The Moderns

January 26, 2012

Alan Rudolph continues to stake his claim as the most intriguing and original young director in America. His independently produced films (Choose Me, Trouble in Mind) are stunning, seductive movies, and even the projects he occasionally makes within the studio system (such as last year’s Made in Heaven) are more interesting than almost anything else around.

With his newest film, The Moderns, Rudolph has realized a dream project that he’s been trying to make for nearly a decade. It’s quintessential Rudolph: a deceptively drowsy look at the various intellectual and sexual configurations within a group of offbeat characters, marked by the director’s tilted sense of humor, surrounded by a superb score (by Mark Isham) and played out in a luscious setting.

That setting is Paris, 1926, where some American expatriates are devouring the city that Hemingway called “a moveable feast.” The focal point is Hart (Keith Carradine), a painter who is coerced into forging some masterpieces. But his main concern is the re-emergence of a woman (Linda Fiorentino) from his past, who is now married to a brutal businessman (John Lone, fresh from his title role in The Last Emperor).

Others include the icy (but tres chic) society dame (Geraldine Chaplin) who commissions the forgeries; a sardonic art dealer (Genevieve Bujold) who declares, “Art is only an infection. Some people get it, some people don’t”; a gossip columnist (Wallace Shawn, simply a joy); and Hemingway (Kevin J. O’Connor) who is affectionately used as Hart’s comic foil.

Rudolph and his co-screenwriter, the late Jon Bradshaw, have given these characters some stylized dialogue. You can’t quite get a handle on it; some characters speak in epigrams that may or may not be serious, and Hemingway stands in the corner saying things that are poetic and comic at the same time: “It’s easy to be hard-boiled in the daytime. But at night….” Just when you think things are getting thick, the gossip writer scuttles in and announces, “I just ran into Maurice Ravel in the men’s room. He didn’t recognize me!”

The characters inhabit a loving re-creation of the cafes, galleries, and studios of Paris (filmed, with appropriate irony, in Montreal). Rudolph and cinematographer Toyomichi Kurita don’t aim for a slavish period homage, but for a living place full of dark corners, smoky rooms, and the breath of artistic creation.

The movie is full of irony, such as the thought that Hart’s lasting contribution to art history might be the forgeries he so grudgingly creates, and that in the end the characters escape the disintegrating Paris scene for the siren song of Hollywood.

But Rudolph always brings a sweetness to his films, and The Moderns has a typically off-center happy ending. The happy ending doesn’t diminish the emotional complexity of the film and its characters. It just increases the sense that The Moderns is one of those movies one could easily live inside.

First published in the Herald, May 26, 1988

They showed this at the opening night of the Seattle International Film Festival that year, and a friend and I, full of Hemingway enthusiasm, went over to Rudolph at the party to say how much we’d gotten a kick out of the depiction of Hemingway in the movie. Whereupon Rudolph seemed to want to get away very quickly—I think he was used to people criticizing that aspect of the picture, and misunderstood our approach. Whatever. Then all those years later Woody Allen went and worked his own variation on the theme.

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Choose Me

August 12, 2011

Lesley Ann Warren, with "radio" and "telephone"

In the opening shot of Choose Me, characters wander into a street scene and start dancing to the sounds of the funky music on the soundtrack. Highly unrealistic, and it serves as a warning: You either sway to the peculiar rhythms of this idiosyncratic film, or you will be left behind.

I’ve seen Choose Me with two separate audiences, and the reaction was quite different with each. One crowd was with the film every step of the way, knowing when to laugh and when to stop laughing. The other audiences seemed puzzled by the whole thing, almost as if it couldn’t see where anything was leading.

The latter reaction is understandable, because Choose Me is a comedy and a romance and a film noir and even a musical, all rolled up into one mysterious package. But getting to the heart of that mystery is an intoxicating journey. It’s true; you never know quite know where you stand with this movie, as though it were deliberately keeping you off balance. But if felt I was in capable hands throughout, and never for a moment feared that the film was heading for a fall.

It has the logic of a screwball comedy, in which strangers meet, sparks are kindled, and everyone becomes accidentally and inextricably involved with everyone else. Beneath the comic structure, Choose Me simmers with urgent passion, so that its laughs have meaning.

The film considers the various romantic entanglements of: Dr. Nancy Love (Geneviève Bujold), a radio psychologist who counsels her callers about love but doesn’t know much about the subject; Eve (Lesley Ann Warren), owner of a bar and one of Love’s frequent callers; Mickey (Keith Carradine), a habitual liar who walked into Eve’s bar looking for the previous owner but fell in love with the current proprietor; Pearl (Rae Dawn Chong), barside poet; and Zack Antoine (Patrick Bauchau), self-styled gangster, Pearl’s husband, and Eve’s lover.

Each relationship builds on the other ones, in a grid of coincidence and cross-purpose. Orchestrating all this is writer-director Alan Rudolph, who is probably tired of being called a protégé of Robert Altman. But he was, and he’s since made Welcome to L.A., Remember My Name, Endangered Species, and others. Rudolph’s films have always taken chances, but this film takes even more. It also pays off on more.

With cinematographer Jan Kiesser, and with a very low budget, Rudolph has created a sensual look for the movie (and, with the Teddy Pendergrass songs, a very sexy sound, too). Much of the action takes place at night, and the characters resemble nighthawks on the prowl, scouring the lonely edges of Los Angeles for a little companionship.

The people are special, and the fact that they are played by misfits and almost-stars adds to this. Carradine, who was in Rudolph’s Welcome to L.A., continues to carve his own niche in the recent cinema, always seeming to turn up in small, personal projects. Warren, queen of the TV-movie in the early ’70s, rings true, even when saying things like, “I don’t own any man—and no man owns me,” one of the many lines that seem inspired by old movie dialogue.

Bujold, who doesn’t work all that often and never quite became the big star she could have been, is superb as the talk-show host. It’s easy to satirize this particular kind of pop figure, and the film does get funny material out of it, but there is much subtlety in Bujold’s performance. It’s a wonderful part, and Bujold, as the omnipresent goddess of the airwaves, becomes the glue that holds the many enticing aspects of this film together.

First published in the Herald, August 24, 1984

This was kind of an important independent film, although it doesn’t get a lot of credit for that. It was a gigantic hit in Seattle, a city that has cozied up to Rudolph’s films in general (and he to Seattle, having shot Trouble in Mind here a couple of years later and keeping a house hereabouts). Choose Me  has a real appreciation for people, without ever losing its odd, stylized snap.