' ' Cinema Romantico: A Ballad of Movie Whiskey

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

A Ballad of Movie Whiskey

In the recent Best Picture winning “Birdman” there is a moment when at-odds actors Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) and Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) exit the St. James Theater under the auspices of taking a short stroll to get some coffee and hash out their differences. Instead, Mike veers into the bar right next door, explaining “They have coffee here.” Well they do, sure, but you think that's what two bellyaching actors are going to drink while they holler melodramatic bromides at one another? Ha! Without even putting in their order the bartender pours out a pair of shots, as if squabbling actors bellying up to the bar is a regular occurrence, and Riggan and Mike take them up without disagreement. They are, of course, shots of whiskey – Jameson Whiskey, that is, which is a blended Irish whiskey. That would seem to go hand-in-hand with St. Patrick’s Day, the Irish-themed holiday celebrating the patron saint of liquor distribution, as historian Lewis Black has noted. Of course, Jameson’s founder, John Jameson, was Scottish. And these United States have, over the years, become the largest market for Mr. Jameson’s finely-calibrated spirit. While I feel the need to apologize, once again, to Irish people everywhere for so much of the world’s need to co-opt their heritage once a year as an excuse to revel, whiskey is universal.

“The Angel’s Share”, Ken Loach’s heartfelt socio-fable of 2013, hit on this idea, imagining Scotland’s whiskey as collective of its nation’s people, something to which they all were entitled, whatever the price, whatever the quality. But it went one step further in the film’s title, a nod to the wondrous phrase employed to describe the alcohol that evaporates during whiskey’s aging process, suggesting the glorious brown liquor also has communion with the gods. And since the stars of motion pictures are often referred to as our modern day spin on gods, it’s only right that movies commune with whiskey too.

It is a natural tendency of the film de cinema to skew romantic, and so cinematic whiskey is often romanticized, be it Terry and Eadie gently making doe eyes over their boilermakers in “On the Waterfront” or the characters of “Waking Ned Devine” toasting to their deceased friend. It is served with chuckles in “Lost in Translation” when fading movie star Bob Harris (Bill Murray) films a commercial for Suntory Whiskey, making like Frank and Deano as he tries to epitomize cool.

Then again, that scene has a strong undercurrent of sadness. “Suntory time!” recites the commercial director like there's nothing anyone in the whole world would ever want more at any point in their lives more than Suntory. But it only seems to be making Bob miserable. Or maybe that's just because his glass has iced tea instead of whiskey. Yet, when he's drinking at the bar later, gettin' his misanthrope on, he's drinking Suntory. Suntory time looks like time spent in a misanthrope's own company. He’s a sad man in the midst of the traditional mid-life crisis, stuck in a place he doesn’t want to be, and so the whiskey becomes symbolic of his downturn, emotional and professional, shelling for a product he doesn’t even particularly like.

Quite often that’s the way cinematic whiskey is presented, as a misplaced respite. Big Whiskey, the frontier town at the center of Clint Eastwood’s unforgettable “Unforgiven”, embodies this notion, a place where people fled in the hope of something better only to find themselves under the rainy, moody skies and the iron fist of a lawless Sheriff. The residents of Big Whiskey repair to the saloon to drown their sorrows and worries in actual whiskey. What else is there to do?

There's a sequence in another western, Kevin Costner's “Open Range”, where he and free-grazing Robert Duvall come to the town where the disagreeable men who rule it with iron fists don’t want them. Never mind that, Costner and Duvall want some whiskey. The bartender won't serve them. So Costner takes up his shotgun and blows a hole in the wall. Then they get served. The moment that follows is subtle high comedy – a kindly local and his sons drinking with our principal duo right in front of the shot-up reflective glass. Costner presses the kindly local on why they won't do anything about the disagreeable men running the town with iron fists. “You're men, ain't you?” Westerns give off a macho aura, of course, and “Whiskey,” as Sinatra told us in "Some Came Running", “is a man's drink.”

T’is. In “The Getaway” when Ali McGraw asks Steve McQueen, perhaps film’s singular epitomizing of masculinity, what he wants to eat after he’s just been released from a stint in the slammer he replies “Whiskey, whiskey, whiskey, whiskey.” Sgt. Barnes Come At Me, I’m A Man, You’re Little Boys speech in “Platoon” is accompanied by his bottle of Jack Daniels, from which he takes swigs, macho drips of it falling from his chin. The tough lug in “Mad Dog and Glory” played by Mike Starr mixes Chivas into his beloved glasses of milk just to ensure there is no confusion about his credentials.

Not that whiskey is exclusively the domain of men. Sure, everyone knows Marion Ravenwood comes correct, but Nicole Kidman officially becomes one of the boys not so much when she helps a lead a cattle drive through the Never-Never in “Australia” as when she enters the wharf saloon post-cattle drive with Hugh Jackman and is blessed by the grizzled bartender with a shot of whiskey. And remember in “Beautiful Girls” when Uma Thurman wants to do a shot and all the dude dunces standing around drinking crappy beer stumble all over themselves trying to suggest what kind. “Woo-woo's? Melon balls? Num nums?” Uma, taken aback, disgusted and confused, replies: “Whiskey.” Straight up. She says it like she’s drank a lot of whiskey in her time and they agree with her proposal like guys who say they’ve drank a lot of whiskey in their time.

Here’s the point in the story, however, where we must admit that, as with so many vices, the seductiveness of silver screen whiskey can go too far. “It's all wonderfully romantic,” wrote Roger Ebert about the hard drinkers in “A Love Song For Bobby Long”, “especially in the movies, where a little groaning in the morning replaces nausea, headaches, killer hangovers and panic attacks. A realistic portrait of suicidal drinking would contain more terror and confusion. ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ that, and this is a different movie.” “Leaving Las Vegas” did do it. Heaven help me, did it. It painted a soul-crushing portrait of an alcoholic’s last days, and even as it made you care unreservedly about its misfit characters, it never disguised the true issue, never glamorized or softened the hole that an alcoholic is in. Billy Wilder, meanwhile, filmed all those whiskey bottles and shot glasses in his black & white “The Lost Weekend” in such a way as to strip them of any and all tragic beauty; no, those repositories of liquor are just tragic.

It is unfortunate that film often simplifies the sobering-up process, whether it's “28 Days” adding mounds of Hollywood varnish or “Crazy Heart” more or less reducing it to a montage or “Smashed” skipping it altogether. But then maybe that's because this is a subject where the conflicting notions of movies being “escapism” and “important” run head long into one another.  They want to address the most meaningful of subject matter but don't always want to spend their time in the darkest of dark places. Still, cinema knows the damage incurred from falling off the wagon. For my money Ben Affleck has never been a better director then the moment late in “Gone Baby Gone” when Titus Welliver’s character orders three shots of Cutty Sark and proceeds to let twenty-three years of sobriety go by the wayside. It is not frivolous; it counts. Affleck lingers on the moment, letting the toll weigh oh so heavily.

So maybe, as is so often said in terms of drinking, moderation is the key. “The Untouchables” understood this notion, convening to bust Prohibition-era violators because funneling whiskey across the Canadian border was illegal no matter how good it did (or didn’t) taste. Yet there was agent Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith), post-gunfight, a whizzing bullet having sprung a leak in a whiskey barrel, stealing a sip directly from the stream of the illegal good stuff. You can’t fault a man if he indulges his fancy here and there and within reason.

Of course, within reason isn’t how the movies do. “Gimme a whiskey, ginger ale on the side, and don’t be stingy, baby.” That’s how Greta Garbo introduced her voice to the cinema-going world eighty-five years ago, by utilizing “whiskey” as the third word most of the free world ever hear her say and then issuing the order not to be stingy. At the movies you can have as much of anything as you want, baby, and nowhere near enough, which is basically the same, and more or less everyone’s relationship with whiskey. In the words of James McMurtry: “I don't want another drink / I only want that last one again.”

And that brings me to Rick Blaine sitting in his own gin joint in the night’s wee hours with a glass and a bottle of whiskey simultaneously drowning his sorrows and keeping hope alive that his long-gone beloved, Ilsa Lund, might just return. It’s the quintessential cinematic whiskey scene, of course, and it is because it captures cinema's remarkable duality, that place where allure and melancholy collide with immense finesse. It goes down smooth. It goes down harsh.

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