Monday, January 12, 2009

King of the Pugs

The following column is reprinted from the January edition of Providence Monthly

By Scott Duhamel

As nimbly as one dances across the critical tightrope, in and as much as the nitcrit fervently adheres to his well formulated theoretical and intellectual system of checks and balances, as much as the humble pop culture writer forever weighs his views and opinions—fact checking, genre hunting, career tabulating, shadowing history, gauging the temperature of the vox populi, sleuthing style and divining theme---it all comes down to the simple fact that once in a while you just gotta play the favorite.
When I first began writing regularly about the movies, filled with passion, brio, and youthful audacity, the wonderfully ragged and wooly American film industry was slowly transitioning from the richly textured 70’s into the blockbuster-bound 80’s and I searched with full fervor for anything and anybody who seemed to able and ready to carry on the spirit of the boldly experimental 60’s and the richly esoteric 70’s. Some of them were easy to spot, often highly prevalent, critically anointed, and even box office faves. Robert DeNiro, Marty Scorsese, Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, and Jack Nicholson were still running on all cylinders, and newcomers like Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, Sean Penn and Ellen Barkin were emerging. I particularly liked watching Mickey Rourke, a handsome tough who had a no-sweat combo of sass, sensitivity, and an almost Monty Clift-like air of emotive frisson. I thought he’d become the mainstream version of the continually compelling and audacious Harvey Keitel, an actor I couldn’t take my eyes off, but one whose supposed on set behavior and actorish pretensions had reduced him to cult figure stature virtually before his career hit second gear. In one of many rhapsodic reviews of the time I declared him a Pug Actor of the highest order, the sort of screen presence who hid bared teeth behind good looks, a boxer masquerading as a dancer, a wise-ass mix of John Garfield and James Dean. Little did I knew that his movie career would descend into murkier depths than Keitel could imagine, and whose off screen rep became a cloudy tale of boxing matches, excessiveness, gang like entourages, a high drama public romance, and overall boorishness.
I can only guess that filmmaker Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream) was a fellow charter member of the Mickey Rourke Pug Acting Fan Club, as he’s perfectly cast and directed the out-of-purgatory actor in the meta-showbiz tale, The Wrestler. Rourke plays Robin Ramzinski, known to wrestling aficionados as Randy (the Ram) Robinson, a one-time circuit name reduced to a self-described “old, broken-down piece of meat.” A miniature Raging Bull, The Wrestler is a deceivingly simple tale, a character portrait of a has been, a subtle examination of damaged goods. At the same time, the movie’s comeback narrative parallels and echoes Rourke’s own, yet it’s double-edged arc never succumbs to sentimentality.
Aronofsky (coming off a huge personal failure himself-The Fountain) shoots much of the movie documentary style, never differentiating from Randy’s daily routines or his souped-up second tier wrestling bouts. The overall visual effect is windshield- wiper dirty, the New Jersey environs meant to be Nowheresville, USA, and the wrestling bits all brutal mixes of carnage and humiliation presented as flattened realism. Randy is highly self-aware, rattled but still standing, trying to reconnect to his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Woods), forging something resembling a relationship with an equally down-and-out stripper (Marisa Tomei), and briefly (in a stand-out scene) even willing to make ends meet as a counter man at a deli. All of it unfolds with a sturdy fatalism, an unadorned story of an American palooka, a daylight ramble into the void.
At the center of it all is the mutated but still recognizable Rourke, muscles hardened and atrophied, sporting stringy blond heavy metal hairdo, stooped over and sodden, Clift-likes eyes both wounded and questioning, with that whispery yet ever commanding voice—sing-songy and seductive, childlike and commanding, weirdly anxious, a poet's honesty buried under a pug’s ferocity. The performance pushes the movie into something near great, as Mickey Rourke embodies the good, the bad, and the ugly of the lone wolf American male.

Mickey Picks of the 80’s

Body Heat (1981). One scene, a lip-synching close-up, announced the arrival of our fave Pug Actor.
Diner (1982). Perfection-cocky, romantic, world-weary, yet lost in America.
Rumble Fish (1983). Surreal Coppola teen tale, with Rourke holding his own as charismatic torch-bearing mumbler, between mumbling young Matt Dillon and mumbling elder statesman Dennis Hopper.
The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984). A showy but still subtle central performance in an entertaining Mean Streets knock-off.
The Year of the Dragon (1985). Overwrought city, an over-the-top concoction written by Oliver Stone and helmed by Michael (The Deerhunter) Cimino.
Nine ½ Weeks (1986). Faux eroticism, but a hot movie for its time, neatly teaming Mickey Boy and Kim Basinger.
Angel Heart (1987). Absolutely killer, a noir fantasy, as Alan Parker propels Rourkes detective down into the rabbit hole.
Barfly (1987). More perfection—bawdy, scrungy, hilarious and soulful.
Homeboy (1988). Scripted by Rourke, an unrelenting hardscrabble stutter-step descent into Palookaville.
Johnny Handsome (1989). Cool daddy cult film, helmed by macho man Walter Hill, an early Mickey examination of self-ruination and regeneration, disguised as a New Orleans crime pic.

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