Tag Archives: barry lyndon

In Which The Author Uses the Impending Release of the New James Ivory Film as an Excuse to Briefly Regard the Films of Merchant Ivory

The City of Your Final Destination, Merchant Ivory’s first movie without Ismail Merchant, will be released this Friday.

For as long as I can remember, Merchant Ivory movies have met with a strange mixture of admiration and distain. The admiration comes from readers and writers who see in pictures like Maurice and The Remains of the Day the stuff of serious literary adaptation, the distain from hardcore movie people who rebuke Merchant Ivory’s masterpiece-theaterish tendency to favor dialogue and scenery over more rigorous forms of cinematic storytelling. The first group thinks of the second group as narrow-minded snobs, and the second group thinks of the first group as grey-haired fogeys. I’m proud to say I’m a member of both.

At best, these pictures are faithful evocations of lost mores, told with great attention to mise-en-scene and language, impeccably acted, and often beautifully realized. Yes, beauty; on the level of imagery alone, slices off Howards End and A Room with a View are as stunning as any painting at the Met (if not more so). But as a good friend of mine used to say, “Beauty is easy.” I know what he means. Only a fool, when his gondola pulls into Venice, wouldn’t think to remove his lens cap.

So where does that leave Merchant Ivory? Good movie or good housekeeping?

Good movie. Director James Ivory has something no other English-speaking director of costume pictures has – he knows it’s the man that makes the clothes, not the other way around. Take Scorsese, for instance. His period films, for all their strength of decor, show little of life as it was, or even as it might have been. New York, New York, Gangs of New York, The Aviator, Shutter Island, The Age of Innocence (minus Daniel Day-Lewis) and even Raging Bull imbue eras past with contemporary behaviors. Wonderful behavior, rich, evocative, and stirring behavior, but all weighed down to present day by its wonderful, rich, evocative stir. This isn’t meant as a criticism, but as a point of reference.

James Ivory understands the distinction. To watch Anthony Hopkins, in The Remains of the Day, thwart, fight, and deny his every human impulse without ever drawing attention to the fight, is to see an actor in full understanding of his era’s given circumstances. Because, to Hopkins’s Mr. Wilcox, the fight is not a badge of honor, as it would be today; it’s a requirement, part of being a civilized British servant. It’s his job. A director without Ivory’s appreciation for Wilcox’s milieu would ask for more from Hopkins, or try to rationalize this very old, very English attitude by making Wilcox appear to be prisoner to his own beliefs. But Ivory knows too much for that. He knows Wilcox is not a tragedy.

So while The Remains of the Day doesn’t approach Barry Lyndon’s level of technique, it proves that James Ivory, when it comes to the way we were, is as adept a historian as we have in film today.

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Kubrick Before the Chill

There’s a whole lotta Kubrick love going on at Not Coming To a Theater Near You. So I threw down for one of the greats.

To watch Paths of Glory, Kubrick’s first masterpiece, fifty years after its release, is to oversee the great web of Kubrick’s career. In each direction you can see a strand of thought leading on toward a film of the future. In time, the bravura dolly shots that follow General Mireau through the trenches of World War I, will become the unyielding long takes of Full Metal Jacket, following Gunnery Sergeant Hartman as he dispenses his savage insults to his platoon. The expansive white interiors of General George Broulard’s chateau, sterile in their civility, will be reprised to similar effect in 2001A Clockwork Orange, and Eyes Wide Shut, films in which places of elegance – like the barren theater where Alex’s cronies do their raping, and the site of the latter film’s famous orgy – are made desolate and cold. And Paths of Glory’s execution scene, as painful a moment as any Kubrick ever filmed, is composed with a stateliness that looks ahead to the excruciatingly paced duels of Barry Lyndon.

There are nascent proclivities here, but none is more pervasive, or upsetting, than the thematic strand connecting Paths of Glory to Dr. Strangelove—futility in the face of cold-blooded savagery. Looking at the iniquities of war, with its bloodsoaked barracks and Kafkaesque bureaucracies, there seem to be only two reasonable responses: one can either scream in horror or laugh in disbelief. Paths of Glory is Kubrick’s dramatization of the former; Strangelove, the latter.

Paths of Glory – a film about three men portentously court-marshaled and executed to justify the horrid incompetence of their superiors – is fueled by ironic tensions of guilty innocents and innocent criminals, a fact that Kubrick reiterates structurally, through his use of incongruous contrasts. We are not meant to laugh at the awful hard cut that takes us from the aftermath of an execution to teatime. We’re meant to recoil, as Kubrick does, from “civilized” apathy. Like Kubrick’s Humbert Humbert, Generals Mireau and Broulard are all manners and no man. Worse than mere pretense, their so-called refinement and intellectual sophistication is actually antithetical to human dignity. Paths of Glory’s court-marshal, governed by a cluster of highly decorated officials, is a display of vaulted iniquity, positing the formal values of due process over the needs of man. “Gentlemen of the court,” says Dax, “there are times that I’m ashamed to be a member of the human race, and this is one such occasion.” To be a gentleman of the sort Dax is addressing is to know nothing of what it means to be human.

There’s more. Please read on at Not Coming to a Theater Near You

Not My Opinion

Last weekend I was at UCLA’s Billy Wilder theater for a screening of Gerald Peary’s documentary, For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism, a story which – spoiler alert – does not end happily.

True, Peary closes the film with a misty-eyed snapshot of Andrew Sarris and Molly Haskell, arm-in-arm, leaving a cozy, small town movie theater, but it’s put there to help us look back, not forward. Looking forward is a much scarier prospect. Thomas Doherty, in his piece, “The Death of Film Criticism,” explains why:

The transfer of film criticism from its print-based platforms (newspapers, magazines, and academic journals) to ectoplasmic Web-page billboards has rocked the lit-crit screen trade. Whether from the world of journalism (where the pink slips are landing with hurricane force) or academe (which itself is experiencing the worst job market since the Middle Ages), serious writers on film feel under siege, underappreciated, and underemployed.

Why buy the cow, in other words, when you can get the kvetch for free? So says the younger generation to the old. “But the kids don’t know the first thing about movies,” replies the golden age. (Or as Richard Schickel said, “What I see of Internet reviewing is people of just surpassing ignorance about the medium expressing themselves on the medium.”) You can see where it goes from here. It’s On Golden Pond meets The Paper Chase. (Charles Laughton plays Schickel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays “The Kid.”)

The septuagenarians are out of touch, says the youth. The youth is under-educated, says the septuas. Of course, these statements are meaningless reductions.

The real problem is the new generation’s misreading of film criticism’s purpose. The new technology is innocent, as is the general drift of the reading-population towards the cheapest-possible (i.e. free) format. That technology is here to stay, so the fogeys should get used to it (Roger Ebert has, and he done beautifully.) What’s torn asunder serious film criticism is the erroneous belief, held by many of the new generation, that critics are there to offer an opinion. And – to follow the logic – because everyone has an opinion, there’s no reason why this arbitrary group should be elevated to the level of special elite.

As a member of the new generation, I have a sense of why this is. Growing up post-modern products of a deconstructionist age, wherein our liberal arts colleges taught us the death of the author has rendered analysis a free-for-all, and each of our $40,000 a year opinions, which can be voiced in break-out study sections, is as uniquely perfect as a snowflake, it’s no wonder that my people are irked by the idea of intellectual authority, especially with respect to pop culture and media, our favorite pastime.

I was there when Academia became est.

Now everything is valid if you “feel” it. Now we “feel” Kubrick’s intention. We “feel” Barry Lyndon was too long. We don’t “think” it’s too long. No, not any more. The democratization of intellectual authority has done away with all that. (How do you feel about that last statement?)

But film critics aren’t there to offer their feelings. They’re there to offer insight. And while every one of us, no matter what our training, can bring thoughtfulness to the understanding of a motion picture, only a select group, who knows their history, their theory, and has a basic understanding of the realities of production, can bring serious, comprehensive intelligence. Feelings are for book groups.

I’m not getting Ayn Rand on you, so let’s be clear. Everyone’s invited. Whether you’re young or old, a blogger or a print journalist, come join the serious conversation. Just leave your opinions in the lobby. Serious film criticism is begging you.