The Invention of Lying (2009). I liked it. What does that prove?

I was on Ricky Gervais’ wavelength from frame one to fadeout of this film. I laughed when I was meant to laugh, I teared up when cued by the score. I sat imagining a movie starring Jennifer Garner and Hilary Swank playing sisters, but that’s just a jaw thing. I enjoyed the movie.

When it was over, it occurred to me to wonder whether there was any connection between my enjoyment of it and its artistic merit, if any. Does liking something make it art? Of course not. So is artistic merit 100% orthogonal to enjoyment? Or can there be some relative connection? If, for example, I like a movie but 99 others don’t, does that lessen the possibility that cinematic art has been created? What if all 100 of us like it? I mean, the director sets out, in many cases, to make something we’ll like; if he succeeds, doesn’t art play a part?

I suppose that questions like these reflect aspects of the larger “What is art?” question. I remember nothing from my art-history and aesthetics courses. A visit to Wikipedia would probably provide me with lots of answers, but I’d rather just think about it for a couple of minutes and then move on.

Because it does bother me a little that I could watch, laugh, cry, enjoy, knowing that my reactions may have nothing to do, probably have nothing to do, absolutely have nothing to do (which is it?) with the artishness of the thing. Doesn’t seem right.

I mean, could I love a movie that is absolutely devoid of artistic merit of any kind?

Later: ok, after a lot of thought on the matter, I have concluded that if I like a movie, it automatically has artistic merit, even if I watched it in an impaired state or at a time of severe mental disequilibrium. This would include Norbit and The Love Guru. If I don’t like a movie, I allow that it might still contain some artistic merit. This would include Metropolis and Sunrise. As I said to Roger Ebert the other night while explaining how all this works, if you like a movie and I don’t, then artistic merit is not automatically conferred upon it. Who knows what weird stuff you’re liable to like? But now if you can explain to me why a movie that I don’t like has artistic merit, and I buy your explanation, no matter how wrong-headed and tinfoil-hatted it may be, then that’s ok, unless I change my mind later and decide that your explanation is actually rubbish. I feel a lot better having cleared this up for myself.

You ask, what if I (me, not you) love a movie but decide in my heart and mind that it is trash, or at least trashy? Doesn’t matter. In that case it has artistic merit that I can’t see right off the bat, or I wouldn’t have loved it in the first place.

What if I have a love/hate thing going with some movie? That means artistic merit. Probably even more than I would ever be able to know.

Finally, if a movie has twelve tons of artistic merit but I’d hate it if I watched it, then you go watch it and report back. You’ll probably love it.

Homo Erectus (2007)

aka National Lampoon’s Stoned Age. NL has produced a closetful of clunkers over the years, but Adam Rifkin gets this genre film right, the genre being Movies To Watch While You’re Drunk. I was and it was.

It’s all here:

David Carradine as MooKoo, proving once again that he will do literally anything for a paycheck. He’s especially good in the scenes where he’s carrying his head under his arm. (Ed.: Written before the man checked out. RIP. Loved you in Hell Ride. Nice callback to Dennis Hopper in Modern Romance.)

Talia Shire as his wife, mother of the clan, who will do anything for a fur, even if it’s off an australeamoustisimus.

Ron Jeremy as Oog, who doesn’t show it, but at this point doesn’t really have to anymore. Anybody who cares has memorized it by now.

Gary Busey as Krutz, who doesn’t have to act crazy to be crazy.

Ali Larter as Fardart, showing off the best set of prehistoric choppers in film history, although Raquel Welch still beats her from the neck down.

Carol Alt as Queen Fallopia. “You turn me down?? Every Neanderthal between here and the volcano wants to get into this lizard-skin thong!”

Kansas Carradine as the pregnant cavewoman. David’s daughter adds her oiled belly to several of the scenes wherein the women drop their pelts.

and Adam Rifkin, who gets hit in the head by large rocks twenty, no, twenty-two, no… I was too far gone to keep track.

The movie poses the question, If you paste large shaggy patches of fake pubic fur over the female actors’ actual areas, is that still full-frontal, or what?

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

21 questions I asked myself during this movie:

1. Who’s going to get shot? Every man in the movie is wearing a gun. There are no bad guys, no violence, no threats of violence. Sure, they’re down there in lawless Peru, but nowhere do guns figure in the action. Yet it’s inconceivable that they’ll get through the movie without somebody shooting somebody. A: Somebody got shot.

2. Say, this being a ’30s movie, will the characters in it begin a lot of sentences with “Say”? A: Say, yes!

3. Why do I like black-and-white movies? I remember thinking, during, for example, Dead Man, and Manhattan, and this movie, how glad I was that they weren’t in color. Color would have diminished them. But I don’t watch color movies wishing that they were in black-and-white. What gives? A: I don’t know, but I do know that cigarette smoke is much cooler, and much more dramatic, in black-and-white.

4. How wrong can Hawks go with the one black guy he puts in the movie? A: Very wrong. This being 1939, Charles R. Moore must have drifted over from Gone With the Wind, where he was playing Butterfly McQueen’s brother.

5. A plane full of nitro and a flock of condors below – what to do? A: Drop the nitro on them. “That ought to move ’em!”

6. That boat coming into port – familiar? A: I just watched King Kong. Those ’30s movies were great with the boats in the harbor mist.

7. How have line readings changed since the ’30s? Turning on English subtitles calls attention to line readings and one current vogue has the actor pausing before ending a sentence. Think Michael Emerson in Lost: “You’re going to have to kill me… John.” A: Next ’30s movie, I’ll pay attention to this.

8. Kid Dabb says, “I’ve been doing this 22 years.” Is that a big deal? A: Not when you’re my age.

9. You know somebody is going to get killed. Can you guess who? A: I couldn’t. It had nothing to do with the guns.

10. McPherson lands a plane on a short runway that ends at a cliff. Why is this familiar to me? A: Similar to landing in Los Alamos on a DC3. Except that the runway in Los Alamos is not on Barranca Mesa, but one mesa over from there (the movie is set in Barranca).

11. Can it be that for once a crashed plane on fire won’t blow up? A: Wow. It’s not blowing up. It’s just burning, not bl… Oops, there it goes.

12. Does Jean Arthur have twice the normal number of teeth? A: I need to go back, pause the movie, and count them.

13. Who wrote this? I wondered, because of the bananas in the Andes. Peru joined the banana market only recently. I’m thinking that the writer assumed that any country south of Mexico is a banana republic. But wait, the NYT reviewer back in 1939 thought that the movie was set in Equador, which does export bananas. Peru or Equador, which is it? A: Howard Hawks himself wrote the story. The Corvallis-Benton County Public Library has a copy of “Plane From Barranca.” Maybe I should call up there, and ask the librarian to take the book off the shelf and read the first few pages of it to me, to see if Hawks specifies a country.

14. Is Dimitri Tiomkin going to drive me crazy again, like he did in The Fall of the Roman Empire? A: No. His score is absolutely unobtrusive.

15. Does Grant say “Judy, Judy, Judy…”? A: No.

16. The movie was filmed in Hollywood but what about those tropical airplane sequences (not with the obvious little model, but the other ones)? A: Don’t know how they were done, but the picture was nominated for the first-ever Special Effects Oscar. Didn’t win it, and neither did GWTW or The Wizard of Oz. The Rains Came won it; now I want to see those rains; must have been really something.

17. Pilot wears a white shirt and tie, leather jacket, and snap-brim fedora – cool or not cool? A: Hayworth went for it. Whereas Cary Grant’s Panama was just plain silly.

18. Jean Arthur or Rita Hayworth? Arthur is the romantic lead and Cary Grant tells her that she and Hayworth, his former girlfriend or ex, I forget which, are very much alike. Perhaps so, but there are a couple of big differences, which are obvious from the start. A: I’ll take Arthur. Maybe Grant could handle Hayworth, but I couldn’t.

19. Is Arthur quite a bit shorter than Grant, or not? A: She = 5′ 3″ He = 6′ 1.5″ The difference is only apparent every so often. Richard Barthelmess, on the other hand, looked shorter than Arthur and he = 5′ 8″.

20. Kid and Bat, the deadly adversaries – are they going to end up in a deadly situation that recapitulates their antagonistic backstory? A: Three guesses, and the first two don’t count (that expression was fresh in the ’30s; now, 23,800,000 Google hits.) A line in the movie that I was surprised to hear: “I’ve always preferred a bath to a shower.” Somehow I don’t picture a lot of showers in the ’30s.

21. Are these guys all supposed to be angels, because they’re pilots flying dangerous missions? Is that the message of the movie, encapsulated in its title? A: Yes. They are manly men, by God, and Howard Hawks wants you to know it.

Watchmen (2009)

After I watch a movie, I read some reviews about it to find out whether I liked it or not. A.O. Scott does a nice job on Watchmen, but he tells me that I didn’t like it as much as I thought I did. The gist of his argument seems to be that Zack Snyder brought the 80s graphic novel faithfully to the screen and that this was not a good thing: that the ideas in the book are dated and jejune. Scott’s review is so well-written that I felt ashamed about writing one of mine own, this one in fact, and I put it aside unfinished.

But wait a minute. Of course the ideas in the book are dated. The ideas in Pride and Prejudice are dated. So what? And of course the ideas are the sort that would appeal to a teen reader. Watchmen was born as a series of comic books. A.O., grow down.

But then, I liked “300,” so what do I know?

A.O. also calls out the primary sex scene in the movie as the worst of the year. Evidently A.O. steers clear of 99% of the DVDs on Blockbuster’s shelves. At any rate, what I saw in that scene was an ineffective Snyder attempt to maintain Watchmen’s PG-13 rating, an attempt doomed from the gitgo by the movie’s blue penis.

That blue penis. Over and over before watching the movie I heard about the blue pee pee. I was expecting gratuitous closeups of the prosthesis. I was expecting an azure member of a size worthy of the movie’s only true superhero. What th… The little guy was as unobtrusive in the movie as it was in the book. U.S. society is messed up WRT the phallus. Judd Apatow ran a couple of focus groups while making Funny People, to discover how many dick jokes in the movie would be too many dick jokes. The answer: you can’t have too many. And what is a man’s member a member of anyway?

Like Risselada and some other Spouters, I read Watchmen just before watching it. I like to read a book and then see the movie. If the movie heads off in some wrongheaded direction, I might shake my head philosophically, but my bile is not wont to rise when it happens. A shrug is sufficient. For example, Kiera Knightly as Elizabeth Bennet did not do it for me, but I have moved on. I do not brood. Kiera, go back to POTC before Jane Austen comes back from the grave to haunt you. OK, maybe a little brooding eventuated, but hey, Elizabeth Garvie in the role will suffice for me until Pride and Prejudice is remade yet again, which it will be.

In the 60s, I went gaga over Fowles’ The Magus. But then the movie version became my biggest book-to-movie disappointment. On the other hand, I read Robert Parker’s Appaloosa a while back and believe me, Ed Harris is the perfect Virgil Cole in the movie version. Ditto Tom Selleck as Parker’s Jesse Stone. Perhaps a reader who found Watchmen magical in the 80s and then waited twenty years for the movie might have problems with it, though I’m willing to bet that most of those folks – I’ve got no data – loved the movie.

Anyway, I liked Watchmen the movie better than Watchmen the graphic novel. Snyder left out the pirates and other boring stuff and stuck to the main line, getting it all in, or so it seemed to me. Fresh faces in his casting choices, a big plus. I watched the movie in pieces, as if it were a mini-series, so it didn’t seem to run long. And for me, if not for A. O. Scott, adding a collection of 80s tunes to the soundtrack tweaked the experience in a way not possible to a silent book. Even if those tunes have been played to death, which they have been.

There has been conversation about the excessive violence in the movie. Sorry, I must have been distracted by Maggie Gyllenhaal getting blown up in the Dark Knight, and The Joker’s pencil to the eyeball, and Saws I, II, III, IV, and V, and folks checking into hostels never to check out again, whatever, so that I missed the fact that Rorschach in prison got a little extreme. He does splash hot oil in a dude’s face, but see, I just watched Trailer Park of Terror, in which the victim is lowered whole into hot oil like a very large freedom fry. At any rate, Snyder had obviously given up on his PG-13 quest by the time he cut together the prison fight scenes.

Near the end of the book and movie, Dr. Manhattan tells Ozymandias that he’s leaving for a galaxy where things aren’t so complicated. The average galaxy contains 100 billion stars and there are about 100 billion galaxies in the visible universe. I’m guessing that one collection of 100 billion stars is pretty much the same as another. Stick to your own galaxy, blue guy! Remember, whereever you go, there you are. And about creating some humans of your own: who do you think you are, God? Fundamentalists are outraged! God is not blue! And if you saw His pee pee…!

For recent urban total destruction, the late scenes in Watchmen are ok (reimagined from the original), but I liked the devastation in “Knowing” better – speaking of freedom fries.

Finally, for your consideration, the beginning and end of the Watchmen review found on “Christian Spotlight on Entertainment.” A reviewer with his feet in the mud and head in the clouds:

“For conservative Christian audiences, the prospect of seeing Zack Snyder’s “Watchmen” is a non-starter. There is male frontal nudity (albeit blue and animated); numerous instances of blasphemy; shots of women’s breasts; gory violence; and a nude love-making scene… Watchmen is a long viewing. It is sometimes ponderous, grisly, and confusing, but for those who have read the book and have reasonable expectations of what can be done in cinematic form, it is an instant classic — a tour de force which asks universal questions through comic book characters. For Christians, Dr. Manhattan represents the seeker who questions the existence of God and the meaning of life. His questions are in part answered in the realization that life is a miracle, “gold from air,” unexplained by the processes of nature. When the movie is over, the character that viewers will be most interested in is Dr. Manhattan and his journey to another galaxy, a journey he wouldn’t make if he were just interested in matter.”

Aging Boobs: Would a Lift Be So Wrong?

Watching Kabluey the other night, I was delighted to see that Lisa Kudrow is letting the camera record her age (45), at least in this movie. Her part required her to look haggard and beaten down, but not necessarily mid-forties; in this business, it takes some guts to show your age, especially if you’re female. Helen Hunt, born the same year, looks 45 in Then She Found Me, which is good, except that as the director, she cast herself as a 39-year-old trying to conceive. Does this mean that she thinks that she still looks 39 onscreen? I like Helen Hunt, so I hope that she isn’t deluding herself. A while back I found I Could Never Be Your Woman unwatchable because Michelle Pfeiffer has had so much work done that I feel creepy looking at her. See, everybody should be in charge of their own body and if someone wants to get a little plastic surgery done, fine. Their perogative. But as a movie-goer, it’s my perogative to choose not to go to films that creep me out. Sorry, Michelle. In the movie she’s the October in a May/October relationship, which is good, but that face. Whew.

And as soon as I say that, here comes Aging Gracefully with Michelle Pfeiffer.

The common trope on women is: “Except for occasional supporting roles as mothers (who are never germane to the plot), Hollywood actresses disappear from the screen at about age 35 or certainly by 40. After a few years of exile, they turn up as has-been semi-celebrities on reality shows then disappear again until they age into grande dames like Helen Mirren, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith.” (Ronni Bennett) Somehow I’ve been thinking that there are more women of middle age in the movies now than there used to be. True or false? Women who never stoped working, like Geneviève Bujold and Charlotte Rampling. Hmm. In their forties or older: Nicole Kidman, Lucy Liu, Laura Linney, Demi Moore, Julia Roberts, Holly Hunter, Meg Ryan, Mary-Louise Parker, Elizabeth Perkins, Mary McConnell, Felicity Huffman, Teri Hatcher, Alfre Woodward, Geena Davis, Stockard Channing, Frances Conroy, Glenn Close, Bette Midler, Susan Sarandon, Goldie Hawn. I keep thinking of more. Angelica Houston. Lily Tomlin. Sarah Palin. Debra Winger. Catherine Deneuve. Got to stop. Signorney Weaver, Isabella Rossallini, Juliette Binoche, Isabelle Adjani, Lili Taylor, Jane Curtain. Got… to… let… it… go. Janeane Garofalo. Julie Delpy. Sharon Stone. And by the way, Helen Mirren was never out of work, nor was Maggie Smith, nor was Dame Dench.

I remember how pleased I was when Pacino let his age show, in movies like… hmm… when did he start looking ravaged? Heat? Scent of a Woman?. Not like Cary Grant in North By Northwest or Gable in Teacher’s Pet – geezers romancing younger women. I like Grant and Gable but having them nuzzling young dishes in their late 50s… Ugh. To me, Gable and Doris Day in a clinch has not aged well. Meanwhile, my hat is off to Clint Eastwood for making Laura Linney his daughter instead of his squeeze in Absolute Power. He was pushing it with Streep in Madison County (she’s 19 years younger than he is). And Redford and Deniro just throw their aging mugs up there onscreen without feathers. So too Woody Allen, but thank God he’s finally stopping pairing himself with young women. Btw, Paul Newman. RIP. There was a guy who looked great all the way through. Burt Reynolds, once, just once, take off the rug. In Leatherheads, Renee Zellweger, 39, claims to be 29; does she mean it or was that just a character lying about her age? Stallone, ok, he’s had so much work done that he’s entered the realm of the weird but for some reason that doesn’t bother me at all. There he is in the latest Rambo, totally unwrinkled and supposedly a guy living as a snake-catcher out in the bushes and that totally works for me. On the other hand, what is it with Mathew Broderick? I kept staring at him in Then She Found Me, trying to figure out what’s strange about his face. He looks like a recovered burn victim. I googled his name along with “work done” and all I got were hits about his wife’s plastic surgery (Sarah Jessica Parker’s, that is). Bottom line: skip the lift. P.S.: Parker Posey, Maggie Cheung, Michelle Yeoh, Mary Kay Place, Dianne Weist.

05/13/10  I typed “actresses over…” into the Google search bar the other night and up came lots of prompts for “actresses over 40,” “actresses over 50,” etc. There are so many older actresses now that the question is why, what has changed? Why the concepts of cougar and MILF? I heard one talking head speculate that the baby boomers, who have been influencing, if not driving, cultural trends since the 60s, are unwilling to give up on sexuality and romance, age be damned.

May 24, 2010 – Mick LaSalle (San Francisco Chronicle) published a little article last week in which he discussed the increased number of women over 40 in the movies.  He pointed out that by that age, stars like Lana Turner and Rita Hayworth were showing signs of wear and tear, whereas today, actors are staying in better shape longer. Less booze? Less smoking? A more mellow age, compared to the turbulent mid-century past? Boomers refusing to go quietly into the night? 40 is the new 30? I just watched Jennifer Aniston in Friends With Money (2006) and she has no problem playing what amounts to someone pre-30 with her head, etc., held high.

P.S., for research purposes, 11 who, over 50, pulled it off.

Music and Lyrics (2007)

Age is adding a touch of gravitas to Hugh Grant. His good looks, which have limited him throughout his career, are fraying in the same good way that Pacino’s did when his bloom wore off. Grant is no Pacino, but looking at him now I can understand how he got caught in a car with a hooker in L.A. That understated, self-deprecating yet subtly superior British style is aided immeasurably in his case by the signs of wear on his puss.

Here, he carries on the Cary Grant/Eva Marie Saint tradition of older guy (Grant is 47) scoring with the beautiful and nubile young woman (Drew, 32).

Grant plays an aging, ex-rock star reduced to singing at state fairs. (Refer to Bill Nighy in Love Actually for more on the subject.) By a remarkable stroke of luck, he is given the chance of a comeback. However, to succeed, he must write a great song “by Friday”  that is, by soon enough to introduce tension in the film but by far enough for him to meet a girl, work through a few plot points,  and win her heart before the deadline. With the date set, a meet-cute immediately follows: the has-been’s plant sitter is on vacation and Drew Barrymore, ditzy but still lovable in spite of her age – although the clock is ticking on this – shows up to fill in ith the watering chores. May Drew only grow up sooner than Diane Keaton did (if she has). Hugh writes the music; Drew is a lyric poet savant. The next Roger and Hammerstein is born, though hopefully R and H didn’t wake up in the sack together after a night of collaboration.

For those on product-placement watch, Baldwin and Yamaha are given equal, lingering time for their grand pianos.

Extra credit to Grant for performing not only on film, but also onstage in front of a full auditorium of children, teens, and their parents. He also does a love duet on stage; I’ve had a soft spot for these ever since Willie Nelson and Amy Irving did theirs in Honeysuckle Rose and then Dyan Cannon came onstage to announce her divorce.

This movie also produces a credible hit song that helps keep the romantic vibe afloat. No oscar-winner about the hard life of a pimp, but hummable.

Somebody should do (or has already done) a study of couple chemistry onscreen. Hugh and Drew have it here like Clooney, Brad, and Matt have it in Oceans 11, 12, and 13. It has nothing to do with the characters and everything to do with the stars. You’ll need to want that in order to absorb all the Hollywood vitamins that this flick provides.

The film steps up to PG-13 when Hugh and Drew wake up in bed togeher the morning after. This, we know, in a movie paced as energetically as this one, means that the subsequent breakup is only minutes away. (Note to self: watch A Touch of Class again sometime soon.) Other than the moment in bed, the film is squeaky clean. The stars let it loose in the out-takes but even there they are relentlessly beeped out.

If you require an edge to your romantic comedy, you won’t find it here. The movie is smooth, all edges and corners rounded. The conflict is painless. Boy meets girl, loses girl, gets her back again for the finale before you’ve reached the bottom of the popcorn bag. This is not a bad thing if you want to sit back and watch Hugh and Drew do that thing that they do, this time with and at and on each other, while your brow remains unfurrowed. Then tear up for a second at the melodic, heartfelt climax. Nothing wrong with that at one in the morning on the couch in the family room.

Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus (2009)

Why would you even hesitate to obtain this film and fire it up? I’m rooting for the octopus. Aren’t they supposed to have human brains and eyeballs, or something?

This is not some sleazy movie that just uses “vs.” in the title, like “Kramer vs. Kramer.” Here we get the whole “versus.” Note to self: check out “Monkey versus Robot” (1999).

Not a movie about some megashark, but a movie about Mega Shark.

My daughter slathered on a tube of artificial tan before flying to Maui. While she was snorkling there, a playful guide stuck a little octopus on her arm. When she pulled it free, its suckers took away small circles of the fake tan with them. Such is the power of the octopus!

High point of the film, Mega Shark leaps into low clouds to eat a 707. Such is the hunger of the Mega Shark for wing-ed fowl! Do not try this at Marine World. And as the star of the movie said in an interview, “You want to keep it as realistic as possible.”

Lesson of the movie: don’t trust a script by a writer/director named Ace. Question of the movie: why does Jake Perez use the aka Ace Hannah?

A thing that you can learn about cinematography in this movie: watch the scene where the actors stand next to a beached whale that has been chomped up by Mega Shark, or Meggie as I like to call him. Or her. Yeah, the carcass looks like foam rubber kind of tore up, but holy cow, it’s the size of a whale! Now go to bloopers and watch as the actors stand by the whale and a member of the film crew accidentally peeks over from behind the model and you see that it’s situated in the foreground right next to the camera, while the actors are all off down the beach pretending to look up at it. Perspective. Cool.

Most annoying aspect of the movie: the little “Half Moon Bay, California” titles that appear, immediately followed by shots of Malibu and Long Beach. The southern and northern California coasts do not resemble each other. And why not take three steps to the left so that the Queen Mary isn’t visible in the background?

Also, I forgot that bad, low-budget movies often have long, long,… loooonnngggg stretches where nothing happens. Definition of a low-budget movie: everybody takes turns looking in the microscope and gasping, but you don’t ever get to see what they’re looking at.

Whatever else, you can tell that everyone in this movie is just glad to be there. You can see it onscreen, and they say so in the “Making of” short, only it’s hard to hear them because of the traffic in the street they’re standing by while being filmed. My personal favorite moment comes in that short, when Lorenzo Lamas tells us how he likes to die at the end of a movie because that completes the character’s arc, and that he’s about to go in and shoot that death sequence. And then he doesn’t die in the movie. Ace must have changed the script. Lamas appears fresh from “30,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and “18 Fingers of Death.” Guy has a thing for strange numbers.

Most fascinating feature of this feature-length feature: Deborah Gibson’s acting. Listen, I am not here to rag on Deborah Gibson or anyone else about MSVGO. I rented it, didn’t I? “Deborah Gibson is a creative force in the entertainment industry who does it all! She has single handedly transcended music and entertainment trends and fads. Deborah stands poised at the top, embarking on the second phase of her hugely successful pop career.” So there. Anyway, the thing is, she acts every moment that she is up on the screen. She’s an acting fool! Her face careers through more different expressions, sometimes relating to the current action, sometimes not, than there may be names with which to identify them. Never mind the movie, it was fun just catching a quick expression on Deborah’s face and trying to figure out what it was in the seconds before it was replaced by another.

Oh, wait. I just realized why Ace pretends that the actors are all up in the San Francisco area. It’s because Meggie has to eat the Golden Gate Bridge! All monsters have to.

Although this might be the first movie wherein the monster is lured to the bridge on purpose – unbeknownst to the Bay-Area residents, many of whom are commuting across the bridge when Meggie, after a minute or two of Jaws-ripoff music, bites it in two.

This film should be on the short list for treatment by the Mystery Science Theater successors, if it hasn’t been done by them already.

Funny Ha Ha (2002)

First paragraph of a review that I posted last year:

“If I’m in the mood for a Western, I want horses. If I’m in the mood for explosions, I go to a Jerry Bruckheimer or Michael Bay movie. In either case, I don’t want, say, Max Von Sydow playing chess with Death in some black-and-white hovel on the rocky shores of Sturnnveggloven. In the same way, if I’m in the mood to watch echo-boomer twenty-somethings filming their friends hanging out with each other in small apartments and on the urban stoop and in the homes and basements of their parents and grandparents, none of whom will ever appear onscreen, then for those of you who haven’t seen one such film before, this would be mumblecore.”

My assigned movie, “Funny Ha Ha,” would be perhaps the first film in the mumblecore genre. Did I read something somewhere about how frequently, for some mysterious reason, the first in a genre is also the best? Homer, Milton, and Cervantes were mentioned. Could this be true of FHH? Is it the purest, as well as the first, mumblecore expression of newly-adult American modern life on the hoof, before the mumblecore melodrama of Mutual Appreciation or the variations on a theme in “LOL” or the psychological depth of The Puffy Chair? A question to keep in mind as I watch.

Haven’t heard much from the mumblecore community lately. What’s the buzz? What’s the buzz around saying what’s the buzz? Stephen Holden called Baghead a mumblecore movie – comedy/horror mumblecore? Are movies like In Search of a Midnight Kiss moving mumblecore into some new merged genre? Was Old Joy really mumblecore, as it’s often listed; some genre morphing might have already taken place in that one. Andrew Bujalski, who wrote, directed, and starred in FHH, hasn’t made a feature film in years; he’s done some acting but not made any movies. Kate Dollenmayer, who plays Marnie, the lead in FHH, appeared in Bujalski’s next film and then disappeared behind the camera. There’s an album with her name on it; otherwise, she’s light on the google.

FHH caught me in one of my watching-the-last-half-of-the-movie-first phases. I’ve recently finished Rules of the Game and War, Inc. that way. Watching those two films backwards helped them, in my estimation. I’m guessing in advance that watching “Funny Ha Ha,” starting at the 45-minute mark, will not harm my enjoyment of the film and may help it. But we’ll see.

Fooey! Now I’ve slipped up and taken a peek at the first few paragraphs of A.O. Scott’s FHH review in the NYT, wherein he tells us that the film is about a young woman’s fruitless search for a little love and meaning in her life. Why did I read that? So now why should I bother dropping into the middle of the movie, already knowing that? The adventure and mystery are ruined. Feh. But I’ll do it anyway. So. There Marnie is, passed out in a car. Now she stays with a girlfriend and her girlfriend goes on a job interview. Oops, Marnie is the girlfriend, not the drunk in the car. Confusion. Good. That’s how I like it to be. No harm done reading a little A.O. Scott. Meanwhile, the theme of the movie is made clear in minutes, middle start or not, once I’ve got Marnie in my sights. Perhaps my initial excitement was a little attenuated, but now I’m involved, so onward!

Marnie is wearing a T-shirt from a Newton grammar school. Newton is an upscale community in the Boston suburbs. Always made me think of fig newtons, not Isaac. I seem to remember a mall there, back in the 60s, out on Commonwealth Avenue. Bujalski was born in Boston. A good place to locate a movie about the just-graduated and I speak as one who swam in that social sea after college for a couple of years. Youth, out of school at last. FHH is the pure unvarnished article. The essence of mumblecore. Absolute minimum script, or so it appears onscreen. The meta experience identical to the dramatic experience; that is, there are two layers working here, carrying the same message: (a) level one, the young woman moving along through her first adult life structure while (b) level two, the actors live their lives for us by acting onscreen, so that, for this viewer at least, the element in FHH most profoundly moving is the sight of these twentysomethings struggling with their craft, new adult members of society, now with the responsibility of paying rent and negotiating car insurance (no small task in Massachusetts!), with the need to discover meaning in the challenges that they face and in their responses to those challenges. Not the characters, you understand, but the actors themselves. A reviewer comments “The semi-improvised performances seem so natural that it is tempting to confuse the actors with their characters,” but the point is that these performances highlight the actors not as the characters they portray but as individuals working – that is, acting. Or am I just being fooled into thinking that I’m seeing the actors, not the characters, because of Bujalski’s style? But no. I know nothing about the actors; perhaps they have something in common with their characters, perhaps not. There is a signature cadence in untrained improvisation, with its small pauses not heard in everyday conversation, neither conversation between those who know each other nor that between strangers, tiny pauses born of the actor’s interior monolog, pauses which replace the verbal overlaps and gaps found in everyday talk. So that as we watch, the actors think about their lines, or the direction just provided offscreen, or the act of acting, anything but the less conscious social drivers propelling the rest of us day-to-day in casual conversation. Each actor steps into the frame with an ineffable sense of innocence, usually with an embarrassed grin, and speaks, and we understand that here onscreen are living reminders of already-came-of-age, struggling with dialog as an instantiated metaphor for the whole all-of-it struggle involved in becoming an adult. I find this evocative in the extreme, a spiritual supermagnet pulling me back to that same time in my own life, with all the memories, nostalgia, speculations, and regrets attendant to it – a time in my own life when I’m more than ripe for that to happen. Could I, would I, do better a second time around? That question forms the emotional core of the movie for my demographic; the same thing happens when we watch our own children in their twenties. Where else can you get that in cinema? Not in The Incredible Hulk, that’s for sure.

The Boojer, by the way, saves the juiciest scenes in the movie for himself – an excruciating dinner and a later sort-of-extended-date with Marni. Cultural extra credit: compare and contrast the boy/girl dinners in FHH and I Think I Love My Wife.

At the end of the second half, I return to reviewland and find:

A.O. Scott: “What gives this film its quiet pathos is not so much the relative bleakness of Marnie’s circumstances but the modesty of her expectations. At one point, she makes a to-do list, and its lack of ambition – spend more time outdoors, make friends with Jackie, learn to play chess – is both funny and sad.”

Carina Chocano: “Mainly, Marnie is staying afloat and trying to connect with others who are equally lost.”

Seems like I’ve seen a lot of this kind of hangdog vibe around the FHH reviews – negatives about mood and lifestyle – and I am not down with that (although I otherwise agree with the NYT and LA Times FHH review content). Perhaps having reached the top of the mountain makes it hard for Scott and Chocano to see those younger who are still way back down in the foothills. Marnie and her friends in FHH are newly-minted adults living life in that broad, spacious, undefined socioeconomicsphere found in first-world countries, a landscape where middle-class children find themselves free to roam, after emerging from college, if they happen to be situated in the middle of the startingout spectrum: neither at one end on the turf of the cinematically-ever-popular male slackers so often seen onscreen, nor the other end on that of the striving medical-school, law-school, and computer-geek proto-professionals; that is, Marnie and her friends are living the unfocused life that many of us lived in our twenties. I speak as one who stumbled off the college campus for the last time to find myself, at the age of 23, living alone in Boston, working at a job I wasn’t interested in, and looking for love after refusing to commit to marriage and being dropped by my intended, who switched to her Plan B awfully quickly, it seemed to me. The quiet pathos for my demographic didn’t happen then, it’s happening to us now, in our dotage, on the viewer’s side of the screen. Where is the pathos in Marnie’s freshness and energy and in the potential of youth, for Marnie and her friends with an open and unknowable and limitless future stretching ahead of them, or in the knowledge that Kate Dollenmayer herself has moved on into that future, or in Bujalski’s vision? Marnie’s to-do list in no way lacks ambition; is in no way funny or sad. The act of making that list metaphorizes the ambition of the young; the contents of the list highlight the innocence of youth; it’s a list drawn up by someone with all the time in the world and, interestingly, it is a list quite similar to such a one as made up by someone at the other end of life, without much time remaining.

So I asked my daughter about this quiet-pathos thing, her being 23 and a recent graduate and living in Boston, all the same as Marnie; her reply: “As far as waitressing goes, I feel embarrassed about it at times, but I’ve actually made some valuable connections and now have places to stay and help finding employment if I want to go to South Carolina, Maui, Australia, or Columbia (have business cards/notes/emails from all of these people). Plus I make ok money, work with nice people, take home free food (ok, thats not completely kosher but its not like I get a salary or even hourly pay that amounts to anything after taxes). Plus, Im learning to speak Haitian Creole while simultaneously turning enemies into friends (the cooks didnt like me at first bc they assumed I was racist and told me so, but when I asked to learn their language they are suddenly happy to see me each day). So from my lowly job Im gaining: communication skills, agility training, extreme multi-tasking experience, networking opportunities, and employee benefits (that’s the free food). Sounds almost ambitious when phrased correctly. This isnt to say I dont doubt what Im doing because I do, every day, multiple times a day. I get asked time and again by my bosses, co-workers and customers “why are you here if you have a degree from an Ivy League school??” One person even went so far as to say I was being selfish because letting my parents spend all that money to send me to a good school only to “disregard” my qualifications by working in a chain restaurant was just like throwing all that tuition money in the trash. Obviously obtaining “street smarts” and trying to experience different ways of life before choosing the “purpose-driven” one is something only misfits and failures do… So what am I trying to say here? Maybe im just trying to rationalize my own current existence when in reality it is just as ambitionless and lost as Marnie’s. But maybe if the reviewers got off their NY Times and La Times high horses and really thought about what it means to EXPERIENCE and LIVE life, they might see things a wee bit differently. Or maybe not. Am I giggly all the time? as my friend Lynnea would say: “HELLS no!” But I dont think Ill look back on this period of my life and see it as a time of just “staying afloat” (my high school years on the other hand…).”

One more take on the pathos meme, quickly, before getting on with the movie: Marnie celebrates her birthday quietly. Proactive note to lugubrious reviewers: this also is not pathos. What the heck did I do on my birthdays back in Boston? Who knows? I do remember being in a laundromat at North Station on Christmas Eve one year. It was snowing. Neither the Bruins nor the Celtics were in town, so The Garden was deserted except for me and an old woman. I went back to my room and drank. I still remember that, so I guess it means something to me, but I didn’t feel pathetic at the time. I felt lonely but pretty good.

Ginormous. I’ve had that word in my head. I’m thinking that if I write it down here, maybe it will go away.

And so on to the first half of FHH.

Oh my God. Bujalski saddles Marnie with an unrequited-love jones, up front. Booge, how could you? What were you thinking? This is something a novice twenty-something filmmaker would do. Oh, right. But this is why watching War, Inc. backwards helped the movie so much; the process cut out loads of unnecessary plot points till it was too late to matter. In the same way, I was able to watch the downslope of FHH without these moulting feathers of love annoying me. Hmm. Now Marnie liplocks some dude at the twenty-eight minute mark. I would never have predicted that. Oh, no, and then she osculates again three minutes later with her married-dude friend. I’m so glad I’m coming to this at the end and not at the beginning. Why? Because in the second half she’s staring into the future without seeing beyond the walls of her room, locked in her head while her anger percolates unfelt somewhere down there lower in her body – after the drinking and smooching fail her – but I understood that, in the second half of the movie, without the presumptive romance-o-motivation of the first.

No. I’m overreacting. Belay that last paragraph. I’ve been Hollywoodpavlovianized. This is not Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in the last minute of Sleepless in Seattle or You’ve Got Mail. This is random lowkey young adult semijoyless evolutionary smootching, pebbles in a pond that cause no ripples. Marnie pretends that it didn’t happen, isn’t happening, and I’ll do the same. Romance is a big deal for these kids, perhaps the biggest deal. My twenties were mostly a history of bad dates. Easy to put off career issues to the next decade while getting the living part right. So Booge perforce makes use of that, but not so much that we can’t shrug when the lips meet, and then move on. But still, this series of fraught encounters with men, I don’t know; quit beating the drum, Booge. This does remind me, though, that I watched the original Forsythe Saga backward. As with Marnie and Alex in the second half of FHH, something heavy had obviously gone on between Irene and Soames, and Fleur’s life was constantly perturbed by it, but it seemed more romantic to me to not know what that something was, not to know what had happened – seemed more romantic than watching the first half and seeing whatever it was that happened actually happen. Thesis: nostalgia coupled with imagination is always stronger than dramatic invention, probably because lived experience, including the actual act of imagination, is more visceral than skoptophilia and its milder brethren.

New-Age side note: Coincidence #1: Earlier in this screed I wrote a sentence using the word “evolutionary” and then I started FHH up again and watched the last ten minutes of the movie, which I hadn’t seen yet (minutes 35 to 45) and Marnie says to Alex or Alex says to Marnie, “You’re the most evolved person I know.” Coincidence #2: Later that day, I went to Blockbuster to return Get Smart (I’m rating it “j” on a scale of 1 to q) and while there I picked up The Last Request, which somebody somewhere liked a little bit, and while I was checking out, the clerk asked me how I liked Get Smart and I said, Anne Hathaway is no Barbara Feldon, and when I got home and started The Last Request, there Barbara was, in a starring role. The odds of plucking up a Barbara Feldon movie at random? Antiginormous. Coincidence #3: Marnie’s shirt has the number 18 on its back. I’m 18b. My daughter, I learned THE SAME DAY, is living in apartment #18 in her building on Concord St. Consult your Jung! These coincidental whorls in the universal fabric happened ON THE SAME DAY as Obama’s election and mean that FHH is connected to the core zeitgeist of the planet. You read it here first.

Propositions: (1) The first half of a movie is usually better than the second half when the movie is watched in normal order. (2) Watching the second half of a movie first often improves the movie. Sometimes, watching the second half is sufficient in itself. (3) Thus, perhaps whichever half you watch first is the best.

I had to ask Wilson, who assigned this movie to me, what the last two spoken lines of the last scene were. They seemed crucial in defining the mood of the movie, but mumblecore being named mumblecore for a reason, I couldn’t make out what Alex and Marnie said to each other. Fortunately, Wilson could. And those two lines bear out my contention, or so I think, that Bujalski is a deeply optimistic guy and FHH is, in the end, a celebration, not a paean. In that final scene, Marnie shows some anger, a desire to move out into the world, and a rejection of the feckless Alex. Good for her and good for a society and economy (knock on wood) where youth is able to rattle around a little. I watched a mumblecore movie made by Joe Swanberg a while back, in which the protagonists grow stronger in the face of Swanberg’s efforts to render them helpless; Bujalski throws down some marbles in Marnie’s path, but his affection for her never lets her fall hard enough to break anything.

This film that launched a genre reminds us that being young and being old are two entirely different things. (Bujalski turned 30 this year.)

The Fall of the Roman Empire

Well, I’ve watched my first Netflix movie. It came in the mail and I tore the envelope in half to get it out. Oops.

I didn’t really feel the need for a Netflix account but I was given six-months worth as an xmas gift. It was fun to create a queue and add “Hell Ride” and “An American in Paris” and a bunch of other stuff to it. I was shocked at some of the movies NetFlix doesn’t have; I thought it had everything. Looked for Eric Rohmer movies. Thin pickins.

Anyway, how did 45 years go by with me totally ignorant of the existence of “The Fall of the Roman Empire”? Released in 1964, back in the days of Ben Hur, El Cid, and Spartacus. Produced by Samuel Bronston and directed by Anthony Mann. Huge sets, cast of thousands, not much plot. Sort of like a Michael Bey movie, but back in the day. No CGI. Hundreds of bright yellow and red long-haired barbarian wigs.

I quit watching TV in college, except for The Man From UNCLE and Secret Agent. Did I quit going to the movies too? Hmm. I borrowed a car and took a date to see The Umbrellas of Cherbourg in Pasadena. The date was a bust but the movie was great. What else? I had seen some Bergman by then. Went with friends to The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and The L-Shaped Room at an art house we knew – where we once saw the school’s famous philosophy professor with one of his female students. Scandal. He later committed suicide, but probably not because we saw him at the cinema. Probably just thought too damn much. I saw The Immoral Mr. Teas at a nudie house in Hollywood. A bunch of us eagerly awaited the next Bond and all went to see Goldfinger in Glendale when it came out. Saw Cleopatra in Salt Lake City. So I was still going to the movies. But TFOTRE, I don’t remember.

The Netflix disk of the movie began with an Overture by Dimitri Tiomkin. By the end of the movie, three hours later, during the “exit music” (no crawl back in the day), I had the main themes stuck in my head and I liked them. But that overbearing, old-fashioned, bash-you-over-the-head orchestration, not so good. Rome! Boom! Boom! Boom! Trumpets! Dah! Dah! Daaa Dah! After watching Ben-Hur in 1957, however, I remember that I did go right out and buy the Miklos Rozsa album.

From TFOTRE’s first scene, it was clearly a movie that could no longer be made, outside of China anyway. Too expensive. Too many extras. Too much everything. Since I didn’t know the movie at all, I assumed in advance that it was a B-list sword-and-sandals epic, or worse. But no. The first scene, at dawn, on the ramparts of a… a… a castle-like, fortress-like residence for Caesar on the German border, real dawn with a real sun, real weather, real top-of-the-line movie stars. Alec Guinness, James Mason, and Steven Boyd standing around in costume, pretending to run the Roman Empire, with Sophia Loren hovering in the background looking glamorous. I was in condescending mode, but a little uncertain when I saw those beautiful 70mm shadows and torch flames. Starting off at a high pitch with the thousand-year empire at its furthest stretch, but Guinness weak and Mason worried and barbarians at the gates, TFOTRE is the kind of movie that just invites critics to go off:

“A mammoth and murky accumulation of Holly-wooden heroics and history have been bulldozed into a movie by Samuel Bronston and his director, Anthony Mann, in “The Fall of the Roman Empire,” which opened last night at the DeMille. So massive and incoherent is it, so loaded with Technicolored spectacles, tableaus and military melees that have no real meaning or emotional pull, that you’re likely to have the feeling after sitting through its more than three hours (not counting time out for intermission), that the Roman Empire has fallen on you.” Bosley Crowther (dean of the NYT reviewers for almost 30 years).

Doesn’t “accumulation” take a singular verb? Otherwise, that’s the mode I was in, Crowther mode, watching, but no, holding back a little in honor of this being my first Netflix. Alec Guinness as Marcus Aurelius and Sophia Loren as his daughter. Says it all? Christopher Plummer as the wicked emperor Commodus one year before he transmogrified into Captain Von Trapp, behaving here, yes, like a commode. Nice to know he’s still working today. Steven Boyd, fresh from his chariot race with Charlton Heston, has another one here with Plummer. Meant to be hair-raising, the action sequence played out like a Keystone Cops scene and made me laugh a lot. Spoiler: this time, Boyd survives. (When I see chariots, I’m reminded that they were invented back when the newly domesticated horse wasn’t big enough and strong enough to carry a human. Once the horse could do the job, the chariot began to look a little silly.) [down below: star wars] James Mason is tortured by barbarians but does not scream; ten years removed from Captain Nemo and two years from Humbert Humbert, instead of screaming he acts, acts like a guy who would like to scream but senses that its more dramatic not to.

As the movie continued at its stately pace, I discovered that I was content to just settle back and enjoy this unexpected visit to a movie that might have popped out of a time capsule. As when Blues Brothers 2000 came out: my son hated it, but I was ready for more Blues Brothers, wanted more Blues Brothers, any Blues Brothers, and I watched BB2000 just grateful that someone had made it who seemed to care. Ditto for those BSG features that appear from time to time. Now I wanted old-fashioned epic and Anthony Mann and Bronston were giving it to me, Crowther be damned.

And there were moments in TFOTRE. A senate debate in the second half, culminating in a stirring James Mason oration. A battle in Armenia, in which thousands of extras and hundreds of horses ran this way and that. Russell Crowe’s Gladiator with Joaquin Phoenix replacing Plummer in the nutty Commodus role and Richard Harris taking the place of Guinness, was fine, but those CGI Coliseum crowds… not so much.

And TFOTRE, unlike, say, The Robe or Quo Vadis, possesses a dark spirit, a downer vibe almost noir, a pagan tenor, not some cheesy Christian eyes-toward-heaven mood, as befits its title. In fact, the producers later speculated that it bombed so badly at the box office because of the mood of the country when it opened. JFK had been assassinated and moviegoers wanted Mary Poppins, not a movie with a weird frantic ending that channeled Fellini’s Satyricon and caused me to wonder if, just possibly, the movie would not be fitted out with the standard happy ending required by Hollywood – Bronston worked outside the Hollywood system – and ended with a deep-voiced narrator intoning “And that was the beginning of the Fall of the Roman Empire,” raining on the parade even though Boyd dispatched the commode and plucked Sophia from her burning stake.

Speaking of which, if I understood the point of the movie correctly, Marcus Aurelius had a master plan by which he would ensure peace in the Empire by co-opting the barbarians along its borders, but Commodus reversed this and initiated the beginning of the fall by aggravating all the tribes. But in fact the Empire did spend  a subsequent years following this very policy, which eventually transmogrified the Empire into the later collection of kingdoms that it became. “The light of the world has gone out,” someone says in the movie at the death of Aurilius in 180 A.D., but it was actually St. Jerome in 410 A.D., at the fall of Rome to Alaric, being quoted. So where did the culpability for the fall lie? Will Durant (is he still known, or has he become unknown?) was on the payroll and flipped out when Commodus was given a father other than Marcus Aurelius in the script – ironic since Commodus was in fact the first Roman emperor born under the purple. Bronston explained to Durant that movie plots and history are two different things.

Later, as I was listening to the commentary track and watching the “Making Of” short, I began feeling sorry for everyone involved in the project. So much money – $20 million spent in Spain back when that meant something, especially in a poorish country. Bronston, who had an arrangement with Franco, went out into the countryside and build the second-largest set ever (at the time, at least. I forget which was the largest – feel free to comment). No relying on matte and special effects. Seven months, 1,100 construction workers, 400 art students, 27 major structures. Later, they tore it all down again – insurance costs. All for a movie that the critics would make fun of. Just seems sad. 1,500 horses. Say what you will about CGI, a live horse is still a live horse.

Sophia Loren was paid a million dollars, the second woman to make that much, after Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra. Cleopatra finally made its money back, but not TFOTRE. Loren was glamorous and Loren in every shot, but as with the rest of the movie, snark bait. Omar Sherif – no mustache. He looked different.

Real landscapes, real buildings, real human beings. I have nothing against CGI, mind you. Just watched Mutant Chronicles (2009). At least 98.5% CGI. (How does John Malkovitch show up in a movie like this, if even for a single scene? Friend of the producer? Needed a little payday? Did he just want to say, when asked why he wasn’t leaving Earth to save himself, “The absence of gravity interferes with my digestion.”?

Come to think of it, most of the interest in Mutant Chronicles comes from the 1.5% non-CGI: Ron Perlman looks more normal when he’s Hellboy than when he’s wearing his own face. World War I and coal-burning vertical-flight aircraft and “1,000 gold talents!” in 2700 A.D.; some things just don’t change. “Every age builds on the bones of the age before.” Spoken as the stars are literally walking on the bones of the age before; guess it’s true. Devon Aoki looking like some little mutant Christina Ricci.

Some random quotes I jotted down as I watched. Thought maybe they just seemed great because I was high, but I dunno. I still like them the morning after.

“Here’s your Get Out of Hell Free card.”

“You didn’t receive the sacrament?” “I wasn’t hungry.”

“She’s a single mother with 61 kills.”

“When I told him that we wouldn’t be coming back, he just smiled.”

“You can f**k a lot of people. You can only die once.”

“What does it say?” “Abandon all hope, mother-f**ker.”

“What do you believe in?” “I don’t get paid to believe. I get paid to f**k s**t up.”

The perfect team to fight mutants: a Nazi, a monk, a mercenary, a ninja, a female master swordsperson, a beautiful woman also expert with a sword, who doesn’t speak for years until she shouts, “Watch out!” just in time, a black guy, and a Mexican with a very big gun.

But back to TFOTRE and reality. During filming, an unexpected snow storm swept in, biggest in 50 years. The crew kept shooting, making for several scenes of great, cold, dark beauty. The funeral of Marcus Aurelius in particular I could watch over and over. A strange, wailing soldiers’ chorus. No music, thank God, just the sound of the snow and the torches in the wind.

Almost forgot: After laughing at the chariot race, I went back and watched it again with the commentary turned on. Never mind its call-backs to Ben-Hur. The commentariasts said that the race, which took place in the woods, was the inspiration for the air-scooter (whatever those things were) race in the woods in Star Wars, so I had another laugh at that, though I also felt sorry for the commentariasts for saying it.

All for a turkey. You know that the 400 art students who worked on Rome and the Roman Senate brought their families to the show when it opened, pointing out their work as Plummer made his way up the incline in his chariot. All razed to the ground afterwards. This effort, this work, this experience, must be a metaphor for something or other – Life, or the struggle to create, or something that in the end, or so says the metaphor, rewards our plans and projects with… with… well, I hate to say it, but with snark. God snark, I guess.

Doubt: a Parable (2008)


Ordinarily, I wouldn’t begin a review with an adverb. Ordinarily, I would watch a movie, share my thoughts, and walk on. In the case of Doubt, however, I missed the movie in the theater and now, weeks later, I’m still waiting for the DVD. The rips I’ve downloaded from the internets aren’t of any use. Why did AXXO pass on Doubt while ripping Drillbit Taylor? It is not given to me to know. [Much later: it’s all over the web now.]

In the meantime, I read John Patrick Shanley’s Miramax screenplay for the film version of Doubt.  Having watched a trailer before reading the script, I did have La Streep and PSH acting the roles in my head, but acting them my way, perhaps not theirs. The script seemed a little thin to me, for a play that won the drama Pulitzer and a Tony in 2005.

What I know about the drama Pulitzer:

1. They can’t just give it to Angels in America every year, over and over.
2. Seemingly thin scripts can in fact hide greatness, q.v., Our Town.
3. Roxanne Pulitzer posed for Playboy; I liked Paloma Picasso better. Such was the cultural training of my youth.
7. It took four years for Doubt to catch up with Proof.
8. Shaley received the prize but Cherry Jones and Brian O’Byrne knocking heads might have won it for him.
5. “Doubt” shares its honor with, among others, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Death of a Salesman,” and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” In the same way, Mike Tyson shares his former title with, among others, Joe Lewis, Rocky Marciano, and Muhammad Ali.
4. The prize isn’t awarded every year. Looking for a book idea? Write one explaining why the award was withheld in the years 1919, 1942, 1944, 1947, 1951, 1963, 1964, 1966, 1968, 1972, 1974, 1986, 1997, and 2006.*

* Of course, in my conception, the book would be as catty as possible. Politics, rumors, scandalous rumors, and rumors that are god-damned lies welcomed.

The drama-prize candidate is selected each year by a jury of five, one academic and four critics, based upon their reading of the script, or so I have always understood it. The Pulitzer Committee must then approve the jury’s choice. In 1963, the Committee declined to approve Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf because of the play’s sex and cussing. In 1986, the Committee overruled the jury’s choice of the CIVIL warS, which as far as I know has never been performed in full (your homework: find out why). From these two examples, we can infer that the Pulitzer Committee’s overrulings are generally wrongheaded. The year after Doubt, no Pulitzer was awarded. Ongoing controversy over these awards led to the creation of The New York Drama Critics’ Circle, which, as it happens, also awarded Doubt the prize in 2006, and also did not award an American prize the following year. 2006 is taken by many as a lackluster year, but I’ve also heard more than one playgoer complain that if it isn’t a New York production with Big Names in it, it won’t be picked and may not even be considered. 27 plays were considered in ’06 and of the three finalists chosen from these, none received a majority of votes from the 17 committee members. So maybe your no-prize book will turn out to be a bust, due to a surfeit of no-prize plays over the years; but don’t let mere facts stop you, not in the weedy garden of the arts.

The drama jury members who picked Doubt in 2005: Michael Phillips (Chicago Tribune—chair), Fran Dorn (University of Texas—Austin), Robert Hurwitt (San Francisco Chronicle), Charles Isherwood (New York Times), and Wendy Wasserstein (playwright). I wrote Phillips, Dorn, Hurwitt, and Isherwood, asking them an assortment of questions about their choice. (Wasserstein died of cancer in 2006.)

Shanley added “a Parable” to the play’s title, “Doubt, a Parable,” after its introduction. My first thought was that once he had let his play cool a bit after baking, he too felt that it was thin (or short on filling under the crust, to continue the baking metaphor), and everybody knows that a parable can skimp on characterization and plot in the service of loftier goals. Just a thought. A parable is “a brief, succinct story, in prose or verse, that illustrates a moral or religious lesson. It differs from a fable in that fables use animals, plants, inanimate objects, and forces of nature as characters, while parables generally feature human characters.” Do we need a parable Pulitzer? Puts me in mind of that famously short-lived category, the haiku Pulitzer. Jonathon Livingston Seagull for fable Pulitzer! 38 weeks on the NTY Best Seller list and still in print! But I digress.

What do I mean by “thin”? Print out the script and read the climatic scene, pages 81 to 94. OK, wait. Let me back up and summarize the plot, in case you haven’t been out of your cave since the weather turned cold. The Bronx. 1964. Catholic School. Not like Sacred Heart, where my kids went. Old School. The NBs still wear their habits. But Vatican II has happened. Some younger priests are leaning new-school; the school principal, Sister Aloyisius (Aloyisius, the patron saint of students) is old school. Father Flynn is the friendly young chaplain. He is or is not molesting the only African-American (male) student in the school, the population of which is otherwise exclusively Irish/Italian. Come to think of it, though the years have passed, Sacred Heart did recently give the boot to its own chaplain, who looked like the popular graphic version of Jesus Christ and acted a bit too much like him as well.

Sister A gets on Father F’s case. Shanley: “I was very interested in having a powerful character who was certain she was right chasing down a course of action that was going to do a lot of harm if she was wrong and investigating what it was to live in a world that was a clash between certainty and ambiguity.” Sister Aloyisius knows that Father Flynn has abused the boy, though she has no proof. Shanley: “Oh, I do not profess to know the end of the play. The end of the play takes place after the play is over, when you go out and have a drink and you have a fight with your wife about what happened.” (Schwarzenegger to his wife in Raw Deal: “You should not drink and bake.”) The author has said a lot more than this, in numerous interviews.

Shanley has set himself the task here of walking the line between hints of Flynn’s guilt and hints of his innocence, so that we the audience might lean one way or the other but cannot ever know the truth, because the truth isn’t included in this, Shanley’s creation – a creation that he ends with several ambiguous flourishes. Get it? It’s a whirligig. It goes round and round and it’s fun to watch for a while and then it stops where it started and you go do something else. It’s a gizmo. It’s a construction, and the key problems in it and Shanley’s solutions to those problems are to be found in the pages of the script, and they are mechanical. The Rubik’s Cube Pulitzer.

I also took strong exception on first reading to pages 65 through 78 – that is, to the scene in which Sister A meets with the boy’s mother and in which the mother, hearing that her son is most probably being buggered by his priest, accepts the fact as she keeps her eyes on the prize, a good high school for the boy upon his graduation from St. Nicholas. Shanley the Irishman writes a black family into his play. Limns the family: physically abusive, dangerous father not to be reasoned with or disobeyed; hard-working, saintly but morally primitive mother; bent, wine-drinking son. If Shanley had been black, writing the boy and his mom as Irish, would we then instead have here a drunken, violent, bog-trotting dad; religious, potato-cooking mom with a straw broom in her hand and a sheepy look in her eyes; boy ready to break your knee with a stick? And how does an actress come to deserve an Oscar nomination for 13 pages of work in a film? Parable Oscar. (Well, the part did win Adriane Lenox a Tony.) Reality check: This is it? The best drama 2005 had to offer? Is culture zero-sum? If so, where went the talent that would allow a total equal to that of Tennessee Williams? YouTube?

Whoa! Dude! Why the hate? Vitriol! Is it a Hitler speech I’m readin? Are ye turnin on yer own kind then, ladee? Buck up, boyo. Go pull yer Finnegan’s Wake back out of the firegrate. Sober up. You’re worse than himself this way.

Maybe so, but Pineapple Express had nine times the plot that Doubt does.

Ye could use a little less Pineapple Express yerself, at that, at that. Write JMJ at the top of every page of this review, with a fountain pen. What said the jury, boyo?

Answering my questions about script vs staging, Michael Phillips’ response included:  “I’ve happily done jury duty for the Pulitzers four different times, and I must say, it stunned me to realize how the various jurors approached the commitment differently. One made it a point never, ever to read the scripts–for him, if he couldn’t see it on stage, in New York, in time for the voting, it wasn’t eligible. (Ridiculous. A New Yorker, needless to say.) Others believed differently. And yet the overseers, the members of the Pulitzer board to whom the individual juries report to, are the ones making the final decision, and there’s a pretty clear pattern of awards (in two out of three cases) going to plays currently or recently on view in New York. Such was the case with “Doubt.” But I have to say, that year, nothing else came close.”

Unlike me with my script, Charles Isherwood picked up some big ideas in Doubt as he sat in the playgoing audience, ideas conjured into being by the story and its dialog, ideas more profound than most that he had encountered in that theater seat through many a previous year, ideas, Isherwood said, hinted at by that “a Parable” in the title, ideas about taking refuge in certainty when reality is too complicated. Or, as I like to think of it, Bush vs Obama. Isherwood took Sister A’s final moment quite seriously. He also detected no irony in the play. From this I deduce that Cherry Jones and Bri­an F. O’Byrne battled to a draw in the performance that he attended.

Fran Dorn told me that she went strictly by the script. Some of the other things she said put the idea of writing a book about Pulitzer politics into my head.

Robert Hurwitt loved the play in its original staging, but when he saw it again in a larger theater, it lost some of its depth for him. Is this an argument against the script on the page, or for it, or neither? Don’t stage a close argument between four individuals on a stage at the 50-yard line of Brillo Coliseum?

So I went back and read the play again. 94 pages. 90 minutes on the boards with no intermission. The movie runs 104 minutes. This time I picked up a sweet spirit present in the thing. Nobody gets hurt here. No violence. No evil or despicable characters. What was eating me when I read Doubt the first time? Shanley is writing from the heart. He dedicated the play to the Sisters of Charity and in particular to his first-grade teacher, Sister Margaret McEntee, who was the model for the young nun in the movie and who acted as a consultant on the film. Cinematographer Roger Deakins used the Sisters’ school, the College of Mount Saint Vincent, and St. Anthony in the Bronx, to stand in for the play’s St. Nicholas. “I’ve met many nuns as a result of writing this play,” says Shanley. “And my first grade teacher, Sister James, who is still alive and still teaching, was my guest for the opening night, and she’s just a doll and incredibly intelligent, and one of many invisible women out there living a life of service to others and they deserve to have our acknowledgement and our thanks.” Nun love.

However, a pure heart in the writer does not guarantee the strength of ten in the script, even if the writer is aiming higher than the construction of a gizmo. Also, let’s stamp out the use of “purposefully” to mean “purposely.” And, to maintain perspective, let’s remember that Shanley in his career also wrote the screenplay for Crichton’s Congo. My daughter came back from that one and said only, “Heads roll.”

The sweetness-of-spirit thing did remind me of Moonstruck (1987), for which Shanley won a screenplay Oscar. I watched Moonstruck again last night and, for me, it holds up, but for the fact that we now know where Cher was heading when she made the movie, her arc over the following 20 years, so that her Oscar performance then loses some of its magic now, even though at the time she  really was young, instead of just trying to look that way. Moonstruck. Shanley writing Italian. What is it with this guy? A couple of minor twists in the movie, but again, simple. No irony. Straight down the rails. I’m thinking that with the Oscars and Tony and Pulitzer, Shanley is blessed with the luck of the Irish. Moonstruck’s screenplay beat out “Au Revoir les Enfants.” Is that luck, or the work of Satan paying for a purchased soul? Perhaps the seeming simplicity of Moonstruck and Doubt is a product or an artifact of that lack of irony in both works, irony often passing for moral depth and complexity these days.

Doubt begins with Father Flynn speaking to the congregation: “What do you do when you’re not sure? That’s the topic of my sermon today. There are those of you in church today who know exactly the crisis of faith I describe. I want to say to you: Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. When you are lost, you are not alone.” And this applies to the movie how? I don’t notice any comity between doubters in the script. Sister A, of course, is not one of the community of doubters, being consistently certain, although she does provide an antithetical doubter’s bookend to Father F’s opening remarks in the last sentence of the play. Perhaps, as Shanley says somewhere, the principal object of the play is to demonstrate that doubt allows for growth and change while premature certainty leads only to a dead end, with his parable directed not at the church but at those who insist on absolutes in society at large. And this applies to the movie how? What growth and change as a consequence of doubt is he referring to? Ours? Doesn’t doubt vis a vis Father F’s culpability lead to the possibility not of growth but of continued sodomy? Isn’t Shanley’s argument in favor of doubt here, against right-wing Bushian certainty, rather like sending Linus over to argue with Rush Limbaugh?. There is a legitimate dialectic at play, traditional Church observance vs Vatican II, but Shanley marries the former to spinsterhood and blind unreasoning faith, and the latter, even more unhappily, to pedophilia and pederasty gone wild. I must have been absent from the rectory the day that that particular memo was delivered.

Now hang on. Let’s think this through. We don’t have our arms around this thing yet. The play was written in 2005. From the comments of others and of Shanley himself, yes, I assume, as many do, that the play is political. In a simple interpretation, Sister A = George Bush and the Right Wing. This does not mean that PSH = the Left Wing. Rather, Father F represents, for example, the Iraq situation – that is, the problem with which certainty is confronted. So that if Sister A turns out to be correct, proof or no proof, the play must tend to validate her position. But Shanley is on record to the contrary, and structures his play so as to maintain an ambiguity in the situation from start to finish, with the denouement functioning as a criticism of Sister A and her certainty. That is, because of Sister A’s actions, Father F’s innocence or guilt is allowed to continue unresolved. If innocent, he then suffers from the unfair turmoil and suspicion that Sister A has created in his life; if guilty, he remains unchastised for his behavior and free to continue his misdeeds. Had Sister A been in doubt, even a little bit, she would have proceeded differently, more carefully, more politically, perhaps to a place of resolution. Or, more probably, given the mores of that day, her suspicions, delivered up the chain of command, would have been buried. With our present-day knowledge, we know that this did in fact happen over and over again.

Since Sister A was not burdened by doubt, however, we don’t need to contemplate the historical record. And the play is written to minimize the fact that none of us choose what we know and what we don’t know. Knowing is not volitional; we know some things; we don’t know other things; it’s automatic. Sister A knows this particular thing. In TV and media today, we’ve been trained to accept the fact that protagonists frequently know things without reason or proof. Characters spring into action even as their sergeant in the precinct or the mayor in his office at City Hall hectors and threatens them. They have precognitive talents, they see the future. “He’s lying,” they say, and they ain’t lying. But Shanley as writer and director can’t allow Sister A to prevail in our minds, and neither can the actors, because if so, then the fact that Father F slips away in the end becomes ironic, a miscarriage of justice, an indictment of priests and their sexual predations. And Sister A can easily prevail in this play. If La Streep convinces us, with our viewer’s training acting as a handicap in her favor, that she does know what she knows, or if Father F acts his part a little lightly on his feet, or if the boy (the boy in the movie – he isn’t seen in the play) appears, well, somewhat used (which we might expect, to justify his mother’s acceptance of the situation and fears for his safety at public school or with his father), the goose of the play is cooked. Doubt becomes a simple tale of moral corruption. On the other hand, if La Streep comes across as crazy or embittered and out for blood, the movie might strike us as similar to that scene that has become common in movies: someone, in this case PSH, steps off the curb, usually in the middle of a sentence, and is struck and carried offscreen to the right (or to the left in England) in the blink of a frame by a passing bus or taxi, which in this case would be La Streep.

We can think of the core of the play as a balance scale, with Shanley adding a bit of guilt to one pan and then a bit of innocence to the other, then more guilt, then more innocence, keeping the loads equal, with Amy Adams present onscreen to instantiate the instrument in her performance.  The strategy has something in common with the avoidance of the “reveal” in a romantic comedy, which if known by the protagonists would settle all issues prematurely. For this reader, Shanley made a major misstep in the script during this doling-out. There is a moment in the climatic argument when Sister A says “I’ll hound you” and Father F, rather than defending himself with specifics, plays the “You have no right to exceed your authority” card. To me this jumped off the page at me like a confession of guilt on the priest’s part. I’m looking forward to seeing how PSH sells me on that line. Cherry Jones and Brian O’Byrne, and director Doug Hughes, walked the line and managed to leave the issue of guilt in doubt; will La Streep and PSH, directed by Shanly himself, do so as well? Shanley has said that La Streep approached every argument in the movie as if it were a grudge match; La Streep demurs and may bear a grudge against Shanley for saying so. It seems to me that both actors and the director would need to work closely together on a strategy that leaves the audience situated in incertitude when the house lights come up.

Now the Doubt trailer has just reappeared on the front page of YouTube. I’ve watched it again. PSH doing the “You have no right” line is in it; it’s obvious, as I mentioned above, that playing Father F as effeminate would be deadly to the balance of the movie, but watching PSH erupt onscreen, doing that anger thing that he does, I realize that there are a lot of other ways to go wrong with this parable, and protesting too much might be one of them. The balance is all in the Sister A/Father F chemistry. For example, every so often, the spouse here gets some notion and confronts me with it and, in the case of my innocence, I defend myself, but often have the feeling that I’m defending myself so badly that an audience would never believe me, much less the spouse; but that might be one clever way to sell Father F’s innocence – the weak-and-unable-to-defend-myself ploy. Not PLH in this movie, though, not with his neck veins standing out as he verges on apoplexy. It’s some other actor who would work it by holding back the anger.

Another word on this doubt thing. In a film review by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat: “The drama challenges us to take more seriously both the mysteries of the human personality and the uncertainty which lies at the core of our days and doings. Love and doubt converge in the practice of not knowing. And that is the true spiritual path. The world is drenched in mystery and no matter what we do, we can never cut through it all and grab hold of the answer, the one explanation. “X” factors abound, upsetting our rational conclusions. Best to just say “I don’t know” and take comfort in the reality that you are not alone.” Huh? The issue here is one of potential child abuse. Where does the “practice of not knowing” take us? We can never grab hold of the answer? What if somebody is grabbing hold of something that he oughtn’t? How many of us think, or feel, that uncertainty lies at the core of our days and doings? Most of my doings are based on the certainties of heavy traffic at 8 in the morning, movement in my lower regions before lunch, and all local teams missing the playoffs yet again this year. Love and doubt don’t converge in the practice of not knowing but in the practice of jealousy, stress, and boredom. On the other hand, asking a priest, at least in the 50s and early 60s, why this and why that got you the response that faith was the answer, faith was required, answers to the questions would not otherwise be forthcoming. Faith was the motive force leading to salvation. Doesn’t faith require doubt? Someone somewhere commented that faith and doubt are opposites, but if you know, you don’t need faith, do you? I’m asking you, which is why I’m using “you.” Asking you rhetorically; no need to write me. What is the opposite of doubt? Not-doubt. Certainty? Can you have faith in your certainty? Can you be certain about a fact but doubt that certainty, if not the fact? Can you feel certain but have no faith in your certainty, so that you believe what God wants you to believe, but without faith? Are questions like these connected to my absence of faith, or my doubt, or my certainty in my non-belief?

Sister A has an aphorism for every occasion. One of these that raises questions: “When you take a step to address wrongdoing, you are taking a step away from God, but in his service.” Since Sister A is full of aphorisms, is this just a throwaway line to keep the young Sister in line? Or is Sister A saying that as a warrior for God, it is sometimes necessary to step away from the peace, enlightenment, and forgiveness of the Trinity and take up Satan’s weapons, anger and aggression, to put down the evildoers, as a Michael of the Faith? That is, the ends justify the means? Or what?

I was listening to Mick LaSalle (S.F. Chronicle’s lead reviewer) in a modest podcast rant about the evils of comparing book to movie; he was saying something to the effect that the movie in your head will always be better than the movie on the screen. Comparing the two in a review is a waste of time, though it felt clever to him while he was doing it. So forth. I suddenly wondered if reading a script and then going to its movie might have something in common with comparing book to movie, and I called up to ask him. In retrospect, reading a script is quite different from reading a book that is later made into a movie. I was surprised when LaSalle replied that he could only recall two times when he read a screenplay before seeing the movie. Especially considering that his wife is a playwright, I expected him to be a frequent reader of scripts and screen plays. The two that he named were Ninotchka and Pulp Fiction. He was familiar with Ninotchka simply because it had been written up with a shot-by-shot commentary frequently used in film classes, and when he saw the movie he found himself bemused as the figures onscreen actually moved. He read Pulp Fiction because he was to interview QT before seeing the movie. He knew the cast list but as he watched the movie, he discovered that he had assigned all the actors to the wrong parts as he read the screenplay; plus, scenes in the screenplay that seemed to him integral to the movie were cut in the theatrical release. In sum, nothing here to inform me about Doubt, as I was unlikely to confuse the parts assigned to La Streep and PSH as I read the script.

Hmm. I see that Doubt has returned to the metroplex. Must be back for Oscar season. Off I go to watch it! And not to lower the tenor of the discussion, but speaking of nuns and Amy Adams, see page 10 of the script:

Sister James has bathed. She’s partially dressed but still
working on her bonnet. She puts on her rosary.

Satan tempts me with expectations even as I head for the cineplex.

Note that nobody says “You’re off to see Hamlet? Don’t bother. You’ve already ruined it by reading the script. You should have just let the actors bring the pages to life on your blank slate of a brainpan.” I’m treating Doubt as if it were a work that is worth something, not as if it were mere entertainment. My regret is that I’ll post this before listening to Shanley’s own commentary.

At this point, imagine Bach’s Mass No. 1 in F Major, BWV 233, while you wait. Ba ba dum! Dum deedle doo deedle dum, ba dum! Baaa ba dum!

OK, I’m back.

What a pleasure to just settle into my seat in an almost-empty brand-new theater and finally watch the damn movie. I enjoyed it from start to finish. Lots to look at and listen to. The movie felt a little earlier than ’64 to me, but not by much, and so what? Back in the day, 90% of Catholic school faculty and staff consisted of men and women in the orders; at present, 95% of the staff is lay, which means that they need to be paid. There used to be 12,000 Catholic schools, a large percentage of them catering to lower- and lower-middle-class populations. Now more and more of them are converting to charter, privitizing, going forward with the moral but not the financial support of the Church.

Hoffman and Streep and Adams and Davis put on an acting class; let me at that community stage – I want to act! Just in the beginning I noticed that I was focusing a bit on the unlikely babealiciousness of Adams, but my companion murmured to me that there were plenty of cute nuns back then, something that I must have forgotten. Then too, Adams laid on the simpiness pretty thick, but hell, she’s a beautiful young woman smothered in a habit; doesn’t that automatically signify that she’s a raving neurotic? It appears that Adams thought so. Hoffman was born three years after the year in which the play is set. Holy cow, he’s forty-one already. Makes a perfect priest. Streep was Streep being Streep and relishing it. Unless I was imagining it when I wrote the fact in my notes, her enjoyment tempered her angst, so I was not surprised when Viola Davis said in her Filmspotting #246 interview how much fun Streep had on set. Streep launched the part playing Sister Mary Stigmata but became increasingly human as the movie wore on. Davis I’ve seen in 14 movies; she sure got this one right; refer to the interview for her thoughts on preparing for the role. Shanley took a chance writing that scene but it worked for me; the crucial interchange happens fast in an overlapping back and forth between Streep and Davis, emotion dialled up all the way, the scene over too quick for us viewers to start asking questions.

I was wondering on the way over to the plex whether Streep and Hoffman are currently so overexposed for me that they wouldn’t be able to disappear into their parts no matter what they did. As Streep exchanged her Prada for a dowdy habit and her Cle de Peau Beaute for ELF,  could she submerge herself in the part enough to prevent me from watching Streep the actress assaying a new accent, recently arrived from Madison County, say, not some nun I don’t know? Well, in the event she remained Streep for me, Streep in person onscreen, apotheosis Streep, but lo also became Sister A as well. No holding back; make em laugh, make em cry, make em shake their heads and come back for more. I’ve watched so much Hoffman lately, the mind reels. He’s a national treasure, or am I just invoking Nicholas Cage when I say that? Watching Hoffman in his Roman collar, I realized that I never quite bought Crosby as Father O’Malley, much as I loved his movies. Shanley’s intent, when he set out to write Doubt, was to begin with the Nun and Priest stereotypes and then gradually real the real people beneath. Cherry Jones played sister A as physically weak but spiritually strong. No weakness in the 59-year-old Streep; I kept noticing how strong her wrists looked. Before watching the movie, I had the notion that as a play, Doubt begs for restraint, for cool. So that briefly, in the theater, i wondered what Streep was thinking? Shanley as director wouldn’t know any better, but Streep could have grabbed Hoffman by the nape and ordered him to throttle it back and then done the same herself, but no, this Sister A onscreen – who is supposed to be a woman who has spent her life devoted to denial, denial of love, denial of pleasure, denial of coughdrops – show me steel, show me ice, show me the cold vacuum of deep space, not Miss Muffet chewing the carpet. Shanley also takes the tether off Hoffman and we wind up with two overheated actors who know they’re delivering Pulitzer lines that, with enough heat, perhaps can be transmuted into Oscar gold (didn’t happen). You want certainty? Picture John Wayne as Sister A. Montgomery Clift as Father F – sure he’s crazy, tortured, sweating, bug-eyed, but innocent. Or Bing Crosby as Father F. Innocent. Audrey Hepburn or Katherine Hepburn as Sister A, vs der Bingle? How do you pick a winner in an argument between two screen gods?

But this movie wasn’t about that. This movie was about Shanley’s youth, the Bronx, the Sisters and Mothers and Fathers. This was about winter color, grays but somehow still warm with memory, warm wtih nostalgia and love and, by God, entertainment.

I also wondered whether opening out the play on the big screen would help it, harm it, or have no effect. Neighborhood, kids, weather, church and school. The play consists of four individuals talking to each other for an hour and a half. In the original production, the sets are small and close. No children are seen, so that there is a certain problem-play, abstract quality to the proceedings. In the film, the protagonists are dropped into a bustling Bronx school full of children. The abuse issue is no longer academic. A specific child’s welfare is at issue. The child does some mooning (not that kind) around the priest. This coming-to-life of the situation affects the artificial parableness of the play; without the movie’s constant reminder of children qua children, the proceedings onstage were better able to remain an exercise in thought.

Anyway, do we the audience know for sure, or think that we know for sure, after watching this film incarnation of Doubt, that Father F is or is not guilty? If so, the dynamics of the play are altered, displaced from the consequences of ambiguity in the face of certainty to questions of moral justice and the consequences of the priest’s behavior. The whistle-blower in the case, Sister A, is dismissed from consideration, regardless of the original baselessness of her accusations. When the script presents the wine and locker accusations and the priest’s verbal reactions, does Hoffman clothe those reactions in ambiguous anger or innocent surprise or one of a hundred other takes that swing the balance back from guilt? Yes, he does indeed. Clever writing by Shanley. Does the kid have to show gay for his mom’s stance to be effective? Well, he doesn’t and didn’t have to. Was there too much focus on suspect Father F traits like, for example, his thoughts and feelings re long fingernails? So that Doubt morphs into a movie in the genre that includes films like Shadow of a Doubt and The Interview – man seems innocent, isn’t? No. Someone complained to me that Father F was made to seem more guilty because when Sister A tells him that she saw him grab William London’s arm, he doesn’t defend himself. In the play he explains his action, because the action is never shown, but in the film we see him do it, to check the boy’s fingernails, and his silence on the matter later with Sister A seems to me to strengthen him, not weaken him. Shanley knew that the final confrontation between Sister A and Father F was his last chance (almost) to make things come out even. He used 31 camera setups. In the scene, we know that Mrs. Miller has told Sister A that her son is gay, but Father F does not know this. We also know that the boy probably confessed to Father F this fact, but Father F is constrained to keep the fact to himself. Forces swirling. Father F no longer able to step into Sister A’s office and sit casually in her chair as if he belonged there, as her natural superior.

I heard more than once from others that the movie ended with the issue of guilt/innocence resolved for them. Not for me. For me, Shanley and his cast did not fall off the tightrope. There was smoke, perhaps there was fire, perhaps not. My bet: Father F had misbehaved in the past but not in the current situation.

Last word re Sister A’s last words: “I have doubts! I have such doubts!” (1) I take this to be Shanley’s last-minute buckling to the pressures of public taste in drama in the modern sensibility – that is, the mandatory inclusion of irony as a base element in any concoction, which is what this play is. Or, (2)these last words are an author’s last-minute bright idea, a cry to the prize board, pleading for forgiveness for the thinness of the material but asking for the prize anyway. Or, (3) Shanley is telling us here that Sister A has been on a journey throughout this movie, a journey that has taken her from a desert of self-indulgent, selfish abnegation and selflessness of certainty to an uncomfortable paradise of doubt in the closer presence of God. A final message of hope. Shanley’s gift to the Sisters of his youth. Or, (4) Sister A has lied, blackmailed, and bullied, and this final wracking doubt is her punishment for her actions. Or, (5) perhaps this is the last bit of weight Shanley drops into the balance on the innocence side, in case you’re leaning toward Father F.’s guilt. In any case, Streep has caught some critical flak for not adumbrating this outburst, even in the smallest way. But I think that in fact she did, especially when she agreed with Father F. that she had sinned mightily in the past. That confession entered into the guilt/innocence calculus going forward. For these last words, did Shanley just refuse to put down the pen in time? Did Hannibal Lector apologize for his diet at the fadeout?

Am I crazy or is Doubt an old-fashioned feelgood movie?