A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Anyone Have a Can Opener?

I watched most of Tin Man on the SciFi channel tonight, and haven't made up my mind about it yet. The Oz books were what I had as a kid instead of Harry Potter, so I have an abiding affection for them. And I think what Tin Man captures is the strange, dark weirdness of Oz, which in the books was not at all the pretty plastic Technicolor place that MGM made of it. To my mind, the best film version of Oz was Walter Murch's 1985 flop Return to Oz, which was much too dark for the critics, who panned it, or the kiddies, who stayed away from it. It's a brilliant movie, as you might have expected from someone as enormously talented as Murch, a legendary sound man and film editor. It's his only outing as a director, which is sad.

Tin Man is a bit like Return to Oz crossed with Blade Runner, with touches of the Lord of the Rings and (in Neal McDonough's character) Indiana Jones movies. I missed about half an hour of exposition -- mostly about McDonough and the whatever-it-is that's the equivalent of the Cowardly Lion. Still, I have to wonder why so much effort has been put into creating a fantasy story so closely paralleling The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Why not just film one of the previously unfilmed Oz books? When James Joyce retold the story of the Odyssey in turn-of-the-century Dublin, it made perfect mock-heroic sense. But Tin Man takes a story set in one fantasy world and translates it into another fantasy world. Why?

The Critic at Leisure

The thing about this book-reviewing gig is that you don't get to read for pleasure -- I mean, to read books you don't have to write about -- a lot. But December is a slow month where new books are concerned, so I found myself with a couple of weeks when I didn't have review copies stacked up waiting to be processed. I kept telling myself that I'd check out some new fiction, like Richard Russo's Bridge of Sighs, or the new books by Richard Ford, Cormac McCarthy, Orhan Pamuk, Jennifer Egan, Claire Messud and Ward Just that got published this year. But no. I went straight for the books about stuff I really love to read about: movies and language.

Jeanine Basinger's The Star Machine (Knopf, $35) is a delicious popcorn book. No, that's not fair -- it has more substance than that. Basinger is a wonderful film historian who has written entertainingly about Hollywood's portrayal of woman and about silent movies. (My Washington Post review of her Silent Stars is blurbed on the jacket of The Star Machine -- a little embarrassingly, because the blurb is syntactically askew and calls Turner Classic Movies "Turner Movie Classics." I'll have to check if I really did that in the review.)

The Star Machine is about how Hollywood in the studio era discovered, created, and maintained stars. It's full of case studies, but none of them is of the really big stars like Bogart or Hepburn or Gable or Garbo. She writes entertainingly and informatively about stars like Tyrone Power, Lana Turner, Deanna Durbin, Jean Arthur, Errol Flynn, Loretta Young, Irene Dunne, Norma Shearer, Charles Boyer and William Powell. Legends in their own time, but in ours not so much. It's a spur to more thought about what constitutes stardom in our own time. Would George Clooney or Johnny Depp, Nicole Kidman or Angelina Jolie have been stars in the studio era?

Michael Erard's Um: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean (Pantheon, $24.95) takes on the curious study of what language gaffes -- the kind we make when we're talking, not when we're writing -- reveal about the nature of language. It's not about the "Freudian slip," though Erard deals with that famously reductive theory of our verbal goofs, but about how false starts, awkward pauses, spoonerisms and tongue-tanglers show the mind and the language interacting. After reading it, I became aware of how daily discourse, even that of professionals like TV interviewers, is full of discontinuities and rephrasings. Erard writes nicely, though he hasn't entirely shaken off the academic voice -- it sounds a little like a popularized version of a Ph.D. thesis.