Tag Archives: 80s

Vampire’s Kiss (1988)

9 Jan

Watching Vampire’s Kiss is like watching a mad, performing animal; occasionally glimpsing what looks to be a zipper on its back, up near its tufty black neck, half-hidden beneath the fur. Behind the animal, out of the corner of our eye, we see – or think we see – the twirl of a moustache; some pulleys and puppet strings; hidden and fiendish mechanics. We leave the theatre not knowing whether we have just watched a cruel and mindless spectacle or an intricate pastiche of the same. Once again, it was Nicolas Cage who was billed in bright shining lights on the marquee as we entered the theatre and surely Nic who was looking at us from within the dancing bear suit, giving us a knowing wink from beneath the furry mask barely perceptible upon the darkened stage.

Hello you! After a Christmas and New Year hiatus, Cage Wisdom returns like a squawking and insufferable baby cuckoo to the warm and homely nest of online film criticism. Just as Rudolf needs his brandy-soaked carrots to keep him going through the long nights of the season, so too do we Cage fanatics need new Nicolas Cage movies, like brightly burning SAD lamps, to ward off Jack Frost with his big black sack of melancholia. Yet, while watching Cage deport himself madly upon the film stage, strutting and flailing, may have kept my humours in check, Vampire’s Kiss is a film about a man who can’t do the same; a man called Peter Loew whose black bile we watch bubble up through the movie like a sadly salted slug.

Peter Loew is a literary agent by day and womanizing bar-fly by night. He is not, seemingly, a man of friends, exemplified by the fact that instead of some cherished loved one, he keeps within his office a framed photograph of Franz Kafka, a man who died around three decades before his own birth. He was born in Philadelphia, yet speaks with what sometimes sounds to be an affected English accent. Perhaps like Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) in Spike Lee’s ludicrously underrated Bamboozled (2000), Loew affects a continental accent (and Kafka portraiture) in order to appear more cultured to the colleagues he has failed to bond with.

Cage’s voice is at its most expressive as he attempts a form of ‘vocal gurning’ encompassing whines, cackles, whoops and bellows. The effect is singular because the dialogue is simple and unadorned. Characters state intentions and ask questions clearly, without recourse to, say, the syntactical pirouettes of the Coen Brothers or the stunted half-sentences of David Mamet. So, in contrast to the Coen’s Raising Arizona, where the stylisation of the script matched the cartoon eccentricities of the performance, Joseph Minion’s script is a blank slate where Cage is free to kick up some manic chalk dust! Lines are made quotable, not due to their inherent absurdity (although the situations in which these lines occur are absurd) but due to Cage’s inspired, gesticulatory deliveries. Often, Cage has (perhaps behind scenes) devised some arm-thrusting hand-bending gesture which, throwing caution to the wind, he pairs with an otherwise innocuous line. Consider, for example, his delivery of the phrase “It’s all you have to do”:

It’s all…you have…to do!!!

The stills above are taken from a scene in Loew’s psychiatrist’s office. During these sessions Loew enters into rants of raging, sulking, petulant defiance like some righteous shock jock, on topics as diverse as proper filing etiquette (“You just put it in the right file!”) and bat bite induced erections (“I was a little drunk… plus I was horny.”) When we meet Loew he is already dangling from sanity’s gorge by a precious thread, but when the clandestine bat bite leads to the belief that he has become a vampire, resulting in a remarkable sequence in which Cage rushes down a New York street proclaiming his vampirism to passers-by, Elizabeth Ashley’s psychiatrist becomes a locus of sanity for the audience, who watches Loew’s erratic descent with concerned, yet bemused detachment.

Another figure of sympathetic engagement is Maria Conchita Alonso’s Alva, who is tormented and bullied by Loew through the film. The scenes between the two at first elicit laughter due to Loew’s ludicrous expectations of his secretary and become gradually more troubling and distressing as Alva’s psychological distress becomes increasingly apparent. The effect is not dissimilar to watching Jack Nicolson’s Jack Torrence torment Shelly Duvall’s Wendy in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). At first, Nicolson’s charisma and derelict charms ask us to root for the bad boy, to take snide and secret joy in how Jack lords it over the quivering Wendy. Kubrick almost constructs a litmus test for the audience, tempting us to hold out sympathy for the victim, until a point where not to do so would be to share in Jack’s psychosis. We begin by cheering on the exciting male transgressor and end up inadvertently cheering for a monster.

Yet, Cage’s charms are of a more daffy variety than Nicolson’s. At first, we resist seeing Loew at a monster, not due to his “machoistic” charisma, but precisely due to his lack of it. Strutting through bars searching for ladies, he seems like nought but a dandified yuppie, whose limp handshake and foppish parting belie his attempts at suavity.

Later, when he is bitten and gormlessly seduced by a (possible) vampiress he is a tragic yet witless victim – the rubbish younger brother of an Oedipus or Hamlet, undone by his own pants buckle. Before Vampire’s Kiss Cage had mostly played gangly firecrackers, young idealists, lovers and whippersnappers, so an audience as of yet unfamiliar with his idiosyncracies, may have been surprised to watch him lauch so energetically into dereliction and depravity. Yet, what fascinates about Loew is that even when hollerin’ and psychotic, he remains wretched. Though the Kafka portrait is not matched by a labyrinthine design, gnomic dialogue, or enigmatic direction, Loew is as hopeless and festering as Gregor Samsa and the film, like Birdy from 5-years previous, shows Cage at his most hunched and beetley.

Like some bizarre Vaudevillian magician!

Also, while fun, the film is a little unkempt and abject. It’s both much darker and dafter than expected, with passages of absurdist humour followed by moments of genuine unpleasantness. It’s a curious beast, but not without its strange delights, especially from Cage who is a whole curiosity cabinet of contradictions; manic yet controlled; aggressive and submissive; hair brill-creamed but foppish. These apparent contradictions might suggest that the role should feel fragmentary and disjunctive, but through the repetition of stylised gestures and vocal mannerisms he holds it together, like some mad acting robot that’s learnt emotions and gone haywire!

BOO-HOO! BOO-HOO!

Peter Loew may not be a good vampire, but Nic seduces with the best of them, convincing you through his sheer commitment to the role of his character’s insanity. By the end of the film Loew’s delusions have grown fully fledged and he’s stalking through the nightclubs looking for prey with a black suit and a plastic fang over-bite, like a cartoon Vincent Price half remembered from Saturday morning tv.  He walks stiffly through the crowds and, on meeting a lady charmed by his eccentricity, gestures graciously like the count and chitters his teeth.

We’ve come full circle back to the early scenes of Loew’s bar haunting, but now he is fully ensconced within the jaws of madness and can never go home again. A low-rent tragic hero Loew may be, but Cage gives no half-measures in transforming himself into a shambling wreck.

This is what Nic does at his best, he makes the ludicrous inarguably convincing. There’s a much recounted scene in which Loew (and Cage) eat a cockroach crawling across the stove in his apartment. Originally the script asked for Loew to eat a raw egg. Yet for Cage there must be a sacrifice, a ritual, a gesture towards the authenticity of his character. Like Werner Herzog insisting that a real boat be pulled up a mountain, simulacra isn’t enough. This kind of method acting registers Cage’s early love for Marlon Brando and James Dean, who acted with an intensity that became inseparable from their lives. Yet Cage is also, to paraphrase David Lynch, a ‘jazz actor’ and this was his self-proclaimed Picasso period and while this never meant anything as literal as descending a staircase naked, it meant mixing things up and giving a distorted vision of angular shapes and ritualistic repetitions. Here, deep in the late 80s of synth-pop anthems and sensible hair, Cage offer us an experiment in form and if that means jumping on a desk and reciting lines like he’s doing the macarina, then jimminy-f’ing-cricket he’ll do it.

post scriptum: at the height of his Vampire fever, Loew sleeps under a leather three-piece-suite as if it were a coffin. This is inspired!

I'm sleeping easy tonight!

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The Boy in Blue (1986)

23 Nov

"Cute, isn't he?"

It’s The Boy in Blue, described by the Radio Times as “energy and tension” and by the New York Times as “a caricature of several better films”. A deservedly forgotten Cage, this film is of use only to fan boys and girls who want topless fodder for their diaries, people who’ve made some perverse pledge to watch Nicolas Cage in all available forms and those who really enjoy a good sliding seat.  But nevertheless, let’s soldier on and define our terms:

Blue

Cage plays Ned Hallan, a turn of the century Canadian rower who “becomes the first to successfully utilise the ‘sliding seat'”. Of which more later. The entire film seems to be background to Cage’s eyes: his shirt is blue, his headband is blue, the boat is blue, the water is blue, the whole film seems to be tinted grey-blue. Cage’s eyes are delicate rock-pools of blue in his hulking meat-sculpted body (of which more later).

Blue

He wears a baby blue shirt to row in, and consequently gets nicknamed ‘the boy in blue’ by a journalist, a nickname that causes Ned to exclaim with a look of extreme dismay: “that makes me sound like some kind of fancy boy!”

‘Fancy Boy’ sounds like something my grandma would use as euphemism for gay, but perhaps in this context it just means a mannered, slightly foppish man. In any case: Ned is NOT THAT. He’s rough and tumble, rough and ready, a “young thoroughbred”, a moonshine-brewing, sex-out-of-wedlock having, Canadian “common John”. This point has to be rammed home to make the difference between him and his aristocratic belle more prominent.

The film only differs from the standard sporting achievement movie in that people are wearing caps and crinolines. At Ned’s first race, his manager runs alongside the bank shouting: “Row Ned, row! It’s a hundred to one, Ned! A hundred to one!” and, to paraphrase Terry Pratchett, when the odds are exactly a hundred to one, it’s as good as certain. Old scruffy Ned also has his eye on prim and proper young Margaret, a woman both far above his social status and also engaged. Could he possibly win her heart by the end of the film? (hint: “It’s a hundred to one, Ned! A hundred to one!”)

Blue

For most of the film, Ned is too much of a lunk-head to get very overcome by emotion. I was momentarily distracted during this part of the film, but I suspect that his distraught pose was something to do with a rejection from the ever-so-unattainable prim Margaret. The fact that he has one sock on and one sock off strikes me as a charming Cageism in a performance that’s not as charismatic as usual.

But you can hardly blame him. The dialogue is all: “quit your lollygagging!”, “you balmy coot!” and “For God’s sake man, row!”, and all the film really requires of him is to get some impressionable men to buy a rowing machine.

Available at Argos now.

In the above scene, Ned ‘practices’ on a primitive rowing machine, while various whiskered men watch him and eat cucumber sandwiches. One of them comments “It’s like a moving sculpture”, effectively summing up Cage’s role in one dismissive sentence. The appeal of the film is in the appreciation of  finely oiled machines – both Ned’s rowing boat and his body. Both are glistening and burnished, both lavishly caressed by the camera’s soft-focus gaze.

Even prim Margaret can’t help but check Ned out when he stands in a stable, sticky with sweat from the strenuous exercise he’s just been performing (he’s so sticky in this scene that a fly lands on his shoulder to have a taste, but of course Nic’s a pro and doesn’t bat an eyelid). It feels like not commenting on Nicolas Cage’s buffed-up body is doing him a disservice in this film. All three stills on the DVD menu show the muscles bulging under his skin like rats in a sack; this is what he’s here for: eye candy and sailing propaganda.

Man meets Seat

The film’s partially financed by a Regatta, which perhaps explains why the rowboat’s ‘sliding seat’ is Nicolas Cage’s co-star, whatever the DVD box has to say about Christopher Plummer.The rowing seat as we know it today began here, sliding Ned Hallan up and down. “Slides boy, slides, slides like butter!” exclaims the mad scientist who built this outlandish creation. Undoubtedly, the sliding seat was an important development in the rowing world, but to someone un-athletic, idly making fun of a mostly-forgotten film, it seems like an endearing eccentric object to structure a film around.

“Every era has it’s own kind of hero” half-rhymes the DVD box, and perhaps too, every development in sporting technology has it’s own poorly-recieved movie.

P.S.

Highlight of the film.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) – A tale of three screencaps.

9 Nov

Fast Times at Ridgemont High was Nicolas “Cage” Coppola’s first movie role, in a film filled with the first appearances of several well lauded Hollywood actors, including old craggle-face himself, Sean Penn, in a role diametrically opposite the ones he has cultivated in every film since. The film itself follows the life and times of several teenagers who go to high school, work in the mall and fail to make any jokes out of the fact that they have a teacher called Mr Hand. Cage himself plays a mysterious character only referred to in the credits as ‘Brad’s bud’ despite the fact that they had no interaction whatsoever within the film. What’s the story here? We at Cage Wisdom leave no stone unturned when examining the underbelly of Cage and so to probe further we shall analyse the three shots which represent (and literally compose) Cage’s role in the film.

Cage reacts

Brad (Judge Reinhold), so-called ‘bud’ of Cage’s character, is mid-altercation with a customer disgruntled over his breakfast. Brad, clearly out of his depth, ducks down below the counter of the burger bar to mime a fake search for some forms he knows he has not got. Then we cut to Cage and a man who is not famous. Here we see why. Cage’s glance seems to say, “This shit happens. You work an honest day and some guy comes in and give you Hell, but Brad, buddy, don’t lose it. I know what you’re like. I know that this is the kind of thing that gets your rag but calm down man, he’s not worth it. I’m your bud.” The glance of a man who is not famous seems to say, “They told me to look this way.”

Yet Brad does explode and soon, in a shot where he is framed standing in front of his own employee of the month certificate, is fired. Cage however does not intervene and offers no shoulder to cry on. No words of advice. In fact, we do not see ‘Brad’s bud’ again for another half an hour.

This is not just acting, this is Nicolas Cage acting.

If the man who was not famous were in this shot, he would just make the same expression as before. This is not good enough for Nicolas Cage. He’s on his feet, clapping his hands in spirited appreciation of Ridgemont High’s football success. Here we’re given a glimpse of what Brad’s bud is like when he’s able to hang loose. He’s obviously seriously engaged in the game, but this being an 80s high school drama, we might expect some adherence to a jock archetype that is clearly not present here. With his slim physique and floppy hair, he looks as if he might write for the school newspaper, hang out with the drama club and kick back with a Simon and Garfunkel album in his spare time. Even at this early stage of his career, Cage defies expectation. More importantly, he is not sat with Brad. Could Brad’s altercation have been the final nail in the coffin for an already shaky friendship?

We don’t see Cage again for the rest of the film. He seems to opt out of the graduation ball, perhaps choosing to read a book at home, or perhaps unable to reschedule a shift at work. Perhaps he is just too disgusted with Brad to imagine seeing his face again. If you look closely at the above screen grab you can see Cage’s credit second from bottom, but listed with his birth name ‘Nicolas Coppola’, not ‘Nicolas Cage’ to which he changed his name, so as not to rely upon his famous family’s Hollywood prestige. This would be the first and last movie in which he was billed as Coppola and consequently, Fast Times at Ridgemont High can legitimately be called a turning point in Nicolas Cage’s career.

Raising Arizona (1987)

7 Oct

The previous films we’ve looked at have been directed by relative unknowns. Raising Arizona was directed by softie amoral shysters the Coens albeit before they found international recognition with Fargo (1996). The plot follows the mad-cap exploits of a south-west couple (and we don’t mean Bristol!) who kidnap one quintuplet of five in order to fill their infertility hole. Will Cage’s performance be assimilated into an auteristic directorial style, or will his performance be idiosyncratically his own?

Cage was a young man of 23 when this film was released, and his persona hadn’t yet crystallised. While he plays the role with his customary dedication, he often seems to be acting against the inclinations of his body. That is to say, in later works Cage plays characters that are physically grounded but mentally ungrounded, here he plays a slouchy goofball with bad posture – a man who is not upstanding morally or physically. The character, H.I. McDunnough has a tattoo of the “Thrush Muffler” mascot on his arm, demonstrating his commitment to cartoon lunacy, or perhaps synonyms for Victorian prostitutes.

Not Woody Woodpecker, he is a thrush.

However, his is not the kind of spriggly pipe-cleaner movement we might associate with a Mickey Mouse or D. Duck figure with their boneless bodies and rubber necking faces. When Cage does out of control, he does it with deliberation, willing his body to fit a character which seems determined by the Coens’ writing and direction rather than his own inclinations. Cage himself seemed to feel this, saying in interview that “Joel and Ethan have a very strong vision and I’ve learned how difficult it is to accept another artist’s vision. They have an autocratic nature.” Cage does not adopt any “Cageisms” in the film, although there is a notably stylised piece of acting in the dozy way he keeps his eyes perpetually half-open through the film.

H.I. is another in a long line of ineffectual male Coens protagonists ruled by sure-minded women. He is as useless as a baby, and the Coens cleverly demonstrate this through use of a natty call-back shot! When H.I. has broken into the Arizona’s mansion, one of the toothsome toddlers crawls headways under a crib which we see in a ground level wide angled close up. He is then plucked up from behind by H.I. Later, when a tiny-voiced bounty hunter is trying to steal the life from H.I., Cage crawls under a car shown in a shot that directly mirrors the one of the baby escaping. As Cage did before, now it is he who is plucked up from behind.

Raising Arizona was released 20 years before the previously reviewed Ghostrider, and unexpectedly foreshadows the flaming motorcyclist in the bounty character played by Randall “Tex” Cobb. In a dream sequence, the haired and leathered biker is roaring down a desert track, leaving a treasure trail of fire in the sand behind. He then shoots a gecko, innocently sunning itself on a rock, in much the same way that Ghostrider will offhandedly incinerate a gecko 20 years later. We think this is evidence that Nicolas Cage films will reveal a strange internal logic if watched in the correct order, perhaps leading to a hidden pot of gold.

Not My Name is Earl, he is a Nicolas Cage