Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Notebook: Happy Birthday, Steve (and Stuff)

Not Enough Cool
Steve McQueen died of cancer in 1980 at the age of 50. Were the King of Cool still living, today would be his 79th birthday. Seventy-nine. That’s up there, to be sure. Not a take-it-for-granted age, by any means. On the other hand, you know who else was born in 1930? Gene Hackman. Sean Connery. Clint Eastwood. Armin Mueller-Stahl. Just to name four. The first two aren’t working anymore, but the latter two are; Eastwood is as engaged as ever.

On a day like today it’s hard to keep from wondering what the second half of McQueen’s career might have looked like, had he been allowed to have one. In Unforgiven, might he have taken Hackman’s place, or even Eastwood’s? If not starring in Best Picture fare, might he have at least made a memorable TV cameo, as his Nevada Smith costar Karl Malden did at the age of 88 when he heard the confession of Martin Sheen’s Jed Bartlet on The West Wing? Might he have had a Nobody’s Fool or a Road To Perdition, as his The Towering Inferno costar Paul Newman had in his 70s? Might he have broken hearts like his The Great Escape costar James Garner did in The Notebook at 76? Might he have taken up directing, as Eastwood has? Might he have seen his dream project Yucatan blossom according to his vision? (It’s now being directed by McG.) We’ll never know.

Oh, sure. It’s possible that McQueen’s later years would have resembled those of Marlon Brando, an actor with significantly greater talent who nonetheless managed to embarrass himself more often than not near the end. Perhaps instead of celebrating his love of automobiles by giving voice to a character in Pixar’s Cars, as Newman did, McQueen would have instead appeared as some kind of Patches O’Houlihan character in The Fast And The Furious. I cringe at the thought, but it might have happened.

Still, chances are good that McQueen would have given us at least one or two more performances, of whatever size, that would be worth cherishing. I’m grateful for the performances he left behind, but today is a day to wonder what might have been.

Speaking of McQueen: Here’s a story (and video) about a recent effort to determine the legitimacy of the famous motorcycle jump from The Great Escape. Oh, there’s no question that stunt man Bud Ekins, not McQueen, was the one who pulled it off. The question is whether the motorcycle Ekins rode was enhanced for the performance.

The conclusion? Read it and see it for yourself. To a degree, the jury is still out. But one thing's for sure: As the stunt rider attempting to duplicate Ekins’ feat says perfectly: “What they lacked in equipment, they sure made up with balls. Wow.”

Wow, indeed!

Making Love in Two Lovers
In his rave of Two Lovers, Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle writes: “The movie has only one flaw, a funny one: Two Lovers is another movie in which pants and underwear magically become permeable in the face of erotic desire. The standing-up, easily achieved sex interlude has become a movie cliché to rival the 555 phone exchange.”

That’s about right. (Spoilers ahead, if you’re picky.) The scene in question involves Joaquin Phoenix’s Leonard, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Michelle, a Brooklyn rooftop and winter clothes (including jeans for Michelle). Anatomically speaking, it isn’t very convincing. On the other hand, it does get the point across, documenting the consummation of Leonard’s romantic obsession while illustrating the tenuousness of their bond. Is this the moment Michelle falls for Leonard, or is it merely the moment she gives in? The brevity of the act and its uncomfortable beginning (it’s a while before Michelle is kissing back) invites us to speculate – like so many other scenes in the film.

To that degree it works. Still, LaSalle is right, too. And it struck me that director James Gray might have been better off utilizing a trick from the silent film age. After Leonard and Michelle share their awkward kiss, he could have cut to an intertitle reading: “And then they fucked.”

It’s easy to forget that Kristen Stewart is only 18. Given the poise of her character in Panic Room she seemed about that old in 2002. Watching Stewart's recent appearance on Jimmy Kimmel’s show, I was struck by Stewart’s smarts (she’s clever) and her youth (she vibrates in her chair like a kid waiting to be excused from the dinner table). It’s going to be interesting to watch her career develop to see if the Twilight series proves to be her breakthrough or her undoing . . . Quick plug for the “Counting Down the Zeros” project going on over at Film for the Soul. If you want to write (or read) about films from the past decade, in monthly celebrations, that’s the place for you . . . Did you know that David Lean wanted to film a sequence for Lawrence Of Arabia at Petra, the site later made cinematically famous by Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade? I learned that today in Tom Stempel’s latest “Understanding Screenwriting” column over at The House Next Door.

Editor’s Note
A word about the format. This is the first of what will be regular Notebook features here at The Cooler. How regular? It’ll vary, as will the style. From the beginning, I’ve had one hard rule about blogging: post only what I’d want to read. If that means I’m the only one who wants to read it, so be it. If that means that I go two weeks without a new post, so be it. The point is, I’ve strived to keep The Cooler a filler-free zone. But with the demands of the day job only increasing of late, I’m often finding it tough to sit down and write at length (due to lack of time or energy, or both), and sometimes I'm struggling just to get to the movies I want to see (still haven’t been to Watchmen yet). As a result, many little ideas that I might have enjoyed developing into something more are drifting away unexpressed and unexplored. Not good. I’m hoping that the Notebook series will allow me to satisfy my blogging urges even in the busiest of times. Even more, I hope that the items I post here will spark reactions from my readers. Expect to encounter some highlighted notes on movies, some mini reviews, some tales of movie-going and perhaps even notes on sports, politics, life, whatever.


Richard Bellamy said...

I found your notes very enjoyable - especially your speculations about McQueen's later years had he lived longer. He started to lean toward more serious stuff. He was in a movie version of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, which I've never seen. I can imagine him directing a raw, violent Western or a World War II movie.

Happy Birthday, King of Cool!

Craig said...

Jason, a wise man once said to me: "Real life should always come before blog life.... So blog only when you feel it, not because anyone thinks you should." I remember because you're the one who said it. I like the Notebook idea. There's something to be said for devoting an entire post to one particular movie (or other topic), but I rather enjoy the more elliptical approach -- both as a reader and a writer -- and am surprised more bloggers don't try it. (Fernando Croce is the master, in my opinion, with an impressionistic style of reviewing movies and comparing them.) Looking forward to whatever you write whenever you find time to write it.

Daniel said...

Go for it, man. You're the second person today who I've read is planning on doing just this. How and why we all decided that there were some set of rules to follow is a mystery. Break away - I'll be interested to read your thoughts on all kinds of things.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks for the thoughts and the support, fellas.

Hokahey: I have a feeling McQueen would have turned in some memorable supporting performances. He wasn't a terrific actor, as compared to the greats, but he had undeniable presence -- the kind of thing that's perfect for small parts where characters need to make an immediate impression. McQueen could have done that.

Craig: That's the thing. Of late, I have absolutely felt like blogging, I just haven't had the time. So the Notebook format will satisfy that, while also giving me an outlet for some of the many mini ideas that weren't making it onto the blog even in my most prolific periods. Which leads me to ...

Daniel: Yeah, I have no idea why it never occurred to me to do this, considering in a past job I wrote weekly notebooks on a different topic. (Duh!)

To be clear to everyone, I'm certainly not criticizing bloggers who would post each of my notes above as individual posts throughout a day or a week. Nathaniel R at The Film Experience cranks out the posts almost hourly, and that's terrific for those who can keep up. I'm just not one of those people. So I'll save this stuff up and let it out in chunks. That's more my style.

While we're here: There's really only one kind of blog post I can't stand, and that's the blog post writing about what the blogger is going to write about. Sure, there are times this is appropriate: announcing a blog-a-thon or a major shift in coverage, or maybe checking in after a long blog respite. In general though, I don't care about the plans, I care about the product. As the ad gurus at Nike taught us: Just Do It!

Unknown said...

As for Steve McQueen, I would have hoped that he would have gone the Eastwood route. Stayed busy, maybe done some directing. Maybe he would stopped acting or been relegated to obscurity only to be rediscovered and given a plum role in a Paul Thomas Anderson film or something like that.

As for Kristen Stewart, I couldn't agree more. She seems incredibly talented and hopefully will stay grounded, esp. after the phenomenonal zeitgeist success of TWILIGHT (and the inevitable sequels). I think that as long as she keeps doing indie films, they will keep her grounded. Hopefully.

Ed Howard said...

Good idea, I like grab bag posts like this.

The item about the clothes-on sex cliche is very funny; that's a really distracting convention. When you're watching a scene like that, the last thing you should be thinking about is trying to figure out the mechanics of how the characters are doing it, but too often that's exactly what happens.

seanax said...

Nicely observed, Jason. This is exactly the kind of short but meaty pieces that blogs do so well. And I say that as someone who hasn't quite mastered myself.

Jason Bellamy said...

JD: With Stewart I'm not so much worried about "grounded." I'm worried we'll never be able to see her as any other character unless she's cranking out non-Twilight performances at the same time. So far, so good.

Ed: The Two Lovers scene is especially awkward, because, now that I think about it, I'm not sure Paltrow's head moves from her pre-hump position. Considering she's taller than Phoenix, that's yet another way that the scene feels, well, mailed in.

Sean: Thanks much. I've read your stuff at the P-I for years (sincere moment of silence) and just discovered your site thanks to this comment. So, double thanks, from one former Eugene resident to another.