Cultural Cohesion, p.69Clive James
Bogdanovich, his career as a director already in irretrievable trouble, was then stricken by tragedy on a Greek scale. In 1980, his muse and mistress, a twenty-year-old Playboy centrefold named Dorothy Stratten, was murdered by her lowlife husband: The Killing of the Unicorn was what Bogdanovich titled his subsequent book about the event. On any objective scale, the Unicorn was not greatly talented as an actress, but Bogdanovich can be forgiven for thinking otherwise, because she was greatly beautiful. Unable to get over his loss, Bogdanovich began looking after her thirteen-year-old sister, whom he married seven years later; the dream lived on. But his fame faded, to the point where his name is now starting to sound foreign. Perhaps he never was a typical American in the first place. The tradition behind his work was American, but the way he thought of it as a tradition was European. Now that the work has dried up, the thoughtfulness remains, and might well be his lasting contribution.
Extraordinarily concerned in his films with the integrity of his technique and the burden of what he was saying with it, he has shown in his publications where he got that concern from: his predecessors. He was Hollywood’s Mr. Memory even while he was its golden boy. Now that he has become the Man in the Iron Mask, he is free to cultivate the archives at his leisure. Executives who played a part in condemning him to strangle in his own beard might be in for an unpleasant surprise. What makes them pygmies is that there once were giants: it’s a cliché, but on the strength of the documentation assembled in Who the Devil Made It, Bogdanovich looks as if he might raise it to the status of an axiom.
The book comprises interviews with veteran filmmakers—Allan Dwan, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Sidney Lumet, Leo McCarey, Otto Preminger, Don Siegel, Josef von Sternberg, Raoul Walsh and others less famous though sometimes even more ready with illuminating war stories of their craft. These were (and sometimes are: a few yet breathe) men rooted in history as much as in Hollywood. Their collected memories make the past look fearfully rich beside a present that is poverty-stricken in everything except money. “Whoever invented spending millions of dollars has absolutely ruined the picture business,” Allan Dwan told Bogdanovich in the late 1960s. It might have sounded like an old man’s bitterness then. Said today, it would simply sound accurate—except, of course, for the amount of money. For “millions” read “hundreds of millions.” A mere million buys you one pout from Val Kilmer in The Saint and maybe two drops of sweat from Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible as he hangs there reprising the heist scene from Topkapi at a hundred times the outlay for a tenth of the impact. Today’s blockbusters, despite the technical bravura of their components, rarely strike us as being very well put together: the tornado twists, the mountain blows up, the dinosaurs eat the scenery, and you are supposed to be lost in wonder, but instead you are left wondering why you are meant to care, because the characters risking death have never been alive and there would be no story without the scenes that interrupt it. The special effects leave NASA looking underfunded, yet the general effect, despite oodles of expertise, is one of a hyperactive ineptitude—of the point missed at full volume, as in the unstoppable monologue of a clever, spoiled child. Mountains of money in labour give birth to ridiculous mice. There’s a reason, and this book’s radiant bullion of reminiscence illuminates what it is.
To put it bluntly, the old guys had to tell a story because they couldn’t blow up the world. There were limitations you couldn’t spend your way out of, and in overcoming them lay the essence of the craft, its economy and brio. Don Siegel says it for all the others when he unveils the secret of shooting on the back lot: “For instance, if there’s an area which looks weak, I decide that I’ll pan down to the feet of the guys walking and then come up where the area’s good. . . . At the moment where it’s weak, I’m closest to the feet. This is no hard and fast rule, just an example.” When you remember that one of the main reasons that Heaven’s Gate nearly bankrupted United Artists was that Michael Cimino couldn’t live with the idea of a background that looked weak for even a single square yard, you realize that there is a whole aesthetic, and hence a morality, embodied in Siegel’s attitude. To accept and transcend limitation can be a source of creative vibrancy, whereas to eliminate it with money almost always leads to inertia. On his seventeenth, and last, day of shooting Baby Face Nelson, Siegel did fifty-five separate camera setups, and they’re all in the picture. (“It cost $175,000 to make,” Siegel told Bogdanovich, “and it took a lot of bookkeeping to make it up to $175,000.”) Warren Beatty, given the choice, would have gone on editing Reds forever, but no amount of editing could lend tension to the footage, in which only Jack Nicholson behaved as if he owned a watch. Reds, a pioneering effort in the annals of modern wastage, was made in order to indulge the creative whims of its maker. Baby Face Nelson was a cynical, cost-conscious piece of exploitation. Which was the work of art? All right, which would you rather see again tonight?
Reality is a useful brake on megalomania. Besides this key point (continually and hearteningly endorsed by almost everyone in the book), there is plenty of other stuff that merits thoughtful attention from the current generation of moviemakers, who so often not only can’t do anything small but don’t even want to, except as a career move on the way towards doing something big. Leo McCarey took credit for very few of the hundred or so Laurel and Hardy films that he was effectively responsible for, but his vision shaped that of his actors. “At that time,” he says, “comics had a tendency to do too much.” (There has never been a time when they had any other tendency, but let that pass.) In From Soup to Nuts, Hardy as the maitre d’ came in to serve a cake. He tripped, fell and buried his head in the cake. It was McCarey who shouted (in 1928 the audience couldn’t hear him), “Don’t move! Just don’t move! Stay like that!” Seeing it now, all you get to look at is Hardy’s back, stock-still as you rock back and forth with the best kind of laughter—the kind you bring to the joke, participating in it with your imagination.
. . .
The movies are a collaborative art, then—or, rather, they were a collaborative art then, back at a time when the audience didn’t feel left out. But this is to talk like a curmudgeon. Actually, there are more good, solid, humane, well-plotted and well-acted movies being made now than ever before. Compare a densely textured political thriller like City Hall with the average FBI gang-busting melo of the 1940s—one of those movies in which the agents sneak up on the spies while a yelping commentator on the soundtrack tells you what they are doing (sneaking up on the spies). But there is no comparison. The movie business now is immeasurably more sophisticated than it used to be. Sophistication, however, is a two-edged sword. It abrades the innocent delight necessary for the making of, say, a screwball comedy. (Bogdanovich’s triumphant latter-day contribution to the genre—What’s Up, Doc?—is the surest testimony that we should put the best possible construction on everything that has happened to him since the death of Dorothy Stratten: only a man capable of deep love could celebrate a wild girl’s pilgrim soul with so much joy.) And, above all, it erodes the concept of a modest sufficiency. It ought not to—in almost any other field, the sophisticated rein themselves in—but in the movies it somehow does. People who have made small, intelligent movies dream of making big, dumb ones, persuading themselves that if all values except production values are left out some kind of artistic purity will accrue.
So the creators get carried away. And they want to carry us away with them, but without giving us anything to hold on to except a train being chased by a helicopter through a tunnel. To adapt the famous words of Gertrude Stein, it is amazing how we are not interested. The hero couldn’t be doing that, even if it looks as if he were, so the only point of interest is how they worked the trick. Whereas in the old days, even if he didn’t especially look as if he were doing that, he could have been doing that. So we were with him, and we didn’t care how they worked the trick. We let them care. That was their job. They didn’t expect to have articles written about it, or to be interviewed—least
It might even help us remember his movies, which were marked from the beginning by a rare compassion for those blasted by fate. The great scene in his first great success, The Last Picture Show, was when Ben Johnson told the normal boys off for their “trashy behaviour” in humiliating a halfwit. In one of his later movies, Mask, the director’s challenge, met with subtlety and grace, is to transmit the awful self-consciousness of a superior mind as its grotesque containing skull closes in on it. Bogdanovich’s understanding of fate’s unbiddably cruel workings is rare among filmmakers anywhere in the world and almost unheard-of in America. He seems to have been blessed with it from birth. But the blessing brought a curse with it. Fate came for him, too. The killing of the Unicorn left him inconsolable. Since then, he has been living a story so sadly strange that not even he could plausibly make a movie of it. One would like to believe that he doesn’t want to, since without a deep, literate conviction that the movies can’t do everything, he would have less of a gift for celebrating everything they have done.
The New Yorker, July 7, 1997; later included in
Even As We Speak, 2001
Out of respect, and because he was already suffering enough, I soft-pedalled the common knowledge that Bogdanovich had arranged plastic surgery for the Unicorn’s sister in order to make her look even more like the prize he had lost. For one thing, I didn’t know if the common knowledge was true, and I thought it incumbent on me not to find out for sure. One of the virtues of The New Yorker was that it could understand such reticence and did not insist that the personal stuff be jemmied into the piece. Other magazines would have been less forbearing. Though short of back-up by that stage, Bogdanovich had further film projects on his mind and could scarcely have relished my tones of valediction.
Nevertheless he got in touch the next time he came to London and we went out to lunch in Notting Hill. I had already interviewed him on television and knew him to be an entertaining man, but this time, with no clock ticking and nothing at stake, I found out just how entertaining he could be. In the studio he had been sparing with his powers of mimicry. Now he let rip. The mimic’s gift is extravagant anyway, but Bogdanovich has an extravagant gift to an extraterrestrial degree, as if he had be been sent here to docket the voice patterns of the human race. Nor is there the problem that was undoubtedly raised in the case of Peter Sellers, of finding the real man among the many adopted personalities. Bogdanovich might have been talking in the voice of Gary Cooper, Cary Grant or Boris Karloff, but the brain driving the supernaturally adaptable muscles of the mouth and vocal cords was all his.
So amused that I starved, I found it hard to believe that a man who could do all that could have lost control of his career. He had, though. A film director has to be a general before he is an artist, and when they take away his army, he has to fight his battles in a sand tray. If things had been going well, Bogdanovich, although always a courteous man, wouldn’t have had time for lunch with a writer. I tried to be sorry about that, but I was too glad to have heard him in the full flight of his fancy.
THE GENTLE SLOPE
The very first book illustrated with photographs, William Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature (1844), carried as an epigraph a quotation from Virgil. Talbot, who was a learned classicist as well as a chemist clever enough to invent photography, enlisted Virgil’s aid in declaring how sweet it was to cross a mountain ridge unblemished by the wheel ruts of previous visitors, and thence descend the gentle slope to Castalia—a rural paradise complete with well-tended olive groves. The gentle slope turned out to be a precipice and Castalia is buried miles deep under photographs. A subsidiary avalanche, composed of books about photographs, is even now descending. In this brief survey I have selected with some rigour from the recent output, which has filled my office and chased me downstairs into the kitchen.
. . .
In her book On Photography (1977) Susan Sontag darkly warned the world that images are out to consume it. Books about images are presumably also in on the feast. Hers remains the best theoretical work to date, although competitors are appearing with startling frequency. Gisèle Freund’s Photography and Society, now finally available in English, is half historical survey, half theoretical analysis. Her own experience as a celebrated photographer has obviously helped anchor speculation to reality. When the argument takes off, it takes off into a comfortingly recognizable brand of historical determinism. Thus it is made clear how the early portrait photographers served the needs of the bourgeoisie and wiped out the miniaturists who had done the same job for the aristocracy: hence the collapse of taste. Baudelaire, who hated the bourgeoisie, consequently hated photography too. These reflections come in handy when you are looking at the famous photograph of Baudelaire by Nadar. That baleful look must spring from resentment. Sontag makes greater play with such historical cruxes but Freund gives you more of the facts.
Janet Malcolm, the New Yorker’s photography critic, has produced a worthwhile compilation of her essays. She thinks “discomfit” means “make uncomfortable,” but such lapses are rare. More high-flown than Freund, although less self-intoxicatingly so than Sontag, Malcolm is an excellent critic between gusts of aesthetic speculation. Diana and Nikon is grandly subtitled “Essays on the Aesthetic of Photography.” Whether there is such a thing as an aesthetic of photography is a question which critics should try to keep open as long as possible, since that is one of the things that good criticism always does—i.e., stops aestheticians from forming a premature synthesis. In her essay on Richard Avedon, Malcolm assesses the April 1965 issue of Harper’s Bazaar, the one edited by Avedon, as a “self-indulgent mess.” But she insists on being charitable, against what she has already revealed to be her own better judgement, about his warts-foremost portraits of the mid-1950s. “Like the death’s-head at the feast in medieval iconography, these pictures come to tell us that the golden lads and lasses frolicking down the streets of Paris today will be horrible old people tomorrow . . . Avedon means to disturb and shock with these pictures, in the way that the young Rembrandt . . . the ageing Swift . . .”
Whatever its stature as aesthetics, this is low-grade criticism. Every artist who shoves something nasty in your face means to shock. When Rembrandt portrayed the decay of the flesh he was saying that ugliness, too, is a part of life, and even part of the beautiful. By using such a phrase as “horrible old people” Malcolm unwittingly proves that she has caught something of Avedon’s crassness, even while taking him to task. A photographer might be permitted to think in such coarse terms if he is inventive enough in his work, but it is a ruinous habit in a critic and can’t be much of an advantage even to an aesthetician, who should be above making her older readers feel uncomfortable, or discomfited. Cras mihi—tomorrow it is my turn—remains a useful motto.
Malcolm calls photography the uppity housemaid of painting. Not a bad idea, but like her range of reference it shows an inclination to worry at the phantom problem of whether photography is an art or not. Sontag does better by calling photography a language: nobody wastes time trying to find out whether a language is an art. But Malcolm, between mandatory bouts of ratiocinative fever, stays cool enough to give you some idea of the thinner book she might have written—the one subtitled “Critical Essays about Photography.” She shows herself capable of scepticism—a quality not to be confused with cynicism, especially in this field, where an initial enthusiasm at the sheer wealth of stimuli on offer can so easily switch to a bilious rejection of the whole farrago.
On the subject of Diane Arbus’s supp
. . .
A vigorously interested but properly sceptical tone is the necessary corrective to the star system promoted by John Szarkowski. Operating from his command centre at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Szarkowski has conjured up from photography’s short past more geniuses than the Renaissance ever knew. Szarkowski’s passion would be infectious even if he lacked discrimination, but in fact he is a first-rate critic in detail and an admirably cogent thinker within his field. The Museum of Modern Art booklet Looking at Photographs (1973) continues to be the best possible short introduction to the entire topic. In it he draws the vital distinction between self-expression and documentary, and draws it at the moment when it is least obvious yet most apposite—with reference to a photograph by Atget of a vase at Versailles. Other photographers, according to Szarkowski, had been concerned either with describing the specific facts (documentation) or with exploiting their individual sensibilities (self-expression). Atget fused and transcended both approaches. Szarkowski’s gift for argument manages to convince you that Atget’s artistic personality is somehow present in a picture otherwise devoid of living human content. In an earlier Museum booklet, The Photographer’s Eye (1966, reprinted this year), he declared himself aware that the “fine art” and “functional” traditions were intimately involved with each other—another vital critical precept.
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