Thursday, January 30, 2014

Why "Pennies From Heaven" Is Not a Good Movie, but Is a Brilliant Television Show

  • Back in November, a friend posted on his Facebook page a discussion about the film version of "Pennies from Heaven" starring Steve Martin. I had forgotten about it until today, and decided I didn't want to lose it, verbose though it may be.

    In order to discuss the movie, I'll have talk about the ending, which contains some of the most egregious mishandling. Be warned, though, this runs 1404 words.
    What I find to be the overriding theme through all of Potter’s work is his examination of the potency of cheap music; that is to say, how particular songs or pieces of music can enter our lives and let us relive certain times and/or trigger certain states of emotion. This effect is not dependent on having actually experienced the times from which the songs come, though in most cases, it is. The ultimate subject being examined is how that music affects the listener and what s/he does upon hearing it.
    The fundamental problem with the movie is one of length. Obviously, I wouldn’t expect an American feature of niche interest (at best) to run the six-plus hours of the miniseries, but I do fault one major cut: that is to say, the end sequences of Arthur (the Hoskins/Martin character) on trial, in the death house, and post-mortem, which I’ll deal with in time.
    But, I see a fundamental disconnect between Ross’s approach to the material and Potter’s intentions. Peter mentions above that it “sounds more like a different approach as opposed to some 'rule' that has allegedly been broken.” And that is, to a certain extent, true. But my point is that if Ross was motivated and inspired enough by the BBC series to obtain the rights –and- commission its creator to write the screenplay, he at least owes fidelity to the mood and concepts created by that very writer. To use a completely overblown analogy, it’s as though a producer were moved by “Waiting for Godot” and bought the rights to a film version, hired Beckett to write the screenplay, and set it in a lush and green landscape and ended the eventual film with Godot showing up and giving Vladimir and Estragon a fortune in gold. It would indeed be a difference in approach, but would totally belie the creator’s intentions. (To be sure, as much as I love “Pennies from Heaven” in its original form, I realize it’s not in the same league as “Godot;” though I believe that Potter is as unique in his own way as Beckett.)
    On to specifics. In thinking it over, I wonder if Gordon Willis was the best cinematographer for the movie. I am a great admirer of Willis’s and consider him one of the finest DPs in film history, but too many of the images in the film are too pretty and not gritty enough for me. (I’ll stipulate this is probably a matter of personal opinion.) There are some nice and appropriate scenes and shots, but too many of them lack the bleakness that I think is at the heart of this story. (I’ll further stipulate that this may be what was required by Ross, with his overall attempts to add Hollywood gloss to the picture.) In thinking about it tonight, I wondered if the picture might have been better served by photographing most of it in black and white, then switching to a saturated three-strip Technicolor look for the numbers, thereby heightening the bleakness. (Note: I don’t want to criticize the movie for not doing something it didn’t intend to do.) Such a treatment, though, would have robbed Ross from his shots recreating Hopper paintings (which are very well done). Those recreations, though, are emblematic of the misreading. Hopper (again, in my opinion) strives to take those mundane images and grant them some mystery and romance. Potter’s mundane images stay mired in the mud and, even when broken by musical interludes, return to a hellish everyday life, where people are acted upon by outside forces – music, Fate – rather than having autonomy.
  • The biggest sin Ross commits, though, is actually two-fold and involves the end of the movie. One of the most affecting parts of the BBC series is Arthur in the death house. For the previous six hours, his optimism and denial of reality is driven home through his sudden inability to escape that reality through his songs. There is a desperation that Hoskins portrays (and which Martin was never given a chance to duplicate) as he tries to figure out what has gone wrong and why his music has deserted him. All Martin gets to do is pose in front of what looks like a hastily-assembled set featuring the silhouette of a gallows and commit the grossest misunderstanding of all: singing in his own voice. (Since I saw the film the day it opened – at the old Century City duplex – I’ve always felt like that sequence was filmed after preview audiences rejected something bleaker and wondered why Martin never sang.) 

    But, to my point, Arthur can never sing; that’s his fatal flaw and his fate. Redemption or escape from reality has to exist outside of himself. If he sings, he always has the option of changing, which is something that he cannot do. Even when he tries it, Fate ensures that it goes horribly wrong. On top of that, it denies us the brilliant ending Potter gave us in the original: after the horrors that Arthur has endured and the music has abandoned him, he dies. In both versions, we see Eileen (the Campbell/Peters character) as Lulu, on a bridge, knowing that Arthur has just been executed. “Oh, Arthur,” she sighs, just in time for an apparently-resurrected Arthur to run up to her. “What are you doing here?,” she asks. “We couldn’t make (the audience) go through all that and not give them a happy ending.” In the original, the two of them go off into a sunset to a perfectly-swelling accompaniment of “Pennies from Heaven,” which stays true to everything that has gone before: all the music and denial of reality is external , not personal to the characters. The movie goes into a splashy (and originally-recorded) version of “The Glory of Love,” which ends with Arthur and Eileen singing to each other. They are now generating the music, not acting in response to it, and that is the ultimate denial of Potter’s dramaturgy.

    In its favor, I think the movie is –very- well cast (Ross Brown and Hank McCann get the honors here), particularly in its use of the principals, Vernel Bagneris, Robert Fitch, and Tommy Rall, and could have been brilliant had Ross trusted Potter’s concepts more. If he’d wanted to make (for lack of a better term) a Brechtian musical where period-seeming music commented on the action, he could have. But once he tried to enter into Potter’s world, he owed it to him to play by his rules.

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