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.

THE SECRET LIVES OF THE NOT QUITE YET RICH AND FAMOUS (Segue of the Day: 1/31/18)

This was actually from a week or so back, but, hey, my blog, my rules. I’m not above toying with the time/space continuum.

Thus…a week or so back….

I was resetting my radio channels after I had an airbag recall replacement in my car and left the new setting on a local channel that plays semi-offbeat music from yesteryear. Most of the stuff is by famous artists, but not necessarily the familiar hits. My internet being out a day or two later, I found myself cruising to the local college theater one evening on a work night to catch When Harry Met Sally, which I had never seen on the big screen (it was worth it…I almost posted about that).

And, in the new dark, I heard this…and I kept thinking, if it’s her, it can’t be from her solo career or her post-Tusk Fleetwood Mac career. Leaving what? An outtake? Thought I’d heard all those too.

Well, I couldn’t find a parking space in time to make the 7:00 show, which meant I had a chance to stop and write down a piece of the lyrics, making it easy enough to find on the net when I got home. Ah, yes, Buckingham Nicks. How could I have forgotten!

I might not have considered it more than a nice find–another fine piece of Stevie’s secret career (a subject that’s probably worth its own post some day) to be tucked away for a rainy day.

Except when 9:00 rolled around, my internet still wasn’t working, so I headed back to the college to catch the 10:00 showing (there’s always plenty of parking that late, after class lets out), and on the way, on the same station, I ran into this….which I’ve never heard on the radio anywhere….

…which, in addition to reminding me of how much Elvis Costello used to hate Stevie Nicks (maybe not as much as he hated Linda Ronstadt, but there was definitely a theme there…if Stevie had dared to cover a few his songs, the gap would have closed in an eye-blink, though of course he would not have failed to cash the royalty check), and how great he was once upon a time, also set me to wondering how different either career might have been if these records had been the hits they deserved to be.

I kept the station tuned all week, waiting for another revelation.

No such luck.

This evening, on the way to the grocery store, I switched back to Classic Rock. Nothing revelatory there, either, but at least I could sing along. I even got to use my Freddie Mercury voice (don’t worry folks, unless the Security State has my car bugged, no one will ever hear my Freddie Mercury voice).

Which made me think about when Dave Marsh, expecting to be taken seriously, called Queen “fascist rock.” I think that meant he either didn’t like them or just couldn’t keep Pauline Kael and Greil Marcus out of his head, kind of a crit-illuminati version of the way Norman Bates couldn’t keep his mother out of his head.

Calling anyone you didn’t like a fascist was very big back then.

The lesson as always: The seventies drove people crazy.

I’m just thankful such things never, ever happen now.

EROTICISM AS SOFT PORN HATE SEX (Segue of the Day: 11/28/17)

NOTE TO SELF; There. That oughta make me go viral….

Last Tango in Paris (1972)
D. Bernardo Bertolucci

The Executioner’s Song (1982)
D. Lawrence Schiller

NOTE TO READERS: Spoilers included.

After I finally caught up with Last Tango in Paris over the weekend–because what else would you watch when you’re existentially depressed?–I found myself wondering (as I often do with these “edgy” films of yesteryear) what all the fuss was about.

I thought I’d give Pauline Kael a try and her contemporary essay is worth reading, if only so you can have an idea of what such debates were like in Last Tango‘s day, a day when “eroticism” was still going to rescue the day in poor old American Life and Art.

Not surprisingly, her essay is mostly about Marlon Brando. Brando had made himself the point of every film he had ever made to date. Once or twice he stooped to interpret a character, but this wasn’t one of those times. No matter how hard the intelligentsia rooted for him, he could never quite get out of his own way. All of which means neither Pauline Kael nor anyone else was likely to explain what Brando himself failed to deliver, which is any reason a young woman as lovely, charismatic and, yes, erotic, as Maria Schneider, about to be engaged herself (to a dweeb, which might have been it’s own explanation if it was say, Paul Newman’s or Alain Delon’s bones she wanted to jump if he just happened along, or if the most erotic scene in the movie weren’t her and the dweeb’s “Oui/No” argument over who is proposing to who), would stoop to anonymous hate sex with anybody as creepy and dessicated as Brando’s “Paul.”

Kael took the position that Brando’s, and, perhaps, “Paul’s” as well, was a tragic character, a sensitive Americano, led on to his doom by a Euro-trash Cookie. We’re supposed to be really sad when she shoots him.

I thought she was about a day late. I was rooting for her to off him right after he anally raped her (in the film’s most famous scene and one which Schneider was not prepared for by either Bertolucci or Brando). Evidently, they didn’t think enough of her acting skills and figured they could only get what they wanted by “surprising” her with a little improv.

They might have been wrong about that, because Schneider’s lovely, lethal and unaffected performance is the only thing time hasn’t burned away in a film that promises to drown you in Art from the first frame.

Why all this put me in a mood to finally re-watch The Executioner’s Song, which I hadn’t seen since the eighties–and certainly hadn’t forgotten–I don’t know. But perhaps Schneider’s presence/performance (and reading about her subsequent reluctance to take her clothes off for the camera) was bound to call up Rosanna Arquette some way or other.

Arquette expressed a similar reluctance to shuck her clothes after her experience with The Executioner’s Song, and she was able to at least cut back on–though not eliminate–the fantasy nude scenes until her real-life encounters with Harvey Weinstein reduced her to taking anything she could get to keep working (whilst being given all kinds of grief from Kael’s natural inheritors–Greil Marcus, Charles Taylor, et al, for tanking her own career). One can respect her choices, but it’s easy to see why male directors became a little disoriented.

Arquette’s Nicole Baker–the real life girlfriend of murderer Gary Gilmore (played in a  very Brando-esque turn by Tommy Lee Jones, who, to be fair, was at least channeling a real-life narcissistic sociopath and was operating with a script that managed to flatten actors as gifted as Eli Wallach and Christine Lahti)–is never so alive as when she’s either got her clothes off (“You and seven other motherfuckers!”) or is trying to scheme her way out of them.

She’s still trying when the only place she and Jones/Gilmore can get it on is the conjugal visit room next to Death Row in the State Pen, where she must have known it was likely to end up all along, even when she, Arquette/Baker, was pulling guns on Jones/Gilmore and withholding herself, maybe, just maybe, with thoughts of driving him to murder.

It’s a lived-in performance and should have had more screen time. It’s also a short, but significant, evolution beyond Maria Schneider in Tango: Yeah, I might have shot him, just like that chick in Last Tango, but he was bound for the firing squad anyway so why bother? Especially when we could get in on right there in the Big House while his lawyers were exhausting his appeals and it won’t even matter if they won’t let me take my clothes off in there. Might even work a double suicide attempt–in which neither of us will quite manage to die–while we’re at it.

One wonders if Nicole Baker had seen Last Tango.

Hard to believe Rosanna Arquette–along with everybody else involved with The Executioner’s Song–hadn’t.

In which case it doesn’t matter what Baker knew. Once Rosanna Arquette got hold of it, with Maria Schneider’s ghost at her back, it wasn’t Nicole Baker’s story anymore anyway.

It wasn’t even Gary Gilmore’s.

But, to Baker’s credit, even Rosanna Arquette never had a better one.

Story, I mean….

SAM SPADE AT THE MULTIPLEX (What Impressed Me This Week)

The Maltese Falcon
(John Huston, d. 1941)MALTESEFALCON1

Whenever classic films make it out to the hinterlands I make an effort to see them, partly in hopes that theaters will book more of them. I don’t know how much good it does. I paid double the usual matinee price for this one this week and saw it in the company of exactly one other patron.

But I’ll keep going anyway, if and when I can, because of the good it does me.

I’ve seen The Maltese Falcon well over a dozen times and read the book three or four times. This was even the third time I saw it on a big screen, (more than any Golden Age film except Gone With the Wind which I’ve seen four times in theaters). I can’t say I’ve always learned from it, though I’ve certainly always enjoyed it. But this time, it definitely stretched me, not entirely in pleasant ways.

One thing that’s always pleasant–and rewarding–is watching Humphrey Bogart’s face, and that’s probably the most important way the big screen enlarges the experience. Even the biggest televisions can’t offer the same opportunity for nuanced scrutiny of a performance like the one Bogart gave here, the one that truly shaped his lasting star persona. Remembering the masterful ways he deployed and varied that persona over the next decade and a half, in Casablanca, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, The African Queen and even The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (where, to tell the truth, he went a tad self-conscious, though the overreach probably created the space where he found his take on Dix Steele in In a Lonely Place), it can become easy to forget the degree to which every bit of it–hence every shade of his celebrated modernity–was on display in The Maltese Falcon.

It’s not so easy to forget it when you’re watching the movie. Because it’s all there. The sardonic wit, the heroic (or, if you prefer, antiheroic) stoicism, the edge of pure sadism (including large doses of misogyny and homophobia which, were they anywhere near as prevalent in the iconic performances of, for instance, John Wayne, would surely be routinely excoriated by a left-leaning illuminati which has both insisted that the performance is the man and idolized Bogart for those very same qualities for half a century and counting), the assurance of the beast in the urban jungle who operates as a law unto himself, and the inability or unwillingness to separate any of these qualities from the rest, to regard any of them as less than absolutely essential.

Writing in the early seventies, Pauline Kael famously observed of Dirty Harry that “this action genre has always had fascist potential and it has finally surfaced.” But whether fascist is the right word for that potential (I’d argue not quite but that’s a long, interesting debate), there was no “finally” to it. The only meaningful distinctions between Sam Spade and Harry Callahan are the hare-vs-tortoise speeds at which their respective brains work and whatever dime-size wedge can be put between Spade’s sort of private eye serving the inept police and Callahan’s sort of policeman serving the even more inept public.

What Kael might have been getting at was that Clint Eastwood’s Callahan made it impossible to continue either missing or dismissing the above-and-beyond-the-law dynamic that Bogart’s Sam Spade had hardly concealed, though he at least made you swallow it with a smile.

It could all be very seductive.

Dorothy Parker, who I’d rate as an even sharper knife than Kael, may have started the whole “white knight” school of lit-crit that became so curiously bound up with the rise of the hard-boiled detective genre when, in her review of Dashiell Hammett’s source novel for TMF, she declared that Spade had made her go spoony in the same way that Sir Lancelot had when she was a wee lass.

That’s a dangerous spell for any man to cast. Especially when he’s casting it while slapping around women and gardenia-scented queers on such a regular basis and insisting “you’ll take it and like it.”

It’s the liking it that marks the first step into the danger zone. You know: It’s not enough for me to slap you. It’s not even enough for you to accept it. What really matters is that you like it.

That certainly sounds like an idea waiting for a definition and fascism is certainly one that springs to mind.

Sitting in a quiet movie theater all these decades later and marveling at the glory of it all–the perfection in casting, direction, lighting, mood, dialogue woven into an indestructible plot–it’s still easy to miss the road to hell at the center of both Spade’s troubled conception and Bogart’s thrilling execution.

You can learn a lot about a society by studying its heroes. I’m not sure Hammett quite intended for us to take Spade into our national mythology in such an uncomplicated manner. Whether the lethal mix of bravery, hubris and cruelty generated by Bogart and John Huston struck so deep because it carries a touch of naivete that Hammett, having been both a Pinkerton and a commie, surely did not possess, I don’t know.

All I know, all I was reminded of this week, in between the news-channel marathons that are carrying on blithely, cluelessly, while the country that once produced all these things so imminently worthy of devotion circles the drain, was what a dangerous man this Humphrey Bogart still is.

maltesefalcom2

I hope he’s also still on our side.

WHAT WE SHOULD EXPECT FROM CRITICS (Twelfth Maxim)

So this week I got kicked in the head by what I can now say was a far-too-long-in-coming re-visit with John Sayles’ 1983 film Baby It’s You. I’ll be writing in depth about it as soon as I get my new computer updated with the software I need for providing my own screen caps. (UPDATE: I eventually wrote about it here, sans caps.)

Meantime I went looking around the internet for any thoughts that others might have had about the film in general and Rosanna Arquette’s remarkable performance in particular and found this little gem (which isn’t about Baby It’s You but that’s how things go when the old net-surfing impulse kicks in):

“Ellison’s shots of Rosanna Arquette (taken before, to use Greil Marcus’ phrase, “the black hole of ‘Desperately Seeking Susan,’ ” that numbskull movie that effectively ended her career)”

(Charles Taylor: “Way Back When” March 15, 2002, Salon.com)

And yes, Greil Marcus (who lavishly praised Baby It’s You), did say that about Desperately Seeking Susan (which came out two years later).

And he did sort of mean that it killed his idea of what Rosanna Arquette’s career should have been.

But what about her actual career? The one to which Taylor makes it really clear he’s referring?

Well….

I saw Desperately Seeking Susan when it came out in the theaters in 1985. I remember moderately enjoying it, though not so much I’ve gotten around to seeing it again. I remember that Pauline Kael took a strong dislike to it…and that she was a generally reliable barometer of what the intelligentsia felt comfortable smacking down in those days.

None of which matters a whit to how and why Taylor could feel comfortable saying that particular movie “effectively ended” Arquette’s career.

What’s interesting is his definition of career. That is, his particular abuse of the language, rote and familiar as it may be.

Because what he means is: “Before Desperately Seeking Susan, Rosanna Arquette was somebody me and my fellow members of the crit-illuminati considered worthy of our attention. And after Desperately Seeking Susan, this was no longer the case.” (2nd UPDATE: Which is probably how so many people missed what happened here.)

In a way Taylor was just being more honest than Marcus. Letting the cat out of the bag so to speak by giving the illuminati’s starkest warning.

Don’t let us down!

Else we’ll write you and your silly “career” (actually one of the busiest of her generation and hardly without subsequent high points–a fair number, even, considering how few opportunities to do something more than stay busy Hollywood has offered to any actress in the last forty years) out of history.

I mean this must be what Taylor meant….because otherwise we’d have to assume Desperately Seeking Susan, a big hit that won Arquette a BAFTA and, well, put her on the cover of Rolling Stone, killed her career. You know…”effectively.”

desperately_seeking_susan6

So let’s ask the Charles Taylors of the world to think a little less of the joys of sweatily embracing Stalin-esque memory dumps that others have merely hinted at and a little more of themselves.

And, yes, let’s lay down the Twelfth Maxim:

Bootstrappers beware!

(NOTE: You can link to Taylor’s full piece, about a book of photos by Nancy Ellison, here. And speaking of “sweatily,” I decided to stay classy and not get into the creepy part about Arquette’s “lovely breasts” and “wide, generous mouth.” That seems beyond the scope of our strictly spiritual and intellectual pursuits here, though it does lead one to wonder if, in being written out of her own history, Arquette has merely joined many another comely female in paying a high price for being the intense object of some future critic’s inevitably frustrated college dorm fantasies.)

Happy Easter ya’ll.

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Selma…the Movie…and the Flap)

HENRYSANDERS

For me, Selma the movie called to mind Pauline Kael’s astute line about another “black experience” film, the Civil War film Glory….not a great movie but a good movie about a great subject.

And I’ll add that I think Selma is an even better movie about an even better subject.

That being said, the flap about its relative lack of Oscar love this week–and the possible reasons behind it, which involve the mindset of a few thousand people who are about as representative of an average citizen’s perspective as, well, the few thousand people who are in the profession of judging the significance of such things–is more than a bit overdone.

I haven’t seen too many of 2014’s serious award contenders (basically just this and Boyhood). But it wouldn’t shock me, for instance, if there really were five performances better than David Oyelowo’s Martin Luther King, or five better directorial efforts than Ava DuVerney’s.

That’s nothing against either Selma‘s lead actor or director (or screenwriter, etc). They’re plenty good enough that it also wouldn’t at all surprise me if they were among the year’s best.

But I didn’t feel I was in the presence of some landmark in the history of cinema. Twenty years from now, when we are all once more re-hashing the Academy’s greatest oversights, I doubt this film or its makers are going to join Citizen Kane or John Wayne’s performance in The Searchers as consensus-makers on the standard list of “travesties.”

Basically, Selma is a movie that tries to do a whole lot and–especially by the standards of modern Hollywood–succeeds admirably. It’s got a fine cast, a sturdy script, sure (and occasionally inspired…that Birmingham church bombing scene is everything you’ve heard) direction and, with one very big exception, a riveting, well-chosen soundtrack.

If it keeps threatening to go off the rails, that’s only to be expected when a film is striving for so much while also being true to its vast historical subject–the story of the Selma marches and the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act told not simply as cantankerous, skillfully crafted political actions rooted in deeply moral causes (well done as those aspects are), but as a culmination of three hundred and fifty years of Black America’s suffering through the long night and dreaming of a brighter day.

That’s a lot for a movie to take on–almost certainly more than any other American film attempted this year–and for that reason alone, yes, it probably deserved more than just a Best Picture and Best Song nomination (if only because, if it now wins Best Picture, as it might, it will likely be seen as the Academy acting from a sense of White Liberal Guilt, rather than rewarding the film on its considerable merits–like I say, it’s very good, but not the rare film that could make all of that not matter, either now or in hindsight).

But the real shame is that all of this is overshadowing the film’s greatest strengths, and actually obscuring any meaningful debate (as least so far as I can find) of its weaknesses.

Case in point to the latter is the film’s portrayal of Lyndon Johnson. Though the decision to make his relation with J. Edgar Hoover (a genuine scourge of the Civil Rights era who basically gets a pass here) a bit cozier than it was, is curious and wrong-headed, he’s hardly scripted as the “villain” some have suggested. The more fundamental problem is that Tom Wilkinson, the fine British actor who plays him (and has received near-universal plaudits), doesn’t give him any dimension–he captures LBJ the strong-armer pretty well, but has none of Johnson’s unctuous charm or casual way with obscenity or resemblance to a force of nature. Any time Wilkinson was on screen, I felt like I was watching yet another Brit play yet another Southerner–a trick that hasn’t been pulled off with any panache since Vivien “I understood Blanche but I shouldn’t have played her because it cost me my mind” Leigh literally drove herself bonkers investing a little too much in A Streetcar Named Desire.

And, yeah, it’s a problem elsewhere, too: a big problem with Tim Roth, playing George Wallace as a flat piece of cardboard who couldn’t have gotten himself elected dogcatcher in Eufala; a smaller-but-still-nagging issue with Oyelowo’s King (every bit as Southern as Johnson or Wallace, lest we forget) and Carmen Ejogo’s Coretta Scott King (ditto), who are both excellent in general, but lack a certain elementary ease, as if they can’t quite overcome the distance between flesh and iconography. [As Andrew O’Hehir pointed out, in one of the more even-handed reviews of the film on Salon.com, it’s become a rather strange situation when such significant, and specifically American, roles (same thing happened with last year’s 12 Years a Slave, which was even directed by a Brit) keep not being played by American actors….just what, if any, deeper significance there might be, I’ll leave to others to debate, though if the track record of Americans, including actual southerners, playing southerners, is any indication of future performance, we certainly aren’t any worse off for having the Old Country’s exquisitely trained thespians shoulder the burden.]

Against all that, there’s an awful lot that goes right. The film has politics (extremely rare), it has heart (just as rare), it has nerve (even rarer). It doesn’t beat its chest or shirk its basic responsibilities. It handles potentially tricky subjects like King’s infidelity with both finesse and power.

Heck, its even got a good Elvis joke, told at the expense of Selma’s notorious sheriff Jim Clark no less.

So much to the good and credit all around.

But the real force in the movie–what keeps it on track and sears it in the memory even after an inexplicable mistake like playing a piece of bland modern music under the climactic final march (nearly killing the scene itself and effectively obliterating the earlier chills and echoes raised by inspired period picks like Otis Redding’s “Ole Man Trouble” and Duane Eddy’s heavy metal version (from 1965!) of “House of the Rising Sun”)–lies in the faces of the older black American actors: Oprah Winfrey (superb as Annie Lee Cooper); Wendell Pierce, (so right as Hosea Willams I’d pay twice regular if somebody made a movie about that monumental character and had Pierce play him) and, especially, Henry Sanders, pictured at the top of the post.

As Cager Lee–the grandfather of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a young activist who was murdered by law-breaking “law enforcement” during one of Selma’s early protests–Sanders, a seventy-two year old native of Houston (and, therefore, perhaps the only member of the main cast who experienced Jim Crow both first-hand and at length), collapses the distance between himself and the then eighty-two year old Lee so thoroughly that he punches a hole in time.

When he’s on screen, its not history anymore….or a movie anymore.

We’re there. Not inside his skin–considering what such a man is bound to have endured, that would be presuming far too much–but looking at his face in the room.

Looking him in the eyes and knowing he would give up anything–not only his right to vote, but any chance to avenge himself for every wrong that’s ever been done to him–if he could only have his daughter’s boy back.

And knowing all the while–telling us all the while–that the best he can do now is push forward. That the only possible good that can be wrung from this and a million other horrors is the marker of progress the “movement” that his son died for is trying to achieve.

If the Oscars really meant anything, this is the kind of performance (hardly mentioned in any reviews and certainly not “nominated” for anything) they would exist to reward. So I’m not going to get worked up about what all else Selma might have gotten, or even what it might have deserved.

But there are some things….like this (cut in the Stax studio in Memphis, one of the few places in the film’s contemporary South that was actually fully integrated)…

…or this (the purest words of the prophet Curtis Mayfield)….

…that I’ll never hear quite the same way again.

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (In Which I Tackle the Age-Old Question Which I Just Now Thought of: Can We Thank Two Egg For the Decline of Western Civilization?)

Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Two Egg is a small town in the Florida Panhandle. At least I think it’s still there. If it is, then it’s probably still about thirty miles from where I spent my high school and ju-co years–and still about eighty miles from where I live now.

When I moved to the Panhandle in 1974, it took about five minutes to have the significance of Two Egg transmuted by cultural osmosis.

Faye Dunaway was from there.

As far as I could ever tell, that and the fact that Dionne Warwick’s grandmother lived in Cottondale were not things anyone–newcomer or native–were ever specifically told. You hit the county line (or the hospital delivery room) and within no more than a handful of heartbeats you acquired the knowledge.

Neither fact was as much a point of pride as a source of amazement.

Sort of like: “If you can make it from here, you can make it from anywhere!”

Faye Dunaway “made” it in 1967 when she starred in–and discombobulated–a relatively unpretentious (though highly effective and well made) art film called Bonnie and Clyde.

I hadn’t realized just how thoroughly she discombobulated it until this week when I saw the film for a third time (the first having been somewhere near the dawn of the video age in the eighties and the second having been about ten years ago), and then watched the “making of” dvd extras (where Dunaway specifically states that she drew on her North Florida roots for her interpretation of Bonnie Parker) for the first time.

I suppose I always “recognized” her Bonnie on some level.

She’s a fairly common southern variation on a fairly common type. I haven’t spent any real quality time in Texas, where the real-life Bonnie Parker was from. But every place I have spent quality time–Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina–I’ve known versions of her.

And Dunaway nailed her. Even down to the fake southern accent real southerners learn from Hollywood.

Normally, that would have meant nothing more (or less) than a great performance in a Hollywood movie. But Bonnie and Clyde resonated far beyond any of that–and, to judge by fairly recent reactions here and, in a supreme example of maroon logic, here, it still does.

Since I’m sticking to my own “impressions” I won’t delve into the culture wars that developed around the film in its own time. Fun stuff, but beyond the scope of this post (though it was interesting to discover that Pauline Kael, in her famous New Yorker review, which just about everyone agrees turned the movie’s critical and commercial fortunes around when it seemed headed for the oblivion of cult-hood, was as convinced of the real and irreversible cultural damage done by 1964’s Dr. Strangelove, as conservative blue-noses were of the damage done by Bonnie and Clyde).

Kael didn’t think much of Dunaway’s performance. I can’t say I blame her.

Wherever you happen to find her, that girl is always disruptive. I think what Dunaway got about her was that for her “character”–unlike everyone else being portrayed in the movie–the only real perdition is boredom. And that she always thinks (or at least hopes) that the next bank she robs or the next man her Clyde shoots in the face or the next visit to the old home place, will be her ticket out.

She got that Bonnie Parker wasn’t sorry so many people ended up dead in her wake–that her only real regret was that the path she took didn’t get her where she thought she wanted to go. I suspect Dunaway–unlike everyone else in the highly skilled cast–also got that the person she was playing would have cared less for what big city intellectuals thought of her.

BONNIEPARKRE

Just so long as they were paying attention.

And–like her real life counterpart and like almost no one else in the history of the movies (including, for the rest of her career, Faye Dunaway)–she radiated sex (what Americans are really afraid of though, of course, like most blue-noses, we just love porn) the while.

FAYEDUNAWAY

Whatever was disorienting about the movie at the height of the Viet Nam disaster–whatever was read or mis-read into the film’s portrayal of events that had already been blurred by mythology–Dunaway’s performance, straight out of Two Egg, is the only element that hasn’t long since been swallowed up by the ever-receding, porn-and-gore edges which have rendered Bonnie and Clyde‘s once shocking violence tame and its identification with murderous psychopaths routine.

What was really shocking about Bonnie and Clyde then and now is that it scraped just far enough below the surface to reveal that the essential glory of democracy is also its abiding horror.

Practically anybody is liable to get the idea they are worth something….if only they can grab a headline.