|The censure of even one of the judicious, says Hamlet, in what is after all a popular play, “must in your allowance o'erweigh a whole theatre of others."|
I can’t find him.
Here in Greece, before the outdoor cinemas closed for the winter, I sat in one for two hours and forty-three minutes of No Time to Die, hunched against the wind, looking for that womanizing wine-judging sportscar-driving take-it-all-lightly death’s-around-the-corner-anyway showoff in Cary-Grant suits, that cavalier on a civil servant’s pay.
What I saw was an unrelievedly serious man, a disappointed lover with emotional problems. And the suit! For the opening sequence they gave him something cotton off-the-rack that didn’t button up right. (Whatever happened to sportscars?)
Even in their prime Bond films were changeable (go here and search Bond), but they were essentially comedies, as most action films are, sprinkled with puns, and one waited for the payoff laugh at the end. Smart-assery, as I remark elsewhere, is the essence of art, including popular art. Where did it go? Even his enemy is serious, and makes a quest of ruining Bond’s—oh, God!—emotional life.
Mel Brooks was right; political correctness killed comedy.
The combat scenes are like watching five-year-olds play guns, a ceaseless unimaginative bang-bang-bang in which there’s never any danger to the hero. (I hesitate to call him Bond.)
That is, until he decides to give his life to save the world. Recognize the plot? For Bond saving the world was an after-thought, part of the fun, a way to bed the girl.
Ah! There is one good thing about the film: the girl. Ana de Armas. Of course he doesn’t get her. He doesn’t even seem to want her. Wouldn’t be proper.
Speaking of proper, Ralph Fiennes as M is at his most hemorrhoidal.
What we have here then is the death of a nice guy, rated “T”—suitable only for people under twelve.
James Bond, James Bond, where are you, James Bond?
Ah, here he is. I’ve found him.
James Bond is dead. Long live James Bond!
“Poetry is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality,” said T.S. Eliot.
“Our selves, like Adam's, still don't fit us exactly,” said W.H. Auden.
Clint Eastwood, in his last several movies, has struggled to escape his personality, his mask, his obsolete self.
(As a minor filmmaker myself I don’t regard movies as anything but poems.)
Usually he models this transformation for the benefit of a young man; in Million Dollar Baby it’s for a young woman.
“But, of course,” says Eliot, “only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.”
Clint is loaded down. In television’s Rawhide he was merely a rebel teen with the right haircut, but that was perfect for Sergio Leone, who made him the god-like Man with No Name. Thus he became bankable, and Ted Post and Don Seigel made Westerns with him. But not until Dirty Harry was Leone’s icon resurrected as an anodyne for hippy politics. It was a time much like our own, though our hippies are geriatric.
John Huston invented Bogie (see The Real Meaning of Humphry Bogart), but never used him again as Bogie until the satiric Beat the Devil, though everyone else did.
Leone’s Clint was portrayed by Clint himself in his own series of productions, until it became a problem for him, partly as a man nose to nose with Death—in Cry Macho he turns away from a sick dog and says, “I don’t know how to cure old age” (see The Doctor on The Aging Process)—but also in his quest to rethink himself, as who must not?
What’s left when you take off the printed T-shirt of your personality? “What is a tooth,” says Polanski in The Tenant, “but a piece of a personality?” What about you isn’t your personality?
Clint teases that question, but mainly he’s concerned to unload the baggage of machismo, and groping for what to keep. Unlike the hard-headed Siegel, for whom the only paradises are lost ones, Clint is a pastoralist. Even Josey Wales has heaven in his sites.
And indeed, though one of the shocks in Cry Macho is how bent he is by age, the old fart finds heaven with the heavenly Natalia Traven. (See In Praise of Older Women.)
You get your bad woman, you get your good woman. Oh, Clint!
The plot is held together with staples and tape, but a poem is a poem, and Clint is Clint. We mustn’t look for irony here.
And he is a poet. The title sequence in Josey Wales is a movie in itself, a fast one, and a strong one—and that marvelous shot in Cry Macho where, bedding cowboy-style on the ground, he lies down into the darkness!
The kid asks him if he can wear his hat, and your hat of course is your identity. When the wind from the explosion in Closely Watched Trains blows the boy's hat into frame, you know he’s dead. Clint won’t let the kid wear his hat—“You’re not a cowboy”—and then he does, if only to take it off.
Who can be responsible for his own personality? Even from outer space the continents retain their shape. The personality is a vital piece of equipment, a work of art, if you can manage it, but it’s a lot of trouble. You’ve got to walk it, worm it, take it to the vet, consult over it, get sued over it, disguise it, hide it, rework it—cuts down on your staring-off-into-space time. What’s left for a working-class tough guy when he steps away from it?
I should know?
Here, to conclude, is an act of homage, a shot of nostalgia with a slice, The Return of Dirty Harry.
Some Movies I More or Less Forgot
Joker, two hours of squirming agony at the mercy of the Lord of Misrule. Not a laugh in it, but a clear prophecy of the riots. Why do audiences like to be tortured this way?
The Green Book, a Frank Capra movie complete with Christmas-tears Capracorn ending.
Adults in the Room: Costa-Gavras came back here to Greece to make this lie about the former prime minister, may he die screaming, and his betrayal of the Greek people. The film uses some of my own actors, who are the best thing in it.
Downsizing: My ex-friend Alexander Payne (go here and search Nebraska) had no idea what to do with all that money.
The Favourite: Episodic. Bleak. Disgusting. Was it really in black and white, or do I just remember it that way?
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: These Englishmen, when they get to America, they abbreviate the experience as if for their notebooks. Not as bad as American Beauty, but nothing is as bad as American Beauty. Woody Harrelson has never recovered from the disastrous Indecent Proposal, but I always feel him trying.
Once Upon a Time... In Hollywood: I have made my position on Tarrantino clear (see also Italian-AmericanFilmmakers), and watching Brad Pitt drive doesn't do it for me, but the climactic pool fight gives pleasure, as long as you're sitting there.
Something by Woody Allen, I can’t remember what. I like Woody Allen. He misses a few tricks, as you'll see below, but I always go to his movies. And my own works of cinemah are aimed at his audience. (See Mortal Coil.)
Darkest Hour: Winston Churchill did not take the Tube and exchange poetry quotations with a strange black man, and that’s final.
The Party: a perfect little film, and I mean little, seventy-one minutes, full of irony and laughs, and the so watchable Kristin Scott Thomas.
Roma: A student of mine once told me, “In a movie or a novel, everything is normal except one thing.” I watched this for an hour, waiting for that one thing.
The Lives of Others, which is too dull to get through, is frightening, not because East German communism is so alien to us, but because it’s so us.
Chéri, directed by Stephen Frears. Too apologetic. Not enough daring. Not enough story.
Much has happened since I last came down the mountain, but nothing that could interrupt my self-contemplation until La La Land; which we all want opinions on so we can meet the intellectual challenge of Oscar night.
The dullest, the least consequential, the most asinine is Doctor Strange, in which Benedict Cumberbatch and Tilda Swinton, from whom we have come to expect more (see my review of The Imitation Game), are reduced to punching and kicking their way through a New Age video-game fantasy that does nothing to enhance the evening, though as trash it achieves something like purity. But one can’t entirely blame the actors; I too am vulnerable to being offered large sums of money.
And very New Age. Why are space aliens always represented as either deeply good or so evil they must be annihilated? They are never, like ourselves, both. These, beneath their monstrous exteriors, are sweethearts. All they want is For Us All To Work Together, which does make them worthy of extermination.
My own woman, if I may so speak, loved it. To quote her (let us forgive her her accent), “Only a mother who lost her child could take off her suit. Women are much more big-hearted. They are contaminated with egotism and ambition, but these are temporary things. Women combine practicality with intuition and vision. Men are needed as drones, to open jars and plant seeds. Then the nature that women are, flowers. And many many more things. Women are more intuitive and have more endurance.”
Let’s go to our second women’s movie, Bridget Jones's Baby, which is funny, and a good evening’s entertainment—my critical standard for excellence. Still, there’s something sad about the Bridget Jones series. It began, and persists (I haven’t seen every instalment) as a satire of secretaries’ wishes, a Plain-Jane office girl fought over by rich and handsome men for whom she is somehow the summit of desire. This time they want to be the father of the baby they’re not even sure they’ve sired. Triumphant in her wedding dress, infant on hip, she walks off, not into the sunset but toward a reception on the broadest of lawns, leaving bridegroom and lover to reconcile as best they can.
Beauty is the unstated theme of Jackie, the most beautiful of women (on the trip to Texas Jack apologized for her lateness, “But Mrs. Kennedy,” he smiled, “is worth waiting for”) rising to the trauma. I had expected something more like The Greek Tycoon (which wasn’t bad), but Jackie held me.
Cutting back and forth is the style of the TV commercial and the documentary, and I find the one as rhetorical as the other. If journalism, as Malcolm Lowry said, “equals intellectual male prostitution of speech and writing,” documentary too is simple opinion-making. But here the style is in the service of portraying someone’s dawning strength—“someone’s,” not necessarily Jackie’s, but it makes a good movie; an actor’s movie, in fact, one legendary beauty portraying another.
In Kingsman and James Bond I waxed wistful about Jack’s sex life. “If I don’t have a woman for three days,” he told Harold Macmillan, “I get a terrible headache.” And Jackie avenged herself with movie stars. Ah, well. Absolvo te. Should cheer Melania up.
The heroic journalist Edward R. Murrow, speaking of documentary, is edited into the film as he accompanies Jackie on the White-House tour. Murrow’s broadcasts from London during the Blitz, the air-raid sirens in the background, had much to do with the US entering the war. (Joel McCrea in Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent reprises that; see Hitch and Cary.) Then when Murrow got to TV he destroyed Joseph McCarthy, and interviewed absolutely everybody. I don’t remember Jackie being as nervous as the film made her out to be, but then even I don’t know everything.
OK, let’s calm way down with Paterson, based on, and updating, William Carlos Williams’ long poem that sought to do for Paterson, New Jersey, what Joyce did for Dublin. The film has its own Patersonians to commemorate, but what it's after is the meditative tone of the poem, and there are real pleasures here, mainly in the movement of the camera through a world that is deliberately banal.
It’s the first Jim Jarmusch movie I’ve ever sort of liked. He usually does kid stuff. When I was teaching film in Canada students would come to me and say “Hey, Bob, did you see the new Jarmusch film? Isn’t it great?” They were so enthusiastic. You can’t discourage them. I’d smile politely and wait for a chance to change the subject.
Paterson suggests what life must be like on diazepam. I am doing this, I am standing here doing this, there is nothing else, sort of thing. There’s a pleasing feeling of being on another planet. And the people on the bus are, you know, nice. In the poem the refrain is “No ideas but in things,” and here’s Williams’ most famous lyric:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
Like Ezra Pound—“The apparition of these faces in the crowd; Petals on a wet, black bough” (see Senryu)—and like Allen Ginsberg, who idolized them both, Williams inclines to the oriental. (Three poets no one reads anymore; see Nobody Left to Read). And indeed, it’s a Japanese poet who concludes things by giving the bus driver the gift of the blank page.
In this yearning for the simple is something essentially American. “I hate American simplicity,” says the American in Henry James’s The American. “I glory in the piling up of complications of every sort. If I could pronounce the name James in any different or more elaborate way I should be in favour of doing it.”
So let’s get complicated. Here are three films about Hollywood, the first by the superb Coen brothers, though not their best, Hail, Caesar. George Clooney, as he usually does for the Coens, plays a buffoon. Can you think of a Coens film without a buffoon? (See The satisfactions of Inside Llewyn Davis). Clooney plays a movie star kidnapped and brainwashed by a communist cell of writers who slip Marxist messages into studio-movie dialogue. Herbert Marcuse himself is a member, not that he gets any respect.
The Coens’ take on Hollywood has always been ambivalent. In Barton Fink it’s a kind of elephants’ graveyard, a second-rate place where first-rate people wash up and lead inauthentic lives. Even Faulkner comes off as cheap. What the Coens bring to any project is distance—they are as ironic as Hamlet—but sometimes they’re so aloof that it gets cold.
What can be excessive in them is too rare in Woody Allen, and perhaps it’s facile to conflate irony with intelligence. I drub Mr. Allen for his missed chances and his high-school psychology (see Woody Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight, and below, Weakness and Woody), but I can’t help but like him.
One of his recurrent themes is Hollywood as Phony-Land and New York as Where People Are Real (see what I mean?), and Café Society goes all out on this one. Apart from the anxiety of doomed love there isn’t much holding it together. There’s an interesting assassin—we all prefer Woody when he’s funny—but one finds oneself groping for more.
La La Land! A musical with dancing, what could be better? All that discipline for a few moments of joy—one is grateful. The script has no disappointing moments. I like especially, though I don’t understand it, Sebastian’s account of the origins of jazz as dialogue between people who don’t speak each other’s language (really?), which sets up the finale, when he communicates his thoughts to Mia with a piano in a crowded bar.
And we’re strangely back in the realm of courtly love, where the Astaire and Kelly musicals live: he lets her into the car first, rushes ahead to open the door for her. But we’re up to date in that this is a film about making it. In Busby Berkeley and the other pre-war musicals the characters are already where they want to be, or don’t care: it’s love, and in Berkeley sensuality, that drives them.
Every now and then, in La La Land, there’s a break in the action for some quick summaries of what happens in the meantime—they must have taken ages to shoot—which are the opposite of quick. They are merely story, not plot (see Fellini for the difference), and slow things down. Their very realism is heavy—this is a musical! Perhaps that’s why the final montage, the dream montage, full of stage effects and artificiality, works so beautifully.
The music? OK. A little too family-friendly. Jazz, like all art, should be insolent (see Smart-assery is the essence of art). But it’s not like when a combo plays a Beatle song, and you feel cheated.
And the joy is there. Fred wore white socks so we could follow his footwork; Ryan, white shoes. Emma Stone doesn’t need them:
“One situation,” said Patricia Highsmith, “maybe one alone—could drive me to murder: family life, togetherness.”
There’s a nice film-noir feel about the fur coat, the deep pockets, the revolver—and Ms Mara is very Audrey Hepburn.
Oh well. But Carol is a smooth movie, and gives the feeling of passion—in fact I would suggest that passion is smoothness, in any form of entertainment, including life. And the object, if I may use the word, of Carol’s lust is nice and quiet. Withdrawn. Shy. These are enormous advantages. Anyone who’s been involved with very young ladies knows they can talk your ear off.
“I just had sex with them,” Therese’s boyfriend tells her; “I love you!” This may be the defining issue. Go ahead and draw the line.
(For more on this, see the review of Fifty Shades of Grey, below, and, overleaf, the review of Kingsman.)
Joy, we may say with confidence, is a Women’s Movie, though not in a league with the ones I've mentioned. It’s a remake (perhaps it doesn't know that) of the 1959 comedy It Happened to Jane, in which the delightful Doris Day is the businesswoman, young Jack Lemmon is the subservient male, and Ernie Kovaks is the creep who tries to ruin her business—all of them vivid performances.
The grandmother, who tells the story after she dies (like Sunset Blvd. or the Anthony Perkins character in The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean—and yet not like them at all), recalls all those people on Twitter who want to “coach” you. A frightening number of people on Twitter want to “coach” you. So does Granny. Don’t worry, you can do it. Very New Age.
(Don’t expect me to be fair to Joy—I have an allergy to Robert De Niro movies.)
Pleasure in such films depends on your heart being in the right place, as mine is not. Neither is Highsmith’s. That’s what I like about her.
The Big Short and Bertolt Brecht
Brecht was a committed communist. His “alienation effect”—designed to wake you from the trance of “art” that hides from you your socio-economic circumstances—was a device for the theatre, but it influenced a lot of movies. In America escaping the Nazis he worked for example with Fritz Lang, another escapee, and so we have Sylvia Sidney in You and Me setting up the blackboard and reforming some crooks by demonstrating the meager profits of stealing.
The A-effect really came to life in the films of Jean-Luc Godard, and in Contempt, which I consider his best (though my critical opinion is based on Brigitte Bardot’s, how shall I say, presence), Lang plays himself, making a film of the Odyssey for producer Jack Palance, at his demonic best, and Penelope/Brigitte is unfaithful.
And now we have The Big Short, in which characters interrupt the action to tell us what’s going on, a stripper’s breasts are less interesting than her mortgages, and we are meant to be sobered—though there are no surprises here—by our victimization.
Personally I don’t have a position. Garcia Lorca’s judgment on Wall Street is sufficient vengeance. Let them have it if they want it. Dip him in the river who loves water, sort of thing.
But The Big Short has Things To Say, and says them in a style that puts it in sync with the remarkable popularity, at the moment, of documentary film—a highly selective form of rhetoric designed to teach us something (the word comes from the Latin for “teach”). Implicitly, and invariably, it teaches morality.
The great documentaries, the models of all documentaries, were made by Leni Riefenstahl. If you’re a documentarist and you’re not looking at Riefenstahl, you’re looking at someone who’s looking at Riefenstahl. (If you’re looking at Capra, who’s looking at Eisenstein, who’s looking at Griffith, you’re on a lower cornice of Purgatory.) She teaches the morality of the god Hitler, and Triumph of the Will begins with his descent to earth. But she does it with extraordinary long takes and impossibly graceful camera movements. Cut-rate documentary thrives on quick cutting, a shot for every line in the voice-over, often having nothing to do with anything except that the phrase needs substantiation.
Guys. Guys and guys. One black female covers our PC needs. Margot Robbie in the bath gives a short lecture, but it's a film, mainly, without women. Boys together, and the machismo that drives their exploits. “That’s a nice shirt. Do they make it for men?”
Steve Carell is the manic moralist. What has befallen his voice? It’s become a tenor so high and thin he doesn’t have to imitate shrill; though he does.
Brad Pitt in a beard plays Earth Father to the garage-start-up kids. Why does he help them? “Well, you said you wanted to be rich.” Just to show you it’s not that great. Makes us all feel better. (Personally, I don’t want to be “rich”—couldn’t interest me less. I just want lots of money.) Pitt played the equally specious moral agent in 12 Years a Slave, which gets Canadian history wrong (see my review of same). What we’re watching here is a version of Walter Huston’s Father God in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but don’t get your hopes up.
The faster the editing, I have elsewhere remarked (in the review of The Wolf of Wall Street), the crasser the production. It becomes something you want to get over with.
Michael Grunwald, scarcely a man of the left, wrote in Politico that the makers of The Big Short didn’t know what they were talking about, that the financial giants did feel pain, that they were stupid, not criminal, that if they had broken the law eager prosecutors would gleefully have dragged them to court, that the rules did change, that we shouldn’t be bitter about the outcome.
Whether because I’m ignorant or because I’m insufficiently moral, I have nothing to say about that. What I’m concerned with is the aesthetic object, if I may so call it—the movie. And the kind of justice that interests me is what happened to “Mack the Knife”:
Brecht’s unglamorous moralistic Threepenny Opera is based on the glamorous eighteenth-century The Beggar’s Opera, but in Brecht the noble libertine Macheath becomes the murderous villain Mack the Knife, as in Kurt Weill’s song.
But when the film was made (edited by my friend Jean Oser—I knew the old man when we were teaching together at the University of Ottawa), Brecht denounced the performance of the song as unBrechtian. And if that wasn’t insult enough, it was taken up by Louis, Ella, Frank and other glamorizers. But it’s Bobby Darin’s version that lives in the memory and snaps the fingers.
Three thrillers: Mad Max, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Sicario
See, what happened was, I (me, myself) suggested that we go and see Mad Max. I thought it would be a laugh—something mindless and full of action.
Big mistake. I mentioned somewhere that nothing ever happens in a Hollywood movie that can’t be understood by a twelve-year-old child. Mad Max—I’m not exaggerating—is for six-year-olds. Bang-bang-you’re-dead sort of thing. I remember being six. You put your hands to your heart, mime the ecstasy of death and fall down. Then you get up—instant resurrection. This movie was a profoundly childish experience.
At intermission—they have intermissions in Greece so you can freshen your drink, which in this case was opportune. Here's the cinema we were in, though "in" is hardly the word:
The second half was exactly the same as the first—the trip out, the trip back. The same flexi-pole hovers over the retread Chevrolets. The lack of invention was catatonic. It did have one good line: "Who are you praying to?" "Whoever’s listening.” Me too. I was mortified, exposing a helpless woman to this spectacle!
I am not a Guy Ritchie fan. In my review, below, of Mr. Holmes I dispensed with his Robert Downey thing in a one-line sneer, and his work has never interested me before. But what I love about spy movies is how funny they are—much funnier than studio comedies—and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. had us laughing out loud.
Sicario on the other hand scored big, and with this one my stock fell again. My V withdrew her confidence. Another boneheaded suggestion from Y.T. (I’m going to get off thrillers. Spy movies or nothing. But that’s what I thought this was!)
It reminded me of the George-W-Bush-psychology TV series 24, with Kiefer Sutherland, which, despite the fact that it ran for ten years, I was lucky enough to catch only one of; and in which torture is something you just have to do, I mean Those Other Guys are bad!
This is a girls-can-play-too movie, and the central consciousness is meant to be ambivalent, but come on. In the showdown at Evil HQ the father-figure murders a mother and two kids, but the heroine can’t bring herself to shoot him. It had to be done.
But in Anglo-Saxon America that’s unlikely. We defend morality, because morality is us. (For more on that see Greece versus the Puritans.)
"After meeting a religious person," said Voltaire, "I always feel I must wash my hands." That’s how this film leaves you.
Weakness and Woody
At dinner last night after Irrational Man my Precious Other said, "Good or bad, Woody Allen attracts everyone."
"Well," I said, "not quite."
"In Europe he does," she said, and yes, the open-air cinema—common enough in Athens, but this one is the size of an American drive-in—had on a Monday night been packed. "But every time you see one of his films," she added, "you expect just a little more. This movie left us with nothing."
I dumped on Mr Allen’s inadequacies in my review of Magic in the Moonlight. Irrational Man, to dispense with it quickly, is fall-forward-on-your-nose dull until well into the second act. The plot is based on Hitchcock’s Rope (which kind of thievery is fine), only there it’s the students who get up to the mischief, not the professor; and the ending is from Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Diva (also OK, though here less gracefully handled).
"Honestly," said Patricia Highsmith, "I don't understand why people get so worked up about a little murder."
It’s a sloppy film, plagued by endless vapid voice-overs. Some of the shots strain towards Hitchcock (see Hitch and Cary), and would have been eloquent in themselves, but are poisoned by inane "philosophical" observations that would embarrass a high-school kid, and give no pleasure; and by inaner music, Ramsey Lewis’s 1965 version of "The In Crowd," as flat as Muzak, and just as irritating.
It is unnecessary, I suppose, to mention the unnecessary scenes, Professor Desperate saying good-bye to a husband we’ve never met, and the unnecessary Joaquin Phoenix, always determinedly weird, here a little too Brando. Even the belly is coming along.
OK, enough. He’s not bright all the way around the block, but he’s a champion of weakness, and his icon is worth more than his work. As a stand-up comedian he reveled in his own humiliations, and was a relief from Hemingway Man (see Hemingway for Wimps)—he mocked Hemingway Man. Bob Hope had done this, as had Jerry Lewis, but they buddied with, and implicitly reaffirmed, tougher guys. In Woody Allen’s presence Hemingway Man became irrelevant. The Beats tried to do that, and the hippies, but Hemingway Man always re-emerged.
But whence Hemingway? Greek missionaries, the story goes, trekked north, taught the Russians their letters (some of which they got backwards), and left the Roman manner for Putin and Yul Brynner—and for Tolstoy, whose Hadji Murad was Hemingway's model, which closes the circle. From Bully-boy (Zelda said he always picked on somebody smaller) to stylist.
(The Russian model of weakness, on the other hand, is Tolstoy's darling Chekhov: "If you are afraid of loneliness, do not marry.")
An ancient and alternate tradition has it that weakness is royal. Frazer and Graves tell us that pre-historic kings were sacrificed, and lamed to keep them from escaping—hence the high heels worn by tragic actors in more civilized times, to signify their helplessness. (Right, girls? See The Marquis de Sade, Father of Modern France.) Think of the kings on the chess board, almost as weak as their pawns. "High Life" columnist Taki Theodoracopulos, who wants to see King Constantine back on the Greek throne (and you never know), despises "the macho primitivism of Prince Harry." It just ain’t royal.
The great twentieth-century novelists—Joyce, Proust, James—and the poets—Lorca and Eliot—are obsessed by weakness. Look at Fellini’s self-portrait in 8½ as an impotent god. (See Fellini.)
But it’s not for the lower orders, you know. Let them eat Hemingway.
No, the only wholehearted intrusion of weakness into pop culture—weakness that approves of itself, not the weakness of a Stan Laurel that weeps and wishes to be otherwise—is Woody Allen. What was that fight movie in which he says he has, not an Achilles’ heel but an Achilles’ body? Even the jokes are weak.
My own hero, a womanizer and a gigolo (the two métiers don’t coalesce, of course, but life is contradictions; it’s nothing else), is a model of every sort of weakness—physical, moral, mental. But Toby enjoys it and, permit me to say, he’s funnier:
The label I hung on Peter Bogdanovich when I was a student was "archival." Of all the directors we were watching at the time, he was the most meticulous in his references. And indeed his approach to film—and to life, it seems—is scholarly.
This would be unforgiveable if his work weren’t so funny. But it’s more than funny. It’s—how to say—liberating. Uplifting—not in the moral sense, and not in the "feel-good-movie" sense, a genre that can be singularly depressing.
When I was a young novelist wintering in India, bluffing it out and wondering what I could really actually write, I discovered Wodehouse—rediscovered him, I guess; I had looked at his books as a kid. The Indians, no matter what you may think, adore things British, and in India, like so many before me, I found my master. I remembered being the funny guy in high school, and realized that this was something I could do if I wanted to—and I wanted to.
Wodehouse’s only real match in movies was Ernst Lubitsch, who is Peter Bogdanivich’s master, and so I watch Bogdanovich’s career especially closely. Lubitsch’s spirits are invariably high (so enviable!), and with Wodehouse he shares a delight in stories about people who have it all—all the money, all the freedom, and in Lubitsch’s case all the sex. Suffer on your own time. His Trouble in Paradise, The Merry Widow and To Be or Not to Be are at the top of my list. (See Gorgeousness.)
Lubitsch’s nearest and most legitimate offspring was his scenarist Billy Wilder, also an incurable tease, who however made the occasional swoop into seriousness. "Memories," said Wodehouse, "are like mulligatawny soup in a cheap restaurant. It is best not to stir them." But who can help it? We all commit the sin of seriousness, we dive like dolphins in our thoughts, and look back at the masters like exiles from Eden.
Bogdanovich, Lubitsch’s, what, grandson, has his own highs and lows, but he gave us an unforgettable Daisy Miller, rendering Winterbourne's silences as dialogue ("My father ain't in Europe; my father's in a better place." "Oh, I’m sorry." "He’s in Schenectady."). And in At Long Last Love the lady lead falls for the gentleman lead because he’s rich—which is fine with both of them. Big deal. Then the actors have a palpably good time singing songs by Cole Porter, who is the musical, and indeed the lyric-poet third in this gladsome trinity.
It’s all I ask.
Mr. Holmes and the Watson Problem
My favorite film Sherlock is Peter Cushing in The Hound of the Baskervilles—the aquiline nose, the intensity, the passionate commitment to being Holmes. His real partner in it is the marvelous Christopher Lee as Sir Henry, long paired with Cushing in the Dracula series, he as Drac, Cushing as the stake-pounder. Doctor Watson doesn’t have much of a presence in this one, except to fetch Holmes his tobacco. "This, I think, is a two-pipe problem."
In my favorite Holmes movie, Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Watson is reduced to a frantic clown, albehe admirably acted by Colin Blakely. This time Chistopher Lee plays Mycroft, who sneers at his brother’s powers of deduction, recalling that as a child, "by carefully observing a neighbor's house he deduced that babies were brought, not by the stork, but by the midwife in her satchel." "As good an explanation as any," smiles Watson.
(Let us not speak of the Guy Ritchie effort. My stomach won’t bear it.)
Because Watson, you see, is the two-pipe problem. In the movies he’s reduced to a faffling fool, a straight man to Holmes’s quips, someone to be said "elementary" to. In the books he tells the story. It’s through his uncomprehending eyes that we see the giant mind at work.
Conan Doyle didn’t invent this method, nor did he invent the detective story. Both were the gifts of Edgar Poe. There have been elaborate scholarly attempts to place the origins of the detective story in classical literature, etc., and for the man of modest intelligence reporting on a genius we might think of Boswell on Johnson; but as strategies of fiction they begin with Poe’s Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin, who solves "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (in a Paris Poe had never seen) by the method of pure logic, as narrated by the awed friend who shares his lodgings.
(P. G. Wodehouse took the Holmes/Watson model for his Jeeves books, in which an upper-class twit narrates the successes of his brilliant valet. And in my stunted way I too am of this lineage: my series of comic novels is told by a no-good gigolo whose keeper’s nine-year-old daughter out-thinks him. Nor am I above lifting some of the Master’s phrases. We are none of us honest men.)
In Mr. Holmes (note the period—this is for American consumption; Brits don’t put dots after Mr), we have no Watson at all. Watson is the distorter, the builder of personae (only his hands appear onscreen), and to be dispensed with as Holmes backs away from his Holmes-ness toward something more, alas, human. Logic and deduction are not enough. The solitude of the individual is the thing. Pathos. Humanity. Well.
Mr. Holmes, however, has stepped out of myth to savor solitude and self-loathing. His old self might just have picked up his Stradivarius (in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes he plays a notoriously difficult Bach piece), or polished his monograph on cigar ash, or done some coke.
In the murder mystery the detective is One Of Us, and this is what Sherlock, in his bitter solitude, has become in Mr. Holmes—except that it's not a murder mystery. It is the "human" Holmes. Ian McKellen is wonderful, yes yes, and the kid is a joy, but the plot is stuck together with spit and envelope glue, and the whole thing doesn’t fly.
So much for the human. And after all one has such feelings. It has been suggested now and then that a more human Robert MacLean might be attempted. But one persists.
Fifty Shades of Grey, or Gidget Gets a Whipping
Here's a film that combines two genres. In my review of Kingsman I mentioned Women’s Movies, which can be good. Douglas Sirk was the master—Imitation of Life and older-woman-younger-man All That Heaven Allows. Fassbinder remade the latter as the spare and Brechtian Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, one of his best.
Hollywood has always had a problem mixing sex and sentiment (as who does not?), nor is it solved here. She gets drunk and he takes her home with vomit on her clothes, so there is a bit of kink in it. Then he flies her in his helicopter to exotic Seattle, the lights glimmering below like the Champs-Élysées, and walks her through his mansion past Things You Will Never Have. Servants, everything.
Thirty minutes in we find out she’s a virgin. Right? For her deflowering, which I take to be the theme and ambition of the Surfing Movie, the erotic spectacles are the unveiling of her nipples and his pale but determined behind. (Is he not a bit anemic to be a firm-handed maître? He looks like he’s got a hemhorroid.) The missionary position is subsumed into the movie kiss, and her emotion is articulated prettily by her feet.
But wait—the bondage he pursues now is legal—something many of us understand. No use squirming. Shout and no one will hear. There’s a ball strapped in your mouth anyway. For the next thirty minutes the goal is to get her to sign a contract. Only then can he hit her with the fly-swatter.
Like other such films—for they are a Hollywood tradition, and invariably embarrassing—this one implicitly invokes our experience of Internet porn, and tries to tame it, to domesticate the inhuman (let’s face it) sexual emotion by marrying it to more predictable ones.
And so in Fifty Shades we have Christian (Christian, yet!—can The Lord be far away?) blurting that he's like this because he’s "fucked up!" Where is the robust whip-wielding mix-n-match Marquis? Self-pity has no place in his world. (See The Marquis de Sade, Father of Modern France.)
One thinks also of Don Jon—did you see that? It begins by amusing us with imitation Net porn, then turns against it and gets teachy. Julianne Moore, in a most unpersuasive performance, balances her lust with an erupt-at-any-moment weepiness because she is, and this is essential, A Good Person. As Fernando Pessoa said, "Praise be to God I’m not good."
In perhaps the worst of them, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, every time the camera gets rolling Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks "make love" when they’re supposed to be having sex. If you’re feeling masochistic this one will make you cringe.
Contrast Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter (see the review of The Two Faces of January), in which no such rapprochement is even considered. "Americans," Europeans like to say, "are such children."
The end of Fifty Shades—are we at the end already? No, let’s mention the product placement. Only in movies do people use Apples. Have you ever seen a PC laptop in a movie? What are you on now?
Let’s mention the literacy: "My mother is on husband number four. She’s an incurable romantic." "Are you?" "Well, I study English lit. I kind of have to be." Unless you read Shakespeare, or Chaucer, or Pope, or Dryden, or Joyce, or Eliot, or James, or Nabokov. What are they teaching the kids these days?
No more surfing for the Gidge. For now. Tomorrow, as the lady said, is another day. But then as Nabokov said, "In my experience tomorrow is the same day." Watch this space.
Woman in Gold and Helen Mirren’s Body