Saturday, February 25, 2012

Ten Statements About....BLUE IN THE FACE (1995)

"Yes, I am Lou Reed, and I endorse this review."
"I'm scared in my own apartment. I'm scared 24 hours a day, but not necessarily in New York. I actually feel pretty comfortable in New York. I get scared, like, in Sweden."

1) The first two things you see in this film are Lou Reed talking about not knowing how to get around Paris and Harvey Keitel wandering out of a smoke shop in Brooklyn. These two randomly transposed scenes, and how you respond to them, will tell you whether you'll like this film or not.

2) Unlike the previous Wayne Wang film I discussed here, this movie plays to his strengths precisely because it isn't trying to ape a mainstream narrative. Wang seems so much more comfortable with the freeform, improvised narrative he develops with Paul Auster that it flows better, is more engaging, and more fun--to the point that I had to wonder if he really needed the six minutes or so worth of plot that is imposed upon this structure.

3) While Harvey Keitel's Augie is ostensively the main character of the film, a better way of approaching him is as this film's version of The Stage Manager in Our Town--as a shepherd through these various short stories about the different people who drift back and forth into the smoke shop.

4) There are a lot of cameos in this film. While I found the scene where a jean-shorts-and-sports-jacket wearing Michael J. Fox subjects Giancarlo Esposito to a bizarre personality quiz and the strange out-of-nowhere appearance of Madonna as a singing telegram delivery person surreally funny, the best by far comes from Keith David, who appears out of nowhere as Jackie Robinson, giving Augie's boss Victor (Victor Argo) some advice. There is such a sense of weirdness to this scee that still feels absolutely right that it really stands out.
"...and then I smacked that Begnini bastard clean across
the fucking room."

5) Yep...I'd watch Mel Gorham do that impromptu striptease while singing 'Fever' acapella a number of times, broad Spanish accent aside.

6) Why is it that the only time I can appreciate Giancarlo Esposito is when he's in films set in Brooklyn? I almost want to watch this in a double feature with Do The Right Thing to see the full ability of this actor unleashed.

7) Some of these actors are deeply submerged in their characters--I didn't realize the homeless person standing outside the smoke shop was Lily Tomlin until the credits rolled.

8) I really appreciated both the interviews Auster and Wang conduct with real Brooklynites (I found the one with the young girl on the Coney Island boardwalk at turns charming and heartbreaking) and the news footage of Ebbets Field being torn down. Given how Wang almost fetishizes both the Dodgers and Belgian Waffles during the course of this film, shots of the Field, and of the apartment complex that took its place, seem at home in this film.
"Sometimes, Michael, some days you gets the pants, and
someday, the pants get you..."

9) My favorite of all the segments in the film is indicative of why I enjoyed it so much. It's basically Jim Jarmusch smoking what he claims is his last cigarette with Harvey Keitel, and the two of them riffing on cigarettes, why they smoke, and what the purpose of smoking is. Throughout this sequence, which Wang keeps returning to, the characters and the actors blur together and you get the impression these are just two guys talking about a subject they're actively interested in. Sometimes the improv nature doesn't work as well--the first scene between Keitel and Rosanne, playing his boss' wife, seems a little shaky because you see Rosanne working her way through her improv--but when it does, it's magic.

10) Perhaps the biggest surprise? The pair of scenes involving Keitel, Esposito and Malik Yoba...not just because Yoba is a hoot and a half, but because in both cases we see Victor Argo take up acoustic guitar and play some kick-ass country and western.

Overall...if you treat this not as a single narrative film but as a collection of short films strung together, this is a treat and a half, and far more indicative of how good a director Wayne Wang can be.

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