I’ve been writing a lot about film adaptations lately, so I was thrilled to stumble onto this very cool series at the Guardian which each week is turning a critical eye on a new famous film adaptation. The latest is on Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1986 version of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.
You are sitting with the Great Man, and he is holding forth. He made the Greatest American Film of All Time when he was just twenty-five (he has the Newsweek notice from John O’Hara memorized, and he will repeat it for you with only a slight addition here or there, with no prompting.) He’s a legend, an idol, a God of Cinema. He is Orson Welles and, my God, he is such a bitch.
Whether or not to read Peter Biskind’s My Lunches with Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles is simply decided: do you care, at all, about continuing to admire Orson Welles as an actual person and artist, or are you happy to have that illusion exploded by a sad, embittered caricature performing great feats of persona for a sycophant with a hidden tape recorder?
The “conversations” (90% Welles monologue) in Lunches with Orson provide entertaining, salacious reading for those of us who enjoy old Hollywood gossip delivered with exquisite nastiness (Paulette Goddard “was a wonderful girl, but she’s a living cash register, you know.”) And if the aim of the book is to show the absurd, monotonous viciousness of Hollywood and its poisonous characters, it’s an unqualified success. Yes, it’s repetitive, and it drags, but so does the life of Welles at Ma Maison, the restaurant where he and his tiny dog, Kiki, held forth for the adoring filmmaker Henry Jaglom between the years 1982 and 1985, when Welles died. They spent these luncheons eating California nouvelle cuisine while trying, endlessly, to fund, cast, or complete any Welles project. In the midst of plotting future works, Welles was happy to tell stories of his greatness and dish outrageously petty dirt on any person, film, or concept imaginable.
The gossip is endless, and endlessly amusing: Humphrey Bogart, “both a coward and a very bad fighter, was always picking fights in nightclubs.” Katherine Hepburn “laid around the town like nobody’s business.” “Larry [Olivier] is very– I mean seriously– stupid.” Chaplin is also “deeply dumb” and Garbo is “a big-boned cow.” Lest you think him petty, he shares his generous pimping efforts on behalf of a young starlet named Marilyn Monroe: “I would point Marilyn out to Darryl [Zanuck], and say, ‘What a sensational girl.’ He would answer, ‘she’s just another stock player. We’ve got a hundred of them. Stop trying to push these cunts on me. We’ve got her for $125 a week.’ And then, about 6 months later, Darryl was paying Marilyn $400,000 and the men were looking at her — because some stamp had been put on her.”
After a certain point in the book, one is very much reminded of the recurring motif within Vertigo (a movie Welles hated, along with most Hitchcock films): are we fated to forever return to same conversation about the myriad betrayals Welles has endured? Are we still waiting for Welles’s 16 millimeter, black and white King Lear to be financed by the French? Is it still so important to claim ownership of every single aspect of Citizen Kane? (His sensitivity over the writing credit is understandable, as Paulene Kael’s 1971 piece for The New Yorker, Raising Kane, put forth the widely accepted — though since debunked — theory that Welles had claimed credit for a script actually penned by Herman J. Mankiewicz. But must Welles also claim sole responsibility for lighting and editing the film, and boorishly refuse to call film in any way collaborative?) Everyone “loves” his new script for The Dreamers, but will anyone actually buy it? Lunches with Orson, with their clear routine of gossip, pontificating, and money-hustling, are repetitive, and never go anywhere. The depressing stagnation and inertia of Welles’s later life is on full display here, and all the fawning and flattery and promises Jaglom offers cannot move Welles’s career forward, or undo his tremendous self-sabotage.
Jaglom claims to have done everything he could to help Welles find funding, but The Great Man’s reputation as a temperamental egotist who never finished a project continually frustrated their efforts. While it seems clear that Welles was often stymied by the profit-driven dullness of the movie industry, he also never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. There are numerous instances in which Welles talks himself into and out of a deal in one breath (the French have offered him a blank check for Lear…but he cannot stomach filming in France; he could direct The Cradle Will Rock…but he cannot in good conscience direct something he does not have full writing credit on), and any eavesdropper (which, of course, any reader is) might find themselves tempted to suggest, “just do it, you indecisive blowhard!” upon the fourth or fifth dissection of a possible funder’s motives and/or creative purity.
In the book’s most telling instance of self-sabotage, Welles begins to pitch a miniseries about Acapulco to a very receptive HBO executive, Susan Smith. Within minutes of beginning, Welles throws a massive tantrum, insulting Smith and refusing to even speak with her after she expresses interest in a Dominican Republic setting. After Welles has dismissed Smith as someone who simply does not understand his vision, Jaglom tells him how a recent biographer has “put the lie to the myth of your self-destructiveness.” But what have we just seen, if not a frankly ridiculous act of creative immolation?
This is, of course, the privilege of the “artist” in film: to flirt with or deny based on feeling, or temperament, or vision. But the capriciousness of the visionary, when coupled with a sympathetic producer’s pragmatism, can wield great (or at least produced) works. Welles has no such partner here. What he has is Jaglom, a disciple with a vested interest in Welles as the misunderstood, noncommercial artist. Jaglom uses Welles’s dismissal of John Huston as an opportunity to point out what he finds truly rare about Welles: “You mean because [John Huston] doesn’t have a need to really be the creative artist. The fact that you’ve not been able to do that is testimony, in many people’s minds, to a kind of — you’re gonna hate this word — purity. It comes from a kind of insistence on making your own films…” This is lovely talk from an admirer, less useful from a person charged with finding money for your films. After years of teasing, Jack Nicholson finally killed Welles’s “The Big Brass Ring” (his salary needed to be more 1980s, less 1960s), but what could have been if Jaglom had pushed back against Welles’s absurdly racist reaction to the idea of casting Hoffman, Pacino or De Niro in the role of an American president? When Jaglom suggested that these stars had expressed interest, Welles responded, “Not your friend Dusty Hoffman. No dwarfs. Besides, they’re ethnic…No dark, funny-looking guys.”
Ah yes, old man Welles, the lovable old bigot you never knew. Though Welles himself sees through the moral bankruptcy of excusing abhorrent behavior because of artistic greatness (when he rightly criticizes Elia Kazan, who named names for HUAC, Jaglom protests, “You don’t make allowances for people with talent, like Kazan?”), the reader of My Lunches with Orson is urged to excuse what Peter Biskind calls Welles’s “politically incorrect opinions.” In his introduction, Biskind lets the reader knows that he knows that Welles will be surely read as “sexist, racist, homophobic, vulgar (let’s be kind, call it Rabelaisian),” but that he is certain that it was driven by Welles’s “impish” nature. Yes, surely it was his “impishness” that made Welles refuse to hug Jaglom in 1985, saying, “I haven’t gone through my life to be felled by some gay plague.” One can almost see the scampish twinkle in his eye as he pronounces, “no female has guilt. That’s why the Bible is so true!” And any idea that he might be prejudiced (against, for instance, the Irish, Hungarians, Jews, Italians, or Russians, all of whom he neatly reduces into “Rabelaisian” stereotypes) is undone by his many experiences! “I love Hungarians to the point of sex! I almost get a hard-on when I hear a Hungarian accent.” He certainly couldn’t be racist, as he dated Lena Horne! His way of getting back at a racist club-owner who didn’t want him being seen publicly with her was to find a “big, black mammy, like Aunt Jemima, a Hattie McDaniel type, coal black,” send her obscene letters and harass her, then make it appear that the club owner was in fact her deranged stalker. Great prank, Orson!
In the end, the reader of My Lunches With Orson is left with the queasy, hollow, particularly guilty feeling one gets from too much misanthropy; from imbibing too much bile. Welles is petty and vindictive, and though he is an astute critic of the nastiness, solipsism, and viciousness of Hollywood, he is absolutely of it as well. Reading My Lunches With Orson is akin to spending a long three hours with your amusing, gossipy, bigoted old grandpa.
But of course, your grandpa was probably more than just stupid Hungarian jokes (“How do you make a Hungarian omelet? First, steal two eggs. Korda told me that.”) Lost in this book is any sense of a “real” Welles. Though Jaglom claims they are great friends, Welles generally performs his “Welles bear show,” says incendiary things about various groups, and tells fantastic stories about famous people. Yes, yes, the argument goes: was there a “real” Welles? Aren’t we all performing? Did he not amuse? But this is the kind of tiresome and ultimately lazy dehumanization with which Biskind and Jaglom seem too comfortable. Granted, Welles acts more like a caricature than like a man, but he is not treated like a man either. He is treated as an idol, an embodiment of radical cinema, auteur theory, as a living cautionary tale.
The sadness that runs throughout the book is tangible, and even when we are driven to distraction by the unbelievable amount of pretension and egotism on display (it’s like being seated next to a massive blowhard — who also happens to have the voice from Transformers — yelling about how he’s an expert on everything from the Renaissance to Latin American politics, for 14 hours), the overwhelming feeling is one of pity. Pity that this man could not be a man, but had to be an idol, and pity that he did not have better, more human friends. The reader senses the weariness of this Welles pose, the expectation of constant persona becoming too great for him to escape. As they wait for the Lear money to come in (it never does), Jaglom suggests Welles make a short, experimental film “in the meantime.” In one of the rare glimpses of the humanity and desperation behind the Great Man persona, Welles responds,
There is no meantime. It’s the grocery bill. I haven’t got the money. It’s that urgent. That what drives me off my…nut. I can’t afford to work in hopes of future profits. I have to hustle now. All I do is sweat and work. I’m imprisoned by a simple economic fact. Get me on the screen and my life is fuckin’ changed.
This is the real, de-auteured reality of Welles in his last years. Here was a man who had to shill for Paul Masson wine (and then beg to shill again), do voice-over for Magnum P.I., and haggle over a possible Love Boat appearance; the man who wished, bitterly, that he could land a McDonalds campaign like his nemesis John Houseman.
And in the end, no matter how Jaglom protests that Welles knew of the Ma Maison lunch recordings and approved of their eventual use, we are left with Welles’s own words on the foolishness of “knowing” your Gods. Welles had recently read biographies of Isak Dinesen and Robert Graves, his own “Gods.” Though the Graves book was written by an admirer, Welles says:
I learned a lot of things about him I didn’t want to know. If you do the warts, the warts are gonna look bigger than they were in life. If these people were my friends, the warts wouldn’t be as important to me as they seem in the book. We all have people that we know are drunks, or dopeheads or have bad tempers or whatever, and they’re still our friends, you know. But in the book, you focus on it. And these biographies have diminished these people so much in my mind. They deny me someone who I’ve loved always. I like Dinesen a lot less, now. In other words, Dinesen was brilliantly careful to present herself as the person I wanted to love. And if she was somebody else, really, I’m sorry to know it. And I suddenly think to myself, “You know, there’s no such thing as a friendly biographer.”
Image via Wikimedia Commons
The ripples from the Hollywood writers’ strike are felt well outside of the Hollywood pool. Broadway has gone darker than the plot of a Eugene O’Neill play as the stagehands show their solidarity. Production workers for NBC’s “The Office” are out on their ear. Ellen DeGeneres caught in the middle (She and Oprah have both had tough Novembers). Others like Leno and Elaine from Seinfeld seen walking the picket lines with their pasty, underpaid worker bees (dust off the sensible shoes). The windows of houses across the nation glow blue with original “unscripted” Reality TV programming. One feckless young man with literary aspirations turns entrepreneur by selling shirts that read ‘Striking Writer.’ Somewhere, Aaron Sorkin weeps. Eugene Debs shudders in his grave. France smiles knowingly. Alex Rodriguez laughs.The rest presumably writes itself…
I recently bought a DVD set for my six-year-old son that featured the following offenses: reckless gunplay, the detonation of high explosives, apparent vehicular homicide, assault with a baseball bat, plunges from great heights, electrocutions, jailbreaks, punches, slaps, kicks, and shoves into oncoming traffic. For good measure, there was also a healthy dose of cross-dressing.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, my son has been transfixed by the gift: Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Vol. 1.
There wasn’t much behind the purchase beyond the fact that I’d loved Looney Tunes as a child, and hoped that he might, too. Every Saturday morning, from 10 to 11, I sat before my parents’ balky Zenith to watch Bugs, Daffy, and the rest beat each other senseless with blithe and winking glee. As I watched the shorts with my son, I felt as if I’d last seen them just a few weeks before, not during the Reagan era. “Oh, man, wait ‘til you see what he does here,” I kept saying, just before some comically heinous act. When the deed was carried out — a push from a circus high-dive; a rifle-blast to the face — it happened exactly as I’d known it would.
As each episode concluded, I found myself struck by how smart the humor was, and how sharply it was delivered. The bulk of the shorts were made between 60 and 70 years ago, yet outside of the obvious markers — rotary telephones, daily milk delivery, cameras with flashbulbs — they hadn’t aged at all. Bugs Bunny’s quick wit, despite his Old Brooklyn accent, was as deft as ever. In the wake of this summer’s Confederate flag controversy, Yosemite Sam’s belligerence felt practically on-the-nose. And Pepe LePew’s pursuit of the white-striped feline was as squirm-inducing as anything from Seth MacFarlane or the South Park guys.
Why was I so surprised by Looney Tunes’s freshness? Most likely because, over the last few years, I’ve forgotten what cartoons can do. My son has come to favor shows like Chuck & Friends, Thomas and Friends, and Clifford the Big Red Dog. The programs are aggressively bland, crammed with supposed “lessons,” and so focused on the themes of teamwork and sharing that they border on the satirical. Whenever I walk through the room when my son has the TV on, I invariably hear a snippet of motivational-sounding talk delivered in a faux-uplifting tone.
On its face, such positivity seems an obvious good: Like most parents of six-year-old boys, I’ve spent much of his post-toddler life trying to get him to “play nice,” to view other children as more than mere beings intent on grabbing his toys — to not, in effect, act like he’s six years old. So if he wants to waste a half-hour with a TV show, why not let it be one that promotes behavior I’ve been campaigning for?
The answer lies in the reality that my desire for him to not “act like he’s six years old” is as likely to be fulfilled as my wish for him to win the 2036 Cy Young Award — a fact borne out by recent childhood-development research. A 2013 Harvard experiment showed that children can distinguish between “fair” and “unfair” — but don’t necessarily use that understanding to share with other kids. In the study, children were given stickers to keep, then asked how they would distribute them to their peers. As The Boston Globe’s Carolyn Johnson wrote at the time, “Children of all ages agreed that other children should split up the stickers evenly. But when it came to their own sharing, younger children were far more likely to keep more for themselves.” The sticker-hoarding subjects were “a bunch of self-aware hypocrites.”
As if such findings weren’t frustrating enough, there is evidence that, for young children, the concept of sharing can be almost neurologically impossible to grasp. One widely cited study from 2012, published in the journal Neuron, found that the area of the brain involved in impulse control was, unsurprisingly, more developed in adults than in children — suggesting that, in the words of LiveScience.com’s Linda Thrasybule, “selfish behavior in children may not be due to their inability to know ‘fair’ from ‘unfair,’ but rather an immature part of the brain that doesn’t support selfless behavior when tempted to act selfishly.” In other words, children’s brains must grow before they can share those treasured stickers.
None of this is to say that a child’s selfishness should be excused or tolerated — when your kid doesn’t want to share a tennis ball at the park, you can’t pat him on the head and tell the other parents that “recent studies prove it’s okay for my son to be a dick.” But if my lessons on kindness and sharing, repeated ad nauseam and delivered in increasing volume over a number of years, haven’t produced much effect, why would those lessons — delivered via Thomas’s sleepy narrator or a talking Tonka truck — have any effect either? And if those shows’ central message is doomed to fail due to the natural limitations of our children’s brains, what do the shows consist of? Beyond immobilizing a child so that you can have a cup of coffee, what point do they serve? My son’s collection of Thomas trains, $11.99 a pop, seems the most likely answer.
Ironically, it was distress over prefabricated, product-ready cartoons — cheap, noisy crap like He-Man and GoBots — that has brought us to this point. In the decades since the creation of Looney Tunes, a number of formal efforts, such as the Children’s Protection from Violent Programming Act, were undertaken to soften children’s programming. Though that bill ultimately died in the Senate in 2001 — like a coyote falling from a desert plateau, I am tempted to say — the Children’s Television Act, passed a decade before, was already bringing about an era of self-policing throughout the industry. As The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum wrote in 2012, “networks were [now] required to demonstrate that their programming slates included educational material — although what was ‘good for children’ was not necessarily the same as ‘good.’ In 1992, that big purple optimist Barney became a hit.” Today, it seems that children’s programming has split into two camps: absurdist fare such as SpongeBob SquarePants and The Amazing World of Gumball — which hold their baffled young viewers’ attention through a blend of color and speed — and treacly post-Barney pap like Thomas and Chuck & Friends.
In this climate, it’s difficult to imagine something as smartly anarchic — and yes, as violent — as Looney Tunes ever being green-lit. (Even Wabbit, a Looney Tunes reboot that recently premiered on Cartoon Network, is surprisingly strained, a combination of mediocre animation and dutiful homage.) This is unfortunate, because when I observe my son as he watches a Bugs Bunny cartoon — wide-eyed and tickled, forever on the edge of laughter — I see a real engagement there, the inverse of his Thomas-induced stupor. And far from being mindless “Itchy and Scratchy” mayhem, something to legislate against, Looney Tunes had genuine lessons — likely unintentional, but clearly there — embedded in each short. They taught that intelligence was more important than aggression, as Bugs outwitted Yosemite Sam and Tweety Bird outwitted Sylvester, time and time again. Through Pepe LePew, they conveyed the stupidity of lust; with Wile E. Coyote, they showed that pure desire sometimes wasn’t enough to obtain the thing you want.
Unlike contemporary cartoons, Looney Tunes didn’t have a thing to say about teamwork or caring or sharing; on the contrary, its characters nearly always acted alone. Is Bugs Bunny teaching my son to be independent any more than Thomas the Tank Engine is teaching him to be a better kid? That I can’t say for sure. But at least while he’s watching Bugs Bunny, we can share a genuine laugh.
I saw an incredible movie on Friday night, The Triplets of Belleville. It’s a very odd French, animated film. Barely two words are spoken the entire film; instead it is all raucous song and a canvas that is blissfully full of movement and energy. It was a joy to watch. Here’s the trailer.More WoodyAs was discussed in the comments of my recent “bookfinding” post, it turns out that all three of Woody Allen’s humor collections are available in a single volume entitled Complete Prose of Woody Allen. Or they were available, anyway. This one appears to be out of print, although used copies are for sale. Meanwhile, Ms. Millions has been attempting to read Without Feathers and has been unable to get very far because she can’t stop laughing. Every time I look over she’s silently guffawing, too winded to hold the book in front of her face. It reminds me of that old Monty Python skit about the world’s deadliest joke.
While it should come as news to absolutely no one that Sony is readying Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons (IMDb) for the big screen (Would it surprise anyone if Dan Brown’s grocery list fetched an eight figure deal?), what might come as a shock is the price paid to screenwriter Akiva Goldsman. That price, $4,000,000, is a new record for a “for hire” project, and ties the payday Shane Black received for “The Long Kiss Goodnight” (IMDb) for most money ever paid to a screenwriter for a single writer credit. Goldsman secured this filthy lucre despite tepid (read hostile) reviews of his adaptation of The Da Vinci Code (IMDb). With this record-setting paycheck, and kudos from the ever-fawning LA Times column “Scriptland,” does this signal a new golden age of screenwriting? Not according to this LA Weekly article “Screenwriters in the Shit“. It’s articles like this that make me want to move to the sticks and take up animal husbandry.