Monday, January 18, 2021

THE THEATER OF THE EVERYDAY: DAGUERRÉOTYPES, CAR WASH, LARCENY INC.


It’s weird how disparate movies can come together in your experience without any preconceived design. I certainly didn’t approach my long holiday weekend’s schedule of film viewing with the intent of curating on a theme, but as I was drifting off to sleep last night I realized that there had been something going on that I didn’t intend or expect. From Friday through Sunday, I took in Michael Schultz’s Car Wash (1976), which I have seen countless times since spending three nights in a row with it at my hometown drive-in back in the summer of 1977, and two other movies that were new to me-- Agnès Varda’s documentary Daguerréotypes (also from 1976), and Larceny Inc. (1942), a Warner Bros. gangster comedy starring Edward G. Robinson, Broderick Crawford, Anthony Quinn and Jane Wyman, directed by Lloyd Bacon—and you could be forgiven if you thought there couldn’t be three more different movies gathered together in one Blu-ray player. But there is connective tissue here. As I watched Car Wash, a shaggy, musically tuned ensemble comedy conceived in the shadow of Robert Altman’s Nashville, and then Daguerréotypes, Varda’s superb portrait of shop-owners occupying her neighborhood along the Rue Daguerre in Paris, I realized that both films represented a type of film storytelling that, as I began really growing as a filmgoer around age 16, I realized I responded to much more personally, intuitively, than a lot of the other types of films I had ravenously consumed and appreciated and enjoyed as a kid.

I’d seen Nashville a year before I saw Car Wash, when it played at my hometown theater sometime in 1976, and it was not love at first sight. It took me two or three more tries with Altman’s stuffed-to-bursting humanitarian mise-en-scene before I finally responded to what the director was doing, and the movie eventually became the one I would call my favorite for 40-some years and counting. When I saw Car Wash I didn’t instantly recognize it as being influenced by Altman—if I had, I might not have been as open to it—but it clearly was, and I loved the working environment it portrayed, populated by vivid and distinct characters who didn’t love their work so much as they enjoyed hanging out with their coworkers at work, and the way Schultz and music producer Norman Whitfield made the music an integral part of the movie *and* the way these characters approached spending their day washing other people’s cars for a less-than-satisfactory wage, was revelatory to me. The movie not only ended up functioning as my first real introduction to Los Angeles—it was certainly the film that formed my fundamental picture of what the city was, or might be—but it also got under my skin in terms of how I thought I might approach my own stabs at storytelling through script writing and filmmaking.

As a kid, and later in college, I messed around with trying to learn how to use Super 8 to make movies, and with friends, as well as on my own, we came up with a couple of movies that I’m still amazed we had the discipline to see through to their finishes. But as a “writer,” I came up with several scenarios that were clearly influenced by Car Wash’s loose-fitting aesthetic—one revolved around the wacky goings-on at a (wait for it) gas station, and still another followed a group of pals as they made their way around a long weekend at the county fair. (As you may have guessed, my worldview was up to that point still understandably limited.) These ideas weren’t any good, and nothing ever came from them, but looking back now it’s clear that the DNA of Car Wash was embedded in their foundation, and my response to that type of storytelling was key to my ultimate embrace of Altman’s directorial style and my appreciation of the sorts of stories he told over his career. As Nashville became my favorite film, so too Altman eventually became my favorite director, and I don’t think any of that would have happened if I hadn’t first fallen for Car Wash and the affinity it displayed for its working-class milieu and the people in there trying to keep their heads up among the soap and hoses.

Similarly, as I spent my college summers working at sawmill jobs in my hometown, I spent a lot of the hours of monotonous physical labor spinning elaborate plans in my head for documentaries that I’d like to make about some of the people and environments in that hometown. At one time or another I had conceived plans for ostensible documentary projects centered around millwork, the bars that the local populace would gravitate to on the weekends (where a friend and I often sat in with a band, me with my trumpet, he with his sax), and even a film about the history of the local Chinese restaurant and its larger-than-life owner, a Chinese immigrant whose life’s work was making the food of her country palatable and inviting to the rural ranchers and their families who made up a large part of her customer base. Of course, my ambition far outpaced my talent as a filmmaker and even my capabilities technologically—I’m not sure how I ever thought such films, as dependent as they would have had to have been on wild or even dubbed sound, could have ever come together with the meager camera and lighting resources I had at my disposal. But those were merely the facts, and they didn’t factor into my imagining when it came time to think about the kind of movie I would have *liked* to have made.


And as I watched the senstively observed Daguerréotypes, which takes as its subject the shopkeepers – butchers, fragrance specialists, hairdressers, bakers, driving instructors, tailors—who made their living on the Parisian street where its creator lived, I recognized that this film was the realization, this and many others she created in her long career, of exactly the sort of humanist portrayal of work and workers and their milieu, the bustling sidewalks and often cramped spaces in which they toiled and offered their various wares, that I had creatively craved for myself years before I ever even heard of Agnès Varda. In Daguerréotypes, Varda seeks the poetry imbued in the mundane without ever allowing her lens to assume anything like a distanced or precious superiority—these people are her neighbors, and her stance of a craftsman of her own sort permits her the grace to observe, as she does at the sight of a woman opening the doors and windows of her shop, that each morning these people raise the curtain on the theater of the everyday (a phrase that could just as easily describe what happens in Car Wash.) And Varda's camera is there to catch some of that naturally occurring theater in behavior and circumstances that, outside her empathetic perspective, might seem only mundane.

Of course, it’s that interest in what people do to make a living, and how they behave and interact with their chosen communities as they make that living, that is the central interest of both Car Wash and Daguerréotypes, even if their individual approaches and their prospective audiences couldn’t be expected to have much Venn-diagram-esque crossover, one to the other. And both films being rooted in the storefront (or car wash-front) business milieu made them a sort of providential match with Larceny Inc., a fanciful comedy about a group of ex-cons led by Edward G. Robinson who purchase a neighborhood luggage shop which just happens to be next door to a bank—their plan is to, of course, tunnel through the cellar wall of the luggage shop and into the bank vault. But before they know it (we naturally have our suspicions right from the start), these criminal invaders eventually become part of the surrounding community of storeowners they’ve exploited and end up working to protect the bank and the other small businessmen when another ex-con escapes from prison and usurps their subterranean robbery plans. Larceny Inc. is a darn sight less realistic in its portrayal of urban business than Car Wash, which isn’t exactly a Varda documentary itself, but all three share a fundamental respect for those who would try to carve out a living outside the sphere or big business or corporate fealty, and that point of view nicely tied the three films together in a way that I could never expected as I rather randomly assembled them for viewing over this past weekend.

We often speak of the magic of movies, and this sort of unintended alchemy that crackles between seemingly heterogeneous works of art, the way movies of distinctly differing times, origins and artistic sensibilities, can speak to us through their proximity to each other, is the sort of movie magic I increasingly live for. The experience of it is like being touched by an unforeseen intelligence. A really good programmer or curator might notice the threads and be able to assemble an excellent series based on the idea, but when works like Car Wash, Daguerréotypes and Larceny Inc. land next to each other more or less on their own and start speaking to each other, that’s a conversation worth listening to, and one which the movies, when lightning strikes, seem uniquely poised to provide. 


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