Biopics about Composers

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Movie Music

By Ray Sawhill

Of all the many different film genres, the composer biopic is one of the scroungiest. The tones of these films range all over the map, from the show-bizzy extroversion of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (George M. Cohan) to the hambone fruitiness of “Two Loves Had I …Puccini” to the many-layered high intellectualism of “Harvest of Sorrow” (Rachmaninoff and exile).

Despite this, one of the most remarkable aspects of the genre is how specific the expectations that we bring to these films are. Will the composer’s first professional triumph happen before or after he finds true love? And when will his long-suffering Significant Other finally lace into the composer for caring more about his music than he does about, y’know, people?

But perhaps the first question that tends to arise when we slip one of these films into the DVD player is the matter of factual accuracy. Simple moviegoing experience suggests that being “respectful of the facts” can sometimes translate into soporific viewing, while “completely untrustworthy” might very well go hand in hand with “devilishly entertaining.”

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From “Night and Day”

This is a truism well illustrated by Hollywood’s two biopics about Cole Porter. 1946’s “Night and Day” is a glossy lie that features Cary Grant at his heartiest and most hetero-seeming, while the 2004 “De-Lovely” is admirably true to the gay realities of Porter’s life. Yet “Night and Day” is a confident and enjoyable Technicolor fantasy, while “De-Lovely” is a droopy misfire.

It also needs to be said that there’s more than one way to deliver solid facts. George MacDonald Fraser makes an important point in “The Hollywood History of the World”: however untrustworthy the narratives they tell often are, history-based films nearly always supply visuals that are informative and well researched. If our modern minds are well stocked with images of what the Strauss family’s Vienna looked like and how people dressed when attending an opening at La Scala, it’s because moviemakers have created these pictures for us. Visuals are facts, too.

As with the movies of any genre, a big part of the fun of watching composer biopics is taking note of how the filmmakers are playing the genre’s game. If a romantic comedy needs to give its “meet cute” plot-point some charm, and if a gangster movie needs to make something tense out of the moment when the ambitious anti-hero declares his independence from his mentor, composer biopics need to address their own set of requirements. Here are some of them:

What is the container for the film’s incidents going to be?

Most lives don’t have dramatic arcs built into them, after all, and this is perhaps especially the case with the lives of creative types who spend a lot of time alone. To engage us and deliver some rounded-off satisfaction, feature-length biopics will almost always do some intensifying and heightening. It has to be said that, in this area, filmmakers in the field of composer biopics could show a little more invention than they often do. From “Mahler” to “The Double Life of Franz Schubert,” biopics of classical composers too often begin and end with the composer ill or dying and reviewing the events of his life.

To what extent should the filmmakers connect the composer’s creations with the events of his life?

It would be silly to pretend that unfortunate life-episodes always result in sad music, or that upbeat times always find expression in happy compositions. Yet if no connection can be made at all between a composer’s life-events and his music, what’s the point of the picture? Perhaps this conundrum helps explain why we haven’t yet seen a notable biopic about that unstoppable workhorse Haydn. Cheerful or gloomy, he seldom failed to crank out his expected allotment of music. Where’s the drama in that?

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From “Amadeus”

How to people the supporting cast?

Mothers, lovers, rivals and managers turn up with regularity, fathers and children rather less often. An admirer or rival can be useful as a point of entry for the audience. “Amadeus” — nothing if not an effective piece of audience engineering — provides the classic example of this, with Salieri (in real life an excellent and successful composer) used as a striving nothing for us fellow nothings to identify with as we gaze upon the bewildering wonder that is Mozart. “I am the patron saint of mediocrity!” Salieri cries, in case we’re so mediocre that we’ve failed to grasp the role he’s been assigned in the drama.

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From “Immortal Beloved”

How to portray the creative process?

This question cuts to the heart of the genre. We don’t generally explore biographies of creative people simply because we’re curious about their lives; we’re often hoping to cozy up to Creativity itself. Films about Beethoven are especially frank about this motivation: getting to know Beethoven is portrayed as getting closer to God. Bernard Rose lays the divinity stuff on very thick in his Kubrick-influenced (and sexily enjoyable) 1994 “Immortal Beloved.” Lightning flashes, revulsions and raptures, funny shivers felt by female fans … God in all his incomprehensibility is manifesting Himself through the music of this cloddish, inspired peasant.

One of the peculiar characteristics of the genre is the way these films so often make a point of distinguishing between music in the abstract and popular tune-making — and do so not as a practical matter but as a big deal. Music in the abstract is inevitably understood to involve suffering, and to represent a Statement About Life. As a striking recent Norwegian biopic asks straight out in its title: “Edvard Grieg: What Price Immortality?” Audience-pleasing, by contrast, is regularly presented as mere entertainment, and as shoddy and transient. In a 1972 British miniseries about the Strauss family, even the busy, prolific and rich Johann Jr. finds time to mope about his lack of gravitas and dignity. “I sometimes wonder what I might have made of my talents had the music not come so easily,” he confides morosely to a visiting Brahms, who receives this confession with a skeptical, indeed disbelieving, look.

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From “A Song to Remember”

Just as marked in the genre is the near-omnipresence of the Romantic point of view. You almost never get away from it — and, like the art-versus-entertainment theme, it can get to be a bit much. Romantic myths are of course highly picturesque and dramatic; they also have their practical uses. In his book “Composers in the Movies: Studies in Musical Biography” (2005), John C. Tibbetts confesses that what cemented his interest in classical music as a boy was a moment in the colorful Chopin biopic “A Song to Remember.” The tubercular Chopin hunches over the piano and gives a cough. “A spot of blood spatters onto the keyboard” — and with that image, another music fan was born. It’s just that one can tire of the whole Genius/Divinity/Immortali­ty value-set. More power, then, to directors Straub and Huillet for their resolutely dispassionate and avant-garde “Chronicles of Anna Magdalena Bach,” with Gustav Leonhardt as Johann Sebastian, piously devoting himself to the daily grind of his musical duties. But we could also use a few mainstream films that spotlight Classical, Baroque or folk points of view.

Rather surprisingly, the genre has a couple of specialists. The form’s grand old man is British director Ken Russell. He has a well-deserved reputation for flamboyance that sometimes obscures some major virtues: no matter how controversial they often are, all of his composer biopics are informed by a genuine understanding of music, as well as by a sympathetic (if often bitchy) appreciation of the souls of artists.

My favorite of Russell’s films is an uncharacteristically small and sober early example — a seventy-three-minute-long TV drama about Frederick Delius called “Song of Summer” (available as disc 3 of the Ken Russell at the BBC DVD package). Russell wrote the script in collaboration with Eric Fenby, who as a young man had worked as Delius’s amanuensis, and it’s an honest, indeed sometimes painful, portrayal of both a difficult character — Delius was far from the most lovable of men — and the heartbreaks and rewards of a creative life. A very moving, if bittersweet, classic, the film also addresses very directly one of the most basic of questions that making a biopic raises: do you try to cover the entirety of your subject’s life or try to nail his or her character by focusing on one well-defined episode? By dealing only with Fenby’s time with Delius, “Song of Summer” demonstrates how much can be extracted from the more modest approach.

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From “The Music Lovers”

Of Russell’s big-budget, sweeping and sensationalistic extravaganzas, the most successful is “The Music Lovers,” a 1970 feature about Tchaikovsky. It’s a gossipy and catty bash that’s full of the bursting-out-of-the-closet spirits of the ’70s. Where earlier film treatments of the Tchaikovsky story had sidestepped the question of the composer’s sexuality and instability, Russell and his star, Richard Chamberlain, dive right in. They give us a Tchaikovsky who’s a queeny hysteric, a morally reprehensible narcissist and a sponge. Right from the film’s first scene — an all-male romp in the snow — this Piotr is a lusty but fragile, hyper-gifted but overeager, anxiety-ridden train wreck waiting to happen.

Much of the film concerns his mad attempt to construct a heterosexual life for himself. These passages are harsh, ungenerous and probably unfair, but they’re also intense, funny and very entertaining. Antonina Miliukova, the woman who married Tchaikovsky, is portrayed as a money-hungry liar and climber with less than no interest in music. Their disastrous honeymoon is one of movie history’s more memorable nightmare sequences. When Antonina (Glenda Jackson) bares first her breasts and then her pubic hair to Piotr in an attempt to stir his lust, the poor man’s horror merges with the rocking of the train compartment the newlyweds are sharing into a gaudy image of erotic nausea. Russell delivers an unexpectedly vivid character in Antonina’s mother, wickedly conceived of as a Dickensian cockney so amoral that she cheerfully pimps out her own daughter. And the client roster the women service! “I’m quite famous, you know,” Antonina murmurs as one man nuzzles her neck. “Nearly as famous as you are, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.” Not long after, Mom ushers in a horny Alexander Borodin.

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From “Lisztomania”

Russell went even farther with his campier instincts in his ultra-flamboyant, notorious 1975 “Lisztomania,” which proposes Liszt as a bare-chested glitter-rock icon. I didn’t enjoy it as much as “The Music Lovers,” but it’s certainly worth searching out. Full of nudity, disco-ready renditions of Liszt’s music and S&M fantasy sequences, the film comes — for better and worse — as close to “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” as any composer-biopic ever has. It’s also true to the general outlines of Liszt’s life, as well as amazingly shrewd about the nature of tabloid stardom.

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The genre’s other specialist is another Englishman, the less well-known Tony Palmer. Palmer has his own kind of cinematic daring, and he has made as many pictures about composers as Ken Russell has. But he’s a far more intellectual figure; a typical Palmer film is a mélange of staged material, research scraps and New York Review of Books-style musings. Though his work is so reflective that it often puts me right to sleep, it still deserves to be sampled. My suggestion is to start with either “Testimony,” his engrossing and complex treatment of Shostakovich’s battles with Stalin, or “England, My England,” his movie about Henry Purcell. I liked the latter film somewhat better. It makes the Restoration era visually unforgettable; it portrays the composer as a robust and politically capable man of his era; and it takes the trouble to clearly lay out the options (court, church, theater) that a professional composer had at that time and in that place. Purcell’s lovely, proud music — supervised here by John Eliot Gardiner — is an ear-clearing pleasure.

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From “Impromptu”

Of the genre’s other major pleasures, let me urge you not to overlook:

  • James Lapine and Sarah Kernochan’s 1991 “Impromptu,” a lighthearted, poignant caprice about the French novelist George Sand’s infatuation with Chopin. Judy Davis is at her comically overdramatic best as the scandal-courting Sand.
  • “Elgar’sTenth Muse,” a beautifully sad two-hander about an infatuation between the elderly composer and a young violinist. James Fox and Selma Alispahic portray the conflicts between reserve and yearning, age and youth touchingly and trenchantly.
  • Renato Castellani’s eleven-hour (or eight-hour, depending on the version you get hold of) long Italian production “The Life of Verdi.” Beautifully mounted and shot, as solid and responsible as any birth-to-death biography, it features a many-sided and fully felt portrayal of Verdi by English actor Ronald Pickup, and vocal performances by Callas, Nilsson and Pavarotti. One lesson to be learned from this beauty: if you’re going to take the all-inclusive approach to telling a composer’s life, it’s perhaps best to do it at the length of a miniseries.
  • Abel Gance’s 1937 “Un Grand Amour de Beethoven.” Yet another variant on the Immortal Beloved theme, this stirring absurdity is enjoyable for its unbridled myth-making. Gance — famous for his barn-burning silent film “Napoleon” — delivers a virtuoso directorial performance. The film is full of poetic closeups and brilliant editing flurries; the legendary French actor Harry Baur gives a towering performance; and the passages conveying the composer’s growing deafness are as heartbreaking as can be.
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From “Un Grand Amour de Beethoven”

But why talk so much about quality? Let’s admit flat-out that it’s impossible to sustain an interest in any movie genre if you haven’t learned how to relish its stinkers too. God knows that the composer-biopic genre has delivered no shortage of these. Two casting goofs to be marveled at:

  • The arch and languorous Dirk Bogarde was a peculiar choice to play that outgoing whirlwind Liszt in 1960’s “Song Without End.” Bogarde spends the film looking as if he’d rather be making elegantly weary, poisonous remarks about some Countess’s fashion choices than delivering himself body and soul to his hordes of sweaty and salivating lady-fans.
  • What was Agnieszka Holland thinking when she chose Ed Harris to star in her film “Copying Beethoven”? God knows you can’t criticize Harris for failing to give the role his all — but he is what he is, and this is surely the only Beethoven in movie history who comes across like a beer-swigging, iron-pumping ol’ Austin cowboy-hippie.

A special award for all-around badness beyond the call of duty has to be reserved for “Song of Norway,” a 1970 tribute to the life of Grieg made in the dirndls-and-clog-dancing style of “The Sound of Music.” This isn’t just the worst composer-biopic of all time, it’s one of the most terrifyingly wholesome movies ever made. With Grieg’s not-very-catchy songs presented as though he intended them to be sunny Broadway showstoppers, and featuring innumerable montages of buttercups, seagulls and waterfalls, “Song of Norway” may qualify both as essential Bad Movie viewing and as an all-time camp classic. May it be issued on DVD soon.

All of these movies deliver their share of pleasures, whether of the intended or unintended sort, and I look forward to many further entries in the field. There’s so much material yet to be explored, after all. William Byrd? Why not? Let’s hope someone takes on Leiber and Stoller. And is anyone else as eager as I am for “The Anton Webern Story”?

©2009 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Opera News.

“The Last Bolshevik,” directed by Chris Marker

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New Waves

By Ray Sawhill

The best new works I saw at last year’s New York Film Festival were all documentaries about great figures from the movie past. The documentaries — about Leni Riefenstahl, Orson Welles, and the early Soviet titan Alexander Medvedkin — were reminders of the power of industrial-age myths and dreams: the dream of revolution; the revolutionary potential of film; and the idea of revolution as an esthetic, and artist-led, thing.

Watching these films and thinking about myths and dreams, I felt not just awe and horror, but nostalgia. I’ve loved some recent films, but the trends that have been discussed as new New Waves — the Hong Kong action films, the 5th Generation Chinese directors, the African films — have left me dumbfounded, worried that movies are a moribund medium. The festival itself has been a multicultural affair for some years, and though you can feel worthy catching up on what filmmakers from Burkina Faso and Vietnam are doing, you may wonder where the high — the drunken elation — that made you care about movies has gone.

CI recently went to the International Center of Photography for the opening of “Iterations,” a show of computer art and digital imagery — work not by techies, but by traditional artist-types using the new media. Some of the work was likably inconsequential, some dismal, but most of it gave the viewer the same scolding that art shows have been giving art-goers from some years now: oppose oppression, undermine the hegemony of the image, move the marginal to the center, question technology, etc.

What was striking about the show was how even-more-than-usually redundant this familiar package of messages seemed. The media the artists were working with made it irrelevant. Does anyone “trust” a computer-generated, or computer-related, anything? In the digital/multicultural world, it’s simply a given that all is relative, that everything connects, and that power gets dispersed. You don’t have to fight the medium or the establishment it represents to convey this — the medium conveys it for you.

The “avant-garde” (ie., establishment) art world is dealing in the rhetoric of an age that’s almost gone; the artists may see themselves as subversives, but they’re playing a game that’s passé. They think they’re fighting centralized (presumably WASP and male) power and “hegemonic” images, but that world is vanishing all on its own, of old age and sheer out-of-dateness. (And the new world doesn’t offer instant liberation, but a new set of demands, constraints, and challenges.)

We’ve tended to think of artists as romantic figures, and of the best art as being a vanguard activity; we assume that the first indications of new moods and feelings will appear in an art context, whether high or low. And if political revolutions haven’t worked out, well, we have our artistic revolutions to be thankful for and enjoy.

But this time around, the artists (most of them) are not only not leading the new demographic and technological wave, they appear oblivious to it. It just seems to have leaped beyond their conceptions. In the weeks following the Film Festival, tens of billions of dollars of media-company mergers were announced, and the businessmen seemed far ahead of the artists.

The Riefenstahl and the Welles were no more than proficient documentaries with exciting subjects. The documentary that pointed in fresh direction was Chris Marker’s videotape on Medvedkin, “The Last Bolshevik.” The emotionality of this tape isn’t the kind that comes from seeing an artist-hero storm the barricades (or pretend to); the crowing of ego simply isn’t to be heard. It has a different kind of excitement, one that it shares with such works as Robert Altman’s HBO series “Tanner ’88,” the “reality tv” of “Cops” and the Court TV channel, and some CD-ROMs.

Seeing or playing with these new works is different from going to the movies and hoping for a great picture. Traditional films almost always have at least a little of the self-conscious showcase about them, a monument-like aspect that’s suggested by the studio fanfares and logos that usually introduce them: sit back, pay attention, an Event is beginning. You watch, expecting to take in prepared performances, made-up scripts, and predetermined visual schemes; perhaps you hope against hope that the film’s elements will come together and a vision will take you over.

But energy isn’t erupting through the arts at the moment, it’s surfacing in the new technology and the category-busting social changes (the crumbling of boundaries, the new nationalisms, the age-group shifts). “The Last Bolshevik” and the other new works tower over nothing; they’re avowedly part of the general media flux. They don’t make their appearance wearing a familiar label (art, cinema, books), and part of the experience of watching them is wondering, “What is this?” Fictional and non-fictional elements are often scrambled; sometimes beginning and end aren’t apparent, or they seem to have no importance.

Even if you watch “Tanner ’88” on videocassette, it still feels like an inexplicable cable-tv form you’ve stumbled across and haven’t yet got used to. You watch it thinking, “Where did this come from? How did it take shape?” “Cops” can leave you wondering: “Who wrote this? Who’s the director?” Court TV is a story-telling creation (or vehicle) that happens to be a tv network. In these works, the creators aren’t battling the cosmos to wrest form from formlessness, or something from nothing; they’re accepting energy from elsewhere, and surfing on it. Creation becomes less a matter of overturning values and giving birth from the unconscious, and more a matter of balance, imagination, resourcefulness, and craft.

Chris Marker

In his slyness, obliqueness, and love of evanescent effects, Marker (who is French) can seem rather Japanese, and he has often visited Japan. (One of his best films is “The Koumiko Mystery,” a portrait of a young Tokyo woman.) The painter and art critic Peter Plagens once explained the difference between western and Japanese sculpture to me this way: westerners make objects that assert their presence against nature, while Japanese sculptors make slipknots in the space-time continuum — devices and contraptions that bring out qualities in what flows over, past, and through them.

That’s what “The Last Bolshevik” is like: a kink in the all-pervasive electromagnetism. Marker is meditative, and his video could be said to be about where images come from, and the roles we play in creating our own fictions and histories. He circles around and around his themes, but dartingly, quick-wittedly.

This video is in the form of six “letters” to Medvedkin, who late in life was a friend of Marker’s. Medvedkin is best known here as the organizer of the Soviet film trains that carried filmmakers, studios, and projection rooms out to the peasants for the sake of education and criticism — to keep the revolution’s fires burning. (In 1988, as perestroika was taking effect, Medvedkin died. One of the last hopes he expressed was that finally a real revolution might be occurring.) The video is Marker’s wave goodbye to his friend, and it’s also a wave goodbye to the movies.

In Marker’s view, the Soviet Union was the great, tragic, esthetic-political experiment of the film age, and he draws connections between it and such subsequent film movements as the French New Wave. “The Last Bolshevik” is impassioned, but it’s also modest and elusive; the computer that Marker, or someone, has used to monkey with some of the historical footage is given its own credit in the title crawl, and this isn’t meant as a joke.

Marker returns several times to talk with a lonely-seeming Soviet cameraman who once worked with Medvedkin. In one shot we see the old technician looking at himself in a mirror through Marker’s Handicam. He seems delighted by the tininess and efficiency of the machine; you have the impression he’s never touched a videotape camera before. As he plays with the focus and zoom, the voice-over says: “this revolutionary’s last act of cinema propaganda won’t be for Communism, it’ll be for Sony.”

Marker is a movie legend himself — he had dealings with the French New Wave, and is the essayist who made such films as “La Jetée,” “Le Joli Mai,” and “Sans Soleil.” In “The Last Bolshevik,” he shows us the industrial age — and its media, and its myths — receding into the distance. Marker isn’t like the artists at the International Center of Photography. He knows that the new technology and demographics are simply moving the old aside. Opening up to history, paradox and irony (and implicating ourselves) is all the “criticism” that’s needed.

Medvedkin — enthusiastic and naive, willfully blind to the turn the Soviet revolution took and desperate to continue working in a medium he adored — gave over in the ’40s and ’50s and made cheery Stalinist propaganda.

Marker, 72 years old now, knows that the artist in the new world has become a relativized figure him/herself. His videotape gets you thinking about how we sully our ideals and let ourselves be misled by them, how we ruin opportunities, and how we see things go to hell. The fact that “The Last Bolshevik” is on tape is one of the most poignant things about it. The infinitely manipulatable video images lap around the edges of the heroic, absurd old film frames like water around a sinking ship.

©1993 by Ray Sawhill

“Vincent & Theo,” directed by Robert Altman

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By Ray Sawhill

Robert Altman’s “Vincent & Theo” isn’t the tidy package of Culture some audiences may expect, and it isn’t a conventional biopic, either. Instead, it’s a searching look at the intertwined lives and aspirations of Vincent van Gogh and Theo, his art-dealer brother; it’s also a study of the moment in European art when art and its market came apart and the avant-garde was born. It has themes in common with Ingmar Bergman’s films — the slipperiness of identity, the pain of creation — but Altman’s work is looser and freer than Bergman’s. Altman has a sorcerer’s ability to crack open scenes and invite us in to wander through them, and he keeps “Vincent & Theo” bristling with emotions and ideas.

With the help of Julian Mitchell’s script, Altman makes you see the brothers as two sides of one organism, struggling to get by and straining to give rise to a new kind of painting. As Vincent, Tim Roth takes you into the painter’s isolation; by the film’s end, we can see in his eyes that Vincent has no company but his own fervor. Paul Rhys shows that what burns in Vincent burns in Theo, too, wrecking his attempts to be a family man and a suave aesthete.

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“I was resisting doing ‘Vincent & Theo,’ and I told one of the people I work with that I just don’t like biographical films about known people,” Altman recalls. “And she said, ‘Then why don’t you do it and make a film out of it that you do like?” The gamble has brought renewed attention to Altman’s work. His poetic 1971 Western “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” was re-released in London this spring to greater acclaim and popular success than it enjoyed on its first run. The American Cinemathèque in Los Angeles just sponsored a weekend retrospective.

One of the most intuitive of filmmakers, Altman keeps on the move, looking for the freedom to try out new ideas. The gods haven’t blessed all his hunches; he has directed his share of fascinating failures (“3 Women”) and outright duds (“A Perfect Couple”). But the features he made in the early ’70s — including “M*A*S*H,” “The Long Goodbye,” and “Nashville” — helped define one of the most remarkable eras in filmmaking history. And in the ’80s, he did innovative work in opera, in the theater, and for film and television. “Right now, television is the most fertile field,” he says. “Television people are confused, and that’s what’s healthy for the artist.”

In “Vincent & Theo,” Altman, who has known frustrations in getting his own work seen, takes on a resonant subject. “I’m using Van Gogh to get your attention to tell you about the sweet pain of a man in that condition,” he says, “an artist to whom nobody ever said, ‘That’s nice what you’re doing — I want one of those paintings for my mother’.”


©1990 by Newsweek Inc. Reprinted by permission.

“The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” directed by Philip Kaufman

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Almost Real

By Ray Sawhill

The three geographical and dramatic turning-points in the film “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” are initiated by Tereza. They occur when she’s interrogated and, surrounded by slides, negatives and projectors, understands that what for her has been an extension outward of herself — photography — is now being used against everything she cares about; when, in the western world, she is confused and upset by taking nude photographs of Sabina; and when she has sex with a near-stranger in occupied Prague. (These scenes embody the same cluster of issues, too: power, the uses and misuses of imagery, betrayal, and mirroring.) The central turning point of the film is the mutual-nude-photography session between Tereza and Sabina: the movie literally balances and turns on that scene of woman/camera/woman/mirrors. The scene itself is a double-sided mirror at the heart of the movie. After it, Tereza returns with Tomas to the Czech countryside, and Sabina winds up alone in California.

Philip Kaufman’s film has a life and liveliness quite distinct from the Milan Kundera novel it’s based on. The film is a combination of conceptual sophistication and lustiness that could be said to be about the lure of the idea of an Old Country. Tereza represents this, or something like it (the rural, the direct) to Tomas; Kaufman invites us to let Czechoslovakia itself, with its ancient culture and modern political tragedies, represent something like it to us. Viewed outside the terms of the movie, Tereza may appear to be a dumb, enchanting guilt-tripper, but it’s clear that the film uses her to draw from us our feelings about not being whole.

In the past, Kaufman tried to give some of his movies melancholy undertones. Here he makes melancholy the point of the film, proposing that we view Czechoslovakia/Tereza/Juliette Binoche as representing what many educated adults feel torn away or cut off from. His work suggests that he believes that expertise, energy and sophistication can bring him only so far — that without what Czechoslovakia/Tereza/Juliette Binoche represents, his own work isn’t emotionally complete. In this film, Kaufman isn’t just fearless about sentiment, he makes of traditional forms of sentiment (dappled forest light, the camera wheeling around and around embracing lovers, etc.) his very material.

***

unbearable binoche and camera

It seems to me that Janacek’s music (a little like Dvorak’s, but much more so: Dvorak always remained a bit of a peasant himself) is about how learning a sophisticated language, even one you may love, can remove you from your sources. It’s about looking back and realizing you can never again utter a peasant’s unself-conscious cri de coeur. (Whether you were ever actually able to doesn’t really matter: Janacek can stand in our minds for a cosmopolitan man looking at the countryside, an emigré looking back on his homeland, or any of us contemplating childhood.) Time passing in this kind of work is implicit. Janacek, and Kaufman in this film, seem to simply turn around at a certain point and take note of the fact that time has passed, all on its own. (This is a constructed illusion: one way Kaufman achieves it is by making a motif of shots of passing countryside and water seen through car and train windows. He’s using these sentimental-movie-cliché shots in ways that suggest Janacek’s use of folk melodies, and he’s weaving our feelings about them into the movie.) Incorporating cris de coeur (even if those of others, even if of created others) into the work becomes a tribute, a resurrection and a nostalgic act. Janacek’s music is about the beauty of where you are and the beauty of where you (may or may not) come from and the distance between — and a little about how that distance has perhaps helped enable you to find the beauty in where you come from, has maybe even helped you express your love. It’s a little about the absurdity of all this. It’s about the costs and rewards of awareness.

***

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Kaufman uses being in the position of being a Hollywood filmmaker with an international cast making a big-budget movie about Czechoslovakia in 1968 — he has worked that nuttiness into the film. (He uses Janacek’s music to mirror his themes.) Think about how Tomas and Sabina enjoy each other’s playful erotic expertise (and how Day-Lewis and Lena Olin enjoy each other’s acting expertise): when they’re with each other (and often when they’re with others) they manage to turn everything into an enticing erotic challenge. The fun of being together for them is taking everything, and responding to everything, erotically.

They recognize this ability in each other and delight in it; that’s the basis of their friendship, it’s what they share. With others, they’re sneaky, even if sneakily direct; with each other they can be direct, even if that means being direct about their sneakiness. Tomas looks out from under his eyebrows and says “Take off your clothes.” Painting for Sabina seems to be a way of turning herself on: she keeps her hat by her side, and sometimes wears sexy underwear as she paints. If turning herself on involves or demands other people, fine. The female Sabina makes herself into an object that can be fallen in love with, and her art work is all mirrors, silhouettes and water imagery; the goatish Tomas is a surgeon, all analysis and action.

This kind of expertise can produce its own high: remember Olin on the train with her Geneva lover when he tells her he’s married? For an instant she looks stricken — will she become angry or dismayed? Then she manages to get turned on by this new bit of information. It’s a torchy moment: she thrusts her head out the window and turns her face to the rain. Kaufman uses rain and water in the film for its associations with death, fate and history. Sabina is being impudent; she’s defying what the elements would have her do. She’s defying what Tereza contemplates returning to after she realizes that the tall Prague stranger she has sex with may not have had the cleanest of motives. Tereza is introduced to us swimming in a pool; later, in her nightmare/fantasy about Tomas’ catting around, she’s in a pool too, her vision bobbing above and then below the surface. And in the country, when Tereza and Tomas move there, it’s often raining.

When Day-Lewis is a window-washer — and Kaufman uses Tomas’ position vis à vis windows and frames to make his status in relation to established power clear: for instance, Tomas is introduced at the beginning of the film in a commanding position, “performing” and being observed through a window, ordering a nurse to take her clothes off — and the woman invites him in, he sees photos on a bureau of her with what could be her father or her husband, who appears to be a successful Party hack. There’s a moment — is Tomas thrown out of his intrigued, sexed-up mood by this, or can he sustain it? — and then he’s going with it, and when his eyes return to her you know something of the (power-saturated? vengeful?) flavor his sex with her will have. Purity doesn’t mean a lot to Sabina and Tomas. They’re fallen, and they like it that way.

***

unbearable binoche olin

The taste of sex-without-love changes for Tomas in the post-invasion country, but he can get off on the new taste, and even enjoy his ability to get off on it. That sex is now fraught with pitfalls and ugly possibilities doesn’t prevent him from taking erotic pleasure; he’s able to use the danger and his own resentment as flavors, spices. The danger terrifies and sickens Tereza. Kaufman uses the sound of breathing as one expression of this. When Tereza arrives at Tomas’ apartment early in the film and he raises her sweater, Kaufman amplifies her frightened, aroused breathing — it’s funny and sexy. When they have returned to Prague after the invasion and we again hear her breathing that clearly, it’s when she sniffs another woman’s scent in Tomas’ hair. Anticipation vs. surveillance: the political shift has effected them even on that level.

The effect of the political shift on what’s allowed is made clearest in this film’s theater/performance element. Tomas has written a little scribble for a newspaper about “Oedipus The King.” It’s intended both seriously and playfully — I mean it and I don’t mean it, and you know in which ways — and readers understand and enjoy it. When he returns to Prague after the invasion, and is wooed and grilled, the policeman asks Tomas if he “really” meant that the Party leaders should pluck their eyes out. Of course he didn’t, and you watch Tomas size up how things now work. What was once theater — playful and liberating — is now read literally and used against you.

The enjoyment of expertise can be a basis for companionship and comradeship — it’s like “The Right Stuff.” Whizz-bang, so to speak. All those scenes of Tomas and Sabina making it in front of her mirrors and mirror-sculptures: they enjoy their reflections, their self-consciousness. To them it’s an erotic heightener. (And it’s akin to the lustiness and showmanship, the surface zappiness, of Kaufman’s earlier movies.) There’s swagger and brio in their sex, as there’s swagger and brio in the way Day Lewis and Olin work the fairly-explicit sex into their performances — they seem to turn that into an erotic performance challenge. They enjoy being cut loose, they enjoy their sophistication — she’s an adventuress, he’s a buccaneer.

***

unbearable b and w newsreel

Then Tomas falls for pure/peasant/uncouth/soulful/rooted-in-the soil/simple Tereza, whose idea of getting into sex seems to involve not a whole lot more than smooshing herself against him. She comes to the city during the Prague Spring. She’s part of what the free atmosphere coaxes forth, and she emerges from herself, first from the country and then from Tomas’ apartment — we’re given a shot of her standing behind Tomas’ window — into the commerce of life via her camera.

Sexually, she’s a klutz, nothing but needs and fears. But when Tomas is with her, what he feels seems deeper, more direct and genuine. He discovers a whole range of what seems to him to be pure feelings; she awakens in him the belief that without a connection to something “genuine” he’s incomplete, and that she is that something “genuine.” What she stirs up in him he misses otherwise. When she returns to Czechoslovakia we see him, through a window, use on another barmaid the same routine — mouthing the word “cognac” — he used to pick up Tereza. He isn’t being callous, he’s a performer enjoying his bag of tricks. But it isn’t the same thing for him anymore.

Tereza’s feeling so often crushed has some relation to what Tomas finds himself loving in her, and in oppressed Czechslovakia. She feels lost and confused in Geneva; she can’t handle western-style freedom, and her confusion is brought out in the nude-photography scene: she’s aroused and terrified, she genuinely doesn’t have any idea what’s going on. (It suggests a world of total disconnectedness, and she can’t make sense of that.) Surrounded by mirrors and art and facing another woman, she can’t account for her confusion or her arousal. She grows terribly nonplused when she’s turned on by Sabina’s sexiness before a camera — her yielding to it and commanding it all at once — and by Sabina’s pointing the camera back at her nakedness; we’re given to understand she doesn’t even like being naked. (Tereza needs to feel undefined.)

In Prague, when she tries to even the score with Tomas the perpetual cocksman, she’s clenched and frightened, and she insists that her partner pull back the curtains that are hung around his room to show that he’s hiding nothing. Kaufman lets us register the contrast with Sabina, who, on the train, enjoyed the wiliness — the role-playing and duplicity — of the pretending-to-be-asleep voyeur. Tereza hides behind frames without recognizing them as such until she’s urged out; Sabina propels herself into new situations, then puts frames around them and moves on.

Tereza can’t bring herself to enjoy the performance aspect of sex; Tomas and Sabina work costumes and playacting into their sex, and enjoy posing before mirrors. Binoche’s being so “available” yet not an accomplished performer jibes with this. What she is as an actress (at least here) in relation to Day Lewis and Olin parallels what Czechoslovakia (history! tragedy! a peasant culture!) can mean to an American: pure soul.

Much later, when Tereza and Tomas have retreated to the Czech countryside and go with their farming buddies to a country bar, she’s so at ease that she dances and teases and flirts; she’s consciously vamping Tomas. It’s the first time we have seen her do any active seducing; this is the only environment in which she feels secure enough to play. In California — all glorious surfaces — Sabina paints a picture of the ocean: she consciously, knowing the effort and what it costs, erects not a wall but a scrim between her and sorrow/fate. She needs to be able to experience her emotions as fully as possible yet not to be stymied by them. She thrives on what disconnectedness makes possible. (Only death rends the scrim.)

***

unbearable newsreel tanks

Kaufman’s movie is like a Janacek work, the filmmaker incorporating “Czechoslovakia” into his film as Janacek incorporated folk songs into his music, as Tomas incorporates Tereza into his life. It’s funny and touching that, in the movie, “Czechoslovakia” is as created (from France and other places, as well as from newsreels) as “Tereza” is. We’re not really seeing “soul,” we’re seeing an actress; we’re not really seeing Czechoslovakia, we’re seeing locations put to work. The doctored photographs that show up — the woman’s father or husband with Brezhnev; Erland Josephson with Kennedy and Khrushchev — and the whole passage about the Russian invasion, which is a kind of extended-through-time doctored photograph, have a special poignancy in this context. Kaufman is using movie fakery to make the emotions more immediate. He lets us realize, when Sabina puts her head out the train window, that Olin is performing in front of a blue screen and facing fake rain, but the effect is the enhancement of the character’s (and the actress’) impassioned recklessness.

Kaufman uses the newsreel footage similarly. When Tarkovsky and Wenders use newsreel footage, you can sense — despite what the filmmakers seem to be saying (which is usually about the need to leave the confines of your own head) — that what they’re doing is working the newsreel footage into their mournful and virtually totally self-reflexive fiction. Ie., their conceptual thinking is more important to them than the historical events the footage, in whatever way, portrays.

Kaufman’s approach liberates libido; he works the story and the characters into the newsreel. He alters the newsreel footage and lets us know it: we have the fun of trying to figure out how it’s been altered even as we register the awfulness of the invasion, and experience the rupture it represents in Czechoslovakian history (and in the film). For Kaufman, using this footage is a tribute art (as a part of life) pays to life (which includes art even as it washes it away and moves on). Though Kaufman never shows Tomas and Tereza rising into the heavens, the movie’s final image — it’s of a road through a forest, seen through the front windshield of a moving truck; the image grows brighter, suggesting pure radiance — may be the most beautiful Ascension ever put on film. What the light elicits depends on us.

©1988 by Ray Sawhill

“The Player,” directed by Robert Altman

the player

Hollywood’s Hip Cynicism

By Ray Sawhill

Robert Altman plays with the elements of film-making the way jazz musicians play with tunes and changes, the way painters like Jasper Johns and Jim Dine play with pop iconography. He destabilizes the elements he works with, opening them and making them part of larger processes, part of a flow. He works with what you’re not used to admitting to consciousness, what you normally tune out: objects and actions at the edges of your vision, overheard sounds, half-formed thoughts, hazy memories.

Altman’s one-time assistant Alan Rudolph recalls that Altman used to say to him, “Nobody makes the films they want to make, they make the films they’re able to make.” Altman’s film-making suggests an ethos of taking your clue from what life presents to you. “I don’t go in and say, Let’s see how we can do it differently,” says Altman. “It’s more like, I don’t want to do that, because I’ve seen that. And also, it never rings true to me. It’s more starting at the inside of these projects and building them from the inside out. I’m always surprised myself by what the exterior, the total package, looks like.”

His 1992 film, “The Player,” is another easygoing goof on an institution. In his 1971 “M*A*S*H” it was the Army; in his 1975 “Nashville” it was politics and the country-music industry. Here, it’s Hollywood. The picture is naughty, and it has dazzle and audacity. But “The Player” doesn’t have the all-devouring quality of Altman’s early 1970s work, or the intensity and concentration — of bitterness, exile, rancor, and obsessiveness — of some of the work he made in the 1980s after leaving Hollywood. “The Player” may remind us of the great Altman films, but it isn’t really great: it’s movie-making as sunny-spirited recreation. Is there a danger Robert Altman will become a benevolent, lovable sweetie? Altman’s relationship with his subject isn’t the antagonistic one you’d expect, given his history with Hollywood. He doesn’t seem to have a serious quarrel with the film industry anymore. It’s like a formerly married couple spending an evening together: maybe they wrangle and feel some of the old heat, but in the end they back off. They’ve learned they can live and let die.

In “The Player,” which is taken from a Michael Tolkin novel that’s essentially a writer’s hate letter to the movie business, the central character is the once-thought-to-be-rising studio executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins). He feels his career is riding on every decision. He’s freaked out and paranoid; Altman and Tolkin suggest that this is the normal emotional state of Hollywood people on the make. Griffin is having trouble being a player. Something’s holding him back and torpedoing his prospects. His girlfriend, Bonnie, who is a story editor at the studio where he works and who is his ally in his job wars, doesn’t excite him. At the office, he’s picking up bad vibes — it’s rumored that another young hotshot is being brought in and will rank above him. He’s also receiving threatening, homicidal postcards from an anonymous writer whom he has evidently snubbed. Griffin is a brat, but a brat in torment; the postcards bring together the lousy feelings he has about his life. So when he thinks he has figured out who the writer is, he tries to placate his suspect by offering him a deal. But this writer isn’t grateful, and Griffin’s rage gets the better of him. As Altman presents the movie, it’s a joke on the idea of the “up” Hollywood ending: Griffin learns (you always have to learn something in a Hollywood film) to live with being a murderer, and this releases him from his torment.

Altman opens “The Player” with a bang — a virtuoso shot that begins with an image of a clapper coming down in front of a mural depicting early film-making. During this shot’s eight minutes, what we see and hear includes a discussion of the virtues of fast cutting vs. continuous, unbroken shots; a chat about the famous opening shot in “Touch of Evil”; two different close-ups of a postcard; several cases of mistaken identity; a variety of activities seen through windows; a group of Japanese visitors on a studio tour; and three or four movie “pitches.” This shot sets the stage for a film that could be said to be about the manipulation of images, and frames within frames.

Altman moves in tight for Griffin’s drama, and then backs off and takes in the moviemaking world, a cuckoo-land where lives, careers, and projects exist in a state of perpetual, dangling uncertainty. The movie is filled with “real” celebrities — actual performers and film-makers playing themselves. You’re kept (enjoyably) uncertain about which performers are appearing as themselves and which you’re being asked to accept as fictional characters. We can take this as a visualization of Griffin’s paranoia, as well as of how much of life in the movie world consists of stargazing — in Hollywood, you’re always on the lookout. A producer (Carolyn Pfeiffer) who attended the first screening of “The Player” says that afterward, when the lights came up, it was as though the movie had spilled out into the auditorium — the audience was full of film business types, and some of them had been up on the screen.

It’s usually a gag when Altman moves in tight on Griffin again. We laugh at this spoiled boy’s fears and humiliations, and at his “dignity.” When Malcolm McDowell (playing himself) spots Griffin at a hotel and needles him, Griffin is shaken; for a second he looks as if he might burst into tears. When the Pasadena police grill him about the writer’s death, they unnerve him with their small talk and their unsmoothed-out eccentricities. (In “The Player,” Pasadena contrasts with Hollywood; it’s where a rep house plays “The Bicycle Thief,” where the “truth” is still an issue, and where Griffin’s power strategies count for nothing at all.)

For Griffin, writers might almost be interchangeable nuisances. When he tries to locate the author of the threatening postcards, he’s willing to settle for the first name that’s plausible. In a sinister, oddly fluid and beautiful scene, he drives up to this fellow’s house and calls him on his cellular car phone; he gets June (Greta Scacchi), a painter who is the writer’s girlfriend. Although he’s calling from right outside her house, Griffin lets her assume he’s at his office. He walks from window to window, looking in on her as they talk; she moves about, playing with her paints and paintings. The camera moves from outside the house with him and his phone and his pretence to inside with her and her reflection — it’s night and the house is lit up from within. June is dressed in flowing white. The interior of the house is white and blue, and it’s full of paints and jars, and hung and stacked paintings. Transparent and patterned shower curtains hang from the ceiling, and photos are taped to the walls and the refrigerator door. Everything is mingling and filmy; the imagery may put you mind of tissues and placentas and pregnancy. This is June’s bell jar, but she isn’t coming apart, she’s happy, moist and glowing — a woman in her own world, “creating.” (Later, after he’s met her, Griffin asks which gallery she sells through; she explains she doesn’t sell because she’s never finished with her work. These images are her feelings, and she’s never done feeling.) They talk and flirt. She explains that her strange last name — Gudmundsdottir — is Icelandic; there’s some banter about Greenland being icy and Iceland being green. Somehow the Red Sea is mentioned.

When he goes off to find the writer, Griffin thinks that what he wants is to make amends. (What we learn in the course of the film is that what he really wants is not to be bothered by his scruples anymore.) David Kahane, the writer Griffin finds, is loud, angry, and shabby — a perpetual grad-student type who is intent on his autobiographical movie idea about a student in Japan. The plot of the “The Player” turns on whether the studio is vulnerable to a Japanese takeover; Griffin and Kahane’s conversation mostly takes place at a Japanese karaoke restaurant/bar, where customers get on stage and, looking into a monitor and singing into a mike, perform to canned music, with a screen above them projecting MTV-like imagery and subtitles (“Why can’t we start over?”). Nearly everything in the film is doubled and tripled in this way. And the question of who owns the image is always being posed.

Kahane guesses that Griffin discovered his whereabouts from June, whom he refers to as “the ice queen.” Griffin doesn’t really flip until Kahane taunts him: Everyone knows Griffin can’t O.K. projects any more, that the new executive is supplanting him. When Griffin is fired, what will become of him? “I can write. What can you do?” yells Kahane. That’s when Griffin’s rage overcomes him; he kills the writer, holding his head in a puddle that reflects red light — the writer dies in a “red sea.”

Part of the reason the executives hate writers is that they depend on them; the writers actually come up with ideas. Altman sets up a writing-related satirical scheme; in this picture, the more you’re attached to writing, the more conscience-stricken and miserable you’re likely to be — and the more full of integrity. The unhappy story editor Bonnie is a “tragic” character; she gets more and more shut out as the movie goes along. Early on, Griffin himself stands up for writers at a meeting where the new hotshot is passing around an issue of the L.A. Times so he can show his finesse at improvising movie subjects from public (i.e., free) sources. Griffin watches the paper with dread; a small front-page headlines announces David Kahane’s death of the night before.

Altman uses a writer/director played by Richard E. Grant for contrast with Kahane. The Grant character broadcasts how uncompromising he is. His idea for a film, he’s quick to point out, requires no stars and an unhappy ending — because that’s how life is. He gets tearful when he tells his downbeat story, he moves himself so. He’s brilliant at using the appearance of daring, integrity, and passion: he’ll do well for himself. By the end of the “The Player,” he has turned his vision into an upbeat Julia Roberts/Bruce Willis vehicle. “The audience wrote this ending,” he exults.

Altman catches a central thing about Hollywood: Griffin, like all the other executives, is always at pains to manipulate “image” to make the most impressive possible statement about himself. The depiction of Hollywood life feels authentic — these people have enormous egos, yet they are wildly insecure; they don’t really have anything that’s theirs. Something is forever eluding them — the idea, the hit, the magic. So it’s always crucial to give the impression you possess the magic — everything becomes a matter of positioning, strategy, and one-upsmanship.

the player2

“The Player” shares with Altman’s 1973 “The Long Goodbye” a breezy sense of humor about movie-fed foolishness and a distinctive view of corruption. Altman doesn’t overdo the corruption in either of these films: everything that counts can be bought and sold, yet the environment isn’t ominous. Inside and outside spill into each other, as they do in L.A. Altman’s camera zooms in, zooms back, changing position and focal length, moving from room to room, from inside to outside. This is a visual realization of what happens in your head when you spend time in L.A.: you stop worrying about what’s real and what’s not.

The two films also share a vision of L.A. as a make-believe city bedazzled by the movies. Yet “The Long Goodbye,” for all its sophistication and cynicism, has a little nostalgia for what people tend to think of as the “kind of movies Hollywood doesn’t make anymore” — with the old stars and the old glamour, with the “well-told stories” — essentially, escapist fantasies from the 1930s and 1940s. The Hollywood of “The Player” doesn’t have that depth or beauty, or that quality of fantasy. It doesn’t even seem to bother feeding its own myth. It’s simply a place sharp people exploit. The characters here aren’t square; they’re media-savvy, hip cynics — in this world, everyone’s become a connoisseur of self-reflexiveness. And there’s an extra layer of technology, technology within technology: car phones, faxes, phones in screening rooms. (When Griffin opens up his glove compartment and there’s a fax machine at work and it prints out a replica of a postcard, the Chinese boxes seem endless.) This is an environment where media competition and attention-getting have become the only activities anyone admits to believing in or standing by.

June the painter has no awareness at all of the movie business; it seems to strike her as little more than a glamorous lark. Courting her, Griffin takes her to a resort in Desert Hot Springs favored by film-business people because they’re kept anonymous there. “Do places like this really exist?” she says in delight. “Only in the movies,” he replies. The spas are glowing and blue, but they have been set among boulders and rocks; they have been given “natural”-seeming shapes. Let’s go into the water, June suggests. “You’re not really Icelandic,” guesses Griffin. “Oh, did I say that?” says June.

June’s acceptance of the surface and only the surface might seem like a form of brain damage in Europe; in L.A., it’s the city’s special form of grace. June makes it all up as she goes along; she plays with images. Apart from the cops, she’s the one character in the movie who isn’t in the film world; she’s the only character Altman doesn’t really satirize. (This makes her seem rather indefinite; and Scacchi seems to get only about halfway into the groove.) Many of June’s paintings have words and letters in them, stenciled (it seems), but very painterly, with drizzles and drips. Griffin asks June if she likes words, and she answers, “I like words. I like letters. Sentences I’m not crazy about.” Griffin is entranced; he is sprung loose from what binds him to words.

Griffin is completed by his involvement with June — the film world doesn’t make him crazy anymore. He has shaken free of his feelings of responsibility. He just doesn’t care, and that makes him a winner. He can play on the surface and not be dragged down by his conscience — this is seen, satirically, as a triumph. Getting away with murder becomes the most freeing event in his life.

Altman framed “M*A*S*H” with a p-a system, which was constantly making bungled announcements for old war movies that were going to be shown in a tent somewhere. In “The Player” he frames the action with posters for old crime pictures. They’re gaudy: the titles are amusingly “dramatic,” and the ad copy on them is hype from another era. “M*A*S*H” ends with the p-a system announcing a final movie, which turns out to be the one we’ve just seen. At the end of “The Player,” Griffin is driving home after a day at the office. He receives a call on his car phone and listens to a pitch from the writer who actually wrote him the postcards that filled him with terror; it’s the story of the movie we’ve just seen. The faceless writer could be any one of hundreds of writers who have pitched their movie ideas to Griffin. Is the writer blackmailing him? He might be, but Griffin is intrigued anyway: who cares where a marketable story comes from?

As he steers through the L.A. streets, Griffin is wearing a black suit with charcoal pinstripes. He has traded in his enclosed Range Rover for a black Rolls Royce convertible, and the vivid red leather interior glows in the sun. Griffin is happy and masterful. He drives up to his home and we’re given a shot of big lush red roses; through them we see a pregnant, radiant June welcoming him. The blue and white of the ice queen; the black of the demonic; the red of sexual excitement and fullness — even June’s dress has some red in it in addition to the usual blue and white. Griffin and June hug; male and female merge. This is American wedded bliss, Altman is saying good-naturedly: red, white, and blue against black.

It doesn’t seem to bother Altman much. Is one reason “The Player” doesn’t have a lot of bite that Altman just can’t take seriously the anguish of a vain young studio executive? Tim Robbins has gravity, focus, and a delight in being found silly; he manages to suggest that Griffin would dearly love people to believe that the thoughts he’s keeping to himself are dignified and impressive. And with his height (6’5″) and his huge baby’s head, Robbins is quite a camera subject. But Altman’s Griffin — the center of the film — is thin. The Griffin of the novel has evil in him, and the reader experiences the world as Griffin experiences it. Altman moves the malevolence out into the system generally, where it disperses and becomes a shared craziness.

Altman sees the current Hollywood as nothing but an absurd business based on fleecing people, empty even of the entertaining hucksterism of old. But Hollywood people don’t seem to take the movie as a hate letter to themselves; this satire of Hollywood is embraced by its targets. They can enjoy “The Player” because there’s nothing really adversarial about it. Altman is saying out loud what they all think and feel; his film jibes with their view of themselves. (It’s like the last Buñuel films, which tickled the haute bourgeoisie Buñuel once threatened with murder.) “The Player” doesn’t add up to much more than a very sleekly done roast — an amusing series of inside jokes choreographed around and through the familiar restaurants, offices, and parking lots. Altman isn’t fighting the business people. Now they can accept him as a master.

©1992 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Film Quarterly.

“The Piano,” directed by Jane Campion

piano

Loose Talk

by Polly Frost and Ray Sawhill

Polly Frost: I can’t imagine anyone taking “The Piano” seriously, but I thought that as a silly movie it was on a level with “Beaches.” Holly Hunter plays Keith Jarrett-style music even though the film is set in the Victorian era. You get to see Harvey Keitel naked, sensitive, and in Maori makeup. He’s not the Bad Lieutenant anymore! Although I’m not sure I want the hero of my romantic fantasy to have feelings.

Ray Sawhill: Did you love it when, naked in the half-light, he caresses her piano because she’s not there?

PF: Of course. And I especially liked the idea of a guy working his way up under my hoop skirts to give me a lick.

RS: It’s an enduring feminist issue: the virtuous man eats pussy and likes it.

PF: I’m all for that. And when Harvey finally fucks her it’s important that it’s not from behind. They’re face to face, and he looks deep into her eyes … But not in that tedious way men have of trying to figure out whether you’ve come or not.

RS: I’m a big fan of the frontier movie where all the work you ever see being done is the occasional closeup of a log being split. And I did enjoy the way the Maoris sat around all day and communed with nature, taking breaks only to disparage Sam Neill’s manliness.

PF: In the movie, Maoris exist as nothing but elemental beings — they’re sort of like the mud. For all her feminist/deconstructionist airs, Jane Campion doesn’t have the most progressive view of “the other.” But mother and daughter communicating in sign language, being a woman corseted and then set free — I eat that stuff like candy.

RS: It’s really a self-conscious, upscale version of “Clan of the Cave Bear.” Holly Hunter is a member of a superior species, i.e., a modern woman. So she takes no part whatsoever in making a life on the frontier. She just goes around acting passionate, furious, and indignant.

PF: It’s pure supermarket Gothic, with an “I’m in charge” attitude. Men oppress women’s sexuality because they can’t deal with it. Women are the more sexual, and men chained women up, and now finally in the Nineties men are awakening to their place as secondary to women. Alright!

RS: What do you make of the fact that liberation is seen as marriage to a macho, sensitive guy?

PF: It’s as key in these new radical/retro fantasies as it was in the originals not to want to cheat on your husband. He has to drive you to it. Here, everything conspires to make her have an affair. Bliss.

RS: The movie seems to be like catnip for post-feminists. Harvey blackmails Holly in such a perfect “I’m so sorry I’m ravishing you, but I can’t help myself” kind of way. Women keep telling me they find the film quite haunting.

PF: Some of the imagery does have that “Seventh Seal” quality. Although any time you have people in dark clothes wandering around for no reason on a wild beach I guess it’s haunting.

RS: The piano, Holly’s feelings, and the sea, our great mother.

PF: But how do you actually feel about the film? Stop shifting in your chair so uncomfortably.

RS: I guess I find it frightening.

PF: Maybe the fantasy gets to you more than you want to admit.

RS: What I really find scary is how seriously women can take their fantasies. The Holly Hunter character is a Nineties woman-with-a-grievance dropped into an era that’s truly repressive. She’s mute because the world is so unjust — isn’t that what the bad hair-do and the bonnet and the angry slit of a mouth are about? At least a conventional romance would give us a panting beauty popping out of her bodice. The women who love the movie seem to want to believe that their desire for a romantic movie represents a threat to the status quo and that their sexual pleasure represents a political triumph. Guy fantasies are more often presented as cartoons you’re not meant to take seriously.

PF: Clint Eastwood really lets you take his recent movies lightly.

RS: But isn’t it true that many educated women like their romantic fantasies to be presented with a solemn, high-art aura? That’s what I find so terrifying.

PF: Campion is like Margaret Atwood and Naomi Wolf. They have temper tantrums over their right to enjoy the most routine female fantasies.

RS: Though there’s no avoiding the fact that Campion knows how to make an eccentric, threatening image. One after another, in fact, with no flow between them.

PF: These women feel guilty about their fantasies. Just have the fantasies!

RS: Campion is such a bad director of actors. Holly Hunter seems to have decided that her character’s muteness means that she should never change her facial expression.

PF: Sam Neill is a wonderful actor, but the film emasculates him. He’s even called “dry balls” by the Maori at the very start of the film.

RS: And what is it about feminists and the Victorian age?

PF: Basically what it is is that women who like these movies go around in Laura Ashley dresses.

RS: Holly’s muteness, her hands reaching into that box to finger the keyboard, the nailed-up windows and doors — it’s all that tediousness about being “denied a voice.”

PF: It’s OK, you can calm down — the movie’s over. The honest film about women, sex and imprisonment is “Mrs. Soffel.” Gillian Armstrong just films what she wants to film as a woman. She doesn’t justify it at all.

RS: Maybe that’s why Armstrong’s “The Last Days of Chez Nous” is even scarier than “The Piano.” What is it that makes Campion such a perfect subject for journalists? I’ve never seen a single pan of any of her movies.

PF: It’s the whole Spike Lee thing — she writes out their copy for them. Campion plays at inspiration but she never allows it to take her over. Ray?

RS: Yeah?

PF: You’d look good in Maori makeup.

©1993 by Polly Frost and Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Modern Review.

“Malcolm X,” directed by Spike Lee

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Malcolm Zzzzzzzzzz

By Ray Sawhill

With his underslung jaw, his 6’4″ lean-and-hungry build, and the fury in his eyes, the real Malcolm X was unquestionably a star. He had a triumphant, gritty voice and worked a crowd close-in, relishing the tumult. He may not always have made a lot of sense, but you could see what delighted blacks and frightened whites; on a stage, he was an angry, defiant turn-on.

Alas, Denzel Washington, who plays the role in Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X,” just isn’t riveting. There’s nothing behind his restraint — he’s in control, but of nothing. He doesn’t get a rapport going with the audiences he speaks to (and Lee makes counterproductive whoopee with the camera and the editing scissors during the speeches). For all the bravado of the opening credits — which play over footage from the videotape of the beating of Rodney King, intercut with an image of an American flag burning until it’s shaped like the “X” on an “X” hat — the movie isn’t fiery. It’s a stolid civics lesson, complete with heavenly choir. There are a few hippity-hop, disjunctive editing tricks, some overhead shots that are “unusual” in a familiar way, and that cross-angled mustard light that Lee and his cinematographer Ernest Dickerson seem to like. But otherwise the filmmaking is mainstream. Only the length (three hours and 21 minutes) and an occasional freedom in the way it ribs blacks suggest the film is anything more than the usual worthy docudrama. The end features little black schoolchildren (first in America, then in South Africa) standing up at their desks, one after the other, to announce, “I’m Malcolm X.” (Study guides and Malcolm X book jackets are being provided to high schools in the 100 largest U.S. urban areas.)

Lee has based the movie almost entirely on “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” which was written by Alex Haley, who completed it after Malcolm X was murdered in 1965. (Lee revised a nearly 20-year-old script by Arnold Perl and James Baldwin.) Among some groups, this “autobiography,” like Malcolm’s speeches, has taken on the aspect of a religious text, with exegesis-happy scholars and fans quarreling about what Malcolm really meant, what his stand really was. Lee has committed himself to putting the material across not as drama but as truth — we’re meant to accept Malcolm’s view of himself reverently, every step of the way. (It’s embellished with a few twists, such as CIA men following Malcolm on his tour of the mid-East, and the FBI tapping his phone.)

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What we’re given is the Malcolm legend. When Malcolm is a child, his family is destroyed by whites. He tailspins off into a life of crime and cheap thrills, bottoming out in jail, where he finds his personal hell and is given the nickname “Satan.” He pulls himself together with the help of the Nation of Islam, which encourages him to blame all his troubles on whites, and he achieves fame giving voice to his race’s rage and demands. After 12 years he becomes disillusioned with the Nation’s leadership and quits the organization; he becomes an ordinary Muslim, visits Mecca and realizes it’s OK to be any color. Wiser and more humble, he’s martyred by the Nation of Islam followers he himself had once fired up.

Spike Lee begins with the street years and proceeds straight ahead, using incidents to trigger off flashbacks to Malcolm’s childhood. He mimics Malcolm’s development in his filmmaking. The street years come with daddy-o colors and sassy crane shots; the prison section is shot in end-of-the-road blue-grays. The Nation of Islam passage has “Godfather”-style dignity and solemnity; the tour of the Holy Lands is a Barbet Schroeder-style spiritual travelogue; the troubled final year is paranoid and portentous (it’s the Oliver Stone section). The flashbacks — which are meant to explain Malcolm’s drives — are “Birth of a Nation” racist nightmares.

“The Autobiography” has push and heat — Malcolm X and Alex Haley tell good tales. But you can sense that the stories have been brightened up, and the lessons Malcolm X draws from them often have little to do with the experiences he describes. As one flamboyant tale follows the next, what comes together is a man’s view of his life as a superhero myth. Essentially, the film is the autobiography, recapped 27 years later, with considerably less flair. Yet Lee obviously wants people to accept his movie as factually accurate.

In the film, as in the book, we’re asked to accept Malcolm’s conversion to the Nation of Islam as a genuine religious experience; Lee gives Malcolm a literal vision. Yet when Malcolm quits the faith on discovering that Elijah Mohammed, the Nation’s leader, is a hypocrite — Elijah has been screwing secretaries while demanding near-celibacy from his followers — he doesn’t spend a single day thinking to himself, “Whew, what a fool I’ve been.” He doesn’t ask himself: “What was it about me that made me so vulnerable to that line of baloney?” At hour one, we’re meant to feel tender awe at the faith, and to be impressed by its insights; at hour three we’re meant to see the faith as corrupt and crazy.

The film doesn’t question Malcolm’s sincerity either; we’re meant to find his disillusionment as genuine as his conversion. He’s always aggressively heading off in some new direction, as certain of this one as he was of the last. It’s such an odd passage when he’s grappling with the fact of Elijah’s hypocrisy that you almost think the message of the movie must be, “Don’t go getting involved with weird religious cults.” Yet when Malcolm’s racial views shift and, after all those 12 years of preaching that the “white man” is the devil, he decides that it doesn’t matter what your skin color is, there’s no indication that he regrets leading his followers astray. Sometimes it seems as if what was inspiring about him was his inconsistency.

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In the film, as in the Malcolm-Haley account, Malcolm’s father was a strong, very dark Marcus Garveyite who was terrorized and finally killed by whites; his mother was a proud, light-colored woman whose family was ripped apart by the social welfare agencies; Malcolm’s schooling came at the hands of abusive whites. But a recent (and very sympathetic) biography, “Malcolm” by Bruce Perry (Station Hill Press), suggests that while Malcolm certainly did suffer from white racism as a child, most of his pain originated in his family.

Malcolm’s father never earned enough money to support a family, and this was a family with 10 kids. He beat them, and beat his wife; he was also, one family friend told Perry, “a natural born whoremonger.” He didn’t die tied to streetcar tracks by white men in black hoods and robes, as the film would have it. Perry shows that he stormed out of the house after an argument, missed his step getting on a streetcar and fell under it.

Malcolm escaped most of his father’s brutality but was beaten by his mother so hard his screaming could be heard by neighbors. (And his family didn’t live in a city apartment; they lived in the country.) Malcolm wasn’t ripped from his mother by welfare workers; with another brother, he tried to get the authorities to send him to reform school (“we heard they had good beds there,” recalls the brother). Malcolm grew up largely among whites; if his enemies and rivals as children were white, so were his playmates and friends. He was teased and put down by some whites; other whites fed him when he was hungry and fought and played alongside him. Light-skinned and red-haired, he also got teased and put down whenever he was in a black neighborhood, where kids called him “Snowflake” and “Eskimo.”

The Malcolm of myth — hard, uncompromising, defiant, manly (yet ever “evolving”) — is fuelled by a rage that is very pure; he stirred up other people’s rage, too, and made them feel exalted by it. (This seems to be what people mean when they say he “gave them hope.”) Malcolm’s late “tolerant” phase wasn’t what it’s sometimes meant to be: what he said was that some whites were OK with him — whites, that is, “who had accepted the religion of Islam.”

In one scene, when Malcolm has become a top leader of the Nation of Islam, a black man is injured by police; Malcolm leads a crowd of blacks to the hospital to insist he get proper treatment. A cop (Peter Boyle) orders him to disperse the crowd; Malcolm resists, then, when it suits him, he makes a tiny sign with his hand, and the mass of people breaks up, the Muslims in their hats and overcoats marching off in perfect order. Denzel Washington shows a minuscule twinkle of satisfaction, and Boyle marvels, “That’s too much power for one man to have.” I understand the joy blacks may feel at seeing a black man fling it right back at “the white man,” and I can enjoy a “kiss my ass, honky” gesture. But the film is too pleased by violence cockily and righteously contained, and that twinkle undercuts the idea we’re mean to have of Malcolm having achieved egolessness.

I found myself interpreting the material differently than we seemed meant to. Early on, Malcolm is invited by a big-time crook to sit across from him at a table in a dark restaurant; the crook winds up taking Malcolm on as a hood-in-training. The scene is balanced by a later one. Malcolm has become a Nation of Islam leader; he’s drinking coffee with assistants in a diner, and an eager young boy who has seen him and wants to join up begs his way to the table. It’s hard to know what’s intended — are we just meant to recognize that Malcolm has found some success? But we’re also left wondering: did Malcolm just want to be a bigwig all along? Did he fail at crime but find his niche in the religion game?

Malcolm’s life suggests that he was trying to create, by himself and in himself, his own idea of a father — his idea of manliness. As a young man — before he joined the Nation of Islam — Malcolm beat a number of his girlfriends (this is not in the film) and chased after white women. (In the film, he has one white girlfriend.) He had a drive to control women that apparently took a new form when he joined the Nation. Moviegoers may find the film’s images of womanly submission really alarming. Malcolm’s wife calls him Dear Heart, and says things like, “Even when you’re not with me, you’re with me.” At one rally, a huge banner hangs from some columns — we’re shown it several times. The text reads, We Must Protect Our Most Valuable Property, Our Women. The men in their gray suits, white shirts and skinny dark ties sit on one side of the stage or the auditorium; the women, in their white robes and shawls, sit on the other. Visually, these ranks of sex-segregated automatons may be effective in suggesting lives cleaned up and set in order. But it’s still hard to take.

You don’t have to accept the myth to find the actual Malcolm a fascinating character. But what we’re being asked to watch is an epic about a Chosen One, and the uninspired moviemaking works against the mythology. Spike Lee will need a lot of help from the press and the Malcolm Industry to keep people talking about his movie. Lee hasn’t found a way to give the movie a present-day bite, either. He offers a Sixties view of things: white equals oppressor equals bad, black equals oppressed equals good. Presented to us in the Nineties — when the press would rather accept the Malcolm myth than get into touchy areas, and a black ad agency is helping Warners create a “groundswell of positive word of mouth” about the film — this view seems preposterous and inadequate.

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Denzel Washington was impressive in Richard Attenborough’s “Cry Freedom” and in “A Soldier’s Story,” directed by the Canadian Norman Jewison. The characters he played had reserves. You could see that they were choosing what they said and what they did from a range of possibilities; when they lashed out, the violence came from a source that you could feel demanded release. The characters Spike Lee creates don’t have inner lives. At one point Norman Jewison was on the verge of making “Malcolm X”; Spike Lee caused a public uproar about the supposed inappropriateness of a non-American white man making the film, and Jewison withdrew from the project. Did Lee think that being black was all he needed to connect with his character and his audience?

In Lee’s first feature, “She’s Gotta Have It,” he showed a relaxed impudence. I saw it with a mostly black audience that laughed at some jokes I didn’t even identify as jokes; they also enjoyed being teased about black traits and habits. But his next film, the college comedy-musical “School Daze,” was a self-conscious, chaotic piece of in-your-faceness, with a joyless central character who, in the final scene, rang the school bell and yelled, right into the camera, at close range, over and over, “Wake up! Wake up!” Spike Lee has been ringing that bell and hollering at the camera ever since. As a self-publicist, he’s in a class with Madonna; they think like magazine editors, pushing hot buttons and goosing you along with graphics and outrageousness even as what they’re packaging gets thinner. Lee has stopped being an entertainer/artist and has become an entrepreneur/haranguer; he has turned himself into a marketer of superficially radical ideas and attitudes. As he has assumed the mantle of savvy firebrand/spokesman for his race, all the shadings (and the humor) have gone out of his filmmaking. Everything is black or white.

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

“The Funeral,” directed by Juzo Itami

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The Sound of Flowers Burning and Other Ghost Properties

By Ray Sawhill

Juzo Itami’s “Tampopo,” the second film he directed but the first to be released in the U.S., conveys a child’s delight in splashing food around and a happy director’s delight in playing with movie conventions and genres. It’s free-form, bright-colored and high-flying. “The Funeral” — his first movie as a director, although it only recently opened in America — is relatively subdued and even-toned. It’s so well-mannered that some may take it as a generic exercise in estheticized comic melancholy. But you may find it enjoyably peculiar, as I did: quiet and spare, yet lustrous and inviting. It has the quality of certain jokes that you repeat to yourself time and time again, wondering why you enjoy them so much. Itami, who is said to be an expert cook, has designed his film to be a passing, melting pleasure, experienced most fully in the savoring of it. Like “Tampopo,” “The Funeral” seems meant to turn you into a gourmand and a food critic, only in this film, resonances and aftertastes are what Itami orchestrates.

The film is narrated by a successful middle-aged actor, who is married to an actress he sometimes works with. In the opening scenes, her father, who lives in a country home near the ocean with her mother, has a bad heart attack. He pulls himself over the floor to the porch; when his wife finds him there, he explains that he was trying to get a look at the ocean — that the sight of it had helped him over such spells before. A few days later, in the hospital, he dies. The film’s skeleton is a chronicle of the ceremonies — and the preparations and worries that attend them — during the three days that follow. Laced in and around these basics are a variety of mild farce elements: a cranky older brother, a naughty mistress, eccentric neighbors, confusion about roles.

You can sense that everything in the film is presented in relation to ritual even though you don’t always know what the rituals are — like the characters, we learn about them as we go along. The acting milieu and the stage set-like house (whose rooms lend themselves to being seen two or three at a time) help give the film a backstage-farce vivacity; Itami has been an actor himself, and he’s especially good at using performances to bring out the flavors of locales and situations.

These ingredients are like glimmers that draw you into watching, or dreaming about, what’s going on down below: in this case, a tone poem that is a meditation on the dispersal of form. (Being drawn through the chronicle and farce creates its own awareness of dispersal.) Itami has shot and recorded his film so that there’s always something about the surfaces that makes you lose yourself in what’s beneath them. Everything — even new, pop objects — seems to have a patina, and a succulent, hand-rubbed richness: the sheen of wood, leather and flesh are especially vivid.

The blacks, like the blacks in “The Conformist” and “The Makioka Sisters,” are warm, active. Here, they’re in correspondence with another, deeper layer: a shadow black. The sounds unfold themselves for our delectation: the sound of hair being brushed, the ringing of a ritual bell (percussion, clang, tone, buzz, etc.); the sound of flowers burning, of rain pelting first a nylon umbrella and then a paper umbrella. One quick, stunning effect occurs when a furnace fire ignites: Fwoof! — and a room’s paper windows thwack and crinkle outwards with the pressure.

A Buddhist priest, who arrives in a white Rolls and who lights up at the sight of tabletops inlaid with French tiles, is played by Chishu Ryu, and the Ozu echo must be deliberate — Itami’s film suggests a loose, appreciative look at a late Ozu picture. But it has an element of the random and erotic, of darting play, that’s lacking in Ozu: Itami wants to convey his pleasure in the processes that give rise to and sustain ritual and performance. There’s life washing around the whole time, like static around a clear signal: kids tussling, people’s feet tiring as they squat on their knees, friends arriving to help out with food and chores. Itami is bringing us into contact with ghost presences, letting us swim among crisscrossing impulses. The layers reveal themselves and return you to the next surface.

The film’s events strike your mind like stones striking water, and watching the ripples expand and mingle can be very pleasurable. Several shots are from the point of view of the corpse. Through his eyes, so to speak, we watch his family bend over to peer at him, and we see the coffin lid lowered and two small doors opened to permit viewing. These shots, and several others like them, are grotesque jokes, but they’re held longer than we expect, and are repeated until we become familiar with them. They’re like the sound of that ritual bell — ours to wander around in.

They’re also reminders of a great shot in Dreyer’s “Vampyr,” and expressions of a feeling that so long as the physical vessel exists, the spirit continues to dwell within it. In other scenes we’re given a moving-through-a-tunnel effect. The camera precedes the hearse as it moves along narrow, wall-bound roads, over which trees close in; it rides the coffin into the furnace. By the time the crematorium chimney pours forth its smoke, and the widow, actor and actress burn the ceremony’s used bric-a- brac in a barrel, we may find ourselves thinking about how we are both chambers and enclosures.

Two scenes rise up out of what the other scenes flow into, and with a kind of blind force. One involves the actor and his mistress. The young woman, who has arrived with the mourners and who has grown drunk and resentful, lures him into a wooded area. She seductively exposes her neck to him, taunts him, and finally incites him into sex. Afterwards, he falls and muddies himself trying to fetch a bauble she’s lost. She laughs happily; he slaps her but she keeps on laughing — she’s tickled by the trouble she has caused him.

During the other scene, some members of the family happen upon a behind-the-scenes room at the crematorium. They look through a viewing hole in the furnace and see the corpse burning, and they talk to a technician about his job. This likable man, who bowed to the furnace before lighting it, tells about his dreams, and about his fears that one day a body he has put in the furnace won’t yet be dead. (We can know little about death; all we are empowered to do is become specialists in the rituals attendant on it.) A glen, hot with glowing chlorophyll and insects; the guts of a kind of factory — these scenes take place in realms where ritual, at least as we can know it, is supported and made possible.

The film’s tone edges towards comedy and then dissolves. What we grow familiar with is a rhythm of gathering, tensing, and then dispersing into a new set of forms. American audiences are used to a fantasy that there is some realm we can get to where we can be happy, powerful gods — a domain that’s often symbolized, at least in audio-visual terms, by dance numbers, car chases, gunplay, couples splashing in the California surf.

Itami’s assumption seems to be that it is part of the nature of identity to be dissatisfied with given forms, and that all that is available to us is a release into something about which we can know only that it has its own form; all energy and matter can hope to do is metamorphose. (He directs as though he believes that this can be achieved only via a heightening of our awareness of form — via something like fetishism. He’s as concerned with fetishism as De Palma, yet there’s nothing very obsessive in his way of seeing, and nothing very bound-in about the film. Fetishism, in the world of this film, is just what happens when you tighten your focus and begin to bear down.)

You begin to picture a life (or a movie) as a gathering of energy and matter, a channeling of them through space and time, and a final dispersal into something we can know nothing about. The film’s approach and style express the conviction that there’s an equivalence between ritual’s place in behavior, the body’s place in experience and form’s place in acting and art — that for all their drawbacks, ritual, the body and form are what make sensation possible.

There’s nothing overbearing or strict about Itami’s work; he’s an entertainer, and he deals with ideas by nicking them as he passes by, making them spin. They’re part of the show. A joke is “resolved” in a way characteristic of the film near the end. All along, the husband has been expected to give a talk about the deceased at a final dinner, and while he’s being introduced, his eyes are glassy and his knee twitches; this actor suffers from stage fright. But the widow indicates that she’d like to speak instead. The actor relaxes and the audience laughs; he has been given a reprieve.

The widow talks quietly about her regret that she wasn’t able to be present as her husband died; she was kept out of the room by the crush of doctors and nurses, and she is afraid that he may have been lonely. She talks about her feeling that her husband’s nature has changed, about a feeling she has that he and she have entered a new phase together. The camera moves in on her slowly, then cuts to a closeup. We understand that this is her discreet public acknowledgment of the momentousness of what she’s going through. (Watching her is like realizing that a local, family-owned store you’ve been planning to patronize has changed hands.)

Yet the camera’s exposure is set more for the brightness outdoors than indoors — the light on her face is grey and dim — and even as we take in her tiny, worn face and her struggle with her feelings and words, our vision is drawn past her and through the large window behind. We can see the porch and the green of trees, and we sense the presence of the ocean beyond, the sight of which the dying man hoped would heal his heart. “The Funeral” is about rituals that release the spirit, about giving up the ghost. It offers its own to us as a gift.

©1986 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Film Quarterly.

“Disclosure,” directed by Barry Levinson

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By Ray Sawhill

“Disclosure,” from Michael Crichton’s potboiler, is a facsimile of an absorbing movie. It’s a humanoid with a heart of silicon that has been sheathed alluringly and made to perform some fluid dance steps. The crisis-in-the-workplace atmosphere is what’s most original about the movie. You’re drawn to notice the way a secretary avoids her boss’s eyes when she knows something she doesn’t want to tell him. You wonder what that group down by the elevator could have been meeting about at this time of day.

The director, Barry Levinson, has fitted the film out with an oil-rubbed, yuppie opulence — weathered wood and time-worn brick, lush Pacific Northwest greenery. Ennio Morricone’s score supplies a suave version of old-fashioned movie-music warmth and grandeur. “Disclosure” may be for audiences that ask only for something a little more movielike — bigger, more adult — than the TV they usually watch. But it’s a handsome, professional job.

Demi Moore is Meredith, a lustrous package of calves, thighs, greed and cleavage, wrapped in a power suit. Michael Douglas is Tom, a roll-up-your-sleeves family man. Both are employees of a Seattle computer firm. They had an affair back when Tom was single; now she gets the promotion he was hoping for, and she becomes his boss. She invites him to a meeting in her new office. “You’ve kept in good shape, Tom,” she says with throaty appreciation; then she comes on to him mercilessly. From there on out, it’s dueling accusations, and Tom’s struggle to keep his job and protect his family. No, not just that, but to establish the truth, goddammit.

We know Tom deserves his righteousness because we’re shown his kids, his matronly wife, and his iconic home: fireplace, cushions, warm lights, comforters. We know Meredith is evil because she works out on a Stairmaster, and because we never see her at home. All she has in her fridge, we’re told, is an orange and some champagne.

The company’s building (designed by Neil Spisak) is the film’s central showpiece and metaphor. It’s a matter of PC networks, black steel and leather, slipped into an arches-and-fluted-columns, renovated industrial space, with an atrium that’s like a small opera hall. It’s a stylish beehive, a pull-off-your-tie workplace. It’s also sliced up by panels of glass, and it’s unnervingly well-wired — i.e., watch your back. The audience murmurs when Tom starts receiving mysterious e-mails, and when, after a career of keeping his office open, he begins swinging his glass door shut.

Friends tell me they enjoy Crichton’s overcaffeinated-but-not-too-gonzo pacing, and the enthusiasm in the press for his current TV series, “ER,” has focused on its pace. “It’s an adrenaline rush of velocity, trauma, pathos and heroism,” wrote Rick Marin in Newsweek. “It’s like channel surfing without having to hit the remote.”

Information overload isn’t my idea of entertainment — I get enough of it at work — but I also have other problems with Crichton. He has zero sensuality and no descriptive powers. He has a way with pop hooks, but the novels seem to consist of nothing but research, coincidences, and downtime. In his novel “Congo,” the loopiest of the bunch (to be released in movie form this summer), he piles on the jaw-droppers — he subjects his jungle-explorer heroes to a political revolution, cannibals, killer gorillas, angry hippos, and a volcano that’s ready to blow. It’s a high-tech “Tarzan,” minus campiness and sexiness.

A mixture of technocrat and Dr. Frankenstein, Crichton projects the mechanical onto the organic; he’s fascinated by people hooked up to life-support systems. Where does the person end and the machine begin, and vice versa? If he has a theme, that’s it. The central image of his work is an ID card being run through a slot, and providing ingress to a fancy lab.

I’ve sped through a number of his books, but the only two I’ve sped through happily are the most recent, “Rising Sun” and “Disclosure.” In them he’s gone from futuristic cautionary claptrap to torn-from-the-headlines cautionary claptrap, and he’s become an angry man, an op-ed novelist. The topicality and fire give filmmakers something to contend with. The director of “Rising Sun,” Philip Kaufman, did a lot of script tweaking and creative casting, and made a film that was a hip, off-hand comedy about multiculturalism, as well as an essay about the dissolution of the movie image.

Barry Levinson works more broadly, and in square, showbusiness terms; his work has gone into making things smooth and acceptable. It’s a creamy example of contemporary Hollywood retrofitting. Levinson and his screenwriter, Paul Attanasio, have made the film more balanced than the book. In the novel, for instance, Tom’s wife is a feminist shrew who leaves town with the kids for the duration of the brouhaha; in the movie she sticks around to witness, suffer, and be loyal.

But, like Kaufman, Levinson is also writing an essay, in his case about what movies have become. It’s a joke about how work-obsessed the country is that, as for the homey but high-tech Seattle, all we get — aside from some cityscapes and a little time on the ferries — is a single sequence. The company’s CEO (Donald Sutherland) is driving Douglas to a hearing, and is trying to con him into a deal. We see the city reflected in the car’s windows.

Michael Douglas’ peevishness and flabby sarcasm don’t put off the audience. Moore’s lack of stature and tenacity don’t either. You could criticize the film by saying that no sparks fly between Douglas and Moore, even in their operatic near-coitus scene, but Douglas doesn’t lose face playing the anguished virgin. A man who waits until after the cock-sucking and panty-ripping to pull himself away from a woman should be a joke, and some members of the audience do giggle. But they don’t give up on the film. Moore and Douglas have been in hits and on the covers of magazines, thus they’re stars, and thus they have sex appeal.

Levinson seems aware that Douglas and Moore are simulacra. (Most of the rest of the cast is loose and funny.) They’re what we build films around today, he’s saying, as we build films around Crichton’s flow-chart plots. The filmmaker’s role is to customize these elements to the audience’s preference, to dress the robot. (In fact, you read Moore’s character by her clothes: is it charcoal miniskirts and stiletto heels today, or a severe pantsuit?) Levinson is half going along with this, and half taking note of it.

It’s heartening that almost no one in the press has gotten worked up about the reversal on the usual sex-harassment pattern. No one except The New York Times’ Caryn (Dial-a-Theme-Piece) James, that is. She argues that the film unconsciously expresses men’s fear of powerful women, and she includes the inevitable reference to Anita Hill. Her editors obligingly ran a photo of Hill taking the oath.

It’s one of the funnier assumptions many writers on pop culture make, that a (for instance) committee-created artifact costing tens of millions of dollars is likely to express much of anything unconsciously. The fact is that no one leaves the theater after “Disclosure” discussing, or arguing about, sexual harassment. (What they talk about is how sweaty the “C’mon, let’s do it!” “No, I mustn’t!” scene is.) Women in the audience have no trouble hissing Meredith, Demi Moore’s character. You’d think Caryn James would be happy that it’s now OK for a woman to be the powerful villain. But then, Caryn James — quick to use feminist ideology as a substitute for thinking and responding — is the Meredith of film reviewers.

When, in earlier movies, the hero entered deeper realms — entrails — in search of truth, he usually found himself in caves, basements, abandoned factories, a sewer system. Here, he enters a virtual-reality database. The populist feelings the movie targets concern jobs, computers and bosses — especially anger at the way jobs are taking up more of our lives, yet are becoming more unstable. The film’s glamour and suspense have to do with our sense that we’re sacrificing our time and our personalities to the exciting, mysterious microchip god.

Like “Fatal Attraction,” “Disclosure” does one of those things pop movies are supposed to do, but do rarely, which is give us something recognizable that we don’t get from more serious work. In “Fatal Attraction,” it was the archetype of the dangerously-crazy, 45ish, unattached career woman. In “Disclosure,” it’s a sense of the way the boundaries between our personal lives and our jobs are eroding, and how much we resent that. The film’s limitation is that Tom, the hands-on guy we identify with, is involved in making computers, and there’s no irony about his complicity in making machines that will distance us from direct experience yet one more step.

Meredith, alluring and ruthless, yet empty, is one of those automatons Crichton finds sexy yet warns us against. If Crichton were an artist rather than a moralist-entertainer, he’d admit that Meredith isn’t just his enemy — she’s also his muse.

©1994 by Ray Sawhill First appeared in The Modern Review.

“Death Becomes Her,” directed by Robert Zemeckis

death becomes her

By Ray Sawhill

Meryl Streep’s performance in Robert Zemeckis’ new movie “Death Becomes Her” doesn’t wipe out memories of the hours of classy boredom she’s inflicted — instead, it makes amusing use of them. As a dragon-lady star of stage and screen, Streep scrawls nasty things on “Meryl Streep,” the A-student. (In all fairness, it must be admitted that for several pictures — “She-Devil,” “Postcards from the Edge,” “Defending Your Life” — she has been trying to subvert her image.) An immaculate performer, she doesn’t have the messiness or the subterranean qualities that true popular stars have. Here, her performance is like a Mad magazine parody of a Streep performance, only she’s giving it herself — and she has edge and dirt. You can finally see what people who saw her on stage have always said they saw — a sense of fun. She may be constitutionally incapable of cutting loose; even her yowls and hisses are impeccably modulated. But her control is part of the joke, and she seems wise to it.

“Death Becomes Her” is a striking horror comedy about glamour and the desire for eternal youth — an enjoyably malicious Hollywood act of self-desecration. Streep is the aging star; Goldie Hawn is the dormouse best friend, whose fiancés Streep keeps stealing. They play female drag queens, scrapping to the death over a guy who isn’t worth it (and who knows he isn’t worth it) — a plastic surgeon played by Bruce Willis. Isabella Rossellini, in a low-slung sarong and Salomé necklaces, is a siren with an elixir that defies time and aging. Her presence, with its echoes of cosmetic ads and of her mother, kicks the movie into fantasyland.

The screenwriters, David Koepp and Martin Donovan, have described their script as “Night of the Living Dead as Noel Coward would have done it” — it’s pure camp ghoulishness and bitchiness. Robert Zemeckis’ direction is all boyish exuberance and technological hi-jinks. Zemeckis, who is known for his mock-heroic, Moebius-strip action comedies such as “Used Cars” and the “Back to the Future” series, goes for debonair comic poise. But the film still has its rambunctiousness — it’s like an Ealing comedy as the young Steven Spielberg might have directed it.

As a failure who’s out of his league, half-boozed and skidding around corners, Willis doesn’t just play against type. He creates a convincingly small man with ordinary failings and wholesome goals; he’d like to live out a Capra film but he’s caught up in a Puccini opera. Goldie’s a joy in her scenes with Meryl when they’ve made up after their feuds — they’re girls together again, finishing each other’s sentences. And when Goldie’s weight balloons in misery — itself a joke on the actress’s obvious fanaticism about her figure — she seems inspired. If she’s not as successful in her other scenes, this isn’t just because her own features have clearly gotten some surgical tune-ups but because she hasn’t figured out a Phyllis Diller-like way of acknowledging and enjoying the improvement. On some level she’s still hoping we won’t notice.

Zemeckis plays with elements straight out of horror films: turrets, mirrors, shadows, fireplaces, arches, thunder and lightning. It’s “Kane” and it’s “Frankenstein,” with the iconography used not for depth and resonance (however pseudo), but cartoonishly. (And the special effects are used for L.A.-gothic shivers.) Zemeckis, the misanthropic puppet-master — the filmmaker as mad-scientist/cartoonist — is too cold-hearted to achieve beauty, but he gives the film a spooky, layered, visual splendiferousness. He wraps the action in oversized marble staircases and columns that are a parody of Hollywood postmodern/baronial luxe. They’re meant to contrast with the characters’ pettiness and narcissism. This epic décor is a joke about how the glamour factory is also a horror factory where people try to turn themselves into monuments to themselves. The composer Alan Silvestri partners Zemeckis, heightening the already-overdone Hollywood thing and making it even more absurdly grand.

Zemeckis has the soul of a mid-American media-junkie kid. He’s frankly in love with speed and cheapness, over-the-top-ness, camera hysteria, genre clichés — with the vulgarity of film, and with the ways movies can overstimulate us. His style expresses the uncontrollable enthusiasm of a small boy turned on by the huge movie image and engulfing music.

But the film’s combination of wit and physicality unnerves some people, as though you ought to be allowed only one or the other. These people find Zemeckis’ perversity and excitement an assault; they want to be asked to care for the characters on screen. Zemeckis never asks you to believe in what he’s showing you; in his films, human values exist only to be mocked.

Zemeckis excites us, then needles our responsiveness to the movie image — not for an art effect, but strictly for our entertainment. He’s a companionable sadist. Like Joe Dante and Brian De Palma, Zemeckis can seem crude, dumb and childish to Europeans, and to people who cling to European-style notions about art and seriousness. He’s the opposite of an art movie-maker; the tradition he’s working in is of overbright commercial entertainment. Yet in “Used Cars” and “Death Becomes Her,” he provokes some of the same responses Buñuel sometimes did. (It’s another sign of how well-digested “revolutionary” as an aesthetic criterion has become that people who have learned to appreciate surrealism and to talk with approval of its revolutionary intent get riled by “Death Becomes Her.”)

Zemeckis gives viewers no moral vision to hang onto; putting over his cartoon effects is his only morality. Streep’s noggin gets bopped and her neck breaks and hinges over backwards, leaving her head hanging upside down between her shoulder blades. Goldie Hawn rises from being shot, angry as hell and with a hole a foot wide in her gut. It’s cheerfully gruesome and macabre — pop Buñuel.

“Death Becomes Her” is such a rowdy hunk of polished malevolence that it made American media people fret and freak when it was released this summer. It’s a kick watching the hypersensitivities erupt — adults grow touchy about the things they threw darts at as kids. Variety’s scorecard of critics’ reactions showed 14 negative and only five positive reviews. David Denby proclaimed from on high, or least in New York magazine, that it was all he could do to refrain from calling the film the worst big-budget movie he’d ever seen: “anxiety, loathing and self-hatred gush from its pores,” he thundered. (When evil needs crushing Denby’s your man.) Even the people who devised the publicity campaign felt it necessary for the ads to spell out that the film is a black comedy.

Perhaps just raising the topic of women and aging is enough to put some people in the mood not to laugh, and to make them find a film cruel to its women characters. It’s probably no use pointing out that the film is cruel to everyone, and that’s the fun — pleasure in amoral vindictiveness is not the kind of fun these people want from a movie. Of course Zemeckis sees his women as monsters. But he’s also tickled by their overblown crass vitality and their cut-throat determination to have things their way. The plastic surgeon, who wants to live out a normal lifespan and redeem himself with humane works, is cackled at. He’s a sucker, a softie who wants to do good — he’s like the people in the audience who are horrified by the film.

Zemeckis apparently lacks the desire to do anything elevated in tone. (He’s an anti-do-gooder.) But it may be that his mean-spiritedness is what gives him staying power and keeps his work enjoyable. He has made a few films some of us have regarded as duds (“Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”, “Back to the Future II”); he has asked us to care about his characters a few times (“Romancing the Stone,” “Back to the Future”); and this film has some glitches of logic. But throughout the whole of his career (it began in 1978 with “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”), he has never once romanticized his feelings, not even his feelings about movies.

Cheerfully lowbrow, Zemeckis’ pictures can be wonderfully complicated and suggestive. “Death Becomes Her” may get you thinking about how the overlapping themes of time-travel and of bringing the dead back to life are among the most potent themes of pop movies. And, like all his films, it’s full of screens, reflections, frames and projections. You could set a team of grad students to work on such topics as “Zemeckis’ use of blue-screen effects,” or “the foreground/background joke,” or “contraptions, toys and models as metaphors for the filmmaking process,” or “old movie cannibalization and the new movie image,” and keep them busy for years. But Zemeckis doesn’t get poetic; he gets the giggles. His hall of mirrors is located at the suburban multiplex.

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