Passion Play (2010)

Director/Screenwriter: Mitch Glazer

By Roderick Heath

Good and bad movies are supposed to be easy things to tell apart, but I’ll never pretend to know why some movies are taken seriously in the critical and popular zeitgeist, and why some others are cast into oblivion. Passion Play, a labour of love for Mitch Glazer and sporting an interesting array of technical and acting talent, is a variation on a distinctive American strand of magic-realism: it seems a little like a Bob Dylan or Tom Waits song translated into images, which are in themselves reminiscent of movies over the years by the likes of David Lynch, Francis Coppola, Wim Wenders, and Alan Rudolph, but without feeling excessively imitative. This film was brutally dismissed earlier this year, whilst stuff like, oh, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or Black Swan, two other recent films in a similar mould, get a pass mark for of technical swagger and You Tube-ready pandering. The problem with a lot of such films is that their weight tends to dispel the delicate frosting of strangeness and pathos which makes such tall tales work at their best, and so they tend to blunder through realms that require a sense of personal sentiment, and a deeper sense of the canonical traditions they draw their cultural pastiche from. The pleasures of Passion Play are, especially in comparison with such heavy-footed fare, a little like its angelic yet fragile heroine: you’re constantly afraid they’ll flit away in the breeze or be brutalised beyond repair. And yet Glazer, whilst clearly a beginner filmmaker, reveals a substantial knack for creating and sustaining an atmosphere of dusky regret and threadbare emotional fibre, as Passion Play captures an elegiac, somnolently humane atmosphere that retains a happy patina long after the film is finished. He also successfully steers three of Hollywood’s most infamously big-mouthed actors, Mickey Rourke, Megan Fox, and Bill Murray, and gives them some of their best roles.

Rourke plays Nate Poole, a frazzled dinosaur of a jazz trumpeter with real glory days long behind him. In the dreamy prologue, he’s glimpsed playing on stage as accompanist of a strip act, never a good sign. He’s soon taken prisoner by lurking thugs, and driven by out into the desert, where it’s immediately plain he’s going to be shot and left to feed the buzzards. Just as Nate’s about to be plugged in the back of the head, though, his assassin is himself gunned down by a band of white-clad Native American warriors, who dash off as soon as they’ve done Nate this service. Nate stumbles through the desert until he comes across a seamy circus run by emperor of sleaze Sam Adamo (Rhys Ifans). It’s a place where little wonders must be found to justify their existence, and Nate catches a glimpse of one when he goes into a peepshow booth: a young woman, Lily Luster (Fox), who displays bird’s wings on her back for the paying clientele. Sam claims to have found her in a garbage pail when she was a baby and has brought her up. Nate, fascinated, tentatively introduces himself to Lily in her trailer after the circus shuts down, and she says her wings are just a prop she can’t be bothered taking off, in a role that was all she could do: “I’m not an angel, I’m a bird woman…I couldn’t get fat enough, I can’t grow a beard, and I hate snakes.” She also claims not to know who Nate is, yet once he leaves she unfurls her very real appendages and finds a copy of one of his records in her collection of old LPs. Sam, worried for the secrecy and security of his most peculiar possession, has his carny goons catch Nate and makes to kill with a rattlesnake’s bite, but Lily, having commandeered a pick-up truck, drives it into Sam’s tent and rescues Nate, fleeing back to the city.

On the way, when they pause at a gas station, Nate sees Lily, who claims to be unable to fly, managing to glide a little on a gusting breeze. Completely entranced, Nate nonetheless sees a chance to extricate himself from the lethal situation he’s in: his near-murder was because he slept with the wife of a powerful gangster, Happy Shannon (Murray, tweaking his trademark deadpan into something bleakly foreboding and pathetically nasty). Nate formulates a plan whereby he can cut Happy a percentage for showing off Lily to the world, whilst contriving to keep her out of the gangster’s hands. The glaze of hazy daylight and midnight somnolence, leavened by the evanescence of Lily’s aura of goodness, permeates Glazer’s film with surprising grace, and grace, after a fashion, is the subject. Passion Play plays, interestingly, as a mirror to Jesus Franco’s Venus in Furs (1969) with its similar tropes – otherworldly femme, rich possessive creeps, trumpet-playing anti-hero, and circular finale. Except that Lily is not an object of vengeance but aspiration, which the glumly vicious Happy recognises with more immediacy than Nate. Nate, a former drug addict, is branded as a perpetual loser not only because he makes mistakes but because he keeps making the same mistakes, and his plan to make peace with Happy and exploit Lily at the same time without exposing her to danger is sublime self-delusion. In a languorous yet quietly entrancing section of the film, Passion Play is essentially a two-person show portraying Lily and Nate’s growing bond. Lily tries to overcome her feeling of being a gruesome misfit who needs to be corrected: when she sneaks off to visit a plastic surgeon to get her wings cut off, Nate tracks her down and retrieves her, his defence of her right to be a beautiful freak sullied ever so subtly by an undertone of proprietary worry.

Lily and Nate fall into a nervous pas-de-deux as he, to please her, takes her to an empty theatre where a painted stage background suffices as her first glimpse of the sea, and after a little coaxing plays a tune on his trumpet, in a scene lightly gilded with a sense of drowsy romanticism and effervescent celebration of the way artists remake the world around them in tolerable terms. Rourke and Fox could well be the oddest romantic coupling of the year, and in some ways they’re by far the most soulful, each a garish oddity who nonetheless weaves beauties around them. Rourke, with his face these days looking like a pummelled side of corned beef, nonetheless still radiates the low-burning charisma he possessed in the ‘80s, and Fox, who’s only played arch bitch-queens and teenage lust-objects before this, is remarkably tantalising in playing the soft-spoken Lily, who has internalised years of being gawked at as a freak in an inability to look anyone in the eye, and who shrinks before the world’s gaze as if it’s an iron maiden bristling with spikes. Rourke proves that for all the predations of time he’s still one of the most innately charismatic actors in Hollywood, and Passion Play makes a fine bookend for The Wrestler as a portrait of a man heavy loaded with regret over what he’s done to others and to himself; indeed it wouldn’t work one-tenth as well if a less burdened and time-trammelled actor was in the role. Yet he’s still got his awesome physique from the Aronofsky film, which makes him cut it sufficiently in spite of his head as guy who can bed Megan Fox. When Happy finally catches up with Nate, he’s not to be easily fobbed off: Nate arranges a fashion of letting Happy see her with wings unfurled through binoculars. Happy instantly recognises Lily as a miracle, and being the man he is, he wants it for himself. He catches Nate and Lily in bed, and, planning to kill Nate, is dissuaded when Lily promises to go with him if he lets Nate live.

Happy instead has his goons beat the hell out of him and has him blackballed by all the nightspots in town, and after an attempt to extract Lily from Happy’s mansion ends up with her telling him to stop trying, Nate spirals deep into despair, hocking his saxophone and contemplating returning to his drug habit. He gets a break, however, when a fellow musician takes him on for a gig playing at local museum – at a charity soiree being bankrolled by Happy on a theme of angels, and Happy shows up with Lily on his arm: Nate stalks her through the museum, but she retreats from him in hopelessness. Nate’s limbo spirals into the genuinely stygian when he picks up a serpentine tattooed punk chick, who shoots him full of junk, except that she proves to be an agent of Sam, lurking and looking for a chance to avenge himself on Nate and take Lily back, and the woman has pumped with a hot dose. Nate is only saved when his friend Harriet (Kelly Lynch) finds him and revives him. When Sam tries to extract Lily from Happy’s house, the gangster shoots him and, suddenly fed up with all of the men vying for his beautiful captive, loses interest in her and turns her again into an exhibit for leering at, albeit this time an up-market crowd.

Passion Play‘s title is a bit of a double-entendre, as the film is both about multiple forms of passion, but there is finally a peculiar kind of fable being offered here, where Nate does battle with devils and serpents, and tries to rescue his angel and his own wayward soul with her. Glazer manages to offer his wilfully fantastical figurations less as overtly religious overtones than as permeating mythopoeic imagery, a jazz-like solo riff on a Jungian fever dream where private desperation and yearning are externalised through visions of cherubs and demons. Glazer also has to avoid tipping off the viewer too clearly about the nature of the story, taking place as it is in a zone between life and death. Promises of infernal fire and redemption swirl implicitly in the textures of Christopher Doyle’s cinematography, in the uterine warmth of velvety, theatrical reds and speckles of gilt infusing the otherwise bleary blues and noir-y shadows in the denuded city- and desert-scapes of New Mexico. Passion Play is reminiscent, in its melding of fantasy with noir, of Ben Hecht’s oddball classic Angels Over Broadway (1940), whilst a fragment of Brute Force (1947) is glimpsed on a movie screen – Happy screens old movies for Lily to please her, as she grew up watching such films on television – with its similar figuration of a disgraced and scruffy Burt Lancaster with the crippled, beatific Ann Blyth to offset the defeated Nate before Happy and Lily. Indeed, Passion Play was the second of two films I watched in quick succession – the other was Monte Hellman’s Road to Nowhere, a film with a not dissimilar mood and references, if also with much deeper layers of narrative complexity – where the tropes of classic noir are seized upon and inverted, rendered instead of punchy and hardboiled, as dreamy, melancholy, and with their sense of reality indefinably porous. Passion Play also has qualities in common with two more films maudit, Larry Charles’ under-rated, if lumpy, attempt to film Dylan with Masked and Anonymous (2003) and Johnny Depp’s nigh-unseen, yet weirdly, naggingly memorable The Brave (1997), in trying to articulate that American branch of fantasy where civilisation peters out at the fringes of the desertscape, and the islets of humanity glimpsed there are stricken through with cruelty, wonder, and alien beauty, as if the cultural centrifuges toss out all the colourful and perverse refuse there, amidst heavily metaphoric contemplations of the state of the personal and national psyche.

Sam’s remote, lively yet subtly strange circus is then reminiscent of something out of Ray Bradbury or Jack Finney, cross-bred with the word-pictures of the aforementioned songwriters, whilst the moment of Nate’s first glimpse of Lily calls to mind the finale of Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984) where a similarly ruined remnant of a man confronted his great love in a peepshow booth, whilst both films share an atmosphere of crushed romanticism. When Nate peeks in on Lily in her trailer and sees her with unfolded wings, the film takes on the quality of folk-myth, as he sees something extraordinary in the remote female figure in violating the taboo of her sanctuary, but here with a grim masochistic overtone, as he watches Lily ripping out her feathers in anguish, giving substance to the sense that permeates the film of the worthy beautiful strange things ripping themselves to pieces or subjecting themselves to degradations for the sake of small redeeming beauties. Yet Glazer, who wrote Murray’s ill-famed Scrooged (1988) as well as the interesting if finally problematic Three of Hearts (1993) and Great Expectations (1997), seems to be reflecting as much on the nature of his own trade as any metaphysical concerns here: it’s impossible to ignore how Passion Play is really about show business, and the motifs of the film, constantly circling back to performing stages and acts, and life-art rhymes, emphasises this.

The artist protagonist has wasted his potential in drugs and betraying his talent, a crime he repeats in selling out Lily, and pissing off the wrong people through licentious missteps. Happy and Sam, satanic forces of temptation, are also readily identifiable as exclusive and exploitative exhibitors, with a capacity to turn any rare and rich talent and trait into another commodity. For Fox, famously booted off her signature franchise for telling the truth about the director who served her up with toxic contempt in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009), Passion Play’s dismissive reception would hardly seem like vindication, but her role might have still felt like that, in it seems to conflate much truth about the way Hollywood treats its beauties. Lily wants to tear and distort her flesh to render it more perfect; Nate wants to show it off; Happy when he realises that he’ll never entirely possess her instead settles for sticking her in a glass booth virtually naked so that people can pay for an eyeful. This curious yet lucid fable’s finale sees Nate crashing one of Happy’s private peep shows for his rich friends to come and gawk at Lily in a glass box, resembling a fantasia out of a renaissance painting and weeping like a martyr. Here Glazer brings the motif of the power to look as a form of dominance to a head as well as achieving a real emotional kick in evoking the way the world’s beauties are so often corralled and controlled by men like Happy. Maybe in the very climax Glazer pushes finally too far towards the obvious, but his work still retains a charge as Nate rescues Lily and spurs her to finally spread her wings as a last act of faith. Such an act proves crucial for Nate as he makes a discovery that puts everything he’s been doing into perspective: saving his soul.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    3rd/11/2011 to 12:20 pm

    “Passion Play is reminiscent in its melding of fantasy with noir to Ben Hecht’s oddball classic Angels Over Broadway (1940), whilst a fragment of Brute Force (1947) is glimpsed on a movie screen”

    Most interesting! When I gazed at the title I thought of Jethro Tull’s seminal album, and when I looked at the caps I recalled the great television mini-series “Angels Over America,” but this is of course a different animal, especially with that intriguing comparsion to Aronofsky’s THE WRESTLER. I haven’t had the opportunity to see this yet, but again am dazzled by a stupendous essay that cries out for a follow-up viewing.

  • Colin spoke:
    3rd/11/2011 to 5:01 pm

    Mercifully, I remember very little about this movie other than the fact that it’s the only film this year I’ve marked as 0/10. I admire your perverse stance, and you write so well that I almost believe you, but when even Rourke says it’s a turkey I fear you may be in the minority in serenading it.

  • Rod spoke:
    3rd/11/2011 to 8:09 pm

    Well, with all due respect to Rourke, Colin, he’s not exactly legendary for his great capacity to call these things. But I don’t mind being in the minority. The trouble, I believe, with this and many other movies that have bad advance buzz, is approaching them with an open mind. But in any event, having loved movies like Wim Wenders’ Don’t Come Knocking, etc, I have to admit I quite like this sub-genre of magic-realism in the American boondocks. So if/when you do watch it Sam, try and make it later at night, turn the lights off, and try to let it flow over you.

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