Monday, November 25, 2019

European Formalism

John Simon, who died yesterday at age 94, had one of the two or three most unremittingly independent voices in criticism. Advertisers and editors probably tried to control his signature vitriol or his devastating judgments, but it's obvious they failed.

The most striking thing about his body of work (from Acid Test in 1964 and Movies into Film in 1971 to Something to Declare in 1984 and The Sheep from the Goats in 1987) is its autonomy and singularity (in fact, his 1975 anthology of long theater essays—on Peer Gynt, on The Wild Duck—is called Singularities). Aside from Edmund Wilson, there was nobody else in American letters quite like Simon, a critic by innate temperament who combined academic formalism with a journalist’s impulse for influencing the collective taste of educated readers (many of whom undoubtedly didn’t much care for movies anyway). Dwight Macdonald could cut the spindly legs out from under mass culture with equal ease and spirit, but Macdonald had a jokey, teasing quality which Simon completely lacked. Macdonald hated garbage as vehemently as Simon (read Macdonald’s takedown of the Hollywood biblical epics in the 1969 On Movies), but he didn’t give you the impression, despite all his masscult and midcult categorizing, that he himself was an inaccessible, displaced alien of superiority, passing judgment on a hopeless demotic culture, as Simon always did. Maybe that difference was the innate extension of Simon’s Old World pedantry (he was the sort to correct you on your use of polymath when you really meant polyhistor).

An ace polemicist, Simon was praised and reviled just about equally throughout his career. One anecdote should suffice: In 1969–70, Simon was a recipient of the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism (voted on by the Cornell, Princeton, and Yale English department faculty), and that same year the New York Drama Critics’ Circle voted to keep him out of that august body.

Simon in interviews encouraged his notoriety as a harsh, nearly unpleasable critic with a mandarin disdain for pop and ersatz in the arts. I always thought this was unfortunate because that reputation ossified around him like a crust until it obscured his clarion voice in print. He was almost always described as the “Count Dracula of film critics” or “the skunk at the party” (not to mention the endless agitated charges of sexism, homophobia, and misanthropy), and his funny descriptions of the physiognomies and various protuberances of Liza Minnelli and Barbra Streisand invariably appeared, way up top, in virtually everything ever written about him. It was his fault: his frequent apologia—that film was a gesamptkunstwerk in which every element, designed or not, played an important part in the viewer’s experience—was never very convincing. He just loved skewering ugliness, whether of a costume, a speaking voice, a set backdrop, or a receding chin.

Compared with his contemporaries—other critics in his league—Simon used a prose style that was indistinguishable from the opinions themselves. The singular force of his judgment was his style, whereas his colleagues—Macdonald, Vernon Young, Robert Bentley, Stanley Kauffmann, and so on—had more idiosyncratic styles with a rhetorical lightness that shaped their opinions. When he wasn’t firing on all cylinders, Simon was a starch-collared, stentorian writer who was inclined to announce that he was about to be witty right before being so (although he was often genuinely so—“As Marge, Frances McDormand verges on the cutesy but manages in the nick of time to pull herself back from the verge”). His other recurring weakness was the stringing out of lengthy tropes until you felt as if you were watching money compound in the bank (“A similar visual fakery has the gifted but often excessive cinematographer Allen Daviau bedizen the movie with every sort of unearned visual opulence as further aid in audience-besotting”). Typically, he lines up his perfectly poised, well-structured phrases in a nagging, anal-retentive way that saps his point of some of its energy: “The trouble with JFK is that whereas it solicits a second seeing to unscramble it, it does not offer enough aesthetic compensation to warrant the effort of reimmersion.” Think of how much pithier Rossini was about Wagner, saying the same thing.

Simon’s voice felt far more authoritative—and inquisitive—when he was writing about European movies and plays. He seemed more at home with European sensibilities. In the introduction to Something to Declare, his anthology of foreign film reviews, Simon admitted that he rejected that view, but it was always true. The art films of early Fellini, Antonioni, Bergman, Ozu, Troell, and the like were his true purview. In writing about them, he delved more deeply and described more acutely than he did with American studio films, whose messiness and market exigencies probably occupied only a fourth of Simon’s analytic ability and his interest. (He almost never discussed seriously or at length a movie’s financial battles or its box office.) It’s his writing on European movies—on their explorations of sexual politics, their intimacy and reflection, their avant garde rhetoric, and their literary symbolism—that will stay in the memory of Simon’s close readers. Let the rest of the world keep their Count Dracula.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

American Realism

Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) apotheosizes the American gangster picture genre. It subsumes all other classic gangster pictures, from Underworld (1929), The Public Enemy (1931), Little Caesar (1931), and Scarface (1932) to The Roaring Twenties (1939), White Heat (1949), and The Killing (1956). But The Godfather Part II (1974) does what no other gangster picture—even The Godfather—ever did. With the relentless, excoriating scalpel of nineteenth-century novels and the plays of Chekhov—the laboratory of literary realism—Part II flayed the layers of superficiality (those earlier movies’ stock in trade) off the underlying complexity of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino). As a study of despoiled idealism and the effects of social organization on the members of a powerful tribal family, Part II analyzes Michael as profoundly as any of the main characters are analyzed in the novels of Balzac, Howells, Wharton, or Eliot.

The Godfather was perhaps the single greatest example of epic romanticism in the New American Cinema. The tidal-wave sweep of the story and the gallery of characters are rich and expertly acted but framed in melodramatic terms scaled to the spectacle of the film. Michael, his siblings, his father (Marlon Brando as the old Corleone, the family man as institution), his family’s caporegime and legal retainers, and the maze of partners and “soldiers” are realistic types, but types (and stock characters) nonetheless: the proud patriarch; the thoughtful, independent younger son; the hothead older son (James Caan); and the array of lackeys, bodyguards, and operations men. These characters are vibrant examples of literary and cinematic creations, but they don’t really evolve or reveal new shadings over the course of the movie, and we aren’t shown their doubts or twisted self-hatred. The movie succeeds as brutal enchantment—as a charismatic cast of characters in a sophisticatedly stylized melodrama. There’s something Dickensian about the dramatic parade of character types passing across the screen. The movie’s visual richness, framing, and montage (which speeds up and cross-cuts so suspensefully you may be reminded of the competing and ultimately colliding stories in the climax of D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance) are pitched to the dimensions of the theater. (More than just about any other movie of its era, The Godfather deserves to be seen on the big screen.)

Real men. Al Pacino
The Godfather Part II is equally a triumph of personal filmmaking, but its analytical mind is far deeper. It goes beyond the romanticism of its predecessor into a new vein of realism in American movies. Part II puts Michael, Fredo Corleone (John Cazale) and Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg)—and perhaps even the Frank Pentangeli of Michael V. Gazzo as well as Robert De Niro’s beautifully realized Vito Corleone—under closer scrutiny (as if the camera were a magnifying glass), demonstrating a complexity of character analysis you almost never saw in genre movies until this one. The treatment of these characters fills them out with the complications and completeness of real human beings. Coppola replaces much of the mythic resonance and symbolic significance of the first Godfather film with a new naturalism and verisimilitude. Michael’s and Fredo’s motives and moods alternately lurch forward and fold back on themselves in unpredictable yet totally believable ways, their emotions bubbling to the surface one minute and being sublimated the next (Pacino excels at abrupt flareups of anger—you’re shocked but fully convinced of his frustrations). These characters are anything but stock and they aren’t even symbolic here. They are far too complex for facile symbolism or the creaking mechanics of traditional storytelling devices. Like us, they change their minds and grapple with the messy self-doubts and sordidness of life. The complexity of Part II is that these men aren’t mouthpieces for ideas or dramatic “techniques” or tools for advancing the plot; like the great characters in novels, they seem to have lives outside the text—lives, in fact, that are far richer than even Coppola’s operatic vision can capture.

As an epic generational saga and a portrait of the moral ambiguity at the heart of finance and business (possibly a metaphor of the movie business itself), The Godfather Part II is peerless. It casts an influential shadow over just about everything after it, including John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday (1980), Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984), and Martin Scorsese’s rather facile Goodfellas (1990). Even Quentin Tarentino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Brian De Palma’s nervy, erotic thriller Carlito’s Way (1993) pay homage to Part II (and have to grapple with new styles to escape its massive imprint). Of what other postwar American film can you say that even major works look like tinfoil up against it?

Monday, November 11, 2019

Shlock from Shintoho

I’ve now seen two movies by the Japanese director Nobuo Nakagawa, whose reputation, thanks to Criterion and Turner Classic Movies, has reached ridiculous overinflation. I usually love films that are so ambitious dramatically or visually that you can appreciate their barmy edges; in the very best of these films, such as The Thief of Bagdad (1924) or Napoléon (1927), it’s like watching Jacob wrestle with God’s angel. (The director busts his hip bone, too.)

Gelatinous blob. Jigoku.
In some movies made by brilliant eccentrics such as Raoul Walsh or Abel Gance, enchanted ideas come spilling out, overflowing the ordinary constraints of production design, camerawork, and narrative. Ideas are executed with an almost religious fervor, an impresario’s spirit—as if the director were driven to express something so deep within him that it was as if he needed to make the grandest summing up of all, the Alpha and the Omega of cinematic statements. Because the plots are incoherent or the themes jumbled or the point of view ambivalent or self-contradictory (as it sometimes is in Fritz Lang or Alfred Hitchcock or G. W. Pabst), audiences may be befuddled about details or flow, but they watch these movies in a state of heightened excitement. Their senses are alert to possibilities they didn’t even know existed, and the experience can be overwhelming.

But Nakagawa’s movies aren’t barmy and creative in this way; they’re just freakishly melodramatic and puerile, with screams and shrieks filling the soundtrack at random. (Remember those “Sounds of Halloween Haunted Houses” records you bought as a kid?) They’re low-budget bores—thirty minutes in, you’ve had it with the penny-effects and the inanity. You feel as if you’ve been dragging toddlers around the neighborhood on Halloween, enduring garage “funhouses” and stick witches from those converted costume stores. His two most esteemed movies, Jigoku (1960) and Ghost Story of Yotsuya (1959), both made at Shintoho, have none of the elegance, brilliance, or genuine terror of Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1965) or Kaneto Shindo’s Kuroneko (The Black Cat) (1968). Jigoku, particularly, is a medieval morality play overlaid with giallo shlock (with none of Mario Bava’s skill with camera angles or basic narrative ploys), ketchup blood from Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations (the kind that appears to have been thickened with cornstarch until it resembles a gelatinous blob of pomegranate juice), and a script that Ed Wood probably turned down. It’s a testament to Nakagawa’s inexpertise, I suppose, that he generates tedium even out of such promising ingredients.