Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Tribeca Film Festival - An Englishman In New York
The second part of Don Quixote starts when the Don and Sancho are reading a copy of Cervantes’ Don Quixote and say “This is an outrage! We have to go out there and correct the record.” An Englishman In New York begins when John Hurt (playing Quentin Crisp) decides to go to New York after the TV broadcast of A Naked Civil Servant, in which Jon Hurt played Quentin Crisp. Both journeys are Quixotic in the truest sense of the word –- doomed not just to failure, but to glorious failure. Crisp has three Sanchos in this movie -– the editor of the NY Native (Denis O’Hare), young artist Patrick Angus (Jonathan Tucker), and Penny Arcade (Cynthia Nixon) –- and the windmills he winds up jousting against are windmills that wind up whacking us all on our ass, like irrelevance, old age, and (my personal favorite, he said, rubbing his butt in pain) speaking without thinking.
Quentin Crisp probably would have worked the word “style” into that somewhere, and John Hurt has it in spades. It’s a wonderful performance, which does a lot to make you overlook the movie’s flaws –- all the Sanchos are continually used as plot machinery rather than people, vignettes are separated by blackouts that seem to anticipate commercial breaks and begin and end with jarringly clashing underscoring, and there’s a little too much of Crisp dispensing wisdom like Buddha under the Bo Tree.
And, alas, the wonderful voiceover pretty much disappears about a third of the way through. I suspect this was an artistic choice, because the moment you no longer hear what’s going on in Crisp’s head is the moment when he makes his infamous remark about AIDS being a fad, and discovers that being clever about hot-button issues will turn a windmill into a tar baby. From that point on, as Crisp is ostracized from his own community, we are ostracized from his inner life, and only get to see him reacting to O’Hare's editor and Tucker's Patrick Angus. Crisp’s penance for the “fad” remark seems to be watching Angus die of AIDS, but not before he helps Angus get his paintings shown. At which point the voiceover returns. (It all sounds very schematic, doesn’t it?)
Overall, it’s a worthy film (with all the good and bad which that word entails). And Crisp’s message of personal style resonates even more today, when style is about to get ten separate channels on cable: There is something unique inside you: nurture it. Let the world come to you. Stay outside -- that is your power lies. And as Denis O’Hare said in the talkback, “You don’t have to be emblematic; you just have to be yourself.”