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Wednesday, June 14, 2006


And the Loser Is…

Part 3

Senator Lane: There’s a saying, Fletcher: To the victor belong the spoils.
Fletcher: There’s another saying, Senator: Don’t piss down my back and tell me it’s raining.
—From The Outlaw Josey Wales

Riding a horse doesn’t make one a cowboy. And panoramic shots of sheep (!) framed by Wyoming mountain vistas don’t make a western. Last time I checked, herding sheep doesn’t have the same mythic resonance or iconic irreducibility in the American imagination as driving cattle through the Red River or Monument Valley. It appears that Annie Proulx, author of the short story on which Brokeback Mountain is based, feels the same way. I quote from an interview she gave last year:

Excuse me, but it is NOT a story about “two cowboys.” It is a story about two inarticulate, confused Wyoming ranch kids in 1963 who have left home and who find themselves in a personal sexual situation they did not expect, understand nor can manage. The only work they find is herding sheep for a summer—some cowboys! Yet both are beguiled by the cowboy myth, as are most people who live in the state….How different readers take the story is a reflection of their own personal values, attitudes, hang-ups….Far from being “liberal,” Hollywood was afraid of the script as were many actors and agents….(“At close range with Annie Proulx: Pulitzer prize-winning writer shares insights in short story, film adaptation of ‘Brokeback Mountain,’” by Matthew Testa, Planet Jackson Hole, December 7, 2005)

Like all genres, a western is an exercise in (or a variation on) narrative and/or syntactical convention. But that’s not even the point. Proulx’s assault on Hollywood’s timidity and hypocrisy gets to the deeper issue. As Bazin understood (and this is really what he was getting at), Hollywood is different from the cinema of the rest of the world (with the exception, confirming the rule, of the appositely named Bollywood) in that it is esthetically structured as a “system.” That is its “genius.” Even with the studios’ postwar demise, the “classical” nature of the American cinema was such that it could not function other than “systemically”—or, put another way (often disparagingly rather than as commendation), generically. Even Godard, later to expound on the axis of esthetic evil of “Hollywood-Cinecittà-Mosfilm-Pinewood,” said in his early years that nobody knew how to tell a story better than the Americans (a lesson, by the way, that this most elegant of filmmakers took to heart). Truth be told, if one accepts the principle of an (undoubtedly overdetermined) communicative “necessity” in human (that is, social) narrative (that is, exchange), well, then, there’s only a finite number of ways to skin a story.

If for no other reason than that the tale is almost always in the telling. Which is also why popular culture is, by definition, generic: from folk music to puppet theater to movies (to totemic representation and most other ritual customs), art based on collective communication (which is the art of all pre-modern cultures, including those of the West) is structured by generic practice and design. It would literally make no sense otherwise. To use the Greek term, it would be “idiotic” (which is why classical Greek drama is closer to the movies, or to kabuki, than, say, to Beckett.)

And which is also why making a “gay cowboy movie” is easier said than done. Not because of the “difficulty” or “sensitivity” of the subject. (Why should it be any more difficult or sensitive than other adult issues?) No, the problem is, to update Sam Goldwyn, that messages are best sent by e-mail. The specific, esthetic problem for any filmmaker of talent—as opposed to a preposterously overrated one like Ang Lee—is that the very phrase, “gay cowboy movie,” defines the syntactical demands of the film project. The noun “movie” is qualified by the adjective “cowboy,” which is further qualified by the adverb “gay.” Generically speaking, then, what we’ve got here is a cowboy movie—or, to give Lee the benefit of the doubt and decidedly more emotional amplitude to work with, a western—that, in this case, is thematically renovated (and expanded) through its gay perspective. The point to genre, after all, is precisely its ability perpetually to innovate and, therefore, develop. Indeed, no film genre has witnessed more (pardon my language, ma’am) “contestation” since the end of the Second World War than the western.

The form’s master, John Ford, actually started the process in 1948 with Fort Apache, and continued it through the next two decades, most famously with The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). The Sixties, were, of course, the decade in which the “revisionist western” rode into Dodge in all its anti-glory, like some vigilante Marxist posse, shooting down myths and heroes with feet of clay from one dusty corral to another. Anti-capitalist, antiracist, pro-Indian—oops, sorry, I meant Native American—pro-black, feminist, on the side of every little big man who’d ever been screwed by Manifest Destiny, the revisionists (some of whom, like Sergio Leone most notably, weren’t even American, which bespeaks the genre’s internationalization) more or less changed the western forever (and, mostly, it need be said, for the better). Indeed, the increasingly anti-Vietnam war tone, especially in the Seventies, that was the unspoken but marked subplot of so many of the revisionist westerns now makes them look almost documentary in quality: their depiction of what many Americans believed at the time about their country, their country’s history, and their country’s wider role in the world, is infinitely more honest, and accurate, than the quarter-century of right-wing revisionism about the Sixties and Seventies that began during the Carter administration and has for years now been the reactionary consensus of the mediacracy.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), The Wild Bunch (1969), Little Big Man (1970), Soldier Blue (1970), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), The Hired Hand (1971), High Plains Drifter (1973), Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), Buffalo Bill and the Indians or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976), The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976): I have more or less arbitrarily chosen, once again, 10 good to great revisionist westerns, none of them Ford-made but all released at least three decades ago. It is instructive to survey (some of) their thematic terrain. Prostitution as a more worthy vocation than religion (McCabe & Mrs. Miller); drug addiction as rational solace for women under American patriarchy (McCabe & Mrs. Miller again); indentured servitude as preferable to marriage (The Hired Hand); frightful brutality as the social glue of American society (High Plains Drifter); ecological ruin as the price of social order (High Plains Drifter again); corrupt law systemically repressing honest (and invariably plebian) “lawlessness” (Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid); national heroism (and the attendant flag-waving) as the cynical and counterfeit product of hucksters and charlatans (Buffalo Bill and the Indians or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson); and, of course, violence: ceaseless, ubiquitous, irrational, often grotesque, almost always suicidal, and on occasion genocidal violence (all of the above but especially Once Upon a Time in the West, The Wild Bunch, Little Big Man, Soldier Blue, The Hired Hand, High Plains Drifter, and The Outlaw Josey Wales). The Outlaw Josey Wales is, indeed, the most emblematic film of all. Directed, as was High Plains Drifter, by Clint Eastwood, it also happens to be, as he’s often said, Eastwood’s favorite of the films he’s made. It’s “moral” is actually quite stupefying: simply put, that the only recourse for honest, peace-loving American men and women is endless and armed resistance to the government of the United States, whose only apparent institutional function is to aid and abet the systematic pillage, rape, and murder of all the human beings—white, black, and, especially, red—unfortunate enough to be living within its borders.

With these kinds of precedents—not to mention the ensuing revisionism of the last 30 years—one would have thought that it would have been possible to make a more daring, or at least less soporific and slightly more mature, “gay cowboy movie” than Brokeback Mountain. Unfortunately, American culture is now so morally obtuse that a film such as (what a coincidence) Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby is denounced, by both left and right, because it’s main character chooses death over permanent paralysis, and her suicide is assisted by a man who understands the utter rationality of her wishes. Americans now live in a society, in other words, in which, for the left, “sensitivity” trumps not only democracy but language, and meaning. People are no longer “crippled,” emotionally or physically, let alone “handicapped,” but merely (magically? miraculously? supernaturally?) “challenged,” or, at worst, “disabled.” As for the American right, John Ford would not recognize it—and Clint Eastwood has said that he can’t. Its defense of “individualism” apparently now only applies to those not yet born. As for the rest of us, we either submit to the “homeland’s” collective (albeit arbitrarily determined) authority or face ostracism (and sometimes a lot worse) for the Godlessness, un-Americanism, or—one size fits all—sheer evil of our views.

Which more or less explains the difference between Clint Eastwood and Ang Lee, and between art and pap. Lee could have made a movie about two young men in Wyoming in the Sixties who just want to live their lives as they choose: a very American love story, one would think—and, besides, it’s the Sixties. He could have put on the screen, as the original story’s author describes it, a tale of “two inarticulate, confused Wyoming ranch kids in 1963 who have left home and who find themselves in a personal sexual situation they did not expect.” Instead, he decided to make a “gay cowboy movie.” But, then, of course, the road of least esthetic resistance is also that of maximal profit.

Earlier this year, Daniel Mendelsohn wrote a review of Brokeback Mountain for The New York Review of Books (“An Affair to Remember,” February 23) in which he expressed his admiration for the movie and praised what he called its “many excellences.” Obviously, I disagree with that central part of his critique (and with its over-the-top title). Still, I found it characteristically astute (I can’t think of a more genuinely learned, and keener, theater critic in the States today than Mendelsohn). I’ll leave it to others to judge which of us is more or less right on the larger issues. Much of Mendelsohn’s essay, however, was taken up with an incisive analysis—and rebuke—of the movie’s advertising campaign. I quote:

…[A] month after the movie’s release most of the reviews were resisting, indignantly, the popular tendency to refer to it as “the gay cowboy movie.” “It is much more than that glib description implies,” the critic of the Minneapolis Star Tribune sniffed. “This is a human story.” This particular rhetorical emphasis figures prominently in the advertising for the film, which in quoting such passages reflects the producer’s understandable desire that Brokeback Mountain not be seen as something for a “niche” market but as a story with broad appeal, whatever the particulars of its time, place, and personalities. (The words “gay” and “homosexual” are never used of the film’s two main characters in the forty-nine-page press kit distributed by the filmmakers to critics.) “One movie is connecting with the heart of America,” one of the current print ad campaigns declares; the ad shows the star Heath Ledger, without his costar, grinning in a cowboy hat. A television ad that ran immediately after the Golden Globe awards a few weeks ago showed clips of the male leads embracing their wives, but not each other.
…[T]o see Brokeback Mountain as a love story, [however,] or even as a film about universal human emotions, is to misconstrue it very seriously—and in so doing inevitably to diminish its real achievement.
Both narratively and visually, Brokeback Mountain is a tragedy about the specifically gay phenomenon of the “closet”—about the disastrous emotional and moral consequences of erotic self-repression and of the social intolerance that first causes it and then exacerbates it. What love story there is occurs early on in the film, and briefly….The sole visual representation of their happiness in love is a single brief shot….That shot is eerily—and significantly—silent, voiceless:…we are seeing…what the boys’ boss is seeing through his binoculars as he spies on them.

This is, by far, the most intelligent assessment I have read of the film. And although Mendelsohn would disagree, it also cuts to the heart of its cynicism. If it’s only a “love story” and not a cowboy movie, why all the (transparently obvious) vistas and horses and rodeos and, above all, alfresco fornicating? Just local color? OK, but isn’t that why a western is called a…western? And, anyway, isn’t My Darling Clementine (or Shane or High Noon) a love story, too? And what are McCabe & Mrs. Miller and The Hired Hand if not, quite literally, love stories? And why does Josey Wales become an outlaw, and then seek to cease being one, if not love brutally violated in the first instance and love desperately sought in the second? Love stories do not preclude westerns, as westerns do not preclude love stories. More often than not, the generic assumptions of one are needed to further the generic ends of the other.

As for Mendelsohn’s spot-on aside about that 49-page press kit, further comment is superfluous. I’ve seen a few Hollywood press kits in my time and, believe me, they tend more to kitchen-sink marketing rather than subtle understatement. If you can’t bring yourself to mention the word “gay” in 49 pages about Brokeback Mountain, the silence is achingly deafening.

Most important of all, Mendelsohn’s shot analysis above is brilliant. A crueler critic could go further and say that the mediation of the binoculars “objectifies” the love between the two boys to the point of making it seem completely inhuman (human beings usually use binoculars in the woods to spy on species other than their own). Eerie and voiceless doesn’t begin to describe the zoological nature of that shot. If this is liberal “sensitivity,” I can understand why the word “gay” went unmentioned in the almost 50 pages of the film’s press kit.

Soon after it came out, Brokeback Mountain became the target of an uncommon wave of Internet parody. Googling “Brokeback parody” gave me 362,000 responses (“Bush and Cheney in Dumbfuck Mountain” and, of course, the trailer of Brokeback to the Future being among my favorites). These spoofs flooded gay sites as well as straight ones. In a report by ABC News (“The Oscar for Best ‘Brokeback’ Parody Goes to…,” Rogene Fisher, March 6), Robert Thompson, professor of television at Syracuse University, offered the opinion that “more people have seen fake Brokeback Mountain trailers than the actual trailer.” When they came out, everybody took this “fun” as simple, innocent acknowledgment of the movie’s “cultural moment.” According to the ABC report, a spokesman for the film’s distributor said that, “…even Ang Lee is laughing.” The question is, following Prof. Thompson’s line of thought, are all those laughing, and in particular the ones who haven’t seen the movie, laughing with the filmmakers, and their work, or at them—and, worst of all, at the film’s ostensible subject?

We’ll know better in a few years. I would suggest, however, that the film’s lampooning was brought on by itself. It is hard to imagine a more ridiculous, risible, and, so, lampoonable shot than that Fourth-of-July, faux-heroic, biker-thug-dispatching, bombs-bursting-in-air, low angle of Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger). And how can we take that bathetic tag, “I wish I could quit you,” mouthed with such painful lack of either comprehension or even conviction by Jake Gyllenhaal (playing Jack Twist), as anything other than self-parody? “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” is almost poignant by comparison—although, as far as the truly last word on the idiocy of puritanism and sexual panic is concerned, and a truly sharp gay slap at heterosexual bigotry a decade before Stonewall, nothing still beats, “…nobody’s perfect.” But Ang Lee is no Billy Wilder. More to the point, the audiences for the former have become too cretinous (and politically correct) to understand the mordancy of the latter.


And then there’s Capote. Early on in the writing of this essay (see Part 1 and Part 2, March 22 and May 6,, I came across an interview given by Gore Vidal to Sheerly Avni of the Website, I quote:

May we ask you about “Capote”?
Oh, Capote. [Sighs.] I spent half a century trying to avoid him, in life, and now suddenly I’m surrounded by him.
He was a pathological liar. He couldn’t tell the truth about anything, and he’d make it up as he went along. He always wore dark glasses, and his eyes would drop behind the dark glasses, and he would seem to be looking down at his nose, and then as he got more and more frenzied—the lies really very frenzied, they were orgasmic—you would start to see the eyes begin to roll up to see if you’d fallen for what he was saying.
And it was always about famous people, some he’d barely heard of before. I remember he told me once “I’m the American Proust.”
So I said, “So who’s your Mme Verdurin?”
He had not heard of one of Proust’s principal characters. He was confidently illiterate. It’s highly suitable that he would become iconic, because he didn’t know anything, and never told the truth. Doesn’t he fit in the age of Bush?
Did you find the movie to be an accurate reflection of his personality?
Well no, but it wasn’t supposed to be. It was a good movie, and they touched upon his treachery towards the two boys. He wants them to swing, because if they don’t he can’t finish his book and if he hasn’t finished his book, he’s in trouble.
Kenneth Tynan, a great critic of that period, did an attack on “In Cold Blood.” It ran in The Observer in London. The headline was “For Cold Cash,” which was about the right tone, and that was pretty much the tone of the movie. The movie is quite brave about showing somebody who did not have any redeeming characteristics, nor did they pretend he had.
And how about the book itself?
Oh, I couldn’t read it. I read a bit of it in The New Yorker and thought; I’m not interested in murders, and pointless ones at that! I don’t know what excitement he got out of it. Obviously some voyeuristic aspect of himself was well served by contemplating it.

I know, I know: consider the source. My point here, in truth, is not to use Vidal as expert witness on a fellow writer (although—full disclosure—I believe that Vidal is probably one of the last, and most, expert witnesses left to the recently concluded American Century). I didn’t think much of the film, but, like Vidal, I thought it an honest depiction of a quintessentially false human being. I also agree with his peers that Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of Capote was eerie in its physical accuracy and well-deserving of an Oscar. As for In Cold Blood, I can’t make a judgment because I, too, have never read it as, again, like Vidal, I have never been much interested in the sociology, let alone the esthetic, of “pointless” violence. (I have a deep respect for Norman Mailer’s work, for example, but have never cared to read The Executioner’s Song.)

My point in citing Vidal is actually quite different, and very simple. If a contemporary, gay, fellow writer like Vidal finds himself thoroughly alienated from the subject matter of this film—in his case, of course, because he knew the film’s subject better than all of us—how is “mainstream” America supposed to react to what is, in fact, an utterly hermetic (yes, “idiotic”) enterprise?

What is most revealing about Brokeback Mountain and Capote is the sad conjunction of esthetic insularity—a particularly egregious lapse, one would think, for movies competing for the Oscar as Best Picture—although each film came to its respective failure from opposed directions and strategies. Capote is at least an honest movie. It is also (like Good Night, and Good Luck) quite affecting in its depiction of another time, in this case one in which writers mattered in America—or at least in Manhattan—and when the country’s citizens didn’t limit their reading to books by Michael Moore or Dan Brown. (One of the film’s most astute historical reconstructions, in fact, has nothing to do with Capote, but concerns Harper Lee, and the publication of To Kill A Mockingbird. I was one of those hundreds of thousands—millions?—of junior-high-school students who read the book in English or social studies class, and I can still remember its effect on me. It was truly a time when “popular literature” could be true to both of its functions.) In the end, Capote’s failure is due to its subject—a cruelly egotistical and endlessly deceitful writer whose only authentic interest was in himself and, not at all coincidentally, celebrity—rather than to its filmmakers. They did the best they could under the circumstances. I just don’t understand why they bothered, and I can’t imagine that most other moviegoers would either.

Brokeback Mountain is, by comparison, a film that is not only meretricious in concept but crude in its realization. As far as being a gay love story, it is nowhere near as moving (let alone sympathetic) as, say, Prick Up Your Ears (but maybe reality has something to do with that, not to mention the genuine complexity, humanity, and tragedy that defined the love between Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell). Regarding its status as a western, I don’t think John Ford’s reputation or Clint Eastwood’s continuing employment are in any danger. What is unfortunate in all this is that two of the five films contending for this year’s Oscar as Best Picture had gay “heroes” and yet neither of them could create convincingly decent, let alone heroic, portraits of gay men. What is wrong with these pictures?

In a word, dissociation. The fact is, despite its self-congratulatory and specious embrace of “diversity,” Hollywood has become so detached from the daily life of most Americans that, in its search for “realistic” stories, it has lost all sense of both reality (which is to say authenticity) and, much more important for a filmmaker, idealism—that almost palpable need for art, for esthetic sublimation verging on material transubstantiation—in one’s life that, more than anything else, has always driven people to the movies. That is why the much-vaunted American ability for storytelling so admired by Godard has deteriorated, and why so many American movies nowadays are incoherent, when they aren’t silly. It is also why when a filmmaker comes along who actually knows what (s)he’s doing, it is so obvious, and the resulting movie is so unusually good.

Nothing reveals the multiple failures and hypocrisies of Brokeback Mountain so much as the numerous virtues and honesties—indeed, the integrity—of Transamerica, which came out about the same time. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by saying that the fact that Duncan Tucker, whose first feature film this was, is actually gay—and not a film-school graduate, but somebody who had kicked around for a long time just trying to get a handle on the world—had a lot to do with the sheer truth of his film, not merely sociologically (which is actually an insignificant “truth” in art) or even emotionally, but, above all, esthetically. At the end of this film, it is obvious that the person who made it knows what he is talking about, and that he understands dysphoria, whether of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or just plain old class. From beginning to end of Brokeback Mountain, one has the frustrating sense that its director actually understands nothing about his subject: whether it’s sexual identity, Wyoming, the Sixties, marriage, or the existential difference between herding sheep and driving cattle. Indeed, in the end, one realizes that the entire film is about Brokeback Mountain, about nothing else, in other words, than a backdrop, in which location, location, location becomes the enormous pathetic fallacy replacing actually existing human beings.

Transamerica, however, is precisely about transiting America, negotiating it, coming to grips with it, quite literally from coast to coast, and, in doing so, coming to grips with who one is, and why. It is a road movie in the best (American) sense of the term: not so much bildungsroman as (internal and external) democratic passage that can take (to quote Sullivan’s Travels) “maybe a week, maybe a month, maybe a year,” and lead to somewhere over the rainbow or to the lowest depths, or both. At journey’s end, however, you invariably realize that you’re not as bad as you thought, and that you might even be considerably better.

Again, there’s no place here for a review of this admirable film, other than to say that Felicity Huffman was cheated of the Best Actress Oscar (Reese Witherspoon has almost as good a voice as June Carter Cash, but why that translated into an Oscar for Best Actress is a mystery to me). I will say one thing, however. One doesn’t have to be black to recognize the consequences of American slavery (or of Hurricane Katrina), or Jewish to understand the lynching of Leo Frank, or Indian to grasp the immensity of American genocide (or of its aftermath), or a woman to comprehend the almost infinite brutality of men, or gay to know that the murder of Matthew Shepard was part and parcel of the exterminationist rationale that built Auschwitz. One of the most psychologically accurate moments in Transamerica—and a brilliant metaphor on the part of Tucker, who also wrote the script—is the love story (unrequited at film’s end) between Bree (Huffman) and Calvin Two Goats, the Indian rancher from New Mexico (played iconically, as always, by Graham Greene). Calvin believes that every woman is entitled to “a little mystery.” It is in fact clear that Calvin is not only a wise and tolerant man, but an intelligent one; it is even clearer that he knows that Bree’s past is more complex than mysterious and that he doesn’t care in any case. As the film’s tagline says, “life is more than the sum of its parts.” A Native American in white America would know that better than most people—and just about as well as a transsexual.

What makes Transamerica such an accessible film is precisely its recognition that “nobody’s perfect” but that most people are always trying to do just a little better. I have to admit that the most reprehensible aspect to Brokeback Mountain for me was the sheer cruelty of its two central characters—Ennis’s inexcusable abuse of his wife, in particular. It is one thing to be confused by, or even to try to suppress, one’s sexual identity, and therefore to suffer, and make others suffer, the inevitable pain of that struggle. It is quite another to use that sexual identity as a battering ram against the sexual identity—let alone the sexual dread—of another human being, as Ennis does against Alma. I’ve never known a gay man or woman to do such a thing, or even contemplate it. Why would they? Quite the opposite, and as we all know, the long history of coercion regarding sexual identity in most societies has been one of the often violent imposition of heterosexuality upon gay men and women—exactly the reality examined by Transamerica.


This essay has tried to examine the increasing gap between Hollywood and its audiences, that is, the increasing “depopularization” of what was once the most emblematic popular art. Of course, as the ideological vanguard (or moral fifth column) of global Americanization, Hollywood today has reached a “market penetration” unimagined even by the old studio moguls, who made the first organized American attempt to take control of international moviemaking in the late Twenties. (It is, of course, a deliberate, strategic misnomer, perpetrated by its American evangelists to disorient the rest of us, to call “globalization” what is, in fact, a historically unprecedented attempt to impose the social structure, economic rationale, and, above all, moral self-definition of one society upon every other society on the face of the planet.) In truth, Hollywood today is a carrier of such massive, global subversion that it is difficult to describe it in any way other than as a cultural, and moral, virus.

But let’s not get carried away. To echo the old master, they’re only movies. Besides, Hollywood has proven in the last couple of decades to be a shadow of its former self, which has been the point to this essay. While it is embedded in places today it could only dream of two generations ago, what it has gained in territory, it has lost in conviction—just like the American empire it serves. Once upon a time, both in America and the West, Hollywood manufactured our dreams; it now mirrors our nightmares. Look again at this year’s five Best Picture nominees: Brokeback Mountain; Capote; Crash; Good Night, and Good Luck; and Munich. Even Gone With the Wind is more hopeful a film than any of these. (The “red earth of Tara” is more than a consolation. It is the Promised Land. “After all,” as Scarlett says in the film’s famous last line, “tomorrow is another day!”) Despair is rarely a path to coherence, let alone lucidity. That is the problem with a “realism” that is closer to Grand Guignol than to any recognizable reality, and why a poseur like Quentin Tarantino specializes in—what else?—pulp fiction.


I actually thought that Crash deserved to win the Best Picture Oscar. I also thought that its depiction of twenty-first-century America was virtually documentary. But, then again, my wife and I saw the movie in Paris, after we’d left the States for good. Needless to say, it confirmed our decision to leave; it needs to be said, however, that that reaction in itself depressed me even more.

I saw Good Night, and Good Luck in both New York and Paris (as I did Capote also). The first time, I was with Stelios Vasilakis, in a huge multiplex on Union Square that caters to the weekend date crowd. Behind us sat a couple of young women and one man “of color.” They did not cease to babble, munch, slurp, and, for about the last third of it, mock the film. Why had they come to see it? What did they expect? Did they expect anything? In the end, that emptiness of expectation, that vacuum of sensibility seemed to explain it all: it wasn’t that they were incapable of understanding the specific history reconstructed by the film; it was obvious that they were oblivious to the very notion of history. It was even clearer that color does not make consciousness and that those of us who once believed that black America would save white America had failed to account for actually existing America, which dooms both black and white to an equality of ego. Being in New York on a visit, I was happy that I was returning to Paris in a few days.

Back in Paris, my wife and I saw the film in one of the (many) cinemas on Boulevard Saint Germain catering to that shamelessly bourgeois area’s shamelessly bourgeois residents and (global) drop-ins. At the end of it, we both had an almost palpable sense from its doleful reaction that the audience had no idea of what had just transpired on the screen. It was almost as if it had simply come together, sacramentally, in a ritual of politically correct anti-Americanism. It was all about today, and Bush, since people had no sense at all of yesterday, and Eisenhower. I was born in 1950, and grew up in the America of that decade. In a scene in the film, Edward R. Murrow interviews Liberace for Person to Person. I remember the original broadcast. The film’s period soundtrack (luminously performed, onscreen and off, by Dianne Reeves) acted like an aural memory bank. Like Capote, what is most poignant about Good Night, and Good Luck is that, if you’re old enough, it takes you home again, or, more exactly, recovers a by-now irretrievably lost country. Leaving the theater, I realized that the distance between the New York I had left and the Paris in which I now lived—and between lumpenbourgeois New Yorkers and authentically bourgeois Parisians—was much shorter than I had once thought.

The problem is, only a sociopath can turn hatred into an esthetic. Imprisoned lives and societal revulsion; egotism exploiting violence and death; mass, ubiquitous, violent, racial loathing; political fear and mendacity temporarily defeated and civic integrity permanently suppressed; individual terror confronted and, ultimately, magnified and multiplied by the much more terrible terror of the state: I have just described the “concepts,” as they say in LA, of the five films nominated for this year’s Best Picture. Where is hope here? Where is the deep human need for art not as atonement but as aspiration? The reason why happy endings are so critical to popular art is precisely because they’re so scarce in the lives of most people.

Which is also why “illusion” is often more realistic than reality. Tomorrow is another day. Nobody’s perfect. So, as Fran Kubelik advises in The Apartment’s quintessentially Wilderesque last line, “Shut up and deal.” Indeed. If the movies can no longer provide us with the hope that a good hand is possible, that another shuffle of the cards will give us back some of our ransomed future, what will? The extraordinary conceit of Sullivan’s Travels, the crystalline brilliance of Preston Sturges’s existential perception, is not that comedy eases the pain of daily life, but that comedy changes the nature of that life. That comedy is, in fact—as every major comic artist, from Aristophanes to Brecht (and Billy Wilder) confirms—a subversion of daily life. The point is not that movies should not be serious, but that the seriousness of movies is thoroughly sabotaged by—and, for that reason, utterly opposed to—solemnity. (Godard, for example, has always been a master not only of cinematic playfulness, but of a very conscious slapstick.) What we have seen increasingly in Hollywood over the last couple of decades is the concurrent solemnification of seriousness and the trivialization of comedy. The latter category has now been almost completely swamped by the cinematic version of chick-lit and, for “men,” a genre of fratboy “humor” that bears precisely the same relationship to real wit that a dungpile bears to a good meal.

And, so, the audiences dwindle. Because, simply put, they no longer see themselves on the screen. That, of course, as Susan Sontag wrote in the essay I cited in the first part of this essay, was always the cinema’s ultimate seduction: that it was not Cary Grant up there on the screen, but you. Or, better yet, you as Cary Grant. Well, Cary Grant is dead. As is Jimmy Stewart and Katherine Hepburn and Henry Fonda and Marlene Dietrich, as well as Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe and Jimmy Dean and Natalie Wood and Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner. Of course, Shirley MacLaine is still alive, but she’s been channeled into a Hollywood that is unrecognizable from the one in which she came of age “moviewise” (as The Apartment’s characters would have said).

I began with Sontag; I end by repeating her:

To see a great film only on television isn’t to have really seen that film....The conditions of paying attention in a domestic space are radically disrespectful of film. Now that a film no longer has a standard size, home screens can be as big as living room or bedroom walls. But you are still in a living room or a bedroom….

Or a bathroom. Not to mention a subway, the Long Island Railroad, or the backseat of a Hummer. Sontag was writing pre-iPods and downloads and the perversion of cinema into a “media platform.” She was also writing for a readership that she thought might actually understand the phrase, “disrespectful of film.” The notion nowadays that people will actually “respect” a film is, of course, laughable—at least in the United States, where even the audiences in cinemas have become fundamentally disrespectful (as my own experience with Good Night, and Good Luck proved). As for the coming generations, who are being “socialized” with iPod buds in their ears, the end is well nigh. The entire direction, in fact, of American culture is toward its complete fracturing into infinite atomization. Which is why American film is dying. American movies have always been a “classical art,” a social project, from production to exhibition. The solipsism of downloading a movie replicates the increasing, pathological solipsism of American life. So, “we” don’t go to the movies anymore; we expect the movies to come to us—or, rather, to me, and me, and me, and me, and me….That might be a “media platform,” but it’s not a movie. Not that anyone cares. Nobody’s dealt the cards for a long time now.


Postscript. As I was nearing the end of this (very long) essay, I discovered a review of Brokeback Mountain in New York’s Gay City News (“West of Never: Hawking Sentiment Carefully Divorced from Gay Identity,” December 8-14, 2005). I smiled when I saw the name of the reviewer, Ioannis Mookas, and immediately proceeded to read. I wrote above that Daniel Mendelsohn’s review was “by far, the most intelligent assessment I have read of the film.” Make that second most intelligent. I recommend that all interested read Ioannis Mookas’s review. Final disclosure: I have not seen or spoken to Ioannis in some years. When Stelios Vasilakis, then at the Vryonis Center for the Study of Hellenism, and I, then at the Foundation for Hellenic Culture, expanded the Thessaloniki/New York festival of Greek and Balkan films, the person we hired to run it was Ioannis Mookas. We knew then that he knew a thing or two about the movies.

Peter Pappas is co-founder of
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