King Of The Hill
(available via Netflix Instant)
With Steven Soderbergh preparing a recut Kafka for release, 1993’s King Of The Hill has the unlucky distinction of being the only one of Soderbergh’s 25 features not available on DVD. (That’s not counting The Last Time I Saw Michael Gregg, which he shot with the cast of a play he was directing in Australia, and never intended for release.) Its absence is all the more puzzling given that it exists in a nice-looking transfer available through Netflix Instant.
King Of The Hill is adapted from a Depression-era memoir by A.E. Hotchner. It stars Jesse Bradford as Aaron, a determined but perpetually out-of-place boy who’s eventually left on his own as his father (Jeroen Krabbé), mother (Lisa Eichorn), and younger brother (Cameron Boyd) are forced to leave. But it isn’t a memory movie, filtered through the haze of the intervening decades, nor is it a dusty, rough-hewn chronicle of childhood deprivation. It occupies its own territory—or rather, territories, as Soderbergh never weds himself to a single approach.
The movie starts out in relatively lighthearted fashion, with Aaron reading his class an essay about his close personal friendship with Charles Lindbergh—the first of what turn out to be many fabrications. He lies about his family’s residence in a decaying hotel, and about his father’s profession, transforming him from an unlucky door-to-door salesman to a government spy. And eventually, he lies to himself, fixing a meal of magazine cutouts when there’s no food left to eat.
Soderbergh is hardly the first to present fantasy as a survival mechanism: It’s how Brazil’s bureaucrat escapes the drudgery of his colorless existence, and how Kiss Of The Spider Woman’s South American prisoners think beyond the bars of their cell. But Soderbergh doesn’t indulge Aaron’s fabrications, which at one point result in him fleeing from a wealthy classmate’s party when the various stories he’s spun finally bump up against one another. The movie’s saturated colors, which sometimes look as if they’ve been filmed through a sheet of burnt-orange syrup, are less akin to the purposeful shadings of Traffic than the stylistic dead end of The Underneath, whose fussy airlessness drove Soderbergh toward the scorched-earth rebirth of Schizopolis.
Eventually, after his dad takes a job selling watches on the road, his mother enters a sanitarium (apparently to be treated for tuberculosis), and his brother is sent away to ease the family’s financial burden, Aaron is left alone in the hotel. His father’s haphazard plans to provide for his son in his absence, using sample watches to pay down the family’s hotel bill and secure the boy free meals at a nearby restaurant, quickly fall through, threatening Aaron with life in a shantytown of the sort he’s thus far only glimpsed from the window of a moving train. Even his neighbors, including Amber Benson as an epileptic girl and Spalding Gray as a man running out the last vestiges of his former wealth, disappear one by one. Yet the movie is so focused on his physical privation that it doesn’t take full stock of his isolation, the stark loneliness of being the last holdout on an otherwise-unoccupied hotel floor. There’s a sense in which King Of The Hill is too beautiful to fully take stock of the horrors, real and threatened, of Aaron’s life—compare the way Soderbergh shoots a corpse on the floor here, elegantly lit and discreetly posed, with the blood-drenched cadaver in Side Effects. But that beauty is also what makes King Of The Hill bearable, allowing viewers to survive the way its protagonist does.
Pennies From Heaven
(Available via Warner Archive Instant and digital rental/purchase from Amazon and iTunes. The out-of-print DVD can be rented from Netflix.)
Fantasy and a longing for company are also at the core of Pennies From Heaven, part of a growing list of high-definition titles added to Warner Archive Instant. (The HD version, which looks roughly on par with the out-of-print DVD, is available only via Warner’s Roku channel.) But the movie’s fantasies are booby-trapped, leading dreamers to darker places than the ones they tried to escape.
With the 1978 BBC miniseries on which Pennies was based, writer Dennis Potter found the perfect means to explore his acidic view of the gulf between the way people present themselves and the way they really are. Potter’s hero (in the Greek sense) is Arthur Parker—played by Bob Hoskins in the series, Steve Martin onscreen—a Depression-era song-plugger who hawks sheet music for a living. He’s convinced he has an ear for a prospective hit, but the shopkeepers he hits up are deaf to his genius, so he retreats into the world of the songs themselves, mouthing the words of crackling 78s as he drifts into reverie. Arthur isn’t just a dreamer, though. He’s also a lech who, spurned by his frigid wife, takes an unwholesome, eventually ruinous interest in a young schoolteacher.
On the surface, the songs Potter chooses are all hearts and flowers, but there are treacherous currents just beneath—or at least he makes it seem like there are. There are many differences between the British series and the Hollywood feature, directed by Herbert Ross and adapted by Potter himself, but the most pronounced is their repertoire. The two versions have many songs in common, but Ross’ bigger, more glamorous take focuses uniformly on upbeat American songs and leaves out the ghostly sounds of British music-hall regulars like Lew Stone and Al Bowlly. (Not even “Roll Along Prairie Moon,” the song Arthur sees as his ticket to success, survives.)
In moving from the U.K. to the U.S., Ross and Potter transplant the action to the land where dreams were made. Originally released by MGM, the film serves, among other things, as a kind of valedictory tribute to the golden age of American movie musicals, especially of the glittery Metro variety. (Christopher Walken, who stops the show with an astonishing dance number, dubbed his taps on the same patch of parquet floor once used by Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly.) MGM musicals were where Depression audiences went to escape, to bask in the glow of ersatz luxury and forget the desolation outside the cinema doors. In Pennies From Heaven, though, that desolation is never far away.
As befits the film’s lineage, Ross stages some of the songs as full-fledged production numbers, explicitly evoking the chorus-girl rosettes of Busby Berkeley spectaculars. Vernel Bagneris’ penniless beggar hungrily wolfs up the meal Arthur buys him out of pity, then eyes the scraps on Arthur’s plate, but when he lip-synchs Arthur Tracy’s mournful version of the title song, he’s transformed from a ragged, shambling hulk to a lithe free spirit, his body undulating as copper-colored sequins rain from the ceiling. But when the song ends, he’s back to where, and what, he was, his prospects no brighter than before. Songs contain dreams, but dreams can be cruel.
Arthur’s dreams can be ugly, too, and they’re uniformly self-involved, riffs on what musical writers call the “I Want” song. He wants Bernadette Peters’ naïve, sexually susceptible schoolteacher, so he seduces her. Then, he abandons her; later, he tries to win her back. He doesn’t think of himself as a bad guy, just a frustrated one; if only he could catch a break, he’d have it made. But he’s unequipped to deal with life when the songs end, not willing to do what it takes to make life sing.
It’s inherent in Potter’s concept that Arthur not be who he imagines himself to be, so the fact that Martin looks like a third-string chorus girl abruptly thrust into the spotlight makes sense. But Ross’ grand designs don’t have room for irony. Putting Steve Martin into a black-and-white re-creation of a Fred Astaire musical number is hard enough, but throwing Fred and Ginger up on a theater screen while a comparatively tiny Martin and Peters dance the same steps at their feet is just cruel. They no longer look like dreamers, but pretenders.
Pennies From Heaven’s most potent moments are the solos danced by Bagneris and Walken, the latter to Cole Porter’s “Let’s Misbehave.” As a sleazy gangster tempting Peters into sin, Walken has a wolfish grin and a snaky sinuousness. He’s building character through song and dance, not merely playing along. It’s breathtaking, and one of too few times when Pennies reminds viewers what musicals can really do. The rest of the time, Arthur’s just playing along, trying to learn the steps to a dance he’ll never master.