Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Biographical Dictionary of Film

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.

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.”

Listen without prejudice

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George Michael

In The Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson says of Tuesday Weld: “If she had been ‘Susan Weld’ she might now be known as one of our great actresses.” The same point might hold true of George Michael, who was born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou and chose a nom de mike—with its unfortunate combination of two first names—that made him seem frothy and lightweight. If he had called himself, say, George Parker, he might well have been regarded as one of our great songwriters, which he indisputably was. In the past, I’ve called Tom Cruise a brilliant producer who happened to be born into the body of a movie star, and George Michael had the similar misfortune of being a perversely inventive and resourceful recording artist who was also the most convincing embodiment of a pop superstar that anybody had ever seen. It’s hard to think of another performer of that era who had so complete a package: the look, the voice, the sexuality, the stage presence. The fact that he was gay and unable to acknowledge it for so long was an undeniable burden, but it also led him to transform himself into what would have been almost a caricature of erotic assertiveness if it hadn’t been delivered so earnestly. Like Cary Grant, a figure with whom he might otherwise seem to have little in common, he turned himself into exactly what he thought everyone wanted, and he did it so well that he was never allowed to be anything else.

But consider the songs. Michael was a superb songwriter from the very beginning, and “Everything She Wants,” “Last Christmas,” “Careless Whisper,” and “A Different Corner,” which he all wrote in his early twenties, should be enough to silence any doubts about his talent. His later songs could be exhausting in their insistence on doubling as statements of purpose. But it’s Faith, and particularly the first side of the album and the coda of “Kissing a Fool,” that never fails to fill me with awe. It was a clear declaration that this was a young man, not yet twenty-five, who was capable of anything, and he wasn’t shy about alerting us to the fact: the back of the compact disc reads “Written, Arranged, and Produced by George Michael.” In those five songs, Michael nimbly tackles so many different styles and tones that it threatens to make the creation of timeless pop music seem as mechanical a process as it really is. A little less sex and a lot more irony, and you’d be looking at as skilled a chameleon as Stephin Merritt—which is another comparison that I didn’t think I’d ever make. But on his best day, Michael was the better writer. “One More Try” has meant a lot to me since the moment I first heard it, while “I Want Your Sex” is one of those songs that would sound revolutionary in any decade. When you listen to the Monogamy Mix, which blends all three sections together into a monster track of thirteen minutes, you start to wonder if we’ve caught up to it even now.

George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley

These songs have been part of the background of my life for literally as long as I can remember—the music video for “Careless Whisper” was probably the first one I ever saw, except maybe for “Thriller,” and I can’t have been more than five years old. Yet I never felt like I understood George Michael in the way I thought I knew, say, the Pet Shop Boys, who also took a long time to get the recognition they deserved. (They also settled into their roles as elder statesmen a little too eagerly, while Michael never seemed comfortable with his cultural position at any age.) For an artist who told us what he thought in plenty of songs, he remained essentially unknowable. Part of it was due to that glossy voice, one of the best of its time, especially when it verged on Alison Moyet territory. But it often seemed like just another instrument, rather than a piece of himself. Unlike David Bowie, who assumed countless personas that still allowed the man underneath to peek through, Michael wore his fame, in John Updike’s words, like a mask that ate into the face. His death doesn’t feel like a personal loss to me, in the way that Bowie did, but I’ve spent just about as much time listening to his music, even if you don’t count all the times I’ve played “Last Christmas” in an endless loop on Infinite Jukebox.

In the end, it was a career that was bound to seem unfinished no matter when or how it ended. Its back half was a succession of setbacks and missed opportunities, and you could argue that its peak lasted for less than four years. The last album of his that I owned was the oddball Songs from the Last Century, in which he tried on a new role—a lounge singer of old standards—that would have been ludicrous if it hadn’t been so deeply heartfelt. It wasn’t a persuasive gesture, because he didn’t need to sing somebody else’s songs to sound like part of the canon. That was seventeen years ago, or almost half my lifetime. There were long stretches when he dropped out of my personal rotation, but he always found his way back: “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” even played at my wedding. “One More Try” will always be my favorite, but the snippet that has been in my head the most is the moment in “Everything She Wants” when Michael just sings: Uh huh huh / Oh, oh / Uh huh huh / Doo doo doo / La la la la… Maybe he’s just marking time, or he wanted to preserve a melodic idea that didn’t lend itself to words, or it was a reflection of the exuberance that Wesley Morris identifies in his excellent tribute in the New York Times: “There aren’t that many pop stars with as many parts of as many songs that are as exciting to sing as George Michael has—bridges, verses, the fillips he adds between the chorus during a fade-out.” But if I were trying to explain what pop music was all about to someone who had never heard it, I might just play this first.

My great books #7: The Biographical Dictionary of Film

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The New Biographical Dictionary of Film

Note: I’m counting down my ten favorite works of nonfiction, in order of the publication dates of their first editions, and with an emphasis on books that deserve a wider readership. You can find the earlier installments here.

David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film is one of the weirdest books in all of literature, and more than the work of any other critic, it has subtly changed the way I think about both life and the movies. His central theme—which is stated everywhere and nowhere—is the essential strangeness of turning shadows on a screen into men and women who can seem more real to us than the people in our own lives. His writing isn’t conventional criticism so much as a single huge work of fiction, with Thomson himself as both protagonist and nemesis. It isn’t a coincidence that one of his earliest books was a biography of Laurence Sterne, author of Tristram Shandy: his entire career can be read as one long Shandean exercise, in which Thomson, as a fictional character in his own work, is cheerfully willing to come off as something of a creep, as long as it illuminates our reasons for going to the movies. And his looniness is part of his charm. Edmund Wilson once playfully speculated that George Saintsbury, the great English critic, invented his own Toryism “in the same way that a dramatist or novelist arranges contrasting elements,” and there are times when I suspect that Thomson is doing much the same thing. (If his work is a secret novel, its real precursor is Pale Fire, in which Thomson plays the role of Kinbote, and every article seems to hint darkly at some monstrous underlying truth. A recent, bewildered review of his latest book on The A.V. Club is a good example of the reaction he gets from readers who aren’t in on the joke.)

But if you leave him with nothing but his perversity and obsessiveness, you end up with Armond White, while Thomson succeeds because he’s also lucid, encyclopedically informed, and ultimately sane, although he does his best to hide it. The various editions of The Biographical Dictionary of Film haven’t been revised so much as they’ve accumulated: Thomson rarely goes back to rewrite earlier entries, but tacks on new thoughts to the end of each article, so that it grows by a process of accretion, like a coral reef. The result can be confusing, but when I go back to his earlier articles, I remember at once why this is still the essential book on film. I’ll look at Thomson on Coppola (“He is Sonny and Michael Corleone for sure, but there are traces of Fredo, too”); on Sydney Greenstreet (“Indeed, there were several men trapped in his grossness: the conventional thin man; a young man; an aesthete; a romantic”); or on Eleanor Powell’s dance with Astaire in Broadway Melody of 1940 (“Maybe the loveliest moment in films is the last second or so, as the dancers finish, and Powell’s alive frock has another half-turn, like a spirit embracing the person”). Or, perhaps most memorably of all, his thoughts on Citizen Kane, which, lest we forget, is about the futile search of a reporter named Thompson:

As if Welles knew that Kane would hang over his own future, regularly being used to denigrate his later works, the film is shot through with his vast, melancholy nostalgia for self-destructive talent…Kane is Welles, just as every apparent point of view in the film is warmed by Kane’s own memories, as if the entire film were his dream in the instant before death.

It’s a strange, seductive, indispensable book, and to paraphrase Thomson’s own musings on Welles, it’s the greatest career in film criticism, the most tragic, and the one with the most warnings for the rest of us.

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November 10, 2015 at 9:00 am

Forget about your House of Cards

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Kevin Spacey on House of Cards

Forget about your house of cards
And I’ll do mine
And fall under the table, get swept under
Denial, denial…

—Radiohead, “House of Cards”

Note: Major spoilers follow for the third season of House of Cards.

Watching the season finale of House of Cards, I found myself reflecting on the curious career of director James Foley, who has helmed many of the show’s most memorable episodes. Foley is the quintessential journeyman, a filmmaker responsible for one movie, Glengarry Glen Ross, that I’ll probably revisit at least once a decade for the rest of my life, and a lot of weird, inexplicable filler, from The Corruptor to Perfect Stranger. It’s a messy body of work that still earned him a coveted entry in The Biographical Dictionary of Film, in which David Thomson writes: “You could put together a montage of scenes by Foley that might convince anyone that he was—and is—a very hot director.” And that’s equally true of House of Cards, which would allow you to cut together enough striking scenes and images to convince you that it was the hottest show on television. I’ve noted before that I’ve never seen a series in which every technical element was brought to such a consistent pitch of intensity: the cinematography, art direction, sound design, editing, and music are among the best I’ve ever seen. Foley’s handling of the finale is masterful. And yet it’s only a sad coda to a deeply disappointing, often outright frustrating show, which in its most recent season pulled off the neat trick of being both totally implausible and grindingly boring.

And it didn’t have to be this way. As infuriating as House of Cards often was, there was an undeniable charge, in the very last shot of the second season, when Underwood walked into the Oval Office and rapped his hand against the desk. We seemed primed to embark on a spectacular run of stories, with a scheming, murderous, Machiavellian psychopath positioned to move onto a grander stage. What we got, instead, was an Underwood who seemed oddly hapless and neutered. He’s still a hypocrite, but with no coherent plans for domination, and hardly any sense of what he wants to accomplish with the power he sought for so long. If the show were actively working to subvert our expectations, that would be one thing, but that doesn’t seem to be the case: for most of the season, it seemed as adrift as its protagonist, who starts off with poor approval ratings, a nonexistent mandate, and no ability to advance his agenda, whatever the hell it might be. In the abstract, I can understand the narrative reasoning: you want to open with your hero at a low point to give him somewhere to go. But if you can imagine, instead, a scenario in which Underwood starts out as popular and powerful, only to fight ruthlessly in secret against a scandal, old or new, that threatens to undermine it all, you start to glimpse the kind of drama that might have been possible.

House of Cards

And what’s really dispiriting is that all the right pieces were there, only to be systematically squandered. In Petrov, a thinly veiled surrogate for Putin, the show gave Underwood his first truly formidable antagonist, but instead of a global game of chess being played between two superb manipulators, we’re treated to the sight of Underwood rolling over time and time again. The one really shrewd plot point—in which Petrov extorts Underwood into forcing Claire to resign as UN ambassador—would have been much more effective if Claire had been any good at her job, which she manifestly isn’t. The interminable subplot about the America Works bill would have been fine if it had all been a blind for Underwood to consolidate his power, but it’s not: he just wants to give people jobs, and his attempts at extraconstitutional maneuvering seem like a means to an end, when they should have been the end in themselves. We keep waiting for Underwood, our ultimate villain, to do something evil, inspired, or even interesting, but he never does. And the show’s one great act of evil, in the form of Rachel’s fate, feels like a cynical cheat, because the show hasn’t done the hard work, as Breaking Bad repeatedly did, of earning the right to coldly dispose of one of its few sympathetic characters. (As it stands, there’s a touch of misogyny here, in which an appealing female player is reintroduced and killed simply to further the journey of a white male antihero in a supporting role.)

Yet House of Cards remains fascinating to think about, if not to watch, because so many talented people—David Fincher, Eric Roth, Tony Gilroy—have allowed it to drift off the rails. I’ve spoken at length before, most notably in Salon, about the dangers inherent in delivering a television series a full season at a time: without the intense scrutiny and feedback that comes from airing week to week, a show is likely to grow complacent, or to push deeper into a narrative dead end. In Vox, Todd VanDerWerff argues that this season can best be understood as a reaction to the show’s critics, a failed attempt to make a hard turn into a character drama, which only proves that it isn’t enough to plot a course correction once per season. And there’s a larger blindness here, perhaps one enabled by the show’s superficial gorgeousness. Is what Frank Underwood does interesting because he’s Underwood, or is he interesting because he does interesting things? I’d argue that it’s the latter, and that the echo chamber the Netflix model creates has lulled the show into thinking that we’ll follow its protagonist anywhere, when it has yet to honestly earn that level of trust. (In a way, it feels like a reflection of its leading man: Kevin Spacey may be the most intelligent actor alive when it comes to the small decisions he makes from moment to moment, but he’s been frequently misguided in his choice of star parts.) House of Cards is still a fun show to dissect; if I were teaching a course on television, it’s the first case study I’d assign. But that doesn’t mean I need to give it any more of my time.

The return of David Thomson

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The New Biographical Dictionary of Film

Believe it or not, but there’s already a new edition of David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film, which I’ve elsewhere called “one of the weirdest books in all of literature,” as well as one of the first ten books I’d bring to a desert island. I’ve written at length about Thomson before, and I won’t repeat myself here, but I’ve only since come to appreciate how deeply his work has influenced the way I write. When you’re talking about pop culture, you tend to assume the voices of the critics whose sensibilities you admire, and this kind of ventriloquism goes through many stages before you can find your own voice. The earliest “professional” movie reviews I wrote, for a website long since defunct, were shaped in equal parts by Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael, and Kael in particular pioneered a kind of breathless slangy style—equal parts hyperbole and thorny description—that few subsequent critics have been able to escape. As time goes on, though, I find myself more and more in debt to Thomson, who has subtly changed the way I think about both life and the movies.

Thomson’s central theme—which is stated everywhere and nowhere in his work—is the essential strangeness of going to the movies, which takes shadows on a screen and turns them into men and women who can seem more real to us than the people in our own lives. His fascination with that uneasiness, which the rest of us take for granted, goes a long way toward explaining the odder byways in his career: his novel Suspects, which imagines new lives and a shared history for iconic characters from George Bailey to J.J. Gittes, or Nicole Kidman, a widely hated book that gradually reveals itself as a novel disguised as a confession disguised as a celebrity clip job. That dialogue between Thomson and his readers has reached the point where his more inexplicable opinions and glaring mistakes, like his assertion that Stephen King “didn’t like” the ending to Frank Darabont’s The Mist, are taken as part of his charm. And I like my Thomson warts and all. But if you take nothing but his perversity and obsessiveness, you end up with Armond White, and Thomson succeeds only because he’s also lucid, encyclopedically informed, and ultimately sane.

Film critic David Thomson

Which doesn’t excuse the book’s real flaws. I’ve noted in a previous post that the various editions of The Biographical Dictionary of Film haven’t been revised so much as they’ve accumulated: Thomson rarely goes back to rewrite earlier entries, but tacks on new thoughts and filmographies to the end of each article, so that it grows by a process of accretion, like a coral reef. The way the book preserves all of the author’s original opinions in amber is one of its most idiosyncratic—and frustrating—qualities, but it also leads to a real analytical loss. There’s a tangible difference between Thomson’s pieces on film legends like Cary Grant, Robert Mitchum, or Orson Welles, which are finely honed essays that take in an entire life, and the ones that he continues to rework on the fly. The entry on Tom Cruise, for instance, opens by making a case for him as a “very good” actor, then shifts abruptly into disappointment at his “proven traps.” That’s the way a lot of viewers feel about Cruise, but in retrospect, his strengths and weaknesses have always been closely entwined, and it’s easy to wish that Thomson had taken the time to put together a proper reconsideration.

To be fair, browsing through a new edition of the Dictionary can’t help but emphasize its shortcomings and eccentricities: you naturally turn to the latest entries, on figures from Amy Adams to Benedict Cumberbatch to Megan Ellison, or see what Thomson has to say about the recent roles of Denzel Washington or Daniel Day-Lewis, so you end up focusing on scraps and entries that are necessarily unfinished. Now and then, though, I’ll happen across an earlier article and remember why this is still the essential book on film. I’ll look at Thomson on Coppola (“He is Sonny and Michael Corleone for sure, but there are traces of Fredo, too”); on Sydney Greenstreet (“Indeed, there were several men trapped in his grossness: the conventional thin man; a young man; an aesthete; a romantic”); or on Eleanor Powell’s dance with Astaire in Broadway Melody of 1940 (“Maybe the loveliest moment in films is the last second or so, as the dancers finish, and Powell’s alive frock has another half-turn, like a spirit embracing the person”). It’s a strange, seductive, indispensable book, and to paraphrase Thomson’s own thoughts on Welles, it’s the greatest career in film criticism, the most tragic, and the one with most warnings for the rest of us.

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