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The Big Brass Ring

By dave heaton

Lately when I walk through a video store, even a larger corporate one, there are so many movies that I don't remember ever being out in theatres. Many probably went straight to video and many just didn't get distributed widely enough to make it to my part of the country. Others were shown on cable pay channels (like HBO or Showtime) which I don't have. Of course a lot of the straight-to-video films can be eliminated pretty quickly from reading the boxes (films like, say From Dusk Til Dawn 3). Still, it's a puzzling experience because so many of these films look like they could be really good. Many have established actors, directors, or screenwriters; others are low-budget independent films which sound like they have potential.

The Big Brass Ring is one of these films. It apparently was picked up by Showtime as one of its "original films," after failing to get a distribution deal for it to be shown in theatres, and is now in the new release section of your local video store. The film should be interesting to film historians due to the story behind it. It is loosely based on an unfilmed screenplay by Orson Welles and Oja Kodar. Director/writer George Hickenlooper (whose previous films include The Low Life and Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse) and F.X. Feeney wrote a screenplay based on Welles' unfilmed work. According to the filmography in the book This Is Orson Welles, it was a screenplay which Welles had been trying hard to get filmed in the years before his death; he was having trouble because the major film studios wanted a famous male lead and he hadn't been able to find one. I know too little about Welles' script to judge this film based on what it added to or subtracted from the original work, and too little about Welles to ruminate on how this film relates to Welles and his creative legacy. What I do know is that Hickenlooper's film is loosely based on the original screenplay, and the resulting film is good enough that the film's minor historical relevance is definitely not the only reason to watch it.

The film opens with the line, "If you truly wish to test a man's character, give him power," and that's a pretty good indication of what it's all about. William Hurt plays Blake Pellarin, in the final days of an election for governor of Missouri. He is running a close race against an older politician, Harper Dix. Both men are independent candidates, and the face is therefore getting a lot of national coverage. Adding to the publicity is the fact that Pellarin is seen by many as a likely future president. Pellarin is being followed closely by Cela Brandini (Irene Jacob), a former CNN correspondent who new works for ETC, a cable entertainment channel (covering all types of entertainment: the arts, theatre, and politics) who has pressing questions for Pellarin about his past, stemming from tips given to her by Kim Mennaker (Nigel Hawthorne), a senator, self-exiled in Cuba, who served as a sort of father and political mentor for Pellarin, who grew up an orphan.

Pellarin is to the public an assured, confident politician and privately an emotionally broken man who "hates love" because it is "too overwhelming, too painful." His wife Dinah, played by Miranda Richardson, was born wealthy (indeed, Pellarin is mostly living off of her money) and is hoping that Pellarin's political success will make her life less boring. Both Dinah and Blake have pretty much cut themselves off from each other, he seeking solace in the occasional fling with a prostitute or a political "groupie," her spending much of her life in a alcohol-induced haze, ever-hovering between being asleep and awake. Both actors clearly, expressively show us who their characters are through every expression and movement. Hurt in particular has a constant look of pain about him, showing through his physical weariness and uncomfortable expressions, thinly hid behind a veneer of political forthrightness.

The film's plot mostly centers on the revelation of Pellarin's past, of how he has reached the level of stature and hurt that he is at when we meet him. Brandini, the driven reporter looking for her own level of success, has one piece of the puzzle, the name "Raymond Romano," and is intent on discovering what this means. Mennaker, an odd and mysterious figure, is following Pellarin with more secrets and a desire to get something from Pellarin. As the film proceeds, both the audience and the characters slowly learn more about the mystery of Blake Pellarin, much of it centering on what might have happened to Pellarin's brother Billy, considered MIA since the Vietnam War.

After a few major revelations, the movie's emphasis shifts away from plot twists and towards these people, and why they are as they are. This is not an intricately plotted political thriller, but a movie about what people will do to gain some level of power, and why. The ideas behind the plot of the film may not be breathtakingly original, but the film itself is consistently gripping and enjoyable. It benefits from a tight script with believably worded dialogue, and a lowkey but attractive visual sense, including effective use of flashback sequences, and closely detailed shots of the settings which give the film an always present sense of place. On the whole, the film is perfectly cast as well. In the first few minutes of the film, I had a hard time believing that William Hurt was really himself; throughout the film he looks thoroughly exhausted, trying in vain to cover up a wealth of bitterness and pain with a politician's mask. Nigel Hawthorne and Miranda Richardson also shine in their roles, helping give us understanding into why these at times pathetic people are as they are.

At one point in the film, a character says that living people can be more fun to read than books. In The Big Brass Ring, we are reading people, figuring out who they are and what they've been through, as they are reading each other. In each character's face you can see the desire to figure out the other characters. It's one of those stories were everyone wants something from everyone else, and where people are constantly playing games with each other to get what they want, which is, in most cases, power. Politics is obviously an area where power is a key subject, but the film also touches on themes of sexual and emotional manipulation and other ways people use people to get something. The movie is less a straightforward critique of power (it doesn't beat you with a simple "power is bad" message) than a depiction of what particular people have done to try to achieve some sense of stature in their lives. Pretty much every character, from the most "likeable" ones to the most obviously cold and calculating, are constantly making decisions which they think will help them rise up one more step on the ladder of power. The title of the film refers to that ultimate prize they are all reaching for, that top level of power that keeps them going in the directions the are in. On the whole the movie represents a stopping point on Pellarin's quest for "the big brass ring," a point where he is made to examine what he has done so far in his life to gain power. Pellarin is being asked to confront why he has done what he has done, and to consider how he feels about it. In this way, as much as The Big Brass Ring is about power struggles, it is also about dealing with the consequences of your actions, and about the search for the forgiveness of others.

[A side note: I was born in St. Louis, so I thought I should mention that this film spotlights the city more than any other film I've seen, with lots of local sights and personalities (newscasters, etc.)]

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