No More Words
"Joe Gould was an odd and penniless and unemployable little man who came to the city in 1916 and ducked and dodged and held on as hard as he could for more than 35 years." So begins "Joe Gould's Secret," Joseph Mitchell's 1964 New Yorker profile of "the Samuel Pepys of the Bowery," an irascible, toothless bohemian who scammed his way through life by convincing people that he was working on a vast historical document called "An Oral History of Our Time." By 1964 Mitchell knew Gould's secret--that the "Oral History" was complete fabrication--but had decided to keep it to himself. "The Oral History was his life preserver," Mitchell wrote, "his only way of keeping himself afloat, and I didn't want to see him drown....It would be better for me to leave things as they were--up in the air."
The uneasy relationship between the two men has now been turned into a film directed by and starring the veteran supporting actor Stanley Tucci. It's impossible to begrudge Tucci his interest in the story: Mitchell was one of the 20th Century's finest writers, and his New Yorker pieces are layered with detail and pathos. Less easy to understand is why Tucci ever imagined that "Joe Gould's Secret" would translate into cinema. Mitchell was a biographer of lost Americana--street preachers, gypsies, and sideshow bearded ladies were his regular subjects--and his writing worked by the accumulation of carefully organized fact toward full-bodied portraiture. Film, even in its finest hour, skims the surface of character by illustrating only its outward manifestations. Reading Joseph Mitchell is like meeting an old friend for the first time; seeing Joe Gould's Secret on the screen is like passing a stranger in the street, momentarily wondering about him, and then moving on.
To the credit of his intentions, Tucci cleaves reverentially to the language and mood of Mitchell's Joe Gould stories. His film begins, as it should, with the first encounter between the writer and his bedraggled muse. Mitchell, who is played by Tucci as an unassuming Southern gentleman, expresses mild curiosity when he observes Gould (Ian Holm), a wild-eyed character in a ratty overcoat, pouring ketchup into a soup bowl in a Greenwich Village diner. Mitchell makes inquiries, hears of the oral history, and resolves to learn as much as he can about Gould, whom he romantically envisions as a Whitmanesque solitary wanderer. Before long, he is learning much more than he wanted to know; Gould shows up at Mitchell's office to request daily contributions to the "Joe Gould Fund" and to contribute the grueling minutiae of his life's history: his childhood as the scion of a wealthy New England family, his work as a phrenologist in North Dakota, and his fluency in the language of seagulls.
Holm, a capable character actor and not much more, makes Gould a first-class eccentric, prone to gin-soaked tantrums and endless digressions on the idiosyncrasies of Seagullese. But Joe Gould's Secret never really decides whether it is about Gould himself or Mitchell's ambivalent fascination with the man. The confusion is not unwarranted: The most memorable passage in "Joe Gould's Secret" has nothing to do with Gould, but rather with an imagined novel that Mitchell has been meaning to write. In a fit of melancholy, he recalls the novel and decides that perhaps Joe Gould's refusal to put anything down on paper is admirable after all: "One less book to clutter up the world, one less book to take up space and catch dust and go unread from bookstores to homes to secondhand bookstores and junk stores and thrift shops..." In the film, where Tucci expounds upon the nonexistent book at a cocktail party, the revelation that both men are floundering in futility doesn't have anywhere near the same poignance.
Tucci doesn't help the cause much, either, by filming in a style that is minimalist to the point of timidity. His camera lingers on Gould and Mitchell as they banter over martinis and smoldering ashtrays. The problem is that it never goes anywhere else. Even the streetscapes, though stocked with period detail, might as well have been shot on a California sound stage. Mitchell loved the dirty, desperate corners of New York City; it was the only place he felt wholly at home. Tucci's version thereof feels like "Greenwich Village circa 1940" by way of Central Casting.
For all its faults, however, Joe Gould's Secret does manage to work up to some quietly touching moments. There is one scene in which Mitchell, long after his fallout with Gould, goes to look for the man in the louse-ridden Village home where he has been holed up. Gould is gone, but a few dog-eared chapters from the Oral History are on the nightstand. Mitchell picks them up and examines the title of each: "The Death of Dr. Clarke Storer Gould." His face turns slack and he mutters, "God have pity on us all." When we next see the pair, they're walking together through the blooming garden of an upstate mental hospital. Gould, now cautious and disoriented, whispers to Mitchell that he might finally be able to write something. He won't, of course. He is dying, and the oral history--the brilliant scam that has kept him dodging for 30 years--is revealed as the fantasy of a tortured mind.
In a bizarre twist of fate, Mitchell also became famous for what he didn't write. After publishing "Joe Gould's Secret" in 1964, he continued to come into the office every morning for the next three decades. Between 1964 and his death three years ago, however, he never wrote another story. Some of his colleagues thought it a historic case of writer's block. Others speculated that perhaps the lesson he'd learned from Joe Gould--that all human endeavor is vanity--had so profoundly infected him that he'd chosen not to clutter the world's thrift stores any further. Upon returning from a screening of Tucci's well-intentioned folly, I searched for my secondhand, dog-eared copy of Mitchell's collected work. "Joe Gould's Secret" seemed even more darkly humorous and generously human than I had remembered it. It seemed right that Mitchell would have the last word. God knows he earned it.
Joe Gould's Secret starts Friday at the Uptown Theatre.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.