Orwell’s Capitalist Fool Shrinks on Screen

Robert Bierman’s A Merry War , based on George Orwell’s 1936 novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying , turns out to be a labor of love that fails to capture the paradoxes and peculiarities of Orwell’s uncannily prophetic vision. Even so, Mr. Bierman and screenwriter Alan Plater are to be commended for making the effort at all, for the project is singularly lacking in the “sure-fire” formulas of commercial success. At the film’s beginning, Richard E. Grant’s Gordon Comstock quits his job as a copywriter in a London advertising agency after a slim volume of his poetry is favorably reviewed in the London Times Literary Supplement . Comstock’s co-worker and girlfriend, Helena Bonham Carter’s Rosemary, is exasperated beyond measure by Comstock’s quixotic tilting at the windmills of what Comstock denounces as the Money God. Orwell said it all in a cheeky prescript to his novel 62 years ago, taking off from I Corinthians 13: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not money, I am become as a sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not money, I am nothing … And now abideth faith, hope, money, these three; but the greatest of these is money.”

Orwell’s Comstock comes from a long and dying line of Comstocks who strived laboriously to remain respectably middle class-with a leafy aspidistra in their windows-despite their business failures and general mediocrity. Gordon Comstock is the first in the family to gain a good education, which has empowered him to despise the rest of the clan for their genteel poverty and to sponge shamelessly off his self-sacrificing sister Julia, a spinsterish slave in a tea shop. Orwell did not make Gordon in any way a sympathetic hero, but he did give him roots and a class history-through all of Gordon’s whiny monologues about how money makes everything possible, and its absence makes everything impossible-with which many of us born outsiders can identify in any age.

Mr. Grant’s screen Comstock springs out of the thin air of an advertising agency to strike his blow for poetry and against puffery, but his rhetoric seems tired and banal, apart from its satiric context. And in the film we are deprived of Orwell’s copious descriptions of London, seen mostly in the inhospitable nighttime, from the vantage point of a down-and-outer without enough money in his pocket for a cigarette or a glass of beer. Mr. Bierman and Mr. Plater have stripped Gordon of his informative and often eloquent inner whine so that we never get the larger picture of London in 1934. Some of the slack is taken up by an enhancement of Rosemary’s part in the capable hands of Ms. Bonham Carter.

For this admirer of Orwell’s largely nocturnal novel, the bright colors of the movie seem wildly inappropriate, and the wild-eyed Mr. Grant seems miscast as the sparrowish Gordon, patterned after Orwell himself, no stranger to self-imposed poverty though his marvelous métier was not poetry but plain-spoken prose, written with exquisite preciseness and deep political passion. Yet on screen, Orwell’s plot seems shaggy-doggy, as Gordon drags himself down to the depths and dregs of despair before Rosemary’s announcement of her pregnancy jolts him back to middle-class common sense and to his old job, where his literary gifts can be more profitably deployed. This apparent triumph of conformity over idealism looks strange in a 90’s movie, particularly since Orwell’s eccentric fix on 30’s politics does not come through with it.

Orwell was no more politically correct in his own period of radical chic-decades before the term was invented by Tom Wolfe-than he would be today. He despised parlor pinks, and, in the book at least, was conspicuously homophobic in his free and easy use of the term “nancy” as much for its association with wealth as for its behavioral implications. Furthermore, his character Gordon smoked like a chimney and drank to excess whenever he could afford it. Orwell hated America for its invidious influence on British life, and yet he had no patience with popular philistinism in England or anywhere else. What he did believe in religiously, though he had no patience with organized religion, was the innate decency of the British people, despite their being shamefully deceived and exploited by the ruling elites.

Perhaps no imaginable movie could take the full measure of Orwell or even of Keep the Aspidistra Flying , but there are moments of poignant perplexity in Ms. Bonham Carter’s spunky portrayal of the realistic Rosemary that are at least crypto-Orwellian in their emotional impact.

Beverly Hills D-Cup

Tamara Jenkins’ Slums of Beverly Hills is not about one outsider like A Merry War , but about a whole family of outsiders moving about the poorer perimeter of Beverly Hills like live-in tourists. Just as Orwell once worked in a seedy bookshop, as did his creation, Gordon Comstock, Ms. Jenkins grew up in the mid-70’s in the shadows of wealth and celebrity just beyond the reach of her financially distressed family. Ms. Jenkins has expanded her stand-up comedy act on her curiously disenfranchised coming-of-age into a remarkably coherent and likable move, thanks to a first-rate cast pitched delicately between sometimes gross satire and ultimately painful seriousness.

Alan Arkin’s Murray Abramowitz is the feckless, hapless, finally and terminally humiliated single father of Natasha Lyonne’s Vivian, an embarrassingly big-breasted adolescent, and her two hormonally curious brothers. Murray keeps the whole family on the move within the Beverly Hills school district for the sake of the children’s education, but at 65 he is a business failure living off his brother Mickey’s mean-spirited charity. We do not see Carl Reiner as Uncle Mickey until near the end of the picture, but when we do we are not likely to forget the lifetime of shame and defeat pouring out in a sea of bile, and punctuated by a shockingly violent act for which we have been artfully prepared. Yet, in the end, the Abramowitz family is more united in its mutual love and shared illusions than ever before.

In the process they must bid reluctant goodbyes to a pair of charming interlopers: cousin Rita (Marisa Tomei), a sweetly ditsy, un-self-conscious older woman who comforts the emotionally resilient but menstrually insecure Vivian, and Vivian’s first boyfriend, Eliot (Kevin Corrigan), a lighthearted but not lightheaded Charles Manson fan and low-level drug dealer (ho-ho-ho). Indeed, Ms. Jenkins has shrewdly balanced the requirements to get people into the theater with reportedly hilarious gross-out jokes about big boobs, to the point of using body doubles for Ms. Lyonne, without, however, losing touch with the feelings in the Abramowitz family, particularly between father and daughter, that emit a warm glow as one leaves the theater.

Fishing for Forgiveness

Shohei Imamura’s The Eel , from a screenplay by Motofumi Tomikawa, Daisuke Tengan and Mr. Imamura, based on Akira Yoshimura’s novel Sparkles in the Darkness , won the 1997 Palme d’Or at the Cannes International Film Festival. Mr. Imamura had won previously for Ballad of Narayama in 1983, and he remains one of the most proficient and perplexing of contemporary Japanese directors. As it happens, I sometimes enjoy not being entirely sure at what level of irony the events on the screen are unfolding. In The Eel , one never knows what is going to transpire next, and, in fact, one is afraid even to suspect.

Takura Yamashita (Koji Yakusho) commutes back and forth from his suburban home to his paperwork job in the city. His one passion is fishing, which takes him away from his wife and home on overnight trips. His placid existence is disrupted when he begins receiving anonymous letters about his wife’s infidelities during his absences. On one such supposed absence, he catches his wife in flagrante delicto and stabs her to death with graphic savagery. And the picture has barely begun.

Eight years later, the still traumatized Takuro is paroled from prison under the sponsorship of a Buddhist priest in a small coastal town where Takuro decides to begin a new life as a barber. Given his reticent and unforthcoming attitude toward his past, his choice of occupations seems curious. Fortunately, he has inherited enough money from a relative to live frugally. His neighbors are intrigued by his air of mystery and by the pet eel he has taken with him from prison. In his solitude, Takuro talks to the eel as with an old friend, but no one else is privy to their one-way conversations.

Takuro is drawn back into the tumult of humanity by Keiko (Misa Shimizu), a young would-be suicide whom he rescues and who bears a striking resemblance to his murdered wife. A fellow convict who knows Takuro’s secret pops up to blackmail him and to berate him for not having repented. An old fisherman with whom Takuro bonds tells the story of how male eels travel enormous distances from Japan’s rivers to equatorial waters, and bring back the fertilized eggs of the females, often dying in the long, Darwinian voyage. Once Takuro decides that he has been truly rehabilitated in his acceptance of Keiko and her pregnancy, although he is not the father, he releases the eel in the river. In a mystical sense, he has become like an eel, swimming north with probably another male eel’s baby, but an eel nonetheless in a sacred procession of eeldom to the future.