Friday, March 18, 2016

Robert Zemeckis, part IV: That was the end of Grogan—the man who killed my father, raped and murdered my sister, burned my ranch, shot my dog, and stole my Bible!


Zemeckis goes into the wilderness, and finds a sweet, believable love story where an adventure movie ought to be.

Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Written by Diane Thomas
With Kathleen Turner (Joan Wilder), Michael Douglas (Jack "Trustworthy" Colton), Danny DeVito (Ralph), Zack Norman (Ira),and Manuel Ojeda (Col. Zolo)

Spoiler alert: mild 

It's actually somewhat incredible that, by 1984, they were still letting Robert Zemeckis anywhere near a camera (or even a typewriter), and I'm not sure I can name a single rising filmmaker who was given so many second chances to prove himself.  Even a lot of established filmmakers have been crapped out of Hollywood for less than the string of dire underperformers represented by I Wanna Hold Your Hand, 1941, and Used Cars.  But there's a bit of a clue thereyou'll recall that all three of those movies were Steven Spielberg productions, and if there's one thing Spielberg has always been, it's loyal to his friends, to the extent that you literally had to kill someone (as, for example, John Landis did) in order for Spielberg to take you off his holiday card list.

Yet, as the story goes, this didn't sit very well with a prideful Zemeckis.  So, Zemeckis struck off on his own, found a new friend in the form of Michael Douglas, and got himself hired to film a script thatfor oncehe and his usual partner-in-crime Bob Gale hadn't written, called Romancing the Stone.  Naturally, it went on to be the first bona fide hit of Zemeckis' career.  (And, although hindsight takes every last bit of the pathos out of it, I find myself feeling bad for Gale, who must have cringed at the realization that his pal's first taste of success had come also at the expense of kicking him gently to the curb.)

The irony, of course, is that Zemeckis' fist well-received movie was, and sometimes still is, described as a brazen rip-off of Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Now, there's no doubt that the suits at 20th Century Fox must have had the archaeological superhit in the very forefront of their minds; but the fact is that its screenwriter, Diane Thomas, had completed the script as early as 1978.  (And if I feel sympathetic for Gale, that is nothing compared to how sad I feel about where poor Thomas' career went: right into a telephone pole at 80mph, at the hands of a drunken boyfriend in a Porsche that Douglas himself had bought her as a thank-you gift.  Thus did she die, scarcely a year after she'd lived out a Hollywood dream just so gorgeously sentimentalvaulting from 38 year-old waitress to A-list screenwriter overnightthat they don't even make movies about the rare Diane Thomases of the world anymore.)

The similarities between Stone and Raiders, however, are mostly skin deep, inhering to the genre, rather than to any particular beats of the story: both are about a treasure hunt; both involve white people transported to exotic continents full of brown ones (although Stone is vastly more terrified of its milieu's non-white inhabitants); and both have a man and a woman who want each other's body.  That's pretty much where the comparison ends, and the contrasts begin.  Stone, notably, takes place in the present (that is, 1984); Stone's mythicism is overtly satirical; and, most importantly, Stone makes the biggest difference between Zemeckis and Spielberg clear, even if Hand hadn't alreadyunlike his mentor, Zemeckis has no obvious distaste for the fact that human beings fuck.

Often without even thinking about terrorism.

And, in case that title didn't give it away, Romancing the Stone is indeed principally a romance, told almost exclusively from the standpoint of its heroine, with its action-adventure elements largely existing to provide an environment for her to either impress (or be impressed by) the man she falls in love with, as well as to break out of her own shell of general loserdom.  (They do not, however, quite seem to exist for their own sakewhich is one of the movie's serious problems, but we'll get back to that later.)

So: our woman here is Joan Wilder, a novelist of some repute, and we meet her in the midst of concluding her latest manuscript, which is a Western-set romance and also pretty self-evidently terrible, albeit in a really great kind of way.  In fact, I'm tempted to say that Stone never once gets better than its opening, which purports to illustrate the movie going on behind Joan's eyes as she writes the ending of her novel, and which is narrated by Joan, who also seems to supply the voice of her female protagonist (whose mouth never actually moves).  It's a bouncy genre parody on one hand; on the other, it tells us most of what we need to know about Joan, without anything like brutal exposition.  It's also the best shot part of the film, with just the right amount of eroticism for a lady's porno novel (a term I don't use derisively, mind you), and with shadows obscuring and anonymizing the faces of the woman and especially her male savior, Jesse, letting us know (again without brutal exposition) how much of herself Joan's putting into her protagonist, and how much of an unattainable fantasy figure her ideal man actually is.  (And it's pretty, to boot: Stone might only have been a minor effort from master cinematographer Dean Cundey, but that means that it is merely lit beautifully, rather than breathtakingly.)

The best part about our introduction to Joan, however, is that it's arguably the funniest whole part of the movie, too.  (This does disregard some unearned chuckles I got from Kathleen Turner falling directly on her ass, as well as a really unearned, gut-busting laugh I got from Danny DeVito being chased by Michael Douglas, surfing on top of a car, which I found absolutely hilarious just because it's so self-evidently unfair to the small-statured comedian.  But, then, Stone represents Zemeckis at last finding the right balance for his cartoonish sensibilities, so that when people fall down in Stoneas they often doit actually lands with the right timing and the right kind of impact.  Contrast, if you will, the abjectly primitive slapstick of Hand.)  Anyway, I could probably watch a whole movie like the first four minutes of Stone, a full 100 minutes of Turner breathlessly reading Joan Wilder's latest bodice-ripper, full of zany action and humorous asides that really should never have made it into the final draft of a novel that its author was allegedly taking seriously.

After a fashion, though, that is kind of what we get (although, perhaps unfortunately, Turner's narration is limited to the opening).  We come back to Joan's real life, finding our overwrought hack weeping over her own creation, and Zemeckisin a device that would serve him well throughout the remainder of his careertells us everything else we need to know about Joan through the thoughtful, well-deployed use of props.  She's a loner, this Joan, who has escaped almost completely into her imagination, who lives with her cat, and who's waiting for her Jesse.

At this point, you might look askance at the idea of Kathleen Turner as an introverted dweeb, but she really sells it.

The call to adventure comes when a package arrives from her recently hacked-to-pieces brother-in-law in Colombia.  It contains a certain map, and the American grave-robbers who were after it, the family duo of Ira and Ralph, want it badly enough to kidnap her sister.  They thus tell Joan to deliver unto them the documentor else.  Joan has little choice but to fly down to Colombiawhere she is promptly derailed by a third party, Colonel Zolo, Colombia's Minister of Antiquities, and all-round evil copper-skinned man.  (He has an evil mustache and everything.)  This would mean death for poor Joan, but this is where one Jack T. Colton, Action Ornithologist, enters the picture.

He rescues her, but mostly by accident; when she asks for further assistance, he demands payment; and when he learns that she's got a treasure map, he starts wondering about the possibilities of taking that treasure for himself.  But it wouldn't be much of a romance if Joan didn't start to get under his skin a little, and if she didn't begin to realize that this grizzled adventurer, while a much more realistically-molded prick than her self-devised masturbatory aids ever were, is nevertheless exactly the kind of man she's always wanted.

Michael, no!  That's how you get throat cancer, remember?

Perhaps the most delightful thing about Stone is how deftly it avoids sinking itself with its own overdetermined premise: it is very much the case that Stone is the tale of how Joan Wilder finds herself living in one of her own stories, but it almost never feels like a metafiction (which is very obviously not the goal of Thomas' screenplay) or even like an unalloyed fantasy (which is, equally obviously, one of Thomas' goals).  This is probably down more to Turner and Douglas' truly superb chemistry, although Zemeckis makes a point of directing your attention to their burgeoning mutual attraction.  (And Cundey does too: Turner is beautiful, that's a given, but Christ, does he light her well.  Meanwhile, a certain aspect of Stone's production really surprised me: in most of her scenes, she's wearing almost no makeup.  It's striking, not just because Zemeckis and Cundey have faith in our ability to recognize a gorgeous woman without giving her a coat of paint, but because it reminds me that there was once a time where actorswhy, even women!were permitted to look natural in a natural scenario.)

Helpfully, Stone is not content to treat this as just the story of Joan being saved by Jack; outside of their very first encounter, and a bit at the end, I'm not sure there's a single moment where his presence is strictly necessary to her survival; and the arc of her character, running parallel to her ongoing romantic entanglement, is a perfectly solid hero's journey of her own.  (It's brought down, albeit slightly, by Joan's incredibly low starting point: there's a full forty minutes of movie where she comes off as a complete moron.)

The major problem, though it's not a film-killing one, I alluded to earlier: it's not really a particularly well-constructed adventure movie, in and of itself.  Two of the three villains are completely inept, and the last, Zolo, may be competent, but he's awfully generic and dull.  So, there's some cool vine-swinging here, a neat bit with a waterfall there, and I love the look of the maguffin emerald (some manner of special effect, it often appears to be outright animated).  But the action qua action, namely the gunplayand there's a lot of gunplayis frankly atrocious, even by haphazard 80s standards.  (Typically, the villains are bad shots in these movies; whereas in Stone, everyone is.)  It's only in the last moments, involving a crocodile, a dagger, and a burning man, that anything really special happens outside of the rapport between Turner and Douglaswhen we are again reminded that, in the 1980s, MPAA ratings were poorly-applied, and the movies were that much more awesome.

Such, then, is Romancing the Stone: something of a frivolity, especially in terms of its director's craft.  Outside of keeping the pace up in the last two-thirds, Zemeckis is practically indifferent to how shots fit together, and sometimes he still overprivileges the screenplay's jokesthere's one terrible cross-cut sequence, in particular, that is nominally about Joan's first big heroic moment, but which keeps returning to Douglas, spouting off increasingly bizarre comedic non sequiturs.  (Likewise, he loved Alan Silvestri's placeholder score so much he used it for the film, giving the whole endeavor the feeling of walking on a tightrope between "lovable 80s cheese" and "unacceptable, even for elevator music."  But it began a director/composer collaboration quite nearly as fruitful as that between Speilberg and Williams, so I'm not complaining much.)

Weaknesses aside, Stone was an important part of Zemeckis' development: if he errs too much on the side of just setting up the camera, he was learning that not every feature-length film is likely to benefit from being infused, in every second, with the same unsustainable mania of a Warner Bros. cartoon.  Thus, Stone would be worth loving a little bit, even if it wasn't so crucial to saving Zemeckis' careerand it's worth loving even more, because that's exactly what it did.

Score:  7/10

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