Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 was a rousing finish to the movie franchise, but nominating it for Best Picture would have been stretching a point, I think. It’s really half a movie. Unlike The Return of the King or, to name a few fantasy-adventure movies from the past decade that should have been nominated and would have been if the Academy wasn’t hell-bent on making itself even more irrelevant by refusing to consider fantasy-adventures (not to mention comedies), which is to say, movies people want to see, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises, and Spider-Man 2, it doesn’t stand on its own. Those others, even though parts of a series, do. And while Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, Ralph Fiennes, and especially Alan Rickman gave wonderful supporting performances over the years, only Fiennes had much to do in Deathly Hallows 2 and that wasn’t all that much. The series and its supporting cast deserved awards but the Academy would have had to invent a special category. Of course that it didn’t think to do it is part of what’s gone so wrong with the Oscars. Like I said, the Academy seems to have a prejudice against movies people like. But the fact that they didn’t find a way to have Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint stand together on stage last night is a pretty persuasive indicator that in ten or so years no one will be watching the Oscars.
Still, I wouldn’t make the case that Deathly Hallows 2 was “overlooked,” let alone “snubbed.” On the other hand, don’t get me started on Captain America: The First Avenger, which I think was every bit as good a piece of moviemaking with as fine a lead performance (Chris Evans) and deserving a supporting actor (Tommy Lee Jones) as Moneyball and The Descendants.
Not in remorse - The good not done, the love not given, time Torn off unused - nor wretchedly because An only life can take so long to climb Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never; But at the total emptiness for ever, The sure extinction that we travel to And shall be lost in always. Not to be here, Not to be anywhere, And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.
Unlike Larkin though, my mind does blank in remorse at the good not done, the love not given, the time torn off unused. To distract myself from dwelling on those thoughts and of that sure extinction that we all travel to, I tried to read myself back to sleep with Jonathan Mahler’s Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning.
Good book, lousy decade.
New York City in the mid-1970s?
To start with there’s the horror of facing the fact that thirty-odd have passed since then. Talk about time being torn off unused!
But never mind the evil actors creeping around. David Berkowitz hasn’t appeared yet but the story is moving steadily towards the Summer of Sam.
At three AM, it’s just as appalling to be dragged back into the company of obnoxious and pathetic personalities who have faded from the public memory, thank goodness, but who dominated the news back then---Abe Beame, Billy Martin, Bella Abzug, anybody and everybody who thought it was cool to frequent Plato’s Retreat or cruise the abandoned docks along the West Side Piers---and re-watch the rise of other, even more obnoxious personalities who would dominate the news in decades to come---Ed Koch, Rupert Murdoch.
You can make the case that some good things came out of the 70s. There was a lot of great music, although most of it was crowded into the early and late years of the decade, with disco, Heavy Metal, and John Denver and the Electric Light Orchestra clogging it all up in between. A whole slew of classic movies got made, one of them being Star Wars, which supposedly ruined everything for everybody as Hollywood gave up making quality films for adults to devote itself collectively to producing nothing but blockbusters targeted at adolescent boys. Then there were all those pioneering TV shows, M*A*S*H and Mary Tyler Moore and Saturday Night Live and Laverne & Shirley and Charlie’s Angels and Three’s Company and Love Boat and Fantasy Island and…and…um…What was my point again?
But a decade that began with Richard Nixon in the White House and the Vietnam War still raging and ended with Jimmy Carter trapped in the Rose Garden, 51 Americans held hostage in the Embassy in Tehran, and the first cases of AIDS being diagnosed, with Watergate, the Oil Crisis, and double-digit inflation defining the years in the middle, has got to rank as one of the very worst of all the decades in American history that did not include the Civil War, the Great Depression, or World War II.
To top it all off, it was a decade of deliberate ugliness passing itself off as cool. Ugly clothes, ugly hair, ugly furniture, ugly cars.
On a personal level, though, for someone like me, a middle of the night re-immersion in the 1970s is like deliberately giving yourself a nightmare about being back in high school except that all the surreal dream images are actual memories and instead of finding yourself standing in front of the room in your underwear you’re standing there in suede crepe-soled shoes, corduroy bellbottoms, a mustard-colored polyester shirt with collar wings that reach to the shoulders on either side, and a Shaun Cassidy haircut.
For the record, as soon as I started buying my own clothes so that my wardrobe was no longer exclusively birthday and Christmas presents from well-meaning parents and grandparents who assumed I wanted to wear what the other kids were wearing---my poor sisters had it even worse---I ditched the bell bottoms and polyesters for straight-leg jeans and cotton Oxfords with button-down collars so there was no more danger of a lift-off in a high wind.
I stuck with the Wallabees until the mid-80s though.
And I had a pretty good time in high school. College? Not so much. Not to begin with. Which might go a long way towards explaining why I don’t like to stroll down that particular stretch of memory lane.
But here’s the thing.
Another reason I don’t like to remember those times is that I have a very hard time remembering those times clearly.
I don’t mean in the sense of veterans of the 1960s who say, “If you remember the 60s, you weren’t there.”
I mean that two obstacles get in the way of my seeing that time in my life objectively and through my own eyes.
The first is my temperamental proclivity for remembering bad times more than the good. Even in the warm light of midday, my mind blanks in remorse at the good not done, the love not given, the time torn off unused, and given that the 70s were the years of my all too typical protracted adolescence, there’s a great deal of good not done, love not given, and time torn off unused for my mind to blank in remorse at.
But the other one is that I can’t “see” those years in the way I see just about every other time in my life.
There’s too much media blocking my view.
Notice I said “media” not “the Media.”
When I “picture” those times to myself I literally see pictures, the faded ones in the family album---another thing to hate about the 70s, the ruin of color film---and the ones I saw on television.
Instead of being able to call to mind my own memories I seem only able to conjure up documentary evidence that events I ought to have memories of actually happened.
I can look through my mind’s eye and see up and down the street I lived on when I was in kindergarten. I look through my mind’s eye for the street I lived on when I was in high school and see the photographs in the family album. I can look through my mind’s eye and see the blonde coming up the aisle on our wedding day. I look through my mind’s eye for the girl I took to the senior ball and I see her in the snapshot I used to keep in my wallet, posed in her parents’ living room before I arrived to pick her up, so I’m not even in my own memory of my own senior ball.
When I try to remember what I thought and felt about Watergate, I see Sam Ervin and John Erlichman verbally jousting on the TV set in the school library annex.
When I try to remember what Mom and Pop Mannion looked like back then I see Bob Newhart and Suzanne Pleshette, which as anyone who knew them when can tell you isn’t all that farfetched. Newhart has always been my first choice to play Pop Mannion in the movie.
My inability to actually remember the 70s has always troubled me because there are a lot of nice things that happened I would like to be able to look back upon and take pleasure in remembering. There are good people who have since passed out of my life whose kindnesses and friendship I should never forget.
And it would be helpful, not to mention more enjoyable, if I could read books like Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning with both more objectivity and a more personal engagement.
I think I have a plan for dealing with this.
Fight media with media, fiction with fiction.
My idea is that instead of simply resisting the archival sort of images that keep getting in the way of the “real” images of actual memories, I might be able to jog more of those actual memories by reminding myself what the 70s actually looked like as they happened by watching a lot of movies from the period.
But only a certain sort of movie.
Obviously not movies like Chinatown or McCabe and Mrs Miller.
But not ones set in the then present that were overly stylized because of their genre---like The French Connection, The Exorcist, Jaws, even The Goodbye Girl and Rocky.
And not movies that tried too emphatically to capture the spirit of the moment or say something about the issues of the day. Nashville, Coming Home, The Candidate, Network, Shampoo, Deer Hunter, Saturday Night Fever, and Taxi Driver fall into this category. Good as those movies are as movies, trying to get through them a sense of what it was like to be living in the 70s is like trying to get a sense of what it was like through a museum exhibit or an entry in an encyclopedia. There’s a didactic note in all of them and the filmmakers use the 70s as a prop to help explain…the 70s.
Which is why I wouldn’t put All The President’s Men in the group.
All The President’s Men is about current events, of course, but its focus is actually on Woodward and Bernstein as reporters as working stiffs not agents of history. It’s a movie about doing a job. In a way, Watergate is the movie’s McGuffin, its excuse to tell the story and the story is how these two guys go from door to door and office to office chasing down clues to a mystery their job requires them to solve.
The 70s as an historical event or a series of unfortunate historical events are almost irrelevant. They’re just there because they’re there. The camera can’t help taking them in but nothing much is made of them. They’re the given, which is how people living through a particular time period tend to see it, which is to say they take it for granted.
And that’s what I’m looking for. Movies in which the 70s are taken for granted. Movies that present the clothes, the cars, the furniture, the affects and mores, the way people saw them at the time most of time, as just there.
Topicality and topical references and in-jokes don’t automatically exclude a movie from the list. It’s a matter of degree and approach. And all genre pictures aren’t exercises in style.
So a film like Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore which was topical at the time because of the effect of Feminism on many women’s lives would still make the list because an early 70s version Feminism itself isn’t the reason for telling Alice’s story, not the way an anti-70s Feminism is pretty much the excuse for Kramer vs Kramer, which is only one reason that piece of sentimental claptrap is off the list.
By the way, follow the link up there, then let me know if you were surprised to be reminded who directed Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
Meanwhile, What’s Up, Doc? has to be scratched because it is so self-consciously a throwback to the screwball comedies of the 1930s that nothing on the screen actually looks contemporary, it all looks made-up for laughs, even the jet planes. But The Hot Rock, which is genre two-fer, a farce and a heist movie, locates itself comfortably and naturally in 1970s era New York City, without any of the self-consciousness or self-congratulation of either Annie Hall or Manhattan, two movies that have to go on the list.
Huge-eyed, with flaming red hair, she was effervescent, voluptuous, reckless, damaged...
Her lack of self-consciousness and even her lack of self-control made her performances emblematic...
She spoke without care to reporters and couldn't keep scandal away. She wasn't surrounded by agents or minders who protected her. She roared around L.A. in a fire-red [car], ridding herself of chauffeurs who refused to drive fast enough...[She] made movie after movie, was unfailingly generous, and felt stifled and tortured. "I always want to cry," she told [a fan magazine], "I could cry any minute. Had no childhood. worked like a dog all my life. Really my nerves are shot."
But it's Clara Bow. It's gossip from the late 1920s, when Bow was the sexiest movie star of the day, the It Girl, who as Dorothy Parker said, "didn't need It. She had THOSE." It was pre-code Hollywood. People could go to to her movies and see It and get a good look at THOSE. Directors could still sneak in some nudity. Bow's movies were about sex. The sex wasn't explicit. But it was more than implicit.
Lohan has had to work very hard at self-destructing. She's failing miserably at it. She can't even make movies bad enough to end her career. She's box office poison these days, but she still keeps getting cast. Bow wasn't a great actress but she had IT and THOSE and she sizzled on the screen. She made some highly-regarded movies. She was box office catnip. And her career was over and done by the time she was twenty-five, ruined by a trial in which she wasn't the defendant, she was the alleged victim. But testimony revealed she was as sexy and uninhibited in real life as she played it on the screen and the hypocritical public turned on her.
So it was said. So it was thought.
I'm reading about this in a book called A Bright and Guilty Place by Richard Rayner. That's where the quote above comes from. Rayner says that what ruined Bow was that the studio executive who was one of her lovers and her protector got tired of her. He had a new girl. Sylvia Sidney. He wanted to make her a star. Bow was in the way.
Clara couldn't act, and she wasn't exactly a quick study---of all the movie stars I've ever known, and I've known some famous birdbrains, Clara Bow was an easy winner of the Dumbell Award. A lot of stars have come up so fast that they have had no chance to learn. They flounder and flutter like wounded birds in the blinding and confusing light of their stardom...It demands intellience and/or strength of character to cope with the pressures of excessive celebrity. Clara Bow was definitely not a coper. She was simply an adorable, in fact irresistible, little know-nothing.
He wrote this about the way she used to flirt with him when he was still in grade school and visiting his father at work:
It's true that I could feel on my skin Clara Bow's gum-chewing sex appeal. Even then I sensed that she communicated sexually because she had no other vocabulary. She had to flirt with me, as she did with everyone, becaus she simply didn't know anything else to do.
And he wrote this about the cultural background of his father's affair with Bow:
Somehow sex and commerce, even innocent childhood attraction, were inextricably woven into the pattern of ambitious careerism.
Bow was no good with money. She had a friend, Daisy DeVoe, took it upon herself to manage Bow's finances for her. Bow wasn't grateful enough, the friend thought. DeVoe got greedy and jealous and resentful and a sticky-fingered, Bow thought. There was a man in the picture. DeVoe didn't trust the man. She thought he was after Bow's money. She decided she needed to put some of that money and some of her jewelry away for safe-keeping. That was her story anyway and she stuck to it after the cops found the money and jewelry in a safety deposit box with DeVoe's name on it. There were other things in the box. Letters. Letters Bow wrote to her lovers. Letters her lovers wrote to Bow. The Roaring Twenties equivalent of sxting. Gary Cooper, apparently, was especially graphic when he wrote to Bow about his feelings for her. Bow accused DeVoe of trying to blackmail her with these letters. DeVoe said she'd taken the letters and some telegrams so they wouldn't fall into the hands of a real blackmailer. DeVoe's story didn't completely wash with the jury. They let her off on the alleged extortion, convicted her of theft. DeVoe went to jail. Bow went into a professional and psychological tailspin.
All Bow's secrets, the ones DeVoe claimed she was trying to keep for Bow, came out in the trial. Some secrets came out that might not have been Bow's. They belonged to the fevered imaginations of gossips and reporters who knew what sells a story.
Frederic Girnau, publisher of the Pacific Coast Reporter, another "political weekly," jumped in with the "facts of the blushless love life of Clara Bow." "'IT' GIRL EXPOSED!" ran the headline. Girnau asserted that Bow had seduced her chauffeur [Editor's note: one of the ones who could drive fast enough, I guess], her cousin, and a koala bear. According to him, she'd slept with Duke, one of her dogs, a Great Dane. In Agua Caliente, she'd initiated a whorehouse orgy while another of her lovers, a Mexian croupier, watched. The croupier subsequently murdered his wife before turning a gun on himself. Girnau accused Bow of incest and lesbianism [Editor's note: Lohan again?]. She had venereal disease, drank highballs before breakfast, and was hooked on morphine. "You know, Clara, you'd be better off killing yourself," he wrote.
You'd think Grinau couldn't get away with this stuff, and he didn't.
He was prosecuted for criminal libel and sent to prison for publishing this filth.
Doesn't mean Justice was served.
By then, though, Clara Bow had checked into a mental asylum in Glendale and her Paramount contract was terminated by mutual consent. Her career was over, and she was only twenty-five.
All this is background for Rayner's main story, which is about another crime and another trial.
The prosecutor in the DeVoe trial was Dave Clark, a young, handsome, talented, and ambitious lawyer already marked for bigger and better things. The trouble was that in Los Angeles at the time the people who marked you and who saw to it that you achieved those bigger and better things were either criminal bosses or people in the pockets of criminal bosses. The boss of bosses was Charlie Crawford. In most cities, the corruption was divided. A machine ran the political corruption. Gangsters ran the rest. The two sides negotiated when their interests overlapped. In LA, Crawford ran both. He had rivals, of course. And by the time Dave Clark entered the picture Crawford's power was waning and those rivals were presenting him with some stiff competition. So it happens that Clark is running for a judgeship. One afternoon, Dave Clark goes into Crawford's office for a meeting with Crawford and one of Crawford's right hand men. When Clark leaves, the right-hand man is dead on the floor and Charlie Crawford's dying from the bullet holes in his chest.
On the face of it A Bright and Guilty Place is a pretty good true-crime story with the right mix of blood, sex, sin, and corruption by money, power, and sex along with some fine police reporting, especially considering it's being done almost 80 years after the fact, and interesting historical background. I'd recommend it just for the fun of it.
But there's more to it.
A Bright and Guilty Place is a work of literary criticism.
Literary criticism in the providing material and analysis useful in understanding a work or the work's author. Not as in criticizing.
Clark's story, Bow's story, Crawford's story, the stories of a number of other crimes and murders, the story of how Los Angeles got big and rich as an oil town before it got bigger and richer as the center of the motion picture industry, the story of how that oil money bought and paid for everything and everybody, and the story of one of Clark's colleagues at the DA's office, an investigator and self-taught forensics expert named Leslie White who, when quit the DA's office when he realized that if he could only stay if he was willing to end up like Clark, on the wrong people's payroll, and who supported himself pretty well the rest of his life as a writer of pulp mysteries and historical romances---all these stories turn out to be background to somebody else's stories and novels.
There's another character keeps popping up throughout A Bright and Guilty Place, an accountant for an oil company, good at his job but with a self-destructive streak. Drinks too much, fools around on his wife, mouths off to his boss, finds ways at work to embarrass his boss. Costs himself his job, and his self-destructive habits have left him with no money in the bank. He starts casting around for a way to make some money. He's always had an intellectual and literary bent. He decides to take up writing fiction. He reads a story in Black Mask, a magazine that routinely publishes stories by Leslie White. Decides he can do that, write about crime, write mysteries. He's right. He starts getting his stories published too. Takes him a long while to perfect what he does, but he does perfect it. It being the whole detective novel genre.
It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.
Raymond Chandler, Rayner suggests, made a career out of turning the stories in A Bright and Guilty Place into something more than fiction. Into prose poems like this :
There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen.
Without any help at all, Liam Neeson cleans the Albanian mob out of Paris and saves a thousand young women from being sold to into prostitution while working out some serious and borderline creepy issues with his teenage daughter and making me think, as kidnpapped in Paris movies go, I'd have been a lot happier re-watching the much smarter, much less violent, and much more sharply directed, because it was directed by Roman Polanski, tribute to Hitchcock, Frantic, starring Harrison Ford as Jimmy Stewart or maybe Joel McCrea.
Marc Forster directed the latest Bond, Quantum of Solace, as though he'd never heard of a Steadicam and it didn't occur to him that if he was going to use a hand-held camera so much he probably shouldn't have given it to a hung-over cinematographer with the shakes who seems to have been swatting away little flying pink elephants at the same time he was framing his shots.
Or maybe Forster knew what he was doing by making us watch his movie with the same feeling we'd have driving down an unpaved mountain road at high speed while trying to keep an eye on a pair of cats fighting in the back seat. He wanted to keep us so discombobulated that we wouldn't notice that Quantum of Solace is just a string of pointless chase scenes interrupted occasionally by martial arts demonstrations and improbably fiery explosions with nothing but a conventional Hollywood revenge fantasy for a plot to hold them together.
Forster didn't have much else to work with. Another martini joke, a clumsy quote from Goldfinger, and one---implied---sex scene.
Daniel Craig might be a good Bond, if he ever gets to play the part. In Casino Royale the point was that he hadn't grown into the Bond we all know and love. In Quantum of Solace there's no joke, no growth, no character at all. Whoever it is Craig's supposed to be he's not Bond. He's just a thug with a really bad temper. The part might as well have been played by Jason Statham. If Judi Dench's M wasn't around, this wouldn't have been a Bond movie at all.
I think Forster was apologizing for that at the end. The signature sighting of Bond down the barrel of a gun that opened all the Bond movies before Casino Royale Forster has put just before the final credits roll, as if to promise, not as at the end of the other movies, "James Bond will return in..." but "The next one will be a real Bond, I swear."
Nothing as disappointing for a movie lover than watching a movie you'd been looking forward to and realizing it's failing and that one of your favorite actors is a big part of the reason it's failing.
Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys!, Leo McCarey's 1958 attempt to drag screwball comedy into the Atomic age, isn't very good and Paul Newman isn't very good in it.
Jeez. My fingers almost dropped off typing the last clause of that sentence.
As Harry Bannerman, good suburban husband, father, neighbor, and citizen, Newman isn't miscast. He wears his gray flannel suit with a casual flair, adores his wife, Grace---probably wasn't a challenge, since Mrs Bannerman is played by Joanne Woodward who'd recently become Mrs Newman---and dotes on his two kids in ways that would have done Robert Young and Fred MacMurray proud. You can hear Jim Anderson and Steve Douglas saying to each other, "Reminds me of that Petrie kid. A little raw, a little goofy, having a hard time letting go of the little boy inside him. But he's on his way to being one of us, give him time. Wait till his kids are old enough to teach him who's really boss." (Trivial pursuit: The Bannermans' eldest son is played by Stanley Livingston, who went on to play Chip on My Three Sons. Name Steve Douglas' other three sons. That's right. Other three. He had four.) Newman doesn't have any trouble being the character. He has trouble maintaining it, and I think it's because he doesn't have a good handle on it. He knows how Bannerman looks and acts. He doesn't know what makes him tick. He latches onto something different about Harry in just about every scene and since in just about every scene what's most interesting about Harry at the moment is a vice, or a weakness, or an act of foolishness, Newman makes Harry kind of a bum and a creep. He plays up Harry's lust, his selfishness, his thirst. A running joke in the movie is that Harry just can't get a drink when he needs one, and Newman's Harry really, really needs a drink. When Harry is meant to be charming, Newman finds the wheedling, the conniving, the manipulation and emotional bullying behind the charm. His Harry isn't a good man making mistakes that get him into deeper and deeper trouble. He's an immature jerk getting his come-upance.
Which would be fine if he actually got it. In the end Harry is rewarded, not for being an immature jerk, but for being the good guy the script's insisted he's been all along.
Basicially, then, Newman is working against the script for much of the movie, an approach you would think the director might have objected to. Instead, McCarey seems to have encouraged it.
Newman's other mistake, which I think actually causes this first one, is thinking that he needs to make Harry funny. I suspect that what he kept looking for in Harry was what would make the audience laugh at him, and here again the director should have come to his aid and pointed out that Harry isn't the funny one. He's the straight man. Joanne Woodward's the comic lead. Joan Collins is the comic femme fatale. Jack Carson's the comic antagonist. Newman's job as Harry should have been to let them push him around. Instead, he's always pushing back. He competes with them for laughs.
With Woodward he tries to out-cute and out-adorable her. When Carson blusters in his patented fashion, Newman infringes on the copyright and blusters right back. In his first two scenes with Collins, in which she is attempting to seduce Harry, Harry comes off as the predator. The only one of his co-stars he relaxes with his Gale Gordon. Yes, Lucy Carmichael's boss, Mr Mooney. Gordon plays a rather more easy-going and tolerant authority figure than he usually played, which is good, because Newman is easy-going and tolerant back, and the result is that their few scenes together are the only ones in which Newman lets his lines do his work for him and that allows us to see Harry as a human being and not a collection of actor's tricks.
Newman was only 33 at the time and he hadn't starred in a real comedy yet. Not only did he not realize that he didn't have to be the funny one, he didn't know how to be funny. Rally Round the Flag, Boys! must have been on the job training.
Rally Round the Flag, Boys! wouldn't have been a great movie even if Newman could have found his inner Rob Petrie. It doesn't have a handle on itself any more than Newman has a handle on Harry and it goes through three or four different possibilities for the kind of movie it wants to be before shrugging and giving up with an ending Abbott and Costello would have had rewritten. It starts out as if it's going to be a satire on small town suburban hypocrisy. Harry, Grace, and Joan Collins' character, Angela, are all feeling unhappy and hemmed in by their too cozy, too comfortable, too respectable lives. Then it turns into a bedroom farce, with Grace catching Harry in his underwear in a hotel room with Angela, who's wearing nothing but a sheet. For a while after that it just dithers along, making feints at getting back to the sexcapades, and finally settles on becoming one of those small town full of eccentrics goes mad for some made-up, silly reason comedies that Preston Sturges specialized brilliantly in, a decade earlier, movies like The Miracle of Morgan's Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero, and which enjoyed something of a new vogue a decade later with movies like The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! and Don Knotts' entire oeuvre.
Too bad it never bothered to develop any eccentric characters and fill the town with them.
Your turn: I wonder how much of my disappointment in Newman's performance was due to my knowing something audiences in 1958 didn't know: How great he was going to go on to be. I couldn't help comparing him to the Newman of five and ten years down the line. They'd have been comparing him to...Tab Hunter? Robert Wagner? Would it if been for them the difference between Ryan Reynolds and Ashton Kutcher? Or would they have been thinking, I wonder what Jack Lemmon would made of this one?
Anywho. Like I said, your turn. Has one of your favorites ever disappointed you like this with a performance?
Programming note: Speaking of unhappy and sexually frustrated suburban housewives and men in gray flannel suits from the later Eisenhower years, tonight's the season finale of Mad Men. Last chance to join in the live-blogging over at newcritics. Fun starts at 10 PM Eastern, but you don't have to wait. Mrs Peel already has her intro up.
Starting next Wednesday, June 11, and for the four Wednesdays after that I'll be hosting an open thread over at newcritics devoted to each one of the five Oscar nominees for Best Picture for 1967: The Graduate, In the Heat of the Night, Bonnie and Clyde, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and Doctor Dolittle. I was going to leave that last one off my list, but our favorite film blogger the Siren insisted I include it. She swears it holds up a lot better than you'd think. We'll see.
I chose these movies just because they're the subject of Mark Harris' Pictures at a Revolution, so I heartily recommend reading the book as a great backgrounder for the discussions. No way, though, am I assinging it as homework. These threads are meant to be fun, as if we were all just talking about a movie we'd just seen together at a coffee shop after the show and definitely not as if we'd all just watched it in class.
My plan is to open the threads at 10 PM EDT each Wednesday and we'll just start chatting away as if we'd all just finished watching the movie. Of course it won't be necessary to actually watch the film just before. It won't even be necessary for you to have watched the film recently---or at all---to join in. Clearly, though, I'm hoping folks will watch the movie (re-watch for a lot of us) in the week leading up to that Wednesday's open thread.
So...here's my tentative schedule for the threads:
(Schedule revised from this morning based on suggestions by Ralph Hitchens and SF Mike. Saving Bonnie and Clyde for last, besides letting us end with a bang---sorry, couldn't resist.---finishes us off with the movie that had the most influence on movies for the next ten years.)
Let me know what you think of the list and the schedule and if you already have some points in mind you'd like the discussions to touch on.
If this goes well I think it will become a permanent fixture at newcritics, although we'll probably start rotating the hosting chores. The Siren may not remember or may wish to forget but she's already volunteered to take on the next set of movies.
So, there you go. Add The Graduate to your Netflix queue or buy it from Amazon or download it from somewhere or run out to your local video store or public library ASAP. Please join in even if you can't watch the movies beforehand.
1.) Makes me think, Boy, I'll be giving that one the skip.
2.) Makes me think, Boy, I'm glad I'm giving that one the skip.
3.) Makes me think, I think I would rather read Ken Levine summing up movies than actually go to any movies.
I'm guessing that studio heads are meeting right now to put a contract out on him.
A sampling of Ken's sins:
CAPTIVITY – Perfect casting: Elisha Cuthbert who’s been kidnapped so many times in 24 she can’t ride in a car unless she's in the trunk.
HAIRSPRAY – Movie version of the musical version of the movie. John Travolta plays a fat 1960’s housewife, reprising his role from BATTLEFIELD EARTH.
RESCUE DAWN – Christian Bale and Steve Zahn escape a brutal Laotian POW camp where they are beaten and tortured and fight for their lives in the murderous unforgiving jungle with no hope of rescue. German director, Werner Herzog decides to give comedy a try.
Your turn: What are you looking forward to seeing this summer?
Oddly enough, I'm not looking forward to any of the big sequels I thought I'd be looking forward to---Pirates of the Caribbean, Spider-man 3, or Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix---but I am looking forward to the sequel I'd have thought I wouldn't care beans about, Fantastic Four Rise of the Silver Surfer. I refuse to believe it's just because of Jessica Alba. Must be because the Silver Surfer is really cool.
(Warning: That picture of Alba may not be safe for work. For some of you, it is definitely not safe for looking at when wives or lovers are nearby. Unless you are lucky enough that she enjoys sharing your tastes in female pulchritude.)
I think I'd also like to see Evan Almighty and Ratatouille. Other than that....
Season Three of Deadwood's coming out on DVD in June.
There's so much about this I'm having trouble wrapping my head around.
Not the idea of Keira Knightley and Lindsay Lohan getting naked together. I have no problem with that one, probably because it's purely an intellectual exercise for me. Neither Knightley nor Lohan figure all that often in my erotic daydreams. (Probably only a little more often than I appear in theirs.) Together they might be more exciting, but I keep thinking back to Knightley's Vanity Fair cover with Scarlett Johanson and shake my head again with disappointment.
And Lohan reminds me of girls I knew back in the day who had reputations for being wild and sexy and easy good times, as long as your idea of a great night finished with you holding her hair back while she knelt over the toilet.
What's causing my head to spin is the evil little voice at the back of my head asking, "Oh yeah? Well, then what two starlets would you like to see naked and making out together?"
I've got my answers. Go get your own.
What is it with us straight guys and the idea of women having hot lesbian sex?
Well, in my case it's partly nostalgia, but that's none of your business.
Moving right along, though, this brings me to the next thing I can't get my head around.
A straight guy who isn't turned on by the thought of two beautiful young starlets getting naked together!
From TBogg, who passes along the whole story, I learned that there is in fact such a straight guy and, surprise, surprise, he's a Right Wing blogger.
Not only is this manly man not aroused by images of Keira and Lindsay smooching, he's positively disgusted by the idea.
Apparently he sees it as another sign of the heterosexual guy's apocolypse as the entire female half of the species under the age of 25 is Sapphosticated---spaceships from Venus have landed somewhere and the Amazonian warrior princesses are zapping all our nubile young women with ray guns that turn them into lesbians.
I can see why this guy is panicking. He probably comes from that tribe of dateless young men who console themselves in their loneliness that every woman who refuses to go out with them is a dyke. The websites they're visiting to help console themselves offer lots of visual proof of the evil Venusians' plot to eliminate men too.
Ladies, would you mind leaving us men alone together for a moment? Thank you.
Ok, men, listen up. This generation did not invent muff-diving. Back in my day, a hundred years ago, many a girl I knew experimented on the other side of the fence. Of course, I spent a lot of time in the company of actresses, dancers, and other artistic types, and in several cases I only know what they told me and some of them I suspect were liars who were trying to mess with my mind, but the point's still valid. The difference between this generation and mine is either, depending on your point of view, a lack of discretion or a healthy open-mindedness and honesty about sex, plus a higher quality and better marketed variety of pornography.
Now, onto the less adolescent portion of this post.
Ladies, you can come back in now.
I've read two biographies of Dylan Thomas, neither one recently, but at least one of them at a very impressionable age, when the sudden knowledge that real human beings engaged in threesomes would have left me dazed and goggle-eyed for a week, and I don't recall the romantic episode that's the basis of the movie Knightley and Lohan are now not making together at all.
I remember lots of drinking, lots of vomiting, lots of drunken, fumbled passes at colleagues' and hosts' wives, but not much sex, even of the exclusively heterosexual twosome kind.
Thomas was a famous poet and famous poets, even slobbering, drunken, filthy ones who don't shower or clean under their fingernails, don't live celibate lives if they don't want to. But I believe Thomas had more luck stealing clean shirts and underwear from his hosts' closets and drawers, something he was prone to do, than he had stealing the wives from their beds.
So I would have thought that the fact Thomas had a frisky, bisexual wife would not have been something his biographers overlooked, and I'm shocked that either it was left out of both books or I completely missed it, twice.
Now, here's the last thing I can't wrap my head around, and it's the thing I will never get my head around.
I'll deal with the movie and the naked starlets. I'll forget about the Right Wing Blogger's curiously un-heterosexual hang-ups. I will be persuaded that Caitlin Thomas did swing both ways.
I will never deal with the fact that all this sex and nudity is because of a guy who looked like this:
Then again the guy I knew in college who had the most notches on his bedpost looked like a rat.
He was a rock star though. Rock star trumps poet, every time.
Family movie night this week was the negligible Happily N'Ever After, a good premise done in by a script that seemed to have been written with the idea in mind that nothing was to go onto the screen that would tax the modest talents of the computer animators. The result is kind of a Greek tragedy of a cartoon with all the important action taking place offstage while the characters declaim about their troubles and woes.
Last week the family feature was the only slightly better animated Everyone's Hero, a tall tell set in the year when the New York Yankees and the Chicago Cubs faced off for the second time straight in the World Series and the Cubbies came close to defeating the Yankees in six games, because the Cubs crazed owner, who is not Philip Wrigley, has Babe Ruth's magic bat, Darlin' stolen from his locker in Yankee Stadium.
The Cubs and the Yanks played each other in the 1932 Series, the Yankees wining it in four straight. In 1933 the New York Giants beat the Washington NationalsSenatorsNationals Senators (Either one. See comments), 4-1. In '34 the Cardinals beat the Tigers, 4-3.
The Cubs were back in the Series in '35 and they lost, 4-2...to Detroit.
The next and only other time the Cubs and the Yankees met in the World Series was 1938 and the Cubs lost again, of course. But not because Babe Ruth swung a magic bat or any bat. Ruth was gone from the Yankees by then.
You could look it up.
In other words, Everyone's Hero is set in a year that never was, call it 1932B, a magical year in which baseballs could talk like Rob Reiner trying to sound like Billy Crystal in Monsters Inc and bats talked like Whoopi Goldberg sounding like Scarlet O'Hara one moment and like Aretha Franklin the next, the World Series was played over the course of two and a half weeks, without any rainouts, Lou Gehrig,Bill Dickey,Tony Lazzeri, Irish Bob Muesel, and Earle Combs, all of Murderers Row except for Babe Ruth, forgot how to hit at the same time and the Babe was carrying the team on his back, Ruth transformed into an elegant, articulate sophisticate, a little rough around the edges, but modest and self-effacing, and---SPOILER ALERT---a ten year old boy could be inserted into the World Series line-up at the last minute and hit a game-winning inside the park home run.
The younger critics in the Mannion family room bought the idea of anthropomorphic sporting equipment but...um...balked...at the idea that the rules of the game would be automatically suspended just so the hero of the movie could save the day in dramatic fashion.
They also thought it was just plain dumb that the story took all that trouble to get the Babe his magic bat back and then didn't have him swing it.
You got that right. SPOILER ALERT IS STILL IN EFFECT. The movie does not show Babe Ruth hitting a home run.
There's a difference between implausible and stupid and Everyone's Hero defines it in its final ten minutes.
Up until that point it's a likable enough evening's diversion. Not terrible, but nothing to write home about and not worth a blog post half as long as this one already is and the only reason I'm still going on at this point---you knew I would have an excuse, didn't you?---is the moral of Everyone's Hero.
I've said it before here and I'll say it again. I don't like morals in kids' movies. Mainly for two reasons.
One, it's usually the same moral no matter what the movie. Be True to Yourself. Variations of this are Follow Your Heart and Follow Your Dreams. There is nothing inherently wrong with doing any of these things, provided you know who you are and you are a decent person worth being true to and you can tell the difference between what your heart is telling you to do and what your vanity, ego, id, and appetites are telling you to do, and you're not insane or deluded and your dreams are things you have the ability to realize. Not knowledge most children possess, but never mind. As the guiding principle for character development, though, Be True to Yourself seems to me a recipee for raising a generation of egomaniacal monsters.
So I wish moviemakers would come up with some additional morals to tack on to their movies.
But it's that idea of morals being tacked on that makes me dislike them so much. Because that's what morals usually are. Tacked on.
Morals may or may not grow intrinsically from a story's theme. But when they appear, not always at the end, often they're repeated again and again throughout the movie, the filmmakers beating their young audience over the head with them, they appear in CAPITAL LETTERS, as the narrator or a character stops the action dead to lecture the audience, pretty much saying, "Now, children, what important idea have we learned here today?"
BE TRUE TO YOURSELF.
FOLLOW YOUR HEART.
FOLLOW YOUR DREAM.
Or, in the case of Everyone's Hero:
If a moral grows out of the story then it's unnecessary to have anybody say it. Kids are pretty swift on the uptake. They get the point.
The little kid hero of Everyone's Hero who rescues Ruth's stolen bat and sets out to return it to him, a ten year old boy named Yankee Irving, has a big heart and big dreams, he is a devoted and knowledgeable baseball fan---he's a Jewish kid from a city that has three Major League teams, but he also follows the Negro Leagues closely enough to know all the players---and he loves the New York Yankees. But he's short, uncoordinated, impatient, and not good at following instructions, all of which combined make him the worst ballplayer in his neighborhood. He's the kind of player whose best chance of getting on base is by never swinging and hoping for a walk. Naturally, he's always the last kid picked. Naturally, this breaks his heart. Naturally, by the end of the movie he's going to be the one to come through for everybody in the clutch.
He's able to save the day because he never gives up. He keeps swinging. Throw him off a moving train to Chicago and he bounces to his feet and starts walking.
Literally, Yankee's never thrown off a train, although he comes close to falling off one several times. He is put off the train to Chicago, because he doesn't have a ticket. But the train stops and the conductor shoos him off at a station in rural Pennsylvania, and after a moment of despair, Yankee plucks up his courage and starts walking.
Figuratively, though, Yankee is thrown off a lot of moving trains. He has a lot of adventures on the way to Chicago that almost take the heart out of him. But he keeps on going. He stays in the box and keeps swinging. As a lesson for kids, this isn't a bad one. Don't give up. Keep looking for a way to succeed. If this plan doesn't work, come up with another one. Go back to the drawing board and try, try again.
And I've said this before and I'll say it again, I don't mind lessons in kids' movies. Lessons are different from morals. A lesson is a practical piece of wisdom a story teaches just by telling itself. Kids watching Everyone's Hero don't need to have it explained to them that when you've got a problem to solve the only way to solve it is to solve it---to keep at it, keep swinging. They'll get it.
But the filmmakers didn't trust their audience. Every step of the way somebody stops the story dead to tell Yankee, KEEP SWINGING, KID! and by the time the movie's reached its implausible and stupid climax, the lesson has turned into a moral that is very close to becoming another version of FOLLOW YOUR DREAMS.
The utter stupidity of the ending undercuts the good of the lesson, to boot, by suggesting that as long as you keep swinging at some point the rules of the universe will magically rewrite themselves in your favor and you will get your heart's desire just by virtue of having wanted it.
At any rate, not being a kid, just a dumb grown-up and therefore not swift on the uptake, by the time Yankee reached Wrigley Field and was poised to save the day, I had grown cynical about the lesson cum moral and was busy thinking up lots of examples of when Keep Swinging is in fact bad advice---I'd even muttered out loud, although, I hope, only loud enough for the blonde to hear, That's one lesson I wish George Bush hadn't learned; we'd be out of Iraq by now. She told me to shut my trap. Then the final credits rolled and I saw something that did make me shut my trap.
Produced and directed by Christopher Reeve.
Everyone's Hero was the project Reeve was working on when he died.
Judging from the documentary tribute that's a special feature on the DVD, he was only there for the earliest planning stages. He worked on the storyboarding, but he never saw even the first stages of animation.
I don't know how close to final the draft of the script he was working from was. I'd like to think that he wouldn't have allowed the stupid ending. I'm not sure, but I had a sense, listening to them talk, that the filmmakers who finished Everyone's Hero for him wanted the movie to be a kind of monument to Reeve and they might have gone overboard on the idea of showing how a hero who everyone thought couldn't accomplish what he wanted to coming through in the end. It's an article of faith among everybody who knew him that if he had lived Reeve would have done what was thought to be impossible. He'd have been the first quadrapalegic to get out of a wheelchair and walk again. It may have been that his friends thought they needed to show that happening metaphorically in his last movie.
I don't know.
All I do know is that if there was anyone who had earned the right to teach children that the most important thing is to stay in there, to try and continue trying, to never give up, to keep swinging, it was Christopher Reeve.
When he died, Reeve was still in the batter's box, still swinging. ________________________________
Keep swinging isn't the only good lesson of Everyone's Hero. As he makes his way to Chicago, Yankee is helped along by a bunch of characters who are, like Yankee himself, people not held in very high regard by the most everybody else. They not only help get him to Chicago, they teach him how to be a better baseball player. He learns about strategy from a trio of hobos. He learns how to throw from a little girl. And he learns how to hit and how to play with confidence from some men who will never get to play ball in the Major Leagues even though they are every bit as good as the players on the Cubs and the Yankees because they are black.
Not bad lessons for kids: No one can do it all on their own. All of us need help. Everyone we meet has something worth sharing, something to teach. Everyone counts.
In the movie the Cubs' owner is obsessed with Babe Ruth as the source of all his unhappiness. In real life, Ruth didn't win the '32 Series single-handedly for the Yankees and in fact he wasn't all that great a factor in the Cubs' defeat. He had a good series, but he hit only two home runs, both of them in the same game. If Chicago fans had a reason to fear and loathe Ruth it was because of what he did to the Cubs in the 1918 World Series...as a pitcher...for the Boston Red Sox.
You could look it up. _________________
Robin Williams does the voice of the Cubs' crazy, Irish-brogued, Ruth-hating owner. William H. Macy does the voice of the cheating Cubs pitcher who steals Ruth's bat. Robert Wagner does the voice of the New York Yankees' general manager. And Mandy Patinkin does the voice of Yankee's father. All of them were good friends of Christopher Reeve.
In the documentary, Patinkin tells about how when they were very young actors and he and Reeve were doing a play together in New York they used to ride home together on the subway after rehearsals. The first of Reeve's Superman movies had recently opened so Reeve was suddenly a big star, but, says Patinkin, nobody ever recognized him on the train because of his modesty. Reeve never called attention to himself in a movie star way. He was just another working stiff taking the subway home.
I find it a little hard to believe that try as hard as they might have to blend in these two very handsome and very large young men could have sat there completely unnoticed on the subway night after night. But then New Yorkers practice at being bored by the incredible.
What I really like about the story is just the picture of two friends at the beginning of what will turn out for both of them to be wonderful careers riding home together. I think that's how all of us should be remembered, as we were when we were young and at our best and our lives were full of hope and promise. ___________________
Reeve's widow Dana Reeve was one of the co-producers of Everyone's Hero and she did the voice for Yankee's mother---she and another actress. Dana Reeve died before she could finish her voice work for the movie. She was sick while she was working on it. She was still in the box, then, too, still swinging, at the end. __________________
Makes no nevermind to me that Quentin Tarantino thinks the schlock movies he watched until his eyes bled when he was in the early stages of his ongoing arrested adolescence are among the greatest achievements in the art of cinema.
And I don't care if he wants to spend the rest of his life reliving his still unspent youth by remaking those movies. Filmbrain is a little harsher on him about this:
Tarantino needs to find a new source of inspiration that informs his
screenwriting. Like a hyperactive child, his desire to share his
encyclopedic knowledge of cult and fringe cinema has gone from
supplementing and enhancing his cleverly written screenplays to
becoming the sole purpose for their existence. Yes, Quentin, we know
you've seen every Chia-liang Lu and William Rotsler film. Time to move
But then Filmbrain has seen Grindhouse and I haven't and, not that I had any real plans to go, I'm not going to, now that Filmbrain has saved me the trouble.
At any rate, I don't care what obsesses Tarantino. Pulp Fiction is what it is, a touchstone of the pop culture of the end of the last millenium. And I liked Jackie Brown. What bugged me about the Kill Bills was that Tarantino used them to utterly waste the time, talent, and beauty of Uma Thurman.
Now, in his half of Grindhouse, Death Proof, he's apparently gone and done Rosario Dawson and the other smart, beautiful young actresses in the cast the same favor. Sez Filmbrain:
It’s one thing for Quentin to present us with a bunch of middle-aged
guys sitting around a table, hanging out in a hotel room, or driving
around in a car engaging in lengthy dialog liberally seasoned with
pop-culture references – everything from Like a Virgin, fast food menus, Kung Fu, The Man From Rio, or AM radio hits. These are Tarantino’s geeky obsessions writ large. Yet in Death Proof,
black suited guys are replaced by hotties in baby tees and tight pants,
and the results come off as little more than male geek fantasy –
gorgeous young women sitting around dropping references to Zatoichi,
obscure British rock bands, and 70s cult cinema. It’s unbelievably
juvenile, and more than a little pathetic.
Oh, well. Their business. And like I said, wasn't on my list and, anyway, Filmbrain's seen it so I don't have to. Filmbrain didn't have much to say about Robert Rodrguez's parts, but clearly there's too much Tarantino in Tarantino's:
Death Proof is too self-congratulatory and self-aware to work as either pure exploitation or even homage –
in fact, it's Tarantino paying tribute to Tarantino more than anything
else. He seems unable to distance himself from his auteurist self in
order to create something worthy of the grindhouse moniker. It's more
adolescent than sleazy, and lacks the salaciousness of, say, a Russ
Meyer film, whose unique flavor of girl power Tarantino co-opted. Too
self-satisfied with the characters he created, he lacks the conviction
to gaze upon them the way Meyer did. What we're left with is neither
fish nor fowl; too conscious of itself to adhere to the genre, but not
clever enough to subvert it.
At least, though, says FB, Death Proof isn't as misogynistic as some critics have said.
Things Robert De Niro knows about directing he did not learn from all his work with Martin Scorsese:
How to be quiet.
How to keep his actors still.
How to fill up a scene with images rather than activity. In The Good Shepherd, De Niro lets us look at a shot, stare deep into it, allows us to take our time and study it. Scorsese tends to force us to keep our eyes moving about constantly. Something is always in frenetic motion, usually his actors' mouths.
Exhibit A: In The Good Shepherd, De Niro has cast Joe Pesci as a mobster and Pesci, for once in his career, plays somebody who resembles an actual human being.
Much of this difference in directing style is due to tone and theme. Scorsese's movies are usually about people whose emotions get out of control, whose thoughts are all over the place. The characters in The Good Shepherd have stifled their emotions. They don't think anymore either. They calculate.
In The Departed Matt Damon played a man without a soul. In The Good Shepherd he plays a man whose soul has withdrawn to one side. It's there, watching him, horrified at what's happening. If it had a voice, it would scream. We see it in Damon's eyes. Whatever or whomever he's looking at, his gaze is always a fraction off to one side. He seems to be watching himself watch himself, as if he can see himself reflected inside the lenses of his glasses.
I wonder if the glasses Damon wears are a tribute to Alec Guinness's George Smiley. They are a joke and a disguise, that's for sure. The joke is that they make Damon look like Clark Kent and at the back of our mind we can't help expecting him to whip them off at some point and reveal the real hero within, even though we know there is increasingly less and less inside him that resembles a hero. But The Good Shepherd does seem to owe a lot to John Le Carre's spy novels in which the spy game is not a romantic adventure starring James Bond types; it is soul-deadening work for clerks who have little heart to put into to begin with and who learn to ignore, even smother, what little they have. And the 15 year battle of wills between Matt Damon's Edward Wilson and the Russian spymaster Ulysses definitely mirrors Smiley's decades' long contest with Karla. The difference between Wilson and George Smiley is that by the time Smiley comes to the fore in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy he has developed a kind of nostalgic loyalty to his former self, the one-time idealist and romantic who fought the good fight and wooed and won the Lady Ann. He does some things for that former self as if repaying a debt. This doesn't bring his heart roaring back to life, but it makes him act as if he still had one from time to time. Wilson's character may have reached that point by the end of the movie but most of the film is devoted to observing the flame within him flicker and die.
If anyone wants to make a new biopic about President Kennedy they can do worse than cast Matt Damon as JFK. De Niro and Damon both seem to be aware of the resemblance and use it to suggest idealism and romanticism carrying the country away. Payoff at the end---Damon in the Smithsonian with a Mercury capsule suspended behind him---may be too subtle. Like I said, De Niro likes to let images tell the story, make us look into the background of a shot. Something to be said though for dialog and action at least to bring things to a conclusion. Images, being static, have no conclusions. This movie could use a few more of those conclusions.
Blood Diamond, The Departed, and The Good Shepherd make an interesting triptych for students of acting. Leo to Leo and Matt to Matt: A Study of Leading Men Playing Heroes as Character Types.
Angelina Jolie is a good actress when she takes a part that requires her to act rather than pose and posture. She is not the prettiest or the sexiest actress in the movie. Tammy Blanchard is. That fact is due to Jolie's being such a good actress. Jolie's character, Clover, is a trophy and knows herself to be a trophy. The reason she happens to look like a goddess is purely practical. Who'd want a trophy that wasn't beautiful? Jolie plays Clover as a trophy come to life, aware of her beauty as a practical fact about herself, willing to use it when necessary, but otherwise indifferent to it except as it requires admiration to be worth anything. Trophies only have meaning if the winner who takes possession of them cares about them. A living trophy that was not constantly admired wouldn't know itself to be a trophy. It wouldn't be able to tell itself from any other knick-knack around the house. Jolie plays Clover as if she can see herself visibly tarnishing and gathering dust, feel herself fading into the background as Damon grows increasingly indifferent to her. Without losing her outward, trophy-like stillness she manages to show Clover on an emotional see-saw, always going up and down between panic and petulant depression.
When Damon reveals that he has never loved her, never valued her as a trophy, she ages twenty years overnight.
I wish De Niro had spent a little more time showing how Clover's disdain for the Skull and Bones' All boys together clubbishness and later for the CIA's clannishness are not signs of her rebel spirit, only of her jealousy. Clover represents and stands for a different kind of conformity.
Two spheres are competing for total possession of Damon/Wilson. Both represent the same system of values---conformity, unquestioning loyalty, total denial of self, service to a stated Ideal---Family, Patriotism---that is really a mask for Money as the source of all that's good.
The world of home, love, and family that Clover thinks she represents is really just the material representation of wealth and privilege; the job her husband does, which she sees as taking him away from home, love, and family, defends that wealth and privilege. This is all there thematically and even symbolically in The Good Shepherd. I just could have used a scene or two dramatizing it.
I also wish De Niro had spent a little more time showing how the Cold War had eroded John Turturro's character's soul. We see him in World War II as a wiseguy GI type, our favorite kind of American soldier from the movies, us incarnate---cyncial, brash, anti-authoritarian, but tough, proud, taking no nonsense, knowing what's right and what's wrong instinctively and instinctively always coming down on the side of right. Then all of a sudden he's a cold-hearted, merciless, too efficient functionary of the CIA, a servant of the establishment instead of a true patriot. One scene would have done it. De Niro is satisfied with one look in Turturro's eyes
It's one hell of a look though.
A look full of the horrified shock of recognition.
Physically Turturro is a dream come true for an artistic designer whose job is to recreate the look of the 1950s for a movie. He just looks like he's been cut and pasted from a photo in a contemporary issue of LIFE magazine. See him also in Quiz Show. Same effect.
Good to see William Hurt at work again. Ditto Keir Dullea. Twenty years ago, who'd have thought Alec Baldwin would one day be taking on the type of roles then going to Charles Durning? Or---see Running With Scissors---Dabney Coleman?
Already suggested The Good Shepherd is an American Smiley's People. It can also be seen as a WASP Godfather. (Maybe De Niro learned more about directing from Coppola than from Scorsese.) Which would explain why it feels unfinished. Like The Godfather it wants and needs a sequel. Unlike The Godfather, though, it doesn't stand on its own. It's two hours and forty-eight minutes of prologue. We start with the Bay of Pigs and end there. The Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy's Assassination, Vietnam, Watergate are all ahead of us.
By the way, I've never kept up on the conspiracy theories. Apparently on his deathbed Howard Hunt fingered LBJ as the mastermind behind the murder of JFK. I think his mind was wandering. He was mixing up his spy novels with reality. But as anyone taken a serious look at the role the Cuban exile community might have played? If anyone had a motive it would have been the people who blamed Kennedy for leaving their relatives to be slaughtered on the beach.
Perhaps The Good Shepherd Part II will deal with that.
The Good Shepherd. Directed by Robert De Niro. Screenplay by Eric Roth. Starring Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, John Turturro, William Hurt, Alec Baldwin, Michael Gambon, Keir Dullea, Tammy Blanchard, Billy Crudup, and Robert De Niro. Universal. 2006.
Mannion Family Movie Night this week featured Woody Allen’s Sleeper.
When Uncle Merlin heard he wondered if it was dated. Nope, I said. There are a few jokes that aren’t funny anymore even if you remember the pop culture references. Mostly, though the comedy is all wisecracks and slapstick, the kind of jokes that were funny when Hector was a pup and will still be funny come Judgment Day.
"I haven't seen my analyst in 200 years. He was a strict Freudian. If I'd been going all this time, I'd probably almost be cured by now."
"I'm what you would call a teleological, existential atheist. I believe that there's an intelligence to the universe, with the exception of certain parts of New Jersey."
Keaton: So what do you believe in?
Allen: Sex and death. Two things that come once in a lifetime. But at least after death you're not nauseous.
I hadn’t planned to show the guys any of Woody Allen’s movies until they were a little older. I’d forgotten that they'd already seen a Woody Allen movie. They remembered though and recognized the fact about a third of the way into Sleepers. Antz.
Antz is a great Woody Allen movie the way Galaxy Quest is a great Star Trek movie.
A long time into Casino Royale---a very long time into Casino Royale---Daniel Craig, modeling his new tailored tux, looks up into the mirror and gives himself a smile that, with the camera looking in over his shoulder at his reflection and his reflection looking back at the camera, is really meant for us, a smile that asks, "Remind you of anyone?"
Of course he does.
Bond, we say in our heads, James Bond.
And it would be a great moment, like the moment in the first Christopher Reeve Superman movie when Clark Kent, dashing across the street, pulls open his shirt to reveal the big red S we've all been waiting to see, if it had been the moment it was meant to be, the moment when we finally accept that Craig is the new Bond.
But as I said it comes an awful long way into the movie, a movie in which Craig has been extremely busy right from start being James Bond.
I thought Casino Royale was supposed to be about how Bond became Bond. I expected a learning curve to be part of the plot. But aside from a few lines of dialog mentioning it and a couple of good jokes---"A martini!" "Shaken or stirred?" "Do I look like I care?"---Bond's being the new kid in town doesn't figure much in the storyline. He's just been promoted and the ink's still wet on his license to kill, but he takes to the job as naturally as Craig takes to playing the part.
Which makes it just another Bond film.
I say that as a compliment. It's just not the compliment I expected to be paying it based on all I'd heard and read about it before seeing it.
As just another Bond film it's better than most of them, as good as a few of the very best, but except for the big chase through the construction site and the embassy it didn't add any scenes to the ultimate ideal Bond movie that's been playing in my head since I saw my very first Bond, which, for the record, was Live and Let Die, so Sean Connery, great as he was, does not define Bond for me---he's a contributor, but not the creator. Roger Moore didn't define Bond for me either, much as I enjoyed his take on 007, because he was already defined in my imagination as The Saint and Beau Maverick and Lord Brett Sinclair, Tony Curtis' partner on The Persuaders. I had the same problem with Pierce Brosnan, who will always carry a little too much of Remington Steele in his Bond. That's why, back in the day, I was so looking forward to Timothy Dalton's Bond and why I really liked Craig's. Neither one of them entered my head with any previous work's baggage to check.
But, not even considering how it fails as an origin film, Casino Royale disappointed me as a Bond movie because its plot was upside down.
Putting the poker game in the spot where the big climactic chase or shoot-out should have been was a really bad idea. The loss of the money and Bond's apparent betrayal would have been a good way to get the plot off the ground and the chase across the airport runway, which, by the way, was as clumsy and dumb as the big chase in A View to a Kill, although it has a great payoff, should have been the big finale. The buildings crashing into the Venice canals could have been left out entirely. Structured that way, the whole middle part of the film could have been about how Bond learns to be Bond or at least how he learns to be a better Bond. M would have had a whole lot more to be exasperated with him for, a real reason to consider pulling his license to kill, instead of merely fussing over his failure to shoot out the security cameras in the embassy.
What Casino Royale has going for it is Craig.
Now, if you're a Bond fan, if you actually like the character and whole conception behind the movies, your opinion of what Bond should be like is probably based on how seriously you take the whole license to kill thing.
If you think the fact that defines Bond is that he's an assassin and therefore basically a cold-hearted killer, a paid thug who happens to know how to tie a bowtie and which fork to use, then of course Connery is your Bond and Craig will appeal to you because he has a good degree of thugishness about him. Craig looks like he could be a British football hooligan. He looks more like he could be a soccer star, the kind of player though who makes soccer into a contact sport more brutal than rugby. And he can do cold. Not cold as in ice. Brosnan did that. Cold as in stone. A stone that has hurled itself off a cliff face aiming itself right at your head.
He's brutal, but he's also clearly intelligent and educated.
Connery's Bond was smart too, but there was something of the unfinished auto-didact about him, a scholarship boy who had to drop out of school when the money ran out, possibly even before he reached university. Craig looks like he made it all the way to his final semester at Cambridge before he got kicked out for seducing his tutor's wife and beating up four or five star players on the cricket team.
That makes his Bond a bridge between Connery's and Brosnan's and Moore's Bonds, both of whom got firsts at Oxford and were well liked and popular despite having seduced their tutors' wives and beaten up four or five star players on the cricket team.
Bond's license to kill doesn't mean as much to me as a sign of his innate brutality as it does as a sign of his intelligence and judgment. Hired thugs don't have to be discerning. Being given the power to decide whom and when to kill means being given the power to decide this person doesn't need killing at this particular time. Bond is a spy before he's an assassin. We only see him on missions when things are so out of control or have gone so wrong that the bad guys must die. But there are plenty of suggestions in all the movies that Bond routinely goes on missions in which he slips in somewhere, extracts the information he needs, and slips out without anybody getting their hair mussed.
The women we often see him with at the beginning of a movie are there to reward him for his good behavior.
Brosnan and Moore were able to suggest that, while they didn't have a problem with the killing, they thought more highly of themselves for pulling off a job without pulling out their gun, because that meant they'd been really clever. Good spies shouldn't leave any traces behind and dead bodies are hard not to notice.
So it's not Craig's toughness that I liked as much as the fact that his toughness never gets in the way of his letting us see him thinking.
What Craig adds to Bond is blood. And sweat. Craig's Bond is the first who looks like the work he does is physically demanding. When his Bond jumps from a steel girder to a swinging I-beam he feels the force of it in his chest and arms. He gets hurt. He bruises. He gets the wind knocked out of him. He gets tired. The payoff of the chase through the embassy depends not on Bond being cornered but on his being too exhausted to run anymore or think his way out of the situation.
Craig isn't the first Bond since Connery who looks like he can do the stunts Bond is required to do. Brosnan was in great shape in his first two Bonds and he moved like a panther. But Craig is the first one who looks like he is really taking the punishment. What's more, he looks like he could survive them despite the toll they take on him.
This new and realistic physicality isn't all Craig's doing, though. It is a result of filmmakers having learned since Roger Moore's hey-day how to stage and shoot and edit fights in a way that makes them appear more real and physical.
I was watching The Spy Who Loved Me last week and I was struck by how the director didn't even bother to try to make Moore's fight scenes look like hard work for Bond. Moore was fifty years old at the time. He was in fine shape for an old guy but it was clear that he'd lost a step or two, that he wasn't as limber as he once was---and Moore even when he was playing Simon Templer never gave the impression he was much of an athlete---and yet a number of his fight scenes and chases were filmed in long shot with very little cross and jump cutting so that we could see either that we were watching a stunt man or that Moore and the stuntman he was fighting were being very careful with each other.
But then nothing about Moore's Bond movies was supposed to be taken seriously. It was all a game, a fun fantasy. Moore's job was to make us simultaneously see the game and the fun while getting caught up in the excitement. He was good at that.
By the way, despite his age, he was the only Bond who was persuasive as the kind of man who didn't have to rely on damsels in distress throwing themselves into his arms and villainesses scheming their way into his bed to get laid.
Handsome and dashing as all the others including Craig are, none of them look like they'd be a lot of fun on a date or even in the sack, unless you like it fast, muscular, and without any cuddling afterwards and any chance you'll have company for breakfast.
Don't confuse the roguishly charming post-007 Connery with his gloomy misogynistic Bond, James "Let me call you a cab before I have to kill you" Bond.
So, for what it's worth, Craig is the first realistic Bond.
By the way, when this quality of the movie, its relative realism, was being touted back before its release, I was confused. I had thought that we'd already had a realistic Bond. Timothy Dalton. Turns out my memory was playing tricks on me.
Watched License to Kill recently too. It had been one of only two of the Bond films I'd never seen. (The other was and still is Moonraker.) I was shocked.
I remember liking The Living Daylights but if Dalton's work in License to Kill is a continuation of what he was doing in his first Bond the I must not be remembering it very well. I don't know what he was up to, but he wasn't playing James Bond. He was playing some British toff who'd gotten caught up in a spy game and thought the only way he could get through it was by acting like James Bond. His Bond is realistic in that Dalton acts out every emotion Bond might be feeling at a given moment. When Bond has reason to worry, he looks worried. When Bond is smitten with Cary Lowell's character---the first and so far only Bond girl I believe might have a realistic counterpart in this universe---Dalton looks smitten. When he's in pain, he looks like he hurts. But it doesn't add up to a character and all that emoting certainly isn't what anybody expects out of James Bond.
Craig suggests that his Bond has real feelings by showing us how he's hiding them.
Last thoughts: I liked Craig as Bond and I'm looking forward to his next outing. But as I said I don't think Casino Royale was exceptional. The actor playing Bond is finally only as good a Bond as the movies he's playing Bond in are good Bond movies. I think part of the reason a lot of Bond fans see Brosnan and Moore as so much weaker Bonds than Connery's is that they appeared in some bad movies. Two out of four of Brosnan's movies are not any good (Here's me on Die Another Day) and several of Moore's are just plain awful. A couple of Connery's Bond movies are pale efforts, particularly You Only Live Twice, and depending on my mood Thunderball is either a hoot or a bad joke, but the first three are well-made genre movies, each one almost able to stand on its own without your having to like or know anything about the Bond series.
We'll see if Craig's movies measure up, then we'll know if he's truly the rightful heir to the double O's.
But the basic appeal of the Bond movies is that they are the ultimate fantasies of male escape (which isn't to say that women don't share the same fantasies only that in the movie the fantasy is pitched at men): Bond is a truly free man. He doesn't need anybody or anything. He doesn't need the job. He doesn't need MI6. He doesn't need a family, friends, or relations. They need him, but Bond is free. He is free even of moral constraint.
And being free he doesn't have to care.
That he bothers to care is what makes him a hero and not a villain or a monster.
The difference between all the Bonds is in each actor's decisions about how much Bond does bother to care and how much he then shows it. Leaving Dalton out of it, Moore cares the most, although he is cool about showing it, while Connery cares least. Where Craig fits himself in between them will decide who his Bond is.
Licenses to Critique or A View to a Review:
Tom Watson hated, just hated Casino Royale. He didn't think much of Craig as Bond either. And did I mention that he hated Casino Royale?
The one, the only, Nancy Nall asked me to tell this story.
First she had to tell it to me, because I'd forgotten it.
Nance remembered it because her memory had been jogged by the release of the movie Color Me Kubrick last week in the theaters and simultaneously on DVD.
Here's the story as Nance told me I told it to her.
Back in Indiana, I used to teach with a guy who did not look like John Updike.
This must be as distinctly understood as the fact that old Marley was dead or just as in A Christmas Carol nothing wonderful can come of the story. My collegue did not look like John Updike.
Updike is bony and angular with a long jaw and a big beak of a nose and a boyish mop of blond hair. At the time this story takes place he was in his mid-fifties. My colleague was in his thirties. He was barrel-chested and burly, with a round face and a snub nose. His hair was dark and he wore glasses with thick lenses. The only way he resembled Updike is that he was tall, well over six feet.
So, one day, my colleague was having lunch at a McDonald's in Indianapolis and as he was finishing up his Big Mac a woman approached his table. She had an apologetic air and looked ready to bolt like a rabbit approaching a dog it wants to borrow money from. She spoke to my colleague in a near whisper.
"I'm sorry to bother you," she said, "But I had to ask. Are you John Updike?"
And my colleague, without stopping to think for a second about what he was doing, smiled up at her and said, "Yes, I am."
It was reflexive. He wasn't a born liar or a habitual practical joker. He didn't make a hobby of going around impersonating famous authors. He was just responding to the woman's need to believe he was who she thought he was. It was so obviously important to her that she was meeting the real John Updike that he didn't have the heart to disappoint her. He became John Updike to help her out. He was doing her a favor the way he'd have told another stranger who asked the time or given them directions. The woman was thrilled when he said he was John Updike, but she was also relieved. She'd have been mortified if he'd turned out not to be Updike. As it was she was feeling a bit foolish for disturbing a stranger while he was eating. My colleague reacted instinctively to save her from embarrassment. He wanted her to be meeting John Updike and he wanted John Updike to be nice to her. So he was.
He invited her to sit down.
She was too shy and flustered but she had to tell him how much she loved his books. He was her favorite living writer, she said, still whispering, as if she was afraid that if anyone overheard a crowd would come rushing over to join them. She was reading Rabbit is Rich and it was wonderful, she said, and she showed him that she had it with her to read on her lunch hour.
My colleague said, "Would you like me to sign it for you?"
The woman nearly fell over. Of course that's what she wanted but she was afraid to ask. She handed him her book and he autographed it with a flourish. Inscribed it to her and dated it and everything.
She gushed her thanks and hurried off. My colleage was a little disappointed. He'd thought she wanted to talk about "his" books with him and was ready to oblige.
That was it. My collegue had never been mistaken for Updike before and probably never has been since. I have no idea if that woman ever realized she'd not met the real Updike. Given the way people's minds work and how bad most of us are with faces, odds are that even if she saw a picture of Updike later that afternoon she'd have convinced herself that it was the same guy she'd met in the McDonald's. I like to imagine that a long time afterwards she met the real Updike at a bookstore or college reading and asked him to sign a copy of Rabbit at Rest or In the Beauty of the Lilies and when she got home compared the inscription to the one in her old, treasured copy of Rabbit is Rich and wondered why Updike's handwriting had changed.
It's important to note that although he was ready and willing to play
along longer than she needed him to, my colleague did nothing to
convince that woman he was John Updike. She convinced herself before
she even went up to him. She'd wanted to meet her favorite author and
so she did.
The reason Nance was reminded of this story is that Color Me Kubrick is about a guy who looks and acts nothing like the film director Stanley Kubrick going around London in the early 1990s pretending to be the film director Stanley Kubrick.
Alan Conway, a failed travel agent turned petty grifter, wasn't doing anybody any favors by letting movie fans think they'd met a famous movie director. He took advantage of their self-deception, using their desperation to be liked and thought well of by a celebrity to get them to buy him drinks and meals, put him up for the night in nice hotels, go to bed with him.
After Nance told me the story of my colleague and about Color Me Kubrick I went out and rented it.
Don't rush. Unless you are a truly devoted fan of John Malkovich and have more than a passing interest in Stanley Kubrick, it's not much more than a witty diversion. Malkovich himself seems to be engaged in an experiment to discover just how creepy and repulsive he can be and the director, Brian Cook, seems to have been so fascinated and amused by Malkovich's experiment that he decided he didn't need to do much actual directing, he could just point the camera at Malkovich and let him loose, tossing him chunks of scenery to devour every now and then like a keeper at SeaWorld tossing fish to a particularly hungry and starved for attention killer whale.
Letting an actor do whatever he wants is a sign of either timidity or a complete lack of interest in the actual art of acting, which is what I suspect was going on in the case of Cook with Malkovich. But then Cook would have learned his indifference from the master of indifference.
Cook was the assistant director on three of Kubrick's last four movies. For some reason he missed working on Full Metal Jacket. Screenwriter Anthony Frewin was Kubrick's long time personal assistant and his screenplay is as indifferent to the characters of Conway and his victims as Cook is to the actors playing them. No surprise. Kubrick himself regarded characters as the excuse to make a movie and treated actors as merely the focus point for his camera. He was the coldest-hearted of great directors. (I'm talking about the side of himself that shows through in his films. For all I know he was a warm and loveable teddy bear of a guy in real life.) After Dr Strangelove, nothing like a real human being ever appeared again in a Kubrick film, except for Vincent D'Onforio's baby Marine in Full Metal Jacket, and I'm not sure his humanity isn't an accident of the absolutely inhuman way the character's treated.
Adams and Frewin seem to have made Color Me Kubrick because they saw it as an amusing way to send Kubrick a greeting card in heaven. The movie's full of in-jokes and affectionate allusions to Kubrick's movies. My favorite is the very opening shots of the movie which starts with a couple of bowler-hatted young thugs who look like rejects from Alex's gang in A Clockwork Orange on their way to break into a house and re-enact the rape scene. Turns out that they are a couple of extreme Kubrick fans who think they're on their way to Kubrick's house to pick him up and take him out to dinner.
There's an I'm Spartacus moment that's almost as funny, but takes place late in the film long after the point when I stopped caring about it.
The biggest inside joke, though, is the one that comes from the true story of Alan Conway. Conway knew absolutely nothing about Stanley Kubrick or his movies. This could have been the basis for a number of scenes in which Malkovich gets lectured to by his victims on what a great artist he is. As it happens, this is what happened to one of the actors in the film, Jim Davidson, who was actually met Conway back when Conway was passing himself off as Kubrick. A friend introduced Davidson to "Stanley Kubrick" in a restaurant and Davidson sat down to talk and ended up buying Conway's dinner and drinks. But, although Davidson didn't know what the real Stanley Kubrick looked like, he was a fan of his movies (Hey, I wouldn't recognize Ridley Scott or Pedro Almodovar if I fell over them.), so of course he wanted to talk about them with "Kubrick." He was especially interested in the long tracking shot in Full Metal Jacket. "How many takes did that require?" he asked Conway.
Conway smiled wanly and after a long pause said, "Lots."
At which point Davidson realized what was happening and excused himself from the table.
There are few moments like this in Color Me Kubrick, partly because the movie is naturally more concerned with the people Conway managed to fool than with those he didn't, but also because the filmmakers thought it would be more fun for us to watch Malkovich doing a guy who knows jack-all about filmmaking and the business of making movies going on and on and on about both, constantly overplaying his hand with wilder and wilder flights of fancy and yet somehow still getting away with it. The inside joke is that anyone who knows anything about Kubrick and his movies, and that includes all of us watching the movie, doesn't it, would have pegged Conway as a fraud right away, which makes all of his marks complete fools and all of us watching the movie oh so superior.
This saves the filmmakers from having to ask the question, just how did Conway get away with it? If all his victims were fools and buffoons the question's answered before it's asked.
Because they never ask the question, the movie only gets interested in the other characters at the moment when they're meeting Conway and it loses interest in them at the moment they realize they've been had. This means that even though they are all different types their roles in the movie are exactly the same and each of Conway's cons is pretty much exactly the same as the last. It gets repetitive and old awfully fast.
But I was thinking of my colleague and the woman who colored him Updike.
She was not a fool. She was in a way lucky she didn't sit down to talk with "John Updike." What are the odds she'd have picked an English professor who could have discussed Updike's work with her, unless part of what drew her to my colleague was his "scholarly" air. But who was she anyway? Why was meeting John Updike so important to her? What good did it do her to have met him? What harm might it have done to her if she'd found out the man who autographed her copy of Rabbit is Rich wasn't the author? What harm might it have done her to think that it was?
Without any answers to those questions my story is really just an amusing anecdote.
Stories begin with the question what happened, but they don't get anywhere until they start asking Why should we care that it happened to these characters?
This is the way that Color Me Kubrick is a real tribute to Stanley Kubrick. It never starts asking that question.
Say you've got an Irish playboy in the 18th Century who lives a careless life and ends up having his leg amputated after a duel?
Say a squad of Marines goes to Vietnam after having survived boot camp with a psychopathic drill instructor.
Say a married couple's bored with each other sexually.
Say there's a creepy guy who goes around pretending to be a famous movie director.
Say what about them?
Color Me Kubrick: A True...ish Story. Directed by Brian Cook. Screenplay by Anthony Frewin. Starring John Malkovich, Jim Davidson, Richard E. Grant, and Robert Powell. Magnolia Pictures and First Choice Films. 2005 but not released until 2007.
In my apparently unread probably because uninspired review of Blood Diamond last week, I described a key scene in the movie as Hemingway-esque. But thinking it over I think I may have been wrong to bring Hemingway into it. I was fooled by the scene's being a conscious visual quote from the movie version of For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Blood Diamond's protagonist, Leonardo DiCaprio's character, the soldier of fortune Danny Archer, is more of a Conradian tragic hero than a Hemingwayesque anti-one.
The two aren't mutually exclusive. Hemingway knew his Conrad as well as he knew his Crane and his Turgenev. The difference between them, though, is in their approaches to the question of guilt.
Hemingway's characters are innoncents. Conrad's characters are guilty. They are complicit in the events that sweep them up and desorty them.
World War I happened to Jake Barnes, Nick Adams, and Frederick Henry. The fact that all three of them volunteered to fight carries no guilt because they were in a way society's dupes. They were tricked into it by a phony idealism and when their stories get underway they are in the process of figuring out how to live decently now that those ideals have been shown up as lies.
But Lord Jim invites the pirates in. Martin Decoud allows himself to be enlisted in a fight he doesn't believe in on the side he more than suspects is wrong. And, of course, Kurtz himself brought about the horror that kills him.
Conrad's heroes are and want to be pillars of the society events force them to live or die for. A lot more than their own survival depends on their success or failure.
Hemingway's heroes are anti-heroes in that they don't want any part of
the society that has brought trouble and disaster down upon itself.
Their main job is to escape the aftermath of the catcaclysm. A
Farewell to Arms is literally an account of running away. The Sun Also
Rises and In Our Time, in which the two parts of Big Two-Hearted River
provide the denoument and climax, are about young men finding a
separate peace outside the society that sent them off to war.
Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls is a transitional figure for Hemingway. He's the first of Hemingway's heroes to die and he dies sacrificing himself for others. But although he's on the right side in the Spanish Civil War, he isn't ever committed to it. He dies understanding that that there is no separate peace. Every man's death diminishes him for he is a part of mankind, and so on. But his death is more a personal matter to him than a political one. He doesn't see himself as giving up much of anything and he's reclaiming himself more than he is saving anyone else.
Hemingway's stories, when they aren't about escape, are about recovery or succumbing to wounds, physical and psychic, while Conrad's are tales of redemption or, more often, damnation. This is why Conrad's vision is essentially tragic, while Hemingway's isn't quite.
There was an element of absurdity in Conrad's tragedy, but that only makes his tragic vision different from Shakespeare's and the Greeks'.
I'm not disparaging Hemingway here. I think Conrad was the greater writer, but in Hemingway's defense it has to be said that he was pretty much done as a writer at about the same age as Conrad was when he began.
I don't understand why Hemingway wrote so much that was second-rate, self-parody, and out and out crap after For Whom the Bell Tolls. But the fact is that he did. Except for a few short stories, he might as well have stopped writing in 1940. Yeah. I wouldn't miss The Old Man and the Sea if it disappeared from the canon and our collective memory. Everything fine and true we have from him, all the good words, are the work of a young man.
Hemingway turned 41 the year he published For Whom the Bell Tolls. Conrad was 38 when he published Almayer's Folly, 39 when An Outcast of the Islands came out. There's nothing in this except that it emphasizes what I said, that Hemingway's best work is the work of a young man while Conrad's best is that of a man well into middle age, and maybe that partly accounts for the difference in their visions, helps explain why Hemingway's stories, despite their characters' expressions of existential despair, are the more hopeful and the more naive.
In the movie, it's Solomon Vandey, the father searching for his lost son, who has the tragic grandeur, but that's mainly because he's played by Djimon Housou, who was born to play every one of Shakespeare's great tragic heroes, except maybe Hamlet---he's too robust---and Lear---no audience would believe he could be that big a fool.
I take that back. Maybe there's a way to play Lear as an arrogant fool instead of a senescent one, a great man carried away by his pride rather than a silly one self-deceived by his own vanity.
At any rate, Vandy is tragic in that he represents the tragedy of Africa. In himself, he is a pretty straight-forward hero, a seemingly ordinary man who rises to to occasion. He isn't the protagonist, though, because he doesn't change. He is the catalyst for change in Danny Archer.
Archer is like a Hemingway-esque hero in that he is psychically wounded. But he isn't alienated. He is a happy player in the corrupt economic order that runs things and that he thinks of as a much a part of the real Africa as the jungles and savannas. He learns, from Vandy, from Maddy Bowen, the journalist, played by Jennifer Connelly, who would be his love interest if he was a better, more deserving man, and from helping Vandy and Bowen, that Africa is a separate place from the "place" where he lives and works, his work being theft and murder, and it's a place he would like to live in. Unfortunately, that place can't exist unless he is willing to die for it.
It's the willingness to die for it that makes him, while a cousin to Robert Jordan, a brother to Lord Jim.
Depressing fact about my book-buying addiction: I've been re-reading my Oxford World's Classics edition of Conrad's The Secret Agent. Winnie Verloc is Conrad's only female protagonist. He created many heroines, plenty of ingenues, but Winnie's the only woman he let carry a whole book. Like Conrad's men she is complicit in her own tragedy, but in her case her guilt is the result of her having done the right thing by her family. At any rate, I wrote most of this post at Barnes and Noble where I started reading Steven Marcus' introduction to the B and N edition of The Secret Agent.
I didn't finish either the post or the intro before it was time to go home.
So I bought the book.
What kind of person buys a second copy of a book he already owns for the introduction?
"The Red Sox are always winning, until they lose."---Nicky Rogan, Game 6.
Nevermind the BOSTON on them. This is New York City. Those are the Sox' away jerseys. They're hanging in the visitors' locker room at Shea Stadium. Guess what year it is.
For some reason I've been watching a lot of movies set in New York City lately. Heights, which stars Glenn Close as a famous Broadway actress engaged in a sexual rivalry with her photographer daughter. The Photographer, a strange and annoying little independent film filled with touches of magic realism about a, you guessed it, photographer who has lost his artistic soul and spends a dreamlike night wandering through the East Village trying to get it back. Everyday People, another little independent film, this one about the last days of a restaurant in Brooklyn, a neighborhood institution, surrendering to gentrification. The Great New Wonderful, which is really five short films about people trying to find their mental feet again after living through the shock and horror of 9/11. And those three movies by Edward Burns, only two of which I wrote about despite my promise, Sidewalks of New York and The Groomsmen.
Next up: Roger Dodger, about a womanizing jerk trying to teach his nephew how to be a womanizing jerk, and 13 Conversations About One Thing, which, I guess, chronicles thirteen conversations about one thing, but I don't know what that one thing is. I'll let you know after I've watched it tonight.
The other night I watched Game 6, starring Michael Keaton and Robert Downey Jr as, respectively, a playwright with a new play about to open and the meanest, most dangerous, craziest drama critic in the world who is coming to review it.
If you like theater, like baseball, like the Red Sox especially, like New York City, like taxi cabs, like Don DeLillo, who wrote the screenplay, like Michael Keaton, like Robert Downey, like Bebe Neuwirth, who plays Keaton's producer/mistress, like Bebe Neuwirth's rear end, which gets a lot of attention, you will like Game 6 and like it enough that you'll forget to notice while you're watching it whether or not it's actually a good movie.
Also if you like haircuts. Michael Keaton's character puts great faith in the power of getting a haircut to save a bad day that's getting out of control. Feeling down, feeling anxious, feeling confused, frightened, angry, or just a little off, get a haircut. Settles you right down. Puts things in perspective.
I like all those things, so I liked the movie and failed to notice whether or not it was actually good.
I did notice that all of the performances, by Keaton and Downey and Neuwirth, but also by Griffin Dunne as another playwright friend of Keaton's, Catherine O'Hara as Keaton's soon to be ex-wife, Harris Yulin as the star of Keaton's play who happens to be suffering the effects of a parasite in his brain that makes him unable to remember his lines, and Ari Graynor as Keaton's daughter, a rebel who just can't put her heart into her rebellion, are very good. Nobody does anything flashy. They just do the very hard work of making their characters people apart from themselves---that is, of making us forget we are watching famous actors and think we're watching real people.
I also noticed that Bebe's Neuwirth's rear end, although very lovely, is a very human rear end, which is neither here nor there, except as a compliment to Neuwirth's lack of the usual movie star vanity that would have had other actresses hiring a personal trainer, requesting a body double, or murdering the costume designer who said, "In this scene, I see you in a G-string!"---but then she isn't a movie star, she's a Broadway song and dancewoman who does TV and movies to pay the bills---and as a reminder to Hollywood producers and regular human beings that very humanness in all body parts, faces as well as rear ends, can be very lovely.
Game 6 is set in 1986---on a very particular day in 1986 that Red Sox and Mets fans have already identified, Saturday, October 25, when the World Series between Boston and New York was five games old, with the Red Sox up 3 games to 2, one game away from their first World Championship since 1918, a day that finished in real life and finishes in the movie with the ball rolling under Bill Buckner's glove and through his legs and the Sox and their fans having to wait another 20 years for their Championship.
Keaton's character, Nicky Rogan, although born and bred in New York, is a lifelong Red Sox fan. It's because the first World Series he remembers was 1946's, between the Sox and the St Louis Cardinals, and his fate was sealed when Pesky held the ball.
Since then he's been devoted to the Red Sox. Not really to them so much, though, as to the myriad, miraculous, and even artistic ways they've managed to get his hopes up over the years only to lose it all in the end and break his heart. Nicky has been a very successful playwright with a career that sounds as though screenwriter Don DeLillo was modeling it on Neil Simon's. He's written a number of well-crafted comedies, all box office smashes, but his new play is more serious and realistic, an autobiographical play about his childhood, his Brighton Beach Memoirs, a big risk for him, professionally and personally, so of course he's nervous about its opening and it doesn't help when he hears that Stephen Schwimmer (Downey), the most vicious critic in the history of theater criticism, a man who has made himself so despised among actors, playwrights, directors, and producers that he has to come to the theater in disguise and packing heat, will be reviewing his play. To distract himself from his anxiety, Nicky tries to focus his attention on that night's upcoming game. Which means he spends most of the movie trying to talk baseball with the other characters whose attentions, naturally, are on other things and don't want to talk baseball with him.
Nicky winds up skipping his own opening night to watch Game 6 in a bar with the cabbie who drove him there and her grandson whom she is babysitting by letting him ride around with him. The cabbie and the grandson are from Boston and the two of them and Nicky are the only Red Sox fans in the bar, which means that for most of the night they are the only three happy and hopeful people in the joint, as the Red Sox look to be on their way to a victory so certain that even Nicky forgets his pessimism and starts expecting them to win.
If for no other reason, if you're a fan, watch this movie to relive the feeling of watching that game and realizing ever so slowly that in fact the Red Sox were going to blow it.
"Stanley? Why's he bringing in Stanley?"
Since I don't actually know if Game 6 is a good movie, I can't call this a review and maybe I shouldn't even have written it, but the movie raised a question I haven't been able to answer.
It's not about baseball.
It's about art versus craft.
Nicky is a successful playwright, but he doesn't regard himself as a very good one. He calls himself a craftsman and makes a self-effacing distinction between what he does and what his friend Elliott Litvak (Dunne) does. Elliott, Nicky insists, to Elliott himself mainly, is the artist.
The trouble is that Elliott is actually a former artist. His career was wrecked by the vicious drama critic who wrote a review of one of his plays that was so brutal that it struck Elliott like a physical assault and crippled him, psychically. He can't write anymore. He's a wreck. His confidence and strength of purpose have been knocked right out of him.
DeLillo's screenplay isn't explicit but it's implied that what theater people call Schwimmer's viciousness is in fact his honesty. They fear and loathe him because he writes the truth. Not the truth as he sees it---the truth. Schwimmer is gifted---and cursed---with impeccable artistic judgment. His reviews are always dead on because he knows. He knows what is good and what isn't and he can say why in a way that makes you know too that he's right.
Elliott may be the real artist, the one with a vision and with taste and ambition and a sense of what is good and what isn't, but he's a minor artist. His talent and skill aren't sufficient to his purpose. He has everything it takes to be an artistic genius except genius and Schwimmer has made him feel this as a fact he can't resist or deny.
Nicky, on the other hand, doesn't know what's good and what's bad, he only knows what works. He's sensitive enough and educated enough to understand this as something lacking in himself and to admire its presence in others. But he's also smart enough not to try to do what he isn't made to do. His new play isn't an attempt at great drama; it's the result of his having become that much better at his craft that he can try something more complex than another rearrangement of his usual jokes.
The upshot is that while neither he nor Elliott will ever write a great play, both have written good ones, but Nicky's plays are just that much better.
So here's my question. Whose career has contributed more to the theater? Whose plays have been more important?
When I was in high school we studied American Drama by reading from an anthology that included plays that were considered artistic masterpieces in their day but which nobody but the most hopelessly literal minded college drama department ever staged anymore---The Adding Machine by Elmer Rice, Winterset by Maxwell Anderson, The Hairy Ape by Eugene O'Neill, others I can't remember. I hated all of them. They struck me as so dead as to be soul-crushing.
Ok, I was precocious when it came to theater. I'd already read all of Shakespeare's plays. But I'm sure that most of my classmates recognized the difference too, between how alive the 400 year old Romeo and Juliet was and how dead and laid out as if for their own wakes those museum pieces, only a few decades old, were.
Art is long, life is short, but all art isn't for all time. Even brilliant works of art fade over time and die. Much of what Arthur Miller wrote is already only being kept alive artificially because it was written by the same guy who wrote Death of a Salesman. Tennesse Williams' plays will live longer because he wrote so many great roles for women and there just aren't enough of those. Eugene O'Neill...I think he's down to a handful of living plays now. And if those three glories are beginning to pass from the earth, how long for the world can Neil Simon's work be?
His funniest play has been long overshadowed by the TV show, that he had no hand in writing, based on it. Krugman and Randall, not Matthau and Lemmon, are Oscar and Felix. His next best, Barefoot in the Park, can only be done as a period piece with lots of apologies. And are the plays in the cycle that began with Brighton Beach Memoirs interesting in themselves or for the insight they give into the life and mind of the man who wrote The Odd Couple and Barefoot in the Park, in which case they'll be done when those early plays are done?
The grand thing, of course, is to produce work that survives through the ages.
Next best is to turn out something that outlives you by a few generations.
But both are rare. Most writers, artists, filmmakers, poets, composers, and musicians have to be content with doing work that they know is worthwhile for the moment.
That being the case, monetary rewards aside, whose career would you rather have, Nicky Rogan's or Elliott Litvak's? Neil Simon's or Maxwell Anderson's?
Once you get past Leonardo DiCaprio talking funny, it's a good action-adventure movie. Maybe too good.
Director Edward Zwick intends for Blood Diamond to spark outrage at the ways the West has exploited Africa and made Africans pay with their blood for our riches, comforts, and luxuries. Ideally, after watching the movie, no one will ever want to give or receive a diamond again.
But every time the movie slowed down to make its political and moral points I grew impatient. I wanted to get back to the action.
The adventure tale of how Leonardo DiCaprio's soldier of fortune redeems his soul by helping Djimoun Hounsou find the diamond that will buy his family's freedom and rescue his son from the vicious warlord who has brainwashed him and turned him into a captain in his little army of child murderers is almost perfectly told. There's a single lapse. Fifteen minutes when the director lets his narrative go slack as DiCaprio and Housou work through issues they've already resolved in earlier scenes. But for the most part Blood Diamond builds beautifully to its exciting, and fitting, Hemingwayesque final showdown.
DiCaprio makes a fine anti-hero. I liked his performance here much better than what he did in The Departed, where he was very good but a bit strident and he let the fact that he was working show. In Blood Diamond, a more physically grueling part, he's more relaxed, more natural.
Jennifer Connolly is more than just scenery, but not much more, but that's not her fault. Her character is the voice of morality and justice and it's her job to remind us that the stakes here are real, that the story may be fiction but the violence, and the blood and the thieving and death aren't, which means that whenever Blood Diamond slows down to make its points, Connolly's character moves to the center of the screen. As I said, at those moments the movie loses its energy and Connolly pays the price for that.
What Blood Diamond can't do with speechifying, though, it achieves in another way through pictures.
Zwick and his cinematograher Eduardo Serra make Sierra Leone absolutely beautiful, even in its poverty and violence. This part of Africa is not a hell on earth. It's a near paradise where hell keeps flaming up through the crust. Less romantically, it's a place where people live.
Blood Diamond shows the people of Sierra Leone busy being people. They work, they plan, they hope for the best. They send their children to school. They dream of a better life. This isn't presented in a Gee, they're just like us way. It's presented as a fact essential to the tragedy.
The people have no choice but to carry on in the face of the horror because they can't escape. There is nothing for them to do but survive it by doing their best to pretend it isn't there or that it will end.
They are heroic in their determination not to be heroic but to just live.
Djimoun Hounsou perfectly embodies the nobility of this ordinariness. He goes after his son, he fights, he kills, he survives it all not because he's a hero, but because that's what a man like him does. It's what he is supposed to do. He is responsible. He is obligated.
"I am his father!"
Another actor might have made that a roar of defiance or self-congratulation, a battle cry, at least. Hounsou is roaring at himself to remind himself he has no choice.