Thomas Crown

Written by Matt Zoller Seitz on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.


 


Rich & Lovely People
The
Thomas Crown Affair
is wealth porn–an advertisement
for escapist moviegoing. Every frame is packed with lovely, expensive objects
and beautiful people who are rich enough to afford those objects and confident
enough to possess them without making a big deal of their acquisition. Pierce
Brosnan, who plays billionaire investor and secret art thief Thomas Crown, and
Rene Russo, who plays the gorgeous insurance investigator Catherine Banning,
who’s trying to bust Crown for stealing a Monet from the Met, are made
up, clothed, framed and lit with exquisite care, so that their poise and beauty
sinks in subliminally rather than trumpeting itself.



On some level, these stars
must know how beautiful they are, but they don’t really let on, and that’s
the key to the movie’s success. They don’t appear to be presenting
themselves for our viewing pleasure; they’re just going about their business,
as if they don’t mind (or notice) our roving eyes. That’s a subtle
distinction, but it’s the difference between old-school Hollywood glamour–a
school represented by this film, and by last summer’s vastly superior Out
Of Sight
–and the new school, which jams expensive objects and attractive
(often very young) people down the audience’s collective throats while
the latest pop hits moan and throb on the soundtrack.


Director Norman Jewison’s
original version of the movie, released in 1968, starred Steve McQueen as a
bank robber and Faye Dunaway as an insurance investigator who fell for him.
It was wealth porn, too, but it was badly done–arch and busy and mock-sophisticated,
“glamorous” in that graceless, vulgar, impress-the-yobs manner that’s
typical of films by, say, Tony Scott or Adrian Lyne. (It’s the first movie
I bring up whenever embittered baby boomers wax nostalgic about how the late
60s and early 70s were the most creative and adult years in motion picture history.
Earthquake and The Towering Inferno are backup choices.)


This new version, written
by Leslie Dixon and Kurt Wimmer and directed by John McTiernan, is so good that
it reduces the original to the status of mere curiosity. Crisp and professional
from the get-go, it rarely strains for effect, and it wears its coat of wealth
lightly, which is how it should be. Unlike most big-budget blockbusters in this
screw-storyboarding-and-just-follow-everyone-around-with-a-Steadicam era, The
Thomas Crown Affair
gives the impression of having been thought out, planned
and crafted, like a yacht or a Rolls Royce. It’s not art, but it’s
made with care. There are several cleverly staged action setpieces, and even
minor bridging scenes are choreographed and edited in a way that delivers tiny,
pleasurable surprises. Overall, the film is still completely ridiculous–perhaps
even more ridiculous, plotwise, than its predecessor–but it’s much,
much better than it needed to be.


It helps that Brosnan and
Russo are great-looking people in their mid-40s who look like great-looking
people in their mid-40s. Their bodies are attractive but not fake-looking. Brosnan
with his shirt off looks like somebody’s very handsome dad–he’s
pale and slender, with wide shoulders, compact arms, a splash of dark chest
hair and the faintest hint of a spare tire. No obscene musculature or surgery-sculpted
abs; he looks like a guy who plays tennis a lot, jogs a bit and (most importantly)
has good metabolism, which counteracts his love of whisky and steak, rather
than a guy who shoots steroids, eats nothing but rice and fish and works out
four hours a day with a personal trainer. Ditto Russo; like Brosnan, she’s
naked in a couple of scenes, and it’s nice to see a female body onscreen
with real, womanly hips and breasts that have a human size and shape.


Their teasing banter, usually
delivered in four-star restaurants or art museums or on private tropical beaches,
feels earned, because the actors look like they’ve lived a bit, maybe learned
a lesson or two. They’re living like Bruce Wayne and Brenda Starr, but
they have secrets, and some of them are sad; they never reveal the exact nature
of their secrets, and that’s another good move. We don’t need to know
everything about movie characters, especially in movies like The Thomas Crown
Affair
; even fluff is helped by a touch of mystery, a hint that some things
are being withheld from us because they are none of our business. I always liked
Brosnan as James Bond and never understood why people thought he was a lightweight;
he combines Roger Moore’s smooth self-awareness with Sean Connery’s
I-don’t-give-a-damn cruelty. He’s more relaxed here, though, and more
charming–a playboy who always knew he wanted to be a playboy but had to
work to get there, and is a wiser person as a result. With her shaggy red bob,
ever-moist lips and odd, clipped line readings, Russo is a tad kooky, and maybe
too overtly sexy. (Was this in the script, or is it the director’s fault?)
But her tenor voice is sweet to hear, and she looks fabulous peeking over the
lip of a turtleneck sweater, or pouring champagne on the exhausted Crown’s
face right after she’s finished screwing him within an inch of his life.


I’m sitting here trying
to remember the intricacies of the film’s plot; it’s not easy because
the story is both complex and utterly meaningless–Crown steals a painting
he loves from the Met, or maybe he didn’t really steal it, or love it;
then again, maybe he stole it and put it back or replaced it with a fake; at
any rate, Banning is certain he’s a thief, or perhaps an art forger, or
a front for an art forger, and decides the best way to expose him is to get
inside his life, which entails letting Crown get inside of her. It’s all
quite silly–even sillier than the first Thomas Crown–and entrancing.
The real point is the frisson between Brosnan and Russo; they’re not Bogart
and Bacall, but they’ve never seemed more like movie stars than they do
here. They’re whisked through an amazing number of lavish settings, each
involving a costume change or two; but they never let on that no human really
lives this way, not even the Kennedys. (With its never-ending parade of lush
apartments and mansions and vacation homes and private aircraft, the movie could
be the public’s collective fantasy of what it’s like to be a Kennedy.
The thought sours when you see the dark-haired, John-John-looking Brosnan taking
rich-guy risks in boats and planes–but the jolt only lasts a second because
the film is seductive and playful.)


McTiernan is primarily known
as an action director; he made the first and third Die Hard movies, both
of which were very good macho spectaculars, and The Hunt For Red October.
He’s strongly influenced by John Frankenheimer and Alfred Hitchcock, both
of whom are visually and logistically precise filmmakers with a strong sense
of momentum and a certain elegance; these qualities are all present in the way
McTiernan crosscuts, not just between actions in different locales, but minor
bits of business occurring in the same location. The intent is always to subtly
increase our anticipation of how things will turn out, and to show rather than
tell–in other words, good filmmaking.


For example, early in the
film, Crown sits at a conference table in his lower Manhattan headquarters,
pen in hand, looking over documents that make a merger official, while across
the table, a wannabe business partner nervously unwraps a celebratory cigar,
fiddles with it, then produces a box of matches and removes one; he can’t
summon the nerve to light the damned cigar because Crown hasn’t signed
yet. The scene’s mini-narrative is articulated by the business suitor’s
anxious face and Crown’s calculated, blank expression, and by the unclicked
pen and the unlit cigar.


Come to think of it, Billy
Wilder also did this kind of thing well, investing ordinary objects with a significance
that advanced the story and enhanced the characters; think of the naked light
bulb that signals duplicity in the Stalag 17 barracks, or Audrey Hepburn’s
bulky cello case in Love in the Afternoon, an item that announces “model
grind” while hiding her secret persona as a playgirl. I’m not saying
Thomas Crown
is a great movie or that McTiernan is the equal of any of the
filmmakers he’s learned from–just that he’s learned from them,
that he has a marvelous sensibility that’s commercial and poetic, and that
you can see this sensibility at work in Thomas Crown. It’s there
in the way Banning opens a switchblade without looking at it; in the way Banning’s
eyes twinkle when she tells Crown, “Men make women messy.” It’s
there in the way a yacht bow slices through clear blue seawater in close-up,
and in the scene where Crown is seated behind Banning in an ultralight glider
and absentmindedly caresses her hair as they zip over fall-colored treetops.
I won’t call the film a guilty pleasure; there’s no reason to feel
guilty about liking a movie that knows exactly what it is and does its job so
well.



Framed
Media
boosters of
The Blair Witch Project might have
made a tactical error when they decided to tell everybody how incredibly scary
the film is. (“The year’s scariest movie,” said the Village
Voice
; “I have seen the new face of movie horror and its name is ‘The
Blair Witch Project,’” declared Rolling Stone’s Peter
Travers, typing with one thumb while sitting on the other.)



I thought it was very scary–so
scary that it actually gave me my first movie-related nightmare in about five
years. But I was aware that other people might not think so. The film’s
unusual, even challenging structure is bound to be off-putting to the teenage
film audience, for whom horror means Seven, Scream or Jan De Bont’s
The Haunting–movies that lean on special effects, gore or some combination
thereof and leave very little to the imagination.


To say that the creepiness
of Blair Witch comes from withheld information is exactly right. The
jittery, borderline-first-person camerawork was a terrific touch, and the audio-only
scenes inside the tent, which allow you to imagine what’s making those
spooky noises outside, are even better. The movie takes its own premise seriously,
almost never cheats and ends on what I thought was precisely the right note.
It needed to end ambiguously because anything explicit it showed us would not
have equaled the product of our own tickled imaginations.


I was also impressed with
the characterizations–particularly the filmmaker played by Heather Donahue,
a pint-sized female Ahab. Filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez were
right to cast a woman as the obsessive protagonist; if a man had played the
role, the audience would likely have found him unlikably arrogant. Donahue’s
gender makes her single-mindedness peculiar and strangely touching. The camera
is a phallic symbol, natch–what’s that famous quote about the history
of cinema being boys taking pictures of girls?–and the director clings
to hers as if it were a knife or a gun or a magic talisman protecting her against
evil. She films in order to control what is happening, but she can’t control
it. In our video-happy age, that’s a very useful message.


As you’ve gathered,
I liked the film a lot. But apparently a large number of moviegoers beg to differ.
Recent reports on audience exit polling by the research firm CinemaScore indicate
that the film might not become the most profitable film ever made–and that
early predictions of a $100 million final take, made on the basis of the el
cheapo film’s over $40 million gross as of last week, were premature. The
fact is, most regular Joes and Janes hate the movie. Cinemascore said viewers
who were strongly interested in seeing the film tended to give it a “C,”
and people who came with them often gave it an “F.” Some have chosen
to interpret this as proof that the public has common sense and the media hype
machine was trying to put something over on them and failed; I choose to interpret
it more negatively, as proof that the explicitness of most horror films made
after Halloween and Alien has deadened audiences to films that
demand concentration and imagination from them, instead of serving up a smorgasbord
of slime, blood, fancy editing and funhouse-style digital monstrosities.


On a related note, I’m
dismayed by yet another wave of “Hit Film Is Not Original After All!”
stories keyed into Blair Witch. The stunning revelation here is that
the movie’s found-footage premise has been done before, in films as diverse
as the 1979 Italian cult horror flick Cannibal Holocaust, the 1989 Vietnam
War movie 84 Charlie Mopic and, most recently, the 1998 indie The
Last Broadcast
. A similar wave of stories appeared after the release of
The Truman Show; indeed, there’s usually a flurry of plot plagiarism
charges surrounding at least one hit movie each calendar year, sometimes more.


Will people never learn
that form follows function? It’s only logical that when some horror filmmaker
decides to direct a movie that purports to be a found record of atrocities,
the result is always going to look pretty much the same as every other such
effort. What differentiates one movie from another are the intangibles–things
like mood, rhythm, characterization and technique. There was a wonderful article
about this asinine nonissue in The New Yorker last year. Citing The
Truman Show
, the author pointed out that if a writer comes up with a premise
like, “Man finds out his life is a tv show,” he is virtually guaranteed
to come up with related elements, like the Godlike director, the girlfriend
who’s secretly in on it, the light falling from the sky and the impulsively
hatched escape plan.


Hint to aspiring screenwriters
and playwrights: devote your time and energy to the intangibles, because those
are the only things that are uniquely yours anyway. And if you come up with
what you think is an original story, and somebody else comes out with a movie
or play that has exactly the same story, that doesn’t necessarily mean
you were plagiarized; more likely, it means your story wasn’t as special
as you thought.


I’d also advise anyone
embroiled in this Blair Witch mini-controversy (or who might be writing
about it) to resist declaring that one filmmaker got to the faux-documentary
horror format first. Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Shelley, to name just two great
horror writers, used similar structures, except their records of mysterious
and horrific events took the form of journals, letters or oral stories told
to witnesses rather than filmed footage.


Smokin’: The best
movie poster
on theater walls right now is the one for Michael Mann’s
The Insider, a drama about the 60 Minutes tobacco debacle starring
Al Pacino as producer Lowell Bergman and Russell Crowe as industry whistleblower
Jeffrey Wigand. It’s spare and haunting, and it manages to sell the movie
and its star with a certain flair, even artistry. The bottom half is a widescreen-cropped
picture of Pacino looking down pensively; the colors are blue-gray, a winterish
scheme. The top of the poster contains a line drawing of a skinny horizontal
rectangle that looks like a cigarette box lying on its side; it’s even
bisected by a short diagonal line where the flip-top box opening should be.
The film’s credits are squeezed into the long portion of the box. The short
portion contains warning that reads, “Warning: Exposing the truth may be
hazardous.” Very nice.


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