Screening Room

Breaking Good: Broadway’s Golden Age Reborn on Cable

1. It is hardly news by now that Broadway theater has become a high-priced museum of its former self. This year’s Broadway season, which kicked off earlier this month, will feature a few new plays, including a limited run of Outside Mullingar from Pulitzer-winner John Patrick Shanley in January, but for the most part Broadway theaters will host the usual disheartening mix of jukebox musicals, retooled Disney movies, and revivals of hoary classics populated by downshifting movie stars. For those who care about theater as an art form, it is this last category, the endless stream of revivals of classic American plays populated by movie stars, that really hurts. Sure, there are theaters off-Broadway and in other cities around the country that still commission and produce new plays, but the Broadway revivals, like the production of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie starring Cherry Jones that opened earlier this month, show that there was once a time when serious new plays found favor not just with a small, theater-loving elite, but with a broad cross-section of middle-class America. My own grandparents, like many educated young people in the 1940s, loved culture and fine things, but they lived in an isolated mill town in Southern Virginia without good bookstores or restaurants, much less a vital theater scene. So, like thousands of their fellow Americans, once or twice a year, they hopped a train to New York to eat a few decent meals, shop at the department stores along Fifth Avenue, and “see the shows,” which for them meant Broadway. This was, for a generation of American provincials like my grandparents, the height of sophistication and an annual ritual that sustained New York theater for decades. Now that golden age of serious, culturally ambitious drama is gone forever. Or is it? Certainly, given the sky-high ticket prices and the emphasis on circus-like musicals catering to baby boomer nostalgia, the next generation of great American dramatists like Tennessee Williams or Lorraine Hansberry, whose 1959 classic A Raisin in the Sun is being revived this spring, won’t be returning to Broadway any time soon. But in fact we have a platform for serious, character-driven drama in this country, and it is more popular and broad-based than Broadway ever was. It’s called cable television. The inexorable slide of quality theater from the cultural mainstream and the rise of cable TV as the defining dramatic art form of the 21st century is a prime example of technological “creative destruction” at work. The theater of Broadway’s Golden Age was indeed terrific stuff, but as a consumer product it was wildly inefficient. Because shows were live and unrecorded, they could be seen by a limited number of people, many of whom had to travel hundreds of miles to get to the theater. Successful Broadway shows spawned touring companies – as hit musicals still do to this day – but such tours are costly to run and audiences in the smaller cities inevitably get a watered-down version of the real thing, with lower quality actors and production values. Cable shows like Homeland or Breaking Bad, which airs its series finale this Sunday, are cheap and easily accessible to anyone with a subscription to cable or Netflix. More importantly, though, thanks to a complex set of market forces, all the incentives push cable channels to hire top-drawer actors and writers and allow them the artistic freedom to create compelling characters and story lines, much the way the best Broadway plays did half a century ago. This fragile cultural moment won’t last – more on that later – but for now it seems clear that if Tennessee Williams and Lorraine Hansberry were writing today they would be showrunners for a cable series, because that’s where the audience is. 2. You can measure the Golden Age of American theater in many ways, but I would mark it from the 1944 debut of The Glass Menagerie to the opening night of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in 1962. There were, of course, serious American playwrights before then – Eugene O’Neill is the best-known, but there were plenty of others – but those writers always seemed slightly ahead of the popular culture of their time. Likewise, many great American plays have debuted since 1962, and a select few, like Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, became part of the wider national conversation. But for a short time after the Second World War, American commercial theater hit that elusive sweet spot where popularity meets ambitious social and artistic agendas. In his fascinating 1987 autobiography Timebends, Arthur Miller speaks of this era as a time when the audience was basically the same for musicals and light entertainment as for the ambitious stuff and had not yet been atomized...So the playwright’s challenge was to please not a small sensitized supporting clique but an audience representing, more or less, all of America. Miller explains how this broad-based, yet culturally hungry audience shaped the work of the era’s two greatest writers, himself and Tennessee Williams. Both men were, to differing degrees, outsiders to American culture – Williams because he was unapologetically gay, Miller because he was a Jew with strong radical beliefs. In another era, Miller says, they might well have slanted their work to please a minority audience that already agreed with them, but suddenly in the postwar years there was a mainstream audience waiting to hear what they had to say, and being both great artists and profoundly ambitious men, they opened their work outward to a mass audience. To do that, they didn’t preach to their audiences like Clifford Odets did in his political plays of the 1930s or bash the viewer over the head with a bleak vision the way O’Neill too often does in his plays. Instead, Miller and Williams created characters – indelible, psychologically complex protagonists like the struggling salesman Willy Loman riding on a smile and a shoeshine or the tragic, half-mad Blanche DuBois forever depending on the kindness of strangers. These characters had to be psychologically complex and indelibly drawn because that’s how you appeal to a heterogenous audience not already united by social background or political outlook: you get audiences to care deeply about a character, to see themselves in someone who may not be in any outward way like them. Once you’ve done that, an audience will follow you anywhere. 3. Interestingly, it wasn’t the movies that put an end to Broadway’s Golden Age. Hollywood’s own Golden Age, stretching from the advent of sound in the late 1920s to the late 1950s, roughly overlaps that of Broadway. No, it was TV that killed the Broadway of Miller’s era – that and probably the jet plane. At a time when the only viable home entertainment was radio and all but the stratospherically rich traveled by train, car, or boat, Broadway theater was part of a broader leisure industry that catered to Americans like my grandparents yearning for cultural experiences they couldn’t enjoy in their own hometowns. But once the desire for entertainment could be satisfied by a magic box in the living room and a desire for horizon-broadening travel could by satisfied by plane trips to Europe and beyond, Hollywood and Broadway had to adapt or die. They did so by splitting their audiences – “atomizing” them, in Miller’s terms – into high and low. After a decade of trial and error, Hollywood reinvented itself in the 1970s with ambitious, director-driven films like Roman Polanski’s Chinatown and Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and money-spinning summer blockbusters like Jaws and Star Wars. Broadway did much the same thing, filling the bigger houses with crowd-pleasing musicals like Cats and A Chorus Line while supporting more adventurous, writer-driven work by the likes of David Mamet, Sam Shepard, and Wendy Wasserstein. This worked for a time, thanks in large part to off-Broadway and the regional theater movement, which allowed playwrights to grow their careers at subscription-based resident theaters around the country and then bring their most popular work to New York for a money-making Broadway run. This system, low-paying and outside the mainstream as it was, still made for some pretty terrific theater. Shepard, sustained by a long-running affiliation with San Francisco’s Magic Theater, introduced audiences to his singularly bleak and funny Western vision, while August Wilson, who premiered most of his plays at the Seattle Repertory Theater, opened a window onto working-class black characters quite nearly invisible to the mainstream. But while regional theater provided an audience for more adventurous fare, unlike in Arthur Miller’s day, it was no longer the same audience that went to see the big musicals. Mamet, Shepard, and Wilson, talented as they were, were no longer writing for “an audience representing, more or less, all of America,” but for the “small sensitized supporting clique” that Miller saw as an artistically narrowing force. And then, lo and behold, the free market worked its magic. As Broadway ticket prices escalated to pay for ever more lavish, spectacle-driven musicals, it became harder to persuade theatergoers, even the ones who like the more ambitious stuff, to risk several hundred dollars on a new play. 4. Enter Carrie Bradshaw and Tony Soprano. Gallons of ink have been spilled, and thousands of terabytes expended, trying to explain why audiences have become so obsessed with characters on modern cable shows, but as Adam Davidson demonstrates in a December 2012 New York Times “It’s the Economy” column, the answer has more to do with business models than any quirk of culture. When there were only three major networks, programming success depended on producing a great number of shows that were just incrementally better than what was on the two other networks, which inevitably led to the creation of a vast wasteland of expensively bland mediocrity. But once cable blew up the TV dial, giving viewers hundreds of channels to choose from, programmers had to shift their strategy. Now, it wasn’t enough to be just a little better than the competition; now, your shows had to be a lot better. You didn’t have to come up with a huge number of great shows, just one or two at a time would do, but they had to be so good that viewers would become obsessed with the characters and story lines to the point that they would shun cable providers that didn’t carry the channels where those shows appeared. In other words, out of the morass of network TV, the very technology that ended Broadway theater’s Golden Age, came a sort of small-screen Broadway in which a few big talents – David Simon of The Wire, Lena Dunham of Girls, Vince Gilligan of Breaking Bad, and so on – have been given wide artistic latitude to create characters and stories audiences will care about. Because cable providers often operate as near-monopolies, the average cable bill has doubled in the past decade, and viewers pay close to $90 billion a year for cable service. That is a huge pot of money, and for many cable companies nearly half of their revenue is pure profit, so there is an enormous incentive to get the formula right. But as Davidson points out in his Times column, this fragile model is already fraying at the seams. So far at least, cable subscribers aren’t canceling in large numbers, but as piracy becomes more pervasive, fewer younger people are signing up for cable in the first place. “When people in their 20s move out of their parents’ house or dorm room, they are less likely to get into the habit of paying for cable,” he writes. “If they get addicted to Breaking Bad, they’ll often download it free through file-sharing services like Bit Torrent or wait for it to come out on iTunes.” To make up for lost revenue, cable providers have to jack up rates, which drives more new viewers away, setting up a vicious spiral that, according to one industry expert Davidson spoke to, could cause the entire edifice to collapse as early as 2016. What comes after that? The short answer is nobody knows. It could get seriously messy there for a while, leading millions of Breaking Bad and Mad Men obsessives to bore their children with talk of the Golden Age of Cable. But if this history teaches us anything, it is that there is always going to be a sizeable audience that cares about quality drama enough to pay real money for it. After all, in the 1940s, Broadway’s principal competition was local amateur productions and guys on their front porches telling funny stories – a sort of analog version of today’s BitTorrent downloads and YouTube cat videos. My grandfather, who told some pretty funny stories himself, was willing to plunk down serious money to take his family to New York for a few good meals and a chance to see the best writers and performers of his age. I have no idea what entertainment technology will look like when my future grandchildren begin to hunger for something more edifying than a quick joke or a funny story, but my bet is they will be able to find it if they are willing to pay for it. Image via
Reviews, Screening Room

Speculative Evidence: Ben Urwand’s The Collaboration

Adolf Hitler loved Mickey Mouse. Mickey’s Fire Brigade, Mickey’s Polo Team, Pluto Outwits Mickey — for Hitler, Mickey Mouse was magic. Hitler loved Mickey Mouse so much that, in 1937, Joseph Goebbels, the head of the Reich Ministry of Popular Entertainment and Propaganda, sent the Führer 12 Mickey Mouse films (plus “a wonderful art album”) for Christmas. The box set was a gift that Goebbels hoped would bring his dictator “much joy and relaxation” as Hitler proceeded with his plans to conquer Europe, systematically annihilating two-thirds of its Jewish inhabitants along the way. Ben Urwand’s book The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler begins with this startling juxtaposition. It is the unholy alliance of Hitler and Mickey that tees up Urwand’s central claim: from 1933 to 1939, the Jewish moguls who ran Hollywood’s studio system “collaborated” with the Nazi regime, censoring and even quashing films that represented the German state in a negative light. According to Urwand, the studios were motivated by profit, pure and simple. In 1932, Germany represented Hollywood’s biggest foreign market, a business opportunity complicated by the fact that the German Foreign Office claimed the right to deny import permits to any film whose “tendency or effect” was “detrimental to German prestige.” It was no accident that Germany’s tightening oversight of its film imports came at precisely the same moment that writers and directors — ranging from Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz to Hitler parodist Charlie Chaplin — sought to expose Nazi evil on the silver screen. But markets trumped morals. Films like The Road Back (1937) and Lancer Spy (1937) were hacked up according to German demands, while anti-Nazi films like The Mad Dog of Europe and It Can’t Happen Here were relegated to dustbins on Hollywood Boulevard.    Urwand finds evidence of “collaboration” (Zusammenarbeit) everywhere. He finds it in the letters of studio heads, like Universal Pictures’ Carl Laemmle and MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, who allegedly pulled films that alluded to Germany’s “Jewish Problem.” He finds it in records of meetings between the Hays Office, Hollywood’s chief censorship organization, and a revolving door of German diplomats, each more unctuous than the last. And crucially for Urwand’s purposes, he finds it in Hitler’s incoherent scribblings on film and propaganda in Mein Kampf (1926). If Hitler “derived a lot of pleasure” from Mickey and friends, “he was also seduced by them. He believed that they contained a mysterious, almost magical power that somehow resembled his own abilities as an orator.” And so Urwand claims that “Hitler himself” sits “at the center” of the studio system’s complicity with the Third Reich, dictating from his private screening room in the Chancellery which movies were “good,” “bad,” or needed to be “switched off.” Armed with an embarrassment of archival riches, Urwand draws a conclusion that would make Hannah Arendt sit up and pay attention were she alive today. Indeed, it seems impossible to read The Collaboration without hearing echoes of Arendt’s reasoning in Eichmann in Jerusalem — her indictment of the “Jewish ‘collaborators’” who “had cooperated [with the Nazis] because they thought they could ‘avert consequences more serious than those which resulted.” While Hollywood studios “had the chance to show the world what was really happening in Germany,” he argues, they were too busy kowtowing to the bottom line to “expose the brutality of the Nazi regime” in action. Although Urwand stops just short of offering his readers a full counterfactual history, his implication is clear. There is blood on Hollywood’s hands. Since word of The Collaboration got out this past June, the hype surrounding it has given way to a firestorm of personal and professional trash talk. Perhaps it began with the cover letter that Urwand’s publicity team at Goldberg McDuffie Communications, Inc. sent to reviewers, which talks up The Collaboration while simultaneously dissing film historian Thomas P. Doherty’s Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939, a strikingly similar account of the Third Reich’s dealings with the studio system that came out only six months earlier. "Whereas Doherty relied on flawed, superficial accounts in domestic trade papers, Urwand discovered a vast array of primary source materials,” wrote Urwand’s publicist, seeking to undermine Doherty’s far milder claim that, when it came to Nazism, “the motion picture industry was no worse than the rest of American culture in its failure of nerve and imagination, and often a good deal better in the exercise of both.” But Urwand’s team seems to have forgotten that all publicity is good publicity, especially where academic historians are concerned. So baited, Doherty struck back in the pages of The Hollywood Reporter. Urwand’s charges of collaboration were “scandalous and ahistorical,” Doherty argued, an irresponsible retro-projection of the Vichy and Soviet government’s political collaboration with the Nazis onto the Hollywood studio system. He was, however, much nicer in print than Hollywood heiresses Cass Warner and Alicia Mayer, the latter of whom attacked Urwand’s “sickening claims” on her blog Hollywood Essays. “I need your help,” Mayer begins her petition to blacklist Urwand’s book. “Imagine for a moment that your family has been accused of collaborating with Hitler and the Nazis...How could one book destroy the amazing legacies left by my family and those of the Warners, the Goldwyns and others?” Spurred on by her outrage, Mayer calls on Doherty along with film historian Michael Greco and director Quentin Tarantino to strike down Urwand’s “terrible libel.” By now, Urwand has surely realized that someone had blundered by riling up Doherty, who proves a far better critic than Urwand. Hollywood and Hitler is a tighter, more riveting read than The Collaboration, and Doherty displays the methodical prowess of a historian who doesn’t have to scandalize to sell his story. More importantly, Doherty’s unwillingness to stretch the limits of interpretation throws into relief The Collaboration’s many sleights of hand, the dark magic of a historian’s misreadings across a series of otherwise fascinating archives. At its best moments, The Collaboration covers ground well tread by Doherty and others, offering by-the-book sketches of the Nazi riots at the 1933 screening of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), the failed anti-Nazi film The Mad Dog of Europe, and the proto-fascist spectacle of films like Gabriel Over the White House (1933). At its worst, The Collaboration proceeds by insinuation rather than proof, clumsily contorting its archival findings to fit Urwand’s agenda of character assassination. Consider, for instance, how Urwand treats Twentieth Century Fox’s Oscar nominated movie The House of Rothschild (1934), an attempt to allegorize the rise of anti-Semitism in the twentieth century by narrating the history of Mayer Rothschild’s banking empire. Politically incorrect by today’s standards, The House of Rothschild was praised at the time of its release by rabbis and Jewish affiliates of B’nai B’rith. Six years after The House of Rothschild premiered in the U.S., the Nazis spliced footage from The House of Rothschild into The Eternal Jew (1940), a vicious piece of anti-Semitic propaganda directed by Fritz Hippler. From this, Urwand concludes that The Eternal Jew was “unthinkable without The House of Rothschild,” as it “provided structure to what otherwise would have been the regime’s usual anti-Semitism.” But Urwand fails to tell us how long this footage lasts — a mere 4 minutes — nor does he draw attention to the long history of “The Eternal Jew” as a folklore figure, a Yiddish-language play, a British film, a 1937 anti-Semitic book, or a Nazi art exhibit, all preceding or contemporaneous with the American film. If the actual details of The Eternal Jew deflate much of Urwand’s overblown rhetoric, they’re also beside the point. To label Hippler’s cut-and-paste job an act of collaboration between Hollywood and the Nazis is a little like calling shoplifting collaboration between a thief and a shopkeeper. The Collaboration is littered with such analytic missteps. Pick a page, and read it carefully, and some thread of Urwand’s argument is bound to unravel in your hands. There are conclusions that feel shaky the instant you land upon them — for example, his claim that Germany’s ban on Warner Brothers’ film Captured! (1933) somehow scared the other studios into “collaborating with Nazi Germany” seems both vague and implausible. There are instances where Urwand cites anecdotal evidence only to undercut it, only to rely on it in pushing his argument forward. His introductory chapter “Hitler’s Obsession with Film” is especially troubling in this regard, as he introduces his sustained analogy between Hitler’s oratorical skills and movie magic on the testimony of Hitler’s friend Reinhold Hanisch, an account he first flags as “dubious in several respects.” And finally, there are whole chapters in which Urwand’s fascinating and contradictory strands of evidence are muted by an overly pat conclusion. When, for instance, Urwand can’t find any solid proof that Louis B. Mayer personally pulled Sinclair Lewis’s anti-fascist film It Can’t Happen Here for fear of the Third Reich, he reads Mayer’s “no comment” as an obvious admission of his guilt. Of course, this ignores Urwand’s earlier evidence that Mayer repeatedly “decided to push ahead with It Can’t Happen Here” despite the German government’s protests.   All of this is simply to say, if you only read one book this year on Hollywood and the Nazis, don’t read this one. And it’s a shame, really, because there’s an extraordinary book to be written using the evidence that Urwand extracted from his German and American sources. As a critic, the best part of reading The Collaboration is fantasizing about the book it might have been — something less sensational, but more patient and responsible with its raw materials. I was beckoned time and again by flashes of archival mystery: Hitler’s childish fascination with not just Mickey, but the slapstick of Laurel and Hardy and the sentimentality of musical theater; the genesis of national typecasting in Howard Hughes’s World War I film Hell’s Angels; the unspecified and fluid relationship between the studio centers in Hollywood and their foreign branches. The list goes on, but it matters little. After all, critics can’t be collaborators.
Lists, Screening Room

A Breaking Bad (and Beyond) Reading List

Only five new episodes remain in AMC's high-octane drama about a milquetoast family man who transforms himself into a cunning drug kingpin. Within the next two months, we can expect to see Walter White's reckoning, whether through spectacular downfall or a final ascension to cartel royalty. Blood will spill and secrets will be revealed. Breaking Bad promises us the rush and pulse of the best Shakespeare dramas, cinematically captured in the saturated blues and bleached out beiges that signify the Southwestern landscape. One of the strengths of Breaking Bad is its richly layered storylines. There are worlds and worlds behind Walter White's character arc. The story of the land and people of Northern New Mexico alone could be its own fascinating spinoff of Breaking Bad. Not to mention the history of The Drug War, cartels, and race relations in the borderlands. The books on this list range from the personal to the mythological to the journalistic, and some intertwine all three. They all depict a world of stark contrasts. There is danger here. There are hardscrabble heroes and self-made gods dripping with hubris. Each book is infused with the poetry of landscape, in which humans like Walter White and Jesse Pinkman try to craft their own story with what their realities have handed them. Desert America: Boom and Bust in the New Old West by Ruben Martinez: Martinez deftly blends memoir and reportage, giving us an essential new way of thinking about and seeing the West. He goes into the complicated multiracial history of Northern New Mexico and brings the landscape and the people into stark relief as he tells his own story of settling there; he is part native, part interloper, both an advocate and gentrifier. It is from this ambiguous identity that he feels compelled to research the painful and fascinating history of the West, both its economic reality and its role in the Great American Imagination. It's a perfect book to read in tandem with Breaking Bad, to get an intimate sense of the place where Vince Gilligan's drama unfolds. Alburquerque: A Novel by Rudolfo Anaya: World Literature Today described Anaya's famous novel as “a quest for knowledge... a novel about many cultures intersecting at an urban, power-, and politics-filled crossroads, represented by a powerful white businessman.” A description that could easily apply to Breaking Bad. Anaya is often described as the father of Chicano literature and his novels are richly woven tapestries of memorable characters and an evocative sense of place. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: Early on in the show, there were some comparisons of Skyler to Lady MacBeth. I disagree. She may have eventually accepted her role as accomplice and money launderer, but she began as the Daisy to Walt's Gatsby. She was the pure (but greedy) representation of love and family that Walt ironically corrupted himself to protect and secure. There are plenty of places where Breaking Bad departs from Gatsby, but they share the story of an American nobody's contraband-funded rise to infamy and inevitable tragic end. Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell: The book that inspired the Oscar-nominated film, Daniel Woodrell's novel is populated with the same kind of down-on-their-luck folks who make do with what they can in a harsh ecology, who rally around their own kind and protect family until the bitter end. Even if that means cooking and dealing meth. To Die in Mexico: Dispatches from Inside the Drug War by John Gibler: The cartel murders in Breaking Bad are highly dramatized and sensationalized. John Gibler's clear-eyed, well-researched reports remove many of the stereotypes and misconceptions about Mexico's multi-billion dollar drug war, and will give the reader blood-curdling facts about the real Tuco Salamancas and Gus Frings and their impoverished, routinely executed employees. This highly praised book promises to sadden and enrage, and possibly to change your thinking about the War on Drugs. A Place to Stand by Jimmy Santiago Baca: New Mexico's own American Book Award Winner spent six years of his early life in prison for selling drugs as a homeless youth. This memoir chronicles his life before, during, and after his time served. It's a story of hope and remaking. Think of it as the photo-negative of Walter White's arc. Far from the relative comfort of the White household, Baca began his life abandoned and destitute. He honestly writes of transforming himself in spite of desperate adversity, and of working for the nourishment and empowerment of the underserved communities around him. Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko: Tucson has a similar history to that of Albuquerque – a modest desert metropolis that means many things to many people: colonized sacred land, dangerous, heavily policed border town, bohemian enclave, nexus of social ills. Both towns are weird clashing intersections of demographics and material interests; from the fancy-free cultural events of the college town to the radical activism of border justice advocates to the sleepy insularity of hippie-crystal business ownership. Leslie Marmon Silko's novel centers on a veteran of the drug trade who sees the ghosts of colonialism in present day Arizona. Her story is a terrifying shadow history of the world that allowed someone like Walter White to exist.
Screening Room

Paul Schrader + Bret Easton Ellis + Lindsay Lohan = One Excellent Misadventure

Bad movies, like all bad art, have an important job to do. Without them we wouldn't be able to identify, appreciate, and differentiate the great, the good, and the merely passable. It's not that bad is the new good. It's that bad is vital and timeless because without it there could be no good. And make no mistake about it, The Canyons, the new movie directed by Paul Schrader, written by Bret Easton Ellis, and starring Lindsay Lohan, is very bad. You sense this from the first frames when, to droning synthesizer moans, the credits play over washed-out still photos of abandoned movie theaters. Bummer! People have stopped going out to see movies! Says who? Says Paul Schrader. In an interview with the Tribeca Film Festival, the writer of some classic movies (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) and the director of some pedigreed dogs (Hardcore, American Gigolo, Light Sleeper) explained that this credit sequence was his way of lamenting the fact that technology is killing the communal experience of going to a theater to sit in the dark with strangers and watch large pictures move on a screen. "The two-hour format is under siege," Schrader said. "But the whole concept of visual entertainment is expanding... This myth that people will always want to go out to the movies, they'll always want a communal experience – I don't know that that's necessarily true." This sounds like those doomsayers who worried that television was going to kill the movies half a century ago, but whatever. The Canyons opens with a long, rudderless scene in a restaurant where we meet the main characters, a reptilian crew who are all involved in the making of some kind of B movie. The king lizard on this reptile farm is Christian, played by James Deen (get it?), a veteran of some 4,000 porn movies but a newcomer to a serious dramatic role. It shows. Deen has a hard time giving a convincing line reading, and yet after a while I started to see him as an inspired casting choice. Christian is a trust fund kid (he refers to his father as "The Asshole") and he wears his sense of entitlement effortlessly and convincingly, on his face and in his body language, in his car and his clothes and his promiscuous sex life and, especially, in his preposterous house perched above the Pacific. He's a character only Bret Easton Ellis could love. His girlfriend is Tara (Lohan), who looks puffy and wears Kabuki eye makeup and sounds like she's back on the Xanax. As a pampered party girl who doesn't do much of anything but have sex, drink, and go to the gym, Lohan is another inspired casting choice. It's impossible to separate her tabloid meltdowns from what's on the screen here, and in an unsettling way, it works. Christian and Tara are celebrating the fact that Ryan (Nolan Gerard Funk), a pretty-boy hick just off the bus from Michigan, has won the lead role in Christian's new movie, with a boost from Tara. Ryan's girlfriend Gina (Amanda Brooks) is Christian's assistant. Neither Christian nor Gina is aware that Ryan and Tara are having an affair. Welcome to the reptile farm. Throughout this scene, Christian and Tara gaze into their smartphones as if they've been hypnotized by the things. Eventually we learn why: Christian likes to take videos of the hookups he and Tara make with a revolving cast of men and women. Who needs movie theaters when you can make porno in the comfort of your own home? And that's pretty much what The Canyons is about. It seems to want to join the venerable company of movies about the making of movies, from Sunset Boulevard to Mulholland Drive, The Player, and Hugo. But there isn't any actual movie-making in this movie. Instead, these people do drugs, they do lunch, they do each other. They drive around and walk through malls and shop. The sex scenes are graphic without being even slightly erotic, which could be the whole point. The dialogue is often dreadful ("Nobody has a private life anymore" and "Who's really happy?" and this line of inspired sexual foreplay: "Get to work. Put it in your fucking mouth"). In the end it's hard to care about any of these people, with the possible exception of Tara because Lohan, our distaff Charlie Sheen, brings a raspy vulnerability to the part. Again, that might be the whole point. After all, we're deep in Bret Easton Ellis country, southern California zip code. Which means there will be sex and there will be blood and anything goes and nothing matters. Much has been written about how Schrader made this movie on the cheap after raising $170,000 on Kickstarter. His goal was to get out from under the thumb of studio suits. As someone who has written magazine articles that got carved up by committees of editors, I can appreciate Schrader's yearning for creative control. But if this mess is what creative control produces, I say bring back the suits. On paper, the pairing of Schrader and Ellis looks like a natural. Both have had long, if uneven, careers working society's margins, exploring the lives of misfits, the privileged, the kinky, the benumbed. I've long admired Ellis for having the courage to create mercilessly repellent characters, especially given today's tyranny of likability. I think the anomie-soaked Less Than Zero is his best book. But he has given up novel writing in favor of screenwriting, a sensible career move given the way moving images continue to overwhelm and marginalize the writing of serious fiction in America. Based on what's on the screen here, though, maybe he should consider returning to his fictional roots. I haven't read The Canyons script, but I saw what's on the screen. At one point Christian, who is about as deep as a mud puddle, offers this bit of gravitas: "We're all just actors." And when Tara takes control of a four-way sex scene, Christian moans to his shrink the next morning, "I felt objectified." Everyone in the theater burst out laughing. Ellis was unhappy with the finished product. "The film is so languorous," he told the New York Times. "It's an hour 30, and it seems like it's three hours long. I saw this as a pranky noirish thriller, but Schrader just turned it into, well, a Schrader film." Indeed he did. When this Schrader film's final scene ended, everyone in the theater burst out laughing again. This was not amused or delighted laughter. It was derisive, and it indicates just how very bad this movie is, how far apart its intention is from its achieved effect. Which is why it is such an excellent misadventure, and very much worth seeing.
In Memoriam, Screening Room

The Unfortunate Legacy of Richard Matheson: On the Roots and Unfairly Repellent Qualities of Less-Than-Stellar Film Adaptations

1. Perhaps it’s appropriate that when I found out Richard Matheson was dead, I was watching television; there are few writers, after all, with a more intimate, lengthy relationship with both that living room medium and its bombastic cousin, the feature film. The storyteller in me wishes I’d had one of the many Matheson-penned episodes of The Twilight Zone on in the background at the moment I learned of his passing, if only because it feels like a modicum of disquieting coincidence in keeping with the sort of urgent, vital fiction he seemed to pump out effortlessly for decades. Imagine it: a fan learns of a famous writer’s death as the very words he wrote drift from the television, and cut to the fan’s face and cue the spooky score as he senses invisible, supernatural hands at work. Alas, there was no such luck, as my fiancée and I were approximately chest-deep in an evening marathon of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, and I had to make do with the melodious sound of Detective Elliot Stabler slamming a perpetrator’s head into the reflective glass of the police interview room. Of course, Matheson, of all people, likely wouldn’t have begrudged me a brief indulgence in what you could (charitably) call campy, disposable entertainment (if you’ve seen "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet", you know what I mean). “Richard Matheson died today,” I said. “Hm?” My fiancée said. I pressed mute so we wouldn’t have to talk over Stabler cartoonishly brutalizing a suspect. “This writer, Richard Matheson, he died today. He was 87, but still, you know. Terrible.” “That’s so sad,” she said. We were very nearly through half a moment of reflective, respectful silence when she returned to playing Sudoku on her iPad. Stabler gritted his teeth and sneered something into the perpetrator’s ear. “So, you don’t have the slightest clue who that is.” “Nope,” she said politely. “Should I?” I opened my mouth to begin what would, knowing me, be an exhaustively detailed, near-insufferable process of explanation, complete with video clips, historical context regarding his influence on other important contemporary writers, and breathlessly quoted vital passages, but after a moment, I found nothing would come out. Matheson’s long been a favorite, and someone whose career and influence I find inspiring, but here I was, unable to speak about him. My fiancée looked at me. “You know who he is, right?” 2. It’s hard for me to talk about writers. Don’t get me wrong. I can talk about books and writers for-goddamn-ever, and love to; we can spread some sleeping bags on the kitchen floor and have an impromptu sleepover and talk about stories all night if you’d like. That being said, I believe the lens through which I view such things is a little odd. It’s not just that I love literature and books -- it’s that my mind is built with an obsessive proclivity for recalling lists of titles, and influences, and passages, and on and on. Like I said, this is odd, but more importantly in regards to interacting with others, it’s boring. Inciting yawns, you see, is precisely the opposite of my intention, particularly if it means shutting someone’s mind down about an author with whom they might someday fall in love. I want to be a participant in the literary community, and an envoy for short stories and novels and any other means of delivering some of the cream of the printed crop; I don’t want to screw someone out of discovering something great because they got bored after I started rattling off James Baldwin’s bibliography like I’ve got literary tourettes. So if someone hasn’t heard of Cormac McCarthy (and I’ve avoided impulsively bludgeoning them with something), I don’t say: “Here’s Child of God and The Crossing and Blood Meridian and the script for The Sunset Limited, take a quick gander and you’ll have a good idea of his importance to the western canon and HEY WHERE ARE YOU GOING?” Instead, I simplify for the sake of continuing the proverbial conversation by relying on a perhaps more easily accessible cultural reference: feature films. Let’s be honest. Films are easier and quicker to consume than novels or short stories, for the most part, and that fact alone makes them an easier experiential mountain to climb for the majority of busy people and their shorter and shorter attention spans. “He’s the dude who wrote No Country. You remember. The one where Javier Bardem had the bowl cut and fucked up like thirty people.” “Oh, rad. Yeah, he housed that guy with the air gun. That was fucking sweet,” they say, nodding. Does this constitute participation in the long, slow dumbing-down of culture? Maybe. However, what I’m also saying, what I consider the more salient ultimate point is that my strategy at least continues a conversation about an artist instead of ending it; having seen a film they liked, a friend may pick up the novel that inspired it. I can bask in a momentary thrill when a friend nods in recognition, because hey, maybe I’ve just played a small part in someone discovering something cool. Of course, my endorsement or quick distillation of an author’s identity through film adaptations may not lead to a friend mowing through an extensive list of works, but it might. 3. I’ve used film as a successful means to introduce people to writers before. It works for Annie Proulx. It works for Toni Morrison. If you’re willing to be disqualify anything from the '80s (or anything, like the legendarily bad television adaptation of The Stand, that involves Gary Sinise), it sort of works for Stephen King. You’d think that given his extensive list of adapted works and his own involvement in the television and film industries, it’d work for Matheson, too. You would be wrong. You would be breathtakingly wrong, in fact. You would be so wrong as to necessitate a bracing shot of something almost incalculably strong before looking at the man’s IMDB page. In fact, instead of reviewing his filmography, content yourself with this miserable spoiler alert: Matheson’s work has been adapted into a stunning litany of shitty movies. Other authors you might fairly categorize as important are at least the occasional beneficiary of good film adaptations -- or at least they trend much less toward the sad, dark wasteland of whoops, does anyone remember why we cast Paul Walker? With Matheson, that’s not the case. A number of his works -- each considered at least addicting, pulpy-fun page turners, and at best as profoundly influential to a generation of writers -- have been adapted in recent years, and, well, they are all really, really bad. Even though the written work is good, the adaptation -- despite widely varying directors, screenwriters, and casts -- ends up bafflingly terrible. Is there something inherent in Matheson’s writing that makes for bad adaptations? Such a premise doesn’t seem to make sense, because the works vary enough -- stylistically and thematically -- to rule out a single fundamental flaw. What Dreams May Come is a novel incredibly different from I Am Legend. "Steel"is a short story with no readily apparent similarities to "Button, Button." And yet all four have produced adaptations (What Dreams May Come, I Am Legend, Real Steel, and The Box, respectively) in the last few decades that have been (deservedly) panned by critics and fans. Frankly, it seems worthy of a Twilight Zone episode. Richard Matheson. 87. A writer and screenwriter and noted figure in the annals of contemporary literature. He’s about to find out, though, that simply producing an effective story is not enough. When adaptations are concerned, sometimes, an effective story is just what one needs to produce a completely ridiculous and terrible story. Richard Matheson is entering a world beyond sight and sound. He’s about to The Twilight Zone. 4. Let’s look at the evidence. "Button, Button" is without question a classic example of the short story form. It’s a work of stunning power that flashes by with equally breathtaking brevity. You know the plot; a cash-strapped couple are offered the opportunity to make $50,000, simply provided they push the button on a small, innocent-looking contraption delivered unexpectedly to their doorstep. The only catch? As a result of their button-pushing, someone they’ve never met, somewhere, will be killed. The story’s few, intense, spare pages are spent exploring the couple’s conflicts over the morality of a utilizing a device they agree cannot possibly do what its mysterious proprietor claims it does. It’s a bad joke, Norma and Arthur are certain, but, as they wonder over tense dinnertime disagreements, what if it isn’t? It’s a question Norma especially wrestles with, and after her resolve crumbles, the story climaxes with an eminently re-readable denouement that seems a forerunner of the now-ubiquitous twist ending: She felt unreal as the voice informed her of the subway accident, the shoving crowd. Arthur pushed from the platform in front of the train. She was conscious of shaking her head but couldn’t stop. As she hung up, she remembered Arthur’s life insurance policy for $25,000, with double indemnity for- “No.” She couldn’t seem to breathe. She struggled to her feet and walked into the kitchen numbly. Something cold pressed at her skull as she removed the button unit from the wastebasket. There were no nails or screws visible. She couldn’t see how it was put together. Abruptly, she began to smash it on the sink edge, pounding it harder and harder, until the wood split. She pulled the sides apart, cutting her fingers without noticing. There were no transistors in the box, no wires or tubes. The box was empty. She whirled with a gasp as the telephone rang. Stumbling into the living room, she picked up the receiver. “Mrs. Lewis?” Mr. Steward asked. It wasn’t her voice shrieking so; it couldn’t be. “You said I wouldn’t know the one that died!” “My dear lady,” Mr. Steward said, “do you really think you knew your husband?”  It’s a strikingly memorable story, and perhaps its best quality is also, in regards to film adaptation, its biggest problem: the restraint with which Matheson writes. Consider what he doesn’t tell us; we don’t learn the intent of the organization behind the contraption or the button; we’re never given much in the way of background or description of the story’s closest thing to an antagonist, Mr. Steward; and we’re certainly not provided any explanation as to how Arthur’s death is orchestrated or what nefarious, possibly supernatural forces are at work. All Matheson gives us is a mirror of the same troubling awareness his characters are grappling with -- that forces they cannot possibly understand are at work in the background of their lives. "Button, Button" does what all the great works of the short form do: it gives the reader a sense of a larger world. The larger, imagined world can be used, figuratively speaking, for both good and evil, though. I’d argue the good is to be found in the sometimes nameless, occasionally sleep-depriving consideration that results from reading a story like this, while the proverbial bad comes from people who decide there’s money to be made in committing to film their answers to questions Matheson probably meant to be rhetorical. Which brings us to The Box, the 2009 adaptation of "Button, Button." I won’t harp opportunistically on the casting missteps (though I could, because did you realize Cameron Diaz is in this movie dear God), but there’s a mistaken approach at work here -- one that illuminates the precise problem in modern filmmakers adapting Richard Matheson’s writing. They want to tell us everything. Whereas the source material short story derives much of its power from the sense it creates of normal people rendered pawns in a mysterious, inexplicable game, The Box explains, helpfully, that the machine delivered to Arthur and Norma’s doorstep is a means of testing the morality of humans. “Okay, we knew that,” you’re saying. “That’s pretty much what the short story is implying.” Yes, but DID YOU KNOW IT’S A TEST CONCOCTED BY ALIENS THAT CONTROL LIGHTNING? “…oh,” you’re murmuring. It’s not sufficient, you see, for the creators of The Box to hint at dark forces beyond our understanding up to no good. For the purposes of a movie, they implicitly argue, implication and suggestion are not good enough. Our villains need a big, scary plan, and an origin story, and they need a larger plot, and you better goddamn believe they need some CGI to be the whipped cream on top. Here you go. Let’s not waste time cataloging how few of those things are even close to included in the source material (another spoiler: NONE). Adaptations are precisely that -- reimaginings of preexisting material, often shaped and expanded for the purposes of a particular project. The problem here, though, isn’t that someone dared to alter Matheson’s material; it’s that they approached a narrative that works in large part because of suspenseful atmosphere and implication, and then totally abandoned both. The end result, as you can see, is somehow at once hokey and painfully dour. It’s not just something dark at work, it’s aliens. It’s not just a suggested moral conflict, it’s actually a scientific test of morality conducted by aliens to determine if a species should be exterminated. It’s a distinctly Hollywood sort of affliction, one born of the ill-conceived notion that movies are better if they have something bigger, something cooler, something more impressive, something just a little bit more. Now, of course, you can argue these ideas (aliens, lightning, CGI water coffins, CGI face scars, whatever CGI is used to make James Marsden so supernaturally attractive) are ones Matheson held in his head when he wrote the original story, but I’d have to argue pretty strongly that A) no and B) if he did, at least he had the artistic decency and good sense to let his evil lurk in the shadows instead of dragging it embarrassingly out into the bright light. And therein is the problem. Matheson had the good sense, the near-unteachable instinct that told him when a story’s construction necessitated the appearance of a shadowy, foul terror -- but also the courage to do the opposite, to leave us with unanswered questions. That degree of artistic discipline and restraint, though, isn’t particularly common in contemporary filmmaking. In fact, if popular genre fiction in this day and age creates lingering uncertainties instead of neatly concluded narratives with tidy endings, you almost have to expect a clumsy director to render it into some unintended horror show of green-screen hackery. To use a phrase that’d get me a flying elbow to the throat from Detective Stabler, you’re pretty much asking for it. In The Box as well as the other Matheson adaptations I’ve mentioned that fall short of the mark, source material that artfully leaves work up to the reader’s imagination is abandoned in favor of whiz-bang film wizardry or action that is not actually particularly magical. It’s not intended to be magical, either, for magic baffles and confounds the brain, and leads it to try and make sense of the fantastic, the mysterious, the impossible. It’s not a special effect intended to supplement and expand a story -- it’s a gimmick that does the imagining for you. Can you blame Matheson for employing uncertainty and letting readers formulate their own shapeless boogeymen, whether moral or supernatural or otherwise? Of course not. His deep relationship with campy entertainment aside, even an imagination as vivid as Matheson’s couldn’t have possibly anticipated the nature of the myriad adaptations of his work to come both during his life and after; no author or artist can. It’s not their job to, either, because stories and movies and everything else they commit to paper or film or whatever medium is next aren’t static, finished things. Once they’re published or released, your art is no longer your own. Like it or not, the work belongs to everyone. 5. Which is, come to think of it, how reputations function, too. They’re not fixed, they’re fluid -- from book to book, from film to film, from generation to generation, and most gallingly to me, from person to person, too. The truth is that I was struggling to speak about Matheson not because I couldn’t figure out what to say, but because the adaptations of his work are so bad I worried my fiancée, in this case, would never check him out again. In other words, I wasn’t trying to be a conduit for great writers -- I was trying to decide what someone thought for them, before they experienced any of a particular writer’s work. I was, in other words, committing roughly the same sin as all those unmitigated trainwrecks of film adaptations, the lackadaisical imaginations at which I rolled my eyes and scoffed. How about that for a twist? Of course, I’d love for everyone to experience and understand the artists I find rewarding and enthralling the same way as me, but such a thing is impossible -- not just because of Will Smith and CGI zombies, or Cameron Diaz and lightning aliens, or Hugh Jackman and silly jumping robots, but simply because we’ve all got different relationships with art, and varying ideas of what it should do and the role it should play. Who am I to act as the arbiter for people’s taste, or decide how anyone else should experience a writer? My job isn’t to make anyone’s mind up for them. My fiancée was still staring at me expectantly. I thought about some of my favorite Matheson stories. Some scenes from adaptations flashed through my mind. “Let me tell you about some amazingly bad lightning aliens, dear,” I said. “You are going to love this.” Image Credit: Wikipedia
Screening Room

Hollywood Gossip: At Lunch with Orson Welles

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
Notable Articles, Screening Room

Judging Luhrmann’s Gatsby: Five English Scholars Weigh In

Critics have been hard on Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby since it opened last week. This latest film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's famous (and famously unfilmable) novel is pulling down a 55 on Metacritic and a 50 percent unfavorable rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Joe Morgenstern went so far as to call the film "dreadful" and said it "derogates the artistry of Fitzgerald." You might think, then, that the people who know Fitzgerald's novel best would have the most disapproving view of the movie. To test that hypothesis, we asked five English professors who specialize in American literature to take in an early showing and share their thoughts. And to our surprise, they liked it. Of course, they had their problems with the movie, too, some of which are less minor than others. But they praised Carey Mulligan for turning in arguably the best version of Daisy Buchanan the silver screen has ever seen, and there was abundant acclaim for Leo as Jay. They also admired the way Luhrmann pulled material from Fitzgerald's short stories and his first draft of Gatsby in order to create a screenplay that isn't quite a facsimile (in a good way) of the finished novel. And, as you can read below, they actually applauded Luhrmann for omitting the most famous line of the novel. 1. Kirk Curnutt, Troy University What I most hoped Luhrmann would nail is Daisy’s depiction. Because, honestly, Fitzgerald didn’t, and none of her previous cinematic incarnations did either. Of course, we have no idea how Lois Wilson fared in the lost 1926 silent. The only thing the trailer reveals is that Georgia Hale as Myrtle Wilson could inflate her eyes as big as this lady. Betty Field in 1949 played Daisy like your best friend’s spunky little sister, while Mira Sorvino in 2000 had nice hair. As for Mia Farrow, I’ll only say that if I play her clips at home my Labrador runs in circles wondering who stole her squeak toy. Carey Mulligan is as good as we can expect from a character that is even more of a cipher than Jay Gatsby. She conveys Daisy’s forced gaiety at the Buchanans’ estate and doesn’t sound screechy-silly delivering the “beautiful little fool” line. Mulligan’s melancholy in later scenes has a wan as opposed to hysterical quality that I found stirring. I love that Luhrmann lets Daisy attempt to telephone Gatsby at the moment Wilson arrives to take revenge. It’s time we empathize rather than vilify the golden girl. One minute you’re a 22-year-old overgrown woman/child raised to sit on couches and yawn, married to a philandering slab of roast beef, miserable even if you’re described as not happy but not unhappy either, and next thing you know literary critics are calling you a “bitch goddess” for decades on end. Maybe I missed it adjusting my 3D glasses, but I was glad Baz cut the “voice full of money” line. I’ve never understood whether coming from Gatsby it’s admiration or an insult. All I know is that I myself have long wanted to save Daisy -- though I wouldn’t run out into the road to do it. 2. Michael DuBose, Penn State University When someone assembles an edition using all the available variants of a text, we call that an “eclectic” volume. These are often put together to unify a book’s textual history. Baz Luhrmann does something similar with his Great Gatsby. Instead of slavishly adhering to Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, Luhrmann takes cues from an early version of the novel, some of the short stories, and Fitzgerald’s own life. The result is a movie slightly different from its source, but no less authentic. This comes through most clearly in Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of Jay Gatsby. DiCaprio seems to take his inspiration from Fitzgerald’s first draft of the novel, Trimalchio. In that text, Gatsby is edgier, more mysterious, and more neurotic. DiCaprio’s Gatsby is equal parts vulnerable and calculating. His character’s mannerisms are carefully crafted and rehearsed, but that poise belies an imposter complex that DiCaprio acts to perfection. The ubiquitous “Old Sport,” for example, totters between casual endearment and desperate refrain. It’s the lynchpin keeping Gatsby’s whole identity from unraveling. DiCaprio almost swears it out as an incantation against the façade crumbling. There are echoes of Fitzgerald’s “Winter Dreams” and “Absolution” along with Trimalchio, and even a nod to the “Rich girls don’t marry poor boys” line from the author’s youth. Most of it works, but sometimes the concept falls flat. (The “rich girls” line, specifically, is blurted without any context.) However, we know what we’re getting with Luhrmann; he’s going to execute the grand set pieces to perfection, but will stumble with the nuanced stuff. The director clearly shares Jordan Baker’s enthusiasm for large parties: whenever there are more than five people in a scene, the film sizzles. When there are fewer, it drags. Overall, Luhrmann has assembled an eclectic movie that may not be great, but is certainly Gatsby. 3. Joseph Fruscione, George Washington University He did it innocently, but a student gave me a spoiler a few days before. I knew that the framing device would be Nick Carraway -- in a sanitarium. Whether it was for physical or (more likely) mental health I wasn’t sure, but this colored my expectations. I was cautiously optimistic. Gatsby is not easily adaptable, yet Luhrmann -- like his style or not -- is skilled and creative. We know we’re going to get edginess, hyperactive visuals and sounds, and the same “grand vision” that Nick ascribes to Gatsby’s entire persona. The film is very impressive. I knew Luhrmann was drawing from the novel and draft, Trimalchio, such as during the second party. And the institutionalized Nick frame? It’s bold, but it smartly conveys his unreliability and shows him writing the story. Except for a few disappointing cuts -- say, Gatsby’s father and the funeral -- Luhrmann deftly merges his style with Fitzgerald’s, such as in the first Gatsby party or the alcohol-fueled tension at Myrtle and Tom’s apartment. Luhrmann excels in adding visual details in the spirit of the novel: the “JG” insignia adorning virtually everything in Gatsby’s home, or the “ad finis fidelis” (“faithful to the end”) on the property’s main gates that echoes Fitzgerald’s description of Gatz–Gatsby. The strongest scene was the Gatsby–Daisy reunion. It was awkward, funny, garish -- and spot on. DiCaprio and Mulligan captured the reunion’s tense yet tender nature, and Maguire just as nicely played the straight man in Gatsby’s engineered scene. Equally strong was Joel Edgerton as Tom, who embodied his smug, entitled, and controlling personality, particularly during the Plaza confrontation. Separating the teacher-scholar in me -- especially one who specializes in American literature and adaptation -- from the reader–moviegoer is tricky. Yes, Luhrmann’s Gatsby is dynamic, loud, different, and vibrant. It changes scenes and language, leaves out some, and adds others. It’s also brilliant. 4. Sara Kosiba, Troy University; Program Director of the 12th International F. Scott Fitzgerald Conference Critics have said for years that The Great Gatsby is an un-filmable book, and I’ve largely been in agreement.  My love for Fitzgerald’s book stems from the poetry of language and the descriptions on the page. When word of Baz Luhrmann’s new film began to circulate and included the detail that it would be filmed in 3D, my fellow Fitzgerald aficionados and I began to joke of “Eckleburg eyes” leering out from the screen. I am pleased to say that my recent viewing of the film was not nearly the potential nightmare I envisioned. Luhrmann’s film maintains a strong sense of the highs and lows in Fitzgerald’s original. Unlike the well known 1974 version starring Robert Redford (which I always found washed out and flat), this new incarnation of Gatsby captures the vibrancy and richness of Fitzgerald’s fictional world. The 3D technique adds to this richness by never seeming gimmicky or false. Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan do an outstanding job of capturing the inner conflict within Gatsby and Daisy. One of my quibbles would be with Tobey Maguire’s Nick. I think it may be more the script than the acting on Maguire’s part, but one of the details I love in the novel is Nick’s unreliability as a narrator, something that does not come through as clearly in this version (although the sanitarium framing device works well, and the insider reference to celebrated editor Max Perkins in the title of it is a nice touch). Despite seeing other pros (the costumes) and cons (some of the settings), I do find this the best film version of Gatsby to date. Luhrmann’s intentions are in line with the soul of the novel, although I hope that it will not become a modern replacement for the actual poetry of the original. 5. Doni M. Wilson, Houston Baptist University Baz Lurhmann’s The Great Gatsby delivers in the categories that viewers might expect: the settings, the costumes, the slick and stylized look that accompanies all of Lurhmann’s visual pyrotechnics. All of the hype about the music faded away as the film progressed: it just seemed to underscore the excitement of the Jazz Age without being an anachronistic distraction. It wasn’t your parents’ Gatsby, but why should it have been? Once I got through the shock of Nick Carraway writing his retrospective book from an institution, I was able to concentrate more on the entire reason I was excited about this film: Leonardo DiCaprio. Now let me say, no one can pull off a pink suit like Leo, and he looks the part, but I just did not understand the accent. What was the accent? Why did it change from scene to scene? Why did he have to say “Old Sport” like “Ol Spore,” dropping his ds and ts? Why why why? Other than that, he was perfect. I don’t think he should have screamed quite so loudly in the Plaza Hotel scene, because it made it seem like Daisy was rejecting him for anger management problems, but perhaps I quibble here. Carey Mulligan’s Daisy Fay Buchanan was definitely a step up from Mia Farrow, but she didn’t seem to command the attention of the other actors, and it made me want to see more of Jordan Baker and Myrtle Wilson on the screen. Tobey Maguire as Nick was a pleasant surprise, and his understated portrayal made sense. But the absolute, hands-down, best actor in this film is Joel Edgerton playing Tom Buchanan. His physical presence and spot-on delivery convinced me that he understood Fitzgerald’s vision the most acutely, and he should win an Oscar for this role.
Screening Room

You Can’t Repeat the Past, Old Sport: On Leo, Baz, Gatsby, and Me

Seventeen years ago, when Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet hit the scene, I was in eighth grade, mouth gleaming with metal, hair rusted with Sun-In, and so randy for Leonardo DiCaprio that I watched him gambol and die three, or maybe four, times on the big screen. After one particularly fraught viewing, my best friend and I wrote his name in popcorn on the sidewalk. "Leo," formed the lips of the concerned passers-by. Three years prior, I had demanded that my parents take me to see Strictly Ballroom (again) on my birthday, with classmates in tow. The brooding Paul Mercurio paved the way for Leonardo lust, at a confusing fifth-grade time when I just wanted to do a coltish paso doble in front of a Coca Cola sign, but was also strangely agitated by the sight of glistening chest hair against white tank. Fast-forward to college, when I spent stretches of my freshman year listening to the dance remix of "Come What May" (from Moulin Rouge!) while playing a computer game called Snood and smoking cigarettes until my index finger turned yellow. It's safe to say that I have kind of a thing for the films of Baz Luhrmann. I had basically forgotten this thing until the meditative days leading to the release of The Great Gatsby, when, it is equally safe to say, I got into a kind of weird place. That I had arrived at said place was clear when I decided to listen to the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack for the first time in many years and, upon hearing the jangling guitars of Everclear's "Local God," burst into tears at my desk. There were several factors contributing to this outburst, but part of it was the appearance of residual shreds of feeling, artifacts from a time when sights and sounds and Leonardo--the Baz Luhrmann trifecta--went straight into the viscera.  (You had better hope you don't spend your teen years taking in total garbage, because that's formative garbage.) When I read San Francisco Chronicle critic Mick LaSalle opine recently that Romeo + Juliet was "too contemptible even to be called a desecration," I know that he never lay in virginal bed with headphones and discman, listened to Thom Yorke utter the eternal invitation "I'll be waiting, with a gun and a pack of sandwiches," and just felt so much. I have been waiting for The Great Gatbsy.  I have been waiting, and listening to Des'ree sing the theme from Romeo + Juliet (and weeping), and admiring the new film's fabulous geometric gold-and-black title credits. I have been basking in the surge of enthusiasm for Art Deco, which happens to be my favorite among the Arts. In the past several weeks, I have seen a lot of commentary about not liking The Great Gatsby (the novel), followed by a second wave of tweets saying that saying you don't like the novel makes you seem like a douche.  And I felt very above it all, because I have a void where the strong feelings about The Great Gatsby should be. A novel that all school-children read is a public benefit, like a park -- anyone can have a concert there or rent it out for a wedding. I love movies, but always forget to see them, and usually end up making some miscalculation where I miss every single good one and then see Fast and the Furious VI in the theater (or recently, the appalling Trance). But I was ready for Gatsby, ready for abandon and riots of feeling. And I went to the movie, even paid the extra dollars for 3D (I have never seen a 3D movie and had some anxiety about it, but really trusted the vision of Baz), and I left dry-eyed and just a little bit disappointed. Baz Luhrmann is so faithful to the text, in his way, and all the huge sets in the world cannot expand the essential narrowness and economy of Fitgerald's novel. By the time Daisy and Gatsby got together, I knew there weren't going to be any more parties.  And as they neared the end of their doomed affair, I was actually sort of bored. I became resigned to watching Leonardo's strange orange glow and the stunning curve of Carey Mulligan's eyebrows.  (For the record, I loved Carey Mulligan, and not just for her bewitching eyebrows and flawless skin.  I liked Toby Maguire too--he achieved a good level of flaccid goodness and faint corruption.) There is such a thing as too much fidelity.  What I enjoyed the most in the movie were the anachronisms and departures (which, of course, are largely embodied in the music). Is that Frank Ocean I hear? Yes, please. Is that Amy Winehouse as sung by Beyoncé and André 3000? Vibe, while Lothrop Stoddard rolls around in his unvisited grave. But I think Luhrmann's extravagant style needs something really sentimental at the back of it, and The Great Gatsby is a totally unsentimental story full of unsympathetic people. If there aren't going to be a lot of feelings, I needed more spectacle, more choreographed dance scenes (and ideally, fewer shooting stars and floating letters). As Fergie counsels on the soundtrack, "a little party never killed nobody." I still don't really understand what the 3D glasses were for. I did two things on an impulse today. I spent money (silly money, all things considered after the popcorn and aforementioned 3D tickets) on The Great Gatsby soundtrack, and I spent the afternoon at work shimmying and experiencing the terrible majesty of Lana Del Rey: "All that grace, all that body. All that face makes me wanna party."  And then, back at home, I watched Romeo + Juliet again. Nothing in my life thus far has made me feel my age quite the same way--has made me feel that staid, ungenerous phrase, "I'm a married woman"--as that first glimpse of an absurdly young Leonardo DiCaprio. It made me go slightly cold, like realizing that I had experienced lustful thoughts for a Bieber. O, Leonardo! Of all the boy gamines whose faces I tore out of Seventeen and put around my room, only he remains on the screen, year after year. A candle still burns for him, in the dark windows of my heart--but not for his curiously bronzed Gatsby. As a character, Gatsby is unconvincing. As a Gatsby, Leonardo is unconvincing. I'm not certain whether that means he was successful or not.  But I was not feeling it. Re-watching Romeo + Juliet, it amazed me how much I remember about that movie , how I recognized even the minor characters as old friends. When Leonardo or Claire Danes cocked an eyebrow, I knew all about it, because my best friend and I once catalogued all of their facial expressions and gestures.  Thanks to that movie, I can today quote select words of the Bard with 100 percent more accuracy than from any other work of his I might name. You can't repeat the past, but at the end of the movie, I cried. Who knows if it was those rogue adolescent icebergs breaking off and ramming the oceanliner of adulthood, or if it was that deathless story, or the fact that Baz Luhrmann did a bona fide super job making it come alive. I kind of think all three. I cannot make an objective assessment of this new film, because the Season of Gatsby found me in my rowboat, attempting bold experiments in time travel and sensory recollection.  But you have to save some sensations for the next generation.  I made it through Gatsby with nary a tear shed. When the lights went up at the end of the show, however, the two girls in front of me turned to one another.  One said simply, "That was emotional." And so we beat on.
Screening Room

Herblock Loved the Little Guy and Hated Nixon’s Guts

About halfway through the screening of the new documentary Herblock: The Black and the White, one of the closing entries in this year's Tribeca Film Festival, it occurred to me that you haven't really made it in America until someone has made a movie about you. Three of the many talking heads in this documentary -- reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and former executive editor Ben Bradlee of The Washington Post -- have already been the subjects of a movie, the much-praised 1976 feature film All the President's Men, which was based on Woodward and Bernstein's book about the fall of President Richard Nixon. What's more, the actors who played the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters in that movie -- Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman -- are the subjects of a new documentary about the making of the original feature film and the enduring fascination with Watergate. This new documentary is called, appropriately if unimaginatively, All the President's Men Revisited. Stop the presses! Hollywood people never tire of talking about themselves and their achievements! But back to Herblock. It's a heartfelt, uplifting documentary about the legendary Washington Post cartoonist Herbert Lawrence Block, known universally by his nom de guerre, Herblock. Peppered with the predictable talking heads -- though not Redford and Hoffman, mercifully -- it tells the story of a self-effacing artist from Chicago whose patriotism, prescience, and deft pencil led American journalism's charge against such bogeymen as Hitler (even before he was elected chancellor), the gun lobby, Sen. Joseph McCarthy, segregationists, big oil, big business, big military budgets, big money in politics (as early as 1950), the arms race, Stalin, the Vietnam War, and, most famously, Richard Nixon. Herblock drew McCarthy and Nixon with swarthy mugs, sweating, frequently crawling out of mud puddles or open sewer holes. Herblock coined the pejorative "McCarthyism," and he hated Nixon's guts and wasn't shy about saying so. In our watered-down, fair-minded times, such venom is bracing. In addition to all those talking heads, the documentary consists of many pictures of Herblock's cartoons, interspersed with a long on-camera interview with him in his cluttered office at the Post. Dressed in his trademark baggy sweater, he comes across as a wise, witty uncle. "He worked until he died," says one of the talking heads. Not quite. Herblock's last cartoon appeared on Aug. 26, 2001, and he died six weeks later at 91, after working at the Post for 55 years and winning three Pulitzer Prizes, the Medal of Freedom, and an uncountable number of enemies among the rich, the powerful, and the corrupt. The film makes the points that Herblock was always looking out for the little guy, that he was an ardent believer in the importance of a free press in a democracy, and that he enjoyed complete editorial freedom. This last point was not always the case. During the 1952 presidential campaign, the Post editorial board supported the Republican candidate, Dwight Eisenhower. Herblock drew scathing cartoons of Ike, portraying him as an out-of-touch lightweight. When the Post started pulling his anti-Eisenhower cartoons, readers howled -- and pointed out that Herblock was syndicated in hundreds of other papers and they would take their business elsewhere. The Post editors caved in, and Herblock was forevermore off the leash. After the Herblock screening ended and the applause died, the documentary's director and co-writer, Michael Stevens, stepped onto the stage to answer questions. First he introduced several people in the audience who were involved in making the movie, including Alan Mandell, who, it turns out, is an actor who played Herblock in those interview scenes in Herblock's office. This bit of legerdemain was jarring -- I had assumed I was watching the real Herblock on the screen, not a convincing look-alike. Was it dishonest of Stevens to put words in the mouth of an actor in a documentary, without alerting the audience? And where did those words come from -- the dozen books Herblock published in his lifetime?  Interviews he gave? Stevens's imagination? I raised my hand but never got to ask my questions. [Editor's Note: Filmmaker Michael Stevens has pointed out to us that this question is answered in the film's credits, which state: "starring ALAN MANDELL as HERBERT BLOCK based on the writings and speeches of HERBERT BLOCK"] As I headed home from the theater, those unsettling questions were crowded out of my mind by a memory. One of my most prized possessions is a photograph that was taken in The Washington Post newsroom on election night in 1952, when I was three months old and an out-of-touch lightweight named Dwight Eisenhower was in the process of defeating Adlai Stevenson for the presidency. The photograph depicts a scene of great hubbub -- reporters crowding around a messy table full of old newspapers and sandwiches and coffee cups, while a man pours coffee from a big white hobo pot. It's not hard to imagine the clatter of typewriters, the screaming of telephones, the distant murmur of a police radio, the cigarette smoke bluing the air. It's a man's world, and for me there is only one man in it: the guy pouring the coffee: my father. I love the details of that photograph. The map of the world on the wall. The copy spike on the cluttered table. The milk in glass bottles. The lovingly wrapped sandwiches. The stacks of china cups and saucers. And, above all, my father's patent-leather hair, his French cuffs, the dainty way he holds the coffee pot's lid with his left pinkie as he pours for his fellow newsmen. That picture seems like an artifact from some prehistoric age. My father was a respected Post reporter and rewrite man at the time -- "the fastest typist in the newspaper business," as Bradlee, then a hard-charging fellow reporter, would later put it in his memoir, A Good Life. (Upon reading those words in the 1990s, my father, a proud man, had sniffed, "I like to think I was the fastest writer in the newspaper business.") Bradlee does not appear in that election-night photograph. Neither does Herblock, who had his own office down the hall. But the most noticeable absence, for me, was not the men who have now been immortalized by movies; it was an old-school police reporter named Alfred E. Lewis who worked on a series of articles with my father that nearly won a Pulitzer Prize. Lewis spent 50 years as a lowly cop reporter at the Post, nearly as long as Herblock, without acquiring a fraction of the cartoonist's fame or fortune. The series my father and Lewis collaborated on was called "The Charmed Life of Emmett Warring," about a powerful and slippery D.C. racketeer, a prime target in the Post's campaign to root out police corruption. The articles ran on the front page every day for a week and jumped to two full inside pages, an astoundingly detailed and literary collaboration between a gumshoe street reporter and a lightning-fast rewrite man. Years later, after he had left the newspaper business, my father showed me a typed, single-spaced, two-page memo from his editor, spelling out the kind of detail he wanted in the series, right down to how many pairs of shoes Emmett Warring owned, what his house looked like, what brand of booze he drank, and how much of it. That memo is still astonishing to me -- the realization that people cared so much and worked so hard at putting out a daily newspaper. Bradlee, in his memoir, called Al Lewis "the prototypical police reporter, who had loved cops more than civilians for almost fifty years." My father told me that Al Lewis had a hard time writing coherent English prose, but he knew every cop and every criminal in D.C., and he frequently beat the cops to the scene of a crime. In other words, he was an invaluable asset to the paper's city desk. Twenty years after Ike's victory, Lewis hadn't lost a step. On Sunday, June 18, 1972, the Post ran what appeared to be a routine breaking-and-entering story. It opened like this, straight, no frills: 5 Held in Plot to Bug Democrats' Office Here By Alfred E. Lewis, Post Staff Writer Five men, one of whom said he is a former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency, were arrested at 2:30 a.m. yesterday in what authorities described as an elaborate plot to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee here. It turned out that when Lewis arrived at the Watergate complex with the acting police chief several hours after the bungled burglary, he sailed past the roped-off reporters outside the building and went right up to the crime scene, where he gathered vital color and details. Eight other reporters contributed legwork to Lewis's report in that Sunday's paper. One was a hungry young hun named Bob Woodward; another was "Peck's bad boy," in Bradlee's words, a renegade named Carl Bernstein. At the time no one appreciated the story's implications. But it's a safe bet that the Post's first Watergate story would not have had such punch and detail without the contacts and legwork of an old-school cop reporter named Al Lewis. And no one connected the mushrooming scandal's dots more quickly than Herblock. Herblock is a welcome reminder that there was a time, not so very long ago, when American newspapers were stocked with people like Herb Block and Al Lewis and Dick Morris, men and women who were passionate about producing quality journalism and didn't give a thought to ratings, celebrity, blog hits, or search engine optimization. Today, even a superb investigative reporter like Bob Woodward has been neutered by the seductive fame and money that fester inside the Beltway. People in America are still producing quality journalism, but, like serious fiction, it is being pushed deeper and deeper into the margins of the culture by forces that seem unstoppable. All the more reason to remember and celebrate faceless foot soldiers like Al Lewis. I say he deserves to be the subject of a documentary or feature film at least as much as the far more decorated Woodward and Bernstein and Bradlee and Herblock. I have a strong hunch that Herblock, that great champion of the unsung little guy, would have agreed with me. Image Credits: Bill Morris and Wikipedia
Essays, Screening Room

Lessons of Hollywood: On the Fate of “Middle Class” Art

I went to work for the film industry in 1994. I’d never done it. Oh, I’d dabbled -- as a teenager, I’d worked in the mailroom of Creative Artists Agency for a summer -- but past that, not really. I was a child of Hollywood, my father was and still is a successful talent agent, and my mother was a well-produced screenwriter. Everybody I knew, every last person I’d grown up with, it seemed, had dutifully entered an industry that’s much like the Mafia in this respect. Casa Nostra runs in the blood. Having scrupulously avoided the movie business for most of my 20s -- I was a schoolteacher, in San Francisco, had exiled myself in search of work that had meaning -- I found myself in that most cinematic, and criminal, of positions. They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. Director of Literary Acquisitions. That was the title I was offered. It came about, I think, because I had a reputation among my family’s friends for being well-read, and because there was a moment -- it’s a little hard to remember it now -- when books were a particularly hot commodity in Hollywood. Adaptations were the wave of the recent past (The Firm), and so, quite possibly, the future. I was approached first by Francis Ford Coppola, for whom I’d once read a handful of scripts. He had the somewhat nostalgic notion that 1940s films had often been predicated upon short stories, so why not do the same thing now? Soon after that, I began talking to Danny DeVito, whose company, Jersey Films, was producing a soon-to-be-released movie called Pulp Fiction. Might I consider moving to New York to scout books? Robert De Niro piled into the mix as well. Surely one or all of them could persuade me to take a 200 percent pay raise to move to New York City and read? My 20s had been full of difficult decisions, but this was not one of them. I went to work for Danny and De Niro, combined -- they partnered to hire me, while Francis went on to revise his idea, eventually, into the magazine Zoetrope: All Story, which would launch in 1997. But for a moment it seemed plausible to believe literature and film were in alliance, that one could simply pounce on books -- there were so many of them! -- that would “make great movies” and have at them. After all, what did you need besides a bankable box office star to make this happen? (I was, indeed, green.) I figured I had the ear of two of such stars. What was going to stop, say, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History from hitting the big screen now? Before I left, however, I was given a word of advice. One of DeVito’s partners, a shrewd, literate woman who’s since enjoyed a highly successful career of her own, called me into her office. “You have excellent literary taste,” she told me. “Thank you.” “That’s not entirely a compliment,” she said. “Remember. Great books make bad movies. And bad books often make great ones.” Hmm. I’ve since heard this bit of folk wisdom from many sources over the years -- it isn’t untrue -- but at the time it was new to me. I left the room thinking, Ha. So I’m supposed to be looking for bad books? Once again, and not for the last time, I’d underestimated the film industry, and the elegance of the people in it. This is not a story of the injustices of Hollywood. I’ve heard that one before, and honestly, there’s no need to reiterate the notion that the movie business rewards mediocrity, treats excellence with contempt, and that producers, specifically, are idiots who don’t read. Occasionally, this is true, but no more true -- and no more often so -- than it is in the world of finance or accupuncture. What people don’t really consider, I think, is that people in film are gambling with vast amounts of money. If the $80 million were your own, would you feel comfortable staking it upon something you simply felt was “good?” Or would you look for patterns of past performance? Confronted as I was with a dispiriting number of books that were described to me as “Die Hard in a ______” (i.e, “Die Hard in a submarine;” “Die Hard in a public school.” The idea being that something was set to explode and someone was set to stop it, the basic pattern for Jerry Bruckheimer’s blockbusters at the time), I found my bosses more receptive to those than they were to, say, Rick DeMarinis’s The Year of the Zinc Penny, or Jennifer Egan’s The Invisible Circus (which nevertheless did get made several years later). They weren’t foolish, though, or vulgar. They just understood what I didn’t. That making a movie is a ground war, and an enormous risk of capital, and that it’s just as hard to make a big, dumb thriller as it is to make an intelligent film of quality. So why not put the effort, at least most of the time, where the reward is more likely to equal or exceed it? Why work harder for less? I sound like a corporate stooge. I was a schoolteacher (and I am a novelist), so I know perfectly well why. Because aesthetics and ethics both matter, and if all you’re trying to do is profiteer off a steaming pile of crap then you belong in a different business, if not in prison. The difficulty was, during the 1990s, there was no business to which this condition didn’t seem to apply. I worked cheek-to-jowl with people in publishing, in fact my job had a great deal more to do with the world of publishing than it did with the world of film. I saw my bosses in Los Angeles a couple times per year. I spent every day on the phone with literary agents, all my free hours taking editors and writers to lunch, drinks, and dinner. I witnessed the rise of the “literary thriller,” and saw first hand the explosion, the wild proliferation of the gargantuan advance for stylish, usually young, writers unlikely to earn out. Just weeks before I started working for my two actors, Nicholas Evans’s The Horse Whisperer stirred up an enormous sensation by selling, on the basis of a slender proposal, for $3.15 million at the Frankfurt Book Fair. In other words, the book business, that fabled bastion of intellectual integrity, seemed to me to behave exactly as the film industry did. To be driven by hype, and hot air, and to involve the placement of outsized bets on individuals perhaps a little more glamorous than they were talented. It was the nature of business, and not even any particular business, that it be so. The '90s were of course a decade of mergers, and so a number of independent publishing houses were smushed together under one German umbrella. I saw this too. Eventually, I got picked off by a corporation. One of the studios invited me to come work for them instead. More money, bigger office, better furniture: why would I say no? And when I noticed that my new digs were in the same building as one of the Big Six publishers, this didn’t surprise me either. We were owned by the same multinational conglomerate, and played by the same rules. Is there a moral to all this? Well, even today, people seem to complain about Hollywood. Or, they’ve given up complaining, because the patterns by now are so established. Every Memorial Day, and throughout the summer, studios roll out their tentpoles: films based on comic books and graphic novels, sequels to superhero franchises and adaptations of popular children’s stories. The beginning of the year is a dumping ground for Jason Statham and Mark Wahlberg movies; Judd Apatow gets two or three comedies salted throughout the next 12 months, and come November there’ll be “quality” from Spielberg, Scorsese, and at least one director named Anderson. It hurts to sound so cynical, but I can’t imagine anyone wonders anymore what’s coming. The movies roll around, the same ones, every year. So what’s left to learn from Hollywood? (Besides, you know, you’d best re-develop that spec into a pilot script while you can.) During the last of my time at the studio, I went to a corporate retreat. I’d been dispirited by my time as an executive. It was a fun ride, and I seemed to be endlessly promoted precisely because I had no fear of being fired, but I was tired of doing a job that had no need for me to do it: my own sensibility never came into play. I was ready to quit, but I had no plan for what I’d do after I did. But first, I listened to a speech -- no, an admonition -- from the head of the company. He told us, the assembled executives of the three feature film divisions of the studio, that we were permitted to make a certain kind of inexpensive movie. The Full Monty, which had recently been a big hit, was the example he used. At the other end of the spectrum, it was okay to spend big on epic spectacles. Titanic was set for release at the end of the year, and he argued that this was a good bet. In-between, however, were the middling expensive vehicles for not-necessarily-bankable stars. “Middle class movies,” he called them. And we were not to pursue those under any circumstances. Forty, 50 million dollar budgets? The kiss of death. “No more middle class movies,” we were told. “Never. Ever. None.” I will admit that this assertion sent chills through me. In part because I understood that my own job (which I still needed) would soon go. But also because I understood what it meant for the culture. If there were no more “middle class” movies, then in what other arenas would an ostensible middle class suffer? Publishing, for sure. But what about . . . everything else? An economic disparity, which was being sketched out for us in terms of what we could spend, seemed to have an obvious corollary in terms of what we, or at least the movies, could hope to earn. Or rather, the “middle class movie” was being told it could no longer justify its continued existence. It wasn’t difficult to extrapolate from there. After all, the movie business had already proven itself a reliable bellweather for the behaviors of other sectors. It turns out the movie business, just like the rest of it, has survived. The wealth gap has gotten about as wide as it possibly can -- I suppose Occupy Wall Street can stretch itself to accommodate the 99.5 or the 99.75 percent if it must. Art has fled to television (it’s no accident that the well-heeled novelists who used to moonlight for studios now do so for American cable networks), and Hollywood gimps along in bloated and predictable fashion. But it would be wrong to imagine the lessons of the industry have finished, even if, as the writer Michael Tolkin remarked when I asked him why the movies were so terrible, “they’ve run out of myths.” No, these lessons are sadly ecological in nature. They apply to every system, and every business, and have something to do with a finitude of resources. You can build your blockbusters -- and your skyscrapers -- ever higher, but as you do they sustain fewer people. And eventually, of course, they will come down. Bad habits die hard, apparently, but customs? Truly fossilized institutions? These, it would seem, die even harder. Image Credit: Wikipedia