September 2012

Scene4 Magazine - "Gertrude Stein in the Movies" | Renate Stendhal | September 2012 |

Renate Stendhal

How right or how wrong does it get when Gertrude Stein appears in the movies? Summer is a good time to have a second look.

Most recently, Woody Allen gave it a shot. His charming comedy about nostalgia, Midnight in Paris, takes a modern would-be writer, Gil (Owen Wilson) to the Paris of Scene4 Magazine - "Gertrude Stein in the Movies" | Renate Stendhal | September 2012 | www.scene4.comGertrude Stein's Lost Generation and drops him right into her salon. Gil has some serious doubts about his novel? No problem. Hemingway will make sure that Gertrude Stein has a look at it!

A potentially funny set-up -- but Woody Allen's Gertrude Stein suffers a few pitfalls before we get to some fun.  

Hemingway, Salvador Dali, Luis Bunuel are given lines by Allen's script that resonate directly and comically with their work and with everything we know about them. Hemingway (Corey Stoll) waxes tough about death and tenderly about boxing. Dalì (Adrian Brody) is obsessed with his rhinoceros. Bunuel (Adrien de Van) is dumb-founded when Gil suggests a movie idea to him: how about a group of people at a party who suddenly can't leave? Bunuel doesn't get it -- not yet. It would take him another 40 or so years to make The Exterminating Angel (1967).

Stein, by contrast, has almost no resonance of this kind. Would anyone who even remotely knows about Stein and Picasso believe that Stein would quarrel with him over the quality of his painting? These two hotheads and lifelong chums used to disagree over politics and they had a serious fallout in the thirties, when Picasso suddenly tried his hand at writing, but a loud argument over a painting would have to be a pretty smart invention to overcome its absurdity.  

Scene4 Magazine - "Gertrude Stein in the Movies" | Renate Stendhal | September 2012 |

Picasso (a convincingly hungry-eyed Marcial Di Fonzo Bo) is presenting his latest at Stein's salon, an almost abstract nude twisting her body into a hieroglyph of gymnastics. It's supposedly a portrait of Picasso's mistress of the moment, "Adriana," played by Marion Cotillard of Edith Piaf fame. "It is dripping with sexual innuendo," Stein criticizes while Picasso scowls. "Carnal to the point of smoldering."

Dripping with sexual innuendo, carnal to the point of smoldering? Is this Danielle Steele speaking?  

"Yes," Stein goes on to make things worse, "she's beautiful but it's a subtle beauty and implies sensuality... You made a creature of Place Pigalle. A whore of volcanic appetites."

Perhaps this counts as humor, as the painted body is anything but. It's a stick figure with a prominent ass. Whatever fun Allen had in mind here, this diatribe (it goes on and on) falls  flat as it doesn't catch Stein's spirit. Stein was famous for her no-nonsense language ("Remarks are not literature") and her cutting wit "Before the flowers of friendship faded friendship faded.") At least one of her famous one-liners – why not "there is no there there"? -- should have made an appearance. Just one repetition -- even one as banal as "painting is painting is painting" -- would have got the scene a long way ahead. Allen is withholding everything potentially fun about Gertrude Stein. What about the famous beefsteak laugh that made Stein so irresistible to both men and women? What about the well-known sexual licentiousness of her lesbian writing, her "lifting bellies" and "cows come out"? What about her sex appeal that drove Hemingway crazy? As if Woody Allen really didn't have a clue about who Gertrude Stein was, the scene presents her as a bourgeois, self-righteous blockhead who has the need to scold a painter of genius.  

Scene4 Magazine - "Gertrude Stein in the Movies" | Renate Stendhal | September 2012 |

Allen not only misses out on Stein's language, he presents her with the Caesar hair cut she didn't yet have at the time of the golden twenties, the time he is talking about. And it doesn't help that Stein is played by the most obvious Hollywood actress of a certain age and certain girth, Kathy Bates. Bates in this role has the authority of a grouchy schoolmarm and not an ounce of wit. Had Allen really wanted to amuse and be amused by Stein he would have given her a touch of avant-garde. He would have cast Xavier Bardem.

At the very least he could have taken some inspiration from another American director who tackled the task and did so with panache. In 1988, in The Moderns, Scene4 Magazine - "Gertrude Stein in the Movies" | Renate Stendhal | September 2012 | www.scene4.comAlan Rudolph presented a successful caricature of Stein in her salon. Here, too, it's the twenties, and here, too, Hemingway is a would-be macho with a goofy smile (Kevin J. O'Connor). "There are only two things that can kill a man. Suicide and gonorrhea," he offers, gloomy with booze. Here, too, the door to the salon at 27, rue de Fleurus incorrectly opens right into a street and is opened by Alice B. Toklas, but in The Moderns Alice is not exactly pleased to receive more company. While Woody Allen doesn't waste any time with her, for Rudolph she is a thin, haughty looker in a kimono with a lascivious cigarette holder (Ali Giron). The salon is appropriately peopled by handsome young gays and sexy women, and Stein (Elsa Raven) is holding forth with true Steinian grit: "I've come to the conclusion that I dislike the abnormal. It's so obvious. The normal is so much more simply complicated, n'est-ce pas?" Followed by a big, satisfied laugh. Elsa Raven is an inspired choice for Stein. She looks like the "northern Italian peasant woman" Hemingway saw in her. She reigns over the salon on a plush sofa in the best corner of the room, like a big pasha, round-faced with clever and slightly malicious eyes, her hair still correctly piled up on top of her head like in Picasso's portrait which hangs as an intentionally bad copy on the wall behind her. Her considerable body is cloaked in a long gown with a brooch, as one would expect.  

Scene4 Magazine - "Gertrude Stein in the Movies" | Renate Stendhal | September 2012 |

"I have to ask you a very important question about your work," she says to the hero of the story, an expatriate painter of the name Nick Hart (Keith Carradine), who has just been introduced at the salon. "How old are you?" "33." "Won't do at all. American painters are 26 this year. Hein?" "Well, I'm not." "Precisely my point. Then you won't fit in at all." "And you won't approve of that either." "Pardon?" I could always move toward the theater." Stein: "I'll introduce you to Jean Cocteau," followed by the big beefsteak laugh as if to say, that'll be just what you deserve. Alice, hovering over the sofa arm, loves it, she loves Gertrude; she could eat her up. Alice is pleased as a peacock when Gertrude shouts across the room, "Hemingway, the sun also sets!"

The language is right, the caricature is well aimed, and the allusions resonate with meaning. The scene ends in a jealous bout over the American painter's ravishing model (Linda Fiorentina) who now belongs to a rich Japanese art collector. A duel might be unavoidable. Stein suggests, "The American gym in Montparnasse. Three rounds." Like a blood-thirsty sports fan. And a few scenes later, we see the boxing match, with all of Paris gathered. Hemingway is too drunk not to mess up his role as umpire and Alice, always the perfect secretary on call, takes things in hand. A last close-up of Stein's big face has her comically going "oooohhh!!!" over a mean punch that knocks our hero out.

The Moderns is not a particularly great movie. The story about bohemian love and painting is rather stereotypical fluff, but Linda Fiorentino's presence recompenses for the vapid moments, and the scenes with Stein are a landmark of clever writing, acting and inspired casting. It's surprising that Alan Rudolph's zest of hamming up Stein didn't tickle Woody Allen to try and one-up it.

Scene4 Magazine - "Gertrude Stein in the Movies" | Renate Stendhal | September 2012 |

Well, in the end Allen does catch his footing with the story of Gil's manuscript (titled Out of the Past) landing in the hands of Gertrude Stein. She reads the first sentence of the novel out loud, "Out of the Past was the name of the store and its products consisted of memories. What was prosaic and even vulgar to one generation had been transmuted by the mere passing of years to a status both magical and also camp." Suddenly, there is suspense. This is pretty good writing from a hundred years into the future: will she recognize any of it? She does. "It's very unusual indeed," she pronounces. "In a way it's almost like science fiction. We all fear death and question our place in the universe. The artist's job is not to succumb to despair but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence." If these remarks aren't literature, at least they don't render Stein stupid, absurd or school-marmy. She might indeed have said something like that. Gil looks skeptically befuddled and betutzt in classical Woody Allen manner. "You have a clear and lively voice," Stein goes on. "Don't be such a defeatist." While Gil has no clue what to say, this essential advice for Gil (and Woody Allen's advice for himself) brings his Stein episode to a funny finishing line, after all.


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©2012 Renate Stendhal
©2012 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Scene4 Magazine: Renate Stendhal
Renate Stendhal, Ph.D., is a writer and writing coach
based in San Francisco and Pt. Reyes and a Senior Writer for Scene4.
For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives
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September 2012

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