Archive for the ‘Home Movies’ Category

Gotham Diary:
Sweep Me to Sleep
9 August 2012

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

Glancing through the feeds yesterday, I came across a piece by David Thomson on Marilyn Monroe and another on used bookstores by Jeremiah Moss. (Both were noticed at 3 Quarks Daily.) And I thought: Du mußt dein Leben ändern. Or, at least, find some new feeds. There is really nothing to be said about Marilyn Monroe. The very idea of thinking about Marilyn Monroe (as distinct from responding to her onscreen persona) is, simply, fatuous. It is true, as Thomson says, that nobody knows what Monroe’s story really was, or how and why it came to an end. Does that make her fascinating? Not to me. It’s arguable that Hollywood didn’t know what to do with her, but what can’t be denied is that she found sustained effort tedious, and was not inclined to work when she was bored. But what am I doing here, talking about Marilyn Monroe? Stop at once! And, as for used bookstores! Not only is there nothing to say about used bookstores, but there is hardly anything to say about books. Here are two things that you can say about books: they’re usually easy to read, and they pile up whether you read them or not. Every library in the world contains too many books, and every library is incomplete. Scylla, meet Charybdis. I’ll just get out of the way… 

I guess it’s August. Did Rilke write about August?


De fil en aiguille — Marilyn Monroe > Michelle Williams > Eddie Redmayne — I watched The Other Boleyn Girl. On the surface, it’s a dreadful movie. The costumes are hideously confused, for one thing, treating the fashions of a good fifty year period as mutually contemporary, and the sets are little better; as production values go, it’s not much of an advance beyond Errol Flynn’s swashbucklers for Warner Brothers. The dialogue is truly preposterous, because it has to make plain to today’s (clueless) audiences what winks and nods would have expressed at a time when it was foolish to be explicit and straightforward. The dramatic situations are strictly soap opera.

And yet — why did I want to watch it? Why did I sit through it? The actors have a lot to do with it. Eric Bana no more resembles Henry VIII than I do — no, come to think of it, I look a great deal more like Henry VIII than he does. It cannot be said that Mr Bana looks comfortable in all those Joan Crawford shoulder pads and cocktail waitress skirts. But he’s fun. Mark Rylance is great fun, a complete toady — you want to step on him. David Morrissey’s Norfolk is a lout, possessed of less brain than he boasts, but a surfeit of King James talk withal. He’s not fun, exactly, but it is funny that he dresses as though for the court of Henry VII, complete with Christopher Columbus’ bouncy hair. Kristin Scott Thomas gives good value; whatever they paid her to impersonate Elizabeth Howard, Lady Boleyn, she earned every penny. Most of all though, the movie belongs to Ana Torrent, who plays Catherine of Aragon. Every time I watch The Other Boleyn Girl, I make a resolution to see this amazing actress in other movies. So far, nothing has come of it, but just you wait. When she says, “Where is my wise husband?”, something clicks, and you realize that all Spaniards are natural monarchs.

What about Scarlett and Natalie, you’re asking. They’re fun, too. They have wildly different English accents; Ms Johansson sounds like a governess at Chatsworth, while Ms Portman suggests a party girl who has spent a lot of time on translantic steamships. It’s fun to hear both of them say, especially to one another, “my sistah.” The worst thing about the movie is that it never manages to present them as serious romantic rivals in the fine tradition of Bette Davis and Mary Astor. As Miranda might put it, there is no “sweep.”

Also: Call the Midwife has taken onscreen childbirth to new levels of interest and satisfaction. If all you’re going to do is moan and scream, we’d rather take it as read into the record.

I’ll stop there. It’s a terrible movie. It’s not a train wreck; it’s just bad. But it’s still one of my favorites. You can’t say that any of the historical personages has been seriously misrepesentented in an unfavorable way. Almost all of them — the real people — were just as ambitious and just as short-sighted. (Catherine was just as grand.) What’s wrong is what’s usually wrong with historical dramas: the characters are disfigured by the attempt to beam them up into contemporary parlance. It’s fun to see modern young actresses with little or no classical training and closets full of blue jeans attempt to put them over.


A brilliant conspiracy theory occurred to me yesterday. Actually, it’s not much of a conspiracy theory, because if it were true it would be the work of one man, acting alone. Well, perhaps not acting alone in the strictest sense, but then this guy is so powerful that he can tell people what to do without waiting for their cooperation. My conspiracy theory is this: The Second Avenue subway is being paid for, at least on a short-term cash basis, by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. His gift to New York.

I have no idea where this idea comes from — which just shows that I’m on to something. The last time I looked, the new T line was priced at $4.5 billion. I don’t know if the mayor is rich enough to foot the bill, but, once you start thinking about it, you realize that there are lots of billionaires out there with that kind of money. Maybe not a hundred, but more than just Henry Ford and John D Rockefeller. Let’s hit them up!

Anyway, you heard it here first. People complain about how hard the mayor has made it to drive through Midtown (bravo!), and the projected ban on supersized sodas has almost everyone nattering about the nanny state. They say, “Thank God Bloomberg will be gone soon.” I say, “Not so fast.”   



Have you seen The Prince and the Showgirl? Recently? It’s a bad movie, too, but not my kind of bad movie. When Olivier is off, he’s unwatchable, and all his prince does is make you wish that Henry Higgins would make an entrance and unmask him as Zoltan Karpathy. As for Marilyn Monroe, she’s great when she’s alone with the camera, which is not exactly what I call “acting.” Face to face with another actor, she behaves like a producer’s niece, someone who has been given a part in order to make a mogul happy — think Miss Casswell. And who has been told, “Just act naturally, sweetie” — a Betty Boop who’s dying to take off her foundation garments. Everything about Monroe suggests sleep. If only the film were in black and white, you might just be able to nod off. 

Gotham Diary:
5 June 2012

Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

Yesterday was a bleak day, and somehow the bleakness got under my skin. I could think of nothing to say or do. The sense of inanition was so frightening that it kept a truly depressed state of mind at bay. I wondered if I’d suffered a stroke of some kind, so empty did I feel, so deeply bored by every thought. 

It was imperative that I do something. I could pay the bills, but paying the bills never takes very long, and it always fills me with guilty resolve: spend less. Even when I do. The main thing, though, is that it doesn’t take very long, so I put off paying the bills and did the ironing instead. I had a great pile of ironing, accumulated since our return from Amsterdam and London. Nothing but napkins, handkerchiefs, and pillow-cases, but massive. I thought: I’ll watch something that will take me out of myself. In the end, though, I went for something that I hadn’t seen before, a much safer bet in chancy moods. If you don’t know what’s going to happen, you never have that awful sinking feeling that this isn’t going to do it for me. There wasn’t much in the basket that I hadn’t seen, but one promising item featured Maggie Smith in a STEPHEN POLIAKOFF production called Capturing Mary.

I capitalized the writer/director’s name because, on the jewel box artwork, it appears in much larger type than that of the title, and in much much larger type than “Maggie Smith.” It’s quite as if Stephen Poliakoff were Alfred Hitchcock. Which he may be, for all I know. Because I watch television — not even the latest round of Mad Men —I can’t say if Capturing Mary has ever been aired here. I bought Capturing Mary when I bought Glorious 39, also by Mr Poliakoff, which bristles with stars (Bill Nighy, Eddie Redmayne, Romola Garai, Julie Christie, and Jeremy Northam). What both films have in common is a backward glance at sinister doings in the highest echelons of English wealth and power. In Glorious 39, a young woman discovers that the family into which she has been adopted are keen to appease Hitler. In Capturing Mary, the wickedness is more subtle, or vague in a Henry James sort of way.

Maggie Smith plays a woman who returns to a great house in Mayfair — empty but scrupulously maintained — to exorcise a demon. Long ago, back in the Fifties, she was an up-and-coming journalist, the “voice of youth,” someone who had taught herself to talk posh at university — and who thought that she could take on the establishment, or at least meet it on her own terms. Invited to choice soirées at the home of a very rich man, she became aware of Greville White, an insidious gentleman who would sidle up to the famous guests and express his regret that their latest novel or cabinet move was not up to par. Eventually, he cornered Mary herself in the kitchen, and regaled her with some gossip. Then he took her down to the wine cellar, where he spilled out truly appalling stories about famous figures — bishops who thrashed boys until they bled, magnates who kept girls as personal slaves; derisive clubland chitchat about Jews and “niggers.” Appalled, Mary fled. At another party, sometime later, Greville presented her with the key to his house, of which she should avail herself at her convenience. Very creepy — because it was clear that carnality didn’t come into it.

Mary rebuffed these strange advances, only to witness the collapse of her journalism career. Assignments were canceled, contracts dropped, new jobs closed to her. Mary knew that Greville was behind it — but was he? (And why?) You’ll have to see for yourself. Greville is played by David Williams, a smooth talker who sounds exactly like Simon Callow if you close your eyes, and Young Mary by Ruth Wilson, whom I’ve never seen before. The Fifties settings are luscious, but the women, aside from a few beauties, are dependably dowdy, dressed to the nines but looking like Mamie Eisenhower just the same. You do not wish that you could have been there. Maggie Smith plays one of her soiled, disreputable personae (which reminds me: I need to see The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne again), making you shudder ever time she takes a pull from her silver flask. It’s conceivable that her footage was shot in two days.

In any case, Capturing Mary pulled me right out of the doldrums. Plus: all the ironing done.   

Weekend Note:
18 March 2012

Sunday, March 18th, 2012

It has been a long time since I last saw the St Patrick’s Day experience up close, and I hope that it will be a very long time before I see it again. Given the mild winter that we’ve had, and the pleasant weather this weekend, it’s easy to see the sprawl of funseekers attired in unattractive green outfits as a rite of spring, an utterly charmless version of Mardi Gras staged in Manhattan by young people from elsewhere. Let this entry be a plea to Gotham’s hipsters: please, we beg of you, impose some discipline on this yesty letting-go.


At some point in early middle age, I gave up expecting film adaptations to capture whatever it was about books that I’d really liked, and life got a lot easier. I might still hate a movie, but I didn’t take its botched representations as an insult to the novel that allegedly inspired it. Novels and films have nothing in common; they travel on parallel trajectories that will never intersect. A book that yields readily to cinematic adaptation is less likely to be a novel than a scenario. The true virtue of fiction — the writing — cannot be translated into imagery at all. Once you accept this rule, there is more pleasure to be had.

François Ozon’s Angel is an example of how going wrong can work out right. I gather that this deeply unfaithful adaption of Elizabeth Taylor’s 1957 novel was not received, in Britain, anyway, with unalloyed rapture, and to the best of my knowledge an American release was never undertaken. One IMDb commenter remarked, “It’s hard to know what attracted Ozon to Elizabeth Taylor’s fantastic source novel as his adaptation is misjudged on a number of levels. … He doesn’t seem able to master Taylor’s irony at all.” Certainly there is nothing ironic about Ozon’s presentation of his heroine. I’m not quite sure how literary irony works in the movies, but I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t be able to sit through a feature-length attempt to capture the peculiarities of Taylor‘s heroine.

Angel Deverell is the writer of popular novels that, by any literary measure, are simply awful. Angel, although possessed of a large vocabulary, is not a reader. She writes not in communion with writers who have gone before her but in straightforward regurgitation of her own longings, which, for a time, harmonize with those of the market for escapist fantasy. Nor does Angel write because she is obliged to by the mysterious inner necessity to which almost every literary novelist attributes the stamina required to create a novel. Angel’s objective is to get rich, to escape her humble origins. She peddles her fancies in order to afford to bring her own actual life into line with them. She buys the great house in which her aunt was a lady’s maid, not because she likes the place or dreamed of living in it (she seems not to have known where it was, much less what it looked like), but in order to close a psychological circuit by becoming, as chatelaine of Paradise House, the grand dame who once condescended to invite her to visit as a member of the servant class. When, for the first time, she runs into a man whose attractions she can’t put out of her mind, she buys him as well. She goes on buying things long after her popularity recedes, and at the end she dies in shabby gentility, under equally irresponsible circumstances: Angel has always refused to see a doctor. Doctors and accountants have no place in the dream-world that she seeks to make real.

Watching a movie about such foolishness would be extremely confusing. One the one hand, Angel is a narcissist — the opposite of sympathetic. Taylor says so, almost in passing. At the same time, however, Angel is only a narcissist; she is not a monster. There is something almost winning about her lack of intelligent calculation, her protracted immaturity. And she regards herself as a success right up to the end. She has set out to achieve fame, fortune, and love, and the achievement itself is proof against reversal.

Ozon’s Angel does not die anywhere near so happily. In a drastic contraction of a long and rather funny scene in the novel, the movie Angel discovers that her husband was in love with another woman, and not just any other woman, but the very daughter of Paradise House after whom she herself was named. Carelessly stepping out into the snow in search of a favorite kitten — one thinks of those dranged bel canto heroines in their mad scenes — Angel contracts pneumonia and dies, just like that. The End! Compared to the richness of Taylor’s exordium, Ozon’s is simply terrible.

Or it would be if Ozon didn’t know exactly what he is up to, and we weren’t clever enough to see it. He has given us The Real Life of Angel Deverell as Angel Deverell would have written it. He has taken Taylor’s novel and subjected it to a complete overhaul at the hands of its principal character. Enough of the novel is preserved to show that Angel is seen by many people to be ridiculous, but it is not an impression shared by the movie. In the movie, Angel is bigger than life, someone who lives the dream. And she does so in the most extraordinary costumes!

Taylor’s Angel is not plain or ill-favored, but there is something pinched about her physiognomy that spoils any claim to beauty. As if aware of this, Angel devotes a great deal of time to mooning over the smooth white skins of her hands, which she is forever arranging artfully. There is none of this in the movie. Why should there be? Angel is played by a real beauty, Romola Garai. Ms Garai is, I must say, extraordinary; she completely captures Angel’s conviction that, having paid the bills, she can’t be expected to do anything further. Angel never tries to be charming, and the actress doesn’t, either. Instead, she enables the director to substitute for the verbal irony of Taylor’s text the psychological irony that’s betrayed by the conviction shared by so many people of subpar intelligence, that they are unusually gifted.

Heaven only knows what viewers who haven’t read the novel make of Angel. The film is complicated somewhat by the filmmaker’s interest in a certain kind of excess, a visual celebration of colorful bad taste that runs like a thread through his work, from Sitcom and Huit Femmes right up to Potiche. What if Douglas Sirk had been a party animal? Something very like François Ozon would be the result. Without the anchor of Taylor’s novel, and what we know about the imagination of Taylor’s Angel, the movie might seem to be accidentally cartoonish and underdeveloped. In fact, there is no accident.

Gotham Diary:
In Like Flynn
19 December 2011

Monday, December 19th, 2011

There is always so much to be learned about photography. Red-eye is bad enough. Red velvet hands? What I’m really showing off here is the happy accident that Civil Pleasures, my second Web site and still more in development than it ought to be four years after launching, looks just right on the Kindle Fire without any further fiddling.


Watching The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex last night gave new meaning to the phrase “in like Flynn.” The 1939 Warners classic, which I’d never seen before, turns out to be almost perfectly cast. Just as Elizabeth put the stability of England ahead of personal glory, something that Essex couldn’t seem to imagine doing, so Bette Davis put the dramatic interest of the motion picture ahead of personal vanity, which couldn’t have occurred to Errol Glynn. Ethan Mordden writes that Flynn “was at his best when he let his natural charm show through” — in other words, when he stopped acting. Of Elizabeth and Essex, Mordden writes, “Flynn thinks it’s a Flynn vehicle, and he hurts the film by not refusing to respond to Davis.” Just as Essex hurt England with his vainglorious march on London. Well, “hurt” is perhaps overstatement. Neither the aristocrat nor the actor was truly significant personage in his line of work, although both were of course very popular for a spell. uy

I’ve been re-reading The Hollywood Studios: House Style in the Golden Age of the Movies (Knopf, 1988), and enjoying it to pieces. Beginning with Paramount and MGM, Mordden writes engaging, conversational chapters about each of the Majors (and one about the Independents as well), sifting through the moguls, the stars, and the properties to identify the characteristics that distinguished the overall output of each. What, for example, made RKO different? First of all, it was founded in 1928, at the dawn of the Talkies. It couldn’t have learned anything about making movies from the long experience that the other studios had. No wonder the studio was the first to go, bought about by Desilu in 1957.

Among other things, House Style (as I call it) is a very funny book.

Today it is common to think of Hepburn as a natural, even as inevitable. But when she was new she was thought strange-looking, affected, and possibly nutty. Hollywood likes outstanding versions of the norm, not outstanding versions of the outstanding, and the non-conformist Hepburn, blurting out The Oddest Things to the press, dodging photographers, and failing to be spotted on the right arm at the orthodox places, acted as strangely as she looked.

She played strange roles, too, no one like another: and played them not as if the studio made her do so but because she wanted to. How to get a handle on this woman? In Christopher Strong (1933) she is Lady Cynthia Darrington, a world-famous aviatrix. The very noun itself bespeaks a pride of glamour. But Hepburn shows up in silver lamé sheath with a Dracula collar and antennae. Maybe it’s supposed to suggest Garbo, but it makes Hepburn look like a Martian lounge singer.

As they say, LOL. I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed re-reading a book so much. Of course I feel terribly guilty, indulging in such pleasures when the house is bursting with unread new books. I can’t have known, back in 1988, that House Style would be one of the most important books in my collection, to me I mean, but that’s unfortunately how libraries work. You have to hold on to everything, because you don’t know what you’ll regret letting go.

Rereading the book prompted me to have another look at Grand Hotel and Dinner at Eight (1932 and 1933 respectively, and both MGM. They were both signature offerings, the one of Irving Thalberg and the other of David O Selznick, and they are both haunted by silent-screen habits that won’t go away. Lionel Barrymore plays dying men in both films, but that’s all the characters have in common; Dinner‘s Oliver Jordan is an admirably modest gent, but Grand Hotel‘s Otto Kringelein is a whining, wheedling clerk who never shuts up. He would go over much better, and in fact be the figure of sorrow and pity that he is, if we couldn’t hear him. In the same film, there are times when it would better if we couldn’t hear Joan Crawford, too. She’s still a pretty girl here, but she sounds like a defective Eliza Doolittle, too much of this and too little of that. Too many of her takes seem designed to announce winning poker hands. As for Garbo, she doesn’t need the silver lamé or the antenna to look like a Martian lounge singer on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Only John Barrymore, ham that he was, seems to know where movies were going, and is capable for film’s natural tendency to overstate everything.

I’ve never cared much for Jean Harlow, possibly because, like Joan Crawford, she’d have done better at Warner’s (as Crawford certainly did). What I learned from Ethan Mordden is that the studios’ different styles could be the making of an actor. It took MGM to make an outstanding normal woman of Katharine Hepburn, for example. Jean Harlow might have been funnier if she’d made more movies with James Cagney, say. Instead, at brighly-lighted MGM, she’s just vulgar, a mannequin for bias-cut satin nightgowns. And she’s sad, too — she died so very young (26). Marie Dressler, on the other hand, is a revelation: now I know where Angela Lansbury comes from.


Now, to finish Daniel Kahneman. A blurb on the dust jacket, contributed by Nicholas Nassim Taleb, ranks Thinking, Fast and Slow with The Wealth of Nations and Freud’s The Interpretation of Drams, and I wholeheartedly agree. Like the earlier books, Thinking completely upsets a widely-held idea, in this case that “man is a rational animal.” I hope that someone is already at work on an elementary-school curriculum that is based on Kahneman’s conclusions. For one thing, we all need much more basic training in statistics, and the whole field of arithmetic ought to be reconceived accordingly. Second, young minds ought to be shaped, to the extent that they can be, by an awareness of the biases toward overconfidence and bad decisions that are Kahneman’s book’s crown of thorns.


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:
18 November 2011

Friday, November 18th, 2011

Here’s a view that changes only if I frame it differently.

Kathleen was so worn out by wondering if she’d get me here in one piece that we left a piece of luggage at the airport yesterday; retrieving it has not been an easy business, so far. It wasn’t that I was particularly difficult in transit, but rather the possibility that at any moment I might just melt down. On the flight from Miami to St Croix, which was a lot smoother than the flight from New York, Kathleen even played Sheherazade, quizzing me about the career of, of all people, Joan Crawford.

I’m puzzling over the remains of the past couple of days with forensic interest. We have the corpus delecti right here, in the entries that I wrote (and in a few letters as well). In some ways, my bitching and moaning about having to leave home, board a plane, disrupt my routines were same old same old. But it turned out that many aspects of the crisis were new, in positive ways.

Most noticeably, the crisis was extremely compressed. It was a matter of two and a half days. Until Monday morning, I simply blocked my anxiety center’s access to the coming trip. It had plenty of other things to worry about, and I concentrated on those. (And how did I manage that, for the first time ever? It occurs to me that, just as my arthritis and most of my other complaints are the result of my immune system’s not having enough in the way of genuine pathogens to fight, so my grandson is a magnificent magnet for all my free-floating anxiety, whenever he is not actually present. [And I believe that my anxiousness, like my immune system, must have been hard-wired by the time I went to school.])

Second, and even more interestingly, the more rational parts of my brain, if I may speak in what seems like such an antiquated way, were preparing for the trip in very sensible ways. I knew that on Monday, I would go to the storage unit to pick up my lightweight shirts. On Tuesday, I would get a haircut. On Wednesday, I would go to Crawford Doyle in search of fresh reading matter for the trip. (Also: when we came home from Fire Island, I put all of those adapters and cables and thingummies that you need when you travel in one drawer, knowing that I’d be needing them in nine weeks.)

The result of these two developments was that the shock of packing, once I acknowledged that it was time to get ready to go, devastated me on Monday, but that was all right, because, even if I felt terrible, I had set up a plan and didn’t have to think about what to do. I was miserable, almost seasick, for two days, but you wouldn’t have known it from my preparations. By the time I climbed into the car to go to LaGuardia, everything was in order, and I was at least completely neutral about what was going on.

The third thing that was new was the manner in which I got over my dread of taking a vacation. At Crawford Doyle, I bought Diane Keaton’s memoir, Then Again. I thought that it would be fun to read, and indeed it was, just a few hours later, when I ought to have been doing other things. Instead, I was Gchatting with Ms NOLA about bulimia, adoption, and how some people, beautiful as they are when you, get to be much better looking when they’re older. We didn’t chat for long, because I really did have to be doing other things, but it occurred to me that I could do most of those other things while watching Annie Hall.

Annie Hall is far from my favorite Woody Allen movie. I don’t dislike it, but it seems preliminary to me, which Manhattan, practically his next picture, most certainly does not. (Neither does Interiors, the intervening film; but Interiors turns out to be the first of a clutch of beautifully bleak movies that Allen has made over the years; Another Woman is my favorite, while Match Point is actually thrilling. While unmistakeably the work of Woody Allen, these titles seem to me to stand to one side of his typical output, which amounts to a response, not an homage, to the great European filmmakers of the mid-Twentieth Century. Manhattan is the first fully-formed mainstream Woody Allen movie.) The good thing about my watching other Allen films much more often is that Annie Hall is always fresh, which it really ought to be; it’s actually rather delicate — fragile. This is partly because Diane Keaton is, effectively, a child actress, younger in a way than Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver. Oh, she may have been biologically close to thirty, but she was barely halfway to the mature greatness, the all-American comic mastery of The Family Stone and Something’s Gotta Give. When Annie Hall was over, I had to watch Morning Glory (Keaton’s second film with Rachel McAdams, whom she mentions very favorably in her memoir). I couldn’t believe how much more than was to Diane Keaton in Morning Glory, even though it’s a supporting role, than there is in Annie Hall. That’s because Annie Hall is, of course, Woody Allen’s fantasy. Colleen Peck is a real bitch. (Albeit a real bitch with a heart of gold and a crackerjack sense of the absurd.)

By the time Morning Glory was over, I had not only packed, but done all the ironing as well. which meant that I had a supply of pressed handkerchiefs to take to St Croix.  I had organized all of the last minute (bathroom) packing on the dining table, along with books, electronics, and even the beach towel that I’ve been using as a blanket lately. (I used the beach towel to wrap up the Klipsch iPod player and the iPad keyboard deck.) When we finally went to be at 11:30, I was ready to go. We were up at 5:30, in the car at six, and at the airport by 6:30. We arrived here at about 4:30 yesterday afternoon (Atlantic Time), and Kathleen took a nap right away. It was only when she woke up, before dinner, that we missed her second suitcase, a small purple roller filled with craft items mostly. Wish us luck on that one.

Home Movies:

Wednesday, April 6th, 2011

It was the “How Venice Works” vimeo that made me want to see Don’t Look Now last night. The jolly little short about the Venetian infrastructure left me feeling very sorry for myself, because it brought home what I wouldn’t be doing this fall: finally getting to Venice. (Regular readers know that we’ll be going to another, closer island instead, a month or so earlier.) Feeling sorry for myself about not seeing Venice — with a heap of napkins to be ironed: if ever there’s a state of mind more suited to watching Nicholas Roeg’s handheld horror film, I hope I never experience it.

I saw the movie when it came out, in 1973. What made it memorable wasn’t the grisly murder at the end, shocking as that was, but the love scene. And the way the love scene was shown in bits that alternated with the scene that followed, when the loving couple got dressed and ready to go out to dinner. There was the sex, which was very explicit for the time — pornographic, frankly; but redeemed by being claimed for marriage — and there was the playing with temporal frames, a fundamental and otherwise ominous element of the film.

Don’t Look Now is the opposite of a Hitchcock thriller: it blows its big secret the first time. There’s no going back to hoping, along with John Baxter (Donald Sutherland), that the petite figure in the red mac is the ghost of his dead little girl, Christine, who drowns in the movie’s opening scene. The last ten minutes of Don’t Look Now are pure, unrelieved melodrama, all bootless shrieks and running footsteps on the fondamento. And blood. And then, for the last scene, a stylish cortège (which John has foreseen — you see what I mean by temporal play), with Julie Christie looking chic and vaguely mad in a crushed cloche, shot from below. She’s wretched, but also exalted, transcendent — she knew she was right. What’s most salient now, though, is Pino Donaggio’s music, which is even more dated than Donald Sutherland’s outfits (which I still covet). How to describe it? Suave and romantic in the manner of the old studio movies, but with a sour, jazzy edge, a hipster wink that screams SIXTIES. Donaggio’s knowing score, with its faux-baroque runs during an agitated search scene, is in perfect accord with the famous love scene. Both promote the idea that Don’t Look Now is a classy film.

That is, you can have porn and you can have murder but if you play with them in an interesting way then what you’ve really got is, if not art, then something that won’t embarrass sophisticated audiencesc with vulgar appeals to the senses. You’ve got Donald Sutherland and you’ve got Julie Christie and you’ve got Venice and the restoration of an old church complete with an aristocratic bishop whose family has been patronizing the same tessera firm for generations. You’ve got the low-budget European look that handheld cameras still conveyed in 1973. Class, as I say. But the class is appliquéd. I’m reminded of Joseph Kerman’s famous dismissal of Tosca: Don’t Look Now is a shabby little shocker.

My point is not, however, to heap contumely upon Roeg’s movie, which I watched right through to the end even though I finished the ironing midway. My point is to recall that you could still do that in the early Seventies — paste a few arty elements on something and call it classy. Class, that’s to say, wasn’t a matter of style, a matter of filmmaking aesthetic. It was a bundle of references that cued the audience.

They really did make terrible movies in those days. Or, rather, they produced pretty good movies, but they made them badly.