Alec Nevala-Lee

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The scorpion and the snake

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At the end of the most haunting speech in Citizen Kane, Mr. Bernstein says wistfully: “I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t thought of that girl.” And I don’t think a week goes by that I don’t think about Orson Welles, who increasingly seems to have led one of the richest and most revealing of all American lives. He was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, of all places. As a young man, he allegedly put together a résumé worthy of a Hemingway protagonist, including a stint as a bullfighter, before he was out of his teens. In New York, he unquestionably made a huge impact on theater and radio, and he even had a hand in the development of the modern superhero and the invasion of science fiction into the mainstream, in the form of a classic—and possibly exaggerated—case of mass hysteria fueled by the media. His reward was what remains the most generous contract that any newcomer has ever received from a major movie studio, and he responded at the age of twenty-five with what struck many viewers, even on its first release, as the best film ever made. (If you’re an ambitious young person, this is the sort of achievement that seems vaguely plausible when you’re twenty and utterly absurd by the time you’re thirty.) After that, it was all downhill. His second picture, an equally heartbreaking story about an American family, was taken out of his hands. Welles became distracted by politics and stage conjuring, fell in love with Dolores del Río, married Rita Hayworth, and played Harry Lime in The Third Man. He spent the rest of his life wandering from one shoot to the next, acquiring a reputation as a ham and a sellout as he tried to scrounge up enough money to make a few more movies, some of them extraordinary. Over the years, he became so fat that he turned it into a joke for his audiences: “Why are there so few of you, and so many of me?” He died alone at home in the Hollywood Hills, typing up a few pages of script that he hoped to shoot the next day, shortly after taping an appearance on The Merv Griffin Show. His last film performance was as Unicron, the devourer of planets, in The Transformers: The Movie.

Even the barest outlines of his story, which I’ve written out here from memory, hint at the treasure hoard of metaphors that it offers. But that also means that we need to be cautious when we try to draw lessons from Welles, or to apply his example to the lives of others. I was once so entranced by the parallels between Welles and John W. Campbell that I devoted an entire blog post to listing them in detail, but I’ve come to realize that you could do much the same with just about any major American life of a certain profile. It presents an even greater temptation with Donald Trump, who once claimed that Citizen Kane was his favorite movie—mostly, I suspect, because it sounded better than Bloodsport. And it might be best to retire the comparisons between Kane and Trump, not to mention Jared Kushner, only because they’re too flattering. (If anything, Trump may turn out to have more in common with Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil, the corrupt sheriff of a border town who frames a young Mexican for murder, only to meet his downfall after one of his closest associates is persuaded to wear a wire. As the madam played by Marlene Dietrich says after his death: “He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?”) But there are times when he leaves me with no choice. As Eli Rosenberg of the Washington Post noted in a recent article, Trump is oddly fond of the lyrics to a song titled “The Snake,” which he first recited at a primary event in Cedar Falls, Iowa, saying that he had read it “the other day.” He repeatedly returned to it throughout the campaign, usually departing from his scripted remarks to do so—and it’s a measure of the dispiriting times in which we live that this attracted barely any attention, when by most standards it would qualify as one of the weirdest things that a presidential candidate had ever done. Trump read it again with a flourish at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference: “Did anyone ever hear me do ‘The Snake’ during the campaign? I had five people outside say, ‘Could you do “The Snake?”‘ Let’s do it. I’ll do it, all right?”

In “The Snake,” a woman takes pity on a snake in the snow and carries it home, where it bites her with the explanation: “Oh shut up, silly woman. You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.” As Trump helpfully says: “You have to think of this in terms of immigration.” There’s a lot to unpack here, sadly, and the article in the Post points out that the original song was written by Oscar Brown Jr., a black singer and social activist from Chicago whose family isn’t particularly happy about its appropriation by Trump. Other observers, including Fox News, have pointed out its similarities to “The Scorpion and the Frog,” a fable that has made appearances in movies from The Crying Game to Drive. Most commentators trace it back to Aesop, but its first known appearance is in Welles’s Mr. Arkadin, which was released in 1955, and it’s likely that we owe its most familiar version to none other than Welles himself. (Welles had written Harry Lime’s famous speech about the cuckoo clocks just a few years earlier, and Mr. Arkadin was based on the radio series The Lives of Harry Lime.) Here’s how Welles delivers it:

And now I’m going to tell you about a scorpion. This scorpion wanted to cross a river, so he asked the frog to carry him. “No,” said the frog, “no thank you. If I let you on my back you may sting me and the sting of the scorpion is death.” “Now, where,” asked the scorpion, “is the logic in that?” For scorpions always try to be logical. “If I sting you, you will die. I will drown.” So, the frog was convinced and allowed the scorpion on his back. But just in the middle of the river, he felt a terrible pain and realized that, after all, the scorpion had stung him. “Logic!” cried the dying frog as he started under, bearing the scorpion down with him. “There is no logic in this!” “I know,” said the scorpion, “but I can’t help it—it’s my character.” Let’s drink to character.

And just as Arkadin raises the possibility that the scorpion is himself, you’ll often see arguments that that Trump subconsciously identifies with the snake. As Dan Lavoie, an aide to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, recently wrote on Twitter, with what seems like almost an excess of shrewdness: “Historians will view it as obvious that Trump was describing himself in ‘The Snake.’ His over-the-top recitation will be the narrative device for the first big post-Trump documentary.”

We often explain real life to ourselves in terms drawn from the movies, and one way to capture the uncanny quality of the Trump administration is to envision the rally scene in Citizen Kane with the candidate delivering “The Scorpion and the Frog” to the crowd instead—which only indicates that we’ve already crossed into a far stranger universe. But the fable also gets at a deeper affinity between Trump and Welles. In his book Rosebud, which is the best treatment of Welles that I’ve seen, the critic David Thomson returns obsessively to the figure of the scorpion, and he writes of its first appearance on film:

The Welles of this time believed in so little, and if he was to many a monstrous egotist, still he hated his own pride as much as anything. We should remember that this is the movie in which Arkadin delivers the speech—so much quoted afterward, and in better films, that it seems faintly spurious now in Arkadin—about the scorpion and the frog. It is a description of self-abuse and suicide. That Welles/Arkadin delivers it with a grandiose, shining relish only illustrates the theatricality of his most heartfelt moments. That Welles could not give the speech greater gravity or sadness surely helps us understand the man some often found odious. And so a speech full of terror became a cheap trick.

What sets Trump’s version apart, beyond even Welles’s cynicism, is that it’s both full of terror and a cheap trick. All presidents have told us fables, but only to convince us that we might be better than we truly are, as when Kane archly promises to help “the underprivileged, the underpaid, and the underfed.” Trump is the first to use such rhetoric to bring out the worst in us. He can’t help it. It’s his character. And Trump might be like Arkadin in at least one other way. Arkadin is a millionaire who claims to no longer remember the sources of his wealth, so he hires a private eye to investigate him. But he really hasn’t forgotten anything. As Thomson writes: “Rather, he wants to find out how easily anyone—the FBI, the IRS, the corps of biography—might be able to trace his guilty past…and as this blunt fool discovers the various people who could testify against him, they are murdered.”

Written by nevalalee

February 26, 2018 at 9:31 am

Life in four dimensions

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Yesterday, I happened to stumble across a review that the pianist Glenn Gould gave to the film adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Gould had performed on the soundtrack of George Roy Hill’s movie—which I haven’t seen—but he had mixed feelings about both the result and its source material, and he wasn’t shy about expressing them in public:

Slaughterhouse-Five has been brought to the screen with such fidelity that if you happen to be one of that black-humored author’s legion of fans, an outing at your neighborhood cinema will probably provide one of the cinematic highlights of the season…Vonnegut, of course, is to the current crop of college frosh as J.D. Salinger was to the youth of my day—a dispenser of those too-easily accessible home truths that one somehow never does get at home. And precisely because he quite ruthlessly exploits certain aspects of the generation gap—especially those widened by an inability to agree on forms of humor appropriate to the articulation of the human situation—I suspect that much of his work will date quickly and reveal that supposed profundities of an opus like Slaughterhouse-Five as the inevitable clichés of an overgeneralized, underparticularized view of humanity.

This is a little harsh, and in retrospect, Gould underestimated Vonnegut’s staying power, which turned out to be considerable indeed. I’ve occasionally resisted Vonnegut for some of the same reasons that he gives here, but I don’t think there’s any denying his skill and intelligence, even if his great talent was to put just the right words to feelings that his core group of fans already wanted to believe.

It isn’t clear what drew Gould to work on the movie version, for which he provided about fifteen minutes of music. In his review, he places particular emphasis on the novel’s treatment of time, which is what readers tend to remember best:

[The protagonist Billy Pilgrim] becomes, as Vonnegut puts it, “unstuck in time” and thereafter meanders back and forth across the expanse of his quite unexceptional life and finally uncovers an ability to project himself fourth-dimensionally as well. When going on Earth gets tough, Billy simply fantasizes an extraterrestrial existence [and] shacks up in a geodesic dome with the woman of his dreams.

The inhabitants of the planet Tralfamadore, who resemble sentient plumber’s helpers, exist in the fourth dimension, as Vonnegut explains through one of Billy Pilgrim’s letters:

The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was what when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.

Purely by coincidence, I read Gould’s review on the same day that I saw an article in the journal Electric Lit titled “What Kurt Vonnegut Can Teach Us About Coping with the Internet.” Once you get past the obligatory clickbait headline, Jaya Saxena’s essay is a surprisingly thoughtful meditation on one of the unavoidable facts about our online lives, which is that all of our past selves exist on it simultaneously. Saxena writes:

On Earth, I am always quoting an article about health care in America. I am always calling someone “retarded” as a term of endearment. I am always telling people that I am safe and nowhere near Mumbai. I am always defending the concept of “Steak and Blowjob” day. I am always hugging a friend I see every day and never see anymore, bragging about stealing rum from a frat house, performatively announcing that I will be using Twitter to amplify other voices, telling someone I’ve cut out of my life that I love them…Anyone scrolling through my Facebook feed, which has existed since 2004, or who Googles enough to unearth my awful old blog, can see everything I’ve posted — every misguided opinion, every drunk photo and inside joke — with the clarity and presence of the moment I posted it. I am 17 and 24 and 31, forever.

But Saxena resists the solution presented by the Tralfamadorians, which is to focus on the good moments in life and ignore the rest, as “irresponsible,” proposing instead that we do the opposite: “We can remember that between one post a decade ago and now, there were endless versions of ourselves and others, changing and choosing. And that we will continue to do so in ways we can’t see until we look back.”

Gould was also critical of what he saw as “Vonnegut’s favorite message, [which] is that we must concentrate on the good moments and ignore the bad ones.” But by the early seventies, when his review of the movie appeared, Gould had come “unstuck in time” himself. He had retired from live performance nearly a decade earlier, preferring to concentrate on recording. In the studio, he could literally focus on the good moments and ignore the rest, splicing together performances out of the best parts of multiple takes—and you could even see the physical album itself as a representation, like the Rocky Mountains, of a work of art that an audience could only experience “like beads on a string.” Unlike a listener at a concert, I can drop the needle on my vinyl copy of Two and Three Part Inventions wherever I like. (I’m reminded of the character in Douglas R. Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach who hangs a record album on his living room wall so that he can enjoy the music all at once.) Gould also welcomed the chance to engage in a dialogue with his past selves in a way that would have been impossible before the advent of recording. He recorded The Goldberg Variations twice, a quarter of a century apart, and I’ve always wondered what a third version would have sounded like, if he hadn’t died at the age of fifty. And he might have had some useful insights into our online lives. In “The Prospects of Recording,” which he published shortly after his retirement from touring, Gould quoted a character from Jean-Luc Godard’s A Married Woman: “The first thing we require of a machine is to have a memory.” And he hinted obliquely at a way in which we can cope in a world that exists in four dimensions, whether we’re talking about all of history or simply about our own lives:

In the electronic age a caretaking comprehension of those encompassing chronicles of universal knowledge which were tended by the medieval scholastics—an encumbrance as well as an impossibility since the early Middle Ages—can be consigned to computer repositories that file away the memories of mankind and leave us free to be inventive in spite of them.

Childhood’s end

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I’ve been thinking a lot recently about my childhood. One of the inciting factors was the movie adaptation of Stephen King’s It, which I enjoyed a great deal when I finally saw it. It’s a blue-chip horror film, with a likable cast and fantastic visuals, and its creators clearly care as much about the original novel as I do. In theory, the shift of its setting to the late eighties should make it even more resonant, since this is a period that I know and remember firsthand. Yet it isn’t quite as effective as it should be, since it only tells the half of the story that focuses on the main characters as children, and most of the book’s power comes from its treatment of memory, childhood, and forgetfulness—which director Andy Muschietti and his collaborators must know perfectly well. Under the circumstances, they’ve done just about the best job imaginable, but they inevitably miss a crucial side of a book that has been a part of my life for decades, even if I was too young to appreciate it on my first reading. I was about twelve years old at the time, which means that I wasn’t in a position to understand its warning that I was doomed to forget much of who I was and what I did. (King’s uncanny ability to evoke his own childhood so vividly speaks as much as anything else to his talents.) As time passes, this is the aspect of the book that impresses me the most, and it’s one that the movie in its current form isn’t able to address. A demonic clown is pretty scary, but not as much as the realization, which isn’t a fantasy at all, that we have to cut ourselves off from much of who we were as children in order to function as adults. And I’m saying this as someone who has remained almost bizarrely faithful to the values that I held when I was ten years old.

In fact, it wouldn’t be farfetched to read Pennywise the Dancing Clown as the terrifying embodiment of the act of forgetting itself. In his memoir Self-ConsciousnessJohn Updike—who is mentioned briefly in It and lends his last name to a supporting character in The Talisman—described this autobiographical amnesia in terms that could serve as an epigraph to King’s novel:

Not only are selves conditional but they die. Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead. So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time? It is even possible to dislike our old selves, these disposable ancestors of ours. For instance, my high-school self—skinny, scabby, giggly, gabby, frantic to be noticed, tormented enough to be a tormenter, relentlessly pushing his cartoons ad posters and noisy jokes and pseudo-sophisticated poems upon the helpless high school—strikes me now as considerably obnoxious, though I owe him a lot.

Updike sounds a lot here like King’s class clown Richie Tozier, and his contempt toward his teenage self is one to which most of us can relate. Yet Updike’s memories of that period seem slightly less vivid than the ones that he explored elsewhere in his fiction. He only rarely mined them for material, even as he squeezed most of his other experiences to the last drop, which implies that even Updike, our greatest noticer, preferred to draw a curtain of charity across himself as an adolescent. And you can hardly blame him.

I was reminded of this by the X-Files episode “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat,” which is about nothing less than the ways in which we misremember our childhoods, even if this theme is cunningly hidden behind its myriad other layers. At one point, Scully says to Reggie: “None of us remember our high school years with much accuracy.” In context, it seems like an irrelevant remark, but it was evidently important to Darin Morgan, who said to Entertainment Weekly:

When we think back on our memories from our youth, we have a tendency—or at least I do—to imagine my current mindset. Whenever I think about my youth, I’m like, “Why didn’t I do this? Why didn’t I do that?” And then you drive by high school students and you go, “Oh, that’s why I didn’t do it. Because I was a kid.” You tend to think of your adult consciousness, and you take that with you when you’re thinking back on your memories and things you’ve done in the past. Our memories are sometimes not quite accurate.

In “Forehead Sweat,” Morgan expresses this through a weird flashback in which we see Mulder’s adult head superimposed on his preadolescent body, which is a broad visual gag that also gets at something real. We really do seem to recall the past through the lens of our current selves, so we’re naturally mortified by what we find there—which neatly overlooks the point that everything that embarrasses us about our younger years is what allowed us to become what we are now. I often think about this when I look at my daughter, who is so much like me at the age of five that it scares me. And although I want to give her the sort of advice that I wish I’d heard at the time, I know that it’s probably pointless.

Childhood and adolescence are obstacle courses—and occasional horror shows—that we all need to navigate for ourselves, and even if we sometimes feel humiliated when we look back, that’s part of the point. Marcel Proust, who thought more intensely about memory and forgetting than anybody else, put it best in Within a Budding Grove:

There is no man…however wise, who has not at some period of his youth said things, or lived in a way the consciousness of which is so unpleasant to him in later life that he would gladly, if he could, expunge it from his memory. And yet he ought not entirely to regret it, because he cannot be certain that he has indeed become a wise man—so far as it is possible for any of us to be wise—unless he has passed through all the fatuous or unwholesome incarnations by which that ultimate stage must be preceded…We are not provided with wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can take for us, an effort which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world. The lives that you admire, the attitudes that seem noble to you are not the result of training at home, by a father, or by masters at school, they have sprung from beginnings of a very different order, by reaction from the influence of everything evil or commonplace that prevailed round about them. They represent a struggle and a victory.

I believe this, even if I don’t have much of a choice. My childhood is a blur, but it’s also part of me, and on some level, it never ended. King might be speaking of adolescence itself when he writes in the first sentence of It: “The terror…would not end for another twenty-eight years—if it ever did end.” And I can only echo what Updike wistfully says elsewhere: “I’ve remained all too true to my youthful self.”

Flowers of evil

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Note: Spoilers follow for Mary and the Witch’s Flower.

The best way to start talking about Mary and the Witch’s Flower, which is a movie that I liked a lot, is to quote from one of its few negative reviews. It’s the debut animated feature from Studio Ponoc, a new production company founded by veterans of the legendary Studio Ghibli, and it’s impossible to watch it without being reminded of its predecessors, as the critic David Ehrlich notes on IndieWire:

Mary and the Witch’s Flower may not be a great film—it occasionally struggles just to be a good one—but it’s a convincing proof-of-concept, and that might be more important in the long run…Studio Ponoc’s first effort feels like a high-end knockoff that’s been made with the best of intentions. It has the taste and texture of a vegan hot dog, and ultimately the same effect—a lie that satisfies those who can’t shake their craving for the truth…There’s a thin line between homage and theft, and [director Hiromasa] Yonebayashi doesn’t seem to care where it is…Borrowing liberally from [Studio] Ghibli’s signature iconography, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is less of a new creation than it does a Miyazaki Mad-Lib…There’s a bootlegged vibe to it, and even the best moments feel like they’ve been photocopied from a true original.

Ehrlich concludes with a note of paradoxical praise: “There’s something indivisibly pure about the fact that Yonebayashi and his team have refused to let something beautiful die just because the rest of the world were willing to lower their standards. It’s thrilling that Studio Ponoc even exists, and that they’ve come so close to cloning the movies we once feared that people would no longer make.” I enjoyed Mary and the Witch’s Flower a lot more than Ehrlich did, and I don’t agree with everything that he says here. (For instance: “The chintzier the storytelling becomes, the cheaper the animation begins to seem.” Yet when it comes to the Ghibli style, cheapness is in the eye of the beholder. When My Neighbor Totoro was first released in this country, Leonard Klady of Variety wrote dismissively of its “adequate television technical craft,” and it isn’t hard to see how he reached that conclusion about one of the most beautiful movies ever made.) But Ehrlich’s argument is also fundamentally sound. Watching Mary awakened me to the extent to which the qualities of the films of Hayao Miyazaki are vulnerable to imitation, or even parody. It isn’t just their nostalgic settings or young female protagonists, but their pacing, which inserts extra beats of quiet into scenes that most movies tend to skip entirely. The characters in a Miyazaki movie are always pausing to absorb or react to what they hear and see, and they always wait until the others are done talking before they speak for themselves. Mary and the Witch’s Flower is full of such moments, and in a medium that is acutely conscious of timing, this can’t be accidental.

This may seem like a minor point, but every movie is the sum of countless small touches, and Mary and the Witch’s Flower gets so many subtle things just right that it’s easy to underestimate the degree of craft and technique involved. It’s about an ordinary girl who unexpectedly finds herself at a school of magic, but unlike certain other stories in the same vein, it doesn’t conclude with her embracing this new world. Instead, after realizing that its inhabitants are borderline sociopaths, she rejects it and returns gratefully to her old life. (At the end, when she tosses aside the flower of the title, it reminded me of Dirty Harry throwing away his badge.) This is a startling choice, but the movie earns it, mostly through some surprisingly understated design work. Mary’s home village is every bit as enticing as the ones in Totoro or Kiki’s Delivery Service—you can’t help but want to live there. The magical Endor College is grotesque by comparison, as Ehrlich writes:

It’s FAO Schwarz on an impossibly grand scale…The colors are garish, the Ghibli touches call attention to themselves, and the action is so confined to a few simple locations that Endor eventually comes to resemble an abandoned playground, a spectacular palace of unrealized potential.

Yet he also complains: “There’s no other credible explanation for why Mary develops such a quick distaste for this sky-high fantasy world…We don’t get a clear sense of why she might not want to be there.” But if I had to decide between her village and Endor College, I know which one I’d choose.

And what I liked the most about Mary and the Witch’s Flower was how it quietly repurposes the tools of Studio Ghibli as a statement against a certain kind of storytelling. Miyazaki often draws inspiration from other works of art—Ponyo is essentially a retelling of The Little Mermaid, and Spirited Away has touches of Lewis Carroll—but the result usually seems to refer to nothing but itself. Mary isn’t just a refutation of Harry Potter, but of all the children’s movies that offer the consoling fantasy that we’d be able to solve our problems if only we had access to magic, and that the answer to heartbreak in this world lies in escaping from it entirely. The best of the Studio Ghibli movies end with a return to everyday life, but it’s weirdly encouraging to see a studio of younger animators applying this lesson in defiance of all the forces that might encourage them to make other forms of entertainment. Miyazaki is old enough at this point to do whatever he likes, and Studio Ponoc is willing to follow his example in ways that aren’t obvious. The great temptation with Mary and the Witch’s Flower must have been to imitate only the attributes of its models that lend themselves to marketing and merchandising. What it really achieves is something richer and more subversive, and in positioning Miyazaki’s values so directly against those of its rivals, it amounts to a declaration of purpose. Mary may be a knockoff, but its heart is in the right place, and we need it now more than ever.

Brexit pursued by a bear

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Over the weekend, my wife and I took our daughter to see Paddington 2, which can accurately be described as the best live-action children’s movie since Paddington. These are charming films, and the worst that can be said of them is that they’re clearly trying hard to be better than they have any right to be. Unlike an artist like Hayao Miyazaki, who constructs stories according to his own secret logic and ends up seizing the imagination of adults and children across the world, director Paul King and his collaborators are more in the tradition of Pixar, which does amazing work and never lets you forget it for a second. (If you want to reach back even further, you could say that these movies split the difference between Babe, a technically phenomenal film that somehow managed to seem effortless, and Babe: Pig in the City, an unquestioned masterpiece that often felt on the verge of flying apart under the pressure of George Miller’s ambitions.) Paddington 2, in particular, is so indebted to the work of Wes Anderson, especially The Grand Budapest Hotel, that it seems less like a pastiche than an unauthorized knockoff. Is it really an act of homage to painstakingly recreate the look of a movie that came out less than four years ago? But it also doesn’t matter. It’s as if King and his collaborators realized that Anderson’s work amounted to an industrial process that was being wasted if it wasn’t being used to make a children’s movie, so they decided to copy it before the patent expired. The result isn’t quite on the level of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, a major work of art that also seems to have been made by and for twelve-year-old kids. But it’s more than enough until Anderson finally makes the Encyclopedia Brown adaptation of my dreams.

Paddington 2 also doubles as the best advertisement for Britain in film since the heyday of the Ministry of Information, with a roster of such ringers as Sally Hawkins, Hugh Bonneville, Brendan Gleeson, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Peter Capaldi, and Joanna Lumley, as well as a wonderfully diverse supporting cast. (It also gives Hugh Grant—the quintessential British export of the last quarter of a century—his best role in a long time.) It’s the most loving portrait of London that any movie has provided in years, with a plot driven by an implausible treasure hunt that serves as an excuse to tour such landmarks as Tower Bridge and St. Paul’s Cathedral. Watching it is almost enough to make you forget the fact that just a few months before production began, the United Kingdom narrowly voted to effectively withdraw from its role as a global power. It might seem like a stretch to see a children’s movie through the lens of Brexit, but nearly every British film of the postwar period can be read as a commentary on the nation’s sometimes painful efforts to redefine itself in a changing world order. Nostalgia is often a strategy for dealing with harsher realities, and escapism can be more revealing than it knows, with even the James Bond series serving as a form of wishful thinking. And America should be paying close attention. A nation on the decline no longer has the luxury of having its movies stand for nothing but themselves, and Britain provides a striking case study for what happens to a culture after its period of ascendancy is over. The United States, like its nearest relation, threw away much of its credibility a year and a half ago in a fit of absentmindedness.

This partially accounts for our sudden fascination with Britain and its royal family, which seems to have risen to levels unseen since the death of Princess Diana. Part of it amounts to an accident of timing—the flurry of celebrations for Queen Elizabeth’s ninetieth birthday and sapphire jubilee generated a flood of content that was more available to American viewers than ever before, and we were unusually primed to receive it. Over the last year or so, my wife and I have watched something like three different documentaries about the Windsors, along with The Crown and The Great British Baking Show, the soothing rhythms of which make Top Chef seem frantic by comparison. Above all else, we’ve followed the saga of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, which has often been mined for clues as to its possible social and political significance. As Rebecca Mead writes in The New Yorker:

This may be because [the engagement is] legit the only bit of non-terrible news that’s happened in the last year. But there’s more to it than that. This is a royal wedding for non-royalists, even for anti-royalists…There is another important way in which Markle’s arrival reconfigures what Prince Philip reportedly calls “the Firm.” Not only is she American, she is also of mixed race: Markle’s mother is African-American, and her father is white…Whatever else Markle brings to the gilded royal table in terms of glamour, intelligence, and charm, her experience of racial prejudice is unprecedented among members of the royal family. At a time when racial bigotry and nativism is on the rise on both sides of the Atlantic, the coming to prominence at the heart of Britain’s First Family of an American woman whose ancestors were enslaved could not be more welcome, or more salutary.

The unstated point is that even as the United Kingdom goes through convulsions of its own, at least it gets to have this. And we can’t be blamed for wanting to clutch some of it to ourselves. After quoting Princess Diana’s wish that she become “a queen of people’s hearts,” Mead adds:

For those of us horrified by the President’s imperial, autocratic instincts—by his apparent wish to reinstate a feudal system with himself at its apex, attended by a small court of plutocrats who, like him, have been even further enriched by Republican tax reform—might we not claim Harry and Meghan as the monarchs of our hearts? Might they not serve as paradoxical avatars of our own hopes for a more open, more international, more unified, and fairer world?

It’s hard to quarrel with this basically harmless desire to comfort ourselves with the images of the monarchy, and I’ve been guilty of it myself. The building blocks of so much of my inner life—from the Sherlock Holmes stories to the movies of Powell and Pressburger—reflect a nostalgia for an England, as Vincent Starrett put it, “where it is always 1895.” It’s an impulse as old as Walt Disney, a Chicago child whose studio turned into a propaganda mill in the early sixties for the values of the Edwardian era. (As much as I love Mary Poppins, it’s hard to overlook the fact that it premiered just a few weeks after the Gulf of Tonkin resolution and against a backdrop of race riots in Philadelphia.) America has nostalgic myths of its own, but it tends to fall back on its British forebears when it feels particularly insecure about its own legacy. When it becomes too difficult to look at ourselves, we close our eyes and think of England.

American Stories #6: The Shining

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Note: As we enter what Joe Scarborough justifiably expects to be “the most consequential political year of our lives,” I’m looking back at ten works of art—books, film, television, and music—that deserve to be reexamined in light of where America stands today. You can find the earlier installments here

“Vanderbilts have stayed here, and Rockefellers, and Astors, and Du Ponts,” Stuart Ullmann, the manager of the Overlook Hotel, smugly informs Jack Torrance in the opening pages of Stephen King’s The Shining. “Four presidents have stayed in the Presidential Suite. Wilson, Harding, Roosevelt, and Nixon.” After Torrance replies that they shouldn’t be too proud of Harding and Nixon, Ullmann adds, frowning, that the hotel was later purchased by a man named Horace Derwent, “millionaire inventor, pilot, film producer, and entrepreneur.” Just in case we don’t make the connection, here’s what Torrance, now the caretaker, thinks to himself about Derwent hundreds of pages later, while leafing through the scrapbook that he finds in the hotel’s basement:

[Derwent was] a balding man with eyes that pierced you even from an old newsprint photo. He was wearing rimless spectacles and a forties-style pencil mustache that did nothing at all to make him look like Errol Flynn. His face was that of an accountant. It was the eyes that made him look like someone or something else…[His movie studio] ground out sixty movies, fifty-five of which glided right into the face of the Hayes Office and spit on its large blue nose…During one of them an unnamed costume designer had jury-rigged a strapless bra for the heroine to appear in during the Grand Ball scene, where she revealed everything except possibly the birthmark just below the cleft of her buttocks. Derwent received credit for this invention as well, and his reputation—or notoriety—grew…Living in Chicago, seldom seen except for Derwent Enterprises board meetings…it was supposed by many that he was the richest man in the world.

There’s only one mogul who fits that description, and it isn’t William Randolph Hearst. By hitching his story to the myth of Howard Hughes, who died shortly before the novel’s publication but would have been alive during much of its conception and writing, King taps into an aspect of the American experience symbolized by his reclusive subject, the aviator, engineer, and movie producer who embodied all of his nation’s virtues and vices before succumbing gradually to madness. It’s no surprise that Hughes has fascinated directors as obsessive as Martin Scorsese, Warren Beatty, Christopher Nolan—who shelved a Hughes biopic to focus instead on the similar figure of Batman—and even Orson Welles, whose last film, F for Fake, included an extended meditation on the Clifford Irving hoax. As for Stanley Kubrick, who once listed Hughes’s Hell’s Angels among his favorite movies, he could hardly have missed the implication. (If we see the Overlook’s mysterious owner at all in the movie, it’s in the company of the otherwise inexplicable man in the dog costume, who is identified in the novel as Derwent’s lover, while in the sequel Doctor Sleep, which I haven’t read, King evidently associates him with the ghost who offers the toast to Wendy: “Great party, isn’t it?”) The film’s symbols have been analyzed to death, but they only externalize themes that are there in the novel, and although King was dissatisfied by the result, his attempt to treat this material more explicitly in the later miniseries only shows how right Kubrick was to use them instead as the building blocks of a visual language. The Overlook is a stage for reenacting the haunted history of its nation, much of which can only be expressed as a ghost story, and it isn’t finished yet. Looking at the pictures in the scrapbook from the hotel’s grand opening in 1945, Torrance thinks: “The war was over, or almost over. The future lay ahead, clean and shining.”

Written by nevalalee

January 8, 2018 at 7:46 am

American Stories #3: Vertigo

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Note: As we enter what Joe Scarborough justifiably expects to be “the most consequential political year of our lives,” I’m looking back at ten works of art—books, film, television, and music—that deserve to be reexamined in light of where America stands today. You can find the earlier installments here

Vertigo, which may well be the most beautiful art object ever made in America, was based on a French novel, D’entre les morts, by Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud, who wrote it in the express hope that Alfred Hitchcock would adapt it into a movie. I don’t know if Hitchcock ever explained why he transferred the setting to San Francisco, but I suspect that he was reasoning backward from its proximity to the Spanish missions, which would provide a bell tower tall enough for a woman to leap to her death, but not so high that a man couldn’t plausibly run up the stairs. Once the decision was made, Hitchcock indulged in his customary preference for utilizing his locations to their fullest. It gave us Madeline’s plunge into the bay near the Golden Gate Bridge and her haunting speech by the rings of the redwood tree: “Here I was born, and there I died. It was only a moment for you; you took no notice.” Above all else, it allowed Hitchcock to give Judy a room at the Empire Hotel, lit from outside by its green neon sign, which enabled the single greatest shot in all of cinema. And the resulting film is inseparable from the state of which Joan Didion wrote:

Rationality, reasonableness bewilder me. I think it comes out of being a “daughter of the Golden West.” A lot of the stories I was brought up on had to do with extreme actions—leaving everything behind, crossing the trackless wastes, and in those stories the people who stayed behind and had their settled ways—those people were not the people who got the prize. The prize was California.

Vertigo, like many of the best movies to come out of Hollywood, is about how the prize is won and then lost because of greed, jealousy, or nostalgia. As Scotty says despairingly to Judy at the end: “You shouldn’t have been that sentimental.”

Like many great works of American art, Vertigo lingers in the imagination because it oscillates so nervously between its surface pleasures and its darkest depths. It’s both the ultimate Hitchcock entertainment, with its flawless cinematography, iconic Edith Head costumes, and romantic Bernard Herrmann score, and the most psychologically complex film I’ve ever seen. It’s as mysterious as a movie can be, but it’s also grounded in its evocative but realistic San Francisco settings. Early on, it can come off as routine, even banal, which leaves us even less prepared for its climax, which is a sick joke that also breaks the heart. There’s no greater ending in film, and it works because it’s so cruel, arbitrary, and unfair. I’ve noted before how the original novel keeps its crucial revelation for the very end, while the film puts it almost forty minutes earlier, shifting points of view and dividing the viewer’s loyalties in the process. It’s a brilliant change—arguably no other creative decision in any cinematic adaptation has been more significant—and it turns the movie from an elegant curiosity into something indescribably beautiful and painful. When Judy turns to the camera and the image is flooded with red, we’re as close to the heart of movies as we’ll ever get. The more we learn about Hitchcock’s treatment of women, the more confessional it all seems, and it implicates us as well: Scotty desires, attains, and finally destroys Judy in his efforts to turn her into Madeline, and it ends up feeling like the most honest story that Hollywood has ever told about itself.

Written by nevalalee

January 3, 2018 at 9:00 am

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