Wednesday, June 17, 2015

CANON OF FILM: "ATLANTIC CITY"

ATLANTIC CITY (1980)

Director: Louis Malle
Screenplay: John Guare



I’ve noticed that a common theme in many Louis Malle films is that the coming together of characters or in some cases, people, and the reasons for how they end up together. There's always different reasons. Many times this is sexual, oftentimes it can be trivial, sometimes even taboo. Malle hardly ever gets mentioned when putting together a list of even the best French Directors. He was a French New Wave filmmaker with films like “Elevator to the Gallows,” and “The Lovers” that pushed the boundaries and standards of the time, although seem tame by today’s (and to a certain extent, their own) time. He also, unlike contemporaries like Melville and Godard, he was a minimalist, and oftentimes, his films have only the bare essentials of directing. I’ve written on his autobiographical film “Au Revoir, Les Enfants,” one of the last films he made in France, but that might be the exception. He made famous documentaries about India that eventually got the BBC banned in India. He went onto America where he would make “Pretty Baby,” with Brooke Shields, and possibly his best film “My Dinner with Andre,” a film that’s an entire dinner conversation between two New York playwrights who are basically playing variations on themselves. His last movie was "Vanya on 42nd Street" a part-documentary, part-theatrical production about a group of actors who every year, book a theater or 42nd street for a week and perform Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya".  

Sometimes its dinner that brings his characters together, other times it’s a play, while other times, his characters come together for reasons that aren’t as literal. In “Atlantic City,” all the characters come together out of desperation. Desperation also drives the plot of the movie. Shot just  a couple years after gambling had been legalized in New Jersey, the movie depicts an Atlantic City as a dying and decaying tourist town, standing, barely, side-by-side with a new Atlantic City that’s trying to emulate the Las Vegas Strip along the Boardwalk, a desperate attempt to bring tourists. Lou (Burt Lancaster) is an old, old-time numbers runner for the Mob, but now his job is not only dying out, it’s becoming legitimate. Left with nothing but memories of the old days, and one annoying downstairs relic, Grace (Kate Reid) who he waits on hand-and-foot, at least somewhat loyally. Sally (Susan Sarandon) is his next-door neighbor who he sometimes peers at through his window as she rubs lemons over her body while listening to French music. She works at the oyster bar at the casino, although she’s studying to become a blackjack dealer, hoping eventually to move to Monte Carlo. Her baggage shows up looking like Joseph and Mary searching for a room, but it’s her husband from Saskatchewan and her pregnant little sister who he ran off with (Robert Joy and Hollie MacLaren). He’s also gotten a hold of some cocaine, and through a coincidence, hires Lou to work as his dealer for a client. After he gets killed, Lou finds that he’s inherited small fortune in cocaine, and has every intention of selling and becoming like the big-time mobsters that he only worked for before. We get drawn into these characters the same way they keep getting drawn into the lore and promises of Atlantic City. They steal but they’re not thieves. They manipulate, they hustle, and they do almost anything to get what they want, always failing, always trying again; always getting caught up in their own dreams. It’s hard to completely call the movie unpredictable, but the characters certainly can be. That’s because the actors aren’t caught up in a movie about a drug deal gone bad, they’re people caught up in their own lives, which happens to include the drug deal gone bad. They come together out of geographical convenience, coincidence, and out of necessary desperation. I’ve used that word a lot in this article, “desperation;” it’s reserved for characters such as these who live on the fringes of society. If they were rich, the word would be greed or single-mindedly obsessive, cause they’re acting of out want and these characters act out of need.  

It’s a film that seems strangely relevant to today’s Las Vegas (My hometown) as we work to reinvent and restore our town. Two timeless characters who are simultaneously of their time and place and also capable of living and occurring anywhere and anytime, I think that’s probably the other motif in Malle’s work.Timelessness. 


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