Book Review: High Concept (Don Simpson And The Hollywood Culture Of Excess) by Charles Fleming

Director Robert Altman once said of his classic 1992 satire ‘The Player’: ‘What we show is a very, very soft indictment of Hollywood’.

Revisiting Charles Fleming’s excellent, coruscating ‘High Concept’, one can easily believe it. It is to the ’80s and ’90s movie scene what Peter Biskind’s ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls’ was to the ’60s and ’70s.

The main focus of the book is Don Simpson, producer of ‘An Officer And A Gentleman’, ‘Flashdance’, ‘Beverly Hills Cop’, ‘Top Gun’ and ‘Days Of Thunder’. He died in 1996 at the age of just 52.

‘High Concept’ explores this fascinating, contradictory character; an egotistical monster who was also inordinately generous to friends and relatives; a rampant egomaniac and alleged sex pest who was nonetheless haunted by his God-fearing Alaskan upbringing; a producer best known for lowest-common-denominator fodder but described by various people as a creative genius whose 30-page memos to screenwriters became legendary. Many also heralded his uncanny ability to find a screenplay’s crucial flaw.

Both the Simpson character and this book feel incredibly prescient. He comes across as half Trump, half Weinstein. There are endless stories that could have sparked a #MeToo moment had Twitter been around in the late ’80s.

He flourished at a time when corporate skullduggery in the movie business was a given. You could get away with anything as long as the studio was profitable. As Fleming puts it, ‘As long as he didn’t kill anyone he was always going to be welcomed back. If he did kill someone, well, arrangements could be made’ (indeed Stephen Ammerman, a doctor, was found dead at Simpson’s pool house in 1995).

Other people very much in Simpson’s orbit included Heidi Fleiss, OJ Simpson and Kato Kaelin. He was ahead of his time but always went too far. Or, to put it in Simpson-speak, ‘Anything worth doing is worth overdoing. It’s not enough until it’s too much. Because how do you know it’s enough until it’s too much?’ Fad dieting, plastic surgery, Scientology, junk food, kinky sex, prescription drugs, cocaine – they were all meat and drink to him.

Simpson was also always super-competitive, in the classic ‘Wall Street’ style, from day one. Late in his career, he said: ‘Anytime I see someone come into the business who is smart and talented…and likes to go to lunch and dinner…I know he was failed already. He hasn’t got a prayer. Because someone like me is going to run all over him…’

But ‘High Concept’ opens out intriguingly to look beyond Simpson and explore the rampant egos of the entire Planet Hollywood generation, outlining staggering tales of excess involving Demi Moore, Bruce Willis, John Travolta, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Robert Downey Jr., Julia Roberts and Charlie Sheen. Only Eddie Murphy and Tom Cruise emerge with anything approaching dignity.

Fleming – an experienced, respected movie writer who has contributed to Vanity Fair, LA Times, Variety and Newsweek – writes superbly, with natural elan and a swinging turn of phrase. Along with ‘Indecent Exposure’ and ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls’, ‘High Concept’ is the best book I’ve read about the darker side of modern Hollywood.

The Cult Movie Club: ‘Psycho’ Revisited

My dad was a huge Alfred Hitchcock fan. He liked the ‘minor’ Hitch as much as the ‘major’ Hitch. As a war baby, maybe he relished the director’s trademark mixture of dread and humour. Dad certainly didn’t sneer at ‘Psycho’; in fact, he would have put it firmly in the ‘major’ category.

We probably first watched the film together sometime around 1989. Revisiting it again recently, it struck me as a curiously – and defiantly – ‘modern’ movie. Even as the ghastliness of America’s modern serial killers was becoming public knowledge towards the end of the 1950s, the kind of seediness ‘Psycho’ portrayed had still not been shown on screen (though David Thomson’s superb book ‘The Moment Of Psycho’ notes that a few figures – James Dean, Jerry Lewis, Elvis, Brando and Jack Nicholson, by way of Roger Corman, were ushering in a new, youthful edginess. Thomson also asks us to imagine Elvis as Norman Bates…).

Hitchcock and screenwriter Joseph Stefano really decided to let American audiences have it with their fairly loyal interpretation of Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel. Thomson describes the film as Hitch’s ‘revenge’ on Hollywood, a Hollywood that had never granted the director an Oscar and whose mixture of humour and dread had never been fully accepted.

These factors also particularly struck me when revisiting ‘Psycho’ recently:

7. Hitchcock/Stefano’s skewering of America’s sacred cows

The family unit, marriage, the home, sanity, the bathroom (never before in an American film had there been the shot of a toilet flushing), heterosexuality, the shower stall. And the way he gleefully starts the movie tracking into a fairly seedy motel room to eavesdrop on a post-coital tryst. It all seems run-of-the-mill now but all of this must have been an incredible shock for contemporary audiences. Hitch wanted to show how modern, urban people were living their lives.

 

6. Joseph Stefano’s dialogue

Speed-reading Robert Bloch’s novel again, it struck me that screenwriter Stefano deserves huge praise for reworking the dialogue. He puts some pep in its step, fashions some brilliant lines for Norman (the whole mental illness speech during dinner with Marion in his den) and turns the scenes between Norman/Sam Loomis (John Gavin) and Norman/Arbogast (Martin Balsam) into mini masterpieces. He also adds some good, hip stuff featuring the traffic cop (who doesn’t feature in the novel) and car salesman.

5. The shower murder

Hitchcock’s ‘pride’ at the slickness of the first murder scene belies its brutality. If there’s a more shocking death in the movies, I haven’t seen it. A troubling thought: to what extent does Hitchcock/Norman/’Mother’/Bloch/the audience ‘punish’ Marion for stealing (even though at the time of her murder she has made the decision to return the money)? But of course modern audiences would be primed for Janet Leigh’s early exit, since the opening credits say ‘…And Janet Leigh as Marion Crane’. It’s clear now she’s not going to last the whole movie, but audiences in 1960 wouldn’t have twigged.

 

4. The sexual politics of the first 40 minutes

Marion strikes us as an incredibly ‘modern’ character, strong, determined, troubled, independent, defiantly single (though willing to give Sam a try… Or is she? Why doesn’t she ring him to tell him she’s on her way with the money?). She passes through the first half of the film encountering men in scenes that somehow ‘mirror’ each other – her lover, the creepy, predatory client at work, traffic cop, car salesman, and finally Norman.

3. The concept of ‘doubles’

Of course, Norman ‘is’ Norma Bates, mother and son combined. Then there are the – on first viewing – strange matching shots of characters leaving rooms; first Marion, then ‘Mother’. Then there’s the remarkable physical likeness between Sam Loomis (John Gavin) and Norman (who, of course, in many ways seems far more pleasantly disposed towards Marion than Sam ever is).

 

2. The brilliance of Anthony Perkins’ performance

Hitchcock apparently instructed Stefano to write for Perkins once the teen heart-throb had signed on very early in proceedings. The novel has Norman as an overweight, alcoholic, 40-year-old schlub, but Perkins’ leading-man looks, disarming smile and gentleness are the movie’s masterstrokes. He delivers a classic performance, possibly influenced by Dennis Weaver’s panic-stricken ‘night man’ in Orson Welles’s ‘Touch Of Evil’.

1. The flatness of the second half

Hitchcock barely seems interested in any other characters apart from Marion and Norman, fatally unhinging the second half of the movie. It’s pretty boring apart from the terrific scene between Norman and Arbogast (which apparently earned lengthy applause from the crew), the Arbogast murder, the ‘Mother’ reveal in the basement and the closing Norman/Mother ‘monologue’, featuring more fantastic work from Perkins.

The Cult Movie Club: All The Vermeers In New York (1990)

A major trope of ’80s or ’80s-set films, books, plays and – dammit – life itself (plus ça change) was the bonkers – or, at the very least, morally unsound – banker, broker or trader. ‘Wall Street’, ‘American Psycho’, ‘9 1/2 Weeks’, ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’, ‘Bonfire Of The Vanities’, ‘The Wolf Of Wall Street’. You get the picture.

But in Jon Jost’s movie ‘All The Vermeers In New York’, actor Stephen Lack, best known for his unique performance in David Cronenberg’s cult classic ‘Scanners’, delivered a nuanced, highly original take on the character.

His middle-aged broker Mark is lonely, strange, poetic, neurotic and in possession of a serious death wish. He’s kind of a Zen Patrick Bateman, without the mass murder. So it’s just his bad luck when he becomes obsessed with French acting student Anna (Emmanuelle Chalet), whom he believes looks just like the woman in Vermeer’s painting ‘Study Of A Young Girl’.

Stephen Lack in ‘All The Vermeers In New York’

The film – which I managed to record onto VHS during its one and only showing on Channel Four in the mid-1990s – is kind of ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ meets Mike Leigh, a classic New York art-house movie with its quiet bars, art galleries (Mark finds Anna in the Met, in a scene reminiscent of Brian De Palma’s ‘Dressed To Kill’) and plush interiors, but one that also relies on ‘naturalistic’ performances and mostly improvised dialogue. Jon English’s avant-jazz score is also superb, with more than a hint of Charles Mingus about it.

‘All The Vermeers In New York’ is also weirdly au courant, about the commodification of art and sex, and the all-powerful money-mind. We only see fragments of the characters’ troubled, conflicted lives – the teenager who worries about the unethical companies her rich daddy is putting her name to, the heroin-addicted artist refused money by his gallery-owning friend, Mark wearily intoning about his lonely apartment looking out on a building that could be ‘street-level Europe’.

Roger Ebert gave ‘All The Vermeers In New York’ a decent review on its release. To some, the film will seem like pretentious twaddle, to others a refreshing voyage into a dream world à la ‘Blow Up’, ‘Dead Ringers’, ‘The Music Of Chance’. All I know is that I revisit it about every three years and take something new from it each time.

Director Jost seems to have a very sketchy rep, described online variously as an indie movie pioneer and pretentious waste of space. Yes, ‘All The Vermeers In New York’ probably belongs in an art gallery rather than a movie theatre, but it’s still a fascinating ride.

 

The Cult Movie Club: Modern Romance (1981)

It might seem a bit churlish to say about a guy who’s co-written/directed seven movies and received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination (for ‘Broadcast News’) that it never quite happened for Albert Brooks the way it did for some of his contemporaries.

But somehow he has always seemed too niche for widespread popularity. His always-intelligent, nervy schtick is like a West Coast version of Woody Allen’s, but his comic bedfellows are probably Garry Shandling and Larry David rather than Allen and Diane Keaton.

‘Modern Romance’ was Brooks’ superb second film as co-writer/director, and it’s kind of an extended, darker episode of ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’. I caught it completely by chance on Channel Four in the mid-’90s and am grateful I captured it on VHS because it seems almost impossible to find these days.

Watching it again, the movie it most reminded me of is ‘Groundhog Day’. Brooks plays Robert Cole, an amiable if somewhat self-serving film editor stuck in a kind of romantic ‘loop’, endlessly playing out his on/off relationship with talented, gorgeous but hard-to-know Mary, portrayed by the excellent Kathryn Harrold.

Kathryn Harrold and Albert Brooks in ‘Modern Romance’

So Robert dumps Mary (yet again) at the beginning of the movie and tries (yet again?) to embrace the new romantic ‘rules’ of the Me Decade, taking up jogging, health supplements and blind dates. But nothing works. He just can’t seem to get comfortable. Why? Is he really meant to be with Mary? Or is it that he just can’t assuage his loneliness and modern ennui? The movie explores the options with amusing, thought-provoking results.

‘Modern Romance’ is full of great secondary characters: Brooks’ brother Bob Einstein (best known as Marty Funkhouser in ‘Curb’) plays a pushy shop assistant, Bruno Kirby is his loyal co-editor, George Kennedy of ‘Naked Gun’ fame is a self-important B-movie actor and there’s a droll, jittery turn by James L Brooks as a suspiciously George Lucas-like director.

James L Brooks, Albert Brooks and Bruno Kirby

Modern Romance’ also makes for a pithy Hollywood pastiche. Robert’s day job consists of editing a cheapo ‘Star Wars’ rip-off, pitting him against bored techies, unpredictable directors and egotistical character actors. The irony, of course, is that we know Robert is capable of much more, but he seems to have some kind of tragic flaw. He’s an ’80s version of Bobby Dupea, Jack Nicholson’s character in ‘Five Easy Pieces’.

The other thing about ‘Modern Romance’ is that it’s very quiet. Compared to modern comedies, it’s positively moribund. Brooks spends a lot of time alone, talking to himself. He makes stoned phone calls, goes jogging, drives around drab, deserted LA locations (but of course they look pretty glamorous to me, very Sanborn’s Hideaway and Steely’s ‘Glamour Profession’). There’s very little incidental music but there is a funny segue of heartbreak songs heard on a car radio.

It works as a quirky, neurotic, droll comedy, but ‘Modern Romance’ also lingers in the brain, revealing far more serious concepts. Why can’t Robert leave Mary alone and get on with his life? Or, as the trailer tagline so aptly puts it: if this is not love, what is it?

Nicolas Roeg (1928-2018)

London-born filmmaker Nicolas Roeg, who has died aged 90, will surely be remembered as one of the all-time greats.

He began his career as either lighting cameraman or director of photography on some key films of the 1960s: ‘The Caretaker’, ‘Doctor Zhivago’, ‘Lawrence Of Arabia’, ‘The Masque Of The Red Death’, ‘Far From The Madding Crowd’, ‘Fahrenheit 451’. He then of course co-directed (alongside Donald Cammell) the astonishing Mick Jagger vehicle ‘Performance’.

Roeg went to to make some of the finest films of the 1970s – ‘Walkabout’, ‘Don’t Look Now’ and ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’, and began the 1980s staking a claim to being England’s greatest living director. And that was when his films really came alive for me. Many of the above were shown regularly on terrestrial TV during the decade. Then came a series of always-surprising new works, some of which also transferred quickly onto the small screen.

‘Bad Timing’ (1980) was a brutally candid portrayal of a love affair gone wrong, starring Art Gartfunkel and Theresa Russell in the first of her memorable lead roles for then-husband Roeg (a role that was apparently first intended for Sissy Spacek).

‘Eureka’ (1983) is little seen these days, and almost totally forgotten, but it’s unpredictable and brilliant. Gene Hackman heads up a superb cast including Mickey Rourke, Joe Pesci, Russell and Rutger Hauer. ‘Insignificance’ (1985) was a film to match the best of Roeg’s ’70s output, a what-if tale based on Terry Johnson’s play about a meeting between Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, Joseph McCarthy and Albert Einstein.

‘Castaway’ (1986), a desert-island survival tale starring Oliver Reed and based on Lucy Irving’s bestselling book, was given a critical mauling but these days still looks like an incredibly vital film. ‘Track 29’ (1987) was, if anything, even stranger, a Dennis Potter-penned story about a demented manchild, with Gary Oldman and Russell the memorable leads.

And Roeg finished off the decade with a fine adaptation of Roald Dahl’s ‘The Witches’ (1990), well worth digging out for the kids this Christmas if you’re after some mildly-menacing, icky fun. Farewell to a bona fide Brit movie hero.

Nicolas Jack Roeg, 15th August 1928 – 23rd November 2018

 

 

Halloween Special: 11 Memorable VHS Covers

Back in those early days of VHS fever at the beginning of the ’80s, my parents would occasionally invite friends round to watch a scary movie. I remember tip-toeing out of my bedroom very late at night, creeping along the corridor and trying to snatch a peek at ‘Halloween II’ or ‘Straw Dogs’.

No, I wasn’t allowed to watch those kind of movies, though later was granted a bit of license with regards to ‘The Fog’, ‘Creepshow’, ‘The Island’ and ‘American Werewolf In London’ (for some reason).

But I could dream. The Video Masheen shop on Sheen Lane was a treasure trove of interesting VHS covers, a weird showroom advertising movies I’d never get to see. What kind of deranged mind could conceive of these images? The mind boggled. Some surely qualify as genuinely surreal pieces of art, though the #MeToo movement would probably put pay to a few more these days.

Of course I’ve seen many of these films now, though a few I still haven’t. And don’t really want to. But here are some VHS covers of the era that stuck in the mind. Straight from the shelf of Video Masheen. Happy Halloween…

11. ‘An American Werewolf In London’ (1981)

10. ‘Halloween II’ (1981)

9. ‘Creepshow’ (1982)

8. ‘The Island’ (1980)

7. ‘The Howling’ (1980)

6. ‘The Fog’ (1980)

5. ‘Southern Comfort’ (1981)

4. ‘The Exterminator’ (1980)

3. ‘Scanners’ (1980)

2. ‘Christine’ (1983)

1. ‘The Thing’ (1982)