' ' Cinema Romantico: Let Julia & George Read from the Phone Book

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Let Julia & George Read from the Phone Book

Talking about paying to see a favorite actor read from the phone book is as familiar a form of praise ruing plot holes you could drive a truck through or condemning dialogue by asking who talks like that in real life? are familiar forms of criticism. These are all things people just say without genuinely scrutinizing their inherent meaning, which is why one of the New Yorker’s film critics, Richard Brody, wondered recently on Twitter if anyone really had sat down on a screen and read from a phone book. Of course, as several people replied, this sort of apocryphal idiom has been tried.

Morgan Freeman and Charles Bernstein, the poet, have read from the yellow pages for amusement’s sake, and apparently the late Robin Williams impersonated John Houseman on SCTV doing that very thing. And after minimal digging on Google I discovered that PRX had an entire series where actors John Lithgow and F. Murray Abraham, among others, read from the Manhattan white pages. But all these are essentially glorified Funny or Die sketches, meant to check in and check out of, have a few laughs over, and then move on. I dare say, however, that Mr. Brody was thinking about seeing someone read from the phone book in a different sort of context, just as I too have always dreamed bout seeing someone read from the phone book in a different sort of context.

Just recently on this very blog I proffered my un-researched, un-verified belief that Steven Soderbergh makes bets either with himself or others to see if he can pull off certain arduous aesthetic tasks in his movies. Like finding a fresh way to implement “Take Me Home Country Roads” in “Logan Lucky”, or shooting a film on an iPhone, or, and this is my favorite urban legend that only I have posited and believe, that on the set of “Ocean’s Twelve” George Clooney bet Soderbergh that the director could not make a scene of the entire eponymous gang just sitting in a jail cell interesting.

That’s how we wound up with that scene where Soderbergh whip pans from actor to actor in the jail cell, each pan triggered by one actor looking at the actor sitting next to him after taking a moment to ruminate, by which I mean taking a moment to just sit there and, like, you know, actor-ize. It’s inane; it’s wonderful. What’s more, I also loved “Ocean’s Twelve” because Soderbergh is one of the few directors we have who has actually recognized and seized upon the explosive chemistry shared by Clooney and Julia Roberts, and that brings me to this post’s overriding point.

Years later, when tomes are written about this period in Hollywood, this age of brands and franchises and spandex, historians will read and rub their eyes, and re-read incredulously and then ask: “Wait, what? Julia Roberts and George Clooney were only in THREE movies together? What were these studio idiots thinking?” The old Star Machine had a lot of problems – A LOT OF PROBLEMS – but Mayer, Zukor, Zanuck, any of ‘em would have took one look at Jules and George and know exactly what to do. We would’ve had a spate of Jules & George movies, and if a few of ‘em would have undoubtedly been rushed and slapped together and awful, so many more of ‘em would have been brilliant fun, and a couple, if not a couple more, would have been A+ master classes of cheery entertainment. That none of these movies actually exist is an unfathomable artistic blight on our era; shame on all of us.

I appreciate experimental Steven Soderbergh, and understand that his experimentation is crucial to keeping his artistic battery charged, but I confess, the more genre-oriented, populist-ish Soderbergh has always been my favorite Steven. (This blog’s favorite 2017 movie, after all, was “Logan Lucky.”) And so I wish the latter Steven Soderbergh would find time to concoct a Jules & George trilogy leaning hard into Golden Age screwball, rom-com-ish machinations, not functioning so much as homages as the director’s own semi-avant garde recipe. And I wish one of those movies would be about, say, a pair of bickering but in love con artists. And I wish that during production, in some remote locale, Clooney and Soderbergh would he forced to make a dinner reservation by finding the restaurant’s phone number in the phone book. And I wish that upon doing this, Clooney would say to Soderbergh: “Bet you can’t make a scene reading from the phone book interesting.” And I wish Soderbergh would then take Clooney’s bet and concoct a scene where the characters played by Julia and George discover their lavish south of France home is bugged by Interpol. And I wish that upon discovering this, to occupy and/or have fun with the hapless Interpol lackeys, the characters played by Julia and George would spend infinite hours just reading the phone book aloud.

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