Bart of Darkness

I actually read Peter Bart’s Infamous Players A Tale of Movies, The Mob (and Sex) thinking that he was Peter Biskind. Then I wrote a review on that basis, before I’d even finished the book. Then I realized that Peter Bart and Peter Biskind are two different men — they have different names, different faces, and one of them has a very different moustache. That should have tipped me off immediately.

Nevertheless, despite realizing my howling error before “going to press,” I am presenting the review unchanged, partly because “Rewriting is censorship” (the beat authors) and partly because  “Blogging isn’t writing, it’s graffiti with punctuation” (Elliott Gould in CONTAGION) — a description I embrace with enthusiasm though I’m far from certain about the punctuation part. And also, though I fully acknowledge that Peter Bart and Peter Biskind are not the same man, on a deeper, poetic level, they actually are.

Also also, taking Bart to task for faulty fact-checking in a review where I have confused him with another, different man, makes me look like an asshole, which is good for my ego.

Also also also, this review gives you an idea of what film history looks like without any fact-checking, thus saving you the effort of reading Bart’s book.

A DECADE UNDER THE WEATHER

There’s an aphorism I can’t quite recall about returning once too often to the well, and it hangs over Peter Bart’s memoir of his days at Paramount in the 70s, Infamous Players A Tale of Movies, The Mob (and Sex). The whole thing’s pretty tired, covering ground Bart went over more entertainingly in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (“The gossip culture’s revenge on the counter-culture,” as Paul Schrader put it.)

I enjoy gossip, and enjoy hearing that talented people have feet of clay, so I gobbled up Easy Riders shamelessly. Also, I feel a debt of gratitude to Bart because as I finished the book I came down with appendicitis. I was convinced I had food poisoning and believed I’d feel better if I threw up. His description of the murder of Dorothy Stratton at the end of his book helped me to achieve a successful vomiting, allowing me to realize that the problem was elsewhere.

Peter Bart.

The problem with Infamous Players isn’t that the subject is worn out, though there are numerous books about the period (Peter Cowie’s The Godfather Book is a fun one). It’s more like Bart is worn out. And his editor isn’t helping — the Introduction states “I played an integral role in both the success and the chaos,” and then over the page, just seventeen lines later, “I was lucky to be there at a time of great achievement and great confusion, and I managed to contribute to both.”

But then, the book’s title should have warned me: the word “sex” placed in prudish/prurient parenthesis speaks of a fundamentally lousy attitude to words.

Fact-checking is also not the book’s strong point, especially when it comes to plot synopses. Bart apparently thinks the original SCARFACE was about two brothers, one a gangster and one a cop, and he describes PLAY MISTY FOR ME as dealing with a disc jockey who turns violent when a one-night stand won’t date him again.

Peter Biskind.

This is worrying, but not as much as when Bart blithely narrates a series of events and imputes a cause-and-effect relationship that makes no sense. Noting that PLAY MISTY was a box office disappointment, he suggests that Clint Eastwood “wanted the assurance of having his alter ego, Don Siegel, serve as director” on DIRTY HARRY — but in the next sentence he observes that HARRY was released a mere two months after MISTY, which of course means that the earlier film’s box office performance could have played no possible role in Eastwood’s choice of Siegel as director on his next film. If I can catch Bart out like this, it makes me concerned that other stories he tells may be similarly inaccurate, and I won’t have any way of knowing.

Next to this, the disappointing lack of period ambience is a minor quibble. Robert Evans’ The Kid Stays in the Picture struck me as probably a lattice of self-serving lies, but it reeked of the seventies, because Evans is kind of still in that zone, mentally. You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again likewise benefitted from a strong, albeit vindictive and paranoid, authorial voice. Easy Riders caught a lot of the flavour of the times too, since it was largely an oral history, but this book comes straight from Bart’s defective memories, and its language is pure 21st century journalese, apart from the entertaining moment when Bart gets a makeover to transform from tweedy reporter to hip movie exec: the black amazon saleslady who outfits him is pure Pam Grier. Which is fine: she probably was, and if she wasn’t, this is an improvement.

Frustratingly, Bart portrays himself as pretty square, pretty decent, distancing himself from all of the free love, commercial love, shady mob activity and most of the recreational drug use surrounding him. He’s like Henry Hill in GOODFELLAS, copping to being in the room when a lot of heinous shit went down, but never actually pulling the trigger himself. And of course that may well have been the case. By pointing out Paramount’s ties to the underworld, though, he does weaken his friend Robert Evans’ already unconvincing argument that he was unaware that two of his backers on THE COTTON CLUB were gangsters: it seems Evans has viewed gangsterism as a kind of aphrodisiac for as long as he’s been in business.

Of course, I’m devouring the book as shamelessly as I did its superior predecessors, on a break from Ulysses, which is going to take me a decade to finish at this rate.

***

Bart’s book took me two days. In your face, James Joyce!

Peter Bogdanovich.

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15 Responses to “Bart of Darkness”

  1. This tale made my blood run cold, because I once teetered on the same cliff edge of confusion and only recovered my equilibrium in the nick of time. I have wiped the details from my mind (protective amnesia) but I know Bill Douglas and Bill Forsyth were involved.

    Ulysses??? A piece of cake. I’m halfway through Proust.

  2. I’m quite enjoying the strange effects of Ulysses, which include an alertness to coincidence — and also a bewildering tendency for remarkable coincidences to happen!

    I’m glad I spotted that mistake, but I’m also glad I made it.

  3. It took me a month to read Ulysses the first time. I read an episode per day. Some episodes are shorter than others, some are more accessible to read (the Night-Town episode, written in dramatic script form) while others require more scrutiny(the “Wandering Rocks” section of the Prince going by carriage and all the passerbies who see him).

    Peter Cowie’s THE GODFATHER BOOK is terrific. The definitive examination of Hollywood’s finest trilogy. The best part is Coppola admitting that “The Godfather Part III” was really the story of Paramount since the shady financial stuff behind it involved the Corporation that owned the studio.

    It can be argued that 70s American cinema has yet to have a decent book. Everyone focuses on the Coppola-Lucas-Spielberg but then it’s not easy pointing out how others like Cassavetes or Hellman fit in. Altman wasn’t part of that gang but he was far and away the most prolific American film-maker of the 70s, having got his start in TV and industrial films.

  4. David Boxwell Says:

    Speaking of Eastwood, when asked the other day if the subject of his latest film, J. Edgar Hoover (and Clyde Tolson), was gay, he snarled (just like GRAN TORINO’s Walt Kowalski!), “I don’t care.”

    I guess DiCaprio and Hammer directed themselves, then.

  5. I confused these two for years, I have to confess: their book titles all seem to run together, and plus, it’s just inconsiderate of them to share a first name.

    If you like gossip, you might enjoy Game Change, about the 2008 US election: from what I can tell, US voters – I was not one of them at the time – may not have chosen the absolute best person from the meagre selection available but they probably chose the least profane (I am sure that Romney knows all kinds of secret Mormon swear-words). Peter Bartkind was surely a ghost writer on this.

  6. Robert Kolker’s book on the ‘new Hollywood’, A Cinema of Loneliness, is pretty good (although I haven’t read it for years) and he does have a chapter of Altman.

  7. You got your captions wrong. Biskind has the mustache. Bart doesn’t.

    They’re both wastes of time, IMO.

  8. And that’s not Peter Bogdanovich at the bottom either, I suppose?

    “Always have a secret from the audience,” advises Elaine May. And on an Eastwood film, from the director. Does Clint make his movies on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” basis?

    Game Change sounds good. Spike Lee’s short on the previous election, We Wuz Robbed, is his most exciting film.

  9. No that’s Bogdanovuch — after reading the reviews for At Long Last Love.

  10. Clint really doesn’t care what anyone says.

  11. Heh.

    I think at this stage in the game, Clint probably might as well do whatever the hell he likes. If his reputation isn’t secure by now, nothing he does now will change that. And if it is secure, nothing he does now will change that.

  12. That’s precisely how he feels. He’s not going to act anymore because there aren’t any parts for men his age that woudl fit him. So Gran Torino is a nice send off. As for the rest he began as a genre director, then proceeded to branch out more and more to take in whatever caught his fancy. His film of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is highly underrated, as his his Angeline Jolie-starred “women’s picture noir Changeling.

    Very much looking forward to J. Edgar

  13. I’d assume he can afford to commission scripts about men his age, so I’m assuming either he thinks they’d be uncommercial or he just doesn’t want to act anymore, would rather save his considerable stamina for behind the camera.

    Gran Torino was certainly a fine exit for that particular star persona.

  14. I last read Ulysses on a 52 hour non stop Greyhound journey between New York and San Francisco. Not the most conducive environment. When one of my fellow passengers finally asked me what it was about, all I could manage was: “Two men walking around Dublin.” I don’t think I inpsired her to try it for herself.

  15. It does kind of resist synopsis… I tried to describe it to my mother, over ten minutes, and became conscious that each additional word was adding to her resistance and incomprehension.

    But I think she liked Dubliners!

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