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December 28, 2006

Departed Soul

If you feel that the obits for James Brown don't quite get it, then please try this humble offering, a review written over a year ago. It's as close to getting it as I'll ever get.

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December 15, 2006

Celebrity vs. Royalty

Without doubt, the media event of summer 1997 was the death of Lady Diana Spencer, the former Princess of Wales. Newly divorced from Prince Charles, Diana was living the do-good, act-bad celebrity life when the limousine of her latest squeeze, Dodi Fayed (the son of the Egyptian-Swiss billionaire, Mohamed Abdel Fayed), crashed in a Paris tunnel while fleeing a pack of motorcycle-mounted paparazzi. Since Diana was no longer a member of the royal family and had appeared on the BBC complaining about how badly they had treated her, Queen Elizabeth II was disinclined to make a fuss. Holed up in Balmoral, their retreat in the highlands of Scotland, her majesty and the immediate family did their best to maintain an iron reserve.

As dramatized in The Queen, that royal reserve turns out to be an immovable object meeting an irresistible force--a flood of public grief unleashed by Diana's death. Captured on screen by television news footage of swelling crowds and mounting heaps of flowers outside Buckingham Palace, this surge of emotion surprises and discomfits the queen (Helen Mirren). So when the newly elected prime minister, Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), urges her to make a series of gestures aimed at dampening public resentment at her perceived cold-hearted indifference, she resists, then eventually comes around. It's a fascinating tale, full of political resonance, and The Queen, written by Peter Morgan and directed by Stephen Frears, tells it superbly.

But kindly ignore the reviews. This is not a film about "a frumpy, emotionally stunted monarch," a "stubborn, blinkered, coddled woman, who can't even grieve like a human being," who reacts to the untimely death of "a pretty, vulnerable young woman" by "clinging obliviously to bygone codes of class and civility." Despite his limitations, the queen's husband, Prince Philip (James Cromwell), is not portrayed (in the words of still other reviews) as a "dim bulb," "whose exclamations are unfailingly snobbish and dull," any more than the Queen Mother (Sylvia Syms) is depicted as "tipsy," "half-dead," and dispensing advice that "pertains to another era and is of no use." Most of all, the royal family are not shown "cloistered at Balmoral, knitting and nattering in their plain wool sweaters, caring more for their pets than for their children"--so "clueless" about "the cultural shift" in their own country that it takes Blair, a young Labor pol full of "fire and grace," "incorrigibly cheerful and gently manipulative," to "slap the royals awake and "practically order them to get back to London."

After rattling on in this vein for a while, most of the reviewers then dropped the whole shtick and praised the film for somehow tricking them into sympathizing with the queen. Most chalked this up to Mirren's performance (which is extraordinary; the actress, always worth watching, is on a roll lately, winning an Emmy earlier this year for a stunning performance as the first Queen Elizabeth in the HBO series, Elizabeth I; see my review in Reprisals).

But one or two reviewers came close to conceding that maybe, just maybe, the queen had a point. For example, Roger Ebert wrote that "the queen is correct, indeed, by tradition and history in all that she says about the affair--but she is sadly aloof from the national mood. Well, maybe queens should be." And David Edelstein of New York magazine halted his gleeful royal-bashing to lament "the passing of a more dignified, orderly world."

The prize for most idiotic review goes to Manohla Dargis of the New York Times, who described The Queen as "a sublimely nimble evisceration of that cult of celebrity known as the British royal family." The film is exactly the opposite: a subtle and intelligent exploration of the difference between royalty and celebrity. The contest between monarch and prime minister is fascinating precisely because they are both fully aware of the difference. What they disagree on is how best to split it.

Just because the queen is surprised by the size of the media circus surrounding Diana's death, that doesn't mean it is "bewildering" to her, or represents "a shift in values she does not understand." After all, this is the monarch who brought Great Britain into the media age, circling the globe to foster a positive post-colonial image; wearing pastel coats and flowered hats so people (and cameras) could pick her out of large crowds; and pioneering televised appearances such as the annual Christmas address and the "royal walk-around." How could she not have been aware of the superheated celebrity culture of the 1980s and '90s, when several members of her own family (not just Charles and Diana) were its favorite fodder?

Throughout her long reign, Elizabeth II has refused to be interviewed on camera. But this may be media savvy, not naivete. Billions would tune in to see her share memories of being doted on by her grandparents, Queen Mary and King George V; of studying modern languages with private tutors; of driving a truck for the Women's Auxiliary Territorial Service during World War II. Your Majesty, what was it like to grow up third in the line of succession and then, at age 26, be crowned queen of half the world? But as the queen doubtless suspects, the millions who cried their eyes out over Diana would demand more. For them, nothing would do but a ten-hanky confession, to Barbara Walters if possible, of Elizabeth's deepest feelings about everything from her upbringing by starchy remote parents to her relations (erotic? Oedipal?) with ten prime ministers from Winston to Tony. Your Majesty, have you ever felt envious of Diana's fantastic wardrobe and thrilling sex life?

Unthinkable, of course. Most people, even some Di-worshipers, would object to seeing the soiled knickers of this public figure laundered for the entertainment of the great unlaundered. The interesting question is why. It's not strictly a function of power. The most powerful office on earth, the American presidency, is hardly exempt from pressure to get up close and personal. (Who can forget that 1997 was also the year that Bill Clinton "did not have sex with that woman"?) At the same time, exemption from the smarmier modes of media scrutiny is not given to powerless people, should they be so unlucky (or lucky) to be thrust into its glare. No, the exemption has to do with the nature and origin of one's power. Despite the legacy of English journalist Walter Bagehot, who argued in the 19th century that the British monarchy was just a "bauble" used to pacify the masses, the present queen holds significant power. Some of it belongs to her alone, the product of a half-century's dignified and engaged presence. And some of it is rooted in soil more ancient than any being traded on today's media market.

Film critics should understand this, because their line of work is one of the few that require occasional reflection on political regimes other than liberal democracy. The typical movie monarch may be a lion, grasshopper, human, monster, or high-IQ insectoid from outer space; it hardly matters, because the plots are invariably driven by the ancient political question of what makes a ruler good or evil, just or unjust. And of course, there are plenty of small-r republican movies, in which bands of aristocrats, wielding light-swords or briefcases, battle to topple evil tyrants and establish new orders ruled by themselves, the best and brightest. But regrettably, today's critics tend to see every political actor as either an evil fascist Republican or a good progressive Democrat.

That's why the reviews misinterpreted the stag. The climactic scene in The Queen occurs in the high country near Balmoral, where the queen is alone, driving her vintage Land Rover in search of Philip, who is out hunting a magnificent and elusive 14-point stag. Here the queen is depicted as the embodiment of the British virtues of toughness, self-reliance, preference for rugged nature over coddled luxury, and faith that the wisest counsel is conscience, heard in solitude. But as it happens, she drives too fast into a mountain stream and damages a wheel. She has a cell phone and calls for assistance, but that doesn't alter the significance of the moment, which is that even her majesty cannot always go it alone. Meditating on this lesson, she climbs onto a rock overlooking the stream, and removing her scarf so the wind can ruffle her hair, settles down to wait. At first she is cool and collected, gazing appreciatively at a landscape she obviously loves. But then she starts to weep.

Wisely, Frears films the weeping queen from the back, so that rather than gape at her red face and runny nose (a movie staple these days), we see only the back of her head and heaving shoulders. Then enters the stag, picking his way across the hillside until the queen sees him and exclaims, "O Beauty!" (You'd better believe there's no "h" after that "O.") A moment later, hearing gunfire and voices, she tells the animal "Shoo!" And watching him retreat without yielding one jot of his dignity, she breaks into a smile. The queen is resolved. Assuming her customary expression of stern benevolence, she proceeds to comply with the prime minister's suggestions. But clearly she has been moved less by the talkative pol than by the noble beast.

The word noble is crucial. While preparing to leave for London, the queen learns that the stag has been shot, not by the royal hunting party but by a guest at "one of the commercial estates." Upon her departure she stops at the estate in question and asks to see the "imperial 14-pointer," which is hanging beheaded in a game shed. From the gamekeeper she learns that the stag was wounded "by an investment banker" and had run 14 miles before the gamekeeper could "finish him off." "Let's hope he didn't suffer too much," remarks the queen. Then with her characteristic dry irony, she adds, "Please pass my congratulations to your guest."

None of this makes any sense if the stag is interpreted as "a mawkish stand-in for the doomed Diana" or "a simplistic reminder to Elizabeth that Diana, too, is dead and deserving of some compassion" (to quote two metaphorically challenged reviewers). Just as roses symbolize love, stags symbolize nobility. If you want to get mythological about it, Diana is the name of the Roman goddess of the hunt, the one who slays the stag. The queen's epiphany is not about her pathetic former daughter-in-law, it's about herself. And not the private self who wants to hide under the covers whenever Tony Blair rings, but the public self who has been raised from birth to be the living residue of an ancient ideal: rule by a person or persons superior in virtue. Watching the stag beat his dignified retreat, the queen realizes she can do the same. And shortly thereafter, we see Blair lose his temper with his wife Cherie and his press secretary, Alastair Campbell, who have been dissing the queen. Whether or not the real Blair is given to eloquent outbursts defending the importance of the Crown to the British system of government, this one certainly comes at the right dramatic moment.

What, exactly, does Blair want the queen to do? First, fly a flag at half-mast over Buckingham Palace: a highly inappropriate gesture, since that flag is not the Union Jack but the Queen's own standard, raised only when she is in residence and never lowered for anyone's death, not even that of a king. Second, go to London and pay her respects to Diana, preferably on the telly--the last thing the queen wants to do after reading mawkish tabloid headlines like "Show Us You Care." And third, authorize a state funeral: an idea so unprecedented, the queen's staff are forced to adapt the plans for the Queen Mum's funeral, with charity socialites standing in for soldiers and pop stars for foreign heads of state.

To object to such changes may seem silly to us Yanks, steeped as we are in the notion that improvised ceremonies are better than traditional ones. Take funerals, for example. There is a whole sub-genre of American indie film, in which estranged family members come together to carry out the last wishes of old Uncle Natural, usually something along the lines of having his ashes baked with hashish into Alice B. Toklas brownies and fed to the albino elk that in a remote part of Yosemite had watched him lose his virginity to a hippie girl now obese and living in a trailer with 17 cats. (This is a generic plot, available free of charge to anyone at Sundance.)

But even we Yanks respect tradition...sometimes. Ask yourself: Should graduating seniors wear thongs and pig noses instead of caps and gowns? Should the White House be painted chartreuse? Should the Academy Awards be held in an underground parking garage and pod-cast to your cell phone, instead of beamed in HD-TV to your new plasma screen? Multiply these reactions by a googleplex, and you'll grasp what tradition means to many Britons.

An intriguing illustration comes from the life of Dame Mirren herself. Christened Ilyena Vasilievna Mirinov, she is the daughter of an Englishwoman and a Russian, Vasily Mirinov, whose father, Pyotr Mirinov, came to London during the First World War as an envoy from the court of Tsar Nicholas II. The grandson of an aristocrat, Count Andrei Kamensky, Pyotr could not go home after the Bolshevik Revolution. So he stayed in London, driving a taxi, until his death in 1957. In 1950 his son Vasily changed the family name to Mirren and anglicized their first names. According to the Daily Mail, Helen Mirren has been keen to track down her Russian origins, not least because, as the reporter comments, "the actress, currently winning plaudits for her role as Elizabeth II in the acclaimed film The Queen, is herself descended from nobility. Her family tree can be traced back to a famous Russian soldier, ennobled by Tsar Paul I in the 18th Century."

For good historical reasons, Americans have trouble comprehending this preoccupation with nobility--an incomprehension well reflected in Marie Antoinette, Sofia Coppola's over-the-top tribute to the Last Days of Disco--I mean, Versailles. Filmed on location and starring Kirsten Dunst as the Habsburg princess who at the age of 14 was wrenched from her home in Vienna and married to the French dauphin, this film stuffs the screen with obscenely extravagant visions of Louis XV's obscenely extravagant court. Much has been made of the 1980s rock soundtrack, which jells better with some scenes than with others. But the real anachronism is the acting, from Rip Torn playing Louis XV in a manner that would suit Uncle Natural, to Jason Schwartzman turning the future king, Louis-Auguste, into a befuddled high school nerd who does not know what to do when a pretty blonde lands in his bed.

Above all, Dunst transforms Marie Antoinette into a Hollywood stock character: the lower-class beauty with a brain, who is suddenly swept into the orbit of people richer and more powerful, but not necessarily sharper, than she. From Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday to Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada, this smart cookie typically starts out resenting those who did not come up the hard way, then ends up pitying them and teaching them the Golden Rule. To be born Archduchess of Austria is not exactly coming up the hard way, but never mind. When we first meet Maria Antonia Josefa Johanna von Habsburg-Lothringen, she is living in an okay palace (nothing special), playing with her pug dog, and wearing her hair loose. It's only when she crosses into France that she is forced to submit to all that heavy-duty royal razzmatazz, and her reactions are every bit as irreverent and entertaining as Judy Holliday's would have been.

I have yet to read a satisfactory explanation of why Marie Antoinette was booed at Cannes, but here's one possible explanation of why they found it mind-bendingly wrong: say what you will about the French, they do know the difference between celebrity and royalty. Even when chopping off their monarch's head, the French have always grasped what the institution stood for. And as for aristocracy, no amount of decapitation has ever made a dent in its salience in French politics, culture, and life. La République is still governed by the best and the brightest, soi-disant.

Barnard professor Caroline Weber, author of Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution, defended Coppola's liberties in the New York Times, asserting that Marie is "multifaceted enough to accommodate most any interpretation, any ideology, any cultural bias." So chill, citoyens: this ungainly film is not a distortion of French history, it's a deliberately unflattering self-portrait of the Americans. Weber concludes: "With no interest in thorny policy issues, no care for the consequences of her actions, and no doubts about her own entitlement, this Marie Antoinette is today's ugly American par excellence: a Bush Yankee in King Louis's court."

That should get them clapping again. But unfortunately, when Coppola's film is viewed in this light, it comes off as even less successful, because it is not anachronistic enough. No doubt this is because Coppola's heavy reliance on Antonia Fraser's fine biography, Marie Antoinette: The Journey, introduced a discordant note of historical accuracy. This shows up most clearly in the subplot involving Louis XV's mistress, Madame du Barry. A commoner and former courtesan, du Barry's sole reason for being at court was to service the randy old king. And this did not sit well with Marie Antoinette--indeed, the historical evidence indicates quite clearly that she snubbed the low-born du Barry, who took it quite ill and promptly became her enemy. Needless to say, such snobbery hardly fits with Coppola's portrayal of Marie Antoinette as a perky egalitarian whose heart goes out to the class nerd (Louis-Auguste). The only way this character could possibly react to the class skank (du Barry) would be to make friends with her and then join her in plotting revenge against all those bullying, stuck-up courtiers.

Marie Antoinette fails both as history and as anachronism. It clumsily distorts its subject, not just by keeping the starving masses offstage (as many have complained), but also by saddling its heroine with a slew of democratic, nay, populist virtues that are singularly ill suited to her particular time, place, and fate. Excoriated for 140 years after her execution as a symbol of aristocratic selfishness, Marie Antoinette was rehabilitated in 1933, when the Austrian Jewish writer Stefan Zweig wrote a biography highlighting the young queen's courage and grace under the pressure of capture, imprisonment, and the guillotine. If you can't find Zweig's book, rent the 1938 movie starring Norman Shearer, which is based on it. Of course, that MGM production, lavish at $3 million, can't compare with the gorgeous eye candy Coppola bought for herself at $40 million. But in its creaky way, the older film tells a better story. Too bad the next version of Marie Antoinette's life cannot be a truly definitive portrait, written by Peter Morgan, directed by Stephen Frears, and starring the young, dewy, and suitably aristocratic Ilyena Mirinov.

Posted at 9:52 AM | permalink | email this entry

November 19, 2006

Free Casting Advice

The New York Times just ran an article about two bio-pics in the works about Miles Davis. One, based on the autobiography Miles "wrote" with Quincy Troupe, is produced by Rudy Langlais in conjunction with Patriot Pictures and Beacon Pictures. The other is an official bio-pic authorized by the Davis estate. From what I read, neither has solved the problem of whom to cast in the title role. How do you substitute for an icon?

Some free advice: Instead of casting well known Hollywood actors such as Don Cheadle or Wesley Snipes (both have been mentioned), cross the pond and ask David Oyelowo, the young British actor best known to Americans for playing Danny in the excellent spy series MI-5 (known in the UK as Spooks). Handsome and charismatic, Oyelowo, who cut his teeth doing Shakespeare on the stage, steals every scene while also projecting a degree of sophistication that transcends color and nationality. What could be more suited to a portrayal of Miles at his best?

The question is, will either of these films bother to portray Miles at his best? Or will they go for the usual cliched portrait of the jazz musician as drug-addled celebrity and sourpuss victim of racial prejudice? If I were Oyelowo's agent, I would ask!

Posted at 2:58 PM | permalink | email this entry

November 10, 2006

No Satire, Please. We're Russian.

Well, the good news was that the Deputy Foreign Minister of Kazakhstan, Mr. Rakhat Alievthe, proved even cooler than Sacha Baron Cohen -- by inviting the British comedian, better known as Borat, to visit the country he has been so gleefully lambasting. (See entry below.)

But now uncooler heads are prevailing, as the Russian Federal Culture and Cinematography Agency, which certifies films for distribution in Russia, has banned Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan , on the ground that "it could be offensive to some religions and nationalities."

Uh, duhhh ... Mr. Cohen's film is every bit of that, with the number one religion and nationality it mocks being Christian Americans. It is also screamingly funny, which makes all the difference. (If only those German opera directors would acquire a sense of humor, not to mention those Danish cartoonists, they might get a pass from me.)

Suggestion to Mr. Cohen: Invite the spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, Yury V. Vasyuchkov, to be a guest in Da Ali G Show. On this show, Cohen (in his persona of Ali G, a patois-speaking Brit-hip-hopper) holds mock interviews with real guests, only to ambush them with exquisite vulgarity until they sit frozen and blinking like a moose in headlights.

This is hilarious, if painful, when the guest is 1) unhip; 2) self-righteous; and 3) comedically challenged. Among the worst casualties have been Pat Robertson and James Lipton (the stuffy and rather silly host of Inside the Actors' Studio). It is even better, though, when the guest catches on and tries, at least, to stage a counter-ambush. These do not always succeed, but they do stimulate Cohen/Ali G to greater heights of outrageousness. What's more exciting, watching a cat kill a baby mouse or watching a mongoose kill a cobra?

Anyway, it would be fun to watch Cohen/Ali G do his thing with Mr. Vasyuchko, a man whose job it is to say things like, "We do not have the right to ban a movie ... We simply refused to certify it." Also Michael Schlicht of Gemini Films, the distribution company for 20th Century Fox, who not only accepted the ban (what choice did he have?) but also felt obliged to echo Vasyuchko's doubletalk: "Russia is a liberal country. They make recommendations, and we follow them."

Ali G, me main man, what you waitin for? We peeps want them tongue-forkers now.

Posted at 7:26 PM | permalink | email this entry

November 6, 2006

Disarming Borat

It's hard not to laugh out loud at the young British comedian Sacha Baron-Cohn's various comic personae: da hip-hop MC, Ali G; the Austrian fashionisto Bruno (star of "Funkyzeit mit Bruno"); and, of course, the antic Kazakh bull-in-America's-china-shop, Borat, star of the new film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (now in theaters -- and for a glimpse of all Cohn's characters, see reruns now on HBO). In these tense times, one might question the wisdom of making such an obscenely uncivilized character come from a real country instead of a fake one (such as Andy Kaufman's Caspiar). But not to worry: peace between the US and Kazakhstan is being saved by Kazakhstan's classy Deputy Foreign Minister Rakhat Aliev, whose response to Borat is to invite Cohn on a state visit to Kazakhstan, where he will "discover a lot of things. Women drive cars, wine is made of grapes and Jews are free to go to synagogues."

For a full account of this refreshingly smart act of public diplomacy, see this story by Patricia Lee Sharpe at Whirledview.

Posted at 9:03 AM | permalink | email this entry

October 13, 2006

Better Late Than Never

I've long wanted to do a parody of the Dan Brown PR machine. Finally, here 'tis:

DECODING DAN BROWN

The following is a transcription of the pitch session for Dan Brown's next novel, The Botticelli Botch. Present are the author, his new agent Bizzy Boca, his new publisher Ernst Kluliss, and (getting in on the ground floor) the famous film producer Sam Schnellgeld.

Dan: (arriving ten minutes late): Sorry, guys. Crazy schedule. Can't wait to get back to New Hampshire and the writer's life. Bizzy, did you lay out my basic position? Royalties, rights, creative control, profit-sharing on the movie deal. I'd really rather not get ripped off this time.

Sam (arriving two minutes later): Well, hello dream team. Bizzy, that skirt is hot.

Bizzy: It's so exciting to have you here, Sam.

Ernst: Yes, and for a stodgy old bookbinder like me, it's exciting to do business with a real Hollywood mogul.

Sam: How about you, Danny? You excited?

Dan: Sure. But we need to close quickly. I have another appointment in an hour. Crazy schedule. Can't wait to get back to New Hampshire -

Sam: No biggie. I got lunch in twenty. So Bizzy, you wet dream, lay it on me. And please, no retread. The Da Vinci Code is a hard act to follow. Will this new one get all the religious nuts crawling out of the woodwork to do our marketing for us?

Dan: I'll make the pitch, if you don't mind. Bizzy's still learning the names. Sam, Ernst, The Botticelli Botch will not be a retread. For starters, the opening money shot will not be in Paris but in Florence. The Uffizi.

Sam: Uffizi, eh? Didn't know you were into automatic weapons. I confess, I did wonder why your wacko Opus Dei albino monk didn't shoot the curator with an Uzi. But here's some advice: if you're taking the Mafia route, use Russians. More sadistic, and no goddamn lobbyists. Does this one start with a murder, too?

Dan: No, a rape. Under Botticelli's The Birth of Venus.

Ernst: Splendid! And who will play the victim? How about Kiera Knightly? She certainly has the face and figure to be a descendant of Mary Magdalene. And personally, I'd be very interested in meeting her.

Bizzy: Don't you just love the Mary Magdalene theme in The Da Vinci Code? The Holy Grail as her uterus, and Jesus as her stud muffin? I meant to tell you, Dan: I dreamed I was part of the bloodline, right down through the Merovingian dynasty. Talk about royalty!

Dan: Actually, I'm skipping that plot. Too much hate mail from narrow-minded Christians who won't even consider that Emperor Constantine might have cooked up the whole Jesus-divinity thing in order to stamp out goddess worship. Not to mention all those nit-picking Bible scholars. My facts all come from Henry Lincoln's Holy Blood, Holy Grail, I tell them, and if he were a charlatan, would the BBC have funded his programs?

Bizzy: Plus it's a novel. It's scary, isn't it, how some people can't distinguish between fact and fiction? The Da Vinci Code is a work of the human imagination!

Ernst: And a tribute to the human spirit, unfettered by the chains of religious dogma.

Sam: For marketing, you're probably right to sideline the Jesus stuff. I gotta hand it to Sony. It was brilliant to hire that Jesus-freak consultant - you know, that Jonathan Bock guy - to set up a "Da Vinci Dialogue" at the Sony Pictures website. Company-sponsored blogging catches the mall rats, so why not the Bible thumpers? The more they blog, the more they want to see the movie. It's amazing how your average mouth-breather will do anything to feel like he's part of the industry.

Ernst: Wish we could do that in publishing. But the masses want to be Dan Brown, not Ernst Kluliss. Ha-ha.

Sam: Trouble is, you can only milk that for so long, before some harpy like Barbara Nicolosi comes along and accuses you of turning people into "useful Christian idiots." Next time, I fear, it'll be The Last Temptation of Christ all over again - pickets, not tickets.

Dan: I beg you, don't mention that title. Some lunatic in Athens keeps emailing me about how that Greek writer, Katzi-somebody--

Ernst: Nikos Katzantzakis. He also wrote Zorba the Greek and an amazing, if interminable, re-creation of the Odyssey. A passionate, learned man who--

Dan: Right. So this lunatic keeps emailing me I should read The Last Temptation of Christ, because Katzi-what's-his-face deals with Jesus' humanity and the relationship with Mary Magdalene in "a really profound way." This implication being that I don't.

Bizzy: Oh, please. How many copies did it sell? Danny, I gotta ask you. You're not going to drop the Sacred Feminine riff, are you? Despite what you hear, Joe Six-Pack's not the one making movie choices these days.

Ernst: My priority too, Dan. All those book clubs out there - overwhelmingly female. The books are mainly an excuse to swill wine and talk about their sex lives. But who cares? Book groups move product. Ha-ha.

Bizzy: Poor men! Sometimes I wonder what's left in the culture for them.

Sam: Sports, video games, online porn.

Dan: Now, Sam, you're making my pitch for me. The Botticelli Botch will unite the male and female demographic like no other book. Every writer has a secret, and mine is something I learned in prep school.

Bizzy: By the way, we don't advertise Dan's not-so-humble background. Not only did he go to Phillips Exeter, he also taught there for a few years.

Dan: Yeah, during my semi-failed literary career. But I did learn something from cramming literature down adolescent throats. Why do ordinary people buy novels? Out of mixed motives. On the one hand, they want a fast-paced story that will keep them turning pages and get their mind off their troubles.

Ernst: Sad but true. Which is why we publish Dean Koontz and Christine Feehan.

Dan: But people also aspire to higher things. Great books, great art - a lot of Americans crave to know more about them. But they also associate them with snobbery and pretentiousness, which they hate. So the road to riches is to satisfy the public's craving for high culture without setting off their anti-snobbery alarm.

Ernst: You mean, revive the middlebrow?

Dan: Oh, no. You can't go back to dumbing down high culture and spoon-feeding it to people. You gotta spike it, twist the meaning, hit 'em where they live. What do most readers learn from The Da Vinci Code?

Sam: That Jesus was Abraham and his seed are a bunch of French Frogs?

Dan: You assume they make that connection. They don't. Who reads Genesis these days? No, what people learn is what they want to learn: namely, that you can travel around Europe, visit all those museums, churches, and castles, and understand it all, without effort. You don't need a Ph.D. or even a B.A. Western Civilization is a riddle, and if you know the solution - which you can get from one book, mine - you're good to go.

Ernst: Brilliant! But please, make it two books. Tell us about The Botticelli Bitch.

Dan: That's Botch. Cue the Power Point, Bizzy. This time I'm not using a painting that's half flaked away. Compared with Leonardo's The Last Supper, Botticelli's The Birth of Venus will knock your socks off. I'm jumping ahead, but imagine the camera panning down this babe as she covers her boobs with her right hand and pulls her hair over her privates with her left.

Ernst: Astonishing! I've seen the painting dozens of times, but it never occurred to me that she's being modest. How unlike Venus!

Dan: If you'll forgive me: "Our preconceived notions are so powerful that our mind blocks out the incongruity and overrides our eyes."

Bizzy: The Da Vinci Code, chapter 58, page 242.

Sam: Wow, chapter and verse. Where'd you get her, Danny?

Dan: Hands off, she's mine. Anyway, while the camera is eyeballing Venus, we hear the soundtrack of a terrible assault - male grunting and cursing, female screaming and crying. The war between the Roman Catholic Church and Sacred Womanhood is ratcheting to a new level, as the stunning and intelligent Dr. I. Connie Klast, professor of Feminist Art History at Georgetown University and world-famous expert on Botticelli, is being brutally raped by a priest.

Ernst: Splendid! Timely! The Church won't have a leg to stand on! What kind of priest, if I may ask? A Jesuit? It would be nice to avoid an embarrassing mistake, like having an Opus Dei monk, when there aren't any.

Dan: No problem. The assailant is a Dominican, from the secret Twenty-Ninth Province, known as the Manfriars. The Manfriars were founded in 1498, the year Pope Alexander VI had the excommunicated monk, Savonarola, burned and hanged.

Sam: Burned and hanged at the same time?

Dan: Yup, and in the same place, the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, where Savonarola staged his famous Bonfires of the Vanities, in which he burned all the luxury goods he could lay his hands on - including several "pagan" paintings by his loyal follower Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi, a.k.a. Botticelli.

Sam: I'm liking it. Whatever it costs, we'll shoot these scenes on location at the ... Pizza della Whatever. But wait a minute. Who are the good guys? You're saying Botticelli was a follower of the creep who burned his pictures?

Dan: That's right. Savonarola was a magnetic figure. Look at this portrait of him by Fra Bartolommeo.

Sam: Wow, intense. Look at the schnozz! Maybe Tim Roth? Love the hood, by the way.

Ernst: Monks From the Hood? Ha-ha. But seriously, Dan, if I get your drift, you're making Savonarola and Botticelli the good guys. But who are the bad guys? The pope? That could work - dollar for dollar, your pope is your most reliable movie villain, next to your Nazi and your oil CEO. But how will you twist the meaning so it hits ''em where they live?

Dan: Cue the painting again, Bizzy. Check yourselves, guys. You're drooling, like me. None of us can take our eyes off that sexy Venus. The feminist art historians have got us pegged. What is the essence of art? The male gaze. Admiring, yes. But also lustful, possessive, controlling. For 2,500 years, depicting nude women (and in the case of queer artists like Michelangelo, nude men) has been a way of asserting power over them. My heroine, Connie, became interested in Botticelli for that reason. Her first book, Beauty As Rape, denounced Botticelli for reducing his model, the young Simonetta Cattaneo, to a passive object literally blown about by the winds. It's no accident that Simonetta was the mistress of Giuliano de' Medici, brother of Botticelli's patron, Lorenzo the Magnificent.

Sam: Hold on, my eyes are glazing over. I thought we were talking entertainment here.

Dan: Let me translate. Simonetta is the hottest babe in Tuscany, married at 15 to a dull dude named Marco Vespucci (whose only claim to fame is that they named America after his cousin, Amerigo). Every rich playboy in Florence wants Simonetta, but the one who gets her is Giuliano - brother of the city's godfather. Giuliano wins a big jousting tournament under a banner with her picture on it, painted by Botticelli. She becomes Giuliano's prize, but then dies a year later - never having really lived. All her life she's been a possession, an ornament, a trophy. Now look at the painting again. Not the naked flesh. The eyes. See how sad they are?

Ernst: That's why the painting is so lovely. There are many other portraits of Simonetta, but most have a vacant expression. Only Botticelli captured her soul.

Dan: It's not a question of soul. It's a question of gender politics. As Connie comes to realize, the sadness, the victimization, is the whole point. Botticelli wasn't just painting the objectified Venus, he was painting the Venus who resists being objectified. This work is subversive! Look at how awkwardly Venus is drawn - her left shoulder barely exists, and her left forearm is the size of her calf. An objective observer not blinded by reverence for Renaissance art might say that he botched it. And Connie is that observer. For reasons I will relate in a moment, she sees through all the lies about this being a great painting. In truth, it's a deliberate botch!

Ernst: Dan, you've done it again! I'm on the edge of my seat! Why did Botticelli botch it?

Dan: Because he understood. He, too, was in love with Simonetta. But as an employee of the Medici, he had to keep his distance. But distance reveals truth. Botticelli came to understand the patriarchal system - in essence, he became a radical feminist. Like Savonarola.

Ernst: What? Savonarola a radical feminist?

Dan: How do you know he wasn't? Or rather, what has conditioned you to think that he wasn't? What got burned on his Bonfire? Silk dresses, lacy lingerie, cosmetics, fancy wigs, corsets, paintings of nude women - all the trappings of female oppression! Why did Botticelli throw some of his own paintings onto the flames?

Bizzy: To liberate the women! To empower them!

Dan: Right! But then the Church cracked down, condemning Savonarola to a horrible death and forcing Botticelli to spend the rest of his life painting the Virgin Mary. This is where the Manfriars come in. Savonarola was a Dominican, but when he began to crusade for women's rights, the order got into trouble with the pope. They knew that if they didn't deal with Savonarola, the pope would shut them down. So they founded the Manfriars, a secret province devoted to the suppression of the Sacred Feminine. Their first act was to hand Savonarola over to be hanged and burned. Then they went after the artists, making sure they painted gorgeous, sexy nudes for powerful men to ogle. This was called the Renaissance, and we've all been brainwashed - even you, Ernst - into thinking it produced great art. In truth, it was a huge propaganda campaign on the part of the nobility and the Church to keep women in their place. And the deadliest weapon in this campaign was beauty. The beauty of helpless girls like Simonetta, turned against them as the instrument of their oppression.

Bizzy: Oh Dan, that's beautiful. Excuse me - I'm choking up.

Ernst: I'm beginning to see, Dan. A dramatic medieval tale, full of passion and blood, that also illustrates the very truth you revealed in the previous novel. I must say, I admire your integrity.

Sam: I'm liking it, too. But I'm a little worried about the broad who gets raped. What's her name, Connie? An art history professor? That's gonna put a crimp in the casting.

Dan: Not at all. Remember, I described Connie as "stunning and intelligent." In fact, when I get all the details worked out, she may turn out to be a descendant of Simonetta - and if I'm feeling bold, of Botticelli. That's why she understands. When she was growing up in a Dominican orphanage, the nuns made her pose for figure drawing classes. So some of her earliest memories are of shivering in a cold drafty classroom, stark naked, while everyone stared at her - not just the other girls, who hated her beauty, but also the nuns, including a couple of real bull dykes.

Sam: Good, that could work. As long as she's not too young. You know lawyers.

Dan: Do I ever. No, I think that can be done tastefully - to establish Connie's character as a dynamic teacher who empowers female students. Kind of like Julia Roberts in Mona Lisa Smile. The contemporary plot, which will be action-packed, involves a struggle between Connie's students and the Georgetown administration over a production of The Vagina Monologues - you know, that play where women talk candidly about their, uh ...

Bizzy: See? Even Dan can't say it. I did the play all four years at Smith. What an experience! So empowering!

Sam: Hmm. Not sure that will fly at the box office. Could we maybe fudge the details?

Bizzy: No problem. At most schools the play is part of "V Day," which is devoted to raising awareness of violence against women. At the stricter Catholic schools, they allow the anti-violence activities but not the play (which is kind of raunchy).

Ernst: Well, we certainly don't want to make strict Catholics look good! The trick, Dan, will be to frame the conflict so that it looks as though normal women are being oppressed by the Church.

Dan: No problem. I'll background the play, and foreground the big event planned for Georgetown's V Day: a keynote address by Connie, in which she reveals the hidden truth about Renaissance art, and explains why The Birth of Venus was not included in Savonarola's bonfire. Thanks to the Florentine art market, the painting soon became too valuable to burn, anyway. So it lives on today, complete with its botched drawing, as a reminder of the injustices that have killed literally trillions of women.

Sam: Very nice. But I'm still fuzzy on the rape. How does that fit? I'll be frank: I don't see a lot of box office in old Connie.

Dan: She's not old! And like I said, she's a knockout! Maybe we could even use the same actress to play her and Simonetta.

Ernst: I would discourage that. Why have just one pretty face when you can have two?

Dan: The point is, Connie's a framing device. We begin with the rape, then flash back to 15th-century Florence, where we witness the whole back-story, including Simonetta's stunted life, the founding of the Manfriars, and the destruction of Savonarola and Botticelli. Next we flash forward through the centuries, highlighting the Manfriars' more horrible deeds, and end up with the conspiracy to silence Connie. We show the rape as a political act, orchestrated by the province and the Florentine authorities, then accompany Connie back to Georgetown, where, deeply traumatized, she's on the verge of quitting - until, miraculously, her students appear and through their devotion to her message, start the healing process. On the big day, when the president of the university is about to announce the cancellation of the keynote speech, we see Connie, bruised but not broken, struggle to the podium and proclaim the truth to the world. Tears stream down thousands of fresh young faces, the music swells, and once again the camera pans the succulent body of Botticelli's Venus - only this time, it lingers on those sad, sad eyes.

Bizzy: Omigod, I can't stand it! Anyone got a Kleenex?

Ernst: Here, my dear. And they say the novel is dead!

Sam: Nice, Danny. Like the yadda-yadda at the end. Have your people call my people. Meanwhile I'm outta here. Lunch is getting cold.

**********
This parody first appeared in the Claremont Review of Books

Posted at 4:34 PM | permalink | email this entry

August 20, 2006

Corked

Just reviewed a remarkable book called Black Like You, by John Strausbaugh. It's a history of that verboten topic, blackface entertainment, and a demonstration that it is far from kaput in today's popular culture. I will paste the review below, but first let me recommend, as a companion piece, Bamboozled (2000), Spike Lee's remake of The Producers, in which a black television executive (Damon Wayans) tries to get out of a network contract by pitching an idea guaranteed to offend everyone: a nineteenth-century minstrel show, complete with burnt cork and exaggerated red lips, dancing pickaninnies, a band called the "Alabama Porch Monkeys," and plenty of watermelon.

When Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show is a hit, the network hires a consultant to spin the fact that it is profiting from obnoxious racial stereotypes. It's too bad the spin doctor is herself stereotyped as an arrogant Jew, because her lines perfectly capture the defensive game of the entertainment industry: "The biggest thing in public relations is to smile. Wear Kente cloth. Invoke the spirit of Martin Luther King. Use the word 'community' a lot. Mantan is a satire. If they can't take a joke, then fuck 'em."

Bamboozled is not just about network television. In his DVD commentary, Lee says, "In my opinion, this gangsta rap is a twenty-first century version of minstrel shows. And what's sad is these brothers don't even know it." For people conversant with both minstrelsy and the recent history of hip hop, Bamboozled is a brilliant satire.

Unfortunately, there aren't that many people conversant with both, so the general discussion of hip-hop is singularly lacking in historical perspective. Looking at its current decline into vulgar, racist entertainments like crunk, it is tempting to project a "rise and fall" scenario, in which minstrelsy aided the rise, and hip hop the fall, of classical African-American culture. At the moment I resist such a scenario. But unless a few more music lovers step forward and call crunk by its right name, the process started by blackface minstrelsy may well end in something even worse.

Read my review, which ends with some comments about the sorry state of hip-hop:

Continue reading "Corked"

Posted at 3:23 PM | permalink | email this entry

August 12, 2006

War and (Partial) Remembrance

Having finally finished watching the 1988 classic miniseries War and Remembrance (based on Herman Wouk's best-selling novel), I come away with mixed feelings. On the plus side, the production remains impressive. Rather than overdose on special effects, ABC put its money where it mattered: on finding the right locations and framing every scene as effectively as possible for the small screen. It's a study in that elusive and rare artistic virtue: economy.

But there's also a minus side. You must have a strong stomach to watch this second installment of Wouk's World War II saga, because unlike the first, The Winds of War, which focuses on the lead-up to Pearl Harbor, War and Remembrance focuses on the war itself -- and above all, on the Holocaust. It is hard to believe that anyone made a fuss about broadcasting Schindler's List, when this made-for-TV series was, in its down-to-earth way, even more graphic.

Some argue that aesthetic considerations are inappropriate to the topic of the Holocaust. But this is unconvincing, because unless you are an art-for-art's-sake purist (which I am not), the aesthetic is intertwined with the moral. So from that perspective, let me offer some praise and criticism for this landmark in popular American understanding of World War II.

First I would praise an aspect of the film that may seem perverse: the way it introduces the Holocaust not from the perspective of the victims but from that of a camp commander at Auschwitz who is nervously preparing for a visit by Heinrich Himmler. By foregrounding the commander's petty concerns, these scenes throw an especially stark light on the evil being done. The later scenes, in which three of the main characters are sent to Theresienstadt, and thence to Auschwitz, are certainly gut-wrenching. But because they focus on just three faces in the crowd, their overall impact is somehow less.

As for my criticism, it is pretty simple. So intent is this film on remembering the Holocaust, it forgets other dimensions of the massive suffering that occurred during the war. Just to cite one example, it does not even mention the Warsaw Uprising of August-October 1944, in which the Polish Home Army fought the Nazis for 63 days. After crushing the uprising, killing 18,000 Polish soldiers and executing over 250,000 civilians, including virtually the entire educated class, the Nazis systematically destroyed between 85 and 90 percent of the city. And all the while, the Soviet army sat a few hundred metres away, on the east bank of the Vistula, and watched. When it came to breaking Poland, Stalin and Hitler were of like mind.

One would think, given the vast sweep of this miniseries, that this and other atrocities committed by Stalin would have been mentioned, at least. But no, Wouk's burly, vodka-drining Russians seems taken from a Popular Front propaganda film of the late 1930s. This is too bad, because the last thing Wouk would have wanted was for his powerful work of popular remembrance to be dismissed as a case of special pleading.

Posted at 10:43 AM | permalink | email this entry