Return to Remedial Physics

Silkwood; Directed by Mike Nichols; Written by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen; ABC Motion Pictures/Twentieth­ Century Fox.

 One of the latest causes of self-righ­teousness, posturing, and enlightened indignation is not a person or place, but a thing: a group of heavy metals that disintegrate and emit various rays (alpha, beta, gamma), or radioactive materials.  Everybody knows that radio­active materials are deadly, period. Mention the physicians who practice nuclear medicine, and you’ll receive a chilling glare accompanied by a cold shoulder. A point around which the concerned have flocked is the movie Silkwood. Not only have the predictable sources of liberal holier-than-thou movie reviewing come out babbling about the movie’s correctitude and wonder, but even The Wall Street Jour­nal published a minipanegyric to what not only has a pro-blue collar/anti­ management theme (perhaps the Journal was smitten with “higher social consciousness”), but which is, quite simply, an awful movie by every criti­cism associated with not only social normality, but even textbook reviewing.

It’s obvious that Silkwood was made in order to Make a Statement. It’s not surprising that an arm of the network that has set itself up as the public’s video conscience (from nuclear war to incest, it knows all), ABC, is behind Silkwood; the story of a proletarian heroine of the 1930’s style who was thrust into the 1970’s in order to confront Big Power. The corporate executives behind the movie would undoubtedly say that it was made “in the public’s interest.” Possible radioactive contamination due to faulty management controls or employee foul-ups is something that the public should be concerned about. But is a lousy movie like Silkwood truly a medium of education or is it merely one of propaganda, full of half-truths, distor­tions, and innuendoes? The answer should be obvious, yet even educated reviewers seem to have missed it.

No layman would dare tell a particle physicist how to operate a microwave oven, yet that same person somehow feels qualified to speak on the subject of nuclear energy, based on information gleaned from such movies, TV reports, and the popular print media. This is what’s called chutzpah or hubris in Webster’s. Take the rather ordinary process of welding, which is central to Silkwood. Everybody knows that two pieces of metal welded together be­ come a piece that is less strong and durable than one whole piece. After all, if one breaks the handle off of a coffee cup and then glues it back on, the joints are more fragile than the whole piece was prior to breakage. The metaphor works, but the reality breaks it: what “everybody knows” about welding is incorrect—a weld, properly made, is the strongest point of an assembly, one that’s stronger than the joined materials. But who wants to fool around with facts when bad fiction with the socially acceptable message is so much more appealing?


Madness, Artists & the Cinema

Richard Koszarski: The Man You Loved to Hate: Erich von Stroheim and Hollywood; Oxford University Press; NewYork.

 Filmmakers, perhaps due to the relative infancy of their chosen medium, are not really considered to be artists in America, at least outside the pages of specialized journals. Celebrities, yes; auteurs, no. One reason why this is so might be that the preponderant number of productions are ephemeral, but then one has to take into account the fact that most bookstores are filled with flotsam yet bona fide artists/authors can be discerned. A more basic reason might be that people simply don’t think very highly of directors. When a film director of yore (i.e., pre-California film school period) is crudely imagined, the figure that tends to emerge is that of a Prussian wearing a beret, monocle, and jackboots who is holding a riding crop in one hand and a megaphone in the other. That image is based on Erich von Stroheim, whose role as an actor, from For France in 1917 to Sunset Boulevard in 1950, was based on the elements of such a character. Von Stroheim (himself a film-like creation, given that the touch of nobility was a pure fiction) was a man who tried to be an artist in Hollywood. He was not only an actor—indeed, his acting was often a means to ends: money and visibility—but a writer, designer, and, above all, director. About von Stroheim’s efforts in the first feature that he made, Blind Husbands (1918), in which he performed all four activities, Joel W. Finler notes in his Stroheim (University of California Press; Berkeley; 1968), “Such a formidable directoral debut was unmatched in the cinema until over twenty years later when Orson Welles made Citizen Kane.” The former wunderkind, of course, is now most well known for his ample appear­ance in TV wine commercials (which have now been pulled); only buffs say “Welles” with sober reverence. 

Richard Koszarski’s The Man You Loved to Hate is a study of what can be considered, in ordinary respects, a semimadman. Von Stroheim, flying in the face of studio czars including Irving Thalberg, made films that were thousands of feet longer than were acceptable for almost any theaters­then or now. A thoroughgoing believer in naturalism, von Stroheim created painstakingly real sets, virtually authentic environments. Since he couldn’t control the other element of the naturalist equation, heredity, with regard to his actors, he often abused themsometimes physicallyso that they could cry, laugh, suffer, and gener­ally feel in the ways he thought proper. His excesses are obvious. To film what is considered his masterpiece, Greed (1924), for example, von Stroheim brought the cast and crew to Death Valley in the middle of the summer, where the temperatures were well over 100°F. One of the main actors is quoted as remembering: “Out of 41 men, 14 fell ill and had to be sent back. When the picture was finished I had lost 27 pounds and was ill in hospital, delirious with fever.” Von Stroheim didn’t have to go to such extremes for technical reasons, as desert backlots were available. His artistic requirements, however, could be sated no other way. His commitment is unquestionable; that he had any real imagination is dubious.

Von Stroheim, although an unusual figure in the history of film, is in no way unique. For example, Eleanor Coppola’s Notes (Simon & Schuster; New York; 1979 ), Francis Ford Coppola’s wife’s view of the making of Apocalypse Now, which iscertainly more an impressionis­tic film than naturalistic one, is a tale full of personal sufferingphysical, emo­tional, spiritualwillingly undertaken for the sake of creating not merely a “movie,” but a work of “art.” Francis Coppola is a technically accomplished director who could quite easily crank out works like spaghetti from a pasta machine, but he has consistently worked to create something that’s a cut above. Von Stroheim often found himself financially beset as a result of his own excessive requirements; the bankruptcy situation surrounding Zoetrope Studios is well known.

Since von Stroheim’s works have been sliced, diced, and riced, an assessment of them can only be a tentative one. His contribution to the film industry has probably been slight, given the fact that it has become an industry and not an atelier. The broader question of the filmmaker as artist remains. Coppola, Spielberg, Lucas, Scorseseare they more than story-telling technicians? The answer today, by general consensus, would probably be no: general releases aren’t thought to be art; art films are only seen by a few. However, given the decline of literacy in this country and the crumbling of literary standards, perhaps the now-aborning generation of video­trons will look back some years hence and see film as art and literature as artifact. Being directed by von Stroheim was probably less discomforting than that prospect. (SM)


Hacking in Hollywood

The Lonely Guy; Directed by Arthur Hiller; Based on a novel by Bruce Jay Friedman; Adapted by Neil Simon; Screenplay by Ed Weinberger and Stan Daniels; Universal.

 When movies learned to talk, their need for men and women who had learned how to write was insatiable. During the I920’s and 30’s there was a second gold rush, as those scratching out a living in New York chucked it all and headed off to the land where the sun was bright and the contracts were fat. It’s hard to find a writer who made a career for him or herself in that period who didn’t work for one mogul or another or, given the temperaments of writers and producers, more than one mogul. While it is fairly easy to conceive of a Fitzgerald working in Hollywood—given both the nature of his novels and stories and the affluent style of living that he made himself accustomed to—it’s hard to picture a would-be Nobel laureate toiling among the sound stages. But Faulkner was no exception. While the working conditions would have to be somewhat different, it is possible to imagine a Humboldt’s Gift or a Dean’s December being scripted by their author for a celluloid fling. Perhaps Faulkner is really a secret rule, one that is dreamed about by those writers who have achieved life on a higher plane of existence.

The demand for properties that were first found between hard covers dropped off a bit, but lately Hollywood seems to be sending out the message that if the plot has seen ink, then it’s ready to roll the cameras. Consider: Terms of Endear­ment, Gorky Park, Yentl, and on and on and on. These works simply prove that those who have not learned to read novels inhabit a very restricted universe: it’s not that all of the original pieces are so good, just that the movies are, in themselves, so revolting. One of the latest to be added to the pile of cinematic fertilizer is based on marshmallow­ weight novelist Bruce Jay Friedman’s The Lonely Guy’s Book of Life. Arthur Hiller, the man who directed Neil Simon’s The Out-of-Towners (1970) and Plaza Suite (1971), worked with a script that at some point Simon doctored to make The Lonely Guy, and utilized the services of comedian Steve Martin, one of the many “bright, young talents” spawned by TV’s Saturday Night Live whose hair is now falling out, and whose promise has yet to be realized. The most enormous thing about the movie is its triviality. Sure, it’s tough being an ordinary-looking single man today; while people are moving in the fast lane in single’s bars, one can readily feel stuck in a tollbooth behind a gate that won’t rise. Drinking bottled water with a twist by stratagem, wearing Perry Ellis, dousing oneself with Paco Rabanne, driving a 300 ZX—these and similar ploys may or may not work, but so what? Every human knows that this is so; it’s not a lesson that needs to be taught by a cadre of half-wits. (SM)