Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Grand Budapest Hotel

There are at least three contemporary movie directors who go by the name Anderson - Paul W.S. Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Wes Anderson. Since I don't think much of any of them, I sometimes get them confused - deliberately I think. Was it Paul W.S. who directed the insufferable psychotic love story Punch Drunk Love or was it Paul? Did Wes direct all those repellent Resident Evil movies or was it Paul W.S.? It doesn't much matter to me which.

Wes Anderson started his feature film career inauspiciously in 1998 with Rushmore, about a multi-talented (read: insufferable) kid from a poor family who has somehow got himself admitted to an exclusive boarding school. The film became a cult favorite among viewers who shared Anderson's ignorance of credibility. Their tastes were further rewarded by the even more ludicrous The Royal Tenenbaums, and a bewildering string of subsequent flounders. I liked Fantastic Mr. Fox, only because I am devoted to the laborious art of stop-motion animation.

Now comes The Grand Budapest Hotel and, with all the awards for which it's been nominated (and the few it has won), I thought that perhaps Anderson had discovered new depths - or at least depths. I read somewhere someone was calling the film a social and even historical satire. On seeing it, I found it much closer to farce than satire, and not even a funny one.

Ralph Fiennes strives valiantly to give life to the lead character, Monsieur Gustave, concierge of the titular hotel, who becomes embroiled in the disputed settlement of a deceased old woman's estate. The old woman's son, a total jerk played convincingly by Adrian Brody, contests the will, which awards a painting, "Boy with Apple," rumored to be priceless, to Monsieur Gustave. The son sends a creepy-looking henchman (Willem Dafoe, perfectly cast) to bump off whomever opposes him, such as the old woman's lawyer (played by Jeff Goldblum).

M. Gustave is attended throughout the film by a young immigrant forced to wear a bellboy's uniform and a hat with the words "Lobby Boy" on it. For this alone, Tony Revolori deserves to be credited with formidable forbearance. But why is the hotel given the name "Budapest" in the first place, since it's located in a fictitious country? An end credit mentions that the film was "inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig." What writings?

The film is more probably inspired by a forgotten novel by Arnold Bennett called The Grand Babylon Hotel, which opens with much the same air of pretentious grandeur:

"Jules, the celebrated head waiter of the Grand Babylon, was bending towards the alert, middle-aged man who had just entered the smoking room and dropped into a basket-chair in the corner by the conservatory. It was 7.25 on a particularly sultry June night, and dinner was about to be served at the Grand Babylon. Men of all sizes, ages,and nationalities, but every one alike arrayed in faultless evening dress, were dotted about the large, dim apartment. A faint odour of flowers came from the conservatory, and the tinkle of a fountain. The waiters, commanded by Jules, moved softly across the thick Oriental rugs, balancing their trays with the dexterity of jugglers, and receiving and executing orders with that air of profound importance of which only really first class waiters have the secret. The atmosphere was an atmosphere of serenity and repose, characteristic of the Grand Babylon. It seemed impossible that anything could occur to mar the peaceful, aristocratic monotony of existence in that perfectly-managed establishment. Yet on that night was to happen the mightiest upheaval that the Grand Babylon had ever known."(1)

Substitute the word "Babylon" with "Budapest," "Jules" with "Monsieur Gustave," and "waiter" with "maitre d'," and this could be the opening paragraph of the upcoming "novelization" of The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Bennett's hotel, despite its Oriental name, is on the Embankment in London, while Anderson's exists in an imaginary region of Europe, not at all resembling - or intended to resemble - Hungary. Bennett's novel is a genuine satire of the tenaciousness and inescapability of class in England. Anderson's film is a quite silly attempt at farce set in a pre-war Europe without the slightest feeling for the period. Anderson's apparent affection for his characters and for a hotel whose opulence has outlived its purpose would have been more appealing if they hadn't seemed like they were made of cardboard or papier-mache.

Most filmmakers have a vanity project hidden away - a film that is entirely personal and that is practically guaranteed to lose money. Only when a filmmaker becomes successful enough will he suggest the project to his backers. In the vast majority of cases (I am thinking of films like Martin Scorsese's adaptation of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth), such films are ill-advised simply because most filmmakers are out of touch with their own strengths and weaknesses, or not nearly as good as their sudden success makes them think they are.

When I sit through Wes Anderson's films, every one of them gives me the uncomfortable feeling that it is a vanity project. I am wholly in favor of highly personalized, self-indulgent filmmaking. Without such creative freedom we would've been deprived of Fellini's 8 1/2. But when Fellini decided to devote the remainder of his career to films of a similar stripe, beginning with Juliet of the Spirits, it was time to say, "Ciao, Federico." Anderson, whose ninth film this is, doesn't have an 8 1/2 in him. If he had, it would make a film like The Grand Budapest Hotel both more permissible and immeasurably more sad.

One more nit to pick: When the film's narrator, none other than our lobby boy in old age (F. Murray Abraham), mentions that the war has begun and that "ten battalions crossed the border," someone should have informed Anderson that a battalion is a relatively small group of soldiers. But in Anderson's utterly harmless imaginary world, it was probably intentional.

(1) Bennett's novel was made into a film in 1920 by E. A. Dupont, starring Hans Albers.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Navigator

Of Buster Keaton's great silent comedies, The Navigator is one of his most brilliant, inventive and most problematic. Released in 1924, it has dated the most because of its racist depictions of some native islanders at the film's climax.

Keaton's stillness at the center of a universe in motion has been noted since critics first noticed his strange air of distraction. It was no accident that Samuel Beckett was moved to write his one and only film script, called (what else?) Film (1964), especially for Keaton. Old and ill, Keaton says nothing throughout the short (17 minute) work, directed by Alan Schneider. We see him, with his signature porkpie hat, from behind until the end, when we notice he is wearing an eye-patch. However astonishing it is to find Keaton in such an erstwhile avant-garde film, it is hard not to conclude that his talents, though dimmed, were squandered on such a strained stab at what comes across as deliberate obscurity.

In The Navigator, Buster plays Rollo Treadway, an utterly clueless young millionaire similar to the one he played in Battling Butler (1926) - One who "can't even shave himself," as Keaton later described him. One morning he looks out of the window of his mansion and notices a jalopy carrying a young couple "just married" and gets it into his head that he should get married as well. He tells his butler (or is it a batman?) his intentions and that he must acquire two tickets for a "honeymoon in Honolulu."

When he crosses the street in his chauffered limousine to propose to his sweetheart, the daughter of the shipping magnate Fredrick Vroom, she turns him down. Hurt but unbroken, Rollo decides to sail to Honolulu alone, but boards the wrong ship - the Navigator - that is, unbeknownst to Rollo, set adrift by saboteurs. Of course, his sweetheart gets stranded on the ship with him. All of this happens in the first five minutes of this not quite hour-long film.

From thenceforward, all the film's gags derive from how these two people, who never learned how to care for themselves, survive on a deserted ship adrift at sea. The very first day, when neither of them knows that the other is aboard, the two spend several minutes perambulating the deck, discovering that they aren't alone, and circling the deck to find each other. The Girl finds a lit cigarette stub on the deck and calls out to whomever can hear her. Buster, on an upper deck, responds by proceeding in the direction of the call, but the Girl is going in the opposite direction on the other side of the ship. For the next few minutes we watch as they each run and just miss seeing the other around the multilevel decks and up and down stairs until Fate - and a strong draft from a ventilator shaft - brings them together with a crash.

Somehow the two survive. A title tells us "Weeks later - still adrift" and we are shown how they have adapted to their new lives: they each sleep (separately, of course) inside the ship's massive dormant boilers and have rigged an elaborate system of pulleys to prepare their meals.

When the ship runs aground, Buster dons a deep-sea diving suite and once again demonstrates what a fine line there was between a gag and a death-defying stunt. The underwater scenes take place just after the ship comes within sight of an island inhabited by cannibals, and the film veers off-course into some racist waters. The Tarzan movies a decade later were at least as guilty of this, and a comedy - especially a great one like The Navigator - had more room to indulge in such stereotypes. (What South Pacific island has African natives?) To what degree such "cannibals" were stock figures in American films of the 1920s, it is nonetheless difficult today to laugh during the scenes of Buster and the Girl being menaced by the grass-skirted islanders.

The rest of The Navigator not only holds up after ninety years, it gets better. In an essay from 1986, Vernon Young was moved to write:

"When we compare the comedies of Chaplin with those of Buster Keaton, Keaton will prove to have the greater latitude of witness point. If, in Keaton's films, there is nothing to rival the dream sequence in The Kid, there is no episode in a Chaplin film comparable to that fabulous setup in The Navigator where Buster and his girl, lone passengers on an ocean liner adrift, keep missing one another in a tour de force of timing and camera perspective which, seen today, justifies our exclaiming: Kafka!"*

*Vernon Young, "Chaplin Disinterred," The New Criterion, June 1986. Young's obituary appeared on August 23 that same year in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015


Few names figure as prominently in the minds of the Irish than Oliver Cromwell. When English monarchs started their persecution of Catholics in the sixteenth century, striving to legitimize the Protestant Church of England, the atrocities committed against the Irish were like sporadic rehearsals compared to the full scale military campaign carried out against them by the man who led a civil war in England and eventually brought about the beheading of King Charles I. Cromwell saw the Church as an institution that worked hand-in-glove with the tyranny of kings. (Many subsequent revolutionary movements did the same.) Some historians have called his campaign in Ireland "ethnic cleansing," causing the deaths of an estimated 600,000 Irish (out of an estimated population of 1,400,000). So perhaps it made perfect sense in 1970 that Richard Harris, stridently Irish, should have played the title role in Ken Hughes' lavish - and rather effective - biopic, Cromwell, and that I should compose some remarks about it on this St. Patrick's Day.

David Lean permanently set the bar for such epics with Lawrence of Arabia, which managed to combine splendid writing (by Robert Bolt) with extraordinary imagery (by Freddie Young). Cromwell credits its script solely to Hughes, with Ronald Harwood as "script consultant." During filming, however, Richard Harris and Robert Morley contributed material to some scenes. As for the look of the film, for which the cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, production designer John Stoll and costume designer Nino Novarese are responsible, I suppose that they are enough, along with Van Dyck's famous portraits, to remind us of what an ugly period the middle seventeenth century was (the hats and moustaches were particularly objectionable).

The film seems to take place in only two places - Parliament (before it was housed in Westminster) and the battlefield. While the scenes in Parliament grow rather claustrophobic, with a hundred men continually shouting at one another, the battle scenes more than make up for them. This was one of the last films made in England that could afford a cast of thousands, and they are directed with the steady hand of a general, showing off Cromwell's battle tactics to terrific effect. For one thing, when Cromwell's infantry attacked, they ran like hell instead of marching slowly toward stationary enemy lines. Cromwell was one of those leaders who commanded from the front, combining fearlessness with an almost charmed invulnerability, encouraging his own men while unnerving enemy soldiers.

As acted by Harris, Cromwell emerges as a highly principled, if somewhat self-righteous and extremely able, man of action. What an enormous contrast Tim Roth presented as Cromwell in To Kill a King, which took a far less sympathetic view of the Lord Protector. To what extent either portrayal is historically accurate (I'm inclined to consider Roth's treacherous, aristocrat-hating Cromwell closer to the truth.) Still, I can't resist wondering how many revolutions Cromwell himself must have turned in his grave when Harris got the role.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Selfish Generation

Last month, Pope Francis proclaimed that married couples that decide not to have children are being "selfish". It's a strange thing for a man to say who chose to forsake sexuality altogether. We all know what the Catholic Church thinks about children. I live in a Catholic country that is overrun with children - where 34% of the population is under the age of fifteen. According to the Church's official line, a child is a gift from God, that men and women don't have a say in how many children they have, that only God can decide. If this is so, what difference does it make if a couple uses a contraceptive? If God decides, then wouldn't He make the condom break? (What a creepy concept this is. No matter how privately you may think you are fornicating, the Lord God is right there with you, guiding your ovum and spermatozoa to their appropriate destinations.)

During his visit to the Philippines in January, the Pope learned of a goof Catholic woman who had ten children and who risked her life having an eleventh. Was this not the will of God? No, said the Pope. Just because the Church denies you access to contraceptives, "People shouldn't breed like rabbits," he said. But the only alternative for a good Catholic couple that doesn't wish to breed at all is, of course, total abstinence. So, exactly what is the Pope advocating for couples, unprotected sex, unrestricted procreation, or complete abstinence from sex? If I were a practicing Catholic (which I am not, thank God), I would be more than a little confused.

I believe that, since the Catholic Church is obviously responsible for the population explosions going on in poor, predominantly Catholic countries, shouldn't the Church be offering financial support to these burgeoning families? It is a fact that when women become educated about child-bearing and are given options in the matter of how many children they have, they invariably choose to have fewer children. And the more affluent people become, the number of children they have dwindles even further. This seems to be a contradiction. If people are more well-off, shouldn't their affluence put them in a better position to care for bigger families? Or is it that women want to have full lives that aren't expended in constant child-bearing and the interminable process of child-rearing? The old saying is true: Parenting begins with the birth of your child and ends in your death.

The double-edged sword of poverty means that everyone survives because of a big family, but that families just get bigger and bigger. The consequence is a small country like the Philippines now finds itself with a population now in excess of 100 million, in addition to two million more every year. A few years ago, when a statistic was published here in the Philippines showing that one-third of all Filipinos lived on two dollars a day, I examined what that terrible statistic meant in practical terms in a post I called "The Value of Money." Could it be possible for an individual to stay alive on two dollars (or eighty-eight pesos) a day? The conclusion I came to was that, while it is conceivable, given the low cost of living, it was far more likely that individuals depend for their survival on their families.

The Pope's remark was, of course, aimed at people in developed, prosperous countries who enjoy a relatively high standard of living and "quality of life." The Pope knows full well that there are two kinds of people in the argument for an against birth control - the people in poverty-stricken countries who "breed like rabbits," and the people in successful, rich countries who are being "selfish" by having fewer children or having none. The Pope's real problem is that, even in predominantly Catholic European countries like Ital, Spain, France and Ireland, the majority of people are "lapsed Catholics" who no longer go to mass or obey the dictates of the Church.

When Pope John Paul II proclaimed in the 1990s that Europeans and Americans had lost their "sense of sin," most of us were glad that at least we hadn't lost our sense of humor.

[In 2017, the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's earth-shaking protest will be celebrated. Something Pope "Francis" should know is that Luther was Franciscan.]

Thursday, March 5, 2015

It's Just Talk

"In Britain and Australia, most of the talk shows go on the air once a week for a limited season. In America, it is more like once a day forever. The host's huge salary is his compensation for never being free to spend it. The joke-telling machines can take that kind of schedule, because nothing troubles them in their interior lives except the problem of finding time to spend the money." (Clive James)

Given my nightowl nature, watching The Tonight Show came easy for me in the mid-1970s. In the hick town where I was living, it was the only thing worth watching at that hour. Johnny Carson reigned on NBC. Who knew in the '70s that he would eventually ascend into legend? If I'd known, perhaps I'd have watched him more assiduously. But that would've taken all the fun out of it.

When Carson retired in 1992 I was sequestered in the Navy. I heard about the subsequent squabble over a successor, but I wasn't invested in the outcome. So what if Letterman got screwed. Leno got higher ratings anyway, so NBC made the right choice. When Conan O'Brien was given the reins of The Tonight Show, even with Leno on before him, there was a glimmer of hope that a worthy successor to Johnny had arrived. But when Conan refused NBC's scheduling changes, which would've moved The Tonight Show into tomorrow, they handed it back to Leno briefly. I watched Conan's tearful farewell to The Tonight Show in early 2010, live via satellite here "among the tinkling palm trees."

Carson inherited The Tonight Show in 1962 from Jack Paar. One of Paar's best writers was a kid from Nebraska who shared Carson's love for prestidigitation (magic). He wrote for Johnny for awhile until ABC,  trying to attract younger viewers with shows like The Smothers Brothers, gave him a shot at a late night talk show in 1968. Cavett's format was simple: no sidekick and no big band - just talk. Cavett quickly developed a reputation for more cerebral and witty conversation, and celebrities lined up to appear on his show. Rather than having to put up with the usual parade of movie stars and popular singers plugging their latest work night after night ad infinitum, Cavett offered viewers lengthy and revelatory interviews with often interesting people. And, unlike Carson or any of the others (Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas), Cavett often took sides. Some of the more famous shows on ABC included Groucho Marx, Jimi Hendrix, Ingmar Bergman, Danny Kaye, Norman Mailer vs. Gore Vidal, and Angela Davis. 

I can't say that I saw much of Cavett's ABC show or his short variety show for CBS, but when I was in college in 1977, he moved to PBS, commercial free public television, and I became a devoted follower. Freed from having to scramble for ratings, Cavett could interview whomever he pleased, resulting in some priceless interviews with Saul Bellow, Kenneth Tynan, John Gielgud, Peter Cook, John Cheever, Federico Fellini, and Marcello Mastroianni. 

After leaving PBS, Cavett drifted from network to network. Now 78, he still lives in Manhattan, makes infrequent TV appearances, demonstrating on every occasion that his wit is as sharp as ever. (Anderson Cooper: "Weren't you up against Johnny?" Cavett: "Not physically." He has a blog on The New York Times website.

His television chronology show just how tough it was for him to stay on the air:
  ABC (1968–1974)
CBS (1975)
PBS (1977–1982)
USA Network (1985–1986)
ABC (1986–1987)
CNBC (1989–1996)
Olympia Broadcasting (syndicated radio show, 1985–1989)
Turner Classic Movies (2006–2007)

 Although Cavett conducted his share of interviews with celebrities (Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, John Lennon), at least he succeeded in exposing the human beings hidden behind the masks. Clive James, in his essay in tribute to Cavett, saw this when he was first interviewed by him:

"By the time he got to me, in 1974, he had already interviewed almost every household name in America, and he was ready for the more difficult challenge of interviewing someone whose name wasn't known at all and of making something out of that. We were on-air, I had hummed and hedged about my reasons for leaving Australia, and he suavely sailed in with his own explanation, "How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm, after they've seen the farm?" The throwaway speed of it impressed me: If he had used the line before, he knew just how to make it sound as if he hadn't. A small, handsome man with an incongruously deep voice, Cavett was deadpan in the sense that he had no special face to signify a funny remark. He just said it, the way that the best conversational wits always do. He was by far the wittiest of the American television talk-show hosts, most of whom have always been dependent on their writers. . . There will be no Dick Cavett of the future. We should count ourselves lucky that there was one in the past."

By now, interviews - and the subjects of interviews - have become so commonplace that it's difficult for a person who dedicates himself to the art to make a living at it. That there is such a thing as "the art of the interview at all is thanks largely to Dick Cavett.