Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Breathless 1983

I wrote this piece for an abortive column on VHS collecting a couple months ago. It seems a bit quaint to me now, as the phenomena of watching unwanted Hollywood fare has been increased greatly thanks to my introduction to Netflix streaming. Anyhow, here is a little love letter to a movie that totally captured my heart.

For a great number of VHS collectors, the drive is finding rare titles unreleased on DVD or the often gaudy/beautiful artwork on many horror and exploitation titles. Being obsessed with ephemeral cinema, this was the road that led me into heavy duty VHS collecting. Over the years, amongst all the uncut big boxes of Nightmare House, The Love Butcher and Fantasy Mission Force (treasured possessions to be sure) a different pattern emerged. As daily trips to thrift stores would rarely yield a real rarity, my addiction to shopping would cause me to pick up "normal" movies that I was perhaps only vaguely curious about since I could now possess them for a mere dollar.
This has caused a couple of unexpected patterns in my film viewing practices. All of a sudden, the guy who was obsessed with the most low-budget forgotten films is now making sure he picks up any high gloss erotic thrillers from the 80s' and early 90's. Gaining access to mainstream movies in this way takes em down a couple notches, removing some of the 10 million dollar smirk from their faces. This feels especially true when the film in question was not a blockbuster...from the silver screen to the trash heap...sounds good to me! In fact, I've found quite a few major studio movies that I've absolutely fallen in love with in these dollar bins.
The most recent example of this absolute love is Jim McBride's much maligned 1983 remake of Goddard's Breathless. Although it's acquired a bit of a cult following in recent times, (that Tarantino dude loves it) it was received with a mixture of bewilderment and indifference when originally released. Many Cineastes balked that the most visible film of the French new wave could be re-made by Americans and most other viewers were wondering why Richard Gere (just recently a superstar) was in such an excessive and artsy ummm, stylistic exercise. Breathless is right there with Flashdance in incorporating a flashy music video aesthetic into Hollywood movies. But along with the heavy color saturation, swimming pools and pop music, we also get fake looking rear projection, anachronisms galore (mostly late 50's stuff everywhere), and overblown performances. Not exactly blockbuster material. And it wasn't, but that's okay, because the movie freaking rules.
Gere plays the leading man as an obnoxious user and a dumbass, but plays him with a ferocity and charm that is a true actor's tour de force. Always twitching, always dancing around, singing, fidgeting and smiling, it's like Jesse Lujack, the small time crook who accidentally kills a cop is fighting to get out of Gere's body. It's an intensely physical performance and it's balls-out aliveness is the centerpiece of the movie. McBride really lavishes on the stylistic excess rocketing the well worn story into here to for unexplored territory. And the fact that the plot is old as dirt works in the film's favor. This is the simple and common as this: small time hood gets in over his head when he pushes delinquent behavior and tries a passionate love affair and flight as his doomed salvation. But what plot couldn't seem trite in that this is an American remake and re-imagining of a movie that was a European reinvention and re-contextualization of American gangster film cliche's? And somehow the well worn territory vibes perfectly with the flashy 1980's stylistic indulgences. Amongst all this we get Lujack and Monica driving around in stolen cars, arguing, fucking, running around and being chased. Lujack hustles, Monica sulks, and some cops try to find him. None of this seems really important though, except a tent-pole to hang the film's wild flourishes. The indulgences don't seem intellectual or ponderous like in the original, this film bleeds and oozes with other-worldliness. The L.A. of Breathless seems so familiar and so alien. It feels like an Los Angeles that we could only know from movies. And my guess as to why the movie didn't jibe with a substantial audience in 1983 is because this film was on the cutting edge in it's 80's look. Breathless needed time to gestate and be "of it's time" and live in that time the same way that the original lived in distant gangster film world. As odd as it sounds, Breathless was too new in 1983. Gere looks and acts like a spastic 50's greaser, extolling the virtues of the Silver Surfer (not created until the late 1960's), driving around various classic cars and singing and blasting Jerry Lee Lewis, aka The Killer. Perhaps audiences at the time didn't have the cultural distance to mesh these anachronisms with the trendy early 80's flash of the film and see the beautifully weird amalgamation.
Across the board, the fans and critics of the film single out as Valerie Kaprisky's performance as Monica as the weakest point of the film. I, however believe that her stilted line readings and that sense of her "not belonging" in the movie work wonders here. As much as Lujack is a near-caricature of a juvenile delinquent, Monica is a an abstraction of an object of desire. She is very beautiful, (I had no trouble looking at her for close to 2 hours), sexually free and from a "distant land." She also doesn't have much impact on the plot beyond being desired and yanked about. She doesn't do much aside from being a star architecture student who sleeps with her professor. But this is perceived as more of an obstacle for Jesse to overcome in order to shackle her to his getaway/descent. Why does he need this need this exotic/“exotic” young woman so desperately? Is it just sexual passion? There certainly is a fair amount of rather explicit sex in the film. Or is it that Jessie has seen the movies, and heard the songs, where if he is the hero, he needs a gal on his arm? And, hey, the women in these archetypal stories often are just candy. This is why I think the shallowness of their chemistry works here.
This shallowness is the world that Jessie knows, all two minute songs about sexual come-ons or doomed romance, late night gangster movies and immature rages. Or is Jessie the actual embodiment of the "oldies," the classic American J.D. story? How can Jessie be real? How could anyone expect that rear projection to look real? How can we be expected to believe that actress who can't seem to act to be so good at architecture? Breathless is freed by it's removal of verisimilitude. The theme on the surface is how the gangster wannabe becomes the gangster. But what makes this film really special is that through it's style and Gere's ballsy performance Breathless becomes something else. Breathless is about how a movie becomes "the movies." Oh, and it's not a bore like Goddard's.
So, yeah, it felt perfect and awesome to rescue this VHS tape from a dusty shelf in a junk store, like an old issue Jerry Lee Lewis 45 and watch it come back to life. Back in the day, I think it was probably just a little too "alive" for most people.

1 comment:

Infinite Jester said...

Single most perfect ending to a film, EVER.