International Salon-Journal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 9 No. 44, November 2005







Martha P. Nochimson


Movies and the America of the Mind:

New York Film Festival 2005 Report (Part One)



Just by chance, not long after the press screening of _Capote_ (Dir. Bennett Miller), one of the New York Film Festival selections for 2005, I saw _Roman Holiday_ (Dir. William Wyler, 1953). _Roman Holiday_, for those who do not know, is a hyper-romantic account of the brief encounter of runaway Princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn) of some indeterminate European Dutchy and Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck), a cynical American newspaperman. Living in Rome, Joe meets up with her by accident when she makes her break for freedom from royal regimentation on a stopover there. At first Joe pretends to be a helpful gentlemen who doesn't know who she is in order to sucker Ann into giving him the exclusive of his life, on the strength of which he will at last be able to afford to return to the United States. But Joe and the Princess develop a real emotional bond that looks very much like love, and, unable to break faith with her, even though she must ultimately leave him for her regal responsibilities, he voluntarily gives up the scoop and the fame and fortune that would have accompanied it. Only the fortuitous proximity of the two viewings made possible the shock of recognition that _Capote_ and _Roman Holiday_ are actually the same movie, decades and a world of historical transitions apart. Further reflection has suggested that the contrasts and startling comparisons between the two films, placed serendipitously in juxtaposition for me, illuminate in interesting ways not only _Capote_ but a compelling cluster of film shown in the 43rd NYFF which position themselves in dialogue with Hollywood and the American mass media. For this reason, this unexpected pairing will begin the first installment of my annual review of the Festival -- which will consider this season's NYFF movies and the America of the mind . . .


_Capote_ is the story of how Truman Capote came to write his landmark work _In Cold Blood_ about the murder of the nice, normal Clutter family in Holcomb Kansas by two misfit drifters, Perry Smith and Richard Hickock. As almost all the critics have rightly asserted, _Capote_ avoids the blandness of the usual biopic because instead of being stretched to shallowness as a narration of Capote's life from start to finish, it extracts this very specific moment which casts light on all that went before and came afterward. It is a brilliantly executed film, distinguished by a nuanced subtlety of characterization and elliptical treatment of narrative incident generally scarce in American movies. (Possibly, the time has come when all this may change if NYFF's current selection of American films are part of a healthy, complex trend.) It is possible to emerge from _Capote_ thinking that you have just witnessed a typical American biopic success story; after all the film ends with Capote's triumphant literary success. But this is not likely. Certainly, Capote's implosion, because success as a journalist in this case equals profound human betrayal, is never spelled out by the conventional narrative continuities, because they have been broken here by an elliptical treatment of event. However, implosion, as the price of Capote's manipulation of the emotions of everyone concerned in his pursuit of the literary equivalent of a scoop, is written so dimensionally on the body of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who creates the character of Capote, that to quote the Capote in the film describing his excitement about the _In Cold Blood_ project, at times you can barely breathe.


In the 1953 world in which the lovely but somewhat duplicitous _Roman Holiday_ was put onscreen, it achieved a modicum of depth by hinting at the impediments to a writer in a capitalist society, and by extension, perhaps, any writer, in the struggle to render truth in words. In its own way it explored how a writer, in order to know his or her subject by means of a rare and privileged direct experience, initiates a strange kind of intimacy between strangers that anyone who has ever interviewed a public figure of any sort and elicited something beyond the prepared, canned answers knows well. But Wyler's film fudges acknowledging the cost of that intimacy. And Miller's film doesn't. Is the writer's relationship with his subject always a callous seduction spurred on not by love but by lust for fame and financial reward? If so, after such knowledge, what forgiveness? These are the questions at the heart of both _Capote_ and _Roman Holiday_. The latter, a product of its period, translates the problems into the terms of standard romantic comedy, morphing moral dilemmas into sexual longing, drowning the ethical challenge in the mythology of the purity of the forbidden attraction between the commoner and the royal and diverting thoughtful consideration with the captivating rhythms of heterosexual desire. In contrast, and this is the miracle of Bennett Miller's film, despite the fact that Capote is obviously gay, despite the presence of what the infamous Production Code Administration used to call 'pansy jokes', the seductive bonds that Capote forms with his 'prey' in order to extract information are virtually genderless. Instead of obstructing further thought on the subject, the clearly manufactured intimacy that Capote encourages with both the female best friend of the murdered Clutter daughter and one of the murderers, Perry Smith, provokes inquiry. Similarly, the patently abstract nature of the bonds is depicted as double edged: Capote falls into his own trap, so that the betrayals eat him alive until his death. Unlike Gregory Peck's noble Joe Bradley, whose unconsummated passion for the Princess permits him to stroll away, sadder but wiser, Capote's sated passion for fame, leaves him completely beyond the possibility of release. He glitters as a cautionary instead of an exemplary figure that contains all sorts of possibilities for striking deep chords within the viewer's moral sense. Freud has notoriously discounted the possibility of negative examples, but modernity has proven him wrong on this too.


1953, the year _Roman Holiday_ was released, is also, as chance would have it, the year during which the bulk of the events take place in the film screened on the festival's opening night, George Clooney's _Good Night, and Good Luck_. Deservedly, as with _Capote_, much has already been written about this account of the publicly played out hostility between CBS news reporter and anchor Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) and Senator Joseph R. McCarthy (as himself) -- including a very fine review by Philip Lopate in _Film Comment_, which I recommend. Again, the vapid biopic formula is shortcircuited, this time by Clooney's decision to use a series of incidents both on and off the television screen as a synecdoche for Murrow's professional life, and, beyond that, the American media discourse about the Cold War. Strathairn is impeccable in his performance, a tour de force that challenges numerous Hollywood cliches about stars and the movies. As Strathairn's Murrow fights the CBS powers that be to maintain a strong and truthful stance against an American demagogue who came perilously close to dismantling numerous safeguards of American civil liberties, he is working in tandem with George Clooney, as producer Fred Friendly, who is without doubt one of the most charismatic of Hollywood's actors. It is a tribute to both Clooney and Strathairn that the Murrow character, in order to hold the screen and carry the film as he had to, was not ratcheted up to compete with Clooney's effortless, pyrotechnic star presence. Instead, Clooney delivers a beautifully controlled performance, using the limits of the characters supporting function to great advantage and Strathairn digs deeply into his own acting reserves to rivet the audience through a shattering stillness. The brooding, basso profundo register of his Murrow also bests the sloppy grandiosity of McCarthy's appearances on the tapes used in the film and stands toe to toe with the brilliant Frank Langella's William Paley, no mean feat for any actor.


If we contrast Clooney's film set in 1953 and Wyler's _Roman Holiday_ made in 1953, we again run up against the shock of recognition of how far American films have come in dealing with social problem dramas. The use of the sugar of romance in Wyler's film to make the medicine of journalistic ethics go down for a mass audience was Hollywood's standard response to the conflict between commercialism and free expression. George Clooney is no wild eyed experimental film maker; he is as far into the mainstream as one can get -- after all he is a past 'Sexiest Man of the Year'. Everything in Clooney's professional education yearns toward the mass box office; but everything else yearns toward bearing ethical witness, and he is compiling an honorable track record of imaginatively combining his two impulses. Here he includes the heterosexual romantic element so slyly in his story, and so effectively, that he both comments on the way Americans hide from politics in fantasies of desire and uses that tendency to steer the audience back toward the ethical dilemma posed by a media rendered docile by McCarthy's outrageous tactics of smear and intimidation.


The lesser of Clooney's inventions is the inclusion in his story of the real romance of Joe and Shirley Wershba (Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson), who worked for CBS when their policy forbid the hiring of married couples, and so the Wershba's maintained the fiction that they were not married. Their need to be careful about how they presented themselves on the job makes romance and desire another potential victim of a paranoid time in America when anyone might denounce anyone else. But it is lightly handled, very much a subordinate comic element: everyone in the film actually knows the Wershba's are married and are willing to go along with the charade as long as no overt evidence of their nuptial bond appears. Much more effective and inventive is Clooney's use of the soundtrack music which at times is diegetic and at others non-diegetic. The music of song stylist Dianne Reeves scores the film; sometimes she is shown recording songs in the studio, in interludes that punctuate various confrontations, but her music also floats over a number of scenes in which she does not appear. Although there are a few witty specialty numbers that have nothing to do with romance, like 'Straighten Up and Fly Right', which make obvious comments on the proceedings, most of Reeves's songs are romantic standards that employ the standard discourse of sexual seduction. Yet, here the romantic meanings of the lyrics are scraped off by their juxtaposition with the events pictured in such a way as to force the sexual fantasies they exhale to be revealed as a suppressed discourse about our politics. Popping out from behind the cloud of escapist eroticism produced by these love songs is a description of the Murrow-McCarthy standoff. I am particularly fond of what happens to the standard, 'Too Close For Comfort' within this context. Those who see this fine film may find themselves chuckling over Clooney's transformation of the patently sexual lyrics from that song: 'Be firm, be fair, be sure beware/On your guard take care; he's too close for comfort.' More overtly: the lyrics of 'I've Got My Eyes on You' and the less known and splendid, 'Who's Minding the Store?' But this may be a much greater achievement than it at first seems: a triumphant inversion of the Hollywood tradition of turning politics into sexual treacle.


Maybe the liberation of politics from its 'romantic beard' is also liberating to American filmmakers when they *do* want to talk about intimate bonds, or at least that would seem to be what we find in Steven Soderbergh's new film _Bubble_. The news about this film is, first, good and, second, even better. First, Soderbergh has gone back to making movies after his adventures in Hollywood silliness: his _Ocean's 11_ and _Ocean's 12_, and his very bad remake of Andrei Tarkovsky's _Solaris_. Second, as a part of his return, he is pushing the limits of the mass audience by giving them a story with the elements that they conventionally enjoy: murder, romance, and suspense in a small town, but without the fast food, instant gratifications of big stars, fabulous settings and costumes, groovy music and on-screen, bloody violence. There's going to be trouble about distributing this one; it has a distributor, Magnolia Pictures, but I fear that it will not be shown in many theatres or for a long run in any. However, it is a thrilling venture in minimalism that clears the doors of perception and stays with the spectator in its ellipses and enigmas. Who says you can't get out of Hollywood alive?


_Bubble_ is about two women and a man who work in a small doll factory that provides jobs for a dozen people in a somewhat economically depressed working class town in West Virginia: Martha (Debbie Doebereiner), Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins), and Kyle (Dustin James Ashley). You remember Debbie, Misty and Dustin, don't you? No, you don't. They are all non-professionals. Debbie has worked for 24 years as the manager of a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Parkersburg West Virginia; Misty is a hair dresser in Belpre Ohio; and Dustin is studying to be a computer technician in Parkersburg. Since their pressbook credits don't mention it, it seems that they haven't even worked in local dinner theatre or the high school drama society circuit. But somewhere neorealist Luchino Visconti is glowing with pride; these non-actors hit not one false note as they bring to life people caught up in the vacuum that often passes for American society today. Soderburgh's casting decision shows how much is to be gained when the baggage of stardom is not lugged into certain kinds of stories; this one for example. In the doll factory, Martha an overweight, unmarried woman in her forties who still lives at home, exudes motherly warmth that unsatisfyingly finds a near to hand object in her dependant father, and only slightly less gratifyingly embraces Kyle, a much younger fellow factory work in his twenties, whom she drives to work and eats lunch with. Yeah, Soderbergh could have used Kathy Bates, a wonderful actress, and Aston Kutcher, but watching this film you may wish to ponder how much less stark the loneliness would have been embedded with their star brightness. For loneliness is the issue and Soderbergh has brought its ache to the screen with a reverberating sorrow.


Because of a surge in orders at the doll factory, Rose, a new worker is hired. She is Kyle's age, a single mother in regular combat with the rejected man who fathered her daughter. Think Scarlett Johanson, then think again. Her celebrity would have completely destabilized this tale. Rose, attractive, young, and restless, brings desire into the otherwise drab factory and the starved lives of Martha and Kyle. But the stirrings of desire do not equate with happiness for anyone, quite the opposite. Duplicity, jealousy, threatening mystery, and murder enter the scene with Rose. Some readers may now be shaking their heads and thinking that this is just one more retread of the old patriarchal suspicion of the sexual woman. But my own reading of the film finds that although Rose is indeed inscrutably troublesome as well as erotic -- she's a user and a tease -- the excitement of Soderbergh's film is in great part his refusal to honor the old American, anti-feminist, Puritanical hysteria about female sexuality. Rather, Soderbergh focuses on what happens to desire in a culture stripped down to materialist values, as we find in today's United States. It is not that the people lack longing, but that the environment cannot gratify or even organize it in a productive, creative way. It goes amuck not because of the sexual woman but because of a horrible poverty, not of things but of spiritual and emotional context, which leaves almost everyone in his or her own bubble. Complementing the simplicity of the performances, the minimalism of the cinematography underlines the hollow reverberations of the local emptiness, which as I see it is not a contemptuous satire of West Virginia. Instead, the specificity of West Virginia becomes a means to understand contemporary America. I will not spoil anyone's pleasure in the suspense of the film by discussing the identity of the murderer, or even the identity of the murder victim. But I will say that when all that is known, there remain mysteries aplenty about everyone's motives. Apparently, Soderbergh has plans to make a series of stories in American small towns, and I look forward with enthusiasm not only to seeing Bubble again, but also to whatever comes next.


Piercing examination of life through the lens of American culture has long been a part not only of American but also of international film culture. As early as 1924, Lev Kuleshov used the conventions of America and the American media to make his points about American hostility to Russian Communism in _The Amazing Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks_. In NYFF 43, Danish director Lars von Trier uses a comparable comic pastiche in _Manderlay_, the second in a projected American trilogy. The first film of the trilogy, _Dogville_ was shown at NYFF 41. The projected third film is, at least for now, scheduled to be called _Washington_. In his way, von Trier is working the same side of the street as Bennett Miller, George Clooney, and Steven Soderbergh in his use of subjects and rhetoric American.


All of the films of von Trier's American trilogy feature Grace, the daughter of an American gangster, as the protagonist. In _Dogville_, pretty but naive Grace (Nicole Kidman) learns the perils of altruism in that mecca of purported innocence, the American small town, one of Hollywood's most enduring cliches, as von Trier knows well. _Dogville_ reveals the dark side of 'bedrock America', and mocks Hollywood by revealing that the destructive forces in human nature have not been eradicated by the American experiment in democracy, not even far from the Wicked Ways of the Big City. After giving Democracy a college try in Dogville and failing, Grace acknowledges that her only possible way to bid the good people of the town farewell is hardly a tribute to the efficacy of the legitimate processes of consensus government touted by the United States. In _Manderlay_, Grace's adventures continue as she (now acted by Bryce Dallas Howard) makes an unscheduled stop at an Alabama plantation where, in the mid-1930s, slavery is peculiarly alive and well. Refusing to heed her father's cynical warning not to interfere, Grace answers the call of a distraught black woman who begs her to save a young black man being whipped by the plantation overseer, as if it were still the pre-Civil War 1830s. Again, Grace attempts to make manifest the idealism that she derives from the spirit and letter of democratic philosophy when she and her gangster father free not only the young black man but also the entire black community living at the Manderlay plantation from the white family that owns the land. And again, when her father moves on to solve his own problems once he has finished using his gang to overpower the white racists, he leaves Grace to rediscover that her idealistic world view must inevitably end in the necessity of saving her life by violating her ideals. Yes, her black protegees surprise her by repudiating her reforms. Von Trier's insistence that Grace discover blind spots in America's most cherished liberal beliefs, which I will explore below without revealing all, are our discoveries as well. Von Trier anticipates that Americans will not want to have their eyes opened and will hate his film, but remains silent on his expectations for all other audiences. The press screenings at Lincoln Center were full of critics talking about how they hated _Dogville_ but loved _Manderlay_. Go figure, Lars! It seems that his Marquis De Sade methodology of sending a starry eyed American girl into the field for her humiliating comeuppance has its own blind spots.


Within in the terms of my current obsessions about the films at the NYFF, however, what fascinates me most about _Manderlay_ is not von Trier's commentary on racism, of which more soon, but his commentary on American film rhetoric and the parallels between the Anti-American von Trier's formal issues and those of the American filmmakers displaying their wares at the latest NYFF. Von Trier has identified his inspirations for his American trilogy as coming from European sources: in _Dogville_ Berthold Brecht and in _Manderlay_ Pauline Reage's _The Story of O_. He has also credited as an important influence a slave rebellion on Barbados after which the slaves killed their former master because he would not take them back. However, I would maintain that von Trier is much more deeply influenced by the American media. Like _Good Night, and Good Luck_, _Manderlay_ is full of pastiche of Hollywood conventions. Like _Capote_ and _Bubble_, von Trier's American trilogy-in-progress makes use of a new climate in mass media entertainment to retell old Hollywood stories. _Manderlay_ is also full of American actors and their public images, ripe for reflexive turnabout.


The name Manderlay itself evokes Alfred Hitchcock's first American produced film, _Rebecca_ which features a nameless naive heroine who matures as a result of her erotic relationship with the lord of the manor, Manderlay. Von Trier inverts Hitchcock's story, playing out his naive heroine's maturation through her relationship with slaves of the manor. Driving this allusion home, von Trier foregrounds a set of large gates -- with a strong resemblance to those through which Hitchcock's heroine entered to meet her destiny -- through which naive heroine Grace enters into her (latest) rite of passage. In another allusion to Hollywood, von Trier is also ringing changes on the Hollywood mythology of the can-do Capra-corn American, whose naivete pierces the absurdity of tired, meaningless conventions. Grace takes on the role of the Frank Capra protagonist as she not only weighs in on the racial injustice at Manderlay plantation to force the formerly powerful white family and their overseer to serve its black community, but also in true Capra spirit blithely leads the former slaves to overthrow what she shows them are the meaningless 'old verities' imposed by the domineering white matriarch Mam (Lauren Bacall) who dies just as Grace arrives. Except that things don't turn out for Grace as they do for Mr Deeds. In von Trierville, old verities, it seems, have a significance that Grace's shallowly idealistic American mind overlooks in its (sweetly) monomaniacal zeal for liberal redemption. Once Grace has saved the seemingly hapless blacks from the white, southern racists, she persuades them to cut down the forbidden trees in 'The Old Lady's Garden', so that they can use the wood to mend their broken down shacks. Von Trier turns upside down the conventions of Hollywood's ritual challenge through the innocent soul to absurd restrictions when the price of better housing turns out to be a tragic lesson about why the matriarch of the slave holding family made a fetish of the preservation of those trees.


There was some speculation at the festival that Nicole Kidman did not reprise her role as Grace because she did not want to play Grace's sex scene with a charismatic black slave that is the sexual and narrative climax of _Manderlay_. Whatever the truth may be, von Trier's use of a promising young American actress with a family resemblance to the Gidget stereotype (that relentlessly white and affluent, perky and shallow All-American girl for whom no problem is truly unsolvable) only sharpens his bite against things Hollywood, as does Lauren Bacall's cameo as the dying female center of power of the disappearing plantation system. But von Trier's casting coup is Danny Glover as William, whose function on the plantation was to give gravitas to white rule over his people by playing his role as the 'house nigger' in charge of maintaining decorum. Glover's indelible cultural image as the streetwise black cop of the _Lethal Weapon_ movies, which deny that he is somehow 'suitably' subordinate to Mel Gibson's white heroic dominance, turns uncanny in _Manderlay_. I will say no more than that in von Trier's film, the hidden subservience of the Glover action hero is inverted; this outwardly submissive servant of Mam turns out to have been a real power behind the throne in Mam's 'good old days'. But is von Trier really for racial prejudice and against democracy? Both the film and the pressbook for _Manderlay_ suggest that he loathes racism but that he sees at least some of its evils built into what he understands as essential human character; similarly, he seems to fear that democracy denies itself viability by refusing to understand the lower depths of the human beast. This and many more issues may be clarified when we have the third film of the trilogy, _Washington_, solidifying both the contempt and admiration with which von Trier is regarded by various members of his public. However, his most enduring cinematic virtue may not be his own politics but his piercing insight into the corruption of mass media discourse about politics, making him, perhaps unwillingly, a brother-in-arms with George Clooney.


Finally, American discourse, particularly as it radiates through its music and its star system plays an important role in both Neil Jordan's _Breakfast on Pluto_ and Michael Winterbottom's _Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story_. _Breakfast on Pluto_ is a cinematic version of what in print fiction is called a *bildungsroman*: it narrates the life of Patrick, aka Kitten, (Cillian Murphy), whose mother leaves him as a newborn infant on the doorstep of Father Bernard (Liam Neeson) the local priest in her small, provincial Irish town, and escapes to London. Kitten, as I will call him from here on, identifies with women as a young boy and the identification only becomes more intense as he matures. But, although he flings himself at one man after another, looking for ideal romantic love, even more important to him is finding his lost mother. As the coils of the plot tighten, Kitten finds his desire for love and acceptance impeded by the young, earnest, brutal members of the IRA who cross his path, and facilitated by Father Bernard. Am I hinting at pedophilia? You'll need to see the movie to find out; just don't be too sure about commonly held assumptions.


Through all of Kitten's adventures, rock music (some made in America, and some influenced by it) is as crucial to the spectator's experience of the film as romantic standards are in _Good Night, and Good Luck_. However, unlike the music in Clooney's movie, which mutates in strange ways as it collides with visuals and narrative, the music in _Breakfast on Pluto_ is annoyingly right on the nose. The film begins with Kitten in sexy drag pushing a baby carriage through a construction site and exchanging raunchy remarks with the construction workers. On the sound track? 'Baby Love'. When Kitten is confused, we hear 'The Windmills of the Mind'. When her face falls with depressive thoughts, the soundtrack blares, 'You look so sad'. After the Q and A, I met Jordan in the lobby of the Walter Reade Theatre and asked him about these choices. After all, his ability to make thrillingly complex choices for his soundtrack along with his interest in American music was abundantly evident in _Mona Lisa_. Jordan responded that in this film he had wanted the music to be for the audience exactly what it was for the characters, a needed escape from the drabness of the limited provincial life. The title of the film, which was adapted from a novel of the same name, reflects that very aspect of Jordon's rhetoric, evoking a detour off the path of the mundane by borrowing from a 1970s 'swinging England' popular song. However the conventional equivalency between emotion and pop music continues to exist in London. Giving Jordan the benefit of the doubt, we might extrapolate that there the music helps young working class people escape from their limits of their lives. In any case, Jordan here uses American music in the time honored American way; as a matter of escapism which he doesn't question.


I'm not sure all viewers will find themselves on Jordan's wavelength. It seemed evident to me that if the music of his youth equates for him with escape of a necessary nature, I experienced it as a silly reminder of how much the American mass media has co-opted even artists with Jordan's ability, on occasion, to make a magical use of cinema. However, I do think it would be worthwhile giving him the benefit of the doubt on another issue. It is possible to see _Breakfast on Pluto_, as I did initially, as a spin-off of _The Crying Game_, with its new version of Jordan's old fusion of the images of androgyny and terrorism. At one point in Kitten's adventures he even runs into Stephen Rea, as a 'cheap suit' magician who is pulled into the orbit of Jordan's newest gay transvestite, though this time he knows the score. But when I asked Jordan why he was drawn to telling stories through the figure of the transvestite, he denied that he was interested in this particular form of gender masquerade. Instead, he said he is interested in the issue of disguise itself, disguise of any kind, and how sometimes one must affect it in order to be oneself. And refusing to be labeled or defined by others is certainly what Kitten is after. Nevertheless, at the time I was dubious. It was only long after I'd gone on to other movies and other situations that Kitten, with all his/her attempts at highly conventional female glamour, made me think again as he/she popped into my mind as a figure of innocence and liberation in response to issues that were brought to my attention. If this is a flawed movie in some ways, Jordan may have tapped into some vital representation of how the banality of various kinds of social discourse may indeed be given exuberant life by genuine human desire.


The more pernicious aspects of banality are wildly and hilariously at play in _Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story_. The publicity for this particular cinematic 'cock and bull story' has made no secret of the fact that it is a film about making a film of Laurence Sterne's notoriously unfilmable novel. And so it is. If Sterne's novel, _The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman_, purportedly the autobiography of its fictional narrator, is actually about the impossibility of representing life as it really is in fiction because fiction has form and life is a tangle of loose ends, Michael Winterbottom's film is about the impossibility of making any film for something resembling the same reason. But the form that devils the making of the movie being attempted in this film is not the narrative structure that Sterne pondered. Rather it is the American inspired star system and the constructs of celebrity that threaten to reduce the film crew and the 'talent' in _Tristram Shandy_ to a wilderness of ego peelings.


Toward this end, Winterbottom has turned his back on the many _Masterpiece Theatre_ associated British actors available to him and instead cast for the central roles of this 18th century story a pair of zany British television comics, Steven Coogan and Rob Brydon, who play, respectively, themselves and Tristram and Toby Shandy, Toby being Tristram's uncle. Coogan and Brydon have reached knockabout notoriety as over the top TV comedians which aligns them (before the audience has seen a single frame of _Tristram Shandy_) with show business as it is perpetrated in the United States, not with the art of British theatre. And indeed the first frames of the film show Coogan and Brydon in the make-up trailer being made camera ready as they launch into a sidesplittingly funny combative buddy banter about how and in what ways each of them has the mojo to achieve stardom. 'Do these teeth say star?' 'This nose?' It's Brydon who is the aggressor in this pissing contest because Coogan is playing the title role and Brydon chafes under the burden of his second banana status, which has unhinged him to such a degree that he is driven to praising the color of his (anything but American star white) teeth as comforting, a shade you would select for painting a baby's room. Certainly, an indication that they *do* contain star potential. Brydon's timing is better than mine, and this is one of my favorite lines in the film. But as time goes by, Brydon's role in the film alters as the producers of the film-within-a-film (henceforth FWAF) find themselves worried about box office potential. The changes they make swell up Brydon's part in the FWAF with a sudden importance, leaving Coogan, now shaken by insecurity, nattering on in the same imbecilic way about whether or not he is star material.


The reason Coogan fears that Brydon may surpass him in media significance as the making of the film drags on nails _Tristram Shandy's_ subtext about things American. In order to get the budget the fictional director needs for a battle scene, the director is pressured by the producers to snare an American star to up it's commercial ante, even though it will be for an insignificant role in the FWAF, and even though the film is already in production. Their choice is inspired both for the film and the FWAF: Gillian Anderson, the star of the American runaway television hit _The X-Files_ who also has 'indie credit' and won't change them an arm and a leg. The brief scene in which she is asked to join the cast is extremely funny. Also funny is that she gives Brydon a love story, screen time with a *big star*, and a chance to get close to the woman of his dreams; Brydon is a fan as well as an industry insider. And it is Coogan, who helps the producers to get Anderson, who is the instrument of his own upstaging since, not really having read the novel, he doesn't know that the Widow Wadman whom Anderson is being sought to play is Uncle Tobey's paramour. Even funnier is that Anderson was actually brought on board because Winterbottom actually did need an American star in order to get the money for his film. In a final sly parody of art and life and all their many possible permutations, although Anderson appears in no more than five minutes of the Winterbottom's film, she, not any of the members of the cast who had large roles, accompanied Brydon and Googan on their public relations tour to the United States, and was present at the NYFF Q and A! (As a little bonus for all _X-Files_ fans who have made it through this review to this point, it is my sad duty to tell you that Anderson, now a honey blonde and not the 'blessed redhead' that fans remember, doesn't hold out much hope for another _X Files_ movie. She and David Duchovny, as she told me, were absolutely on board, but no script has appeared, and she had no idea what's holding it up. She seemed as unhappy about this as I am.)


Clearly influenced by Rainer Werner Fassbinder's _Beware a Holy Whore_, _Tristram Shandy_ also details the romantic intrigues of the FWAF's cast and crew and the pressures from agents and gossip mongers that threaten to derail the production. Let it be said that, as in Fassbinder's film, the hero of Winterbottom's effort is no role model in either his personal or professional life. He is buffeted impotently by all his impulses, to which he is generally unable to abandon himself but which he also cannot control, and by the vicissitudes of the business, which as pictured are absurdly American in their tendency toward quick killings rather than quality productions. Whether this is Fassbinder-lite or Winterbottom's truly fascinating dialogue with a filmmaker of genius, I leave to you. Winterbottom's borrowing of the theme music from Federico Fellini's _8 and a Half_ as Coogan's personal world goes into meltdown while the FWAF film lurches out of control makes claims for the Winterbottom film as a legitimate carnivalesque pastiche, which I think are justified. Somehow, as in Fellini's film, there is a felt, resounding affirmation despite all the madness and indelibly stamped human baseness.


No one needs to tell the readers of _Film-Philosophy_ that the world is in deep trouble and that the United States, under the leadership of a bizarre kind of visible and invisible cabal of greed and corruption, has assumed a primary role in the perpetuation of needless suffering and destruction. However, it would seem that, without ignoring the dark side of American hegemony, the filmic artists selected by NYFF have dredged hope from the toxic waste of media madness -- a sorely needed cause for celebration and gratitude.


New York, New York, USA



Copyright Film-Philosophy 2005



Martha P. Nochimson, 'Movies and the America of the Mind: New York Film Festival 2005 Report (Part One)', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 9 no. 44, November 2005 <>.





Coming soon:

'Five International Cinematic Perspectives: New York Film Festival 2005 Report (Part Two)'














Save as Plain Text Document...Print...Read...Recycle


Join the _Film-Philosophy_ salon, and receive the journal articles via email as they are published. here


Film-Philosophy (ISSN 1466-4615)

PO Box 26161, London SW8 4WD, England

Contact the Editor (remove Caps before sending)


Back to the Film-Philosophy homepage