By David Elliott
Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, fresh each Friday.
Note: Nosh 127 will post on Friday, October 12.
APPETIZER: Reviews of Fahrenheit 11/9 and The Wife
In his latest political documentary, Michael Moore ramps his often impish ire into a new fury of indignation and prophetic alarm (he was one of the few savants to predict Trump’s election). In 11/9 – the date in 2016 when, at 2:29 a.m., TV declared Donald Trump our next president – Moore piles on many urgent themes. Always a wizard at putting film clips together, he opens with Hillary Democrats deflating like popped balloons, then all the Trumps emerging dazed, like deer from planet Plutocrat. “Never did a group of people,” Moore observes, “look so sad to win the presidency.”
George W. Bush made Moore angry and depressed. Trump makes him furious and heartsick. Film’s maverick muckraker has, at 64, been carrying large weight a long time, and has endured too many lost causes. His skin now sags, he walks more slowly, but he is still a fearless bloodhound of the populist Left. Depend on him to note that Trump, sleazy real estate hustler and host of The Celebrity Apprentice, only moved into politics when NBC offered Gwen (The Voice) Stefani more money than himself. So Don descended the faux-gold escalator at Trump Tower, smashed the midget mob of “real” Republican candidates, enjoyed surreal boosts from James Comey and Vladimir Putin, and won an upset that dwarfs even Truman in 1948. Moore tries to be amused, and can be amusing (like showing us the “official” wax figure of President Trump being made). He also relies on weary schtick, like trying to ambush Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder. But the laughs drown in a tide of nausea.
Born in Flint, Michigan, Moore returns to his broken town and is understandably merciless to Snyder, who shifted the town’s water source to a virtual sewer in a privatized profit grab (thousands of kids suffer lead poisoning). It’s fair game to show the off-his-game President Obama coming to Flint and staging a photo-op stunt that upset his citizen fans. But proportion is not Moore’s métier. He blames Obama for a loud Army exercise in a run-down part of Flint, as if the president keeps tab on every military drill (meanwhile, no mention of Trump wagging the nuclear finger at North Korea). Still carrying a Bernie torch, despite later backing Clinton, Moore is angry that Sanders carried the West Virginia primary (no mention of the many Republican cross-overs to hurt Clinton), then narrowly lost the state’s convention vote months later. His denunciation of “super-delegates” as an elitist sham ignores the facts that Clinton had a large. solid plurality of elected delegates from the primaries and won 34 states on the first ballot to Sanders's 15 (one tie).
To go from such granular griping to breathless comparisons of Trump’s rise to Adolf Hitler’s is a jarring leap, glibly ignoring that Germany (1931 to 1933) was massively different from the U.S. (2016 to 2018). Hitler was an evil demagogue with mad-genius instincts. Trump is a klepto-crook and gas balloon, going down like a slow-motion Hindenburg. Moore is right that we face a true crisis of democracy. I just wish this deeply caring, gutsy man had a focal lens with more depth-of-field.
Her clipped hair tight above a face like weathered granite, her pale eyes absorbing everything, Glenn Close in The Wife looks like a less bulky update on Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein. Whatever you think of Stein’s writing, she made a great name. The trouble for Joan (Close) is that she is a good writer without her own name. She’s The Wife of Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce), whose novels, given nuance and power by Joan’s covert skills, bring him the 1992 Nobel for Literature. The film is like Big Eyes, Tim Burton’s quirky treatment of kitsch “artist” Walter Keane and his long-ignored, secretly painting wife Eleanor, hoping to morph into Ingmar Bergman’s harrowing Scenes From a Marriage.
Jane Anderson’s adaptation of Meg Wolitzer’s novel is a pressure kettle made solemn by Swedish director Björn Runge’s staging of Nobel ceremonies in cold, beautiful Stockholm. As Joe creaks and grumps, Joan (even their names merge) simmers in his wake. Flashbacks show us 1950s Joan (appealing Annie Starke), a shy lass falling for Joe, a sexy, married lit-prof who pontificates about writers (always “he”) to his students (all female) at Smith College. After an angry, jaded graduate (Elizabeth McGovern) tells Joan not to bother seriously writing in a world run by piggy-men publishers, she ducks into being the second Mrs. Castleman. An idea man, yet lacking literary subtleties, Joe lets her secretly enrich his sketchy outlines. His guilt is swallowed by rising fame. Her bitterness is baked into faithful service, neglecting their kids and grimly accepting Joe’s affairs.
All through ‘60s feminism and long beyond, Joan suffers. Right up to the Nobel honors where, prompted by Joe’s latest, limpest infidelity, and by the snake-tongued insinuations of a conniving biographer (Christian Slater), she erupts. But not with the thrilling ballistics of Close’s vengeful Alex in Fatal Attraction. The story drags out drama while itemizing damage. Most victimized is the grown son (Max Irons), whom Joe offers “the ‘cheap shit’ wine.” We sense that Joan, nailed into comforts and prestige, won’t go public with their devil’s deal (exposure might bury them both). Once so promising, yet terribly uncertain, she betrayed her talent by sub-letting it. The movie has credible acting and some Swedish swank, but the often predictable set-ups never risk a liberating combustion. Like Joe The Wife has ideas, and too much of Joan’s watchful, meditative submergence.
12 Important Political Documentaries
In their order of arrival:
1. Triumph of the Will (Leni Riefenstahl 1936)*, 2. The Sorrow and the Pity (Marcel Ophuls 1969), 3. Harlan County USA (Barbara Kopple 1976), 4. The Memory of Justice (Marcel (Ophuls 1976), 5. The Times of Harvey Milk (Rob Epstein 1984), 6. The War Room (Hagedus/Pennebaker 1993), 7. The Agronomist (Jonathan Demme 2003), 8. Shake Hands With the Devil (Peter Raymont 2004), 9. Fahrenheit 9/11 (Michael Moore 2004), 10. The Corporation (Achbar/Simpson 2004), 11. A Film Unfinished (Yael Hersonski 2010) and 12. Best of Enemies (Gordon/Neville, 2015). (*Although Triumph is more propaganda than documentary, it captures the mad Hitler hypnosis like nothing else.)
WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
The dynamism of the Welles vision is caught in the words of Gary Graver, his late-era chum and collaborator: “While in high school, Graver saw his first Welles film, Touch of Evil, and was ‘blown away by the moving camera, the weird angles, the shadows, the choreography, everything. I love how there’s an empty picture and the camera is still and a guy rushes in and says ‘Look over here, fellas,’ then as the actor moves the camera moves with him. Welles would have people walk in from behind the camera – I’d never seen that before.” The “look over here” moment echoes one in the newsroom in Citizen Kane. (Quote from Joseph McBride’s What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?)
ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
La Dolce Vita hurled Rome’s pesty paparazzi into view. The chief inspiration was Tazio Secchiaroli, “who used intrusive new lenses, tricked rivals, baited celebrities, even hid in a box to snap Ava Gardner bathing. He caught the impromptu striptease ‘scandal’ on Nov. 5. 1958, of aspiring actress Aiché Nana at a Trastevere restaurant, the upscale witnesses including Anita Ekberg and Ingrid Bergman, with male oglers putting jackets on the ground for her to writhe on. Tazio called it ‘the most sinful transgression I have ever photographed.” (From the Mastroianni/La Dolce Vita chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available from Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)
DESSERT (An Image)
A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.
Paparazzi swarm Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita (Cineriz, 1960; director Federico Fellini, cinematographer Otello Martelli).