Monday, January 29, 2007

Tom Cruise Is A Great Actor

(Yeah, this will have to be multiple-parted. Not sure how many yet. I would think at least III, if not VII. I'm just trying to let it unfold. So…)

Tom Cruise Is A Great Actor, Part I

Respect The Cock, Tame The Cunt
By switters

[!!!Warning!!! SPOILER ALERT!!! ahead in the 89th paragraph !!!Warning!!!]

There ought to be a new Academy Awards category, something like Best Use Of An Existing Song In A Motion Picture. The problem is, if there were, Cameron Crowe would probably win it every year in which he made a movie. About every few months or so I'll get obsessed with a movie, where I'll watch all or part of it every other night, or a scene from it over and over again. Past obsessions have included American Beauty, Legally Blond, The Day After Tomorrow (Shut up!), Mean Girls, Anchorman, to name just a few.

The last obsession was Almost Famous, to me a nearly perfect film. Certainly the scene on the bus the morning after Russell claims that he's a golden god before jumping off the roof into a swimming pool, and Crowe's karaoke-esque use of "Tiny Dancer", is excellent. But the real musical genius was choosing "Mona Lisa And Mad Hatters" for the scene when Russell blows off Penny Lane at the restaurant from which she subsequently flees in order to overdose on variously colored pills (mostly qualudes we think, and liquor). Pure, unadulterated brilliance. I could go on and on just about Famous, but I'll save that for another time. (Still, if you want to be cured of Cameron Crowe worship, which is in most cases debilitating if not fatal, I'd recommend watching the featurette included in the DVD extras, "The Making of Almost Famous", which is basically a 15 minute metaphor of a step by step guide to self-congratulatory masturbation. What a self-important dick, literally. Throw in some idiotic soundbites from his dingbatted wife, Nancy Wilson, and you'll be throwing glow sticks at your TV set faster than you can say, "Man I really hate hippies.")

Anyways, I'd never seen Magnolia, for whatever reason. I guess I was avoiding it because of outright fear, having recalled folks whose opinion really matters to me (currently in real life that number's stuck at about 3 people) remarking that's it's fairly brutal and unforgiving.

Well, that's putting it mildly. It's over 3 hours long, has the thinnest veil of a plot, the flimsiest interconnectedness of its multiple narratives, and the most anticlimactic ending since the series finale of One Day At A Time.

How it opens doesn't much help either. But we'll get back to that.

Turns out it's also indescribably compelling on so many levels. And the acting is phenomenal, if not, at times, virtuosic. Sorry, folks. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Tom Cruise is a very good actor. Great even. This will end up being the performance of a lifetime. This will be the movie people will say, "Wait, what? That's the guy from Top Gun and Days of Thunder? No way!"

Way. More on that later.

So I'm sitting there watching 2 and 1/2 hours of miserable cruelty and man's inhumanity to man and, more appropriately, to woman, trying desperately to find a reason to go out on a date ever again ever, still trying to recover, mind you, from that unforgivable film Closer, or, really, ever to speak to anyone ever again other than my dogs and cat (who, by the way, acted a little weird themselves after the credits rolled)… And then, it happens. One by one, the main characters break out into song in a sort of cross between Rent and Cop Rock. (Okay that's not fair. Rent is such an abomination that by the end of it I was pulling for the AIDS virus to wipe out most of the cast.* And Cop Rock? That's just a cheap shot reference.)

The song is "Wise Up", by Aimee Mann. Each character is given a phrase to sing, and each character seems to be just where we left them (they left us?) the last time we saw them: Melora Walters doing half-a-dozen lines off the coffee table in the living room before her big date, John C. Reilly thanking through prayer a very Catholic Jesus for sending a terrific gal his way to see romantically (the terrific new gal being Cokehead B. Snortington over there of course), Philip Baker Hall in his study throwing back some Jack after having suffered a minor stroke on live television, William H. Macy in his kitchen sitting beneath the giant fake check he won on a game show as a kid, Jason Robards dying a slow and very painful death with Philip Seymour Hoffman as his caregiver, Julianne Moore throwing down in her 'Cedes in an abandoned parking lot with some liquid morphine and various and sundry pills (apparently having raided that pharmacy Penny Lane calls a purse), Tom Cruise in his mobile penis trying to decide if he's going to visit his dying father, and, finally, Jeremy Blackman, who's broken into the library to study with the piss in his pants not even dry yet. Did I leave anybody out? Is that the right order?

It's visually and aurally stunning. You'll recall that Jeremy gets the final refrain, which, instead of "wise up", is "give up".

Magnolia obviously deserves its own post, obviously, but it's that scene that haunts me, mostly because of the song and the photography. "Wise Up" could quite possibly find itself in the perfect song Pantheon.

[Walters] It's not
What you thought
When you first began it
You got
What you want
Now you can hardly stand it though,
By now you know
It's not going to stop
[Reilly] It's not going to stop
It's not going to stop
'Til you wise up

[Hall] You're sure
There's a cure
And you have finally found it
[Macy] You think
One drink
Will shrink you 'til you're underground
And living down
[Hoffman] But it's not going to stop
It's not going to stop
It's not going to stop
[Robards] 'Til you wise up

[Moore]Prepare a list of what you need
Before you sign away the deed
'Cause it's not going to stop
It's not going to stop
[Cruise] It's not going to stop
'Til you wise up
No, it's not going to stop
'Til you wise up
No, it's not going to stop
So just... [Blackman] give up

It's a deceptively complicated little tune. Technically it's in D, but Aimee keeps the tonal center vague because every time it should resolve to D, it actually goes to G. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

It starts off with the piano alternating from Gmaj7 and D as an intro, then under "It's not what you thought", then Bmin to G to D under "When you first began it". More Gmaj7 to D, but then when "Now you can hardly stand it though…", the progression goes from Bmin to G to E7, and repeats the alternating G to E7 until the last of the "It's not going to stop" refrains. This is the heart of the song, the point at which Aimee both declares its tonal center and, at the same time, denies it, because the progression is D to A to C to G to… We're expecting the D, right? Yes. But Aimee pulls the old evaded cadence trick and goes back to Gmaj7, despite even the fact that when the bass comes in it's playing a corresponding D!!! That is so totally and completely fucked up!!!

The second verse is pretty much identical to the first. Then there's a very short bridge, where we alternate from G (not necessarily with the maj7) to E7, again, but elongated under the entire lines, then alternating the way it did in the verses. And then, Tom's singing (along with Aimee) the "It's not going to stop" refrain; when he gets to the last refrain we hear the now familiar D to A to C to G progression, with full instrumentation and background vocals, "So just… give up". Everything drops out but the piano and Aimee and Jeremey, and there's a brutal closeup of Jeremy singing "give up". The camera pulls back, the sound effect of rain gradually eclipses the music, and the montage is over.

I have to confess that the first time I watched the movie, I backed up and watched that scene about 4 times in a row. Bad idea. Because it doesn't get any less melancholy-inducing with repeated viewings. It was on the 4th viewing of this scene when 2 things happened: 1.) I realized why Anderson had his characters singing of all things; and 2.) I realized what the point of the movie was.

Save for Hoffman and Reilly, these characters are pretty depraved. A knee-jerk reaction might be to suggest that having each sing part of a pretty song, real time, makes them seem more human. But it's actually the opposite case: Having each sing part of a pretty song mythologizes each character, allowing us to see them vulnerable, out of body, ethereal. Which allows us to forgive each. If only for 2 and 1/2 minutes. That's why they sing.

As to the point of this beautifully cruel and cruelly beautiful movie? People lie, they're unfaithful, and nobody cares. Still, owning up to your lying and infidelity may seem noble; but it doesn't necessarily follow that you're forgiven. Why? Nobody cares.

Oh, and when it comes to sex, money and power, it's mind-boggling what people are capable of, for better or worse, but mostly worse. Which is what the very peculiar open means to me, namely, it's not so much the destination as it is the journey, whether that journey is unintentionally falling in love with your "mark", or getting shot accidentally by your mother on your way falling down 15 floors to commit suicide though a window washer's safety net that you didn't know about would've broken your fall and saved your life plus the fact that it was you who loaded the gun because your parents fight all the time and that shell was meant for one of them at which point both your parents are charged with manslaughter and you're still dead.

Oh, and irony. Again.
Coming soon:

Tom Cruise Is A Great Actor, Part II

There Really Is Something About An Aqua Velva Man
(Or, you know, something to that effect. Be on the lookout!)

*rerun alert, I know


Splendid_IREny said...

Sigh, I can't believe you made me go back for this

switters said...

Hey. I've said it before and I'll say it again: that was a great post, and I thought of it often watching MI3, which I loved.

Hope all's well with you.

Schadenfreude said...

Checkmark recommend.


Scat singing is annoying from anyone except Satchmo and Ella, and even Ella is marginal. Diana Krall sucks. Most jazz (for the past 4 decades or so) is a failed attempt to recapture the genius of Duke Ellington. Vibes is easily the most worthless musical intrument ever invented.

Re: Cruise

He's making darker choices lately, and that's good. Collateral was good, but he was brilliant in it. Vanilla Sky was a brave failure, but points for trying.

He varies between the cheesy and the brilliant. He is talented, but he is not great. For great, look at someone like Peter O'Toole in The Ruling Class or The Stuntman. That's greatness.

switters said...

Agreed re checkmark. But only because there's a precedent.

Peter O'Toole is a legend, one of my favorites. I actually wish I looked like he did in Lawrence of Arabia. I think it's the eyes.

See My Favorite Year if you haven't. (I suspect you have.)

BotF. I don't get it. Perhaps I really do need a bit of a break from there. But it's just so hard what with Idol, my Tom Cruise series, my upcoming "The Islamic Faith Caused Terrorism", "Honesty and the Recovery of My Best Friend". Others. Maybe I just need to drop a cluster bomb over at Fraywatch, something like why I post. Whatever.

I defer to your assessment re Tom. I'm just really trying to see how far I can take it. I like his developing oeuvre. Couldn't agree more about Collateral. For me quite possibly the best shoot-out scene (in the club towards the end; perfect choreography) to date. I think Splendid liked it as well.

Jazz. I hate scatting. Diana Krall: better piano player than singer. Her singing is too "pop-esque" for jazz. But, yeah, first rate pianist.

Jazz the last 10-20 years. Brad Mehldau is the best jazz pianist yet and for a long time to come. Get Art of the Trio Volum 1 first.

Jackie Terrason (sp?). Bill Charlap. Joshua Redman. Kurt Rosenwinkle (sp?).

Something else, but I forgot. Still banned?

twiffer said...

i think that most film actors (these days, but also in the past) reach a point (aka "stardom") where they realize they can still land roles without bothering to act. and so, they cease trying. all but those who are actually great.

tom cruise is great at playing tom cruise. but i wouldn't call him a great actor. he only seems great when he bothers to act, because it exceeds expectations.

switters said...

Dang, twif, I wish you could try to be more wrong.

I'd harbored the suspicion Tom was for real after I saw Vanilla Sky. His greatness for me was confirmed after Magnolia. A lot of people yell at me because they say in that movie he was just playing Tom Cruise. Wrong! For me he was unrecognizable as Tom Cruise, yet, at the same time, only Tom Cruise could've played that part because in so many ways the character was Tom Cruise-ish. I'll spell this out in a subsequent installment.

Until then we'll just have to agree to disagree, and then agree that I'm right. And you're wrong.

[car talk whistle]

JohnMcG said...

The fortunate thing for Cruise is that so many movies have called for "Tom Cruise" as a leading character.

You can criticize him for his cheesy roles, but it's hard to imagine Top Gun, Jerry Maguire, The Firm, or A Few Good Men, or even Eyes Wide Shut with anyone else in the starring role.

switters said...

Apology accepted, John. And long overdue, if I may say so.

OT: Studio 60 just keeps getting better. It's just that everyone's too confused by its pace to notice.

Schadenfreude said...

Don't read this.

Yes. Still banned. For something or other.

PS. Why the fuck does word verification never take the first time?

JohnMcG said...

er, not sure I apologized, and if so, what I apologized for...