Martha Bayles: March 2008 Archives
I just read John Rockwell's positive take on Paul Giamatti's performance as John Adams in HBO's new "series event" by the same title, and after watching four episodes, I agree with him and not with Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times.
In Stanley's view, the problem isn't that Giamatti doesn't look the part, the problem is his acting. She has got it exactly backwards. Giamatti is short, rotund, and round-headed; so was Adams. But come on, folks, behold their faces. They couldn't look less alike, and Giamatti's funny, rubbery face is what we watch the whole time. I'm not saying Adams was an Adonis; he looked like John Houseman. But on that fact, I rest my case.
So the problem is Giamatti's looks. But the series unfolds, his acting transcends this lack of resemblance.
This really starts to happen in the fourth episode, which airs next Sunday. (I'm watching a screener for a review.) In this upcoming episode, Adams represents the new United States of America in France and England, and in those aristocratic settings Giamatti puts his funny, rubbery face to expert use, portraying a Massachusetts Yankee in King Louis' and George's courts. It's a delightful embodiment of what it meant at the time to be an American, never mind a champion of the rights of man and republican government.
The actor Ivan Dixon died on March 16 in Charlotte, NC, while the media were buzzing about the need for more "dialogue about race." Too often, that means another recycling of the same-ol'-same-'ol, cliches and recriminations, until we grow weary and shut it down again.
We don't need any more of that. We need a 21st-century version of Nothing But a Man (1964), the quiet, eloquent film starring Mr. Dixon as a working man who marries a preacher's daughter (Abbey Lincoln) and insists on being treated respectfully by everyone he meets. That's it. But for a long time after I first saw it in the 1970s, it was my favorite film (and, I gather, Malcolm X's).
Nothing But a Man is available on DVD, and from the first black-and-white frame (I am referring to the film stock), you will see that it is of a different era. But if you stay with it, you will also see that some treatments of race do not grow tiresome, because they are simply, straightforwardly human. That's why I remember Ivan Dixon.
The title of this entry does not refer to my own confession, but Leo Tolstoy's. I recently watched Sean Penn's Into the Wild, based on the eponymous best-seller by Jon Krakauer, about Chris McCandless, a young man who "dropped out," as they used to say in the sixties, only without then "tuning in" to any movement or "turning on" with any known drug.
What McCandless did do was abandon family, friends, future prospects, and affluent lifestyle, to embark on a quest without definition that, to judge by the film (I have not read the book), acquired definition as it went along. After two years of living as a voluntary hobo (he renamed himself "Alexander Supertramp"), hippie (he bonded with a counter-cultural tribe living in RVs), and latter-day alms-seeking monk, he trekked alone into the Alaskan wilderness, where after 112 days of foraging for food and living in an abandoned bus, he died of starvation.
In the wrong hands, this story could be unbearable, especially in today's acrimonious social and cultural atmosphere. And ... let me put it this way: I am not enlightened by Sean Penn's politics, and I don't much like him. But he is one of the major talents in Hollywood, if not THE major talent. This film is a masterpiece. I'm not even talking about its visual beauty, which is all the more stunning for not having been generated by a computer. Nor, really, am I talking about Emile Hirsch, whose only flaw in the lead role is that he is more lovable than the real McCandless seems to have been.
No, I'm talking about that rarest of qualities in Hollywood films these days, the story-telling. No one but Penn could have handled this as deftly, even to the point of using McCandless's favorite books in a way that skips the usual self-consciousness ("aren't we smart to be quoting a real book in a movie?") and cuts to the heart of Jack London, Henry Thoreau, and Tolstoy.
I seriously doubted whether this film would make room for Tolstoy, despite putting his books in McCandless's backpack. But if you stay with it, all the way to the end, you will see that it does capture him. Not the big shot author of War and Peace, but the restless soul of Confession, who rejects everything in his society, only to find God in a dream fraught with existential angst.
You can interpret the ending of Into the Wild any way you like, but for me, it completes the trajectory of this strange young man's life in a way very similar to Tolstoy's in Confession: doubt; disillusionment; cynicism; flight; heartache; yearning for human re-connection coupled with the realization (on the bank of a swollen river) that it's too late, there is no going back; terror in the face of death; and finally, transcendence that may or may not last beyond this life.
Quite a lot for one movie. And they gave the Oscar to No Country for Old Men, a plotless mess gagging on its own blood. It's enough to make a real movie lover drop out.