Movies: Flicks Can Still Be Fun!

TRUE GRIT, directed by Henry Hathaway Paramount

THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE, directed by Ronald Neame. Twentieth Century Fox

Our finest undiscovered social critic is a man known only as “The Rug,”whose theories of pop culture, sexual behavior, and racetrack odds earned him a devoted circle of disciples in Greenwich Village and the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the late 1950s and early 60s. The Rug gave up in despair on New York and modern culture around 1963 (showing himself, as usual, ahead of his time) and is believed to be living in a sylvan hideaway somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, earning a living as a free-lance scientific consultant to the Space Industry, and attempting on the side (with considerable progress, it is rumored) to restructure Einstein’s theory according to the ancient wisdom of the Tarot.

I owe a great deal to The Rug, for it was he who taught me that it wasn’t really necessary to suffer through all the “meaningful" boring movies like The Apu Trilogy, the grimmer Bergmans, and the Italian desolation school. The Rug explained that I could work out my cultural guilt in other ways, and that even the bright, good-looking girls didn’t really like to sit through those pretentious, monotonous “art” movies, but felt they had to pretend to like them. The Rug had considerable contempt for those who were conned into boring themselves silly in the name of “art,” and firmly believed that with the right buildup any movie at all could be accepted as fashionable by those who followed the fashions. His pet theory was that if you took all the old Doris Day movies, dubbed them in Italian, put misleading English subtitles on them, and showed them in the art houses, they would be acclaimed as Great Cinema by most graduates of Vassar and subscribers to The Village Voice.

The Rug held to the iconoclastic theory (iconoclastic anyway in New York intellectual circles) that movies should be fun, that their purpose was to entertain you, and that the worst sin any movie could commit was to bore the audience. I was converted to the broad principles of this theory, which leaves me wide open to charges of philistinism, but I want to make clear that I am not against experimental or any other category of movies per se, if they can manage to entertain. I have no isolationist bias against foreign movies, even ones that are shown in art houses, provided they are understandable to most sane adults. I think Truffaut is the greatest director going, much more exciting than his idol Mr. Hitchcock, and I thoroughly agree with the sentiment of a lady friend in New York who some years ago was inspired to compose on the spot the following verse after seeing Shoot the Piano Player on a double bill with Jules and Jim:

Antonioni may come;
Federico Fellini may go;
But I’m in love with you,
François Truffaut.

Me too.

What has come to bother me even more than the lack of entertainment in many movies with artistic and intellectual ambitions or pretensions is the lack of entertainment in so many movies whose sole purpose is entertainment. Most of those Jack Lemmon swinging single comedies, the re-re-done Westerns, the Walt Disney “for all the family” bombs, the historical epics that try to cover up their vacuity with splashy color and gaudy costumes, the Sidney Poitier message movies (if only he’d come to dinner once half stoned and spill the soup so we’d know he was human!) are all as deadly boring as the swampiest, dimmest-lit Bergman introspection special. (I honestly got depressed once last year just standing outside one of those Bergman heavies waiting for a friend to come out. The door opened a couple of times as sad-eyed viewers tiptoed out, as if from church, and the grim tone of the film seemed to escape into the lobby like a gas.)

I suspect that the trouble with a lot of these boring “entertainment” movies is the same basic trouble with a lot of the mass magazine stories and articles—that they are commissioned and conceived and edited by editors in New York (or in the case of movies, producers in Hollywood) who believe that the great American audience out there (out there being anywhere beyond their own cocktail circuit) is a vast kindergarten for morons. What often happens is that the writers commissioned by the editors or producers are trying not to please themselves but the paplike standards of the editors and producers. They are writing stuff they know is junk, and the actors must then spout lines they know are junk in situations they know are silly. No one has any fun “writing down” or playing down, neither the writers and performers nor the audience they’re supposed to be entertaining.

In watching some of the comedies and thrillers of the 1930s on the TV late-late-late shows, it has often struck me that the people who wrote the best of those movies must have been having a ball, and that the actors like Bogart and Cagney and Edward G. Robinson were having a ball delivering the lines. Whoever wrote some of the good scripts of that era just had to be having fun. I think offhand of lines like those of Bogart in To Have and Have Not when he is watching another man hold Lauren Bacall after she has fainted, and continues holding her until Bogey asks the guy, “What’re ya tryin’ to do—guess her weight?” Or of Robinson playing a crude, retired gangster who wants to break into upper-crust society, sauntering over to the table of a snobbish dame in a high-class resort and asking her, as he chews on a fat cigar, “Why don’t we go up to my room, and have a couple laughs?” Or James Cagney having just gunned down a whole roomful of villains, standing with the gun still smoking as the cops break in and ask him what’s going on, and he answers, “What’s it look like, charades?”

You have to figure someone got a kick out of writing that stuff, the actors got a kick out of delivering it, and in turn the audience gets a kick out of seeing and hearing it.

I don’t just mean that comedy oneliners make good entertainment, but that any plot and dialogue that someone could enjoy writing and acting is likely to produce enjoyment for the audience. It is this sense of enjoyment on everyone’s part that seems to me so rare now, which makes me especially elated to have seen two new movies that do have this quality, and that I thoroughly enjoyed seeing.

These movies have nothing else in common except that I liked them, and that both were adapted from novels, which God knows is no guarantee of anything in itself. As a matter of fact, one of the movies was based on a novel that I found disappointing when I read it—True Grit, by Charles Portis. The movie made from it, however, happily brings the story to overflowing life with a great bellow of vitality, humor, color, and unabashed sentiment. Before this movie I had pretty much given up on newly ground-out Westerns that seemed to be written from rote by shuffling old plot cards around, and played in a kind of memory-trance by men who had been bored with this sort of thing for a couple of decades. I had never been a John Wayne fan, and it seemed to me his most convincing performance in recent years had been a political radio spot in Los Angeles last spring endorsing Sam Yorty for mayor in order to maintain law and order and, if you can believe it, to “keep Los Angeles like it is,”I had seen a couple of his recent Westerns by accident on coast-to-coast plane rides, and even in that captive situation I had after a while switched the earphones to music and simply watched the screen for sensory flight-diversion.

I have still not been converted to the Life magazine view that Wayne with his role in True Grit has become a heroic embodiment of all the ancient virtues (as contrasted, in the Life-styled scenario, with the decadent sophistication of Dustin Hoffman as a symbol of what the magazine, in its current go-get-em Law and Order phase, delicately describes as “Broadway Grime”) . I am convinced, though, that whether or not John Wayne ever joins the A.C.L.U., he is a hell of a good actor who obviously took great relish in the Opportunity to play a meaty role that was no just John Wayne in a new cowboy suit. In True Grit he plays Rooster Cogburn, a cranky, boozeswilling, grubby old gunman going to fat and to seed, but with his pride and cunning and humor still intact.

Cogburn is a federal marshal who is hired by fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) on a sort of freelance assignment to avenge her father’s murder by bringing to justice (by which she means the gallows, by God) a blackguard known as Tom Chaney. Mattie and Rooster are joined in the search for the bad guy by a young Texas Ranger (Glen Campbell) who is named Le Boeuf and pronounces it “La Beef.” He wants to bring the murderer back to Texas to hang for the killing of a local senator. The state is offering a $500 reward, and when Wayne notes that’s a pretty small sum for a man who killed a senator, La Beef explains, “He was a small senator.”

The unwieldy trio of chasers sets forth on thundering horseback in pursuit of the villain, encountering along the way other villains, such as Ned Pepper and his gang, all kinds of Perilous-Pauline situations, classic gunfights, and impossible triumphs over impossible odds.

It is the most entertaining and funniest Western 1 have seen since The Oklahoma Kid, which I catch whenever I can on the late-late-late show (it is worth waking up for, with a cast that includes Cagney as “The Kid,” Humphrey Bogart as “Whip McCord,” and Anthony Quinn as “Injun Joe”) . When Wayne, after drinking in the saddle all day, ingloriously slips from his horse onto the ground, holding his bottle up so as not to spill anything, he announces, “We’ll camp right here.” In a nostalgic and touchingly sentimental scene with Kim Darby he talks about his past and tells how his wife left him to return to her first husband, a hardware store owner. and Wayne recalls telling her, “I hope you’ll be happy this time with that nail-sellin’ bastard.” When he faces four bad-guy gunmen alone and their leader taunts that he is too old and fat to take them on, Wayne draws his guns, yells, “Fill your hand, you sonofabitch,”puts the reins of the horse in his teeth, and rides after the villains with both guns blazing.

I notice a lot of the reviews have put down Kim Darby, on grounds that she is too big or too old to be the fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross, but I think site’s great. She is gutsy and bullheaded and walks with an awkward big stride that is as endearing as it is clumsy, and she is just nubile and feminine enough under all her wraps and big hats to make it understandable that old Rooster and young La Beef are both infatuated with her and vying with each other for her attention and respect. This “triangle" aspect is part of the charm of the story but has rarely been mentioned, perhaps for fear of a “dirty old man” charge, which is too bad, because the affection for the girl is genuine and beautiful and I fell in love with her too, and if that makes me a dirty old man I am happy to confess it.

There isn’t a horse or a gun or a trace of the Old West in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which is set in a stuffy girls’ school in the Edinburgh of the late 1930s, but it shares with True Grit a sense that the writers and actors and directors were enjoying what they were duing, that they liked and respected the story, and brought to it the passion of their craft. It of course is based on the novel by Muriel Spark, which is one of those few books that seemed to me not “great" but “perfect,” in the sense that every word and comma and question mark seemed inevitable, every nuance of speech, every slant of light, every tilt of a hat seemed exactly right. The movie miraculously does the same thing with the story, hitting all the notes just right, showing every move and mood in a way that convinces you that’s the way it should be.

Maggie Smith is the slightly mad and maddening Miss Brodie, caught in the awful tug between “progressivism” and spinsterism, devoting “the prime” of her life to her young girl students, attempting to shape their budding lives in her own image, even trying to promote one into the bed of the painter-art teacher whom site spent one night with and then fled from.

Her favorites at school are known as “The Brodie Set,” and in the film they grow from awkward, undiscriminating acolytes to a kind of poise and independence from their overbearing teacher, and even in one case to a betrayal of her that leads to her downfall. Miss Brodie, in turn, indirectly brings about the meaningless death of one of her more gullible girls, as she studs her favorites with a contradictory, romantic, feminist, Fascist, naïve concoction of politics, art, music, buttered buns, and soupy sentimentalism. Miss Smith makes Miss Brodie brave and petty and expansive and foolish and finally stripped and almost unbearably sad, unable to understand who she is or what she has done, and broken by it.

The whole cast is fine, and the movie is a marvel of dramatic pacing and direction. It mixes high comedy with real grief, making those lives believable and meaningful and worth knowing about.

In the very end of True Grit, John Wayne bids good-bye to Kim Darby with a wave of the hat and a leap of his horse over a high wooden fence, and says to her, “Come see a fat old man some time.” I urge that you do, and that you also go see that mixed-up, middle-aged spinster, Miss Brodie. I plan to go see both of them again.