By David Elliott
Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, served fresh each Friday.
APPETIZER (reviews of Love & Friendship and Green Room)First, smart words not from Jane Austen but Aldous Huxley, in a 1939 letter about adapting Austen’s Pride and Prejudice for MGM: “(It is) an odd, cross-word puzzle job. One tries to do one’s best for Jane Austen, but the very fact of transforming the book into a picture must necessarily alter its whole quality in a profound way. (The story) is a matter of secondary importance and serves merely as a receptacle for the dilute irony in which the characters are bathed.”
Our Austen movie pleasure should follow Huxley’s cue. Discussions of plot, or strict cinematic values, will fall flat. Austen World is a genre with its own special rules, pouring that wry, charming irony into molds both rigid and various. As in Whit Stillman’s new Love & Friendship, a zippy stenciling of young Jane’s early novella Lady Susan. The lady is played by Kate Beckinsale, widowed, nearly broke, fierce to find wealthy husbands for herself and her sweet, musical daughter. Beckinsale, in maybe her best work, is like a social oil can in a flowing skirt. Injecting into each twist her juice of Machiavellian wiles, she ignites rumors, wins hearts, jars rivals, always with the fluent diction of someone who finished off a finishing school for breakfast. Susan’s art of the deal is far beyond Donald Trump.
Stillman, best known for comedies about WASPy heirs and wannabes (his Metropolitan was loosely derived from Austen’s Mansfield Park), provides what is needed: homes so grand they sag from hauteur; toffs in Regency finery, while servants slink around in dated, 18th century garb; a peacock on a parapet; slabs of stately music; lovely gowns in sync with luscious gardens; impeccable cascades of British enunciation (Chloe Sevigny, as a Yank, seems a bit out of it). Above all, good actors who could suck a ton of snuff at tea and still maintain poise. The champ, along with Beckinsale, is Tom Bennett as Sir James Martin, the cheerful perfection of silly ass-ness. James doesn’t know that “verse” means poetry, and his dim, frequent pauses are like the word “stop” in telegrams.
Of course, this is an era before telegraphy, radio, TV, movies, phones and the Web (where tweet-speak is often just barely English). Conversation, and its manners, is the cynosure of life and entertainment. Stillman keeps it brisk, primly satirical, without the gilt framing of the snob elite that Stanley Kubrick used in Barry Landon, yet also without quite the saturated richness of RobertAltman’s great country estate comedy Gosford Park. He reaches for the electric verbosity of Wilde, Coward and Stoppard, but Austen is never lost in the rush.
Needing some pulp to balance Jane Austen, and ready to support an Oregon film, I went to Green Room. Shot near Astoria and Portland on a modest budget, Jeremy Saulnier’s generic nerve-grinder is about a punk band at a sleazy roadhouse, cornered by neo-Nazi skinheads. The brutes falsely try to pin on them a knife murder, although simple aesthetic vengeance would make more sense. The band’s music is less heavy metal than feral foetal, like the screaming migraine of an enraged embryo. Classic thespian skinhead Patrick Stewart, in a slumming job he won’t be boasting about on the BBC, plays the fascist patriarch as a sort of Fuhrer Lear or peckerwood Macbeth. The basic tone is set by dogs gnawing on throats, and by a big creep eviscerated like a pig. This violent muck, a sort of dwarf Revenant, seems intended for viewers who want to lick their chops down to the bloody bone.
SALAD (A List)Here are the Eight Best Jane Austen Movies, by my lights: 1. Persuasion (director Roger Michell, 1995), 2. Sense and Sensibility (Ang Lee, 1995), Pride and Prejudice (Joe Wright, 2005), Emma (Doug McGrath, 1996), Pride and Prejudice (Robert Z. Leonard, 1940), Mansfield Park (Patricia Rozema, 1999), Love & Friendship (Whit Stillman, 2016) and the juvenile but witty Clueless (Amy Heckerling, 1995).
WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)In his footloose, cosmopolitan years as an actor for hire, Citizen Welles was often amused by his fellow stars. On one bloated epic, “Tony Quinn came to town with his own private writer. He played Kubla Khan, who, it turned out in Tony’s authoritative version, was kindly, brave, benevolent, good, handsome and irresistible to women. There was no grace or virtue which was not written into that character. And then he played it like Charlie Chan.” (From This Is Orson Welles, the very entertaining interview book by Welles and Peter Bogdanovich. The movie was the star-studded dud Marco the Magnificent, 1965).
ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)“Bogart’s acerbic integrity had a dash of disdain, enhanced by his pairing with filly Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not. Her snappy purr and lustrous gaze widened his popularity by softening its edge. Betty (Bacall) recalled that upon seeing Casablanca her companion ‘thought he was sexy, I thought she was crazy.’ The wolf and the wow became crazily popular, making adulthood fun again for a war-sick nation. Their wedding (May, 1945) was victory’s best toast.” (From the Bogart/Treasure of the Sierra Madre chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, now available via Amazon, Kindle and Nook.)
DESSERT (An Image)A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.
Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not (Warner Bros., 1944; director Howard Hawks, cinematographer Sid Hickox)
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