10 November 2013

Out of Sight: A Personal Remembrance

Here is the first movie poster I ever coveted.

I would like to claim that when I stepped into the Showcase Cinemas in Grand Rapids, MI the weekend of June 26th, 1998, I wanted to see Out of Sight because of Elmore Leonard (RIP) but at that time I preferred James Ellroy and Walter Mosley and even John D. MacDonald. I would like to say I wanted to see it because of Steven Soderbergh but I had never watched one of his films. I would like to say I wanted to see it because I knew how fabulous all the actors were in its ensemble cast but the gifts of Viola Davis and Don Cheadle and Steve Zahn and Luis Guzman and Isaiah Washington and Albert Brooks and Dennis Farina (RIP again!) were unknown to me.

I wanted to see this movie because of Jennifer Lopez.

The preceding summer I'd had the privilege of watching (twice!) the interesting-for-exactly-one-reason film Selena, which gave a generation of Puerto Ricans the belief that they could one day play Mexican songstresses in endless biopics. Later, I spent a good deal of time rewinding and pausing a specific sequence of U Turn, showing even then the eye for detail that makes me such a thoroughgoing cineaste today (I refer that Oliver Stone bloodbath as "My Basic Instinct"). My thoughtful father even showed me Lopez' back page spread in Vanity Fair explaining, "I feel like I'm showing you pornography." And it did feel that way, though I did not yet have the vocabulary to cope with the image--today I could leave the simplest of Instagram comments: dat ass tho.

While she remains an inspiration to all women with baby hairs along their brows, it would seem that Lopez has never made another good film (full disclosure: I have not seen Jersey Girl or El Cantante or Gigli). Watching Parker earlier this year, it seems all her nerve is gone as well, if not her physics-defying figure. (But I think of the great beauties and how hard it is to be in anything decent. Brigitte Bardot's career after Contempt is a similar wasteland and I would take Out of Sight over anything Ava Gardner or Hedy Lamarr ever did.)

I cannot over-exaggerate my affection for Jennifer Lopez as a teenager--the highest anticipation I have had for any film in my life was Tarsem Singh's The Cell (the only rival might have been The Tree of Life...neither of these opening nights ended happily for me). And so I spent the spring of my freshman year in high school talking about this trailer I'd seen (I could not send a link to my friends, I had to describe it using words!). I explained how great it was when Clooney says, "we'll make it an island..." while wiling away the hour in the back row of a math class whose main purpose was to teach you responsibility: how to not damage and/or lose the very expensive calculator your parents bought you. Out of Sight promised a delicious escape to the Real World: Miami era: rollerblades and Dan Marino jerseys (and the exact same cordless phone I had at my house).

But the film was also enticing because it had scenes in Detroit, where I took occasional trips as a lad. It would show the sexiness and grit and danger I was anxious to embrace from a safe distance across the state. The name of George Clooney's character--Jack Foley--even reminded one of Axel. I still think the Welcome to Detroit montage Soderbergh sets to the Isley Bros.' "It's Your Thing" was the best thing to happen to civic pride until those Chrysler commercials.

Sitting in the middle left of the theatre enjoying the frigid air-conditioning, I quickly discovered that this film was great not just because Lopez looked amazing but because Clooney was so thoroughly charming--starting with their scene in the trunk you can see that he just makes her laugh. She's mad at Clooney for ruining her nine hundred dollar suit (COME ON!) but she can't help batting her eyes, shadowed to match the new Jaguar helmets. I happen to agree with her, that it never made sense how fast Dunaway and Redford got together in Three Days of the Condor.

After they go on their separate ways from that steamy trunk, the film proceeds with messily brilliant interplay between other couples, the draggy Guzman and pre-Holofcentered Catherine Keener, the unhinged Cheadle and Mr. I-wear-my-sunglasses-at-night Zahn, instantly compelling thanks to Leonard's genius dialogue.

But the stars of the show are finally brought back together on a winter night in the D for what is simply one of my favorite five minutes in American cinema (you can tell I feel this way by searching for Out of Sight on this website...there are no fewer than four non sequitur references to that chemistry). Apparently Soderbergh based the sequence on the infamous Don't Look Now love scene which--after I try and fail to push the nightmare fuel of Donald Sutherland's naked body out of my brain--begs the question: does that mean before-she-was-J Lo and Clooney also had on set intercourse?? And forget whichever Venetian hotel held the Christie-Sutherland sheet wrestling--Lopez and Clooney got the Detroit Metro Westin! They're yellow silhouettes inside a snow globe...Frederick Seidel, please describe this for me:
                 If there is
Something else as beautiful
As this snow softly falling outside, say.  

Lopez does a brilliant job of deflecting unwanted male attention throughout the film, whether it's the overzealous tussling of Isaiah Washington's light heavyweight or the unctuous sales bros at the hotel bar and their affection for all things "Hisapanic." When Clooney appears in reflection at the cityscaped window he is all classic tropes: the lighter (he could have smoked indoors!) and the bourbon (pre-hipsterization!) and the cocksure smile (it's a To Have and Have Not for our times!)

At some point--I'm imagining the maturation of a filmgoer--my excitement for potential nudity was replaced with wonder at the editing. By intercutting flash forwards (timed to David Holmes' perfect score), Soderbergh plays with the inevitability of the hookup, of the two leads taking a "time out." Just as Clark Gable practically bankrupted the undershirt industry when it was revealed he didn't wear one, Clooney made me reconsider the potential stylishness of boxy white boxers. I wanted to see them get in bed but just as badly wanted to know what Clooney said to get her back to the room in the first place. It's an excellent surprise when Lopez insists: "Let's get out of here." Yes, let's. To my mind there's nothing more satisfying than a well-earned freeze frame. 

All of this came to me later--on the way out to the car my father and I had a bitter argument about whether that was actually Samuel L. Jackson in the final scene--but a nascent understanding of Soderbergh's brilliance in exceeding genre limitations started that afternoon. Of all my favorite films as a 15-year-old, this one has stayed with me the longest. 

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