Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

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 this Alec Baldwin as Junior, a sublimely deadpan representative of our id-unleashing dreams. A herald for the maniac renaissance of the early 90s, before Mr. Blonde, Mickey and Mallory Knox, Wendy Kroy, Hannibal Lecter, Tommy in Goodfellas, Harvey in Bad Lieutenant, Lisa in Girl, Interrupted all popped up from our moldy floorboards to kick the cobwebs of moralistic 80s self-censorship from our heads, there was 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.

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 Willard) loping after Junior for a bullshit manslaughter charge, it's really more about... well, maybe less than the sum of its parts. Oh, but what parts! There's co-star Jennifer Jason Leigh as a dimwitted prostitute Junior plays house with; random crimes of utmost ballsiness, cop impersonation, and maximum mercurial morality. Junior may be insane but he has ethics: robbing crack dealers with a miniature plastic Uzi; mugging pickpockets for the wallets they just stole; knocking over bookies and playing cop with Mosely's stolen badge. 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 seeing a robbery in progress we naturally assume he'll try to stop it, so he does, even if all he has for a weapon is a jar of spaghetti sauce. If Pedro 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, aside from the playful Joker-like fluidity of the moment.

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 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 connection holds the secret to the madness of Baldwin's maniacal character, that crazy Marxian "life is but a dream" row-row yer way straight out the Truman Show bubble direction. 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 madness?

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 would bee 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 let-a me tell you, boss, now you got something. 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 gets it. The spirit of Warren William is alive in him.


Most guys as good looking as Alec are, let's face it, dull as chalk - and many stay that way even after age does a Jake LaMotta on their kisser. 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 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. He's 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, cool without being pretentious, beyond the need for phony sentiment brave enough not to run from real emotion if it 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 no darker 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, one of the first things I ever read in The Daily Orange - Syracuse University's student-run newspaper- was a scathing review of it, which declared it emblematic of a rise in nonsensical nihilism. The writer was clearly a pretentious twit, the type of undergraduate who mistakes his 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 them from their penthouses like Bane in Dark Knight Rises. But Bane's a drag. We love The Joker, because like Junior, the Joker keeps his grip on the termite megalomania of early childhood, and so has no urge to burn out the white elephant hoi poloi except via silver screen termite effigy. All that rage we used to excise via the now outgrown release mechanism of temper tantrums was just waiting for a miracle like Bela Lugosi in The Raven or Harpo Marx in Night at the Opera to release it. 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 a peak-bubble Baldwin it's like a precious little match in the Hans Christian Anderson blizzard of sanctified sanity. His is the 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 Willard 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 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 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 / Althea gave me her last double purple barrel - 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. He seemed pretty normal but as the night wore on he spied some other dude he kind of didn't like from the other end of the throng, and then, with a crazy drunk falling motion flung--in an overhand pinwheel motion--his half full Bud tall boy high into the air in this guy's direction. If you've ever flung a half-full tall boy straight up in the air like a mortar 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, upon releasing it he fell backwards and hid behind a car, as 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. I'd never seen anything quite like it.

Fisher (not his real name) didn't do this to impress anyone. He didn't even know anyone was watching (and I was the only one). I pretended not to notice and refrained from looking at him as the guy he hit, a huge motherfucker in a frat jersey, started running right toward the car behind which Fisher hid, and then he took off after him into the scrub brush. Fisher spent the rest of the party on the run, coming back to the keg periodically for a refill. To this day it's the single most amazing throw I've ever seen -- he never even aimed or even looked at the guy directly before throwing it. Even when fighting or being chased he never seemed like it was anything but a friendly scrap with a old buddy.

But that story is nothing, Max shrugged it off as lesser Fisher. Last Max heard of him was 20 years ago when--inspired by Miami Blues--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 smotten by Blues Traveller's success, and while they were on tour, the rest of the crowd would be smoking crack, or worse, 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 - I didn't have it). And like pre-code WB film, Miami Blues man flies free while we.... oops it 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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