When I lived in Washington, DC, I remember there being a slew of excitement in the local newspapers and in local bookstores when a book like Primary Colors came out. Local interest is a big seller in books, especially when there’s scandal involved. Here in Los Angeles this means that books about Hollywood get top billing, and there are lots of them on the local bestseller lists at any given time. They come in a few different flavors. There’s the now-we-can-finally-make-all-those-juicy-stories-public, recent-history-of-Hollywood books. These books come out a generation or so after the action depicted in the book takes place. The main players have either died or they no longer wield any power so their stories are fair game for the reading public. Connie Bruck’s biography of Hollywood mogul Lew Wasserman, When Hollywood Had a King and A. Scott Berg’s biography of Katherine Hepburn, Kate Remembered are two recent examples. Then there’s the down-in-the-trenches, you-have-to-be-there-to-really-get-it, borderline-inside-joke, behind-the-scenes-entertainment-industry-workplace-dramas. Take David Rensin’s book The Mailroom, which, as far as I can tell, you would only want to read for one of two reasons. You once worked in Hollywood mailroom and you want to reminisce about those high-energy, low-pay days back before you became a high-powered agent, or you desperately want to become a high-powered agent and you want to read up about what it’s like in the mailroom, your first step on the road to glitz and glamour. Finally there is the true story thinly disguised as fiction like producer Robert Cort’s recent novel, Action!. I got to thinking about all of this Hollywood literature because of a recent review by Caryn James in the New York Times that assesses the latest crop of Hollywood lit. (LINK). Wading through big-selling tell-alls like Peter Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures and Joe Eszterhas’ Hollywood Animal and all the rest, she finds a novel that transcends the Hollywood genre in The True and Outstanding Adventures of the Hunt Sisters and also mentions that when it comes to books about Hollywood, The Day of the Locust by Nathaniel West is “unsurpassed.”
“The drop is a small ocean.”
“When people express what is most important to them, it often comes out in clichés. That doesn’t make them laughable; it’s something tender about them. As though in struggling to reach what’s most personal about them they could only come up with what’s most public.”
Describing, let alone reviewing, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is almost forbiddingly daunting. Probably for this reason, critical reaction has been decidedly garrulous. A vast majority of reviewers have invoked some kind of “higher” culture to signify the elusive mood or feeling it evokes. Just skimming down the list, one picks up earnest references to Emily Dickinson, Tristram Shandy, Picasso, 2001: A Space Odyssey, W.B. Yeats, The Passion Of The Christ, the Sistine Chapel, and The Museum of Natural History. It’s been referred to as “beautiful“, “baffling“, “magisterial”, “unbearably pretentious” and putting the viewer at risk of emerging from the theatre “with a pretzel for a brain.” All of this is fair game, I think. Oscar Wilde‘s droll dismissal of controversy wraps it all up nicely and points the way forward: “When the critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself.”
In some postmodern milieux it’s common to judge a work of art sight unseen and only by the reactions of others (you’ve done it before, admit it). The Tree of Life lends itself to this vulnerability, for sure. It was alternately booed and cheered by the discriminating cineastes of Cannes, ultimately winning the historic Palme d’Or. Robert De Niro, the head of the prize panel, explained in a very Robert DeNiro way that the film had “the size, the importance, the intention, whatever you want to call it, that seemed to fit the prize.” Roger Ebert wrote a lovely and moving piece about it, the first sentence of which calls it “a form of prayer.” This would be pretty decent praise from anyone but considering Ebert himself has been struggling with his own mortality for several years now, and doing so with grace and dignity, the accolade is especially poignant.
I don’t usually mind getting spoilers before I see a movie for the first time, which probably has more to do with my tendency to be easily confused than a need for surprise. Not to worry – it’s almost impossible to give anything away. Part of the wonder of this film is that the visual style and narrative undulation (the term “arc” just doesn’t do it justice) not only allow for but encourage emotional and intellectual responses which are ultimately the viewer’s own. Certain moments in the film were vivid enough to sting me with recognition and tears came to my eyes. It felt like moments of my childhood reappeared, unbidden, and not the most obvious ones. Apparently, I’m not alone in this. Several people I know well admitted to a similar reaction. There is comfort in that. One of the things which is often asked of art, if not cinema itself, is that it move us, give us grandeur, something of the ineffable. This can be done with either massive, panoramic vistas or with detailed, minute shifts of insight. The Tree Of Life, to Malick’s abiding credit, offers us both.
The narrative centers around a small lower middle class family in east Texas. There are three brothers, one of whom is revealed to have died in unexplained circumstances. Brad Pitt sinks so deeply into his role as the stern, frustrated, ultimately helpless father that you can see what Freud termed “the family romance” flickering behind his thick glasses and masculine scowl. Jessica Chastain’s mother is ethereal, loving, one of nature’s forgiving creatures. This dialectical conflict is subtly set up early on: one side of the parental wall is earthly, ambitious, occasionally brutal in word or gesture, brittle and seething with balked ambition. The other floats in midair in her children’s daydreams, enveloping all the struggle of life with a luminous, beneficent glow. Blessings are all, she suggests, by her mere presence. The boys are boys, pointy of ear and baby fat faces, reflecting the confusion and energy that comes with the humid rush of pre-adolescence. Sean Penn isn’t given a whole lot to work with as the middle aged son mourning his long deceased brother amid the modern-day glaze of skyscrapers in New York but he makes something happen nevertheless. The rest is, well, the rest is the world – a glimpse at the totality of creation itself. The editing is timed to the rhythm of memory – moments simply occur, evolve, glimmer, fade, and disappear. Trying to describe this film’s visual range is like describing a waterfall or a rainbow or the sparkling light cast for a moment on the wall: it can be done, but why not see it for yourself, and on the big screen while you’re at it?
Terrence Malick has often been considered a spiritual director. This is not say he has a particular creed, or even necessarily a belief system, at least none that comes readily to mind. He has a degree in Philosophy from Harvard, taught it at M.I.T, and translated the notoriously dense and mystical Heidegger before going into film. The influence must have stuck with him. There really is something Heideggerian going on in his work. One could sum up the two major themes of his films with just the title of Heidegger’s magnum opus: Being and Time. Malick’s characters inhabit a landscape more than a frame. Their presences register over the looming, incandescent indifference of the world they inhabit. They build, they dwell, they think, in Heideggerian vocabulary. Language is a scattered thing in his films, a groping towards meaning. This aesthetic comes out memorably in Days of Heaven and Badlands, his still- astonishing debut. Accounts of the making of these films reveal years of the director’s prosaic research as well as on-set instructions to spontaneously just drop everything and follow a stream of rippling birds suddenly taking flight.
There’s something mysterious about having been a filmmaker for over thirty years with only a handful of films to your name. Actors beg to be involved and sign up by the dozen for ever-expanding bit parts. Producers are sometimes driven crazy by his relentless perfectionism and visionary drive. His movies can be an experience unto themselves. You walk out with that strange, sober buzz a good film gives you, and inhabit the world of the film’s perception for a little while. Light is more like light, the earth below more compact, and the sky above the buildings is vaster than you ever quite noticed. Every reader is bound to come to any work of art with her own set of tastes, prejudices, and unconscious assumptions. Naturally, she leaves with them as well. Hopefully something has happened in between which causes (at least) a subtle, insistent, almost insubstantial change in the consciousness of the audience. All movies are in some way about seeing, of course, but no one making them or attending them ever sees them in quite the same way. It’s very rare that anything is seen in the way Terrence Malick sees it, which says more about Malick than it does about anyone else.
In the end, watching “The Tree of Life” is best done in a spirit of generosity, curiosity, care, and a healthy dose of plain reverence and awe. Not a bad way to go through life.
In which the author spits into the ocean of hype over the new season of AMC’s Mad Men and emerges with a wholly original conclusion: the show is darn good.
It’s all around us; it’s everywhere we go; it’s everything we do. It’s Mad Men. At the coffee shop: “I’ll have a grande iced Mad Men with whole Mad Men please.” “You want that Mad Men?” “No thanks, I’ll add my own Mad Men.”
On the phone with the wife: “Can you take Mad Men to Mad Men practice at half past Mad Men this afternoon, honey?” “Well, I’ve got a Mad Men with the boss but it shouldn’t take more than a few Mad Men.” “Oh good, Mad Men will be so pleased.”
At the track: “I’ll take Mad Men to win in the fifth.” “Geez, buddy, that’s 50-1. You got some brass Mad Men, I’ll give you that.”
I Mad Men, er, watched the season premiere of Mad Men Sunday night. Had to travel to Brooklyn to do it. I invited myself over to my friend’s place and commandeered his cable TV. While I watched the premiere, he put on headphones and cozied up to a dvd on his computer – Mad Men. He’s still working his way through the season two dvd set, which is quite possibly (and on a meta level quite appropriately) the single most flogged product in the history of consumer culture going back at least to Slinky.
So much has been written about Mad Men that it’s hard to contribute anything really insightful to the raft of commentary. The show experienced a tipping point moment this summer in the run-up to the new season, resulting in a bumper crop of features and roundups that choked the pages of most if not all of the publications that I read regularly.
For the uninitiated, those who summer in relative isolation – on the international space station perhaps, or in Siberia – Mad Men is about the goings on at an advertising firm in Manhattan in the early 60s. John Hamm plays dapper Don Draper, head of the creative department and the maddest Mad Man on planet Mad Men. Well, he’s not mad exactly, rarely angry and definitely not insane, but he suffers from a certain existential ennui. Draper’s consummate insight into the psychology of the American consumer makes him something like the man behind the curtain (duh, drapes) which is an apt metaphor since the life of this successful family man is steeped in secrets and mystery.
An episode of Mad Men contains requisite amounts of Draper being Draper: drinking, smoking, womanizing, looking good, and wowing his cohorts and clients with invariably spot-on ad ideas. Draper is big when the toadies at the firm act small, and if he doesn’t always do right by his wife, Betty (January Jones), his sins seem to be motivated more by a search for meaning in experience than by appetites alone. Draper without a double life just wouldn’t be Draper. After all, so we love the sinner. When he says “I don’t know, I, uh, go to a lot of places and I keep ending up someplace I’ve already been” to an attractive blond airline stewardess before she strips for him in his hotel room, we shiver with pleasure since we alone have a window into his inner life.
Secrets are at the heart of Mad Men. All of the principle characters harbor them. Sometimes they come out, and sometimes not. In keeping with this air of obfuscation, the writers have crafted a style of dialogue that is suitably obtuse, and occasionally impenetrable. I think part of the show’s popularity has to do with the fact that it demands such scrutiny if the viewer is going to pick up on all the nuances.
Another key ingredient was touched on in the Wall Street Journal’s profile of the mostly female writing team that crafts these nuanced story lines. The tug of war between the male and female characters gives the show its core conflict. The show’s architects have a keen command of symmetry in their approach to the interplay of sex and gender. Just when you’re used to the back-slapping old boy’s atmosphere at the Sterling Cooper offices, the writers flip the script, and the boys are upstaged by the industrious high-climbing copywriter, Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), or the irrepressible bombshell office manager, Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks).
Which brings me to my final point about Mad Men. Its early 60s setting proves to be incredibly fertile ground for these conflicts to be played out. Bees in the Sterling Cooper beehive don’t always recognize the changes that are taking place around them, though these are the forces that they are constantly trying to harness in their quest to sell things to people. I loved in season two when Draper and co. pitch an idea to a seller of ladies’ undergarments. The essence of the idea is that there are two kinds of women: you’re either a Marilyn or a Jackie O. The execs at the company are impressed, but they pass on the idea. Then Marilyn dies and, while the secretaries weep over the tragedy, the Mad Men quietly breathe a sigh of relief that the campaign died, too. Something tells me the other shoe will have to drop as the calendar turns over and season three gets going.
The one person who can usually parse the cultural forces and discern which way the wind is blowing without the help of a weatherman is Don Draper. One reason I believe Draper is so conflicted himself is that he recognizes how topsy-turvy American life is becoming. Values are evolving. Kids are growing up. There are major changes in the air, changes he can smell like ozone at the leading edge of a fast-moving front that promises to drop a deluge on the American cultural landscape. It’s easy for us to imagine that deluge, to see ourselves frolicking in the mud of Woodstock, say. But every deluge is predicated by that moment where the barometer drops, the wind picks up, lightening flashes, and purple clouds descend. Something big is coming.
It’s all about the water, isn’t it. You travel on it, you cross bridges over it, reflections in it confuse you, and when you’re lost (which most people in that labyrinthine city usually are), you end right up against another bloody canal when instead you should be strolling into your hotel lobby at two in the morning after one too many Bellinis at Harry’s Bar. It’s the prototype for Italo Calvino’s book Invisible Cities. At one point in it Marco Polo says, “Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.” There’s no place on earth quite like it. And in Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 film Don’t Look Now, Venice deep in its winter is a sullen, mirthless place of steep shadows and greasy waterways where you go to die as though it were the very ends of the earth and you had run out of time.
The English have often been drawn to Venice for their literary settings, and apart from expatriate American Henry James, who chose the city as setting for The Wings of the Dove (another death, of course, in Venice), perhaps it’s thanks to film director Nicolas Roeg that Daphne du Maurier is also known for making use of the city. His adaptation of her short story “Don’t Look Now” was a critical and popular success when released in 1973, and was chosen by the British Film Institute as eighth in their top 100 British films. Both the source material (recently reissued in a collection of du Maurier’s stories by NYRB Books, selected and introduced by Patrick McGrath) and the film are superior entertainments that extend far beyond the expected frissons of genre.
The term “psychological thriller” is particularly apt in both cases. This is a tale about faith, doubt, and death. Not to mention what can only be called after-death, since we experience it twice in the course of the film. And though movie-making has generally become all about blowing things up, Don’t Look Now, almost forty years later, still retains its quiet ability to unnerve an audience, hauntingly and without ever completely giving up its secrets. What Roeg has added to the narrative, apart from a much fuller depiction of the main characters’ relationship, is a story about the thin membrane of reality. The capabilities of film draw us visually into this tale of a city, a murderer and the death of a child.
Daphne du Maurier was for many years considered a minor English novelist and short-story writer: a best-seller, certainly, but something of a “women’s writer.” Best remembered for her novels Rebecca and Jamaica Inn (both filmed by Alfred Hitchcock) she’s also known for writing the story Hitchcock’s The Birds was based upon (she hated the film as much as she loved Roeg’s version of “Don’t Look Now”). Both that story and “Don’t Look Now” reveal a subtle and psychologically astute mind at work. Where Roeg gives it to us in full, du Maurier merely suggests; she makes us do the work. In both cases, film and story, the reader is left with mysteries that are inescapably human and somehow always just out of reach. For me, as a sometime screenwriter, the finest movies are like the best works of fiction when they leave the reader to fill in the gaps. The audience should always take away something from the experience that remains unanswered. So that time and again we’re drawn back to think about it, or see it once again, and then see it in a whole new light. Antonioni’s films are like that, as are those of Krzystof Kieslowski. Art should always pose questions, not give us answers.
Like all the best cinematic adaptations (in this case, by Allan Scott and Chris Bryant), Don’t Look Now is exact not necessarily to the facts of the story but is completely faithful to the poetry of the piece, the intent of the original.
It begins with a death. It begins with water. It blossoms into grief that yearns for relief, and comes with a premonition that’s firmly planted in the viewer’s mind—in a film that works upon its audience like something read, lifted from the celluloid by the eyes and stashed in the memory, so full is it of significance, be it moments or glances—as though it were a key image in a poem that would return in a later stanza, twisted and cast in a different light but instantly recognized. At which point, as you rise from your seat and walk out into the night, you realize you have to see the film all over again to grasp its meaning. You sense that every line of dialogue, every shot that may seem throwaway or simply scenic, contributes to the growing sense of unease in this movie that, like illness setting in, comes over us as an undefined uncertain feeling before blossoming into a chill, then fever, then pain.
And then the release, which leaves one of the characters dead and the other somehow vindicated: this death had to happen, just as Venice had to happen. A death for a death; the stillness of a memory redeemed.
The film opens as John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) sit by the fire on a chilly autumn day in a cottage in northeast England while their young son and daughter play outside in the brittle sunshine of a dying afternoon. John’s an architect, about to leave for Venice to oversee the restoration of the Church of St. Nicholas. As he examines photographic slides of the building, Laura asks a question their little girl had posed to her earlier: “If the world is round, why is a frozen pond flat?” The only answer he comes up with is key to our understanding of the film: “Nothing is as it seems.”
(Including, I might add, the infamous love scene that comes some thirty minutes into the movie. Censored in some countries, it earned the film an X rating when it opened in Britain and for years had been censored and re-edited on video releases in the US. What looks on the screen like the real thing was, according to Sutherland, all acting. Roeg would say put your hand here, turn your head, and so on. It looks like genuine passion, but of course nothing is as it seems.)
John is the rational man, the author of a book glimpsed early on, Beyond the Fragile Geometry of Space (Joseph Lanza’s long out-of-print book on Nicolas Roeg, entitled Fragile Geometry, is well worth reading; if you can find and afford a copy, that is) who clings to his need for hard reality, the patient precision of rebuilding a church. Laura is the emotional one who hasn’t been able to let go of her lost daughter who drowns while her parents mull over why a frozen pond is flat. Laura comes to Venice in a fragile state, hoping that she’ll be able to find her footing and discover clarity.
In this watery city reality is fluid, as if the minds of the characters had molded Venice to fit their anguish, confusion and inability to accept the truth of things. On top of all this there’s a serial killer loose in Venice. Two people have been found with their throats cut. There will be another before the credits run nearly two hours later.
Two sisters, twins from Scotland, stand at the center of this story. In du Maurier’s we meet them in the first sentence: “’Don’t look now,’ John said to his wife, ‘but there are a couple of old girls two tables away who are trying to hypnotise me.’” As du Maurier suggests, they may even be men in drag. One is blind; though sightless, she possesses vision. She has a connection with the spirit world, and when she reveals to Laura minutes later at the restaurant that she “saw” the dead child happily sitting with her parents, dressed just as Laura remembered her, Laura suddenly sheds her grief. Life can now start anew. But John thinks that his wife, aided and abetted by a phony medium, is losing it.
When Laura returns for a quick visit to their son, hurt in a sports accident (appendicitis in the du Maurier story) at his school in England, John is certain that he’s seen his wife in Venice with the twin sisters, on a vaporetto, chugging up the Grand Canal. What he’s seeing, we’ll learn, is some later moment when he’ll no longer be there. He’s looking into a future that lies beyond his time. In this world, past and future are contained in the present, as though it were a universe concocted by the grand magicians of matters temporal, Marcel Proust and, in his Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot.
Let’s go back to the beginning.
We’re in the opening minutes of the film, in that cottage in Suffolk on a cold Sunday afternoon. Just before their daughter in her red plastic raincoat drowns in the pond, John spills a glass of water over one of his slides, a shot of the interior of the church, where sitting in a pew appears to be a child in a red coat with a hood. The water distorts the celluloid, and the red of the coat blossoms over the transparency like blood spilling from a murdered man’s throat. As Mark Sanderson points out in his book-length study of the film, that scene—in fact the entire seven-minute opening sequence—tells us everything we are about to see in Don’t Look Now. Everything is figuratively or literally second-sight in this movie: both what the blind medium sees, and what we watch. We’ve seen it all before, right at the beginning, and now, because it needs to draw us deeper into the story, we get to see it again.
Of course in prose this wouldn’t work. We can parse too much at our leisure, examine the words, understand their meanings, see the subtleties. A movie possesses a literalness that a truly good piece of fiction doesn’t, or shouldn’t. Because we can’t, in the first instance, flip back to an earlier scene (though DVDs make this much simpler), and because it’s presumed (and hoped) that we’re seeing this movie for the first time at the cinema, we experience it as one continuous unspooling of narration. It’s on subsequent viewings that the rewards of Don’t Look Now truly emerge. We see how much we have to work to look at all the elements in a scene, how much Roeg is compelling us to linger over the objects in a hotel room, the expressions on Julie Christie’s face, the mosaic tiles in the Church of St. Nicholas. And yet it remains a mystery to us. It eludes us in the end. We feel we have witnessed a kind of ancient sacrificial rite playing itself out in an unreal city, and that something necessary has happened. We see it on Laura’s face as, the two sisters beside her, she stands on the vaporetto as it makes its way up the Grand Canal to a funeral. Winter’s about to break, and spring’s only weeks away. The gods have been served.
Like all the best works of fiction, Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now makes us want to experience it all over again. And still we won’t be able to find the words to say exactly what it all means.