Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Film Doctor Is In

Here is the main thing I want to say.
I'm working 24 hours a day.
I fix broken films.
You know I really can.

A long time ago, I figured out the only reason to create anything is that no one else has.  The books I want to write are the books I want to read, but nobody has written them yet.  The films I want to make are the films I want to see, but nobody has made them yet.

My wife used to drive me crazy by starting to fix films the minute we left the theater.  I don't think we've seen more than one or two films over the years she didn't have ideas about ways to make them better.  I wrote it off to her politics.  Well, hell, I'd say.  Go make your own film if you don't like that one.  Go make a film that fits your politics or your aesthetics or whatever. 

Lately, I've come around to her way of thinking.  Why not fix broken films?  Why not start with the idea that what's missing in the world is a better version of a film somebody made or a book somebody wrote?  Where does it say you have to start from scratch?

Now you take Passion Play (2010), a first film by screenwriter Mitch Glazer, for example.  That's a gorgeous little film that never comes together.  It has two pretty people: Mickey Rourke all broken down and Megan Fox just coming into womanhood.  It has Bill Murray, reprising the gangster he created for Mad Dog and Glory (1993), jazz, the desert, a freak show, LA, a woman with wings.  What's not to like?  The realization of the script for one thing.  And, ironically, the script itself for another. 

Rent the movie and come back.  We're going to fix it by making it clear that for most of the movie Mickey is dying or dead, and that the entire film, from the moment that Mickey is improbably rescued by Native American sharpshooters, takes place on the plane between life and death.

As a comedy writer, Glazer has never had to trouble himself with thoughts about what is real and what is not.  In fact, the unexpected is an essential element of comedy.  But, in a movie that mixes comedy with surrealism, allegory and film noir, keeping things orderly -- keeping images, characters and events on their proper plane  -- is what distinguishes the work of film makers like Fellini and Bergman from gutsy but unfinished efforts like Passion Play.  The problem with Passion Play is that everything exists on the same plane.  The viewer is forced to process everything in the movie -- winged women who learn to fly, broken down musicians, miraculous rescues by Native American warriors, ironic dialogue, cool humor, incongruous locations -- all on a plane that represents a gritty, slightly droll reality  -- in spite of the fact that the beat up, beat down, booze and drug-whacked brain of the Mickey Rourke anti-hero who rescues the winged girl and, in turn, is rescued himself, though not redeemed, seems perfect for processing alternate realities.

The quick fix for Passion Play is simple.  It mainly comes down to one shot.  At the end of the film, Rourke is being transported in the arms of an angel.  He looks down and, in a wide shot, sees his dead body, lying in a ravine and his murderer driving away.  Glazer intends for us to realize at that moment that the film has been Rourke's experience of his transition from life to death -- a dying hallucination that calls to mind the last scenes of Terry Gilliam's brilliant Brazil (1985).  What we need is a close shot of the body as Rourke leaves it behind to nail that moment of realization down in memory.


Passion Play (2010), Annapurna Productions and Rebecca Wang Entertainment

Glazer doesn't get close enough to Rourke's dead body to make that scene work.  We need to see Rourke's dead face.

It would help to fade out on the Native Americans and fade in on Rourke, walking in the desert, to mark the transition to the dying hallucination earlier in the movie, too.  And I'd cut the rest of the film in half. (The arbitrary length of "feature" films has done in more than one first film.)

I'd get Fox past the idea that she won't be taken seriously as an actress if she does nude scenes. I'm dying and I imagine Fox with her clothes on? Please.

That's the quick fix.  A complete makeover of Glazer's beautiful but personal film would require too much work.  The problem is that Rourke dies so early in the film that the revelation at the end of the film that the action has taken place on some spiritual plane feels like a clever gimmick.  Frankly, I'm not sure I care enough about the Rourke character for it to make a difference to me whether he's dead or not.  And does it really matter if the film is taken literally or not?  Would anyone care if Glazer left out the shot of Rourke's dead body altogether?  Is Passion Play some kind of filmic Book Of The Dead, full of hidden images and code words scholars could spend years discovering?

It could be that the best news about Passion Play is that a film as personal and esoteric as Passion Play can even get produced.

Or maybe it's that Megan Fox can act.  I have to wonder how smart Spielberg and Bay feel after seeing Fox in this little film.