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Street Smarts

There's mass culture and then there's the authenticity mass-cult's always looking for, the stuff happening on the street. Joe Gould's Secret and Black and White are both tributes to that fascination. Different as they are, both celebrate New York as the fantasy place where—as one ancient pop song put it—the words of the prophet are written on subway walls.

Less obvious a movie subject than Black and White's touristic hippity-hop, Joe Gould's Secret (see related feature on page 53) is a quietly ambitious, well-wrought, and tastefully poignant treatment of two local literary legends. The first is ace New Yorker reporter Joseph Mitchell, played by the film's director, Stanley Tucci; the second is the Greenwich Village eccentric Joe Gould, panhandler extraordinaire and putative author of a million-word manuscript entitled The Oral History of Our Time. Mitchell first profiled Gould in 1942 as Professor Sea Gull and wrote about him again, more troublingly, some years after Gould's death.

"A blithe and emaciated little man" was how Mitchell first described Gould, wearing cast-off clothes with a "forlorn, Chaplinesque rakishness." This undiscovered genius seemed to personify a kind of flophouse modernism. Back in the Freudian '40s, someone suggested to Mitchell that Gould might be the medium through which New York's unconscious was attempting to speak. In Tucci's movie, the reporter discovers his subject (Ian Holm) at a lunch counter ranting and riffing as he empties an entire bottle of ketchup into his free bowl of soup. Intrigued, Mitchell learns that Gould is a homeless Harvard graduate who's been working for 26 years on a magnum opus based on overheard conversations.

A tale of two Joes: Tucci and Holm in Joe Gould’s Secret
photo: Abbot Genser
A tale of two Joes: Tucci and Holm in Joe Gould’s Secret

Details

Joe Gould’s Secret
Directed by Stanley Tucci
Written by Howard A. Rodman, from ‘‘Professor Sea Gull’’ and ‘‘Joe Gould’s Secret’’ by Joseph Mitchell
A USA Films release
Opens April 7

Black and White
Written and directed by James Toback
A Screen Gems release
Opens April 7

Herod’s Law
Directed by Luis Estrada
Written by Estrada, Jaime Sampietro, Fernando León, and Vincente Leñero
Museum of Modern Art,
April 8 and 9

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Gould shows Mitchell his clips—including endorsements from Ezra Pound, e.e. cummings, and William Saroyan—and Mitchell enters Gould's orbit, tagging along as this extravagantly voluble character crashes genteel poetry readings, cadges drinks from Village tourists, dives for cigarette butts, and otherwise makes his rounds soliciting contributions to the Joe Gould Fund. Shot mainly on location, the movie works hard for its period look and—although there's no sense of life during wartime—it's remarkably good at coaxing a lost '40s-ness out of the Manhattan streetscape, as well as providing a frame for Holm's massive performance.

As written by Howard A. Rodman, Joe Gould's Secret is the tale of two Joes, pitting the loud, irascible Gould (a New England Yankee) against the hesitant, self-effacing Mitchell (a courtly Southerner), played by Tucci as though suffering a case of terminal indigestion. Holm's terrible-tempered Gould is, by contrast, in perpetual high dudgeon when not translating Longfellow's "Hiawatha" into seagull caws or performing his Chippewa stomp. Gould is pleased to recite sections from the Oral History, but the more interest Mitchell shows in the manuscript, the cagier Joe becomes, his evasions climaxing in a classic phone-booth performance.

When the New Yorker profile finally appears, Gould is transported to celebrity heaven, chatting up college girls and hanging around Mitchell's office. He attracts a mystery patron and even meets a posh publisher (Steve Martin) who inadvertently puts Gould on the spot, thus alerting Mitchell to his subject's eponymous secret. Gould might be a smelly old bum and Mitchell a proper paterfamilias with two small daughters and a tart but understanding wife (Hope Davis) who is an artist in her own right, but the movie might really have been called Joe Gould's Secret Sharer.

As a writer, "the great artist/reporter of our century" per Vogue, Mitchell also has difficulty letting go—he's a perfectionist who subjects his prose to continual revisions. Tucci's most discomfiting scene places Mitchell at a cocktail party talking up his own unwritten novel, which sounds suspiciously like a version of the Oral History. (Ultimately, Mitchell succumbed to permanent writer's block, publishing nothing after his revisionist "Joe Gould's Secret" in the mid '60s, although he continued to come to work daily for the next 32 years.)

Tucci's film might have been less genteel. Perhaps in tribute to the old New Yorker, he's overly solicitous of his audience, downplaying the conditions of mental illness and softening the transference of one Joe's problem to the other. Still, from a writer's point of view, this is a true cautionary tale—the haunting story of what happens when the hunter gets captured by the game.


A steamier view of New York's oral history, James Toback's Black and White peaks with its opening scene—a lip-smackingly posed two-girls-and-a-guy teenage interracial orgy-cum- after-school special in the middle of Central Park. The money shot, so to speak, has participant Charlie (Bijou Phillips) sauntering home to her parents' Park Avenue apartment for dinner. "I can do whatever I want—I'm a kid in America," she later tells her high school class.

Free to be you and me: As embodied by Phillips's kewpie-doll homegirl delivery and digital documentary filmmaker Brooke Shields's orange dreadlocks, Black and White has something to do with rich white wannabes hanging with soon-to-be-rich rappers, mainly Wu-Tang associates Power and Raekwon. More self-sufficient than Joe Gould, the rap artists wonder what these white people really want, and—not unreasonably, given the nature of Toback's movie—assume it is a parasitic attempt on the black-planet life force.

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