Latest Readings - Clive James (2015)

Movie Books

ONCE AGAIN I HAVE read, right through the length of its hefty bulk, My Indecision Is Final, by Jake Eberts and Terry Ilott. The story of one of Britain’s several doomed attempts to have its own Hollywood-style film industry, it really should be a bit of a downer. Goldcrest, the British company in question, had one of the biggest hit movies ever, Gandhi: but it still went broke. Eberts was the executive in charge and really the whole thing was his fault, so why take him as an expert? Why am I always reading his book? Not just because it is one of the best books about the movies, but because it is one of the best books about show business in general. Many of us who have lived and flourished in show business are reluctant to admit that we have no talent for it. What we are good at is the arts: the strategic commercial sense that makes the arts possible is quite beyond us. My Indecision Is Final does a wonderful job of analyzing how the movies need an industrial effort and that if you can’t do the industry bit you shouldn’t start. I suppose if Eberts had been really good at industry, he would never have had a catastrophe to report and the book would not have been written. But he was good enough at it to be able to lay out the relevant factors in a thrilling linkage of cause and effect.

Goldcrest made some good movies. The Mission is still worth a look, even if only because Robert De Niro is such a walking definition of screen stardom that he merely has to flex his jaw in a determined manner, while Jeremy Irons has to act his head off. Nor did The Mission lose money at the same rate as The Emerald Forest, although both movies taken together added up to yet another lesson (long ago learned by Hollywood) that you should never go filming in the jungle unless you can build the jungle in a studio. And then there was Gandhi, the dream product that won Oscars and made zillions: money and prestige, Goldcrest had them both.

But in the film business, prestige never earns enough on its own. The overheads will eat you up unless you can maintain a flow of ordinary product. In Britain the home market simply isn’t big enough to sustain a steady effort for anything more ambitious than the brain-dead Carry On series, so all you can have is the occasional outburst of talented people managing to convince the banks that this time things will be different. Sometimes they are; Ealing Studios, for example, was the creation of a man of genius, Sir Michael Balcon; but just for that reason, it lasted no longer than he did. Avowedly aspiring to be something more solidly based than a one-man show, Goldcrest was awash with talent but it couldn’t do anything normal, and all too soon the dream died. One is faced with the sad possibility that the main reason why the book is so enjoyable is schadenfreude. It can be fun to watch such clever people run their heads into a wall.

The same might apply to Final Cut, Steven Bach’s book about the pretentious fiasco that was Heaven’s Gate, Michael Cimino’s fanatically authentic, and therefore hideously expensive, re-creation of a Wild West range war that never happened in the first place. On behalf of United Artists, Steven Bach was the executive in charge: a suit with a proven brain. So really, in writing his account of how it all went wrong, he was in the same position as Jake Eberts at Goldcrest. The book is a piercing character study of Michael Cimino, from which the reader is forced to conclude that Cimino never had a character at all. He was a chameleon with delusions of grandeur. He lied like Hemingway—he invented a role for himself in the Green Berets in the same way that Hemingway invented a role for himself in the Arditi—and operated on the principle that if you disagreed with him about anything you must have been working with the enemy. But some of his delusions were convincing: hence the perfection of the trap into which Bach and the other UA executives so worthily walked, convinced that Cimino was a great film artist. To do them, and him, credit, he had already provided the world with what looked like proof that this might be true. His movie The Deer Hunter was such a huge hit, both critical and commercial, that he was hailed as an avatar.

Prestige and money: that dangerous double score. The paradox underlying the whole mad project of Heaven’s Gate was that the studio got into it because the executives believed in art. If Cimino had not been carrying his wealth of laurels as an artist, and promising to add to them, his big idea for the range war epic would never have got off the ground—or, at least, never gone on location. But off he and his vast crew went to Montana, where they had already set fire to a hill of money before a single camera turned. A large piece of Montana Cimino bought for himself, on the studio’s tab. Long ago, Erich von Stroheim taught Hollywood how hard it is to stop a runaway production. United Artists might also have drawn on the example of the Anglo-French Concorde supersonic airliner project, which was unstoppable for the same reason: when you have spent so much, it becomes impossible to write it off. But Bach’s rueful narrative is a demonstration of how it is possible to understand every stage of a disaster and still be forced to go along with it to the end.

It ended in bad reviews and an empty box office. I still remember seeing it, and feeling my life growing shorter in a way that I don’t feel even now, when it is. After the smoke cleared, United Artists was in ruins and Michael Cimino changed gender. Steven Bach went on to write this marvelous book. His book about Leni Riefenstahl is also very good, although I won’t be reading it again: her movies were monstrous, but so was she, so there was no discrepancy between aim and result, and hence no lesson. Heaven’s Gate was all lessons; and today, in its afterlife, it exists on no other level. The strangest and most long-lasting of the lessons, however, was that some of the critics managed to convince themselves that a shapeless movie—and not just shapeless in its general outline, but shapeless from scene to scene—was some kind of masterpiece. There have been several attempts to resuscitate the reputation that it justly never earned. One concludes that in the field of movie criticism there is a sucker born every minute. Were he still alive, Steven Bach would have the grace to say that the same applies to movie executives. Since his book came out in 1985 I have taken pleasure in recommending it to anyone who shows signs of being interested in the popular arts, or, indeed, in any kind of arts at all.