The Secret Life of Films
I lifted Pauline Kael up off the ground and—holding her in my arms—carried her across a large section of mud at the Cleveland airport. I was chairman of the film society at Oberlin College and I had invited her to speak. A year later I visited her at her West End Avenue apartment in New York and continued our conversation. But I never saw her or talked to her again. She was a breath of fresh air but in the end I went my own way.
And then just yesterday a friend—who had driven me to the Cleveland airport to pick her up—sent me a piece by Richard Kramer in which he quotes Kael as saying: “An opinion is an action, a flag planted, a flare shot to the sky. Movies and love and life are one.” (1)
My opinions are indeed actions. I do plant my flag. I shoot my flares into the dark night sky and hope I will illuminate the landscape. And yes: movies and love and life are one!
There are three kinds of films:
1. the mainstream
2. pathological rebellion against the bourgeoisie
3. the third way
The mainstream upholds the norms of society. It can be a little boring and conformist and thin in content but it has decency and reasonable goodness.
The rebels are like selfish children who throw tantrums while proclaiming to the world that they are superior to the bourgeoisie. They think breaking the rules and mocking the conformity of the mainstream is a sign of superiority. But any idiot can throw a rock and smash a window. This is a dead end and is pathological. Luis Bunuel comes to mind. And a lot of people making “Indie” films. And the Coen brothers, who have obvious talent but unfortunately use it to send the cynical message that life stinks and nothing matters. All of them would do well to listen to Flaubert: “Live like a bourgeois during the day so you can write like a madman at night.”
For the most part we are given films of just the first two categories. But there is a third way and this is something else entirely. Films of the third way are neither pleasant escapes nor pathological rebellions. They have a mysterious magic.
The third way is like going home. It is a place of light and heart and bravery and love and beauty and kindness—even if the film is filled with betrayal and deception and murder. It is a place where everything matters.
Films of the third way do not escape reality. Instead they face the fact that life on this planet is mysterious and beautiful and tragic and that by facing that reality courageously—seeing the world in minor mode—we feel ecstasy and love.
This is the secret life of films.
Stanley Kubrick said: “I’ve never been able to decide whether the plot is just a way of keeping people’s attention while you do everything else, or whether the plot is really more important than anything else, perhaps communicating with us on an unconscious level which affects us in the way that myths once did.”
To bring all of this to life I will use Body Heat, which is brilliant in every way and which I have seen more than thirty times. Mattie Walker (Kathleen Turner) seduces Ned Racine (William Hurt) into killing her husband. She gets away with it and gets all the money but we see her at the end on a beach and we can tell she is a lost soul. She might as well be dead. Ned is in prison but there is still hope for him.
But Body Heat is much more than that.
There is a scene near the end when Peter Lowenstein (Ted Danson)—assistant county prosecutor in a small town—on a pier at night tells Ned things about the night of the murder. Ned says: “Is this gonna be one of those conversations ‘cause if it is maybe I should have my lawyer present.” Lowenstein replies: “Buddy, your lawyer is present.” His voice is professional and at the same time it is filled with deep feeling and great caring. And in fact Lowenstein saves Ned’s life.
I came to realize that the beautiful spirit of that scene fills every frame of the movie from the opening shot to the very end. What this means is that we have been taken into a perfect world. A luminous world of great heart and we feel it no matter what is going on in any given scene—including murder.
In an attempt to figure out how this was accomplished, I called Paramount Pictures and asked to speak to Fred T. Gallo—the producer for Body Heat. He was in a meeting so I left a message. The next morning he called me and we spoke for twenty minutes. Even with this conversation it still remains a mystery how this or any third-way film is created. All I can conclude is that at certain times some artists have the magic.
Third way films come in two different forms:
1 Art films such as La Notte (Antonioni) and Chinese Roulette (Fassbinder) and 2046 (Wong Kar Wai).
2 Films that on the surface look like average popular entertainments but which are just as brilliant and moving as the great art films. In fact they are art films in disguise. Body Heat and The Last Run are great examples.
In the end there is no point in separating art films from popular films. Great films are great films. And bad films are bad films. Some so-called art films are stupid and pretentious and empty. And some directors—such as Bergman and Kurosawa and Tarkovsky—have been wildly overrated. And some popular thrillers can be deep and rich and poetic.
The Last Run with George C. Scott looks at first like just another thriller. But take a closer look. Here is a scene from the film:
Whore: Was your wife good in bed?
Harry Garmes: She didn’t snore.
Whore: Was she pretty?
Harry: A body of silver and silk and eyes the color of gentian.
Whore: That is a lovely thing to say.
Harry: Well her boyfriend had a very nice turn of phrase. She left some of his old letters behind.
Whore: But you did love her . . . .
Harry: It’s all in the past. Ah it’s better left. . . . oh ah keep this for me will you?
Whore: What is it?
Harry: Something I want you to keep while I’m gone.
Whore: Where are you going?
Harry: Just business.
Whore: You are driving again for criminals . . . .
Harry: I’m driving again for me . . . ‘cause I’m getting ready to die sitting down here. I’m driving again to see if my nerves and my brain are still connected. That’s why I’ve . . . well about the people who are paying me you’re right: they are criminals.
Whore: Is it stolen? Is that why you gave it to me?
Harry: No no it’s just that it’s real money. It’s not bank money. If you were to look very closely under the picture of Benjamin Franklin you would see that it said: “This proves Harry Garmes is still alive.” And if it should happen to prove otherwise consider it yours.
Whore: When do you go?
Harry: Tomorrow morning.
Whore: Come back later. I have two more customers but I will cut it short. Come back and I will cook you something that doesn’t taste of sardines.
Harry: Thanks but i have things to do.
Whore: This work . . . is it dangerous?
Harry: No. Just transportation.
Whore: Are you Catholic?
Harry: In the old days before the fall I owned a few shares.
Whore: I will pray for you.
Harry laughs . . . .
Whore: You think it would do no good to have a whore pray for you . . . .
Harry walks over to her and ties her hair for her and says: She is not a whore who sleeps abed with thee and he and me. She is a whore who has the heart of a whore. Believe me i know.
The whore is visibly moved and puts her hand on his.
Another example of a film of the third way is American Gigolo. Julian (Richard Gere) and Michelle (Lauren Hutton) are lost and then each saves the other. The ending is an epiphany. Here are the two final scenes:
Michelle: I told them, Julian.
Julian: I heard. You didn’t have to do that, Michelle. You could have forgotten me.
Michelle: I’d rather die.
Julian: What will you do now?
Michelle: I don’t know. I can’t go home. Newsmen are waiting outside for me. There’s dozens of them.
Julian: Why did you do it?Michelle: I had no choice. I love you.
Julian: My god, Michelle. It’s taken me so long to come to you.
Pauline Kael got it right: movies and life and love are one. Films of the third way are not a momentary vision of how reality ought to be. No. They ARE reality. The great films simply bring the poetic reality that is always here out from the shadows and into the light.
Or as Enzo Siciliano, writer and literary critic who worked with Moravia and Bertolucci, put it: “. . . to gather and express a poetic feeling of existence.”
These extraordinary luminous films are often hidden from view. I have spent many years in search of them and I have found several hundred.
If you want to experience these films too but do not know how to find them, I invite you to come with me. I offer to be your guide.
(1) Richard Kramer: Pauline Kael Was My Mentor:
© Richard Hobby