Sunday, March 19, 2006

Freud and Frears, masters of psychology

If you were a Freudian psychoanalyst, sure, I'd tell you your central arguments are circular. But since Americans are such a bunch of naive empiricists I'll tell thee, Newsweek, nobody's silly "brain-imaging" and "rigorous testing" is ever going to confirm or deny Freud's teachings, or those of anyone else profound enough to see deeper into the psyche than a bunch of Prozac-dispensing professional optimists are willing to do. America is overrun with M. Homais-types who will never admit that life is terribly difficult, n'est-ce pas? and have enough respect for it to leave it at that. Or at least leave it chemically unaltered! Every parent and educator rushing off to douse their kid with Ritalin or Prozac is as much an accomplice to the culture of pot and Ecstasy as the covers of "Shape" and "Fitness" are to the cult of anorexia. Don't just blame Kate Moss here! No human being needs, or should want "abs of steel"-- they're unnatural, not to mention unsightly-- and the cause of "health" can breed a diseased aesthetic, and in short, disease itself, just as effectively and blamefully as the cokehead proselityzers of chic in the fashion rags.
Thursday was my first viewing of the "Dangerous Liaisons" dvd, another much-delayed first, since all previous video releases of the film (and, it has been alleged, the initial theatrical-run print itself, though I cannot confirm this from memory) have been quite awfully transfered, despite Warner Bros.' consideration in letterboxing the film from the very first. All the more considerate when we note that it is filmed in the divine 1.66:1 ratio that rules in European art house cinema. The print is not quite pristine, as is evidenced in the very first shot; but it is a great personal relief to enjoy the film without the washed-out inkiness of its previous home-viewing incarnations.
It's painful to reflect upon how what once held one's attention in ravishment now displeases, perhaps even bores a little. The opening scene between Merteuil and Valmont-- the wager-- opened new vistas for me as an adolescent, and through years of repeated watching I hung on its every word as desperately as the later, autobiographical sequence in which Merteuil elucidates her life philosophy. Today this godless bantering has an unpleasant, obvious odor to it-- it's better than Neil LaBute but it has the same unattractiveness to it. Nor can I quite admire the cadences of Hampton's dialogue here. From the getgo, that: "So, my dear, how are you adapting to the outside world?" --"Very well, I think." has a trite ring to it. I find that, contrary to many critics who were led to think Jean-Claude Carriere's "Valmont" dialogue fit for the mall, the "Valmont" screenplay allows Bening and Firth not only more natural, but more genuinely aristocratic cadences. But this is something that comes and goes in the Frears' film. When Merteuil''s voice lowers itself to penetrate Valmont's ear with the glad tidings "She's a rosebud" I can only exclaim to myself "Well of course!!" Sixteen-years old and in that Gothic convent, what the devil else would she be? -- And whyever did Stuart Craig select such a dank hole for Cecile's convent anyway? Are we in "The Castle of Otranto"? The Cecile story is handled badly throughout; even the moral dread I once felt during her "date rape" can hardly be mustered on account of Uma Thurman's (forgive me!) dreadful performance-- her dreadful presence I should even say, for whatever she's supposed to be it isn't believable. Even as a willing and debauched nymph for Valmont's continued plundering she feels like she belongs in a different movie, a different century very like. I won't venture to hazard whether Hampton adapts Valmont's story of an assignation with Mme. de Volanges (in the novel, revealed to be an outright lie) in order to insinuate that Valmont is debauching his own daughter, or at least leaving himself open to the possibility in a cavalier way (and why bother leaving in Cecile's miscarriage and his hopes of begetting Bastead's heir-- and why the devil "Bastead" anyway instead of "Gercourt"?). Nor for that matter will I get into the politics of "rape" vs. "date rape"-- heavens help us, Cecile's deflowerment plays like rape though her after-report (as well as her sudden decision that she rather likes Valmont's 'caresses') would tell the Camille Paglias of the world that this sinister Don Juan won his dreadful spoils fair-and-square-- assuming, that is, that the poor girl was actually "doing" anything wilfully in the midst of a series of interlocutions that were hardly merely Socratic in tone.
The strength of "Dangerous Liaisons" is thus uneven but surprising; as David Ansen blurbs it, what shocks is the force of passion that finally oozes from the film's "cold marble heart." There's a curious mix of artifice and its denial all throughout the film. Consider the notoriously jarring sound mix, with its pianoforte dynamics, all bangs and whimpers (I'd hire the whole team in a heartbeat if I were helming a picture). Though the surfaces are, of course, elegant enough, Philippe Rousselot's lighting is resolutely unglamorous, particularly in the tight midshots and close-ups of the film. The martial scabbrousness of Glenn Close's rouged lips is never softened and the rooms themselves appear throughout a bit "under the weather." At times the film looks almost like a cross between "Cries and Whispers" and the Godfather films, as in the pivotal scene, where that famous aria from Handel's "Xerxes" is sung and Valmont swings permanently out of Merteuil's orbit and into Tourvel's. Rousselot never lit a scene in "Interview with the Vampire" with such deathly pallor; you'd almost think they were trying to hide some anachronism sunk in the shadows, perhaps a wall of stereo speakers some playboy heir had installed to turn the salon into a disco. And somehow the novel's August-to-December timeline, apparently held to in the snowy denouement, doesn't intrude upon the film's exteriors in so much as the slightest hint of autumn color. That, it appears, would have been too "vital"-looking in a film depending upon a very stylized wanness.
As it is, that lack of exterior richness can become dreafully annoying. The confrontations in the park between Valmont and Tourvel are all powerful, and the green verdour, very occasionally dappled with a little pallid sunshine, serves as an effective backdrop, unobtrusive yet enveloping. But the "village" scene, where Valmont executes his policy of "charity", sticks out like a sore thumb, and is as ugly-looking as anything in Mann's "Last of the Mohicans". Frears' camera should never have risen upon this scene; that elusive intrusion of the crane makes it look all the more stagey and fake; that thatched hut belongs on a stage, not a film set. The shot that precedes the cut to the Gluck opera, with Mme. de Rosamunde's entourage strolling homeward from the Sabbath service, gives us the film's only moment of sensing a larger civilization in the ancien regime than the Sadean sodality the story bears down upon: it's a flash of Gainsborough in a moving series of Aubrey Beardsley's.
But I'm overstating it just a bit. It's a gorgeous treat to behold the frosty glade blues of Merteuil's upholstery, and then another treat to see the same blue trimming on a couch at Mme. de Volanges'. Valmont's home, when we finally get a glimpse inside of it, gives us a sense of the man of science, the philosophe, that Valmont could have been and, truthfully enough, probably is (the telescope in his bedroom is a nice touch. Does he pattern his sexual geometries upon those of the stars?). Most importantly, one notices how, in the Tourvel-dominated second half, strong pools of light begin to intrude in seemingly meaningful ways. By the time Valmont spurns her, in a scene of titanic raw emotive power, the bulbs of hearty white wanness sprinkled upon her walls and caressing her furniture feel like the invisible presence of a remote, sorrowful Pascalian god (note how "Christian Thoughts, Volume II" is the only overt literary presence in the entire movie). Well before this point, the film is sunk in blues: when Valmont has pity on Tourvel in her moment of weakness; while Azalon scopes out Merteuil's residence; and crucial confrontations have all begun to take place at night (Tourvel consulting with Mme. de Rosamunde; Valmont's final seduction of Tourvel; Merteuil's "beyond my control" instructions). Even the daylit scenes seem to take place in late afternoon, and one notes the crackling fireplace when Merteuil receives him.
Michelle Pfeiffer, always wan in her late 80s period (remember that intrusive cold sore in "The Witches of Eastwick"?) is at her very best here, and along with the pallor one may note how closely her facial structure actually makes her resemble the bonneted girls in many Fragonard pastoral scenes. As she yields herself up to Valmon't undressing in that unconsummated seduction scene, the raw pinkness of her ear and face, Malkovich's Orson Welles-like hovering over her, that exquisite intimate darkling blueishness surrounding-- it couldn't be more vivid or more perfect. Mostly throughout, and especially where it matters most, Frears and Rousselot create a riviting visual environment for these damning encounters, and I did not err too badly in my youth in taking this film for the ne plus ultra in cinematic treatments of passion.
Most importantly of all, "Dangerous Liaisons" served for several years as my standin whenever Paglia discussed Bergmann's "Persona" and its treatment of the human face, in all its varieties of expression and expressionlessness. The film is certainly an entry in that visual genre Sven Nykvist describes as "two faces and a teacup" cinema. The three principals, in their facial aggressions, aversions, and improvisations deliver a rich performance of these emotive registers. Watch how Valmont invades Tourvel's visual space as he paces behind her in the gardens, intruding over one shoulder and now another, or how the film cuts from him taking his seat beside her, up to the two of them in close midshot, and then up close with his face hovering at hers, telling her "All I want is to be . . ." Watch that silvery glisten in Merteuil's eyes, the light of intelligence become a quicksilver sharkiness, almost sickly, as she narrates her philosophical conversion: "I was fifteen when I came out into society. . . ." And in the mesmerizing final shot, as Glenn Close's face geologically morphs from Arctic glacier into volcanic plane, and then darkens and hardens into a lunar hemisphere as all light dissolves away into an incomprehensible blackness, we behold something fully as iconic and as psychologically absolute as the spliced Andersson/Ullman image in "Persona."
This demon without her masks, is she a mirror held up to our face?

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Tom Bonaparte; Paradise "Lost"

Here's a thought: how about Tom Cruise hits up Ridley Scott to direct him in an adaptation of Stanley Kubrick's "Napoleon" script with the diminutive one as The Diminutive One? Minus the glaring eyes of Jack Nicholson staring into the icy infinity of the Overlook's snowshrouded grounds, lusting for blood (and that could've been Nicholson in '75 staring across the field at Eylau or into the fires of Smolensk) who better to inject a little "vive l'Empereur" into the freedom-fried American moviegoer than the sharkish Cruise? He and Napoleon share a certain rationalizing ideology, the wolfish charisma, the stature and the lack thereof, perhaps the baggage too; and since Cruise could adapt Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason" (to paraphrase David Thomson on George Lucas long ago) if he wanted to, and since he's in with the two directors (Scott and Michael Mann) who have been namedropped for such an undertaking, the man and the script might have met. Of course the very fact that we're talking about a Kubrick script in another's hands is far from ideal and, frankly, we may have seen much of its intended visual content and moral thrust in "Barry Lyndon", as perfect a film as one could hope for-- and even Kubrick probably couldn't challenge Abel Gance's precedence with the material. But it's a film idea worth translating into reality, and from beyond the grave Kubrick could help one of these gifted but uneven directors to achieve something permanent. -- No disrespect to Ridley Scott, whose "Alien" and "Blade Runner" are also as perfect as we could hope for; but today that feels like a distant, other Ridley, and his later films, though sometimes distinguished in their own way, are somewhat trifling by comparison (I'll take "1492: Conquest of Paradise" over any film he's made since, and "Gladiator" is just a drag). Michael Mann, also blessed with great cinematic chops, could make something of it but his "Last of the Mohicans" rings so hollow that I fear he could ruin everything.
Cruise should not be handing his fate into the hands of J.J. Abrams, ABC's wunderkind of the Show of the Disappearing Plot ("Lost") and the disappearing show ("Alias"-- can anybody ever be sure at what secure undisclosed timeslot it's been broadcasting for the past four years?). In the recent hiatus from Season Two's unrelenting aimlessness we've been treated to a reminder of how "good" Season One was by comparison! Locke had his prophetic mojo, the gorgeous Cocteau twins Shannon and Boone were making viewers humid, and an audience unexposed to the wondrous continent that is called Tarkovsky were being promised-- promised-- some sort of contact with the numinous. The best they got was that lovely crane shot of Kate in the tree, a sungilded Eve in a darkening garden accompanied by thoughtfully ominous modernist orchestral stylings almost certainly meant to remind us of the 'Jupiter Mission' opening in "2001: A Space Odyssey". Lovely pop eyecandy, but the pop mysteriousness of it all offered quickly vanishing returns. Now that Season Two has dropped my pet "A Planet Called Sheol" interpretation (or would seem to have closed the door, at any rate) Abrams is clearly marking time, and has no incentive to deliver even the kinetic thrills that Jennifer Garner's buttkicking and costume-changing once yielded. The flashbacks have devolved from morality plays into Trivial Pursuit, the characters are reduced to the same grubby annoyingness, and that godforsaken Charlie is still alive?! Oi, what about me viewers? Let your remcon be your raft, and let no crusty beardo take it away from you.

Monday, March 13, 2006


Imagine opening a volume of critical essays on "The Turn of the Screw" only to find that every single piece says-- I'd rather not say what, rather than even through a hint out to those who haven't read it (and "Lost" fans don't deserve the annotation anyway). Criterion's "Fanny and Alexander" booklet presents much the same unpleasant surprise and, judging from the online samples, the television edit has thrown commentators into a frenzy of reductionism.
At least Rick Moody doesn't write his essay the way he does his fiction. But it's galling to find so many latching onto that chair and furnishing the whole castle-- my enchanted castle which is the movie itself-- in reductive threads. While I'm agnostic enough to admit, for instance, that Harriet Anderson most likely did not call upon her sisters as she waited to rot away into the Beyond (it was only a fantasy/parable in Anna's imagination, true with the clearer truth of dreams, an "it is so, so it should be enacted so"-- "most likely" . . . ), I don't take that to be often the case in "Fanny and Alexander", and Bergmann always leaves his book wide open.
Yes, I'm still shuddering from its sublimities, even with that hyperrigor of exquisite dreams. But all that must wait, for one viewing does not make a man rich in argument, or at least not exhaustive, which is what all good diatribes must be.

This will not be a good one. My quote for the day was fished from last week's "US News" during those last-few-hours-before-the-post-brings-the-new-one crammathon (I want to milk my subscription for what it's worth). Here's Random House vice-president for 'new media' Keith Titan on today's reading habits: "People are reading more than ever-- screen-based reading, on mobile phone, BlackBerrys, computer screens, reading blogs, and gathering information on the Web." I'll just throw that last little cherry on top into the back of the freezer till I'm ready to hang the NCTE and its fellow-travelers out to dry for their particular brand of mental masturbation (yes yes, "gathering"!, veritably harvesting all that goodness, all that good information on the Web, good people go, go gather ye your information on the Web! The Web, yes!! . . . ). People are reading more than ever, reading menus, bumper stickers on the backs of cars, they're reading billboards, and church bulletins, and the dirty words tattooed on the backsides of the lay-of-the-night, they're gathering information from their digital watches. Random House, are you paying this putz well to put out these blurbs? Ah, then it's a gift . . . .
This put me in mind of a passage from John Podhoretz's memoir of the Bush pere White House, "Hell of a Ride". He writes: "The only book anybody thinks he read during his four years in office was Tom Clancy's novel about the drug war, and there's no evidence he finished it. . . . Given his thirty thousand handwritten notes, it's entirely possible Bush wrote more than he ever read." [229]
This is not entirely true, as the rumor was afloat in '92 that G. H. W. Bush was curling up with McCullough's Truman tome, though in Monica Crowley's "Nixon Off the Record" RN comments, "Now please. Bush is not really a reader, especially during the convention!" [108]. But it got me to thinking about frivolous communication, both the reading and writing of trivia, data, and all the yes/no/maybe-we'll-have-lunch crap that Random House perhaps considers to be marketable today.
More interestingly, it got me to thinking about Presidential reading habits, or their absence rather. Everyone knows presidents are not a well-read bunch. Edmund Morris didn't need to spot-check Reagan to see if he recognized the names of Goethe and Schumann! And yes I know Schumann is a composer, one of my idols in fact, but since I don't recall whether Stendhal or Balzac or Turgenev or Tasso or whoever actually made Morris' list whenever the quiz was administered, I won't put names in his mouth. Even Paul Johnson is down with the fact that the thinkers who made Thatcher a Thatcherite were quite off the radar of Ronald Reagan. And if Nixon listened to "Kreisleriana" or (as Stone's film would have it, anachronistically) a Harnoncourt recording of Schubert, or if Clinton could read "The Sorrows of Young Werther" (a work for which he could have little sympathy) should we sleep better knowing that the commander-in-chief is also the Culture Vulture-in-chief?
If anything, it's a shocking relief to see Dallek assure us that young JFK actually broke the spine on a hefty Walter Lippmann volume and half a dozen other serious tomes (though I'm frankly sceptical). An even greater oddity can be found in Carter's Presidential Papers, where he tells us, and the people of India, somewhere, what he has taken from the "Bhagavad-Gita". But can we discover this Dixie Arjuna anywhere within the arc of his Administration? Do Jimmy Carter's explorations of Hindu mysticism show themselves in the face of his policies? He must have found Krishna's wisdom a little sanguine for his taste!
By no means do I intend to endorse the Andrew Sullivan/Peggy Noonan take on the virtues of simpleminded Presidents. Tortured geniuses like LBJ and Nixon, so the argument goes, attract psychoanalytic liberals who are at once free to speculate on the complex inner workings of Presidential paranoia (thus feeling at once companionable-- he's a big neurotic too-- and smugly superior), all the while secretly, masochistically thrilling themselves with awe before these masterful males, whose apocalyptic powers and irrational implacability make them totemic surrogates for the Jehovah they have scorned. This is merely the negative theology of Reaganolatry, which locates its second coming in the second President Bush. Politically, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were surely as much unitary characters, true to their core convictions, as Reagan was; and the human Reagan, while not perhaps so odd as many of his peers, offers room for analysis, while George W. Bush is a Michael Lind screed born to life. More to the point, there is no brownie for being a foursquare character in the White House, any more than there is for mastering the Mortimer Adler library of classics.
Still-- obviously-- some effort should be made, and perhaps it is time the public begins to demand it of its candidates, as it should of its children, and finally of itself. What books should we thrust into the hands of a distracted chief executive? At the moment I fancy the idea of equipping the George H. W. Bush of '92 with Ferrero's "Characters and Events of Roman History", partly because I see something of him in Ferrero's portrayal of Tiberius (not the Saddamite monster of Tacitus' portrait), where he could identify himself in the misunderstood administrator and general, a man of simple virtues and complex skills but little trusted by a frivolous people, or even by the more charismatic predecessor who at once establishes and undercuts him; but more importantly as an examination of the broad sweep of those historical currents Conservatism and Cosmopolitanism, an examination that might have fortified him in standing firm by his martial and diplomatic record, his recognized virtues of experience and prudence, rather than carelessly following down the path cut by the officeless Buchanan. In the portrait of Nero (also more benign than Roman record) he might find comic forebodings of the imperial theatrics of Bill Clinton, and perhaps he might even dream of some Cleopatra of the East who would welcome and establish him as a new Antony when his people have discarded him. Didn't Bush once compare himself to some old gladiator of anecdotal fame? That's a lot of intellectual heft for a thin little book, and if I were ever fortunate enough to meet him, I'd press it into his aged hand. And perhaps Dr. Spock's baby book too.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Getting Down to Life's business

Yesterday was my first screening of the 5 hr 13mins. full-length Swedish television cut of "Fanny and Alexander."
Now, this is the greatest film of all time-- the theatrical 3 hour version which I first viewed some ten years ago had already established that and, if you choose to consider it as a separate entity, it can still hold the second position comfortably even against the likes of Tarkovski's "Sacrifice" or "Shadow of a Doubt"-- but the full, preferred cut loomed in my dreams as the ultimate cinematic dream castle, unapproachably remote as "Fanny and Alexander" had to wait for Criterion to be released on dvd at all. But ads in "Sight & Sound" tantalized me, and the critics, though not all the directors, were careful to clarify with a parenthetical "full-length television version" when they offered it on their lists for the once-each-ten-years Poll. Frightening insinuations reached my ears (were our protagonists really the children of the Bishop?), but all in all the five-hour "Fanny and Alexander" remained almost as mythical as the Christine Edzard "As You Like It" (even now only attested to by a S&S ad from years ago . . . ), though longed-for even beyond the five-hour Viscontis or the missing footage from the 'restored' "Novecento" broadcast on Bravo, shorn of all sexuality and none of its necktwisting violence in 1992.
I had my vhs to console me, an MGM/UA video transfered more or less to the standard of the HBO home video of "Amadeus" which I grew up with (perhaps less, though). Even so, it's not a film to be viewed lightly; like Mahler, it doesn't wear for everyday. So I had almost certainly viewed it under a dozen times when Criterion finally unveiled its sets: the theatrical cut on one, and another, omnibus set pairing that with the definitive cut. Europe got it first, but it had finally arrived.
But of course I shamefully put it off, like so many other things. But when my gf announced she would be out of town for Saturday, I committed myself, commited the sixty-odd dollars and committed myself, absolutely, to watching it. At this juncture, it's all a matter of courage, a courage I less and less frequently have. An "Elle" contributor once proclaimed that she had sat through Bertolucci's "1900" (the aforementioned "Novecento") three times back-to-back in the theatre in 1975; today, she admitted, she wouldn't be able to get through it once. Granted, in 1975 she had little over four hours to exalt in, but I share her sense of loss, even perhaps a bit of her relief. But that I shall now dutifully shun.
Oh, but not to the point of watching "Fanny and Alexander" tomorrow. Goddess knows when that'll happen. But in the theatre of my mind it's playing nonstop. The night before I actually dreamed of "Novecento", a film whose ideological excesses threaten to become dehumanizing even as its cinematic arias swirl and soar to astounding emotive heights, and I was in raptures, in that waking bliss of dream I feel when I dream of Italian films, or when I channelsurf and alight upon a moment of "Once Upon a Time in the West", which I have still never seen!; oh, and that promised bliss was mine in "Fanny and Alexander", an experience big enough to remind me of Plato's arguments for the immortality of the soul and to console me, perhaps, if they cannot be true. So giant and entire a fragment of the human imagination must surely "endure" for, Realist that I am, I cannot believe that even the concept of such an achievement can be without its universal resonance, should every material trace of it somehow vanish.
But it has not vanished. Hell, the discs didn't even skip! And, long life permitting, I shall wander attentive and enraptured in my enchanted castle many times to come. Brevity of life, sense, and senses notwithstanding, someone else will, and there is a patience in that thought which itself builds to mystical rapture inside me.