Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 13, 2005


Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 11:35 am

Posted to www.marxmail.org on December 13, 2005

Around this time of year, I get about 20 “screeners” from various film publicists. These are mostly DVD’s and some videos that include a legend that pops up every 10 minutes or so to the effect that they are “for award purposes only.” So anxious are the studios to prevent piracy that they introduced a new system this year. They sent us a special player designed to play encoded DVD’s. Considering the crap they sent me, I wonder why they need to go to such lengths.

Out of morbid curiosity, I put on “Shopgirl” last night. This is a film that did not generate much interest at the NYFCO gathering I attended last Saturday, but Claire Danes did receive votes from a number of my colleagues for her performance opposite Steve Martin in this perfectly horrible film.

It did spur me to venture a few thoughts on the film industry and the movie review business (I use the word advisedly) that has the same sort of relationship to the industry that a remora has to a shark. As a reality check, I consulted the Movie Review Query Engine, a database of reviews, to compare my take on the film with reviews from various print publications and websites.

Roger Ebert, who is probably the best known film critic in the USA and a frequent guest on late night television talk shows, gave it a 3.5 out of a maximum 4 rating. He says:

One of the things you cannot do in this life is impose conditions on love. Another impossibility is to expect another’s heart to accommodate your own desires and needs. You may think that cleverness, power or money will work on your behalf, but eventually you will end up feeling the way you really feel, and so will the other person, and there is no argument more useless than the one that begins with the words “But I thought we had an agreement.”

“Shopgirl” is a tender and perceptive film that argues these truths. It is about an older man named Ray Porter, a millionaire, who sees a young woman named Mirabelle Buttersfield standing behind the glove counter at Saks, and desires her. He goes through the motions of buying some gloves. Perhaps the gray? “I prefer the black,” she says, and so he buys the black, and that night on her doorstep she finds the gloves, neatly gift-wrapped and with a note inside: “Will you have dinner with me? Ray Porter.

As I read this, I rubbed my eyes in disbelief. There is nothing “tender” or “perceptive” about this film. Basically, it is a film that dwells entirely on surfaces, especially when it comes to the characters themselves who are three of the more off-putting that I have encountered in recent years. Steve Martin’s Ray Porter is a narcissistic multimillionaire who seduces and then abandons Mirabelle Buttersfield played by Claire Danes. Neither character has any kind of internal life or psychological complexity that makes a love story interesting. Mostly their encounters involve dates for dinner or going to bed. Since Steve Martin is a full 34 years older than Danes (and looks more like 44 years older), one is left with a slightly creepy feeling not unlike seeing Woody Allen in some of his more recent films opposite a much younger female romantic interest. Mirabelle also has a fling with Jeremy, a twenty-something lout who has the same personality as an Adam Sandler character as well as Sandler’s grotesque hairdo from “Little Nicky”.

That gets me to the real question of who and what Steve Martin is. Like Woody Allen, Martin has a reputation for wit and taste, even though both of them played clowns earlier in their film careers. If Allen is the quintessential cosmopolitan New Yorker, Martin is his Los Angeles counterpart. Steve Martin is a big-time art collector and serves on the board of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Also like Allen, Martin has a sideline as a fiction writer. For both, the New Yorker magazine is the preferred venue for the trifles they serve up to middle-class audiences. That is where Martin’s short story “Shopgirl” originally appeared.

Whether Martin or the director of the film came up with the idea of using Ray Porter for voiceover narration, it was a horrible one. At the end of the film, when Danes takes up with Jeremy who she dated before meeting Martin, Porter says something along the lines of “Now Mirabelle’s voyage was complete. In choosing Jeremy, she finally recognized that life offers happiness but perhaps not the happiness of one’s dreams.” Just to make sure that the audience is stirred by these banalities, the sound of violins punctuates the words just as they do in every key moment of this film. Less voiceover and violins and more character and plot development would have been in order, but this is Hollywood after all.

Essentially, Steve Martin made a crappy movie (and probably wrote a crappy novella that it was based on) for the same reason Woody Allen makes crappy movies. These are people so wealthy and so powerful that they cannot really descend into the reality in which ordinary people like shopgirls dwell. Mirabelle has no personality, no depth and no reality. She is not a character but an idea for a possible character. Martin probably lives in an 8000 square foot mansion in Beverly Hills surrounded by million dollar paintings. His life revolves around cocktail parties in formal wear and meetings with film industry executives. You might say that he has the same sort of wealth and power as the character he plays in the film, but that is not sufficient to make a character interesting.

I suspect that what makes “Shopgirl” appealing to Roger Ebert and other powerful and successful film critics is exactly what makes it repellent to me. Hollywood has always been a dream factory. It offers ordinary people the chance to step into a world of Hollywood mansions or Fifth Avenue penthouses that they never would be invited to in a million years. This is what made Fred Astaire movies popular in the 1930s and what drew people to Woody Allen movies until they became unwatchable.

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