An Ideal Husband

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:23

    An Ideal Husband directed by Oliver Parker Culture's End Riding a bus to the Hamptons,a friend recently watched An Ideal Husband, on video. So did I-but ina theater. An oddly appropriate experience, since Oliver Parker conducts thisadaptation of Oscar Wilde's love roundelay just as a tv director would: mostlycloseups and perfunctory medium shots for group compositions. But the pretensethat this is cinema (which I'm willing to accept for the pleasures of languageand skilled acting that filmed theater used to promise) was ruined. Right nowAn Ideal Husband's digital projection at Chelsea's Clearview Cinema lookshorrid, and the gall to pass it off as an adequate alternative to film projectionis as philistine as the recent Miramaxing of British literature. Film loversbeware. If this succeeds, the culture fails. Glancing back at the three-eyedmonster of primary color lenses in the projection booth, I followed the beamsof light to the large screen where red, yellow and blue rays rearranged themselvesinto ersatz splendor. It was like watching the best tv reception you ever saw,but it lacked sharpness. What's gained in image density means a loss of film'stransfixing illusory surface. In a shameless New York Times "Artsand Leisure" article promoting George Lucas' digital projection project(The Phantom Menace is the only other film currently being presentedthis way), the celebrated huckster Walter Murch disingenuously pronounced thatfilm and digital projection are "comparable." His term was misleadingand evasive. Cinema is not merely lifelike reproduction (as is video); the lookof images gliding materially across a surface has an imaginative advantage-akinto why the impressionist school is still more captivating than photorealism. An Ideal Husbandmakes a bizarre test case for digital projection, since its basic point is toprovide postcard cinema. Oscar Wilde's 1895 play and the contemporary actorsspeaking it have been filmed less for artistic meaning than for cultural tone-anescape into the Victorian era and BBC-style sophistication. Upholstered libraries,bustled, flowing gowns, stately mansions and-always-men in formal tuxes. Theseget more attention than Wilde's dialogue. The play's story (something betweendrama and comedy), concerning worldly Mrs. Cheveley (Julianne Moore) blackmailingSir Robert Chiltern (Jeremy Northam), the husband of her schoolgirl rival (CateBlanchett), may deal with fidelity, trust and amorous composure, but the filmitself is about ready-made erudition, the ersatz art of Anglophile comportment.Merchant-Ivory really did do this kind of thing better; they may not be greatfilmmakers but they are men of taste. Ivory's direction has gotten more competent, more felicitous in recent years (and their choice of subjects-Henry James, E.M.Forster, Picasso, James Jones-has been admirably risky). With An Ideal HusbandMiramax continues its world-conquering deflation of literacy-playing down thelit and emphasizing the racy. In the lamentable case of Shakespeare in Lovethis has won plaudits from people who would never seriously read or visit aShakespeare production, and so the media has treated Shakespeare in Love,a crude, obvious pastiche, as if it were tantamount to Twelfth Night orLove's Labour Lost. That fake sophistication-by which Academy members congratulated themselves for feeling highbrow simply because the word "thou" wasthrown in between tits and yocks-has something to do with the commercially engineereddegrading of cultural standards. But even if you're not William Bennett, AnIdeal Husband's prosaic adaptation-and the collapse of visual standardsapparent in its video projection-make this slump unignorable. Watching this film is indeedthe cultural equivalent of riding a bus to the Hamptons; moviegoers think they'redoing something classy. Or getting something modern-Parker's adapted screenplaystructures the play's combined threat to a Parliament member's marriage andcareer in order to parallel affairs that beset the Clintons (who are such Miramaxboosters that Gwyneth Paltrow even jokes on tv about the President sleepingduring Emma-his smartest act yet). There's even a cannily placed speechabout "commerce without conscience" that springs too easily from thefilmmakers' middlebrow conceit. You know immediately the film's gentility isnot a matter of taste but of cowardice and irrelevance. Even more than DavidMamet's dull The Winslow Boy, this is a safe political parable. Parker's cast, portrayingupper-crust conspirators, play hollow intrigue rather than socially specificintelligence. Even the best of them-Minnie Driver gurgling and pouting morethan an ingenue in a French sex comedy; a visibly pregnant Julianne Moore inher ample bodices; Cate Blanchett in her blank-faced virtue-are facetious ina crowd-pleasing manner. They bring no inflection to Wilde's writing. Moorewas much more effective when Louis Malle's Vanya on 42nd Street permittedher to translate Chekhov into modern temperament-a fact signaling a lost performancetradition and literary efficacy that filmed theater used to preserve. One word-Ealing-sinksthis whole enterprise. (In college, an English professor could recommend unreservedlythe 1952 film of The Importance of Being Earnest for the adhered text"and Michael Redgrave's blue eyes.") An Ideal Husbandhalf-steps to drama, mostly by Parker's attempt to refashion the elegant comedyof Wilde's Earnest (briefly seen in a staged production). Rupert Everett,misused and miscast, is part of this error. In the otherwise forgettable AMidsummer Night's Dream, Everett's Oberon matched armpits with Stanley Tucci'sPuck, the slyest homo come-on since the hat compliments in Mark Rappaport'sImpostors. He never quite gets that frisson going with Jeremy Northambecause Everett's casting as the bachelor Lord Goring undercuts a truly moderninterpretation of Wilde and Victorian custom-and the very point of half of Miramax'sad campaign. Surrounded by Moore, Blanchett and Driver, Everett, looking sly,is meant to evoke the straight-woman's-soulmate role he played in the JuliaRoberts vehicle My Best Friend's Wedding. But the Lord Goring role, slightlydissolute yet bearing bright, ostentatious boutonnieres-including the infamousgreen carnation-never becomes an Oscar Wilde surrogate, but is a letdown. (Itreminded me of when Joan Rivers, startled by Everett's no-tie, open-shirtedappearance at the Golden Globe Awards, shrieked, "He looks like a closetheterosexual!") The film's other ads feature Northam in the center, buthe lacks Everett's openly gay insouciance. Northam's fleshy chin and fuzzy mustacherecall Robert Donat's charm wanly matched to Everett's fey imperiousness, butno radical reading of Wilde emerges. In this movie, Everett-an actor with seriousambition-isn't insouciant enough. He respects the somber essence of Wilde'smorality tale, so the entire film comes off as misguidedly decorous and onlyslightly camp, like a badly dressed star during award season. Wilde himself might evenbe offended by this film's trite sensibility. But in truth, a romantic potboilerlike Message in a Bottle with its all-film look was a greater estheticexperience (as was its interest in the spiritual difficulty of romantic sacrifice).When digitally projected, An Ideal Husband's look is as soft and dull-wittedas Parker's interpretation (although the ladies boast sumptuous neckwear). Wilde'sgenius even has this new development in pop art covered: Driver tells Lord Goring,"To look at a thing is quite different from seeing a thing. One has notseen it until one has seen its beauty." An Ideal Husbandis a harbinger of the insensibility dominating today's film culture and thattechnicians will exploit in the now-unstoppable changeover to new exhibitionmethods and bigger profits (commerce without conscience). It could be that people have watched movies on videotape for so long that they no longer care aboutthe crucial distinctions between formats. Seeing a digitally projected filmdenies its beauty as surely as a postcard reproduction degrades Seurat's SundayAfternoon on the Grande Jatte. The textured richness of Message in aBottle will be lost; so will the phantasmic gloss of Ophuls' The RecklessMoment and the limpid evocations of Von Sternberg that make movies worthlooking at and contemplating. I have now seen cinema future and it is blurry. Late August, Early September directed by Olivier Assayas [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="288" caption="(photo courtesy of Wiki)"][/caption] Taking charm out of Frenchcinema is not an advance. In Late August, Early September, Olivier Assayasfollows a group of 90s malcontents in a fuck-and-sneer contest. Froggy-facedGabriel (Mathieu Amalric), a literary editor, volleys between two women-clinging,giraffe-like Jenny (Jeanne Balibar), whose smile is a nervous reflex, and thevoluptuous masochist Anne (Virginie Ledoyen). Gabriel also babysits a dyingwriter friend, Adrien (François Cluzet), whose uncertain talent seemsinstinctively prescient (Adrien staves off mortality-and ensures his literaryimmortality-by dating a 16-year-old jeune fille). Credit Assayas for realisticallyperceived assholes-everyone's complication is recognizable (even if only fromThe Big Chill and Woody Allen's Manhattan). But Assayas gets nocredit for indulging them in the affected style of Barry Levinson tv. Withoutshaky cam and quick cutting we'd see how banal the situations truly are. Hisdour visual style-blue/green plus washed-out flesh tones-is the filmic equivalentof wearing black in the East Village. So Late August, Early September will probably be praised the same way Assayas' unpleasant Irma Vep wascheered by critics who forgot how buoyant and revealing French cinema used tobe (even as recently as Techine's resplendent Wild Reeds and Les Voleurs). If we take 60s effervescencefor granted, it means we've forgotten how the New Wave artists celebrated thecomplexity of living: sex, art, philosophy-the excitement of new perception.Patrice Chereau works in that tradition; his upcoming Big Chill movie,Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train, gets to the point of modern stressand finds the drama. Assayas enervates the modern condition by turning whatonce was deep, gorgeous art into grunge. (And he cheats, simulating a slickmagazine layout-during Anne's debasement-when it's commercially suited.) Moviesthat look this bad might as well be shot and shown in video.