Here's Herbert Marshall, in one of his last stands as a thoroughly dashing romantic lead, about to bound up a semi-circular flight of stairs in Ernst Lubitsch's sublime 1932 romantic comedy Trouble in Paradise. He bounds up these stairs more than once in the film; his bounding becomes a sort of running gag, and whenver I watch the film I can't watch Marshall doing it without remembering that he was doing it with only one real leg; he had lost most of his right one in World War I. (And I should state right here that I know that some might point out that Marshall went on to play quite a few more romantic leads in his career, but I insist that none of the subsequent ones would be nearly as insouciant as his jewel thief Gaston here.)
What got me thinking about Paradise, again, was something unfortunate: A rather silly column by Maureen Dowd of The New York TImes, in which she enlists Sam Wasson, author of a recent book about Audrey Hepburn and Breakfast At Tiffany's, to discuss, via e-mail exchange, what's wrong with today's romantic comedies, and to relentlessly bash Jennifer Aniston. To the point that even I, an Aniston skeptic if there ever was one, began to feel rather bad for the poor woman. They invoke the name of Lubitsch so many times you might have the impression that Dowd was some sort of cinephile; my own feeling is that she's merely apt to use anything vaguely at hand for her as a cudgel on that of which she does not approve, and that in her daily practice she's about as mindful of Lubitsch as she is of trigonometry. The column, as it appeared in the dead tree edition of the Times, had the added value of having both Dowd and Wasson consistently refer to the Aniston vehicle The Bounty Hunter as The Bounty, which made the whole thing kind of funny, because every time it came up, I could say to myself, "Yeah, that Mel Gibson remake of Mutiny really was kind of lousy as romantic comedies go." The New Yorker's Richard Brody, not content to titter at such trifles, made some rather more actually pertinent points on his blog.
As Brody quite correctly points out, we can weep and wail and gnash our teeth all we like over the fact that they just don't make 'em like they used to, but the other fact is that they don't make 'em like they used to because conditions simply don't allow it. As much as we might like to hew to the conventional wisdom that all great art is "timeless" and "universal," that, of course is never really the case with respect to the particular features of a given work. Brody is exactly on target when he notes that the work of Lubitsch and Hawks and other past masters "reflects the effects of social tensions and pressures that, I think, most of us are glad to have escaped." Dowd and Wasson's complaints are completely intellectually unjustifiable. And a child could tell you that even if there were an individual working in films today who had anything like the sensibility, wit, imagination and creative energy of an Ernst Lubitsch, that individual would not be able (or even inclined) to make a picture that bore all too many particular resemblances to Trouble In Paradise.
Richard correctly sees the nostalgia of Dowd and Wasson as symptomatic of "contempt for, indifference to, and fear of the new." Where Richard and I part company in general (and only just a little bit), is our conclusion as to precisely how good those of us who try to consistently engage with the new actually have it. Based on what Richard mentions in this particular post, however, I'd give him his point. He cites Judd Apatow and Noah Baumbach as makers of "splendid" romantic comedies; I'm a confirmed Baumbach fan and I'm a little more on the fence as far as Apatow is concerned. As for the indie guys, he doesn't name 'em, and I'm not going to speculate. (In part because I'm not available, literally, to have another exchange about the formal qualities of Cyrus!) He also mentions Wes Anderson. Yes; and Anderson's work does have that elegance that Dowd and Wasson fear is gone from contemporary cinema. Part of the problem is that we're taught not only to mourn what we believe is gone, but to undervalue what we have; the reflexive characterization on the part of some that Anderson's work is "twee" is indicative of that. In any event, I can see where each of these filmmakers is taking some quality from Lubitsch and working it into their own stuff. I can also see Tony Gilroy's Duplicity explicitly partaking in the tradition created by Lubitsch and Trouble in Paradise, both in and of itself and also by way of Wilder, Hitchcock's To Catch A Thief, and Donen's Charade.
I think, though, that all of us can agree that as it stands Lubitsch is an irreplaceable artist, but again, what makes him irreplaceable is tied in to when he came along in the history of cinema, what he was able to innovate, what he created that many of us now take for granted. Here's Gilbert Adair on the man: "Lubitsch was an abstract artist, a formalist, whose films, (Trouble In Paradise in particular) were articulated through the deployment of a series of classical rhetorical figures—ellipsis, supremely, the trope of the so-called 'Lubitsch touch', the cunning art of conveying without actually showin, but also metaphoe, metonymy, euphemism, litotes, and so forth." Is the ellipsis entirely out of style in film nowadays? No; one could say one occurs every time there's a love scene in a Hollywood film and you don't, as it were, see everything. "As such, Trouble in Paradise is as much a textbook inventory of filmic devices as Citizen Kane." The textbook has yet to be rewritten. Lubitsch can only have inheritors, never usurpers. That's part of the glory of film and film history.
What makes Dowd's complaint even more peculiarly delicious, finally, is that she is implicitly bemoaning the vulgarity and triviality of a culture to which she makes a major twice-weekly contribution of incredible vulgarity and triviality. As they say, "What incredible irony!" Rom-com physician, heal thyself. Jennifer Aniston vehicles exist, in part, because of you, and everything you stand for.