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Jay and Silent Bob's Secret Stash

The New York Times - Watching Movies with Kevin Smith

July 20, 2001


The Thrill Is Just Talk


Monica Almeida/The New York Times
The director Kevin Smith gears up to watch the 1966 film "A Man for All Seasons," starring Orson Welles and Paul Scofield.

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Tracy Bennet/Dimension Films
Kevin Smith, left, and his co-star Jason Mewes in "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back," Mr. Smith's latest sex-and-drugs comedy.

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Since then, Mr. Smith said, he has watched the film frequently, often pressing it on some of his young friends. "I must have seen 'A Man for All Seasons' 50 times, literally," he said. "Probably more than any other movie. When 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' came out, I saw it 25 times in the theaters. I just kept going and going. But this movie I've seen at least twice as many times. This movie is like porn for somebody who loves language."

When he is asked, as he often is by young fans, to name his favorite films, Mr. Smith says he always cites the same five: Steven Spielberg's "Jaws," Martin Scorsese's "Last Temptation of Christ," Oliver Stone's "J.F.K.," Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" and "A Man for All Seasons." For this article, he said, he chose to watch the Zinnemann film both because of its profound impact on him and because he thinks it is the least seen and least remembered of his favorites.

Six Academy Awards

"Nobody ever talks about it anymore, and it's such a great movie," he continued. "Very few people even seem to know what this movie is about. You say the title and people go, `What's that about?' Yet it won six Academy Awards, including best picture, best director and best actor. I guess it's just not sexy enough to be remembered fondly."

During a trip to England, Mr. Smith said, he took time out to visit all the sites related to Thomas More, from the Tower of London to Hampton Court and More's own estate in Chelsea. He wishes someone would write a book about the making of the film, but he's not hopeful. In a way, the movie has become too obscure to generate such treatment.

"Are there really any good men anymore?" Mr. Smith asked. "When you hold somebody like Thomas More up, I don't know, 9 times out of 10, maybe 9 1/2 times out of 10, people will always take the easier route. And Thomas More didn't. Partly, it was an issue of faith, but it was also an issue of character. In terms of films, there are very few characters like Thomas More anymore. Everyone is an antihero now."

Verbal Jousting Matches

The story of Sir Thomas More's battle to satisfy the desires of his petulant king without betraying the demands of his own faith is played, in "A Man for All Seasons," as a kind of grand verbal jousting match. Mr. Scofield's More is so deeply intelligent and nimble that he seems, at first, to be more than a match for the self-serving careerists and aristocratic pragmatists who surround him.

"Absolutely, it's about smart people playing mind games with each other, but it's never obviously or overtly clever, like in an Aaron Sorkin TV show," Mr. Smith said. "If you watch something like 'West Wing,' everyone is so smart, so incredibly clever, it seems like they're all trying so hard. Here, it seems so effortless, so much more natural."

The crisis comes when More is appointed chancellor and asked by the king to acquiesce in the separation of the English church from Rome. The king wants his first marriage declared null, largely because it has produced no male heir, but more immediately because he wants to marry Anne Boleyn. The pope has refused to grant a divorce or annul the marriage, so Henry wants to be declared the supreme authority over the church in England so he can overrule the pontiff. More's faith does not allow him to go along, even though almost everyone around him, including his best friend, the Duke of Norfolk (Nigel Davenport), and his beloved daughter, Meg (Susannah York), urge him simply to hold his nose and go along. Why not? Everyone else is. Why lose your position, your fortune and your life over such a thing?

In the end, More devises an ingenious strategy. Under English law, he cannot be convicted of treason if he simply remains silent on the subject. In the end, the only way the king's prosecutor, Cromwell, can snare More is by having another witness, an ambitious snipe named Richard Rich (John Hurt), lie under oath that More has uttered treasonous statements. "I am a dead man," More tells the church tribunal. "You have your will of me." And he goes under the ax.

Mr. Smith is the kind of film enthusiast who likes to pepper his ordinary conversation with quotations from his favorite movies. Usually, he said, since many of his favorite films are also well known, people get the references and laugh along with him. " 'A Man for All Seasons' is a movie that I quote incessantly, but unfortunately, not many people have seen it, so most of my quotes fall on deaf ears," he said.

Nor does he see it getting any more popular. "You try to get a teenager to sit down and watch this movie," Mr. Smith said. "I've tried. It's not easy."

He tried showing it to Mr. Mewes, his frequent co-star. "That was catastrophic," Mr. Smith said. Even Mr. Smith's wife, Jennifer Schwalbach, who is also an actress, had trouble understanding More's dilemma. "She's, like, 'What an idiot More was, to die for that,' " Mr. Smith said.

He partly attributes this attitude to the world's loss of tolerance for the lone, principled stand - especially when it involves an issue of faith. An audience weaned on prime-time fare has little appetite for More's brand of moral rigidity.

"I think we predominantly have a filmgoing audience that was raised on television," Mr. Smith said. "We like our stuff quick and poppy. We have such a short attention span - very MTV. Today, if this film were even made, it would clearly be an independent film. It would clearly appeal to a small, select audience."

Mr. Smith kept up a fairly steady stream of comments as the film unfolded. Sometimes, it was little more than a word. "Wonderful," he'd say after a particularly compelling moment, or "Look at that." The one word he used most often was genius, after a particularly sublime acting moment, either from Mr. Scofield or from Robert Shaw, who plays the king.

"Paul Scofield is just so amazing in this movie," he said. "He's one of those actors who makes me wish I was a more serious filmmaker so I could work with him. But I don't really have a lot of parts for Paul Scofield."

Not Much Scenery-Gnawing

Mr. Scofield's performance in "A Man for All Seasons" stands out for several reasons, Mr. Smith said. One is the overplaying by some of the other performers. Compared with Orson Welles's scenery-chewing as Cardinal Wolsey or Wendy Hiller's pickle-faced turn as More's wife, Mr. Scofield's lead performance is a masterpiece of quiet, thoughtful, underplayed eloquence.

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