THE SORROW AND THE PITY — Marcel Ophuls, France, 1971, 7
Color me impressed by Rod Dreher’s Herculean feat of watching the legendary French documentary about WW2, THE SORROW AND THE PITY, in one sitting. Unlike Rod, I didn’t have the option of watching it in one sitting (and I didn’t take along a girlfriend like Alvy Singer did either). When I saw SORROW a few years ago on TCM, it was shown in the two-hour-or-so foreign-film-of-the-week slot and thus in its two segments a week apart — “The Collapse” and “The Choice,” a division made by Ophuls himself for the film’s theatrical release years earlier. And ironically, Rod reminded me of the film the same day I posted on BLACK BOOK, which, though a fiction film, covers some of the same territory. The nut of what Rod wrote:
The most unsettling thing about the film, though, is not the examples of villainy or heroism, but how most people simply made their peace with tyranny … What you get from the film, which is mostly interviews with a variety of people who had been involved with the drama of the time (most of them inhabitants of the French city Clermont-Ferrand) is a sense of how difficult it would have been to have done the right thing. To be sure, the film does not excuse the collaborators. But it does reveal them to be human, all too human.
As Rod says, SORROW is not an easy film to sit through (and not because of its length or because of “Holocaust porn,” which is absent). But unlike him, I wasn’t terribly impressed by it. Or rather don’t consider the film a masterpiece — which equally “not impressed by it,” considering its reputation.
SORROW is obviously as morally fraught as Rod says, particularly for those like us who generally identify, in some sense, with “the right.” And I agree that easily the most interesting person Marcel Ophuls interviews was the fascist-sympathizing Christian de la Maziere (there’s a lengthy clip at Rod’s site), who eventually joined the Waffen SS and is quite quietly eloquent on the why’s — namely the extreme political context not simply of the conquest, but the decade prior. Though I insist that simple or direct comparisons between the post-1946 and the pre-1946 right and between the Continental and the Anglo-American right are dubious in the extreme — I have more natural sympathy for him than I would a Communist. But de la Maziere seemed to have matured in a way that stands for how postwar politics itself did. Still, I remember being a bit annoyed that Ophuls made great sport out of a Vichy official saying Germany was preferable to Bolshevism, but never asked the at least two Communists what they were doing in the whole year between the fall of France and Hitler’s invasion of the Stalin’s USSR, before the bourgeois, imperialist war to fill the coffers of British bankers became The Great Patriotic War.
But I also remember the British homosexual who parachuted into France, in part he says, to prove his courage and because with no family, he had nothing to lose (his story, which involved taking a German soldier as his lover, sounds worthy of a film of its own). And the couple of farmers who joined the Resistance and got captured, but refused to take revenge against their betrayers (whom they said they knew) after the war — “what would be the point,” they say. And the French woman who had her head shaved. And the two German soldiers — the film actually begins with a wedding in West Germany where a man stationed with the Wehrmacht in Clermont-Ferrand is marrying off his daughter and has a son in a West German military uniform.
So there’s definitely an interesting cast of characters here. My problem was that the film seemed a bit pedestrian in its style and presentation. My memory is several years old, but I remember it being mostly talking heads and there not being much of a structure or logical through-thread. It generally followed chronology, but not in a way that was really clear to me. For example, to cite a detail tickled by what Rod wrote, I remember having to look up the postwar fate of Marshal Petain, which Ophuls alluded to late in the film, asking Sir Anthony Eden to comment on whether it was too harsh (Eden demurred, saying that Britain never was conquered, so it’s not a Briton’s place to pass judgment).
In other words, the film just seemed to be a collection of footage more than a film and thus became a bit tiring to watch, and would have been even at two hours. I always felt like I was trying to make sense of “what next” and “why this, now.” We hear at about the 180- or 200-minute mark that Clermont-Ferrand was liberated and go into some of the reprisals, against the Germans and collaborators, and I was asking myself — “how? by whom? with or without a fight? when during the broader war? … actually where the heck IS Clermont-Ferrand??” And the Maurice Chevalier bit at the end struck me as just … bizarre, both in its point (Ophuls’s point, that is, if any) and its pictorial quality. I realize that Ophuls was making the film for a French audience for whom the broadest outlines of history was universal knowledge, but … well … I’m me. (And also, one claim commonly made about the film was its groundbreaking muckraking and demythologizing, which rather suggests that some of this knowledge wasn’t so universal.)
Photos from Kevin Lee of Shooting Down Pictures (his review of SORROW here).
“The day they knocked down the Palais, part of my childhood died”
— “Come Dancing,” The Kinks
When I was a boy, one of my favorite shows was MATCH GAME, and I didn’t even come close to realizing how brilliant it was at the time. But whenever as an adult I had access to the Game Show Network, I would watch the reruns and love every minute of it. Over the years, it creeped up on me the reason that MATCH GAME holds up so well — it was just as much a comedy show as a game show. Watching MATCH GAME, the outcome is hardly the point, you’re eavesdropping on a bunch of wits trying to spontaneously outdo one another. The interaction between Gene, Brett, Charles and Richard (I don’t even think last names are necessary), along with the occasional spice of variety from Fannie Flagg, Betty White, Mary Wickes and others, became the life of the show, and the reason it is still watchable to this day.
All the jokes about Brett’s wigs, Richard’s roving eye, Charles’s flambuoyance, Gene’s leering lip-smacking, some ventures into real politically-incorrect humor with Scoey Mitchell, Gene’s horrible voices and imitations, Richard’s Wildean persona, the ditzes like Joyce Bulifant and Patti Deutsch, “that motel in Encino.” To the TV exec, it was unconscionable the way the panel wasted so much time on MATCH GAME with theatrical “bits” like (I am not kidding) once everybody dancing on the set and all the celebrities once walking off the set in mock protest of who-cares-what. The in-jokes piled upon the in-jokes, particularly with the bickering between Brett and Charles, nudging “Pathetic Answer of the Year” cards into the other’s frame.
My first interaction with Rod Dreher, who’s since become a face-time friend, was an intense e-male bonding experience over our shared love for the 70s game shows of our TV-obsessed boyhoods (we’re only a year apart). Rod wrote:
I’ve got on my refrigerator a yellowed newspaper photo of Charles Nelson Reilly, Brett Somers and Gene Rayburn in a publicity still from the show. My wife, born in 1975, thinks I’m a weirdo. I cannot in good faith contradict her. I remember calling my mom to hurry and pick me up from my friend’s house so I could get home on New Year’s Day in time to watch the Match Game ’73 sign change over to Match Game ’74.
And my commiepinkobud Michael Sicinski put the show’s brilliance together better than I can (quoted with permission):
I think the show stands up as one of the major pop culture contributions of the 70s. I used to watch it as a kid and enjoyed it, but watching it on GSN today I realize just how awesome it was. Nothing like that could be on TV today, where even so-called reality TV is processed into generically recognizable tropes and stock characters. MATCH GAME is so loosey-goosey, so extemporaneous, that it really just seems like they’d be playing the game whether there were cameras or not. You can watch them on the podiums, smoking and even occasionally taking a drink of god-knows-what. Some episodes, you can see Charles and Brett becoming increasingly inebriated as the show goes on. And the coy ribaldry, the silly yet honest nods to “women’s lib” and the dawning consciousness of gay culture (with or without Charles), all of this makes it a time capsule, but really, so much more. It is an amazing aesthetic object, with its own rules and rituals, right down to the orange shag carpeting. On a purely sculptural level, the old PRICE IS RIGHT is a better work of art, but in terms of performance and overall package, it’s MATCH GAME hands down. And lest we forget, Gene Rayburn was the greatest game show host of them all, a rare mix of Barker’s avuncular style with the lecherousness of your creepy Uncle Ned. The slicked-back Max Headroomisms of [Bert] Convy and [Wink] Martindale are the prototype of game show hosting, sadly, because they are safely slimy and easily mocked. Rayburn understood that it was all silly dinner theatre and conducted himself with humor and self-deprecation. …
(Needless to say, I was not only pissed, but felt that it exemplified my disconnection from current pop culture’s values of slick professionalism, when Alec Baldwin mocked CNR on SNL’s “Inside the Actor’s Studio” parody. Holding Reilly up as the nadir of celebrity and talent…what could possibly miss the point more thoroughly?)
Three men as different as me, Rod and Michael all loved the same show and for pretty much the same set of reasons. And part of our boyhoods died at the weekend, announced earlier today.
Something else is dead too. It wasn’t until years later that I recognized that on MATCH GAME, Charles and Brett (whom he sometimes called “Auntie Brett,” a reference whose full meaning only just now “clicked” with me as I typed those words in) were basically doing a “fag hag” routine. But 12-year-old me, watching the show for the first time, never had any clue about the cultural buttons being pushed, the references, though I did laugh at it. “Gay,” “homosexual” “fag hag” … none of it meant anything to me. And I don’t think that, as a 12-year-old, any of it should have.
Wikipedia claims that MATCH GAME “pushed the boundaries of 1970s television standards.” That may be the case, but it misses the point that the boundaries remained and were, in fact, key to what made their bickering so funny and so enduring. Charles and Brett and Richard and Gene were brilliant comedians because they knew how to deliver a dirty joke in a clean way, in the classic double entendre, which has become a lost art as content standards have waned.
But this pre-pubescent MATCH GAME fan remembers all the innuendo (which the adult fan well catches) going over his head. In fact, what is very much part of the fun (watching it now at 40) is appreciating the tension in how the MATCH GAME team were so deft as to get away with so much while keeping the surface G-rated.
Sex and sexuality are legitimate subjects for humor, and I have no per se moral problem with locker-room jokes. But the double entendre is not only funny, but respects the innocence of some in the audience through its “double meaning” (in a slightly different context, Ernst Lubitsch noted that if you tell the audience “2 and 2,” they don’t need to be told “4”). But when comedians can say whatever they want, you don’t need a Bocaccio to write in “The Decameron” of a randy groundskeeper at a convent that “he tended all their gardens.”
OVER THE HEDGE (Tim Johnson & Karey Kirkpatrick, USA, 9)
I’ve been annoyed by previous Dreamworks’ animated films (like A SHARK’S TALE here; I make reference to SHREK) — with their “decadent po-mo flaunting of in-jokes only adults will get” and “seem[ing] to be more interested in replicating the consumer culture and its pop-culture baubles … with [creatures that] get personified, homogenized and flattened into the same pop-culture stereotypes as everything else.” But with OVER THE HEDGE, Dreamworks produces its best animated movie precisely by making these tendencies the subject matter of the film.
HEDGE stars animals who, during the course of the film, are threatened by human development and their own love for it. They wake up from hibernation to find their forest mostly turned into a uniformly faceless subdivision (named Camelot, amusingly). But then a shyster raccoon with his own agenda (voiced by Bruce Willis) and tells them “why don’t you get food food from the humans?” and sells suburbia to the animals in an incredible montage sequence that both follows and parodies those “buy your dream” PowerPoint presentations, culminating in the unveiling of nature’s most-perfect food — the nacho-cheese chip. And his description to the other animals of the SUV is priceless and perfectly delivered up to the brilliant punchline (“one”). But here’s the deal — rather than being threatened, the animals take to it like a fish to water, especially the kids. They fill their food stock in a couple of days, leaving them nothing to do for the remaining 270 before their next hibernation. Abundance enervates. We get into quarrels over Monopoly tokens, comparison of life to video games (“this is just like Auto Homicide 3″) and John Tesh DVDs. In other words, this is basically the ultimate Crunchy Con movie (Rod; if you’re reading this, see OVER THE HEDGE. And take Matthew and Lucas.) The animals become more “humanized” and acclimated to human ways, degrading them, taking them away from (their) nature, alienating them into forgetfulness of Being (“dat ist called Seinsvergessenheit” … “shut up, Heidegger”).
Part of the charm and the reason for the film’s success is the voice casting — which isn’t show-offy or has celebrities obviously “playing themselves.” It’s like Tim Allen and Tom Hanks in the TOY STORY movies — who never echo Home Improvement or Forrest Gump (or Ellen DeGeneres in FINDING NEMO). Wanda Sykes was the only voice in OVER THE HEDGE I instantly “spotted,” but she has a really distinctive voice (and she, thus appropriately, also has The Character Role). But Garry Shandling as a nervous-but-sensible turtle — that’s just perfect, without being eccentric. As is Steve Carell as a hyperactive squirrel. Willis basically plays his “Moonlighting” role, but without specifically reminding you of David Addison until you look back at the cast list. Even William Shatner, you have to strain your ears to figure out … it’s *him.* Shatner. Really. I mean — *really* Shatner. Really.
The movie and pop-culture in-jokes are hit-and-miss but somehow I found them less annoying than I did in SHREK and SHARK’S TALE. The CLOSE ENCOUNTERS joke was really funny (and well-hidden); the CITIZEN KANE reference less so (I saw it coming). And while I also saw coming the reversal of the Pepe LePew scenario — dressing up a skunk as a cat to seduce a real cat — I admired the film followed it to the end, and made it consistent with Sykes’ persona and voice. But can we please have a moratorium on characters named “Stella” until screenwriters have learned to resist parodying Marlon Brando? But since even the pop-culture jokes are intrinsic to what the movie is about — the spread of contemporary suburban culture and its threats to a “natural” life — even when they miss, I didn’t resent them. You don’t have to be Naomi Klein to think that life is not about what you own and what brands you use (the fact that the film is a satire of consumerist suburbia means there is no actual product-placement that I recall). The drawing is elemental, spare, with bright colors and not-too-many eccentric angles and “look what I can do with depth of field” showing off). The human characters are flamboyantly bad, even the Type-A psycho-bitch who had the best line, one worthy of STRANGELOVE — “I can’t be arrested. I’m president of a homeowners’ association.” And finally, any movie that has a joke based on the Theory of General Relativity must be awesome.
Personal point, not related to the movie per se. I deliberately saw OVER THE HEDGE as part of the Other-cott of THE DA VINCI [sic] CRAP. I went with a bunch of Church friends on the Saturday afternoon of opening weekend, one of whom was this guy. David’s been in a very bad place of late, after Holy Week brought him the death of his father and a car-wreck hospitalization. I happened to sit next to him and he was yukking it up like I’ve never seen him. I tease David a lot about economics-related issues (he once called me “Boss Tweed” and a robber baron), and so based on the trailer, I suspected that he would take to OVER THE HEDGE like catnip. I felt glad that, for atwo hours at least, he forgot about it all and just had an uproarious good time.
No … not the latest Bill Clinton rumination on sex and the English language, but a dispute between Mel Gibson’s producers and the Vatican on whether Pope John Paul II gave an endorsement to THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (“It is as it was”), as reported by Peggy Noonan last month in the Wall Street Journal. Now the Vatican is denying it, including the Monsignor and friend of John Paul who was the original source of the quote. Mel’s company is standing by its claim.
But both Noonan and my friend Rod Dreher of the Dallas Morning News say they got the e-mails from the Vatican’s chief spokesman to prove that he did tell Gibson’s team that the quote was accurate and encouraged them to use it.
Rod’s column simply says he believes John Paul did say it but Vatican officials are trying to deny it, though his piece gives no motive. But Amy Welborn speculated (and I’m inclined to believe her) that because of Gibson’s reported involvement in some Ultra sects that are in dubious communion with the Church and/or believe the papacy is vacant, officials at the Vatican don’t want John Paul seen endorsing the film. So they’re lying and hanging Gibson, his distributors and some important Catholic journalists (Noonan, John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter) out to dry. That is totally unbelievable in my opinion. There is absolutely zero chance that Church bureaucrats would ever lie or smear a Catholic layman in service of preserving an institutional image of the Church. Only a wacked-out conspiracy nut would believe that.
THE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS (Alan Rudolph, USA, 2003)
Early this year, my friend Rod Dreher wrote a vigorous attack on THE HOURS and a Gloria Steinem appreciation thereto, as an apologia for selfishness, applause for walking out on one’s family as a means to “self-actualization.” “A fairytale for contemporary narcissists,” he called it. He also favorably cited a James Lileks bleat about what a dirtbag the Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire is for having abandoned his family. “Life is not about always being happy; it’s about doing the right thing,” Rod wrote on the Dallas Morning News’ blog.
Well, here is the anti-HOURS, anti-Hollywood, anti-narcissism movie. And it’s a great film — the somewhat-misleadingly titled THE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS. From the title, you’d expect a bizarro comic romp, and the film does give you some of that for a while. But it gradually becomes a serious, dry-eyed and, finally, romantic film about marital love and a husband’s struggles with his suspicions that his wife is cheating on him.
Campbell Scott and Hope Davis play a married pair of dentists, with three daughters, an SUV and another car, one home in the suburbs and another in the country, and all the rest of the setup that might make you think you’re in for AMERICAN BEAUTY. Early on, Scott sees his wife with another man, but not irrefutably cheating. But then he starts having more and more suspicious thoughts through the score of asides, facial looks and “I’ll be home a bit late tonight, dear” moments of daily life. Those suspicions become embodied in a fantasy character played by Denis Leary, a belligerent patient at the film’s start who was on the outs with his wife and wouldn’t get any dental work done until his teeth started to hurt (there’s a lot of metaphor packed away in there, especially considering Scott’s opening voiceover about the strengths and weaknesses of teeth).
Fantasies of unfaithful-spouse-killing has been the subject of comic romps before (as in Preston Sturges’s UNFAITHFULLY YOURS … DENTISTS even has an early scene at an opera), and the fact that DENTISTS plays with two levels of reality in the Leary character and a couple of other scenes may make you think that’s where the film is going. But no. Scott tells Leary that he’s not going to confront her with his suspicions, because “then I have to do something about it.” Hopefully, he says, it’s just a momentary lapse that will pass. Leary taunts him, and the suspicions mount as the film progresses through a nor-especially-eventful plot. There’s a sequence where Scott drives off after a quarrel with Davis over the youngest child and yells at the top of his lungs “fucking bitch!!!” that led me to believe he was going to stray — LAST TANGO IN PARIS starts with a near-identical yell in a similar-looking setting. But no.
Through these sequences, DENTISTS instead shows the romance of routine, what “love” means after sex has worn out its immediate luster. And yes, the title of this entry *is* a Carly Simon reference. Scott and Davis are shown in bed together a few times, but there’s nothing that could qualify as a sex scene (there’s an instantaneous flashback of a quick encounter) or even any particularly sexy clothing or nudity. What “love” means for this couple, and most marriages (I suspect) is the joy-pain of parenthood. There is a lengthy sequence during which stomach flu strikes every member of the family, and it will resonate with anybody who has had a sick child or can remember being one (i.e., all of us, I suspect). And who remembers having his father rush him to the hospital. Scott feels ill himself but still does his best by the varying ill members of the family — gets a little frazzled, fantasizes to the song “Fever,” as the healthy kids make things difficult, as he wipes the vomit off the shoes of the youngest who doesn’t know better, as he takes a daughter to the hospital and stays overnight when the fever hits 105.
In other words, Scott is an almost-unheard of character in Hollywood movies today and someone whom the makers of THE HOURS looked at with contempt (the John C. Reilly character in that movie) — a conventionally loving good husband and father who is happy in his role and who defines himself and his happiness in those terms. DENTISTS is like an American SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE (though obviously far lighter in tone, and more immediately “pleasurable”). Or maybe, something more like an American version of one of French director Eric Rohmer’s films, where little in the way of great dramatic events happens, but rather, like Rohmer once said about his own films, it’s less about what people do than what they think about while they do it.
That approach to this movie is why Roger Ebert is wrong in the one criticism he makes against the movie in an otherwise-positive review. The Leary character is necessary as a route into Scott’s mind. What makes the film lifelike is Scott’s taciturn manner; if they were the kind of overpsychologized couple who hashed everything out, yes, Leary would be redundant and mood-breaking. But in a movie that’s all about surfaces and maintaining appearances, there has to be some way to show us what temptations, suspicions, and ill thoughts Scott is resisting.
And this is ultimately why the husband and wife love one another. They *don’t* act on every impulse. Or if they do, they repent. And the other has the grace to forgive unconditionally, without dwelling on the particulars. (Despite the theological language there and my firm conviction that the film follows a Christian template, DENTIST is a secular movie about a secular family.) Instead, “love” for them as with my parents (I had as happy a childhood as my parents could reasonably have provided), is a verb not a subject. Love is the things they do (and don’t do) without thinking, just *because.* Nothing is said between Davis and Scott. They just do. Exactly.
Another part of what made DENTISTS so moving for me, and enhanced its intellectual appeal for me, is that it doesn’t over-romanticize love. Or turn it into *luv* as Peter Kreeft might put it. Scott and Davis have outgrown both *luv* and the original sexual passion that first brought them together, but still they clearly love each other and their children. To the movie’s credit, there is only one, not-very-long scene near the end where they explicitly try to hash things out “in our relationship.” And it’s not psychologizing or therapyizing, it’s a potentially-nasty confrontation. Tempers start to flare, but the children unintentionally (the key point) get in the way. It’s ordinary routine asserting itself over narcissistic explicitness.
Why DENTISTS is so convincing in its portrayal of an ordinary family may lie in the performances given by the children. Davis is good enough; Scott is merely as brilliant as can be expected (he gave *this* performance *and* the greasy, fast-talking ROGER DODGER at more or less the same time); Leary is nothing short of perfect casting — sarcastic, brusque, rude. So far, so expected. But the kids — Gianna Beleno, Lydia Jordan and Cassidy Hinkle — are revelations. They’re not “performers” or Olsens-esque muggers. The youngest (Hinkle) looks about 3, openly prefers her Daddy and slaps both her parents in the face. But the slaps are innocent, and somehow Hinkle knows how to slap like someone who doesn’t know any better, rather than as someone following the script. The elder two girls, meanwhile, know how to be in the room with their parents while paying no attention to them, since they’d rather watch the Powerpuff Girls, or eat their own food, or get absorbed in their own quarrels, even as mommy and daddy are cleaning up after them. There’s a natural, unostentatious quality to them that’s both perfect for DENTISTS and the (blessed) opposite of most child actors who get significant screen time.