Birthday boy Robert Redford as Bob Woodward with Dustin Hoffman as Carl Bernstein in All the President’s Men.
Someone was wrong on the internet, again. This must be corrected.
This morning I saw a post on Twitter that said today’s Robert Redford’s 80th birthday.
Robert Redford is not 80 years old.
Maybe in human years. But human time clearly doesn’t apply to him.
If he is human, then he’s a Dúnedain, like Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, and he just doesn't age at the same rate as the rest of us.
I'm not sure if this makes him the rightful King of Gondor.
At any rate...
My favorite Redford movies: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Three Days of the Condor. Barefoot in the Park. The Hot Rock. The Natural. All the President's Men. The Sting. Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here. Spy Game. The Company You Keep. The Candidate. An Unfinished Life. (You should look that last one up. It didn't play in the theaters because of some contract dispute. But it's one of Redford's best performances and it co-stars Morgan Freeman and a bear.)
Honorable Mention: Situation Hopeless But Not Serious.
Favorite movies directed by Redford: The Milagro Beanfield War. Quiz Show. A River Runs Through It. Ordinary People. The Conspirator. The Company You Keep.
Below I've re-posted my reviews of The Company You Keep---The Company Robert Redford Keeps---and A Walk in the Woods---Robert Redford and Nick Nolte take a cheerful hike with Death.A Walk in the Woods isn't a particularly good movie, but it's fun enough for an evening's rental. Redford and Nick Nolte have a high old time together and Redford and Emma Thompson make one of the best movie married couples I can think of and I wish there'd been a way for the movie to have included more scenes of the two of them together.
“We were a peace movement, for Crissake!” Jim Grant, a former 60s radical back on the run from the FBI after decades underground, turns for help to his rival, antagonist, and friend from his college days, Professor Jed Lewis, a one-upon-a-time campus activist now a celebrity academic who wants nothing to do with him or their shared past inThe Company You Keep,directed by Robert Redford with Redford as Grant and Richard Jenkins as Lewis leading an ensemble of great character actors and stars playing against type in a group portrait of people bound together by a decades-old crime.
Early in Robert Redford’s often thrilling but not all that political political thriller, The Company You Keep, Susan Sarandon, as a once-upon-a-time 60s radical recently arrested after thirty-odd years underground, tries to explain herself to a hotshot young newspaper reporter come to interview her in jail.
She begins her attempt to make him understand why she did what she did all those years ago and why she’s done what she’s now done by asking him if he has children.
The reporter, Ben Shepard (played by Shia LaBeouf), grins a calculatedly charming self-deprecating grin you know he’s applied to have patented and is working on bottling for sale.
“I barely have furniture,” he says.
It's a revealing line. Not so much of his character. For Shepard it's just a reflexive joke. It doesn't mean much. He's caught up in the fun and excitement of being a hotshot young reporter. He's not given any real thought to marriage, family, or his future beyond the next big scoop, and he's not about to start thinking about any of that now, not while he's in the middle of chasing this scoop, at any rate.
But one of the themes of The Company You Keep is that having children makes conservatives of us all.
This being a movie directed by Robert Redford, conservative means law-abiding, job-holding, tax-paying decent-minded, do-gooding liberals working within the system to make it better as opposed to radicals and revolutionaries working to destroy it from outside.
Sarandon plays Sharon Solarz, a now wife and mother of two college-aged children who as a die-hard member of the Weathermen more than a generation ago took part in a bank robbery during which a security guard was shot and killed. The FBI has been looking for her and her accomplices for decades. One of those accomplices, the actual shooter, is long dead. Another, the gang’s leader of the moment, Mimi Lurie, has gone so deep underground that none of her former friends in Weather know where to even begin to look for her. But the third, Nick Sloan, Mimi’s lover at the time, has been hiding in plain sight, living as a lawyer named Jim Grant near Albany, New York, and in the course of investigating Solarz’ story, Shepard stumbles on a connection between her and Grant and it doesn’t take him long to figure out that that connection is something more than that of lawyer to potential client. And it doesn’t take Grant long to figure out that Shepard has him figured out.
Sloan has been so successful at building a new identity for himself---one that besides a semi-public law career includes a late-in-life family. His wife has recently died, leaving him the sixty-something single father of a still grieving and emotionally fragile eleven year old daughter---that he no longer thinks of himself as Sloan.
But there’s something else he’s never thought of himself as.
He wasn’t in on the robbery. That day Mimi had borrowed his car for the getaway and when the police found it after she’d abandoned of course they found Sloan’s fingerprints all over it and assumed he was the getaway driver. But not only was he not there, by that time, Sloan had already distanced himself politically and morally from the Weathermen. The only reason he was still in the picture at all was Mimi. He was hanging around out of love for her and for the sake of the someone else.
But even though Grant doesn’t think of himself as Nick Sloan, he has never stopped thinking of himself as a fugitive who might have to go back on the run at any moment. He has always had plans for escape and when he realizes Shepard is about to expose him, he puts one of those plans into motion. His intention, however, isn’t to disappear. It’s to finally clear his name so he can keep his life as Jim Grant, not just for his own sake but the sake of his daughter who he knows isn’t up to losing a second parent in the course of a year.
Grant, then, is on a rescue mission to save his daughter. He’s running to chase down the one person who can vouch for his innocence, and while he’s chasing Mimi, Shepard, chasing his big scoop, chases after him.
The politics and history of the 1960s and 70s are important to the backgrounds of the main characters, but they’re not important to the movie. It’s a given that the war in Vietnam was immoral but also as a given that the Weathermen’s efforts to “bring the War home” were inexcusable and a betrayal of the anti-war movement’s principles. As one of Grant’s rivals for campus leadership and Mimi’s affections back in the day (Richard Jenkins in a brilliant cameo) exasperatedly reminds him, “We were a peace movement, for Crissake!” But The Company You Keep spends little time rehashing those old debates. Politics is the Maguffin, the excuse for the chase. The Company You Keep is a chase movie, and a pretty exciting chase movie at that. In parts it’s as exciting and suspenseful as The Fugitive and Redford's own Three Days of the Condor and Spy Game.
But the chase is itself a Maguffin, the excuse to paint serial portraits of people haunted individual and particular ways by their part in a crime. That the crime had a political nature only matters in that it lets them and us avoid thinking of Grant and Mimi and Solarz and their old friends and associates as run of the mill criminals and murderers. The Company You Keep is about the company they kept and, out of love, loyalty, and complicity, still keep despite the distances of time and space that appear to have separated them.
As Grant/Sloan, Robert Redford is at the center of The Company You Keep, but as director the main job he’s given himself as actor is to lead the camera into scenes with his many co-stars and hold it there while they deliver the real goods. Redford mostly just has to convince us he’s thinking his way through the problem of being on the run again and that he’s smart enough to stay one step ahead of Shepard and two steps ahead of the FBI.
Playing smart has always been one of his Redford’s strengths.
Back in the day, people thought Redford was unconvincing as Bob Woodward because he was too handsome to be a newspaper reporter. All these years later, now that we know Woodward better, Will Ferrell's performance as Woodward in Dick seems more true to life than Redford's in All the President's Men. Redford is unconvincing because he seems too smart.
Redford has often seemed too smart for the characters he's played. He has infused characters, who played by other actors wouldn't have been as smart, might even have been dumb, with a surprising and complicating intelligence making them not so much too smart for their own good but smart to their own perplexing. They know enough to know they should know more and suspect they would be happier knowing less. Sundance, Jay Gatsby, Hubbell Gardner. Even Bill McKay.
That intelligence is a problem here. It's not that the likes of Bernadine Dorn and Bill Ayers weren't smart. They were very smart. But they were also dumb in the way very smart people can be dumb, especially very smart young people who are also vain, egotistical, careless, and full of self-righteous purpose. They could persuade themselves that they were always smart, smart about everything, and therefore any idea they had must be a good idea. Smart as he can play it, Redford doesn’t come across as smart enough in that way to have been dumb enough in that way. But there's another, offsetting quality to Redford's screen persona, a degree of passivity. Many of his characters are temperamentally drifters, carried along by whatever current they've happened to fall into until taken into tow by more active and driven personalities.
“No, don't change. You're your own girl, you have your own style.”
“But then I won't have you. Why can't I have you?”
“Because you push too hard, every damn minute. There's no time to ever relax and enjoy living. Every things too serious to be so serious.”
“If I push too hard it's because I want things to be better, I want us to be better, I want you to be better. Sure I make waves you have I mean you have to. And I'll keep making them till you’re everything you should be and will be. You'll never find anyone as good for you as I am, to believe in you as much as I do or to love you as much.”
"You know what you are, Paul? You're a watcher. There are watchers in this world and there are doers. And the watchers sit around watching the doers, do. Well, tonight you watched, and I did. "
"Well, it was a lot harder watching what you did than it was for you to do what I was watching!"
"You keep thinking, Butch. That's what you're good at."
"I got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals."
Something to keep in mind when picturing his Gatsby standing at the edge of his lawn and feeling the pull of the green light the end of Daisy's dock.
Maybe I'd have felt there was if Mimi had been played by someone else. Mimi is supposed to be the one still carrying the flame, the one who has not, at least in her own mind, made concessions to time, age, or history. And I can think of two of Redford's former leading ladies who’d have fit the bill perfectly.
The late Nathalie Wood would have been ideal. But, now, since she was already on hand, Susan Sarandon would have been fine in the part. (Sarandon was never one of his leading ladies but she was a minor love interest. Quick. Without checking Imdb. Name the movie.)
Instead it's Julie Christie playing what is more or less the femme fatale from Grant's and the other old men's shared past, and as wonderful as it always is to see Christie on screen, she's just too cool and aloof for a former planter of bombs and robber of banks and current smuggler of pot still breaking the law in the name of the Revolution.
Redford himself almost saves the day here. We might not quite believe Christie’s Mimi was ever the force of nature who made smart men stupid enough to rob banks and plant bombs with her, but Redford makes us believe his Grant is the type of romantic who would do almost anything for the women he loves. (Something else to think about when thinking about his Gatsby.) Anything but something really, really stupid, which, as it turns out, is to the point.
All this, though, is by way of an aside to talking about the Redford who really matters to The Company You Keep. Redford the director.
Somebody somewhere must have done a study of the influences on Redford’s work as a director of the directors he’s acted for, including George Roy Hill, Sydney Pollack, Alan Pakula, and Lasse Hallstrom, all of whose lessons pop up throughout The Company You Keep. But I think just as important to Redford’s directing style is his time spent as an aspiring painter. Before he turned to acting, Redford studied at the Pratt Institute of Art and lived the artist’s life in Paris, and it’s a painter’s eye that guides his camera. I don’t mean he thinks in terms of pretty pictures. I mean he works in illustrations. His films are series of still lifes, landscapes, street scenes, single and small group portraits, and genre paintings. He creates people-scapes. He knows how to see his way through a crowd. Large groups of people aren’t masses in motion for him, they are forms arranged around what we need to find or follow.
Movies are stories told in pictures. Redford likes to tell stories within pictures.
There’s a shot of Sarandon in profile that perfectly translates into an image a line from the Neil Gordon novelThe Company You Keep is based on---“Sharon Solarz, in person, was a handsome woman with thick black hair and a face that had aged hard, bringing out a certain pugnacity that would not, in my opinion, sit well with a jury.”---and a single shot of Redford and Richard Jenkins as a former student radical turned celebrity academic sitting on a bench in an art gallery tells us the whole story of these characters’ past rivalry, current animosity, and permanent bond of sympathy, loyalty, and respect. And something similar is at work when LaBeouf’s reporter confronts Brendan Gleeson as a former FBI agent strangely indifferent to the solution of a case he began his career investigating. He looms over LaBeouf like a wall of integrity, honesty, and secrecy Shepard can’t climb, break through, or get around, the only motion on Gleeson’s part the potential motion of his character’s picking up the reporter and tossing him off the dock they’re standing on.
Often there’s not a lot of movement in a single shot but there’ll still be a lot going on. Redford creates tension through juxtapositions of shapes and shadows and he can imply an awful lot of motion simply by a small disturbance in the stillness: The distant, solitary figure of Joe Mondragon scrambling up a dusty hill in The Milagro Beanfield War. The flick of Paul’s wrist and then the curling through space of his fly and line in A River Runs Through It. A finger pinning down the corner of a newspaper and then slowly dragging it across a countertop in The Company You Keep.
As an actor Redford has always had a good ear and an excellent sense of timing, and he brings both to his work as a director. And he has a knack for putting together ensembles of great character actors and stars cast against type. Besides Sarandon, Christie, Jenkins, and Gleeson, The Company You Keep features features finely tuned, low-key performances by Terrence Howard as the implacable FBI agent chasing Grant, Stanley Tucci as Shepard's tough-talking but easily talked over and around editor, Chris Cooper as Grant 's doctor brother manipulated into having to make the sort of choice between what's lawful and what's right he avoided having to make back when he and his brother were in college and Grant's radicalism was tearing their family apart, and Stephen Root as a former pot farmer turned organic grocer who can't seem to believe his current business is legal any more than he could believe his former one was illegal.
My favorite, though, and possibly for sentimental reasons, is Nick Nolte as Grant's best friend from college who, even though they haven't seen each other in decades, is still cheerfully loyal and happily willing to risk everything to help his old friend in whatever way he can.
I got a special kick out of seeing Nolte and Redford together because I've always believed Nolte's career took off when some producer said, Get me a Redford type only one who looks like he'd be a little slower on the uptake and quicker to reach for a drink or a joint or to throw a punch.
The two have a nearly wordless scene together in a diner that sums up the dynamic of their characters' friendship and made me look forward to their upcoming pairing in the adaptation of Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods which I'd been mildly dreading.
But for me the most remarkable and surprising performance is LaBeouf's. I'd given up expecting him to follow through on the promise he showed in The Greatest Game Ever Played. This is the most relaxed I've seen him on screen since Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. In everything that's followed he's looked tense and headachy as if trying desperately to hear himself think through the din of The Transformers movies still pounding in his ears. But here it's as if the noise has finally faded and, able to concentrate again at last, he's not only remembered how to act but how acting can be fun.
It's also as if Redford has reminded him that there are other ways to be a leading man besides trying to be Harrison Ford Jr or, for that matter, a darker Robert Redford. Or, rather, that the way to be like Ford or Redford is to not take himself too seriously.
LaBeouf is clearly having a good time playing Shepard as one of those annoyingly self-infatuated young men who enter every conversation convinced it won't be very long before you start finding them as charming as they find themselves. These types are even more annoying when it turns out they're right. Shepard isn't half as adorable as he thinks you'll think he is, but he's adorable enough that a shy smile, a deliberately clumsy witticism, a widening of his big Bambi eyes will usually cause a source to open up, a boss to surrender, an old girlfriend to forgive and forget, and a potential new girlfriend to become very curious about what she'll be expected to forgive and forget.
It’s not surprising that he’s come to think of journalism as a contest between himself and a source, that good reporting is a matter of turning up the charm, and that point of getting a story is the he got it.
LaBeouf's Shepard comes across as heartless and careless, thanks, apparently, to an excess of vanity, ego, and ambition. And he is vain, egotistical, and ambitious. But so are most talented twentysomethings enjoying the fruits of early success. Shepard's real problem is that he has never had reason to question what he does professionally. As far as he knows, just being good at his job makes him one of the good guys. (Maybe it's an idea he picked up from movies like All the President's Men.) Very few stories come a reporter's way that will, if reported honestly and fully, ruin innocent people's lives. By the time the reporter gets there with an open notebook, those lives have already been ruined. The cars have crashed, the houses have burned, the shots have been fired, the bodies have fallen, and the cops have moved in.
Shepard is about to learn that there are other kinds of stories---and more to every kind of story---that can't be told honestly and fully in a newspaper. Reporters who learn that lesson too well quit and become David Simon.
The Company You Keep is Jim Grant’s adventure, but it’s Ben Shepard’s story in that, this time, getting the story means getting the point, at last.
For one of Redford’s best peoplescapes, see the scene in The Conspirator in which Lincoln’s body is carried out of Ford’s Theatre and through the crowd to the house where he will lie on what will be his deathbed. Here’s my review of that one.
And here’s my review of The Guard, an Irish comic thriller that stars Brendan Gleeson as a very different sort of lawman than he plays in The Company You Keep.
The Company You Keep, directed by Robert Redford, screenplay by Lem Dobbs, based on the novel by Neil Gordon. Starring Robert Redford, Shia LaBeouf, Susan Sarandon, Terrence Howard, Chris Cooper, Richard Jenkins, Sam Elliott, Stanley Tucci, Brendan Gleeson, Stephen Root, Julie Christie, and Nick Nolte. Now available on DVD and to watch instantly at Amazon.
Two old friends hiking the Appalachian Trail find they have more to contemplate than the pretty scenery: their own mortality, for starters. Robert Redford and Nick Nolte in the movie based, somewhat, on Bill Bryson’s travel book,A Walk in the Woods.
The walk in the woods Robert Redford as the real-life writer Bill Bryson takes in the movie A Walk in the Woods doesn’t begin outdoors when Bryson and his old boyhood friend Katz (Nick Nolte) step onto the Appalachian Trail to start their planned twenty-one hundred mile hike from Georgia to Maine. It begins in a funeral home when Bryson walks out on a friend’s wake. The symbolism is a little too pat, but this is what Bryson’s trying to do for the whole rest of the movie: walk away from death.
Of course this can’t be done, and in truth, Bryson is doing the opposite. A walk into the woods, in myth and fairy tale, is a walk into the the underworld. From the Grail legends to Dante to Hansel and Gretel to Hawthorne to Harry Potter, the woods are where heroes and heroines go to meet Death face to face.
To put it more psychoanalytically, the woods are where characters symbolically confront the fact of their own mortality and come to terms with it.
A Walk in the Woods is a rather cheerful movie considering it’s carrying the weight of that morbid theme in its pack.
You might think it’s also a rather too ordinarily realistic movie to be burdened with such heavy symbolism.
How, you might ask, did King Arthur and Young Goodman Brown get into a movie about a pair of irascible old coots walking themselves in and out of comedic mishaps and misadventures, the worst of which leaves them with some bumps and bruises?
Well, it’s a good bet they got in there by virtue of the movie’s being watched by a pretentious college instructor with a habit of letting his mind wander during the slow spots. But I don’t think that’s it.
The thing about myths is that they resonate with us because so many moments of our lives recapitulate them.
At one time or another, we all take that walk in the woods.
Going in, I was worried A Walk in the Woods would be a tedious series of “We’re too old for this” gags at Redford and Nolte’s expense. But there’s very little of that. That they are too old for this is a given. We know it. They know it. They don’t need that proved to them.
Bryson and Katz go into the woods to confront the fact of their mortality and come to terms with it. But they don’t do it by tumbling into ice cold streams and rolling off cliffs and facing down hungry black bears or running from irate jealous husbands and turning down offers of a night of romance with hotel operators who look like Mary Steenburgen.
They do it by unavoidably talking about it. All of their conversations along the trail are, one way or another, about aging and death. This is done matter of factly, often with humor, occasionally with sentimentality, now and again with accidental poetry. They don’t talk about it to dwell on it or to philosophize or to feel sorry for themselves (although that naturally happens, the dwelling, philosophizing, and self-pity). They talk about it because they talk about what’s going on and what’s going on is that two old men who used to be best friends are taking on an adventure that they’re both, well, too old for.
They also do it by slowly, and almost unconsciously forgiving each other for not having turned out to be the heroes they once thought themselves to be, each to himself and each to the other.
Redford and Nolte have a great time working together and it’s fun to watch them at it. They have the instinctive, easy-going camaraderie of old friends and play off each other beautifully. It’ll make you wish they’d made at least one other movie together back when both were in their primes. In fact, they make such a good team it’s hard to believe they haven’t made more movies together and not just one other, 2012’s The Company You Keep. (In that one, they established a lifelong friendship between their two characters in one, short nearly wordless scene at a counter in a diner.) Watching the two together is a good reason to see A Walk in the Woods. It’s not the only reason. Unfortunately, there aren’t many others.
Katz becomes Bryson hiking companion by a sad process of elimination. One by one, Bryson’s current friends turn down his invitation to join him on the trail, all of them because they don’t feel up to it. Katz isn’t up to it either, but he has nothing better to do except wait around at home for the police to come by to pick him up for a couple of outstanding warrants for drinking and drug related offenses. The two have more or less have lost touch since their one big adventure together back in their twenties when they backpacked around Europe. Something happened on that trip that convinced Bryson he needed to break off their friendship. We’re not told exactly what---and it may not have been one, single thing---but it probably involved Katz’s tendency to let his youthful indulgences get out of hand.
In the forty-odd years since, Katz hasn’t changed and Bryson has and one of the first things they discover on the trail, after it’s too late to turn back, is that neither one likes that fact about the other. But it’s also the case, to their own surprise, that neither likes that fact about himself. Bryson gets to wondering if he gave up his life of wild nights, wild nights too soon, while Katz begins to face the sad truth that he held onto his far too long.
What this means is that both Bryson and Katz have committed to spending months in the woods in the company of the ghosts of their young selves and the specters of the selves they might have been, each seeing in the other the path not chosen and the life he could have had.
Unavoidably, then, as the two get to know each other again and, inevitably, become friends again, their conversation includes outbursts of recrimination, resentment, regret, and relief of the “Thank God I’m not like you!” variety.
Again, this sounds awfully heavy and profound for what's really a lighthearted and pleasant little diversion of a movie whose main point of enjoyment is watching these two old stars having fun playing off each other. But comedy always implies tragedy and the film’s weakness isn’t its inclusion of such dark and gloomy themes but its failure to be funny enough about them.
There aren’t many good jokes in A Walk in the Woods. There aren’t many bad ones, either, which is a relief. But a lack of good jokes is a problem for a comedy. Not an unsolvable one. Wit and humor can be expressed in ways besides wisecracks. But it requires writers to be inventive and playful in their use of language and incident, and A Walk in the Wood’s screenwriters, Michael Arndt and Bill Holderman, aren’t notably either.
Bryson and Katz do a lot of talking---from Nolte’s entrance to his exit, the movie is pretty much a one long conversation interrupted now and then by bad weather and bears, and it could be titled A Talk in the Woods---and they say a lot of interesting things. They just don’t say it in interesting ways. They use a great many words but the words don’t sing.
This is true not just for Bryson and Katz but for just about every character.
None of them comes alive through the words they use.
The dialog is natural, conversational, occasionally witty, but never surprising. None of it is particularly revealing. Nobody tells us anything about themselves in a non-expository way. Nothing anyone says about who they are or what they think is news to us or to the characters saying it themselves. They're never carried away by a thought or forced to follow one in an unexpected direction. They don't find themselves forced to think back on something that just popped out. We don't get a sense of who they are by how they use words or how words use them.
The exception is Bryson’s wife Catherine who is played by the delightful and surprising as usual Emma Thompson. Catherine does seem to be making it up as she talks, possibly because Thompson was making it up as she went. You never can be sure with her. She can make Shakespeare sound like inspired improvisation. No other character, not even Bryson, and he’s a writer, uses words as creatively. Words just tumble out of her, playfully, intelligently, with true wit and purpose, and to telling effect.
Meanwhile, Arndt and Holderman don’t make up for what the dialog lacks by being creative and inventive with incident. Most of what they make happen is all too predictable.
These aren't really spoilers coming up because Bryson and Katz don’t make a move you can’t see coming a mile away. But...
If there's a stream to cross, they'll fall in. If there's mud to step in, they'll sink in up to their knees. If they hitch a ride, the driver of the car that picks them up will be a menace behind the wheel. If there's a storm warning, they'll ignore it to their immediate regret in the very next shot. If there’s a bunk bed they have to share, then the overweight Katz will heave himself into the top bunk and you can guess what happens next. And if someone joins them on their way, that someone will be someone they don't want with them for good reason and who will have to be ditched in a desperate, comedic gambit.
The predictability of incident isn't compensated for by an unpredictability of characters coming and going.
Bryson and Katz aren’t alone in the woods. The foot traffic on the trail is busy. But they don’t get to know many of the people they meet. In fact, most of the characters they encounter aren’t characters as much as they are messengers from the screenwriters. They show up to pass on information necessary to moving the story along and then quickly disappear. The very few who have stories of their own don’t add much to the main story or to our sense of what the character and culture of the community of hikers who populate the trail is like. The movie doesn’t try to answer the question “What eccentric cross-section of America is out there and why?” Ardnt and Holderman and director Ken Kwapis don’t even to seem to notice it’s a question to ask.
Which is a strange lapse of attention considering the real Bill Bryson has made his name visiting various places and reporting back on who’s out there and why.
Nick Offerman shows up too briefly as the sales clerk in the hiking and camping supply store to exhibit the kind of competence, knowledge, and obsessiveness Bryson should have if he’s serious about making the hike but also to exhibit it in a pompous and overbearing way that makes him hard to take seriously. Mary Steenburgen appears, also too briefly, as the lonely proprietress of a trailside motel mainly to exude and elicit longings that can’t be fulfilled. And Kristen Schaal comes along, unfortunately not briefly enough, to annoy the hell out of Bryson and Katz and us as a self-absorbed know-it-all and nonstop talker meant to be amusingly maddening but who is un-comedically pathetic---it’s actually a rather cruel piece of writing and Schaal plays it for all it’s worth, gleefully collaborating with the screenwriters to make a monster of vanity and obliviousness out of a type of person whom if we met in real life we’d feel sorry for, even if we couldn’t wait to escape her company.
Thompson isn’t met on the trail. She doesn’t come along. She’s left behind, too soon and for too long. But, as I said, she’s delightful and surprising as always and she’s given much more to do with her too brief screen time than stand around and be the wifely voice of doom, although that is part of her role. Which is fine, because that gives her the most opportunity to play with words.
Pauline Kael, who had an inexplicable bee in her bonnet when it came to writing about Redford, thought his characters were always too much in love with themselves to be in love with anyone else. I think it’s been more the case that he’s needed leading ladies who could draw him out and force him to pay attention. The only two of his past leading ladies who were better at this than Thompson is in A Walk in the Woods were Jane Fonda and Barbra Streisand.
Some fans would argue to put Meryl Streep at the top of that short list but that whole movie left me cold.
Thompson and Redford work beautifully together to paint as near a perfect portrait of a happy marriage as I can remember seeing in a movie. The Brysons are one of those old married couples it’s impossible to imagine as a young couple in love because it’s impossible to imagine them as having been any different than they are now. They have been so good at working together to deal with whatever life’s thrown at them and adapting to changes in their situation and in each other that whatever they are at any given moment in time is just the right way for them to be. And it’s inadequate or somehow off the mark to say that after all this time they’re still in love. What they are more than anything is still in like.
The problem is that Bill has suddenly and inexplicably become hard to like. And that’s Thompson’s job in A Walk in the Woods, to make us see that as a problem needing a two hour movie to solve.
One of the better things about Arndt and Holderman’s script is that it doesn’t include long speeches filling us in on the backstory. It’s left to Thompson to make us realize that there’s been something wrong and that there’s been a change in Bryson. He’s not responding to her and to other people and situations the way he should and normally would have. This is a husband and wife who have always understood each other and with the slightest of passing frowns and startled glances Thompson conveys Catherine’s consternation at his suddenly not being understandable, which to her is as indicative and worrisome as a persistent cough. Her concern follows him out onto the trail where it becomes our concern and makes his progress through the landscape more than the landscape itself the thing to keep an eye on. We’re watching him and watching out for him on behalf of Catherine.
The landscape is worth keeping an eye on, though.
A Walk in the Woods is as pretty to look at as you'd expect. To their credit, director Ken Kwapis and his director of photography John Bailey don't overdo on the nature and landscape photography. The scenery is there to be looked at and admired because it's there and it's beautiful. But there are only a few moments when the storytelling pauses in its tracks so Kwapis and Bailey can send us a cinematic postcard with the note "Some view, huh?"
On the other hand, they don't make much use of the landscape to bring the Trail itself alive in the way director Jean-Marc Vallée and his cinematographer Yves Bélanger brought the Pacific Crest Trail to life in last year’s Academy Award nominee Reese Witherspoon vehicle Wild.
In Wild, the story of another writer taking on a grueling adventure of self-discovery, the PCT is practically the second main character, the some of the time antagonist, some of the time friend (a demanding friend) to Witherspoon’s character, author Cheryl Strayed. We’re made to consider the trail as a constant series of problems for Strayed to solve. We see and feel the changes in the terrain and the challenges they present and are made to think along with Strayed as she deals with them.
In A Walk in the Woods, the Appalachian Trail is just the setting. It’s there to provide obstacles for our heroes to get up, get over, get around, or get through in not particularly creative, surprising, suspenseful, thrilling, or funny ways.
Despite all this, A Walk in the Woods is an enjoyable movie, if you like Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, and Emma Thompson, and I happen to like Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, and Emma Thompson. Some movies are really only about watching their stars do their usual good jobs.
And Nolte, I think, does more than his usual good job.
Redford, who produced the film, originally intended direct it himself with the plan being he would star alongside his old friend Paul Newman. It was to be a last ride for Butch and Sundance, a final big score for Hooker and Gondorf. Sadly, Newman became too sick and frail before they could get the project got underway.
But while Newman would have had a grand time playing Katz and we’d have had a grand time watching him having a grand time, he would have been acting and his Katz would have been a character.
Nolte’s Katz is a self-portrait.
I’ve always thought of Nolte and Redford have had something more than parallel careers. Nolte’s screen persona has seemed to me to be an extension of Redford’s. It’s almost as if Nolte was invented to take on roles Redford could easily have played but was too busy as an actor, director, producer, or environmental and political activist to handle himself at the time. In fact, at one point Redford held the rights to the novel The Prince of Tides and was going to re-team with Streisand in the movie adaptation. Go through the list of Nolte’s credits from the late 70s through the 90s and it’s easy to pick out role after role you can imagine Redford fitting and handling just as well. The Deep, Cannery Row, Teachers, Weeds, Under Fire, Cape Fear (I really would have like to have seen that one), The Prince of Tides. Not North Dallas Forty, though. Redford’s too small to have played a professional football player. And not Down and Out in Beverly Hills, because he’d never have seen himself as that down and out. And that’s just it.
There’s a reason there’s nothing on the order of Affliction on Redford’s acting resume.
He was always a little too cool, too cautious, too calculated in his choice of parts and in his approach to playing them.
Nolte was edgier, more daring, more willing to take risks as an actor and with his image as a leading man. The result is that there is something on the order of Affliction on his acting resume.
But, by the same token, the result has been a career that’s added up to that of a great character actor. He’s never been the star and icon that Redford has. It’s not at all that next to Redford he’s a failure. It’s simply that as a star he’s far outshined.
And the risk-taking and reckless side of his nature that has served him well as an actor, if not as a star, has come close to ruining him as a person. And next to Redford, he is, if not a failure as a human being, he is a near complete wreck of one.
But Nolte’s willingness to put that wreck on display next to Redford, who, one year shy of eighty, is anything but a wreck, is not just admirable, it makes A Walk in the Woods worth taking seriously despite its mainly flaws and lapses.
Nolte lets his wild life and hard times inform his portrayal of Katz to the point that it’s impossible to tell where Nolte leaves off and Katz begins. His Katz is practically his infamous mug shot animated. And when Katz talks honestly about his many mistakes and misadventures, there’s a sense that it’s Nolte not Katz who is delivering an act of confession.
All those dark and heavy themes I mentioned at the top of this post are carried by Nolte, weighing him down more than all his extra poundage, but not stopping him or even seeming to slow him down. He’s red-faced, out of breath, hurting in every joint and limb, but he’s still exuberant, lustful, gluttonous, and determined to deny old age, time, and death have any claim on him.
Katz is Nolte’s Falstaff. And the thing to remember about Falstaff is that, even though he’s one of the greatest comic characters in the history of literature, he’s one of the greatest tragic characters, as well.
Our good old pal actor212 has been working from his field office in the Caribbean this past week. A real hardship post. (He wants readers to know he shot this in panorama with his iPhone and warns that “alcohol may have been involved.”) The island of Bonaire. Sunset, Saturday, August 6, 2016.
Longtime blogging comrade, Twitter and Facebook friend, and fellow upstate New Yorker Andrew Haggerty has taken clan way upstate for a vacation in the Adirondacks. Long Pond, Willsboro, New York. Around quarter after eight, Saturday evening, August 6, 2016.
The interns were at work re-organizing the archives again and they turned up my 2010 review of Me and Orson Welles, a little gem of a film directed by Richard Linklater. If you’ve never seen it, I heartily recommend it, if only for Christian McKay’s brilliant turn as Welles. I plan to watch it again soon myself.
Seems like a cranky thing to say, coming from a director whose new movie is about Orson Welles’ 1937 staging of Julius Caesar:
There are enough of those movies made as it is: sequels, remakes, franchises. It depresses me. It's the way the industry is going. They figure they can make these huge-ass Harry Potters, Batmans and Transformers, spend $200m on a surefire hit, and who cares about the quality? They've basically stopped making my kind of movies altogether.
That’s Richard Linklater, whose Me and Orson Welles you’d think wouldn’t have gotten made if all the movie industry cared about were guaranteed blockbusters like The Dark Knight and Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen. Me and Orson Welles has two target audiences, die-hard Zac Efron fans and people who’ve seen and loved Citizen Kane, which is not a miniscule demographic, but nobody will get rich selling action figures to us. Well, maybe to the Zac Efron fans. At any rate, it’s not a small group but it tends to be concentrated in places where I’m not living, which explains why I had to wait for it to come out on DVD to see it.
But in that quote Linklater is actually explaining why he’s not in a rush to make a follow-up to hisBefore Sunriseand Before Sunset set of films.
He doesn’t want to make a movie just for the sake of cashing in.
Which is all he thinks the industry does anymore.
An old, old story, complicated in this re-telling by the collapse of the independent film distribution market.
"I caught a groove where the whole process of making movies didn't feel stressful," he says. "I had a good run of eight or 10 films. And then all it took was two films: Fast Food Nation [his fumbled 2005 adaptation of the Eric Schlosser book] and this one, where I thought: 'Wow, this is a really tough business.' This one especially almost pushed the bounds of possibility."
Me and Orson Welles was largely shot in the Isle of Man, way back in the early months of 2008. It was hoped that the movie would find a distributor at that year's Cannes film festival, and then again at the Toronto film festival. But by that point the recession was biting and cash offers proved thin on the ground. Ultimately the film's producers cut a deal in which they effectively released the film themselves, splitting marketing costs with the Vue cinema chain. All of which caught the director by surprise.
"I'd always seen the film industry as a constant," he says. "And then all of a sudden the bottom fell out." He now finds himself in an alien terrain; indie distributors have gone to the wall and the directors have become self-publishers, streaming their films for an online audience. He's not sure he likes it. "I still hold on to the romantic vision of people watching my movie in a cinema," he admits. "I don't want to watch Bright Star on a fucking iPhone."
Linklater, by contrast, strikes me as an altogether more gentle and collegiate soul. I'm expecting him to shake his head at such antics. If anything he seems to applaud them. "Hey, if you want to work on stage or in a film, then that's how it is. There's only one director. Ships have only one captain. If you have a problem with the way he's doing things, I wouldn't suggest challenging him in front of the whole cast and crew. That's a lesson in integrity."
Me and Orson Welles tells the story of a precocious high school senior named Richard (played by Zac Efron doing a decent job of acting and making the case that he shouldn’t be blamed for having started out his career on the Disney Channel as a tweenage heartthrob) who dreams of being an artist someday. He’s not sure what sort of artist. He loves music, loves the theatre, loves writing and poetry. As he says of himself late in the film, “I just want to be part of it.” At the moment theatre is uppermost in his affections and he’s adopting the persona of an aspiring actor. One day he plays hooky to wander about New York City and two wonderful to the point of being magical things happen.
First, at the public library, he meets a nice girl named Gretta Adler (Zoe Kazan) who is struggling to become a writer.
Then he lucks into a small part in the Mercury Theatre’s now-legendary production of Julius Caesar. It’s legendary because its success begot the legend of the genius of Orson Welles.
Richard’s life is immediately swallowed up by the play, which is the same thing as being immediately swallowed up by Welles’ ego. Welles appears to take a real liking to Richard, but it’s like the liking a child takes to new favorite toy. Welles sees all his players as his to play with. They are instruments in his one-man orchestra. Richard is a new violin Welles looks forward to teaching himself how to play and he expects that he will play it beautifully.
Of course, any instrument that fails to respond to Welles’ liking takes the blame and gets quickly smashed.
Most of the movie is spent at the Mercury Theatre, but Richard does get back to the library to see the nice girl now and then. She’s easy to find since she spends most of her time sitting in front of a large Grecian urn that reminds her of Keats’ Ode and from which she takes both inspiration and heart.
Richard is presented with two contrasting---although as it turns out not necessarily conflicting---approaches to art. One is Gretta’s, in which ego is sublimated to serving art. The other is Welles’.
Sounds like a fable.
And there is a folkloric feel to the story. Young Simple leaves his home to go to the fair and learns that the great wide world is a more complicated, corrupt, and corrupting place than he imagined.
If Richard is Simple, then among the rogues he encounters at the fair, Welles is the chief rogue, the prince of thieves, the king of the gypsies.
But Linklater doesn’t play this as a fable. There’s no Wes Anderson-style whimsicality or borderline magic realism gently warning us not to take this at face value. Me and Orson Welles is shot as a realistic period piece, with those Isle of Man locations standing in convincingly for a few blocks of Manhattan circa 1937. The most fantastic thing in Me and Orson Welles is the Fantastic Mr Welles, a character who seems to have had to come out of a folk tale, because no real human being like this could possibly have existed.
Of course, Orson Welles was a literary creation. Created by…Orson Welles. In the movie we see the ingenious young Welles fashioning the legend of the Boy Genius Orson Welles on the fly, grabbing at everything he thinks he can use to help build that legend, and mostly what he grabs is other people.
As Linklater has it, Welles was a prince of thieves. What he stole, though, was ideas, credit, friends’ girlfriends and wives, time and attention, and other people’s energy, spirit, affection, and, in a very real way, their bodies and talents---when you went to work for Orson Welles he owned you. Like I said, people, actors, mainly, were his instruments, and you had no more right to object to how he decided to put you to use than that violin has to how it is played.
“I am Orson Welles! And each and every one of you stands here as an adjunct to my genius!”
There are only two people in his company who can resist him. One is Richard, whose heart and soul aren’t up for grabs because he’s already given them to Art. The other is Sonja, the company’s chief administrative assistant and Jill of All Trades, who is safe because she has boxed up her heart and soul and stored them away to be called for later. Sonja is played by a wry and no-nonsense Claire Danes with a constant somewhat sinister smile that, like the Cheshire Cat’s, implies she doesn’t have to take any of Welles’ or the other company members’ nonsense seriously because she knows she’s on her way out of here. She’s talented, hardworking, ambitious, and cannily opportunistic, and at any moment she’s going to disappear to move on to bigger and better things outside the theatre, leaving nothing behind but the memory of her smile.
She has to take a certain amount of abuse from Welles, now, because it serves her ambitions, at the moment. But except for Richard, all the other members of the company accept Welles’ abuse because he is their only hope of serving their ambitions.
Welles knows this and takes egregious and unconscionable advantage of it.
Welles is a monster of ego. There is nothing he can’t or won’t do that he decides needs doing to serve his ambitions and his vanity and the only reason that doesn’t include bank robbery and murder is that either would be beneath his genius. He is too smart, too charming, and too blessed by the gods to need to resort to vulgar criminality.
Charm, guile, and sheer force of will see him through.
Welles is the villain of Richard’s story. What’s intriguing about the movie is that it allows us to see that Welles is not just the hero of his own story but the hero of the stories of most of the Mercury Theatre’s players stories.
Welles is appalling. And there are points in the movie when you want to take satisfaction in what is going to happen to him, not in 1937, but by 1985 when he died at the surprisingly young age of 70. Surprising because by then it seemed that the once upon a time boy genius had been old for a very, very long time.
Welles spent the last third of his life not as a Prince of Thieves but as essentially a beggar, desperately trying to find financing to get his movies made, and his chief ploy---the “Crippled War Veteran” sign he wore around his neck while he begged---was to present himself as an outrageous self-parody. The Welles of the Dean Martin Roasts and the Tonight Show magic tricks and the “Paul Masson will sell no wine before its time" ads was, by his own design, a clown who fancies himself a fallen king but who believes in his own delusion so completely that his audience wants to believe along with him. It was a sad play to get people to reach for their wallets out of a mix of pity and wishful thinking and, while watching certain scenes in the movie you can’t help thinking “It must have been humiliating for him. Good!”
But remember. Linklater is on Welles’ side. At least in the struggle between director and actors.
While Welles treats them horribly, Linklater makes us see that his horribleness is necessary to their success. They are all too weak to survive in the theatre on their own. That doesn’t mean that they are all weak in the sense of having flawed characters, although most of them do, and several of them are as vain and egomaniacal as Welles’ himself, even more so, as they can’t see past their own vanities. Welles has a self-awareness that they all lack. But even the best of them are weak in the sense that ordinary mortals need Superman to break through brick walls and stop runaway locomotives for them.
You can’t be an actor unless somebody casts you in a play or a movie and then sees that the play gets produced or the movie gets made, and given all the obstacles---see Linklater on the movie industry above---that takes superhuman will, energy, drive, and confidence.
We can forgive Welles most of what he does to his players, even to Richard, if we keep in mind what is coming and realize that without Welles’ superhuman efforts of will, energy, drive, and confidence there would be no Citizen Kane.
We also need to keep in mind that even with that superhuman will, energy, drive, and confidence and the reputation he’d earned for Citizen Kane he couldn’t get The Magnificent Ambersons released as the movie he made or make another film to rival either of his first two.
Richard and Gretta believe in art for art’s sake. Welles knows that there is no art except for Welles’ sake. Linklater believes that Richard and Gretta’s point of view has an essential truth. His life and career have taught him that Welles’ point of view is what makes their point of view, even their lives as aspiring artists, possible.
In order for Me and Orson Welles to work---for it to make any sense---you not only have to know that there really was an egomaniacal bastard genius named Orson Welles, you have to believe he could have been a bastard in exactly the way the movie portrays him. You have to believe that the movie’s Welles is the Orson Welles.
Which is apparently why God created Christian McKay.
McKay’s performance is brilliant and magical. It’s not an impersonation so much as a recapitulation, the way a son can resemble his father to such an uncanny degree that it frightens people who knew the latter as a young man. McKay is so like Welles in expression, manner, and intonation that he has reason to ask his mother if she was by any chance near the set of Treasure Island or The Man Who Came Dinner nine or so months before he was born.
I think Me and Orson Welles is only comprehensible to people who have seenCitizen Kane. It’s more fun for people who not only have seen it but who are familiar enough with its history and the history of the Mercury Theatre to recognize some of the other names besides Welles’ and to see in Eddie Marsan’s and James Tuppen’s performances the resemblances to the real John Houseman and Joseph Cotton.
That may be a niche audience too small for the money people in the movie industry to see as worth chasing, but it’s not all that small a niche or demographically segregated.
A little while ago I was in our local video store and browsing the drama section nearby me was a group of kids, two guys and two girls, friends, it seemed, not a pair of couples. They were college-aged but things about the way they were dressed, the way they talked and treated each other made me think they weren’t college students. These were working class kids already out in the world on their own holding down the blue or pink collar jobs they would count themselves lucky to hold down for life. One of the guys was their leader in picking out the movie for the night and he was making suggestions based on his own quite clearly considerable movie-watching experience. He wasn’t reading the boxes. He was telling them off the top of his head the plots and who starred in the movies and what other movies they’d starred in and what other movies they’d all seen that were like the potential choices. They had narrowed it down to four or five DVDs until he spotted yet another title he recognized.
He snatched the box from the shelf. “Oh. Have you seen this one? You’ve got to see this one! It’s supposed to be one of the best movies ever made!”
On that recommendation the others agreed right away.
HOME! I’m home! Hospital kicked me out yesterday afternoon. And it’s all legal and everything. Nobody’s coming to drag me back. I still feel a little beat up, like somebody cut into my back with some sharp instruments, rooted around in there for three hours, scraped out some bone, drove in some screws, and stitched me up with little concern for how much it would smart afterwards, but otherwise my morale is ok and I can walk from the chair to the coffee maker in just a little under fifteen minutes. Blogging will continue in one form or another, but I’m having a little trouble focusing, thanks to the painkillers, so extended periods of coherent writing are probably not going to happen for a while yet, which means my review of Star Trek: Beyond, which we saw the weekend before I went under the knife, may have to wait a couple of days, but I’ll be back with a more detailed medical report tonight, I think. Meantime, thank you all for your concern, well-wishes, and support. It meant a lot to me and to Mrs M and Ken and Oliver.
If you’re curious about how I fared while in the hospital and want to read the daily testimony of my stoicism and heroic good nature, see my Facebook page.
Waiting for the Half-Blood Prince: then 12 year old Ken Mannion waiting to pick up his copy of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince at Cabbages and Kings bookstore, Chatham, Massachusetts, just before midnight, Saturday, July 15, 2005.
Last night at midnight the book version of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was released and there were parties and celebrations at bookstores all around the world, just as there were in the good old days when Young Ken and Oliver Mannion were were among Harry’s avid fans and they looked forward to the arrival of each new installment in the original series. I guess we have to talk about it as “the original series” now. Does that make what Rowling’s begun with The Cursed Child---assuming she’s begun anything and The Cursed Child isn’t a one-off---the sequels? Or has she started a new series? We’ll find out. Meanwhile, the release of The Cursed Child parties reminded me of the one time we went to one---we being Ken and me. Oliver was too tuckered out from a day of Cape Cod fun and adventure to join us. Turns out Ken was too. But he stuck it out to pick up his copy of The Half-Blood Prince at the sadly now-gone Cabbages and Kings bookstore in Chatham when we were down there on vacation in July of 2005. Here’s my post from that night, Witching Hour.
Amazon accidentally delivered the kid's copy of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince on Friday instead of Saturday as they were supposed to. The box even said Do Not Deliver Before July 16. But the kid's father wouldn't let him open it when he came running in all excited from the mailbox.
The father said it wouldn't be fair to all the kids who wouldn't be getting their copies until midnight and were waiting patiently.
One of those kids waiting until midnight was our 12 year old. He and I went to the Harry Potter party at one of the bookstores in town. This was more my idea than his. He enjoys the books but he would have been content to wait till Christmas to read the new one. In fact, by 11:30 Friday night he was ready to give up his place in line, go home, go to bed, and put the book on his Christmas list in the morning. He'd had a long, busy day of biking and swimming and was exhausted.
Harry Potter is a phenomenon but he's not a requirement. Lots of children who love to read don't love to read Harry Potter and although J.K. Rowling has been credited with getting children to read she had nothing to do with our kids' love of reading. When he was in kindergarten the 12 year old taught himself to read with our Calvin and Hobbes books and while last year he read the second most books among the other kids in his age group in our library's summer reading program he prefers histories, books about mythology and science, and, sigh, comic books, to novels.
His brother likes mysteries. He likes Harry Potter, but he loves Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events and if there's a midnight release of the so far nameless book the twelfth in October he'll be the first in line.
After Lemony Snicket his next favorite author is Roald Dahl, with Matilda being his favorite of Dahl's books.
As it turns out, I think I'm more interested in Harry Potter than they are. I'm not surprised or disappointed that they're not wild about Harry, though. When I was their age I didn't care much for fantasies. I preferred books about knights, realistic books about knights, not sword and sorcery books with knights in them. I liked histories and biographies and the Hardy Boys, of course. In junior high when I began picking up "grown-up" novels I loved Mark Twain and Jules Verne and---I'm not boasting---William Shakespeare. I also enjoyed spy novels and Agatha Christie mysteries, but no other detective stories except Sherlock Holmes. If something like Harry Potter had come out when I was a kid I'd probably have ignored it or even hated it on principle---the principle being that too many girls liked it. Harry Potter is very popular among girls, so popular that I've been wondering if in fact girls are really Rowling's main audience. There seemed to be an equal number of boys and girls under 12 at the Harry Potter party Friday night, but all of the older kids were girls, including three college students in line just ahead of us---Harry Potter has been around long enough now that many of his first fans have graduated from high school.
My niece, Violet Mannion, who has become a regular commenter on the page, can speak to this. She is an enthusiastic Potter fan and I'm hoping she'll give us her review of the Half Blood Prince, which I suspect she's read through at least twice by now.
According to the Boston Globe, it's a much darker book than the ones that have come before, which, considering what happened in the Order of the Phoenix, makes me think JK Rowling is following even more closely in the footsteps of her major influence and only rival in the small club of authors who have become phenomenons, Charles Dickens.
Michael Berube, who at last report was a hundred and twenty pages into the Half Blood Prince, has had his mind boggle at the thought of how much pressure Rowling is under whenever she sits down to start a new book. In his post the other day he was musing on this and wondering what other writers had to meet the expectations that Rowling has had to.
I can't think of anyone else except Dickens. In the United States huge crowds used to gather at the docks when the news got out that the ship brining the latest installment of one of his novels was coming into port.
The legend is that in Boston the crowds learned that Little Nell had died when the captain of the ship bringing in the last chapters of The Old Curiosity Shop appeared on deck with tears streaming down his cheeks.
At any rate, the point of this post hasn't been to take anything away from Rowling or Harry Potter, even though I think the effect she's said to have had on children's reading is greatly exaggerated. I think her reputation on this score has benefited from timing---the Potter books hit the bookstores at about the time the bookstores had all turned into Barnes and Nobles and Borders.
Lovers of independent bookstores who loathe and despise the rise of the mega-stores should remember that in most of America before the mid 1990s the only bookstore in town would be a Waldenbooks stacked high with the latest Garfields and Tom Clancy, with the literature section tucked into an uncomfortable and badly lighted corner of the store where the only thing to sit on was the stack of remaindered coffee table books the clerks hadn't gotten around to shelving yet.
I think Rowling and the mega-stores have had a symbiotic relationship. Lemony Snicket too. But I don't think either Rowling or Snicket, or Philip Pullman or Garth Nix, have created a generation of readers who would not have come into being without them.
All of them should be credited with improving kids' reading skills and tastes. A hundred years ago children learned to read by reading Charles Dickens and the Brontes and Louisa May Alcott and Robert Louis Stevenson and Edgar Allan Poe. Adults marvel at the idea of children reading 652 page novels. (On our walk home from the Potter Party at 1 in the morning, the 12 year old told me he thought it would take him a few days to read the Half Blood Prince. He said it deliberatively, as if he saw a big job ahead and was planning the most efficient method for tackling it.) But long ago nobody thought anything of it. Children didn't read picture books because there weren't picture books.
Illustrations are another thing and I wish it was an art form that would be brought back.
The great good thing Rowling and her contemporaries have done, I think, is help create a community of young readers.
There have always been children who love to read, but they tended to do it all on their lonesomes, holed up in their rooms, and the joy they found in their books was a private joy.
But Harry Potter has opened the bedroom doors as wonderfully as he opened the Chamber of Secrets. All these young readers now talk to each other. They trade books, they get online and post in forums and on webpages, they build friendships around their mutual love of books, and they read more and they read faster. Reading isn't an escape from their lives and other kids. It's a part of their lives and a connection with other kids.
Intellectuals have always posited that the world would be a better place, full of smarter, more moral people if the love of books became universal. The argument against this idea has been that the readingest group of people on earth, college professors, are among the most miserable, both in their own feelings and in their characters.
But looking around at the Harry Potter party the other night all I saw were a lot of bright, articulate, polite, cheerful, and nice young men and women.
A store full of Harrys, Rons, and Hermiones, with not a Malfoy, Goyle, or Crabbe in sight.