Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith


  A little later there is the sentimental neorealist ending: Maddalena nobly refuses the contract that is eventually offered to Maria (“I didn’t bring her into this world to amuse anyone. To her father and me she’s beautiful!”), an impossibility given her situation and the money involved. It would be pleasant to give oneself fully to this conclusion, and to the marital, erotic frisson that seems to spring up between Spartaco and Maddalena in the final frames, but a dusting of political idealism covers it. For he does not blame her and she needn’t explain herself, and as the moneymen go off with their tails between their legs, these two Romans collapse on the bed together (“This crazy wife of mine,” murmurs Spartaco as his hand reaches out, not to hit her this time, but to caress her) and hold on to each other for dear life. The vitality and mystery of a working-class marriage (hearing the voice of Burt Lancaster through the window, Maddalena, forgetting her worries for a moment, murmurs: “How simpatico he is!” Spartaco: “Now Maddalena, you really deserve a slap!” Maddalena: “What? Can’t I joke now?”) is not natural territory for Visconti, and the implied Marxist sentiment (They have nothing! But they need nothing!) is too smoothly sold.

  Really the movie ends fifteen minutes earlier. Here where Maddalena covers her child’s eyes with a palm like a priest over the face of a dead man. Lowering Maria down to floor, she removes her entirely from view, out of that little chink of reflected illumination cast in this dark room by the light of the screen. There is still the power of refusal. There is still the possibility of removing the looked-at-thing from the gaze of those who care for nothing but its surface. Today? Tomorrow? Never! But Magnani’s own face stays where it is, oppressively close to us and to the camera, makeup free, wrinkled, bagged under the eyes, shadowed round the mouth, masculine and feminine in equal parts, a hawk nose splitting it down the middle, a different kind of challenge to the male gaze. How beautiful she is! Then she, too, turns away.

  Twelve

  AT THE MULTIPLEX, 2006

  For a single season I reviewed movies. Each week the section editor gave me a couple of the mainstream releases to choose from. Occasionally, if there was space, I got to squeeze in a second title. No fancy stuff, no art movies, no foreign films and only one documentary. I wish this explained some of the enthusiasms recorded below but I don’t think it does. All I can say in my defense is if you’ve ever seen Date Movie, V for Vendetta starts to look like a masterpiece.

  MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA

  The opening scenes of Rob Marshall’s Memoirs of a Geisha are washed in a gray blue light, the same light that is to be found in Million Dollar Baby, Mystic River and the city shots of Marshall’s own Chicago. Back in the 1970s, Oscar hopefuls had a yellowy glow to their film stock; now the color of Oscar is mineral blue. Serendipitously, this is the exact same shade as the unusual eyes of our hero, young Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo), a nine-year-old Japanese girl from a poor fishing village. Chiyo’s mother is dying. In Japan, all is tumult: it is raining, the sea is crashing, the camera wobbles. A strange man arrives. Chiyo’s father is crying. He weeps for Chiyo and her elder sister, both of whom he has decided to sell to the strange man. He weeps for the 150 pages of the original novel now crowbarred into this four-minute sequence. A panpipe plays its melancholy tune of longing. This pipe was also in Titanic.

  Soon, sooner than anyone could imagine, the girls are dropped off at an okiya, a house of repute (depending on whom you ask) where girls are taught to be geisha. The owners, Mother (Kaori Momoi) and Auntie (Tsai Chin), examine the sisters. One girl has lovely gray blue eyes. She can stay. The other does not. She must go and become a common prostitute on the other side of town. Chiyo, who is to become an uncommon prostitute, is therefore the fortunate one, and is shown her brand-new world by fellow trainee Pumpkin (Zoe Weizenbaum), as they climb up onto the roof and look out across miles of handsome gray blue CGI rooftops. These rooftops were also in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

  In a musical, the form in which Rob Marshall, originally a choreographer, was trained, this would be the moment for a song. But there’s no time: five hundred pages of plot remain. So: downstairs in the okiya lurks the evil Hatsumomo (Gong Li), a violent, imperious, gorgeous young harridan who is here to make Chiyo’s life hell. She teaches our heroine an important lesson: old geisha, like Mother, are Japanese. Young geisha, like Hatsumomo, are Chinese and do not look like geisha but rather like willowy Vivienne Westwood models.

  To escape the wrath of Hatsumomo, Chiyo wanders into the first of many ravishing street scenes, staged with all the indoor artifice of a Vincente Min nelli production. On a bridge, she comes across a dashing man in his forties called Chairman (Ken Watanabe). He is Japanese, as all men are. The nine-year-old Chiyo conceives a passion for Chairman that will outlast the film itself. Why she feels this way is unclear. Perhaps it is because he buys her an ice cone. She is decided: one day she will become a geisha so that she might be bought by the Chairman himself (thus becoming, in the coy terminology, her danna) and they can be together forever.

  Sadly, things are not so easy: being Japanese, it is Chiyo’s fate to be a maid. Only after a number of vicious beatings at the hands of Hatsumomo does Chiyo finally get the message and grow up to be a bewitching Chinese actress (Ziyi Zhang). She is also in Crouching Tiger. Chiyo’s name is changed to Sayuri and she is taken under the wing of a successful geisha from another okiya called Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), who is neither Chinese nor Japanese but rather Malaysian. She is also in Crouching Tiger.

  There has been a hoo-ha in Japan regarding the racial origins of these three geisha, much of which seemed to me a case of oversensitivity, until I found lurking within me the conviction that I, as an Englishwoman, can tell the difference between an Irishman and a Welshman at forty paces. I see how it must be galling, if you are Japanese, to look at three long-faced, high-cheekboned, patently not Japanese women and be told that they are Japanese. Although the Chinese, too, have cause for complaint: Ziyi Zhang, to Western eyes, is only slightly Chinese in the way that Lena Horne was slightly black.

  This is no fault of the actress herself, whose comeliness is as self-evident and insistent as the wafting cherry blossom and the orange lanterns floating on pellucid water, the sumptuous silk of the kimono and the trimmed perfection of the formal gardens—all of which we are repeatedly encouraged to appreciate until you begin to feel that if something ugly does not appear on-screen soon you might go quite out of your mind. Japanese sliding screens neatly reveal the various beauties, opening on one action and closing on another as formally as the red velvet curtains in a musical revue. But inauthenticity of this kind, so well placed in Chicago, is all to naught here. Without songs, without pleasure, without humor, all the artifice in the world goes to waste.

  At times the film suffers from a lack of sufficient artifice: there is more white powder in Dangerous Liaisons than there is here, with each actress apparently following her own personal taste in the matter of geisha stylings. You can imagine the debate on set (“Oh, Rob . . . do we have to . . . ?”). Ziyi Zhang is a good sport-ish; she’ll wear quite a bit of white paint but won’t black her eyebrows; Gong Li will wear a little, but she’s not having her hair in that ludicrous bouffant; Michelle Yeoh eschews the entire conceit and goes about in much the same makeup she wore for The World is Not Enough. Yet the merest Google search reveals that real geisha are square-jawed, ghost-faced, stocky women swathed in shapeless fabric and wearing six-inch clogs. In Geisha only the clogs remain. The kimono is nipped in at the waist and hugs the abdomen, the mad bud lip is gone, the big hair has been made small. Everything that makes geisha truly alien (and alienating) has been removed.

  The plot pushes on: war arrives. The gray blue is back, and so is the wobbly camera. The okiya closes and we find Sayuri reduced to dyeing kimonos in a village far, far away that still does not look like Japan. An old client arrives. He wants to help her recreate the geisha glory days. An American general is in town who wants entertaining. They hatch a plan: “We’ll show the Ameri
cans just how hospitable we can be!” As a battle cry this lacks something, even as a substitute for “We’ll put the show on right here!” But so begins that convention beloved of the movies, especially movie musicals: the comeback. The plot turns one part 42nd Street to three parts Lethal Weapon, except this time the lethal weapon is a kimono. Mameha is dug up; she’s running a guesthouse and wants no part of it. She left all that behind, long ago. She’s given away all her kimonos. All except one . . .

  In the end, it is poor plotting and not cultural inauthenticity that is the true problem here. Authenticity is not everything in cinema. (Who cared about the authenticity of culture and locale in Yentl? In Meet Me in St. Louis?) Memoirs of a Geisha hurts the heart and the brain with its crushing monotony, inert, subhuman dialogue (made more ridiculous by being spoken in English with a faux Japanese accent) and Marshall’s calculated attempt to sell us another Hollywood fairy tale of prostitution. This tale was also in Pretty Woman.

  Marshall manages only one scene that dispenses with the fantasy. Sayuri is welcomed back to the okiya by Mother, having sold her virginity to the highest bidder. “Now you are a geisha!” crows Mother, but her eyes are wet. Sayuri’s gray blue eyes are dead. A noxious tradition continues. It is a beautiful scene. It makes the endless blossom look like scrub.

  SHOPGIRL AND GET RICH OR DIE TRYIN’

  Mirabelle is not your average L.A. girl. She works in the glove department of Saks selling a product that nobody buys anymore. Actually, gloves are Mirabelle’s day job: she is an artist. However, due to a hefty student-loan debt, and a productivity rate of three etchings a year, Mirabelle has had to seek other employment. To her right, the disembodied arm of a mannequin is on display, seeming to reach for somebody who is not there. Mirabelle is lonely. She drives a beat-up truck. She is from Vermont. She has a cat she never sees. She takes antidepressants. She is unassuming, clever, innocent, kind. She would like to be in love. Most important, in Shopgirl, she is played by Claire Danes. Ms. Danes is not your average actress. She has a graceful, natural body. She is in possession of a frankly enormous and unexpected nose, which she has never fixed and for which we thank the Lord. Her elastic face is kind, beautiful and expressive. Danes is to this movie what Mirabelle is to L.A.—a diamond in the rough. The rough first manifests itself in the form of her new lover Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman), a rock groupie loser whom she met in a launderette. His dream—which he has fulfilled—is to stencil logos onto amplifiers. When he can’t find a condom he suggests using a plastic bag. Yet Mirabelle is optimistic about Jeremy, as she is about all things. “Are you one of those people,” she asks, “who, if you get to know them, turns out to be . . . fantastic?” Alas, with Schwartzman, familiarity breeds contempt. He was spectacular in the hipster classic Rushmore, but the emotional autism played for laughs there now reveals itself as a tic of the actor himself: he cannot say a line without mentally enclosing it in quotation marks. Anyway, the end result is the same: we are meant to despair for lovely Mirabelle, and we do. Where is her white knight?

  Nothing can prepare you for what comes next, not even reading the original Steve Martin novel: Ray Porter (Steve Martin himself) walks up to the glove counter and asks Mirabelle for a date. Steve Martin’s face. I can’t explain it. You have to see it. But whatever he has done to it, he does not look one day younger than he is. He has, however, succeeded in leaving himself only one facial expression: smug. No, that’s not fair. He also looks creepy. And yet the creepy, intrusive voice-over (also voiced by Martin) assures us: “Mirabelle sizes him up and no alarm bells ring.” Really? Not even the one that tolls: “He’s forty years older than me”? The voice-over continues: “She doesn’t ask the question foremost in her mind: why me?” Good point. Why would a successful man like Ray Porter wish to date twenty-four-year-old, exquisite, milky-skinned Mirabelle? We are at the mercy of a delusional voice-over.

  This film is not entirely delusional. It is selectively truthful. As far as May-to-December love stories are concerned, Steve Martin has made a quantum leap in male self-awareness. He understands that what happens between Ray and Mirabelle is fundamentally an exchange of services. Ray Porter wants an innocent girl with whom to have a short affair. Mirabelle is vulnerable and depressed, enjoys receiving expensive gifts and is thankful when her student loan is paid off. Jeremy could do none of these things for her. So: older rich man helps young poor girl out of a rut (while sleeping with her) and then mercifully ends the relationship so both parties can go on to date someone who is their true “peer”: a redeemed Jeremy for Mirabelle, and some classy older woman for Ray. In the (very good) novel, Martin’s writing is so sparse and elegant you can almost excuse the concept. But here on film Ray Porter’s unmoving, waxy face is on top of hers, he is running his crepe fingers (one place where Botox will not work) over the perfection of Mirabelle’s backside—it is intolerable.

  So we turn to Jeremy as Mirabelle’s only escape route, but the script has overwhelmingly stacked the odds against him. His lines are moronic, his clothes are foul. He is four or five inches shorter than Mirabelle. His late redemption (he reads a self-help book called How to Love a Woman and buys a white suit) cannot obscure these facts, and as the inappropriate swirling violins crescendo and Ray graciously allows Mirabelle to leave him for her “peer,” too much has already been set against Jeremy. What is styled as a happy ending looks more like the exchange of a rock for a hard place. “How do you turn yourself into a person capable of loving another person?” muses the voice-over, as if this were the universal problem. But it is only Ray’s problem. It is Ray who thinks it appropriate—nay, educational—to use a person for pleasure without giving any piece of yourself apart from your credit card. Mirabelle doesn’t have that problem. Mirabelle loves Ray. She accepts his gifts without guilt or neurosis because she needs them. When Jeremy is redeemed, she loves him. In her last scene she made me cry as she said good-bye to Ray’s inert face and walked away, unsullied by the vanity project that surrounds her. It’s hard to act your way out of so much bad faith, but somehow she manages it. In conclusion, here’s that bad faith in full: (1) Ray Porter tells Mirabelle he is “past fifty.” The actor who plays him was born on the August 14, 1945; (2) Steve Martin’s script sneers at the vanity of fake L.A. girls and their plastic surgery; he is in no position to sneer; (3) The line that precipitates Mirabelle and Ray’s breakup is this: “I’m looking for a three-bedroom place, in case I want to have a serious relationship, have some kids.” Mirabelle dissolves into tears. This is meant to reveal that Ray is not serious about her. The truth is, this film is not serious. Ray Porter does not want a relationship with a peer. His real peer would be too old to have a child. He wants someone young, but not so young as to make him look foolish. Sure enough, at the end of the movie, Ray Porter turns up with a well-preserved woman in her early forties. If he’d turned up with a real peer, then this would not be a self-satisfied little indie drama. It would be a comedy.

  Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson. My brain is giving you one star, but my heart wants to give five. I want you to know that Get Rich or Die Tryin’ is to ghetto movies what Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot was to Mafia movies, and I love, love, love it. I love that there are more naked men in this movie than in Brokeback . I love that you keep getting your fellow gangsters to admit that they love you. Really loudly. In the middle of robberies. I love the Beckettian dialogue: “I’m in it for the money.” “For what?” “Sneakers.” “Anything else?” “A gun.” “What you need that for?” “I don’t know.” I love that you watched GoodFellas and Scarface, like, a million times and decided to ditch all that narrative arc crap and get straight to the point with a minimalist voice-over: “Crack meant money. Money meant power. Power meant war.” I love how your acting style makes Bogart look animated. I love that the boss of your gang is dressed like Brando and is doing the voice from The Godfather. And then there is this: “So that was the crew. Four niggas dedicated to one thing and one thing only: getting paid and getting laid.” Tupac,
you can sleep easy. Richard Pryor, watch out.

  MUNICH

  Steven Spielberg is sometimes condescendingly described as a “family filmmaker,” as if family were not one of the more profound aspects of our experience. His instinct for the family dynamic has offered intimacy to many a big-budget premise—the struggling single mother in E.T., the couple teetering on divorce in Close Encounters, Indiana Jones’s Oedipal struggles. In the 1990s there seemed to come a tipping point: family was no longer a metaphor for the action, it was the action. This became explicit as Spielberg grew ambitious for larger clans—the African slaves of Amistad, the six million Jews memorialized in Schindler’s List, the lost generation of American men in Saving Private Ryan. Depending on whom you talk to, this was either an extension of his emotional reach or a grandiose exercise in cinematic grandstanding.

  I should lay my cards on the table: I think Spielberg is one of the great popular artists of our time, and I base this upon the stupidity/pleasure axis I apply to popular artists: how much pleasure they give versus how stupid one has to become to receive said pleasure. The answer with Spielberg is usually: “not that stupid.” His films bring pleasure where they most engage. Of course, when reviewing Munich, the cards the critic lays down are expected to be of another kind. As it happens, the film itself is neither “pro-Israeli” nor “pro-Palestinian,” but this is precisely why, in the opinion of many American reviewers, it is inherently aggressive toward Israel, under the logic that anything that isn’t pro is, by definition, anti. There is no way out of that intellectual cul-de-sac, which is why Tony Kushner’s and Eric Roth’s script does its best to avoid that road.

 
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