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.
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.
Toback, a firsthand observer of Norman Mailer’s late-’60s celluloid debacle, Maidstone, has a similar sense of movie as mad cocktail party. Lampshade on head, Black and White pirouettes in and out of self-parody. At the same time, the mosaic structure and channel-surferattention-span suggests an impacted Nashville—at one point, all the characters, hip or clueless, including Charlie’s history teacher (Jared Leto) and her mother (Marla Maples), meet up at the same club. Toback, who appears uncredited as an oily music producer, casts hapless Shields in the Geraldine Chaplin role and saddles her with a madly cruising husband (Robert Downey Jr.) reckless enough to hit on Mike Tyson. “I’m on parole, brother, please . . . ” the ex-champ pleads before he snaps and begins throttling his persistent admirer.
Elsewhere on the celebrity-romance front, Knick star Allan Houston plays a college basketball prospect while, as his grad-student girlfriend, Claudia Schiffer sucks cheek with brisk hauteur. Toback knows it’s unfair to ask her to act. When she betrays the Houston character with his best friend, he thoughtfully dubs in “If You Want This Pussy (You Can Have It).” An exaggerated faith in music notwithstanding, Black and White is characterized mainly by its fabulous lack of conviction. The crucial murder is completely without consequence.
This hodgepodge only intermittently rises to the laughable (the bizarrely extended riff about undercover cop Ben Stiller delivering a payoff in the Time Café toilet), but, given the cast, it always has the potential to deliver some outlandish cameo—most often Tyson. I’m not sure I want to know the unconscious Black and White purports to channel. Suffice to say that Iron Mike emerges as the movie’s most articulate and sensitive presence.
“New Directors” winds up this weekend with a bang, giving a local premiere to Herod’s Law—a savage satire of political corruption and Mexico’s long-ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional. Robustly directed by Luis Estrada and set to a percolating mambo beat, Herod’s Law opens by nodding to Touch of Evil and closes with a direct attack on the PRI; in between, it tells the tale of a minor functionary appointed mayor of a remote, impoverished pueblo where three mayors have been lynched in five years.
A bawdy clown show set a half-century back and populated by a variety of folk types, Herod’s Law grows increasingly violent as its initially naive antihero successfully consolidates his power—although the brutality is somewhat mitigated by the good-natured barnyard humor. Estrada and his writers have fun fooling around with the official pieties that camouflage the essential rule: “Either you fuck them or you get fucked.” Production values are excellent and so is the cast, which features Isela Vega—the sex bomb of Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia—as the town’s formidable madame and, as a crooked gringo, Alex Cox in a part that once upon a time would have been perfect for Warren Oates.