The Big Easy

(Jim McBride, USA, 1986)


Note: For the full polemical context that underpins this review, see the entry on Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) – both were written on the same day in September 1987, to appear on the same printed tabloid page.


Under circumstances that will have to remain mysterious, I happened to read, once upon a time, the script (by Daniel Petrie, Jr) of The Big Easy. It was a floating “property”, like any other, earmarked for no director in particular. On the page, it was tight, elliptical, solidly crafted; its theme of police corruption was treated with the purest Stanley Kramer liberalism. A good telemovie, maybe. But I happened to mention to those who had hired me for consultative advice that it could be a lot better in the transformative directorial hands of someone inventive like … say, Jim McBride.


Then, eventually, The Big Easy arrived on the big screen as something I could never have believed it would become: the new Jim McBride movie! (Did I inadvertently help get him the gig? I’ll never know.) It’s always a long time between drinks for McBride; the infrequency of his films makes their qualities of epiphany all the more striking and precious.


Breathless (1983), his masterpiece, gave me the kind of revelatory buzz that cinephiles live for. McBride stages the dazzling vision – as Nicholas Ray’s Party Girl (1958) once did for the Cahiers du cinéma set – of mise en scéne revealed in all its intricacy and splendour. Mise en scéne, and nothing else; not plot, or theme, or symbolic character types especially. Just the electricity of staging, cutting, image-sound relating, and above all, the materialising (the fleshing out, bringing alive) of moments, behaviours, settings. A pure cinema neither empty nor full; simply perpetually brimming.


I could get drunk on The Big Easy. For me here in 1987, it stands as the antithesis of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987). One is closed, the other open; one robotic and square, the other funky and squiggly; one in love with death, the other with life. McBride’s art is one of lines, angles and moves that go in every conceivable direction at once. Best of all, this art is based, first and foremost, in the bodies and quirks and exchanges of the actors; no one gives the sense of getting closer to a scene, a situation or a bit of business better than McBride.


What you get high on in The Big Easy is the New Orleans milieu – its accents, lived spatial co-ordinates, and behavioural particularities brought incredibly to life – and the eroticism passing between Dennis Quaid (as Remy), Ellen Barkin (as Anne) and the world; the new AIDS proviso which has virtually every mainstream filmmaker devising ever more elaborate ways of not consummating screen romances suits McBride’s juicy, edgy sense of deferment just fine.


The narrative’s ending is perfunctory, as terminations to the open-plan flight of a termite artist usually are. But I am inspired to make a Big Claim: that anyone who can’t see in The Big Easy a model of both art and craft of fictional filmmaking doesn’t know very much at all. There are however, chances for all of us to improve our sensibility. For, as McBride himself no doubt believes: where there’s life, there’s hope.

MORE McBride: David Holzman’s Diary, The Wrong Man, Great Balls of Fire

© Adrian Martin September 1987

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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