Wednesday, March 30, 2016

LIZ SMITH: One-Man Bands

Orson Welles, the subject of Simon Callow's "Orson Welles: One-Man Band." This is volume three in Callow's on-going study of Welles.
by Liz Smith

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice —"Girls, girls, stop arguing! ... New Books on Deck ... The Hidden History of the Billionaires ... Orson Welles is a One-Man Band.

"THE GLEAM in their eyes telegraphs only too clearly that they are hoping for a headline, which of course means something disparaging, because nothing makes such good copy as a feud," said screenwriter Leslie Charteris.
NOT ONLY does feuding make for good copy (you naughty boys Ted and Donald!) but it can also make for staggering movie box-office returns. Certainly, the two-hour plus on-screen battle between Batman and Superman, at Cineplex's all over the world proves that. So far, the poorly reviewed "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" has taken in $420 million, breaking all sorts of weekend and first day records.  As I noted last week, these kind of films are almost always critic proof. Me?  I thought it was pretty great, although there is so much pouting and brooding and bad feelings between the two super-heroes (Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill) I wanted to say at certain points, "Girls, girls, stop arguing! You're both very pretty!" 
Affleck — surprise! — makes an excellent, tormented Batman (he thinks Superman and his powers are not a good thing.)  Cavill is depressed, and unsure of himself.  Many current movies based on comic books are eons away from the sunnier characterizations of years gone by. "B v S" is right up there — or down there — in the psychological dark night that so many seem to demand. There's humor, of course, but nothing campy. The film verges on the over-stuffed — too much happening, too many characters, and really, two and a half hours? But not being, as they say, a "fanboy" of the genre or each particular super-hero, I try to approach these movies individually and not get caught up in what should and shouldn't be according to said fans. "B v S" looks splendid and the special effects or CGI or whatever all that is called now, are eye-popping.
Loved Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman (quite a change from Lynda Carter!) ... Laurence Fishburne as Perry White ... Jeremy Irons as Batman's loyal, witty manservant Alfred ... Jesse Eisenberg as a highly neurotic Lex Luthor and Amy Adams as Lois Lane, although I've always found Lois to be a rather thankless role, no matter who plays her or what kind of situation she's in.  But for my money, the film's best moments belong to Diane Lane as Superman's eternally worried mom, Martha Kent.
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman.
Laurence Fishburne as Perry White.
Jeremy Irons as Batman's loyal, witty manservant Alfred.
Jesse Eisenberg as a highly neurotic Lex Luthor.
Amy Adams as Lois Lane.
Am I going to ponder any of these performances, the script, the plot, the future of the franchise, the ultimate fate of any of the characters?  Nah.  It's an experience.  It is what fills studio coffers.  I'll likely have a "better time" at "My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2."  But I'll save that for the coming weekend.  (By the way, the Nia Vardalos comedy sequel did quite well too, although clearly not in blockbuster category.  And Sally Field's "My Name Is Doris" also took in some nifty change.  See, my less than glowing review didn't matter.  As with super-heroes, people really, really like Sally Field!)
Click to order The Midnight Watch: A Novel of the Titanic and the Californian.
BOOKS!  The story of the sinking of the Titanic has been oft told, most famously, alas, in the wretched, if monumentally popular "Titanic" movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.

Now there is something new on deck, a book titled "The Midnight Watch: A Novel of The Titanic and The Californian."  (The Californian was the ship that spotted the Titanic after she had struck the iceberg, but didn't come to her aid, despite distress flares from the sinking luxury liner.)  Author David Dyer has taken many known facts about the two ships on that terrible night, and woven in a strikingly vivid and sensitive fiction.  His one total creation is a newspaperman named John Steadman, whose reputation has been to "follow the bodies" in his reports on disasters and death.  But his reporting about Titanic changes his outlook.  The other main character was a real life person, seaman Herbert Stone, who was on the "midnight watch" aboard The Californian, as Titanic slipped into its icy grave.  Also based on truth — the captain of The Californian, Stanley Lord.

The motivations, inner thoughts, compulsions, insecurities that beset and drive these men — and their wives and children — are exquisitely told.  As is a final recounting of a third class family on the Titanic, fighting to survive.
SS Californian on the morning after Titanic sank.
Dyer writes with effortless simplicity and honesty, along with a remarkable ability to stay on tract, fact-wise.  By the time the novel nears its conclusion, as Stella and Will (the passengers mentioned above) their brothers and sisters, father and mother, face the horror of the "unsinkable" liner, indeed sinking, and their own station on the ship made tragically clear (steerage passengers) I can't deny moistened eyes and the proverbial lump in the throat.  "The Midnight Watch" is not the usual bodice-ripping historical adventure I sometimes gravitate towards on long weekends.  This is a noble work about the vagaries of conscience, duty, loyalty, regret and forgiveness.  I loved it. Amazingly — this is the David Dyer's first novel!
Titanic embarking on its first and last voyage on April 10, 1912.
I am halfway through Jane Mayer's "Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right." Scary and depressingly enlightening.  Our current political situation just didn't happen overnight, folks!
Also still plowing happily through Simon Callow's hugely entertaining "Orson Welles: One-Man Band." This is volume three in Callow's on-going study of Welles. The frantic pace at which Welles lived his life and produced his art — the good, great and frustratingly unsuccessful — is a roller coaster ride of ego, appetite and genius. 
Click to order Dark Money. Click to order Orson Welles: One-Man Band.
What gives Callow's work such vivid life is not only the man, Welles, and his fantastic ideas, projects, and unending search for some kind of perfection, it is how Callow realizes and relates that in so many ways Welles was his own worst enemy. But perhaps — I think the author would agree — that was all to the best, in the end?

Orson Welles would not have been nearly as fascinating disturbing, thrilling and motivated had everything turned out exactly right — the financing, the actors, the un-ending resistance from studios. Callow's chapters on "Touch of Evil" alone are worth the price of this colorful, extraordinarily intelligent and deliciously realistic glimpse at a genuine visionary who was perhaps too inspired for his own good. 

With Denis Ferrara

Contact Liz here.