Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Living History

It is splendid to be a great writer, to put men into the frying pan of your imagination and make them pop like chestnuts. -Gustave Flaubert

We’ve been served an inordinate number of bio-pics this past year. I’ve seen or read about films depicting the highfalutin and erudite like Albert Einstein, the Austrian writer, Stephen Zweig and Srinivasa Ramanujan (The Man Who Knew Infinity), plus Emily Dickinnson (A Quiet Passion) to the low-falutin Tonya Harding (I, Tonya). We were served two Grahams from Gloria (Annette Bening) who didn’t quite die in Liverpool to Katharine (Meryl Streep) who rescued the Washington Post by publishing the Pentagon Papers.

Last year Bryan Cranston popped out of the frying pan as Lyndon Johnson and this year Woody Harrelson took his turn as LBJ. It seems like all chubby British actors get their licks as Winston Churchill. Albert Finney was followed by Toby Jones in past years and this year we were well-served by Brian Cox (Churchill) and Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour). Sir Winston is getting to be as popular as Hamlet; everyone wants to give it a go. I almost expect Meryl Streep to step into his cigar in 2018.

A bit of hokum is to be excused for dramatic purposes as long as it doesn’t come from the fake news fabulists of Breitbart whose fidelity is to their delusional narrative rather than to the actual.

Sally Hawkins made a great Maudie as the real-life naïve folk artist while Vincent Van Gogh was played by the Polish actor Robert Gulaczyk in a most dazzling display of painterly animation.

(Back in the day we kids thought Don Ameche invented the telephone and Spencer Tracy was Thomas Edison. Maybe in times of upheaval folks need their heroes to cling to. I was so confused I imagined Tracy picking up his light bulb and saying, Hello?)

Who am I forgetting? Oh yes, there was Marshall (Thurgood Marshall), Victoria and Abdul, The Crown, Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs (Battle of the Sexes) which I found unwatchable. I also saw the story of Mark Felt who was known to Woodward and Bernstein as Deep Throat. His leaks led to the ignominy of Richard Nixon who left the presidency uttering, I am not a crook.

We live in an age of rapid news cycles with executive tantrums, blurts and exposes; skeletons are falling daily out of closets. Yesterday’s news is already regarded as stale and ready for the history books. People hunger for a good story and everybody has one, which can be rushed to the big screen with a bit of doctoring and embellishment.  

J.D. Salinger made it with (Rebel in the Rye) along with Tupac Shakur (All Eyez on Me), and P.T. Barnum (The Greatest Showman). Why bother with the latter when we have his incarnation sitting in the oval office elected by the mobocracy of Suckers born every minute.

All of this makes for a sort of living history for those born after World War II, Vietnam or Watergate. The generations following Baby Boomers seem to have a remarkable disdain for antecedents so all these movies might whet their appetite to investigate what really happened and how we got to this sorry state.

I expect more of the same in 2018. I’m sure the Harvey Weinstein story is going through final drafts along with accounts of the Al Franken / Roy Moore debacle. But the grand prize must go to the decline of the presidency from Barack to Donald, the most precipitous fall in American history since Mrs. Lincoln’s moving van pulled away making room for Andrew Johnson to sleep on Abe’s pillow.

You can’t make this stuff up, this absurd tragi-comedy script unfolding daily. There is no fiction that rivals the dystopic horror movie we are living in, each of us with cameo roles popping like chestnuts.