Film Reviews I

"The mind is the stomach of the soul," said Nabokov. He might have added that it’s equally subject to indigestion.

Cinderella and Bad Guys

I didn’t want to go to Cinderella. “What,” I demanded of my Honey Babe, “will my readers think if I report on treacle they know I despise?” What she really wanted to see was Still Alice, but as I mentioned in my review of Kingsman, below, I avoid Gimp Movies, and have no wish to sit through Julianne Moore getting Alzheimer’s. So if I wanted a good dinner we had to go to Cinderella. So we went to Cinderella.
It was a violation, too, of my no-Kenneth-Branagh policy, which has served me well. Years ago, when I was peddling my scripts in LA, I took a break and went to Branagh’s Hamlet, which he had Hollywoodized by filling it up with stars—the noble Jack Lemmon giving his all to the tiny part of Marcellus, Heston hamming it up as the Player King, etc.—and by making Polonius not a fool but evil, and knowing—an outrageous vulgarity. 

There are no Bad Guys in Shakespeare. (I’m going to take two paragraphs on this.) Even Iago (whom Branagh has in fact played, though he didn’t get the chance to screw it up the way he did Much Ado About Nothing), is driven by passions we recognize in ourselves. And his remaking of Polonius was not a minor innovation: when Hamlet stabs him through the arras he’s murdering out of annoyance a meddlesome but essentially innocent fool, which renders ambiguous the most interesting mind in literature. Branagh cheapens him into a Good Guy killing a Bad Guy. (For more on Hamlet see Fellini.)
So I’ve kept my distance. But here I was at Cinderella, a story almost as old as Hamlet (the first version seems to have appeared in Naples in 1634), and as new as Kate Middleton. (See Michael Caine and the British Caste System.) The plot sticks close to the Disney cartoon of 1950, itself based on Charles Perrault’s story of 1697. 

Walter Pater said that the Renaissance began in the twelfth century with the birth of romantic love, which set itself against the arranged marriage, and was sung in the Provençal lays of the troubadours. (There are remarks on courtly love in Some Notes on God.) In India I knew an enlightened and articulate middle-aged couple whose marriage had been arranged, and they were delighted with it, or at least it pleased them to appear so; and I was persuaded. In our own culture Boccaccio, for example, though he venerated women, had no patience with either marriage or courtly love.
Cinderella, the one I just sat through, is of course for children, and is preceded by a cartoon about a birthday party given for one girl by another out of pure love, which made me fidget so that I asked my HB if we were perhaps in the wrong barn at the Cineplex. A polite young lady close by, who had been through the ritual, informed me that this was part of it. And then the movie came on, with more of the same innocent generous givingness—which does have charm: as Henry James said, “Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.” But if we keep forcing “love” down the little darlings’ throats like this, how will they manage their natural feelings of hate? Here’s Robert Frost:

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

The belief in “evil” is a kind of sentimentality—us-and-them sort of thing. The challenge might have been to make the wicked stepmother just a tad sympathetic. Ah, but no, in Branaghland there are only Good Guys and Bad Guys.

And the whole thing was CGI-ed to death—even Cate Blanchett’s waistline was photoshopped—which takes the risk out of everything, and paints over the vulnerability. Is that what fairy tales do? No, fairy tales are scary.
At first I was oppressed by the capped teeth and corny music. But then Helena Bonham Carter entered—I hadn’t known she was in it, and as usual I was captivated. Then came the ball, and I was entranced. The cinematography was gorgeous, the dresses were gorgeous, the dance was gorgeous (this is the altar at which I worship—see Gorgeousness) and I fell in love. 

Briefly, yes, but such is love. 

Inherent Vice and Thomas Pynchon

I had almost forgotten to write this review, the film is so, well, forgettable. It’s a hundred and forty-nine minutes (two and one half hours) of dialogue. Movies, like life, are about what people do, not what they say. But this is all talk. Everything is reported. The rule for filmmakers, and playwrights, is that a deaf person in the audience should be able to follow the action. Show, don’t tell. (I remember my astonishment when I saw Q & A that it was all bla-bla—by Sidney Lumet, no less! His Before the Devil Knows You're Dead was worthy of Sophocles.) At Inherent Vice my Precious Other at least had the benefit of the subtitles, so she could stay with the story, or stories. I was always straining to hear. 
Climaxes came and went. I started to get up several times but it simply would not end. Two and a half hours of this. Christ.

All right, I confess I went in there biased against Thomas Pynchon’s writing. His technique is to put discussions of entropy (the “inherent vice” in systems), cybernetics, linguistics, semiotics, anti-matter—loads of learned lumber—into the mouths of beer-can-crunching California professors and their graduate students, who talk like high-school dropouts—hey, cool!—but intellectual trends go out of fashion as quickly as styles of speech, and are of limited interest anyway. 

In his The Crying of Lot 49 I learned that Americans say “a couple beers” and not “a couple of beers.” They do say that, don’t they? In Pynchon they do. New characters appear and disappear, narrative threads spring up, go nowhere, vanish—nothing holds the attention, certainly not the comic-book prose. There have been great writers whose prose lacked grace—sweet sad Chekhov, for example (“If you fear loneliness, do not marry”), but he revels in feeling, in desire, in disappointment, not in academic allegory. I find Pynchon unreadable.
(But then I find Thomas Mann unreadable. When I was a graduate student my professors were in love with Mann. I didn’t know how to tell them. Decades later when I read that Vladimir Nabokov thought Mann was a zero I felt exonerated. ((The film Death in Venice is a masterpiece based on an insipid novella, and gets things right that Mann got wrong—most importantly that it was about Mahler, for it's based on an actual event, and not about Mann.)))

But to return to this film, it’s a Detective Story, sort of. The Detective Story (Poe, Conan Doyle, Chandler, Hammett) is to be distinguished from the Murder Mystery (Agatha Christie), in that the former is about the detective, an outsider, often as dangerous, or at least as eccentric, as the bad guy. The latter is about society, and while Hercule Poirot, for example, may too have his eccentricities, he is an insider, fits easily into any scene, and is in search of the perpetrator who poses a threat to that scene.
The detective usually champions one victim of injustice, his quest often turns on the theme of friendship, and yeah, the film does that one. In the review of The Imitation Game down the page I mention among the Conventions of the Cinemah the hit on the head that knocks you out for a while and then you wake up and you’re OK (Sam Spade had to put up with it), and yeah, here it is.
All of this might be acceptable if Inherent Vice were light and funny and up in some way, but Paul Thomas Anderson, whose Presbyterian disapproval was all over Boogie Nights, ain’t about to deliver joy. Inherent Vice has been praised for its “acting,” always a bad sign, but Joaquin Phoenix, as strenuously serious as he was in The Master, does no better than a stand-up comic might do, the latter would get some laughs—and a laugh, as Lubitsch observed, is not to be sneezed at. But this is dreary. And it sends you out feeling dreary. Perhaps my PO put it best: “The whole thing was totally bullshit.”

I would be grateful to know how it is that the vast populace can not only endure such entertainment but seek it out, and think it good. 
Oh well. When you get bored you can look at Owen Wilson’s nose.

Kingsman and James Bond

I was expecting to enjoy Kingsman because it patterns itself on, or at least admires, as do I, the early James Bond films. The hero of the Bond books, mostly written in the fifties, was meant to be a boring civil servant to whom extravagant things happen. (Is there another civil servant so sympathetic? Perhaps the Scarlet Pimpernel.) The series sold well in the UK, but when the splendidly cavalier Jack Kennedy, who did no work in the Oval Office that would interfere with his schedule of dalliances, mentioned to an interviewer that he read the Bond books “to relax” (I’ll bet), bingo, the best-seller list and movies with higher and higher budgets. The books began to be influenced by the movies, and soon Bond was getting almost as much as Jack was.
The films were seventy-five per cent comedy—most thrillers are—and everyone went to them, all ages, all genders, all nations. Cary Grant, who was the middle-aged action male in To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest (see Hitch and Cary), was immediately eclipsed by Bond.
Sean Connery was a Scott like Fleming/Bond, looked a little like Fleming, and looked a little like who Fleming said he should look like, Hoagy Carmichael. (In one of the books, I forget which one, Bond arrives from Jamaica in Florida and approves of 1960 Chevrolets with throaty mufflers—he had good taste in cars—and American road signs: “SOFT SHOULDERS”, “SLIPPERY WHEN WET.”) Roger Moore made the movies ninety per cent comedy and mixed a martini heavy with charm, and that worked too. But in the Pierce Brosnan phase they began to lose their punch and preach political correctness, which these days is all they do—“too serious,” as Colin Firth’s character remarks in Kingsman.
Kingsman too is ninety per cent comedy—and ten per cent dance. The combat scenes are no more believable than they were in the Moore movies, but they are choreographed like a Busby Berkeley musical. As Firth dispenses with a church-load of bigots they coordinate like chorines; to Berkeley we owe the parachute free-fall, the global brawls (a nice the edge to the comedy, the psychotic aggressiveness deep in us all), the attack of the evil guards—these are works of choreography, and the heads that explode into varicolored floral clouds are pure Berkeley.

If the product placement is shameless—commercials for Guiness and Big Macs—the iconography is pleasantly sinister: Samuel L. Jackson onstage like Steve Jobbs, and his sidekick in Oscar-Pistorius blades. You can hear the shots through the door.
But Connery was a man, a marvelously insolent man. Not a boy. Kingsman, alas and alackaday, is a Kid Movie. I hate Kid Movies. They’re on a par with Gimp Movies (I don’t plan to suffer through Hawking, not least because the eponymous “scientist” has expanded human knowledge not one jot (see What We Know), and traffics in space-invader clichés), Gay Movies (male Gay Movies, that is—Satyricon, Death in Venice, wonderful, but mostly they're embarrassing; if The Imitation Game qualifies ((a review is two down)) the eros is crushed out of it in true Anglo-Saxon fashion; lesbian movies I make myself: Pas de deux, The Trial of Don Juan), Holocaust Movies (though I have Jewish blood—see My Racial Profile), Black Movies (The Pursuit of Happyness was terrific, 12 Years a Slave, not bad—my review of same is below—but I won’t go near Selma), Woman Movies, which is what the Bond films have become (and are to be distinguished from Women’s Movies—I like Douglas Sirk, and Fifty Shades of Grey has me intrigued), and Cancer Movies (the chemo veterans I know don't care for those either).

Nobody told me Terms of Endearment was going to be a Cancer Movie, so I just had to sit through it. And nobody told me Kingsman was going to be a bildungsfilm, or as the unlettered say a Coming of Age Movie. Spare me.

Only when Colin Firth is there does it work, and it looks like he won’t be in the sequel. He’s teaching the cockney kid how to be a gentleman, though he insists that he’s only repaying his debt to the kid’s father. Of course I myself—me, personally—am the Anti-Gentleman, as my books will bear out, but among those I know whom Henry James would call the real thing I can think of none who would be motivated by gratitude.
(The essence of the lesson is an attack on the British “class”—see Michael Caine and the British Caste System—and Caine's snobbish aristo doesn’t persuade me, nor is this excellent man made proper use of.)

Even when I was young I didn’t have much interest in the young, not up on the screen anyway, but there were some good laughs in this movie—the martini recipe is “gin stirred for ten seconds while glancing at an unopened bottle of vermouth” (Noël Coward went one better: "A perfect martini should be made by filling a glass with gin, then waving it in the general direction of Italy.")—and our discussion over dinner afterwards was merry.

Birdman the Sincere

Birdman suffers from sincerity. Sincerity is all over the place. "Show me a sincere person," says Delmore in my funeral-parlor novel, "I’ll show you a pain in the ass." (Is there any pleasure like quoting yourself?) 
This is an actors’ movie, bursting with Moments of Truth. The actor’s job is to achieve these—lots of them. Keaton is constantly ripping off his toupée to show his Real Self. It’s a Moment-of-Truth contest. 

Truth or Dare is the operative game, and the actor played by Edward Norton (this is the first time I've liked him; usually he plays a mealy-mouth but here he’s an aggressive son of a bitch, and it looks good on him) chooses Truth every time, because "Truth," he says, "is always interesting." Well, if you can figure out what it is.

A former Hollywood star is trying to come back via Broadway with a play he’s written based on "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," a story by the humorless Raymond Carver. The music in this film is a one-hundred-and-nineteen-minute drum solo. You with me, here? We are in an Inferno of seriousness.
The Steadicam is a lead character, following the actors everywhere, pirouetting and leading them everywhere, picking up new action, veering with new people, out to the balcony, through the dressing room, into the street, calling such constant attention to itself that it becomes intrusive, and makes us peer behind it to see if we can spot a story.

The classic handling of the New York/LA theme is Twentieth Century, written by those greatest of scenarists, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, with the greatest of actors, John Barrymore as a Broadway producer, and the greatest of actresses, Carole Lombard as the ingénue who deserts him for Hollywood. OK, I’m not expecting a classic. But still.

However Twentieth Century is not Birdman’s antecedent. When the camera follows Keaton out into the night street—drums, drums, drums—it evokes the early-TV style of Peter Gunn, Naked City, East Side, West Side and Johnny Staccato, this last played and directed by young John Cassavetes in the manner of cinéma vérité: he stops a good-looking girl—a real citizen—and speaks to her while the voice-over says "Sometimes you have to ask directions even when you know where you’re going." Then Warner Brothers moved the TV business to Los Angeles and that was the end of it. 
Cassavetes too made actors’ movies, and those are Birdman’s parents. "It's not really interesting to me, at least, to set up a camera angle," he said. "At some points in the filming you really want to take the camera and break it for no reason except that it's just an interference and you don't know what to do with it." He played jokes on his actors to get them to be genuine. In Husbands he leads Faulk and Gazzara from their subway seats to the door, then laughs at them—"This is not our stop!"—and they stand there embarrassed. In Love Streams his daughter surprises Seymour Cassel with a kiss on his rather prominent nose, visibly annoying him.

I can love Cassavetes—he was such a tender man—and still say it didn’t always work for me. Birdman though is positively chilly, and its search for sincerity is as ruthless as the drums and the camera work. 

There aren’t that many scenes you can play for sincerity. We get the I-was-a-bad-father scene, we get the I-was-a-bad-husband scene, we get the lesbian kiss (which I think I can treat with a little more interest), we get the sex-on-stage scene (James Russo did it to Madonna in Dangerous Game), we get the when-I-was-your-age scene, we get the critics-are-parasites scene—sincerity doesn’t have a large vocabulary, and too often the drums carry the emotion when the pacing should.

"Honesty," says the palm reader in my President novel (this is fun!), "is the sincerest form of aggression. Whenever someone wants to level with you, duck." 

Inner truth, Birdman’s inwardness, is expressed in the style of Magic Realism, which has mainly been a Latino thing, responsible for interminable South American novels made into interminable movies (I know, I know, you like them), in which the unreal, the lyrical and the mythological are injected into the otherwise gritty and intractable, and at their worst lift these latter into feel-goodism. The Mexican writer/director of Birdman, Alejandro González Iñárritu, has Magic Realism in his veins, and other organs.
One of my favorite paintings in this style is by Canadian Alex Colville. The banal is rendered metaphysical by the fact that her feet don’t touch the ground—despite the converging lines behind her it’s more like montage than perspective—and the laundry basket, full of the forms of life, is an extension of her womb. She is a goddess, and she floats, like Birdman the character. But Birdman the film?

Alejandro feels licensed by this aesthetic to give us a third act no one can buy. Chekhov’s Gun goes off on schedule, but the final shot, in the camera sense, when daughter looks up at p’pa, makes me wince.
"All bad poetry is sincere," said Oscar Wilde. And what is a film but a poem? 

The Imitation Game and the Conventions of the Cinemah

Coffee cures a drunk. Cars explode when they crash. A hit on the head knocks you out, but when you wake up you’re OK. (This one mars two of my favorite films, Trouble in Paradise—see The Lubitsch Touch—and The Maltese Falcon.) 
On the Victorian stage the villain wore a handlebar mustache and a stovepipe hat, and was hissed when he entered. In silent and sound films he was booed, and as Mr. Tooth decay on Howdy Doody was vanquished, though he is still apt to pop up. 

Until the fifties it was accepted by audiences that good guys in westerns wore white hats and rode white or golden horses, and bad guys not. We of course are more sophisticated, and indicate the bad guy with a ponytail.

A woman’s bare feet mean sex; a man’s, death. A dog means death. If you had the misfortune to see Dogville you know what I mean. When the dog gets up and walks out of the saloon you know there’s going to be a gunfight. A flight of birds means death, as in Van Gogh’s crows, Bonnie and Clyde and The Thin Red Line.
One of my favorite conventions is virginity. Girls in movies like Red River and North by Northwest kiss but they don’t do it—much to the relief of their courtiers. It’s sort of cute. Ah, how far we’ve come!

(Not so long ago we were doing the things we hate the Muslims for. We tax them for not being up to the minute.)
My teacher Northrop Frye (I’m rather proud of him) once remarked that in plays and movies professors will always be absent-minded. Let us take it a step further to The Mad Scientist—Dr. Jekyll, Henry Frankenstein, The Fly's François Delambre—whose most recent avatar is Alan Turing in The Imitation Game
Modern diagnosticians have tried to hang mental disorders on the real Turing—Asperger syndrome or something from the vague "autism spectrum"—but it’s not working. He was an eccentric genius, and we must live with the fuzziness of that term and not, as in America, try to give it a numerical value: "the precision of a poet," to use Nabokov's phrase, "and the imagination of a scientist."

The movie Turing, though, is disconnected from "reality" to a degree that implies schizophrenia. It ain't that; what he’s got is a Convention of the Cinemah—incurable, I’m afraid—but it yields a superb joke: here is a man who has no sense of irony!—who complains that he doesn’t understand ordinary human discourse because people always mean something different from what they say. So we have a mathematician learning cryptology in order to decode simple human speech. This is splendid. 

(I have often made a fool of myself addressing an ironic remark to a child. Useless. I’m not quite sure at what age kids attain to irony—at various times and rates I suppose. Toby, the hero of some of my comic novels, is mentally dominated by a nine-year-old girl, and that seems right, for her anyway.)
Turing is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, natural casting because he’s been best known for his TV Holmes, set in modern times, so that the only eccentricity distinguishing him from the cops is superior intelligence. 

(I note though that in one snippet he summons the police by the elegance of walking outside and shooting into the air, which reminds me of what the ISIS guys do, and what the Bosnia guys did, causing more casualties than the bombings. So it’s not all that bright. But nobody’s perfect.)
And here is another Convention of the Cinemah: sci-fi is never about the future, costume drama never about the past, bio pics never about their subjects: they’re about us. Take, then, a look at our own dried-up eradrab, workaholic, computer-obsessed—and our secret satisfaction that Turing's sexual impulse is punished. The chain of command means nothing, presidents play video games with drones, information theory wins wars, the new haircut triumphs, and Keira’s beauty is dimmed down.
"Everything great in the world comes from neurotics," said Proust. "They alone have founded our religions and composed our masterpieces." We of the present day are trapped, the film leaves no doubt, inside Turing’s neurosis.

Meryl in Peril

Once in a while I seem to have to go to this kind of movie and see what visions are currently transfixing the proles. Cavort with the hoi poloi. Go out and sit among them and, you know, laugh at them. 
Into the Woods, though, immerses one in something redolent of the sewer. Meryl Streep has become America’s First Actor, I suppose, a position unoccupied since the globular Brando solidified. (See Hitch and Cary for more on him.) But Brando at least knew how to choose material; Streep will insert herself into any stew, no matter how suspicious it smells.
Consider The Iron Lady, for example, a feminist saga with Thatcher as hausfrau, coping with family’s demands and left out of the after-dinner brandy-and-cigar club, etc. The truth is that leaders have no time for such things; they do it standing on one foot if they have to, and usually do. In the film Al Haig tries to talk her out of the Faulklands venture, just to give her some male opposition; in fact he was her supporter in the matter. All the poor girl seemed to want was to dance with Ronnie (as she called him). No, it was the wrong movie about her; it should have been about what happened; it should have been about how these two delusional charismatics got us to where we are. Nevertheless Streep did the definitive Thatcher. Who could think of doing her again?—though I suppose someone will.
But let us return to the relentlessly irritating Into the Woods. Walt Disney was a marvelous story-teller (one thinks of his own Cinderella), but no sooner was the old man dead than “Disney” became synonymous with an offensive  degree of harmlessness. Here his company has combined its resources with un-music by Stephen Sondheim—you will carry away no melody from this ordeal; Wagner triumphs (see Gorgeousness)—who excels at un-funny satires of other music; which is appropriate because the libretto, by Sondheim’s witless collaborator James Lapine, is un-funny satire of other stories, fairy tales minced together with an illogic that embarrasses the actors, or should. It embarrasses me.

Nothing in this film happens for any aesthetically satisfying reason. Hollywood has always had to do the best it can with poetasters, seldom has a Hecht or a Kaufman appeared (see The Pleasures of the Screenplay), and in this case the botched plotting is interlaced with little wisdoms about not being alone that would make a child, as Dorothy Parker said of Winnie-the-Pooh, “fwow up.”

Ah, but there is Meryl, disappearing into the earth at the end for no particular reason. If she keeps picking material like this one might wish her a more permanent burial. 

On the Question Whether Women Have Souls

Of course they do. Heh heh.

But then, perhaps your own feeling that you have a soul is an illusion. You suffer, therefore you are, sort of thing. Women suffer too, possibly, but in a monkey-see-monkey-do sort of way. 

I myself have been in situations where women addressed me as if they were “real.” Creepy. One inches away, smiling perhaps a little too strenuously.

But I was talking to one. (I think you should talk to them, you know, talk with them, and find out how they feel and stuff.) I went up to an actual woman, a woman known to me, and said “Hi!”

“Hi,” she said, just like a normal person. I mean, right?

“Do you want to fuck?” I said. But she just stared at me. See what I mean?

So anyway, I went to one of their movies. Went the whole distance. I mean I want to understand!
Gone Girl. It was “made” by a man, but it wasn’t really his. We writers know that the writer makes the movie. Nobody else knows that. (Did you hear about the blonde who tested for a part in a film? She slept with the writer.)

David Fincher does politically anal things like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—woman-on-top sex, she does the tough stuff, he does the worrying, that sort of thing (see Vladimir Nabokov and Twelve-Year-Old Girls for further insults about this one)—and The Social Network, a sour experience that got key details wrong. Gone Girl should finally get him the Oscar. 

The script was written by Gillian Flynn, based on her novel, so this is her movie, and its brilliance is that it takes every possible word and gesture common to couples (“That’s how the kids wear it,” she says, untucking his shirt) and injects it with psychopathology. The plot brings unlikely to a new level (people keep saying about the psycho “She’s good,” so I guess we have to believe it), but it’s a clothesline to hang the situations on, and we’re glad its absurd third act intensifies the satire the way it does.

For this is satire—deep bitter biting satire on heterosexual coupling that would vitiate him-her dialogue, destroy the language the sexes speak to one another and start over. The terms we use every day are, implicitly, conventions, and she, like Godard and Burroughs before her, would annihilate those. 

But she has a high tolerance for other kinds of convention. Walker Percy observed in The Moviegoer that the makers of Westerns despise the people in those towns, and this movie, though set no further west than the Mississippi, is in that vein. Distrust of the mob is endemic in America. The Founding Fathers set up the Electoral College in case The Many might elect the wrong guy, and the lynch mob intrudes into Huckleberry Finn, Day of the Locust, Young Mr. Lincoln, Fritz Lang’s Fury, countless television programs (this is perhaps why the kids like zombie movies so much, living as they do among the walking dead) and, with a vengeance, Gone Girl. You won’t like these people at all.
There are a number of unexamined conventions at work in the film, but the most chilling is the literary one of female control. In the library for a quickie the new couple are in search of an Austen novel, which thereby nominates her patroness of this horror, but it’s not Jane who presides here, more’s the pity, it’s the Bronte brood—Emily, whose Catherine seeks  with Heathcliff, half Caliban, half Milton’s Satan, a union so total it can only be achieved in death—a perfectionism that informs Gone Girl, and indeed is much to be feared; and Charlotte, whose Plain Jane is given complete control, ideal control, when the psychopath burns down the house and Rochester, maimed and blinded, is now ready for marriage.

If we’re not under their control they get scared. Shall we pretend there’s a solution to this?

The other convention worth mentioning is psychopathy itself. (See Hitch and Cary for the psychopath as stock figure in American movies.) In Gone Girl all behavior, certainly that between the sexes, is so defined. Anger and desire, mainly, but every emotion is a tip on the iceberg of nutsness. Motherhood is simply stupid, unless it’s by calculation. 
And here’s the thing—it’s not just the controller who’s crazy. Big Beefy Ben, too (God, he’s put on weight! His arms don’t touch his sides anymore!), whose persona always suggests to me a rather bland kind of maleness—hey let’s play catch, or something—loves to be controlled, submits to it, because after all she’s going to have a little babeee! A more horrifying vision of The Family you couldn’t have, and one can only nod. But it will poison your mood so, that you’ll think three times about what movie you see next.

Woody Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight

The low-budget and the witty mean much to me, stranded as I am in that bracket, and Woody Allen is the symbol of the indie niche. He has become the filmmaker we always go to see, though I don’t know what “we” means anymore. It used to be James Bond films everyone—everyone, regardless of their taste—went to see, until they became politically correct feats of animation and one found oneself willing to miss them.

Woody Allen I still go to, for the chance to see something intelligent and fun, but the reward isn’t always there. Magic in the Moonlight is so uninspired as to be depressive. The inventive Colin Firth is pleasant to watch—he comes up with a character—but the clichés he’s forced to speak and indeed to wade through make one wonder why the film was made at all. 

“Is this your sister?” he says of the Emma Stone character’s m’ma. I’ve never heard that one before. And indeed the script requires that the poor woman answer, “Her mother.” And we have to sit through this. The chestnut might have worked if the mother had declined to answer, but no, the formula must be marched through to the end. But wait, what does Stanley (the character—let us get Firth off the hook) reply? “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

Good Christ, is this all we’ve got to watch?

The plot of Magic in the Moonlight turns on the two reluctant lovers getting caught in the rain and forced to a new level of intimacy. In Western culture at least, that one begins with Aeneas and Dido, and goose steps down through the ages and really a very large number of movies. I remember it happening to Clint and Inger Stevens in Hang ‘Em High, though I don't relish the memory. Where are we when Woody Allen reminds me of a Ted Post western?
The formulae Allen puts in his characters’ mouths are meant to make them “represent” something. “I’ll give you dresses and jewelry and travel on yachts.” We are supposed to know that’s false and hollow, right? And that she should choose the other guy? One crosses one’s legs and looks at the wall.

The lovers themselves each embody an attitude to life. He’s the rigid rationalist who quotes Nietzsche. Nietzsche is a lot of wonderful and unwonderful things, but rational? OK, OK, Stanley doesn’t believe in God or anything spiritual, so to illustrate that he’s on his way to the Galapagos Islands for—are you ready?—a vacation (I mean, OK, it’s comedy) because that’s where Darwin developed his Theory. Darwin, of course, was a Creationist, and if you think there’s anything rational about his Theory please see The Accidental Monkey.

She represents the anti-rational view, the magical view, and the logic of the plot is that if she’s really talking to ghosts, then there’s really a God (What a leap! There are more things in heaven and  earth, Horatio...), and when someone dear to us is in trouble one can/should/must pray to Him—a scene which, despite this nonsense, Firth plays beautifully; it’s the only good thing in the movie—that and getting into and out of old roadsters the actors can’t quite handle.

(For possible views of God you might like this.)

The most annoying thing about Allen is his missed chances. What was that film in which he played a director who suffers from hysterical blindness? The chance to satirize Hollywood with a movie made by a blind man—how could he miss that? But he did.

And why didn’t he ever play Gregor Samsa? He was born for the role.

Had Nabokov proceeded to his Ph.D.
Would he have to shake his polymathic rattles at me?
Had Woody Allen only finished his B.A.
Where'd his undergradjut exercises be today?

There’s always been a high-school quality about Allen. He reads, not deeply, but like a man determined to have a full life. Perhaps for the same reason he went to Paris and Rome, and now le Midi, to show us some shots, buy a bumper sticker. "Yes, I've been to the South of France!"
When his friend Ingmar Bergman died Allen wrote an obit calling him the greatest filmmaker ever, which is unsurprising, because Bergman is another teenager, all existential angst. As a matter of fact Allen lifted the plot of Magic in the Moonlight from Bergman’s The Magician, in which Gunnar Björnstrand’s Minister of Health is the rationalist, and von Sydow the magician scares hell into him with a trick, the same trick—terrific movie, don’t get me wrong, and more graceful than Allen's ham-handed attempt, but not, how shall I say, something to build on.

Allen loves to lift things—which is fine, good practice. Blue Jasmine is based on A Streetcar Named Desire: how did Blanche Dubois get to the point where she has to move in with her sister and her sister’s lover? Blue Jasmine is Blanche’s back story—which turns out to be Mia’s sin, in a moment of weakness to have betrayed her husband to the police for running off with an underage girl. She gets hers.

And here's an extensive plot he lifted from Fellini (go Control F and type in Woody).

I agree that we are plunged into a world of mystery, and I don’t know how to feel about it, not that I can help what I feel. Every way possible, I guess.
I am happy, though, that Allen brought “magic” down to the girl’s smile. That works.

Fading Gigolo

The schlemiel movie is a genre all to itself. One of my favorite films, Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be, is a classic schlemiel movie in which Jack Benny patented the part and developed the persona that he broadcast for decades to radio and television audiences.
John Turturo has specialized in the dramatic, the non-comic schlemiel. The surprise for me about Fading Gigolo was finding out that he is not Jewish. His background, as his name would imply, is Italian.

And clearly he does not want the schlemiel to be his signature part, because when he comes to make his own film he steps aside and plays, with all due modesty (“I’m not a beautiful man”), a romantic stud—a Jewish one, yes, with that he’s at home, but a satisfier of schiksas who don’t, in all likelihood, even know what a schlemiel is. “Were you very close to your mother?” “Yes.” “How rare.” Only a shiksa could say that.
He seems, though, to know what we expect from him, and for the required schlemielism brings in the schlemiel’s schlemiel, Woody Allen, to more or less mark his place.

Were Turturo in fact Jewish it would be tempting to compare this little film with Fellini’s struggle in with Catholicism, which he renounced but could never deny, nor wish to deny, so basic was it to his psychology. Turturo, who knows something about Judaism, takes us way inside, but as his rival for the rabbi’s widow (played by the unJewish Vanessa Paradis—oy!) says, “You’re not really Jewish, are you,” and the answer is, “I don’t know.”

This is not a film I can pretend entirely to understand. My own Jewish blood runs thin (see My Racial Profile), and when Woody Allen’s character is abducted and put on trial by a Hasidic tribunal I don’t know if this is like real or being played for laughs. Certainly Allen plays it for laughs when he and his lawyer attack the judges’ prudery (upon the difference between puritanism and prudery one expatiates here) and make the case for forbidden sex. Ah, Woody! (See Vladimir Nabokov and Twelve-Year-Old Girls.)

The stud falls in love—one might almost say he falls in love with Judaism—but he gets over it. No schlemiel, he. There are three things to commend this film for: it’s sweet tone, its look at Brooklyn (a mythic place for me—the only other movie to take me inside was the marvelous Saturday Night Fever), and its target audience, because, oh, it was so nice to see a movie for adults.

The Two Faces of January

Patricia Highsmith has seldom been well served by the cinemah. She might almost echo Graham Greene’s outburst before his death, that no film did justice to his books. Hitchcock did a spectacular job with her Strangers on a Train, but since then it’s been spotty. Cadaverous, really. 
The Texan Highsmith has been a favorite with the French and the Germans. In Purple Noon Alain Delon’s Ripley bungles his murder and gets caught! Most un-Ripley-like. Depardieu played Martinaud in This Sweet Sickness, and Wim Wenders, the dullest German of any generation, took Dennis Hopper as his Ripley. I mean, what? The wily and subtle Ripley as the, how shall I say, unsubtle Hopper?

The Talented Mr. Ripley gives us Ripley as gay, which may be appropriate to Highsmith, but not to her hero. Here the nondescript Matt Damon murders the nondescript Jude Law and is suspected only by the nondescript Gwyneth Paltrow, but at least, directed by the nondescript Anthony Minghella, he gets away with it. Only Philip Seymour Hoffman is non-nondescript in it, and this was one of the first films in which I noticed him.

I have spent pleasant hour upon pleasant hour with Highsmith’s books. She was an unbearable bitch, apparently, but that gives her stories an insolence that puts her way out in front. The murderer-as-hero hasn’t been done so sympathetically since Shakespeare. And the woman-as-man is one of the charms of her work: in Ripley she imagines the ideal man’s life—the French villa, the French cook, the masterpieces on the wall, but with a perhaps exaggerated concern for the furniture; and the mistress has a separate bedroom, and is visited only every four or five nights, which, viewed through the eyes of a male reader looking through the eyes of a female writer looking through the eyes of a male character seems a touch unlikely.

After Strangers on a Train the best Highsmith-inspired movie is Ripley’s Game, adapted and directed by one of my all-time favorite filmmakers, the sadomasochistic Nietzscheite lesbian Liliana Cavani, Highsmith’s best possible interpreter. Here, in Malkovich’s portrayal, we have something that approximates Ripley. He dominates his little mistress with Nietzschean ruthlessness—this of course is more Cavani than Highsmith but I suspect the latter would have approved—and oh how he likes the murder game.

Cavani screws it up a little. Ripley whimsically persuades a man to commit a crime, then bails him out in an action scene on a train that involves manipulation of the point of view, and we’re following the wrong character at the wrong time. And then, here’s Ripley in a car meeting his victim/friend coming the other way, and we get the other guy over Ripley’s shoulder, Ripley over the other guy’s shoulder, Ripley from the back seat, Ripley in the rear-view mirror—film-school stuff. Four camera positions to cover a scene. But she’s not an action director; she’s an intellectual director, a perversity director, and she's the best at it. And this is not a boring movie.
The Two Faces of January is a boring movie. I see on Rotten Tomatoes that it got an 82% and a 92%, which puts a comfortable distance between me and the yokels, because this film was baaaaaaad. Predictable, clichéd and slooooooow. At the denouement the bad guy, dying, confesses, and then everything is OK. Whew. Utterly ungripping. It could have used another week in the editing room. There was nothing to do but gaze around at the open-air cinema, savor the balmy evening, suck my white-winesicle and watch the cats fuck.

I had dragged my beloved to it because I’m preparing my own movie set among the Athens monuments, but there wasn't anything I was tempted to steal. Which is a bad sign. An artist is always looking for something to steal. “A work of art should be like a well-planned crime,” Baudelaire said. This film is wanly within the law.

What Maisie Knew

The difference between high art and popular art is simply this: The inner self is socially unacceptable, often illegal. High art knows that, and gives us room to breathe. Popular art fits us with passable masks—for The Others, and for the mirror. Not that high art is a house for the spirit—there is no house for the spirit. On the contrary, it puts us naked in a garden and exposes us to dangers.

As a novelist Henry James captivates by his psychology. He is inside the character at crucial confrontations, tracing feelings in the most dramatic, the most persuasive manner. He is not, like his brother, a theorist of psychology, but a portraitist. You feel, as you feel in Proust and Joyce, that you are as far inside someone’s consciousness as you are in your own.

One of my favorite passages in James is his account, in “The Beast in the Jungle,” of Marcher’s feelings on meeting, after ten years, the fateful woman of his life—casual, “normal”—how James knew the soul!—but intense.

“The theory of her stupidity,” he tells us about Maisie, “eventually embraced by her parents, corresponded with a great date in her small still life: the complete vision, private but final, of the strange office she filled. It was literally a moral revolution and accomplished in the depths of her nature. The stiff dolls on the dusky shelves began to move their arms and legs; old forms and phrases began to have a sense that frightened her. She had a new feeling, the feeling of danger; on which a new remedy rose to meet it, the idea of an inner self or, in other words, of concealment.”

There it is, the illegal inner self. 

The current film version—I say “current” although it was produced by Red Crown Productions in 2012—for some reason just arrived in Athens now, and we saw it at one of the open-air cinemas. You get your drink at the bar and settle in. Don’t worry if it makes you go to the bathroom, there’s always an intermission—which teaches you something about the supposed three-act structure of Hollywood movies: on the contrary, the twist happens halfway through.
How do you represent the inner self on the screen? With action, and/or voice-over. But for a little girl? The actress is a charmer, and the other actors take themselves seriously, which I guess is part of the job. I don’t encourage it myself. Julianne Moore’s limitation is that she cannot make us like her even though (or depending on your taste in spite of the fact that) she’s bad. And to paraphrase James Agee on Clark Gable, something hard and unfortunate has happened to her mouth. 

In the novel all the adults are assholes. Even the governess, who is minimized in the film, is a bit of a fool. (Clarification: when women say “asshole” they mean evil; when men say it they mean stupid. The governess, in the book, is the good one.) What we’re left with is a cute-kid movie. Shirley-Temple-gets-culcha sort of thing. The Maisie character becomes a little Buddha onto whom we read reactions. But inwardness? The question with a novel like this is, why try? 

James gave me the formula for my own credo, “pleasure and amusement.” I don’t know where I read that in him, I can’t find it any more. But I confess to an ambivalence, even about James. He suffers from the Flaubertian disease of irony. (See The Marquis de Sade, Father of Modern France for the whole story.) When James starts to look down at his characters he loses me.

Proust too has Flaubertitis, and subjects Swann to similar condescension. But like James he is an irresistible psychologist: 

“For, from an incomplete and changing set of images, Swann in his sleep drew false deductions, enjoying, at the same time, such creative power that he was able to reproduce himself by a simple act of division, like certain lower organisms; with the warmth that he felt in his own palm he modeled the hollow of a strange hand which he thought that he was clasping, and out of feelings and impressions of which he was not yet conscious, he brought about sudden vicissitudes which, by a chain of logical sequences, would produce, at definite points in his dream, the person required to receive his love or to startle him awake.”

But if you want it straight, if you want passion without judgment, if you want to take chances with what you feel, if you want characters you can be with whether you like it or not, you must go to the incomparable, the monstrously flawed Dostoyevsky: 

“And I'm coming with you. I won't leave you now for the rest of my life, I'm coming with you,” he heard close beside him Grushenka's tender voice, thrilling with emotion. And his heart glowed, and he struggled forward towards the light, and he longed to live, to live, to go on and on, towards the new, beckoning light, and to hasten, hasten, now, at once! 
“What! Where?” he exclaimed opening his eyes, and sitting up on the chest, as though he had revived from a swoon, smiling brightly. Nikolay Parfenovitch was standing over him, suggesting that he should hear the protocol read aloud and sign it. Mitya guessed that he had been asleep an hour or more, but he did not hear Nikolay Parfenovitch. He was suddenly struck by the fact that there was a pillow under his head, which hadn't been there when he had leant back, exhausted, on the chest. 
“Who put that pillow under my head? Who was so kind?” he cried, with a sort of ecstatic gratitude, and tears in his voice, as though some great kindness had been shown him. He never found out who this kind man was; perhaps one of the peasant witnesses, or Nikolay Parfenovitch's little secretary, had compassionately thought to put a pillow under his head; but his whole soul was quivering with tears. He went to the table and said that he would sign whatever they liked.
“I've had a good dream, gentlemen,” he said in a strange voice, with a new light, as of joy, in his face. 
(For his monstrous flaws, see Vladimir Nabokov and Twelve-Year-Old Girls.)

Ah but what about the movie? You’ve forgotten the movie! So much the better. It’s a mask to put on your kid, and your kid might not want to be Buddha.

You can never quite land on Henry James except with the feet of a bird,
And the vast contextualization of sentences qualifies even a word.
Ironic detachment is so complete it is understood rather than heard,
And when he does come to earth it's so touching its slightness seems somehow absurd.

Henry James,
Henry James,
American good just ain’t the same’s
Europe’s beauty,
So at odds with doing one’s duty.
In the end, as it were,
You do prefer
Not indeed for its vulgar shouldness,
Dreary onus of the dutiful,
But because it’s beautiful.

(For more of this sort of thing see Nobody Left to Read.)

Noah, the Smell of Kitsch

The novelist Milan Kundera defined kitsch as “the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.”

Seated before Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, which is doing extraordinarily well in Skunkville, one wants to revise Kundera and say that kitsch is shit’s very presence. Not since Cecil B. DeMille has there been such a ham-handed handling of an ancient story. And really, when you look at the cast-of-thousands epics of the fifties and sixties (see Some Thoughts on Stanley Kubrick) it’s clear that only Pasolini can be trusted with this kind of material.

The flood myth is universal. Ours comes down to us from Mesopotamia (indeed Abraham was born in Mesopotamia), where the gods grew tired of the noise of humanity (who doesn’t?) and wiped it out. (See Some Notes on God.) In our version, “GOD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” Quite right. 

The Sumerian Noah got his arc built by keeping his workers drunk on red wine, white wine and beer, so they were no trouble to him. How did Noah get his built? We don’t know.

The literary critic Erich Auerbach says that the style of representation in Homer is one in which everything is given us. For example when Odysseus returns to Ithaca disguised as a beggar after twenty years away his old servant, as hospitality requires, washes his feet, feels on his thigh a childhood scar and recognizes him, so that he has to cover her mouth. We get a flashback, an extensive description—we get it all.

In the bible on the other hand God simply speaks, as he does to Abraham: “Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.” Huh? Who is God? What does he sound like? What does he look like? Why does Abraham obey him? Nothing is given us. God speaks, in Auerbach’s phrase, “out of depth.” The “horizontal disconnectedness” in these stories yields a verticality.

Leonard Cohen, who has much of the rabbinical in him, once remarked to me that our pompous English Thou-shalt-nots are misinterpretations of the tone in Moses’ commandments, which are more like intimate colloquial Don’t-do-thats.

And this stark simplicity comes down into the gospels. Peter’s denial of his master is told only in terms of his predicament. No details. In the classical mode we’d get a full description, and he, a mere fisherman, would be unfit for serious treatment. But he’s on the hook here.

Turn we then, if we can bear it, to Darren Aronofsky’s version of the flood story. In Genesis God tells Noah to build an arc, and how to build it, and he builds it. And when the flood is over God says, “I will not again curse the ground any more for man's sake; for the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth.” Simple and direct.

Aronofsky will have none of this. He fills in horizontal details—Sin One. And what details! Here we have a family-friendly family, ecologically minded whole-earth kind of people. Everything but vitamin C pills. Tubal-Cain gets into it as the bad-guy industrialist thug, and he gets on the arc, see, and—well I don’t want to spoil it for you. Sort of a thriller.

Russell Crowe tried to get a personal audience with Pope Francis about it, I don’t know why. Maybe he wanted to confess. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. I have committed an act of the most abject vulgarity.” 

I’m not a Jew or a Muslim or a Christian, but I do hold the old texts in a certain awe. The film has been banned in some Muslim countries and, yes, it trivializes one of their prophets, and indeed their angels, with rock-robots that inspire a cringing embarrassment. As always (see below) we’re watching a cartoon—a hundred-and-twenty-five-million-dollar cartoon. Dennis Toth has sufficiently debunked studio bookkeeping that we cannot entirely trust that figure, but let us risk a truism: the higher the budget, the more poopooesque the product.

Which brings us back to the primal substance. In his book on Henry Miller Norman Mailer says, “The cruelest criticism ever delivered of Henry James is that he had a style so hermetic his pen would have been paralyzed if one of his characters had ever entered a town house, removed his hat and found crap on his head (a matter, parenthetically, of small moment to Tolstoy let us say, or Dostoyevsky, or Stendhal). Hemingway would have been bothered more than he liked. Miller would have loved it.”

This film wears the stuff on its face. Shit for eye shadow. It's an achievement, really. I smell an Oscar.

The Grand Budapest Hotel and Peter Greenaway

Wes Anderson has appropriated the camera style of Peter Greenaway (he of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover) as if it were a template you could buy online. Like Greenaway he sets up a wide shot and lets action move in and out of it; pans in wide shot three-sixty to pick up new action, but really to give us a luxurious sense of the space we’re in; and tracks slowly and laterally in wide shot with an action that, no matter how mean, thereby becomes stately. His currency is the monumental shot.

When I saw the opening of Moonrise Kingdom I was so transported into Greenaway’s erotic world that I thought Bruce Willis was going to nail a boy scout. But Anderson’s subject is innocence, which is tricky because there is no such thing. Sigmund Freud, lecturing on infantile sexuality at Harvard, I think it was, was walked out on by his audience. “Where are they going?” he asked his presenter. “Oh,” whispered the latter, “American children aren’t like that.”

But let us leave the quicksand of innocence to better minds. The literary critic Harold Bloom wrote a book called The Anxiety of Influence about writers who cover up what they owe to previous writers. Freud’s debt, for example, speaking of Freud, was overwhelmingly and humiliatingly to Shakespeare, but what should have been called “the Hamlet complex” was shunted off onto Sophocles. Wes Anderson cites his precursor as Satyajit Ray. Uh-huh.

But whereas Greenaway is a gorgeous-ist (see Gorgeousness) Anderson is a cartoonist, perhaps because he likes innocence. (Christ!) We have entered in fact the Age of Animation, no matter that the art reached its heights of wit and style in the thirties and forties: Popeye, Mickey and a host of brilliantly turned-out caricatures had voices; the sound was vital. As was the brevity: feature-length cartoons have never attracted me, though when one is dragged there one likes the subsidiary business of Cinderella’s mice at the edge of the frame. Bugs in the Black Forrest marching into Adolph’s office to complain; Bugs in a restaurant kitchen when Bogey and Baby are getting bad service—these are dear to me. Most of them wound up on Saturday-morning TV when we were kids. Those minimal things we watched then—Tom Terrific, Roger Ramjet—had wit sometimes, but they’re nothing we ever want to see again.

Elmer Fudd, shotgun at the ready, stomps after Daffy who backs away across a road just as a truck roars past between them and Daffy is gone: he has grabbed hold and been whisked away. This is based on a live-action trick by Buster Keaton, who claimed to have broken every bone in his body twice—I’m not suggesting you try this at home. Nor am I saying we can go back. I’m saying this kind of thing is no longer that interesting. (Check SHORT VIDEOS, OTHERS on the left-hand sidebar for Jean Renoir on how technology ruins art.)

But it interests the unintelligentsia: video games inspire the shooters, and the hillwilliams sit in front of their TVs being babysat by this stuff all the way to the grave. No studio movie now involves physical business but is animated. Why risk driving your insurance rates up? Go to an action-adventure and you’re watching a cartoon.
Wes is himself a cartoonist. He’s done television commercials, he wrote and directed the feature-length stop-action Fantastic Mr. Fox, and in The Grand Budapest Hotel CGI is omnipresent. The hotel itself is rotoscoped, though it doesn't move. The snow moves, OK. The one delightful image in the film is Egon Schiele’s painting of lesbians enjoying each other, which is substituted for, but not preferred to, the crass McGuffin.
This isn’t to say Wes isn’t great with actors. He’s great with actors. Peter Bogdanovich complimented his The Royal Tenenbaums for managing to make Gwyneth Paltrow look sexy—heavy lifting, no question. And The Grand Budapest Hotel brims with actors, all putting in cameos and looking like good sports, but they don’t add up. Arty, but not art. No film can be all bad that features F. Murray Abraham, but on the other hand we have Ralph Fiennes—an anemic man with a hemorrhoid—that’s how I see him, partly because he usually chooses weepies to star in. Few actors are better at taking themselves seriously. (Call him “Rafe” for God’s sake!) Still, I would forgive him his melodramatic martyrdom in The Constant Gardener if he would study the role of Sherlock Holmes, which child gangsters have hammered out of recognition. Fiennes (“Faynes”! will you please get it?), with his aquiline profile and touch-me-not manner, is the only actor right now who can give us Holmes. He is the Basil Rathbone of our time. 

If, in mine orisons, not all Wes’s sins be remembered, these suffice, Ladies and G’s, that we may cast him into the fires of hell. And with him goes the composer M’sieur Muzak, the insipid, the uninspired, almost the tone-deaf Alexandre Desplat. Where shall one escape this man? He scored The Monuments Men and Philomena (see reviews of same below), and indeed The Queen, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, New Moon, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Parts 1 and 2, The King's Speech—do you remember any of that music? It wasn’t there, really, was it. Bloodless, bad and boring. He is attached to projects, one feels, to dull them down and make them palatable to The Many, like sugar in tomato juice. 

Is there no one who will rid me of this pest? Be the sin on me—I shall make pilgrimage to Rome on my knees while whipped by monks. Just shoot the motherfucker.

Of course one shouldn’t go weewee on someone’s work that way, but it lies there submissive to my stream, stretching luxuriously in the splash. So French.

(On this last point see also The Marquis de Sade, Father of Modern France.)

The Strange Case of Stephen Frears

I was lying here thinking about nude women (sorry) when my babe said, “Let’s go to the cinemah.”

(They say “cinemah” here; a “theatre” is where you see a live act on a stage. Crazy people.)

“OK,” I said, “what’s on?”

Philomena,” she said.


“What’s the matter?”

“That’s Stephen Frears, isn’t it?”


“Nothing. Let’s go.”

“Don’t you like Stephen Frears?”


“You don’t want to go?”

“Yeah yeah, let’s go!”

I couldn’t say I’d rather just lie here and think about nude women. You don’t want to say that to your babe. So we went to see Philomena.

Which, OK, I don’t know. What is it about Stephen Frears? Vladimir Nabokov pronounced it a vulgarity to identify with the chief character in a story; one more properly identifies, he said, with the author. With Frears that’s a problem because he doesn’t write the films he makes. (It escapes me why you would want to direct something you didn’t write yourself, or vice versa for that matter. For me “collaborative art” is having sex with a contortionist.)

So all right, he’s a gentleman director who keeps a certain distance from his material. That’s OK. But it shows. He reminds me of the way William Wyler treated How to Steal a Million—with a certain condescension, though it’s nevertheless a gorgeous film (see Gorgeousness). But Frears is no Wyler. His pictures lack passion. He seems to me to be satisfied if the plot works out.

Who are you, then, when you identify with Stephen Frears? You’re a dabbler. Bit o’ this, bit o’ that. I liked The Snapper, with its celebration of Irish drunkenness. “I hope you had a good time getting into that shape!” shouts father as his hung-over son pukes in the kitchen sink. And he did have a good time, as does Dad. 

But Frears didn’t write it. Nor did he write Dangerous Liaisons, which is a sumptuous rendition of the novel. From a movie like that, one could derive something like a personality. But no, next came Sammy and Rosie Get Laid. My Beautiful Laundrette was a fresh experience, and gave me hope. But Gumshoe, Hero, Mrs Henderson Presents—these are intensely forgettable. And the wincing embarrassment induced by Mary Reilly becomes a shudder when it ends with Aliens-style animation. Then came High Fidelity, made for people with stunted cognitive powers. We must suppose that his taste runs to whatever is handed to him.

He met John Huston when he was making The Grifters, I suppose because Anjelica was in it. “Do you have any advice for me?” Frears asked him. Fair question. “How long is the shoot? “Thirty-five days. “Well,” said Big John, that's thirty-five compromises.” Of course the compromises can be agonizing and are, or should be, invisible in the final result, but it’s hard to imagine Frears being too upset.

Ah, but what about The Queen, the much nominated, much applauded, much loved The Queen? Behind the scenes with a stuffy old lady. Big deal. I think what we really responded to was the grovel still expected from the prime minister when he enters the presence, which shocked and comforted us that we are an ocean away from such barbarism. (For more on this see Michael Caine and the British Caste System.)

But we went to Philomena. And OK, we got through it without being offended, I can’t kick. Judi was splendidly in love with her character. (To be fair to the delicious Dame Helen, Her Majesty is not easy to be in love with.) Steve Coogan, who wrote the script, has never had trouble playing a remote and bitter guy. In his more personal films, films in which he plays Steve Coogan, he’s pretty much in the same mode. One wants more for him. And the plot he wrote makes a nice little circle, which must have relieved Frears.

But the music, you see. The music. It was composed by Alexandre Desplat. If you will glance below at my remarks on The Monuments Men you will appreciate how loathsome I find this man’s work. And just now I have seen The Grand Budapest Hotel (which I shall review presently)—scored by whom? Alexandre Desplat. His music isn’t bad—it’s awful! Abysmal! Kaka of the most odoriferous sort. Stop this! Lift this curse from us, please!

Frears’ visual style doesn’t call attention to itself, which is nice. (“Nice” is the operative word for Frears.) There are some shots in the car that didn’t let me see how the two characters were situated—she seemed to me at first to be looking in the wrong direction—but no big deal. There are no big deals in Frears. His work is thin, but warm. Could be worse, I guess.

But it’s not as good as lying here thinking about nude women. Hey, all you babes out there, cozy up to the screen and gimme little smoochie!

The Two Clooneys

Gravity, the first Clooney, is non-stop fun. There is no gravity in it, in the sense of weight or seriousness, for which I’m grateful. It’s the usual lesson in manners for the workplace, but you can’t have everything.

I never thought I’d pardon the writer/director/producer Alfonso Cuarón for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, through which I squirmed. When I see people reading the Harry Potter books I look away and think about something else. Cuarón’s Children of Men had some nice camera work in it—I love long takes—but it wasn’t enough to take the Harry-Potter taste out of my mouth. Gravity is a spoonful of sugar.

Of course there’s nothing new here for your mind, but maybe that’s for the best. Clooney’s character is a zip-around cowboy whose spacesuit blares c&w. (Am I the only one who thinks George is sort of a funny-looking guy?). He effuses over sunrises (smoky-old-poolrooms/soft-mountain-mornin’s kind of thing), he’s willin’ to die, yessir, and his sun does rise again: here Cuarón has stolen a piece of business (which is fine) from Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn, where the Christian Bale character’s comrade revisits him when things are at their worst.

Sandra Bullock is further proof that one can be a tender mom and a tough hero—glad to know it—and is almost enticingly trim, in a family-friendly sort of way, as she swims around in the weightlessness. 

But the film is pure technique, with a dark vacuum of content as deep as space itself. Milton has the fires of hell burning not brightly but with a darkness visible, a phrase nowhere so applicable as to space. But let us leave such concerns to Kubrick.

The action-packed thrills are what save Gravity from a tedium almost as grinding as the second Clooney, The Monuments Men. “The reviews aren’t good but let’s go and enjoy George.” Big mistake. He co-wrote this with his production partner Grant Heslov, and directed it, and it’s dismally phony and slow-paced. You’re not that funny-looking, George, and the voice is great: don’t you want to stick to acting?

No more space cowboy: in this one he has on his insurance-salesman-as-high-school-basketball-coach face. And it “stars” Matt Damon. I still haven’t figured out who this guy is, or why. He looks like a kid I used to play baseball with and don’t particularly want to see again.

The music deserves special mention. Let me not commit an overstatement: I have never heard anything worse than the music for this film. The screams of a soul in hell come to mind but those are original, excusable, acceptable. This ain't. It’s a miserable experience. Alexandre Desplat is credited as the “composer” but it feels more like George and Grant wrote it themselves. 

But wait, wait—maybe it’s supposed to be bad! Maybe I’ve misinterpreted this film! Maybe it’s, you know, art! 

But no. No no. The Monuments Men is designed to show that its makers’ hearts, to use Harold Pinter’s dismissive phrase, are in the right place. It’s World-War-Two time and a special unit of Allied soldiers is out to recapture works of art stolen by the Germans, as they were then called, though to be politically correct we call them “Nazis.” Careful, now.

In the process George and Grant sentimentalize the concept of “Art” until it becomes manageable by the shovel-full. There is something subversive in “art,” if we must call it that, that resists this. When the David was commissioned for the cathedral of Florence by the Guild of Wool Merchants, Michelangelo gave them a seventeen-foot homosexual fantasy in marble—named, to be sure, for a biblical hero, but uncircumcised. If his heart had been in the right place what would he have left us? But these are all honorable men.

Their quest reminds me of John Frankenheimer’s The Train. I love train movies, and train chases, and in this one French train man Burt Lancaster too is after a load of Nazi-confiscated “art.” At one point the rod that goes around on the wheels of his locomotive snaps, and he melts steel, forms it in a mold, hammers it into shape and refits it as we watch. Frankenheimer was good at this kind of detail. My father was a machinist and the son of a blacksmith, and I love that scene. 

When Lancaster derails the train and the German Colonel is standing among those claustrophobic crates of “art”—one imagines the Modiglianis in there screaming to get out (Modigliani, who exposed his mistresses to his tuberculosis—his heart was not in the right place)—Lancaster looks around at the names of great artists stenciled on them and machine-guns the Colonel. Even as a kid I knew this was false.

But Clooney and Heslov are nowhere near Frankenheimer’s level. They sentimentalize “art,” they sentimentalize the Holocaustwhich is to say they make capital gains out of itand they sentimentalize Christmas, if that were necessary. The “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” scene brought tears to my eyes, which I resented. 

Michael Haneke, the writer/director of Amour, if I may mention a masterpiece in this cut-rate context, says that genre films “describe reality as something whole and completely transportable and explicable,” and propagandize a view of life that the novel has long since abandoned. Let us take his strange word “transportable” and substitute the more tawdry “saleable.” For why make such a film but to suck ticket sales from the simpletons? It “cannot but make the judicious grieve; the censure of the which, one must in your allowance o'erweigh a whole theatre of others,” or why bother?

So it seems there are no longer two Clooneys. There used to be the guy who dumped dreck on us like Ocean’s Sixteen, or wherever we are on that, and Up in the Air, which starts so promisingly and turns into shameless Capracorn. And then there was the Clooney of Intolerable Cruelty, Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck. I liked him.

Where is he?

The Great Beauty versus La Dolce Vita

La grande bellezza opens with some Asian tourists at a Roman fountain. One slips away to scope the cityscape through his viewfinder and dies, presumably of ecstasy. Fair enough. And that’s it for the outsiders’ Rome; now we cut to the insiders’ Rome, and the real tour starts.

This Rome is presided over by Jep Gambardella, and we’re at his sixty-fifth birthday party where la toute Rome is boogying with him. But if the opening scene sets up the themes of death and the tour, we’re not getting death, not Jep’s anyway. This is his crowd, and he digs it.

The New York Times review invokes La Dolce Vita, which is not a comparison this film can live with. Yes, it’s about Rome, and it’s post-Christian Catholic, and it’s fascinated by the grotesque, and it’s episodic—you can come in anywhere and not upset the plot. Like Marcello Jep picks up a hooker because he’s bored, and like Marcello he does not sleep with her—but Jep gets serious about his, and she dies. ("Who's going to take care of you now?" But soon he's flirting with the lady who swims nude: "The future," he tells her, "is wonderful.") 

Like Saint Federico, Paolo Sorrentino cuts on laughter-and-tears and brings statues alive by moving lights over them. He seems determined to out-Fellini Fellini. (See also Fellini.) Turn the image upside-down, you’ll love it!

But the images come too fast to be quite related—you’re not supposed to know where you are. It’s “too cutty,” as they say in the editing rooms, which for me is the equivalent of computer animation. I want to see things happen—I want see the actors suffer with their roles (I know it’s an illusion but I like it)—I don’t want it all assembled for me. Only under the final credits as we drift down the Tiber are we free from the intrusions of pointless montage.

Like Marcello Jep is a failed novelist, now a journalist, but whereas Marcello drives a Lancia convertible Jep has an apartment overlooking the Colosseum, and the first thing I want to know is where he got his money, because one novel and some interviews won’t get you there.

The Italian who wrote the Times piece, Beppe Severgnini, says his countrymen reject the film because it shows a failing Italy, whereas La DV shows Italy up and coming. I don’t think so. 

The trouble, and also the joy, of La grande bellezza is that it’s all attitude. Fellini is innocent of attitude. He gives himself like a fool to whatever’s happening—as Cabiria does when, at the bottom of her fortunes as always, she gets a fire-eater to blow a long stream of flame for the simple wonder of it. Marcello is a younger man and trying to figure out what works for him. Jep knows.

In , which is also a film about getting older, Guido, a tender man, wants to be able to tell the truth without hurting anyone. Jep likes to get the claws in—he must “win” at each encounter. Fellini’s leads win by default; victory is no joy for him. And he believes in magic. Jep will have no tricks. This film about beauty ends with a judgment on it: “It’s all a trick,” he says. But you can't swim out when your judgment is hovering like a lifeguard.

And the Italians are right, there’s too much Philosophy 101 bla-bla. A kid called Francesca—what is that, a dream? a memory?—says “Who are you?” and he tells her. “No,” she says, “you’re nobody.” So existential. But perhaps our poses in the mirror do capture life, I don’t know.

(And what’s with the mournful rendition of “My Heart’s in the Highlands”? What has Robbie Burns got to do with Rome? I’m a Highlander by blood and my heart’s in the Mediterranean basin where it can keep warm.)

Rome too poses in the mirror. It’s a post-card Rome, rather like Woody Allen’s Paris. That which is not photogenic is not “Rome.” You won’t see this city when you go, and you’re not supposed to: it’s an in-group Rome. Women love Jep because he knows everybody, and he loves being loved for exactly that. Marcello’s Rome is the mirror of his inner life—he is wonder-struck that the aristocrats exist; Jep is all knowingness about how they exist, and casually insults them. 

La grande bellezza is a story of style—Roman style, film style, clothing style (Jep’s outfits are terrific), and style is a species of smart-assery. “His boots,” says Flaubert in Sentimental Education, “were as thin as gloves and seemed positively insolent in their immaculate elegance.” 

La Dolce Vita on the other hand is a story of grace—seeking it, savoring it, falling from it. Style can be acquired; grace, I don’t know. In its ancient Catholic meaning it’s conferred from without. And that’s the difference, I guess. La Dolce Vita has grace; this has style.

Ah, but what style! To give oneself over so to enjoyment argues an arrogance worthy of Oscar Wilde. The producers did a great deal with ten million euros, I must say. And another film comes to mind, Divorce Italian Style, Marcello in his hairnet to flatten his shock of curls; Jep in his face cream; Jep in his girdle. He has the redeeming quality of being silly.

And there are some nice phrases—“The embarrassment of being in the world,” I like that. And it has ladies of a certain age playing peekaboo with their nipples, which flatters my older-woman fetish. 

Here for a change, thank the gods, is a film for adults. So many of us are climbing into our upper whatevers (of course I’m ageless), and the kids are so dull. 

Nebraska and Samuel Beckett

Alexander Payne is of Greek descent—the name was anglicized from Papadopoulos—and I met him in Greece through some mutual friends. When my Precious Other and I were in Los Angeles he took us on a tour of his LA—the subway (ever been in the LA subway? some of it is monumental!), the Grand Central Market, the apartment block where Joe Gillis did his writing. He’s generous with his time, Alexander, the kind of director who knows even the extras by name—“Doris, could you move just a little bit to the right?”—and the sweetest of men. I hope he forgives me for this review.

The current generation of Hollywood writers, by which I mean everyone now at it, have had or are having a dalliance with Harold Pinter’s glamorous and minimal style. Pinter could make a scene out of nothing and allowed his characters, as he put it, to “carry their own can” rather than choke them with statements (this was before he became political). So luxurious to just let it happen! And what apter model for writers who must be minimal and glamorous, not to say spontaneous. As Molière said, “All I need is a platform and a pair of passions.” 

Of course Pinter was no Molière, and indeed the next phase in the affair is to look through Pinter to his idol Samuel Beckett. This is what Alexander and his erstwhile co-writer Jim Taylor have done, and so have all the kids in Hollywood High. In an early essay on Proust Beckett compared life to being locked in a cell too short to stand up in and too tight to sit down in, a remark that puts me in a claustrophobic cringe whenever I recall it, and I met it again in Ocean's Twelve (what a pig that was—doesn’t George read these scripts first?): someone on the film's committee of writers (so Hollywood!) threw it in. (A writers’ strike in Hollywood should be cause for great rejoicing; instead everyone panics.)

But to come back to Jim and Alexander, Citizen Ruth has Molloy as a drug addict. In About Schmidt Krapp retires, is repelled by his existence and unable, finally, to speak of it. In Sideways Didi and Gogo go to the wine country. 

I didn’t see Election but I would like to see how they handle that chillingly Calvinistic theme. What happened in The Descendants I don’t know. If you’re as bored by “the family” as I am (and as Alexander is—where’s the family, Alexander?) you will find it a side trip into an almost frightening banality. It comes across as a piece of Americana, and suggests the aspirations of an Elvis or a John Ford to set a film set in every state of the Union.

In Nebraska we’re back on the road with Molloy—new writer, same patron saint—on a trip to nowhere for nothing, driven by an obsession he himself doesn’t understand (“Something,” as Clov says in Endgame, “is taking its course”) and beginning, as in Mollone Dies, to disintegrate. The dialogue in front of the TV football game is pure Beckett, old wretches yawping at each other monosyllabically, somehow achieving sarcasm without quite communicating. 

(A similar scene was in fact played when Beckett went to see Buster Keaton about starring in his FilmKeaton was watching baseball on TV when Beckett and the agent arrived, and the three of them sat there through the game without speaking.)

The photography, by the excellent Phedon Papamichael, is not so much black and white as gray; it’s a dismal flameless hell we move through and life, as Kate’s cemetery speech tells us, is meaningless (I wish I’d thought of that), as is Nebraskathis is Alexander’s revenge on Nebraska. He grew up in Omaha.

My Greek P.O. looked at me in disbelief: “Are Americans really like that?” “Well, it’s a bit satirical but, yeah, they’re sort of like that.” “They’re not even peasants!” she said. Which recalled to me Nick’s remark in Gatsby that “Americans, while occasionally willing to be serfs, have always been obstinate about being peasantry.” So something has been achieved here.

And then comes the de rigueur punch in the face, a cliché satirized half a century ago in Paris When It Sizzles but still with us. This is America, after all. Let's not get too arty.

The trouble with Beckett—one of the troubles with Beckett—is that he has Something To Say. He’s a thesis guy and he hammers it home as relentlessly as a patient in a rubber room. He despises existence with every grain of his being and his mind is made up. Life, it seems to me, cannot be characterized; it takes a lot of negative capability to treat it with the proper tact. But you won’t that in Beckett. Even death, he warns us in the Proust piece, won’t release us from our torture.

But that’s OK, because when Americans see something depressing they tend to think they’re in the presence of Art. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman (Bon voyage, Philip!), left to his own devices, inflicted the same sort of thing on us: Ionesco was cheated out of a writing credit on Synecdoche, New York, and The Master, I mean my Gawd, how can something so heavy be so without substance? We forgive you, Philip. You were such a strong actor. But I digress.

(No but look, I thought hard times brought on the musicals and the comedies, like in the thirties! We seem to prefer to be cheered down.)

Anyway. Perhaps I should say “Anglo-Saxons” rather than “Americans” (see above) because British Miserablism is an hallow-ed tradition, albeit founded there by T.S. Eliot, “the English poet from Missouri,” as Groucho called him. We could take it all the way back to Macbeth’s “tale told by an idiot,” but Shakespeare’s marble bag bulges with approaches.

On the other hand Beckett can be extraordinarily funny (in the novels; the plays are rather blah), and so, in his Alexander way, can Alexander. The sweetness of the man is there in his characters. Bruce Dern in this film is superbly instinctive—a little too Actors Studio sometimes (a little too “serious”), but that’s America. Stacy Keach—an actor who has always taken direct possession of the screen—is a pleasure to see.

And there are splendid moments of freedom from sentimentality—“Did you ever want to own a farm, like your dad?” “I don’t remember. It doesn’t matter any more.”—which in this line equates to freedom itself. But freedom in the abstract is a puritan virtue, and doesn’t interest me.

Despite all this—I suppose it’s the masochist in me—after a few days of allowing my spirits to recover, I look back on the film with a curious kind of, what?

The satisfactions of Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coen brothers are the foremost American filmmakers. One doesn’t miss their movies if one can help it, and it says everything about the current state of the art in the US that the Coens are based in New York rather than Hollywood.

They take chances and make the right choices, a hard combination to bring off—and to beat. For example they let Llewen sing his songs all the way through, not something other directors would do, and leave us wondering, not only whether he will achieve success, but whether he should. It’s an argument for the identity of soul and body that good work, in any medium, lets you breathe, and bad work suffocates you.

What’s good about the Coens’ work is its ticklish sense of balance: it’s always scrambling to right itself, as if we were riding a surfboard. Inside Llewyn Davis is not about a struggling singer/songwriter, it’s about balance and its challenges. Everything is balance; then a new element comes in and upsets it and they play with that. It’s quite exquisite.

They straddle the gap between art-house and mainstream. The teenies were upset that the shoot-out at the end of No Country for Old Men happened off-screen, but the Coens got away with it.

OK, before I come all over you let me add that these are eminently sensible, low-key people with a limited access to ecstasy. They have not yet presented me with anybody I wanted to be. Someone on Rotten Tomatoes compared them to Lubitsch and Wilder, but no: with Lubitsch you’re up in the air, with Wilder you’re up and down, but with the Coens you’re on the common-sense plane which, for most of us, doesn’t exist in the common-sense world. You have to go to a Coen Brothers movie to see it.

Even in A Serious Man, their take on the Book of Job, they leave us with a hard merciless terminal existence. Job itself comes up at the end! Not them. Llewen doesn’t even have the dignity of not giving up: he does give up, but it doesn’t work to give up, so he keeps going. He’s just like us! He does, we will find, deserve the punch in the face, the kick in the ribs. It’s part of the balance. Which is its own satisfaction.

Also satisfying is the performance by John Goodman, who to my taste is America’s First Actor. I’m sorry I’ve never seen him on the stage—I hear he’s wonderful. He was unforgettable in Barton Fink, and his masterful scenes in Llewyn Davis are the height of the film. Nor must I forget F. Murray Abraham, whose work and sense of control are always a pleasure: “I don’t see any money in it.”

So nice to like a film for a change. Thank you, Gentlemen.

American Hustle—I want to like this movie.

Christian Bale’s performance is something to see. Here’s a man who knows how to avoid cliché. And Jennifer Lawrence, whom I bad-mouthed in my review of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, is way out in front of herself. And who is that woman who plays the love interest—the captivating Amy Adams, it turns out, whom I hadn’t noticed since Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.

The trouble with American Hustle is the TV plot. Jim Phelps used to run this kind of con every week on Mission Impossible, and it’s just the sort of neatsy story David O. Russell likes; in fact he wrote it as well as directed it. If you didn’t see Silver Linings Playbook, which he also writer/directed, don’t. It also stars Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro (could somebody please lock De Niro up someplace where he can’t get out and “act” at me?) in an “actors’ movie” (God!) where they all try, interminably, to portray crazy. It’s listed as a hundred and twenty-two minutes but it takes several hours to go by. Bring a nail file.

What’s “American” about American Hustle, by the way? An extraordinary number of Hollywood movies have “American” in the title—American Beauty comes to mind, but don’t get me started on that p.o.s. (Hollywood term.) Why does a title sell when it’s “American,” and who does it sell to?

When the scenes in American Hustle don’t work David O. speeds them up by jump-cutting the dialogue, which I suppose the TWs (Television-Watchers) are used to, I don’t know, I haven’t seen TV for a while. The result is jerky but, what, realistic? Documentary-like?

He also uses voice-over thoughts, which we’re getting a lot of these days, as in The Wolf of Wall Street. Is that TV too? 

But his main method of rescuing a scene is to kill the sound and lay on a song. It doesn’t matter if it’s an exact fit to the period, the TWs will love it, and thereby believe that they love the movie. Getcha an Oscar.

De Niro (ah, De Niro!) is there to symbolize the presence of the Mafia, which he does so well, and the dénouement leaves him undangerous. Alas that that should be “American.” The Mafias—Jewish, Irish, Italian—are private armies, and anarchy, if I may offer a definition, is private armies. 

The rich have private armies but they’re small; if they get too big the authorities take an interest. In the absence of government they get huge—how else to protect one’s property? Anarchy is when you’re walking down the street and you look at a woman and somebody shoots you for it and kicks your corpse off the curb. Romeo and Juliet is set in a Verona run by private armies, two kids from opposite sides. The problem with anarchy is that people get tired of it and begin to want monarchy, and you have to start all over.

The central message in American Hustle is don’t try to hustle the Mafia, which is the kind of place cliché can land you. For David O. a happy ending is when Meyer Lansky’s assassin is satisfied.


The Wolf of Wall Street—why did I put myself through this?

Well, because I wanted to be au courant with what’s happening. When the awards are handed out I can say, oh yeah, I saw that. I don’t know if it was worth it. Scorsese takes the stock-swindle story we already know, hands it to a gangster-style scenarist (Terence Winter wrote nineteen episodes of The Sopranos and exec-produced thirty-four), and adapts it to the thuggish vision of the American Dream we got in Goodfellas, Casino, The Aviator—I know too much of this guy’s work.

The editing is fast, the story-telling amusing—my babe loved it—but as usual  it’s a thesis film: Scorses’s got Something To Say, which is always iffy. And let’s face it, if he were saying “Ain’t life great!” who’d pay attention? Go back to Disney. But he’s saying, as he always does, that we seethe with murderous aggression, that life is poisonous and that nothing short of homicide can ever satisfy us. Which, OK. I cross my legs in the other direction.

There is an innocent sense of wonder, and it’s almost heart-breaking, in his continual do-you-believe-this-could-happenism. Remember Mean Streets? Do you believe that a punk who blows up garbage cans could be protected by a protection-racketeer who admires Saint Francis but himself has to be taught mercy for a restaurateur who can’t make his payments? Well, yeah, Marty, but who gives a shit? The proletariat are excited by mob TV shows but you're playing to an artier audience, aren’t you?

No. He works this manner through his whole oevre. Look at the way he remakes Cape Fear. Taxi Driver (forgive me kids) is one of the most pretentious movies ever, existential sax by Gato Barbieri.

On the surface the Wolf’s world is amusing, but of course it’s baaaaaaad. Hollywood, baby. The premise of selling people things they don’t need, and submerging that under a fallacious identification with the characters, invites comparison with Glengarry Glen Ross—the puritanical David Mamet’s spare treatment as opposed to Scorsese’s Catholic style. (I can never seem to get off this subject; see Greece versus the Puritans.) Scorsese puts everything in to anchor the story in time—Saturday Night Fever, smoking (remember smoking?), feng shui (albeit mispronounced). In a shabby sense it’s kind of Joycean.

But no matter how gaudy the act (and as a general rule, the faster the editing, the crasser the production) it sends you out with a bad taste in your mouth, which is no way to go to dinner. (In America it’s dinner and a movie; in Europe it’s a movie and dinner.) There’s an almost total lack of charm in every scene. The orgies spark no desire (Hollywood, baby), and desire itself (“Is this what you want?” says the Wolf’s wife) is a disaster.

The American dream has always hated itself—what do you do after you make your money? Here it gets spectacular help in that project. 

(For more on Marty, see Italian-American Filmmakers.)

A misconception promoted in 12 Years a Slave

—is that Canada, as represented by the Brad Pitt character, was free of slavery, and indeed anti-slavery, an illusion precious to Canadians, who love their moral superiority in this as in many matters. They are tickled by Pitt’s portrayal of purity: “Not from this country,” he says with disdain.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, Canada got started as a separate state when the French burghers of Montreal and Quebec City, who were pleased to be dealing with London now rather than relatively corrupt Paris, declined to join the American Revolution. When the War was over the South Carolina Loyalists took their slaves with them to Ontario and the Maritime Provinces, where slavery was not only legal but thriving: torture, lynchings, the whole nightmare.

Not until 1833 was slavery abolished in the British Empire, though it still had its adherents, and Canadian sympathies in the Civil War were largely with the South. We were suckers for that Walter-Scott-inspired gallantry.

In Quebec serfdom implicitly survived under a system of aristocratic land ownership until 1960—I’m not kidding. The difference between a serf and a slave is that the serf is attached to the land and cannot be sold away from it—the same system our ancestors lived under in Britain until quite recently.

Canadians are as blind to their past as Americans are, and 12 Years a Slave in that respect panders to an easy version of things.

Steve McQueen and his stunningly creative camera man Sean Bobbitt—wow!—put us through a miserable two hours plus (not a laugh in the film), but there’s enough joy in their gifts to keep us with them.

It makes an interesting comparison with the eminently watchable The Foxes of Harrow, 1947, also based on a novel by a black writer, depicting Louisiana slaves, albeit in passing, as people you might know.

For me the most interesting line in 12 Years a Slave was given to one of Simon Northrop’s fellow kidnap victims who, when Northrop proposes they organize a mutiny, says “These are slaves—they’re not up to a fight.” That’s the fulcrum of the story, the psychological power of circumstances.

If I were gay, Behind the Candelabra 

(an HBO movie in America but released in cinemas here in Europe) would make me feel suicidal. As it is it gave me indigestion, which is bad enough. Steven Soderbergh, he of Sex, Lies and Videotape, has always been at pains to affirm the Hollywood doctrine that sex is disgusting. In George Clooney’s movies, several of which Soderbergh has directed, it leads to disillusionment and/or death. In this one it makes you sick—John Waters couldn’t have done a better job—and there are shaky-camera shots that did actually bring me close to nausea. 

We are invited to imagine the muff-diving Michael Douglas (always a sour presence, a fart out of his father, as he seems to know) as Liberace, with close-ups of his bare feet in gold mules—yech—and Matt Damon, also in mules and with poop on his dick. The film seethes with sarcasm.

Hollywood has passed through its Black-Is-Beautiful phase and, while still in the midst of Feminist Revisionism, is broadening its embrace to include a take-a-fag-to-lunch sort of ethos. Sex—homo, hetero, auto—is always vulnerable, and our heritage has organized our shyness about it into a sense of sin. Those of us who see themselves as post-Christian need only contemplate rituals of martyrdom like this one to reconsider. For St. Paul sex was only for procreation, and faggotry equals sex without babies. (The spectacle of so many gays struggling to become Christian clerics I confess puzzles me.)

The sneer of distaste is Soderbergh’s specialty. In The Girlfriend Experience he follows with a pseudo-doc camera a real porn star through her adventures narrated by the young lady herself, and then ends by betraying her—character and actress both, they are much the same person—with a voice-over of his own in which calls her stupid. Behind the Candelabra visits the same judgment on poor witless Liberace.

Pleasure for its own sake can be had in the American cinema only in pornography—a bigger industry, by all accounts, than Hollywood’s—but we don’t usually go out for the evening to a skin flick followed by a discussion at dinner. This time I wish we had.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire 

is a truly inadequate movie about a baby-fat girl over whom two wimps are desperately gaga. She shoots an arrow at the Gnostic God—and hits him! Yay! shout all the teenies. We ought to be able to do better for the kids. The one joy is Stanley Tucci’s portrayal of a grotesque; may it drive a stake through the heart of the ultra-white-teeth trend.

Captain Phillips as Coke commercial

When Jean-Luc Godard was in America to drum up some inter-auteur dialogue that never happened, he said of Robert Redford’s Ordinary People, which had just come out, that if Coca-Cola made commercials the way Redford made movies they’d never move any product. I saw Captain Phillips in Greece, where they show commercials before the film, and by chance there was an exceptionally strong Coke ad on. Then came the real advertisement (in the French sense of that word: a warning) aimed, I couldn’t help but feel, not at the domestic market so much as at Iran, Korea, Beijing, Moscow and Islam: “Don’t mess with us,” it said. “We’ve got power you can’t even imagine.”

It was a well-made ad—Godard would have no complaints. But that’s all one went to dinner with afterwards. The TV-show plot, the Hanks-as-usual performance—the boy we can all be proud of now middle-aged. Otherwise it’s pure display, muscle-bound Seals flexing their tattoos to no apparent purpose, parachuting to no apparent purpose, lining up to sharp-shoot to no apparent purpose. Why, one kept wondering, didn’t they just copter-lift the lifeboat onto the deck and hold the discussion there?

For such an exciting film it went on too long, missing climaxes. You will protest that that was the way it happened! So much the worse. The spectacle of overkill suggests an imperial power unsure of its grip.

Frances Ha

tries to sell itself as an indie (produced by Scott Rudin, no less) in eye-straining black and white (Sam Levy, what were you doing?); and tries to sell us an asexual lesbian relationship between an annoying woman and an unlikely paramour. But the kids, poor complicits in their own betrayal, love it.


  1. laughing my ass off at 'baby fat girl'. surely you can think of something better to write other than "lololol fat"?

  2. Looking forward to reading your review of "The Wolf of Wall Street." Depraved sex, misogyny up the yin yang (as well as other objects up a major star's ass), famous Catholic director. See this take on it here: It appears something more has been going on in America (as you touched on) than meets the eye. BTW, saw yet another attempt by Alexis Bledel to distance herself from the goody-two-shoes Rory Gilmore role in this ultra-violent flick called "Violet and Daisy" where she played a teenage hit-girl. A silly waste of everyone's time-- including James Gandolfini.

    1. Thank you for this, Max. It's informative. I'm waiting to see "The Wolf."

  3. "style is a species of smart-assery." God, what a great line! I wish I had thought of it.

    Awesome review.

  4. I didn't get a chance to explore the whole site but I do think it is well put together and now I have to go pray about the facts of life after all I am a Minister some call "Michael Monster" Rahh! Thanks for the info and I hope you make to heaven anyhow.