Wednesday, February 29, 2012

ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER 1970


“There is so much talk now about the art of film that we may be in danger of forgetting that most of the movies we enjoy are not works of art.”
Pauline Kael

One of the things I’ve always loved about the late Pauline Kael, film critic for The New Yorker from 1968 to 1991, was that, as intellectual and committed to the arts as she was, she was not a movie snob. She was one of the few film critics to understood how trash films and pop entertainment can hold as much appeal and be every bit as satisfying and uplifting as great art. 
In her time, she continually repudiated the efforts of critics who sought to promote a narrow, solely academic, definition of cinema. A definition shrouded in high-mindedness, “good taste,” and a self-seriousness blind to film’s more accessible, subjectively emotional appeal.  Kael seemed to be on a crusade to stop moviegoers from feeling guilty for enjoying movies as pop culture pleasures, encouraging them to instead relate to film's immediacy, passion, and ability to get under our skin. In short, to learn to connect to cinema as the “lively art” it is.  
But this didn't mean that there was no room for discernment and or critical judgment. Kael drew the line at lazy, cynical, boxoffice-geared product which pandered to the lowest common denominator and insulted the intelligence of the audience. For a movie to be worthwhile, it had to have imagination, vitality, ideas, and something elemental in its plot capable of striking a chord with the soul’s need to find beauty, joy, heroism, or myth. If a film can convey to an individual even a shred of what that person holds to be beautiful about the world, it doesn't matter if it’s The Cool Ones or Fanny & Alexander.

To absolutely no one’s surprise, I bring this all up as a way of ushering in this essay about Vincente Minnelli's On a Clear Day You Can See Forever; a grievously imperfect film that I nevertheless find to be perfectly, for lack of a better word, hypnotic.
Barbra Streisand as Daisy Gamble / Melinda Winifred Wayne Moorpark Tentrees, nee Wainwhistle
Yves Montand as Dr. Marc Chabot
Warren Pratt
Jack Nicholson as Tad Pringle
Bob Newhart as Dr. Mason Hume
John Richardson as Robert Tentrees
On a Clear Day You Can See Forever is based on the moderate success/probable flop 1965 musical by Burton Lane/Alan Jay Lerner which starred the incandescent Barbara Harris and ran for 280 performances on Broadway. It’s a breezy romantic comedy with a glorious score and a charmingly original, if problematic, plot centering on ESP and reincarnation. It’s also the film that contains my all-time favorite Barbra Streisand musical comedy performance.

Simplified, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever relates the story of Daisy Gamble (Streisand), a nervousy introvert who seeks the services of psychiatrist / hypnotherapist Dr. Chabot (Montand) to help her to quit smoking. Daisy is a shrinking violet (hee-hee), a colorless wallflower (ditto, hee-hee...flowers are a major motif in the film) so cowed by her button-down fiancĂ©, Warren (Blyden) that she tries to suppress the fact, both to herself and others, that she is actually gifted with ESP and, among her many talents, can make flowers grow simply by talking to them. 
"Hurry! It's Lovely Up Here"
If any voice could coax flowers out of their beds in the morning, it's Streisand's 
Under hypnosis, Daisy reveals herself to be the reincarnation of a 19th century British clairvoyant named Melinda Tentrees who was executed for treason. Melinda is everything that Daisy is not: alluring, self-assured, and unreservedly sensual. For Dr. Chabot, fascination with Daisy’s case soon turns into infatuation with the elusive Melinda, while Daisy, misreading the doctor’s attentions, starts falling for Chabot.

That's quite a lot going on, what with showy fantasy flashbacks to the sumptuous Regency period to sort out the whys and wherefores of Melinda's untimely death; at least two, possibly three, romantic triangles (a hexagon, I suppose: Chabot/Daisy/Melinda & Warren/Daisy/Tad); a college scandal; plus time out to squeeze in several musical numbers. In fact, there's so much going on, several aspects of the film feel as though they are shunted to the sidelines or neglected outright.
The obviously truncated Jack Nicholson subplot goes absolutely nowhere, Daisy's own relationship with Warren feels like a series of blackout skits,  and I would have loved to have seen more of Leon Aames, the father from Minnelli's flawless Meet Me in St. Louis. Meanwhile, too much screen time is allocated to a wholly expository character like Chabot's colleague, Dr. Fuller (Simon Oakland), who exists solely to provide Montand's character an opportunity to engage in a windy reincarnation debate.
It's not unusual for women to develop crushes on older men, but the near 20-year age difference between Streisand and Montage did nothing to help the pair's already staggering lack of chemistry 

The overall result is a charming musical that is nevertheless strangely choppy and uneven in tone. The film is, at turns, out and out funny, whimsical, stylish, lyrical, and sometimes breathtaking; but it frequently feels like we're watching the combined efforts of artists assigned to do their work in isolation - without an awareness of what others are doing. Structurally, the film is designed to contrast the past and present, but this duality transfers somewhat schizophrenically in the combined efforts of the set designers, costumers, and especially the actors. Instead of creating the impression that time is cyclical and that the past and present are spiritually interlinked; On a Clear Day You Can See Forever frequently just feels like two separate films vying for screen time. A result, no doubt, of the movie being the victim of a great deal of editing. (Not the kind of fine-tuning editing necessary to sharpen a film, but the kind of butchering needed to cut a proposed 3-hour roadshow musical down to a little over 2-hours.)
On the rare occasions Minnelli ventures out of the studio, good use is made of the film's New York locations. Here, Yves Montand stands atop the Pan Am Building imploring Daisy to "Come Back to Me"
(or, as transposed by critic Rex Reed per Montand's French accent, "Cum Buck Dooo Meee!")

As it turns out, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever did indeed undergo a prodigious amount of cutting before release. Conceived as a roadshow* attraction, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever bears the brunt of the many songs, scenes, and subplots excised in the interest of whittling the film down to a marketable running time. But this doesn't fully explain On a Clear Day You Can See Forever saddling itself with a leading man so thuddingly dull that the film loses all romantic longing. Nor does it account for production values which would have looked dated in 1965; the curious choice of not having Streisand (a great comedienne) interact with any of the comic supporting actors (that's left to Montand, who sucks the laughs out of every scene); or the head-scratchingly weird decision to remove all of the score's liveliest and peppiest numbers (and this movie could use all the pep it can get) leaving only the melodic ballads.

*Roadshow: A popular distribution method for “event” films in the 60s, roadshow films were higher priced, reserved-seat screenings with overtures, intermissions, and exit music. These films were habitually 2 ½ to 4 hours long. They gradually fell out of favor in the late 70s.
The rooftop set and cast assembled for the Wait Till We're Sixty-Five production number that was filmed (and showed up on promotional stills) but cut out of the completed film

The film's score (among my favorites) is lushly romantic, but the film itself (a protracted, metaphysical cockblock) has been cast and directed in such a fashion as to render all potential romantic couplings undesirable. Personally, I didn't want Daisy to end up with ANY of her suitors.
Dr.Chabot hypnotizes Daisy through telepathy

On a Clear Day You Can See Forever was only the second Barbra Streisand film I’d ever seen (the first being What’s Up, Doc?), and one I somehow hadn’t even heard of until 1975 when it was booked as the bottom half of a double-bill at the San Francisco movie theater where I worked as an usher. Because of my job, I was initially only able to see bits and pieces of the film, but the first thing that struck me was how beautifully it was shot. The ultra modern college campus scenes were an overlit bust, but the flashback sequences in England and stylized artificiality of the Daisy's rooftop bore Minnelli’s trademark stamp of picturesque opulence. 
The Royal Pavilion in Brighton, England features in one of the film's many stunning flashback sequences.

The other thing that grabbed me was the music. Many of the songs from the original score had been excised and a few new ones written just for the film. But of those that remained, who knew that so many of my parents’ favorite standards - the virtual entirety of the Eydie Gorme, Robert Goulet,  Jack Jones songbook - came from this show? I was so taken with the brief bits I was able to glimpse of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever that I began to make up excuses to leave my lobby post: check for smokers, feet on the backs of chairs… anything, just so I could get another Streisand fix.

And what a fix it was. Lit to look like a goddess and costumed with decolletage for days, Streisand was a heady dose of '70s-style movie star glamour. On a Clear Day You Can See Forever was the movie that made me fall in love with Streisand (alas, a short-lived romance that ended with 1979s The Main Event) and my personal siren song was her gangbusters delivery of the title tune. I made a point of always being the usher stationed near the doors at the end of each screening just so I could stand inside, flashlight in hand, mouth agape, and wait for her to rattle the crystal on the chandeliers with that final note.Wow! Talk about your goosebumps moment. 
Not sure if this was a wig or her real hair, but this is the look I always associate with Streisand

Although On a Clear Day You Can See Forever played at my theater (San Francisco's Alhambra Theater) for two weeks, I never got to see the film in its entirety until I saw it at a Los Angeles revival theater many years later. After finally getting the chance to see the entire film from start to finish, I was a little taken aback to discover that I actually enjoyed On a Clear Day You Can See Forever more when I was seeing it a la carte. Seeing it in sections, I was dazzled by the visual style and Streisand's star quality. Seen as a whole, I was taken aback, given that the story is kind of magical and sweet-natured, that it somehow sidestepped giving us any any other character besides Daisy to root for or like.

It's professional, well-done, and definitely enjoyable, but for a musical about mysticism, it's sorely lacking in that intangible kind of charm Minnelli pulled off so beautifully in Meet Me in St. Louis. Perhaps it's impossible to find an actress charismatic enough to be a musical lead, while at the same time, believably bland enough to make a convincing Daisy Gamble; but as cast, Streisand's Daisy doesn't really make sense. She's supposed to be a drip, but she's the most stylish, funny, and interesting person in the entire film. She's the only one you want to spend any time with. When Dr. Chabot expresses exasperation with her quirks, HE'S the one who comes off as unappealing, not Daisy.
Given all that was going on at the time, it's hard to feel that the legendarily meticulous Vincente Minnelli had his heart in this one. He was 63, his third marriage was breaking up, and his first and most-famous wife, Judy Garland, had recently died.
"What Did I Have That I Don't Have?"
Streisand's vocal performance and acting on this song is peerless. I've seen it dozens of times and it always gives me waterworks.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Sure, the two leads have zilch in the chemistry department, and Barbra Streisand pretty much single-handedly gives the film all it has in the way of humor and pep. Yes, the film vacillates between feeling like there is too much plot and then not enough (and exactly whose idea of a counter-culture dropout is clean-cut Jack Nicholson with his distractingly mature hairline?). Certainly it's a romantic comedy which strenuously works to keep the lovers apart. It's a movie that banks almost entirely on the appeal of its star. A film which piles on plot complications and eye-popping visuals so we don' t really notice that the gorgeous musical score is far more emotive than the story at hand.

And yet...On a Clear Day You Can See Forever is still a film I take endless delight in. The whimsical plot makes me smile (even though it's a tad cumbersome) and I really like Streisand's performance here. And so what if my enjoyment is necessitated by my needing to fast-forward through most of Montand's scenes and overlook the fact that whenever Streisand is off the screen, the film just kind of lies there, inert? It doesn't matter because every few minutes or so, there is the sublime distraction of costumes, sets, and the bliss of getting to hear Streisand sing.
The visual pleasures of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever are considerable
Lane & Lerner's On a Clear Day You Can See Forever is generally considered to be a wonderful score in search of a better book. The musical is rarely revived. In 2000, Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth headlined a concert version of the show ("Look ma! No book!"), and in 2011, Harry Connick, Jr. starred in an expensively-mounted Broadway revival that used several of the songs from the film and provocatively reworked the plot so that the character of Daisy Gamble was now a gay male assistant-florist named David Gamble who discovers he's reincarnated from a brassy female big-band singer. (A cute idea, but when his character asks the musical question, "What Did I Have That I Don't Have?" it seems to me an audience would have to exercise considerable self-control not to want to call out to the stage, "A vagina!"). The show lasted for little more than a month.
At left: the film's original "pot head" theatrical release poster. At right: Things are getting desperate. In an effort to draw a younger audience, newspaper ads featured an out-of-character, hippie-fied Barbra. Pic used is a Richard Avedon portrait from a photo shoot for Streisand's 1969 album, "What About Today?"

PERFORMANCES
If in Funny Girl Barbra Streisand seemed raw, and in Hello Dolly, lost; then in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever she seems more in charge of her talents than ever. And she's remarkably good. When she's helped by the script (as in the crackling first hypnosis scene) she's at the top of her game. At last given a chance to play sexy, in the flashback sequences, she literally wills you to find her beautiful.
The Great Profile
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Vincente Minnelli was the most painterly of directors, and the visuals he brings to On a Clear Day You Can See Forever are no exception. A feast for the eyes, the vivid period production design and more stylized contemporary sets of John DeCuir elegantly compliment the splendid costumes by Sir Cecil Beaton (period costumes) and Arnold Scaasi (contemporary costumes). 
"I'll have what she's having."
Daisy's Emancipation / Melinda's Emancipation
 Daisy's recognition and acceptance of her reincarnated self is dramatized in the echoing of her costuming

The ultra-modern Arnold Scaasi designs used in the contemporary scenes of  On a Clear Day You Can See Forever provide a striking contrast to Sir Cecil Beaton's lavish 19th century wardrobe. This simple little crowd-pleaser was worn by Streisand in a scene deleted from the film. And for those too young to have been around in 1970- no one ever actually wore an outfit like this in public...no matter what drugs they were taking.
For fans of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever who want to get depressed, here are links to sites offering more info on all that was cut from the film.  Just click on the highlighted sentences.

Behind the scenes info on the making of "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever"

YouTube audio (with stills) of the deleted Barbra Streisand / Larry Blyden duet: "Wait 'till We're Sixty-Five"

YouTube audio (with stills) of Jack Nicholson singing "Who Is there Among Us Who Knows?"

If they can restore 1973s Lost Horizon, why not On a Clear Day You Can See Forever ?
Fans (or obsessives) of  '60/'70's pop culture will note that Daisy Gamble's fabulously floral bedclothes and wallpaper first made their appearance on the 1966 TV sitcom, Family Affair, in the bedroom shared by Buffy and Cissy.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
I absolutely love the title song and Streisand's performance of it is stellar. She sings it so beautifully... it still can give me chills. Just crazy about the way Streisand begins the song like it's an idea that gradually starts to take root, then grows, then bursts with an assurance and awareness. If it was Streisand's intention to magnify the "flower" theme of the film and convey a sense of the character of Daisy "growing" into herself, she does a tremendous job of it. It's a lesson on how to put over a song so it's more than just pretty vocalizing...it's a first-class acting performance. Barbra Streisand's rendition of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever is for me what I can imagine Somewhere Over the Rainbow is for Garland fans.
Copyright © Ken Anderson

Saturday, February 25, 2012

CLOCKWATCHERS 1997

It boggles the mind (to quote All About Eve’s Addison DeWitt, an admitted “dull clichĂ©," especially since I don’t really know what a mind boggled is) how few people know about Clockwatchers; one of my absolute favorite workplace comedies.

Predating Ricky Gervais’ The Office (2001) and the cult film Office Space (1999) by several years, Clockwatchers is alarmingly unheard of, unknown, and rarely, if ever, talked about. How can this be? I’ve seen it many times and it never once ceases to make me laugh out loud at the accuracy of its satirically-rendered characters, dialogue, and situations. Clockwatchers is the most wickedly perceptive comedy-of-white-collar-manners I’ve ever seen. Even taking into account that my personal taste in movies can be a little bit off-beat (falling somewhere between Benny Hill overkill and Robert Altman blink-and-you'll-miss-it) I'm still surprised at how unknown and unappreciated this marvelous film is.
Toni Collette as Iris 
Parker Posey as Margaret
Lisa Kudrow as Paula / Camille La Plante
Alanna Ubach as Jane
Helen Fitzgerald as Cleo
The office workplace depicted as a soul-sucking vacuum of corporate trivia elevated to levels of monolithic significance is nothing new. Indeed, in these times of staggering unemployment, the characterization of standard-issue workplace drones as satirical archetypes has become a useful means of dealing with our anxieties. (Who minds being out of work when these are the kind of people one has to deal with?)
But if the colorless monotony of typing, filing, collating, and answering phones is a mind-numbing reminder of the probable meaninglessness of life, then Clockwatchers ups the ante by adding expendability to the mix. Clockwatchers is about temporary office workers—Temps: Individuals whose by-definition job description and title signify built-in impermanence, placing them at the very bottom of the corporate food chain.
"You're part of the corporate hierarchy. There's got to be a butt
in every seat or the entire infrastructure crumbles."

The clockwatchers at the center of director Jill Sprecher’s mordantly witty comedy (from a screenplay by Jill & Karen Sprecher) are four women of dissimilar backgrounds and temperaments, bound in friendship born of their mutually-shared outsider status as temps at the stultifyingly dull Global Credit Association (“Temps are like corporate orphans…we’re like corporate call girls!”). 
There’s dowdy Iris, (Toni Collette), timid to the point of invisibility; Margaret (Parker Posey), the sarcastic, office-savvy goldbricker; aspiring actress/man-hunter/chronic hair-flipper, Paula (Lisa Kudrow); and OCD perfectionist-in-a-Chanel suit, personal-phone-call addict, Jane (Alanna Ubach).
Together, this oddball quartet bravely weather the suspicious/hostile environment of 9 to 5 existence among the “permanents,” forging for themselves a kind of rebellious strength through solidarity. That is, until the unaccountably disruptive appearance of a mysterious new executive assistant named Cleo (Helen Fitzgerald). Cleo arrives like some kind of reluctant-to-make-eye-contact Greek Goddess of Doom whose mere presence triggers an ever-escalating series of reactions and events.
As unfocused suspicions give way to an honest-to-god workplace mini-crime wave, the film's second half dramatizes (in both comic and poignant terms) the tenuous nature of attachments. Attachment to a job you don't even like, because it at least gives you a place where you can pretend you're needed. An attachment to friends who feel closer than they really are because of the forced intimacy of 9 to 5, 5-days-a-week. 
Tedium, Inc.
(Clockwise from top left) Lisa Kudrow uses WhiteOut to French-Tip her nails, Jamie Kennedy 
seeks escape in the mailroom, Alanna Ubach pops bubble wrap, and Stanley DeSantis misses his rubberband ball.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Kurt Vonnegut, in speaking about the Nixon administration, made the following observation: “You all of a sudden catch on that life is nothing but high school—class officers, cheerleaders, and all." 

Debra Jo Rupp as middle-management worrywart Barbara

Anyone who’s worked for any length of time at an office job (make that ANY job) knows this to be true. I don’t care if we’re talking lawyers, doctors, dancers, or fast-food servers; it’s all the same. The petty hierarchies and cliques you thought you'd left behind in high school are, on a daily basis, the primary modes of social interaction in the adult workforce. Clockwatchers extracts a great deal of humor out of this fact, and in the best possible way: by merely allowing the almost surreal banality of office life play out just as it is.
The film understands how the repetitious monotony of office work induces a kind of obsession with order. An obsession so keen, even the tiniest deviation from pattern has the power to incite an almost existential loss of equilibrium in the corporate structure. Most importantly, the film understands how, when people work in environments where almost nothing anyone does seems to matter, everything begins to matter.
Petty Theft of Time
The inconsequential and petty rule the day. People fixate on mindless details and go in search of any kind of trivial distraction in which to lose themselves. In this way, Clockwatchers reveals its dark humor. It's finely observed, character and behavior-based humor that hits the same authentic-quirky stride of Robert Altman’s 3 Women. There, as in this film, it’s behavior that makes us laugh, not jokes. (My biggest complaints with the generally fine Office Space were that so many of the characters' actions seemed overly-burlesqued for the sake of landing a joke, and the plot veered unnecessarily close to forced, sitcom-level wackiness.)  
"I just want a desk by a window and a decent chair."

PERFORMANCES
All of the performers in Clockwatchers are top-notch, but Parker Posey is my favorite. An ensemble film in form, the main character of the story is the talented Toni Collette, who, with the film's least showy role, generously allows Posey to pack up the entire film in that recently-purchased briefcase of hers and walk off with it. Posey is one of those actresses who's able to make gems out of lines that aren't even supposed to be funny (she’s the reason I actually own a copy of Josie & the Pussycats). In Clockwatchers she’s playing the kind of individual I've met often in my occupational life: the entitled, barely-qualified slacker with the unearned cynicism who expends considerable brainpower and effort in avoiding doing the job they feel is so beneath their talents. 
Posey is ingenious in the subtle way in which she creates a character both instantly recognizable, yet 100% original. (Love how, whenever approached by anyone in the office, she instantly adopts this perky, vertical-eyebrows look of alert interest and helium-voiced affability.) Parker Posey does some remarkable things with comedy—the early scenes where she familiarizes the new temp to the office routine are just brilliant—and proves surprisingly affecting when required to show the darker demons haunting her character.

Producer/director/actor Bob Balaban (here as executive Milton Lasky) is a master at playing befuddled bureaucrats. One of my favorite character actors, Balaban  makes even the smallest roles 
memorable and funny (as he proved in Robert Altman's Gosford Park).

I also get a big kick out of Lisa Kudrow, who, in the years subsequent to Friends (a show I thoroughly hated, I might add) has become a personal favorite. Some of the best TV I've ever seen was her short-lived HBO series, The Comeback, and I binged on her hilarious internet series, Web Therapy. Like Posey, Kudrow is among the best and most resourceful of the comic character actresses around today (both would have been wonderful working with Robert Altman). Kudrow has a kind of “out there” comic inventiveness that makes her an appealingly unpredictable comedienne and always fun to watch. Clockwatchers finds her breathing new life into an overworked comedy archetype: the delusional actress wannabe.
By day, Paula may sabotage copy machines in order to put the moves on the hunky repairman, but by night she is aspiring actress Camille La Plante ("Drama's in my blood."). Here she proves to Iris that she's as skilled an actress as she is a typist.

Paul Dooley as Bud Chapman
As Toni Collette's father, Dooley, one of my favorite character actors, plays another
loving and supportive dad (Sixteen Candles) with his trademark easygoing naturalism.
His performances always have that lived-in authenticity that never shows the acting.
 


THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
I love the way Clockwatchers looks. The beautiful cinematography by Jim Denault is extremely responsive to the story. Bright and idiosyncratic for the early comedy scenes, claustrophobic and disquieting as the film's tone darkens. Much like the furtive activities of these cubicle-dwellers, Denault's lens seems always to be peering, hovering, and capturing odd details in close-up or at the outsides of frames. It’s like another character in the film.  


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
I’ve been going on about how funny Clockwatchers is due to its unfailing ability to make me laugh is what comes first to mind. But the thing that makes this film such a favorite is because behind the satirical depiction of office life, there lies a great deal of compassion and understanding of the small things that become lost (or we allow to have stolen) as we try to stake our claim in the world.
The average workplace is where most people’s youthful idealism cruelly collides with unflinching reality. Everybody has dreams, but pragmatism dictates we all must do something to earn a living. The stuff of comedy or tragedy exists somewhere between the extent to which what we dream, and what we spend most of our days engaged in, fail to intersect.
Some knuckle under, satisfied to blend in with the masses, others self-destructively try to buck the system. In the grand scheme of things, we seem to spend an awful lot of time wondering if we belong and where we fit in. Frequently in the pursuit of finding meaning in our lives, we wind up neglecting or betraying the people and things closest to us. Perhaps too often, it's ourselves. 
Through comedy, Clockwatchers poses the question, “Is it that hard to find permanence?”
Through drama, it answers, “Sometimes.” 


Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2012