' ' Cinema Romantico: Who Are You?

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Who Are You?

Little of the trailer for “The Current War” – as in, a war of electricity! – stayed with me aside from the moment when Michael Shannon first strides onscreen, not simply because it was Michael Shannon but because Michael Shannon barks the following line: “I’m George Westinghouse!” I love that. A few years ago a montage of moments in which movie characters saying their respective movie’s title went viral, and Cinema Romantico addressed this equally wonderful phenomenon, but movie characters saying their own name, especially if they are famous, is its own special brand of cinematic artificiality, glimpsed in that god-awful “Tombstone” scene where Wyatt Earp stands in the middle of street and more and more characters keep showing up leading to an endless wave of introductions that is less like watching a movie than being a fly on the wall at a cocktail party.

I snicker a little bit when “Shoeless” Joe Jackson extends his hand and says “Joe Jackson” in “Field of Dreams” because, you know, he’s a ghost, but also because it brings me the same cornball joy as, say, Joseph Fienners introducing himself as “Will Shakespeare” in “Shakespeare in Love” or Errol Flynn introducing himself as “George Armstrong Custer” in “They Died With Their Boots On”; it’s like a human spin on the Eiffel Tower being identified by title.

This is not only why some directors forgo this bugaboo, like Philip Kaufman introducing Chuck Yeager in “The Right Stuff” through myriad reverential utterings of “Yeager”, but why some directors turn character names into an actual joke, like Neil LaBute, one of the biggest laughs in his “Your Friends & Neighbors” coming when the credits roll and you realize the monikers of the movie’s sextet, which you never heard said aloud, are Mary, Barry, Terri, Cheri, Cary, and Jerry; I wonder how Neil LaBute would have introduced George Westinghouse. Likewise, part of the classic Kareem Abdul-Jabbar cameo in “Airplane!” is kind of his own resistance to saying his name on screen; “My name’s Roger Murdock” becomes one of the great subversions of a traditional character introduction in movie history.

Directors sometimes circumvent such exposition by just putting the character’s name right there on the screen, forgoing any forced Hellos, like Steven Spielberg does in his historical dramas. In one way, that’s a pity, because I would have loved to hear Daniel Day-Lewis wearing a stovepipe hat trying to authenticate saying “I’m President Abraham Lincoln.” Of course, Henry Fonda did authenticate it, at least the pre-President part, in “Young Mr. Lincoln” where he just sort of refers to himself as “Abraham Lincoln” as one might say “I like breakfast cereal.”

Fonda manages to drain that moment of any self-consciousness, which I guess is what has always bugged me about introducing myself in real life, where I feel like the whole situation can so easily devolve into Bob Vance on “The Office” shaking hands and saying “Bob Vance, Vance Refrigeration” over and over and over. That’s why Joaquin Phoenix gets the character introduction right in “Walk the Line.” At his first concert, after June Carter has already introduced him by citing his name, the curtain pulls back and he finds himself face to face with the crowd and he says “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” If it’s how the real Johnny Cash often introduced himself at shows, Phoenix gives those words the spin of someone who isn’t sure what he’s supposed to say in this moment, turning the obvious into the whole point of the joke.

That’s what happens in “Without Limits” too, a double introduction for the ages. Steve Prefontaine (Billy Crudup) has just arrived on the Oregon campus to run track for Bill Bowerman (Donald Sutherland) and gets ushered into a little space in an athletic building where Bowerman is measuring runners’ feet in order to construct their racing shoes. For most of this scene, the two men communicate without making eye contact, Bowerman’s eyes at Prefontaine’s foot level. But when Pre calls him “Coach”, Bowerman looks up, and in a gravelly amused un-amusement, says not to call him that, concluding with, “Welcome to the University of Oregon. I’m Bill Bowerman.” “I know,” Pre replies, Crudup reading the line with the kind of off-kilter, supercilious amusement he reads a lot of his lines. Then Pre says: “I’m Steve Prefontaine.” “I know,” Bowerman replies, Sutherland reading the line like his character knows this cocky little shit’s gonna be trouble. It’s the rare character introduction that manages to set up a relationship even as it acknowledges the idiocy of the whole exercise.

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