Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Art That Changed My Life: Miller’s Crossing

Yesterday I took a break from the class prep and the law gig and all the other tiny responsibilities that add up to exhaustion. I had eaten lunch, walked the dog, and was as ready for the coming lecture as I’d ever be (read: under prepared). So what do I do? Flip on the cable and see what’s on. (Hilarious in a sense, as tonight’s lecture is on the subject of TV and its addictive properties.) And what was on? Why, Miller’s Crossing!

I picked up the thread of the thing in about 2 seconds. This is due to me having watched this goddamn movie a good, oh, 200 times. Seriously, there is no other movie I know this well. Maybe Taxi Driver, okay, but even though I used to carry a VHS copy of Scorsese’s first masterpiece with me and watch it in the Moraine Valley Community College library, I still have sat down and sunk into the world of Miller’s Crossing far more often.

What attracted me to it? The look of the thing was the first hook. In Roger Ebert’s review he complained that Albert Finney’s character could never realistically inhabit such an office, thus from the first scene he was bothered. I might argue that Ebert, as he often is, was off his rocker on that one. Is it so difficult to image a 1920s political boss-cum-tough talking simp wanting to put on some airs once he rose to control an entire city? Why wouldn’t the likes of the fictional Leo O’Bannon surround himself in leather and stained wood? Anyway, what Ebert found to be a flaw I saw as an exciting vision, one I suppose I wished I could inhabit. Sure, there’re guns on every corner and a web of deceit to untangle, but the world the Coen’s created still looks pretty beautiful to me—probably because it is, indeed, unrealistic and utter fiction. One enters a Coen film (save for the gritty likes of Blood Simple or Fargo) knowing that they are about to encounter more caricatures than characters and a world informed by Hollywood tropes. Whereas I reserve a certain amount of disdain for the likes of Tarantino and his overly derivative movies, the Coen’s are not above lifting a little from the golden age of Hollywood—among other sources—for their creations, none of which bothers me a bit. In the case of Miller’s Crossing, the most cited reference is Dashiell Hammet. Along with perfectly reproducing the tone and complexity of Hammet, the Coen’s add their own gloss to the mob story and, at times, completely deconstruct and rebuild the whole thing at a moment when lesser films would completely fall apart. But that is one of the joys of the movie: everything in it serves a purpose (with the exception of a tacked on, though memorable, scene featuring a Sam Raimi cameo) and all of it adds up to more than a hill of beans. And then there’s John Turturro’s famous “Look in your heart… I’m praying to you!”

For all this and more, I was sucked in to Miller’s Crossing at a time when my faith in cinema was at its all time low. I ignored the movie for a few years, as did many—it was released the same year as Goodfellas, which eclipsed this smaller, quirkier gangster film. Call it bad timing, but I went without Miller’s Crossing in my life for a few years, time I regret. And so I went about folding the movie into my (sub)consciousness, mixing it in and letting it stay for good so that, years since my last viewing, I still know every word of the damn dialogue, as evidenced yesterday afternoon. Even still, the movie felt fresh to me.