Sunday, March 28, 2021

Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey (2014).

Sometimes it can be tough to talk about certain subjects.  There are tons of reasons why that should be the case, and often a lot of it can be explained by the presence of a simple phrase such as controversy.  It's a word that at least one of the two subjects under discussion here was well acquainted with.  However, that's not the real reason for the difficulty, at least not in my case.  In that sense, I  guess you could say I've got off easy.  My problem just has to do with how do you discuss an artist whose work has gone on to be a major impact on your life?  We're talking here about one of those guys whose work is like a bomb going off in your mind.  It's the sort of quality that is able blow doors off in your thinking that you probably didn't even know were there until someone showed enough mercy to point them out to you.  That's sort of the favor Mark Twain did for me.  Yeah, I know, the guy who got forced inside your skull way back in high-school?  That stuff was old long before things like 8-track cassettes and corded telephones were consigned to the technical scrap heap of history.  

Well, credit where it's due.  You got one part of the equation right, at least.  Twain really is what you might call one of the Great Old Ones.  Often the first and last anyone ever hears of him is in the hallowed halls of classroom puberty, where a lot of other important stuff was going on, regardless of whatever the teacher was talking about.  Besides, everyone knows high school English is the kiss of death to any subject that gets brought up in such domains.  I was one of the lucky few, in that sense.  I never ran across the old geezer in a classroom.  I had to find out about him on my own, and even then, it's not as if I went out looking for him.  It was a lot more like bumping into an accidental stranger with a unique gift for the gab, and a genuine sense of wit to match.  In retrospect, it also kind of helped that the first time I ever saw him was on TV, long before I even knew what a classroom was. 

I didn't see the man himself, that sort of came later.  Instead it was an adaptation of one of his novels.  What makes it stick out in my memory after all these years is the way it all got started.  Imagine, if you will, the image of a young tow-headed kid and an African-American slave in a dark room, lit only by the combined, flickering specks of gold, red, and yellow cast off from a single kerosene lamp.  The boy is dressed in brown overalls.  The man was wearing blue railroad suspenders, as I recall, with a red and white checkered work shirt.  Both the man and boy were leaning in to get a look at a dead body draped across a chair in the dark.  They edged closer, step by step, until the grisly scene was brought in full up to the light.  As long as I live, I'm sure I'll never forget the sick looking, wide-eyed, rictus grin of the corpse as it glared up at the viewer from the unblinking gaze of the screen.  

The older man told the boy not to look.  Though to be fair, it was kind of like trying to shut the barn door long after the livestock had vacated the premise, isn't it?  Once seen, can't be unseen.  To sort of sweeten the deal, that has to be the first time I ever saw a corpse in a work of art.  This was before I even had a chance to be introduced to the concept of mortality.  Yeah, now how's that for first introductions?  Some of you still reading this are probably craning your necks to see the pile up damage by the side of the road.  If pressed, some might be willing to fess up that it's just their nature.  They might also ask where did that little freak show come from?  That, ladies and gentlemen, came straight the pen of a man who never existed.  His real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens.  You read his moniker and then quickly forget all about it, even if it is sort of convoluted and colorful.  Nobody ever remembers guys like him.  What no one has been able to do is erase the pseudonym that made him famous out of historical memory.  Everyone remembers the name of Mark Twain.

I suppose you could call him something in the  way of being a natural storyteller.  It's true enough to start with, anyway.  It's also kind of like saying Ray Charles knew how to play the piano.  The description is so basic it doesn't even begin to do the subject justice.  That's something Hal Holbrook seems to have understood in time.  For whatever reason, it would turn out to be one single Hollywood actor that would be responsible for helping to keep the memory of Twain alive.  Hal Holbrook is a name that might still be somewhere on the tip of the tongue these days.  If that's the case, then it's probably because he did a decent enough job of carving both his name and efforts into something approaching immortality.  The basic rule of thumb here appear to be, if you can accomplish something like that, then you might have a chance of sticking around even in something as fickle as memory.  It is just possible Holbrook was able to make that kind of grade.  If he's known for anything at all today, then it has to be for his efforts in the Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford vehicle, All the President's Men.  

In that film, Holbrook was tasked with bringing a real life, flesh and blood human being onto the screen.  This person's name was Mark Felt.  It's another moniker that goes in one ear and out the other.  The difference is this time it could be something of a mistake.  In real life, Felt was more popularly known as Deep Throat, the inside source who helped Woodward and Bernstein bring Richard Nixon to justice.  His role in the film, as in history, is relegated to that of a background figure.  This gives Holbrook a very limited amount of screen time.  However the actor never wastes a single moment that he's on camera.  As embodied in Holbrook's performance, Felt is shown as a man of the shadows, both paranoid, mistrustful, and maybe even just a little bit world-weary and regretful.  While not the biggest part in the film, whenever I think back on it, it's always that first introductory image of Holbrook, his face veiled in the blue sodium of parking lot lamps and constant trails of cigarette smoke that occurs to me the most, along with a handful of others.  Such is the role assigned to him by immortality.  Either that or else it's just the picture of him that's easiest for most of us to remember.

The one thing everybody seems to forget is what joined Holbrook and Twain almost at the hip.  Every so often, Holbrook would walk onto a theater stage located almost anywhere in the United States, and assume the role of a chain smoking writer from Missouri, who one day coughed up a book known as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  This is the subject at the heart of director Scott Teems' 2014 documentary, Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey.  "The idea for the documentary came from Dixie Carter, Holbrook's wife...Mark Twain Tonight! was the longest-running one-man performance in theatre history. Hal Holbrook performed the show from 1954 to 2017 when he announced his retirement.[5] Director Scott Teems, who had worked with Holbrook and Dixie Carter on That Evening Sun, interviewed Holbrook, family members, fellow actors, and Twain scholars to go behind the scenes to reveal the challenges and rewards of life on the road (web)".  Apparently Holbrook and his family felt that the topic was important enough to be worth setting down on record.  All that remains to ask is whether or not the two subjects at the heart of the documentary have anything worth saying.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael

The art of criticism doesn't exist in a vacuum.  It doesn't just appear out of thin air.  Like every other facet of human life, an opinion about a work of make-believe is one of those things that everyone just takes for granted.  This makes it no real big surprise to discover just how difficult it is to figure out where it all got started.  Critics of books and films these days are a dime a dozen, none of us will probably ever know who was the first human being to speak up and voice an opinion about a story they just heard.  I don't suppose I mind that all too much.  It's just that I like to know where stuff comes from.  I'm one of those types who tend to believe there's a great deal of value to be had in tracing down the origins of things.  It just might, with any luck, tell us a lot about why humans do a lot of the things we take so much for granted.

I think storytelling and its criticism can be one of those endeavors where, the more you know of its histories, and turns of thought, the more rewards you might be able to get from being able to understand how it all got started.  There may even be some who argue that the best part is that it's an ongoing task, one that can never be completed in a single lifetime.  Another value to be had in studying the history of arts criticism is that it can help you gain a better familiarity with a lot of the figures associated with it.  Just a brief glance at the history itself can offer a list of all the important pioneers and trailblazers who have helped shape the very nature of the critical format and the various discussions that have continued on throughout the years.  I think this is a task that some enterprising souls will have to undertake sooner or later, as learning not just about artistic criticism, but also the names who made it possible, is probably going to wind up being a pretty big part of keeping the the practice afloat.  This can also play a big role in keeping the Arts, in and of themselves, alive as a going concern.  This is the kind of task that presents no small challenge to any who would take it up.  It is also one that can be worthwhile.

There are a lot of names out there who are vital to the history and discourse of artistic analysis, and most of them have never been household names.  A lot of this has to do with living in a culture that values brand recognition.  Some of the later toilers in this trade actually have been able to gain a kind of popular familiarity for themselves.  For instance, what's the first name that comes to mind if I use the phrase "Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down"?  The answer should be easy enough for most reading this.  It's Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, of course.  Everybody knows those guys.  Ebert's old news columns for the Chicago Sun Times are still poured over, dissected, and examined by a constant streams of fans old and new.  This is a fact I can vouch for personally.  He's one of those writers whose skill at criticizing a work of art is so well done, that even if you don't always agree with his final verdict, you can at least understand the logic that is guiding all of his statements most of the time.  That takes talent, as well as good analytical skills, no matter how your slice it.  It's just part of what makes him so fondly remembered long after he has left the stage.

Almost anyone who is anybody knows about Roger Ebert.  I'm not so sure just how many people out there have ever heard of Pauline Kael.  At the same time, that's not much of a surprise, though it may scandalize the few out there who are willing to keep her memory alive.  It's what happens to famous names that fall through the cracks of history.  Like the phenomenon of love at first sight, I'm very sure it's the sort of thing that happens not just all the time, but pretty much every day with each tick of the clock.  The natural enough result of this process is always best defined as "The Unexpected".  The sole reason for calling it that rests in the fact that it seems more or less impossible to expect a new mind to know old facts, even if they should turn out to be vital.  Because of this, history always seems to be catching us unawares, and the resulting fallout leaves us scrambling as our minds try to catch up with a lot of unknown information.  Looked at that way, Kael's life and writings are just one more strand of information that life may or might not force us to try and catch up with.  So who was she, anyway?

Part of the answer can be found in the introduction to the Library of America volume of her collected writings, edited by Sanford Schwartz.  In his introduction to the collection, Schwartz lays out her work in somewhat hagiographical terms.

"(Perhaps) more deeply than any other writer, Kael gave shape to an idea of an "age of movies."  In a career that began in the mid-1950s and was fully underway by the early 1960s, she explored movies as an art, an industry, and a sociological phenomenon.  A romantic and a visionary, she believed that movies could feed our imaginations in intimate and immediate - and liberating, even subversive - ways that literature and plays and other arts could not.  But she also understood the financial realities and artistic compromises behind moviemaking, and she described them with a specificity and pertinacity that few other critics did.  As concerned with audience reactions as with her own, she could be caught up in how movies stoke our fantasies regardless of their quality as movies.

"She was also, as she wrote, "lucky" in her timing.  Her tenure as a regularly reviewing critic coincided with the modern flowering of movies, the period, primarily the 1960s (for foreign films) and the 1970s (for American films), when moviemakers were working more than ever with the autonomy associated with poets, novelists, and painters.  While hardly always laudatory (and to some readers plain wrongheaded), she nonetheless, in the earlier decade, gave a breathing, textured life to the aims and sensibilities of Ingmar Bergman, Jean-Luc Godard, Federico Fellini, Satyajit Ray, Akira Kurosawa, Francois Truffaut, and Michelangelo Antonioni, among other European and Asian directors; and she endowed Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Paul Mazursky, Brian De Palma, and Francis Ford Coppola, among American directors of the following decade, with the same full-bodied presence.

"Kael's grasp of film history was encyclopedic.  She had seen silent films as a child, in the 1920s, sometimes taking them in on her parents' laps.  Speaking for her generation, she could thus write of motion picture that "We were in almost at the beginning, when something new was added to human experience"; and in her full-length reviews and essays (put together over the years in eleven volumes), and her short notices on films (collected in the mammoth 5001 Nights at the Movies), she encompassed much of that "something new (xi-xii)".     

The above paragraph may serve as a decent illustration of the kind of effect she could have (or at least used to) on some of her readers.  What's the net result then?  What does the critic herself have to show for her efforts?  The answer, as far as I can tell, goes as follows: "Who the hell is Pauline Kael".  If such a response comes as a surprise to some, then it kind of begs a further question.  What else did you expect?  Half the problem, as I  see it, is that a lot of older critics out there have either been too neglectful in their jobs in preserving the reputation of film in the 21st century, or else they just never could manage to make their voices heard.  Part of it I think is down to the way they framed their criticism.  It has to be written in a way that gives the reader a reason to care about the artwork under discussion.  If you can't do that, then the sports section is always just one turn of the page away.  It really is that simple, at least as far as the average reader is concerned anyway.  

However, does the fact that Kael and her writings barely register as a blip on the radar at this late stage mean that a valuable, maybe even an essential critical voice has been left behind?  There are some who would say so.  That's definitely what filmmakers like Robert Garver believe.  This particular filmmaker was such a devotee, in fact, that he took it upon himself to to create and build up an entire documentary around Kael and her writings on and for the screen.  It was completed in 2019, and it got a lot of good press before sinking into the soup of online content.  Garver dedicated his efforts to spending a whole hour and thirty eight minutes to rescuing this one film critic from the potential of vanishing into obscurity.  The question that remains is whether all this toil was worth it, or were his efforts in vain?