Ebertfest: Two different views of Los Angeles
Two of the 13 films in the 2010 Roger Ebert’s Film Festival offered starkly contrasting views of Los Angeles — sides of life that most of us Midwesterners never see.
"Barfly," directed by Barbet Schroeder, is a Skid Row slice-of-life written by the hard-drinking-and-brawling poet Charles Bukowski, whom Time magazine once dubbed a "laureate of American lowlife."
The other, "The New Age," directed by Michael Tolkin, tells of a brittle, wealthy Beverly Hills couple who suddenly lose their money and seek meaning in life from New Age gurus.
Both directors appeared on the Virginia Theatre stage after the screenings.
The Swiss-German Schroeder made "Barfly" because he was attracted to "the extreme sensitivity of the man hiding behind drunkenness and toughness." And he made sure his cast didn't change a word of the poet-penned screenplay.
Schroeder personally knew Bukowsk "inside and out because he was a friend."
"I spent so much time with him I knew what he would do," he said.
On the "Barfly" set, if the director saw actor Mickey Rourke, who portrays a dissolute writer named Henry, do something Bukowski wouldn’t do, he would shake his head. "He would understand me telepathically," Schroeder said.
And contrary to popular belief, Rourke was not difficult while working on the movie. And none of the cast members drank though they portrayed alcoholics.
Bukowski, who had grown up in Los Angeles and didn’t much care for Hollywood, visited the set once a week. He told Schroeder he didn’t want to drop by more often because he wanted the director to find his own Bukowski.
Bukowski felt Schroeder hadn’t found his own Wanda when he cast Faye Dunaway in the role.
"Wanda was the love of his life and she didn’t look like Wanda," Schroeder said. "For me, Faye Dunaway’s performance was sublime."
Otherwise, with minor exceptions, the story of "Barfly" was true to life. One change: the bar in which Bukowski meets Wanda. It was in Philadelphia, not in Los Angeles, as it is in the movie.
Schroeder said he searched all the bars in L.A. to find the right one, finally settling on an old Culver City saloon next to a Skid Row hotel.
"In the very old days it was a luxury bar where Cary Grant would go have a drink after a day of work," he said.
In "Barfly," the director used as extras" people who actually drank in the bar and lived in the hotel next door, as did Rourke's character, Henry.
Among them was a doddering elderly man with white hair who looked like an escapee from a Fellini set, and a sourpuss who, from her bar stool, watches, with derision, the goings-on around her.
"They were all barflies; they were true barflies," Schroeder said. (Bukowski makes a cameo as, what else, a barfly.)
Schroeder also searched for months for the apartment building in which Wanda lives. He wanted one with palm trees outside its windows.
Also on view outside is a red neon sign of a horse with wings; Schroeder had it made specifically for the movie.
One big way the director maintained a sense of authenticity was to record Bukowski reading aloud his script. The director gave the tape to Rourke, who didn’t know the poet or his work.
Schroeder spent at least seven years trying to get "Barfly" made, at one point threatening to cut off his pinky finger if Cannon Group didn’t finance it. Cannon did release the movie, in 1987.
The masterful film was shot in 30 days on a $3 million budget.
The author of four novels and numerous screenplays, Tolkin directed and wrote "The New Age," released in 1994 and starring Peter Weller and Judy Davis as Peter and Katherine Witner.
The late Gene Siskel panned the movie; Ebert loved it.
One of my friends who teaches film thought "The New Age" is brilliant in the way it walks on the edge of satire. Some other festival-goers didn’t like it; festival official blogger Lisa Rosman seemed to speak for them when she called the characters "nasty, empty people."
Tolkin seemed offended, saying he likes them.
Critic Jim Emerson, who lived in Los Angeles around the time the movie was made, said the "densely written" screenplay is full of "good observances" and "really is of the time and place."
A festival-goer who lives in suburban San Francisco agreed. She said for many wealthy L.A. residents, physical appearance, money and the cars they drive are the most important things in life.
"That’s why they say California is two states," she said.
She felt the Witners are not empty and nasty but rather sad, that they truly seemed to seek, without much success, spiritual meaning in their lives.
Like Schroeder, Tolkin cast some of the parts with real people: performance artists Rachel Rosenthal and Bob Flanagan appear as Sarah Freidberg and Bob, respectively. And people who really are in the S&M scene in Los Angeles portrayed party-goers in the S&M party scenes in the movie.
"The people are actually those things instead of people acting those things," Tolkin said. "What I didn’t want to do was make fun of them."
Tolkin intentionally cast Adam West, who played Batman in the '60s "Batman" TV series, as the father of Peter Witner, played by Weller, who portrayed Robocop in the movies.
"I wanted Batman to be Robocop’s father," Tolkin said.