Thursday, September 29, 2011

Ray vs. Gumby

Ray Liotta as Ray Sinclair contemplates the unexpected appearance of Gumby in Something Wild, 1986 dir. Jonathan Demme, scr. E. Max Frye.

This three-second bit of business is one of dozen of fine throwaway pleasures in a pretty goddamn rousing performance. Come to think of it, most of Something Wild's delights are in a hand-decorated telephone, a background performer's body language, the fluorescent pink letters on a t-shirt; it's a bric-a-brac movie. There is a killer moment in Liotta's final scene as the actor swipes a meaty paw across his pallid brow, leaves a bloody palm print dripping from his hairline, and it looks for all the world as though his brain is bleeding.

The film undergoes two or three major tonal shifts — part of the fun and sense of play is that one never knows what is going to happen next, even though a capsule summary of the plot would indicate a boilerplate screwball romance throwback in which a free-spirited wacky dame pesters an uptight square until he loves her. So that's Charlie Driggs (Jeff Daniels) and Audrey "Lulu" Hankel (Melanie Griffith) plugged into the Susan Vance and Doc David Huxley parts, or maybe the Clarence Worley and Alabama Whitman parts, because you never know when someone will get murdered or naked or, more importantly, how serious or cartoony the next curve will bend.

Now there's a sort of interesting subtext to the final movement of Something Wild, where bank-robber ex-boyfriend criminal on the lam Ray appears as a dark agent of Lulu's wicked, troubled past and his relentless pursuit has a quality of karmic horror. The first sections focus on Lulu assaulting Charlie's worldview, forcing him to transgress personal boundaries, and assisting in his ego death by way of "losing" his wallet, and helping him self-actualize through fashion therapy and a parade of new identities. Where the opening acts see Lulu broadening Charlie's horizons with the magic of her particular charms, after Ray intrudes the tables turn and the reinvented Charlie has to fight to maintain the relationship and as She fixed Him now He has to fix Her — thesis, antithesis, synthesis and all that. In counterpoint to Ray-as-Lulu's-shadow, it has (sorta) been noted by Demme, it is as if Charlie's sheer niceness through his life provides him with a spontaneous network of helpers — convenience store clerks and scruffy motel owners, rather than woodland sprites, if you will, but we're not here to plug Charlie Driggs into the Monomyth (not right now, anyway).

Ray is then a golem on the hunt (though this is just a made-up appropriate metaphor, it conveniently ties in with the forehead-wiping upon permanent deactivation — we might compare Ray to a twitchy Terminator or greaser Pumpkinhead; anyway, a vengeful ghoul animated by buried sins of the past). For a moment the universe throws him an omen, the pasty golem contemplates the Zen example of the green clay boy. Ray barks out a spazzy laugh, chucks Gumby out the window and speeds off in a hotwired car.