Once upon a time I was told by a teacher that a primary (albeit rudimentary) gauge of the effectiveness of a piece of ‘art’ was the amount of impact or affect it has on the viewer (or participant).
True or not, this notion must have landed on a sticky part of my brain because it’s remained with me after all these years. Subsequently, if I see a movie, read a book, listen to an album, or examine a piece of artwork and pass over it without a second thought, then the artist has failed. Art needs to stir some up something in the soul or pluck at least a single emotional chord or else what’s the point? Hate it or love it, it doesn’t matter, but it has to do something, otherwise it’s just wasting space.
My cracked ribs had me up really early this morning so I went downstairs and downed a handful of painkillers. I surfed around the movie channels on cable while waiting for the drugs to kick in and caught the tail end of a really interesting movie called Fourteen Hours. It was made in 1951 and tells the story of a disturbed man who climbs out on the ledge of his Manhattan hotel room, intent on jumping. The cops spend fourteen hours trying to talk him off the ledge and during this span of time the story of his life unfolds and we see what drove him to suicide. It was a fun premise that was pulled off pretty successfully.
When the film was over I was about to turn the television off and head back to bed, when I saw that David Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner was playing. I have a love/hate relationship with Mamet’s films, with a disproportional amount of checks in the hate column than the love.
His script for 1982’s The Verdict was full of snap and remains one of my favorite Paul Newman films, and I have fond memories of House of Games, The Edge, and of course the bombastic Glengarry Glen Ross. On the other end of the spectrum, We’re No Angels, State and Main, Hannibal, Heist, and the film version of American Buffalo all left me with an unpleasant taste in my mouth. The most puzzling stinker of them all, in my humble opinion, is The Spanish Prisoner.
This movie confounds me. I have a long list of friends (people who m I respect and hold in the highest regard) that will check to see if I’m running a fever or accuse me of being a pod person when I express how strongly I dislike The Spanish Prisoner. I’m a big believer in second chances, both in giving them and accepting them, so I’ve tried to enjoy this movie time and time again, but I always walk away shaking my head with disbelief. I always get the impression that I’ve walked in during the middle of a joke. I grin and smile and nod my head in agreement, but I’ve missed the setup so nothing really makes sense.
It would be a waste of time and energy to tick off all the reasons The Spanish Prisoner rubs me the wrong way, but one of the biggest chunks of grit revolves around Mamet’s casting his girlfriend/muse Rebecca Pidgeon. She plays the secretary to Campbell Scott’s character and is so abrasive that the movie grinds to a halt whenever she appears on screen.
But that’s just my opinion—apparently.
(How could so many people be so very, very wrong?)