Thursday, August 22, 2013

Rainer on Film: An Actor's Critic

Back in the good old days when American movie criticism was dominated by a few dozen intelligent people who could write and who were knowledgeable and really cared a lot about movies, plus Richard Schickel and even he could sometimes make sense so long as the movie he was weighing on in didn’t have a man with a gun riding a horsie in it the National Society of Film Critics used to publish these lively anthologies, bringing together previously published reviews and profiles and think pieces written by its members, organized around a theme. (One of them, the 1990 Produced and Abandoned, edited by Michael Sragow and devoted to celebrating worthy obscurities “the best films you’ve never seen”featured a cover illustration of a dusty-looking guy who looked as if he’d stepped out an Edward Hopper painting, leaning against an unoccupied ticket-taker’s booth, with a blissful smile suggesting that the promise of seeing something amazing made all the hungry suffering he had to bear seem worth it. That’s as good a way to describe what it felt like to be a hopeful movie freak in 1990.) In 1981, the Society put out a collection called The Movie Star, and that book was my introduction to Peter Rainer, whose essay “Acting in the Seventies” did a terrific job with a great subject. Rainer appreciated the value of “classic” movie-star acting, as demonstrated by a master like James Cagney or Cary Grant “I like Cary Grant in None but the Lonely Heart, his ‘best’ performance, but I love him in North by Northwest.” but he also grasped what had changed after Brando and the rise of the Method and then the counterculture, which led to a new generation of actors who thought of movie acting as a vehicle for true creative expression, and whoin the cases of actors such as Jeff Bridges, Gary Busey, and the young Robert De Niro don’t “keep a respectful distance” from the characters they play.

And Rainer also recognized the importance of a parallel track of new hip comics Richard Pryor, Lily Tomlin, Robin Williams, the Saturday Night Live crew who established themselves in nightclubs and concert stages and on record albums and on TV, and who were beginning to cross over into movies, often in dramatic parts: “They don’t even crack up in the middle of one of their own skits to show they’re only fooling. They’re too obsessed to crack up. They represent craziness without sentimentality. Their comic personalities are woven around the put-on, and improvisation becomes a way of scrounging up idiosyncrasies that will, hopefully, connect with the audience. Young people who don’t identify with these comics still connect with the craziness.”

Critic Peter Rainer (Photo by Inae Bloom)
“Acting in the Seventies” first appeared in the Los Angeles Herald Examiner in 1979. Close to thirty-five years later, Rainer has finally put out his first best-of collection, Rainer on Film: Thirty Years of Film Writing in a Turbulent and Transformative Era: a scattering of reviews, “appreciations,” and other random objects that represent more than three decades in the mental life of a working critic. Though the writing is old, there’s a lot here that will be new, even to fans who somehow came across Rainer’s byline in the ‘80s or ‘90s, liked what they saw, and went searching for more of his stuff, in the only way we knew how before the World Wide Web: in the college library, using one of those big, bulky annual volumes that listed “everything” published in a national periodical over the course of the preceding twelve months. (Anyone know if they still make those things? One of them might still come in handy, if someone needed to bludgeon a horse.) Unlike Pauline Kael or Andrew Sarris, or, for that matter, Richard Schickel, Rainer didn’t spend the bulk of his career prominently displayed within the pages of a single, high-profile outletunless the Los Angeles Herald Examiner counts, and it isn’t stacked up in the periodicals sections of many libraries across the country. Rainer on Film also includes material from stints at Los Angeles magazine, New Times Los Angeles, and New York magazine, and a change-of-pace travel essay from the pages of something called Virtuoso Travel + Life. It contains nothing from Rainer’s first professional gig, Mademoiselle, where he recalls beginning his column (in 1974) before an edict came down that “forthwith, every story in the magazine had to answer at least one of two questions: ‘How do I dress?” and ‘How do I get laid?’” It also contains little from his current job reviewing movies for the Christian Science Monitor, probably because he’s barely allotted enough space there to do more than issue a quick thumb’s up or thumb’s down. (These are, unfailingly, thoughtful, well-argued thumb’s-ups and thumb’s-down, but that’s beside the point.)

That 1979 essay was no fluke. Rainer has always been good on actors, sometimes summing up everything that’s magnetic or confounding (or magnetic and confounding) about them in a single sentence. Watching Al Pacino document his own mania for acting and theater in Looking for Richard, Rainer notes, “For Pacino, life is what you do to work yourself up for a performance.” On a somewhat different plain, Rainer sums up what makes Tom Cruise so boring onscreen yet so exasperating when he’s anyplace else: “It’s not enough that he’s a great big movie star… he has to be taken as something more, the CEO of his own destiny.” (Although this is a newly-minted phrase that appears in a postscript to a review of Top Gun, it nails why, for some of us, Cruise will always seem like the living embodiment of everything that made the 1980s hard to take.) Celebrating the greatness of Debra Winger, he salutes the simple richness of her acting not by reaching for flowery phrases but by going direct: “Her presence, as always, remains a guarantor of dramatic truth.”

Rainer also singles out “masterpieces,” scolds the “overrated” (American Beauty, Shine) and praises the unjustly “underseen,” grapples with the frustration of well-meaning adaptations of great literature that miss the mark (whether Merchant-Ivory’s The Golden Bowl or John Huston’s Under the Volcano), and discusses the ways that movies ranging from The Passion of the Christ and Malcolm X to the sexually charged bad-cop melodrama Unlawful Entry and Tropic Thunder (featuring Robert Downey, Jr.’s satirical performance as a white actor so convinced of his range that he’s signed on to play a black soldier in Vietnam) raise complicated issues, whether to play with them, confront them, or simply exploit them. Like any good critic trying to cram this much of a lifetime’s work into some 550 pages, he plainly wants to devote as much space as possible to praising the movies that have meant something to him, though in a chapter devoted to “unintentional comedies” (including such vanity productions as Prince’s Under the Cherry Moon, which, God love him, the great J. Hoberman praised in a review included in that Produced and Abandoned book), he shows how to hit a turkey with a bazooka without coming across as just a bummer or a scold. Some of the work he singles out for praise here is a little off the beaten track, whether it’s Frederick Wiseman’s only non-documentary movie The Last Letter, the performances of Robin Williams and Jerry Stiller in a 1986 TV production of Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, or an art video by the late Ed Emshwiller. Readers who like the sound of these things may have to do a little digging if they want to experience them for themselves. But hell, Rainer put the book together. You want him to do everything for you?

Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

1 comment:

  1. I just came across this review but I would like to say that I've been highly intrigued by the work of Rainer in the past few days and I have to say that this is a wonderful summary of what makes him so great to read. I know that this review is a few years old now, but I still felt like commenting on it.