The American Problem

The following contains spoilers for Joe Eszterhas’s Number One Plot.

I remember thinking THE MUSIC BOX was OK, but now I’ve watched it again and it’s kind of not.

I think Costa-Gavras thought he could make intelligent political films in the US (post-producing them in France to maintain some distance) but maybe he was wrong. The most pernicious form of censorship, suggested Alexander Mackendrick, is self-censorship.

The screenwriter is Joe Eszterhas but I vividly remember that at the time most of us were not on to him. He had written FLASHDANCE (which I’ve never seen — the Wikipedia plot synopsis, however, is HILARIOUS, just a bunch of random incidents separated by dithering — I’ve been working on editing together old movie serial recaps, and this seems like one of those) and JAGGED EDGE and Costa-Gavras’ BETRAYED.

The big obvious joke with J.E. is that he always writes the same movie. Well, JAGGED EDGE (his signature work, it even shares his initials) is the exact same story as BETRAYED, THE MUSIC BOX and BASIC INSTINCT and I assume JADE. Someone is involved with someone else who may be a monster spoiler alert they totally are.

Though it was fashionable to say that JAGGED E. “kept you guessing to the very end,” I did notice, aged eighteen, that I was not guessing at all at the end. It was obvious to me that if Jeff Bridges wasn’t the killer, they would have to do a lot of tiresome explanation, SUSPICION-style, and also it wouldn’t be as dramatic. Still, let’s give J.E. (the man and the film) credit for doing a version of SUSPICION with the right, and less obviously commercial, ending.

Then he just does it again and again. In MUSIC BOX, for the first time the villain is a father, not a lover, and the crimes are historic. I recall the friend I saw it with back in 1989 saying, “The moment I saw that guy I knew he was guilty, but I was still sucked in.” Which is true. You do need to know how it’s going to turn out.

Flatly, is the answer. The very strong premise of a daughter defending her father on war crimes charges, complicated by the fact that the communist government of Hungary might be framing him because he’s a vocal anti-commie, seems like a good set-up, and it is, but they have no ending up their sleeve other than “Surprise! He’s guilty!” And since we’re not surprised, that’s not very gripping. They know they can’t trump up some kind of fight over a hunting knife and kill the guy. So they’ve got nothing.

I do like how Armin M-S’s credit appears over an animatronic likeness of him.

This being a J.E. script, all the men are inappropriately sweary or sexual, something that is more obvious to us post-SHOWGIRLS (written on the FLASHDANCE random-shit-and-dithering model) but was always a feature of Dirty Joe’s writing (JAGGED EDGE, Peter Coyote: “The guy’s got a rap sheet as long as my dick!”)

Costa-Gavras’ direction is smooth, there are some good-ish shots, but nothing breaks out of the Oscar-bait conventions of the script. When Jessica Lange walks by the Danube in search of inspiration, there are some shots of rippling water, but no cinematic poetry to lift us out of the merely photographic and suggest the emotional process the screenwriter has failed to write.

Freeze-frame ending. Ugh.

Fiona’s main observations: “This script is LEADEN,” and “That’s a really ugly dressing gown.”

Lange refuses the case because she’s too emotionally involved (mythic structure #101) then changes her mind after examining her knees in a mirror. She seems about to go full Sharon Stone. I have no idea what’s going on in this scene.

I like C-G, normally, because he weaves political considerations into rivetting stories, seamlessly, and because he is one of the best storytellers with the camera we have — he doesn’t get enough credit for his dynamic visual language. But it just feels like he has nothing to work with here. It’s like trying to sculpt soup.

And yes, Armin Mueller-Stahl is good, if a bit one-note (everyone is one-note, it’s an Eszterhas script).

Armin Mueller-Stahl’s Oscar campaign.

The best thing Joe Eszterhas wrote, a horrifying, craven piece of unintentional black comedy, is his letter to Mel Gibson. You will scream.

MUSIC BOX stars Dwan; Thronfolger; Hammett; Lyndon B. Johnson; Samuel; and Henry Portrait.

11 Responses to “The American Problem”

  1. Evidently, to misappropriate Charles Fort, it’s Joe Eszterhas Time. Just last week there was an interesting article about Mr. E.:

    “If it’s part of the egotistical remit of the writer to believe they have an insight into human psychology, it’s remarkable how much of Eszterhas’ oeuvre pivots around how fundamentally unknowable people are to one another. …[this sexualized incomprehension of women as people with interior lives]…And while that schtick, by which you can’t tell if someone cares for you or is simply a talented sociopathic mimic, resonated briefly at the exact moment when the grasping, solipsistic ‘80s were segueing into the untrustworthy, PR-managed ‘90s, it proved not to have much long-game sustain.”

    And then when reading through contemporary Vietnam journalism I find that as a journalist in the late 60s he was significantly involved in getting out the reporting of My Lai.

    Where will he turn up next?

  2. Wow!

    There ARE impressive aspects to the guy. Maybe not so much in his screenwriting or memoir-writing.

    He wanted to make a film about the Hungarian Revolution, didn’t he? And his roots come into play in Music Box in a big way, probably helping with the sense of background authenticity which is one of the film’s better qualities.

  3. “they have no ending up their sleeve other than “Surprise! He’s guilty!” And since we’re not surprised, that’s not very gripping.”
    There could be the switch to “Well, it’s more complicated than guilty or innocent.” There’s a fine novel, A Family Madness by Thomas Keneally, who wrote Schindler’s List, but no-one has filmed it. I think it may be a theme that’s too complicated and too internal to the characters involved to deal with easily in a film.

  4. Well, those are the best problems to grapple with. If you do the stuff that cinema handles easily, you just have explosions.

    Book sounds good.

    The irony is that Eszterhas had the experience of discovering his own father was a Nazi, he just couldn’t write it.

  5. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Eszterhas always writes the same script BADLY. He has less integrity than Herschel Gordon Lewis and the letter to Mel Gibson is proof of that. Why would anyone want to get involved with that noxious anti-Semite anymore?

    Just watched “The Year of Living Dangerously” again. A lovely film made back in the day before Gibson’s Full Horror had revealed itself.

    Costa-Gavras has made many fine films in Europe but he has no understanding of America.

  6. Fiona found the Gibson letter tragic, because it was so obviously a desperate man trying to hang onto his career, sleepwalking into damnation. Which is precisely why I found it hilarious, I guess.

    The disturbing part is that Gibson still has a career.

  7. Costa-Gavras real English-language success is Missing, which I think DOES “get” America, at least in a way that outsiders recognize. Jack Lemmon’s character, with his innocent faith in authority and intolerance for questioning, was perhaps a near-extinct kind of character in the post-Viet Nam, post-Watergate world, and would now probably be a Fox-viewing conspiracy nut, but he perfectly captures something that WAS real, as near as I can tell.

    So many of C-G’s films take place in fantasy-lands — the Francophone Greece of Z, the Mexican Chile of Missing, the French Czechoslovakia of L’Aveau. You somehow accept these places as realistic even though a big leap has to be taken. Maybe his American films play better elsewhere (but Music Box is still pretty flat).

  8. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Oh I like “Missing” too but while its principle characters are Americans (beautifully played by Lemmon and Spacek) its subject is Chile — and the coup engineered by our CIA.

  9. Well, CIA coups are as American as apple pie.

  10. Thanks, interesting!

    I wonder if the reason I found the moment hard to connect to the character is that arguably it’s more something Jessica Lange, actress, would do, rather than something the character, a lawyer, would be into. I don’t know. Certainly anybody MIGHT do it. But I don’t know if it’s part of this story.

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