We’ll all look back and laugh…or at least I will

Amid all my new reading I was recently prompted — not sure by what — to reread a book I’ve had in my collection for many years, which I vaguely recall reading once sometime back in the mid-1990s. It’s tangentially about a book I have read and is definitely about a movie I never want to see. That would ruin the mystique. (More accurately, it just sounds awful.)

Julie Salamon‘s The Devil’s Candy is one of those books that shouldn’t exist but does and in doing so provides a portrait of a time that is no longer with us but is still clearly about what’s happening today. As she explained in her end notes, she was invited on-board a project by a key player who basically said ‘do whatever.’ Not many people would be willing to do that, and whatever Salamon’s own conscious or unconscious thoughts about trying to make said key player look good, she shows the warts pretty clearly as well.

Said key player is Brian de Palma, a director I’ve never felt a great attachment toward. Very little he’s created has captured my interest to start with, and I think I’ve only seen one film of his on screen, The Untouchables — and he definitely wasn’t the reason why I watched it way back when in 1987. (If anything it would have been because of a combination of Connery and the general story being told.) Phantom of the Paradise is a trip, though, and while one great film isn’t much given all he’s done, it’s still better than none. (Yeah, yeah, I know all the Scarface fanatics are complaining about now, if they even care to be here. Whatever works for you.)

The particular film the book is about, as mentioned, is adapted from another book — one of those ones that I’m content to keep in a dim memory somewhere. Tom Wolfe is one of those characters who, in my late eighties youth, I somehow had pegged as an ‘important’ writer somewhere, I don’t know from where or how. I probably kept confusing him a bit with Thomas Wolfe (and I’ve no doubt Tom Wolfe would be happy to hear that). He was an inherited name, one of those people who I had gathered had some cachet without experiencing it at all, not beyond having seen The Right Stuff on TV (good movie, I remember, though I seem to remember Jeff Goldblum’s part most of all).

Around junior, senior year of high school The Bonfire of the Vanities came out and was one of those books that ‘everyone’ was reading. Somehow I got a hold of it via the public library and dutifully read it as well — and my impressions of it at this point are dim. It’s not one of those books I’ve ever felt a need to revisit — I certainly don’t feel it now — but I remember burning through it pretty quickly and that there was a lot of scabrous dialogue and drunks. Or so it seemed. That and I remember a brief TV feature on Wolfe looking extremely dapper in one of his suits and my mom going, “He is such a dandy.” Which he is, I actually like that most of all about him. I assume he still is one.

I can’t say I’ve felt a need to read such a book since then, ‘the’ hot novel of the time, and probably the last time I did it with nonfiction was Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. I’m sure I’ve stumbled across a few over the years without realizing it but the phenomenon is simultaneously understandable and disinteresting. It ties in a bit with the larger trap of defining one’s social experiences through discussion of shared media — there’s something lowest common denominator about it. To say that sounds slightly ridiculous coming from someone like myself who talks about shared media touchstones all the time is understandable but I tend to hope that’s not the only thing — and I definitely hope that whatever else is inevitably up for discussion at general times that I can move beyond ‘hey, this is a cool band/book/etc.’ to something a little deeper, at least a touch.

Back to the subject at hand — so I read The Bonfire of the Vanities, I doubtless felt profounder about something and then I went on from there. I vaguely remember some classmates being a bit amazed I ripped through the book so quickly — it’s pretty thick (maybe in more than one sense) but read briskly enough. I don’t think I thought much about it again until a couple of years later when the movie version came out — which I happily ignored, mostly. As I’ve always said, something about a movie just has to interest me on some almost unconscious level for me to want to go see it, and very little out there gets to that point for me on first release. And when this was the image I saw:

Craptastic!

Let’s face it, Bruce Willis’s gurning mug alone was reason for me to think the 1990 equivalent of “EPIC FAIL.” It was released, it bombed, people pointed and laughed.

But then this book came out, The Devil’s Candy, all about the making of said movie. When I first read it, I, like a lot of other people, doubtless did so for pure rubbernecking reasons, along the lines of hoping it would be full of tales of morons being moronic and working for our entertainment, ie, “Well, glad I’m not these clowns.” I have no shame in this regard, I’m entertainined by the folly of humanity. My initial impressions from that first reading all that time back I don’t recall at all, but my rereading confirmed something else — namely, that no matter what the impact of the film in the end, the story Salamon set out to tell was that of the making of a big budget Hollywood film, a portrait of the machine at work along with many of its constituent players.

It wasn’t a character assassination, or a collective one — a critique, certainly, an observational one that didn’t say, “Here’s how it should be,” but rather, “Here is how it can be, and here is what can happen.” It’s a specific portrait of a film’s making that carefully shies away from exact claims to universality in favor of noting what can or often is universal while then explaining how things worked out for this film. As such, it’s a portrait of a business venture, a temporary one engaged upon by a variety of professionals who work together for a while then move on to something else, for the most part doing so without working with others again in the foreseeable future. It touches on a wide range of subjects, from the everything-changes-on-a-dime reworking of scenes and shots depending on unexpected circumstances to the abrasive frustrations between people that erupt when you have different personalities in the same place with no easy escape.

What’s interesting at this remove is how much less demystified this is, relatively speaking, for a current film audience, if they so desire it. There’s a bit where one of the editors looking at some celluloid clips hanging up to dry says that the process won’t even be like that in another fifteen years, and the triumph of Avid editing as the standard has proven him fully correct. But it’s the advance of technology, as both product of and analytical tool on the studios, which underlines the changes — yet there’s still plenty out there which doesn’t immediately come to everyday attention on the part of the outside observer, who only sees the business as a business in those moments when the supply chain is disrupted (the writers’ strike was one example, the possibly upcoming actors’ strike might be another). Most DVD extra features are just promotional puffery at heart, for instance, and even something incredibly exhaustive such as, say, the hours upon hours of background footage and interviews for The Lord of the Rings movies — even the roughly shot stuff that formed the bonus documentaries on the reissues a couple of years back — only scratches the surface. If something like the audience preview testing process is now laid incredibly bare, it’s not removed from the equation yet either.

Salamon’s book acts as a gift still, paralleled by too few other works out there, that views the people in the process as people, neither saints nor sinners but quite often sinning big time. Less so in a creepy or cruel sense, but Salamon can be rightfully unforgiving at points (she goes to the heart of de Palma’s rather conflicted view about women in one sequence in just a couple of paragraphs, while still allowing for sympathy — not an easy task to manage).

Some of her observations have their greatest impact due to time, meanwhile — she might not have intended it at the time fully, but there’s plenty to chew on regarding racial tensions and stereotyping which, while not absent from the book’s own take, seem even more egregious and ridiculous at a distance. This applies particularly to a transformation of a section of the Bronx in an attempt to strike a midpoint between Wolfe’s satiric vision and de Palma’s operatic one — but the description just makes it all sound like pure bigotry run rampant on all fronts (captured best of all by the description of local observers watching on almost sullenly at the transformation of a fairly typical street into a neon-overdosed fantasyland of an ‘urban’ setting, while elsewhere an assistant director calls to extras, “Okay girls, start shucking and jiving.”)

It all builds up to the release and near-immediate death of the movie, and what’s most telling is how much nearly everyone shrugs it off and moves on. Salamon herself has to wrap it up there because there’s almost nothing more to say beyond some general observations, with no benefit of further hindsight. The portrait of De Palma indicates he probably ended up chewing over its failure for some time (for all we know he still does), while there’s a quick note that a couple of months later Hanks fired his agent, something that led up to his career fix with the help of A League of Her Own, which set him on the path towards neo-Jimmy Stewart that he holds to this day. The only comment I think he’s ever made about the film was that he felt the character was a ‘pussy,’ which is one of those unfortunate reminders about how language at once conveys frustration and reestablishes stereotypes. (The one person whose story, too briefly told, is the most interesting in the context of looking backward is Kim Cattrall, some years away from her own cachet-winning role in Sex and the City and already fearing, with good reason, that she might have missed out on the brass ring of fame given how Hollywood favors younger actresses. Her sense of desperation over the role of Hanks’s wife — that this might finally be her break — is palpable.)

There’s much more to say about this book but I’ve been hanging fire on my thoughts for a while and I want to wrap this up — especially since there are other things crowding into my head right about now. Suffice to say that this is a book not only worth the reading but rereading, and I think I’ll be interested to look at it again in ten years time to see what further, if anything, has changed, both in my perceptions and in the world of mass culture as product.

Meantime, the measure of a film’s impact these days can be seen this way — on YouTube, there are only a total of ten clips that turn up when you search ‘bonfire vanities,’ and of these only two are from the movie itself. And both of those come from people pointing a camera at a TV. Tom Wolfe might have something to say about it, but I think I’ll pass on that.

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