Joe Gould's Secret (2000) from Johnny Web

Another new release this week, again with no nudity, but well worth a few words.

I've decided to spoil this "secret" for you because only 1% of you will ever watch it, and that 1% will love it just as much as you would if you didn't know the secret, because the real pleasure for you will be in the telling.

99% of you will find this movie too literary and actionless to watch, and you shouldn't regret missing the movie, because it isn't your kind of material. But by missing the movie you'll miss out on a good and completely true story. So I'm gonna tell it.

Joe Mitchell was a real person, a writer for the New Yorker in the 1940's, who enjoyed telling stories about the curiosities and everyday wonders to be found in the streets of New York. He loved the rhythms of the city and the voices of the people who wandered its streets. One of the greatest treasures he unearthed was Joe Gould, who was not a literary composite or something like that, but a homeless man of real bone and marrow who wandered through Greenwich Village. Gould claimed to be writing a million word oral history of our time, in which he recorded the voices of the people he talked to, some twenty thousand conversations, with some of his own narrative providing a bridge between chapters.

Gould was a remarkable man, an eccentric Harvard graduate with an obviously superior mind who could convince people of the merit of his unpublished book because when asked to, he could recall chapters verbatim, and the stories he would spin for hours showed astounding gifts. He had Damon Runyon's knack for colorful street-savvy characters and dialogue, as well as the precise and elegant prose of a literary master like Faulkner or Thomas Wolfe.

Gould had even managed to get short excerpts published in literary journals, and had earned the praise of such masters as e.e. cummings.

Well, the magazine writer befriended Gould, and in 1942 he wrote a New Yorker story about the old eccentric and his "oral history", and that story made Gould a cause celebre among the literary and social set for a short time, at least until the Fifth Avenue set got tired of the eccentric smelly old man behind the legend. Eventually even Mitchell became tired of Gould, who was a lonely garrulous guy whose nature demanded a high-maintenance friendship.

The much-discussed history never did materialize. Every time someone got interested in it, Gould would seem to find some bizarre reason why he couldn't produce the manuscript. Twenty years later, Mitchell confessed in a second article that although Gould could talk about it masterfully, he never set the oral history down on paper.

I suppose if he did, it wouldn't have been oral any more, would it?

There is more to the story. Mitchell didn't betray Gould's secret until years and years after Gould's death in 1952. Even from his deathbed, the enigmatic Gould left behind all kinds of tantalizing clues about the whereabouts of the History, and Mitchell participated in some of the literary scavenger hunts for it in the next twelve years, all the while knowing that it was apocryphal, but never sharing his knowledge. He didn't reveal the secret until 1964, in "Joe Gould's Secret", the last column he would ever write for the New Yorker, in which he also apologized for having glossed over Gould's flaws in creating his legend. After all those years, Mitchell was compelled to present a more rounded picture of the often disagreeable old eccentric he had lionized. He wanted to clear up all the misconceptions he had promulgated about Gould, to apologize for his deception, and to question his own journalistic integrity in deliberately failing to distinguish between fact and legend.

Also interesting, it seems to me, is the fact that Mitchell seems to have confirmed the hypothesis  that there is no study without interference, that the very fact of studying anything changes it. In this case, Mitchell didn't just write Gould's story. He significantly changed Gould's life by writing about it.

Ian Holm played Joe Gould. And he did so brilliantly, flaws and all. I think he has become my favorite actor. This and his performances in Dreamchild and The Sweet Hereafter must be some of the most affecting ever put on film.

Stanley Tucci directed and played Joe Williams.

The movie has a langorous literary pace, filled with many actual recitations from Gould's prose, as well as from various other works of literature and attempted literature (the pretensions of the literary wannabees form a minor sub-plot). Tucci is not a director in love with the medium of film and its possibilities. He is instead a literary kind of guy enamored of the source material, and he uses film not as an end, but as a means to share his wonderful story with more people. He also has a fine respect for old New York and the accuracy of period details. The photography tries to take the same studied pleasure from the sights of New York as Gould's words take from the people. This kind of pacing means that this will not be everyone's kind of movie, but I feel that those who like it will like it a lot.

An afterthought. Williams wrote his last piece, the second Gould piece, the great confession, in 1964. He continued to come to work at his desk at the New Yorker for the next 32 years until his death.

He never published another word.

No female nudity. Ian Holm and a rag-tag bunch of guys were shown naked in a mission for the homeless.

Box Office: It never made it to more than 30 screens, and took in only $650,000.

IMDB summary: 6.4 out of 10. That's pretty low for a project with lofty ambitions. Contrast that to 81 from Apollo, and 82 from Apollo's members. I think people's perception of this movie depends on whether they are more swayed by the elegance of the source material or the drabness of the direction. Ebert gave it three and a half stars and near canonization, declaring that the slow unadorned pacing was necessary to convey the anguish inherent in the material. Berardinelli gave it two and a half, and focused on Tucci's uninspired direction of a great yarn that should have made a better film.

DVD info from Amazon.

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