The Devil’s Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood — Julie Salamon

By most accounts, The Bonfire of the Vanities is a terrible movie, and a not inconsiderable number of people think the same of the book. Consequently, reading Julie Salamon’s The Devil’s Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood might seem like an exercise in shallow masochism, but the book isn’t and tracks both the making of movies and the formation of and interaction among small, hierarchical groups charged with an overarching goal containing innumerable amorphous steps that must be defined before they can even be executed. I wish I could phrase the preceding sentence in something like English instead of consultant-speak, but it nonetheless expresses a true idea about The Devil’s Candy, which is also the story of a cultural industry most people don’t understand, or understand poorly, and yet has an outsized impact on how people think and feel. Running through it like the Mississippi through the United States is money:

During [de Palma’s] twenty-five years in the business, he’d seen a lot of astute, intelligent boys like Schwab [the second-unit director] come and go. They knew everything there was to know about film but were too proud to sell themselves. So many of them never got it, that in the movie industry art was a product and the only way to succeed way to figure out how to move the merchandise.

The same sentiment is voiced again:

[Orson Welles’] films didn’t make money; he hadn’t been able to get a picture financed in town since he’d made “Touch of Evil” in 1957 [… at an American Film Institute (AFI) banquet,] Welles gave a thank-you speech that ended with a pitch for money.

Those who manage money well succeed, and those who don’t are thrown overboard; money is behind numerous decisions for good or ill, and the knowledge that tickets must sell inform, for example, racial issues in casting and the script. Decisions about who to cast hold the The Bonfire of the Vanities back as executives and others attempt to simultaneously pander and avoid controversy, entirely missing a central point of Wolf’s book—that the media conflagration around race is what feeds the bonfires of racial tension as well as the self-immolating media itself. Were The Bonfire of the Vanities book not set among high-financiers, The Devil’s Candy demonstrates that it could be set among Hollywood moguls, perhaps with scenes like the one depicted at the beginning of Chapter 6. It offers a heavily ironic tone that I won’t give away, but such metaphoric scenes appear throughout, showing the principals in the movie apparently unaware or unselfconscious of the art they try to strip mine, no matter how much they say they care about the environment. And the more they try, the worse it gets. As Salamon describes de Palma thinking, “Racial Balance. Racial balance! What was he, the ACLU?”

That’s not to say The Devil’s Candy is an angry, anti-political correctness screed: it isn’t, and its purpose is to reveal how decisions that seem laughably bad in retrospect can seem reasonable at the outset. Though I’m tempted to analogize to Iraq, I won’t save through paralipsis. The Devil’s Candy also shows the inherent tension between art and commerce, with movies being pulled toward the latter, which also means they’re more likely to try and blunt rough edges or pull their punches in hopes of winning the bet. Of one change from book to movie, Tom Wolfe observes:

You know, there is an etiquette, particularly on television—and in the movies too, I guess—which say it’s okay to raise the question of racial hostility only if somewhere toward the close of the action you produce an enlightened figure, preferably from the streets, who creates a higher synthesis and teaches everyone the error of their ways. As the drama ends, everyone heads off into a warmer sunset.

[…]

I was criticized for not doing that. But life is not like that. To me reality is extremely important in fiction as well as in nonfiction. I don’t think you can understand the human heart if you move from reality.

Incidentally, this is the same problem a self-indulgent movie like Crash has, and a property of the healing character like the one played by Samuel L. Jackson in Black Snake Moan. One very impressive, unusual aspect of the TV show Friday Night Lights is its ability to avoid the sermonizing Wolfe condemns; I was skeptical of the show, as I am of any TV show, and only picked up the DVDs after seeing it recommended by The New Yorker and then James Fallows. The publication and man, respectively, are not known for pulling their artistic punches the way Hollywood does. Read the articles at both links, which better describe how Friday Night Lights is the rare example of art transcending its medium—which The Bonfire of the Vanities movie apparently did not. Even the example above, which involved the casting of Morgan Freeman in lieu of a judge of Jewish descent, as in Wolfe’s book, brought other problems; de Palma thinks Morgan is unprepared thanks to stardom:

There was something about the money and the fame and the adulation that made them [stars] stop doing the boring work they did automatically when they were struggling. Everyone tells them they’re great, and they start to believe it.

It’s a system de Palma contributes to, and the sense of this movie being a manifestation of systems and incentives grows as The Devil’s Candy progresses. Notice that de Palma blames “money,” although it’s money that drives movies. And it’s a system that rewards those who can operate from within, although at some personal cost:

De Palma decided he had to try, and he approached the project [of winning back studio exec girlfriend Kathy Lingg]—his deliberate strategizing gave the courtship the feel of a project as much as a romance—with the force and logic he would apply to a movie he wanted to get going.

I’m not female, but if I were, I don’t think I’d want to be a de Palma project, especially considering how many of them end up as bloodbaths.

The making of The Bonfire of the Vanities says more about America and life than the movie itself. For example, Salamon writes:

The social stratification was the only certainty on a film set. The players were always different, but the status was constant. And almost everyone was angling for better status. The camera operator wanted to be cinematographer; the cinematographer wanted to direct. The secretaries wanted to be associate producers; the p.a.’s, the production assistants, wanted to be anything that wasn’t the lowest rung on the latter. The stand-ins wanted to act. Everyone was working on a script.

This tendency was apparently exacerbated by the book and the expectations surrounding it, as “the idea took hold that this particular movie could be the definitive vehicle of dreams, big enough and flashy enough to carry along a great many people—the stretch limo of hope and ambition.” It wasn’t, and the fault is better placed on those towards the top than those towards the bottom. Status is hard-gained and easily lost, and blame is also easy; of a test audience, de Palma thinks, “They didn’t have a clue.” Maybe not, but if you’re in mainstream cinema, you better be ready to sell—as he’d apparently forgotten when he thought he was making art. “Money didn’t seem to mean anything, and yet it meant everything,” means that it means everything.

The Devil’s Candy implies that money corrupts to some extent, but that everyone involved, including watchers, is complicit. Look at what the book calls “the emergence of infotainment as a regular feature on local news shows[, which] resulted in a complex symbiosis between the studios and the journalists who followed the film industry for television.” But if those journalists have become derelict in their duty as independent voices, it’s only because we, the people, keep watching them despite their questionable province, like eating foul sausages prior to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. At one point, someone

designed his own diorama showing hyenas disemboweling a gazelle. He loved the juxtaposition of this image against the society crowd. “When you think about animals, and these people, you realize that’s what they are,” he said. “Beautifully dressed animals.”

Is he talking about the society Wolfe depicted in his novel, or could he also be talking about Hollywood, media celebrities, readers, and all of us? Such is the pleasure of The Devil’s Candy that it could be any or all of them.

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