Apropos of nothing, I’d like to tell you about two surprisingly good literary-minded movies I recently caught on cable TV.
1. Joe Gould’s Secret is a gentle, talky New York City bohemian flick about a homeless writer who wandered the pubs and alleys of Manhattan for years claiming to be writing an epic history of the world. His wit and sincerity were noticed by other New Yorkers, and eventually a group of publishers attempted to evaluate his book for publication, effectively calling his bluff, as there was no book to publish.
That’s all the plot this movie’s got, but in the tradition of My Dinner With Andre, the movie gets by on rarified air and is a pleasure to watch. This is mainly to the credit of its two lead performers. Ian Holm is the writer, a mumbling and entirely believable crochety nervous crank who recalls real streetwise shaggy-haired poets from Gregory Corso to Charles Plymell to Paul Verlaine. Holm gets to play off the remarkable Stanley Tucci, who I first noticed several years ago in a commercial film version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Tucci played Puck, improbably (since he is a balding adult male) but quite well, and was the best thing about this mediocre Shakespeare interpretation. He proves his skill again here as a well-meaning staff writer at the New Yorker who befriends the homeless author (Tucci also directed the film). There is a compelling depth to his every expression; Tucci plays straight man to Holm’s clown, and somehow steals the show. Drawn in by the scent of good acting, Steve Martin even pops in for a bit spot as a high-powered book editor.
2. Siddhartha is a little-known but extremely watchable film version of Hermann Hesse’s much more well-known book about a young religious quester who lived in India during the time of Buddha. I loved the book when I first read it decades ago, and I was recently surprised to learn a film version had been released in 1972. The photography is lush and moody, the acting is subtle, and the storyline is mainly true to Hesse’s book. The most compelling thing about this story, in my opinion, is the depiction of a religious ascetic’s middle years, when despite his “enlightenment” he gradually finds himself succumbing to the disappointing but inevitable urges of a normal human being. Even a mature buddha-in-training can find himself on the wrong road, and that’s what gives this story its pointed honesty.
Neither of these films are in theatres right now, and you probably won’t find either of them on the shelves at Blockbuster Video either. But if you find yourself awake at 4 am flicking through indie film cable channels, you may be lucky enough to catch one or both of these worthy films about the lives of ascetics surviving in the real world.