Talking Movies

April 30, 2018

On Urbanity

Prefacing my attack on Legion last month I noted decorum was important, and that urbanity was important as a stylistic and aesthetic goal, and noted one could stretch to call it an ethical goal too.

What then is urbanity? When I was writing for the University Observer I used to think our house style was aiming for the droll elegance of the New Yorker.  I’m not sure anybody else did. I’m not sure I would even have been able to pin down where I got that notion of the New Yorker from, possibly a refracted Dorothy Parker vibe from the Gilmore Girls. Having recently, deliriously enjoyed James Thurber’s The Years with Ross I think that I wasn’t far off in my peculiar sense of the magazine’s house style. Although it may have been just Thurber himself rather than the New Yorker writers en masse in possession of that style. Certainly the current New Yorker writers are en masse in possession of a house style, and the deployment of it by Gladwell, Gopnik & Co can be maddening in its repetition.

The New Yorker film reviews these days mostly overshoot urbanity and instead sound jaded, and snobbish. Richard Brody’s review of Ready Player One is a recent particular lowlight. Brody seems to have the shakiest of grasps on the commercial realities of movie-making, and indeed how movies are remembered by non-critics. His notion that a blockbuster themed around 1980s nostalgia should chuck The Shining for Jim Jarmusch’s oeuvre is tragicomic; once you stop laughing in astonishment, you realise he’s serious, and then need to lie down. But how should one write film reviews? I went from writing a movie column for the University Observer titled ‘Fergal’s Guide to Misanthropy’ to reviewing for InDublin. In thrall at the time to Hunter S Thompson I wrote reviews in a style that I would now never countenance. Hunter S Thompson is a great stylist, but he is not urbane.

It doesn’t matter that Hunter S Thompson is not urbane, because he is Hunter S Thompson. But it matters a great deal when people who are not Hunter S Thompson are neither urbane nor Thompsonian despite their best efforts. And those best efforts usually betray fierce labour as they attempt to do the Gonzo style without being the man who was Gonzo. As I wrote more and more film reviews for InDublin I began to appreciate that reinventing the wheel with snark and wildness each time was not sustainable. So, as I have recounted before, I turned to an earlier mentor, Michael Dwyer. I pored over his 300 review in an effort to understand how it worked, and especially how he could write so many reviews with such apparent ease; given their clarity and simplicity. I adopted my interpretation of his technique as my model.

Initially though the interpolated technique was all structural. It was only over time and ever more reviews for Dublinks.com and Talking Movies that the mature style revealed itself; borrowing a structure from Michael Dwyer had seamlessly led to an Augustan style. Films were reviewed without hyperbole over their strengths or hysteria over their weaknesses. As a result they could be reviewed with astonishing speed; my review of Prometheus took 26 minutes from first keystroke to published post. It wasn’t vitriolic, like so many reviews, it maintained an even keel. But it had taken 5 years to get to the point where that review could be penned in 26 minutes. What one looks for in urbanity is the appearance of effortlessness concealing much effort; the sprezzatura of Castiglione so promulgated by WB Yeats as the ideal of lyric poetry. Which brings us back to James Thurber…

Thurber’s droll story ‘The Bear Who Let It Alone’ concerns a bear that gets too fond of honey mead at the local bar:

He would reel home at night, kick over the umbrella stand, knock down the bridge lamps, and ram his elbows through the windows. Then he would collapse on the floor and lie there until he went to sleep. His wife was greatly distressed and his children were very frightened.

But our hero sees the error of his ways. He becomes a teetotaller, and a physical fitness freak, and boastful of how the two are connected:

To demonstrate this, he would stand on his head and on his hands and he would turn cartwheels in the house, kicking over the umbrella stand, knocking down the bridge lamps, and ramming his elbows through the windows. Then he would lie down on the floor, tired by his healthful exercise, and go to sleep. His wife was greatly distressed and his children were very frightened.

The simplicity of the gag makes you feel like you always knew it just after you first read it, and of course belies what must have been careful paring and paring by Thurber to get it just right. That is the key. It appears effortless; elegant, graceful, simple; and it took much effort to make it appear so. Thurber was in a contract with himself as much as the reader not to let go of the piece until he’d finely chiselled it to perfection and then polished it to remove all trace of the chisel marks. And it’s that determination to do oneself and others justice that I argue can move urbanity from aesthetics to ethics. To write urbanely is to do more, to be beneficent.

PG Wodehouse once wrote “The man who can go into a patch of rough alone, with the knowledge that only God is watching him, and play his ball where it lies, is the man who will serve you faithfully and well”. One might advance a similar notion when it comes to urbanity. Consider Mark Zuckerberg’s painfully laboured non-apology apology for the Cambridge Analytica flap:

“I’ve been working to understand exactly what happened and how to make sure this doesn’t happen again. The good news is that the most important actions to prevent this from happening again today we have already taken years ago. But we also made mistakes, there’s more to do, and we need to step up and do it”

A billionaire, surrounded by expensive lawyers and media consultants, who can take five days (which I like to imagine were spent brainstorming on a luxury houseboat moored in the dead centre of Lake Tahoe), to write and/or approve something as inelegant as that italicised sentence… Well, I opine, in identical manner to the man who cheats at golf, a man capable of writing like that is capable of anything.

John McGahern is the endpoint of the notion of urbanity as an ethical goal. His description of fictional Leitrim farmer (and, as Graham Price persuasively has it, dandy) Jamesie sitting in Ruttledge’s passenger seat on their way to the market I have characterised in my Irish University Review article ‘Competing Philosophies in That They May Face the Rising Sun’ as a Stoic benediction: “He praised where he could, but most people were allowed their space without praise or blame in a gesture of hands that assigned his life and theirs to their own parts in this inexhaustible journey”. That may be the ideal of urbanity I wish for in journalism. How it got muddled together with Thurber’s New Yorker drollness in my head is a puzzler, but there it is. Socrates said that nobody would willingly commit evil. An evil-doer is in possession of imperfect information. Nobody sets out to write badly, paint badly, compose badly, or to direct a bad film. In reviewing one should try to nudge where possible, and always offer solutions when identifying problems. One should only eviscerate if something is positively harmful, and even then try to do it with a light touch. A bad review done with urbanity is a judo flip. Identify what is obnoxious, and, if possible; and it is surprisingly often possible; see how the work can be read against itself, so that it is condemned out of its own mouth.

June 20, 2012

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter 3-D

Wanted director Timur Bekmambetov returns to the fray with Tim Burton producing an adaptation of his Dark Shadows cohort Seth Grahame-Smith’s best-selling novel.

In 1818 the 9 year old Abraham Lincoln tries to stop the whipping of his friend Will Johnson as Will’s family is sundered by slavers led by the evil Jack Barts (LOTR actor Marton Csokas), incurring the wrath of Barts who kills Abe’s mother Nancy. The adult Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) attacks Barts only to discover, in a neat long-take, that shooting him in the head isn’t enough… Lincoln is instructed in the art of slaying by Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), and in 1837 is dispatched to Springfield, Illinois, to rid the city of vampires. He is distracted from his vengeance by meeting Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and, when Will (Anthony Mackie) returns, Lincoln and his employer Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson) enter politics to defeat slavery and the Southern vampires, led by Rufus Sewell’s Adam, who depend upon its continuation.

Far from the gleeful nonsense you’d expect, this film takes itself very, very seriously. The vampires are CGI enhanced ‘fangs like sharks’ monsters (think Supernatural) and played for horror as they walk in sunlight and can become invisible. Lincoln narrates that Henry has a few weeks to teach him a lifetime of skills. The same could be said of the jump-cutting script: Sturgess trains Lincoln in a Batman Begins vein before either character has been properly established. This film amazingly is both dragged out (its 105 minutes feel like 135) and rushed – at the same time. It lashes thru training, slaying, politics, and civil war, with infuriating gaps in detail, empathy and logic. Speed seems to know Abe’s secret before he’s told, Sturgess’ secret is obvious from the opening scene, Barts is seemingly killed, and Harriet Tubman appears but nobody mentions it…

There are precious few gags, and only the broadest one works: “We’ll be late for the theatre.” Alan Tudyk is tragically underused as Senator Stephen Douglas, Lincoln’s bête noire, here a romantic rival who becomes a political opponent, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead has her customary ‘MEW kicks ass’ moment, but the set-piece finale on a train exemplifies the film; just a bit stupid rather than OTT fun. Sewell enjoys himself and model Erin Wasson is a striking presence as his sister Vadoma but, like Walker (and indeed everyone bar Cooper who has the most interesting role), they have acres of screen-time and nothing interesting to do. Having read Adam Gopnik’s book which highlights the comic absurdity of Lincoln condemning the Southern code of vengeance and then duelling for Mary’s honour I have to say the real Lincoln is infinitely more complex, compelling, and yes, entertaining a character.

This film takes the most enjoyably absurd high concept imaginable, but instead of being delirious mayhem somehow ends up being just dull.

2/5

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