Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Charlton Heston, Patrician Punchline

In the early spring of 1993, I took a Greyhound bus from Toronto to Winnipeg, a trip I'd made several times before. Typically, a traveller could expect to finish a novel or two, converse with various fellow travellers, and still spend hours contemplating the spare Canadian Shield landscape. This time around, I was given a third distraction: television. Or, more precisely, a monitor that played a series of straight-to-video productions.

I chose not to spend the four dollars for the ear-phones, but when the screen started to roll the opening credits for A Man For All Seasons, starring Charlton Heston, my seat-mate generously offered me his phones, and I jumped at the chance. I watched, mouth agape, while Heston towered over his would-be persecutors, scowling imperiously as they plotted to hedge the hapless Thomas More toward execution, Henry-The-VIII-style. All traces of Paul Scofield's landmark performance were cleared from memory. Where Scofield's More was diminutive, Heston's was now domineering; inner torment was replaced with moral certitude, ironic whimsy with a contemptuous sneer. When Heston's More was finally railroaded toward the executioner's block, it came as a relief not just to the conspirators, but to the audience as well. This cat was no "man for all seasons"; he was a hectoring killjoy, whose season had lasted all too long.

This scene came to mind as I recently re-watched Soylent Green. SG is typical of its genre — a mostly tedious distopia, projected from the Toffler template of the 70s. The more costly attempts to look futuristic are predictably amusing (one character plays a video game that looks one step below "Pong"), while the stuff done on the cheap rings discomfortingly true (people sleeping en masse in stairwells, sweaty characters complaining about "the greenhouse effect," etc). The pleasant surprise was rediscovering what had become for Heston a stock-in-trade performance.

SG's Detective Robert Thorn is a cookie-cutter role that could be interchanged with any number of 70s Heston performances, from Astronaut George Taylor to Robert Neville, "The Omega Man." Thorn is essentially a lout and a bully, who swaggers from scene to scene projecting an air of malign impatience. He uses force and extortion to get what he wants, but occasionally his fa├žade lapses to reveal a man with a sentimental soft-spot. Clearly the guy needs to Learn A Lesson. And because the set-up requires two hours of your movie-watching time, you know in advance that The Lesson is going to be a doozy.

One decade later, both Soylent Green and Charlton Heston were punchline fodder. DEVO referred to SG nearly as often as it referred to genetic manipulation and pornographic grotesquery, and Saturday Night Live pulled countless yucks from an agreeable Heston — one of Phil Hartman's better gags was a command performance of Heston's Greatest Hits: "Soylent Green ... IS PEOPLE!! AAAAARRGH!!" Planet Of The Apes — "You sonsabitches ... YOU BLEW IT ALL UP!! AAAAARRGH!!" etc.

The best punchlines, of course, sneak up on you. Planet of the Apes works because the disconnect — apes rule humans - is so total it distracts you from the punchline right to the bitter end. Rod Serling was a master at that sort of thing, while SG's Harry Harrison was one of those lamentable joke-tellers whose premature chortling at his own cleverness pulls the snap from the payoff.

Heston clearly tired of the joke, though, and took an ill-advised turn from those lout-with-a-heart-of-gold roles to become the strident and thoughtless spokesman for the NRA — Thomas More, with a loaded AK-47; lout sans heart. What an astonishment it was, then, to be moved to tears by his performance as The Player King in Kenneth Branagh's epic production of Hamlet. Who'd have thought the lout was capable projecting not just an imperial mien, but a majestic depth of emotion as well? Geez — now you actually wanted to see him try his hand at King Lear!

His physicality — his patrician bearing - was Heston's great trademark, of course. It was, as only he could intone with such gravitas, "My blessing — and my curse." It worked in his favor when his directors (and I include Michael Moore) set it off-kilter. But Hollywood seems to have lost this horseshoe-in-a-kid-glove touch. Ben Affleck, for instance, could become the new Heston, but the current zeitgeist's narrative componentry is all wrong: movies start with the hero as a gentle soul driven to violent deeds, never considering the rich possibilities of reversing the order. Sad, really, when what we need now, more than ever, is a return of The Lout Who Learns A Lesson.

Sunday, February 22, 2004

Breakfast In Translation

Picture two people, in a big, strange city. They live in the same building, and meet by chance. Both have committed themselves to relationships that give them...something...but not, apparently, what they hunger for. They talk, playfully for the most part, but they say things to each other they haven't said to anyone else. They explore the city. They party, and the colors around them suddenly shift from vivid to absurdly garish. Things get out of hand. People act and react unexpectedly. The Asian in charge of the place shouts something unintelligible and threatening. The couple is strangely amused. Anything could happen, but remarkably, the night ends innocently. The hangover is dealt with, the relationship continues, and reaches its inevitable crisis: they must either part, and return to their unsatisfactory relationships, or commit to each other. He does something crazy, stops the car, reaches for her and says something that could change it all for both of them...

As I watched Sofia Coppola's Lost In Translation, I couldn't shake the feeling I'd seen something like it once before. The next day it came to me: Breakfast At Tiffany's. Thank you, Deep Blue Something, for memories of 1995. Young Whisky, pulling on his finest pair of torn black jeans over his red cotton union suit and taking the Missus out to the Fox Theatre in Toronto’s Beaches to see a film that received yet another cycle of fame, due this time to a flash-in-the-pan favorite on “alternative” radio. The experience was one of those truly rare lovely Po-Mo moments: Deep Blue Something’s self-consciousness was but an echo of not just Breakfast’s protagonists, but director Blake Edwards as well. We were all in on the joke, it seemed: everyone in the theatre was wearing black (except for a few older folks, who apparently came to provide an audible cluck of the tongue as Mickey Rooney tried his hand at despicably racist caricature), and when we stepped back into the winter night, the air was heavy with Turkish tobacco. Interesting, then, that after yucking it up over Mancini’s “attention K-Mart shoppers” score, George “Hey, that’s Hannibal, from the A-Team!” Peppard’s performance within the trademark 60s primary-colors palette, we couldn’t help but reach for each other’s hand, and say, “I think I really liked it.”

Well. That’s something we’ve got.

People remember Audrey Hepburn’s turn as Holly Golightly, of course; her manic lack of attention, the black cocktail dresses, the meter-length cigarette holder. Holly’s party has become something of a kitsch fave, as well: the booze and diet-pill-induced euphoria, all saturated in the primary hues of the 60s. Watching these Cheeveresque revelers at play, it’s no surprise that their younger siblings became hippies. The party had just begun; it was the kid sister's birthright to turn it up a notch!

Still, amid the booze-and-speed-induced giddiness, there’s a tangible anxiety. The boundaries are shifting in ways that can’t be reclaimed. Marriage is a legal nicety that provides scant financial security. Passion is illusory. Distraction is all that remains.

New York City is a dominant, yet foreign entity as well. “Fred” (Peppard) and Golightly frequently appear as the only two people on any given street – the only two people in Tiffany’s, for that matter. No doubt NYC in 1961 was profoundly different from NYC post-9/11, but Gotham can’t have ever been that deserted.

The majority of the film seems to take place “on a Sunday in New York,” as Bobby Darin would paint it. Peppard and Hepburn’s impossibly thin physiques are of a piece with the sky-scrapers. Everything stands in opposition to the traditional. Isolation is assumed. Nothing is taken for granted.

In this chaotic landscape, love – or something like it – is discovered. The question is: does it do you any good? In BAT the question is answered with assertive will. "Fred" gets the final word, and turns the Casablanca standard on its head – love between two people is the only thing that matters in this topsy-turvy world. In LIT, the answer, in stark contrast to the lights that have set off the movie like a giant Roman Candle, is muted. The characters obviously feel better. Enough to compel the man to stop the cab, and pursue her.

He grips the girl, stops her in her tracks. He pulls her close, and he says something. But this time you will not hear it. It is not for you.

You’re on your own now. It is up to you to decide if another person’s love – or your own – amounts to a hill of beans in this crazy, mixed-up world.

Saturday, February 14, 2004

"Are you *in* ... genius?"

Greetings to anyone who's tripped across this site via my friend Scott - I hardly know how to respond to such lavish praise as his, except to say, "Thank you," and protest that, unlike Oscar Wilde, I have nothing to declare. Period. But here I go, regardless....

Scott is, in fact, the inspiration behind my blog, and I owe him that debt of gratitude, among others. Back when we worked together at the bookstore, he was one significant reason why I chose (that's right: chose) to work Saturdays again. Anyone who has had the pleasure and privilege of working with him knows why: serving customers becomes an event.

Reading of his travails while managing a record shop rings a few bells of recognition. Scott, after all, saw the bookstore close to become yet another outlet for That Global Coffee Chain. What does the future hold for his record shop? A recent Washington Post item (expired from the site, alas) quoted one record store owner as saying the issue for him is how to navigate the next 2-3 years. He speculated that the larger stores might make it through to five, or seven years. But by year ten, he said, "It's lights out for all of us." Yikes! Personally, I'm going to miss the physical product: graphics, liner notes, pictures of the performers, etc. In the "If-I-knew-then-what-I-know-now" category: I'd have invested significantly more time and money on my vinyl collection. Issues of wear-and-tear aside, the vinyl album remains a triumph of tactile, multi-media packaging. The CD, alas, was but a passing wave in a technological sea change...

Thursday, February 12, 2004

Transformation Articulation

"You know, I feel more fellowship with the defeated than with saints. Heroism and sanctity don't really appeal to me, I imagine. What interests me is being a man." The Plague, Albert Camus (who had a great deal to say about heroism and sanctity).

I came across an on-line poll that asked, "Is Mel Gibson one bead short of a full rosary?" My first thought was, Please show me a star of Mr. Gibson's status who isn't. But the poll was on the sidebar of a gossip column that supplied quotes of Gibson admitting his Episcopalian, non-Catholic wife just might burn in hell. Of all the pointless trials a movie star can inflict on his or her marriage, religion must be one of the worst.

Mr. Gibson doesn't see it that way, of course. He's said many times that making this movie saved his life and his soul, as well as one or two members of the cast and crew. I think that aptly summarizes the entire Jesus Movie genre. Having seen my share of Jesus Movies over the last four decades, I'm not much interested in seeing this one. They tend to take great pains to impress on the jaded viewer just what it is about Jesus that has changed the movie-maker's life. So, fine: the audience is confronted with a merciful savior, a man of profound paradox, a stumbling block, etc. These "portraits" are occasionally thought-provoking, sometimes moving, most times risible.

Born and raised in a pastor's home, I am perhaps especially jaded toward these portraits. Christ remains for me a sacred figure, but I am greatly skeptical toward claims of transformation. And entertainers are usually the worst people to attempt transformation articulation: from Cat Stevens to Mel Gibson, the scandal sheet merely changes from an account of the usual misbehavior, to a list of outrageous comments regarding the damnation of "those other guys." Not exactly a recommendation for the process.

So, wherefore: transformation? Obviously, it's probably best if people don't look to celebrities like movie stars and presidents. But everybody knows somebody who, for whatever reason, changed from being Bad News to being Good News. And everybody knows that that somebody ain't them. Can identifying a worthy transformation in The Other person somehow help us nurture worthy transformation in ourselves? Perhaps this is what necessitates, "The fellowship of the saints."

Sunday, February 08, 2004

The "Real" WMD

Thomas Friedman wrote something that's been rattling around in my brain for the past month:

"(T)he real WMD that threatened us, and still do, are the young people being churned out, year after year, by failed and repressive Arab states, who hate us more than they love life and therefore are undeterrable. I am talking here about the boys of 9/11. I am talking here about all the youth identified in the two U.N. Development Programme Arab Human Development reports—youth who want to run away from the Arab countries they were raised in because they are so frustrated, angry, and humiliated by how their governments and society have left them unprepared for modernity. Sept. 11, I have always believed, was produced by the poverty dignity, not the poverty money. It was the product, as Egyptian playwright Ali Salem once remarked, of young men who felt so humiliated by the world, they felt like dwarfs, and dwarfs search out tall towers to bring down in order to feel tall. Humiliated youth, ready to commit suicide using instruments from our daily life—cars, planes, tennis shoes—and inspired by religious totalitarians are the real threat to open societies today." (italics mine)

This bit resonates with me. I can't help wondering how many of us - adults and youth, alike - are actually "prepared" for modernity. Perhaps the difference between adults and youth is one of kind: adults are (I hope) less prone to extremism. Youth, well ... in my rural community, it's not at all uncommon for the weekend to be punctuated by police cars, brought in to deal with violent altercations. Parents here wonder if their kids might not relax a bit if they had more of the big city's amenities. It's possible, I suppose. But part of the challenge we all face is to square our immediate reality with the various images and "alternate" realities presented to us, not just by our chosen religious leaders, but by our media as well.

Thursday, February 05, 2004

Honor Thy Sexual Partner

Question: can our sexuality mature beyond its adolescent origins, or does it remain fixed at its inception? Speaking modestly on behalf of the North American hetero male, and perhaps more than a few females as well, I'm thinking our adolescent experiences of sexuality serve chiefly as a fecund point of origin to which we return when we need (or desire) stimulation. There might even be an aspect of regeneration involved here, if only in a limited sense -- biologically, we regenerate the species, and spiritually we regenerate our adolescence. Little hope, then, of a "mature" sexuality.

It's the Superbowl halftime that's got me thinking, of course. My wife happens to be the same age as Janet Jackson. My wife also happens to have a background in theatre, including song and dance. I also consider her to be every inch as beautiful as Ms. Jackson. Now, were she to pull the same stunt as Ms. Jackson (I shrug aside, I admit, the ugly possibility that the whole thing was Justin Timberlake's idea), I'd start asking myself all sorts of dsicomfiting questions. She's apparently a mature adult -- why is she doing this? Not just flashing the tit: the whole damn thing. The entire show is a crisply-choreographed projection of adolescent sexual innuendo. What prompts adults to, erm, "mount" such a production?

Well, duh. Perhaps the better question to ask is, if this is manifest adolescence, what might a "mature sexuality" look like? I've got to admit, here I'm at a bit of a loss. The Superbowl halftime isn't the place to look. Yet skipping genres of entertainment to current movies doesn't help, either: anyone up for yet another slice of American Pie? Even when a movie claims to broach the subject of mature sexuality, the end result is pretty weak (I submit to the jury the profoundly flawed Something's Gotta Give). No, the movie that first comes to my mind as a serious possibility is the 1995 adaptation of Rob Roy. The entire melodrama pivots around a man's unshakable conviction: maintain your honor. Robert Roy MacGregor demonstrates what might appear to be oft-proclaimed "American" values: he keeps honor with his integrity, his queen, his family, and his community. Inside this moral framework, he and his wife Mary enjoy spontaneous and open sexual affection. When Mary is later raped by Archibald Cunningham, the contrast could not be more brutal -- the adolescent invades the adult. As in most movies, blood calls for blood (an expected -- and indeed adolescent - denouement), but when MacGregor is confronted by the possibility that the child Mary is carrying might not be his own, his response is transcendent: essentially he says, if the child is a girl, she'll be named after the mother; if a boy, he'll be named after the father -- me. MacGregor's sense of honor demands he care for, and claim, the child born into his home.

I don't want to be a Falwell about these matters, disallowing a vast array of complexity and nuance that is both demanded by and beneficial to a life well lived. I'll be the first to admit the Rob Roy "Code" is seriously problematic. But I do think that an effort to cultivate a larger, let's say holistic sense of honor, in which to express and explore one's sexuality can only help to nurture its potential maturity.

The not-so "fin"-de-siecle

Russell Smith's column this morning provoked my weary brain to reconsider the Superbowl halftime entertainment (confession: I only caught the highlights, such as they were, as presented by Jon Stewart on the Daily Show). Smith's opening comments particularly caught my eye:

"The least interesting thing about the Super Bowl entertainment was Janet Jackson's half-exposed breast. I watched it with a bunch of friends and we all saw it and no one commented. We were too stunned by the weirdness of the rest of the spectacle" (italics mine). He goes on to ennumerate the various aesthetic elements that would seem jarring and provocative, had they been intentionally enlisted by the event organizers. He suspects the conflicting visual subtexts were entirely unintentional, which left me considering some provocative questions (more later, perhaps).

Smith's opener threw me back to a book I read some 10 years ago: Rites of Spring: The Great War & The Birth Of The Modern Age, by Modris Eksteins (available here). Eksteins gives vigorous account of the way European cultures were run through the meat grinder of World War I. Art gave witness to this, and Eksteins begins the book with a vivid portrait of the Paris debut of Le Sacre du printemps, on May 29, 1913. Of the immediate controversy that erupted, Eksteins says, "Where does all this confusion leave us? Is there not sufficient evidence to suggest that the trouble was caused more by warring factions in the audience, by their expectations, their prejudices, their preconceptions about art, than by the work itself? The work ... certainly exploited tensions but hardly caused them."

Perhaps if we were to exchange "entertainment" for the word "art," we might begin to fashion a rudimentary tool with which to examine some of the enormous disconnect that seems to be occurring within the American public at this moment.