Thursday, September 19, 2019

Once Upon a Hollywood

Twice I’ve watched Tarantino’s Once Upon a Hollywood and been underwhelmed as it unspooled, and each time I had a warmer feeling afterwards. Of course the ending is transformative...but I don’t think it’s only that. Tarantino always gives the viewer a lot of direct pleasure, and I’m in the awkward position of not taking a good many of the same pleasures as he does, or at least not permitting these pleasures to myself. But Tarantino also has a powerful sense of narrative form, and I find myself appreciating the large structures that he builds around the giving of pleasure and the qualification of it, even when the actual pleasures that are his currency don’t hit home for me.

(I tried not to spoil the film, but I still don’t recommend reading this if you want to remain unspoiled.)

The most obvious play with narrative that we associate with Tarantino is the insertion of the inscribed audience - which is Tarantino and anyone who likes the same things he likes - into the diegesis of his movies, in violation of genre naturalism. Few have been so pedantic as to observe that the conversations between Travolta and Jackson in Pulp Fiction are the musings of young urban educated pop-culture-immersed men and fit oddly in the mouths of professional killers; it’s plain to all that Tarantino is acknowledging and expanding the fantasy of the inscribed audience to play at being killers in a genre film. This now-familiar ploy can be found in Hollywood as well, most memorably in the giddy scene where the Manson killers babble excitedly about their encounter with TV star Rick Dalton, but also in Rick and Cliff’s tipsy conversation about the films of William Witney, and in the geeky details about spaghetti westerns that Kurt Russell’s narrator inserts into the account of Dalton’s time in Italy.

But the most important structural idea in Hollywood is of another kind of reflexive genre play. Nearly every dramatic setup in the film fails to materialize, and in most cases we don’t realize that no chicken has come home to roost until the movie ends. The central friendship between Rick and Cliff is clearly marked for conflict by movie shorthand: by the power imbalance between the two, about which Rick is not especially considerate; and later, by the marriage that busts up the pals’ bond. But absolutely nothing materializes to disrupt the friendship. Another setup without the expected payoff: Dalton’s anguish over his declining career, which has a post position to move to the center of the narrative, is reversed by his bravura “Lancer” performance; likewise, his dreaded transition to cheap westerns in Europe goes pretty well. (What we get instead of all this personal drama that never quite happens are simple demonstrations of Tarantino’s desire for his characters to do well and be happy.) The 20-minute Spahn Ranch sequence is a fabric of ominous cross-cutting and portentous music cues, and there’s no clear moment where we realize that every single thing the Manson family tells Cliff is the truth. And the long-germinating flirtation of Cliff and Pussycat that sets up the ranch scene is another movie convention that never delivers its expected romantic payload. Finally, of course, there’s the big deception of the Dragnet-like buildup to the Tate killings, for which all the other little lies can be construed as preparation.

As we look back on it, Hollywood is basically a movie about a friendship that starts good and stays good, and about a pretty girl walking around a sunny, tranquil Los Angeles of memory. In the old sense of the word, the film is a comedy - and the unspeakably gruesome violence of the climax, like it or not, is certainly intended as a pure dose of entertainment pleasure, the greatest gift that Tarantino can imagine to reward his audience. It’s comedy all the way down until the gentle and moody postscript, where, alongside the sweetness of the gesture, the viewer must confront real death for the first time in the film.

It’s possible to think that the energy Tarantino puts into period recreation is misspent, to find the beer-and-pizza friendship between Rick and Cliff unremarkable in its particulars, to feel that Rick’s redemption as an actor is a bit up the sentimental middle, to be unsatisfied by Cliff’s unadulterated invincibility and cool, to close one’s eyes through most of the climax, and still to be moved by the filmmaker’s surreptitious creation of a world of fulfilled wishes, and by his sad, final acknowledgment of the limitations of fantasy.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Esther Kahn Elisions

Arnaud Desplechin's Esther Kahn premiered at Cannes 2000 in a 157-minute version, which I believe was used for the French DVD. Afterwards, Desplechin was obliged to cut several scenes for the film's theatrical release. The running time of this version, a 35mm print of which still circulates, is always given as 142 minutes, though I've twice timed the print at 147 minutes. Desplechin prefers the Cannes cut, which has not been shown in New York theaters in many years.

The theatrical version screened at Lincoln Center on Thursday, September 11. On Friday, September 12, I watched the Cannes version at home, and catalogued as many differences as I noticed. I was working from memory rather than doing a systematic comparison, and so I may have made mistakes: feedback is welcome.

1. Early in the film, there's a shot of the young Esther trying to eat soap bubbles from the air, while her siblings chatter off-camera. This shot yields to a long shot of Esther running up a staircase, screaming for her mother, her forehead bloody. The last line of the soap-bubble chatter is one of the siblings saying "I hate you so much!" while laughing. In the Cannes cut, this line is over the soap-bubble shot; in the theatrical cut, I'm fairly sure we hear it over the staircase shot. This probably means that the soap-bubble shot was shortened, perhaps by only a few seconds.

2. Just after the transition to the older set of actors playing the siblings, Esther's father asks Esther’s sister Becky to take a brick (for heat) to their grandmother, and her mother interrogates Becky about the dance the girls had just attended. In the theatrical cut, this scene is followed by two shots of Becky carrying the brick to the grandmother's rooftop hut. In the Cannes version, there's a short scene interpolated between these two scenes, a conversation between Esther and Becky at the staircase to the roof. After Esther lights Becky’s cigarette, Becky asks Esther: "Why'd you tell mum that she's not your mum?" (“It was just an idea”) and “What’re you going to do when we leave home?” (“I’ll stay”). (37 seconds)

3. The first sizable cut is Esther's dream of the balloon men menacing her on the street outside her home. This dream follows the scene of the sisters going to bed and discussing what they want most in the world, ending with Esther's sotto voce line "I want to be revenged." The dream is followed by another cut scene, in which Esther goes to her mother's room after awakening from the dream; her mother is sitting in bed, naked except for stockings, and slowly puts on a nightdress before asking Esther why she has come (“I’m frightened of still not being awake”) and rubs water on Esther’s eyelids. We then return to the theatrical cut's narrative with the scene of the siblings going out to the theater. (1 minute 59 seconds)

4. Near the end of the theater section, there's a short cut scene in which Esther's boyfriend Joel returns to the cheap seats with a bagel sandwich for Esther, who is waiting in her seat alone through the intermission. Joel sits next to Esther, who asks him why he didn’t get a sandwich for himself, and whether he would be allowed to eat it; their brief conversation ends with Esther saying to Joel "We don't talk, right?" while eating. Before this scene, there’s a handheld shot of Joel buying the bagel outside - I’m not sure if this shot was also cut. (34 seconds, possibly 45 seconds)

5. In both versions, Esther's announcement to her family that she is going on the stage is followed by two scenes in which Esther’s sisters chat with her about her suitability for the life of an actress, and then by an exterior scene of the family on a staircase, discussing the consequences of Esther’s possible abandonment of the family business. In the theatrical version, this scene ends with Esther’s father sending her siblings away on a delivery; in the Cannes version, it continues with an absorbing conversation in which Esther and her parents discuss the hardship that Esther's departure will cause, with Esther performing a precise calculation of how much she will owe her parents and when she'll pay it back. Along the way, both Esther and her mother agree that Esther is such a slow worker that she won't be missed much. At the scene's end, Esther's parents agree to the arrangement. Then we return to the short scene of Esther’s mother helping her mark up her script, followed by Esther’s first performance. (2 minutes 25 seconds)

6. In both versions, Nathan's acting lessons for Esther begin with Nathan’s introductory talk about the actor’s choice between lying and telling the truth. The first acting exercise after this talk is cut from the theatrical version. Nathan tells Esther to come on stage and then asks "Who just came on stage?" The ensuing discussion, of whether Esther or Cordelia from Lear came on stage, is inconclusive. The next exercise, of Esther walking across the room, is in both versions. (2 minutes and 41 seconds)

7. Esther's interest in Haygard is established in three scenes, in both versions: the list of possible suitors that Esther makes alone in her room; Esther's backstage interrogation of the sexually experienced actress Christel; and Esther's visit to a bookstore to buy Haygard's book of essays. After the bookstore scene, there's a cut scene in which Esther is again in the theater with Christel, asking how she should show her interest in a man. Christel jokes about taking the direct approach, then advises “Things will just happen, little by little. For fuck’s sake!” and finds for Esther the date of Haygard’s next appearance in the theater’s register. After the cut scene, Esther finds Haygard in his theater box and asks him out for a drink. (56 seconds)

8. During the section of Esther's affair with Haygard, there's a short cut scene in Haygard's bedroom, in which Esther is splashing water on her eyes at a basin, saying "My eyes are stuck together. It's because we did it too much last night!" This cut scene follows Haygard's memorable psychological analysis of Othello and his kiss with Esther on the street, and precedes the section in which Haygard, Esther and Sean discuss and then encounter the Italian dancer. (25 seconds)

9. The final cut is the longest. In both versions, Haygard introduces Esther to Trish the impresario and her entourage at a pub, and the entire table discusses whether Esther has played leading roles as well as supporting ones. In the Cannes version, there's a time jump to the same group at the same pub, with Trish discussing her professional relationship with Haygard, and Haygard giving a long speech in which he describes a period of mental instability that culminated in an arrest in Italy, his subsequent escape from jail, and his recapture by guards who damaged his feet. This speech is followed by another cut scene, in which Esther, frightened by some thought, sits awake in bed next to Haygard in the middle of the night, sees the bandages on both his feet, and kisses them passionately. At the end of this scene, the film's narrator describes how Haygard's patient tutelage of Esther concealed from her how the intimate feeling between them was slipping away. This voiceover is the only part of these cut scenes that was salvaged for the theatrical version: it was placed over an earlier scene. The subsequent scene, of Esther presenting Haygard with a copy of Hedda Gabler in Norwegian, is in both cuts. (4 minutes and 7 seconds)

All this adds up to a bit less than 14 minutes.