Friday, November 4, 2016

Great Artists Steal

Given the opportunity, I'd adapt my hardboiled detective novel, A Negro And An Ofay, into a feature film, and though it is set in 1952 Chicago, I would take advantage of its midwestern summer setting by employing a style reminiscent of the moody nuances within the vastly underrated Twilight (1998,) directed by Robert Benton, from a screenplay by Benton and Robert Russo. The three previously teamed up to great acclaim on the hit Nobody's Fool (1994.) Here, not so much, though I loved it from opening day and find it a significant achievement in modern noir.

The plot is Hollywood fantasy laced with the inner turmoil of aging despite life's unfinished business. The images are lit sunny and bright and free of grain. That's reserved for the performances of the actors who, as the title suggests, all work in the twilight of their careers playing characters who are facing their ends on one level or another. These aren't teenage vampires who glitter in the sun, but aged dodgers who have, over time, developed craftiness to go with their crustiness. Perhaps like us crime writers, but definitely like the characters from my novel, who are all running out of time, individually and collectively, figuratively and literally.

The film starts poolside in Puerto Vallarta, which, coincidentally, is the first place I learned a black man could sunburn. Paul Newman—age-spotted, weathered, balding, eternally awesome—is at the cabana bar wearing far too many clothes and chugging a bottled beer. He's most obviously the star, as well as the shamus, and I am always tickled by how Robert Benton uses every visual trope as if to allow the audience to just get on with it.

He finishes his cheap cerveza and spots young and unknown Liv Schreiber's grungy cad headed to his hideaway with the client's underage daughter, played by a pre-big time Reese Witherspoon. He lifts a finger to his face and pulls down his aviator sunglasses at the bridge so the audience knows Reese is the quarry. It's an overt gesture which has been 80s since the animated Pete did it in Ralph Bashki's American Pop, which I first enjoyed on On-TV back in 1981. As a kid, I copied that move and performed it with regularity with my Walgreen's sunglasses until it was played-out, which, for me, was when I broke those frickin' sunglasses.

A typical noirish mishap occurs and the daylit SoCal look darkens with the film's dramatic tone. Everything about the settings, performances, and dialogue denotes there's an age to stop being stupid, for if you make youthful mistakes too late in life, you may get shot too close to your junk and be forced to rethink your final act. My protagonist Elliot Caprice, though far younger than our hero in Twilight, is faced with the same realization, so I'm curious about employing tricks of setting and mood to betray quiet rage borne of deep disappointment.

I especially like how the dialogue suggests the rich inner worlds of the characters portrayed by Paul Newman, Gene Hackman, Susan Sarandon, Giancarlo Esposito, and the great James Garner, here displaying his vast range beyond the handsome chin and wisecracks. The cinematography of Piotr Sobocinski, who cut his teeth on the works of the brilliant Krzysztof KieĊ›lowski (Dekalog, The Three Colors Trilogy,) shows the sun-drenched surroundings of southern California so starkly as to make one wish a monsoon would strike these tragic figures just to ease the irony.

Since Twilight's release, we've lost a few of the screen legends that populated the cast, so I would have to reach for their equivalents among our current greats. I'd see what Paul Giamatti was up to and ask him to study how Gene Hackman looms in every scene, whether he's on set or not. Spending from the blank check of imagination, I'd hire either Rosamund Pike or Eva Green to portray the smoldering intensity of superior intelligence that Susan Sarandon shows here. I'd give Jeff Goldblum the task of defying expectations the way James Garner did with his frighteningly easygoing performance. Danny Glover possesses the crafty timeliness that Giancarlo Esposito brings to his role. Otherwise, I'd cast for as long as my budget would allow, so I could find talents such as Schreiber, Witherspoon, and the always pitch-perfect Margo Martindale (who went on to own Justified, Season 2.)

Great unsung films like Twilight show us that noir is more feeling than lighting, and is at its best when it depicts our desperation for life to go the way of our dreams before we run out of time. I watched it again while finishing this post, and I'm happy that, for me—and unlike its great characters—it hasn't aged a bit.


Paul D. Marks said...

I totally agree with you about Twilight, Danny. A terrific, underrated neo-noir. And the style would work well with A Negro And An Ofay.

And welcome to Criminal Minds!

Art Taylor said...

Great first post here, Danny--as Paul said, welcome to Criminal Minds! I've not seen Twilight but now clearly feel I need to. And I love the way you wove together an analysis of that film with the plans for adapting your own work. Glad to have you here!

Alan Orloff said...

Nice post, Danny! Welcome to the blog!

Dana King said...

All of the above. TWILIGHT has long been a favorite of mine and is sadly neglected by too many. A Wonderful film.

RJ Harlick said...

Terrific first post, Danny. Welcome to Criminal Minds.

Anonymous said...

Love that you're a part of Criminal Minds, Danny! An insightful kickoff post and now I have to rent this film.

Susan C Shea said...

Welcome, Danny. You should know about scripting and I wouldn't bet against your novel winding up onscreen! Thanks for the tip (I haven't seen the movie but will search for it online.)

Unknown said...

I really enjoyed this post, Danny. Welcome to the group!

Tim Hennessy said...

I'd read somewhere that Benton, Russo, and Newman thought of it as an spiritual sequel to the Harper movies. It's gem for sure.