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.

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 exemplifies 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 totem 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 dwelt 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.)

THE LIGHTS GO DOWN (Carrie Fisher, George Michael, Richard Adams, R.I.P.)

The best line anyone will write about Carrie Fisher is in Sheila O’Malley’s lovely tribute at Roger Ebert’s site: “It’s rare to have your father leave your mother for Elizabeth Taylor.”

Fame’s a beast, an especially hungry one if you didn’t ask for it. Star Wars, which must have seemed like a job of work when she signed on, probably derailed any chance she had at fulfilling herself as herself and the performances she gave in Shampoo, When Harry Met Sally, Hannah and Her Sisters, hint at who that might have been, as surely as the biting wit in Postcards From the Edge provides the best glimpse into who she became instead–who she probably had to become to survive.

Her death in proximity to George Michael’s is one of those instructive coincidences. Two fine people  made–and then unmade–by late boomer excess. The kind that kills you at 50, 60, instead of 27.

On the rise, though, they each left a mark beyond mere fame: Fisher was one of the earliest to speak and write openly about addiction, star-childness, bipolarity. According to reports that have circulated here and there over the years, she also kept Alec Guinness engaged on the sets of the only Star Wars movies that will matter in the end (and will matter, in part, because Guinness, under her influence, didn’t totally phone them in). In light of her becoming a legendary script doctor and best selling novelist, rumors will always persist that one reason those early movies are the only ones that have life–that matter as anything more than a cash register–is because she was there to deliver the best lines, uncredited, especially to her own character. Given the quality of dialogue George Lucas has tended to write when left on his own, those rumors will never die.

Michael was one of the few white artists to cross over to the R&B charts in the rock and roll era proper–to take full advantage of the space Elvis had opened up in the fifties. He beat “Blurred Lines” to the punch by thirty years and he did it with better records, many of which he wrote and produced himself. And, for better or worse, there’s no boy in “boy band” without him to provide the template.

All Richard Adams, author of Watership Down, did was whip up an entire universe–and a beautiful, enchanting novel–out of stories he invented to amuse his young daughters. Years later he revealed that the stories had been shaped by his experience–and those of his unit–in Operation Market Garden, the WWII expedition that culminated in the Allied failure at the bridge at Arnhem, which inspired the poet-journalist Cornelius Ryan to give the phrase “A Bridge Too Far” to the English language.

The epic adventure of the rabbits, the Star Wars universe, the rise of the boy band.

Turns out they all had one thing in common and it was the single element you would bet against being the key to such artificial worlds: Travel to whatever faraway land you can find or imagine and it’s the people who matter after all.

Just like Paul Simon said in the song he wrote about the one who was his wife for a while:

STUPID STUFF PEOPLE SAY ABOUT ELVIS (Quote the Third)

“I never went to a single Presley movie and I never, not even once, not even for “Hound Dog,” bought a single Presley record. Even then I knew Julie London had a better voice.”

(Roger Ebert. Source: Review of Easy Come, Easy Go, 1967)

I’ll put my vinyl-diving credentials up against Roger Ebert’s any day. And speaking as one of the world’s more devoted Julie London fans, I can’t really add anything to this. If I started, I’d have to rearrange all the previously accepted boundaries of surrealism in order to actually arrive at a conclusion.

It doesn’t seem worth the effort somehow.