Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Robert Bolt--A Man For All Seasons (1960)This is, as everybody knows, an all-around decent job of a play. It reveals a rather conventional personality in its author the likes of which one doesn't often see in such celebrated works. And it is much celebrated, apparently even by tough intellectuals. I like it too, though its widespread approval by serious people is a little inexplicable to me based on their usual standards. The outstanding characteristic of the play to me is its solidity: solid writing, solid characters, solid principles and ideas. People don't get much of that in such a pure manifestation. They can't run it down.

Bolt takes a (Kenneth) Clarkian anti-deterministic view of the historical events under consideration here. That is to say, he thinks they err who attribute historical developments to impersonal and inevitable forces. Cultures, societies, economies, religions, are created and driven by the minds and activities of individual men, of which fact he argues many modern people have lost the proper sense.

The famous straitjacket in which the British class system confines the psychological development of everyone born into it seems to have attained its firmest deathgrip--on the middle class certainly--on the generation born right around the time Bolt was (1924). In the preface, Bolt gives away where he is coming from, and how good he feels about that origin, around fifty different times. After going on at some length about the dissatisfaction of contemporary people with their own selves and the emptiness one finds when looking to 'society' for any guidance in how to live--middle class laments if there ever were any--he lets on that he is attracted to Thomas More because the latter had "an adamantine sense of his own self. He knew where he began and left off..." He (Bolt) explains his metaphors and imagery almost too much to be credible. He apologized for his previous theatrical efforts thus: "Inevitably these plays looked like what they most resembled, orthodox fourth-wall dramas with puzzling, uncomfortable, and, if you are uncharitable, pretentious overtones." It actually starts to get slightly painful to read if you recognize the symptoms, such that I almost wanted to scour my bookshelves to see if I had anything by Noel Coward or someone who would never apologize to anyone--at least bourgeois critics and theater audiences anyway--stuck in an anthology to purge myself.

Then there is the page where this most earnest of significant modern playwrights states that he has used a "bastardized version" of the style recently associated with the edgy, irreverent, misanthropic and much-idolized, especially at the time, Bertolt Brecht. He approaches Brecht, who by the time he wrote this preface was dead anyway I believe, with more trepidation and reverence for his status than enthusiasm. He calls him a "very fine artist" (everybody thinks this, even me I'm sure) when flummoxed by an apparent inconsistency in one of his works. His strongest statement (at least until he has to confront the great master directly at the end), and therefore the one probably closest to his own position, is that, "Simply to slap your audience in the face satisfies an austere and puritanical streak which runs in many of his disciples and sometimes, detrimentally I think, in Brecht himself."

Contemporary scholarship and the internet of course do not lack for people committed to tearing down the image of Thomas More as "the person of the greatest virtue these islands ever produced" (Samuel Johnson). Some dirt has certainly been found, mostly related to his being invloved in heavy-handed enforcement of religious and political conformity. The "Star Chamber", which appears to have been an English version of the Inquisition, and Thomas More are frequently identified as having an unsavory association. Some have taken a go at depicting him as a generally humorless and cruel religious fanatic, which as a public persona is probably accurate, though in his time religious fanaticism was not universally regarded by men of learning as a negative quality. I think it counts for something that quite a few people who knew him when he was alive appear, by the accounts they have left, to have loved and esteem him and in a manner more than usually fervent by the standards of the day. He must have been one of the most extraordinarily brilliant people England ever produced, for even his detractors concede to him this quality, which is usually the first point of attack people go for when trying to cut somebody down if there is any opening to so do, which apparently with More is not the case.

Apart from this play, Bolt is probably best known for writing the screenplays for the famous so-extravagant-they-couldn't-be-made-today David Lean epics Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. The picture above is said to be Bolt, acting in a minor role as a general in Lawrence. In looking these things up I came across another Lean/Bolt collaboration that I had never heard of, but which I am kind of interested to see now as one of those colossal disasters of the cinema that torpedoe the careers of everyone involved with them so that they never recover afterwards. I am referring to the 1970 film Ryan's Daughter, the operating idea of which is the plot of Madame Bovary transplanted to World War I Ireland, which, being a very 60s kind of idea, is fraught with potential distaster right off the bat. This film actually has on the surface a lot in common with Barry Lyndon, now generally regarded as a classic, which was made in roughly the same era. Both were expensive and several years in the making. Both were period pieces filmed in Ireland, which was cheap and relatively unspoiled at the time, made by famous egomaniacal directors, and featured young American actors, who were regarded as lightweights by all reputable critics, playing Brits/Irishmen of an age long gone by (not as bad of an idea as it sounds, though--if the character is supposed to be a bit of an uncultured ruffian, a callow American might be more believable on film than someone with an impeccable training and background in the English theater), Ryan O'Neal of course in Lyndon, and a guy named Christopher Jones in the other film, whose performance was evidently so bad that he went from playing a leading role in a big-budget epic at age 29 to never working in Hollywood ever again. This is like being the Rich Kotite of cinema. Not to mention, could there have been a worse time for a good-looking, not extraordinarily talented young man to be sent packing from Hollywood than in 1970? I'm thinking specifically about the incredible sex and drugs parties of the era immediately ensuing here. David Lean, who had been cranking out popular and acclaimed movies for almost 30 years, was pretty much finished after this bomb, making one more movie 14 years later and then calling it a career. Bolt, who would only have been in his mid-40s at the time, kept working, but none of his later work seem to have either made any resonance in the popular culture or scaled the walls of the fortress Literature compared to his 1960-66 work.

This is not exactly related, but another really terrible movie that I nonetheless find myself attracted to is a 1960 film called From the Terrace which for some reason they used to show on AMC all the time. It stars Paul Newman as a young lawyer in a super-waspy firm closed to anybody without the absolutely proper bloodlines, lots of drinking and smoking, unhappy marriages, affairs (and I do like the girl Newman has his affair with, I really do), sexism, bigotry, etc, kind of like Mad Men in other words, only we aren't supposed to think it's all horrible and count our blessings that it's all going to end soon. In this film (which I saw described once as something "only a dinosaur Republican could love"), I'm not sure we're supposed to think anything that we would recognize as horrible now actually is horrible. Even with regard to the affairs the mistresses are far more sympathetic than the wives. It's the incredibly privileged male character we are intended to sympathize with, I presume for the compromises and boredom one has to endure to make it in one of the top law firms in New York city. In addition to being a complete moral train wreck, it is quite poorly written. It is based on a novel by the alcoholic, socially resentful, always 30 years behind current literary trends, forever getting picked on by cool writers like Hemingway (who even considered his alcoholism to be of the conventional and uninteresting variety), Pottsville, Pa native John O'Hara, who was so deluded that he frequently let slip that he considered himself a contender for the Nobel Prize (by the way, this doesn't mean I personally think he was a bad writer; I am just observing that many of the writers of his time who are canonized now were absolutely brutal to him). Obviously I find its attitudes and assumptions to be rather fascinating. And Barbara Eden, who I have always secretly thought was pretty hot stuff, had a small role in it too.

I admit I had avoided seeing the famous movie of AMFAS for years because it seemed rather staid and self-serious, and while it is those things, it is pretty good. I hadn't realized what an all-star cast it had. Yes, that is an already corpulent Orson Welles playing Cardinal Wolsey. Wendy Hiller, whom I have praised for her work in films of George Bernard Shaw's work, is here, much older, as Thomas More's wife. Susannah York, another of my favorite blonde babes from the 60s, who very beautifully portrayed Sophie Western in Tom Jones, plays More's super-brilliant, classically educated, and, oh yes, impeccably and impossibly gorgeous daughter (the Mores are really a kind of the ideal liberal arts family, which probably helps account for their popularity in the mass college as self-actualization-mad 60s). Paul Scofield, the actor who played Thomas More both on the stage and screen, died last year, and several of the obituaries I read lamented that as one of the great stage actors of his generation who didn't do much film work, most people would only know of him from this movie. He was also in the WWII action film The Train, starring opposite Burt Lancaster as an insane art-loving Nazi general who tries to plunder the cultural treasures of France for his private collection in the waning days of the war, a fundamentally absurd role which he did well with.

Also this movie talk reminds of all the old arguments in the 20s and 30s of the perfidious effects mass market, mechanical, canned entertainment--movies, recorded music, radio programming, etc--would have on the human spirit. The argument, essentially, which goes back to Ruskin and probably back to Blake and the Romantic authors at least, was that there could no longer be one, and that therefore the current social and economic order would have to be otherthrown so that people would become human again, would gambol in nature, women would be earthy and fertile, men vigorous and keen of perception, the influence of flaccid intellectuals would wither. We would be like the Greeks and Etruscans again. Lots of beauty, lots of good, worthy sex, lots of original art, lots of individual wholeness. And the peak oil apocalysts and their ilk are still saying more or less the same thing now (usually without the good sex and the plentiful supply of meat, unfortunately; we grow ever less and less human all the time.

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