Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘David Thomson

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.”

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February 26, 2018 at 9:31 am

American Stories #2: Citizen Kane

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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

In his essay collection America in the Dark, the film critic David Thomson writes of Citizen Kane, which briefly went under the portentous working title American:

Citizen Kane grows with every year as America comes to resemble it. Kane is the willful success who tries to transcend external standards, and many plain Americans know his pent-up fury at lonely liberty. The film absorbs praise and criticism, unabashed by being voted the best ever made or by Pauline Kael’s skillful reassessment of its rather nasty cleverness. Perhaps both those claims are valid. The greatest film may be cunning, slick, and meretricious.

It might be even more accurate to say that the greatest American movie ever made needs to be cunning, slick, and meretricious, at least if it’s going to be true to the values of its country. Kane is “a shallow masterpiece,” as Kael famously put it, but it could hardly be anything else. (Just a few years later, Kael expressed a similar sentiment about Norman Mailer: “I think he’s our greatest writer. And what is unfortunate is that our greatest writer should be a bum.”) It’s a masterwork of genial fakery by and about a genial faker—Susan Alexander asks Kane at their first meeting if he’s a professional magician—and its ability to spin blatant artifice and sleight of hand into something unbearably moving goes a long way toward explaining why it was a favorite movie of men as different as Charles Schulz, L. Ron Hubbard, and Donald Trump.

And the most instructive aspect of Kane in these troubled times is how completely it deceives even its fans, including me. Its portrait of a man modeled on William Randolph Hearst is far more ambiguous than it was ever intended to be, because we’re distracted throughout by our fondness for the young Welles. He’s visible all too briefly in the early sequences at the Inquirer, and he winks at us through his makeup as an older man. As a result, the film that Hearst wanted to destroy turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to his legacy—it makes him far more interesting and likable than he ever was. The same factor tends to obscure the movie’s politics, as Kael wrote in the early seventies:

When Welles was young—he was twenty-five when the film opened—he used to be accused of “excessive showmanship,” but the same young audiences who now reject “theatre” respond innocently and wholeheartedly to the most unabashed tricks of theatre—and of early radio plays—in Citizen Kane. At some campus showings, they react so gullibly that when Kane makes a demagogic speech about “the underprivileged,” stray students will applaud enthusiastically, and a shout of “Right on!” may be heard.

Kane is a master manipulator, but so was Welles, and our love for all that this film represents shouldn’t blind us to how the same tricks can be turned to more insidious ends. As Kane says to poor Mr. Carter, shortly after taking over a New York newspaper at the age of twenty-five, just as Jared Kushner once did: “If the headline is big enough, it makes the news big enough.” Hearst understood this. And so does Steve Bannon.

Written by nevalalee

January 2, 2018 at 9:00 am

The will to walk onstage

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About a year ago, I picked up a copy of the book Actors at Work, which consists of interviews with fourteen stage and screen professionals by the casting director Rosemarie Tichler and the playwright Barry Jay Kaplan. It’s an engaging, informative read, openly modeled on the legendary interviews on craft conducted by The Paris Review, and its subjects include the likes of Meryl Streep, John Lithgow, and Patti LuPone. By accident, however, it ends with chapters devoted to two actors whose legacies have been profoundly changed in the intervening decade. One is Kevin Spacey, whose career seems effectively over in the aftermath of revelations about his sexual misconduct; the other is the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose partner, Mimi O’Donnell, provides an account of their life together in an autobiographical essay that appeared last week in Vogue. Spacey and Hoffman never appeared onstage or onscreen together, and they don’t seem to have spoken of each other publicly while both were alive, but they were linked in the minds of many fans. In his entry on Hoffman in The Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson even wrote: “Meanwhile, search him out, as you might Kevin Spacey. There is the same very dangerous talent at work—astounding, yet so pronounced it could help make its own prison.” Yet it seems clear now that they were profoundly dissimilar—and not just because Spacey was a born character actor who systematically transformed himself into a leading man, while Hoffman was manifestly a star who was pigeonholed for too long as a character actor.

There are moments in Actors at Work, in fact, when they seem to be engaging in an unintentional dialogue. Here’s Spacey speaking of his two years at Juilliard:

What I learned more than anything else—and which I am enormously, enormously grateful for—is technique. What I learned was how do you get up every night for eight weeks, or twelve weeks or fourteen weeks or six months, into a run of a play and always be alive and always be there and always have your breath and always be energetic and always be ready to respond even on those nights when it doesn’t hit you, and somehow the performance, the audience—you just feel it’s not happening. It is technique that gets you through it. It is what you can do technically even if it’s not connected emotionally on that particular night.

To be honest, I find this fascinating, but it represents a very different approach from what Hoffman describes, in which he sometimes seems to be addressing Spacey himself:

You have tools at your disposal. You have a mind that you’ve soaked up with as much information as possible, and all those things help you get inside it. But the ultimate execution of it is something that is almost ninety-five percent will…I remember an acting teacher saying, “Eventually, you gotta decide to do the play every night.” It’s one of the best pieces of teaching I ever got. If you don’t decide to do it—and sixty percent of actors don’t decide to do it—they go do it anyway. The minute you decide to do it, it’s you doing the work to create the will to walk onstage.

This philosophical contest between technique and will can also be seen in their performances that have been preserved on film. Spacey always seemed to be pretending, however brilliantly, while Hoffman had a way of disappearing into even the tiniest parts—you could rarely catch him “acting,” while much of the pleasure of watching Spacey lay in our conspiratorial sense of his choices from one minute to the next. (There’s a scene in L.A. Confidential in which he does little else except make two phone calls, in a single take, and I can never watch it without marveling at how he handles the receiver of the telephone.) You can also see it in how they planned their careers. Spacey recalls: “I did cotton to the idea that if you were as specific in your choices of what you did as you were as an actor in a role, then you might find things that were right for you, that would challenge you and be interesting to do…I had made a very clear decision ten years earlier to start focusing on film and see if I could carve out a career. I had done it. American Beauty was out, and I thought, it just doesn’t get better than this.” Hoffman, by contrast, was far more intuitive:

The next role I want to play is the next role I want to play, I guess is the answer. I don’t know what that is until I actually see it. It has to be in the moment. Life has to flow. If you don’t let life flow, it’s hard to create. You can’t control creation. The minute I try to control what I’m going to act, what parts I’m going to play, they become something that I don’t want to act. It becomes a heady thing. It becomes, if I just play that part, then I’ll play that part, and then I’d better be over there. It becomes something that’s just structure and math, not creative.

Yet when you look at their filmographies, you can see the difference at once. Hoffman almost never took on a role that wasn’t fascinating, while the last fifteen years of Spacey’s career consisted largely of a series of dead ends. So much of an actor’s career is out of his hands that instinct often counts for more than cleverness.

But while it’s tempting to read Hoffman’s struggle with drug addiction as a reflection of the trauma that he repeatedly underwent as an actor, while Spacey held it at arm’s length, the truth seems to have been utterly different. As O’Donnell writes in Vogue: “I hesitate to ascribe Phil’s relapse after two decades to any one thing, or even to a series of things, because the stressors—or, in the parlance, triggers—that preceded it didn’t cause him to start using again, any more than being a child of divorce did. Lots of people go through difficult life events. Only addicts start taking drugs to blunt the pain of them.” And she deliberately rejects the notion that acting may have been to blame:

Phil went into rehearsal for Mike Nichols’s production of Death of a Salesman, and he threw himself into it with his usual intensity. Willy Loman is one of the great tragic roles of twentieth-century theater, and Phil gave one of the rawest and most honest performances of his career. It asked a lot of him and it exhausted him, but it had nothing to do with his relapse. If anything, doing seven shows a week kept him from using, because it would have been impossible to do that on drugs. Though he continued to drink after evening shows, he was otherwise clean, and as the days left in the show’s limited run wound down, I began to dread what would happen when it was over.

This couldn’t be less like Spacey, who was engaging in predatory behavior even while serving as the artistic director of the Old Vic, during the busiest period of his creative life. Acting saved Hoffman, until it didn’t, while Spacey appears to have used it as coldly as he did anything else. David Thomson wrote of Spacey years ago: “He can be our best actor, but only if we accept that acting is a bag of tricks that leaves scant room for being a real and considerate human being.” We don’t need to accept this. But we also need to recognize that even the will to walk onstage may not always be enough.

The act of killing

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Over the weekend, my wife and I watched the first two episodes of Mindhunter, the new Netflix series created by Joe Penhall and produced by David Fincher. We took in the installments over successive nights, but if you can, I’d recommend viewing them back to back—they really add up to a single pilot episode, arbitrarily divided in half, and they amount to a new movie from one of the five most interesting American directors under sixty. After the first episode, I was a little mixed, but I felt better after the next one, and although I still have some reservations, I expect that I’ll keep going. The writing tends to spell things out a little too clearly; it doesn’t always avoid clichés; and there are times when it feels like a first draft of a stronger show to come. Fincher, characteristically, sometimes seems less interested in the big picture than in small, finicky details, like the huge titles used to identify the locations onscreen, or the fussily perfect sound that the springs of the chair make whenever the bulky serial killer Ed Kemper sits down. (He also gives us two virtuoso sequences of the kind that he does better than just about anyone else—a scene in a noisy club with subtitled dialogue, which I’ve been waiting to see for years, and a long, very funny montage of two FBI agents on the road.) For long stretches, the show is about little else than the capabilities of the Red Xenomorph digital camera. Yet it also feels like a skeleton key for approaching the work of a man who, in fits and starts, has come to seem like the crucial director of our time, in large part because of his own ambivalence toward his fantasies of control.

Mindhunter is based on a book of the same name by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker about the development of behavioral science at the FBI. I read it over twenty years ago, at the peak of my morbid interest in serial killers, which is a phase that a lot of us pass through and that Fincher, revealingly, has never outgrown. Apart from Alien 3, which was project that he barely understood and couldn’t control, his real debut was Seven, in which he benefited from a mechanical but undeniably compelling script by Andrew Kevin Walker and a central figure who has obsessed him ever since. John Doe, the killer, is still the greatest example of the villain who seems to be writing the screenplay for the movie in which he appears. (As David Thomson says of Donald Sutherland’s character in JFK: “[He’s] so omniscient he must be the scriptwriter.”) Doe’s notebooks, rendered in comically lavish detail, are like a nightmare version of the notes, plans, and storyboards that every film generates, and he alternately assumes the role of writer, art director, prop master, and producer. By the end, with the hero detectives reduced to acting out their assigned parts in his play, the distinction between Doe and the director—a technical perfectionist who would later become notorious for asking his performers for hundreds of takes—seems to disappear completely. It seems to have simultaneously exhilarated and troubled Fincher, much as it did Christopher Nolan as he teased out his affinities with the Joker in The Dark Knight, and both men have spent much of their subsequent careers working through the implications of that discovery.

Fincher hasn’t always been comfortable with his association with serial killers, to the extent that he made a point of having the characters in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo refer to “a serial murderer,” as if we’d be fooled by the change in terminology. Yet the main line of his filmography is an attempt by a surprisingly smart, thoughtful director to come to terms with his own history of violence. There were glimpses of it as early as The Game, and Zodiac, his masterpiece, is a deconstruction of the formula that turned out to be so lucrative in Seven—the killer, wearing a mask, appears onscreen for just five minutes, and some of the scariest scenes don’t have anything to do with him at all, even as his actions reverberate outward to affect the lives of everyone they touch. Dragon Tattoo, which is a movie that looks a lot better with time, identifies its murder investigation with the work of the director and his editors, who seemed to be asking us to appreciate their ingenuity in turning the elements of the book, with its five acts and endless procession of interchangeable suspects, into a coherent film. And while Gone Girl wasn’t technically a serial killer movie, it gave us his most fully realized version to date of the antagonist as the movie’s secret writer, even if she let us down with the ending that she wrote for herself. In each case, Fincher was processing his identity as a director who was drawn to big technical challenges, from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to The Social Network, without losing track of the human thread. And he seems to have sensed how easily he could become a kind of John Doe, a master technician who toys sadistically with the lives of others.

And although Mindhunter takes a little while to reveal its strengths, it looks like it will be worth watching as Fincher’s most extended attempt to literally interrogate his assumptions. (Fincher only directed the first two episodes, but this doesn’t detract from what might have attracted him to this particular project, or the role that he played in shaping it as a producer.) The show follows two FBI agents as they interview serial killers in search of insights into their madness, with the tone set by a chilling monologue by Ed Kemper:

People who hunt other people for a vocation—all we want to talk about is what it’s like. The shit that went down. The entire fucked-upness of it. It’s not easy butchering people. It’s hard work. Physically and mentally, I don’t think people realize. You need to vent…Look at the consequences. The stakes are very high.

Take out the references to murder, and it might be the director talking. Kemper later casually refers to his “oeuvre,” leading one of the two agents to crack: “Is he Stanley Kubrick?” It’s a little out of character, but also enormously revealing. Fincher, like Nolan, has spent his career in dialogue with Kubrick, who, fairly or not, still sets the standard for obsessive, meticulous, controlling directors. Kubrick never made a movie about a serial killer, but he took the equation between the creative urge and violence—particularly in A Clockwork Orange and The Shining—as far as anyone ever has. And Mindhunter will only become the great show that it has the potential to be if it asks why these directors, and their fans, are so drawn to these stories in the first place.

Musings of a cigarette smoking man

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After the great character actor Harry Dean Stanton died earlier this week, Deadspin reprinted a profile by Steve Oney from the early eighties that offers a glimpse of a man whom many of us recognized but few of us knew. It captured Stanton at a moment when he was edging into a kind of stardom, but he was still open about his doubts and struggles: “It was Eastern mysticism that began to help me. Alan Watts’s books on Zen Buddhism were a very strong influence. Taoism and Lao-tse, I read much of, along with the works of Krishnamurti. And I studied tai chi, the martial art, which is all about centering oneself.” Oney continues:

But it was the I Ching (The Book of Changes) in which Stanton found most of his strength. By his bedside he keeps a bundle of sticks wrapped in blue ribbon. Several times every week, he throws them (or a handful of coins) and then turns to the book to search out the meaning of the pattern they made. “I throw them whenever I need input,” he said. “It’s an addendum to my subconscious.” He now does this before almost everything he undertakes—interviews, films, meetings. “It has sustained and nourished me,” he said. “But I’m not qualified to expound on it.”

I was oddly moved by these lines. The I Ching doesn’t tell you what the future will be, but it offers advice on how to behave, which makes it the perfect oracle for a character actor, whose career is inextricably tied up with luck, timing, persistence, and synchronicity.

Stanton, for reasons that even he might have found hard to grasp, became its patron saint. “What he wants is that one magic part, the one they’ll mention in film dictionaries, that will finally make up for all the awful parts from early in his career,” Oney writes. That was thirty years ago, and it never really happened. Most of the entry in David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film is devoted to listing Stanton’s gigantic filmography, and its one paragraph of analysis is full of admiration for his surface, not his depths:

He is among the last of the great supporting actors, as unfailing and visually eloquent as Anthony Mann’s trees or “Mexico” in a Peckinpah film. Long ago, a French enthusiastic said that Charlton Heston was “axiomatic.” He might want that pensée back now. But Stanton is at least emblematic of sad films of action and travel. His face is like the road in the West.

This isn’t incorrect, but it’s still incomplete. In Oney’s profile, the young Sean Penn, who adopted Stanton as his mentor, offers the same sort of faint praise: “Behind that rugged old cowboy face, he’s simultaneously a man, a child, a woman—he just has this full range of emotions I really like. He’s a very impressive soul more than he is a mind, and I find that attractive.” I don’t want to discount the love there. But it’s also possible that Stanton never landed the parts that he deserved because his friends never got past that sad, wonderful face, which was a blessing that also obscured his subtle, indefinable talent.

Stanton’s great trick was to seem to sidle almost sideways into the frame, never quite taking over a film but immeasurably enriching it, and he’s been a figure on the edges of my moviegoing life for literally as long as I can remember. He appeared in what I’m pretty sure was one of the first movies I ever saw in a theater, Philip Borsos’s One Magic Christmas, which prompted Roger Ebert to write: “I am not sure exactly what I think about Harry Dean Stanton’s archangel. He is sad-faced and tender, all right, but he looks just like the kind of guy that our parents told us never to talk to.” Stanton got on my radar thanks largely to Ebert, who went so far as to define a general rule: “No movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad.” And my memory is seasoned with stray lines and moments delivered in his voice. As the crooked, genial preacher in Uforia: “Everybody’s got to believe in something. I believe I’ll have another drink.” Or the father in Pretty in Pink, after Molly Ringwald wakes him up at home one morning: “Where am I?” Or Paul in The Last Temptation of Christ, speaking to the aged Jesus: “You know, I’m glad I met you. Because now I can forget all about you.” One movie that I haven’t seen mentioned in most retrospectives of his career is Francis Coppola’s One From the Heart, in which Stanton unobtrusively holds his own in the corner of the film that killed Zoetrope Studios. Thomson describes his work as “funny, casual, and quietly disintegrating,” and when the camera dollies to the left near the beginning of the film as he asks Frederick Forrest’s character why he keeps buying so much junk, it’s as if he’s talking to Coppola himself.

Most of all, I’ve always loved Stanton’s brief turn as Carl, the owner of the Fat Trout trailer park in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, in which he offered the FBI agents “a cup of Good Morning America.” And one of the great pleasures of the revival of Twin Peaks was the last look it gave us of Carl, who informed a younger friend: “I’ve been smoking for seventy-five years—every fuckin’ day.” Cigarettes were curiously central to his mystique, as surely as they shaped his face and voice. Oney writes: “In other words, Stanton is sixty going on twenty-two, a seeker who also likes to drive fast cars, dance all night, and chain-smoke cigarettes with the defiant air of a hood hanging out in the high school boy’s room.” In his last starring role, the upcoming Lucky, he’s described as having “outlived and out-smoked” his contemporaries. And, more poignantly, he said to Esquire a decade ago: “I only eat so I can smoke and stay alive.” Smoking, like casting a hexagam, feels like the quintessential pastime of the character actor—it’s the vice of those who sit and wait. In an interview that he gave a few years ago, Stanton effortlessly linked all of these themes together:

We’re not in charge of our lives and there are no answers to anything. It’s a divine mystery. Buddhism, Taoism, the Jewish Kabbalah—it’s all the same thing, but once it gets organized it’s over. You have to just accept everything. I’m still smoking a pack a day.

If you didn’t believe in the I Ching, there was always smoking, and if you couldn’t believe in either one, you could believe in Stanton. Because everybody’s got to believe in something.

The greatest trick

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In the essay collection Candor and Perversion, the late critic Roger Shattuck writes: “The world scoffs at old ideas. It distrusts new ideas. It loves tricks.” He never explains what he means by “trick,” but toward the end of the book, in a chapter on Marcel Duchamp, he quotes a few lines from the poet Charles Baudelaire from the unpublished preface to Flowers of Evil:

Does one show to a now giddy, now indifferent public the working of one’s devices? Does one explain all the revision and improvised variations, right down to the way one’s sincerest impulses are mixed in with tricks and with the charlatanism indispensable to the work’s amalgamation?

Baudelaire is indulging here in an analogy from the theater—he speaks elsewhere of “the dresser’s and the decorator’s studio,” “the actor’s box,” and “the wrecks, makeup, pulleys, chains.” A trick, in this sense, is a device that the artist uses to convey an idea that also draws attention to itself, in the same way that we can simultaneously notice and accept certain conventions when we’re watching a play. In a theatrical performance, the action and its presentation are so intermingled that we can’t always say where one leaves off and the other begins, and we’re always aware, on some level, that we’re looking at actors on a stage behaving in a fashion that is necessarily stylized and artificial. In other art forms, we’re conscious of these tricks to a greater or lesser extent, and while artists are usually advised that such technical elements should be subordinated to the story, in practice, we often delight in them for their own sake.

For an illustration of the kind of trick that I mean, I can’t think of any better example than the climax of The Godfather, in which Michael Corleone attends the baptism of his godson—played by the infant Sofia Coppola—as his enemies are executed on his orders. This sequence seems as inevitable now as any scene in the history of cinema, but it came about almost by accident. The director Francis Ford Coppola had the idea to combine the christening with the killings after all of the constituent parts had already been shot, which left him with the problem of assembling footage that hadn’t been designed to fit together. As Michael Sragow recounts in The New Yorker:

[Editor Peter] Zinner, too, made a signal contribution. In a climactic sequence, Coppola had the stroke of genius (confirmed by Puzo) to intercut Michael’s serving as godfather at the christening of Connie’s baby with his minions’ savagely executing the Corleone family’s enemies. But, Zinner says, Coppola left him with thousands of feet of the baptism, shot from four or five angles as the priest delivered his litany, and relatively few shots of the assassins doing their dirty work. Zinner’s solution was to run the litany in its entirety on the soundtrack along with escalating organ music, allowing different angles of the service to dominate the first minutes, and then to build to an audiovisual crescendo with the wave of killings, the blaring organ, the priest asking Michael if he renounces Satan and all his works—and Michael’s response that he does renounce them. The effect sealed the movie’s inspired depiction of the Corleones’ simultaneous, duelling rituals—the sacraments of church and family, and the murders in the street.

Coppola has since described Zinner’s contribution as “the inspiration to add the organ music,” but as this account makes clear, the editor seems to have figured out the structure and rhythm of the entire sequence, building unforgettably on the director’s initial brainstorm.

The result speaks for itself. It’s hard to think of a more powerful instance in movies of the form of a scene, created by cuts and juxtaposition, merging with the power of its storytelling. As we watch it, consciously or otherwise, we respond both to its formal audacity and to the ideas and emotions that it expresses. It’s the ultimate trick, as Baudelaire defines it, and it also inspired one of my favorite passages of criticism, in David Thomson’s entry on Coppola in The Biographical Dictionary of Film:

When The Godfather measured its grand finale of murder against the liturgy of baptism, Coppola seemed mesmerized by the trick, and its nihilism. A Buñuel, by contrast, might have made that sequence ironic and hilarious. But Coppola is not long on those qualities, and he could not extricate himself from the engineering of scenes. The identification with Michael was complete and stricken.

Before reading these lines, I had never considered the possibility that the baptism scene could be “ironic and hilarious,” or indeed anything other than how it so overwhelmingly presents itself, although it might easily have played that way without the music. And I’ve never forgotten Thomson’s assertion that Coppola was mesmerized by his own trick, as if it had arisen from somewhere outside of himself. (It might be even more accurate to say that coming up with the notion that the sequences ought to be cut together is something altogether different from actually witnessing the result, after Zinner assembled all the pieces and added Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor—which, notably, entwines three different themes.) Coppola was so taken by the effect that he reused it, years later, for a similar sequence in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, admitting cheerfully on the commentary track that he was stealing from himself.

It was a turning point both for Coppola and for the industry as a whole. Before The Godfather, Coppola had been a novelistic director of small, quirky stories, and afterward, like Michael coming into his true inheritance, he became the engineer of vast projects, following up on the clues that he had planted here for himself. (It’s typical of the contradictions of his career that he placed his own baby daughter at the heart of this sequence, which means that he could hardly keep from viewing the most technically nihilistic scene in all his work as something like a home movie.) And while this wasn’t the earliest movie to invite the audience to revel in its structural devices—half of Citizen Kane consists of moments like this—it may have been the first since The Birth of a Nation to do so while also becoming the most commercially successful film of all time. Along the way, it subtly changed us. In our movies, as in our politics, we’ve become used to thinking as much about how our stories are presented as about what they say in themselves. We can even come to prefer trickery, as Shattuck warns us, to true ideas. This doesn’t meant that we should renounce genuine artistic facility of the kind that we see here, as opposed to its imitation or its absence, any more than Michael can renounce Satan. But the consequences of this confusion can be profound. Coppola, the orchestrator of scenes, came to identify with the mafioso who executed his enemies with ruthless efficiency, and the beauty of Michael’s moment of damnation went a long way toward turning him into an attractive, even heroic figure, an impression that Coppola spent most of The Godfather Parts II and III trying in vain to correct. Pacino’s career was shaped by this moment as well. And we have to learn to distinguish between tricks and the truth, especially when they take pains to conceal themselves. As Baudelaire says somewhere else: “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

The space between us all

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In an interview published in the July 12, 1970 issue of Rolling Stone, the rock star David Crosby said: “My time has gotta be devoted to my highest priority projects, which starts with tryin’ to save the human race and then works its way down from there.” The journalist Ben Fong-Torres prompted him gently: “But through your music, if you affect the people you come in contact with in public, that’s your way of saving the human race.” And I’ve never forgotten Crosby’s response:

But somehow operating on that premise for the last couple of years hasn’t done it, see? Somehow Sgt. Pepper’s did not stop the Vietnam War. Somehow it didn’t work. Somebody isn’t listening. I ain’t saying stop trying; I know we’re doing the right thing to live, full on. Get it on and do it good. But the inertia we’re up against, I think everybody’s kind of underestimated it. I would’ve thought Sgt. Pepper’s could’ve stopped the war just by putting too many good vibes in the air for anybody to have a war around.

He was right about one thing—the Beatles didn’t stop the war. And while it might seem as if there’s nothing new left to say about Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which celebrates its fiftieth anniversary today, it’s worth asking what it tells us about the inability of even our greatest works of art to inspire lasting change. It’s probably ridiculous to ask this of any album. But if a test case exists, it’s here.

It seems fair to say that if any piece of music could have changed the world, it would have been Sgt. Pepper. As the academic Langdon Winner famously wrote:

The closest Western Civilization has come to unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 was the week the Sgt. Pepper album was released…At the time I happened to be driving across the country on Interstate 80. In each city where I stopped for gas or food—Laramie, Ogallala, Moline, South Bend—the melodies wafted in from some far-off transistor radio or portable hi-fi. It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard. For a brief while, the irreparably fragmented consciousness of the West was unified, at least in the minds of the young.

The crucial qualifier, of course, is “at least in the minds of the young,” which we’ll revisit later. To the critic Michael Bérubé, it was nothing less than the one week in which there was “a common culture of widely shared values and knowledge in the United States at any point between 1956 and 1976,” which seems to undervalue the moon landing, but never mind. Yet even this transient unity is more apparent than real. By the end of the sixties, the album had sold about three million copies in America alone. It’s a huge number, but even if you multiply it by ten to include those who were profoundly affected by it on the radio or on a friend’s record player, you end up with a tiny fraction of the population. To put it another way, three times as many people voted for George Wallace for president as bought a copy of Sgt. Pepper in those years.

But that’s just how it is. Even our most inescapable works of art seem to fade into insignificance when you consider the sheer number of human lives involved, in which even an apparently ubiquitous phenomenon is statistically unable to reach a majority of adults. (Fewer than one in three Americans paid to see The Force Awakens in theaters, which is as close as we’ve come in recent memory to total cultural saturation.) The art that feels axiomatic to us barely touches the lives of others, and it may leave only the faintest of marks on those who listen to it closely. The Beatles undoubtedly changed lives, but they were more likely to catalyze impulses that were already there, providing a shape and direction for what might otherwise have remained unexpressed. As Roger Ebert wrote in his retrospective review of A Hard Day’s Night:

The film was so influential in its androgynous imagery that untold thousands of young men walked into the theater with short haircuts, and their hair started growing during the movie and didn’t get cut again until the 1970s.

We shouldn’t underestimate this. But if you were eighteen when A Hard Day’s Night came out, it also means that you were born the same year as Donald Trump, who decisively won voters who were old enough to buy Sgt. Pepper on its initial release. Even if you took its message to heart, there’s a difference between the kind of change that marshals you the way that you were going and the sort that realigns society as a whole. It just isn’t what art is built to do. As David Thomson writes in Rosebud, alluding to Trump’s favorite movie: “The world is very large and the greatest films so small.”

If Sgt. Pepper failed to get us out of Vietnam, it was partially because those who were most deeply moved by it were more likely to be drafted and shipped overseas than to affect the policies of their own country. As Winner says, it united our consciousness, “at least in the young,” but all the while, the old men, as George McGovern put it, were dreaming up wars for young men to die in. But it may not have mattered. Wars are the result of forces that care nothing for what art has to say, and their operations are often indistinguishable from random chance. Sgt. Pepper may well have been “a decisive moment in the history of Western civilization,” as Kenneth Tynan hyperbolically claimed, but as Harold Bloom reminds us in The Western Canon:

Reading the very best writers—let us say Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy—is not going to make us better citizens. Art is perfectly useless, according to the sublime Oscar Wilde, who was right about everything.

Great works of art exist despite, not because of, the impersonal machine of history. It’s only fitting that the anniversary of Sgt. Pepper happens to coincide with a day on which our civilization’s response to climate change will be decided in a public ceremony with overtones of reality television—a more authentic reflection of our culture, as well as a more profound moment of global unity, willing or otherwise. If the opinions of rock stars or novelists counted for anything, we’d be in a very different situation right now. In “Within You Without You,” George Harrison laments “the people who gain the world and lose their soul,” which neatly elides the accurate observation that they, not the artists, are the ones who do in fact tend to gain the world. (They’re also “the people who hide themselves behind a wall.”) All that art can provide is private consolation, and joy, and the reminder that there are times when we just have to laugh, even when the news is rather sad.

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