Friday, July 31, 2015

Mike Nichols Graduates to “Carnal Knowledge”

Having won acclaim and an Oscar for directing The Graduate in 1967, Mike Nichols soon moved on to bigger projects. The first, an ambitious adaptation of Joseph Heller’s darkly comic anti-war novel, Catch-22, got mixed reviews. For the second, Nichols returned to the funding source (Joseph E. Levine’s Embassy Pictures) and the subject matter (love and sex) that had worked so well for The Graduate. Carnal Knowledge, released in 1971, represents a fascinating follow-up to the affairs of a young man named Benjamin Braddock, who looks to sex to solve all his problems.

Carnal Knowledge, scripted by the ultra-hip Jules Feiffer, starts with not one young man but two. At the film’s beginning, as they yak about girls in their dorm room, they’re a long way from graduation. Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (a surprisingly effective Art Garfunkel) are callow Amherst freshmen, and their discussion of sex is purely theoretical. But college life, post World War II, brings its rewards. Sandy is soon head over heels about the smart, savvy Susan (Candice Bergen), a Smith freshman with dreams of law school. Touched by his sweet naiveté, she permits him some . .  er . . . liberties. But it’s Sandy’s bolder roommate, Jonathan, who gets her in the sack.

We jump ahead to about 1960. Sandy is now a busy doctor, with Susan as his homemaker wife. He describes their life together as idyllic, but he’s secretly looking to get laid by someone new and exciting. Jonathan, a financier, has been playing the field, but the voluptuous Bobbie (a sizzling Ann-Margret) seems exactly what he craves. As he puts it, “Believe me, looks are everything.”

You should be careful what you wish for. In short order, Sandy’s in thrall to his domineering new squeeze, and Jonathan has lost all passion for Bobbie, who wants marriage and family at any cost. The film jumps forward once more: it’s about 1970 and the men are forty years old. Sandy, now shacking up with a flower child, seems as fundamentally clueless as ever. Jonathan has been reduced to cataloging all the “ball-busters” he’s dated over the years, while forking over $100 bills in return for sexual pleasure at the hands of a pro.

It’s not a pretty picture, in more ways than one. Nichols, who brilliantly captured the look and feel of Southern California in The Graduate, goes a different route here. The Graduate was all sunshine and swimming pools: the visuals made a strong contribution to a story about affluent suburbanites (like Ben’s parents) who give things instead of love. Carnal Knowledge is an east coast story, without that same dramatic sense of place as a catalyst for the characters’ behavior. An Ivy League campus is merely some leafy woods and a dorm room; the characters’ later lives in New York City boil down to some lighted skyscrapers, a cushy office, and a nondescript apartment.

If visuals are not tremendously important, Nichols banks here on sound, both the period pop tunes on the soundtrack (like “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” at the first dorm mixer) and the voices of the two men in earnest conversation. In fact, the opening credits roll over a black screen, while we listen to them gab about the sexcapades in their future. Later scenes are basically monologues, in which one or the other takes the pulse of his current sex life.

One sad thing: the female characters, once wed or bedded, completely disappear from the narrative. It’s a man’s world, and women like Susan and Bobbie—apparently without jobs or purpose—have no long-lasting place in it.      

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Art of Making Movies; The Art of Making Art

Hollywood film has always had trouble capturing the making of art by great writers, composers, and painters. This despite the fact that some much-applauded movies have had artists in leading roles. Such movies tend to succeed when they’re less about artistic achievement than about the artist’s colorful but totally screwed-up personal life. Take Van Gogh battling his mental demons in Provence (Kirk Douglas in Lust for Life, 1956). Or Toulouse-Lautrec coping with shriveled legs while dwelling among the demimonde of Montmartre (José Ferrer in Moulin Rouge, 1952). Or Michelangelo lying on his back on a high scaffold in Vatican City, fending off his sexual proclivities as well as an imperious Pope (Charlton Heston in The Agony and the Ecstasy, 1965). Last year the always adventuresome Mike Leigh tried to capture both the art and the era of Victorian painter J.M.W. Turner, but his Mr. Turner was hardly for all tastes.

In 2000, there was serious buzz about the rare Hollywood movie that grappled with the life and work of a twentieth-century artist. Pollock, focusing on the career of abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock, largely succeeded thanks to the heartfelt commitment of lead actor Ed Harris (a Pollock lookalike) as well as the kinetic excitement of Pollock’s “action-painting” methods. The drama implicit in Pollock’s tumultuous domestic life and sudden death proved helpful too.

My friend and colleague Cathy Curtis has just published an in-depth biography of another recent painter, and can’t helping wondering if Hollywood might be interested. Restless Ambition looks closely at the life of artist Grace Hartigan, who lived (as Cathy points out) “a life as colorful as her paintings.” There’s no question that Hartigan experienced personal drama. A stunningly attractive woman—as well as a talented expressionist painter—she survived four marriages and a wide array of lovers. The story of her last marriage, to a medical researcher who injected himself with an experimental drug that destroyed his physical and mental capacities, hardly lacks for pathos. 

The possibility of  Hollywood paying attention to Grace Hartigan would be tremendously apt, given that she herself was hugely influenced by both the myths and the visual stylistics of the motion picture industry. As a young girl watching silent movies, Hartigan was bedazzled by seeing monumental black-and-white images in close-up. These “huge faces on a glowing screen” later encouraged her to choose enormous canvases for her own work. And throughout her career she remained mesmerized by movie queens, movie magazines, and even paper doll collections like Tom Tierney’s Glamorous Movie Stars of the Thirties. Like fellow artists de Kooning and Warhol, she portrayed Marilyn Monroe after her tragic death, hinting in her work what it cost Marilyn to be “the last goddess.”

The general public, of course, has not always been respectful of the work of abstract expressionists. Which reminds me of a wickedly funny little Oscar-winner called “The Day of the Painter” (1960). This fifteen-minute gem, from the era when America movies were often accompanied by short subjects, gently satirizes the “serious” work that goes into creating a lucrative drip-painting masterpiece. I’d love to watch this one again.

Speaking of which, last week saw the death of George Coe, who both directed and starred in another of those great old short subjects. "De Düva" ("The Dove") is an outrageous parody of such solemn Ingmar Bergman classics as Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal. It’s performed in pseudo-Swedish, complete with subtitles, by a cast that includes the sublime Madeline Kahn in her first film role. Thanks to YouTube, I here present for your amusement a madcap foray into the art of cinema.

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Son (of Ethel Merman) Also Rises

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that the rich “are different from you and me.” One look at Donald Trump and you know that’s true. It’s clear -- no matter how you feel about Trump’s presidential ambitions -- that everything he does is shaped by his awareness of his own wealth and power.

Some people, including Scott Fitzgerald, deeply admire the wealthy. Others distrust society’s “haves,” and identify with the have-nots. Few feel more strongly than those who’ve grown up surrounded by privilege, all too aware that our nation’s one-percenters don’t always use their gifts well. 

Take the case of my new friend Bob, who’s the son of Broadway and Hollywood legend Ethel Merman. His father, who died when he was twelve, was a successful businessman. His stepfather owned Continental Airlines, and pursued side ventures (like flying troops to Vietnam and flying bodybags home) that made him heaps of money in the late Sixties. Bob vividly remembers an argument in which his mother shrieked at his stepdad, “You use me to get to Nixon for your goddam contracts for your goddam war.”

Bob grew up in posh surroundings on Manhattan’s Central Park West. There was a friendly doorman, and an annual party for the building’s kids, who’d gather to watch the floats of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade at eye level. The family’s 21st story duplex boasted its own wraparound terrace, complete with lily ponds. Unfortunately, it also boasted what he calls a “Fascist” governess, who at bedtime made him recite the Lord’s Prayer in German.

None of Bob’s parental figures gave him much in the way of attention. Nor did they encourage him to develop a sense of empathy for those who had less: “You didn’t get involved with fans. At best you gave them an autograph. You didn’t get involved with the working class. At best you gave them a tip.”

During his mid-teen years, Bob was “spinning in my undeveloped, unparented juices.” When Merman went on the road as the star of Gypsy, he convinced her to let him live on his own, in a residence hotel on the Upper West Side. Needless to say, he didn’t bother with school attendance; he was too busy using his mom’s charge accounts to take cute young things in the Bye Bye Birdie cast to Sardi’s. Merman was angry, because she expected good behavior – but she never seemed much concerned about how he’d make his own way in life.

Fortunately, Bob slowly gravitated into theatre work, of the backstage variety. He got his first gig because of family connections, and deserved to be fired for a long list of screw-ups. But somehow he acquired kindly mentors, who’ve seen him through good times and bad. Today he spends long hours working for environmental causes and an award-winning charity called PlayWrite. He's  tremendously proud of the homeless boy from the streets of L.A. who’s become his adopted son.

Ethel Merman, of course, was famous for her powerful singing voice. Didn’t he and she ever sing together? Well, yes. . . for a while their bedtime ritual (before she left for the theatre) was to duet on a ditty called “Play Ball.” The unspoken deal was that if any words came out wrong, they’d have to start again from the beginning. So he’d mangle the rhymes in hopes of having his mother to himself just a bit longer. Shrugs Bob, “That was our sharing, pretty much.”

Today Bob still mistrusts the rich. He firmly believes that once we come to see wealth as surplus, fame as distraction,” the world will finally begin to heal itself.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

A Provocative Question -- Feminists: What Were They Thinking?

The ever-enterprising Kat Kramer, known for her Films that Change the World series, hosted a small soiree the other evening to promote a fascinating work-in-progress, Feminists: What Were They Thinking? This documentary, produced and directed by veteran filmmaker Johanna Demetrakas, takes as its starting point the photos published in 1977 by Cynthia MacAdams as part of a collection called Emergence. MacAdams had approached a number of strong women, some but not all of them rising stars in the arts world. She captured them in black and white to suggest the evolving role of feminism in American life. It’s been said that in Emergence “the women look back at you.”  As you flip through the pages, it’s clear they are far more than objects posed to attract the male gaze.

Demetrakas and her team (made up of both women and men) had the bright idea of looking in on MacAdams’ subjects, to see how they’d fared over the past forty years. Most are emphatic in stressing why they embraced feminism in the Seventies, and why they continue to value it now. Musician and performance artist Meredith Monk remembers back to her girlhood, when she was denied a train set. When, back in grade school, she had a young male visitor, her mother instructed her to make sure to let him win any games they played. Psychotherapist Phyllis Chesler recalls that “I was the smartest ‘boy’ in Hebrew School class.” Unable to have a Bar Mitzvah, she rebelled by turning against her parents’ religious Orthodoxy, to the point of eventually marrying a Muslim and accompanying him to his father’s polygamous home in Afghanistan. (The experience resulted in a book, An American Bride in Kabul, as well as a lifelong commitment to women’s issues.)

The film juxtaposes such interviews with film clips and TV commercials that make clear Hollywood’s longtime objectification of the female of the species. There’s Marilyn Monroe, cooing and jiggling in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and an ad for a Suzy Homemaker toy kitchen that, remarkably, was still being sold as recently as 2007. My personal favorite is the winsome lass in the tight dress who breathlessly explains to the camera  that “I can’t type, I don’t take dictation. My boss calls me indispensable. I push the button on the Xerox 914!”  But there’s also a happy housewife, circa 1950, who joyfully twirls on her way to fill the tea kettle, played off against journalist Susan Brownmiller’s wry questions, “Why do we smile so much? Why do we try to be so appealing? . . . Why is anger considered not feminine?”

 One of the film’s most articulate speakers is, not surprisingly, Jane Fonda, who poignantly remembers her adolescent fear that “if I wasn’t perfect I wouldn’t be loved.” Still, she notes, little girls are feisty before puberty sets in. Now “as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come back to where I’ve started, as that feisty girl who would climb to the top of the oak tree, and lead armies up the hill, and knew who she was, and would stand up to anything, and never told a lie.”

Everyone interviewed thus far continues to be a staunch supporter of the feminist cause. But Johanna Demetrakas, committed to exploring cultural change in all its manifestations, will not exclude any point of view that presents itself:  Says she, “I don’t know where the film’s going. I go with the film.” What she wants above all is for her audience to feel that they’ve joined the conversation.    

Of course she also wants (and needs) financial support. To get involved, check out     

Friday, July 17, 2015

Atticus Finch and Mr. Hyde: Questions Posed by “Go Set a Watchman”

No, I don’t plan to read Go Set a Watchman, the just-published novel by the author of the much-revered To Kill a Mockingbird. I must say, though, that the brouhaha surrounding Harper Lee’s new book fascinates me. It was written in the 1950s: most reviewers see it as an early version of To Kill a Mockingbird, submitted to a major New York publisher that bought it on condition of an intensive page-one rewrite. In the course of which, Lee apparently decided (or was persuaded) to flesh out her adult heroine’s childhood memory and build the entire novel around it. At least one critic, though, finds this backstory unconvincing, and insists that Go Set a Watchman was Lee’s attempt at a sequel to her famous tale of little Scout Finch and her father Atticus, the small-town Southern lawyer who courageously defends a black man charged with raping a white woman.

Harper Lee is still alive, though there've been reports she's in no condition to comment on the unearthing of this early work. By now, I've heard the pro and the con on this matter, but I'm leaning toward believing she's endorsed the publication. From what I gather, though, this is not a novel that’s going to burnish her legacy.

Go Set a Watchman, which focuses on the mature Scout returning to her hometown from New York City, will mostly be remembered for blackening the image of her beloved Atticus. It’s nothing unusual, certainly, for young adults returning home to suddenly see their parents in a new light. Once you’ve spent time out in the world, your father and mother appear far more fallible than they did when you were growing up. But—from all reports—Atticus in Go Set a Watchman seems not just flawed but a different person entirely from the one we thought we knew in both the novel of To Kill a Mockingbird and the revered screen version that won Gregory Peck his Oscar. There he was reasonable, open-hearted, and wise: all the things you’d wish for in a father figure. In this new book, he’s a staunch segregationist, an unreconstructed bigot, even a white supremacist. Personally, I don’t want to see my mental image of Atticus Finch destroyed—and Go Set a Watchman apparently doesn’t have much to offer us in place of that once-heroic figure.

Curiously, the whole situation reminds me of the Bill Cosby fiasco: the fact that we feel shattered by the knowledge of a man who doesn’t live up to his well-loved TV image. Cosby’s misdeeds, terrible though they are, wouldn’t be quite so disturbing if he were known for playing bad guys. The truth is that we all have a hard time separating the role from the actor. That’s why it was so jarring when Tom Cruise, with his boyish smile and long list of good-guy roles, turned out to be a religious wacko. Or when the equally appealing Mel Gibson revealed his nasty side. For many movie fans, John Wayne was a hero because he played heroes, even though he never got anywhere near an actual battlefield. And I’m certain that Ronald Reagan would  never have been elected president if he’d made a career out of villain roles.

Isn’t a Harper Lee sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird worth reading, just to find out what happens next? Well, maybe. But there’s the sad example of Charles Webb’s 2008 sequel to his famous 1962 novel, The Graduate. What happens when Ben and Elaine get off of that bus? In the words of a smart lady I recently met, “Some things you don’t want an answer to.”