“Voyeur”

voyeur

Loose Talk

By Polly Frost and Ray Sawhill

Ray Sawhill: “Voyeur” is a video game with sex-thriller and “Dynasty”-like narrative elements. It’s played on your TV, meant to be enjoyed by grown-ups, and to turn them on.

Polly Frost: Computers, multimedia, pornography … Why do I have to share your enthusiasms?

RS: I don’t care if you share them. I only want to know how you react to them.

PF: I really went for Masa, the Japanese eco-terrorist. He’s one Pacific-Rim hunk! You seemed to like the scene where that major cocktease Chloe, in skimpy undies, interrupts Masa’s martial arts work-out and gets him to rub her shoulders. You interacted your way every single time to her cute little blonde-girl butt.

RS: Only because it reminded me of yours.

PF: Hah. And you liked the line Chloe says to her cousin’s uptight wife Lara, “The bra has to go.” Would you like to say that to your woman?

RS: Actually, I liked hearing a woman say it to a woman.

PF: How passive of you. “Voyeur” is about as effective a marital aid as getting a flat when you’re on vacation, and one of you has to read the instructions while the other one changes the tire.

RS: An erotic suspense story should have an I’m-on-a-waterslide excitement. In a movie it can be arousing that you can’t re-run a favorite scene — narrative does have its purposes. I never experienced linearity as the horrible thing some theorists make it out to be. Did you?

PF: I grew up on the LA freeways. I wouldn’t know what linearity is.

RS: Now that digital media give us the ability to bring up our favorite movie and video bits instantly, and run them past over and over, I wonder what new frustrations and yearnings we’ll discover. How did the partial point-of-view work for you?

PF: It was like a Christmas advent calendar. You’re in an apartment, looking through a video camera. Across the way is the mansion of a powerful, sinister family. You’re peering into their windows, at pieces of a story. Some are video segments with actual actors, some are audio clips, some are clues you zoom in and pick out. You have a limited amount of time to solve the mystery. Then you warn the character in danger, or you contact the police. When I heard the words “interactive multimedia” I was afraid I was going to have to do a lot more than that.

RS: “Voyeur” is halfway between a movie and a video game, and it isn’t a satisfying mesh.

PF: If you play a typical video game, you enter into it as a character, like Sonic the Hedgehog. He’s your id set free. “Voyeur” would be more fun if you could be Reed, who wants to be President and tries to bury his dirty secrets, or Chantal, the dominatrix who really runs his empire.

RS: It seems to have been made by entrepreneurs rather than entertainers.

PF: It didn’t lead to great sex; it led to weird dreams when we conked out instead.

RS: And different kinds of dreams than the ones movies stir up.

PF: Death or sex should be the catharsis of interaction. In “Voyeur” I never even got to see anyone killed. It might work if my prurient interests were being more expertly catered to.

RS: Inept game-players like us need more payoffs along the way. Maybe what’s supposed to be adult about “Voyeur” is the endlessly postponed pleasure.

PF: Interactive multimedia makes me feel like I’m in one of those restaurants where they tell you to create your own omelet. I say, show me what your chef can do. Then let me bitch about it. I don’t want to be the one who decides whether Anna Karenina jumps in front of that train! Is it the technology itself that turns you on?

RS: It’s like watching the birth of a new medium. Imagine being in on the first days of movies, when people were trying things out that had never been seen before.

PF: Film seems far richer than multimedia.

RS: I think that’s because only a few people have begun learning how to do more with multimedia than show off the technology. Lousy as “Voyeur” is, look at how complicated even it gets. When we cut in close to gather evidence we sometimes wind up looking at someone’s computer — we’re watching our TV, which is portraying an image seen through a video camera that shows us a message on a computer screen. For 25 years, worlds-within-worlds self-referentiality was an aspect of art that baby boomers were obsessed by. Who knows why? But for better or worse multimedia is the recently-hatched culmination of that obsession. And people are still mostly just fumbling around with it.

PF: It gave me a headache.

RS: Humanizing the computer world and learning how to interact with it are two of the great intellectual/aesthetic challenges of our day. Can I make some other fast points?

PF: Only if you number them. I love it when you make lists.

RS: 1) When you’re using it with interactive programs, your TV becomes a different device than the one that’s discussed by critics of TV like Neil Postman. It’s no idiot box. Imagine: all that theorizing disproved, just like that. 2) Videocam style is entirely different from the classic visual language of the movies, and may be obliterating it. 3) The home entertainment center — the stereo/TV/computer rig — is today’s cathedral, museum and theater. 3a) Don’t do that.

PF: Don’t do what?

RS: Don’t scratch your back yourself. Think interactive, baby. Tell me how you want it scratched.

PF: Down up down right there yes not there do it right aaaahhhh. This is exactly why I find “Voyeur” boring — if I’m going to boss someone around I want to do it in person.

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

Guest Choice

By Ray Sawhill

I have experienced “video on demand” and I’m spoiled for good. Ordering up what you want when you want it — that’s what video on demand means. At any time of the day — late, early, 13 minutes before the hour or 21 minutes after — you can point the remote control, click a few times, and start the program you choose.

Although video on demand won’t be generally available for five or ten years, you can get a taste of it now if you spend a night in one of the 125,000 hotel rooms that have been wired up to Guest Choice, a service devised by the visionaries at Spectradyne, the Dallas company that pioneered cable and pay-per-view movies in hotel rooms. Offering only a hundred or so programs — movies, sports features, “classic TV” — and working not via fiber-optic wires and computers but a videocassette jukebox, Guest Choice is a modest and quaintly low-tech version of the service.

Still, making use of it, you know that your relationship with the television has changed forever. It takes a moment or two to get used to the fact that your TV wants you to tell it what programming to deliver. Then it seems natural; after all, isn’t this the direction the human/television exchange was meant to take from the beginning? Within minutes, it becomes impossible to conceive of going out to a movie, or renting a videocassette, or waiting around for a program to begin.

Video on demand is obscenely pleasing — like having Rebecca de Mornay appear at your door and say, “Hi, I’m yours, do with me what you will.” It’s the ultimate in room service, and it’s instantly and completely corrupting. Now that it has arrived, it’s time to agree once and for all that television is the most seductive and versatile of all appliance/media/toys. Like de Mornay’s character in “Risky Business,” video on demand costs. But when it becomes available at home, the only reason you’ll have to go out will be to earn the money you need to afford to stay in.

    • Wikipedia offers a good entry on the topic of video on demand.
    • The industry’s early days were driven by a demand for — surprise, surprise — porn.

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

Cannibal Culture 3

By Ray Sawhill

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

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

Cannibal Culture 2

By Ray Sawhill

Over and over I hear — sometimes from young people, sometimes from video-parlor clerks — that people in their 20s won’t watch black and white movies. Yet ads and music videos aimed at young people often use black and white.

How to account for this? My guess is that it isn’t just a question of pacing. In the ads and videos, black and white is used as a sign. We read its meaning: “low-budget integrity,” “drained of affect,” “1950s glamor” — nostalgia for the childhood someone, somewhere must have had. In the old movies, black and white doesn’t need de-coding.

20somethings seem to find it inconceivable that one might move into and inhabit a language. Suggest that it’s possible, and they look at you with “what kind of dinosaur are you?” disbelief. External reality consists of a desktop to be customized, and icons to be clicked on.

Movie language, evolved during the “organic unity” modernist era, strikes young people as fit only to be parodied, referred to ironically, or shunned.

***

The baby boomers who now run the media were once known as the Movie Generation. The 20somethings, their progeny, may be the Anti-Movie Generation, even when they make movies. In their films, people wander out of frame, someone horses with a videocam, partners shift, time drizzles by. Finally, someone confesses that he feels miserable.

***

“Bodies, Rest and Motion,” “Clerks,” “Reality Bites,” and the grandaddy of the genre, “Sex, Lies and Videotape” — even the titles demand a lower-case, sans-serif typeface. There’s something abroad that’s beyond language, we’re being told. It demands diagramming-out, new thought patterns, new technologies.

***

“Late Bloomers,” by David Lipsky and Alexander Abrams, is subtitled “Coming of Age in Today’s America: The Right Place at the Wrong Time” (Times). There aren’t any surprises in the Generation X complaints it sets forth: AIDS, the deficit, divorced baby boomer parents. GenXers of the most self-conscious type — MediaSomethings — Lipsky and Abrams spend most of the book worrying about media portrayals, complaining about them in one paragraph, using them to bolster their case in the next.

***

The MediaSomethings have grown up surrounded by cameras and recording devices. They seem to want to protest against the society of the spectacle, and to be videotaped doing so.

As prose writers, the MediaSomethings have two major modes: the mock-selling (ie., commercial) style, and the no-style (ie., truth or art) style.

The commercial style seems to come equally from ads, stand-up comics, e-mail, and video jockeys. It’s raucous — full of imperatives, YO!-style attention-grabbers, dropped subjects, and invisible auxiliary verbs. It’s prose that wears its baseball cap backwards, and pushes its snout into a wide-angle lens. Entire sentences seem to turn into contractions. “Never mind those stories about … “; “So it’s gross. So what did you expect?”

***

The art style is in love with the poignancy of nothingness. Lipsky and Abrams stand firmly, or limply, in this camp. Their specialty is the forlorn, stray clause, and the whimsically dangled participle: “It wasn’t a surprise, exactly … Perhaps, in a weird way … Divorced, you see them as people … ” These are words lying immobile among dirty sheets, mourning another drab day, unable even to shut off the alarm.

***

Elements of the MediaSomething magazine style include mix-‘n’-match visuals, splatter-font typography, and tail-end-of-the-roll photos. In book-jacket design, the wan, faded-and-blurred photograph has already become a cliché. So have brackets used for no grammatical reason.

The mainstream has been quick to pick the style up. Nonsense brackets have made appearances in ads for Ikea, the discount-furniture chain. New York Magazine’s recent makeover features blocks of type crushed together, and a color-Xerox-and-video palette. When layouts first started being done on Macintoshes, the idea was to use the machines to streamline the design process. Now ads, magazines, and books are made to look like computer screens. The world inside the computer has become primary. “The trash can in your office has become an icon for the trash can on your Mac screen,” an artist friend says.

***

Another artist tells me that when he shows his students a slide of, say, a Velázquez, he can’t get them to see it as a unique work. It registers instead as “Old Master.” “To them, an image is only an example of a category of images,” he says.

***

The professor and critic Hal Foster described in the Times what he sees as a new “ethic of the loser,” and managed a good description of Nirvana’s music: “a lullaby droned to the dreamy beat of the death drive.” Still, I think he’s wrong to find only defeatism there. Not working in a media factory, he may not hear the sound — it may be a whine, but it’s a self-confident whine — of the MediaSomethings making their way.

My theory is this: the MediaSomethings were raised under the spell of victimology and deconstruction, yet they still crave stardom and sex. So they brandish not self and language, but the signs of victimhood. Hence, young guys in granny dresses and dreadlocks, young women in washed-out babydolls and tatoos.

***

A man who once did business with Kurt Cobain told me (with wry exasperation) that what isn’t understood about Cobain is how badly he wanted stardom. My theory suggests that Cobain’s suicide was the ultimate act of MediaSomething self-assertion. Bookstores are awash in new titles by and for MediaSomethings, but none have sold many copies. Why? Shannon Maughan and Jonathan Bing report in Publishers Weekly that young people prefer to buy products that blur boundaries — CD-ROMs, book-and-disc packages. A bookstore manager tells me that what he sees young people buying are books about television. One hit was “The Entertainment Weekly Seinfeld Companion.”

Publishers are still trying to find a formula, according to Maughan and Bing. Silhouette has kicked off a series of romance novels featuring “dismal entry-level jobs, credit card debts, drugs and HIV infection.” One agent has reached a sensible conclusion. Since “corporate America is obsessed with marketing to Generation X,” he said, let’s sell the books about 20somethings to the baby boomers.

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

Cannibal Culture 1


By Ray Sawhill

In his new “The Gutenberg Elegies” (Faber and Faber), the literary critic Sven Birkerts wants us to know how much reading and writing matter to him. Really, that’s his theme. The changeover from ink-on-paper to electronics elicits from him ruminations, intimacies, autobiographical scourings. We learn about his spells as a bookstore employee, his attempt at novel-writing, the time he met Joseph Brodsky. We learn that reading and writing matter a lot to Sven Birkerts.

It’s a fussily literary, drippy book, but that drippiness may be one of the perils of book-besottedness. We bond with some books. They can seem to speak to our most private selves. We can even feel that our autobiographies consist of the books we’ve read. (At surlier moments, we can feel that our truest autobiographies consist of the porn we’ve collected.)

We learn that Birkerts disapproves of computers, although we don’t find out why we should care. Birkerts doesn’t propose any way of putting a stop to the things, and he doesn’t assemble an entertainingly, or enlighteningly, Luddite vision. His book is finally a symptom of the mush-headedness of the bookish; what it expresses is a reverence for books per se.

My quarrel with Birkerts, who’s generally a good critic, may be a matter of temperament. I love some books; some I hate; some I like OK; most I couldn’t care less about. It’s what people do (or don’t do) with them that matters to me.

***

If Birkerts is at the stern, waving a damp hankie at the native land he fears he’ll never see again, Paul Goldstein, in “Copyright’s Highway” (Hill and Wang), stands at the helm alongside the harder-headed people. We may not know what lies before us, Goldstein seems to feel, but that’s no reason not to pull out the sextant.

What makes copyright a fascinating topic right now is that digital electronics permit flawless duplication. Plug into what Goldstein calls the “celestial jukebox,” and such concepts as “uniqueness” and “authenticity” become meaningless; you’re instantly in a post-Walter Benjamin, post-Situationist, post-Derrida world. Everything’s a copy, or maybe nothing is.

Goldstein runs us through copyright’s history, compares Anglo to non-Anglo assumptions about intellectual property, and takes us inside some key recent cases (photocopying, sampling). His theme is: what will happen to producers of intellectual property when “digital sampling shreds their works into bits and pieces, free for users to recombine into entirely different forms?”

This isn’t the book on the relations between copyright law and artistic form you may hope for, even though Goldstein pauses to comment that “copyright law indelibly colors the works it encompasses.” Still, his discussion of legal practicalities sparks off more brain circuits — even those concerned with aesthetic matters — than Birkerts’ self-scrutiny does.

***

New York isn’t a bad place to watch the celestial jukebox take shape. Warner Books has given an imprint — traditionally a kind of fiefdom awarded to an editor of distinction — to the TV executive Brandon Tartikoff. He’ll be developing projects with “multi-platform” possibilities. Hyperion has paid as much as a million dollars to the brothers who created the computer game “Myst,” for a novel they have written with a collaborator. Mischievously, Catbird Press, Online BookStore and the author Floyd Kemske have been posting drafts of Kemske’s novel-in-progress on the Internet, so the public can help edit the book.

***

Vintage, in their publicity material for Camille Paglia’s “Vamps and Tramps,” include a page-long statement from James Wolcott that was found on a computer chat board. This may be the dawn of the unsolicited electro-blurb.

Paglia’s (very entertaining) book consists of articles, reviews, interviews, transcripts of TV shows she’s appeared on, even blurbs (of Gutenberg-era vintage) she’s written for other people’s books. There’s also an appendix that’s a detailed record of her ongoing assault on popular culture. (Several references are made to The Modern Review.) It has to be the most miscellaneous miscellany of all time. You might call it a multimedia extravaganza.

***

The reputation of that former godhead Sigmund Freud has fallen so low that his defenders are resorting to desperation measures. Harold Bloom, Paglia’s mentor, includes Freud among the great writers in his “The Western Canon.” Here’s his rationale: “Freud called himself a scientist, but he will survive as a great essayist like Montaigne or Emerson.” It’s almost too easy to point out that Montaigne and Emerson didn’t pretend to be scientists.

***

Bloom supplies a blurb for “Freud’s Wishful Dream Book” by Alexander Welsh. Another of the book’s blurbs is from Frederick Crews, Freud’s most relentless debunker. How can this be? Welsh’s book is a lit-crit treatment of “The Interpretation of Dreams,” and it’s the lit-critness of it that brings Bloom and Crews together. Bloom, eager for Freud’s scientific pretensions to be forgotten so as to get on with enshrining him as a literary genius, is delighted. Crews, eager to see those pretensions demolished so as to destroy Freud’s reputation entirely, is delighted too.

***

In “The Myth of Irrationality” (Carroll & Graf), John McCrone argues that the Freudian model of personality walks hand in hand with romanticism and modernism, and that we know too much now to see these doctrines as anything but quasi-religions. McCrone suggests that part of the appeal of Freudianism is simply that it makes life seem more dramatic. In his view, personality consists of a body — literally — of animal needs, atop which sits a cultural superstructure. Language is what connects the two; it trains the animal.

In one passage, he reviews the evidence we have of people without any culture — feral children, and untutored deaf and blind children — in order to venture an answer to the question: what do unmediated lives consist of? It turns out that when these children are hungry, they eat. When they need to crap, they crap. Occasionally they hump something. The rest of the time, they snooze, scratch, and rock on their heels. Such, it seems, may be the real beast within.

***

If appearances — as in haircuts and clothes — are any indication, no doubt can remain any more that digital media are the coming thing. The best-looking kids I’ve seen since my last trip to California were students at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (the wired generation’s equivalent of film school), and employees at Voyager, a publisher of literary CD-ROMs.

Meanwhile, audiences at the New York Film Festival look seedier every year. They’re really in a rut. During the q&a sessions after screenings, the audiences asked the same questions they’ve asked for decades: how difficult a time did you have making your film? How horrible was it to get financing? There’s something almost pornographic in the festival audience’s need to do battle for the artist.

By contrast, after an evening of CD-ROM presentations, the well-groomed, bright-eyed crowd didn’t want to know how society should protect and nurture its poor artists. They wanted to know how to do this nifty multimedia stuff for themselves.

***

At another evening’s presentation — this one of rock videos — our host called the videos he was showing “subversive.” I took him to mean that he liked them. It’s a mystery why more art and entertainment-world people still haven’t caught onto the fact that the — or at least a — revolution has already occurred. With computers infiltrating work and home like invaders from Mars, there’s no need for anyone to promote deconstruction anymore. The machines are taking care of it by themselves.

An example: the place of literature within the marketplace of books. Look at the way fiction is broken down into horror, westerns, mystery, romance, literature, fiction (i.e., current literary titles), and other categories. 20 years ago that wasn’t the case. If fiction was broken down at all, it was into fiction, bestsellers and “classics.” In other words, in the typical American bookstore, right now, literature has already been de-privileged. It doesn’t represent the pinnacle of anything. It’s simply one category like any other. (Harold Bloom is probably right when he says that the battle for “greatness” has already been lost.) The reason has nothing to do with Marxist theory, and everything to do with the computerization of inventories.

***

The computer world doesn’t lack for utopians with therapeutic agendas. The faith of the digital propagandists — I think of them as the Digi-Props — is that the computer will set free the native genius of the people. (Therapist/utopians always see such energies as being released, not created.)

One Digi-Prop at a recent conference recounted her dismay at finding so very much bad writing on the Internet. A moment of bracing realism? Far from it. She told us that she finally realized that what she had encountered wasn’t poor thinking, poorly expressed. It was rich with qualities of its own. She colored slightly as she said this, but with fervor, not embarrassment. It was up to us (presumably the rightly-guilty cognitive elite) once again to reserve judgment, and (wouldn’t you know it?) to deconstruct our thinking about what constitutes “good writing.” She looked shyly beatific. She had confronted her doubts, and overcome them.

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

Amateur Pornography

amateur02

By Ray Sawhill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Electronic Film Editing

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A Final Cut Pro editing screen

The New Jump Cut

By David Ansen and Ray Sawhill

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

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

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

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

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Moviolas went into general use in the 1920s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©1996 by Newsweek Inc. Reproduced by permission.

“Nashville,” directed by Robert Altman

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“Nashville” at 25

By Ray Sawhill

1. 1975

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Henry Gibson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Robert Altman directing “Nashville”

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

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

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

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

2. America, after the breakdown

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Ronee Blakley and Allen Garfield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Barbara Harris (in yellow top)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ronee Blakley

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

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

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

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

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

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Lily Tomlin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. The cinema of information

final scene crowd from above

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

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

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

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

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

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Scott Glenn and Geraldine Chaplin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eroticism in Movies

dancing

The Tantric Moviegoer

By Ray Sawhill

In a long, charged sequence in “Dirty Dancing,” the working-class hunk Johnny (Patrick Swayze) is teaching the pampered teenager Baby (Jennifer Grey) how to dance.

At one point he’s behind her and, with one hand on her bare belly, he uses the other to raise her arm up behind his head in a passionately nuzzling posture. Then he releases her arm and lets his free hand trail down her side, tracing her underarm and the outside curve of her breast. Baby bursts into laughter. Every time he attempts the move, the squirmy, eager girl gets the giggles. She just can’t contain herself.

Finally, after a few stern, almost disgusted looks from Johnny, Baby manages to keep a straight face. Her eyes twinkle softly, and her movements and breathing slow down — Baby has found her groove. Only now can the dance lesson proceed.

“Dirty Dancing” is the movie equivalent of a dopey juvenile novel, but it has a number of such primal scenes, and when it opened in 1987 it quickly became a surprise hit. Theaters were jammed with beaming, liquefying women of all ages, many of whom saw the movie over and over. What excited and pleased them wasn’t just images of great pecs, fab butts and poppin’ energy. It was the movie’s portrayal of a young woman opening up to her deep sensations of lust and desire (and perhaps also the fantasy that she could come into her own, sexually, in a matter of weeks).

These days I think the culture of moviegoing has developed an incurable case of Baby’s giggles. Too often when at the movies, I feel the way I feel when I look at the local magazine stand — blinded by overbrightness, as though the whole world has gone on Prozac.

All this sexiness and so little eroticism. What happened? Eroticism has always been a wonderful motor force for moviegoers and moviemakers. Older readers will remember the sultriness in movies from the teens through the ’80s. Silent-era stars such as Theda Bara and Clara Bow had it — Bow’s most famous movie was called “It,” and erotic allure and vivacity was what “it” referred to.

Clark Gable radiated a gloating dangerousness; Cary Grant embodied, in Pauline Kael’s words, “the perfect date.” Marlene Dietrich made her very first appearance in an American movie, the 1930 Josef Von Sternberg film “Morocco,” dressed in a man’s suit, showing off exotic cheekbones and singing a slow, insinuating song. She kissed a female customer on the mouth, tipped her hat rakishly and disappeared into the shadows, leaving audiences to look forward to what ambiguous delights she might purvey next. It was a moment of Mayan/deco splendor the equal of the ornate movie theaters of that era.

Even jungle fantasies did their best to give eroticism form. In 1932’s “Tarzan, the Ape Man,” Johnny Weismuller’s build and swimming prowess are still impressive. In his loincloth, and with his hairless chest, this Tarzan is a genuine hunk. He has a heavy-lidded, sexily coiffed beauty, and his command of the animal kingdom has its allure.

Maureen O’Sullivan’s Jane is ladylike and practical. When she’s kidnapped, she’s pawed, poked and hauled around by the ape man and his animal friends; her dishevelment and wet-eyed looks of distress are very suggestive. She and Tarzan grow comfortable with each other when they horse around together in a river. She’s never felt so physically at ease as she does with this man-beast; for a moment, she bobs there in his arms, amused and aroused that he can’t understand a word she says.

There’s a dissolve, and the next time we see Jane, she’s lying on a branch above a stream. Her hair is askew, her hands weave the air and water idly, and she’s comfortable in her hips in a new kind of way. The image has a comic dreaminess — it’s one of the best movie images of post-coital satisfaction. Everything about Jane is smiley and relaxed; everything about her says, “So that’s what it’s all about.”

The way black-and-white photography stylizes movie action may help explain why so many movies of the ’30s have the quality of erotic reverie. But even in the 1950s, when color grew commonplace, directors and cinematographers knew how to use magazine layout-like compositions and designer-kitchen colors to stamp the eyeball in ravishing ways.

Hitchcock’s 1954 “Rear Window” is full of images worthy of being isolated and turned into movie posters. Grace Kelly, with perfect blond hair and red lips, wears black and white chiffon and, later, a memorable mint-colored suit; she spends the whole movie trying to seduce James Stewart.

rear window

Skeptical at first that anything’s amiss across the courtyard, she’s resourceful and twinkly once her imagination is touched, and almost impossible to shock. She’s like an enchanting child whose sweetness leads you to believe that she’s an innocent — yet, moments later, you stumble in on her playing sex games with a neighbor boy. The boundary between the innocent and the dirty simply doesn’t exist for her. She’s socially proper and privately amoral at the same time, as though that were perfectly natural; she’s as open to the pleasure of illicit thoughts as the biggest lecher, and has a secret pride in that fact.

At one point she brings over to Stewart’s apartment a tiny suitcase and announces that she’s going to spend the weekend. When she pops the suitcase open, revealing a fluffy pile of silky and satiny nothings — you can almost smell the gentle perfume she’s sprinkled on them — she gives Stewart a softly quizzical look. It’s the slyest, most charming image of a woman (boldly and demurely, proudly yet shyly) revealing her pussy to a man that I know of.

European stars such as Jean Gabin, Jeanne Moreau and Marcello Mastroianni introduced several generations of Americans to the seductiveness of the downbeat and the fatalistic. The 1960s can also boast Anna Karina and Angie Dickinson, Federico Fellini and Claude Chabrol. And then there’s 1967 and the moment near the end of “Bonnie and Clyde” when Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway realize they’re surrounded by the law; they manage to give each other a “you’ve been the world to me, baby” look the instant before the bullets begin to tear them apart.

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The 1970s were almost dementedly full of movie sex: 1971’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” was suffused with a sultry, opium-filled mood; the obvious and classic “Deep Throat” (1972) and “Last Tango in Paris” (1973) are a few other examples. In 1978, “Saturday Night Fever” showed how sexy working-class disco dancing could be, and how frustrated young men could get in the back seats of their cars.

Even the bad old Reagan/Bush 1980s and early 1990s yielded a generous, potent crop of erotic movies: David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet,” for instance, as well as Mike Figgis’ “Internal Affairs,” and Stephen Frears’ “Dangerous Liaisons.”

In the Clinton years, for whatever reasons, movie eroticism has become scarce. This is a peculiar moviegoing time. There have been a few pictures that have made a point of capturing and purveying eroticism — Taylor Hackford’s “Devil’s Advocate,” for example, had a reckless, overheated extravagance (and also helped introduce two promising young blonds, Charlize Theron and Connie Nielsen). The French have come through with some movies that have a shimmer: examples include “Mon Homme,” “Un Coeur en Hiver” and “Romance.” The straight-to-video underground still delivers the occasional treat. The Italian vampire movie “Cemetery Man,” for example, is worth digging up for its trash poeticism and zanily morbid fervor.

But what’s sold to us now and praised as sophisticated often couldn’t be more anti-erotic. “American Beauty”? I appreciated the voyeurism and teen nudity, but could have done without the anti-suburbia scolding. “Boys Don’t Cry” did deliver Chloë Sevigny bare breasted and trembling for a minute or two, but made you pay a high price — you spend the entire movie dreading the final rape/beating/murder. “Exotica” was “Showgirls” for high-minded depressives. Neil LaBute’s specialty seems to be taking the joy out of everything, in a corrosive, NC-17 kind of way.

Has there been a recent movie you’ve wanted to attend primarily in the hope of encountering some intriguing eroticism? Examples such as “Eyes Wide Shut” and “How Stella Got Her Groove Back” — effective or not — haven’t been numerous.

Another puzzle of recent years is: Why have the movie critics been treating movie sex and eroticism so flippantly? Can eroticism really be of so little importance to them? What, for heaven’s sake, do they go to the movies for? But perhaps they really aren’t all that interested, or perhaps their editors don’t want them to go on about the subject.

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Or perhaps I’m an exception. If it weren’t for movie eroticism, I might well be an average suburbanite, and an occasional moviegoer. Because of movie eroticism, I’ve been a dedicated moviegoer for 30 years. I can enjoy an action/adventure pic, or an indie, or a comedy. OK, seldom an indie. (And, God knows, never a Chinese film.) But I’m always, always hoping to stumble across some resonant sexiness. I’m fascinated by the way certain shots and situations work, whether for me or for other people.

I’m amazed and tickled at how much mental energy I can spend wondering about such questions as, What happened to Debra Winger’s special lustiness? And what became of the inkily perverse Jenny (“Near Dark”) Wright? Ever since seeing last year’s surprise Ashley Judd hit, “Double Jeopardy,” I’ve been thinking more than anyone ought to about that movie’s couple of moments of female nudity. The picture is a suspense number for McCall’s subscribers, the equivalent of a Mary Higgins Clark novel.

Yet women generally are turned off by nudity — as a movie executive once said to me, “Men will drive 10 miles out of their way to watch a woman take her clothes off. Women are more interested in how a man wears his clothes than in how he looks without them.” So how did “Double Jeopardy” deliver some nudity without alienating the middle-class women in its audience? Does nudity become acceptable when the rest of the movie caters expertly to their preferences? Did they take it as a bit of enjoyable spiciness? I simply don’t know.

I do know that heterosexual men and boys, given a camera, will within minutes start to plot ways of shooting women getting undressed. For all the propaganda encouraging us to believe that women can look at men in the same way men eye women — of course they can, but do they in practice? — I know of only a couple of movies where a female filmmaker looks at men with this kind of insistent gusto: Leni Riefenstahl in “Olympiad” and Kathryn Bigelow in “Point Break.” My theory is that most women tend to enjoy imagining themselves as the star who reveals herself to the camera, while most men tend to enjoy imagining pointing the lens.

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Is there a better way to explain why the covers of both men’s magazines and women’s magazines so often feature beautiful women? An underseen movie that takes some of this into account is Karen Arthur’s 1987 (those ’80s!) “Lady Beware,” starring Diane Lane. A reworking of Hitchcock from a woman’s point of view, it isn’t a triumph as a thriller — have you noticed that women generally don’t show the same passion for the mechanical and the suspenseful that men often do? But it’s full of unusual moments of feminine bodily self-awareneness. The beauty, vulnerability and sensuality that Arthur and Lane put onscreen is a convincing display of female power. Why haven’t feminist movie critics made more of this film?

If I remain an eager moviegoer after all these years, it’s largely because of my pleasure in watching female performers. I sometimes fall in love with them a little; I develop imaginary relationships with them, and wonder about their careers and their acting choices. I’m exasperated by, yet fond of, the way some actresses will protect themselves in big commercial movies, yet will give their all for art. At the moment, I’m taken by (among others) Judd. I enjoy her talent, her beauty and her several personas — she’s part down-to-earth regular gal, part I’ll-do-anything starlet, part serious-artist wannabe.

In “Normal Life,” Judd played a crazy working-class woman — a frigid cock-tease — and spent a good part of the movie naked. Has her “Double Jeopardy” audience seen “Normal Life”? Unlikely. And how would they react?

I adore Joely Richardson above all current actresses, and pray for the day when the version of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” that she filmed under Ken Russell’s direction becomes available in the States. Until then, memories of her angular eccentricity, her wit and her flesh from “Drowning by Numbers” will have to do.

Patricia Arquette, another current favorite, didn’t get naked onscreen until Lynch’s truly awful 1997 “Lost Highway.” Was it the Lynch mystique that persuaded her? In the film’s one scene of loony genius, a thug holds a gun to Arquette’s head as she stands before a repulsive Mafia chief. Without a word, she understands what’s expected, and slowly disrobes; at first she’s fearful and resentful, then she starts liking it. The scene is like a creepy embodiment of what the director-actress or audience-actress relationship can sometimes seem to be all about, and a touching reminder of how actresses sometimes triumph over the prying eyes of the men around them, and over their own self-consciousness, too.

Arquette wore her hair blond in “Lost Highway” — do actresses feel more comfortable doing nude scenes as blonds? Do directors prefer to put blond hair on their naked actresses? Mulling over such questions, my head spins; I’m happy.

Perhaps one explanation for the current near-absence of what we might call traditional movie eroticism is the preeminence of TV, video and the Web as media forms. TV used to aspire to be like the movies. Now the effort is going in the opposite direction, into making movies more like TV, ads, rock videos and Web sites. There’s a big difference between new-media sexiness and movie eroticism.

Video tends to make everything literal and raucous. Tasty bits aren’t just brought to the surface, they’re made ultrabrite, and actively go after your nerve endings. This is sex as special effects and packaging, all tweaked and Photoshopped. It’s sex for kids, the kind of sex you run out of energy for at about the age of 30 — around the same time, perhaps not coincidentally, many people lose interest in new pop music. (Has anyone yet made a movie that has intriguing sensual qualities using this new pumped-up, one-blast-after-another, nonlinear language? Some would say “Fight Club,” others have made a case for “Run Lola Run.” I’d argue for “The Matrix.” Whatever the case, there haven’t been many.)

As it’s generally used and encountered, video is either in “sell” mode (snazziness and production values = you’re being sold) or “reality” mode (no professionalism = truth), interrupted by the occasional blast of ESPN2-style nutcase edginess: ahh, “excitement!” Your nerves get a jangling, but you may wind up feeling like a figure from one of those out-of-focus, dysfunctional-life-in-the-‘burbs literary book jackets: a flattened, wispy creature romping wanly in a backyard somewhere, recalling — too late! — the bliss of not growing up.

No wonder younger people sometimes say they feel like oversated, over-focus-grouped consumers before they feel like anything else. During a water-cooler conversation with a lively young co-worker the other day, I made a passing reference to “adult pleasures.” “Such as what?” she said challengingly.

If media sexiness tends to be like a Big Gulp, movie eroticism can sometimes be like wine; it can have layers and depth. At its best, it’s about seduction and invitation, and it coaxes responses out of you, even if (occasionally) brutally. It’s almost embarrassing how basic some of the reasons for this are — so basic we often forget what they are.

For instance: Movies have beginnings and ends, while the many channels of video just go on and on. Within delimited movie space and time, structured experiences can be created that are comprehensible and discussable — you don’t need to banter with friends to get oriented, or to hold what you’re watching at a distance. Languorousness, so important to mood, takes on meaning in movies; in video it seems like an absence of pace. Just as basic is the fact that the movie image is far more detailed and denser than the video image. There’s simply more to take in — and because there is, you’re more likely to enter into its world.

The ritual of moviegoing contributes to the qualities we think of as cinematic. You go to a theater at a specific time. You haven’t just sat down with the remote. You’re in the movie’s home, not your own, and when a movie works, you rise up into it. You submit in order to discover, and the experience can be like exploring both the world and your own imagination. You’re doing this in the dark, of course, half in private and half among other people: Who needs Plato’s Retreat?

The limitations movies impose — the schedules, the frames around the image, the beginnings and endings, everything that stands between them and virtual reality — can contribute to experiences that may reach you on a deep level even when a movie isn’t very good. Exceptions do abound, but video sexiness is generally about effects (and suggests masturbation), while movie eroticism suggests a way of experiencing, and interacting with, all of life. (Is it only me or do other people sometimes feel as though they’re surrounded by only two classes of Americans these days: happy masturbators and unhappy masturbators?)

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that sex conceived of as excitement-that-aims-for-nothing-but-to-become-faster-and-noisier always lets us down. Had I been less startled, what I might have said to that young co-worker is that some adults discover a larger world of sensation when they view eroticism not as a restless search for arousal, but as a matter of sinking into the moment, whatever that happens to be, and exploring what’s there. Moviegoing can be approached in that spirit, and when it is, it can become an occasion for reverie and poetry, for lust, sadness and discovery — and for probably much else.

Let’s first clear our palates of a few common assumptions, the main one being that sex must always have to do with feeling bright, energized and cheerful — with feeling good. That’s an assumption best left to sugar addicts, Jolt fanatics, the crude and the very young.

The other is that pretension, absurdity and silliness are anti-erotic. A strength of Americans may be their lack of pretension. But rote anti-pretentiousness can cut you off from experiences you might enjoy — almost the entire French film tradition, for instance.

It may be that Americans would be better off if they were able to find pretension erotically amusing. Those French actors up there carrying on about anguish, sex and philosophy? It’s all make-believe, just light on a screen. French characters on the movie screen become what they always should have been, our playthings. What’s more absurd than what turns us on and our pursuit of that? We need to see the humor in our pursuit of erotic experience, and to learn that giddiness and sexiness can enhance each other.

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Think of the Fred Astaire/Cyd Charisse “Girl Hunt” dance sequence in “The Band Wagon”; it’s nothing but a stylish, swingin’ parody of Mickey Spillane novels, yet my mind has returned to it regularly and with intense erotic pleasure ever since I first saw it several decades ago. Charisse wears an impassive expression, a black Louise Brooks hairdo, and a huge, fluffy coat, which she sheds as though whisking the cover off the signature dish at Lutèce. She stands forth in a bright-green mini-dress, its skirt made of fabric slats. Each one is a frame for her life-of-their-own legs, and Astaire’s reaction to her is a witty piece of calligraphy. Then the comic tango of lust and seduction begins. The sequence might have been conceived of by the writers at Mad magazine, yet, as choreographed by Michael Kidd and shot in MGM’s best rubies-and-emeralds colors, it has its own straight-faced heat.

There are many things about movies that almost force us to take them erotically. The detail and size of the image, the proximity we feel to the performers, the intensification of the situations through dramatic means, the kinesthetics of movement and scene changes, for instance. I’ll use a couple of familiar movies for illustration, “Basic Instinct” and “Chasing Amy.” Each features a blond, lesbianism and lots of dirty talk, yet they have strikingly different feels. A sommelier might ask you to focus on a wine’s color, its nose, its palate and finish. I suggest that if you ask yourself the following questions the next time you watch a movie, there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself experiencing that movie more erotically. No money-back guarantee, but you can flame me if you’re disappointed.

What is the movie’s mood or tone?

Not because there’s any right or wrong answer, but because making the effort at putting some answer, any answer, into words is a way of opening your mind to the movie — you’ll begin to mix your thoughts and responses with the matter of the movie.

“Chasing Amy” is known for its raunchy dialogue and humor, but the film’s tone is full of regret — about losing friends, about realizing that hopes and possibilities have passed you by, about what can’t be unmade and how, like it or not, you finally have to live with that. It’s an unusual mix of the touchingly melancholy and the explosively rude.

“Basic Instinct” is flamboyantly melodramatic, hard-charging and intense, “adult” in an almost comically determined way. Its world is one of fantasy, antagonism and danger. It brings together the coarse and the glamorous; it’s the movie equivalent of a leather-faced old roué who comes on too hard, yet still has a few good tricks left to peddle. It’s like supercharged porn, square yet evil.

How does the movie engage your imagination?

“Chasing Amy” relies on its offbeat setting, and on unusual types — comic book artists and Jersey semi-hipsters. Its blond embodies a flaw in the script; you never really know what she’s up to. Yet that works because you keep hoping to find out. And with her big Martina Hingis smile, her downtown jewelry, her broad, flat, Slavic-style face, she’s a whore/madonna who seems to exist only to fascinate Catholic boys, then make them feel inadequate. She’s a phantom, yet enticing.

“Basic Instinct,” on the other hand, uses voyeurism. We’re always trying to get a peek — we’re like the sweaty, overawed guys in the interrogation room who watch Sharon Stone uncross her legs. If the movie works for you, you may find that it hammers its way crudely into some of your dirtiest desires; it puts you in the position of peeping on your own fantasies. The sex shocks keep us off balance. We don’t know from moment to moment how far the movie’s going to go.

The icy, willful blond who’s probably up to no good is an image of mystery and eroticism from far back in movie history, and it was canny of writer Joe Eszterhas and director Paul Verhoeven to use this image in a sexed-up thriller. As Verhoeven uses her, and as Stone portrays her, the Catherine Trammell character never loses her luster despite all the nudity. She’s seen with near-pornographic explicitness; we see the Stone beaver, yet she and her character remain mysterious.

This is a rare accomplishment, and it raises a question: Once everything you could ever want is not only made available but is pushed at you, how does erotic reverie flourish? It’s not just that nudity and explicit language can overwhelm reserve. It’s also a matter of what surrounds the movies today — the reports on movie grosses, the regular behind-the-scenes and how-they-did-it articles in Premiere, Entertainment Weekly and the Sunday supplements, and the confessional interviews. It’s too much. What remains to be found out?

How does the movie engage your senses?

Movies are, empirically speaking, made up only of image and sound — how absurd to talk about them engaging the other senses. Yet when, say, you eat a Moroccan dinner, it isn’t just your senses of taste, smell and touch that are tickled. In your mind, you see things (the Casbah!) and you hear things (belly-dancing music!). A note to the politically anxious: Fantasies seem to operate in terms of stereotypes and archetypes, and if they’re to be explored and enjoyed we mustn’t be too censorious.

“Chasing Amy” is full of cigarettes, beer bottles, old sofas, Army-surplus slacker clothes, Jersey parks and nothing-special chilly days. The first big emotional scene is set — movie convention! — during a rainstorm, but the argument takes place on a random industrial block, in front of a heap of stray cardboard cartons. In the midst of the film is the image of Joey Lauren Adams, her eyes and teeth wet, her face glossy with makeup and a little sweat, wearing a net shirt and smooching with a girl. She and the environment set each other off. The film’s writer/director, Kevin Smith, has sub-rudimentary camera skills, yet that works here — you fill in the camerawork yourself.

“Basic Instinct” is shot in Douglas Sirk-goes-insane colors that make you feel a prickle — hot sun on your skin, perhaps, or cocaine in your nose. The fast cars, the ice picks, the tanned flesh of Stone — it’s all luxurious to the point of repulsiveness, yet delicious, too.

What is your relationship with the performers?

Performers are nearly always the focus of our fantasies and speculations. Watching “Chasing Amy,” I find myself wondering and musing about Adams. That gesture she makes with her hands indicating fist-fucking — how did she feel doing that? Mischievous? Shy? Did the director have to overcome any resistance on her part?

Watching “Basic Instinct,” I remember that I’d been following Stone for years. I’d noticed that she’d learned something about acting since her performances in “King Solomon’s Mines” and “Irreconcilable Differences,” and that she’d developed some emotional daring. I remember too that shortly before doing “Basic Instinct” she’d done a photo spread in Playboy. Did an agent persuade her that it was now or never? Did a boyfriend? Did she decide on her own? Did she need drugs and champagne to get her through some of these scenes?

One could go on and on. And, watching a movie, one generally does. For men, speculation about actresses almost always boils down to two questions: What would she be like to fuck? And, what’s she like when she comes? But why stop there? Why not also wonder: What’s it like for her to know that so many people watching are having imaginary relationships with her? If I were her boyfriend and saw this movie, how would I feel about her performance? How would I feel about the way she has revealed herself? What kind of sex would we have after the screening?

Women’s erotic conjectures may tend to go off in other directions. I once overheard some female colleagues raving about the sexiness of the movie “Ethan Frome.” When I expressed surprise about their enthusiasm, they laughed and said, “You wouldn’t understand. It’s all about buildup.”

Such private and semiprivate speculations and fantasies are unavoidable parts of moviegoing. My feeling is that, since we’re going to have them anyway, we might as well indulge and relish them. Some filmmakers have been able to weave our thoughts and fantasies about performers into their films. The results have been such glories as “Trouble in Paradise” and “Tales of Ordinary Madness.” And “The Band Wagon,” come to think of it.

If you’ve seen “Chasing Amy” and/or “Basic Instinct,” I’m hoping that you were comparing your impressions and memories to mine. Perhaps you had a moment when you were annoyed, or pleased. Perhaps you pulled back and gave your own memories and sensations a little musing attention.

It’s a pity these moments aren’t recognized and discussed more widely, because they can mean so much. When you’re in that state, it can seem as if space is being made available inside you for savoring; it can feel as if you’ve let go the day-to-day and dropped into something more essential and succulent; it can seem as if your mental focus has melted into the object or sensation of its attention. Everything stands in high relief, and seems available in a way it doesn’t in our usual lives. These falling-into-sensation-and-feeling moments can be terribly elusive. We don’t know how or why we get there. Often when we notice them, they vanish. But you can find your way back, over and over again. You can linger, extend, explore. You can — hint, hint — have sex while in this state. You can also watch and discuss movies while in it. Movies themselves can help us find and grow familiar with these states.

I’m as annoyed by the idea that movie-watching can be an art form as by the M.F.K. Fisher argument that eating can be an art form — moviemaking and cooking, yes, but not watching or eating. Still, movie-watching can certainly become a more adventurous, mysterious thing than it usually is. If you’re so inclined, the whole world of art, movies and literature can become an erotic playground.

If you do watch most movies on videotape, may I suggest one final trick? Imagine while you’re watching a movie on TV that you’re at the movies. The screen is so tiny not because it’s in your living room or at the foot of your bed, but because you’re in the last row of a crowded theater. It’s dark, you’re beside your sweetie, and otherwise among strangers. You aren’t talking and there’s no need to wiseacre — you’ll compare impressions, crack jokes and swap confessions later, over coffee or cognac. For now, the moment is all about steeping in the mood, and about observing, now and then, the stirrings of your senses and your imagination. Not to worry: The observing won’t kill the sensations, at least not if you view sampling them as part of the moment. You’re a divided soul, you might wail. How true — yet perhaps there are better things to do with such feelings than to fight them.

As Jennifer Grey’s Baby learned in “Dirty Dancing,” it’s a lot more rewarding to enter the game than it is to stand outside and giggle helplessly.

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

Biopics about Composers

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Movie Music

By Ray Sawhill

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

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

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

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From “Night and Day”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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From “Amadeus”

How to people the supporting cast?

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

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From “Immortal Beloved”

How to portray the creative process?

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

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

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From “A Song to Remember”

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

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

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

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From “The Music Lovers”

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

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

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From “Lisztomania”

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

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

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From “Impromptu”

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

  • James Lapine and Sarah Kernochan’s 1991 “Impromptu,” a lighthearted, poignant caprice about the French novelist George Sand’s infatuation with Chopin. Judy Davis is at her comically overdramatic best as the scandal-courting Sand.
  • “Elgar’sTenth Muse,” a beautifully sad two-hander about an infatuation between the elderly composer and a young violinist. James Fox and Selma Alispahic portray the conflicts between reserve and yearning, age and youth touchingly and trenchantly.
  • Renato Castellani’s eleven-hour (or eight-hour, depending on the version you get hold of) long Italian production “The Life of Verdi.” Beautifully mounted and shot, as solid and responsible as any birth-to-death biography, it features a many-sided and fully felt portrayal of Verdi by English actor Ronald Pickup, and vocal performances by Callas, Nilsson and Pavarotti. One lesson to be learned from this beauty: if you’re going to take the all-inclusive approach to telling a composer’s life, it’s perhaps best to do it at the length of a miniseries.
  • Abel Gance’s 1937 “Un Grand Amour de Beethoven.” Yet another variant on the Immortal Beloved theme, this stirring absurdity is enjoyable for its unbridled myth-making. Gance — famous for his barn-burning silent film “Napoleon” — delivers a virtuoso directorial performance. The film is full of poetic closeups and brilliant editing flurries; the legendary French actor Harry Baur gives a towering performance; and the passages conveying the composer’s growing deafness are as heartbreaking as can be.
moviemusic11_un grand amour de beethoven
From “Un Grand Amour de Beethoven”

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

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

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

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

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