Sydney Pollack, RIP

Perhaps it’s appropriate that the veteran director/actor dies on Memorial Day. The obits will probably concentrate on his work as a middlebrow director of middling quality — for an Academy Award winner, he helmed some of the worst twaddle ever given the green light (Absence of Malice, Havana, Sabrina, The Interpreter, and Random Hearts, which has the immortal line delivered by Kristin Scott Thomas: “You know those tests you take to see if you’re pregnant? I wish they had one so you could find out if you’re crazy”). Yet he managed to pull Tootsie out of the jaws of disaster. This is probably the one great — maybe the last great — classic Hollywood comedy, up there with The Lady Eve and Duck Soup in laughs-per-minute (most of the wisecracks penned by Elaine May) and outdoing them in poignancy. It lost to Gandhi in the Best Picture and Actor races, but never fear: Hollywood compensated by tossing Oscars to Pollack for 1985’s ponderous Out of Africa, which, despite Klaus Maria Brandauer and a warmer than usual Meryl Streep, never gets over Robert Redford’s English accent and an air of irrelevance crossed with illiteracy — do the film’s creators show any sign of having read Isak Dinesen’s work?

Still, there’s something to be said about Pollack’s belief in the star system. As a producer he nurtured Anthony Minghella. As director he was as responsible as anyone for creating the Robert Redford we know today, for better or worse. With the exception of his stint in live TV in the fifties, nothing in his resume suggests risk or novelty, and that’s the way he liked it:

Pollack spoke of his preference for working with big stars in an interview with New York Times in 1982.

“Stars are like thoroughbreds,” he said. “Yes, it’s a little more dangerous with them. They are more temperamental. You have to be careful because you can be thrown. But when they do what they do best — whatever it is that’s made them a star — it’s really exciting.”

Sometimes, he added, “if you have a career like mine, which is so identified with Hollywood, with big studios and stars, you wonder if maybe you shouldn’t go off and do what the world thinks of as more personal films with lesser-known people. But I think I’ve fooled everybody. I’ve made personal films all along. I just made them in another form.”

Beginning with his classic portrayal of harried professional angst in Tootsie, Pollack remembered his roots in acting, and returned to them like a thirsty man in the desert. He carved a number of indelible representations of a type that Hollywood knew all too well: the oily wheeler-dealer who’s not listening to a second of the shit coming out his mouth. Years in the industry — hell, Michael Ovitz was a client and friend — no doubt gave Pollack the verisimilitude necessary to pull it off. Whether it was in Death Becomes Her or The Player, Pollack’s performances always gave the impression, with their cut-the-shit snarls and smug consumption of every available molecule of oxygen, that he was the savviest man in the room: a survivor, which may be the only type that Hollywood appreciates. Last year he said more with a disgusted glance and a tight-lipped swig of single malt Scotch than all of George Clooney’s exertions in Michael Clayton; even last October I was writing that it may be his last time around. So if there’s one Sydney Pollack film you gotta see, don’t rent Out of Africa or Jeremiah Johnson — go straight to 1992’s Husbands and Wives, in which Pollack got his only chance at sustaining a character arc for an entire movie. As Judy Davis’ self-deluded, newly divorced husband, Pollack reminds me of every single fiftysomething dad I’ve ever met: his mind is unaware that his body is sagging, soft, and unresponsive. Highlights: his confession to Woody in a convenience store (“Big deal! So she’s not Simone de Beauvoir!”); or his sputtered remarks to Lysette Anthony during what was at the time the most harrowing scene Woody had ever filmed (“My friends are trying to make an intellectual conversation, and you’re sittin‘ there jerkin’ off about tofu and crystals and shit”). He should have gotten an Oscar nomination, but Pollack’s acting — look at his work in Michael Clayton — is too non-fussy to get noticed by Academy types.

Sydney Pollack, RIP

Perhaps it’s appropriate that the veteran director/actor dies on Memorial Day. The obits will probably concentrate on his work as a middlebrow director of middling quality — for an Academy Award winner, he helmed some of the worst twaddle ever given the green light (Absence of Malice, Havana, Sabrina, The Interpreter, and Random Hearts, which has the immortal line delivered by Kristin Scott Thomas: “You know those tests you take to see if you’re pregnant? I wish they had one so you could find out if you’re crazy”). Yet he managed to pull Tootsie out of the jaws of disaster. This is probably the one great — maybe the last great — classic Hollywood comedy, up there with The Lady Eve and Duck Soup in laughs-per-minute (most of the wisecracks penned by Elaine May) and outdoing them in poignancy. It lost to Gandhi in the Best Picture and Actor races, but never fear: Hollywood compensated by tossing Oscars to Pollack for 1985’s ponderous Out of Africa, which, despite Klaus Maria Brandauer and a warmer than usual Meryl Streep, never gets over Robert Redford’s English accent and an air of irrelevance crossed with illiteracy — do the film’s creators show any sign of having read Isak Dinesen’s work?

Still, there’s something to be said about Pollack’s belief in the star system. As a producer he nurtured Anthony Minghella. As director he was as responsible as anyone for creating the Robert Redford we know today, for better or worse. With the exception of his stint in live TV in the fifties, nothing in his resume suggests risk or novelty, and that’s the way he liked it:

Pollack spoke of his preference for working with big stars in an interview with New York Times in 1982.

“Stars are like thoroughbreds,” he said. “Yes, it’s a little more dangerous with them. They are more temperamental. You have to be careful because you can be thrown. But when they do what they do best — whatever it is that’s made them a star — it’s really exciting.”

Sometimes, he added, “if you have a career like mine, which is so identified with Hollywood, with big studios and stars, you wonder if maybe you shouldn’t go off and do what the world thinks of as more personal films with lesser-known people. But I think I’ve fooled everybody. I’ve made personal films all along. I just made them in another form.”

Beginning with his classic portrayal of harried professional angst in Tootsie, Pollack remembered his roots in acting, and returned to them like a thirsty man in the desert. He carved a number of indelible representations of a type that Hollywood knew all too well: the oily wheeler-dealer who’s not listening to a second of the shit coming out his mouth. Years in the industry — hell, Michael Ovitz was a client and friend — no doubt gave Pollack the verisimilitude necessary to pull it off. Whether it was in Death Becomes Her or The Player, Pollack’s performances always gave the impression, with their cut-the-shit snarls and smug consumption of every available molecule of oxygen, that he was the savviest man in the room: a survivor, which may be the only type that Hollywood appreciates. Last year he said more with a disgusted glance and a tight-lipped swig of single malt Scotch than all of George Clooney’s exertions in Michael Clayton; even last October I was writing that it may be his last time around. So if there’s one Sydney Pollack film you gotta see, don’t rent Out of Africa or Jeremiah Johnson — go straight to 1992’s Husbands and Wives, in which Pollack got his only chance at sustaining a character arc for an entire movie. As Judy Davis’ self-deluded, newly divorced husband, Pollack reminds me of every single fiftysomething dad I’ve ever met: his mind is unaware that his body is sagging, soft, and unresponsive. Highlights: his confession to Woody in a convenience store (“Big deal! So she’s not Simone de Beauvoir!”); or his sputtered remarks to Lysette Anthony during what was at the time the most harrowing scene Woody had ever filmed (“My friends are trying to make an intellectual conversation, and you’re sittin‘ there jerkin’ off about tofu and crystals and shit”). He should have gotten an Oscar nomination, but Pollack’s acting — look at his work in Michael Clayton — is too non-fussy to get noticed by Academy types.

New Order – "As It Is When It Was"

The first track in the New Order repertoire to prominently feature acoustic guitar, the third song on Brotherhood features a typically incoherent Sumnerian refrain but more than enough nuance in the arrangements to compensate. This 1985 version hits the spot for many reasons, not the least of which is how solidly/stolidly Gillian Gilbert, back to the audience, carves a rhythm guitar figure that allows Peter Hook’s bass to fill every available space with the sound of doomy minor-key romantic melancolia.

Happy Memorial Day weekend.

New Order – "As It Is When It Was"

The first track in the New Order repertoire to prominently feature acoustic guitar, the third song on Brotherhood features a typically incoherent Sumnerian refrain but more than enough nuance in the arrangements to compensate. This 1985 version hits the spot for many reasons, not the least of which is how solidly/stolidly Gillian Gilbert, back to the audience, carves a rhythm guitar figure that allows Peter Hook’s bass to fill every available space with the sound of doomy minor-key romantic melancolia.

Happy Memorial Day weekend.

You can’t turn on Cuban exile radio without hearing a reference to “Munich” and “1938,” both of which shorthand for surrender, appeasement, and malfeasance in the face of an enemy of unspeakable awfulness. The words have been tossed hither and thither once again, last week by the president. It’s not limited to the right either — Anne Applebaum notes that Al Gore implied that the fight against global warming is comparable to the Allies’ struggle against fascism. Forget how the analogies cheapen the the struggle; they also betray an ignorance of history and how the smaller events often have more to say about the present than the grand historical struggles of which pundits are so fond:

I am not, I hasten to add, arguing here against the public discussion of history. If the Nazis were being invoked more generally—in warnings, say, about the unpredictability of totalitarian regimes—they might be a useful part of a number of discussions. Unfortunately, Nazi analogies are nowadays usually deployed in order to end arguments, not to broaden them. Once you inject “Hitler” or “the Third Reich” into a debate, you have evoked the ultimate form of evil, put your opponent in an indefensible position—”What, you’re opposed to a war against Hitler?”—and for all practical purposes halted the conversation.

Invoking the Nazis also changes the tenor of a debate. There may be good, tactical reasons for choosing not to negotiate with Hezbollah or the Iranian regime, for example (the best reason, usually, is that the relevant diplomats are fairly sure that negotiations won’t work). But calling opponents of this policy “appeasers” distorts the debate, giving tactical choices a phony moral grounding. In reality, circumstances do change, even where “terrorists and radicals” are involved, as this administration in particular knows perfectly well.

Fans of Indiana Jones know that “Nazis” is itself shorthand for Dastardly Godless Evil.

Douthat’s second good post today speaks to our presidents’ weakness for the grand gesture, the manipulation of gathering storms for historical canonization. What looks on first reading to be a defense of George W. Bush is actually a subtle condemnation of his yearning for presidential greatness and the weakness of Jon Meacham types forever in search ofChief Executives ready to lead another Greatest Generation:

All of these presidents benefited, as Bush hopes to benefit, from the consonance between their sweeping, often hubristic goals and the gradual upward trajectory in human affairs. Despite our crimes, the Philippines turned out well enough in the long run, and so did South Korea; in the very long run, so did post–World War I Europe. (Indeed, if LBJ or Nixon had only found a way to prop up South Vietnam until the 1990s, they might have been forgiven the outrageous cost in blood and treasure, and remembered as Trumanesque heroes rather than as goats.)

But these well-respected presidents have benefited, as well, from the American tendency to overvalue activist leaders. So a bad president like Wilson is preferred, in our rankings and our hearts, to a good but undistinguished manager like Calvin Coolidge. A sometimes impressive, oft-erratic president like Truman is lionized, while the more even-keeled greatness of Dwight D. Eisenhower is persistently undervalued. John F. Kennedy is hailed for escaping the Cuban missile crisis, which his own misjudgments set in motion, while George H. W. Bush, who steered the U.S. through the fraught final moments of the Cold War with admirable caution, is caricatured as a ditherer who needed Margaret Thatcher around to keep him from going wobbly.

I said as much a couple of months ago. But Douthat (craftily?) omits any allusion to the manipulation of intelligence and swelling of executive power that’s transpired in the adminstration of this Bush, both of which should remind him that powerful presidents are more attractive in history books than in office.

Douthat’s second good post today speaks to our presidents’ weakness for the grand gesture, the manipulation of gathering storms for historical canonization. What looks on first reading to be a defense of George W. Bush is actually a subtle condemnation of his yearning for presidential greatness and the weakness of Jon Meacham types forever in search ofChief Executives ready to lead another Greatest Generation:

All of these presidents benefited, as Bush hopes to benefit, from the consonance between their sweeping, often hubristic goals and the gradual upward trajectory in human affairs. Despite our crimes, the Philippines turned out well enough in the long run, and so did South Korea; in the very long run, so did post–World War I Europe. (Indeed, if LBJ or Nixon had only found a way to prop up South Vietnam until the 1990s, they might have been forgiven the outrageous cost in blood and treasure, and remembered as Trumanesque heroes rather than as goats.)

But these well-respected presidents have benefited, as well, from the American tendency to overvalue activist leaders. So a bad president like Wilson is preferred, in our rankings and our hearts, to a good but undistinguished manager like Calvin Coolidge. A sometimes impressive, oft-erratic president like Truman is lionized, while the more even-keeled greatness of Dwight D. Eisenhower is persistently undervalued. John F. Kennedy is hailed for escaping the Cuban missile crisis, which his own misjudgments set in motion, while George H. W. Bush, who steered the U.S. through the fraught final moments of the Cold War with admirable caution, is caricatured as a ditherer who needed Margaret Thatcher around to keep him from going wobbly.

I said as much a couple of months ago. But Douthat (craftily?) omits any allusion to the manipulation of intelligence and swelling of executive power that’s transpired in the adminstration of this Bush, both of which should remind him that powerful presidents are more attractive in history books than in office.

I was thinking about how to start a small post on Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian [whew], but Ross Douthat nails what made the film disappointing. It’s difficult for me to be objective about the Narnia books: along with Louise Fitzhugh’ s Harriet The Spy series, they were my favorite books as a boy. I reread them until the bindings came off. The much-ballyhooed Christian allegories with which Lewis purportedly bludgeons the reader never stood out much to this beneficiary of twelve years of Catholic school education; I mean, they were there, but I noted them and went on.

But back to the films. I was surprised that The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe kept most of the book’s nuances. Thanks to the casting of Tilda Swinton as the White Witch (a much cooler and imperious vision of evil than Lewis’, and thus compelling) and Georgie Henley as Lucy Pevensie, we understand the tug that this pagan world exerts on the four children. It says a lot about the first adaptation that by the time the children are coronated I wanted it to keep going. As the book that really got me to keep reading the series (I read TLTWATW not knowing it was the first of seven volumes), I’ve a special affection for Prince Caspian, narrative problems notwithstanding. The film adaptation straightens the unwieldy flashback with which the book’s first half begins, yet sacrifices the children’s affection for each other and connection to their adopted world for swordplay and horseplay. Peter Dinklage’s Trumpkin – the novel’s most enduring character – gets nothing to do. There’s little sense that these four children were once kings and queens and mighty warriors, worthy of being summoned from the High Past (Edmund in particular wanders in a daze through most of the film). Peter and Caspian arguing over battle plans could very well be Judd Nelson and Emilio Estevez bickering over who asked a girl out first. Finally, whoever came up with the bright idea of having the Telmarines talk like Ricky Ricardo and look like Raul Julia should be sacrificed on the Stone Table.

Good news, though: director-adaptor Andrew Adamson will hand the franchise to someone else for the next adaption, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the most leisurely, action-packed, and religio-mystical of the seven books, and somehow my favorite.

The age demanded

“Passion and enthusiasm, which sometimes can be enough to sway a crowd, aren’t even necessary. You can manufacture faith out of nothing and there are an infinite number of patterns and lines that connect from key to key — all deceptively simple.”

–Bob Dylan, Chronicles.

From today’s New York Times Magazine interview with McCain:

“I’ve seen other stories and I’ve seen comments about my national-security speech,” McCain said, referring to an address he gave in Los Angeles a few weeks earlier. “The story line is as follows: ‘McCain’s not the same McCain. He’s changed, and now he’s become a hawk, and he is dramatically different from what he was.’ ” He recited this narrative as if repeating the nonsensical words of dullards. “And anybody is free to write whatever they want and form whatever opinions they want to form. But facts are facts. And the fact is that I know war, and I know the tragedy of war. And no one hates war more than veterans.”

From here, McCain went on to list for me some of the military actions he supported (Grenada, Panama) and some that he opposed (Beirut, Somalia). He had always followed the same set of values, he said, grounded in the premise that all people, not just Americans, were created equal and had inalienable rights. And when America could intervene militarily to further those values around the world without needless sacrifice in lives and money, he was all for it, and where we couldn’t, he was not, and there was nothing extreme about that.

“As far as people who advise me,” McCain went on, though I still hadn’t asked a question, “probably one of my most trusted advisers for the last 30 years is Henry Kissinger, not known as a hawk or a neocon.” McCain infused the word with sarcasm. “I also remember the days when Ronald Reagan was portrayed as a hawk and a neocon. I remember the near hysteria in response to his ‘tear down this wall.’ I remember the ‘Oh, you can’t do that, when you call the Soviets an evil empire.’ I remember all those things. Same people who are now saying — ” He stopped himself midsentence, then began again. “I’m always open to new ideas and new thoughts, but my principles were grounded many years ago in places like the National War College and other places where I have learned and studied and talked to people I admire and respect.

“So,” McCain said finally, “with that preface, I’d be glad to answer any questions you might have, and again, it’s always good to be with you.”

The profile is touching in ways that reporter Matt Bai and McCain himself didn’t expect. Here you see a serious man, much more serious than his brethren in the Republican Party, struggling to articulate a foreign policy that redresses the evil (there’s no other word) of Kissingerism — whose adherents showed nary a gasp when the Metternich of Foggy Bottom sabotaged Hubert Humphrey’s peace plan so that his capo Richard Nixon could get peace with honor by invading Cambodia — yet clings to that very American espousal of the principles of the Declaration of Independence as long as McKinley-Roosevelt’s Open Door Policy was honored. I admit, there may have been a time in the recent past when McCain’s inchoate vision may have sufficed — may even have honored our divisions about what to do with all this power and a limitless supply of foreign markets buying our consumer goods; but it’s not 2000 anymore, and to be right about theocratic terrorist cells isn’t the same as being right about the American counter-argument. He reminds me a bit of Herbert Hoover: earnest, plodding, possessed of good motives but awful instincts, unable to accept that the time for his beliefs has long since passed; the age demanded something else, even if the alternative we vote for poses questions whose answers may make us tremble anew. Who can blame McCain? Pessimism is a tenet of conservatism that I accept wholeheartedly.

Dylan again: “Miscalculations can also cause no serious harm.”

So this explains why I remain $600 poorer despite filing my taxes weeks before the deadline. Beware of government agencies bearing gifts.