Wednesday, June 19, 2013
Like most people, the first role of James Gandolfini's I remember was his unforgettable turn as the sadistic gangster Virgil in True Romance. The first time I saw that movie was at the Metropolitan theater in downtown Brooklyn, in a near-empty theater on a Saturday morning with my mom. (Top 5 reasons we were there: 1) “Hey, new Tony Scott movie!” 2) “Hey, that guy Quentin Tarantino who did Reservoir Dogs wrote this!” 3) “Hey, good reviews!” 4) “Hey, Christian Slater's in it!” 5) “Hey, it's at the Metropolitan, we don't have to go into Manhattan!”) As the opening credits rolled, I saw the name “James Gandolfini” and went “Cool name.” Then the movie happened and when Gandolfini appeared I went “I swear I know that guy from something,” but then The Scene was happening so that passed. Then in the closing credits, I was like, “Oh, wow, that was James Gandolfini.”
So. Sometime shortly after I was rewatching The Last Boy Scout for what was already the fucktillionth time and, voila, there's James Gandolfini as a heavy. It was at that point that I became convinced that he must have just been some working actor who was in everything and had been around forever without my having noticed; I was, at the time, only 15 and juuuuuuuust getting started on my cinephile due diligence, and I've always been comfortable with the idea that there are things that I don't know. Then I started seeing Gandolfini pop up in stuff like Crimson Tide and Get Shorty and it was like, “Gandolfini!” Because not only did he fucking own in everything, the physical act of saying his name was like a smile.
By the time he was cast as Tony Soprano, I was already a big fan, and had discovered to my surprise that he hadn't, in fact, been a journeyman actor who'd been around forever, that I'd seen just about every movie he'd ever been in, that he was still a relatively young man. The Sopranos, of course, made him an icon, and now everyone—well, except people trying to interview him—saw how awesome he was. He was fucking great. Never, no matter how ludicrous the situation he was in, did he seem anything less than one with nature. An actor of immense power, and gravity.
He could be ferocious, terrifying, funny, sweet, melt your heart or put a bullet in it, all in the same role. Shit, at the same time. The number of actors with his absolute, manifest mastery of craft who were humble enough to not rub the audience's face in that craft, who never did any more or less than the absolutely necessary amount of work in a given role, whose greatness was as apparent to the veteran thespian as to a civilian with neither knowledge or care of what beats and choices and so forth are, is tiny. And when they all get together and break bread in this world (and now) the next, James Gandolfini will forever be at the head of the table, a smile on his face, of their number but never above.
As an actor, a lover of movies, and as a human being, I salute James Gandolfini, who died far too young, who will never die.
Monday, June 17, 2013
Peter Biskind is putting out a book of conversations between Orson Welles and Henry Jaglom. “Interesting,” you say. “Go on.” Well, I don't mind if I do. Vulture published an excerpt, and seriously, I could read seven books of that, even if Henry Jaglom kills Dumbledore in the sixth one. The book drops next month, so prepare for a higher awesomeness quotient in your life.
Sunday, June 16, 2013
Nine years and a couple months ago, my dad died after a long illness whose very earliest root cause was a key event leading to my own birth. In 1974, he and a good friend of his were up in Spanish Harlem buying—and doing a ton of—coke, when their jittery fucked-up nerves led to a confrontation with some locals (who did, it must be said, start it). One of them stabbed my dad, who temporarily lost all vital signs at the hospital before being revived, minus the kidney the dude's knife had taken out. Inspired by making it out alive, he resolved to patch things up with my mom, who wanted a kid, even though Dad didn't really, but he told himself he did and gosh darn it he was going to do the right thing and sacrifice but it didn't work out as easily as he'd (I guess hoped) so four years later when I was born he was back out all night and never around. Another solid decade's drinking followed, then after my parents finally divorced—they'd been worried that I'd be devastated, except my reaction when they finally did was “Phew, finally people aren't shrieking at each other all the fucking time in this house”—Dad moved in with the girlfriend he'd had on the side for a few years, who unbeknownst to him, before he got in too deep to get out, had severe mental and physical problems. He caught a debilitating illness from her and, with only one kidney, started getting sicker and sicker. The last Father's Day before he died, I sprung him (with permission, and a few omissions as far as what hijinks were on the agenda) from the hospital to go smoke some weed with his older brother. Dad was in good spirits, but his skin and eyeballs were kind of an alarming shade of yellow, from jaundice, which made me realize that was probably going to be our last Father's Day together.
We had our ups and downs. He could be a very frustrating person, capable of driving people (see: my mom) out of their goddamn minds with his stubbornness, emotional detachment, and resolute holding of grudges. But he wasn't a bad guy at all. He was a great conversationalist, voracious reader (across all genres but particularly SF), and huge huge huge music nerd; all of these things made him, however odd a thing this is to say about one's dad, a whole goddamn lot of fun to smoke weed with. He, like my mom, encouraged my artistic ambitions, though in my dad's case I suspect if I'd taken up painting like him rather than theater and film like I did a rivalry might have arisen. But, it didn't, and in spite of not being able to drive a car he came up to Bard to see the first play I wrote and produced, charming the bejesus out of all my friends; when offered a beer by one, Dad gave him a line (not sure of its provenance) that he would repeat for years: “A man has only so many beers he can drink in his life. I used up mine when I was forty.”
It's telling, though, that most of the good times with him were when I was old enough to carry on conversations (and smoke the occasional joint with him) and we were essentially two nerds talking about how good, say, John Barnes' novel A Million Open Doors was, or how Blur's “Colin Zeal” reminded him of the Dave Clark Five “except, you know, better.” The father-son stuff was a little shaky. Most of the dad stuff involved in being a dad was a bit beyond him. When I was little he used to say “Do [such and such]” and I'd be like “Why?” because I was a) a little kid and b) me and he'd try the “Because I'm your father” thing except I'd be like “What's that got to do with anything?” and he'd end up getting pissed and the thing would end up not getting done. He had a tendency to present things as moral absolutes that weren't, and not because he believed them, but as if he was getting them out of a handbook about how to be a dad (and, for all I knew, he was). Because all his parental shibboleths rang kind of hollow, whenever I'd question them he wouldn't have any rejoinder other than “because I said so,” which would leave us at an impasse.
Although movies ranked behind books, comics, table-top gaming, and computer RPGs in Dad's personal preferences, there was considerable overlap in the kind of pictures we both liked, mostly in SF (with a couple outliers like Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho, which was good and everything but Dad fucking loved it, maybe more than Van Sant did). One that I remember seeing with both him and Mom as a youngster—a great rarity, nine times out of ten, movies were with Mom only—was 1984's Cloak & Dagger.
Starring Henry Thomas (Elliott from E.T.), Cloak & Dagger was responsible for the bizarre state of affairs in 1984 when I was the one six-year-old on the planet who knew who Dabney Coleman (who played both HT's dad and fantasy alter-ego) was. In those heady days, only Bernard King was his rival in my hero-worship rankings. I used to draw little one- and two-panel comic strips about a cigarette-smoking private eye duck named “Dabney Duck” who used to just sit around his office drinking Scotch and wise-quacking at broads (and no, none of these survived, which sucks because, no false modesty, that shit was fucking hilarious), and the only possible explanation for his having been named Dabney was the influence of Mr. Coleman. And, though 6 or 7ish was around the time when I first saw Tootsie and didn't get it (I didn't really get Tootsie until I'd been doing theater for a few years), Cloak & Dagger was principally responsible for the whole Dabney Coleman thing.
I recently saw the picture for the first time since then, through the miracle of HBOGo, and was pleased to see it hold up nicely. And, for the purposes of this discussion, why it appealed to me so much at a young age was kind of glaringly obvious. It's a movie with a kid protagonist (1) with an active imagination (2) and a related difficulty making friends (3) who's way into dice-based RPGs (4; that one faded a bit, but at the time was fierce) and video games (5, that one held) who inadvertently gets involved in an espionage plot (6; !!!) and has to outsmart and outgrit the bad guys (7) in order to the save the day, which involves driving a car (8; that and Temple of Doom were good “kids driving cars” comparison pieces), dealing with all manner of shitass grownups (9; grownups are shitasses even now that I am one) and ultimately having to be bailed out by the heroism of his dad (10).
Execution-wise Cloak & Dagger is a crisp, professional piece of work that doesn't linger excessively long on superfluous detail and goes some surprisingly (by today's terrified “OH MY GOD THINK OF THE CHILDREN!” standards) dark places for a movie starring a kid. People, including good friends of the protagonist die, and not only die, but explicitly get lit the fuck up right on screen. One baddie even gets lit up by the protagonist. Not that this is a bad thing at all. Cloak & Dagger's a terrific kids' movie, that handles a potentially tricky central message just right.
Building a movie (or any work of art) around making a central moral point is fraught with danger: what if the moral point is full of shit? What if you're too heavy-handed with it? What if you're too subtle? What if you fuck up your signifiers and it ends up getting read the wrong way? What if the moral point you think you're making is superfluous to the actual thing? Those last couple are getting rare (though I've flunked both, mostly in my younger years as a playwright) but they're still in play. Contrary to what a distressingly large number of people seem to think, not everything needs to have a message. Not even kids' entertainment. But, if you absolutely must, it's better that it be done well, and the way Cloak & Dagger handles the idea that “a boy's hero should be his dad” very well.
It does so by not putting the responsibility for realizing this on the kid, not entirely. Henry Thomas' Davey, at the movie's outset, is obsessed with spy stuff, and plays a dice-based RPG centering around the exploits of his imaginary best friend, Jack Flack (Dabney Coleman), who, appropriately for the era, is kind of an Americanized Roger Moore James Bond. Jack Flack's invincible, irrepressible, awesome (the last in a very little kid kind of way), and, not at all coincidentally, played by the same actor as Davey's dad Hal, a grayer-haired, less confident, unimaginative type trying to get over the death of his wife (also, obviously, Davey's mom).
Hal, being the old-fashioned type that he is, isn't quite up to the traditionally maternal aspects of parenting, like what the fuck to do when the kid's being all sensitive and stuff, primarily because he doesn't really know what the fuck to do when he's being all sensitive and stuff. The degree to which the character's able to be sympathetic despite the emotional repression and “mean old man telling the little kid his fantasies are foolish” bit is entirely tied to the dignity and quiet expression of Dabney Coleman's acting (I don't worship him like I did when I was 6 but the fuckin guy's a really good fuckin actor, believe that).
Davey and Hal meet in the middle: Davey learns the difference between fantasy and reality, and that the realities of one's fantasies often take the shine off them. And Hal learns to listen to and empathize with the kid. In boldly entering the fray and foiling the bad guys despite being absolutely terrified, Hal earns the right to be thought of as a hero by his son. Davey, in turn, sees Hal become Jack Flack, and do actual hero shit, thus conferring his hero worship onto a worthy figure.
Now, the way I began this ramble, talking about my own dad, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the note on which the picture ends was a bittersweet one for me, considering that my dad was a bartender who could never finish a painting due to a combined lack of thematic focus and fear of failure. And, for concluding that my dad, an agonizingly insecure guy, might read some “oh, shit, how can I live up to that?” line into the ending. But, you'd be wrong.
First, it's just a movie. I know, I know, “just” a movie? Simmer down, kids. There is such a thing. And this is one of those cases. Second of all, Dad thought it was really funny—not in a laughing-at-me kinda way either, more digging it on a Fisher Price My First Esoteric Cultural Choice level—that I was so fascinated with Dabney Coleman. Third, and most importantly, Dad thought the kid ruled, and he said at one point that he wished he could reverse-engineer the rules to the dice game the kid plays in the movie (seriously, Dad really, really liked dice-based RPGs. There was this one his buddy Vincent created called Junta that Dad spent months helping test and then played with everyone who set foot in the house; he wouldn't let me play until I was old enough to get all the jokes, but then once I got that old getting six people together to play a board game goofing on Latin American dictatorships was more difficult. Fuck the ever onward march of time in the face. I still fucking want to play Junta).
The last time we talked about Cloak & Dagger was probably twenty-five years ago, but it was a damned pleasant chat, and I'm pretty sure at some point I said something about being glad he was my dad. Either way, Cloak & Dagger's one of the great Father's Day movies (as well as being, per the initial reason I rewatched it before remembering, derp, it's Father's Day this weekend, arguably the great San Antonio movie). It won't make straight dudes cry like Field of Dreams will, and still allows you to get your baseball fix, as Davey's baseball is a key plot point. Also, Field of Dreams doesn't have William Forsythe as the bearded, hilariously bespectacled ur-video game nerd, or Michael Murphy as a sublimely smarmy bad guy, or top-secret espionage plans that can be decrypted by anyone good enough at video games. That's cinema, for crissakes.
Anyway. Happy Father's Day to all who observe. And for everyone else, happy Bloomsday and/or happy Tupac's birthday.