Archive for June 5, 2016

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When I was a little kid, Paul Williams was absolutely fucking everywhere. You couldn’t turn on Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, or Johnny Carson without seeing him. He was a guest star on everything from cop shows like Baretta to sitcoms like The Odd Couple. He was on The Love Boat and Fantasy Island seemingly all the time. In the movies, he took everything from bit parts in big-budget flicks like Smokey And The Bandit to lead roles in singularly unique fare like Brian De Palma’s The Phantom Of The Paradise. He wrote songs for the likes of Barbara Streisand and The Carpenters and had a successful recording career of his own. And who could forget “The Rainbow Connection?”

Yup, there’s no doubt about it — Paul Williams was a positively ubiquitous presence across the entertainment spectrum. Until he wasn’t anymore. And that’s where director Stephen Kessler’s 2011 documentary Paul Williams : Still Alive (recently added to Netflix, which is how I saw it, but also available on Blu-ray and DVD) picks up the story.

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People definitely change a lot over the years, but the idea that Williams now shuns the limelight is a tough one to get around for people of my generation simply because for a good decade or more he literally was the limelight. But in addition to entertaining (and, of course, earning) millions, he also fell victim to the excesses of the “Hollywood lifestyle,” and booze and drugs did a number on his head, his health, and his life. Kessler’s film documents a guy who’s troubled — often and obviously painfully so — by his past, but who isn’t running from it so much as using it as a teaching tool both for others and, crucially, himself. Both subject and director take some time to warm to each other, to be sure, but once they do, the ease of their rapport makes for a frank and memorable look at addiction, recovery, sobriety, regret, and the long, hard road to finding something resembling inner peace with oneself.

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It’s also more than just a little annoying. Not because of anything Williams does or doesn’t do or say, but because Kessler often doesn’t know when to shut the fuck up and let himself fade into the background. This reaches its apex when Williams invites him along on a tour of the Philippines with him and the director can’t seem to tone down his own xenophobic impulses and paranoia, but even at its most self-(rather than subject-) indulgent, Paul Williams : Still Alive makes for pretty darn engaging, and at times even enlightening, viewing. And it’s heartening to see that Williams himself is doing well and counseling others while still maintaining a reasonably successful songwriting and voice-over career and achieving some approximation of work-life balance for both himself and his wife/manager. Simply put, he seems to finally have his shit together.

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Not that getting to this point was in any way easy for the guy, of course, and his frankness and honesty in that regard is remarkable. Williams is straight-up about the fact that was an absolute asshole to his first two wives and a rotten father to his kids, and while he’s equally honest about his troubled childhood and family history with chemical dependency, he never puts the blame for his “wasted years” on anyone other than himself. There’s no doubt about it — Paul Williams is an absolutely fascinating  subject to base a film around.

Stepehn Kessler, though — not so much. And his insistence on inserting himself into the proceedings as much as possible is the one thing preventing Paul Williams : Still Alive from achieving the status of “absolutely essential showbiz documentary.” It’s good, don’t get me wrong — but it could, and probably should, have been great. There’s a semi-wistful song hanging somewhere in the gap between the two, I think — and I know just the guy to write it.

 

 

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For some folks, the occasional vicarious look at people who “live on the margins” is enough. You know the type — they’re fascinated by reality-show train wrecks and Cops reruns and what have you, but really, they’re pretty happy to leave all that behind after 30 minutes or an hour and take the kids to soccer practice or go to the PTA meeting or do whatever it is that suburbanites generally do. Sounds kinda dull to me, but hey, if it’s working for them, more power to ’em.

Some of us, however, are wired a bit differently. “On the margins” won’t do for us when stories about people who live well beyond them are at our disposal. We dig flicks like Harmony Korine’s Gummo and Buddy Giovinazzo’s Combat Shock and Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy. We know that there are millions of people who are forced to eke out a hardscrabble existence in any way that they can so that the less-than-one-percent can continue to live high off the hog and the dwindling upper-middle and straight-up-middle classes can maintain the illusion that they “have it good.” We’re hip to the fact that their are plenty of people well beyond the reach of the swiftly-fading “American dream,” and we think that no-frills looks at their lives are worthwhile not for the sake of cheap curiosity, but because that’s the real America right there, regardless of what the media and our purported “leaders” in the governmental and business worlds (is there really any difference between the two anymore?) may want us to believe. And ya know what? Let’s not kid ourselves. If the rich keep having their way — and there’s no reason to believe that they won’t — life on the streets, or even in the gutters, is something we’d all better get used to.

For folks inclined toward such hard slaps of reality, there are few films I can recommend more strongly than co-writer (along with Chris Bergoch)/director Sean Baker’s 2015 Sundance Film Festival sensation Tangerine, a painfully honest, authentic, and frankly necessary look at life on arguably the most notorious urban thoroughfare of all , Hollywood Boulevard, that was picked up for distribution by the Duplass brothers’ burgeoning micro-budget empire and is now available on Netflix (as well as on Blu-ray and DVD, but not having seen it on either of those formats myself I can’t comment on any specifics in relation to those physical-storage releases).

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Lets’s get one thing straight right off the bat, though — Tangerine is not a documentary, but for all intents and purposes it sure plays out like one. Transgender prostitute Sin-Dee Rella (played by Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) has just hit the streets again after spending 28 days locked up on a bullshit possession charge that she took to protect her pimp/old man, Chester (James Ransone), but when she hears that he was stepping out on her while she was in stir with a new girl who actually is, well, a girl, she’s understandably livid and out to bust some heads. It takes some doing, but her and her best friend Alexandra/Alexander (Mya Taylor) do eventually find the young lady in question, Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan) after tearing up one hourly-rate motel room, crack den, charity food line, and all-night donut shop after another. And then they all find Chester. It’s Christmas Eve, but there’s gonna be more fireworks than the 4th of July.

Running concurrently with this main storyline is the pathetic-but-gripping saga of Razmik (Karren Karagulian), an Armenian immigrant cab driver who’s forced to take an endless parade of pain-in-the-ass fares (the great Clu Gulager being one of them) in order to finance the desperate need for she-male cock that he, of course, keeps well-hidden from his family. Or so he thinks.

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Everyone’s paths are going to violently intersect before the night is through and no one’s going to get a happy ending, but that doesn’t mean Tangerine is all gloom and doom. Far from it, in fact, as both astonishing leads, Rodriguez and Taylor, imbue their characters with a wickedly unapologetic sense of humor throughout. Yeah, they work the streets. Yeah, they smoke crack. Yeah, they hate having penises. Yeah, they’re broke and don’t know where they’re gonna sleep on any given night. You got a problem with that? Because I’m telling you, they sure as hell don’t. One unexpected plot twist near the end of the film definitely leads to them having a problem with each other, though, and watching how all that plays out and is worked through leads to one of the most unconventionally touching moments you’ll see in any film this year. Yes, on top of everything else, Tangerine packs a bit of an emotional wallop, as well.

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The supporting players in this flick are uniformly excellent as well, especially Ransone as the sorry-ass, not-worth-the-trouble-and-everyone-knows-it Chester and Karagulian as the palpably conflicted Razmik. Baker is to be commended for getting such outstanding performances from his largely unprofessional cast, to be sure, but above all he earns kudos for eschewing the “freak show” or “sob story”  approaches that  lesser directors would take with this material and instead treating these people for whom clawing their way their way to “rock bottom” would be a step up with the respect and dignity they deserve. The picture he paints is by turns ugly and beautiful, as things tend to be I suppose when one’s survival is far from guaranteed, but hidden within it all is a quietly powerful message — selling your body, and maybe even your conscience, doesn’t mean that you necessarily have to sell your dignity, as well.

Tangerine (and no, I still can’t figure out what the heck the title means, either) certainly isn’t for everyone, but for those of us who proudly wear any one or more of the labels “freak,” “reject,” “degenerate,” ‘loser,” “outcast,” “creep,” or “weirdo,” well — this is a movie worth standing up and cheering at the top of our lungs over.