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Total Recall

Keith Phipps

With “Captain Marvel” posting Tuesday, March 19

“He awoke — and wanted Mars. The valleys, he thought. What would it be like to trudge among them? Great and greater yet: the dream grew as he became fully conscious, the dream and the yearning. He could almost feel the enveloping presence of another word…” So opens Philip K. Dick’s 1966 short story “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale,” one of the most famous efforts from the prolific, and much-adapted, science fiction writer. The story of a man who contracts an agency to implant false memories of Mars only to uncover real memories he didn’t know he had, Dick’s version begins similarly to the Paul Verhoeven-directed Total Recall, then diverges significantly. But both the source material and the film it inspired stay true to a theme that runs throughout Dick’s work: If our only way to determine reality is our minds and our mind can’t be trusted how to we define what’s real?

For Douglas Quaid, that question takes on special urgency after he visits Rekall, an organization he turns to to give him memories of the trip to Mars his wife Lori (played by Sharon Stone) will never let him take. Suddenly he remembers he’s a special agent, a buddy at work is trying to kill him, he encounters a recording of himself instructing him how to remove a bug that’s been implanted in his brain, and he’s taking off for Mars in a desperate attempt to save his life and the lives of the rebels fighting for control of the planet.

Unless, as a visitor to the fancy Mars hotel in which he’s staying, tells him, he’s still unconscious back at Rekall and all this is an implanted memory gone wrong.

Total Recall was many years in the making and could have taken a much different form. Writer Ronald Shusett acquired the option to Dick’s story in 1974, before anyone thought much of turning his stories into movies. He co-wrote a script with Dan O’Bannon, with whom he’d also write Alien, and from that script many drafts would flower, including a version that might have been directed by David Cronenberg and a Patrick Swayze-starring Bruce Beresford-helmed version that was this close to happening before producer Dino De Laurentis ran out of money. That opened the door for Paul Verhoeven and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who’d already formed a mutual admiration society based on Schwarzenegger’s fondness of Robocop and, presumably, Verhoeven’s recognition that Schwarzenegger could be a valuable tool in his quest to create as many subversive blockbusters as he could while in Hollywood.

Total Recall advanced that goal. Like Robocop, it’s in love with extremes: Graphic violence, unnerving imagery, and bigger-than-life heroes —Schwarzenegger doesn’t even need a robot suit to look like a comic book character. Here he throws in hints of the graphic sexuality that would define his next film, Basic Instinct, and with it some of the misogyny that film either celebrates or undermines, depending on how you look at it. And, like Robocop, Total Recall also satisfies all the needs of a blockbuster audience, particularly of the late-’80s/early-’90s era when an R-rated action film could still be a box office success.

But it unsettles while it satisfies. Just as every version of reality seems a little unreal to Quaid, something about the film always seems off — starting with the protagonist. Any film that asks us to buy Arnold Schwarzenegger as an ordinary guy is asking a lot, and both Total Recall and its star know this and play it as yet another reality-warping element. He seems more out of place as a working joe than as a secret agent. But is he? That’s the big question looming over the film. Which is real: Quaid or McClane, the identity in which he operated as an interplanetary man of mystery? Who is the real love of his life: Lori or Melina, the woman he believes he left behind on Mars? And where does he belong: on the red sands of Mars or in the low-key dystopia world of 2084 Earth? Which is the dream and who is the dreamer. Can we know? Does it even matter? We’ll talk it over after the break.

DISCUSSION

I saw this movie as an excited 17-year-old who’d fallen in love with Robocop and wanted more. And it had me every step of the way with twists I did not see coming. What was each of your experiences?

How do you see this film fitting into Verhoeven’s filmography? Schwarzenegger’s?

This is very much the product of a particular moment in special effects and production design. Rob Bottin’s team won an Oscar for their effects work. And Mars is depicted mostly via a series of elaborate sets, which makes for a fairly claustrophobic experience. Do they work for you?

So, is it real? What clues to you submit to make your case?

Does this film have a political point?

White Men Can't Jump

SCOTT TOBIAS

“Sometimes when you win, you really lose. And sometimes when you lose, you really win. And sometimes when you win or lose, you actually tie. And sometimes when you tie, you actually win or lose. Winning and losing is all one big organic globule from which one extracts what one needs.”

These are the words of Gloria Clemente, the tempestuous sage played by Rosie Perez in White Men Can’t Jump. And they are also the words of Ron Shelton, who sees sports as one big organic globule from which he can extract comedy, romance, and a little bit of philosophy. Shelton’s experiences as a minor-league ballplayer informed the wonderful details of farm club life in his 1988 breakthrough film, Bull Durham, but his perspective on failure is what sets him apart. Where other sports movies are about inspirational figures and miraculous comebacks, his movies are about men whose personal shortcomings prevent them from making it big. Bull Durham ends before the season is even over, with Kevin Costner’s journeyman catcher quietly retiring after helping a more talented younger player make the bigs. Shelton’s great Tin Cup ends with Costner’s never-was golfer wrapping up a tournament run with an epic meltdown that seems like a loss, but is really a win. And White Men Can’t Jump ends with a streetball triumph that seems like a win, but is really a loss.

In any sport, there are plenty of never-wases—athletes who tethered themselves to  dreams of professional glory, but didn’t have the talent or the temperament or the good fortune to make it all the way. When Costner’s catcher talks about his brief stint in the majors on the team bus, his teammates gather around to hear stories of baseball cathedrals where new balls are used for batting practice. Most of them are not going to see even that much action, but this is all they’ve ever thought about doing, so what could possibly be their Plan B? In White Men Can’t Jump, we don’t learn the backstory of Sidney Deane, the preternaturally confident street ball king played by Wesley Snipes, but we do discover that Billy Hoyle, the sharpshooting geek played by Woody Harrelson, did some college hoops in Louisiana. It doesn’t seem like he was scouted. Perhaps he didn’t even finish school. Whatever the case, he didn’t make it.

And so now, Sidney and Billy are working the courts like Paul Newman in The Hustler, running a con where Sidney pretends like Billy is a stranger and has his opponents choose anyone around to be his teammate. They invariably choose Billy because he’s a goofy-looking white guy they assume they can run off the court. The scam works, but there’s no honor among thieves in this world, so Sidney has no moral reservations about running his own con on Billy and taking him for every dime. And Billy, who’s terrible with money, find his own ways to blow his newfound winnings, like betting Sidney that he can dunk a basketball.

One of the grace notes of White Men Can’t Jump is its attention to the practicalities of the hustle, which often fall to Sidney and Billy’s significant others—Sidney’s wife Rhonda, played by Tyra Ferrell, and Billy’s girlfriend Gloria, who’s hard at work studying for her own dream of appearing on Jeopardy. There’s a sense that both men love basketball too much to leave it behind, but only Sidney has the skills to do something else for money, serving as a contractor on various home construction projects. Billy has no other skills, and can’t get beyond his current cycle of losing any money he wins, and begging for second chance after second chance from Gloria, who loves him, but also considers him a project she might have to abandon.

The moral of Ron Shelton’s movies is those who take from the sport are better off than those who let the sport take from them. Costner’s characters in Bull Durham and Tin Cup never come close to realizing their ambitions as athletes, but they have the good sense to appreciate the wisdom, friendship and love they’ve gained from their experiences and they’re content to leave the dream behind. Sidney Deane seems like he’s getting close to that moment, too: He and Rhonda want to move away from Vista View apartments—where there ain’t no Vista, there ain’t no Views, and there sure as hell ain’t no vista of no views. Basketball is a means to an end for him, and there’s a sense that he’ll find his way there. Billy Hoyle, on other hand, knows no other life but the hustle. For him, a win is almost always a loss in disguise, because it’s the precursor to a mistake he can’t stop making. He’s a lovable loser. But, in the end, he’s not just played the chump. He is the chump.

DISCUSSION

Keith, Genevieve, and Tasha: I’ve made the mistake, as an adult, to befriend nerds instead of jocks, so all of you are approaching White Men Can’t Jump without much affection for the sport. But perhaps being sports-averse gives you a perspective that I don’t have. So let’s hear it: What did you think of this movie

How would you describe Ron Shelton’s approach to the genre and how it functions in this film?

Sidney and Billy’s friendship is central to the movie. What do you make of their dynamic?

Were you persuaded by Billy and Gloria’s relationship? Does it make sense for Gloria to keep giving him second chances?

The film is really open about matters of race. To what extent is it insightful about race relations? And does it have some blind spots?

How does this compare with Bull Durham, Tin Cup and other Shelton films?


 
 

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