Monday, February 19, 2007

Pennies From Heaven

Hoskins vs. Martin
(Spoiler: Hoskins wins in a bloody triumph)

February 18, 2007 - DVD

Uncompromising and uncomfortably honest, the television miniseries Pennies From Heaven was visionary in the way it introduced a new, freaky road into the minds of fictional characters. It was such a triumphant and surprising technique, in fact, that it would serve as the cornerstone for the justly-celebrated career of its creator, Dennis Potter, who would put this weirdo idea to use in a number of other BBC miniseries'. It was not, however, strong enough to survive being transmuted into an American musical, and the attempt to do so stands as a sad testament to the side of Hollywood we’ve occasionally wished didn’t exist; its tendency toward grandiosity and overstatement, and it’s singular ability to (maybe inadvertently, maybe intentionally) elbow out intelligence and logic in favor of spectacle and self-importance.

But before we get too deep into that unpleasantness, let’s talk about the great and often mind-blowing original work. Over more than eight hours, Potter has us completely enthralled with the lives of some truly cruel, gullible, and pathetic people, and only in the end does it feel like we (tragically) have to turn our backs on all of them. The aforementioned “surprising technique,” of course, is that throughout their misadventures, the characters spontaneously lip-sync to 1930’s era pop songs. The predominant read seems to be that these frequent departures from the otherwise very, very grim day-to-day reality are essentially reflections of the characters’ wildest wishes sprung to life. The sunny songs, then, are (in theory) a kind of ironic, relieving contrast to the story. But is this really what’s going on? Well… according to me (and, c’mon, who else’re you gonna believe?), yes and no.

The truth is that Potter was aiming at something more complex, and more insightful. Each time a character mimes a song, the context and outlook are carefully constructed so that we know exactly whose perspective we’re observing. For example, the fantasies of Arthur, the sheet-music salesman played by Bob Hoskins, generally reflect an alternate version of himself; one in which he is confident, truthful, and an all-around good man (or, if not “good” per se, then at least he imagines that the world around him is as twisted as he is, and happy about it). Eileen, the school-teacher-turned-prostitute played by Cheryl Campbell, has musical fantasies that serve to soften the world around her; she’s actively, desperately looking for the good in other people, even when (or, perhaps, especially when) they’re looking to exploit her. These are two completely different motivations for fantasy, yet they both draw upon the same stock of popular music from the period, as they naturally would to people in this place and time. Each musical sequence, then, is not merely a break from the story, but their break from the story. Most of the people in the series get at least a single song to themselves, and in each and every case the motivation for the fantasy represents an angle unique to their character. In all cases, Potter is using the lip-syncing sequences to bring us closer to the character. What, after all, is more intimate than a grown person's fantasies?

Consider this for a moment, and you’ll realize what a completely out-there concept it is, yet it’s so skillfully executed that after a brief period of growing accustomed, it becomes as natural a storytelling device as, say, a flashback. Very rare in motion pictures is a new concept introduced that’s creative and easily accessible, yet here is an amazing example where both are true.

The story of Pennies From Heaven is unceasingly depressing, involving deception, abortion, marital discord, murder, contrition, and a great, great deal of self-loathing. Bob Hoskins’ Arthur is one of the most reprehensible, weasely characters I’ve encountered, yet I would be lying if I said I didn’t seriously love the fuckin’ asshole. He’s such a thoroughly considered creation, and so human, that there’s really no way not to love him, assuming you have a shred of empathy inside you. His perverse dreams are our perverse dreams—he desires affection, sex and absolute support in equal amounts, without any obligation to give the same in return. Anybody who’s never felt like this to some degree is either delusional or boring. This miniseries is something for the ages.

In sharp contrast, the 104-minute movie version has no idea who Arthur really is. He comes across as nothing more than a dumb rube, more a man-child than Hoskins’ childish man. This should probably not come as much of a surprise, since basically Steve Martin plays the character as The Jerk in depression-era Chicago. And yes, I know that sounds funny. Just trust me that it isn’t. (By the way, The Jerk is great, great, great. Don't get me wrong about that.) By this same token, the musical sequences are painful to endure—they look kind of cool, I guess, and they're very large in scale, but they possess no interesting perspective. Herbert Ross, the director, has envisioned the story as both a classic musical and as a simultaneous comment on the falsity of classic musicals. This is such an obvious approach, and such a disservice to the original work, that at first I thought he must have a secret idea up his sleeve. This isn't the case. For Ross, what these sequences really are, I eventually and sadly discovered, are nothing but the fantasies of the filmmaker as opposed to those of any given character; odes to Busby Berkeley (who wasn’t even notably famous during the period in which the movie is set) and references to Singin' in the Rain, a musical released nearly thirty years after the events in this story, suggest that Ross really doesn't have any interest in probing the minds of these characters. Instead, he's just looking to recast an old-fashioned and typically joyous art form in a darker mold. Boy... quite the revelatory concept, eh? Even in 1978, when the miniseries first premiered, Dennis Potter knew this was much too simple an approach, and so took it straight to a higher, more interesting level.

Now, I know that it isn't fair to criticize a movie based on respected material for being its own thing... I don't have a problem, really, with the film version downgrading the importance of certain key characters from the miniseries. It's just that what this film winds up being is so comparatively pointless. Here is the best example I can give to illustrate what's so aggravating about this version: this is a still shot from the film. Look familiar? It's a recreation of the famous painting Nighthawks, from 1942. Why is this included in Pennies From Heaven? The characters certainly don't imagine that they're sitting in a painting from eight years in the future. The best explanation I can muster is that it's in there as a Scary Movie-esque gag, a self-congratulations on the part of the filmmakers.
But you see the fundamental problem, here? This isn't a film about people, and it isn't really about investigating anything relevant... it's about the cleverness of the creators, and as such possesses almost no central drama, and offers no reason for us to care about anything that's happening on more than a candy-coated surface level. Each individual sequence is kinda fun on its own, but they don't accumulate into anything greater. Worst of all, this movie strips Arthur and the rest of their humanity, and all we have left is a tap-dancing director. This is not, not, not, not, not interesting.

But more important than discrediting the weak movie version, I really can't recommend seeking out the miniseries more emphatically. It's really one of those things.

1 comment:

jeff said...

I think Hoskins always wins in a bloody triumph, even when he loses.