MY FAVORITE MUSICAL (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

Gigi (1958)
D. Vincente Minelli

Gigi has had a curious critical life. Upon release, it gained wide acclaim, including nine Oscars (though there were no acting nominations–Maurice Chevalier did win a special Oscar for lifetime achievement in the same year).

It’s reputation remained safe for a generation or so, then it began to slip down the charts. When the American Film Institute named its Top 100 films in 1997 and, again in 2007, Gigi was nowhere to be found. Same story when AFI named its 25 Greatest Movie Musicals in 2006.

A more typical modern take might be represented by TV Guide‘s 3.5 out of 5 stars (whilst accusing the French stars of a French writer’s story set and filmed in Paris of being….too French–I don’t make this stuff up folks).

David Thomson’s “It makes me sick,” is a little on the harsh side but, were you to accuse him of being the Donald Trump of the crit-illuminati, he and his supporters would probably just claim he’s only saying what others are thinking but afraid to say out loud.

Well, TV Guide is middle-brow mush and no one familiar with David Thomson’s writing has ever been surprised to learn there’s such a thing as a crackhead.

The earlier consensus that Gigi was Hollywood’s last great classical musical, and perhaps the peak of the form, was spot on. There was no need to revise it.

What struck me on my most recent viewing (I’ve probably seen it a dozen times, but it had been a while), was how not one of its special qualities could be replicated today–or for many years past.

I know I beat a dead horse when I write of lost culture, but to watch Gigi in 2017 is to be grateful for its power to transport. Because if one got stuck on the distance we’ve traveled from the century-gone world it depicts, or the half-century-gone world in which it was made, something–either the film or your life–would be unbearable.

Which is all the stranger for it being the story of a prostitute in training.

Okay, a courtesan in training. A classy prostitute.

But still….

It isn’t where you’d think to find echoes of a Lost Civilization.

They are there, though.

Leslie Caron–26 and a new mother when it filmed–got no love from anyone but the public for embodying the edge between sixteen and womanhood. She was famously hypercritical of herself, and there were no major awards and no Oscar nomination. But, in 1958, only Shirley MacLaine in Some Came Running (Minelli’s other big picture of the year) matched her (she didn’t win anything either, though at least she scored an Oscar Nom). Even with her singing voice dubbed–the film’s one mistake–and Minelli disappointed that he couldn’t get Audrey Hepburn (who had starred in the part on Broadway years earlier), Caron brought the magic.

There are people who don’t get it. Crackheads mostly.

In the fifties, Caron lit up everything she was in and never shone brighter than here. From that, everything else flowed.

The cast–the non-Oscar cast–was perfect even in their own time and it’s unimaginable now, that anyone living and age appropriate could play a single role as well.

The sets and costumes, perhaps the most lavish and detailed in Hollywood’s glorious history of paying almost absurdist level attention to such things, fill the eye in shot after shot.

That’s shot after shot directed by Vincente Minelli, who has no near modern equivalent. (Gigi and Some Came Running in the same year? Please.)

No one living could write appropriate music for this or any story. And, if they used the old songs, there would be no one to sing them, dubbed or otherwise. In a theater perhaps….but not under the merciless eye and ear of the camera and the sound stage.

And, if, by chance, any–or even all–of that happened, there would be no audience to sell it to.

Judging by how far Gigi has fallen from favor, TV Guide and David Thomson assisting (though hardly alone), it may not be much longer that it holds it public appeal. As time passes, these things fall more and more into the hands of the few. And if they are not there to recommend quality….

Well, we know how that goes.

I’ve always been a big fan of musicals, but I hardly watch them anymore. In a world where even rock and roll is on the verge of vanishing behind a wall of indifference (or perhaps I should say a pose of indifference, since the walling off of all common culture is much desired by people who would rather die than admit that’s a trowel in their hand), they are a step too far.

Two hours of forcing my attention to remain on the moment, when all it wants to do is wonder where the world that could produce this went, is too strenuous, even painful, to sustain the kind of pure enjoyment musicals once delivered.

Everything, even Gigi, has become a bit Wiemar-ish.

Hard to laugh–or even breathe–when they’re fighting in the streets boys.

But it’s not yet impossible to smile.

And that’s not nothing.

MY FAVORITE NICOLE KIDMAN MOVIE (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

The Peacemaker (1997)
D. Mimi Leder

“The truth is, I am not a monster. I’m a human man. I’m just like you, whether you like it or not.”

(Marcel Iures’s Dusan Gavrich in The Peacemaker)

“I’m not afraid of the man who wants ten nuclear warheads. I’m terrified of the man who only wants one.”

(Nicole Kidman’s Julia Kelly)

(NOTE: Spoilers included. I highly recommend seeing the movie first…but don’t forget to come back and read it later!)

There are millions of people walking around blissfully unaware of this, but Nicole Kidman is a big crit-illuminati favorite.

So far as I can tell, this is mostly a cover for geek males who have the hots for her (David Thomson wrote a whole book about her–I haven’t read it, but I’ve read enough of Thomson to know he’s an emotional fellow even when he isn’t thinking with his zipper so I ‘m guessing his book is Exhibit A), but plenty of women indulge as well. When she recently celebrated her fiftieth birthday, there were a lot of twitter threads devoted to allowing people to share (or show off) their deep awareness of the Nicole Kidman catalog.

Having missed out on all that–and having noticed that neither of my favorite Kidman movies came up on a single thread I followed, I decided to put my two cents in here.

There’s nothing rational about the illuminati‘s response, of course. Beautiful women have been driving people of both sexes crazy for as long as people have left a record of themselves.

It’s too bad, though, in this case, because Kidman really is a fine actress who has made a career of taking what are, by Hollywood standards, remarkable risks. She deserves the kind of even-handed scrutiny she’s never really gotten.

At least on the surface, where things count when we are judging the beautiful people, The Peacemaker isn’t one of those risk-taking roles. And it isn’t my favorite role of hers. For that you can go here.

But it is my favorite movie of hers.

It was released in the interim between the first attack on the World Trade Center (deemed unsuccessful because it only killed six people) and the second attack, which killed quite a few more and briefly caused a bit of consternation among the Overlord class, before they realized how little time and patience would be required for this, too, to be dumped down the memory hole as long as they stayed patient and refused to win any more wars. Turned out they were up to the task. We underestimate them at out peril.

But The Peacemaker still roils the placid surface they’ve striven so hard to maintain.

The film was a modest success, both critically and commercially. Exactly no one I know of put it on their list of favorite Nicole Kidman movies (which, after 1995’s genuinely unsettling To Die For, had already become a signifier of knowingness, what the kids call a thing) or favorite anything else.

Here’s Roger Ebert, with a fairly typical take:

At one point, trying to dismantle the bomb, the Kidman character tells a children’s choir director, “Get those kids as far away from here as possible,” and the kids scurry out the church door. A nuclear bomb is set to explode in under two minutes. If it does, it won’t help that the kids are four blocks down the street. If it doesn’t, the kids are safe where they are.

That’s illuminati-speak for, “I’m bored. Get back to amusing me.” and typifies the laziness that’s typical enough of the mindset to make it reasonable to assume it’s a prerequisite.

It happens that Kidman’s character doesn’t say anything remotely resembling “Get those kids as far away from here as possible.” She doesn’t say anything about the kids at all. It’s not likely she would, since they are running by her as she fights her way into the church.

She does tell the FBI agents who help her move the body to which the bomb is attached into an area of the church which will help diminish the bomb’s radiation yield (however marginally) if it goes off, to get out and evacuate as many people from the area as possible.

Ebert’s point might still hold….Except it also happens that the nuclear bomb is encased in a smaller bomb, which Kidman’s character is going to have to trigger in order to destroy the timer and keep the nuclear bomb from going off.

So, yes, the kids she didn’t evacuate (and the FBI agents she did) are much safer four blocks down the street than standing next to the smaller bomb, which does indeed, go off.

I noticed all this even when I saw The Peacemaker in the theater and have kept on noticing it ever since. Ebert seemed like a nice fellow, and his late career outreach to first rate younger critics like Matt Zoller Seitz and my blogging pal, Sheila O’Malley, was a real service, but was anyone ever better at not noticing?

And simple logistics aren’t all that Ebert–and, to be fair, pretty much everyone else–failed to notice.

The really big thing they failed to notice is that The Peacemaker’s ticking-time-bomb plot (well-handled, by the way–strictly as a thriller, it meets the J. Lee Thompson-John Sturges sixties-era standard, the highest there is), is a cover for the movie’s real theme, which is that the man who makes his way to Manhattan with a nuclear bomb in his backpack might have a point.

Post 9/11, that’s something even the few Western intellectuals who pondered it previously have been all too willing to forget.

And all of that–the pondering in the moment and the subsequent forgetting– plays to Kidman’s character in the movie and to the skill the actress brought to the role.

One of the things that went unnoticed at the movie’s release and has gone unnoticed since, is that Kidman’s Julia Kelly is a first-rate portrait of a woman operating in–and adjusting to–a man’s world. Not just any old man’s world, mind you, but one put under the most extreme duress imaginable: a scenario where nuclear bombs have been stolen (in the movie’s tense opening sequence, which concludes with one of them going off in the Ural Mountains), and one of them is missing and presumed headed to New York.

After that “failed” bombing in 1993, that was always the threat.

New York, it seems, is full of symbols.

In The Peacemaker the symbolic target is the United Nations, but, really, it could be any symbol of Western power and prestige. It’s our symbols, as much as our reality, that Marcel Iures’s Dusan Gavrich wants to destroy.

And it’s Julia Kelly who stops him.

That’s significant.

She doesn’t stop him single-handed (this is a movie that works in part because, despite the Hollywood trappings, which, to be fair to Roger Ebert, are certainly there, keeps rubbing up against realities which have only become less comforting with time). This isn’t Woman turning into Kick-Ass She-Male and fulfilling every fourteen-year-old boy’s I-got-your-empowerment-right-here-bitch hand-job fantasies.

But Kelly has something to bring to the table and it’s that particular something that becomes crucial in the film’s final moments. Not so much her technical expertise (which does come in handy, but would have been possessed by any man who held the job that puts her in that position to begin with), as her understanding of the bomber’s motives.

While the men around her are focused on the logistics of hunting him down in a specific, ever-narrowing space, she’s trying to get inside his mind.

She can focus on that because she’s nobody’s idea of a warrior. An athlete yes. One of the film’s most effective sequences is the early segue from the nuclear explosion in a faraway mountain range to a shot of Kidman’s long body exploding out of a turn in an Olympic-size swimming pool where she goes for exercise. When she reaches the other end of the pool, the news of the real explosion is waiting for her.

The segue works in the short term, as solid film craft. But it works as character development, too, because by the end of the film, it will only be an athlete who can keep up with the Warriors (led by George Clooney’s Tom Devoe) tracking the bomber on foot through the streets of a Manhattan clogged by the easy panic and de facto martial law (now readily relatable to Boston’s response to the Marathon bombing and all the more effective for being glimpsed rather than dwelled upon).

But, even within a two-block Manhattan-specific radius, a man with a bomb in a backpack is a needle in a haystack.

Kidman’s Kelly finds the needle because she’s the one who has been focused on the why rather than the how all along.

And that focus has something to do with being, not a woman per se, but a woman in a man’s world. A woman who has stuck to her guns throughout, often in the face of male ridicule–has insisted that the bomber wants his act to have that symbolic meaning her Warrior partners (Devoe in particular) have continually dismissed as so much hooey.

Her Warrior partners put her in a position to just possibly save the day. They put her in the position to save the day because they possess qualities she does not.

But she saves it because she possesses qualities they do not. (And it’s not that no man could posses those qualities–it’s that no man who does would be likely to feel the need to prove himself in a man’s world. No man would need to be where Julia Kelly is the way she needs it.)

Then and now, plenty of people noticed the lack of sexual chemistry between Kidman and Clooney. A few people have noticed ever since that Clooney has rarely struck a spark with any of his leading ladies–like Paul Newman, he does his best work with other men. Almost no one seems to have noticed that, in The Peacemaker, sexual chemistry would be pointless, if not ridiculous. They’re trying to save the world. And what they do have is professional chemistry.

You know, the kind a woman needs to excel in a man’s world.

If it weren’t cased inside a well-made thriller, the world might have also noticed that Kidman’s performance is a finely tuned variation on those good old American standbys: The Striver and The Innocent.

They’ve often been intertwined–in the same stories or even the same characters–because they have an inverse relationship. The more one Strives–at least the more one strives for anything worth the effort–the less Innocent one becomes.

The Peacemaker was prescient in a lot of ways, large and small. The casual use of torture is standard (traceable at least as far back as To Have and Have Not, where it was admittedly a lot sexier–who doesn’t want to see Bogie pistol-whip a French Nazi?).

But most of the rest is a window on the world that has come to pass:

The cleverest and most committed terrorists are likely to come from the upper middle class. Russia will always be a player. Martial law tactics are always presumed effective by the people who made the need to “protect” us necessary in the first place. The defeated will always find ways to use our technology against us (exemplified here by an opening scene which sets the plot in motion with a man assassinated in his Orthodox church because he answers his cell phone and a closing scene where the man who took his place has set a bomb triggered by a Harvard-trained Pakistani on a timer that is ticking down inside a Catholic church half a world away).

There’s our increasing reliance on experts, special ops, and the movie stars who play them.

There’s tyranny loving a sniper.

And expedience the same.

There’s the man who wants one nuclear warhead still being more terrifying than the man who wants ten.

Heck, there’s even a Trump joke.

Laughs all around.

But, absent the habit of Not Noticing, The Peacemaker‘s slick surface can’t ease or erase its prickly insights.

The most prescient moment of all–striking truer than anything I’ve seen outside the history books regarding the true cost of Empire–comes when Dusan Gavrich, the Empire’s ultra-civilized victim, is explaining himself to Julia Kelly, the one who might understand.

Devoe’s Warrior, insistent upon logic in ways the Innocent Striver is not, breaks in.

“Sir, it’s not our war.”

Just before he shoots himself in the head, Gavrich’s face hardens into that of the Man of Chaos he never wanted to be.

“It is now.”

I remember that moment from the theater, too.

The innocent, striving days of 1997.

It stayed with me through the denouement that scrambled Roger Ebert’ s brain.

It’s with me still.

I watch it as often as I can, lest I begin not noticing.

(And now that’s out of my system….I’m off to see Wonder Woman.)

ROMAN HOLIDAY IN THE REAR VIEW MIRROR (And Then There Was Hollywood….Fifth Rumination)

Roman Holiday (1953)
D. William Wyler

There’s a famous anecdote about the discovery of Audrey Hepburn, from the notoriously unreliable Anita Loos, which is too good not to be true.

Colette, the famous French authoress of the Gigi stories, had refused all requests for rights to the stories for decades until she saw Loos’s stage adaptation of her own Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She agreed to sell the Broadway rights to Gigi if Loos would do the book. Loos signed on.

The rights were bought, Loos wrote her adaption, the theater was booked and the cast and crew assembled. As the date for official rehearsals drew nigh, the only thing missing was an actress right for the title role. In the midst of the New York producers developing itchy scalps and premonitions of doom, Loos received a telegram from Colette that read:

Have found Gigi. Come at once.

Loos rounded up her pal Paulette Goddard (the actress who David Selznick had finally settled on for Scarlett O’Hara once upon a time, until the last second discovery of then virtually unknown Vivien Leigh altered the Cosmos) and they caught the overnight express to Paris.

When they arrived at their hotel, they were told that Colette had sent a package to their room.

In the room, they found a model’s portfolio lying on the bed. No message.

Loos thumbed through the portfolio without comment. Then she handed it to Goddard.

Goddard leafed through the pictures, put the portfolio back on the bed and said:

“Maybe she lisps or something.”

Within a few weeks Audrey Hepburn was cast for the lead in the Broadway version of Gigi.

A star was born.

Except not quite.

Hepburn won good reviews on Broadway, but with only bit film roles to her credit (her cameo in The Lavender Hill Mob is dazzling) might well have been destined for a career limited to stage stardom….except that, just as her touring obligations to Gigi were winding down, Elizabeth Taylor and Jean Simmons turned out to be unavailable for a script written by blacklisted screenwriting ace Dalton Trumbo, and William Wyler spotted her for his upcoming film, the first comedy he had done in nearly twenty years.

He called for a screen test. She passed. Gregory Peck got the male lead (which Cary Grant had turned down). They were off.

A few weeks into the shoot, Peck, who had a contract that stated only his name would appear above the title, called the producers and insisted Hepburn’s name be moved above the title as well.

It wasn’t altruism or self-deprecation, he later claimed.

He just didn’t want to look like an idiot.

Thus….a star was born.

I knew exactly none of that the first time I saw Roman Holiday.

TBS ran it after midnight when I was in college circa the very early eighties. I was then living in a studio apartment two blocks from FSU’s campus where I had learned to kill fleets of German cockroaches with my bare hands because I couldn’t always afford traps.

I could never reach the spray fast enough, and it was better than letting the nasty buggers get away.

The television was black and white. Nineteen inch.

Cable came with the rent and had maybe thirteen channels.

Roman Holiday had three and half stars in Leonard Maltin’s movie guide.

If  VHS existed, I didn’t know about it.

I was nineteen or twenty years old and didn’t know Audrey Hepburn from a stripper. Gregory Peck I’d heard of, which was more than I could say for William Wyler.

I’m setting the scene so you’l have a sense of the atmosphere in which I was struck by the lightning that struck Collette and Anita Loos and Paulette Goddard once upon a time.

I didn’t even have the defense mechanism available to Goddard.

Roman Holiday was a talkie and the talk was by Dalton Trumbo.

And Audrey Hepburn, she did not lisp.

*   *   *   *

For the next twenty-five years–until I grew old enough to understand John Ford–Roman Holiday was my favorite movie.

I only saw it half-a-dozen times, far less than I saw other movies that were nowhere near my favorite. Anyone who has seen it once might understand.

Yes, it is a comedy. But it is also an elegy and elegaic comedy is the hardest kind of comedy, not to mention the hardest kind of elegy. Even now, I’m not sure I want to examine its effects too closely. The degree to which Civilization has receded since 1980–let alone 1953–has made the final scene, a scene that made a friend of mine once declare “that’s the saddest movie I’ve ever seen,” punch even harder.

Was it really not so long ago that you could make a mainstream film introducing a breakout star (on her way to becoming a universally acknowledged icon and, less acknowledged, one of the best scene-for-scene actors in the history of film) with the expectation of an audience who understood that life, like glory, is fleeting?

Now there is no “mainstream,” hence, nowhere to for concepts like breaking out or iconography or history or film to go.

That’s the Lost World effect these days of a film that can, in production pitch terms, be described as a simple fairy tale: The Princess and the Peasant, though we’ve also traveled a distance that makes this variation–the Princess and the Newspaperman–even more far-fetched.

This is one of those rare movies that I revisit in hopes I’ll spot some way it might have taken a different turn, might have somehow come out different, knowing all the while such hopes are in vain.

I wonder if it would matter as much–hurt as much–if the social types who provide the narrative engine for Roman Holiday (or any romance, comedic or otherwise) were still recognizable in an Age when the human types barely are.

Whatever the consequences for Civilization, the consequences for story-telling have been devastating. Hard to expect individual stories to resonate when humanity itself has no narrative and, increasingly, no excuse for its own existence except consumption and excitement, the emptiest excuses us humans have so far been able to imagine.

More of everything please. That will sustain us!

Sure it will.

I think one reason Roman Holiday‘s absurdist tone and melancholy ending hit so hard in 1980 (harder as the years went by and I read the teeth-clenching reviews from the old codgers–Stanley Kramer, David Thomson, the usual suspects–who wondered if you had to have lived through the War to really connect with it), is that I already knew the kind of stories I wanted to write weren’t going to have any agency in the world I was going to have to live in.

Looking back, I’m not surprised I was, er, “clinically depressed” in those days and that Roman Holiday, wonderful as it was and is, only deepened that depression. It’s a bit disorienting to realize, all at once, that the world isn’t going to produce any more Audrey Hepburns, not even in the fantasy world of the movies–that we’re all doomed to live in a time and place where, one way or another, everyone lisps.

GOT MY HEAD SPINNIN’ ROUND (Segue of the Day: 7/21/16)

This has been one of the more entertaining weeks in the history of politics. I probably should have live-blogged the whole thing because that’s the only way I could have kept up. Every time I thought I had something I could hook a post to it was immediately replaced by something I was sure was better, only to be replaced in turn by something else.

By way of example: Andrew Sullivan, who has been live-blogging, actually posted the difference in the 19.7 misery index from 1979 ( that’s inflation plus unemployment for those who may have forgotten as I had) and now (5.3) exactly as though the current number were real (the government has been fudging, i.e., manufacturing, happy thoughts about inflation since the eighties and the old unemployment hodge-podge, which has been tinkered with since the Kennedy years, has, of necessity, been put on steroids by the Obama administration…but you knew that).

I thought surely I couldn’t beat that and was all ready to post something about Sullivan being exemplary of the triple terrors of modern intellectual life:

1. The Brits (Christopher Hitchens and David Thomson being other prime examples) who recognized their own country was headed down the toilet a generation or two back and hightailed it to America in order to lecture us on how much better off we’d be if we were more like…them!

2. The Beltway crowd who have never had to personally deal with the economic effects of “the Reagan Revolution,” said revolution having made their own little bubble in the Wall-Street-to-D.C. corridor wealthy beyond belief at the expense of the entire world (and from whence both the Clintonian and Trumpian Final Solutions have now sprung full-blown).

3. The “intellectual” who changes his mind constantly and calls anyone who doesn’t manage to keep up with the latest twist a fascist.

Sully’s back!

What could beat that?

Well, I only had to wait an hour, so I’m going to get this in before the crick in my neck gets straightened out by the next head snap.

After Ted Cruz’s stupendous bit of political theater last night, he was the talk of the morning shows. Morning Joe‘s Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski had one of Cruz’s fired-but-loyal lieutenants on to discuss whether Cruz’s unwillingness to let his followers drink of a Trump endorsement after he had led them to the very edge of the unholy water was “personal.”

Of course the lieutenant (I didn’t catch his name but it hardly matters, anyone of his class would have done as he did) denied this was any part of Cruz’s motivation. He insisted it was a matter of principle and Mika, who has, in the past, all but called Cruz an ax-murderer, jumped in to second his emotion.

Within a matter of minutes, Cruz was on all the major “news” channel, speaking to his Texas supporters (who lacerated him, incidentally) attempting to explain himself. When asked why he had broken his “my word is my bond” pledge to support the Republican nominee, Cruz said he wasn’t in the habit of supporting anyone who insulted his wife (Trump called her ugly) and his father (Trump suggested he might have hung out with Lee Harvey Oswald, which the press, still clinging to the Warren Commission after all these years, insisted was the same thing as accusing Cruz the Elder of plotting to kill JFK…the extent to which these people simply don’t keep up is often stupefying and the best explanation for how Trump has been able to so easily and consistently cut them off at the knees).

About two minutes after that, somebody on the set of Morning Joe, who had been monitoring the Cruz speech on another channel (after MSNBC cut away), told the Cruz lieutenant what Cruz had said.

Then somebody else on Morning Joe said…”Sounds kind of personal.”

Awkward silence. Sheepish smiles. Nods all around.

Let’s move on.

The one pure delight of this otherwise Sturm und Drang moment has been seeing the media gatekeepers and their a-hole buddies in the “consultant” class continually shocked by their own inability to craft, manage or even comprehend the new narratives.

Just because I sense Chaos coming (even if I can’t predict its form) doesn’t mean I’m looking forward to its arrival. Quite the opposite. That’s why I have to take the occasional smile where I can find it.

Got my head spinnin’ round?

Let’s keep it unsettling, shall we?

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (The Miracle Worker Comes Back Around)

The Miracle Worker (Arhtur Penn, 1962)

BLFJ (Bright Lights Film Journal): Yes, and very unique, remarkable given where and when it was made. I also think that, to an extent, The Chase, which is the next film of yours I wanted to talk about, comes directly out of it. Both The Left-Handed Gun and Mickey One touch on this idea of there being a particular kind of violence lurking in American society, and that seems to come to the fore in The Chase.

Arthur Penn: Yes, I totally agree. What we’re doing however, is leaving out one other film, which is The Miracle Worker, which had its share of, how shall I say, positive violence, in the sense that Ann Sullivan [sic], in the film Anne Bancroft, was determined to penetrate the slowly dying intelligence of this child, and get through to her the concept that language was the symbol for idea. So they were a series of fairly vigorous films.

BLFJ: The Chase was set in a small Texas town….

(Source: Bright Lights Film Journal Interview with Arthur Penn (director of The Miracle Worker), in 2009….Note the difference in what the filmmaker wants to talk about and what the really important person in the conversation, the interviewer, wants to talk about.)

“I know people who re-view The Miracle Worker every year.”

(Source: David Thomson, Have You Seen….?, 2008)

Let me just say that people who “re-view” (I think that means “watch”) The Miracle Worker every year have a value system I don’t really comprehend.

I watch it every five or ten years depending–always with trepidation.

I’ve never been able to treat a visit with human pain after the manner of a holiday, like getting out a Sunday suit once a year for Easter.

It happened this week was the time for one of my very occasional visits with Arthur Penn’s 1962 film. The timing was due in part to just-because-it-had-been-a-sufficient-while-and-the-mood-arose, and in part because They Shoot Pictures Don’t They just released their annual, ever-fascinating compilation of all the critics’ lists that seek to name the very best films, which is by far the most thorough-going of its kind.

Once again, Penn was represented on a list of a thousand only by Bonnie and Clyde. That film is certainly worthy–and pretty well placed at #219 (up a not particularly meaningful two spots from last year). But it says quite a lot about the particular mindset that dominates arts criticism in general and film criticism in particular, that a film which mythologizes and heavily romanticizes two historical characters who, by star Warren Beatty’s own admission at the time, were in fact “a couple of thugs,” (an admission with which Penn, in an interview separate from the one quoted above, heartily concurred) can place so routinely high, while a film by the same director which, if anything, is even better-made, and celebrates two accurately portrayed historical characters, who, by their collective example as teacher and student, helped create hope out of the darkest despair for literally millions of people who might have otherwise been abandoned, gets no love at all, says….

Well, something.

I didn’t really watch the film in order to get at any new feelings about the crit-illuminati. Anybody who reads this blog with any regularity will have a pretty good idea of how I feel about that subject already.

However, I did want to watch it this time around with a specific eye toward its value as a film, which is another way of saying I wanted to view it as objectively as possible as a film that compares favorably–or unfavorably–to the sort of films that tend to excite critical passions.

I won’t lie. Pure objectivity isn’t something I generally strive for or even think is realistic. I certainly didn’t achieve it this time. Point of fact it was pretty well gone by the time the opening credits finished rolling.

Objectivity. Distance. Whatever name you care to put on it. All that went right out the window in the first few minutes because I was immediately reminded of what is so easily forgotten when I let the film sit on the shelf for a decade or so. Before it is anything else, Penn’s take on The Miracle Worker is that of a Gothic horror story, straight out of Poe, Shelley (Mary, not Percy) and the Bronte Sisters and conceding nothing to any of them.

Because until Annie Sullivan comes to redeem her, Helen Keller is a monster–one who threatens not lives and limbs (after the manner of Frankenstein or the Terminator) but hearts and minds (after the manner of Heathcliff)–not least her own.

That she’s a monster–and that Penn, along with playwright and script-writer William Gibson, saw that side of her and tapped into it–is evident until almost the very end. The scenes where Helen–supposedly well on her way to being civilized–drops her napkin on the floor, capture the exact beats of a horror film. They also magnify those beats a thousand-fold because, by now, we know Patty Duke’s Helen Keller is not only a monster.

She’s also a terribly–and justifiably–frightened little girl.

In the review from which I quoted above, Thomson (normally wooden-headed even by crit-illuminati standards) contends that the fight over Helen folding her napkin is the most violent scene Penn ever filmed.

That’s a mouthful because Penn was basically responsible for breaking down the really significant barrier between abstract distance and in-your-face realism in American film. The bullet he put in the face of an innocent civilian in Bonnie and Clyde‘s first act of overt violence really was a watershed.

But it’s also true–if by “violence” we mean (as I’m not sure Thomson does, but go with me here) full exposure to fear.

During the famous nine-minute scene where Duke’s Helen is desperately trying to escape the room in which Anne Bancroft’s Sullivan is trying equally desperately to hold her, anyone who isn’t in denial about the film being after something far more than “uplift” has to know just how much is at stake.

Helen Keller in that moment clearly believes–has somehow intuited after the manner of gifted children everywhere, whether or not they can see, hear or speak–that her choices are stark. Escape that room or end up in the asylum where we know–and must believe that she somehow knows–her parents are already thinking of sending her.

Annie Sullivan in that moment clearly knows–as we know–that Helen’s escape from that room would actually lead to the end she dreads. That if she gets out of that door she’ll be confined to the very darkness she’s certain she’s trying to escape.

It’s the overt terror of a horror or suspense film turned inwards.

And, having played the scene together hundreds of times on Broadway (and done God knows how many re-takes on the film set), Bancroft and Duke don’t simply act like they’re doing it for the first time or making it anew. They act like they’ve been transported into the minds and bodies of Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan and taken to a room where much more than themselves are at stake–which I suppose is just a way of saying they transcend “acting”–as indeed they do throughout the film.

Sorry, but what is Bonnie and Clyde–or ninety percent of the other films on TSPDT’s list–next to that? What is it next to just that, which is by no means the whole–or nearly the whole–of what The Miracle Worker is about (one could write a nice, lengthy treatise on Annie Sullivan’s arrival at the train station as a version of the western stranger, coming to save the town…take a look at how it’s shot some time)? Certainly Sullivan herself–in this film and more than likely in life as well– is as convincing a version of the American obsessive as Ahab or Ethan Edwards. (If that quality is sometimes missed, it might be because her obsessive streak is moving her towards the light rather than the darkness–not a journey any modern intelligentsia is likely to be comfortable with, I’m afraid.)

The Miracle Worker was Penn’s second film. He ended up being a very fine–if not very prolific–filmmaker. I’d argue 1976’s Night Moves, at the very least, should be getting plenty of recognition on these lists (it doesn’t), and nearly all his films have more than a little to recommend them.

I’d certainly rank all I’ve seen ahead of The Blues Brothers, for instance (which checks in at 936 and, yes, which I like).

But he never had a subject to match this again.

Very few filmmakers have.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say in five or ten years when it’s time to approach it again.

 

I KNOW IT’S SHOOTING FISH IN A BARREL…

So no new Maxims or anything….But the David Thomson Infinity Proof Error Log is always gaining fresh entries. From his review of the new, Keira Knightley version of Anna Karenina (The New Republic, November 19, 2012):

“Actual age is not as important [to playing Anna] as the level of palpable experience. Garbo and Leigh were both childless when they did their Anna, but they had a weight of experience that was just beginning to edge their famous beauty with foreboding.”

Vivien Leigh, of course, had a teen-age daughter when she played Anna in 1948–had in fact departed from her real-life husband and child in a manner that was more than a little similar to Anna’s fictional experience.

Of course she did. Of course she had.

That’s why it’s called the David Thomson Infinity Proof Error Log.

Because, in a career of published writing that runs well north of ten thousand evidently unedited pages it can strike at any moment.

And it goes on forever.