Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Mikey and Nicky

(Elaine May, US, 1976)

May's third feature as director (out of only four, sadly) has the emotional and temporal compression of a stage play, and her nearly exclusive focus on the actors, often to the detriment of the niceties of cinematic craft, make it seem as if the script began its life in the theater.  But there is an element of immersion in place (grimy, nocturnal inner-city Philly melts into the sunny, doomed morning of the suburbs) and another of motion (the characters flit about the city like mad, lonely moths), that keep it rooted in the world of cinema.  The writing is so good, and so well delivered by the never-better duo of Falk and Cassavetes, that you are willing to ignore all the gaffes, from visible lighting equipment to continuity errors to whole swaths of extremely poorly dubbed dialogue.  Mikey and Nicky is a study in the dissolution of a friendship, and ultimately a kind of tragedy.  It's a tragedy that could only have existed in the American cinema of the 70s, but it has moments of comic bliss, and it seems unlikely that either actor ever had such a richly prepared meal in front of him; both of them dive in and devour it. 


(Tim Sutton, US, 2014)

Sutton's second feature has ambition and atmosphere to spare, but it shuffles along without ever hitting its stride.  Willis Earle Beale plays a version of himself, a talented but mercurial musician who wanders through Memphis and has glancing, shimmery encounters with trees, light, buildings, and people.  Running parallel to Beale are a few other recurring characters, most of whom are unnamed and whose relationships to him are left oblique.  Sutton and Beale snatch some moments of jolting beauty from their mellow excavation of the city and its environs, but as the film progresses, its energy begins to sputter conspicuously.  Sutton leans heavily on the ready-made desuetude of Memphis, and Beale, who radiates charisma from the first scene, begins to coast on his taciturn persona.  His talent is obvious and irrepressible, but it's parceled out in slender bits, and the sense of angst he expresses begins to feel less like genuine frustration and more like a pose.  Even a few bars, sung offhand by Beale, simmer with energy, but the film withholds any genuine release, much less rapture.  The reserve evinced by Beale and Sutton work against the film, finally, leaving a faded image of something that could have been brighter and more explosive.  Still and all, the seeking of poetic images, and on poetic association over narrative logic, is worth praising, even if a good amount of it is recycled from similarly set and themed films, from Gummo to George Washington.  Sutton has good instincts, and I'll be curious to see what he makes of them next.