Saturday, January 18, 2014

How Burt Reynolds Personally Invented Film Noir (En Bronzage du Soleil) Late One Friday Evening On His Front Porch In The Everglades

Stick, starring Burt Reynolds, directed by Burt Reynolds
by Bart Bull
(published in The Arizona Republic)
(For almost exactly one year, I reviewed movies for the daily newspaper in my hometown.  It was weird, and weirdly fun, and weird too.  Seeing pretty much every movie that came out over the course of a year gave me the sense that the movie business was coming unstuck at the seams.  Which, I'd now say, it was.  Anyway, I did get to see Burt Reynolds' Stick, and for some reason, I was getting away with murder as far as movie-reviewing goes, so.....)

 I'd hate to have anyone go see Stick on my say-so, but if you're even faintly interested in Burt Reynolds as a movie-star//phenomenon/entity/whatchyacallit, you can't hardly afford to miss it.

Not that it's any good, because Stick is one of the most inept, uncoordinated, disjointed, confused, and confusing movies you'll ever pay to see. There are times when you're not going to believe that anybody could ever have released so limp a blimp, but there it is, stinking loudly from the screen.

Burt is the director as well as the star, and Burt is indubitably the auteur. Everything about Stick is a reflection of his sensibilities; set in Miami, the movie seems to keep edging toward the Everglades, where a man's man can let his chest hair breathe and his toupee flap in the swampy breeze of the airboat's propwash. What works about Stick is not the plot or the characterization or the acting --- it's the curious obsessiveness that keeps oozing through all the gaps, like mud between the toes.

Anyone who's ever seen Miami and it's horny little sister Miami Beach knows that they reek of evil. As much and even more than Los Angeles, Miami is the perfect setting for a detective thriller and if Stick is too loose-ended to be very thrilling, it manages all the same to be extraordinarily evil. Shoddy and slapdash, as finely tuned as your boss's vacation home movies from Yosemite, Stick haphazardly manages to be a filmic landscape of the second humid circle of art deco hell.

I'd talk plot but I got lost only moments after the credits rolled and I'd defy you to do much better. This one's even more boggled a mystery than City Heat [Ex post facto historical note: City Heat was an equally or perhaps even more disastrous film, financially, aesthetically, and spiritually, from the previous Christmas, almost immediately buried deep in an unmarked grave, co-starring Burt and Clint Eastwood, who so clearly had such little time for one another that they barely appeared in any scenes together, which necessarily meant adding secondary characters attached to and orbiting each Star in order that they could each explain out loud what was going on in the plot since the Star under loud cinematic discussion had last been seen in the picture long minutes or so before, which seemed, under the circumstances, especially with the added expositional dialog, like hours ago}; Osterizer should get a scriptwriting credit. Plot doesn't matter here and neither does character because Reynolds is as thoroughly lost in his image as any screen actor has ever been. He has no idea at this point whether he's Gator McCluskey, or W.W. of the Dixie Dance Kings or the man who diddled Cat Dancing or Dan August or Stroker Ace or Smokey or the Bandit. He wears, at one point, the same zipped down wetsuit he wore in Deliverance; he wears, at nearly every other point, the same silly smirk he's worn every time he's done a movie with his acting skills set on cruise-control.


As for anybody else, they're uniformly atrocious. Charles Durning is Shelley Winters; Candice Bergen plays the smirking blond debutant who looks like Candice Bergen; the greasers are greaseballs; the greaseballs are greasers. I'm near-positive that no more racist movie has come out of Hollywood in years, and I don't think it's any coincidence that it contains one of the greatest funniest and most cutting characterizations of a black survivor (excepting only Pryor and Murphy) that the screeen has seen since the '60s.

Early on, this thing feels like Burt sat out on the porch one Friday evening in Florida, getting drunk and throwing beer cans at flamingos while he watched Miami Vice, and and then and there decided to direct and produce his own segment of the show. While he was at it, he decided to guest star too, and he forgot to put any of the show's actual stars in at all. By Saturday afternoon, he'd shot the basic footage; Sunday, he slept off his hangover. On Monday morning LA time, long after noon in the Everglades, he began making phone calls.

When the show's producers rejected his concept on the following Friday, he got drunk all over again and decided to turn the project into a full-length feature blockbuster, the kind of thing that would revitalize his whole career. Jerry Reed was busy in Nashville; Loni Anderson wouldn't return his calls; Tammy Wynette told him to get lost; Dinah Shore was golfing; Sally Field had an Oscar and didn't need him any more; Dom DeLuise was too busy taping GladBag commercials. Then came the final indignity: Pontiac refused to provide another Trans Am.

Nothing could stop him, no obstacle was too high. This movie was gong to get made. When he saw Glenn Frey's video for "Smuggler's Blues," he tried to get Frey involved. When Frey's manager Irving Azoff wouldn't return his calls, Burt hired a guy who looked a lot like Glenn Frey after about ten tequilas too many and stuck him in the movie. That would teach 'em.

He would make this movie, he would direct it himself, he would be the biggest movie star in America again, and the biggest director and the biggest dinner-theater owner in Florida too.

He thought about composing the score himself but decided the critics would say he was over-reaching. He'd personally witnessed the fall of Jackie Gleason, who'd once based himself in Florida too. It was too late to consider another man's mistakes.

Carol Burnett's personal assistant left a message on the answering machine that said she'd only do it if the location was in Hawaii. He considered it for a moment but he already had too much Miami footage from that first long weekend. If he had it all to do over, he'd have set it in the Okefenokee Swamp, and Stick would have been a runnin' gunnin' moonshinin' redneck detective. It was too late for that now. It was too late for a lot of things.

He established a film endowment at Tampa Community College; the first term's class project would be a documentary entitled The Making of Stick, Starring Mr. Burt Reynolds. Midway through the project, the 20-year-old coed producing the film quit to become a stand-up comic in Hollywood --- the Hollywood in California, not the one in Florida. The documentary would never be completed.

As the studio head examined the rushes and rough cuts from Stick, they began to get nervous. "Burt looks like refried death," one let slip to Marilyn Beck. They threatened to shut the production down unless Burt submitted to a full physical examination. The results have never been made public but Stick, intended to be released last fall, was reslotted into the spring schedule to compete head-to-head, mano a mano with Fraternity Vacation and Cave Girl and Gotcha and Gymkata. There was a slim hope that Burt might still draw the crowds.

And when it was done, when it was all over, when it was released at last and attacked by the critics and ignored by audiences from coast to coast, he knew that he had won. He knew that he'd made a movie that was truly and completely decadent, that smelled as much of rot and corruption and depravity as Florida itself, that was as loose-knit as a lunatic's hit-list, that was as lost and out of control as Hollywood.

He was Burt Reynolds, after all, last of the real movie stars, and this movie was his own.