Frankengarner

January 26, 2012

“One of the problems for historians of most arts is the ‘transitional figure.’”

- Dennis Bingham, “Shot From the Sky: The Gypsy Moths and the End of Something,” collected in A Little Solitaire: John Frankenheimer and American Film

“[H]e spent the rest of his life trying to figure out what had gone wrong.”

- Bill Krohn, “Jonah,” collected in A Little Solitaire: John Frankenheimer and American Film

Brian Kellow’s new biography of Pauline Kael, one of my lifelong inspirations as a writer, has so many flaws that it would take a second book to enumerate them.  Since Kael falls outside the purview of this blog – regrettably, “television” was something of a dirty word to her, a shorthand for commercial aspirations and diminished attention spans; although Kael may have had some enthusiasm for the made-for-television movies of the seventies, this is one of several points on which Kellow contradicts himself – I don’t have to do any enumerating.  But I will point out one comparatively minor flaw in Kellow’s book that got under my skin: Kellow indulges in a few snotty asides against “academia,” a phrase he uses so generically that it’s hard to tell exactly who he’s trying to insult, or why.  Like Bill Maher or Keith Olbermann, Kellow comes off as so obnoxious that we want to argue back, even when we agree with him.  (The royal “we” is used in honor of La Pauline, although it’s one of her devices that makes me uneasy; I’m afraid to emulate it, although Kael often deploys it with great power.)  I’ve staked out my own position as essentially anti-academic, but even I have to acknowledge that it’s absurd to suggest that no one on a tenure track is doing valuable writing or research on art and culture.  The question is whether those scholars who are creating good work represent the rule or the exception.

Which brings us to the first item in today’s book report: a recent collection of scholarly essays that examine the work of the director John Frankenheimer.  I picked up the book, which was compiled and edited by Murray Pomerance and R. Barton Palmer, in part because I discovered that its contributors cite my own work a few times (yes, it is possible to accidentally search your own name on Google Books; really, I swear that’s how it happened), and also because I remain obsessed with every outpost of Frankenheimeriana.  As far as I can recall, I’ve only returned to the subject of Frankenheimer’s early television productions once since I wrote that Senses of Cinema essay, but I know I’ll go back again someday.  As Frankenheimer’s work was in its time the most pyrotechnic, the most resistant to the technological limitations of early television, so it stands out today as the most durable, the most modern, the most cinematic, the most alive.

The title of Pomerance and Palmer’s collection is a famous refrain from The Manchurian Candidate, and an odd choice, since (unless I dozed off for a minute) none of the writers in the book quote it.  I would have liked to know why the editors felt that line had an overarching meaning within Frankenheimer’s oeuvre – a meaning even more potent than the trope of paranoia, a word that’s used in nearly every essay in the book.  The title characterizes Frankenheimer as a maverick, a loner.  But while the director may have thought of himself that way, one of the tragedies of the his career is that he was unable to function as a true independent.  Not only did Frankenheimer’s vision require budgets of some size, but in interviews he made it clear that he was invested in the idea of a commercial cinema, of box office victory and mainstream recognition.

Within that context, the book’s key essay may be Jerry Mosher’s well-researched account of the making of Frankenheimer’s Impossible Object (1973), a film that self-consciously attempted a non-linear, ambiguous narrative in the style of Resnais or, in particular, Losey.  Mosher carefully places the ideas behind Impossible Object (incidentally, the only theatrical Frankenheimer feature I have not seen), and its catastrophic post-production phase and consequent non-release, within the context of the personal and professional lives of the director and his collaborators (chiefly Nicholas Mosley, the original writer and later a memoirist who wrote insightfully about Frankenheimer).  Impossible Object became a self-fulfilling prophecy (or Prophecy, as it turned out): Frankenheimer took the film’s failure as an affirmation that art cinema was not a viable path for him, and probably as an excuse to embrace a belief system to which he was he already bound.

Other writers who delve in detail into the production histories of individual films include Matthew R. Bernstein, who describes some of the fascinating real-life figures and incidents upon which The Train was based, and James Morrison, whose essay on The Iceman Cometh is a model diagram of how a film’s meaning emerges from its maker’s technical choices.  Charles Ramírez Berg’s astute formal analysis of The Manchurian Candidate properly contextualizes the film’s imagery as an outgrowth of Frankenheimer’s live television technique.  Berg includes a detailed consideration of “The Comedian” (a terrific Rod Serling-scripted Playhouse 90) as an exemplar of the director’s televisual style.  And I was pleased to see my two favorite underdogs in the Frankenheimer filmography, The Gypsy Moths and I Walk the Line, become the subjects of thoughtful consideration, in pieces by Dennis Bingham and Linda Ruth Williams, respectively.

A Little Solitaire also offers ample coverage of Frankenheimer’s perhaps overstated “comeback” in cable television during the nineties.  Most of these pieces are problematic, but Bill Krohn’s ambitious “Jonah,” fittingly the final chapter in the book, uses the late television productions and some of Frankenheimer’s worst theatrical features (as well as “Forbidden Area,” the premiere segment of Playhouse 90, which has only recently resurfaced in private collections), to stitch together the intriguing argument that, following the assassination of his friend Robert F. Kennedy, Frankenheimer became something of a covert, disillusioned radical/nihilist, who consistently charted “the decline and fall of American liberalism.”  I wasn’t entirely persuaded (for one thing, “Jonah” offers without irony the phrase “a superb, understated performance by Ben Affleck”), but Krohn is the liveliest writer in this book, which counts for a lot.

“Coffee has yet another meaning.  As Wolfgang Schivelbusch points out, while there is a connection between daze (the condition produced by the consumption of alcohol) and mystification, and more generally between the use of liquors and group feeling, the coffeehouse has throughout its history been dedicated to the support and preservation of the individual identity: ‘In coffeehouses the I is central.'”

- Murray Pomerance, “Ashes, Ashes: Structuring Emptiness in All Fall Down,” collected in A Little Solitaire: John Frankenheimer and American Film

About half of the essays in A Little Solitaire didn’t sell me on their theses; or, to be less charitable, they read as pointless exercises in publish-or-perish log-rolling.  That may be a better-than-average success rate for this type of collection.  It’s disappointing to see not even a single essay focused solely on Frankenheimer’s early television work (although the book’s invaluable appendix compiles a more complete Frankenheimer videography than I’ve seen before); but it’s also unsurprising, given that one would have to be a collector, or else log considerable archival hours in Los Angeles or New York, in order to see a large amount of that material.

What I find less easy to excuse is the narrowness of the methodologies on display in this collection.  Only a few of the authors (Bernstein; Pomerance, writing about All Fall Down; and Morrison, who dredged up cinematographer Ralph Woolsey’s memories of filming The Iceman Cometh in an obscure AFI seminar) attempted any archival research, even though Frankenheimer’s tempting and extensive papers are available at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  And the only original oral history in evidence is in Pomerance’s introductory essay, which includes a few superficial quotes from the actress Evans Evans (the director’s widow), and Richard Dysart, who appeared in a single Frankenheimer film (Prophecy, perhaps his worst).  I don’t understand why these approaches, which would yield more concrete insights and discoveries than the kind of tautological interdisciplinary lint-picking that is evident even in some of the better essays in this book (does Birdman of Alcatraz really benefit from being “read” “through” Foucault?), are undertaken so infrequently.  Are they just out of fashion in academia?  Is picking up the phone or getting on a plane somehow behaviorally (or, in the second case, financially) beyond the pale for a college professor?  Or would the weight of actual history be too much of a reality check on a writer who prefers instead to mash an artist’s work into the mold of his or her own professional specialty, whether or not it fits?

*

“Didn’t enjoy working with Tony Franciosa, who kept abusing the stunt men.  He purposely wasn’t pulling his punches in fight scenes, and he kept doing it despite my warnings to stop . . . so I had to pop him one.”

- James Garner, The Garner Files

The succinct sketch of John Frankenheimer that James Garner offers in his long-awaited memoir, The Garner Files, is probably as valuable an observation as any offered in A Little Solitaire.  Garner, who starred in Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix, thought the director was something of a humorless control freak, who “didn’t want anyone with an opinion” in the cast.  But Garner admired Frankenheimer’s encyclopedic attention to detail and his ability to command a production as huge and potentially dangerous as Grand Prix.

A number of my friends, of both the real and Facebook varieties, have been praising and quoting from The Garner Files.  I assume that’s because Garner is one of the few living stars from whom many of us would really want to hear at some length, and also (more importantly) because Garner does not shy away from, and indeed even seems to relish, naming and shaming anyone who ever pissed him off.  It’s a long and entertaining list, one that includes Charles Bronson (“a pain in the ass”), Glen A. Larson (a “thief”), and Lee Marvin (another “pain in the ass”), among others.

In The Garner Files, Garner comes across as a straight shooter, smarter and more introspective than the most of characters he played.  He is, for instance, quite conscious of how the laid-back, “natural” quality that was his trademark was in fact carefully constructed.  (Garner’s theory is that his studied casualness emerged out of a process of getting past his stage fright.)  The book ends with a section of testimonials from Garner’s family and friends, which include major movie stars as well as racing pals and “below the line” crew members.  That kind of victory roll would constitute an exhibition of appalling arrogance in almost anyone else’s memoirs, but Garner has allowed his friends to tell stories on him.  Some of them are flattering, but others hint at Garner’s fallibility and his legendary temper.  (The words of Rockford Files co-star Joe Santos, in their entirety: “Garner says he’s easygoing, but he’s lying.  He’s angry and desperate, just like I am.  That’s why Rockford has always worked so well, because Jim is coming from a very passionate, driven place.”)

Garner is so resolutely forthright that his book is worth reading, but it’s hardly one of the great or even very good autobiographies.  Garner acknowledges his collaborator, Jon Winokur, with typical generosity, but that doesn’t prevent the book from coming to a dead stop whenever Winokur takes over to fill in the basic facts about Garner’s movies and television projects.  The sections on the star’s two major TV series, Maverick and The Rockford Files, feel especially ghost-written, and add little or nothing to the stories told in Ed Robertson’s books on those shows.  Garner comes to life a bit more when discussing his favorite films (The Great Escape, The Americanization of Emily, Grand Prix), but I sense that his real passions are for boring shit like golf, auto racing, making money, and (to use his oft-repeated term) “decking” people.

Garner presents himself as a defender of the little guy, and I don’t doubt the truth of that.  But he also seems to have enjoyed maneuvering himself into situations in which he could punch out people and – because the punchee was behaving badly in some way – still hold onto his image as a good guy.  One such person, a golf course heckler, turned out to be a Rockford fan with alcohol and drug problems, who cried after Garner knocked him down.  (Again, full credit to Garner for leaving those details in, even if they are presented with a not-my-fault shrug.)

Garner’s particular ethics of violence may make him less of a bully than some of the bullies he criticizes (including Frankenheimer), but he strikes me as a bully nonetheless, a hothead who cultivated his temper and unloaded on people whenever he knew he could get away with it.  Is a wealthy, powerful, and well-liked movie star ever likely to find himself in situations where he has to hit someone?  Was socking Tony Franciosa really an act of standing up for defenseless stuntmen (note the oxymoronic aspect of that phrase) – many of whom probably later found themselves on sets where Franciosa had the power to fire them and Garner wasn’t around to intercede – or was it just an ostentatious display of machismo?  I still love the television James Garner, the pragmatic, risk-averse “reluctant hero” (Garner’s own term) who made Maverick and Rockford so distinctive and down-to-earth and compulsively watchable.  But after reading his book, I wonder whether I would like the real James Garner.

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4 Responses to “Frankengarner”

  1. Griff Says:

    “Like Bill Maher or Keith Olbermann, Kellow comes off as so obnoxious that you want to argue back, even when you agree with him.”

    Thank you for saying this — though, given the opportunity, I might have used stronger verbiage.

    I thank you for bringing “A Little Solitaire” to my attention; I’m going to go out and pick it up this afternoon.

    • Stephen Bowie Says:

      Maher is almost a tragic figure; his ideas about religion, especially, are spot-on — but he’s such a pushy prick, who’s going to listen? When he started Politically Correct he really conversed with people, but it gradually evolved into a setup where Maher would shout down his own guests.

  2. Toby Says:

    I really need to see more of Frankenheimer’s TV work.

    I’ve always been baffled by his films — for every great one, there’d be three pieces of junk. And just when you’d write him off, he’d come back with a good one (like following Dr. Moreau with Ronin).

    From Birdman to Gypsy Moths, he was unstoppable.

    • Chris Berry Says:

      The Comedian is one of the most amazing pieces of TV ever, I think, and even more remarkable for being done live. I’d really like to see some of his Climax! episodes — need to make a trip to the Paley. Forbidden Area ain’t great, but it has moments. Mostly its plot depends on smart people being really, really stupid. The Climax! I really want to see is “The First and the Last,” just because of the story Frankenheimer tells about it in his Archive of American TV interview.


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