In 1997, indie-rock queen Ani DiFranco, then 26, graced the cover of Spin magazine for the very first time, a feat that was viewed as extraordinary by some and as unwarranted by others. None of the folk singer’s studio albums had even been certified gold, yet the editors at the magazine knew something big was about to happen. Little did they know that putting DiFranco on their cover would be that big thing. That very year, Living in Clip, a live double-disc, topped critics’ lists and became DiFranco’s biggest seller, exposing her unique brand of folk-punk to an entire generation of mainstream rock fans. DiFranco was poised for her big breakthrough. Though she had made a career out of turning her nose up at the major labels that continually courted her, she finally seemed comfortable enough in her own skin to make the swan dive into mainstream popularity—on her own terms. The question was whether or not it would work.
DiFranco’s extensive catalog displays a woman on a mission whose musical development went hand-in-hand with personal discovery. Each album, from the pure folk of Not So Soft to the more musically padded Out of Range and the emotionally complex Not a Pretty Girl, mapped out a distinct pattern of perpetual growth. In fact, DiFranco was indeed a pretty girl coming to grips with a society (and fanbase) that would not allow a girl to be political while wearing lipstick and a dress. In 1996, she released Dilate, a dark and haunting mix of folk, punk, and dub influences. Many critics consider the album her best studio effort, with the folk singer pounding on the walls of every existing boundary in pop music. For the first time, she released a music video, a medium she had always viewed as too commercial. Co-directed by DiFranco herself, the clip was set to a trip-hop remix of the song “Joyful Girl” and featured DiFranco wearing an evening gown and enough makeup to send many of her militant feminist followers flying off the handle.
Seeing DiFranco perform live is essential to fully understanding the breadth of her talent. Her spastic energy, humor, and command of the stage is unrivaled, which is probably why 1997’s Living in Clip was such a huge success. But by 1998, her live audiences were changing. For the first time there were almost as many men as women, and swarms of trend-conscious teens began descending on DiFranco’s shows, due in large part to the media exposure and her new mainstream appeal. Where she had once played college campuses and small clubs, she was now selling out large theaters. Many of her core fans who had been there from the very beginning began feeling alienated by all the hoopla. They truly believed they owned her and didn’t want to see her change. Nor did they want to see her on the covers of mainstream magazines or on MTV News—which was just where she was headed.
There was speculation that DiFranco’s next studio album would be her official breakthrough. And no one seemed more aware of this than DiFranco herself, writing songs about self-examination under public scrutiny that would eventually become Little Plastic Castle. It was a fishbowl concept album, with DiFranco contemplating the leap into the shark-infested waters of rock stardom on tracks like “Swan Dive”: “They can call me crazy if I fail/All the chance I need is one in a million/And they can call me brilliant if I succeed.” The title track even responded to her disenchanted fans’ criticisms: “People talk about my image/Like I come in two dimensions/Like lipstick is a sign of my declining mind.” Released in March of 1998, Little Plastic Castle debuted at an impressive #22 on Billboard’s Top 200 chart, but the album never really made the long-term splash that everyone expected. Its pop leanings alienated her fans even further, yet it wasn’t pop enough to match the success of other Angry Females like Alanis Morissette. The album quickly faded away, failing to fully crossover or reach the coveted gold plateau.
Less than a year later, DiFranco returned with Up Up Up Up Up Up, a relatively understated answer to the public response of Little Plastic Castle. Whether intentional or not, it seemed DiFranco was taking a step back to more organic, folk-rooted music. For the most part, the album was super-political and generally steered clear of any references to the folk singer’s taste of super-stardom. While some may think DiFranco was attempting to win back the loyalty of her disillusioned fans, it’s more likely she was simply staying true to herself and wasn’t concerned with furthering her star power. Either way, the anticipation for what she would do next continued to escalate; Up debuted at #29, moving close to 51,000 copies in its first week.
Less than 10 months later, the ever-prolific songwriter released To the Teeth, her 11th studio album in a decade. Maceo Parker and company brought a jazzy quality to the project, and while it sported several blunders, it was an eclectic mix that proved that DiFranco was most definitely her own boss. The album continued her “jammy” musical progression leading up to her latest effort, the double disc Revelling/Reckoning. Revelling features more upbeat material while Reckoning focuses on slower, more introspective songs, and it might just be further proof that artists indeed make their worst music when they’re happy and in love. The opening track, “Ain’t That the Way,” finds DiFranco, who married a man in 1999 (much to the chagrin of her largely lesbian audience), singing “Love makes me feel so dumb”—and much of it makes her sound dumb too. The lyrical metaphors that were once clever and unexpected now seem awkward and long-winded. On “Reckoning,” she compares a relationship to an amusement park and it all seems very forced. It was once interesting to see where she might go with her horn arrangements, like the ones in “Heartbreak Even” and “What How When Where (Why Who),” but they now seem obtrusive and overindulgent.
DiFranco’s musical progression has always made sense and each album seems to be a stepping stone to the next. And while her latest direction might not be as emotionally gripping as her previous work, she seems to have come full circle on R/R. Many of the songs find DiFranco singing alone with an acoustic guitar. The appropriately titled “Garden of Simple” begins with “Some crazy fucker carved a sculpture out of butter,” a brazen reminder of her old-school lyrical prowess. She also continues her spoken-word tradition on “Tamburitza Lingua” and “Kazoointoit,” where she shows us what folk-tronica really sounds like. “Imagine That” is an intriguing look into the thoughts of a touring artist and provides further insight into the relationship she has with her fans (“In the haze is your face bathed in shadow/And what’s behind you is hidden from sight”), while the beautifully poetic “Grey” is solemn in its simplicity: “What can I say/But I’m wired this way/And you’re wired to me.” The problem, however, is that the album is a bit over-ambitious, one disc reviving her pure folk style while the other continues the muddled jam sessions of which she’s become so fond.
A tongue-drum featured on “Your Next Bold Move” provides a minimalist percussive backdrop for DiFranco’s familiar politics: “The left wing was broken long ago/By the sling shot of Cointelpro/And now it’s so hard to have faith in anything.” Her attack of the Reagan Era is typically fierce: “I am Cancer/I am HIV…Just looking up from my pillow feeling blessed.” These are the kinds of songs that would have made her early fans proud, but it’s probably too little too late. With her audience getting younger and younger, it’s hard to imagine they even know what Cointelpro is. They might prefer her growling “Fuck you for existing in the first place!” as she did in the popular “Untouchable Face.”
It might seem unfair to suggest that DiFranco is a better songwriter when she’s pissed off, but it might just be that she no longer needs to purge her feelings through songwriting now that she has a husband to confide in. On “Sick of Me,” she grapples with growing older and mellower: “I took to the stage/With my outrage/In the bad old days…But the songs/They come out more slowly/Now that I’m the bad guy.” “School Night” finds a woman choosing between the two loves in her life, her husband and her career: “What kind of scale/Compares the weight of two beauties…I stand committed to a love that came before you.” Elsewhere, she wrestles with the time that has flown by: “She’s 19 going on 30/Or maybe she’s really 30 now.” There’s a comforting brilliance in knowing that she at least acknowledges the fact that she has changed—personally and musically. At 30, she’s dealing with the world from an older, wiser perspective, a perspective that might be foreign to an audience that pines for the anger of songs like “I’m No Heroine” and “Not a Pretty Girl.”
DiFranco’s career can basically be divided into two parts: before and after Little Plastic Castle. It might seem harsh to say DiFranco has stumbled since that album, but there has been a definitive arch in popularity. R/R debuted at #50 on April 21st, 2001, selling 37,000 copies, significantly less than her last three releases. While double albums traditionally sell less, DiFranco followers are particularly fanatical, often snatching up her new albums even before the official release date. And though the album has received great reviews across the board, the fans seem increasingly fickle and the major labels have finally stopped courting her. The chances of DiFranco ever appearing on the cover of Spin again are essentially slim-to-none and with no music videos, MTV has little interest. Yet DiFranco is consciously limiting her exposure by not making music videos; therefore, like her gradual rise, she is once again in control.
But industry politics aside, DiFranco’s music now seems to lack focus. She’s dabbled in electronica and hip-hop, only to abandon them for twangy folk-rock and improv-jams, often all on the very same album. To the Teeth is a great example of this sort of inconsistency. Not a Pretty Girl and Dilate, on the other hand, are probably her most cohesive sets, and not because they’re musically homogenized, but because they’re sonically pure and emotionally raw. Now that she’s personally contented, her focus has shifted to larger issues like mortality but without the incendiary fervor of her early recordings. Perhaps it’s a product of growing older, or perhaps it’s a product of being in a stable relationship.
Or perhaps DiFranco is just evolving and redefining the music industry along the way. She’s still the queen of her own compost heap, but maybe she’s finally used to the smell. While she may have once jumped head-first into the unknown, she has clearly abandoned any aspirations for expanding her success in the mainstream. Developing new artists with her own Righteous Babe Records and inspiring musicians like Prince, who are looking for alternative ways to make music in an increasingly corporate industry, seems to be more important to DiFranco. And as far as disappointed fans, she sings: “They never really owned you/You just carried them around/And then one day you put ’em down/And found your hands were free.”
This talented, hard-working thespian’s feeling for tumult is matched by his feeling for concision.
When he was a young man, Al Pacino, a dreadfully handsome troublemaker and high school dropout, was often homeless. He sometimes slept on the stage at HB Studio, where he was studying and performing. The aspiring actor had ambitions but not many means. He took work as a busboy, a switchboard operator, and a mailroom clerk for Commentary Magazine. He was cheerful and hard-working, with an unbridled energy and, despite his circumstances, a pertinacious optimism. “I didn’t walk to work,” he once told James Lipton on Inside the Actors Studio, “I leapt to work.”
Born in East Harlem and raised by his mother and maternal grandparents in the south Bronx (his grandparents were, funny enough, from a Sicilian town called Corleone), he went by the nickname Sonny, and was called “The Actor” by friends and family due to his penchant for performing scenes from Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend, which he saw when he was five. “Borderline shy,” by his own admission, Pacino lived in his imagination, seeking solace in the darkness of the cinema. (Before he pursued a career in acting, he wanted to be a baseball player, a natural inclination when one grows up in the Bronx.) When Pacino was two, his father abandoned him and his mother, and one feels this absence lingering over his most famous performances like an unanswered question. He regularly plays solitary men, professionals dedicated to their work, men whose family lives are a shambles, or whose families are their life. Think of Frank Serpico, twitchy-eyed and bushy bearded, uttering, “If I could just work alone, if I could just work alone…”
In Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II, maybe the great father-son film of the New Hollywood era, Pacino plays Michael Corleone, the good son who turns into a vindictive gangster, to his father’s immense disappointment. When he takes over the family business, Michael exudes a ruthlessness that his old man disavowed. Freud talked of men wanting to kill their fathers to become them, but Michael breaks his father’s heart and becomes someone else, someone increasingly craven, a man slowly slipping into evil. He loses his soul in his search for power. Watch Pacino, hair shellacked and slick, as black as crude oil, as he grabs his brother, Fredo (played by John Cazale), and notice the vehemence in his eyes as he says, “You broke my heart.” He looks as though he could tear Fredo’s face off right there.
Though Marlon Brando was the ostensible star of the first Godfather—it’s his sullen and sapiential face that adorns the poster, and he who took home an Oscar—the trilogy really belongs to Pacino’s Michael. It’s the story of a man whose potential for greatness transmogrified into evil, slowly and heartbreakingly—of the college boy, the war hero, following not in his father’s footsteps, but in a disfigured image of his shadow. Cinematographer Gordon Willis’s crepuscular lighting throws upon Michael a visual dichotomy, half basked in golden light and half shrouded in shadows. As The Godfather progresses, he veers increasingly into darkness until he emerges, alone, into an autumn afternoon, left to ponder his iniquitous decisions.
Despite the composed, sometimes phlegmatic demeanor of Michael Corleone, that simmering indolence and careful elocution, something seethes behind his eyes: a sufferance for violence. All of Pacino’s great characters have the potential to hurt or maim or kill, usually out of necessity or a particular sense of pragmatism—a rarefied dangerousness. Pacino has a tragic air about him. One feels it in his stare: an overcompensation for some unuttered anxiety or self-doubt in all that shouting that typifies much of his raspy-voiced later work. There’s a protean quality to Pacino’s acting. Like his great characters, these unrelenting professionals, he isn’t unwilling to do what’s necessary: to explode when his instincts command him to, to recede into placidity when the scene calls for it. Bespoke or bedraggled, garbed in elegant suits or a leather vest, he emanates a peculiar masculinity, a kind of vulnerability.
From 1971 to 1976, Pacino had a run of performances that boggles the mind—in Jerry Schatzberg’s A Panic in Needle Park, the two Godfather films, and Sidney Lumet’s Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon. Each performance has become enshrined in the American cinema canon. In these roles, one finds a man mining the depths of masculine fragility, finding ways to express pain, desperation, and egomania that didn’t adhere to the cinematic image of the drug addict, the criminal, and the gangster. In Schatzberg’s Scarecrow, from 1973, Pacino finds not only the juvenility in a former sailor, but a kind of heartbreak disguised as juvenility. The actor’s Francis is a man of tenuous mental and emotional stability, who suffers tragedy, has a mental breakdown, and lapses into catatonia. There’s nothing gimcrack or stereotypical about Pacino’s embodiment of mental illness; it’s empathetic and earnest.
In the ‘80s, Pacino did more controversial fair, notably as a cop infiltrating New York’s gay leather scene in William Friedkin’s salacious and invidious Cruising, and as the bombastic, cocaine-huffing megalomaniac Tony Montana, a sort of Michael Corleone type without the discipline, in Brian De Palma’s Scarface. While Scarface has become embedded in the pop-culture lexicon for its riotous ending and the way Pacino holds that grenade launcher as if it were a lover, Cruising, chopped up by Friedkin in post-production to avoid an X rating, remains the more fascinating, epochal piece of lurid pulp. It’s with great empathy and curiosity that Pacino approaches the role of an undercover cop, slowly slipping into the faux-identity that’s been created for him.
In the ‘90s, Pacio began to craft his own caricature, though he didn’t succumb to it. He extrapolated all that incendiary indignation, that despair and loneliness, into something resembling a stark-raving lunatic, men of profound desperation. This is the Pacino most often parodied, and most unfairly maligned. In Michael Mann’s almost-three-hour opus Heat, he married his contemplative sadness and his proclivity for erupting into voluble paroxysms. “Cause she’s got a great ass!” bellows his Vincent Hanna, an L.A.P.D. lieutenant, to a loose-lipped police officer who, after finding out he let slip sensitive information, wants to know how he got mixed up with a duplicitous phone sex worker. Hanna’s eyes go wide, his mouth like a great hungry O. His hands cup the hypothetical hindquarters. It brings to mind Whitman’s phrase “a barbaric yawp.” Then, he adds, “Ferocious, aren’t I?” as an aside, as if the other cops in the room are the audience to his Looney Tunes act.
That scene, in all its histrionics, is the apogee of Pacino’s shouting period, which began around the time of Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, in which he played a corporeal cartoon character, Big Boy Caprice, and reached a fever pitch when he played John Milton, the head of a chthonic law firm in Taylor Hackford’s The Devil’s Advocate. But whereas those two outlandish roles presented Pacino with the opportunity to chew scenery with wanton relish, to go full-on hammy villain, his turn in Heat is, for all its ferocity, a deeply sad performance, an ongoing act of contrition. His eyes are wreathed by bags, sunken in from so many sleepless nights. There’s an ashen languor to his face. Vociferous and volatile, with that underlying hint of fragility, his Hanna is one of those cops who’s dedicated to his job, whose life revolves around his vocation. He carries his badge as Sisyphus does his boulder. (Pacino admitted, two decades later, that Hanna has a cocaine habit, which helps explain why he’s so labile, so clamorous. He needs the spark, the rousing scintilla, of each line setting his brain on fire, to keep him going.)
Later in Mann’s film, during a moment of tender resignation, Pacino’s character elucidates on why he harbors so much pain, why he keeps his work so close. “I gotta hold on to my angst. I preserve it because I need it. It keeps me sharp”—he snaps his fingers—“on the edge”—snap—“where I gotta be.” The timing and rhythm of this delivery is precise, as exact and measured as any stratagem crafted by the career criminals he’s chasing, yet Pacino exudes a certain fluidity, a certain malaise, as if the words are just seeping out of him.
Heat earned pre-release notoriety for featuring the first shared screen time between Pacino and Robert De Niro, and the ire of some fans who were disappointed by the reticent badinage that comprises their much-hyped meeting. “My life’s a disaster zone,” Hanna confides to De Niro’s Neil McCauley, “because I spend all my time chasing guys like you around the block. That’s my life.” The scene represents the most low-key acting either performer had done in some time—just two professionals tersely chatting, making small talk that is, they know, infused with ominous warnings, like milk into coffee. “Brother,” Hanna says, calm and assured, “you are going down.”
For his second collaboration with Mann, 1999’s The Insider, Pacino dialed it back down and returned to a recurring theme of his work: struggling with the moral quandaries of professional men trying to do the job. There’s Frank Serpico and Vincent Hanna, Michael Corleone, Steve Burns in Cruising, the burned-out—but still, in his way, quite suave—detective Frank Keller in Harold Becker’s Sea of Love from 1989, and Will Dormer trying to navigate the sunlit brume in Christopher Nolan’s 2002 film Insomnia. Even Dog Day Afternoon’s Sonny Wortzik, a despairing, broken-faced man driven to extremes, fits into this pattern, though his motivation is one of love, not professionalism.
What, then, to make of the last two decades of Pacino’s career—that period during which he made an appearance in Martin Brest’s legendarily bad Gigli, starred in a bevy of police procedural detritus, and gave a surreal performance as an ersatz version of himself in the Adam Sandler vehicle Jack and Jill? As the pathetic, last-gasp salesman Shelley in a 2012 Broadway revival of David Mamet’s 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Glengarry Glen Ross, Pacino acted with what Ben Brantley called “the exaggerated pantomiming of a boozy player in a late-night charades game,” which is to say he wasn’t great. Yet, when he appeared in Mamet’s film version, in 1992, he earned an Oscar nod for his sleazy Ricky Roma, a chicanerous smooth-talker.
It’s not that he’s lost the ability to act: Despite potential “comeback” roles as the eloquently flustered Jack Kevorkian in You Don’t Know Jack and as an aging actor struggling with dementia in the Philip Roth adaptation The Humbling, both directed by Barry Levinson, and as a lonely keymaker in David Gordon Green’s Manglehorn, he’s been relegated to VOD titles like Misconduct and Hangman. No, Pacino still has the chops; he just doesn’t appear in films that deserve them. Pacino’s is one of the great, flummoxing careers of American actors. He’s a profoundly talented, hard-working thespian whose ungrudging sense of explosiveness sometimes deviates into empty grandstanding, and who’s feeling for tumult is matched by his feeling for concision. In the final moments of Heat, as De Niro’s robber lays slain before Hanna, the thief manages, for his final words, “I told you I’m never going back.” Hanna, exhausted, victorious but not triumphant, intones, simply, “Yeah.”
Pacino’s Way runs at the Quad from March 14—29.
The Right Stuff: Harry Dean Stanton Remembered
Willowy and wise, with a down-home voice abraded by a lifelong affinity for smoking, Harry Dean Stanton was the great supporting actor of American cinema.
Willowy and wise, with a down-home voice abraded by a lifelong affinity for smoking, Harry Dean Stanton was the great supporting actor of American cinema. As cowboys, detectives, bar-stool sages, scruffy-faced wage slaves, he was a man comfortable dwelling in silence, whose presence and unfussy utterances commanded, without begging for, your attention. He had the air of a proletarian flaneur, a dusty wanderer with a landscape for a face, carved with wrinkles. As prolific as he was consistent, he appeared, by his own estimations, in over 200 films and television shows, and he never gave a bad performance. He didn’t seem to even be giving a performance. He simply existed. Like Robert Mitchum, he under-acted his parts, buttressing a film, augmenting its other performances, with authentic behavior and natural reactions. “You look at me when I talk to you,” he spits to Alan Ladd in 1958’s The Proud Rebel. “I’m looking but I don’t see anything,” Ladd retorts.
One gets the sense that Stanton didn’t love being a “character actor,” and he expressed vexation over the dearth of leading roles offered to him. But he helped to legitimize the importance of supporting actors, a vocation often considered a prerequisite to bigger roles. Especially in the second half of his career, he epitomized what a supporting actor should do. As the bereaved father in 1986’s Pretty in Pink, swaddled in the agony of loneliness, he brings to the film an aching knowingness that its younger stars had yet to experience. And as the estranged brother in David Lynch’s The Straight Story, he makes crying feel like the most painful, meaningful thing a man can do.
Stanton died, at the age of 91, just weeks after the finale of Twin Peaks: The Return aired. Though he worked with Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Sam Peckinpah, Arthur Penn, John Carpenter, and had a labile friendship with Marlon Brando (begot by insults, and conducted mostly through phone calls when the corpulent Brando was in his twilight years), it was in David Lynch that he found his greatest consort. The filmmaker, also an American Spirits aficionado, cast Stanton in five projects, beginning with Wild at Heart in 1990. Watching animals tear a chunk of meat on television, his lips pulled back in a macabre smile, Stanton puts a demented spin on the detective archetype he’d played so many times throughout his career. An agitated F.B.I. agent in The Godfather Part II, a corrupt L.A.P.D. detective in Farewell, My Lovely, an intervening good cop in Slam Dance, an astute detective in Christine—he imbued all of these roles with tonal and emotional variations, finding in their broad generalizations the details that make a character memorable.
Before he played cops, Stanton killed them. He began his career playing criminals, creeps, and ballbusters. “I was a classic cop killer,” he told The Washington Post in 1985. “That’s what started me off.” The first film to really make sincere use of his dramatic gifts was Monte Hellman’s 1966 western Ride in the Whirlwind, written by and starring Jack Nicholson, for whom Stanton had been best man at his 1962 wedding. Nicholson explained to his friend, “I want you to just play yourself.” Nicholson, three years from his breakout role in Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, saw in the insouciance and composure of Stanton’s acting style something that others had overlooked, and rather than cast him against type, he cast the role of the murderous gang leader, the kind of role that would normally have gone to someone intimidating and a little unhinged, a Lee Marvin or Jack Palance, against actor type. Eventually, Stanton decided to hang his guns up: “I wanted to play lovers,” he said.
Though he didn’t often, if ever, play romantic roles, he found in his collaborations with David Lynch a painful romanticism, a sense that life, however cruel, would, eventually, offer solace, something in the way of love. Joaquin Phoenix, in his recent New York Times Style Magazine profile, says that great performances are the result of great direction. Lynch isn’t known for coaxing subtle or naturalistic performances from actors, but he brought out the best in Stanton. As Carl Rodd, the coffee-swilling proprietor of the Fat Trout trailer park, introduced in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Stanton tapped into the malaise of age. He’s initially a torpid-eyed grump, staring off like a somnambulist; he makes the best goddamn cup of “Good Morning, America” and wears flannel on flannel. He isn’t ambitious.
Twenty-five years later, in The Return, Carl, now calmer, kinder, a man who’s appalled that one of his tenants is selling his own blood to pay the rent, is still in the same place. He says, “Not much I got to look forward to at my age…except the hammer slamming down.” Sitting on a park bench, staring at the trees rustle in the breeze, he witnesses the hit-and-run death of a child. Carl watches the boy’s essence rise in a luminous golden orb. As the passersby stop and gawk, bray, react with varying histrionics, Carl slowly approaches and comforts the mother. The scene vacillates between the absurd and the tragic, but Stanton, the most reliable of American actors, provides a brief sense of stability. In this tragic moment, Carl performs a minor miracle, consoling the inconsolable. He shows that Twin Peaks still has good people in it.
Lynch’s direction of actors is rarely discussed, but he placed palpable trust in Stanton, allowing him to act against the hysterical happenings surrounding him. In a series that showcases career-best performances from most of its cast, the actor remains compelling because he represents the average guy, the citizen often forgotten in the cursed vicinage of Twin Peaks, whose more eccentric characters and striking oddities garner the most attention. Stanton, as always, augments the film enfolding him. As a supporting actor, his artistry was unparalleled: Method actors are often heralded for “disappearing into roles,” but Stanton disappeared into his work.
In a later episode, Carl strums his guitar, singing the western folk song “Red River Valley,” the prophetic words pouring sinuously from him. Around him is violence, chaos. The image acts almost as an elegy for Stanton’s enduring appeal. Even on the cusp of 90 (The Return was filmed in 2015), he seems, if tired, still committed, his body sagging, the words coming slower, but his heart is still in it. Some of cinema’s most luminary A-listers, like Pacino and De Niro and Brando, gave way to mawkish caricature in later years, taking roles for paychecks. Stanton, denied leading-man status for most of his career, never slipped into self-parody. His persona only grew more sagacious.
In an interview included with the Repo Man DVD, he’s asked, “Does the way you look at the world influence the way you act? In a film?” After a moment of silence, he says, “Obviously.” He was born in West Irvine, Kentucky, in 1926. His father was a tobacco farmer. In high school, he sang in a barbershop quartet and was in the glee club, and served in the Navy during WWII, surviving the 82-day Battle of Okinawa, an experience that hardened him, left him thankful to be alive but with a detachment that seems to have manifest in emotional diffidence in interviews, his low-key deliveries in films. After his home was robbed in 1996 and he was tied up and had a gun pressed against his face, he mused to reporters, “I think I’m blessed with a pretty tough psyche.”
He was reluctant to disclose much of his personal life. In Sophie Huber’s 2013 documentary Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, he croons “Blue Moon” in response to the question, “Do you think you give something away by talking about yourself?” He turns Americana into a koan. His placidity earned him the nickname “Harry Zen Stanton.” His penchant for ontological musings and belief in predestiny, a word he said “scares people shitless,” didn’t extend to sincere supernatural beliefs. He wasn’t religious in a conventional sense. He could quote Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and the Book of Revelations at length but preferred the “more human” Jesus of The Gnostic Gospels. He also did a series of quotidian exercises called the Five Rites, a Tibetan practice to “stimulate your chakras” that predates yoga. He thought, he hoped, that after life there would be nothing. His turn as the mendacious, self-professed prophet with 14 wives on Big Love has a skeptical quality to it, the performance of a man who didn’t believe the bullshit his character posited. “I’m big into Eastern concepts,” he says in Partly Fiction. “The horror of life, the love of children, the whole phantasmagoria—it’s all meaningless.”
Reticent, even cryptic, he spoke with terse, exacting language, with an acerbic wit, but sometimes he just spoke his mind. While recording a podcast in 2013, Jen Kirkman asked Stanton what he thought about the guy Molly Ringwald ends up with in Pretty in Pink. He said, without missing a beat, “I don’t give a fuck.” When Kirkman pressed, irksomely asking how he would feel if he had a hypothetical daughter, she correctly predicted he would, again, not give a fuck.
Singing, Stanton’s first passion, seemed preferable to speaking, and he wasn’t shy to flaunt his chops. In 1962, on a forgotten show called Checkmate, Stanton first showed off his vocal prowess, tinged with a self-aware ennui. With a guitar slung over his leather jacket, he belts, “Hallelujah, I’m a bum!” His musical talents were used more prominently a few years later, in 1967’s Cool Hand Luke; he gazes off, a thousand-yard stare, a death-row stare, cooing a hymn of futile hope. The camera zooms in on that great, lissome face, toward those wispy lips, beads of sweat clinging to his stubble.
A suspicion of fatalism suffuses his performances. In Ridley Scott’s Alien, he plays Brett, the engineering technician on the commercial spacecraft Nostromo. Stanton, who didn’t like horror or monster movies, plays the role the way he played all his others: with an authentic nonchalance, a middle-class denizen grinding away, waiting for his paycheck—which is to say, “right.” While looking for the cat, which he let escape, Brett becomes the first of the crew to meet the fully grown alien. Looking up at the creature, a hulking black something that looms over him like inevitable judgement, he has the same nonplussed face as the cat. How else should one react to the unfathomable?
Because Stanton was already middle-aged by the time he appeared in Alien, most moviegoers never knew him to be young; he seemed to have drifted into popular culture like a piece of space debris, or maybe a tumbleweed from one of his early, generic western films. The ‘80s turned out to be Stanton’s decade. There was an acidic quality to many of his films, the corrosive remnants of halcyon memories and bad decisions lingering, scarring. He seeped into the mainstream while etching out his own niche in smaller, odder films.
On the cusp of 60, with nearly three decades of credits to his name, Stanton finally got the leading role he’d wanted, in Wim Wenders’s Palme d’Or-winning Paris, Texas. Moviegoers remember the red baseball cap, vibrant against a beige expanse, an image that circulated social media after the news of Stanton’s death, but the devastating beauty of the film stems from the raggedy sapience of the performance. Travis, who remains mute for much of the film, is a cipher whose identity, whose anguish, is slowly revealed, in drips, culminating in a Sam Shepard-penned story about a dissolving relationship. After so much silence, the unflustered, epiphanic delivery is deafening. A peepshow, a two-way mirror, a phone call with the mother of his missing son. The camera goes back and forth between Travis and Jane, who doesn’t know with whom she’s talking. His voice doesn’t give him away; the story does. A man, in love, plunges into alcoholism, into mental degradation. His life falls apart, his family leaves, his house catches fire. He’s not performing a recital but recalling a moment lodged in time, in stasis. It’s a realization. “Now he got really crazy.” It’s a story of paranoia, of anger—and eventually, he finds penance. He’ll end up alone, of course, but he’ll find serenity.
Like Mitchum, Stanton often uses passivity, a kind of pensive ennui, to tell an internal story that defies words; unlike Mitchum, normally languid but capable of volatility and biblical violence (most notable in Charles Laughton’s 1955 classic The Night of the Hunter), a man who had a Sisyphean desperation to him, Stanton remains devastatingly unperturbed. His most famous role is one of self-realization, sacrifice, one that doesn’t erupt but, at the right time, fades into the horizon. The performance is daring in its subtlety. Given the chance to finally lead a film, Stanton lets the landscape out-act him.
That same year, in Alex Cox’s Repo Man, he played the garrulous mentor to Emilio Estevez’s punk. “Look at those assholes,” he snaps. “Ordinary fuckin’ people. I hate ’em.” Stanton, who had played working-class washouts for over 20 years, was ready to move on. His star had risen. David Letterman called him “the world’s greatest character actor.” Roger Ebert said that no film featuring Stanton could be altogether bad. He hosted Saturday Night Live. Then he went back to playing supporting roles. And American cinema was better for it.
Also Starring Harry Dean Stantaon runs at the Quad from September 23—30.
White Hot Cool: Reservoir Dogs at 25
As QT’s first film as both writer and director, Reservoir Dogs indicates a remarkably fully formed cinematic sensibility.
For a filmmaker who once enjoyed a hearty reputation as a bad-boy subversive, Quentin Tarantino has always been awfully eager to please, especially in his early films, which are neurotically obsessed with coolness as pop-cultural vindication. A key moment in Tony Scott’s 1993 film True Romance, which Tarantino wrote, spells this obsession out when Patricia Arquette’s reformed prostitute, Alabama Whitman, repeats, “You’re so cool,” in voiceover as an incantation that embodies a supreme and fragile sort of male fulfillment. Alabama is talking about her unlikely adoration of Christian Slater’s nerdy protagonist, Clarence Worley, who was once a clerk in a comic-book store, which is obviously and consciously similar to Tarantino’s heavily mythologized background as a video-store employee. Like Clarence, Tarantino made phenomenally good on his dreams.
Related to True Romance is Tarantino’s stint hosting Saturday Night Live in the wake of Pulp Fiction’s stratospheric success, where he appeared in a sketch in which he boasted that, as a once overweight clerk ignored by women, of course he sleeps with all the actresses he works with. Tarantino’s early films revel in this association of dwarfed masculinity transcended, as they’re fueled by the energy of a frustrated creative who’s finally permitted to let his emasculated white-boy id run wild. Yet there’s also an insecure mania in Tarantino’s early work, as if the bottom could fall out from under the cool braggadocio at any time. Coolness is unstable and fickle.
As Tarantino’s first film as both writer and director, Reservoir Dogs indicates a remarkably fully formed cinematic sensibility, for both better and worse. It’s a personally impersonal film, which is to say that Tarantino’s fetishizing of objects—coffee, sunglasses, boots, posters, guns, knives, music, movies—and intricate genre situations inadvertently reveal something specific about him, which is his deep and abiding need for these tropes and textures as comfort blankets. An odd vulnerability is inherent in Tarantino’s reluctance to stake out explicitly emotional or political ground—of which he’s aware. And there’s an earnestness in Reservoir Dogs that renders Tarantino’s obnoxiousness palatable, to which QT’s countless imitators have often seemed willfully blind.
Reservoir Dogs is another film about a heist gone wrong, in which a half-dozen profane and entitled white dudes blow each other to pieces with guns that the director never fails to erotize in glisteningly phallic compositions. Racial identity is obviously on Tarantino’s mind. Black women are lusted after by these characters, and the worst thing a white man can be called is a “nigger.” This epithet is more disturbingly evoked in Reservoir Dogs than in Django Unchained because the former uses it only a few times, allowing the bitterness and resentment of its utterance to hang in the room, or, in this case, the dilapidated warehouse that serves as the film’s nearly singular set.
Tarantino would profoundly grapple with white men’s uncertain grasp of African-American identity in Jackie Brown, and with the empathetic limitations that might be tragically inherent in relationships between American blacks and whites. In Reservoir Dogs, True Romance, and Pulp Fiction, blackness is a pose—something for a white boy to admire from a fearful distance. Tarantino isn’t unaware of this, but he isn’t truly willing to challenge this sideways racism either. For instance, the prospect of white and black men violently fucking appears to turn Tarantino on; he thinks of such taboo collisions as the height of outrage and a sure way to bolster the bad-boy persona he craves. In terms of pop-cultural reverberations, Tarantino was correct.
In Reservoir Dogs, there’s a prolonged and disreputably amusing moment where Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn), the second in command of an operation to lift uncut diamonds from a bank, ribs a friend and cohort, Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), for how much he presumes that black cons must have fucked Blonde while he was in jail. This moment thematically connects to Nice Guy Eddie’s remembrance of a waitress who might’ve looked a little like Pam Grier (star of Jackie Brown), who glued her abusive husband’s cock to his stomach. Comedy and racially tinged sex and violence are always linked in Reservoir Dogs, paving the way for the racially motivated rape in Pulp Fiction, which is nearly staged for comedy and has an obscene subtext of wish-fulfilling role reversal. In Tarantino’s world, the white boy gets to be the rapist. (Correspondingly, think of Gary Oldman’s black-thug wannabe in True Romance, whose murder sexually empowered white-dweeb Clarence.)
To look for these sorts of meanings in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction—to take the films seriously, in other words—is to invite scorn from Tarantino fanboys and even serious critics. Yes, contrary to the insistence of SJWs all over, art should be allowed to be offensive and artists should be able to access troubling parts of their personalities, but we should also be willing to acknowledge when such indulgences take us into troubling or simply boring waters so as to map said waters. QT has often ingeniously positioned himself ahead of criticism. To view his early films with scrutiny and sincerity is to be a prude who’s immune to the sheer adrenaline rush of sensation that they offer.
And make no mistake: Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction are carefully cultivated in terms of fetishism and momentous juxtaposition of foreplay (via dialogue) and orgasm (via violence). Tarantino is a distinctively, theatrically threadbare stylist who knew how to spin his limitations early in his career to his ultimate advantage. The filmmaker is certainly aware of the aforementioned dissonances and disturbances; that’s partially the point, as these films are less without a paradoxical patina of safely controlled outrage.
For all the cinephiliac references that abound in Reservoir Dogs, there’s a figure of inspiration to Tarantino that’s been acknowledged but underestimated: David Lynch. Tarantino’s early films take Lynch’s totemic pop-art aesthetic and dilute its political and psychological undertow, replacing it with attitude. The most infamous scene in Reservoir Dogs, its Thanksgiving centerpiece of violation, is when Mr. Blonde tortures Marvin Nash (Kirk Baltz), a cop whom the gang has taken hostage. Blonde slices off Marvin’s ear with a glistening straight razor, which he pulls out of an immaculately macho cowboy boot, while Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle with You” plays on a cheap stereo in the warehouse. This mixture of atrocity and kitsch is unthinkable without Lynch’s work, particularly the scene in Blue Velvet where Dean Stockwell’s character lip-synchs to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams.”
There are many differences between these respective scenes. Lynch mines a horrible moment of exploitation and degradation for its nightmarish beauty, as beauty and subjugation are always unresolvedly and ambiguously intertwined for Lynch. By contrast, Tarantino’s glee over Marvin’s torture is reprehensible and embarrassingly infantile: He values the scene for its visceral sensation. Tarantino lingers with faux rapture on a close-up of Marvin as his duct-taped head bleeds as the song plays on and Mr. Blonde dances around with brio. Lynch achieves true rapture though, without shortchanging the painful implications of the images and situations, because rapture requires pain, or emotion, which requires tonal risk.
Reservoir Dogs introduced the core conflict that still runs through Tarantino’s filmography: between sensitivity and inquisitiveness and shock-jocularity. Cumulatively, Tarantino doesn’t have a solely cartoonish relationship with violence. Jackie Brown, Death Proof, and The Hateful Eight abound in violence that’s upsettingly beautiful and cathartic as well as mysterious and socially undigested. Not coincidentally, these are among Tarantino’s least profitable films. Even in Reservoir Dogs, there’s a yearning for something richer than what Tarantino the astute showman knows will “play” to vast audiences.
This yearning is visible in the extraordinary performances of Tim Roth, Harvey Keitel, and Steve Buscemi as the most significant of the quintet of jewel thieves at the center of Reservoir Dogs. These are great and experienced actors, but Tarantino’s rapport with them is astonishing, particularly as a neophyte. For all its problems, Tarantino’s early work has a vitality that’s missing from the more ambitious and preachy epics that have turned the filmmaker into a gory social-issues artist—a hip version of Stanley Kramer. Tarantino now has the power to command vast budgets and fabricate his own realities wholesale, while Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown depend on an element of spontaneous verisimilitude.
Tarantino finds Cassavetes-style poetry in Roth, Keitel, and Buscemi’s craggy, vulnerable, working-class-hero faces, and he captures and encourages gestures that transcend the film’s warring thrill-ride mentality. As Roth’s Mr. Orange dies on a ramp engulfed in his own blood, Keitel’s Mr. White combs his hair back with unmistakably paternal love that renders the final twist of the narrative authentically painful. Betrayed, Mr. White weeps, collapsing into a soundscape of bullet-ridden despair. Tarantino invented a certain kind of disenchanted 1990s-era cool that complemented the rise of bands like Nirvana, but pop culture learned the wrong lessons from him and vice versa. When Tarantino dares to look under the perverted and wounded hood of male ego, his ego, he reveals himself to be a major artist.