– Wrong is right ?
– Yes, with Sean Connery!
We’re at the Café Pi and my friend Éric, an excellent chess player in spite of his being a peace-loving man, is telling me about that movie. The only movie featuring the ex-James Bond I’d never even heard of.
How come and why is that bothering me? Anyhow, that film can certainly be found at La Boîte Noire. I love movies, even special effects movies. At least, I used to like them before they became so realistic and repetitive that, after a while, well…the effect is lost on you.
I’d never been to La Boîte Noire. The idea of buying their bible-sized catalogue bothered me. Why? I can’t quite remember. Still, I always try to avoid places where you have to pay for the right to spend. But I was there when it opened up, as a matter of fact I was there when most of the Plateau opened up.
I bought my first shirts on St-Catherine, in a small boutique called Le Château. Eventually, I started shopping elsewhere. Why? I can’t remember that either. But, one day… surprise! The grocery store on the corner of St-Denis and Rachel had been turned into a clothing store. Le Château had become “the” place to get dressed toward the end of the 80’s. That was progress, I suppose.
A Nudge from Above
La Boîte Noire moved from the street corner on one side of my house to the corner on the other side. I interpreted that as a nudge from the gods that I’d better acknowledge. Ignoring it meant suffering the consequences, hypothetical I grant you, but most unpleasing as many old Greeks will tell you.
Another thing entirely than “Pascal’s wager” – by its patented name – since he asserts that you’re better off being a believer than an atheist. Why is that? Because if God doesn’t exist, once you’re dead, it won’t make a difference since you have nothing to lose anymore. If Pascal had lived in Ancient Greece, Zeus would have struck him dead on the spot with his bolt of lightning for being so pettily opportunistic.
However, such a reasoning only takes its full meaning if the premonition of an oracle amounts to hoping that nothing unfortunate should happen. In such situations – as in love , when in doubt, make your move! Dynamic doubt has nothing to with Descartes’ methodical doubt. God does not punish courage, only stubbornness.
An oracle being a phenomenal gift in one’s intellectual life, I joined La Boîte Noire and acquired, for a fairly low price, one of their films catalogues: a jackhammer to unearth my past as a movie enthusiast. It also gave me the idea of creating an “Arks” label for these chronicles (see Arche : le principe d’Alamut, March 6th 2010). I started renting movies, old ones mostlty. Even one Ultraman, from the Japanese TV series in which, in brief, a man dressed as a masked Mexican wrestler, some kind of Wizard of Oz, wanders through mock-up buildings to seek and fight another man in a monster costume. A unicellular version of Transformers, or the WWF for kids under 7 in extreme day-care.
I saw once again a few of my generation’s cult movies, like Harold and Maude and Easy Rider and was most disappointed to find out that Looking for Mr. Goodbar was unavailable in DVD, a battle of rights I was told. But to find Wrong is Right, I had to go to the basement…
– Why downstairs ?
– That’s where we keep the minor movies, the young attendant tells me.
A half-truth as you can find some very good B-movies downstairs, but it still doesn’t sum up what’s available down there.
All that to explain my surprise in finding out that Wrong is Right was a Richard Brooks’s movie. His last one, according to the catalogue, shot in 1982 when he was 70 years old, five years after Looking for Mr. Goodbar, the cult movie of 1970’s feminism. And with Sean Connery to boot. My verdict: it’s a dud!
But why wait five years to produce another movie?
To make a long story short, Richard Brooks, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, was born in Philadelphia in 1912. He died in 1992, having directed 18 movies in 30 years. The list of actors having worked with him is impressive. After seeing Wrong is Right, I rented some others of his movies available in DVD. They have one common trait, which is of picturing the very edge of what would be considered a moral conduct. In many of them, the female characters play a major role in the development of the plot. Some of Brooks’s movies embroider around a moral theme in which an accumulation of small gaps threatens to make behaviors capsize into unacceptable excesses.
I enjoyed Elmer Gantry, filmed in 1960, in which Burt Lancaster plays the part of a hard-drinking preacher. (Around the same time, Richard Burton was also playing a defrocked priest in another of Brooks’s movies.) This religious fanatic meets a real evangelist, Jean Simmons, who will incidentally become Brooks’s wife. This new Joan of Arc, heedless of firemen’s warnings, lives in a fragile, fire prone environment. It tells the story of an impossible love, of a dance between good and evil, altruism and material preoccupations, obsession and devotion, faith and pride.
The Professionals (1966), with Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, Jack Palance, Robert Ryan et Claudia Cardinale (an « Italian » actress born Claude Joséphine Rose Cardin, who only learned to speak Italian as an adult!), features a group of mercenaries hired to find the kidnapped wife of a rich American. The conventional plot is somewhat obfuscated by Brooks, who makes the wife an accomplice in her own kidnapping. Money won’t be enough to talk the mercenaries into shooting down a Mexican revolutionary’s obstinate love object. Nothing to do with Patriotic Act.
In Cold Blood (1967), after Truman Capote’s eponymous book, is all suggestions and obsessions. It features Robert Blake, an actor suspected and then acquitted of his wife’s murder in 2001. According to the girl who rented me the movie, he had actually killed her, which made the movie even more terrifying. I certainly hope I’ll never be unjustly accused in public. It ends on a terrible scene: Blake, with his baby Hell’s Angel’s face, standing at the foot of the gallows and saying: “It would be meaningless to apologize for what I did”.
I loved Bite the Bullet, filmed in 1975 with Gene Hackman, Candice Bergen and James Coburn. A former prostitute enters an endurance horse race, with the goal in mind of freeing her man who is being held prisoner. The closing scene teaches a lesson of mutual aid and friendship to a people for whom making cash and ending first remain the prime concerns.
And, of course, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, with Diane Keaton, shot in 1977. A young school teacher decides to live alone, get lovers and experiment with drugs: a marginal way to conjugate love. (In it, Richard Gere – remember him? – played his first movie part.)
In short, all of Brooks’s movies are works of intelligence, if not quite in the spirit of the McCarthy committee. I conclude that might be the reason for Richard Brooks being relegated to the “cellar”. However, the works of Hitchcock and Chaplin can also be found downstairs, while Mel Brooks, James Brooks, Albert Brooks and Peter Brook are kept upstairs. No reason to reformat your “soft”soft disc for that, but I’d still like an explanation.
– We keep the classics downstairs, the most popular movies upstairs, explains the attendant.
Progress, always! Why should I mind that those excellent films should be kept in the basement? The explanation suddenly came back to me and it had nothing to do with the movies. Long before La Boîte Noire even existed, the premises had been occupied by a grocery store whose owners had been arrested for selling cocaine…in the basement! Customers had been complaining about shady characters coming in and out of the business…empty-handed.
An oracle, I’m telling you!
A strategy of self-justification
But back to Wrong is Right! Using its state-of-the-art technology, the CIA manages to deceive a pro-American sheik, inducing him into hallucination: he believes Allah is speaking to him and ordering him to procure nuclear weapons for a notorious Arab terrorist. While blocking the operation which they are monitoring anyway, the Americans feel justified to declare war and invade the country, thus getting to exploit its petroleum resources while, by the same token, getting rid of a terrorist. The sort of thing that would never happen in real life of course!
Sean Connery plays a field journalist reporting from the Middle-East who will, accidentally, find himself in the very middle of the action and become the proverbial “grain of sand in the gears”.
The documentary Loose Change explains how J.F. Kennedy rejected a plan to invade Cuba that had been based on the pretext of striking back against false attacks (the same way the U.S. had justified declaring war on Spain in 1898, blaming it falsely for the explosion of the battleship Maine). Such a technique had been widely used in breaking the treaties with the native Americans: all the settlers had to do was fabricate false arrows to simulate an attack and then call the army.
For obvious reasons, Brooks had trouble financing his movie. Nothing surprising at the beginning of the 80’s.