Henry and June
Screenplay by Philip Kaufman and Rose Kaufman
Directed and produced by Philip Kaufman
Released by Miramax
Tune in Tomorrow
Screenplay by William Boyd
Directed by Jon Amiel
Produced by John Feidler and Mark Tarlov
Released by Cinecom Entertainment
Reversal of Fortune
Screenplay by Nicholas Kazan
Directed by Barbet Schroeder
Produced by Edward R. Pressman and Oliver Stone
Released by Warner Brothers
There is a certain rightness to the way it turned out, with Henry and June being the first movie to get the new “NC-17” rating (which means that no children under the age of 17 are admitted, parents or guardians or no). But any grown-ups above the age of 22 or so should be warned away, which leaves the film with a very narrow spectrum for its tepid appeal. There is lots of writhing and lots of declamation, and we are reminded in both instances how sublimely stupid Henry Miller and Anais Nin were. Legends, admittedly, but their actual accomplishments were miniscule, just as their ruttings seem now diminished by the passage of time. Flower children avant la lettre, they spent a great deal of energy posturing and, in a weird way, were successful at it. Posturing, as Andy Warhol was later to demonstrate, can outweigh achievement and is eleven points in publicity’s law. Miller and Nin were in the right place at the right time, with just the right dopey earnestness to take in those literary journalists whose mistakes became the historians’ truths. The books of both were dreary and their lives were impossibly tedious.
I found myself, therefore, admiring Henry and June for the first twenty minutes or so. Fred Ward’s Henry Miller is impressively crude and lunkheaded. He and his wife (Uma Thurman is June Miller) speak with a heavy Brooklyn accent that makes their goofy comments even goofier: “You were supposed to be a Dusty Yevsky!” she complains, and I thought it was hilarious and that the movie was distancing itself from its subject—a bold, unusual, and therefore interesting thing to do. But that expectation of mine turns out to have been either delusional or else they toyed with it and then gave it up for the surer rewards of a quasi-respectable or at least pretentious soft-core romp. Soft-core pornographers have better sense, though, and don’t intersperse their gropings with long sequences that attempt to make interesting what is clearly the most boring human activity in the universe to watch—somebody typing. We see Henry Miller typing what will one day become Tropic of Cancer, and we watch him do this with his hat on, his hat off, his ashtray empty, and his ashtray full. We see him pull a sheet of paper out of the typewriter and read it with dissatisfaction; we see him flick a large cockroach off the top of a pile of completed manuscript pages; we see him pull another sheet of paper out and read this page with pleasure (which page, we wonder, might this have been?).
Every two or three hours I would look at my watch to see that another few minutes had elapsed. Without the pressures of censorship—which is what gave the Tropics an almost purely extrinsic interest—there is precious little left. Stupid remarks about writing and art do not justify or redeem even stupider behavior, and it is unfair that we are being so severely punished now for their old peccadillos. Without the censorship then, their books would have been forgotten; without the more recent tizzy over the ratings (R? X? or the new NC-17), the film about them would not have been worth talking about.
Martin Loader in Tune in Tomorrow wants to go to the imaginary and ideal Paris “of Hemingway and Henry Miller,” but in this film, dreams and delusions are not irrelevant. Indeed, the impressions we have from art and culture and the way those impressions shape our lives become the subject of the movie. It’s a funny, boisterous, energetic film with Peter Falk at the very top of his form as a kind of louche embodiment of art. The dangerousness to which Henry Miller aspired, Falk’s Pedro Carmichael actually manages to suggest—he goes from one radio station to another and seems to leave them all literally in flames. He is outrageous, manipulative, exploitive, shameless, and none too fastidious in his toilette, but he is fervent in his commitment to his calling: “Life is a s–t-storm,” he says to his young friend, Martin Loader, “and when it’s raining s–t, your best umbrella is art.”
“Mario Vargas Llosa” has been translated to “Martin Loader,” as Lima has been translated to New Orleans. The film will be released in Canada and Europe under the novel’s name, Aunt Julia and the Screenwriter, but evidently nobody reads books in America and the reference was thought to be obscure and an impediment. Still, the connection between public, popular culture and private behavior remains the subject of the piece. There are some plot difficulties—complications about getting married that made sense in the novel, set in Peru, are totally mangled and incoherent in the film. But one wants to be indulgent about an enterprise that is, for the most part, so genial and good-spirited. Barbara Hershey allows herself to look just a bit dowdy as the older, somewhat shopworn aunt with whom young Martin falls hopelessly in love. Keanu Reeves is just right as the ingenuous youth whose callow passion she finds, in the end, irresistible. There are also some shrewd and rueful ideas bubbling in the background, and that these ideas do not cripple the fun of the film seems to me altogether agreeable.
Loader/Llosa actually did go off to Paris, seduced as much by the Miller myth as by his “aunt” (actually his uncle’s sister-in-law) and, just as she so ruefully warns both in both the novel and the movie, he finally abandoned her for a younger woman—also, as it happens, a relative. Whether Mario/ Martin was more victimizer or victim is hard to say, but my inclination always is to be indulgent to those who are entertaining.
Curiously enough, there are also a couple of short sequences in this film in which we see Peter Falk typing—but in the first, at the very opening of the film, there is a bomb about to go off, and we know about it and have seen the ticking suitcase. There is, in fact, a point to the scene, an antiphony that is not merely between the tapping of the keys of the old manual typewriter and the ticking of the bomb’s timer, but the larger one of the world of art and the real world, each of them answering the disorders of the other and each of them seething with hatreds and loves. (The second is only a few frames to set up for the real gesture, which is that of Falk dropping forward, exhausted by his labors, onto the typewriter, and the script, utterly spent and utterly believable.)
Tune in Tomorrow addresses the same curious questions and with something of the same playfulness as Nikita Mikhalkov’s truly splendid A Slave of Love (1978), about the Russian Revolution that, as it made its way down to the Crimea, took on the extravagant, almost cartoon style of the silent movies the Russian film industry was then grinding out there. The Mikhalkov piece (available on videotape) isn’t merely witty but profound and even frightening, and there is a kind of ballast to the film in that real people were dying, albeit in a stylized way. The violences of Tune in Tomorrow are not so convincing as they might have been, had the moviemakers kept the Peruvian setting intact. South American politics is a continuing comedy of blood, after all. The anti-Bolivian jokes of the novel are turned into altogether arbitrary hatreds here, first of Alaskans, then Albanians, and then, indicated at the end, of Norwegians. But the conviction of the scriptwriter has been explicitly stated—”Hate burns, like love!”—and it is not enough to have whimsically conceived hatreds of “safe” exotic groups. This film avoids messiness and risk and even congratulates itself for its harmlessness. “But why Albanians?” Loader asks, and Carmichael looks at him and asks, “Why not?” It’s okay for the moment but won’t stand. It is like Hemingway’s taking out all the pinko stuff from For Whom the Bell Tolls, leaving as the only explanation of the hero’s allegiance the joke about his family always having been Republicans.
Reversal of Fortune does take some real risks and show some real hatred—and it suggests a level of corruption and menace that is positively invigorating. Jeremy Irons as Claus von Bülow is grandly wicked and beautifully dressed (indeed, the costumes seem after a while the necessary attire of evil). Glenn Close is Sunny and is as riveting as any character in a vegetative state has ever been on film. There is a scene in this movie in which Sunny is being bathed by a couple of nurses who are washing her thighs—she has become an object, as indeed she probably always was to Claus. But then these people had a ruthlessness that turns people into objects, worth space on life’s etagere or not. The movie suggests that the Kantian idea that every person is an end in himself is turned arsy-varsy by such absurd degrees of wealth.
Probably, this is unfair. The opening sequence is a breathtaking aerial view of Newport “cottages,” and few of the families in the other houses have made headlines bumping one another off. Still, whether it is objectively true or not, the mythology is clear that money in large quantities has some corrosive effect on the spirit. The movie takes this to a logical conclusion in which everyone becomes a means, a thing that is either attractive or not, entertaining and decorative or not. The good taste turns ruthless and oppressive and becomes—in a startling reversal of the old Calvinist idea—an outward sign of an inward state of gracelessness.
There is no answer to the question of Von Bülow’s guilt or innocence, although in one sequence we get a plausible guess as to what is likely to have happened—that Claus tried to kill Sunny, dragging her into the bathroom and opening the window so she might freeze to death, abetting the suicide she had already initiated and entirely convinced that he was doing what she wanted. It was what he wanted too, of course, more money being always better than less. Von Bülow’s attorney, Alan Dershowitz, believes in his client’s innocence, and has suggested that, had Von Bülow done it this way, there would have been fingerprints (in his own bathroom? Of course, but irrelevant). What is irrefutable is that Sunny’s children by her first marriage (to Prince von Augsberg) tried to frame him, convinced that he’d done it and not wanting Von Bülow to profit by his crime. This is the legal question that attracted Dershowitz—whether rich people can just hire private guns to collect and turn over evidence, perhaps suppressing or even inventing what they think is harmful or useful.
But the courtroom drama is only the framework on which the intricate canvas depicting privilege and corruption is stretched. Ron Silver does a creditable Dershowitz (lapsing only at times into something like Snuffy Smith). Irons deserves an Oscar nomination for the thin-lipped, blue-blooded, elegant creep he has invented. What gives the portrayal—and the film too—a last irresistible twist is the humor. At one point, at a Chinese dinner for Dershowitz’s legal team. Von Bülow asks what is a fear of insulin and then gives the answer: “Claus-trophobia.” There is a quick, sick grin, which is shocking. We have the eerie sense that to Von Bülow, his own life has become a thing, an objet d’art if not virtu. And a macabre and frightening thing it is, at that.