Memo to Michael: Hang Up the Business Suit

The East Hampton premiere of David Fincher’s The Game , from a screenplay by John Brancato and Michael Ferris, was one of the last cultural spasms of the Hamptons summer season, and I gathered from one of the privileged invitees that Michael Douglas looked worried when it was all over. And well he might have been, since getting an honest opinion from a gathering of celebrities and celebrity wannabes is as much a long shot as Demi Moore’s getting an Oscar for shaving her head in G.I. Jane .

If I had been privileged enough to have been among the guests, I would have told him that he had played one greedy businessman too many, that Mr. Fincher’s direction was not so much the triumph of form over content as the subversion of content by form. The characters were all surface anguish with nothing interesting underneath, and even the very talented Deborah Kara Unger was wasted in a part that led nowhere. Oh yeah, I would have said all that to Mr. Douglas as I swilled his studio’s vodka and tonic. More likely, I would have said that he was so convincing he sure had me fooled, and I just loved him and Annette Bening in Rob Reiner’s The American President (1995), and why don’t they make nice, linear movies like that anymore. Oops. There went my last Hamptons screening invitation.

I can testify from firsthand experience that Mr. Fincher became a hero to many film students at Columbia University’s School of the Arts for his pseudo-sloppy cinematic pyrotechnics in Seven (1995). That was the kind of movie they wanted to make-dark, gloomy, oppressive, but tricky as all get-out. Bryan Singer’s self-contradictory, smartass The Usual Suspects was another big campus favorite.

As I watched Mr. Fincher’s manipulatively messy, home-movie opening credits, I couldn’t help feeling that the director would resist to the death any last, psychologically clarifying shot as is to be found in, say, Orson Welles’ and Herman Mankiewicz’s Citizen Kane (1941) and Roman Polanski and Gérard Brach’s Repulsion (1965). Everything in this pompously postmodern period has to be open-ended, tantalizingly obscure and just this side of terminally facetious. As a survivor from an earlier age, I may be forgiven for suspecting that Mr. Fincher will always be several removes emotionally from any story he chooses to tell. In today’s kiddie-oriented marketplace, it is as easy to misdirect the audience as it is to shoot fish in a barrel. The commercial problem facing The Game may be that Mr. Douglas is too much a liberal cutting-edge type to project the necessary narcissism with which self-centered kids can identify.

If I am reluctant to describe the plot in great detail it is because I am afraid of spilling the beans. Mr. Douglas plays Nicholas Van Orton, a divorced, childless, mean-spirited millionaire investment banker who lives in a big mansion from the roof of which Nicholas’ father jumped to his death. Nicholas lives alone with the family housekeeper, Ilsa, played pas mal by Carroll Baker, who has aged remarkably well from her Giant and Baby Doll days back in the now unjustly maligned 50′s. One day Nicholas is visited by his estranged brother, Conrad (Sean Penn), with a tempting birthday present, a corporate staged “game” guaranteed to change one’s life forever. Nicholas cannot resist, and the rest is high-tech mischief and terror. Ultimately, the worst thing I can say about The Game is that it is only a game.

Why They’re Called War Stories

Jacques Audiard’s A Self -Made Hero , from screenplay and dialogue by Alain Le Henry and Jacques Audiard, based on the novel by Jean-François Deniau, happens to be the kind of French film that may appeal to that statistically insignificant portion of moviegoers who can read without moving their lips and who are willing to endure the torments of deciphering subtitles. Yet even the traditional art-house crowd may be put off by the film’s chilling portrait of a fantasy-driven impostor posing as a Resistance hero during the German Occupation in World War II.

Albert Dehousse, the film’s lying antihero, is played by three actors from childhood (David Fernandes) through adulthood (Matthieu Kassovitz) to rueful old age (Jean-Louis Trintignant). Albert’s apprenticeship in prevarication began with a lie from his own mother’s lips about the heroic death of his father at the front in World War I. Actually, Albert’s father had died from alcoholism after serving for most of the war in a Paris bar. A malicious classmate passed on this disillusioning information to Albert, who became as a result even more repressed, secretive, suspicious and obsessive than he had been before. Still, despite the unmasking of his father as a false war hero, Albert was exempted from the Army when World War II began because he was the only son of a war widow from World War I.

Mr. Audiard tells his story with a variety of fancifully distancing devices, most notably a six-piece chamber orchestra periodically appearing on the screen in the foreground to play Alexandre Desplat’s faux-romantic background music. Much of the film is narrated in the ironic manner of Albert’s apologia for his actions: “The best lives are the ones we make up.” By transforming the unheroic facts of his life into heroic fictions, Albert implicates us in the entertaining ingenuity and resourcefulness of his very complicated impersonation. Having never left his small town through the course of the war, he must convince genuine Resistance heroes not only that he had fled to England to enlist in Gen. Charles de Gaulle’s Free French, but that he had been parachuted back into France to prepare the way for the Liberation. The delight is in the details: a newspaper clipping here, an English phrase there, overheard small talk at Resistance reunions and the methods Albert employs to crash them. The social climber in all of us cannot fail to be fascinated.

Through his imposture, the nerdy, passive Albert even learns to be a great lover in deliciously erotic scenes through which a variety of women, most notably Sandrine Kiberlain’s Yvette, his first wife, and Anouk Grinberg’s Servane, his second, instruct him in the correct bedroom behavior. The cream of the jest is that when Albert finally decides to come clean, the embarrassed French Government decides to avert a scandal by throwing the book at him on the conveniently face-saving charge of bigamy. During his three-year prison sentence, Yvette and Servane become the best of friends through their shared affection for a little boy who never grew up. What finally gives the film its cutting edge is the devastating subtext of a whole nation of Alberts lying about what they did during the German Occupation.

California or Bust (or Both)

Riding the Rails , a nonfiction film by Michael Uys and Lexy Lovell, shares a sobering double bill with William Wellman’s gritty fiction film Wild Boys of the Road (1933). I say “sobering” because there are too many giddy, greedy people pontificating about the evils of the welfare state and its “socialistic” safety net. Mr. Uys and Ms. Lovell have tracked down some of the survivors of the 1930′s, when being on the road was less a beatnik affectation than a brutal consequence of worldwide unemployment. Riding the Rails was merely one symptom of the social pathology that gripped the country for more than a decade.

The various testimonies present a complex picture of restless young people in that period so many decades ago. Not all of the witnesses to the often scenic spectacle were uprooted by economic distress. Many boys and even a few girls were in search of adventure, whether in the Wild West or in the Big Cities or in that Eldorado on the Pacific, California. What most of these adventurers found instead was the wreckage of a society gone bust. It was “Brother, can you spare a dime” time, and you could actually buy things for a dime back then.

Until the Civilian Conservation Corps came along, there was no outlet for all the youthful energy wasting away from hunger, neglect and even hostility from the more comfortable. Yet I remember as a child my own Republican parents denouncing the corps as the work of the devil, even though my father lost all his money in 1931 and never got a decent job again. Still, we were never poor, just broke. Fortunately, my mother was not too proud to accept relief and even charity, and we survived, but too many people didn’t, and, in this respect at least, Riding the Rails serves as an admirable “lest we forget” evocation of all the gaunt ghosts of the Great Depression.

There is some agitprop there, but not all that much, and yet what little there is seems quaintly archaic in this age of free-market worship. What one carries away from Riding the Rails and from the comparatively conformist Wild Boys of the Road as well is not a cut-and-dried ideological panacea, but an endless procession of human faces with expressions painfully suspended between hope and hopelessness. Still, there is an undeniable romance in train travel both on and off the screen, and Riding the Rails captures this feeling in spite of its depressing context.

At times, the newsreel footage of the time seems to recall images from John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (1941). Bums, hobos, tramps ranged in affect on the screen from Charlie Chaplin to George and Lenny in Lewis Milestone’s movie Of Mice and Men (1939). But George and Lenny and the Joads from The Grapes of Wrath as well were John Steinbeck archetypes that didn’t reach the screen until the Depression was nearly over. What Riding the Rails does is remind us how many of these lost souls there actually were out on the freight trains, in the hobo jungles, on the roads, in the fields across the length and breadth of the land.

Could it happen again? Is 1997 the equivalent of 1927? I hope not. We have had enough of gaunt faces in newsreels, and they showed us what happens when there is no safety net.