Underrated Movie #147: Mickey One

Title: Mickey One
Year: 1965
Director: Arthur Penn
Writer: Alan M. Surgal
Stars: Warren Beatty, Alexandra Stewart, Hurd Hatfield, Franchot Tone, Kamatari Fujiwara

The Story: An ultra-cool Detroit nightclub comic finds himself on the wrong side of his club’s mobbed-up owner. Fleeing on the lam to the seedy side of Chicago, he imagines killers are hiding in every shadow… but he has a pathological urge to return to the stage...
How it Came to be Underrated: This movie has two big problems: it’s always divided audiences, and it’s always been hard to find. After wildly mixed early reviews, it was dumped as a drive-in movie, where audiences must have been truly baffled, since it was one of the first attempts to do a dryly-surreal American art-film. The movie has never been on video, and even when it shows up in revival theaters, it continues to attract as many detractors as fans. I happen to love it.
Why It’s Great:
  1. By 1965, there was a huge gap between the unapologetic artistry of European cinema and America’s widescreen technicolor blandness, but a few brave souls wanted to drag Hollywood into the modern age, and none moreso than Warren Beatty (of all people). He really wanted to hire Godard or Truffaut to come over the pond, but instead, he made do with ambitious American TV director Arthur Penn. This was their first attempt to import a new wave sensibility, and they succeeded onscreen, but not in theaters. Nevertheless the pair tried again two years later with Bonnie and Clyde and finally ignited an American Renaissance.
  2. American street-level noir and European high-minded existentialism have always been incestuously entertwined: Nobody believed Camus when he said that “The Stranger” was merely his attempt to imitate James M. Cain, but he wasn’t half wrong, and noir itself never would have taken hold without the infusion of émigrés fleeing Hitler. (even then, it took the French to recognize the genre and name it). Penn’s oddball intellectual noir delicately straddles the end of one era (noir) and the beginning of another (art cinema), not belonging to either but worthy of both.
  3. The offbeat sensibility and staccato rhythms make this movie the visual equivalent of jazz, and so it’s only fitting that it’s got a hopping jazz score by the great Stan Getz.
  4. Beatty always seemed miscast to me in movies like The Parallax View and Dick Tracy… Basically I think that he’s only really good at playing one thing: angry, half-witted loverboys whose charm masks a deeper angst. ...But whenever he got a role like that, he was amazing. After all, many or our greatest stars made a nice living for themselves by doing one thing well.
  5. This kafka-esque nightmare is actually a great metaphor for the bleak life of a stand-up comic, then and now, where the goal is to “kill” onstage before the audience can do the same to you. At least these days the mob no longer runs the nightclubs, so that’s less literal, though just as figurative.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Another fun attempt to merge jazz sensibility and noir style was the short-lived 50s TV show “Johnny Staccato”, starring John Cassavetes as a bebop pianist who moonlights as a hardboiled detective. It’s now on DVD. Alice’s Restaurant is another great Penn movie and Funny Bones is another darkly comic look at stand-up.

How Available Is It?: After the floodgates broke open last week, there’s no stopping me now: This is another only-on-bit-torrent special. The print I found is good but a little small.
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Underrated Movie #98: Alice’s Restaurant

Warning! Do NOT clean up after Thanksgiving until youve seen...
Title: Alice’s Restaurant
Year: 1969
Director: Arthur Penn
Writers: Venable Herndon and Arthur Penn, based on a song by Arlo Guthrie
Stars: Arlo Guthrie, Pat Quinn, James Broderick, Geoff Outlaw, Micheal McClanathan, and Officer Obie as himself

The Story: Arlo Guthrie plays himself: bouncing around the country, trying to stay out of the army, getting picked on for his long hair, occasionally visiting his dying father, and eventually coming together with his hippie brethren to form a makeshift commune in a deconsecrated church in Stockbridge, Mass. There we get a complex portrait of the ups and downs of the countercultural life. Happier incidents like the one you may know of as the “Alice’s Restaurant Thanksgiving Massacree” are interwoven with sadder tales of those that don’t survive the journey.

How it Came to be Underrated: Because it was based on a funny song, and the cast mixed actors with amateurs playing themselves, many people falsely assume that this is a mere novelty, rather than the profound and heartbreaking tale of life in the ‘60s that it is. It’s a much stronger portrait of that year than Easy Rider or, god forbid, Zabreski Point.

Why It’s Great:

  1. Americans like to claim that the World War II gang were the “Greatest Generation”, and that’s true, if you consider a bloodbath the greatest thing that our country can accomplish. Of course, it seems more likely to me that an even greater generation were the kids that stopped a war, impeached a crooked president, started the environmental movement, and got more rights for women, blacks, gays and everybody else than anybody thought possible. Call me crazy. This is a warts-and-all portrait of the kids caught up in all those acts of liberation. Like their fathers at Anzio, they’re too busy trying to survive to realize that they’re collectively making a difference.
  2. By 1967, many great directors were waiting in the wings, hoping to finally bring the intellectual and spiritual vitality of the French New Wave over to American movie screens. Penn was an unlikely visionary: his style is scruffy, loose and downbeat, but he turned out to be the one that finally ignited American’s own artistic explosion with Bonnie and Clyde. Nevertheless, he’s rarely mentioned today as one of the great filmmakers of that era, but that’s fine: His movies have more in common with each other than they do with any others. He was a one-of-a-kind weirdo genius.
  3. It’s an odd little sub-genre and they’re usually terrible: the film-as-memoir where a non-actor plays himself, but Arlo actually does a great job. Of course, as with any memoir, there’s always the danger of being a little self-serving… Watching this movie, I realized that every man has one ultimate sexual fantasy: to one day turn down the offer of sex. Arlo turns down quite a few here: too young, too old, too married… You begin to suspect that the man doth protest too much. Maybe these are all the offers that he later wished he’d turned down.
  4. Hearing the song (which I love) you would think that it would never work if Obie was turned into a sympathetic character—his blind antagonism is the whole driving force of the narrative! But your first clue that they’re doing something different here is that Penn got the actual Officer Obie to play himself. Why on earth would he agree to do that? Well, it’s because he’s kind of the hero in this version! He’s a good friend of Alice and he attends the opening of the hippie restaurant with his family –where he even cuts the “Eat Me” cake and serves it! Yes, he does later overreact to the littering, but that actually looks like a pretty crummy crime when you see it onscreen, and so you actually feel for Obie when you see that the judge is literally blind to his evidence! It’s an amazing act of literary transformation: turning a great one-sided ballad into an even greater two-sided movie.
  5. Like Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”, the theme here is the slippery relationship between warmth and cold as we grow older. Moments of great joy keep sliding down into sadness. As Arlo asks the last time he sees his father: “Now that they’re finally not after me to do what I don’t wanna do, what do I wanna do?” Or, put another way: “Can you get everything you want at Alice’s Restaurant?” Only an existential storyteller like Penn could find so much meaning in such an innocent question.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Penn made a lot of underrated movies, including 1965’s Mickey One and 1975’s The Missouri Breaks. It’s a fine thing to say of any artist: every movie he made (except for Bonnie and Clyde) is still the subject of broad critical disagreement. Nobody ever knows quite what to make of this guy.

How Available Is It?: It’s available to watch instantly but I reccomend the DVD with a folksy commentary by Arlo himself, where he complains good-naturedly about how Penn managed to make such a sad little movie out of his funny song.

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