Monday, January 25, 2010

A book movie that deserves accolades: (1984) The Razor's Edge

I’ve been thinking about how books and movies are two different species of art. Separate and equal. And how movies from books usually disappoint people who have read the books first. That’s because the movie has to leave out so much and the characters are never as we imagine them in our heads. And sometimes the story of the book is changed for dramatic reasons and our favorite parts go missing or altered beyond recognition. I love books for the way the beautifully assembled words speak to me, connect me to something larger and deeper of the human world, and how I know myself more through reading about the lives of others. I love movies for the way the images get under my skin and speak directly to my heart, and how the actors make me understand more about humanity and myself, sometimes with little more than the look in their eyes.

In addition to thinking about book movies, like the last one I talked about—What Dreams May Come—staring Robin Williams, I am thinking about comedians in movies. Most of us have come to think of Robin Williams as a funny man, not as a great actor. And yet, in the right dramatic roles, he is great. It’s said that to be able to make people laugh, one must have a deep understanding of pain and tragedy. Perhaps that helps explain why Williams is as spectacular as he is in movies like What Dreams May Come, The Final Cut, and One Hour Photo. And perhaps that’s why Bill Murray, another funny man, is capable of the Oscar-worthy performance he gives us in The Razor’s Edge (1984, directed by John Byrum).

This film version of The Razor’s Edge is based on the 1944 novel by W. Somerset Maugham. There are many changes to the plot, missing characters and scenes in the film version, however it does stay true to the spirit of the book. There was another film done of this story in 1946 starring Tyrone Power and Gene Tierney which gives greater emphasis to the female characters. The 1984 version keeps the original focus of the book on it’s main character Larry Darrell.

This is one of the all-time greatest films I have ever seen. This is due largely to the excellent screenplay co-written by director Byrum and Murray (terrific dialogue), and to Murray’s brilliant performance.

From this point on, there will be substantial spoilers.

Larry Darrell is played with exquisite charm, humor and subtlety by Bill Murray. Larry is a man that has known a privileged upper class life in middle America. He and his friend Gray upon graduating from college volunteer to be ambulance drivers even before the U.S. enters WWI. Larry is devastated by what he sees during his time on the battlefield and he can no longer resume the life he once had. He begins on a quest to discover the meaning of life, first at the bottom of a martini glass, then in Paris through books, and finally at a mountain top temple in Tibet.

The film opens on an idyllic fourth of July picnic. Larry and Gary are in uniform, ready to leave for Paris the next day. Larry’s friend Sophie gives him a volume of her poems to take with him. There is a hint that the two were more than friends at one time, though now Sophie is pregnant and married to someone else. Larry tells his fiancĂ©, Isabel, she should really marry Gary who had a million dollars. Sophie responds, “I don’t want a million bucks, I just want you…and half a million.”

Next, we are in France on the battlefield where Larry and Gary meet their commander, Piedmont (played wonderfully by Bill Murray’s brother Brian Doyle-Murray) and two ivy-league truly upper class. ambulance drivers. The scenes with war casualties are horrific as you might expect. When the ivy league drivers are killed, Piedmont immediately says of them that they were liars and he hates liars, “They will not be missed.” It is obvious this is his way of dealing with, maybe even denying the loss.
This scene is followed up with a shot of Larry scrunched in a bunker lighting a lighter to look at a picture of Isabel. He appears more numb than sad thanks to Murray’s brilliant acting.

Later Piedmont himself is killed, thereby saving Larry’s life, and Larry makes a similar speech saying, “He was a slob…Starving children could fill their bellies on the food that ended up on his clothes and beard…I never understood gluttony but I hate it…He will not be missed.” The timbre of Murray’s voice, his facial expressions, make this one of the most powerful and moving scenes in the film. I have read but do not know if it is true that the speech Murray gives about Piedmont is part of the memorial he wrote for departed friend John Belushi.

From the death the movie cuts back to an idyllic scene in America with Gary lounging in the grass wearing a white dinner jacket pinned with a metal. It’s obviously back to the high society good life, but Larry is nowhere to be seen. Later we see Larry has been drinking excessively. He tells Isabel he isn’t the man she wants to marry, not “the old Mr. Sunshine.” He says he needs “to think and I don’t have much experience in that field. Isabel is very unhappy but decides to wait for Larry while he goes to Paris to think. Her Uncle Elliot tells her this is a very good move for a man about to be married and he will put Larry in touch with the right aristocratic friends.

Larry lives a very simple existence in Paris, working as a fish packer and reading books. When he’s been there too long, Isabel goes to Paris to find him. She stops by Uncle Elliot’s Paris house and is enamored with all the treasures therein. She says, I never dreamed anyone could live like this.” Larry shows up with an organ grinder and monkey, then whisks Isabel away to show her his life in Paris. Larry tells her, “I got a second chance at life and I am not going to waste it on a big house and a new car every year.” Isabel cannot agree to such a life and the engagement is broken. However Isabel goes back to Larry’s flat and spends the night, seemingly willing to try things his way. But when she wakes the next morning to a gigantic cockroach in her bed, rats in the hall and disgusting shared plumbing, she flees.

Larry goes to Uncle Elliot’s house to find her only to learn that she has gone back to America. Angry, Larry kicks and busts up an ottoman. When the butler comes to see what the ruckus is, Uncle Elliot says, “I appear to have been crashing about without my spectacles.” We see in that one moment the kind, compassionate soul Uncle Elliot truly is despite being a snob.

Larry ends up saving the life of a coworker in a mine. When he goes to that man’s house for a drink, he discovers a kindred spirit. The friend asks him if he’s read Upanishad. The quote that opens Maugham’s novel is from Upanishad, "The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard." But the friend says Larry won’t find answers in a book. The friend has traveled to India and Larry gets the notion to do the same. Once in India, Larry meets his landlord Raaz (played marvelously by Saeed Jaffrey) who is a spiritual man. He equates washing dishes to prayer. Raaz tells Larry “if work has no intention, it’s not work at all.” Raaz takes Larry on a journey to a Tibetan temple high in the mountains. Larry stays there for a while till the holy master tells him to go to a hut higher up with his books. As Larry is in the exposed hut freezing, he realizes he will need to burn his books to keep warm. Later when Larry is leaving the temple to go back to Paris, he asks the master if it’s true that it’s easy to be a holy man on a mountain top. The master’s answer is a paraphrase of the Upanishad quote, “The path to salvation is narrow and difficult to walk as a razor’s edge.”

When Larry is in Paris, he runs into Uncle Elliot and discovers Isabel has married Gary and is living there with their two children. Larry rekindles the friendship and helps Gary using hypnosis and mindful techniques he learned while in India. Later they run into Sophie who had become a prostitute, alcoholic and drug addict. Larry helps her get sober then proposes to her. The two seem happy until Isabel learns of the impending marriage and does what she can to prevent it. It ends horribly with Sophie’s return to her old ways, followed by her murder. Larry says he is not that interested in finding her killer. In his mind, Isabel is responsible. And yet, he does not scream or act violently. In the midst of this, Uncle Elliot is dying and Isabel is grief stricken. Larry tells Isabel he realized he had “another debt to pay for the privilege of being alive…I thought Sophie was my reward for trying to live a good life. Uh-uh. There is no pay-off. Not now.”

I read that Bill Murray wanted very badly to make this film and that he agreed to make Ghostbusters as a way to help finance The Razor’s Edge. When the movie came out it was a box office flop. I cannot imagine why. This is one of the most powerful, moving and memorable films I have ever seen. Not only did Murray deserve a best actor nomination and Oscar (he received neither--that year it went to Duvall for Tender Mercies), but the film itself should be considered a classic. It’s on par with such films as Lawrence of Arabia and Casablanca. And even if you did not like either of those films, see this one. Even if you loved the book and don’t want to spoil it by seeing the movie, see this one. Murray’s performance alone makes it worth your while.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Death, The Hero's Quest, Liquid Art & True Love

What Dreams May Come is a story of a love so strong a man would give up everything to save his beloved. The hero's quest is one of our most powerful shared myths and pervasive archetypal stories. The hero must go through life-threatening trials in order to save the object of his quest and in the process discovers some invaluable truths about him/herself and the world. This film is based on the novel of the same name by acclaimed author and screenwriter Richard Matheson. Though it diverges in many ways from the book, this film is true to the spirit of the book, which professes there is no more powerful bond than that of soulmates. The movie raised the book from out of print status (for nearly 20 years) to the best-seller list. I recommend it too. But where the movie excels is in its visual effects and cinematography. Each frame of What Dreams May Come is a work of art. This is one of the most beautiful films to look at that I've ever seen. Many of the scenes would hold up as beautiully composed stills. Other scenes are based on paintings and in some the paint is still liquid. Exquisite.

From this point on, I reveal plot points, so if you prefer to see the film first, please do and come back here to see the rest of what I have to say.

Chris, played by Robin Williams, and Annie, played by Annabella Sciorra are a married couple with two children. Chris is a doctor and Annie a painter who works at a gallery. They are beset with the terrible tragedy of both their children being killed in an automobile accident. Then four years later, Chris is killed trying to help at an accident scene. In flashbacks, we learn Annie blamed herself for sending them off with the nanny, thinking if she were driving somehow she could have spared them. The guilt drove her to the point of madness and the marriage nearly ended in divorce. But their bond prevailed.

After dying Chris meets "Albert" played by the marvelous Cuba Gooding Jr. Albert is his first guide who seems to be a doctor who trained Chris long ago. There will be other guides (played by Max Von Sydow and Rosalind Chao) as well and all are not who they seem. And of course, his dog is there to greet him as well. Neither Judea-Christian nor Buddhist, Matheson developed his own ideas about spirituality and the lifeforce. Chris' afterlife is based on his wife's paintings, is at first just that wet art, which later becomes real, and all, even the darker scenes are breathtaking.

Annie, is so despondent over he death of her husband, she commits suicide. Chis learns that suicides cannot go to the same realm and exist in a self-created purgatory for all eternity. He cannot abide this and embarks on a quest to save her. He finds her and tries to show her who he is. He says his being strong and not showing pain over the death of his kids "was just another place to hide" and that he "disconnected" himself "from the person he loved the most." He says good people end up in hell because they cannot forgive themselves. Isn't this one of the great tuths, how we create our own hell on earth berating ourseves.

When it seems Chris cannot bring his wife out of her state of suffering, he decides to reamin there with her. He tells her a number of things he's sorry for and he forgives her "for being so wonderful a guy would choose hell over heaven just to hang around you." When she comes out of the self-confinement to realize who Chris is, Chris has gone int his own self-imposed hell and she must get him out of it. They return to the lovely afterlife together, where the whole family is reunited for a time.

Whether or not you believe in the premise that none of us disappear after death, it is a well-acted film worth watching for its beautiful appearance alone. And don't miss a cameo by acclaimed director Wernor Herzog.

Monday, January 4, 2010

After Death Movie That's Warm & Funny

Okay, I know it seems depressing to be thinking about death at the start of the new year. But trust me, Defending Your Life is not a depressing film. Defending Your Life is a film about moving forward by taking the risks necessary to do so.

The film is written and directed by Albert Brooks, who also co-stars along with Meryl Streep. The film hoovers in the genres of sci-fi/fantasy and romantic comedy. The premise of the film is that there is a processing center people go to after death where it is determined whether they get to move forward in their development or whether they have to go back to earth to keep trying to overcome all their shortcomings. There is a life review which is very much like a trial with two counselors and two presiding judges, played by Lillian Lehman and George Wallace.

The protagonist, Daniel Miller a kind of average Joe nebbish, played by Brooks, has just died on his birthday in an accident with a bus while singing a Streisand tune. It's hard to imagine a more humiliating or wasteful death. Let this be a warning to those of us who mess with distractions while we're driving. Happily, we are spared the blood and guts of the scene when the movie cuts to judgment city bustling with newly dead arrivals being pushed along in wheelchairs. Judgment City looks a bit like Disneyland. Everything is clean and efficient. All the dead are placid, even downright cheerful. The residents who run Judgement City dress neatly in plain clothing while the dead wear caftans called tupas. But the best thing about Judgment city is that the dead can eat all they want and have no physical effect. Everything is fast and delicious too.

Brooks is very engaging as Daniel, who uses humor to deal with whatever situation life and death throw at him. He shows himself to be a kind person by listening to an older woman reminiscing about her dog. Daniel's counsel, played by Rip Torn, doesn't appear to be a tremendous help in Daniel's defense despite his big brain status using 48% of his capacity as compared to the 3-5% humans use. And his "prosecutor" played by Lee Grant, is apparently one of the toughest. As the case progresses, we are shown snippets from Daniel's life as evidence of whether he should or shouldn't move forward. The evidence the prosecutor put forward is Daniel's fear and misjudgements. Most of the life-review footage only serves to make Daniel much more sympathetic to us. His failings are our own.

There is some food for thought in the trial, but the true charm of the film is the developing relationship between Daniel and Julia. Julia, played by Steep, and Daniel meet in a comedy club where Daniel is much funnier than the comic on stage. Streep is breezy and light in the role. There's a humorous restaurant scene with her sucking up spaghetti not quite Lady and the Tramp.

This is a film to watch for smiles and enjoyment. It's hopeful in that it professes there is more than this one life, more to experience and understand. The plot demonstrates that it is never too late to grow and improve. I also love this film for the way it suggests one take a more gentle look at oneself.