Billy Ray’s Shattered Glass , from his own screenplay, based on Buzz Bissinger’s September 1998 Vanity Fair article, impressed me much more than I’d expected, particularly after reading some adverse reviews by my esteemed colleagues. I had the same experience recently with Veronica Guerin , another film about a journalist. In both films, many critics took issue with the notion of journalistic authenticity and proportion. Perhaps I’ve never been as sensitive to those problems as I might have been-possibly because I still bear the scars of Time and New Republic film critic Manny Farber’s long-ago description of me as a “semi-pro” journalist, which was too close to the mark for comfort.
Still, I have borne the slings and arrows of skeptical editors and fact-checkers as well as I could, though my sins against the goddess of journalistic probity and objectivity have been more venial than mortal. Besides, I chose almost a half-century ago to enter a field in which a privileged subjectivity is a professional necessity. This is not to say that I sympathize or identify with such well-publicized fakes of our time as Janet Cooke, Charles Van Doren, Clifford Irving, Jayson Blair and our current subject, Stephen Glass. Nonetheless, I can’t help feeling a little awed by the enormous amount of psychic energy expended by these notorious hoaxers. It’s a measure of Hayden Christensen’s fruitful intensity in his performance as Stephen Glass that we become privy to every last twitch of his vaulting ambition-all the way down to the final desperation of his shattered self. Mr. Ray has wisely chosen to tell the story from the point of view of a manipulative antihero, using a deceptive flashback structure that’s ultimately demystified as just another one of the pseudo-narrator’s fraudulent inventions.
What I find particularly interesting in the Glass story is the unyielding journalistic distinction between fact and fiction-or rather between nonfiction and fiction, a division that bedevils the cinema as much as it does journalism. After all, the stories that Stephen Glass is said to have “fabricated” in the prestigious pages of The New Republic could be said, in another context, to have been “created” by Mr. Glass. And since when has “creativity” not been an enviable talent?
The plot thickens when we realize that Mr. Glass has been pilloried for manufacturing “quotes.” But isn’t this one of the less edifying “gotcha” games of contemporary journalism? (What about getting people to stick their foot in their mouth for the public’s amusement?) Indeed, the so-called human-interest story could be debunked as one of journalism’s most potent opiates for the masses, part of the delusion that ours is the best of all possible worlds while we’re systematically manipulated by plutocratic puppeteers.
As the movie shrewdly observes, Mr. Glass got away with his bogus writings for as long as he did by selecting “fun” subjects-people who couldn’t be checked with the standard references, but could only be verified and refuted in cyberspace. Mr. Glass skillfully utilized the Internet to cover his tracks with comparatively computer-illiterate, print-freak-type editors such as the late Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria) and his successor, Charles Lane (Peter Sarsgaard), and similarly afflicted fact-checkers (played by Chloë Sevigny and Melanie Lynskey), who also double as Stephen’s bewitched cheerleading chorus.
In the end, Stephen is undone by Adam Penenberg (Steve Zahn), an equally ambitious young media maven working at an Internet publication. This serves as the great irony of the story, and the key element in an amusingly cascading melodrama of exposed fakery. Adam and his own indispensably cyber-hip fact-checker, played by Rosario Dawson, develop into a comedy team whose antics reach a crescendo when the fact-checker asks for a shared byline, and Adam brusquely refuses. In an instant, the demons of lacerating journalistic ambition are revealed in all their naked fury.
I was frankly surprised by the unflattering portrait of The New Republic ‘s publisher, Martin Peretz, presented in the movie, as well as the revelation that the magazine’s circulation was only 81,000 or thereabouts. There’s also a funny inside joke about the deliberate omission of pictures in The New Republic : As one of the older employees notes, Stephen’s fake stories would never have seen the light of day if he’d had to supply pictures with his copy.
But the feeling of devastating loss that Stephen feels when shown the exit is caused by something deeply American: the notion of the workplace as more of a home than home itself. The enormous popularity of the “work family” in the old Mary Tyler Moore show on television was an early manifestation of this sociological phenomenon. Shattered Glass is about as well executed as any movie I’ve seen this year. The performances of Mr. Azaria, Mr. Sarsgaard, Mr. Zahn, Ms. Sevigny, Ms. Dawson and Ms. Lynskey do more than complement Mr. Christensen’s central characterization; they provide a sane backdrop for Stephen’s pathological deceptions to steadily unravel against. All in all, this is turning out to be one hell of a year for movies. In fact, there have been so many revelatory surprises each week that I don’t really have the time, the space or the inclination to worry about all the expensive stinkers. Tant pis .
Sex and Death
Jane Campion’s In the Cut , from a screenplay by Ms. Campion and Susanna Moore, based on the novel by Ms. Moore, pushes the envelope, raises the bar and ups the ante on explicit screen sexuality. This involves considerable and prolonged nudity on the part of Meg Ryan as Frannie, a creative-writing instructor embedded in the grungier sections of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. From the outset, Frannie seems to be searching recklessly for her carnal identity, until she is plunged into a consuming relationship with Mark Ruffalo’s sexually aggressive Detective Malloy. Ms. Campion stays insinuatingly close to the two lovers as they test each other’s most perverse predilections. A mysterious murderer of women lurks around them, providing both the starting point and the ultimate climax for their deadly serious fun and games.
New York has never looked more darkly sinister than it does here, and frankly I just couldn’t believe much of it. A pimp and his charges are conspicuously camped in the doorway to the apartment of Frannie’s half-sister, Pauline, played in characteristic beaten-down-by-life fashion by the terminally passive-aggressive Jennifer Jason Leigh. Not that half-sister Frannie is exactly bubbling with high spirits in Ms. Ryan’s career-switching role: Her patented perky romanticism of the past is replaced by suspiciousness and purely libidinous restlessness here.
Still, I found the movie reasonably absorbing from moment to moment, albeit the murder “mystery” is strewn with red herrings and the book’s nihilistic ending had to be scrapped in the happy-happy manner of vintage Hollywood adaptations of dark novels. (This practice was immortalized by the old New Yorker cartoon showing a man and woman kissing onscreen, while in the audience, a woman confides to her husband: “In the book, she shoots him.”)
It seems not to matter that In the Cut dispenses with any real suspense about the identity of the murderer in order to plumb the lower depths for a Dantean vision of hell. Still, Ms. Campion here runs the risk of committing the expressive fallacy of depressing the audience along with her tormented characters. After all, the sun shines once in a while, even on the Lower East Side, and not every passer-by is a potential mugger or rapist.
Mark Ruffalo alone escapes the movie’s slough of despond with his resourceful portrayal of a tough detective endowed with the instincts to know which buttons to push in Frannie’s psyche to make her helpless to resist him. Still, I didn’t believe the scene in which Detective Malloy and his partner, Detective Rodriguez (Nick Damici), talk dirty needlessly in Frannie’s presence as if they regarded her as a cheap whore in some pimp’s stable. From what little I know about cops on the prowl, they’d be a lot smoother than that.
Kevin Bacon is quite interesting in an unbilled role as a figure of suspicion, the degree of which depends entirely on whether he is on or off his medication, and the actor seems to relish the chameleonlike possibilities in the part. What In the Cut confirms above all is that the current rating system-i.e., box-office returns-is defunct as far as an influential sector of the moviegoing public is concerned when it comes to seeing provocative films like this one.
A Day of Rest
Rolf Schübel’s Gloomy Sunday (Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod) , from a screenplay by Ruth Toma and Mr. Schübel, based on the novel Gloomy Sunday by Nick Barkow, combines its anti-Nazi theme with a fictional embellishment of an actual song. “Gloomy Sunday” was written in 1933 by two Hungarians, Rezso Seress (who composed the music) and László Javor (who wrote the lyrics). It swept through Europe and even crossed the Atlantic in a hugely popular American version recorded by Billie Holiday-one of the dozens of artists who have recorded the song over the years, a list that also includes Artie Shaw, Björk, Elvis Costello, Marianne Faithfull, Paul Whiteman, Sarah Brightman, Serge Gainsbourg and Sinéad O’Connor.
The point is that I became aware of the song’s notoriety as an alleged incitement to suicide sometime in the 40’s, when my musicologist friends were debating the comparative morbidities of “Gloomy Sunday” and Schoenberg’s Kammer Symphony, as best I can remember. Yet I have yet to find anyone-even among my peers-who’s heard of “Gloomy Sunday.”
Both the novel and the film inspired by this song have invented a romantic scenario of one woman loved by three men at the same time in 1940’s Budapest, with Hungary under a Fascist regime sympathetic to Hitler. The main locus of the plot is a Budapest restaurant owned by a Jewish businessman, László Szabo (Joachim Król), who is passionately in love with his manager, Ilona (Erika Marozsán). László brings a piano into the restaurant and auditions musicians to play it. András Aradi (Stefano Dionisi) is a pianist who arrives late for the audition, but Ilona, taken with his feverish manner, insists that he be allowed to compete. László immediately senses in András a rival for Ilona’s affection, and he proves to be prescient.
Eventually, László, András and Ilona form a volatile ménage à trois typical of the mood of sexual experimentation in 1920’s and 30’s Europe.
András composes “Gloomy Sunday” while he’s working in the restaurant, and László becomes his business manager to promote the song on recordings across Europe; soon it becomes known as the “suicide song.” Plagued with guilt over what he has caused with his music, András himself commits suicide. Ilona is also clumsily courted by a German visitor to Budapest, a rising industrialist named Hans Wieck (Ben Becker), who later returns to Budapest in the uniform of a Nazi high commander in the SS. For a time, Hans protects László in gratitude for the restaurateur’s having saved his life after Hans jumps into the Danube in despair over Ilana’s rejection.
The film comes full circle with an ironic flashback structure that serves as an allegorical revenge mechanism to reveal one last cynical betrayal, which is made to stand for all the evils of the Holocaust, and particularly those of cynicism and opportunism. Of course, there is no mystery in much of the suicidal despair during the Hitler years in Germany; no doubt “Gloomy Sunday” was just one of the many triggers.