Friday, January 13

The Directors: Bob Rafelson

For a short while, he was at the very center of the American New Wave that I referred to in my piece on Movie-Making in the 1970s.  Like his contemporaries, he wasn't looking for the cotton candy, happiness and Technicolor of the past, but rather a bitter look at truth, disillusionment and seemingly focusing on what folks were against rather than what they were for. When Bob Rafelson starting directing films, it was during a period of commercial and artistic revival. He and other brat-boy directors usually had a film school background, ventured freely into the counter-culture and were young and catered to them.
If you don't know Rafelson's name, you will certainly know a few of his films.  At least you do if you were one of the young in the 70s.

He once said if I direct 10 pictures I'll be lucky.  While he has directed television, some shorts and documentaries, he has, in fact, only directed 10 theatrical films.  The first was in 1968 and the most recent in 2002.  Of the 10, four are with his longtime buddy, Jack Nicholson.  I must say I incredibly liked three in his library and it is due to them that I became more and more acquainted with his work and his style.

He seemed to have had a plucky style of directing and writing.  His ship usually set sail for the Sea of Dysfunction.  Life was often just not working out for his characters. They were longing for something they were usually never going to get and their solutions were sadly worse than their problems, although dramatically more pleasing, of course.  His actors were always up to the challenge of seeing life through Rafelson's wary eyes.  And why wouldn't they be up to the challenge when they went by names like Jessica Lange, Ellen Burstyn, Bruce Dern, Debra Winger, Sally Field and Jeff Bridges, along with Nicholson.

He was born in New York City to a hat ribbon manufacturer. As a teen he took off as often as he could so he could sop up life as one sops up gravy with a piece of bread.  He worked the rodeo circuit in Arizona, was a drummer in Acapulco and had a brief time on a tramp steamer.  He eventually studied philosophy at Dartmouth. But then he was drafted and stationed in Japan.  While there and working as a disc jockey, he translated Japanese films and somehow was sought out to advise what films would be successful in the States.

He was learning about films and the various ways that foreign movie-makers made them, especially the Italian Neo-Realism and the French New Wave.  He had a talent for writing but he also had a yen to be a director because, let's face it, like all directors, he wanted to be in charge.  Combining that with some definitive ideas about the state of the world, he had some things he wanted to say. Sometimes he had some of his characters say his words and sometimes he was only too happy to say them himself.

He first ventured into television on a David Susskind program and worked on a number of shows in various capacities but often as a writer.  In 1962 he moved to Hollywood where he went to work at Universal Studios as an associate producer for some of the studio's television series.  One day Rafelson and studio chieftain, Lew Wasserman, had a difference of opinion and Rafelson apparently rearranged the mogul's office.  In firing him, Wasserman said he needed to learn it is a collaborative process.

Rafelson went into the producing business with his pal, Bert Schneider and their maiden effort was the 1966-68 hit TV show, The Monkees.  Even though it had a distinct feel of the adventures of the Beatles, Rafelson said he had the idea before he knew who the Beatles were.  He did organize the Monkees' band and got it on its way. He also assigned himself his first directing chores in several episodes.

Films held his attention and he first broke into them with another Monkees' saga, Head (1968). I hang my head in shame to say I've never seen it and I've also never heard anything good about it.  To think I missed a movie featuring Victor Mature, Annette Funicello and Dennis Hopper.  What a trio.

A third friend was added to the production team, Steve Blauner, and the business became known as BBS.  They produced two films, neither of which Rafelson directed, that caused a lot of attention, 1969s Easy Rider (talk about counterculture) and 1971s The Last Picture Show.

While Rafelson would continue to both produce and write, he was eager for that directing career to take off.  He and Nicholson had been friends for a few years and the actor, known mainly for his weird little American-International B-flicks, was thinking of taking up another profession. Rafelson had co-written a story called Five Easy Pieces, and thought it might be a success for him and his buddy.  The 1970 film focused on a belligerent s.o.b., a former concert pianist who is working as an oil rigger and traveling with his flighty galpal to see his ill father.  It feels an awfully lot like a stream of consciousness rather than a bona fide plot but it works like a jewel thanks mainly to Rafelson's superb direction and writing and Nicholson's megawatt acting.  It is a potpourri of marvelous scenes but none more so than this one: 

The boys were back at it again two years later for The King of Marvin Gardens.  It concerned dreamers (or nitwits, if you take a more hardened approach), two previously-estranged brothers who plan to develop property on a Pacific Island.  I'm not so sure it was a good movie (lots of big speeches and too scattered and ponderous) and it was not financially successful, but I was always, always fascinated by Nicholson and then Ellen Burstyn and Bruce Dern didn't hurt either.

Stay Hungry (1976) made me want to run to a buffet.  At stake in some illegal scheme is a neighborhood gym that looks to be shut down by greedy shysters.  The man who will do some of the dirty work ends up taking a shine to the folks who work there which makes things get a little fuzzy. I confess that I couldn't stand Arnold Schwarzenegger (in his film debut and not even yet the pompous non-actor he would become) and I thought Jeff Bridges was too young for his role, so the casting made the film not work for me. 

Rafelson at Cannes with his Postman stars

I never had a moment of hesitation about how much I loved Rafelson's next project, the 1981 remake of 1945s The Postman Always Rings Twice.  It is my favorite of those 10 films he made.  It has taken more hits than I care for, too, but to my mind's eye it has something very rare going on for it... it is a remake that is every bit as good as the original.  What this version has is S-E-X. Let's recall the review of the original... a drifter wonders into a roadside cafe, secures a job and the charms of the young, unhappy wife of the proprietor.  So one can say that both screenplays concern sex. The difference, of course, was this was the early 80s, and sex was in your face.  Or in this case, the kitchen table.  I'm surprised the fire extinguishers didn't go off in the theater.

This was a raw film because it was about raw people and their raw emotions.  Yeah, yeah, I know it sounds like I scrawled that on one of the film's provocative posters, but dammit, that's what goes on here.  I read once that what Rafelson chose to make bolder in his version was the clear introduction of sadomasochism.  This was a pair for the ages and Nicholson and Jessica Lange (not quite famous yet) bring their best game (but didn't they always?).

Before this superb film, Rafelson had a more inglorious experience when he began directing the Robert Redford prison yarn, Brubaker (1980).  This film engaged me completely and even though Rafelson went uncredited on some of the screenplay, more importantly he didn't finish it because he was canned.  He has longed denied the rumor that he punched someone out.

Theresa Russell and Debra Winger of Black Widow

He waited a curious six years before directing another picture but luckily that turned out to be Black Widow (1987). Theresa Russell stars as a gold-digger who marries men and kills them to collect the insurance and Debra Winger is a Department of Justice agent out to nab her. It was not difficult to miss the hints of lesbianism.  It occasionally lost some focus which keeps it from being as good as everyone surely wanted it to be, but it's still a decent murder opus with definite noir undertones and a staggering performance by Russell.  When it comes to wicked female roles, this ranks right up there with the most memorable.

Before he made Stay Hungry, Rafelson spent a year traveling around West Africa researching a film about the slave trade. Unfortunately nothing came of that film but undoubtedly the time spent there would be of a benefit in his making Mountains of the Moon (1990).  It is said to be his favorite film and by most accounts it's his last good one.

It is based on the true story of a 1850s expedition by Sir Richard Burton and Lt. John Hanning Speke to find the source of the Nile. It is a colorful, exciting tale that also had a lot to say about friendship.  The director obviously had a love of the Dark Continent which comes through in this completely fascinating film. It might have benefitted more from a big-name cast.

His final three films, none of which did I see, apparently went from bad to worse.  They include his final two with Nicholson, Man Trouble (1992) and Blood and Wine (1996) and No Good Deed (2002).  All were poorly received... and that, as they say, completed the predicted 10 movies he said he would make.

Did he quit making films simply to fulfill a prophecy, to be right? Had the lack of success of his last films done him in?  Had the magic disappeared with the 70s?  By the time of his last film, it is agreed that films were no longer made as they were in the 70s.  Did that annoy him enough to quit? Had he fallen more out of step? Had he made too many enemies?  Had he never made peace with the collaborative process?  
Could it have been some of that and also more personal?  In 1973 he had a 10-year old daughter killed in a home explosion. He'd been divorced and remarried with a new family.  He loved Aspen, Colorado, and had moved there full-time.  Perhaps the bright lights of Hollywood just no longer appealed to him as much as tranquil, mountain beauty.

He once said on the subject... if it happens that people respond to your work in your lifetime, well, you're very lucky.  In some ways it gives you permission to go on making movies.  But if you don't get the applause, well, there are other things.  I mean, after all, there's your life to live.

Rafelson is still alive.  I very much admired some of his early work and would love to know why he packed it all in.  If he's saying it's because the applause died, why does he think that happened? Maybe we can take a line that he wrote for Nicholson to say in Five Easy Pieces... I'm getting away from things that get bad if I stay.

Next posting:
Good 70s Films

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