American Storyteller (h2so4 13)


    "Viewed from a certain distance, the great, simple outlines which define the storyteller stand out in him, or rather, they become visible in him, just as in a rock a human head or an animal's body may appear to an observer at the proper distance and angle of vision."

      --Walter Benjamin, "The Storyteller," (83) *

True enough. And to see these outlines takes more than the prescribed distance of five feet from the television. You need to be looking up, and into the vast. I watched the Academy Awards this year for the first time in years, three plus hours dedicated to trying to get a gander at Kevin Spacey's marvelous skin. When glimpsed, it did not disappoint. Bronzed and supple under the lights, it suggested on Magnavox as it does writ large a new Calvin Klein phenomenon, some great virile weave of silk. Still, Spacey looked small in his black tie and his moisturizer, in his manicured nails and his shiny shoes, and ergo the great outlines that define him as the everyman to our every perversity failed to materialize.

He still needs the big screen. Spacey comes into his own when he rises onto the scene, all voice and vision on the crest of those great king-of-the-world, God-delivered-to-you dolly shots (The Ref, American Beauty), or convening the crowd, face lighted like the devil, and framed by The Great Seal of the Great State of California (The Usual Suspects). In those moments he embodies the sit down and listen! of the anointed storyteller.

And boy, were we looking for a storyteller at the close of our American Century! Casting a twenty-first century eye over the late-nineties return of the voiceover (Election, The Opposite of Sex, not to mention our featured attractions, Suspects and Beauty), it seems that we were thirsting for narrative and hindsight. This was accompanied by the return of suburban America to a big screen near you. Think, in no particular order, of Happiness, The Ice Storm, Pleasantville, Arlington Road, The Truman Show--etc. Though we tried an odd number of character actors in the role (honorable mention going to Tobey McGuire in The Ice Storm and Pleasantville), no one had quite the charisma to summon a storyteller of Walter Benjamin's proportions, that combination of Odysseus and insurance salesman, who could reach into us through our wars, cars, fitness centers and e-coli outbreaks, to recuperate experience-who might draw us, ëmurricans of all shapes and stripes, to a collective experience of, I blush to write it, wisdom.

So he got it. He did it for us. Rising up from of the waves of Long Island Sound (The Ref), the San Pedro Harbor (Suspects), or gazing down from the clouds at the November streets of suburbia (Beauty), he trawled his nets for those simple and animal outlines, visions of us complete with our SUV's and our trash, shimmering, unusually beautiful for all our joylessness ("Carolyn, when did you get so--joyless?"), for our patina of oil, lip gloss and sea.


    "An orientation towards practical interests is characteristic of many born storytellers." (86)

As it happens, Spacey plays both salesmen (The Ref, Glengarry Glen Ross, Beauty), and Odysseus (Suspects). He thus fits the archaic bills of the peddler and the ur-storyteller from way back (Nikolai Leskov, Benjamin's storyteller, worked in international business). But he is also very good at being a movie star, a characteristic which has been most pronounced, ironically, during his stints on the stage. See the interviews he gave during the runs of The Iceman Cometh in NY and London for example (W, July 1998, gives a good taste) or even the careful wording of the introduction to Spaceyland, his official fan site on the web, which provides links to interviews (such as the W piece). Http:// is "the only website endorsed by Mr. Spacey and his management." From all of this derives his mastery of the modern medium of storytelling, which climaxed in American Beauty, as was memorialized on Oscar night.

But in Beauty, "storytelling" tipped over into what Benjamin might call "information." This may have marked the outer limit of what Spacey is going to mean for us. Let me see if I can explain.


    "Experience which is passed on from mouth to mouth is the source from which all storytellers have drawn." (84)

Benjamin viewed storytelling as having died out with the rise of the novel, a medium which "neither comes from oral tradition nor goes into it" (87), and which displaced public listening with private acts of reading. But sitting in a movie theater together brings narrative back into the domain of shared experience, and a reasonable representation of mouth-to-mouth storytelling is the mouth-to-eye phenomenon of the close-up.

I think we'd all agree that Spacey has mastered that shot, but it is possible to go further, and to point out that any Kevin Spacey film with a producer, a marketing department, or a director, that is, any Kevin Spacey film, makes use of a sequence I'll call "the Kevin." Technically, it is no great shakes (except, perhaps, as it is executed in Suspects). Lloyd and Caroline, Verbal and Kujan, Lester and Carolyn--fill-in your favorite characters, then apply Film 101: A conversation dies down, the music starts up, and the camera closes in on Spacey's face, which begins to register emotion, thusly:

Sorrow (a.k.a. hurt, disappointment): furrowed brow extends into grimace, grimace deepens into the eyes, close in on the eyes, as they burn cold, or dull themselves to blank.

Triumph (a.k.a. vengeance is mine): the movement of emotion is less insistently inward. The face relaxes, lines smooth away from lip and brow, the eyes come to rest as they gaze into the middle distance, in an expression of complete serenity.

Two notes on this:

a) "The Kevin" can be abbreviated. When Verbal is revealed to have been the shooter of Saul in Suspects, for example, the sheer unreadability of Spacey's expression becomes legible as triumph only retroactively.

b) Sometimes "the Kevin" is followed by a fetching sort of kittenishness that really should have set Dave Kujan wise in The Usual Suspects. Two or three medium-long takes. That's all for "the Kevin." But it delivers the goods, that infrared wave of eros, thanatos, pathos and dignity by which "a simple, active man becomes a saint apparently in the most natural way in the world" (86). The gap between saint (Beauty) and the "devil himself" (Suspects) narrows via "the Kevin." This is why I'd choose it as the image for Benjamin's indeterminate "animal," that force that occupies the storyteller's great and simple outlines. "The Kevin" gets some quality on the move, and allows it to shift, restlessly, forward to the eyes, back into the depths of the face. People argue over the exact epicenter of the action in a Kevin close-up: is it the eyes, the mouth, the forehead? I have already tipped my hand on my view of the role of the skin, i.e., the whole mobile field through which something bigger than the man himself finally settles back on its haunches, just out of intelligibility, equal parts dignity, vulnerability and unsentimental sex. In "the Kevin," the storyteller takes a seat within Spacey's face. And the picture, whatever movie it is (have you seen The Ref?), moves on.


    "It is no longer intelligence that comes from afar, but the information which supplies a handle for what is nearest that gets the readiest hearing. " (89)

That question of parts, as in, "what part of his face performs the magic?" leads to another point: Why do we try to break this stuff down? The nature of the storyteller is to be greater than the sum of his parts, to be the vessel for intelligences distant both spatially and in time. Spacey comes to us moment by moment through close-ups and set speeches--the flick of the wrist, the breaking-point rant. But to read him back in the same fragmentary way gets us precisely nowhere (see the usually-divine Sarah Vowell's "Kevin Spacey's Je Ne Sais Quoi" for example--Salon, July 1998).

The difference between actor as assemblage-of-parts and actor as storyteller can be set up in terms of the distinction between storytelling and information. Storytelling, according to Benjamin, "does not aim to convey the pure essence of the thing, like information or a report" (91). E-Z narrative film uses close-ups to deliver information--a character is happy, is sad, is speaking, is dead. In contrast, "the Kevin" delivers a living vessel, entire. We don't just get Spacey's eyes and his mouth. The entire head conveys the vision of a transformation taking place (back to the skin, to the role played by creases and shadow. Think also of his hairline, how it changes and what that means, from Verbal Kint's widow's peak to Lester Burnham's coif). Right there, at that moment, within any of his characters, Lloyd Chasseur, Jack Vincennes, Chris Sabian, your-name-here, experience becomes narrative, sinks "into the life of the storyteller," as Benjamin describes it, "in order to bring it out of him again" (91).

This formula is followed gospel fashion in The Usual Suspects, of course. Verbal Kint gazes calmly over Hedaya's office ("a man who finds his way about in the world without getting too deeply involved with it" (Benjamin 86)), drawing the silky stuff that Dave Kujan wants to hear from the wanted signs, the coffee cups and a cigarette box that surround him: "He is the man who could let the wick of his life be consumed completely by the gentle flame of his story" (Benjamin 108-9).

Actually, the mythic properties of the storyteller are overdetermined in Suspects: "Kint" is a Hungarian word for "talk," according to Chris McQuarrie and Bryan Singer, so Verbal is Mr. Talk Talk. Moreover, Verbal and his alter ego Keyser fold into the master story of western civilization, since Turkey, Keyser's ostensible wellspring, was formerly Troy. Thus Keyser/Verbal begins to look a lot like Odysseus, spinning out the hospitality of the Phaiakians in the long final hours before he finally heads for home.

Beauty starts out on the same tack, though it pumps things to eleven. As in Suspects, Spacey is situated as storyteller through his mastery of the narrative, though his control in Beauty is more absolute, since the camera doesn't undermine his description of events there as it does occasionally in Suspects. His position is reinforced through the story's framing within voice-overs, and via those angel's-view establishing shots. It is also wired invisibly by the legacy of Verbal Kint and Keyser Soze. In the aftermath of Suspects, it is hard not to set the Spacey default to mythic/fantastic, even if what follows is something like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (a film baroque without extenuation, whereas I think Beauty receives a little extra license, given our profound collective desire to receive one last blown-out American rose before the millennium).

So Beauty begins in the vein of Suspects. But it is further infused with the epic by its dedication to themes of death. If in Suspects Verbal/Keyser is formed in the mold of Odysseus (Benjamin would say Scheherazade)--that is, if he spins his story against death--Beauty taps that aspect of the storyteller in which he looks out over life from the threshold of its completion: "it is granted to him to reach back to a whole lifetime--his gift is his ability to relate his life" (108). This is literalized as Lester tells the whole film from the perspective of his death, the two minutes it takes to die stretched to two plus hours.

Fair enough, as a conceit. The movie could have made it on that, but the point is flogged to death in the dialogue, in those innocent clunkers, issuing from the mouths of babes (Janie's "have you ever known anybody who died?" comes to mind).


    "The most extraordinary things, the marvelous things, are related with the greatest accuracy, but the psychological connection of the events is not forced-thus the narrative achieves an amplitude that information lacks." (89)

When I suggest that Beauty tipped the balance from storytelling to information, my opinion is based on that insistent quality, that greedy urgency by which it calls attention to its epic characteristics: This movie is about death! Beauty is real! See? The bird is dead. And it's beautiful. Get it? What else might be beautiful, or dead?

In the wash of so much explanation, Spacey may be forgiven if his storyteller properties wane a little. The nuances of the tale he might have told (a story about masculinity? a story about salvation? a vision of our fallible fathers? wisdom?) are immediately subject to "verification." "Information, however, lays prompt claim to verifiability" (89). "The Kevin" sequence is replaced by video- contemplation of self-explanatory objects-the dead pigeon, the plastic bag--while Spacey himself becomes the object of standard male-lead close-ups. Something of a waste (even if I do appreciate my enhanced working knowledge of his legs and chest). Unable to follow through in good faith with the requirements of the mythic, Beauty is ultimately a story for the information age.

Well, let's not get overly elegiac here. It's a good movie, for all its self-indulgence. And along with everything else he said on the subject, Benjamin also pointed out that "the art of storytelling has been dying out for a long time" (87). Moreover, isn't a narrative of the degradation of story to information ultimately one of the big ones of our fin-de et commencement-de-siècle? If the Academy took Beauty, its producers, writer, director, and actors as the image of USA 1999, that seems like an all right assessment to have made at the edge of the millennium, especially since we seem to have survived both it and our various adolescences (it was, though, a fairly masculine lineup, no? That's another essay).

But it was also all the better that the Oscars are delivered to America via the small screen, and that Spacey appeared as your average elegant guy, size medium, in a tux-a winning actor, and nothing greater. Now the question yawns open: whither the storyteller? Is it Spacey still who will recapture those outlines, his greater force? Such qualities are ephemeral, and while I love the man, I am thinking, No. Then again, the greatest trick the storyteller has ever played is convincing the world that he no longer exists.

    * All cites from Walter Benjamin, "The Storyteller," Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Ed. Hannah Arendt. NY: Schocken. 1968.