I was very excited recently to catch some of THIS MUST BE THE PLACE on satellite TV. For those who have not seen it – and I imagine that is quite a lot, it had the briefest of US releases last November – it stars Sean Penn as burnt-out, emotionally stunted rock star, Cheyenne, a cross between Robert Smith of THE CURE, Edward Scissorhands and Forrest Gump. (It is clear from second viewing that Cheyenne is on the autistic spectrum disorder; Penn plays him a distant cousin to his title character, I AM SAM.) I waited in particular for my favourite scene, a three minute continuous take of David Byrne and his group playing ‘This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)’ as the camera retreats slowly backwards to reveal Cheyenne in the audience. Imagine my shock, my horror, my sheer dumbfounded – not quite dumbfounded, I’m writing this – drop of jaw as the sequence was subjected to three cuts, firstly obscuring the ‘reveal’, not of Byrne but of the lady on stage drinking a cocktail was sitting on a chair nailed to the wall and a 45 degree angle to the stage (as memory serves), then of sustaining the performance. The director Paolo Sorrentino immerses us in the song and briefly out of Cheyenne’s story – Penn is on screen almost throughout in black eye-liner and spiky jet black hair – until it locates him in the crowd.
The scene is reduced to a set-up for a contrast of performers. There is Byrne dressed typically in white, and also in white shock hair (sticking up). There is Cheyenne in black. In the next scene as Byrne demonstrates ‘playing the building’ (turning the insides of a derelict building into a musical instrument), and Cheyenne praises him as an artist before going in to full-on breakdown, in which he bares the pain of guilt over the deaths of two children in Ireland who listened to one of his depressing songs – or maybe several, we’ll never know – and committed suicide.
The cuts completely destroy the hypnotic power of the scene and as anyone who has seen Sorrentini’s films before – and I hope that is quite a lot, his credits include THE CONSEQUENCES OF LOVE, THE FAMILY FRIEND and IL DIVO – he does hypnotically powerful continuous takes. I suppose the same person who cut it would probably watch GOODFELLAS and say, ‘you know that scene where Henry Hill and his girlfriend take a back door walk into a club through the kitchen and then into a top table seat to see a singer performing, why can’t we just cut the middle of it?’
They are missing the point.
While the film was still on, I checked the running time in the 2011 London Film Festival programme (118 minutes) in case I had somehow misremembered it. I looked at the running time of the TV version, 107 minutes. Argh!
Now there are plenty of films that would benefit from being shorter, especially the first half of DEATH PROOF which is really tedious (the second half is totally gripping). And there are many films that justify their expansive length. Back in 1983, I infiltrated two test screenings of THE RIGHT STUFF, my anticipation heightened by an effusive Pauline Kael review. The first was a shortened version, the second a full-length one. At the second screening, I named as the best scenes all those that they sought to remove. Fortunately, the film was released in the UK uncut; I like to think I had some small part in that. If the director is an artist and makes the film a certain way, let us see it. If it is a Hollywood hack job credited to Alan Smithee, come to think of it I still want to see the original version.
Watching scenes of THIS MUST BE THE PLACE, I remembered how funny it was. It doesn’t just feature my favourite quote from 2011, ‘pedantry is an essential characteristic for hunting down Nazis’. It has Cheyenne meeting Robert Plath (Harry Dean Stanton), the inventor of the suitcase on wheels. ‘I ask myself the same question every day, why didn’t I think of it sooner?’ ‘Why do you ask yourself the same question every day, that’s f–ing stupid!’ (I have not even mentioned the world’s largest pistachio and Cheyenne’s truck which spontaneously combusts after he puts too much oil in it.)
The plot has the emotionally stunted rock star return to the US from Ireland to attend the funeral of his father – he has to sit in the cockpit, having a fear of flying - and carry out his last wish, to track down the Nazi commander of the camp where he was imprisoned. He is joined in the latter stages of his quest by veteran Nazi hunter, Mordecai Midler (Judd Hirsch). At one point, Midler breaks into Cheyenne’s hotel room to wait for him. Cheyenne is incredulous: ‘how could you get in?’ ‘Get your pistol and let’s go.’ ‘How do you know I have a gun?’ ‘I’ve chased 700 Nazis [across continents].’ Then he goes to use the toilet. The door is jammed. He calls to Cheyenne for help. Cheyenne just laughs and sits immobile. ‘You’ve chased 700 Nazis and you can’t get out of the john!’ Midler forces his way out and looks at Cheyenne resentfully.
Refrains reverberate, not just the line ‘that’s not true, but it’s kind of you to say’, a line about being patient with women (that goes for men too) but the titular Talking Heads song and swimming pools – Cheyenne fills one for a family that he stays with.
Seeing it for the second time, I understood better the final scene set in Ireland. Cheyenne is friends with a young Goth (Eve Hewson, daughter of U2 star, Bono) whose brother has disappeared. The boy’s mother is distraught and stares out of the window waiting for him to return. In the final scene, she sees a familiar figure walking towards the house. But it is not her son, rather Cheyenne without make up. Cheyenne is not her son and yet she smiles. Why? Because Cheyenne previously reminded her that her son was a boy, scared, unable to fend for himself. The make-up free Cheyenne reveals to her that her son can find his own way in the world and come back stronger; that he can be a man. So Cheyenne represents the possibility for hope. This is all triggered by a conversation early on about vices; Cheyenne wonders why he never took up smoking. The boy’s mother replies sternly, ‘it is only children who don’t smoke’. Before flying back to Ireland, Cheyenne accepts a cigarette from ground staff – we know he has nerves flying. This is the staging point for his development.
In the film, images do speak louder than words. Cheyenne joins a class to learn about the Holocaust and looks at slides. There is no narration, only images of death. Does Cheyenne become a killer? I’ll leave you to discover that for yourself, if you haven’t already.
It is not entirely subtle, as Cheyenne constantly trundles a bag – later the afore-mentioned suitcase on wheels – behind him. Yes, folks he has baggage, which he finally loses in the nicest possible way.
What other scenes are missing? Oh, the moment in which Cheyenne meets a stranger who asks him to deliver his truck for him – the one that spontaneously combusts. There is no pay-off to this, so I did not mind that deletion. I am, however, tempted to rent the DVD.