Friday, June 10, 2011

Asking Cabbies

L Magazine, a freebie dispensed from orange plastic bins on busy intersections in New York City, runs a feature called "Ask a Cabbie", in which one of their writers flags down a few cabs, takes a ride, and asks the drivers a question. It's usually worth reading.

Recently, there was one entitled "Your Favorite NYC Movie". Ndugu from Mozambique goes for Spider-Man; Steven from Bed-Stuy gives props to Do The Right Thing.

Tom from Brooklyn is a man after my own heart:
Dog Day Afternoon. That's one of my favorite movies. [Shame about Lumet.] Yeah it was. Real shame. A lot of his were great. Network, Serpico. I love his crime movies. He's one of the great New York filmmakers.
Tom from Brooklyn not only chose the best non-Coppola, non-Scorsese, non-Altman, non-Allen film of the 1970s, but he clearly knows his shit.

However, the answer I really love comes from Samir, originally from Nepal.
I love movies, but American movies are usually garbage. Sorry. I like kung-fu movies or Bollywood. But there are some good American ones. The first one that comes to mind is Taxi Driver, but that's probably because I'm a taxi driver. Sometimes I do the "You talkin' to me" speech with customers, but I don't think they get it because I drive a taxi. Everyone says that speech.
Do you really think "they don't get it" because he's driving a taxi? Can you imagine the horror his passengers must feel when they look up and see his eyes staring at them in the rear view mirror and then he says, "You talkin' to me? Are you talkin' to me? Then who the hell else are you talking to? Well I'm the only one here. Who the fuck do you think you're talking to?"

If I hailed Samir and he did his routine, I have the feeling I'd throw a $20 into the front seat and say, "You can let me off here. I'll walk the next forty blocks. Please don't kill me . . . I'm not scum. Here's another $20. Keep the change."

By the way, according to wikipedia, the repository of all contemporary knowledge, the famous mirror-scene lines were inspired by . . . Bruce Springsteen?

In his 2009 memoir, saxophonist Clarence Clemons said De Niro explained the line's origins when Clemons coached De Niro to play the saxophone for the movie New York, New York. Clemons says De Niro had seen Bruce Springsteen say it onstage at a concert as fans were screaming his name, and decided to make the line his own.

The most horrific lines of modernity's devout nihilism and what has become the primal scene of urban alienation and dissociation have their origin in the champion of post-war humanism and his wry, loving communion with his audience. It doesn't get much better than that.


Daniel F said...

Though it's the best of his "classic" films, and though it has great NYC location work (in fairness a hallmark), I'm afraid that even Dog Day Afternoon is marred by the usual Lumet flaws: trite handling of then topical "issues", over indulgence of actors, and an apparent belief that the more characters shout, the more dramatic a scene will become. I read recently that until just before shooting Serpico was going to be directed by John G Avildson. If he had brought the hokey, unashamed populism of Rocky, it might actually have been a better film than the liberal hagiography we have. Lumet was a pretty poor director, I fear, and Friedkin's Cruising stands up a better Pacino movie than either Serpico or Dog Day. Having said that, the first 20 mins or so of the latter, up to Attica! Attica!, are perfect.

Daniel F said...

And as for the Boss origins of the Taxi Driver monologue, that sounds just too good to be true! And it confirms my understanding of Springsteen as a musical correlative to the Italian American working class realism that permeated 70s cinema, Stallone in Rocky, Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, de Niro in Mean Streets etc.

Daniel F said...

And while I'm on about Italian Americanism, did you see Jon Stewart's monologue last week about how Donald Trump took Sarah Palin to enjoy real New York pizza at Famiglia's on Broadway? And then stacked his slices and ate them with a fork?

I thought it was about the best thing I have ever seen him do, and it encapsulated almost everything I'm fond of about NYC.

Daniel F said...

Moving further and further off topic, and into my reverie about New York, I recently came across and was struck by a comment that Phillipe Garnier, of Liberation, made in his response to Kubrick's final film Eyes Wide Shut. He found it "implausible", because in his view, "no Manhattan doctor living on Central Park West would ever drink Budweiser from the can", as Tom Cruise does in the movie.

I wonder if, in your research, you have ever come across any data than could confirm or refute this.

sw said...

That's not the only hard object Cruise puts to his lips and guzzles.

You bring up the question of authenticity and verisimilitude wrt to Buds on CPW, and I can attest with total confidence to the factuality of Garnier's observations, but as Robin Woods explains more succinctly and thoughtfully than most, there's a big difference between "realism" and reality. And as Robin Woods also points out, moments of implausibility need to be understood (as textual incoherence, ideologically, and so forth); it sounds like someone, perhaps a certain Garnier, needs to speculate on what it might mean for a character to do something implausible in a Kubrick film.

In a way, the same sort of questions go back to the issue of Bruce being the origins of the Taxi Driver monologue. My question to you is how different is Springsteen from the Italian American working class realism, and does this difference pertain to the issue of "realism" (as a way of naturalising a genre) or reality? It is something that could very profitably be studied. Maybe by someone who is not a working class Italian American?

And no, you're just wrong about Dog Day Afternoon. Maybe when you saw it in the cinema when it was released, you noticed how trite it was in its handling of then-topical "issues", but those of us who have watched it, once a decade in the decades after it came out, have been impressed by how what seem to be the issues at stake in the film are handled with refreshing weirdness and a refusal to explain everything to the audience, forcing us to come to terms with a lot of these "issues" through the film; how what is now called "over indulgence of actors" is actually a lost type of physicality (we now only have the physicality of Eastwood, who successfully overthrew all other forms of acting physicality; attempts by de Niro, Kietel, and Pacino to restore other types of physicality is called "over indulgence"); and I happen to think that the shouting in Dog Day Afternoon is perfectly judged - it's a bit like blaming Deep Throat for the subsequent overuse of a great technique.

Thank you so much for the reminder to check in on Jon Stewart - I'd been remiss in the past week or so, but will definitely watch that commentary on Trump and Palin.

Daniel F said...

It seems to me that after the brilliant opening, and before the very decent last reel, Dog Day Afternoon goes slightly off the boil. It becomes talky and preachy.

I think this is in part because the film reflects a moment when LGBT issues were considered (at least by Lumet and his intended audience) to be so intrinsically wierd and out there that, even if you completely lost the narrative drive of your film, people were so excited by the subject matter you got away with it. That's what I charitably assume to be the reason contemporary audiences didn't care that the film becomes hectoring and slightly dull. Now that those issues are not so astonishing, it just slumps.

If you enjoy those long telephone conversation scenes, I completely respect that. I wish I did too, because I love the start of the film so much. And I'm certainly not criticising Lumet for not being ahead of his time on LGBT issues. (In fact, Robin Wood, in the few brief and roughly contemporary remarks he makes about Dog Day in his book, thanks Lumet and Pacino for their non-hysterical portrayal of gayness.) But I do feel that Lumet frequently over-relies on "issues" that excited contemporary audiences because of their topicality, but which no longer succeed in disguising the pedestrian, uncinematic, TV-movie side of his work.

He also over-relies on the technical virtuosity of his actors. What do I mean by this?

As you know, I love the sort of physical acting that modern post-Eastwood audiences find embarrassing. But I don't think great performances of this type have often come from simply indulging actors. Why not? Generalisation: most actors always want to have as many lines as possible, shout as much as possible, and be liked by the audience as much as possible. Pacino is certainly one of these actors, when given a free hand. Lumet thought that doing so was a good idea. It wasn't. As we know, in the cinema, a lot of the "acting" gets done by the camera and its interplay with the actor. Lumet doesn't seem to remember this much of the time. At the big (and I think bad) moments of his films, he tends to stand back and film long scenes of people shouting and/or crying, which on screen I find both bullying and tiresome. (I am over-stating my case somewhat, but that's what Lumet always does!)

None of this applies to applies to the big performances of say, de Niro in Raging Bull, Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood, Jack Nicholson in the Shining, or even Pacino in Scarface. In none of those films is the director simply handing things over to the star, who then indulges himself by having as many lines as possible, shouting all the time, and telegraphing the essential likeability of himself and his character the way that Pacino does in Serpico and (to a much lesser extent I admit) in the middle section of Dog Day. In fact in each of those four films, you have a control freak director going to a special actor and getting a big performance for a reason.

What happened when the director who created the minimalist Eastwood-style, Sergio Leone, collaborated with the master of physical and psychological "'realism'", De Niro, in Once Upon a Time in Amerca? A topic for another blog comment. When you least expect it...

Daniel F said...

We all wish the Big Man a total recovery.

sw said...

Our thoughts are certainly with the Big Man.

I've decided that you, Daniel F, should visit New York, hop in a cab, and ask the driver his favourite movie. No matter what he says, you should then say, "I'm afraid that your film choice is naive and politically trite. . . Now, have you seen Cruising?"

I did not think that there was a slump in the middle of DDA and the weirdness of the film was, primarily, the weirdness of a lack of gay panic - yes, Robin Wood quite specifically admires this film for this reason.

But then you're probably closer to being right about the issue of "over-indulgence" than I am, I'll grant you that vague gesture of approximation. The thing that really interested me in your account is that you say "made-for-tv" . . . I can see how you're right about Lumet in this regard, and it gives me a bit of pause: given, as you know, how movies and, indeed, television shows can have grand cinematic moments (think of the television show The Trip, and Winterbottom's elegant scenes driving through the country), are we talking about a certain genre when we say "made-for-tv"? It has to be said, the first two times I saw DDA was on a television; ditto Serpico; I've seen DDA once in a cinema - perhaps this is why I enjoyed the films so much? I saw them in their "natural" habitat?

Jeff Strabone said...

Having just watched Serpico with Dan at his flat two weeks ago, I have to agree with him. Then again, he was plying me with wine, so that could account for my going along with him.

But seriously, Lumet was liberal-hagiographic by instinct. That and bombastic shouting were his go-to moves. Serpico's character is too good, too uncomplicated, too boho, and too friendly to animals. As for the shouting, I refer you to the scenes of Serpico discussing romantic breakdown with his girlfriend/wife.

Serpico: [something loud]
Wife: [something LOUDER]

And so on.

Daniel F said...

RIP Clarence. We loved you.