Tuesday, February 25, 2014

There's Nothing You Can Do About It

A. E. Hotchner has had a very strange writing career. The extensive bibliography he has amassed is no doubt the very logical result of his strange and eventful life, but it all probably only makes total sense to him. I will say right here that I've only read one of his books, more on which in a little while, but that was enough to deeply intrigue me about the man and his work, and here's what I know. Hotchner's career has been hitched at different times to the wagons of two of the most famous men of the last century: first, Ernest Hemingway, who Hotchner got to know through a magazine assignment. They became friends, and after Hemingway's death Hotchner wrote a hugely successful memoir about that friendship called Papa Hemingway (there would follow a few more Hemingway books over the years, including a collection of the two men's correspondence). Second, Hotchner was very close friends with Paul Newman, and it was with Hotchner that Newman founded Newman's Own, Inc., the producer of a very successful line of salad dressings, popcorn, and so on, all of the profits funneling right into charities like Newman's The Hole-In-The-Wall Gang. A couple years ago, Hotchner published Paul and Me, another memoir about a friendship, and over the roughly thirty years of working together, Hotchner and Newman would co-write (I'm naturally assuming Hotchner did pretty much all the actual writing) three cookbooks as well as Shameless Exploitation in Pursuit of the Common Good, a history of the Newman's Own company.

So there's that, and along the way Hotchner also wrote authorized biographies of Doris Day and Sophia Loren, a scattering of novels, many of which, like The Man Who Lived at the Ritz, are World War II thrillers, as well as at least one historical epic, called Louisiana Purchase. On top of all this, though, are Hotchner's personal memoirs -- that is, not a memoir that illustrates him in the shadow of someone like Hemingway, but directly about his life and family. There seem to be a great many of these -- last year, the then 92-year-old Hotchner published the latest in this series, called O.J. in the Morning, G&T at Night -- but most famously are the childhood memoirs, and most famously of all, his first childhood memoir. That would be King of the Hill, published in 1973, about his life in St. Louis during the Depression. This is the one I've read, by the way, and it's terrific. I won't pretend to have read a huge number of memoirs in my day, so I don't know if I'm about to describe something that's fairly commonplace in the genre, but what seems to me to be Hotchner's stroke of genius in composing King of the Hill was the decision to write it in the present tense, and not as an older man looking back. The Hotchner who wrote the book was in his 50s, but the Hotchner who tells the story is about twelve. As a result, the book is immediate, funny, as scrappy as a smart kid angling for food would have to be, and neither exceedingly precocious (though he describes himself as a pretty good student) or wise beyond his years. It's great.
You know who else has had a pretty strange career? Steven Soderbergh. His first film, 1989's Sex, Lies, and Videotape, was a massive success, a winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes, and one of the key films of the major American independent film movement of the late 80s and into the 90s. I remember seeing a documentary about that movement which included an interview with Soderbergh, in which he said the success of that film allowed him to "cash in [his] chit," and make his second film, the bizarre, somewhat Brazil-esque, black and white bundle-o'-genres that is 1991's Kafka. Not overly fond of his work on that one, Soderbergh moved on to an adaptation -- and here's where I suppose my "point" begins -- of Hotchner's King of the Hill. That was 1993, and in 1995 Soderbergh's career took a curious turn with his crime film The Underneath, a movie Soderbergh himself thinks so little of -- did then, does now -- that the only way he could reinvigorate himself as a filmmaker was to make the most wacked-out movie of his career, the absurdist comedy Schizopolis. After that? Out of Sight. And from there, what with one thing or another, here we are, however you'd like to describe "here." "A sense of the formal possibilities of commercial filmmaking, plus Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience" is all I'm prepared to offer at the moment.

I bring all this up, of course, because today Criterion is releasing King of the Hill on Blu-ray and DVD, the film that brought these two strange careers into convergence. And it's a curious thing. I first saw King of the Hill maybe seventeen years ago, and remember it as being one of Soderbergh's best. Having just watched it again a couple of days ago, I'm now no longer sure it is. The gist, first of all, is this: Aaron (Hotchner, that would be, played in the film by Jesse Bradford) lives with his family in a hotel in St. Louis. They are quite poor, though his father (Jeroen Krabbe), a frustrated and somewhat thoughtless man, struggles daily to find work. Early in the film, Aaron's younger brother Sullivan (Cameron Boyd) is sent off to live with relatives, thereby easing some of his parents' financial burden. Shortly after this, their mother (Lisa Eichhorn) is diagnosed with tuberculosis and has to live in a sanitarium until she's better. Finally, about midway through the film, the father gets a job as a traveling watch salesman, but his territory is not St. Louis, so he, too, has to leave Aaron, so the boy is finally the "king of the hill", alone in the apartment as fellow tenants around him are being locked out of their rooms for not paying rent (with all their possessions locked inside). He has no money, almost no food, and his few ideas for getting any of either generally come to nothing. His reckless friend Lester (Adrien Brody) helps when he can, but it's not enough.

What I didn't remember about the film was how pretty it looked -- it is, in Soderbergh's estimation, "too beautiful." That's his assessment now, as delivered via one of the special features on the Criterion disc, and while I don't always agree with Soderbergh's opinions about his own work (more on that etc.), I have to say in this case, he's not wrong. Or not entirely wrong. It's a good movie, King of the Hill is, but an interview with Soderbergh that is included in the Criterion booklet, gives some indication of his thinking behind the film's look, and why it ended up being something of a wrong turn. He says that the bright and glossy look of the film (courtesy of DP Elliot Davis) comes from two things: 1) during the Depression, many Americans had a great deal of optimism (and indeed, whatever his faults, Aaron's father is at least optimistic, though he may not always convince his family that there's good reason to be) that these bad times would end and things would get better, and he, Soderbergh, wanted the film to carry that idea in its look, and 2) he says that Hotchner's memoir was not exactly The Grapes of Wrath. Which, okay, it isn't, and in many ways "delightful" is good description of the book, but there's some mighty grim stuff in it all the same. Witnessing something ghastly during a tornado, a peculiar and fatal traffic accident that results in cattle running wild outside a synagogue, and a memory Aaron has of a terrible game of "king of the hill", all of this stuff, and a bit more, make Hotchner's book, if not exactly The Grapes of Wrath, still a book that is haunted by death and the possibility of it that hung over the country throughout the Depression. None of those scenes made it into the film, and I'm not arguing that they should have, but they give the book a texture that Soderbergh seems now to regret leaving out of his film. All of this also connects to Jesse Bradford's performance. Bradford is good here, but he's one of those polished kid actors, no rough edges, nothing hardscabble about him. The fact that Aaron was a very gifted student seems to have taken hold for Soderbergh as the most important thing about him, and so even if the mudslide game of "king of the hill" had been included in the film, it would be hard to picture Bradford and Soderbergh's Aaron wanting to take part in any such game. In the film, Aaron isn't quite a kid, in other words, but the whole power of the story comes from recognizing that he is just a boy, and not some kind of small adult.

Still, there's lots of good stuff here. Krabbe is excellent as the father, and you get the sense in the movie, even more than in the book, that the father's thoughtlessness, while sometimes infuriating, stems from his need to never stop -- never stop angling to keep his car from being repossessed, to never stop doing that one little token thing that will keep his family from being evicted for another week, to never stop trying to find work that will suddenly dissolve all his other problems into nothing. There's a nice moment in the movie, which for some reason I've always remembered and which is taken from a detail in the book but reconfigured to another purpose, where Aaron is making soup for his dad and himself. Sullivan and Aaron's mom have both been sent away, and the ingredients of the soup Aaron is making are these: hot water and ketchup. It's tomato soup, of a kind, and as they talk about the father's next plan to get work, they eat the soup, and both remark on how good it is. That strikes me as daily life during the Depression in a nutshell.

Also good is the stuff concerning another tenant, Mr. Mungo (Spalding Gray), and the prostitute (Elizabeth McGovern) he seems to be able to afford hiring on a long-term basis. A heavy rejigerring of parts of Hotchner's book, there's a nice humor to these scenes, and even a mystery that does more than anything else in the film to make Aaron seem like the child he is. The climax of this is also as close as the film ever gets to being truly grim. One shot of this subplot's grimness is described by Soderbergh, somewhat self-deprecatingly, as a "movie moment," and it is that, but it's also hugely effective, and the kind of shot in the arm King of the Hill needed a little more of.
I feel obliged to point out before closing that one of the extra features on the Criterion disc is, actually, The Underneath, Soderbergh's 1995 crime film that so dissatisfied him at the time that it almost derailed him creatively. Well, he hasn't warmed to it any in the intervening years, and, in his introduction to The Underneath on the disc he calls the film "sleepy," essentially devoid of ideas, and he would only recommend it to anyone interested in examining the arc of a filmmaking career. And it certainly is interesting on that level, but it's also interesting because it's a really good movie. I find Soderbergh's disdain for it, good-humored though it may be, and always is with him, completely baffling. Based on the novel Criss-Cross by Don Tracy, which also served as the basis for the 1949 Robert Siodmak film Criss-Cross starring Burt Lancaster, The Underneath stars Peter Gallagher as what I guess you'd call a degenerate gambler named Michael who loses everything, including Rachel, the woman he loved (Alison Elliott), although he "lost" her by running away. So he comes back home to not only attend his mother's (Anjanette Comer) wedding to a nice old fellow named Ed (Paul Dooley), but to possibly hammer down some pegs and stay. He gets a job with the same armored car company Ed works for, and tries to rekindle his relationship with Rachel. Who initially is having none of it, and anyway is now involved with a club owner played by William Fichtner. Who, in the interest of short-cutting through some plot summary, I must remind you is a club owner played by William Fichtner.

All of which is leading to the central crime, an armored car robbery, and as if to make matters worse, the whole film is superbly executed. The acting is on point up and down the line, I'm not sure Peter Gallagher has ever been better (excluding of course his performance as Vic Tenetta in The Hudsucker Proxy), and Comer and Dooley are more than up to the task of representing the ordinary people who deserve our sympathy, quite frankly, far more than any of the major players. I confess I've never seen the Siodmak film, nor have I read Tracy's novel, but the aftermath of the robbery, which I'm trying to tell you might not be original to Soderbergh for all I know, is both unusual and, in its way, classic noir. Everything is classic noir, of the best 1990s variety, and there's a sharp and wry "you're all fucked" philosophy to it all.

So what does Soderbergh hate so much about it? He's said, but I'm still stumped. I know he takes particular issue with an early dinner scene involving Gallagher, Dooley (and by the way, this is back when Gallagher was an Altman regular, so him and Dooley, and then for some reason in a small role Shelley Duvall, The Underneath is like a mini-Altman travelling show), Comer, and Adam Trese as Michael's suspicious and resentful cop brother, Adam. In the DVD extra, Soderbergh talks about how dinner table scenes are a horror show for directors, both in terms of the logistics, and in terms of being able to inject any style or anything interesting at all into the proceedings. Soderbergh's solution in this case was to use a series of split diopter shots -- foreground and background both in focus, but a blurry line down the middle of the screen -- putting, say, Dooley in the front and Gallagher in the back in one shot, Gallagher in the front and Comer in the back in the next -- which is, I don't know, perhaps not ideal, but not as head-slappingly ruinous as Soderbergh seems to think. And it does establish a style early on, which I think gets more to the heart of why Soderbergh is, well, wrong about his movie. It's stylish, smart, the use of flashbacks to Michael's skeezy gambling days used with a terrific sense of rhythm...the damn thing just works. Soderbergh needs to give The Underneath another shot, give it a fair shake for Christ's sake.

King of the Hill is a fine movie, but in this Criterion release I honestly believe the film that shows up in the special features as a kind of historical curiosity is the real selling point.


That Fuzzy Bastard said...

I'm so glad someone else thinks THE UNDERNEATH is a neglected gem. The acting is terrific, and the color-coding is remarkably effective in making a flashback-heavy screenplay flow smoothly. I've always suspected that Soderbergh's feelings towards it have more to do with the state of his decaying marriage (as captured in SCHIZOPOLIS) than anything in the movie itself.

bill r. said...

In the Criterion interview, he comes pretty close to saying as much. He at least acknowledges that his marriage falling apart at the same time wasn't doing him any favors.

As for THE UNDERNEATH's place as a neglected gem, it certainly is that, but we're not alone. On Social Media, I've found many people who agree.