Posts Tagged ‘Roger Ebert’
In the opening seconds of the series premiere of Riverdale, a young man speaks quietly in voiceover, his words playing over idyllic shots of American life:
Our story is about a town, a small town, and the people who live in the town. From a distance, it presents itself like so many other small towns all over the world. Safe. Decent. Innocent. Get closer, though, and you start seeing the shadows underneath. The name of our town is Riverdale.
Much later, we realize that the speaker is Jughead of Archie Comics fame, played by former Disney child star Cole Sprouse, which might seem peculiar enough in itself. But what I noticed first about this monologue is that it basically summarizes the prologue of Blue Velvet, which begins with images of roses and picket fences and then dives into the grass, revealing the insects ravening like feral animals in the darkness. It’s one of the greatest declarations of intent in all of cinema, and initially, there’s something a little disappointing in the way that Riverdale feels obliged to blandly state what Lynch put into a series of unforgettable images. Yet I have the feeling that series creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who says that Blue Velvet is one of his favorite movies, knows exactly what he’s doing. And the result promises to be more interesting than even he can anticipate.
Riverdale has been described as The O.C. meets Twin Peaks, which is how it first came to my attention. But it’s also a series on the CW, with all the good, the bad, and the lack of ugly that this implies. This the network that produced The Vampire Diaries, the first three seasons of which unexpectedly generated some of my favorite television from the last few years, and it takes its genre shows very seriously. There’s a fascinating pattern at work within systems that produce such narratives on a regular basis, whether in pulp magazines or comic books or exploitation pictures: as long as you hit all the obligatory notes and come in under budget, you’re granted a surprising amount of freedom. The CW, like its predecessors, has become an unlikely haven for auteurs, and it’s the sort of place where a showrunner like Aguirre-Sacasa—who has an intriguing background in playwriting, comics, and television—can explore a sandbox like this for years. Yet it also requires certain heavy, obvious beats, like structural supports, to prop up the rest of the edifice. A lot of the first episode of Riverdale, like most pilots, is devoted to setting up its premise and characters for even the most distracted viewers, and it can be almost insultingly on the nose. It’s why it feels obliged to spell out its theme of dark shadows beneath its sunlit surfaces, which isn’t exactly hard to grasp. As Roger Ebert wrote decades ago in his notoriously indignant review of Blue Velvet: “What are we being told? That beneath the surface of Small Town, U.S.A., passions run dark and dangerous? Don’t stop the presses.”
As a result, if you want to watch Riverdale at all, you need to get used to being treated occasionally as if you were twelve years old. But Aguirre-Sacasa seems determined to have it both ways. Like Glee before it, it feels as if it’s being pulled in three different directions even before it begins, but in this case, it comes off less as an unwanted side effect than as a strategy. It’s worth noting that not only did Aguirre-Sacasa write for Glee itself, but he’s also the guy who stepped in rewrite Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, which means that he knows something about wrangling intractable material for a mass audience under enormous scrutiny. (He’s also the chief creative officer of Archie Comics, which feels like a dream job in the best sort of way: one of his projects at the Yale School of Drama was a play about Archie encountering the murderers Leopold and Loeb, and he later received a cease and desist order from his future employer over Archie’s Weird Fantasy, which depicted its lead character as coming out of the closet.) Riverdale often plays like the work of a prodigiously talented writer trying to put his ideas into a form that could plausibly air on Thursdays after Supernatural. Like most shows at this stage, it’s also openly trying to decide what it’s supposed to be about. And I want to believe, on the basis of almost zero evidence, that Aguirre-Sacasa is deliberately attempting something almost unworkable, in hopes that he’ll be able to stick with it long enough—on a network that seems fairly indulgent of shows on the margins—to make it something special.
Most great television results from this sort of evolutionary process, and I’ve noted before—most explicitly in my Salon piece on The X-Files—that the best genre shows emerge when a jumble of inconsistent elements is given the chance to find its ideal form, usually because it lucks into a position where it can play under the radar for years. The pressures of weekly airings, fan response, critical reviews, and ratings, along with the unpredictable inputs of the cast and writing staff, lead to far more rewarding results than even the most visionary showrunner could produce in isolation. Writers of serialized narratives like comic books know this intuitively, and consciously or not, Aguirre-Sacasa seems to be trying something similar on television. It’s not an approach that would make sense for a series like Westworld, which was produced for so much money and with such high expectations that its creators had no choice but to start with a plan. But it might just work on the CW. I’m hopeful that Aguirre-Sacasa and his collaborators will use the mystery at the heart of the series much as Twin Peaks did, as a kind of clothesline on which they can hang a lot of wild experiments, only a certain percentage of which can be expected to work. Twin Peaks itself provides a measure of this method’s limitations: it mutated into something extraordinary, but it didn’t survive the departure of its original creative team. Riverdale feels like an attempt to recreate those conditions, and if it utilizes the Archie characters as its available raw material, well, why not? If Lynch had been able to get the rights, he might have used them, too.
In the memoir I. Asimov, which Isaac Asimov wrote when he knew that he was dying from complications of an HIV infection acquired years earlier from a blood transfusion, its author says:
Comparatively early in life I managed to have it ground into my brain that there was no disgrace in dying after seventy, but that dying before seventy was “premature” and was a reflection on a person’s intelligence and character.
Asimov blamed this on the Bible verse that tells us that “the years of our life are threescore and ten,” and he observes that his opinion was “unreasonable, of course; quite irrational.” Still, I have a hunch that many of us continue to share that view, if only subconsciously. This year may or may not have had a greater number of celebrity deaths than usual, but it certainly seemed that way, and many of the ones that stung the most—David Bowie, Prince, George Michael, Carrie Fisher—were of artists who were between the ages of fifty and seventy. They had been around for enough to feel like legends, but not quite old enough for us to think that their stories were over, and it felt, in some cases, as if we’d been deprived of another decade or two of work. (It’s a measure of Bowie’s hold over my imagination that even after we’ve lost so many others, his death is still the one that hurts the most, and I think that the post I wrote after hearing the news might be the best thing I’ve ever written on this blog.)
When a science fiction writer dies, there’s an additional pang of regret that he or she didn’t live “to see the future,” which, if anything, is even more irrational. But that doesn’t make it wrong. In the May 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, John W. Campbell published the complete chart of Robert A. Heinlein’s Future History, which extended from the present day to past the year 2100. In his editor’s note, Campbell wrote:
It might be of very real interest to you to trace in on this suggestion of the future your own life line. My own, I imagine, should extend up to about 1980—a bit beyond the time of “Roads Must Roll” and “Blowups Happen.” My children may see the days of “Logic of Empire.” Where does your life line fall? Where will your children’s end?
Campbell, in fact, had no intention of dying at all. In a biographical sketch from the early fifties, he said: “It’s my intention to live at least two hundred years, because I damn well want to find out how this mess comes out, and that’s the only way I know of that I can do it.” A few years later, he extended the timeline, saying that he planned “to see what happens next—if I have to hang around for another five hundred years or so to do so!” Toward the end of the sixties, when he was painfully conscious of his failing health, he wrote, more modestly, that he hoped to keep editing the magazine for another thirty years, noting that he would be “just shy of ninety” in 1998.
Campbell’s fullest statement on human longevity came in an editorial titled “Oh King, Live Forever!”, which was published in the April 1949 issue of Astounding. Campbell began with the statement:
At some point in the history of the world and the history of medical science, a point will be reached such that a child born at that time can, if he chooses—and has reasonable luck so far as mechanical damage goes—live practically forever. This point in time will be some forty or more years before the perfection of the full requirements for continuous life—and this point may already have passed, without our knowing it.
He continued by saying that it shouldn’t be too hard to extend the human lifespan by a few decades, and he concluded:
The first advance of thirty years would be no “eternal youth” treatment. But—science tends to advance exponentially. That thirty-year reprieve might give just the time needed for research to extend your life another forty years. And that forty years might—
It’s an argument that perfectly anticipates those of such later transhumanists as Ray Kurzweil, author of books like Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever. And for all I know, it might be right—someday.
As it turned out, Campbell was only sixty-one when he died, and while his death was sudden, it was far from unexpected: he had been suffering from gout, high blood pressure, and other ailments for years. It’s easy to regret that both he and Asimov failed to make it to the twenty-first century. But Campbell lived to see the moon landing. So did Asimov, who once wrote, like Campbell, that he hoped to keep on living as long as he was still curious to see how the story would turn out. In his movie review of The Sea Inside, which is about a quadriplegic who demands the right to die, Roger Ebert made a similar statement:
I believe I would want to live as long as I could, assuming I had my sanity and some way to communicate…If a man is of sound mind and not in pain, how in the world can he decide he no longer wants to read tomorrow’s newspaper?
When he wrote those words, Ebert—who once called Campbell “my hero”—was a few years away from his own very public struggle with mortality. But the desire to see what happens next is very strong, and it’s particularly moving when you think of the times through which Campbell, Asimov, and the rest all lived. It’s been a rough twelve months, and I can’t say that I’m particularly sorry to say goodbye to 2016. But I still want to know what comes next.
“It’s the rare writer who cannot have sentences lifted from his work,” Norman Mailer once wrote. What he meant is that if a reviewer is eager to find something to mock, dismiss, or pick apart, any interesting book will provide plenty of ammunition. On a simple level of craft, it’s hard for most authors to sustain a high pitch of technical proficiency in every line, and if you want to make a novelist seem boring or ordinary, you can just focus on the sentences that fall between the high points. In his famously savage takedown of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal, Martin Amis quotes another reviewer who raved: “There is not a single ugly or dead sentence.” Amis then acidly observes:
Hannibal is a genre novel, and all genre novels contain dead sentences—unless you feel the throb of life in such periods as “Tommaso put the lid back on the cooler” or “Eric Pickford answered” or “Pazzi worked like a man possessed” or “Margot laughed in spite of herself” or “Bob Sneed broke the silence.”
Amis knows that this is a cheap shot, and he glories in it. But it isn’t so different from what critics do when they list the awful sentences from a current bestseller or nominate lines for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. I laugh at this along with anyone else, but I also wince a little, because there are few authors alive who aren’t vulnerable to that sort of treatment. As G.K. Chesterton pointed out: “You could compile the worst book in the world entirely out of selected passages from the best writers in the world.”
This is even more true of authors who take considerable stylistic or thematic risks, which usually result in individual sentences that seem crazy or, worse, silly. The fear of seeming ridiculous is what prevents a lot of writers from taking chances, and it isn’t always unjustified. An ambitious novel opens itself up to savaging from all sides, precisely because it provides so much material that can be turned against the author when taken out of context. And it doesn’t need to be malicious, either: even objective or actively sympathetic critics can be seduced by the ease with which a writer can be excerpted to make a case. I’ve become increasingly daunted by the prospect of distilling the work of Robert A. Heinlein, for example, because his career was so long, varied, and often intentionally provocative that you can find sentences to support any argument about him that you want to make. (It doesn’t help that his politics evolved drastically over time, and they probably would have undergone several more transformations if he had lived for longer.) This isn’t to say that his opinions aren’t a fair target for criticism, but any reasonable understanding of who Heinlein was and what he believed—which I’m still trying to sort out for myself—can’t be conveyed by a handful of cherry-picked quotations. Literary biography is useful primarily to the extent that it can lay out a writer’s life in an orderly fashion, providing a frame that tells us something about the work that we wouldn’t know by encountering it out of order. But even that involves a process of selection, as does everything else about a biography. The biographer’s project isn’t essentially different from that of a working critic or reviewer: it just takes place on a larger scale.
And it’s worth noting that prolific critics themselves are particularly susceptible to this kind of treatment. When Renata Adler described Pauline Kael’s output as “not simply, jarringly, piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless,” any devotee of Kael’s work had to disagree—but it was also impossible to deny that there was plenty of evidence for the prosecution. If you’re determined to hate Roger Ebert, you just have to search for the reviews in which his opinions, written on deadline, weren’t sufficiently in line with the conclusions reached by posterity, as when he unforgivably gave only three stars to The Godfather Part II. And there isn’t a single page in the work of David Thomson, who is probably the most interesting movie critic who ever lived, that couldn’t be mined for outrageous, idiotic, or infuriating statements. I still remember a review on The A.V. Club of How to Watch a Movie that quoted lines like this:
Tell me a story, we beg as children, while wanting so many other things. Story will put off sleep (or extinction) and the child’s organism hardly trusts the habit of waking yet.
You came into this book under deceptive promises (mine) and false hopes (yours). You believed we might make decisive progress in the matter of how to watch a movie. So be it, but this was a ruse to make you look at life.
The reviewer quoted these sentences as examples of the book’s deficiencies, and they were duly excoriated in the comments. But anyone who has really read Thomson knows that such statements are part of the package, and removing them would also deny most of what makes him so fun, perverse, and valuable.
So what’s a responsible reviewer to do? We could start, maybe, by quoting longer or complete sections, rather than sentences in isolation, and by providing more context when we offer up just a line or two. We can also respect an author’s feelings, explicit or otherwise, about what sections are actually important. In the passage I mentioned at the beginning of this post, which is about John Updike, Mailer goes on to quote a few sentences from Rabbit, Run, and he adds:
The first quotation is taken from the first five sentences of the book, the second is on the next-to-last page, and the third is nothing less than the last three sentences of the novel. The beginning and end of a novel are usually worked over. They are the index to taste in the writer.
That’s a pretty good rule, and it ensures that the critic is discussing something reasonably close to what the writer intended to say. Best of all, we can approach the problem of excerpting with a kind of joy in the hunt: the search for the slice of a work that will stand as a synecdoche of the whole. In the book U & I, which is also about Updike, Nicholson Baker writes about the “standardized ID phrase” and “the aphoristic consensus” and “the jingle we will have to fight past at some point in the future” to see a writer clearly again, just as fans of Joyce have to do their best to forget about “the ineluctable modality of the visible” and “yes I said yes I will Yes.” For a living author, that repository of familiar quotations is constantly in flux, and reviewers might approach their work with a greater sense of responsibility if they realized that they were playing a part in creating it—one tiny excerpt at a time.
Why do our villains always have to die? Roger Ebert says somewhere—I haven’t been able to track down the exact reference—that he’d be happier if a movie ended with the hero sealing the bad guy’s fate with a few well-chosen lines of dialogue, followed by a closeup of the bastard’s face as he absorbs his predicament. And there’s no question that this would be much more satisfying than the anticlimactic death scenes that most stories tend to deliver. It’s safe to say that if a book or screenplay goes through the trouble of creating a nice, hateful antagonist, it’s usually for the sake of his ultimate comeuppance: we want to see him pay for what he’s done, and hopefully suffer in the process. In practice, the manner in which he ends up being dispatched rarely lives up to the punishment we’ve mentally assigned to him in advance. For one thing, it’s often too fast. We want him to perish at a moment of total recognition, and the nature of most fictional deaths means that the realization is over almost before it begins. (This may be the real reason why so many villains are killed by falling from a great height. It leaves the hero’s hands relatively clean, however illogically, and it also allows for at least a few seconds of mute astonishment and understanding to cross the bad guy’s face. The story goes that during the filming of Die Hard, director John McTiernan let Alan Rickman drop a second before he was expecting it. Rickman was understandably furious, but the look he gives the camera is worth it: there are few things more delicious than seeing him lose that mask of perfect, icy control.)
All things being equal, it’s best to allow the villain to live to deal with the consequences. But there are also situations in which a death can feel dramatically necessary. I’ve never forgotten what Robert Towne once said about a similar plot point at the end of Chinatown. Originally, Towne had wanted the movie to conclude on an ambiguous note, but he was overruled by Roman Polanski. Years later, Towne said:
In hindsight, I’ve come to feel that Roman was probably right about the ending, that I don’t think that what I had in mind could have been done; that an end with that ambiguity and ambivalence that I had in mind simply could not satisfactorily be done as the tag to a movie with that much complexity; the end had to have a level of stark simplicity that at the time I thought was excessively melodramatic. Roman rightly believed that the complexities had to conclude with a simple severing of the knot.
Chinatown, of course, ends with anything but the villain getting what he deserves, but the principle is largely the same. In some respects, it’s a matter of contrast. A story that consists of one act of violence after another might benefit from a more nuanced ending, while one that teases out its complexities would go out best with a stark, sudden conclusion. I’ve always preferred the brutally abbreviated last scene of The Departed to that of Infernal Affairs, for instance, because that twisty, convoluted story really needs to close with a full stop. As De Niro says at the end of Casino: “And that’s that.”
And a villain’s death can be necessary in order to close off the story completely: it’s like scorching the end of a nylon rope to prevent it from unraveling. Death is nothing if not definitive, and it can seem unfair to the viewer or reader to leave the narrative open at one end after they’ve come so far already. The decision as to whether or not to spare the villain is a tricky one, and it can be determined by forces from much earlier in the narrative. In his director’s commentary for Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, Christopher McQuarrie says that they spent countless drafts trying to figure out ways for Ethan to kill Solomon Lane, only to find that none of the results seemed satisfying. The reason, they discovered, was that Lane hadn’t done enough to make Ethan hate him in particular: it just wasn’t personal, so it didn’t need to end with anything so intimate as a fight to the death. A story’s internal mechanics can also push the ending in the other direction. The original draft of The Icon Thief, which persisted almost until the book went out to publishers, had all three of the primary antagonists surviving, and in fact, Maddy even asks Ilya to spare Sharkovsky’s life. In the rewrite, I realized that Lermontov had to die to balance out the death of another character earlier in the novel, which in itself was a very late addition, and that Maddy had to be the one to take that revenge. This kind of narrative bookkeeping, in which the writer cooks the numbers until they come out more or less right, is something that every author does, consciously or otherwise. In this case, it was a choice that ended up having a huge impact on the rest of the series, and it influenced many other judgment calls to come, to an extent that I’m not sure I recognized at the time.
Chapter 59 of Eternal Empire, for example, is maybe the bloodiest sequence in the entire trilogy, in emotional impact if not in raw body count: it includes the deaths of two major characters and a fair amount of collateral damage. I get rid of Asthana, whom I liked so much that I kept her around for an entire novel after I originally planned to dispose of her, and Vasylenko, whose presence has haunted the series from the start. Looking back on it, I’m pretty happy with Asthana’s swan song, which consists of a complicated set of feints and maneuvers against Wolfe. It’s fair to both characters, and it gives Asthana a second or two to process how she’s been outsmarted. (I wasn’t thinking of Arrested Development, but it’s hard for me to read it now without imagining Asthana saying to herself: “I’ve made a huge mistake.”) But I’m not particularly pleased by how I handled Vasylenko’s death, which is too bad, since by all rights it ought to be the climax of all three books. In some ways, I wrote myself into a corner: there’s really no plausible way to keep Vasylenko alive, or to extend his confrontation with Ilya for longer than a couple of paragraphs, and in my eagerness to write a definitive ending to the series, I may have rushed past the moment of truth. In my defense, the chapter has to provide closure for multiple pairs of characters—Ilya and Maddy, Ilya and Wolfe, Ilya and Vasylenko, Wolfe and Asthana—and I do what I can to give each of them the valediction they deserve. If I had to do it over again, I might have toyed with switching Asthana and Vasylekno’s final scenes, in order to close the novel on a position of greater strength, but this probably wouldn’t have been possible. The Icon Thief ended with Maddy asking Ilya to spare another man’s life; Eternal Empire had to conclude with her asking for the opposite. They don’t end in the same way. But Maddy isn’t the same person she was when we started…
In a note at the end of The Passage of Power, the biographer Robert A. Caro describes an important source of information about the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, and he concludes: “While no one (including me) has counted the number of pages…the number may be in the area of forty thousand. I don’t know how many of these pages I’ve read, but I’ve read a lot of them.” And you can feel his sense of quiet satisfaction as he says this. The four volumes that have been published of The Years of Lyndon Johnson are all great reads, but for my money, some of the best drama unfolds in the endnotes, which provide a kind of stealth parallel memoir by Caro as he plows his way through a mountain of available material. In the case of someone like Johnson, the problem isn’t a lack of data, but its overwhelming abundance: his presidential library alone contains something like forty-four million documents. Dealing with this kind of overload, which represents more than one author could read in multiple lifetimes, forces a writer to develop strategies for managing the sheer volume of possible research. You start with a list of subjects that you know will be relevant and drill down from there, following up on other leads as they emerge; you find that certain witnesses are more valuable than others, and you make a point of reading whatever they have to say; or you engage in a sort of longitudinal survey, revisiting the same ideas over time. The result, when you’re done, is both systematic and scattershot, and that’s how it should be. But eventually, you come back to what Caro’s old managing editor Alan Hathaway said to him at Newsday: “Turn every goddamn page.”
Over the last couple of months, I’ve been doing what I can to follow that advice, attacking the research for my upcoming book on two fronts. The first consists simply of going through every issue of Astounding Science Fiction, Unknown, and Analog published in editor John W. Campbell’s lifetime. So far, I’ve worked my way through about fifteen years of these magazines, from the beginning of the Great Depression to the end of World War II, with another quarter of a century to go. Obviously, I can’t stop to read, or even skim, every story, and I usually end up focusing on the editorials, the filler items, and the responses to the letters to the editor—in short, anything that Campbell himself wrote. (As for the stories themselves, I can only echo Caro by saying that I don’t know how many I’ve read, but I’ve read a lot.) Sometimes an advertisement or a piece of art will catch my eye: you could write an entire book about the International Correspondence Schools ads that opened nearly every issue, or the cigarette ads that appeared on every back cover. And the mere act of turning the pages reveals patterns that might otherwise be invisible. It gives you an overview, like a time-lapse video, of the magazine’s evolution, and I’ve found my ideas about certain topics changing perceptibly. I’ve begun to recognize how the epochal changes in the history of science fiction were really the result of many incremental shifts, and how the seeds of the golden age were planted in the work of Campbell’s predecessors, Harry Bates and F. Orlin Tremaine. This approach doesn’t allow for much in the way of granular analysis, of which I plan to do more than my share elsewhere, but the perspective that it provides has structured my thinking in profound ways.
My other source of raw data is Campbell’s correspondence. His surviving letters, which often preserve both sides of the exchange, amount to about thirty thousand pages, and this doesn’t even include hundreds of additional documents in repositories like the Heinlein Archives. The late Perry Chapdelaine published a selection of it in three huge volumes, which are invaluable, but barely scratch the surface. As I’ve known for a long time, the real treasure trove lies in the form of the seven microfilm reels in which Chapdelaine copied the entire collection, only three copies of which appear to have ever been made. (The original letters are archived at San Diego State University, but it would be difficult for me to spend the weeks or months there required to go through it properly.) Almost since this project began, I’ve been trying to get my hands on the microfilm, and last week—after a series of setbacks and snafus, including the revelation that one complete set seems to have disappeared—I managed to cobble together the whole thing with reels from the Library of Congress and Texas A&M University, along with a huge assist from the public library in Oak Park. As a result, I’ve been spending most of my recent afternoons at the library’s microfilm reader. Frankly, I hadn’t been aware of the advances in microfilm viewing technology, and I imagined myself sitting in a basement carrel like Clarice in The Silence of the Lambs. In fact, the library’s setup is wonderful: it allows me to scroll quickly through the images, adjust the focus and contrast, and even take screen shots for later reference. Despite the relative convenience, though, it still presents big challenges. Many of the letters, which are photographs of carbon copies, are impossible to read, and they’re preserved in a seemingly arbitrary order. My best guess is that it will take me something like fifteen hours just to visually inspect every letter in a single reel, much less figure out what is and isn’t important.
Yet it’s already paying off. As I’ve learned through my encounters with every page of Astounding, there’s a big difference between confronting primary sources without any intermediation and reading the same material after it has been edited and curated. It’s like looking at a life as it unfolds, almost day by day, with all the messiness you’d expect, and you develop odd intuitions: when I’m scrolling rapidly through the microfilm, I can recognize certain writers at a glance, based on the kind of typewriter they used, and I can quickly sort the letters into different categories. Most of it is routine correspondence, but there are hidden gems as well. On April 17, 1962, for instance, a young reporter from the Champaign-Urbana News Gazette sent Campbell a query letter about a story he hoped to submit on PLATO, a computer-assisted educational system developed by the University of Illinois. He wrote: “It seems to me that PLATO is a nightmarish mechanical personification of the stiffened, calcified mind of Orthodox Science.” Campbell replied: “This sounds interesting. Let’s see it!” No other letters from the exchange survive, and I wouldn’t even bother mentioning it here if the reporter in question weren’t Roger Ebert. At the time, he was nineteen years old—or Isaac Asimov’s age when he sold his first short story—and five years away from becoming a film critic. It’s hard not to wonder what might have happened if Campbell, whom Ebert once called “my hero,” had taken him under his wing, and although I doubt it will even end up in the book, the discovery of this unexpected encounter between two of the most important men in my life is the kind of thing that makes it all worthwhile. And I never would have found it if I hadn’t turned every page.
Note: I’ve often discussed my favorite movies on this blog, but I also love films that are relatively overlooked or unappreciated. For the rest of the week, I’ll be looking at some of the neglected gems, problem pictures, and flawed masterpieces that have shaped my inner life, and which might have become part of the standard cinematic canon if the circumstances had been just a little bit different. You can read the previous installments here.
Over the last twenty years, Bill Murray has been quietly building a body of work that amounts to the most surprising third act of any actor in recent memory. Murray always had a tendency to float through his roles, and one of the pleasures of a movie like Ghostbusters or Groundhog Day is the chance it affords to watch him maintain his sardonic equanimity through the strangest of circumstances. Yet it took the combined insights of Wes Anderson and Sofia Coppola to realize that there was a darker, more wounded side to his persona. The quintessential Murray character is so detached from his surroundings that it might well lead, after a decade or two of smart remarks, to a graying, wistful cynic bewildered by his own lack of human connection. There had already been hints of a great character actor in the making in the string of small parts that he took starting with Ed Wood and Wild Things, and when combined with this newfound sense of melancholy, it became clear that something special had emerged: a performer whose history as a star could enlarge the emotional scope of a movie in a handful of scenes. (You see a similar phenomenon with Sean Connery in The Untouchables and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which make him seem like the most valuable supporting actor who ever lived.) Murray has filled a corner of most of Anderson’s movies since Rushmore, and in some cases, as in The Darjeeling Limited, it feels as if the director just wanted to have him around on the set—and who could blame him? But it’s only in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou that Murray takes center stage, and the result is both Anderson’s greatest commercial failure and a movie that seems to get richer, funnier, and more moving with time.
The Life Aquatic inspired one of my favorite reviews by the late Roger Ebert, who said: “I can’t recommend it, but I would not for one second discourage you from seeing it.” Earlier, Ebert wrote: “My rational mind informs me that this movie doesn’t work. Yet I hear a subversive whisper: Since it does so many other things, does it have to work, too? Can’t it just exist?” And the fact that it exists at all feels like a weird kind of miracle. It’s a film that seems to have been written and directed by a couple of bright twelve-year-olds, and I mean this as the highest possible praise: few other movies have come so close to putting the inner world of my childhood on film, shot through with veins of something sadder and more regretful. (I’m also inordinately susceptible to the world of Jacques Cousteau, and I wrote an entire novelette, “The Boneless One,” in homage to the fantasy of taking to sea in a research yacht.) But none of it would hold together without Murray at its heart. It takes his air of a man without a country and makes it wonderfully literal, and its star is too wry a performer to allow the story to become overly sentimental or precious: Murray knows that Zissou is kind of an asshole, and the improvised moment when he casually pulls a gun on Cate Blanchett to prove a point provides a necessary grace note to a movie that might otherwise have become insufferably whimsical. Anderson has said that he was inspired to make it by the mental image of the yacht seen in cross section, and it’s undoubtedly a lovely sight. But if the result works at all, it’s because it gives us a glimpse of the inside of Murray as well.