The Moderns (1988) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna
This movie must have seemed like a great idea on paper.
When Ernest Hemingway was an older man looking back on his youthful days in Paris in the 1920's, he wrote a candid memoir called "A Moveable Feast", which was filled with anecdotes and observations about that long spring of intellectual flowering. Although his time was spent among the most famous expatriate artistic community ever assembled - people like Fitzgerald, Joyce, and Pound - he was not always respectful of his acquaintances. He disliked the company of author Ford Madox Ford, and he loathed Zelda Fitzgerald, F. Scott's unbalanced wife, whose role in life seemed to be to keep Scott drunk, unproductive, and afraid of other women. He ridiculed Gertrude Stein, the would-be writer who gave The Lost Generation its name by borrowing the phrase from a garage keeper. Stein was the type of person who never talked to the wives of writers, only to writers. Hemingway was not unaware of Stein's brilliance and wit, and he actively courted her friendship and conversation at one time, but his reminiscences also focused on her egomania, her inability to tolerate any disagreement with her ideas, her inability to write anything memorable, her dislike of "the drudgery of revision", her preference for forgotten hack writers over D. H. Lawrence and Aldous Huxley, and the fact that she just "talked a lot of rot".
By the time Hemingway wrote his memoir, thirty years or more after the events he described, most of his cast was dead, so he felt free to write of them candidly. He was not often flattering, nor was he very flattering to himself, because he wrote the book during a time when he was beginning to question his own self-worth and the choices he had made in his life. More than anything else, A Moveable Feast is his own loud cry of "Rosebud", a lament about the high price of a glittering career which had ultimately cost him his innocence, his first marriage, and his youthful happiness. As he wrote the book, Hemingway was then rapidly approaching the state of mind that would lead to his suicide. In fact, between the writing of the memoir and its publication, Papa had decided to reunite with his old crowd at their feast's new, permanent underground location.
The concept of this movie was to take those vivid characters, as seen through Hemingway's eyes, and to use them as the backdrop for a completely unrelated fictional story, thus making the fiction seem to be part of the moveable feast. In addition to the colorful characters, there was the slow, bluesy jazz of the era (the great black musicians found France more hospitable than the USA), and the unforgettable sights of Paris. It was not just eternal Paris, which is impressive enough, but Paris in the sunshine of that particular era when the long, grim winter of the first great war had ended, and the swastika had not yet emerged to eclipse the continental sun.
And the main plot isn't so bad. An art forger creates three brilliant copies - a Matisse, a Modigliani and an "uncopiable" Cezanne. He works directly from the originals, which are supplied by a wealthy woman who wishes to steal the originals and leave the copies with her philandering husband. She welches on her payment, which causes the forger to withhold the originals. She then steals them back from his studio, but only the artist knows that she has inadvertently stolen the copies instead. He is therefore in possession of three paintings of great value.
The scriptwriter is able to use this premise to comment on the value of art. The forger and his unscrupulous dealer conspire to sell the originals to a nouveau riche brute, who treasures them until they are pronounced fake by some "experts" who have already certified the authenticity of the copies. We then watch as the monster destroys the treasures, thinking them to be worthless. Meanwhile, the copies are hung in a gallery in the United States, where we see experts lecturing to their students about their irreproducible genius. Visiting New York later in the film, the forger, his works now hanging forever among the world's masterpieces, can't resist the temptation to eavesdrop on a professor who holds court in the museum and heaps lavish praise upon a painter, little suspecting his true identity, let alone his immediate presence.
Of course, in a sensible world, a hypothetically perfect copy of a Cezanne is just as beautiful, and therefore has in a certain sense just as much intrinsic worth as the original. It doesn't suddenly become less beautiful when someone pronounces it a copy, rather merely less original. In our world, which is perhaps less than perfectly sensible, the entire value of a creation rests not on its beauty, but on its originality. Should this be so? I don't know. Perhaps. But it is an interesting subject to discuss. I would be just as pleased to have a perfect copy of a Cezanne hang in my salon as I would be to have the original. On the other hand, I am not the right person to ask about this matter. I don't have a salon, and if I did, I would not hang a delicately blue Cezanne there because it would clash with my poster of Hulk Hogan in his canary yellow trunks.
At any rate, to cut to the chase, this film is cut from truly superior cloth, but it resulted in an average suit.
|I place the primary blame for this
squarely on the silly romantic triangle soap opera. The art forger is
still in love with his wife, who is now living in a bigamous marriage
with an over-the-top maniac who made a fortune in the condom business.
Her new husband is the same nouveau riche ass who bought the beautiful
original Cezanne at a bargain price, then destroyed it when incorrectly
informed it was not authentic.
These two men engage in duels and various other battles of physical and mental strength, competing for the woman like two starving wolves with a single bone. It is really not apparent to us why she is worth fighting for. She is beautiful, to be sure, but she is also superficial, cruel, alcoholic and seems to be half-mad. She comes close to Hemingway's own portrayal of Zelda Fitzgerald. Although I admire Linda Fiorentino's unique beauty and talent, I pretty much hated every scene that involved the bigamous wife or the over-the-top condom king.
|The second source of blame seems to be
the offbeat portrayal of Hemingway himself. Real or imagined, he seems
to be everywhere in Paris. The forger paints in his studio - Hemingway
is in the next room with two hookers. The forger and his friend watch a
funeral from a taxi - Hemingway observes and pontificates. They go
from the funeral to the train station - Hemingway is already there, standing near the gate with
pithy observations. They fly immediately to New York - Hemingway is
right behind them at the Museum of Modern Art. Hemingway is omnipresent.
I understand the metaphorical truth of what they were trying to achieve
here. It was Hemingway's spirit that dominated the age, and it was his
well-worn swizzle stick that stirred the movie's drink. He was there observing
everything because the story was based on his observations. I get it.
But the filmmakers needed to find a subtler, less obtrusive way to make
Hemingway's character traits might also have been fleshed out better. As it stands, in addition to being ubiquitous, he is a dense, overly sentimental, constantly drunken man who can never seem to form a complete thought, let alone a complete sentence. I read somewhere that they expanded the Hemingway role from a three sentence walk-on when they became enamored of the characterization. Frankly, they became far too enchanted by it. If Hemingway had behaved this way for three sentences, we would have thought, "I get it. He was so drunk that his brain was paralyzed. Hemingway was a young, naive man, no stranger to hootch, and undoubtedly had plenty of moments like that." Such a portrayal would have been credible. What was not credible was to picture Hemingway as nothing more than a stupid, inarticulate, lush. He had those attributes within his range of behavior, as have many of us, but he was a complicated man, and it is not fair to let those characteristics stand as his complete definition.
Perhaps the fact that he was ubiquitous was supposed to
combine with the offbeat portrayal to create a howlingly funny
If so, the joke was over and all the laughs, if any, were recorded long before they stopped talking.
1. I know that I can get persnickety about some unimportant details, but I found it very irksome that nobody in the film could pronounce Modigliani's name correctly - not even once. I find that hard to believe of these particular characters, given that they:
I don't think it is that important for everyone to know how to pronounce Modligiani's name, but if I were going to write a movie in which a Modigliani painting would be featured, and which would require Modigliani's name to be pronounced multiple times by art experts and people who knew him personally, I would look the sumbitch up!
For the record, it is pronounced "mo-deel-YA-nee" or it can be Anglicized to five syllables in "mo-de-lee-YA-nee", but under no circumstances does it have a "g" sound. The Italian "gl" is a separate sound from an individual "g" and an individual "l". I suppose you can best relate to it through the famous opera character, Pagliacci, a word which has the same "glia" combination, and has no "g" sound. The "glia" is pronounced "lya"
The phonetic/orthographic relationship of the Italian "gl" can be considered comparable to the English "ch", which is not a combination of a "c" and an "h", but represents a completely separate sound.
2. I'm all in favor of an occasional bit of esoterica, but puns in a foreign language are a bit too recondite for my blood. The character played by Wallace Shawn, which was loosely based on Ernest Hemingway's journalist pal Bill Bird of the Trib, was self-named l'Oiseau. (The bird, get it?). That's Pun 1, which requires us to understand some French AND to know about Bill Bird, who wasn't really very famous. But pun number 2 is more complicated than that - the art forger keeps calling him "oisif" instead of "oiseau", and he keeps responding "don't call me oisif". I know the basic words in French, but I don't speak the language, so I didn't get this one at all. I looked it up - "oisif" is the French word for "idler".
Whether we are discussing the writers or the characters, making French puns seems to me to be a bit pretentious for guys who pronounce "Modigliani" with a "g".
And, guys, the movie is in English, OK? Maybe we could save foreign language puns for either (a) that foreign language or (b) the crossword in the Sunday Times
3. Just for the record, director Alan Rudolph has been around long enough to have 16 films with a score at IMDb. The Moderns is rated as one of his best. He has been directing films for 25 years, although he has never had a breakthrough success either with critics or at the box office. The two most recent films on the list, Trixie and Breakfast of Champions, were failures. Breakfast of Champions grossed $175,000 on a $12 million budget, and received 77% negative reviews, according to RT. Trixie received a similar 71% negative reviews, and grossed $285,000. Despite these back-to-back disasters, Rudolph continues to find producers for his projects, and has more in the pipeline.
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