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Episode #90: PENNIES FROM HEAVEN

  

154 members have voted

  1. 1. Is PENNIES FROM HEAVEN Canon?

    • Yes
      82
    • No, I don't pick up pennies on the ground, even if they're from heaven
      72


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It's Amy's indulgence - Steve Martin dances and lip synchs in PENNIES FROM HEAVEN. Is this little-seen film good enough for the Canon, or is his sociopathic monster character destines for the trash bin of history?

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I was initially torn, but Amy sold me on this one. It's an underrated mini-masterpiece that I never would have seen had it not been for this podcast.

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This was an episode where I truly came in on the fence. I watched it for the first time this week, and its merits and shortcomings are very obvious. I was truly interested in hearing Amy talk about it, to see whether or not she could convince me Pennies From Heaven deserved to be in the Canon. Major props to Amy, as she did a great job explaining why this movie is a success and works on so many levels. A soft yes vote for me.

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This is a film I have a lot of strong feelings about.

 

I went into it cold on my local PBS station and it sort of sparked in me this interest in Dennis Potter as a young man and I gobbled up his BBC work going backwards and I'd recommend that everyone see The Singing Detective and Lipstick on Your Collar.

 

Pennies From Heaven is not as good as the BBC series, I want to state that off the bat.

 

The BBC series is a commentary on a very different kind of culture - the culture of the Depression era dance hall music in England that sort of manifested itself in the mind's eye of its listeners without any particular visual cues. So fantasies about those songs seemed more in line with the imagination of the listener. Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello's parents were musicians in this older dance hall culture and it influenced their work greatly.

 

The Herbert Ross/Steve Martin Pennies from Heaven is very much steeped in Americana and visual dynamism - explicit references to Busby Berkeley musicals, Edward Hopper paintings, Depression era photographers like Dorothea Lange etc. In that respect its a little harder to pivot and let the characters indulge in fantasies tailored to their own dreams and desires since its so specifically manifested in those works.

 

I don't think Pennies From Heaven is a great movie, but I'll vote yes for the Canon but it strikes me years later as a work I've never been able to shake and there's really nothing like it even in downbeat musicals like All that Jazz and Dancer in the Dark; both which I like better.

 

Per usual I think I'm somewhere in between Devin and Amy in my take of this film.

 

On Devin's point, the "reality" of the film is not portrayed as reality. This is a film which indulges in nightmare and pleasant dream imagery. The nightmarish stuff is cribbed explicitly from famous Hopper Paintings and New Deal-era photographers, I think, as an explicit acknowledgement of the fears of the era. So the reality of Arthur being implicated in murder is more of a psychological terror in an era defined by fear of poverty and violence. That the wrong decision or naive move, picking up a mentally unstable drifter or taking some money from a pimp, could result in your own ruin.

 

At the same time I think Amy does give Herbert Ross a little too much slack. In many ways he doesn't rise to the challenges of the script, production design or performances

 

I agree that Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters are the right people for these roles. They come across as bizarre funhouse mirror images of screen icons of the era - keeping with my point that nothing is this film is supposed to scream out "gritty realism." But I think Ross doesn't do enough to humanize their dreams and desires especially in regards to Peters who is implied to be a dreamer herself. Even if their meant to be dark visions of matinee idols, Ross takes their performances at face value and doesn't really pivot to give the audience a deeper understanding of who they are and what they want beyond "the songs are so lovely, what if we could live in them." Martin and Peters do the heavy lifting and at times they could really use the help of a more capable director. Ross takes the most superficial reading of Potter's work and the BBC series' doesn't rest on those laurels.

 

The unsung performance of this film I think is actually Vernel Bagneris as the Accordion Man. His arc seems oddly poignant and a good anchor to Arthur's doomed romanticism. Here's a man who is undeniably broken and disturbed and I think does attract some sympathy even in light of what he's done. It's a great and explicit echo of Arthur's own arc, he tries to be decent but is broken in some fundamental and hideous way which leads to the misery of others.

 

So I do have a lot of problems with the execution of this film obviously. Yet I can never forget it. It works on a part of my mind which grapples with depression, even listening to both Amy and Devin argue about this film depressed me in their recollections of the film.

 

I think its a valuable addition to the Canon because its unique and unforgettable not necessarily because it gets everything right.

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I watched Pennies From Heaven last night for this episode, and my fiancee and I fell in love with it. Does it feel rushed and cramped? Yes, but I thought it was so much fun and beautiful.

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I am angry that this movie exists and now I'm mad at Amy for making me sit through it.

 

If I were to come on the podcast and try to convince someone that the 1986 animated Transformers movie was a layered, nuanced examination of good vs evil, putting on my blinders to the fact that it is objectively bad because it pushed all of my immature awesomeness buttons, I might sound something like Amy trying to defend this movie.

 

First, this movie is an insult to musicals. Good musicals showcase the talent of the cast and the musical numbers move the plot forward. This is not anywhere near the case with this film. The actual songs used seem like afterthoughts, and we are subjected to lip-sync number after number like a bad high school talent show. At least Mama Mia respected us enough to have the actual actors sing the nonsensical numbers, and Pierce Brosnan's terrible singing is still better than the weird choice of voices that the characters in Pennies from Heaven emit.

 

Second, at this point I am used to Amy pointing out "problematic" things in classic movies, yet in a time where we are trying to make people aware of the concept of rape culture, I don't understand how Amy glosses over a protagonist who discards and ruins the lives of two women because he is oblivious to the idea of consent and does all his thinking with his dick. He is an irredeemable monster who I'm glad was hung unfairly. Amy mentions multiple times that he fell in "love" with Bernadette Peters' character at first sight. It's kind of disturbing how obviously wanting to bone someone for his own selfish desires can be construed as love. Weird.

 

Just an awful movie. NO NO NO. I'd rather watch Cannibal Holocaust again.

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I wanted to like this movie. I like musicals, especially one with impressive dance sequences that make me go "wow!". Christopher Walken and Bernadette Peters are fantastic, the movie is gorgeous to look at and I admire the ambition but Steve Martin didn't work for me at all. Sad No for me.

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I liked a lot about this movie and I'm glad I watched it, but I don't think I can give it a yes vote. I think Steve Martin is great, and I actually think his reputation as a comedian works well with the film. At first I was kind of amused by him, but as the film went on I realized more and more how sincere the performance was and what a scum bag he is. But I do agree that everything feels rushed, and (even though I shouldn't judge the movie against a miniseries I haven't seen) I suspect the story is better told over a longer running time.

Soft no for me. The performances were great, I loved the fantasy musical sequences (especially Walken's), but the story is just too rushed to push it over the edge for me.

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This is the first time I've rented a movie and wanted my money back. Sorry Amy I'm going hard No

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I'm still on the fence.

I don't agree with Devin on Steve Martin's casting. I actually think his handsomeness and appeal works into the manipulative sociopathy of the character. Honestly, without that innate Steve Martin charm I can't see why either Bernadette Peters' or Jessica Harper's characters would put up with his nonsense.

 

I'm a little disturbed at Amy's identification with Arthur. I don't see him as the unfulfilled dreamer, but much closer as a self-serving jerk who has hardly any consideration for others unless it serves him. They commented on how we saw a little remorse in Arthur after he rebuked the accordion player, but it doesn't last. The diner scene after that was very interesting. It's all about Arthur's ego, how -even though he's not doing well- he has to show off that he's better off than the poor little fellow who was charmed by the woman that Arthur wants to cheat on his wife with. And his hitting on the (underage?) blind girl was outright sinister. What is Amy harboring that she thinks we all share?!?!

 

Agreed that a main character doesn't have to be likable. I enjoy many films without redeeming protagonists. But I feel like what Amy seems to love about this movie is so much better accomplished in other films (such as "Brazil" and "Dancer in the Dark").

 

Also, I am on board with Devin's point that trying to force sympathy for an irredeemable protagonist really puts me off (which is one of the reasons I can't stand the movie "Blow").

 

I don't want to rain on Amy's parade so I might abstain from voting, as maybe this is a movie that I'll need to watch again in a few years and I'll possibly get something else out of it. But the fact that I really do not want to ever see this movie again is having me lean "no". I'm curious to read the discussion in this thread before making up my mind.

 

Though: Having a musical where Bernadette Peters (for the most part) lip syncs instead of sings? I understand why, but still...[sad face]

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Amy made a lot of good points advocating for Pennies From Heaven, but I just couldn't get into it. The juxtaposition of '30s depression realism and musical optimism is too on the nose, Bernadette Peter's character shift too abrupt and the pacing was a bit clunky. I just don't think Steve Martin's character is as complex and nuanced as Amy suggests. I did enjoy the music and the dance numbers, but I don't think these make it absolutely canon-worthy. Still, it is an interesting watch (like a nihilistic Secret Life of Walter Mitty) and I'm always up for some Walken dancing.

 

A somewhat soft no.

 

What I find interesting are the responses both here and in the homework thread where people seem to be actually angry at the film. What pushes it from "Not my cup of tea" to "GAHHH!!"?

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Man, I feel bad, but I'm a soft no. Which was exactly how I felt with Re-Animator.

 

I checked Pennies From Heaven out for the first time this weekend, and... well it certainly was an experience. It was certainly unlike anything I've ever seen before, and hearing Amy describe it as a beautiful mess is pretty accurate. But where she loves it, it kind of left me cold. It was a fascinating movie that had a lot to say, and honestly after hearing Amy's thoughts on the movie I feel like it would make an interesting double-feature with Anomalisa, but the issues just outweighed the good sides for me when it comes to the Canon. I think I liked the movie, and I certainly liked it more than Re-Animator, but I just don't think it was Canon worthy.

 

PS, I loved Amy's thoughts on Fantasy being used to examine mundane concepts in fresh and exciting ways.

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I watched Pennies from Heaven this weekend. I also watched Albert Brooks's Modern Romance this weekend, which is similarly about a self-centered dude who does not fully live in reality, and whose significant other does not deserve his emotional abuse. I may prefer the latter film, but I totally relate to both characters, and I get living so outside of reality that you lack any awareness towards how you treat the people that matter most to you. When Amy relates to Steve Martin in Pennies from Heaven, that totally makes sense.

 

Plus, I love how absolutely different this film is. Like Amy said, there's nothing quite like it. Why can't we celebrate something smart and sad and weird like Pennies from Heaven the way we celebrate cult gems like Re-Animator or They Live? Personally, I want a big canon, and the canon is big enough for Pennies from Heaven.

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There's enough in Pennies From Heaven that makes it noteworthy, but it's not perfect by any stretch, but it's almost more endearing because of it. Comparing this with more genre-steeped 'rough gems' is a pretty valid point, so, yeah... Its a soft yes.

 

Mostly though, I just want Devin and Amy to, like, get along... y'all.

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Like Amy said, there's nothing quite like it. Why can't we celebrate something smart and sad and weird like Pennies from Heaven the way we celebrate cult gems like Re-Animator or They Live? Personally, I want a big canon, and the canon is big enough for Pennies from Heaven.

 

Hmm, I like this point. I did not like the film, but I did not think it was a "bad" film. And I can definitely recognize that it was interesting and unique.

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I have so many complicated feelings about this movie and for that reason I have to vote yes. I would never have watched this outside the context of this podcast and I might never watch it again. It's not a movie that I enjoyed but, like Amy said it's ambitious as hell and I respect it for that. One of my favorite things about Amy as a critic is that she has an incredible capacity to empathize and find the humanity (even if it's ugly) in all characters. I want to hate Arthur and, I do but, if I'm being honest I understand what Amy means when she says that she identifies with parts of him. This movie is confident enough to ask you to take a journey with a horrible, ugly, selfish protagonist and I love that there is no retribution for the pain he causes. His fate is random and stupid and there is a second, right before the end where I feel bad for him.

 

As fucked as the gender politics of this movie are, I appreciate that it is working towards something complicated. I like that Bernadette Peters gets to own her sexuality, I like that Jessica Harper gets to be dimensional and I love that this movie understands that sometimes the most insidious cruelty done to women (and all people really) is under the guise of romance and love and dreams.

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So I came in expecting to hate this, but I was actually pretty floored by it once I watched it. I don't love how the plot unfolds, and the accordion man character took a massive left turn that felt a little too cynical to me, but some of the musical sequences are in such beautiful contrast to the action taking place in the real world that I have to vote "yes". That lip-syncing almost explicitly suggest this is more about the characters inner life and less about performance, and the lovely dream-like musical sequences make the entire movie for me. It's so trippy and sad and profound in a way that wouldn't even come close if we were watching just the musical numbers, or just the real-world plot. I love it. Beyond canon-worthy. Yes. And also a pleasant surprise. Thanks for suggesting this one; it's kind of a favorite now.

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I voted "N-O" because this movie is just not the *greatest* at anything. It just isn't, and I'm sorry Amy... Just because you love something and you find Something substantive inside it, doesn't necessitate admittance into the hallowed halls of The Canon Eternal. 'Re-Animator' at least *is* one of the greatest genre exercises of the 1980's, and if I remember correctly the entire argument surrounding that movie came from an incredibly *ignorant* philosophy that there's already too much Genre in The Canon, that too many incredible 1980's Horror films specifically were previously admitted.... If you had went with 'Synecdoche, New York' however, that *would've* been a slam dunk.

 

I wanted to vote yes, because I voted yes for 'Re-Animator', and because I don't want you to feel like your taste (and therefore yourself) isn't reflected in The Canon.... But this dreck?

 

N-O.

 

Pushing this into The Canon would be like me insisting that we do an episode on Christophe Gans' 'Brotherhood of the Wolf', one of *MY* favorite movies. I love everything about that movie, and I always hope that others find what I find in it as well, but it's just not a great movie. It's really ambitious and creative and beautiful, but at the end of the day it still needs to get an A+ to be in The Canon. 'Pennies from Heaven' is barely a C, and C's don't make it onto the Honor Roll

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"Indulgence" picks are automatically disqualified from the Canon, almost by definition. Devin borked the last time and managed to get Re-Animator in, when it clearly doesn't belong, but two wrong don't make a right. This movie is neither influential, important, or of especially high quality. I guess it's more unusual than Re-Animator (unless you count the original miniseries, which I haven't seen but presumably contains the same distinctive features), but also less enjoyable. A musical consisting of such obvious lipsynching of old songs is bad idea, and there was way too much of it here. Steve Martin was not a great choice for lead, and Bernadette Peters might have been if they actually let her sing. The murder plot is out-of-left-field yet also "writerly" like Devin said, as if it's supposed to have thematic relevance but doesn't really. The protagonist is entirely one-dimensional, unsympathetic and uninteresting to boot. I was never invested in anything he did because he was an obvious jerk & incompetent to boot. I guess it made the other Canon picks I watched before it that I was lukewarm on (Breakfast at Tiffany's & A Hard Day's Night) look better by comparison.

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A respectful NO for me. Agree with Devon about the miscasting with a Steve Martin, but also agree with Amy about it being a fascinating mess. Would probably say something like One From The Heart does a better job of this sort of idea.

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I mentioned my intense dislike of this film in the Homework thread- but a it's a dreadful film.

 

I can't induct a misanthropic musical into the Canon that has so little control over its tone and themes.

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I feel bad for voting this one down, because it's a movie I'm affectionate towards, even though I don't think it's very good. But I'm voting no.

 

I would compare this in a weird way to Watchmen, another movie I'm affectionate towards despite its massive flaws. I think the movies are both a little too literal in their adaptation without really fully capturing what makes the originals more successful (and both have major casting issues). I think the movie really really doesn't get the lip synching device. In the series, it's way more of a music and theatrical dance hall based thing, and that approach to filming those sequences reflects that. In the movie version, it's more of a Hollywood musical approach which undercuts our expectations in a way that I don't think the movie ever really earns and opens it up for legitimate "why isn't this performance a little better" criticisms.

 

I also think Devin is right about Martin vs. Hoskins. Hoskins essentially saves that production by making a pretty shallow character watchable and relatable. I don't think Martin really pulls that off entirely because you don't really feel sorry for the guy. He's just sort of too obvious about his intentions, too delusional about reality and too shallow in his ambitions. And while I think that's on the character as much as its on Martin, Martin doesn't really do the character many favors with his approach.

 

Beyond that, I think a lot of Devin's issues with the story apply to both versions. Both versions of Pennies from Heaven are interesting, but not necessarily stuff I'd recommend with enthusiasm to anyone but fans of Dennis Potter's work or certain kinds of non-traditional musicals. I think The Singing Detective (the series not the film adaptation) is the Dennis Potter work I'd point to as it pretty much does everything Pennies from Heaven does but better (although Pennies has better roles for women).

 

So I vote a very soft no, with all apologies to Amy who made a pretty good case for the movie.

 

Incidentally, another good indulgence pick type movie that involves Jessica Harper and Bob Hoskins, 1975's Inserts, is a movie very much in line with the spirit of Pennies From Heaven and also well worth checking out for anyone who wants to keep wallowing in the misery of depression era entertainment as reflected through the lens of the 1970s malaise.

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I'm sad Amy probably won't read the comments this week, so she won't know that she absolutely sold me on this. I'm a yes after hearing her points.

 

First, I was on the fence about the lip-synching just after watching. It seemed to teeter between over-sincerity and kitsch. The idea that the characters having these fantasies are only able to express their feelings through these songs resolves that in my eyes. The concept that a song can articulate something better than you could is as meaningful today as it was in the '30s or the mix-tape '80s or the mix-CD '90s (what do people make now, mix-Spotify-playlists?). This interpretation of the musical numbers really changed the characterization for me and made them feel all the more relatable.

 

Speaking of which, time for a negative note: Arthur's "mistakes" were not at all relatable to me. In the best-case reading, he's an incredibly selfish guy, and in the worst-case reading, as Devin said, he's a sociopath and a little monstrous. I have to say that I was leaning towards Devin's view while I was watching this, to the point where when he meets the blind girl, I seriously thought that he was going to try to rape-seduce her like he did with Eileen. As it turned out, he never truly crossed THAT irredeemable line, but the way the movie was progressing at that point, that seemed like a possible next step for his character. But I disagree with both Devin and Amy, in that I think the movie knows he's a little monstrous and does NOT want you to view his ending as injustice, but as a sort of karma for his other crimes. I don't think the movie thinks that he deserves a happy ending, but only that HE thinks he deserves a happy ending, which is consistent with his selfishness throughout the film.

 

I'm also not sold on Devin's argument that Steve Martin was wrong for the role, nor do I feel as Amy does that he's perfect for the role. I see Devin's point that Martin seems more sarcastic than he means to, particularly at this point in his career (although I am vehemently against this as an argument against him in Bowfinger, where he had the perfect mix of sarcasm and sincerity for that role. I could talk a lot about how much I like Bowfinger for what it is). But intentional or not, I think that little note of irony helps make Arthur look like more of a bad guy, which I still believe is the way the movie wanted him to be viewed. If he was 100% sincere, his later faults would be even more jarring. I also disagree with Devin's argument that he's too handsome for the role, and I don't get why a less handsome person would be better for the role. He has a beautiful wife and gains a beautiful mistress, so the character can't be too bad-looking. I think Martin was absolutely fine in the role.

 

In all, it has some spectacular musical numbers (and a couple that drag) and a generally frustrating story (with a few excellent character moments). I had trouble reconciling the two as one coherent film until I listened to the podcast. Now, I'm onboard with it. It's a truly unique movie, and if it did actually kill the movie musical as was suggested in the podcast, that's enough to make it Canon-worthy right there! I can understand why some people would dislike it, but I'm a little dumbfounded at how angry some people seem to be about it. I wouldn't pay money to watch it again probably, but if I ever stumble across it on TV, I'll probably tune in.

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I have been looking forward to this episode, because I was really curious to see how this plays out. I see a tough one here.

 

Personally, I love this movie. It has lasted with me since the first time I saw it.

 

I have also experienced the difficulty of trying to turn others onto this movie. Its "gimmick" is difficult to fall into, even if you are a fan of musicals - this is more of a lip-syncacal. (And putting Bernadette Peters into a musical feature without letting her sing is almost an unforgivable sin in itself.) The mix between reality and dream makes things sometimes challenging to follow, and many people want to watch a movie to escape, not to be challenged (I don't understand this, but that is what I am told repeatedly by people I try to get involved in deeper works.) And Steve Martin as our lead actor is the weakest link (he became a much better actor later on - even "Roxanne" Martin would have done better.)

 

That all said, the filming is fantastic - there is a reason why people love to watch clips of this movie they have never actually seen. And the story is so masterfully constructed. Let's take the whole daydreaming/reality thing. We are introduced to Steve Martin's character as a dreamer. He constantly fades into his dreams, preferring them to reality, so much so that he is an asshole (or sociopath) to everyone who doesn't match up with his dreams. Then he meets Bernadette Peter's character. She becomes someone who shares his dreams, to the point of eventually having her own moments of dreams superseding reality, such as the fantastic Christopher Walked tap scene. His dreams are infectious, and they have become almost a folie à deux.

This leads to the most subtle and brilliant part.

First, Martin is set up to be hanged for a crime he didn't commit. It is interesting, that given all the horrible things he has done, he is judged on the one thing he didn't do. This gives him with his full psychotic break (it is foreshadowed by his recital of lines earlier - the dream is starting to seep into reality). That final song he sings is all about how there must be bad things for there to be good things - he can finally look back at himself and not find himself falling short of his dream's ideals, since for once he was innocent, and this can be the true bad thing that will lead to all his dreams being true. That is why he sings the song himself - there is no reality anymore, his final moments are all him joining his dream world and he can smile at finally reaching his goal. And he dies.

But then we have him in that final scene with Bernadette Peters. It is vital to realize that this is one of those lip-sync songs again, meaning it is a dream. It isn't his dream, since he is dead. It is hers. She has now sunk into her own dream world rather than face reality. So, far from a happy ending, this is the worst of all possible endings. She has become him. The movie has ended no longer as his movie but hers. You could very well make a sequel to this movie that follows her daydreams while she becomes a sociopathic hooker.

 

So yeah, this is a yes for me. A softer yes than I would like, but Martin's lack of acting depth (at this point in his career) is a huge problem and almost derails the whole thing.

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