Posts Tagged ‘The Squid and the Whale’

Eugene at the Movies

Posted in General on November 5th, 2007 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

To justify the cost of my cable television bill, I have to see 47 films a week. It is not that difficult. I sleep and eat on the couch; and the chamberpot fits under it. (Any olfactory indiscretions can be blamed on the pug.)

Here are my reviews of three films that I saw this weekend.

If you don’t have enough contemptible people in your life, “The Squid and the Whale” will make up for that deficit. To paraphrase Tolstoy, “Every unhappy family has its own story but I wouldn’t want it to be this nauseating.” The redeeming feature of the Berkmans of New York is that someday that they will die. Of course, in life and literature there are vicious, self-destructive families; they were a staple of Greek tragedies. However, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra are much more likable than Bernie and Joan Berkman. He is a pompous, pretentious bully; she is a self-absorbed, irrresponsible, aspiring psychotic. They are atrocious but without being interesting: petty monsters. You can imagine how endearing their children are. I suppose that the acting was good. Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney have never seemed so repulsive–although they will never pass for Berkmans. And here is an interesting footnote: one of their horrid brats is played by Owen Kline, the child of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates. In his role, the 14 year-old Owen is a thesaurus of obscenity–using language that I have never heard his parents say. (Of course, “Gremlins” did not really offer Ms. Cates the right venue to discuss oral sex.)

I did not intend to see “Gone With the Wind” again. The first five times might have seemed enough. But by accident, I switched to Turner Classic Movies just as the film began. Of course, I promised myself that I would just watch the first few minutes of the film–only until Clark Gable appeared; then I set a limit of half a hour, then maybe I’d stop after the burning of Atlanta, then after the first seven hours….The film is ridiculous but irresistible. Its purported history is outrageous: Abraham Lincoln should be ashamed of himself, ruining the lives of those kindly slaveowners and their adoring darkies. The never-ending melodrama of Scarlett O’Hara is absurd; fiddle-dee-dee, the man-eating monstress is laughably obvious.
And yet, Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, with an almost flawless supporting cast of Olivia DaHavilland, Thomas Mitchell, Ona Munson, keep you mesmerized. (Yes, I am omitting Leslie Howard; I’m saving him for the footnotes.) This is far from the greatest film ever made, but it really is the best example of the glamour and charisma of Hollywood’s golden age. We just don’t make Clark Gables anymore.

Footnote No. 1: The role of Ashley Wilkes is a thankless role; a badly written part, Ashley is little more than an aesthetic cipher. Leslie Howard had certainly distinguished himself portraying men of ideas rather than action: “The Petrified Forest“, “Of Human Bondage” and especially “Pygmalion.” But Mr. Howard really had nothing to do in the film but languidly sigh. Worse, at 49 he clearly was too old to be Ashley. And if I may be so tactlessly ethnic, Mr. Howard’s aquiline nose and dark, world-weary eyes are not found among Southern aristocrats. His Ashley would have had to join the Ku Klux Kohens, wearing a long tallith instead a sheet. The young Tony Curtis, alias Bernard Schwartz, said, “When I went to Hollywood, I wanted to be the Jewish Leslie Howard; then I discovered Leslie Howard beat me to it.”

Footnote No. 2: While watching Vivien Leigh as Scarlett and Butterfly McQueen as her idiot servant Prissy, I kept thinking of Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

If I speak of “Narrow Margin” you are likely to think of a mediocre thriller with Gene Hackman and Anne Archer about a cop transporting a witness on a train filled with mafia killers. That film was a padded remake of a taut, excellent, but low-budget movie made some 30 years earlier. The original has been described as “one of the best B-movies ever made”, and I would testify to that before any grand jury. It starred Charles McGraw, a gruff-voiced, hard-bitten actor who most of us would recognize as a second-string villain. For example, in “Spartacus” he was the brutal gladiator instructor who Kirk Douglas drown in a cauldron of boiling stew. Here, however he is the hero, an honest cop with a dangerous and distasteful assignment of protecting an odious character. He doesn’t know whom to trust, and he has to wonder if the assignment is worth the risk. Most of us might be tempted to take the proferred bribe and let the Mafia have the pleasure. The story is gripping and brilliantly filmed; you really sense the constricted space of a train. (Claustrophobes be warned.) Yet, this film’s budget entire cost less than the catering bill for “Gone With the Wind“. Check Turner Classic Movies for the next broadcast of “Narrow Margin.”

And tonight I plan to tape “Night of the Hunter.” After all, I have only seen it once.