Comfortable and Furious

Gosford Park


I watched Gosford Park and A Beautiful Mind over two consecutive days. It’s not quite Forrest Gump winning best picture over Pulp Fiction but it’s still difficult for me to fathom the poor taste of the Academy voters. It’s typical, but still incredible, that people who work in the film industry would think A Beautiful Mind the better film. That they believed Ron Howard’s direction to be superior to Altman’s is just funny.

I wouldn’t even say Gosford Park was the best film of the year, but I wouldn’t argue with someone who did. I’d say, “good choice,” whereas, if someone said to my face that A Beautiful Mind was the best film of 2001, I would fart in their general direction.

The best thing about Gosford Park is how bloody British it is. I’m a fan of British Slang, but I’m an even bigger fan of how the Brits are so motherfucking subtle. Like when an American character introduces himself as Mr. Weissman , a Brit responds by saying, “hmm?” In print, it’s nothing. Spoken aloud, it couldn’t be more vicious. The character
could have given a “seig heil,” and the effect would have been less
severe. The British way reveals almost nothing on the part of the
speaker, so he doesn’t go out on any kind of limb. He sends the message
“oh dear, you’re beneath me, aren’t you?” so subtly that it almost
seems as though he isn’t letting the thought out intentionally, but so
deliberately that you know with total certainty that he is.

The film, which is set in 1932, also has the usual themes about the
fading and absurd aristocracy. Of course, I’m watching from 2002, but
the behavior of the aristocratic characters is constantly ridiculous
even accounting for such subjectivity. For example, there’s the idea
that anti-Semitism and refinement might go hand in hand. Today, most
anti-Semites are practically baboons. The change isn’t due to fashion,
but to the fact that such views have proven to be idiotic.

Watching this film, I was constantly thinking of Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class, and Adam Smith’s attacks on the waste of labor in the employment of servants (imagine what he would have said about some rich moron flying around the world in a balloon).

The rituals depicted in the film, from the draping of animal carcasses
about the shoulders of the women to the little discussion about how
nobody knows the reason for the importance placed on the placement of
dining utensils was a reminder of how our social norms descend from
those of primitive societies.

Should I digress? Why not? The reason for utensil placement, according to Veblen (who is right) is to account for time. See, conspicuous consumption is the practice of displaying the fact that you don’t need all of the resources available to you. Once, that meant hanging an animal pelt on your wall. Later, it meant learning the elaborate social rituals of the aristocracy to prove that you had the leisure to learn them. Now it means driving an SUV that has off-road capacities you have no intention of using, guzzles
gas and is made from twice the amount of raw material as a practical

Many people dismiss the theory without taking it seriously, even some econ. professors I’ve talked to. But Veblen’s book The Theory of the Leisure Class is pretty damn convincing if you actually sit down and read it. He
gives tons of examples, the most convincing of which are of norms that
change according to the rules of conspicuous consumption, then change
back. When the electric light first came about, for example, and was
still expensive and difficult to produce, the wealthy would never have
dreamed of having a candlelight dinner. Later, when electric lights
became cheaper and easier than candlelight, candlelight dinners became
romantic. The same thing happened with machine made vs. handmade goods and in many other cases. This book changed the way I look at the world as much as anything else I’ve read.

OK, so am I saying that Altman has made a Veblenian film? No. Based on his comments about the WTC attack being inspired by action films, my guess is that Altman thinks Thorstein Veblen is a hockey player. But Altman captures his characters so realistically that you can apply social theories to them. If I were a Pinko, I could talk about how one of the characters is a factory owner who literally fucks his workers, then forces them to give the resulting children up for adoption.

Oh yeah. This is a mystery, a classic whodunit and a very good one. What makes the movie so good is that all of the above stuff, and more is built around and into the whodunit. The characters are real, brought to life by great actors and Altman’s famous ability to make great actors even greater. Subtle British people and clumsy Americans waltz through a mysterious murder just as they do dirty secrets and social norms. It’s fun to watch them
do it.

Ruthless Ratings:

  • Overall: 8.5
  • Direction: 8.5
  • Story: 8
  • Acting: 9
  • DVD Extras: I guess there’s like six hours worth, but I thought, why go through these when I could watch the movie again?
  • Re-watchability: 8