Concerning those movies that exist only in spectators' imaginations | Bleader

Monday, April 1, 2013

Concerning those movies that exist only in spectators' imaginations

Posted By on 04.01.13 at 05:15 PM

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Peter Sellers in a nonexistent adaptation of Herman Melvilles The Confidence-Man
  • Peter Sellers in a nonexistent adaptation of Herman Melville's The Confidence-Man
I was planning to write an April Fools' Day post about discovering a long-lost movie that didn't actually exist. Then I realized that by the time it went up, most people would be tired of April Fools' pranks, and I decided against pulling a ruse. I still want to write about this nonexistent film because I like it more each time I think about it, and because I suspect I'm not alone in dreaming up a movie I wish had been made.

Most filmmakers, even commercially successful ones, are unable to realize every project they want to make. Either they can't find the money or a necessary collaborator drops out or for whatever reason the movie just wasn't meant to be. The 2009 book Stanley Kubrick's Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Never Made chronicles one of the most famous unrealized movies, but there could just as well be books about Kaleidoscope (an Antonioni-inspired art film Alfred Hitchcock wanted to make in the late 1960s), Alain Resnais's Marquis de Sade biopic (intended as a vehicle for Dirk Bogarde), or several of Orson Welles's uncompleted projects. These movies haunt film history as well as the careers of their would-be directors.

Then there are the countless movies that exist only in spectators' imaginations: new versions of extant films with different endings, all-access documentaries about elusive subjects (like Thomas Pynchon, the Masons, or Area 51), or dream adaptations of favorite literary works. (How many ideal versions of Watchmen got conjured up over the years? And, more to the point, did Zack Snyder's 2009 version improve upon any of them?) The latter category may be the most common. Movies have so pervaded the popular imagination that it can be difficult not to visualize descriptive passages in literature with filmic images. Accounts of places inspire long-shots; character descriptions invoke certain actors or actresses.

How frustrating when the performer you want to see inhabit a literary character is no longer alive to do it for real. If only Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud had lived long enough to be in the Harry Potter films! If only there'd been a filmmaker who had thought to adapt Herman Melville's The Confidence-Man as a vehicle for Peter Sellers!

I may be the only person to have thought of the latter idea, although I'm sure there are other people out there who love both Melville and Sellers. The Confidence-Man, Melville's last published novel (it came out in 1857), was generations ahead of its time, anticipating trends in 20th-century experimental fiction—and, for that matter, the multicharacter star vehicles in which Sellers would star one day. It takes place on a passenger river boat making stops along the Mississippi River on April Fools' Day. Rather than follow a single character or conflict, Melville's perspective stays fixed to the boat, observing strange encounters between different passengers. All of the vignettes build upon the theme of confidence: in each case, some charismatic individual meets a stranger then makes some appeal to his or her trust. The object is always different; some men want money, others business partners, others religious converts. By presenting the interactions as variations on the same idea, Melville hits upon a central rite of American culture—realizing your identity by selling something. As seen by his flattened perspective, even the most cynical opportunists register as somewhat sincere (they truly want to influence people, no matter the means) and the most naive optimists (like the Evangelicals and temperance advocates who turn up) have something of the huckster about them.

Melville's most brilliant innovation in Confidence-Man is that he never makes it clear whether he's describing a series of unrelated incidents or whether all the con-man characters are facets of a single, Mephistophelean figure. In my imagined film version, Sellers plays them all. Like Kind Hearts and Coronets did for Alec Guiness, The Confidence-Man would allow the great chameleonic actor to devise multiple caricatures united by similar qualities; like Sellers's own Being There, it would allow him to create an incisive cartoon of the American character. I think it would have ranked with his finest work.

Will Rogers (right) in Steamboat Round the Bend (1935)
  • Will Rogers (right) in Steamboat 'Round the Bend (1935)
The movie would have been directed sometime in the mid-70s by Lindsay Anderson, the British critic and filmmaker responsible for If.., O Lucky Man! (which approximates the episodic structure of 18th and 19th century picaresque novels better than any movie I know—and, coincidentally, features several actors in multiple roles), and some of the first serious writings about John Ford. Surely he would have made reference to Ford's Steamboat 'Round the Bend in his mise-en-scene, and he may have directed Sellers in one of his performances to mimic the con man Will Rogers played in that movie. When Anderson's Confidence-Man came out in my parallel movie universe, many U.S. critics resented that a British filmmaker and actor would realize Melville's all-American satire. They dismissed the movie as cartoonish and anti-American, much like literary critics of Melville's time attacked the original book.

As the movie's imaginary defenders would tell you, this was all part of the point. Melville's novel examines U.S. culture not as it actually exists but in terms of how it displays itself—on one level, the book is about pretense. It's fitting that a group of foreigners should give life to Melville's America, in all its ironic glory.

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.

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