Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Book Review: "The White House Mess," by Christopher Buckley (1986)

"The White House Mess," by Christopher Buckley, 1986.

Christopher Buckley’s first novel was the very funny political satire “The White House Mess,” published in 1986. Buckley had worked as a speechwriter for then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, which no doubt gave him many of the insights that he used to create “The White House Mess.” The novel takes the form of a fictional memoir written by Herbert Wadlough, Personal Assistant to Democratic President Thomas Tucker. “The White House Mess” is a spoof of political memoirs, which is a rather narrow target. Fortunately, Buckley aims other arrows in his quiver elsewhere, and one not need be a political memoir junkie to appreciate the book. 

The book opens on Inauguration Day, 1989, (which was in the future when Buckley wrote the book) and one of the funnier episodes of the book, as outgoing President Reagan refuses to leave the White House on Inauguration Day. Wadlough asks if President-elect Tucker has spoken to Reagan. Tucker says, “He told me his back was bothering him, that he was feeling tired, that it’s cold outside, and that he just didn’t feel like moving out today.” (P.xiv) Reagan is eventually persuaded to leave when members of the staff lie to him and tell him that the Russians are attacking and that he needs to go to Andrews Air Force Base to command the operation. That excites Ronnie enough to get him out of bed.

Wadlough, our narrator, is a rather milquetoast fellow whose drink of choice is hot water. Nope, not tea. Just hot water. “I do not drink coffee or tea; in the mornings I find a nice, hearty cup of hot water soothing and stimulative of the digestive functions.” (P.5) Wadlough takes himself entirely too seriously, which makes him the perfect narrator for a satire, as he makes even the most mundane tasks sound as though he is making the world safe for democracy. 

The White House Mess refers to the White House dining hall, which is called a “mess” as it is run by the Navy. Wadlough is in charge of the Mess, and it’s through running the Mess that he exerts most of his limited power. The Tucker administration takes on some odd problems, like trying to normalize relations with Cuba, and getting the U.S. on the metric system. Of course, everything that happens during the Tucker administration is a spectacular failure. Wadlough also has to smooth over relations between Tucker and the First Lady, a former actress who is keen to restart her film career. And then there’s the situation in Bermuda, as radicals threaten the U.S. military installations there. President Tucker is soundly defeated for re-election in 1992 by George H.W. Bush.

Buckley clearly knows enough about the White House to make all of the ridiculous characters and vain egotistical posturing seem all too plausible. As Buckley said in a 1998 interview, “I read a lot of White House memoirs. They all have two themes: It Wasn't My Fault and It Would Have Been Much Worse if I Hadn't Been There.” One of the funniest ongoing jokes in the book is that all of the other former White House staffers have written memoirs as well, all with the word “power” in the title. They include: “The Outrage of Power,” “The Bowels of Power,” “Power, Principle, and Pitfall,” and President Tucker’s own memoir, “The Sorrow and the Power.” These fake titles would certainly blend in with real-life books like H.R. Haldeman's "The Ends of Power," and John Ehrlichman's "Witness to Power."

Buckley even keeps the charade of Wadlough being the author of the book going through the acknowledgements at the end of the book, which are written in character as Wadlough, who thanks Christopher Buckley, “who rendered editorial assistance in the preparation of the manuscript.”
I think that Buckley’s satire has gotten sharper as the years have gone on, and his later books have made me laugh more, but if you’re a fan of his writing, or have read too many White House memoirs, then you’ll surely enjoy “The White House Mess.”

The Films of Warren Beatty-"Lilith" (1964)

Warren Beatty and Jean Seberg in "Lilith," 1964. Could they be any prettier?

This is a totally appropriate patient/mental health assistant relationship. Just some good, wholesome frolicking in the barn. Nothing could go wrong here.

Peter Fonda and Jean Seberg.
Warren Beatty’s fourth movie was the psychological drama “Lilith,” released in 1964 and co-starring the lovely Jean Seberg in the title role. Once again, “Lilith” sees Beatty acting in his James Dean-influenced mumbly/confused/sensitive/angry young man mode, which he had now done in 3 of his first 4 movies. (See also, “Splendor in the Grass” and “All Fall Down.”) “Lilith” is another Tennessee Williams-influenced psychodrama with all of the standard elements-heavy Freudian overtones, overheated sexuality, madness, etc. (See also, “Splendor in the Grass,” “The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone,”-which was actually written by Williams, and “All Fall Down.”) 

In “Lilith,” Beatty plays Vincent Bruce, a veteran who goes back to his hometown and doesn’t quite know what to do. It’s implied that he saw combat in the military, but since the movie is set in the present time of 1964 and isn’t a period piece-i.e., set right after World War II or Korea, that must mean that he was a “military advisor” in Vietnam, although it’s never specified where he served. Anyway, Vincent decides to go to Poplar Lodge, a private mental institution, and ask for a job. He interviews with Dr. Brice (Kim Hunter) and gets a job there as an assistant. Vincent quickly becomes a confidant of Stephen, a sensitive young man played by Peter Fonda, in one of his first film roles. Stephen has a crush on Lilith, (Jean Seberg) an attractive young female patient who seldom leaves her room. Vincent is able to gain the trust of Lilith, and she agrees to accompany some of the other patients on a picnic once she learns that Vincent is going along too. Before long, Lilith develops a major crush on Vincent. Which typically might be kind of a problem, except it’s not a problem at Poplar Lodge.

The psychiatrist who runs Poplar Lodge is impressed that Vincent is able to draw Lilith out of her shell, and during a conference about her case asks Vincent, “Do you think she’s trying to seduce you?” Vincent answers, in his mumbly way, “Possibly, but it seems like more than that.” (I’m paraphrasing these quotes.) The psychiatrist then asks, “Do you ever feel inclined to accept?” Vincent responds yes. And so, instead of maybe, you know, suggesting that young, fit, super-handsome Vincent possibly spend less time unsupervised with young, stunningly beautiful Lilith, the psychiatrist just lets it go. (“Gee, maybe we should keep Warren Beatty away from the female patients…”) I guess he’s just happy that Lilith is engaging with the world more. Vincent and Lilith go on a bunch of what are basically all-day dates, and Lilith starts engaging with the world a lot more when Vincent makes love with her in a field. 

Vincent doesn’t seem to be terribly conflicted about starting a relationship with Lilith, which could be a sign that he’s not in the right job. But they continue to go on a bunch of dates, including one to a proto-Renaissance Festival, complete with jousting contest-won by Vincent, of course. A couple of times during the movie Vincent sees his ex-girlfriend, Laura, around town. Laura is a very pretty brunette with striking eyes. When I saw her on screen I thought to myself, “Wow, that actress is really attractive, who is she?” Well, as I learned on imdb after watching the movie, Laura was played by Jessica Walter in her first film role. Walter is probably best known for playing abusive matriarch Lucille Bluth on “Arrested Development.” What? Young Lucille Bluth was hot? Yeah, she was. And Laura’s husband is played by a super-young, but still not that young-looking Gene Hackman, also in his first credited movie role. Hackman is terrific in his one scene with Beatty, and he definitely steals the scene from Warren, who is underacting as much as humanly possible. Fortunately, Beatty remembered working with Hackman on “Lilith” when he was casting “Bonnie & Clyde,” and cast Hackman in his breakout role as Clyde’s brother. Once Hackman leaves to go to a meeting, Laura says to Vincent, “You know how I told you I’d only really let you make love to me once I was married? Well, I’m married now.” Surprisingly, Vincent just leaves, marking this as one of the only occasions that Warren Beatty turned down sex. 

Vincent eventually figures out that Lilith is kind of a nymphomaniac, since she goes off to make out with another female patient in a barn, and says creepy things to little boys she meets when they’re out in public. But that doesn’t seem to change his feelings towards her. Stephen makes Lilith a hand-made birthday present of a box to keep her paints in. Stephen asks Vincent if she got it, and how she likes it, and Vincent coldly takes the box out of his pocket, puts it down on the table, and leaves. Vincent is deliberately trying to hurt Stephen, who he sees as a rival for Lilith’s affections, which is rather ridiculous, since Lilith hardly ever sees Stephen, and makes it quite clear she’s not at all interested in him. Vincent also misrepresents Lilith’s feelings about her present from Stephen, since she likes the box and didn’t tell Vincent to give it back to Stephen. Feeling rejected, Stephen kills himself. Vincent then goes back to Lilith and says, essentially, “I did this for you. Tell me that you wanted me to do this.” Lilith refuses to condone Vincent’s behavior. He leaves, and she has a breakdown, which leaves her in what looks like a catatonic state. Vincent, recognizing that he has done something terrible, then goes to the psychiatrist and Dr. Brice and says, “Help me.” 

“Lilith” is an interesting movie, and it’s well-directed by Robert Rossen, who also helmed “All the King’s Men,” and “The Hustler.” (One of his lesser films was “Alexander the Great,” starring Richard Burton wearing a terrible blonde wig, which I reviewed many years ago here.) Jean Seberg, the Iowa-born beauty who became a darling of the French New Wave, thanks to her performance in “Breathless,” gives a wonderful performance as Lilith, bringing just the right amount of vulnerability and sensuality to the part. Seberg was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance in “Lilith,” losing out to Anne Bancroft for “The Pumpkin Eater.” Sadly, the coming years would take a terrible toll on Seberg, as her anti-Vietnam War activism caused her to become a target of the FBI. The FBI set out on a campaign to embarrass Seberg, and they spread the rumor in 1970 that she was carrying the child of a prominent member of the Black Panthers. The rumor was false, but it was repeated in publications like Newsweek, and Seberg went into premature labor and her child died two days later. She sued Newsweek for libel and won. Tragically, Seberg would take her own life, overdosing on pills in 1979 at the age of 40. It was a sad end for a remarkably talented and beautiful actress.

The problem with “Lilith,” for me, was Warren Beatty. Vincent is a very dull character-if he weren’t played by someone as handsome as Beatty, there’s no way anyone would be interested in him. I think the character of Vincent is left extremely ambiguous-and maybe that’s the point, but for me there was too much ambiguity and not enough clarity. You never really know what Vincent is thinking. Maybe the key to Vincent is that he’s going crazy throughout the course of the movie. But if that’s the key, I think that point could have been made much better.  I think the character was poorly written, and I think Beatty was miscast in the role and didn’t do a good job. Vincent is a tricky role to play, because he’s so ambiguously written, and I think Beatty never decided how he wanted to play it. Vincent is also extremely inarticulate, even without Beatty’s mumbling and pregnant pauses and hesitant speech. Vincent’s inability to articulate anything is a problem, because Warren Beatty is above all a great talker. All of his best roles are charmers who talk a lot-so when he’s stuck with a role like Vincent, he’s wasted in the part.  

Another major problem with the movie for me is how easily Vincent oversteps his professional boundaries and starts a relationship with Lilith. The fact that Vincent tells the psychiatrist that he might have sex with Lilith and no one does anything to prevent this from happening is just wrong. I know it’s an integral part of the movie, but it’s just such a terrible decision both morally and ethically. Vincent is supposedly to be helping Lilith, not having a romantic relationship with her. He’s abusing his power by having a relationship with her.

Behind the scenes, “Lilith” was a very difficult shoot, and director Rossen was in failing health. “Lilith” was his last movie, and he died in 1966, just a year and a half after “Lilith” was released. During pre-production, Rossen and Beatty were on very good terms. As Peter Biskind writes in his Beatty biography, “Rossen welcomed Beatty’s participation on ‘Lilith,’ treating him more like a friend and collaborator than an actor for hire. He involved him in script revisions and casting.” (“Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America,” by Peter Biskind, p.60) Natalie Wood, who had just ended her relationship with Beatty, turned down the part of Lilith. Contrary to popular belief, Beatty had not broken up Wood’s first marriage to Robert Wagner-they didn’t date while they were making “Splendor in the Grass” together, and only started dating once Wood separated from Wagner. Beatty toured Europe trying to find actresses to play Lilith, eventually suggesting Jean Seberg, who was living in Paris. Seberg accepted the part, and later said it was her favorite role of her career. 

In an article written for Cahiers du Cinema in 1967, Jean Seberg wrote of the relationship between Beatty and Rossen: “At the outset, Rossen and he had a relationship which was strangely fraternal, very intimate, very like accomplices, even. Oddly, this relationship of intimacy stopped at the first day of filming, and from then on, it did nothing but deteriorate more and more.” (Biskind, p.60) What caused the relationship to change? No one seems to know for sure. But it seems clear that Beatty’s deliberateness and his habit of asking a million questions on the set annoyed Rossen to no end. Maybe the problem was that Rossen thought that Beatty should know how to play the part once filming began, whereas Beatty was expecting more of a continuing dialogue throughout filming about the part-which is the kind of relationship he had with Elia Kazan. One story from the set is that Beatty asked Rossen the stereotypical actor’s question, “What’s my motivation?” Rossen yelled back, “Your goddamn paycheck!” (“Warren Beatty: A Private Man,” by Suzanne Finstad, p.303) Beatty himself said of Rossen, “I saw he wasn’t making a good picture and told him so, which did not endear me to him.” (Finstad, p.303) Well, that would piss anyone off. Beatty also told the film critic Judith Crist that he had tried to quit the production of “Lilith,” and when the producers wouldn’t allow him to leave the movie, he deliberately stopped trying to act and gave a bad performance. (Finstad, p.304) I tend to believe this story, since Beatty’s performance is so lifeless. It’s a terrible thing for Beatty to have done, and despite thinking that he was getting back at Rossen, he was also wrecking his own career by sabotaging his performance. Jean Seberg wrote to a friend during filming, “Warren Beatty’s behavior is just unbelievable. He’s out to destroy everyone, including himself.” (Biskind, p.61) 

 “Lilith” opened to lukewarm reviews and an indifferent box office in October, 1964. When filming began in April, 1963, Beatty hadn’t worked on a film in almost a year and a half, and when “Lilith” was released movie audiences hadn’t seen him since “All Fall Down,” which had opened 2 ½ years earlier. Beatty had turned down many movies in between “All Fall Down” and “Lilith,” including “PT 109,” the story of President John F. Kennedy’s World War II experiences. Just before agreeing to make “Lilith,” Beatty was almost set to start filming “Youngblood Hawke,” but he never signed his contract for the movie and was fired by Jack Warner. Beatty’s next few movies after “Lilith” were not success either. His star would continue to dim in Hollywood, and it looked like he might be a one-hit wonder until “Bonnie & Clyde” saved his career in 1967.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Book Review: Philip Roth-“Portnoy’s Complaint,” “Zuckerman Unbound,” and “The Facts”

Philip Roth, 1969.
Philip Roth’s best-selling 1969 novel “Portnoy’s Complaint” was a breakthrough for Roth as an author. The book shocked readers for its crude language and its unvarnished depiction of sexual behavior. It became a huge best-seller and thrust Roth onto the national spotlight. Roth fictionalized some of the craziness surrounding “Portnoy’s” success in his 1981 novel “Zuckerman Unbound,” featuring his alter-ego author Nathan Zuckerman. Roth later wrote about the time period that inspired the creation of “Portnoy’s Complaint” in his 1988 non-fiction book “The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography.” This essay will examine some of the themes in all three books, such as the blurring between fact and fiction that Roth constantly engages in. 

“Portnoy’s Complaint” takes the form of a very long comedic psychoanalytic monologue between patient Alexander Portnoy, and his analyst, Doctor Spielvogel, who is unheard from until the last line of the book. It’s a marvelously funny book, as Roth channels the beleaguered Portnoy and tracks his sexual obsessions. The book is all about voice and tone. Roth knew that by using the psychoanalytic monologue as a framing device for Portnoy to tell his story it would free Roth to be as uninhibited on the page as he wanted to be.

Portnoy is a well-behaved Jewish boy growing up in Newark in the 1940’s and 50’s. Portnoy obeys his parents, even though he feels overly stifled by them, even as an adult. Portnoy says in exasperation, “Good Christ, a Jewish man with parents alive is a fifteen-year-old boy, and will remain a fifteen-year-old boy till they die!” (P. 110) Portnoy is a gifted student, and he eventually becomes a lawyer. As Portnoy becomes an adolescent, he discovers the pleasures of masturbation, and quickly becomes addicted to it. Much of the book deals with his feelings toward his parents and his feelings about sex.

Portnoy can’t reconcile being a nice person with also having a sex life. He’s constantly wracked with guilt, and he constantly imagines what awful things will happen if someone, anyone, finds out about his sexual cravings. An ongoing joke in the book is Portnoy’s continual imagining of the headlines of his impending doom.  

Soon after “Portnoy’s Complaint” became a best-seller, people quickly jumped to the conclusion that Philip Roth and Alexander Portnoy were one and the same, and that Roth’s breakthrough novel was nothing more than a long, explicit confessional. As Roth said in a 1977 interview:

“I hadn’t just written a book, it seemed, but had become somebody who stood for something. What I realized was that in the popular imagination, and in the media, Roth and Portnoy were about to be fused into the same person.” (“Conversations with Philip Roth,” P. 102)

Roth’s fictional alter-ego, the author Nathan Zuckerman, has to contend with the same problems in Roth’s novel “Zuckerman Unbound,” after the publication of Zuckerman’s successful, sexually explicit novel “Carnovsky.” 

As Zuckerman wonders at the beginning of the book, “All this, this luck-what did it mean? Coming so suddenly, and on such a scale, it was as baffling as a misfortune.” (P.4) 

Zuckerman is constantly accosted by people in the street who recognize him and either think he is great or depraved, depending on what they thought of his book. “They had mistaken impersonation for confession and were calling out to a character who lived in a book.” (P.10) 

Even in writing to him, Zuckerman’s readers cannot separate him from his character. “Eleven letters tonight…Of these, six were addressed to Nathan Zuckerman, three to Gilbert Carnovsky; one, sent in the care of the publishing house, was addressed simply to ‘The Enemy of the Jews’ and had been forwarded to him unopened.” (P.58) 

Just before “Carnovsky” was published, Zuckerman ended his third marriage. He is confronted by a neighbor and friend of his wife’s, who says to him:

 “But that you could do what you have done to Laura…”
“What is that?”
“The things you wrote about her in that book.”
“About Laura? You don’t mean Carnovsky’s girlfriend, do you?” (P.167)

They get into an argument. “Their conversation grew louder and more shameful and went on for another ten minutes. His world was getting stupider by the hour, and so was he.” (P.170) 

In the course of “Zuckerman Unbound,” Zuckerman deals with an obsessive fan who is a former quiz-show winner, Alvin Pepler, loosely based on real-life quiz-show winner Herbie Stempel, and has a one-night stand with a fading movie star, Caesara O’Shea. Zuckerman also begins to get phone calls from someone threatening to kidnap his mother. Zuckerman is literally coming unbound and unglued, as his life gets crazier and crazier.

 Zuckerman’s father dies at the end of the book, and Zuckerman thinks that his father’s last word was “bastard,” directed at him. Zuckerman has a conversation with his brother about this, and his brother says to him:

“You killed him, Nathan. Nobody will tell you-they’re too frightened of you to say it. They think you’re too famous to criticize-that you’re far beyond the reach now of ordinary human beings. But you killed him, Nathan. With that book. Of course he said ‘Bastard.’ He’d seen it! He’d seen what you had done to him and Mother in that book!” (P.217) 

In a 1984 interview, Roth commented on the success of “Portnoy’s Complaint,” and “Zuckerman Unbound”:

“It was too big, on a larger and much crazier scale than I could begin to deal with, so I took off. A few weeks after publication, I boarded a bus at the Port Authority terminal for Saratoga Springs, and holed up at Yaddo, the writer’s colony, for three months. Precisely what Zuckerman should have done after ‘Carnovsky’-but he hung around, the fool, and look what happened to him. He would have enjoyed Yaddo more than he enjoyed Alvin Pepler. But it made ‘Zuckerman Unbound’ funnier keeping him in Manhattan, and it made my own life easier, not being there.” (“Conversations with Philip Roth,” P. 176)

Does Roth’s book “The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography,” shed any more light on the writing and publication of “Portnoy’s Complaint”? “The Facts” begins in an odd way, as the first few pages are a letter from Philip Roth to Nathan Zuckerman, asking him for his opinion of the manuscript. What’s odd about this, of course, is that Nathan Zuckerman is a fictional character, a creation sprung from the fecund mind of Philip Roth himself. “The Facts” takes the reader through Roth’s childhood growing up in a Jewish enclave of Newark, New Jersey, to his college experiences at Bucknell University, through his disastrous first marriage, and up to the publication of “Portnoy’s Complaint.” 

Roth said of “The Facts” in a 1988 interview, “There were other parts to the book that aren’t there now. It went farther along in time. But that wasn’t as interesting, I suppose, because a calm and orderly life is not as interesting as pressure and crisis.” (“Conversations with Philip Roth,” P. 222)

In the chapter “Girl of My Dreams,” Roth recounts how he met “Josie Jensen” in 1956, when he was an instructor at the University of Chicago. Roth had seen her before, but picked her up on the street, and convinced her to have a cup of coffee with him. Roth began a relationship with Josie, but it proved to be a very tumultuous one. Roth writes that two years into their relationship “…we no longer had anything resembling a love affair, only a running feud focused on my character flaws and from which I was finding it impossible to escape no matter how far I fled.” (P.95) Roth describes what a miserable relationship they had, yet he proves unable to shake Josie as she follows him to New York City. He allows her to move in with him when she is broke. Josie is clearly a mess, as she is an unstable woman with a martyr complex who is dearly in need of counseling, and the reader is hoping that Roth can extricate himself from the clutches of this woman when he ends the chapter with the bombshell: “Reader, I married her.” (P.112)

“Josie Jensen” is a pseudonym for Margaret Martinson Williams, Roth’s first wife. They married in 1959, and were separated by 1962, but Williams was unwilling to divorce Roth. In May 1968, while Roth was in the middle of writing “Portnoy’s Complaint,” Williams was killed in a car crash in Central Park, thus suddenly freeing Roth of both his marriage and his continued alimony payments. Roth arranged the funeral, at Frank Campbell’s on Madison and 81st Street, the same funeral chapel that Zuckerman lives across the street from in “Zuckerman Unbound.” 

Roth has this to say about the different events that aided him in the creation of “Portnoy’s Complaint”: 

“What I found then, in New York…were the ingredients that inspired ‘Portnoy’s Complaint,’ whose publication in 1969 determined every important choice I made during the next decade. There was this audience of sympathetic Jewish friends who responded with euphoric recognition to my dinner-table narratives; there was my intense psychoanalysis, which, undertaken to stitch back together the confidence shredded to bits in my marriage, itself became a model for reckless narrative disclosure of a kind I hadn’t learned from Henry James…” (P.137) 

Roth stresses the point that “Portnoy” was not in any way a self-portrait:

“Unhampered by fealty to real events and people, it was more entertaining, more graphic, and more shapely than my own analysis, if not quite to the point of my personal difficulties. It was a book that had rather less to do with ‘freeing’ me from my Jewishness or from my family (the purpose divined by many, who were convinced by the evidence of ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ that the author had to be on bad terms with both) than with liberating me from an apprentice’s literary models…” (P.156-7)

The last chapter of “The Facts” is Zuckerman’s response to Roth’s manuscript. It’s a little unorthodox to have a fictional character critique the work of the author who created him, but Philip Roth has never been afraid to take chances in his work. 

Zuckerman is quite astute as he writes about Roth’s work:

“You see your writing as evolving out of three things. First, there’s your journey from Weequahic Jewishness into the bigger American society…Second, there was the terrific upheaval of the involvement with Josie and the self-consciousness this ignited about your inner weaknesses as a man. Third, as far as I can make out, there’s your response to the larger world…The whole book seems to be leading to the point where these three forces in your life intersect, producing ‘Portnoy’s Complaint.’’’ (P.164-5) 

I agree with Zuckerman, that “Portnoy” was a breakthrough for Roth, and it’s the moment where it all comes together for him. Roth is at last free of his marriage, and he is creating fiction using a unique voice that is his own creation. He’s no longer trying to write like Henry James-as though there’s any way Henry James could ever have written anything as shocking or as funny as “Portnoy”! 

Zuckerman calls out Roth on a lot of things in his response to Roth’s manuscript. For example, he criticizes Roth’s use of a pseudonym for his wife, rather than her real name. Zuckerman also accuses Roth of being less than totally honest in the manuscript. Why does Roth have Zuckerman criticize him so much? As a way to take ammunition away from his critics? Why didn’t he change the narrative of the book if he felt the way Zuckerman does? Or is Zuckerman pursuing his own agenda? If Roth keeps writing non-fiction, then Zuckerman will have no reason to exist. Is Zuckerman criticizing Roth in order to sway Roth back to writing fiction? When an interviewer asked Roth about this in 1988, shortly after the book was published, he said “Zuckerman is wrong. I think the book is pretty candid. I’ve come as close to the truth as I can. Zuckerman can say whatever he wants. That’s his business.” (“Conversations with Philip Roth,” P.241)

What is the line between fact and fiction in the work of Philip Roth? It’s a thin line at times, as shown by the exchange of letters between real author Roth and fictional author Zuckerman. Ultimately, the line between fact and fiction might not really matter and might distract from appreciating Roth’s work. But it’s one that critics have been asking about Philip Roth for decades. Is Philip Roth really Nathan Zuckerman or Alexander Portnoy? Did he really do everything they did in the novels? Of course he didn’t. He’s an author; he makes up stories for a living. I think that we tend to assume that events actually happened to authors the exact same way they happened in a book, that writing fiction is not so much an act of imagination as one of transcription, that all they have to do is merely write it down. 

 As Nathan Zuckerman says, “That writing is an act of the imagination seems to perplex and infuriate everyone.” (“The Anatomy Lesson”)

Roth said in a 1985 interview: “You’re confusing me with all those astute book reviewers who are sure that I am the only novelist in the history of literature who has never made anything up.” (“Conversations with Philip Roth,” P. 196)

Roth also said in a 1988 interview: “I’m not going to pretend that I’m Portnoy. Why should I? Writing is a performance. I imbue the characters with aspects of my personality. I’m the writer. I’m not the actor.” (“Conversations with Philip Roth,” P.241)

However, it’s easy to see why book reviewers and critics would wonder how much of Roth is in his books. When an author gives a character as many surface similarities to himself as Roth gives Alexander Portnoy, of course people are going to assume that the author is that character. Yes, it’s lazy to assume that the author is his character, but it’s natural for people to think that way. I’m doing a certain amount of it in this essay. As an author, you invite a certain amount of that kind of critical attention if your characters have that many similarities to your own background. 

Some of the similarities between Portnoy and Roth: 

Portnoy and Roth were both born in Newark in 1933. Their fathers were both insurance salesmen. Their mothers were both homemakers. Portnoy and Roth both graduated from Weequahic High in 1950. (Nathan Zuckerman was in the class of 1949 at Weequahic.) Roth and Portnoy both skipped two grades in school. 

Are these similarities meaningful? Not terribly, all it means is that Roth has chosen to write about someone coming from a similar background as his. Most critics don’t pay attention to the differences between Portnoy and Roth:

Portnoy has an older sister, Roth has an older brother. Portnoy has difficult relationships with both his parents, while Roth got along well with his parents, despite occasional disagreements with his father. Roth attended Bucknell University, Portnoy did not. Portnoy went on to become a lawyer, while Roth is a writer-although Roth has admitted that it crossed his mind when he was young to become a lawyer. Roth was in the Army for one year, Portnoy was not. Portnoy has never married, while Roth married in 1959. 

Of course, one could say that these differences are not meaningful either. I would counter that by saying that we will ultimately never know whether or not Philip Roth really experienced all of the things that Alexander Portnoy and Nathan Zuckerman experienced in the novels. What’s important is the work; that these books are well-written, and they clearly are. Roth’s novels are convincing enough to make people wonder how much of the events depicted actually happened to him, which is in a way the highest praise there is. 

“Portnoy’s Complaint” ushered in a new era in Philip Roth’s career, one in which every move he made would be carefully watched by readers around the world. So it’s fitting to leave the last word to Dr. Spielvogel, whose only line is the closing line of “Portnoy’s Complaint.” “So {said the doctor}. Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?” (P.274) Once “Portnoy’s Complaint” was published in 1969 now Philip Roth may perhaps to begin-a new chapter in both his life and career.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Movie Review: Jane Fonda in "Barbarella" (1968)

Jane Fonda as Barbarella, 1968.

This is the picture you find if you look up "sex kitten" in the dictionary.

Another tough day at work for director Roger Vadim.
1968’s campy sci-fi flick “Barbarella,” starring Jane Fonda at her most radiant, is one of the odder movies I’ve seen. I’d heard about the movie for a long time, in particular the famous opening scene where Fonda performs a sexy zero-gravity striptease. The opening titles cleverly scramble around to protect Fonda’s modesty as she strips naked, but we do see her breasts in several shots. And then we still see her breasts, even after she puts on clothes 10 minutes into the movie. When “Barbarella” was re-released in theaters in 1977, it was given the subtitle: “Queen of the Galaxy,” but I think a more apropos subtitle would have been: “Jane Fonda’s Boobs.” 

There’s nothing that can quite prepare you for actually watching “Barbarella,” and all of the silliness that transpires during its 98 minute running time. If you want to see a movie where famous mime Marcel Marceau actually has a speaking role, you’ve come to the right place. However, that’s not the reason most people saw “Barbarella.” The real reason is how unbelievably hot Jane Fonda was in 1968, and all the sexy costumes she’s almost wearing in the movie. 

“Barbarella” was based on a French science-fiction comic about a sexy female astronaut, and was directed by Fonda’s then-husband Roger Vadim. Vadim was most famous for directing his first wife, Brigitte Bardot, in her breakthrough performance “And God Created Woman” in 1956. Vadim earned the envy of every straight man on earth during the 1950’s and 60’s thanks to his marriages to Bardot and Fonda. Oh, and in between his marriages to Bardot and Fonda, he romanced Catherine Deneuve, which officially qualified him for the “Luckiest Bastard Ever” award. For obvious reasons, Vadim titled his 1986 autobiography “Bardot, Deneuve, Fonda: My Life with the Three Most Beautiful Women in the World.” 

The plot of “Barbarella” is really secondary, but it involves Barbarella carrying out a mission for the President of Earth. Barbarella is supposed to find the missing scientist Durand Durand, who has invented a “positronic ray.” (Yup, that’s where the 80’s British band Duran Duran got their name.) In this future setting, no one on Earth has any need for any weapons, as peace and harmony reign. The President of Earth doesn’t even have any armies or policemen. So why does he choose Barbarella for this mission? Well, because she’s a “five-star double-rated astronavigatrix,” whatever that is. And she’s performed missions for the President before; as he says that one day he hopes to meet her in person. (Probably because he keeps ogling her boobs as he talks to her through a two-way TV screen.) 

Despite being a “five-star double-rated astronavigatrix,” Barbarella actually proves to be quite incompetent, and during the film she’s often reduced to being a damsel in distress who is saved by a succession of different men. Barbarella survives innumerable death traps throughout the movie, ranging from toy dolls with gruesome sharp teeth to a deadly pleasure-inducing machine. Along the way, Barbarella discovers the pleasures of making love, as she meets the hirsute Mark Hand after her spaceship crashes in the icy plains of Weir. Hand saves Barbarella from the killer toy dolls, and when she says she doesn’t know how to thank him, he thinks of the oldest way in the book. (The future doesn’t actually seem that advanced as far as gender relations go.) When he tells Barbarella he wants to make love to her, she is puzzled and responds “What do you mean? You don’t even know my psychocardiogram!” She goes on to explain: “Well, on Earth, for centuries, people haven't made love unless their psychocardiogram readings were in perfect confluence.” Lovemaking is now achieved by taking a pill and touching hands for a minute or until “full rapport” occurs. In one of the funniest parts of the movie, Hand asks Barbarella why people no longer make love the old way. She says, “'Cause it was proved to be distracting and a danger to maximum efficiency! And… and because it was pointless to continue it when other substitutes for ego support and self-esteem were made available.” 

“Barbarella” is ultra-campy, and it thankfully has its tongue planted firmly in cheek most of the time. In addition to the lines about future sex, there are some funny moments, as when Hand takes off his fur jacket, revealing that he is just as hairy without the jacket as he is with it. Hand gives Barbarella one of his furs to wear, and it looks like a skunk, complete with long tail that gets caught in the door of Barbarella’s spaceship. 

Barbarella’s spaceship then crashes again, and she meets the blind angel Pygar, played by the statuesque John Phillip Law, and his friend Professor Ping, played by Marcel Marceau. (Marceau’s voice was dubbed.) Barbarella thanks Pygar for saving her by making love to him, and he thus regains the will to fly. (I told you this movie was campy!) Barbarella then makes her way to the city of SoGo, where she meets a concierge (Milo O’Shea and his giant eyebrows) who is an assistant to the Great Tyrant, the Black Queen, played by Keith Richards’ then girlfriend Anita Pallenberg. Pallenberg also had a small role in another 1968 sex farce which was also co-written by Terry Southern, “Candy.” I reviewed “Candy” here, and the movies do have some similarities, as they tell picaresque tales of attractive young women that make every man fall in love with them. The male performances in “Candy” are better, as you get to see huge stars like Richard Burton and Marlon Brando hamming it up, but Jane Fonda is a much better actress than Ewa Aulin, the Swedish actress who played Candy. 

Meanwhile, as the plot trundles on, Barbarella has to survive another death trap, as the Black Queen captures Barbarella and puts her in a cage to be pecked to death by birds, in an obvious homage to Alfred Hitchcock. But Barbarella escapes down a hatch and meets the funniest character in the film, a revolutionary played by David Hemmings, fresh off his most famous role as the photographer in Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow-Up.” Hemmings reminded me a lot of fellow swinging 60’s British actor Terence Stamp, as they both have the same intense, heavily lidded blue eyes. Hemmings mines his small role for all the comedy it’s worth, as he stammers over his lines and insists that Barbarella make love with him in the new Earth way, by taking pills and touching palms, which literally makes your hair curl. Hemmings then gives Barbarella an invisible key to the Queen’s sleeping chambers. Yes, an invisible key. It turns out that the concierge is actually Durand Durand himself, and he uses the positronic ray to wreak havoc on the citizens of SoGo, killing just about everyone before he gets killed by his own evil invention. Oh, and there’s some subterranean sludge called the Mathmos, which makes SoGo evil, or something like that, but Barbarella’s innocence saves her and the Queen from being destroyed by it. Nope, not kidding about that.

“Barbarella” is a ridiculous movie, but it remains a fun romp because of Fonda’s knowingly humorous performance, and her amazing costumes, designed by Jacques Fonteray and Paco Rabanne. Fonda is amazingly beautiful and sexy as Barbarella, and she brings the right amount of wide-eyed innocence to the role. Barbarella is completely guileless, and doesn’t understand why all of these men are falling at her feet. Had Fonda been a less gifted actress, “Barbarella” could have doomed her to be typecast as a bimbo, but she was able to escape the sex kitten image she created in “Barbarella.” The very 60’s soundtrack is by the superbly talented Bob Crewe, who wrote and produced many hits for the Four Seasons, and is a great singer in his own right. 

“Barbarella” was fun to watch, but I think it must have been more fun to see it back in 1968, when it was shocking audiences and when its boundary breaking would have seemed fresher. But if you want to take a trip back to the swinging 60’s, watch “Barbarella.”