Wednesday, May 12, 2021


This review originally written for in 2007.

I remember seeing the trailer for Paul Mazursky's Tempest when I was ten years old and thinking it looked like a really weird movie. It was clearly too adult for me, and it showed me things from the grown-up world that I didn't understand. It made some kind of impression on me, however, because I've never forgotten it. It was always one of those films I meant to look up, and actually did a while back when I discovered the movies of John Cassavetes. All I knew was that he and Gena Rowlands were in it and that it must have some kind of relationship to Shakespeare, but I'll be damned if I could find the video anywhere.

Well, it's only taken me twenty-five years, but I've finally seen Tempest. I've finally been able to take a gander at what that trailer was all about...

...and I'm still perplexed.

Cassavetes plays Phillip Dimitrius, a world-famous architect in the middle of a mid-life crisis. When we are introduced to him, he is waking up on an unnamed Greek island where he lives with a dog, a girlfriend (a very young Susan Sarandon), his daughter (an even younger Molly Ringwald in her first film role), and the crazy goat herder Kalibanos (Raul Julia). They have been living alone in Phil's idea of paradise for a year now, eating feta cheese and building an outdoor theater for reasons that never really get explained. It may not matter, as it's been long enough that they've all got a little bit of Island Fever. Don't be surprised if someone breaks into a song and dance number. They've got no entertainment, nothing to do. Kalibanos even dances with his goats.

Through a series of well-structured flashbacks, we see Phil's life as it stood eighteen months prior. He's in business with a gangster (Vittorio Gassman), and together they're building a casino. It's a hollow endeavor for a once proud, creative man. Phil can't take it anymore. Only, just as he wants to get out, his wife Antonia (Rowlands) wants to go back into acting. He wants to break free, but she's looking to stay put. They've reached an impasse.

Then one day Phil sees Antonia making woo with the gangster, and suddenly things are far more clear-cut. He and his daughter, Miranda, head to Greece for a little summer vacation, and that's where they meet Aretha (Sarandon), a free-spirited singer who is working her way back to New York. When the summer ends, rather than send Miranda back home to her mother, the three of them--along with Aretha's dog, Nino--agree to go into hiding instead, finding their out-of-the-way island and the freaky shepherd who lives there. Time passes, and paradise has started to lose its charm a little. Only, Phil seems to be waiting for something. He talks of recurring dreams and apparently has a plan for the future, but he has yet to tell anyone else what it is.

It's always a treat to watch John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands act together. In the independent movies they made together in the '60s and '70s, the husband and wife team developed a naturalistic acting style that delivered on all the promises of method acting and the Strasberg method. John directed more than he acted in those days, and so it's wonderful to see him take over the screen. He's a master with a subtle gesture, and he uses a distracted demeanor to bring a sense of vitality to Phil. Though he's very much in the scene, he often looks like his mind is elsewhere. He's walking and talking in the moment, but always dreaming of the future. Whether he and Gena are cooing at one another or having a heavy argument, they make every line seem spontaneous, like Mazursky snuck up to them in their home and secretly filmed what was really going on. If it's true that real-life lovers have no chemistry on screen, this pair is the exception that proves the rule.

Also fun to watch is Raul Julia, who may have been the perfect actor for Mazursky. The director has a pretty active cornball streak, and Julia is one of the best hams there ever was. Kalibanos is an outlandish character. He's lecherous and greedy and not very bright, more pitiable than sympathetic. Yet, Raul Julia is so likable, you adore him even when he plays unlikable.

So, what's my problem with Tempest? Well, it spends about two-hours building up to whatever Phil is planning for his island hideaway, and when his visions finally come to life, the remaining twenty minutes of the movie play more like a shortcut to the closing credits rather than a legitimate resolution.

Mazursky, along with Leon Capetanos, wrote a smart and complicated script that establishes a strong cast of characters and builds an intriguing scenario for them to inhabit, only to toss all that out and go for an easy wrap-up. Eventually, everything that Phil is running away from is going to catch up with him. That's inevitable. Rather than have it be a matter of convenience or lucky coincidence, Mazursky indulges in a little magical realism, suggesting that Phil somehow willed all of this, just as he also brings a storm to life in order to shipwreck everyone on his private chunk of rock. All of that plays fine, even hearkening back to the Shakespeare inspiration. If Phil is to be Prospero, then he is a wizard, after all.

Except now that everyone is gathered together, Mazursky stops short of confronting any of the issues. Though Phil greets the people he left behind with malice, all that anger and hatred melts away and everyone becomes friends again. Okay, maybe it's still magic at work, but nothing really communicates that. No one even acknowledges the quick change. Everyone accepts it as if it's absolutely normal, and that's that.

Except after such a lengthy build-up, after gathering so many dark clouds and priming us for a real storm of emotion, for Tempest to just drizzle out like that, it's not very satisfying. Back in 1982, at all of ten years old, my impression of the movie was an accurate one. This is a grown-up film that wrestles with issues that only make sense with age, but rather than deal with these issues in a real adult way, Paul Mazursky ducks out of the responsibility. Instead, he goes for a crowd-pleasing ending full of laughs and those cornball jokes he can't resist, and he lets the wind out of his own sails. There's a lot of huffing and puffing, but when Tempest is revealed as a house of straw, its coming down is more sad than impressive.

1 comment:

Sylvain Despretz said...

After the 1970s, audiences (especially US audiences) were increasingly trained to not trust filmmakers, and rather, use their multiple choice quiz to dictate to filmmakers how they should present their work. We're still in that model today. One of the elements that most puzzles people about the film is his protagonist: John Cassavetes is playing what appears to be one of his own alter egos: since he and Gena Rowlands were a real life couple, it is tempting to intuit that his character of Philip, a successful New York architect, is a representation of a modern day alchemist - a man in control... He is wise, but harsh. He knows life, suffers no fools gladly. He is even cynical. All of this can be hard for immature audiences to process.

(NOTE- I wrote a complete comment in response to your review of Tempest, but the crude interface of this page is blocking me at 4,096 character with no indication of what it does allow... in many ways, this is a perfect illustration of why nothing of substance can circulate today's appearance of communications. If you want the rest of my response, please from me a line and I will email it to you.)