IFor a time in the 1980s, Richard Grenier was a stinky duck in the wrong pond: a more or less rightwinger reviewing movies for The New York Times. This was a problem, not to say an embarrassment. When Attenborough’s biopic Gandhi appeared in 1982, Grenier unkindly mentioned that the mahatma was a piss-drinker who slept naked if allegedly chastely with very young women who were purported to be his nieces, as well as a fellow who offered the helpful advice to Jews during the 1940s to die quietly. The newspaper of record for Very Tolerant Liberals might as well have had a primitive on board who celebrated Britain’s Falklands campaign, which in fact Grenier did. Soon evidence was found that in his days as a freelancer Richard Grenier sometimes said contradictory things about a movie for different publications. Oh, the shame. That was enough. He left The Times, returned to freelancing, and according to Wikipedia died in 2002 at the age of 68.
We met only once, at one of the soirees John Train used to hold in New York in the early ’80s. I’ve forgotten whether it was the one on Lyndon LaRouche, or Armand Hammer, or on our friends the Mujahideen who with CIA stingers shipped through Pakistan were chasing the Russians out of a soon-to-be-free Afghanistan. (Even in retrospect it’s not funny.) Grenier was a skinny, odd-looking fellow. I don’t remember if he had anything to say that afternoon. But his tyypewriter was busy.
The Marrakesh One-Two (1983) is a rollickingly mean novel. A screenwriter is having trouble coming up with a script for a biop of Mohammed. For one thing, it turns out Mohammed can’t be seen on screen; he is too holy. Neither can his family members, including the child bride; too holy. Then there are problems with the competing visions of the Prophet and Islam among the varied Arab state bankrollers. Do we leave in the harsher elements of Islam, the wife beating and chopping off of hands? Omar the producer says no, Mouna his fanatic (and oversexed) girlfriend wants Islamic purity and gore. Our screenwriter Burt reports, “The secret ambition was to have this movie a boffola not only in Egypt and Bangladesh, where everyone is dying of starvation anyway, but in the West, Goysville.” The book goes over the top fairly quickly. Much of the first-person account by Burt (author of the highly successful Biblical epic The Song of Jesus) is caustic fun. Of his Jesus film, Burt tells us, “[It] raked in all those shekels because of the knack I have with that kind of thing, an indefinable touch, that certain etwas. Yes, sir. Like when the camera vertical-panned down from Christ on the cross and there was Jimmy Stewart dressed as a Roman centurion and we were going to have him say, Surely this is the son of God. And suddenly it came to me, no by God. He should say VERILY, this is the son of God. And frankly I think that ‘verily’ made the picture. My, yes.”
A parallel plot involving the CIA is limp and reads like padding, as if the author discovered his satire couldn’t be sustained for 80,000 words. And Grenier tries here and there to have it both ways: satire and special pleading don’t combine well. The book in truth is a badly constructed hash.Burt is unkind to Islam. He’s droll discussing female genital mutilation and honor killings in Jordan, has a fine time ridiculing a Libyan who assures him Islam brings a message of peace, then thrusts his tongue into Burt’s mouth to prove it. Grenier did enough homework to quote chapter and sura. The novel makes me wish I’d gotten to know him.
Richard Grenier’s 1982 review in Commentary of The World According to Garp is available online. It’s clever and vicious. And it’s interesting to compare to current criticism.May 5 2017