Friday, December 16, 2016

Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche and The Story of Judas

I was asked by programmer Delphine Selles-Alvarez to introduce FIAF's December 13 screening of the 2015 film Histoire de Judas (Story of Judas), the last film in a complete Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche retrospective. There isn't much written on Ameur-Zaïmeche in English, and my notes for the introduction read well enough, so:


I’d like to discuss some of the qualities of Ameur-Zaïmeche’s work so far, and talk a little about how tonight’s film grows out of what Ameur-Zaïmeche did before.

Some characteristics that we find in his work from the beginning:

1. An attention to documenting places and evoking their ambience, with emphasis on natural sound and a pleasure in long shots and long takes. He has a good compositional sense, with an eye for natural grandeur.

2. A tendency to suggest story rather than foreground it, giving a few muted story cues along with his evocations of locations: story emerges from within the ambience, or hides within it.

3. A tendency to present sympathetic and unsympathetic actions in a similar manner, and to let signals about characters be absorbed in the prevailing mood of the environments he creates.

The last three elements taken together make one think of Jean Renoir, in that both filmmakers want to document the world and in some sense they don’t want the fiction to triumph over the documentary - they want the fiction to be infused with the qualities of the documentation. As a side effect, both filmmakers evince a generosity toward people.

A few of Ameur-Zaïmeche’s characteristics come on stronger with his third and fourth films, Adhen and Les chants de Mandrin (Smugglers' Songs):

 1. A romanticism in the presentation of people and their struggles, and a pleasure in the heroic. The romanticism also has the general effect of making characters more admirable - Histoire de Judas is a good example.

2. A taste for abstraction in his stories and subjects: a suggestion of allegory or symbolism, a preference for stories that point to larger issues.  This tendency collides in an interesting way with the realism of image and sound that Ameur-Zaïmeche likes. The ambient style and the romantic largeness of the gestures and stories modify each other.  One can almost define Ameur-Zaïmeche’s style as the combination of these two tendencies.

Adhen used an unusual setting and striking art direction to create a sense of microcosm, of a part representing the whole. And after that Ameur-Zaïmeche left modern times and took up legendary subjects.  The socialist politics in his films come to the surface in this period, but the politics are expressed in romantic, heroic terms - I feel as if the romanticism is at least as important to him as his political aims.

On Histoire de Judas:

The solemnity of this particular story seems as if it might weigh the film down, but Ameur-Zaïmeche soon starts doing peculiar things with the material - the sanctified subject matter throws Ameur-Zaïmeche’s daring into relief. One small sign of his assertion is the modern way Jesus and Judas express their mutual affection: he humanizes them by transforming them into bros. I kind of like it because it’s so much him, even if it’s not the way I might approach the material: he’s using that male energy that we see in his other films.

I don’t want to give away the plot, but you’ll see big deviations from the New Testament version as the story goes along, changes that feel more artistically than politically motivated. One interesting addition that can perhaps be mentioned without spoiling the film is the important character of the madman who impersonates Jesus and functions in the film as his double, and who eventually is the focus of a emotional scene on the site of the crucifixion. Though such additions to the story are a bold gesture, they don’t alter the intent of the original much: Ameur-Zaïmeche seems to be trying to make vivid to himself the emotions of the story, rather than depart from it in fundamental ways.

In his last three films, Ameur-Zaïmeche has been moving a step at a time toward legend and grandeur: from the abstract conflict of Adhen to the Robin Hood-like figures of Les chants de Mandrin to the Christ story.  I’m curious where he goes from here, as his stories have pretty much gotten as big as they can get.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Don Siegel, 1980

I'm experimenting, none too successfully, with using Blogger to post .jpgs of print articles. This piece appeared in the L.A. Reader on October 24, 1980 on the occasion of a Don Siegel retrospective at USC. I am as always embarrassed by my never-in-doubt writing persona at age 25, and my assessment of the politics of Dirty Harry was plainly inadequate to the complexity of the issue; but a few of the ideas still seem worthwhile.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Rohmer's Moral Tales

I wrote a short (about 650 words when the dust cleared) piece on Eric Rohmer's Moral Tales for the Village Voice this week, and managed to squeeze in a few of my ideas about Rohmer.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Alan Rudolph, 1985

Early in 1985, the Toronto Festival of Festivals (which later became the Toronto International Film Festival) commissioned essays for a book it hoped to publish on ten important new international filmmakers, titled "10 to Watch" and planned to accompany a sidebar series at the 1985 festival. Thanks to the recommendation of Dave Kehr, the festival asked me to write the section on Alan Rudolph, whose defenders were still thin on the ground despite Rudolph's recent breakthrough success with Choose Me. Unfortunately, the book project was cancelled, and my 10,000-word monograph never saw the light of day, though a greatly truncated version was published in the festival catalog that fall. I'm a bit embarrassed by the cocksure tone of the piece now, but I had access to Rudolph and his staff and obtained valuable background information that is still hard to come by. So, here's the monograph, with no revisions, in its public debut.

by Dan Sallitt
The critical and commercial success of Choose Me has finally pushed Alan Rudolph into the limelight, much to the amusement of his longtime admirers. By one count, a quarter of the major film reviewers in the United States and Canada put Choose Me on their 1984 ten-best lists; the Los Angeles Film Critics Association insulted Rudolph with its "New Generation" award, almost a decade after the one-two combination of Welcome to L.A. (1977) and Remember My Name (1978) established him as one of the most important talents of the seventies.
Can Rudolph sustain this momentum? Perhaps, like Jim Jarmusch with Stranger Than Paradise, he was fortunate to find a comic approach that endeared his film to people who would have thrown up their hands at the same eccentricities in a dramatic context. For such a well-liked film, Choose Me generated an unusual number of ambivalent reactions. Many viewers tacked an uneasy qualification onto their praise ("I liked it, and I'm not a Rudolph fan"); a few expressed doubts that the film's humor was entirely intentional.
Something about Rudolph bothers a good many filmgoers. Welcome to L.A., the best known of Rudolph's films before Choose Me, is a risky subject for casual conversation, often stirring bitter memories of wasted admission fees for which we Rudolph defenders are somehow held accountable. Remember My Name, a somewhat easier film for hip audiences to appreciate, has received limited distribution even in urban centers; the adventurous viewer is more likely to have caught Roadie (1980) or Endangered Species (1982), interesting failures that are often judged harshly. One reason that Rudolph disconcerts us is that his work manages to embody simultaneously elements of old-fashioned romanticism and cynical modernism. The identifying characteristic of his most personal films, which all deal with the subject of romantic illusion, is a sort of rapturous expressionism, a projection of the characters' romantic idealism onto the external world through nonrealistic lighting, the banishing of context, and conspicuously deployed music. Yet this expressionism is at odds with the films' content. Romantic compatibility is unknown in Rudolph's universe: most of his people are too neurotic or outright crazy to function properly in any interpersonal situation, and his more stable characters never manage to find each other. Furthermore, the pervasive romantic atmosphere is continuously at war, not only with Rudolph's deflating sense of humor, but also with an accumulation of entropic realism, manifested in everything from the behavioral quirkiness of the smallest bit parts to the multileveled sound tracks that are part of his heritage from Robert Altman.
The effect is complex. While boldly rejecting all the conventions of romantic fiction, Rudolph doesn't reject its spirit: he is sympathetic to the idealizing impulse that creates traditional movie romance. But, having identified it as an impulse, he must locate it within the film universe and give equal weight to the forces that oppose it. The war between the subjective and the objective in Rudolph's films is pleasingly exaggerated for maximum effect: romance is overpowering and virtually palpable, but good judgment absolutely forbids it. So Rudolph alienates two blocs of viewers at once. Those in search of traditional love stories naturally want simpler and more promising scenarios, but modern sophisticates in search of real cynicism are turned off by the director's immersion in his characters' fantasies.
The differences among Rudolph's expressionist romances are great, but not as great as the stylistic gap between them and his other films. Welcome to L.A. and Remember My Name, independent productions made from original ideas by Rudolph, were followed at two-year intervals by Roadie and Endangered Species, studio projects made from stories or scripts by others. Though neither of these films is conventional or unimaginative, they lack the concentrated creative intensity of the works that preceded them; Choose Me arrived just in time to allay our fears that Rudolph had lost his way. With the release of Songwriter (1984), another studio project, the shape of Rudolph's career became clear: the full force of his talent has been brought to bear only on those relatively intangible subjects that permitted him to establish his idiosyncratic dichotomy between emotional immersion and philosophical detachment. Fortunately, he plays into his own strengths when given complete freedom, and he can now hope for creative opportunities that seemed unlikely to come his way before Choose Me fared so well at the box office.
Rudolph was born in Los Angeles in 1944, the son of director Oscar Rudolph, who worked in both television ("The Donna Reed Show," "Playhouse 90") and features (Don't Knock the Twist, Rocket Man, Twist Around the Clock) before becoming a second-unit director for Robert Aldrich in the sixties. After graduating from UCLA, Rudolph took a variety of studio jobs, including work in the Paramount mail room; during this period he made hundreds of Super-8 short films set to popular songs, selling them to film students as class projects and on one occasion winning school awards for a customer. In 1967 he entered the Directors Guild Assistant director Training Program, which he finished in a year and a half; by the age of twenty-four he was one of Hollywood's youngest assistant directors. A few years of steady work disenchanted him with the job, and by 1970 he had given up assistant directing and devoted himself to writing, scripting several unproduced low-budget films and working on his own projects.
In 1972 Rudolph and several friends raised $32,000 and made a little-distributed horror film called Premonition (not to be confused with the 1976 film The Premonition, directed by Robert Allen Schnitzer), which Rudolph wrote and directed. Drawing on elements of the youth-culture films of the period – the story revolves around a mysterious red flower that causes premonitions of death – Premonition was photographed by John Bailey (American Gigolo, Ordinary People, The Big Chill) and edited by Carol Littleton (Body Heat, E.T., The Big Chill), both unknowns at the time. Rudolph followed this inconspicuous debut a year later with another horror film, Terror Circus, which he took over after producer-writer Gerald Cormier had shot four or five days. Its plot sounds unpromising, to say the least: a young maniac, played by Andrew Prine, tortures women in a private circus in his barn, while his father, who has been transformed into a monster by radiation, roams the Nevada desert in search of prey whenever he escapes from his shed. Rereleased in 1976 under the astonishing title Barn of the Naked Dead, Terror Circus seems to have circulated more widely than Premonition, but both films have passed beyond the reach of film scholarship. Rudolph has said that Terror Circus is the slicker and more professional of the two films, but that Premonition contains more of his sensibility.
Earlier in 1973 Rudolph was asked to be the assistant director on Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye. Though not eager to continue working in that capacity, he accepted the job after seeing Altman's films; attracted by the greater freedom and responsibility that Altman offered him on each successive project, he also signed on for California Split (1974) and Nashville (1975), directing some of the background action in both films. Altman then gave Rudolph his first major screenwriting credit on Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976), adapted from (or, rather, inspired by – Rudolph claims that he and Altman kept only one line) Arthur Kopit's play Indians. Unusually derisive even for Altman, the film is a lengthy deflation of the legend of Buffalo Bill Cody, portrayed by Paul Newman as a blustery, ignorant fraud who has forgotten that his legend was manufactured by dime-novel writers. Rudolph's personality is hard to spot beneath Altman’s less tender brand of satire; in retrospect, one can glimpse in the depiction of Cody's entourage Rudolph's great gift for sharply individualized characterization and his flair for arch yet naturalistic dialogue.
Between drafts of Buffalo Bill, Rudolph wrote an adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's novel Breakfast of Champions, which Altman was then planning to direct. Despite the considerable publicity generated, the project never got off the ground, though the unproduced script (which Rudolph finished in eight days and considers his best writing) came to the attention of Carolyn Pfeiffer, who was to become Rudolph's steady producer in the eighties. Pfeiffer, working for the new company Alive Enterprises, hired Rudolph to co-script the 1975 television special "Welcome to My Nightmare," featuring Alice Cooper in a series of production numbers based on his songs from the album of the same name. Rudolph's job was to help create visualizations of the songs and a fictional structure to link them together; as might be expected, nothing of his personality can be detected in the show, least of all in the campy dialogue interludes in which Vincent Price recycles his familiar horror-film persona as a demon tormenting Cooper's dreams. Under Jorn Winther's direction, the production numbers are rather less spastic and shapeless than in most of today's music videos, and the show received a Grammy nomination in the category of Best Video Album when it was released on cassette in 1984.
Buffalo Bill turned out to be a commercial flop, but while it was in production United Artists had high hopes for it, and the benevolent mood translated into financing for Rudolph's first major film, produced by Altman under the aegis of his Lion's Gate company. Welcome to L.A. has the earmarks of an all-or-nothing project; one senses the novice director determined to make a dent in cinema history after years of frustrating apprenticeship. It is the most undisguised expression of the abstraction that underlies his work, the most openly serious of his films (though not without humor), and one of the most controlled, precisely organized films that he or any other American filmmaker of his time has done.
The idea for the film was born when Rudolph heard Richard Baskin, who did the music on Nashville and Buffalo Bill, playing one of the songs from his blues suite "City of the One-Night Stands." Rudolph told Baskin he could make a movie of the song, and Welcome to L.A. developed as a melding of the song suite, which is omnipresent on the sound track, and an elaborate and almost plotless interaction among ten or so characters trying to soothe their psychic ills through sex and love. The surplus of mood created by the considerable overlap between the music and drama is probably responsible for the ill feeling that many harbor toward the film, and even sympathetic viewers may sometimes balk at its overripe atmosphere of romantic angst. In the future music would serve a more contrapuntal function in Rudolph's films; here, it takes all the cumulative complexity and intelligence of Rudolph's style to anchor the story in emotional reality and prevent it from becoming an illustration of Baskin's score. As if to emphasize the abstract underpinnings of the film, Rudolph begins with a series of disconnected scenes, smoothed together by Baskin's music, that introduce the peripheral characters. Only after we have passed through a seemingly random collection of settings – a suburban cocktail party, a sedate but high-powered business office, a recording studio – do we meet the character who is the film's structural and emotional center, Carroll Barber (Keith Carradine), a young musician who, after several years abroad, has returned home to Los Angeles because famous recording artist Eric Wood (Baskin) is making an album of his songs. Suspended in constant melancholy reverie, Carroll has no roots in his home city: his shy, genial manner with his beaming businessman father (Denver Pyle) barely conceals his irremediable distaste for the man, and he gives a very cold shoulder to his agent/ex-lover Susan Moore (Viveca Lindfors), an older woman with a wide streak of Hollywood craziness. Rudolph's balance between biting social observation and sympathy for the characters' emotional needs is immediately apparent. Even the least likable character – probably Carl's associate Ken Hood (Harvey Keitel), a perfect picture of constipated calculation striving toward urban chic – churns with boyish anxieties and goes soft at odd moments. To watch the superb scene in which Ken is surprised with a partnership, his confused exuberance slowly seeping through his businessman's aplomb, is to understand the generosity that deepens Rudolph's social satire.
Accompanied by a bottle of Southern Comfort and a mysterious anguish that rarely reaches the surface in a simple form, Carroll meanders through the handful of sets and locations that constitute Rudolph's Los Angeles, losing his blue funk only in the company of the many women he meets and takes to bed. Without minimizing Carroll's occasional hardness toward his rejected sexual partners, Rudolph and Carradine convey the man's benevolent attitude toward romance and the hope he places in it: all his discomfort seems to drop away as he eases into conversation with a woman. Virtually the entire female cast is up for his consideration: Ann Goode (Sally Kellerman), an upbeat, unhappily married real-estate agent who wears her desperation and vulnerability like a badge; Jeanette Ross (Diahnne Abbott), Carl's quirky receptionist; Linda Murray (Sissy Spacek), an out-to-lunch domestic and part-time hooker with whom Carroll forms a touching friendship utterly devoid of condescension; Nona Bruce (Lauren Hutton), Carl's enigmatic, knowing mistress, who has a special fix on Carroll's pain; and Carroll's final choice, the neurotic-going-on-psychotic Karen Hood (Geraldine Chaplin), who rides in taxis all day and nurses a hacking cough in imitation of Greta Garbo's Marguerite Gauthier.
Once having established his characters, Rudolph weaves them into visual and narrative digressions from the slight story – sometimes mere imagistic interludes, sometimes lengthy sidebar explorations of the secondary characters' romantic aspirations. This cavalier attitude toward plot is just one result of Rudolph's natural inclination to expose or point up the conventions of fiction. Plot in his films is at best an amused counterpoint to his deeper concerns, a wink to the audience; in Welcome to L.A., which he did not approach in a winking mood, he is just as likely to dispense with plot altogether as he is to stylize it with multiple coincidences and repetitions. In fact, the seriousness of the film seems to encourage his interest in reflexivity, as if the greater distance from the subject matter that comedy allowed him in his later work would moderate his need to give us a peek behind the curtain. The most obvious example of this tendency in Welcome to L.A. is the characters' habit of looking directly at the camera at intervals throughout the film, each of them shifting his or her gaze toward us during a moment of reverie just before a scene-ending cut. In a similar reflexive spirit, Rudolph continually reveals the all-important soundtrack music as the creation of musicians in Eric Wood's studio. Unlike many reflexive effects, however, these don't destroy the tone set by the fiction. Far from dispelling the characters' mystery, the glances at the camera intensify it: the invitation to direct contact always comes when the character is at his or her most inscrutable. And the grave, romantic images of the studio musicians laboring silently in the dark merely add to the film a new, enigmatic microcosm. Behind the specific riddle, a general one: the effect is ambitious and philosophical.
The essence of Rudolph's art, the tension between detachment and immersion, can be glimpsed here. On the one hand, every aspect of his work reveals his desire to stand back, take the broader perspective, expose illusion; on the other, he is sympathetic to and fascinated with intransigent, untranscendent emotionality. One can spot this dichotomy, not only in the form of the films, but also in the characterizations. Among his films, Welcome to L.A. most clearly reveals the detached self-awareness that permeates his universe, largely because its central character is the closest thing to a surrogate for himself that he has created. Carroll Barber walks through the emotional wreckage of Rudolph's Los Angeles at a serene philosophical distance from his own pain, smoothing out the peaks and valleys of his psyche just as Rudolph levels the film's tone with his remote but sympathetic overview. A little ironic smile creeps across Carroll's face at the slightest observation, about either himself or others; his gestures are slow and measured, sometimes consciously overstressed, as if the observer within him is amused to see essence transformed into existence by any simple act. At his most anguished moment, he collapses against a car in a dark alley and breaks into unreserved laughter, and Rudolph tracks in ominously to crystallize the paradox of an elevated consciousness yoked to earthbound feelings.
Many a minor Rudolph character is a distilled incarnation of self-awareness: here, not only Nona, the photographer who stakes out every location and never slips us any expression of her presumably complex emotional life, but also the mysterious studio producer (Cedric Scott) who watches over Eric Wood from his shadowy booth, twirls a quarter across his knuckles, and drily conceals his inside knowledge of the drama that plays out before his eyes. But these characters do not have a monopoly on ironic detachment: it lurks around every corner in Welcome to L.A., manifesting itself in the least expected places, as when space-case Linda savors the effect as she grabs the money that crass hustler Jack Goode (John Considine) offers her but wants her to refuse. The inevitable corollary of this all-embracing self-awareness is a pervasive sense of the mystery of people. When self-observation comes between people's emotions and their expressions, the human exterior ceases to tell us very much and becomes a symbol of enigma rather than an indication of interior reality. Even when his characters are short on self-insight – and they are often hilariously short on it – Rudolph is preoccupied with the mystery of what goes on behind a face, with the possibility of an arcane psychological schema, invisible to us, that somehow makes sense of a character's lunacy. When Welcome to L.A. came out, I tried to interest people in it by telling them that it was the first Sternbergian film of the seventies. No one ever bought that line, and I wouldn't want to push the comparison too far. But the two directors have in common a complex of unusual traits: a fascination with the impenetrability of human surfaces; a forceful visual expressionism to which neither director nor characters surrender their perspective; and, most strikingly, that sense of half-smiling cosmic irony that separates the characters from the events of their own lives and turns their sensibilities inward on some obscure philosophical journey. After Welcome to L.A., Rudolph's characters don't function quite so readily as stand-ins for his detachment, and the Von Sternberg connection comes to mind less quickly.
Though it is the most somber and melancholy of Rudolph's films, Welcome to L.A. builds to a burst of transcendence that somehow makes it his most optimistic film as well. (By the same contrapuntal logic, the breezy Choose Me finishes with one of the most foreboding last shots in romantic comedy.) Carroll Barber's big career break turns out to have been rigged by his wealthy father to bring him back to Los Angeles, and the romance that he relies upon so desperately fails him as well: Karen Hood goes to their rendezvous after leaving his phone number on a note to her husband, with whom she effects a teary reconciliation while Carroll listens gloomily. Just then, at the low point of Carroll's fortunes, comes the astonishing moment in which he breaks into an inexplicable sunny grin as he turns toward the dollying camera. What is the revelation that riveted his gaze a moment before he smiled? Perhaps the weird spectacle of Angeleno sexual conduct has relieved him of the burden of seeking redemption through sex; perhaps Karen's dead-end romanticism has jarred him into self-examination. We can't really know, and the film refuses to work on that level of thematic forthrightness. What we see is a sudden spiritual serenity born of a brush with despair, not a departure from Carroll's character but an unexpected refinement of it. Rudolph plays the anticlimax out beautifully, providing his most polished oblique dialogue as Carroll divests himself of his possessions ("Do you like hats?" he asks the perplexed maid Linda, then gives her his. "Do you like keys?") and departs for the recording studio in search of Eric Wood ("The writer wishes to speak to the artist," he intones with benevolent self-mockery, adopting the producer's sarcastic terminology). The news that the album has been canceled doesn't even interrupt Carroll's motion as he takes over the console and adjusts the sound levels for a piano performance, the film's final song. Though the atmosphere of Welcome to L.A. is saturated with romantic angst and its script deals almost exclusively with romantic permutations and combinations, its protagonist scores a strange internal victory by jumping a level of consciousness and ending up alone. The pull between detachment and immersion in Rudolph's films has never since been expressed so directly.
Welcome to L.A. drew mixed reactions and a modicum of critical attention, which is more than any other Rudolph film until Choose Me received. Oddly, commentators of the time tended to attribute the film's qualities to producer Altman as often as to Rudolph. The cast of Welcome to L.A. was, of course, drawn almost entirely from the Altman stock company, and the film's episodic multicharacter structure seemed to many to be inspired by Nashville. Other resemblances between the two filmmakers' styles run a little deeper: the use of the slow zoom as a dramatic device; the frequent play with off-screen dialogue; and, most obviously, the aural density that comes from feeding several microphones into a multitrack sound system. But these shared technical interests shouldn't conceal the utter dissimilarity between Altman's artistic temperament and Rudolph's. The satire in Altman's films is much broader and much less respectful of the mystery of the characters – which is to say that satire is an end for Altman and only a means for Rudolph. When Altman takes an external point of view on a character, he tends toward a superficial evocation of spookiness; he has none of Rudolph's sympathetic fascination with the humanity behind the enigma, and his derisiveness cuts him off from the contemplative streak that gives depth to Rudolph's moody surfaces. Even the technical devices that both directors share serve different functions for each: aural density, for instance, is for Rudolph merely an anchor of realism to weigh down his visual expressionism, whereas Altman, whose already-realistic visuals need no such counterpoint, purposely garbles the lines of his narratives with clouds of ambient noise that only incidentally functions as dialogue.
Remember My Name, Rudolph's next film, was also produced for Lion's Gate by Altman. Columbia financed the project but, like United Artists with Welcome to L.A., withdrew in the final stages; despite generally favorable reviews, the film vanished quickly after its late 1978 release and was almost impossible to see before Choose Me's success brought it back to the revival circuit. The differences between it and Welcome to L.A. were startling at the time of its release; today, it looks like a turning point for Rudolph, a breakthrough to the mode of expression with which he is most comfortable. Against the intense, perhaps excessive romanticism and prevailing solemnity of the earlier work, Remember My Name is caustic, free-floating, and whimsical, playing against a core of serious feeling with sublimely remote humor. (The choice of Alberta Hunter's blues songs as a score reflects Rudolph's new unwillingness to lay his deepest feelings on the surface of the film.) Still neglected in most quarters, it remains to be discovered as one of the great films of the seventies and Rudolph's supreme achievement to date.
Departing from the up-front artiness and abstraction of Welcome to L.A., Remember My Name playfully adopts the narrative premises of the mystery-suspense genre. Under the credits, the Mysterious Stranger, a woman named Emily (Geraldine Chaplin), drives into town (Los Angeles, but you can hardly tell from Rudolph's handful of hermetically sealed locations) on an obscure mission. Gauche, unsteady, and vulnerable, the mannish Emily sets about making herself feminine, buying new clothes and shoes and getting a fancy hairdo even before she hunts for an apartment, where she rehearses a long speech intended for some former lover. The objects of her quest are a prickly, nervous carpenter named Neil Curry (Anthony Perkins) and his plaintive wife Barbara (Berry Berenson), who live lives of quiet desperation in their suburban house. At first, Emily restricts herself to spooking Barbara with annoying phone calls; later, she stalks the house, tears up its flower beds, and throws rocks through its windows at night.
The suspense is anything but oppressively concentrated. Like Chaplin's Karen Hood in Welcome to L.A., Emily is an archetypal Rudolph loonie, moving on a time delay as if instructions were being beamed to her from another planet. Her eyes shift aimlessly and miss their focus as she throws off hollow, monotone phrases that, by coincidence, sometimes take the form of social intercourse. One of the advantages of having a certifiable mental case as a character is that the most outrageous comic behavior remains within the bounds of psychological plausibility, and Emily's persecution of the Currys is filled with dislocated, erratic behavior that effectively takes the edge off the suspense mechanism. Rudolph is skilled at balancing comedy and mystery so that neither one destroys the other: the screwball humor hovers in little pockets of space and time that restore the gags to a psychological context. The ultimate example of this balance is the long, edgy scene in which Emily invades the Curry house while Barbara is preparing dinner: the confrontation wittily delayed, suddenly sprung on Barbara and us, then become a showcase for Emily's alternately hilarious and unsettling psychosis while Rudolph keeps Barbara's persuasive terror in a secondary focus.
Like all of Rudolph's most personal films, Remember My Name wanders down too many crisscrossing narrative paths to generate much melodramatic momentum. Far from embodying the spirit of single-minded obsession that powers this genre, the film turns every corner of Emily's new life into a separate arena in which a mock drama is played out, giving Emily a chance to rehearse her burgeoning feminine wiles in preparation for the long-awaited confrontation with her ex-husband Neil. We learn that Emily is an ex-convict as she claims a drugstore checkout job promised her by her cellmate, whose son Mr. Nudd (Jeff Goldblum) reluctantly hires all his mother's cronies. There, she dodges the moves of aspiring young smoothie Harry (Jeffrey S. Perry) and makes dangerous enemies of her domineering supervisor Rita (Alfre Woodard) and the supervisor's arrogant, hulking boyfriend Jeff (Timothy Thomerson). At her apartment, her typically inscrutable interaction with her reclusive, sharp-tongued building manager Pike (Moses Gunn) takes a weird turn toward romance (Emily's calculating seduction? an unstable union of two lonely people?) that brings out Pike's soft, protective side.
Each of these settings is a small microcosm (the same artificially tiny group of characters appears over and over in each setting) within the larger microcosm of the film's universe (the same tiny group of settings appears over and over, to the virtual exclusion of unfamiliar new locations). This peculiar, abstracting practice is a Rudolph specialty. An irate Los Angeles critic complained that Choose Me seemed to take place in a city populated by six people who run into each other constantly; Rudolph anticipated him in Welcome to L.A. when Ann Goode said, "I swear, there must be twelve people in L.A." Rudolph's microcosmic tendencies are the more interesting because he does not set out to capture an isolated class or subcategory of society: his small collections of characters always display all the diversity of the society at large, and the vividness and individuality of the smallest supporting parts in his films have the effect of pointing us outward toward the infinite variety of the world beyond the frame. So why the stylized paring down of cast and locations? – which, after all, is different only in degree, not in principle, from what every filmmaker has to do in the process of making a budget and telling a story. I think that Rudolph emphasizes this paring down precisely because it is part of the normal filmmaking process. As noted earlier, he shows a marked propensity for reflexive devices that expose the mechanisms of filmmaking – not because he wishes to undermine the fictional process, but because his love of self-awareness and philosophical detachment inclines him to make that detachment part of the viewer's experience. By subtly highlighting the microcosmic aspects of his films, Rudolph is making a droll confession of the minimal means of filmmaking, as if to say, "We have a limited number of actors and important locations, and we prefer to make this fact explicit." Needless to say, this abstraction is also a useful trick for a low-budget filmmaker trying to cut costs. (Welcome to L.A. and Remember My Name cost approximately $1 million each; Choose Me cost only $835,000.)
One of the funniest running gags in any Rudolph film plays directly off the artificial containment of the world of Remember My Name. As the edgy, preoccupied characters slump automatically in front of television sets, news reporters assail their unreceptive ears with reports of a tragic earthquake in Budapest. At first the dark humor seems to be directed at the well-rendered inanity of television's conformist, ersatz humanism, derisively presented in absurd fragments ("There is Buda, and there is Pest"). But the reports crop up more and more persistently; when Rudolph makes a scene transition on two different characters listening to different earthquake reports, we realize that he is prodding us into a comic awareness of the great gap between this microcosmic world and the kind of film universe that can absorb any current event, much less such a remote, large-scale disaster. If one wishes to interpret the running gag as a comment on the ease with which people detach themselves from the suffering of others, this interpretation does no harm to the film's content.
None of the major characters in Remember My Name are particularly sympathetic, though none are vilified either. Emily's unexplained hostile acts in the film's first half tend to build sympathy for her harassed victims, but Rudolph chooses not to take advantage of the potential for audience identification. Perkins's portrait of Neil, every bit as rich and detailed as Chaplin's centerpiece performance, emphasizes the man's potential for defensive anger and his ingrained smugness. Not terribly attentive to his wife and clouded over by unspecified troubles, Neil tries to project an image of scornful, wisecracking cool that is inevitably exposed by his awkward fumbling for the right phrase or posture, an effect beautifully conveyed by dialogue and acting nuance ("Hey - thank you, thank you for your…" is his failed, stuttering sarcasm toward a rude cop who lets a door close on him). His wife Barbara lacks conspicuous character defects, but her dreamy suburban complacency puts us at a distance from her growing anxiety. As we learn that Emily's mission is one of not entirely unjustified revenge (Neil left her and remarried while she served a twelve-year sentence for the murder of Neil's mistress, a murder she may or may not have committed) and that she still seems to carry a torch for Neil, sympathy shifts toward her. But, again, Rudolph heads off easy identification by building Neil's charm and sensitivity in the wonderful drunken reunion scenes in the last reels, featuring Rudolph's finest self-aware, penetrating humor and bathed in an expressionist romantic glow right out of Welcome to L.A. Only a dour ideologue can completely endorse Emily's well-calculated triumph by the time she exacts her modest revenge and skips town as mysteriously as she arrived. The victor has coolly abandoned the shadow world of romantic idealism that was our point of access to her humanity; the vanquished has entered that world and absorbed his adversary's dark dreams and vulnerability.
Rudolph's greater impartiality and distance from his characters in Remember My Name lead him to a camera style considerably different from the relatively stable, character-centered compositions of Welcome to L.A. Remember My Name is easily his most visually virtuosic film: scene after scene is executed in long takes and elaborate tracking shots, often extending over sequences of events and changes in tone. The great plastic beauty of these shots is not their raison d'être: they are the linchpin of the carefully modulated narrative rhythms that characterize Rudolph's visual style and that reached their full development here. Welcome to L.A., conceived in terms of a single dominant mood, lent itself more naturally to this modulation; Remember My Name, with its discordant moods and modes of expression, is a truer test of Rudolph's ability to control tone, and his success is largely due to the overview imposed by the ambient visuals, which express the director's amused, philosophical indifference to the pull of the chaotic drama. The mobile camera, more attentive to the imperatives of spatial and temporal unity than to the urgency of the plot, both quiets the force of dramatic peaks and gives an unexpected resonance to still moments. (Similarly, the use of Hunter's jocular blues songs to govern scene transitions indicates an ironic directorial vantage point that resists the vicissitudes of the story.) If humor is the keynote of Remember My Name, it is not because the funny moments outnumber the serious ones, not even because the jokes are so good (in fact, Rudolph's remote camera often sacrifices a big laugh for a quiet, contextualized one), but because the distance between the passionate involvement that the story asks of us and the contemplative, detached perspective that Rudolph adopts is intrinsically comic.
That the achievements of Welcome to L.A. and Remember My Name were not greeted with widespread critical acclaim can be chalked off to taste; that they passed almost unnoticed comes close to discrediting American film criticism altogether. Rudolph moved on to two studio productions that damaged what little reputation the Lion's Gate films had earned him. Roadie, released by MGM in mid-1980, was based on the work of Big Boy Medlin, a Texas and Los Angeles writer whose articles relate the exploits of good-ol' boy/Zen mechanic/folk philosopher Travis Redfish. Rudolph and executive producer Zalman King take story credits along with the scriptwriters Medlin and Michael Ventura; despite the film's many incidental virtues, it never coalesces into anything like the unified vision of the projects that Rudolph originated. The idea was to mix broad, cartoonish humor with an idealized vision of American folk heroism, propelled by Redfish's all-conquering philosophical wisdom ("Everything works if you let it") and incarnated in the mechanic/roadie/working man, who harnesses both the joy of traditional life and the power of technology. As realized in the film, the archetype is not nearly as grandiose as I've made it sound, but a not altogether pleasant moral complacency lurks under its informal surface.
The outlandish story, which moves at a steady breakneck pace, is designed to incorporate plenty of music from rock and country-western bands and performers like Blondie, Alice Cooper, Hank Williams, Jr., Roy Orbison, and Asleep at the Wheel. The trick is turned by having Travis (played by musician Meat Loaf) fall in love at first sight with Lola Bouillabaisse (Kaki Hunter), a sixteen-year-old would-be groupie determined to lose her virginity to Alice Cooper. When his prodigious mechanical skills are discovered – he can fix a stick shift or a sound system with whatever materials are at hand, from bobby pins to potatoes – Travis is enlisted as a roadie by the sleazy promoter that Lola travels with, and he hangs on to the job as long as he hopes to dissuade Lola from her career ambitions. Despite some realism in the sympathetic depiction of good-ol'-boy social behavior, the predominant mode of expression throughout is comic exaggeration ranging from caricature to grotesquerie. Some of this exaggeration is witty and successful – like the low-angle shots and close-ups that overstate the modest (at best) physical appeal of the leads. Some is so bizarre that it's hard to see the point – why does Travis's father Corpus (Art Carney) have scores of televisions in his living room, or Travis fall prey to periodic "brainlocks" in which he babbles utter nonsense? Some is downright unredeemable low humor – a vacuum-cleaner nozzle stuck to a man's crotch, a little old lady with a taste for cocaine.
What was most disconcerting about Roadie at the time of its release was less the wavering humor than the seeming atrophy of Rudolph's precise, supple style. The fast cutting that, for the most part, replaces the studied tracking shots and elegant visual plans of the earlier films runs a little to the ragged side, and the thoughtful conceptual organization that always characterizes his independent, self-generated projects is nowhere to be found. Many of Rudolph's virtues are periodically in evidence: the fascination with a compellingly inscrutable expression, the little knowing twists that characters put on dialogue that doesn't seem to invite it (like that Von Sternberg look that Lola gives the corpulent Travis as she raves about Alice Cooper – "He's so skinny"), the digressive verbal byplay in the margins of the shots, often supplied by Travis's fellow roadies. But Rudolph gives us the impression here that he is a talented director, not a great one. His next film, the ill-marketed Endangered Species, was a bit steadier, but not a return to form. Released in the fall of 1982 in Los Angeles and the Midwest (MGM/UA gave it perfunctory openings later in New York and other East Coast cities), Endangered Species and the political expose it contained were clearly of great importance to Rudolph, who co-wrote the script with John Binder (former Altman script supervisor and director of the fine, unreleased Uforia) from a story by Judson Kunger & Richard Woods. But his grip on the film's style is only a little less uncertain than in Roadie: the jagged, disorienting editing seems an afterthought rather than part of the aesthetic plan, and his many original touches never connect to a deeper stylistic orientation to the material. One can partly blame these problems on MGM/UA's interference with the project, but the real issue probably lies deeper. Like many major film artists, Rudolph seems to need a certain kind of material to release his full creative powers. The appeal of Roadie depended on its humor being taken at face value, and the importance of Endangered Species depended on its plot being taken at face value. Rudolph did so in each case – he had to do so, or else push the films toward camp. But he flourishes only when he can circle his subjects at a controlled distance; his art takes shape in the space between an emotional urgency and the elevated perspective that renders that urgency irrelevant.
Still, all the style in the world couldn't solve the structural problems of Endangered Species. On one level – to its makers, probably the most important level – it is about the rash of mysterious cattle mutilations that have taken place in the Midwest since 1969, when the government banned the testing of chemical and germ-warfare weapons. (Rudolph's political commitment can perhaps be inferred from the many non-stereotyped roles he provides for blacks and women in all his films, but Endangered Species is the only instance of politics moving to the foreground of his work.) Working from available facts, the filmmakers postulate a nongovernmental right-wing organization, determined to preserve the United States' capability to engage in chemical and germ warfare, that uses cattle for tests and leaves the surgically mutilated remains behind. On another level, the film is an engaging character study centered on ex-cop Ruben Castle (Robert Urich), alcoholic but dried out, who takes his estranged teenage daughter Mackenzie (Marin Kanter) on a cross-country trip. Stopping to visit a friend in Barron County, Colorado, he begins a wobbly romance with the county sheriff (JoBeth Williams), who is puzzled by all these mutilated cattle corpses littering her jurisdiction. Castle, in particular, is a lot of fun, a whimsical law-and-order reactionary who dictates his Spillane-like life story into a tape recorder ("Verbatim, I said, 'You got a right to remain silent, pal, if you think you can stand the pain'") and who cultivates his persona with just a touch of amused Rudolph self-awareness. But, no matter how interesting the characters are, they bear no relation to the film's structure; they exist to fill the minutes before the political mystery gathers momentum, and once it does their conflicts and emotions vanish in a flurry of mechanical action. Rudolph senses this problem and prevents the character interaction from assuming an inappropriate prominence, chopping the character scenes off with premature cuts and spacing them with plot advancement interludes. Likewise, he tries to hold a place for the slowly developing political drama, building anticipation with an ungodly number of eerie music cues and many transitional shots of living and dead animals, lights flashing in the sky, and mysterious technological activity. The total effect is curious and far from satisfactory. The shock of character drama yielding to action and political revelation is minimized, and some kind of rhythmic balance is achieved; but these are small gains. The trade-off is that the mystery buildup becomes overbearing at a very early stage. It's interesting that a semblance of formal coherence means more to Rudolph than the appeal of his characters or the efficacy of his suspense mechanism; with a bit more perspective on his material, he might have avoided that grim choice with radical structural changes.
The genre leads Rudolph into a few unhappy conventions: one unoriginal car chase, a stock paranoid cover-up scene, even the dreaded slow-motion action shot. On the whole, though, it's surprising how rarely he settles for cliché; nearly every decision he makes is imaginative and offbeat, even (perhaps especially) in the unfamiliar realm of pure action. Cut off from inspiration by a poor choice of subject matter, he falls back on ingenuity and salvages more shots and scenes than he has any right to.
Carolyn Pfeiffer, producer of Roadie and Endangered Species, became president of the newly formed production and distribution company Island Alive in 1983, and one of the company's first releases was Return Engagement, Rudolph's fine documentary on the Los Angeles debate of Timothy Leary and G. Gordon Liddy. Finished in early 1983 and released late that year, the film uses the debate as a framework but devotes more time to off-stage scenes: interviews with Liddy and Leary conducted by radio personality Carole Hemingway; surprisingly relaxed and genial social conversations among the men and their wives; Liddy riding and chatting with a gang of bikers who served time with him; both men giving lectures to a class of high-school students. Liddy, at least, comes across as a fascinating personality, grandiloquent, labored, and condescending as a public speaker but quiet and thoughtful, even a bit shy, in any informal setting. Leary, by contrast, gives his stage performance twenty-four hours a day, and the men's interaction settles into a comfortable comic routine, with Leary the mischievous, empty-headed gadfly constantly prodding the imperturbable but amused Liddy. The loose visual approach that such a documentary requires naturally militates against the precision and complexity of Rudolph's fiction films, but control isn't always a virtue in this format. As one might expect from his choice of such a dualistic subject, Rudolph essentially avoids the fiction-derived, manipulative techniques that deface so many documentaries, giving a reasonable amount of play to the ideas and shticks of the ideological combatants. As a portrait, the film is nicely rounded and often revelatory; as a vehicle for intellectual discourse, it makes up for its shortcomings (the utter incompatibility of the debaters, Leary's fuzziness) simply by creating a context in which ideas are open to challenge, a sadly unusual feat for a modern documentary.
Choose Me, Island Alive's first in-house production, was released in the fall of 1984 to immediate acclaim from audiences and critics; one imagines that Rudolph appreciated the absurd aspect of this belated development. The move toward farce that made this success possible required only the slightest shift in Rudolph's approach: the sexual permutations of an artificially small cast, a subject already staked out by Rudolph, lead naturally to the misunderstandings and confusion that are the stock in trade of farce. In Welcome to L.A. and Remember My Name Rudolph was too intent on his transcendent goals to bother with the details of social breakdown; here, he relaxes enough to admit accident and happenstance to his universe, though his attitude toward them is far more casual than that of most farceurs. In his selective transformation of the genre, Rudolph made Choose Me as much an antifarce as a farce; fortunately, such fine distinctions didn't faze most audiences.
The film's opening scene, an abstract mood piece that is essentially a musical number, emphatically announces Rudolph's return to romantic expressionism. On a narrow, intimate nighttime street bathed in neon light and the strains of Teddy Pendergrass's title song, a man emerges from a bar and begins a slow dance with first one, then another of the women who dot the avenue. From the background emerges Eve (Lesley Ann Warren), perhaps one of the working girls, who also moves down the street in a sensual dance rhythm. The magical atmosphere lingers through­out the film, though the characters won't vibrate to it so easily again. This scene is the purest representation of the never-never land of romantic illusion that beckons them to so many hopelessly non-ideal relationships, and the clearest demonstration of Rudolph's sympathy for the impulses that he must deconstruct with his clear-eyed detachment.
The Los Angeles of Choose Me has two foci. One is the broadcasting booth of Dr. Nancy Love (Genevieve Bujold), the charismatic radio psychologist whose show, "The Love Line," provides guidance for millions. The other is the mood-drenched bar of the first scene, owned by Eve, an ex-hooker whose brassy exterior barely conceals her vulnerability. Torn between her promiscuous impulses and her need for lasting love, Eve pours out her anguish in hostile calls to Dr. Love – who, unknown to Eve, is her new roommate, an eccentric lady who stares fixedly to the side of the room during conversations and takes an inexplicable pleasure in answering Eve's phone.
Eve's bar usually contains a few of her lovers at any given time, including Billy Ace (John Larroquette), who tends bar with Eve and learns more about her private life than he would like. We begin to perceive mysterious connections among the bar's regulars: Zach (Patrick Bauchau), a stylish French gangster who dallies with Eve between his business affairs; his spacey, incognito wife Pearl (Rae Dawn Chong), who treats the customers to her impromptu poetry; and Mickey (Keith Carradine), a recent escapee from a mental hospital, where he was diagnosed as a psychopathic liar. Exuding romantic mystery and spinning a wild collection of tall tales that show a suspicious internal consistency, Mickey makes a fast move for Eve, denting her habitual cynicism.
Before the end credits the five main characters (Billy Ace, the most stable and normal of the lot, plays a marginal role) fall together in every possible heterosexual pairing. The unnatural perfection of this schema (or near perfection – Zack and Nancy never quite make it to bed) indicates the greater playfulness with which Rudolph approached Choose Me, the greater extent to which it makes use of comic conventions. The farce mechanism doesn't gather momentum until the second half of the film, but from the beginning Rudolph prepares us for a different kind of reflexivity and abstraction than that in which he has dealt in the past. Too much the metaphysician to be interested in coincidence for its own sake, he conceived the film as a gentle exaggeration of the pleasant fantasies that underlie romantic comedy. The elaborate artifice of the plot and the outlandish character concepts function here in much the same way as those moodily expressionist sets: as a sympathetic projection of our romantic idealism, set off by a calculated overemphasis. The purple dialogue that bothers some viewers (and that, admittedly, might have been better contextualized once or twice in the early scenes) is part of this general attempt to establish the film as a meditation on fiction and the fictionalizing impulse. Pauline Kael thought of Jacques Demy's Lola in conjunction with Choose Me, and the comparison is in some ways apt, though couched in Kael's usual condescending terms. But, unlike Demy, Rudolph doesn't give himself over entirely to the urge to fictionalize, and the benevolent fantasy of Choose Me rests on the unstable foundation of its creator's intractable detachment.
Rudolph's established comic preoccupations adapt nicely to farce. His marked preference for beyond-the-pale crazies, who can cut loose without completely betraying his standards of psychological realism, reaches its peak here: all the characters are deeply neurotic (Eve), psychotic (Nancy), psychopathic (Zack), or somewhere on the three-way continuum. The least predictable of the characters, Nancy, is also the richest source of displaced behavior (such as sharing her newfound sexual rapture with her perplexed radio audience), inappropriate repetition (giving counseling whenever she is fortunate enough to stumble on a ringing telephone), and all the other time-honored manifestations of behavioral comedy. Of course, Rudolph is typically tender to her even as she waxes lunatic. Her most touching moment, her tearful defense to Eve of her fling with Mickey, is also her funniest, as she free-associates ecstatically about the far-reaching influence that her sexual breakthroughs will have, then pulls back with a momentary, belated flash of plot-preserving clarity and control – "I don't want to get into that" – before lapsing again into oblivion. What is unusual in the context of romantic farce is not Rudolph's characteristic sympathy for his comically unbalanced creations, but his refusal to soften their mental disorders for a comfortable denouement. The fantasy on the film's surface never breaks down altogether, but it travels on a rocky terrain, and Rudolph divides our attention between the allure of the fictional mechanism and the wrenches he throws into its works.
The farce conventions that Rudolph subverts reveal as much of his personality as the ones he adopts. The crisscrossing story presents him with golden opportunities to complicate the plot with mistaken-identity ploys, but Rudolph either neglects these opportunities entirely or slyly makes fun of them (Eve never learns that Mickey is innocent of the charges of woman-beating and perversion, but their romance reaches fruition anyway). He is perceptive enough to understand that the fictional convention of contrived separation is based on the dubious, wishful concept that romance flourishes in the absence of external barriers, and that this convention is inappropriate in his universe, where lovers can always find more than enough good reasons to separate without the scriptwriter manufacturing any. Had Rudolph obeyed this rule of the genre, Choose Me would be in danger of becoming a fantasy instead of a film about fantasy. With the same restraint, Rudolph will always sacrifice a gag or a happy moment if it threatens the underlying gravity of the characters or the sad irony of his perspective. When, for instance, Nancy must cut off Eve's emotional phone call to her show for a news break, the obvious gag about institutionalized indifference is passed by: Nancy's termination of the call is slow, grave, and tinged with melancholy. The film's hilarious central scene – Nancy's discovery of the absurd but incontrovertible evidence that Mickey was indeed a poet, a soldier, a flier, a photographer, and a spy – is beautifully darkened by cuts to close-ups of the impassive Mickey in the next room, even more of a mystery now that he has no secrets. And even the climactic rooftop clinch that brings Mickey and Eve together is punctuated by a single, thrown-away long shot of the forlorn Billy Ace looking up, finally deprived of his dream girl.
Rudolph's major films share many visual characteristics, but none of them duplicates the visual strategies of the films that went before. The camera moves as much in Choose Me as in Remember My Name, but the movement is less connected to plot or action, more playful and autonomous. Rudolph is forever tracking or panning through rooms or down darkened streets; often he uses a mirror shot in an interior scene just to give him a second visual focus to pan to or from. Motion seems more important to him for its own sake than before, as is appropriate for the film in which he is most detached from the fiction. Seen in terms of the tension between immersion and detachment in Rudolph's films, Choose Me concedes quite a bit to the side of immersion: the characters often speak melodrama instead of self-aware irony, and the well-orchestrated story is as wishful as the melancholy romantic lighting. So it seems necessary that the camera take up the slack with its extreme disengagement from the drama. By the same principle, Welcome to L.A., with a philosophically detached central character and an abstract, almost nonexistent story, features the most direct and stable camera style of any Rudolph film.
Choose Me incorporates so many seemingly disparate elements and moves in so many different directions that it falls ever so slightly short of the quality of seamless wholeness that characterizes Welcome to L.A. and Remember My Name (though the former film poses conceptual problems that Choose Me escapes). On the other hand, the variety of Choose Me yields its own rewards – like the three wonderful fight scenes between Mickey and Zack, as confident and original as the film's comedy and easily superior to the respectable action direction in Endangered Species. One wonders what circumstances would permit Rudolph to make an entire genre film as potent as these genre excerpts.
Immediately after finishing Choose Me, Rudolph went to work on Tri-Star's Songwriter, taking over on short notice ("I got a call on Saturday and arrived on Sunday") from Steve Rash (The Buddy Holly Story, Under the Rainbow), who left after two weeks work over "creative differences." Because of its country-music subject matter, the film was opened in the South, finally arriving in Los Angeles in late 1984 with little fanfare. Based on a script by Bud Shrake (Kid Blue, Tom Horn), Songwriter is an affectionate evocation of life on the country-music circuit, centering on the legendary Doc Jenkins (Willie Nelson) and his pal and sometime partner Blackie Buck (Kris Kristofferson). Doc has signed a bad contract with crass Northern gangster Rodeo Rocky (Richard C. Sarafian) that essentially condemns him to eternal servitude unless he can pull off a scam involving a rising young singer named Gilda (Lesley Ann Warren, who gets to play the Rudolph crazy this time). The plot doesn't emerge for quite a while, and even then it never makes much of a dent in the film, which is principally devoted to on-the-road joviality, good-ol'-boy antics, and lots of imaginatively filmed concert scenes.
One quickly realizes that Songwriter isn't one of the films that completely focuses Rudolph's talent. Still, it comes closer than Roadie or Endangered Species to forging a style out of the jagged editing and rapid pacing that characterize his less personal projects. Rudolph undermines the fast-moving story by unbalancing each scene internally and throwing the fragments together so abruptly that even logical story connections become jerky and puzzling. Long before the plot develops, we know not to expect much from it, and our attention is directed to the many amusing and idiosyncratic observations that Rudolph packs into the margins. Small, undramatic touches, none of them too conspicuous in themselves, jostle together pleasantly: a sadistic game administered by impresario Dino McLeish (Rip Torn, in an enjoyably unhinged performance) that proves more threatening than Rudolph's laid-back camera ever hinted; Doc's estranged wife Honey Carder (Melinda Dillon), herself a veteran of the music circuit, casually inviting an entire busload of musicians into her house; the real rodeo belt buckle that Gilda's back-up musician Arly (Mickey Raphael) wears, pointed out in a throwaway shot.
For all its virtues, Songwriter proves a surprisingly uneven affair for Rudolph. Little stylistic aberrations and inconsistencies abound: one can adjust to fast-motion comedy in a Rudolph film, but how can one justify the narration by Kristofferson that drops out after a few shreds of exposition, or the way that dissolves replace the otherwise omnipresent abrupt cuts during one late transitional montage sequence? (Some of these decisions may have been forced during the film's rocky post-production period.) A more central problem is the underdeveloped and rather ordinary subplot of Doc's longing for a home life with Honey and his children, resulting in lengthy scenes that disrupt the film's alacritous rhythms without providing much in compensation.
Shrake's script can probably be blamed for many of the film's unsatisfactory qualities, which stand out more prominently when one takes an overview. Songwriter is not an art film with a country-music setting; it was designed for consumption by good-ol'-boy audiences, and it can be accused of pandering a bit to them. The swagger and joking womanizing of most of the characters is essentially endorsed, and Doc Jenkins is apotheosized with a directness that does more to warm the hearts of Willie Nelson's admirers than to promote meaningful character development. Though the plot is unassertive, it too becomes troublesome as it moves inevitably toward the success of Doc and Blackie's scam, a victory that seems the more smug because the film absorbs it so casually. Rudolph didn't create these problems, but neither did he work to diminish them; one assumes that the script's tone of jokey hipness, so much less complex than the viewpoints of his best films, struck a chord in him. It is still unclear whether Rudolph can work at peak creative capacity within the major studios.
Happily, this issue is less pressing than it was before Choose Me's success. Rudolph still contemplates future studio projects, but his position within the industry is no doubt stronger than it was, and his power to raise the modest budgets he needs for independent projects has increased substantially. In April of 1985 he finished shooting Trouble in Mind, an Island Alive production of his own script, described as a contemporary mystery influenced by the gangster films of the forties. The cast is a fascinating mixture of familiar Rudolph faces (Kristofferson, Carradine, Bujold) and first-time collaborators (Lori Singer, Joe Morton, George Kirby, Divine). After that he hopes to film his long-time dream project The Moderns, set in Paris of the twenties and starring Carradine as a bankrupt aristocrat and Mick Jagger as a member of the new rich. Neither project sounds quite like anything Rudolph has done before; the unpredictable results of his new critical and commercial status should provide one of the cinema's most compelling spectacles in the latter half of the eighties.
Born in 1944 in Los Angeles. Father is film and television director Oscar Rudolph. Lived in New York for one year at age eight, then returned to Los Angeles. Graduated from Birmingham High School and UCLA with a Bachelor's Degree in Business. Took various jobs in motion picture studios; entered the Assistant Director Training Program of the Directors Guild of America in 1967, and worked as an assistant director in television and features until 1970. Married to photographer Joyce Rudolph, who has worked on many of his films.
(Assistant director credits in the filmography are incomplete and do not distinguish among the jobs of first assistant director, second assistant director, and trainee.)
mid-sixties: hundreds of short Super-8 films
1969: Riot (assistant director)
1969: The Big Bounce (assistant director)
1969: The Great Bank Robbery (assistant director)
1969: The Arrangement (assistant director)
1969: Marooned (assistant director)
1970: The Traveling Executioner (assistant director)
1972: Premonition (director, writer)
1973: The Long Goodbye (assistant director)
1973: Terror Circus aka Barn of the Naked Dead (director [uncredited co-director Gerald Cormier])
1974: California Split (assistant director)
1975: Nashville (assistant director, uncredited script work)
1975: Welcome to My Nightmare (TV) (co-writer)
1976: Buffalo Bill and the Indians (co-writer)
1977: Welcome to L.A. (director, writer)
1978: Remember My Name (director, writer)
1980: Roadie (director, co-story)
1982: Endangered Species (director, co-writer)
1983: Return Engagement (director)
1984: Choose Me (director, writer)
1984: Songwriter (director)
1985: Trouble in Mind (director, writer)