â€¢ Rich Kids
â€¢ The Europeans
â€¢ The Coney Island area of Brooklyn was long the residence of middle-class workers and small businessmen, a refuge of freedom for thousands of immigrants who settled in New York. Today the area has deteriorated, and because of violent rival gangs one seldom dares to venture out at night, or alone even by day. But for families who have lived there for many years and who know no other home, habits are difficult to change, and they remain in spite of the danger.
Danger is one theme of BOARDWALK. The comparison of the hoodlums to the Nazis, from whom many of the residents fled, is not lost upon the viewer. (And one sees how shallow was the treatment of the same theme in an earlier film, The Warriors.) But there are other themes interlocked with this, chief of which is the passionate and enduring love affair of an elderly Jewish couple, approaching their golden wedding anniversary. I don't remember a film in which both of the principals are octogenarians, but if that's what it takes there ought to be more of them. Lee Strasberg and Ruth Gordon are a marvel to behold in their "marriage made in heaven," showing once again that they are among the finest actors alive, exciting both admiration for their perfection in their roles and intense emotional identification for the characters they portray.
Other themes too are fused in this picture: the squabblings of children, in-laws, and grandchildren (the old couple are younger in spirit than any of them); the closing down of the family cafeteria, a symbol of a declining era; and the utter desolation of the old man after the loss of his wife. There is a scene in which he approaches his house and hears the piano being played, and for a moment he thinks his wife is still alive, only to find that it is his grandson; just the working of the old man's face as he murmurs, "No, don't close the piano," has greater impact in 10 seconds than most entire movies. A high level of sustained acting, directing, and scripting have combined here to produce the surprise emotional blockbuster of the seasonâ€"one which, if handled with less talent and imagination, could easily have become trivial or depressing or just confusing but which succeeds instead in being a memorable affirmation of renewed life.
â€¢ Few American films are shown in the Soviet Union. One that was extensively shown there was Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrathâ€"to show how miserable life was in America. But it boomeranged: "Do poor people in America actually own cars?" they asked, and the film was withdrawn from circulation.
What would they think if they saw RICH KIDS? Posh Manhattan townhouses, every conceivable luxury, maids and waiters and babysitters, several Rolls Royces to a family.â€¦It would be quite unbelievable that such things exist. Even so, the theme of the picture might be good grist for the Soviet mill, for it is an intimate and touching picture of family dissension and unhappiness. All the parents involved are either divorced or in the process, and the children are the losers. Left to their own devices, they do things that would shock their parents, yet the parents are too busy with their marital and extramarital problems to follow the day-to-day activities of their children. When they do find out, they are so busy accusing each other that they forget the children once more, who go off by themselves and wonder how their parents got so screwed up.
The details of each scene are so plausibly set forth, and presented with such a fine cutting edge, that one must consider it a minor gem of cinematic art. Yet the story of Rich Kids in America, in spite of deft comic touches, is surpassingly sad. The Soviets could well use it as evidence of how miserable Americans are, after all.
â€¢ "Inspiring" is the word for the view of the New York skyline, even as seen from across the river in Hoboken. Hoboken itself, like much of the city across the river, is squalid and ugly. We are not spared any sordid details of this environment. Yet it is in this setting that an unexpected kind of drama begins to take shape before our eyes.
The young man's mother is dead, his father is a drunkard, his brothers are petty criminals; he is trying to be a successful singer, but everything is against him. Then he meets herâ€"it is love at first sight, but no evanescent passion, rather an intense and abiding love that encompasses total devotion to the person loved, in the face of seemingly insuperable difficulties, and it dwarfs every emotion he has felt before. She is beautiful, she has grace and dignity and poiseâ€"but she is deaf. And because she is deaf, her fellow teachers at the school for deaf children say it won't work, that he will leave her when the problems of having a deaf wife come home to him. She herself has doubts. She meets his family in the most inauspicious of circumstances. They adopt an air of moral righteousness when they perceive that she is deaf. But the love between them is so overpowering that it carries them through every difficulty.
An old-fashioned romantic drama? Indeed it is, and there aren't many of them around any more. It is carried off with style and passion by the principals, Amy Irving and Michael Ontkean, and their performances, together with a spare and telling script, make VOICES one of the most richly rewarding films of the season.
â€¢ The difference between literature and film is the difference between saying and showing. There are things that can be beautifully and powerfully said that do not fare well in the showing. Sometimes, as in a character sketch, there is little in the way of external events for the camera to capture; sometimes, as in many novels, almost all that happens is internalâ€"what goes on is primarily in the characters' minds and is only occasionally manifested in action; and sometimes, though there is action, the important thing is its symbolic or spiritual meaning. Thus the novels of (for example) William Faulkner and Joseph Conrad do not lend themselves to the cinematic medium. There are two current examples of this.
THE EUROPEANS is filled with beautiful autumn foliage in New England, palatial 19th-century mansions, and the costumes and decor of the period, reproduced to a fault. But none of this has anything to do with Henry James's novel. His dramas are almost totally interiorâ€"in the minds of his characters, and their perceptions of the minds of others through subtle cues in their behavior. Externally, nothing much happens: Lee Remick makes the most of what there is, but it's a losing struggle.
One must have time and no distractions to absorb the novels of Henry James. They move slowly, but surely and inexorably. They are rather like a sleeping blanket turned on low when one is coldâ€"at first there is little effect and one almost abandons it, but gradually one becomes comfortable and finally quite warm and even glowing in the ambience of the James universe. Long after reading such a novel one recalls details of the characterizations and is impressed by the author's microscopic penetration of the most subtle nuances of the human mind therein revealed.
None of this, however, lends itself to film. Though one of James's lesser novels, The Europeans is full of inner life and of outer inaction. The outer inaction is what we see in this film. The story of a European countess who comes to visit American cousins hoping for a husband and goes back empty-handed is neither illuminating nor moving on the screen. Though the film is short, it still drags. "There oughta be a law" that the novels of Henry James should not be filmed; one gets only the outer husk and is usually deterred from reading the novels themselves where the real treasure lies. The most successful transcription of a James novel thus far is Washington Square, largely because Olivia de Havilland's facial expressions reveal more of her complex passions than do Lee Remick's. One hopes that his major novels, such as The Ambassadors, The Wings of a Dove, and Portrait of a Lady will be spared the ignominy of "translation" into a medium to which they are as ill-suited as any novels that come to mind.
The most recent example is HEARTBEAT, based on the life of novelist Jack Kerouac and the people he encountered in his cross-country peregrinations in the 1950s. The novel On the Road introduced to readers a new lifestyle ("the beat generation") and attacked head-on the values of the establishment. We are shown characters flouting every convention (much less shocking now than it was then), love triangles and assignations in seedy hotel rooms, and a woman with children and two men simultaneously functioning as her husband. But the screen characters are superficial, and what they do most of the time, in the absence of dramatic action, is somewhat boring to watch. People whose waking hours are largely consumed in drinking cheap wine and smoking grass, and thus predictably ending up in slum tenements and constantly wanting for money, are not that exciting to look at for two hours at a stretch.
What distinguished Kerouac's On the Roadâ€"besides the vastness of America, which isn't shown in the film at allâ€"was its success, through an energetic and propulsive style, in communicating certain qualities: uncompromising rebellion, total involvement in a deviant lifestyle, and a certain driving energy. Nick Nolte is about as right for the part of Dean Moriarty as any current actor could be, yet as a charged dynamo of energy he is wooden and stiff compared with the character that Kerouac brings to life in our imagination. Sissy Spacek is badly miscast as the itinerant girl-friend who plunges herself into the beatnik life, and her off-camera commentary on the events is superfluous and inane. It would all have been much better as Kerouac left it, as a series of haunting images in the minds of readers. Where every detail must be filled in, as it inevitably is through the lens of a camera, it loses the distinctive qualities of spirit with which Kerouac imbued it, and a viewer who hasn't read the novel can hardly help wonder what all the fuss is about.
John Hospers is a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Movies".