Turturro Week: Part One
I said I’d do it. And I did it. This is now John Turturro week on Vox Populism, the week in which I focus my wicked discursive glare on God’s gift to character acting, the boy from Brooklyn himself, Mr. John Turturro. Let it not be said that I shy away from my ridiculous ideas.
Though it’s not quite that ridiculous. Mr. Turturro’s film career has intersected in many strange ways with this blog’s chief concern. For the several dozen of you who will get to this post by googling “John Turturro”, that’d be poetry, though perhaps one of you will actually be John Turturro, perhaps poets aren’t the only professional-interpreters-of-the-human-condition prone to the masturbatory shame of self-googling. Anyway, that’s neither here nor anything. The point I was making is that John Turturro’s oeuvre has included several films with references to poetry, with poetic roots, and even with poets as main characters. This week we’ll look at a few, with a tongue in cheek and an eye cast on the bigger picture, the one that finds itself a frame whenever the big-business art market that is the American Movie Industry intersects with the delicate itch that is poetry. We’ll start with something fairly recent, methinks.
The Movie: The Good Shepherd
The Plot in 50 Words: Traces the career of one Edward Wilson (a veiled James Jesus Angleton) from his youth through his work as a founder of the CIA and later his moral and professional decline in the years following the botched Bay of Pigs invasion. A highly fictionalized biopic from director Robert Deniro. Who apparently used to be an actor.
The Turturro Factor: John plays someone called Ray Brocco. In a
The Poetry: Most of the film’s first third concerns Wilson/Angleton’s college years as a stand-out poetry student at Yale university. His entry to spycraft comes from his complicated relationship with his teacher (played by the forever-excellent Michael Gambon), a potential Nazi sympathizer. References to everything from Homer to Victorian light verse populate the next two and half hours of spirited (if mostly fictional) spy games.
The Message: Poetry is the first thing that Edward Wilson is seen taking seriously. The character exists in a perpetual state of grim concentration for most of the film, it’s when he’s reciting for his professor that we first see the insular frown that comes back in each of the film’s tensest moments. Wilson is played by Matt Damon, who has the right mix of boyish charm and introversion for the role.
It’s always interesting to see what mobile-metaphor-device a screenwriter will choose for poetry. Appeals are often made to the instinctual, the romantic, and the nostalgic, but that’s not where the writer, Eric Roth, goes. Roth also wrote Forrest Gump and its 2008 sequal, Benjamin Button, two films with ample amounts of romantic nostalgia. However, the key word in Shepherd’s poetry motif comes when Gambon’s Hitlerphilic Ph.D. mumbles “it’s mathematics” while discussing our hero’s recitation. The Good Shepherd is essentially the origin story of the Central Intelligence Agency, and as such, it is populated by very confident men who believe they can solve the world like it’s an extended math problem. The cast of analysts, programmers, code breakers, and diplomats that wander in and out of Damon/Wilson/Angleton’s gaze begin their various careers confident of the presence of specific answers, and the film then maps out a sort of moral antiproof to those increasingly frustrated attempts.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a CIA story without some closeted homosexuality, and its disappointing that Roth and Deniro didn’t think it enough to make Gambon’s character a Nazi, but rather only in being a gay Nazi could he demand the proper amount of suspicion from the young spy-to-be. The professor’s means of expressing his sexual affection for Damon is done through poetry, as he offers to share some of his own work before leering at him with his suggestively positioned walking cane.
Part of what’s interesting about the poetry motif of The Good Shepherd is the presentation of Damon/Wilson/Angleton as a reader, and never a writer. Damon’s reaction to his teacher’s inappropriateness isn’t to write back a refusal. Rather, he goes to the library, tracks down an old volume, and finds that the professor had pilfered his verse from another author. For the first time in the story, research wins out. Edward defeated the subjective (as found both in the poem and in Gambon’s offered intimacy) with the cold hard facts of the text.
It would have been an obvious choice to let poetry stand as a sort of unchanging, forgotten nostalgia-marker for the rest of the character’s slow descent into paranoia and bitterness. However, Angleton himself remained a loyal reader throughout his career, though he was predictably put off by many of the new inventions of the late 20th century, from the beats to the black nationalists and beyond. He kept reading what he loved, though, until he couldn’t read it anymore. The filmmakers deserve credit for displaying poetry as a living system rather than some ethereal superaesthetic ideal with no voice or depth, some abandoned widow for the audience to pity and vaguely remember.
The film opens with the delivery of an audiotape and grainy black and white photograph to Wilson’s suburban home. Bringing it to the office, Wilson and Brocco (our boy Johnny, again) perform what amounts to the audiovisual equivalent of a “close reading” on the evidence. Working their way through everything from the filmstock to the make of airplane heard overhead to the song of the neighbouring church bells, Wilson narrows the possible locations of the incriminating photograph down to a specific town square in a specific city, and locates the hotel on foot. Not bad for a close reading.
Even the film’s weird multileveled sense of identity works both with the structure of spycraft and structure of poetry. Every individual has three names. Damon’s Wilson/Angleton compromise sits next to William Hurt’s Allen Dulles (fictionalized as “Phillip Allen”) and Billy Crudup’s Kim Philby (renamed “Arch Campbell”). There are dozens more. The performer, the performed, and the suggested seem like logical analogues to the author, the poem, and the subject, at least as it applies to poems with specific individual “subjects”. Though perhaps most of the good ones don’t.
James Joyce’s Ulysses comes off the shelf for another trip through the allusion-wringer. Here, it exists in both physical form (after being passed from Campbell to Wilson as a gift, it reveals itself as a holder of the film’s greatest secrets) and via a surrogate antagonist of the same name. Ulysses the character exists as the personification of the entire KGB operation in a single man. Those familiar with Angleton’s life will also know that he is likely a complete fabrication, the culmination of all of the career spy’s paranoia, a sort of imaginary enemy that was given a CIA codename from a great work of literature, but likely never existed beyond Angleton’s addled mind.
It’s interesting to watch poetry’s progression as a supporting character in The Good Shepherd. Like many of the film’s fictionalized 20th century figures, it becomes difficult to deduce its true intentions. Surely, some element of youthful nostalgia carries through to our hero’s somewhat tragic naming of his doppelganger, nemesis, and (the historical record would suggest) imaginary best friend. However, the hyperanalytical element of Wilson’s approach to poetry becomes his most apparent character trait as he matures from young adult to professional spy. One wishes, for him, the quiet life of academia he seemed destined to lead. I know quite a few associate professors like Edward Wilson.
To conclude: There’s a lot of poetry in The Good Shepherd, though sadly not nearly enough John Tuturro. In its favour, it does have several of my favourite working actors, including Baldwin, Pesci, and Timothy Hutton. It also has Martina Gedeck, who is rapidly becoming my favourite European actress (did anyone see The Baader-Meinhoff Complex?) and Angelina Jolie, who does what she can with her underappreciated wife role. Moreover, if features the somewhat-true adventures of Angleton, Philby, and Dulles, owners of three of my very favourite midcentury lives, three of the men I need to constantly guard myself against the urge to try and write the great Canadian biopoem about, a la Billy the Kid and Susanna Moodie. It’s a good movie. And moreover, it’s good to poetry. And John gets a couple of lines. He swears a bit. At one point, he waterboards a guy. That being said, I promise more Turturro next time around, when we delve into another examination of the slow-bleed of American morality, picking up our US History at around the same time The Good Shepherd ended.