Monday, March 27, 2023

Tár: Vitriol

Cate Blanchett with Zethphan D. Smith-Gneist in Tár.

Todd Field’s Tár is one of those self-important, self-promoting movies of the moment that might as well be waving a banner that proclaims, “You’d better take me seriously.” It’s angry but the anger is generalized, and though it takes on the hot-button topic of celebrity sexual misconduct, it doesn’t present a coherent argument. Field must believe that if it did, it couldn’t pass itself off as complex and provokingly unresolved. Tár reminded me of a number of movies I despise:  Sidney Lumet’s alleged attack on television, the 1976 Network (screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky); half a decade earlier, Mike Nichols’s alleged critique of the superficiality of American sexual relationships, Carnal Knowledge (screenplay by Jules Feiffer); two decades earlier than that, Billy Wilder’s puffed-up indictment of tabloid journalism and the callousness of the American public, Ace in the Hole (screenplay by Wilder, Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman). All of these films substituted bitterness and cynicism for character logic and used them as battering rams, and Tár follows suit. The discomfort they heap on audiences is supposed to be an indication of profundity, proof that they’re revealing ugly truths that only morally committed filmmakers would have the courage to put on the screen. But there isn’t a convincing moment in Tár. It’s two hours and forty minutes of foul-smelling hot air. No wonder Field – who both wrote and directed – hasn’t made a movie in sixteen years. (His debut feature, the shallow, manipulative In the Bedroom, came out in 2001; his second, Little Children, a saga of paralyzed suburbanites that flatters the audience by putting us in a position from which we can look down at the pathetic characters, followed in 2006.) It takes a long time to store up so much rancid baloney.

Sunday, March 26, 2023

Haptic Happiness: Analog as Allegory

“Ever since Adam, who has really gotten the meaning of this great allegory—the world?”
– Herman Melville, 1851

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
– Arthur C. Clarke, 1968

In “The Machine Stops,” a short story written by E.M. Forster in 1909, the famed novelist surprised the many lovers of his compelling but still conventional fiction, highly regarded tomes such as A Room With a View, A Passage to India, Maurice, and Howards End, by taking a radical detour into the kind of speculative fiction most often associated with science and its limits. He went on a similar jaunt in 1914 with his collection of stories called The Eternal Moment, which explored parallel science fiction themes and supernatural speculations. Throughout his lengthy writing career, during which he lived long enough to witness humans landing on the moon, he frequently alternated between entertaining social observation writing and the vividly imaginative ideas he explored in his wildly cerebral Celestial Omnibus. In fact, “The Machine Stops was so utterly astonishing largely due to its surmise, nearly a century before the internet even existed as a concept, that we might eventually occupy, via technics (the original and official word for technology), a world where we are interconnected through a threshold-breaking mechanical means which starts out as a benevolent helper but invariably ends up virtually colonizing our very definition of reality.

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Marlowe and Boston Strangler: Mythologies

Jessica Lange in Marlowe.

The Irish writer John Banville’s The Black-Eyed Blonde, published in 2014 and the source of the new Neil Jordan picture Marlowe, is a Raymond Chandler reset of no special distinction except a rather puzzling one. (Banville’s other output is divided between high-flown literary works like The Sea – an exquisite piece of writing – and a series of mysteries, written under the pen name Benjamin Black, that feature a pathologist named Garret Quirke.) At the climax of this tale, set in late-1950s L.A., of the disappearance of a shady Hollywood agent named Nico Peterson, which Peterson’s lover, the wealthy Clare Cavendish, has hired Marlowe to solve, a potent figure out of the gumshoe’s past, a drinking buddy named Terry Lennox, resurfaces. Lennox is the pivotal character in one of Chandler’s later books, The Long Goodbye, which begins with Marlowe’s agreeing to drive him to Tijuana, no questions asked, after the murder of his wife, and ends with the detective’s helping him to establish a new identity in Mexico. The point of The Black-Eyed Blonde, as far as I can tell, is to punish Terry – to turn him into a thoroughgoing villain. But Robert Altman and his screenwriter, Leigh Brackett (who had collaborated with William Faulkner and Jules Furthman on the most famous Marlowe film, The Big Sleep), already did that in the brilliant 1973 movie of The Long Goodbye, where Marlowe is played by Elliott Gould and Terry by the ballplayer Jim Bouton, and where the story ends very differently.

Monday, March 13, 2023

Neglected Gem: The Suspect (1944)

Charles Laughton in The Suspect (1944).

Robert Siodmak began his filmmaking career in Germany, hot-footed it to France when Hitler came to power and wound up among the many German émigrés in Hollywood, including his friend Billy Wilder, who had co-written his first two films, People on Sunday and The Man in Search of His Murderer. (Siodmak was on the last ship to America before the Nazis marched on Paris.) His American career never made him as famous as Wilder or Fritz Lang, but he made some very good pictures, including The Spiral Staircase, The Killers and The Crimson Pirate. Perhaps the best of them is The Suspect, adapted by Bertram Millhauser and Arthur T. Horman from a novel by James Ronald, which Criterion Channel is showcasing this month.

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Ahab and Quixote: The Endless Search

(Courtesy Ecco Press/Harper Collins);(Wordsworth Editions)

“Tell me your company, and I will tell you what you are.” – Sancho Panza, Don Quixote.

“Call me Ishmael.” – Nameless narrator of Moby Dick.

Certain pieces of great writing seem to haunt us throughout our lives. It’s almost as if their authors are stalking us and offering up new reasons for rereading and rediscovering whatever it was about them that mesmerized us during our initial encounter. Of course, which pieces and which authors vary from person to person: for some it’s King Lear or Jane Eyre or For Whom the Bell Tolls (all of which leave me utterly cold, despite the fact that I appreciate their greatness). Such recursively magnetic books might be touchstones from our youth, such as On the Road or Howl, for me, or they might be lighthouses that show us the way out of some dark storm or other, such as all of the poetry ever written by Wallace Stevens.

It often appears as if some people will literally find any excuse at all to read once again and then write again about two groundbreaking novels in particular, Don Quixote by the Spaniard Miguel de Cervantes and Moby Dick by the American Herman Melville, and I readily admit to being one of those people. But I also claim that my excuse is a valid one (don’t we all?) and situate them in a parallel track which becomes obvious once the reader temporarily accepts my obsession with both. I’ll go so far as to claim (almost) that they are the same novel in some salient ways, and that the twisted times we currently are living through contain psychological and even spiritual echoes of each in the same way that Melville himself evokes Cervantes for me.

Monday, March 6, 2023

Martin McDonagh, Almost Reformed: The Banshees of Inisherin

Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson in The Banshees of Inisherin.

Set on an island off the coast of Ireland in the early 1920s, the era of the original “troubles,” where the locals can hear the gunshots marking the violence of the virtual civil war from the mainland, Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin is a portrait of Irish life in a goldfish-bowl community. The two main characters, Colm Doherty (Brendan Glesson) and Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell), are buddies who have been drinking together regularly in the local pub. But one day, when Pádraic comes by to pick up his friend at home for their daily pint, Colm refuses to answer the door. He’s decided that he doesn’t like Pádraic anymore – that he’s a dullard with nothing to say for himself and that Colm, who leans toward melancholy, no longer wants to waste his time hanging out with him when he could be focusing on writing music and playing it with enthusiastic graduate music students.

Monday, February 27, 2023

Empire of Light: Something Remains

 Olivia Colman in Sam Mendes's Empire of Light.

In Sam Mendes’s Empire of Light, Olivia Colman plays Hilary, the assistant manager of an old-fashioned moviehouse called the Empire in Margate, England in 1980 and 1981 who is sleeping with her married boss, Donald Ellis (Colin Firth). When Stephen (Micheal Ward), a young Black man, joins the staff they become first friends, then lovers – and then Hilary, who is prone to schizophrenic episodes, breaks down. Mendes, who also wrote the script, overloads the picture – with Hilary’s psychological struggles and Stephen’s encounters with the National Front and a layer of trite sentiment about the ability of movies to keep up our faith and hope when life seems most dire. Following The Fabelmans, this is the second recent picture by a well-known director to throw a load of symbolic weight on the idea of movies. (It doesn’t help that the movies Mendes chooses to embody the salvific quality of movies are hardly inspiring; perhaps that was his intention, but if so it doesn’t accomplish what he wants it to.)