Posts tagged ‘alan rudolph’

May 6, 2011

RIP(pped, &) TORN (Assunder): The Austin Gospel According To Dino McLeish

by craigmmcdonald

Wille Nelson: “I underestimated you, Dino.”

Rip Torn: “All you sons o’ bitches do.”

—Songwriter, 1984

When it comes to B-movies and oft-repeated viewings, Songwriter, directed by Alan Rudolph, probably cracks my Top Ten. The pithy elevator pitch for the flick would likely go like this: “Robert Altman’s Nashville meets The Sting.”

In other words, it’s a minor miracle this film even exists.

Although it’s one of my favorite movies, it’s far from a perfect or even great film. What it is, for me at any rate, is quirky, engaging and comfortable as old boots. Guilty pleasure? Nah…more like a dear, dissolute and semi-dangerous friend you know you shouldn’t spend so much time with, and yet…? Hell, how couldn’t you?

Iconic songwriters Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson essentially play themselves in a film that amiably pitches bricks at the stained glassed windows of Music Row orthodoxy and the soul-siphoning demands the marketplace exacts from creative types who view themselves, first and foremost, as artists. (“Say he did it for the love, but he was not above the money,” Kristofferson’s Blackie Buck stipulates in the film’s opening monologue. The business is, he says, “A day-to-day war between the sorry and the soulful.”)

That songwriter’s soliloquy overlays a montage that deftly and hilariously establishes Willie’s character’s sketchy acumen as a speculator. Doc’s failed enterprises include investing in the semen of transgendered bulls and in fast food restaurants (“Doc Jenkin’s Chicken Fried German Food To Go,” is located hard up-side a KFC).

“Songwriting was making someone a whole of bucks,” a rueful Blackie observes. “Since it wasn’t us, it had to be someone.” Doc opines to music mogul Rodeo Rocky—an east coast sleaze who owns Doc and the rights to all his songs, coming and going—“You always were sentimental when you had your hand in my pocket.”

“I took a couple of uppers, that’s true.”

—Dino McLeish

Appealing as Kris and Willie are (and they have acres of charm to spare in this outing), the crazy, dark heart of the film is Rip Torn’s sleazy music promoter Dino McLeish (“Word’s out you on, Hoss. You don’t pay your talent.”). He’s a cowboy and western suit wearing dervish “who’s been up since Korea.” He has a Mephistophelean mustache and goatee. Dino subsists on amphetamines, booze and a scuffling drive to turn a buck any way he can. Dino is also the kind of operator whose reputation for failing to deliver the goods is so notorious that casual country music fans routinely boo him and chuck their empties at Dino as he jeers and spews profanity from behind chicken wire curtains strung across the stages of the Texas roadhouses he infests.

Doc: “How many tickets did you sell?”

Dino: “7,200.”

Doc: “Building only holds 5,000.”

Dino: “Well, shit, Bubba, airlines do that all the time.”

Dino’s trademark modus operandi: He books a hall and announces a major performer (say, KK’s Blackie Buck or Willie’s “Doc Jenkins”). Dino sells beaucoup tickets, then, the night of the show, he announces the never-booked-headliner has phoned-in sick, and pushes on stage some untalented unknown. Dino attempts this shakedown using Blackie one night in Austin. Blackie turns up at the concert anyway, where he finds Dino’s bait-and-switch has resulted in a busty and vocally impressive Leslie Ann Warren taking the stage.

Thus is born an uneasy partnership and eventual “Big Store” con (ala “The Sting” or James Garner’s Maverick’s “Shady Deal at Sunny Acres.”)—a scheme fostered between Dino, boozy Blackie (“The only reason I drink is so people won’t think I’m a dope fiend!”), Doc and Warren’s fetching “Gilda.”

“Listen, nine times out of ten, you know, they think people start this.

But sheep is good and they know it.

They’ll flirt with you, don’t think they won’t.”

—Dino McLeish

Dino’s an uneasy family man. His wife is a young and randy strayer. Their baby son is named Buster. During a brief provisioning stopover at home (the interior décor of the McLeish crib runs heavy on pleather and neon bar signs), Dino is confronted by his wife and her desire to accompany him to his next bogus concert spectacular.

Angling, Dino pauses. He frames the image of his wife and his child between his hands and says, “Hold it! I wish the vision of how beautiful you all are could be painted on the Great Wall of China. Man, I mean that… We’re family, you know? Know what that means? Deep stuff.” Every ounce of his demeanor says otherwise.

“You’re going to chop them down like dead limbs.”

—Dino McLeish

Devoid of conscience as he is, Dino happily goes along with cash-strapped, contract-shackled Doc Jenkins’ scheme to subvert his required services for an unscrupulous music label by continuing to write hit songs but publish and release those gems as the alleged works of Blackie and Gilda.

Gilda, on the other hand, chafes under this duplicity: she turns to whiskey and drugs in increasingly copious quantities to offset her sense of guilt. Dino sums up their eventual business prospects with his usual blunt panache: “Dang it, Doc…it’s a classic. We put all our chips on a hysterical, neurotic drunk woman; she’s gonna make us rich…or dead.”

Songwriter is lush with clever dialogue, sardonic, memorable turns of phrase, and just enough underlying drama to pierce your heart at unexpected moments.

It also boasts a running commentary about the torturous tension of art and commerce (a motif Rudolph would explore more directly in his films Trouble in Mind and, particularly, The Moderns). As it happens, the film’s embittered take from the artist’s perspective freshly reverberates for anyone endeavoring to make a living with words in the “disruptive technology”-rich atmosphere of the eBook and Internet era.

But Songwriter is also a meditation on the destructive (sometimes seductive) myth of the tortured artist and their resulting top-drawer output. Blackie, strumming his guitar in a Ramada Inn, laments, “Do you suppose a man’s got to be a miserable son of a bitch, all the time, just to write a good song every now and then? That’s a terrible thought.”

Rudolph has indicated he stepped in as replacement director of Songwriter in order to fund his making of closer-to-his-heart Trouble in Mind, also starring Kristofferson. Even if it’s so, Songwriter is very much of a piece with Rudolph’s later 1980s, signature works.

It’s been a long while since the last Rudolph film. The director says it’s because he doesn’t have the heart or stomach to go out there and try and raise the gelt to mount another production.

That’s a damned shame. In this case, I’d welcome his taking the money to do it for the (cockeyed) art.

Doc to Dino: “How’d you do?”

Dino to Doc: “I did pretty good. You got robbed.”

February 28, 2011

Trouble In Mind

by craigmmcdonald

The books of others rarely inspire my own writing.

Most often, I’m more moved by music.

Very rarely, a film gets me there. When that happens, it’s usually tied to a director and a body of work.

There’s this particular director, and a film he made deep in the heart of Morning in America, that’s been on my mind lately. That film (and its successor, The Moderns, about 1920s Paris), left fingerprints all over my own crime fiction.

The mid-to-late 1980s: A time of skinny ties and suits without socks; a burgeoning sense of deconstruction and post-modernism; meta-fiction looms in the wings. The work is the thing and thing knows exactly what it is. Knowing winks and self-referentialism are fast becoming hip.

Back then, most crime fiction wasn’t hip. You had your Ellroy; you had your James Crumley…and no deep bench behind those two scribes.

In 1985, director Alan Rudolph released, Trouble in Mind. I saw it the way most others probably did at the time — a blink-and-you-missed-it three-day run in some campus art house theatre. But I was captivated; made do in the years after with a discarded rental of Trouble on full-screen VHS.

Kris Kristofferson anchors the film as “Hawk,” an ex-cop just sprung from prison for the fatal shooting of a “Rain City” crime boss years back.

“Rain City” stands in as a vaguely fascist, pre-Starbucks Seattle, every bit as drenched in neon-kissed rain as you would hope. A place where WASPs threaten and scream at one another in disarming volleys of Korean from time to time; where policeman and soldiers roam the streets and parade around with weapons.

Hawk, whose hobby is building highly-detailed scale models of Rain City landmarks, quickly settles into former habits and old haunts, chiefly a café run by his old friend Wanda (played by Geneviève Bujold, a Rudolph stalwart).

Wanda’s Café is Rain City’s version of Rick’s Place. Wanda was once under the thumb of a local crime boss — the man Kris/Hawk ventilated with a single shot between the eyes in a room filled with witnesses.

Soon enough, Hawk is courting a luminously innocent Lori Singer, a new mother badly married to a scrambling, scuffling Keith Carradine.

Casting a shadow over the city is an über fey reinvention of The Maltese Falcon’s Caspar Gutman — the kind of part Sydney Greenstreet might have played in post-Code Hollywood. Rain City’s new crime lord is Hilly Blue, portrayed by the late-Divine in a rare turn in pants.

A new, 25th anniversary edition of Trouble In Mind has recently been released on DVD, and just in time according to its director, who rues the last print of the film was in a pretty sorry state. For the first time in a quarter century, initiates can explore a film that despite its rarity has achieved a brand of stubborn cult status.

It had been a few years since I’d revisited my grainy, cropped VHS version of Trouble. The DVD extends the frame and draws out details that videotape obscured. Things, overall, are brighter than I remember, and maybe not for the better, but there it is.

Nevertheless, Trouble in Mind, set to a moody Mark Isham score, still walks a tricky line between pastiche, noir and the loopy logic of dreams. The film’s misty, dark world anticipates the same flavor of twisty terrain David Lynch would explore a few years later, a kind of (kissing) city cousin to Lynch’s Twin Peaks.

Rain City deftly and swiftly asserts its own reality and cultural mash-up: one where 1960s-era American cars proliferate; where skinny ties, fedoras, trench coats and sharkskin sport jackets are concomitantly in fashion.

Rudolph says in supplemental materials that Rain City was conceptualized “as a place where past and future meet, but not in the present.”

It is classic film noir’s stylistic flourishes, Rudolph has argued repeatedly, that gave vintage crime films a patina of hyper-reality. By the terms of that proposition, Trouble In Mind’s nth-degree attention to detail qualifies the film as a significant, if under-known, neo-noir.

I’m the first to admit Rudolph’s films can be an acquired taste that eludes many samplers — too stylized and self-aware to suit every palate.

Yet I think Trouble has reached beyond its initial art-house run to assert enduring influences on the works of others. Like Hawk, briefly depicted working out with a heavy bag, Trouble in Mind punches above its weight.

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