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A Marriage Plot (Monkey Business, 1952)

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Monkey Business could almost be a horror movie. A slightly different point-of-view and it’s virtually The Fly. (Yes, Cronenberg is still on my mind.) Instead of bodily disgust, however, the horror of the film is found in the loss of self, or rather at the loss of a mature self. The horror of youth is not that it’s an unknowable force threatening to overwhelm and destroy you (no clash of generations here); the horror of youth is that it is knowable, that we’ve been there, it was embarrassing, and we can’t remain functioning adults by returning to it.

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It’s a horror over our own fragile autonomy. But losing control over oneself can either be tragic or hilarious, and for Hawks this time it’s hilarious. Monkey Business is a comedy because, as is often the case with Hawks, the horror of the situation gives way to the saving power of the group, the community. In the case of Monkey Business, even though there is a larger community of scientists, secretaries, and bureaucrats, the real group at the heart of the story is that of a married couple, Barnaby and Edwina.

The exploration of that marriage – Cary Grant’s absent-minded but brilliant chemist and Ginger Rogers’ patient and level-headed wife – raises the film up to something special in Hawks’s oeuvre. Ranking Hawks’s comedies is difficult and ultimately not really useful, but in general I prefer those where the central relationship is pre-established to those where the relationship is brand new and developed over the course of the film. (I’d include Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in the former category, as the central relationship is between Dorothy and Lorelei, not between the girls and any of the men.) This is just a personal preference, and it certainly doesn’t make a film like Ball of Fire less great, but I’d rather a film explore a relationship than create one.

Romantic comedies, including many great ones, tend to rely on the “getting together” setup. After all, marriage (or some sense of permanent coupling) is an effective and time-tested way of ending a story. Even a film like His Girl Friday, which draws most of its comedy out on how well Hildy knows Walter and what she expects him to do, is able to end its plot this way by allowing its separated couple to reunite. (David Bordwell called this the “getting back together” plot, and was quite common in the 1940s.)

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Monkey Business is thus somewhat unique in that Barnaby and Edwina start and end the film a happily married couple, and the plot does not create tension out of whether or not they’ll stay together. It’s perfectly clear to the audience, even when Edwina kicks Barnaby out of their hotel room in hysterics, that they’re a good fit and aren’t going to be splitting up.

So the whole conflict – the whole comedy – of this film is not in what will happen to Barnaby and Edwina’s relationship but how that relationship will respond the loss of control and autonomy of adulthood. What happens when a marriage – the most quintessential of adult relationships – becomes uncontrollably childish?

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Like I said, it’s often quite horrifying: Barnaby and Edwina become rude, inconsiderate, spiteful, and sometimes downright cruel. And it’s not a Jekyll and Hyde transformation, either.* They aren’t becoming different people so much as less sophisticated versions of the same people. Thus, when Barnaby inquires as to whether Edwina really did kiss Hank Entwhistle (and begins to worry about her continued affections for him), his anxiety is not unfounded. He really does have some jealousy issues to work out. Likewise, Edwina truly feels that Barnaby may not fully respect her and may even look down on her. They may act irrational while using the formula but their feelings are still real.

The film doesn’t go in for a cheap ending, either, in which Barnaby and Edwina definitively resolve all of these problems. Drinking the formula is an enlightening experience but it doesn’t (indeed, it can’t) actually fix Barnaby and Edwina’s underlying issues. It can only make them aware of those problems; working them out is a long process which will never really be finished. That’s what Monkey Business gets right about marriage: it isn’t the “end” of a love story, as in so many films, but an ongoing one. Coming up against the limits of your own commitment just means that you can continue onward with each other wiser and better prepared, if still growing and evolving.

In the film’s final scene, Barnaby and Edwina are still married and in love, and they’re still basically the same couple we met in the film’s first scene. Their biggest change is that they are more aware of their own limits, as individuals and as a couple, and how maturity and shared experience is key to maintaining their own happiness and sense of self. The film’s general silliness, and the presence of an up-to-no-good animal, certainly makes Money Business feel like a cousin of sorts to Bringing Up Baby, but it’s a much more mature film, a romantic comedy that actually explores a living, evolving romance between adults.

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*Actually, this is a cliche and not really fair to Stevenson’s original novella, in which it’s made quite clear that Hyde is not a different person than Jekyll but merely his own worst instincts freed from the constraints of upper class, Victorian gentility. Very much like Monkey Business.

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How It’s About It: A Tribute to Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” Column

Note: After posting my review of Holy Motors and Cosmopolis over the weekend, I tweeted: “Latest review is on HOLY MOTORS & COSMOPOLIS. But, writing it after news of his death, it’s sort of about Ebert, too.” I wrote most of it on Friday and Ebert’s death was weighing heavily, which explains that review’s somewhat melancholy tone, so I wanted to elaborate on those feelings a little. It’s become clear how important Ebert was to so many people who write about films, and this is my own modest recollection of one of Ebert’s more influential columns.

I was twelve-years old the first time I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey, on a rented VHS in my grandparents’ family room. After the closing image of the star child, as the credits began rolling over the sound of the “Blue Danube,” I was dumbstruck. What was that?, I thought. Where was the astronaut going? What’s the deal with the giant black tablet? Why were there monkeys in the beginning? How did the evil computer connect to all of it?

I stopped the tape and immediately rewound the last thirty minutes. I rewatched them carefully, looking for some detail, some clue I’d missed that would explain everything. But when I got to the end a second time, I was still confused.

I turned to my grandfather and said, “I have no idea what just happened.” He shrugged and tapped his feet to Strauss’s waltz.

I needed to find another source for an explanation. In the late 90s, there were already many film sites online, but only one that I could reliably turn to that wrote about older films with depth, authority, and insight. That, of course, was Roger Ebert’s website, which posted his weekly reviews of new releases along with his “Great Movies” column. Those were retrospective reviews that, beginning in 1997, allowed Ebert the opportunity to write about a wide variety of classic and canonized films.

As many people have testified in the days since his death, Ebert – both in his onscreen debates with Gene Siskel and in print – was a sharp and witty film critic, with a deep sense of film history and an endlessly optimistic outlook on film culture. He shaped a generation of film lovers and writers. For me personally, his “Great Movies” were his greatest gift. With over 15 years of reviews and three books, they acted as a proto-film school for an Internet-age cinephilia.

His review of 2001 was typical. Highly engaging and sensitive to the film’s central concerns, it startled me almost as much as the film itself. Offering only a rudimentary analysis of the plot, Ebert instead explained how the film’s story was far less important than its sounds and images. He described the film’s premiere in L.A., which he attended:

The film did not provide the clear narrative and easy entertainment cues the audience expected. The closing sequences, with the astronaut inexplicably finding himself in a bedroom somewhere beyond Jupiter, were baffling. The overnight Hollywood judgment was that Kubrick had become derailed, that in his obsession with effects and set pieces, he had failed to make a movie.

What he had actually done was make a philosophical statement about man’s place in the universe, using images as those before him had used words, music or prayer. And he had made it in a way that invited us to contemplate it — not to experience it vicariously as entertainment, as we might in a good conventional science-fiction film, but to stand outside it as a philosopher might, and think about it.

2001 was not the narrative adventure film I had expected. It was something else entirely. With that review, I learned that film could be more than simply “plots on screen,” and the rest of his “Great Movies” elaborated on that theme. It’s easy now to understand, for example, that “’Citizen Kane’’ knows the sled is not the answer. It explains what Rosebud is, but not what Rosebud means,” but that’s an invaluable insight when you’re is twelve and trying to wrap your mind around how a film can be “about” something without, in fact, actually being about it.

I became addicted to the “Great Movies” column. Ebert’s impressions became my impressions, my first way of learning and thinking about classic films. The reviews were never convention-busting contrarianism. They tended to take a fairly traditional approach to the movies reviewed, recalling their iconic moments and offering the emotional recreation of a cinematic experience that Ebert was famous for. The insights could be small, such as how Ebert recalled the way Marlon Brando played with Eva Marie Saint’s glove in On the Waterfront, or celebratory, such as his description of Donald O’Connor’s “Make it Laugh” number in Singin’ in the Rain.

When I could, after reading an Ebert review I would go to Blockbuster and rent it. My film options in suburban Philadelphia were limited, though back in the late 90s and early 00s, Blockbuster was still giving significant floor space to classic and foreign films. However, the selection was still spotty, and if a movie wasn’t there and wasn’t on cable it was usually years before I would finally get a chance to watch it.

For these unseen films, Ebert’s reviews only became more important and entrenched in my memory. I didn’t see Nashville or The 400 Blows until college, but Ebert wrote so evocatively about them I often felt like I had (Altman’s film is “a tender poem to the wounded and the sad”; in Truffaut’s movie, “Little is done in the film for pure effect. Everything adds to the impact of the final shot. “) And when I finally did, I wasn’t disappointed. Even when I would later read about the same films from other critics, Ebert’s impressions remained a kind of talisman, the gold standard of what the film was and what I could expect.

Some of his insights have stuck so forcefully in my mind I think of them every time I watch a film. Take his review of City Lights, where Ebert described the final reunion between the tramp and the flower girl:

The last scene of “City Lights” is justly famous as one of the great emotional moments in the movies; the girl, whose sight has been restored by an operation paid for by the Tramp, now sees him as a bum–but smiles at him anyway, and gives him a rose and some money, and then, touching his hands, recognizes them. “You?” she asks on the title card. He nods, tries to smile, and asks, “You can see now?” “Yes,” she says, “I can see now.” She sees, and yet still smiles at him, and accepts him. The Tramp guessed correctly: She has a good heart, and is able to accept him as himself.

It’s a simple account of a powerful scene, a scene so iconic it should transcend any mere description. But as much as that scene belongs to Chaplin and Virginia Cherrill, for me it will always and irrevocably be Ebert’s scene, too

Or consider his criticism about the ending of Psycho. Ebert wrote that he wished he could re-edit it, so that he would,

…include only the doctor’s first explanation of Norman’s dual personality: “Norman Bates no longer exists. He only half existed to begin with. And now, the other half has taken over, probably for all time.” Then I would cut out everything else the psychiatrist says, and cut to the shots of Norman wrapped in the blanket while his mother’s voice speaks.

Ebert’s more succinct, less psychoanalytic ending is so much stronger, I can’t ever watch Psycho without mentally editing it that way myself.

Even when I disagreed with Ebert’s analysis of a Great Movie (which was fairly often), it was a productive disagreement that helped me understand those films better. In his review for The Searchers, for example, Ebert complained about what he saw as the film’s major flaw:

The film within this film involves the silly romantic subplot and characters hauled in for comic relief, including the Swedish neighbor Lars Jorgensen (John Qualen), who uses a vaudeville accent, and Mose Harper (Hank Worden), a half-wit treated like a mascot. There are even musical interludes. This second strand is without interest, and those who value ”The Searchers” filter it out, patiently waiting for a return to the main story line.

That’s wrong: those scenes are crucial to The Searchers. Comical, yes, but they must be as they focus on the society being built in Ethan and Martin’s absence. Indeed, sequences about the “community,” especially as they exist outside or apart from the main plot, are crucial to Ford’s filmography in general. The Searchers isn’t just about a man on a quest, but about the society he leaves behind, his separation from it, and ultimately, his inability to ever be a part of it.

But that’s an insight that, while central to understanding the film, probably would have taken me longer to articulate without Ebert’s own review to engage with. Indeed, the skill of looking past the plot in an effort to figure out a film’s real concerns and pleasures is classic Ebert. His reviews shaped my preconceptions, and it was useful to find those same preconceptions challenged by the films themselves.

His “Great Movie” columns weren’t full of generic, Oscar-approved, commercially-successful films, either. Yes, the majority of them were from Hollywood (though it was a diverse mix), but he always championed a large number of important foreign films, too. He covered most of the great mid-century European directors, filmmakers from Japan and China, Russian and German silents, animation, documentary, and more. I first heard about most of the important titans of world cinema through Ebert.

Even today, with a wealth of critical resources at my disposal, I still often check Ebert’s “Great Movies” after watching or re-watching a classic film. As recently as last week, I re-watched Mean Streets and immediately went to Ebert’s website afterwards to see what he had to say about it.

My reaction to Ebert’s “Great Movies” is partially a result of youth. Other cinephiles, encountering Pauline Kael or Andrew Sarris or Manny Farber at an impressionable age might also be unable to separate certain films and film experiences from the voices of those critics. So it was that Ebert and his “Great Movies” played an outsized influence on the development of my cinephilia in my formative years. There’s a joke that all philosophy is just footnotes to Plato. Even though there were plenty of others before Ebert, for me and, I imagine, many other cinephiles my age, film criticism feels like a conversation he started.

At the end of his review of 2001, Ebert writes that:

 “2001: A Space Odyssey” is not about a goal but about a quest, a need. It does not hook its effects on specific plot points, nor does it ask us to identify with Dave Bowman or any other character. It says to us: We became men when we learned to think. Our minds have given us the tools to understand where we live and who we are. Now it is time to move on to the next step, to know that we live not on a planet but among the stars, and that we are not flesh but intelligence.

This is how I feel about criticism, too. It’s far more than plots and characters and evaluation. It’s about trying to reach behind the surface of a film to talk about how a film works and why that should matter. Ebert’s gift was in quickly pushing through the surface and attacking those larger questions, and in his “Great Movies” he tackled them most eloquently. When he hit on something true – an image, a musical beat, a performance – it stayed with you.

My journey through cinema started with Ebert. He was my first guide and teacher, and I expect to be returning to his lessons for a long time.

Two Limos (Holy Motors and Cosmopolis)

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Availability (Holy Motors)

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Availability (Cosmopolis)

An old cathedral, dimly lit. Oscar, the actor, walks down a long hallway with an accordion. He starts to play, quietly at first. The camera tracks with him. He turns a corner, and is joined by additional accordion players. The camera follows as they march around the cathedral, picking up more and more players and musicians. Their song grows louder, more energetic. The camera does not cut away, save for one moment of anticipation among the band before they resume their merrymaking. The scene is pure joy of performance, sound, and movement.

*****

Scene: A limo in Manhattan, driving through an anarchist protest. The protestors are drawing graffiti on the outside of the limo, rocking it back and forth. Inside are Eric Packer, the young CEO of Packer Capital, and his Chief of Theory, Vija Kinsky.

KINSKY: You have to understand: the more visionary the idea, the more people it leaves behind. This is what the protest is all about. Visions of technology and wealth, the force of cyber-capital that will send people to the gutter to wretch and die. What is the flaw of human rationality?

PACKER: What?

KINSKY: It pretends not to see the horror and death at the ends of the schemes it builds. This is a protest against the future. They want to hold off the future. They want to normalize it, keep it from overwhelming the present. The future is always a wholeness, a sameness, we’re all tall and happy there. This is why the future fails. It can never be the cruel and happy place we want to make it. What would happen if they knew the head of Packer capital was in the car? We know what the anarchists have always said?

PACKER: Yes?

KINSKY: Tell me.

PACKER: The urge to destroy is a creative urge.

*****

Holy Motors handles its central conceit – a man, played by Denis Lavant, living his life as a series of roles in a variety of short films – with a delicate balance of elegy and fun. It is a sad and mournful film, both grieving over the loss of “cinema” and the loss of self in a postmodern world. But there is joy, too, as it finds inventive ways of approaching death, technology, sex, love, family, aging, music, madness, and storyteling. And Oscar is not alone. The holy motors are everywhere, and everyone is acting.

It’s possible it’s all much ado about nothing, a cynical attempt to drum up nostalgia over the death of film without much substance. What happens, however, is that director Leos Carax tackles the utopian promises of the cinema by contrasting it with the disappointing, meaningless, and disorganized processes by which we travel through the day-to-day. That the cinema is a lie – that all these roles are temporary, designed and performed for the benefit of an invisible audience – isn’t ignored. Rather, cinema’s value is in the lie itself, and the challenge it poses: Are you capable of looking past the lie and seeing something beyond it? Or is it just a parlor trick, an intellectual fancy that doesn’t matter because it’s false?

*****

The actors of Holy Motors at least have the benefit of knowing they are part of a larger project. Eric Packer, the protagonist of Cosmopolis played by Robert Pattinson, is struggling to find any greater meaning in his fortune and misfortune. His company’s value is deflating rapidly due to international politics he can hardly comprehend. His prostate is asymmetrical. What does that mean? Does it mean anything? Sex gives him no pleasure, though he desperately wants it to. He looks at the acts of protestors burning themselves alive but can’t find purpose to it because it’s “not original.” But if it was original, what would he think then? He doesn’t know, which is largely the problem. He plans for the future, but for what end?

Cosmopolis is an artificial film. The dialogue is baroque, and delivered by its actors without any attempt at the kind of verisimilitude we’ve come to expect in our contemporary line readings. Sarah Gadon, who plays Pattinson’s wife, is particularly brilliant at this. The limo itself is never convincingly moving through the city; at no point are you unaware that it is anything but a set. Characters come and go out of the limo quickly, but where did they come from? How did they know to find it? How is Benno Levin, Packer’s disgruntled former employee played by Paul Giamatti, able to track the limo’s route? How does he come to live in that apartment directly across the street from the limo’s garage?

These are not nitpicks. Director David Cronenberg has made a film about its own artifice, its own inability to fully and realistically exist. Its characters struggle to find reality admist the deluge of data and wealth and conversation that they endure everyday. What does the future hold out for them, especially if the artifice they’ve worked to construct is so false and could come crashing down at any moment? Is there any kind of utopia they can even imagine, let alone create?

*****

The irony of Holy Motors is that it allows for so many possibilities and yet the characters are trapped in their scripts. Oscar acts the way he does because his roles demand it. It is the same with every other character: nobody does anything unexpected. And if they do, such as when Kylie Minogue’s actress kills herself, it’s only unexpected to the observer. Everyone acts as they are supposed to, not how they want. Oscar’s roles change often and dramatically, but ultimately he’s just following the script. The world of Holy Motors may offer a future of hope, but it is future not of its own characters’ creation. How does one live in the world where your actions are not your own, where the end is already written?

*****

“I wanted you to save me,” says Giamatti’s Levin at the end of Cosmopolis. This is after a long conversation in which Levin and Packer talk about, and talk around, Levin’s motivations for wanting to kill Packer. There are many reasons, it seems, and at the same time none. Packer is rich and Levin is poor, and at the end of the day that’s about all there needs to be.

But what will Packer’s murder solve? Levin doesn’t know, but even Packer himself seems open to the possibility that it might be necessary. He doesn’t want to die, but he can’t quite articulate why he shouldn’t die. Whatever the future will be, his fake world can’t be a part of it.

*****

The promise of cinema is the possibility of being able to see anything one can imagine, of having everything be real. Even in the CGI era, we still approach the art of film much as André Bazin did, as possessing “an integral realism, a recreation of the world in its own image, an image unburdened by the freedom of interpretation of the artist or the irreversibility of time.”

But of course cinema’s reality is false. Everybody knows that and always has. It’s what makes Hollywood so enticing in the American imagination, a place where dreams literally spring to life. We accept cinema’s falseness in order to accept cinema.

What happens when the falsity of the cinema overwhelms, when it no longer appears possible to shape the mess of the world into something coherent that we can see and hear? That’s the question at the heart of these two films, and it is a question that reaches beyond simply the cinema. How do you live when the stories of society and the self are no longer effective? Do we give into self-pity, desperately trying to find meaning in inconsequential things, or do we push on, acting our roles with what enthusiasm we can muster while knowing all the same that we are slouching toward an ending? Is the cinema a fantasy or a solution?