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Culture Bytes: Tales of Two Mariannes

mighty.jpgA Mighty Heart - a romantic tragedy Americans are staying away from A Mighty Heart because they just don't like movies where they know the good guys will end up dead and sad, theorizes David Freeman in his notebook this week, adding that Angelina Jolie's powerful performance as Mariane Pearl reminds us she can shine on screen and not just in the tabloids. He also offers his take on the latest novel by Salman Rushdie's ex, Marianne Wiggins -- and shares a Hollywood war story.

by
David Freeman, PJM Columnist

Bio

June 30, 2007 - 10:00 pm

Sometimes I think all show business is built on war stories – tales from the trenches, exchanged and passed on. The Farmers Market, here in Los Angeles, where I turn up for morning coffee with a small band of picture business rascals is a fountain of stories.

Ronnie Schell, a man usually described as “the comic’s comic” (that means people in the business know and respect him but the general public hasn’t quite caught on) told one recently that has lingered in my mind. Ronnie explained that he wasn’t a witness to this, but he had it from someone who was. That’s practically boilerplate in these things. It means just enjoy it.

The singer Frankie Laine was performing at the Sands hotel in Las Vegas. Frankie died last February in his nineties but he was working till pretty near the end. The hotel kept the stage lights dim – ‘atmospheric’ is the term of art. It means don’t let the audience look too closely. Frankie was sort of propped up against a pole. He leaned on it in an insouciant way with his hat at a rakish angle. Near his feet were a series of cue cards, visible only to him. He still had his voice, but as he had begun his tenth decade, his memory wasn’t always dependable. “Good evening ladies and gentlemen,” he began. “It’s a thrill for me to be here with you tonight. I started out in Chicago as Francesco Paulo LoVecchio…”

As he spoke, his eyes scanned the line of cue cards at his feet. Other performers – and Frankie always drew a show business crowd — at least the ones in the first few rows knew he was reading, but the general audience didn’t notice or maybe didn’t care. “I’d like to do a tune for you tonight that we had some good fortune with a little while back…” Then Frankie began one of his signature hits. His voice was still big enough that it didn’t matter that he was reading the lyrics. He was Frankie Laine and that was reason enough for the audience to be there. “TOO SPENNNND ONE NIGHT WITH YOOOOU…. (applause) IN OUR OLD REN-DEEE-VOOOO, (more applause) AND RE-MENNNNN-ISCE WITH YOOOOOU, THAT’S MY DEEEE-SIRRRE… (still more applause).

Frankie worked his way through the song and the audience loved it. He took his bow. “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much. It’s a thrill for me to be here tonight. I started out in Chicago as Francesco Paulo LoVecchio… TO SPENNNND ONE NIGHT WITH YOOOOOU….” There was polite if slightly confused applause as he launched again.The crowd cheered when he wound up and hit the title line big, “THAT’S MY DEEEE-SIRRRE.”

When he started yet again, the management lowered the curtain and the announcer’s voice boomed out, “The great Frankie Laine!” As the curtain settled, the audience could hear a faint and muffled, “To spennnd one night with yoooou…”

****

%%AMAZON=0743265203 The Shadow Catcher%%, Marianne Wiggins eighth novel (there are also two story collections) is about Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952) the American photographer known for his pictures of native Americans who seemed to be vanishing before his lens. The story is told by Curtis’s wife Clara, though that’s only part of this complex and haunting novel. Running alongside is a version of the author’s own story. Marianne is trying to sell her Curtis novel to Hollywood and not having an easy time of it. A baffling phone call takes her to Las Vegas where a man named John Wiggins, possibly Marianne’s father, is near death. There’s a problem in that her father has been dead some thirty years.

The novel moves with an unassuming ease between Edward and Clara’s troubled life and Marianne’s own adventure in discovering them and at the same time coming upon some unpleasant facts about her own father. It gives away little to report that the man near death isn’t her father, though he has an old newspaper clipping about Marianne in his wallet. The guy in the Vegas hospital is black and Marianne is not. In unraveling his story she finds something of her own life and about Edward Curtis.

Edward is an elusive figure whose long absences are too quickly understood by his wife. The true nature of those absences becomes clear only later. Clara is the central presence in this book. She thinks about others – her husband, certainly, but her children and brother, too. It’s a feminine selflessness that she comes to rue even if she never quite gets free of it. The two major strands of the book resonate though they don’t exactly meet. This is a surprising novel of great beauty that unfurls in a way that comes to seem inevitable.

The book includes some of Curtis’s photographs as well as pictures of the Wiggins family. The Shadow Catcher owes an acknowledged debt to W. G. Sebald who was a master of combining prose with old photographs in a way that enhanced both. A reader might wish for larger or better reproductions of the Curtis photos, but just as Curtis deepened the mysteries of the people of the Northern Plains, his photos now help illuminate a more and equally unknowable contemporary mystery.

Marianne Wiggins is a friend of mine and I make a small appearance in this book. I wasn’t aware of that till I started reading. She’s certainly got my voice down. If I didn’t think this book was worth pointing out to the world, I would ignore it in public and say something polite in private. Marianne’s previous novel, Evidence of Things Unseen, which also dealt with photography and like this one, much else, was short-listed for the Pulitzer. Her gift is to write about the quotidian and without ever saying so allow her often lush yet casually precise prose to achieve larger themes. The story may be about two distant and different men, but its real subject, with its allusions to Huckleberry Finn, is Americaness or maybe America itself, in all its rampant contradictions.

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We approach A Mighty Heart, a movie about the ghastly murder of Daniel Pearl, burdened with our notions of what such a movie should be. We tend to have our dukes up, waiting to see if the movie honors or exploits the subject. There are a lot of potential movies in the life and death of Daniel Pearl. This one, based on his widow’s book of the same title, is about what happens to Mariane Pearl and the people around her when her husband is kidnapped and killed. It is essentially a police procedural. One could imagine other versions, telling this story from other points of view.

The facts, briefly, in case you’ve been asleep, are essentially: In January, 2002, Daniel Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter based in Karachi arranged an interview with a sheik connected to militant Islamic groups. Pearl took the usual precautions but it turned out to be a set up. He was kidnapped and accused of the usual litany of Western sins – CIA agent and the like. He never denied his Jewishness. Mariane Pearl, a reporter for French radio who was five months pregnant, tried with the help of the US Embassy and Pakistani police to find and rescue him. Daniel Pearl was beheaded.

The movie succeeds in its goals though it can be infuriating, too. The British director, Michael Winterbottom, has shot and cut his film in a fast way full of quick cuts that give us elusive bits of information, sometimes slowly and other times at great speed – a way that’s meant to reflect Mariane’s experience. Winterbottom pushes a viewer to figure out what’s going on as it’s happening. The camera shoves its way into the teeming streets in a way that makes clear how difficult it is to find anyone or any fact in such a place. Mariane says of Karachi, “so many people, no one knows how to count them. How do you find one man among all these?” I assume the Karachi exteriors were shot in India.

The shooting style of A Mighty Heart is often called documentary, though most docs create their truth by a slower accumulation of fact and detail. Winterbottom’s style, with its quick cuts and fleeting facts suggests an elusive truth that matches the frustration of hunting what is never to be found. It’s a way of shooting and cutting that creates and generates intensity. It seems to me to be the opposite of a documentary, as designed and calculated as the classical studio style of the 1930s.

Angelina Jolie’s performance is most successful in the early scenes while Mariane still believes her husband can be rescued. We watch her growing dread and even though we know the outcome, we feel her inner terror as well the steel she shows to others. This is a star turn in the best sense – she’s absorbed into the character. It’s easy to forget that before all the gossip columns and the foreign babies, she was an admired actress. All the performances are good, but the movie rests on Jolie. I also liked Irrfan Khan who is well known in India as a high Pakistani police official, charged with leading the search.

For all it’s cinema quality a subject like this requires more than emotional truth and fidelity. In telling Mariane’s story, Daniel’s story falls away. I don’t think this is a fatal flaw in the movie, though it is regrettable. We see him in a few scenes and in flashbacks of Mariane’s burnished memory. Dan Futterman’s performance is serviceable. Perhaps a more mysterious or compelling actor could have made more of the role and anchored the movie differently. Asra Q. Nomani who is the model for one of the characters has complained about this in an article in the Washington Post. Her point is that she doesn’t recognize the Danny she knew and worked beside for years. She also complains that she has been misrepresented, citing a review that described her as an assistant to Mariane. She was Danny’s colleague. The movie explains that fairly. To blame the movie for an addled remark in a review is wrong headed on the face of it. The larger question is a conundrum. This movie is written in an orthodox Hollywood style. Complaining about that, especially by someone who sold her life rights (a legal term of art that means just what you think it does) to the producers and then approved the script, is like admiring a tiger except for all those stripes.

Nomani’s tone may be na√Øve but her larger point has merit. Danny Pearl does get lost in his own story. The reasons for that have everything to do with movie stars and how movies are made and little to do with cultural stupidity or venality. No one produces a movie like this to make money. It was done on a relatively low budget and made by a director who is known for going his own way in a business that resents that and rewards the opposite. The movie, much like last year’s United 93, another terror themed movie in which the outcome was known by all before they went to the theatre, is doing little business. That is surely because people don’t want to go to movies where the good guys come off dead or sad. It’s no accident that Hollywood movies are famous for their happy endings no matter what the preceding events. This movie has the form and feel of such movies, though with the darkest possible outcome.

Americans, at least, are staying home.


David Freeman is the author of six books including, “%%AMAZON=0881848700 A Hollywood Education,%%” “%%AMAZON=0786705914 One of Us,%%” and, most recently, “%%AMAZON=0743249755 It’s All True.%%” He’s a screenwriter and playwright and has contributed to many print publications including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times and The New Yorker.

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