Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Nobody Knows Anything

(The "Jagged Edge" story.)

William Goldman is a famous screenwriter who famously said the title line up there, in reference to Hollywood and the moguls who try to predict what will be successful. But we are not here to talk about William Goldman, the celebrated writer of "Marathon Man," "Absolute Power," "Magic," and "The Ghost and the Darkness."

We are here to talk about Joe Eszterhas, the celebrated writer of "F.I.S.T.," "Sliver," "An Alan Smithee Film," and "Jade."

It's a fact that Eszterhas has never written a quotable line of dialogue, except maybe a couple from the risible "Showgirls," and I'm not sure who's responsible for those drunken binges.

Eszterhas's heyday was in the late '80s, when he was paid a series of increasing rising paydays after being involved in "Flashdance" and "Jagged Edge," getting the (still) astronomical $3 million for "Basic Instinct" (which was beaten 6 months later by Shane Black for "The Long Kiss Goodnight" sold for $3.5m and a producing fee). Eszterhas managed to beat that, in a way, by selling the pitch for "One Night Stand" on the back of a napkin for about $1.7 million. The thinking is that he could expand that to at least 3 or 4 napkins and make the new record.

All of Eszterhas' scripts are similar - a (usually) woman enters into a dangerous yet seductive previously unknown aspect of her own past, and finds out she either loved or had faith in an institution who/which did exactly the opposite of what she expected. She's in love (or had faith in) the morally reprehensible person/thing and sometime during the running time is naked or making love a lot.

In "Jagged Edge" lawyer Glenn Close is defending and falls in love and into bed with the slick and attractively rich Jeff Bridges, accused of murdering his wife. The slimy and unconvincing Peter Coyote tries to tell her not to mix business with pleasure, and at the end hard-scrabble detective Robert Loggia (right out of a b-movie) kills the masked killer who's trying to steal the last bit of evidence that's kept there in Glenn Close's bedroom.

Loggia pulls the mask off the rain-soaked dead killer and reveals, it was, indeed, Jeff Bridges the entire time. Shock, aha, it all makes sense now, "fuck him - he was trash," love sucks, the end.

But - master director Richard Marquand has a shot of Bridges, dead, wet, in shadow, and upside down, that doesn't quite look like him on screen. Many people in the audience "thought" it was him, but felt in a way that the visual confusion of the shot indicated that it wasn't. By not getting a 100% convincing shot of Bridges, dead and in full focus, they took that to mean it wasn't him.

They came out of the theatre (I worked this film) saying, "But who was the killer?"

"Jeff Bridges."

"But it doesn't look like him."

"It was. Who else could it be?"

"It could be no one else. No one else makes sense."

The film takes as its primary mode of pleasure the teasing of us suspecting and deducing that the only possible suspect is Bridges, but tying a series of unlikely alibis to the 1000-watt charm he was capable of generating at the time ("The Big Lebowski" in a way hurt his career in that he made it look too easy. We figured out he's walking through these roles, may very well be high or drunk half the time, and picking roles in which that works as his method.).

The film delivers to the audience exactly what they wanted - but not in the way they wanted it, a solution that's askew and worrisome (and undermined by our own insecurity about the people we love, often for the wrong reasons). Eszterhas in his prime confounded us and teased out an anxiety that was for the most part intellectually satisfying but didn't deliver emotional closure.

Tied to the right director, the texts remained "open."

It's a fine line to walk. Testing and re-shooting the ending to "Sliver" revealed a complete misunderstanding of how audiences engage in these high-trash films.

Once a patron walked in 5 minutes late and asked me what happened in the first couple of minutes. I replied, in spite of myself, that Jeff Bridges had killed his wife, and now Glenn Close, who didn't yet know it, was trying to defend him. The patron thanked me and watched the rest of the film, perhaps enjoying it in a completely different but equally valid way right up to the non-surprise ending.

And they wouldn't have been confused by that last shot of Bridges on the ground.

Closure. Now that's an ending.

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