No Concessions: Seventies Highs — “Pineapple Express,” “Man on Wire,” and Patti Smith

Written by No Concessions

If I ever run for office, and someone asks the drug-use question, I can honestly say I didn’t inhale. While pop-music critics are a Dionysian lot, snorting coke off groupies’ breasts, film critics are prim, fussbudget types. There were a lot of people laughing at the stoner humor in Pineapple Express. Me, I rolled my own. My bliss started with the opening credits: The film is a Columbia release, and to get the ’70s vibe under way, the opening credits are in the same exact font the studio used for its comedies in the shag-carpet days. “Man, this is gonna be some good shit,” I thought.

And I was right. There is some good shit in Pineapple Express. But there’s some bad shit too. Plus some bat shit toward the end, though the best shit comes after the bad shit, when three of its characters are just sort of chewing the fat the morning after some heavy shit has gone down.

The film comes to us from producer Judd Apatow, whose modest mom-and-pop comedy outfit became a factory after last summer’s Knocked Up and Superbad, both of which were $100 million hits, now churning out new yuks every quarter. Pineapple Express‘s star, Seth Rogen, cowrote the script, which I suspect was merely a list of suggestions as he and James Franco, tending to his long-dormant funny bone, headed to the set and started making shit up. The best scenes in the movie, which pit Rogen’s maturity-challenged process server and Franco’s puppyish pot dealer against a bunch of heavies looking for some really great shit cultivated by the government, have the smell of improvisation to them.

Really, it’s the actors who are the shit in this one. (I blame my potty mouth on them, the way they talk all this shit in the movie.) Rogen looks a little trimmer here, which is a relief; no one under 30 should consciously resemble Burl Ives at 50. He’s much more relaxed hanging with his Freaks and Geeks bud Franco than with Katherine Heigl, his Knocked Up co star, or with the high school chick in this movie — unions unlikely to happen outside of these flicks. Rogen’s Dale is the nominal straight man in the story, and he pulls it off, suggesting he can play someone or something other than Seth Rogen. (The Green Hornet, though, is a stretch, unless a full-body makeover is in store for the character Rogen’s signed on to play.)

Franco has the wilder part, which he wisely underplays. I get a kick out of Cheech and Chong in Up in Smoke, but usually serious actors like Jeff Bridges, Sean Penn, and Brad Pitt (oh, and Michael Caine in Children of Men) make the best stoners — they know how to judge their intake. I’m not sure I’d call Franco a “serious” actor; in fact, outside of his credible James Dean for a 2001 TV movie, I’m not sure I’d call him an actor at all — he was human vapor in the Spider-Man movies and made little impression in lesser flops.

But his Saul, who deals to keep his bubbe in a nursing home, is a crying-on-the-inside dude who blankets his feelings in a purple haze. With his striped pajama bottoms, he’s a bigger kid than Dale, who’s trying to adapt to the life of a working stiff but can’t quite throw off the likes of Saul, a sweet-natured felon who just wants a friend. They get a nice back-and-forth rhythm going, but they aren’t the entire show: Danny McBride is hilariously far gone as Red, a bulletproof associate of Saul’s, and in smaller parts I got a little buzz off Craig Robinson, as Matheson, a put-upon henchman, and Cleo King, as an overly enthusiastic police liaison officer at a school where the good guys deal for emergency cash.

What director David Gordon Green brought to the party is unclear other than his talented cinematographer Tim Orr and the notion to make a buddy picture like 1974’s The Gravy Train, scripted under a pseudonym by his favorite writer-director, the revered Terrence Malick. Green showed that knockabout obscurity at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last month, and I can see what excited him: the comedy and action scenes are very well-staged by the director, B-picture ace Jack Starrett. But Green, an earnest, righteous dude and a favorite on the indie art-house circuit thanks to films like George Washington (2000) and Snow Angels (2007), has little facility with the mechanics. A comical fight staged for laughs and a car chase are amusingly handled, but the finale is shit, and not the good kind. For one thing, there’s too much blood and guts for something so amiable; for another, it’s more a satire of action-movie cliches than anything organic to the picture. It ruins the karma.

If Green is really serious about remaking Dario Argento’s unremakable Suspiria, then I will have to get into his shit, but for now I’ll lay off. All in all I prefer the mellower aroma of The Wackness. But Pineapple Express, a movie of moments, is a cheap high for a Saturday night.

Few guys ever got as high in the ’70s as Philippe Petit. His wire-walk across the Twin Towers, 34 years ago yesterday, was my first “Neil Armstrong moment.” I had just turned four when Armstrong made his one small step for man, and my first-hand memory of the event is indistinct. But this Tri-State tyke remembers Petit’s feat as if it were 34 days ago. The TV and newspaper coverage was awestruck, and the snaps of Petit doing his act 1,350’ above the ground dazzled. It’s one of the few really joyous “what were you doing the day that happened?” events I can recall.

The uplift it brought provided some comfort that other, infamous day, some 27 years later. Ken Burns used Petit’s act to cap his New York documentary. The World Trade Center, a skyscraping dud criticized for its brutal, unlovely architecture, became unexpectedly magical, thanks to the delicacy of Petit’s boundless risk-taking. A flop became pop, and it was those frolicsome images that a generation drew on as the towers, immortalized for their role in an urban circus act, fell to earth.

Man on Wire isn’t about the events of 2001, or 1993, except by inference. It focuses on that single morning in 1974. Petit, a benign anarchist, and his team of like-minded eccentrics did have to gain illegal entry into the buildings, and got one ton of equipment up to the top from under the noses of security guards. It was an infiltration. Fortunately, his intent was…well, the documentary, and its subject, leave that blank for you to fill in. “There was no why,” he insists. It was a happening, much like Petit’s earlier wire-walks across Notre Dame in Paris and Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia. Petit had read of plans to build the world’s tallest towers in New York while cooling his heels in a dentist’s office in 1968, and bolted before his treatment, so instantly transported he was by the notion of one day walking across them. The persistent toothache was worth it; an idea—the idea—had been hatched.

If documentarians handed out grades to their subjects, surely James Marsh, the director of Man on Wire, would give Petit an A. He documented everything of his adventures, and kept it all. This is their posterity. But Marsh goes farther, with pulse-quickening reenactments of the day’s events, which answer some of the questions I had. I figured the installation of the tightrope had to involve archery, though it seemed to far-fetched and James Bondian. But so it did, and the improbable bow-and-arrow work makes for one of the film’s most exciting sequences. The whole of the tower caper, scored to a selection of Michael Nyman’s nervously energetic themes from films like The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, is an anxious setpiece to rival the robbery in a classic like Rififi, and Petit and his cohorts do a terrific job guiding us through Marsh’s recreations.

The wirewalk was a triumph, one that brought tears of happiness to my eyes to witness again. The police, whom he gently taunted in mid-air, captured him, and he was briefly jailed. (The charge: “Man on Wire.”) The otherwise joyous film ends wistfully, with a dying fall: Petit’s first act was to have sex with the first woman who volunteered (it was the ’70s), which did not sit well with his then-muse and companion, Annie Allix. Other losses of innocence surely followed: Petit, instantly famous, could not really surprise the world in the same way anymore. Just as the film refrains from fast-forwarding to 9/11, so, too, is it discreet about what came afterwards. It was the right decision. The film leaves us as it leaves Petit, at the top of the world.

Patti Smith has successfully resisted documentary with Dream of Life, an 11-year labor of love for Spin photographer-turned-director Steven Sebring that focuses mainly on that period of gestation, with sidelong glances to the past that are present-tense and matter of fact. At the outset, Smith explains the trajectory of her life, and she and Sebring, following unobtrusively with a camera and a mic, take us to those places. New York is a touchstone (the movie has debuted at New York’s Film Forum, not far from her home) but we everywhere, from Japan to Paris, to Israel and New Zealand. The film is suffused with the spirits of the dead—Smith shows the camera the ashes of her late husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith, in a particularly candid moment—but it isn’t a downer. Touchstone figures like Allen Ginsberg and Robert Mapplethorpe still inform her life and work, and nostalgia is fleeting, practically non-existent. Her story continues.

The film is impressionistic to perhaps a fault. When Smith lets loose her punker’s yowl, it’s almost a surprise: The little gamin figure we see, fussing with her children (who grow up or down, depending on where we are in the loosely indicated timeframe) and noodling on a guitar with Sam Shepard one afternoon, doesn’t seem to have it in her. Man on Wire marshals all the tools of documentary and docudrama; Dream of Life dispenses with them. Hers is the only voiceover; there are no talking heads, or testimonials, or much in the way of context, except what she gives us. Protesting Bush on the eve of the Iraq War, in her late 50s, she appears to accept figurehead status. We don’t much from her on the topic of growing old as a rocker—most of what she shares is about the people who inspired her—but that is what it is, just part of the ride. (When she and Flea recount favorite peeing stories while on the road, the movie climbs aboard the pineapple express for a couple of minutes, then resumes its course.)

Patti Smith: Dream of Life is so modest about the life I was impatient after a few minutes, wanting more CBGB-era grit and funk, more wildness. The footage, and the way it has been edited, reflects the pensive, searching side of the so-called “punk priestess.” But the stillness, broken up by the occasional lightning strike when the punker reasserts herself, communicates its own authority. Part of her will always be the ’70s, but no way in hell is she ready to be someone’s cultural artifact, observed under glass.

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