In Promised Land, directed by Gus Van Sant, one-time farm kid, now hard-charging sales rep for a nine-billion dollar energy corporation, Steve Butler (Matt Damon) keeps trying to walk away from his small town past but finds himself walking right back into it. Part of his problem may be that he’s wearing heavy symbolism on his feet in the form of his grandfather’s hand-me-down boots which seem to know the way home.
I’m not going to try to snow you. Promised Land is not a great movie.
It’s a likeable movie.
More likeable if you’re a fan of Matt Damon.
Less so if you get annoyed at having your own liberal pieties repeated back at you as if in a sermon by a preacher whose attitude is “Betcha never thought of that before!”
But I am a Matt Damon fan and, as a regular traveler in the liberal blogosophere, I’m used to people telling me what I ought to think about things I already came to their same conclusions about a long time ago, thank you very much.
So I was able to shrug my way through the preachiness, a task made easier by the Matt Damon and co-star John Krasinski’s screenplay’s having a lot of the preaching done by Hal Holbrook, who is, after all, Hal Holbrook---Mark Twain, Abe Lincoln, Senator Hays Stowe, and the narrator from Our Town all rolled into one---and he can make the most fiery and brimstone-heavy sermon sound like good, practical, friendly advice, and sit back and enjoy Damon’s affable, easy-going but focused performance as Steve Butler, a sales rep for a natural gas company looking to lease farms in order to frack the hell out of the shale deposits underneath who comes to the small town of McKinley, Pennsylvania thinking the money he’s offering the folks who live there will be welcomed as manna from heaven only to begin to suspect that he’s the working for the devil out to buy the town’s collective soul.
That little bit of plot synopsis might have reminded you of Local Hero, Bill Forsyth’s totally un-preachy gem about a junior executive at American oil company sent to Scotland to negotiate the purchase of entire town where he comes to suspect, not that he’s out to buy the town’s collective soul but that he has one himself, a soul, that is. And I can see how it would be tempting to compare the two movies. In fact, I’ve seen other reviewers and commenters give into the temptation. I’m tempted myself and I am going to give into it, a little. But in an important way it’s unfair.
Local Hero is a comedy and one with a sharp satirical edge. Promised Land is full of humor, people say funny things and funny things happen, mainly to Matt Damon, but it’s in the vein of “Life isn’t all sorrow and pain and at least we’ve got that to laugh about.” It’s an earnest drama with something to say working its deliberate and wistful way toward an ending that won’t be unambiguously happy but will be full of meaning.
But there’s a way Promised Land could have and should have been more like Local Hero. Forsyth gave the village of Ferness an identity of its own. It’s a particular place inhabited by particular---and peculiar---people, who, even if we don’t get to know them intimately, we can see are busy with lives going on outside the confines of the plot.
Think of the anonymous motorcyclist roaring angrily up and down the narrow streets at all hours. Think of the men on the beach watching the old fisherman painting and then painting out new names on his boat and of the baby with them who seems to belong to all of them and none of them. Think of the faces we glimpse and the conversations we catch snatches of as the camera hops from table to table at the hooley. All clues to lives lived, privately and communally, that taken together give Ferness its peculiar and particular character.
McKinley is generic small town America. We meet only a few individuals and local eccentrics appear to have been banned by a town ordinance. Characters represent interests but not themselves. Steve assumes things about the town's economic situation but we have only his word and our own preconceptions to confirm it. Nobody in town seems to know their own business or their neighbors'. They don't get to tell us in what ways they're hurting or thriving. Nobody talks as if they have lives apart from the plot. Holbrook's character, Frank Yates, is a retired engineer teaching high school science and raising miniature horses but he never gives any of his past and present occupations a thought. Rob (Titus Welliver), the sly-eyed, soft-spoken charmer who runs the general store, Rob’s Gund, Groceries, Guitars, and Guitars, seems curiously detached not just from the town but from his own place of business, as if he seems to be minding the store as a favor to the real owner he expects will be back shortly.
The look, the sounds, and the feel of the town are authentic. We get to know what it's like to stand inside Rob’s but not what it's like to shop there, to have gone in for a loaf of bread and find yourself waiting in line behind people you know buying and paying too much for a week's worth of groceries because they don't have time to make the trip to a larger town with a real supermarket or don't have the money for the gas or to get the truck fixed, stand there and make small talk about the weather while they count out change and decide which items to put pack so they can afford a pack of cigarettes or a lottery ticket or a treat for the kids. Promised Land is supposed to be about people for whom money is a constant worry but it doesn't capture what it's like to live poor. Not necessarily to be poor but to continually not have cash on hand when you need it.
But Rob's appears to have only two regular customers, Steve and his sales partner Sue (Frances McDormand). Things are busier down the road at Buddy's Place, the town watering hole, but while we can feel what it'd be like to sit there at the bar with a drink, there's little sense of who we'd be drinking with, unless, like Steve, we're lucky enough to attract the attention of a pretty and slightly tipsy local grade school teacher. Something similar goes on at the diner where we can practically smell the coffee but can't hear any of the gossip being shared at the counter. It's not as though the people fade into the woodwork. It's more that the camera takes them in with the same interest as it takes in the woodwork. Director Gus Van Sant and his cinematographer love to photograph people in groups, but they rarely pick out individuals and move in for close-ups of their faces.
And this is how Promised Land gets preachy, by replacing individuals with examples. The young mother worried about her child’s future education. The crooked small town politician who sees opportunity to make a fast back off his constituents’ grief. The upright farmer making the case for things in life worth more than money. The shiftless goober instantly spoiled by just the promise of the comparatively little money Steve’s offered him. And, as if they don’t believe we’ll get the point, Damon and Krasinski and Van Sant take us to church for a succession of sermons.
The preaching isn't against fracking, although it's a given that fracking is an ongoing ecological disaster. And it isn't against the evils of corporate capitalism, although it's another given that the corporation Steve works for, Global Crossover Solutions, is greedy, irresponsible, conscience-less, corrupt and corrupting because, after all, it’s a corporation, and if corporations are people, my friend, they are not nice people.
But, like I said, these are givens and Damon and Krasinski and Van Sant don’t spend a lot of time in their pulpits railing against them.
The preaching is in favor of a Frank Capra-esque ideal of small town America.
There's a conservative streak in American liberalism, just as there's a progressive streak in conservatism---the fast fading, old-fashioned brand, not the Right Wing reactionaryism that calls itself conservative---that's brought out by every debate over paving paradise and putting up a parking lot.
In such cases, the conservative argument points out the progressive nature of development, how it will bring in not just money, but jobs and opportunity, how it will increase the tax base, giving localities the means to improve their schools and their infrastructure. Meanwhile, you get liberals arguing for leaving things as they are or even putting them back to the way they were in order to protect and preserve the community and communitarian values, to keep out temptations and pressures to live lives devoted to getting and spending and acquiring wasteful and unnecessary toys and gizmos. You even find liberals championing that supposedly most conservative of values, self-reliance---after all, people can become as dependent upon corporate-created wealth as upon government aid.
While Promised Land respects the conservative progressive argument and even grants the point, it comes down squarely on the liberal conservative side. But because we don’t get to know McKinley as a place where people live out this ideal and as a place worth saving for itself, as opposed to on general principle, because no characters represent it in its particularity and peculiarity, the town doesn’t speak for itself and so must be spoken for. And this is a job left mainly to Frank in his homely homilies, to Krasniki's character, an environmental activist who, being an outsider, is in the position of telling people in town what they should think and do, that is, he's a professional preacher, and to, of all people, Steve, who keeps bringing up counter-arguments to his own sales pitch as part of that pitch.
Now here’s what I found most likeable about Promised Land: Matt Damon’s portrait of a well-meaning man divided against himself.
Steve grew up in Iowa, working on his grandfather's farm in a town a lot like---he'd say exactly like---McKinley. But his hometown's economy collapsed when he was in high school, and he watched neighbors and family lose their farms and their homes. A frightened and heartbroken Steve got the hell out and he’s never looked back---because he’s always looking ahead at his past looming up in front of him as he arrives in the next small town that’s his hometown all over again. He’s chosen a job that has him constantly repeating the crisis of his youth. On behalf of Global Crossover Solutions, he visits town after town facing the same threat of collapse and ruin as he saw happen back in Iowa, offering…solutions. He’s proud to be bringing in the money and industry that will give people lifeboats to climb into as their old way of life sinks beneath their feet. As he leaves a place, having closed deals that have left many people rich, he can tell himself that he’s saved the day again. Then he arrives in the next town where he meets with the same challenges all over again, the same problems, the same sort of people with the same troubles meeting him with the same (what he sees as willful) blindness to hard economic realities, the same stubborn resistance to his sales pitches. He has to make the same arguments all over again, only this time, in McKinley, he has begun to sense that his main argument is with himself. It’s becoming clear that he’s his own main customer and toughest sell.
Damon starts Steve off smooth-talking, witty, amiable, but with a gaze that keeps wandering, as if he’s suddenly sensing someone walking up from behind him to tap him on the shoulder, and tell him, Enough of this nonsense, let’s get out of here, we’ve got better things to do. As the movie goes along, his focus turns inward, his witticisms develop an edge, his amiability gives way to irritability, and more and more he seems to be listening only to himself and not liking what he hears.
At a certain point Damon lets us see that Steve’s mouth is running several beats ahead of his thoughts. He’s thinking about what he’s saying after he’s said it and he can’t believe anybody would spout such nonsense and expect any sane or sensible person to buy it.
Steve tells himself and whoever he thinks is listening that his coming from where he does allows him to sympathize with the folks he's negotiating with, and it does, but it also gives him the knowledge he needs to manipulate them. He's a salesman and he sells by exploiting fears and offering to make dreams come true.
But Steve has been subtly sabotaging himself from the start. The movie opens with him being offered a big promotion, with his bosses giving him a glimpse of the corporate promised land, and it shakes him down to his boots, which, as it happens, in a bit of heavy-handed or I should say heavy-footed symbolism, are his grandfather’s old workboots. He’s not having a crisis of conscience. He doesn’t appear to have any moral or ethical qualms about his work and what he’s done to earn the promotion or any serious objection to the culture of the home office suits he’ll be joining, even though they’re shown to be slightly ridiculous. The new job will bring him in off the road, which ought to be a relief. But it will also root him in the city. And that will put an end to his search.
All along, it appears, a part of Steve has kept him on the move. That’s the part of him that’s still trying to escape his hometown. But the reason he’s still trying to escape is that another part of him has been looking for something in every town he’s “closed.” Home and a reason to stay put.
Steve’s sales partner, Sue Thomason, has no divided interests. She’s unapologetic about what she’s doing---her job. In fact, that’s her refrain. “It’s just a job.” And she’s not granting herself absolution with it. Her conscience is clear. A job is what a decent person does to provide for herself and her family and to better their lot in life. A job is an opportunity to do yourself good. This is what she sells on behalf of Global Crossover Solutions, the opportunity to make your life better. If improving your chances in life means getting the hell out, you get the hell out. The important thing, though, is that it’s up to you what you make of the opportunity the money from Global provides.
Sue has no sentimental notions about McKinley or any other town she’s visited or will visit. Every place is the same to her, just a stop along the way. Unlike Steve, she doesn’t see herself as saving anybody or anything except herself, and, although she likes and admires Steve, she regards his savior complex as an indulgence, and a weakness, and, ultimately, a threat to her.
Her affection for Steve never wavers but her respect for him does, and we can see her point, because, as Sue, Frances McDormand manages to make cynical pragmatism and an almost conscience-less self-interest virtues. Or at least the forgivable side-effects of a virtue, one she practices without getting preachy about it, self-reliance.
This doesn’t mean Sue is without temptations to indulgences of her own, and one comes at her in McKinley in the form a sweet, mild, and humor-filled flirtation with Rob of Rob’s Guns, Groceries, Guitars and Gas, who manages to find and bring out the small town girl in the big city businesswoman.
McDormand and Welliver make a good team. So do McDormand and Damon. Their relationship is teasing, playful, full of the knowledge and habits and sympathies built up over too many miles logged after too many days on the road together, with Sue as the amusedly critical older sister to Steve’s over-achieving and a little too full of himself kid brother.
As for the rest of the cast: Holbrook is Holbrook. As Alice, the schoolteacher who catches Steve’s eye, Rosemarie DeWitt mostly has to make us believe she’s a good reason for Steve to suddenly start thinking about staying put at last, which she does through her wit, her intelligence, and her warmth. Scoot McNairy turns up as the upright farmer making the case for the things in life worth more than money, although for the life of me I couldn’t have told you it was him when he first appeared. After seeing him as the Doubting Thomas of the group of diplomats in hiding in Argo, the whiny-voiced thief in Killing Them Softly, and now in Promised Land, I’m thinking he’s on his way to becoming one of the great movie chameleons of our time. Tim Guinee has a heartbreaking cameo as one of the few residents of McKinley we get to know as something more than an example of a point Promised Land is making. Van Sant holds on his face as Guinee shows us the absolute terror of a man receiving news that seems to him too good to be true at the same time he realizes that his whole world is about to be turned upside down. And as the environmental activist who seems to have Steve’s number, because, essentially, he's Steve’s double, John Krasinski has the engaging and persuasive confidence of a man who knows he has right on his side and an ace up his sleeve.
The Blonde’s Blurb: Poignant!
Related Mannion at the Movies second run reviews: Matt Damon delivers another likeable performance in another Local Hero-esque comedy, We Bought a Zoo: Liking the Animals, loving the humans. And a lot more was at work in Argo than just Scoot McNairy being a human chamleon: The best bad idea we have.
Promised Land, directed by Gus Van Sant, screenplay by Matt Damon and John Krasinski, starring Matt Damon, Frances McDormand, Hal Holbrook, John Krasinski, and Rosemary DeWitt. Now in theaters. Rated R.
Ask me what I think about Looper being overlooked for nominations for Best Screenplay, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actor. Go ahead, ask me!
You really want to know?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a young Bruce Willis and Bruce Willis as an older Joseph Gordon-Levitt share the leading role of Joe, a hitman in the future who kills hitmen from the future’s future, in Rian Johnson’s sci-fi film noir, Looper.
Looper is classic film noir.
It has the right elements. The story's set in a city corrupt enough that the underworld bleeds into the daily life of the city without anyone, including the cops, taking much notice. There's a morally compromised protagonist who seems too smart and in some measure too decent to be doing what he's doing. There's a good woman who inspires him to at least consider changing his ways. There's a genial crime boss who is good at making the case that changing his ways is not something the protagonist would have an easy or pleasant time doing and, anyway, the situation isn't so terrible, is it, considering the pay and the perks and the benefits? There's the protagonist's weaselly pal who puts him in a bind that makes him have to choose between doing the stupid but decent thing and the smart but rotten thing. And there's the antagonist who is the protagonist's moral mirror, his doubled self in whom he can see either the prospect of his own redemption or his utter damnation, in whom, so to speak, he can read the future. It just happens that in Looper this double isn't a shadow version of the protagonist's self. He is himself.
Oh, and time travel has been invented.
Or will be invented. Which amounts to the same thing.
I'm going to try very hard to avoid spoilers, but I'm assuming you know the premise. It's 2044. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, a hitman providing a very specialized service. He's a looper. Loopers hire out to whack criminals sent back from thirty years in the future by mob bosses there who want to dispose of witnesses, rivals, traitors, snitches, and screw-ups without a trace. The police in the future appear to be better at their jobs or are less corrupt than the cops in Joe's present and care when people are murdered, even bad guys. There's a crackdown too, it seems, because the bosses need to tie up loose ends and among those loose ends are the future selves of loopers like Joe. It's part of a looper's contract that his last hit will be his own future self.
You'd think this would create qualms in the loopers. It's one thing to kill strangers. It's another to kill the person you know best. You'd also think, knowing what's in store for them down the road, loopers would prepare and even take some steps to avoid it. But director and screenwriter Rian Johnson deals with that by playing with one of the paradoxes of time travel. You might be able to hide in the future, but the bosses know exactly where to find you in the past and whatever they do to you then is going to affect you now by changing the course of your life in between for the worse.
But Johnson also handles this on moral and psychological levels. You have to figure that hired killers are people to whom other people aren't real and that might be because they aren't real to themselves. As Joe tells us in the sparingly used, effectively placed hardboiled narration, "This job does not attract the most forward-thinking people."
That's a self-indictment, of course, but the fact Joe's self-aware enough to make it is going to cause Joe trouble, in the future and in the present. Future Joe is Joe grown smarter and more self-aware and more real to himself. And even though Future Joe is thirty years older, he has something Joe in the present doesn't think of himself as having much of, a future, and a future that matters to him. Which is to say, Future Joe has a reason to live and that means he has a reason not to let his past self kill his present self.
Johnson does an excellent job of setting up his future world of thirty years from now. It's different enough to be recognizably not our world. There are things going on that make this a place we would not be comfortable in and Johnson hints at what might have happened that brought this dystopia about, but he doesn't dwell on any of it and it very quickly ceases to matter except as a plausible background for the twists and turns of the plot. Otherwise, 2044 might as well be now or 1954. (Johnson comes up with an offhand but very funny explanation for why people in the future talk and dress like people now.) I liked how Johnson builds this world right away, in just a few quick scenes, while setting right to work telling his story. But maybe the best thing about Johnson's futuristic cityscapes is that they are created suggestively through small design and costume touches without heavy reliance on green screens and cgi.
And Johnson is one of the most patient directors going. He takes a long time to introduce his second male lead, which means he takes a long time to bring the actor who is in fact his star on screen, and he takes an even longer time to introduce his leading lady, so long that I forgot Emily Blunt was in the movie. Her showing up came as a jolt and a very pleasant surprise.
Taking the extra time to introduce Joe's future self---and Bruce Willis---is important because it is Old Joe who needs to be introduced not Willis. This is Gordon-Levitt's movie because it is Joe's story and there are not two Joes. There's just the one who happens to be played by two actors. Gordon-Levitt isn't playing a younger Bruce Willis. Willis isn't playing a young Gordon-Levitt. They're both playing Joe, and what Johnson patiently sets us up for is to see Old Joe, when he finally appears, not as the man Levitt's Joe might become but as the man he already is, just with less hair. (There are a couple of wordless bald jokes at Willis' expense worked in.) Being suddenly presented with a different version of Joe who is in fact not different, even though he travels with a higher body count and a longer list of sins on his moral ledger, forces us to re-evaluate our rooting interest in Joe.
Just what, we have to ask, are we rooting for him to do? Why should we root for him to do it? Why should we root for him at all?
There was a good-natured online debate at the time The Expendables 2 came out over whose career was the less expendable, Willis’, Stallone’s, or Schwartzenegger’s. Basically, the question was, Which one has made more movies that are real keepers. The answer is obviously Willis’. Stallone’s made some good movies. Arnold has too. But Willis has made a few more than either. (All three have made some incredible turkeys.) And he adds another to the list with Looper. But Willis has also delivered more truly fine performances (although Stallone’s underrated as an actor), and Old Joe may be his best yet. But, like I said, Looper is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s movie, and not just because it’s his Joe’s story.
I won’t argue that Looper’s going to make him a real star, his generation’s Clooney or Pitt (or Willis), next in line to Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper, because how do I know. But I’ll bet if he does make that leap (or sticks it if he’s already in the middle of the jump), fans and critics in the future will point to Inception as the film in which the process began and to Looper as the movie that made his bones as a leading man.
I hope someone does a joint interview with Gordon-Levitt and Willis focusing on how they worked out playing the same character at the same time but goes beyond discussions of prosthetics and mimicking gestures and facial expressions. It doesn’t seem to me that I can discuss Gordon-Levitt’s and Willis’ performances apart from each other or discuss both together without giving too much way. But it’s safe to say this. Both share an admirable lack of vanity. Neither one gives way to any special pleading on behalf of Joe. There are no overt plays for the audience’s sympathy, no softening, no blunting of edges that are as ragged and sharp as the opening of an old-fashioned can top. What is rotten in Joe is rotten in him as a young man and stays rotten in him the rest of his life. The rottenness is as much a part of Gordon-Levitt’s Joe as it is of Willis’. So is the little enough, that’s just enough, of what’s decent.
I find it funny that three of my favorite leading ladies of all time are just entering their primes now. Amy Adams, Anne Hathaway, and Emily Blunt. It seems odd that it may turn out that my all time favorites either had the best parts of their careers before I was born or during my old age. (There's probably a post in explaining how it happened that none of the leading ladies of my youth captured my heart or critical appreciation. Short answer: It took a long time for the Seventies to wear off. Shorter answer: Jane Fonda, Barbara Streisand, and Woody Allen. Oh yeah. There's definitely a post here.) I've seen Blunt deliver three fine performances this year---in Wild Target, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, and now Looper. Her cameo in The Muppets is a little gem too, although it's kind of an homage to her breakout role in The Devil Wears Prada.
Blunt is developing the character actor disguised as a movie star trick of becoming a very different person in each new movie without looking any different. Adams can do this too. I think some of it is due to their both having, even though they are beautiful, cartoonish features---big eyes, wide mouths, comically cute noses. It takes the attention away from their prettiness and focuses it on their expressiveness. In Looper, Blunt is ingenue beautiful but what she makes us see is that her character is not. She's a farm girl turned party girl turned farmer in her own right who knows how to handle that shotgun.
As Abe, Joe's genial and psychologically seductive boss in the movie's present, Jeff Daniels is smart, good-natured, laid-back, slyly humorous, and so likeable you almost want him to be a good guy. It's even easy to imagine how in another movie Daniels could play a different character in the exact same way as a good guy. But Abe is a bad guy through and through. He's just a very level-headed and practical-minded one and persuasive to the point that he can sell a selfish surrender to doing the wrong thing as a form of virtue.
And Paul Dano and Noah Segan are very good in a thematically connected pair of supporting roles, Dano as Seth, Joe's weaselly pal who drags him into the mess that sets up the bigger mess Joe makes for himself, and Segan as Kid Blue, Abe's weaselly in his own way, too ambitious but emotionally as well as professionally insecure lieutenant. Both Seth and Kid Blue, without any self-awareness, are constantly begging for others to be aware of them as selves. They each want---and desperately need---to feel they have worth in at least one other person's eyes.
Which loops me back to where I started.
Looper is the first movie I've seen in a long time that's made me want to turn around and go back in the theater to watch it again. (Unlike as would have been the case with The Master, I'd have gone back for the pure fun of it, not because I felt I needed to re-take an exam.) It's a terrific thriller that also works as pretty good science fiction. But it's important to keep in mind that despite its sci-fi trappings it's still film noir. Which means it's basically a morality tale.
For those of you who are wondering, Johnson deals with the Grandfather Paradox of time travel by giving into it. But also by using it to address a moral point.
The question isn't how time travel works or why if it's possible time travelers aren't already among us changing history with their every butterfly-squashing step or if they are, how come we don't know it?
The question is what makes any individual life essential to the timeline?
Who could be erased from it without loss?
The better way to phrase it, though, is the way Looper finally does. What makes a life worth dying for or, even better, what makes one worth living for?
I did my best with the spoilers. But be warned. I’m not going to scrub the comments clean of them. I’m asking folks to be careful and avoid giving away major surprises, but it’s hard to hold a real discussion of any movie without getting into any specifics. So if you haven’t seen Looper yet, you should probably avoid the comments until you have, which I’m assuming you will. See it, I mean. Which you should. See it. The movie. Help, I’m getting stuck in a loop!
Looping back to related movie reviews in the past:
For those of you who feel like re-taking the exam, my review of The Master, Caution: Genius and Work.
Looper, written and directed by Rian Johnson, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels, Paul Dano, Noah Segan, Pierce Gagnon, Qing Xu, and Garret Dillahunt. Rated R. Now available on DVD and to watch instantly at Amazon.
One of my favorite books from last year, Alan Lightman’s comic and philosophical Mr g: A Novel About the Creation, has been out in paperback for a while but I forgot to re-post my review. But since I referred to it in class yesterday, I figure now is as good as time as any…
"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters." ---Genesis 1:1-2
"As I remember, I had just woken up from a nap when I decided to create the universe.
“Not much was happening at that time. As a matter of fact, time didn't exist. Nor space. When you looked out into the Void, you were really looking at nothing more than your own thought. And if you tried to picture wind or stars or water, you could not give form or texture to your notions."---from Mr g by Alan Lightman.
Alan Lightman’s new novel Mr g is a small book.
Not as heavy as a hymnal. Not as compact as missalette. Not as thick as my edition of the New Revised Bible. It’s slightly bigger than my grandfather’s collection of Emerson’s essays he won in high school. Slightly larger than a primer on relativity my father saved from college and that I tried to read in eighth grade and gave up on less than a third of the way through, sadly convinced that my future did not lie in the sciences.
A hymnal, a prayer book, scripture, the musings of a transcendentalist sage, a scientific text. That’s the power of suggestion driving these comparisons. I could as easily and accurately say it’s the size of those old Modern Library editions of the classics but the resonances aren’t there. Mr g is a delightful tour de force about the creation of the universe as told by the creator himself. Ontology, cosmology, theology, philosophy, quantum physics, these are the subjects under discussion and the objects of jokes.
I entered the new universe and took stock. Matter. At that moment [the universe] contained only pure energy. But my two symmetry laws already guaranteed that matter could be created from energy---in fact, required it---so all I needed to do was specify the parameters of a few basic particles. This one spins this much, that one spins that much, this one responds to this force, that one to that force, and so on and so forth. Done.
Immediately, matter appeared! In fact, matter exploded. Matter burst into being with a vengeance, as if it had been languishing in a frustrated state of potentiality for eons of time and was finally given the opportunity to exist. Electrons and muons and taus, top quarks and bottom quarks, squarks, gravitrons, photons, neutrinos and neutralinos, gluons, W and Z bosons, axions, photinos, winos, and zinos. And with matter, of course, came antimatter: positrons, antimuons, anti quarks, et cetera and anti et cetera.
At every point in space, the hillocks and basins of energy gushed forth with matter. Some of this matter instantly annihilated with antimatter to create energy again, which in turn spit forth new matter, so that there was a continual give and take between the two. Energy begat matter which begat energy which begat matter. It was a spectacle.
Religion and science get delightfully mixed up in Mr g. Lightman mischievously plays games with the expectations of believers and skeptics, which is part of the fun but not the point. Mr g is a novel, a story, then, about a character in conflict. Remember the three conflicts from high school English class? Man against God, Man against Nature, Man against himself. All three are at issue in Mr g, with the second two being versions of the first, since Nature and Man are extensions of their creator---or reflections of his mind, he’s not sure. The conflicts are existential and internal, as God has to face the questions about his own existence. What is he doing? What has he done? Why has he done it? Is he glad that he’s created the universe? Did he do a good thing?
The photons in particular sometimes took the form of an oscillating wave of electrical and magnetic energy. I decided to call such a thing “light.” Where photons flew about in abundance and collided with other matter, there was light. Where photons were absent, there was darkness. Thus, when I created matter and energy, I also created darkness and light, and I decided that these things were good, although I was not sure at the moment what they were good for.
The opening chapters parallel and allude to the creation story in Genesis, the first creation story, the one told in Genesis 1, the one that can be read as a poetical summary of the history of the creation as science has come to lay it out for us, not the fable featuring Adam and Eve in Chapter 2. God, pausing after each step, looks upon his day’s work and sees that it is good. But Lightman’s Mr g is not the Biblical God. This is God as he might be if he created the universe according to the laws of physics and mathematics we know underlie and give order to the whole ball of wax and which many people see as making a creator unnecessary. He looks upon his works and is pleased to see that they…work. And that they work without him, without his having to continually “tinker” with them.
Bound by causal necessities, requiring not a single touchup or tinker from me, events…proceeded on their own with an impressive inevitability. As the universe continued to expand, its material contents cooled further and further. The brilliant displays of light slowly dimmed. And the attractive force of gravity began to dominate and reshape the terrain. Whereas before, small condensations of matter would quickly evaporate under the high heat, now they grew larger and denser. Lumps of material, most of it hydrogen gas, began to condense here and there. In the past history of the universe, matter had been rather evenly spread about, but now there were ridges and valleys, arches, amorphous aggregations, all bunching themselves up into ever denser bulges as each particle of mass gravitationally attracted other particles. The smooth, almost fluid topography of matter before had been beautiful, but these architectural constructions were even more beautiful. There were linear filaments. There were sheets. There were hollowed-out spherical cavities. There were ellipsoids and spheroids and topological hyberboloids. Great clouds of hydrogen gas swirled and flattened and spun out spiral wisps and trails. And within these spinning galaxies of matter, smaller knots of gas formed, collapsed on themselves, and grew hotter and denser---in opposite fashion to the rest of the universe, which was thinning and cooling.
Lightman’s God is a scientist. I kept picturing him as looking like the scientists in Sidney Harris’ cartoons, a little younger and thinner, but just as rumpled and with the same air of distraction, prematurely balding and wearing a turtleneck under his sport coat with patches on the elbows, one hand digging into his jacket pocket to fumble nervously and abstractedly with a piece of chalk. Creation is an experiment that’s going well, a theory that’s proving itself. But he doesn’t know if it’s good, because, for one thing, good is besides the point---beautiful is the point and beauty is a result of function, of the math being right---and for another, he doesn’t know what’s going to happen, specifically, with it or to it or because of it. He knows what could happen and what’s likely to happen, because everything in it will follow the rules he put in place at the outset. But because one of the things he’s created is quantum physics, probable variations are nearly infinite to the point that they might as well be infinite---it’s not worth the effort to foresee and follow them all to their logical ends to figure out which one will definitely come about. Lightman’s God is not omniscient because omniscience is a headache and a colossal waste of the divine’s time.
So the act of creating leaves him wistful and whenever he’s faced with an outcome he’s always left wondering if that was the best outcome. When looking upon his creation, he can’t help asking himself, Did I do that right? and Might I have done it better?
And he has another problem. The act of creation has changed him in ways he can’t quite put his finger on. It’s changed his aunt and uncle too---Yes, God has an aunt and uncle. No mother or father or other relatives, and definitely no son. It’s not explained where they came from. They just seem to have always been, like Mr g himself. They aren’t gods themselves but they are supreme intelligences and they are immortal. They can’t create but they can suggest. They can advise. They can nag and wheedle. And he respects them and defers, sometimes, to their judgment. He’s not sure exactly how they’ve changed, except that they seem to have become more themselves. And that seems to be the case with him too. He is aware of himself as a self, which vexes him with the question of what that means? What is he supposed to do about being him?
More irksome is the way others take it upon himself to tell him. His aunt and uncle. A certain stranger who strolls into the Void apparently uninvited. All of the intelligent animate matter in the universe that evolved to the point of being aware of itself as a self. That last group, made up of trillions of beings, in becoming aware of itself has become aware of something else---it dies. And it objects to this.
All those beings seem to think Mr g goofed when he didn’t make them immortal and they spend a lot of time and energy explaining that mistake or explaining it away to themselves---and to him, although they don’t know it’s him they’re talking to. Their minds aren’t big enough to comprehend him, so they’ve invented scaled down and simplified versions of him to talk to. Which is to say they’ve invented religion to comfort themselves. Mr g understands but he resents, mildly, their attempts to define him because it makes him feel defined and responsible.
Mr g creates many universes right off the bat. When he creates quantum physics billions more pop into existence. But at his aunt’s urging he decides to concentrate on one at a time and so he and the book focus on just that one. The thing is we don’t know if that one is this one. We don’t know if it’s ours. All we know is that it is built on---built out of---the same laws of physics and mathematics as ours.
Because of those rules, similarities, recapitulations, and distinctions without differences are bound to occur and do occur over and over again. The universe teems with intelligent creatures very much like us---and with intelligent creature very much not like us---but Mr g never deals with any creatures who might actually be us or, if this is our universe, to be aware that there is an us. Given all he has to look at, all there is to capture his attention, there’s a good chance he hasn’t noticed us and never will. In fact, there’s a chance that we came into being, lived out our collective lives as a species, and died off without his ever knowing we were here. Mr g, being immortal and able to exist outside of time, to an extent, experiences time very differently than his creations. Eons can pass while he’s walking up a single flight of stairs. He steps out of the universe for what to him is just a quick moment and when he returns whole star systems have winked into and out of existence. What this means is that if we are “here”---or were here---it doesn’t or didn’t matter to Mr g because we didn’t or can’t catch his attention.
This, of course, is the big and key difference between religion and science, between Genesis 2 and the Big Bang theory. Science tells us that the universe wasn’t created with us in mind. We are far from the point. The universe existed and went about the business of continuing its existence for billions of years without us and it will go on about its business and working its way towards its extinction for billions more years after we’re gone. If there is a God, what does that tell us about him and about us?
The intelligent self-aware animate material beings want more. They pray. They plead with him, flatter him, excoriate him. That he never answers adds to their fear and their sorrow. Their evanescence breaks their hearts. His indifference drives them to despair.
Mr g feels accused of creating their sorrow. He objects. It’s the nature of matter to decay and he expects intelligent matter to understand and accept that. Still, he can’t help feeling sorry for his creatures and and he concedes that he may have made a mistake, at least in not foreseeing the problem. Like I said, he feels responsible and this presents him with a temptation. Yes, God is tempted. He’s tempted to interfere.
He resists. Interfering would violate his rules. It would destroy the beauty of the cosmos that is the result of those rules at work. It would cause a mess. And it would be arbitrary and random.
This is grossly and cruelly unfair. Why him and not her. Why you and not me? Why us and not them?
Because I felt like it? Because it amused me? Because I did the divine equivalent of rolling dice?
Mr g does not play dice with the universe.
That’s the devil’s game.
That stranger I mentioned, he’s the devil, maybe. Not the devil we know as Lucifer. And definitely not Satan. He’s more like the adversary from the Book of Job who tempts Yahweh into testing Job. He seems to appear out of nowhere, introducing himself to Mr g by the name of Belhor.
Belhor, Lightman tells us in a note at the end of the book, was a demon from Hebrew and Christian mythology who also went by the names of Beliar, Baalial, and Belial.
The novel’s Belhor isn’t very demon-like. In fact, he’s rather personable, even charming. And he cuts an attractive figure, if you can overlook his habit of growing taller and skinnier with each appearance. He stretches out and thins out like a ribbon unspooling in a breeze. He weaves and wafts about the Void. A good description of his motions and manner would be, although Lightman doesn’t use it, serpentine.
Actually, rather than having biblical antecedents, Belhor seemed like a figure out Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach or Norman Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth. Actually, the whole book reminded me of The Phantom Tollbooth, in tone, in its playfulness, in its calm acceptance of its own surreality.
There’s more than a touch of Alice in Wonderland too, although I wouldn’t recommend it as bedtime reading for children, even precocious ones who can handle the math.
We don’t know how Mr g’s aunt and uncle came into existence, but we can make a guess as to how Belhor got here. Mr g tells us that when he created quantum physics
…all objects---even though objects at that point existed only in my mind---billowed out and swelled into a haze of indefinite position. All certainties changed into probabilities, and my thoughts bifurcated into dualities: yes and no, brittle and supple, on and off. Henceforth, things could be hither and yon at the same time. The One became Many.
Since Mr g is in essence a product of his own thought, the same thing happened to him, he bifurcated into a duality. Belhor is able to tempt Mr g because he is Mr g or he’s implied by him, the way on is implied by off. Belhor likes to wander about the universe, getting involved.
Belhor drops obvious hints that is involvement is often malicious and he enjoys causing trouble and pain. But of course he’s bifurcated too and implies his own opposite. If he can interfere for the worse, why can’t Mr g interfere for the better? Why won’t Mr g interfere for the better, Belhor asks. Why won’t he step in and undo Belhor’s mischief? Is he heartless? Is he cruel? Does he approve of what Belhor has been up to? Does he simply not care?
Belhor is clever, though. His method of temptation, which you’d think would be too blatant to fool God, is reverse psychology. He implores Mr g to promise not to interfere.
Mr g isn’t heartless or callous. He’s just by inclination, by temperament, by necessity, and on principle detached. Finally, though, the temptation to involve himself grows strong enough that he brings his attention to bear on one of his intelligent creations, a girl who is sinking into a life of remorse and despair because of a small crime hunger and poverty forced her to commit. This girl, by the way, may be human, biologically---although she may not. Mr g doesn’t describe her in detail. Girl might just be his word for a young female of any self-aware collection of animate matter. She appears to be bipedal and have opposable thumbs. Whatever she is, though, she isn’t an earthling. She lives in a star system that has only three planets. Still, she is human in her feelings and in having a heart that is breaking. And Mr g is tempted to help her. The tempter this time, however isn’t Belhor.
Do something for her, Mr g’s uncle pleads. Mr g’s uncle is more sympathetic and far more sentimental than Mr g.
Mr g is at a loss. What should he do?
Take away her suffering, says his uncle. Give her life meaning. Let her see herself as mattering.
Make her immortal.
Make them all immortal.
Or at least give them souls that are immortal.
Along with being a novelist of note, Lightman is a physicist on the faculty at MIT. But as far as I can tell, your knowledge of math and physics doesn’t have to be extensive or very sophisticated in order for you to enjoy what Lightman’s up to and follow along. But then I don’t know how much I know. My transcript contains only one college course in introductory physics and another in astronomy. But Pop Mannion started out as a physicist before he moved over to computer science and then veered off into politics, so I grew up hearing this stuff discussed over dinner and trying to read books Pop liked and said were probably not too far over my head---sometimes I succeeded. And I’ve kept that up. Routinely I impress myself by almost understanding popular works of science journalism and books like Sean Carroll’s From Eternity to Here and Chad Orzell’s How to Teach Physics to Your Dog and its soon to be published sequel How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog. So I’d say a (not very deep) grounding in college-level physics and cosmology and a habit of watching Nova and shows like Through the Wormhole would be enough. But the science writer Tom Levenson, who is Lightman’s colleague at MIT and a big fan of Mr g has assured me that a good high school level physics course will do the trick.
You don’t need any specialized course work to appreciate that Mr g is beautifully written. Just a good ear and wide-open inner eye.
I did not tell Uncle and Aunt about all of my visits…Or of the many things I saw. Once I hovered invisibly in a city that arched over a hill. The planet was a one of a dozen orbiting an ordinary star, the smallest planet in the system. It was a quiet world. Oceans and winds made scarcely a sound. People spoke to each other only in whispers. I floated above the city and looked down at its streets and inhabitants. Corners of buildings rusted in the air, billows of steam rose from underground canals. I spotted two men passing each other on a crowded walkway. Complete strangers. In the eight million beings living in the city, these two had never met before, never chanced to find themselves in the same place at the same time. A common enough occurrence in a city of millions. As these two moved past, they greeted each other, just a simple greeting. A remark about the sun in the sky. One of them said something else to the other, they exchanged smiles, and then the moment was gone. What an extraordinary event! No one noticed but me. What an extraordinary event! Two men who had never seen each other before and would likely not see each other again. But their sincerity and sweetness, their sharing an instant in a fleeting life. It was almost as if a secret passed between them. Was this some kind of love? I wanted to follow them, to touch them, to tell them of my happiness. I wanted to whisper to them, “This is it, this is it.”
Thomas Mallon's historical novel, Watergate, is now out in paperback, so I'm re-posting my review from last June.
His mother was a saint. About to be former President Richard M. Nixon delivering his farewell address to his staff, August 9, 1974. His daughter Julie and her husband David Eisenhower are to his immediate right. His wife Pat and his other daughter Tricia and her husband Ed Cox are far off to his left. Author Thomas Mallon has put that large empty space between Nixon and his wife to symbolic and psychological work in his novel Watergate.
In his compelling, believable, and surprisingly romantic and tender-hearted new novel, Watergate, Thomas Mallon tells the story of how that third-rate burglary led to the resignation of the 37th President of the United States through the eyes of characters who can't tell us what is going on. His main male characters are too distracted and his main female characters have no direct involvement with the break-in, the cover-up, or the political machinations and investigations that follow. The news comes to them as it did to the country, in snatches and echoes. They have pieces of a puzzle they each avoid putting together. None of the three wants to know the truth about the man they are devoted to, Richard M. Nixon.
The historical events we know as Watergate make their way into their thoughts like week old news from far away cities, registering but not immediately affecting their thinking or their feelings. The unfolding truth hangs at the backs of their minds, nagging at them from there, sometimes consciously ignored but unconsciously directing their decisions, sometimes dealt with intellectually but then having no influence on their actions---they pursue their own courses in spite of what they know is happening around them.
This is a useful narrative strategy. No one at the Committee to Re-Elect or at the Washington Post or in the Special Prosecutor’s office or on the Senate Watergate Committee was paying much attention to Nixon’s wife, his secretary Rose Mary Woods, or his friend and surrogate mother-figure, Alice Longworth, the eighty-nine year old daughter of Theodore Roosevelt. This allows Mallon to tell his story through moments that if they did occur were not taped, televised, or written into diaries, official records, trial transcripts, or reporters' notebooks. It's not just that there are things that can't be checked against the historical record. They can't be checked against the most comprehensive and obsessive memory. If you’re old enough and had been paying attention at the time, you'll be surprised by how much you do remember. There's enough Watergate lore, important and trivia pursuit level, to jog memories loose. But still things are done, things are said that won’t prompt a That didn’t happen or a That couldn’t have happened as much as an Is that made up or did I just forget about it?
So Mallon has given himself lots of room to make things up, to invent dialog, to read minds and attribute thoughts and motivations, to fiddle with chronologies and leave out narratively inconvenient facts, to “see” things that probably weren’t there and not bother with things that were, and imagine scenes and situations and even create and insert wholly fictional characters, some with invented names and backstories but many with the names and biographies of real people. And among the things he’s made up are a plausibly mundane explanation for the infamous eighteen and a half minute gap and a lover for Mrs Nixon.
You read that right.
Mallon has Pat cheating on Dick.
He leaves open the possibility that the affair was purely platonic and it’s been over for several years when the book begins but it's clear that it was deeply romantic and that Pat was and still is in love.
Ok. First the men:
Fred LaRue, a lawyer and consultant at the Committee to Re-Elect and the bagman who delivered bribe money to the Watergate burglars after they were caught to keep them quiet, is distracted by personal and romantic problems and, anyway, his voluntary and unofficial position and duties at the CREP are so nebulous that no one not even himself knows just what he’s supposed to be doing there and in fact his nominal bosses often seemed to forget about him for long stretches of time. When they remembered him, they didn’t tell him things because they assumed he already knew them. When the cover-up starts collapsing and the indictments start coming down, he's left half looking forward to being hauled in by the prosecutors so he can figure out from their questions where he fits into the whole scheme.
Howard Hunt, the former CIA agent turned novelist turned Plumber who supervised the break-in, is a romantic and a fabulist who starts off having a hard time distinguishing between his real life and the fantasy life he's concocted for himself in his spy novels and is then unhinged by a personal tragedy.
And Elliott Richardson, the Attorney General who was lionized for resigning rather than firing Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, although he has a pretty good idea of what happened and just how deep into it the President is, doesn’t let himself think much about the details. He’s focused on how he can use events to advance his career, which he sees as leading him to the Republican nomination for President in 1976.
It’s one of Mallon’s dark jokes that the man who came out of the scandal with a shining reputation for honesty and probity is an even more cynical and calculating political animal than Richard Nixon himself.
Which brings us to Nixon.
One of the things Mallon does not invent is an answer to the question What did the President know and when did he know it?
The only person who could ever have answered that was Nixon and he was never going to do that and his fictional counterpart doesn’t do it here.
Throughout Watergate, Nixon is always seen in company with people he can't confide in or alone where he refuses to confide in himself---he won't let himself think honestly about what happened. He deflects, rationalizes, explains things away, rehearsing in his head the story he wants everyone else to believe and testing it by how completely he can sell it to himself. With Mallon's Nixon, his first dupe is always himself.
The women are more clear-eyed and able to be more honest with themselves and about themselves. To a point. The point being where too much honesty would break their hearts.
Alice Roosevelt Longworth is the most clear-eyed and the expression brutally frank may have been coined with her in mind. But she's removed from key events by her age and by being only a friend of the Nixons, although a friend who can make quasi-secret visits to the White House whenever she likes and feels up to it. But her affection for Nixon is based on what he did to help her with a family tragedy almost twenty years ago that she still can't bear to think about. She knows he's in trouble. She has a pretty good idea of how he got himself in that trouble. She knows him well enough to guess how he's likely making it worse for himself. I don’t mean she knows the specific details of the dirty tricks and the step by step path of the cover up. But she knows how his mind works and understands that self- destruction is wired into him. She has what it takes to figure it all out for herself (and therefore for the readers of the novel) just from what she sees on television or reads in the papers or overhears at dinner parties. The trouble is that if she lets herself think about Nixon too long she ends up having to thing about what happened back then and she's determined to avoid that.
And she's old. She tires out quickly. And while she's far from senile, her mind isn't as sharp as it used to be. When she lets her thoughts turn towards the past, they often turn towards the very distant past, and the President she winds up thinking about, when it's not her cousin Eleanor's husband, is her father.
Rose Woods decided a long time ago that she was going to accommodate certain aspects of her boss' personality and ignore what she couldn't accommodate, which is how she manages not to blame him for hiring people she can’t stand, like H.R. Haldeman, who were clearly hired for the reasons she can’t stand them. It’s also how she can transcribe the tapes without actually hearing what's on them or, more to the point, hearing what they reveal about Richard Nixon.
Rose is a great character, a tough cookie and a creampuff, a realist and a romantic, nobody's fool but her own, with a passion for dancing and a longstanding habit of attaching herself to unobtainable men, of which her boss is only the most obvious. Rose lost the love of her life in World War II but she has steadfastly remained faithful to his memory not by perpetual morning but by searching out and then embracing, cheerfully and vivaciously, pieces of her understandably idealized fallen soldier in those unobtainable men. For instance, she is smitten by Alexander Haig the second he comes on the scene as Haldeman's replacement as chief of staff because he’s the kind of career officer and gentleman she imagines her lost Billy would have been had he survived the war. She doesn't delude herself into thinking that any of these men are Billy or could qualify as his replacement. She has just found a way to continue to love him by loving the pieces of him she finds in these men.
But this means she tends to see men in pieces. And that goes for her boss. She doesn’t see what’s right before her eyes because she only sees the pieces of him that are like Billy, which means she only sees the best in him. And not seeing the worst in him or even what's just not the best means not seeing Watergate for what it was, the ultimate expression of Nixon's instinct for self-destruction. She thinks of the scandal as something being done to him and not something he might have brought on himself.
Pat Nixon has carefully and determinedly created spaces, psychological and physical, into which she can retreat and politics cant follow her. And she expects---needs---her husband to respect those spaces and to know when not leave her alone inside them and to not bring politics in with him when he does enter. Of course Nixon being Nixon, one of Pat's great frustrations is that he keeps forgetting what's expected of him. He's constantly blundering in when he's not wanted and dragging politics in with him.
Pat has another reason for maintaining these spaces besides as refuges for her peace of mind. Within them she can protect her memories of one of the happiest times in her life, the years in New York City before Nixon became President and she was having that affair with a lawyer who numbered among his attractions being entirely without political ambitions. She also needs the spaces to keep open the possibility of reviving the affair.
Pat's affair is the most effective, affecting, and believable part of the novel. Not believable in the limited and literal sense of being something that might actually have happened. Believable in the sense that it feels true to life while you're reading it. The real Pat Nixon didn’t do this but this woman if she was real would have and would have felt and thought the same way. Pat's affair is the big reminder that Watergate is fiction, both by calling attention to the fact that Mallon has license to invent and to the skill by which the invention is accomplished---history, even the best narrative type, can’t be as well written.
Seeing Pat Nixon as a woman in love means seeing her as someone different than the stiff, pinched, and worrisomely too thin figure in the now very old photographs and news clips. It means seeing her as a character and that means seeing her the way we tend to see characters in books, which for most readers is as looking like people they know from real life or movies and television. I saw her looking like Michelle Pfeiffer, believe it or not. Pfeiffer’'s getting to be the right age and with a well-sprayed bouffant and a good Republican cloth coat...
I also saw Tom Hanks as Nixon.
The point is not to see them as the real Nixons, because they aren't and aren't meant to be.
They are Nixons that might have been.
As I said, Mallon’s decision to tell the story of Watergate through the eyes of people who don’t know the whole story because they weren’t really part of it is useful to him as a storyteller because he’s free---free-er---to make things up. But it’s good for us as readers because it keeps Watergate from turning into a political melodrama and from being a too historical a historical novel. Shades of Alan Drury and Gore Vidal cross the page throughout Watergate, but Mallon doesn’t share Drury's and Vidal's romantized and aggrandizing views of politics or politicians. Mallon gives us ordinary human beings to care about instead of heroes and villains to root for or against.
Norman Rockwell painted the history out of Nixon by not showing the qualities that made Nixon his own worst enemy. He painted Nixon as he might have been, if he’d been a happier, more contented, more secure man, or as he might have been on his best days when all his demons were safely at bay.
Mallon doesn't paint all the history out of Nixon to create his Nixon. He leaves out the meanness or, rather, doesn’t bring it on stage. We never see this RN at a Nixonian worst. We do however see him at his weakest and it's a very Nixonian weakest and as with the real Nixon almost more unattractive than his worst. The way Mallon's Nixon is most like the real Nixon is in his bottomless capacity for self -pity. But what we also see is how this Nixon might have been on his best days and how he might have enough best days that people who were close to him would believe that the real Nixon was that Nixon and therefore be inclined to ignore or forgive him at his worst and indulge him at his weakest. This is a Nixon you can easily imagine good people loving.
There's a limit to the inventing Mallon can do and stay within the bounds of the kind of realistic and broadly accurate historical fiction he’s made his reputation writing. He can’t change any of his main characters’ fates. We know that Pat Nixon didn’t leave her husband for another man. We know Rosemary Woods didn’t quit. There wasn't much Alice Longworth could have done that would have made its way into the history books, unless she turned out to be Deep Throat and Mallon never raises that possibility as even a joke. But that doesn’t mean Watergate isn’t suspenseful.
The suspense is provided in two ways. The first is by Mallon's trick of keeping the big historical events offstage from where they can act as reminders of what it was like as the story unfolded and nobody knew how bad things would be or how they would end---a remembered suspense. The other is by making us take these characters so much to heart that we worry about how they will deal with their disappointment and heartbreak when they finally learn the truth about what kind of man they've devoted themselves to and dread the moment when they learn it.
Mallon has us almost rooting for Nixon to get away with it, even hoping that he didn't do it, in order to have these good women's feelings spared.
Photo courtesy Richard Nixon Presidential Library via Wikipedia.
Couple times a month my routine travels take me across the river to Hyde Park and now and then when I’m over there and I have the time I make a point of stopping in for a visit at FDR’s old place.
His estate---he liked to call it a farm---overlooking the Hudson and his mother’s house Springwood and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum.
I don't go in reverently to genuflect before a shrine. I’m not there to commune with ghosts. I drop by for the company.
The Roosevelts, Franklin and Eleanor, have always been alive to me in a way other historical figures whose careers I actually lived through aren’t. It’s probably because they were still alive to my parents and grandparents when I was growing up and they got talked about with the same immediacy, knowingness, and affection as absent friends and family. I’ve mentioned how in Pop Mannion’s heart FDR is still his President. And part of it is that they both had such expansive, engaging, and inspiring personalities that their spirits can’t be bound within a history book…or a grave. But it’s also because they’re still at work holding the country together.
When conservatives insist that the New Deal didn't end the Depression, insist back they're missing the point.
The New Deal wasn't designed to end the Depression. It was put into place piece-meal and catch as catch can to save the country from complete collapse. Economic, political, and social. People were starving. Unemployment was 25%---nationally. It wasn't spread around evenly. Whole towns were out of work. States weren't coping by laying off some teachers. They were closing school districts! There were serious communist and fascist movements on the rise. Conservatism---Hooverism---budget cutting, austerity of the sort ruining Republican-cursed states here and now and doing such a bang up job of bringing economies back to life in Europe and yet still advocated by serious people in Washington as the cure for all our financial woes---had failed so miserably that even Herbert Hoover was giving up on it. The Depression had been going on for three and a half years and was just getting worse. FDR didn't come into office with a systematic plan that said in X number of years we will have reversed the downward trend, brought industries back to full capacity, and reduced unemployment to statistically zero. He came into office saying let's do what we can as quickly as possible to get people fed and back into their homes and save what's still there to be saved and head off riots and most important of all help people from being afraid.
"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" may be the most rousing declaration in the history of Presidential oratory and the most necessary thing any President ever said, but my favorite saying of his was something he routinely told people in private.
"If you run into troubles, bring them to me; my shoulders are broad."
He put everybody on those broad shoulders and saved the whole goddamn country.
I suppose that's why the Right hated him and hates him to this day. He didn't throw enough people overboard.
So many of us are still riding on those shoulders that I think he must be getting tired. He’s got to put us down at last. But then I feel the shoulders square, see the smile broaden, the chin lift another inch, the cigarette holder tip up even more jauntily.
This side of Roosevelt, the crippled man who couldn’t stand without locking into place painful leg braces, who couldn’t walk on his own more than a few steps without falling, who often needed to be lifted from a seat and carried by aides who was at his happiest and most energetic when he felt that he was carrying others, informs Bill Murray’s portrayal in Hyde Park on Hudson---there’s a shot of Roosevelt in the arms of an aide and the look on Murray’s face tells us that the President seems to think he’s levitating and hoisting the aide and pulling him along as she sails across the room. You can tell he wants to call out, “Hold on!” But it only comes out forcefully in one scene.
You won’t be surprised that it’s my favorite scene.
But it’s also the scene that gives the movie its reason for being.
Of course the reason for seeing Hyde Park on Hudson is Murray as FDR. But that scene is why we should care. Which makes that scene what the movie’s about. Which is interesting, because for long stretches the movie seems to think it’s about Roosevelt’s (suspected but denied by her nieces) affair with his distant cousin, Daisy Suckley.
Since Ghostbusters, Murray has played many parts that aren’t just variations of Peter Venkman, and not all of them for Wes Anderson. But with those parts it doesn’t matter---too much---if from time to time you notice it’s still Bill Murray up there. In fact, it wouldn’t matter---much---if your mind switched gears and you saw only Murray up there. In Hyde Park on Hudson Murray does his best job, that I remember, of not letting us see him as Bill Murray. And the times I caught myself noticing it was Murray I was delighted.
“Hey!” I said to myself, as if pleasantly surprised, because that’s what I was, “That’s Bill Murray!”
His performance is more suggestion than impersonation. He captures the look, sound, and spirit of the man, what it might have been like to be in a room with him, even have a drink with him, but at a distance. Roosevelt himself was good at that, making people feel welcomed into his company while still keeping them at a distance, a matter of temperament he turned into a political skill that the movie never shows him using overtly as a political skill. There are no other politicians on screen. No opponents whom FDR had a way of treating like his best friends. No friends and allies whom he had a habit of manipulating as if they were opponents.
Instead, we see him practicing on the four important women in his life at the time, his mother, his wife Eleanor, his secretary Missy LeHand, and Daisy.
And on the King of England, his majesty George VI.
“Bertie” to his family and those of us who saw The King’s Speech.
Hyde Park on Hudson centers on a historically loose---Ok. Practically entirely made up---account of an actual visit the King and Queen made to the United States on the eve of World War II, a visit that ends with a picnic on the Hyde Park estate at which the Royals are to be served hot dogs!
That happened. The picnic. The hot dogs. The nearly week long visit, which began in Washington (The movie leaves that part out) in June of 1939, three months before Hitler invaded Poland, was arranged by Roosevelt, who was working to prepare the U.S. for getting involved in the coming war in Europe. There was a strong isolationist movement here and FDR calculated that the visit would engage Americans' sympathies on the side of England and her allies.
The hot dogs were an amusing aside to the news reports. Supposedly, when the queen expressed uncertainty about the proper way to eat one, Roosevelt said, "It's easy, your majesty. You just put it in your mouth and push!"
In the movie, the serving of hot dogs is a very big deal.
The visit and surrounding events are seen through the very wide eyes of Daisy Suckley, who has become a frequent houseguest at Hyde Park at the invitation of the President's mother. The elder Mrs Roosevelt has the idea that in Daisy's innocent and totally unpolitical company, her son will be able to put aside his burdens as President and relax.
This works out, although probably not exactly as Mother Roosevelt expected.
Laura Linney plays Daisy as a woman on the brink of middle age who for some reason has apparently regressed to a shy and timid teenager. It's not explicitly explained how, when, or why this happened or even if it was a thing that happened as opposed to its just being who she is. Historically, FDR and Daisy became close in the early 1920s when he was fighting his way to the degree of recovery from polio he managed and she was still reeling from the deaths of her father and one of her brothers. But Daisy tells us enough in her narration to imply that it's the Depression and her side of the family's come down in wealth and status that's knocked her for a loop. She's sapped of confidence and energy and, practically, of will. On her visits to Hyde Park, she sees herself as more of a servant than a member of her family, and all she hopes to be around the house is useful and invisible.
In a way, then, she's symbolic of what the Depression did to the whole country, which sets her up to become another one of FDR's New Deal rebuilding projects.
We see him best at work on this project in the scenes of him driving her around the still very rural and bucolic Dutchess County where he grew up in the Packard convertible he had fitted with hand controls instead of pedals for the brakes, gas, and shifting. He enjoys showing her the countryside. He enjoys scaring---and thrilling---her with his apparent recklessness behind the wheel. We don't get to hear him at it, but Daisy tells us he teaches her to identify the local birds and wildflowers.
Unfortunately, there isn't a scene of them doing something FDR made a point of doing when he went out for his drives, stopping to chat with various people (voters) along the way. A scene something like this. Besides possibly saving us from an embarrassing and unnecessary moment of pure conjecture by getting it consigned to the cutting room floor for time's sake, a scene like that would have done two other important jobs.
It would have shown Daisy coming out of her shell to learn some lessons about the art of politics, and it would have provided a set up for a couple of later scenes: one involving Daisy and some unemployed working men doing odd jobs around the Roosevelt estate and the other a scene in which the King tries to mimic an American politician by doing the democratic thing and stopping his car so he can say hello to some ordinary Americans on the roadside, which doesn't go over as well as he'd hoped.
I have to mention: that embarrassing and unnecessary moment of pure conjecture is embarrassing and unnecessary, but it's also ridiculous and belittling to both characters and insulting to the audience, not to mention totally out of keeping with the mood and tone of the movie itself. It's ruined the movie for some people. But Pop and Mom Mannion shrugged it off and so did Old Mother and Father blonde. You can tell when it's about to happen and fast forward or leave the room to go get a drink.
Daisy doesn’t appear to learn any political lessons from Roosevelt. We aren't shown her developing the insight and the acumen that would make her useful to both Franklin and Eleanor as President and First Lady over the coming years and eventually lead to her becoming one of the first archivists at the Presidential Library. And her narration doesn't seem to contain the keenly descriptive voice of the letters and diaries that were found under her bed after she died and which have become a treasure trove for historians and biographers.
But she blossoms. She takes up smoking. She mixes it up with the working stiffs doing odd job round the estate. We watch her grow more sophisticated and adult. We see her recovering from the Depression.
Drama ensues when she discovers she’s not his only rebuilding project.
Drama being a relative term.
Director Roger Michell and screenwriter Richard Nelson are determined to keep things light and frothy. They don’t explore their characters’ psyches and motivations. And we're not given any real insight into why these proud, smart, talented, spirited women put up with him or what FDR needs from them.
Whatever it is, it doesn't appear to be sex---or, at any rate, not just sex---or to be coddled and taken care of, although he expects that. And why all of them? (Two more lovers are said to be waiting offscreen.) Were his burdens so great that one person alone couldn't lift them? Was it that because he worked round the clock he needed them to work in shifts so there was always a nurse on call? The movie doesn’t give any answers. Or even look for them
It simply appears as though they liked thinking they were needed by him while needing him more and he needed to be needed by them and that his way of relaxing from his burdens as President was to take on other burdens. He was doing for them what he was doing for the country, putting them on his shoulders and enjoying it. I like to think this is true. It fits with my ideal of the man. But the movie doesn’t try to persuade us that it is.
But then Hyde Park on Hudson isn't a psycho-drama or even a historical drama. It's not a drama at all. It's a drawing room comedy that happens to have one of the greatest Presidents of the United States as its main character. It has more in common with The Man Who Came to Dinner than with Lincoln or The King's Speech.
The fun is in watching a set of eccentric characters interact and in being amused or appalled or both at their misbehavior, although on that ground it should have been funnier.
Keep in mind that it is funny. And its funniest moments are provided by FDR's most serious rebuilding project, his efforts to teach the King of England how to be a leader not just his own people will look up to but who will inspire Americans as well.
So we arrive at that crucial scene, the centerpiece of the movie, an extended two-hander between Murray and Samuel West as George VI in which we see FDR at his manipulative and mischievous best, subtly letting Bertie know he’s already taken England on his shoulders, but it’s time for Bertie to stop being so Bertie-ish and start acting the part of King and share the load. The weekend’s a test that will let them both, and their countries, know if he’s up to it.
West plays the king as superficially enough like Colin Firth in The King's Speech as to be a comic counterpoint if not an outright caricature. His Bertie is more callow, more boyish, even more easily embarrassed and cowed. His stammer is the least of his reasons for his chronic insecurity.
But he's smart and he's eager and he's quick. What makes their big scene together work isn't Murray's gentle and witty fatherliness but West's initial thoughtful resistance on the grounds he's just not bold enough to pull it off slowly but surely giving way to a suddenly cheerful but still characteristically modest determination to give it a jolly good try.
The capper is a little moment of private triumph Bertie giddily allows himself on his way up to bed where he knows the queen will be waiting to listen sympathetically to how he's botched things once again.
Olivia Colman plays Queen Elizabeth (the present Queen Elizabeth's mother; Helena Bonham Carter in The King’s Speech) as a proud but fussy woman who's found herself in a situation where neither her pride nor her fussiness avail her or even make sense. To her horror and consternation her husband's being democratized, even Americanized, right before her eyes and all she can do is let herself be democratized along with him and that's going to mean a bunch of appalling things are about to happen, including eating a hot dog.
Physically, Colman looks to me like a more likely choice for Eleanor Roosevelt than the other Olivia in the cast. The real Eleanor Roosevelt, always insecure about her looks, probably would have wished she was as youthful and lantern-jawed handsome and as apparently indestructible as Olivia Williams who plays her in the movie as a cunning-eyed enigma with a roguish grin and a devil may care brazenness that I don't see in any of the photographs but which she must have had or been able to muster in order to accomplish what she accomplished as her husband's eyes, ears, legs, and public conscience when she went out into the country and then into the world while it was at war on his behalf and in her own later public career.
Williams’ Eleanor is hard to read except in that she's clearly made herself FDR's best student in the art of manipulating people. She and Murray share one brief, silent, but persuasive moment in which we see that whatever else is going on between them, they are happy partners in this game.
Disappointingly, the script seems to accept that the reason for Franklin and Eleanor's estrangement was her latent lesbianism and not his heartless caddishness. But Williams deftly swats this aside when another character clumsily alludes to Eleanor’s “friends”. She meets the remark with a big, blithe but steely smile as if to say, I'm not saying you're right, but if you are, so what? It doesn't change anything about you, about me, about my husband, or the importance of what's happening here this weekend, does it?
As Missy LeHand, Elizabeth Marvel does more with the lighting and quick stubbing out of a cigarette to let us know the crucial facts about LeHand than other good actresses could do with all her lines. This is a brisk, active, extremely intelligent and competent woman who has given over her life to what she’s decided is the most important job she could ever have, being indispensible to the President of the United States in every way possible, at the expense of her pride, her feelings, and her health.
This is the only note of realistic sadness Michell allows into the movie. He’s determined to keep things lighthearted. For the most part he relies on our knowledge of history and some special pleading in passages of Daisy’s narration to provide the tragic background to the comic events on screen. Hyde Park on Hudson is a temporary relief from history, which in a real way was the point of the actual picnic.
It’s a slight and small-scale film that doesn't do a particularly creative job of expanding upon its origins as a radio play. The reason for seeing Hyde Park on Hudson is, as I said, Bill Murray’s Roosevelt, which, again as I said, is more suggestion than impersonation, a sketch rather than a detailed portrait. Up close and sitting still, Murray doesn’t look like the real FDR. He doesn’t sound like him either. The cigarette holder, the pince-nez glasses, and the hat with the pushed up brim aren’t much more than props for a Halloween costume, and fortunately he doesn’t rely on them. What he relies on is misdirection. A line here, a gesture there, a look, a grin, and he has us looking over here instead of over there and what appears to be over here is the impression we just saw Franklin Roosevelt, a magician’s trick appropriate to the spirit of one of the great political sleight of hand artists this nation has known.
I left Hyde Park on Hudson feeling the way I often do when I leave Hyde Park, as if I’ve been in his company and that, if I’d needed him to, he’d have been glad to add my troubles to his shoulders.
Hyde Park on Hudson, directed by Roger Michell, screenplay by Richard Nelson. Starring Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Samuel West, Olivia Colman, Olivia Williams, Elizabeth Marvell, and Elizabeth Wilson.
Here’s the real Daisy Suckley playing with Fala in the President’s study in the White House, December 20, 1941. Suckley gave Roosevelt Fala, which is the subject of a blink and you’ll miss it joke early in Hyde Park on Hudson.
In an interview with NPR, historian Geoffrey Wolff goes to town an the many things Hyde Park on Hudson gets wrong. But this about the movie’s portrayal of Roosevelt’s polio confused me:
First of all, he's seen doing all kinds of things in the film which he never could have done. He could not walk on crutches by himself.
I wonder what Wolff means by “by himself.”
Before filming began on Hyde Park on Hudson, Bill Murray and some other members of the cast visited Hyde Park to do some research.
In December of 2010, someone else paid a call.
Considering how much I’ve been writing about it over the last couple weeks and that I appear to have nothing to say about anything else, you might be thinking Les Miserables is my favorite movie of the past year. Past year? Of all time.
Not even close, actually. I did like it very much. But it comes in on my hit parade behind Argo, Looper, Skyfall, Lincoln, The Hobbit, and The Avengers. I haven’t seen Zero Dark Thirty yet and it’s probably only embarrassment that keeps me from facing truth that I might have enjoyed The Three Stooges more. But it’s ahead of two other movies I also liked a lot, Anna Karenina and Hyde Park on Hudson. It worked its way into a special place in my heart and so I’m kind of defensive of it and when I’ve read comments online that men don’t like it, that they have to be dragged to it, and only sit through it for the sake of their wives and girlfriends, I’ve gotten riled. And, boiled down, the objection usually isn’t to the movie but to musicals in general. Men, real men, don’t like musicals. This notion made me mad enough that I started to write a post about it until I remembered.
I don’t like musicals.
I like some musicals.
The really funny ones.
Les Miserables is not funny.
I don’t have a reasoned aesthetic objection to musicals. They just annoy me. Even the ones filled with great songs.
I don’t like them onstage. And I really don’t like them on film.
Go ahead. Name a movie musical that was also a great movie.
Singin’ in the Rain.
Both conceived as movies.
And you can make the case that Singin’ in the Rain is a dance movie. And Mary Poppins is a live-action cartoon.
Very few of the musicals I like have made even marginally good movies. 1776, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Some I’ve liked have been turned into terrible movies. Guys and Dolls, Hello, Dolly!, Camelot.
What I’m getting at is not that I shouldn’t have liked Les Miserables but that i shouldn’t have gone at all.
And I wouldn’t have if I didn’t love the book---Hugo’s novel, not the musical’s script and lyrics---and if the trailers hadn’t featured images that have come to be iconic in my imagination. I went for the story not for the singing.
But the same thing happened that always happens, and it’s what really annoys me about musicals. Whenever I see a musical, on stage or on screen, whether it’s a stellar professional production, an admirably workman-like college production, or an embarrassingly terrible community theater production, I get caught up.
No matter how determinedly cynical and detached I am going in, on my way out I’m whistling all the tunes and wishing life was like a musical.
People complaining about Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway’s less than Broadway-caliber singing and Hugh Jackman’s subdued performance as Jean Valjean (at least in the early going) have a point, but they’re missing that the younger stars, Aaron Tveit, Eddie Redmayne, and especially Samantha Barks can sing and that the three of them along with Crowe, Hathaway, and Jackman are part of an ensemble that together turns out to be the vocal star of the movie.
I can’t imagine how by the finale anyone can not be caught up and not leave the theater singing this. (Click on the image.)
In the early going, a lot of the critical attention for Les Miserables focused on Anne Hathaway’s performance as Fantine and whether she deserved an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress or if she already had the award sewn up. Now she has her nomination and a Golden Globe, so that question’s pretty well answered. Fine by me. If I was a member of the Academy, I’d vote for her, although I wish she’d been nominated for her Catwoman too. But not nearly as much attention or enough attention that I’ve seen has been paid to Les Miserable’s fine second female lead.
No, not Amanda Seyfried.
Barks plays Eponine, the street girl whose unrequited love for Marius draws her up onto the barricades with the student revolutionaries and forces her to have to have to decide if she’s going to sacrifice her own chance at happiness for Marius’ and, by extension, her rival Cosette’s.
Cosette is the story’s love interest. In the movie that’s all she is. The object of others’ interest. She’s objectified by her role in the plot. She’s the object of Marius’ affections, Valjean’s charity, the Thenardiers’ scheming, and her mother Fantine’s sacrifices. She doesn’t do anything to advance her own interests or even seem to have any. She is passive and self-less. Eponine, though, is self-interested and she has to take action to advance her interests. It happens, tragically, that some of those interests conflict and then she has to act against herself.
This puts her in the same position as Valjean, Fantine, and Javert. She has to change her mind, change direction, change who she is. And the definition of a protagonist is a character who changes.
But as a character helping to move the story along she has more work to do. She has to carry several of the important themes to the end of the movie and she has to double for Fantine in the second act.
In case we might miss this point, Eponine’s big number, On My Own, echoes Fantine’s I Dreamed a Dream thematically and even (to my tin ear) musically to the point of practically being a reprise.
I don’t know if it was my own lazy reading of the novel or if I was overly influenced by other adaptations, but, as I mentioned, until I saw this movie, I thought of Fantine as a secondary character. She was there to hand Cosette over to Valjean. Fantine prefigured her daughter and through her example warned what would happen to Cosette if Valjean didn’t come to the rescue, but then she disappeared. Cosette was not her mother’s double. She was saved from that fate the moment Valjean finds her in the woods.
But the movie musical Fantine is the female lead. (Never mind that Hathaway has been nominated for Best Supporting Actress.) Her suffering and sacrifices are central to the movie. And it’s Eponine, not Cosette, who is repeating Fantine’s life.
We meet Eponine, who is the daughter of the larcenous innkeepers, the Thenardiers, as a little girl, the spoiled darling of her parents’ inn, coddled at the expense of Cosette, the mean step-sister to Cosette’s little Cinderella. But when she turns up later as a young woman in Paris, the girls’ situations have been reversed. The Thenardiers have given up innkeeping, probably not voluntarily, in exchange for a life of more ordinary crime, and it doesn’t appear to be making them rich. Cosette is, if not exactly a princess, comfortable, prosperous, well-loved, and with a wide-open future ahead of her, while Eponine is now poor, desperate, and lonely. She’s dividing her time between working with her father’s gang of thieves and hanging with Marius and his student friends, obviously in love with Marius, who just as obviously regards her as just a pal. Like Fantine at her age, Eponine is without real friends or any hopeful prospects, and she’s made the same mistake of giving her heart to a man who doesn’t deserve her love. The difference is that Fantine's lover was a cad and Marius is a gentleman. He’s undeserving of Eponine’s love only in that he doesn’t return it. But he’s not taking advantage of it. At least, he hasn’t yet. He’s a little distracted at the moment, as he’s busy being a revolutionary, and it’s hard to say how resistant he’d be to temptation if he could focus on Eponine, and she seems determined to get him to focus.
I suspect a lot of people in the audience (male as well as female) who have found to their dismay that they’ve been “friend-zoned” at one time or another identify with Eponine and have crushes on her. Everybody’s on her side (Cosette is nobody’s favorite character) and moved to scream at Marius, “Open your eyes, you dope!” although I also suspect that its Barks not Eponine who is the real object of affection here.
Barks plays the part with heat and pain, and she sings up a storm. (At one point, she actually sings up into a storm.) It’d be no wonder if audiences weren’t riveted and I think it’s a shame how she’s been overlooked by the major awards.
But rooting for Eponine over Cosette means forgetting what Marius knows. Eponine is a criminal. He doesn’t, Javert-like, hold it against her, but it’s a matter of common sense. He’s not in a position to save her from her family and she hasn’t shown she’s capable of separating herself from them. The Thenardiers are more likely to pull him down than he is to pull her free.
What this amounts to, though, is that Eponine’s big mistake in life was choosing to be born to the wrong parents.
Which is a way of saying that she is a victim of fate. She is about to be punished for the accident of her birth, and her punishment is to do the right thing. And doing the right thing demands a complete abnegation of self, exactly what fate demanded of that other of its victims, Fantine.
This is horrifically unfair, and that’s the point. Most of us don’t deserve our fates, however well or badly life has worked out for us. And the difference between the well and the bad is almost always a matter of luck. The difference between Cosette and Eponine is Cosette’s luck in Valjean’s having befriended her mother. The difference between Valjean and Fantine is Valjeans’ luck in having met the Bishop of Digne. And because luck isn’t doled out according to one’s desserts, many good and deserving people will not be saved.
Not in this life.
Driving my own point home about Eponine being Fantine’s double: Lea Salonga sang the part of Fantine in the 25th Anniversary concert version of Les Miserables (Samantha Barks sang Eponine). NSFW because it’ll break your heart and you don’t want your co-workers to see you weeping openly at your desk.
But fifteen years before, in the 10th Anniversary concert, Salonga sang Eponine!
Russell Crowe can carry a tune. He fronted a band called 30 Odd Foot of Grunts in the 80s and 90s and these days leads Russell Crowe & the Ordinary Fear of God. And I think he could croon his way through some old standards. if you were at a party with him and he gathered everyone around the piano to sing along with him on a medley of Songs From the Great War as My Old Grandad Sang Them To Me, you’d join in lustily and have a high old time. Both are very different from singing on stage in musical, but I think he could star on Broadway or the West End in the right vehicles. You wouldn’t cast him Emile de Becque in South Pacific and hand him Some Enchanted Evening to warble his way through or as Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha and expect him to bring the house down with his rendition of The Impossible Dream. But he could handle Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady or Arthur in Camelot, both of which are really roles for non-singers. He’s made Javert in Les Miserables a non-singer’s part. And it works. But the best parts of his performance are his silences.
I’m not being facetious.
Javert can be played angry. He can be played cold. Crowe plays him sad. That sadness is always in his eyes even when he is playing Javert angry and cold. And it’s when he’s not singing, when he’s listening, watching, taking things in, judging, that we see the great depth of that sadness.
Javert is not obsessed with Jean Valjean. He doesn’t spend decades pursuing him. In fact, until he catches up with him in Paris during the revolt he’s probably spent very little time thinking about Valjean and probably wouldn’t have ever given him much thought at all except that they keep bumping into each other. Javert is a very busy, responsible, and successful policeman and there are lots of other criminals in France to occupy his thoughts and his time and new crimes to solve daily. When he recognizes Mayor Madeleine as Jean Valjean, he feels duty-bound to arrest him because as far as he’s concerned Valjean is a criminal and it’s his job to arrest criminals. He’s also furious that Valjean has fooled him for so long. But he’s not obsessed with him.
Javert is obsessed with his image of himself as an officer of the law, which in his mind is the same as a morally superior human being. He’s earned his position by rising above ordinary human weaknesses and resisting temptations ordinary human beings give in to without, he believes, putting up much of a fight. He has earned the right to judge and not be judged. At this point ought to come at least the qualification “except by God.” But Javert is a godless man because he serves a godless ideal. The Law as set down by the state in the person of his hero Napoleon.
Javert is a Republican through and through.
I’ll bet when you read the title of this post you thought I was going to compare Javert to contemporary American Republicans in Congress.
Wait for it.
But, first, back to Napoleon.
Javert serves the monarchy because the king is the current representative of the state and the state is the Law and Javert serves the Law. But he came of age during the Republic, he models himself on Napoleon who codified the Law as something unto itself apart from any king, apart from religious authority. It’s a wholly secular and rational Law, but, as Javert applies it, a Law without heart or conscience, without mercy. The only appeal from the Law is to the Law.
And as its instrument Javert has, not made himself inhuman, but cut himself off from human company and affections. So of course he’s lonely and sad.
When he meets Valjean he sees someone he’d like to be friends with. He respects and admires him. He recognizes a kindred spirit. But they can’t be friends. That would require Javert to acknowledge that there but for the grace of God goes himself. Javert isn’t what he is by accident or through luck---or so he’s convinced. He’s a completely self-made worldly and moral success. Admitting he’s like Valjean in any way, like a criminal, would be too much an assault on his pride. What causes Javert to “derail”, as it’s put in one translation, is that he’s forced to face the possibility that he is not like Valjean not in his being Valjean’s moral superior but in Valjean’s being the much better man.
Now, here’s where Crowe’s Javert reminded me of our Republicans, starting with one in particular. Paul Ryan.
With his rounded cheeks and wide-open, sad eyes, there’s something boyish about Crowe’s Javert. This fits if you think of Javert as someone who hit upon an idea when he was very young that he credited with saving his life and has clung to it with all his youthful passion and naiveté. A part of him will always be that boy. And as we know, something like that happened to Ryan when he was in high school when his father died. For Ryan, his personal savior was Ayn Rand. For Javert, it was Napoleon. For both, what “saved” them was an ideal of total self-reliance that also infected them with inflated senses of self and a contempt for those moral weaklings who fail to live up to the same ideal.
They’re different, of course. Javert is a nobler and more disciplined character. Ryan has constantly found ways to exempt himself, his family, his constituents, and his political allies and bosses from the disciplines and austerities his moral philosophy calls for. Basically, he’s a self-indulgent hypocrite. And it’s impossible to imagine him facing up to the refutation of all he says he stands for the way Javert finally does.
In the end, Javert realizes that if Valjean is right then everything he’s stood for has been wrong and must be rejected. In order for him to continue to live, Javert would have to give up being what he’s been but that would mean giving up being himself.
Tragically, that’s what he does.
Ryan would just continue to fudge.
Javert believes that all it took for him to rise above his disadvantages was strength of will and purpose. It’s not that he thinks poverty is a crime. But he thinks that it’s criminal not to do what it takes to better oneself. For him, there’s no such thing as luck. Only merit. There is no place in his philosophy for the fact that all that separates the criminal Jean Valejan from Mayor Madeleine is a chance encounter with the Bishop of Digne, that all that saves Cosette from the same fate as her mother Fantine is the lucky intercession of Mayor Madeleine. Our Republican Party has adopted a Javert-like attitude toward the poor and hard-pressed. This is convenient. It gives them an excuse not to have to act to help anyone, which would cost them money in the form of taxes.
But although the Republicans have adopted the idea, they didn’t invent it. It’s a natural human vanity. Lots of self-made men and women have felt it. They don’t necessarily think of themselves as exceptional. But they don’t want to admit they were lucky because that would mean admitting they might not have made it, a scary enough thought, but it also means admitting their luck might run out. So they cling to the belief that all it takes is a little hard work and self-discipline. “If I did it, so can you.”
I get the sense that even President Obama feels this way sometimes.
If he forgets to remind himself of how lucky he was, though, I’m sure Michelle is quick to do it for him.
You can’t will yourself lucky.
But here’s something you can do.
You can be someone else’s good fortune.
You can be someone else’s Jean Valjean, their Bishop of Digne.
One day he heard a criminal case, which was in preparation and on the point of trial, discussed in a drawing-room. A wretched man, being at the end of his resources, had coined counterfeit money, out of love for a woman, and for the child which he had had by her. Counterfeiting was still punishable with death at that epoch. The woman had been arrested in the act of passing the first false piece made by the man. She was held, but there were no proofs except against her. She alone could accuse her lover, and destroy him by her confession. She denied; they insisted. She persisted in her denial. Thereupon an idea occurred to the attorney for the crown. He invented an infidelity on the part of the lover, and succeeded, by means of fragments of letters cunningly presented, in persuading the unfortunate woman that she had a rival, and that the man was deceiving her. Thereupon, exasperated by jealousy, she denounced her lover, confessed all, proved all.
The man was ruined. He was shortly to be tried at Aix with his accomplice. They were relating the matter, and each one was expressing enthusiasm over the cleverness of the magistrate. By bringing jealousy into play, he had caused the truth to burst forth in wrath, he had educed the justice of revenge. The Bishop listened to all this in silence. When they had finished, he inquired,--
"Where are this man and woman to be tried?"
"At the Court of Assizes."
He went on, "And where will the advocate of the crown be tried?"---From Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.
The Bishop of Digne plays a small role in the movie Les Miserables. It’s a significant role, but he’s still not much of a character. Basically, and almost literally, he is a deus ex machina. He sings of seeing the face of God in another person you love---that love, by the way, must be understood as the love in Love one another as I have loved you and Love your neighbor as yourself---but his face is the face of God beaming with forgiveness and understanding upon Jean Valjean, and that’s about all we need to know about him. He saves Valjean from himself and after two relatively short scenes his work in the movie is done.
(Trivia note: The bishop is played by Colm Wilkinson who starred as Jean Valjean in the original Broadway production of Les Miserables.)
But in the novel Victor Hugo devotes the first fourteen chapters, all of Book One, seventy pages in my edition to introducing us to the bishop and letting us get to know him and how he lives before he brings Jean Valjean onto the scene.
The point of this is to establish Les Miserables as a religious novel as much as or even more than a political one. In fact, in can be read as a decidedly Christian allegory, with the bishop as the exemplar of the Christ-like life Jean Valjean lives out.
The bishop’s a prince of the church but he doesn’t live like a prince. He lives modestly with his sister as his housekeeper. He gives away almost all the money that comes his way. He wears his cassocks until they are too threadbare to mend anymore. He doesn’t keep a carriage. He travels the rugged roads of his rural diocese, visiting the poor and the sick and the afflicted, hitting up the rich for money to help the poor, the sick, and the afflicted, by hired cart, on foot, and, occasionally, riding a donkey---then he laughs at himself for the presumptuous symbolism of that. At one point he asks a rich old miser to given him something for the poor and the miser brushes him off by saying, “I have enough poor people of my own to take care of.” To which the bishop replies, “Then give them to me.”
His is very much a Do unto others and a Whatever you do for the least of my brothers and sisters and, especially, a Seventy times seven Christianity---
Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.”
Which of course sets him up in direct opposition to everything Javert stands for and it’s Javert’s inability to accept this relentless forgiveness from Valjean that unravels him and brings about his end.
The bishop stands in opposition to Javert, but he’s also an argument against the revolutionaries or, at any rate, against their great and noble ideas and their ambitions of remaking the world through political action and violence.
When Valjean climbs the barricades it’s not because he’s heard the People sing. He’s there to rescue Marius from the People, from Enjorlas’ great thoughts and grand ambitions, and bring him home. He’s living out the bishop’s teachings.
I shouldn’t call him an argument against but an argument with.
Hugo was a revolutionary at heart (and in deed) but he has the bishop there to make the case that, perhaps, more real good can be done by each of us using whatever little power and means we have to take care of those immediately around us.
Conservatives who might think Hugo’s presciently criticizing the welfare state and liberal democratic government need to keep in mind two things.
The rich have the means and the power and the influence to take care of a great many people. And liberal Democratic government gives the people the means and the power to help each other out on a large scale and that’s why the rich hate it!
The two sides of the Republican Party these days represent those people who think everybody else is a thief and those who think the only good the rich need to do is “create wealth,” and along with the other more charitable ideals the bishop exemplifies, he’s definitely of the Do not store up treasures on earth sort of Christian.
But re-reading the opening chapters of the book didn’t put me in mind of contemporary Republicans as much as it did contemporary conservative Christians---granted, there’s not always a difference. And it was this passage that struck the chord:
In the course of these trips he was kind and indulgent, and talked rather than preached. He never went far in search of his arguments and his examples. He quoted to the inhabitants of one district the example of a neighboring district. In the cantons where they were harsh to the poor, he said: "Look at the people of Briancon! They have conferred on the poor, on widows and orphans, the right to have their meadows mown three days in advance of every one else. They rebuild their houses for them gratuitously when they are ruined. Therefore it is a country which is blessed by God. For a whole century, there has not been a single murderer among them."
What a concept! A God who rewards people for their virtue instead of punishing them for their vices. I don’t believe God works either way, and the bishop might be making a very practical and entirely secular point---if your town isn’t full of desperate, starving people they won’t be committing desperate acts. But it’s worth considering that God might actually be benign or at least not a completely vindictive demon.
Conservative Christian leaders are quick to tell us that every hurricane, terrorist attack, and school shooting is an angry God’s will. He’s punishing us for abortion, feminism, secularism, “the homosexual agenda,” etc. But he never punishes us for our greed and our lack of charity. We’re punished for allowing gay couples to get married but not for letting children go hungry and old people freeze or swelter to death or sick people to go without medicine or a doctor’s care.
God is always punishing us for not being mean enough to each other and ourselves and never for not doing a good enough job of loving one another.
People of certain intellectual and literary pretentions often promise themselves that one of these days they’re going to get around to reading Proust, as if it’s a requirement for getting into intellectual and literary pretentious person heaven. For them I bring good news!
You are absolved from ever having to read Proust if you’ve read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.
The reverse is not true. Even if you’ve read Proust, all seven volumes of A la recherche du temps perdu, in French, you are still required to have read Les Miserables. It’s all right if it’s only once and in translation, but you must have read it.
It is one of the greatest stories ever told.
This is why I think it would be very hard to make a bad adaptation. As long as you follow Hugo’s story, hit the major plot points, cast strong actors, and let the characters speak for themselves and as themselves (as opposed to as spokespersons for the themes), the power and the pathos and the beauty of the tale of the reformed convict but still wanted man Jean Valjean and his decades on the run from the implacable Inspector Javert will come through and carry the audience away.
But when it came to adapting the musical Les Miserables for the screen, director Tom Hooper has found a way to make a bad adaptation or a bad adaptation of an adaptation.
He didn’t make one. But he risked it.
By the way, this is not my review of Hooper’s Les Miserables. Just some thoughts I’m mulling over as I work out how I’m going to approach my review or whether I’m going to write a review at all. I might just go with “Wow!” and <sob> and leave it at that. We’ll see.
At any rate, what Hooper has done is adapt the musical but stage and film significant portions of it as if he’s doing a straight-forward adaptation of the novel for television---all those overwhelming close-ups will play much better on a flat screen than on the big screen; at least, they won’t be quite as frightening in their intimacy.
Hooper has cast fine actors but non-singers in his three most important roles: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, and Anne Hathaway as Jean Valjean, Javert, and Fantine. (To be fair, Jackman can sing but he doesn’t sing that well through most of the movie. I suspect Hooper asked him to tone it down in his scenes with the non-singers or, probably more accurately, hold himself back for his big solos.) Then he has his leads sell their songs through their faces and bodies more than through their voices, turning the usual practice upside down. Most musicals use songs to express character. Hooper has the songs arising out of the expression of character. We’re meant to like the song because of who’s singing it and why and what they’re saying, instead of like them for what they’re singing. The risk Hooper’s running is offending what I’d assume is his prime audience, fans who love the musical for the music. Hooper asks us to love the story and the characters first.
Works for me.
But I’ve never seen Les Miserables on stage. I went to the movie for the story. And all an adaptation has to get really right to satisfy me is Valjean’s escape over the rooftops of Paris with Cosette on his back and Javert’s end.
Hooper does fine with the chase. Javert’s end is (and if you’ve seen the movie you’ll know this is a pun) way over the top.
But Hooper’s done something I wasn’t expecting and I don’t remember its being the case in other versions. He’s brought Fantine front and center as the female lead.
In my two favorite versions---a 1978 TV movie starring Richard Jordan and Anthony Perkins and the 1998 movie with Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush---and even in the novel, Fantine’s role is to bring about Cosette and present her to Valjean as his opportunity to do his greatest good deed by which he finally redeems himself in his own eyes. Basically, Fantine is Cosette’s past. In this version, Cosette is the shadow Fantine casts into the present. Her role is to remind Valjean of his failure to save Fantine. Taking care of Cosette is his obligation. He owes it to Fantine, but however well he does by the daughter he can’t make it up to the mother.
What I’m getting at is that Fantine’s suffering isn’t exposition. It’s the heart of the movie.
Anne Hathaway doesn’t have a strong enough voice to sell I Dreamed a Dream as a song by itself. But she has infused her Fantine with what it takes to sell it as an expression of her character’s anguish.
An anguish that’s fed with self-loathing.
Fantine has been failed by the man who seduced her and then ran out on her and their child. She has good reason to suspect she’s being failed by the people she’s paying to take care of Cosette. She’s failed by the women she works with who ought to be her friends and protectors but who, because of a system of every man and woman for his or herself that has turned the people against each other, see her as competition to be eliminated. She is failed by the man who is, abstractly, her benefactor, Valjean, who, in his new identity as the benevolent and beneficent Mayor Madeleine, is so caught up in the business of being a good employer and philanthropist he has lost sight of the individuals in his employ and in his care. And she is failed by fate---or is it God?---when a chance arrival distracts Valjean at the moment Fantine is most in need of his help. But finally and most heartbreakingly she fails herself.
Fantine knows who is to blame for her troubles and to what degree, they’re at fault, but she can’t help faulting herself most at all.
Hathaway’s performance is more than a matter of letting her hair get chopped off and submitting to be photographed at unflattering angles. She fills Fantine’s eyes and then her face and ultimately twists and racks her whole body with the growing pain and terror of a soul turning against itself.
PS. I’m not saying you shouldn’t bother to read Proust. I plan to get around to it someday myself. But if you’re looking around for great 19th Century French novels to read as your ticket into intellectual and literary pretentious person heaven, after Les Miserables, you should try Lost Illusions, Pere Goriot, and Cousin Bette by Balzac, The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendahl, Nana by Zola, and Bel Ami by Maupassant. Madame Bovary is a given.
For the life of me I can’t imagine any young actor going out for a part in Les Miserables wanting to play Marius over Enjorlas, so I’d say local boy and rising star Aaron Tveit lucked out in two ways, getting cast at all and getting to lead the revolutionaries to the barricades. On the other hand, he doesn’t get to kiss Amanda Seyfreid, but life is a series of trade-offs, a theme of the movie, as it happens:
"They weren't casting yet but I got the script anyway," said Tveit. "I was like, 'You know what, I'm gonna put myself on tape.' So I basically told my agents to send it somewhere."
He taped himself playing lead role Marius Pontmercy; the tape reached the casting director, who invited him to an hourlong session with Hooper. Then another session. Then stars started attaching themselves — Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried. It got a little tense but it worked out…”
Saw it New Year’s Eve. Working up my review. Meantime, read Tim Malcolm’s interview with Tveit at the Times Herald-Record.
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Terry Pratchett’s most recent Discworld novel, Snuff , is available in paperback at last. Here’s my review from November 2011:
One of the small goods I’m proud of having accomplished with this blog is introducing people who might not otherwise have found their way to them to the Discworld novels, Terry Pratchett’s series of comic fantasies set in a magical world where wizards, witches, trolls, goblins, vampires, werewolves, and talking dogs mix and mingle in a society suspiciously like 21st Century Earth without the technology, brought to life in energetic and games-playing prose reminiscent of Charles Dickens, P.G. Wodehouse, Douglas Adams, and whatever author whose plots, tropes, style, or characters Pratchett happens to be bending to his own satiric purposes at the moment. And routinely, people eager to get started will ask me where to begin. There are, after all, thirty-nine novels in the series, so far.
There are several good paths into Discworld. One is to start with the very first book, The Color of Magic, and work your way through chronologically. Another is to pick one of the series within the series---Pratchett has been alternating telling several long, interconnected stories---and read each of those in order, but then you have to decide which mini-series to start with. Rincewind and the Wizards? The Witches? DEATH and his granddaughter Susan? The City Watch? Or the newest entries, the adventures of the former con artist, Moist Von Lipwig?
Lately, I’ve been recommending starting by reading, not in any particular order, the best of each mini-series, Interesting Times (Rincewind), Maskerade (The Witches), Hogfather (DEATH), Feet of Clay (The Watch), and, the one I’m coming to feel is the best of all the books, so far, Going Postal, starring Moist Von Lipwig---and seeing which series and sets of regular characters take your fancy. Although the books are interconnected, characters cross over and cross back, and some subplots are continued from book to book within mini-series, most of them stand by themselves and contain enough exposition that you can pick up all you need to know as you go.
So it almost doesn’t matter where you start. Almost. I can tell you where not to start.
Don’t start with Pratchett’s newest, Snuff .
That’s not because Snuff, which continues the adventures of the Watch, isn’t any good. And it’s not because you need to have read all the other Watch books first (which, word of warning, is the case with Night Watch) to follow the plot, although it would probably help if you’ve read at least the previous Watch novel, Thud!, and maybe the first one, Guards! Guards! It’s because I think you need to have read at least enough of the Watch novels to have gotten to know and love the character of Sam Vines in order to tolerate the way Pratchett overuses him for the first half of Snuff.
Samuel Vimes, Sir Samuel Vimes, Chief Constable Sir Samuel Vimes, commander of the Watch, the Ankh-Morpork city police, also Duke of Ankh, thanks to his marriage to the Lady Sybil, also Blackboard Monitor, a title of great honor bestowed upon him in gratitude by the Low King of the Dwarfs, product of the streets, reluctant aristocrat, congenital democrat, ferocious upholder of law and order, doting husband and father, and policeman from the smoldering tip of his cigar to, literally, the soles of his boots, is the hero of the Watch books. And such is the strength of Vimes as a character and so central to the Discworld series are the Watch books (which is why I sometimes recommend that neophyte readers start with them) that his presence is felt, if only in being sorely missed, in the majority of the of books in which he doesn’t actually appear---a good case can be made, although it wouldn’t be made by Vimes himself, who’d insist he’s just doing his job as a copper, that he’s the hero of the whole enterprise.
Snuff is more focused on Vimes than any of the other Watch novels and it’s hard not to think of it as a valediction. Pratchett has Alzheimer’s, fortunately a more slowly degenerative form and he’s been able to keep working and plans to keep on working---he’s said to already have two more books in the hopper---but there’s no telling when things will catch up with him and so it seems that with Snuff Pratchett is, not saying goodbye to his best and favorite character, but attempting to givie him his due. Snuff is like a testimonial dinner, except that there’s a problem. For long stretches, the only person giving speeches in Vimes’ honor is Vimes.
Vimes spends more time thinking and musing and brooding and lecturing on the problem of being Sam Vimes than Hamlet spends on the problem of being Hamlet. The difference is that Hamlet is a sensitive and self-doubting young man in serious trouble while Vimes is a querulous, cocky, defensively self-confident middle-aged man whose job is to make trouble for others who’ve earned the attention of the police. A young prince poetically worrying about the state of his own soul is a somewhat more sympathetic figure than a fifty year old police chief grousing profanely on the state of others’.
In all the other Watch novels, Vimes is the lead character in a large ensemble of secondary heroes, major and minor villains, eccentrics, knaves, fools, saints, lunatics, and just folks with strong personalities, who include not just the other members of the Watch and the criminals they pursue but the entire population of the city of Ankh-Morpork. And he is opposed and often overmatched by a number of adversaries, chief among them his boss, the Patrician, Havelock Lord Vetinari, the thoughtful and not always benevolent tyrant who rules Ankh-Morpork with a combination of ruthless pragmatism and disinterested guile.
But in Snuff, Pratchett whisks Vimes out of Ankh-Morpork and drops him down in the countryside where he meets very few other people and none who are his match. Pratchett hasn’t come up with any new characters who can stand up to Vimes as characters and the result is usually that when they meet Vimes talks right over them.
Gently bullied by Lady Sybil, with help from the Patrician, Vimes leaves the city for his first vacation ever. He and Sybil and their little boy, Sam, head out for Sybil’s family’s country estate, where, of course, Vimes, a city mouse’s city mouse, is immediately and hopelessly out of his element.
It had been a long day and last night’s sleep in the inn had not been salubrious or restful, but before he got inot the huge bed Vimes opened a window and stared out at the night. The wind was murmuring in the trees; Vimes mildly disapproved of trees, but Sybil liked them and that was that. Things that he didn’t care to know about rustled, whooped, gibbered and went inexplicably crazy in the darkness outside. He didn’t know what they were and hoped never to find out. What kind of noise was this for a man to go to sleep to?
It’s a rule of mystery novels, movies, and television shows that police detectives can’t take vacations: wherever they go, to the mountains, to the seaside, to the French Riveria, and, especially, to country estates, they will stumble upon a freshly murdered corpse and there goes the holiday. Pratchett loves rules like that. He loves to play games with them. Throughout the Discworld series, Pratchett has made use of plots, imagery, conventions, and cliches from fairy tales, mystery novels, the plays of William Shakespeare, Conan the Barbarian, The Lord of the Rings, westerns, movies of all sorts including King Kong and Gone With the Wind---in Snuff, Vimes even idles for a few pages within the plot of Pride and Prejudice---and not always simply for comic effect. The family estate exists where the world of Agatha Christie bleeds into the that of P.G. Wodehouse and so I settled back with my copy of Snuff like Bertie Wooster with one of his beloved cheesy thrillers and waited for the bleeding, and the parodying, to start.
And waited some more.
Pages go by without even the hint of violence and mayhem. Vimes suspects something wicked is at work behind the scenes but it’s almost 100 pages before his suspicions are confirmed. Murder inevitably does out, but it isn’t done in the library with the candlestick. It’s a bloody slaughter on a hillside with a knife in the dead of night, something more out of Dexter than Miss Marple, but more to the point, it doesn’t reach back into the manor house or over to the village. It reaches into Middle Earth.
More specifically below Middle Earth. Down into the caves and tunnels where the goblins dwell in The Hobbit.
In fact, the crime involves goblins.
Goblins as victims.
Not that that should matter. A recurring theme of the Watch novels has been Vimes having to learn to accept creatures he has previously distrusted or despised---dwarfs, trolls, werewolves, zombies, and vampires---as human. It helps that Pratchett’s dwarfs and trolls are take-offs on British cultural stereotypes of the Welsh and the Scots and that his vampires, werewolves, and zombies are---or were, at any rate---human and they continue to go about the business of being human although with eccentricities like sleeping in coffins, baying at the moon, and dropping the odd limb or appendage now and then and having to have the lost body part sewn back on. But his goblins, like his elves in the Witches novels, are defined by comparisons to Tolkien’s elves and goblins. They are magical creatures, and while there is magic in Discworld, generally, in Ankh-Morpork it’s outmoded, out-dated, and obsolete except as a parody of science. A certain degree of realism pervades all the novels, naturally---they’re all satires. But the Watch novels are the most realistic. Goblins don’t fit in Vimes’ world nor does he fit in theirs.
They would fit in the Wizards’ world or the Witches’ or Susan and DEATH’s and the crime Vimes has to deal with, the kidnapping of goblins and their being sold into slavery, would have been a natural for Rincewind to tackle, ass-backward, or, more craftily and formidably, by Granny Weatherwax (particularly if the criminals were elves) or more adventurously and heroically by Susan, but Pratchett doesn’t seem to know what to do with the goblins once he brings them and Vimes together and so, after spending a lot of time describing them and their culture, he drops them as characters. They become merely a plot device.
Fortunately, two things happen that bring the story to rollicking life.
The first is that the crime reaches back into Ankh-Morpork as well as into the goblins’ caves and some old favorite characters are drawn into the plot, including the dwarf forensics expert Cheery Littlebottom, Igor, the Igor who acts as police surgeon---in Discworld Igors are a species, and all of them are named Igor or Igorina---and particularly this pair of less than zealous coppers:
Sometimes people asked Commander Vimes why Sergeant Colon and Corporal Nobbs were still on the strength, such as it was, of the modern Ankh-Morpork City Watch, given that Nobby occasionally had to be held upside down and shaken to reclaim small items belonging to other people, while Fred Colon had actually cultivated the ability to walk his beat with eyes closed, and end up, still snoring, back at Pseudopolis Yard, sometimes with graffiti on his breastplate.
The other thing is that Pratchett, having given up on the murder mystery plot and stymied in trying to work Vimes into what is essentially a fairy tale, turns Snuff into an action-adventure novel. The story that takes over is an extended chase scene with the goblins as helpless villagers being carried off by bandits and Vimes and his small posse as the cavalry in hot pursuit.
Pratchett’s reputation is based on his greatness as a comic novelist, but he’s a great writer, period, and like another great comic novelist, Charles Dickens, he is adept at staging murders, fights, fires, storms, and all other sorts of scenes of calamity, mayhem, and destruction. The chase takes Vimes into a fight to the death with a murderer aboard a runaway barge tossed about on a river in roiling flood during a storm at night.
[The killer] squirmed out of Vimes’ grip, spun neatly and threw a punch which Vimes very nearly dodged. It was harder than he had expected, and, to give the devil his due, [the killer] knew how to defend and, perish the thought, was younger than Vimes, much younger. Yes, you could tell the eyes of a murderer, at least after they had done more than three or so and got away with it. Their eyes held the expression some gods probably had. But a killer in the process of trying to kill was always absorbed, constantly calculating, drawing upon some hideous strength. If you cut their leg off they wouldn’t notice until they fell over. Tricks didn’t work, and floor was slippery with debris of half a forest. As they kicked and punched their way across the wheelhouse deck, [the killer] was winning…
There is, of course, plenty of great comic writing. Plenty of plain good writing too. I especially liked this description of a goblin girl who’s learned to converse in Morporkian (English):
…the girl spoke as if she were pulling words out of a rack and then tidily pushing them back in their places as soon as they had been said.
And these from a bedtime scene in which Vimes and Lady Sybil fall asleep together while discussing the case:
Vimes lay back in the bed, enjoying the wonderful sensation of being eaten by pillows…
All he could see of her right now was the very tip of her nose, as the pillows claimed her…
Lady Sybil turned over, which meant---since she was a woman happily rich in gravitational attraction---as she turned, the pillow closest to Sam, acting like a gear in a chain, spun softly in the opposite direction so that Sam Vimes found himself now lying on his face. He struck out for the surface again…
Gently drifting into a nightmare world where the good guys and bad guys so often changed hats without warning, Vimes wrestled sleeplessness to the ground and made certain that it got eight hours.
Snuff isn’t where I would start if I was just starting to explore Discworld, but it’s a good place to continue from if you’ve been there, a pleasant way station to pass the time until the next book comes along, which, I hope, will be soon, with another to follow not long after that.
All the Discworld novels can be purchased through my aStore.