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There are chapters on:
(Narcissus in the Dark)
In the midst of life, a masterpiece.
A free variation on a theme.
ALL ABOUT EVE
GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES
Why sex revolted.
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS
The identity of faith and camp.
VERTIGO & MARNIE
THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS
Noir in art and life.
JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG
Inglorious black and white.
LA DOLCE VITA & 8 1/2
American versus European existentialism.
The lust picture show.
The identity of comedy and tragedy.
ALL THAT JAZZ
…imitates life imitates art imitates life…
ALIENS & PRICK UP YOUR EARS
BE WARNED: THIS BOOK IS HIGHLY “ADULT” IN CONTENT.
HERE IS THE FORWORD OF THE BOOK.
“If you tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything.”
– MARK TWAIN’S NOTEBOOK, ed. Albert Bigelow Paine, Harper &
Brothers, 1935, p. 240.
for Joe Cino
“One rational voice is dumb. Over his grave
the household of Impulse mourns one dearly loved: sad is Eros, builder of cities, and weeping anarchic Aphrodite.”
(W.H. Auden, In Memory of Sigmund Freud)
(Narcissus in the Dark)
I never liked life much. I preferred art
Life was confusing, but art was clear to a Depression child whose first recollection is unexplained flares of flame from Texas oil refineries, half-glimpsed as he half-dozed in a dark back-seat and half-heard Mama and Daddy sing country songs (although they only ever stopped in towns) about idle bums (although they grimly looked for work).
Life was transient, but art permanent, for in every blurry burg I encountered the same magazines, juke-boxes, radios, and especially films; I saw a spiked ceiling descend on NYOKA, THE JUNGLE GIRL at the end of the same serial chapter in five successive towns.
Life was crummy, art colorful, compared to the black highways, the tacky khaki baize of the back-seat, and the tan dirt floors of the tents and huts we stayed in, in towns where gray farmers on the porches of brown stores sucked pale yellow Popsicles.
And life was stupid, art intelligent, in a milieu which wouldn’t or couldn’t answer the questions of a high I.Q. child, but which defined its ignorance as “not being stuck-up,” or “not thinking it was better than anybody else.” No work of art ever flung me across a “motor hotel” room, bawling and bleeding.
And art was familiar, life a stream of strangers. We moved first from hunger, then from hope, then from hopelessness, then from habit. Such scattered family as we saw, we met by chance when their migrations crossed ours. When we did meet them, I disliked them. They were scarred and scared. They had been separated by distance and ignorance from anything eastern or European, by superstition from anything intellectual, and by dire poverty from almost everything human. The beauty, tradition, and compassion of art separated me from them.
I was always alone. Mama was working. Daddy was away working, or something to hide from when home. My sisters were crucially older than I, and extraordinarily pretty. Wartime dating took them away early. Although I, they, and Mama had denial of Daddy’s beatings in common, shared denial does not constitute a bond. We had no friends. We never lived anywhere long enough to get socialized, to learn the grunts, clicks, and squeaks which mark a primate as belonging to a pack. Daddy’s attacks came without warning or pattern, so we never acquired, as some abuse victims do, the arts of charm and negotiation which might have jump-started us on social skills. Transient neighbors who made overtures, Mama rejected as “too countrified,” just as any who were slightly more upscale rejected her. At school, my teachers were more ignorant than I. Church was stultifying, even the hymns soporific. Sports were horrible, too much like Daddy’s violence. My precocious sexual predations led to no liaisons; Baptist boys went under the porch eagerly, but left shamefaced and didn’t ask one to stay for lunch. There was nothing much for me but art.
The art most available was film. Painting and sculpture were exotica seen in “Life” magazine, not in life. Serious music was something heard in bursts in Joe Pasternak productions, but quickly dialed past on the radio by an adult hand as “just noise” or “too depressing.” Dance, forbidden in public in much of the Bible Belt, was mostly something movie stars did. A stage-theatre was merely a movie-set where Judy Garland triumphed in the last reel. Books beyond Mama’s high-school textbooks and the paperback mysteries hoarded by a visited aunt weren’t a factor till we stopped for a time when I was six in Grand Prairie, Texas, where there was a thing called a “public library,” and Plato’s puppet Socrates first spoke to me.
Books quickly became much more to me than blood, but books came at me unchronologically, and remained with me through shifting scenes. Films were tightly tied to particular times and places. Few were then re-released, and there was no television. If you liked a movie, or loved it, you skipped school and skimped on schoolwork to catch all eight or twelve performances of it. If your town was large enough to have a “second-run” theatre, you saw it again there, usually on a double bill. If you were old enough to drive, you followed it from town to town across the scruffy High Plains wastes. In fact, you might have driven hundreds of miles to see it on its initial release in a big city, Amarillo or Lubbock, weeks or months before it trickled into your town. But after that flurry of screenings, it was gone, forever, like a certain season’s flowers. So films are the clearest line of landmarks for back-tracking my lost life.
The first film which I recall attending is HONKY-TONK (1941), somewhere in Louisiana when I was three. I vividly remember Clark Gable kissing phosphorescent Lana Turner on a stretched sheet for an audience of migrant workers on plank benches. It wasn’t my first film. I later recognized the two images below in re-releases of 1937’s SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS and 1939’s GONE WITH THE WIND, which Mama said wasn’t possible; she had carried me to those films as a babe.
After HONKY-TONK, I saw any film I could. Every town had at least one “movie-house” (one town had seven). Many showed double features. Each played two or three bills a week. Before TV made obsessive movie-watching the national pastime, I was thought weird for seeing thousands of films.
However, obsessed though I was with movies, I believed in them less than did the people around me who were supposedly involved with “real life.” They seemed to think movies were newsreels of real life, somewhere over some rainbow. Perhaps because of my reading, I knew better. Films at the end of the Golden Age took place in a separate dimension of grace, good humor, romance, and noble self-denial, practiced by a breed of smooth, beautiful, non-mammals. Neither stars not stories reflected the details of daily hunger and elimination, morning quarrels with my sisters over toys, afternoon sex-play with compliant contemporaries, nightly narcosis before the radio, and random beatings from Daddy which constituted real life. No film showed a bright child kept home from school, his face bruised and bandaged, reading a book “too old for him” with his one good eye.
And I was, of course, homosexual. The screen didn’t reflect me “at all, at all” (as Mama would say), just as mirrors didn’t reflect Dracula. To avoid mistaking myself for a monster, I had to reflect back on the screen to de-code what was hardly hinted at by Laurel and Hardy, Randolph Scott and John Wayne, or Hope and Crosby “buddy pictures,” not to mention what was never mentioned in THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY.
Film’s only link to real life was the real effects it had on me. I tracked them rigorously. Narcissus in the dark, I took pencil and paper to movies to analyze exactly what specific compositions, camera-moves, and cuts did to me. I also analyzed how paintings, especially modern paintings, affected me. (This book might well have been titled “Great Moments in Movies and Great Movements at MOMA.”) I memorized sexual successes to repeat with my next surrogate self, and tried to preserve with my Crayolas shimmering Southwestern scenery (which held me so spellbound that I was tacitly considered simple-minded). But films, unlike sex and scenery, were experiences one could repeat exactly, and–by repeating and analyzing–come to understand precisely. I understood, and remembered, my movies much better than my life.
My sisters made horrible mistakes from expecting real males to be as chivalrous as movie-men. My mother seemed to believe that waitress-work was as noble as in Joan Crawford movies. They all held their chins high and tried to maintain the impossible valor and cheerfulness of Greer Garson and Claudette Colbert— resulting in bitterness, breakdowns, and addictions. Even the men back at home from the real war looked disappointed, as if they blamed themselves for not matching the graceful bravery of film stars in attractively-mussed uniforms. It was as if, by sinking into the solace of the screen, I had gained a detached, Olympian overview of the supposedly realistic people around me.
Everyone saw movies. Films were enormously popular in my nonage. Why wouldn’t they be? Movies, moving pictures, windows on space, tunnels in time, dreams where dreams come true and the dead rise, animated stained-glass windows where gods, heroes, saints, satyrs, nymphs, and devils live, where they live for us, and where they live forever–dreams distributed so widely that we can read the minds of much of mankind because they largely consist of those shared images. Fascinating? Please!
We’re told that babies literally grow bigger brains from being talked to, even before they can understand a word. Why hasn’t the illusory experiential enrichment of a century of film left humanity brighter?
And, having film’s colossal, kaleidoscopic, cross-cultural, conceptual cram-course in common with billions (Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckenridge reminds us that half the people who ever lived are alive right now), why have I forever felt alone?
Those questions–Why aren’t people brighter and why am I alone?–didn’t automatically yield answers just from prolonged intellectual examination, as aesthetic questions did. By pursuing them, I became for the first time involved in life.
Six aborted inquiries indicate what my environment thought of inquiry. At four, when my father sponge-bathed naked before me (the first person I’d seen nude), I asked if it was all right for men to see each other naked. He replied, “Yes, but you shouldn’t want to.” At six, when newspapers reported a wartime federal request that women save fabric by wearing short skirts, I asked my mother why men weren’t asked to wear short pants. She told me that was a nasty question. At eight, when old magazines deplored Hitler’s rape of Poland, but schoolteachers revered the American rape of Texas (not till junior high school did we get other than Texan history), I asked why Hitler’s incursion was evil and ours good, and was nervously shushed and told I mustn’t think such things. At ten, when I asked my father what some water mains and meters were, he beat me with his crutch, snarling, “Shit, didn’t none of yer Mama’s boyfriends while I was at war teach you nothin’?” At twelve, when I asked a civics teacher what this “Communism” was that we were told to hate and fear, he replied that Communists didn’t believe in God, and that that was all we needed to know. At fourteen, when I asked one of my few intelligent teachers why he never mentioned Marilyn Monroe, whom I saw as the most promising artist of our time, he told me she was a “cultural lag.” By sixteen, as you may imagine, I had stopped expecting answers from anyone around me.
But I was bright enough to know that people were not really so stupid as they seemed, or they could not operate an increasingly complex technological civilization. On closer examination, their apparent stupidity turned out to be in the airier areas called philosophy, psychology, and sociology, and caused by an alloy of Depression disorientation and prairie protestant puritanism which limited their perceptions like blinkers on a plow-horse. Our random moving and my random reading had made me an unreachable moving target for such prides and prejudices, but had infused me with quite another alloy, of personal observation and European sophistication. That was one reason I was alone.
Another reason was that everybody was. I first knowingly experienced existential isolation in 1946 at a showing of an Olivia De Havilland soaper, TO EACH HIS OWN. During World War I, innocent Olivia’s fiancée John Lund flies her to their marriage in a biplane. It crashes. They’re miles from nowhere. He has barely time to reach his troop train. They mate hurriedly, unwed. Then he’s heroically dead, she disgracefully pregnant, as a prelude to a lifetime of expiation. I laughed aloud at the hilarious elaborateness of the plot’s “card-stacking” to justify Olivia’s giving John what every girl I knew gave copiously to soldiers during our own late war–and not only when they were late for troop-trains. Fellow audience members shushed me. For the first time I looked at them rather than at the screen or myself. They were buying the movie. But they wore many expressions. Some wept for Olivia’s suffering, some deplored it, some were turned-on by it. Everyone was alone, I saw. Each one was seeing a different movie. But they were more like each other than they were different, and more like each other than they were like me. They didn’t know that they were alone. I did. The more I realized I was alone, the more alone I was.
My loneliness sought friends as my body sought lovers.
I began to notice the names which appeared on the screen before a film, not only those of actors, but of people called producers, writers, directors, designers, choreographers. These people became my friends and family. (One projected title for this book was “Imaginary Playmates.”) Surely they didn’t believe in movies, either. They couldn’t possibly. After all, they made them up. My movie-going began to be an imagined conversation between me and these people about the movies, and even about life. But it was, of course, one-way. A few fan letters brought back, if anything, cheap postcards with autographs printed on them. The pictures in the fan magazines were prettier. My solitude intensified.
A pivotal point in that solitude came immediately after we heard via radio the first announcement of the atomic bomb. After most war news, I and the other Indian Hills children would assemble to “play war.” This time, I dashed out to find myself alone on Chickasaw Trace. It was decades before I understood that the other mothers were inside, clutching their children to them. Mama alone had no illusion that she could protect us. Now Daddy would be coming home to stay. I accepted my solitude as a fact, without despair. I didn’t know anybody had it any better.
Annoyingly unartistic newsreels taught me that millions had it infinitely worse. Crucial shocks for numbing my potential self-pity were shots of emaciated Jewish nudes being plowed into the ground, Japanese children’s burned flesh literally falling off of them after the Atom Bomb, and concentration-camp stick-figures too terrified to step through prison gates even after liberation. (Aren’t we all?) Movies, which looked good enough compared to my own life, looked even better after the news.
Some movies looked better than others. I became critical because it increased my pleasure in three ways. First, at a time when five or six new movies might open in a week, I learned where to go for the most potentially pleasing product. Second, I felt closer to my cinematic correspondents as I understood how they made their magic, or failed to. “Oh, Howard,” I’d subvocalize to Mister Hawks, “How you love those boyish girls.” Third, I found pleasure at even the paltriest film by twiddling with it mentally to imagine how much better it could be, and precisely how it could be bettered. I was becoming a writer. At a bad film, I was like a medical student “getting a break” by witnessing a long, drawn-out death. Artists as varied as Mary Renault, Pablo Picasso, and Peter DeVries have described the snide critical reaction embryonic artists experience seeing bad works of art. “I heard another voice,” Mary’s adolescent actor says of someone else’s performance, “Not yet knowing whose.”
Along with my own coalescing croak, I heard others. Under the best films, one heard a single clear voice explaining art and, incidentally, life. Under the worst films, whose stories and characters were wildly inconsistent, one heard disputing voices of reason and unreason, religiosity, sex, and sentiment. Among the first characters I created were imagined studio moguls and minions around a conference table arguing about which way a picture should go. This eternal “production conference” became an institution in my mind. Many times, it was more enjoyable than the film the participants were discussing.
Of course I attended uncritically any film featuring this star or that, to gape at their gorgeousness. My first favorites were a plump cowboy, Johnny Mack Brown, and the equally pneumatic Betty Grable. But around their pinchable pulchritude, the films themselves seemed to be trying to say something. Some films were rubber-stamped: the west got won, the show got on. Others (often war or gangster films with attractive anti-heroes who unsatisfyingly suffered or unbelievably reformed) were confused, incomplete, self-contradictory. These prompted busy “production conferences” in my head, scenarios in which New York and Hollywood sharpies (played by Lou Costello and Groucho Marx) tried to guess what Bible-Belters (played by Charles Winninger and Judy Canova) would buy. Yet other films were enchanting, even if empty; in the most mechanical studio “product,” there could be a Warner Brothers pace, a Twentieth Century Fox look –supremely, at its best, a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer opulence. A few were permeated with personality. From telling details, one felt the closeness of the fantasized friend, be it writer, director, or producer. I began to prefer a Walt Disney, Alfred Hitchcock, Cecil B. DeMille, John Ford, David O. Selznick, Samuel Goldwyn, or Preston Sturges film to others.
One also favored (and forgave flaws in) films starring such eerily communicative players as Fred Astaire or Maria Montez. The very best films combined story, production, performance, and montage into a long, sinuous shape in aesthetic time-space, a free-floating arabesque moving forward via half-sensed subterranean muscles like a boyfriend striving for pleasure against me, achieving an almost musical fulfillment I called “form.” Most films had silly stories, yet some flair (which I didn’t yet know to call “style”) might make gripping a routine genre movie directed by, oh, Otto Preminger or Fritz Lang. Andrew Sarris in 1962 defined this quality of many Studio Era “classics” as “interior meaning,” to be “extrapolated from the tension between a director’s personality and his material.” In other words, interesting artists pumped their personalities into lousy scripts or limited genres. A Cukor-Gordon-Kanin-Tracy-Hepburn film might be meant as broad farce, yet some gallantry gave it underlying dignity and grace. There were coded, as well as overt, messages from my fellow intelligent exiles. Their flair was like flares from Hollywood over the horizon. I began to formulate answering signals.
My schoolmates “played movies.” I played life; I was really always at the movies. The people around me talked about the story of a movie like something that had really happened. I sat among them, revolving its extracted structure in my mind. I saw that many very different film stories had the same structure, only seen from different angles. I deduced that the angle was chosen because of someone’s attitude toward life–literally, his viewpoint. I learned to assume different viewpoints to see how situations in my life looked from each one. I learned to enjoy and distrust all viewpoints. Detachment became my viewpoint. I became the man without a country, that is, without a culture. From my indiscriminate orbit, I began to look for detail and design in my life, storing them to share someday with my imaginary playmates. My isolation became an artist’s.
Film kept its hold on me when I went into the working world. While dishwashing, caddying, or delivering, I aped the good manners of film characters (Ingrid Bergman in CASABLANCA responding to a compliment with, “You’re very kind,” Louis Jourdan in GIGI with “I wouldn’t know how to do it any other way”). I must have been bewildering to people, as hermetically protected from relationships as shallow Shelley Duvall in THREE WOMEN (a character aptly from Texas). This got me sanitarily through aborted post high-school careers in college, the Air Force, a state asylum, and office work. Good grace armored me from the rough-edged cohorts I abhorred. What had I to do with their self-absorption? I had no self. I never saw the place where I was born, my father once left me for dead, and there was no one like me in the movies. When accumulated data from many co-workers’ sob-stories made me realize that many individuals, and not merely newsreel millions, had much worse lives than I, and much poorer resources for dealing with them, I began to feel lucky, and to come to life.
The life to which I came was live theatre, Joe Cino’s Caffe Cino in Greenwich Village, where movie-maundering constituted a common culture for me and my generation of just-barely-educated, cinema-sodden, sex-crazed, sleep-walking, stage-starved American playwrights. In that very first of New York’s “Off-Off Broadway” or “underground” theatres, I first found ears for my stored observations–friends who shared my I.Q., aestheticism, aversions, inversion, and self-education. The first generation to have its mind expanded by paperbacks and media, history and news, we couldn’t be comfortable in the fantasy which we perceived all prior culture to be. Our overstuffed, art-refined minds expelled their experiences and attitudes in astonishingly original dramas done on the floor of Joe’s caffe. His tiny dive on Cornelia Street was our Shangri-La, our Tara, our Oz, our Broadway, our own Early Hollywood. It was as if Joe had a sign in his window, “Boy Wanted,” and each of us ran in and screeched to a cartoon-character halt before him, holding the sign and grinning, “Just give me a chance.” At last we had real lives of work, wooing, and world-challenging, and, with Joe as our Geppetto, became, at last, like Pinocchio, real boys.
Or so I thought then. I think now that our romantic revolution both rose and fell because we began it from beliefs based not on the real world we had been lied-to about, but on the fantasies of films which, although we didn’t buy any single one of them, yet cumulatively sold us awesome but unworkable ideals.
So we post-war small-town WASP movie-moppets, hitting the big cities, were shocked to see how beaten-down were the blacks. We took to the streets in the sixties not as rebels, but as conservative champions of tenets the movies had taught us–to make life more like the movies–and were radicalized only when our parents sent cops to beat us down, and out, and back into the dark. After enough beatings, we lowered our demands to merely more lifelike movies. These came mostly from abroad. It was much harder being intelligent and aesthetic in America than being homosexual. In fact, any man showing any one of those qualities was accused of the other two. When I and fellow playwright Lanford Wilson first visited Brooklyn, to gather atmosphere for a film he had been asked to consider writing, we were pursued through sunrise streets by a car full of working-class toughs, who screamed, “We’ll bend you over a fender and fuck your queer asses!” We weren’t supposed to think, we weren’t supposed to feel, and we weren’t supposed to love another man. How were we, then, supposed to live together? There were very good reasons why someone should hang a sheet in a glade to distract migrant workers with HONKY TONK. I remembered that 1941 Louisiana glade in 1970, on New York’s Lower East Side, when, after a three-day street battle between police and the poor (which never made the media), I came down my block to see disenfranchised children sitting on bloody asphalt enjoying a city-supplied truck-back screening of (accidental irony) BORN FREE. Those children, I saw, were my children.
I found parents, too. Joe Cino fed and housed my heart and gave it a play-pen theatre to grow strong in. The great painter, Paul Cadmus, in professional exile for being intelligent, independent, and gay since the time I crouched in the dust devouring his paintings in an overseer’s cast-off Life Magazine, sought me out in the lobby at a play of mine. He had known my plays for years. A fan-letter to the noble English novelist Mary Renault brought one in return. We dined at her home in South Africa, where white Lesbians could live untormented. We quoted one another’s works back and forth. We had more than exile in common. So was it with gay rights pioneer Quentin Crisp, whom I met by trying to rescue him on a Manhattan street from cops (who turned out merely to be asking for his autograph). So was it with other honored elders who are still afraid they cannot afford to be named in this context. I had a lineage, before and after me. I extended my lifeline by visiting schools as a playwright, to become such an elder as I had longed to find, accessible to children such as I had been.
Alas, before I could reach them, meaner movies, in the form of omnipresent television, had given them meaner dreams, and few of them could see, through attention spans crippled by commercial interruptions, the lifeline I extended. To those few I cling, and write this book.
I and my generation having had, and hilariously bungled, our opportunity to affect the future, I find myself, like an old man at the start of an old movie, poking the past to learn what happened off-screen during a life lived in a celluloid cocoon. I use favorite films as rungs to pull myself back against the contradictory current. I see myself peeling off old-age make-up to be revealed as a handsome juvenile in these flashbacks, after some poor, exploited, cute kid has played me as a child.
En route to my roots, I say a great deal about a great many films. I am obliged to state my criteria to you, for (as I often tell a producer who asks me to ghost-make televistic bricks without sufficient informational straw), “Everyone has the right to know his situation.” I have more regard for you readers than TV has for writers, so here’s your situation.
Underlying the ten numbered critical tenets below is this chain of assumptions:
Experience teaches that human beings cannot do anything we have not first imagined doing, but also that there is nothing we can imagine which we cannot do. Imagination affects life. Art affects our imaginations. Therefore art affects life. Movies are the most effective art form ever created, the most vivid means of communicating or stimulating imagination. We are currently seeing evil movies and doing evil things. Those bad movies are reflecting only each other and are therefore getting worse and worse. Bad art is making worse people. Criticism affects art. Criticism based on the same standards as the films will change nothing. We need criticism from quite another viewpoint. We’re not going to get better or even different films from people who cannot imagine any reason to make movies except to get someone’s nickel.
Virtually no movies are made to get my nickel. I’m a queer, arty, unmaterialistic, alienated, intellectual atheist individual in a straight, desensitized, money-mad, conformist, dead-head, superstitious state. Sitting among you, I have had cause to observe not only the movie before us all, but also you who sat around me reacting differently than I, and, also, of course, myself, myself, myself. I have understood the form of films of which you perceived only the surface. I have had to have you explain the surfaces of films which depended on your cabalistic knowledge for their comprehension. I have seen in some films things which you completely missed, and I have had to ask you what you saw that I didn’t in others. Often what you thought you saw simply wasn’t on the film at all, but only in your mass mind. I have had cause to come to know a great deal about film, and about you, and your mind, and about myself, none of which it has ever been necessary for you to know. Just as the stories of horrendous misfits Like Frankenstein’s monster, Rhett and Scarlett, or Bonnie and Clyde best reveal their societies’ basic structures, I believe my story best tells yours. You need me. That’s the tectonic plate on which this book is built. Catch my drift. Thou shalt have no other guides before me.
Of course, underneath all of the assumptions and deductions above is one which is surprising coming from someone who introduced himself by saying he prefers art to life: that life itself, its quality and continuation, are important. You caught me. As its enemies proliferate, I’ve come to have some regard for slimy, smelly, surprising, persistent life–even if only because the dead do not make movies, good or bad.
First: I like what I like. I don’t waste a lot of space-time pretending to like what I ought, or not to like what I oughtn’t. I don’t feel that I endorse genocide or capital punishment by deploring SOPHIE’S CHOICE and DEAD MAN WALKING as sanctimonious bores. I respect Ingmar Bergman’s compassion as much as any old man in the house, but I’d rather not sit through it again, thanks. Life is short, and, as Mister Bergman enjoys reminding us, it gets shorter all the time. At a bad time in my own life, I was evicted from a theatre in Boston for belting out, after the suicide, screams, and blood-red fadeouts in CRIES AND WHISPERS, “THAAAAAAT’S en-ter-TAIN-ment!”
Second: Films don’t just happen, and they aren’t newsreels. Someone chooses what goes into every fucking frame. I take a film as a message from its maker, who may be a writer, a director, a producer, a star, a composer, an editor, or a combo of any or all of the above, epitomized by Chaplin. Once there were many clear voices–a Mankiewicz, a Minnelli, a Selznick, a Tracy, a Herrmann, a Fellini with whom one could argue or agree. Always there were behind such voices vaster voices from the cultural past which illuminated both life and art. There were also echoes of nasty little voices at production conferences, trying to pass as vast. As time went on, the echoes from the past vanished, and the production conferences began to drown out the individual voices. There was a certain charm for a while in reconstructing the production conferences, for there was little enough else to do at most movies. Today even those voices have vanished. Sad, stunned films such as THE SIXTH SENSE and THE MATRIX seem cries of animal pain from vast mooing mobs with no guides at all, mere sociological symptoms, their doers and viewers alike feral refugees from romanticism’s ruins. Much of this book consists of responses to all of the above voices.
Third: I have an aesthetic bias, formed by Hollywood competence. THE RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS 7 is a deeper, truer film about my generation’s despair than THE BIG CHILL, but THE BIG CHILL is a way better movie, and I’ve seen it much more often than its estimable precursor.
However, that bias isn’t binding. Till a truer movie about the form of war is made than MEN WITH GUNS, I’ll forgive it its aesthetic awkwardness. And while stuck on Sayles, know that although EIGHT MEN OUT is a finer film than MATEWAN, MATEWAN means more to me. Perhaps I lack the sports gene, or possess in excess the humane one. I don’t faff around to fabricate a consistent aesthetique from my foibles. I’ll sit through the leaden script of WORDS AND MUSIC to see June Allyson float down those castle stairs—my favorite screen image ever–but I’d never argue that it’s a good movie. I begged friends to see ONCE WERE WARRIORS for its dead-on depiction of familial violence, but I warned them that its ending is a letdown of uplift. I love CONTEMPT, but can’t defend its meat-cleaver editing to anyone whom it jars. I suppose this paragraph can be distilled as either, “I’m whimsical” or “I’m honest.” I’m too narcissistic to niggle. I’m more interested in seeing myself clearly in the mosaic of my major movie moments than I am in collaging a noncontradictory image. Over Dracula’s empty mirror I will gladly accept Dorian Gray’s most putrescent portrait.
Fourth: I tend to know, and say, precisely what I like or don’t like. My memos to myself about movies, scribbled in the dark, taught me all about why my tendons stiffen or my muscles melt. Narcissus knows every node and nexus of his own nerves, and frequently centers on his most private ones. I was a randy little chap (randy little bastard, according to Daddy), and I saw a lot of cinema one-eyed (nudge-nudge, wink-wink). And I do go on about it. Those who see movies to escape mammalian distractions had best read elsewhere.
Fifth: I hate some movies even though I like them. Though a freak for form, I will dis content. About elegant execrations like RESERVOIR DOGS and BLUE VELVET, I cannot say (as a drama-teacher friend said to me about being restricted to producing “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” every year) “If a thing isn’t worth doing, it’s worth doing superbly.” Messrs. Tarantino and Lynch “make great movie,” and I profoundly wish that they had both died before making any. The DIE HARDs and LETHAL WEAPONs are often exquisitely made, and their makers should be ashamed of themselves for making them. In our current state of cultural depravity, perhaps the most startling sentiment in my book is this: I’d rather see pretty people singing and dancing than awful people doing awful things to each other.
Sixth: I’m no idealist. Sure, I bawl and beam as I’m directed to when watching IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, but I know Lo-Cal Jell-O when I’m fed it, and life, even when wonderful, ain’t wonderful like that. Jimmy Stewart is a pseudoaggressive masochist; Lionel Barrymore had the hots for him when he was a kid; Gloria Grahame’s trollop puts out for Ward Bond’s cop, and Thomas Mitchell’s old sot used the “lost” bank deposit to get barman Sheldon Leonard to lift his apron for a blow-job. That’s okay, because those are the forces that keep the world working. But people aren’t made out of marzipan. Wife Donna Reed makes herself sick imagining that if Jimmy’s home out-of-work, he’ll molest the kids. And indeed “No man is a failure who has friends”—provided the friends are successful, and generous. Otherwise, God bless the child who’s got his own, and they ain’t no God (according to Paddy Chayefsky) at all, at all. Potterville is real-er than Bedford Falls. Sorry. Form-freak though I may be, touching life at last made me long for the complexity and irregularity of it in art, as in , e.g., HOLIDAY, DARLING, THE WICKER MAN, THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES, FUNNY BONES, IN THE COMPANY OF MEN. Hallelujah, THE STUNT MAN!
Seventh: Trusting ticket-sales tabulations to tell me which films were most popular, and when (despite knowing that they’re sometimes inflated to plump egos or deflated to facilitate a truly amazing range of financial frauds), I assume that a film’s relative popularity says something about the populace–or a film’s targeted fragment of it–at that particular time, e.g., I trust that the hard-working heroines of GONE WITH THE WIND and SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS reflected romantically women’s struggles in the Depression, and that THE EXORCIST was such a smash because it articulated 1973 parents’ real fear of their feral children, as well as their unreined children’s fear of themselves. TITANIC did the same for a 1997 America which felt itself foundering badly. I can’t attribute its popularity to hype. Humongous hype didn’t sell STARSHIP TROOPERS, GODZILLA, and CONTACT. TITANIC was simply more in tune with its time’s anxiety. I see you at the movies.
I recognize the chicken-or-egg problem–whether we form film or film forms us (U.S.)—a conundrum exacerbated since the perpetual presence of film via TV in every living-room. In my opinion, once Clara Bow bobbed her hair, and my Mama in Texas followed suit, and megastar Mary Pickford bobbed hers to win Mama back, well, the point became moot.
“Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” (Shelley), but, “We need the landscape to repeat us” (Snodgrass). Cinematic dreams succeed because we’re already dreaming them. The influential ping-pong between audience and industry has been unbroken from since before I was born, except for a glitch in the seventies when stodgy Hollywood attempted to make “swinging” youth-flicks, and the fan-belt slipped off the motor, destroying many careers.
I do check my deductions about why a film is popular against what I see of the life around me.
I comprehend the balancing factor of escapism. Some hits reflect the rabble; others massage it. I and my womenfolk were reduced to cornered rats by a big, drunk man swinging a crutch at us; we preferred lighthearted musical romances. A lot of people did. Dore Schary at M.G.M. actually had to falsify studio accounts to justify ending the musical era to produce “meaningful” movies (which weren’t). If you believe art merely reflects life, you would think from box-office receipts that thirties/forties/fifties America was one long production number.
But it’s easier at century’s turn to triangulate the national mood from box-office data, because the films made for both commerce and art today offer the identical cynical premise: “Everything is awful, and there’s no point in trying,” and it’s a big laugh both when the loony beheads the bad daddy in SWING BLADE and when our own cities explode in INDEPENDENCE DAY.
Recently, our bored boychicks supported a lengthy period of simple masochism in which action-adventure heroes had to be tenderized like steaks before they could win; when there was no other immediate source of suffering, Clint Eastwood would wrench his own dislocated shoulder back into place, or Bruce Willis walk barefoot across broken glass to exacerbate adolescent self-
distaste. As youth feels ever more useless, its need to see capable heroes suffer has escalated into the desire to see them die. Lately, heroes began dying like anti-heroes at the ends of hits as various as TITANIC, ARMAGEDDON, LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, and THE SIXTH SENSE–as if we were again at war and needed the reassurance that John Wayne will give his all to save us from–what? We’re back to primordial insecurity requiring sacrificial saviors like Beowulf, Achilles, Roland, and El Cid. Studying the films of the last two decades is like going through a psychotic’s garbage for clues to a cultural suicide. But there’s an underlay of ghoulish humor to such self-sacrifice, or, precisely, sacrifice of self. A TV-writer friend just closed a sci-fi series by killing his hero, and giggled triumphantly as he showed me the death-scene. His justification was that the hero’s murder would call official attention to the conspiracy he was investigating, and “someone” would pursue it. Thus it was a happy ending. Muldar and Scully of “The X-Files” (and their clones on its clones) keep failing and almost dying. That’s because that’s what their fans want to see them do. Believe me, the makers of these shows rush to their computers at commercial breaks to check viewer reactions on fan websites. The feedback is megabytes faster than when studio heads analyzed “audience response cards” at sneak previews and did retakes in response. The polls are on a roll. The little screen bytes back, and it wants no heroes. As I write this, the teenaged Rambos at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado have just killed themselves after slaughtering a couple of dozen kids they perceived as their social superiors.
I deduce from the above and other data, and from the sneering cynicism of my young acquaintances, that disbelief and desperation are working their way to the surface, dragging up with them angry, asocial egos offended by the very idea of an elite. Heroes are an affront to a generation told since birth that it’s overpopulation. They claw to confess their individualizing aberrations on talk-shows. This is the very class which thirty years ago gloried in its normalcy. Now it’s anonymized by the advertising it’s addicted to, and paradoxically commits copy-cat crimes to feel as individual as the offense’s originator. Regularly, the rock-and-roll-loving, intellectual-hating, suicidal apes who serve as the leads in all popular pictures, the TWISTERS and ARMAGEDDONS and TITANICS, surface in 3-D in Waco, Oklahoma City, and Littleton, and then die again more gloriously in 2-D in Movies Of The Week to literally ear-splitting SurroundSound, while independents win adult acclaim by disvaluing the only other options by depicting suburban Hells in THE ICE STORM, YOUR FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS, HAPPINESS, and AMERICAN BEAUTY. Americans, like the Kingston Trio in my youth, “don’t like anybody very much,” and they need the cinematic landscape to repeat them. If you believe there’s no explaining popularity, you will be annoyed by this book.
Eighth: I think I coin one phrase herein, “jumble-genre,” or “genre-jumble,” to describe recent films made by people who know only film, not life, and who have carbon-copied, confused, and conflated past genres so that crime, monster, horror, sci-fi, western, and action-adventure films all are indistinguishable fast farces, with assaults and explosions treated like musical “production numbers,” to give lift where there is no life. Roughly, the first films were simple records of reality–streets and sneezes; then Griffith and Chaplin (e.g.) consciously imposed a view of life; as technical means improved, Hitchcock and Houston were enabled to reveal their personalities, perhaps not entirely consciously; perhaps self-protectively, Welles and Minnelli made style their subject; Coppola’s subject was his search for a style; Scorcese’s his search for Coppola’s style; Spielberg’s, Cameron’s, Tarantino’s, Burton’s, et cetera ad infinitum only their foundering in past film. And their heirs have seen only their films about films, and make films about films about films, Most of the “independent” films blatted as art are just coarser clones of commercial “classics.” PSYCHO would have been shocked to have fostered SLING BLADE, not to mention its own boneless clone. The climax of this decadent phase seems to be the new filmmakers who have seen only TV, like whoever committed TWISTER. “Genre” buffs, beware my book.
Ninth: virtually every piece herein reflects how appalled I am by what has become of this country, this culture, in my lifetime. Essentially, that has been a passage from pride (not always deserved) to paranoia (mostly well-earned)–one might say, “from hope to horror.” Movies have reflected that passage vividly and minutely, and not only in their surging sado-masochism. “American Life in An Age of Diminishing Expectations” is the subtitle of Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism, the only book which seems to me to describe the desiccated intellectual ecology in which I find myself stranded. (It refers to a new, negative Narcissism, obsessive self-hatred, not to my healthy old-fashioned kind.) Expectations in life and art have diminished to the point where terror and tedium are the expectations–indeed, the requirements–of “trash” and “art” films alike. It is as if films both industrial and independent are being made by aliens, or at best by adherents of some elaborate unadmitted faith. If the makers of SPECIES do not know how antisocial they are, or the makers of SOMETHING TO TALK ABOUT how boring it is, then they are alien to all past aspirations of humanity. If they do know, and yet feel compelled to make such films, they are merely alienated. Today’s feral filmmakers are the intellectual equivalents of other industrialists who poison and destroy the environment, muttering, “If I don’t, someone else will make the profit,” “No one can prove I’m doing irreparable damage,” and “I have to do it; it’s what the people want,” all the while whispering prayers that someone else will save them from the pollution and imbalance they create and have to live in (as Buckminster Fuller in Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth warns us that all our masters are doing ).
Prominent among their alien-or-alienated qualities is the complete devaluation of surprise as a desirable quality in entertainment. “Previews” or “trailers” are contrived to lure audiences to coming attractions. They once were brief, tantalizing mélanges of scenes, artfully shuffled so as not to reveal plot surprises. They are now detailed synopses, revealing everything. The preview for the latest version of THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK actually tells who the title character is, one of the great plot-shocks in all western fiction, the sort of thing which ads used to beg audiences not to reveal. What Iron Age anxiety that unmasks! Producers, who ponder polls, seem to assume that their audience is terrified that any new experience will be bad. Oh, what that says about America’s experiences and expectations. Patriots will not appreciate my premises.
The change in America’s self-image is inevitably reflected in films, and to a remarkable degree in the players in those films, whose very bodies seem to have adjusted to express it. Look at Janet Leigh’s perpendicular poise in the original PSYCHO, and Ann Heche’s careless slouch in the same role in the re-make.
Tenth: I don’t partake of the second-hand smoke and mirrors of propaganda and publicity. Beneath their modish muckiness, politically-correct products like the ostensibly anti-macho UNFORGIVEN and pro-feminist THE PIANO look, if you don’t read your program or your press-packet, just like what Andrew Sarris calls male and female “weepies,” and I treat them as such.
It’s not true, as Pauline Kael mourns, that they don’t make movies like they used to. They make movies exactly like they used to, or they try to, because the most successful and praised filmmakers today know nothing of life but old movies. We are treated regularly, for instance, to racketing, racking “romantic comedies” (crude tomb-rubbings of the masterpieces of Lubitsch and Hawks), made by astonishingly innocent “inner children” ignorant of gallantry, lightness, and grace (the grating MY BEST FRIEND’S WEDDING will serve as an example). Our most effective contemporary comedies (AIRPLANE and its clones) are sophomoric satires of rigid genre rituals. Mainstream American movies are, to put it mildly, in an Hellenic-Corinthian-Victorian period when art relates only to past art.
“Life imitates life in replication.
Art imitates life in idealization.
Life imitates art in aspiration.
Art imitates art to enervation.”
Film-buff filmmakers may be able to tell a story, but the same ones (Cinderella, Hercules, and sulky Achilles being lured back into battle) have been told so many times that they’ve become blurred, like Alexander the Great’s profile, which in The Voices of Silence Andre Malraux tracks on coins across Asia as it mutates into monsters, then abstractions. Desperate attempts to invigorate tired, never-true truisms with mannerist decoration eventually obscure stories which everyone knows as well as Catholics know the Stations of the Cross. That gory image is appropriate, for the fear of freshness leaves souls in a hell of frustration; films reflect this hell in their chaotic editing, their fetishistic content. Cutting-edge effects are employed in sci-fi showcases only to invoke the fetish-gods of animistic Africa, the demon-screens of isolated Asia, the martyrdoms of Dark Age Western Europe. “Techno-Gothic” enthusiasts will be offended by much that follows this foreword.
My ideal reader is probably the young friend who, intrigued as I was by its all-but-religious reviews, took me to see THE PIANO. We sat silent on the drive home. I thought he, a serious lad, might have bought the thing, and I didn’t need a dreary debate after such a drab debacle. But he eventually unknitted his (beautiful) brows and asked me very carefully, “Is it possible that there are two films in release in L.A. called THE PIANO, and we just went to see the wrong one?” However, even this wit deplores my not perceiving a magnificent anti-myth in UNFORGIVEN, so perhaps no one should read this book at all, at all.
This is not my list of The Best Films Ever Made. I’d love to think I have impeccable taste which makes me like best the best films offered me. Not a chance. These are not, excepting BROKEN BLOSSOMS, VERTIGO, and the LA DOLCE VITA/8 1/2 duology, films I would insist be packed on a spaceship as peak products alongside CITIZEN KANE and CHILDREN OF PARADISE. These are favorite films evoking emotions and incidents which may help me understand myself, and, since I firmly believe that I, like Oscar Wilde, “stand in symbolic relationship to my time,” I see some value in your understanding me, too. Whether either of us likes it or not, you come after me. The two outstanding facts of our time are these: (1) science has made our world one world, and (2) it takes only one generation to lose a culture. The Greco-Roman, Renaissance, Constitutional culture which culminated in the Caffe Cino was fatally wounded at Kent State and is slowly being erased by communications satellites which during every sweeps season try to sweep the walls of the collective consciousness clean, like snails in an aquarium. Hollywood’s goal was that of all prior artists: to offer you a state of energizing exultation so that you would buy its next product. TV’s goal is to keep you in a state of anxious self-hatred so you’ll stay home in shame and watch its ads, except when you sneak out to buy the products they promise will make you invisible. And now you have internet shopping to keep you from having to go out and be seen in all your imperfection. I’m still with you, the last positive Narcissist. I ask you to feel for me that awe with which the polar explorers in THE THING (FROM ANOTHER WORLD) perceive the alien surviving in the ice.
The unexamined life is not worth living. Those who do not read history are doomed to repeat it. It is you of whom I am speaking here. I am the man; I lived it; I was there. And other sage sound-bites. Someday, son, all of this will be yours. Judy Garland at the end of the Munchkin sequence in THE WIZARD OF OZ skips blithely toward what is obviously a painted backdrop. At the end of MARNIE, Sean Connery and “Tippi” Hedren drive toward a similarly obvious canvas wall–and make a propitious right-turn into real depth. I wish herein to give penetrable dimension to the backdrop of our shared history before you crash against it.
I would sometimes turn around in a theatre seat to watch dancing beams of colored light fanning out from a little hole high in the back wall, pseudopods painting that matinee’s pseudo-life. I sit now writing in the dark again, facing fully frontally this time, to examine the experiences illuminated by the screen. I feel the need to review them, with the sense that I will be really viewing them for the first time. For if my life was never a movie, it has certainly always been a film.