Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith


  The best course of action for Paltrow is to remember her antecedent and follow her example. There is a way out of the princess gig. Grace Kelly cracked it in High Society and Rear Window. Paltrow glimpsed it in Emma, which was, in truth, the role that deserved an Oscar. Keep the vulnerability, but don’t be coy about the self-possession that is so obviously there. He goes down on his knees because you have something of value—and you know it. And if he left, you’d survive. Grace Kelly proved that princesses have power, too.

  GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK AND CASANOVA

  First, a disclaimer. With regard to Good Night, and Good Luck, George Clooney’s strident political docudrama, I find myself in a difficult position. I watched it and liked it. Then I spent two hours on the Internet and changed my mind.

  What remains is still the review I intended, but it is qualified by the obvious fact that liberal films like this are made to please liberals like me. In terms of historical content, the film is neither quite honest nor quite true. That’s a shame, because it’s a good film. I don’t have space to discuss the several disappointing inaccuracies, elisions of fact and deliberate obfuscations. All I can do is direct you to the Internet and to Joseph E. Persico’s 1988 biography Edward R. Murrow: An American Original. What follows, then, is a glowing review of a fine piece of agitprop leftist cinema, which I very much enjoyed in the same spirit a person of the opposite sensibility will enjoy Ann Coulter’s recent celebratory defense of McCarthyism, Treason, not because it is entirely true but because she’s fighting in your corner. Clooney’s fighting in mine, and doing it in style.

  And how. This is a beautifully made, superficially coherent, effective movie, and you have to pinch yourself to believe an actor directed it, wrote it and produced it. The generosity of the ensemble casting, the control of the heavily verbal material, the expert pacing—it is a mature work. Clooney understands that style is what you leave out, and in its taut ninety minutes he leaves out so much of what we have come to expect that Warner refused to fund the film. He left out the color. He left out the subplots. He left out the love interest. He sidelined historical reenactments in favor of the real thing: archive footage.

  What remains is strongly reminiscent of Citizen Kane, not simply for its loquacious, crusading journalists, but because it is both visually luscious and aurally self-sufficient. You could close your eyes and understand everything. But don’t close your eyes. Here in sumptuous black and white is a perfectly recreated Capraesque newsroom. Here are quick-fire conversations à la Pres ton Sturges. The period detail is given a kick in the pants by the witty camera work (borrowed from Soderbergh and the Coen brothers), shooting faces from below, zooming in on a finger worrying a shirt button.

  Clooney himself avoids the camera, slinking through the film as unobtrusively as a star can. In a film that is about editorializing and is itself heavily editorialized, Clooney edits himself out for the sake of the material. Into the Clooney-shaped hole slips an accomplished ensemble cast—Tate Donovan, Reed Diamond, Jeff Daniels, Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson—all of whom back up David Strathairn’s pitch-perfect Murrow impersonation by being entirely convincing newshounds. Well, all but one. I think you know who I’m talking about. Mr. Downey remains the most aggressive scene stealer in Hollywood. He’s barely restrained here, but if someone doesn’t give him free rein soon, there’s a danger of auto-combustion.

  I digress. Like Murrow—the campaigning television broadcaster who squared off against Senator McCarthy in the mid-1950s—Clooney uses the “wires and lights” of his medium to make simple, forceful arguments. His case against McCarthy is familiar and correct: the paranoid fervor of McCarthyism placed the right to fair trial and the rights of the First Amendment under serious threat. Today, these rights are endangered once more. “We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home,” argues Murrow in 1956, foreshadowing our present concerns. Clooney doesn’t have to push hard for analogies like this—they’re everywhere. In fact, they’re a little too easy, and so admiring is he of Murrow that he follows his hero’s editorial style to the letter. (Clooney has always seemed boyishly prone to masculine hero worship, from his consecration of his own newscaster father to the re-creation—both on- and offscreen—of Sinatra’s rat-pack heyday.) Just as Murrow gave McCarthy enough rope to hang himself by allowing him “right to reply” on Murrow’s own prime-time show, See It Now, so Clooney refrains from casting an actor as McCarthy and simply replays the archive film. The edited archive film. He chooses all the same shots as Murrow did for his TV show: the off-guard, twitching, sweating, hysterical McCarthy, asking pointless questions, chasing phantoms that were not there.

  Clooney clearly believes, like Murrow, that his editorializing has truth on its side. He has a case. Sometimes there is no “other side of the argument.” Nazis have no right of reply. Ed Murrow made a bet that what was pinko liberal thinking in 1956 would prove to be a condition of basic humanity fifty years later. He was wrong. The basic human rights he defended are once again assailed. Clooney is angry about that.

  This must be why he cuts into his movie Murrow’s selectively edited footage of McCarthy’s interrogation of Annie Moss, an elderly, uneducated black woman whose Communist connections—McCarthy believed—had led her to seek a job inside the Pentagon. We see this meek woman verbally bullied and cheated of her right to see the evidence put against her. We are led to believe she knows nothing of the charges. One senator tries to help her. McCarthy leaves the hearing. Bobby Kennedy sits at the end of the table of senators, failing to come to her aid.

  What evil breeds where good men stay silent! So we are meant to think. And this is a true liberal principle, as is the principle that no one should be tried without seeing the evidence held against them. Yet it remains disappointing to go on the Internet, in a shameful state of historical innocence, and discover that Bobby Kennedy was a good friend of Senator McCarthy and that Annie Moss was, as it happens, a member of the Communist Party. Clooney could have included gray areas such as this and still have made a fine liberal argument. It’s a sure sign that things are bad when the Left, like the Right, wants its history black and white.

  Casanova is a silly film. Half Carry On, half Shakespearean comedy, everyone in it is perfectly nice and should reassemble to make a lively Twelfth Night. The trouble here is that the words are not by Shakespeare but rather by one Kimberly Simi, who worked as an attorney before selling this script. It has Heath Ledger sounding like James Mason with a soupçon of Peter O’Toole. It has tights and bosoms. It has mistaken identity, gender switching, girls wearing mustaches, a shrew tamed, hearts sundered then reattached and finally a journey by sea. Some of the best writing is in the program notes: “Sienna Miller . . . catapulted into the public eye when she appeared in the BBC comedy Bedtime.” Strange. That’s not how I remember it. Speaking of the young actress, she might ask hair and makeup how it is possible to make a preternaturally pretty twenty-two-year-old look like a dull matron. In the film, Francesca Bruni, for that is the character’s name, is secretly writing a feminist tract called “The Subjugation of Women” under a nom de plume—maybe that was the reasoning. Feminists can’t be blond and must have big eyebrows. I would love it if Miss Miller was secretly the author of the works of Elaine Showalter. I fear it is not so.

  CAPOTE AND DATE MOVIE

  Some cinematic seasons throw up abstract questions. In the early 1990s a clutch of movies asked: What is adulthood? Children found themselves in the bodies of adults, and vice versa. Adults left children home alone. Children were shrunk by careless fathers. Babies started talking with the voice of John Travolta. It may be vocational myopia on my part, but this year I hear the question “What is a writer?” In Hidden (released in the United States as Caché) the answer is painful: writers are petty bourgeois. In Good Night, and Good Luck it’s the writer as hero, noble champion of the people. In Casanova she’s a harmless firebrand, in Memoirs of a Geisha, a naïf who simply records events as they happen. In both Get Rich
or Die Tryin’ and Walk the Line the writer is an alchemist, turning pain into gold.

  Why all the sudden concern with scribblers? Writers like to flatter themselves that in times of communal trauma people turn to the written word for comfort and direction. Maybe once. But in the noughties we’ve begun to legislate against language itself: writers are not to be trusted. They are double-dealers. For this reason, Capote, despite its 1950s setting, is timely. When people rail against the “media,” the bogeymen they have in mind owe not a little to the specter of Truman Capote. What is a writer? He knocks on your door with a smile, a pen and a shard of ice in his heart. Around that shard Philip Seymour Hoffman molds his tremendous Capote impersonation, by turns fey, friendly, oleaginous, deadly. He is Janus-faced. In New York, he’s a quixotic queen laughing in smoky nightclubs at the stupidity of his own readers; in Holcomb, Kansas, he does a damn good impression of being the boy next door. He’ll turn up at the sheriff’s house early in the morning with doughnuts and coffee, find the sheriff’s wife alone and explain he came on a whim to eat breakfast with her. She wanders off to get plates. Slowly the camera and Hoffman slink to the left into a side room where little Perry Smith, multiple murderer, is locked up in a cell.

  The sea change that comes over Hoffman’s face during this pan shot is as close as silence comes to narrative. His Capote coolly dissembles, yet he is impassioned; he lied to get into the house, and yet he came to uncover truths. He is a writer: a man who tells the truth by lying. An actor of Hoffman’s caliber, who also tells the truth that way, can’t help but have a deep understanding of writerly psychology. “When I think of how good it could be,” wrote Capote of his unwritten book, “I can hardly breathe.” When Hoffman says these lines—sexually, venally, desperately—you fear him and yourself. How far will he go for a good story? How far will you go with him to hear it?

  Hoffman has been vocal in his praise of the writer, Dan Futterman, and director, Bennett Miller, but this is an actor’s traditional demurral: the lion’s share of the praise belongs to Hoffman. Everything looks lovely and period and prestige, but shots linger ponderously, keen that we should fully appreciate them, as predictable a tic of a first-time director as the first-time novelist compulsively inserting adjectives. It’s the acting that sings, especially when Hoffman duets with luminous Catherine Keener (playing another writer, Harper Lee), the lady with the loveliest laugh in cinema. Hoffman’s writer is a self-serving egoist; Keener’s a restrained, wise soul. But just as in life, cinema’s Capote trumps Harper Lee. We admire those who refrain, but we make movies about personae. Capote’s persona was enormous and, unusually, his talent was almost its equal. Yet we still tell Capote’s story with pity and use his life as a parable: talent can’t buy you morals. The film implies Truman couldn’t finish another book after In Cold Blood because he never got over his betrayal of Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. To my mind, the problem was less moral and more writerly: stage fright. Capote stumbled across a true story that suited him perfectly and dressed himself up in it to fabulous effect. Without it, he felt naked.

  I could have seen a lot of good films this week. I chose Date Movie, and actually I’m thankful because it allows me to say with certainty something I had not decided until this moment: Date Movie is the worst movie I have ever seen. I really mean that. Forty minutes in, I fled the cinema feeling dazed, aggrieved and strangely weepy, as if a stranger had just physically threatened me. I took Date Movie personally. The actress who stars in it means a lot to me. She is Alyson Hannigan, a petite redhead with goofy good looks, who cos-tarred in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the only TV show I have truly loved. I have tried to convince people that she is one of the finest tragicomic actresses in L.A. I have persisted in this despite American Pie and its sequels. At the very least, I expected her to step effortlessly into the shoes Meg Ryan left empty. Ms. Hannigan shares Ms. Ryan’s triumvirate of talents—quick wit, deep soul and gummy smile—and is happily free of the emotional neediness with which Ms. Ryan occasionally oppresses the audience. When I dared to dream, I pictured Alyson at a podium, thanking her parents. But there will be no prizes for Date Movie. The very fact of its existence forces a wedge between Alyson and anything resembling mainstream or indie Hollywood. And for that she has Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer to thank, two “filmmakers” whom I can only name and shame in the full knowledge it will not stop them.

  In the first forty minutes of Date Movie, Hannigan beats up a homeless man for sport, wears a grotesque fat suit, watches a cat eat a dead woman’s face, has a carpet of ginger hair waxed from her backside and takes part in a parody of The Bachelor, in which women the bachelor “doesn’t want to bang” are “eliminated” by submachine gun. The humor is so broad it’s less than human—it’s the laughter of monkeys as they fall out of trees. To imagine the audience for this film, one has to envision new levels of adolescent nullity. Who are these kids? Why are they evolving backward? American Pie was an amusing gross-out. Scary Movie was a gross-out, funny piece of nothing. Date Movie is less than nothing. It’s a new concept in crap: a film that is in itself an absence of film. For Hannigan, it’s cinema suicide. The worst humiliation comes when she sits opposite her date as he laboriously spoofs the orgasm scene from When Harry Met Sally. Eventually he finishes. Hannigan says: “I’ll have what he’s having.” As a metacomment on Hannigan’s career, it’s the cruelest joke of all. And yes, I know this movie wasn’t meant for me, but I’m repulsed by the children it’s meant for and dread the adults they will become. On the Internet the little darlings are legion, defending Date Movie against all attackers. I reproduce one such review: “OK I’m a 13-year-old girl and I thought the movie was hillarious [sic]. That kind of stuff is what kids joke about and talk about now a days [sic]. Its [sic] a comedy so stop acting like a 50-year-old spinster with a stick up your ass and get on with your life.”

  SYRIANA AND THE WEATHER MAN

  What is Clooney saying? A sentence he began sparklingly with Ocean’s Eleven (2001), which stumbled at Intolerable Cruelty (2003), grew lamentable at Ocean’s Twelve (2004), having seemed almost to make sense with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002), now reaches its conclusion with the impressive Good Night, and Good Luck and the rigorous Syriana. I judged too quickly, thinking him one of those actors who prides himself on making the big bad movies in order to fund the small good ones—a kind of vanity tax upon the audience, whereby the pointless shoot-’em-up is the price we supposedly pay for the chilly little chamber piece about divorce.

  Clooney is not that actor. He doesn’t make sterile, unlovable vanity projects. In a cultural climate that ridicules and is repulsed by intellectual and moral commitment, in his way he pursues both. With his role as executive producer and front-of-shop “face” of Syriana, he has now created an unprecedented scenario: the most popular actor in Hollywood is also the man who wants to agitate us most. Something like this has happened only once before, with Marlon Brando, an actor whose personal failings and self-regard overran all his most serious ambitions. Clooney appears to have no such tragic flaw. He is making real American films instead of American products; he is helping real American films to get made. At a time when most people with half a brain cell have long given up on the products of the American multiplex, Clooney gives us a reason to put our foot back through the door and cautiously buy some popcorn. Rarely in the history of Hollywood has so much personal charm been put to such good use.

  Syriana is the first film this season that demands and deserves to be rewatched as soon as it has concluded. Unless your mind naturally turns to the economic and political intrigues of the global oil industry, much of this film will remain obscure to you upon first viewing. Writer/director Stephen Gaghan has followed the same narrative policy as he did in Traffic (2000), connecting the dots between the alienating anonymity of great power and its human cost. But where Traffic was neat and pleasingly didactic, Syriana is as murky and multifaceted as our present historical moment. The story revolves around a Justice Departmen
t investigation into the merger of two giant oil companies, an investigation that is for appearances only (“We’re looking for the illusion of due diligence”), for the merger will ultimately benefit the American consumer. Gaghan’s talent is for Marxist explication, demonstrating how one transaction contains within it elements of the entire system it supports. He knows one drug deal on the streets of Brooklyn can be traced back to the rich dealers in Florida, to the desperate backstreets of Mexico City, to the peasants who slave in the cocaine fields of Colombia. So it is in Syriana, where a dull piece of political stagecraft is shown to contain multitudes: Arab princes, CIA agents, Texas oil barons, energy analysts, Washington attorneys and two young Pakistani boys who lose their pitifully paid jobs in the oil fields when the merger causes huge layoffs. Guerrilla camera work and bravura acting fuse to create a realism not unlike the edgy, off-kilter work of Cassavetes, a particularly striking achievement when one considers the fame of many of the actors involved. Playing an all-American, square-chinned energy analyst, Matt Damon joins Clooney, here fat, bearded and sluggish as a U.S. agent with a conscience, and both appear to be just what they claim to be—real players in this dark world.

 
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