Whit Stillman, Metropolitan, 1990, Super 16, color, sound, 98 minutes.
A CONFESSION: I am a lapsed preppy. Using the term feels false, though—an affectation—as I was not a prep school/Ivy League legacy, which was the defining characteristic of true preppies in my day. My parents were not blue bloods but middle-class people from sleepy states (Minnesota, Vermont) who met in New York in the early 1960s. We were not wealthy and lived on the “border” of the Upper East Side and Spanish Harlem, but it was important to my mother that I attend “the best schools.” And so I did, starting with a private boys’ school in Manhattan (coat and tie from kindergarten on), leaving home for a leafy New England boarding school (Third through Sixth Forms), and then matriculating to that ancient university in Cambridge, Massachusetts (spires, not domes) known for its monstrous self-regard. My father died of brain cancer when I was twelve, and my mother struggled with tuition until she too died shortly before my college graduation.
In short, my background was parallel to that of Metropolitan writer-director Whit Stillman (minus the great-grandfather banker/patriarch), one generation later. I went to school with Rockefellers and Roosevelts. I escorted young women to debutante balls, three sheets to the wind in white tie and tails. I knew the types of people Stillman celebrated in his debut film; in fact, I knew one of its cast members personally. My internal perspective on that milieu, when I was in it, was fairly well represented by Metropolitan’s Tom Townsend, the slightly pretentious, intellectually self-serious character of “limited resources” and left-leaning impulses who has to rent his tuxedo (the shame) and is nominally of that world but forever outside of it. Whenever asked about him, I say that Whit Stillman makes horror movies about my upbringing. The “exoticism” of his preferred tableau of privileged youth, which I think of as WASP porn, is lost on me. I lived it, and I can say that it was both more interesting and more boring than he makes it out to be.
Metropolitan is currently enjoying a theatrical re-release in honor of its twenty-fifth anniversary, and it comes at an odd time in American history, a postcrash hangover period marked by extreme income inequality and the attendant vilification of the ultrarich 1 percent. I look forward to reading reviews by critics, currently in their twenties, who haven’t seen the film before. They may understandably have a more bemused view of the princesses and princelings of Park Avenue than my own generation did at the time of its initial release. They may regard this klatch of preppies as impossibly distant, relics from a rapidly receding past, viewing them as I might view knights in chain mail. But then they might miss the Jane Austen references and F. Scott patina that settles on the characters like a light Christmas snowfall.
To the film: Right away we’re in cucumber-sandwiches-with-the-Auchinclosses territory with the credit sequence’s Jazz Age font and Stillman’s production company names: “Westerly Films in association with Allagash Films” (I went to school with someone named LeGrand Elebash). The setting is “Manhattan. Christmas Vacation. Not so long ago.” A group of well-heeled young friends, self-titled the Sally Fowler Rat Pack, attend a series of debutante balls. On the way out of the first ball, they encounter “outsider” Tom Townsend. He goes to Princeton and has a wealthy father, but his parents have divorced and Tom has been disinherited, so he lives with his mother in a modest Upper West Side apartment. (This plot point mirrors Stillman’s own adolescence, though he went to Harvard, not Princeton.) Despite his Holden Caulfield–like contempt for the socialite scene (he quickly declares that he’s a Fourierist), Tom is taken in by the Rat Pack’s snobbiest member and ends up joining the group as an escort for the rest of the balls. There is a classic love triangle and a lot of talk—one of the Rat Pack is a somewhat preposterous pseudointellectual who insists on engaging the others in extended discourses on love, life, and the finer points of social class. By the end, the clique largely scatters, but the love triangle appears to resolve in the correct way.
What Metropolitan gets right: the complete absence of parents other than the mothers of the two characters who don’t fit in (Tom and the shy woman who has a crush on him, Audrey). In my day, such parents—often divorced or otherwise mired in solipsistic pursuits—were distant cyborgs who let their teenagers play-act at “adult” social life in their opulent living rooms while they went out or retired to bed early. Their lack of involvement in their children’s actual lives was staggering and allowed for much more serious debauchery than anything the Rat Pack got up to in the film. (I have a pet theory that my generation’s tendency toward helicopter parenting is an overcorrection of this dynamic.) Failing all else, you would occasionally end up at J.G. Melon, a small, dive-ish pub on the corner of Seventy-Fourth Street and Third Avenue, late at night, as two of the male characters do after an unsuccessful bid to recapture the camaraderie of the deb ball nights. Southampton was indeed known for its European aristocracy and nouveaux riches, another country entirely from the Waspish false modesty and “arts colony” vibe of the equally moneyed Easthampton. Distinguished by his baronial title and way with date rape, Rick Von Sloneker, the villain of the piece, rings somewhat true (particularly in Southampton), but he’s a type—a mildly menacing, casually sociopathic rich kid. Patrick Bateman would eat him for breakfast.
But I never met (or even heard of) anyone remotely like the self-consciously dandyish and proudly snobby Nick Smith (played by Stillman regular Chris Eigeman) or the annoyingly earnest house “philosopher” Charlie Black (Taylor Nichols), who frets throughout the film about his class’s downward mobility and ultimate failure (which is nevertheless a real phenomenon, known as “WASP Rot”—see George W. Bush). It may be unfair to fault a fiction film for its lack of verisimilitude, but Metropolitan’s cheap but resourceful cinematography and fly-on-the-wall view of an exclusive clique of upper-crust “insiders” gives the film a quasi-documentary feel, and it’s no secret that the script draws heavily on Stillman’s own college years. Stillman has said that he was trying to “preserve in amber” a real scene that he directly experienced, so I can’t help but compare it to a later iteration of the same scene.
When I mentioned the cliché characterization of Stillman as the “WASP Woody Allen” to a friend of mine, a well-known Jewish essayist and film critic who hails from Brooklyn, he responded, “Woody Allen is the WASP Woody Allen,” which made me laugh. And that’s the problem with Stillman—we don’t need a WASP Woody Allen; Woody holds it down just fine for Manhattan’s mayonnaise set. As over-the-top as its satire is, Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (book, not film) felt more true to what I went through than anything in Stillman’s filmography. Indeed, had Stillman transposed Ellis’s Less than Zero from LA to the Upper East Side, I might have warmed to that version of Metropolitan. It may be asking too much for characters who value traditional social conventions to be more unconventional, but there it is. Stillman’s characters are trying to become their parents as fast as they can; we put it off for as long as possible. I managed to avoid it entirely. Ta-ta.
The twenty-fifth-anniversary theatrical re-release of Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan opens Friday, August 7, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York and August 14 at Laemmle’s Royal in Los Angeles, with additional openings in select cities to follow. Stillman and members of the cast will be available for Q&As August 7-9.
CHINESE MONEY, implicitly or explicitly, has become a major factor at the contemporary multiplex—hacked Sony e-mails revealed a round of anxious self-censoring before the Adam Sandler vehicle Pixels began shooting, while Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation arrived in cinemas with the stamp of the government-run Chinese Movie Channel among its many sponsors. It remains to be seen how recent economic tremors will impact investment in movies, but for now investors seem eager to throw yuan into film projects—so long, that is, as they aren’t Chinese independent cinema.
In contrast to the emergence of China as a box-office force there is the star-crossed fate of the Beijing Independent Film Festival, founded in 2004 by Li Xianting, an art critic and curator. In 2012, when the festival’s ninth edition was held in the far eastern artist-community suburb of Songzhuang, a suspicious power outage interrupted the opening screening, forcing organizers to carry on in a jerry-rigged theater in their offices. The following year, only three of the festival’s nine venues were able to run more or less according to schedule, while the website for the Li Xianting Film Fund, the event’s organizing entity, went offline abruptly. Not even a pretext of soft authority was maintained on the occasion of the next announced fest, in August 2014. Already the Li Xianting Film School workshop, whose participants supply a great deal of the material screened at BIFF, had been forced to operate clandestinely, and when the time came for the festival to begin, cops backed up by plainclothes “villagers” blocked spectator entry to the Film Fund’s offices, confiscating cell phones and cameras. Li was forced to sign a statement asserting that no fest would be held that year, along with organizer Fan Rong and artistic director Wang Hongwei, a star of several films by the acclaimed (and embattled) Jia Zhangke, including A Touch of Sin (2013). All of this is in keeping with a concerted effort to discourage filmmaking outside of official channels from screening either at home or abroad, so preventing the emergence of more problematic high-profile artists like Jia. There was no rescheduling, and the BIFF has not been held since.
Of course Li and his compatriots would like their festival to be known for its films rather than its persecution, and it is here that the in absentia “Best of the Beijing Independent Film Festival 2012–14” program hopes to be of service. It is made up of screenings scattered across multiple New York City venues, beginning at Anthology Film Archives and then continuing to satellite events at Asia Society, the Maysles Cinema, Union Docs, and other participants. The program was selected by formerly Beijing-based critic and curator Shelley Kraicer; Karin Chien, whose dGenerate films has been instrumental in distributing the best of mainland Chinese cinema in the US; and J. P. Sniadecki, whose documentary The Iron Ministry opens in New York on August 21 and who has two films on the bill of fare, his collaboration with Huang Xiang and Xu Ruotao, Yumen (2013), at AFA, and People’s Park (2012), at Asia Society.
To select a “Best of . . . ” would seem to be a daunting task; in both 2012 and 2013, the BIFF showed over one hundred films, while the 2014 edition was meant to host seventy-six premieres. (Alongside Chinese independent films, the BIFF plays films from around the world, with an especial preference for films from developing nations.) The program encompasses documentary, narrative, experimental, and, in a program at the Museum of Chinese in America on Centre Street, animated works, showcasing a variety of regional dialects: not only Mandarin but Cantonese, Hunan, Sichuanese, Shandong, and Gansu.
While China has jumped into the art market both feet first, it has been considerably more circumspect when it comes to film festivals—not only is noncommercial cinema difficult to respectably monetize, it has historically been regarded as a potentially destabilizing medium: not art, but propaganda. The threat BIFF poses is one of alternative history, manifest in the festival’s commitment to documentary, amassed in an archive which was purportedly seized by the Chinese officials. In some cases this is a means of restoring a connection to the prerevolutionary world, as in Wen Hui’s Listening to Third Grandmother’s Stories (2012), in which the filmmaker interviews her eighty-three-year-old great-aunt, who candidly recounts, seemingly without bitterness, both her suffering as a child bride in prerevolutionary China and the daily abuse she faced as the daughter of landowners in the postrevolutionary People’s Republic, a real worst-of-both-worlds existence.
Yang Mingming, Female Directors, 2012, HD video, color, sound, 43 minutes.
Third Grandmother’s Stories plays with a testimony from another generation, Yang Mingming’s Female Directors (2012), a rough-hewn, rambunctious, and endearingly convoluted selfie mockumentary in which the filmmaker costars as one of two recent film school graduates on the hustle in Beijing who discover that they’ve been sharing the same benefactor/boyfriend. Along with Huang Ji’s Egg and Stone (2011), a remarkably poised, redolent autobiographical work in which the filmmaker re-creates the vivid textures of her girlhood in Hunan Province and the body shame endemic to the culture in which she was raised, it makes for a strong program of films that explore the degree to which equality between the sexes has remained a lip-serviced ideal in Chinese society. (Egg and Stone screens in a one-off at the Made in NY Media Center in DUMBO on August 17.)
Luo Li’s Emperor Visits the Hell (2012), like Listening to Third Grandmother’s Stories, endeavors to connect present to past—in this case the sixteenth century. The narrative is drawn from the early chapters of Wu Cheng’en’s Ming dynasty novel Journey to the West, which tells of the monk Xuanzang’s importing of Buddhist sutras from India and has been the subject of countless adaptations, including a lavish forthcoming Chinese-American coproduction directed by Zhang Jinlai. Luo’s approach is to defamiliarize the material by radically banalizing it, the stuff of myth made to reflect a contemporary culture of cronyism, currying favor, covering up mismanagement, passing the buck, and greasing palms. In Luo’s hands the Dragon King (Mai Dian) becomes a petty gangster and Taizong Emperor Li Shimin (Li Wen) a stout bureaucrat who, at the film’s close, is seen breaking his character over a bibulous dinner, mouthing off about China as a peasant society that needs enlightenment.
Among the principal attractions of Emperor Visits the Hell is Jie Ren’s grisaille black-and-white digital cinematography, equaled by that of Wang Xiaozhen’s queasy comedy Around that Winter (2013), the story of a young man’s homecoming in rural Shandong with his girlfriend in tow, and a film that announces a comic sensibility so bizarre and hyperspecific that you can’t help but respect it. Wang, it seems, is determined to advance his narrative almost but not quite exclusively in scenes of bodily functions, including sex and—more frequently—bathroom breaks. The blessing and curse of mainland Chinese independent filmmaking is that it is, inasmuch as anything can be today, the product of a hermit culture, hemmed in by the Great Firewall of China and a hostile government, forced to feel things out for itself in the relative absence of existing models to emulate. This breeds genuine eccentrics, always in short supply—you’d have to be a little cracked to take on these odds.
“Cinema on the Edge: The Best of the Beijing Independent Film Festival 2012–14” runs August 7–September 13 at Anthology Film Archives, Asia Society, Maysles Cinema, the Museum of Chinese in America, and UnionDocs.
A KICK IN THE LILY WHITE TEETH to England’s gilt-hedged public imagery back in 1985, My Beautiful Laundrette raised thirty-year-old mixed-race writer Hanif Kureishi from a stymied playwright (“the theater thing hadn’t been working out for me”) to a counterculture hero, established forty-four-year-old vet Stephen Frears as a world-class director, and gave a struggling twenty-eight-year-old aspirant named Daniel Day-Lewis his first Brando-Dean close-up. Kureishi now likens Day-Lewis’s iconic intro under a lamppost to the image of a rent-boy Clint Eastwood; Frears compares his come-hither gaze to Marlene Dietrich. That they’re both right indicates why the role made Day-Lewis a star and the film became a convention-smashing international sensation.
My Beautiful Laundrette was produced for Britain’s Channel 4 and was only picked up for theatrical distribution after a jubilant reception at the Edinburgh Film Festival. Filmed on serviceable-for-TV 16 mm—ranging from beguiling crane shots to interiors as grainy as a Brighton beach towel—it’s a striking film but not a pretty one. Criterion has cleaned up the repairable blemishes, but it still looks like DP Oliver Stapleton is working his damnedest to shoot an urban Johnny Guitar on equipment and stock left over from an industrial short on workplace safety. From its loopy musical theme of a synthesized washing machine to its agitating way of flipping dramatic setups upside down, nothing here is taken for granted. When the car our hero is chauffeuring is attacked by racist droogs, instead of being terrorized he gets out and strides over to the fetchingly lit countenance of Day-Lewis; all that’s missing is a musical cue to prompt a sweeping MGM pas de deux.
The idiosyncratic beauties of Laundrette emerge from how it grabs gray socialized realism by the horns and wrestles it into breathless submission. Coupling its blithe/flinty gay romance to the black-market comedy of Pakistani immigrants climbing over each other to get on board Thatcher’s “enterprise society,” the movie never proceeds as you’re expecting. A spurned wife employs witchcraft on her husband’s English mistress, Brechtian dialogue’s served up like zippy takeout food, quaint running gags and operatic emotions abound, while the taste-shifting mise-en-scène can from scene to scene, shot to shot, feel like a madcap reconsideration of British cinema (with a side order of influential Americana) shoehorned into ninety-some minutes. Though Laundrette features numerous reflective pauses (literally—Frears loves playing off windows and mirrors), few movies manage to engage viewers on so many rudely lyric levels, keeping the audience nervous with anticipation about what might be coming around the next reel.
“It’s all libido, it’s all excitement, it’s all energy,” Kureishi says in a terrific interview on the disc, describing the movie in terms of sexual awakening: The drama, and comedy, of self-invention here clearly owes as much to David Bowie as it does to the usual film or literary antecedents. But in the volatile jostling within the immigrant clan, where Gordon Warneke’s Omar is wedged between his father the alcoholic-invalid leftist-intellectual (given a bitter, gimlet-eyed, Einstein-haired dolefulness by Rosan Seth) and his precariously rich arch-capitalist uncle (Saeed Jaffrey), there is a defiant aroma of Philip Roth’s extended-family infighting. Pakistani, Jew, Italian, or Irish, this is the way of immigrant subcultures dealing with assimilation and resentment: a paternal nurture that burdens its object to the point of intergenerational asphyxiation.
Day-Lewis’s Johnny is the bruised wild card who motivates Omar’s transformation from passive son to aggressive materialist without even meaning to. He’s a glassy male inversion of the femme fatale figure—dangerous, erratic, alluring, Omar’s soul mate, his racial antagonist and his class inferior with the complex to show for it. Johnny’s pals are white-power bully boys who are nonetheless about as intimidating as a handful of Guys and Dolls revivalists outfitted in toy-store glasses, ska couture, and skinhead braces. Their violent outbursts have a cartoonish pathos—they are working-class yobs who have fallen so far down the Thatcher totem pole they have to look up when flushing themselves down the toilet.
The dynamics of race, sexuality, and political impotence in My Beautiful Laundrette are so persuasive because it turns academic bywords like postcolonialism hilariously square and inadequate when confronted with its supple, twisted, capricious spirit. Over the course of the movie, Kureishi develops a manner of giving characters reams of exposition and mini–position papers to espouse, then using that overzealous, over-explicit language as a way for these talkative, preening figures to hoist themselves by their exhibitionist petards. Ideology becomes part of the teeming decor, but like stiff middle-class cushiness for Douglas Sirk, Frears finds poignantly ironic resonances in rebounding melodrama and arrested emotions off flat surfaces. (This would have been a far straighter movie—and not merely sexually—if the role of Johnny had gone to Tim Roth, Gary Oldman, or God help us, Kenneth Branagh, who were all under consideration.)
The separate interviews provided here with Kureishi and Frears (“Maybe I brought the hooligan element around”) give an uncommonly clear sense of what was at stake for each of them in the material and the collaboration—how their differences in background complemented and goaded them into pushing the material ever further outside of personal comfort zones. Aside from the gangster cousin Salim (Derrick Branche), who is a dead ringer for Richard Romanus in Mean Streets (1973), the genius of the film is how well Day-Lewis and Warneke and the rest confuse/confound all those white-boy Scorsesean mythologies. If there is a secret discordant heart of the film (as Amy Robinson was for Mean Streets), it’s Rita Wolf’s Tania, the rebellious daughter who breathes acrimony and impatience. She makes the blustery men look like silly poseurs addicted to their own infantilization: She delivers the best line (“I’d rather drink my own urine”) and gets the best exit (vanishing into thin air). The movie has a pert happy ending—boy gets boy, after a bloody denouement—but Tania is the most haunting character for being so thoroughly unreconciled to everything.
My Beautiful Laundrette is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Criterion.
Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon, Best of Enemies, 2015, color, sound, 87 minutes. Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. Photo: Archie Lieberman, LOOK Magazine.
POLITICAL PARTY TIME in America has rarely been more riotous than during the 1968 presidential nominating conventions. The stakes—Vietnam, civil rights, the sexual revolution, the counterculture v. the as yet unnamed “silent majority”—were high. The country was as polarized as at any time since the Civil War. Television was more central to the process than ever; Richard Nixon’s chilling, divisive TV ads, created by Gene Jones and later mimicked by the Pavlovian test film in Alan Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974), signaled a new era of televisual propaganda in political campaigns. Among the big three networks, ABC News was in a distant third place in Nielsen ratings, and its executives decided to eschew gavel-to-gavel monitoring of the convention floor and instead broadcast what the network called “unconventional convention coverage.” Among other novelties, this included ten debates between two controversial public intellectuals who could not have disagreed more—William F. Buckley, Jr., founder of National Review and modern conservatism, and Gore Vidal, best-selling novelist, world-class libertine, and champion of “unconventional” sexuality.
From this distance, they seem an improbable pair to put on live television to comment on that most mainstream of political events. In today’s America, where avoiding the appearance of elitism at all costs has become de rigueur (except when such elitism is solely based on the size of one’s bank account—see Donald Trump, Kanye West), Buckley and Vidal—with their patrician accents, ostentatious vocabulary, and aristocratic mannerisms—would be regarded as insufferable snobs, talking down to the audience as much as they talked down to each other. Nevertheless, the debates were a hit, raising the profile of ABC News and changing the tone of political punditry forever.
Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon’s brisk, thorough documentary Best of Enemies recounts the ten “rounds” (the “debates” were really more of an intellectual boxing match), the backstories of both men, and the fallout from the confrontation, which colored the lives of the participants for many years afterward. Contemporary reflections from Christopher Hitchens, Dick Cavett, Andrew Sullivan, Brooke Gladstone, Frank Rich, Sam Tanenhaus, James Wolcott, Vidal’s close friend Matt Tyrnauer, Buckley’s brother Reid, and others dot the deftly sutured montage of vintage footage. The result is not unlike a nonfiction Frost/Nixon (2008), focusing as much on backstage machinations and cultural context as on the main event.
Vidal, having hired a researcher and rehearsed his prewritten, ostensibly ad-lib jibes, landed most of the blows, referring to Buckley’s “Latinate and inaccurate style,” calling him the “Marie Antoinette of the right wing” and the “inspiration for Mr. Myra Breckinridge—passionate and irrelevant,” and dismissing National Review as “your little magazine that I do not read but am told about.” Speaking about the Republican candidates in Miami, Vidal characterized Ronald Reagan as an “aging Hollywood juvenile actor with a right-wing script” and Nixon as a “professional politician who currently represents no discernible interest except his own.” Buckley, somewhat on the ropes, sought to portray Vidal as a pampered hypocrite and moral degenerate.
In the penultimate debate, as Buckley and Vidal discussed radical protesters’ attempt to raise a Viet Cong flag outside the Chicago convention hall and the police response to it, debate moderator Howard Smith compared the act to flying a Nazi flag during World War II. Vidal said to Buckley, “The only crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself.” Grimacing in what Hitchens calls a “rictus of loathing,” Buckley hissed, “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi, or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face!” ABC executives and the television audience were appalled—while Vidal’s orientation was well known, respectable figures simply did not call people “queer” on national television in 1968—but Vidal, sitting calmly with a Cheshire cat grin, knew that this outburst meant he had won the debates. Ultimately, Vidal was right about the futility of the Vietnam War, about America becoming an unsustainable, Rome-like empire, about the eventual triumph of the sexual revolution; Buckley was right that America would respond to all of this by electing a Republican president (Rick Perlstein’s book Nixonland exhaustively explores the reasons why this premonition turned out to be correct).
The 1968 Buckley-Vidal skirmishes were as much of a watershed moment for politics on American television as the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates, which heralded image-based campaigning. Along with Firing Line, Buckley’s combative talk show, they set the template for the Point/Counterpoint format, parodied in its relative infancy by Jane Curtin and Dan Aykroyd on Saturday Night Live, where ideologically polarized pundits turn what should be dispassionate, logical debate into gladiatorial bloodsport—perfect for fans of football and boxing, not so great for nurturing an informed, reasonable body politic. That said, while he was partly responsible for them, Buckley was the very model of sophisticated rationality compared with the paranoid, unprincipled buffoons who constitute his media heirs—Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and his own nephew, Bill O’Reilly. Indeed, an honest assessment of Buckley against his clearly inferior ideological progeny provides some of the best available evidence for the dumbing down of America since 1980.
Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon, Best of Enemies, 2015, color, sound, 87 minutes. William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal.
Buckley’s frequent threats of violence toward his ideological enemies, usually followed by a flash of his crocodile smile, were plainly chicken-hawk bluster from an effete glassjaw, one who never would have had the courage—as George Plimpton, another effete glassjaw of his generation, did—to get into the ring with Sugar Ray Robinson. Raymond Chandler once wrote of actor Alan Ladd, a sub-Bogart of compact stature, that he was a small boy’s idea of a tough guy. This line also applies to the saber-rattling pseudosoldiers of the postwar American Right, from Buckley to Nixon to Cheney. The gushing enthusiasm of Buckley biographer and fanboy Sam Tanenhaus in Best of Enemies is more easily understood in this light.
As for “crypto-Nazi,” Vidal’s precipitating insult, what else would you call a man who in the late ’50s advocated for segregation and the maintenance of white supremacy in the American South, calling whites “the advanced race,” who explicitly supported fascist dictators Generalissimo Franco in Spain and General Pinochet in Chile, and who, in an attempt to explain the antipathy of most American Jews to his politics, said on a 1964 radio program, “they [the Jews] tend to construct an engaging political myth, centered around the Hitlerian experience, which more or less suggests that Hitler was the embodiment of the ultra-Right, and that the true enemies of Hitler . . . were, in fact, many of them, Communists during the early ’30s. And under the circumstances they, I think, emotionally feel a kind of toleration for Communist excesses in this country.” “Crypto-fascist” would have been more accurate and less inflammatory, but neither party in the Buckley-Vidal debates was interested in fair play. It was an ad hominem grudge match from start to finish, setting the tone for the fractious partisan politics of the decades that followed. As Best of Enemies reminds us, if more recent pundits had Buckley and Vidal’s elevated wit and delicious turns of phrase at their command, the whole sad spectacle might be marginally more palatable.
Best of Enemies opens in select theaters on Friday, July 31.
IN “THE DUKE IN HIS DOMAIN,” Truman Capote’s notorious 1957 New Yorker profile of Marlon Brando (1924–2004), the writer observes of his subject: “The voice went on, as though speaking to hear itself, an effect Brando’s speech often has, for, like many persons who are intensely self-absorbed, he is something of a monologuist—a fact that he recognizes and for which he offers his own explanation. ‘People around me never say anything,’ he says. ‘They just seem to want to hear what I have to say. That’s why I do all the talking.’ ”
As the comma-deficient name of Stevan Riley’s latest documentary, Listen to Me Marlon, suggests, the totemic Method actor’s most captive audience may have been himself: The title is a self-exhortation culled from hundreds of hours of private audio recordings Brando made, segments from which form the spine of Riley’s portrait, whose other components include archival still and moving images and clips from the star’s films. (Occasionally these disembodied musings are “spoken” by a hologram Brando head; the 3-D body part was sculpted from digitized files of the actor’s face, which were created in the 1980s.) Although the labels of some of these tapes are sometimes visible—many are tagged “Self-Hypnosis”—the dates are not, and the opening intertitles never specify when the star began or ended his phonic diary.
“People invariably associate me with the part I play,” Brando says wearily at one point, his remark heard sometime during the first quarter of this one-hundred-minute-long film, which, despite occasional time-toggling, follows a fairly chronological arc. The complaint is common enough among performers, but when, exactly, did the man still frequently hailed as the greatest actor of all time utter it? During the early 1950s, the supernova era of A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront? The long slump that stretched from the late ’50s until the late ’60s, years during which his political activism grew? The annus mirabilis of 1972, when both The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris were released? Or during the last two decades of his life, when lurid personal tragedies and his escalating BMI overshadowed anything he was doing on-screen?
This lax matching of sight and sound, public and private—Riley is also the editor of Listen to Me Marlon—is most distressingly on display when the film indulges in the very conflation of performer and role that so displeased Brando. Juxtaposing the actor’s reflections on mortality, for example, with Vito Corleone’s death scene banalizes both. In fact, much of the visual footage here—the film-highlights reel, the Sacheen Littlefeather incident at the 1973 Academy Awards—is already so familiar that it dulls the pleasure of hearing Brando’s unfettered thoughts. (One auditory highlight features the weight-struggling actor giving voice to the cajoling pleas of the food—which he calls “always a friend”—in his fridge: “Come on, Marlon. Won’t you be a pal? Take me out. I’m freezing in here.”)
Among the archival footage Riley includes in his project are scenes of Brando behaving with gallant wolfishness toward his female interlocutors during a press junket. The clips are from Albert and David Maysles’s Meet Marlon Brando (1966), a roughly half-hour documentary that vividly illustrates what Listen to Me Marlon, at three times the length and with a trove of newly accessed material, only fitfully and superficially points to: the man’s enormous complexities and contradictions, his intelligence, his boredom, his beauty, his body anxiety.
Roberto Gavaldón, La noche avanza (Night Falls), 1952, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 85 minutes.
PRIDE COMES BEFORE A FALL. This lesson unites film noir from the United States and its south-of-the–Rio Grande equivalent, the Mexican ciné negro—though the degree of pride, and the manner of its expression, vary in ways that say something about masculine self-image. The protagonist of US noir is often something of a schlump patsy, dumber by half than he thinks he is, obliviously backing into a way-over-his-head situation. The ciné negro protagonist acts like a matador when in fact he is the bull; he’s every bit as oblivious, yes, but twice as arrogant as he strides toward oblivion.
In Roberto Gavaldón’s La noche avanza (Night Falls), Pedro Armendáriz plays a champion jai alai player who refers to himself in third person as “The Master,” freely expresses his contempt for failures, and kicks stray dogs. (One has its revenge in the film’s coda, whizzing on a poster advertising the fallen champion.) In Gavaldón’s En la palma de tu mano (In the Palm of Your Hand, 1951), Arturo de Córdova is “Professor” Karin, a charlatan con-man clairvoyant who preys on superstitious old women and grandiosely bills himself as the “disciple of the Great Ben Ali Krishna Rama.” In Julio Bracho’s Crepusculo (Twilight, 1945), the fall guy is de Córdova’s progressive surgeon, Dr. Mangino, an outspoken proponent of the modernization of Mexico whose study contains a priceless Orozco, an advocate of enlightenment who cannot keep himself free of the primordial murk of irrational desire. As surely as their US cousins, they will all be undone, usually not before coming teasingly close to a clean getaway. At best, they go down to their destinies with a dash of panache.
The ciné negro will be showcased at “Mexico at Midnight: Film Noir from Mexican Cinema’s Golden Age,” a small and pungent program organized by the redoubtable Dave Kehr at the Museum of Modern Art. MoMA’s series follows closely on the heels of tributes to the cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa at both El Museo del Barrio and Film Forum, altogether making up the largest program of Mexican época de oro (Golden Age) cinema to appear in Nueva York for a great many years.
Mexican cinema’s Golden Age, like US noir, was a phenomenon that emerged in the years during and immediately after World War II, when Mexican films seized a big chunk of the market share in the Spanish-speaking world. The now-booming national industry nurtured a pool of top-flight directors and technicians who could produce movies with a high-finish polish comparable to that of Hollywood, and the public developed a passionate rapport with stars like Armendáriz, de Córdova, and Dolores del Rio, who made a triumphant return from the US in 1943, starring in a string of wildly popular and critically praised films by Emilio Fernández.
The selection at MoMA gives evidence of the Mexican industry’s small but profound pool of talent. In an unusual female-centered entry, Del Rio can be seen playing a flashy double role in La otra (The Other One, 1946), by Gavaldón, who directed four of the seven films featured. Figueroa is represented as cinematographer only on Julio Bracho’s Distinto amanecer (Another Dawn, 1943), an early instance of the ciné negro, while the better part of the program showcases Mexican cinema’s other great DP of the period, the Canadian-born Alex Phillips, who lends an air of smothering, smoldering ennui to the long, often wordless passages in Crepusculo, in which reignited old flame Gloria Marin beckons to de Córdova with words that make explicit noir’s cinematographic modus operandi: “Don’t stay under the light. Come to the shadows for a moment.”
Judging on this sampling, the Mexican ciné negro may be seen to differ from US noir in several respects. The latter existed to some degree in defiance of the Production Code, by the very fact of its acknowledging the existence of socially shunned sexual desire that had more to do with the undertow pull of blissful mutual degradation than shiny, happy reproductive urges; the ciné negro, however, had license to be significantly more explicit. In La noche avanza, Armendáriz keeps not one but three mistresses on call; in Crepusculo, de Córdova is ensnared anew when he glimpses Marin modeling nude for a life-sculpting class; in En la palma de tu mano, de Córdova and Leticia Palma’s exchanged glances practically scream “hate-fuck.” While one might expect another fundamental difference would come in the schism between Protestant US and Catholic Mexico, this would discount the heavy influence of German émigrés and German Expressionism on US noir—the ciné negro and the noir both, in effect, present a moral universe that is very Catholic.
Though US movies of the period (and today) tended to rely on Mexico for a background of picturesque poverty, MoMA’s selection of ciné negros present a glossier view of Mexico City and environs than many a noir did of the urban landscape of postwar US—these films appeared at the moment of the “Mexican miracle” economy, and on the surface appear to keep up its official front of prosperity, setting their scene against a backdrop of luxury apartments, hunting lodges, and swank nightclubs. (The prevalence of actors of European descent reflects Mexican racial neurosis, just as surely as the invisibility of African Americans in Golden Age Hollywood cinema reflects the United States’.) Industrialization and progress were the official narratives of the moment, to be advanced through popular arts working for the enlightenment of the public and the greater good, a view echoed by Crepusculo’s Dr. Mangino. A colleague quotes from an interview in which Mangino suggests that “those formidable media for propaganda and broadcasting that are the cinema and radio” should play a role in Mexican progress but “have fallen into a detestable flamboyance and self-aggrandizing forgetting the demands of the majority.” He might be condemning the very movie in which he appears—a decadent work that dares to suggest the fatal primacy of dark, atavistic forces in the bright, modern world.
“Mexico at Midnight: Film Noir from Mexican Cinema’s Golden Age” runs through July 29 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.