Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Harpo Out of Hell: MIAMI BLUES

There's a time to play Monopoly and a time to kick over the board and throw the play money in the air like we're motherfuckin' Scarface. Miami Blues (1990) is for that time. Those of us who love charismatic maniacs--especially when they're safely contained by distance, time, or screen--love Alec Baldwin as Junior, the sublimely deadpan representative of our id-unleashing dreams. A herald for the maniac renaissance of the early 90s, Junior's antics were the missing link between Harpo Marx and Mickey and Mallory Knox, Wendy Kroy, Hannibal Lecter, Tommy in Goodfellas, Harvey in Bad Lieutenant, Lisa in Girl, Interrupted. Before they all popped up from our moldy floorboards to kick the cobwebs of moralistic 80s self-censorship from our sleepy heads, there be Junior. 

That manic early 90s phase is long gone now, but for awhile cinema was a bonfire full of toothsome, fanged chestnuts. And way up atop the flickering flames there was Junior... blazing extra white before cracking open and spattering nut bits all over the living room.

Directed by that shaggy dog beachcomber director George Armitage, Miami Blues is a violent Marx Brothers opus writ large in the deadpan Elmore Leonard Miami of the 1980s. Allegedly about hangdog cop Hank Moseley (Fred Ward) loping after Junior for a bullshit manslaughter charge, it  co-stars Jennifer Jason Leigh as a dimwitted prostitute Junior plays house with, and features random crimes of utmost ballsiness, cop impersonation, and maximum mercurial morality. Junior may be insane but he has ethics. Rather than just mug innocents he robs crack dealers with a miniature plastic Uzi; rolls pickpockets for the wallets they just stole; knocks over bookies by playing cop with Mosely's stolen badge, and so forth. There's no rhyme or reason to Junior's actions, but everything is logical because he acts on our expectations based on what we see him see. If we see him in a convenience store during a robbery in progress, we naturally assume he'll try to stop it, as most heroes do in these kind of movies, so he does, even if all he has for a weapon is a jar of spaghetti sauce. If the security guard seems a little too cocky with his shotgun at the pawn shop, it's natural Junior will shoot him as soon as his back is turned, even if there's no real motive except to stay in the playful Joker-like fluidity of the moment, regardless of consequences.

There's no other way to really contextualize the anarchy at work here, unless we can glean the Marx Brothers connection within Junior's initial alias, Herman Gottlieb. A way more obscure reference than, say, Zombie's Firefly family, Gottlieb is the name of Sig Ruman's ever-fuming, Mrs. Claypool-flattering Baroni-signer in MGM's Night at the Opera (1935), a film I saw so many times as a kid that its textures and rhythms cloak me still in a kind of cinephile temple garment. And it's that very same garment that holds the secret to the madness of Baldwin's maniacal character, his crazy Marxian "life is but a dream so row-row yer way straight out the Truman Show" way of being. Forever caught in an old world (pre-WW2) bourgeois slow burn harrumph as Groucho dances verbal circles around him and Harpo sets his shoes on fire, it's only natural that old Mr. Gottlieb would eventually get his wallet lifted and identity stolen by a light-fingered Harpo out of Hell. How else might we measure the high crusting curves of the madness at work?

A straight edge with no sense of self awareness to impede its accuracy shall be thy only ruler.

The real Herman Gottlieb (Sig Ruman) center, and driving the bus top right
But Armitage doesn't rely on this Id-fulfillment to the point his film ceases to be entertaining or to function successfully as an Elmore Leonard-style palm tree-and-petty crime drama. He knows that if Junior's unleashed id is too self-serving, or sadistic, the result will cease to be fun and become instead merely lurid and disturbing (Killer's Moon, Devil's Rejects);  if too anarchic, the result would derail our narrative immersion (Daisies, Weekend). If it's juuuust right, then you got the Marx Brothers (in their first seven films), Bela Lugosi in The Raven, Timothy Carey (in everything) and... then.... it gets foggy. Who else is left?

Then the answer come a-back: Alec Baldwin. He's left. And now that Blues is on a crisp, gorgeous Shout Blu-ray it's not just a chance to remember how goddamned charismatic and hirsute old Alec was back then, it's a comforting sign that true anarchic Harpo Marx madness shall not perish from the screen... Baldwin--a classic film lover (and TCM regular commentator) gets it.


Most guys as good looking as Alec are, let's face it, dull as chalk - and many stay that way even after age gives their pan a Jake LaMotta. Occupied with making sure their hair is perfect, their best angle facing the camera, their neck long and their eyes twinkly, they forget to accrue depth. No emotion registers on their face lest wrinkles appear. As a result, they come across often as drugged narcissist automatons drained of all wit and regular guy who-gives-a-fuckitude. They become empty aquariums, dusty with the kind of self-righteous petulance they're convinced is the height of butch charisma.

Not our Baldwin.

With his Irish-American planted boxer balance, Baldwin comes off as real, a real guy, even when he's acting the part of a charming actor who knows he's fake. No easy feat, he makes Junior a true a cipher without being a bore about it. He's charming without being cocky; crazy without being aggravating. Better actors can't say that, nor worse ones. Best of all, he has the glint of real madness in his eyes, the kind you can't fake or buy, the kind that's playful but mature. He's cool without being pretentious, beyond the need for phony sentiment, but brave enough not to run from a real emotion should one ever breezes past.


A lot of us kids who grew up obsessively watching all the Marx Brothers and the Lugosi movies we could tape in the early 80s, naturally fell in love with Repo Man in 1984, but were left in the cold at the end of the 80s. In the pre-Tarantino-verse of 1990, Blues stood alone. We fans had a dupe of it on tape, of course, and had long grown used to the blurry pastel streaks of the decor and sky, the fuzzy short hair cuts of both Junior and Susie reduced to a blurry halo. With the new Shout Blu-ray its all sharp and clear, with a nice lovely sparkle to the sea and sky and deep 3-D blacks to every sun-dappled shadow. The 80s pastels are darker, more textured,  and the transfer is so sharp you can smell the salt of the sea. The extras include recent interviews with Baldwin and Jennifer Jason Leigh, who both admit really enjoying themselves with the project, the characters, and each other, and it shows then and now.

The film had its detractors at the time, some of whom declared it emblematic of a rise in nonsensical nihilism. Those critics were clearly pretentious twits, the type who mistakes bitterness for acumen, their minds hardened with dogmatic readings of western dialectical philosophy. Today they're probably going to see the remake of Far From the Maddening Crowd at some UWS theater with their embittered wives. Fuckin' A.

In other words, the average bourgeois white elephant filmgoer will not approve of Miami Blues, which seems like an open invitation to the underclasses to rise up and boot the bourgeoisie from their penthouses like Bane does in Dark Knight Rises. But Bane's not 'fun' like Junior.  He's more like the Joker, who could give a shit about what the rich do, and is just as likely to burn the money he has as put in a bank. He expresses our true id, not some sociological lefty treatise. He lets us release it vicariously. Out comes in gushing waves of joy, an air pocket of tyrannical childhood, the good with the bad all buried now rising like an oil gusher, lifting us up off the surface of our becalmed flat stoned moviegoing consciousness in a most pleasing way.

One wild man performance is worth three movies worth of 'importance' or 'meaning.'

We see Junior's kind of kinetic free-form insanity so seldom, especially in today's nanny state clime, that when it comes along in the form of dear old Baldwin it's like a precious little match in the Hans Christian Anderson blizzard of sanctified sanity. His is the flammable madness that takes that fluttery match and lights up the sky for just long enough we see the vastness of heaven. And then the match is out, the sky is dark, the house lights come back up, the veil of paralyzing self-consciousness descends once more like a clingy Psycho shower curtain, and not even Fred Ward can be held accountable for what we do to try and get the fire back. We wind up in rehab, or as deranged loners, buried deep in our bomb shelters, watching our Night of the Opera -The Thing  - My Man Godfrey - tape over and over 'til the tracking button can fix the worn streaks no more... and the last packet of powdered bourbon is long ago thrice soaked.


And if you know you're in a dream, that nothing is real, why wouldn't you do all the things you never had the nerve to do in reality? An old friend of mine (through another friend) from the Princeton Blues Traveler days, Fisher (not his real name), lived that way. A Bill Brasky / Paul Bunyan type of larger-than-life maniac, he was a living legend amongst the local mix of debauched upper dregs at the 80s hippie-music-Princeton Record Exchange / Hoagie Haven / stealing badges to crash the Princeton reunions / pre-fame Blues Traveler (say hello from "Boot in his Hair!") / Althea gave me her last double purple barrel (call me, Althea! I love you xoxo)- contingent.

That 'Fisher' he a some boy all right.
I thought they were just making Fisher up until I finally met him at a big outdoor bonfire keg party somewhere in the wilds of Princeton towards the back end of my tenure, so to speak. He seemed pretty normal, drinking, as we all did, talking about people I didn't know to people I sort of knew, but as the night wore on he spied some other dude he kind of didn't like from the other side of the bonfire and its throng, and then--with a crazy drunk falling motion, did mighty Fisher fling--in an overhand pinwheel motion, his head down, facing down (looking in the opposite direction of his target), in a seamless falling motion as if the it was released accidentally--his half full Bud tall boy high into the air, out of sight into the darkness.

If you've ever flung a half-full tall boy straight up in the air like a mortar backwards you know it's not easy to get either distance or accuracy and this was something so random it seemed like he just lost balance (no one but me was even watching him), upon releasing it he fell forwards, rolled and hid behind a car fender. The bottle soared up, way high, arced over the fire, and landed with pinpoint accuracy straight atop the guy's head, and-- with a thonk-- bounced off onto the ground, and landed face up. I don't even think a drop was spilled. 

I pretended not to notice and refrained from looking directly at either Fisher or the guy on the other side of the fire once he got hit, but I clocked him as this huge motherfucker in a frat jersey, who looked right over in Fisher's direction, and walking angrily, almost through the fire, right towards where Fisher hid, but by then Fisher had disappeared; the guy ran past me, and took off after him into the dark haunted forest around us. Fisher spent the rest of the party on the run, coming back to the keg periodically for a refill, suddenly glancing past me and running off; the guy entering frame a moment later in pursuit - not friendly pursuit, either, but seriously aching for a huge party-crashing bad vibe fight. Not sure if he ever caught him, but to this day it's the single most amazing throw I've ever seen.

But that story is nothing, Max shrugged it off as but lesser Fisher amidst the man's storied mythic annals. Last Max heard of him was 20 years ago when--inspired by Miami Blues, which by then had become a huge favorite--he stole a fireman's badge and was pulling over cars on the road to fuck with them and/or steal their drugs

And from then on they called him 'Princeton Blues.'

Soon after of course the neighborhood was altered by Blues Traveller's success, and while they were on tour, the rest of the crowd would be smoking crack and watching pre-code WB gangster movies on TCM, which I respected. I still have the tape they made me of Two Seconds, Picture Snatcher and Beast of the City. (TCM was rarity back then - my neighborhood didn't have it - few did). But where are any of them now? Who knows. My buddy got married. Drugs, fame, motorcycle accidents, and age took the rest. But hey, like pre-code WB film,  and like Miami Blues' Junior, man flies free and then...

 oops he fell. 

As we all did. 

But that's the arc of a gangster. It ends and it's time for teeth to be returned from whence they came. Walter Brennan in Red River asking for them back 'come grub' after losing them in a poker game to Chief Yowlachie, now called 2-Jaw Quo.

Detective Gummo, your teeth had never ground so free as they did in this man's hand; he carried them above the clouds, atop the spirit frog he could not refrain from biting.

"come chow, you get

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