My wife and I finally watched Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River the other night, more than two years after the rest of the world, and we agreed the movie was disappointing, over-wrought and at times incoherent. I write as a longtime Eastwood fan, but he started taking himself too seriously at least 15 years ago, certainly by the time of Unforgiven, which I, a lover of Westerns, seem to have been almost alone in finding dull. Of course, he had already made Bird, which was ridiculous. I almost gave up on Mystic River after 45 minutes. Eastwood didn’t seem to be having much fun, and neither was I.
The Eastwood I prefer is the maker, as actor and/or director, of honest genre pictures, especially Westerns (Joe Kidd, High Plains Drifter) and crime films like Dirty Harry and Tightrope. Hollywood is hopeless and embarrassing when it reaches after Significance and, worst of all, Art. Most of my favorite Hollywood movies – say, Frankenheimer’s Manchurian Candidate, the first two Godfather films, Chinatown – are eminently artistic but not self-proclaimed Art. They are pulp that transcends pulpiness.
Manny Farber is good on this phenomenon, as on so many things. This is from his 1962 essay “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art”:
“Movies have always been suspiciously addicted to termite-art tendencies. Good work usually arises where the creators (Laurel and Hardy, the team of Howard Hawks and William Faulkner operating on the first half of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep) seem to have no ambitions toward gilt culture but are involved in a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor that isn’t anywhere or for anything. A peculiar fact about termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art is that it goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.”
Farber writes in a critical language all his own, and it can be opaque on first reading (and twenty-first). What he means is that good movies have more to do with the energy, single-mindedness and hard work of their creators than high-toned artistic pretensions or the desire to deliver a Message. I especially like the passage because Laurel and Hardy and the Bogart-Bacall version of Raymond Chandler’s first novel are loves of mine.
Many poems have been written about the movies, and most of them are not very good because they are written in a spirit of camp or nostalgia. A surprising number of John Berryman’s Dream Songs (7, 9, 222, 363, among others) deal knowingly and fondly with movies. The best movie poem I know is “In Defense of Poetry,” by the late Edgar Bowers, from the 1990 volume For Louis Pasteur:
“Childhood taught us illusion. When I saw
On Frederic March’s hands the fierce black hair
And long sharp nails of Mr. Hyde, I ran
Screaming from the theater, his twisted face
Demonic behind me brighter than the day;
Then begged to stay up past bedtime, for fear
Boris Karloff wake me and, near despair,
I run to consolation through the dark.
And while Miss Hinton taught us spelling, grammar,
Multiplication – all like lovely guides
To bring us safely from the labyrinth
Of self and self’s intelligence – it seemed
I heard the voice that mocked them. `There is no
Language,’ it whispered, `no A on tests, no trust
To keep you from the presence of my face.
Parents and children die, anguish will be
Greater than its hard sum and no familiar
Voices deliver you from Mr. Hyde,
However Dr. Jekyll seem secure.’
Now in a bright room in a building named
For one who taught the art of politics,
Three days a week I listen to the stories
My young friends write, remembering that my father
Loved stories and especially those he told.
Intelligent and brave, they risk their way
By speech from childhood anguish, formal candor
An old light shining new within a world
Confusing and confused, although their teachers
Deny the worth of writing – my latest colleagues,
Who hope to find a letter in the mail,
Are happy if their children study Shakespeare
At Harvard, Penn or Yale, write articles
To prove all writing writers’ self-deception,
Drive Camrys, drink good wines, play Shostakovich
Or TV news before they go to bed,
And when their sleeping or their waking dream
Is fearful, think it merely cinema,
Trite spectacle that later will amuse.
But when my mind remembers, unamused
It pictures Korczak going with his children
Through Warsaw to the too substantial train.”
Bowers acknowledges the raw power of movies to grip us, to create dreams and to haunt them. It also acknowledges our weakness for blurring movies and reality, for shuffling and thus demeaning images from both realms – “merely cinema/Trite spectacle that later will amuse.” As the title suggests, poetry offers an artistic alternative, permitting young writers (and old writers, I suppose) to “risk their way/By speech from childhood anguish.” Bowers cites Dr. Janusz Korczak, the Polish physician, writer and teacher who ran a school for orphans in the Warsaw ghetto and accompanied the doomed children to Treblinka. Andrzej Wajda made a movie, Korczak, about him. Mystic River, too, deals with abused children and the legacy such abuse engenders. But Eastwood’s film turns abuse into tabloid melodrama. Every frame is too emphatic, too loud, too cartoonish, too insistently certain of its own bravery in the face of evil.