Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Rhymes with 'frighten'

After it was reported last week that Michael Crichton had passed away at the age of 66, there was a good deal of online chatting about his novels and films, with the same three or four -- THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, WESTWORLD, COMA, JURASSIC PARK -- cited as examples of perfectly constructed techno-thrillers. Ignored as usual, even by the most devoted Crichton fans, was EXTREME CLOSE-UP, his one and only perfectly deconstructed techno-thriller. If you’re one of the folks who believes that he was a great idea man who shoehorned too many of those ideas and far too much research into formulaic genre product, then this is the Michael Crichton movie for you. The setup couldn’t be simpler: TV news reporter John Norman (played by James McMullan, also seen in Crichton's TV movie PURSUIT and later the star of the short-lived BEYOND WESTWORLD series), doing a week-long special investigation on snooping entitled “Privacy: The Vanishing American Privilege,” quickly becomes a snooper himself, obsessed with the same surveillance technology he’s supposed to be condemning. With ninety-nine movies out of a hundred, the next sentence of the pitch would begin “When he accidentally witnesses a [fill in the blank],” but this is the one that never does what’s expected of it. There are at least half a dozen instances where Crichton and director Jeannot Szwarc lead us right up to the doorways of familiar genre convention, only to slam the doors closed in our faces. A nod to REAR WINDOW in the first 10 minutes is so obvious that it nearly gives away the joke. Later, when Norman spies on a sunbathing woman through a telephoto lens, I was so sure I was seeing the opening of DIRTY HARRY -- and hearing it, too (Basil Poledouris really nails Schifrin here) -- that I half expected Norman to put a bullet in her. Oh, right, it's just a camera. But get this: when he goes back the next day to spy on her again, he brings a sniper rifle with him! As he struggles with the knobs on an audio device, straining to hear the woman's telephone conversation, Poledouris’ score mimics the feedback and distortion. I especially like it when Norman ditches his cameraman (James A. Watson, Jr.) so he can sneak away to do something really creepy and stalkerish…but then he looks directly into the camera to deliver his on-air copy to us, as if his sick behavior is all part of his investigative report! He even has the nerve to light up a cigar while peering through his snooper scopes (if that cigar really is a cigar, then John Norman may as well be Sam Fuller). It makes total sense that EXTREME CLOSE-UP would come on the heels of TARGETS, MEDIUM COOL and HI, MOM! but pre-date THE PARALLAX VIEW and THE CONVERSATION. This thing could only have been made in 1972.

Not content with just being a sly movie about making movies, EXTREME CLOSE-UP offers a whole other level of study within its comments on privacy rights. Everything in this film seems like an intrusion of some kind, from the television commercials that play in the background (“Let’s peek in for a moment on the private life of this ordinary sinus sufferer…”) and the unpleasant Leone-like close-ups of mouths chewing food to the tender kiss on the neck that Norman gives his wife and the outburst from their child a moment later. When a councilman with legislative experience in privacy issues is interviewed on TV, there’s a huge poster of a grinning Richard Nixon on the wall behind him. The time we spend alone with Norman, observing his fetishistic treatment of assorted photographic accesories, becomes increasingly unpleasant as we see him getting more and more turned on by his activities. His obscenely long camera lens juts out from an open car window as he spies on a sexy nurse undressing in her bedroom; his sweaty face twitches, his fist clenches the tripod handle, and the directional microphone gets longer as he watches a nude sunbather being massaged by her lover. Stressed to the point where he’s suffering from substernal pain, Norman is instructed by his doctor to “watch the coffee and cigarettes," a setup for a nice visual payoff later on; when a private detective who specializes in divorce cases and industrial “fact finding” is interviewed for the program with a cigarette and a cup of coffee in the same hand, it’s hard not to imagine him as an older, burned-out version of Norman (“Do you enjoy your work?” Norman asks him. “Not particularly,” the detective shrugs, “I just got into it is all.”).

A failure when released in 1973, and a schlockmeister’s confidence game when it returned four years later as SEX THROUGH A WINDOW (it would also hit videocassette and late-night TV under this title in the 1980s), EXTREME CLOSE-UP is an intriguing item that constantly catches us off-guard by refusing to play by the rules. The end result is another uncomfortable viewing experience, from that incredibly fertile period in which all of the most challenging American films -- dozens ranging from DELIVERANCE and LITTLE MURDERS to THE PAPER CHASE and THE HEARTBREAK KID -- provide uncomfortable viewing experiences. It’s just a shame that when this one finally joins the others on DVD someday, Crichton won’t be around to provide an interview or audio commentary.

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