Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Steven Spielberg, part XVII: Enter the void


Spielberg tries his hand at straight-up romantic fantasyand falls flat on his face with the worst film (so far, anyway) of his whole feature career.

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Jerry Benson and Diane Thomas (based on the screenplay A Guy Named Joe by Dalton Trumbo and Frederick Hazlitt Brennan)
With Richard Dreyfuss (Pete Sandich), Holly Hunter (Dorinda Durich), John Goodman (Al Yackey), Brad Johnson (Ted Baker), and Audrey Hepburn (Hap)

Spoiler alert: high

I imagine there's a great movie, or at least a good movie, within Steven Spielberg's Always, and it might even be a movie called A Guy Named Joe, the 1943 melodrama which Always updates and remakes, although I can't speak to that film's merits either way.  It does not, however, contain a great movie in the same way that, for example, The Color Purple contained a great moviethat is, a great movie drowning within reams of superfluous material and trapped inside an undeserved running time.  (Let it be noted, however, that Always is certainly a little bit too long.)

Instead, to bring out the great movie within Always, you'd need a new screenplay, at least one cast change (but probably two), and, above all, a genuine sense of narrative focus.  And this last one, Always' most obvious lack, could have been easily fixed with just a little screenwriting economy, by tethering the film's mentor pilot ghost to the film's most interesting character, rather than to its least.  Its least interesting character, you see, would the mentor ghost pilot's actual protege; its most interesting, on the other hand, would the woman he left behind when he died, whom he was not, in fact, sent back to counselbut who (curiously enough) also has ambitions to do the same job that the mentor pilot ghost once did with such pluck and aplomb, which she abandoned because he told her not to pursue them, and which she buried completely when he bit the dust.

Of course, this is indeed exactly where everybody winds up in the end: the girlfriend flying a plane on a dangerous mission, with the mentor pilot ghost grossly exceeding his celestial mandate, and whispering to his former girlfriend various words of advice.  Therefore we can't even turn to our usual adversary, rote 1980s sexism, as an explanation for the Always that actually existsnamely, a wheel-spinning melodrama that spends most of its time bouncing indifferently back-and-forth between prosaic scenes of flight instruction and milquetoast scenes of allegedly poignant romance.  (Oh, but that does leave out the comedy, which works maybe one third of the time, while the other two-thirds just leaves you glancing around the empty room, looking for your own mentor ghost to explain to you why anybody ever thought some of this material was funny or interesting.  No answers were forthcoming.)

Naturally enough, however, Always' mentor ghost starts out as a man: his name is Pete Sandich, and he's a real maverick of an aerial firefighter, taking completely unnecessary risks in order to get his job donethis being, of course, an artifact of Always' status as a remake of a film about World War II, which is something that must be referenced in dialogue half a dozen times (most tellingly when Pete's friend and colleague Al Yackey calls him out for playing fast and loose even when, rather than bombing Nazis bent on conquest, their usual mission involves fighting fires that pose no actual immediate threat to human life).

Incidentally, if a film fails to be as deep and probing a psychological portrait as Top Gun, can it be said to have a really serious problemor, is Top Gun so perpetually underrated on this count that it doesn't quite come off as the stinging insult I'd prefer it to be?

Pete has a girl back at the airfieldDorinda Durston, a comely young woman (ten years or so younger than Pete, in fact, and it looks more like twenty).  We will go on to learn approximately nothing about what these two actually see in each other, but we'll nonetheless follow along with them throughout the first act, as Pete both condescends to her and refuses (in a fashion so arch I thought that even by 1989 it had fallen out of favor) to tell her he loves her.  Unfortunately for everyone, then, the very day that Dorinda has convinced her man to take a teaching positionPete undertakes one last mission.  As expected, Pete diesalbeit heroically, in a daredevil maneuver that saves Al's life.

He wakes up, untouched by the fiery crash, and, upon meeting God's/Spielberg's stunt-cast angel, Pete realizes that he's dead.  However, his work on Earth is not close to finished: like all decent ghosts, he's been drafted into the service of the universal plan, and he must go back, to whisper words of encouragement and advice to the next generation.  And thus is Pete's soul lashed to the person of Ted Baker, a delivery pilot we briefly met earlier, who has undertaken to learn the ropes of airborne firefighting, and who also just sucks at it.  But things really get complicated (at least in theory) when Ted meets the still-mourning Dorinda; and slowly (but, honestly, not that slowly) they begin to fall in love.

I want to hasten to say that there is no Spielberg theatrical feature that is completely worthless, and Always is certainly not completely worthless: the depiction of aerial firefighting in this film is actually pretty damned cool in the two or three scenes where we get to see italthough one might want to bear in mind that, much like Nancy Allen's character from 1941 or Christian Bale's character from Empire of the Sun (and, hence, one assumes, Spielberg himself), I have a serious fetish for aircraft in general and WWII-era aircraft in particular, and Always prominently features its fire bombers (all PBY Catalinas and B-26s) doing some really thrilling and unique things.  Never is this more the case than in Pete's death scene, which is so easily the best scene in the movie, from the visual effects to the dialogue to actors' very expressions, that the competition isn't even fair.  But there are other moments here and there that really do work.  They have a tendency to either be silent, or else involve scenes of domestic strife: the dialogue-free meeting of Al and Dovinda after Pete's crash is basically a perfect rendition of the cliche; and, naturally, there shall always remain a certain believability to any sight of a man and woman fighting and crying in a Spielberg moviein somewhat depressing contrast with any scene where a man and a woman are supposed to be doing anything else.

And so the amount of heat generated between Richard Dreyfuss and Holly Hunter remains the same once he turns from flesh-and-blood man into an intangible, invisible ghostnone.  To a degree, this is even the pointAlways, despite its occasional inclusion of swear words, is every inch a conscious throwback to a more genteel agealthough the extent to which this age ever actually existed is really an open question, one I'm not entirely qualified to answer (it's entirely possible that A Guy Named Joe is just as neutered and bland).  But I, personally, cannot even name a single romance from the Golden Age of Hollywood that's this determinedly, dementedly sexless.

It could, I think, have survived this: Spielberg and screen sexuality don't tend to mix well (or at all), and there are other things that a romance can be about; perhaps Always could've broken through our species' meat-based biology and gotten to the old ineffability, which is, after all, the thing that Spielberg really values.  Always cannot, however, survive everything else that's kind of threadbare and lousy about both of its central relationships: the dialogue that mixes broad cutesiness with dull naturalism and winds up with nothing worth saying; the conception of Dorinda as a slightly-dim tomboy who needs to be told how to be a girl; the dissonance between the performers that, even accounting for the ghostly premise, winds up with the three leads starring in what seem to three separate films, and with only the one featuring Hunter being anything close to good.

And it really cannot be overemphasized how bizarrely passive Dreyfuss' performance is, even within the confines of his role: indeed, the whole reason that Always exists is because Dreyfuss and Spielberg were both fans of the original, and traded wisecracks from A Guy Named Joe during the shooting of Jaws; how strange it is, then, that given the chance to remake one of his favorites, Dreyfuss just drifts in and out of lines, scarcely bothering to be mad, or sad, or do anything but to read his dialogue, typically in a tone of petulance (the most romantic tone of all, I guess).  It clearly doesn't help that, when you cast Dreyfuss (whose whole schtick is being kind of obnoxious) as a character who is obnoxious, you're playing a very dangerous game.  (You know, I said you couldn't get to a great version of Always by simply cutting parts out, but a much better Always could be arrived at by starting the film about half an hour in, with Pete in the moments of his death.  It's not necessarily wise to force the audience to assume that the love affair between two characters was one for the ages; but, then, it's probably better than actively disabusing them of the notion for thirty full minutes.)

Still, at least Dreyfuss is giving a performance of some kind (if not, sadly, of the Third Kind); and casting him did make some manner of sense.  Casting semi-nobody Brad Johnson as the third point on this love triangle, however, might be the thing that kills Always even deader than Pete; though God knows that this script does the poor handsome giant no favors.  We tend to see Ted Baker only through Pete's perspective, which is fair enough, but Pete's powers of "inspiration," manifested as a sort of meat puppetry, absolutely destroy what tiny bit of personality the character has, either on the page or in Johnson's performancethat is, up until around thirty minutes before the film ends, when a switch flips in his head, and he starts kind-of sort-of acting, at last taking Ted from "blank-faced robot programmed for dippy gentleness" all the way to "still extremely boring, but at least identifiably human."

It's an improvement of marginal value, to be sure.

Hunter and John Goodman (as Al) leave both of them standing in the dust, and it might well make matters worse: it's just startling to watch those two get together and give real performances.  Meanwhile, it's only in his last monologue that Dreyfuss finally puts away his mugging, his braying, and his general shittiness, and even attempts to rise to their level.  It's the platonic ideal of the phrase "too little, too late."

Leaving aside how much simply cleaner it would be if you switched Ted's place with Dorinda's, Always is also a story about grief with most of the grieving process cut out: Pete doesn't return to Earth for a solid six months.  When he does get back, he spends a lot more time on monkeyshines than he does on either attempting to keep Dorinda and Ted apartor on trying to put the two of them together.  In fact, maybe that's the real film-killing flaw: when it comes to Dorinda and Ted's romance, Pete is a whining third wheel, and nothing else at all.

There are moments where Pete does something that drives Ted closer to Dorinda, I suppose, but he only does this by accidentally putting ideas into Ted's noggin, who then dutifully parrots all the key words from Pete and Dorinda's relationship.  The effect is more creepy than anything else, and Spielberg glosses completely over the emotional truth of the talenamely, that Dorinda is not exactly getting over her dead firefighter boyfriend when her new firefighter boyfriend keeps unintentionally replicating moments from her old life as hollow pastiche.  (Always is strongly prefigured by Carpenter's Starman; and that film, whatever else might be wrong with it, is at least constantly aware of the real sadness at the heart of its magical romance.  You just can't say the same thing about Spielberg's picture.)

I realize that rewriting a screenplay is not exactly good criticism, but Always is just such a wasted opportunity: the idea that you can't ever really replace one love with another, that the dead are dead and they're dead forever, is a strong one.  Strong enough, indeed, that it's hard to screw it up.  Thus is it's only by herculean efforts that Always misses its own damned point; and its absolute commitment to low-impact "feelings" becomes, essentially, offensive in its own inoffensiveness.

Score:  5/10


  1. All I remember about this movie is that Holly Hunter has a cat named Linda Blair. And that was even before I was into horror! I guess I wasn't missing much, huh?

    1. Not really. I mean, like I said, the airplane scenes are kind of legitimately amazing, but one can probably find 'em on Youtube, and there's a few pieces of good direction here and there (it's overall a handsome movie), but nothing that justifies its existence.

    2. Additionally, I really don't get the idea behind naming the cat "Linda Blair," which now that you reminded me of it is really bothering me. Can it twist its head around? Does it masturbate with a crucifix? Is it just Linda Blair's cat? I don't understand.