December 25, 2007
Shadows in the Spotlight: Peggy Sue Got Married and Raising Arizona
"There's no Godfather-like pathos to mine in this Francis Ford Coppola dramedy," or so claims the Netflix description of Peggy Sue Got Married. At first, it sounds like sniveling, "where did he go wrong" sarcasm in relation to Coppola's astonishing body of work through the '70s--but you finally watch the movie and you can't help but think, Well, why isn't there any? Somehow the story of a woman transported twenty-five years into the past, back to the halcyon days of high school, feels like it should carry a lot more weight than it does here. But I'm beginning to suspect that time travel films only have the capacity to be great (the first two Back to the Future films, Time After Time, even Frequency and Groundhog Day, in a sense) when your travellers are complete aliens at the mercy of an uncrossable generation gap. Bring them back to a familiar era and it's just a nostalgia trip, the curious fulfillment of regrets and what-if scenarios carried out in the same manner as a play date with action figures representing the people in your life. Oh, if only you had been nicer to that kid, if only you had asked that dreamy boy out on a date--well, to whom could it possibly matter outside of your dumb ass? Peggy Sue Got Married is told from such a one-sided perspective that it's almost suffocating.
It's only natural that we should land on Coppola's nephew Nicolas Cage as a lonely beacon of interest--as Charlie Bodell (Peggy Sue's 1960 beau-turned-1985 estranged husband), he is as close to an alien as his identity will allow as a resident of this era. Critical examinations can't seem to decide whether Cage based his squeaky, naïve accent on Gumby's pal Pokey or Donald Duck, both of which he has claimed at various times--it's a brilliant compromise between the two, if you ask me, one that finds a literalized voice to teenage angst: the desire to fit in with your dull-as-dishwater surroundings, constantly haunted by the threat that your emotions will bubble over uncontrollably. Working from that "outcast" line of thought, by the way, you can find an early indication of Cage's strange link to vampirism, three years before Vampire's Kiss. Take a look at our two introductions to Charlie in a physical form: a foreboding, almost supernatural presence in 1985, a mysterious figure watching passively from the shadows; and "later," this is referenced to comic effect in 1960, adopting a Hollywoodized Romanian accent as he approaches the time-displaced Peggy Sue during a blood drive.
It's this kind of tease that makes me wish the film looked beyond the obnoxious, self-centered titular character; I particularly ached to see more scenes that featured Cage and Jim Carrey as old buddies in the same doo-wop group. More than just a desire to see a couple of irrepressable screen presences act the part of Martin and Lewis, however, they share a real kinship in this film. Their personalities and interactions here seem to better explore the wounds that a figurative and literal return to high school would hypothetically open, something that the film itself casually sidesteps in letting Kathleen Turner do whatever the fuck it is that she does here. (Seriously, I'm mystified.) There's a precious scene during the 1985 school reunion when Carrey's Walter Getz flies into humorous faux-outrage when the school nerd (Barry Miller) is singled out as a success; in 1960, he offers an exaggerated gag at the suggestion that the nerd is writing a book, which might expose gentle ribbing as genuine hatred spread out across several decades. Doubtful that anyone but Carrey could possess the bombastic energy necessary to pull that off, and Cage seems like the other side of the same coin, exuding a sense of projective defeat in his past and future. It's as if the older Charlie has been secretly transported back to the past along with Peggy Sue, as if he knows that his plans for life and love will result in rejection twenty-five years later. It's this general emotion that leads to another near-vampiric moment--Charlie/Cage's weird, orgasmic gasp just before locking lips with Peggy Sue upon the suggestion of dancing as a mating ritual.
The only time that Charlie/Cage seems at ease is when he's singing in that doo-wop group, The Definitions. Witnessing Cage's complete comfort in this scenario gives a slight indication as to why, from his adulation of Elvis and Brando to his onscreen indulgence in leather-jacketed motorcycle rebellion, the actor seems so keen to emulate the artistic and cultural trends of the 1950s: he subscribes to a similar sense of incompleteness, a visceral stream-of-consciousness that often results in breathy, guttural noises and half-thought expressions. (Compare Cage's performance here to that of Kevin J. O'Connor, who quakes with false intensity and subsequently becomes a pale parody of Beat poetry.) The excitement and cheer to this effect inverts after some music bigwig informs Charlie that he just won't make it in the industry: "Elvis is dead--that's Ajax," he tells Peggy Sue when she mistakes one of his dogs for another. Cage drops the first half of this phrase with such leaden finality that the heartbreak of a dead dream is all that we can hear; even we, in the ironic dead-Elvis age, cannot hear it any other way.
The key scene for Cage/Charlie comes earlier, however--not when things are at their bleakest but when they are at their most uncertain. Cage understands that Charlie is at his absolute lowest when he allows his mind to tear itself apart with doubt. After a brief, creepy moment wherein Charlie silently contemplates smothering Peggy Sue in her sleep, she admits that she and Mike (O'Connor) had "gone for a ride." He grabs her in a brief rage; the DVD subtitles claim that Charlie's response is "Then it's true! Damn it!", but it comes out like a vague mashup of enraged syllables, an almost cathartic burst of emotion upon a partial explanation. In suggesting Cage as her romantic opposite in Moonstruck, Cher supposedly likened his performance in Peggy Sue Got Married to watching a two-hour car crash--and this is the scene that best exemplifies those sentiments, as Charlie ever-so-slowly falls apart while recounting the only kind of analogy that he can muster: "When The Monotones did 'Book of Love', chapter four--'you break up, won't you give it one more chance'--I'm thinking, 'Did we break up?'" On the last two words, Charlie/Cage's voice completely submits to the Donald Duckness and seems to hit a pocket of helium. He clasps his neck, clears his throat and continues. Accidental or not, the moment's integration into the film represents Coppola's ultimate defense of his nephew's performance, and his understanding that Cage's treatment was the right one for the role: only barely keeping it together as a messy collection of desires and preconceived notions, liable to burst at any moment.
Trading the shadow cast by Kathleen Turner's overbearing presence for the shadow cast by the Coen Brothers' burgeoning auteurism in Raising Arizona, Cage also injects a dose of sad humility into H. I. "Hi" McDunnough, a corner store-robbing recidivist sporting a head of hair that shuffles through various stages of messiness between scenes and shots alike. The problem with the film itself is that the Coens understand the basic forces at play in a screwball comedy, but don't spend enough time exploring their characters to give any credence to the wacky scenarios into which they are thrown. On three separate occasions, William Forsythe and John Goodman spend a good minute or so screaming at the top of their lungs, and it's a hollow release. There's a little sorrow to be felt when it is realized that Cage will be playing the straight man--you keep thinking that he could probably teach everyone a thing or two about screaming with the correct level of crazed intensity. But the fact that this outrageous man is poised as the voice of reason contained in a world of insanity results in a strange passion that Raising Arizona has difficulty locating on its own.
Indeed, the hindsight benefited by Cage's career seems to point to casting against type, ideologically as well as practically: bounty hunter/Leonean spectre of death Leonard Smalls (Randall "Tex" Cobb, an obvious progenitor of No Country for Old Men's Anton Chigurh) is introduced into the mix via one of Hi's precognitive dreams, described by him as "the lone biker of the apocalypse; a man with the powers of hell at his command." Knowing all that we know about Cage now, the implications are impossible to ignore--Smalls is like Johnny Blaze, n'est-ce pas? I particularly like the disgusted quiver in Cage's voice, trying so hard to convince us that he didn't think that this motorcycle rebel was the awesomest thing ever. That might seem like a stretch, but it's not like it could have been accidentally prescient, either; by posing lifelong comic book fan Cage (Nicholas Coppola's stage name was chosen in honor of Luke Cage, Power Man) as the horrified/awed narrator for this obviously Ghost Rider-like entity, Raising Arizona reflects on our own reaction to the cinematic culture of cool, admiring this demonic man with a satisfied grin as he casually blows bunnies and lizards to kingdom come.
As its silly baby-kidnapping plotline progresses, Raising Arizona becomes something of a Feed the Kitty scenario, with the whole world envisioned as a domino-effect deathtrap and Cage/Hi playing the role of both oblivious victim and exasperated savior. (The film directly acknowledges its forebears early on, during the scene in which Hi attempts to kidnap an Arizona quint while leaving the others undisturbed, sweat pouring down his face.) Having successfully survived his three strikes as a petty criminal, Hi has acquired a certain level of invincibility, given the supernatural ability to outrun both the ever-compounding forces of law and death in the film's slapstick centerpiece--a sequence that succeeds thanks to Cage's dedicated concentration, a certain feeling of hidden exasperation that very rarely betrays the fact that Hi is playing it all by ear.
This newfound aura hasn't come without a price, however, as realized by one of Cage's subtlest moves as Hi: his right eye involuntarily twitches whenever he is placed in immediate danger from another human being--such as his knock-down, drag-out brawls with Gale (Goodman) and Smalls in the third act of the film--as if he's already prepared for the black eye he's about to receive. Certainly Hi tries to fight back, but his battle cries come in the form of scratchy, high-pitched howls and confused babbling, leaving his eye as the only honest indicator of how he feels about his predicament. It's an intentionally half-hearted performance that interprets the character's misanthropic tendencies as embarrassed loneliness: note that, even when he is knocked to the floor while tied to a chair, Hi only lets loose with his deepest, loudest shout after he has been assured that his assailants will not be returning--watch Cage turn a bright shade of red the instant that Gale closes the door for the final time. It all brings into question an earlier scene in which Hi winks with his right eye while trying to convince his wife Ed (Holly Hunter) to let him play with old friends, then immediately submits when she refuses. Throughout the film, Hi/Cage acts the part of a sensitive, capable hero when alone, but becomes a beaten dog whenever anyone else enters the picture. He's so humbled by his checkered past and how he has unintentionally caused harm to others that he can't even recognize how special he is.
How, then, do you take the moment when Hi kills Smalls, pulling the pin from a grenade on his vest seconds after learning that they share the same Woody Woodpecker tattoo? "I'm sorry," Hi just barely whispers with the pin dangling from his fingers, his eye having finally closed from the beating he's received. Whether Hi is Smalls' son, whether he is a simple representation of his criminal past, or whether he recognizes that they're both on the same mad, murderous quest--he seems to know that he's killing a part of himself. (Which, in itself, offers another level to Hi's fear of Smalls.) The brief, shit-eating grin that Cage wears as he scrambles to his feet, however, almost renders the following emotional redemption redundant: it's a flash of comprehension that someone else will be taking the lumps from now on, a transferrence of Hi's unwanted identities as a perpetual criminal and cosmic whipping boy into an appropriate avatar that is subsequently destroyed. Although Hi seems to have his doubts until the very final moments before the end credits, the fear and loathing leaves Cage after this altercation, at last presenting himself to the world, emotionally naked--not a gesture that represents Hi throwing in the towel, but recognition that he can take on all comers.