“Straw Dogs,” directed by Rod Lurie

By Ray Sawhill

I was a little wary about watching Rod Lurie’s remake of “Straw Dogs.” Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 thriller is a genuine landmark — one of the most notorious, controversial films in movie history, and for plenty of good reasons, most of them having to do with Peckinpah’s unique gifts, viewpoint and sensibility. (It was one of those hard-to-sort-your-feelings-out-about ’70s movies, like “A Clockwork Orange” and “Dirty Harry,” that really divided audiences and got people arguing. When’s the last time a new movie gave you a decent excuse for a substantial argument?) Lurie’s a talented director, but what could a remake of “Straw Dogs” possibly have to offer? It’s not as though the material or the plot were the major sources of the original film’s fascination. For better or worse, it’s “a Peckinpah film” before it’s anything else. Plus I had my usual anxieties about whether the remake might spoil my memories of the original.

But over the weekend curiosity finally got the better of me and I slipped the DVD in the player. Quick verdict: not bad at all. While it has nothing of the distressing and arousing qualities of the original, the new version functions pretty well as a thriller in its own right. That basic, minimal mousetrap of a plot turns out — to my surprise — to be just enough to sustain tension through 110 minutes, even with the locale moved from Peckinpah’s creepy-English-countryside to a small town in the American deep south. Lurie, his team and his cast all turn in a lot of professional, committed work, and it’s a pleasure that the film works consistently on a recognizably human scale. Plus, a big relief: The remake in no way disturbed my memories of the original. I watched the film very directly, with plenty of curiosity about where things would go and how they’d pan out.

What’s peculiar about the new movie — and what makes me want to say a bit more about it than just “Thumbs mostly up!” — is the impulse behind it. It turns out that Rod Lurie made the new film in order to refute the evo-bio / Robert Ardrey vision that Peckinpah expressed in the original. You can feel this impulse as you watch the new movie, and on the commentary track Lurie confirms it at some length. Lurie supplies a good commentary track generally. He’s open and smart, and he’s amusingly rueful and funny about knowing in advance how pissed-off many Peckinpah fans will inevitably be by his movie. (I’m a huge Peckinpah fan, but I’m not the purist that some of my friends are.) While suitably impressed by Peckinpah’s talent and style, Lurie is appalled by Peckinpah’s we’re-beasts-underneath-it-all vision — he can’t resist calling it “fascist.” He says that in taking on the job of the remake he wanted to make a more human and more balanced, even somewhat feminist “Straw Dogs.” And that is indeed the movie he has made.

Still: how bizarre! I can understand the impulse from a “I’m choosing deliberately not to compete with Peckinpah on his own terms” point of view, and — who knows? — maybe Lurie really is the decent, humane, centrist-liberal he sees himself as. And why shouldn’t he express his own personality? Even so, given the cut-throat nature of the material, it’s a somewhat weird choice. Would you choose to remake, say, “Birth of a Nation” — using the original plot of it — to convey the exact opposite of the argument that D.W. Griffith made?

But my job as a viewer is to grant the artist his / her premises and see how things play out. I enjoyed the movie in a very simple, direct way … but I confess that I also couldn’t resist letting my brain tumble into some film-buff intricacies. Let me share a few of them.

Lurie’s humanist p-o-v forces him to deliver some of the film’s biggest moments with completely different shadings than Peckinpah did. In one of them, the Amy character stands in a window with her top off so that some workmen outside can see her naked breasts. In the Peckinpah movie, Susan George’s Amy is feeling annoyed with her over-intellectual, wimpy husband, so we understand that she’s offering herself up to (and taunting) the men outdoors — she’s baring her breasts in a gesture of overheated, childish hawtness and self-assertion, basically. She’s giving herself a dirty ego-blast. In the new movie, Kate Bosworth’s breasts aren’t shown (though we know she’s topless), and she isn’t taunting the workers outside; no, what she’s doing by presenting herself naked in that window is expressing feistiness and defiance. “Fuck you, I’m my own person,” is what she’s saying.

At the climax of the plot’s second act comes another infamous scene. In this one, the Amy character is raped by some brutal local studs. In the original, Susan George’s Amy is ripe, bruised and spoiled — she has spent much of the movie asking to be roughed up, and now she’s getting what’s been coming to her, and then some. In the new film, Kate Bosworth’s Amy hasn’t been asking for any kind of disrespectful treatment, and she most certainly doesn’t melt midway through the rape. (She also has about zero body fat on her. She’s one tightly-wound girl.) I’m not alone in finding the rape in the Peckinpah to be one of movie history’s sexiest scenes; I’m pretty certain no one will be tempted to find the new movie’s rape scene even slightly arousing. This may well be a good thing, morally speaking. It makes for far less galvanizing viewing, though.

Still, these choices all play out surprisingly plausibly — they result in a milder movie, yes, but Lurie and Bosworth (and, in the rape scene, Alexander Skarsgard) find ways to put the scenes over in their own terms. As far as dramaturgy goes, though, his approach leaves Lurie with one huge question demanding explanation. It’s this: If the story isn’t about how we’re all basically primal beasts inside, then what’s the source of the story’s violence? The plot in the original exists in order to torment Dustin Hoffman’s brain-heavy David into connecting with his instincts and his inner masculine nature and finally taking violent action. Lurie doesn’t want to deliver, let alone, endorse that message. So what on earth can he come up with as kindling for the movie’s climactic mayhem?

His somewhat banal answer: “the American south.” The local boys who bring on the apocalypse aren’t menacing gargoyles inhabiting a heightened, scary, mythical landscape, as they are in the Peckinpah. Instead, they’re basically decent lads — they’re viewed with some sympathy — whose moral development, we’re given to understand, has been crippled by limited education, narrow horizons and unappealing opportunities. Lurie even redefines the meaning of “straw dogs.” In the original, we’re told that the term comes from Lao Tzu: it evokes violence, impersonality, cruelty — the immense, uncaring universe itself. Here, a character tells us that “straw dogs” is local slang for townies who stick around after they’re done with school, and who go to seed while living off their high school memories. In the original, the violence that finds release erupts from the heart of life in all of its unfathomable, brutal mystery. What drives the violence in the new movie is … well, basically, small-town high school football gone awry.

Even the contrast between David and Amy has been diminished. In the original, David is a professor and Amy is his petulant, easily-bored child-bride — a former student. He’s her senior and her intellectual superior, but she has the elemental power of sex on her side. The new version’s David isn’t an intellectual — he’s a bright guy, but a screenwriter, not an egghead — and the new Amy isn’t a brat simmering in her own erotic juices. Instead she’s an actress in charge of her life and career. David and Amy have even worked on the same TV show together. In the original, they clearly represent mind vs. body. Here, they’re not just mates, they’re colleagues and equals.

This approach may have the virtue of being ultra-reasonable but it does leave you asking a few inappropriate questions. Onesuch: Why the hell don’t these competent, mutually-respectful partners have the sense to beat it out of town when things there start to get unpleasant? And the climax probably won’t inspire anyone to roar with horrified approval. There’s plenty of well-staged action to enjoy, but when the new David picks up his weapons and gets down to the gruesome work of defending his home, he takes action not because he’s finally connecting with his own bestiality and manhood but because, well, even the most decent guy needs to stand up for his principles sometimes, y’know? What the new version’s Amy is experiencing during the mayhem seemed to me more than a little unclear. The high-powered nitro that fueled Peckinpah’s vision has nearly all been bled from the drama, in other words. Question du jour: Is there something about the good-liberal point of view that inevitably neuters drama?

Still, though I can’t imagine anyone making a case for the new version as a particularly memorable film — there’s nothing nightmarish, drunken, upsetting, insane or hypnotic about it — I found it reasonably gripping. It’s a well-made thriller, if a little bland, mild and worthy. But what’s wrong with professionalism done with some conviction? Let’s be grateful for good-enough.

Watching the new version did illuminate the original in one way for me: it got me reflecting that part of the voluptuous, unsettling power of the Peckinpah original comes from the fact that it’s really a horror movie in the guise of a thriller. At its heart it’s a monster movie … only in Peckinpah’s shrewd, demonic telling, the monster is something we all carry within ourselves.

©Ray Sawhill. First published on Uncouthreflections.com in 2013.

Pauline Kael in 1989

By Polly Frost and Ray Sawhill

Pauline Kael’s writing has been riling people since she published her first movie review in the early 1950s. The way she made sexual awareness and boldness contribute to a kind of heightened intelligence upset people — and may still. As a critic and a journalist, she combines a knack for what “works” in a theatrical sense with an analytical mind and a performer’s spirit. Her first collection, “I Lost It At the Movies” (1965), was one of the landmarks of ’60s nonfiction. Since then she’s had an enormous influence on how popular culture is thought and written about (and she sometimes takes the rap for the sins of her imitators).

Kael’s work is exciting in the way Norman Mailer’s or Tom Wolfe’s or Ryszard Kapuscinski’s is. You come away buzzing; you take it personally in ways you’re not used to taking nonfiction. (“Why doesn’t she like Tarkovsky’s or Sirk’s films as much as I do?”) Her reviews are so persuasive that when you don’t agree with her you can go around for days arguing with her in your head.

Kael was born in 1919, the fifth and youngest child of immigrants from Warsaw who ran a farm in Petaluma, California, north of San Francisco. The family moved to the city when Pauline was eight. At the University of California at Berkeley she majored in philosophy. Before being able to earn a living as a writer she worked as a seamstress, a cook, and a ghostwriter of travel books, among other jobs, supporting herself and her daughter, Gina, while turning out film criticism and broadcasting reviews on Berkeley’s Pacifica radio station. From 1955 to 1960 she managed the Berkeley Cinema Guild and Studio, the first twin cinema in the country. After “I Lost It at the Movies” she began publishing in mass-circulation magazines. Since 1968 she has written for The New Yorker, except for a break in 1979, when she spent five months working for Paramount in Hollywood. Her latest volume, “Hooked,” has just been published and includes review of films by Jonathan Demme, Pedro Almodóvar, John Waters, and Philip Kaufman.

Kael has given her house in the Berkshires a sensuality you don’t expect from a writer. You walk into it and think “visual artist” or “musician,” not “writer.” It’s a big, old, turreted place she bought years ago, when it was sagging and rotting. She and her daughter repaired it and opened it up, baring the woodwork. Art hangs on nearly all the walls — much of it by her daughter, most of the rest by friends. Kael has an instinctive feel for the placement of things; every object in the house seems to be something she responded to immediately. She often has music playing — a broad range, from Branford Marsalis to the countertenor Russell Oberlin. The day we stopped by, it was Aretha Franklin, her six-year-old grandson Will’s current favorite. After a visit from her daughter and grandson we sat by the fireplace while snow piled up outside.

pauline with dog

RAY SAWHILL: Which of the other arts has it been most important to you to follow?

PAULINE KAEL: When I began writing about films I was almost equally interested in jazz, which I followed through much of my life. I used to be able tell you who played what instrument on just about every jazz record that ever came out.

I was very lucky to grow up in San Francisco, because although I had no money things were cheap. You could go to the Broadway plays that came out there; you could see almost anything for fifty cents. And there were kids’ rates for concerts. So I had a terrific introduction to theater and music.

I was terribly interested in fiction. And in theater. And opera. And in painting. (Laughs) I’ve had to narrow my interests, because you can’t raise a child or be involved in taking care of a house and do everything you want to do in your life. Certain things have gone by the boards simply because of the time and energy it took to live and to write.

POLLY FROST: Did you play jazz at some point?

PK: Oh, I stopped doing that fairly early. I was a young teenager when I played in a girls’ jazz band. I played classical music mostly. I used to go hear Papa Hertz — Alfred Hertz — conduct every week. But my tastes ran very heavily to jazz.

PF: I can see you coming to writing from a jazz background — the use of words in a different way and the rhythms. Did jazz influence the way you write at all?

PK: If so, indirectly. I do tend to riff. I’ve got a lot of parentheses in there. (Laughs)

RS: The spontaneity too.

PK: Well, I want that. I want what I do to move along by hidden themes. I rarely try to think anything out ahead of time. I want it, paragraph by paragraph through the whole structure, to surprise me. But I want the fun of writing. I don’t want to take the juice out of that.

RS: Your writing has a conversational tone, and yet it has a freedom that people don’t have in conversation. How consciously have you pursued that?

PK: Very consciously. People often think I’m saying things inadvertently, and it amuses the hell out of me. They think that I don’t know what I’m saying. Mainly I’ve been trying for speed and clarity, trying to write the way I talk.

When I started writing for magazines in the ’50s, I was dissatisfied with the studied, academic tone of my first pieces. I hated fancy writing, and I tried to write as simply as possible. I was conscious of the fact that I was writing about a popular art form. I don’t think I would have written in the same way if I had been writing about classical music. How can you deal with movies truthfully, in terms of your responses, if you don’t use contractions, if you don’t use “you” instead of “one”? I mean, I’m not a goddamned Englishman. I don’t say, “One likes this movie very much.” (Laughs) I was trying for the freedom of an American talking about the movies, but it took me awhile. What broke me loose from academic writing was that I wrote a lot of advertising copy anonymously — and unsigned notes for theaters I managed. Writing in an unsigned form frees you of the inhibitions of academic writing. I was just trying to reach the public as directly as possible. And I found I was doing it more naturally. It’s mainly a kind of courage you need to in order to write the way you think instead of writing the way you’ve been taught.

RS: Were there critics who excited you?

PK: A lot of writers and artists excited me. There were movie critics that I liked a lot — James Agee more than anyone else, I guess. But I never thought of Agee as a role model; I simply liked reading him. I disagreed with him a lot, but I loved the passion of his language. He got exercised about movies in the more personal writing he did for The Nation, where he expressed real rage if he didn’t like something. It seemed to me the way we actually react to movies. We don’t react in cultivated terms; we come out and say, “I hated that piece of …”

RS: Did you read people like Shaw or Lionel Trilling or R.P. Blackmur with pleasure?

PK: Oh, sure, I read them all. I read Blackmur with a great deal of pleasure. I probably identified with him more than with any other critic. I can’t explain that to you now, but Blackmur, when I first read him, just struck some chord with me, and I read all the authors he talked about.

I was living with a young poet named Robert Horan at that time. And we were reading Blackmur together and being excited about him. For several years Horan and I discovered books of poetry and jazz musicians and other artists together. We read Dylan Thomas’ first teenage book of poetry together, Horan reading the poems aloud to me. And it was sort of “Eureka! This is the new work we’ve been waiting for!” We experienced a lot of things together like that. We would spend our Saturdays going to art shows together. And we had a very, very close relationship in the arts. We would argue viciously when we disagreed about something. It was tremendous fun. We were both young and a little bit crazy, in the sense that practical things didn’t matter the way matters of the mind did — matters of mind and emotion.

You make discoveries in the arts with other people. Robert Duncan was a very good friend of mine, and we explored a lot of things together. We had our biggest talkfests in the late ’30s. Later, when we were on different sides of the country, we would write letters to each other. We would read the same books and exchange impressions and ideas. And then we would get together somewhere and talk for forty-eight hours straight. (Laughs)

RS: You once told me that you’d read everything Henry James published.

PK: My James kick came a little bit later. When I went to the hospital to give birth to my daughter in the late ’40s I was just reading “Notes of a Son and Brother,” which was the last volume to complete whatever was available in James.

PF: Do you tend to binge on writers?

PK: I tend, when I get interested in a writer, to read everything, though there are writers that I like a lot, like Dickens, that I still haven’t gotten through. But most writers — you know, if I started Firbank I would read everything by Firbank. When I started Dorothy Richardson’s “Pilgrimage” I read from beginning to end, volume after volume. I love getting immersed in a sensibility.

RS: Is that true of all the arts, or does it mainly hold for reading?

PK: It mainly holds for reading. You learn funny things about it. For instance, you’re reading everything by Virginia Woolf, and you adore “The Waves” and “Mrs. Dalloway” and this one and that one, but that damn “The Years” … Something is wrong; it’s dreary. But usually you read a book by someone, and you get really involved, and you just keep going, book after book. And then you feel you’ve got that writer; you know him — there he is.

But I wouldn’t want you think that at the time I was reading, say, Melville or James I wasn’t also being a foolish woman — or a foolish girl, really. I mean, I was crazy about Jack Teagarden’s singing. (Laughs) He’s somebody you probably have never heard of — a trombonist. Just a particular style of singing. Every once in a while I’ll catch him on the radio when they’re playing old music, and I’ll think, Oh, that’s how to do it. You don’t need a voice; you just sing. And I was always wild about Harry Ritz’s dancing; I thought it was in a class of its own.

PF: I’ve heard that during your freshman year at Berkeley you went out dancing every night.

PK: I love dancing.

PF: What was the dancing-and-music scene like then?

PK: Well, it was all in San Francisco and Oakland — Turk Murphy, Bunk Johnson … a lot of terrific jazz in the Bay Area. And somehow or other I went out every night.

PF: How’d you get your studying in philosophy done?

PK: I’m a fast take. (Laughs) The professors in the Berkeley Philosophy Department wanted me to go on and teach phenomenology, but I got a little tired of it around that point. The idea was for me to take a Ph.D. in philosophy and a law degree at the same time, but I decided I’d had it and kicked up my heels some more instead.

PF: What kind of dancing did you do?

PK: Oh, to Dixieland and Chicago-style jazz in the ’40s, and before that to a lot of Glenn Miller and Guy Lombardo at the San Francisco hotels, because that was the big-band era — this was ’36 to ’40, my college years. All the big pop bands were playing at hotels then. And every night you could go dancing at some shebang. Sometimes it would be to Woody Herman, and that would be great.

RS: How many hours of sleep could you get by on at that point?

PK: Four or five. If you wanted pleasure enough, you’d cut down on sleep, because that’s the only thing you can cut down on. (Laughs)

RS: Was this partly being off on your own?

PK: No. I was also a serious student, and I was working as a teaching assistant and reader at Berkeley. I was correcting papers for seven courses a semester and going half blind. But I was spending an awful lot of time in conversation and dancing, too. And going to a lot of movies.

PF: At what age did you feel the urge to write?

PK: Well, writing criticism came relatively late, much later than for most of my friends. It was the orgy of all the talk with Robert Horan at college that somehow finally got me out of the notion I had of going to law school. I suddenly couldn’t face law school and all that dry material when I was getting so excited by everything else. I wrote some pieces with Horan — essays. They were quite funny, but nobody published them. Maybe they were over-witty, because the two of us would build on each other’s jokes, and they just got wilder and wilder.

I got interested in playwriting after college and wrote plays fairly intensively for a number of years but was very discouraged at the difficulty of getting them on. Stanford was going to put one on; they had it in rehearsal. But the students decided they wanted to do something of Giraudoux’s instead — they wanted clowns and jugglers. So I didn’t get anywhere. But I actually think I was not too bad. (Laughs)

RS: What sorts of plays were they — comedies?

PK: No, they weren’t comedies, I’m afraid. Damn, they should have been. There was probably too much soul-wrestling. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I’m not more impressed by Ingmar Bergman. I did my own share of soul-wrestling, and it’s not too tough to do.

When I started doing movie pieces, all this interest in the arts clicked together, as if I’d found my medium. And maybe because I didn’t take it too seriously it was easier for me to find my voice and my tone; I wasn’t inhibited the way I was in other art forms. Writing about movies, you could be playful, you could be colloquial, you could be American. Whereas writing plays, you were struggling to express yourself, and it was altogether more painful and less entertaining for other people.

PF: What about your radio work?

PK: Well, that was in the ’50s, after I’d published a few movie pieces. Weldon Kees, who was a well-known poet and man around the arts at the time — and a good friend — had a struggling radio show on a commercial station in the Bay Area, and he asked me on as a guest. Later the Pacifica radio people asked if I’d like to record some pieces I’d written. And the they asked me if I’d like to review regularly. It was hell in some ways because I didn’t have any money and they didn’t pay at all. They didn’t even pay my way into the movies.

So I was doing a weekly show for no money. I had a small child, and it was very rough. I had a loyal following in the Bay Area, with people buying my tapes and talking about them, but I didn’t get any work on the East Coast out of it.

PF: Was it a shock to move from San Francisco, with all of its sensual pleasures, to New York?

PK: Well, I was in New York briefly during the early ’40s. A lot of people that I met in that period took me to amazing things. Gian-Carlo Menotti took me to the Met for the first time, and it was Ezio Pinza in “Don Giovanni.” I saw Marlon Brando in “Truckline Cafe.” I had some great experiences. And I had some absurd experiences.: Samuel Barber took me to Radio City Music Hall for the first time, and we saw “Mrs. Miniver”! (Laughs) It was ghastly, and we sat there staring at each other in horror.

PF: You lived in New York for a couple of years?

PK: I lived in New York for about three years, and then I went back to the West Coast until 1965, when I published “I Lost It At the Movies” and came East to write for Life and other magazines. And in ’65 it took a lot of writing to pay the rent. That year I was on a plane, going to give a lecture, and a husband and wife were sitting across the aisle from me. She was reading me in Mademoiselle and he was reading me in Holiday, and then they swapped magazines. It was very cheering, but it was also sort of scary, because I was writing in half a dozen magazines in the same month.

RS: How have your work habits changed over the years?

PK: Well, I don’t work all night anymore. During my early years at The New Yorker, when I was writing long pieces every week, I would often stay up all night to finish something for the deadline day. And I would see very beautiful dawns. But also you get a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach as you stagger toward your bed. (Laughs) Then the phone starts ringing three hours later. And people who phone you in the morning just laugh when you say, “I just got to bed.” They think you’re some lazy bum.

Mainly I get to work earlier in the day now. It used to be that, writing weekly, I was rushing to movies. And sometimes I didn’t find the movie I wanted to write about till the night before the copy was due, so I just splattered it out. In many ways that’s the truest reaction you’ll ever get. But even so, I can’t do that anymore. I can’t use the words that come to me most readily, because those phrases have become stale. So now if friends use a good term in describing a movie, I say, “Can I use that?” Because I think, Gee, it’s different from what I would say — that’s great.

RS: Do you have any regrets about your career or about your writing over the years? Do you wish you had started earlier or had gone about things differently?

PK: Oh, well, I did start fairly early; I just didn’t have a livelihood to sustain it. I published my first pieces before I managed theaters. But I had to manage theaters to make a living, and do programming for colleges and a lot of other jobs. By the time I got hired at The New Yorker I was almost 50. And so, yes, I regret all the years and energy that went into crummy jobs and trying to sustain life. On the other hand I probably gained a certain amount of experience and breadth from them. But there’s no question in my own mind that I could have done more as a writer had I gotten an earlier start, when I had all that crazy energy.

RS: Do movies stand in a different relation to the culture as a whole now?

PK: Yes, I think they do. In the ’60s and ’70s movies played an adversarial role in the culture. And a lot of middle-aged and elderly people were very offended when they went to the movies. The language was freer than they liked. There was an easygoing, comic attitude toward American patriotism, a more easygoing attitude toward sex relations. The older people stayed away from a lot of movies, and when they did go they often claimed they didn’t understand them, because movies moved faster and were more elliptical. So movies became sort of the enemy. Now they are definitely not the enemy. I wish they were.

PF: When I was in college my friends and I would go to movie marathons — we’d go to see five Kurosawa films. Kids don’t seem to do that now.

PK: Now they see things on VCRs, but they’re probably not having orgies of Kurosawa. (Laughs) There are people who use VCRs well. But it isn’t the same thing as sharing that excitement with an audience. There’s no way of discussing a film when it’s not affecting the whole culture at the same time. That was always part of the excitement of movies. You went to a restaurant and you’d hear everybody in the next booth talking about the same movie you’d seen two days before, which you’d been arguing about. And with VCRs movies don’t stay in your mind the same way. You need the big screen.

PF: How has your reviewing changed over the years?

PK: I felt an excitement about writing about movies, particularly in the late ’60s and the first half of the ’70s — the period when Altman made one terrific movie after another, when Coppola and Scorsese and De Palma were doing sensational work, when Bertolucci was coming through. The movies fed my senses then. I had the feeling that all I was trying to do was keep up with what was going on in movies.

The director I left out just now was, of course, Godard. It was Godard who got me hired at The New Yorker, indirectly. William Shawn, who had seen some of the Godard films and realized that something new was going on in them, read me in The New Republic, where I expressed my excitement about them, and wanted me in The New Yorker.

RS: Imagine that! William Shawn was interested in Godard films!

PK: It’s wonderful, isn’t it? Shawn had a vast interest in what was going on in the arts. And when he saw something going on he reacted with great intensity.

Godard represented the big turning point in ’60s movies. While college students were talking about Bergman the new voice was Godard. I felt tremendous excitement at almost every Godard film right up through “Weekend.”

There are still movies that come along where you feel something’s going on with the individual artist. Blier’s “Get Out Your Handkerchiefs” was exciting to write about. So was “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” But when Coppola and Altman and Scorsese were breaking through, they spoke to what was going on in the country. And so the act of writing criticism wasn’t just talking about whether the movie was any good. You were talking about what the movie meant, how you felt about it, what it stood for.

In general I’m looking for something that shows some talent, some freshness. You can see what I mean by analogy to literature. Suppose you were one of the first people who read “Middlemarch” — you’d want to tell people about it. That’s how I felt about “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” and “Nashville” and “Godfather II.” I wanted to say, “Look what’s going on here!” That doesn’t happen much right now in movies. There’s something rather paralyzing in the culture.

PF: You’ve spoken in the past about a particular kind of excitement that you can get from a good American film.

PK: Well, I respond to American films when they’re good in a way that’s much more direct than the way I respond to foreign films. It makes sense that we want films that represent American culture, especially since it has a kind of crazy energy. There’s a particular kind of humor and a speed that we get in a good American film. You get it in, say, “The Lady Eve,” the Preston Sturges comedy. I’ve never seen a European comedy that gave me the kind of buzz that “The Lady Eve” did when I first saw it.

American movies are pop for us in a way that foreign films rarely are. That’s the fun of Almodóvar; he has that pop element in his work, because he’s so influenced by American movies.

PF: I know you enjoy Almodóvar’s films. Did you enjoy the work of Charles Ludlam?

PK: I loved Charles Ludlam. I once took Claude Jutra, the French Canadian director, down to the Ridiculous Theatrical Company. And Claude said, “This is theater.” And he had tears streaming out of his eyes, he laughed so hard. I loved Charles Ludlam’s shows, and I thought there was a real craft and polish and crazy elegance in what he was doing. And, of course, it’s like Almodóvar. Almodóvar has the resources of movies, but he basically has that feeling for a company, too. It’s a wonderful kind of theater because you can do mad, excessive things and the audience digs it because they’ve grown up on the same cultural references you have.

RS: You always seem to be able to enjoy the campier side of show business and art.

PK: It’s a basic element in any theatrical art. It’s so vital to theater, that campiness. Maybe being able to make fun of what you’re doing is so much a part of the sophistication of theater and movies. It’s what’s fun in something like “Tequila Sunrise.” There’s just enough …

RS: Overripeness?

PK: Overripeness, sure. People want to regard that as decadence. As if any mention of Charles Ludlam were a tribute to trivia. A lot of people don’t really get it. Or they think you’re making some bow to the gay readership. And it’s not that. It’s subversive — in the sense of making fun of dull, proper values. And it’s much wider than the gay readership.

Part of the fun for many of us — you see it now if you look at old movies of the ’30s — is that extravagance of gesture, doing things to excess. Every emotion is made bright. And it helps us satirize ourselves, helps put our own emotions in perspective, because they are so overdramatized. I think that growing up at the movies you get a sense of perspective on yourself through the campiness of what you enjoy.

I don’t think I could have a close friend who didn’t respond to the craziness of certain kinds of theatrical art, who didn’t enjoy that kind of ripeness. I’ve generally become friends with people because we laughed at the same things. And we’re laughing at ourselves, at our responsiveness to this phenomenon.

It’s a way, also, of not taking the arts too seriously. It’s one of the things that I’ve tried to write about and that readers get most indignant about, because they feel you’re not being a cultivated, serious person if you talk about your pleasure at silliness, at lushness. But if I see a “Jean de Florette,” I die with boredom. I can’t sit there and watch Gérard Dépardieu playing a hunchback and not have people realize how ridiculous it is to have a tall hunchback. That’s the kind of thing Charles Ludlam played to supreme extravagance. When I was a child I loved John Barrymore because of his buffoonery. He was always making fun of himself.

PF: So it’s safe to say that you don’t go to the movies for self-improvement?

PK: Self-improvement and art don’t really belong together. If art opens your eyes and opens your senses that’s something else. I do think that a great movie makes you experience things more intensely. But that intense thing often comes to you via extravagance.

RS: Since the Bertolucci-Blier years, the “Last Tango,” “Get Out Your Handkerchief” years —

PK: I wouldn’t put those in the same class. I think “Last Tango” really is extraordinary and stands by itself, even in terms of Bertolucci’s work. In the same way that Godard and Altman each burned up the screen for a period, with a whole series of movies, I think Bertolucci did it faster. “Before the Revolution,” “The Conformist,” “Last Tango” — nothing he’s done since has had that kind of lush excitement, or the total involvement, or the freedom. “The Last Emperor” has a kind of simple flow to it, but the passion seems to be missing.

PF: It must be hard to sustain the kind of energy that went into those early films.

PK: Well, filmmaking is peculiarly a burning-out medium. I think it takes so much out of you because you can express so much of yourself. There are very few directors who haven’t burned out.

Peckinpah kept going longer than most. Of course, he didn’t live very long, really, but there was a crazy excitement burning in that man. He was the least theoretical of them all, and I think that accounts for it. He often thought that he was saying things in movies that weren’t what he was expressing at all. What came through were his feelings, not the meanings he intended to put there. He became rather spiteful in many ways, but he was an amazingly gifted man. It was a great pity that because of the violence in some of his movies he became a figure that the American press loved to jeer at. And he played along with that, in a way. But, you know, you can become perverse if you’re treated stupidly enough for a long time and hampered in doing what you want to do. It doesn’t take much to get hold of a pencil. But people who really want to work in movies, and who are as passionately addicted to it as Peckinpah, are in a terrible position. They’re at the mercy of a lot of people who basically hate them.

PF: You knew Peckinpah. How good was he at making enemies?

PK: He would spot the weakness in people and really twist the knife. On the other hand he was generous, wonderful. He was a very civilized man in many ways and an utter monster in other ways. And those things are not unusual in a movie director.

RS: A moviegoer interested in movies for their erotic possibilities can find himself looking in odd directions these days, like Diane Keaton’s performance in “The Good Mother.”

PK: Well, Diane Keaton is one of the rare actresses who’ve had one role after another that was sexual. Debra Winger has brought sexual elements into her performances in some movies, too. And Jessica Lange. I think those three are the best young actresses on the American screen. They’re the ones whose work I go to see with the most excitement. Keaton astonishes me, because in movie after movie she does daring sexual, revealing things. And then she’ll do something that’s unbelievably inventive, like her performance in “Crimes of the Heart.” And in “The Good Mother” she goes totally out on a limb. She’s probably the finest young American actress we’ve got. But then Debra Winger or Jessica Lange will come along and do something, and I’ll say she’s the finest. (Laughs)

But Michelle Pfeiffer really is extraordinary, too. She’s so crystalline in her beauty, she’s such a vision, that people may not recognize what a talented actress she is. I loved her in “Natica Jackson,” that little film she did on television from a John O’Hara story.

PF: What did you learn during your stay in Hollywood in 1979?

PK: I learned how many good scripts there were that weren’t going to be made or were going to be made in such a distorted form that no one would ever know how good they’d been. For myself I learned how much fun it was not to have deadlines and to spend time with young writers. And I learned how scared people were of me. People treated me as if I were a high priestess!

But I began to miss writing. I got the sense that my mind was going to sleep. Because you would talk to a writer about his script, or a director about his plans, and you would have to say the same thing the next day because they get so obsessed and nervous and tense that nothing fully sinks in. And you just keep repeating yourself.

Of course, when I talk about the good scripts going begging it has to be understood that my idea of a wonderful script doesn’t necessarily mean a script that would please the public. I can’t pretend that the pictures I like are hits. A great many of them are not. Some of the pictures I’ve loved the most in the last decade have been only marginal successes or box-office disasters — “Shoot the Moon,” “Melvin and Howard,” “Citizens Band,” “Pennies From Heaven” … These pictures failed. Yet there’s some glory for the executives in having done them.

PF: You once wrote that lousy movies left you with an appetite for facts and information, and real people and real events.

PK: Yes. Every once in a while there’s a film like “Thy Kingdom Come,” and there’s a purity in the excitement you feel, because you’re seeing the complexities of people’s emotions — the people who get caught up in the fundamentalist movements. What you rarely get from a documentary is the aesthetic kick or the pop kick that you also go to movies for. Unless it’s a very great documentary, like, say, Kon Ichikawa’s “Tokyo Olympiad,” it may not have much in the way of aesthetic dimensions. Or, if it does, as in “The Thin Blue Line, possibly you resent them — at least I did. It’s a beautifully made film, but the beautifully made element in it works against the subject. You feel the director is aestheticizing a factual situation instead of approaching it more simply. There’s something morally offensive in that approach, I think.

PF: Are you a news watcher?

PK: Yes, I’m a news freak. I catch the 6:30 news on one network and the 7 o’clock on another. I watch CNN hearings. I love watching news. Or else I’m obsessed with it — I don’t know which.

RS: I have trouble getting through the way the news is presented. Do you fight that?

PK: Oh, sure, it’s a parody, the way they all say the most obvious things, when what you see in a few seconds of footage contradicts what they’re telling you. It’s quite incredible to hear the vacuous lines that come out of the news readers’ mouths.

PF: Is that part of the fascination for you?

PK: Yeah, because you’re watching these people crippling and strangling the news, and when they do have a great event and can’t miss with it — when it’s an earthquake or something of that sort — each network will concentrate on the same pathetic figures. They manage to pull your emotional strings so blatantly that you want to smack them one. Except for “Wiseguy,” which I really enjoy, and “L.A. Law” sometimes, I can’t watch series television. But I can watch the news endlessly, because there’s always enough new happening to keep me fixated, and there’s always this rage at the way it’s presented.

RS: Can movies be made now with the kind of honesty of De Palma’s “Blow Out”?

PK: Well, the box-office failure of “Blow Out” was, I think, a tragedy for De Palma and for John Travolta — it’s just about the best work each of them has ever done. But it probably served as a warning to some of the people who might have wanted to do something politically sophisticated. It’s as if people get penalized for sophistication. I think that’s true of Altman — he got ornery. Like Peckinpah, Altman became difficult to deal with, but at the same time the man is a genius, and he came through with a string of the greatest films ever made in this country, so you’d think people would put up with his orneriness. The studio executives don’t mind somebody ornery if he’s a mediocrity, because they understand the terms in which he’s functioning.

PF: I find “The Untouchables” depressing, because it’s as if De Palma acceded to the Reagan era’s nostalgia for heroes, whereas “Blow Out” was a personally felt expression of what’s going on in this country.

PK: I think De Palma’s script for “Blow Out” is infinitely superior to the David Mamet script for “The Untouchables.” The script for “The Untouchables” is square. But, on the other hand, that squareness did make it possible for De Palma to reach a big audience, and he did direct it marvelously. De Palma’s a ranking American director who had never been given his due. Just in human terms you have to be glad when somebody good comes to the fore. People don’t sell out or give in to the system or anything like that quite as simply as we thought when we were kids.

PF: Are there movies you really can’t justify enjoying or writing about?

PK: Damn it, if I enjoy it, it seems to me I’d better be able to write about it. It would be dishonest to enjoy something and not admit it. If you laugh all the way through a comedy and then write a pan, something is wrong with you. You have to be able to believe in yourself enough to be truthful about how you react.

PF: Should everyone trust their instincts?

PK: I can’t speak for everybody on that; I think a lot of people have lousy instincts. (Laughs) But to be a critic it sure helps to be able to trust your instincts. What else have you got? If you don’t trust your instincts maybe you’re in the wrong profession.

RS: Couldn’t somebody argue that the other thing you have is your taste?

PK: But tastes become instinctive. Your instincts aren’t something apart from your knowledge and your education and your tastes. Your instincts are everything you know acting together immediately, viscerally.

PF: Is it possible that a critic could not have great taste and still show us something about the medium?

PK: Yes, there are critics whose judgments are way off but whose perceptions of a movie are quite stunning. I’ll read a review and think the person is blind to what the narrative is doing, but he’ll describe certain details and I’ll think, Gee, I took that in and yet I didn’t fully register what it meant. In many ways, the perceptions and the observations are more important than the judgments. We read critics for the perceptions, for what they tell us that we didn’t fully grasp when we saw the work. The judgments we can usually make for ourselves.

©1989 by Polly Frost and Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Interview magazine.

Neil Jordan

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By Ray Sawhill

Cerebral and visceral at the same time, the Irish writer and film director Neil Jordan’s movies suggest the work of a graduate seminarian who gorges on mystery stories and pop music. After making a mark in his 20s with his fiction — which so far includes “Night in Tunisia” (1976), “The Past” (1980), and “The Dream of a Beast” (1983) — Jordan turned to writing for television and then sent a film script to the director John Boorman.

He became a filmmaker in 1982, when Boorman persuaded Britain’s Channel Four to finance “Angel,” which was released in America (and is available on videocassette) as “Danny Boy.” A drama about a sax player in an Irish dance band who sets out to avenge the deaths of a friend and a deaf-mute girl, the film was pointedly apolitical, and it scandalized Ireland. Jordan made his next film in London. “The Company of Wolves” (1984) is a story-within-a-story, Chinese-box film that suggests a combination of the Brothers Grimm, Bettelheim, and Borges. It was a commercial success in England and a cult favorite in the States, and is remarkable for focusing sympathetically on the sexual dreams and fears of a pubescent girl. (The film’s co-screenwriter, Angela Carter, called it “a menstrual movie.”)

“Mona Lisa,” (1986), the film Jordan is most widely known for, is a lurid melodrama about a thug who falls in love with the call girl he’s assigned to chaperone. Witty and ingrown, but with a rampaging spirit, “Mona Lisa” may be the only successful example of a film many directors have tried to make — the film noir as conscious poetry — and it turned Bob Hoskins, for whom the lead role was designed, into a star.

Jordan moved into the world of big budgets and international casts with his next movie, “High Spirits” (1988), a farce about American tourists visiting an Irish castle, but the film was taken away from him by his producers during editing, and the mangled version bombed badly.

Jordan is thirty-nine years old. He grew up in Dublin, and between films returns to a home on the Dublin shore. I met him at a French restaurant in Manhattan; he was drowsy when he arrived, and contentedly unkempt in jeans and a T-shirt. He was in town to do some looping for his new movie, “We’re No Angels,” a variation on a 1954 film that starred Humphrey Bogart and Peter Ustinov (and which was itself based on a 1951 play by Albert Husson); Jordan made his version in Canada from a script by David Mamet, with Robert De Niro and Sean Penn in the leading roles. He’s a soft-spoken lunchtime companion, but there are hints of truculence and intensity in his dark eyes, and in the way he emphasizes his remarks with “Do you know what I mean?” and “Do you understand?”

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RAY SAWHILL: There’s a line in “Angel” where the hero asks the girl what Protestants know about sin and she answers something like “Nothing at all.” Are you a practicing Catholic?

NEIL JORDAN: No, not at all. I’m a bad Catholic.

RS: Aren’t most Catholics “bad Catholics”?

NJ: I’m a really bad Catholic. It’s not a subject that fascinates me, but it’s an issue that obsesses Ireland. The Irish Catholic church is a very mean an autocratic institution, far more repressive and puritanical than what you find anywhere else, I think. But it’s set in a peasant culture, so there’s a certain kind of irreverence and earthiness that’s part of people’s lives and which counteracts the church.

RS: I picture you as having been a serious student.

NJ: I was a very intellectual kid, a very big reader. My father taught at a teacher-training college and my mother was a painter. Her father was a painter. He was a professor of fine arts at the College of Art in Dublin. I was born in Sligo on the west coast, but we moved to the city. It was a middle-class upbringing and quite a literate one. I went to college and studied Plato and Aristotle with great relish, although the only languages apart from English that I have any acquaintance with are GAelic and Latin.

RS: Was there any American-style popular culture around when you were growing up?

NJ: I was fascinated by music and movies. There was no television — most families couldn’t afford TV. I used to be allowed to go once every two weeks to the cinema. There was an assumption on the part of Irish society in general that cosmopolitan influences were tainted with some kind of evil — a little like Iran at the moment. The devil spoke through Carole Lombard and Buddy Holly.

RS: Did that make it more enticing?

NJ: Totally, yeah. My father was a very intellectual man. I argued with him a lot when I was a kid — ferocious stand-up fights all the time. Religion, politics, sex. He was very enlightened and kind. But he came from a small-town background. And the great problems in rural Ireland are alcoholism and madness, which go hand in hand. There were strains of that in probably everybody’s family. Coming from a small farm, he had had to educate himself, teach himself to read, go to university. He was somebody who created a different life for himself. And to do that, I suppose, one has to teach oneself a certain rigidity. So I used to fight against that a lot.

RS: Were you an only child?

NJ: No, there were five of us. I’m the second-oldest. My mother wanted all her kids to paint. I used to paint a lot when I was a kid. Then around the age of twelve I just stopped, and now I can’t draw a line. Well, I can draw doodles and cartoons, but both of my sisters are professional painters in Dublin — whatever small art market is there. There’s really no tradition of visual arts in Ireland because there is never any money to support it. It’s ass simple as that. There’s no architecture of any significance, except by the Anglo-Irish; the native Irish never had a chance to build anything. The mode of expression that costs nothing is literature, storytelling.

I started writing when I was about fourteen. Stories, poetry, plays. Approximations of the people I was reading at the time — Graham Greene, Dostoyevski, Yeats, Joyce. One has an urge to write at certain times. It doesn’t matter what you write about so long as you write. I went to university specifically to do that. I studied literature and history. I worked in an ensemble theater in Dublin — a group of writers, directors, actors. When I got my degree I began to try to live off that.

RS: What were the plays you wrote like?

NJ: They were performed, never published. I was mainly the writer in the group. I love writing for actors. Jim Sheridan, who’s just made a film called “My Left Foot” — it’s wonderful, and Daniel Day-Lewis is wonderful in it — was a part of the group. He’s a wonderful theater director, one of the best directors of actors I’ve ever come across. He and myself and a group of Irish actors and one or two other Irish writers were part of this same fringe theater group in Dublin. We used to write plays about social issues that affected people in Dublin at the time. We used to write children’s plays, street theater, musicals.

RS: Did you manage to make a living off it?

NJ: I never made a living off of anything, really. Which is why at one stage I turned to playing music. I was in my early twenties, married, with one child, living in Dublin, unemployed. Writing fiction, writing for the theater, absolutely broke. They needed a guitarist in this band, and I thought, Rock ‘n’ roll musicians make some money. So I said O.K. I just did it for money. But it was from that experience that my first movie [“Angel”] came.

We were traveling around Ireland, playing in large dance halls. There were groups called show bands, playing an amalgam of country and rock music. But for some reason they had brass sections. They came from a combination of these old swing bands that were knocked out by Bill Haley — they were still trying to make a living. It was a strange compromise between rock ‘n’ roll and what you would think of as a dance band of the ’40s.

In the north there was fighting going on; in the south there was not.The only people who were immune were the musicians. They would travel freely. So we’d travel to Belfast and Derry, driving back at three or four at night, which can be very frightening if you’re driving through areas where there’s been trouble.

RS: Did you have any frightening encounters?

NJ: Only when I did the movie. I got a lot of threats. I had to move out of my house. The movie is based on an incident involving a group called the Miami Show Band. One night they were traveling back from the north of Ireland, and they were stopped by me dressed as soldiers, taken out, and machine-gunned. It was a sectarian killing.

RS: What happened when you made the movie?

NJ: I began to get a few people visiting my house at night.

RS: Throwing rocks against your windows?

NJ: No, no. One night two guys walked into the house, into my child’s bedroom, looked around, and walked out again. It was a demonstration that “We know what you’re up to.”

RS: You must have wondered whether the film was worth doing.

NJ: Well, I was in the middle of it by then. And things like that happen all the time in Ireland, but rarely do they lead to anything serious. I rang up the Special Branch, the group of people who are meant to look after us. Years later, I crashed my car one night, and for some reason no police came to the scene. Eventually, after an hour or two — there were traffic jams everywhere — they came. I asked my lawyer, “Why on earth did it take them so long to come?” He said it was because the guys who came first were actually Special Branch and didn’t want to interfere. I wonder whether they were just keeping in touch, just following along.

RS: How old were you when you wrote your first book?

NJ: Twenty-four. I was unemployed. I was with the theater group. I was living in not a bad house, really. In Dublin you can always get by. But I was collecting the dole. I published stories, and I felt very proud and lucky and very surprised that what I’d written was well-received. The first book I wrote won the Guardian fiction prize. I became quite a literary young lion.

I come from a very literary culture. My friends were writers like Brian Friel and Seamus Heaney. They’re people that want the flame to be carried forward, the tradition to be carried on. So when I began to make films, among the literary community in Ireland it was considered a horrendous thing to do, an utter betrayal of one’s calling and one’s destiny — that sort of stuff. It was if Maria Ewing had begun to sing with Boy George. Film is not part of the culture.

RS: Your fiction is quite literary. Yet in your movies, in a popular art form —

NJ: Well, that’s the reason I moved into movies. I see movies as a great escape from the awful burdens of literature. If you ever try to sit down and write a novel, you’re at the typewriter for two years. You can go nuts.

RS: When you turned from your typewriter and your blank sheets of paper to writing for movies and television, what was it like?

NJ: Well, first of all, everything has been a release from sitting alone writing. (Laughs) Except marriage — that was not a release. Basically everything that I’ve done in a more public milieu has been to get myself away from writing fiction — an alternative and an escape from it. It just happens that movies have been the most engrossing and the most fulfilling. Even when I played music, it was just so wonderful to be among a mass of people.

RS: But when you wrote for TV you were unhappy with what was done with what you wrote.

NJ: Just like most writers, yeah. Then I sent John Boorman a script about two young Irish gypsy kids —

RS: There are gypsies in Ireland?

NJ: Yeah, they’re called tinkers. The kids in the film get involved in an arranged marriage and in smuggling. It was a bit like “They Live By Night,” that Nicholas Ray movie about two sweet young kids who meet in this horrible world. John liked it a lot, and he got in touch with me and asked me to write another script with him — “Broken Dreams,” which has never been made. It was a futuristic script — a delightful, wonderful story about the end of the world. It was from a French novel set in the west of Ireland about a group of magicians, by the guy who wrote “Diva” — Daniel Odier. And the ultimatee trick was to make things actually vanish. They couldn’t bring them back. It was kind of a crazed premise. John has wanted to do it for a long, long time. It’s i that midrange between being too expensive to be quirky and too quirky to be cheap. We sat for three months in a room and wrote it, and he went off to try to get it financed and couldn’t. Then he made “Excalibur,” and he asked me to do some work on the last draft of that script.

RS: You were on the set of “Excalibur,” making a documentary.

NJ: Yeah, it’s been shown on television. I was credited as “consultant.” John asked me to be around during the shooting. I said, “O.K., but I’ll have nothing to do — I’ll feel awkward. So why don’t you let me make a documentary about you making the film? And if you want to swap ideas and talk, I’ll at least have a function; I won’t be like an idiot, getting in the way.” Basically we talked about the scenes, what’s happening here, what’s happening there.

RS: I picture the two of you sitting around talking about Freud and Jung, fairy tales and dreams.

NJ: (Laughs) That might be a bit idealistic. But John allowed me to see that films could be accessible to personal vision.

RS: You seem to share some ideas about dreams and myths.

NJ: Oh, yeah. Since I was about fifteen I’ve been obsessed with all that — with the idea of nonrationality. I’m very impatient with explanations of human behavior that begin and end with the rational. And the kinds of stories I love are ones where rational human beings are confronted with things they can’t explain.

RS: Ireland seems to have no film tradition.

NJ: None whatsoever. But for me filmmaking was a wonderful release. Because in Ireland, everything has been written about to a large extent. Particularly after Joyce. I lived in the city he’d written about. Some of the greatest literature of the twentieth century took place in this city I grew up in. It’s impossible not to feel swamped by that. You grow up in this culture, this landscape, in which every little detail has been written about. Every little brick, every corner, every place you go has a literary association, be it through Joyce or Patrick Kavanagh or Flann O’Brien or whomever. One’s palate becomes sort of jaded. One’s imagination becomes paralyzed.

RS: How was “Angel” received in Ireland?

NJ: Oh, I was thrown out of the country. Literally. It caused such outrage — it offended every possible segment. It offended extreme nationalists in the south, who thought I hadn’t taken a political stance. It offended loyalists. It particularly offended members of the film community of Ireland, because I was a novelist and I’d made a movie myself. It offended literary people. The only people it didn’t offend were in Anderson’s Town, in the ghettos of Belfast; they rather liked it. (Laughs)

RS: Were you conscious of becoming part of an explosion of British filmmaking?

NJ: I was very conscious of being in an environment that allowed people like myself to make films. I was aware of Channel Four — they did “Angel.” Without them I would never have directed a film. I was aware of an environment that was hungry for filmmaking. As a cultural capital ten years before, London had the greatest theater in the world. For some reason that changed, and for a certain period it was directed toward the cinema. Peter Greenaway was making films, and Stephen Frears …

RS: Are the British directors who came from TV commercials, like Ridley Scott and Tony Scott and Adrian Lyne, part of this bunch?

NJ: I think the great filmmaker in Britain whom everybody has ignored is Ken Loach. He can’t make a movie anymore. When he made “Kes” and his other movies, he didn’t just throw a great wash of gray paint over your entire being; he managed to photograph real people in all their dimensions. But Ridley and Tony Scott and Adrian Lyne make Hollywood studio pictures without any questions. They make them on Hollywood’s own terms. Whereas Stephen Frears and David Leland and myself and others would make American films, but we’d probably make them with some questions.

The only other director I’ve met at all regularly is Stephen Frears. He’s the only one I’ve talked to more than a few times, except for David Leland, who wrote with me on “Mona Lisa.” British society for some reason is not terribly communicative. England is a rather constricted place. It can drive you crazy as an Irish person. What you have to realize about the British is that they’re not very happy with themselves and never have been. They have no way, even in their socially conscious films, to find redemptive images. Because there’s something in the British psyche that doesn’t actually like life. A movie like “Do the Right Thing” in many ways takes a social perspective similar to that of the British movies that were made in the past eight years. But none of them would be able to carry the political and social intent with the same amount of liveliness, of fun.

RS: You married very young.

NJ: Yeah, and had two kids. In the Irish way. I was about twenty-one when we had the first one. With “Company of Wolves” I wanted to make something that would illuminate what my daughters were going into. In my fiction I’ve always liked to write from inside women’s parts, for some reason. You have to imagine yourself into an experience that’s totally the opposite of your own. There’s great freedom in that, a strange release. Angela Carter’s story was the basis for the film, but I wanted to create the visual approximation of a girl’s mind at that age — with the narrative confusion and the association from one image to another. Which is why the film probably has a confused structure. Or, not confused, but not quite circular. There’s a film I saw a long time ago called “The Saragossa Manuscript,” a wonderful movie, made by a Polish director. It was one of Luis Bunuel’s favorite films. That film does have that circularity. There’s an authorial organization to the entire thing. I resisted doing that in this case; I wanted some aspect of the accidental.

RS: “The Company of Wolves” is so strange because it’s a very thought-out film that addresses the unconscious.

NJ: It’s a cheeky film. It was after Spielberg had come out with his films, and “Star Wars” had been released, and Ridley Scott was working in London. I was working with these guys who had worked on all these big movies. So Anton Furst and the cinematographer and I were making a film that belonged to the realm of these large special-effects movies, but with bits of twine, and dolls, and twelve trees that we had to shift around the studio to give the impression of a forest. That’s all we could afford to build.

RS: How did you daughters react to “Company of Wolves”?

NJ: They love it. Kids love that movie, particularly young girls. My youngest daughter is nine, and she holds screenings of it.

RS: Which of your films is your daughters’ favorite?

NJ: Oh, the worst of the bunch, I suppose. The one I made last — “High Spirits.”

RS: Do you see the girls a lot?

NJ: I do. If I’m doing postproduction on a film, the only way I can see them is to bring them into the theater: “What do you think of this, kids?” “Do you like that?”

RS: Your films have a familiarity with going backstage.

NJ: Oh, I love that world, don’t you? I think some of the best films are about people who have to perform: “Sawdust and Tinsel” and “The Magic Flute.” I love “La Strada.” I want to do a film in Ireland that’s about backstage performance. The thing I’d love most to make would be a backstage musical set in outer space.

RS: Are you putting me on? Your eyes are twinkling.

NJ: No, I’m serious. It’s an interesting problem, how one would make a musical that would still have some kind of resonance today. I wrote a story a long time ago for my daughter which was about hoofers in space who traveled around entertaining troops in these intergalactic wars. It was basically a backstage musical that went from asteroid to asteroid. But now I want to do a film in Ireland that’s a simple little film about a musician — about a marriage that went wrong. I’m just writing it. The woman had a child and left before the child was even one, left it to be brought up by its father. She comes back and the son doesn’t know that she’s his mother. It’s set in a theater in Dublin. It would be a very simple film with three or four actors — a bit of an antidote the big film I’ve just made.

RS: There’s something of a backstage musical in all your films.

NJ: Especially “Angel.” You know the way when you begin to make a film with someone for the first time you show each other films? Chris Menges, the cinematographer, would show me a lot of realist movies and I would show him musicals. I wanted a tension between both things.

RS: It’s very sophisticated for a first film.

NJ: Not in terms of the narrative. What I had to learn was narrative, which was an odd thing for a writer. The visual aspect, the composition, came easier to me. I had written the script with the images in mind: the girl by the tree, the guy in the pink suit on the beach.

RS: Where are you based now?

NJ: I’ve been in Canada for nine months shooting “We’re No Angels.” It’s very pretty up there — too pretty in many ways. What happens in Vancouver is that when the sun comes out it’s too healthy. There’s no diffusion in the sky. You get this horrible blue. It’s very beautiful, but photographically it’s ugly. So we kept waiting for clouds, and sometimes the clouds wouldn’t come.

But I live in Dublin — I go away to work and come back to Dublin. It’s a nice early-Victorian house in Bray, a seaside town. The weaves actually hit my third-story window. I get flooded every now and then. Have you read “Portrait of the Artist”? You know the Christmas-dinner scene, where Dante talks about Parnell? That took place in the house next door. That family lived there. Most of my life is spent alone. I have a girlfriend, Beverly D’Angelo, who was in “High Spirits.” I’d say she’s my fiancee. When I’m in Dublin, she comes to Dublin; when she’s in L.A., I go to L.A.

RS: Did you have a good time working together on “High Spirits”?

NJ: We had a very good time. She’s very fiery. But it’s such a noisy film as it exists now. I was on a plane with Beverly, and it was on, and I thought, Oh God, this is the noisiest film ever made. It’s terrible to see a movie you’ve made that you’re not that happy with. It makes you not want to make films again.

RS: When I saw “High Spirits,” I thought, Gee, Neil Jordan seems to want to do something delicate, and the producers seem to want “National Lampoon.”

NJ: That’s a fair impression. The entire thing was a bit of a mess. “High Spirits” was meant to be a coherent farce, not an incoherent farce. I pictured it as a farce — like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” — that concluded in an erotic series of encounters. Where on one night everyone goes through an experience that changes them radically. The experience is the falling in love with ghosts. I wanted to set up this complicated series of characters and throw all these balls up in the air, and the question was: How are you going to resolve it all? And then I would resolve it through a series of deaths and rebirths. It’s a classic form. Every films I’ve ever done, I write out a two-page description of it first. The shape of it is there. I wanted to do “High Spirits” quite simply. I knew I needed American actors and all that. For whatever reasons — probably because it needed quite an expensive budget — I involved myself with American producers.

What happens with independent productions, even ones with big budgets like mine, is very simple, really: You bring a script to a bunch of people, and they say, “O.K., we an get yo the money for this, but we will need a star name.” They go to a festival or market like Cannes, and they sell it to different territories. Bit by bit you find yourself backed into a corner — first of all with regard to the casting, maybe later on with regard to the script. That’s the kind of thing that happened to me on this film. To get the resources to make it on the scale I needed to make it on, and to deliver the effects and build the set, I had to get into that world. That was my very first time.

RS: Wasn’t “Company of Wolves” an expensive film?

NJ: Inexpensive. It cost about $3 million. “High Spirits” cost $17 million. I wrote the script; I got my designer, Anton Furst — the guy who designed “Batman” and “Company of Wolves” — and all his crew working on the sets while I was still negotiating with the producers. All the guys I work with were desperate to make this film because so few films were being made in Britain at the time. So to keep the project alive I began to back myself into a corner, thinking I could solve all these problems during the shooting. Most of which I actually did. But then we had a lot of arguments over the cut at the end. Bit by bit I lost control.

RS: Which are the arguments you lost?

NJ: The argument about the structure of the entire piece. The structure of the film was about the castle itself — the hotel — and the inhabitants of that hotel, with the American characters being visitors, flitting around the main story. And all the Irish actors — their parts were decimated.

As I shot it, the tale of all these shouting and screaming Americans was auxiliary. The entire balance of the film was upset. In the end it seemed like a stupid story and structure for a film. The only thing I like is that there is a beauty in the visual organization of the piece.

It was heartbreaking. It almost killed me. I’d not done anything before that I’d not finished. With this, I filmed everything I wanted, but what was released was unfinished.

It makes me very violent, I must say. It makes me very angry, very vindictive. I would gladly have done serious damage to people’s joints.

In the end, either you have power or you’re working with people who have enough moral integrity or intelligence to share your vision. I was working with idiots — I don’t mean the actors; the actors gave everything.

Making films is a very tiring thing to do. There have been moments when I’ve just wanted to resign from them. It’s too much trouble. It’s not that too much responsibility is placed on the director. In an odd way, it’s not enough. If as a director you were responsible from beginning to end for every decision, you wouldn’t have these endless discussions and meetings, so you could actually do it rather quickly. But as it is, you’re responsible yet you’re answerable. And that takes a tremendous amount of time. It can be very exhausting. All the decisions I make are out of my instincts. I can’t do it otherwise. But sometimes you have argue, and sometimes you have to be diplomatic and kind of sly. You have to do things and not reveal why you’re doing them at the time.

RS: Can you give me an example?

NJ: If you’re told by a producer that this set can stay up for only a week and you know you need it for two weeks, you say, O.K., we leave it up for a week. You’ve already argued about it for two weeks anyway. And when you come to shoot it you deliberately leave the major scene till Friday, and you won’t get it finished on Friday, so it has to stay up on Monday for the next week.

RS: Does this come easily to you?

NJ: Well, it’s stuff one learns very quickly when one’s back is against the wall. It’s stuff like that that’s very tiring. But the truth is, there’s nothing more pleasurable than making films. you’re dealing with color, you’re dealing with light, you’re dealing with actors, you’re photographing things that move through time. It’s a wonderful medium. And you’re not doing something that’s a potpourri of these various arts; you’re making something that’s quite different. It’s a pleasure that’s difficult to relinquish.

RS: Did your theater work teach you how to talk to actors?

NJ: Well, up until this most recent film everything I did was from my own script. So I was in the happy position of being able to rewrite the dialogue very rapidly, or to restructure the scene if something wonderful happened when we were shooting. And as I cast a the film I could change the parts. I would rewrite to get their personalities into the script. I used to try to get the actors to reinvent the whole story themselves as they doing the film.

RS: What was it like working with American actors?

NJ: American actors seem to want to invent their parts themselves. I find them fascinating. They work with much more commitment to the actual idea than British actors do. To a certain extent, British actors are slumming when they’re in movies, except for the good ones, like Hoskins and Caine — people who are no so much of the theater.

RS: Caine can be an astounding actor, like in “Educating Rita.”

NJ: Or “Hannah and Her Sisters.”

RS: But sometimes he just seems to be checking in at a cocktail party. You got such a malevolent performance from him in “Mona Lisa.” I wouldn’t have thought of Michael Caine if I were looking for malevolence.

NJ: A lot of the stuff he did in England when he was younger was straight out of his background — South London working-class boy who wants to make good by whatever means possible.I just tried to tap into that aspect of him. he loved it. It’s interesting — he will take the easiest of possible options for the first take. If he’s allowed, he’ll come in and do it and go home. But the more you probe and demand, the more excited Michael gets. And the happier he gets, really.

RS: Do you rehearse with the actors?

NJ: Except with Bobby [De Niro] and Sean [Penn] — we rehearsed for a day — I’ve never rehearsed with the actors. I’ve had discussions; I don’t find it productive. He walks in the door, he looks around, the bar explodes. What can you rehearse about that? I would like to work out the characters sometimes in more detail.

RS: If you could wave a magic wand and change the way films are made, what would you change?

NJ: First of all, I would ask that they be budgeted correctly. In other words, when the script is passed and accepted, and they want the script to have certain elements, they should put enough money into the film to realize the script correctly and coherently. This very rarely happens. Usually they want everything in it, the big bits and the small bits, but they limit you: you’ve only so much time and money, you can have only two hundred extras here or twenty cars there.

And I would also ask for a certain period to reshoot stuff. It’s the only medium in the world where you never get a second chance. In practice people do it all the time, because things go wrong, but they don’t budget for it. So it causes a lot of argument and friction.

RS: What’s the David Mamet script for “We’re No Angels” like?

NJ: Over the years I’d been sent many scripts, and I’d always turned them down. But if I’d ever written my ideal script, this would have been it. It was extraordinary. Amazing. This is David’s most sentimental, sweetest script to date. It has two guys escaping from prison who are not-quite-made-it crooks, innocents, who are mistaken for priests. There’s a prostitute with a heart of gold who goes through a religious conversion. I think it’s his best script. I did the film because the script is so good.

RS: De Niro and Penn are said to be very demanding actors.

NJ: They’re quite demanding, but quite wonderful. It was a new encounter for me, because I had never been confronted with as many questions. Their demands on the specific reality of the parts they played were painstaking. It was very good for me, because it forced me to ask a lot of questions. I have never been concerned with the realistic nature of performances. I never thought about it really, probably because I’d written the parts. On the other films, it was more like: This script will never be made if I don’t make it. It was different here. I was a director for the first time. It’s a very interesting thing to be a director.

David’s script was spare, and my entire attack on the movie was to make it lush and large and circuslike and emotional. The script is an anti-religious parable about redemption. Which was wonderful, because what people hope for from religion — which it never gives them — is the whole center of the characters. Sean makes a wonderful speech which expresses the whole thing – why people want to believe and why the systems that are meant to give them belief never match them. But if they do want to believe, what’s wrong with that?

RS: When Cathy Tyson shoots Michael Caine in “Mona Lisa,” you —

NJ: I gave her a kind of saintly aspect, yeah. One longs for the serenity of that world. In the new movie I have a deaf-and-dumb kid. If you’re talking about wounded innocents … The images that move me most are redemptive ones. My sense of that probably comes out of Italian paintings. My mother used to surround me with them as a kid. There’s a wonderful painting by Velazquez in the National Gallery in London which is called “The Immaculate Conception.” Mary is sitting on a globe among the planets with a halo of stars around her head. And she has a little bruised and wounded face, like a kid about fifteen who you’d want to have sex with. I’m sure Velazquez did. Have a look at it and you’ll see the same face you see in “Angel,” the little girl before the tree. I tend to look at pictures like that to find images that will resonate and some starting point for a visual structure.

RS: Was Penn awed by working with De Niro? What kind of rapport did they have?

NJ: Everyone was slightly awed by working with De Niro, because he’s such a complete actor. He has done less bad work than anybody else I can think of. I’m sure that to actors in general he is quite an awesome figure. As to whether Sean was awed by Bobby, I don’t think so. Or maybe he was privately, but maybe he was saved by the part. They both involved themselves very deeply in their parts, and they played two opposite kinds of people: one innocent and full of wonder, the other fast-talking and tough. Bob was the fast-talking guy and Sean the innocent.

RS: I understand that De Niro is not the most verbal of people.

NJ: No but one of the most intelligent he is. It’s kind of an instinctive intelligence one is working with. I hate it when people can articulate things too clearly, because then it’s said and there’s no other way of saying it.

RS: Yet you are very articulate.

NJ: But I don’t articulate when I’m working. I almost deliberately try not to. Because if you can describe it, there’s no point in doing it. Really!

They’re both very demanding actors, but the demands they make are very productive ones. Because of the level of reality both guys bring to their performances, it’s best to surround them with reality. If they’re reacting to something, it’s far better to have the thing they’re reacting to there behind the camera rather than just to imagine it. There’s a level of falsity that doesn’t exist in that style of acting, which I had not come across before.

RS: Bob Hoskins seems to be that kind of actor too.

NJ: He is, yeah. I think acting in a film has a lot to do with the realism the medium demands. But I love when it can go into levels of mime, burlesque, melodrama. I found Hoskins was that kind of guy. He could become a song-and-dance man in a minute. And he could awaken in himself these huge, almost Dickensian kinds of emotions – a think which you don’t specifically connect with movies. The great thing about working with him was that I had anticipated somebody who would be terrifying about the interior logic of his part, but he wasn’t that way at all. He was able to take imaginative leaps and make quite an irrational journey through it.

RS: How much of a student of movies and thrillers have you been?

NJ: When I was a kid, I was not allowed to go to the cinema all that often. I remember wanting to see “The Battle of the Sexes,” which I thought was a war movie. My parents wouldn’t let me, and they would never tell me why When I saw “La Strada” the first time, that’s when I was taken over by film; that’s when I lost faith in the written word. I saw it when I was about eighteen. Then I saw Kurosawa movies and Bunuel films … Something about the idea of photography knocked me dead. The idea of photographing Giulietta Massina playing the trumpet, the idea of that both belonging to stories and actually happening, began to make me think, Why write a fiction that says, “He woke up and he remembered the sweet taste of her perfume” or something? Why write something as false as that when something like photography exists?

In many ways, all the fiction I wrote was refusing to be a novel. I could never describe a character’s inner life. I could only describe the physical realities of their fictional existence. I could never allow myself to take that liberty. I despised it. I regarded the novel as defunct, basically. I used to read too much Robbe-Grillet. That was it, really. I could not describe anything other than what could be seen or smelled or heard.

RS: Do you still hang out with your old theater friends?

NJ: I do. But Dublin’s a very small city. It’s an ideal place to return to. It’s not too good a place to live all the time.

RS: How do you find time for your literary writing?

NJ: I don’t. I’m meant to deliver a novel by Christmas. I’m trying to start it at the moment. I’m trying to find a way of writing again. I think the solution is to be more vulgar than I have been in the past, to actually begin to talk about the characters’ inner lives — to allow myself to make those statements. I was too strict with myself before.

RS: Do you have hobbies?

NJ: I ski. I go skiing with my kids, to Switzerland. I took it up because Christmas in Ireland is quite a horrendous time. Everyone drinks so much that you’re literally wrecked afterward, or at least I am, because I like to drink. So I said, All right, I’ll take my kids away to Switzerland. And they enjoyed it.

I rarely stay at home. I go out all the time. I go around the pubs — that’s what I like to do with my time. But I hang out with my kids. I spend as much of my spare time with them as I can.

I am the only gainfully employed person that I know where I come from. So I have to look out for a lot of people. It’s a very embarrassing position to be in. People want to borrow money off me, but once they do they hate me, because they can’t pay it back.

RS: How do you handle that?

NJ: I give them the money. I say, Here, don’t borrow it, take it.

RS: What do you read? What music do you listen to?

NJ: I mainly listen to classical music. When I was younger I used to listen to everything before 1500 and everything after 1890. I’ve never really gone through Mozart, so for the moment I’m trying to listen to as much of Mozart as I can. I reading a biography of Shaw — a bit dull. Have you read his plays? You can read them, but they’re hard to watch. I’m reading a volume of art criticism by John Ashbery. I’m a fan of his poetry — I’m intrigued; I want to find out where the meaning is. But I basically like movies. I go all the time, especially when I’m making a film. It relaxes me and makes me think of things. On a Saturday, I used to go see five movies if I was shooting a film. Recently I saw “The Abyss.” I saw “Casualties of War,” which is beautifully made and definitely a film of stature, but I don’t know if I enjoyed it.

RS: What do movies represent for you?

NJ: I connect movies with sex and isolation. I connect them with forbidden things — rich, strange things that don’t happen in real life. I mean sex, sexually charged images. I don’t mean dirty, nasty, prurient things. I mean a level of eroticism and sensuality. I connect it with intoxication, with what storytelling should be. When I was a kid, it was something that aroused emotions that were far, far bigger than the things one was surrounded by.

RS: There are a lot of indications of the irrational and the spiritual in your films.

NJ: It comes out of my background. The Irish psyche is impatient with reality. There’s a great quotation: “It refuses to subject itself to the tyranny of fact.” It’s true. it’s much happier with lies than it is with truth. It’s much happier with inventions than it is with reality. It’s actually much happier with failure than with material success. There’s a feeling that too much concentration on the mundane matters of business and everyday life stifles your … I guess your ability to have fun is what it comes to. (Laughs)

©1989 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Interview magazine.

Cannibal Culture 3

By Ray Sawhill

More and more of the images in the American sleaze magazine Celebrity Sleuth are taken from video screens. How is the sexual makeup of young men being affected?

As an adolescent, I was entranced by Princess Caroline of Monaco, whom paparazzi were forever snapping in states of semi-undress. Ever since, I’ve responded erotically to almost any photograph taken with an unusually long lens. By now there must be several generations of young men raised on TV whose imaginations have been imprinted by the visual qualities of the video image. All those horizontal lines! “Honey, would you mind standing behind the Venetian blind, just for a minute?”

***

I buy Celebrity Sleuth for the photos they run of naked actresses. Naked actresses have been my passion for years. As a boy, I enjoyed Playboy’s annual “Sex in the Cinema” feature more than I did its monthly smorgasbord of prettily-posed flesh. Movies being what they are now, it’s the possibility of seeing an actress I care about undress that keeps me a moviegoer. What gives me pleasure is the conjunction of the physical, the spiritual, and the esthetic — although when I tried to make the case to female colleagues that Sharon Stone had given a great performance in “Basic Instinct,” I was jeered down and informed that I’d simply been turned on. So I’ve kept it to myself that, in Jim McBride’s “The Wrong Man,” Rosanna Arquette gives her best performance since “The Executioner’s Song.” I know that someone’s going to say, You just liked it that she finally got naked again.

***

When you compare the horror-and-kung-fu bimbos who are also featured in Celebrity Sleuth with the real actresses, you understand a key distinction. The bimbos display themselves professionally; they’re there to serve. The actresses are relating to something, or focused on their roles, or projecting an emotion. They’re naked, yet retain their mystery. So you feel involved with them.

***

John Hinckley wasn’t unusual in having a fantasy relationship with a movie actress, and he may not have been unusual in thinking he had a real one. There may be a little Hinckley in many male moviegoers. The few times I met actresses who had dizzied me onscreen, I was confused and upset. They didn’t seem aware of what we’d been through together.

***

English actresses often look amused and in-charge when they appear nude, while French actresses display their poise and style — the French expect their culture products to have an erotic sheen.

In Gérard Corbiau’s new “Farinelli,” about an 18th century castrato opera star, women fans swoon over Farinelli, who’s conveniently masculine-looking and broad-chested. He makes out with them and works them up, then steps aside to allow his (mangier but better-equipped) brother to complete the coupling. The actresses (Elsa Zylberstein and Marianne Basler) flush, breathe deeply into their sensations, and let feelings ripple through their bodies.

What Hollywood usually presents as an extravaganza of lighting, music, and set-design is here made to seem to occur inside the women; watching them is like watching those roses open at the beginning of “Age of Innocence.” I imagined I was a third brother, adept at Euro-connoisseurship; my wife tells me she identified with the women, enjoying being savored. So much for the hegemony of the “masculine gaze.”

***

Americans don’t have a comparable tradition of sexual appreciation. Celebrity Sleuth seems a perfect embodiment of our conflicts. It’s full of childishly smutty puns (“Enjoy Joan Chen’s Twin ‘Peaks’ And China ‘Moon'”), giggly italics, and lipstick-and-swimming-pool colors. At the same time, it’s indisputably reverential and adoring. The women are bathed in that special light that descends only when you’re chosen to appear in both a movie and a magazine. If pop culture has become the modern Gospel, these stills are our versions of those Renaissance panels that portray dramatic highlights from the Bible.

***

We might all learn a thing or two about actors by leafing through Marilu (“Taxi”) Henner’s sweetly inane, unabashed new autobiography, “By All Means Keep on Moving” (Pocket). To Henner, an affair is a “little work of sexually gratifying art.” About one such affair, she tells us, “Actors are usually so desperate for work that they’re inclined to create fantasy improvs. Lloyd and I had some pretty hot ones. One was a teacher-student act … Detention often included a few over-the-desk spankings.”

Actors: Drama-seeking, amoral — there’s a start.

***

The early in-production pieces about “Showgirls,” Paul Verhoeven’s first film since “Basic Instinct,” have been confused. The journalists don’t seem to know what angle to take on the film, which is set among the strip clubs and topless revues of Las Vegas, and is almost certain to be rated NC-17. The problem is that no one involved seems ashamed of the project, or interested in making a political or artistic case out of it. They just seem to want to make this movie. In interviews, Verhoeven is suavely amusing about his taste for sensationalism, and the actresses speak seriously about their commitment to showing an “interesting world that’s worthy of depiction.”

***

Uma Thurman is set to play Marlene Dietrich in a film to be directed by Louis Malle from a John Guare script. It seems like perfect casting. Uma, along with such other young actresses as Diane Lane, Kelly Lynch, Jenny Wright, and Laura Dern, is something new — an American performer who conveys tragic sexual fatalism of a sort that we’re used to getting only from Europeans.

Uma appeared, of course, in “Henry and June,” the first film to be rated NC-17, and frames from some of her other movies are regularly featured in Celebrity Sleuth. Recently, though, she has been avoiding nudity, which is a pity. If she were to use her body more freely, Uma could be as redolent a presence as Dietrich, yet ratchet up the intensity and sensuality one more notch. She may simply feel she needs to defend herself against exploitation — but watching actresses fight to overcome exploitation is one of the great ongoing American screen dramas.

©1995 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Modern Review.

Amateur Pornography

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By Ray Sawhill

It’s a safe bet the first couple that bought a camcorder spent the afternoon taping baby romping and the evening taping themselves having sex. Like Polaroid cameras, camcorders instantly suggest themselves as sex toys. By the mid-Eighties, somewhere in the States, maybe even everywhere, people who made cassettes of themselves fucking started exchanging the cassettes. Chain-mail-like networks of participant-consumers developed, with streams of cassettes going from post-office box to post-office box. Eventually someone got the idea of copying the tapes as they passed by, and marketing them. It’s unlikely that the people who appeared in the first commercially available amateur porn tapes had any intention of being seen by the general public.

The inexpensive camcorder has set porn free from its adherence to the ideal of conventional narrative film. Amateur porn is sleazy, raw and (sometimes) intense, but it’s also companionable; watching it, you feel you’re among enthusiasts. Things aren’t garishly spelled out for you; whether or not a passage has been given a narrative frame, you essentially supply the narrative and illusion elements yourself. Amateur porn gives you erotic kicks free of any attempt at class and meaning.

In the past five years amateur tapes have grown in popularity until they account for as much as 15% of all porn sales; they’re also starting to be available in rental stores. Right up there on the shelf next to such professional tapes as “Lesbian Foot Lickers” and “Beverly Hills Cox” are tapes somebody you know from work may have made and appeared in. There are over 100 small entrepreneurs distributing the tapes, paying $15 to $30 a minute for new material. Some companies have camera crews of their own that they send out to film willing couples, and threesomes and foursomes; there are even companies that hire ringers — hookers and johns — and film them having “amateur” sex.

Before porn features became available in the Sixties, hard-core action could be seen on stag films and loops — short films seen at parties and in coin-operated peeping machines. Now, loops are back, but they’re loops produced by the consumers. Amateur is alternative porn in the same way that garage bands are alternative rock, that ‘zines are alternative journalism.

Film technique becomes detached from its usual meanings. Conventional films have trained us to perk up at hand-held camera movement; it’s subjective, the killer’s getting close. Watching amateur, we have no such certainty. Everything’s subjective. Amateur tapes are like cinema verité, or Warhol films without the aesthetic or intellectual underpinning. One of two naked women lies back on a waterbed. The man pushes her thighs towards her shoulders and guides his penis into her. The other woman lowers her crotch over the prone woman’s face. Their grunts, groans and whimpers mix with the sloshing of the waterbed. The camera roves over the heaving bodies, its focus uncertain, fascinated by the pillowy flesh and the straining muscles. On the TV screen, the tangle looks like a convention of flesh-colored octopi. The camera moves in closer and — whap. A flailing limb gives it a knock.

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Sometimes the effect is akin to watching after-hours action on the surveillance monitor in a convenience store. A participant may leave the action, go behind the camera and fiddle with the lens, and it’s as if he’s stepped out of the television you’re watching and is standing behind you. The soundtrack may go berserk, with racket-making beds and couches, and vibrators roaring like lawnmowers.

Watching the tapes is like taking a tour of American basements, backyards, and bedrooms. What you see of the condos and houses — sliding glass doors, pool tables, “living-room sets” — suggests entire social lives. The bedrooms often look like motel rooms, with mirrored doors and fuzzy polyester blankets; the carpets are always wall-to-wall. It’s the America Eric Fischl shows in his paintings. You speculate about the participants’ jobs: this one’s a security guard, she’s a loan officer, that one’s in purchasing. They all seem to be indoctrinated with the post-Seventies belief that endless oral sex is the best way to “get each other ready.”

A naked thirtyish brunette is walking around a backyard pool with hedge clippers, trimming plants. She “gets an idea,” settles down on a chaise longue, and then masturbates with the grip ends of the hedge clippers, slipping one of the handles up her vagina; we’re treated to an enormous, enthralled close-up of this. She mimes a terrific orgasm, sighs, slips the handle out and — rounding off the plot — returns to hedge clipping. (You can’t help wondering: is this for her husband?) In most tapes the couple are fucking and the camera is handheld. Who’s holding it? A neighbor?

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The erotic batting average isn’t terribly high, but at least you don’t have to sit through an involved plot. You can put a tape on and check out the action from time to time — it’s friendly video wallpaper. There’s always the chance a scene will be a humdinger, something that doesn’t jibe with what you already know of your own sexual tastes. The dream of course is that you’ll be party to spontaneous, free sex. But what you see in most cases are people whose ideas of sex, kink and getting off come from professional porn. The people seem more involved in trying to feel hot than in the sex they’re actually having. It’s like karaoke; they’re fucking to someone else’s soundtrack. You may conclude that though everyone fucks, few are really into it. A man behind the camera suggests to a woman who’s holding a vibrator to her crotch that she move a little this way and that. “Pipe down,” she snaps, really testy. “I’ll press my own joy buttons my own way, thank you very much.” He pipes down.

The men tend to hold the camera, and point it and monkey with the lenses. When they’re in front of the camera they whale away at their partners like workmen bent over their tasks. The women are the glory of amateur porn: most give themselves up to the camera. (Few straight men show this talent.) You feel you know when they’re being obliging and when they’re really into their own sensations.

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Amateur porn has already spawned sub-genres. A stand-out is the Nasty Brothers’ hybrid, the “Dirty Debutantes” series — the owner of my local porn parlor says that each installment sells out instantly. It’s taped in an L.A. living room; all the action takes place around and on a sofa. Ed Powers is the leader of the Nasty Brothers; he and his team pick up girls and bring them home. (“Debutantes” seems to indicate simply that the girls aren’t pros.) He begins each segment behind the camera, with the girl in front. Fade up from black; you see and hear the girl and hear Ed’s voice. Some of the girls have agreed in advance to undress; some to masturbate; some to have sex. (You’re hoping the girls will go further than they’ve agreed to; they may be hoping so too.) The tapes generally include about eight segments, each with a different girl. Ed has a deep, jocular-yet-reassuring, television-announcer’s voice that manages to be gently respectful yet dismissive of the girls’ possible anxieties. He’s like a soothing, sinister babysitter.

Ed is essentially in the position of a producer with a casting couch, only the action on the couch is the movie. One girl, short and pert, has a frozen smile and a skeptical expression — Ed easily coaxes her by her objections. When she’s naked, Ed asks her to show him her favorite sex position; she poses on her hands and knees. Bewildering. Has Ed coached her? Is this the position she’s learned her boyfriend prefers?

You watch the tapes thinking about these teenagers — their drive to be found charming and sweet, their wanting to do things Ed encourages them to do, and their desire to be documented doing them. Perhaps in L.A. appearing before Ed’s camera has acquired a cachet, like nipple-piercing. A pretty long-haired blonde explains that she’s 18 and a half, that she has a boyfriend who’s shy, and that she’ll masturbate — “and that’s all for now.” She might be introducing herself at a beauty pageant. She strips. Fade to black, fade up. Ed’s now with her. The first time you see Ed it’s startling; it’s as if your lusting spirit had left you and joined the girl on screen.

Ed fondles the girl’s breasts and whispers inaudible, presumably naughty things in her ear as she masturbates excitedly. He’s about 40, keeps his glasses on all the time and wears a ponytail. She has an orgasm. Fade to black and up. By the end of this segment there’s some serious fucking going on, but you can’t tell who the guy is. Has she gone home and returned with her “shy” boyfriend? She’s giving her partner — whoever he is — tender looks. When his excitement peaks, he pulls out and comes on her face. She smiles radiantly and giggles. Fade to black.

Most often Ed winds up fucking the girl himself. You meet the girl, and the rest of the segment is a working out in sex of what you spotted in the first tenth of a second. Ed never forces anything on the girls; he actually relates to them, telling them he’s nervous, and he attends to their shyness or boldness. You see and hear no sign of protest, not even when he slips into a girl’s ass.

When people talk about their dream of erotic movies, it’s usually of explicit sex joined to good plots, believable acting and smooth production values. Despite an infinite number of tries, professional porn has never come as close to this ideal as such mainstream movies as “Straw Dogs,” “Dressed to Kill,” “Internal Affairs” or “Basic Instinct.”

Perhaps a reason for this is that the porn hunger tends inward; its source is in the surly part of a guy that wants things entirely on its own terms. Porn serves the part of a guy that’s fed up with illusion and matters of taste — that wants to cut straight to the action. It’s anti-art and anti-romance. (This part of a guy seems to play a role in conventional movie-going too.)

From the evidence of my friends, heterosexual men love thinking and talking about which actresses they’d love to fuck. The names on the list change, but there’s still a list. Hasn’t this always been the case? Didn’t men who enjoyed such actresses as Lana Turner and Susan Hayward dream of fucking them? My movie-going buddies mention Rebecca de Mornay, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Uma Thurman, Kelly Lynch, Virginia Madsen.

What’s kept me an occasional consumer of porn has been the (rare) moments of spontaneity and surprise — instants when you feel you’ve been witnessing something real. Guys demand proof, evidence, brute fact: this must be related to their bewilderment about women’s feelings. In porn the guy is given sex on his terms — as hydraulics. The clinical lighting, gynecological close-ups and come shots — equally common in amateur as in professional porn — serve as guarantees that something “real” is happening. Could this also explain the importance in porn of anal sex — an activity during which the girl has no choice but to respond?

Crummy as it is, amateur porn may turn out to be a major advance. It has also made tapes like “Dirty Debutantes” possible. For a guy, the series is full of footage that — depending on his mood — can be just what he’s always wanted. We see an aroused girl’s mouth grow dry; we see the last look she gives her fella before her eyes half-close and roll back; we see her slack, dreamy expression turn into a greedy snarl; we’re shown the moments when she surfaces from her feelings for a searching look at her partner.

There’s one passage when Ed is snapping Polaroids of one of the girls; he’s taking pictures of her and videotaping himself doing this — meta-porn! But to discuss these tapes as anything complex in intention would be to betray what they are, which is material designed to arouse, excite and inflame. The arousing here is undisguised by art and connoisseurship, and unblemished by pop, which would sweeten or beribbon it, or present it as a force for liberation.

©1992 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Modern Review.

Electronic Film Editing

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A Final Cut Pro editing screen

The New Jump Cut

By David Ansen and Ray Sawhill

In the past four years a quiet revolution has occurred in the world of Hollywood filmmaking: the advent of digital editing on computers. Not since the Moviola arrived, in the mid-1920s, has a machine so radically transformed the way movies are assembled –for both good and ill — or broadened the definition of film editing itself. And it has altered, in ways both painful and salutary, the lives of the men and women who make movies.

The revolution has come swiftly. In 1992 editor Rob Kobrin cut an entire feature, the thriller “Needful Things,” on an Avid computer. It was only one of four films edited that year on digital systems. Today roughly 80 percent of Hollywood movies are edited on either Avid or its rival system, Lightworks. “I think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread,” says Kobrin, 40, a self-appointed cheerleader for a technology that not everyone has welcomed. “If computer editing is hell, then I’m Satan,” he boasts.

Traditional film editing was always a funky, hands-on proposition: reeling and unreeling spools of film, cutting and gluing pieces of celluloid together, working amid a sea of film that sometimes got trampled underfoot. All that has changed, and the advantages are obvious. In the weightless world of digital information, 150 miles of film can be stored on hard drives, and an editor with the press of a key or the click of a mouse can instantly access any visual or audio moment in the film. Infinite variations of a scene can be stored and called up for review and comparison. Want to create a dissolve, a fade, a wipe? Instead of shipping the film out to an optical shop, and waiting days for it to come back, an editor can create these transitions instantly on his computer, and just as easily lay in a temporary music score, a bomb explosion, a title.

In this brave new world the line between editing and special effects has blurred, the jobs of editing film and sound have started to merge, and it’s sometimes hard to know where editing begins and cinematography and production design leave off. In the current family movie “Alaska,” editor Kobrin, working with director Fraser Heston, literally moved mountains. The town the characters lived in was on the Canadian coast, but the mountains on view in the background were shot in Valdez, Alaska, and electronically laid into the image. “Traditionally the art of film editing was the juxtaposition of frames,” Kobrin explains. “I’m now editing within the frame.” A crowd of a hundred extras can be multiplied into a horde of thousands. You could say that in the digital universe all live-action films have the potential to become animation.

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Moviolas went into general use in the 1920s

In the first 100 years of moviemaking, the editing room was a noisy, collaborative workplace where an assistant would sit beside the editor and get a hands-on demonstration of the art. Now, when you walk into the old house in Greenwich, Conn., where Ron Howard is putting together his big fall thriller, “Ransom,” there’s a ghostly quiet. All you hear is the voices coming from the computer screens — where Mel Gibson, as an airline magnate, learns his son has been kidnapped — and the clicking of the keyboard. Howard is working with the two editors who won Oscars for “Apollo 13,” Mike Hill and Dan Hanley, but this is the director’s first venture onto digital. Each editor works in a separate room; the assistants are in the basement, where they convert the film to video, digitize it and painstakingly catalog the footage. “I find it thrilling,” says Howard. “You don’t have to tear the movie completely down and put it back together. It’s everything I ever hoped editing could be.”

But not everyone is rejoicing. For most editors the blade of revolution has a double edge. As Walter Murch, the legendary sound editor of “Apocalypse Now,” puts it, “If God wants to punish you, he gives you what you want.” Almost unanimously, editors rave about their new machines — and complain that the quality of their lives, and of the work, has gone to hell. It’s the much touted speed of these new machines that has led to problems. The studios, naturally, want a bottom-line return for the hundreds of thousands they’ve spent on their digital systems. Since time is huge money in Hollywood, executives figure that the time spent in post-production can now be cut in half. “Editors are terribly upset about what’s going on,” says Thelma Schoonmaker, who cuts Martin Scorsese’s films. “Computers do save time to an extent, but not as much as producers thought.”

To make the opening dates determined by the marketing departments, teams of editors frequently come in to “gang bang” a movie. “The vision goes,” explains editor Tom Roll (“Heat”). “Editors have different styles, so the movie becomes a hodgepodge.” Richard Marks, who edited “Assassins” last year in a rushed seven weeks, says, “It’s insane. It’s the thinking process that makes the movie, not the speed at which you use the tools.”

“The digital revolution is digging a big hole for all of us,” moans editor Carol Littleton (“The Big Chill”). “You do the impossible and that becomes the norm. You can’t explore anything.” Another reason the process isn’t that much quicker is that action directors, emboldened by the limitless options of their Avids and Lightworks, are shooting much more film — instead of boiling 800,000 feet down to a 12,000-foot movie, the editors might have to contend with a million feet of film. “We always worked terrible hours, and it’s worse now,” says Schoonmaker. “Everyone’s personal life and health is suffering. Everyone has to calm down and use the technology for the greatness of it and not get hysterical.”

It isn’t just the workers who are getting hysterical — so are the films. Several people cite the hyperactive “The Rock” — cut by four editors on five Avids — as an example of the new emphasis on kinetic impact over coherence. But is the technology driving the style, or is the style a response to an audience conditioned to a faster pace?

Roll and his colleagues warn that the facility of the new tools can seduce filmmakers into cutting too much, and too quickly. A new generation of directors, schooled in MTV esthetics, is so used to editing on a computer screen that they can misjudge the impact of their images when they’re amplified on a huge screen. Michael Bay, “The Rock’s” 32-year-old director, realized, when he finally saw a car chase projected on film, that he’d cut it too fast for the eye to absorb. He had to “de-cut.” The next generation may magnify this dilemma. “The real problem is with very young directors who have never edited on film,” says Warner Bros. head of post-production Marc Solomon. “They don’t want to look at film dailies, they’re happy to look at videotapes, and they lack a sense of proportion.”

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A Steenbeck flatbed editing table — high tech in the 1970s

The spirit of collaboration is disappearing, too. “The goal of electronic editing is ‘one brain, one screen, one machine’,” explains Murch. “But is working by yourself the best thing for the most collaborative art form there is?” Assistants, relegated to their bookkeeping chores in distant rooms, now have no shoulders to peer over — no way of learning their craft. They may know computers, but nothing about how editing creates drama and emotion. “I’m worried about how training is going to occur,” says Hank Schloss of the Motion Picture Editors Guild. “Everybody wants to get their end of it done today, and to hell with tomorrow.”

But there is no going back. The digital revolution is pointed in one clear direction: the all-electronic cinema Francis Coppola envisioned almost 20 years ago. Within the next five to 10 years, digital images will begin to match the subtlety and richness of film. Then, movies will be shot on digital cameras, fed directly into computers and beamed — somehow — electronically into theaters. Look, Ma! No hands! There will be no scratches on these movies, no faded colors and missing frames. There will be visions and effects and explosions the likes of which we’ve never seen. Will they be movies any of us want to see? That will have little to do with the machines, and everything to do with the people at the controls: the artists, craftsmen, executives and moneymen who will, rest assured, still be duking it out well into the 21st century. Some things don’t change.

David Ansen is Newsweek’s film critic. He wrote this piece; I had the idea for it and did the reporting.

©1996 by Newsweek Inc. Reproduced by permission.

“Nashville,” directed by Robert Altman

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“Nashville” at 25

By Ray Sawhill

1. 1975

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Henry Gibson

Robert Altman’s “Nashville” was released in 1975. We’d only recently pulled out of Vietnam; the energy crisis was upon us; Nixon had just resigned; and hardly anyone had heard of an oddly ambitious Southern governor named Jimmy Carter.

The world of filmmaking and filmgoing circa 1975 seems just as remote. The idea of studying movies in college was new and exciting; the filmmakers of the French New Wave still had some vitality; screenplays and collections of movie reviews were regularly published — indeed, a film critic, Pauline Kael, was one of the country’s most argued-over intellectuals; the annual summer onslaught of action-adventure extravaganzas was as yet unanticipated. Repertory houses showing older and foreign films could be found in many cities, and colleges were the homes of competing film series.

Most of the big hits of the 1970s were as square as they’ve always been, but there was always something for movie buffs to quarrel about. Had Godard blown it by embracing Maoism and video? Were Bertolucci and Bellochio really the equal of Antonioni and Fellini? Why were so few people aware of Ichikawa?

In America, the World War II/Korean War generation of filmmakers — Sidney Lumet, Sam Peckinpah, Altman, Arthur Penn — was in full bloom at the same time the “film generation” baby boomers (Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese) were introducing a new cosmopolitan art consciousness into American movies. There were heroes to root for and bad guys to hiss; the model was “the artist” vs. “the businessman.”

With the release of “Nashville” and “Jaws,” the summer of ’75 delivered both the culmination — and the beginning of the end — of that period. “Nashville” seemed to incarnate a film buff’s hopes for American movies. Here was an artist putting the machinery of popular culture to work for the sake of art, yet entering into the spirit of popular culture and partaking of its energy too. That was the dream: the power of popular art combined with the complexity of fine art, high and low not at war, and not blurred indistinguishably into each other, but embracing.

“Nashville” was debated in the mainstream press in a way that seems inconceivable now: The New York Times ran at least eight pieces about the movie, and editorial writers and critics weighed in with opinions and interpretations for months after the film opened. (The movie’s 25th anniversary isn’t going unnoted. The Times and Premiere have already run major pieces about Altman; Fox Television will broadcast a documentary about him, “Altman: On His Own Terms,” on August 13; the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences screened the film on June 22 in Los Angeles, with Altman and various cast and crew members in attendance; and, in November, Simon & Schuster will publish “The ‘Nashville’ Chronicles,” by the Newsday film critic Jan Stuart. Paramount will release the DVD version, offering its proper Panavision screen-aspect ratio, on August 15.)

But it was “Jaws” that captured the mass audience and really changed movies. It wasn’t the first big success of the boomer generation, but it was a hit on a scale no one had ever seen before. (Within a month of its release, the stock of MCI, the conglomerate that owned the film company that released “Jaws,” went up 22 points.) The aftereffects of “Jaws” rattled the world of film from top to bottom. Soon the artists were coming a cropper — Altman spent the rest of the decade creating ever-more-perverse head-scratchers; Coppola spent years on the debilitating “Apocalypse Now,” and seems never to have recovered his energy or concentration; Scorsese tripped himself up making the over-ambitious, epic musical, “New York, New York.” In 1977, George Lucas’ “Star Wars” was released, and the intellectual and art side of filmmaking and filmgoing has been scattered to the four winds ever since. Despite the occasional good movie, the news since has all been about technology, effects, gender, race and business.

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Robert Altman directing “Nashville”

Through most of the ’70s, Robert Altman ran a kind of medicine ball caravan of an operation, and, following his work, you could feel like a participant in an ongoing party. He was a hip impresario, moving from detective movie to western to gangster movie, tweaking and twisting them, demanding more of these genres than they were used to providing. If Peckinpah was the barbaric, bitter celebrator of boozy grandeur, staking it all on the one great certain-to-lose gesture, Altman played the margins with a slipstream elegance, keeping a variety of bets in play at once. Tall and charismatic, with a goatee and long fine hands, he looked like something out of a Mark Twain story — a frontier campaign manager, perhaps, or a riverboat gambler turned grandee.

He enjoyed shooting his mouth off about the cowardice of studio executives — he always seemed to need an enemy — and about his own preferences in drugs, booze and actresses. He brought to the movies a no-big-deal elegance; a taste for risk, humor and the unhinged; a hatred of rigidity and the overbearing; and an intransigent take-it-or-leave-it spirit. He also had — and still does have — an intoxicating line of California-Zen “It’s the art, man” baloney, and a hipster/psychic’s ability to find (and touch) you where, as we used to say, you really live. I once had lunch with him for a magazine interview, and by the end of it was ready to follow him anywhere. It took me a day to come to my senses and realize I’d been snowed.

As an essayist about popular culture, Altman was our Godard; in his view of life as a sad/funny circus, he was our Fellini; in the way he looked for truth in the souls of actresses, he was our Bergman; in the way he always saw people as part of a larger context, he was our Renoir. He’s also a natural joker, a satirist at heart (even as he dreams of tragedy and art), a profane and lowdown American who can’t put on fancy European airs without looking foolish — not that that stops him from trying. (Altman’s an orchestrater and conductor of genius, but as a composer he’s a dry well.) But when he messed with pop and film archetypes — western heroes, frontier hookers, country-bumpkin thieves — he could deliver a many-layered experience.

The jokey babble of “M*A*S*H,” the vanishing-before-you melancholy of “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” the offhand goof “The Long Goodbye,” the from-the-peripheries tone poem “Thieves Like Us” — different as they were — all seemed spun off the same reel. On the surface were familiar, linear story landmarks; beneath and around them burbled impressions and half-formed thoughts, feelings, and perceptions organized according to modernist art principles. Altman often works with what you’re not used to noticing or admitting to consciousness, what you normally tune out: objects and actions at the edges of your vision, overheard sounds, half-formed thoughts, hazy memories. He draws you away from what you usually focus on and into less-familiar areas. What can’t be transcribed is often the point. A quality of revelation runs parallel to (and intermingles with) the surface throughout; part of the beauty of his movies is the way your attention flickers back and forth between these two levels, often unsure which is which. Some years back, a maker of CD-ROMs told me how eager he was to see Altman’s then-new “Short Cuts”: “Altman was making nonlinear multimedia before the form existed,” he said.

2. America, after the breakdown

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Ronee Blakley and Allen Garfield

There was a third kind of film Altman has made over and over again — films whipped up out of nothing but how he makes movies. Over and over, from “Brewster McCloud” to “H.E.A.L.T.H.” to “Ready to Wear,” they’ve been duds. “Nashville” is the great exception. There’s an exultant quality to it, as though the artist is glorying in his prowess, that can remind you of Picasso once he learned to cut loose with his own language. It’s a satirical musical comedy worked up around the idea that an independent/outsider presidential candidate — calling his new organization the Replacement Party — is coming to town to throw a fundraising (and publicity-garnering) concert.

The film has often been described as a tapestry, and that’s about right. The city of Nashville is used as a nexus or hub; even the people who live there seem like they might be tourists. (The exception is Keenan Wynn, playing a geezer with a small boardinghouse and a wife in the hospital. “What are you doing in Nashville?” a guy asks Wynn genially at a coffee shop. “I live here,” says Wynn. “Oh,” says the guy. It’s a real conversation killer.)

A dozen or so characters are moving through town. A dozen or so others are based in town. Keith Carradine is the sexily self-absorbed star of a hit folk-rock trio; Lily Tomlin is a suburban wife and gospel singer — she has something of the angelic and something of the shellshocked about her — with two deaf children. Henry Gibson plays the oily Haven Hamilton, a specialist in sanctimonious spoken-sung inspirational weepers, and the city’s unofficial greeter.

Geraldine Chaplin is the hopelessly pretentious flibbertigibbet “Opal, of the BBC.” “Un, deux, trois, quatre. Testing, testing,” she murmurs into her mike as she warms up her tape recorder. She’s there as a stand-in for Altman, and for anyone who would breeze into town to make overblown metaphorical points. The central figures — although they get no more screen time than many other characters — are Michael Murphy, as the candidate’s smooth advance man, and Ronee Blakley, playing an emotionally fragile star who’s returning to town after being away, recovering from burns she got from a “fire baton.” (“Nashville” probably took its self-mocking tone, as well as its subject matter, from William Price Fox’s Nashville novel “Ruby Red” and his script “The Great Southern Amusement Company,” both of which Altman had read.)

The film is like a series of overlapping variety shows set in parking lots, airport lobbies, hotel rooms, commercial strips and hospitals, and seen through plate glass and past billboards. It’s a jerry-built world of the disposable and the efficient. Altman gets the look of small-city mid-America: the knee-high socks, the businessmen in their tan suits — a Chamber of Commerce, high-school-athletic-team look.

People who wanted a tribute to the city of Nashville, or to country music, took the film very hard, as though the music and the city needed defending. “Cheap shot,” “patronizing,” “rip-off” — these were some of the accusations thrown at the film. I was willing to believe Altman had been a little rough on his subject until I visited Nashville for the first time, years after seeing the film. I was thunderstruck by how little the film had exaggerated; it had been more of a documentary and less of a satire than I’d thought. There was no escaping the bad middle-range singers, the bored backup musicians, the terrifying big hair, the Goo-Goo candy bars, the homey sentiments, the cranky retirees in cheery T-shirts.

The film comes across as a piece of New Journalism; it’s like Norman Mailer’s reports from conventions and rallies. Altman is using Nashville metaphorically — he’s really talking about politics. I wish he didn’t make that quite so explicit. There’s a reference to Dallas and a few to the Kennedys, as well as some red-white-and-blue visual cues, that the film could have done without. Still, the result is an X-ray of the era’s uneasy political soul.

What it reveals is a country trying to pull itself together from a nervous breakdown. As a young man, Altman had been taken by the Method, and in many of his films he has shown a love of watching women go to pieces. Here we watch not a blond in a slip but the entire country going through a crackup. It’s a country that’s wired up tight with tension masquerading as happiness. In this film about country music, the marketplace has leveled the ground, and there’s only one shot of the countryside. It’s of a funeral — the arc of a life returning to its sources.

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Barbara Harris (in yellow top)

Recording and communication devices — wires, phones, intercoms, cameras, mikes, speakers — seem to be everywhere; so does the machinery of publicity and fame. We watch the city recording itself, playing itself back to itself and marketing that image to itself. We eavesdrop on the culture’s conversation with itself. We’re watching people decide how they want to see themselves and how they want to sell themselves. Altman treats Nashville as a provincial New York or Hollywood, as one of the places where the culture manufactures its image of itself (this is Nashville in the early stages of getting slick and L.A.-ified). Altman shows us the image, and what goes into creating and sustaining it. He cuts between public functions and private domestic scenes; he shoots in studios and theaters, from onstage and from behind control booths. We gather that this is a culture that believes that its self-image accounts, or ought to account, for everything. And its image of itself is cheerful, upbeat, carefree: “It don’t worry me,” people sing.

Altman brings us into the space between the culture and its image of itself. We see the determination that goes into containing oneself in the pop image of just-folks. We see the jumpy creature within, and we see how Nashville’s self-image becomes a straitjacket. The songs that the characters sing, sell and buy are about roots and homesickness, and make a great show of being about “real” people and “real” problems. But they’re completely formulaic. The real energy goes into the marketing. There’s a consensus reality that has been created of simple shapes, bright colors and sweetened sentiments. A lot of the humor in “Nashville” comes from seeing how much heightening and industry go into producing this music that has such claims to relaxed authenticity.

The film is also a picture of a populist culture driving itself mad with celebrity. People want in to stardom, as they want in to heaven. And if they can’t get at least a piece of stardom, they’re furious. Altman shows us how we use stars. They give us focus. We tell ourselves their stories, and we organize our mental pictures around them. We want them to be real yet conform to our desires. But as populists, we’re picky about whether our stars are putting on airs (as though that were the greatest sin). We’re even picky about whether they’re just too dang professional. They have to be one of us, yet special, because we want to feel we’re a little special too.

The stages and studios of “Nashville” are full of professionals, but the stars themselves are near-amateurs, or very skilled at playing near-amateurs. Someone who really connects (like the Ronee Blakley character) can be a lightning rod for our frustrations. If there’s a revelation “Nashville” drives toward, it has to do with how attached we are to our fictions and how inescapable we have made them. “How do you get outside?” we overhear a frazzled soul ask at a hospital nurses station. Comes the polite answer: “You dial 9.” We feel starved for contact with the spiritual and the mythic, yet we live in a popularity-game world full of gods and superstitions. Altman uses the kids playing Lily Tomlin’s deaf children symbolically. In this film with the most complicated of all movie soundtracks, they’re the only characters untouched by the clamor and hubbub.

Yet the film is jubilant and festive; a freeway pileup turns into an impromptu picnic. The people are grotesques and caricatures of themselves, but they’re also — even the most flagrant losers among them — wily self-starters. (This seems truer and more accurate — to this Middle American, at least — than does the Raymond Carver view of ordinary Americans as stunted dead-enders.) The film feels like both a piece of drama and a painting with a time element.

In one scene, Lily Tomlin and Keith Carradine have just had sex. (A tape of him singing plays on his tape recorder: This seems to be a seduction technique of his — he’s purveying his self-regard.) In bed, relaxing, he has her show him how to say “I love you” in American Sign Language. She smiles happily, then realizes it’s getting late. She straightens her hair and pulls on her clothes, sizing up the damage in a bathroom mirror. Carradine is stung — we’ve seen him with a number of other women, but he’s opened up only with her. You can see him thinking: “People don’t leave me. I leave them.”

He retaliates by dialing up an old girlfriend, working his charm on her and offering to bring her to Nashville in full hearing of Lily. Almost imperceptibly, Lily — a straitlaced mother and wife who has probably never before cheated on her husband — registers how childish and selfish the man she’s just had sex with is; she also registers how badly she must have needed this tumble. She waves goodbye briskly and leaves wearing a different smile than the one she wore in bed; Carradine ends his phone conversation abruptly. He can make any woman in a club think he’s singing a song for her alone, but here, now, he’s frustrated and disconsolate.

With its profusion of wires, recording and communication devices, its mirrors and reflections and its concern with language, playacting, time and revelation, this brief scene is more complex than anything I can think of in the work of intellectual gameplayer-directors like Peter Greenaway. Yet the complicatedness isn’t made much of. We just take in the environment and the characters and what they’re going through. For Altman, this kind of thing happens to all of us, all the time. Signals get crossed, unwanted frequencies come wafting in, reflections we’d rather avoid bounce back at us, ghosts from the past sweep us up and then drop us, and when one thing comes into focus another falls out.

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Ronee Blakley

“I’m looking for surprises,” Altman said to a reporter at the time of “Nashville.” “If we had just taken what was in my head and put that vision on film, it would have been a pretty lousy movie. Or at least very, very ordinary. One head, no matter how good — well, it just can’t be the same as everyone bringing something to it.” Over his career, Altman developed a variety of techniques to allow for inclusiveness. The sound systems he developed with the sound engineers Jim Webb and Chris McLaughlin let him record and present more ambient and minor-character noise than we’d been used to. With his cinematographers — during this period, usually Vilmos Zsigmond and, here, Paul Lohmann — Altman used multiple cameras and lighted entire environments, not just individual shots. This gave his actors an unusual freedom of movement; it also meant that, since they often didn’t know from which direction they were being filmed, or which angle was likely to be used in the final cut, they couldn’t play to a camera.

Altman often has his actors fill out their characters with their own substance. Blakley, for instance, actually was once burned by a fire baton. An actress might choose her own wardrobe and write her own dialogue; the structure that Altman’s screenwriter, Joan Tewkesbury, worked out allowed for a great deal of improvisation. The actor’s rapport with his role becomes what we recognize as the character. Here, many of the performers playing singers wrote or co-wrote their own songs. (That’s how Keith Carradine got his Oscar.) There’s always a mixture of real and not-real in what we watch in a fiction movie. Some filmmakers take this to be a problem, and put all their energy into strong-arming you to believe in the fiction they’re presenting. For Altman, a desire to believe is basic to human nature. It doesn’t need goosing, just inviting. And, yes, what we’re watching is both real and not-real. Why not invite both to the party?

He works by crosscutting and parallel action, by implication and suggestion. One of his distinctive camera techniques is to move the cameras and have them zoom at the same time. Cameras in motion add depth to an image. They’re generally used to heighten involvement; they invite us into roundedness and mass. Zooms flatten the image out. They’re usually used to heighten tension: The bomb is in the trunk, the microfilm was left in this drawer. The way Altman combines the two cuts us loose from our lock on the conventional subject, and frees us to rove through the entire image at our own rate. The camera work (like the soundtrack) seems elastic, submarine. It has a Japanese-screen effect; we move back and forth between losing ourselves in abstraction and pattern, and seizing on the concrete and specific.

When he does zoom to pick something out, it’s usually a character trying to decide what response is appropriate. He’s drawn to moments when you can’t figure out how to take things. Altman has his actors reacting to more than they can keep track of. Part of the fun is in watching them try to puzzle their way through a moment. “Truth” for Altman, as for many people in the performing arts, often seems to be what happens when a performance is working. (The one bad performance in “Nashville” is Allen Garfield’s; he overdoes the sleazy pushiness. While everyone else is fitting in, he’s doing his best to stand out.) Perhaps the film’s funniest moment comes when Blakley is singing on an outdoor stage that’s a mockup of a paddle wheeler. She sings beautifully to a relaxed, rapt crowd. Scott Glenn plays a soldier who’s infatuated with Blakley, and he’s staring at her and listening to her, agog. Geraldine Chaplin pushes her microphone in front of him and asks if he’s been to Vietnam. He doesn’t respond; he’s too caught up in Blakley’s singing. “Oh,” says Chaplin, empathizing wildly, “I can see that you have been.” She’s incapable of realizing that there’s magic happening on the stage before her.

Henry Gibson is spectacular as the viciously competitive Haven Hamilton. He’s an imperious cornpone cynic, a virtuoso of sanctimonious boilerplate constantly making appreciative reference to “this business that’s been so kind to me.” He makes his toupee and girdle seem major statements. But it’s with the actresses that Altman shows his best stuff. Watching some movies, you get the feeling that the director is having a sexual exchange with his actresses, and that the film captures a pulsing, we’re-breathing-each-other’s-breath quality. You sometimes see this when D.W. Griffith directs Lillian Gish, Bergman directs Bibi Andersson or when François Truffaut directs Jeanne Moreau.

TomlinNashville
Lily Tomlin

Altman’s work with actresses is often in that league; in fact, there may never have been another director who has given us such a rich panorama of female performances, or who has delighted in such a wide range of physical and emotional female types. They range from the hard-bitten yet vulnerable examples of Julie Christie (in “McCabe”) and Susannah York (in “Images”) to the high-strung, self-dramatizingly serious women (Blakley in “Nashville” and Sally Kellerman in “M*A*S*H”), all forehead and cheekbones, for whom Faye Dunaway might have been a template, to the long-faced, down-to-earth women like Louise Fletcher (in “Thieves Like Us”) and Lily Tomlin to the one-of-a-kind Shelley Duvall (in “McCabe,” “Three Women” and “Popeye”).

From Sandy Dennis in “That Cold Day in the Park” (1969) to Embeth Davidtz in “The Gingerbread Man” (1998), Altman is fascinated by the beauty and power women are capable of, as well as by the potential for destructiveness that coexists with their sense of themselves as vulnerable. In “Nashville,” Geraldine Chaplin is a wizard at archness, missing the main point repeatedly with great wit. In her first film, Blakley gives a performance that’s ridged with emotion. When she isn’t performing, her Barbara Jean, a reigning country queen, is just psychic flotsam and jetsam. When she does perform, all the bits and pieces come into sync. There may not be a real personality in Barbara Jean, but at least it all sometimes moves to the same rhythm. Barbara Harris, a jazzy stylist of instability, never registered in another film as memorably as she does here. Playing a daffy, miniskirted, bleached-blond hillbilly with fantasies of stardom, she’s like a kitten on Quaaludes. When she does get her chance to sing, and she strews leftover flowers to the crowd, it’s as though she’s distributing bits of her ragamuffin heart.

It’s eerie how accurately “Nashville” pointed the way to the future. Here is our coming attachment to the “outsider” candidate, and our tireless hunger for authenticity and sincerity; here’s how feeling good about ourselves and griping about taxes came in the ’80s to take precedence over everything else political. In the film, once the crisis has been reached, every relationship snaps back to its previous state; we’re watching the country try to reaffirm its innocence. It rejects what it has seen of itself; the surface closes over again, like ice over a pond. This could almost be an anticipation of how, during the Reagan years, we acted out a manufactured version of normality and cheerfulness for ourselves.

Altman’s 1970-1975 streak can be seen as an extension of American painting from the mid-’50s on, and of American writing of the ’60s — as an example of pop art. For a couple of decades after World War II, pop — the teen-centered, Imperial America version of consumer culture — seemed young, irreverent and disrespectful of tradition and stuffiness, as well as garish and horrifying. To many artists, it seemed a great subject, source and vehicle for art. Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe and Terry Southern, among many others, took on pop subjects and worked in pop forms, bringing sophistication and perspective to pop while borrowing back its pizazz and accessibility. In a movie such as “Major Dundee,” Peckinpah dramatized his antagonistic relationship to pop with an abstract-expressionist fury. Altman was cooler, looser and more flexible — Robert Frank as a happy cartoonist.

The outdoor concert occurs at the Parthenon, a giant replica of the Greek temple erected for Nashville’s 1897 Centennial Exposition. (Originally constructed of wood and plaster, it was rebuilt in its present form in 1922.) The reporter Howard K. Smith does an essay on television about the candidate; the Goodyear blimp passes overhead flashing the candidate’s slogan. It’s a cloudy, milky day, but the colors are thick, broad and flat. We watch the stage being built, the traffic jam up and a line of black limos snake through town.

This getting-ready sequence seems straightforward, but it has a fated quality. (Even if you don’t respond to it as I do, it’s still a model of bringing strands together while keeping them all distinct.) I ran it over and over on my VCR, and I still can’t explain why it has the poised yet deranging, hallucinogenic effect it does. When the black limos pull onto the green grass behind the Parthenon, we watch them circle from above, between massive lemon-cream pillars. As Blakley and Gibson swing into a song, we’re above and behind them too. Then Blakley starts to sing about her parents, and we’re watching her from close up and underneath. There’s an immense flag fixed to the pillars behind her. When it billows out with the wind, you’re reminded of a scene earlier in the film. It’s at the airport; Blakley is returning from her convalescence to a city-sponsored welcome that’s like a parade. There are bands, reporters, crowds and marching girls. For a few seconds the sound of the entire scene is drowned out by a taxiing jet with a big “American” sign on its side. The colossal scale of the joke is part of the humor — it’s one of the biggest damn jokes since Buster Keaton tumbled a train into a river in “The General.”

Watching the earlier scene, you giggle. Here, when that flag billows out, you feel like you’re going insane. Blakley’s emotions surge, rise and crest. And amazingly, at that moment the sun — the sun! — comes out. The moment is so intense you don’t know whether you’re in ecstasy or whether you shouldn’t don an aluminum-foil hat to shield yourself from so many vibrations. All that’s on screen is a singer singing, yet — if you respond to Altman as I do — the inside of your skull feels as though it’s being painted on by such “artists of the insane” as Christian Wolfi. The feeling is sinister and beautiful; you feel there’s no turning back. Altman creates disordered, media-overload effects of the sort Thomas Pynchon is often said to create, and he does it without sacrificing aesthetic distance. (Pynchon always seems to me more interested in creating a nervous breakdown than in writing about one.) The center comes apart, and we’ve never felt freer. And we love our affliction.

3. The cinema of information

final scene crowd from above

In the summer of 1975, I was a film student at NYU, and the day “Nashville” opened, I was among the first people in line at the Baronet. (Altman’s 1971 “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” was the film that made me fall in love with movies.) Altman walked by with a few people, checking out the business. I ran after him and asked for an autograph. Feeling foolish, dizzy and thrilled, I gave him the only thing I had with me he could sign — a copy, as it turned out, of Karel Reisz’s book on film editing.

It was a cuckoo time. There was an intoxication about filmmaking and filmgoing — a euphoria and a fever. For many people, an interest in movies and movie history provided a way into the arts and a framework for exploring them. Films like “Nashville,” “The Conformist” and “The Godfather” were peak experiences that seemed to bring together all your interests in the arts — high and low, visual, auditory and literary. A figure like Godard or Altman or Coppola opened up new directions and led you into discoveries not just in art but also in your life, in terms of sex, philosophy, love, fantasy and friendship. So these figures meant something to you personally. They transformed you; they made a difference in your sense of what was possible.

By 1980, Altman was unable to find financing for his projects in Hollywood. He directed plays in New York, then moved to Paris and directed opera, TV and small films. He returned to Hollywood moviemaking in 1992 with “The Player.” By then, the baby boomers were running the joint. By now, they have set the tone in the media for 20 years. It’s striking how on-the-money Altman is in “Nashville” about the dark side of the baby boomers. Even when they’re successes, and even when they view themselves ironically as such, they always see themselves as outlaws. The character Keith Carradine plays — in his leather vest, his sun-kissed tresses, his contempt and his sensitivity — rings true in his vanity, his sense of entitlement and his selfishness. A character played by Cristina Raines is so wrapped up in her narcissism and masochism that she can barely bring herself to make baby talk. In the film, the older characters make an effort to keep up appearances. The hip, solipsistic younger people generally just act out.

In American movies, what the 25 years since the release of “Nashville” have brought is an evolution in the direction of selling the story and the hook — the movie equivalent of pop music’s three chords in 4/4 time. It’s as though the goal of filmmakers has become to make the package and the product one — to make the movie live up to its ad campaign. Given this, it isn’t surprising that Altman’s influence has been greater on TV than on movies. A few kinds of new-Hollywood film genres reflect his work: the ensemble film organized around a lifestyle or occupation theme (“Parenthood,” “Pushing Tin”), and the Mad-magazine style movie spoof (“Airplane,” the various “National Lampoon” movies). On TV, his influence can seem to be everywhere. “Hill Street Blues” and its mixed-mode, ensemble-cast descendants (“ER,” for instance) are straight out of “M*A*S*H.” The projects that combine story and documentary material in new ways, from the dramatic reenactments on shows like “A Current Affair” to attempts like Court TV and “Cops,” come out of Altman’s experiments in mixing fact and fiction.

In the years the baby boomers have been in charge, I’ve fallen out of love with moviegoing. What American movies deliver now are, on the one hand, Hollywood marketing extravaganzas and, on the other, what’s somewhat optimistically called the “independent cinema.” The extravaganzas are essentially big-budget versions of what were once known as exploitation pictures. The ’50s and ’60s exploitation films were often happy-go-lucky time-wasters and pocket-pickers. You could feel fond of a Roger Corman or a William Castle for aiming so low, and for taking the money and running. You didn’t resent them any more than you did the people who ran a carnival.

scott glenn geraldine
Scott Glenn and Geraldine Chaplin

It’s hard to feel any fondness for the people behind films like “Dinosaur” or “Gone in 60 Seconds.” These films do the same kind of button-pushing as the old B pictures, and they often give the same impression of being made out of recycled stock footage. But there’s an immense commercial anxiety behind them, and you can sense that they’re basically respectable. (You can feel the careers hanging in the balance.) The people involved don’t seem to be entertaining vulgarians or small-time opportunists — they feel like yuppies taking advantage of our reflexes. Tony Scott, the director of such aggressive marketing machines as “Top Gun” and “Crimson Tide,” has had his tasteful, serene house written up in interior-design magazines. And the independent films aren’t any more motivated by aesthetic concerns than the smasheroo studio films. They’re either illustrating a p.c. point or projecting a flip “alternative” attitude. The independent directors and producers often seem to think that the best response to database-driven commercial moviemaking is no technique at all. The result is anorexic filmmaking.

The language developed over a hundred years by such people as Griffith, Sergei Eisenstein, Orson Welles, Fritz Lang, William Wyler and Marcel Carné can sometimes seem to be a vanishing thing. I long ago became used to the fact that the movies I love don’t often succeed financially. What’s recently come as a surprise is how many of the films I’ve enjoyed most — from “Devil in a Blue Dress” to “The Last Bolshevik” to “Breakdown” to “Romance” — aren’t even talked about. They’re just ignored. I can’t help noticing that something these low-key films share is that they speak the language of movies. They draw on movie history and respond to it. I suspect that that’s what makes them irrelevant to most people.

In 1975, film was potentially the greatest of all the arts; in 2000, it’s one data stream among many. The hierarchical, centralized culture the baby boomers reacted against could be exclusionary, and its emphasis on ego and on greatness could be annoying. But it offered the possibility of something called “depth,” and it also provided a shared culture and language. The atomized, decentered culture we have now allows for horizontal ranging about; the new digital tools (and media) are irresistible; and the openness to cultural mixing is certainly a relief. But this mix-and-match culture can also seem shallow. If everything’s always available, why bother trying to unearth anything? (If it isn’t on a database, it doesn’t exist.)

A young Ivy League graduate I know made a success in arts journalism without ever having seen a Bergman picture. When she finally caught up with one, she was stunned to realize that there’d once been a time when people went to a movie theater to watch characters agonize and philosophize at each other. She hasn’t seen another Bergman since, and she hasn’t gone on to read any Scandinavian literature, or to search out further examples of Swedish films either. In Altman’s “The Player,” a comedy about what has become of Hollywood, a young studio executive is watching his career dissolve, and recovers his momentum only when he learns to stop worrying about integrity and depth. During my lunch with him, Altman observed wryly that one thing he could say for the executives he’d battled in the ’70s was that they cared enough about the work being done to get angry at you, and to hate your movies. Nowadays, when someone takes an idea upstairs for a decision, there’s nothing there but a computer.

Watched on videotape today, “Nashville” seems in its element in a way many movies don’t. It’s alive, and it doesn’t suffer from the fragmenting effects of stop-and-start, at-home viewing. This may be because Altman is instinctively drawn to multiple points of view and unresolved resolutions. It doesn’t exactly cohere, but it seems to bring our channel-surfing minds and experiences into some kind of loose relationship. It gives the impression of being a video installation rather than a routine feature; you can get the feeling that it’s playing on several monitors at once. Watching it made me think that one way of conceiving of TV is as movies gone to pieces and turned into wallpaper.

It also made me think that an upbeat way of looking at where we’ve arrived is this: We have been freed — perhaps against our will — of our attachment to the idea of art as a rebel activity, a gesture toward freedom made for the sake of the unconscious and revolution. Now it has become simply an activity some people pursue, and perhaps get something out of — as legitimate as (but no more vanguard than) business, cleaning, sports, science and child-rearing. “Nashville,” seen at this distance, looks like a snapshot of the moment when substance began to vaporize into information.

©2001 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Salon magazine.