Wednesday, February 26, 2014

When we are young

When we are young, we chase after tomorrow,
like drooling dogs who catch a far-off pitch
and hunt it down, through briars, maze and ditch—
down to the gameless grounds of cold regret
where old men brood in self-creating sorrow,
stroking their lost potential like a pet.
All that they thought were gifts are just a borrow;
they see the prize but can no longer buy it,
their doggéd lives made paltry and defrauded
of promise by the promise of repletion
which they pursued, bedevilled and be-godded
by deeds and signs, to dubious completion—
     inheriting not power, peace and quiet
     but just the ruins of their parents' riot.

When we are young, we hear the words of life,
their meaning meant for us and us alone
like sleeping beauties meant to be a wife—
like street signs in the Land of Do-As-You-Please
where every road ends with a thrill or a throne
and not the taunting of a final tease
of love unending, for the aim is known
and sleep brings only dreams of love and shame,
or the dark nightmare of the one-and-only
that leads down to the hell of might-have-been
where we will wake, more castaway than lonely,
needing to find a devil for our sin,
     looking for something that can take the blame
     for why we never lived up to our name.

When we are young, we translate all we hear—
the names of streets, the words behind deep glances—
into a language free of loss and fear
and full of something more like verbal chances
than definitions, flexible to nudge,
and not a sentence spoken by a judge.
Everything has ten meanings, and we play
as if the winning move is always near
and always will be, like a hunting dog
who tracks our kill and never runs away
until one day it leaves us in a fog
where words fail us, and we end the hard day
     humming the tune of a forgotten song,
     sitting and drinking, wondering what went wrong.

Copyright 2014 Matthew J Wells

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Kit Marlowe

While there are a ton of books about William Shakespeare, books about Marlowe are few and far between, never mind plays or films about him.  (You can get a complete list of recent works here.) For non-fiction, there's nothing better than The Reckoning (Charles Nicoll), which has a dizzying amount of detail on Marlowe's espionage connections. I don't know if I agree with Nicoll's theory as to why Marlowe was killed, but he sure provides a ton of evidence that something shady was behind the murder. For something a great deal less conspiratorial, there's Kind Kit (Ross Williamson) and The World Of Christopher Marlowe (David Riggs). In the fiction aisle, I'd recommend A Dead Man In Deptford (Anthony Burgess) and Entered From The Sun (George Garrett). Tamburlaine Must Die (Louise Welsh) is pretty good, while The Marlowe Papers (Ros Butler) is pretty bad, not least because it's entirely written in blank verse which ranges from serviceable to stultifying. The Elizabeth Bear fantasies are fun, as is The Armor of Light (Melissa Scott & Lisa Barnett). The Herbert Lom novel is a little thin, even for a prose version of a screenplay, and Rodney Bolt's History Play is full of so many scholarly and literary in-jokes that it's both delightful and insane.
Marlowe shows up for about five minutes in Shakespeare In Love, where he’s embodied so well by Rupert Everett that you wish somebody had greenlit a full-length Marlowe pic for him. He shows up for considerably longer in Anonymous, where he's played by Trystan Gravelle and, before he's killed, manages to watch performances of Henry V, Hamlet, and Twelfth Night, which is kind of like making a movie about Orson Welles in which he gets to watch American Hustle before he dies. 

And as for the stage, there was a Broadway rock opera about Marlowe in 1981, which ran for about a month . . .

. . .  and a Public Theatre play about him around the turn of the century. 

That one I saw.  Here’s my (poetic) review:

at the Joseph Papp Public Theatre, 11/11/00


The play's first words, said by a whining runt,
are "I am the world's biggest (rhymes with punt)!"
Ten seconds later, naked as a grape,
the title character swings like an ape
from stage left to stage right, more pale than pink,
displaying washboard abs above his dink.
"I'm so sorry already," whispers Kay
two minutes into this atrocious play.
I nod.  If Marlowe wrote this bad, he'd be
deservedly ignored by history --
no poetry, no glory and no sense
of what it means to give direct offense
to piety with Faustus or to kings
with Tamburlane and Edward.  Nothing sings;
lines limp (as Marlowe did, they say) or worse
their blandness puts the blank into blank verse.
No high astounding terms to stun the age --
just infinite blather on a little stage
about a man whose verse was writ in flame,
a man who made the rules that made the game,
a poet who in every five-beat line
wrote nothing less than something rich and fine.
Just like a jeweler flakes away the chips,
so he from prose carved diamonds for lips,
mouth-filling jewels -- but none of them are here;
just coal and ashes, which deserves a tear
or two from those who love a verbal kiss
or think that he deserves better than this.
Direction (Brian Kulick) was the same
as all the rest I've seen by him -- a game
of sliding panels, moving forth and back
to mark a scene change, and disguise the lack
of thought behind the rest of what we see --
a trick that he falls back on constantly.
Panels are what he does, and does to death --
the staleness of a once-original breath.
Stale is the word here, like two-week-old chips.
(Is this the lunch that's faced a thousand lips?)
The actor playing Marlowe rides his lines
so fast that he got 19 speeding fines.
The old man playing Walsingham did gawp
and cock his head each time he spoke the slop
the playwright fed him, just to demonstrate
the foulness of his portion as he ate.
The whining runt, Tom Walsingham, is Kit's
young lover--he speaks in long whining fits
of jealousy and ranting about life
while being forced to wed a noble wife.
The rest -- an Essex more fop than a man,
a Raleigh duller than a faded tan
who feeds Marlowe a wicked spliv of hemp --
have all the depth of Larry, Moe and Shemp.
It makes me wonder how, under the sun,
a steaming piece of crap like this gets done?
Do they go nose it out, like hungry flies?
Do they seek out dreck that confounds the wise?
Alas, they must to their own name be true:
The Papp -- it's who we are; it's what we do.


What is it about playwrights writing plays
about the theatre?  Every time they do,
you see the same old cliches: pompous farts
pretending to be actors, with their taste
down in their toenails; questions of
identity a six-year-old could answer --
and not a bit of knowledge of how the stage
works, as if they're strangers in the country
that gave them birth--as if they must make fun
of what they love to be loved by the masses.
You'd think these writers never saw a stage
or never liked an actor, and if plays
like this are any indication, they
can only write a cipher, whose sole reason
for living is to spout an argument
more suited to the study than the theatre
or drag a gate from stage right to stage left
like a good supernumerary sport.
At least when God wrote us, he made us free
to spout our own drivel, and not repeat
his rantings, if we so choose or desire.
And when God made Marlowe, he used both hands,
unlike these so-called writers, who think that
quoting the title of a Harry Levin book
(The Overreacher) and yet never showing
us any overreaching, makes him real.
If I had time, I'd sing Marlowe myself,
not that I know him any better than
the next man, but that I think I could write
a play where you might nod your heads and say,
so this is he whose brief words Shakespeare echoed
all his long life, the man who single-handed
invented what we think of as high drama
and from poor speech created a pure line
that was to sing much better in the throats
of his betters, but still sings out
as clear as when he first put quill to paper.
Not a bad legacy for a man to have,
even if he must die just short of thirty
knifed in the eye because of God knows what
conspiracy or bar brawl.  Not at all
a bad end when you leave behind great words;
but bad indeed when so much is unsung,
and it’s your fate to be the ghost who haunts
your followers, as both a lost soul and
a guide, like Virgil to young lovesick Dante,
showing them hell but barred forever from
the summit of the sunlit stage of Heaven.
From Shakespeare’s dream book
August 11, 1601
        No man has yet or ever will produce the play I had in mind when first I faced blank paper.  
        Marlowe said that.  Christopher Marlowe.  Machiavelli to the scabbled world, but Kit, kind Kit, plain Kit, cold Kit, Kit the vision, Kit the rake, Kit the hedonist, hyperpobolist, diabolist, delusionist; Kit the father, Kit the son, Kit the litany hypocritical--firebrand Kit, the flaming Icarus of sunny London, shy Kit Marlowe to his friends.  Not that he cared for friendship--the flirt friendship, he called her--swoon at the flirt friendship but once, he'd say, and ever after she's a slut with airs, courted in competition like Helen of Troy to sneak off finally with a fair-faced stranger.  Marlowe was never so jilted; Marlowe wooed Marlowe, like a man far gone from want of the wench.  His muse red flame and air, burning and breathing, feeding the very fire that burned itself. 
        Christopher Marlowe.  The poet of the pure, unbroken line.  Fame's ticing dainty at twenty-five, worm's meat at thirty.  The man pissed ink as soon as ever he was born.  Died in a puddle of it.  Black and unreadable.  Marlowe.  He said of me once in my own hearing that if I was given the choice between dreaming and waking, I would choose to dream that I was awake.  Clever man.  He said of me also in the hearing of tiny Tom Nashe, who was never happier than when he was violating a vow of secrecy, a gleeful imp with the ears of a changeling and a bee-sting for a tongue; Marlowe was in The Anchor Pub one night, with the three Toms, Tom Nashe, Tom Watson and Tom Kyd, and a few other companions besides, perhaps even the same ones who were with him on the last night of his life, the night he died; and they were all passing drunken judgment on everyone who was not in the room, which is an old theatrical custom, and someone asked Marlowe, and what do you think of sweet Will Shakespeare then, and Marlowe said, the man's a prick, and so am I; but whilst I've been pricking out couplets, sweet Will's been pricking twins.  And who's to say, said Marlowe, who's to say, which issue of these pricks will outlive the other.  My couplets, or his twins?  My twins.  Hamnet and Judith.  Judith the tiny mirror of her mother; Hamnet my little son.  Forever my little son.  Dead now these five years. 
        I dreamed of him again, last night, Kit Marlowe.  In this dream, I am walking Tinker's Lane in Stratford, on a bright sunny summer afternoon, and round a corner comes young Marlowe, dead.  "Will!" he cries as he catches my eye.  And then as I look at him he says, "Now why do you look at me like that?"  "Well," says I, staring at my shoes, "the fact is, that is, well; you're dead, y'know."  "Ah well,"  says Marlowe, "you know how it is.  Sometimes I forget." 
       I look off to one side.  Spread my hands.  Look to the ground.  And stare at Marlowe's shoes.  Why is it I can never meet this poet's eyes?  Not once in all the times we've met--outside the Rose; in a Lord's manor, with shining wood and candles around us, and the flicker of firelight on the long fingers of his pale hands--"I have the Queen's hands," he says with a smirk, and displays them regally--not once have I looked up at him and met his eyes and smiled.  Instead the man has always smiled at me, with the brash bright grin of my brother Edmund, when he asked me for a player's spot among the Men.  The grin of one who has no power here, who hands his helpless self into the will of another.  A trusting smile.  A boy's smile. 
        "You look disturbed," says Marlowe.  "You must be thinking of your Stratford wife."  And then he quotes himself, from his play THE MAID'S COMEDY, the one Sir Edmund Tilney censored and suppressed after one performance; he quotes himself and says: "Never put faith in things you cannot trust: Time brings them all, like chimney sweeps, to dust."  Time brings them all, like chimney sweeps, to dust.  The words fill me with a curious sweetness, like the perfume of temptation. 
         I raise my head and force myself to look at Marlowe, avoiding his eyes with all the skill of a born liar avoiding the truth.  "Well, Kit," says I, "you look quite debonair for a man who's spent a decade decaying in a shallow grave."  "Decade decaying," says Marlowe, "oh Will, Will, if I were alive a phrase like that would kill me."  He laughs and shakes his head, dead Kit Marlowe, laughing and talking despite the broken line of his life.  It baffles me that a corpse can quit its grave so casually, but I have learned long ago that in England there is no accounting for taste.
        So we fall in with each other, Marlowe and I, strolling down Tinker's Lane.  As in many of my dreams, the scene once set, the backdrop disappears, so that there is no setting; only two men, heads down, walking side by side, with yet a distance between them.  "The mind of man swims a wild, strange river," Marlowe says as we stroll along.  "A leaky boat in which one day we find ourselves, and call it home.  And if ever we know the art of freeing ourselves from it, why, contentment and laziness soon please us to ride the river, and forget all but the fiery, fleeting, pleasure of the flesh."  I nod at this, and see in my mind the boatman Peter Tuppence, who has ferried me ah, many the time from London town proper to the Bankside.  Beside me in the boat is Marlowe, eyes wide, unblinking, as we swoop down and under London Bridge.  Why does this man fear water so?  He swam enough at Cambridge.  Black gowns on river bank, pale bodies splashing.  The thin shell we ride lurches down; shadowed now the rush of water, spray on our faces, the clawing of his hand on my shoulder.  His voice calm as he talks of boys and tobacco, but under his voice I hear the words:  "He speaks to find his courage in the noise," the words whispered in my ear, as always, in a boy's voice.  We are riding the river past huge cliffs; atop them castles spire up into the clouds.  "A paltry thing to trust, the mind," says Marlowe.  "Because of it we know no more than that we woke one day into our separate bodies envenomed with life; and found, in sickness, such a soothing warmth, that we soon lost the trick of getting well.  And yet there are sweet moments when the trick is there at hand, when all I've done in this odd body's but a strange and fearful dream, and when I wake all ties to it will end."
         "And like all dreams," I say to him, "you soon discover that, when you try to put your vision into words, there is a spell about beauty, a magic spell that prevents you from communicating anything deeper than the surface of its ocean; so that there hovers, in your restless head one thought, one grace, one wonder at the least, which into words no virtue can digest."  Marlowe's words, leaping as easily to the tongue as fish to the baited hook.
        My dead companion favors me with a smile.  Teeth crooked, black.  In his hands is a freshly-plucked daisy.  He pinwheels it.  "The words of youth," Marlowe replies.  "I too was young once.  I thought that I could flout the doom of using words, so I strutted to and fro in the earth with my eyes screwed shut, complaining that the world was not worth seeing, that the world within my mind was worthier of my allegiance.  Only thus may boys live out their youthful lives with their coltish dreams unshattered, free of the doubtfulness and discontent of manhood, and make some mark upon the tables of time.  And that story has but one ending, however it is told."
        Slowly he turns to me.  In his hands is an object all in flames.  He holds it out to me.  I turn my head.  I wave the gift away, as one who in his sleep shoulders away some fearful dream.  And then he smiles, and then I groan, because it is my own heart that I have thus refused.  And sadly then does Marlowe eat up my burning heart, until there is no part of it left anywhere, and sadly does he say:  "From far away I come to grant you a life, only to steal it back again for my own service.  Helpless and unsettled are you now by my will; through me and mine alone will you ever after find comfort, for in me and mine alone will you fulfill your promise, and yearn with me for treasures we will always feel the lack of.  So will this make of your daily life forever after nothing but a foil, and a hindrance, and a dark dream from which is no true waking." 
      He stands in front of a low hill.  Behind him, in the bright green bushes, a dark door opens wide, a door that reveals a torchlit tunnel which leads down into the hill, down into darkness.  “But if you would wake,” says Marlowe, “truly wake, then come live with me.  Come live with me and be my love,” he says.  And the dark door beckons, and Marlowe grins, and I awake in my London bed to the distant echo of a dying roll of thunder in the dark.
Come live with me out on the edge
And dare the drop beyond the ledge
Where we will turn our backs upon
The mortgage and the seeded lawn.

Come live with me against the grain
Far from the homes of the mundane
Whose eyes glaze over when they see
That we’re not what they’d have us be.
They look at us and shake their heads
And ponder in their featherbeds
What flaw leads us to live a life
Of insecurity and strife.

It irks them that we do not face
A comfortable living space;
They see us thriving on the verge
And blame a self-destructive urge.

Ignore their condescending tsk
Each time we take a little risk --
They think the wild, from beast to bird,
Must be a member of some herd.
For they are three rooms, we are four --
And all behind that extra door
That we must furnish, rent and show,
They'll never have, they'll never know.
But we, we know it in our bones --
We were not made for monotones;
We'll slip each pigeonhole and label
And run like colts far from the stable,
Taking the road less traveled by,
For we are different, you and I --
That is our fate and privilege,
So come live with me on the edge.
If you prefer to dance and sing
And play from night to bright morning
And keep your soul's unspoken pledge,
Then live with me out on the edge.

Copyright 2014 Matthew J Wells

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Quod me nutrit, me destruit

That translates as “What nourishes me, destroys me.” It’s the inscription on this portrait, discovered in 1952 in Corpus Christi College. It’s of the other guy besides Shakespeare who’s celebrating a 450th birthday this year: Christopher Marlowe.
Like Shakespeare, Marlowe's actual birth date is not known; but since he was christened on the 26th of February, exactly two months before Shakespeare’s christening—and since Shakespeare’s birthday is commonly assumed to have taken place 3 days before his own christening—it’s consistent to assume that Marlowe was born on the 23rd of the month as well.

And like Shakespeare, we do know the actual date of Marlowe's death: May 30, 1593, when he was barely 29 years old.  Officially, he was killed by a knife thrust into his eye during a tavern brawl in Deptford.  I say "officially" because the other three men involved in the brawl, as well as Marlowe himself, have definite connections to the spying circle that is part of the hell of the Elizabethan underworld, and at the time of his death, Marlowe was under suspicion by the Privy Council of (among other things) writing a libelous poem against illegal aliens and signing it "Tamberlane."   All of which became known less than a hundred years ago, when Leslie Hotson  hunted down and found a copy of the pardon which had been given to Marlowe's killer a month after the murder.

There are some who think that Marlowe faked his death and then went on to write most of Shakespeare's plays between 1594 and 1616.  To my mind, all you have to do to refute this argument is to read any one of Marlowe's plays.  They're beautiful poetry, in some cases even more beautiful than the best of Shakespeare, but you can sift through all of them and find precious little evidence that Marlowe ever had or overheard an actual conversation with a living breathing human being, never mind showed any interest in how they felt or what made them tick.  

Which is not to say that there aren't a ton of Marlowe echoes throughout Shakespeare (especially in As You Like It, which I'll go into in another post).  The portrait inscription above, for instance, is echoed in two places in Shakespeare: Sonnet 73 (“consumed with that which it was nourished by") and Pericles (“Quod me alit, me extinguit"). 

It's entirely possible to use these echoes as evidence that the same man wrote all three lines; me, I prefer to think of it as one man haunted by the ghost of another for his entire writing and acting career.  Why?  Because Marlowe's deceptively simple iambic pentameters pretty much created Elizabethan theatre as we know it.  If Shakespeare is the era's Beatles, then Marlowe is its Elvis. With the sad corollary that most of what he did either got censored or corrupted or lost along the way (the subject of yet another upcoming post). 

The simplest way to think of Marlowe's effect on the playmakers of the day?  What he did went viral.  Everybody imitated him.  Everybody echoed him.  But nobody really equaled him.  Not even Shakespeare, who saddled the horse that Marlowe reared and rode it off into an entirely unexpected direction.

An example of Marlowe going viral?  In 1599, a poem he wrote God knows when (before 1593, unless you think he was still alive 6 years after his official death) was published in a collection called The Passionate Pilgrim.  Everybody went nuts over it, so much so that when it was reprinted a year later in a collection called England's Helicon, it was followed by an answer poem written by Sir Walter Raleigh.  (After which John Donne wrote his own version.)   Here they all three are.

The Passionate Shepherd to His Love
by Christopher Marlowe

Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That valleys, groves, hills, and fields
Woods or steepy mountain yields
And we will sit upon the rocks,
Seeing the shepherds feed their flocks
By shallow rivers to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals.
And I will make thee beds of roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flower, and a kirtle
Embroidered all with leaves of myrtle;
A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty lambs we pull;
Fair lined slippers for the cold
With buckles of the purest gold;

A belt of straw and ivy buds,
With coral clasps and amber studs;
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me and be my love.

The shepherds' swains shall dance and sing
For thy delight each May morning:
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me and be my love.

The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd
by Sir Walter Raleigh

If all the world and love were young,
And truth in every shepherd's tongue,
These pretty pleasures might me move
To live with thee and be thy love.
Time drives the flocks from field to fold,
When rivers rage and rocks grow cold;
And Philomel becometh dumb;
The rest complain of cares to come.

The flowers do fade, and wanton fields
To wayward winter reckoning yields;
A honey tongue, a heart of gall,
Is fancy's spring, but sorrow's fall.

Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy bed of roses,
Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy posies,
Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten,
In folly ripe, in reason rotten.

Thy belt of straw and ivy buds,
Thy coral clasps and amber studs,
All these in me no means can move
To come to thee and be thy love.

But could youth last and love still breed,
Had joys no date nor age no need,
Then these delights my mind might move
To live with thee and be thy love.

The Bait
By  John Donne

Come live with me, and be my love,
And we will some new pleasures prove
Of golden sands, and crystal brooks,
With silken lines, and silver hooks.

There will the river whispering run
Warm'd by thy eyes, more than the sun;
And there the 'enamour'd fish will stay,
Begging themselves they may betray.

When thou wilt swim in that live bath,
Each fish, which every channel hath,
Will amorously to thee swim,
Gladder to catch thee, than thou him.

If thou, to be so seen, be'st loth,
By sun or moon, thou dark'nest both,
And if myself have leave to see,
I need not their light having thee.

Let others freeze with angling reeds,
And cut their legs with shells and weeds,
Or treacherously poor fish beset,
With strangling snare, or windowy net.

Let coarse bold hands from slimy nest
The bedded fish in banks out-wrest;
Or curious traitors, sleeve-silk flies,
Bewitch poor fishes' wand'ring eyes.

For thee, thou need'st no such deceit,
For thou thyself art thine own bait:
That fish, that is not catch'd thereby,
Alas, is wiser far than I.



Thursday, February 20, 2014

Save The Cat

See the cat?

You only have to watch about 20 minutes of Inside Llewyn Davis to understand why it got passed over for every Academy Award nomination except cinematography and sound mixing.  It looks and sounds great.  The problem is, all these good-looking people sound like dicks.  You wouldn’t know that from reading most of the reviews, which say that it’s bleak but tender.  Which is only true if you include the music; take the songs away, and the tender goes with it.

Story-wise, it’s widely assumed, and continually repeated, that the events in the film are based on the life and early career of Dave Van Ronk, one of the great pre-Dylan Village folkies.  They are and they aren’t—there are enough similarities to make the comparison, but the essentials are so different that it’s like listening to a cover version that sounds so little like the original that it becomes a different song entirely, like The Pretenders doing “Stop Your Sobbing” or Sinead O’Connor doing “Nothing Compares To You.” From what little I know of Van Ronk, on the worst day in his life he was nowhere near the total jerk Llewyn Davis is for most of this movie. 
See the cat?

But then everybody’s a jerk in this movie, which takes place in a 1961 that is populated by assholes, womanizers, bitter women who are dumb enough to sleep with womanizers, struggling musicians, uncomprehending relatives, silly intellectuals, and producers who don’t know a good thing when they see it, but sure do know one when they can make money from it.  Structurally, it’s a song where the verses finally catch up to the refrain, sort of like “Rocket Man” by Pearls Before Swine, where the chorus is only understood after the final verse tells you why it has to be what it is. 

Thematically, it’s about how talent alone just isn’t good enough.  You can be a talented as hell, but if you don’t have something more—luck, a presence, the goodwill of an audience—you will never make it to the next level, the level where there’s money in it.  And truth be told, the movie also, subversively, makes the totally opposite case:  the reason why talent isn’t good enough is because you need something less, not something more—something that the untalented can recognize in themselves; something middle of the road.  There’s a scene in the Gaslight where Davis watches an audience sing along to a performance, and the look on his face tells you exactly why no one will ever sing along with him.  And yet when one character does, a little later in the movie, he goes ballistic.

And given that this is also a movie about failure—failure to get that lucky break, failure to take that highway exit to Akron, failure to make the right choice between royalties and a cash payout, failure to treat women like people, failure to know what you want, failure to live up to other people’s expectations, failure to live up to your own talent—this is a hard movie to like.  Especially since most of those failures are committed by the main character.  If the Coen Brothers wanted me to reach into the movie and beat some sense into Llewyn Davis, then they succeeded.  
I also couldn’t help noticing that the only women in this movie are an angel who curses like a merchant marine, a moralistic shrew who is blamed by her brother for doing exactly what he tells her to do (and she still comes off looking guilty), the wife of a professor who is reduced to tears by someone she thought was her friend, and an out-of-town singer who is heckled by a drunken self-loathing lout.   So if the Coens wanted me to storm into their office and bitch slap  the pair of them until they write three-dimensional females, then they succeeded there as well.
But the real success here? The music, which redeems every unforgivable action in the film.  It's everything the rest of the movie isn’t, and the best song in the film (go figure) is a three-minute novelty number about astronauts that is performed and directed so perfectly that it will make you giddy with delight.  In fact, just listening to the soundtrack will give you a completely different vision of this film.  On the basis of its music alone, Inside Llewyn Davis is about a vibrant, hopeful, emotionally-charged era which is reaching back into the past in order to make sense of the present. 

No bleak; all tender.  All jewels.  But when it comes to the film itself, it's like seeing those jewels in a setting that takes away their value.  There’s a case to be made that this, too, is intentional—that the contrast between inside and outside, the difference between creators and their creations, is the main thing that this movie is about.  But like the movie’s hero, it’s lacking that certain something which would add up to success.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A Form Of Socially Accepted Insanity



“Only connect,” said EM Forster in Howards End.  One wonders what he would make of the internet--which has redefined the words “connection” and “social”--never mind a movie like Her, which is about how those two words are (and aren’t) fulfilling.   At least that’s what it was about for me, while I was watching it; and I submit that it’s a good enough film that you can read a number of themes into it.  The problem is, you can also dismiss it entirely as something so male-centric that only half the audience will want to read it at all; the other half has seen it far too often in real life to be entertained by it.

My initial reaction?  Two sweet for satire, too low-key for laughter, too bittersweet to be a tragedy, this is a film about a guy who falls in love with an OS, the artificial intelligence behind his new Operating System, and it’s set in a world where heartfelt letters can only be written by corporate employees who are so uncomfortable in their own skins that they can only express their feelings behind a mask.  (Insert your best Facebook analogy here.)  

At heart, it’s a magic techno fairy tale, in which the digital object of the main character’s affection exists primarily to ask (and embody) the question: when even inanimate objects can get a life, why can’t you?

And like all fairy tales, the moment you start asking realistic questions, it starts to unravel, in this case into a yarn that’s a  combination of social commentary and love story.  It’s about the way people look for connections with and through inanimate objects in our culture, and the way, in every couple, there’s always one who wants to move and one who wants to stay put.  If love is a houseboat, then one partner is always catching some rays on deck while the other is in the wheelhouse checking out charts and maps.  And while it isn’t always the men with tans and the women with maps, it’s a cliché for a reason.  In this story, the artificial intelligence grows by leaps and bounds, until she's creating maps her male partner can't even read, and going places he can't ever follow.   (Y'know, like most women.)

There’s also a third thing going on here—and I don’t know if it was intentional on the writer/director’s part, or simply a side-effect of the story he’s telling.  It’s about how, to a certain type of male, a relationship with an inanimate object takes precedence over a relationship with a real person.  Through most of the movie, the premise—a guy starts dating his new Operating System—is presented and accepted as a person-to-person relationship, even though one of those people is an artificial intelligence.  The only person who questions this—the guy’s ex-wife—is written and directed to act like a party-pooper, somebody who just doesn’t get it.  And there’s the problem, because I’m betting a lot of women in the audience agree with her when she makes a crack about her ex-husband dating his laptop.  Because, let’s face it, what woman in her right mind wants to pay money to watch a guy who loves to interact with his computer rather than have a conversation with a real person? It’s bad enough the straight ones have to date people like this.  And speaking of which: the two actual physical dates in the film nail this type of guy perfectly—the surrogate date (okay; that would be weird as hell for anybody) and the date where the guy is so warm and approachable and then at the end he pulls back a couple of hundred miles, pecks you on the cheek, and says “Keep in touch,” and you’re like “What the fuck just happened here?”  


On the plus side, it’s one of the few romantic comedies where the man gets educated instead of the woman.  (I’m trying to think of other examples besides High Fidelity and I’m drawing a blank.  Help me out here, people.)  But it’s not really a romantic comedy, is it?  It’s the story of someone who is lifted up from the digital gutter and becomes so changed when she’s exposed to a life she didn’t know that she cannot go back and cannot remain where she is—she has to move forward.  It’s Shaw’s Pygmalion (NOT My Fair Lady) with the words “Mary Freddy?” replaced by “Talk philosophy with Alan Watts?”  And for those of you who may not know who Watts is, he’s the man who wrote this in What Is Wrong With Our Culture:

For the vast majority of American families, what seems to be the real point of life—what you rush home to get to—is to watch an electronic reproduction of life … this purely passive contemplation of a twittering screen.

Did Spike Jonze know this quote when he included Watts as a character in the film?  My money’s on yes.  Does the mood of the film have a Lost In Translation feel to it because Sofia Coppola and Jonze are divorced?  More money on yes.  And was it revenge voice-over (which is the filmic version of revenge sex) to replace Samantha Morton with the female star of Lost In Translation?  It’s a side bet, but for my money, it’s a probable twelve to seven.  Mark my words: when Film Forum gets around to it, they‘re going to put these two movies on a double bill, and people are going to smack their foreheads and say: “Crap—which one is the answer film again?”

In the lead role, Joaquin Phoenix gives one of those acting performances that’s so good he’ll never get an award for it.  He just embodies everything that makes this guy exactly the kind of person who would equate opening up to another person with revealing his inner self to a talking iPhone.  He’s like Woody Allen without any of the passive-aggressive lashing out that Allen uses in his jokes.  In Phoenix, all the lashing is in.  I totally buy it.

**What I don’t buy is that the Amy Adams character is having a “relationship” with her own (male) OS.  The only time we see them interact is when they’re goofing around with this game that AA is developing, and in that scene, whoever this OS is, he’s more like her digital gay best friend than somebody she’s going to try to have surrogate sex with—and no way in hell is he talking to her in Ryan Gosling’s voice the way Scarlett Johansson is talking to Phoenix.** 

Like the concept of the OS itself, this is a movie which you can either take personally or impersonally.  I took it personally, but then it feels like, deliberately or accidentally, it was made with not just the Y chromosome in mind, but Matt Wells.  And if you don’t know who Matt Wells is, he’s the guy who said this:

Men love women because they have the idiotic idea that they’ll stay the same; women love men because they have the naïve hope that they’ll somehow change.

Call it the Pygmalion story, call it a meditation on Jonze’s marriage to Coppola, this movie is not about the possibility of love as much as it about the inevitability of loss, the certainty that what was born yesterday will outgrow you and move on tomorrow.  It’s about shared loneliness.  Which is why the final image is right out of L’Avventura.  Wide shot of two people next to each other seen from behind, and the head of one dips to nestle on the shoulder of the other, like the hand of Monica Vitti softly stroking the head of Gabriele Ferzetti.

It’s a light touch, in the end, but what it touches on is something deep and sad and ultimately we’re-all-in-this-together forgiving, and I'm not sure the film hasn't earned it. Because in the end, it’s not about what happened with Her. It’s about what happens next with those two people. It’s about Us.

** AUTHOR'S EMBARRASSING EDIT:  Please ignore everything between these asterisks above.  The OS that the Amy Adams character is having a relationship with is a She, not a He, as my friend Amanda pointed out below.