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Falling Behind

It has been a while since I woke up on a Monday morning without already having planted the day's entry here the night before. But my lead was eroded, over the last two weeks, by a confluence of interruptions both pleasant and not. There was the paperasse of Team Vacation. There was a charming reunion with an old friend from Houston, whom I hadn't seen since before his youngest daughter, the composed and rather lovely young eighth-grader who accompanied him, was born. There were two video rentals to watch, both pendants to entries from last week - Ken Russell's The Devils, and James Toback's Fingers - and then the VCR to unplug from the rest of the system when The Devils wouldn't eject. Howard, at the Video Room, told me to bring in the machine on a weekday, so that the staffer who knows how to deal with these problems could extract the tape, but by the time I'd cleared the tangle of leads and closed the cabinet door, my mind was made up to replace the VCR, so Kathleen and I dropped off the machine and the two tapes, both of which were due back yesterday, on our way to dinner at Burger Heaven last night. The staff did not seem at all nonplussed by my donation of a bulky dual-deck tape player to anybody who wanted it. But when I said that it had The Devils in it, someone asked me if the machine had eaten tapes before, and I said that it hadn't. She looked confused and then asked what was wrong with the VCR (perhaps she was interested). I said that it was just an old machine. "But you said it has the devils..." We all got a nice laugh out of that.

I had never seen either of the rented movies. You'd think that I'd have seen The Devils (1971), but I remember staying away. I'd have hated it. Claustrophobic, grotesquely stylized, and unpleasant wherever possible, Ken Russell's adaptation turns the story of faked possession and political persecution into grand guignol. But there is a truth about Oliver Reed's impersonation of Urbain Grandier that was hard to miss. He certainly looks like the engraving of Grandier that Huxley publishes. It's an Englished Grandier, to be sure, long on the boldness and not so witty. Vanessa Redgrave clearly relishes playing a humpbacked beauty doomed never to know carnal release. Fingers (1978) was a quieter movie than I expected it to be, but otherwise it did not surprise. It is also fairly claustrophobic. Many of its details - such as the name of the impresario (Mr Fox), the Bach (Toccata in e, BWV 914), and the confrontations with the contemptuous gangster (but not in the end) - are the same. But De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté is less a remake than an overhaul. The sordid love story at the center of Fingers is dropped altogether, its space taken up by Tom's music lessons. And while the later movie makes a tremendous surprise out of the hero's musicality, Fingers opens with Harvey Keitel at the piano; it's his violence that we discover slowly, and without surprise. Mr Keitel did not, all too apparently, have a professional-pianist sister to advise him on how to look like a pianist: Where Romain Duris glares over the keyboard, as if determined to root out mistakes lingering between the keys with some sort of optical laser, Mr Keitel "sings along" with facial expressions, something that music lovers do but not music producers. The appeal of Fingers is principally that of seeing a lot of now famous actors, among them Dominic Chianese (Uncle Junior), Danny Aiello (Moonstruck), Jim Brown (Mars Attacks), and of course Harvey Keitel, at a much earlier stage in their careers.

There are critics who believe that the artistic movies of the 1970s mark the zenith of American filmmaking. That would be a very dark zenith indeed, and I don't share their enthusiasm.


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They say that the devil is in the details.

I think you should try a lighter film or two this evening.

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