Thursday, September 18, 2008


I saw two early films by David Lean last night. A neglected masterpiece in HOBSON’S CHOICE, and a justly neglected disasterpiece in THE SOUND BARRIER.

Charles Laughton shows off his comic chops in David Lean’s film of HOBSON’S CHOICE. He overplays, he underplays, he smiles frowns grimaces and walks into walls. It is a delicious performance in a delicious movie, one that I love almost every moment of.

Laughton’s Hobson, like a comic Lear, is having a rough time of it. His three daughters do most of the work in the bootmaker’s shop he owns, and there are mutinous rumblings. The two youngest daughters are entertaining thoughts of marrying local young men, and the eldest daughter Maggie (who is really the brains of the enterprise) is thinking that she needs some kind of life of her own. In a fit of pique, Hobson refuses to bestow dowries on the two marriage minded daughters. Maggie, bristling at Hobson’s characterization of her as an old maid, embarks on a briskly businesslike sort-of romance with the shop’s bootmaker, one Willy Mossop. And the fun begins.

The comedy is well-played for the most part, with a couple of alcoholic visions for Laughton and an extended Chaplinesque bit for John Mills’ Mossop being the only drags on the film. Maggie’s taking up of Mossop moves from being a mostly business proposition into one of the loveliest depictions of a loving relationship I can think of. These two are nuts about each other, and it is all done with great taste and no sentimentality at all. A particular shout out has to go to Brenda de Banzie, who is able to show both the strength to stand up to Charles Laughton’s thunderstorms and the tenderness to get Mills’ confidence going.

I’d been looking forward to THE SPEED BARRIER, and was deeply disappointed in it. The screenplay by Terrence Rattigan is a batch of cliches, and it would take better actors than Ann Todd and Nigel Patrick make it live onscreen. Ralph Richardson seems frankly lost as an apparently heartless industrialist who seems to have no problem sending young pilots to what might be their deaths in his quest to Break The Sound Barrier. Only Denholm Elliott, an impossibly young and attractive Denholm Elliott, manages to transcend his character’s blatantly cliched role as a Doomed Mis-Understood Youth.

The filmmaking is good enough, I guess. There are some well done aerial sequences, and a couple of really tense sequences. Lean’s camera and editing make the airplanes soar, but the actors are resolutely earthbound. There's nowhere the delight in filmmaking that characterizes Lean's best work, way too much of it is simply by the numbers. It is no shame to say that it isn't in the standard of Lean’s earlier GREAT EXPECTATIONS and BRIEF ENCOUNTER, to say nothing of HOBSON’S CHOICE which followed two years later. Nobody makes a masterpiece every time out, that's only fair. But in THE SOUND BARRIER Lean seems to be coasting, and it is not a pretty sight. It could have been made by any studio director for hire, which is about the worst thing I can think of to say about a film by David Lean.

Let it stay in the vaults where it belongs. Only the devout Lean completists need see it. And even they might want to reconsider.

Monday, September 15, 2008


David Foster Wallace, the author of the novels INFINITE JEST and THE BROOM OF THE SYSTEM, as well as assorted story and essay collections, committed suicide over the weekend. I am just plain devastated. I’m not one to get too bummed out by the passing of people I’ve never met, but this one is really hitting me bad.

I can’t claim to be a total Wallace groupie. I’ve found several of his short stories to be nearly impenetrable, and one of his essays, entitled HOST about the talk-radio industry is, to me at least, simply unreadable: way too many typographic gimmicks and text boxes and footnotes that are supposed to mimic the tortured thought processes of a listener in a world full of media input but only get too much in the way. Another full-length work about the mathematician Georg Cantor is simply beyond my sphere of interest, and his first novel THE BROOM OF THE SYSTEM really doesn’t hold up well at all on a second reading.

At his best though, in INFINITE JEST and assorted stories and essays like the immortal A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING I’LL NEVER DO AGAIN, Wallace is a joy to read, smart and complex without being forbidding. His work made me glad I took the time to learn to read. His most accessible stuff, like A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING, shows a terribly intelligent and educated man, definitely more educated and brilliant than you or me or anyone we know, who is engagingly self-conscious about it to the point of embarassment. As brilliant as he is, he never seems very comfortable in his skin (I doubt this was affectation: he didn’t seem comfortable in his skin on the occasions I saw him read from his work) and this lack of snobbery can lighten what would otherwise be tiresomely high-minded: his description of his activities on 9/11 in a piece entitled THE VIEW FROM MRS. THOMPSON’S never condescends to the midwestern housewives etc. he is surrounded by. He’s not above the occasional grudge, though, see his annoyance with “poor pathetic Duane” in the same piece.

But there’s that INFINITE JEST behemoth, which I’ve plowed through 4 times and which was already on my radar for another reading later this year. I remember when it was first published, I found a display on a table at Barnes & Noble. The blurb was interesting, the book was attractive, I was thinking well should I or shouldn’t I, the last thing I ever really need is more books, especially big new books by authors I hadn’t really heard of, my home was and is a vast pile of books purchased that all too often sit there unread. As I stood there debating whether or not to get it, three separate people walked in off the street, came right up to the display of JEST, picked up copies and went straight to the cash register. Well okay, universe, I thought, I can take a hint, and I went ahead and bought the thing, making a mental note that I’d start it immediately and give it a serious shot, that it wouldn’t sit gathering dust until I’d really read a big enough chunk of it.

And within a few pages I was hooked, there was that tingling feeling that I’d really found something amazing. The book’s difficulties are well known by now, and I don’t just mean the footnotes and over-complex sentences. Wallace plays a lot of games with the chronology, it can often be too difficult to keep your bearings. I finished the book without a real idea of what the hell had been going on, but I knew that I had enjoyed almost all of it. I felt sure that there was a key somewhere, some little bit of information that I’d missed that would make it all come together, and I couldn’t wait to read it again, which I did the minute it came out in paperback about a year later.

And I found that I hadn’t really missed as much as I’d thought. There’s a lot of information that Wallace simply withholds, about a year’s worth of information about the lives of the characters in general and the main character in particular. I think Wallace plays fair, though. You shouldn’t turn the last page of INFINITE JEST feeling surprised that he doesn’t really tie up the assorted plot-threads into a neat and tidily Dickensian package. That particular penny should drop well before the final third of the novel starts. What matters is the ride itself, and it is an amazing ride, vastly entertaining and often hilariously funny. Yeah, there are some head-scratching questions remaining at the end of the book, but they are what Douglas Adams calls “rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty.”

And that’s probably what we’re going to be left with, as far as answers to questions about his death are concerned. What more can I say? I’ll miss the hell out of a guy I never met.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Uh, yeah, sorry about the lack of postings, for you three or four who still bother to check this page out. There hasn't been a lot going on, the summer has been dry as dust movie-wise and theatre-wise.

Things will be picking up soon. I just got a ticket to see John Adams' new opera, DOCTOR ATOMIC, at the Metropolitan Opera. I've been a fan of Adams' work for years and years, and try not to let a new work go by unseen/heard.

We'll also be seeing a revival of David Mamet's SPEED-THE-PLOW, starring the delectable little sexmonkey Jeremy Piven and the dreamy Raul Esparza, and a revival of a play by my favorite playwright Martin Mcdonagh, THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN, to say nothing of Kristin Scott Thomas and Peter Sarsgaard in THE SEAGULL and John Lithgow and Dianne Wiest and the really just appallingly beautiful Patrick Wilson in ALL MY SONS. Add to that a David Lean retrospective and brand spanking new restored prints of THE GODFATHER and THE GODFATHER PART II, playing at Film Forum, and it is looking like a busy September/October.

I'll keep you posted.

MmmmmmJeremy Pivenmmmmmmmmmmm.