Friday, 14 April 2017

Ways of looking at America – Reviews #262

Stars and Stripes by Emma Amos (1992)

Yesterday it was my birthday. I went to the American Dream exhibition at the British Museum – which looks at modern America through screen printing, the consistency of the form illuminating the variations in theme – and to see Get Out, a horror movie that uses genre tropes to investigate the African-American experience. Several of these reviews touch on American identity, from Kurt Vonnegut's last 'novel' – which challenges the fear and intellectual bankruptcy of his country – to Evan Thomas's Robert Kennedy biography, a portrait of a decent, compromised man trying to stay true to his ideals, and sometimes merely to discover what they are, in the super-charged, dangerous and conflicted atmosphere of Cold War America. Vonnegut returns time and again to the subject of Native Americans, and they were one of Kennedy's causes too: on the last night of his life, he kept asking reporters, "Did you hear about the Indians?" Over 98% of Native American voters in California had cast their ballot for him.

Tunnel of Love, a supposedly inoffensive 1958 comedy that I watched for light relief, is fascinating in a variety of ways, eerily anticipating an American tragedy with links to the counterculture, and depicting a violently unequal, sexist US society both on-screen and off. Elsewhere, I've written about low culture trying to document high culture in '40s Hollywood, how Kurosawa took American pulp fiction and turned it into a study of Japanese society, and how one of America's finest imports, Billy Wilder, lost control of his talents after two decades at the top. By taking the action to Paris, he was aping his great hero – and fellow German emigre – Ernst Lubitsch, and yet his presentation was becoming crudely American, an unbecoming pastiche of Frank Tashlin, who a year before Tunnel of Love managed to smuggle the subversive masterpiece, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? past the censors, his characters' powerless, bawdy ogling of Jayne Mansfield a joke on the sexist, consumerist society that was '50s America. Mansfield, of course, was a Marilyn Monroe substitute, and Andy Warhol's famous screen prints of her hang in the first room of American Dream.


Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut (1997) – Vonnegut’s last ‘novel’ isn’t quite a novel: it’s ‘choice cuts from the carcass’ of a book he was dissatisfied with (at least if the arch post-modernist isn’t having us on), mixed with reminiscences, reflections and bitter, hysterically funny wisdom earned in a life well but often painfully lived. The fictional portions deal with recurring character (and multi-eyed hack writer) Kilgore Trout, a mouthpiece for Vonnegut’s inspired short stories, and one of the luckless planetary citizens forced to endure a ‘rerun’ of the past decade following the ‘timequake’ of the title, in which they go through every moment of every day of every year in exactly the same way, the only novelty being that they are aware this is happening. The rest shoots off from this story at tangents, and just about every one is inspired. The book shakes with pain in its early passages, as Vonnegut details his crippling writer’s block and rails at the innate cruelty of the world, appearing almost defeated by it. After all, he says, “No-one asks to be born”. Soon, though, he’s brimming with brilliance both comic and humane, picking himself – and us – off the floor and arming us with compassion, insight and practical ideas for combating the societal plagues of poverty, loneliness and despair. It’s like a self-help book for sarcastic socialists. I thought I’d share a few favourite bits.

On socialism:

On his favourite movies and Kate Hepburn:

On wealth redistribution:

On humanism and religion:

While this is just one of the best passages I've ever read:

Me too, Kurt. Me too.

Not quite a novel, then, rather a handbook for life. Give copies to people you love. (4)


Robert Kennedy by Evan Thomas (2000) – This superb biography does a fine job of interrogating an extraordinary life, rejecting the lionisation and demonisation of RFK for something more complex and credible: a psychologically insightful portrait of a decent but deeply-flawed subject who felt deeply, erred frequently and grew through tragedy to become a great man. Thomas manages to explain how Kennedy could work for Joseph McCarthy, try to assassinate Castro, tap Martin Luther King's phone, and then emerge as a voice for the weak, the vulnerable and the forgotten − before being gunned down in his prime.

Across 400 pages (and acres of notes), Thomas shows us a man who was a hothead, a bully and a philosophical auto-didact, who loved children, his country and his doomed family, who hated his reputation for ruthlessness but frequently deserved it, and who wrote just one speech in his life, the greatest he ever gave, announcing the death of Martin Luther King to a black audience in inner-city Indianapolis, and speaking the words of his favourite poet, Aeschylus, to offer some shred of comfort.

The author doesn't bother with backstory, launching us into the book proper with Kennedy a teenager (and barely flashing back), and he has a tendency to be episodic − perhaps inevitable when you're dealing with a life dominated by set-pieces: the pursuit of Jimmy Hoffa, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the death of JFK − but he's also intuitive, even-handed and, though he sometimes deals with complexity of character by laying out a scattering of anecdotal, contradictory evidence − when he's dealing with complex matters of fact, he will always drill down in search of the truth.

If you go in expecting a hatchet job or a hagiography, you'll be disappointed. Thomas follows up the Indianapolis speech by having RFK mouthing off backstage about Dr King (and this time doesn't attribute it to wisecracking as a defence mechanism), while the famous story about Kennedy demanding the civil rights champion's release from jail is explained in terms of realpolitik, as well as principle, but appreciating the subject as a man forced to operate in the shady, pragmatic and morally murky world of politics makes his achievements and principled outspokenness all the more remarkable.

Kennedy was not the lily-white paragon of virtue of popular myth, his electoral hopes in 1968 − and he was by no means a cinch to win − had been raised by an unprecedented spending spree, and it's difficult to believe that he would have the same impact on the popular imagination without the tragic glamour bestowed by his brother's demise. His intense emotional connection with the downtrodden, though, was genuine, and while RFK was central in cementing the 'Camelot' myth of JFK's presidency, he was by far the more liberal, idealistic and ambitious of the two.

He was also a man of great bravery, not just in his obsession with proving his physical courage − a preoccupation forged as an effeminate young member of the Kennedy clan, sidelined by his older brothers − but in his resolute lack of fear towards the end of his short life. One of the great tragedies of a sudden death isn't just the violence and the unfulfilled promise, but the shock of it: the absence of warning, the inability of the person to prepare. This book made me realise just how fatalistic and undaunted Kennedy was: he suspected the end was coming, and he didn't care. He'd wave away his bodyguards, ignore their advice about not driving in convertibles, and even refused to draw his hotel curtains after seeing a gunman on a roof. After he was shot, he spoke just two lines. The second was a cry of pain. The first was: "Is everybody else all right." Now that is the mark of a man. (3.5)

I thought I'd share his speech upon the death of Martin Luther King with you: it's here. And this is the Great Lives episode that first made me aware of Kennedy's life and legacy, back in 2009. I remembered that Matthew Parris said the episode had done a rare thing in changing his mind about a subject, as he'd always thought RFK was a countercultural figure. I'd forgotten that it was Ken Livingstone who nominated Kennedy as his Great Life, before all he could talk about was Hitler.


CINEMA: Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017) – I don't watch many modern horror movies: they're just not really for me. While I actively dislike slasher films − watching attractive women in their underwear being stabbed to death strikes me as a curious way to spend your spare time − my aversion to other horror sub-genres is less rooted in moral queasiness, it's more that I'm a big wuss. Mark Kermode once said that he loves being scared. I don't. Being scared is really bad. I like being calm and in control.

Every so often, though, a horror film will pique my interest and I'll trot dutifully along to my local cineplex and try bravely to appreciate it over the sound of dickheads talking and eating crisps. That's how I experienced Get Out, as a race relations horror about the African-American experience sounded like the kind of wanky liberal thing I'd enjoy.

Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is a black college student who goes with his white girlfriend (Allison Williams) to visit her family in deep suburbia, where he's unquestioningly welcomed in a manner rife with complacent white guilt, but the spectre of African-American servitude still seems to linger, catching his eye in increasingly bizarre and jarring ways.

Writer-director Jordan Peele does a great job of balancing sardonic satire with social comment, while delivering a succession of knockout jump scares (aided by superb sound design) and passages of fantastical disorientation that keep you trapped in your seat. To an outsider, at least, he seems to articulate the immobility and impotence of self-determination that typified the African-American experience − and sometimes still do − by rendering them literal.

With very rare exceptions, black actors in the 1930s through the 1950s were only allowed to speak the words of white writers, and play characters acceptable to white audiences, as black citizens were forced to do the bidding of white masters. In juxtaposing a knowing, confident 21st century black man with these Uncle Toms and Mammys − twisted into eerie ciphers, dead behind the eyes − Peele shows how far we have come, but then how far we still have to travel. Today's racism may lurk beneath a respectable veneer, he appears to be arguing (presumably having written this before the ascent of Trump), but it's there all the same.

Whether he quite finishes that thought, or manages to properly punch it across, I'm not sure. Perhaps his point is that we'll only accept black people by controlling them in a new way − i.e. by forcing them to co-opt white norms − or it's an assault on liberal hypocrisy, but, if it's either, then the message is muddled and diluted in the telling.

Like another subversive comedy-horror that I really took to, Tucker & Dale vs Evil − the film falls down a little in the final act, becoming more horror-by-numbers, and failing to draw its thematic threads together, despite odd moments of brilliance. For the most part, though, it's a sharp and pointed and funny film, commandeering genre tropes to its own ends, while remembering to scare you shitless at the same time. And no-one was stabbed while wearing just a bra and pants. Though I wanted something even better, if they continue making horror movies this interesting, I may start watching more. (3)


Deception (Irving Rapper, 1946) – An absolutely awful Warner film about megalomaniac composer Claude Rains making life hell for his old flame (Bette Davis) and her new husband (Paul Henreid), who's just back from a PoW camp, and is like Victor Laszlo if he was a wife-beating twat.

The script and story are absolute shit, full of clunking, laboriously explained dialogue and bad characterisation, with Rains attempting to do his patented 'well-spoken psycho' bit using some of the least promising material in existence, and Henreid a sullen, jealous, domestic abuser whom we're supposed to root for.

Elsewhere it's all crunching plot gears, badly-mimed cello-playing and unearned sentiment − when even a committed Bette Davis and a Korngold score can't help, you know you're in trouble (though the way Erich Wolfgang holds that long note at a point of tragedy, damn). Of all the Golden Age melodramas about classical musicians, I think the only one that's halfway worthwhile is Humoresque. This one manages to be nasty, boring and stupid. (1.5)


The Tunnel of Love (Gene Kelly, 1958) – A very watchable '60s sitcom about the sexual peccadilloes of couple Richard Widmark and Doris Day, who are looking to adopt their first child. It's blandly shot and directed, but Gig Young is funny, Day has a couple of songs ('Run Away, Skidaddle, Skidoo' is great fun) and Scouse actress Gia Scala is stunningly attractive as the adoption board investigator who catches Widmark's eye, the cast making the most of material that's never inspired but rarely dull. There's also a bit where Young and Widmark both mugging wildly with the *exact* same face that Gene Kelly liked to pull on screen when being cheekily amorous. He directed this one.

In broader cinematic and social terms, though, there are four things that make the film troubling, some trivial and others less so:

1) Richard Widmark isn't good at playing normal characters. His great performances were all as villains or anti-heroes (even in Panic in the Streets, he's hardly straight-forwardly sympathetic). The Hollywood power structure dictated that when you became a big enough star, you played conventional leading men roles. That's why after a blistering beginning, his career tailed off so dramatically.

2) It's a fascinating snapshot of the period, but it's extremely sexist. Even when it tries to challenge its male characters' rampant, complacent misogyny, it only does so half-heartedly.

3) Martin Melcher's name is on the credits. Over the next 10 years, he would run his wife Doris Day's career into the ground, casting her in unsuitable projects and losing her fortune through bad investments.

4) There's a running joke about Gig Young's character being in therapy. In the 1970s, having been under the 'care' of Brian Wilson's psychologist, Eugene Landy, he killed himself and his young wife.

If you can put all that to one side, it's a diverting film, perfect for a lazy afternoon. Good luck. (2.5)


High and Low (Akira Kurosawa, 1963) – Or 'Heaven and Hell' in its original Japanese: the first half of Kurosawa's superb film a moral thriller set in the rarified atmosphere of businessman Toshiro Mifune's hilltop home − where he must decide whether to ruin himself by paying the ransom for his chauffeur's son − and the second a trawl through the depths, taking in a speeding train, police HQ and the sweaty, dirty, morally dissolute streets of Yokohama, through which a kidnapper with terrific sunglasses (Tsutomu Yamazaki) is pursued by the full force of the law.

Adapting from an Ed McBain novel, the director fashioned a story about contemporary Japan, indicting not just the rigid, unforgiving class structure that dictates the relationship between Mifune and his chauffeur, and the cops' preconceptions of both victim and criminal, but also the increasing shallowness of Japanese society. That's elucidated by the shoe company so central to the businessman's existence (shades of the leather gloves in Philip Roth's American Pastoral), caught between the durability and reliability of its dull products, and the cheap, flashy models now in vogue.

High and Low is a masterfully-made film, its claustrophobic first hour, rife with circular debate, that gives way to something else entirely: Kurosawa ripping the film open as it becomes a meticulous, credible and far-reaching procedural, without losing sight of its raison d'etre. The script isn't perfect, at times it spoonfeeds, at others it's long-winded or relies on coincidence, but as it evokes the collision of high and low society, as the cops search high and low for a kidnapper, it's taut, thrilling and yet substantial, with a final scene of virtuosic and pungent brilliance. (3.5)


Irma la Douce (Billy Wilder, 1963) – Wilder's worst film since The Emperor Waltz back in 1948, sunk by an approach that's more 'Frank Tashlin's crap brother' than Lubitsch in his prime, and sharply heralding a career decline where these shortcomings became more like old friends than the rude awakening they are here.

Jack Lemmon is a gendarme in the belly of Paris who falls in love with hooker Irma la Douce (Shirley MacLaine). He tries to reform her, but after finding himself reformed into her pimp, opts for Plan B, reinventing himself as a raffish English lord who becomes her sole client. The catch: he has to work every other hour in backbreaking manual labour in order to fund his scheme.

The first 30 is nice and the last half-hour isn't bad, but the 77 minutes in between are unbearable, with Lemmon off the leash and so at his most unbelievably irritating. There's no subtlety of specificity to his characterisation, it is just every moment in Wilder's sub-par script played as big and broad and loud as possible. He was an actor of some skill and sensitivity, but − like Mickey Rooney − he could only do comedy if he was reined in very tightly. Here Wilder is apparently aiming for cartoonish, and he certainly manages that, but to what end?

MacLaine, in green stockings, flashing her cleavage at every opportunity, strikes just the right note of casual, slightly worn sexiness, but her work is lost in this mess of a film. You could just watch The Apartment instead, and have 12 minutes free to spend how you like. (2)


Thanks for reading. Next time: Philip Roth's The Ghost Writer, Doris Day in April in Paris, and Bette Davis in All This and Heaven Too. Plus: other stuff to be determined.

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