Retrospective George Armitage

When people speak about American Cinema of the late 1960’s and 70’s, the conversation usually turns to New Hollywood. Occasionally, there might be talk of the birth of the Blockbuster Industry, as envisioned by Spielberg and Lucas in its utopian stage. But the ‘American Renaissance’, as film critic Armond White termed this unique era, brought forth far more than just Francis Ford Coppola’s »Godfather« films and Robert Altman’s »Nashville« or »Jaws« and »Star Wars« It had a completely different side to it.

In the shadows of New Hollywood, the American B-movie experienced its last true heyday. Men such as Roger Corman, the King of counter-culture, and his brother Gene, the director of MGM’s B-unit in the 70’s, picked up any promising trend with their low budget and fast produced films, thereby turning genre cinema into the most honest reflection of those years, as America revealed its true face in these often extremely hyperbolic action, Blaxploitation, and gangster films. And no one understood better how to capture the spirit of the decade in satirical, iconic scenes and visions than writer-director George Armitage. Not only the decade the 70’s, but the following decades as well.

In fact, this might be a reason why the 1942-born filmmaker, in spite of »Miami Blues« and »Grosse Pointe Blank«, has remained one of the great-unknown filmmakers of American Cinema. His films touched the raw pulse of the times, which could be rather painful as the grim finale of his subversively congenial adaptation of Charles Willeford’s »Miami Blues« shows. There isn’t much left of the myth of »America the Beautiful«
in George Armitage’s films. God’s Own Country turns out to be nothing but a country of profiteers and fraudsters, killers and sociopaths: the gangster in »Hitman«, the Vietnam veterans in »Vigilante Force«, »Hot Rod«’s root beer magnate, all those scammed scammers in »The Big Bounce« – his Elmore Leonard adaptation which was re-cut and butchered by the studio beyond recognition, as well as Alec Baldwin’s Fred Frenger Jr. in »Miami Blues«. All of them represent an America that has done nothing but delude itself. The Wild West is not in fact an era – it is a state of mind, which hasn’t changed since the 1870’s. Just as Jonathan Kaplan and Jonathan Demme, who were able to leave their mark on the Hollywood of the 80’s and 90’s, George Armitage was a protégé of Roger Corman. Not only did he write the script of Corman’s still underrated 1970 counter-culture satire »Gas-s-s-s«, with his directorial debut »Private Duty Nurses« as well as his script for Jonathan Kaplan’s »Night Call Nurses«, it was Armitage who would add a touch of subversive energy to Corman’s exploitation films.

The revolution that failed to appear on America’s streets in spite of Vietnam and its countless casualties happened on the big screens of the Grindhouse theatres. Initially it was more subtly introduced, as in »Private Duty Nurses« in which an African-American doctor learns to channel his anger towards unrelenting racism. But with »Night Call Nurses«, Armitage ultimately and unapolegetically takes the side of the outcasts and rebels in their fight for a different America.

The B-movies as well as the Exploitation films became the last stronghold of subversive art that took an uncompromising stand and yet were filled with a tremendous playfulness. Everything dogmatic was alien to George Armitage from the beginning. Which also puts him in line with his mentor Roger Corman. Just as Corman, Armitage has always been keen not to go over-budget or into overtime when shooting. The time gained was used to work with the actors, give space for improvisations, and to experiment. The script was considered a framework intended to be transcended. This approach to storytelling was the one and only way to give cinema a liberty that allowed him to question society and the political status quo.

* »With Grosse Pointe Blank I shot three movies simultaneously. We shot the script as written, we shot a mildly understated version, and we shot a completely over-the-top version, which usually was what was used. We cast that movie —and I’ve cast most movies—by having the actors come in and read, then throwing the script out and saying: ›Okay, let’s improvise.‹ That’s what I was comfortable with. I say to the actors: ›You are creating the character. This is written, these are the parameters, this is the outline. Now you take this, make it your own, and bring me, bring me, bring me.‹ Most actors will stay within the written word, some will go off, like Paul Hampton in Private Duty Nurses, who would improvise and bring Pegi along with him. I’m very fond of Grosse Pointe Blank because of that, the insanity of it was trying to keep things working with three different registers to choose from.« George Armitage on filming the »Corman-method«, in Film Comment

When John Cusack’s Martin Blank encounters his opponent (played by Dan Ackroyd) in »Grosse Pointe Blank«, rules no longer apply. Suddenly, everything is possible. These moments of freedom allow Cusack and Ackroyd to let go completely. Their acting alone sets a world on fire that has been frozen by commercialism. All the bullets that transform the suburban mansion into a true war zone in the wild showdown become nothing more than a mere background accessory.

It seems to be a reoccurring characteristic of Armitage’s films that actors give in to the high of a momentum. This is what allows them to enter alongside their directors’ realm of filmmaking, in which the satire creates its own enormous, self-defying force. Only those who dare to exaggerate the American Dream into sheer grotesque - as Armitage did with verve in the action scenes of »Vigilante Force« or with Freddy Fenger’s criminal escapades in »Miami Blues« – will eventually wake from it again. Behind the looking glass of madness, there might be a chance for a new dream to begin.