIE AND THE BEAN)––Ford plays an art student, and in his brief screen-time he runs the gamut of widened eyes and indicating eyebrows and slack jaw and furrowed brows... it's an entire encyclopedia of trying too hard––known to many as "schmacting."

(It must be noted that while there are moments of levity throughout, GETTING STRAIGHT is not a screwball comedy, and in fact, its major setpiece is a police crackdown on unarmed campus protesters––furthermore, it was released to theaters a mere ten days after May 4th shootings at Kent State University.)

In Ford's three brief scenes––two of which, where his main character motivation is to invite Elliot Gould and Candice Bergen to a party in his apartment––he overreacts to every happening and tries to imbue each line with an accompanying, on-the-nose facial expression. I've found this sort of thing to be quite common among anxious, eager young actors who sometimes pin their hopes and dreams and desperation onto "under-five" roles that were never intended to be the center of the film's universe. The result is a roller-coaster ride of disparate reactions and maniacal acting choices––which is something that I obviously enjoy quite a bit, in the right context.

The world had not yet broken young Harrison––he hadn't yet bombed out of the movies and turned back to carpentry (from which he would be notably rescued by George Lucas during AMERICAN GRAFFITI), and he had not yet perfected his James Garner-ian tonal authority, his Lee Marvin-style physicality, or his Bob Mitchum-esque art of not giving a shit.

Harrison Ford, giving all the shits, so many shits, WHYYY AM I SO MISUNDERSTOOOOD, MAN

Compare this to the opposite end of the Fordian spectrum––perhaps the voiceover of BLADE RUNNER (mercifully unused in the director's/final cut), where he was actively trying to be terrible... which is certainly awful in its own way, but again note that it involves "actively trying." I think Ford is at his cocky, lazy best when he's coasting through the universe like he owns it (Han Solo, Indiana Jones, Rick Deckard etc.). The best part is that I think Ford himself is well-aware of the acting tendencies he had as a young man, because the only other times I've see it is when Ford's character is "acting"––i.e., when Indiana Jones pretends to be a Scottish tapestry enthusiast in INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE or when Rick Deckard impersonates a nerdy moral crusader in BLADE RUNNER.

Anyway, I think there's a lesson here about detachment and confidence and self-awareness and nervousness and desperation; in short, the art of letting go––and the grand and mysterious power sometimes vested in not givin' a shit.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Only now does it occur to me... BACK TO THE FUTURE PART III

Only now does it occur to me... that Robert Zemeckis, in his infinite wisdom, decided to include an oddly specific homage to the comedy BLIND DATE (1987) in his BACK TO THE FUTURE PART III (1990).  Since the average movie viewer today is more likely to have seen the concluding chapter of the BACK TO THE FUTURE trilogy than Blake Edwards' BLIND DATE, a film best described "as if Scorsese's AFTER HOURS slipped on a banana peel while Bruce Willis played a slide whistle," allow me to explain.

Early on in BACK TO THE FUTURE III, Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox), having traveled to 1885, is attempting to blend in at the local saloon

when Buford "Mad Dog" Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson) comes to harass him in a Biff-inspired scene which should seem quite familiar to fans of the series.

 After giving his name as "Clint Eastwood," Marty innocently refers to Buford as "Mad Dog," which induces his fury.

Commanding him to dance, Buford shoots at Marty's feet... and Marty proceeds to do the "moonwalk."

He then shouts "Whooo!" in the manner of Michael Jackson and kicks a full spittoon onto Mad Dog.

This leads to a chase sequence. End scene.

In BLIND DATE, Bruce Willis' character has been set up on the titular blind date with Kim Basinger,

which triggers a series of unlucky and harrowing events (he's fired from his job, has his car destroyed, and begins suffering a full psychotic break, for instance). Basinger is also being stalked by her ex, John Larroquette, who carelessly menaces and nearly kills Willis with his car. Later on, a worse-for-wear Willis encounters his new nemesis Larroquette and begins brawling with him.

 When Willis lays his hands on a mugger's gun,

he holds Larroquette at gunpoint and insists that he dance.

 When the dance is not to Willis' liking, he insists he moonwalk.

Larroquette proceeds to moonwalk. However, it was a insincere request, as Willis soon announces, "I hate that shit!" and begins firing at his feet.

Shortly thereafter, Willis is arrested, leading to the iconic "BLIND DATE mugshot" sequence.
And end scene.

Okay. So. There's little doubt that these scenes of comedic violence are interconnected, and the connection is so specific that I have to imagine Zemeckis intended for his scene to be an homage to BLIND DATE. Or, perhaps, he saw BLIND DATE, and though he tried to forget it––a feat many BLIND DATE viewers have attempted––he felt some ineffable connection between the moonwalk and being held at gunpoint and inserted it into his film via sheer BLIND DATE-osmosis. I wonder if this is something they discussed when Zemeckis directed Bruce Willis in DEATH BECOMES HER. Or if this led to the John Larroquette cameo in the Zemeckis-produced TALES FROM THE CRYPT: DEMON KNIGHT.

Also, if we want to get really "out there," note that the poster/cover art for BLIND DATE bears an eerie similarity to 1988's ACTION JACKSON––a film that co-starred Thomas F. Wilson, a.k.a. "Biff/Buford Tannen" from the BACK TO THE FUTURE trilogy.

Only one thing seems clear: truly, all roads lead back to BLIND DATE, whether we like it or not.