Archive for the ‘Moviegoing’ Category

Gotham Diary:
Boo
24 January 2013

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

The next step is to wash the empty jars and other glass containers that have gotten very greasy on the shelf high over the stove. What was I thinking, putting them there? It was no doubt one of those final, desperate moves — There, that’s done! These last steps are never satisfactory, but they can’t be otherwise, because by the time you get to the end you can’t really think anymore. I will give the shelf space to some Creuset dutch ovens.

The real question is what to do with the jars when they’re clean, and lined up on the table with all the other empties. The real question is which ones to discard. I must be strong, because the correct answer is almost certainly all of them. I must seriously evaluate, for example, the three Hellman’s mayonnaise jars — glass jars, among the last sold. They certainly come in handy for soups and whatnot, but how many times have I retrived a mayonnaise jar from the rear of the refrigerator to find that its contents, however delicious they might have been once, are no longer edible? Too many times! Too many times! I know that I ought to put the mayonnaise jars in the recycling bin. It’s been grand. Let’s see if I do.   

***

I didn’t write about Zero Dark Thirty the other day, because I didn’t have time and I couldn’t think what to say. Some random thoughts: Jessica Chastain is almost as superb as Jennifer Lawrence at playing an unappealing person. She doesn’t have to work as hard at it, because she doesn’t have Lawrence’s creamy-gorgeous, camera-loves-you features. Chastain’s character, Maya, is determined to capture Osama bin Laden. Some would say that she is obsessed, but that’s just a dismissive medicalization. Maya is utterly sane, “a real killer,” according to one CIA report. She works very hard; she is almost never seen not working very hard, although it’s not exactly clear what she does, what her deskbound sleuthing consists of. I should have liked to know something about her immersion in Arab and Islamic cultures; the movie manifests but does not demonstrate her expertise. This kind of exposition might have gotten in the way, though.

It’s hard to believe that the film covers such a long period of time; without any outward sign, we’re slipped from the Bush terms into Obama’s first. I for one felt immensely proud (and lucky) that the capture occurred on Obama’s watch.

I was going to ask what “zero dark thirty” means, but then I remembered that that’s why there’s Wikipedia. It is a military mystification for “12:30 AM.” It’s not meant to mystify soldiers themselves, of course, but I suppose the creation of special lingo is useful to the creation of special bravery. If you’re living among people who say such things as “zero dark thirty” and “heelo” (for helicopter), then you know that you’re not in Kansas anymore. In any case, the special operation to capture bin Laden is hard to follow in the film, as I suppose it ought to be — and can afford to be, given that everyone knows how it’s going to come out. The narrative complexity might even be taken as an invitation to further reading; the movie certainly raised my interest in what actually happened that clear and starry night.

I was thrilled by the sound effect of the “heelos,” which in reality are fitted with “anti-decibel” devices that muffle the racket when the copter is not directly overhead.

Jennifer Ehle is a most favorite actress. Even with bangs and a Southern twang. When I knew that her character, Jessica, was going to come to grief, I covered my face until it was over. Jessica and Maya argue about the power of money to bribe al Qaeda operatives. Maya thinks that it’s nil — this isn’t the Cold War, she insists — and Jessica proves her right.

Hollywood is so strange. I really like Joel Edgerton — what could be more versatile than a career that comprises outstanding performances in films as different as Kinky Boots and Warrior? He’s certainly very good in Zero Dark Thirty. But screen time? Do we see him for as much as five minutes? Would his dialogue fill more than two pages of script? And yet he gets something like top billing, over Jennifer Ehle and Kyle Chandler and Faras Faras, the last an unknown (to me) actor whose brooding presence throughout the film gives Zero Dark Thirty a haunted feel. Not to mention Mark Duplass and Mark Strong and James Gandolfini. Is this what happens when a female star really owns a movie, and there’s no love interest? (Jason Clarke very much deserves his top billing.)

What do you do after you’re through crying after having captured your big target? What’s next for Maya? A corner office at Langley, I suppose — if they have such things.

Gotham Diary:
Lincoln
11 January 2013

Friday, January 11th, 2013

It is, of course, not “just a movie.” That’s Steven Spielberg’s specialty: making films that always have a strong extra-cinematic, non-artistic, quasi-journalist chain running through them, as detachable (from the filmmaking point of view) as the background music. Perhaps this is why I find his films so hard to watch — they’re existentially muddled. And sometimes soiled — just thinking about Schindler’s List still embarrasses me, as though I’d been party to a ghastly prank. (And I saw it only on video!) Lincoln is inoffensive in this regard because it is about waiting, not suspense. There’s a huge difference. The movie’s suspense is nugatory: we know that the Thirteenth Amendment is going to pass. What thrills us Lincoln’s acrobatic patience. Again and again, the hero-president postpones action, not out of Elizabethan indecisiveness, but  in order to allow complications to gel, and they always do. The moniker “Cunctator” kept playing in my brain — the sobriquet of Flavius Maximus, a general in the Punic Wars whose innate slowness was a strength.

As I say, though, this is a not-just-a-movie movie about abolishing slavery. If Lincoln were merely one or two degrees more triumphal than it is, the film would be an insult to the endurance exacted from black Americans in the century and more that followed the Civil War. Only people ignorant of Reconstruction, Redemption, and Jim Crow could think for a second that, the assassination aside, Lincoln has a “happy ending.”

Lincoln’s greatness depends from his attempting to right a terrible wrong in the Constititution, which never mentions “slavery,” but countenances the weighing, for representational purposes, of three-fifths of the unfree population (“all other persons,” as the mealy-mouthed language has it). Slaves couldn’t vote — perish the thought! — but they could be counted, as fractions of themselves, for the purpose of determining the size of a state’s Congressional delegation. Without this, the Southern states would have been wholly marginal to the federal republic. The two plantation powerhouses, Virginia and South Carolina, had no intention of changing British for Yankee governors.  

Which brings me back to my regrets about the American Revolution. When I was a boy, I was jealous of Canadians and Australians, because they still had a monarch. Monarchs are great, I still believe — such fun! — when they know how to behave. (Insert: Memo to Charles re Chelsea Barracks.) As an old man, I understand that Britain was unprepared to govern the future American states — quite simply, no one in London really knew who was in charge of the colonies, and the colonies took full advantage of this confusion. Today, of course, we should say that Parliament ran the show, but that was not at all clear in the days of George III. And today, of course, the Parliament in Westminster does not govern Canada or Australia. Neither, for the matter of that, does HMQ. What works today was unimaginable in 1770.

No, what I regret about the Revolution now is the persistence of the States. At no point in history have the boundaries of the American states made the slightest demographic sense. They made no sense in 1776, and they make no sense now. They are useful to politicians and their acolytes, and that is all. They are, essentially, anti-democratic. You ask what I can possibly mean by that? This: states (and their capitals) were designed to be and remain anti-urban, anti-immigrant focuses of power. They stand for the proposition, widely shared in today’s surburbia, that the beneficiaries of American democracy ought to have been born in the country, and ought to know better than to live in the five or six genuine cities within its borders.

***

Aside from that, Mrs Lincoln… There’s a jokey poster going round, covering the Best-Picture nominees, in which Lincoln is billed simply as “Daniel Day-Lewis wants an Oscar.” I say, give the man a dozen! If there was ever an actor capable of co-opting a Spielberg project, it is Day-Lewis. He is the only actor I can think of who up to the challenge of making sure that Spielberg’s not-just-a-movie project is, in spite of everything, a really great movie. There is a moment in the scene with George Yeaman (Michael Stuhlbarg) when Day-Lewis declares his ownership of the movie; having stood over the wavering congressman, he sweeps down into a chair with all the dread command of a Count Dracula. Throughout Lincoln, his eyes glow like penlights from raccooned eye-sockets. We shiver, even though we know that Lincoln is kind and good, because he looks and acts scary. Although maybe it would be more useful to say that he gives the greatest impersonation of a good lawyer ever captured on film. A man of secrets!

I feel utterly inadequate to the marvel of Sally Field’s performance — which, let it be known, is what I went to see. It is, like all her great work, charged with the determined yearning of an unembarrassed saint. To this, for Lincoln, she adds a period feminist note, by uncapping the bottled fizz of a woman whose intellectual reach has been lamed; Field never lets us forget that women will require emancipation as well. What’s transcedent about the lesson is her insistence that, just as blacks will become equal without changing the color of their skin, so she, or her figurative daughers, will become equal without abandoning the love of fine clothes or a mother’s desperate attachments. Men will have to learn to be equal to something other than men.

***

At lunch, after the movie, I glanced through the new issue of Harper’s. As always, I began at the back, in the books section, and read John Crowley’s review of a new book about Madame Blavatsky. (When are we going to get a movie about her?) It took hours to get through the piece, what with eating a burger and my mind’s being stuck on Lincoln. Only when I was about to leave did I turn to the front of the magazine, where I found Thomas Frank’s choleric deprecation of Spielberg’s movie and the book upon which is based, Doris Kearns Godwin’s Team of Rivals. He has nothing good to say about anything. The recurrent best-seller he dismisses as “uninspiring to the point of boredom.” (This seems like a maladroit move, coming from someone who wonders what’s the matter with Kansas, but perhaps it’s just what one ought to expect.) Spielberg gets off lightly: he’s “that Michelangelo of the trite.” (I think he’s insidious.) What really troubles Frank is the celebration of a willingness to compromise that, in his view, is no better than a complacency with outright corruption. Lincoln is “a two-and-a-half hour étude on yet another favorite cliché: the impossibility of reform.” Insofar as reform is a high-minded business, however, its impossibility is a lot more serious than a cliché: it’s implausible. Reform inspired by morals and good sense, but ignorant of what students of human behavior have to tell us, will always come to naught. And behavioral reform is sneaky reform. (David Brooks wrote about this in today’s column.) Had I read Thomas Frank’s piece before going to see Lincoln, I don’t believe that it would have stopped me, for all my suspicion of the wiles of Steven Spielberg. It wouldn’t occur to me to assess the movie as a civics lesson. Although I have no desire to defend Lincoln against Frank’s charges, those charges seem merely petulant and juvenile.

***

PS: I cried almost unintermittently through Lincoln.

Gotham Diary:
Funny?
28 December 2012

Friday, December 28th, 2012

Maybe it was the explosion. Not long before the end of the 11 AM showing of This Is 40, there was an explosion. It seemed very close-by, not, as I knew it must be, a long block away. Just like all subway-station blasts, it stopped on a dime, without any receding rumbling, but it was still somewhat unsettling, because I was more than two storeys down in the ground. The upshot was that I came out of Judd Apatow’s new movie thinking that it was not really very funny (despite the many laughs), and actually somewhat depressing.

Maybe it was the movie’s Los Angeles location. Los Angeles is usually a depressing setting, which makes film noir work so well there. (Also satire, particularly of “the industry.”) The fact that it looks like a paradise — but it doesn’t look like a paradise. It’s just a big suburb with palm trees, its housing manicured rather than neat. Somehow Los Angeles embodies a ghost of the snowbound landscapes from which Midwesterners escaped to it. That some people think it’s a paradise — now, that’s depressing.  

The movie begins with a sex-in-the-shower scene that goes awry when the man (Paul Rudd) sings the praises of Viagra. The woman (Leslie Mann) exits hurriedly (and discreetly), on principle. Why should her husband have to take Viagra? Can she arouse him only with the aid of a pill? I laughed, because the scene was framed for laughter, but I don’t think I’d laugh the second time I saw it. This Is 40 is a film about people who fight about everything except what’s important. What’s important is occasionally mentioned but it is rarely discussed and never effectively dealt with. What’s discussed instead is feeling good, and how difficult it is to feel good when being irritated by other people.

If I continue this discussion, I’ll probably convey the impression that I didn’t enjoy This Is 40 and thought that it was a lousy movie. Not so! This Is 40 is very well made (despite a certain lack of narrative focus), and the cast is great. Ms Mann and her daughters are funny in many ways, and they make a perfect foil to Paul Rudd’s likeable dickhead. John Lithgow and Albert Brooks powerfully play unlovable dads. But the further I got from the screening, the happier I was that I don’t know people like Mr Apatow’s characters. And there is something about Melissa McCarthy’s fascinating brutality that suffocates any ongoing drama.

***

As the holiday week chugs to a close, I wonder how I shall ever restore the daily routine that depends, first of all, on rising early, or early-ish. Before nine-thirty, certainly. I have hated getting up lately, almost every morning. Watching movies after dinner is a problem, and last night I watched a second movie, in two parts, first, while making dinner, and then, later, emptying the dishwasher. That second movie was City Island, one of the more authentic movies about life in this city even though it is an exuberant comedy with a farcical climax. The after-dinner movie was Love Actually, a Christmas number with ten million stars, many of whom, such as Keira Knightley, were not all that well-known when the film came out, nine years ago. Kathleen had somehow managed not to see it; she especially enjoyed Emma Thompson’s performance. (I’m sure that I did so in the course of tracking the films of one of its many notable names — Bill Nighy, very likely.) What few tears I had left after The Family Stone were flushed out by its two or three happy endings. I was in no shape for bed — I rarely am, after a movie. Late to bed, late to rise… no comment.

Gotham Diary:
Beauties
30 November 2012

Friday, November 30th, 2012

In the afternoon, I went to see Anna Karenina, Joe Wright’s film of Tom Stoppard’s dramatization of Leo Tolstoy’s novel. The Stoppard part is the most important, although Wright is to be praised for capturing the circus magic that makes Stoppard’s bigger plays, such as Jumpers, so thrilling. Stoppard doesn’t stop at writing a screenplay, with lines for actors to deliver in front of various deployments of the camera. He creates a contraption, rooted in vaudeville, of sliding screens and stylized gestures, that deconstructs and recomposes a dramatic problem in terms of spectacular ballet. It goes without saying that, what with Stoppard’s being the presiding genius, this ballet is anything but mute. Just as important, it is neither precious nor hermetic: Stoppard has no intention of bewildering or boring his audience. His play is a thinking machine (a machine in the antique sense — more ingenious toy than mechanized tool) that invites you to ponder Anna Karenina’s story and the world in which it was shaped. We all know how Anna’s story ends, but this rather grim detail, while it is stylistically foreshadowed, does not haunt the telling. Anna Karenina may be light-hearted or it may be heartless, according to your taste, but it is certainly densely-headed. Stoppard wants you to deal with what’s going on, not to worry about what’s going to happen. He steers you away from Anna’s doom, helped immensely by Keira Knightley’s furiously vital performance. When the time comes, the Anna who throws herself beneath the train carriage is no poor creature. Her face has just brightened with a slight, faint smile, for she has grasped a solution to her problem.

Ms Knightley’s performance plays out over a counterpoint of glittering high life in which Society is presented as gorgeous and graceful and caged. We can expect someone to write something brilliant about the way Stoppard and Wright have hit upon using the backstage machinery and lumber of a conventional theatre to signify confinement — not to mention doing the same with the boxes and stalls out in front of the proscenium. All but two of Tolstoy’s characters are content to live in this virtual prison; they have worked out deals that keep them in silks and soufflés in exchange for the observance of a more or less rigid decorum. The two exceptions are Levin (a very keen Domhnall Gleeson), who understands the cage to be an alien import from the West, foreign to true Russian values (about which, however, he is visionary when he is not sentimental: don’t try this at home), and Anna, who ceases to be able to live in the cage when  she is surprised by a romantic passion that is, certainly in this production, intensely erotic. When Levin and Anna are happy, the camera moves out of the theatre set and into the countryside. (Wright is to be applauded, again, for exterior shots that harmonize with the rest of the movie; they could so easily jar.) The difference is that Levin’s happiness is built on a foundation of property and masculinity — men are allowed to leave the cage from time to time, to philander or to shoot birds — while Anna’s has no foundation at all. Hers also lies beyond a range of burned bridges: when her life with Vronsky fails (Vronsky is played by the protean, here almost beautiful Aaron Taylor-Johnson with an authority beyond his tender years), she can’t go back to any other. You might say that the burned bridges are the broken bars of the cage: the prison life is supportable only if you’ve not, having stepped outside of it, considered never stepping back in. By showing us a bedroom that is little more than a gigantic crypt with an open coffin, the filmmakers leave no doubt in our minds that Anna really cannot go on living with Karenin. (Jude Law plays Karenin with what at first seems to be an august reserve, but as the camera continues to play over his face, you are reminded of his ghoulish performance in The Road to Perdition.) But there’s more to it than that, of course. Anna besots herself with the notion that Vronsky has become her true husband. This delusion overlooks the fact that Vronsky is going to have to become someone else’s husband. The only true husbands are the actual, legal husbands. This is, after all, the ancien régime: property rights trump personal claims.

All of this is beautifully illuminated by what I have called Stoppard’s contraption. Far from being a sob story about a beautiful, passionate lady who is crushed by a repressive society, this Anna Karenina is above all an entertainment. It is about the way people live, not die. It may be the most beautiful movie that I’ve ever seen; that’s certainly how I felt while I was watching it. Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, who choreographed the dances (and perhaps the entire film) and costume designer Jacqueline Durran both deserve Academy Awards.

***

In the evening, I went to see the George Bellows exhibition at the Museum. I shall have to see it again before venturing to say much about Bellows’s very distinctive impressionism, which manages to be post-impressionist at the same time; all I can say for certain is that his two portraits of “Mrs T,” an elderly society woman in Chicago, are Old Master stunners that would not suffer by hanging next to Sargents or Lawrences. There are many wonderful things — the presence of snow in Blue Snow, the Battery, which could have been painted only by somebody who knew how to put the chill of winter on canvas; the rock pool, lit as from within, at the bottom of the picture of the fisherman at Carmel Bay; the heavy but jolly ladies in their pastel dresses, climbing the park steps in Easter Snow — but I don’t know quite what to make of them, which is another way of saying that this exhibition of Bellows is obliging me to adjust my thoughts about the art of painting. His premature death (of appendicitis) at the age of 42 is deeply regrettable.

Gotham Diary:
On the Boil
27 November 2012

Tuesday, November 27th, 2012

I had expected something somewhat more lighthearted, more of a caper film, than what Ben Affleck’s Argo turned out to be. And maybe that’s what I’ll get when I see it again, as indeed I shall, possibly in the theatre, probably on DVD. But the first time round, even though I knew the happy outcome — the successful rescue from Tehran of six men and women who escaped from the American embassy just as it was being stormed in 1979 — I found Argo difficult to sit through at times, and I watched the last ten minutes or so standing up, to relieve some of the vulnerability that came with being seated. (I always sit at the back of movie theatres.) Without much in the way of hitting or shooting (and no actual killing that I can recall), Affleck has given us one of the most violent of films. Its violence is not rooted in criminal psychopathy, as movie violence usually is when it’s not about military battles, but in emotions familiar to everyone: anger and dread. Argo simmers with the dread of the six American escapees, hiding out in the residence of the Canadian ambassador; and it boils over with the anger of revolutionaries, the ferocity of which is focused on the United States and its representatives. In Argo, Tehran appears to have been the site of an ongoing carnival of rage. Without the slightest show of overt disrespect to American policies, Ben Affleck persuades us to sympathize with this outpouring of hostility, which always retains — in the case of mass demonstrations — an element of civil respectability.

As for the six Americans, their ordeal is primarily captured as restlessness before the camera. Their faces do not settle within their close-ups. They look confused, slightly out of focus — as people often do in documentaries. The illusion of mortal fear for one’s life is compelling. You can tell yourself all you like that this is just a movie or remind yourself that it has a happy ending, but these forebrained observations are nullified by what passes before your eyes. (Mirror neuron theorists are going to have a field day.)

I read somewhere that the actual escape, from the Canadian ambassador’s house to the airspace beyond Iran’s borders, went pretty much without a hitch, but that Affleck and his team could not resist the temptation to enliven it with hair-raising checks. If so, I did not feel that there was anything gratuitous about the interpolations. Dipping into the modern mythology of checkpoints, of passports and other papers that must be evaluated by functionaries who are never as mechanically predictable as either side would like, relieves more pressure than it creates, simply because we all of us believe in it now, and we find the narrowest escapes the most satisfying. It doesn’t change the original story; it connects it to ours.

Gotham Diary:
The Awful Truth
6 August 2012

Monday, August 6th, 2012

The awful truth about Celeste and Jesse Forever — not the simple one, which is that “Jesse” doesn’t belong in the title — is that it has a happy ending. A slightly uncertain one, but not the wretched “happy” ending that it might have had in the old days. Which means that it can’t be a screwball comedy, or a “comedy of remarriage.” In a screwball comedy, couples are obliged (often by their own vanity) to learn precisely why they belong together or, in the alternative, why they could never live apart. In Celeste, the title character (Rashida Jones, who also co-wrote the script) learns something else. She learns that today’s college students, no matter how smart, haven’t lived long enough to know how to make truly adult choices. Does this mean that they’re “immature”? You could say that, but you’d miss the point, which is that it takes longer than it used to grow up, and we wouldn’t have it any differently. Celeste learns that it was not a great idea to marry the man of her undergraduate dreams.

This is a lesson that Celeste thinks that she has learned by the opening scene. She has “broken up” with Jesse (Andy Samberg), and apparently the machinery of legal divorce has been set into motion. But they’re still best friends; they still go out to dinner together. She’s very comfortable having him live in the studio behind her house. He’s an artist — gifted, perhaps, but somewhat feckless, and certainly not driven, as Celeste is, to excel at his métier. Celeste’s métier is cool-hunting, trend-seeking. She and her partner, Scott (Elijah Wood), work out of a top-floor office in a shiny glass office building with angular attitude. The screenplay is too clever to comment on the world-historical insignificance of marketing, but it adroitly demonstrates Celeste’s expertise by showing it off in an informal setting. As a way of dismissing a would-be suitor, Paul (Chris Messina), Celeste fixes him with a briskly patient gaze and tells him why he has just replaced his car and his smartphone with models that better express his self-image. Paul looks stunned, but you’re not sure if this is because Celeste has actually nailed him; he just might think that she’s being astonishingly rude. But she has nailed him, as he acknowledges in a later scene. The happy ending of this movie is implicit in Paul’s coming back for more. Celeste may have his number, but his ego is intact. Paul is an adult.

Until Paul makes his advance, after a yoga class (and, yes, he goes to yoga class to meet girls; what could be more adult than that?), Celeste is happy with her broken BFF. She and Jesse really do make a cute couple. They have vast reserves of private jokes and polished routines; like a happily-married couple I know, they could go through an entire day talking in quotations. And they care about one another. Do they ever! Instead of blowing kisses, they raise their arms as if they were holding infants. It’s lovely, and touching, and it tells you that this is not a relationship between grown-ups.  

We get to know Celeste very well. Jesse remains a mystery, not necessarily an interesting one. The plot is set into motion by the protests of Beth (Ari Gryanor)and Tucker (Eric Christian Olsen), also best friends from college (the same college!), who are about to get married, and who are not best pleased by the way things have worked out between Jesse and Celeste. You’d think that they’d want the couple to stop talking divorce and keep singing the “made for each other” song, but, again, if Celeste and Jesse Forever tells a well-behaved narrative that observes the traditional pieties about comic timing, it does not do so by telling lies. It is a fantasy only in that it shows the truth so clearly. Beth and Tucker want Celeste and Jesse to move on. The upshot is that Jesse decides to start dating. His counsellor in these matters, a grass dealer called Skillz (Will McCormack, Ms Jones screenwriting partner), reminds him of Veronica, whom Jesse secretly spent the night with three months ago. She was nice, but for some reason Jesse’s shy about a second date. The next thing you know, Jesse runs into Veronica at a bookstore, and smiles and good wishes are exchanged. The rest of this romance develops offstage, and we are not allowed to form an opinion about Veronica. We learn that she got pregnant as a result of the first date, but the only conclusion that we’re permitted to draw from this news is that a person like Celeste — and this is a movie about Celeste — would never allow an unexpected pregnancy to serve as the foundation of a relationship. The fact that Jesse is open to possibility on this front is hard evidence of their profound incompatibility.

In any case, Jesse’s determination to marry Veronica so that she can stay in the country (she’s Belgian!) pushes Celeste into the discomfort zone of signing the divorce papers and facing life truly alone. She falls apart, visually; ordinarily beautiful even when she’s wearing glasses — on Celeste, eyeglasses are a beauty mark signifying the seductions of rampant intelligence — Celeste blurs in overindulgent collapse, eating, drinking, and smoking with abandon. She commits what at first looks like a catastrophic oversight in a major branding project. (But, no! It’s another demonstration of Celeste’s mojo, so cool that she wasn’t even conscious of it!) But she signs the papers, and then she gives Paul a call.

This is not a movie about how a smart woman learns to be grateful and to stop taking thing for granted. There is no comeuppance, no humiliation. Celeste has to realize that she made a mistake with Jesse, and she does; in their last scene, she and Jesse are, finally, not intimate, and Celeste is as willing as Jesse is to keep a distance. They’re sad about it, of course. But sadness is not desperation. There is no ghastly lunge at happy-ever-after. That would be fantasy of a lesser kind. This is a rueful parting, heralded by the last words of Celeste’s matron-of-honor speech at the wedding of Beth and Tucker: you don’t always have to be right, even when you are. With Jesse, it was understood by both of them that Celeste was always right, which effectively put their relationship into a stalemate. How could Jesse ever learn anything for himself? With Veronica, with the sudden prospect of fatherhood, Jesse may have jumped off a cliff, but for once he’s flying solo.

Celeste isn’t someone in need of a spanking. Paul says to her, “I like you. When you’re ready, give me a call.” She does. We don’t know what happens next because, for once, neither does Celeste. Maybe Celeste and Jesse Forever is a screwball after all: Celeste finds out how right she was. I think that that calls for a toast.  

***

 

Weekend Note:
Figuring in Euros
14-15 July 2012

Saturday, July 14th, 2012

Having stayed up late, watching almost all the rest of Miranda but saving the last episode for later, I loitered on in bed the next morning, encouraged to do nothing more constructive by the knowledge that Kathleen, who stayed up even later than I did, wasn’t about to get up anytime soon. Although I’d proposed going to see To Rome With Love this morning, I saw at once that it would never happen, and that the better plan, if plan it would be, would be to make a simple breakfast and keep Kathleen in bed until one or so, when she would (will!) rouse herself for her Saturday-afternoon trip to midtown, to have her hair washed and dried. There was no hurry on the breakfast, either, so I crawled back into bed with Tessa Hadley’s The London Train and read the last twenty pages. A sweet way to begin the weekend!

The London Train is full of magic — magic being entirely a matter of encountering someone else at the right time in the right place. Or not: at the end of the novel, estranged spouses spend the night in one another’s empty houses, and this is precisely what their relationship needs in order to carry on. This almost ritual, but unconscious, separation, each exploring the other’s not-unfamiliar turf. (Cora, the wife, has retreated in the estrangement to her late parents’ house in Cardiff, which she is doing over in order to sell it when it becomes, instead, a haven. But on the very night that Robert comes to visit, she sleeps in the spare room of the Regent’s Park flat that she shared with him for over ten years. What she discovers is that he has been sleeping in the spare room, too.  

***

Variation on a theme: pork chops with pear, honey, mustard, and sage. My everyday pork chop dish, taken from Classic Home Cooking, calls for boneless chops, cut into two pieces if they’re very thick, to be slathered with mustard, brown sugar, and orange juice, with peeled orange slices between the mustard and the brown sugar on the top side. Kathleen is very fond of this dish, and I associate it with winter, not because it’s heavy but because it’s hearty. I wanted something less robust when I made it the other night. I bought a nice hard bosc pair and peeled it; then I grated it into a bowl. I added two spoonfuls of thick local honey, a little more than that of grainy mustard, and a dusting of dried sage. This stirred up into a cohesive paste, which I spread on each side of the chops and which I was delighted to find adhering to the chops when I removed them to the dinner plates with a spatula. Although wary of the novelty at first — that local honey is very strong and earthy — Kathleen decided that she liked it very much. I shall experiment with different honeys, and also with chopped fresh sage.

I served the pork chops with boiled arborio rice — yay! why did I never think to boil it before? — and one of the very first vegetables that I learned how to cook: summer squash steamed with dill.

***

Shortly before leaving the flat on Friday morning to join Ray Soleil for an early showing of Les Adieux à la Reine down at the Angelika, Kathleen, who had just left, called from the street to warn me that the regular elevators were out of service, mostly, and that everyone was crowding into the service elevator. Knowing how long it might take to get out of the building, I decided to descend by stairs. At the sixth floor, I paused to check on the elevators, and was happy to see that one was just about to stop where I was. But I might as well have taken the stairs all the way to the ground, because the damage was done. By Saturday afternoon, I was hobbling about like a foot-bound tai-tai, and my right leg would barely flex enough to step into shorts. I managed to do all my Saturday chores, but there was no thought of making an interesting dinner. I pulled out a small container (ample for the two of us) of Agata & Valentina’s okay bolognese lasagne. Later, I fell asleep in my chair, reading Timothy Mo’s An Insular Possession, a fat historical novel about Hong Kong that, when it finally fell to the floor about an hour and a half after I’d dropped off, according to Kathleen, woke me up and sent me to bed.

On Sunday morning, Kathleen and I went across the street to see To Rome With Love. Kathleen wanted me to wait to see it for the first time with her (such a romantic!), and I did, on the understanding that we’d see it on a weekend morning. Everyone at the 11:20 showing was my age or older, and we all liked it very much. It’s not as simply delightful as Midnight in Paris, but it is as full of magic as all of Woody Allen’s movies seem to be lately. The biggest trick of all is that the four plotlines that the movie weaves together run on different time-scales (one lasts hardly more than an afternoon, while another clearly takes weeks) without the slightest cognitive jar. Certain bits made me laugh to the point of tears, but the final scene, a nighttime, overhead shot of a (stationary) marching band playing “Volare” on the Spanish Steps, took me straight to the tears. Just thinking about it afterward, I could feel my face go a bit rubbery. Judy Davis has all the best lines. One of them appears in the trailer: when her character’s husband, played by the filmmaker, preens about his IQ of 156, she tells him that he’s “figuring in euros.” In an even better line, when he brags that his psychology can’t be made to fit the Freudian scheme, she agrees: “You have three ids.”

About Les Adieux à la Reine, my response was more complicated; I was certain that there was much in Benoît Jacquot’s film that I felt going over my head. Such as the dahlia that the central character, Sidonie (Léa Seydoux) a young woman who reads to Marie-Antoinette (Diane Kruger), is asked to embroider for the queen, even as the roof is caving in on the régime. How does Sidonie feel about the unpopular queen? I was never quite sure. I came to feel that I wasn’t expected to be sure. The film is a meditation of sorts on still-controversial aspects of French history. It might be thought of as a masque, if so many of its scenes weren’t shot in dull backstairs locations. The Galerie des glaces figures in one shot, as does the staircase in the Petite Trianon. The queen has a tête-à-tête with her favorite, the princesse de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen) against the background of some very opulent satin upholstery, and Ms Kruger herself is the finest Marie-Antoinette yet to appear in film (if you ask me). But this is not a movie about luxe. What it does capture (I imagine) is the claustral, anxiously gossipy world of the great château in its final days as the seat of government. Nobody really knows what’s going on — a state of affairs that would plague France for years to come.

***

On Sunday afternoon, I attacked the overflowing basket of magazines. I read only five periodicals with regularity: The New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, Harper’s, and Vanity Fair. Several times a year — Sunday was one of them — I wade through several issues of BBC Music, a publication that drowns me in information and guilt when consumed in this manner. I ripped out five or six pages from four issues; the next step is to order the CDs written up thereupon. Several hours seemed to pass in this manner. Then I picked up Vanity Fair, and quickly concluded, what’s the use. Every page informed me that I have lived my life to no purpose; I shall never be one of the great and good who glitter so handsomely from its pages. I’m beginning to feel that keeping track of the great and the good is beyond me.

Reading James Wolcott on the celebrity magazines whose headlines I peruse, bewildered, on the checkout line at Gristede’s, I inched a bit closer to understanding what he calls “the Kardashian Imperium.” As I say, what’s the use?

Gotham Diary:
Canines
11 June 2012

Monday, June 11th, 2012

Well, I’m up bright and early this morning! That doesn’t comport with diagnosis of Remicade run-out. It’s a bother talking about this (reluctantly rather than coherently), but I seem to have been experiencing some sort of physiological disorder that has gotten in the way of my work here, and I don’t like leaving the disturbance entirely unexplained.

I realized the other day that it is summer once again, and that I promised myself last year that I would “take the summer off,” or at least lighten the work load. It seems that I’d already done so: where’s this month’s Beachcombing entry? The strange fact is that I haven’t encountered anything worth linking to. This is clearly a reflection of my abnormally detached state of mind, but I do feel that the sites that I follow are settled into rutted pathways from which nothing new can really be seen. Not that I claim to be different.

Over the weekend, I think it was, Thomas Friedman bloviated on the inadequacy of Facebook and Twitter as substitutes for political action. (I didn’t read the column; I never read Thomas Friedman anymore. But Kathleen read the remark aloud.) The astuteness of this observation is exceeded only by its fatuousness. I think that everyone is aware that liking something on Facebook or posting a link at Twitter isn’t going to change anything. I’m not sure that anybody wants to change anything. Everyone would like a good job, and everyone would like to owe less. The rabid idealists among us would like everyone to have a good a job and to owe less. I don’t see a call for change in that, but an order for more-of-same. Once everybody has a job and owes less, then we can start worrying about making the world a better place.

Such is life in an age utterly devoid of capable leadership.

***

The movie that Ray Soleil ended up seeing on Friday — well, we wanted to see Shanghai, a cool-sounding movie, set in Shanghai “on the eve of Pearl Harbor,” starring John Cuasck and Gong Li and made, according to IMDb, in 2010. What happened? And why was Shanghai opening in one Manhattan theatre only? I wonder if it ever did open. We gave up after fifteen minutes, having arrived in plenty of time only to be told that the showing had been canceled — a status that was almost immediately changed to “working on it.” I was in no mood to be standing on street corners waiting for shambolic cinema exhibitors to do their job. As it happened, I was carrying the Arts section of the Times — which, it turned out, contained no mention of Shanghai. Too good to be true, I suppose. We decided to go uptown (back uptown in my case; and did I mention that I’d gotten my act together for a ten-o’clock showing?) to see Bel Ami, a picture with two directors.

I could make sharp and nasty use of the “two directors” aspect of Bel Ami, wagging that it would explain the very different levels of competence exhibited by the three ladies in the cast, on the one hand, and the jeune premier, on the other. But I don’t have do anything of the kind. I can simply paraphrase a speech delivered by Uma Thurman, in the role of Madeleine Forestier, to Robert Pattinson, in the title role. “I tried to teach you how to think, how to write, how to be a man of substance, but your emptiness surpasses anything I’ve ever seen.” Ray leaned over to me, when she was done, and whispered, “She’s talking about his acting.” It was never clear, in this opulent romance set in Belle Époque Paris, what sort of monster Mr Pattinson was supposed to be playing. His canines remain his strong suit, but the only blood in Bel Ami is coughed up by a consumptive. 

Robert Pattinson does have a great face for the movies. In one scene, he slowly descends a staircase after having been humiliated. You may not feel particularly sorry about the humiliation — who does this jerk think he is, after all? — but you will probably be riveted by the sense of menace submerged behind his impassive face. It’s almost enough to make you forget wondering if Bel Ami is supposed to be about revenge, or if it’s just a lot of sumptuous twaddle with boffo performances by Ms Thurman, Christina Ricci, and Kristin Scott Thomas. (Also Colm Meany.) Almost, but not quite. What were they thinking — those two directors? 

Gotham Diary:
Retirement
30 May 2012

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a movie about getting used to change. That is what we see the characters do — or not, as in the case of Jean Ainslie (Penelope Wilton), a soi-disant realist with a nasty habit of saddling every situation with the worst interpretation. The indignities of the other characters’ adjustments are barely hinted at; it is expected that the film’s most interested viewers will prefer to conjure these at some other time. As Ivy Compton-Burnett used to say, “I do not wish to be speaking of it.” We do not need to be watching it, either. All we need is that gentle reminder: you can get used to anything, so don’t be afraid of change. Worry instead about the alternative: imprisoning yourself in the block of familiarity.

That’s what Graham Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson) realizes that he has done. Growing up in Jaipur, he fell in love with Manoj, an Indian friend; the ensuing scandal disgraced the native’s family, but Graham escaped the brunt of it by going to university in England. At the beginning of the story, he is a High Court judge who can’t wait to retire; we’re not told that some bad news about a heart condition has resolved him to Do It Now. He has always intended to return to India to find his ruined former lover and perhaps do something to help him out, but he hasn’t gotten around to doing it. “Until now,” Evelyn Greenslade (Judi Dench) whispers, when Graham tells her his tale. “Until now,” he agrees. The moment of reunion is a cinematic triumph, capturing muddle along with resolution in an unsimplified whole. Manoj’s life has not, it turns out, been at all wretched; it is Graham who, dithering in England, has done without.

It’s no surprise that Mr Wilkinson and Ms Dench (not to mention the superb Rajendra Gupta, as Manoj) bring their characters completely to life; what’s commendable about Best Exotic Marigold is the filmmaker’s skill at staying out of their way, and punctuating their “big” scenes (most of which are actually quiet) with razzle-dazzle pans of “chaotic” urban life. The teeming disorderliness is what the characters have to get used to, and we see that each of them has a different approach. Graham tries to track down Manoj. Evelyn gets a job, coaching young Indians working at a call center. Muriel Donnelly, a retired housekeeper whose hip replacement has been “outsourced,” takes a professional interest in the hotel’s housemaid, an untouchable. Norman Cousins (Ronald Pickup) and Madge Hardcastle (Celia Imrie) go forth in search of fresh romantic conquests, refusing to affix “finis” to their sex lives. Jean Ainslie’s husband, Douglas (Bill Nighy) goes in for garden-variety sightseeing, while Jean herself, never having forgiven Douglas for investing their nest egg in their daughter’s Internet start-up, works up fresh belittlements to inflict upon him. She also humiliates herself royally by making a garish pass at Graham, who gives her a very cloudy look when, having heard him use the word with reference to himself, she tries to make a joke of it: “Is that ‘gay’ as in ‘happy’?”

The hotel itself is a comic device of Shakespearean vintage, like the Forest of Arden: it embodies the marriage plot that arrives at a happy ending only when the inmates — the handful of ageing Brits seeking comfortable retirement on the cheap — take action. The action that they take is varied; it includes dying. It commits them to change, even in Jean Ainslie’s case. More than that I cannot say. The lovers (Tena Desae and Dev Patel) are appealing stock characters, blocked by an intriguing stock dragon (Lillette Dubey), and the magic word turns out to be “love” after all. When the young people take the spotlight, it is never without a faint melancholy awareness that they, too, will one day confront the problem of being old. It’s the hotel that does it, the crumbling hotel that was old when the oldsters were born. Change is the bottom line.  

***

What’s this? Yesterday’s mail brought a new Sharper Image catalogue. I couldn’t believe that the operation was still going! And still selling the same sort of gadgets, only now what modicum of cool its wares exuded twenty years ago — nearly thirty years ago, really — has evaporated in the austere Applesphere of today, where the ideal device count always tends toward one, and not in the opposite direction that will make the Sharper Image’s investors happy. There is also a certain rather blowsy overlap with the always-whimsical offerings of Hammacher Schlemmer. Take, for example, the Golf Club Drink Dispenser on page 18. What looks like a driver turns out to have a little red button and a little white spout. ”This ingenious and discreet ‘club’ is a great way to quench your thirst while on the course. Holds 48 oz…” Are we slipping? The idea of buying this gift as a gag for some golfer friends really did flash across my mind, but the afterburn was deep shame: what, short of murder, could be as immoral as paying for this piece of junk and having it shipped across several state lines to unsuspecting nice people? (Surely not the use that I suspect one of them might put it to — once.) Here’s where I started laughing out loud, though: on page 36. “Smart Organization While On the Move.” You could call it a geekolier: worn like a sash of nobility, from shoulder to hip, it is in fact a wallet with pockets for mobile phones, keys, and — ball point pens! Yes! The pocket protector of old on steroids! It’s not a bad idea, I have to admit, for urban hikes, but those pen clips! Has someone done a study showing that men are turned on by pen clips? That they feel thereby empowered, weaponized? I can’t begin to understand the wearing of writing equipment.

Then there was the Science Fiction Issue of The New Yorker, compleat with a Daniel Clowes cover entitled “Crashing the Gate.” Crashing the gate is one thing; the whole point of attending a party, invited or not, is to get someone to talk to you. I don’t see that happening, and if you’re wondering how antediluvian my judgment is, just turn to China Miéville’s “Forward Thinking,” on page 80. I surmise that this piece is meant to be funny. It had always struck me as odd that, as a child, I had no interest in reading at all, aside from the odd Hardy Boys mystery; the desire to read passionately and all the time began with and somewhat pre-empted puberty, and I never read books that weren’t meant for grown-ups (although it would be years before I understood them). Now I understand that I was simply keeping myself safe. ”Of course,” writes Miéville, “the stories that got you all to hush, in kindergarten, were the ones that contained exactly the elements which you still seek out. In that class full of six-year-olds, everyone was into dinosaurs and/or magic and/or Saturday-morning monsters, just like you.” Not just like me; I was over there in the Nuisance Corner, incapable of being quiet through any kind of story.

Gotham Diary:
Freeway
26 April 2012

Thursday, April 26th, 2012

Because of Diane Keaton alone, I will see Darling Companion again. Indeed, I’ll probably buy the DVD when it comes out (which may be very soon). Ms Keaton adds another sterling late-in-life performance to her charm bracelet, and she is assisted by an extremely engaging cast, including a never-better Dianne Wiest and a literally enchanting Ayelet Zurer. They say that Meryl Streep can play anybody, and it’s true; Diane Keaton is still, at the same age, America’s sweetheart. Every good woman in the land has something to learn from her. And every man, period.

But there is a difficulty about the movie, a difficulty that remains vague and not particularly oppressive until a scene near the end that stands in the place of a climax. Instead of a climax, it is the stuff of an anecdote that you might hear at Davos or at some other assembly of extremely wealthy people whose lives are so gated that they never brush anywhere near the portals. (Except in Manhattan, which is their recreational jungle.) Let us think back to Auntie Mame, to Gloria Upson’s saga of the ping-pong balls at the country club. ”And then I said…And then she said…” Gloria represents a world in which, ordinary problems having vanished, one must make the most of ping-pong. So it is here.

The Disney version of Darling Companion would have focused on the adventures of Freeway, the runaway mutt whose disappearance causes so much angst to the human beings in his new life. Having been spotted at the side of an Interstate highway and then rescued by Beth (Ms Keaton) and her daughter, Grace (Elisabeth Moss), Freeway introduces Grace to the veterinarian whom she will marry a year later, at her parents’ Rocky Mountain vacation home. While being taken out for a walk by Joseph (Kevin Kline), Beth’s career-absorbed spinal surgeon, Freeway is seduced by the delights of the hunt when a deer lopes across the path. Joseph, fatally, is talking (about his career) on a cell phone, and he is not carrying the special orange whistle that hangs in abundant supply by the door of his chalet. That is the last we see of Freeway until the very end of the movie.

Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t for a moment wish to know more about Freeway’s Outward-Bound experience. I was not worried about whether he was alive or dead. Mind you, I was ticked, almost as much as Beth was, that Joseph wasn’t a very responsible pet steward; I believe that, if you are going to bring a pet into your life, then you must treat it with all the care and concern that you would give to a child (short of open-ended catastrophic medical procedures, that is, which seem unredeemedly cruel to me). A dog is not “just a dog,” once you’ve signed up to feed and shelter it. But although I loved our Labrador retrievers when I was growing up, it was a very childish and unintelligent affection, and when I grew old enough to be more mature about animals, I discovered that they didn’t interest me. So I, sitting in the darkened theatre, did not worry about Freeway. I was completely absorbed by the hunt for Freeway that ties up the six characters who remain at the Rocky Mountain lodge after Grace’s wedding to her veterinarian. (Goodbye, Elisabeth Moss!) As they hunt for the dog, the humans get to know each other better in difficult situations and become better human beings. A cast as great as this one can make you forget that you’ve seen this story before, and before and before and before.

In addition to Beth and Joseph, we had Penny (Dianne Wiest), Penny’s son (Mark Duplass) — also a spinal surgeon, and a colleague of his uncle’s back in Denver — and Penny’s new boyfriend, a dodgy-sounding entrepreneur called Russell (Richard Jenkins). Also, Carmen (Ms Zurer), the caretaker at the chalet. We could start with this detail; why not. Carmen is a ravishingly pretty half-gypsy who lives full-time at a mostly-uninhabited vacation house? (The question mark imposes itself.) And why don’t Beth and Joseph seem to know her very well? And what about the house that Beth and Joe break into when, lost in a storm while out looking for Freeway, they break a window, triggering an alarm that brings rescue to their feet? Why didn’t that house have a caretaker? Surely you don’t build a lovely faux-rustic trianon in the middle of highly scenic nowhere only to shut off the power and water when you’re not around, entrusting your property to the ministrations of a silent alarm. That’s what — that’s what ordinary people would do.

Ms Keaton and Mr Kline play Beth and Joseph, right up until the would-be climax, as ordinary, accessible overachievers; if you went to college anywhere, the odds are that there was a couple just like them in your class. But Lawrence Kasdan, who directs the film and who wrote it with his wife, Meg, have appliquéd ordinary Beth and Joe onto the very extraordinary lifestyle of Hollywood producers (Mr Kasdan is also a co-producer of Darling Companion). So when, instead of climax we must have anecdote, Beth and Joseph (and the rest of their party, which also gets an assist on the ground from Sam Shepard’s crusty sherriff) resort to criminal deception, violating five or six statutes governing civil aviation. You had to be there when this story was told the first time. In the movie’s lavish re-telling, the incident is not only unfunny but creepily narcissistic.  

We are all familiar with the concept of the train wreck, the movie that is so botched that it’s actually entertaining, as long as you can make your mind squint until verisimilitude is no longer an issue. (My favorite train wreck is Merci Docteur Rey, also starring Dianne Wiest.)  Darling Companion, also entertaining (the actors make sure of that), is another kind of disaster, the movie ruined by one single miscalculation. Mr Kasdan invested a great deal of skill and taste as well as money in Darling Companion, but he was mistaken about being able to make it fly.

***

I was right to finish my mention of tonight’s Carnegie Hall tickets, in the daily entry at Civil Pleasures, with a question mark  The weather’s grisly — penetrating and wet, worse, as far as I’m concerned, than snowfall at thirty degrees cooler — and I want to be sure not to miss any of this weekend’s events (more parties). My streak of concert cancellations this season has been unprecedented, to the extent that I’m wondering if I ought to renew any of my subscriptions. I’m even thinking about dropping Orpheus, which I’ll be missing on Saturday night because I’d rather go to a cocktail party. (Ms NOLA will take the tickets, and I know that she’ll have a good time, so I don’t feel any sense of waste. Tonight’s tickets, for a performance Dvorak’s Stabat Mater, are another matter, although I didn’t so much as buy them as take them along with good seats for Messiah at Christmas.) Increasingly, I don’t want to go out at night unless it’s to spend time with friends — and I don’t mean sitting still with friends.

The iPod playlists are undoubtedly to blame for my dismal attendance record. They have filled my brain with music that I never knew as well as I do now. Just this afternoon, I noticed that one little dance in Bach’s fourth French Suite takes for its theme a figure buried in the counterpoint of the preceding number. I realized that I knew that it was going to happen; I had heard the keyboard suites so many times in the past year that, even though I have to stop and think, which one is this?, I not only knew what was coming next but grasped that I was listening to a kind of prelude. In short, I am not hungry to hear music, and, because the playlists have made it possible for me to get to know multiple performances of many works very well — something that, as I’ve written elsewhere, was hard to achieve in the era of the LP, when every piece of music (or every record, at least) had to be physically chosen, thus putting a premium on “bests” and “favorites” — the music that I listen to at home is as varied as the music that I would hear in a concert hall. I wonder how much of what I’m saying makes sense to anyone interested in music, but not in classical music.

Weekend Note:
Anhedonic
4-5 February 2012

Saturday, February 4th, 2012

When it was over, I said to Ray Soleil that We Need To Talk About Kevin was the most anhedonic movie that I’d ever seen. There was hardly anythink about it to take pleasure in, although, later, when I was thinking about it, I was fairly blown away by Ezra Miller’s performance as Kevin. I said to Ray that I was in no hurry to see Lynne Ramsay’s picture again anytime soon, but I’m not so sure about that, now that I’ve thought about the movie for a day. In fact it woke me up this morning, thinking about Kevin.

Perhaps there are people who can come away from a movie in which a teenager slaughters fellow students — hardly a commonplace in American life, but a few stories go a long and wearisome way — without wondering how the catastrophe could have been avoided, but I’m not one of them, and I think that I’m in the majority. Of those of us who can’t help wondering, some will conclude that the teenager in question was just bad — evil. Others, like me, will go for “troubled,” meaning that someone might have done something to help. I don’t really think that there was any way to save Kevin Khatchadourian, not by the time he got to high school and perfected his archery. But I read the flashback scenes in which his mother was pregnant with him and then responsible for his colicky infancy as evidence or proof or something that Kevin was an unwanted child. There must be lots of unwanted children, and most of them — most of them? — don’t grow up to be murderers, much less angry, functionally sociopathic murderers. But Eva (Tilda Swinton) and her little boy are both very smart, and they’re engaged almost from the start in a contest for control. At one point — Kevin will later tell his mother that this is the only honest thing she ever did — Eva is so provoked by her son’s insolence that, instead of changing his diaper (again!), she throws him against the wall and breaks his arm.

Some people (Ray, for example), will be drawn to the idea that by the time of the arm-breaking incident, Kevin is already lost as a human being, whoever the cause. But he seemed to think — Ray, that is — that you could simply insitutionalize such a child. I think that he’s wrong about that, at least in the United States. There was a time, yes, when “Reform School” was an effective invocation, but it was already a fiction when my parents were frightening me with it. There are very expensive private schools for difficult children, but really bad kids get thrown out of them.

I want to see We Need To Talk About Kevin because I was distracted by thinking that things were going to get worse for Eva — worse than they were at the “beginning,” when her little house by the tracks and her car are splashed with red paint. This is of course the beginning of Eva’s self-inflicted atonement, her refusal to run away to a town where nobody knows her. (You don’t realize until the end how awfully free she is to make this resolution. She thinks that Kevin’s crime is her fault — she has no doubt about it. But in fact things don’t get worse for Eva. She finds a job, keeps it; she scrubs the paint away. She visits Kevin — in a twist, he has not taken his own life, but, in another, he has not stopped at fellow students — every week, and eventually they talk. At the end, Kevin is old enough to be shipped off to a real prison. He’s scared about that. Eva doesn’t think that he’ll be in for very long; being a smart kid, he went on his killing spree days before his sixteenth birthday, and flooded his bloodstream with Prozac. Time’s up on their interview. Kevin gives his motehr a hug, a real, desperate hug. I have to see this movie again.

I will say this: I think that Eva ought to have nixed the archery. No real arrows, at least.

***

What a weekend! It could not have been more bon bourgeois on the outside, quiet and at home. So much for (non-)appearances. In reality, I spent much of yesterday and most of today in a Polish space capsule of how-dumb-am-I humiliation. If there is a moment that I’d like to have preserved on film, it would be the shot of me when I realized that the late Princess Margaret has what in the theatre is called a big speaking part in the finale of Edward St Aubyn’s third ”Melrose” novel, Some Hope. Surely she must have died before it was published; she might have sued for libel otherwise, even if every line attributed to her was notarized verbatim. St Aubyn simply skewers her, shifting his polarizing lens between “beastly” and “inane.” The effect is too cumulative for quotation. I haven’t been so shocked since Vile Bodies, which I read as a teenager. St Aubyn one-ups Waugh by replacing the fantastically burlesque with the plausibly ludicrous. 

WHY DID IT TAKE ME SO LONG TO READ THIS BOOK? I’m haunted by the honte of being the last boy on the block. And as if that weren’t bad enough, I saw Truffaut’s La nuit américaine (Day For Night) for the first time. Why? Because, when I was writing up (or down, more likely) Pico Iyer’s book about Graham Greene, and leafing through Shirley Hazzard’s far more vivid book, I came across her mention of scolding Greene for his stiff performance in the movie. He plays an insurance broker who has to tell the director played by Truffaut himself that scenes involving the star (Jean-Pierre Aumont) who has just died in an auto accident cannot be re-shot with another actor; the film will have to be “simplified” to make use of the existing footage. I didn’t think that Greene was bad, really, but, Lordy, hearing his ripe RP accent was a shock. Here’s this “hard case,” sounding like a footman in Buck House. When I mentioned my surprise to Kathleen at dinner, she asked if Damon Runyon spoke like his characters. A point, as Addison DeWitt acknowledged…

Plus the whole weekend’s Timeses and two chapters of The Princess Casamassima plus most of Andrew Pettegree’s chapter about Luther’s impact on the printing business throughout Europe (wildly varied), Season Five of Lewis (sinking me in the conlcusion that nobody but nobody can play Patrick Melrose except Laurence Fox, which you probably regard as a total duh). Plus the regular Saturday tidying (to Lohengrin) and two tasty dinners, not to mention laying the bacon out in the pan last night so that all I had to do this morning, in order to make sure that we were done with breakfast in time for Kathleen to go to Mass, was to turn on the oven. Plus a letter or two, and spending really rather longer than intended on a superb playlist featuring Jessica Molaskey, Jane Monheit, Kurt Elling, Stacey Kent, and a number of other stylish troubadors. Not to mention finally uploading seven of our ten Manhattan Transfer CDs, along with the latest Pink Martini.

Plus.

***

Eg:

“Are you going back to Ireland?” his father asked.

“No, I’ll be in the cottage through August,” said Seamus. The Pegasus Press have asked me to write a short book about the shamanic work.”

“Oh, really,” said Julia. “how fascinating. Are you a shaman yourself?”

[PATRICK/LAURENCE ->] “I had a look at the book that was in the way of my shoes,” said his father, “and some obvious questions spring to mind. Have you spent twenty years being the disciple of a Siberian witch doctor? Have you gathered rare plants under the full moon during the brief summer? Have you been buried alive and died to the world? Have your eyes watered in the smoke of campfires while you muttered prayers to the spirits who might help you to save a dying man? Have you drunk the urine of caribou who have grazed on amanita muscaria and journeyed into other worlds to solve the mystery of a difficult diagnosis? Or did you study in Brazil with the ayabuascaras of the Amazon basin?”

“Well,” said Seamus, “I trained as a nurse with the Irish National Health.”

“I’m sure that was an adequate substitute for being buried alive,” his father said.

Gotham Diary:
“Here’s Your Diploma”
13 December 2011

Tuesday, December 13th, 2011

Yesterday, I abandoned myself to the uttermost dissolution. I had a long lunch with Ray Soleil, and then we watched two old movies — and, just like that, it was time for dinner! The two movies that we watched were both in black-and-white, made within three years of one another, and shot heavily (exclusively, in one case) on location in Manhattan. They were also, both of them, odd fish. “Offbeat” would have been the non-committal judgment of the time. The one was not quite a comedy, and the other not quite a horror movie.

They were Love With the Proper Stranger and Seconds, respectively. I saw Seconds when it was new, in 1966. Several times. It freaked me out completely. You may know the story. A middle-aged banker (John Randolph) gets mysterious phone calls from a college friend whom he knows to be dead. A stranger tails him through Grand Central Terminal — this is the opening scene — and hands him a slip of paper with an address written on it. Eventually, he goes to the address, in pursuit of a new life as a “reborn.” With a dispatch that brings Ray Bradbury to mind, the banker is drugged, set up for blackmail, and forced to sign his estate over to “the company,” which, in addition to rejuvenating him with extensive plastic surgery (as Ray said, viewers were more naive in the Sixties, and would have believed that this was possible), will stage the banker’s death (with help from “cadaver procurement services”) and see that his wife and daughter were comfortably provided for. After a few fade-outs, the banker emerges as Rock Hudson, and is shipped off to California for his new life. If you don’t know the story, skip to the end of the paragraph, while I wrap up this summary. The new life doesn’t take; notwithstanding the charms of Salome Jens, Rock Hudson is even more bored and unsettled than John Randolph was. He winds up, of course, in “CPS.”

John Frankenheimer directed Seconds, and the movie shares a lot, from the auteurist point of view, with The Manchurian Candidate, made a few years earlier and also featuring the ghoulishly genial Khigh Dhiegh, born Kenneth Dickerson in Spring Lake, New Jersey, in 1910. (Isn’t IMDb great? But how do you say “Khigh Dhiegh”? Ah. “Ky Dee.” If you say so.) In many anxious scenes, Randolph or Hudson sits in a corner of the foreground, eyes moving dramatically, while someone else talks in the background. In Randoph’s case, the background figure is usually explaining the reborn program. In Hudson’s best scene, the standing figure is Frances Reid, playing the banker’s widow, who has, of course, no idea that the man to whom she is describing the emptiness of her marriage is in fact her husband. John Randolph, who had a far more interesting life than the banker — born Emanuel Cohen in the Bronx, five years after Khigh Dhiegh and blacklisted after pleading the Fifth Amendment bofore the HUAC — is hands down the better actor. But Rock Hudson’s woodenness is relieved by a discomfiture that is not at all out of place. Seconds is an occasion for Roy Scherer, Jr, born in Winnetka in 1925, and a closeted homosexual who would be felled by AIDS, to put the phoniness of his life in front of the camera, and he makes the most of the opportunity.

I hadn’t seen Love With the Proper Stranger before. Ray had “sold” it to me at lunch a while back, and, unable to rent a copy, I’d bought one. Robert Mulligan’s film captures a moment that I remember well, although I didn’t know that it was a moment at the time; nor did I know any big, possessive Italian families. There was a feeling, in the early Sixties, that New York City was simply no longer “modern.” Most of its buildings looked ancient, no matter how few decades back they’d been built, and most of its citizens were immured in powerful networks of traditional families. California was modern, Denver was modern, but New York was old-hat. And the young people of New York restlessly decided to do something about it, although nothing that would involve going without a necktie or a headscarf.

There’s a glancing, anticlimatic quality to the story. The dramatic event has already taken place, and one of the participants has almost forgotten about it. Now, at the start of the film, Angie Rossini is telling Rocky Papasano, a trumpeter who’s milling about in a casting call, that she’s pregnant. She needs the name of “a doctor.” Is this funny? It is, sort of. Natalie Wood is very cute, an adorable damsel in distress, not least because she never whines — not in front of Rocky, anyway. Steve McQueen is peculiarly inarticulate; in lieu of speech, he vibrates and rumbles and looks down to the ground as if in search of clues about what to do next. That’s kind of adorable, too, especially once you know that he’s going to do the decent thing. And then, after the grim enocunter with the abortionist — a scene that ever right-to-lifer ought to be obliged to re-enact — he does the right thing, although it takes a little while. In the course of scraping up the money for the “doctor,” the young people spend enough time together to get the idea that their marriage would not be tantamount to going back to the old ways and living with a dozen relatives underfoot. Angie’s little apartment is in Greenwich Village, but it’s bright and well-ordered, unlike the overupholstered layrinth that her brothers share with her mother, and less unlike the breezily shabby flat where Rocky is camping out with Barbie (Edie Adams), a Broadway babe.

The movie’s goofy finale nails it to its time. In a last-ditch effort to win Angie, Rocky apes the odball, still unfamiliar, faintly ridiculous gambit of behaving like a sign-carrying protestor. In the middle of the day, he stands on 34th Street, waiting for Angie’s lunch break at Macy’s. “Better Wed Than Dead,” his sign reads. As the camera pulls back from a throng of New Yorkers, our eyes are caught by the hugging, kissing younsters whose understatement and light touch promises to freshen up the place.

***

On Friday, I saw My Week With Marilyn, and it’s a very good movie in spite of the fact that, the more you think about it afterward, the less it seems to have to do with Marilyn Monroe. Michelle Williams is truly captivating in the role of Marilyn, but that’s just another way of saying that she upstages the actual actress whose films we know so well. She makes you forget that Marilyn Monroe was not a genuinely voluptuous woman. She could put on the pose and pretend, but that’s what made her a comedienne: you got to laugh with her at the pose. Naturally, she was restless and edgy. She was not incapable of relaxation but she was never (on film) self-possessed, composed. There was a rigid quality about her being at rest, as if she were afraid to muss a curl of her hair or the drape of her dress. Michelle Williams, in contrast, can do almost anything without moving. She is always centered so deeply in herself that she seems in possession of dangerous special powers. Marilyn’s powers were strictly WYSIWYG. What’s hard for Michelle Williams to pull off is Marilyn’s incompetence as an actress. Her performance hints at deep psychic wounds, but Marilyn Monroe, on the evidence, was a noodle who needed a very firm dancing partner in order to cross a room. Michelle Williams makes Marilyn Monroe a million times more glamorous than she really was.

But that’s all right, because My Week With Marilyn is not about Marilyn Monroe but about the guy who had the week with her. This would be Colin Clark, the very well-brought-up son of Sir Kenneth Clark, of Civilisation fame. Colin Clark was (is) Edith Wharton’s only godson; she left him half of her library. How’s that for an ordinary bloke who gets lucky? The point of it all is that Colin is no ordinary bloke, and luck (aside from the luck of birth) has nothing to do with the case. Clark works his way into the production of a motion picture by dint of his excellent resources. He has magnificent, yea, regal connections to call upon as a gofer. Instead of belaboring Clark’s advantages, the movie exploits them as magic tricks. Eddie Redmayne is perfect in the part, because he has a constitutional reluctance to call attention to himself that’s beautifully harnessed to an ability to put himself in the center of any scene. The vulgar word is “class.” His Clark has so much class that we wonder Marilyn Monroe didn’t write a memoir entitled, My Week With Colin. Well, we know why Marilyn didn’t. But we’re inclined to believe that Michelle Williams might.

The fun of My Week With Marilyn is Kenneth Branagh’s recreation of Laurence Olivier, which is as spot-on as his costar’s is (no less delightfully) wide of the mark. Mr Branagh has been haunted by Olivier throughout his career, and we can only hope that it will be an equally long one. The difficulty is that he is nowhere near the insidious ham that Olivier was, nor does he radiate the pixie-ish suggestion that was implicit in Olivier’s slightest gesture: Olivier was inconceivable offscreen. He might as well have been made of celluloid, so embodied in film is he. Not Mr Branagh. Kenneth Branagh is a great actor, but he is meatily mortal.

In the end, My Week With Marilyn is one of the better movies about the movies. Superficially about the making of a movie, it is in fact about its actual stars. What does Judi Dench “do” with Sybil Thorndike? What do they all “do,” these impersonators? What do we do, when we watch them? What we do is say “Yes.” When Marilyn, about to be mobbed by the kitchen staff at Windsor Castle — to which Colin has gained admittance because his godfather (Derek Jacobi) is the royal librarian — asks “Shall I be her?”, we don’t wait for Colin to answer. We say, “Yes, Michelle. Be her. Be Marilyn.” And then, right before our eyes, she does.

Gotham Diary:
Critics
8 November 2011

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

For the sake of the mortification of my flesh, I am reading James Wolcott’s memoir, Lucking Out. Ordinarily, the reviews, with their references to Norman Mailer and to New York’s sometime gritty downtown scene &c, would have put me off, having reminded me once again that, if I did have to spend a decade in exile, at least it was the 1970s — the city’s Buttcrack Decade. It was in the Seventies that James Wolcott became a journalist. I can’t say that I ever decided not to be a journalist, but a disinclination was already in place by the time I was graduated from Notre Dame in 1970. It came down to this: I didn’t like the kind of people who were journalists. (The feeling was mutual.)

Instead, the effect of the reviews of Lucking Out was to make me wonder if this was still the case. Lucking Out seemed to be a good test: turning its pages, would I be suffused with regret at paths not taken? Would I wish that I’d had a little more backbone, and followed my dreams? Would I have liked to be one of the cool kids? I’ll let Wolcott answer the question.

There was another home-brewed brand of criticism practiced at the Voice — informal, unsolicited feedback that was delivered like a body check in hockey and intended to put you on notice. It was not uncommon for a fellow writer, in a warrior spirit of collegiality, to let you know that the piece that ran in last week’s issue or the new one teed up in the galleys carried the risk of making you look like a fool. Not simply mistaken, not merely misguided, but a fool — a dupe who made everybody else look bad. One year at the Voice Christmas party, a columnist in ambush mode, having filled his tank to excess capacity with holiday cheer, intercepted me, even though I was standing still, to put me wise that a campaign piece I had done about a presidential candidate that was set to run proved that I didn’t know a thing about politics and if it were published I would look like a fool and the editors would look like fools, a diatribe/dire prediction he delivered so close up his face nearly went out of focus. He was telling me this for my own good, he said, but nobody at the Voice ever told you anything for your own good unless they were up to no good. Another Voice staffer, whom nobody dared call a fool for fear he’d do a calypso number on their heads with his fists, speculated that the weaponized use of the word was rooted in Old Left discourse, evidenced by how often Voice writers would quote August Beble’s pronouncement “Anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools,” one of those thudnering dicta certainly inteded to stop an adversary dead in his rhino tracks. … Or perhaps “fool” simply caught on in the office because some alpha force began using it and everyone else added it to their repertoire, just as so many writers picked up on Ellen Willis’s use of “cranky” as a positive descriptive, indicating someone out of sorts with the prevailing political norms. Whatever its origin in the lingua franca, “fool” was a strangely shame-laced word, intended to make you feel like an object of ridicule based on the snickers and scowls of some invisible jury. … I resented being bullyragged for making a fool of myself because making a fool of yourself was one of the hard-earned liberties Norman Mailer had fought for in his boxing trunks. but I have to say, I don’t regret my days in gladiator school. Having your ego slapped around a bit helped the blood circulate and would prove a superb conditioning program for a future sub-career in blogging, where a tough hide would come in handy every time the Hellmouth opened. Every time I’m abused online with a battery of scurrilous remarks of a personal nature, I’m able to let them bounce off like rubber erasers, having been called an asshole by professionals, experts in the field.

In short: No. No, I do not wish that I had become a journalist in the Seventies. If for no other reason: weigh and consider the violence implicit in this passage! Quite aside from the danger of calypso numbers and other manifestations of actual physical aggression, Wolcott attests to a blood-soaked state of mind that conceives of journalism as a schoolyard scrimmage. A schoolyard scrimmage, I hasten to add, that’s of no interest to non-partipants with better things to attend to. (I excised a reference to Carrie.) Having been called an asshole by professionals is unfortunately no protection against actually being one, and those who celebrate the glories of the Buttcrack Decade are perhaps uniquely destined to live in it.

***

Having been going to the movies in my semi-professional way for a few years now, on almost every Friday morning, I have developed two handy precepts. First, I don’t go to movies that I would expect to dislike. (“No action figures” covers a lot of territory, if you include comic books.) By ruling out egregiously antipathetic experiences, the first rule makes it easy to follow the second, which is to try to enjoy each movie as it was intended to be enjoyed. What kind of movie did the filmmaker want to make? I ask myself that. It is rarely a difficult question to answer. Sometimes, it’s true, a movie tries to be two or more things at the same time, resulting in a degree of incoherence. But I don’t have a problem with a degree of incoherence.  I’ve also acquired a third insight, from thinking about the recent films of Woody Allen: a movie is a magic show, a display of wonders. Every good movie is both a spectacle and a joke. Well, almost every good movie.

I thought of these rules while watching Tower Heist last week. The movie itself did not inspire these thoughts, or any other thoughts; it was Anthony Lane’s unfavorable review that raised the issue. I understand that a film critic is expected to sit through movies that he or she doesn’t care for, although why this should be so is hard to figure. Who would be the poorer if The New Yorker took no notice of Tower Heist. We might all be the poorer for missing this dandy dismissal of Brett Ratner’s “style”: “The origins of his style are unclear, but the influence of, say, early Fellini is less easy to detect than that of Cuisinart.” Okay, that’s funny. Why not just say that, and then move on to something else?

Tower Heist aims to be a lot of fun, and it succeeds. It tries to do several things at the same time, and it would objectionably incoherent if coherence were an element of Brett Ratner’s style, but it isn’t; Tower Heist is a deeply untroubled motion picture. Tower Heist takes place in an alternative New York that New Yorkers will probably appreciate more than most. A good deal of the movie’s spectacle, and its biggest joke, concerns the staff at The Tower, a luxury residence on Columbus Circle. The movie uses the Trump Tower — built as the Gulf & Western Building in 1970 —as its location; one part of the joke is that its battalion of impeccable service providers would be more likely to be found next door, at the new Mayflower. Another part of the joke is that, while the highly-skilled maids and doormen marshalled by Josh Kovacs (Ben Stiller) do exist — flourish — in our fair city, the movie’s tenantry seems imported from Los Angeles. They’re much too nice. Fortunately, Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), the richest of all the residents, and the man entrusted with investing the staff’s pension fund, is nice only on the surface; scratch his enamel, and he’s a bastard. When Shaw turns out to have been running a Ponzi scheme, the director knows how to rouse the audience’s inner Astoria, and we rejoice when justice is done, as it is, very sweetly. The only thing that Tower Heist lacks is a bigger, a much bigger part for Téa Leoni, who plays the FBI Special Agent who’s in charge of nabbing Shaw. At the very least, Tower Heist ought to have ended as 16 Blocks did, “two years later.” Josh and Claire ought to have had that Saturday-night date after all.

As to Anthony Lane’s diatribe/dire prediction about the future of the movies in an age of VOD, I can only say that I go to the movies in the morning because the audiences are small; more than once, I’ve been the only member. I like going to the movies principally for the popcorn (no butter), and I always take an aisle seat because I can’t make it through a feature film without a visit to the men’s room. If I were conscious of an imperative to “surrender our will,” I’d stay away. Lane is arguably the funniest writer to to have been published by The New Yorker in my lifetime, but he does have his hobby-horses. I prefer to encounter them at home, which is where I also get to know the movies I love; the element of compulsion that kept me in my seat during his homage to Ava Gardner at a bygone New Yorker festival was disagreeable. But it was theatre, in its way, and I’m glad that rules in effect since the Athens of Aeschylus are in force during staged performances. But the movies? Forget about it.

Gotham Diary:
Depleted
1 November 2011

Tuesday, November 1st, 2011

Depleted — c’est le mot juste! Thank you, Daniel Kahneman. I’m not sick, I’m not really even tired. I did drink a tad too much wine last night, more than I’m now used to drinking. I spent almost the entire day yesterday catching up with feeds on Google Reader; it’s difficult to imagine anything more depleting. In any case, I’m going to spend today repleting.

At some point, I must say a word about the two movies that I’ve seen recently but not written up — not written up because, by Friday afternoon, I am no longer quietly at home, but running errands for the weekend. I have my stay-at-home days and my out-and-about days, and the latter cluster toward the weekend, with the result that I am depleted at the beginning of the week. (If I’m depleted today, I was even more depleted yesterday.) For example, this past Friday I was determined to mail out the new round of postcards of Will on the beach this summer. The project was so overdue that it had to be done at once. This meant that I had to go out again, late in the afternoon, to buy Dymo labels that I didn’t know I’d run out of. What drove me crazy about this errand was that I could have done it in the morning when, finding that I’d shown up at the movie theatre forty minutes early (this is what happens when you’re depleted: you forget to check Movie Showtimes before leaving the house [and I see now that I was depleted at the end of last week]), I quickly ran a round of errands that could have easily included a stop at Staples. Had I thought to do so, of course, I wouldn’t have bought a new paper shredder, which I did do in the afternoon, thus necessitating a walk straight home and a separate outing to Fairway — all very depleting. It’s depleting just to read about this!

It’s just one of the many things that they didn’t teach us when we were young, viz, that you can’t get anything done properly without being adequately rested. This was as true when I was twenty as it is now, but I was like most twenty year-olds a shambolism of inattentiveness when it came to personal management.

So, enough depletion.

***

The movies were Margin Call and The Rum Diary.  I enjoyed them both very much, but my thoughts about writing them up were scrambled by all the Pauline Kael that has been in the air lately. When the Library of America collection of Kael’s reviews was announced, I thought about buying it. I remembered how sharply I had disagreed with Kael during her New Yorker days, not so much with individual judgments as with her general world-view, which, all too apparently, did not take in the place I call home. Just hearing her name revives wearying waves of pointless dismissals of bourgeois this and bourgeois that, made in case after case by utterly bourgeois writers who would have traded in a limb to cleanse themselves of their bourgeois provenance. Paul Kael was certainly one such. Like so many critics coming from the Left, she failed to see that almost everyone in America, aside from smarty-pants like herself, who did not already belong to the bourgeoisie was keen to do so, and that the mission to educate the uneducated into a state of utopian transcendentalism was trans-Quixotic. It’s people like Kael who did everything but lick Reagan’s welcome-mat clean.

I don’t think that Kael would have liked either of the movies in today’s hopper. She wouldn’t have liked Margin Call at all, and she would have wanted more Deppness in The Rum Diary. There is nothing in The Rum Diary that wasn’t presented in sharper focus in Public Enemy, and there was a lot more Deppness in The Tourist, that underrated romp in which two of Hollywood’s biggest Big Stars completely, and with hambones dangling from their mouths, upstage Venice. The Rum Diary is clearly a valentine from its star to his idol, soul brother, and sometime housemate, the late Hunter S Thompson, and this makes it more of a literary work than a movie. Qua movie, it’s composed of worthwhile scraps of other movies, covering a range from the Bournes to Body Heat. If you had to say something nasty, you could say that it is The Quiet American without the everything. What it really needs is not so much Deppness as Ribisiness: everything that has ever made you raise your eyebrows in amazement that Giovanni Ribisi ever got into the movies (with that squeaky voice especially) is given the mighty Wurlitzer treatment here, and you want more of it. You also want more of Amber Heard’s dress-up doll act; rarely — not since Now, Voyager, anyway — has an actress been rendered, within the context of one movie, so protean by makeup. Aaron Eckhart is his usual, cool-cucumber-gorged-python self; you have to wonder where he goes to get bank loans. But, hey, it’s a fun movie, as guilty a pleasure as raiding the minibar. The LSD trip taken by the hero and his sidekick, Sala (Michael Rispoli), is a masterpiece of articulate understatement that manages to convey the dynolysergic experience with only one loony special effect at the start; the natural look and feel of a fishing pier on a breezy, somewhat foggy night is just about as accurate a postcard as director Bruce Robinson could have sent from the late great’s gonzo files.

It’s interesting to reflect that Aaron Eckhart is not in Margin Call. You might at first wonder how a movie about Wall Street sleaziness was made without him, but the very point J C Chador’s astonishing directorial debut seems to be that Wall Street sleaziness is committed by people who aren’t very sleazy. Breezy, yes. Paul Bettany is, as it were, the reason why Aaron Eckhart isn’t in Margin Call. His character, Will Emerson, is a Brit who sends a piece of his winnings home to his folks and spends the rest on laddie equipment. He’s pumped by his income, not by master-of-the-universe powers that he doesn’t seem to believe in anyway. He likes being very well paid. He likes it well enough to risk never being paid again. He is a salesman, not a con man. If there’s a difference.

What Pauline Kael wouldn’t have liked about Margin Call, I believe, is that it is ultimately a filmed play. This isn’t to suggest that it suffers from the airlessness of that unfortunate genre. It’s only afterward, when you ask yourself what made the experience so powerful, so shattering, so overwhelming but in the end so satisfying, that you realize that the film’s production values — sets, lighting, and so forth — have been just good enough not to call attention to themselves while at the same time providing the perfect stage for outstanding theatrical performances. I’m not sure that Margin Call, even with its excellent cast (many of whom, and certainly the two principals, Jeremy Irons and Kevin Spacey, are stage actors of the very first rank), would be as effective in a Broadway theatre, but for all I know it might be twice as effective. I vote for the movie treatment because the story is already so claustrophobic — more than three-quarters of the action takes place during a very long night in largely empty offices perched too high atop Manhattan to feel attached to anything — that it needs the atmospheric rush, paradoxically more persuasive in the movies than in the theatre, of the morning ride across the East River that Will and Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley) take to round up Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) at his Brooklyn Heights doorstep. The exhilaration of speeding across the Brooklyn Bridge in a convertible sportscar after an pulling an all-nighter at work is something that you appreciate in the audience every bit as much as the two bankers, one of whom knows, by the way, that he is about to be let go.

For some reason, the marketing angle on this film focused on Peter Sullivan and Mr Badgley, as if, I suppose, to bring in younger audiences. But they are the least important figures in the film precisely because they’re so young. At mid-range, you have characters, played by Demi Moore, Simon Baker, and Mr Tucci, as well as Mr Bettany (don’t let me forget Aasif Mandvi),  complicated people who are very ambivalent about the risks that they take at work. And, at the top, you have the head trader, played by Kevin Spacey, and the head banker, played by Jeremy Irons, uncoiling at full length the helices of their personal mystery (they are mysteries to themselves) while the actors themselves, well-known to you as they are, show you things that you’ve never seen.Their appearing on the screen, and not onstage, signals their immense powers of destruction; what’s wrong with modern banking is that it hasn’t taken place entirely in the movies.

***

In the interests of repletion, I have set one of my Nanos to play the Bach in Order II playlist, and it is repleting me nicely. Ralph Kirkpatrick plays the English Suites, Andras Schiff plays the Partitas, and Maria Tipo plays the Goldberg Variations. The Cello Suites are played by Pierre Fournier. The Corelli Concerti Grossi are performed very deliberately by an outfit called Ensemble 415. As I write, the late Scott Ross is dashing through the Italian Concerto. (With all the things that people have done to and with Bach’s music, I’ve never heard a “fleshed out” concerto version, with orchestra, of this piece.)

The postcards reached local destinations very quickly. We had dinner with a friend last night who, earlier in the day, encountered another friend of ours as he was walking down 72nd Street. She told him that she had just received a postcard of Will; he kept his miffed-ness at not being able to say the same to himself. When he got home and collected his mail, though, there it was. Small town.

Gotham Diary:
Indian Summer
10 October 2011

Monday, October 10th, 2011

In the end, I did have my way: late Friday afternoon, just before I piled into a taxi bound for Alphabet City and a few hours with Will (who spent the evening quietly mesmerized by ancient episodes of Sesame Street, unaware that they were older than his mother), I not only polished off but posted a page on Helen DeWitt’s corker, Lighting Rods. You can read it at Civil Pleasures, here. 

And I went to the movies, too. The Ides of March had a murky scene that didn’t not make sense until I thought about it later; perhaps I missed something. Otherwise, it was a first-rate civics drama. Like a few other movies about “insider politics,” The Ides of March informs the viewer that the façade of unity that any candidate and his supporters present to the voting public is something of a legal fiction. The difference between a legal fiction and a lie is the adult recognition that civic affairs would cannot proceed without legal fictions.

Party unity is not a genuine legal fiction; it’s a political fiction. The adoption of children and the eternal personhood of corporations — now, those are legal fictions. (They may both need a lot of work, by the way, but they’re both vital all the same.) Like them, political fictions enable us to get on with important business. The Ides of March reminds us, indirectly, that political fictions must appear to be largely true; whether they’re political, legal, or narrative, fictions crumble when they generate cognitive dissonance.

All of this is another way of saying that, if politics is dirty business, it’s none of your business. Your business is to vote for the candidate most likely to implement the policies that you support. Your business is not to like the guy. This very important lesson in democracy has been learned, over the past two hundred years, by no more than 12% of the population; the unreconstructed 88% are endangering the experiment, and that is no fiction.

George Clooney, who directed The Ides of March, gives himself one big scene, and, as big scenes go, it is small and dark. He is confronted by his campaign staff’s second banana, played by Ryan Gosling, in a deserted restaurant kitchen that’s also not very well-lighted. Clooney knows how to invoke the many, many film scenes in which professional kitchens, with their knives and their clublike pots and pans and their capacious sinks and their heavy appliances, have been put in the service of movie mayhem. Neither actor so much as picks up a toothpick, but the showdown is thorough, and “the good guy wins.” Which is to say that both men win, and both men lose, and nobody gets hurt, and a magnetic politicans with a John Edwards problem in his past goes on to become President of the United States. The movie leaves it to you, which is worse: the cover-up of the candidates romantic imbroglio with an intern, or his capitulation to a powerful senator who wants to be the next Secretary of State, where he will presumably argue for positions contrary to his president’s.

If nothing else, the Ryan Gosling character finally understands the nature and importance of political fictions, and we feel his pain. We know how it is. 

Gotham Diary:
Uncle Spam
22 September 2011

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

A friend to whom I mentioned that I’d just seen Warrior told me that the trailer had made her think that it was just a retread of The Fighter. But the pictures are so dissimilar, in their excellent ways, that to rank them or to look for parallels is a complete waste of time. Only at their deepest roots do the two movies have anything in common, and Warrior makes so much more of this common matter, and yet does so so much more quietly, that the resulting shows are no more alike than Elizabeth II and Richard Nixon — who was said to be four-hundredth-and-something-th in line for the English throne.

What Warrior and The Fighter have in common (not even the boxing rings are the same) is Uncle Spam: a United States economy that has turned against its working classes. Not only does it no longer protect and support them, it exploits them. Garrett Keizer put it to his high-school students in Vermont (as he does to his readers at Harper’s) with stark eloquence:

I did on one or two occasions tell my students they were living in a society that valued people of their age, region, and class primarily as cannon fodder, cheap labor, and gullible consumers, and that education could give some of the weaponry necessary to fight back.

Warrior takes a somewhat darker view. One of the protagonists, Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton), actually teaches physics in high school — so “education” has given him just about everything that it has to offer without actually pushing him into the exploiting elite. (Would that count as “fighting back”?). But education hasn’t saved him from being a “gullible consumer”; he appears to have fallen for some toxic variant on the variable-rate mortgage. He will lose his home, the house where he and his wife, with three jobs between them, are raising their two little girls, if he doesn’t come up with some money fast. A former UFC fighter, he jumps into a parking-lot ring and makes a quick couple of hundred bucks. He also gets his face knocked up, which leads to his suspension without pay as a teacher — not anytime recent has America’s taste for mean respectability been so clearly deadpanned at the movies. No, I would say that education’s weaponry has been hardly more helpful to Brendan than the Army’s matériel has been to his brother Tommy (Tom Hardy). Tommy, a Marine who, while AWOL, has saved a tankful of soldiers with some single-handed superheroics, deserted after his entire platoon was extinguished by “friendly fire.”

You could blame Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte), the old man, a reformed but once-vicious drunk, for his boys’ misfortunes, but I don’t think it would stick. One way or another, he has made thoroughgoing stoics of the two of them, such that the only thing that they have in common is no use for their father. If he is beneath their blame, he can’t have been all bad.

Whatever you do, don’t stay away from Warrior because of my high-flown indignation about the American let-down. It probably wouldn’t have occurred to me to pin this kind of critical response to Warrior if Garrett Keizer’s bleak valediction hadn’t been ringing in my ears. Go to see the sterling performances given by the three actors whom I’ve mentioned, as well as by Jennifer Morrison, Frank Grillo, and Kevin Dunn. I went primarily to see the startlingly versatile Tom Hardy, and to say that he did not disappoint would be the understatement of the millennium.

***

Jenny Diski is one of my favorite journalists, and to meet her in the pages of The New Yorker is a real treat. The Diary entry at her regular venue, the London Review of Books, is, not surprisingly, somewhat more provocative — The New Yorker already has plenty of writers who do “provocative.” Consider Janet Malcolm! — but it’s no smarter. Writing about shoplifting in the glossier publication, Diski retails a story that I thought I must already have read in her brisk memoir, The Sixties (which I’ve shelved right next to Lynn Barber’s An Education), but that I can’t, this morning, find there. From “The Secret Shopper”:

“…If you act like it’s yours no one will ask you to pay for it.” I found this to be true. Running an alternative school with almost no money in the early seventies, I made trips to a large bookstore in London and piled up reference books and textbooks until the tower nestled under my raised chin. Then I confidently walked out of the shop. Several times. No one ever stopped me. I had no qualms. It was a corporate-owned shop, and the books I stole were for the educationally and socially deprived kids I was working with. Even better than acting like its yours is righteously believing that it’s yours, or, at any rate, that you are robbing capitalistic hoods to feed the minds of the poor.

Of course, this sort of uplift is quite aside the point of Diski’s review of a new book about shoplifting — inferior, she thinks, to an earlier one from which it borrows — the point being that, hey, what a surprise, shoplifting was regarded as a gendered crime from the get-go (from the early days of the department store, that is), and then a gendered disease (kleptomania or hysteria, take your pick). Readers of The Sixties know that Diski has a particular interest in the treatment of mental unrest, and her Diary entry at the LRB is a highly discomfiting consideration of the Three Christs experiment that Milton Rokeach conducted in Michigan in 1959. Rokeach wanted to see how well three men, each claiming to be God, would be able to hold on to their professed identity if they were obliged to meet on a daily basis. Diski does a fine job of hoisting the good doctor.

“Because it is not feasible to study such phenomena with normal people, it seemed reasonable to focus on delusional systems of belief in the hope that, in subjecting them to strain, there would be little to lose and, hopefully, a great deal to gain.” This is a very magisterial “non-deluded” view of who in the world has or has not little to lose. Evidently, the mad, having no lives worth speaking of, might benefit from interference, but if they didn’t, if indeed their lives were made worse, it hardly mattered, since such lives were already worthless non-lives. It also incorporated that bang-up-to-the-minute idea that if you want to know about normality you could do worse than watch and manipulate the mad. The three Christs themselves, however, were of the certain opinion that they had something valuable to lose and made truly heroic effors, each in his own way, to resist, as well as to explain to Rokeach and his team that their lives had considerable meaning for them. All of them … had a very clear understanding of what it was to be deluded, why it might be a useful option to choose over normality, and who did and didn’t have the right to interfere in their self-selected delusions. Over the course of the research, each man indicated how far he was prepared to go along with Rokeach, how much he valued what was on offer, and when his boundary had been reached. And they did it with more than ordinary grace and dignity.

I think that it’s Diski’s ability to appreciate that grace and dignity that keeps her anger from consuming her alive.

***

I went to bed quite early last night; I was asleep shortly after ten. I was leaning on Lunesta pretty hard — I wasn’t actually sleepy — and it took a while to do its thing. But I did what I could to help. I concentrated on being comfortable in bed, and I thought about what I would write here when I got up in the morning. When I did get up, it was still completely dark, and as I lay in bed for a bit I couldn’t help worrying that I ought to try to get back to sleep; I had to remind myself that, no, I had slept enough, and now it was time to get up. Which I thereupon did.

Gotham Diary:
Elective
21 September 2011

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

Although he approves of the way that the writing table has been arranged overall, Ray Soleil does not care for the side-by-side vases. “It looks like a shop,” says he.  I say that it’s a variation on urns. The yellow one was purchased in Key West for next to nothing; I’d have bought two if I’d thought I could pack them safely. Placed between yourself and the source of daylight, it becomes a second sun. The crystal number on the right is Steuben. I believe that it was presented to Kathleen’s father upon the achievement of some large project or other. Now Steuben itself s’achève. Only the other day, I was looking at their latest catalogue, all unaware that the famous producer of luxury goods was about to be shut down, but troubled nonetheless to see that their latest tchotchka was a crystal cupcake. A crystal apple I can see. Apples are naturally firm. Not so buttercream frosting. It was, evidently, a portent.

***

I saw Drive yesterday, and I really liked it! I don’t know why Anthony Lane, writing in The New Yorker, finds it unnecessarily gory. Los Angeles is a terrible place! Beautiful in its way, perhaps, but all but overtly savage. I’m speaking, of course, of the mythical Los Angeles that has inspired filmmakers since the days of film noir. Drive feels like American Gigolo, as reconceived by David Lynch. Moments of violence are just that, compressed into short bursts that never last as long as a minute. And they are always backed up, as it were, by ghastly people, notably Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman. I can’t resist suggesting that Nino is the role that Mr Perlman was misbegotten to play; and, as for Albert Brooks, it’s as though the dark swarm of mayflies that consistently blotted all sunniness out of his many comedies were finally openly acknowledged as his company of familiars, so that, for once, the actor doesn’t come across as neurotic. He’s not fussy this time; he’s demanding. There’s a big difference.

Nicholas Winding Refn’s finest directorial decision was to leave the cops out of it altogether. (We see them in the opening getaway caper, mostly through windshields; but the protagonist’s appearance in costume as a stunt driver is the last time that we see a uniform in this study of Angeleno lawlessness.) In the absence of officers of the law, Nino and Bernie (Mr Brooks) roam the earth unchallenged — at least until they run into the Driver (Ryan Gosling). Refn’s most interesting decision is to film his action story as a sequence of visual panels: I regarded Drive as a graphic movie. Movement is contained within large, fixed frames, and close-ups are as still as Vermeer’s tronies. In the earlier part of the picture, the Driver and Irene (Carey Mulligan) gaze at each other with an impassioned, soon-to-burst self-containment that hasn’t been seen since the silents, and, believe me, they reinvent the look. They pause on the verge of embrace, savoring every imaginable aspect of what it will feel like to kiss. (And when they do, it’s not just a kiss, but also an adieu and a feint.) It’s quite as though the film has stuck in the sprockets and is about to burn (a feature of moviegoing that has gone the way of the silents).

***

Are we at war with the United Kingdom yet? Just saying. Have you read Janet Malcolm’s piece on large-format photographer Thomas Struth yet? It’s in the current issue of The New Yorker (dated Sept 26), and the last paragraph on page 95 is where you want to start reading. Turn the page to find out how far you get before the magazine falls from your grip. I’ll spare you Thomas Struth’s “coarse reference to the royal bosom” — but note Malcolm’s incredibly sneaky manner of telling us exactly how, in former times, she would have been constrained to refer to it — and proceed to the second most-offensive paragraph in the piece, which is, again, about Queen Elizabeth, who together with her husband the Duke of Edinburgh are the subjects of a photograph commissioned by Britain’s National Portrait Gallery.

My first impression was of a vaguely familiar elderly couple posing for a formal portrait in a corner of the palatial Minneapolis hotel ballroom where their fiftieth wedding anniversary is being celebrated. The pair were seated on an ornate settee, and my attention was drawn to the woman’s sturdy legs in beige stockings, the right knee uncovered where the skirt of her pale-blue silke dress had hitched up a bit as she settled her ample figure into the settee; and to her feet, in patent-leather pumps planted firmly on the fancy hotel carpet. Her white hair was carefully coifed, in a sort of pompadour in front and fluffy curls on the sides, and her lipsticked mouth was set in an expression of quiet determination. The man — a retired airline pilot? — was smaller, thinner, recessive. They were sitting a little apart, not touching, looking straight ahead. Gradually, the royal couple came into focus as such, and the photograph assumed its own identity as a work by Struth, the plethora of its details somehow tamed to serve a composition of satisfying serenity and readability.

“Fancy hotel carpet” practically doubled me over. Malcolm has a point: hotels in Minneapolis and elsewhere have appropriated the look of royalty. Question is, can royalty work on a new look? And it must be said that the Her Majesty’s shift, while evidently well made of and of good material, is a house dress.

I finished reading Andrew Thompson’s biography of Elizabeth’s venerable ancestor George II yesterday, and I hope to start writing it up this afternoon. I may have read more into Thompson’s book than is actually there, but I came away impressed by the portrait of a man who thoroughly understood how a world that has vanished worked. That it vanished — that, specifically, the Holy Roman Empire within which George figured not unimportantly for a long stretch of the Eighteenth Century, came to an end well before he had been dead for a hundred years — does not mean that George was a fool to play his cards very well, according to the rules then in force. We can look at his reign as a string of decades during which the cabinet system that currently governs Britain was given the unintended chance to germinate, largely during the king’s absences. That’s easy. Thompson makes us understand why the king was absent: while in England he was already constitutionally constrained to work with ministers who attained power within the Houses of Parliament, whether he liked them or not, George was, as Elector of Hanover, an absolute, if benevolent, monarch. Which would you rather be? I myself would find it much more agreeable to have my untrammeled way in a prosperous principality, with my principal subjects gathering in my palace every Sunday to honor me even when I was in distant London, than to deal with high-maintenance aristocrats of whose manners I could only find presumptuous. I might not be riding the wave of the future, but I’d be sitting pretty.

Gotham Diary:
Decrepit
10 September 2011

Saturday, September 10th, 2011

If I told you how I feel today — listless, achy, mildly anxious and even somewhat depressed — you might urge me to take either a quick nap or a long walk, depending upon your philosophy. Even I regard my low spirits as just that — low spirits, nothing somatic. But spirits are no less somatic than the rest of my anatomy, and the cure for what ails them awaits me on Wednesday, in the form of a Remicade infusion. I have to remind myself that the infusion will make me feel better, because I don’t feel sick at all, in the sense of needing medical attention. But I do need medical attention. It’s very odd, to have grown up in one medical environment, and then to be growing old in an entirely different one.

I did nothing yesterday but go to the movies and read. I saw Crazy Stupid Love, which, aside from its crazy stupid title, is a sweet if quirky films, one of those romantic comedies the shared fondness for which will lead some people to discover that they are soul mates. The plot, such as it is, is both abrupt and vague, a combination that certainly makes you pay attention, which you’re happy to do because the actors are so engaging. I am not a fan of the flamboyant strangeness of Steve Carrell’s impersonation of ordinary guys, but I thank him for reminding me that ordinariness is no more to be trusted, expected, or relied upon than is extraordinary behavior. It’s possible that Julianne Moore was miscast; it’s so much easier to see her as the smiling but unhappy wife of a John C Reilly or a Dennis Quaid than as the confused but happy wife of a Steve Carrell. (And better than either is seeing her as the assertively insecure drinking buddy of a Colin Firth.) But Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are perfect for this film, and they hang together, usually silently, in their scenes with other characters in the way the real couples do; perhaps they will make some more movies together. I couldn’t make up my mind about Jonah Bobo, but there’s no doubt that this kid will have a future if he plays his cards right. Analeigh Tipton is a lovely young lady who has the ability, exhibited best by Japanese actresses, to absorb what is happening around her and to register it for the viewer’s sake, as if privately. And don’t let me forget Marisa Tomei, whose role is something like a brick in a clothes drier — it’s the “crazy” part of the movie, structurally — but who makes the absolute mostest of what she’s been given to work with, as indeed she always does. Kevin Bacon’s role, as the man who cuckholds Steve Carrell’s character, is just about as thankless as a part can be, and it shows off the ageing of his lean good looks pretty gruesomely. I can’t say anything about the story, not only because it hinges on some well-contrived surprises, or because the loverboy spends what ought to be the big sex scene confessing an addiction to buying things that he doesn’t want or need on the Home Shopping Network. But when Steve Carrell gives Ryan Gosling’s cheek one of those friendly alpha-male slaps, and Emma Stone murmurs, “This is going to be fun,” you quite agree, and then Mr Carrell delivers another slap and it’s a wrap.

As for reading, I finished Anthony Flint’s Wrestling With Moses and began Rachel Brownstein’s Why Jane Austen. The Epilogue of Flint’s book cleared up a big puzzle for me, which was how it came to be that The Power Broker never mentioned Jane Jacobs. It seems that there was to be an entire chapter about her tango with Moses, along with chapters on the Port Authority and the City Planning Commission, but these, together with “detail on the departure of the Brooklyn Dodgers,” were cut from Caro’s massive tome. I haven’t written about The Power Broker as a whole, but I did notice that the narrative becomes somewhat miscellaneous after 1940. I hope that a complete edition, the “directors cut,” including all of Caro’s work on Robert Moses, will be published at some point, and I’m quite shocked that it hasn’t been republished as a two-volume set, especially given the sprawl of the author’s ongoing work on Lyndon Johnson, with its fourth volume forthcoming.

Why did I buy Why Jane Austen?? It was recently reviewed somewhere along with William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Eduction, and I was drawn to a book by a professor who is no longer sure about regarding herself as “feminist critic.” Actually, a lot of things have changed since Brownstein “came to consciousness in the mid 1950′s, when students were enjoined to keep an author at arms length, until just before the beginning of this century, when “Jane” (aka “Austen”) became a symbol of her sex and close to a sex symbol, a “name” and a star and in the common phrase an icon.” In other words, Brownstein’s appreciation of Austen is an autobiographical matter, and thus flouts a principle that students were even more stringently enjoined to observe fifty years ago: the ban on personal references. There are still curmudgeonly readers out there — some of them, even, are women — who won’t fail to smack a critic with the remark, “I don’t care what you think of Jane Austen.” Most of them are deep into Social Security territory, though. We have by and large outgrown the childish dream of objective, impersonal criticism. (Smart people no longer believe that all intellectual activity ought to be patterend on the conduct of the physical sciences.)

Opening up Why Jane Austen?, I was immediately drawn to the last chapter, entitled “Why We Reread Jane Austen.” The simple answer is that we reread Jane Austen because she gets better with reacquaintance, but I wanted to hear what Rachel Brownstein had to say. The chapter turns out to be almost entirely about Emma, which I’ve just reread for the sixth time (seven readings in all), and about which I have a few things to say — namely, that I detect a four-movement structure beneath its somewhat languid narraive course. I may write about it here, but eventually my thoughts will form part of a suite of pages about Jane Austen’s fiction collected at Civil Pleasures. And while I’m writing up my notes, I ought to read what I’ve already written at Portico, which is where the collection is currently lodged. Brownstein said nothing of Emma‘s structure — “there’s not much of a plot” — but her unpacking of the novel’s concept of “information” is spellbinding. When I was through, I went back to begin at the beginning, and in the Introduction I encountered a truth that needs to be universally acknowledged, at least among people who love to read Jane Austen.

As Juliet McMasteer wisely observes, “We all want to write about Jane Austen, but we each of us want to be the only one doing it. We want everyone to admire Jane Austen, but we each suspect the others do it the wrong way.”

Because when you’ve overcome the urge to have the last word about Jane Auste, you can enjoy reading about her, secure in the knowledge that this is going to be fun.

Before going to bed, I watched Douglas McGrath’s 1996 adaptation of Emma, which Brownstein mentions several times in the final chapter, and I was astonished, having just read the book myself, by the extent of its fabricated upholstery of dialogue and scenes. (Archery, indeed! Jane driving about in a gig!) The finished product seems largely true to the novel, but it gets there by an alternative route.

Moviegoing:
Cowboys & Aliens
Friday, 29 July 2011

Friday, July 29th, 2011

Two things save Jon Favreau’s Cowboys & Aliens from being a total bore for anyone who has outgrown adolescence, and they are intertwined. One is Daniel Craig, and the Bond glamour that he brings to the project. (It seems to have infected cinematographer Matthew Libatique and composer Henry Gregson-Williams.) Craig brings an almost choreographic rigor to the routine of looking mean and tough, and he fills the movie with little moments of excitement that put me in mind of Nureyev lifting Fonteyn. Who cares if Jake Lonergan is really a good guy? Craig is really a great actor, and his winking way of reminding us that great performances don’t just fall out of bed is a trick that makes him the consummate James Bond, rendering each and every one of his predecessors, very much including Sean Connery, a clutch of pretty boys. Like Harrison Ford’s Woodrow Dolarhyde, we’d like Daniel Craig to hang out with us when the excitement is over, and, again like Dolarhyde, we respect the fact that the man has a higher calling.

The second thing that makes Cowboys & Aliens is its opening gambit, which comes from neither of its conjoined genres but instead belongs to B-movie noirs. A guy wakes up in a strange place with a wound, a girl’s photograph, and an unexplained accessory — in Lonergan’s case, a wristwatch minus the watch and plus a lot of trans-Dick-Tracy detail. Not until deep into the movie is the ambiguity resolved, and until then we’re kept edgily wondering if Lonergan is (a) a gunman who has had a close encounter with an alien that he no longer remembers or (b) an alien who has had an even closer encounter with the human Jake Lonergan that he no longer remembers. Daniel Craig knows that the way to keep this uncertainty interesting is to make you care about him,  whoever he is. Also borrowed from the noirs is the figure of Ella Swenson, who keeps pestering Craig with offers to help him, going so far as to knock him flat when he’s about to leave town. What’s the deal with her? Once it has answered these questions, Cowboys & Aliens settles down into a textbook shootout.

The aliens are very nasty. Like the beastie in Super 8, they’re both incredibly intelligent and super slimy. The novelty here is actually a doubly shameless rip-off (from the Aliens series, of course): the last thing that any human victim will see is the monster’s suppurating abdomen opening up to reveal a pair of three-digited hands that draw their prey to a set of distinctly arthropodic mouthparts. Gross and double gross! Jon Favreau is to be thanks for treating us to this spectacle very sparingly.

Ella Swenson, who also turns out to be a [redacted], is played by Olivia Wilde, Hollywood’s It Girl of the moment. Wilde is very pretty, and doubtless capable of great things. But hers is a very tricky business, and the actress would do well to study the career of Jacqueline Bissett, a beauty of similar luminousness. I don’t mean the Darryl Zanuck part — that’s not going to be a problem for this daughter of savvy DC professionals, who reportedly found her a job with a casting agency so that she’d learn just how awful Hollywood is (she was very quickly cast herself, of course). No, what I mean is the difficulty of embodying the wildest dreams of men without being suffocated by the inviting passivity that’s such an important part of that package. Unlike all the great screen comediennes that I can think of, Wilde looks like she really admires men. It’s all right to want them and to desire them, but once you approve of men, you’ve lost your mojo. If, I mean, you have Olivia Wilde’s looks. 

Harrison Ford gets second billing to Daniel Craig — has that happened before, since the Indiana Jones films? I don’t like to think what it means. Well, here’s what it means. It means that Ford has been given a tailor-made part to play, one that pulls out all his more resonant stops and lets him do his stück. Unfortunately, that is one genre too many. For Harrison Ford, who has certainly ridden a herd of horses and grappled with a host of aliens in his time, is neither a cowboy nor an alien star. He is always an abrasive smart-ass who turns out to have the milk of human kindness by the quart in every vein, even when he’s a good-natured abrasive smart-ass or an unscrupulous louse. Favreau tries hard to muss up the portrait, by introducing Woodrow Dolarhyde as the kind of cattleman who would tie a hired hand to two horses — drawing and halving, as it were — to find out what happened to his livestock. But Ford defeats the exercise by convincing you that this is the sort of thing that you have to do if you’re going to run things in the Old West; he doesn’t like it any more than you do. It’s the smart-ass part that gets in the way; when people say that Cowboys & Aliens is funny, they’ll be referring almost exclusively to Harrison Ford’s scenes, which are all faithful adaptations of other Ford vehicles. There is nothing wrong with the borrowing — that’s what made the great stars really great in the old days, when Bette Davis was always Bette Davis, right up until you wanted to push her in the Nile. But it’s not what Cowboys & Aliens is about, and you are left with the slightly embarrassing recollection that nobody ever hired Harrison Ford to play James Bond.

Anyone who employs the term “cognitive dissonance” to describe the effect of seeing cowboys and aliens on the same screen is to be taken out and shot for criminal pretentiousness. There is nothing wrong with the term when it is applied correctly, but here there is no dissonance at all. The hitherto disparate elements (Old-West storefronts on dusty streets, dankly dripping laboratories run by photophobic meanies) are applied with an amazingly equalizing brush. It all hangs together beautifully — although “beautifully” is probably not a word that ought to be allowed within fifty furlongs of Favreau’s gritty souvenir. When a damaged fighter plane (looking a lot like a dragonfly) tries to outrun our horse-riding hero by flying low through an arroyo, we’re perfectly prepared for Jake to do exactly what he would do if the plane were a train — stand in his stirrups and take a flying leap. That said, fans of Glen Baxter are going to feel right at home.

Gotham Diary:
Double Feature
22 July 2011

Friday, July 22nd, 2011

I saw two movies today. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Friends With Benefits. What else was there to do in this heat? Because the two of them ate up the entire afternoon, I was left with no time to write either one up (what with shopping at Fairway for the third day in a row and having a pleasant dinner with Kathleen out on the balcony, despite the heat — but I want to reserve the space before I tuck in for the night. More tomorrow! Or eventually.

I will say that it’s great to see Mila Kunis in a role that’s almost big enough for her talent. But the face that I can’t get out of my mind — and I’m sure that everyone who sees Wayne Wang’s new film will feel something like the same impact — is that of Bingbing Li as Taitai Wei. Her performance, more of a cinematic emanation really, has left me with the first-impression false memory of having seen Olivia de Havilland play the newly-widowed Victoria. All the light has gone out of Ms Li’s character’s life, leaving the astonishing gravity of a black hole.