Oct 162003

My old friend and frequent critic Michael Krantz, taking exception to my criticism of Quentin Tarantino, writes as follows:

Tarantino seems to inspire strong visceral reactions of both kinds, which to my mind is at least somewhat [sic] of a compliment (who bothers arguing about most movies?).

I don’t wish to pick on Michael particularly; one sees this in arts criticism every day, and his instance is brief and near to hand.

We already know that 50,000,000 Frenchmen can be wrong, and frequently are. Here Michael goes this ancient fallacy, argumentum ad populum, one better. The opinion, in his formulation, need not be popular, so long as some people hold it. (“Strongly and viscerally” to be sure. One might think that rational opinions would count for more than visceral ones, but no matter.) Strong and visceral opinions are like — well, everybody has one, and now everybody can publish his too. Controversy, perforce, results. “Controversial” has nonetheless become a term of praise, although a shame-faced one, resorted to by publicists faced with an absence of favorable reviews. Still more debased and narcissistic terms exist, like “talked about” and, at the bottom of this barrel, “widely anticipated.” Controversy, like celebrity, is circular. Why is it controversial? Because I’m talking about it! Why am I talking about it? Because it’s controversial!

Obviously there are a great many fervently held beliefs that have no merit whatsoever. Scientology is controversial. The healing power of crystals is controversial. Everything this side of Gigli is controversial. Tarantino, too, is controversial; ergo Tarantino has merit.

Or as the girlfriend more succinctly put it, “God, that is sooo NPR.”

Michael continues, less temperately:

The plagiarism dismissal was boring and specious ten years ago.

I blog, OK? I stopped worrying about boring people a long time ago. And to the accusation that my plagiarism charge is, um, unoriginal, I certainly plead guilty. By Michael’s own lights, the fact that some people have agreed with me that Tarantino is a plagiarist might give the argument some weight. A hundred accusations of plagiarism can’t be specious.

More seriously, this is a heads-I-win tails-you-lose proposition. If your argument is original, then the reply is that no one believes that. If your argument is old, then the reply is that it’s old. It’s like being put in the asylum, where whatever you do is classified as insanity, no matter how innocuous, and taking notes, say, becomes “compulsive note-taking behavior.”

To summarize: All strong opinions have merit, or at least reflect favorably on their subject. Unless they are old, in which case they are boring and tired and need not be discussed. My thanks to Michael for clearing this up.

Oct 122003

Quentin Tarantino watches a whole lot of movies, to considerable purpose, as most of the best bits in his own movies are lifted from other people’s. Pulp Fiction‘s “cleaner” sequence plagiarizes, down to the name, the one from La Femme Nikita. It even uses Harvey Keitel, who played the same part in Point of No Return, Nikita‘s word-for-word American remake for the subtitle-impaired. The colorfully named crooks of Reservoir Dogs first appear in The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, a little thriller so taut and well-made that it must make Tarantino weep with envy. To be fair, the original lacked a Mr. Pink, and Steve Buscemi’s plaint of “Why do I have to be Mr. Pink?” seems to be Tarantino’s invention.

Jackie Brown, which I could not bring myself to see, advertised itself as a “homage” to 70s blaxploitation films, starring Pam Grier for bonus verisimilitude. (This term, in Tarantino’s universe, refers to fidelity not to life but to other movies.) “Homage” is one of the many euphemisms for plagiarism that litter Tarantino reviews. Others include “nod,” “take,” “view,” “deconstruction,” and “twist.”

Tarantino’s new movie, Kill Bill, will be released in two parts; this is Volume 1. The “volume” has “chapters” too. This an ironic reference to the fact that it’s not a book, it’s a movie. The curiously stilted dialogue manages to be at once formal and ungrammatical, as if it had been translated from English to Japanese and back a few times. Now Tarantino, being a genius, knows that “vermin” sounds silly in the singular and the difference between who and whom. Tarantino could not possibly intend lines like “with your own beautiful blue eye” (said to the Daryl Hannah character, who wears an unexplained eyepatch) and “Silly rabbit, tricks are for kids” to pass for wit. So these must be ironic references to the badly translated subtitles of the chop-socky movies to which Kill Bill is a “homage.”

The plot involves a team of beautiful girl assassins, the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (DVAS, get it? huh? huh?), managed by an off-screen character named Bill (David Carradine), to whom they are utterly devoted. This is an ironic reference to Charlie’s Angels, or a nod to it, or a twist on it, or something. Bill turns against one of his Angels (Uma Thurman) for no specified reason, and on her wedding day sends his whole team to finish the party off.

The combined efforts of Bill and his lovelies result in killing everybody but Uma herself, who awakes from a coma four years later bent on revenge. Tarantino wisely does not overburden the viewer with motive. He sweeps aside bagatelles like whom she was marrying, why she was pregnant, why everyone at the wedding has to die along with the target, why she joined the Deadly Vipers in the first place, how the best female assassins in the world and their boss can botch such a simple job, why the other girls all hate her, and why everyone in the damn movie insists on using swords instead of guns anyway — which I recall seeing an ironic reference to someplace. Vol. 2 may clear these matters up, or perhaps Tarantino will leave them hanging, as ironic references to making sense. In any case, he brings us quickly to the swordfighting, which is really the point. If you don’t enjoy watching people lose their appendages then Kill Bill may not be the wisest choice for your entertainment dollar.

Tarantino is often criticized for drawing on television and other movies instead of his own experience. This is unjust. So far as I can tell, his experience, aside from an occasional bar brawl, consists entirely of watching movies and television. What else would you expect him to draw on?

If your local video parlor is anything like mine, it is staffed by film junkies who pride themselves on knowing the good bits of every movie. They can quote at length from more movies than you and I will ever see and are lost if you ask them what any of those movies is actually about. They are all writing screenplays. If a major studio ever greenlights one the result may resemble Kill Bill.

Tarantino was a video clerk in his youth. It is rare for anyone to find his calling early in life; one hopes that his unfortunate detour into Hollywood superstardom will be short. His movies are pastiche, all good bits because he does not understand what makes the good bits good. This explains his special fondness for blaxploitation and chop-socky, which even at their best have a few memorable lines and scenes with no context to support them. Listen to the great man himself, in his Newsweek interview:

Interviewer: Its like when youre a kid, you say, Oh, just give me the good parts.

Tarantino: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, God, you could almost make a case that thats my whole theory in filmmaking: take out all the shit that weve already seen a million times before, and that we never liked in the first place, and just get right to the good stuff.

For “the good stuff” read “grotesque violence.” At some point it may occur to Tarantino that the goodness of the good stuff depends on all that other shit that we never liked in the first place. Then again it may not.

The true geniuses behind Kill Bill are the brothers Weinstein, who decided to release it in two parts. A tetralogy couldn’t tie up the loose ends in Vol. 1, but what do Bob and Harvey care? They disguise the mess and get two admissions for the price of one production budget. By the time Volume 2 comes out, in February, Tarantino’s fans will have forgotten that the package is nonsense, if they cared in the first place.

About Tarantino there is only one interesting question: Is he firmly convinced of his own genius, or does he wake up in a sweat at 3 AM, wondering when the world will wise up? I don’t know. His best friends may not know. Only one man can say for sure, and he isn’t telling.

(Update: Rick Coencas comments. Alex(ei) also comes to Tarantino’s defense.)

(And: Gregg Easterbrook is even harsher than I am, which I didn’t think was possible. The whole Jewish movie executive business at the end of the piece is a bit loopy though. Nate Bruinooge has some especially interesting comments. Ian Hamet strikes a more mature attitude.)

Aug 202003

So you want to make a left-wing propaganda movie? Then let’s see what we can learn from the most successful propaganda movie in history, to judge by actual political results, The China Syndrome. It was released in 1979, after more than a decade of steady building of nuclear power plants. Since then not a single new permit for a nuclear plant has been issued in the United States.

Correlation is not causation, and to be fair, The China Syndrome benefited from the best timing any movie has probably ever had. Three Mile Island, the worst industrial accident in history with zero casualties, followed the release of The China Syndrome by twelve days. One of the characters even muses about “contaminating an area the size of Pennsylvania.” You just can’t buy that kind of publicity. Americans had already begun to turn against nuclear power but after 1979 it was shelved, apparently permanently. This was arguably due at least as much to the movie as to the accident. There is a template for a successful propaganda movie, which The China Syndrome followed to the letter.

1. Choose your heroes advisedly. Nobody, but nobody, wants to watch heroic activists. This is one of the many reasons Costa-Gavras movies are as widely acclaimed as they are ignored. To establish your bona fides you will want to make your politically sympathetic characters as personally disagreeable as possible. And who could be more disagreeable than an already-grizzled Jane Fonda and a young and hirsute Michael Douglas? (An old and jowly Michael Douglas possibly excepted.) Douglas plays a bossy, vaguely counter-cultural cameraman of questionable hygiene habits. Fonda is the local TV bimbo who has stumbled onto the story of her life, which she doesn’t understand but tries to milk for all it’s worth notwithstanding. The anti-nuclear scientist, in a nice turn from Donald Hotton, is an obvious crank, with a supercilious manner and Warhol hair to prove it.

Our reluctant hero, played by Jack Lemmon, is a “shift supervisor” (a nice righteous proletarian title) at the power plant. “I love this plant,” he says to Fonda, and we believe him, because we always believe Jack Lemmon.

2. Admit the obvious. Everyone knows that anti-nuclear protestors are Luddite buffoons. So make a special point of showing them all standing up together at a hearing with masking tape on their mouths. This earns you extra objectivity points and costs you nothing.

3. Fictionalize history — the right way. In The China Syndrome a courier, and later Lemmon himself, is run off the road on his way to a regulatory hearing to deliver crucial incriminating documents, which disappear. Now where have we seen this before? Of course: it’s Karen Silkwood and Kerr-McGee! By replaying this hoary myth without directly referring to it, the movie reaps all of the benefits of imaginary history, without the fuss of being corrected in public by knowledgeable historians or the muss of untidy lawsuits.

4. Skate the science. So “core meltdowns” are effectively impossible in modern, non-graphite reactors. So what? Don’t bore the audience with stuff like this. Instead mutter a few imprecations about inconceivable disasters and concentrate on human error instead. Everyone understands human error. The China Syndrome contains fifteen seconds of misinformation on nuclear engineering, and it’s fifteen seconds too many.

5. Keep the villains offscreen. Give Satan too much screen time and someone is bound to accuse you of being of the Devil’s party without knowing it. Oliver Stone never quite learned this. If you must show the villains, and sometimes you must, show as many of them as possible to dilute any possible audience sympathy. In The China Syndrome a corrupt inspector, a vicious plant manager, a cold-blooded CEO, and a craven publicity man split ten minutes of face time among them. Capitalist malefactors are supposed to be faceless and soulless, right? Keep them that way.

6. No happy endings. Remember, you’re raising consciousness here; leave uplift to Hollywood lickspittles. No sad endings either: too didactic. Best of all are ambiguous endings, like the TV test pattern in the last scene of The China Syndrome. Is this the end of Southern California as we know it? Could be, unless we all get out there and do something right now.

OK team, you got all that? Now, break!

Jul 312003

How do two arty Manhattan types like Michael Blowhard and me amuse ourselves when shorn of the wives for an evening? We go see Bad Boys 2, what else?

One can admire the movie, at a safe distance from the theater, for its systematic assault on the critical faculties. It ranges in volume from deafening to ear-bleeding, noise being well understood to interfere with thinking. The director, Michael Bay, a Simpson-Bruckheimer protegé, Michael helpfully informed me — who could have guessed? — favors a garish palette. Miami, once a pastel paradise, has apparently become the City of Primary Colors. Bay also sees to it that of every ten lines of dialogue (and never more than five at a time) at least one is a catch-phrase along the lines of “let’s roll” or “go! go! go!” or “bring the noise.” The villain is a Cuban Ecstasy dealer. Being Cuban, he is of course supplying Castro with drug money. For a touch of realism, we are treated to a gratuitous scene of a youth “overdosing” on Ecstasy; the gutters of Manhattan are littered with Ex casualties, I’m telling you.

In the first five minutes Bay burns a cross and shoots a few Klansmen. Then he blows some shit up, crashes a bunch of cars (and a boat), blows more shit up, crashes a bunch more cars, blows more shit up, dices up a Russian mobster, plows a jeep through a shantytown (miraculously killing no one), and blows still more shit up. The interludes, though short, are long enough to make you eager to see more shit blown up. Spoiler: at the end a whole lot of really big shit gets blown up.

Afterwards Michael and I killed a couple bottles of Israeli Sauvignon Blanc (obviously we were still addled) and settled several pressing questions. First, fifty people blog about politics for every one who blogs about culture not because people are more interested in politics than culture, but because, in a sense, they are less interested: one’s taste is a little too personal. There is also a well-established vocabulary for political writing; not for art. Second, Reason magazine has really started to suck since Gillespie took over. Third, great as Human Action is, the von Mises book for everyone is The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality. And finally, the best writer in the blogosphere is not the vastly overrated Lileks, who can do quite a bit with nothing on his mind and usually does, not the equally underrated Alice Bachini, not Evan Kirchhoff, although he’s coming up fast on the outside and has been awesome of late, and certainly not Michael or me. It’s Colby Cosh. That this man is unemployed is as stunning a tribute to the impenetrable stupidity of big media as I can possibly imagine.

(Update: Colby Cosh is understandably embarrassed. And no, the National Post, excellent though it is, doesn’t count as Big Media down here. David Artemiw comments. George Wallace comments. Alice Bachini comments, inimitably.)

Jul 182003

(Warning: Spoilers ahead.)

The alarming spectacle of ordinarily clever and thoughtful people praising 28 Days Later makes it clear that my taxonomy of zombie movies is overdue.

Zombie movies, like zombies themselves, refuse to die. Ian Hamet, who claims to dislike them, writes:

But I like the idea of zombie movies… The apocalyptic backgrounds, the stripping away of all veneers to reveal what it is that makes us human (or inhuman). The sense that we are our own worst enemy. There’s something rather primal about the notion, which I think is a large part of why such movies are so popular.

Zombie movies appeal in particular to the secret thought that one is the sole sentient human being in a world of pod people. I mean, we all believed that in high school, right? In the most creepily effective zombie movies, like the ur-classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (directed by the great Don Siegel of Dirty Harry fame) and The Stepford Wives, the zombies look normal. They’re our friends and neighbors, our parents and siblings. They live among us! The moment in Stepford when Katherine Ross discovers her best friend has been turned into a house-proud robot is genuinely terrifying, in a way completely different from the mere surprise in which most “horror” movies truck.

E.M. Forster, in Aspects of the Novel, distinguishes story from plot as follows: “‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.” Where The Stepford Wives has a plot, 28 Days Later has only a story.

Danny Boyle, its director, wisely ignores the convention of outfitting zombies in whiteface (The Omega Man, Night of the Living Dead), with the result that 28 Days Laterhas the most frightening zombies you’ve ever seen — slavering, blood-flecked, fast-moving, hissing and shrieking like banshees, yet recognizably human. The first attacks made me jump out of my seat. But even squeamish viewers like me quickly become inured to shock, and wait for something more substantial, which never comes.

As Ian points out, any proper zombie movie is survivalist at its heart. Place a few people where it’s kill or be killed and watch Darwin take his course. From this stems the universally-observed convention that the zombies must never turn on one another. The virulent flesh-eating monsters of 28 Days Later scorn the flesh of their fellow flesh-eaters — not tasty, not nutritious, who knows, who cares? It’s an us-against-them world.

Trials of character, however, require characters. The weak, the stupid, and the treacherous must perish, in consequence of their character flaws; the rational must survive, at least for a while. The archetype here is the Night of the Living Dead, almost a drawing-room drama, in which the people, not the zombies, kill each other.

In 28 Days Later who lives and dies seems mostly luck at the beginning, and utterly absurd by the end, when in the climactic scene one bare-footed, unarmed man single-handedly settles the hash of a dozen soldiers with machine guns. This is filmed, I suppose intentionally, so that it’s impossible to tell except in the most general way what’s going on, since you wouldn’t believe it if you could. But the soldiers, though treacherous, do not die from their treachery, unlike Mr. Cooper in Night of the Living Dead. They die — mega-spoiler coming now! — because they keep a zombie chained up for scientific purposes, to see how long he will survive, and our hero unlooses him. They die, in other words, for being rational. And that’s no way to run a zombie movie.

Jul 042003

Of the numerous cyber-eulogies one of the best is Colby Cosh’s, describing her beauty as “harsh,” which is exactly right, and the sense she gave of being “bound by no known rules, certainly not those of fashion or politesse,” which is true but incomplete.

Watching Hepburn in comedy is like watching a great athlete. Kobe, Jordan, Gretzky, seem to occupy some interstice of time, inaccesible to the rest of us, that gives them an extra half-second to decide what to do. Hepburn, in the same way, always seems to buzz in some strange interstice of social relations, as if she already knows what someone is going to say, pronounces herself bored with it, and goes off on a tangent before he even opens his mouth, leaving him gasping for air. (I’m thinking of Bringing Up Baby and, especially, Holiday.) The conventional characters call her dizzy, when in fact she is dizzying.

Colby also amusingly cites a report from a local AM station that Audrey Hepburn had died, for the second time. Well, I used to know someone who thought there were three Hepburn sisters — Audrey, Katharine, and Tracy.

Speaking of Tracy, I have to take issue with Colby’s parenthetical remark that he could be “trusted to be big-hearted enough to slump back in his chair and enjoy the show. He seemed perfectly comfortable in the presence of a female superior.” This is exactly backwards. No male lead could be perfectly comfortable in Hepburn’s presence, and Tracy least of all. The comedy, on the contrary, derives from his acute discomfort, from Hepburn’s awareness of it, and from her futile attempts to mollify him, like her disastrous essay in making breakfast in Woman of the Year. Tracy and Hepburn always make up in the end, of course, but it is an uneasy alliance, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? gives a nice picture of what their marriage might be like, twenty years on.

Of her male leads it is Cary Grant, not Tracy, who is, if not exactly comfortable with Hepburn, at least insouciant and urbane. He makes a few half-hearted attempts to restore sanity to Bringing Up Baby, but about halfway through decides to throw up his hands and just watch the show, and by The Philadelphia Story he has stopped trying altogether. Grant is a peculiarly affectless male lead, always giving the impression that sex would be fine, only it’s so much bother and he might muss his hair. This lends a certain chilliness to his collaborations with Hepburn, brilliant as they are, and is why they will never be beloved, as Tracy’s are. He is only outrun, while Tracy, the endearing palooka, is outclassed, but neither one could keep up with her. No one ever could.

Jun 262003

Hollywood has much to teach us.

Windtalkers — In this World War II John Woo gorefest Nicolas Cage, more cross-eyed and sullen than usual, plays a lieutenant assigned to a Navajo “codetalker.” His mission is to “protect the code,” that is, shoot the Navajo if he is in danger of falling into enemy hands. Now there actually was a field code, based on Navajo, the most obscure of Indian languages. It was never broken, which was more a testament to the steadfast loyalty of the codetalkers, and sheer dumb luck, than to sound cryptographic principles. If a single Navajo is captured, no more code. Even worse, if one sells out, the code has been broken and you don’t know it. Let’s face it, if you have to keep your radiomen under 24-hour armed guard, maybe you got a little cryptography problem.

The Matrices — Ah, grasshopper. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

Pretty Woman — Conglomerateurs often look like Richard Gere. Street whores often look like Julia Roberts. This is why when conglomerateurs need an escort for the week they cruise the streets to find one.

Risky Business — Hey kids! Despite mediocre grades, by donning a pair of Wayfarers and running a cathouse for a weekend, you too can be admitted to Princeton and get your ticket punched for a rewarding career in investment banking!

So I can’t speak for the rest of you, but I sure haven’t been wasting my time, oh no.

May 222003

The rumored movie version of Atlas Shrugged is driving the Objectivist cineasts out of the woodwork: first Arthur Silber, then Diana Hsieh, and even Ian Hamet was inspired to awaken from a two-week hibernation. Will it be good? This is a matter of applying Haspel’s Three Laws of Film Adaptation.

1. The better the book, the worse the movie. The novel is the best vehicle ever devised for conveying people’s inner life. The movies and the theater are the best vehicles ever devised for conveying people’s outer life. That the latter map poorly to the former should be no great surprise. Inner life is conveyed in the theater by the soliloquy, which is horribly clunky, and in the movies by the voiceover, which isn’t much better. Good acting can only help so much, and is scarce. How many times have you read a critic praising an actor for “hinting at the hidden depths” of a character? That the depths are hidden is precisely the problem.

Especially “interior” novels, like those of Henry James, tend to be turned into especially bad movies. The one James novel that become a successful movie is Washington Square, which he first conceived as a play. (But see Law #3.)

Great novels also live by their language, most of which is lost on film. There’s plenty of action in Moby-Dick, but you don’t read it for action, you read it for the whiteness of the whale. Naturally the (1956) film version of Moby-Dick, despite being directed by John Huston and adapted by Ray Bradbury, was a profound disappointment, even if we set aside the problematic casting, to put it kindly, of Gregory Peck as Ahab. It’s a creditable sea yarn, just not Melville. The operation was a success, but the patient died.

2. The longer the book, the worse the movie. The longer the book, the more you have to cut. The more you cut, the more mistakes you make. In many ways Bonfire of the Vanities was an excellent candidate for the screen. It’s a very behaviorist novel, not at all “interior” as good novels go: its theme is that what we are pleased to call personality is in fact a howling void. But it is nearly 700 pages long, at least 500 of which had to disappear. Michael Cristofer, the screenwriter, couldn’t decide what to part with, choosing instead to reduce every major subplot to a quarter of its former size, mystifying anyone who had not read the book and infuriating anyone who had. The resulting hopeless hash cannot be entirely attributed to Brian De Palma’s inability to understand anything but gore. Or take the King Vidor version of War and Peace. Please.

My two favorite movies of great books are Robert Z. Leonard’s 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice, largely because I’m in love with Greer Garson, and Stanley Kubrick’s 1963 Lolita. Both books are short.

3. The more faithful the adaptation, the worse the movie. Piety afflicts modern directors especially. They all grew up on movies and TV, and tend to genuflect toward literature when they stumble on it later in life. Martin Scorsese turned The Age of Innocence, a beautifully subtle novel, into a static bore by trying to convey every last nuance. You got the impression that it was the first book Scorsese had ever managed to read all through. The authors of his other screenplays must envy his overscrupulous attitude toward Mrs. Wharton.

To return to Washington Square, Agnieszka Holland’s 1997 version suffers by comparison with William Wyler’s much looser 1949 adaptation, The Heiress. The novel, and Holland’s film, end with a highly civilized meeting between Catherine and Morris, her penniless former suitor who deserted her for fear that she would be disinherited. Now that Catherine’s father is dead and her fortune is secure, Morris clearly wishes to marry, Catherine equally clearly wishes not to, and that is that, although not a word is said directly on the subject. It works brilliantly in the novel and is DOA on film. In Wyler’s version Morris proposes to Catherine again, she pretends to accept him, and locks the door on him when he comes back around to collect her. The movie ends with Morris pounding on the door as it dawns on him what she has done. Riveting on film, ridiculous on the page.

Atlas Shrugged, then. I view Atlas more as a gussied-up work of philosophy than a novel, exactly. Its characters haven’t much in the way of an interior life, and in any case it is Ayn Rand’s way for everyone to say exactly what’s he’s thinking, over and over again. (No one ever lies in her novels, not even the villains.) On the one hand, works of philosophy haven’t much cinematic future. On the other hand it has an awful lot of action for a work of philosophy, and God knows there’s plenty to cut. If we had only Law #1 to go on, the jury would still be out.

Law #2 we can pass over quickly. The book is 1200 pages of eyestrain print, and the whole in this case will assuredly be less than the sum of its parts. The story of the 20th Century Motor Company would make a better movie than the novel itself.

As for Law #3, James Hart, who is signed to write the screenplay, is a keen Atlas fan, which means he’ll want to get as much of the philosophy into the movie as he can, so we’re bound to have Francisco on the meaning of money and plenty of John Galt speaking. Fidelity will sink Atlas just as it sank the movie version of The Fountainhead. Conventional wisdom blames the failure of the movie on Gary Cooper as Roark, and admittedly he is terrible, so terrible that he said so himself later. (Patricia Neal is almost as bad.) Yet the penultimate scene in The Fountainhead, Roark’s lengthy courtroom speech, is cinematically hopeless, no matter who’s playing him. Imagining Galt’s speech on film I leave as an exercise for the reader.

(Update: As for “No one ever lies in Ayn Rand’s novels,” One of my commenters points out that the characters lie all over the place in Atlas Shrugged. Having just reread the first 100 pages and caught three whoppers, I take it back.)

Apr 182003

Saw A Mighty Wind tonight, Christopher Guest’s latest mockumentary (if you will) of folk music, and it was funny, but not funny enough. I almost feel sorry for Guest, who will have to labor in the immense shade of Spinal Tap for the rest of his life, and whose movies will never be possible to enjoy on their own terms because they will never stack up. All you need to know about A Mighty Wind is that its funniest moment involves Bob Balaban being slapped on the head: pure slapstick. At least Guest soldiers on; bully for him. Early success paralyzes some artists, like Ralph Ellison and Henry Roth, and no one ever quite lives it down. Stephen Vizinczey said once that failure is a kind of luck, as long as it doesn’t kill you.

Mar 212003

To my surprise and delight, Michael Blowhard exhumes one of my favorite novels, Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run?, describing its protagonist, one Samuel Glick, née Shmelka Glickstein, as an “unprincipled, asslicking, domineering, will-do-anything-to-succeed Hollywood hustler.” All that and more: Sammy is a force of nature. The book opens with seventeen-year-old Sammy at the newspaper office running copy, and when Sammy runs copy, he runs copy:

The boss told me Sammy was getting a three-week tryout. But Sammy did more running around that office in those three weeks than Paavo Nurmi did in his whole career. Every time I handed him a page of copy, he ran off with it as if his life depended on it. I can still see Sammy racing between the desks, his tie flying, wild-eyed, desperate…

“Hey, kid, take it easy.”

This was like cautioning Niagara to fall more slowly.

“You said rush, Mr. Manheim.”

“I didn’t ask you to drop dead on us.”

“I don’t drop dead very easy, Mr. Manheim.”

“Like your job, Sammy?”

“It’s a damn good job — this year.”

“What do you mean — this year?”

“If I still have it next year, it’ll stink.”

He looked so tense and serious I almost laughed in his face. I liked him. Maybe he was a little too fresh, but he was quite a boy.

“I’ll keep my ear to the ground for you, kid. Maybe in a couple of years I’ll have a chance to slip you in as a cub reporter.”

That was the first time he ever scared me. Here I was going out of my way to be nice to him and he answered me with a look that was almost contemptuous.

“Thanks, Mr. Manheim,” he said, “but don’t do me any favors. I know this newspaper racket. Couple of years as a cub reporter? Twenty bucks. Then another stretch as district man. Thirty-five. And finally you’re a great big reporter and get forty-five for the rest of your life. No, thanks.”

Football scouts have a term, “high motor,” for people like Sammy. (Other characters compare him to an engine, a motor, and a dynamo.) He runs from first page to last. And with every despicable act, as Sammy bullies, plagiarizes, lies, and cheats his way to Hollywood success, you watch, like the narrator, Al Manheim, with horror and fascination, and finally a sneaking admiration, the way you might admire a tornado, provided you’re not caught in it. First shock, then awe.

The novel dates in some ways. Its very title — “a slum childhood” turns out to be the answer to its question — smacks of a sociological determinism that was fashionable in 1941 but now just seems tired. There are plugs for the communists in the Spanish Civil War and Upton Sinclair’s campaign for Governor of California. But the Hollywood dope could have been written yesterday. Schulberg, whose father was a big-shot Hollywood producer, was 27 when Sammy was published. He was a publicist for Paramount when he was 17, a screenwriter at 19, and he knows. Here is Sammy, mid-career, making stone soup in the commissary:

Sammy would walk up to a director and say, “Spencer Tracy and Marlene Dietrich in Titanic. Do I have to say any more?”

Then he would just walk away from the guy, significantly, and leave it in his lap. The director has been desperate for a socko story all year. Tracy and Dietrich in Titanic. Jesus, it sounds like something. Natural suspense. And two great characters. Maybe Spence is a good two-fisted minister who tries to straighten Marlene out. Marlene is a tramp, of course. He’s real. She’s anything for a laugh. Then, even though the boat is going down you bring the audience up with a hell of a lift because Marlene suddenly sees the light.

Meanwhile Sammy bumps into a supervisor. “I was just telling Chick Tyler my new story,” he says. “He went off his nut about it. Spencer Tracy and Marlene Dietrich in Titanic. Do I have to say any more?”

And he drops the hot potato in the supervisor’s lap and runs again. The supervisor knows Sammy hasn’t missed yet. And he’s been trying to get a cast like that ever since he’s been made a supervisor. So he drops by Tyler’s table.

“Sammy Glick tells me you’re hot for his Titanic story,” he says.

“Yeah,” Tyler says, “I think the kid’s got something. And it’s right down my alley.”

By this time Tyler is practically thinking up the acceptance speech he’ll make on receiving the Academy Award. “I could get a great picture out of that,” he says. “Remember what I did with Strange Voyage? That’s for me!”

All this time Sammy is hopping from table to table, pollinating his story like a bumblebee, catching them as they go in and out, asking everybody who can possibly help him if he has to say anything more and running off before they can answer. Everybody is now asking everybody else if they have heard Sammy’s Titanic story. And by this time, through unconscious generosity, they have contributed to the story two characters, a beginning, middle and a climax. Now Sammy manages to cross the path of the General Manager in Charge of Production. Sammy has heard that he’s been a little burned lately because people are saying he is losing touch with studio activities.

“How do you do, sir,” Sammy says. “I suppose Tyler and Hoyt have told you my story for Dietrich and Tracy. Titanic? Everybody who’s heard it seems very excited about it.”

He has heard about Glick, of course, and he never likes to appear ignorant of anything. “Yes, I have, Glick,” he says. “Sounds very interesting. I’m going to call you all in for a conference on it some time this week.”

There is real skill in this performance. It’s no mean feat to arrange a conference, on air, with the General Manager in Charge of Production. Push, of Sammy’s superhuman caliber, is as much a talent as talent; ask any salesman. Julian Blumberg, a ghostwriter for Sammy with talent but no push — his reward is to write the nonexistent Titanic script — narrates this tale with “no bitterness or anger,” but “mild wonder and deep resignation.” Without Julian there is no Titanic, but without Sammy there is no Titanic either.

Reading Sammy reminds me that my own Glick-deficiency is a character flaw no less real than Sammy’s Glick-excess. “A little bit of Glick would help us all,” the character who understands Sammy best remarks. “A very little bit.”