MY FAVORITE BOOK OF FILM CRITICISM (Not Quite Random Favorites…In No Particular Order)

The Hollywood History of the World: From One Million Years B.C. to Apocalypse Now (1988)
George MacDonald Fraser
Okay, the competition is not exactly fierce. I respect their work ethic and even their skill with language, but, for ideas and insights, I’ve never been moved much one way or the other by Farber, Agee, Kael, Sarris. I counted Roger Ebert a genial dolt and Richard Schickel something less than that. Stanley Kaufman seemed like a nice man who was so cautious and judicious in his judgments that I could never remember what he thought of a movie ten seconds after I finished his review.

David Thomson? Don’t get me started on the clodhoppers.

Graham Greene was clearly slumming.

I like Molly Haskell a lot and I need to read more of her stuff.

Even so, I doubt anything she’s done would replace this. It’s the only book of film criticism I really like–and I like it a lot.

It probably helps that film criticism was the least thing Fraser did. Before and after that he was a novelist, essayist, memoirist, historian, screenwriter and all around exemplar (one of the last) of that old-fashioned breed: The Man of Letters.

It helps, too, that among Men of Letters, he was one of the best–not least because he took himself and the world less seriously than almost anyone else who ever earned his way into that club where no legitimate membership can ever be given.

And he was uniquely qualified to write his one book of criticism. The list of first rate novelists (he’s justifiably famous for his incomparable Flashman series, but don’t sleep on Black Ajax, a superb historical novel which recounts the rise and fall of Tom Molineaux, the ex-slave who, in the early nineteenth century, was the first great African-American boxing champion), who are also professional grade historians and accomplished screenwriters (he did Richard Lester’s Musketeer films and a personal favorite, Crossed Swords, among others) is not long.

Like a lot of his other writing, The Hollywood History of the World occupies a space all its own–in this case, defending Hollywood’s take on history. That’s not something I’m sure anyone else has ever even attempted, but I have a reasonable confidence that it has never been carried off so well.

For starters, Fraser knew that History itself is contested, often hotly so. For closers, he knew how to write it–so it’s not surprising that he knew how to write about it. The Hollywood History of the World then, works on three levels: as straight film criticism, as a back way into a historical worldview (the author’s own) and as a front way into the manner in which Hollywood, from the silent era to the 1980s, presented history as both History and Mythos.

That’s a lot to take on, but Fraser did it elegantly and forcefully, without coming off as being too full of himself. The book’s a great read–and it did for me something no other book of film criticism has done. Similar to the way Lester Bangs, alone among music critics, made me hear with new ears, Fraser made me see with new eyes.

Fraser wisely sequenced his book as a history of film itself, proceeding chronologically from the prehistoric era to Viet Nam, pairing up films from different eras by their subject matter, not their production chronology.

Along the way, he showed his grasp of the large scope of history without short-shrifting his own tastes and biases, both cultural and cinematic. Of course, not being a Leftist made him stand out. (Fraser once described his politics as whatever was dead opposite of the most recent attempt to convert him–a true kindred spirit.) But that never helped John Simon, or anyone else who was no better or worse than the competition.

Fraser stands out because he said things no one else said, and said them with the authority of someone who knew of whence he spoke. Perhaps most significantly, he spoke in the voice of one who was not concerned that others might have got it wrong and needed correcting.

In that respect, he really stands out from the crowd.

Hence…

From the introduction (a concise explanation of what film really does do better than any other art form):

It is worth remembering that the often-despised film moguls were the greatest patrons of the arts since time began; Hollywood employed more scholars and experts and diverse talents than any philanathropic or learned institution—and, incidentally, paid them better. They gave, and got, their money’s worth, and in the process they built us old Baghdad, new and shiny, and the Pyramids, and the Colosseum; they refought Trafalgar and Thermopylae for our benefit, and sent Columbus to the sands of Watling Island, Marco Polo to the courts of Cathay, Major Rogers to St. Francis, Rowan to Garcia, Drake around the world, and Stanley in search of Livingstone (to the tune of ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’, which hadn’t been written then, but sounded wonderful); they brought Clive and Zola, Lincoln and Saladin, Buffalo Bill and Catherine the Great, Wellington and Dick Turpin, Florence Nightingale and Calamity Jane, to life again; they showed us Argonauts and Mountain Men, Vikings and Jane Austen’s ladies, gladiators and Roundheads, Chinese warlords and Pilgrim Fathers, Regency bucks and Zulu impis. Really, it was the greatest show on earth.

Some of it was historical nonsense; most of it was not. If some of the images were blemished, they were better than no images at all. Samuel Pepys has given the most brilliant and finely detailed memorial of Restoration London that could be imagined–but imagined in the word; we must form our mental pictures from what he tells us, and from artists like Lely and Kneller; is it sacrilege to suggest that Forever Amber, Frenchman’s Creek, and Hudson’s Bay add something worthwhile, if it is only a visual impression? All the world knows that when the Light Brigade charged in the San Fernando Valley, it was as the climax to a film that had no more to do with Raglan, Cardigan, and Balaclava than with “Little Women”–but even Lord Tennyson might have had his imagination enlarged by the most spectacular recreation ever seen of cavalry going neck or nothing into cannon fire. Bette Davis or Flora Robson could play only an imaginative personation of the Elizabeth, but they gave us something that the historian cannot. Personally, I always doubted that an army could be stopped by flashing polished shields until I watched it on the screen; I envisaged the Gordian knot as a vague tangle of rope until Richard Burton was confronted with something that looked like a spherical doormat. What the beginning of the Exodus was like, no one will ever know–Demille brought it to life. The sight of old Vladimir Sokolov perishing in the snow while Charles Boyer made sympathetic noises, conveyed some sense of what the Retreat from Moscow was like; the scene in which Jack Palance pulls on his glove while Elisha Cook stands wary and angry in the mud is art of a high order; it is also as true an impression of a Western gunfight as we are ever likely to get.

There is something else that the costume picture has done. I have lived long enough in the world of historical fiction to know how strongly it can work at turning readers to historical fact; Hollywood, by providing splendid entertainment, has sent people to the history shelves in their millions.

And, on specific movies:

True Grit

Having seen True Grit my one regret is that John Wayne never had a shot at Falstaff; Rooster Cogburn, the boozy, disreputable old rascal of a marshal hired by an adolescent girl to track down her father’s murderer, is his best performance, possibly because the script is quite the most authentic ever written for a Western picture. Whether the principal credit should go to the screenwriter, Marguerite Roberts, or the original novelist, Charles Portis, (NOTE: For the Record, Portis, though Roberts also got off several wonderful lines that weren’t in the book). I don’t know, but for once the voice of the Old West is heard strong and clear; its splendid imagery cries out for quotation, but I will cite only Rooster’s final raging challenge to Ned Pepper (Robert Duval)–not “Reach!” or “Draw!” or “Go for your gun!”, but: “Fill yore hands, you son-of-a-bitch!’ Never mind the plot, listen to the characters–not only Rooster and Pepper, but the game little bantam of a girl (Kim Darby), the Texas Ranger (Glen Campbell), the renegade Chaney (Jeff Corey), and the superbly articulate outlaws encountered along the way; actors seldom get the chance to speak so well, and they rise to the occasion.

The Wild Bunch

..a foul film which for some reason received enthusiastic reviews. One critic wrote of it: ‘The bloody deaths are voluptuous, frightening, beautiful’, and described it as an ‘imagistic epic’. I don’t know if that critic has ever seen bloody death, but it is not beautiful at all, and there is nothing clever or artistic or worthy about its portrayal ad nauseum. (NOTE: The critic was Pauline Kael…and, no, she hadn’t.)

Platoon

Platoon is terrifying. Not because of its horror and violence, but because I suspect it is a true picture, and that makes me tremble for the safety (to say nothing of the good name) of Western civilisation. I would prefer to believe it is a grotesque fiction, but good authorities have claimed it an honest portrayal of the Vietnam war, and if it is, then there is no doubt why America lost. On this showing, they didn’t have an army….like all the blood, carnage, and pretentious talk with which the film abounds, the danger is that audiences may regard it as typical of all warfare, and the conduct of the principals as acceptable, even excusable. They may even tell themselves that Barnes, with all his beastly faults, is a darned good soldier; he isn’t. He is a rotten soldier, and I wouldn’t bet on his platoon to beat the Band of Hope..

…I am reluctant to believe Platoon, because the Americans of 1942-45 (NOTE: with whom Fraser, a Brit, had served in the Pacific theater) were not like this; they were good soldiers.

Even within this small sampling, I don’t agree with all of Fraser’s assessments. I would not, for instance, fault the soldiers in a badly led army and leave any criticism of their leadership implicit. There is much else in the book I would dispute more strongly.

But every assessment made me think–and not just about movies.

They still do.

As a historian, Fraser understood that, at a certain point, events consist not merely of the facts (whether agreed upon or disputed) but of the stories we make from those facts. As a first-rate novelist and screen writer, he understood film has become, for better or worse, the principal means of conveying those stories.

His best quality, though, was that he kept his head, and stuck to what his extraordinary life had taught him.

As a result, his criticism had the sting of moral authority, astringently applied.

And, in an age when the theater at the strip mall is filled every weekend with “imagistic” violence that makes The Wild Bunch look like Renoir’s Impressionistic Paris, his warnings about allowing our worst instincts to run free were prescient.

TO THE AGE WHEN FOLKS GOT THEIR NEWS FROM NEWSPAPERS…(Late Night Dedication)

…the way God intended, and, unlike now, when the CIA approves everything first, we were easily deceived:

Oates (Colonel William C.) and Wadell (his adjutant) ate with a family where one of the young women, while expressing her loyalty to the Union, thought that the best way to stop the war would be for the armies to hang both President Lincoln and President Davis. According to the Alabama colonel, the people were “remarkably ignorant” of the causes of the war and thought it a quarrel between “two ambitious men.”

(from High Tide at Gettysburg, Glenn Tucker, 1958)

Thankfully, with the Age of the Internet, we’ve moved beyond that kind of uninformed thinking.

HOW MUCH CAN ONE RECORD MEAN (Volume Fourteen: “Indiana Wants Me”)

“Indiana Wants Me”
(1970)
Artist: R. Dean Taylor
Writer: R. Dean Taylor

Existential question:

When the crit-illuminati mock, is it because they don’t understand….or because they do?

Just wondering…

From March 21, 2006:

Where have all the tear-jerking story songs gone? Unless “It’s hard out here for a pimp” qualifies, I think the genre’s mostly dead. Good riddance. I’m not sure where they began – you could trace them back to 50s tunes about drag races and dead girlfriends, or back to blues / jazz tunes with simple story lines like “Frankie and Johnny” [Cliff Notes versions: she shot him, inasmuch as he had done, and was doing, and presumably would continue to do, her wrong.] But the late 60s and early 70s had a spate of them, and for some reason “Indiana Wants Me” had a special place in our junior-high hearts – it ended with sirens and a policeman calling “This is the police. You are surrounded. Give yourself up. ” Poor guy! And what had he done wrong, really? Well, he killed a guy – but the lug had it coming, since “No one had the right to say the things he said.” What? That pi was actually a finite number? White shoes could be worn in March? “Catsup” was the preferred spelling, not “Ketchup”? Whatever it was, shooting seemed a rather drastic response. Then again, I never understood why Big Bad John got into a fight over a Caging Queen. Lyrics were a boundless source of mystery.

Come to think of it, “Indiana Wants Me” probably doesn’t take place in Indiana at all, since the singer is a fugitive. Wonder why he chose that state. “Minnesota Wants Me” sounds like a tourist promotion; “Iowa wants me” sounds like you’re being invited to an elderly aunt’s house for tea. “North Dakota wants me” is rather obvious, given the population decline. “Indiana” has that flat Charlie-Starkweather Midwestern vibe, I guess. [Yes, yes, I know, he was a Nebraskan. And if ever there is a word that describes the feeling of the wind in the Midwest in late December, it’s that: Nebraskan Starkweather. On the other hand, put a Roman numeral after it, and it sounds all WASPy and country-clubbed: Nebraskan Starkweather III]

(James Lileks, Blog Post from March 21, 2006)

Well, that’s one way of putting it.

Here’s another way.

Story songs have all but disappeared because “story” needs communal norms (what used to be called Civilization) to communicate. Go to your local bookstore (if you have one–they needed Civilization too), pick up any literary magazine (yes, they still have them) and read any two paragraphs of any entry published within. I can’t say what all you might find. What you won’t find is anything resembling a story.

“Indiana Wants Me” is one of the great story songs–great in part because of its refusal to give any of those unnecessary details Lileks pretends to miss. Its assumption that, in a communal setting with shared assumptions, you can fill in the blanks.

A man kills another man because that man insulted his wife (we know they’re married because no hanger on would kill a man for insulting a woman–any woman).

The man knows what the consequences of his decision are.

It means he’ll die in a standoff with the police.

That’s the story.

Bruce Springsteen (following fellow Great Artists like Woodie Guthrie, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard) has spent his entire career chasing that story–and not just the whole story, but that perfect phrase about a man who needed dying.

And, just like all the others, including those who were dust before “Indiana Wants Me” existed, he’ll die trying to catch up, trying to give it a new dimension.

Like all the others, he’ll fail.

The world has moved on.

Stories are no more. No common assumptions (about who “needs” dying, or anything else), no stories.

It’s possible R. Dean Taylor–a white Motown staffer (part of the staff that wrote, among others “Love Child” for the Supremes and “All I Need” for the Temptations) who wrote “Indiana Wants Me” as a response to seeing Bonnie and Clyde and eventually recorded its superb country lyric as a self-produced Tommy James soundalike for Motown’s Rare Earth subsidiary and watched it become that label’s biggest international hit–didn’t know his story songs were a mere generation from going out of style.

It’s also possible he did.

1970 was almost the exact turning point from a world where “if a man ever needed dying he did, no on had the right to say what he said….about you” (that pause is everything, until that pause and the two words that follow, the killer and the man he leaves dead might be any sort, after that pause, and those two words, they are fixed in a moral universe with unalterable rules) went from a statement understood by all (even those who mocked or disagreed or professed ignorance of honor codes or horror at their application) to a world where such statements, and the sentiments behind them, are incomprehensible.

Lileks is a self-styled conservative BTW. And re-reading his piece last week, I was reminded of the flurry of bloggers who gained traction in the wake of Donald Trump’s candidacy and soon became labeled “Alt-Right.”

They have a lot of fun mocking the Lileks–style mockers and one point they’ve made ad nauseum (a point in keeping with my own early-and-often categorization of Liberals-Who-Do-Not-Liberate and Conservatives-Who-Do-Not-Conserve): “Conservatives” have conserved nothing.

The difference between the Alt-Righters and me, regarding the collapse, over the last half-century, of the millennia-old traditions that under-gird Liberal Democracy–and, with it, all the traditions that forbade us from doing whatever we liked, from eating the wrong foods to mowing down rooms full of school kids, “just because”–is two-fold.

One is, they think Liberal Democracy has failed for mechanical reasons–that nature has reasserted itself over men’s better angels, rather than men making unwise choices of conscience. Like Reactionaries of all stripes, Left and Right, they believe barbarism, and its attendant cycle of chaos and tyranny, are inevitable and we best get on with the supreme duty of the cycle’s proper management.

Two is: They’re happy about it–about a world where everything is called into question.

Like, for instance…why Indiana?

Because it sings, moron. Your version of “conservativism” is deader than the traditions of story, song and Civilization your devotion to nihilism was designed to destroy.

Good riddance.

BACK TO THE BEACH (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #131)

I ordered the replacement disc for China Beach (Season 2…Disc 3 was missing from my original box) and steeled myself to start watching again (resolution was required not because of the show’s quality, which is stellar, but because the subject matter is apt to cut close to the bone, unlike, say, I Dream of Jeannie or The Sopranos).

Good as the drama and the acting are, it’s the music that cuts deepest. The show does a good job of helping anyone who is forced to view the American experience in Viet Nam even from a short distance (I was born in 1960) understand the background against which the era’s music came to be made and why it remains so deeply embedded in the national psyche, as well as all those millions of psyches circumscribed by individual hearts and minds.

I’m still only in Season 3, where the killer so far was having my question of whether this ever really played on a single Viet Nam turntable (radio and the juke box being out of the question)…

….answered by the even more mind-bending notion that this just might have…

That’s a show that has some on the ball and is willing to take chances alright.

But I doubt any narrative moment will match the one at the end of Season Two, when Dana Delaney’s Colleen McMurphy, home on leave to bury her father, has half-convinced herself not to go back, but instead merge into a San Francisco underground where earnest peaceniks argue with wheelchair-bound returning vets over just who knows what war is good for.

I’m not even sure whether to recommend viewing this link to anyone who hasn’t seen the show. There’s a lot to be said for context, which, in this case, force multiplies the scene’s power by a factor of a hundred.

But it’s pretty powerful even as a detached clip so I’ll post it and let each decide for themselves whether to get hold of the series first if they haven’t seen it or even if it’s been a while.

I’ll just state for the record that it’s a rare honorable attempt–among a thousand dishonorable ones–to heal the wounds two decades after the fact (China Beach ran four seasons but the bulk of it seems to have taken place in 1968–it’s just possible someone knew it was the year we never walked away from) which still resonates another three decades on.

Resonates, harder, perhaps, knowing that whatever faint hope of a reckoning existed in 1989. has now vanished in the fog of time this scene blows away for a minute or two. Other than that, it’s just television.

TOO MUCH FUN TO PASS UP….

I’ve finally gotten around to adding Sixties Music Secrets to my blogroll. Should have done it a while ago. Anyway, Rick came up with a category I should have thought of…best Rock and Roll Scream. I encourage you to click on the link (or the blogroll) and head over there to see his pick and give your two cents….and give them here as well.

For the record, my picks:

(buried in the mix, and all the more powerful for that)

(I like that he cuts off the first scream, half cuts the second scream and finally lets all the way loose at the very end!)

(Go to Rick’s site for what had to say about this one…if you haven’t already…you know, the way you should have!)

WHY I’M RELUCTANT TO FULLY ENGAGE THE TWITTERVERSE….

YESTERDAY–

Tweeter I occasionally link to through other Tweeter I regularly follow (retweeting an article where Margot Robbie talked about the challenges of playing Tonya Harding “across multiple ages”):

Me, in response:

She also played her in her 40s…Just FYI.

TODAY–

Tweeter I linked from originally (approving of linked Tweeter’s smirk–false in any case since 16 and 28 already constitute “multiple ages”):

From B to C!

Tweeter who originated false smirk:

Whoop. I’m looking forward to when they discover an actor can do both drama and comedy. Won’t that be a revelation!

Response to my attempt to point out falsity:

[Crickets]

I do this about twice a year.

If I did it every day?

We won’t get into whether Twitter would be censoring me about now if I tweeted all this.

EPIC B-SIDES…A HANDY TEN

This is the flip-side to my post on obscure b-sides (and sorry for the borken links–YouTube giveth and YouTube taketh away). As I noted before, three acts could easily qualify for their own “Handy Ten”–Elvis, the Beatles, the Beach Boys. I left them off this list, too. Ten is such a measly number anyway. No need to make it harder.

I also left off b-sides that were hits (think Ricky Nelson’s “Helly Mary Lou,” which definitely would have been here otherwise, or Bruce Springsteen’s  “Pink Cadillac” which might have been). I also limited myself to one record per artist (else the Shangri-Las would have three or four).

And because I already covered the true obscurities, these are all by successful artists (as opposed to one-hit wonders)–most people know the acts, even if they don’t know the records.

What’s left is still a weird and beautiful secret history of rock and roll. If these were the biggest/best hits these acts ever had, the world would not have been the worse for it.

1959–“What About Us” (A-side: “Run Red Run”)
The Coasters

The Coasters/Robins were not exactly slouches in the B-side department themselves. I picked this one because, in combo with “Run Red Run” it’s an early example of the concept single, which a lot of crit-illuminati types think couldn’t possibly have existed before “Strawberry Fields” or, at the very outside, “Don’t Worry Baby.”

1964–“Silence is Golden” (A-Side: “Rag Doll”)
The 4 Seasons

I first heard this on a Seasons’ comp in the late seventies. I remember being shocked–I don’t think benumbed is too strong a word–to learn it was never promoted as a single (i.e., that there had once been a world where this could be relegated to a B-side because the A-side was only “Rag Doll”…and that, little more than a decade later, such a world no longer existed). Then I found out it had been a hit for an English group called the Tremeloes. Then I heard the Tremeloes’ version. Good God.

1966–“I’m Not Like Everybody Else” (A-Side: “Sunny Afternoon”)
The Kinks

This is in the conversation for the greatest record the Kinks ever made. If the conversation is with me, it’s not even a conversation. And yes, I’m aware of the extreme competition.

1967–“I’ll Never Learn” (A-Side: “Sweet Sounds of Summer”)
The Shangri-Las

Speaking of being shocked and benumbed…The record I think of first when I think of all that’s been lost in the fifty years since. Mainly the future that never arrived…and I don’t just mean Mary Weiss’s career.

1967–“I’ll Turn to Stone” (A-Side: “7-Rooms of Gloom”)
The Four Tops

No way a handy ten of epic B-Sides would be complete without Motown, but this is a new discovery for me. I came across it when I was researching a possible post on co-writer R. Dean Taylor. To think: “7-Rooms of Gloom” as the upbeat, radio-ready side! (And FWIW it replaced the Go-Go’s “Surfing and Spying” which is the proof that Charlotte Caffey was a walking encyclopedia of surf guitar and sadly missed. Like I said, ten is a measly number.)

1968–“Daddy Rollin’ (In Your Arms)” (A-Side: “Abraham, Martin and John”)
Dion

I love “Abraham, Martin and John” unreservedly. But I can only imagine the shock that must have occurred to anyone who turned it over in 1968. It’s still shocking.

1969–“Making Love (At the Dark End of the Street)” (A-Side: “Snatching It Back”)
Clarence Carter

A sermon on sex. Guilt-free, too. Until the end. Starts funny as Richard Pryor. Ends deep as James Carr.

1973–“Something” (A-Side: James’ nine hundredth version of “Think,” all necessary.)
James Brown

George Harrison’s favorite version….of hundreds.

1977–“Silver Springs” (A-Side: “Go Your Own Way”)
Fleetwood Mac

Left off Rumours as a casualty of the permanent psychodrama that was Buckingham/Nicks. Else they just didn’t have room (hahahahaha!). Restored to various versions of the album in the CD-era, with stunning outtakes added on the multi-disc release. The rare song left off a classic album which, when restored to its original running order (at the top of the second side), doesn’t just improve the album but force-multiplies its power.

1981–“Psycho” (A-Side: “Sweet Dreams.” What else?)
Elvis Costello and the Attractions

I was gonna go with Tanya Tucker’s “No Man’s Land,” which is scarier, but I decided to keep this an all rock and roll affair.

Love the cheering at the end. What else should one do after “Mama why don’t you get up?”

That seems an appropriate place to end this.

I, TONYA (At the Multiplex: February, 2018)

I, Tonya
D. Craig Gillespie

I, Tonya is the best trailer park movie since Freeway (1996), which came out two decades ago, starred a young Reese Witherspoon, and scared the bejesus out of the seven people who saw it.

Like Freeway, I Tonya features a fierce, petite blonde with a crappy, violent home life trying to transcend her surroundings.

Unlike Freeway, which made a mockery of concepts like Academy Awards or Golden Globes, I Tonya carries no trace of art, even in the acting. But the craft is superb, especially in the acting. The nominations have poured in.

Both films were made in a spirit of condescension toward their central characters and their respective milieus. Both films pretend otherwise, in that smug, painfully sincere way only the best Liberals can manage to sustain for the length of a pitch meeting, let alone a full shoot.

I didn’t grow up in a trailer park. But I was born in one and I lived close enough to some others to know how hard it is for anyone to either escape or avoid noticing when someone is looking down their nose. In this sense I, Tonya‘s craft has Freeway‘s crazy art beat: It’s poignant in spite of itself–poignant because the memory of the real life Tonya Harding washes over the entire enterprise. Anyone who wasn’t a skate fanatic at the time (early nineties) will learn a lot from this movie and I don’t just mean facts. Nothing about her inner workings, mind you–Margot Robbie’s superb impersonation is all on the surface. Not for nothing has it been compared to movies like Goodfellas and To Die For, which also lived on surfaces no sane person would want to touch anywhere outside of a movie.

But, unlike the “real life” characters at the heart of those films, Harding is someone a sane person can sympathize with. The movie doesn’t really answer–or, to its credit, try to answer–what she knew about her not-very-bright boyfriend arranging an attack on rival Nancy Kerrigan and when she knew it. It does give a sense of why she might not have considered such an event the worst thing in the world. And it makes it possible for you to feel the same–not, I confess, a feeling I ever wanted to have, even though I rooted for Harding in the skating rivalry and always hoped she didn’t have anything to do with the attack.

I guess the best thing the movie does for someone like me–a casual fan with a class-oriented rooting interest but no major investment–is fudge the line between that interest and an acceptance that, for Harding, there was no easy way out. She was trying to revolutionize her sport because it was the only chance she had of winning big. No trailer park kid who made her own costumes because no one around her could afford to buy anything off the rack, let alone have it designed and custom made, was ever going to crack the snobbish code that rules ladies’ figure skating by merely skating better. Once you realize that–and one of the movie’s few weaknesses is that it cracks you over the head with the point again and again, perhaps thinking the intended audience would be too dense to pick up on any subtleties (and given the nervous is-this-a-joke-too? laughter in the theater when the closing credits informed us that Harding wants to be known as a good mother, the filmmakers may not have been wrong)–it becomes possible to see Tonya Harding as something I half-suspected all along. A bigger victim than Nancy Kerrigan.

Besides all that (and ten times as many “fucks” as you ever heard in a real trailer park before Hollywood moved in and showed everyone how to do it), there are some real laughs.

And, at the very end, at least a small sense of what it’s like to master your sport–to be the best at something even for a single, fleeting moment.

That’s a lot more than nothing, maybe even enough to be worth the price of the ticket.

It’s just that I wish the movie had caught the heart that was forever showing on Tonya Harding’s tough little face back when she was within an inch of breaking free from the trap the Cosmos had planned for her. Instead, it settles for cleverness, for always pulling the punch at the last second, striving only to entertain us at the expense of demanding that we feel something that will last past the parking lot.

Perhaps some day, someone will make an epic trailer park movie that neither panders nor romanticizes. I, Tonya isn’t quite it. But it’s good enough, and conventional enough (that Oscar ought to just about fit Allison Janney’s lived-in performance as Harding’s hard-case mother), that I can imagine someone coming along in the next ten or twenty years and learning from its mistakes.

Who knows, maybe they won’t even have to resort to parodying someone who lived in the real world and took every hard knock it had to give without backing up an inch or crying over spilt milk. Maybe they’ll just imagine it.