Posts tagged ‘Rip Torn’

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.”



March 30, 2011

french postcards

by Megan Abbott

I’m freshly back from the Quais du Polar, a crime fiction and film festival in Lyon, France. The entire time, glued to the side of my wonderful French editor, Marie-Caroline Aubert (a glorious redhead who was once the translator of no less than Donald Westlake), I felt too lucky by half.  Which I was.

Trust me: to say I felt more than a little like an imposter is not false modesty. In every room, I knew far less than everyone else. After all, the French know noir. I had to keep my game on for conversations well into the night about Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key, Philip Marlowe and Terry Lennox’s complicated romance in Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, the particular genius of Deadwood and why I must see the 1971 movie Vanishing Point. Much like a Frenchier, larger version of NoirCon.  (Thankfully, my knowledge of Rip Torn apparently did exceed everyone else’s.)

Perhaps the highlight of the visit for me–other than a new appreciation for what felt like 24-hour wine drinking–was a trip to the Institut Lumiere (English here), a museum, archive and theater dedicated to preserving and celebrating French filmmaking, with special focus on Auguste and Louis Lumière – inventors of the cinematography and among the very first filmmakers. As part of the Quais du Polar, they were screening films noirs and I introduced The Big Heat, Fritz Lang’s nasty 1953 movie starring Glenn Ford as an honest cop and Gloria Grahame as the “kept woman” of a vile gangster (memorably played by Lee Marvin).

I admit, while I always liked The Big Heat, it was never in my upper pantheon, though its female star, Gloria Grahame, is indisputably my favorite noir actress, occupying a powerful position in my imagination. No slithery Ava Gardner vixen, no ethereal beauty like Gene Tierney, she is more minx than siren, more pixie than femme fatale. And yet. And yet she is a crackling presence, a hot, messy, complicated one. There’s just no one like her.

Somehow, she seems to embody everything I love about the genre—its heady, sticky mix of desire and rage, sordidness and yearning, the aching sense that something went wrong somewhere and now there’s no saving us.

On the one hand, tucked in that pouty lip of hers, curled in that slippery, cooing voice lies all the genre’s fleshy pleasures.

On the other hand, in that haunting way her face can arrest itself, her body skittering into itself to protect itself, lies all the heartbreak of the genre. She carries them both: lust and loss, shallowness and depth.

So, in preparation, I rewatched the movie. And I’m so glad I did. It felt like a different movie than the one I’d remembered as a well-done but rancid bit of ’50s noir thuggery. I’d missed all its complexities, and much of its, well, beauty. [Potential spoilers ahead]

First, it’s a movie populated by interesting women—strong, even brittle, experienced yet perpetual victims. Victims of their own sense of inutility (their worth seems only to be defined by their smooth, shiny surface).

But victims most of all the peerless brutality of the men around them. And I’m not just talking about the “bad guys.” The hero, Glenn Ford’s, carelessness with his wife echoes of the more obviously cruelties of the thugs in the film—over and over again, fire destroys women in this movie, fires ignited by men.

As some critics have pointed out, The Big Heat upturns the classic noir paradigm of the femme fatale enticing men to their death. Here, driven by his complicated mix of knightly ideals and dangerous masculine bravado, Ford is the fatal man, responsible in part for the destruction of every woman in the film.

But I will admit, my largest pleasures in the film are not analytical ones. They’re visceral. When I first saw The Big Heat as a young girl, the thing in it that mattered most was the gleaming sight of Gloria Grahame in her mink.

The creamy pelted garment becomes a key motif in the film. Late in the story, Grahame tells a fellow fur-cloaked woman,  “We’re sisters under the mink.”

The mink coat signifies prestige, material success. But also a kind of animalism, and a kind of enslavement. The mink comes to mean everything, and risks swallowing Grahame whole.

Midway through the film, all the characters converge at a nightclub called The Retreat. It’s a pivotal moment, when Grahame makes a key choice, a brave one.

The Retreat, Gloria at right.

What strikes me most about the scene is the way Grahame, perched on a bar stool, wears her mink, casually draped off her lovely white shoulders. It seems to drip off her, skating across her pearly arms. She wears the mink not like a skin, but merely something she’s trying on, part-way, because she feels she should, but it just might slip off at any moment so she can reveal the real Grahame beneath.

In a scene late in the film, when Gloria has risked her skin for the greater good and is taking charge, she wears the coat tightly bound, clasped at the neck. The fur has become hers now, and she wears it like a powerful armor

Gloria Grahame’s personal life was often chaotic and mostly unhappy. She brings those shadows to all her characters, and the yearning too. We see that here. It makes us yearn for her, on her behalf.

In the film’s most famous scene, Grahame’s shiny surface is ruined forever—but, when writing the introduction, I started to think about it instead as a purification, a baptism. After, she is transformed, born again. In a genre supposedly without heroes, she is a hero.

February 23, 2011

smoke it, drink it, spend it or love it

by Megan Abbott

I have been watching episodes of an old favorite, The Larry Sanders Show (1992-1998), which is finally on DVD in toto (I believe past releases were limited episodes). A behind-the-seasons chronicle of a late-night show helmed by Gary Shandling, the show is precisely the acerbic, winning wonder I remembered. And most of all, for me, a chance to see one of my favorite actors in prime form: the mighty and troubled and brilliant Rip Torn.

Torn plays Artie, the show’s producer, in a performance that I find not just funny and winning but, as the show progresses, seems to take on Shakespearean levels of showbiz cunning, personal loyalty and unabashed sentiment.

It’s what led me to uncover what many believe to be Torn’s most bravura film performance: as a country-western singer in the spectacular Payday (1972), which is sort of like if you took Nashville‘s (1975) darkest storyline and dipped it in kerosene.  With a screenplay by novelist Don Carpenter, it merits its own post here–in fact, a post alone about a particularly enthralling backseat groupie-sex scene. It’s so sleazy and so vivid you almost want to avert your eyes at moments, even as you absolutely can’t.

Described by one critic as “brilliantly gonzo,” Torn was never an uncomplicated man and reading about him is like peering into dark glittering caverns of cultural and personal idiosyncracy. In a terrific 2008 New York Observer piece, writer Spencer Morgan describes having breakfast with Torn:

When I asked for Tabasco, Mr. Torn gave me a knowing look. Then he slipped a hand into a faded blue portage bag he carries everywhere and produced his own bottle. He sprinkled his plate, passed it over, our eyes met. In case you were wondering, the exact contents of that magic satchel remain unknown. Even to his wife.

The aura of coiled mystery surrounding Torn derives heavily from his offscreen life.  Torn was famously accused by Dennis Hopper of pulling a knife on him during an argument, leading to his firing from Easy Rider, to be replaced by Jack Nicholson. (Torn later sued Hopper over the claim, and Hopper recanted.).

Perhaps Torn’s most infamous off-screen moment was his famous fisticuffs with Norman Mailer on the set of Mailer’s Maidstone after what appears to have been some signficant frustration with Mailer’s direction (although discerning the real story here seems to means unraveling a seemingly endless tangle of masculine and artistic insults, aggressions and jealousies ).  The short version is, after trouble on the set, Torn comes after Mailer with a hammer, and Mailer eventually takes out a piece of Torn’s ear. (The longer version is on view here).

It’s an utterly hypnotic thing to watch, these two big bruisers going at each other, with Torn’s cooing words as he considers releasing Mailer from a headlock: “No, baby. No, baby. You know you trust me. You trust me. You trust me. You trust me. You trust me.”

After, Mailer accuses Torn of wanting to assassinate him, and Torn replies, in that scarily mesmerizing post Manson-hippie voice, “That’s your story, man … that’s what you’re pushing.”

Wow. Wow.