Into the Night (1985) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
Although this film is not a great one, it probably is
more suitable than any other I know of for a demonstration of the
modern/post-modern debate. In the middle of the previous century,
actors and authors were trying to dig deeper and deeper into
reality, to create an illusion that the audience wasn't watching a
manufactured drama, but actual life. Pauline Kael wrote about a play
in March of 1946, in which a young, unknown actor had an
epileptic fit on the stage of the Belasco Theater in Maxwell
Anderson's "Truckline Cafe". She was embarrassed for the poor kid,
thinking it a shame that he got his first break in a big role, and then had to have
something like that happen on stage during the play. She was not the
only one deceived by this illusion. Except for those who had seen the play
before, the entire audience was convinced that it was not the
character who was convulsing, but the actor. On more than one
occasion, an employee of the theater had to stop people from calling
doctors, or to stop doctors from rushing to his assistance.
Now THAT'S acting. As a former stage actor with the love for theater but not the talent, I could die happily if I could do that.
The unknown actor did not remain unknown for very long. Very soon thereafter, he would dazzle the world with his stage and screen performances in a Streetcar Named Desire.
Brando's acting coach was Stella Adler. Ms Adler and Lee Strasberg were the two most famous advocates of the Stanislavsky "method" of acting, a style that would gradually replace the old oratorical style of acting exemplified by such stars as John Barrymore and Burt Lancaster. Brando moved to Hollywood in 1950, and "the method" moved with him. Hollywood gradually, slowly started replacing the old larger-than-life, speechified style of Lancastrian acting with the new modern method in which guys tried to be exactly the same size as life. Movie conventions followed suit. It was an unwritten understanding in the most serious "modern" movies that the characters in those movies didn't see other movies, and didn't copy characters in other movies. Movies existed in one world, reality in another. A movie was allowed to copy reality, but not to copy other movies. Characters in "worthwhile", "modern" movies were supposed to behave like people, not like movie characters or speechmakers.
Parallel to that development was a completely contrary one, as is so often the case. As movies gained a greater and greater influence on our consciousness, they became part of cultural reality, not separate from it, and became fully integrated into culture itself. Movies started to base themselves on the worlds created in previous movies rather than on the real world. Characters started to speak dialogue which referred to other movies. Characters sometimes even knew they were in a movie. Most important, characters behaved by the conventions of movie character behavior, not by the rules of life. In any given situation, if you could imagine the character asking himself "what would a real person do in this case?" and "what would a movie character do in this case?", you'd realize that they always chose the latter. These movies are not really like the "modern" ones, and they are not really any form of nostalgia, or recidivism. They are something new, post-modern movies, a neologism necessary to acknowledge that the gap between the "real" world and the "movie" words is disappearing, because movies shape popular culture.
The debate between the supporters of these styles raged for decades, and continues to do so. The reality school will always produce great films like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Pianist and Raging Bull, but the post-modernist school is grabbing more and more of the public's imagination. More and more existing movies seem to live in the world of previous movies, not in the real world. (Scream would be the perfect illustration.) Tarantino's films push the limit of the post-modernist theory. Although they include characters who seem to be human, they are not. They come from an alien culture, just as surely as the oddest characters from the oddest world on Star Trek, except that the culture they come from exists in a world of infinite width and height, and infinitesimal depth: the world on screen.
John Landis's Into the Night was very much a harbinger of Tarantino's films. It exists in a world which seems sorta like earth except nothing in it ever has happened, or ever will. The plot developments are not only illogical, they simply could not be. They are deliberately as silly as possible, in order to let the audience in on the joke. At the very end, when all seems blackest for our heroes, as they appear to be headed for a few years of serious prison sodomy, a "federal agent" brings them three quarters of a million dollars and sanctuary. Defying the entire concept of an "agent", he doesn't have an agency - he just identifies himself by saying "I'm a federal agent". He's just doing what all federal agents do - delivering vast quantities of money from one civilian to another. On his way out, he pockets about a hundred grand of the windfall for himself because - "who are you gonna tell?"
The film begins with a slice from the Sad Sack life of an aerospace engineer (Jeff Goldblum). I reckon they don't pay those aerospace lads a lot, because even though he has an engineering job and a working wife, Goldblum lives in a 50s tract house, next to an auto paint/body shop, under a noisy double freeway overpass. Ah, California Dreamin'! That only scratches the surface of how deep his life sucks. He can't sleep, for one thing. We're not talkin' a mild sleeping disorder here, where he tosses and turns and sleeps fitfully, then falls asleep on the job the next day. Nosireebob. He doesn't sleep at all. Nada. He just stares ahead in a daze, night and day. This gradually erodes his alertness until one day he screws up on the job, gets sent home, and finds his wife in bed with an ugly bald dude.
Ouch. This is gonna be one really bad day. Even
worse than the norm for his life.
The bad day becomes a worse night when he drives around aimlessly and gets in the middle of a situation with a damsel in distress, ruthless Iranian smugglers (who act like the Keystone Kops with live ammo, and blow up most of Los Angeles that night), French thieves, English hit men, Elvis impersonators, and God knows what else. No matter where Goldblum takes the distressed damsel (Michelle Pfeiffer) trouble follows, although never logically.
To stress the point that this is not a film about people, but a film about films, the script is filled with dozens of completely inessential characters, and Landis filled many of those roles with his fellow directors, including David Cronenberg, Jonathan Demme, Jim Henson, Colin Higgins, Lawrence Kasdan, Jonathan Lynn, Paul Mazursky, Daniel Petrie, Don Siegel, and Roger Vadim. Oh, yes, and Landis himself plays one of the Iranian Keystone Kops. We can be thankful that most of these people had no more than a line or two, but of the four that had larger roles, some did fairly well, while others bombed. Landis did fine in a fairly big role with no lines. David Cronenberg did well as an aerospace geek. Paul Mazursky performed at the level of a local used car salesman reading cue cards. Roger Vadim got the maximum mileage out of his limited ability in a pretty funny turn, acting in a role obviously written just for him, and one completely inessential to the film.
If the presence of a dozen directors isn't enough evidence that we live in a post-modern world, this film also allows us to watch a long stretch of the movie "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein", in a Landis homage to one of the first films which not only acknowledged the existence of earlier films, but actually entered their world.
Let's face it, this movie is dumb. Is this a bad thing? I don't see why. I really like it. I just accepted the fact that it was a fantasy, kicked back, and went along for the ride. Not every day is an Ingmar Bergman day. Some days you just want to go to Six Flags and ride the roller coaster.
Just for fun, here's the complete filmography of Sue
Bowser, who's in this film to provide some nudity.:
What a career it was, never knowing if she would lose some key roles to Kate Hepburn.
Return to the Movie House home page