I Woke Up Early The Day I Died
It's only September, but I'm more than willing to call I Woke Up Early The Day I Died the weirdest American independent film of the year?and in some ways the most original. Based on an unproduced screenplay by Edward D. Wood Jr., it plays like a painstaking reconstruction of a feature film lost for decades and decayed to the point of inscrutability. But it's not an old film. It was made last year in Los Angeles with a topnotch cast of bicoastal hipster actors, and it looks great?at once bright and grungy, with a spiky, punkish vibe reminiscent of Alex Cox's Repo Man. The director, Aris Iliopulos, hasn't just made a movie; he's made an artifact. Amazingly, if you're in an accepting frame of mind, it works.
Billy Zane plays The Thief, the film's antihero, who gets embroiled in a plot that's like a film noir rewritten as an old-time movie serial. In the film's opening moments, he busts out of an asylum while dressed as a nurse (from behind, with his broad shoulders and narrow hips, he could be a crossdressing linebacker), then goes on a bizarre odyssey through Los Angeles, boosting cars, evading cops and otherwise getting into trouble. After robbing a bank, he hides out in a cemetery, witnessing a funeral in the process, then accidentally allows the stolen cash to end up in a coffin at a mausoleum, intending to stop by later to reclaim it. But when he comes back, someone stole the cash?most likely one of the mourners, whose ranks include caretaker Ron Perlman, preacher Will Patton, undertaker Carel Struycken (the giant in Twin Peaks and Lurch in the Addams Family films), assistant undertaker Max Perlich and go-go dancer Sandra Bernhard. The Thief obtains a list of the mourners and confronts them one by one over the course of the next few days, invariably killing them when they fail to produce the loot. And that's pretty much all there is to the movie, plotwise.
Of course, plot never mattered to Ed Wood, and he was never adept at articulating what did matter because he didn't have much talent as a filmmaker. He has often been called the worst director of all time; the Voice's J. Hoberman aptly described him as a creator of "anti-masterpieces." But it's worth pointing out that while I Woke Up Early hews closely to Wood's unproduced script, it's an inventive and intensely watchable movie, which suggests that perhaps Wood's random, free-associative, almost childlike sense of what to put into a story was less of a handicap than his inability to hook up with genuinely talented actors or figure out where to put the camera and how to use editing to further the narrative. In other words, mediocre-to-talented directors need good scripts, otherwise their films tend to stink, but for the handful of truly great film artists, the issue is nearly moot. If Wood had been a great director?a director of genius, or at least considerable talent?the ludicrous randomness of his scripts wouldn't have mattered a bit. When you think about it, the screenplays to most films by Val Lewton, Brian De Palma and, most notoriously, David Lynch don't make any goddamn sense, either; if you looked at the stories on paper, as narrative-plus-dialogue blueprints for movies, you might think they were written by complete morons. (I'd love to hear someone try to convince me that the scripts to Wild At Heart and Lost Highway are better than the ones for Plan 9 and Glen Or Glenda.)
Iliopulos is no genius, but he has loads of talent?and because the movie is short and fast and tightly focused, flourishes that could come off as grotesque and indulgent seem playful. The action occurs in a universe that's part old, part new, all nightmare. The streets and many of the costumes are modern, and the actors are all familiar from recent films and tv shows, yet other elements?like the 1940s cars in some scenes, and the bank that's robbed by The Thief, which is laid out like something in a Western?are fake-retro. (The scratchy, faded stock footage Iliopulos cuts to during transitions, and sometime in the middle of scenes, really is retro.) To underline the idea of the movie as a "found" or "reconstructed" artifact, the director often freezes the action and superimposes screenplay directions over the image ("INT.?SANITARIUM?DUSK").
Except for music (mostly speed metal and imitation punk and a couple of oddball picks, like that disco version of "Also Sprach Zarathustra") and a few post-dubbed audio effects, the soundtrack is threadbare, and some of the action is speeded up, filmed with a herky-jerky camera or both. It's like a silent movie made by Martians.
The performances further the extraterrestrial silent film aura. Iliopulos and his improv-talented cast go wild with the material, feeding an exhibitionist, expressionist jones that's rarely satiated by modern Hollywood; yet they never do anything that dishonors the Ed Wood vibe?a vibe that combines innocence, showmanship, shame and a nearly paralyzing fear of depravity.
I was especially impressed by Zane, a bold, crazy, polymorphous actor who still hasn't gotten the acclaim he deserves. He took a lot of heat for his performance in Titanic, but it's worth noting that at the time, that film was beloved by much of the viewing public; average viewers and empathetic critics deeply resented elements that broke James Cameron's spell and reminded them they were watching a movie?and it just so happened that Zane's glowering, one-dimensional performance as the greedy rat bastard fiance?Howard Hughes plus Dick Dastardly?was the flashpoint of their anger. But with a little distance from Titanic, it's possible to appreciate Zane's performance as a sneaky, funny commentary on the film's bludgeoningly old-fashioned methods. His work recalled pre-sound movie serials because the movie did. I suspect that Zane, as an honest and smart actor, simply couldn't help telling the truth about Titanic, and Cameron was either too dense or to preoccupied to see what Zane was up to.
I Woke Up Early is just as artificial and old fashioned, but the whole movie is a work of excavation and commentary; as a result, though Zane's performance is much wilder than in Titanic, or any anything else he's done, it's in context, so it makes a peculiar kind of sense. What he does here is unique, maybe a little reckless. On the set and on the spot, he is physically and facially recreating the kinds of performances we see in old movies that have been decayed and distorted by age and improper care. He has a strange, jittery walk, slightly sidelong, almost apelike; his eyes are wild, the eyes of a silent film actor who never unlearned stage habits, or perhaps a drug addict craving his next fix. It's the Method plus Kabuki. The filmmaker is on board with Zane's wild-assed creativity; you can tell by the way the actor has been lit, framed and made up. The costume department has fitted him with one of the strangest hairpieces I've ever seen?it's like somebody scalped the lead singer of Prodigy, fried his hair in a pan with very little butter and plopped it atop Zane's skull while it was still hot. Zane acts like a man whose brain is on fire.
directed by Rose Troche
The less said about Rose Troche's long-awaited follow-up to Go Fish, the better. Set in upper middle-class, yuppified London, this ensemble comedy about romance (straight and gay) has a dated script and direction that's not clever or interesting. Go Fish was interesting to look at; it seemed to have been made with a bit of visual sense, and the low budget, coupled with the black-and-white 16-mm photography, made you inclined to give it bonus points.
Bedrooms looks terrific?the warm color photography, by Ashley Rowe, is some of the best I've seen in a romantic comedy. But Troche has a cliched idea of what constitutes direction: She moves the camera around and around people during otherwise ordinary group conversations to make them more "exciting"; she moves the camera slowly from one vantage point to another to make the scene more "engrossing"; she zooms in very slowly on actors during dramatic monologues to achieve "intensity." There are a couple of long, long Steadicam shots, not because they enhance or comment on the nature of the scene, but because young directors now feel they have to do long, long Steadicam shots to prove they're real directors.
All the wasted motion can't distract from the fact that while Bedrooms And Hallways would have seemed fresh and necessary in 1989, 10 years later it's old news?like something on Sex and the City, only not as witty and knowing. The hero, Leo (Kevin McKidd), is a gay man who goes through an adventure of discovery after joining a men's group (a very 1989 idea); the ostensibly straight man he falls for (James Purefoy) is going through a trial separation from his longtime wife (Jennifer Ehle, who looks so much like a twentysomething Meryl Streep it's scary). Simon Callow has some amusing bits as the men's group leader, though again, it's not exactly an original or useful part.
There are three very good scenes?a postcoital conversation between the men about the difference between straight and gay love; a blistering confrontation about the future of their relationship; a flirtation between the hero and his lover's wife where Troche's camera dips down to check out his hand caressing her knee?and a terrific performance by Tom Hollander as the hero's more overtly queeny roommate. All in all, though, it's a disappointing followup to a distinctive and promising debut.
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