Film Reviews

The censure of even one of the judicious, says Hamlet, in what is after all a popular play, “must in your allowance o'erweigh a whole theatre of others."
La La Land, and some others—JackieBridget Jones's BabyHail, Caesar, Doctor Strange, Café Society, Arrival, and Paterson—but mainly La La Land

Much has happened since I last came down the mountain, but nothing that could interrupt my self-contemplation until La La Land; which we all want opinions on so we can meet the intellectual challenge of Oscar night.
Three of these films are about Hollywood, two (but not Jackie) are women’s movies, and two have the same plot.

The dullest, the least consequential, the most asinine is Doctor Strange, in which Benedict Cumberbatch and Tilda Swinton, from whom we have come to expect more (see my review of The Imitation Game), are reduced to punching and kicking their way through a New Age video-game fantasy that does nothing to enhance the evening, though as trash it achieves something like purity. But one can’t entirely blame the actors; I too am vulnerable to being offered large sums of money.
Slightly less onerous is Arrival, which apart from some CGI verticals is a flat experience. A lady professor who’s smarter than everybody else figures out the aliens’ script—by which I mean their scenario and their way of writing, both of which are based on circles. Everything is a circle. Time is a circle. Very female. 

And very New Age. Why are space aliens always represented as either deeply good or so evil they must be annihilated? They are never, like ourselves, both. These, beneath their monstrous exteriors, are sweethearts. All they want is For Us All To Work Together, which does make them worthy of extermination.

My own woman, if I may so speak, loved it. To quote her (let us forgive her her accent), “Only a mother who lost her child could take off her suit. Women are much more big-hearted. They are contaminated with egotism and ambition, but these are temporary things. Women combine practicality with intuition and vision. Men are needed as drones, to open jars and plant seeds. Then the nature that women are, flowers. And many many more things. Women are more intuitive and have more endurance.”
At which I nod and eat my goat cheese. No, I love feminists. So civilizing. Alas that civilization floats on a sea of unsavory impulses, most of them mine. “I have cultivated my hysteria,” says Baudelaire, “with pleasure and terror.”

Let’s go to our second women’s movie, Bridget Jones's Baby, which is funny, and a good evening’s entertainment—my critical standard for excellence. Still, there’s something sad about the Bridget Jones series. It began, and persists (I haven’t seen every instalment) as a satire of secretaries’ wishes, a Plain-Jane office girl fought over by rich and handsome men for whom she is somehow the summit of desire. This time they want to be the father of the baby they’re not even sure they’ve sired. Triumphant in her wedding dress, infant on hip, she walks off, not into the sunset but toward a reception on the broadest of lawns, leaving bridegroom and lover to reconcile as best they can.
As satire it does seem harsh, especially since the actress has shocked everyone by having her face redone. The finale promises a sequel by resurrecting Hugh Grant’s character, but where’s our Plain Jane? (See What Does a Woman Want?

Beauty is the unstated theme of Jackie, the most beautiful of women (on the trip to Texas Jack apologized for her lateness, “But Mrs. Kennedy,” he smiled, “is worth waiting for”) rising to the trauma. I had expected something more like The Greek Tycoon (which wasn’t bad), but Jackie held me.

Cutting back and forth is the style of the TV commercial and the documentary, and I find the one as rhetorical as the other. If journalism, as Malcolm Lowry said, “equals intellectual male prostitution of speech and writing,” documentary too is simple opinion-making. But here the style is in the service of portraying someone’s dawning strength—“someone’s,” not necessarily Jackie’s, but it makes a good movie; an actor’s movie, in fact, one legendary beauty portraying another.
Peter Sarsgaard is too tall for Bobby—LBJ called him “that little shitass,” “that grandstanding little runt”—but Saarsgaard carries the male lead like the pro he is. Jack, however, was the big guy; Caspar Phillipson has the face for him, and the voice and accent are evocative, but not the height. And here is a sunset performance by the great and elastic John Hurt, as one of his best Irishmen—there’ve been a few—and the most appealing apologist for the Christian approach since Friar Laurence.

In Kingsman and James Bond I waxed wistful about Jack’s sex life. “If I don’t have a woman for three days,” he told Harold Macmillan, “I get a terrible headache.” And Jackie avenged herself with movie stars. Ah, well. Absolvo te. Should cheer Melania up.

The heroic journalist Edward R. Murrow, speaking of documentary, is edited into the film as he accompanies Jackie on the White-House tour. Murrow’s broadcasts from London during the Blitz, the air-raid sirens in the background, had much to do with the US entering the war. (Joel McCrea in Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent reprises that; see Hitch and Cary.) Then when Murrow got to TV he destroyed Joseph McCarthy, and interviewed absolutely everybody. I don’t remember Jackie being as nervous as the film made her out to be, but then even I don’t know everything.
I hadn’t known, for example, about the wanted poster hung up around Texas before the shooting.

OK, let’s calm way down with Paterson, based on, and updating, William Carlos Williams’ long poem that sought to do for Paterson, New Jersey, what Joyce did for Dublin. The film has its own Patersonians to commemorate, but what it's after is the meditative tone of the poem, and there are real pleasures here, mainly in the movement of the camera through a world that is deliberately banal.

It’s the first Jim Jarmusch movie I’ve ever sort of liked. He usually does kid stuff. When I was teaching film in Canada students would come to me and say “Hey, Bob, did you see the new Jarmusch film? Isn’t it great?” They were so enthusiastic. You can’t discourage them. I’d smile politely and wait for a chance to change the subject.

Paterson suggests what life must be like on diazepam. I am doing this, I am standing here doing this, there is nothing else, sort of thing. There’s a pleasing feeling of being on another planet. And the people on the bus are, you know, nice. In the poem the refrain is “No ideas but in things,” and here’s Williams’ most famous lyric:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

Like Ezra Pound—“The apparition of these faces in the crowd; Petals on a wet, black bough” (see Senryu)—and like Allen Ginsberg, who idolized them both, Williams inclines to the oriental. (Three poets no one reads anymore; see Nobody Left to Read). And indeed, it’s a Japanese poet who concludes things by giving the bus driver the gift of the blank page.
The pointlessness of passion is portrayed in the subplot about a guy in love with a girl who wants no part of him. Thou shalt not be poisoned by passion, corrupted by concepts, nullified by nudity. So much depends upon a nude woman glazed with rain water. You can keep the chickens.

In this yearning for the simple is something essentially American. “I hate American simplicity,” says the American in Henry James’s The American. “I glory in the piling up of complications of every sort. If I could pronounce the name James in any different or more elaborate way I should be in favour of doing it.”

So let’s get complicated. Here are three films about Hollywood, the first by the superb Coen brothers, though not their best, Hail, Caesar. George Clooney, as he usually does for the Coens, plays a buffoon. Can you think of a Coens film without a buffoon? (See The satisfactions of Inside Llewyn Davis). Clooney plays a movie star kidnapped and brainwashed by a communist cell of writers who slip Marxist messages into studio-movie dialogue. Herbert Marcuse himself is a member, not that he gets any respect.
Religion, I like to say, is politics, and the Coens to some extent agree: here we have a Catholic studio head who’s at confession every day, but who seems to forget the Church when he convenes a priest, a minister and a rabbi—the old joke—to get their approval on a studio film about the Crucifixion, and all they can do is argue about whether Jesus was God. In the movie movie Roman soldier Clooney barges through a crowd to the feet of the crucified Jesus and someone calls time for lunch. Fun, sort of.

The Coens’ take on Hollywood has always been ambivalent. In Barton Fink it’s a kind of elephants’ graveyard, a second-rate place where first-rate people wash up and lead inauthentic lives. Even Faulkner comes off as cheap. What the Coens bring to any project is distance—they are as ironic as Hamlet—but sometimes they’re so aloof that it gets cold.

What can be excessive in them is too rare in Woody Allen, and perhaps it’s facile to conflate irony with intelligence. I drub Mr. Allen for his missed chances and his high-school psychology (see Woody Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight, and below, Weakness and Woody), but I can’t help but like him.

One of his recurrent themes is Hollywood as Phony-Land and New York as Where People Are Real (see what I mean?), and Café Society goes all out on this one. Apart from the anxiety of doomed love there isn’t much holding it together. There’s an interesting assassin—we all prefer Woody when he’s funny—but one finds oneself groping for more.
It has the same plot as La La Land, the Umbrellas of Cherbourg plot, Romeo And Juliet Marry Somebody Else—great-grandchildren of the racier Così fan tutte and that most pagan of plays, A Midsummer Night's Dream. But let us leave Café Society without further insults and get to—

La La Land! A musical with dancing, what could be better? All that discipline for a few moments of joy—one is grateful. The script has no disappointing moments. I like especially, though I don’t understand it, Sebastian’s account of the origins of jazz as dialogue between people who don’t speak each other’s language (really?), which sets up the finale, when he communicates his thoughts to Mia with a piano in a crowded bar.

And we’re strangely back in the realm of courtly love, where the Astaire and Kelly musicals live: he lets her into the car first, rushes ahead to open the door for her. But we’re up to date in that this is a film about making it. In Busby Berkeley and the other pre-war musicals the characters are already where they want to be, or don’t care: it’s love, and in Berkeley sensuality, that drives them.
The opening sets this up, all those kids dancing on top of their cars—how can we but feel their desperate ambition? Which is the theme. You are what you do. A musical should delight in frivolity, in playfulness, in who-gives-a-damn. But this is the age of Moneyball and Joy (see below), in which the star is a business plan, and you have work-ethic sex.

Every now and then, in La La Land, there’s a break in the action for some quick summaries of what happens in the meantime—they must have taken ages to shoot—which are the opposite of quick. They are merely story, not plot (see Fellini for the difference), and slow things down. Their very realism is heavy—this is a musical! Perhaps that’s why the final montage, the dream montage, full of stage effects and artificiality, works so beautifully.

The music? OK. A little too family-friendly. Jazz, like all art, should be insolent (see Smart-assery is the essence of art). But it’s not like when a combo plays a Beatle song, and you feel cheated.

And the joy is there. Fred wore white socks so we could follow his footwork; Ryan, white shoes. Emma Stone doesn’t need them:


Carol, Joy, and the “Women’s Movie”

“One situation,” said Patricia Highsmith, “maybe one alone—could drive me to murder: family life, togetherness.”

Amen.
No one gets murdered in Carol, but Cate Blanchett, whose menacing, almost hostile features are for once put to the right use, almost pulls the trigger on the spy whose been taping her sex with Rooney Mara.

There’s a nice film-noir feel about the fur coat, the deep pockets, the revolver—and Ms Mara is very Audrey Hepburn.
On the other hand, this is a bit too much of an introduce-the-bourgeoisie-to-lesbian-sex movie, an editor’s movie, jerking us around in time, and I so much prefer it when the style stays out of the way. But that’s what you get with a studio production, and baby, this is expensive! They did a superb job of evoking the early fifties, Eddie Fisher on the soundtrack, but why blow it with twenty-first-century linguistic currency? “These,” says a young man of Therese’s photographs, “are seriously good.” Ouch.
And filter cigarettes, kids, weren’t manufactured until after Eisenhower’s inauguration, and became popular only in the early 60s. Recall Audrey, speaking of Audrey, tearing the filters off in Charade.

Oh well. But Carol is a smooth movie, and gives the feeling of passion—in fact I would suggest that passion is smoothness, in any form of entertainment, including life. And the object, if I may use the word, of Carol’s lust is nice and quiet. Withdrawn. Shy. These are enormous advantages. Anyone who’s been involved with very young ladies knows they can talk your ear off.
In the novel she’s nineteen, and a theatre set designer, not a photographer. In the novel she sends Carol a Christmas card; in the movie Carol forgets her gloves—which is better. In the novel the toy for Carol’s daughter is a doll; here it’s a train. In the novel it’s a toney British actress Therese almost goes home with at the end; here it’s someone whose voice we don’t hear. This is all Wikipedia stuff—I haven’t read the book, avid consumer of Highsmith though I am. (See my review of The Two Faces of January.)

The director, Todd Haynes, doesn’t usually make the kind of thing I go out of my way to see, but he showed himself adept at the Women’s Movie in Far from Heaven. I suppose the most famous example of the genre is Gone with the Wind, the girl growing up, getting burned by love, by life, learning, taking over. Douglas Sirk is the master, though Joseph von Sternberg is in the running, and Sirk’s Imitation of Life may be the best of all Women’s Movies. 
I don’t know why Mae West’s films aren’t regarded as Women’s Movies—certainly she has it all her own way. “Sex is like bridge. If you don't have a good partner, you'd better have a good hand.” Scarlet too flirts with carnality when her morning-after smile tells us she has enjoyed being raped by Rhett, and is annoyed to petulance that he’s leaving.

“I just had sex with them,” Therese’s boyfriend tells her; “I love you!” This may be the defining issue. Go ahead and draw the line.

(For more on this, see the review of Fifty Shades of Grey, below, and, overleaf, the review of Kingsman.)
Carol, however, is not a Women’s Movie. It’s a Men’s Movie. Men love lesbian films—I’m working on one myself—and Highsmith, who stood whenever a woman entered the room, felt herself a man.

Joy, we may say with confidence, is a Women’s Movie, though not in a league with the ones I've mentioned. It’s a remake (perhaps it doesn't know that) of the 1959 comedy It Happened to Jane, in which the delightful Doris Day is the businesswoman, young Jack Lemmon is the subservient male, and Ernie Kovaks is the creep who tries to ruin her business—all of them vivid performances.
Because you notice in Joy that you immediately know who the bad guys are—they just look bad. This is marvelous in the earlier film because it’s a comedy; but Joy takes itself seriously, and expects us to.

The grandmother, who tells the story after she dies (like Sunset Blvd. or the Anthony Perkins character in The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean—and yet not like them at all), recalls all those people on Twitter who want to “coach” you. A frightening number of people on Twitter want to “coach” you. So does Granny. Don’t worry, you can do it. Very New Age.
And it’s a weepy. I teared up when the woman cried at the end. Makes you hate yourself.

(Don’t expect me to be fair to Joy—I have an allergy to Robert De Niro movies.)

Pleasure in such films depends on your heart being in the right place, as mine is not. Neither is Highsmith’s. That’s what I like about her.


The Big Short and Bertolt Brecht

Brecht was a committed communist. His “alienation effect”—designed to wake you from the trance of “art” that hides from you your socio-economic circumstances—was a device for the theatre, but it influenced a lot of movies. In America escaping the Nazis he worked for example with Fritz Lang, another escapee, and so we have Sylvia Sidney in You and Me setting up the blackboard and reforming some crooks by demonstrating the meager profits of stealing.
(In 1947 Brecht told the House Un-American Activities Committee what they wanted to hear and the next day was on a plane for east Berlin.)

The A-effect really came to life in the films of Jean-Luc Godard, and in Contempt, which I consider his best (though my critical opinion is based on Brigitte Bardot’s, how shall I say, presence), Lang plays himself, making a film of the Odyssey for producer Jack Palance, at his demonic best, and Penelope/Brigitte is unfaithful.
The whole Godard oeuvre, right down to the present, although it gives rarified pleasure, hates itself for that.

And now we have The Big Short, in which characters interrupt the action to tell us what’s going on, a stripper’s breasts are less interesting than her mortgages, and we are meant to be sobered—though there are no surprises here—by our victimization.

Personally I don’t have a position. Garcia Lorca’s judgment on Wall Street is sufficient vengeance. Let them have it if they want it. Dip him in the river who loves water, sort of thing.

But The Big Short has Things To Say, and says them in a style that puts it in sync with the remarkable popularity, at the moment, of documentary film—a highly selective form of rhetoric designed to teach us something (the word comes from the Latin for “teach”). Implicitly, and invariably, it teaches morality.

The great documentaries, the models of all documentaries, were made by Leni Riefenstahl. If you’re a documentarist and you’re not looking at Riefenstahl, you’re looking at someone who’s looking at Riefenstahl.  (If you’re looking at Capra, who’s looking at Eisenstein, who’s looking at Griffith, you’re on a lower cornice of Purgatory.) She teaches the morality of the god Hitler, and Triumph of the Will begins with his descent to earth. But she does it with extraordinary long takes and impossibly graceful camera movements. Cut-rate documentary thrives on quick cutting, a shot for every line in the voice-over, often having nothing to do with anything except that the phrase needs substantiation.
And this is what we get in The Big Short. Pieces of scenes that don’t work with the actors are chopped apart at mid-sentence just to keep the thing moving, and the result, yes, is an abrasive nervous energy that must, one supposes, approximate the caffeine highs (meth is so last-week) these guys are on.

Guys. Guys and guys. One black female covers our PC needs. Margot Robbie in the bath gives a short lecture, but it's a film, mainly, without women. Boys together, and the machismo that drives their exploits. “That’s a nice shirt. Do they make it for men?”
And within those limits we have “characters”, which is, you know, nice. The one played by the admirably inventive Christian Bale is nevertheless a reprise of Alan Turing (see my review of The Imitation Game), a damaged man who is incapable of irony. 

Steve Carell is the manic moralist. What has befallen his voice? It’s become a tenor so high and thin he doesn’t have to imitate shrill; though he does.

Brad Pitt in a beard plays Earth Father to the garage-start-up kids. Why does he help them? “Well, you said you wanted to be rich.” Just to show you it’s not that great. Makes us all feel better. (Personally, I don’t want to be “rich”—couldn’t interest me less. I just want lots of money.) Pitt played the equally specious moral agent in 12 Years a Slave, which gets Canadian history wrong (see my review of same). What we’re watching here is a version of Walter Huston’s Father God in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but don’t get your hopes up.
And one of the guys likes Nobu restaurants, which gives it a, I don't know, a human touch. Otherwise it’s regrettable music, men’s bare feet and other sorts of A-effect ugliness.

The faster the editing, I have elsewhere remarked (in the review of The Wolf of Wall Street), the crasser the production. It becomes something you want to get over with.

Michael Grunwald, scarcely a man of the left, wrote in Politico that the makers of The Big Short didn’t know what they were talking about, that the financial giants did feel pain, that they were stupid, not criminal, that if they had broken the law eager prosecutors would gleefully have dragged them to court, that the rules did change, that we shouldn’t be bitter about the outcome.

Whether because I’m ignorant or because I’m insufficiently moral, I have nothing to say about that. What I’m concerned with is the aesthetic object, if I may so call it—the movie. And the kind of justice that interests me is what happened to “Mack the Knife”:

Brecht’s unglamorous moralistic Threepenny Opera is based on the glamorous eighteenth-century The Beggar’s Opera, but in Brecht the noble libertine Macheath becomes the murderous villain Mack the Knife, as in Kurt Weill’s song.

But when the film was made (edited by my friend Jean Oser—I knew the old man when we were teaching together at the University of Ottawa), Brecht denounced the performance of the song as unBrechtian. And if that wasn’t insult enough, it was taken up by Louis, Ella, Frank and other glamorizers. But it’s Bobby Darin’s version that lives in the memory and snaps the fingers.
Ah, fate!


Three thrillers: Mad Max, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Sicario

See, what happened was, I (me, myself) suggested that we go and see Mad Max. I thought it would be a laugh—something mindless and full of action.

Big mistake. I mentioned somewhere that nothing ever happens in a Hollywood movie that can’t be understood by a twelve-year-old child. Mad Max—I’m not exaggerating—is for six-year-olds. Bang-bang-you’re-dead sort of thing. I remember being six. You put your hands to your heart, mime the ecstasy of death and fall down. Then you get up—instant resurrection. This movie was a profoundly childish experience.

At intermission—they have intermissions in Greece so you can freshen your drink, which in this case was opportune. Here's the cinema we were in, though "in" is hardly the word:
Where was I? I turned to my vooman (let us indulge for a moment the fantasy of ownership; it’s a cheap enough thrill) and said, "How are you doing?" "I’m surviving," she said. Very embarrassing.

The second half was exactly the same as the first—the trip out, the trip back. The same flexi-pole hovers over the retread Chevrolets. The lack of invention was catatonic. It did have one good line: "Who are you praying to?" "Whoever’s listening.” Me too. I was mortified, exposing a helpless woman to this spectacle!
With The Man from U.N.C.L.E. I redeemed myself. My V-word didn’t want any part of it, but we were four at this one, and the film put us in such a good mood! At dinner afterwards the conversation was lightsome.

I am not a Guy Ritchie fan. In my review, below, of Mr. Holmes I dispensed with his Robert Downey thing in a one-line sneer, and his work has never interested me before. But what I love about spy movies is how funny they are—much funnier than studio comedies—and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. had us laughing out loud.
Ritchie mitigates the obligatory spy-movie scenes—the showdown at Evil HQ, for example—by tossing them into split-screen a la The Thomas Crowne Affair (Jewison's). To that movie he also owes the dune buggy; to The Great Escape, the motorcycle chase; to the Bud Spencer/Terence Hill comedies, the no-mercy guy relationship—all honorable debts.

Most important, it was an adult film. Usually "adult" means pornographic; here it means uninfantile. It skips the predictable human-weapon stuff and keeps moving—in fact it makes a style of ellipsis, which I liked. That’s what cinema is. Good movies don’t show it all—it’s what they leave out that’s effective.
This, I take it, is why The Man from U.N.C.L.E. scored so much lower on Rotten Tomatoes than Mad Max: the kids want it graphic. (Ah, the inner life of a six-year-old.)

Sicario on the other hand scored big, and with this one my stock fell again. My V withdrew her confidence. Another boneheaded suggestion from Y.T. (I’m going to get off thrillers. Spy movies or nothing. But that’s what I thought this was!)

It reminded me of the George-W-Bush-psychology TV series 24, with Kiefer Sutherland, which, despite the fact that it ran for ten years, I was lucky enough to catch only one of; and in which torture is something you just have to do, I mean Those Other Guys are bad!
When Napoleon Solo in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is tortured by a former Nazi, no revenge is taken, at least not by Solo. Here torture is relished. It’s a film that takes itself 101% seriously—there isn’t a laugh in it. It’s us and them, baby, you just gotta learn.

This is a girls-can-play-too movie, and the central consciousness is meant to be ambivalent, but come on. In the showdown at Evil HQ the father-figure murders a mother and two kids, but the heroine can’t bring herself to shoot him. It had to be done.
James Brolin’s smug baggy-pants Good Guy says there would be no problem “if twenty percent of the people in this country would stop snorting that shit.” What if fifty-one percent of them made what they put in their noses their own legal business? The cartels, who deal in money, not in "drugs," would disappear.

But in Anglo-Saxon America that’s unlikely. We defend morality, because morality is us. (For more on that see Greece versus the Puritans.)

"After meeting a religious person," said Voltaire, "I always feel I must wash my hands." That’s how this film leaves you.


Weakness and Woody

At dinner last night after Irrational Man my Precious Other said, "Good or bad, Woody Allen attracts everyone."

"Well," I said, "not quite."

"In Europe he does," she said, and yes, the open-air cinema—common enough in Athens, but this one is the size of an American drive-in—had on a Monday night been packed. "But every time you see one of his films," she added, "you expect just a little more. This movie left us with nothing."

Mm.

I dumped on Mr Allen’s inadequacies in my review of Magic in the Moonlight. Irrational Man, to dispense with it quickly, is fall-forward-on-your-nose dull until well into the second act. The plot is based on Hitchcock’s Rope (which kind of thievery is fine), only there it’s the students who get up to the mischief, not the professor; and the ending is from Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Diva (also OK, though here less gracefully handled).

"Honestly," said Patricia Highsmith, "I don't understand why people get so worked up about a little murder."

It’s a sloppy film, plagued by endless vapid voice-overs. Some of the shots strain towards Hitchcock (see Hitch and Cary), and would have been eloquent in themselves, but are poisoned by inane "philosophical" observations that would embarrass a high-school kid, and give no pleasure; and by inaner  music, Ramsey Lewis’s 1965 version of "The In Crowd," as flat as Muzak, and just as irritating.

It is unnecessary, I suppose, to mention the unnecessary scenes, Professor Desperate saying good-bye to a husband we’ve never met, and the unnecessary Joaquin Phoenix, always determinedly weird, here a little too Brando. Even the belly is coming along.
My P.O. says not to be too hard on Woody. He doesn’t deserve that. "Let’s see what his next film is like."

Mm.

OK, enough. He’s not bright all the way around the block, but he’s a champion of weakness, and his icon is worth more than his work. As a stand-up comedian he reveled in his own humiliations, and was a relief from Hemingway Man (see Hemingway for Wimps)—he mocked Hemingway Man. Bob Hope had done this, as had Jerry Lewis, but they buddied with, and implicitly reaffirmed, tougher guys. In Woody Allen’s presence Hemingway Man became irrelevant. The Beats tried to do that, and the hippies, but Hemingway Man always re-emerged.
We associate machismo with Latin America, but Graham Greene once remarked that it was a Roman invention. I’d be glad if someone could point me to proof of that. Certainly it survives in former provinces of the Empire—which include, we may notice, North Africa and the Middle East. In India, China, Sub-Saharan Africa there is no such ethic. The Germans and the English have their own style of brutality—though the British were ruled by French-speaking Normans, Vikings infected with Latin macho. What a combination. (See My Racial Profile.) Anglo-Saxon America (and, one suspects, Australia and New Zealand) have Hemingway. Keeps the boys keen.

But whence Hemingway? Greek missionaries, the story goes, trekked north, taught the Russians their letters (some of which they got backwards), and left the Roman manner for Putin and Yul Brynner—and for Tolstoy, whose Hadji Murad was Hemingway's model, which closes the circle. From Bully-boy (Zelda said he always picked on somebody smaller) to stylist.

(The Russian model of weakness, on the other hand, is Tolstoy's darling Chekhov: "If you are afraid of loneliness, do not marry.")
Hemingway himself says that when he drank with Joyce in Paris the latter would invariably stimulate a rancorous argument with someone, and when it got pushy would simply say, "Deal with him, Hemingway." And Woody Allen's preoccupation with him, from an early stand-up routine about the Paris scene, punctuated by the refrain, "And then Hemingway punched me in the mouth," to Midnight in Paris ("OK, who wants to fight?") suggests that he sees himself, with some justice, as the anti-Hemingway.

An ancient and alternate tradition has it that weakness is royal. Frazer and Graves tell us that pre-historic kings were sacrificed, and lamed to keep them from escaping—hence the high heels worn by tragic actors in more civilized times, to signify their helplessness. (Right, girls? See The Marquis de Sade, Father of Modern France.) Think of the kings on the chess board, almost as weak as their pawns. "High Life" columnist Taki Theodoracopulos, who wants to see King Constantine back on the Greek throne (and you never know), despises "the macho primitivism of Prince Harry." It just ain’t royal.

The great twentieth-century novelists—Joyce, Proust, James—and the poets—Lorca and Eliot—are obsessed by weakness. Look at Fellini’s self-portrait in as an impotent god. (See Fellini.)
Salvador Dalí told Mike Wallace, "I adore three things: weakness, because in modern physics everything is weak, is nothing; all physicists now talk about anti-matter: ten years ago I painted anti-matter angels. Old age, because the young are completely stupid. And luxury, because luxury is one product of monarchy, and I, more every day, am monarchic—not in the political sense—Dalí never touches politics; if there were a monarchy party I would have nothing to do with it."

But it’s not for the lower orders, you know. Let them eat Hemingway.
We did have Cary Grant, but as a younger man working with Howard Hawks he’d been Mr Macho. We had Louis Jourdan, but he was essentially disallowed—a decadent playboy in Gigi, and in The V.I.P.s a marvelously suave gigolo, but unworthy of Liz, you could see it right off.

No, the only wholehearted intrusion of weakness into pop culture—weakness that approves of itself, not the weakness of a Stan Laurel that weeps and wishes to be otherwise—is Woody Allen. What was that fight movie in which he says he has, not an Achilles’ heel but an Achilles’ body? Even the jokes are weak.
But an icon he is. For nine years, and perhaps with greater suppleness of imagination, that unbeautiful face featured in a syndicated comic strip. What could be more iconic? And always, whether in films or writing them, he consoles us for our cowardice, our neuroses, our ignobility. Saint Woody, pray for us.

Good! As that respected entomologist Vladimir Nabokov said, "Perhaps the most admirable among the admirable laws of Nature is the survival of the weakest."

My own hero, a womanizer and a gigolo (the two métiers don’t coalesce, of course, but life is contradictions; it’s nothing else), is a model of every sort of weakness—physical, moral, mental. But Toby enjoys it and, permit me to say it, he’s funnier:


She’s Funny That Way: Having It All

The label I hung on Peter Bogdanovich when I was a student was "archival." Of all the directors we were watching at the time, he was the most meticulous in his references. And indeed his approach to film—and to life, it seems—is scholarly.

This would be unforgiveable if his work weren’t so funny. But it’s more than funny. It’s—how to say—liberating. Uplifting—not in the moral sense, and not in the "feel-good-movie" sense, a genre that can be singularly depressing.
Graham Greene once confessed, with some embarrassment, that his own favorite writer was P. G. Wodehouse, because no one else got his mood so high. Precisely. And Wodehouse's insolence has nothing to do with feel-goodism: "Marriage is not a process for prolonging the life of love, sir. It merely mummifies its corpse."

When I was a young novelist wintering in India, bluffing it out and wondering what I could really actually write, I discovered Wodehouse—rediscovered him, I guess; I had looked at his books as a kid. The Indians, no matter what you may think, adore things British, and in India, like so many before me, I found my master. I remembered being the funny guy in high school, and realized that this was something I could do if I wanted to—and I wanted to.

Wodehouse’s only real match in movies was Ernst Lubitsch, who is Peter Bogdanivich’s master, and so I watch Bogdanovich’s career especially closely. Lubitsch’s spirits are invariably high (so enviable!), and with Wodehouse he shares a delight in stories about people who have it all—all the money, all the freedom, and in Lubitsch’s case all the sex.  Suffer on your own time. His Trouble in Paradise, The Merry Widow and To Be or Not to Be are at the top of my list. (See Gorgeousness.)
And his pleasure in sex was manifold—not just in representing it in the restrictive Will Haze era, not just in recommending open marriage, but in teasing America over its Puritanism, which gave him endless joy. In That Uncertain Feeling a man stands by while his wife has an affair—big deal—then throws the guy out of their bedroom and wins her back. (See The Lubitsch Touch.)

Lubitsch’s nearest and most legitimate offspring was his scenarist Billy Wilder, also an incurable tease, who however made the occasional swoop into seriousness. "Memories," said Wodehouse, "are like mulligatawny soup in a cheap restaurant. It is best not to stir them." But who can help it? We all commit the sin of seriousness, we dive like dolphins in our thoughts, and look back at the masters like exiles from Eden.

Bogdanovich, Lubitsch’s, what, grandson, has his own highs and lows, but he gave us an unforgettable Daisy Miller, rendering Winterbourne's silences as dialogue ("My father ain't in Europe; my father's in a better place." "Oh, I’m sorry." "He’s in Schenectady."). And in At Long Last Love the lady lead falls for the gentleman lead because he’s rich—which is fine with both of them. Big deal. Then the actors have a palpably good time singing songs by Cole Porter, who is the musical, and indeed the lyric-poet third in this gladsome trinity.
The ancestor of She’s Funny That Way, despite the declared debt to Lubitsch’s Cluny Brown, is his Heaven Can Wait, in which a man recently dead recounts to the Devil his life of seductions, carried on during his marriage to a woman with whom he is deeply in love. When she leaves him over it he follows her to Kansas and re-elopes with her; and the Devil sends him up to Heaven for making so many women happy. He is a man, in short, who has it all, and Bogdanovich too loves to make films about people who have it all.
"Arnold" in She’s Funny That Way has the same yen for call girls Lubitsch had (I mean the actual Ernst, who died in bed with one, or wherever they were), though Arnold likes to rescue them with large sums of money to fund start-ups. OK, I’m not saying it’s the best movie I’ve ever seen, but here is a film in which Jennifer Aniston is actually acceptable—a milestone in The Cinemah. It’s on a level of intelligence that’s not easy to come by, there are laughs in it, and "a laugh," someone says in To Be or Not to Be, "is nothing to be sneezed at."

It’s all I ask.


Mr. Holmes and the Watson Problem

My favorite film Sherlock is Peter Cushing in The Hound of the Baskervilles—the aquiline nose, the intensity, the passionate commitment to being Holmes. His real partner in it is the marvelous Christopher Lee as Sir Henry, long paired with Cushing in the Dracula series, he as Drac, Cushing as the stake-pounder. Doctor Watson doesn’t have much of a presence in this one, except to fetch Holmes his tobacco. "This, I think, is a two-pipe problem."
My favorite film Watson is Nigel Bruce, who played him in a series of fourteen movies to Basil Rathbone’s Holmes. An actress who seems not to have liked Rathbone called him "two profiles pasted together," and "a folded umbrella taking elocution lessons," but I thought he was persuasive; and to his gimlet-eyed coldness Bruce supplied the toney fat-headed warmth for which he was invariably called upon.

In my favorite Holmes movie, Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Watson is reduced to a frantic clown, albehe admirably acted by Colin Blakely. This time Chistopher Lee plays Mycroft, who sneers at his brother’s powers of deduction, recalling that as a child, "by carefully observing a neighbor's house he deduced that babies were brought, not by the stork, but by the midwife in her satchel." "As good an explanation as any," smiles Watson.
In The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, an allusion to Holmes’s cocaine addiction, he teaches Freud his job—"You must learn, Doctor, not merely to see but to observe"—and Robert Duval’s Watson feels, quite rightly, de trop.

(Let us not speak of the Guy Ritchie effort. My stomach won’t bear it.)

Because Watson, you see, is the two-pipe problem. In the movies he’s reduced to a faffling fool, a straight man to Holmes’s quips, someone to be said "elementary" to. In the books he tells the story. It’s through his uncomprehending eyes that we see the giant mind at work.

Conan Doyle didn’t invent this method, nor did he invent the detective story. Both were the gifts of Edgar Poe. There have been elaborate scholarly attempts to place the origins of the detective story in classical literature, etc., and for the man of modest intelligence reporting on a genius we might think of Boswell on Johnson; but as strategies of fiction they begin with Poe’s Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin, who solves "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (in a Paris Poe had never seen) by the method of pure logic, as narrated by the awed friend who shares his lodgings.
Poe is something of a phrase-maker (though his prose is—not inept, exactly, but without the merriment associated with dashing ability, like one’s own), and it’s a little embarrassing to read A Study in Scarlet and see how much, not just of Poe’s style but of his language Conan Doyle has appropriated.

(P. G. Wodehouse took the Holmes/Watson model for his Jeeves books, in which an upper-class twit narrates the successes of his brilliant valet. And in my stunted way I too am of this lineage: my series of comic novels is told by a no-good gigolo whose keeper’s nine-year-old daughter out-thinks him. Nor am I above lifting some of the Master’s phrases. We are none of us honest men.)

In Mr. Holmes (note the period—this is for American consumption; Brits don’t put dots after Mr), we have no Watson at all. Watson is the distorter, the builder of personae (only his hands appear onscreen), and to be dispensed with as Holmes backs away from his Holmes-ness toward something more, alas, human. Logic and deduction are not enough. The solitude of the individual is the thing. Pathos. Humanity. Well.
This film might have been about any superhero tired of being one (see the review of Birdman), and indeed Holmes, could he be time-machined into the present, would not be out of place on a team of Marvel Comics superheroes. (Marvel has done The Hound.) His powers of perception are tantamount to X-ray vision. They are beyond ours—not that he is a hero of consciousness, like Hamlet or Geoffrey Firmin, but that, like Einstein’s brain, pieces of which are held by museums in case we can ever peer into its corridors, he is what Roland Barthes called "a mythical object; paradoxically, the greatest intelligence of all provides an image of the most up-to-date machine, the man who is too powerful is removed from psychology and introduced into a world of robots; as is well known, the supermen of science-fiction always have something reified about them." (See What We Know for a little more on Einstein.)

Mr. Holmes, however, has stepped out of myth to savor solitude and self-loathing. His old self might just have picked up his Stradivarius (in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes he plays a notoriously difficult Bach piece), or polished his monograph on cigar ash, or done some coke.
In the review of Inherent Vice I said that the detective story differs from the murder mystery in that the detective is an outsider who can be as dangerous, or at least as eccentric as the bad guy. Dirty Harry is a detective: he and the serial killer share what Harry, in his sadistic whisper, calls “a certain style.” (See The Return of Dirty Harry. For that matter, see my "The Great Detective" for a comic take on all this.)

In the murder mystery the detective is One Of Us, and this is what Sherlock, in his bitter solitude, has become in Mr. Holmes—except that it's not a murder mystery. It is the "human" Holmes. Ian McKellen is wonderful, yes yes, and the kid is a joy, but the plot is stuck together with spit and envelope glue, and the whole thing doesn’t fly.

So much for the human. And after all one has such feelings. It has been suggested now and then that a more human Robert MacLean might be attempted. But one persists.


Fifty Shades of Grey, or Gidget Gets a Whipping

Here's a film that combines two genres. In my review of Kingsman I mentioned Women’s Movies, which can be good. Douglas Sirk was the master—Imitation of Life and older-woman-younger-man All That Heaven Allows. Fassbinder remade the latter as the spare and Brechtian Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, one of his best.
The other genre is the Surfing Movie. OK, there’s no sea in it, no surf boards, but Gidget is here as Sandra Dee substitute Dakota Johnson, who exudes the kind of wholesomeness and quiet maturity you know will triumph over such debauchery as the film offers.

Hollywood has always had a problem mixing sex and sentiment (as who does not?), nor is it solved here. She gets drunk and he takes her home with vomit on her clothes, so there is a bit of kink in it. Then he flies her in his helicopter to exotic Seattle, the lights glimmering below like the Champs-Élysées, and walks her through his mansion past Things You Will Never Have. Servants, everything.

Thirty minutes in we find out she’s a virgin. Right? For her deflowering, which I take to be the theme and ambition of the Surfing Movie, the erotic spectacles are the unveiling of her nipples and his pale but determined behind. (Is he not a bit anemic to be a firm-handed maître? He looks like he’s got a hemhorroid.) The missionary position is subsumed into the movie kiss, and her emotion is articulated prettily by her feet.
In the morning she makes pancakes and his mother drops in and approves of her. So now we know where we are, genre-wise. But he doesn’t. He has shown her his torture room and proceeds, Mom or no Mom, with his program.

But wait—the bondage he pursues now is legal—something many of us understand. No use squirming. Shout and no one will hear. There’s a ball strapped in your mouth anyway. For the next thirty minutes the goal is to get her to sign a contract. Only then can he hit her with the fly-swatter.

Like other such films—for they are a Hollywood tradition, and invariably embarrassing—this one implicitly invokes our experience of Internet porn, and tries to tame it, to domesticate the inhuman (let’s face it) sexual emotion by marrying it to more predictable ones.
Wild Orchid comes to mind, in which Mickey Rourke plays the Wounded Man. The Wounded Man is a specialty of the Woman’s Movie and, on the literary level, of the Harlequin Romance. (See On the Question Whether Women Have Souls for the Wounded Man in Jane Eyre.) He doesn’t really mean to be bad, but life has damaged him, and it’s the virgin’s job to fix him.

And so in Fifty Shades we have Christian (Christian, yet!—can The Lord be far away?) blurting that he's like this because he’s "fucked up!" Where is the robust whip-wielding mix-n-match Marquis? Self-pity has no place in his world. (See The Marquis de Sade, Father of Modern France.) 

One thinks also of Don Jon—did you see that? It begins by amusing us with imitation Net porn, then turns against it and gets teachy. Julianne Moore, in a most unpersuasive performance, balances her lust with an erupt-at-any-moment weepiness because she is, and this is essential, A Good Person. As Fernando Pessoa said, "Praise be to God I’m not good."

In perhaps the worst of them, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, every time the camera gets rolling Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks "make love" when they’re supposed to be having sex. If you’re feeling masochistic this one will make you cringe.

Contrast Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter (see the review of The Two Faces of January), in which no such rapprochement is even considered. "Americans," Europeans like to say, "are such children."
I work that side of the street myself—see Beauty and the Beast—but I do comedy.

The end of Fifty Shades—are we at the end already? No, let’s mention the product placement. Only in movies do people use Apples. Have you ever seen a PC laptop in a movie? What are you on now?

Let’s mention the literacy: "My mother is on husband number four. She’s an incurable romantic." "Are you?" "Well, I study English lit. I kind of have to be." Unless you read Shakespeare, or Chaucer, or Pope, or Dryden, or Joyce, or Eliot, or James, or Nabokov. What are they teaching the kids these days?
To the end, then: "Why do you have to hurt me?" The obvious answer is, "Because I like to," but no, we get explanations. Seriousness. The Wounded Man. Scarcely The 120 Days of Sodom, but et voilà. She rebels, affords us the feminist parable, and the elevator door closes on their desperate faces as they call each other’s names.

No more surfing for the Gidge. For now. Tomorrow, as the lady said, is another day. But then as Nabokov said, "In my experience tomorrow is the same day." Watch this space.


Woman in Gold and Helen Mirren’s Body

Let me just do a few lines on the delicious Mirren because this movie is a bore, a reminder that American men wear T-shirts under their dress shirts under their suits, and display them like ascots. Keeps them a little warmer.
Those of us who relish our fantasies have followed the Dame from Age of Consent to her more recent je m'en fous poses, the implicit message of which is, “I'm still the most erotic thought you can have.”
She was on the British mind more than on mine until I saw her in the much imitated (see The Grand Budapest Hotel and Peter Greenaway) The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, displaying her forty-three-year-old flesh with charismatic abandon. After that I was paying attention.
Her uncompromising nude scene in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, in which she despairs over her loss of beauty, reminds me of Coleridge’s Dejection ode, where he says he’s had it as a poet, though it’s one of his great pieces, no pun intended. Artists. You can’t trust them.
She has an erotic quality that nags at you, but now and then she closes the door on it. The Queen is a statement of un-eros, as it must be (Philip had all the fun), and her Blairish prime minister comes off as someone very like Mr Bean. Mirren gets her walking toes-out like Henry VIII, which I presume is right. (I dealt with Stephen Frears in my review of Philomena.) She was wasted in The Madness of King George, a mother in Door to Door, and—good choice—Prospera in The Tempest, which has few worthy interpreters. But whereas Miranda was barefoot, Prospera was not. Bad choice.
In Woman in Gold she plays someone in her eighties, for which she sends her allure underground and surrenders to the cuteness and dignity the part requires. (One wonders what the Dame herself will be like at that age; we can only refuse to be surprised.) This plus Ryan Reynolds’ Disnified wholesomeness makes it a Women’s Movie, which is fine (my vooman loved it), but not perhaps on a level with Douglas Sirk. (The review of Kingsman has more on that.)

But I suppose the film did more than any merely political gesture to ease the rancor aroused in the world, especially in Europe, by Benjamin Netanyahu. European Jews haven’t had it easy lately. So it was probably worth doing. (God, I hate making moral statements.)
Will Dame Helen’s aphrodisiac self rise again from the sea on the half-shell? May one not hope?
Click here for more reviews.

Also by Robert MacLean, the "Toby" books,
Will You Please Fuck Off? at Amazon USAmazon UKAmazon FRAmazon DEAmazon ITAmazon ES and Smashwords;
Foreign Matter at Amazon USAmazon UKAmazon FRAmazon DEAmazon ITAmazon ES and Smashwords; 
Total Moisture at Amazon USAmazon UKAmazon FRAmazon DEAmazon ITAmazon ES and Smashwords; 
and these, too,
Mortal Coil: A Comedy of Corpses at Amazon USAmazon UKAmazon FRAmazon DE, Amazon IT and Amazon ES;
The President's Palm Reader: A Washington Comedy at Amazon USAmazon UKAmazon FRAmazon DEAmazon IT and Amazon ES; and
Greek Island Murder at Amazon USAmazon UKAmazon FRAmazon DEAmazon IT and Amazon ES.

6 comments:

  1. Robert = EXcellent work! I laughed at your dry wit, and sometimes 'wet' wit, and have several movies I must see. Glad you mentioned 'Wild Orchid' and I still cannot forget the scene where Jack Nicholson in a hot tub in "All About Schmidt" and the full figured Kathy Bates comes to join him in all her naked splendor. The look on Jack's face had me howling. What would you recommend as an intro to Wodehouse? I'm interested in P.J.'s work now, and thank you for that. You have learned to write, very well, and as a critic, you are worthy of ANY publication, IMHO. Keep on with the great work - and, btw, love your research with links and pics - it serves a reader well. Thanks, Robert - and yes, I agree, when Hollywood today tries to mix 'real sex' into it's films, it usually results in something of a mess - like someone dropped the XXX film reel in the toilet and fished it out, then tried to play it. The mind can only imagine so much - as we men are visual creatures. All the best, and yes, I will be seeing the 'best' Sherlock, the 2-pipe one you mentioned. LOL.
    Stevee Crabtree

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    1. Thank you, Steve. That's a good-looking site you've got, https://www.reverbnation.com/kingcrab. I would start with The Code of the Woosters.

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  4. "Sex is politics." Gore Vidal, Playboy, 1979. You can find the link to that quote and the 1968 video of him pushing William F. Buckley's many repressed buttons here: http://bit.ly/2haZKOo Oh, yeah, and it's good to know you can still enjoy an old school kinda musical too. And you're right, Emma Stone doesn't need no stinkin "look at me" shoes.

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