“The Thin Blue Line,” directed by Errol Morris

thin blue line reenactment

People As Kitsch

By Ray Sawhill

Errol Morris’ “The Thin Blue Line” doesn’t sit well. Watching it, you may find yourself engrossed in the story Morris is telling, but deadened and revolted by his presentation of it. Why is this film — which concerns an actual murder, and a miscarriage of justice — so fancied-up? As a reporter, Errol Morris shows canniness, sympathy, verve, openness and persistence. He has the gifts of an eccentric journalist, but he isn’t content with them. He wants above all things to make art, and he’s in thrall to his aesthetic thinking.

The film concerns the murder of a Dallas policeman, and its aftermath. Morris makes the case that the man put in prison for the crime, Randall Adams, is innocent. (Thanks in large part to Morris, Adams’ conviction was recently overturned, and Adams was released from jail.) Most of the movie consists of interviews: with policemen and lawyers, with people who claim to have been witnesses, with Adams himself, and with many others.

It’s puzzling that Morris is so often written about as an innovative, groundbreaking filmmaker. His techniques — which rely on “appropriation,” repetition and references to bad popular art — are pretty familiar. In his presentation, Morris uses no narration, and no expository titles; he doesn’t use titles or voice overs to identify who’s speaking. One result is that the story, which could be summarized in a paragraph or two, comes across very indirectly; the information we need to know is made to seem to emerge from Morris’ artistry. We see and hear only the people he’s talking to, not Morris himself; he makes his comments, such as they are, with his general approach and his editing, and with his photography style, which is related to William Eggleston’s visions of American suburbs as science-fiction film-sets, to “Still Life,” Diane Keaton’s collection of movie-studio promotional photographs, and to the radiation-glow cinematography of Ed Lachman.

The phrase “the thin blue line” is spoken in the film by the judge who sentenced Randall Adams; this judge recalls trying to hold back tears when the case’s prosecutor spoke of the “thin blue line” of men and women, i.e., the police, who stand between law-abiding citizens and chaos. Visually, Morris locates nearly all the people he films within “the thin blue line” (which he pretty clearly wants us to take to mean “so-called ‘normal’ American ways of going about determining truth”). He does this very literally: he films almost all his interviewees in blue light, or against blue walls. In one case he color-coordinates a woman interviewee’s blue eyeshadow and blouse with the light.

Morris gussies the film up with re-enactments of events from the night of the crime, which he artificializes with slow motion, “obvious” framing and super-deliberate cutting; he turns camera angles as well as certain images — a flung milkshake, popcorn, an ash tray, a dropped flashlight whose lens shatters — into icons of weirdness. Throughout the film, he scatters inserts of grids, maps, diagrams, photos and excerpts from newspaper reports about the crime and the trial; his point is to suggest the texture of “conventional ways of figuring things out.” (Some viewers may instead find this to be an instance of an aesthete’s fascination with the morbid reaches of tabloid journalism.)

He drops into the film excerpts from old crime movies — cruddy Hollywood junk he seems to want us to regard as what, in America, takes the place of an unconscious. These interludes are also scolding little lectures on “how America imagines crime to be and how it actually is” — Morris and the hip, appreciative audience presumably being those in possession of the true facts.

Morris is putting most of his filmmaking energy into creating a Next Wave-style art object about America the Grotesque. He treats the people he films, as well as the murder and the possible miscarriage of justice, as kitsch objets d’art that are evidence of a psychopathology that dwells within America. He isn’t interested in the people inside the kitsch; he’s interested in people to the extent they can be seen as kitsch. This is a form of snobbery that verges on outright cruelty. Morris uses his self-consciously foursquare framing and lighting (both of which suggest the way products such as dishwashing soap were presented in ’50s ads) to make us wince and giggle at the appearance of a woman lawyer who tried to defend Adams. We have to get over the reaction he has enforced on us to realize how on the ball the woman lawyer is, and how much gumption and brains she put into the case.

As a filmmaker, Morris is an aesthetic dandy with an elaborately-achieved, politically/artistically-correct, distanced/passive pose. He abstracts himself — his physical presence, and his human reactions — right out of the movie. We’re meant to register that he isn’t taken in by — and that he won’t take part in — kitsch culture. It’s clear that we’re meant to feel that Morris is more likely than a “mainstream” documentarian not only to answer the question of Adams’ guilt or innocence, but to be onto something philosophically impressive — like “the nature of truth,” or “how we do/don’t perceive,” or “the myth of objectivity,” or some such. What his film style signals us isn’t just that Morris believes that he recognizes the dangers and limitations of “the thin blue line,” but that he thinks it necessarily produces grotesqueries. He stands outside the thin blue line: his pose is “I’m a Martian lost in mid-America. Isn’t what’s going on around here bizarre?”

In a bit of audio-tape recording that’s included in the film, a hick charmer named David Harris, who spent part of the evening of the murder with Randall Adams and who is now on death row for another crime, all but admits that he, not Adams, killed the cop. (We have to obtain the film’s production notes to find out that that the reason this interview was recorded only on audio-tape was because Morris’ camera broke. And we have to read the production notes to find out that when Morris asked Harris if he acted alone, Harris nodded yes. Morris’ aesthetic — which is meant to question the possibility of directness and spontaneity, as well as the possibility of the existence of a speaking “I” — prevents him from simply telling us anything.) This is the only time during the film we get a sense of Morris’ person, and of his involvement in the case. It comes as a shock to realize that as a reporter he’s so quick on his feet; he’s sparring successfully with a psychopath.

But what Morris shows us during this passage is the minicassette recorder the tape is supposedly playing on. He shows it from all sorts of angles, the images dumbed-up in a “this is how bad photographers once took color photos” way, the editing treated similarly. He ends the sequence with an enormous shot of the tiny reels turning around and around. This turning over and over is of a piece with the rest of the film. For instance, Morris plays, and then replays and replays some more, his deliberately-fake reenactments of the murder, and then he replays them yet more. Only a couple of times do the reenactments serve an explanatory purpose — for instance, when we realize that people in passing cars who later testified against Randall Adams couldn’t possibly have gotten much of a look at the face of the man with the gun.

The rest of the time, what Morris has us watching is a slowly-modulating abstraction, like a musical phrase that’s changing ever so slightly as it moves past us time and again. In these passages, Morris does achieve an effect like those associated with the composer Philip Glass, who composed the film’s soundtrack music. But how will the family of the murdered cop feel when they see an actor playing their relative get blown away what seems like a dozen times for the sake of a rarified aesthetic effect?

Morris wants us to believe that his conclusion, which represents a genuine triumph of reporting, is in fact a consequence of style. In his thinking, style isn’t arrived at, it’s generative. The film, whose material lends itself to hard hitting, fast-moving treatment on “60 Minutes” (get the facts out there and make something happen, now!) is more than a little inhuman. Although he spent a great deal of time helping reopen Adams’ case, Morris-the-filmmaker doesn’t mean — or at least won’t be caught meaning — to inform or protest. His film conveys no urgency and no outrage.

What the film is really about is Errol Morris’ aesthetic responses. His filmmaking emphasis is all on his own way of seeing. Morris seems to believe that he’s an artist because he’s consciously perverse, and what he seems to want us to do is examine his obsessiveness, drive and willfulness as if they were somehow akin to what he would have us take as an insanity at the heart of the nation. But dwelling on your aesthetic responses to material like this is really kind of horrid. An actual murder and a miscarriage of justice aren’t great material to base refined, illusion-and-reality style games on. “I think the film is broader than just the story of a miscarriage of justice,” Morris told the Washington Post. “It’s a film about evidence, about illusion and self-deception, confusion, error. About lying and truth-telling.”

“Just” the story of a miscarriage of justice? Just?

©1989 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Anarchy! magazine.

“Visitor Q,” directed by Takashi Miike

visitor q

By Ray Sawhill

The 40ish Takashi Miike is a brilliant maniac who makes four or five movies a year, yet seldom makes more than one movie in the same style. “Audition,” his best-known film, suggests a splatterfest as directed by the meditative Yasujiro Ozu; it’s one of the most horrifying movies I’ve ever seen. “Ichi the Killer” is whirling, sadistic gangster gore; I liked it a lot better than John Woo’s movies, and its virtuosity and flamboyance make poor Quentin Tarantino look like an overdeliberate wannabe. “The Happiness of the Katakuris” is one of the strangest musicals ever made, an attempt to fuse a dysfunctional-family black-comedy with “The Sound of Music.” The elements don’t gel, to say the least, but the film is nothing if not daring.

Though it isn’t in a league with “Audition” or “Ichi,” “Visitor Q” is also well worth a look. It’s a camp comedy about a mysterious stranger who moves in with a screwloose Japanese family. Dad’s a washed-up reality-TV show host who’s desperate for another hit. Sis turns tricks, Bro is routinely beaten up by his chums, and Mom gets a sexual thrill from having her breasts milked. Bodily fluids play a leading role. Sexual encounters of the strangest kind are lingered over.

The film — which Miike shot on next to no money, in a week, on digital video — is like one of John Waters’ grotesque-family comedies, only far more intense. It’s also, at least at first, considerably more bewildering; for the film’s opening 30 minutes, The Wife and I felt completely disoriented. (The Wife, a much more devoted Japanese filmbuff than I am, likes to giggle and mutter “Caucasion not understand” during such opaque passages.) But the film’s storylines finally sort themselves out, and as they do the action becomes ever more nutty and funny.

©2004 by Ray Sawhill

“The Black Stallion,” directed by Carroll Ballard

black stallion

Taking the Plunge

By Ray Sawhill

The opening titles of Carroll Ballard’s “The Black Stallion,” in a cursive script that suggests Islamic calligraphy, appear over what seem to be sand dunes. The image is harsh yet jewel-like. A wind whips the sand, reshaping it, and a fierce golden light illuminates it. We register that the sand grains are big — that these are miniature dunes. As the sand is moved away, we see what it has been burying: a small, darkened-bronze horse that has the look of art from ancient Mediterranean cultures, from what we tend to picture as the cradle of civilization. The sculpture is realistic and not-realistic; it’s like Egyptian hieroglyphics, a symbol that happens (as if coincidentally) to look like what it symbolizes. Ballard’s film is based on the “Black Stallion” series of novels by Walter Farley; the script is credited to Melissa Mathison, Jeanne Rosenberg, and William Witliff. In the film, erotic nature poetry pours through the framework of a children’s story.

Sponsored for five years by Francis Coppola, Ballard made a film, his first feature, that is at once a children’s classic on a par with “The Wizard of Oz” and a realization of many avant-garde ideals — it may be the best children’s film ever made. (Coppola and Ballard had attended UCLA’s film school together in the early 1960s. Coppola devised a deal with United Artists to let Ballard make the film as he saw fit; when the executives didn’t like the finished work, Coppola interceded to obtain it a showing at the New York Film Festival and a theatrical opening.) As much as Coppola’s “The Godfather, Part II,” Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” and Altman’s “Nashville,” “The Black Stallion” is an embodiment of the ardor and euphoria of a period in the 1970s when artists briefly transformed American feature filmmaking. And like these other filmmakers, Ballard achieved something akin to visual music not by denying the commercial and storytelling aspects of film but by treating them as abstract properties and incorporating them into his film’s texture.

The opening section takes place mostly onboard ship. Alec (Kelly Reno), a boy of about ten, is on a sea voyage with his poker-playing dad. Wandering around the ship, the boy sees a magnificent black stallion fighting its Arab handlers, who wrestle it into a stall. As Ballard directs it, there’s a sense of latency about this passage. Everything is muffled, held in abeyance, contained. The skies are overcast, the features of the Arabs barely visible under their robes, the stallion roped down. Even the ocean beyond has something like a skin on it. There are indistinct yet vivid onboard-ship sounds, such as the changing timbre and source directions of the noise of the engine, which seems to irradiate the ship.

In the chopped-up spaces inside, Ballard uses rich golden lighting — everything is subdued but heavily sensual: old money and jewels, leather, aged skin, brass. This helps us understand the boy’s sense that things he doesn’t understand are going on all around him, and may remind you of the kind of wondering you did as a child about what existed before your birth. (Alec is only beginning to develop an idea of linear time and of cause and effect: of the properties of story.)

There’s nothing theoretical or programmatic about Ballard’s work; he sets up these associations and feelings and lets them register — he lets us take them in. When Alec leans over the edge of the ship to feel the wind and watch the sea rush by, Ballard shows us the long arc of the ship’s rim, a wedge of metallic water, and Alec’s body turned away from us. The image has similarities to various kinds of narrative-seeming Eastern art, and is a reminder of how much Japanese prints suggest illustrations to stories we’re not being told, and that might not make sense to us anyway.

Ballard is working with the conventions of a children’s adventure novel — exotic characters, Arabs, the tethered-down horse, the piles of loot on the poker table, an unexplained sea voyage — to create a storybook atmosphere of enchantment. He’s bringing together and setting alight interconnected feelings and memories: about childhood, moviegoing, the enchanted East, and the art we love as children. The boy enjoys and takes advantage of his ability to go unnoticed. While the Arabs look away, he places sugar cubes on the edge of the stallion’s stall; there’s an amazing shot of the stallion’s lips, seen in profile, reaching out, after some hesitation, to take the sugar. The arc shapes Ballard uses suggest the curves of linear art, yet from the center of these twists can be coaxed out the richly-modeled, Giotto-like face of the horse.

When the father (Hoyt Axton) returns from his card-playing to the cabin, he spills out his winnings — jewels, coins, marvels — and gives two prizes to his son: a penknife, and the toy horse we saw under the titles. The father explains that it’s a sculpture of Bucephalos, the horse Philip II was going to destroy — because no one could ride it — until Alexander, his son, mounted the horse and rode away. (Axton tells this story with gentle, sweet bravado.)

At the end of this section, the boy lies in his berth looking at the tiny sculpture, which is on a shelf. The camera closes in on the bronze, the golden light grows deeper, reddish, and the angle on the toy becomes cockeyed. As moviegoers we understand that the toy has set the boy to drowsy daydreaming — about his father, the stallion, about adventure and the magic of representation. Then we realize that the reddish light is from fire: the ship is on fire. There has never been a director so gifted at representing the way our perceptions and what they’re perceiving can grow confused. (He gets at how we have to learn how to perceive and interpret our mental processes, and at how you may never feel totally secure in your ability to do so.) As the boy’s father rushes him to the deck, the boy can’t help taking in the special qualities (and even the beauty) of the danger, and of his own fear. Alec opens the door of the stallion’s stall — the horse breaks free and leaps into the ocean — and fights the hubbub on deck. And then he’s in the water too.

Many of us probably aren’t aware of how often at the movies we’ve seen characters hit the water. Ballard gives this unfamiliar/familiar trope real resonance. (He has, in fact, made two great plunk-into-the-water scenes: the other is in his second feature, “Never Cry Wolf,” when the ecologist, walking across what seems to be an utterly barren, snow-covered field, pauses, hearing what might be scattered rifle shots from all directions, and then he’s through the ice, falling toward the bottom of the frozen lake it turns out he’s been crossing.) The ship and the ocean are as patently a model and a tank as they might be in a Fellini picture, but Ballard uses the artificiality for immediacy: they help sustain the storybook atmosphere, to keep us in tune with the child and to heighten the sense of mythic danger; things can seem unreal when you’re in peril. Whoosh, and Alec’s lost in a domain where everything moves in smooth, slow motion, where the light is still golden but diffuse, where the dark has a new density, and where things not only fall, they rise. Then the ship’s stern swings by and the propeller almost chews him up. The imagery seems to occur right at the edge of consciousness, like the images you may get of stairwells and escalators — are they the end of thought or the beginning of dream? — as you fall into sleep.

black stallion 5

The horse struggles by, and swims off with the boy clutching a rope trailing from its neck. In the film’s second act, Alec awakens on a desert island. Exploring it, he finds the horse in its bridles and straps, caught among rocks. The boy cuts the animal free and sets about learning how to survive on the island, using his knife to spear fish and make fire. One morning he’s threatened by a cobra, and is saved when the stallion tramples it. The boy and horse make contact when he offers it some food. They grow to be fast friends, the boy learning to ride, the horse learning to accept a rider.

What Ballard held down in the first section he releases on the island. Colors and natural sounds rush in, and the child moves to the center. I was once hit by a car — tossed up into the night air — as I crossed a city street. During the moment between the collision and my landing on the sidewalk amid broken glass, I saw lights spinning around me, realized what had happened, and decided to take in the flavor of the sensations. I was bedazzled. This section of the movie has the submitting-to-rapture quality that instant had for me. It feels blown clear of caution and routine; you stand on a promontory, facing the wind and watching the weather take form miles away. The rocks and beaches, the strand, the sea beyond, the horse’s mane and tail like proud banners — we’re seeing nature in ecstasy.

The outlines are sinuous, Tiffany-like; the surfaces a swirl of pebble, mother-of-pearl, and silk; the tints the colors of semiprecious stones — peacock colors. The sound spectrum shifts too, from muffled to triumphant: crashing ocean, the drumming hooves of a horse running free. (Carmine Coppola’s music — much of it for winds, plucked strings, and simple drums — contributes a Near Eastern flavor.) When Ballard shows us the horse in nature as the child sees it, the creature has an aristocratic grandeur and wildness; it’s a beast from a more untamed world. (These images of the horse leading its own life in the wild are in the tradition of “White Mane,” and of the shots of horses in “Ecstasy.”) One image includes the horse toy, which the boy has placed on a rock, and, far behind it, galloping by the ocean’s edge, the stallion. We may register that the boy feels as though the toy is what his father bequeathed him.

Ballard gives you the gift of seeing into and beyond the expected; this corresponds to the way the boy’s senses are shaken into intense life by the magnitude of what has happened to him, and of what surrounds him. As Ballard (and his cinematographer Caleb Deschanel) film them, waves running up the sand are veils of overlapping color stroking a beaded ground, an image as transfixing as the sight of the sea bottom seen tens of feet below you from the edge of a boat. He maintains a precise respect for the framework, giving attention to Alec’s hunger, chills, sunburn and painful, bare feet. And he delivers the easy-to-anticipate story points — the exchange of rescues, the horse’s and boy’s acknowledgement of each other as allies, the making of contact — with an inspired ingenuity and pictorial grandeur that allows an adult to share a child viewer’s surprise. When Alec awakens to see the cobra rising and unfolding before him, the snake has the hyperrealism and the intricate patterned beauty of a pen-and-ink-and-watercolor monster. It seems to rise out of dream; it’s the monster you always expected to find under your bed, the one that would destroy sleep forever.

One passage is set to a waltz-like oboe, flute, and piano theme. We watch the boy and horse in the sea, goofing by the shore; the camera is underwater. We watch the horse’s proud, gauche, side-to-side motions, and the boy’s darting and weightlessness: a pas de deux for two unlikely dancers. It comes to an end with a flurry of bubbles and a cut to the boy astride the horse, which gallops through the shallow surf; the boy has mounted the horse for the first time. As Alec learns to ride and the horse adapts to a rider, we get images in slow motion, images from a camera that corkscrews and rises far overhead. The horse gallops through shallow water; Alec falls off the horse and into the surf, and tries again.

Ballard achieves the illusion of nature and the imagination merging, the world perceived ecstatically, while he speaks the language of the commercial cinema. Like the marketplace storyteller of the Near East, he’s aware that the market is its own language, and that he is speaking through that language. Yet he brings to this children’s movie an awareness of other centers and traditions, other cultures and formal possibilities. When the boy finds the stallion trapped among rocks, its bridles holding it down, Ballard’s composition of angles and sounds puts the scene, as a representation of blindness, power, and struggle, on a level with D.H. Lawrence’s image in “St. Mawr” of the reared-back horse, fallen over, its legs pawing the sky, and with Picasso’s image of a gored horse rising up on its front legs and protesting its death. (Alan Splet, who did the soundtrack, had a member of his team spend three weeks living with her tape recorder among horses. He shows here — as he does in his work with David Lynch — his gift for keeping us aware of sounds as mental events, happening inside our heads.)

Ballard is working into his film our experience of childhood, the art we remember from childhood, from the childhood of the medium, and from the childhood of the civilization that eventually produced the medium. The kids’ adventure-book landmarks are all mixed up with ways of seeing that we remember from children’s movies, silent movies, and Near Eastern art. (The horse has some of the sexiness of European “Orientalist” fantasies about slave markets and pashas, but with much more force behind it.)

When you think about the film artists whose work Ballard evokes, you realize how aware they were of developing and speaking a conventional language. In movies like “National Velvet” and “Thief of Bagdad,” themes are announced and played out. “I … believe that everyone should have a chance at a breathtaking piece of folly,” Velvet is told by her mother, and that entire film is laid out as crisply as her pronouncement. Most of “National Velvet” takes place in the studio; Clarence Brown, the director, uses the actual outdoors very selectively, mostly to heighten the wind-through-your-hair feeling of the riding sequences. He uses the studio stylization to help assemble a protected world in which a girl’s fervor could reach a culmination, and in which it makes sense that she might get to ride her horse in the Grand National. “Thief of Bagdad” is all about set design. Everything is made artificial. The film’s central symbol is a life-size toy horse that is assembled in parts, then wound up with a key. Whirrrr, click, and it becomes something better than a real horse, because it can gallop across the skies. The movie itself is a put-together toy that flies.

Using new technology and the current industry conditions, Ballard went out and found (or developed) in nature the kinds of effects, settings, and atmospheres that earlier directors developed in the studio and with special effects. In the animals on ancient coins, bulk, movement, and potential are all suggested by a few curving lines. Ballard uses movie conventions as ancient artists used these lines. They indicate to us the way into another realm. They’re chutes, the arcs we trace as we pass from one state into another — they’re beckonings, as well as, later, records of our passage. Ballard plunges into the forms created by earlier filmmakers and takes his style from what he drags with him as he moves below.

Ballard is showing that in the boy’s mind, a developing center of consciousness — a marketplace of feelings and ideas — is taking form. The apparatus of the seashore — the beach, the shipwreck, the island, the strand — corresponds to the emergence of conscious awareness, of a place to stand to see the Other (in this case, the animal Other). This passage on the island has to do with the first sense you get of your own consciousness jelling, an experience that we may, as adults, relive when our ideas begin to take on a life of their own. The imagery and sounds of the adventure book conventions (waking on the sand, wooing the horse, learning to fish) have been sweetened and perfumed, as though brought to us by travelers from lands we’ve never visited. The sparkle of the surfaces, the brocaded sand and lapis skies, the slow-motion that suggests an oral-storyteller’s favorite passage: Ballard’s goal is to create and sustain a moment of apprehension. We enter the once-crusted-over thing and wind up inside looking out. Then the boy and the horse are rescued by fishermen.

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What happens rhythmically and emotionally in the third act is a pause, and then a building-back-up. As it begins, the boy is home with his mother (Teri Garr). The horse, kept for a night in their back yard and terrified by the early-morning noises of a suburb waking up, breaks free and races away. After a search, the boy finds it again, on the farm of a one-time horse trainer named Henry (Mickey Rooney). Henry agrees to give the horse a stall, and to train the boy and horse — accustoming the horse to the bridle and the boy to more formal race riding. He shows the pair off to a buddy, a celebrated racing announcer, who’s impressed enough to set up a match race between the stallion and the country’s fastest thoroughbreds.

The way Ballard presents this movement, he gets us seeing the action as standing for the reintroduction of the independent imagination into the conditions of shared life, and for what has to be gone through in order to present beauty to the world. The suburb’s small houses stand on tiny plots of land; with curbs and intersections, and the noise of cars and families, the area is almost as chopped-up and confining as shipboard. (We have reemerged back into movie conventionality.) The horse, spooked by the sound of garbage being collected, gallops off for someplace freer, cleaner. It passes by a factory, its chimneys spilling pollutants into the air, before finding its way to the countryside — the horse’s reactions are the reactions of our imagination to the congestion of this life. Ballard gets us seeing such passages abstractly: here, as confinement, revulsion, and a blind burst into something more agreeable. We might be observing the workings of glands and valves. Ballard presents the boy’s pursuit of the horse as a lightly-comic variation on B’rer Rabbit, or on Grimm. An ancient man on a cart, smoke, a night spent under the eaves of a run-down warehouse: it’s like a trek through a fairy tale’s scary forest.

This movement takes its tone from the interaction of the characters and actors; they’re the ground the horse stands out against. The boy has a depth and an obstinacy that his now-widowed mother can’t understand and that he can’t explain; he has had to learn guardedness. Teri Garr’s professionalism and pragmatism jibe well with her character’s amazement and disbelief, her realizing how serious the boy is about racing his horse. She’s settled and fleshly; she’s the den mother of this tidy world. She situates us back in the real world after our minutes aloft with the boy and horse.

Henry the horse-trainer comes on mean and defiant — he wants to keep the horse for himself. Snooping around Henry’s barn, the boy finds his way into a dusty old room full of jockey trophies and memorabilia — again, life before he was born: a past, something he’s only beginning to understand. (This scene is a reminder of one in “National Velvet”; Velvet and her mother explore their attic and look over the mother’s old athletic awards.) When Henry sees how well the horse and kid get on, he’s won over and brought out of himself. He understands and adores the horse’s strength and reluctance. He doesn’t want to tame and master it — he and Alec simply try to channel the beast’s energy, to guide it a little. “You don’t have to pump him,” Henry tells Alec about riding the horse flat-out. “Throw it away. He’ll be makin’ that rhythm.”

It’s rainy the night the race announcer visits the track for a demonstration of the horse’s abilities; he doesn’t even emerge from his car when he sees the boy atop the horse. Rooney is wonderful at suggesting his character’s attitude of “I’m not kidding! This is really gonna be something!” We stay with the grown-ups as the horse circles the track. They can’t see the horse, and with them we listen through the rain, the dark, the sounds of windshield wipers and idling car engines, for indications of it. Galloping hoofbeats come out of one direction for a bit, then out of another; these sounds could be the symptoms of an impossible-to-identify condition we carry in ourselves. When Henry pulls Alec off the stallion, the kid is unconscious. What hasn’t been shown has been made visible to us.

The match race itself is a merging of nature poetry and conventional movie form. Without doing anything cerebral or Eisensteinian, Ballard turns the hurtling horses into semi-abstract qualities and forces; they’re all reach and stretch, nostrils, flanks and gulping breaths. As an image of speed and power surging within confines, this passage is in a class with the greatest Futurist paintings. The track is an oval — society has cleared out a space for these demonstrations. The pageantry — all harlequin colors and heraldic music — is like guidelines and directional signals (they go well with the blinders put on the horses); Ballard makes us register the contrast with the shimmying visual rhythms of the island passage. The race is tense. Where the camera rose up and flew over the boy and horse on the island (it seemed to want to include the curvature of the horizon), here it crouches over, down low, at times skimming the dirt beneath the inside fence, which tilts toward the track; the camera wears blinders. At other times it’s wedged between the horses, or sweeping wide behind all of them as they take a curve, the sounds of the crowd driving it along.

This act is full of images and passages that you remember as you might private moments from your own childhood: Teri Garr’s flower-print dresses, earrings, and bewildered face; the trophy room, dusty yet neat; Mickey Rooney using a bale of hay as a horse to teach the boy how to use a saddle; Alec searching through a bureau for something to protect his hands and finding his father’s watches and ties (furniture and its capacity for delight and treachery); Henry and Alec listening to an old, wood-bodied radio.

Part of what’s funny about the film is the boy’s acceptance of the unlikely adventures that befall him. Kelly Reno shows the clarity of the boy’s determination, his wariness and hiddenness, and the openness of his empathy with the horse; he manages to express the tenacity and strength of the boy’s love of the imagination. Alec’s skin seems transparent to us even while we understand that he’s learning how to conceal things from other people.

Mickey Rooney as the mentor is tender and intuitive. As the character he plays is reawakened by the horse and the boy’s love for it, Rooney seems reawakened as an actor. He sets the old trouper/dynamo we know him to be aside, like the character’s crustiness. (Rooney could be making amends for his over-hearty performance in “National Velvet.”) He’s not consciously showing us what he can do; he’s relating simply to a child and a horse. Living totally within the terms of the movie, he brings a respect for the sacred into his performance. As the ex-trainer shows the boy how to ride on a saddle, as he tries to accustom the horse to saddle and reins, he becomes like an acting teacher working with his greatest student; it’s as though he knows that what he’s dealing with is what he himself has always lived for, and that it’s present here before him in its most beautiful incarnation. He gets high on the action too.

The horse itself has movie glamour and the stature of a mythical beast. (Ballard and his horse trainer, Corky Randall, used primarily two horses, but altogether at least fourteen, to create the onscreen horse.) In one shot, the horse stands in its stall looking out at an overcast day, and its profile has the melancholy of Olivier’s Heathcliff. The eloquence of its balkiness — the way its raw talent, danger, and beastliness are barely held in check — is worthy of Brando. But Ballard is scrupulous about not anthropomorphizing the horse; his stallion isn’t a parody of a man, or of a man’s ideas about a horse. As he creates it, the stallion seems to live in connection with unfamiliar dimensions, and with regions of the universe that don’t normally find expression here on earth. When the horse rears in confusion and rage at the beginning of the match race, it makes sense. This is no domesticated creature; this is a special case.

When the whole world has been colonized and categorized, where does mystery remain? Or, at least, how can we manage to see a horse without its being neutered by the images and ideas of “horse” that we already have in our minds? Ballard seems to believe that you get back to a child’s freshness of response only during moments when you’re passing from one state into another — when you’re bewildered, and aren’t really sure what’s going on. In “The Black Stallion” (and in his later ballet film “Nutcracker”), he creates such moments, finding his way back into given forms until they release and permit a free fall. Ballard finds his way to and then works out of those moments when you don’t yet realize what’s happening to you; he works from what is generally considered to be what escapes us.

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The three-movement presentation is an expression of this: the conventional movie that this film is at the end is very different — it seems to have been aerated — from the conventional movie it was at the beginning. The section on the island, with its tumbled-up, twinkling feel, is the passage. The clear-eyed apprehension of the world while categories and labels are off: Ballard gives us the illusion on the island that that’s what we’re seeing and hearing. It corresponds to a child’s way of seeing things, to an early man’s, and it corresponds to the force of the horse itself.

The toy horse is the fetish that draws us into and through the movie. The father gives the son a toy horse; the father dies and the toy horse gives rise to a real horse. Guilt and sorrow are built into the toy. The symbol becomes what it symbolizes: toy horse/real horse, child/parent, movie/life. This play with proportion has to do with the way a child (and perhaps a grownup’s imagination) is constantly shifting in relation to the world. Really great toys seem to have built into them the process you go through when you lose yourself in play with them. (Getting this right is what the “Nutcracker” toymaker agonizes over.)

“The Black Stallion” is a fusion of an interest in toys and symbols, and a desire to get back to the pristine. As a filmmaker, Ballard can’t represent anything to us except through technology, yet he seems to feel with his whole soul that man and his instruments are the essential polluters — that the instruments of man’s vision are maybe the original polluters. How can you represent the pristine when the instrument of representation is a despoiler? (Travel writers must worry about this too.) We always come equipped with our concepts, our stories, our technology, and signs. In this movie, Ballard finds his way to the pristine by entering into constructs that we usually picture as the conventional signs of filmmaking for children and treating them as artifacts and symbols, working back through the accumulated pop-culture debris. He feels that this material — which we often feel superior to and often callously manipulate — has grown out of someplace deeper than we tend to admit. He treats conventional forms as the products of processes that reach back into prehistory, into mystery and myth.

Formally, what Ballard has done is to interweave a parable about the birth of one’s awareness of the imagination with the landmarks of a children’s story. As he has made it, the movie is like paintings or poems that have frames built into them as part of the image, the dreamer dreaming himself into existence, the shape of thought encircling and giving birth to the image. In the stallion, Ballard has managed to create in the language of feature films as conscious and potent a symbol as Woolf’s waves or lighthouse, yet the stallion also has a distinctive tumescence, like the pressure of water at a springhead. You’re right there at the instant when the horse chooses to accept a gift of seaweed from the boy, nourishment from beneath the waves.

At the end of the film, after the race, there’s a flashback to the boy romping with the stallion on the island’s beach, but it isn’t a shot we’ve seen before. In it, the boy and horse are at play beneath a spectacular rainbow, and this rainbow — a natural arc suggesting infinity — is the film’s recapitulation. It’s the scimitar shape of calligraphy made real. As the closing credits roll, we see the movie from the outside, but it wears a pulsing, calm flush. We have been given the illusion of entering and moving through a region of pure form and surfacing back into clear waters. In the movies, beauty has never run so rampant or so free.

© 1985 by Ray Sawhill

“Young Guns II,” directed by Geoff Murphy

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By Ray Sawhill

“Young Guns II” isn’t to be confused with the original “Young Guns,” a mixture of fake cowboy style and celebrity worship. The new picture, the first directed in America by the New Zealander Geoff Murphy, may have more glamorizing flourishes than it needs, but it also has obstreperousness and fervor. Within the limits of the commercial Western, it’s a stunning piece of filmmaking.

The movie takes another look at the story of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. In this version, Billy’s ego is swelling even as his fortunes wane; he has begun to believe in his legend. But the big landowners want to crush Billy and his gang. They hire Billy’s old comrade in arms Pat Garrett (William Petersen) to track him down.

The actors — including Emilio Estevez, Lou Diamond Phillips and Kiefer Sutherland from the original film’s cast — bring wit and gravity to their roles. John Fusco’s script conveys something of the historical Billy — a small man who was a charismatic sociopath.

But it’s the director’s work that puts the movie across. Murphy refreshes the Western by channeling back into it the intensity that filmmakers set loose in the ’60s and ’70s. Played out against vast, totemic landscapes, “Young Guns II” is the first Western in years to have the ritualistic quality of the classics of the genre. (It isn’t a surprise to learn that Murphy’s wife is a Maori.)

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A former trumpet player who spent years touring with a rock band, Murphy, now 51, has a musician’s love of irreverence and shifts in tempo and mood. It wasn’t until 1980 that he made his first feature film, “Goodbye Pork Pie,” a lickety-split road movie that was as popular in New Zealand as “E.T.” His second film, “Utu,” about colonial rule in New Zealand, was a great hip epic. (It’s available on videocassette.) In it, Murphy fused elements of costume drama, Westerns, and samurai films: “In New Zealand we borrow genres and try to put our experience into them, and hope our own genres will develop over time.”

“Geoff’s a real mad-conductor type,” Fusco says. “He’d stay up all night working out the next day’s shooting in detailed computer drawings and plans, pass them out, then fall asleep until the assistant director would tell him it was time to roll. Then he’d shake himself, throw himself into the work and make it look effortless.”

Murphy says he’s still suffering from culture shock. “In New Zealand the movies are something you might go to on Saturday night. Here, the average 15-year-old has seen every movie. I’ve never experienced that level of fierceness about films.” A fan of Westerns, he says that “television did a lot of harm. Also, Sergio Leone had an effect. I love his films, but he did to the Western what Einstein did to physics — he finished the book. And he did it with such panache that he dehumanized it. If the Western wants to revive, it has to give the audience a chance to feel something.”

©1990 by Newsweek Inc. Reproduced by permission.

“The Age of Innocence,” directed by Martin Scorsese

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Loose Talk

By Polly Frost and Ray Sawhill

Ray Sawhill: Most people probably take “The Age of Innocence” as a more-visually-inventive-than-usual Merchant-Ivory film. And most of them seem to enjoy it as such.

Polly Frost and Ray Sawhill: Middlebrow alert!

Polly Frost: It’s set in upper-crust 19th century New York City, among old money but just as the robber barons are emerging. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Newland Archer. He has a private income, he dabbles in the law, he’s a member of one of the respectable families, and he’s engaged to the flawless, brainless offspring of another “good” family (Winona Ryder). But he has a hankering for culture. He caresses his books, and he knows one or two painters.

RS: Into his world walks Michelle Pfeiffer as the Countess Olenska, woman of mystery and scandal. She’s fleeing a marriage to a philandering Polish count. She’s exotic, a teeny bit bohemian. Newland falls for her bigtime. So: will the countess, who needs money, return to the count or not? And what will Newland do about his passion for her?

PF: He’s such an honor-bound square that the way he expresses his passion for her is by helping her. There’s nothing more irritating than a man who gives you a lecture rather than making a pass at you. I’ve known a few of those.

RS: It’s a film in the tradition of “Brief Encounter.” And the missed-opportunity tragi-comedy is not my favorite genre. What do you make of the fact that some people have an appetite for genteel entertainments on this theme?

PF: They make a viewer feel civilized. They’re soap operas with all the good parts taken out.

RS: Newland Archer is a rotten central character. He’s a prig. You never understand why the countess looks at him passionately. Another problem is that Scorsese externalizes everything. Crimson, gold and chandeliers are everywhere. Since it’s already a Visconti world, the Countess doesn’t stand out. The film winds up being narrated and illustrated rather than dramatized.

PF: Some of the actors in the minor roles do seem to exist fully in the world of codified behavior and language. And Winona Ryder has a puppy-like helplessness, even when she’s being lethal and enslaving, that’s very effective.

RS: But Day-Lewis can’t do much with his role but mourn the way his balls are shriveling up. He’s so meticulous about playing a yearning American that he seems super-British. Pfeiffer works hard to generate some Garbo-like luster, but her nerves and her voice seem pure California.

PF: I liked her better than you did. She’s trying to come up with a reason why the countess is attracted to Newland. Maybe her interpretation is: the countess is out of her mind. She’s having a nervous breakdown.

RS: There’s another problem, which is the material itself. Over to you, honey.

PF: It’s a shallow and arch book, and it scores too easily off its characters. It exists mainly in its narration. Although when Wharton lets the two women really play with Newland, the book almost becomes malicious fun.

RS: I hate the snug, mocking social commentary about what “old New York” was like.

PF: And I hated Joanne Woodward’s reading of the narration. She had the tone of voice of someone who isn’t fun to gossip with. Julia Child would have been a better choice for the narrator.

RS: Scorsese makes old New York look like Vatican City, and his idea of psychology seems to be that WASPs are repressed Italians. What do you think he’s up to?

PF: He sets up an intricate perceiver/perceived thing, with binoculars and theater and paintings on the walls. What he does with it — and with the unbroken camera moves, and the dissolves, and the splintery editing — is try to show how your identity is formed by the tribe you’re in. And how people try to outwit it and like to think they can exist outside it, but are always getting trapped. It’s a web. The problem is that Scorsese thinks in purely cinematic terms. He knows what it is to be formed by movies and the media, but he doesn’t seem able to imagine his way inside someone who wasn’t formed by the media and the movies. Renoir and Ophuls used circling techniques to show characters caught up in a web, but they were so worldly you don’t feel it’s anything but cinematic technique.

RS: Scorsese really believes, or believed, that cinema is the apotheosis of the arts. He was one of those kids who was all revolutionary fervor. And his generation’s revolution has just led to corporate take-overs.

PF: It’s a generation that’s stuck with nostalgia. But I know you’re on a roll.

RS: Thanks. The generation before them — of Altman and Peckinpah — mastered traditional craft before they blew it apart. Scorsese’s generation bypassed traditional craft and headed for personal values. Now Scorsese’s left turning everything he touches into “personal cinema,” which in this case means he’s taken on Edith Wharton and produced a dignified variation of “Mean Streets” and “GoodFellas.” He makes the same movie over and move, no matter what the subject. The characters have no free will. There’s only Scorsese’s vision.

PF: In a scene set in the opera house balcony during intermission, the camera and the audio iris in on Newland and the countess, and she talks about the yellow roses he once sent her anonymously. He’s entranced: how does she know he sent them? She finishes talking to him, and she’s backlit for a minute by the stage lights as the curtain rises for the second act — she’s what connects him to the world of grand emotions, and to the arts. Art is viewed as transcendence, as it was in “Raging Bull.” But in “Raging Bull,” Jake LaMotta hurls himself directly at transcendence. Here, Newland holds back.

RS: Newland is like a virgin playing hard-to-get without even knowing it.

PF: I’ve known a few of those too.

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

 

“A World Apart,” directed by Chris Menges

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By Ray Sawhill

“A World Apart,” set in South Africa, is the first feature directed by the famous cinematographer Chris Menges, and for the most part it’s terrific. Menges worked as a documentarian in South Africa in the early 1960s, and the screenplay, by Shawn Slovo, is semi-autobiographical. The story, set in the early 1960s, concerns a young suburban white girl (Jodhi May), a South African whose parents are anti-apartheid activists. She admires them and values their attitudes but can’t help feeling jealous and angry because the political work absorbs so much of her mother’s care and time. (Her father has left the country to escape imprisonment.)

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Chris Menges directs Jodhi May

Menges can’t resist overstressing that Apartheid is Bad, and he isn’t successful with the character of the mother (Barbara Hershey). Hershey has some dignity, but she can’t seem to help being actressy; she’s always playing out an actress’s idea of a character. But the film manages to be earnestly (and movingly) liberal without being a drag. The feelings have been lived through, and, like the look of the movie, they’re turbulent and abraded. Menges has a distinctive talent for capturing private, unguarded-seeming moments (even as he keeps the public events moving around them) without making a big deal of it. His domestic scenes have a warmth and grace worthy of Mary Cassatt.

Menges seems to like working with women: here, a woman producer and a woman writer; his main actors are women, too. This may have some relation to the way you’re almost never asked to admire what has been set up before you — which is how most first-time directors (male or female) ask an audience to watch their movies. Mostly, you’re with the young girl (and the director), peeping around corners, eavesdropping, noticing things out of the corners of your eyes and wondering if other people notice them too. The film is at its best in catching her tangled feelings, and in its portrayal of her predicament. Jodhi May gives the girl a flickering, tentative incandescence.

©1988 by Ray Sawhill

 

“Pickford” by Eileen Whitfield and “Becoming Mae West” by Emily Wortis Leider

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Mary Pickford

By Ray Sawhill

In the early part of the century, before the movie business outgrew its seedy origins, it was one of the rare fields where an ambitious woman could hope to make a professional mark. Women wrote and directed; some stars had a measure of control over their movies that a Julia Roberts can only dream of today.

Among the most influential early film women were Mary Pickford and Mae West. In 1909, when she landed her first movie job, Pickford was just scraping by; in 1915, she was one of the world’s best-known women. Despite her winsome on-screen persona, she became the first actress to produce her own films, a cofounder of United Artists, and a major shaper of film acting. In “Pickford” (Univ. of Kentucky), a knockout of a biography on sale next month, Eileen Whitfield shows a rare gift for making sense of acting styles, and for bringing to life the world of silent movies.

Mae West was Pickford’s on-screen opposite, a sashaying cartoon of a woman of the world, appraising (and enjoying) men with self-mocking relish. Behind the scenes, she was Pickford’s match in tenacity and nerve; her producers never thought they were making anything but “Mae West movies.”

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Mae West

In her zesty “Becoming Mae West” (Farrar Straus Giroux), Emily Wortis Leider points out that by the time she barreled into movies, West had 35 years of theater and vaudeville behind her. She liked prizefighters, cross-dressers and stealing credit from collaborators. She wrote a lot of great comic lines (“I like restraint — if it doesn’t go too far”) and gave them all to herself. But by the mid-’30s, Pickford had stopped acting, the business was aspiring to respectability and West’s freedom was curtailed. Since then, few actresses have managed to wield their measure of creative power.

© 1997 by Newsweek Inc. Reproduced by permission.

The Rise and Fall of An American President: Nixon in the Arts and the Media

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By Ray Sawhill

The biggest surprise when “Nixon in China” opened in 1987 wasn’t the music: the opera’s composer, John Adams, had been moving away from minimalist purism for some years. It wasn’t the production’s staging, either. By 1987, on-the-cusp culture buffs had already learned to enjoy the mix-and-match irreverence of director Peter Sellars. It wasn’t even the way the opera proposed viewing near-current events as legitimate material for grand opera. “Nixon in China” — now acknowledged as having kicked off a brief trend for “CNN operas” based on topics torn from the news — asserted its authority quickly. It seemed not just funny but natural to be watching a story set in the very recent past, featuring characters with names like Henry Kissinger, Chou En-lai and Madame Mao. After all, what are the creatures who inhabit our media world if not figures of modern myth?

No, what was most startling for the culture-class was the opera’s rounded, even sympathetic portrayal of Richard Nixon. Act I may have begun with a pop-art-style recreation of the famous descent from the Presidential jet in Peking. But things soon moved in more unfamiliar directions. In Act II, Pat Nixon rushes onstage during a performance of a Madame Mao opera to protest the cruelty of some of its characters; Dick follows her and sweetly comforts her. And in Act III, we’re given a Nixon indulging in wistful reflection. Recalling a day during World War II that he thought he wouldn’t survive, he sings, “I felt so weak / With disappointment and relief / Everything seemed larger than life.” Here was something unfamiliar — a Richard Nixon capable of tenderness and dreams.

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We in the audience went into the theater eager to witness an art-gamble: could BAM-style post-modernism deliver an experience that would command our attention on a scale commensurate with grand opera? What we left with was a bonus — a shift in our perceptions of one of the country’s most controversial figures. If Peter Sellars, John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman could let themselves conceive of Richard Nixon as something other than a cartoon ogre, maybe the rest of us could, too.

By 1987, more than a decade had passed since Watergate, Vietnam and the resignation, yet feelings were still raw. One of the main reasons was Nixon himself, who, in his disgrace, hadn’t exactly hidden under a rock. Legendary as a fighter who would never give up, he’d set about rehabilitating himself soon after leaving office. He wrote and wrote, issuing several books, including a nearly 1,200-page-long memoir. The first of his four interviews with British broadcaster David Frost in 1977 was watched by 45 million viewers. He traveled overseas and connected with world leaders. He offered himself up to the media and to other politicians as a wise old foreign-policy expert. He was the public figure we’d never be done with — like it or not.

But Nixon had been a flash point for the country since the U.S. emerged from World War II. The startling aggressiveness of his campaigning had won him early attention, and his conduct during the investigation of the Alger Hiss case had made him a Congressional leader during his first term as a Congressman. His successes highlighted the emergence of the West Coast, and especially California, as a national power-center, confidently asserting itself in the face of the old Northeast.

Nixon never failed to stress his humble origins as the son of a grocer. A huge class of never-before-seen voters — inhabitants of the new suburbs, lower-middle-class and middle-class car owners striving to do even better for themselves — responded. They identified with Nixon’s embattled, Horatio-Alger-versus-the-elites self-image and cheered him on. Within only a few years of setting out on a political career, Richard Nixon became one of the nation’s youngest-ever Vice Presidents.

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Has anyone ever had such an up-and-down career? After the early triumphs, Nixon lost the 1960 Presidential election to JFK by a whisker, then fell to Pat Brown in the 1962 race for California governor. The entire country seemed willing to write him off; ABC entitled a news program about him “The Political Obituary of Richard Nixon.”

Yet by 1965 — with race riots breaking out in many cities and Vietnam emerging as a quagmire — the liberal consensus that had seemed so all-powerful in ’64 was crumbling. Soon, the country was tearing itself apart. Faced with the craziness, most people wanted nothing more than a return to stability. And the unlikely character who rode that wave into the White House in 1968 was back-from-the-dead Richard Nixon — the first Californian ever to occupy the office. In 1972, less than a decade after he’d been declared politically done-with, Nixon was reelected to a second term, winning everywhere but in Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. He may have been “Tricky Dick” to the left, but in one poll 75 percent of the electorate said they found him “more sincere and believable” than George McGovern.

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Then, a mere twenty-one months after this triumph, Nixon himself was gone. In ’72, he’d taken more than 60 percent of the popular vote; by August 1974, 65 percent of the public wanted him impeached. For the right it was a hard-to-digest disgrace. The Library that opened in Yorba Linda in 1990 in honor of his presidency was denied public sponsorship and had to be financed by private subscription.

The bond Nixon had with the white middle class caused the left immense frustration in an era when good liberals defined themselves by their devotion to civil rights. For lefties, raging against Nixon became something like a competitive sport. In 1971, Philip Roth’s political satire “Our Gang” featured a main character named “Trick E. Dixon,” who destroys Copenhagen and has an operation to remove the sweat glands from his upper lip. Gore Vidal, in his 1972 play “An Evening with Richard Nixon,” used Nixon’s own words to portray the president as a man with “no conscious mind.” In 1977, Robert Coover one-upped everyone with “The Public Burning,” in which Nixon has an affair with Communist spy Ethel Rosenberg and is raped by Uncle Sam. “To the cosmopolitan liberals,” writes the historian Rick Perlstein, “hating Richard Nixon … was becoming part and parcel of a political identity.”

For the right, Nixon had always been an ambiguous, even disruptive, figure. Nixon’s politeness, his determination, his endless repetitions of how he’d come from good but humble beginnings — even his physical awkwardness — spoke eloquently to his fans. But Nixon also unnerved many established factions on the right. The Northeast Republican patricians looked down on him as a sweaty, hustling, West Coast prole. His enthusiasm for ambitious government programs and a dynamic foreign policy put him at odds with the heartland small-government/isolationist types known as Taft Republicans.

Culturally, Nixon’s presence was felt in such right-wing works as the popular movie “The Green Berets,” in Bob Hope’s tours, in the hippie-taunting of “Li’l Abner” creator Al Capp, and in the square pop music of the time — from the Carpenters to many defiantly patriotic country songs. His law-and-order presence helped shape one of the key, and most popular, movie forms of the era, the mad-at-the-damn-liberals, vigilante-movie genre epitomized by “Dirty Harry.”

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Philip Baker Hall as Nixon in “Secret Honor”

Robert Altman’s 1984 film about Nixon, “Secret Honor” — from a play by Donald Freed and Arnold Stone, and featuring a great performance by Philip Baker Hall — represented something new. In the film, Nixon is alone in his office, in exile, downing Scotch after Scotch as he dictates what he has told himself will be his last will and testament. Produced for a pittance and using only one set, it’s one of Altman’s best movies — experimental, graceful and shrewd. What was fresh in its presentation of Nixon was that it wasn’t just harsh and funny. It also delivered a fully embodied portrayal of the man; watching the film was like watching a David Levine cartoon take on three-dimensional life. Altman may have been a liberal and a media-biz person, but he’d grown up in the heartland, and he knew his subject’s type: “‘I will be a winner because I was a loser’ — this was Nixon’s credo,” Altman explained. He even admitted that he felt more sympathy for Nixon than he did for Reagan.

But moviegoers, right and left, weren’t ready yet for such a treatment. Though the film was a hit at festivals and appeared in many end-of-the-year best-of lists, it never won a large audience. Altman reported that the only people who gave him a hard time for the film were lefties who thought he’d accorded Nixon too much humanity.

Several years later, though, “Nixon in China” could successfully propose an attitude of reconsideration. We were now ready for it. Perhaps the Nixon years had encompassed more than just Vietnam and Watergate. (Watergate is never even foreshadowed in Adams’s opera.) Opening up diplomatic relations with China was an immense achievement, after all, as well as a real showstopper: here was Nixon, the legendary Red-baiter, making peace with Communists. Librettist Alice Goodman shrewdly captures Nixon observing his achievement: “Though we spoke quietly / The eyes and ears of history / Caught every gesture,” he sings. Nixon had a mental habit of watching himself take his place in history.

Did “Nixon in China” trigger off this new attitude, or was the opera merely one manifestation of its era? And why were so many — on both the right and the left — so unwilling to let go of the man? The legacies of Eisenhower and LBJ were sorted out soon after they left office. The assassination left John F. Kennedy frozen in amber as the glamorous swaggerer cut off in his prime. Nixon, though, has proved to be a loose tooth unlike any other. Perhaps it’s because — despite all his victories, and all the years he spent in office — there remained something unrealized about him. Americans love battlers and strivers, people who won’t quit. So someone like Nixon — a man of potential and drive, a paranoid who wrecked his chances yet never gave up the fight — transfixes us. A failure on an epic scale, he’s the kind of outsized “He had so much going for him” case that irks and fascinates Americans. How can such a figure ever be nailed down?

Whatever the case, the success of “Nixon in China” seemed to free others to venture out of over-familiar partisan ruts. New thoughts were being entertained. Perhaps Nixon had been an effective President, and not in entirely awful ways. The Environmental Protection Agency … the SALT agreements … the “triangular diplomacy” that his visit to Peking was part of … was it a terrible record? In 1988, historian Francis Russell, while allowing that there is indeed “a repellent quality to Richard Nixon,” argued that Nixon was our most underrated President. Liberal columnist Tom Wicker — during Nixon’s Presidency a staunch critic — pointedly entitled his 1991 book about Nixon “One of Us” and admitted candidly to one interviewer that it was “more favorable to Richard Nixon than some people would wish for it to be.”

By the time of his death, in 1994, Richard Nixon was occupying center stage in real life once again. The praise and nostalgia got so thick that Nixon biographer Stephen Ambrose, observing the occasion as a commentator for ABC, marveled, “To everyone’s amazement, except his, he’s our beloved elder statesman.”

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Anthony Hopkins in “Nixon”

The following year, a more modern kind of monumental recognition came Nixon’s way — an Oliver Stone movie. With his knack for exploiting hot-button topics and his eagerness to write his own version of recent history — the director had already put his touch on Vietnam, JFK and Wall Street — Stone now settled on Nixon. This time, though, he chose to forgo his usual fevered-madman treatment. It’s a dignified movie, made with full Greek-tragedy solemnity. Perhaps this was because Stone (like many boomers) saw some of his own father in Nixon and found that moving. In any case, the director dedicated the film to the memory of his father.

The film is a long, ponderous watch, as well as monotonously overemphatic in the Stone way. “He’s the darkness, reaching out for the darkness,” E. Howard Hunt tells John Dean about Nixon, in case you hadn’t noticed the way that Stone has Nixon literally inhabiting a Rembrandt/Godfather-esque darkness. And how convincing a Nixon did Anthony Hopkins make? Quivering with unease and anxiety, pulling his facial muscles around to convey the idea that Nixon was both puppet master and his own puppet, Hopkins didn’t even try to capture Nixon’s confidence, his drive or his victory-lust. (Watching old tapes of Nixon, I was struck by how much he loved campaigning and how happy he was when connecting with a crowd.)

The film nonetheless delivers an intelligent and plausible — and very un-cartoonish — Nixon. Here’s a man who isn’t just obsessed with greatness in others; he came very close to greatness himself. Where Altman and Hall gave us a small-town go-getter who was out of his depth as President — someone who had always been so eager to succeed that he never developed a central core of his own — Stone and Hopkins’s Nixon is a driven, skillful grownup, brilliant in many ways and unquestionably a master politician, but crippled by inhibitions, as well as prone to projections and paranoia.

In the years since, treatments of Nixon have become even more variegated. A young woman named Monica Crowley, who had worked for Nixon during his final years in Saddle River, New Jersey, brought out a memoir in 1996 of her time with Nixon that included long passages in his voice. Her Nixon comes across as brilliant, thoughtful, vulnerable — and unexpectedly kind on a personal level. Unable to let Nixon (or his rage at him) go, Philip Roth launched another anti-Nixon attack in his 1998 novel “I Married a Communist.” Zack Snyder’s 2009 film of Alan Moore’s graphic novel “Watchmen” uses Nixon as an icon of looming fascism.

But the more resonant works in recent years about Nixon have tended to be many-faceted ones. Margaret Macmillan’s 2007 “Nixon and Mao” shifts around between points of view and leaves you in no doubt about what an impressive bit of diplomatic engineering the real-life subject of “Nixon in China” was. In “Watergate in American Memory” (1992), sociologist Michael Schudson makes the case that even Watergate is no easily-encapsulated phenomenon. For some it was a scandal, for others a constitutional crisis, while for a third set it was simply politics as usual. Cultural historian Daniel Frick’s “Reinventing Richard Nixon” is a cool survey of the Nixon stories, images and iconography that have flowed past us through the decades, from campaign posters to plays to New Yorker cartoons to the gift shop at the Nixon Library.

Perhaps the most magisterial reconsideration of the era is historian Rick Perlstein’s 2008 “Nixonland.” In it, Perlstein proposes Nixon as the crucial politician of the 1965–’74 era — the figure who most embodies and sums up those turbulent times. For Perlstein, it’s important to understand Nixon as a “brilliant and tormented” man who struggled “to forge a public language that promised mastery of the strange new angers, anxieties, and resentments wracking the nation in the 1960s.”

For oldies, it’s a bit of a shock to realize that one of the country’s most august authorities on the era was barely a child himself when Nixon was actually in office. But youth can confer virtues; although a left-liberal himself, Perlstein has a perspective that those of us who were around at the time can’t achieve. He doesn’t, for example, flinch from suggesting that the left’s fury kept them from understanding Nixon and his fans. “There was a kind of dehumanization going on, on the left,” he told one interviewer.

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Frank Langella in “Frost/Nixon”

The most recent major pop-culture portrayal of Nixon is Ron Howard’s 2008 movie “Frost/Nixon,” adapted by Peter Morgan from his own play about the 1977 Frost–Nixon interviews. The movie — genuinely thoughtful if, perhaps, surprisingly square — generates a lot of suspense, as well as a lot of sympathy for both its protagonists. We spend the movie watching the two contrasting characters joust — the overeager Frost trying to pull off a media coup and establish his personal bona fides as a journalist of substance, the cagey Nixon eager both for the money and to present his own version of events. But the main effect of the movie is to humanize Nixon, who by the end feels almost like an old, if slightly sketchy, friend. Frank Langella’s performance as Nixon goes much deeper than a mere impersonation of the man; it earned Langella an Oscar nomination. What better proof could there be that Nixon — no matter whether you take him as villain or hero, victim or creep — has now been accepted as one of our most enduring national characters? In the year before “Frost/Nixon” was released, the Nixon Library was incorporated into the National Archives and Records Administration, there to take its place next to all of our other Presidential libraries.

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At Nixon’s funeral in Yorba Linda

At Nixon’s funeral, Bob Dole proclaimed post-World War II America “the age of Nixon.” That’s a judgment that’s very hard to argue with where popular culture goes. What other president has left such a sizable legacy of iconic moments and images? Can we summon up more than half a dozen images of JFK, as popular as he remains? Does Ike, despite being a two-term President of fairly recent vintage, qualify as a pop-culture figure at all? For sheer quantity of memorable images and moments — from the triumph in China to the V-for-Victory gesture, from “I am not a crook” and “the silent majority” to the Checkers speech, from the farewell wave before the helicopter to the way we still append the suffix “-gate” to any and all scandals — Nixon is unmatchable.

If there’s no longer any doubt about “Nixon in China”‘s artistic stature, the opera’s revival at the Met raises an interesting question — namely: What will the audience make of Nixon now? My hunch is that the Nixon era has been sufficiently sifted through for the moment, and that the discussion will now move on to Nixon the man. Though the facts of his life are well known, he has always been an enigma, a labyrinth beckoning friends and enemies alike to lose themselves in his mind’s twists and paradoxes. Twenty-three years after “Nixon in China” opened, and nearly seventeen years after the man’s death, we aren’t yet done with Nixon — and he isn’t yet done with us.

©2011 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Opera News.

The Go-Go Years: “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” by Peter Biskind, and “High Concept” by Charles Fleming

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Brian De Palma, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese

By Ray Sawhill

Remembering the feverish moviemaking days of the 1970s, writer-director John Milius said, “The stuff that brought it all to an end came from within. Diller, Eisner and Katzenberg — they ruined the movies.” And here’s what producer Don Simpson said about the end of his own go-go years, the 1980s: “The failing of the present-day system is quite simply based on the fact that the studio executives are by and large ex-lawyers, agents, business-oriented people who are fantastic executives and managers who don’t have a clue about telling stories.” Different decade, same message: The movies are dead, business killed ’em, and things are only getting worse.

A consensus exists among some of the more serious, informed movie journalists and critics that all American moviemaking passion is spent. This judgment is the inevitable consequence of a widely shared interpretation of recent movie history, which goes like this: The spirit of the ’60s came to Hollywood with “Easy Rider” and “Bonnie and Clyde.” The public responded to a new mood; the studios, in confusion, opened their doors; for once, talent poured through the system on its own terms. Then the mood of the country turned again, a reaction set in and — here come the ’80s! — the producers took over, delivering vacuous if shiny blasts of energy. In the ’90s, we have …

Well, not much of anything. Some nice performances. A nice movie here, a nice movie there. Video game-style action comedies and tedious indie flicks made by kids who think movie history began with “Pulp Fiction.” So the serious film critics write essays about the end of the era of the cinéaste and odes to the glories of the Iranian cinema. The reporters content themselves with tales of executives and deals.

Peter Biskind and Charles Fleming both write under the spell of this view. Both have new books out (the quotes above are taken from them).

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Peter Biskind

Of the two, Biskind’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” (Simon & Schuster) is by far the more substantial. An attempt to sum up what was important in ’70s American moviemaking, it’s cast in the form of an anecdotal history of, as the subtitle puts it, “how the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll generation saved Hollywood.”

In some ways it’s a helpful work. Biskind provides some essential historical information — reminding us, for example, how very, very old the people at the top of the studios were by the late ’60s (many of them had begun their careers in the silent days). He emphasizes the roles played not just by the young directors but by such producers and executives as John Calley, Bert Schneider and Robert Evans. And he’s convincing (as well as original) when he explains the importance of spouses, collaborators, lovers and friends in the careers and successes of his chosen directors — Ashby, Scorsese, Coppola, Lucas, Altman, Schrader, Bogdanovich, Spielberg and Friedkin.

The glory days of the ’70s, he shows, were the creation of a larger community of people, working in more capacities, than we tend to imagine. There was a shared excitement about movie art. Filmmakers swapped ideas with writers; resourceful casting directors found new faces in the New York theater world. Friendships were formed on the basis of talent and respect as well as ambition. Francis Coppola plays ringleader; Paul Schrader is the most brazen hustler; Martin Scorsese the purest artist; Steven Spielberg the eager beaver who just wants to please and succeed. At times, Biskind’s book reads like an account of a ’60s commune, with moments of heartbreaking harmony achieved before the inevitable breakdown.

Some of Biskind’s judgments are questionable. Brian De Palma plays only a minor role in his account while Robert Altman plays a large one — yet surely De Palma is more representative of Biskind’s “rock ‘n’ roll generation” than Altman, who is a Korean War-era figure. The book’s major failing, however, is Biskind’s cynical insistence on interpreting his subjects as exclusively driven by money, power and image. He is (in part) celebrating the era, but he seems determined to be tough on everyone (except for Hal Ashby, his martyr-saint figure).

Biskind’s get-the-goods approach ensures that nearly everyone in his book comes across as scum. It leaves him at a loss to account for talent and generosity and incapable of discussing whatever nonscummy side of these people their sometimes wonderful work emerged from. His excessively jazzed-up writing style doesn’t help. In an all-too typical passage, he allows an observer to conclude that, in winning Spielberg from Amy Irving, Kate Capshaw “outmanipulated the most manipulative woman who ever lived.” Bitchily amusing and “smart,” yes. But it doesn’t speak well for Biskind that he didn’t add a sentence of his own to allow for the possibility that Capshaw and Spielberg might have actually liked each other.

Biskind’s most important contribution is to demonstrate that what used to be known as the “movie brats” (Scorsese/Coppola/Schrader, etc.) were responsible for bringing about their own fall from grace. High on their defiant vision of movies as personal expression and determined to take over a system they professed to despise, they consumed too many drugs, allowed their heads to be turned by money, betrayed their friends and helped themselves to too many women. Finally, they lost their audience. They danced on the edge of the abyss, and then they fell right in.

The end of the moviemaking era known as “the ’70s” arrived with the overwhelming successes of “Jaws” and “Star Wars.” Sayonara art, hello action scenes and happy endings. Charles Fleming’s “High Concept” (Doubleday) concerns this post-“Star Wars” period. His book is a guilty pleasure, a garishly written, slapped-together piece of work delivered in punchy Variety-ese. (Fleming was once a reporter for Variety.)

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Charles Fleming

His subject, Don Simpson, was an emblem of the ’80s. Credited with inventing the high-concept movie — imagine that on your tombstone! — Simpson hit his stride with the immortal “Flashdance,” and went on, with his partner Jerry Bruckheimer, to produce the likes of “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Top Gun” — the kind of movie that Biskind in his book, and in his overwrought way, calls “the smarmy, feel-good pap of the coming cultural counterrevolution.”

Simpson created an infamous persona — he’d have hookers flown to his film sets, for example — and eventually established a reputation as “the town’s most notorious bad boy.” He also had, for a few years, a nearly perfect instinct for what the public could be sold and a peerless story sense, manifested in cocaine-fueled, 40-page faxed memos. Still, as tuned in as he was, “Simpson was never the audience. He dominated,” as one source said to Fleming.

Once successful, Simpson repeatedly revised the story of his beginnings in Alaska, feeding credulous journalists accounts of religious-fanatic parents, beatings and jail time, even going so far as to tell a reporter that he’d “hunted moose for dinner” when he was 7. In fact, Fleming establishes, Simpson came from a well-liked lower-middle-class family and was a quiet, foppish nerd — “a nice boy,” as one classmate remembers.

It’s hard to tell where Simpson’s narcissism ended and his insecurities began. He subjected his chunky, 5-7 frame to epic quantities of drugs and booze, to late-night binges on peanut butter and hamburgers, to crash diets and workouts, to testosterone implants and to at least 10 procedures by plastic surgeons, including a butt lift and a penis enlargement. When Simpson died in 1996 at the age of 52, the coroner found 27 prescription drugs in his blood, plus cocaine, heroin and booze.

A quickie movie bio to its core, Fleming’s book is short on insight, full of padding and rich in unnamed sources and careless copy editing. It’s also zesty and likable. Fleming has an endearing taste (and even some talent) for one of my favorite hard-boiled tropes, the two-sentence cliffhanger chapter kicker. “The year to come was to be the best in Simpson’s entire career,” he writes. “It would also be his last.”

Reporting on a world as image-conscious and self-dramatizing as Hollywood is like trying to build a house on quicksand. Movie people are gossip-driven, and they’re also professional dissimulators, so it’s never hard for a movie journalist to turn up delicious anecdotes. (Hollywood exists in part to feed our appetite for them.) But even if you find five people to confirm a story, you can usually only feel certain that what you’ve found is five people who have been amused by the same rumor.

This basic fact about movie-biz reporting isn’t a problem with Fleming’s book, which you read as you do the National Enquirer. Clad in a gaudy silver jacket, it isn’t likely to be mistaken for history. Biskind’s book is, and is likely to become, a standard source for discussions of ’70s movies. So it’s disappointing that he’s often less scrupulous than he might be about passing along implausibly juicy tales. When a concerned party takes issue, Biskind does, to his credit, include the denial, usually in parentheses. He doesn’t, of course, exclude the tale.

The few examples where I have first-hand knowledge of events recounted by Biskind suggest that his book shouldn’t be taken as gospel. For example, Biskind relates that Scorsese and his screenwriter friend Mardik Martin agree that the main problem they had with their botched “New York, New York” was the Earl Mac Rauch script they started with, which was supposedly unfinished and a mess in other ways too. Alas, not true. Years ago, I read that original script. It was a gem, and not just finished, but tightly structured and pungently written. And Biskind misspells “Mac Rauch.”

But even if only half of what these books relate is true, the wildlife on display is still pleasingly horrifying. Both books deliver memorable quotations, the best of them apparently generated at extreme moments of showbiz humiliation and exasperation. One source, describing the Simpson/Bruckheimer negotiating style, says, “It’s not ‘good cop, bad cop.’ It’s ‘bad cop, worse cop’.” Remembering the night his two-timing wife, Ali MacGraw, accompanied him to a party for his greatest triumph, “The Godfather,” the ineffably embarrassing Robert Evans recalls sadly: “She was looking at me and thinking of Steve McQueen’s cock.”

As fans of movie history well know, most of the men who manage to become filmmakers conform to the same template: part monster, part charmer, part alpha-male wannabe and (sometimes) part artist. The genuine charisma is overwhelmed in the long run by the need to be a big shot, whether artistic or commercial; Schrader confesses to Biskind that he screwed his own brother Leonard out of screen credits. Movie-book readers will also recognize another pattern: For all the heterosexual coupling that occurs, most of these men are far more interested in other men (their success, their wealth and their fame) than they are in women — hence the predilection for hookers, starlets and bunnies when the company of women is required.

Still, this group of moviemakers seems very different than similar figures in earlier ages. What’s missing is the carefree quality usually present in accounts of Hollywood life. Readers of Biskind and Fleming hoping for glamour are likely to be startled by its absence, and by the excretory fixations that the subjects display. Most only do so verbally; Simpson, fanatically determined to live his fantasies, is drawn to piss, dealing out abuse and shoving dildos where some might think they wouldn’t be welcome.

The characters are often so grotesque they seem to have arrived direct from Transylvania. Basic mood control seems a common challenge. William Friedkin, prone to rages and fits, literally foams at the mouth when angry. Coppola makes absurdly megalomaniacal announcements about the future of cinema, then spends weeks hiding from the editors of the movie he’s actually at work on. As for George Lucas, after years of whining that all he really wants to make is little experimental films, he finally decides that fate has determined that he should produce a “Star Wars” prequel trilogy. Those little experimental films will just have to wait a few more years.

Drugs are a convincing explanation for some of this gargoyle-like behavior; so too is the almost religious importance these men placed on being filmmakers — and the visceral aesthetic they pursued. If many earlier Hollywood entertainers offered the equivalent of champagne highs, the boomer filmmakers peddled blow-you-away, drug-style experiences. And where the earlier entertainers reveled in their good luck and their success, the boomer filmmakers pursued art and a place in the history books with earnestness, intensity and a sense of entitlement. Then Don Simpson came along, took their overwhelm-the-audience-with-sensations approach and rammed it home commercially. In fact, when you read both books, Simpson, usually portrayed as the opposite of the movie brats, comes across as the man who pulled it all together — the ultimate boomer auteur.

For anyone who followed movies in the ’70s and ’80s, Biskind and Fleming provide an opportunity to remember and reconsider. Those who weren’t there and who want to catch up could do worse than start with these books. But it may also be time to reconsider the view of movie history that these two authors, among many others, subscribe to. That view is itself a baby-boom phenomenon; in its focus on extremes and creators, it fails to account for a lot, some of which can be summarized in two simple words: “the audience.”

You learn from Biskind almost nothing about the movies most American moviegoers were paying to see in the ’70s. Among the decade’s hits were “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Blazing Saddles,” “The Longest Yard” and “The Groove Tube.” Fleming takes accurate aim at the frantic, never-enough side of the ’80s, but doesn’t hint at the existence of such relatively casual audience-pleasers as “Airplane” and “Tootsie.” As a result, their books are like those histories of the ’60s that leave you with the impression that everyone in the country was a pot-smokin’, free-lovin’ hippie.

Utopian moviemaking passion may indeed be largely a thing of the past in Hollywood, and a certain kind of moviegoing culture may well have died too. But mourning these facts can blind us to the pleasures that are to be found in the modest and the piecemeal; the absence of fevers and trends can itself be savored, frustrating though that may be to journalists. The supposedly desolate ’90s have delivered such varied delights as “Mimic,” “The Gingerbread Man,” “Devil in a Blue Dress,” “A Little Princess,” “Clueless,” “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” “Bound,” “Donnie Brasco,” “Breakdown” and “Before Sunrise.” Too scattershot a group to be called a movement, these works all display a determination on the part of their creators to make coherent entertainments out of the deconstructed bits and pieces the ’70s and ’80s left behind.

Even the success of “Titanic” doesn’t have to leave the educated moviegoer in despair. Inane as the movie is, the audience that loves it is enjoying glamour, thrills, eroticism and romance. Biskind writes about how most of the movie brats wanted to overwhelm with art (“the ’70s”); Fleming shows Simpson making attacks on the nervous system (“the ’80s”). Whatever its scale, “Titanic” isn’t an assault on the senses or the psyche. It also has a comprehensible shape — and its audience is rising to the screen to meet it. They’re identifying, dreaming and weeping (“the ’90s”?). It may be a good time for moviemakers (and for the people who write about them) to recall that part of the job of an entertainer is to give the audience room enough to have its own responses.

© 1998 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Salon magazine.

“The Operator” by Tom King, and “The Keys to the Kingdom” by Kim Master

By Ray Sawhill

In the world of Tom King’s “The Operator” (Random House), a biography of the music and movie mogul David Geffen, and of Kim Masters’ “The Keys to the Kingdom” (Morrow), an account of Michael Eisner’s reign at Disney, the media biz comes across as a pixilated moosh. The artists function like businesspeople, the businesspeople are creative, everyone lives in terror of where public taste will go next, and what comes into being around and because of the movies (publicity, gossip, spinoffs, documentaries) is more entertaining than the movies themselves.

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David Geffen

“I’m not Sammy Glick,” Geffen protests, referring to the unprincipled subject of Budd Schulberg’s 1941 Hollywood novel “What Makes Sammy Run?” Yet of course Geffen is Sammy Glick to a T, although a contemporary, gay variation on the standard grasping, vindictive theme.

Born in Brooklyn to an unambitious father who died early and a bossy, enterprising immigrant mother, Geffen was a flop at school, but fell in love with musicals and movies. Hustling a job in the mailroom at the William Morris Agency (he claimed that he was related to Phil Spector and had a degree from UCLA), he found his niche. Within just a few years he’d won the trust of up-and-coming artists (Laura Nyro, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell), and made himself the indulged protégé of powerful men (Clive Davis, Ahmet Ertegun). Soon he had a record label of his own. Asylum Records was, Geffen explained to the talent he wooed, meant to be an asylum for its artists. He’d care for his musicians personally; he’d look after them. Weren’t they surprised when he sold Asylum and moved on. Some years and a few attempts at moviemaking later, he was head of another new label. At Geffen Records, he explained, the artists came first. And weren’t those artists surprised when he sold Geffen Records, too.

Today Geffen is worth around $2 billion. He has produced a variety of movies, from “Risky Business” and “Personal Best” to “Interview With the Vampire,” and has cultivated a wide circle of high-powered friends and enemies. According to King, during his clawing-to-the-top days, Geffen was dismayed by his homosexuality; he formed intense friendships with Cher, Mitchell and a few other women while making compulsive use of male prostitutes. These days he’s open about being gay and is a big contributor to AIDS charities. A shrieker, a liar and a bully for most of his working life, he’s now entered a statesmanlike phase. He’s a partner in DreamWorks and has become a friend of Hillary and Bill’s, advising them on how to spin the press.

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Michael Eisner

Geffen is small, slim and hyper. Michael Eisner, who was once described by the late producer Don Simpson as “a big Gummi Bear,” is a more modern, self-satisfied kind of fat cat. He grew up wealthy on Park Avenue, wearing a jacket and tie to family dinners. Where Geffen is hysterical and pushy, Eisner is self-deprecating and entitled. According to Masters, he has some charm and smarts, and much self-possession; running things suits his sense of himself. He got started doing grunt jobs at NBC and CBS, made his mark at ABC, and together with Barry Diller, Dawn Steel, Don Simpson and Jeffrey Katzenberg, he was part of a famously aggressive executive team at Paramount. When that group fell apart, he got himself (and Katzenberg) hired by the moribund Walt Disney Productions. Together with the lawyer/executive Frank Wells, they worked the Disney brand. Out of their first 17 films, 15 made money, and within eight years, Disney was worth over 10 times what it was when Eisner, Wells and Katzenberg arrived.

Along the way, Eisner has also had some less well-known defeats. EuroDisney got off to a spectacularly bad start, losing over $1 billion in its first two years. A feud with Katzenberg led to a humiliating court battle, and Eisner’s choice of super-agent Mike Ovitz to be his No. 2 was an immediate disaster; after little more than a year on the job, Ovitz was given around $100 million to leave. Masters contends that, since the death of Wells in a helicopter crash and the departure of Katzenberg, who was largely responsible for the rebirth of Disney’s animation unit (and who wound up co-founding DreamWorks with Geffen and Steven Spielberg), Eisner has been floundering.

But along the way he has cashed some awfully big checks. In 1992, his salary and cashed-out stock options totaled more than $200 million, the largest sum the head of an American corporation had ever received. Where Geffen, in his new old-mogul way, actually has some dreams and some taste (he bought and refurnished a mansion that once belonged to Jack L. Warner, he owns art and he tries to make classy movies), Eisner, for all his affability and “warmth,” is professionally interested only in winning — Masters claims that Eisner doesn’t even enjoy dealing with “the talent.” Geffen appears to be more infuriating than Eisner, yet he’s also more appealing — he’s more mixed-up, a tiny part of him may actually love the arts and he has a streak of generosity.

There are some small practical lessons to be learned from these books, the most obvious being that if you can’t stand manic highs and suicidal lows, screaming, back-stabbing, and 24/7 work weeks, you’d probably do well to consider going into another field. It’s remarkable how few people with middle-class (as opposed to lower-working, or upper-middle/upper-class) backgrounds seem to find any success in the movie world. And sometimes it seems that being blessed with an adoring and ambitious Jewish mother is a prerequisite for success in Hollywood. Eisner’s mother was an “iron-willed” woman who regarded Michael as her “young prince” and “helped him cheat at his schoolwork.” Geffen’s mom considered David “a miracle child,” and called him “King David” right into young adulthood.

Both of these books encountered trouble on the way to the bookstore. King began his biography with Geffen’s cooperation — like Geffen, King is gay, and Geffen hoped a gay journalist’s view would result in a portrait of himself as a dignified, empowering role model. (He hoped to come across as a kind of showbiz Warren Buffett.) Partway through King’s research, though, Geffen shut King off without much explanation.

Still, the resulting book is anything but an attack. As a writer, King, a Wall Street Journal reporter, shows calm and intelligence, and he manages the occasional low-key insight. But most readers will probably wish that he’d taken the time to polish his many not-yet-there sentences, and made the effort to move his story along with more zip. Respectful and plodding, the book might have been written by a gentleman’s-butler robot.

Masters’ book has a very different tone — it has the fake urgency and portentousness of a New York magazine cover story. She promises to explain much of significance; “the Hollywood power structure would never be the same” is a phrase that seems to recur every few pages. Yet she never gets around to telling us what the change is. Her book was commissioned by Broadway Books, which dumped it as “unacceptable,” before being purchased and released by Morrow. In fact, it’s competent, pointless and rather deranged.

Masters seems like a classic example of a frantic media broad: “Stop me before I report again” is the subtext of her every paragraph. The same desperation also damaged “Hit and Run,” an account of the Jon Peters/Peter Guber reign at Columbia that she co-wrote with Nancy Griffin a few years ago. Eisner often comes across as a hazy figure; he refused the author’s requests for interviews, so Masters relies heavily on Katzenberg.

Although Masters is a contributing editor at Time and Vanity Fair, and an adequate writer of overheated magazine prose, she seems to have no sense of perspective, and a compulsion to gather and write down facts. A typical sentence: “DreamWorks lost out on the chance to have a Burger King tie-in by moving up the film, because such efforts must be planned many months in advance.” What is it that leaves her so clueless about what readers might actually care to know? Perhaps she just has little to say about the human content of her material, and so relies on facts, facts and more facts to carry her through. But page after page of descriptions of contract negotiations do not make for riveting reading. Geffen pops up on occasion, yet you’d hardly suspect from Masters’ descriptions of him how high-strung and abusive he can be. (King, in his index under “Geffen, David Lawrence, screaming of,” has 22 entries.)

As books, both are juiceless and pitilessly overdetailed. They do, however, leave you wondering: Why do so many articles and books about life behind the scenes in show business get published? My hunch is that it’s because editors of magazines and books see themselves reflected in the movie moguls and businesspeople. But perhaps readers actually like and demand these books and articles. After all, it’s still show business — bigger, sexier and more glamorous than our usual lives. These are stroke books for the power-and-glamour-hungry.

There is such a thing as a movie-business book that provides some illumination. Although garish and slapdash, such in-the-midst-of-it works as Jane Hamsher’s “Killer Instinct” (about the making of “Natural Born Killers”), Charles Fleming’s “High Concept” (a down and dirty biography of Don Simpson), Robert Evans’ breathtakingly shameless autobiography “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” and Julia Phillips’ notorious “You’ll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again” do give a reader a sense of what life in the movie business is like. You feel that you’ve encountered something authentic.

There are also a handful of civilized books that tell you directly about the business: Steven Bach’s “Final Cut,” for example, about United Artists and the “Heaven’s Gate”” disaster, and Julie Salamon’s account of the “Bonfire of the Vanities” fiasco, “The Devil’s Candy.” The screenwriter William Goldman recently published “Which Lie Did I Tell,” a sequel to his “Adventures in the Screen Trade” — as a writer, he’s tough and self-satisfied, but he does a good job of spelling out what it is the movie business exists to do, and how it generally goes about doing it.

“The Operator” and “The Keys to the Kingdom,” though, are predicated entirely on our (supposedly) pre-existing interest in all things behind-the-scenes. King manages a few passages about Geffen’s taste, Masters almost none about Eisner’s or Katzenberg’s. As character studies, these flattened-out artifacts are just raw material. And as for the impact these men have had on the products their businesses make, or the culture at large? Next to nada. Too long, too sober and too well-vetted to qualify as guilty-pleasure wallows in show-biz outrageousness and misbehavior, these books are likely to please only those readers whose Player Within demands constant feeding.

© 2000 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Salon magazine.