Saturday, December 30, 2006

Al Gore: The Inconvenient Truth

It is difficult to imagine a more persuasive, lucid, and well constructed presentation than is found in An Inconvenient Truth, the documentary featuring Al Gore’s campaign to alert the public to the dangers of global warming. It has been released on DVD, and I recently took the opportunity to see it. Using well chosen scientific data presented in a highly accessible and visually appealing set of graphics, Gore builds the case for the reality of global warming (does anyone truly continue to doubt that it’s happening?) and the necessity of taking steps to address it. Rarely have I seen graphs and statistics used so effectively. Much has been made of Gore’s stiff, stentorian manner, his tendency to lecture, but in this film, though he does lecture, his style is relaxed, personal, and informal. He makes an engaging teacher, with a sincere and humorously self-deprecating manner.

Although most of the film focuses on the subject of the title, we never lose sight of the narrator Al Gore. He jokes about his defeat in the 2000 elections and discusses how he first learned of global warming from a college teacher. He explains that a life-threatening injury suffered by his son at the age of six convinced him that he needed to do something to change and improve the world. He gets in a few jabs at the Bush administration. Clearly the subject has personal meaning for him. But for the most part he keeps us focused on the science of global warming, the causes and potential effects. The message is compelling and disturbing, but the film never allows us to forget the messenger.

It is difficult not to see An Inconvenient Truth as a kind of campaign film in sheep’s clothing. That it may be such does not invalidate its message. But the film does return Gore to the public eye. It’s been tempting to forget Al Gore. After 9/11 and the Afghani and Iraqi wars, the 2000 campaign became a distant and in ways irrelevant event. Although many persist in believing that the Presidency was stolen from Gore, the facts suggest that he lost Florida by a small margin. He won the popular vote nationally, but lost the electoral vote, and though the logic of the Electoral College has never been fully clear to me, it’s in the Constitution. The bungled embarrassment of the Kerry/Edwards campaign of 2004 moved us even further away from the Gore candidacy. He was an awkward memory from a lost century, the lead participant in a series of baffling and irrefutable events. And he was too easily lampooned--the Saturday Night Live "lock box" sketches were hilarious and accurate. Gore himself participated in one of them. What could he possibly contribute to the current mess we’re in? Banish him to the past. At least so that line of thought runs.

(We should stop to consider why, given the reality of George W. Bush, Al Gore should seem “awkward.” Our current President endows the term with new and unexplored meanings. It’s also difficult to conceive that Al Gore couldn’t have offered better leadership in domestic and foreign affairs than George Bush, who has created profound problems for our nation and left it considerably weakened as a result.)

An Inconvenient Truth reminds us of the great intelligence and imagination Gore could bring to the Presidency. Obviously, the ability to talk well about global warming is hardly the only talent we should look for in our next president. But Al Gore, stiff and uncomfortable as he may sometimes seem, is a person of substance with considerable experience in national leadership. As various Democratic candidates for the office emerge—John Edwards, Barak Obama, Hillary Clinton, and others—the inconvenient truth is that we should not rule Al Gore out.

Little Big Man

Little Big Man (1970) was director Arthur Penn’s adaptation of the 1964 novel of the same name by Thomas Berger. Georgia writer Calder Willingham wrote the screenplay—he also wrote the script for The Graduate (1967) and for Rambling Rose (1991—he also wrote the novel on which he based the script). It has been thirty years since I read Berger’s novel, and probably thirty-six years since I first saw the film, though I watched it again today for the first time. When it was released a friend of mine was contemptuous of it and felt that it did not do justice to Berger’s novel. I cannot say myself, without rereading the novel, which I remember as somewhat more complex and rich than the film. I also remember that Walt Whitman appeared as a minor character in the novel, as a suitor to Jack Crabbe’s sister. It’s an ill-fated match, since in the novel she is a lesbian and Walt, of course, is homosexual. In the film, her sexual preference is mildly implied but not stated, and Whitman is nowhere to be seen.

The film is the picaresque tale of Jack Crabbe’s life, told by Crabbe at the age of 121. In the nursing home where he lives he speaks into a historian’s tape recorder, telling how his family was slaughtered by Pawnee Indians when he was a boy, how only he and his sister surviving. They are adopted by Cheyenne Indians. Jack in the early course of his life lives as an Indian, is adopted by a missionary, misidentified as a muleskinner by General George R. Custer, runs a store and marries a Swedish woman, marries an Indian woman, serves as a tracker for Custer, is a drunk, a flimflam artist, and so on. He’s also present for the Battle of the Little Big Horn, which he helps cause, and which he survives. The film really covers only the first 30 years or so of his life—the last 90 years it doesn’t deal with at all. Crabbe’s narration is a wonderful exercise in self-invention, confabulation, embellishment, and fictional autobiography. The film is loosely narrated. It does not take on much energy or momentum until mid-way through, though it is always interesting. Its characters are its center—Crabbe himself, along with many others, including his adoptive grandfather Old Lodge Skins, his falsely pious adoptive mother Louise Pendrake, Wild Bill Hickock, General Custer, and a snake oil salesman played by Martin Balsam. Although most of these characters appear prominently in individual episodes, they drift in and out of other episodes and compose the shape-shifting, dreamlike nature of Crabbe’s life story. My recollection is that the film far more explicitly than the novel concerns itself with the attacks of the white American settlers against the Native Americans, and the gradual loss of their culture, but I cannot be sure.

What the film possesses that the novel lacks is the Dustin Hoffman persona. He is a fine actor and is in top form in the film, in which he appeared only three years after The Graduate. As you watch Little Big Man you can’t help thinking that Jack Crabbe is really Benjamin Braddock of the earlier film, and vice versa. You view Jack through the lens of Ben, and through the Jewish New York persona and accent of Hoffman. This gives the film a satiric edge that even the novel lacks, though the novel offers ample satire of its own. Yet this is a dimension of satire that the film doesn’t really need—it’s false satire that doesn’t contribute to the story—Hoffman as Ben as Crabbe. The narration of the story—Crabbe’s narrative voice as interpreted by Hoffman both as an old man and as a much younger one—comes to us through this voice and for me it was disconcerting, though you accept it as one of the conventions of the film.

Chief Dan George as Old Lodge Skins, the adoptive Cheyenne grandfather of Jack Crabbe, is an outstanding feature of the film. Nearly every scene in which he appears is a gem, and his death scene is a classic moment. Yet he is, after all, a stereotype. One can easily see how the film might be criticized for its stereotyping of Native Americans, even at the same time that it romanticizes them. Yet the film also portrays the Indians with respect and shows them as victims of American expansionism. It might not accurately portray them, but at least it does not demonize them nor does it pretend that the westward expansion was some sort of heroic epic process.

Little Big Man was one of a number of revisionist films from the 1960s and 70s that sought to reinvent and reinterpret American history, especially the 19th century westward expansion and the relationship of the white settlers to the Indians. The revisionist account itself is as far off the mark as the account it replaces, but at least it restores balance.

When I first saw this film in 1970 it absolutely bowled me over. Crabbe’s narration of his early life from his distant vantage point as an old man—isolated from the time and place and people who had once given his life meaning—along with the character of Old Lodge Skins, whom I failed to recognize as a stereotype and instead saw as an embattled and endangered fount of authentic humor and natural wisdom—these were the heart of the film for me. My reaction today was less intense, but the film is still affecting, and with all its faults and contrivances, Hoffman’s narration and his portrayal of Jack Crabbe remain an impressive achievement.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Next, by Michael Crichton

Michael Crichton’s latest novel Next visits the dangers of genetic engineering. Genetic engineering and cloning are subjects he examined previously in the Jurassic Park novels. Crichton’s typical approach in a novel is to take a group of unrelated characters and to trace, chapter by chapter, their gradual involvement in whatever subject it is he happens to be investigating. That is his approach in Next, though it is not until close to the end of the novel that the plotlines of various characters finally conjoin.

There is not really a plot in Next. Rather there are a number of inter-related subplots—some more prominent than others. They involve a cursing orangutan in Borneo, a human-chimpanzee hybrid named Dave, a talking parrot named Gerard, a woman and her son pursued by a bounty hunter who wants to take a sample of her organs, a pederast, corporate sabotage, several ruthless CEOs, and so on. Some of these subplots never amount to anything. Some are present merely to afford Crichton the opportunity to sermonize about the dangerous course that genetic engineering has taken. Others come together, finally.

The interest of Crichton’s novels has always lain in his fairly deep knowledge of science and his ability to write about it in a convincing way. He knows enough science to convince his readers that he knows what he is talking about, though scientists whom I know are quick to point out his shortcomings. He offers intriguing topics—space-borne plagues, cloned dinosaurs, time travel, nanotechnology, international conspiracy, sexual harassment, and so on. He footnotes his novels and includes a list of sources at the end. All of this gives him and his work a certain gravitas. He writes from an assumed position of knowing authority which most of his readers lack. They therefore do not recognize the flaws in his use of science, his frequent manipulation of information and theories and data in support of his particular attitude towards a topic. Of course, Michael Crichton is writing fiction, after all--not science--and is free to invent, distort, and manipulate at will. As a fiction writer he falls short. His characters are shallow and formulaic stick figures, his plots (stripped of the trappings of science) conventional.

This is certainly the case in Next, the least satisfying book by Crichton that I have read. The subject of genetic engineering is interesting. The examples Crichton cites of how it has gone wrong—some of which he seems to have based on actual cases—are compelling. He has clearly thought through and identified many of the ethical, moral, and political issues that surround genetic research. His knowledge of corporate and legal issues that complicate and influence scientific research is impressive—at least, his ability to write persuasively about the issues, whether or not he is inventing or writing fact. But there is no real tension or energy in the narrative. It plods and meanders on and seems to be going nowhere.

In a sense, what we really have here is a prolonged editorial criticizing how genetic engineering is being handled. In his “Author’s Note” at the end of the book, he sums up his attitudes in a series of conclusions. He doesn’t for instance, believe that it should be possible to patent genes, he doesn’t believe that research of any kind should be banned, he believes there should be careful laws passed governing genetic research, and he believes that information about genetic research should be widely shared, and so on. In effect, the various plot lines in the novel illustrate and embody these conclusions.

What we also have here is what may be Crichton’s attempt at a satiric comedy of errors. The talking parrot, an African grey parrot who possesses human speech genes, is easily the best character in the book—a multi-lingual creature who sings and talks and torments whoever happens to be in his presence, and who has a key role in the working out of the plot once the plot actually does become apparent. He is truly comic. The talking parrot reminded me of some of the talking animals in Thomas Pynchon’s novels, such as the talking dog in Mason & Dixon. The human-chimp hybrid Dave is also an effective character through which Crichton illustrates the ethical dilemmas inherent in the creation of such a creature.

Crichton is especially concerned (with good reason) over the involvement of corporations in scientific research and seems to believe that this more than anything else has led to a dangerous situation where perspective has been lost. His low opinion of the media, politicians, federal agencies, corporate moguls, and the higher education science establishment is frequently evident in Next. The book is full of cynicism, skepticism, and attacks on the various elements of our culture that irritate him. Next is an especially curmudgeonly and cranky book.

Crichton’s career-long concern has been with the place of the sciences in the human world—how they affect and determine the nature and quality of the lives we lead. He raises crucial and central questions about ethics, morality, the scientific process, and the involvement of government and business in research. These are questions that need asking. But the right-wing slant that has become increasingly evident in Crichton's work, especially in the 2004 novel State of Fear, which sought to discount the reality of global warming, detracts from his credibility.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Too Brief a Treat: The Letters of Truman Capote

Letter reading is a form of voyeurism, at least when the letters are intended for an audience other than oneself. Yet there are times when the historical interest of the letters may raise them beyond the level of personal intrusion. The reading of another person’s letters may also be a way of bringing the letter writer to life. Such is the case in the letters of Truman Capote, edited by Gerald Clarke under the title Too Brief a Treat: The Letters of Truman Capote (New York: Random House, 2004). As literary documents, his letters are not particularly significant. He doesn’t use letter writing as an opportunity to express his attitudes towards his writing or towards the writing of others (although he does pass much judgment on the work of others). Reading them, you don’t learn much about Truman Capote the writer, the novelist, but you do come directly in contact with Capote the human being, and understanding the human being is means of understanding the writer.

These letters range from the 1940s through 1982. Most of them are from the 1950s and 1960s. The early letters quickly give expression to Capote’s brilliant and eccentric personality. Many of them are written to his close intimate friends whom he addresses flirtatiously and with much tenderness. These are his gay friends, and he had a wide circle of friends in this category, many of them leading names in the arts and letters of the day. Letters written to straight friends and associates are more formal but still often quite friendly and intimate. Capote loved the people he considered his friends, whether they were gay or straight, but he was quick to take offense at personal slights, and he did not hesitate to take up his pen with vengeful motives if the opportunity presented itself. The most notable example is a letter he wrote to the wife of William Goyen.

From a literary standpoint, the most interesting of these letters, written mainly during the 1960s, chronicle his interest in the Clutter murders in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas and his work on the book that became his masterpiece. Many of his letters from this period are written to Alvin and Marie Dewey. Alvin Dewey was a detective whose family Capote became friends with and who provided him with much information about the murders. The film Capote portrays the writer as impatient that the murderers Hickok and Smith are not speedily executed. Capote felt he could not finish the book without being able to write the final chapter, and that chapter covered the executions. These letters bear out the accuracy of the film in that aspect. For Capote, the Clutter murders were important for the chance they gave him to write his greatest book—the human tragedy involved was secondary, though the book itself does confirm his ability to recognize and convey it. A friend of mine has suggested that Capote was a “prime piece of human shit who could write really, really well, and then stopped doing even that.” It is possible to come away from these letters with that opinion.

After In Cold Blood the letters diminish in number and interest. He writes about work on his unfinished novel Answered Prayers and describes what he is doing and who he is seeing. But they lack the excitement of the earlier letters, whether he was writing members of his wide social set or talking about his works in progress. After In Cold Blood, he was expended.

These letters would lead to the conclusion that Capote was more a person of surfaces than of substance. Only by reading his fiction and nonfiction, especially In Cold Blood, do you discover otherwise.

Ice Age: The Meltdown

In Ice Age (2002) prehistoric animals—a saber-tooth tiger, mastodon, and several unidentifiable rodents—band together to protect a lost child and return it to its own kind. What poignancy there is in the film derives from the fact that all the animals—save the child—are headed for ultimate extinction as the ice age comes to an end and the human race takes hold. Ice Age is mainly a slapstick film, played for laughs and excitement, and there is not much of an underlying message.

In the sequel, Ice Age: The Meltdown (2006), any pretense of poignancy is abandoned. All the characters from the first film reappear (save the child), and they struggle to escape the floodwaters released from the melting of the ice caps. This film was louder and more active than the first one, more intensely full of slapstick and one-liners, right on the level of a lesser Three Stooges episode. Digital animation is amazing, but if it is to work it needs a story and imagination.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

La Dolce Vita

Writing to film costume designer Cecil Beaton in 1961, Truman Capote reported that he had seen La Dolce Vita and could not understand how Beaton could have liked it: “So pretentious, fake arty and BORING!” Capote saw many films and commented on them in letters to friends and associates. He tried his hand at screenwriting, most notably in an adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw entitled The Innocents, which he cowrote with William Archibald in 1960. An attempt at a screenplay for The Great Gatsby was rejected by Paramount Pictures in 1971. This is an aspect of Capote’s writing career of which I was unaware.

It was interesting to read Capote’s brief comment on Fellini’s breakthrough film from 1960 and compare it to my own reaction when I saw it for the first time in 2006. In some ways the film seems dated and possessed of a self-willed passion and frenzy that sometimes seems self-indulgent. In other ways the film seems prescient, predicting, setting the scene for, the revolutionary spirit and self-destructiveness of the decade of the 1960s.

The main character is the reporter Marcello, superbly played by Marcello Mastroianni. In a sense the film is about Marcello’s struggle to find his course in life, to sort out his relationships with various women, to decide on a vocation. Although he seems to want to be a writer, to grapple with subjects of significance, he is drawn to a life of libertine self-indulgence—drinking, carousing, partying with the rich and famous, doing nothing of importance at all. Ultimately this life seems to seize hold of him permanently.

There are a number of interesting set pieces in the film, several of them focused on Bacchanalian parties, one on the frenzy that surrounds two children who have supposedly had a vision of the Virgin Mary. The later surreal Fellini is becoming evident in this film, especially in some of the party scenes, where excess energy and chaos and celebration of decadence for its own sake has become the film’s center.

There is no standard plot structure in this film. It simply follows the wanderings of Marcello over a period of several days. We see him carousing with his friends, reassuring his jealous (and apparently pregnant) lover, played by Anouk Aimee, romancing another lover played by Anita Ekberg, driving here and there. The pace and plotting of the film reminded me of Robert Altman films, and it may be that Fellini was an influence on Altman.

For me the most moving part of the film concerned a visit from Marcello’s father, played by Annibale Ninchi. The older man comes down from the country town where he lives ostensibly for business reasons, but in fact to visit his son and to carouse. For a time he seems capable of keeping pace with, even outpacing his son, but ultimately exhaustion overtakes him and he becomes ill, leaving to return to the country. There is a strange and poignant distance between father and son. Both strain to overcome it, and when the older man leaves, Marcello is sorrowful that he is leaving. One senses his desire for a more solid connection.

The serious life that for a time Marcello flirts with is embodied in the film by his older friend and mentor Steiner, a writer and philosopher whose success inspires Marcello. Steiner encourages Marcello to pursue the higher life, but when the older man kills his children and then himself (apparently out of despair over the world in which he lives) Marcello’s pursuit of a life of meaning and significance founders.

Ultimately superficiality, love of excess and hedonism, overcome Marcello.

The film itself is nearly three hours long. The black and white cinematography is excellent. A strong American jazz-based soundtrack accompanies the sometimes frenetic pace and action.

I should have seen this film decades ago, when I might have felt and participated in the subversive passion that made La Dolce Vita important to so many. Today it seems an important monument from Fellini’s career, an artifact that is impressive and compelling in ways but that in others seems contrived and too insistent on the decadence and carefree rejection of traditional ways and mores that it seeks to celebrate.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

The Echo Maker, by Richard Powers

In The Echo Maker Richard Powers interweaves the migratory habits of cranes, neuroscience, and science writing in the story of a man’s struggle to regain his identity set against the struggle of others around him to avoid losing theirs. It is also a mystery story in which a man who has literally lost his mind must struggle to recover it along with the facts surrounding the incident that caused him to lose his mind to begin with. Powers is an intelligent and passionate writer. I don’t know of a more intelligent writer, and intelligence is the driving force in his two best novels, Galatea 2.2 and The Goldbug Variations, the latter of which mixes genetics, Bach, Glenn Gould, Poe, and parallel love stories separated by three decades.

Powers is a novelist who tells and explains rather than dramatizes. He is D. H. Lawrence rather than Henry James, although he explores the social and cultural matrices of science in the same detailed way that James explored the social networks of the American upper crust. He typically narrates in a third-person fashion through his main characters, sometimes relying on internal monologues. Some of his earlier novels used first person. For me, the way in which Powers narrated The Echo Maker was at times problematic and a source of obscurity.

I believe but cannot be certain that the title of The Echo Maker alludes to one of the ways in which human beings learn to speak—by imitating the sounds they hear around them-- and perhaps also some of the social and mating habits of cranes.

Mark is a 26 year old man who is in a terrible accident that leaves him severely brain damaged. His sister Karin comes to be with him during his recovery. Powers has carefully studied neuroscience and uses his knowledge of the subject to illuminate Mark’s recovery. When he does regain his ability to speak and ultimately his physical abilities, he discovers, or believes that he discovers, that Karin is not really his sister but someone who is pretending to be his sister. This is the result of his brain injury. It is called Capgras Syndrome, where the patient is unable to recognize those closest to him, members of the family. He also does not recognize his dog or house—he believes that replicas of his sister, dog, and house were created to deceive him by a sinister government conspiracy. Karin writer Dr. Weber, a renowned psychologist whose books about the human brain and about brain injured individuals have brought him considerable popularity and success, for help. Because of the rare nature of Mark’s injury and the resulting Capgras syndrome, Weber comes to visit Mark. Karin finds her own mental stability wavering when her brother fails to recognize her. Dr. Weber suffers a similar instability when negative reviews of his most recent book convince him that everything he has written is without worth.

One of the real subjects is the relationship of the mind and the brain, the nature of human consciousness, of identity, how the people and the world around us define who we are, how we define them.

Powers is very effective at characterization. Karin is fully developed in The Echo Maker. Other characters are also well drawn but not always well convincing. Mark and his friends Dwayne and Rupp work at a meat processing plant. Mark repairs machinery used n the slaughtering process, while Dwayne and Rupp do the actual slaughtering. These are supposed to be hard-living guys, and I’m not sure that Powers quite pulls off their characters. But he still takes them seriously. Powers’ characters are three-dimensional. They live and think and are not stereotypes. They’re also biological creatures. Powers pays much attention to the physiology, the biology of his characters. He keeps us aware both of Mark as a character struggling to recover his identity as well as a biological organism recovering from a serious injury. In The Gold Bug Variations he parallels the love story of two geneticists with accounts of evolutionary theory in which human love, the reproductive urge, is explained as a process necessary to the transmission of genetic codes from one generation to the next. Strangely, this does not subvert the romance of the love story. If anything, it makes the romance more poignant since the woman has had herself sterilized and can’t transmit the genetic codes.

In The Echo Maker human consciousness is reduced to a series of neural transmissions. Powers does not consistently succeed in explaining the complex ideas he is exploring in the novel. There is a level of abstraction than never quite resolves itself. I often found myself, especially in the latter half of the novel, struggling to understand what was going on, as Powers explained the feelings and mental states and motivations and thoughts of his characters, rarely allowing them to speak outright, except to each other.

I enjoyed, admired, and was moved by this novel. For Powers, the science of the human mind, of genetics, of human life, is as mysterious and wonderful as any religions moment of transfiguration could be. Yet there are moments in the novel where Powers fails in some basic way to be clear about the science that underlies his book. I reread the last fifty pages of the book to be clear on what was happening. I was especially interested in how the cranes were involved in the conclusion of the novel. On rereading, the details were much clearer, but the conclusion of the book seems worked out in a way that is more evident in the emotional progress of the characters than in an intellectual one.

The cranes migrate in huge flocks and in most ways are unlike humans. They are creatures of instinct. They lack in any conventional meaning a personal identity or consciousness. They are organisms rather than individuals. Individuality for cranes means nothing. Yet like human beings they are the product of evolution and are this novel’s confirmation of the miracle of life, which for Richard Powers is not a matter of the spirit but of the chemical and biological processes that produce life. They also play a significant role in the struggle of various characters surrounding Mark to recover their mental stability. Mark himself in one of his more paranoiac delusions wonders whether scientists transplanted a portion of the brain of a crane into his head to replace an injured portion of his own brain. Powers uses this delusion as one basis for demonstrating the evolutionary relationship of cranes and human beings.

One unifying thread in the novel concerns the details of Mark’s accident, which he cannot remember except for a vague image of something vertical and white standing in the road at the scene of his accident. Mark’s desire to know the circumstances of the accident grows more intense as his recovery progresses. Soon after the accident, someone visits him in the hospital, and he discovers a cryptically worded note sitting on his bedside table. Mark wonders whether he has a guardian angel, whether his friends Dwayne and Rupp were involved in the accident, whether the accident was the result of his suicide attempt. The facts are revealed at the end of the novel in a way that seems contrived and artificial, more Spielbergian than literary. I’m not certain this novel really ends in a conventional way, but it is a satisfying and impressive achievement.

The Echo Maker won the 2006 National Book Award for Fiction.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

My Fair Lady

I first saw My Fair Lady (the film) in 1965. It was a work of grace and beauty and flowers and elegant dress. Rex Harrison’s wit and Audrey Hepburn’s emaciated beauty. There was much about the film that I did not notice in 1965 that is glaringly evident today. The lip-synching, for one. Audrey Hepburn lip-synched to someone else’s singing, and she never quite managed to pull the illusion off. Freddy who sings “The Street Where You Live” also can’t lip-synch.

Then there is the class conflict—the lower class of Eliza Doolittle vs. the elite and educated upper class of Henry Higgins. The film is clearly told from that upper-class point of view. We laugh at Eliza’s cockney speech, her faulty mannerisms, her limited knowledge, and her father’s self-posturing antics.

It’s also told from a male point of view. A number of songs in the film (e.g., “Why Can’t A Woman Be More Like a Man”) complain of how exasperating women are. They recall the incredible “How to Handle a Woman” of Camelot.

It has been quite a while since I read Shaw’s Pygmalion, but my sense is that the musical wholly overlooks many of the issues the play examines.

In what may be the central scene of the film, the breakthrough scene where Eliza learns to pronounce English correctly, she behaves like a marionette. The same is true in the horse race scene and at the ball where Higgins wins his bet. Clearly, the director intends for her actions to come across in this way, though Hepburn’s acting style is inclined in this direction to begin with.

Musicals are difficult to translate to screen. They are rhetorical conventions. They make no pretense of simulating reality and instead create opportunity after opportunity for characters to break into song. Because of the tradition of musical reviews, musical drama works better on stage than in film. The film My Fair Lady musical is over long and stiff. Rex Harrison is loud and overbearing as Henry Higgins—as he is supposed to be. Hepburn does as well as could be expected given her lip-synching and her characteristic frozen demeanor. The musical numbers—some of them—are good. But the film really grinds to a halt in the last forty minutes.

Eliza’s decision to return to Henry Higgins was probably a much desired outcome when the film first appeared in 1964, and when the play on which it was based premiered in 1956. Today it no longer makes sense, especially given her final argument with Higgins. The ending certainly flies in the face of what Shaw intended in Pygmalion.

The film as a whole is an irrelevant archaism.