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.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

They Won't Guillotine a Little Girl

One thing I thought about while watching Trans-Europ-Express and Successive Slidings of Pleasure, the two films by Alain Robbe-Grillet that were released on Blu-ray last week by Kino Lorber's Redemption Films, and about Trans-Europ-Express in particular, was "I should really probably give Breathless another shot."

Now hold on there!  I've spoken before about my, let's call it "ambivalence," towards Jean-Luc Godard, but lately if you say something even the slightest bit cockeyed about him then you should probably gear up for a rain of shit, virtually speaking, so come on, don't do that to me.  Regarding Breathless, Godard's seminal New Wave crime film from 1960, to those who've wondered why I, crime fiction and film fan that I am, didn't love at least that one, I've always said that my interests in that genre don't generally include "crime fiction, once removed," this being how I've always thought of the post-modern nature of that particular film.

"Well, fair enough," you're almost certainly not saying, "but where does that leave Robbe-Grillet's Trans-Europ-Express, which I'm told you rather liked?"  Well, indeed.  Robbe-Grillet's film is from 1967, and it is, if anything, more playfully aware of itself than Breathless.  In the film, Robbe-Grillet plays a filmmaker who, while on a trip with members of his production team on the titular locomotive, starts to hash out a film plot about a drug smuggler moving cocaine to Antwerp.  The first little run-through they do on this story is dramatized -- by Robbe-Grillet the actual filmmaker who made Trans-Europ-Express -- by a short slapstick scene of cops and gangsters wearing the most ridiculous fake beards imaginable.  As the director, the character in Trans-Europ-Express, backtracks over certain ideas, as he will do throughout the film, the drug smuggling protagonist is given a name, Elias, and is even cast.  Jean-Louis Trintignant turns up on the train, and the director goes, more or less, "Hey, it's Jean-Louis Trintignant, he'd be great."  Of course they don't approach him, but as the crime plot is further tweaked and re-worked, it is now Trintignant in the role (and it was probably him in the beard anyway).

And, kind of, so on.  It's that sort of movie, a film not just about making movies but, possibly more than anything, a film about telling stories, or, perhaps even more than that, a film about plotting, stories.  I found this interesting, partly because I detected no disdain on Robbe-Grillet's part towards this most sneered-at of narrative technical problems, and in fact I got the sense this was something Robbe-Grillet rather enjoyed doing, and enjoyed in the movie's of others.  At the same time, the art of plotting comes off in Trans-Europ-Express as an almost entirely arbitrary one.  Robbe-Grillet's character answers every question about the plot posed by his creative team with "I don't know," or some version of it.  It's the big joke of the film, and if it's not really fair, or anyway certainly can't be applied generally, not even within the crime genre, that doesn't mean it's not funny.

There's rather a bit more, however, though before getting there it might behoove me to first bring 1974's Successive Slidings of Pleasure into the mix.  Also soaked in Robbe-Grillet's favored genres -- crime again, to a degree, as well as horror an various kinds of exploitation -- this one stars the maddeningly gorgeous Anicee Alvina as a young woman who, after a frenzied opening credits sequence that, among other things, shows us images that will appear in context later in the film, we learn has been imprisoned in a convent on suspicion of murdering her roommate and lover Nora (Olga Georges-Picot).  From there, and even before, Successive Slidings of Pleasure becomes a disturbing, bewildering, bloodily manic piece of genre abstraction, constantly eerie and gorgeous to look at that may never make complete sense, often flat-out lies to us -- a section late in the film showing a series of lesbian encounters between the nuns and female prisoners is the product of the young woman telling a disturbed priest "what he wanted to hear."  So is any of it true?  If not, you might well ask, what is the purpose of putting so much of it in the movie?  "Because Robbe-Grillet wanted to" seems like a great answer to me.

Anyway, I'm not entirely sure where this film would be without all the lies, as they account for so much of the marvelous imagery.  Michael Lonsdale, great here as the judge, tells her that her stories are "crap," though this doesn't save him, or anyone near her, from succumbing to the young woman's very easy way with seduction.  This is more or less Successive Slidings of Pleasure, because pure aesthetics are all the justification you need for several moments that might seem symbolic of something, and might actually be, but work best as just visual constructions, and movement, and color.  There's even a bit of whatever it's called when a filmmaker uses time, and the stretching of it, as a kind of hypnosis technique.  There's a long and very surreal section that begins with Alvina kneeling over a nude (and living -- is this one of the flashbacks? Am I supposed to believe this ever happened?) Georges-Picot, and before pouring what I think is supposed to be wine but looks like fruit punch over her body, Alvina first cracks a whole bunch of eggs over her, and the yolks fall on her (her breasts, her stomach, her crotch, and etc.) and pretty much all immediately slide off.  The "successive slidings of pleasure" of the title, maybe, if that's your thing, or was Nora's thing, if it happened, which, but anyway, so all the eggs slide off except one, which begins to slide but gets held up, it would appear, by Georges-Picot's hipbone.  The scene continues for a while, and I kept waiting for that dang yolk to slide on off, and I was watching it, looking for that one fatal shift in body weight, but nope.  Not to ruin anything for you.  The point being, I was, in a manner of speaking, gripped by suspense.


Like I was saying before, though, that's not all. Alain Robbe-Grillet, as I'm sure many of you know, is better known in the film world as the writer of Alain Resnais's Last Year in Marienbad, and better known in the wider world as a novelist and literary theorist. I've seen Last Year in Marienbad, but outside of that I'm afraid I couldn't tell you a whole lot about the man or what he wrote. Still, he was interviewed by The Paris Review back in 1986, and at one point in this long conversation about French literature, how and why Robbe-Grillet's work is so often misunderstood, and his intentions for the so-called "New Novel," he says this:

Memory belongs to the imagination. Human memory is not like a computer that records things; it is part of the imaginative process, on the same terms as invention. In other words, inventing a character or recalling a memory is part of the same process. This is very clear in Proust: For him there is no difference between lived experience—his relationship with his mother, and so forth—and his characters. Exactly the same type of truth is involved.

And later, when describing his novel Jealousy:

...[T]here is atmosphere of anxiety. [Jealousy] is the book of mine which has been described as the most dehumanized, where nothing happens; a serene, whitewashed world in which man seems perfectly reconciled with his environment. Yet it is exactly the opposite: it is an experiment with anxiety. The anxiety which Heidegger believes man must experience as the price of spiritual freedom.

And still later, while defending Flaubert from what Robbe-Grillet sees as a critical misreading:

In Flaubert everything lives in the text; it is the text itself which is in the process of living...

All of which goes somewhere towards, if not explaining, then at least pointing towards something I can latch on to so that I might begin to understand how what Robbe-Grillet achieves in these two films could have been achieved. This, by the way, is why I brought up Breathless, because that film never gave me any kind of emotional charge, yet the endings of both Trans-Europ-Express and Successive Slidings of Pleasure both did. The charge of the far more Breathless-esque Trans-Europ-Express is one of horror, but I can't for the life of me understand why I should even care about the things I'm experiencing horror about. I'd rather not give it away, but if you're watching the film and you start to feel some uneasiness about the introduction of bondage in the scenes between Trintignant and a prostitute played by Marie-France Pisier, and all the talk of rape, well, don't worry because you're not crazy. But it's all fake. We know this, we're told this, and it's reinforced. But two climactic scenes, one involving nude dancing (kind of) set to the kind of subterranean musical power surge warp and rumble David Lynch favors, carry a genuine moral and even metaphysical chill. Robbe-Grillet claimed to have been free from guilt and moral considerations, his depiction of violence, and sexual violence in particular, are free of the kind of mad decadence that sort of boasting implies.

And so it goes with Successive Slidings of Pleasure. That one is actually following a narrative thread to a pretty clear destination, for all the rest of the film's madness, and when it gets there the payoff is haunted by the giallo work of Argento, Bava, and so on (giallo is kind of everywhere in this film, to be honest) but not in a winking, referential way. It's horror -- it's real horror. As a matter of fact, the strong presence of giallo aside, I think Successive Slidings of Pleasure bears a greater affinity with the great the horror films of Jean Rollin. With Rollin, Robbe-Grillet shares a bizarre poetry that's all about sex and death, as well as evil. Rollin had a lot more life, in the positive sense, in his films, and Robbe-Grillet, at least here, has more grave absurdity. There's a little bit of disgust in Successive Slidings of Pleasure than you usually get from the sadder Rollin. Either way, with either filmmaker, it's definitely not a joke.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Hoffman


Late in his wonderful remembrance of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who passed away on February 2, Tom Carson writes “This one really hurts, people” and yes, it really does. Hoffman was my favorite actor. Along with many others, I first noticed him in Martin Brest’s Scent of a Woman. He sort of plays the villain, though he’s one who exists only on a plot level. It’s not a big role, but I remember him, and what he did with the part, better than I do a lot of that movie. Over the next several years, he would turn up in a variety of independent films, both large and small, playing the mournful widower in Todd Louiso’s Love Liza, for instance, and the extravagantly self-destructive gambler in Richard Kwietniowski’s Owning Mahowny, and it was in the course of this stretch, which ran from the mid-90s to the early 2000s, that Hoffman forged the defining creative relationship of his life and career. In 1996, Hoffman appeared in a small part, just one scene in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight. Even though Hoffman was nowhere close to a big name at this point, his semi-breakthrough work in Todd Solondz’s Happiness and as the officiously good-natured Brant in the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski still on the horizon, this somehow feels like a star cameo, his performance as a cocky and subtly na├»ve gambler who taunts Philip Baker Hall’s old-school big-timer so energetic and believably ridiculous that it would have been difficult, at that time, not to realize there would be much more from Hoffman to come. A guy doesn’t walk on screen for a few minutes, blow it up like that, and then just disappear.

I'm jumbling the timeline a little bit here, but the importance of Hard Eight cannot be underestimated. It was the first of five movies Hoffman would make with Anderson, comprising one of the great, if painfully short, actor/director collaborations of modern times. Great actors can have a narrow range, or they can have sprawling range – Hoffman had an exhilaratingly sprawling range that is on almost complete display even if you focus only on the five films he made with Anderson. After Hard Eight, you get Boogie Nights, in which Hoffman plays Scotty J, the excruciatingly bewildered boom mic operator, as free of the cockiness of his character in Hard Eight as it is conceivably possible to be, who is in love with porn star Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg). Another small role, Hoffman's Scotty J is nevertheless very much a part of Boogie Night's great splash of color, specificity, and what you might have to describe as heartbreaking nonsense. How Scotty J fell into the world the porn world, I couldn't tell you, but Anderson and Hoffman knew enough about him to, for instance, at the end of Diggler's big poolside blow-out with Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), linger on him, on Scotty, standing back frightened and nervous because something was terribly wrong with the man he loved. Hoffman stands there, one hand holding his other arm at the elbow, helpless, and somehow the whole film is illustrated by Scotty's ill-fitting tank-top and slack mouth.
And that slack-mouthed look...listen, you start writing about someone like Hoffman, someone who's now gone, and what they could do with so little, things that perhaps you were only vaguely conscious of before, the talent begins to clarify, at least somewhat, and maybe you begin to digress a bit. But that slack-mouthed look was, I can now see, something of a Hoffman trademark -- an impersonation of him might begin there. But what's remarkable is how many different things Hoffman could do with that same dead-muscle expression. In Boogie Nights, he used it to express a nervous kind of blankness. In his next film with Anderson, 1999's Magnolia, we get it again, but it means something else. In the film Hoffman plays Phil Parma, a nurse caring for a dying TV producer named Early Partridge (Jason Robards). As the film goes along, its dozen or so characters criss-crossing through each other's lives, Parma learns that Partridge's son is Frank Mackey (Tom Cruise), a misogynistic guru of seduce and destroy dating techniques whose commercials are all over television. So Anderson shows us Parma watching TV, looking for any way at all to contact Frank,, and Hoffman is there, Parma is there, slack-mouthed again. But now it's because, well, he's flipping through the channels, and how bright do you look when you're doing that. At the same time, though, he's focused. He's on a mission. This isn't the hanging jaw of a dullard, but of a man who has something important to do, a limited time to do it, and flipping channels is step one.
If I may continue to connect the question of range with this slackness of Hoffman's by expanding outward into other films -- and I'll get back to Anderson -- let me begin by saying that in my experience with Hoffman's work you could very creditably argue that he never played the same part twice. Even if you said, well, the hopelessness of Wilson in Love Liza isn't, in some fundamental way, terribly far removed from Caden in Synecdoche, New York, it's impossible not to acknowledge that Hoffman was able to play not just the character, but the whole world of the film in which that character lives. Therefore his work in the environment of Love Liza's modest realism can't resemble the morbid phantasmagoric sweep of Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York, because Hoffman plays that morbid phantasmagoric sweep as well. And in Synecdoche, New York, to get back to business, Hoffman turns the slack-mouthed look into what's almost a life choice for Caden Cotard, the death-obsessed ("Harold Pinter died. No wait, he won the Nobel Prize"), frustrated, self-hating playwright he plays over a span of about 40 years, but also maybe just several months. Hoffman shambles through the film open-mouthed, in this instance because, perhaps, his brain is too busy telling him that everything is going to go wrong and everything is going to kill him to remember to always communicate even basic muscle control.

And Hoffman has to juggle that whole crazy movie. It’s a tough thing, that one, because the absurdity of houses that are perpetually on fire and diaries left behind by a four-year-old daughter that nevertheless, somehow, continue to chronicle her growth into adulthood has to knock down our defenses so that the damn thing can actually be moving, and if Hoffman isn’t the one to knock them down, who’s going to do it? Caden is a man grinded into dust, or near enough, by the nonsensical tortures of his own stupid brain, and Hoffman lets that pain, grief, and frustration pour out. Even when he’s happy, as he briefly is sometimes, such as in a scene where he’s flirting, badly but successfully, with Samantha Morton’s character, Hoffman plays it in a way that indicates clearly Caden’s belief that this can’t be real, this is a trick, I’ll go along with it though because what else do I have? And see, too, Hoffman’s performance as Allen, the obscene phone caller in Todd Solondz’s Happiness, another one of Hoffman’s big breakthroughs, and another character who wears his slack-jaw the way others might wear a certain kind of hat – thoughtlessly, habitually, but as a clear indicator of personality. Like Caden, Allen is angry, a victim of his own mind; unlike Caden, he’s possibly dangerous, in any case creepy, and Hoffman is almost shocking in the way he portrays how terrifying a lonely person can be. Hoffman does the grubbiest things in Happiness as if he was making toast, these things have taken on that level of the ordinary in his life, and here his mouth hangs open because that’s how he breathes – Hoffman lets his face droop here as if from underuse, and this atrophy both thickens and softens his speech. Caden can speak clearly, but at least Allen always has a goal in sight, however temporary.
So where do I stop, exactly? Hoffman would make two more films with Anderson. In 2002 Hoffman gave a very funny turn as the villain in Punch-Drunk Love, and finally, in 2012, he would appear in The Master, a film I think is as much Hoffman’s (and Joaquin Phoenix’s) masterpiece as Anderson’s, and possibly Hoffman’s last great performance (I would be happy and not at all shocked to hear from those who have seen Anton Corbijn’s upcoming A Most Wanted Man, in which Hoffman stars, that I’m wrong about that). With The Master Hoffman and Anderson’s creative relationship reaches its summit. Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd, a sort of L. Ron Hubbard figure, who is therefore not one of the ordinary man into which category so many of Hoffman’s characters have been slotted, from Happiness’s Allen to Magnolia’s Phil. Dodd is big, he’s booming, his charisma is outsized, his intelligence seems, if anything, larger, he’s not shy or bad with people. Hoffman easily (maybe not, but it seems that way) sheds his history of playing guys who, whatever sort they might be and however crazy the film in which they appear, one might easily meet at any time, and he fills the screen as a Great Man, or rather a “Great Man.” Yet throughout Hoffman plays the underlying cowardly and uncertain nerves that when struck bring outbursts of anger which sometimes seem tinged with a kind of hidden, pulsing illness (“Pigfuck!”). It’s astonishing work. And then there’s Capote, the film for which Hoffman won an Oscar, and Doubt, a film I think is often unfairly dismissed as Oscar-bait, and in which Hoffman is never less than riveting and subtly mysterious.

But the performance I think should probably close on is the one he gave in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, from 2007. It’s an imperfect film, but a good one, and a final triumph for director Sidney Lumet, who would die four years later at the forgivable age of 86. In the film, Hoffman plays Andy, a seemingly secure and well-to-do businessman, but who is in fact a kind of panicky Satan, one who commits, and convinces others to commit, terrible deeds, and existing behind a mask of confidence and smarm to hide the fact that his life is in tatters. Though perhaps not technically the film’s lead, Hoffman is, nevertheless, actually the lead, since Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is about how Andy destroys his whole world. I bring up this film not to draw unseemly parallels, but it’s true, and Hoffman doubtlessly knew it was true when he made it, that this is a drug movie that only pretends that drugs function here as a plot mechanism. But no, underneath everything, it’s almost all drugs, and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, never a “fun” picture, has suddenly become much more uncomfortable to watch than it was before.
And so what? How long will that matter to any of us? Not long, not for me, anyway. What springs to mind even now, and always before, when I’ve thought of the film is a scene between Hoffman and Marisa Tomei, who plays his wife, as they drive home from his dad’s (Albert Finney) house. The father-son thing in this movie is pretty fraught, and for all sorts of reasons Andy breaks down. The dialogue here does Hoffman no favors, but Hoffman gives it a big helping hand anyway, and as the breakdown turns into a mania of grief and frustration, he does something, and it doesn’t last long, but something that anybody who has ever really broken down, for whatever reason, whatever kind of grief has overwhelmed them, will recognize. It’s hard to describe precisely, but essentially what happens is the actor goes away, Hoffman’s gone for a few seconds, and Andy loses control. His voice, his hands, they become untethered, just for a bit. This is the kind of acting that makes you want to point and say “Yes, that’s right.”

This is the sort of thing Hoffman did, is what I’m getting at. He was a very specific performer who could do seemingly anything, whose habits as an actor could mean something new every time. And now – and this has been surprisingly easy to forget as I write about his work – he’s gone. And again, this one hurts. Always, for somebody, when a favorite artist dies, it will feel like more of a personal blow than it does for other people, and I suppose that’s the case for me and the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, but I’m wary of making too much out of that. I didn’t actually know him, I never actually met him, and so on. The connection a person can feel with an artist is often nebulous and hard to define. He was a character actor who looked like a character actor, and this can sometimes be enough to make it personal. This isn’t, in any case, about me, even though funerals are about the bereaved, not the deceased. And on top of that, this isn’t a funeral. Yes, he was too young, and yes, the circumstances of his death are too goddamn sad. If I had or had ever had any ambitions to be an actor this would probably be easier to explain. But perhaps it’s not so complicated. I love movies, I love great acting, and when Hoffman came along, as sometimes happens, the question had to be asked “Who is this guy? Where did he come from?” He was a great actor. That’s enough of a loss. He was my favorite.

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