Charles Bronson punched Scarlett Johansson in my dream last night. Okay, he didn’t actually punch her for real. It was more like play fighting. They were sparring in a dark snowfield and I was trying to find my tinted glasses, and WHAMO! Scarlett was flattened out next to me. She was laughing her ass off, and Bronson was helping her up and whispering something in her ear, which annoyed me because there was the sound of rustling and snorting coming from the shadows and Bronson and Scarlett weren’t even paying attention to it. They were too busy whispering.
Okay, that’s a strange dream reference. But you can count on me to over explain the logic to the Nth degree.
Before going to bed last night, I was surfing a lot of 70’s entertainment and it probably got me looking into the rearview mirror of my life. Then, crawling into bed and adjusting the pillow, my mind kept crooning the chorus to a cheesy Love Boat-sort of lounge song. I fell asleep with a certain weird mindset.
My favorite movie star has always been Charles Bronson. It’s hard to explain, considering my fancy boy tastes in high culture, but it’s the truth.
Bronson rules. But he was the unlikeliest of movie stars, and probably, of all the leading men in the history of movies, Charles Bronson had the least range as an actor. He rarely emoted or even changed his expression, and when he did speak, he voice was a rough whisper. Bronson didn’t need to talk. He could coast on presence and silent brooding menace like nobody’s business and he wound up the world’s favorite movie star throughout most of the 1970’s. He didn’t rise to fame quickly. He didn’t make his first movie until he was 30 years old and then he spent the next two decades playing supporting roles such as Indians, convicts, cowboys, boxers, and gangsters. It wasn’t until he was almost fifty that he found lasting success with his starring role in the legendary Once Upon a Time in the West.
Hard Times is my personal favorite Bronson movie. It’s about bare-knuckle fighting in Depression era New Orleans. I remember the tag line from the poster. NEW ORLEANS, 1933, IN THOSE DAYS WORDS DIDN’T BUY MUCH. That pretty much sums up Bronson’s granite presence. This is a movie that celebrates men who only communicate with their fists and that idea appealed to us teenage boys who were struggling to find articulation in life. I didn’t watch any videos of Hard Times last night, but if I’m in a 70’s mood, that movie always finds its way into my subconscious. Bronson play fighting with Scarlett is a representation of that movie and it‘s influence on my 1970’s.
Another was The White Buffalo, a weird offbeat western/monster flick that Bronson did during my coming of age period when going to the movies was a weekly event for me. It was a riff on the Moby Dick theme, with Bronson as an aging gunfighter haunted by dreams of his own death by a mammoth albino buffalo. There were lots of dark symbolisms and occult references, as Bronson heads to the snow-drenched Black Hills in Cheyenne country to battle the white beast. I always thought Bronson looked pretty cool fighting that wild-eyed hellish demon while wearing tinted prescription glasses, sort of like a muscular John Lennon.
Bare-knuckle fighting, snow, snorting beast, tinted glasses. Those things are easily explained. But where in the hell did Scarlett Johansson fit into my Bronson dream imagery?
Well, it was that damned cheesy lounge song playing in my head when I closed my eyes.
The age of the Internet has opened up a King Tut’s tomb of buried video treasures that we’d never have been able to find without it. I stumbled across this little diamond last winter.
It was the early 70’s and Charles Bronson was the hottest badass on the planet. Making American TV commercials was considered tacky for a star of his magnitude, so he went to Japan where we couldn’t see his sellout. He headlined an ad campaign for a new line of Japanese men’s care products that wanted to bank on the actor’s hyper masculinity image, but combined with those weird over-the-top Japanese aesthetics, the result was the most mind-blowing television commercial to ever scorch the airwaves.
A pianist that’s reminiscent of Sam in Casablanca tickles his way through a bluesy cocktail lounge number that oozes with the late night ambience of a swanky nightclub. Bronson is all dolled up in his tux and gazes romantically at the piano player. I mean, he’s directing a disturbingly intimate smile at the dude. A creeping sense of dread sets in with the knowledge that never, in all those pizza and Bronsonfest movie nights, did Bronson ever gaze romantically at another man. And never have we ever heard him use his gravelly voice to say something like “All the world loves a lover. All the world loves . . . Mandom.”
Bronson strolls out of the club. We see character actor Percy Helton as the valet, who always played an obsequious pipsqueak in old gangster movies. In Kiss Me Deadly, Ralph Meeker slams Helton’s hand in a drawer until he screams like a little girl. It must have been terrifying for that fat little guy to have a hand put on his shoulder and turn to face the mighty Bronson. He probably feared for his life. Helton is at his slobbery, fawning best as he escorts my icon to his car with his tongue practically up Bronson’s ass and wishes him a goodnight. “Sleep tight!” he exclaims and then cackles insanely as Bronson zooms off into the night at a drunken high rate of speed. And here’s where that cheesy song begins with those first swelling strains that had played in my subconscious last night. It isn’t on my mind right now though. Right now, I keep expecting Bronson to drive home and find a bunch of street punks there.
Alas, no. Bronson dramatically walks into his bachelor penthouse and starts undressing as some Jack Jones wannabe croons the Mandom theme song. Anybody remember William Shatner covering Elton John’s Rocket Man? Remember Stewie parodying Shatner’s performance on Family Guy? I’m imagining Stewie parodying Shatner again, only this time he’s covering this song. Ah, but these were the good old days when ladies loved the smell of a fine pipe, so after selecting his favorite pipe from his pipe rack, Bronson strips off his shirt and with a quick pirouette, flings it into the air as if he’s auditioning for The Sound of Music. His famous muscles proudly displayed, Bronson struts over to his Mandom shrine, grabs a phallic-shaped bottle of aftershave and spins the top off to the sound of ricochet gunshots.
Holy crap! He starts pouring Mandom on himself like he’s taking a shower in it. He’s gonna stink so bad he’ll knock a buzzard off an outhouse. I wonder what the ingredients are? Testosterone, pasteurized urine of Bronson, blood, Spanish Fly, diesel, and the smell of bad guys dying? Yeah, and some Godzilla tears. This is Japan after all, and Bronson would have been the only man who could get them. For most men, I’m sure this cologne is a powerful masculinity enhancer. It might even grow a second penis. For Bronson, however, it’s a man scent suppressant because his own natural scent is so powerful it would endanger innocent civilians. That’s probably why he has to use so much. Then there’s cutaways to Bronson’s inner cowboy, tricked out in fancy fringed buckskin, fanning the hammer of a Colt pistol at the camera in a flurry of manly action poses. As if that weren’t enough surrealism for thunderstruck television viewers, an off-screen stallion starts whinnying like he’s about to mount a filly. Or maybe that’s just the sound Bronson makes during the physical act of love. Ladies, you’ll have to help me with that information. Anyway, having now fully marinated himself in Mandom, Bronson leans back in his leather easy chair, pornstache impeccably groomed, and narcissistically caresses his face as he pours every ounce of his thespian artistry into the commercial tag line: “Ummmm . . . Mandom!”
Even repeated viewings of this two-minute slice of television nirvana can’t lesson the magic. Orson Welles couldn’t have directed this with more cinematic brilliance. It’s impossible to single out a defining money shot, as every single frame dazzles with overwhelming homoeroticism, and I‘m pretty sure that from now on, whenever I put on cologne, I‘ll be making ricochet noises and imagining I‘m a cowboy. Bronson was older than I am now when he made this commercial, and there’s a lesson to be learned here. This was a man who wasn’t giving up his sexual virility without a fight. He’ll attach his penis to a winch and crank it skyward if he has to. It didn’t matter how old he was.
But it is the ending that caused Scarlett Johansson to materialize in my dream last night. The commercial ends with Bronson sitting all alone in his tastefully decorated apartment, a displaced movie star with Tokyo like an ocean of glitter behind him, and there isn’t a single female in sight.
In the movie Lost in Translation, Bill Murray plays an American movie star, about Bronson’s age when he did Mandom, who arrives in Japan to make a commercial for whiskey. He’s tired and doing it for money and hates himself for it.
He’s a lost soul rattling around a Tokyo hotel in the middle of the night when he meets another lost soul, played by Scarlett Johansson.
She’s only been married a couple of years, but it’s clear that her photographer husband thinks she’s in the way. He’s young and filled with his own importance, flattered that a world-class model knows his name, and he routinely leaves his wife behind at the hotel while he works. She meets Bill Murray’s character one night and knows he’s a star, but she doesn’t care. Their eyes meet in the kind of telepathic sympathy strangers share when they know they’re thinking the same thing about something happening in a hotel bar.
I actually loved this movie. I loved it because it was the classic set-up for a May-November romance, but it never goes there. It defies our expectations by having the characters not fall into bed together. We’ve been trained and programmed by movies that tell us where to look and what to feel and what to expect, with stories that have clear beginnings and endings, but this movie doesn’t do that. Some might even complain that nothing really happens at all. It’s all an experience in the exercise of empathy. The characters empathize with each other and we empathize with them. It’s also a comedy of manners. Japan’s and our’s. Bill Murray leaves the hotel and goes everywhere surrounded by a cloud of Japanese who bow and thank him for, well, allowing himself to be thanked, I guess.
Okay, anyway, that’s my attempt to analyze the abstract images from my dream. And the part where Bronson and Scarlett are too busy whispering to each other to pay attention to the white buffalo threatening from the shadows?
My favorite scene of Lost in Translation was the ending, when Bill Murray leaves the hotel in his limo on his way to the airport and Scarlett Johannson is left standing on the street corner. He stops the driver and runs back to her. They embrace as he whispers something in her ear, and we’re not allowed to hear it.
Best ending ever.
We shouldn’t be allowed to hear it. It’s between them and part of learning to empathize with others, is to respect that they deserve their privacy.