I’m Not Rappaport is one of those films (think Steve McQueen, Sean Connery, etc vehicles) where it’s a “Walter Matthau” film and not a “Herb Gardner” film. An adaptation of a play about two elderly men, one a harmless charlatan the other the skeptic, is certainly an actor’s vehicle, and Matthau’s star-power, alongside the always fun to watch Ossie Davis makes it more so.
Their great turns aside, and both are quite good, Herb Gardner’s direction is not to be overlooked. Gardner directed only one other film – The Goodybye People – which I have not seen. Nonetheless, his film is anything but “stagey” – the ultimate insult for a film. Stagey = a lack of imagination; a lack of cinematic value. In short, a play-film. Pointless.
There are two particular moments that I want to mention that contribute to the filmic value of Rappaport. One such moment involves Matthau’s Nat and Davis’ Midge in an old building in Central Park. Midge is in his 80s and is being forced into retirement by Danforth (Boyd Gaines) who is uneasy in his role of bad-guy. Nat comes to the “rescue,” despite Midge’s protests, pretending to be a lawyer and threatening class action should Danforth proceed with the pink slip.
The blocking here (ironically, for this post, also called staging) is what makes this scene so kinetic. Three men, two places to sit, one long narrow room. Blocking is how the subjects and camera move in relation to one another. Good blocking is often energetic, injects more life into a scene on top of the dialogue, subtley displays things like power relationships (ie who sits when and who stands when, for a standard example) and is invisible to the audience, meaning that it doesn’t call attention to itself unless one is looking for it. Sidney Lumet and Orson Welles = master blockers.
In the scene in question Gardner uses his space quite effectively. There is plenty of back and forth, where Danforth first tries to get Midge to sit (ie Danforth has the power) and by the end of the scene Nat is trying to get Danforth to sit (read: Nat has taken control). Other moments within this bit come to mind: Nat is constantly, once he enters the scene, near exiting. He walks away, the sight of his back a threat to the now powerless Danforth. Danforth is forced to stop him and bring him back in – closer to camera. This play with Nat’s blocking reinforces his position. His movements from a medium shot to a close-up are a sort of yo-yo effect that underline the yo-yo-ing going on in the scene. Will Nat’s act succeed? Will Danforth see through them? Will Midge blow Nat’s cover? Well-played in here.
There’s another moment that I want to talk about later in the film with regards to the editing. This contains a minor SPOILER: Nat and Midge – at Nat’s insistence – are pulling off one last con to help a “damsel in distress.” A drug dealer named only The Cowboy (a hilarious Craig T. Nelson) is effectively blackmailing the young woman. Nat and Midge decide to play mobsters to talk him out of it. The scene gets ugly quickly with The Cowboy seeing right through the con and Midge pulling a knife.
Now…before we go on, let’s imagine the script. Script-to-screen: the director’s job. Here’s my guess at approximately how the script read having never actually seen it and underwriting for the sake of brevity:
“The Cowboy bolts away and rushes into the subway. Midge follows knife still drawn. SUBWAY – Midge creeps slowly down the steps. He’s amped up and calling out maniacally for The Cowboy. Only the low rumblings of a distant subway car are audible. Midge approaches a corner, knife gleaming in anticipation and suddenly- The Cowboy’s hand appears and grabs his wrist. CUT TO – Central Park. It’s a dark day. Leaves blow dramatically…”
There are a million different ways to shoot this and Gardner picks a rather interesting sequence of shots. First, his camera as Midge descends the stairs keeps the framing tight and claustrophobic. The camera leads Midge, giving no clue what is in front. Gardner could have easily done the classic shot of Midge, shot of what Midge sees, back to Midge, back to what he sees, etc. But he chooses not to. The shots stays on Midge. It actually makes The Cowboy’s hand more of a surprise. We’re focused only on a character and not given any hint (ie a POV shot) that something might be coming.
Secondly, the moment that The Cowboy’s hand enters frame is very unorthodox. The hand enters from frame left and grabs Midge’s knife-hand. The shot then holds for nearly a full three seconds which, in film time, and in “action scene” time, is extremely long. It’s almost a freeze-frame: a tableau. There’s no resistance from Midge and no move for further action from The Cowboy. We don’t actually see The Cowboy. We recognize it as his hand from the fringe on his sleeve. The pause is surreal and intentionally so. It’s a remnant of the stage, in fact, placed expertly within the film. This is the end of a scene. It’s when, on stage, the lights should dim as the actor’s hold their positions dramatically. Instead, there is no immediate dimming of lights and the actors are not on a stage at all, but in a very real looking world. In short, Gardner uses the setting and camera as cinematic and the action as stagey. It’s a unique combination and one that is quite effective and a nice punctuation at the end of a heightened segment.
The fade finally does happen and we are treated not just to random shots of Central Park, but very perfectly framed shots. Dramatic shadows frame an overpass. A lone child walks hauntingly down a path trying to catch a fluttering leaf. A statue of a monkey hitting a gong – which has been shown before – is framed in close-up. It’s odd. Somehow, the cut from the two hands and the knife to these series of shots in Central Park means something. The old A+B=C that I’ve mentioned before. But it’s not obvious. A (knife and hands) + B (dramatic shots of Central Park) seems to = Midge’s death. Central Park is, after all, empty after being inhabited throughout by Midge. The lone character is, after all, a child after much mention of aging. The seasons have seemed to, after all, changed abruptly, after little-to-no focus has been put on them before. Central Park, for the first time, is photographed as a space to be filled, and not a space filled. The sense of loss is overwhelming and quite gorgeously done.
I won’t spoil what happens thereafter. I’m Not Rappaport is not a perfect film. It falls into over-sentimentality at times, but it’s really very funny and in fact touching. I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected to.