Fool for Love
In 1985, Sam Shepard was fast approaching a bizarre kind of stardom: the Pulitzer Prize-winner as rugged sex symbol. Though he'd been busily revitalizing American theater for the most of the previous two decades, Hollywood had finally discovered, or won over, Shepard, and anointed him the last great cowboy; this bestowal bolstered by a Time magazine cover. He was convincingly iconic as Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff and penned a (typically) brilliantly elusive script for Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas, but how this was supposed to translate into Hollywood superstardom was something not even the enigma at the center of this hype-storm had likely considered. Still, Shepard was game enough to take on the leading role of Eddie in Robert Altman's film adaptation of the actor/writer's Fool for Love (1985). The play had just finished its inaugural stage run directed by Shepard, and starring Ed Harris and Kathy Baker and it dealt with most of the writer's standard preoccupations: familial strife, the subjectivity of personal history and, of course, the curse of traditional manhood. Eddie is a Hollywood stuntman who's tracked down his stray lover, May (Kim Basinger), at a ramshackle roadside motel in the desert southwest where she's been hiding out in hopes of avoiding him altogether. Opening up the play to include not just a motel room, but its adjacent dusty courtyard and diner, Shepard also gives himself what would've been one hell of a stage entrance, literally crashing back into May's life by propelling himself through her front door. Once face-to-face, the two resume their quarrelsome relationship, which has been irrevocably fractured due to Eddie's perpetual macho posturing and presumed infidelity. While Eddie denies that he's been stepping out on May, he does nothing to assuage her misgivings about his rowdy behavior. In fact, he seems to be ratcheting up his bad boy act to new, incendiary heights, hurling glasses, charging May on one of his horses, and lassoing a jukebox. Eddie is partially incensed by May's revelation that she's waiting on a "man," and a large portion of the story's tension is tied up in whether this "man" will show up. When he does arrive in the rather non-threatening person of Martin (Randy Quaid), Shepard strangely sabotages the tale's forward momentum and shifts his focus to Eddie and May's shared history, which reaches back into childhood and dovetails incestuously. Laconically watching this dysfunctional melodrama is the unnamed "Old Man" (Harry Dean Stanton), who slowly transforms from spectator to active participant to, finally, devil. What is, in a good production, bracing and captivating on stage, is resoundingly flat on screen. Altman, who, at the time, was stumbling somnambulant through the '80s, filming unimaginatively expanded adaptations of popular plays, deserves a fair share of the blame for this failure, but it's Shepard who's the real culprit here. It's no coincidence that his plays have yet to be successively transferred from the stage; at their best, they're LSD-tinged documents of human transgression meant to be performed and witnessed live. Buried Child, Tooth of Crime, Cowboy Mouth all of these works are punk rock voyages to the tortured center of post-Vietnam America's tainted soul. The audience is meant to be provoked by Shepard's relentlessly accusatory dialogue, and that doesn't often translate to what is a purely visual medium. Still, Altman exacerbates these inherent difficulties by muddying Shepard's poetry with his trademark overlapping dialogue. He also allows the camera to drift away from the drama's primary players and linger on the motel's other denizens. There's a very clear thematic justification for this, but the whole appeal of Shepard's writing lies in its wild imprecision, and Altman doesn't seem attuned to it. Fortunately for the director, he survived this minor disaster, rebounding several years later with his HBO series Tanner '88. Shepard, on the other hand, hasn't written a decent play since, and that is a tremendous loss. MGM presents Fool for Love in a decent anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with mostly solid Dolby Digital 2.0 audio (dialogue does get lost here and there, but that's probably a limitation of Altman's sound recording). Extras include a candid interview with Altman (20 min.), as well as text of his Director's Statement written at the time of the film's release. Theatrical trailer, keep-case.
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