Pennies from Heaven

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Cheap Songs
Nick Pinkerton on Pennies from Heaven

When the sad spectacle of Richard Gere pretending to dance is widely acknowledged as the contemporary musical’s artistic high watermark, it can get awfully hard to remember that these silly movies, with their odd, unexpected hiccups of song, can have an unequalled capacity to astonish. Thankfully a much-needed testament to that ability remains in the three musical miniseries created by BBC scribe Dennis Potter, 1978’s Pennies from Heaven, 1986’s The Singing Detective, and 1993’s Lipstick on Your Collar. These serial song-cycles work around a Brechtian concept of the author’s own invention, a device so affecting and simple one wonders how it took so long to discover; was it there all along, lurking just beneath the surface of the genre’s base conceits? His characters abruptly break away from their ostensible reality, but where we anticipate the same old song-and-dance, they embellish their deceit, opening up and obviously lip-synching to vintage recordings. Viewed now these moments still astonish, but what must they have been to see in a time before Cop Rock? Through these works Potter drafted his sprawling overview of how popular culture generally and music specifically related to the individual and national life of England during the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties. In Detective wartime dancehall melodies are so many aural madeleines, wafting down the backroads of our protagonist’s fevered psyche, in Lipstick rock songs are the syncopated boogaloo warning shots of an emergent youth culture toward the brolly-toting imperialist establishment, but in Pennies, made when the device was still unexplored, the focus rests intently on the songs, those simple, emotive tunes that gilded the longings and disappointments of the Great Depression.

In 1981 MGM produced its own Pennies, a lavish refitting of Potter’s ideas to the opulent dressings of the Hollywood musical, based on the author’s own script. The result was a potent concentration of the original six-part, eight-hour BBC I production, a work that illustrates how the whole world can be fit into genre confines, and a stern admonishment to Keith Gordon’s recent over-hurried, under-lit Singing Detective remake flub. Pennies tells the story of Arthur Parker (Steve Martin, a role originated by Bob Hoskins), a Chicago-based traveling salesman of sheet music for popular tunes who, in drug parlance, is high off his supply. Our protagonist gets more from his wares than daily bread; their lyrical treacle appeals directly to his idea of something beautiful waiting just beyond the borders of his quotidian existence, something poetic about his insistent sexual itch, and the reassurance of a future on the other side of the rainbow.

Arthur is introduced in bed, pleading to his pinched, puritanical wife Joan (Jessica Harper) for some lovemaking before he hits the road, besieging her locked thighs with persistent come-ons that are equal parts bullying, beseeching, and pathetic. Both husband and wife are effectively imprisoned in this “bed of nails”; prissy, astringent Joan imagines herself a martyr to her husband’s lusts while Arthur, whose Bible studies lean toward the Tijuana variety, perpetually chafes with his obscure Tin Pan Alley fantasy of love and sex. Shirked off, Arthur follows Joan to the bathroom and, as he watches her, his eyes click on like an old-fashioned radio console. He’s suddenly transformed, and Connie Boswell’s “I’ll Never Have to Dream Again” drifts across his emotional wavelength and wobbles out his lips; this is the unveiling of Pennies’ central technique, introduced so matter-of-factly that the construct is integrated seamlessly into the material. But is Potter having a smirky laugh by having Arthur’s stifled libido express itself through the pure, polished-wax yearning of a lyric like: “In all my dreams it seems that you are near dear, but when I wake you disappear”? Stepping in on the domestic routine of bartering for an orgasm, this ethereal pop romanticism seems at once to encode, to falsify, and to epitomize the reality of sex; when the tune drops away we’re left only with our tangle of impressions and the exhilarating awareness that this is a movie alive to the complexities of how pop and life can coexist.

Our protagonist goes on the road unsated, and during his sales trip to small-town Galena, Illinois he meets Pennies’ other principle players, including the Accordion Man (Vernel Bagneris), an indigent hitchhiking street musician with a severe stammer whose only real means of communication come through his instrument, and Eileen (Bernadette Peters, with all the creamy softness of screen women from 70 years past), an abashed, chaste schoolteacher living a cloistered rural existence with her father, who will become the complicit co-star of Arthur’s daydreams. Together these lovers chase their fool’s paradise into the proverbial gutter with a fine view of the stars, and by the film’s closing they’re tarnished-but-devout. Their old lives reject them or are rejected, with predictably tragic results; carnival-prize moppet Eileen turns wayward girl, becoming lacquered and porcelain under the auspices of pimp Tom (Christopher Walken), and Arthur is eventually executed for a crime he didn’t commit, convicted and hung by Joan’s testimony of his uncontrollable urges.

The cruelty of these stargazer’s fates suggests a musical cautionary tale, and Armond White, revisiting Potter’s oeuvre in a recent New York Press review of the Detective remake, easily misappropriates the attitudes of that film’s protagonist for those of Potter, identifying the function of the pulp and popular elements of the original serial as “meant to indict the shallowness of pop culture” and the “cheap relief” it provides. But White’s brush-off coup de grâce, wherein Potter’s attitudes are dismissed as so much facile postmodern cynicism, ignores the intricacies in the author’s approach to his jukebox-full of frothy tunes. Potter’s concept is cynical to be sure, and postmodern by technicality, but, to borrow from J.G. Ballard, every cautionary tale doubles as an invitation, and that inherent streak of ambivalence is particularly pronounced in Dennis Potter’s relationship to that stuff which was once called “low” culture. In his final televised testament, a remarkable studio interview granted in the shadow of his imminent cancer death, Potter expressed the idea that one’s past was something to be “looked back on with a sort of tender contempt,” and he applies that same bipolar judgment to the wobbly tunes which drift from his character’s Victorola souls. Yes, Potter the old campus radical and altogether lefty ideologue holds an unmistakable sense of skepticism toward the hymns of unbounded and unfounded optimism filling these 78 rpm opiates of the masses. But if these popular songs are shallow, as the fogeyish writer unfashionably suggests, the emotions that they contain and the peasant tears that they inspire are not; in fact they keep time to the most basic yearnings that we can know. The film’s title neatly abridges two of those profound forces that loom largest in Pennies: Money and God.

The latter is most pronounced; Joan’s rigid “old rugged cross” faith and Arthur’s dime store romanticism are, we understand, just adverse responses to the same discomfort at the impossible truth of existence. So, then: “The Lord works in mysterious ways,” “When you hear it thunder, don’t run under a tree;” the words differ, but the reassurance is much the same. Says Potter: “Cheap songs—so called—actually have something of the Psalms of David in them; they do say that the world is something other than it is.” Workaday tribulations, from a canted perspective, become benedictions, and the real, permanent resolution to our suffering is drawing ever closer. The essential difference is that Joan’s reward is to be delivered after death, whereas the champagne-and-gossamer dream of Arthur’s mental songbook is a secular promised land; it’s as simple as the difference between the desire for spiritual or for corporeal upward mobility. Joan’s religion is antique, even medieval compared to Arthur and Eileen’s faith, which plugs into the new entrepreneurial hosannas of a materialistic mass culture. Joan wants heaven; they want “nice things.” This line of connection drawn by Potter between three-minute pop epiphanies and Christian sentiment is evident from the outset of Pennies, where we ascend from a matte painting paradise of gold-rimmed clouds into the rain-streaked “reality” of a silver nitrate Chicago skyline, while Elsie Carlisle assures us on the soundtrack that “the clouds will soon roll by...”

This strange, religiously informed opening announces forthright that Pennies’ vision runs far deeper than contrasting the incompatibility of how things should be with how they are, entering the subject of pop escapism more deeply than Lars von Trier can or will in his ostensibly similar Dancer in the Dark. For Pennies the delineation between fact and fiction is never comfortably clear-cut; we exit the heavens and find ourselves in a period photograph, an obviously representational vision of what a subtitle informs us is “Chicago, 1936.” Dancer, whose opening production number cites the first “integrated” musical, Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight, and whose gallows finale, complete with closing note of spiritual confirmation, closely echoes Pennies, is a fine historical survey of genre signifiers, but the Parkinson’s shake of its drear digicam reality makes a trite aesthetic counterpoint. Pennies’ “everyday” world has a pop-informed kitchen sink surrealism, a hazy photomontage universe of codified Depression imagery made lush and impossibly lucid by Gordon Willis’s photography. The lights in dive bars blush like tawdry purple velour, and even when Edward Hopper isn’t explicitly quoted (“Nighthawks” and ”New York Movie” are channeled onscreen, but in a straight-on way that doesn’t vogue for appreciation), his palette is on reference in the rich, creamy tones that bleed chiaroscuro-style into articulately shadowed rooms and darkened underpasses. The Chicago of Pennies is fed through a fog filter of Depression iconography, like some wavering memory whose forgotten bits have been substituted with pop mannerism.

Production designer Ken Adams must share much of the credit for inflating Potter’s ideas into this big, dizzy shape, which has the size and dimensions of a real movie. The writer kept the “homemade” musical interludes of the BBC Pennies on a short tether; they insinuate themselves into scenes without cutting, via a simple lighting cue or a tilt of the camera, organic emotional outcroppings of the material where reality is always visible through the thin patina of daydream. But such restraint is nowhere in director Ross’s vocabulary, a razzle-dazzle minded onetime dancer/choreographer, and his team, including Adams and choreographer Danny Daniels. They turn Potter’s conceits inside-out, playing life through pop rather than vice-versa, though with much the same ends; to the writer and his partisans, this disunity of vision between script and director is the film’s downfall. To these eyes, however, it’s their conflicting visions that lend the material so much of its deliriously emotional push-and-pull pitch. Many of those privileged to have overviewed the hard-to-find bulk of his TV work rank Potter alongside the best of post-war English dramatists, but his more controlled post-Pennies ventures into cinema comprise no-one’s idea of a master’s oeuvre; Gorky Park, Track 29, Brimstone and Treacle, and Dreamchild all come from his screenplays, but only the last is an unqualified success. Potter, the deposed television writer-king, is just too much a creature of the tube that to recognize the sound of his own voice when it’s got big-screen volume. Likewise, nothing in Ross’s career (prior to this collaboration he had practically been the house director at Neil Simon’s yuk factory) hints he’s capable of what’s achieved with Pennies. A remarkably uncontrolled alchemy occurs between their sensibilities; Ross shuffles and shimmies the televisual quality right out of Potter’s material while Potter gives Ross’s panache a raw, bleeding soul.

What’s astonishing is that the cockeyed combination of Potter’s moral wariness and Ross’s earnest showmanship, for every botched dialogue, twice as often stumbles into the sublime. In the movie’s penultimate number Arthur and Eileen go to a showing of the Astaire-Rogers movie Follow the Fleet and sit transfixed by the crooning of Irving Berlin’s “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” a song that epitomizes soft-shoe show-biz defiance toward any and all real-life obstacles, undercut with a certain fatalistic sobriety (“Soon we’ll be without the moon, humming a different tune”). Watching Fred and Ginger in motion, it’s impossible to stifle a certain profound pining; the great onscreen dancers have an ethereal weightlessness that’s equaled only by the great movie martial artists, and to bear it witness appeals to us in a very spiritual way. That miraculous elegance, given veracity by the testament of photographic image and made iconic through projection, is enough to convince any doubting Thomas that the terminal clumsiness of self can be transcended. To watch Astaire and Rogers is to momentarily leave our seats and become them, which is exactly what Arthur and Eileen do. The duo seamlessly slide into the stars’ places, entering the silver screen to face off against a top-hatted chorus line that seems almost regimental, their sticks bristling out like a firing squad’s rifles. So threatened, Martin and Peters sally back with a salvo of tap, pulling in and away with giddy momentum as the tuxedoed phalanx breaks rank and swirls around them, trying to hedge in. The lovers are still spinning when the chorus line storms the frame’s foreground, their slim canes climbing to the top of the screen and trapping the duo behind a grate of black bars. The same dream that has lent them transcendence eventually imprisons them; whether the reverie justifies the punishment is a question that hangs unanswered long after the credits have rolled.

Though I’m inclined to agree with David Thomson’s assessment of Steve Martin the dramatic actor as standing in relief from his serious roles by virtue of “a barrier, a tenseness…that cannot yield to pretending,” for the purposes of playing Arthur Parker, that strain is key. Arthur’s romantic fervor is the wide-eyed stridency of a faith-doubting clergyman (his character in Leap of Faith is a distant relation), complete with the zealot’s stare, launched clear into another world; he wants to pull the woozy paradise of dancehall lyrics into reality through sheer force of invective. His lies tremble with such stilted near-earnestness because his foremost agenda is the not-insignificant task of pulling the wool over his own eyes; when Eileen lays the sum total of his deceits before him, a punctured “I believed myself,” is all Arthur can offer, and there is no question which of the two is more disappointed.

Looking at the middlebrow L.A. everydad that the two decades past have eroded Martin’s persona into, it’s hard to believe the commitment with which he plays some of Potter’s tough, ambivalent scenes. When Arthur accosts a blind girl walking alone in an empty railyard, Martin hangs just the right potential for sexual aggression over his line readings before, amazingly, dissipating everything with the sweet boyish conviction of his parting announcement that, “I’ll never forget this—not ever.” First watching Pennies as a teenager, I was penetrated to the core by what Martin’s Arthur communicated, by this difficult character who agonized over “when you think about things before you go to sleep at night,” full of blustery bullshit romanticism, his hapless horniness, his clapboard castles in the sky. It was, for better or for worse, the experience of seeing myself on the screen, and there lies whatever genius Pennies from Heaven has. It smuggles a core of identifiable pain and ecstasy in glittery MGM trappings, but with a result that never denigrates the medium or the message, and illustrates just how much of us is invested in these cheap songs, so-called. Finally it suggests that if pop did not exist, we would have to invent it.

This article originally appeared in Reverse Shot's November/December 2003 musicals symposium.