Frankengarner

January 26, 2012

“One of the problems for historians of most arts is the ‘transitional figure.’”

- Dennis Bingham, “Shot From the Sky: The Gypsy Moths and the End of Something,” collected in A Little Solitaire: John Frankenheimer and American Film

“[H]e spent the rest of his life trying to figure out what had gone wrong.”

- Bill Krohn, “Jonah,” collected in A Little Solitaire: John Frankenheimer and American Film

Brian Kellow’s new biography of Pauline Kael, one of my lifelong inspirations as a writer, has so many flaws that it would take a second book to enumerate them.  Since Kael falls outside the purview of this blog – regrettably, “television” was something of a dirty word to her, a shorthand for commercial aspirations and diminished attention spans; although Kael may have had some enthusiasm for the made-for-television movies of the seventies, this is one of several points on which Kellow contradicts himself – I don’t have to do any enumerating.  But I will point out one comparatively minor flaw in Kellow’s book that got under my skin: Kellow indulges in a few snotty asides against “academia,” a phrase he uses so generically that it’s hard to tell exactly who he’s trying to insult, or why.  Like Bill Maher or Keith Olbermann, Kellow comes off as so obnoxious that we want to argue back, even when we agree with him.  (The royal “we” is used in honor of La Pauline, although it’s one of her devices that makes me uneasy; I’m afraid to emulate it, although Kael often deploys it with great power.)  I’ve staked out my own position as essentially anti-academic, but even I have to acknowledge that it’s absurd to suggest that no one on a tenure track is doing valuable writing or research on art and culture.  The question is whether those scholars who are creating good work represent the rule or the exception.

Which brings us to the first item in today’s book report: a recent collection of scholarly essays that examine the work of the director John Frankenheimer.  I picked up the book, which was compiled and edited by Murray Pomerance and R. Barton Palmer, in part because I discovered that its contributors cite my own work a few times (yes, it is possible to accidentally search your own name on Google Books; really, I swear that’s how it happened), and also because I remain obsessed with every outpost of Frankenheimeriana.  As far as I can recall, I’ve only returned to the subject of Frankenheimer’s early television productions once since I wrote that Senses of Cinema essay, but I know I’ll go back again someday.  As Frankenheimer’s work was in its time the most pyrotechnic, the most resistant to the technological limitations of early television, so it stands out today as the most durable, the most modern, the most cinematic, the most alive.

The title of Pomerance and Palmer’s collection is a famous refrain from The Manchurian Candidate, and an odd choice, since (unless I dozed off for a minute) none of the writers in the book quote it.  I would have liked to know why the editors felt that line had an overarching meaning within Frankenheimer’s oeuvre – a meaning even more potent than the trope of paranoia, a word that’s used in nearly every essay in the book.  The title characterizes Frankenheimer as a maverick, a loner.  But while the director may have thought of himself that way, one of the tragedies of the his career is that he was unable to function as a true independent.  Not only did Frankenheimer’s vision require budgets of some size, but in interviews he made it clear that he was invested in the idea of a commercial cinema, of box office victory and mainstream recognition.

Within that context, the book’s key essay may be Jerry Mosher’s well-researched account of the making of Frankenheimer’s Impossible Object (1973), a film that self-consciously attempted a non-linear, ambiguous narrative in the style of Resnais or, in particular, Losey.  Mosher carefully places the ideas behind Impossible Object (incidentally, the only theatrical Frankenheimer feature I have not seen), and its catastrophic post-production phase and consequent non-release, within the context of the personal and professional lives of the director and his collaborators (chiefly Nicholas Mosley, the original writer and later a memoirist who wrote insightfully about Frankenheimer).  Impossible Object became a self-fulfilling prophecy (or Prophecy, as it turned out): Frankenheimer took the film’s failure as an affirmation that art cinema was not a viable path for him, and probably as an excuse to embrace a belief system to which he was he already bound.

Other writers who delve in detail into the production histories of individual films include Matthew R. Bernstein, who describes some of the fascinating real-life figures and incidents upon which The Train was based, and James Morrison, whose essay on The Iceman Cometh is a model diagram of how a film’s meaning emerges from its maker’s technical choices.  Charles Ramírez Berg’s astute formal analysis of The Manchurian Candidate properly contextualizes the film’s imagery as an outgrowth of Frankenheimer’s live television technique.  Berg includes a detailed consideration of “The Comedian” (a terrific Rod Serling-scripted Playhouse 90) as an exemplar of the director’s televisual style.  And I was pleased to see my two favorite underdogs in the Frankenheimer filmography, The Gypsy Moths and I Walk the Line, become the subjects of thoughtful consideration, in pieces by Dennis Bingham and Linda Ruth Williams, respectively.

A Little Solitaire also offers ample coverage of Frankenheimer’s perhaps overstated “comeback” in cable television during the nineties.  Most of these pieces are problematic, but Bill Krohn’s ambitious “Jonah,” fittingly the final chapter in the book, uses the late television productions and some of Frankenheimer’s worst theatrical features (as well as “Forbidden Area,” the premiere segment of Playhouse 90, which has only recently resurfaced in private collections), to stitch together the intriguing argument that, following the assassination of his friend Robert F. Kennedy, Frankenheimer became something of a covert, disillusioned radical/nihilist, who consistently charted “the decline and fall of American liberalism.”  I wasn’t entirely persuaded (for one thing, “Jonah” offers without irony the phrase “a superb, understated performance by Ben Affleck”), but Krohn is the liveliest writer in this book, which counts for a lot.

“Coffee has yet another meaning.  As Wolfgang Schivelbusch points out, while there is a connection between daze (the condition produced by the consumption of alcohol) and mystification, and more generally between the use of liquors and group feeling, the coffeehouse has throughout its history been dedicated to the support and preservation of the individual identity: ‘In coffeehouses the I is central.'”

- Murray Pomerance, “Ashes, Ashes: Structuring Emptiness in All Fall Down,” collected in A Little Solitaire: John Frankenheimer and American Film

About half of the essays in A Little Solitaire didn’t sell me on their theses; or, to be less charitable, they read as pointless exercises in publish-or-perish log-rolling.  That may be a better-than-average success rate for this type of collection.  It’s disappointing to see not even a single essay focused solely on Frankenheimer’s early television work (although the book’s invaluable appendix compiles a more complete Frankenheimer videography than I’ve seen before); but it’s also unsurprising, given that one would have to be a collector, or else log considerable archival hours in Los Angeles or New York, in order to see a large amount of that material.

What I find less easy to excuse is the narrowness of the methodologies on display in this collection.  Only a few of the authors (Bernstein; Pomerance, writing about All Fall Down; and Morrison, who dredged up cinematographer Ralph Woolsey’s memories of filming The Iceman Cometh in an obscure AFI seminar) attempted any archival research, even though Frankenheimer’s tempting and extensive papers are available at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  And the only original oral history in evidence is in Pomerance’s introductory essay, which includes a few superficial quotes from the actress Evans Evans (the director’s widow), and Richard Dysart, who appeared in a single Frankenheimer film (Prophecy, perhaps his worst).  I don’t understand why these approaches, which would yield more concrete insights and discoveries than the kind of tautological interdisciplinary lint-picking that is evident even in some of the better essays in this book (does Birdman of Alcatraz really benefit from being “read” “through” Foucault?), are undertaken so infrequently.  Are they just out of fashion in academia?  Is picking up the phone or getting on a plane somehow behaviorally (or, in the second case, financially) beyond the pale for a college professor?  Or would the weight of actual history be too much of a reality check on a writer who prefers instead to mash an artist’s work into the mold of his or her own professional specialty, whether or not it fits?

*

“Didn’t enjoy working with Tony Franciosa, who kept abusing the stunt men.  He purposely wasn’t pulling his punches in fight scenes, and he kept doing it despite my warnings to stop . . . so I had to pop him one.”

- James Garner, The Garner Files

The succinct sketch of John Frankenheimer that James Garner offers in his long-awaited memoir, The Garner Files, is probably as valuable an observation as any offered in A Little Solitaire.  Garner, who starred in Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix, thought the director was something of a humorless control freak, who “didn’t want anyone with an opinion” in the cast.  But Garner admired Frankenheimer’s encyclopedic attention to detail and his ability to command a production as huge and potentially dangerous as Grand Prix.

A number of my friends, of both the real and Facebook varieties, have been praising and quoting from The Garner Files.  I assume that’s because Garner is one of the few living stars from whom many of us would really want to hear at some length, and also (more importantly) because Garner does not shy away from, and indeed even seems to relish, naming and shaming anyone who ever pissed him off.  It’s a long and entertaining list, one that includes Charles Bronson (“a pain in the ass”), Glen A. Larson (a “thief”), and Lee Marvin (another “pain in the ass”), among others.

In The Garner Files, Garner comes across as a straight shooter, smarter and more introspective than the most of characters he played.  He is, for instance, quite conscious of how the laid-back, “natural” quality that was his trademark was in fact carefully constructed.  (Garner’s theory is that his studied casualness emerged out of a process of getting past his stage fright.)  The book ends with a section of testimonials from Garner’s family and friends, which include major movie stars as well as racing pals and “below the line” crew members.  That kind of victory roll would constitute an exhibition of appalling arrogance in almost anyone else’s memoirs, but Garner has allowed his friends to tell stories on him.  Some of them are flattering, but others hint at Garner’s fallibility and his legendary temper.  (The words of Rockford Files co-star Joe Santos, in their entirety: “Garner says he’s easygoing, but he’s lying.  He’s angry and desperate, just like I am.  That’s why Rockford has always worked so well, because Jim is coming from a very passionate, driven place.”)

Garner is so resolutely forthright that his book is worth reading, but it’s hardly one of the great or even very good autobiographies.  Garner acknowledges his collaborator, Jon Winokur, with typical generosity, but that doesn’t prevent the book from coming to a dead stop whenever Winokur takes over to fill in the basic facts about Garner’s movies and television projects.  The sections on the star’s two major TV series, Maverick and The Rockford Files, feel especially ghost-written, and add little or nothing to the stories told in Ed Robertson’s books on those shows.  Garner comes to life a bit more when discussing his favorite films (The Great Escape, The Americanization of Emily, Grand Prix), but I sense that his real passions are for boring shit like golf, auto racing, making money, and (to use his oft-repeated term) “decking” people.

Garner presents himself as a defender of the little guy, and I don’t doubt the truth of that.  But he also seems to have enjoyed maneuvering himself into situations in which he could punch out people and – because the punchee was behaving badly in some way – still hold onto his image as a good guy.  One such person, a golf course heckler, turned out to be a Rockford fan with alcohol and drug problems, who cried after Garner knocked him down.  (Again, full credit to Garner for leaving those details in, even if they are presented with a not-my-fault shrug.)

Garner’s particular ethics of violence may make him less of a bully than some of the bullies he criticizes (including Frankenheimer), but he strikes me as a bully nonetheless, a hothead who cultivated his temper and unloaded on people whenever he knew he could get away with it.  Is a wealthy, powerful, and well-liked movie star ever likely to find himself in situations where he has to hit someone?  Was socking Tony Franciosa really an act of standing up for defenseless stuntmen (note the oxymoronic aspect of that phrase) – many of whom probably later found themselves on sets where Franciosa had the power to fire them and Garner wasn’t around to intercede – or was it just an ostentatious display of machismo?  I still love the television James Garner, the pragmatic, risk-averse “reluctant hero” (Garner’s own term) who made Maverick and Rockford so distinctive and down-to-earth and compulsively watchable.  But after reading his book, I wonder whether I would like the real James Garner.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a former Angeleno, and I remain fascinated by Los Angeles locations in the movies and on television.  The film essayist Thom Andersen made a whole film, Los Angeles Plays Itself, about the schism between Los Angeles, the actual city, and Los Angeles, the cultural artifact constructed by its ubiquitous appearances in visual media.  Andersen prefers the real thing.  I’m not sure I agree.

One idea that I took away from Andersen’s film is that iconic locations, like the Bradbury Building or the Griffith Park Observatory, take on a slightly different meaning in the movies than the spaces only a native will find familiar.  The latter initiate a sort of private, privileged communication between filmmakers and a geographical subset of their audience.  Depending on how a location is depicted, it can add a layer of authenticity and familiarity for those select viewers.  Or it can be a trigger that leads those viewers to step outside the narrative, to confront the text as an industrial artifact and to contemplate how  reality has been manipulated during its creation.

For about a year I lived around the corner from the Sportsmen’s Lodge, a small hotel and restaurant in Studio City.  The Sportsmen’s Lodge is now undergoing extensive remodeling, but for nearly fifty years, it never changed.  For that reason it’s easy to spot in any number of movies and TV shows, particularly those made at Universal Studios, which lies only a couple of miles east along Ventura Boulevard.  (Columbo fumbled around the Sportsmen’s Lodge more than once.)  In its center courtyard the Lodge has a tiny pond, spanned by a wooden bridge, and its most infamous use as a movie location may be in the micro-budgeted fifties post-nuke opus The Day the World Ended.  That film used the Lodge’s little trout pond to simulate a real, outdoor body of water.

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Recently I was delighted to see the Sportsmen’s Lodge featured prominently in “The Italian Bird Fiasco,” a 1976 episode of The Rockford Files.  The Lodge doubles as the Delman Motel (allegedly in Santa Monica, on other side of town), which Rockford visits twice to meet his duplicitous client, played by St. Elsewhere’s William Daniels.  In the frame above, James Garner is standing underneath the carport outside the western entrance to the hotel’s parking lot.  The building to the right is a lobby leading, if I remember correctly, to both the lounge and the hotel.  The street behind Garner is Ventura Boulevard.  The structure in the background with the unusual windows is now a Ralph’s Fresh Fare; in the seventies, it was a different supermarket.

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Later in the same episode, Garner visits the Winslow Art Gallery to bid on an unusual art object.  The Winslow Art Gallery is also the Sportsmen’s Lodge.  It’s a different entrance at the eastern end of the hotel, perpendicular to the “Delman Motel” carport.  Below is a frame in which Garner stands just outside the Winslow Art Gallery (out of frame just to the right).  But in the background, minus its ersatz sign, is the  “entrance” to the Delman Motel.

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(At a time when many Universal shows, like Emergency! and the early episodes of Kojak, were still confined largely to a backlot that was growing ever more dated and threadbare, The Rockford Files – and Columbo as well – had enough clout to seek out practical locations nearly all the time.  But Universal’s  prop department still had some catching up to do.  In both of those series, the signage added to those locations always looked, well, like something that had just been slapped together by the prop department.  Realism came fitfully to television.)

Visible on the horizon in this sequence are both the Sportsmen’s Lodge’s own tiki-styled sign and (to the right of it in the frame below) another yellow, diamond-shaped sign in the background.  The latter is a revolving sentinel that towers over Twain’s, a twenty-four hour diner on the northwest corner of Ventura and Coldwater Canyon Boulevards.  Twain’s is another San Fernando Valley landmark that’s been there forever and is instantly recognizable to locals (and no one else).

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During my Studio City year, a co-worker described how Twain’s was a favorite hangout for her crowd when she was a Valley high schooler during the eighties.  Were Wendy to catch a rerun of “The Italian Bird Fiasco,” she would probably forget about the cat-and-mouse game being played out by James Garner and William Daniels on screen.  Her thoughts might turn back to her teenage memories – a reaction different from anyone else watching the same episode, and one wholly unanticipated (and possibly undesired) by the show’s creators.  But I suspect Wendy would find the experience pleasurable, as I do when The Rockford Files or some other show takes me back to my old neighborhood.

I have written this partly as an exercise in nostalgia, but also to illustrate the small point that TV shows reuse and disguise their locations and even their sets in all kinds of clever ways that most of us never notice.  I have a trained eye, but I’m sure I would not have observed consciously that “The Italian Bird Fiasco”’s two key locations share the same architecture had I not already been familiar with the Sportsmen’s Lodge.  As spectators, our suspension of disbelief extends to spatial geography just as much as it does to storytelling.  We allow movies and television to pull all manner of trickery on us, just so long as the people behind the curtain aren’t so manifestly incompetent that they force us to notice the strings holding everything up.

*

Here’s another example, also taken from a crime program of the seventies, of a very specific kind of visual sleight-of-hand that I often catch.  In this scene from “Betrayed,” a 1973 segment of The Streets of San Francisco, Detectives Keller (Michael Douglas) and Stone (Karl Malden) study a reel of surveillance footage and detect an important clue to a bank robber’s identity.

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Keller, the younger detective, operates the sixteen-millimeter projector.  “Move in on that,” Stone tells him, when they come to a crucial moment in the footage.

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Keller complies, both zooming in and freezing the frame on the bank robber’s wrist.

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Somehow Keller has accomplished a feat that lies beyond the technical capabilities of his equipment.  He has shifted the angle to a point of view different from that established for the surveillance camera moments before.

Movies do this all the time.  They depict cuts, zooms, camera moves, and other visual effects in films-within-the-film that are blatantly implausible, at least to the trained eye.  Lately I’ve seen a few movies (George Romero’s wily Diary of the Dead is one) that make extensive internal use of “found footage” and do adhere rigorously to the spatial limitations established for that footage within the story.  But often filmmakers find it too difficult to convey a desired expository point within the limited perspective that fixed-camera footage would offer in the “real” world.

I always notice this kind of cheating, and it always gives me a chuckle.  But I wonder if it registers with most spectators, or if it’s another example – like “The Italian Bird Fiasco”’s multitude of Sportsmen’s Lodges – of the generous suspension of disbelief that we grant to visual media that attempt to give us pleasure.

Another reason we might accept rather than reject this flaw is that it enlists us in a more active kind of spectatorship than television or the movies usually offer.  In the scene described above, Detectives Stone and Keller assume the roles of, respectively, a director and a cinematographer/editor.  Stone tells his collaborator the effect he wishes to achieve – a solution to a mystery – through the process of watching (making) a film.  Keller selects the camera angle and organizes the footage in a way that will deliver that result.  Unconsciously, the viewer participates in this process with them.

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In any episode of The Streets of San Francisco (or The Rockford Files), the writer, the director, and their collaborators construct a story for us by making the same choices.  The projector scene in “Betrayed” embeds this process (or an oversimplified version of it) within the narrative.  The spectator will either play along, or else detect the shortcuts and reject them as “fake.”  How do we make that choice?  Is it conscious or unconscious?  Is one response to this scenario superior, or more “correct,” than the other?  Personally, few things annoy me more than watching or discussing a movie with someone whose refrain is “Well, that could never happen.”  My own tolerance for plot holes (and consequently my indifference to “spoilers”) is quite high, because I consider plot one of the least interesting components of a film or television show.  But based on which television shows have achieved popularity in recent years – Lost and 24, Grey’s Anatomy and Gossip Girl – I think many spectators may hold the opposite point of view.  They prize narrative complexity to the exclusion of any other kind of complexity.

Hypothetically, let’s say that the director of “Betrayed,” William Hale, had opted for accuracy at the possible expense of clarity.  In that case, the scene might have played out with Keller and Stone stopping the film and then squinting and puzzling over the blurry image.  Perhaps they would have disagreed over the meaning of the clue.  Perhaps their ambivalence would have carried over into another scene; instead of knowing already that their suspect (played by Martin Sheen) was the culprit, they would have had to interrogate him, bluff him, to elicit a confession.  Perhaps Sheen’s character would have slipped from their grasp for lack of evidence.  Perhaps Keller and Stone would never have known whether he was guilty or not.  Perhaps the viewer would have been left with less confidence in the effectiveness of the police, less certainty about the likelihood of closure in general.

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Each of those possibilities is less likely than the previous one, at least for a mainstream television show from the seventies.  That single subliminal, impossible edit may seem like a continuity error.  Instead it’s a shrewd elision that tidies the narrative of “Betrayed” in a meaningful way.  Did some viewers, even in 1973, congratulate themselves for catching a mistake that the filmmakers missed?  Of course.  But the filmmakers had the last word.  They understood that sometimes a “mistake” is more satisfying than an uncertainty.

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