A Hidden Life
It’s one of the year’s best and most distinctive movies, though sure to be divisive, even alienating for some viewers, in the manner of nearly…
We are pleased to offer an excerpt from the latest edition of the online magazine Bright Wall/Dark Room, which now publishes content weekly but with a monthly theme. Their March 2018 issue is focused on the films of Steven Soderbergh and, in addition to George Hardy's essay, also includes new pieces on "sex, lies and videotape," "Out of Sight," "Ocean's 11," "Full Frontal," "Solaris," "The Good German," "The Informant!", "Side Effects" and "Logan Lucky." The artwork above is by Tony Stella.
If there is such a thing as a wig that is not obvious, Matt Damon’s hairpiece in The Informant isn’t it. Not only is it conspicuous, but Steven Soderbergh knows it’s conspicuous. He knows that we know that he knows—and knowing this, he loves to let us squirm in that uncomfortable knowledge, secure enough in his own abilities that he’s even willing to flirt with the possibility that we might start to gather such nit-picks into a fully-fledged dislike of the film as a whole: Doesn’t this director know how to create an illusion? And then comes a winking reveal late on that, despite its subtlety, I suspect might be a sink-or-swim moment for many viewers. While out of focus on the left side of the frame next to his tearful, in-focus wife, Damon—or his character Mark, I should say—starts tugging at his hair, pushing it around his scalp until it rests in a vaguely convincing position.
Soderbergh can simultaneously fascinate us with a story about the corrosive artifice of American capitalism while shrugging his shoulders at our investment in his own illusions, our quest to find images to believe in. This is as good an argument as any for Soderbergh as modern American cinema’s wittiest, least self-serious director. Or it’s the most despicable, frustrating, alienating meta-cinematic nonsense you’ve seen since…well, since the same director revealed that Julia Roberts’ character in the Oceans series existed alongside the “real” Julia Roberts, and could plausibly impersonate her as part of a heist. Or since, in the sequel to that film, Soderbergh made fun of Don Cheadle’s performance as dubiously cockney munitions expert Basher Tarr by having him attempt an equally exaggerated Southern (American) accent. Can I be blamed, then, if while watching "Logan Lucky" I anticipated a late reveal that Seth MacFarlane’s hapless energy drink mogul-cum-antagonist was not as British as he appeared?
Not that I wanted such a thing. I wasn’t exactly seething at some perceived slight towards my homeland. I confess, I’m extremely easy to please, and few things crack me up faster than an earnest yet broad attempt at a “British” accent. MacFarlane’s Mike Myers-ish mugging is not my favorite example of the genre, admittedly, but it’s part of a noble tradition of esteemed forebears, from the SNL cast in sketches like “Don’ You Go Rounin’ Roun’ To Re Ro” and “History of Punk,” to Britney Spears’ transatlantic sprechgesang vocals in “Work Bitch.” Accents, like costumes, are not merely designed to fit a time and place unobtrusively. They contribute to style and tone; they offer creative opportunities, helping a director mediate between camp and earnest representation.
After all, the same film that brought the world Don Cheadle’s cor-blimey East London lingo also disguised Brad Pitt as a doctor by capping him with Mike Myers' actual Austin Powers rehearsal wig. The latter meta-performance is curiously sincere and trustworthy, suggesting that we must place these moments on a spectrum, a tangled web even, somewhere between camp and earnestness. Such memorable silliness appears to have informed later highlights like Jude Law’s Assange-esque Australian in Contagion and Michael Douglas and Matt Damon’s extraordinary array of wigs, bald caps, and noses in Behind the Candelabra.
Soderbergh consistently plays with movie stardom. He seems to enjoy, in a way that is apparently good-natured and consensual enough to keep actors coming back, sabotaging his actors’ attractiveness and pushing them past the edge of their abilities—not by bullying or demanding, but by encouraging and exhibiting their noblest “failures” (for it seems unfair to call Cheadle’s accent, for example, a failure). At one point in The Limey, there’s a cutaway to a real TV news segment on George Clooney, the star of Soderbergh’s previous film, in which he stammers something about enjoying his first time in Italy, just having visited “an Italian restaurant.” Not serving any narrative function, I must assume that Soderbergh inserted that moment because he loves to see his actors flounder.
By his own admission, after all, he is “drawn to protagonists who are somewhat at odds with their surroundings.” His irreverence towards the illusion of perfection—perfect acting, perfect adherence to reality—may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but there is a difference between irreverence and glibness. If the viewer often feels uncomfortable or alienated as a result, then perhaps they are empathizing with the state of Soderbergh’s characters more than they realize.
The Limey features Soderbergh’s most at-odds protagonist, albeit one whose alienation far outweighs his discomfort. It’s an elliptical revenge thriller starring Terence Stamp as British career criminal Dave Wilson, marauding through Southern California in search of his daughter’s killer. Wilson would be a fish out of water, except Stamp plays him, in his own words, “like a Zen monk” who “goes through LA like it’s butter.” Unlike Cheadle’s Tarr, Wilson still employs rhyming slang for its originally designed purpose as a kind of cryptolect, a tool for colluding with allies and confusing outsiders in equal measure. “There’s one thing I don’t understand,” offers Bill Duke’s deadpan narcotics agent after an especially idiomatic prison-wisdom diatribe by Wilson. “The thing I don’t understand is every motherfucking word you’re saying.”
As ever, Stamp’s Wilson seems unruffled at such a stony reception, even a little proud. He’s rarely frustrated by being misunderstood. Lem Dobbs, a British-born writer with American parents, stresses this in his screenplay. Once Wilson begins jokingly suggesting the unfamiliar names of typically British drinks at the bar to his new friend, Dobbs writes that “by now his whole dynamic with Ed is a verbal tease.”
Unlike those less central British roles in his other films, Soderbergh looked for a degree of authenticity in key roles in The Limey. Peter Fonda plays antagonist Terry Valentine, an over-the-hill music producer who owes his success to the brief window of time during which he “took the whole '60s Southern California zeitgeist and ran with it.” He’s channeling a number of the era’s music and film producers, such as Robert Evans and Lou Adler, but also Bert Schneider, who made Fonda himself a star with Easy Rider. Above all, he is channeling himself, a veritable totem of the late ‘60s counterculture, even weaving personal anecdotes into his dialogue.
And then there’s Terence Stamp, an authentic Eastender who was so caught up in the unprecedented working class cultural boom that, as he once confessed in an interview, “when the 60s first happened, I thought it had happened to me.” Despite such a suitable well of experience to draw from, part of the process of playing Wilson must have involved a degree of re-discovery of that which had previously come naturally. Stamp consciously trained himself to speak less specifically accented English with a more theatrical delivery in order to land greater parts, partly on the advice of Sir Laurence Olivier himself—not a particularly unusual story for a British actor, until you hear the reediness of an early Stamp performance, in contrast to his current magisterial boom, and realize just how much of a transformation Stamp’s voice underwent.
So in the role of Wilson, an ex-con who is attempting to sort through the fragments of the life that prison stole from him and regain decades of lost time, Stamp had to re-discover some of his own identity. Soderbergh started playing with Dobbs’ screenplay in pre-production, planning to fragment his linear storytelling and insert dreamlike flashbacks and flash-forwards. In response, Dobbs suggested that he mine Ken Loach’s 1967 film Poor Cow for footage of Stamp as a young man, partly on the grounds that it was one of the few films where Stamp had used his own accent, looking “like himself’.” Stamp made use of this same footage, some of which would later add poignancy to the film’s sense of yearning and regret, to help (re-)create his character. The result is a voice for Wilson that sounds authentic, a naturally weathered progression of the Poor Cow accent, and yet as deeply, disconcertingly rounded and resonant as any other Stamp role. It is beguilingly strange to hear the voice of a classically trained veteran theatre actor and that of a confident young wide boy emerge from the mouth of the same actor simultaneously. It’s a voice befitting a character who behaves both like an unfathomable force of nature and, as he might say, a solid bloke.
I’ve mentioned Soderbergh’s fascination with this kind of alienated identity, but Dobbs has his own experiences to draw from. He has spoken in interviews of his voiceover work as a child actor, being cast in fantasy parts on account of the “alien” sound of his transatlantic accent. Contradicting this seeming harmony of creative impetus is his and Soderbergh's legendarily quarrelsome joint commentary track for The Limey. Dobbs has several bones to pick, upbraiding his director for stripping out what he perceives as vital character development and simplifying the screenplay’s relationships, but reserves a lot of his ire for a more trivial issue. He complains that, whereas he restrained himself by writing only one instance of rhyming slang into the script (“butcher’s hook,” when Wilson announces his intention to look round Valentine’s house, prompting the confused reply “who you gonna butcher?”), the finished film is rife with it—“you and Terence between the two of you fell in love with that.”
It’s not hard to believe that Soderbergh might sometimes establish a rapport with an actor in which they goad each other to extremes; there’s something conspiratorially elaborate about certain line deliveries in his films—The Limey’s own “tell him I’m coming” moment, or the way Adam Driver in Logan Lucky pronounces “cauliflower.” These inside jokes dovetail with Soderbergh’s thematic interest in coded dialogue (Schizopolis!), double meanings, and language that communicates indirectly, via texture.
It’s also not hard to imagine that Soderbergh carried his infatuation with rhyming slang forward into Ocean’s Eleven. The screenplay not only doesn’t contain any, but there’s no suggestion whatsoever that Basher Tarr is intended to be British, with only one ambivalent reference to him not being understood thanks to his “impenetrable accent”—a moment that Soderbergh seems to have rewritten into Basher’s “reno”/“barney” speech and the gang’s bewildered reaction to it. It feels less like a repetition of similar moments from The Limey, and more like an iteration; Soderbergh extending a gag across films.
Not for the first or last time: There’s footage from The Limey abruptly inserted into a scene on an airplane in his later film Full Frontal, edited in such a way as to suggest that one of the film's characters is on the same flight as Wilson. This brief sideways glance at him in another movie strips him of his privilege as protagonist, reframing him as a conspicuous alien. It’s an opportunity to reconsider just how fully Stamp embodies his oddness in The Limey. It’s not just the accent that sets him apart but his entire attitude, the way he lumbers and limps around, the way he experiences his hazy, heady surroundings—which, in Sarah Flack’s most conspicuous editing coup, keep changing around him as he carries on a conversation with his daughter’s friend Elaine. That's yet another example of Soderbergh testing his audience’s tolerance for broken illusions, straddling a thin line between helping us identify with an alienated protagonist and, conversely, feeling alienated from him.
For all that Wilson stands out, whichever movie he’s in, there’s also the curious suggestion that it’s not too difficult for him to seem as if he belongs, most notably among the Bel Air hangers-on and eccentrics that flock to Terry Valentine’s party, into which Wilson strolls ever so casually. Stamp’s accent, not so much put-on as put back on, is more than a working-class signifier; it’s the echo of another era, the ‘60s, the strange falling away of cultural boundaries that brought even gangsters like the Krays, and Stamp’s Poor Cow co-star John Bindon, into proximity with artists, politicians and actual royalty. Perhaps only Michael Caine, as an actor, is more strongly associated with this shift towards the cultural legitimacy of working class voices—a legitimacy that now seems like a brief blip, given the abundance of middle-class British actors taking on American roles.
Stamp is reminiscent of a lost era, but Wilson lost at least an era to prison, ironically deprived of a full experience of those rapid societal changes. Terry Valentine has, arguably, isolated himself no less than Wilson, trapped in a mansion adorned with posters commemorating his fleeting-yet-lucrative past successes, pining for his faded glory, delivering nostalgic monologues to his much younger girlfriends:
Have you ever dreamed about a place…you never really recall being to before…a place that maybe only exists in your imagination…someplace far away, half-remembered when you wake up…when you were there, though, you knew the language, you knew your way around…
“That was the ‘60s,” he concludes. Or was it? No, he contradicts himself, “it was just ‘66…and early ’67."
But Terry did more than merely speak the language or map the terrain, and the soundtrack frequently reminds us where Terry’s money comes from—the fact that he made his money capitalizing on the nascent rebellion of a generation of artists, exploiting a new wave of cultural fluidity. His character introduction, edited like a trailer previewing upcoming highlights of his appearance in the film, is accompanied by the Hollies’ “King Midas In Reverse,” a British song that Graham Nash, who would soon emigrate in order to join up with Crosby et al., wrote calculatedly for a prospective American audience in 1967. The flipside of this transatlantic cross-pollination is also present in the form of The Byrds, a Californian band influenced as much by the British Invasion as any homegrown music. As the woman sitting next to Wilson on the plane says, “I can never decide what I like better: leaving home or coming back,” the film’s tricky timeline leaving us just short of certain which one Wilson is doing at that moment. Wilson prefers to stay home, but he’s forced to make, late in life, the same pilgrimage that many of his generation (including Stamp himself) made decades earlier.
It’s profoundly ironic: It's not that “limeys” don’t go to LA, it’s that Wilson is the last one you’d ever expect to go there, played by one of the first of his generation who did. He's there to make sure that his daughter is the last young person whose artistic ambitions will be derailed and ruined on contact with Terry Valentine (King Midas, in reverse).
Despite the confidence with which some people infer from the film’s climax that Wilson has recognized his equal responsibility for Jenny’s death, Soderbergh offers no such certainty. But I feel safe in stating this, at least: that Wilson describes his time in LA as “a job of work” that he “got called out” to do, as if a business trip. His prison stint was a result of taking the fall for others (“It was these other lads what should’ve been there in my place,” a statement of dissociation from Wilson that could practically be his motto). And in LA, he finds himself doing others’ work for them—cleaning out local gangs, disrupting the drugs trade, investigating a murder—on his own dime. Perhaps his finally walking away is little more than a recognition that his labor is being exploited yet again. He believed himself to be the protagonist of a revenge story, but his reasons for coming to LA were more like his daughter’s than he realized. LA promised him something that it couldn’t deliver, and almost trapped him inside that promise.
Who even says “limey” these days? It sounds strained and unconvincing, coming out of the mouths of the heavies that spit the word at Wilson as they beat him. It’s a word out of time for a man out of time. Do all the Brits in LA get called it? I doubt it. That’s who Wilson is: Not a limey, but the Limey, a complete anomaly, a blank slate who rampages through LA by adopting, to its fullest extent, the illusion of limey-ness. He’s a caricature who must eventually face the fact that he’s a human being, with his history of flaws and regrets. He must eventually dispel the illusion. You’d expect a pulp thriller like The Limey to end by asking: what will he do next? As he heads back home, job done, I can’t help wondering instead: if he’s no longer the limey, who will he be next?
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