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. He’s a bastard, but because he’s 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. There’s 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, Pollock’s rotgut puke mystically flows into his painterly splatters, much as in the new movie Big Bad Love the main character’s 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 what’s
been called Southern “grit lit.” Brown, who was born in Faulkner’s 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 he’s Leon.) The stories aren’t deep but they’re 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 that’s 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 isn’t self-indulgent?) As a director, Howard can’t 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, there’s 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. There’s Howard himself, who, with his stringy muscles, his melancholy and his voice-over, takes you deep into Barlow’s shame and folly. There’s Angie Dickinson, weirdly perfect as the writer’s patrician mother, and Paul LeMat as his best friend and foil, Monroe. And there’s Howard’s own wife, Debra Winger, who, though out of place as a small-town nurse, doesn’t 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), Brown’s prose and Howard’s performance, Big Bad Love is a mess, but it’s a sincere mess, beautifully shot by
Paul Ryan and faithfully adapted by screenwriter James Howard (the director’s 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 Barlow’s 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 isn’t mainly because the filmmakers, much like Brown himself, don’t 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 what’s 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. He’s a barfly without wings, a sad sack without redemption, his own tragic hero but, rightly, not ours.
Schell, Aimée in Festival in Cannes
Shot in 1999, Henry Jaglom’s Festival in Cannes
follows a miscellany of industry hopefuls, some seasoned, some newly minted, wheeling and dealing during the world’s 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 Millie’s 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 Jaglom’s 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. It’s 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 Jaglom’s usual onscreen sexual politics.
Here, the worst beneficiary of those tendencies is newcomer Jenny Gabrielle, who plays a young American actress named Blue who, we’re told repeatedly, is the festival’s overnight sensation. It’s embarrassing, not least of which because Jaglom’s 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 isn’t a terrible film by any means, but it’s 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 didn’t 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