Monday, November 07, 2011
A fabulous disaster
By Edward Copeland
For people around my age, one of the biggest laughs in (500) Days of Summer comes when Zooey Deschanel's Summer tells Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Tom that lately they've been acting like Sid and Nancy. Tom takes offense, thinking she's comparing him to the late Sex Pistols bass guitarist who stabbed girlfriend Nancy Spungen to death, but Summer corrects him, "No, I'm Sid Vicious." For anyone such as myself for whom Alex Cox's Sid & Nancy served as a seminal film during high school years, it is a hysterical moment. Today marks the 25th anniversary of the U.S. release of Cox's film. There's always a danger when revisiting treasured films of your youth, that the experience won't be the same decades down the road but I'm pleased to report that a quarter-century later, Sid & Nancy works better as a movie than I remember it doing when I originally saw it.
When the movie begins, we gaze upon a young Gary Oldman's version of Sid Vicious staring blankly, without expression, at a TV in a dark hotel room as detectives ask if he is the one who called 911. He says nothing, but we glimpse his bloody hand for a moment. What struck me isn't the context of the scene — no matter how long it's been since you've seen Sid & Nancy, you know that she's dead — no, what struck me is how amazingly young Gary Oldman looks. The actor in this 1986 film bears so little resemblance to the actor working under that name today. Can this possibly be the same man? This remarkably talented actor, still a couple of years shy of his 30th birthday then, who transformed himself so memorably into the drugged-out punk rock legend couldn't possibly be the same man now is in his early 50s and seen most often as Commissioner Gordon in Christopher Nolan's Batman movies or Sirius Black in Harry Potter films? It just seems impossible, doesn't it? It's great to hear the buzz that Oldman is receiving for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy because embarrassments dominate his credits more than winners since at least 1995. Some examples: Lots of voice work for video games, The Scarlet Letter, Lost in Space, Hannibal, the TV show Friends and voices in Disney's 3-D Christmas Carol and Kung Fu Panda 2. Thankfully, we still have his Sid Vicious to be amazed by.
An even larger, more existential query loomed over me while I watched Sid & Nancy again, for the first time in I don't know how many years and began to think about what I would write in this tribute. First, came relief that I didn't find myself disappointed as has happened before when returning to a sacred relic from an earlier archaeological phase of my life. Then, I was struck by a question that had never occurred to me before about the movie — what appeal did it hold for me and many of my friends back in high school? We weren't punk rock enthusiasts — that day had largely passed though many of us owned the album Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols (and I mean album — on wax), but we tended to be eclectic musically. We weren't lurking around shooting heroin in our veins (though I can't make that statement with 100% certainty concerning one of our informal group). Why did Sid & Nancy speak to us in such a profound way that we not only fell for the film but went multiple times? The theater which showed this movie (and we often went to midnight showings — it wasn't always The Rocky Horror Picture Show or Pink Floyd — The Wall) would be the site for both the beginnings and ends of teen hookups. I guess watching a love story about two drug-addicted people, one of whom stabs the other to death, just brings out the romance in people. As I pondered the possibilities of why this cinematic portrait of punk had such pull over us, I looked over my notes and discovered one word that seemed to recur from different characters in the movie: Bored. There lies the link between the punk rockers in the movie and the suburban teens in a Bible Belt multiplex watching them: Both groups felt stifled to the point of losing their minds. Sid Vicious found his escape in drugs and his music; we had to make do with watching movies about him until we were old enough to get the hell out of town. In one scene in the movie, someone says, (you can't really tell who because there's a jumble of bodies crowded in sleeping bags and blankets on an apartment floor) "You know I was so bored once I fucked a dog passionately." Thankfully, it never got that bad here (that I know about). Sid & Nancy shows that even the punk fans grew tired of punk, as in a scene at a club where several sit behind a wall, not even paying attention to the Pistols. One has even brought her baby adorned with a green Mohawk haircut. One of the group, Clive (Mark Monero) announces, "Ain't gonna be a punk no more. Gonna be a rude boy just like my dad." When you consume so many drugs that you can't tell what day or country you're in, a state of ennui comes easy as later when Nancy (Chloe Webb, who's as great as Oldman) lies in bed with Sid and complains that she's so bored that she hates her life. "This is just a rough patch. Things'll be much better when we get to America, I promise," Sid reassures her. "We're in America. We've been here a week. New York is in America, you fuck," she yells at him, prompting him to look out the balcony at the Hotel Chelsea sign.
Watching Sid & Nancy now makes it easier to appreciate what Alex Cox accomplishes on a filmmaking level. He tosses out the idea of a conventional narrative (and shouldn't that be required when telling the story of punk pioneers?) while at the same time employing many standard cinematic techniques to great effect. When they get to the infamous concert on the ship on the Thames and the London police make them pull ashore, Cox throws in a short but effective tracking shot of Sid and Nancy, arm in arm and in love, oblivious to the chaos around them, as they simply walk away from the ship and the melee on the docks just to be with one another. Cox also frequently likes suddenly to distance us from characters, usually the title ones, but not always, so they appear as specks against a background that gives the scene a different connotation such as a message about abortion. He's not above some wacky film use either. When Sid, Nancy and her friend Gretchen (played by none other than Courtney Love) cross a vacant lot and see some kids picking on another one, Sid tells them to stop. The bullies ask him who he thinks he is. "I'm Sid Vicious," he answers and then the kids run away in fast-motion speed like something out of an Our Gang short. A moment such as that reminds me of what really goes unappreciated about Sid & Nancy — its nearly continuous strain of humor, albeit mostly dark humor. Truth be told, that aspect led to my friends and I returning to the film as much as any empathy for the bored. If you just lay out the basic plot of the film — The true story of heroin-addicted musician and his heroin-addicted girlfriend who he stabs to death but doesn't face justice for his crime because he overdoses first — well, it doesn't exactly sound like a rollicking night out. The first response to that description probably would be something like, "Sounds bleak." The word that begins the IMDb plot summary is "morbid." I'm not trying to convince you that Sid & Nancy produces a laugh riot, but I've sat through many bleak films in my time (Wendy and Lucy leaps to mind) and Sid & Nancy isn't one of them because Cox and his collaborators approached the subject matter with such verve, creativity and vitality.
Speaking of the painful Wendy and Lucy, two scenes in Sid & Nancy reminded me of that pretentious piece of misery (but in a good way). One emphasizes the careful balancing act Alex Cox and Abbe Wool's screenplay took with scenes that show these characters' desperation (and that one gets hit out of the park by Chloe Webb's superb work. She and Oldman both were robbed in not receiving Oscar recognition). The second one plays as sort of a twisted homage to another filmmakers' work. Both keep humor behind the anger and tears. In the first, the infamous telephone booth scene, anxious for drugs and out of cash, Nancy calls her mom in America in the middle of the night London time telling her that she and Sid just got married. She assures her mother that Vicious isn't at all as they describe him in the newspapers and no, she's not pregnant either. Not known for her subtlety, Nancy suggests that her mom would want to send them a wedding gift for their honeymoon. Nancy explains that they don't have a place yet, so money would be better and since it's a different time there, why doesn't she head over to Western Union and wire some to them and they can pick it up in the morning. We never hear the mother's side, but it's very reminiscent of that call Wendy (Michelle Williams) makes to her sister) who has heard all her crap before and doesn't want to deal with it. (Lucky her — I immediately wanted to watch a movie called Wendy's Sister and Lucy.) Nancy loses it. "I am so married!" Nancy yells into the phone. "YOU DON'T CARE ABOUT ME! IF YOU DON'T SEND US MONEY, WE'RE BOTH GONNA DIE! FUCK YOU!" Nancy screams before she hangs up and throws such a fit she breaks the glass in the phone booth. Sid gets her to rest down on the curb. "I fucking hate them! I fucking hate them! Fucking motherfuckers! They wouldn't send us any money! They said we'd spend it on DRUGS!" she tells Sid. Then Oldman gets the scene's deadpan punchline: "We would."
The other sequence proves truly hysterical (unless you were living it I imagine). While in America, Nancy takes Sid to visit her grandparents in a dinner scene that plays as if it's a twisted homage to Alvy's visit to Annie's parents in Woody Allen's Annie Hall. There are other scenes that obviously influenced later films or seem to predict other filmmakers' recurring trademarks. Recognizable character actors Gloria LeRoy (who still works today, which is her 80th birthday) and Milton Seltzer (who passed in 2006) play Granma and Granpa whose table gets filled out by many other men and women, mostly younger, whose relationship never is explained. What's so funny about the scene is that Nancy doesn't change herself in the presence of her grandparents and the young people, sprinkling her speech with F-bombs as always even though her demeanor is generally friendly. Sid comes off as downright polite — except for not wearing a shirt to the dinner table. The highlight comes when Granpa starts questioning Sid as he would any suitor. "So are you gonna make an honest woman of our Nancy, Sid?" he asks Vicious, who obviously misses the gist of the question. "She's always been an honest woman to me, grandpa, sir. She never lied to me," Sid tells him. Granpa tries again, "What are your intentions?" Nancy steps in to outline the couple's plans for this: Monday they'd go to the methadone clinic, then she'd get Sid a few gigs (this takes place after The Pistols have broken up, but I'll get back to that), then they'd move to Paris "and go out in a blaze of glory," Nancy says. "Don't worry, you'll be proud of us," Sid reassures the grandparents who look anything but reassured. As the family retires to the living room, Sid promptly passing out in a chair from a bit too much vodka, Nancy in his lap. Nancy assumes that they'll be staying there but Granma comes in and, being as polite as she can, tells her she thought it would be better if they stayed at a motel so they booked them a room there. Nancy admits she was hoping they'd drive them to the methadone clinic, but Granma says it's impossible because they are going on a trip the next day. One of the never-define teenage boys blurts, "Since when?" Granpa also gives Nancy money for transportation. She's wise enough to know what's up and storms out, but Vicious remains in the chair like a statue. The grandparents argue about how they can get him out. Eventually they do, and we see Sid and Nancy in the hotel lying in the dark watching TV. While much of the sequence has been played for laughs, it might be the film's most touching moment. "These people. Really lovely. Best fuckin' food I ever ate," Sid tells Nancy about her grandparents with a wisp of sadness in his voice. "Why'd they throw us out?" Just as he didn't understand what the meaning of Granpa's questions were, Vicious can't fathom how these people that seemed to be friendly and treating him like a human being would suddenly throw him out for some unknown reason. Nancy knows, and she gives the scene its clincher. "Because they know me." Oldman and Webb created such a magnificent acting partnership in Sid & Nancy that I wonder why no one has devised a project in 25 years that paired these two again.
Granted, the movie focuses on the couple, but it also looks at The Sex Pistols and the music industry in England at the time as well and that's where we find a lot of the humor as well. Though Sid & Nancy really only takes time to develop John "Johnny Rotten" Lydon (well played by Andrew Schofield unless you are John Lydon or are friends with John Lydon) with the other band members being more or less ciphers. While the movie portrays him as a prick at times, it also shows him as someone who aspires to some degree of professionalism, something difficult to reach when your bass guitarist tends to be wasted or not there at all. They'll be on stage at a club, ready to go and Sid will be roughhousing elsewhere in the crowd. "Sid, we'll go on when you're ready," John ("He hates being called Johnny") will shout. The movie also has much fun with its take on the band's manipulative manager Malcolm McLaren (acted with a perpetually bemused grin by David Hayman), who at times seems less concerned that Sid might be destroying himself as long as he gets press out of it. The first time we see Malcolm, he's standing outside a club trying to lure people into a performance. "Is it fucking worth it? Yes it is," he tells anyone who passes by. When Lydon and the other members come to him to complain, explaining that sometimes they have to turn off Vicious' amp because he isn't even playing the same song that the rest of the band is and they need a new bass guitarist, Malcolm doesn't seem upset. Instead, he replies, "Sidney's more than a mere bass player. He's a fabulous disaster. He's a symbol, a metaphor. He embodies the dementia of a nihilistic generation." Eventually, even McLaren sees the need for intervention. At first, he tries to talk his assistant Phoebe (Debby Bishop) to be Sid's handler for a couple of months, but she wants no part of it. He asks why. "Infectious hepatitis, loony girlfriend, drugs?" she lists off. "Boys will be boys," Malcolm counters. Everyone agrees when the discussion of an American tour comes up, that it's a good chance to separate Sid from Nancy for awhile, since both band and management see her as the bad influence. At a meeting at a small restaurant, they make it clear: no wives or girlfriends can go. When Nancy puts up a fit — Sid appears catatonic the whole time — Phoebe makes it clear that if they can't separate for a few weeks, Sid will be replaced. So Sid goes alone and that tour ends up being the band's end as they get booked in inappropriate venues by people not even clear who they are. (As in Atlanta, as you can see in the sign below.) The final straw comes when Sid heads to a party and walks through a hotel's glass door. When he reunites with Nancy and she decides to manage him, things go from bad to worse and everyone pretty much knows where this story ends.
As I mentioned before, the influences — intentional and otherwise — on other films and filmmakers become more apparent 25 years later. For example, it's even more obvious why Martin Scorsese thought of using Sid Vicious' take on "My Way" as the ending song for Goodfellas when you see the re-creation of the video for it in Sid & Nancy (and that is Gary Oldman doing the singing by the way), especially following the quick take of Joe Pesci as Tommy aping the famous shot from Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery. (Pardon the Portuguese subtitles.) Embedding is disabled for the Goodfellas ending, but click here.
While they stay at the Hotel Chelsea, Sid and Nancy manage to start a fire in their room and they just stare at it, fire fighters eventually coming in around them to extinguish the flames. The hotel manager (Sandy Baron), always bragging to potential tenants about the high-class clientele that have lived there, does berate them slightly but moves them to a room on the first floor accompanied by a slow-moving man who appears to be a decrepit bellhop, but doesn't appear to be that old. The only item he carries is Sid's guitar, which he hands back to him as he says something slow and cryptic along the lines of "Bob Dylan was born here" and then extends his hand for a trip. It's the type of character we'd see frequent many a work by David Lynch, but I don't recall one making an appearance yet. They didn't really kick in until Twin Peaks and Wild at Heart a few years later. It could be pure coincidence, but when I saw him again, Lynch came to my mind immediately. Musicians and fires aren't that unusual, but it did in a way remind me of Oliver Stone's awful movie The Doors, which also only bothered to define two members of the band. As for the fire, I'm still waiting to find out how the hell Meg Ryan got out of that closet. Imagery may be what I took away most from this return visit because I'd forgotten, if I'd ever known, that the director of photography for Sid & Nancy was the ultra-talented and, of late, Coen brothers' favorite Roger Deakins. For those of you keeping score at home, Deakins has received nine Oscar nominations for cinematography and won zero. His nominations have come for The Shawshank Redemption, Fargo, Kundun, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Man Who Wasn't There, The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, No Country for Old Men, The Reader (shared with Chris Menges) and True Grit. Look at it this way: Deakins has received more nominations for best cinematography without winning than Peter O'Toole went winless for best actor — and they at least gave O'Toole an honorary Oscar.
What boggled my mind then and still does now are people who think that somehow Sid & Nancy comes off as an endorsement for heroin use. Being broke, unaware of your surroundings, killing a loved one and accidentally yourself — tell me where I sign up. As the methadone case worker (Sy Richardson) tells the duo, who dismiss it as "political bullshit" when he paints it as a government conspiracy he claims to have seen first-hand in Vietnam, "(S)mack is the great controller. Keeps people stupid when they could be smart." Yes, the fantastical ending paints the idea that perhaps Sid and Nancy reunite on another plane, but that doesn't mean it's endorsing smack addiction as the path. Still, those closing sequences seem more spellbinding today than before, Of course, no knew in 1986, the symbolic power of including this image of Sid Vicious' path to a pizza joint after making bail in Nancy's slaying.
I almost could have created a 25th anniversary tribute to Sid & Nancy composed entirely of photos. As it is, I've left out many line and anecdotes that I wanted to write about, but I keep cutting them to squeeze in more art — and I'm not even getting all the art in that I wanted. I didn't begin to get into discussing what the hell has happened to Alex Cox or Chloe Webb. Still, there are so many shots I didn't get in — Sid and Nancy having a mock shoot-out on the roof of a hotel, Nancy hanging upside down from a hotel window, Malcolm scaring off men beating up Sid simply by pointing his finger like a gun, Sid spontaneously dancing with some kids after the pizza, Nancy's friend Brenda and her S&M business — but I do want to use one shot from the closing reunion sequence because I think it's the most beautiful.
Finally, just in case anyone might still believe that the movie serves as an ad for heroin, the final card that appears on the screen.
Labels: 80s, Animation, Christopher Nolan, Coens, Disney, Dylan, Gordon-Levitt, Lynch, Michelle Williams, Movie Tributes, Music, O'Toole, Oldman, Oliver Stone, Oscars, Pesci, Scorsese, Twin Peaks, Woody, Zemeckis
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