Choose Me. Courtesy of Everett Collection via the Quad.
Alan Rudolph makes a compelling case in defense of sentimentality, in defense of the love-sick and amorous. He believes in the beauty and rejuvenating power of art, and of love. Rarely sanguine or saccharine, but unapologetically emotional, his films understand that love is a painful, often arduous affair, that it is messy and confusing and ultimately ineffable, best captured in glances rather than words. Though there is a certain look, a certain feeling, that defines an Alan Rudolph film, his formal dexterity is varied, his repertoire of visual tricks assured. His swooning camera traces the boundaries of scenes like an outsider gazing longingly in, drifting dreamily, lingering like a voyeur. Choose Me (1984) begins with a voluptuous three-minute long take, starting with a closeup of the luminescent “E” of a neon sign that reads “Eve’s Lounge,” swooping down to show an assemblage of well-dressed men and women dancing in the street, and following a woman as she spins, saunters, lets someone light her cigarette, and finally enters the lounge, at which point Rudolph cuts to an office, the camera panning across the glowing vermillion words “ON THE AIR.” It’s a telephone answering service for a “love doctor,” a woman who posits advice for the heartbroken and lonesome, though she is herself quite lonely, and maybe incapable of love. Loneliness pervades his films; characters desire love, but don’t know how to get it, how to handle it. Sometimes he gets intimate with his subjects, dwelling on their emotive, all-telling faces. With regular consort Keith Carradine, Rudolph found the perfect visage, one that looks as apt in love as it does in pain—really, the two feelings are entwined, in life and in Rudolph’s films. His is a cinema of emotional vulnerability, stolen glances and scarred hearts, pasts that come back, the lonely in search of acceptance, those that fall in love with every person they kiss and those that never fall in love, who can’t.
To celebrate Ray Meets Helen, Alan Rudolph’s first film in 15 years, New York’s Quad Cinema is hosting a retrospective of his career, a 22-film series that intriguingly includes Robert Altman’s Nashville and The Long Goodbye, on which Rudolph worked as a second-unit director. Both films influenced his early work. He is a disciple of Altman, using the enmeshment of many voices as background noise, jumping between characters, depicting the entanglement of lives and the corollaries of intimacy. Trouble in Mind (1985), a mysterious, identity-defying work of unrepentant ardor and gnawing desolation, bears the influence of Altman’s The Long Goodbye with its interlaced covey of characters and usurpation of noir conventions. It follows a recently released con, played by Kris Kristofferson, his beard the same coal gray as his hat and jacket, and a couple, played by Carradine and Lori Singer, as their lives collide in the indolent, fictitious Rain City (depicted, without any attempt of concealment or chicanery, by Seattle). Rudolph loves to situate his films in cafes, bars, lounges; here, the stories collide and play out in a small, sparsely populated cafe, run by Genevieve Bujold. Kristofferson’s sections capture the hazy, languid aesthetic and feeling of noir without embodying its fatalistic spirit, while Carradine and Singer’s story has a sweetly sleazy tone, an aesthetic influenced by ’80s culture. When the two conflate, the film turns into a story of unrequited desire, the way it echoes and fades. It’s an anachronistic commingling of Hollywood glamor and big-haired New Wave indulgence, a strange, elusive film. The cast, as with all Rudolph films, is impeccable: Divine plays a flamboyant gangster with refined tastes.
Genre is, like love, a nebulous thing for Rudolph, a way of communicating seemingly indescribable feelings. Trouble in Mind is the apogee of this, but it wasn’t the first time the director used genre to explore deeper, more emotional nuances. Before beginning his run of ’80s romances, he helmed a science-fiction film about cattle mutilations, Endangered Species (1981); a political documentary, Return Engagement (1983); and a satirical comedy based on Woody Nelson’s life, Songwriter (1984), all made during a strange five-year period in his career. He would also return to the mystery-romance genre with Love at Large (1990).
“I’ll tell you what I want,” a doe-eyed Carradine says in The Moderns (1988), staring longingly at his ex-wife, played by Linda Fiorentino, all rouge cheeks and inky long eyelashes in a 1920s Parisian cafe. “I want that woman over there. I want to make love to that woman for five days. Maybe in a cabin, in a snowstorm, yeah. Then I want to paint her. Then I don’t care what happens.” Compare Rudolph’s paean to Art Deco and the literary icons of the jazz era with Woody Allen’s listless Midnight in Paris: one finds the ache in the heart, the ache of the epoch, an ache that maybe transcends time and place and remains in all those who desire love, while the other by necessity needs a cardboard villain (a cold, detached Rachel McAdams) to buttress the film’s simplistic idea of nostalgia and romance. Rudolph trusts his viewers. He makes his jokes subtle: a woman points out a mustachioed, bibulous man sweating profusely in the cafe, saying, “He just wrote a book called The Sun Also Rises.” “Oh, Fitzgerald!” her friend exclaims.
What makes Rudolph one of the great romantics, his ideas earnest and unfeigned, is in his acceptance that sometimes love isn’t enough. Sometimes it doesn’t win; sometimes ambitions are not achieved. A painter may not be a genius, or find the greatness he desires, while the boozy sleaze for whom he’s buying drinks will; the woman of one’s dream may evanescence, disappear. Love frays. It is fragile, and painful, and worth fighting for. It brings to mind a passage from A Farewell to Arms:
“Maybe...you'll fall in love with me all over again.”
“Hell,” I said, “I love you enough now. What do you want to do? Ruin me?”
“Yes. I want to ruin you.”
“Good,” I said. “That's what I want too.”
Love can be beautiful. It can also be ruinous.
The setting of Choose Me is Eve’s Lounge, a bastion for the lonely. (Rudolph’s affinity for cafes and bars rivals that of Hong Sang-soo, also fond of loquacious, hard-drinking sad people. This is maybe the only time anyone will compare Alan Rudolph to the Korean auteur.) In walks Carradine, a smooth-talking itinerant with slick hair and a lecherous gaze. “A Guinness,” he tells Lesley Ann Warren’s, Eve, the bar owner, clad in heartbreak red and black. “With two inches of head.” He’s aloof and mysterious, trenchant, speaking in quips and boozy Koans. “New in town?” he’s asked. “I’m the same. Town’s different.” Choose Me is, perhaps more than any other Rudolph, aware of the pain of love, how sex doesn’t necessarily ameliorate the pangs of loneliness, although that doesn't stop people from trying. It’s a brilliant, sapient love story, almost unbearably sad: it knows that unutterable, unrepeatable sensation of a first kiss, of falling in love on a look, of wanting to be wanted. Carradine becomes involved with a trio of women, each afflicted with different romantic problems. Any other filmmaker might have made this love quadrangle comically contrived, but Rudolph makes it feel naturally complicated and unavoidable. “Earnest” is the word that keeps coming to mind.
Remember My Name. Courtesy of Everett Collection via the Quad.
Despite his well-earned reputation as a romantic, Rudolph also has an occasional inclination for the cryptic and cruel. He made one of the essential anti-romances, Remember My Name (1978), and followed up his run of brilliant ’80s romances with Mortal Thoughts (1991), a brooding excoriation of marriage. There is no sentimentality in either of these films, no longing stares or affectionate badinage. In the enigmatic Remember My Name, Geraldine Chaplin stars as Emily, a chain-smoking, mentally unhinged ex-con. She’s recently been released, and is not adjusting to civilian life very well. Her interactions are stiff, standoffish. “My husband likes me in loose-fitting clothes,” she barks to a tailor who suggests taking the sides of a dress in. Her face is unemotive, blank as a mask. She speaks as if words are strange objects she isn’t sure how to handle, blurting them out with odd inflections. She sounds natural when, later in the film, she explodes with jarring ferocity at her boss (played by a twig-thin Jeff Goldblum). She gazes at herself in the mirror, with a look of apprehension, discomfort. Chaplin’s leering, discomforting performance harks back to Anthony Perkins’s Norman Bates. Fittingly, Perkins co-stars in the film as a construction worker, the object of Emily’s ire, whom she terrorizes for no apparent reason. While Perkins may initially seem miscast—he was always at his best playing the emasculated, or the maltreated, as in Orson Welles’s The Trial—a scene of Perkins lounging in a couch, as the television blares a report on repression, makes it clear that Rudolph knew exactly what he was doing when he cast the in-the-closet actor. The eventual confrontation between Chaplin and Perkins, their bodies swaddled in shadow, their voices hushed, is one of the filmmaker’s finest moments, made when he was only 35 and already wise enough to keep the camera movements and compositions unobtrusive, to let his actors act.
Rudolph’s ’80s movies return again and again to this notion of love as a painful process, but Remember My Name is borderline nihilistic, an evisceration of gender roles and the constraints of traditional marriages, and a scary depiction of undying longing. The camerawork is simpler than in his later films, more hard-nosed, but he already displays a predilection for roving, drifting movements, the camera too antsy to stay still. And those lens zooms, the influence of producer Altman, are bone-chilling. (He would soon abandon this maneuver in favor of pushes and crane shots.)
Mortal Thoughts. Courtesy of Everett Collection via the Quad.
In Mortal Thoughts, the meanest and trashiest film of Rudolph’s career, things are awry for the not-so-happy couple from the wedding. A boorish, Jersey-accented Bruce Willis accuses his bride’s (Glenne Headly) father of stealing the money gifted to them. He grabs her, tells her to “get the fucking purse” or he’ll beat her. (The golden cross dangling from his neck is a perfect touch.) Later, Willis, with a mustache and backwards ball cap, erupts at his wife’s place of work, throwing her against the wall, demanding she give him money for blow. If Willis’s vulgar, coke-snorting brute is the closest thing to a caricature in any Rudolph film (Mortal Thoughts is a rare film the director didn’t write), he’s still a frightening force of masculine sadism, a character you hate from the onset. 15 minutes into the film, Headly is already mixing rat poison into the sugar bowl, and there’s not a moviegoer alive who would say Willis doesn’t deserve it. (It’s a box cutter that eventually does him in.) What’s so upsetting about the film, and about Willis’s loud, mercurial performance, is how familiar it is to anyone who’s witnessed an abusive relationship. Willis is an everyday monster; there’s no need for subtlety or nuance. Rudolph, a doyen of romantic inclination, here makes The Honeymooners look swoony.
Mortal Thoughts may be just a footnote in Rudolph’s career, but, when viewed in context of the auteur’s lovesick productions, itand Remember My Name reflect his prodigious talent and his profound fascination with the confusing nature of love. That the man responsible for Choose Me can also give us such sleazy detritus as Mortal Thoughts, or something as dark and Delphic as Remember My Name, shows an artist trying to explore the entire spectrum of our most befuddling emotion.