Published at: Oct. 31, 2001, 8:52 a.m. CST by staff
Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.
Movies are our shared dreams. And movie theaters are the collective churches of those dreams. Anyone who has ever fallen head over heels in love with a film knows what I mean. They know that creeping feeling you get when you’re watching a movie and it starts to sink in that it’s not just good, but possibly great, and you start rooting for the filmmaker to pull it off. You suddenly find yourself filled with hope, and as Frank Darabont once wrote in another great film, “hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”
Particular theaters feed those dreams in particular ways. We develop an emotional relationship with these hallowed halls over time, and I know that seeing a great movie in a particular theater can impact the experience profoundly for me, just as seeing it in the wrong theater can. When I arrived on The Lot in Hollywood on Wednesday morning, I was directed around a corner to a small parking lot, and then I strolled over to the Studio Theater. I’ve gotten to know this room pretty well over the last year or so, since this is where Frank shows films for his friends on the occasional Friday night. We’ve seen some great stuff here. THE GREAT ESCAPE. THEM! Fleischer SUPERMAN cartoons, big and beautiful, the way they’re supposed to be seen. Spielberg’s personal show print of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. The screening room isn’t the plushest in town, and the seats aren’t the greatest seats ever, but none of that matters. Because of the group of people I see at each of these screenings, and because of the films themselves, this has become a special place to me. This has become one of my favorite places to see a film. That emotional connection we have to our movie palaces is just one of the things that Frank’s new film THE MAJESTIC is all about, and the odd coincidence of seeing the film in that particular room definitely brought a smile to my face as I settled in for the show.
My one regret about the screening is that it wasn’t a packed theater. There were maybe five other people in the room, all told, and I was tucked away in the back corner, on the right side of the screening room, alone in the corner. On the one hand, I’m glad because I found the movie to be extremely emotional in places, and I didn’t really want the lady from the Humane Society to see me cry, ya dig? On the other hand, this is the kind of movie that has to be seen with a packed room. That’s another of the things the movie is about, that sense of community that arises from that shared experience in the dark, the way movies bring us together when they work. We lose ourselves in them, and sometimes we find ourselves in them, as well. We have our occasional quiet epiphanies, sitting there, staring up at that screen, those lightning bolt to the forehead moments that leave you seated even after the credits have rolled. I think it’s a reaction to seeing something true. We tell ourselves that movies aren’t real, but when you recognize real truth in a piece of art, it can be piercing. I live for those moments. I hope I get a chance to create moments like that for audiences.
That’s all Pete Appleton wants, too. He’s a writer. His first film, SAND PIRATES OF THE SAHARA, is in theaters, and he’s just days away from the start of production on ASHES TO ASHES, his second movie. At the start of THE MAJESTIC, we see a few logos go by – Warner Bros, Castle Rock, Village Roadshow – and we hear a group of executives speaking, discussing a script. I wasn’t sure who was doing the voices of the execs until the end credits, but I had my suspicions, and it’s a real treat to hear these men together. We never see them. Instead, the film’s first shot is a seemingly endless stationary close-up of Jim Carrey as Pete Appleton, listening to these lame-brained suits discuss how to ruin his script. He’s a worm on a hook, twisting and trying to keep that open-minded smile on his face. It’s a great, great first shot, and right away, I found myself feeling for Pete. This is a lead character I like a lot. The film’s second real shot is another long, continuous take, but it’s the exact opposite. We start across the street from the Grauman’s Chinese in all it’s mid-‘50’s glory, starting outside and swooping in, past the ushers and the candy girls and the crowded main lobby. I live just up the street from the Chinese. It was the first theater I visited in LA when I moved here, suffering through DAYS OF THUNDER just to see the inside of the theater and say I’d finally seen something there. When I squint and look at the theater through the corners of my eyes, it looks like this... perfect and preserved and beautiful again. Seeing it like this, even in a movie, is amazing. The movie is set two years past the infamous “Hollywood 10” hearings, but Pete isn’t touched by any of what’s happening in town. He’s not political. He’s just enjoying a night in one of the most famous and plush movie palaces in the world with his girl, the two of them celebrating and in love. Pete’s movie is playing, the movie she’s in, and Darabont’s loving homage to the adventure films of the day will make any film fan smile, not least because of Bruce Campbell’s appearance in it. Life seems charmed, and you can’t help but feel for Pete as circumstance suddenly turns and tears into his perfect life. Something terrible happens to him; he’s accused of being a Communist, seemingly at random, and he finds himself suddenly blacklisted, facing hearings and the possibility of naming names, and suddenly no one knows him, and, yes, he reacts badly, getting drunk and heading off for a night drive up the California coast. There’s an accident, painted with chilling precision by Darabont, and on the other side of it, he’s left with no ID, no memory, and a nasty head injury.
And then the film takes its big left turn, and this is the place where viewers are asked to accept something that at first seems impossible. See, the small town Pete’s wandered into, accompanied by James Whitmore, the old man who finds him on the beach, was hit particularly hard by WWII. They lost more of their young men than they could spare. It crippled the town, broke its heart. The young men who did come back were changed, as if something essential in them had been snuffed out. One young man in particular, Luke Trimble, left behind a hole in the lives of his father Harry (Martin Landau), his fiancee Adele (Laurie Holden) and her father, the local physician everyone calls Doc (David Ogden Stiers). When Harry sees Pete, he is shocked, immediately convinced that this is his son, finally returned, somehow alive despite vanishing on the battlefields of Europe. We see photos of Luke Trimble from nine years before, and he certainly looks like a younger version of Pete. It seems possible. And with Pete not knowing who he is or how he got where he is, he’s in no condition to deny being Luke.
His return does something to the town. The mayor (Jeffrey De Munn), all of the neighbors, the local businesses... everyone is electrified by what’s happened. Harry decides to reopen the family business which has been closed since Luke’s disappearance, the town’s movie theater, The Majestic. It’s a symbol, a crucial part of the town’s social life that has been silent, muted by sorrow for all those years. Refurbishing it, polishing it back to its former gleaming glory, it’s also a form of healing for the people in the town. Pete embraces this life he’s found, embraces his role as Luke. Carrey does something remarkable here, and it’s the part of the film that I feel is trickiest for a performer. Pete’s living a lie. He’s not Luke. He’s dodged this huge crisis in his life, left it behind, and vanished into this perfect life where he’s a big hero and he’s loved and he’s got a place in a community and he’s important. He’s hiding out, but he doesn’t realize it. If played wrong, Pete could seem like a real jackass, but Carrey nails it here. He manages to play on our sympathies without relying on easy manipulation. We invest in Pete Appleton because even if he doesn’t know who he is, he knows how to be decent. His basic personality goes unchanged, and what he responds to in this community is real. He falls in love with these people because they are worth it, and he never seems to take advantage of the situation. When he regains his memory... and don’t freak out about spoilers, because you know in a movie like this he HAS to regain his memory... he does the right thing. He confesses as soon as he can. He hesitates before telling one person, but it’s because he’s trying to spare that person pain in a moment where it’s vital.
In his time in town, Pete finds himself increasingly drawn to Adele, and it’s no wonder. Laurie Holden is enormously appealing here in what is essentially her starring debut. Fans of THE X-FILES will recognize her as Mulder’s icy blonde contact-turned-adversary, but this role is the sort of thing that turns an working actress into a star. She’s allowed to be smart and adult and strong in the film, but there’s no denying her basic sweater girl appeal. That particular mix of charms brings to mind someone like Carol Lombard or Veronica Lake for me, and it’s the kind of role that Preston Sturges always used to write so well for women. There’s a great sequence in the film where Pete settles into his role as the keeper of the re-opened Majestic, and he starts showing this string of great films, all of which really opened in 1951. It’s an embarrassment of riches. AN AMERICAN IN PARIS. THE AFRICAN QUEEN. A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE. The sequence ends with Adele finding Pete behind the screen and sharing some good news with him. As the two embrace, we cut to the theater, to what the audience is seeing, and there they are in silhouette, kissing, while THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STLL plays, their shared moment framed in the white glow of a special effect. It’s a lovely moment, just one in a film filled with them.
And what of the ending? We know because this is a Hollywood movie that Pete will have to go back to face those who have accused him of being a Communist. We know that the town will turn its back on him when the truth is revealed, that he is not Luke Trimble. We know that Pete is going to have to appear in front of Congress, and that there’s a good chance he’s going to make some sort of speech. Knowing all of this, how can the film surprise? How can this sort of oh-so-perfect Hollywood setup yield anything like spontaneity or edge or honesty? Well, leave it to Darabont and Carrey and supporting performers like Hal Holbrook and Bob Balaban and Allen Garfield to figure it out. What turns to shmaltz in films like Martin Brest’s SCENT OF A WOMAN (“I should take a FLAMETHROWER to this place!!”) or unintentional comedy in films like Rob Reiner’s A FEW GOOD MEN (“You can’t handle the truth!”) comes across here as completely right. The timing of this film’s release is startling. Post-September 11th, there is something very potent in the discussion of what it means to be truly American, and what responsibility there is with the exercise of free speech. At a time when only patriotism is allowed in the national dialogue, are we being true to the spirit of America? Michael Sloane’s script doesn’t have a cynical bone in its body, and to some people, that may be a detriment. To me, it was a tonic to see a film with a heart like this, open and unafraid of sentiment and direct emotion. It’s a brave film because it is unwilling to wrap itself in the sort of safe emotional distance that so much of pop culture wraps itself in these days. It makes it easier to process things when we’re given a sort of hipster’s remove, a sardonic arm’s length from which to experience these things. THE MAJESTIC is unabashed about how direct it is. And it worked on me more than I thought it would. After all, I read the script and I visited the set, and I’d even seen sections of the movie on a prior visit to The Lot. When the film began, I was fairly sure I knew what to expect, and as such, I expected to have a muted emotional reaction. Instead, the film worked on me in a very Pavlovian way, causing me to tear up in several places. What caught me off-guard, what kept tearing down my defenses, was the level of craft the entire cast brings to things. We’ve seen a lot of eccentric small towns over the years, and in everything from NBC’s show ED to MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN, there’s things they have in common. Darabont cast every role in this film just right, though. De Munn, Whitmore, Landau, and Stiers play a sort of moral chorus in the film, the representatives of the town’s enormous heart. The guy with the hook who came back from the war with a walled-off heart. The girl at the diner who loves him anyway. The kid who idolized Luke who’s learned to play the clarinet he left behind. All of these characters are brought to life with a few brushstrokes, and in each case, there’s something memorable, something special in their moments that pays off. They avoid the obvious choices and keep making you believe in the relationships of this town. There’s one guy in particular who I was just mesmerized by, an actor named Gerry Black. He plays Emmett, who lives in the basement of The Majestic and who serves as the theater’s usher and fix-it man when the theater reopens. He’s marvelous, and something about his charisma made me think of the late, great Scatman Crothers. I hope Mick Garris considers this guy before he casts his TALISMAN mini-series next year. Black would make an amazing Speedy in that project. And of course, none of this would matter if Jim Carrey hadn’t stepped up and given the most consistently moving performance of his career. He does it all here, and he never once looks like he’s acting, or like he’s playing some “big moment.” He manages to play Pete Appleton and Luke Trimble and show us differences between them and also clearly define what defines each them. His moment of self-realization, his remembered life flooding back in all at once, is note perfect.
Frank really seems to have relaxed as a filmmaker this time out. I love SHAWSHANK, and I think THE GREEN MILE is a case of too much of a good thing, making it hard to rewatch as a whole. The work in the film is all damn good, even if there’s just... so very, very much of it. THE GREEN MILE felt like Frank was very aware of the expectations on him after SHAWSHANK, which is one of those debuts that sets the bar almost impossibly high, and he worked so hard to make all of GREEN MILE great that he didn’t really want to lose any of it. The one common thing I hear from people who weren’t nuts about GREEN MILE is the complaint about the length. Hell, Billy Wilder said it after a screening of the film I was lucky enough to attend. Frank set it up for Wilder, who didn’t get to see the film during its theatrical run, but who wanted to see it in a theater. Frank was away, scouting locations on THE MAJESTIC already, so he wasn't able to enjoy it with us. As it ended, Wilder (who is about the size of Yoda at this point) was being helped into a wheelchair by his escort, and someone asked him what he thought. He was obviously visibly moved by the movie, and it took him a moment to find his voice. When he did, though, it was like thunder rolling in. That enormous German boom of his filled the screening room. “I THOUGHT IT WAS A BEAUTIFUL MOVIE!! I THOUGHT THE PERFORMANCES WERE BEAUTIFUL!! THE SCREENPLAY IS WONDERFUL!! I FIND MYSELF VERY MOVED BY IT!! BUT IT WAS SO LONG!! I CANNOT EXPLAIN HOW MUCH I HAVE TO GO TO THE BATHROOM!!” He kept booming all the way down the hall to the restroom about the film’s virtues, but there was no doubt that peeing was the priority. I say this to preface my praise of the way THE MAJESTIC moves. Maybe it was shooting something like SAND PIRATES OF THE SAHARA, the movie within the movie that is so deliciously silly, so specifically satirical, that freed Frank up. Maybe it was just the experiences of the first two, the comparison of one production to the other, that gave Frank the control to pull this one off. Whatever the case, I’d say his craft has become almost invisible. You don’t feel the mechanics of the plot as they slide into place here. He does all the hard work of a film like this, plot-heavy and full of tricky tonal shifts, and never once lets you see him doing it. Instead, he makes the whole thing feel graceful, natural, and the pace of the movie strikes just the right balance between leisurely and abrupt. It’s got energy, but it’s not afraid to take a moment and digress if it’s worthwhile. The first screening of THE MAJESTIC, in Arizona, was longer than the version I saw, and there have been trims beyond what I saw as well. The movie’s over 2 hours at this point, but it’s brisk. And like with GREEN MILE, there’s an embarrassment of detail. This time, though, I don’t think people are going to feel bogged down by that detail. There’s a real sharp focus to this story. It’s also a real leap forward for Frank on a technical level. The film’s filled with beautiful imagery, classic movie trickery, inside jokes (look for the tribute to Chuck Russell, a friend of Frank’s who not only loaned him some set dressing from THE SCORPION KING to use on the SAND PIRATES set, but who also directed Jim Carrey in THE MASK), and Frank’s voice somehow rings through clearly even though he didn’t write the film. He’s developed a real signature as a filmmaker, something that a lot of very good directors never quite do.
Sunday morning, my girlfriend and I woke up early and went to the Todd AO scoring stage over at CBS Radford. There’s something amazing about sitting there with a 94 piece orchestra as they lay down the score to a film. It was fascinating to watch Mark Isham, who wrote the film’s score, and to see Frank work with him to shape this one particular cue that runs about eight minutes. It starts with the moment Adele first lays eyes on this man who is supposed to be Luke Trimble, and ends with the two of them on top of a lighthouse at sunset. It’s a crucial stretch of footage for the film, and seeing Frank as he enters the home stretch, he’s still giddy in love with the movie, as is Michael Sloane, his longtime friend who is finally seeing this vision of his brought to lush and lovely life. I can’t wait to see how this last round of tweaks turns this great film up a notch. Charlie Gibson is finishing his digital work on the film now, and his stuff should be invisible by the time the film comes out, that visual finish that ties things together without calling attention to itself. As it stands, THE MAJESTIC is already one of my favorite films of the year, and the kind of movie that does it all: entertains, provokes, and emotionally affects. When those final credits roll, expect America to erupt, and expect word of mouth to be strong. This is the right film for the right time, and I have faith that people are going to hold it close to their hearts. I already do.