Review by Adam Balz
Posted on 07 January 2008
Source DVD screener
The notion that you go there to campaign is silly. It’s mostly gaffers and electricians and makeup people. I met Spielberg’s first secretary there. That was cool.
In 1997, director Michael Schroeder began reevaluating his career. He had, over the last ten years, directed some of the worst pictures ever made: Mortuary Academy and Out of the Dark in the 80s; Cyborg 2 in 1993 and its sequel, Cyborg 3: The Recycler, in 1994; a seedy kiss-and-bang thriller, Cover Me, in 1995; and The Glass Cage, co-starring Eric Roberts, in 1996. At the same time, he also worked as assistant director and unit director on other films, including Lust in the Dust with Divine, Shy People with Jill Clayburgh and Martha Plimpton, and Honey I Blew Up the Kid. But it was an off-camera encounter during The Longshot, a 1986 Paul Bartel comedy written by Tim Conway, that pitted within him an idea that, after years of fermenting, ultimately compelled him to sell his house and cars and spend ten years planning Man in the Chair: Jonathan Winters, sitting alongside the up-and-coming filmmaker during lunch, commented on how anyone with enough drive to make a movie could easily assemble a trained and willing crew from the Motion Picture and Television Fund Retirement Home. It was an epiphany for the aspiring director. But knowing no one would finance a “character-driven project,” Schroeder began financing it himself. “It took me about two years to finish the script. I taught director classes at North Carolina School of the Arts and directed commercials and wrote at night and on weekends.”1
This back-story to Man in the Chair is interesting for two reasons. First, it’s an oft-unheard look at how aspiring filmmakers sacrifice for their craft—in this case, by selling their worldly possessions, relocating to a cramped apartment, and pawning their talents for financial gain. And secondly, it gives great insight into Schroeder’s story: a young cinephile named Cameron, hoping to gain full scholarship to the Los Angeles Film School, looks for help from the retirees of the Motion Picture Residence for the Elderly, an elegant but lonely after-Paradise home for “below the line” Hollywood crew-members. Led by Flash Madden, a bad-tempered alcoholic and retired studio gaffer who initially snubs the young teen’s appeals, the crusade of forgotten men and women includes a wardrobe assistant named Montana, an art director named Richard, and a near-deaf sound engineer named Speed, all of whom volunteer to work on the Cameron’s short film.
Added to the illustrious group is Mickey Hopkins, a Hollywood screenwriter who, we’re told, helped write Roman Holiday, Foreign Correspondent, and Gone with the Wind, among others; a scene in which Cameron researches the legendary man online reveals he is 97 years old and hasn’t seen a screenplay put to film in more than half a century. And because he was never part of a film crew, he has lived out the twilight of his years in a completely different environment: a small, rat-infested apartment, where the gates of Madden’s home seem pristine compared to the warped and broken chain-link fence surrounding Hopkins’. Strewn about his living room are plates of rotting food now home to an infestation of insects; the furniture is torn, the shades cast a sickly pall over the walls, and all his scripts – his legacy – rest on the top shelf of a closet, their titles etched across the paper edges in thin ink, beside a worn typewriter. When he is first introduced to Cameron, he appears at his front door without a shirt, and the teen is repulsed to find such a revered man ill with lesions; at the same time, Madden greets his old friend with warmth, and over the course of their short reunion convinces Mickey to write “the kid’s” new project, which initially is an uninspired skate-boarding picture.
When Cameron’s film becomes something much more personal, he and Flash seek out financing from Taylor Moss, an Oscar-winning producer from the Robert Evans era of Hollywood filmmaking who lives in a sheltered estate with a young, shapely trophy wife. He is also a bitter enemy, having fallen from contact when he stole Flash’s wife. The animosity between both men is thick and barely concealed behind cordial expressions; while Cameron waits, both men eye one another over patio furniture, Flash sucking the poisons from a rich cigar. When Moss agrees, he’s separating himself from only five thousand dollars while retaining, as we see later, the controlling spite that makes producers so reviled. And so their makeshift film begins.
The Man in the Chair is, more than anything else, about film itself. Cameron is terrorized at school by a film bully—a spoiled, self-important young punk named Brett Raven whose father works for a studio and, without hesitation, agrees to finance his son’s own admissions project; in a scene usually reserved for clichéd hallway threats, Raven slams Cameron against his locker and says, “You may know a lot about old movies, but you know nothing about making one.” Cameron’s home life, compared to Raven’s and even Flash’s, is extremely different. His mother is a kind-hearted divorcee, while his step-father is an abrasive, domineering figure; when, early in the film, they bail Cameron out of jail for stealing a car, they go home and argue while Cameron stares at a poster of DeNiro as Jake La Motta fixed to the ceiling above his bed. Cameron spends away his days at the local theatre watching old classics, which is where Flash – drunk and insulting the actors on-screen – first comes to his attention. “Take the marbles outta your mouth, Orson,” he bellows during Touch of Evil; “How do you expect people to understand your fat ass.” Movies are a refuge for both Cameron, who sees them as an escape from his sad reality, and Flash, who uses them to relive the better days of his life; by creating their own film, they are allowing those fantasies to become real life.
The photography herein ranges from languid and picturesque – still shots of Los Angeles locales – to jagged and hyperkinetic. Images of Flash on a city bus or sitting on a street-corner are made harried and sudden to highlight the old man’s frazzled existence; more often than not, though, the effect comes off as distracting and misguided. Similarly, Schroeder’s screenplay suffers at times from a lack of forethought: Moss watching the finished product on a computer in Cameron’s suburban bedroom, Flash dining with Cameron’s family, both teenager and old man sabotaging Raven’s shoot—all of it seems somewhat unbelievable, though we have to accept it nonetheless. Add to that a flashback to the filming of Citizen Kane, in which a very young Flash is harangued by a poorly impersonated Orson Welles, and you have an attempt at back-story that goes absolutely nowhere and leaves us with a bitter taste.
But Man in the Chair’s success can be found in two performances: Christopher Plummer as Flash and M. Emmet Walsh as Mickey Hopkins. Plummer is not the stoic, clean-shaven powerhouse from better-known films like The Sound of Music and, more recently, A Beautiful Mind and The Insider. His Flash is a walking embodiment of self-destruction; limping, unshaven, and vulgar, he is a vice-hollowed shell who identifies more with caged animals than his fellow Home residents. Walsh’s Mickey, on the other hand, is a kind man; estranged from his daughter, he is sometimes a joyous idealist and other times an unenthusiastic mess; when Flash, in a bout of drunken resentment, barges into his home and denounces him as a talentless shell of his former self, the screenwriter timidly rebuffs him before falling into tears. Later, when Flash stands outside his window in the rain to apologize, Mickey forgives his old friend without second thought; he knows how Flash acts, and has probably lived out this cycle of denounce-and-forgive for years. Even after being ridiculed by his only friend and forgotten by his own industry, Hopkins retains a sense of solidarity in attitude.
In the end, Schroeder’s film argues for purity. When Flash is confronted at the Touch of Evil screening by a college professor who developed and teaches a class in “cinematic morals,” the old man replies, “Now there’s an oxymoron.” At the end, when tragedy intervenes, you can feel the storyline’s few remaining specks of respectability disappear, and the film ends on a very familiar, very saccharine sentiment. This is not a bad film, by far, but for something that has been in development for ten years, it should have been much better.
1 Special Thanks to Madelyn Ritrosky for permission to reprint this information, first provided in her review at www.emol.org. ↩