What is history? Is it nothing more than the accounts we read in books of the exploits of various kings, queens, generals, armies, nations etc. as they wage war or deliberate peace throughout the endless millennia? Or is it – as Tolstoy implied – the sum total of the day-to-day actions of ordinary human beings eking out an existence on this unique little planet we call Earth?
These are the questions posed by Stanley Tucci’s “Joe Gould’s Secret,” an intriguing little film based on the true story of a well-known eccentric who lived amongst and associated with the New York literati of the 1940′s. This tale is really about two “Joes” – Joe Mitchell, a highly successful writer at “The New Yorker,” and Joe Gould, a strange but alluring figure who shuffles his way around town begging for handouts, yet who claims to be a writer currently involved in authoring a monumental “oral history” of the world around him. Intrigued by this true eccentric, Mitchell decides to feature Gould in one of his magazine pieces. Thus, the two Joes spend countless hours together as Mitchell examines, records and tries to understand the lifestyle and thoughts of this most unique and extraordinary of individuals.
The best part about “Joe Gould’s Secret” is that it allows the title character to remain something of an enigma throughout. It doesn’t try to “explain” him or rob him of the ambiguity that makes him so fascinating a figure. In many ways, Gould fits perfectly the image of the artist we have come to romanticize and even glorify in our minds over the years. He is often gruff, irrational and temperamental, prone to wide mood swings and occasional violent outbursts, yet he is also capable of making profound insights and he possesses an innate ability to afflict the “comfortable” living in their smug little materialistic worlds – a tendency that endears him to the, perhaps, equally smug Bohemians around him. That he has to “suffer” for his art – he is virtually homeless and relies on the pecuniary contributions of his “friends” to get him by – only elevates his standing both in his own eyes and the eyes of many others. Credit the complex screenplay by Howard A. Rodman for being able to see that Gould may himself be suffering from delusions of grandeur that the people who admire him and the work he is doing simply reinforce – perhaps because they like to have a “colorful” character hanging around or because it makes them feel good to be minimally and patronizingly kind to a fellow human being (you will note that only one of his concerned “friends” or patrons is willing to provide him with a place to live – so much easier to hand him a few dollars and send him on his way). Even Mitchell becomes highly conflicted in his feelings towards Gould. Though at first intrigued by his eccentric nature, Mitchell, once the article is published and Gould has served his purpose, begins to see the man as little more than a daily annoyance, a time-consuming irritant to be gotten rid of. As Gould slips ever further into the realm of societal castoff, “Joe Gould’s Secret” begins to take on the air of a profoundly sad human tragedy.
Yet, in the end, it is what Joe Gould stands for – his insistence that we shine a light on the forgotten members of the working class and the down-on-their-luck societal “losers” – that ends up making the strongest mark on both Mitchell and us in the audience. Though we are often appalled by the lifestyle Gould lives, we can’t help but acknowledge the truth of his core conviction. Real history CAN be found every bit as much in the words, faces and lives of those people lurking in dingy pubs and toiling away in sweaty factories as it can in the royal courts and on the bloody battlefields that somehow preoccupy so many of the world’s historians.
Ian Holm gives a brilliant performance as Gould, managing to appear both larger and smaller than life as the situation warrants. Whether he is rhapsodizing poetically about the meaning of life or extending his palm out in a poignant gesture of humiliating beggary, Holm makes Gould a completely believable and thoroughly unique character. Tucci, as Mitchell, the passive observer, has the less flamboyant role, but he manages to convey the seemingly contradictory nature of a man who wants both to remain skeptical and to believe in the “truth” of Gould and what he stands for.
“Joe Gould’s Secret” transports us to a fascinating time and place and gives us much food for thought once we get there.
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This historical comedy-drama is based on the true story of Joe Gould, a bohemian eccentric who was a fixture in New York’s Greenwich Village from his arrival in 1916 to his death in 1964. Gould, who claimed to be a graduate of Harvard, would cadge drinks and subsist on catsup as he regaled patrons of neighborhood saloons with stories, poems, opinions, and his imitation of a seagull. In a 1942 New Yorker profile by journalist Joseph Mitchell, Gould spoke of his life’s work, a book entitled An Oral History of Our Times, which he claimed would be eleven times longer than the Bible, contain a variety of overheard conversations from throughout the years, and document the decline of 20th century culture. Mitchell kept tabs on Gould, and tried to introduce him to publishers who might put his work into print, but nothing ever came of it, and it wasn’t until Gould’s death that Mitchell discovered the surprising truth about his friend.
Thematically rich film even though it has trouble juggling everything smoothly. Tucci never really prioritizes his themes and as a result, the profoundness of the “secret” is obscured. I was still won over however because, well, because these topics are just not given enough attention in mainstream films. On the surface, it appears that Tucci is examining the tumultuous relationship between the two Joes, but the real subject is the equally chaotic relationship between artists and their artistic endeavours. Tucci examines how artists endure much suffering for their work and as a result, they tread a fine line between genius and madness. He also seems to be saying that if the artistic impulse is not reined in, it can potentially become destructive because the truth that artists feel compelled to convey is much too complex and diverse to be expressed merely by the simple tools at the artists’ disposal. In fact, Gould’s oral history reminded me of the director’s rushes at the end of Assayas’ “Irma Vep” — an unrestrained vision gone haywire, short circuited by the futile attempt to express grand and divine ideas in a conventional format. Tucci touches upon other themes as well, such as the difference between patronage and commercialism, the root of artistic inspiration, the responsibility of journalists for their subjects, etc. but they do not really go anywhere. When the “secret” is revealed, in a most nonchalant manner, by the closing captions of the film (the “secret” is actually multi-layered — there is another “secret” on the story surface, readily apparent just from the plot), a chill went down my spine. Consequently, it made me re-examine the whole story and although “Joe Gould’s Secret” is a good story, it isn’t the main story nor the most compelling one, or otherwise the film would have been called “Joe Mitchell’s Secret”. It’s puzzling why Tucci approached the story the way he did, but this movie is still a winner, and it’s nice to finally watch a film that is bloated with ideas. The detailed set-pieces of New York in the ’40s are also a treat to look at. Ian Holm gives the performance that is conspicuously remarkable, but it’s Stanley Tucci’s performance, which is nearly invisible next to Holm’s, that becomes more noteworthy upon reflection, particularly after pondering the meaning of the film’s closing captions.