Ouch! Even though I was instantly thrilled when I saw that Guy Ritchie had made a movie based on the old Man from UNCLE television series, I was also suspicious that the release date had been scheduled in mid-August, which is usually a dumping ground for dead dogs and moldy cheese. My enthusiasm was further tested when I saw the previews; Henry Cavill seemed to be a pretty good choice to succeed Robert Vaughn as Napoleon Solo, but big, muscular Armie Hammer just plain didn’t look right as Illya Kuryakin. No, David McCallum personified that character: slender, bookish, poetic, intelelctual. Maybe Ritchie felt obliged to reinvent the man for a generation that doesn’t read. Alas, my suspicions proved correct. The movie did just enough things right to prove to be a huge disappointment. Hugh Grant was a shrewd pick as Mr. Waverly, and Elizabeth Debecki was terrific as the fashionable villainous Victoria Vinciguerra.But the back stories were unimaginative, the east-west rivalty was banal, the abandonment of all the UNCLE lore and iconography was a huge misjudgment. J.J. Abrams taught the world how to do a cinematic reboot of a TV series with Star Trek in 2009: the key is to preserve the characters the audience loves. Tom Cruise, to his credit, also figured this out with the Mission Impossible series, whose fifth installment, Rogue Nation, proved to be inventive and fun. Some time ago Cruise figured out that the teamwork in the series was more important than the plot, and this episode again works that angle to perfection. The new wrinkle this time is a rival agent played by a little known British actress named Rebecca Ferguson, who is every bit as cool as Honor Blackman and might even rival–dare I say it?–the amazing Diana Rigg. Well, no, I guess she’s not all that. But she is smashing!
Neither Ginny nor I are prone to tout our own abilities, but there are some things we can do, and that’s all there is to it. As it happens, one of them is sitting. Like Will Sonnet, the old TV character played by Walter Brennan put it. “No brag, just fact.” Not that we won’t pee occasionally; not that we’ll always be awake. But park us in a chair, and it’s likely that come hell or high water, we’ll be there long enough to be mistaken for George Segal sculptures. Thus when it was announced last December that Wolf Hall, the two-part adaptation of Hilary Mantel‘s brilliant novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, would be playing on Broadway, we jumped at the chance to see both plays in a single day, which we did last Saturday.
It was a great experience. It was just fun to immerse oneself in theater and historical drama and literature, things we both love. Frankly, we don’t get to it enough. And helping to make it special was that Hilary Mantel herself was at the theater, and I rather fearlessly shook her hand and told her how much I admired her work. I do wish I liked the plays better. I guess they were dramatic enough, but the great pleasure and the great accomplishment of the novels was being inside the head of the main character, Thomas Cromwell, something very difficult to do in a play. As depicted by Mantel, Cromwell was
very intelligent, very shrewd, a great judge of character, a man who had spent his whole life living by his wits, and who was quite good at it. He was also a man of opinion, one who held views about the monarchy and religion and the world generally. We don’t really see much of these attributes in this adaptation. Cromwell is not as complicated: he protects his friends and hurts his enemies. Way too simplistic, I’m afraid.
As it happens, the television adaptation of the novel began on Sunday night, and was pretty much for me everything that the play was not. Cromwell was fleshed out far more fully, and you could see his subtle intelligence at work. Mark Rylance, playing Cromwell, had much more to work with–many more facets of Cromwell’s life was portrayed, and one could see him as father, husband, reformer, and so one. In the best scene in Part One, Cromwell has an audience with the king, Henry VIII, played by Damien Lewis. Cromwell had once been in parliament and was critical of Henry’s war aims in France, and Henry has not forgotten. Henry. a man surrounded by syncophants, is surprised that not only does Cromwell not back down, but he suggests a better way from Henry to get what he wants. There is a moment when a Henry looks at Cromwell with a sidelong glance and a half smile, as though surprised, and even amused, that someone would express to him an original thought. Aha! That’s Wolf Hall in a nutshell–the sublime pleasure in encountering something new and unexpected. I can’t wait for the rest of the series.
I am so woefully behind in my blogging that I am only now getting around to subjects that weeks or months old! However, if the thought has survived rattling around in my head all this time, I suppose it deserves recording.
Like many people, I was happy with the final episode of Mad Men‘s demi-season. Don survived a plot against him, enriched his partners, relocated his rapport with Peggy, and signed off with Megan sadly but maturely. Roger asserted himself. Bert Cooper signed off with a song. Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Don, Peggy and Pete ended the show as the model workplace family, sharing dinner at Burger Chef. What could go wrong?
Well, given that Matthew Weiner has to bring everybody back for another half season, the answer, potentially, is a lot. One could see the series ending on a lift of sorts, but I don’t think that would appeal to Professor Weiner’s view of that era. One senses a tragedy in the offing. Sally swept up in drugs, or a Kent State-like shooting? Megan meeting Manson on the wrong side of a blade? I kind of doubt it. Peggy and Joan on the upswing? Yes, incrementally. The only fate I feel I see for sure is that of Pete Campbell, who I believe is destined for a significant post at the Committee to Re-Elect the President. As for Don? It’s hard to say. What happened to America after the sixties?
As an early and excited fan of Mad Men (Okay, I realize that this doesn’t make me the first man on the moon, but I was there), it saddens me to say that I was pretty disappointed in this past season. I know others disagree–Troy Patterson in Slate called it the show’s best season ever–but I felt let down.
When Mad Men debuted, among the many things that was so brilliant the show was who the show was about–though set in 1960, it was about us. It was about us in two ways: first, it showed the birth of what may be called `our era’–the birth of a fully integrated America, the birth of women in the work force, the birth of a sexually freer country, the birth of more psychologically aware country. Second, it was about us, the people who were living in the first years of the 21st century, the years when the good days were ending and a crack-up loomed over the horizon. The show, of course, was about other things, notably the tortured soul of Don Draper. But lets face it: there’s only so much tortured soul crap we take from our friends and loved ones, and I believe I speak for most of us when say that my tolerance for it among my favorite fictional characters is even less. Megan Draper may have to put up with Don coming home ever night half in the bag, but I don’t, not unless he and Roger Sterling and Freddie Rumson have gone to an after-hours gambling joint and punched Jimmy Barrett in the jaw first. That’s the Don I like, the Don who, however deplorable, is always able to out wit the Ducks on the world.
In this season, set in 1968, Matthew Weiner and his creative team treated all these imperatives with a lot of literalness. We followed Don into a season-long descent into alienation, witnessing a sadistic relationshipo with his mistress, general meanness to his colleagues, neglect of his his wife and children (what’s new?) and a trip to the drunk tank, although in the final episode we were given a flickering indication that a turnaround might be in order. We also experienced the turbulent events of 1968 with at once a surface literalness (seeing the riots on TV) and a theatrical surrealism, like the elderly black woman thief or the Chevy account as Mad Men‘s Vietnam (see Slate‘s very smart deconstruction). This is an exercise in not very entertaining intellectual masturbation, a dog whistle that went over most of the audience’s head. Weiner, moreover, began to repeat himself, with another mysterious liar in Bob Benson and another Pete Campbell parent being lost in transit. Would it have been a challenge for one of the characters to have been caught up in street turmoil at Columbia or the Chicago convention? Almost certainly–you see things like that all time in inferior programs so frequently that it becomes a cliche. But presented with the challenge to elevate this moment, the writers punted. The reality of the era was played for decoration, for surfaces. Abe’s radicalism was revealed to be careerism, a bourgois boomer wrapped in a lefty taco. Ginzberg and Rizzo and Megan were shown to be liberals with no bottom. Megan spouted anit-war bromides, but never did anything. The attitudes were a superficial as the buttons pinned to Glenn’s pea coat. None of them went to a rally, none of them went to a meeting, none of them did any pro bono work, none of them marched. But some of those people would have. During the whole year, Betty was the only who actually saw something face to face. This was a huge swing and a miss for what had been the Mantle of TV shows.
By the way, what ever happened to Mad Men‘s Republicans? I was delighted to see that in the final episode, the bar where Don met the evangelist had for some reason two political posters hanging on the wall: a vintage Nixon’s the One poster, and one for Roy Goodman, who was the Republcan state senator for the Upper East Side of Manhattan from 1969 to 2002, a liberal Rockefeller Republican whose kind we just don’t see anymore. I thought that one of the most original Mad Men insights was that Cooper and Sterling were Republicans, that the firm worked for Nixon in 1960, that Bert Cooper was part of old money, board-sitting Manhattan Republican establishment. The advent of Henry Francis kept this going. but as the show lost interest in Betty it lost interest in Henry, and a whole fruitful dramatic path was back-burnered. Remember, we think of the sixties as a period when things went to hell, but they didn’t go to hell for everybody: Nixon won, and he won with the help of Haldeman and Ehrlihman and Roger Ailes and Ron Ziegler, all of them products of the Mad Men milieu. I’m sorry Weiner has let this story line slacken. I had hoped that by the end of the final season, as 1969 drew to a close, we would be seeing Pete Campbell taking the first steps that would eventually lead him to his indictment in the Watergate conspiracy.
The question of whether James Gandolfini was the greatest actor of his era will be settled sometime in the future. Commentators will have to decide whether an 86 hour performance as one character (plus 25 or so stellar supporting performances) required more of an actor, and delivered more from an actor, than did, say, twenty or so bravura film performances by Daniel Day Lewis.
Almost impossible to compare, right? Almost ludicrous to contemplate. Yet if critics and commentators do in fact, try to make that comparison, it will be because Gandolfini, and David Chase, along with the rest of the talents associated with The Sopranos, seized with their brilliance the cultural ground that cinema was abandoning like they were owners of residential property at Love Canal.
Once movies slew the novel in the sixties, film was considered the most culturally significant art form. Part of it had to do with the iconic power of the stars, part with the way fans and the media treated film, part with the depth and ambitions of the film makers, with what they were trying to say. There was a time when a film could influence the culture for two years. It would open in a downtown movie house and spread slowly throughout the country; if it was a hit, it would run in cities for months, and in parts of the country, people would be waiting for close to two years to see a major picture. Crowning that influence were the Oscars, honors that could cement the stature of a film or a performer for decades. And in that way, generations would contemplate the meaning of The Godfather, Lawrence of Arabia, Casablanca, On the Waterfront, Nashville, Chinatown, and so on.
Now movies come and go so fast they barely register. They open wide and even successful films get moved out fast. The significance of the Oscar has diminished in a crowd of other award shows. But with ten or thirteen week runs (along with in-week repeats and off-season reruns), with the close analysis some series receive and the big build-ups to new seasons, and most importantly, with their greater ambitions and more serious content, it is TV shows like Mad Men or Game of Thrones or Girls that dominate the culture. At a conference in Hollywood ten days ago, Steven Spielberg predicted a coming “implosion” in the film industry, after which there will be price variances at movie theaters, where “you’re gonna have to pay $25 for the next Iron Man, you’re probably only going to have to pay $7 to see Lincoln.” He also said that Lincoln came “this close” to being an HBO movie instead of a theatrical release. Speaking on the same panel, George Lucas predicted that film exhibition would morph into a Broadway play model, whereby fewer movies are released, they stay in theaters for a year and ticket prices are much higher. His prediction prompted Spielberg to recall that his 1982 film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial stayed in theaters for a year and four months. Lucas called cable television “much more adventurous” than film nowadays.
Why is this happening? Technological changes, demographic changes, audience preferences—huge movements. But I believe it wouldn’t be happening now, and in the way it has been happening, if The Sopranos hadn’t been so damn good. And it was Chase’s writing and vision, and Gandolfini’s acting, that made it happen.
The Sopranos was The Death of a Salesman of our era: a vision of the way we lived and worked and the costs involved. At first it played as a comedy with a twisted undercurrent of violence; the very simple decision to play the mobster as a suburban family man created the comic framework that the show never shed. This must have horrified Chase, who each season thereafter made Tony an uglier, more violent, more selfish, more controlling and less in control character. But Chase continued to allow Tony elements of humor and especially humanity, and Gandolfini squeezed the compassion out of each opportunity. “AJ, you’re a good guy,’’ says a frustrated Tony to his son in one late episode, and breaking into Gandolfini’s delivery of that line was all of Tony’s anguished, desperate suspicion that AJ was in no way a good guy, not a good citizen in possession of a compassionate heart, and not even a good criminal, a stand-up guy in possession of the nominal capabilities of that profession. You felt sympathy for Tony in that instant, as in so many instants, when Gandolfini expressed a universal human emotion, in this case, a father’s terror that his kid might be a ne’er-do-well.
Gandolfini possessed an astonishingly expressive face, and it was constantly in motion. (It’s amazing what he did with his voice, too; it’s amazing to realize that Tony’s voice was not Gandolfini’s natural voice, that Gandolfini pitched it higher and altered his natural cadences and tuned his accent for the part.) In my favorite episode, the 12th of season 2, Gandolfini’s gifts and skills are on peacock display. Following the scene in which Janice shoots Richie Aprile, Tony registers fear, caution, shock, control, authority, fury, sarcasm, love, affection, exasperation—all in a handful of minutes. He calms his sister, he commands his men, he yells at his mother, he mocks his sister, and he opens himself, cautiously, to his wife. It’s just wonderful. And it is one of, I don’t know, ten thousand sequences that mark Gandolfini’s excellence, in The Sopranos and other pieces. (The wonderful In the Loop is Peter Capaldi‘s movie, but Gandolfini holds his own in every scene he’s in.)
The first episode of The Sopranos aired on January 10, 1999. I was working for Entertainment Weekly, and Ginny and the girls met me in Manhattan. Somehow we ended up at a restaurant called Mayrose, on Broadway near the Flatiron building. We were there early, maybe six o’clock., and the place was nearly empty, although by himself, right in the front, was a man I recognized as James Gandolfini. I almost never bother celebrities, but he was right there, practically underfoot as we waited to be seated, so I put out my hand and congratulated him, and wished him and show great success. I’m glad I did that. It was one of a tiny number of times in my life that I have shaken the hand of genius.
Three of the most interesting hours of my life were spent in the company of Henry Bromell, who died the other day at the age of 65. Henry was a writer–of short stories and television scripts mostly, but also of an also of a novel and of screenplays. Ann Kolson had assigned me to write a piece on him for The New York Times; the occasion was his debut as a film director for a film called Panic, about a hitman, for which he had also written the screenplay. We met him at the Algonquin Hotel–the only interview I’ve ever conducted there–and I liked him immediately. Easy-going, friendly, funny, interested, smart–he was anything other than self-absorbed. We talked for literally three hours, which was about three times the amount of time usually required to complete the assignment. Although I was careful to cover the usual bases that needed for my assignment, the encounter wasn’t like an interview at all, but more just a delightful conversation. We talked about film, books, writing, his interesting upbringing, about Homicide: Life on the Streets (where had had performed distinguished work and which was one of my favorite series.) It was just an enormously enjoyable experience, with no sense of the professional wall that typically exists between subject and interviewer. I was thrilled to see that he had achieved recent success with Homeland; that was arena he knew well from his upbringing in the Middle East as the son of a CIA operative. I’m glad that he capped his career with success.
Here are a couple of Henry’s quotes from the piece:
”My editor says I’m the only person she knows who’s written for television that television has made a better writer,” said Mr. Bromell, pointing out that writing for David Chase, who was the executive producer of ”I’ll Fly Away” and is the executive producer of ”The Sopranos,” was the most rigorous experience of his career. ”He thinks in terms of a page and a half or two pages, and within that time, there should be two turns, two times where the scene goes someplace that you didn’t see coming, that’s real and is believable. And he’s a Chekovian, so for him the whole scene has to have a subtext. Even if it’s not mentioned, you’ve got to feel it and understand it. Really tough stuff. But you get excited by what he says, because you see that he’s made it better.”
Reaction to ”Panic” has been positive; Mr. Bromell seems particularly pleased by friends who’ve told him that he has made a European movie. ”Most of the filmmakers I love are Europeans,” he says, enumerating a catalog of favorites that quickly begins to include directors from Japan, India and America but that leaves out most of today’s Hollywood filmmakers.
”Working on the series, we would get as production assistant these very bright kids from U.S.C. film school and N.Y.U. film school who begin each day asking what would be entertaining for the greatest number of people. Not, ‘What if I take that character and put him in a room with that character?’ Now they think like agents and producers. They’re very comfortable servicing corporate culture. They don’t see as their fundamental role being critical or making people laugh in a way they’re not used to laughing.
They think, ‘All right, we got to bring in 30 million people, how are we going to do this?’ I think, ‘If all we’re going to do is serve corporate culture, where are our ideas going to come from?’ ”
Apart from that special day when the temperature was topping 90, a skunky stink was broaching the perimeter of the property, and poison ivy was breaking out all over my body–quite the trifecta!–nothing quite so pleased me this summer as those occasions when I happened upon Carly Rae Jepson singing “Call Me Maybe.” I know the song is a featherweight thing, but the tune is catchy, and, more important, the singer’s innocence flirtiness simply melts my heart. And it’s fun–just simple, silly, stupid, joyous fun. Of all the video versions–and it’s particularly hard to resist the US Olympic swim team’s version, featuring the charming Missy Franklin–I find the most pleasure in the video Jepson made with Jimmy Fallon and the Roots, all of them playing children’s instruments. I love the starstruck disbelief that is all over Jepson’s face, I love Fallon’s older brotherly earnestness, and most of all, I love the Roots’ implacable professional cool. It’s a smile, every time.
On Morning Joe today, Chris Matthews, a bulldozer on most days, completely demolishes GOP Party chairman Reince Priebus. “That cheap shot about ‘I don’t have a problem with my birth certificate’ was awful,” Matthews said of GOP hopeful Mitt Romney’s Friday embrace of the birther notion that President Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. “It is an embarrassment to your party to play that card. This stuff about getting rid of the work requirement for welfare is dishonest, everyone has pointed out that it’s dishonest,” he continued. “And you are playing that little ethnic card there. You can play your games and giggle about it, but the fact is, your side is playing that card. You start talking about work requirements, you know what game you’re playing, everybody knows what game you’re playing. It’s a race card. And this thing about birthers — yeah, if your name’s Romney, you were well born, you went to prep school, you can brag about it. And this [Barack Obama] guy, he’s got an African name, he’s got to live with it. … This is absurdity! Making fun of this guy’s birth certificate issue when it was never a real issue, except on the right wing.”
“You got your monologue in, so congratulations,” Priebus quipped to Matthews. “You’re loaded up, you got it out. So, good for you. The fact of the matter is, is he’s from Michigan, he was born in Michigan, he was making the point that I was born in Michigan. And you know what? We’ve gotten to a place in politics that any moment of levity totally frowned upon by guys like you just so that you can push your brand.”
“It just seems funny that the first joke that he’s ever told in his life is about Obama’s birth certificate,” Matthews pointed out.
“I think Obama’s policies have created a sense that, for whatever reason, he’s looking for guidance, as far as health care is concerned, as far as our spending is concerned, as far as these stimulus packages are concerned — he’s looking to Europe for guidance,” Priebus explained.
“What?” Matthews exclaimed. “Where do you get this from? This is insane! … What’s this got to do with Europe and the foreignization of the guy. You’re doing it again now! You think he’s influenced by foreign influences? You’re playing that card again.”
“I’m not going to get into a shouting match with Chris,” the RNC chairman said, dismissing the MSNBC host with a wave of his hand.
“Because you’re losing, that’s why,” Matthews shot back.
“No, I’m not losing,” Priebus insisted. “I’m not going to sit here and take shots.”
“Cheap shots about how Obama being a foreigner is the thing your party’s been pushing,” Matthews noted. “[Romney surrogate John] Sununu pushes it. Everybody pushes it in your party.”
“It’s garbage,” Priebus replied. “Garbage.”
“It’s your garbage,” Matthews concluded.