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The footprints of clashing interests.

The streets of lower Manhattan are deserted--also spotlessly clean and
glowing in the light of the golden hour--when the studio head takes the
movie director outside to tell him he's washed up. Those were great
dreams he had in New York in the old days, with Cassavetes, but they're
over. How it must wound the director to hear these words in Hollywood, on a mere back-lot
simulacrum of New York--and from his own ex-wife! How it must shame him
to hear the name of Cassavetes! Although the director claims to be the
last American auteur, who is being fired because he won't compromise,
we've seen some of the picture he was shooting, and it looks less like
Cassavetes than a feature-length ad for "Dysfunction" by Calvin Klein.

But Hollywood holds out hope even for a moviemaker who's so pretentious
that he spells his first name "Viktor." The director receives a genie in
a bottle--or, in this case, a wonderful computer program on a hard
drive. This gift puts into his hands a virtual actress, or synthespian,
who can be molded exactly as he wishes and secretly inserted into his
not-quite-finished movie. The computer program is known as Simulation
One; the virtual actress, as Simone. When the picture is released, it
will be Simone, not Viktor, who wins the public's unconditional
love--after which it's only a matter of time before he's struggling to
shove the genie back into its bottle.

"Our ability to manufacture fraud," muses the director, "now exceeds our
ability to detect it." These words will do to sum up a theme that has
emerged in the work of Andrew Niccol, who wrote and directed
Simone. He first made a name for himself as the screenwriter of
The Truman Show, in which Jim Carrey unwittingly resided on a TV
soundstage the size of an entire village. Niccol next wrote and directed
Gattaca, a futuristic fantasy about a world where you have to be
physically perfect, or else. Now comes Simone, a story about the
public's adoration for an actress who is too good to be true, and isn't.
"Simone has the voice of the young Lauren Bacall, the body of Sophia
Loren and the face of Audrey Hepburn crossed with an angel," raves one
critic about the new star. "Almost right," the director mutters.

You will observe that Simone is not a fraudulent contest winner, phony
political reformer or bogus war hero (to mention only three of the
impostors who populate Preston Sturges's movies, and so define the great
tradition of American screen comedy). Simone is a mirage of femininity,
projected by a man who can make her into just what he wants a woman to
be. Conversely, when Viktor turns against her, he can make Simone into
his image of everything he finds horrifying in a woman. Since the
director is simultaneously trying to win back his ex-wife (Catherine
Keener, in another of her hard-as-peanut-brittle roles), we can judge
how well his fantasies match reality.

It would be enough for me if Simone played out these ideas
consistently and well. But it does even more--because Viktor is
portrayed by Al Pacino. If you've seen him as the suffering detective in
Insomnia, you've had a recent reminder of how overbearing he can
be. Part of the pleasure of Simone is to see him give pretty much
the same baggy-eyed performance as Viktor, yet make the character come
out funny. Who better than Pacino to take on the role of a director,
railing against those self-regarding actors who think they're more
important than the movie? And who better to be transformed into a
porcelain-skinned blonde? Simone "acts" by mirroring her director's
gestures and speech--which means she's a Victoria's Secret version of
Pacino, right down to the hands spreading apart as if they were pulling
taffy.

I confess there were moments when I merely chuckled at Simone, or
smiled, or checked my wristwatch (during the meandering third act).
There were also moments--two of them--when I laughed till I wept. I
think that's reason enough to recommend Simone for a holiday
weekend's viewing--that, and the delight of discovering there's still a
moviemaker in America who can toss up three ideas and keep them all in
the air.

American moviemakers (including those who, like Niccol, come from New
Zealand) get a hard time from Jean-Luc Godard in his most recent
feature, In Praise of Love (Éloge de l'amour). By
now, one particular sequence in that film has become notorious. A
certain Steven Spielberg wants to buy the life stories of an elderly
couple who were active in the French Resistance in World War II. The
couple's granddaughter bitterly denounces the project; but she is
silenced by Spielberg's negotiator, who comes not from DreamWorks but
the US State Department.

Although I don't want to overprotect Spielberg--he's probably capable of
defending himself--I admit I squirmed at this burlesque. But that was
just on first viewing. The second time through, having got my bearings
(which is no easy matter), I still disliked the too-facile choice of
target but could see it as something more than the product of old
Jean-Luc's crankiness. I now think it's part of a dense, thrumming
network of ideas, which concern resistance both with and without the
capital R.

Resistance against what, you might ask. Godard shows you some possible
answers and lets you sound out a few others. Here are homeless people
sleeping in the rain, in the world's most beautiful city. (The larger
portion of In Praise of Love, filmed in black and white, brings
Godard back to Paris as a location, for the first time in many years.)
Here are silent, shuffling workers, cleaning railroad coaches late at
night; here is a grim, spray-painted underpass, in one of the workers'
suburbs. And here, too, is a report about the recent massacres in
Kosovo, in case you forgot that mass murder still happens at your
doorstep. Let us agree there is something in the world worth resisting,
and something within ourselves, too--call it slackness, indecision,
indifference, a failure to create ourselves as adults. Resistance is
necessary; and resistance is impossible, the voices on the soundtrack
say, without memory and universalism.

I would suggest that "Spielberg" is the name Godard gives to a false
universalism: the omnipresent culture of Hollywood, which unites people
by offering them all the same fantasies about movie stars. What might
constitute a genuine universalism? Godard's protagonist, a would-be
artist named Edgar (Bruno Putzulu), takes a stab at an answer when he
launches a project about love: its cycle of meeting, passion, rupture
and reunion; its different manifestations in youth, adulthood and old
age. An impossible project, for Edgar anyway. A perfect specimen of the
European mope--a descendant, you might say, of the screenwriter
character from Contempt--he's so weighted with historical memory
that he can't finish anything, let alone mount a resistance to
Spielbergism; so conscious of his cultural birthright that he can't love
the forceful Berthe (Cécile Camp) but can only pursue her and
then push her away.

This leaves Godard himself to love and remember and resist, in the best
way he knows how: by making something ravishing. In Praise of
Love
is an achingly beautiful picture, both in its initial filmed
section and in the later portion that was shot on video, with vibrating,
Fauvist colors. (The video section seems to take us into Edgar's memory,
where he has just met Berthe, where an orange sea crashes onto chocolate
rocks.) Every image is incisive; every cut to a fresh shot, musically
timed; every musical fragment, eloquent; every spoken line, evocative of
some new picture.

Still, I can understand why some people resist the autumnal beauty of
In Praise of Love. Its sense of melancholy can become oppressive.
(There are four suicides in the story, not counting the death of Simone
Weil.) The protagonist is insufferable (and is meant to be so, I think);
and the proliferation of allusions can make you feel like the slowest
student in Professor Godard's seminar room. As has usually been the case
in his later films, the characters speak almost entirely in quotations,
while hanging around settings that are themselves in need of footnotes.
Were Godard still interested in actors, you would at least have a strong
performance to help carry you through the quiz; but he hasn't cast
anyone with a personality since he put Depardieu into Hélas
pour moi
. To Godard, people are now just elements in the
sound-and-image mix. He's the sole actor.

And, of course, he is a brilliant actor. In Praise of Love may be
a kind of directorial soliloquy about loss and failure--including
cinema's failure to put up an adequate alternative to Hollywood--but
it's performed with such deftness and vigor that it can make the heart
soar.

Short Takes: In Satin Rouge, first-time feature director
Raja Amari gives us the tale of Lilia, a respectable widow in Tunis who
finds happiness through belly dancing. To get a hint of Amari's deadpan
methods, and of the magnificence of Hiam Abbass's performance as Lilia,
you need look no further than the opening shot. A 360-degree pan reveals
the details of a humble apartment, which is being briskly cleaned by a
handsome woman on the verge of middle age. Lilia dusts the mirror,
checks the surface to make sure it's clean and then belatedly notices
herself in the glass. As she does so, she begins to move to the music on
the radio. She unpins her hair, letting it flow over the shoulders of
her housedress; she dances; and then, just as simply as she'd begun, she
pins the hair up again and cleans her way out of the room. A woman
capable of such interludes might end up just about anywhere, to the
astonishment of both her daughter and the audience in the movie theater.
Lilia may well astonish you, too.

You may recall Liz Garbus as co-director of a fine documentary titled
The Farm: Angola, USA. She's back now with a new picture, The
Execution of Wanda Jean
, which was made for HBO but will have a
well-deserved theatrical run, starting September 6 in New York. The
picture follows convicted murderer Wanda Jean Allen, her family, her
defense team and her victim's family over the final weeks of Wanda
Jean's life: from the preparations for her clemency hearing, to her
execution in January 2001, to her funeral. Garbus worked wonders in
winning the confidence of her subjects (as she also did in The
Farm
); and to her great credit, she chose to follow a genuinely
thorny case. On the one hand, prejudice seems to have played a role in
Wanda Jean's getting the death penalty: She was an African-American
woman accused of having killed her lover, Gloria Leathers. On the other
hand, Wanda Jean had previously done time for manslaughter, and she shot
Gloria outside an Oklahoma City police station. Those of us who oppose
the death penalty need to be able to look at cases like this, take a
deep breath and then say, "Even so." The Execution of Wanda Jean
is a tough movie, and a valuable one.

It's only August, but I'll go out on a limb and congratulate the
Village Voice
's Keith Harris for what I feel confident will stand
the test of time as the stupidest comment of the year. "Because his
vision of rock and roll is so grand, Springsteen requires a popular
consensus as surely as any invasion of Iraq. And as we've learned yet
again, nothing sparks phony consensus like national cataclysm. Maybe
that's why, for the past few days, a nagging thought has burrowed into
my brain that I wish was merely the snide aphorism I initially took it
for: If there hadn't been a September 11, Bruce Springsteen would have
had to invent one."

Like an Ann Coulter bestseller or a Rush Limbaugh radio rant, Harris's
review is idiotic but instructive. Aside from its self-evident (and
self-incriminating) silliness, what galls about the comment is its
willful forfeiture of the common cultural ground upon which Bruce
Springsteen plies his trade. Does 9/11 belong only to George Bush and
Donald Rumsfeld? Is American popular culture the exclusive preserve of
Spielberg, Bruckheimer and Britney?

While managing to keep both feet planted in the mainstream, Springsteen
has done more than any American artist to give voice to the American
"other" that pop culture would prefer to forget: the humiliated Vietnam
veteran, the fired factory worker, the hunted illegal immigrant, the
death-row inmate, the homeless person living beneath the bridge and
Amadou Diallo, a West African immigrant, accidentally murdered by
forty-one shots from New York's finest. With his 1994 AIDS ballad
"Streets of Philadelphia," Springsteen became the first heterosexual
rock star ever to sing in the voice of a homosexual man, in a work
that--as Ann Powers, who was then writing brilliant music criticism in,
uh, the Village Voice, observed--succeeded in crossing "the
barriers of class, race, and gender."

Springsteen is vulnerable to criticism on any number of grounds,
artistic and commercial, but his willingness to offer solace in troubled
times strikes me as pretty low on that list. Springsteen was literally
stopped in his car after 9/11 by someone who cried out, "We need you."
Monmouth County, where he lives, lost 158 people in the towers. He
played a couple of local benefits. He read, repeatedly, about the
meaning of his work to his fans in the New York Times's
"Portraits of Grief." He called a few widows, shared their stories and
made a record. It's what he does. "I have a sense of what my service to
my audience is going to be," he explains. "It's the true nature of work
in the sense that you're filling a place. And that place comes with its
blessings and its responsibilities." So sue him.

It is a separate question as to whether one thinks the art that emanated
from this impulse is wholly successful. With regard to The
Rising
, I can argue the point either way. But to take issue with the
very idea that art can be a balm to those in pain--or, as Springsteen
puts it, "music is medicine"--is cynicism itself. And to the degree that
this is at all representative of leftist attitudes, it speaks for an
impotent and self-defeating left: too smug and self-satisfied to engage
the culture of the common people, preferring instead to smirk on the
sidelines.

Granting both its sincerity and its (inconsistent) genius, The
Rising
does nevertheless raise some complicated questions about art,
politics and commerce. One has to go back to 1984--to Springsteen's own
Born in the U.S.A.--to find a rock record that was marketed as
energetically to mainstream America. After decades of relative
reclusiveness, Springsteen is suddenly everywhere in the mass media:
taking over the Today show in Asbury Park, on David Letterman two
nights in a row, ditto Ted Koppel, on MTV, Saturday Night Live,
simultaneous covers of Time and Rolling Stone; long
interviews with the New York Times, the LA Times and
USA Today. I half expected him to duet with Elmo or Big Bird over
breakfast. It should surprise no one that the record entered the charts
at No. 1 in eleven countries.

The problem arises--just as it did with Born in the U.S.A.--when
the work's cultural signification overwhelms its artistic essence; what
Nietzsche, in Twilight of the Idols, termed "the thing itself."
The dilemma for anyone who seeks to use popular culture to communicate a
message at odds with its market-driven heart of darkness is: who's using
whom? Did Springsteen accidentally empower Reaganism back in the
mid-1980s as he simultaneously denounced it? Is he somehow cheapening
the individual tragedies of which he writes and sings by performing
these haunting melodies at the ungodly hour of 8:30 am in the happy-talk
context of a Today show beach party?

Matt Lauer asked Springsteen whether he feared being accused of
exploiting the tragedy of 9/11, and Springsteen told him to listen to
the music and make up his own mind. The same might be said of his
willingness to embrace (and exploit) America's mighty mass-marketing
machine.

The answer has to be a personal one. In Asbury Park, I did some random
interviewing of people who had traveled many hours, and waited on
overnight lines, in the hope of seeing Springsteen perform four songs in
the Convention Hall for the Today broadcast. I spoke to a
firefighter who had gone into the burning buildings, a 16-year-old girl
who was repaying her mom for waiting ten hours on line to get 'NSync
tickets, a woman with her 5-year-old son, who, back in '85, enlisted her
entire family in a weeklong wait for tickets. Nobody mentioned Matt or
Katie. Nobody mentioned the marketing campaign. Nobody even complained
about the all-night wait and the uncertainty that they would be allowed
inside the hall. They were there for Bruce because Bruce was there for
them. In the midst of what Springsteen accurately terms "a theater of
humiliation on TV and on the radio, a reflection of self-loathing," they
had created a community around something better. This was their
hometown.

(Don't forget, while those Nation folks are on vacation,
www.altercation.msnbc.com.)

Like life itself, good movies sometimes change the subject on you in
midparagraph. You think you're watching the story of an elderly man in
mourning, buoying himself up against grief and then realize he's started
to worry about younger women, who have such a distressing preference for
younger men. Or you settle down to enjoy a satire about the movie business, only to figure out that most of its characters, though peculiar to Los Angeles,
have little or nothing to do with filmmaking.

As you probably know by now, the not-quite-Hollywood story emerges in
Full Frontal, written by Coleman Hough and directed by Steven
Soderbergh. The elderly man's predicament is the subject of I'm Going
Home
, written and directed by Manoel de Oliveira. It's not just the
coincidence of an August release that prompts me to put these films
together. Although one is a high-art meditation by a nonagenarian
Portuguese master, the other a sketchlike quickie by a pop-drenched
American, both films express a fascination with playacting: its evasions
and distortions, as well as its unforeseeable matchups with reality.
Despite the difference in provenance, the two pictures also tell us
something about the working conditions of today's more interesting
filmmakers.

More on that later. Right now, I want to rush Michel Piccoli onto the
scene, so I can tell you how he first appears in I'm Going Home:
doddering at death's threshold and having the time of his life at it.

I'm Going Home casts Piccoli as Gilbert, a celebrated French
actor, who in the opening sequence is onstage in a production of
Ionesco's Exit the King--a role that calls for him to stumble
about in a cloak that looks like some kid's security blanket, thrown
over a grayish pair of thermal underwear. The figure he cuts is ancient,
palsied, pathetic; but when he turns his back to the audience to deliver
the play's final tirade, Gilbert chews and sucks and spits out his
words, roars and rasps and bellows and croons with the self-confidence
of a great actor working at full power. Without needing to show his
face, without even moving, Gilbert dominates his world.

Controlling it is another matter. While this opening sequence plays
out--Oliveira has the nerve to prolong it for an astonishing fifteen
minutes--three agents of mortality come calling for Gilbert. "I can't
hear you. Your words scare me," he protests from the stage, when the
dark messengers peep into the theater. At that, they withdraw; but they
don't retreat. Taking up positions in the wings, they wait to pronounce
their doom, while Gilbert, as king, seems to hold them off with a whine:
"I never had time." But once the applause sounds, he can no longer evade
the news; and so these fates in their business suits tell him that his
family has died in a car accident--wife, daughter and son-in-law, all at
once. Despite the close attention the camera has been paying to Gilbert,
we don't see him receive this blow. Oliveira discreetly allows the
information to reach him when he's out of the frame. Then Gilbert
clatters down a staircase and is gone.

The sight of his back disappearing through the stage door may remind us:
We haven't seen Gilbert until now, only his version of the king. It
takes another minute until we get our first look at the man himself, out
of costume and makeup; and the close-up reveals what we'd expect:
someone with the head of a glum Humpty-Dumpty. As the next sequence
starts, Gilbert is discovered staring at nothing, with a slight frown.
Yet almost at once, with only a small shift in camera setup, he is
utterly transformed: We now see he's posed behind the window of a cafe,
where he smiles and chats when the waiter comes by.

Under the weight of loss, it seems, Gilbert means to keep up his
urbanity. The next section of I'm Going Home shows how he does
it. He strolls the Paris streets, buys handsome new shoes, signs his
autograph for excited young women, plays Prospero in The Tempest
(where he ignores the smile of a fellow cast member, another young
woman). Doesn't he need companionship, his manager wants to know.
Gilbert rejects the question, perhaps more angrily than is needed. He
has his grandson, he says. He's content.

This is hubris, of course; and Gilbert will pay for it by accepting a
part in a film version of Joyce's Ulysses--a French-American
co-production that is impeccably high-minded and already foundering. In
a staggering refusal to act his age, he signs on for the role of Buck
Mulligan. In English. With three days till shooting starts. At first,
Oliveira spares us the sight of the result, just as he turned the camera
elsewhere when the terrible news was announced. Gilbert is owed that
much kindness. But the audience is owed the truth; so then we see
Gilbert struggle with ribald young Buck, only to have grief settle on
him finally like the cloak of a tattered king, ancient, palsied and
pathetic.

This is the second time in recent years that Oliveira has used theater
people as his characters for a story about age and loss. He did it
before in Journey to the Beginning of the World, with Marcello
Mastroianni as his surrogate; but that picture was sweeter, more rustic
and elegiac. Although I'm Going Home has some sugar of its own,
spun out of its deliberately touristic views of Paris, it comes much
closer to heartbreak. This is, at last, a movie about the impossibility
of imagining your way out of old age. It's a theme that Piccoli acts
with great beauty and sorrow; one that Oliveira directs with the
exquisite sureness a filmmaker may attain in the eighth decade of his
career.

Distributed by Milestone Film and Video, I'm Going Home is
beginning a US theatrical run at Film Forum in New York.

The people in Full Frontal live in Los Angeles, and so their idea
of irredeemable old age is 40. The plot's conceit is that a producer who
is facing that awful birthday has invited all the other characters to
his party. Some are currently shooting a movie for him; others are
hangers-on, who nevertheless have contributed something of their lives
to his production. Carl (David Hyde Pierce), a wretched employee of
Los Angeles magazine, banged out the movie's screenplay in his
spare time. Carl's energetically aggrieved wife, Lee (Catherine Keener),
is meanwhile banging the movie's male lead.

The story of Lee and Carl is told as if it were a documentary, shot on
digital video with voiceover narration. These scenes generally look a
bit crummier than they might have. When Soderbergh shoots a tryst in a
hotel room, first making the lovers' bodies into a pulsing kaleidoscope,
then snapping the image into focus with a brutally unadorned close-up of
Keener, you see how magical he can be with video. Most of the time,
though, he doesn't want magic. The "real people" in Full Frontal
tend to look decomposed, even ghostly, in the buzzing light; whereas the
"movie characters" (played by Julia Roberts and Blair Underwood) inhabit
a schlock-cinema world that's as persuasive as it is preposterous, since
it's shot in sparklingly clear 35-millimeter.

It's good fun to watch how reality warps as it crosses into movie--to
see, for example, how Blair Underwood first embodies everything that
threatens Carl, then turns into his heroic fantasy double. But this is
only the first layer of playacting in Full Frontal. Lee, who
works as a corporate personnel officer, uses her exit interviews as a
form of psychodrama (one in which somebody gets fired, but no one is
cured). Her sister Linda (Mary McCormack) goes around town under an
assumed name (she's a masseuse) and makes online dates using a chat-room
identity. The producer, it turns out, is about to stage a real-life
imposture; and everybody has a more than casual interest in porn.

Considering how many fabulations abound in Full Frontal, you will
perhaps forgive Soderbergh for not savaging the lies of the movie
business, as some critics have assumed he should have done. He seems to
feel that the urge to satirize Hollywood is itself in need of
satirizing; and so he has one of his characters liken a movie mogul to
Hitler, not just in passing but onstage, in a theater production, so you
can judge whether such comparisons might be, shall we say, overstated.
This subplot of Full Frontal yields the film's funniest moments
(Nicky Katt's improvisatory turn as the Bel-Air Führer
outproduces The Producers); but it also underscores a point. The
real producer in Full Frontal (David Duchovny) is almost a blank.
So, too, are the movie-star characters, who may be the least interesting
figures in the picture.

The thick, complicated people in Full Frontal are office workers
and a veterinarian and Lee and Carl, who perhaps read too much of
themselves into the pretty void of the movies. Lee might be the ultimate
Catherine Keener role; what other actress could turn an inflatable globe
into the tool of a dominatrix, and really enjoy it, and simultaneously
be alarmed by her own craziness? Pierce, meanwhile, takes the role of
Carl as a gift, savoring every one of the man's screwups and continually
finding the decency that underlies them. Pierce is playing someone who
is derided for drinking his beer out of a glass. When he later removes a
frosted mug from the refrigerator and considers whether to use it,
Pierce makes that decision into just enough of a victory to save his
day.

For some of Soderbergh's moralizing critics, though, this is not enough.
They complain that the director of Ocean's Eleven is being
pretentious by working fast and cheap. Perhaps these same critics have
not yet forgiven Roberto Rossellini for defiling his art with Ingrid
Bergman--or is it Bergman they can't forgive, for having left Hollywood
for Rossellini? I'm perpetually amazed at the way some people really
want big-money movies to be trashy (perhaps so they can be safely
sneered at), while imagining that small-budget filmmakers have a duty to
remain pure, and inconsequential. In the actual film world, though,
Oliveira casts John Malkovich in I'm Going Home, and Soderbergh
adopts a few Dogme 95 rules (just the ones he likes) to make Full
Frontal
. That doesn't mean that Oliveira is a sellout or Soderbergh
a poseur. It just means that film culture continues to exist on the
art-house level, where a certain internationalism flourishes. That's a
good thing for filmmakers who choose to keep their eyes and minds open,
and it's a good thing for us moviegoers.

Otherwise, we'd all have to go home.

Short Takes: Merchant of uplift M. Night Shyamalan gives us his
latest message from Beyond in Signs, the story of a
self-defrocked Pennsylvania minister and his strangely geometric crops.
It seems that God has killed the minister's wife, then dispatched to
Earth a plague of carnivorous extraterrestrials, who trample the fields
and make screen doors creak; but all is well in the end, since these
events move the minister to reaffirm his faith. Untold millions carried
off so that one can be saved? I'd say God's methods are
inefficient--which might be why Mel Gibson has to waste all his deadpan
humor on an ultimately lifeless starring role. In its story and methods
no less than its setting, Signs is nothing but corn.

Blood Work documents the latest stage in Clint Eastwood's aging,
in which he collapses while chasing the bad guy and undergoes
heart-transplant surgery, yet still remains Clint enough to smooch with
the raven-haired babe. The story in which he accomplishes these feats
follows classic whodunit rules, which means that the murderer must be in
plain view throughout. Unfortunately, the screenplay, by Brian
Helgeland, supplies only one possible suspect. Even people who move
their lips while reading will figure out the solution before Clint gets
to it; which is strange, because he doesn't seem to have wasted much
time directing the picture. The actors knock around loose in the frame,
line readings fall into silence and the mind drifts back to In the
Line of Fire
, when Clint was feeling his age but hadn't yet checked
into intensive care.

Bob Dylan at Newport

Hot media news: Women want hard-hitting reports on issues that affect them.

Like Pop-Up Video--one of the many things the movie-industry left
never anticipated--ancillary factoids keep imposing themselves on Paul
Buhle and Dave Wagner's Radical Hollywood:

1. When the oft-dubbed "revolutionary" Lew Wasserman (longtime MCA mogul) died this past June 3, obit writers made the old archcapitalist
sound like he'd been the happy end of a Bolshevik dream--the man who
finally took the power away from the studios and gave it to the people
(OK, very rich, well-placed people).

2. Wasn't it Ronald Reagan--"FBI collaborator," the man deemed "too
dumb" for membership in Hollywood's CP of the 1930s and the star of the
blacklisted screenwriter Val Burton's last movie (Bedtime for
Bonzo
)--who helped decontrol the studios' ownership of movie
theaters, i.e., the means of distribution?

3. Showing that memory is fleeting even among the most
progressive-minded people, the Stockholm International Film Festival of
1997 jumped the gun on the Academy Awards and hosted a retrospective of
work by friendly witness Elia Kazan--its organizers claiming, quite
convincingly, that they were completely unaware of the then-raging (sort
of) Kazan Kontroversy.

4. Showing that memory is as tenacious as the ego it's attached to,
Hollywood Ten member Ring Lardner Jr., honoree of the
screenwriter-centric Nantucket Film Festival of 1998, still had the
energy to rail against the system--although the preponderance of his
outrage was not over his HUAC-imposed prison time but the liberties
Joseph Mankiewicz and Louis B. Mayer had taken fifty-odd years before
with his script for Woman of the Year.

If there are unwritten messages within Radical Hollywood, one
might be that artistic vanity and general cupidity are neither exclusive
nor native to a particular political persuasion, nor even the movie
industry itself. And that nothing ever changes. Current cinephiles fear
and loathe the fact that in today's movie business, "business" takes
precedence over "movies." But by 1933, after the bankruptcies of Fox,
Paramount and RKO, the money men had already taken over. (As the authors
write, "Bankers were good at firing studio workers...but were notably
untalented at making films." Make it "lawyers" and it might be 2002.)
Back in 1919, Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith and Mary
Pickford organized the first independent-of-the-studios Hollywood movie
company, United Artists--the DreamWorks of its time. Last year's
threatened strike by the Writers Guild--which, together with the strike
threat by the Screen Actors Guild, is still affecting studio production
schedules--was largely about credits, because they translate into
salaries; in 1933, meeting secretly, Hollywood's leading screenwriters
(including such leftist lights as John Howard Lawson, John Bright,
Samuel Ornitz and Lester Cole) gathered to organize, largely over the
issue of credits, and for the same reason. Variety, Hollywood
"bible" and noted mangler of the English language, played the game with
the mobbed-up craft union IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical
Stage Employees) back in Depression-era Hollywood. It plays plenty of
games today.

And then (sigh) there's that oh-so-predictable outcry over pop cinema's
influence on/instigation of sociocriminal behavior--the knee-jerk
finger-pointing at Hollywood every time a Columbine happens (but never,
you may notice, a 9/11). This is hardly a newsflash either: The release
of such hard-nosed gangster thrillers as The Public Enemy,
Scarface and Little Caesar in the early 1930s helped lead
to the establishment of the Legion of Decency, the Production Code, the
Hays Office, the bluenosed rule of in-house censor Joseph Breen and
decades-long cultural prosperity for those who preferred their movie sex
infantilized and their view of America strained through fine mesh. How
the Christian right does long for those thrilling days of yesteryear.

The story of the left in Hollywood, in other words, is the story of
today in Hollywood; but if you're looking for correlations and parallels
you won't find many in Radical Hollywood. Not that parallels are
always what you need: As the blacklisted writer/director Abraham Polonsky (Force of Evil, Body and Soul,
Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here) told interviewer David Walsh a few
months before his death in 1999, "In the old days, if something like
this [the Kazan Oscar] was going on, you'd make a few telephone calls,
you'd have a thousand people there. No more. Nobody believes in
anything, except in the finance capitalist." Did anyone in the whole of
Hollywood--or the entire United States Congress, for that matter--make a
peep of support for the recent and quite reasonable California appellate
court decision on the Pledge of Allegiance? If they did, it was drowned
out by the sound of scuttling feet, heading for the political lifeboats.

This last episode was certainly too late for inclusion or comment in
Radical Hollywood, but it points up both the stasis and mutation
in what we have to recognize, however reluctantly, as the cultural
capital of the country--and whose history is far more alive than this
book would imply. Encyclopedic in the most frightening sense, RH
is thorough and wide-ranging, and fairly exhaustive in ferreting out
every possible leftist association in any vaguely relevant movie
produced by Hollywood from the New Deal through the postwar Red Scare.
But the authors are also straitjacketed by their own theses: One, that
there was a leftist subtext imposed on many of the movies that
the right held in fear and contempt. (Who knew?) And two, that the
movies were simply superior during the more or less lefty days of
Hollywood.

They may be right. "The content of films was better in 1943 than it is
in 1953," Hollywood Ten-ster Dalton Trumbo is quoted as saying, and the
authors contend that "any reasonable calculation" would confirm what
Trumbo says. But reasonable calculation has nothing to do with the very
subjective business of judging art. One might as well reduce the entire
argument to a single question: What do you prefer? Movies with the
left-leaning Humphrey Bogart? Or movies with Ronald Reagan? It may not
seem to be a contest. But it wouldn't be an example of the scientific
process, either.

Despite their tabloidy subtitle--"the untold story behind America's
favorite movies"--Buhle and Wagner don't dabble much in the anecdote,
gossip or movie-set story that would have lubricated their prose or
perhaps even parted their sea of subordinate clauses. Still, famous
names abound. "As FBI reports suggested," Lucille Ball, Katharine
Hepburn, Olivia de Havilland, Rita Hayworth, Humphrey Bogart, Danny
Kaye, Fredric March, Bette Davis, Lloyd Bridges, John Garfield, Anne
Revere, Larry Parks (The Jolson Story), the wives of March and
Gene Kelly, and Gregory Peck's fiancée--to say nothing of the
scores of writers Buhle and Wagner profile and analyze, or their more
loosely affiliated or merely sympathetic directors and stars--were all
in or close to the Communist Party. Why? For one thing, the authors say,
because these were the people of 1930s and '40s Los Angeles who were
smarter, consequently more liberal, and enjoying a more egalitarian and
humanistic worldview than their constipatedly conservative counterparts.
But it was, they point out, also a result of Hollywood's (and America's)
bigotry and its effect on social life: The comically titled West Side
Writing and Asthma Club, an ostensibly nonpolitical alternative for Jews
barred from Los Angeles's beach clubs and marginalized in the better
restaurants, became a hotbed of anti-Nazi sentiment (which, of course,
made it politically suspect). Eventually, through the Asthma Club, even
one of the world's leading, albeit largely apolitical, Marxists
(Groucho) could channel donations to the Popular Front.

That the Communist Party in Hollywood was largely a "social agency," as
the authors call it, was what helped make the McCarthy-era hearings and
HUAC roundups so wide-ranging and terrifying, even if, after the
Hitler-Stalin Pact, the LA branch of the party "had died...but simply
not known it," as the exiled Carl Foreman (High Noon) put it. How
such screenwriters, who are Buhle and Wagner's principal subjects,
maintained their political principles while clawing their way up the
studio ladders is something left amorphous. Lardner, ever aware of the
contradictions in being a high-priced proletarian, said in his
autobiography I'd Hate Myself in the Morning (his famous response
to J. Parnell Thomas about why he wouldn't name names) that he picketed
Warner Bros. when Mussolini's son came calling, and told David O.
Selznick not to make Gone With the Wind because it was pro-Klan.
But he was an artist, too, a hungry one, and a man who knew the siren
song of fame and fortune never quite harmonized with "The
Internationale."

The authors exhibit a weakness for locating leftist content and
associations where they need to and and shoehorning certain movies into
their theses (their view of Universal's horror catalogue as anti-Wall
Street seems particularly windy). But by the time Radical
Hollywood
gets to the era of film noir--which they call "arguably
the only fully realized American 'art film' genre"--it feels as if the
rest of the book has been prologue. Clearly, the authors know and love
the period and what it did to American cinema in the aftermath of World
War II--countering the forced fairy tale of Hollywood with a new, frank,
sexually liberated, sexually sophisticated, sexually metaphorical take
on the dark view of postwar, postnuclear existence (although, strangely,
Radical Hollywood never analyzes noir via the A-bomb, despite the
celebrated apocalyptic imagery of such genre classics as Robert
Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly). That noir also refashioned the
traditional portrayals of the sexes--at a time when, the authors point
out, the country's postwar recovery and strength were being
propagandized as dependent on the American male and his renewed sense of
self--made it one of the most important cultural developments of the
twentieth century, if not the nation's entire cultural history. No
wonder it fell victim to the strangling effects of creeping McCarthyism.

Radical Hollywood, whether or not it's "the untold story behind
America's favorite movies," certainly puts a new spin on those films,
especially for those already familiar with them--readers who,
unfortunately, will be those most distracted by the authors' rather
habitual way with the errant fact. Some are trivial: Edward G. Robinson
didn't say "Mother of God..." at the end of Little Caesar; he
said "Mother of Mercy," as any schoolchild knows (any schoolchild,
granted, with an unnatural obsession with movies). William Randolph
Hearst may have "attributed the 'subversive' label to anything that
smacked of egalitarian liberalism," but he didn't do it in the pages of
the Los Angeles Times, because he never owned the Los Angeles
Times
. In assessing the populist perspective of Destry Rides
Again
, Buhle and Wagner seem oblivious to the fact that James
Stewart's character is the son of the more famous Destry. The
famously Hungarian-born director Michael Curtiz (director of the
leftist-written Casablanca, among many others) is identified at
one point as a "German refugee." John Wayne's "first major screen role"
wasn't in 1938's Pals of the Saddle, but Raoul Walsh's 1930
The Big Trail. Warner Bros.' "self-serving prologue" at the
beginning of The Public Enemy may have been self-serving--it
mentions the social impact of the studio's own PE and Little
Caesar
while omitting UA's Scarface--but it wasn't on the
original 1931 print; it was added for a re-release several years later.

Jean Renoir's The Southerner marked William Faulkner's "only
notable screenplay contribution"? How about The Big Sleep?
Mildred Pierce? And let's not forget To Have and Have Not,
in which he rewrote Hemingway, by all reports to their mutual delight.
And Katharine Hepburn didn't lose the "box-office poison" appellation
after Holiday but after The Philadelphia Story, whose film
rights she bought because she knew it would remake her career.

But let's imagine this litany of errors is itself a metaphor for the
intrinsic unreality of the left in Hollywood. It's a subject that Buhle
and Wagner have attacked with energy and all the right intentions; the
reader may wish that he or she were given a bit more reason to stick
with the book through its thicker moments, but there's no denying the
authors' enthusiasm, erudition and engaging way of summarizing plot
lines and associations. Still, it's a weird tale they're telling. As
they relate early on, Polonsky recounted in his later years that one of
the oft-discussed issues among the Hollywood left wing was what, in
fact, they were all doing there. Should they be in Hollywood, making pap
and trying to inject it with a social conscience? Or secede from the
union and create film art independently? As Polonsky put it, the answer
was simple: "Filmmaking in the major studios is the prime way that film
art exists." And so it was. And is. And unfortunately--thanks to an
American indie movement that has lost its lure for youth, a dissipated
market for the once-hip foreign film and a general tendency toward
divorce between American art and American politics--so it is likely to
remain.

Dispatches from adolescent territory reach me occasionally through my
niece Michelle, who has moved into her teen years like the
Wehrmacht hitting Belgium. Her most recent posting has taught me
this about contemporary film culture: While visiting a Midwest resort
town with a friend, Michelle was delighted to discover a street of quaint shops, as well as a theater that played old movies. Which old movies, I wanted to know.
"Spider-Man," she said.

In the hope that this column might fall into the hands of teenagers, I
therefore begin with an apology. Some of the movies I am about to
discuss have been running for two weeks, or even longer. That's enough
for them to have earned most of whatever theatrical revenue they can
expect; enough that they are now being pushed into the back reaches of
the public's attention, so that next week's movies can be marketed. I
want to write about these pictures precisely because they were
made to be forgotten (like Men in Black II); or, conversely,
because they are already starting to fade, despite their makers' best
intentions.

I also want to write about a film that just might stick in the mind:
Langrishe, Go Down, starring Judi Dench and Jeremy Irons. But
there I'm cheating. Although that film is only now being released, it
doesn't really count as current, since it was made in 1978.

To people who dislike movies and attend only films, it might seem
obvious that Men in Black II can't compete against Langrishe,
Go Down
(which has not only Dench and Irons to its credit but also a
screenplay by Harold Pinter). But then, to my mind, Langrishe, Go
Down
can scarcely compete against the original Men in Black,
which so brightened the summer of 1997. While that picture cheerfully
fulfilled every duty of a sci-fi special-effects comedy, it also won a
permanent place in memory by developing a theme that should interest
thoughtful teenagers and adults alike.

In its portrayals of agents Kay and Jay (Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith)
and of the coroner who stumbled onto their secrets (Linda Fiorentino),
Men in Black proposed that knowledge has to be paid for, and that
the cost is often loneliness. Fiorentino, you may recall, played a
scientist whose zeal for research allowed her no living companions.
Smith played a New York cop who had to choose between satisfying his
curiosity and maintaining relations with his friends and family--not
much of a decision in his case, since he was already thoroughly
alienated. (In a training exercise, Smith shot to death a cute little
blond girl but left unmolested a fanged and tentacled potato from Outer
Space, with which he seemed to empathize.) As for Jones, he strutted and
snapped his way through the movie as if a show of bravado were all that
could keep him going. "We are a gullible species," he sighed at one
point, as if wishing he might lay down his burden and rejoin the
credulous. Everyone except Smith understood this ragged man was on his
last case.

Clearly, Jones should have stayed in the retirement he achieved at the
end of Men in Black. Smith should have remained partners with
Fiorentino, and the sequel (if there had to be one) ought to have been
written by Ed Solomon, who so ingeniously handled the original. Maybe he
would have titled the picture Men and Women in Black. Instead, we
get the throwaway Men in Black II, which disposes of Fiorentino
in half a line of dialogue and uses the same method to eliminate the
wife for whom Jones once pined. (It's as if the audience could be purged
of memory, just like the movie's neuralized civilians.) With these
impediments to buddy-movie business cleared away, the screenplay (by
Robert Gordon and Barry Fanaro) can proceed to reunite Smith and Jones
and replay, with slight variations, the simpler gags from the first
picture.

Time passes, hope sinks and a theme emerges, unfortunately. Men in
Black II
shows that only two kinds of women exist on other planets:
shining saints and snaky monsters. If this is so, then Earth must be
bigger and more varied than the whole rest of the universe--a notion
that runs counter to the spirit I recall with such joy from the first,
the one true, Men in Black.

As you may know, Men in Black was based on a comic book by Lowell
Cunningham; so it has something in common with Road to Perdition,
a gangster picture spawned from a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and
Richard Piers Rayner. Under the fussy and portentous direction of Sam
Mendes (who previously postured his way through American Beauty),
Road to Perdition is clearly a far more ambitious movie than
Men in Black II. It boasts the very substantial talents of Tom
Hanks and Paul Newman in lead roles, an unnerving performance by Jude
Law in a crucial supporting part and magically dark, dense
cinematography by Conrad L. Hall. The story would seem to be worth
telling (it's about murderous gangster fathers and the sons who are
either loyal or disloyal to them, either willing or unwilling to follow
their path); and the setting is the Depression-era Midwest, which always
helps a movie. And yet very little of Road to Perdition lingers,
except for a feeling that you've been carried along.

Most of the carrying happens when mob hit man Michael Sullivan (Hanks)
is driving around the wintry plains with his 12-year-old son, Mike
(Tyler Hoechlin). The two are both fleeing a killer (Law) and chasing
the men who dispatched him--a situation that allows for a couple of
good, tense confrontations. Since Hanks thinks it would be helpful to
empty Al Capone's bank accounts, there's also a series of jolly
robberies. I would guess these episodes take up about fifteen minutes of
the movie. The rest is murk, forced lyricism and mounting corpses.
Perhaps you won't care when I reveal that almost no one survives, since
the deaths never matter. They just happen, like ticks of a metronome.
Each beat gives Sam Mendes the opportunity to make pretty arrangements:
an image of violence framed by a man's legs, a flash at a nighttime
window, a brightly lit homage to David's Death of Marat, a
tracking shot of men silently collapsing in the rain. Watching these
stage-derived tableaux vivants, I began to think better of the
movie-mad energy of Miller's Crossing, in which the Coen brothers
invested their overcoats-and-hats gangsters with both drive and
character. Maybe Miller's Crossing has also turned out to be
forgettable in large part; but its core moments (such as the scene of
John Turturro begging for his life) dig right into you, as if they were
newly installed neural pathways to the heart.

Road to Perdition? A passing flutter.

John Sayles can't be accused of prettifying his films, and he would
never kill a character for lack of anything better to do. What's more,
he despises the grand simplifications that are so common in comic books,
graphic novels and pop moviemaking. In Sunshine State, he sets up
for ridicule the fabulations of history pageants and real-estate
developers, so he can show off to better advantage his own, more
intricate vision of the social network. It's a strategy he's used in
many earlier films, just as he visited Texas and Alaska before this
excursion into Florida. From Sayles, you get highly specific landscapes,
reliable accounts of politics and commerce, and (more often than not)
actresses to die for--in this case, in alphabetical order, Jane
Alexander, Mary Alice, Angela Bassett and Edie Falco.

All this is admirable. I just wish Sayles would also put a little movie
into the movie.

Sunshine State isn't claptrap, like Divine Secrets of the
Ya-Ya Sisterhood
, but it shares that picture's claptrap method of
being almost entirely expository. In scene after scene, Sayles tells you
exactly what he thinks you should know about Florida, often by putting
into the mouth of a character the kind of cliché-twisting
monologue that keeps rational people away from Off Broadway plays. I
think this is a waste of good actors--and the effects are nowhere more
evident than in the parts of Sunshine State you forget, or that
Sayles forgot. Tell me, if you've seen the picture: Can you recall what
finally becomes of Terrell (Alex Lewis), the troubled teenager whose act
of vandalism begins the story? He's hustled away so perfunctorily, once
he's served the purpose of uniting two strands of the plot, that he
might as well be Linda Fiorentino. And can you remember anything the
American Indian construction worker does in the movie, other than wait
around to be an American Indian at a crucial moment? For a filmmaker
with a social conscience, Sayles is awfully quick to use characters as
means, rather than ends.

So, for a dose of something eccentric and memorable, I turn to
Langrishe, Go Down.

David Jones directed this picture in 1978 for the BBC, working from
Harold Pinter's screenplay. New York's Film Forum is now giving the
movie a much-belated theatrical release (July 17-30), no doubt on the
strength of Judi Dench's ascent to stardom. She is, in fact, a wonder in
the role of Imogen Langrishe, one of a household of spinsters living in
ever-more-impoverished gentility on an estate outside Dublin. The period
is the 1930s, when such descents from grandeur were not uncommon for the
Irish gentry; nor would it have been unlikely for a self-styled scholar
from Bavaria (Jeremy Irons) to show up in the neighborhood to do
research, and to assert with sudden, unmotivated violence that he is
indifferent to politics, absolutely indifferent.

Sayles himself could not ask for a more realistic, closely observed
setting. (In this regard, Langrishe, Go Down owes a lot to its
source, the novel of the same title by Aidan Higgins.) But the way the
film's seduction and repulsion play themselves out--you understood,
surely, that Dench and Irons have an affair--is utterly unpredictable.
Irons turns himself into a fun-house mirror version of the
self-important German intellectual, complete with an accent that keeps
migrating toward Transylvania. He never stops talking; whereas Dench,
who is given relatively few lines, speaks volumes with her eyes and the
set of her mouth. You understand, without a word, how she sees through
Irons. She's amused by him; she feels this may be the last amusement
she'll get; and she enjoys it, until the underlying frustration and rage
break through.

To all this, David Jones adds a fragmented, time-shuffling montage
that's reminiscent of Alain Resnais. Or is the film's structure also a
Pinter contribution, like the lines of dialogue that continually run
askew? All I know is that this odd little movie has lodged in my brain,
not comfortably, perhaps, but permanently.

Langrishe, Go Down is a keeper.

In Steven Spielberg's latest picture, a skinheaded psychic named Agatha
keeps challenging Tom Cruise with the words, "Can you see?" The
question answers itself: Cruise sees in Minority Report, but not
well enough. He must learn to recognize his ocular limitations--a task
he accomplishes by enduring chase scenes, double-crosses, confrontations at gunpoint and a few jocularly
nauseating trials, conducted in Spielberg's bucket-of-bugs, Indiana
Jones
style.

In Jacques Audiard's new picture, by contrast, Emmanuelle Devos can't
hear, and she knows it from the start. The first shot in Read My
Lips
is an image of her tucking a hearing aid behind one ear, then
concealing it with her hair. Her first lines, spoken while answering the
phone in a nerve-jangling office, include the words, "I didn't hear. Can
you repeat that?" Her task in the movie--accomplished through acts of
larceny and hostage-taking--is to learn how much power she might have,
despite her aural limitations.

Ineluctable modalities of the filmable! We are discussing not only sight
and sound but also America and France, plot and character, man and
woman, innocence and experience. Film culture needs both sides; so if I
tell you that I'd gladly watch Read My Lips several times but
will be content with one viewing of Minority Report, please don't
take it to mean that Minority Report shouldn't be seen at all. On
the contrary: To miss it would be like bypassing one of those grand and
macabre curiosities that lie just off the tourist's route--like visiting
Madrid, for example, without troubling to descend the marbled stair to
the crypt of the Escorial. In the monumental edifice of Minority
Report
, as in that palatial tomb, you may encounter something madly
idiosyncratic, yet absolutely characteristic of its culture. It's just
not much of a pleasure; whereas Read My Lips is so much fun, it
could be retitled Curl My Toes.

But, to begin with Spielberg:

After last summer's release of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, all
true filmoids were eager to know what nightmare he might next sweat out
in public. Under the influence of Stanley Kubrick, under the pretense of
selling us entertainment, Spielberg had made a nakedly confessional
movie about abandonment, disillusionment and the corruptions of show
business. Past a certain point, of course, the picture was a misshapen
wreck; but that was because A.I. struggled so desperately to
escape itself and concoct a happy ending. The harder it strained, the
more compelling, and horrifying, it became. I felt that Spielberg had at
last tapped into emotions he'd located not in his audience but in
himself. Could he maintain that connection, now that he'd established
it? That was the question hanging over Minority Report.

The answer is now before us, in the only futuristic, metaphysical
thriller I can think of that takes the violation of civil liberties as
its theme and the abuse of children as its obsession. These twin facets
of Minority Report come together, improbably but unforgettably,
in the figures of oracles known as Pre-Cogs. They lie in a bottom-lit,
Y-shaped pool somewhere in Washington, DC, in the year 2054: three
damaged orphans who are adult in form but fetal in situation, since they
are kept floating in an amniotic fluid of high narcotic content. Their
fate (you can't really call it a job) is to remain forever in that stage
of childhood where every shadow in the bedroom conceals a monster.
Unfortunately, the monsters are real: They are the murderers who will
strike in the near future, and whose crimes the psychics not only
foresee but experience. You might think someone would take pity on the
Pre-Cogs and release them from these visions, at which they convulse in
pain and horror. Instead, for the public benefit, a police agency called
the Department of Pre-Crime maintains these creatures in a permanent
state of terror.

We come to the theme of civil liberties, which must have required some
precognition on Spielberg's part, since Minority Report went into
production well before John Ashcroft declared due process to be an
unaffordable luxury. It is the movie's conceit (borrowed from the
writings of Philip K. Dick) that the police may someday arrest people
pre-emptively, for crimes they would have committed had they been left
on the loose. As chief of the Pre-Crime unit, Tom Cruise sees no problem
with this practice, either legally or philosophically--which is why he
is half-blind. He doesn't yet understand that the rights he takes away
from others may also be taken from him.

But I'm making it sound as if Minority Report constructs an
argument, when it actually contrives a delirium. A sane movie would have
been content to give Cruise a reason for arresting pre-criminals. For
example, he could have been blinded by the pain of losing a son. That,
in fact, is how the plot accounts for Cruise's keen efficiency; but it
isn't enough of an explanation for Spielberg, who goes on to embed a
second rationale in the mise en scène. Every setting, prop
and gesture shows us that Cruise does this job because it excites him.

He's in his brush-cut mode in Minority Report. He rockets around
Washington, rappels onto the pre-crime scene, dives at the last second
between the would-be killer and the not-quite-victim--and that's just
the conventional part of his work. The real thrill comes from
interpreting the Pre-Cogs' visions, which he does in front of a
wraparound computer screen while a stereo pipes in the Unfinished
Symphony
. Waving his hands against the music's rhythm, making
digital images slide around at will, he looks like a cross between an
orchestra conductor and a film editor, working at some Avid console of
the future.

So childhood pain in Minority Report bleeds into fear of crime,
which blossoms into a fantasy of omnipotence--and this fantasy in turn
sows further pain, in the form of little stabs to the eye. In the year
2054, government bureaus and advertising agencies alike scan your retina
wherever you go, blinding you with lasers a hundred times a day to track
your whereabouts, your spending, your preferences in clothing from the
Gap. What does it matter if Cruise comes to see the dangerous fallacy of
pre-crime? Human freedom has already vanished from his world, in the
blink of an eye.

I hope it's clear from this summary that Minority Report not only
represents another of Spielberg's Major Statements but also continues
his risky new practice of self-expression--risky because his feelings
remain unresolved, and also because he allows them to be Major. A
solemnity pervades the movie, making itself felt most tellingly at
moments of incidental humor. Spielberg has never been a rollicking
filmmaker--the human activities that least interest him are laughter and
sex--but in the past he's known how to raise a chuckle, and he's known
when to do it. In Minority Report, though, clumsy throwaway gags
keep interrupting the action, as if Spielberg had lost his sense of how
to play with the audience. Slapstick assaults upon a family at the
dinner table, or Olympian sneers at bickering couples, do nothing to
leaven Minority Report. The movie's ponderousness is relieved
only by Samantha Morton's uncanny portrayal of the psychic Agatha and by
Lois Smith's turn as Dr. Hineman, the researcher who ought to have
healed the Pre-Cogs but instead turned them into tools of the police.
When Cruise goes to visit Smith at her greenhouse hideaway, the colors
of Brutalist architecture briefly give way to those of nature, and the
pace of the acting triples. Speaking her lines over and around Cruise,
Smith plays her role in the manner of Vladimir Horowitz dashing off an
étude.

"Who is the strongest Pre-Cog?" Cruise wants to know. Smith smiles
indulgently at the blind man. "Why, the woman, dear." This claim of
female superiority has the charm of gallantry; it's Spielberg's gift to
the actress. But as it's developed in the rest of the movie, the notion
(like far too much of Minority Report) lacks the flourish that
gallantry requires. I offer sincere congratulations to Spielberg for at
least two-thirds of this picture; but now I think it's time to leave
Minority Report and consider a movie about a real woman.

Her name is Carla. She works for a real estate development company,
where she's treated like part of the office equipment. As embodied by
Emmanuelle Devos, Carla has an apology for a hairdo and a choked-off
complaint for a lower lip. When she's casually insulted--her paperwork
ruined by the spill from a coffee cup, her skirt stained suggestively
under the rump--Carla falls apart so completely that her boss offers to
let her hire an assistant. "Trainees are cheap," he explains, as if that
would make her feel better. She hires one anyway and comes up with the
man of her dreams: Paul (Vincent Cassel), a greasy, long-haired,
leather-jacketed, muttering ex-con, who assures her (while his eyes scan
for the exit) that sure, he's worked with, uhm, spreadsheets. Plenty of
them.

One of the pleasures of Read My Lips--a pleasure that isn't
available in Minority Report--is the way the movie invites you to
see into these characters, who always amount to more than their
functions in the plot. Early on, for example, when Carla and Paul are
just getting to know each other, you see how they might be bound by a
common lack of decorum. "What were you in jail for?" Carla asks bluntly,
violating rule number one for dealing with ex-cons. Paul answers her,
then asks in turn, "So you're deaf? I mean, really deaf? Like, you can't
hear?" Although she tells him to shut up, Carla doesn't hesitate to play
along when he asks her to read someone's lips. He likes her willingness
to trespass on others. She likes the muscle he provides.

Although Carla's alliance with Paul develops uneasily, it's not without
humor. (No false notes here; Audiard always gets the tone right.) But
even though the bumps and jolts of the plot are intriguing--and far more
numerous than those in Minority Report--what's perhaps most
engaging in Read My Lips is the evocation of Carla's reality. The
images are often incomplete, oddly framed, out of focus, unsteady,
surprisingly closeup, bathed in shadow, richly colored, dreamily slow.
This is the subjective vision of human eyes, not the objective gaze of
the camera--and Carla sees it all the more vividly because the world of
sound is closed.

I like the sensuousness of Read My Lips and the nuance of its
portrait of a woman. I like the sense of possibility in the characters,
the interplay between Devos and Cassel, the mundane realism of the plot
(which asks you to believe only that the real estate business isn't
entirely clean, and that large sums of cash sometimes flow through
bars). I even like the happy ending. Although Spielberg's picture is the
one titled Minority Report--an ironic name for a Tom Cruise
blockbuster, as its maker surely knows--Read My Lips files the
story that's too infrequently heard.

It's easy to rephrase Tolstoy's opening to Anna Karenina so it
describes junkies, who all share an essential plot line: Who and how to
hustle in order to score. But in the world of postwar jazz, Charlie
Parker gave junk an unprecedented clout and artistic aura. Bebop, the
convoluted, frenetic modern jazz he and Dizzy Gillespie, among others, formulated, demanded intense powers of
concentration. Bird played so far out of nearly everyone else's league
that his heroin habit seemed to explain his godlike prowess. So heroin
became an existentialist response to racism, to artistic rejection, a
self-destructive way of saying Fuck You to mainstream America's 1950s
mythologies. Parker warned everyone from young Miles Davis to young Chet
Baker away from smack, but few heeded him. In 1954 Davis weaned himself
from a four-year addiction; in 1988 Baker died after decades of living
in Europe as a junkie, found in the street below his Amsterdam hotel
window. (Did he jump? Was he pushed?)

Oklahoma-born and California-bred, Baker had one amazing artistic gift:
He could apparently hear nearly any piece of music once and then play
it. He intuitively spun melodies on his trumpet with a tone critics
compared to Bix Beiderbecke's, and spent his long and unbelievably
uneven career relying on that gift and coasting on his remarkable early
breaks. In 1952 Charlie Parker played with him in LA, giving him instant
cachet. When Gerry Mulligan hired him for the famed pianoless quartet
that is the quintessential white West Coast Cool band, it made him a
jazz star. After a drug bust broke the group up, Baker began singing;
his wispy balladeering and Middle American good looks gave him entree to
a broader public. During his early 1950s stint with Mulligan, he
unbelievably beat Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie to win critics'
and fans' polls; his first album as a vocalist, which featured "My Funny
Valentine," got him lionized on the Today and Tonight
shows and in Time. From there on, his life took on a downward
bias within a junkie's relentless cycles.

Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker aims to synthesize
all the information about the trumpeter and try to interpret him within
the broader contexts of popular culture. Author James Gavin had access
to unpublished autobiographical notes and interviews with Baker's
erstwhile memoir collaborator Lisa Galt Bond, and also draws extensively
on books like Jeroen de Valk's Chet Baker: His Life and Music and
Chet Baker in Italy; he apparently scoured archives for
interviews, profiles, pictures and video and audio materials as well,
stirring in dollops from Bruce Weber's overripe 1989 movie about Baker,
Let's Get Lost. Gavin has tracked Baker across Europe and
America, distilled the wildly divergent attitudes toward him and his
work, and attempts to make a case for what endures while not flinching
from calling clunkers. He confronts black jazzers' resentment of Baker's
playing: Most heard him, with excellent reason, as a paler, milder Miles
Davis, yet he won polls and looked like he was making big money. As
Gavin points out, Baker's lilting lyricism and even his demeanor owed
almost everything to Davis's, but Baker wasn't raking in sales like Dave
Brubeck, though he was churning out streams of highly variable product.
In fact, Gavin explains the popularity of the sappy Chet Baker With
Strings
album, the trumpeter's bestselling 1954 disc (which sold an
uncharacteristic 35,000-40,000 copies the first year), by comparing it to popular contemporary mood music--an apt and telling linkage.

Gavin's discussion of that record strikes one of his leitmotifs, Baker's
charismatic visual appeal:

William Claxton's cover photo was so dreamy that record shops all over
the country put the LP on display. Claxton showed Baker at his peak of
beauty, staring out wistfully at the session, cheek resting against his
horn's mouthpiece.... Many of the buyers were young women with little
interest in jazz, who bought the LP for its cover. They were surprised
to hear music as pretty as Baker was.... It was his looks, more than his
music, that the Hollywood crowd cared about.

He's shrewd about Baker's singing:

[Record producer Dick] Bock listened in alarm as [Baker] struggled to
sing on key, pushing the session into overtime.... Baker's dogged
persistence didn't impress the musicians, who were reduced to
near-invisible accompanists, tiptoeing behind his fragile efforts....
But as people stared at the cover and listened to Baker's blank slate of
a voice, they projected all kinds of fantasies onto him.... Baker became
the first jazz musician to attract a strong homosexual following.

Gavin is quite good at debunking longstanding myths about Baker, many of
which Baker started himself. He didn't beat out loads of trumpeters to
play with Bird in LA; a studio pianist, not Parker, hired him. It's
highly unlikely Bird told East Coasters like Davis and Dizzy Gillespie
that "there's a little white cat on the coast who's gonna eat you up."
For Gavin, this self-mythologizing is a key to Baker's recessive, almost
invisible character: "Just as he discovered how to seduce the camera
lens into depicting him in make-believe terms, he learned to glamorize
the truth into a fairy tale of romantic intrigue."

Naturally, the biographer seeks the man behind the layered tales. Here
Gavin circles a black hole, because Baker was, as one witness after
another testifies, nearly completely unrevealing. He didn't read, or
speak, or otherwise express: He was "cool." Longtime junkiedom only
hardened this character trait into manipulative blankness. So Gavin
looks at Baker's doting, pushy mother and his violent failure of a
father, checks out Baker's high school beatings for being a pretty boy,
intimates that Baker's brief and harsh version of heterosexual sex may
have covered for repressed homosexuality, and links him to the waves of
rejection, from the Beats as well as Hollywood types like Marlon Brando
and James Dean, rippling the 1950s. It's suggestive, though not
necessarily convincing, since unlike other jazzers--Davis and Charles
Mingus, for instance--Baker had no real contact with or interest in
other artistic subcultures.

Baker's critical reputation kept crashing after the Mulligan quartet
disbanded in 1954, and his drug use continued to escalate after that
time, when his heroin addiction began. By 1966, he had hit bottom: He
was badly beaten, probably because he ripped off a San Francisco drug
dealer, and his upper teeth had to be pulled. His embouchure wrecked,
his career, already smoldering, looked like it was finally in ruins. He
worked in a Redondo Beach gas station and applied for welfare. Against
the odds, record-label head Bock bought him dentures, and for more than
a year he worked--probably harder than he ever did before or after--to
rebuild something of the limpid trumpet sound that once made girls
shudder.

In 1959 he had relocated to Europe, where he stayed for the rest of his
life (except for a couple of brief homecomings) to avoid prosecution for
drug busts. Inevitably, he got busted in Europe instead. Gavin rightly
notes that the Europeans, especially the Italians, adopted Baker as a
damaged genius, an artist in need of understanding and patronage. It
didn't help. His trajectory careened mostly down; upward bursts of
musical lucidity flashed against a churn of mediocrities and an
ever-more-snarled life. His talent languished: He never expanded his
musical knowledge, nor did he really learn to arrange or compose or even
lead a band. He relied on producers and agents to direct his musical
life; he didn't bother conceptualizing his own creative frameworks. He
always demanded cash payments--no contracts, no royalties--on his
endless scramble to score. And as women revolved through his life or
fought over him and were beaten by him, he tried a few bouts at detox
but compressed even further into a junkie's two-dimensionality. By the
time he died, most American jazz fans thought he was already dead.

For this last half of his book, Gavin, even buoyed by research, swims
upstream against the cascading flow of a junkie's essential plot line.
For decades Baker is mostly chasing drugs, screwing anyone within reach,
tumbling downward creatively and personally, and alternating
manipulatively between victim and abuser. Except as a voyeur it's hard
to care, especially since, with exceptions I think even rarer than Gavin
does, Baker's music was generally worthless. Junk didn't make him a
musical superman; it simply drove him to make fast, sloppy recordings
with under-rehearsed bands, playing horn that was so unpredictable in
quality it could sound like an abysmal self-parody. Sympathetically
balanced as he tries to be, even Gavin can only cite a handful of
ex-sidemen as Baker's musical legacy of influence. Instead, he depicts
Baker as a kind of cultural icon rather than a cultural force.

It is one of history's ironies that Baker was resurrected after his
death by a film made shortly before it. Bruce Weber, a fashion
photographer famed for his homoerotic Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren ads,
has a sharp eye for the scandalous, and decided to make Let's Get
Lost
when he saw Baker at the trumpeter's brief fling at an American
comeback in 1986. He fell for what an associate described as "beauty
that looked kind of destroyed." Weber bought him a French beatnik
wardrobe from a Paris designer, and paid him $12,500 for a performance
that Gavin describes: "eyelids sagging, slurring his words, all but
drooling.... Unless he got what he needed, [Weber's assistant] said, 'he
wouldn't have sat still a minute for us.'" The documentary refired
interest in Baker among boomers and Gen Xers, who responded to the
bathetic junkie glamour of his apparent frailty, personal and artistic,
just as their 1950s avatars had. Reissues of Baker's albums on CD have
gathered mass and sales since.

Which leaves us with Baker's mysterious death, long haloed by a host of
theories. Gavin rejects accident, reporting that "the window [of the
hotel room] slid up only about fifteen inches, making it difficult, if
not impossible, for a grown man to fall through accidentally."
Dismissing speculation that Baker might have lost his room key and tried
to climb the hotel's facade, Gavin says it's unlikely he could have gone
unnoticed on such a busy thoroughfare. He dismisses homicide, as did
Baker's remaining friends and the Dutch police, and concludes that Baker
was shooting his favorite speedballs and committed a sort of
passive-aggressive suicide by "opening a window and letting death come
to him.... [He] had died willfully of a broken heart."

That's a pretty sentimental final fade for a hard-core character like
Baker, who for all Gavin's determined nuance ultimately seems less rebel
than junkie. Maybe Gavin should have pondered Naked Lunch. Then
he might have ended his book with, say, Steve Allen's take, since Allen
was one of the many Baker burned: "When Chet started out, he had
everything. He was handsome, had a likable personality, a tremendous
musical gift. He threw it all away for drugs. To me, the man started out
as James Dean and ended up as Charles Manson."

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