I’m immensely grateful to Thomas Frank in the February 2013 issue of Harper’s — an article you can’t access online unless you subscribe, so please, run out and buy this issue if you can (if you don’t already have it), and turn to “Team America” on pp. 6-9 — for clarifying how the celebration of corruption that has American media and the Academy in such a state of orgasmic euphoria can actually be traced back to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, the 2005 best seller and prizewinner that Spielberg and Kushner credit as their main source. When I gave Lincoln one of its few negative reviews in the Forward last year, I only had a short time to write my review after seeing the film and before I flew to the Viennale, and despite the fact that I already had Goodwin’s doorstop/monolith within my clutches by then, there wasn’t enough time for me to dope out how much of what bothered me about the film was ascribable to her book. Frank’s column, even though it doesn’t mention the ideological similarity of Lincoln and Schindler’s List that I’ve written about elsewhere (both movies, as I see them, are ultimately defenses of entrepreneurial capitalism, corruptions and all, and not only defenses of corruption in politics), leaves little doubt that the popularity and prestige of Goodwin’s book aren’t simply matters of rewarding intellectual integrity and/or historical perspicacity. In any case, Frank’s irreverence provides a healthy eye-opener, especially after the nonstop hype. [1-11-13]
The avoidance or frequent absence of history on the Internet is often a problem, but I’ve rarely seen it exploited so shamelessly and cripplingly as it is in a post supposedly “celebrating” Godard’s 82th birthday that quotes fifteen filmmakers on the subject of Godard, including Godard himself, arranged alphabetically from Chantal Akerman to Wim Wenders.
Let’s start with the first sentence in the first quotation, from Akerman: “You can see him excluding himself from the world in an almost autistic manner.” Is this the Godard of For Ever Mozart, the Godard of Film Socialisme, or a much earlier Godard? It’s impossible to understand, much less evaluate what Akerman is saying, without knowing the answer to this question. Pretend that this doesn’t matter and you’re pointlessly sliming both Akerman and Godard, for no good reason.
Five quotes later, we get, “Luis Buñuel: I’ll give him two years more, he is just a fashion.” Obviously, this statement was made when Buñuel was still alive, which means he had to have said it at some point between, say, 1960 and 1983. Lots of leg room in there — about 30 features’ worth.
And one quote later, from Godard himself: “I am not an auteur, well, not now anyway.” When is “now”? Your guess is as good as mine.
Some of the quotations, admittedly, cite a particular film title (usually one dating back over 40 years), allowing us some minimal context for the statement, but sometimes these helpers, though available, are excluded. Leaving aside a couple of gratuitous and supposedly timeless insults from Werner Herzog and Roman Polanski, which try and fail to be witty and intelligent, and part of a vitriolic letter from Truffaut and Godard that ended their friendship (after years of Truffaut supporting Godard in numerous ways), we get an extended quote from Orson Welles that would be meaningful and interesting if we knew that he said it after seeing Alphaville but relatively vacuous otherwise. The conveyor of this quotation prefers to keep it vacuous — or perhaps I should say “eternal” or “universal,” which in this case means about the same thing. [12/3/12]
I guess I must have been simply naïve when I concluded, after seeing and flipping out over Richard Linklater’s The Newton Boys 14 years ago, that everyone else would like it as much as I did. But frankly, I’m even more bewildered by the critical coolness being shown now in some quarters towards Bernie, a masterpiece which might be regarded as a kind of companion piece to The Newton Boys, only one that runs still deeper and is in some ways even more accessible: another edifying film about locals from a part of East Texas that Linklater obviously knows like the back of his hand and deeply cherishes, and another one that ponders the notion of justifiable or defensible crime without ever deserting a sturdy moral code.
The writing (by Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth, whose non-fiction article, which first appeared when The Newton Boys was in post-production, inspired the movie) is so good that the humor can’t be reduced to simple satire; a whole community winds up speaking through the film, and it has a lot to say. In fact, it’s hard to think of many other celebrations of small-town American life that are quite as rich, as warm, and as complexly layered, at least within recent years. But in this case, I suspect that many audiences who can discover this film without the “benefit” of reviewers, myself included, will thoroughly “get” and enjoy the film — or at least will if they get a chance to catch up with it before it disappears. [July 4 postscript: My worries on the film’s behalf were premature; it has subsequently had a substantial commercial success, and at this point even promises to become Linklater’s most successful independent release.] Maybe the film is more subversive than I originally thought, which is why it’s bothering some of the more straight- laced reviewers. I love the fact that it never bothers to clarify in any conclusive way whether or not the title hero played by Jack Black is gay; theoretically, I suppose this might be for legal reasons — although I’m not sure, because it appears that other sources have been quite outspoken about the real-life person’s gayness and active sex life back in Carthage, Texas, where most of this story happened. Or maybe the reviewers are bothered by the mix of actors and interviewed locals, fictional and non-fictional representations freely rubbing shoulders (as they do in Jia Zhangke’s 24 City, as was pointed out by A.A. Dowd in Time Out Chicago), because we aren’t told which is which — another radical decision about what does and doesn’t need to be clarified.
So let me just say that I haven’t had more fun at any new American movie this year (one near-exception: Wes Anderson’s equally sweet-tempered and even more mannerist Moonrise Kingdom), and I hope many others will get a chance to share my pleasure before this movie vanishes from sight. [5/17/12; revised and expanded, 5/20/12 & 7/4/12]