Sunday, April 26, 2009

Perfect night to see a New Wave screwball Kafkaesque noir at the Cinematheque

Perfect Night to See a Screwball Kafkaeque Noir at the CinemathequeIt was umbrella weather last night, with gusty winds and light rain alternating with sudden drenching thundershowers. In short, a perfect night for us to take shelter in the UW Cinematheque while they showed Arthur Penn's long neglected Hollywood salute to the French New Wave -- Mickey One, a bizarre and unforgettable attempt to combine New Wave, screwball, noir and Kafkaesque elements.

Penn's Mickey One was the last film in their series, Treasures from the UCLA Film and Television Archive. The black-and-white 1965 movie features Warren Beatty as a once successful stand-up comic who now plays second-rate clubs under an assumed identity (Mickey One) because he thinks the Mob is after him. Maybe they are. Maybe they aren't. Maybe he's just suffering from extreme performance anxiety.

In any case, he's on the run and paranoid as hell. The movie is a disorganized mess, but I love its junkyard surrealism, experimental verve and playfulness. And also its gritty black and white cinematography of the seamy side of life in midcentury Chicago, from the dives on Rush Street to a nightmarish scenes in a vast auto junkyard, where Beatty's paranoid fears turn a gigantic auto crane and a car-crushing metal compactor into surreal, fearsome predators. What has he done to merit such nonstop pursuit? What is he guilty of? In my favorite line in the film -- one that might even have made Kafka smile -- the question is put to Beatty, and he answers, "I'm guilty of not being innocent."

Peter Stack reviewed Mickey One in the San Francisco Chronicle when the Castro theater managed to get a print in 1995 for their "Dark Side of Show Business" film festival.
But fortune quickly turns -- witness to a torture murder in a back room, the comic flees, hoboes his way to Chicago's West Side and takes refuge in a junkyard. There he runs into another nightmarish scene -- police investigating a murder in an automobile crusher. The cinematic invention in Mickey One has been dismissed by some critics as contrivance. But Penn may have been decades ahead of his time in depicting an urban America as gallery of paranoia, cynicism and loneliness.

In a classic scene, the comic is up against a brick wall auditioning at a nightclub, a single, powerful spotlight trained on him so he can't see into the audience. Penn creates an agonizing moment of a man talking awkwardly to God while looking as if he's standing before a firing squad.
Stack was right -- that scene is an unforgettable classic. But Columbia (now Sony) seems to have been trying to get us to forget the film ever since it was made. Columbia hated the film. They put it in limited release and buried it in outdoor theaters. It's never been in DVD. It was once in LaserDisc, but those are rare (one used copy is listed on Amazon for $395 as I write).

Ironically, the movie that disappeared lived on as a soundtrack album, its jazz score by Eddie Sauter featuring memorable saxophone improvisations by Stan Getz. Sure be great if Sony finally decided to let Mickey One listeners and old movie fans see what all the fuss is about by releasing a DVD version.

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