Thursday, February 25, 2016

Trouble in Mind (1985)

Alan Rudolph, the great filmmaker from the 80s and 90s whose name these days is at best associated with Robert Altman (who he served as an assistant director) rather than with the films he made on his own, needs a boost in attention. I'm genuinely surprised we don't talk about him more in the pantheon of great post-New Hollywood directors. But then again, we tend to group filmmakers together within the context of film eras, and Rudolph, despite his association with Altman, is an outlier for the most part. He worked in a variety of genres (as opposed to, say Michael Mann, a similar loner of sorts in the moviemaking world, but whose devotion to crime films has, I think, helped his on-going status of relevance), moving between comedies, thrillers, historical dramas, and even an unofficial biopic of Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson. He also had an uncanny ability to bounce back and forth between oddball comedy (or just plain weirdness) and deeply felt emotion. But in all of his movies (or at least the ones I've seen, as I was Rudolph neophyte until recently) he creates correlations, such as using the same actors time and again, creating self-contained worlds that are both tied to film history and completely his own, devotion to side characters who seem alive even if they don't even get a line of dialogue, and central locations where characters gather like refugees from a thankless world. 

All of these can certainly be found in Rudolph's great 1985 Trouble in Mind: it's set in the fictional Rain City (though it makes it no secret that the film was shot in Seattle-the Space Needle is even used as a location for one scene) and vies for a 40s-style saxophone-infused noir feel, except that the genre's traditional use of shadow is supplanted by neons, reds, and blues at night, and flatly lit scenes during the day. It's got three central characters, but a host of other side players, many of whom just pop into the background and draw our attention by their actions-sort of like figures in a painting that seem insignificant to the central action but are nonetheless there to help establish the world of the image. In Trouble in Mind, there's a short, chubby man who works at a diner. He's always behind the scenes but we notice him because he seems to work with great diligence, like this is his life, and while it's not great, he may as well make the most of it. Towards the film's end, we see him through the window of the diner next to a sale sign, and a brief tinge of emotion strikes us as we realize the diner's shutting down and he'll be out of a job. It's as if Rudolph wants to find the most negligible dramas within the larger drama of the film to suggest that though they can't be fully considered due to the driving narrative, they're still important. Simply by including them as part of a backdrop, he's also suggesting the vast potential of the movie frame that's so often neglected.

And speaking of that diner, that's the kind of location Rudolph also loves, a place for characters to gather, talk, brood, or linger in isolation, and where simply their reaction to how their breakfast has been cooked becomes a way to access their mind. That's where the aptly named Hawk (Kris Kristofferson), an ex-cop, goes after he's let out of prison for killing a man. And it's where Coop (Keith Carradine) and Georgia (Lori Singer) go with their baby when they decide to move to the city, which, as Georgia says, "is a promise of something better." It's also where gangster/literature guru Solo (Joe Morton) hangs out, one minute spouting words of prose and the next recruiting Coop for a scheme involving motorcycle parts and bad watches. 

From the opening scenes we understand Coop to be the kind of man who genuinely loves his family but who also cannot steer clear of problems when they're around him. "I've been to plenty of cities," he tells Georgia, "and they ain't nothing but trouble." But he also knows that if living in a trailer without a job is the alternative, then the city is a necessary solution, even if his means for providing for his family spell his own end. 

Coop's descent into a life of crime (he ends up getting involved with the mob, led by the saddest crime boss you'll ever see, who's played by out-of-drag Divine) drives the film's narrative, and as he slowly drifts away from his wife and kid, Hawk, noticing Georgia's isolation, begins to take his place. Acting as sort of a mediator between these characters is Wanda, the sensitive but somewhat world-weary owner of the diner, played by Rudolph regular Genevieve Bujold. She's less a judge than an advisor, a helper, offering Georgia a job and the loner Hawk the kind of sympathy that a man who thinks "a little bit of everybody belongs in hell" probably desperately needs. 

Hawk's the film's most intriguing character, a man whose only belongings after leaving prison are miniature models of a city he's constructing. He continues to tinker at it throughout the film, as if he's fashioning his own world, bereft of the trouble that haunts the film to its core. It suggests a Romantic, a man with philosophical ideals about the world, but it's contradicted by Hawk's own actions: at one point he even says to Wanda, "you can't live on philosophy," while also showing a willingness to work with the other side of the law because he'd be useful to them and he needs money (there's also this strange conflicting issue with him between sex and love: when he first sees Wanda again, who was his ex-lover, all he wants is sex. However, with Georgia he seems to have found something deeper-"between the two of you there's almost a whole person"-, but then on their first date, the singer at the restaurant concludes the chorus of her moody love song with the lyrics "true love is only found in your pants," but that could also just be a Rudolph joke). But he's also the man who went to jail for killing someone simply because they seemed to be a total representation of evil, something Hawk could not accept. 

The idea of a hopeless brute reality versus the possibility that humans can overcome it by creating a peaceful and loving environment seems to be what Rudolph is really after in the film, and his conclusion might be that reality is neither fully brutal nor fully peaceful, that it's not one or the other, but both, and that's the trouble in mind of the film's title (note that that we get three renditions of the song in the film, all of which accentuate its sadness, as opposed to other versions, like the more boisterous one by Leon Russell and Willie Nelson).

Rudolph further gets at this point by intercutting scenes where action is occurring in the city with shots of Hawk's model city, as reality versus fantasy mesh together. Reality is ugly, but perhaps it can be made better if humans have ideals, goals for a better, happier life. And this kind of interplay is how much of the film works as a whole: one moment we get a moment of bizarre comedy, the next one of deep human feeling. Rain City alternates between looking like something out of a comic book to a grungy metropolis, while the villains seem like idiots one minute and legitimate threats the next. 

Hawk's goal is to get out of Rain City and to take Georgia with him, partly because he loves her, and because he sees himself as her savior from her dangerous husband. In the film, he oscillates between talking to the cops and the criminals without ever really getting involved in any of the film's plot machinations. The only thing he really cares about finding is happiness and peace, or at least a some semblance of it. But he doesn't want it alone, and because Georgia's husband is a threat to her safety, he feels justified in taking her away. 

But something I really loved about the film was that Coop isn't actually a bad guy. Yes, he gets in the city and immediately hooks up with criminals, which leads to money, which leads to his dressing like he's been listening to too much David Bowie and spending more time with hookers than his wife. But it has less to do with who Coop is than the fact that he's not especially bright and simply gets caught up in the glamorous lifestyle of crime. And note how Rudolph plays this all to comedic effect: Coop wants to look cool so he gets new clothes and a new haircut, but he wildly overcompensates and suddenly looks like a cartoon character (as he falls further and further his clothing gets brighter and he starts to apply weird makeup to his face). On top of that, he's shown to be terribly inept when it comes to committing crimes, botching robberies and looking like a fool every time he reaches for and can't reach his knife that for some reason he's attached to a a leather strap on his back. When he finds out that Hawk is after his wife, he fights him in the diner and gets his ass kicked, left panting heavily like a dog, like he's never exerted himself so much. You can't help but sort of pity him.

Coop is simply a stupid man, a man who's easily swayed, but who also never fully loses sight of his initial purpose of furnishing his family with a good life. His story perhaps is the most tragic in the film, because he does end up realizing, as if on a potent drug that's suddenly stopped working, how his attempt to bring his family up has only brought them down even further. But when he goes to apologize to Georgia, it's too late. She's already decided to leave with Hawk. He protests but then gently concedes, as if he's realized the severity of his mistakes as quickly as he made them. Before departing, he asks Georgia to thank Hawk for him, she asks why, and in a brilliant little bit of acting, Carradine gives the simplest of shrugs while exiting the frame. Without getting melodramatic about it, we pretty much understand exactly what Coop means. 

While the film certainly has a happy ending, I hesitate to call it idyllic: Coop's fantasy is abruptly ended with a hearty dose of reality, and suddenly a father's lost his wife and son. Hawk gets what he wants, but note that final scene when he's driving off away from Rain City with Georgia. Rudolph frames only Kristofferson at first, and we think for a moment he might be alone. He looks mildly perturbed, as if he's wondering if he's done the right thing, and it's not until Georgia reaches over and kisses him that he smiles. Trouble in Mind gives us a world of winners and losers, not of heroes and villains. We feel almost as sorry for Coop as we do happiness for Hawk. Perhaps he thinks he's finally constructed a perfect life, but as Rudolph intercut his model city with the real city, so too does the film intercut success and failure, dreams and despair. One cannot exist without the other. 

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