A View From the Dark: Movie Freak by Owen Gleiberman
The appetite publishers seem to have for printing the memoirs of even the most irrelevant movie personalities appears insatiable; so much so that in recent years this pseudo-gossipy, trivially anecdotal framework extends even to that most unlikely denizens of the cinema celebrity circus, the movie critic. If most biographies of writers seem perfunctory at best and redundantly irrelevant at their worst (why not read the author’s work and let them speak for themselves?), then a personal exploration into the life and times of the movie critic might find a particularly prominent position on the dais of the useless, for if one wishes to penetrate the individual critic’s mind, would not the best method be to read a collection of their opinions? That is, unless the writings of the critic were deemed unenlightening, or, worse yet, insincere.
Nowhere within the pages of Owen Gleiberman’s memoirs, appropriately titled Movie Freak is there a convincing argument for the necessity of the book. There are the usual accumulated influences which percolate in forming a person’s thoughts and aspirations, including a pronounced lifelong schism with his pathologically dispassionate father and intellectually stifled mother, which are rich in the pain such emotional remoteness can instill in a child of any age. There are also amusing stories about accompanying his parents to bizarrely child inappropriate drive-in movies are some of the best and most revealing passages in the book. However, there is also a density of material addressing his sexual fetishes and compulsions that diverts the focus of the book from rising young critic to a wannabe Penthouse Forum. His predilections toward porn and frenzied, emotionless sex might be used to illustrate a unique perspective toward sex in cinema, but even the briefest connections are strained and unconvincing; putting his square peg into a round hole.
His descriptions of colleagues are often catty and unflattering; not in an illuminating way but laced with a callousness that smacks of professional jealousy and insecurity; especially with certain executive personnel at both The Boston Phoenix and Entertainment Weekly, where personal portraits seem negatively colored when that superior’s grand design for the publication doesn’t revolve about Planet Owen. Most problematic, however, are his many excuses for compromising his critical opinions, usually the basis of professional cowardice or, worse yet, an inappropriately prejudicing starstruck fawning of celebrity.
Gleiberman concludes the book with what should be an intuitive manifesto as to the cause and cure for the diminishment of the film critic; a treatise which ignores his earlier observations concerning the innate passion for discussion of movies by the popular audience; his elitist reliance blaming populism (haven’t films always been a popular cultural form?) and the rise of the Internet (the convenient boogeyman for anyone without insight or imagination) for the critic’s decline being a curious condemnation from someone who spent a quarter of a century as senior film critic for a magazine which has done more to induce corporate homogenization into popular culture than any other publication in America. It’s like working for the Devil and complaining that it’s too hot in Hell.
Littled Big Man: Duke: We’re Glad We Knew You edited by Herb Fagen
If one attempts a brief summation of a message one is left with in Herb Fagen’s tributary book Duke: We’re Glad We Knew You, it’s that its subject- John Wayne -was larger than life. We know this, not through a sensible observation of a cultural figure’s longevity and (if nothing else) largely self-created iconization, but in the fact that the book tells us this over and over and over… and over again. Indeed, there is so much repetition of thought about the Duke that if all traces of duplication were excised, the book might be reduced to a handy pocket sized brochure, a curious and unwarranted situation considering the grandiosity of Wayne’s legend combined with the relatively little that was shared about his private life that was not consistent with the careful nurturing of his particularly iconoclastic public persona.
The book is constructed in the form of a loose biographical narrative written by Fagen, with a hefty insertion of corresponding “oral” testimonials about Wayne from “friends and colleagues”, not dissimilar from the format of Rudolph Grey’s engaging Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr., but where that book encompassed a full spectrum of remembrance inclusive of a frank- yet still sympathetic -portrait of a severely flawed man, Fagen’s book is an unapologetic love letter comprised of unrelenting bouquets which occasionally hint at though collectively attempt to contradict any conscious contributory opinion which might render the subject as anything but superhuman.
So uniform and completely harmonious are the testimonials, the book is often suggestive of hypnotically enjoined cultism, which is not to suggest that a memorial retrospective only achieves value with the presence of malice or negativity, but the book and its subject would profit greatly with less mythmaking and more honest humanism; the true greatness of any individual being more evident in the face of a triumph over basic flaws rather than calculated literary predestination. Ultimately, Wayne is not seen as merely an actor (even an iconic actor) but as the defining symbol of America; a dramatic stretch from the earlier portions of the book (Fagen text follows a chronological arc) where Wayne struggles to be taken seriously as a performer (especially by mentor John Ford). Just where the transition lies between Hollywood player and national symbol is absent; obscured by the dedicated and devotional testament of pseudo-intimates (the absence- or exclusion -of several “witnesses” one would have presumed to be essential in an overview of Wayne’s life and career is disappointing, and in the light of the book’s unrelieved deifying tone, suspicious) whose “insight” rarely rises above that of a studio press release.
Few of the contributions are genuinely insightful, though an exception to this situation is a later remembrance by actor Christopher Mitchum (whose less than stellar work in “Rio Lobo” and “Big Jake” is a testament to the dangers inherent in industry nepotism) in which the Duke’s stubborn intolerance toward opposing political views is publicly revealed, this despite the generosity of philosophical spirit espoused by his legion of included admirers. Most surprisingly, Mitchum’s view of Wayne remains steadfastly loyal- the antithesis of Wayne’s behavior toward Mitchum -and almost apologetic for the brief tarnishing of the book’s otherwise unwavering portrait of perfection. Similarly, the numerous mentions of Wayne’s excessive spirits consumption, which under normal circumstances would be regarded as a warning sign of alcoholism is given an extremely generous pass by all with numerous assertions that it never presented a problem. Such inordinate blindness to the full measure of a man is an indication of a work contented with the most undernourished of biographical intentions.
However, it is not biography in the strictest sense which Fagen intends but something far less demanding: an extended eulogy of sorts with all of the bells and whistles of sentimental bias one might associate with such a dissertation, with the full disclosure of truth making way for a personal publicist’s dream though with the unintended consequence of making John Wayne seem actually- if not smaller than life -a man comprised entirely of artifice.
This unintentional but undeniable diminishment of one of the most interesting cultural figures of the Twentieth Century may satisfy only the most ardent fans of Wayne who are insecure as to their continuance of enthusiastic support for a man whose professional abilities and personal politics continue to be a source or lively, if not occasionally viciously heated, controversy. Certainly there is nothing within the pages of this book to sway the skeptic as to the level of Wayne’s evident but often maligned acting ability, though there is an interesting contribution by fellow actor Walter Reed which is blessed with insightful simplicity as to the source of Wayne’s longevity of appeal: stature.
Unfortunately, for those unfamiliar with and in need of an introduction to the man called Duke (could they possibly exist?) there is little here to explain his legacy. To loosely paraphrase Norma Desmond “John Wayne is big. It’s the book that got small.”
Pratfalls on the Page: The Screwball Comedy Films: A History and Filmography, 1934 – 1942 by Duane Byrge and Robert Milton Miller
It takes ambition to tackle the definition of entire genre of movie storytelling (if one is looking for substance), especially within the almost impossible to analyze field of comedy (just how do you explain funny anyway?), and perhaps more so with a more specific form of that field. In Duane Byrge and Robert Milton Miller’s The Screwball Comedy Films: A History and Filmography, 1934 – 1942, the ambitions are immediately reined by an evident certainty that the duo have the genre nailed down to specific time, date and title of the birth and death (if indeed the screwball is deceased) of its filmic existence, and so the reader can settle in to be enlightened and informed (and presumably amused, although humor is- and previously noted -difficult to define, so perhaps not) by a pair of informed hosts.
Unfortunately, title promises are often in name only, and it only takes a brief visit with the book to discover that this slim volume is shamelessly padded with not one but two introductions (one by Arthur Knight who should have known better, although his contribution is by far the more readable of the two)- calling one a foreword is like calling one of four tires on a car a donut -that basically cover the same territory, with the author’s introduction carelessly citing the later devolution of the genre (outside the scope of their ungenerously narrow focus) without bothering to defend or corroborate their theories.
The book is comprised of several chapters: Major Performers, Major Writers and Major Directors, each comprising breezy, fairly chronological profiles of the more notable participants in the genre, though there is little but surface information given, with nary an instance of hesitation to develop any sort of critical perspective in evidence. The authors fall into a trap of their own design, by elevating the subject of their book (and by association, the stature of their own work) through the repetitious dismissal of work outside of their immediate purview. Indeed, it is clear from the rather slavish enthusiasm toward all of the featured artists (but within their own guidelines), that a legitimate standard of excellence is nonexistent in the book when it comes to the films which are included as part of the accepted Screwball Comedy roster (Could anyone seriously mount a convincing defense that either “Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife” or “Two-Faced Woman” belong on a comparative list with the likes of “My Man Godfrey” or “The Awful Truth”?); a systemic critical reproach seems reserved for those films outside of the book’s narrow scope- post-1942 comedies don’t fit within the convenient boundaries defining the screwball comedy as set forth on the book’s cover. This nonsensical approach to critical evaluation is most apparent in a number of “later” Howard Hawks films: “Man’s Favorite Sport?” is attacked for daring to feature Rock Hudson rather than Cary Grant, despite the fact that two Grant films “I Was a Male War Bride” and “Monkey Business” are given short consideration simply by virtue of their post Screwball-era (as seen by the authors) vintage. Financial success also seems to be a determining factor in demonstrating a film’s unworthiness of inclusion despite the fact that many of the most prominent of the book’s exampled films were financial failures (“Holiday” and “Bringing Up Baby” for a start), nor do such irrelevant considerations promote confidence in either author’s critical acumen.
The heart of the book (and the presumed excuse for it’s rather exorbitant $29.95 paperback cover price) is the filmography section, creatively entitled THE FILMS, 1934 – 1942, presumably so as the reader will not confuse the contents of the chapter with a catalog for geothermic drilling equipment. Each film is granted a few pages, most of which is taken up with the cast and crew credits (and only the major ones at that), a still (which seem randomly chosen as few, if any, give a sense of the film), which in keeping with many McFarland & Company books, are reproduced in a dark, contrasty, muddy fashion that resembles a home room newsletter from a mimeograph machine. However, aside from the unappealing and unacceptable visual aspect of the book are the film listings themselves, which are meagerly comprised of a plot synopsis and a few mundane, fortune cookie factoids sprinkled at the end to give the pretense of editorial research and contribution. None of the featured information rises above the level of fan-based movie magazine gossip. If the movies are a major cultural (and dare we suggest- artistic) force, there must be a presumption of both historic context and the artistic evolution within that context, both of which are missing (except for the brief notations of Depression era audiences in the introductory salvos), and if it is the contention of the authors that the era of the screwball comedy had slammed shut (despite obvious exceptions to that law which are conveniently ignored), then additional thoughts on the subject would prove useful in solidifying the book’s theorem. The concluding notes of The Screwball Comedy Films, a book which purports to be a history of a popular film genre, runs little more than half of a page. Seldom has the work involved in serious cultural evaluation been callously pushed aside and given all of the sweat and toil commensurate with the assembling of a grocery list.
Just who is this book for? For the film scholar (or even eager enthusiast), there isn’t a morsel of information that isn’t readily available in countless other reference books, nor with the emergence of the even questionable accuracy of research material on the Internet (the book was first published in 1991 though is still available) does there seem to be a need for this volume. (It does most appropriately resemble a school project.) For the casual, nostalgic film buff, there are far more attractive and informative books available especially at such an unexplainably steep price. Small and university presses often stress the reason for higher costs as having to do with their more limited facilities and marketplace, an understandable argument, though this would also suggest the work they produce might have scholarly merit above and beyond content found in mass produced- often with ancillary associations -works. This slight volume disgraces the bookshelf.
A View From the Cheap Seats: The Movie That Changed My Life, edited by David Rosenberg
With the wealth (actually gluttonous overabundance) of film books published examining, probing, criticizing, reinterpreting, psychoanalyzing, and performing generally obscure, obtuse and cryptic academic microsurgery-some so labyrinthine in the expression of an aesthetic philosophy, they might as well be expressed in untranslated hieroglyphs -on the latest trends, fads, critical theorems and retrospective readdressing of performers, players, directors, moguls and insensate grips with a grudge, it is a welcome relief to actually chance upon a single volume which bridges ever so slightly the gap between professional chronicler and the average ticket buying seeker of entertainment and enlightenment, and that is precisely what the fortunate reader may find in David Rosenberg’s smart and engaging 1991 collection of essays revisiting a cherished film which became a formative experience in each author’s youth, with one of the most interesting insights revealed in the book being the depth of influence with which many of these filmic encounters impressed upon the essayist’s consciousness, stirring embryonic affirmations of racism, sexism and religious acrimony. It is interesting to note that even among the intelligentsia, the process of experience (in this case narrowly defined as a specific movie experience), might be more accurately defined as the politicization of the self; a process in which one’s own naïveté born of social inexperience (often mislabeled as innocence) which actually results in a narrowing bias of perception that forms a person’s individuality as far more consubstantial to a collective social whole than one’s ego might wish to admit; regardless of presumed intellectual station.
The essays are broken into seven distinct yet blurry categories, which seem to exist simply for the sake of Rosenberg imposing a reminder of his editorial presence to the project rather than contributing any relevant thematic associations (his own essay on Joseph Losey’s “The Boy With Green Hair” is placed under the heading of Drama, but could just as easily been fitted under the chapter headings of either Classics or Suspense/Fantasy). Sadly, and almost too predictably, the one category which yields little valuable fruit is under the designation of Adult in which the contributions of both Gordon Lish and Leslie Epstein continue in the tradition of a frustrating inability for academics to pursue serious conversation about film containing explicit sexual content; one might think that writers predisposed to literary traditions (rather than armchair hacks) would be less likely to instantaneously decry the very concept of sexual explicitness as other than the rank designation of pornography and have an intellectual generosity equal to that one might bring to the often ignorantly chastised content in the writings of Petronius, Chaucer, Lawrence, de Sade and Joyce. Instead, we are treated to a pair of essays which are converted into the form of pseudo-fictional accounts, as if the proximity of sexual content in a more directly personal context might emblazon the authors with Hester Prynne’s unfortunate embroidery. (In Epstein’s accounting, his semi-apologetic embarrassment in renting his adult tapes at the now-defunct Brookline Videosmith begs the question: would this director of graduate creative writing at Boston University experience equal palpitations in purchasing a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover?)
There are also instances where the influence of a film has led directly to extremes of self-conscious behavior (whether genuine or enhanced for a theatrical effect is unclear) as in Russell Banks’ opening piece on “Bambi”, in which the novelist, upon reconnecting with the animated film, is flooded with recollections which miraculously (if the author is to be taken literally) transformed a wide-eyed four year old into an individual imbued with self-awareness of gender roles, which culminates in his denying the simple pleasures of “The Little Mermaid” to his three-year-old granddaughter in view of what he perceives as its latent sexist agenda (one can only be glad that his formative film is not “Night of the Living Dead” as it may have resulted in an occasion of forced familial cannibalism), a reaction which seems both extreme, and not just a bit for the benefit of the reader. Similarly, David Bradley’s angry polemic about “The Birth of a Nation” (which simply and correctly identifies the film as “innovative” but “not good”, a designation which has escaped the befuddled the slavish devotees of silent cinema- as if is all elevated in artistic merit simply due to the conditional abuse of most of the form’s output -who simultaneously assert an acknowledgement of the production’s deliberately inflammatory racist content while deifying the film simply because the majority of other silent films have crumbled into dust) devolves from harrowing personal experience into a chronology of Klan recruitment history (Bradley’s general assertion that white society is evil due to the thousands who swelled the ranks of the bed sheet hooded cretins is never tempered with an acknowledgement of the vast majority of the white population who both resisted and condemned both the film and the subject organization) which for all of the impressively labor intensive research on display, digresses from the intended exercise in personal experience. Indeed, even when his rage manifests itself into an incident of self-awareness in which he becomes a person similar to whom he is critical, the resonance of that experience is noticeably short-lived.
A few of the contributors are actually open about their resistance to the task at hand (then why bother?). Terry McMillan writes about a youthful identification with Dorothy’s feelings of emotional isolation in “The Wizard of Oz” but shortchanges on the revisitation as she allows her son to be entertained by the film, while frustratingly fails to apply her own attention to the task at hand and instead does the dishes and makes phone calls, proffering her son’s amusement and subsequent film induced nightmares as a poor substitute for following the assignment. Geoffrey Hartman is even more overt in his reticence over the intention of the assignment, stating his pessimism from the start that “no movie ever changed my life”, though his piece on Buñuel’s “The Exterminating Angel”- though punctuated with enough obscure quotations to assure the reader he has done his homework -is an incisive analysis of the film that would make any prestigious film journal proud, but is of a nature of more aesthetically studious works and alien to the specifics of this book’s more personal temperament.
However, as is consistent with the nature of a volume whose content is collected from a variety of sources, there is much to recommend which is both provocative and of substantially enriching (read: stimulating in its originality of expression), not the least of which is Meg Wolitzer’s uncannily evocative piece of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt” which manages to effortlessly merge both the career obsessions of the director and the individual film’s concerns with the emergence of womanhood in young girl’s mind. Francine Prose’s astute and very funny piece on “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” questions a change in perception, not only individually but in societal terms, as to how a childhood favorite could have possibly been a Technicolor commercial asserting the value of rape? Bharati Mukherjee contributes an entertaining essay on the Ruth Etting biopic “Love Me or Leave Me”, which manages in a few pages to speak on the sexual politics between men and women (and how to engage and survive in that particular relationship minefield) as filtered through budding maturity, the immigrant experience and a father’s love of Doris Day films, whereas Leonard Michaels manages the astounding trick of identifying his life-changing experience condensed down to the manipulation of Rita Hayworth’s zipper in the film “Gilda”.
What usefully distinguishes The Movie That Changed My Life from other volumes of cinema essays and criticism is that there is no attempt to mine the thoughts of the film professional, but to find a perspective from the creative mind from without the interested parties of the industry. Thus, we are afforded expressively heightened glimpses into an art form from participants of a competitive field of narrative imagination (though often symbiotic, as witness subsequent filming of Russell Banks’ works such as “The Sweet Hereafter” and “Affliction”) which yields a perspective quite different from the usual book on the cinema with the emphasis on aesthetic technique and comparisons; Rosenberg’s book is not concerned with the artistic form within itself, but of the human response to a specific content within that form, and the essayists act as representative (of the common audience) witnesses to that form in its guise as popular entertainment rather that strictly as an art form, but witnesses for whom the use of words is their own practiced artistic form of expression, and thus the common experience finds an often astonishing though (importantly) identifiable articulation.
Originally published in 1991, The Movie That Changed My Life predates the emergence of DVD (the authors view the films, for the most part, on VHS tapes), video streaming and the diluting blandishing of film criticism on the Internet, and thus the contemporary fixation on extinguishing the significance of both past cinema and experience in the face of up-to-the-minute sensation mistaken for cultural legacy. Significantly, while the featured films act as formative (or, at least, important points of enlightenment), their significance emerges in concert with the accumulative effect of life experience; with perhaps an unintended though invaluable caveat toward those who profess critical ambitions which might be mined from the book’s insight percolating over a shifted cultural landscape identifiable by a signature abbreviation of cultural attention: that a usefully mature vision of Art may be achieved only when filtered through a lived Life.
Through a Pint Glass, Darkly: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole, and Oliver Reed by Robert Sellers
Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole, and Oliver Reed is a paean to talent squandered, lives ruined and endless acts of debauchery, violence and vandalism resulting in personal insult, broken marriages and destroyed career paths, slavishly assembled by author Robert Sellers, with the major chronicling focused on the four actors listed in the sub-heading, though there are equally infelicitous anecdotes related about the contributory likes of Robert Newton, Denholm Elliot, Lee Marvin, Hugh Griffith, Jack Hawkins, Dylan Thomas, Jack MacGowran, Trevor Howard, Robert Shaw and Laurence Harvey, all related with an overly generous sense of solicitude while the noticeable brickbats are saved for Rachel Roberts and that great white whale of self-promoted puffery Elizabeth Taylor, as it seems that within the British Empire, the tolerance for mythic levels of public disgrace is excusable only by the male of the species, a hypocritical stance fostered by the author though never acknowledged never mind addressed, explained or defended.
Robert Sellers book is a breezy read- far too breezy -and this cavalier tone does a disservice to the book’s subject which, instead of a reflective portrait of talent and egotism succumbing to lifetimes of self-destructive impulses, actually celebrates the same poor judgment and behavior, with continuous references to “the great man” in regard to each member of the quartet, as much for their drunken revelries, public humiliations and rampant property damage as much as their legitimate career accomplishments; an oddball consideration of the building blocks of greatness which should thrill the thousands of binge drinking clods during annual Spring Break migrations to Cancun.
What is creepily apparent through the four stories interwoven in the book, is that they have been recorded by an unapologetic fan who seems incapable of finding even the slightest provocation to cast a jaundiced glance at any of the outlandish and wasteful (and certainly hurtful) behavior that is persistently labeled “fun” while the actors have no recollections of the incidents, nor (with the exception of Burton who usually expresses apologies the morning after, directly before beginning the cycle all over again) do they seem to care about any of the negative effect their behavior might have on innocent bystanders; we are assured, especially in Oliver Reed’s case, that this vulgarity of lack of consideration for others is acceptable as it is what is expected of him by the public and their enjoyment is predicated on his assuming the role of world-class cad, though the almost unanimous reaction of animus generated by hotel and restaurant staffs, film and theatre personnel, personal and business acquaintances speaks otherwise. Essentially what Sellers has fashioned is a love letter to pathologically bad behavior; conduct that would not be sanctioned without the stature which came with the actor’s level of international renown, though even this went only so far before the film industry closed their doors due to a collective unreliability of reputation regarding their hampering of productions and their increased inability to get through the entire filming process without either disruptive incidents or collapses in health (though it’s convenient these health spirals never seem to interrupt the destruction of a hotel or restaurant); and then there is the matter of the uninsurable status of the “great” men.
The book, in recalling the performance accomplishments of the quartet as a series of footnotes which are incidental to the more colorful debauchery, reemphasizes the puzzling declaration on the cover which exclaims: “On screen they were stars… off screen they were legends”, a dubious bit of misplaced emphasis as if drunken brawls were a more valuable achievement than Burton’s performance in “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold”, O’Toole’s in “Lawrence of Arabia” or Harris’ in “This Sporting Life”, and while Sellers extends an appreciation for the thespian side of his subjects, it’s their appetite for drink which is of greater interest, nor does the author extend a critical voice against the raging drunken tirades extended against the so-called “Old Guard” of the British acting tradition, especially Olivier who becomes a convenient whipping boy for self-imposed frustrations generated by chronic inebriation. Sellers neglects to mention whether or not this is part of the “fun” so often referenced between continuous and repetitive bouts of blackout amnesia and vomiting. (One cannot help recalling an ironically apropos line of dialogue spoken about O’Toole’s Lawrence: “It is recognized you have a funny sense of fun.”)
The aspect of the book which is most annoying is the fawning tone of the book which attempts to convey a shared excitement for offensive behavior. For example, a reference to Richard Burton co-starring with Claire Bloom in the filming of “Alexander the Great” is recorded as follows: “After he had won the earlier bet by seducing her into his bed the couple had begun a torrid affair and although Burton’s wife Sybil was on location with her husband in Spain this didn’t stop our Dick.” Our Dick? The gossip column level of the writing combined with the insufferable frat house sense of an inflated sense of the ability to shock others (and then to simultaneously demean those offended as killjoys, dullards or poofs) creates an inglorious portrait which elevates rudeness, boorishness and sociopathic irresponsibility as not only equal but necessary partners with raw ability in defining greatness in an actor, as emphasized by this telling passage: “O’Toole had star quality and behaved as a star should, in other words, a monumental egoist and a royal pain in the ass.” If Sellers intends this observation as irony, this would not explain the sideline cheerleading and undisguised admiration for this same “pain in the ass” behavior dutifully recorded in the rest of the volume, nor the hypocritical sympathy he shows when Richard Harris is annoyed by what he sees as disruptive behavior by Marlon Brando on the set of “Mutiny on the Bounty”. (What happened to the entitled “egotism” that goes hand in hand with stardom? Or is the practice of unprofessional conduct allowable only by actors on the British side of the pond?)
In the end, Seller’s book is a writer’s version of The Emperor’s New Clothes, only with the reader ending up staring into ugly end of self-indulgent, naked royalty. The final paragraph says it all- serving as both a window into the author’s confused intentions and the cluelessness with which those intentions are expressed:
“And that’s it, in a nutshell. OK, so in between the laughs, the falling down stairs and the pranks, marriage vows were trampled in the dirt, teeth were punched out of the faces of total strangers, and the odd police cell was occupied overnight, but at least it was done with style, a certain sense of panache, and nearly always for the sake of fun. I hope this collection of memories and anecdotes serves as a testament to four extraordinary lives lived extraordinarily.”
Maddux Redux: Fiction Into Film by Neil D. Isaacs, Rachel Maddux & Stirling Silliphant
The wealth of books crowding the shelves of today’s bookstores, in the cinema section, feature an abundance of promissory, abbreviated seminars in film making technique, conception, adaptation and success. When one considers just a few years ago there was not one such volume available, it gives pause as to the abridgement of creative apprenticeship that seems required in today’s cinema before one tackles the formidable task of making a vision out of a spool of celluloid (Or in contemporary keep-up-with-the-times terms: a handful of pixels- or pixie dust, take your pick). This probably explains much about the current state of the cinema, but the absence of a jar full of aspirin prevents further investigatory thoughts down that dimly lit avenue.
One of the first, and hence most enlightening- as most pioneering works tend to stretch the boundaries of unknown territories before its antecedents find comfort in previous trod territory and become sequentially less vital or substantial as the works pile up -is Neil D. Isaacs’ 1970 Fiction Into Film, a book that is actually blessed by the eventual failure (both financially and critically) of its subject film, Guy Green’s 1970 “A Walk in the Spring Rain”, as books which follow a course of production in today’s market are generally used as yet another ancillary spinoff of a blockbuster marketing strategy of a genetically engineered box-office sensation (the fact that most of these brainchild films crash and burn never appears to daunt future folly). Without such commercial distraction hampering his book, Isaacs follows the path of a notable piece of writing (a Rachel Maddux novella, featured in the first of three sections in the book) in the printed form into one which, while also initially printed (Stirling Silliphant’s screenplay adaptation of that novella, and printed verbatim in the second section of the book) is the intended blueprint toward a cinematic transposition, and then in the third section of the book, details the process of adapting a work of printed fiction in a cinematic one. There is a danger in this type of work that the minutiae of editing, reinvention and transposition of the written material might be lost, or worse, ignored in favor of issues of production logistics or even on-set gossip.
Happily this last is completely ignored in a manner favorable to a professional view of the workings of film production, the same cannot be said of the reliance on technical issues which threaten to engulf almost the entirety of Isaacs’ portion of the book. What does emerge, however, is a rather despairing view of literature by well-meaning but essentially clueless film professionals to whom the closest path to fidelity to a written source (if it’s not worth the fidelity, what was the attraction in the first place?) is to ignore the heart of the piece and concentrate of what is visually convenient, especially if it has been done before and therefore commensurate with nonthreatening middlebrow entertainment. Moments in Maddux‘ story that reveal a depth of emotion specific to the character (and not part of a wider traditional formulaic design) are eliminated and replaced with subtle images that will “suggest” the original feel of the writing, or at least that’s the logic of the film makers. The entire process has a fatal flaw: in judging that a simple glance out of a window will carry the same weight of a densely wrought scene between characters, the film adapters presuppose a deep familiarity of the written work- which they themselves would have -that would be shared by every audience member, a supposition that is both unjustifiable and an inexcusable excuse for creative laziness.
It is understandable that the director Guy Green would promote the furtherance of visual shortcuts to replace the more ‘literary” elements of the piece (dialogue, mood, texture, symbolism, meaning) for his profession, as a hired hand who is uninvolved in the evolution of either the source material or its initial reconception into a filmic form, is more attuned with the visual aesthetic, but how does this coincide into a productive partnership with Silliphant, who on this film was not only the writer but first-time producer, a dual status which certainly would have granted him a rarified clout to promote the dignity of a writer’s conception over the steam roller of visual smash and grab. During the entire process, lines of dialogue from the original story are continuously jettisoned to the point where one wonders if the director were going to end up making a silent feature? Would the characters, especially that of Will- played by Anthony Quinn in a very odd choice of casting that is never questioned -have anything to verbally express? Similarly, the Hollywood types who descend on the Tennessee locations (as opposed to the original West Virginia locales of the story- which is a critical world of difference) seem to have the typical industry disdain for “country” folk that seems to carry over from an overexposure to Ma and Pa Kettle films, so there is little in the transitive process which works to create a distinct cultural definition to which the main character of Libby (played by Ingrid Bergman, whose initial attraction to Maddux’ story was instrumental in setting up the production deal) importantly becomes attracted. Certainly with all of the empty dreamy stares and thoughtful glances something must be happening in Libby’s mind, but as the events are seen from her perspective (the film’s title refers to a framing device of Libby’s remembrance during the- also largely removed -title walk) in the source story, it is very clear in the film’s awkward transposition that the perspective is of the writer/producer and director.
Also of alarming note is Silliphant’s almost immediate formation of his own personal focus group to advise on the viability of the nature and form of Maddux’ story. Outside of the interest of Ingrid Bergman, who the studio- we are later informed -was interested in promoting for her long delayed return to the screen, it is impossible to determine from Isaacs’ lean observations, just what led to the initial attraction of the material from Silliphant. On all of these issues, Isaacs is strangely mute, playing the part of an observer in an unobtrusive cinema vérité sense, rather than as a questioning, opinionated and critical reporter who might at least notate the turns in production which may leading away from a harmonious union of literature and cinema. This isn’t a suggestion that Isaacs should have imposed himself in the process at hand, but certainly it would be proper (and expected) for him to report an informed, unbiased evaluation of that process, otherwise what is the purpose of the book? It almost appears as if there might have been a concern that such critical commentary might adversely effect the public response to the film. Otherwise, how can the absence of such evaluative content be explained? And if this is so, does not the independent observer become a party in limbo within the production process? The elusive aspect of a useful commentary concerning the writing process in this progression of fiction into film (Critical matters such as a list of objections by Maddux during the screenwriting process are fleetingly mentioned but never detailed, while the book wastes valuable pages minutely detailing the technical process of sound dubbing!) is a detailing of the actual adaptive process in the creative writing end; the subject one would consider the content of the book considering its tripartite structuring and the promise of its introductory notes, however, to do so openly would place the producer/writer in a very unflattering light and where such critical evaluation of the process eludes Isaacs, it lends suspicion to his observational priorities.
The book ends before the release of the film, so the less than stellar reception of the film is not given as evidence of the faulty thinking of the film’s creators- Stirling Silliphant, being the producer as well as writer of the screenplay seems to escape a great deal of the deserved blame, and to be fair, there are the briefest of notations of skepticism on the overall wisdom of the general approach to the film from Isaacs at the very end of the book, slight hints that even he recognizes much of the approach of the film makers as foolhardy, yet this magnifies the mystery as to such a widespread editorial silence in the rest of the book.
However, there is insight to be had from the volume (which explains this review’s opening note of promising an enlightening book: it’s simply a do-it-yourself brand of enlightenment), and that is in having the opportunity to read the fine original Rachel Maddux story and form your own comparative conclusions with Silliphant’s screenplay where the reductive alterations are clearly in evidence for all to see; making Neil D. Isaacs’ contributions, except for his very readable introduction, rather unnecessary.
“Silent Dreams”, written by Dandi Daley Mackall, illustrated by Karen A. Jerome
There is no reason to expect less of, nor to set lower standards for, children’s literature than of those expectations and standards demanded by the discriminating adult reader.
In the realm of children’s illustrated books, there is a tendency to pander to the more unsophisticated tastes of the buyer-usually a mother or grandmother -whose concession to the banality of cute bunnies and ducklings they are certain will delight what is generally assumed as the child’s insatiable appetite for huggable, cute characters presented with an unhealthful abundance of sugar, made all the more enticing if that same book contains the most cozy of sentimental messages: usually confined to such optimistic but cloying concepts as: friends are good, happy is good or hugs are good. (That more children are not mauled every year by the continuing literary misconception of the safety of approaching and giving a warm embrace to wandering socially affable bears is a mystery for a separate column.) When a children’s book finds its very conception allowing for a latent passivity of adventurous emotional response, it is a work that should merit little enthusiasm. While positive messages are nothing to sneer at, if a book begins with and sustains a tone throughout of helium-breathed lightness, what is the ultimate purpose of the book? Wherein lies the value of lessons learned when all has been sweetness and light from page one? Where exactly are the challenges to the child’s imagination? This may explain why the vast majority of the most enduring fairy tales have a far more potent combination of mystery, dread, good and evil than seemingly acceptable in the contemporary children’s book filling the pages of any publisher’s catalog. The average children’s illustrated book immerses the child in the protective cloak of simplistic concepts comforting to the adult but hardly nourishing nor stimulating the child’s mind to stretch in meaningful directions. Good children’s illustrated books must entice the full arsenal of the reader’s imagination, with all of the dark corners and innumerable perils that particular imperative implies.
Illustrated children’s books that are considered safe to the adult consumer’s eye, meaning they contain no elements that will possibly upset, disturb, confuse, anger, frustrate, sadden or irritate the child- an intellectually sanitizing effect that ensures the development of a personality empathetic only toward their own pleasures -are symptomatic of the vast majority of works proffered by a myopic publishing industry interested in directing children’s (through adults) attention to the forced homogenization of a child’s healthy fantasy life, constructed of a diet based upon both anthropomorphized cuteness and later books heavily invested in mythologically steeped genres, filled with magic, dragons and wizards but scant reality-based storytelling which might enrich a child at a formative period of learned socialization. An enriched fantasy life, in a child, is not the same as in an adult, for the the concept of the fantastic is not limited (as it is in the adult mind) to the phantasmagorical, but also finds rich nurturing grounding in everyday experience including the observed behavior of adults which is an exotic world of untold wonders fueling the adventurous imagination of the young.
The children’s illustrated book, as a format initially aimed at young or beginning readers, may be host, by its unique symbiosis of diverse creative mediums to a more dynamic form of storytelling which is universal in its artistic reach and, if superbly accomplished, multigenerational in its appeal, a work formed by the merging of text and picture, creating an awareness and appreciation in the young reader for the complimentary relationship that can exist between the artistically storytelling and the artistically rendered visualization inspired by those same textual references. It is a skillful bolstering of the individual process of imagination and a valuable promotion of developing skills appreciative of the visual arts; a dichotomy of which is happily mirrored in the backdrop of Dandi Daley Mackall and Karen A. Jerome’s “Silent Dreams” with its balancing of the need for illusion as a bringer of hope and a fledgling art form which is the bearer of those dreams.
If the illustrated book diverges from a purely textual work in that- when artfully conceived -it forms a work which embraces the imagination in a less abstract way (naturally, as the reader actually sees a visual representation of the characters and events as a guideline to further mental visualization) but achieves something of genuine value in the merging the expressive forms of word and image, as in their complimentary artistic aims: a valuable occasion for an early stimulative exposure for developing minds in the confluence of complimentary art forms. Better yet are works that are borne of human truths that in their universality, ensure timelessness; works that may be blessed with the overused- and thus, devalued -designation of “classic”.
“Silent Dreams” is just such a rarity in children’s illustrated books: a work whose background is the cinema, though not related as an appalling product of ancillary merchandising tie-ins, but rather of a thematic reflection of the hypnotically illusionary quality the young art form, even in its primitive non-speaking state, as it was originally enjoyed by both the sophisticated and the dispossessed, a commonality possible through a very new and democratic Art Form. In fact, it was both the primitive dramaturgical nature of the form which attracted and informed accessibility to the common masses and the revolutionary stature of a new art form that engaged the curiosity of all levels of society: a truly universal form. The infant state of a form, which had the power (through its very newness) to make the viewer believe anything was possible; that the fantasies projected on the movie screen that were so real on the screen could possibly become real in their own lives. It is this innocent dichotomy between illusion and dreams that is sensitively celebrated in “Silent Dreams” : the basic human need for an imaginative hunger, a need that, ironically, should be the essence of all literature for young readers. as mirrored by the book’s young heroine; this hunger which becomes the source of dreams and therefore hopefulness to the future. Essentially a family tale, though a broken one as the young girl Camilla has been orphaned by a flu epidemic, and is now under the guardianship of her auntie, a woman to whom has mentally withdrawn from the world, this imaginative hunger becomes the source of the pair’s equal determination to endure.
The story follows a week in the life of Carmilla and her auntie, as they make their way through the harsh winter streets of the city, encountering the frequent kindness of the street society of both their fellow homeless and those kinds souls who contribute small crumbs of charity- both material and emotional -that nourish the pair until their weekly visit to the movie house. Despite the surface solemnity of the book, it carries a message of hopefulness by examples of humanity through simple decency, and in engaging the resilience of the human spirit in its surprising capacity to elevate itself from the most dire of circumstances, the fuel of that spirit allegorically represented through the flickering phantasms on the silent screen. Though it is a book steeped in a backdrop of desperation, there is a comforting gentleness to all the characters that speaks of a society in which, in the face of great want, finds occasions to express the best of itself, a societal depiction both touching and liberating.
“Silent Dreams” is a slight work- as conditional to the standard 32 page format -yet rich in feeling and substance. The text of Dandi Daley Mackall is in rhyming verse, a common form can often be cloying when condescending to that same consumer mentality attracted to simplistic children’s literary concepts. “Silent Dreams” is refreshingly free of such irritating affectation and artfully expressed with companion illustrations by the talented Karen A. Jerome, in dense watercolors composed of darkly expressive hues that suggest a world rich in purple twilights and complexly textured shadings, meaningfully tinged with nuanced, glancing shadows of light. The book includes an interesting notation by Mackall usefully explaining the formative experience that serves as the inspiration of the story, as well as a brief introduction for beginners in silent film, and a helpful glossary for young readers, defining references in the story that the younger readers may be unfamiliar with, such as “marks” and “Valentino”.
Don’t Let This Happen To You!: Hollywood Rat Race by Ed Wood, Jr.“The fragrance of the roses has wafted to you from all directions, mostly from a bunch of smelly characters. The thorns will become even more prevalent as the flowers wither and the perfume disintegrates into thin air. The thorns of the real entertainment world, where all the filth has been purposely perfumed, will be ever present as you try to make your way in the business.” – Edward D. Wood Jr., from Hollywood Rat Race
A notorious schlockmeister, whose films appear to have become more palatable due to his rather generous canonization in the 1994 Tim Burton biopic “Ed Wood“, Edward D. Wood, Jr. has been misleadingly labelled with the dual distinction as maker of the worst film of all time, “Plan 9 From Outer Space” (it isn’t) and as the worst director of all time (he isn’t), an infamy conferred with the 1980 publication of Harry & Michael Medved’s The Golden Turkey Awards, a smarmy and uninformed volume written to reinforce the then-burgeoning and now prevalent misconception that useless sarcasm may successfully masquerade as legitimate film criticism. Wood’s films are neither as repellant as indicated by the brothers Medved , nor as interesting as suggested with the indiscriminate publication of photos featuring Vampira, Tor Johnson and Bela Lugosi as championed in the Forrest J. Ackerman incarnation of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, but rather a precursor to the pretense of artistic sensibilities within the New Hollywood generation of writers and directors who learned everything they know of life from the movies (which means they know nothing), except for how to cobble together movies, and so make pale imitations of what they obsessively admire, good or bad. Wood’s core failure as a film maker was not so much one of ineptitude in direction- there are plenty of successful examples of those, many lauded with shelves full of industry awards -nor in his inability as a producer to sufficiently fund the resources necessary to realize even the basic necessities of credible mise-en-scene or populating his films with performers with the minimal grade of professionalism who might properly respond to such complex concepts as a line cue. No, his fundamental defect as a film maker (essential to cementing his status in the arcane Pantheon of Cultism), what emblazons his films with a recognizable signature of true iconoclasm (if one were to subscribe to the unlikely Auteur Theory, he should be its poster boy) are his efforts as Edward D. Wood Jr. the Writer.
In a way, every movie by Wood is meant as a cautionary tale, characterized by either introductory and concluding monologues, or by voice-over narrations elucidating already evident violations of social conventions- for a man whose initial feature film was a polemic against the prejudice toward transvestism and whose later efforts entered the realm of the pornographic, a consistent streak of puritanism ran deep in his work –Wood never finding a way to eclipse his dime-store morality lessons which submerged any hope that his dramas might escape a crazed but stodgy proselytizing, but at the same time this infusion of pious civics instruction saves his films from succumbing to the staleness of his chosen genre influences; all of his films finding inspiration from Wood’s taste for trashy Poverty Row and tent-circuit exploitation cheapies from which he would mentally invest with the prestige of major studio productions in order to elevate his own efforts when he was able to access to some of the same talent who, in the realm of the qualitatively obscure, were finding either a continuation or end of their career paths. Were it not for this incongruous blending of clamorous, grammatically challenged pulpit piety of his writing and unrelievedly stolid directorial presentation of exploitation trash formula, his films would never have had the makings of such a dedicated cult following. On its own demerits, stiff and unimaginative direction alone is hardly the nutritional agar of idiosyncratically based cultural devotion, but load that flyweight aesthetic with a truly demented signatory writing style and an almost hypnotically inept (though not uninteresting) form of cinematic disgrace is born.
This same writing ethic informs the Wood’s posthumously published (he died in 1978) Hollywood Rat Race, a how-to that reads more as a tell-all of Wood’s history of bitterness and frustration with the Hollywood Establishment that never recognized him as a major player- or at all, for that matter. Though you wouldn’t know this from reading the 132 pages of unrelenting alarum against industry-wide sleaze and corruption, both real and imagined (though there is no effort made to distinguish one from the other), this book, a product of the better part of a decade of effort, is intended as a guide in which Wood proffers survival guidelines to Hollywood wannabes in the form of an often hysterical tirade clearly directed at repelling all with aspirations of Hollywood success (or even participation). The inconsistency of thought is often jaw dropping with Wood launching his chapter entitled “I’m Ready to Be Discovered” with the narrow assumption that every girl’s journey to stardom (his fixation is continuously focused on the fairer sex, though his abundant references to angora sweaters might be directed at anyone) begins with entry in a beauty contest, only to spend the remainder of the chapter relaying imagined horror stories of con artists and professional cheats who prey upon everyone who wishes to be an actor. (One might notice there is no similar advice directed with such a vicious intensity against those entering the fields with which he would have more experience: directing and writing. Only actors seem to be subject to his special brand of career vitriol.) Wood similarly discredits acting coaches as cheats and frauds and small theater experience as something in which someone must pay their way into a role. Every aspect of the actor’s life takes on some form of literal prostitution according to Wood, though his own shabby credentials for relaying such puncturing advice is never given an honest assessment.
Time and again, Wood makes reference to his own experience as producer, writer and director, always inflating the significance of his own experiences (there is no reference to quality, as the author would surely lose his reader’s attention in a heartbeat if they only knew by whom they were being guided) in a deluded grasp at credibility. If Wood genuinely has invaluable advice to give, it is lost in the miasma of self-promotion that was his carnival barker stock-in-trade. His experience in the undeniable lower than low budget realm of filmmaking should yield some amusing and insightful tidbits on just how to piece together a film out of proverbial string and tissue paper, but that would burst the illusions of a man who exaggerates the significance (or lack thereof) of his work in such inflated terms that make the author an almost pitiable individual. There are several references to his 1953 film, the western short “Crossroad Avenger” in which the gullible reader might be taken into Wood’s delusion that it was a major release instead of an unsold television pilot. By using the how-to format as a thinly veiled excuse to air his own grievances against an industry he clearly feels cheated him of his deserved opportunities, Wood assaults his readers with rather cruel mouse traps in which they are promised professional guidance, but are instead subjected to a series of floridly constructed tales of horror which are given the pretense of cautionary concern, though one doesn’t have to delve very deeply into the book to realize the author doesn’t want any potential reader to succeed. Instead of don’t let this happen to you, the book’s train of thought detours into a more unappetizing why did this happen to me? subtext which becomes more pronounced as the accumulation of scabrous fabrications and hollow wails of self-pity increase.
In elevating his own experience, Wood brings a great deal of confounding perspective to a field in which (as he relentlessly suggests) is a public business in which everyone is saturated in knowledge by an education in “movie magazines”, but bizarrely, his own “expertise” seems unnaturally tinged by the same kind of hyperbolic, artificial fan illusion such a dedicated saturated education might instill. (One particularly daffy bit of stream of consciousness has him seriously connecting the importance of shooting a film scene with the development of the atomic bomb.) In a chapter headed “So You Want to Be a Star”, he exalts the character actor as the only career choice guaranteeing professional longevity, citing such examples of self-proclaimed giants of the industry as Bud Osborne, Lyle Talbot and Tom Keene (all Wood cronies), while minimizing the careers of such pikers as Humphrey Bogart who, according to the author, could not sustain a career until he jettisoned his image as a tough guy and became a character actor. Under Wood’s expert gaze, an actor cannot sustain a career by creating a singular persona- which must have come as a shock to the likes of John Wayne or Cary Grant, who no doubt would rather have had the more lucrative career of the author-approved Jack Norton which Wood recounts in rapturously glowing terms. The inclusion of this grab bag of generously considered Hollywood minor league players is key to understanding the author’s viewpoint that he is possessed of an uncanny vision which filters through the corrosive illusions of Tinseltown and is able to salvage those talents who are subject to cruel industry disaffection. However, Wood’s assertions that these same actors, previously claimed to have protected careers due to their character actor status, would need his help to pull them out of oblivion is another of his great contradictions, exposing serious central flaws in his thinking. First, that every example cited in his book should lead back to either his role as savior for others, or in his assuming the role of martyred victim himself, usually indicated by his repeated caveat that his statements aren’t sour grapes. Secondly, and more problematic is that Wood seems incapable of a thinking process which is does not involve absolutes in whatever he is discussing at the moment. Grey areas are nonexistent in his world view, with either the subject of his chapter (say, producers) as being either figures with the wisdom of Solomon or as irredeemable, rabid sex offenders, the contrary opinions laid out in separate chapters, though often the polar disparity occurs from one paragraph to the next. This pattern of contradiction escalates in intensity as the book unfolds, leading to the conclusion it was published with its calendar continuity of composition intact, until toward the end of the book (which is abrupt- even for Wood – and suggests the volume was unfinished at the time of his death), he angrily rails against the loss of morality by citing cases of men wearing women’s clothing, a subject normally dear to his transvestite heart (and subject of his call for tolerance epic, the infamous “Glen or Glenda”), all of a sudden treated as if he were assuming the position of his behavioral detractors. Often the anger can reach ugly and unintelligible levels: in a chapter entitled “How to Live in Hollywood Without Money”, the author’s attention veers wildly from instructions in how not to avoid the collection agencies, to a particularly vicious attack against acting coaches-” It’s those who actually think they are teaching you to act, who actually believe in themselves, who are the most dangerous. Most are little more than disappointed bit players, and I challenge their right to be dramatic arts teachers if they have not been able to make the grade on the stage, or the screen, themselves.”
-an argument that Wood, with characteristic self-involvement, will place himself directly as the centerpiece-“Let each of them challenge me. I accept! I have made many films, yet I do not teach. I wonder why the schools and colleges hire these never-has-beens. Because they are well versed in the old- and I emphasize old classics?”
-until the reader finally arrives at the point of each of these diatribes: the expression of Wood’s own irreconcilable career disappointments-“I have yet to hear any drama coach tell students the horror or oblivion that is bound to befall them in one way or another.’ “Don’t hurry. Oblivion will be there eventually.”
And there it is, the ultimate message of the book is not how-to, but how-not-to, a pessimistic, defeatist tome which, for all of its fanciful invention and delusions of grandeur- both symptomatic of a creative impulse in full desperation mode -results in, perhaps, the most honest work of Wood’s career: an unintended confessional in the form of an instructional book. This is as close to an Ed Wood autobiography as anything he produced, as the relentless caution against Hollywood’s smoke and mirrors is itself (his suggestion for finding lodgings- without money -in Los Angeles is to break into Griffith Park at night and huddle on a bench) a manifestation of his frustrations, usefully stripping away much of the mythologizing about the man which has become widespread since the publication of Rudolph Grey’s Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. and the subsequent Tim Burton film. The comforting cultist image of Ed Wood as eccentric, untalented but eternally optimistic Hollywood bottom feeder is exposed in this book as frustrated, angry, bitter and uncomfortably human. From a chapter entitled “Sex- Hollywood and You” comes this curious passage:“Being in the entertainment industry is very like being in a dark closet. Sometimes a door opens and the light shines in, brightening your area for a time, but in nearly all cases only for a short time. In some cases, the door opens more often, and in a very few cases, the door opens and remains open. Most of the time, the door is closed as quickly as it opened. You search the darkness for even a glimmer of light”
Through a Mirror, Darkly
There is a fundamental danger to the autobiographical form as the subject is bound to see events from a perspective suffused in a self-serving bias that minimizes or entirely obliterates a useful historical record. If the figure is one of significance, then the effect on the chronicle of history may be injurious, but if the figure is of a trivial importance, the harm may be invisible but the question may arise, why bother in the first place?
The autobiography of actor Louis Gossett Jr. entitled “An Actor and a Gentleman”, written with Phyllis Karas, is a case in point. Gossett is one of those actors who achieved a level of fame and prominence through years of work on stage, television and film, culminating in important roles in the landmark television mini-series “Roots” and in an Oscar winning performance in the overrated, problematic “An Officer and a Gentleman”, but who has fallen into relative obscurity in the intervening years through poor career choices and the self-inflicted handicap of personal addictions. As an actor, he is of significance, but in the changing tides of cultural focus, that significance ebbs further and further from the attention of the public’s eye as the years pass without a corresponding career highlight to reestablish relevance. Thus, there may be little need, at this time, for a memoir such as this: unless the book contains anecdotal material which brings significant cultural eras springing back to life. Does this book do that? Well, yes and no, and therein lies the rub.
Gossett’s career was building at an exciting time artistically in New York City and there are numerous anecdotes and tales of behind the curtains in the performing arts that enliven and build a solid basis for an enlightening memoir of insider details. The problem is with Gossett himself, who proves a rather uncongenial host and in most of the anecdotes comes off as a self-absorbed wet blanket who continually proves to be the least interesting person in the room. In his myopic view, if he achieved success, it was entirely due to his working far harder than anyone else, and if he failed was entirely due to racism. This last ugly string runs through the entirety of the book, and despite the constant nuturing hand he receives from white artists around him (including one particularly valiant act by Shirley Booth, which would have been perceived in more gracious hands as a life-affirming action), he is always at the quick trigger to blame the white race for any bump in his own life, including personal issues and his own chronic addictions, which- like any junkie you’d meet on the street- he has little realistic conception of either the depth of his problems or the self-generated source of his own woes.
After a few chapters of his perpetual victimization tirade (true there was an early, savagely ugly incident of racial bigotry that cannot be shaken off, yet even this becomes suspect that the incident might not be enlarged beyond it’s reality in the face of Gossett’s constant lapses into self-mythology) it is difficult to see the man as anything but a spoiled child who was overly protected as a youth (while others around him were facing the horrors of reality) and never forgave the world for his necessary emergence from that coccoon of protective entitlement. His egregious self-importance reaches new zeniths with his winning of the Academy Award with which his gratitude is mixed with arsenic as he has to remind everyone that Sidney Poitier’s win in 1964 didn’t really count historically as Poitier was a Bahamian actor, (Actually this is untrue. Although Poitier hails from the Bahamas, he was born prematurely while his mother was in Florida thus granting him American citizenship.) not an African-American man of color, which in Gossett’s self-reverent eyes trumps Poitier’s historic win and puts himself into the culturally significant center stage. Gossett’s later assertion that he actually performed a miracle is not surprising as you expect at any moment for him to claim he created the Earth in five days.
When not constructing the base for his own monument, Gossett continuously pushes racial buttons, many of his own devising. An extended anecdote concerning Chuck Connors on the television series “Cowboy in Africa” reaches hysterical overtones of racial outrage over an incident that, in the telling, becomes a crisis of his own imagination and an ugly excuse to take both personal and professional shots at Connors who was undoubtedly unaware there was a problem in the first place. And how many times does Gossett blame his failure to get a desired role as an overt act of racial conspiracy, when he admits the roles might have gone to a Morgan Freeman or Samuel L. Jackson instead? Racism indeed.
In the end, Gossett emerges as far too high maintenance a figure to give one’s sympathy toward, and in reading his book you come off with the same sort of chronic discomfort as if someone were behind you, kicking the back of your chair.
FROM PREJUDICE, WITH LOVE
“Foxy: My Life in Three Acts” is a slim volume of memoirs by the Queen of 70’s Blaxploitation Pam Grier, with Andrea Cagan . As befitting her status in the radical wave of inclusion that took place for black talent in 1970’s Hollywood, one would expect a plethora of anecdotes and insights that would bring this critically important era to life. Unfortunately, the bulk of the book appears focused on Ms. Grier’s romantic entanglements with a host of notable (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Freddie Prinze and Richard Pryor) and less notable men, all ending in disappointment for both her and the reader as we’d rather be reading details of her of her genuinely interesting career.
This is a shame as her book begins beautifully, with a lovingly depicted retelling of her childhood that manages to mix a genuinely nurturing though strained family background against the growing pressures and complexities of the burgeoning Civil Rights movement in America. The evocation of time and place in this section is remarkable; even the language is charged with the evocative potency of the novelistic and the tale of a naive child surrounded by outside forces far beyond her ability to fully comprehend let alone control, is told with the deft painterly brush of nostalgic remembrance and a skillful evocation of the details of childhood emotions. Two separate, horrifying accounts of childhood rape powerfully counterpoint the sense of nostalgic innocence and serve to pull the reader further into her compelling memoir. But then something unfortunate happens.
Pam reaches the age for college, moves to California to seek her fortunes, and the book suddenly loses the personal flair it maintained in its first third. For all of her earnest protesting claiming to be an independent woman beholden to no man’s whims, her now increasingly dreary narrative tells an antithetical story. Readers wishing to discover new details about her emergent career and film roles will find pertinent details skipped over for another extended failed romantic escapade.
There is an informative and entertaining chapter given over to her impassioned approach to her supporting portrayal in “Fort Apache, the Bronx” that is a tease of what the book might have been, but that is the extent of any real depth she offers to any of her movie roles. The extended section relating to her more recent participation in the television series “The L Word” is both gratingly repetitive and lacking in illumination except to proclaim that a bond of sisterhood emerged among the cast members. The book closes on a chapter of unnecessary encapsulation of what we have just read, that appears to have no purpose except to insultingly increase the page count.
For fans of gossipy celebrity confessionals, this book may satisfy, but for anyone yearning for more nourishing material on an important era in black cultural history by someone uniquely qualified to detail the period, this book will prove a major disappointment.
DON’T HATE THE MESSAGE, HATE THE MESSENGER
From the man who has fatally compromised the credibility of film criticism by publicly popularizing pointing a chubby digit up or down to signify a standard of cinematic insight, (and we wonder why films currently aim so low) comes “Your Movie Sucks”, the latest collection of “thoughts” on film by that ineffable hack Roger Ebert.
One will note that the very title of the book negates any sense of reader curiosity as to what Ebert’s conclusion might be toward any individual film unfortunate enough to be included under the scrutiny of his cross-hairs, but then deep thinking was never something encouraged by Roger to his coast-to-coast army of critically stunted acolytes as it would surely expose his pervasive lack of…insight…taste…shame? Somehow a book whose general standard is informed by the likes of Jenny McCarthy films or “Josie and the Pussycats” is not a proper forum for comparison trashing toward a truly serious artist such as Catherine Breillat. But why quibble? After all, it is Ebert’s expert contention that all of the films included in this volume fail on every level and do not merit any waste of either our time or money. Fair enough. But unfortunately, that raises an important question which is simply: why then would we waste our money or time reading about the same worthless films? Answer: Because Roger Dodger gets the money and there’s an impressionable film school sucker born every minute.
As the Pied Piper of the Cinema Clueless, Ebert has titled his latest waste of wood pulp “Your Movie Sucks”. Would that he might display the critical acumen to extend the same sentiment to his very own book.