Saturday, August 18, 2007

DAY 18: Always (1989)

In February of 1989 (shortly before the release of Last Crusade), Spielberg’s three-and-a-quarter year marriage to actress Amy Irving came to an end. The filmmaker who for so long had told stories about divorce, having endured the separation of his parents when he was younger, had now experienced one of his own. Needless to say, it was devastating to Spielberg, but he continued to pour himself into his work (as he had done for twenty years by this point) and his latest project was a remake of one of his favorite movies: Victor Fleming’s 1943 A Guy Named Joe with Spencer Tracy (glimpsed briefly on a TV in Poltergeist). As with every film in his career, the emotional tenor of Spielberg’s personal life affected his art and in this case, unfortunately, not in a positive way. Spielberg had wanted to remake Fleming’s film for a long time and it is possible, even likely, that had Spielberg made Always several years earlier it would have been a very different, and probably much better, movie.

A Guy Named Joe told the story of a WWII flyer named Pete (Tracy) who is killed and then comes back in the form of a ghost to inspire another young aviator (Van Johnson) but then has to watch as this new pilot falls in love with his former girlfriend (Irene Dunne). The film may be grossly sentimental and with strong propoganda intentions, but these qualities appealed to Spielberg’s sensibilities. If there were any filmmaker in the 80’s who could do a good remake of A Guy Named Joe, it would have been Spielberg. And yet, nearly every decision made during the film’s production seems to be the wrong one, his first mistake being the story’s setting. Always revolves around an aerial firefighter named Pete who risks his life to save his good friend during a flight gone wrong. Given Spielberg’s love for the WWII era, it is strange that he chose not to do Always as a period piece (like his Amazing Stories episode “The Mission”), which would have allowed Spielberg to re-create the forties in all its magnificent detail (as he did in 1941). For whatever reason, though, Spielberg chose a more modern setting. “It’s a contemporary movie.” he said. “It feels like it’s set in the forties, but in fact it is set today.” Unfortunately, by trying to give the film a timeless quality, Spielberg failed to make the story either believable or relevant. At one point in the film Pete’s buddy Al says: “What this place reminds me of is the war in Europe, which I personally was never at, but think about it. The beer is warm, the dance hall’s a Quonset, there’s B-26’s outside, hotshot pilots inside, an airstrip in the woods... It’s England, man! Everything but Glenn Miller.” While this dialogue is an attempt to explain why this contemporary tale has such an old-fashioned feel to it, it only works to further confuse the audience.

Another problem with removing the story from its original WWII setting is that the tragic death of Pete pales in comparison to the monumental sacrifice made by an American pilot giving his life for freedom and democracy. As Roger Ebert observed in the Chicago Sun-Times review: “It's one thing to sacrifice your life for a buddy in combat and quite another to run unnecessary risks while fighting forest fires.” Ralph Novak of People added: “Spielberg’s miscalculation was to forget that A Guy Named Joe spoke to a most particular need. Coming in WWII, when young lives were so palpably precarious and the need for comforting illusions so great, it had a ready audience. These were Americans who, if not more naïve than we, were at least more willing to suspend their cynicism.” Peter Travers of Rolling Stone claimed the time shift was “calamitous—-Joe spoke to a nation’s sorrow; Always lacks a similar sense of scope or urgency.”

As further evidence that Spielberg himself didn’t seem to know what era the story was taking place in, he has a character utter an epithet like “Aw, nuts!” and then at another juncture in the film toss out a “Shit,” the inconsistency only heightening the film's schizophrenic nature. Also, as Pete’s girlfriend Dorinda makes a glorious entrance in a supposedly beautiful dress (when in reality it’s quite hideous), all the men stare as Pete whispers “Gosh!” The dance scene between Dorinda and Pete, incidentally, is another example of Spielbergian excess. Not only does it go on for far too long but at one point it descends into (literally) cartoonish humor with Dorinda telling the men desiring to dance with her that they must first wash their hands. They all immediately rush to the bathroom to accommodate her wishes. It’s a scene right out of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and might make more sense if it were believable that the men would treat Dorinda like a goddess, but there seems to be no reason to. Thus, their actions seem unbearably cute.

As David Denby noted in New York magazine, Dorinda’s entrance is “the most purely sexless moment in Spielberg’s long career as a boy, and it made me realize to what extent sex in his movies is a matter of dreams and idealization.” However, as author Doug Brode observes, “when Pete and Dorinda retire for the night, they do what a pair of lovers would do today: get in bed together, though they’re not married, something the couples in the forties film would never do. Their frank attitude about sex only makes the earlier idealistic attitude toward Dorinda seem all the sillier: it’s as if Spielberg can’t decide whether he wants to make an honest movie about today’s flying firefighters, whom he could easily observe firsthand at any Northwest outpost, or a sentimental film about the wartime pilots he knows from old movies and stories told him. Either approach would probably have been fine, but the combination in a single film is uncertain and all wrong.”

Another problem with the movie is the cast. Spielberg’s usual knack for picking exactly the right actors for the parts, bizarrely, seemed to abandon him on this one project. Spielberg friend and Jaws/Close Encounters collaborator Richard Dreyfus played the part of Pete, the devil-may-care pilot turned guardian angel. In fact, it was their mutual affection for A Guy Named Joe (discovered while working on their previous films together) that prompted Spielberg to want Dreyfus in the part originally played by Spencer Tracy. As fine an actor as Dreyfus is, he is no Tracy. As Pete’s girlfriend Dorinda, Spielberg hired the diminutive, but fiery, Holly Hunter. While Hunter has moments of wit and charm (particularly in a rather funny sequence when she’s trying to pretend that she’s spent all day in the kitchen preparing a meal which she really just bought ready-made), her usual tendency to over-act mars most of her dramatic scenes. Lest I get accused of being a "Holly-hater" I should probably beat everyone to the punch by adding that I have never been a big fan of Holly Hunter. Outside of the two Coen brothers' films (Raising Arizona and O Brother, Where Art Thou?), I find her very unappealing, unattractive and, quite frankly, annoying... particularly her voice (I always found it interesting that the role she played that earned her an Oscar was one where she hardly said a word). If that makes me a "meanie," then I'm sorry. Finally, the role of Ted, the pilot whom Dorinda falls for after Pete's death, is played by Brad Johnson (no relation to Van Johnson, who played the corresponding character in the original film), a 6'3" male model with, alas, very little in the way of acting talent. He's certainly handsome but why Spielberg cast him remains a mystery to this day. It is difficult to believe that Dorinda could be interested in such a "big lug" for some reason other than his mere sex appeal. Johnson comes off as awkward and completely lacking in any grace or substantial on-screen presence. Granted, his character is supposed to be clumsy (as in the scene where he tries to douse a fire in the trash can and misses) but it is unconvincing and seems fake.

In fact, out of the all main actors, only two come off as anything better than mediocre. The first is John Goodman who portrays Pete's big-hearted friend Al. Although he plays little more than a variation of his usual screen persona (first established in the TV sitcom Roseanne), he is nonetheless eminently funny, charismatic and memorable. Goodman virtually steals every scene he's in. My favorite moments involve him dunking his chicken leg in beer and sucking the cream out of a twinkie through a straw. The other performer who positively shines in her scenes is the radiant Audrey Hepburn who plays Hap, the angelic "spiritual" adviser for Pete. Hepburn's last big screen movie role was in 1981's They All Laughed (though she did do a TV movie in '87), so the iconic actress practically came out of retirement for Spielberg's film, which proved to be her final screen appearance as she died of colon cancer four years later. Although her presence isn't enough to save the film from its own shortcomings, her two scenes are like a welcome relief from how "forced" the rest of the movie feels. She practically glides through her dialogue with an ease and effervescence that only someone of her class and elegance could achieve. When Audrey's on the screen, Always truly does fly. When she's not, it sinks.

The storyline of a fellow coming back after death provided Spielberg with yet another chance to exercise his abilities as a metaphysical filmmaker. Always certainly wasn't the first time Spielberg showed death to be less of an ending and more of a beginning (a la Poltergiest), but quite apart from seeing it as an opportunity to say something significant about either life or death, Spielberg seemed content to use it simply as background for something else: the real focus of the film is the relationship between Pete and Dorinda. Unfortunately, it's a relationship that is heavy on romanticism and sentimentality and very light on genuine emotion or depth. The fact that Spielberg was in such a vulnerable state in his own life no doubt played a big part in the bittersweet tone of Always. Why else would Spielberg sidestep the main storyline of the original film (a dead pilot becoming the invisible "guide" of a living one) in favor of the love story. The climactic scene of the original, which had Spencer Tracy guiding Van Johnson through a dangerous mission, is in Always changed instead to Pete guiding Dorinda through a tricky drop. While this might bring an interesting twist to the plot, it shows how unnecessary the "Ted" storyline is. What's the point of having Pete as the source of inspiration for the Ted character if he's not even going to function in that capacity when the moment of truth comes?

Always is the kind of film for which Spielberg is constantly being derided for making: essentially a two-hour version of "Kick the Can." A film dripping with self-indulgent, saccharine "sappiness" that has the effect of turning off audiences rather than engaging them. It's overkill. Vincent Canby of the New York Times complained: "Always is filled with big, sentimental moments [but] it lacks the intimacy to make any of this very moving. Though the story calls out for simplicity, it unfoleds in an atmopshere of forced laughter and forced tears. Gentle and moving as it means to be, there is barely a scene that wouldn't have worked better with less fanfare." Even these flaws might have been forgiveable were it not for the fact that Always (unlike E.T. or Color Purple) is extremely dull. This is probably the worst sin of all. Spielberg's indulgences can often be tolerated if he is involving us in an interesting story or fascinating characters. Always, unfortunately, has neither and so the film comes off as slow, preachy and (with a few exceptions) devoid of humor. It is, in other words, a bore.

As with all Spielberg's work, though, Always is not without its merits. In spite of its oppressively sweet-natured content, Always does contain a great deal of very striking cinematography by Mikael Salomon (especially impressive after the more conventionally shot, but far more enjoyable, Last Crusade). The aerial sequences, designed by future October Sky director Joe Johnston, are also extremely effective. The film was shot on location in Montana and Washington and features some spectacular plane choreography. The filmmakers even took advantage of the devastating 1988 Yellowstone Park fires to help contribute to the realism of the forest fire sequences. Finally, John Williams' music, which may seem melodramatic when heard accompanying the film's over-the-top images, is actually one of the most subtle, delicate and poetic scores he's ever composed. When heard on its own, the music's beauty and simplicity is easily apparent. It seems to have been written, as the Musichound Soundtrack Guide eloquently states, as if it “existed on glass.” Indeed, of all the movie soundtracks I own it is one of my personal favorites and a real delight to listen to when I am in a contemplative or meditative mood.

While Always may/may not be Spielberg's "worst" film, it is certainly a major disappointment. I still like it and would sooner watch it than 1941, but even the most avid of Spielberg fans can't deny its massive flaws and its (at best) extremely mediocre aspects. Although Last Crusade , released earlier the same year, was a big hit with critics and audiences and seemed briefly as though it might have brought Spielberg "back from the edge of professional oblivion," Always did nothing to help the situation... nor did Spielberg's next film.

TOMORROW: Faeries and pirates and Children. Oh my!


Noel Vera said...

Now, this one I actually liked, and I love it (again I suppose you can see some kind of consistency in what I like in him) that he'll play around with huge airplanes just to get a gag right. There's a ruthlessness in that that appeals to me. And it is quite romantic.

Damian said...

Oh, I like it too, Noel. That's why I don't have the heart to call it Spielberg's worst film. And, incidentally, you're right. The airplane scenes are quite impressive.

Anonymous said...

This is the only feature by Spielberg that I haven't even had the interest to watch in its entirety. I didn't watch 1941 in its entirety because that's physically impossible -- though I did try.

Damian said...

This is the only feature by Spielberg that I haven't even had the interest to watch in its entirety.

I can understand that.

I didn't watch 1941 in its entirety because that's physically impossible -- though I did try.

It took me (no kidding) three separate tries to make it through that one myself.

Joe Valdez said...

Always and Amistad may be the only Spielberg films I could only force myself to watch in bits and pieces, and never cared to revisit.

Great analysis, Damian.

The aerial sequences are amazing - just like 1941 - but I have the feeling Spielberg may never make a romance between a man and a woman that feels anything but artificial.

I'm curious though at what point Spielberg thought Richard Dreyfuss would be right for this. In the mid-'80s, he wanted Kevin Costner to do it.

Damian said...

While I can agree with you on Always, Joe, I happen to really like Amistad (though I've only seen it a few times and not recently) but I wouldn't be opposed to watching it in its entirety again. I mean, I will for this project anyway, so there ya go!

Kevin Costner as Pete? You know, I can see that. That might've actually worked (although that would've been only the first of many changed that needed to occur to make that film work). I didn't know about that Joe. Thanks for sharing. :)

Anonymous said...

Maybe you're not actually a shitty writer and a occasional misogynist, but your shittily written Holly Hunter rant didn't provide evidence in your favor.

Anonymous said...

"an occasional", of course.

Anonymous said...

No post on Sunday. Just couldn't make it through Hook, could you? Don't worry. That movie has defeated the best of us.

nem0 said...

You know, even after working at Travel Montana for three years and having to pass the Always poster every time I left my office, I never realized Spielberg directed it. Everyone at the office said it wasn't worth my time, despite it having been filmed at my dad's hometown. Now I'm kind of curious to see it.

But not that curious.

colin said...

I have a vague memory of watching this as a child and falling asleep.

Damian said...

Maybe you're not actually a shitty writer and a occasional misogynist, but your shittily written Holly Hunter rant didn't provide evidence in your favor.

Ouch. :(

Okay, maybe I let my emotions get the better of me in my little "Holly Hunter rant", but I just don't think she's that good of an actor. I'm sorry. I don't see it. Like Jodie Foster and Mel Gibson I think she's more of an "over-actor," someone who goes for the big, overblown and showy emotions/gestures at the expense of subtlety. I will confess that I have not yet seen The Piano and maybe I should withhold my judgement until I do, but in just about everything else I've seen her in I have been, shall we say, less than impressed.

Maybe it's mean/unfair of me to dislike something that she has no control over (her voice) but I am not exactly alone in this. I'm not saying that this makes me/it right, but there are many other people who dislike Holly's voice too... just as there are lots of people who dislike Fran Drescher's voice and Hayden Christensen's voice and Pauly Shore's voice and Carrot Top's voice, etc. So, if someone has a problem with me hating Holly's voice, I hope they have the consistency and integrity to have a problem with a person who hates any of these others actors' voices (or any actor's voice for that matter).

I should probably make it clear that I have nothing against Hunter personally. She seems like a perfectly nice, friendly person. If I ran into her on the street I'd certainly shake her hand and tell her how much I love her work in the Coen movies. People who know her seem to like her and if I knew her I'd probably like her too, but liking someone in real life and liking them in the movies are two very different things.

No post on Sunday. Just couldn't make it through Hook, could you? Don't worry. That movie has defeated the best of us.

Oh no. I made it through. I'm in thew process of writing my essay now. I'm just a little behind schedule. I figured it was better to turn in good work late than to turn in shoddy work on time.

Jeffrey Allen Rydell said...

Actually, it was the "Ted" character eventually played by Brad Johnson that Spielberg wanted Costner for.

The film's a schizophrenic, neurotic mess (that I kinda like anyway), but there's one thing that could have helped it a lot: a conflation of Ted with John Goodman's Al. It would have given everyone more to play, and I'm very sad that Goodman was never given the opportunity, outside of "Roseanne", to play a romantic lead.

I have no problem believing that Holly Hunter's Dorinda would start out crying on Al's shoulder and find herself falling for him - and in a deeper, more meaningful way than she did hotshot Pete. We all know guys like him in real life, guys with such generous lifeforce that people are drawn to them, whatever they look like, and they're underrepresented on screen.

It would have made for a much more interesting dynamic between the 3 lead characters.

-Jeffrey Allen Rydell

Cinephile said...

Ouch, "anonymous"! I like Holly Hunter a lot more than Damian does, but your critique of his work seems unncessarily harsh, and crudely stated.

You know, I was looking at the poster you uploaded at the beginning of your post, Damian, and realized-- if you just read the copy, it summarizes the whole movie, and spares you the trouble of having to watch the thing. (:

Great analysis, as always. Just thinking-- do you think the film might have worked better if they'd cast John Goodman in Dreyfuss's role? Goodman seems to resemble Spencer Tracey more, physically, and his good humor and quiet, offbeat charisma might have made him a more interesting romantic foil for Hunter.

Cinephile said...

Looks like we posted at the same minute! (: Glad to see someone else thinks goodman would make a good romantic lead.

Megan said...

Now I can't stop thinking about how this film might have been with Costner instead of Dreyfuss. Although I do think Holly Hunter & Dreyfuss have chemistry - see Once Around - it just didn't click this time.

I took my little sister to see Always solely because Audrey Hepburn was in it, and we couldn't miss that. I agree those scenes are among the best in this movie. Audrey as angel = priceless.

Joe Valdez said...

Costner in the Brad Johnson role does make more sense.

Brad Johnson. Man. It really comes down to script and casting, and this project just had neither one going for it.

Something tells me "Anonymous" hadn't had his coffee yet. I know he was a he because no woman would type "shittily written" on a keyboard.

Keep these great essays coming, Damian.

Damian said...

Actually Costner playing "Ted" does make more sense (though I could still see him as "Pete").

As for "Anonymous," I personally don't mind being taken to task if I've done something wrong in my writing (although my dad, whose been following along, is really starting to get pissed at him), but I have always been a big proponent of civil discourse and respectful criticism. When I'm done with this project, I suspect I am probably going to return this site to the condition I had it in before where anonymous comments were not be allowed. I tried it this way on the recommendation of Peet, although I was hesitant to do so because I'm well aware (from experience) of the kind of abuses the anonymity of the internet can yield.

So, when "31 Days of Spielberg" is over Windmills will again be a film blog where only registered users will be able to leave comments. It may cut down on my readership, but that's a risk I'm willing to take.

Noel Vera said...

Hunter--no, I don't find her attractive (don't find Close attractive, either, or Streep--it's a long list), but she's effective in certain parts, neurotic or impish or intelligent women not shy in voicing their feelings or opinions.

The Piano is okay, but it doesn't heighten the attractiveness, either. Yes, she still comes on strong in that film.

I see Always as a romantic comedy without a romantic conclusion. The lovers are separated, and so they remain; the handsome lug (a better alternative might have been Rossovich, who I thought was pretty good in Roxanne) is a as pointed out distraction. It's the bittersweet ache between the two that's the heart of the film. The slapstick (Laurel and Hardy?) is like an intriguing bit of embroidery round the edges.

I agree, without the WW 2 setting it's fatally flawed, but there's enough here to keep me watching. Like Empire of the Sun, actually.

Jeff McMahon said...

As far as I'm concerned, this is the winner of the 'worst Spielberg movie' award, because boring trumps annoying any day of the week - and because as annoying as 1941 is, I still find it highly amusing in a Three Stooges kind of way.

AR said...

It's been waaay too long since I've seen this, and I've only seen it once, so I can't really address the criticisms. But I will say that Goodman is one of those actors who's great at stealing scenes.

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