Wild in the Seats
Tough-guy author Gifford not shaken by ‘City Hall’
By David Templeton
David Templeton specializes in taking interesting people to interesting movies in an ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This time out David sees the recently released mayor-may-not thriller City Hall with the internationally renowned novelist/poet/screenwriter/playwright Barry Gifford.
The rain is falling and the streets are all adrizzle–slick, wet, and dangerous. A fine day for a movie and a fitting day for a talk with Barry Gifford. Though he’s best known as David Lynch’s collaborator on the genre-twisting cult-film Wild at Heart, based on Gifford’s novel of the same name, his reputation as one of the modern masters of crime fiction has been firmly established for years.
His numerous novels (including Port Tropique, Sailor’s Holi-day, and the recent Baby Cat-Face) are elegant, dark, and soul-shaking, quite disturbing but undeniably fun to read. The Gifford universe is a weird one, profoundly ugly yet profoundly sweet; magical, intense, violent, and funny, a volatile mix that has earned him a loyal following around the world.
In recent years, the ardent movie-lover has become engulfed in filmmaking. He and Lynch have just wrapped filming on Lost Highway, with Patricia Arquette, Bill Pullman, and Richard Pryor. The film version of his novel Perdita Durango is about to commence in Spain, to be followed by another collaboration with Lynch. In his films, as in his novels, Gifford is not content to provide simply a diverting two hours in a darkened theater; he expects much more. “I want the sidewalk to look different when people walk away,” he has said. “I want my stuff to change people’s lives.”
If you don’t know what he means, you probably haven’t seen Wild at Heart. Gifford is waiting for me, standing in the rain outside a crowded cineplex, just around the corner from his Berkeley home. With him is his longtime associate Vinnie Osorio. Wet and cold, our merry threesome ducks inside to claim our seats.
City Hall, starring Al Pacino, John Cusack, and Danny Aiello, is a com-petent, occasionally powerful study of idealism vs. big-city politics. Pacino is the practical mayor who watches his empire crumble in the wake of a shooting that left an innocent boy dead. Along the way, Cusack looks persuasively peeved and Aiello shares a tender kiss with a parakeet.
A riveting film, but no match for the Previews of Coming Attractions, during which my guests, seated on either side of me, play a spirited game of “Name that Remake,” during which I learn that Mrs. Winterbourne (a pregnant Ricki Lake, a train crash, a mistaken identity) was probably derived from the 1950 film No Man of Her Own, later remade as I Married a Shadow, and that the upcoming Indepen-dence Day is a ripoff of Invaders from Mars. “Don’t order anything with white sauce,” Gifford advises as we invade a nearby Lyons after the show.
“I want to know where I can get carpet like this,” Osorio says appreciatively. “I ask them and ask them and they just won’t tell me.”
“So,” I interject, “what about that movie?”
“You know what I think?” Gifford begins. “I think this was really in the vein of Manhattan Melodrama, right? It was with . . . who was in that?”
“I don’t remember,” Vinnie shrugs. (It was Clark Gable and William Powell, and it was the movie Dillinger saw just before being blown away outside the theater. Cool, huh?)
“Anyway,” Gifford resumes, “that’s what they were going for. It was very retro, in that sense. And I kind of enjoyed it. But it won’t change anyone’s life.
“Where the movie started going south for me was as soon as we had that shot of Danny Aiello, in his house.”
The bird-kissing scene. “Yeah. An interesting shot, but from that point on the movie was totally predictable. It was utterly predictable, and it was over. The movie was over from the minute he kissed that fuckin’ bird.”
A sort of discussion ensues wherein various alternatives to kissing are suggested for the offending birdie. They aren’t pretty. Come on, guys! It really wasn’t the bird’s fault.
“Pacino was good,” Osorio says.
“Yeah,” Gifford agrees. “He was giving a really good performance there for a while. He was terrific. And he was only let down by the material.” He ponders this a moment. “You know what bothers me? The paucity of imagination regarding closure in films. It bothers me a lot.” He brings up the film Seven, which he liked until the end. “Its lack of imagination offended me.
“One of the things in Lost Highway, when David [Lynch] and I were writing the film, we knew what we wanted the ending to be. You have to live with the ending throughout the movie. It’s upon you before you know it.”
“It is mysterious,” he nods. According to reports, the film concerns an accused murderer who metamorphoses into a young boy during his trial. Definitely mysterious.
“As David would say,” Osorio adds, “‘Do you have to explain it?'”
“Everything is explained,” Gifford continues, “in order to understand the metaphor, but even if you don’t . . .”
“It doesn’t really matter.”
“Right,” Gifford smiles. “Any-way, with City Hall it was fine. But it could have been better.”
“You know what I liked best?” Osorio teases. “The suits. Pacino’s suits were fantastic.”
“Oh absolutely!” Gifford agrees. “That tailored pinstripe was great. In fact,” he tells me, standing up, “Vinnie and I are going out right now to buy two suits exactly like that. See you later.”
Hmmmm. Maybe I’ll get one too. Who said City Hall wouldn’t change anyone’s life?
From the Mar. 7-14, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent
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