There are generally two types of boozers in the movies, visionary barflies and ordinary sad sacks. The barfly is the guy with the stubble, the one-sided conversation (always with a giggle and a weary, knowing shake of the head) and the constellation of piss stains adorning the fly of his pants. Hes a bastard, but because hes also usually some sort of genius think Ed Harris as the tortured Jackson Pollock, Mickey Rourke as an impenitent Charles Bukowski his blackouts and teardowns have a certain gutter glamour, a down-and-out romanticism. Theres less romance and more remorse with the sad sack, the fundamentally decent guy who, whether his head rests on the toilet seat or some sympathetic shoulder, almost always plays like Jack Lemmon pleading his humanity in The Days of Wine and Roses. Mainstream Hollywood prefers the sad sack because his river of booze invariably transforms into a flood of tears, whereas actors seem drawn to the barfly and his bohemianism of the bottle, mostly because it turns drinking itself into an art form and gives them license to rant and rage, to show off all those years of workshop training without fear of being nailed as a ham.
In the movies algorithm of the boozer bohemianism, Pollocks rotgut puke mystically flows into his painterly splatters, much as in the new movie Big Bad Love the main characters beer cans build into a crumpled monument of truths about men, women and the travails of the heart. The film stars Arliss Howard, who also directed, as an alcoholic writer, Barlow, and is adapted from a collection of short stories by Larry Brown, a practitioner of whats been called Southern grit lit. Brown, who was born in Faulkners hometown of Oxford, Mississippi, is the sort of writer whose books come with blurbs from tough guys like novelist Harry Crews and moronic reviewer-coined sobriquets like the King of White Trash. (Not surprisingly, Billy Bob Thornton once optioned one of his novels.) Most of the book features a beer-guzzling, artless pussy hound who spins bleakly humorous tales in the first person and has a first name that begins with the letter L Leo, Leroy, Louis. (In the movie hes Leon.) The stories arent deep but theyre funny, sometimes mean, sometimes ridiculous, and often dead on. It seems nuts to think that a movie could come out of such catfish-and-pulpwood atmospherics, but Howard has made a film thats as imperfect, tedious, sloppy, self-aggrandizing and tender-hearted as its dipso narrator.
This goes against the odds, and critical consensus. Since its premiere at Cannes last May, the film has received a lot of big bad notices, many aimed at its fragmented, elliptical storytelling and, pointlessly, at the self-indulgence of its lead character. (Is there an addict who isnt self-indulgent?) As a director, Howard cant always distinguish his A from his B material, and for every moment that feels true, as when a woman keens over love, or a man lets his dog into the house for the first time, theres another that makes you wince. Howard has a weakness for cornball surrealism a wedding scene run backward quickly grates, and a woman on a white horse seems to have ridden straight in from a David Hamilton photo shoot. But the rest of it is just fine, and sometimes better than that. Theres Howard himself, who, with his stringy muscles, his melancholy and his voice-over, takes you deep into Barlows shame and folly. Theres Angie Dickinson, weirdly perfect as the writers patrician mother, and Paul LeMat as his best friend and foil, Monroe. And theres Howards own wife, Debra Winger, who, though out of place as a small-town nurse, doesnt take up much room even as she makes the most out of a few tender moments.
Held together by the blues (wailed by, among others, R.L. Burnside, T-Model Ford and Junior Kimbrough), Browns prose and Howards performance, Big Bad Love is a mess, but its a sincere mess, beautifully shot by Paul Ryan and faithfully adapted by screenwriter James Howard (the directors brother). Instead of stitching a straight-ahead narration from the stories, the filmmakers single out disparate moments and feelings moments past and present, some from real life, others from Barlows lit-up imagination for a portrait of the artist as an unreconstructed fuckup. This could be, should be, a drag and a bore, but it usually isnt mainly because the filmmakers, much like Brown himself, dont hold much pity for Leon. Poverty, Vietnam, divorce, crap jobs, along with a hailstorm of publishing-house rejection, have made him run-down, pathetic. But most of whats gone wrong with Barlow has gone wrong because of him. Holed up in his ramshackle house, with only a dog and Monroe for infrequent company, Barlow spends most of his time typing, drinking and indulging in the putative romance of his bathos. Hes a barfly without wings, a sad sack without redemption, his own tragic hero but, rightly, not ours.
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Shot in 1999, Henry Jagloms Festival in Cannes follows a miscellany of industry hopefuls, some seasoned, some newly minted, wheeling and dealing during the worlds premier film festival. The most engaging stories are those that involve the renowned French actress Anouk Aimée playing, well, a renowned French actress, Millie Marquand, whose favors are being courted by an actress and would-be writer-director named Alice Palmer (Greta Scacchi), a pair of radically dissimilar producers one a Hollywood powerhouse, Rick Yorkin (Ron Silver), the other a no-name shnorrer, Kaz Naiman (Zack Norman) and Millies estranged longtime lover, Viktor Kovner, a director and unrepentant scoundrel played by Maximilian Schell. Whenever these five actors are onscreen, Festival in Cannes is passable, at times even pleasant, viewing, despite Jagloms clumsy technique. Aimée and Schell, both of whom could entrance with a phone-book recitation, are naturals in front of the camera, while Silver and Norman, playing both sides of the scumbag coin, are each quite funny. Its particularly nice to see Scacchi, who seems to be wearing not a lick of makeup, playing a woman, not a fantasy particularly nice given the antediluvian tendencies of Jagloms usual onscreen sexual politics.
Here, the worst beneficiary of those tendencies is newcomer Jenny Gabrielle, who plays a young American actress named Blue who, were told repeatedly, is the festivals overnight sensation. Its embarrassing, not least of which because Jagloms young actress is herself less than sensational. Equally embarrassing, although intentionally and entertainingly so, is a party scene in which Viktor finds himself in a photo op with none other than William Shatner. (Afterward, the bewildered director asks his girlfriend, Who was that man?) That scene and a seemingly impromptu encounter with Faye Dunaway, as well as the scenes with Millie and her various suitors, catch nicely the flavor of Cannes in all its glamour and desperation. The problem is everything else. This isnt a terrible film by any means, but its also far from being a realized work. Jaglom has said that he writes his films in the editing room, but for Festival in Cannes he must have been using a crayon shots ricochet off one another like bumper cars, sometimes, you suspect, to obscure scenes that didnt play out successfully in front of the camera. The sound and the cinematography are worse still: No movie shot in the south of France, in that radiant summer light, should look this murky.
BIG BAD LOVE | Directed by ARLISS HOWARD | Written by ARLISS and JAMES HOWARD | Based on the short-story collection by LARRY BROWN | Produced by DEBRA WINGER | Released by IFC | At the Nuart
FESTIVAL IN CANNES | Written and directed by HENRY JAGLOM Produced by JOHN GOLDSTONE | Released by Paramount Classics At Landmark Fine Arts