Friday, September 25, 2009

Alistair Cooke at the Movies

Since Alistair Cooke's death in March 2004, his legacy has passed from the airwaves to the printed page. Reprints of 'Alistair Cooke's America' and 'Six Men' have appeared, as well as a comprehensive single-volume selection of his 'Letters from America', the long presumed lost manuscript 'American Journey', and themed volumes of his writing which chronicle his political commentary and his love of golf.

Now we have 'Alistair Cooke at the Movies', edited by Geoff Brown: 300 pages of film reviews, character sketches on the good and the great, and general musings on moviegoing. The earliest pieces date from his college years in the late 1920s, when he contributed reviews to The Granta; largely written in a florid, gee-whiz-check-out-my-IQ undergraduate style, they contain trace elements, nonetheless, of the erudition and dry wit that would charm generations of listeners across seven decades of radio broadcasts.

Indeed, as Brown points out in his introduction Cooke's inaugural broadcast for BBC radio programme The Cinema "reads almost like a 'Letter from America'. As so often, he's describing a New York Scene - Broadway's riot of electric lights. He's precise, vivid, personal; and he's drawing us in."

As the talks for The Cinema continue - they are supplemented by articles for Sight & Sound and the Spectator - Cooke reveals himself as a proletariat of film criticism. He sees movies, sometimes several times over, with paying audiences rather than form his opinions in the rarefied atmosphere of the press screening. He has no truck with the idea that foreign movies are sacrosanct or should be discussed within different perameters just because they're foreign. He makes no apology for enjoying the mainstream.

It should be noted that the majority of what's collected here dates from the 1930s, and the mainstream of Cooke's preference is the cinema of Charlie Chaplin and Frank Capra, Henry Hathaway and Michael Curtiz, Fritz Lang and Cecil B de Mille; the cinema of Robert Donat and John Barrymore, Claudette Colbert and Myrna Loy, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. What Cooke would have made of today's mainstream is anybody's guess. By the 1970s, he's already finding bona fide classics 'The Godfather' and 'Taxi Driver' "appalling.

This, for me, is where the collection doesn't work. As a sparkling, slightly indulgent celebration of cinema in the '30s, the book is a gem. Outside of that decade ... hmmm.

Alistair Cooke always struck me as a man for whom elegance was paramount. For someone so suave and debonair, I guess the edgy, visceral, exciting wave of film-making that swept through American cinemas in the '70s must have been like a slap in the face. The small amount of commentary he affords to Coppola, Scorsese et al demonstrates an anachronistic sensibility.

A quick skim through the index reveals a fixation on Carole Lombard, Katherine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, Gary Cooper and Loretta Young. A just as cursory perusal brings up a list of the missing, particularly in the director's chair: Raoul Walsh, Orson Welles, Robert Aldrich, Sam Fuller, Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, Arthur Penn, Mike Nichols. Absent, too, are Powell & Pressburger, Jean-Luc Godard, Andrei Tarkovsky, Akira Kurosawa, Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders.

Still, there is plenty that is effective in 'Alistair Cooke at the Movies', notably in a piece where the voice of the refined raconteur recedes ever-so-slightly and a more incisive point of view comes to the fore. Such as Cooke discussing Greta Garbo - not in the context of her prowess as an actress, but in terms of her manufactured image; her status as a commodity: "Hollywood has never made an effort to discover the particular human being that was Greta Gustafsson. Somebody saw possibilities of simplifying that complex creature, of reducing it to the proportions of a gigantic sullen doll. And they called it Greta Garbo. As they planned, she has become every man's harmless fantasy mistress. By remaining a fiction ... she remains the safest and most easily disposable of sirens ... She gives you the impression that if your imagination has to sin, it can at least congratulate itself on impeccable taste."

I can't help but raise a glass to Alistair Cooke's own sense of impeccable taste - not to mention his seemingly effortless capacity for the impeccably turned phrase - even if I don't always agree with him.

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