December 2004 Archives
Having introduced the topic of Jane Austen (see "Sideways" rave below), I feel moved to mention why the 1996 BBC/A&E production of "Pride and Prejudice" starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth is my favorite.
I admire this one the most because it achieves the most delicate balance between two very different worlds: that of Jane Austen’s novels and that of our contemporary film sensibility.
There are an amazing number of Austen adaptations out there. On this side of the pond they range from the old-fashioned Hollywood feature, the 1940 "Pride and Prejudice" starring Greer Garson and Sir Lawrence Olivier; to the new-fangled Hollywood feature, the 2003 update set in contemporary America, with the necessary social morality supplied by having the characters all be Mormons.
The chief fault of these, and of all novel-based feature films, is the adaptation process itself. No matter how highly credentialed the writers, they are bound by the stricture of the two-hour screenplay to commit ugly acts of amputation and evisceration.
The BBC led the way to a solution: the TV miniseries. Give the writer six hours instead of two, and he or she is less likely to turn into an Edward Scissorhands, out to discipline fusty old novelists for wasting kerjillions of words on material that doesn't advance the plot.
The BBC has adapted "Pride and Prejudice" four times: in 1952, 1967, 1980, and 1996. I haven’t seen the first two, but the contrast between ‘80 and ‘96 suggests the solution created a new problem: misplaced fidelity.
While Austen’s prose may seem dry to the newcomer, to the seasoned reader it purls along, clear and rapid as a fast-running brook. For reasons of cost, undue attachment to theatrical conventions, or perhaps both, this fluency was absent from the ‘80 production, which (despite a fine performance by Elizabeth Garvie as Elizabeth Bennet) is stagey and ... well, dry.
By ‘96 somebody at the Beeb - or at A&E - had figured out two things. First, that Austen is not dry. And second, that film has its own way of bubbling along, one that is different from both the page and the stage. Let the purists complain; if Austen were alive today, she would delight in this version and find ever so tactful fault with the others.
It's tricky to judge "Sideways," because "Sideways" is about judgment. All kinds of judgment, from the wine taster's palate to the would-be lover's heart. And it is so good, it makes you vow never again to drink rotgut.
The story is simple. Two 40-ish guys, former college roommates, take a tour of the Santa Barbara, California wine country. One of them, a failing actor named Jack (Thomas Haden Church), is about to get married. So his old friend Miles (Paul Giamatti), a pudgy failing novelist suffering post-divorce depression, suggests the trip as a last fling.
Of course, what Miles has in mind - open road, golden scenery, gourmet food, and great wine - is not what Jack hankers for. Like an aging woodthrush, Jack wants to puff out his feathers and make funny noises in his throat to attract females. Soon he is happily banging a wine pourer named Stephanie (Sandra Oh), while Miles goes into an emotional tailspin over sensing that a classy waitress named Maya (Virginia Madsen) might be a kindred spirit.
I saw "Sideways" right after "Closer" and was struck by the fact that Jack could be a character in either film. Like the "Closer" foursome, he's a narcissist whose life consists of yielding to every impulse, hurting other people, then absolving himself in fluent psychobabble. The only difference is, "Closer" glamourizes the type and "Sideways" does not. Thanks in part to a brilliant performance by Church, we see Jack in the kindest possible light as a greedy little boy half-trying to grow up.
Is "Sideways" moralistic? Not at all. But it is moral in a way that few contemporary films know how to be. Without giving away the ending, let me just say that by the time Jack and his Armenian-American bride are taking their vows under a large ornamental cross, he is the most pathetically sincere hypocrite you ever saw.
As for Miles, he turns out to be anything but pathetic. In a curious way, his fine palate becomes a metaphor for the fineness of his judgment in other more important matters, such as love. Just when you thought the movies had forgotten how to do courtship, along comes this contest between two people who see themselves reflected in Pinot, the most vulnerable wine grape but also the richest.
Let me state my praise this way: If you admire Jane Austin, and take pleasure in her delicate distinctions of right and wrong, not to mention her angelic patience toward human weakness, then you will very likely savor the long, smooth finish of "Sideways."
Now that Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" has made its way through the world's movie theaters and is selling briskly on DVD, critics and pundits are looking back at the various predictions, fearful and hopeful, that accompanied its release. The broad, eclectic website Beliefnet.com is a good place to go if you want a quick update on those predictions or an open-ended and seemingly endless discussion of the film. In the spirit of shameless self-promotion, I refer the reader to my own comments on the film, posted last spring - just click on "The Passion" to your right.
Take it from generations of storytellers: dollar for dollar, erotic deception is your biggest entertainment value. In "Closer," the Mike Nichols film just nominated for a Golden Globe, the deception begins with the title, which implies the existence of something solid in a human being to which others may come close (or closer). But there's no such solidity in these four pretty protagonists. The moment they get close, they fly apart.
This makes for some intriguing patterns, like the swirls traced by a magnet in a pile of metal shavings. The question is, are the forces at work in this film any more complicated than the positive and negative charges found in a magnet?
Plot summaries are a drag but in this case necessary: An American stripper named Alice (Natalie Portman) goes to London and jumps the bones of an English journalist named Dan (Jude Law). Dan later betrays Alice by jumping the bones of an American photographer named Anna (Julia Roberts). By jumping Dan's bones, Anna is betraying her husband, an English dermatologist named Larry (Clive Owen). In the end, Larry and Alice claim to have jumped each other's bones, but they might be lying.
So many bones, so little time. Oddly, "Closer" would have us believe that these four take several years to do what any self-respecting spouse-swappers could do in a single evening. But spouse-swapping is shallow and "Closer" is deep. Right?
There's one deep-seeming gimmick: instant messaging. Pretending to be Anna, Dan erotic-IMs with Larry as a practical joke, only to arrange a rendezvous that results in some serious bone-jumping. But Cyrano de Bergerac these people ain't. It is not clear why Larry would venture forth to meet the author of such lines as, "I want 2 cum on yr face." Cum to think of it, this isn't deep, or even erotic. Just trendy.
If there is a deep character, it would be Natalie, the stripper skilled at exerting power over men without letting them exert any over her. The film's most riveting scene occurs when Larry (heartsick over Anna) visits a strip joint and pays for a private ogle with Alice (heartsick over Dan). Larry wants to jump Alice's bones, but Alice cites the house rule, "Look but don't touch." And when Larry begs her to say her real name, she insists on using her fake nom de strip, Jane. Of course, at the end we learn that her name really is Jane.
This pattern is tidy: by attracting and repelling in equal measure, the gorgeous but vulnerable heroine achieves a moment of maximum control that enables her to speak the truth. Unfortunately, even this pattern dissolves at the end, when the happiness of Natalie and Dan reunited is destroyed by the question: DID Larry jump Alice's bones, after all?
We never learn the answer, a device doubtless intended to make us share these characters' morbid desire to know the truth even when it destroys happiness. This might pass for deep, if this film contained any happiness or emotional truth. But it doesn't. So the magnet in use here has only one charge.
Hurt by competition with Netflix and other mail-order video rental services, Blockbuster's operating income threatens to stay flat this coming year. So the company in its wisdom has decided to eliminate its most-griped-about policy: late fees.
Instead of charging you an average $4 for the late return of a video, Blockbuster will now let you keep it an extra week, then charge your credit card for the purchase price. Oh, you didn't want to buy it? Well, you're in luck: you then have a 30-day "grace period" in which to return the video for a store credit, minus a $1.25 re-stocking fee. And just to clarify further: the grace period includes the extra week. So it's really only 21 days.
Is that clear? If you are regular customer at Blockbuster, you may be harboring some small doubt about waiting in line for the privilege of having some Tarantino wannabe explain the new fee structure to you.
For this is the real reason why people are switching to mail-order video: THEY NEVER HAVE TO GO TO THE VIDEO STORE!
Consider: You can order books by mail, too. But people flock to Borders and Barnes & Noble. Why? Because they're pleasant public places where people can buy coffee, sit and relax, browse in peace, even read. Quite apart from the debate over chains vs, independents, most people will agree that compared with the average Blockbuster, the average Borders treats its customers like human beings.
And this is true regardless of age or level of education. Compare the human specimens in Blockbuster with those in Borders, and you will find that they are basically the same. The only real difference is that the latter are happier. They aren't trying to choose a video, add up their late fees, or handle their children in an environment that assaults them with blaring promotional ads and mountains of candy, popcorn, and all the other unspeakable junk food that Blockbuster would have us believe is the normal, natural accompaniment to watching a film at home.
My point is simple. Instead of interpreting the difference between Blockbuster and Borders as proof of a McLuhanesque gap between noble print and debased electronic media, maybe we should think of it as the difference between a company that batters its customers into submission and one that understands that most people will actually pay for the privilege of feeling civilized..
Last spring, Frank Rich screened "Kinsey" and found it "an intelligent account of a half-forgotten and somewhat quaint chapter in American history."
Now he finds the film more timely. Indeed, his column in yesterday's New York Times held up "Kinsey" as the harbinger of a returning dark age, as religious conservatives hatch a new, post-electoral "plot against sex in America."
Golly, when I heard that "Kinsey" was attracting the usual spitballs from the usual suspects, I just took it as another skirmish in the Thirty Years War between publicity-seeking preachers and keister-covering broadcasters. To judge by Rich's account, though, the situation is more serious than that. Indeed, the battlements of sexual enlightenment are being stormed by an army of Bible-reading Orcs.
This is odd, given that only last week Rich was reassuring us that red-state couch potatoes enjoy televised T&A just as much as blue-state ones do. That struck me as a singularly uninteresting observation, but about all we can expect from a critic who (to paraphrase Charles Peguy) would go to any length to avoid being thought a prude.
Still, I can't help but wonder whether Rich is really worried about the end of nonmarital nooky as we know it, or whether he's just running short of ideas. To quote Peguy directly: "A word is not the same with one writer as with another. One tears it from his guts. The other pulls it out of his overcoat pocket."
While we're on the subject of 1950s rock & roll, let me recommend a fine documentary by the man who directed "Ray." In 1987 Taylor Hackford made "Hail, Hail, Rock 'n' Roll" (1987), a portrait of Chuck Berry as he prepared for a 60th-birthday concert in St Louis' formerly segregated Fox Theater. The film offers revealing glimpses of such rock luminaries as Bo Diddley, Johnnie Johnson (Berry's original pianist), Little Richard, Eric Clapton, Linda Ronstadt, Bruce Springsteen, and Keith Richard.
The finest moment, worth double the price of admission, is when Berry, Bo Diddley, and Little Richard recall how naive they had been in the face of sharp practices by the record labels that signed their first hits. Berry, who has been bragging all along about his business acumen, listens to his compadres confessing their mistakes, then informs them that he was too smart to get ripped off. "I majored in math," he says - only to have the spotlight immediately stolen by Little Richard's hilarious retort: "Well, I majored in MOUTH!"
According to popular myth, the late fifties were "the day the music died." That was when most of the original rock & rollers quit recording: Carl Perkins because of a car accident; Little Richard because of religion; Elvis because of being drafted into the Army; Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry because of sex-related scandals; and Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Richie Valens because of a fatal plane crash.
That's hardly the whole picture, though. To quote music critic Nelson George: "Many rock & roll historians, with their characteristic bias toward youth rebellion, claim that the last two years of the fifties were a musically fallow period. But that claim only works if you're willing to ignore Ray Charles's brilliant work."
I couldn't agree more. To talk about Ray Charles is to talk about the finest vintage: ripe essence of blues, jazz, country, and (most important) gospel warmed by the Southern sun, fermented in the soul of a brave and gifted man, then bottled by wise vintners like Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler, the type of entrepreneurs who once upon a time gave the American record industry a reason to exist.
If you're still reading, you've probably savored this musical vintage. But unless you've read "Brother Ray," the salty-sweet autobiography that Charles did with David Ritz, you may not know the fascinating life story of this musical icon. Now you can learn about it, with a minimum of foolishness and a maximum of feeling.
As a writer about popular music, I've seen a lot of "biopics," and believe me, most are rotgut. Not "Ray." From the production design, which richly re-creates an America that now seems as remote as ancient Rome, to the phenomenal cast, who quite simply act their hearts out, this movie is...what? Rather than reach for a superlative, let me just say that this movie is worthy of its subject.
Behold the bonobo, Dr. Kinsey tells his enraptured students. They're our closest relatives, and they have sex all the time, with as many partners as possible, while living together in peace and harmony!
Way cool, we say. But depending on our knowledge of primate evolution, we might also ask why the kindly prof doesn't mention chimpanzees, those larger cousins of bonobos who really ARE our closest relatives (just a few chromosomes away from Uncle Fred). Is it because recent field research suggests that chimps in the wild take giddy delight in such activities as rape, mate-battering, and murder?*
Personally, I don't put much stock in sociobiology. It's fascinating to compare ourselves with animals, but for a couple of millennia, human beings have understood that, like it or not, we are different. For one thing, animals don't conduct scientific studies of their own sexual behavior, publish them in best-selling volumes that contribute to significant changes in social organization (if not behavior), then make movies celebrating only one side of the story.
To be fair, "Kinsey" tells its one-sided story gracefully. Bill Condon is a deft director with a flair for sexual themes (see his excellent 1998 "Gods and Monsters"). And Liam Neeson is a vast improvement on the original Alfred Kinsey - not only is he better looking, with a better sense of humor, he is also better behaved.
Oops. This is science, folks. We're not supposed to judge behavior as better or worse. That belongs to the dark ages B.K. (Before Kinsey), when ten-year-old boys were forced to wear cruel contraptions to keep them from masturbating.
Huh? Where did I get that idea? From a gripping scene in which it is revealed that the suffering flesh of Kinsey père (John Lithgow) had been mortified in this bizarre way. As it happens, there's no evidence that such a thing ever occurred. Why then add it to the movie? The answer is simple: to make the dark ages look even darker than they were.
America had no lack of sexual hangups in the 1950s: anti-gay prejudice, racist myths, and gross disinformation about female sexuality (thanks a lot, Sigmund). A more measured film would not feel the need to add sexual morality to the list. I say this because the last I checked, sex was a pretty strong passion that sometimes needs channelling, if not curbing. (I assure you, my acceptance of this hard fact does not compel me to strap chastity belts on ten-year-old boys.)
One one level, "Kinsey" accepts this hard fact. There aren't many erotic practices out there that most people agree are wrong, but raping children is one. So "Kinsey" includes a moment of moral indignation at it, as though trying to reassure the audience that this is a movie about noble scientists, not nasty libertines.
The trouble is, Kinsey and some of his associates WERE libertines, and like all libertines they ended up hurting and violating one another. There are some hints of this: a scene where two researchers who've been sleeping with each other's wives succumb to jealous anger; and one great line: "When it comes to love, we are all in the dark."
But these are only hints, which is too bad, because underlying this story is a compelling set of questions about what science can and cannot tell us about ourselves. For example, love is not the only thing science cannot illuminate. Morality is another. Can it be proven scientifically that raping children is wrong? Of course not. That is a truth of another kind, no less true for not being subject to the experimental method.
If "Kinsey" went a little further in addressing such questions, instead of pulling back from them (for fear of appearing prudish?), then it would be a great movie instead of merely a good one.
* My source is the work of anthropologist Richard Wrangham, whose 1997 book, "Demonic Males," uses solid research to buttress a less-than-solid brief for what might be described as the bonobo lifestyle.
Speaking of film in the classroom, here’s a sleeper: "King David" (1985, directed by Bruce Beresford). To show this to students before reading I and II Samuel would be a mistake, because unlike the Scripture, the film is not about the problem of monarchy itself.
Americans may have rejected kings in political life, but we yearn for them in fantasy - consider "The Lion King." By contrast, I and II Samuel tell of the Israelites yearning for a king so they can be like other tribes, and of the Lord anointing a bad one, Saul, to teach them why they should not crave an earthly ruler other than his prophets. The twist, of course, is that David comes along, and through one of the Hebrew Bible’s great human-divine wrestling matches convinces the Lord that monarchy can work (at least for a while).
"King David" reduces this capacious theme to a psychological battle between Saul (Edward Woodward), the test-dummy king who succumbs to envy and paranoia, and David (Richard Gere), the golden-boy upstart who can do no wrong. And when David does do wrong, seducing Bathsheba and then arranging to have her husband, Uriah the Hittite, killed in battle, the film smooths things over by making Uriah a sexually dysfunctional wife beater. As any astute college student will immediately notice, this makes Nathan the prophet look kind of silly rebuking David with a parable about a shepherd who loses his beloved pet lamb to the greed of a rich man. As I recall, the shepherd in the parable did not go in for lamb abuse.
OK, in this respect "King David" is just another "beards and bathrobes" flick that takes what is deep, tortured, gnarly, and puzzling in the Bible and reduces it to facile melodrama. But in its defense I will say that "King David" does get a lot of things right - indeed, more than most examples of the genre. And because the acting, production design, and (especially) music are generally excellent, the film provides certain pleasures well known to avid readers who are also movie lovers: the pleasures of allusion, of illustration, and (not least, as demonstrated above) of correction!