Film: Life-Size Movies

One of the most surprising, even paradoxical aspects of film is its intimacy. You wouldn’t think a medium that shows us two-dimensional pictures of 50-foot-tall people would be so good at conveying the smallest idiosyncrasies of human personality—but in fact, film acting requires far more nuance than stage acting, precisely because the ability of the camera to bring us within inches of an actor’s face eliminates the need for “projection.” That’s why such renowned stage performers as Ethel Merman and the Lunts either shunned or were ineffective in the movies. They’d worked so hard for so long at projecting their personalities all the way to the back row of a Broadway theater that they didn’t know how to do anything else.

None of this is to say that larger-than-life wide-screen films can’t be great fun in their own noisy way, but when I want more out of a movie than fun, I rarely turn to them. Alas, American directors are increasingly disinclined to make small-scale pictures, so it was with something approaching outright astonishment that I saw, all in the space of a single week, three variously excellent new movies that might have been made just for me.

Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation started generating buzz within what seemed like hours of its initial limited release in a handful of big-city theaters, and I confess to having been more than a little bit suspicious of the hype. (As Pauline Kael once asked, “Was there ever a good movie that everybody was talking about?”) Nor was I encouraged by the fact that Coppola is the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola. But I went anyway, and I’m glad I did, for Lost in Translation is a thoughtful, elegant, miraculously self-assured piece of work. I’m as suspicious of bandwagons as the next guy, but anyone who can write and direct a film this good is the real deal, whatever her last name.

So much has been written about Lost in Translation that I doubt I need to spend much time recapitulating the slender plot. In brief, Bill Murray is an over-the-hill movie star who comes to Tokyo to make whiskey commercials, where he meets a much younger woman (Scarlett Johansson) whose still-new marriage is in trouble. They fall in love—platonically—then return to their troubled lives after a brief interlude of companionship that reawakens them to the value of their married lives.

On this modest but sufficient foundation, Coppola has erected a complex character study that is at once funny and morally serious. Any number of things could have gone wrong with Lost in Translation, starting with the obvious one, but it seems never to have occurred to Coppola to allow Murray and Johansson to sleep together. Instead, they steer clear of the “natural” denouement that would have wrecked their lives (and the film) beyond repair. It occurs to me that the restraint with which Coppola portrays their mutual attraction might well have come more easily to a female filmmaker, but whatever its source, it makes for a film that is adult in the true sense.

I love the way Coppola suggests the strangeness of surfaces in Tokyo—the subtly disorienting quality of a city that looks Western at first glance but isn’t. I also love the startlingly effective use she makes of Murray, who really is as good in Lost in Translation as everybody says, partly because, much like Annette Bening in Open Range, he looks so unabashedly careworn. The lines in his face are like the rings in a tree stump—you can read his age off them. (In another half-dozen years, he’ll be a dead ringer for W. H. Auden.) As I watched, I kept trying to figure out who he reminded me of, and all at once two names popped into my head: Jeff Bridges and Robert Mitchum, both of whom reek of the same barely penetrable disillusion. In fact, Murray’s performance in Lost in Translation is just inches away from film noir, so close that I can almost imagine him playing Philip Marlowe or Bridges’s part in The Fabulous Baker Boys.

Scarcely less impressive, and no less serious, is Alan Rudolph’s The Secret Lives of Dentists, an occasionally over-flamboyant but mostly straightforward study of the devastating effects of adultery on the marriage of two no-longer-young dentists (Campbell Scott and Hope Davis) so caught up in raising their children that they forget to love one another. Davis is shiveringly good as the guilty party, but Scott has the larger and more demanding part—nothing is harder than making an audience care about an emotionally inhibited character— and brings it off with self-effacing skill.

The very next night, I saw Davis give another pitch-perfect performance, this time in American Splendor, a quirkily affecting screen version of the long series of autobiographical comic books that tells the story of Harvey Pekar’s uneventful life as a clerk in a Cleveland VA hospital. Here, she plays Joyce, Harvey’s penny-plain sourpuss of a wife, and seeing the two films back to back left me surer than ever that she is the finest actress to come out of the indie-flick world (better even than Parker Posey, though I hate to admit it).

Aside from Hope Davis, what makes American Splendor so good is not its postmodern shifting between “Harvey Pekar” the character (perfectly played in the film by Paul Giamatti) and Harvey Pekar the bonafide on-screen weirdo himself (Pekar’s intermittent presence in the film borders at times on the cutesy), but the clarity and humor with which writer-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini show us the grubby melancholy of lower-middle-class urban life. In that respect, the films it most reminded me of were Ghost World (no surprise there) and the greatly underrated One Hour Photo.

I should point out, however, that the “Harvey Pekar” of American Splendor is a semi-fictional character and that a movie about the real Harvey Pekar might well have been even more interesting, if less touching. Yes, Harvey the celebrated author of autobiographical comic books and “Harvey” the fictional author of autobiographical comic books both spent a quarter-century working at numbingly dull jobs, survived cancer, razzed David Letterman on camera, found love, and started a family. But the real Harvey Pekar is not simply a hapless record-collecting schlub from Cleveland who decided one day to write comic books about his working-class life. He is also a full-fledged left-wing intellectual— homemade, to be sure, but the shoe still fits—who reviews books for the Village Voice and does regular commentaries on NPR.

While all this information has been carefully scissored out of American Splendor, its absence does not invalidate the movie, which has its own expressive validity independent of the man whose story it purports to tell. Still, it should be kept firmly in mind that in creating “Harvey Pekar,” the makers of American Splendor—not to mention Pekar himself—deliberately omitted inconvenient details whose inclusion would doubtless have caused the film to make a radically different impression on many viewers. “Harvey” is a weird but nonetheless convincingly common man whose plight really does come across as more or less universal. Harvey is…well, something else again. To put it mildly. And then some.


  • Terry Teachout

    Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, culture critic of Commentary, and the author of books on Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Banchine.

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