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First Things Last

My life-long love affair with books, music, and film. For the life of me, I cannot throw away a book... no matter how insipid, or useless, or decrepit. I have paperbacks, from a time when they cost only 50 cents, that are yellowed and fragile like ancient texts. I cannot break off the intimate, secret relationships, all the things we've been through together. With music... a similar nostalgia, perhaps, with the 33LP vinyls. For CD's, no. They're too disposable, can't see the face, the grooves. With film... only the celluloid, the frame-by-frame pictures that look at me when I hold the strip up to the light. I can remember the thrill of my first projector and my first movie... it was The Bride Of Frankenstein, and it was all mine. I rolled it over and over again in a little bedroom on the wall. Imagine, owning a film when very few people did! For videotape, no. Can't see a thing. The tiny magnetic bars dance in their own dimension, and exclude any touch and feel. For DVD's, no. They're also too disposable and there's nothing to see or smell.

The reason I collect these works of art and non-art is because they are part of my time continuum. They exist with me in the present, spread out in all space/time directions, and they are my friends. So I visit with my friends from time to time. I revisit the conversations and the images and the sounds that have placed me into the views of myself and the galaxy I drift in.

So it was that I recently revisited one of the best films ever made, The Lion In Winter. This is a great film, adapted by James Goldman from his own wonderful play. On Broadway in 1966, the play starred Robert Preston as Henry, Rosemary Harris as Eleanor, and as Philip, young Christopher Walken in his first major stage role. In 1968, the honored film version starred Peter O'Toole as Henry (seemingly a reprise of his performance in 1964 in Becket), Katherine Hepburn as Eleanor, a young Timothy Dalton as Philip (his first major screen role), and as Richard, young Anthony Hopkins in his first major screen role. It was a magical cast with other fine actors, many of whom were unable to do anything comparable before or since. It was directed by Anthony Harvey, who also never got close to this work before or since as a director, though he was a brilliant editor. And John Barry, who did indeed match and rise beyond his work in Lion, composed the score.

This film is masterfully directed, beautifully photographed and cut... but it is the acting that accounts for the center flame of the magic. It is not an action or special effects film, it is a film of relationships... about strong-willed, self-defined people who understand the nature of their species and their roles in it. It is a film of words, perceptive, thought-sharpened, wit-honed words. In this work, Goldman is a master.

At the acting helm is O'Toole, one of the best film actors of our time and an equally superb stage actor (I haven't seen him on stage in 20 years, but the accounts of his theatre work and his films uphold his reputation.) And Hepburn... also one of the great film actors of our time and an equally great stage actor (I had the privilege of spending one summer with her as an apprentice at the American Shakespeare Festival in Connecticut. She was the 'stuff' of theatre.) These two master talents enhanced and elevated the acting performances of everyone else into a state-of-the-art-of-acting display in a medium that tends to dismiss the vitality of the actor.

It is the words! And in the present here-today-gone-tomorrow world of disposable film and the here-today-right-back-tomorrow world of disposable television (shoving aside the "fuck-you" grunt writing of Tarantino and Mamet), even a well-crafted film like Shutter Island suffers in comparison. Despite Scorcese's ever-present inability to tell (show) a story with a beginning and middle that lead to an end, and despite the clutter of effects, this too is a film of words, an acting film. Leonardo D'Caprio is as good a film actor as we have working today, voice and all, along with another master actor, Ben Kingsley cannot overcome the missing ingredient... the words fail them. The writer fails them in the hands of the filmmaker.

The Lion In Winter is a masterpiece and it tells us this: if acting is the stuff of theatre then the playwright is the giver of the key ingredient. If directing is the stuff of film, then the screenwriter is the mind's eye behind the eye of the camera.

That's why I treasure my friends.

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