There’s something about a book sale. The blood quickens, the nostrils flare, the eyes narrow. Anyway, it’s for a good cause. The “Friends of the Library” are putting it on, and somewhere among those one hundred thousand used books is at least one of value. The doors open and in we rush. Almost at once, I’ve got my hands on an 1891 edition of Men of Iron, written and illustrated by Howard Pyle. I flip through it and deliberate a solid minute before deciding not to spend two whole dollars. The book dealer coming behind me snatches it up.
“You know that’s a hundred-dollar book?” he asks with just a tiny hint of triumph.
“Sure,” I answer. “I always throw a few scraps to you dealers.”
“What else have you got?” he asks.
“One of Kael’s early commentaries.” I press my remaining book to my chest, shielding it with both arms. “Only four were printed, and the Vatican has the other three.”
Easy come. Easy go. I passed up a valuable classic by my beloved Howard Pyle and went home with a paperback edition of Deeper into Movies by Pauline Kael. The loss wasn’t total. Once upon a time, I admired Pauline Kael. I even subscribed to the New Yorker just to read her movie reviews. And she resigned from the magazine immediately after that and worked for director Robert Altman until my subscription ran out. I forgave her that. Deeper into Movies was a collection of slightly earlier reviews (1969-1972) and I was curious. What had been running through her mind, not to mention my own?
Not much, it turns out. She mentions “honest cynicism” and “genuine sophistication” and accuses us of letting unhappy people make our movies. I flipped over a few thousand pages and found this: “But since crime is caused by deprivation, misery, psychopathology, and social injustice, Dirty Harry is a deeply immoral movie.” She doesn’t say whether director-star Clint Eastwood is happy or not.
So much for memory lane. Years ago, I stopped relying on what Pauline Kael thought, and, after a piece on the movie Witness, I stopped reading her New Yorker reviews altogether. For the uninitiated, that one had Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis. He was a tough Philadelphia detective, she was a beautiful Amish widow, and they found a few moments of true happiness together in the bucolic farmlands of Pennsylvania. There was more, of course. Her son was the innocent witness of a violent crime committed by some corrupt Philadelphia policemen who come out to the farm to kill the detective and the boy and the entire Amish community if need be. But in the end Harrison gets the villains and leaves the peace-loving Amish because at heart he’s a violent man who wants action.
Pauline Kael hated Witness. She announced that the movie was a thinly disguised attack on urban America. (Though the few minutes of city scenes occur in Philadelphia, I assumed she was defending New York.) If memory serves, she also claimed that the barn-raising scene was stolen straight out of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. The Amish were just as corrupt as the rest of the human race, and, what was worse, the movie even showed them praying. Can you believe that? Amish praying? Pauline couldn’t and said Witness was a thinly disguised attack on all that she held near and dear.
Did any of you see the movie Fail Safe, in which the United States accidentally shoots a nuclear missile at Moscow and to make up for it President Henry Fonda has to drop a hydrogen bomb on New York City? Well, that’s what I call a thinly veiled attack on New York City. But, I’m wandering. I want to draw attention to the movie Paradise, which was released last year on video. A small part of it was shot here in McClellanville, and the rest was done in the nearby and similar fishing community of Rockville. Don’t expect me to say I didn’t like it. My friends and relatives were extras, and half of them were sitting in the theater with my wife and mc. Having a real live movie crew in town was exciting for a lot of people, especially the children, who were drawn to it daily. The biggest thing since the carnival passed through in 1938, and the only down side was that main street traffic was halted for what seemed like hours on end for days on end. Actually, the final shot was never completed, because one killjoy locked her ear doors and blew her horn until the tents were folded and McClellanville abandoned. And in return for this inconvenience we got about four minutes of film immortality. Was it worth it? Sure. You bet. If nothing else, it reminded us that we are living in and taking for granted what many people would consider a beautifully serene paradise. You bet. You bet. You bet.
Paradise is what’s now called a “weepy, feel-gooder” that concerns a couple coming to terms with the loss of a child. A young city boy comes to visit them for the summer. He makes friends with a young local girl, and everything works out all right. The movie got good reviews from the respectable “feel-good” critics. The “don’t feel-good” critics hated it. They said it’s plodding and manipulative. It is. The writer-director borrowed the plot from the French film Le Grand Chemin, and after about ten minutes you start wishing for some subtitles to read or maybe even the Dow-Jones averages. Anything. The original was certainly better—richer, rawer, even believable—but curiously, the few places the American movie deviates (the local girl’s relationship to her waitress mother, roller-skating father, and aristocratic neighbor) are the few places the film comes alive.
That’s not so important, though. What really matters about Paradise is that it stars Don Johnson and his real-life wife Melanie Griffith. Why does this matter, you ask? Well, Don got famous playing the flashy nonacting narcotics detective on the television show Miami Vice. Melanie was in a bad slump then, but she got back on top with Working Girl, Bonfire of the Vanities, etc. (Don’t ask me why I know all this and why I watched every episode of Miami Vice at least twice.) Don needed a break and got one in Paradise. He and wife Melanie don’t embarrass themselves. (Which would have been easy enough playing against their accustomed grain and alongside two quite capable children.) They make a credible troubled couple. You can believe they’re married and that they’ve fought. I think both kinds of critics agreed on this, so I’m not going out on a limb.
But it’s time to finish. The theater was full, and even if half the people in there happened to be extras in the movie, that doesn’t change the fact that this was going to be at least a modest box-office success. And why? Well, Paradise may have been plodding and coldbloodedly sentimental, but it was targeted at women and children and men who spend time with their families. (Just like Don did in the movie.) Also, there were no decapitations in this movie. No car chases, hi some sheltered corners of real-life America we can go centuries without a decapitation and decades without a car chase. And here we are at the crux of the matter—the dreaded imitative fallacy. If real life is made up of unspoken tragedies and small moments of joy and men don’t emote any more than Don Johnson (plenty don’t emote at all) and real-life women go without makeup and have silly lisps like Melanie Griffith and children are quietly wise beyond their years (that’s “natural piety,” to you and me)—and if this simpleness is the stuff of real life, then why would anyone want to go to the movies to see it? Because it’s not the stuff of real life anymore.
Now, there’s a frightening thought. The uneventful pastoral is now the true escapism? Is that much car chasing and mayhem actually taking place in urban America? The young hero of the movie seemed to imply this, for when the girl brags of seeing the dead at funerals, he tops her by saying he passes them on the city streets all the time. Wait a minute. You don’t suppose Paradise is another thinly veiled attack on New York City? Well, I guess it could be, but at least the movie didn’t show them praying. True, Don and Melanie attended church. I won’t deny that. But he sat with arms folded and she fell asleep. They didn’t pray. Thank God for small mercies.
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