MY CHUM, JANE LILEE,
Being as it’s coming up on the anniversary of our meeting, I thought I’d check in with you, and maybe get points for remembering the occasion. Is that cheesy?
Since your appreciation of my film writing was one of our starting points (flattery will get you … your own article, apparently; and you know I feel the same about you), I thought I’d mark the event by looking at one of the movies off your favorites list. It was a film I remember seeing when it was current but had lost track of (but not forgotten) in the thirty-some years since – which makes sense; but I’ll get to that. I was surprised you were even aware of it; it wasn’t one of the bigger ones of its year (I think I even caught it at the Cleveland Cinematheque, off its original run), neither of its stars ever caught fire, and Alan Rudolph still isn’t high on anybody’s list of directors waiting for the times to catch up with them. Sometimes things just stick with you without your knowing why or even that they have, and the smart ones know to go with those intuitive calls. Plus, it was made around 1986, the year you were born, so I should get points for this being a birthday present, too.
I can see why you’d like Made in Heaven. It’s quirky. It’s romantical. It sets its own rules. It’s not bound to any set time. It’s unapologetically new-agey, right down to New Age icon Mark Isham’s new-agey score. It’s kind of lost. It’s utterly without axes to grind. And I think at its heart it’s missing something. What is it missing? A way of pulling itself together, for one – which (to its credit?) is part of the point. The movie is all about need. You get the feeling it needs someone more than we need it, and there’s something endearing in that.
If there’s a single term you could use to describe most Rudolphs of the time, that would be ingratiating. Let’s play with that word for a minute.
You’d have to be an ingrate to say it’s not too far from grating; nicer to point out that it rhymes with satiating. There’s no question it’s an anagram for “a G rating in it,” which is true, besides: the film was rated PG. (Igniting a rat and Giant ant ring are total blind alleys, though.) It’s a distant cousin to gracious. Maybe the surest thing you could say is that it wants you to think of the word great, which Rudolph-the-original-Altman-protégé might have been going for; more likely so with several of his other works. (I might argue for 1984’s Choose Me as being right up there; it certainly gets my vote for most romantic ever.) It absolutely wants to be liked – it was Rudolph’s first real studio picture, coming in the middle of the Love Me decade, and acts like it expected to make a load of money and more than one person’s reputation, taking several cues as it does from Warren Beatty’s Heaven Can Wait from a decade before. Is that an argument for or against it?
You know the story, but let me recap it anyway so we’re on the same page. Smalltown WWII vet Mike Shea has trouble settling into a groove; just as he proposes moving to California with girlfriend Brenda she dumps him for her more established boss, so he lights out on his own, on the way stopping to rescue a drowning family and drowning himself in the process. In heaven, he meets and falls for piano-playing afterlife coach Annie Packert, only to be parted when she gets incarnated and he has to wait for his own return to earth before they can be together again, making a deal with androgynous angel Emmet that he has 30 years to find her again, without benefit of remembering ever meeting. Reborn as fatherless Elmo, he lights out again to pursue his dream, taking a detour of duty in the Army till starting over as a hippie-type living out of his car while Annie, now Allie Chandler, assumes her vet-dad’s toymaking business (after a sideline writing the Tom Robbins-y The Care and Feeding of Mike) and drifts from divorce to unfulfilling romance. Eventually he realizes his dream of recording a song and, after a series of near-misses, spies Allie on an LA sidewalk and they lock eyes, presumably consummating their romance in the skies.
I wonder if one of the reasons you like the movie has to do with timing, since like I say it was conceived around the same time you were. (The poster’s baby art reminds us that the movie has a lot to do with the accident – or felicity – of birth; of coming into the world.) Do you think it has something to tell you about the soil you grew out of – the reason I’m so intrigued by my fifties movies? People joke about what a fabulous era it was – that hair! the neon! those shoulder pads! – so I guess that makes sense. Fabulous is as fabulous was. There was a darker side, too, but we can talk about that later. There’s that photo of you on your first birthday being read to by Robert Bly, dated 1987, years before I got into him (points: you); no one would be able to tell the decade it was taken from the way anyone is attired, so you might have escaped some of the ignominy visited on the rest of us (points again). Is that another reason you’re drawn to so many films of the era: to reclaim something you think you’d lost or missed? I won’t say it wasn’t anything, but I’m not sure what it could have been, either. I think about those 30 years – from Mike meeting Annie to Elmo meeting Allie; from my seeing the movie to my seeing the movie; the span between you and me – and I have to assume there’s something for me there, too; something about re/generation/s.
The ’80s were my twenties, out of school and just beginning my (brilliant?) career. Which meant repairing some of the breaches between me and my dad that had left me feeling like a fuckup and a disappointment; hence my voting Republican twice in a row. (Oops – I said I wasn’t going to get into that part so quickly.) I wasn’t alone in wanting to conform in those years. Wasn’t it then that Lou Reed married a straight-up woman and started singing about respecting, rather than punching, them? Davids Bowie, Lynch, and Byrne all went mainstream too; I heard even “Glad to Be Gay” Tom Robinson married and started a family. It was a time of universal squaring with the tumult of the ’60s and ’70s, and even if I went along for the ride at least I had the sense or instinct to keep enough friends in low places to not forget where I came from so I could eventually return to my soul when one of them came writing a letter from the pits of New York motherhood to kick my ass back into writing trim. (Thanks, Krystie. And you’re right: that movie Richard Price wrote about you in ’89 was unfair.)
Partly I know I’m projecting some of my feeling about the era back, which may not be fair to Rudolph’s film. I respect your taste implicitly, so bear with me as I work out some of my negative responses, and wait for the uplift you gotta know is coming.
I’m guessing Rudolph threw himself into this project as naïvely as I did myself into the professional world, possibly thinking he could transform Hollywood more than it would transform him; there’s never a sense of hate-directing, as there is in some of, say, Francis Ford Coppola’s later studio assignments. Rudolph’s first film, Premonition, is difficult to see, but it sounds as weightless and strange as his mature work. I remember being impressed by Remember My Name when I caught it on repertory in the early ’80s, but couldn’t tell you another thing about it. (Richard Brody called it “a quiet revolution in storytelling” on a more recent rep screening, so it must have had something.) He’s one of those types whose every film – the personal ones, at least – are a universe unto themselves. He populated this universe with mostly third-string Hollywood, starting with himself as the son of mostly-TV director Oscar Rudolph, whose 1954 feature Rocket Man had its own built-in quirk factor c/o Lenny Bruce’s script; frequent producer David Blocker was the son of TV’s Hoss, Dan; Keith Carradine – who I want to play me in my film bio – son of A-Z star John; lucky-charm John Considine the ultimate plaintoast Where Have I Seen That Guy Before; Geraldine Chaplin was the most notable, though even her dad Charlie had had a decidedly speckled career post-silents. The cameos he peppered his casts with weren’t the fellow directors of a John Landis (or satellite film-culture notables of a Henry Jaglom), but pop stars and cult authors the likes of Toms Petty and Robbins, not to mention oddball choices for suave gangsters Neil Young … and … Divine. For a director with such dedication to a singular vision, it’s baffling why he would so often yoke that vision to mediocrities like Richard Baskin and Teddy Pendergrass, whose instantly forgettable songs he splayed across Welcome to L.A. (the blueprint for TV’s “thirtysomething” and its smug Michael Feinstein choruses) and Choose Me as if they were Carradine’s incisive contributions to Altman’s Nashville. You can only chalk it up to an outsider’s idea of what was mainstream and let it go.
That leads to part of my problem with Made. We never talked about the song its hero spends the bulk of the film trying to realize; I wonder what you think of it. For me, the difference between the soundtrack take on Young’s “We Never Danced” and his own version on 1987’s Life is the difference between the ’80s in general and anything else ever. Honey-throated Martha Davis of The Motels brings out every trite aspect of the lyric while smothering the melody in a padded-shoulder suit of saccharine. Young’s take – basically a rewrite of his own “Like a Hurricane,” whose savage transcendentalism was unrepeatable in any form – in its vocal reediness and slightly unmoored sonics keeps the composition a foot off the ground where it needs to be, teasing out the ambiguities in its clichés Davis’s big voice couldn’t possibly discover. I know I’m being hard on it and you are always so forgiving; so forgive me. It’s such an important part of the picture, and it breaks my heart it doesn’t break my heart. (And I love having my heart broken.) Yet it’s the one thing, the unknown kernel of heaven, like his sense impression of Annie, that pulls Elmo across the country, as across time and dimensions (the melody is even buried in his cacophonic little-boy banging on the toy piano), to seek Allie and not be content till he’s found her.
Which brings me to what I love about the film, what stayed with me through all these years, and what I love about Rudolph. If you’re looking to have your heart broken, you want to see as many films of his as you can: so much to admire, from the set design with the great murals backgrounding the action like the gods hovering over their earthly incarnations (his movies breathe a rarefied air) to the actors having a field day playing offbeat, and the sense that you’ll at no time have any idea where they’re going next, but also almost never living up to the expectations they raise. (Remember me saying how I hated being put on a pedestal, because it ensures my fall? Have I fallen yet, in your estimation?) But that never keeps me from seeing another. The biggest thing this one has for me is the ending, in the sense that there is none: We assume the lovers will meet and realize their decades-long yearning, but that isn’t handed to us Hollywood-style. (He saved the best for last!) Once their eyes lock, the film drifts into a reverie of the two finally dancing, but it’s a reprise of an earlier shared dream and not necessarily verity. A film about longing can’t resolve itself, and to this Rudolph remains true. It’s the perspective I want to maintain for the rest of our conversation.
But first, a tangent, having to do with the first kiss I shared with a particular lover. We were at a place, incredibly, where two streams met, both terrified of our feelings, till a gust of air came up that drew our heads together. We met in the wind. Rudolph’s lovers meet in a window. Heaven.
Or, maybe not there, exactly: maybe it was earlier, when Mike’s girlfriend abandoned him for her beauty-parlor boss – when he realized the world of commerce and appearances wasn’t for him. (Another window.) Of course, this came to light when he told her his California-Dreaming plans for more vivid life outside their small-town dreams, so the window – heaven – was inside him all the while. When he dies (Brian Cleary says when God closes a door, He opens a manhole) and goes there, down inside, it’s so he can inhabit that vague notion in order to give it a face. And that face is Annie’s. She is his window, his (dame in) heaven, his sense of lived life before it’s even lived. Heaven is potential; where ideals are formed.
So let’s spend a little time in heaven. The first place Mike finds himself there, after the big antechamber-womb he shows up naked in, is Aunt Lisa’s painting studio, cluttered and with a view to a succession of European vistas: it’s the incubator of art. Every other interior is a similarly creative space, from the living room he finds Annie playing piano in to the bustling school she shows him around, alive with junior classical performers and a roomful of strange boxes with keyboards that foretell a technological heaven-to-be. (Right? Right? Heaven is the future … until it happens.) There’s the sense from all this, especially in the communal hubbub around their wedding, that paradise for Rudolph was watching Altman on set. Outside is a smalltown MAGA nirvana of town square and bucolic park pond with the Shea house just down the way. Precisely what he was trying to escape from.
He stumbles on Annie while looking for a war buddy: he meets the creative, feminine future while looking for the embattled, masculine past. She’s his guide toward remaking the masculine ego, offspring of Mike’s generation of men, in the ’80s-Man ’80s. (When deciding on a color for the house he’s built for Annie in heaven, he settles on pink.) Mike finds her at the piano, so she’s music to him. Of course, since this music is also the way he finally finds her in life, what he’s looking for communion with is essences more than things or beings, with the same impulse he feels to always be moving forward, forever striving, forever unsatisfied. (You can see why Rudolph exhausted himself after another fifteen years of this and had to take an as-long break before returning to moviemaking in 2017. Another 30-year span, need I note.) In accordance with the time, the film is almost willfully naïve about the process Mike-now-Elmo takes in realizing his song – which he needs collaborators to achieve, like Rudolph his films, because – here’s where he departs from Altman – the process isn’t even the point; it’s the music. The rest is details. When he sees Annie again in her Allie suit, there’s no resolution possible, because she is the embodiment of his need – not a need for anything in particular; just need. It’s against my principles to project a film beyond its ending, but based on what we know here we can guess that when they meet for real it’ll be in the same context as the music-making scenes: sharing the skills and intimate knowledge that’ll keep them riffing back and forth like we do in our best conversations till they have a song like having a baby, and they, like the movie, will not-resolve in a loop of self-repetition and self-generation. (I share this urge to the point of demiurge.)
We met in a window, too. You were fresh off your own scuttled plans to light out for the coast, and without knowing it I was looking for a change of my own. We weren’t the kissing kind, but there was a wind – or would you call it a magnet? Some kind of force. I don’t hit it off like that with just anyone. At no point did I have any idea where it was going or what to do with it, but I knew it was good and would be good for me; I hope it was good for you too. (And fun! I never had such fun as when we were in full riffage. My keyboard will never be the same.) Sometimes when we’re in those modes we’re more open to influences we wouldn’t otherwise be, and it’s irrational to stay there for the sake of sentiment, but it’s equally unwise to abandon a window onto a pretty vantage because the hinge is stuck, or to hurl oneself out for fear or frustration. (Has anyone ever ended it all by jumping out a door?) Windows open, and windows close. Sometimes it’s the wind. How many times did I sense that window drawing shut, only to find it was one of those swivel-y ones that close one way to open another? You were always good for a fresh perspective, an unexpected new angle. (Like those lights you talked about glinting in the movie. You know I missed those? That’s what I need your friendship for: you make me see the lights I don’t.)
The ending of the movie, when they catch each other but still don’t make that meaningful connection, makes me think that the film’s ultimate point is that heaven is in the moment (“That perfect feeling when time just slips away between us,” as Neil said in “Like a Hurricane”). Some moments pass; others are eternal. I’m glad you found someone to move on with; you deserve it more than anyone I know. I hope he feels for you the way Elmo feels for Allie, because it’s the only way someone as enlightened as you should accept.
Thirty is an important time. You said something poignant once in one of your emails: you said you wondered where your child would come from. What I loved about that statement was its passivity, as though it was something magically borne and bestowed on you, and you trusted it would arrive. It said that maybe you were talking metaphorically, too, about more than one thing at once, which is another thing I love about our discourse. So where do the kids in Made in Heaven come from? Mike has two sweet and loving, molto traditional parents, Elmo only one poor-in-love mother. Allie is born to a tender father and a mom who’s not long for this world. One of the quirks screenwriters Bruce Evans and Raynold Gideon try to introduce to the canon is the idea that people mate up there too – Annie is “born” there – so the side of me that wants to score points with you wants to say that’s where; but you know me and you’d guess that’s not what I really think is true. Where do I most think your child will come from? The same place I’ve seen everything else come from you: from sheer brilliance. It’ll come from sheer brilliance.
But wait! There’s a lot more movie to cover. (I’m not ready to leave heaven yet.) What about the times Elmo and Allie just miss each other before that last (possible?) intersection? We never talked about why he toils in celibacy toward his ideal while she takes those missteps on her path to meeting, or her willingness to settle for such obvious non-starters when she had met and patterned The One in heaven. We never sorted out the characters’ strange lack of passion there (calling Leos Carax) or waxed poetic on the ghost of meaningful love that hangs over the whole picture, the fact that she really was with him the whole time. We never mused on Debra Winger’s drag cameo in the decade of Linda Hunt and The Year of Living Dangerously or how Mike’s buddy Larry Polsky is reincarnated as Larry Polsky, never asked why Annie should have a brother or why it mattered Mike wasn’t a virgin and she was (Maiden Heaven!), never dealt with the importance of toys to Allie (thanks for the toys!), or mourned the unfairness of heaven in splitting them up in the first place. And no, we never danced, the theme that drives Elmo through his tribulations till he can finally meet with that ideal forged in that great window between lifetimes. Though what is that dance anyway to two people who’ve already mixed it up in heaven? What is forever when they have now?
Your eternal pal,
SNORTS HEAVEN N JOY