Brando invented the modern acting technique of giving you two films: the one in which the characters exist, and another in which the actors exist. Nicholson has developed that into something rather clever. The basic job is the same, to inhabit a character and create a truth so sharp you think you knew it all along. But the second layer for Nicholson — at least in these later films, say after “Chinatown” — is to reflect another film. So the question when watching one of his newer projects is: while we see him in this film, what film does he see himself in?
David Lynch made “The Straight Story” with “Easy Rider” in mind, and I think the film Nicholson created here as his shadow film is “Easy“, through “Straight”. That scene by the river is Lynchian.
But the tone the director had in mind was very close to Christopher Guest, where every being is terminally pathetic in some way. “Best in Show”, in fact has a scene with Guest travelling along a road which reminded me very much of the visual narrative that Payne spins.
Peter Greenaway made an extraordinary film (“Death in the Seine”) which illustrated notes from a Paris coroner on corpses found in the river. These are exquisitely presented views of completely anonymous bodies, who have had worse than a worthless life, they have no life at all. More, these deaths occurred during the brief use of an odd calendar after the French revolution. When the calendar was restored, these deaths were virtually erased. By bringing these eclipsed lives to film, he makes them more real than they ever were in life.
I think that is what Jack is sometimes about these days; taking a worthless man, in a worthless environment (city, profession, family, even Rush Limbaugh!) and making him bigger through archetyping by force. It is something like the attention given to the plastic bag in “American Beauty”, but made personal by lifting our own ordinariness a smidge.
Every other character is background noise.
Posted in 2003
Ted’s Evaluation — 3 of 3: Worth watching.