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.
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.
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!