Archive for August, 2010
Sometimes the difference between what you mean to do and what you wind up with lands on the sweetest part of the bat. Case in point: David Samuel Peckinpah, who packed the The Wild Bunch’s gunfights with exploding squibs and blood-bags because he thought an outburst of graphic screen violence might make a useful object lesson for Vietnam-era audiences. We now know, thanks partly to his example, how naïve it is to think that our violent tendencies can be manipulated, or maybe even switched off—or that a mere movie could accomplish either of these things. The fluke, though, came when Peckinpah’s miscalculation was exposed by his own innovations: the slow-motion interruptions which worked as dazzling parenthetical asides, and the forced changes in perspective which dragooned viewers and made them proxies in the action in a way no movie had done before.
Today this view of the movie—which received its fullest articulation in Paul Seydor’s bedrock study Peckinpah: The Western Films, A Reconsideration—is commonplace, even unavoidable; and while Peckinpah himself never explicitly discussed it in these terms, he clearly realized he’d cooked up something stronger than a spoonful of castor oil. Before the booze and coke took hold of him, he was a liberal only a touch to the left of Norman Jewison, and a man who felt he’d most fully expressed himself, not in any of his famous works of suffering and destruction, but in the tenderhearted The Ballad of Cable Hogue. (In fact, something went out of him after Cable Hogue bombed.) But he was enough of an artist to keep his cool when the violence in The Wild Bunch turned out to be something disturbingly beautiful. Along with his editor Lou Lombardo, Peckinpah had made a fundamental contribution to cinema’s basic vocabulary—a no-shit, honest to god Eisenstein-Kuleshov-Griffith moment. He ran with it, and continued to mine the vein he’d uncovered (with wildly varying results) for the rest of his career.
One thing he never did, though, was return to the idea of portraying violence straight-up—“realistically”—as a social corrective. But 14 years after Peckinpah’s death Steven Spielberg stepped up to the plate and tried again to “resensitize” audiences with another iconic battle scene: the D-Day landing that opens Saving Private Ryan. A 24-minute catalog of hellish details—human torsos rent apart, shrieking men stumbling about in flames, a head with only a smoking crater where its face ought to be—it sounds like the latest provocation from Cannes, yet Middle America took it instantly to heart. This was partly due to the subject matter and the movie’s rigidly respectful treatment of it, but it was also an expression of America’s appreciation for Spielberg, a near-addiction which is itself paradoxical: known, and in some quarters despised, as a leading member of “Hollyweird”, he remains largely revered for his pop hits, and mainstream audiences work to keep the two figures separated in their minds. Spielberg doesn’t make the task hard for them. Saving Private Ryan bundled together his professional popularity with Tom Brokaw and Stephen Ambrose’s PR-driven drool about the “Greatest Generation”, and fashioned from the combination some absolutely bullet-proof body armor for the movie; as a result his astonishingly violent motion picture was received, not as the product of a sick mind (or, worse, a pacifist, like Peckinpah), but as a salute to our veterans’ sacrifices. Even in the hands of the pop magus Spielberg, the only way Saving Private Ryan could exist at all was if it reinforced our most cherished myths and values.
The special dispensations continued when ABC agreed to air the film uncut on Veterans Day of 2001, a courtesy that’s been extended to only one other movie with a hard R rating: Schindler’s List—of course. The decision was hailed by the VFW, the Parents Television Council, and people desperate for a break from Touched by an Angel, but it didn’t make a lick of moral sense. The powers-that-be okayed the violence and salty language in the name of honoring our veterans, all of which was a clear admission that mangling reality is what Hollywood is all about. Broadcasting Spielberg’s two big movies blew holes in the ideas that the censors must help parents control what their children watch, and that four-letter words and pubic bush are inherently corrupting things. If the word “fucking” is bad at all, it’s bad all the time, no matter how super-solemn the context is, and the broadcast should have infected the country with an epidemic of profanity. But it didn’t. Indeed, the broadcasts raised such little stink that ABC reran Ryan for the next three years—like It’s a Wonderful Life, except for Veterans Day—until the fine slapped on CBS for Janet Jackson’s wardrobe prank reclenched everyone’s sphincters for them.
ABC’s experiment with Saving Private Ryan was a courtesy that would never, not in a million years, be extended to, say, Taxi Driver, a movie with more actual relevance to our lives than either of Spielberg’s opuses; movies like that are still seen as morally iffy adjuncts of the problems they explore. But outlawing movies about ugliness leaves only the ugliness itself, and anyone who thinks that Spielberg’s attitude towards violence is more objectively responsible than his peers’ has another think coming. If Peckinpah’s original point going into The Wild Bunch was that violence is an awful, degrading thing, Spielberg’s is that it’s an awful, degrading thing which is sometimes necessary. That’s a legitimate position to take, but the movie, bookended as it is by shots of the American flag and focused on an elemental engagement with a despised foreign power, encouraged domestic audiences to come away feeling first and foremost reenergized as Americans. It failed to make us see warfare as a last resort to be entered into only with sorrow, and without chauvinism or bombast, and the acid test came during the very years when Ryan was being televised, as the Bush administration massaged the case for a sour and unnecessary invasion, and a fresh round of war whoops went up which has yet to fade from our ears.
Saving Private Ryan is what a conservative movie looks like when it’s made by a liberal people-pleaser, and it practically chokes on its force-fed cornbread when George Marshall reads Lincoln’s letter with a lump in his throat or the Ryan family’s farm is rendered as an absurdly bucolic Eden. But nowhere is it more conservative than in the final exhortation Tom Hanks’ Captain Miller croaks out with his dying breath: “Earn this”. Truth be told, the so-called Greatest Generation was just a damned unlucky one; it’s prized for its pluck in outlasting a depression and a world war but, really, what other choice did it have? The double whammy created a survivor’s mentality which made them duck and cover throughout the McCarthy era, and which for years afterward could curdle their personalities on a moment’s notice. “Earn this”—a key attitude in the Generation Gap of the Sixties—is a call for bottomless guilt and indebtedness, and Saving Private Ryan reveals the stress fractures in its reasoning when the aged Ryan, who once gave up safe passage home in order to stand by his comrades, is still so stricken by doubt that he tremblingly implores his wife, “Tell me I’ve led a good life.”
“Earn this” refers not just to Captain Miller’s death or the deaths of the men in his unit, but to every sacrifice we’ve witnessed over the course of the movie, and it doesn’t take an Einstein to understand that by its end the movie views us as “Private Ryan”—that we’re the ones being called on to redeem the losses of every American war by leading lives worthy of all that death. Well, that’s a totalitarian and impossible demand to place on any human being. I’d rather consider the words that close out The Wild Bunch (a movie about the cost of impossibly high ideals), words which stir the embers of life in another old man facing darkening horizons: “It ain’t like it used to be, but it’ll do.” That’s as far removed from “Earn this” as the two movies’ depictions of violence are: where Miller’s advice is crippling, its eye fixed on the rear view mirror, the other is optimistic, forward-looking, and striving to make us free. That’s just how the men on Omaha Beach wanted us to be.
A critical trait I can see the theoretical value of but find basically impossible to adopt: ignoring some major negative within a movie in favor of focusing on what the movie is doing, or trying to do. On his blog Rosenbaum just reprinted his essay about the director Cy Endfield (probably best known for Zulu), and he bases a lot of his case on Endfield’s Try and Get Me!, a low-rent 1950 noir about a family man who befriends a stranger, yadda yadda, it doesn’t really matter here. It’s a mostly negligible film until its last half hour, when a new movie comes bursting out of the old movie’s chest, and we’re treated to a ferocious lynch-mob scene that actually stands up well to the riot in Lang’s Fury. Rosenbaum’s right when he says that the movie’s directed with some brains and care, but he fails to mention one unavoidable problem: its star, Frank Lovejoy, gives a performance that’s neither lovely nor joyous. In fact, it’s textbook awful. The charisma-free Lovejoy suffocates every scene, dragging their rhythms down, or backwards, with his pained attempts to look desperate, and it’s especially ruinous since his character is a man who’s supposedly being flushed away by momentum and circumstance. (Lovejoy wasn’t bad as Bogart’s cop buddy in In a Lonely Place, but that was a small role and in 1950 you pretty much had to defy God himself to look bad in a Nick Ray movie.) And yet Rosenbaum declares Try and Get Me! to be “a masterpiece of the early 50s”.
Well…hm. That’s a pretty tough sell for those of us who think the word “masterpiece” ought to be reserved for a few ambitious and accomplished works whose flaws, if any, amount to nothing more than hairline fractures. It’s also a tough sell to those of us who see movies as an ultimately collaborative effort, who can’t forget that watching them is something we have to experience physically, who feel that a director’s job includes coaxing good work out of his performers as well as his crew, and who—if nothing else—notice how much better movies work when actors actually enhance the material rather than stand around stinking the place up. I suppose I could appreciate Transformers 2 as a Platonic form that’s just hovering in the ether, rather than the bag of shit it really is, if I closed my eyes and let myself float up to some majestically neutral plane, high above all those critics who rely on their precious little value judgments when they think about movies. But I just can’t help thinking that it’s important to stay in touch with the film that actually appears on the screen, and that just as much can be learned from what’s wrong in a work as from what’s right in it.
But the arguments for an impersonal appreciation of art take a lot of forms. More times than I care to count I’ve gotten into fights over how relevant an artist’s intentions are (or even how interesting they are)—a surprisingly contentious point for some folks, who seem to think that even to consider what Renoir had to say about Grand Illusion is at best uncritical star-fucking and at worst a mental surrender to some kind of fascistic paternalism. Well, part of the reason I seek out a Suttree or Crime and Punishment to begin with is because I like spending time with the weird febrile goofy fucks that create them; hooking into a work gives us what’s almost certainly going to be the only contact we ever have with an Agnes Varda or J.G. Ballard.
It was four or five obsessions ago—before film noir, before the Iraq War, before Enron and the Italian neorealists and
vegetarian cooking the Army-McCarthy hearings—that I really plunged into the gunmen of the Old West. It lasted a while, a year or two in any case, and in that time I bored certain people silly (Gary, Kathy, Cay—are you still out there?) with the exploits of such forgotten men as John Selman, King Fisher, and Outlaw Bass. For instance, there was the handsome train robber Tom “Black Jack” Ketchum,
who caused some excitement when his head popped off during his hanging,
and “Deacon” Jim Miller, the religious nut and hired killer who asked permission to keep his hat on before getting strung up in an Oklahoma barn,
and Henry Brown, the popular but poorly paid marshal of Caldwell, Kansas, who decided to improve his lot in life by robbing the bank one town over from his own. It was a bad move: a couple of citizens were killed in the robbery, then Brown and his friends managed to trap themselves in a box canyon that was filling up with rainwater. They surrendered and spent the day in the Medicine Lodge lockup, waiting for the mob to reach its boiling point; while not posing for photographs at gunpoint, Brown used the time to write a letter to his wife which ended: “It was all for you. I did not think this would happen.” When the mob finally came that night, Brown made a break for it and was shot down in the street. That’s Henry, second from the left there, in shackles:
Some of the most famous gunmen were so thickly embroiled in the currents of history they seem like frontier Forrest Gumps, yet one can’t say much about them as people. These were far from self-actualized men, to put it mildly, and they had no say in how others represented them. Some of them come across as sociopaths pure and simple, others as workingmen carrying capitalism to its logical end, but in the main their personalities don’t communicate across the ages in any illuminating way, leaving us only with their violent, often nugatory experiences. Those experiences, draped as they were in law-breaking and immorality, were a tangled web to begin with, and any remaining hope of clarity was dimmed when generations of dime novelists, journalists, and slipshod historians took to heart the words of the too-slick newspaper editor in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Every field is open to information abuse, but the Old West was left to the amateurs for so long that peer reviews and other reality-checks couldn’t obtain a toehold for decades, allowing writer after writer, for generation after generation, to repeat “the legend”—the myths, tiresome the second time you read them, that Billy the Kid shot a man for every one of his 21 years, that Hardin once shot a man for snoring. Indeed, “the legend” was regurgitated so many times that the writer-bibliographer Ramon Adams felt moved to compile Burs Under the Saddle, a virtual encyclopedia of errata which painstakingly corrects, one by one, the outright myths and half-truths peppering Western histories. Beyond the weekend warriors, the field has also seen its share of warlords and empire builders, most notably the belligerent and quite possibly insane Glenn G. Boyer, whose inexplicable mindgames have hindered serious researchers for years. Nor do publishers, especially in the academic world, offer much help when they saddle their offerings with presentations trivializing their own subject matter. When the University of Oklahoma Press reissued John Wesley Hardin’s autobiography for the first time in decades, this is what it looked like:
Likewise, Joseph G. Rosa’s indispensable pictorial biography The West of Wild Bill Hickok is available only in a cheaply produced edition even though Hickok led a life richer than Picasso’s, and the man himself, an incorrigible camera hound, possessed one of the great modern gazes in 19th Century photographs.
Despite all this, certain potent snapshots still jump out from the literature that is reliable: a disconsolate Hickok sitting on his bed, surrounded by firearms, as a half-dressed prostitute putters about his room; or Henry Brown’s vest catching fire from a pistol flash and going up in flames as he ran down the street during that escape attempt. These luminous, ephemeral glimpses have no more substance than heat lightning, and they’re no help at all to, say, the grad student writing a thesis on the economics of mining towns. Anecdotal history like this doesn’t leave much more than a feeling, but it’s a feeling that’s tangled up with the texture of some rugged lives once lived, a constant shifting between the gridpoints on a wilderness, an easy familiarity with violence, and the unmistakably American flavor of all these things; if nothing else it injects some small dose of grit and authenticity into an age of designer-ripped jeans and Lady Gaga.
John Wesley Hardin, for instance, came out of the East Texas hills, the son of a Methodist circuit rider (hence the name), and his early reputation as a mankiller was based on run-ins he had with freed slaves, Union soldiers, and the hated (by Democrats and ex-Confederates) State Police. Getting himself into scrape after scrape, he was a fugitive long before he was 20; in the Taylor-Sutton feud he shotgunned a man on the deck of a riverboat even though the fellow was known to be fleeing the territory; when he subsequently murdered a deputy and lit out again, a furious mob strung up his brother.
The Texas Rangers caught up with him on a train outside Pensacola, knocked him out, and renditioned his ass back to Texas, where he was given a 25-to-life prison term. In Huntsville he taught Sunday school—par for the course for celebrity felons today, but Hardin seemed to believe his own sermons, and he went one step further and began studying law. He served 20 years before he was pardoned in 1894, and the Texas of his youth was fading away fast. He passed the Bar but few people wanted to pay John Wesley Hardin for his legal advice. He married a 15 year old girl who fled on their wedding night and refused to discuss him ever again. The children from his first marriage, grown now, were strangers to him. He moved to El Paso and hung out a shingle.
There he began work on his autobiography, a book short on insight but long on detail, with names and dates supplied for almost every killing, some 30 or 40 in all. He distributed autographed playing cards drilled by bullet holes—keepsakes which are traded to this day. But things continued to slide downhill for him: not enough clients, a messy affair with the wife of one of the few clients he did possess, a card game that so pissed him off he scooped up the pot and walked out the door, silently daring anyone to object. The local newspaper, hearing of this, began a drumbeat: the day of the gunman was over. It was just a matter of when. There was one final dispute, one final exchange of charges and countercharges, this time with a degenerate constable, and on August 19, 1895—115 years ago yesterday—Hardin was playing dice in the Acme Saloon when John Selman stepped up and shot him in the back of the head.
Now, not even with a gun to my head could I tell you why I find these details irresistible. The fact is, I just do…
Just to pinch things off I watched L’enfer, Claude Chabrol’s 1994 production of the script that turned Henri-Georges Clouzot inside-out. God knows it’s faithful enough to Clouzot, with entire scenes mirroring the re-creations in Serge Bromberg’s documentary, but with a much less emotional delivery. Oh, it gets into the husband’s fantasies about his wife alright, but Chabrol being Chabrol, these are delivered with ice and distance; something’s held back even during a montage in which the husband plunges into full-blown madness. In the movie’s telegraphic style, seasons skip by in a single cut and the story leapfrogs years at a time in a minute or two; a handful of early snapshot views of François Cluzet and Emmanuelle Béart carry us from their courtship through their wedding day and up to the time of their son’s first steps in the first 10 minutes alone.
If Chabrol didn’t create a work with the fever of a Taxi Driver, his standing back gets at something important about these emotional breaks: that they’re essentially irrational no matter how “explainable” they are by abandonment issues or other deep-seated factors. Cluzet suffers his crisis merely because, early on, he happens to see Béart expressing warmth towards another man. Once that seed is planted in his head, everything else he sees is inevitably skewed to fit the same template, until he can’t even watch home movies without mentally editing in visions of what he thinks the camera just missed.
My one real gripe about L’enfer has to do with its presentation of Béart. Niagara and There’s Something About Mary made the bodies of Marilyn Monroe and Cameron Diaz almost characters unto themselves, and it was the right thing to do because both stories hinged on what their sex appeal wrought in the men around them. So you look at the body—you look at it. Chabrol doesn’t look so much as he checks off a box on his clipboard: a breeze tickles the end of Béart’s skirt, and at bedtime we get a view of her skimpy but sensible underwear. I’ve felt thwarted by Chabrol’s tastefulness before, but never has his high reserve seemed self-defeatingly prudish.
Y’know, not to go on and on about this shit, but the old man called last night, and we’d just gotten the hey-how-are-ya stuff out of the way when he blurted out that he’d forgotten why he called. Okay, that’s fine, so we kicked back and just talked about baseball and quitting smoking and how he was the guy who opened up Motorola’s market in Mexico (a favorite topic), until he suddenly interrupted himself in mid-sentence. His reason for calling had come back to him, he announced, at which point he proceeded to lay on me a few choice tips for getting laid.
• Be yourself. Don’t try to impress. Instead, let them impress you.
• Department store sales clerks are often lonely.
• Women 36-40 are “the horniest”.
• Hotel bars are a good place to meet older women with money.
There was no real context for any of this; he was just sharing the fruits of a lifetime’s research with me. Aside from the fact that Don Draper would reject these ideas as degrading to everyone involved, I’m a little freaked out that this is what an 83 year old man thinks is fitting advice to give his son—in the year 2010, no less. (At least he didn’t suggest that I croon “Stardust” to the rich old hotel ladies before looting their steamer trunks.) He’s sober nowadays and he at least sounds in control of his faculties when he’s saying this stuff, but I’m fucking-A starting to wonder. I’m also starting to wonder if him splitting when I was a kid wasn’t the absolute best thing that could’ve happened to me, even if it did mean being raised by Mommie Dearest. With all the proclivities and hang-ups I’ve managed to come up with on my own, I hate to think what I’d be like if he’d stayed.
When I was 24 or 25 the woman I was living with dumped me and started seeing other men, and it sent me spinning out of control. For six or eight months there, I did every stupid thing under the sun and then some, and I made it through those days without any life-changing fuck-ups—for me or for anybody else—through pure dumb luck. But the frame of mind I was in back then never did evaporate completely. It only takes the crumb from a madeleine—a song, a situation—to bring back the anger and smallness and pain, and I can’t help but feel for anyone who ever goes through the process. I didn’t come close to stalking or hurting my ex (basically, I took my shit out on everybody around me except her), but when I hear about the TRO type of guys, even the violent ones, I simply can’t write them off as the social garbage that law-and-order nuts and women’s rights groups insist they are. Some of it’s a “There but for the grace of God…” thing, but I also know they’re just trying to obliterate the pain, and that they don’t want to be this way either.
Jealousy and the indignities of being left behind make for great film subjects because shitfits and degradation look so good to the camera’s eye: Emil Jannings humiliating himself in chicken feathers for Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel; Edward G. Robinson tormented by the sound of Joan Bennett’s voice calling another man’s name in Scarlet Street; Albert Finney driving a one-man Indy 500 all over Diane Keaton’s brand-new tennis court in Shoot the Moon. The titles alone—Raging Bull, Blood Simple, Love Me or Leave Me, Smash Palace, Contempt, Bitter Moon, In a Lonely Place—are emblems of bitterness, alienation and violence, while even comedies on the subject can’t resist coloring what happens when Aphrodite uses your brain as her pincushion.
And they keep tumbling down the chute. Malcolm Venville’s hard-to-pigeonhole 44 Inch Chest opens with a closeup of its hero lying flat on his back, sweaty hair pasted to his forehead, and surrounded by the shards of a room which he’s just finished demolishing. It’s a signature view of the primal, endlessly battered Ray Winstone, who’s embodied just about every form of moral depravity there is—hooligan, drunkard, daughter-rapist, mankiller—while keeping his inner yuck alive in fresh and interesting ways.
44 Inch Chest finds him hitting bottom again, this time as the car salesman Colin Diamond. Colin has just learned that the wife he adores (Joanne Whalley, looking better than ever) has been cuckolding him with a studly young French waiter, and in his distress he turns to his mates, a circle of friends played by Ian McShane, Tom Wilkinson, John Hurt, and Stephen Dillane—casting decisions which clue us in that this support group won’t be telling Colin to use his words. After hearing the news, the quartet brazenly snatches the Frenchman and delivers him to an abandoned house where Colin—and, vicariously, his friends—will take their revenge on him. With “Loverboy” now safely trussed to a chair, Wilkinson helpfully explains the situation to him: “You should have got your own fucking wife to fuck.”
The role of Colin was written specifically for Winstone by Louis Mellis and David Scinto, the duo who created the great part of “Gal” for him in Sexy Beast, and the two movies have the same staccato volubility, the same fierce contest between jokes, asides, argot and belligerence. Set mainly in a gutted room dressed in mustardy tones of decay, the film plays out over a long, talk-filled night, as Colin searches himself for an answer potent enough to satisfy the codes and imperatives of his gender as represented by his friends, a spectrum of masculinity ranging from McShane’s wanly hilarious gay gambler to Hurt’s perpetually outraged aging gangster. 44 Inch Chest boasts yet another of Angelo Badalamenti’s haunting scores, and it freely dips into both surrealism and straightforward theatricality. By the end of it we can see the glimmers of a better world, one in which even the most scarred among us can find a way to hold his head upright.
Nothing says more about how drastically the movie industry has changed than the fact that in the year 1964 Columbia Pictures gave an unlimited budget to a French director for a foreign language film about marital infidelity. This came about for a number of reasons. Columbia had just tried the same strategy with a black comedy about the threat of nuclear annihilation, and Stanley Kubrick had come back with Dr. Strangelove. European cinema, and French cinema in particular, was big at the time. And Henri-Georges Clouzot was a prestigious and reputable director.
Clouzot’s script for L’enfer was about a pair of newlyweds—Serge Reggiani and Romy Schneider—and the husband’s growing (but wrongheaded) suspicion that his wife is being unfaithful to him. Clouzot is often called the French Hitchcock, and besides bringing awesome levels of craftsmanship to their suspense films, the two men favored linear storylines that were almost too generic for the good of their reputations. By the time of L’enfer, Clouzot, having taken to heart the work of avant-garde painters and musicians, wanted to try something radical—and here was Columbia Pictures, with all that money. He envisioned L’enfer as two movies harnessed together: a series of black and white segments offering a conventional external look at the marriage and, intercut with it, Marcel’s hallucinations about Odette and her trysts, which were to be shot like a fever dream.
The shoot turned out to be a debacle. The production team spent weeks on expensive lighting tests for the dream sequences. Location shooting followed a quixotic, whimsical schedule as Clouzot demanded retake after retake of shots that depended on impossible timing schemes. He hired three camera teams, each of them stacked with first-rate talent, which he planned to use in a staggered fashion; however, when he kept getting caught up on the shot in front of him, the other two teams could only cool their heels. And though the manmade lake he was shooting on was scheduled to be drained within days, he insisted on reshooting scenes he already had in the can while leaving others to die on the vine. Reggiani grew uncooperative, then disappeared from the set; while searching for his replacement, Clouzot suffered a heart attack and the production was shut down.
The 13 hours of footage that survived the experience—some of it silly but much of it extraordinary—came to light only because the French filmmaker Serge Bromberg found himself trapped in an elevator with Clouzot’s widow one night. Bromberg has used it to create both an approximation of Clouzot’s film and an account of its making, under the doubly accurate title Henri-Georges Clouzot’s ‘Inferno’. It’s an incredibly seductive work, at once sensual, saddening and maddening. All that redundant, futile footage suggests that Clouzot, like Coppola on the set of Apocalypse Now, could never find the crucial handle on his material, but Bromberg has assembled it into something well worth seeing.
And thanks to Jonathan Rosenbaum, I just saw Peter Bogdanovich’s The Cat’s Meow, a what-if retelling of the 1924 party on William Randolph Hearst’s yacht that ended with the mysterious death of the director-producer Thomas H. Ince. Because Ince’s body was cremated before an autopsy could be performed, the rumors wouldn’t go away that Hearst had shot Ince, but by mistake; his true target, supposedly, was Charlie Chaplin, with whom Marion Davies, Hearst’s mistress, was thought to be having an affair. Kirsten Dunst as Davies and Edward Herrmann, who has Hearst’s trapezoidal jowliness, give a pair of the most convincing historical portrayals I’ve seen; I completely accepted that this was how those people acted, or could have acted, over that weekend. Dunst, only 19 at the time, is particularly good, not just at playing a woman eight years older than her actual self, but at conveying the spirit of Davies’ character as it’s filtered down to us over the years. The movie may look like a cheaper version of Gosford Park but it’s good from beginning to end, and it’s at its best in its melancholy final half hour, after the shooting has occurred, when an entire social circle can be seen sinking into collective shock.
The screenwriter Steven Peros gives us something we’re not really prepared for: a William Randolph Hearst with emotional context. “Willy,” as Marion calls him, may do monstrous things, but he’s clearly no monster: if anything, he wears his humanity like a yoke. His emotional tyranny is but a poor disguise for his neediness, making it easy to understand his agony when he spots Davies and Chaplin exchanging a loving gaze, and his horror when Chaplin jokingly announces to the roaring-with-laughter guests, “I give you Marion Davies—the New Tramp!” Peros, Bogdanovich and his cast treat these characters—or people, rather—with a decency rare for historical dramas, especially one revolving around such grotty affairs.
Bogdanovich, of course, has seen the other side of the coin. Bob Fosse’s Star 80 focused on Paul Snider, a penny-ante Hefner wannabe who killed his estranged wife, Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten, and himself, after she and Bogdanovich fell in love on a movie location. Fosse goosed up Snider and Stratten’s tragedy with the same facile gimmicks—time-jumps, shock cuts, varying film stocks, portentous-ironic fake interviews—that he’d ladled onto poor Lenny Bruce’s head a few years earlier, just to ramrod home his inflammatory and untested ideas about life in a materialistic, sexually loose America.
There may well be some worthwhile takeaway from Paul Snider’s story—who knows, it might’ve even been king of the jealous man genre—but Fosse never bothered to seek it out, and as a result Star 80 is a posturing, hypocritically lurid work, condescending to its characters and audience alike, and 180 degrees away from the respect Bogdanovich paid to his material. The Cat’s Meow ends by echoing one of the great closing shots in all of cinema—the last shot from The Rules of the Game—in a way that’s both earned and poetic in its own right. Scott Fitzgerald himself might have applauded the gentle way these children of the Charleston, power, and far too much money are ushered off the stage and into the history books.
Bogdanovich hasn’t directed a theatrical feature since The Cat’s Meow came out in 2001; in a sick joke whose origins I don’t want to think about, his next credit, three years later, was a TV movie about Natalie Wood’s drowning. I’ve given the man a lot of grief in my time but The Cat’s Meow makes up for a lot of things. If nothing else, it contains the fragrant moment when a flustered Hearst stammers out the blinkered Desiderata of needy men everywhere: “I do not ask much, but the little that I do ask, I must be respected. I don’t say this as a threat. It’s just a wish I have as a man.”
Went back to Lone Pine this weekend, and if the L.A. Department of Water and Power didn’t have a stranglehold on the real estate I’d seriously consider moving there. It’s hot—that’s the one setback. Oh, and I don’t have a job or a house or any friends there, there’s that too, but apart from these bumps in the road the area looks like God cooked it up just for me. I’m not sure what other single place gives up such rich doses of the West (both old and new), film history, and (if you count Manazanar about five miles up the road) World War II, with the Sierra Madres looming above it all. Even the Manson family has a link to the area: after the raid on Barker Ranch they were booked at the Inyo County seat in Independence, just up 395 from Lone Pine and another focus of activity in California’s water wars.
We also went back to Death Valley, got there by way of the mightily impressive Eureka Dunes. It looks to me like a single dune, albeit one almost 700 feet high,
and backed by cliffs with astonishing rainbow-colored striations running across them like a racing stripe.
The area was so deserted we drove 60 miles without seeing another car—break down there in the pre-satellite days and, baby, you’re fucked. Wound down the long dirt road through Chidalgo Canyon, red sandstone teeth with a million cavities bored into them, towards Scotty’s Castle, the Spanish-Mediterranean villa dropped onto northern Death Valley by a weirdo insurance tycoon back in the ’20s.
At Stovepipe Wells it was 119 degrees—I kid thee not—and just standing still I felt like I was in a sealed trunk. Driving through heat like that in perfect AC heaven, then you crack the window and stick your hand out, and it’s more than just hot: it actively hurts. While I was standing in the small tourist center at Stovepipe—a bar, a restaurant, and what-not—a raven the size of my damn head landed next to me, then looked up at me, panting.
Sunday morning it was back to the Alabama Hills, which jut out of the flatland between Lone Pine and the Sierras. It’s just another of the area’s rich geological finds, a vast moonscape of oddly shaped outcroppings: giant monoliths crowding against each other like people trying to stay dry in the rain, turd-shaped balls simply plopped out on the landscape, rocks whose surface have been broken into layers that look like breaking waves.
Since the Hills are an easy drive from L.A., Hollywood latched onto them before talkies came in, and a slew of movies—from Gunga Din and the Boetticher/Scott Westerns to Tremors and Iron Man—have been shot there. We drove back east of Lone Pine and found the old location for Bad Day at Black Rock. It’s not a movie I like that much but it’s got a hell of an opening, with the hellish red locomotive bearing down on the tiny town, and Sturges performed some neat spatial tricks in the early going, placing Borgnine, Lee Marvin, et al., in funny arrangements on the open stage of the desert floor. The town “Black Rock” was obviously a set, and it’s gone now save for what was once a real train depot. Today the tracks are gone, and the depot is a private residence whose owner discourages visitors.