A teapot filled with marbles that falls from the fridge and breaks. Leaves placed under the feet of a sick man confined to his bed. A broom brushing the tops of a man’s shoes, filling him with terror. These are the portents and prescriptions of the superstitions that drive the humorous, but still rather horrifying tale of a family plagued by the literal devil they know from L.A. Rebellion director Charles Burnett.
Burnett is best known as a chronicler of the African-American experience in his home city of Los Angeles. His 1978 debut feature, Killer of Sheep, is a somber look at the soul-deadening effect of poverty on a slaughterhouse worker from Watts and his own temptation to sin. His vibrant second film, My Brother’s Wedding (1983), again focuses on an L.A. family, with the clash between a ne’er-do-well and his striving older brother providing another type of African-American story. To Sleep With Anger, Burnett’s third feature, is his first to use professional actors, but the thread linking it to his earlier works remains strong. The folklore his parents and grandparents shared with him during his formative years offered him a different template for exploring the African-American community, one that allowed him to tell a horror story of his own that can easily join other cautionary tales passed through the generations.
To Sleep With Anger opens during a nightmare. Gideon (Paul Butler), a retired transplant to Los Angeles from the Deep South, sits in a chair as though posing for a portrait like the one of his ancestor hanging on the wall behind him. Burning Bush-like flames emerge from a bowl of fruit sitting on the table next to him. Soon, Gideon’s feet are on fire as well, and the flames lick at the legs of the wooden chair that supports him. When he awakens, he complains to his wife Suzie (Mary Alice) that he can’t find his toby, an amulet his grandmother gave him to ward off evil spirits. He then invites her unsuccessfully to join him in bed for an afternoon delight; this is the last time we’ll see Gideon feeling so frisky. Burnett is about to plunge him, the rest of the characters in To Sleep With Anger, and us into a world of superstition, family strife, and earthly minions of the devil working to snatch troubled souls at their most vulnerable.
The monster in the story is a genial elderly man from “back home” named Harry (Danny Glover) who shows up on Gideon’s doorstep the day after his nightmare after 30 years’ separation. Gideon and Suzie welcome him with open arms and tell him that he can stay as long as he likes. They introduce him to their oldest son Junior (Carl Lumbly) and pregnant daughter-in-law Pat (Vonetta McGee). Every time Pat tries to shake Harry’s hand, her unborn baby kicks her—a sure sign to us, if not to her, that something is rotten in the state of Harry. Gideon’s younger son, Babe Brother (Richard Brooks), is a lazy, unstable disappointment to his parents and the cause of frequent family arguments. He is married to Rhonda (Reina King), a real estate broker who detests her in-laws’ homespun ways, but not their services as babysitters; Babe Brother and Rhonda keep late hours working and partying, and frequently fetch their boy Sunny (DeVaughn Nixon) from Suzie and Gideon’s in the middle of the night.
Harry’s appearance and the steady introduction of a slew of down-home cronies who are more than willing to abet Harry’s attempts to corrupt Babe Brother with corn liquor and dice reminded me of the return of the ghostly lover of the grieving protagonist and his increasing disruption of her life in another 1990 film, Anthony Minghella’s Truly Madly Deeply. In the latter film, the emotional dysfunction that allowed in the supernatural mischief makers is obstinate, unresolved grief. In the same way, Gideon and his family are made vulnerable to Harry and his bad intentions not because of a lost toby, but because Gideon’s anger and disapproval fracture his relationship with Babe Brother and Rhonda and infect the rest of the family. It only takes Harry walking Gideon through a railroad depot, where Gideon has a vision of working like a slave to lay track, to awaken a deeper anger, one that lands him in a mysterious coma.
Burnett works slyly to illustrate how the accumulation of grievances or unintended consequences of seemingly harmless deeds can work like a magical curse to create an annus horribilis for anyone. Gideon’s fury with Babe Brother, as well as his sedentary lifestyle and fatty diet, suggest he is ripe for a stroke. Suzie’s nostalgia and overly compliant nature allow Harry to roost, and with Gideon out of commission, to decimate their flock of chickens and ruin their carefully tilled vegetable garden. Junior’s self-righteousness turns him from being his brother’s keeper to nearly being his brother’s killer. Babe Brother and Rhonda represent a couple who want too much too fast, easy pickings for a similarly inclined Harry.
Nonetheless, Burnett is serious about his fable. Harry, too, lost his toby decades before, and there’s no question that Burnett wants us to believe he is the devil. It is hinted that Harry murdered several people back home, and he proudly brandishes his weapon like an elderly Mack the Knife. He sets some very lascivious eyes on Linda (Sheryl Lee Ralph), an old girlfriend from back home who has been saved and who advises Suzie to poison Harry if she gets the chance. Linda is like a beautiful, white-haired, avenging angel, singing gospel songs that cut Harry to the quick. Harry eventually is defeated, and Gideon’s family is healed in a hilarious denouement that closes this tale in a celebratory manner.
Danny Glover has Harry’s oily manners and menace down to an exact science. Burnett said Glover was worried about being typecast playing older characters (he was 44 at the time), but he asked to read for Harry unprompted after spending some time with the script. Brooks plays Babe Brother with all the pain and anger of a child who doesn’t know how to do what’s expected of him and is condemned for it. When he finally asserts that his name is Sam, Samuel, he finally lets go of his flailing adolescence. Mary Alice, with the face of an angel, is particularly good in a scene where her old beau Okra (Davis Roberts) suggests that she should marry him if/when Gideon fails to recover because they are lodge brothers—her widening eyes and tight mouth show the emotional depths that her warmly superficial character rarely reveals. I also really enjoyed Reina King, who could have come off as a bitch supreme after sitting in her car in front of her in-law’s house during Sunday dinner, but who brings a lot more nuance to her largely self-involved character when Babe Brother really starts going off the rails.
Cinematographer Walt Lloyd’s rich colors that somehow manage to suggest sepia add to the fairytale trappings of this fantasy, and film editor Nancy Richardson shows the great timing that would boost her to a major career in this, her second feature. Most of all, Burnett creates a fulsome community of saints and sinners, chicken coops and pigeon cages, gold watches and rabbit’s feet—a colorful gumbo of African-American life that was rare to see on screens in 1990 and that remains all too rare to this day.
The immigrant experience has been fertile ground for many and sundry films throughout the decades, from David Butler’s Delicious (1931) and George Stevens’ I Remember Mama (1948), to Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans (1992) and James Gray’s The Immigrant (2014). Of course, the seminal immigrant film, especially with regard to young people, is West Side Story (1961). The parallels between the disaffected, semi-rootless youths from barely established immigrant families in New York and their Taiwanese counterparts in A Brighter Summer Day are very striking, indicating the universal problem of trying to adapt to an alien world. Where director Edward Yang’s first masterpiece differs from West Side Story is in its broad, intricate consideration of entire families of mainland Chinese uprooted by the ascendency of Mao Tse-tung and its examination of the transition from one set of cultural values—respect for authority and one’s elders—to another—Western individualism, emancipated youth, and possession-oriented consumerism. In addition, although there is a central love story of a sort in this film, it is not the enmity of gangs that pulls the lovers apart, but rather their conflicting values adrift in an unsettled and unsettling land.
The action revolves primarily around two rival gangs, the Little Park gang and the 217 gang; 14-year-old student Zhang Zhen, nicknamed Xiao (“little”) Si’r (Chen Chang), his parents, and four siblings; and Ming (Lisa Yang), a beautiful 13-year-old girl whose boyfriend and leader of the Little Parks, Honey (Hung-Ming Lin), has run off. The film takes place in 1960, a mere decade after Si’r’s family fled Shanghai in 1949. The Zhangs and other immigrants like them are still looking for a secure foothold in their new country. Mrs. Zhang (Elaine Jin), though a fully qualified university instructor in Shanghai, cannot seem to get certified in Taipei. Mr. Zhang (Kuo-Chu Chang) is a civil servant with a going-nowhere career. Their finances are shaky: they buy their groceries on credit from Uncle Fat (Zhuo Ming), who periodically goes on the warpath to collect what he’s owed, and treasure little but Mrs. Zhang’s good watch and the promises of one of Zhang’s colleagues that he can get them the good jobs they need to really feel secure. The Zhangs, of course, are not alone in their insecurity; Ming’s single mother (Ying-chen Chang) suffers from asthma and has lost at least one position, as well as a place to stay, because of her inability to do her housekeeping job. Their parents’ provisional status and free-floating anxiety has their children looking for a sense of belonging and status as gang members.
The film opens at night with the Little Park gang being trounced on their turf by the 217s. Holed up in a darkened school corridor, the gang discusses Honey’s abandonment and their vulnerability without him. Two of the gang members bring forward a captured 217 member. Honey’s brother Deuce (Wang Zongzheng) picks up a thick, wooden block and offers it to two younger boys to prove they are ready to run with the big boys. When they refuse to take the block, Deuce raises it and slams it hard against the captured boy’s head, knocking him unconscious and sending the young wannabes running. When the boy comes to, Deuce sends him back to his gang with a warning that the Little Park gang will avenge themselves. This sudden brutality is characteristic of what is to come, a sharp contrast with West Side Story’s poetic and relatively infrequent violence.
The main story centers on Si’r and his developing crush and eventual romance with Ming. He spies one night—and the vast majority of this film takes place at night—Sly (Hung-Yu Chen) making out with a girl who turns out to be Ming. Si’r keeps Ming’s secret, even naming another girl as the one he saw, because he knows she pines for Honey. Ming drops her guard with Si’r, seeing him as different from all the other guys who come sniffing around her, and their playful interactions form most of what little daytime activity there is. When Honey returns, Si’r gallantly steps aside like the honorable person his father has tried to teach him to be, even though he is already fairly obsessed with Ming. Time away from her is just filling time at the loathed night school where he talks back to and swears at his teachers and the administrators for their unjust treatment of him, flirting with expulsion.
Like most of the gang members, Si’r has a temper. The importance of saving face and the allure of weapons are all too common maladies of these teens and preteens. Living in houses abandoned by the Japanese, the boys regularly find knives, guns, and even a samurai sword hidden in the rafters—another culture’s detritus waiting for assimilation by these new Taiwanese. A young would-be singer, Cat (Chi-tsan Wang), croons transliterated American pop songs, especially those of Elvis Presley. Cat even receives an answer to a letter and tape he sent to The King saying how gratified he is that his music is so popular in such an isolated, unknown country.
Elvis might never have heard of Taiwan, but it’s clear that for Cat and his friends, the country is also largely hidden, a blank slate onto which they try to graft whatever identity they can. Wang accentuates the unknown, possibly unknowable Taiwanese culture though his almost exclusive use of medium shots and unusual framings, showing people and places half-hidden by window and door jambs, objects emerging from total darkness like ghostly manifestations, shadows of warriors slashing at their rivals in near-total darkness, empty rooms save for one honest soul bewildered to be incarcerated during the Kuomintang “White Terror” to root out Communist enemies of the Nationalist state.
Wang’s interest in this subculture was wide and deep, almost as though he was still trying to understand the place even 40 years after emigrating from Shanghai to Taiwan, a place he left and to which he finally returned. His four-hour film teems with more than 100 characters with speaking parts, including school administrators and teachers, a film crew and actors in a soundstage adjacent to where Si’r attends school, shopkeepers and restauranteurs, police interrogators, doctors and nurses, and many gang members with nicknames like Airplane, Diaper, Threads, and Baldie. Within the drama of the central story are incidents great and small that flesh out this marginal area of Little Park, Taipei. A young Little Park gang member is teased about consuming porn, which he denies reading; he is later seen trying to buy some at a street stall, but runs when he sees Ming and Si’r coming toward him. After they pass by, he goes right back to the stall to finish what he started. In another incident, the director of the film, who has been arguing with its tempermental star, sees Ming and invites her for a screen test—after all she’s a teenager who would fit the part of the young girl better than the actress who “doesn’t look a day under 40!”
Most poignant is the struggle of Mr. Zhang to maintain his beliefs. He blames himself for earning Si’r a major demerit by arguing with the school administrators about punishing Si’r unfairly. He truly believes in being a civil servant and that, in strangely American fashion, one can succeed through hard work and individual initiative. The heart-to-heart talks he has with Si’r every time they walk back from a disciplinary conference at school seem to me like the little Dutch boy trying to hold back the flood of social pressure he sees hovering over his son’s head. The tragedy of this family is that they have tried to be honest without realizing how unimportant in the grand scheme of things honesty truly is. Indeed, why not join a gang when the Communist leadership and the Kuomintang have them.
The notorious climax of the film extends the confusion of youth and the chasm that divides East and West. Si’r tries to please his father by studying to get into day school, and worries about the honor of all those he loves, especially Ming. Ming, on the other hand, runs toward Western values of self-determination. Despite the incongruously demure school uniform she wears throughout the film, she bounces from one boy to another and even tries to seduce her engaged doctor. Furious with Si’r’s jealousy and talk about her honor, she dismisses him as just another boy who wants to change her. At an age when girls often start to go underground under social pressure, she is wise to realize that when you are caught between two worlds, the only hope of survival is to cling stubbornly to your sense of self. Si’r’s answer to her self-assertion is as shattering as it is inevitable, a cry in the dark to the film’s title theme “Are You Lonesome Tonight.”
Previously unavailable for decades, A Brighter Summer Day has been restored by the World Cinema Foundation. It has been rumored that it will be released on the Criterion label and air on TCM on September 6 in the wee hours of the morning. Check your local listings to confirm.
Like a miniature, speeded-up version of the ’70s new wave that reinvigorated American cinema, the mid-1990s saw a flurry of excitement about the burgeoning independent film scene. Hollywood suddenly saw a mine of talent in the fringes as Sundance became the hottest spot in the film world following the triumphs there of Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino. Low-budget filmmaking no longer had to be a seamy zone for rejects and mercenaries, but could promise invention and a tidy profit as long as an audience remained hungry for this kind of storytelling. A lode of young and interesting filmmakers who had pieced works together on hopes and prayers suddenly gained access to major distribution and studio funds, and were quickly drawn into the big, mean world of commercial cinema. The scene didn’t really last very long, and quite a few of the new talents fell by the wayside, but others have proven to be the backbone of what’s left of serious American cinema. Paul Thomas Anderson made his name with a benighted debut film he called Sydney, but that a nervous studio renamed Hard Eight (1995). A fine, intimate work situated at the crossroads of crime drama and character study, Hard Eight didn’t prove to be a Reservoir Dogs (1992). Anderson recovered from that trial and decided to adapt a student film he’d made in 1988, The Dirk Diggler Story, a mockumentary about a fictional porn star. The resulting feature, Boogie Nights, proved to be ambitious and provocative. Most importantly, it was cunning in appropriating everybody’s pop culture memory in just the right way to get attention.
Anderson has since evolved into one of the most distinctive directors on the current film scene, but at the time he didn’t mind letting his roots show, annexing the same zone of retro fetishism and cineaste allusiveness Tarantino had explored, but skewing it to his own, more rarefied purpose. He unabashedly quoted masters, including Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese as well as more obscure classic cinema deities like Mikhail Kolotozov. But he also found the glory in the seamiest and most degraded types of cinematic achievement. Boogie Nights followed Scorsese’s Casino (1995) in making nostalgia for the barbed, seedy, lawless side of the ’70s cool again. Anderson took a chance with his subject matter that doesn’t seem like such a chance now largely because he took it: after ’80s conservatism and ’90 political correctness, delving back into the world of ’70s hedonism and the “golden age” of the pornographic film industry seemed doubly perverse. Anderson created a miniature genre of modern storytelling that gets off on the lost style of a past recreated in bright colours, whilst analysing the cultural shifts that buried both the best and the worst of that lost time.
The chief inspiration for Boogie Nights was the life of John Holmes, a superlatively endowed porn star who got himself blackballed by the industry for a time for his drug-addled unreliability and became entangled with criminal associates who probably drew him into a drug heist. They targeted a major dealer who repaid Holmes’ confederates in what became known as the Wonderland murders, whilst Holmes himself died of AIDS in 1988. Anderson’s take mimics Holmes’ grindhouse tragedy whilst changing its emphases and investing it with tinctures of parable and satire. Anderson’s seemingly outrageous intent proved only skin deep, as he avoided not just punitive censorship, but also presented the second variation on his obsessive theme of finding family in a hostile world, ironically locating that family within a realm usually painted as cruel and obscene. Shocking things do happen in the film, and the flaws and hypocrisies of the characters are often laid brutally bare. Yet the peculiar warmth Anderson feels for them, the quietly lucid humour he invests in their behaviour, and the acknowledgement of an adolescent joie de vivre unleashed in their private world made for Anderson’s most accessible work to date.
Anderson’s view of the era through pop-coloured glasses is cleverly justified by the media-created fetishes of its young hero, Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg), whose bedroom walls are a shrine to adolescent desire, from idolisation of Bruce Lee and kung-fu prowess to muscle cars and music heroes, with only a smattering of girly pictures. Eddie’s only special feature, his enormous penis, gets him laid often enough, so he craves fulfilment in other places, places his limited smarts can’t access. Eddie has hopes of finding entry into that bright and shiny world of celebrity and success and works at a flashy disco, Hot Traxx, run by Maurice Rodriguez (Luis Guzmán), where he’s surrounded by the fashionable and beautiful. Luck, or something like it, is on Eddie’s side when porn director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) enters Hot Traxx one night with his stable’s two finest fillies, Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) and Rollergirl (Heather Graham). Jack spots Eddie across the crowded dance floor, sensing something about the lad, whose slightly naïve look doesn’t prevent him thinking Jack is another old perv who wants to take a gander at his wang. Eddie’s life in his parents’ home is quickly revealed to be excruciating, and a critical explosion of contemptuous rage by his mother (Joanna Gleason) drives Eddie to leave and run straight into Jack’s arms, where he joins Amber and Rollergirl as part of a pick-up nuclear family. Eddie soon proves as close to a natural in the business as it’s ever seen, and takes a stage name that comes to him as a vision emblazoned in neon: Dirk Diggler.
Anderson presents much of Boogie Nights as an extended fantasia where the kinky energy and specific needs of these aberrant people are channelled into powerhouse success that makes their dreams, however tawdry, come true. Anderson’s simplest yet most radical idea was to invert the usual moral lessons of stories set in such a milieu: as long as the characters stick to the basic understandings of their “family,” they survive and prosper. The familial relationship of Jack, Amber, Dirk, and Rollergirl is rendered especially perverse when one notes that all of them have sex with one another, save for Jack and Dirk. But most of the bad that happens to them is imposed by the big, wicked world beyond their hermetic life, where they’re mere delusional misfits, and when they try to reach beyond its limits, they are swiftly and mercilessly punished. Boogie Nights therefore explores a similar idea to Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994), which likewise viewed the rock bottom of the Hollywood totem pole as a place where society’s rejects can find fellowship, though with an in-built irony that these aren’t exceptional artists, but rather people who have gotten lucky mining a seam of gold nobody else will touch.
Jack entices Eddie with a monologue that explains not merely the immediate satisfactions of his business, but a yearning for loftier achievements—Jack’s desire to make a movie that can hold his audience from the raincoat brigade with actual dramatic values, and thus achieve respectability, not such a ludicrous ambition in the days of Emmanuelle (1974). Anderson thus used the golden-age porn scene as a way to comment on Hollywood and the filmmaking world in general, glimpsing the pretences of purveyors of the more elevated form through the ambitions of the least. Dirk proves to be the catalyst for Jack’s dream, as he becomes not just an instant star that Jack can build more ambitious productions around, but comes up with a great idea to make just such a movie as Jack dreams of. With stable mate Reed Richards (John C. Reilly), Dirk thinks up a hero named Brock Landers, a cross between James Bond and John Shaft and an actualisation of all Dirk’s fantasies about achieving multifarious grandeur as savvy jetsetter, streetwise tough guy, and legendary super-stud.
The warm embrace of Jack’s world has a duplicitous quality, as it offers freedom, but only in stasis. Those who try to move away from its orbit quickly discover how inimical the outside world is. This Garden of Eden clearly has its own serpents lurking from the start, too. Jack’s production manager Little Bill (William H. Macy) is quietly tormented by his wife’s (Nina Hartley) wholehearted engagement with the hedonistic lifestyle around her, a subplot that seems wryly comedic in portraying marital misinterpretation of modern licence, but soon reveals a cruel streak driving emasculated pathos to extremes. Horner’s backer, “the Colonel” James (Robert Ridgley, who had played Jack Horner in The Dirk Diggler Story) is the very image of the kind of sleaze who annexes ’70s permissiveness for his own unsavoury ends, whilst maintaining a façade of prosperous bonhomie. He first appears at one of Jack’s epic pool parties with a painfully thin, barely pubescent model in tow (Amber Hunter), and within a few minutes, the girl has OD’d on a bad batch of cocaine brought by another of Jack’s guests, who freaks out over the limp form with blood streaming out of her nose. The Colonel has his driver dump her outside a hospital. Later, the Colonel is arrested and imprisoned, unsurprisingly, for keeping a collection of child pornography, a sin which even the forgiving Jack can’t abide. The Colonel explains all to Jack through prison glass after he’s been arrested, Jack’s face screwing up in rueful fury and shutting himself off from the Colonel’s curiously naïve pleas. Cocaine proves to be Dirk’s dark muse, making him grandiose, paranoid, and intermittently impotent, eventually destroying his partnership with Jack after he feels threatened by a potential rival in Johnny Doe (Jonathan Quint). Dirk and Reed are drawn by a friend, stripper Todd Parker (Thomas Jane), into a drug-fuelled crime after their attempts to break into music are disastrous; the allure of easy cash breaks down what little good sense they have.
Boogie Nights is such a crowded, dazzling, busy film that it demands multiple viewings to comprehend every trick it pulls off. Anderson’s script resembles a short story collection bundled into an ingenious whole, a stunt that feels intent on mimicking Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993) but with all-original material. The storylines are gleaned from real histories from the porn scene, but transmuted by imagination into something very different from the kind of roman-a-clef melodrama the process implies. Boogie Nights’ structure resembles Altman’s communal, multicharacter zones, but the style—a relentless, experiential push—owes far more to Scorsese, and particularly Goodfellas (1990), including the famous Copacabana tracking shot and cocaine-fuelled paranoia sequence. Anderson’s appropriation of Scorsese’s keynotes takes them a step further, charging them with encompassing force. The film’s first half is replete with dancelike tracking shots and rhythmically edited sequences that bind the criss-crossing and interaction of his characters into synergistic panoramas. Anderson uses steadicam shots that pace through Jack’s and Eddie’s houses to communicate a sense of open communality and functioning life. His camera pirouettes often pay off in punchlines like the whole Horner cast dancing Saturday Night Fever style upon the Hot Traxx dance floor, unified in the flashy, vivacious glory of their moment. Or Eddie’s early return home, when Anderson’s camera swivels 360, noting his festooned idols with a rock-and-roll version of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” blaring on sound, turning his gauche fantasies into contemporary worship.
As well as offering a multifaceted insight here into Eddie’s mindscape and the culture that defines him, Anderson finds a fun, hip way to communicate an idea that’s obsessed him more gravely in There Will Be Blood (2007) and The Master (2012) that in America, business and the wares it propagates are religion—except that Eddie is a worshipper, whereas the protagonists of the later works are ministers. Boogie Nights’ vein of comedy moves smoothly from observational wryness to outright satire and then to pitch-black absurdity. All of Anderson’s films have a comedic edge, but usually it’s buried more deeply and rendered with a queasier tone, whilst Boogie Nights retains a larkish quality even as it takes turns toward seething darkness. Indeed, it gains power because these two impulses are entwined, mostly sourced in characters who have varying degrees of sweet dumbness or cluelessness about how to act in the world. Dirk’s oblivious side, his and Reed’s initial competitiveness and their later, mutual, blinkered boosting, offer character comedy laced with warnings about how badly they’ll fare when they try to go it alone, paying off in hilarious vignettes of the pair trying to start a recording career, wielding cringe-inducing cock-rock and wheezing off-key renditions of power rock anthems (Stan Bush’s “The Touch,” actually written for The Transformers: The Movie, 1986, never knew what hit it). Anderson’s deep lexicon of such half-forgotten pizzazz informs this pastiche of retro media artefacts. Boogie Nights may well have created a proliferating contemporary aesthetic dedicated to such recreations, chasing the elusive texture of those artefacts.
The film’s funniest vignettes are built around that mimicry, in Amber’s short film about Dirk, the solitary scene actually depicting the film crew at work, and the glimpses of the Brock Landers movies. These vignettes are precise in their reconstruction of weak edits, bygone methods of hype, wooden acting, and try-hard charm, reflecting back through a distorted mirror the way time can turn even the most outré material into amusing, deracinated relic at best or camp at worst (the stilted way Moore recites the line, “This is a giant cock!” deserved some kind of award on its own). And yet Boogie Nights was and is much more than a retro parody. Andersons’s career-long fascination with Americana and the peculiarities of subcultures are articulated with obsessive detail to a degree that borders on anthropology. The recreation here of the late ’70s vibe, from the tummy-hugger shirts to the fake-wood-panelled rooms, provides the surface credulity whilst articulating Anderson’s fascination with lifestyle as a mode through which his characters as citizens in a consumerist society express themselves, their desires, worldviews, even philosophical and religious impulses, ideas that would culminate in The Master, where religion, business, and lifestyle are all fused by the great American guru. At first, having cool things is Dirk’s religion, but Dirk, a seed in the same soil that produces the haute-capitalist brutality of Daniel Plainview and the transcendental hucksterism of Lancaster Dodd, giddily celebrates his victory at an adult film award ceremony by rejoicing in how his films have helped people, liberating them from sexual repression, his success now a way for everyone to achieve happiness.
Anderson’s nimbleness in avoiding depicting the very business that concerns him is cunning, turns necessary self-censorship into a game of concealment played with the audience until the very final scene, when Dirk’s dick is suddenly seen in all its glory. By then, the all-important penis is regarded not in action, as the weapon of culture-changing, orgasm-inducing potency that could link it to pagan phallic art, but presented like the kind of consumer object Dirk himself adores: he finally learns and accepts a not-so-pleasant truth, that his body is his only commodity. The one sequence depicting actual porn photography makes a show of its own evasiveness, by emphasising instead the transmutation of low-rent reality into mythology, via the wonderment, ranging from envy to lust, of the onlooking crew, and the filmmaking process itself. Moreover, the plot of the movie being shot sarcastically reflects the plot of Boogie Nights, as Dirk plays a young man auditioning for a porn producer played by Amber and finding immediate favour. Anderson’s obsession with the theme of master/pupil, father/son relations is here given its gentlest variation by turning Jack into the gruff, almost biblical patriarch and protector of his flock and Dirk into the prodigal son who falls from grace when he gets too big for his breaches, wanders the desolate wilderness for a while, then contritely returns to beg forgiveness.
Whilst Dirk’s story anchors the film, the galaxy of characters around him vie for attention, cast by life as well as by Jack as supporting players. They vary from comic relief, like Reed and TT, to characters of tragic dimensions, including Little Bill, Amber, whose ex-husband uses her profession as a barrier to her seeing their son, and Scotty J. (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a chubby, schlubby aide on the film crew who falls head over heels for Dirk. Anderson mostly avoids the doll’s house aesthetic this brand of Altman-inspired filmmaking often devolves to when it comes to his gallery of types, though he does get a little cute and unavoidably scant with some of his characterisations. Becky Barnett (Nicole Ari Parker) was supposed to allow exploration of the domestic abuse many former porn starlets suffered once they tried to settle down with men outside the business, but with that subplot cut, she simply seems to be written out of the film when she proves to be superfluous. Don Cheadle’s Buck Swope, a hi-fi expert with a day job as well as one of Jack’s stars, is a black guy with a mysterious predilection for country music, a touch that might have been far too precious. But Anderson is even able to invest his tale with intricate meaning, as this joke about his character both highlight’s Anderson’s interest in lifestyle and self-definition and deepens when Buck finds himself cold-shouldered by banks for loans to start an electronics store, a business he knows inside out, as the Moral Majority backlash begins and his past stymies his future. Anderson somehow imbues most of the character vignettes with lodes of power that come out of nowhere, startling moments like Scotty tearfully repeating “I’m a fucking idiot!” after coming on to unresponsive Dirk, and Amber bawling after a custody hearing where her ex, John Doe, brands her as a scarlet woman — such moments are glimpsed and then shied away from, as if with a sense of guilt at having accidentally seen such scenes of exposed pain and humanity. Rollergirl drops out of high school, bewildered by an exam and sexually insulted by a classmate (Kai Lennox), and completely reinvents herself as a media creation who quite literally never takes off her roller skates.
After the relatively straightforward realism evinced in Hard Eight, Anderson’s rare gift for constructing intensely rhythmic, intricately detailed cinema emerges here. The tableaux-like set-pieces in the film’s first half, the summery pool party driven by a wandering camera that acts like a seemingly casually observant visitor who’s eye is attracted by various vignettes and then a bikini-clad bottom right into a pool (quoting Kolotozov’s legerdemain in I Am Cuba, 1964, and like that film depicting the end of an exploitative Eden). The fateful New Year’s Eve tragedy later in the film is an even more intricate nexus of staging and exposition. Moreover, such scenes depict how the characters connect, or fail to, and make choices about how to deal with life, from Scotty’s masochistic self-abuse to Little Bill’s homicidal explosion, and Buck connecting with sweet-natured costar Jessie St. Vincent (Melora Walters); all are not just linked but entwined with a cosmological sense of human becoming and failing. Amidst the microcosmic events that affect the lives of their employees, Jack and the Colonel and rival porn producer Floyd Gondolli (Philip Baker Hall, crucial actor of Anderson’s first three films) talk about what’s about to make the macrocosm shift. Gondolli warns Jack that video is about to change the porn industry, a notion Jack rejects vehemently as the death of what little pretence to artistry their industry has. From today’s perspective, with the internet having slaughtered porn as an industry, there’s some irony in this now, but also Anderson was also probably considering the first rumblings of the digital filming movement in the late ’90s and its looming impact on the art form he loves, couched in the terms of a character defending what craftsman’s self-respect he has. The New Year’s motif might have seemed excessive, and yet Anderson finally makes time itself and the inevitable shifts it causes part of the texture here, concluding with Little Bill’s murder-suicide as the bang that quite literally ends the ’70s and shifts the tenor of the film.
Perhaps Anderson’s signature directorial touch, an extended filmic movement intercutting depictions of the characters spiralling in islets of behaviour that see them push to hysterical extremes before hitting epiphanies, was first offered here in the film’s last third. Anderson entwines exiled Dirk, Jack, Amber, and Rollergirl hitting rock bottom in varying ways, from Dirk foray into male prostitution ending in a gay bashing, to Jack and Amber trying their hand at a kind of prototypical reality television as they ride about L.A. and pick up a random male to have sex with Rollergirl. Their lucky man proves to be the classmate whose teasing drove Rollergirl out of school, and when he perform badly, he insults her and Jack. Jack loses control and beast him to a bloody pulp, and Rollergirl gets a few of her own kicks in. The two acts of violence here are mutual—Jack and Rollergirl lashing out at an emissary of the world that absorbs their product but disdains them, and Dirk being singled out as a pervert to be punished. Michael Penn’s scoring of this movement, a low, throbbing, urging drone with chimes, as if time is ticking down toward some doomsday, is particularly great. Anderson charts two diverse reactions in his characters, as Dirk tries to prove himself in the outside world whilst Amber and Rollergirl retreat into a haze of drugged-up, mother-daughter mind-melding and decide they don’t want to leave a room within the safe confines of Jack’s house.
Degradation segues into confrontations with death and crime. Buck, caring for a very pregnant Jessie, enters a bakery only for a gunfight to break out around him when an armed robber enters: Buck is left splattered with strangers’ blood—he wears an angelic white suit, in a darkly arch Kubrickian joke—and frozen amidst corpses, but sees a chance to exit his personal perdition by snatching up the bag full of cash the robber dropped. Such an utterly random/contrived twist anticipates Anderson’s fascination with both narrative capriciousness and classical theatrical devices like the deus-ex-machina, as would again be used in the climax of his follow-up, Magnolia (1999). Boogie Nights’ late swerve into more familiar crime territory stymies to a certain extent the film’s masterful examination of its characters and their unusual world. But nobody could really expect Anderson to resist the ready-made climax the Wonderland case provided, albeit still subjected to his wayward sense of humour and gift for creating cringe-inducing situations. Todd talks Dirk and Reed into joining his hare-brained scheme to sell fake cocaine to dealer Rahad Jackson (Alfred Molina), and then springs his actual intent to rob Rahad’s fortune.
The careful construction here as the deal becomes increasingly uneasy is beautiful, punctuated by precisely employed yet random-feeling details that work on the nerves like nails on a blackboard, in Rahad’s hopped-up friendliness and the firecrackers let off at random by his young Chinese houseguest (Joe G.M. Chan). Rahad swans about in a kimono, life scored by the blaring mix-tapes he makes in objection to the song-order artists impose on their work in yet another form of lifestyle self-management. The episode combusts with Todd and Rahad’s bodyguard (B. Philly Johnson) ending up very dead, and Rahad chasing Dirk and Reed off into the night with a shotgun, deadly crime and high farce commingling. Dirk returns to Jack and is accepted after admitting his faults, making for a suitably mythic catharsis. Dirk is a “big shining star” for all his foolishness. The final scene, an obvious tribute to the simultaneously pathetic and learned vignette of Jake LaMotta at the end of Raging Bull (1980), sees Dirk restored and reciting dialogue in character that once again nudges the theme of the film. Dirk may never become as slick and knowing as Brock Landers, but he has found some peculiar wisdom.
The Doors, the psychedelic blues band formed by Jim Morrison, Ray Manzarek, Bobby Krieger, and John Densmore in 1966, had the stuff of the movies encoded in their music. Morrison and Manzarek were former film students, having studied under Josef von Sternberg, of all people, at UCLA, and their music, with its variable tempos, wildly imagistic and fragmented lyrics, and emphasis on creating aural atmosphere, probably shares more with the churning imagery of Sternberg, Fellini, Paradjanov, Cocteau, Anger, and other druids of cinema than with Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, in spite of Morrison’s poetic pretences. The band’s best songs, like “The End,” “Riders on the Storm,” “Five in One,” or “LA Woman,” seem innately cinematic, filled with word-pictures and aural landscapes plucked from imaginary epics and subterranean relics or designed to fuel some roaring montage spliced together by some overheated future movie savant: indeed, Francis Coppola did just that with Apocalypse Now (1979). Morrison’s brief, bristling, calamitous spell of fame became one of the most immediate reference points for the mystique of rock ’n’ roll and late ’60s hedonism for anyone inclined to lionise or denigrate either, and Morrison’s stature is the very image of the Dionysian, doomed rock hero.
I remember very well when I first saw The Doors, Oliver Stone’s retelling of that essential mythos: it was in high school, on a rainy afternoon when sports had been washed out and the need for a video, any video, to be shoved in the VCR to keep us trapped teens entertained produced some kid’s copy of the film. With no teachers about to turn it off, there we all sat reclining in delight at the spectacle of raw excess and messy creation. For us youth living in a declining mining town where futures both sure and exciting were in short supply, we may have listened to Nirvana or Oasis or the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, but it was The Doors we saw whenever we fantasised about stardom’s carnal crack-up ever after. 1991 was a banner year for Oliver Stone—he had already staked his claim to being American popular culture’s most respected firebrand with his revisionist-history tome JFK, and brought out The Doors mere months afterwards. It was a combination punch of formidable achievement, one that made Stone the one filmmaker everyone was talking about, in those few remaining days before some guy named Quentin Tarantino debuted his first movie at Sundance. JFK is often cited as Stone’s singular achievement, but The Doors vies with Talk Radio (1988) as my personal favourite of his works. The Doors was a troubling success for many rock and film fans, as it went through the motions of providing a Morrison biopic but seemed more intent on sensory overload than in analysing its antihero.
Stone’s psychologically superficial treatment of Morrison feels deliberate, partly because Stone clearly wanted to use Morrison as a totemic figure to explore the spirit of an era, an exemplar for a generation and a fatefully schizoid quality in his society. Much the same as Kennedy’s assassination let the director shake loose every bizarre subculture and paranoiac perversity in the America of his youth, so Morrison offered a spirit-guide to explore the pungent, sensory-distorting effect of drugs and the even more pernicious effect of American success. He could also be a personal avatar, for Stone seems to have related intensely to another son of the establishment who found himself in deeply resentful conflict with that establishment, and as a intelligent and cultured man who surrendered refinement for immediacy, intimacy for effect, class for passion, intellect for gut feeling. Plus, legend has it both men did incredible quantities of drugs. The Doors exemplifies a controversial, but legitimate approach to the artist biopic, turning the artist’s life into one of their own creations viewed inextricably through that prism. Thus, Morrison becomes his own ranting id-man, spirit-conjurer and magician alternating with sacrificial angel, all painted in mad psychedelic hues. In spite of its title, The Doors is more about Morrison than the rest of the band, and even more about the idea of Morrison and the band than whatever they were in reality. And that’s a good thing.
The film’s instant impact on the popular consciousness met with some nimble satire, for instance, the parody in Wayne’s World 2 (1994) (“Who are you?” “I’m Jim Morrison.” “And who’s he?” “A weird, naked Indian.”), but also has influenced some of the better rock ’n roll movies—small roster that it is—like Floria Sigismondi’s hugely underrated The Runaways (2011). Stone was lucky enough to have young Val Kilmer around to play Morrison, with his strong resemblance to one of the most masculinely beautiful ’60s rock icons. Kilmer had moved toward stardom playing a sub-Elvis hero in Top Secret! (1984), mocking the affectations of the early rock star; Stone had him create a similar performance, except in deadly earnestness. Stone and Kilmer’s Morrison is a guy living inside out, writing lyrics in speech and seeking prelapsarian formlessness in singing, a fantasy vision of the bardic ideal. Stone latches on to one of Morrison’s possibly part-apocryphal recollections from childhood, of driving past a car accident that left dead and injured Native American itinerant workers sprawled on a highway’s edge, as a motif that inflects the whole film, just as it was a constant refrain in Morrison’s writing.
Stone’s vision of his hero is protean, almost a man without a centre but a mass of impulses and creative urges. The young Morrison is glimpsed as a beatific Peter Pan smiling at his randomly chosen lady love from a tree, exemplifying the romantic hippie spirit, just as much as he later becomes the ranting ogre of proto-punk and the calm philosopher-poet he may have always wanted to be. Morrison drops out of film school along with Manzarek (Kyle MacLachlan) after his arty student film is sniffed at by fellow students and his teacher (not supposed to be Sternberg, but a square played by Stone himself), and treads through Venice Beach painted in reefs of hallucinogenic colour and gleaming, idealised beauty, where even vagrants gathered about a fire whilst a harmonica player wails the blues has the gilt of epic import, a place where Morrison can romance Pamela Courson (Meg Ryan) under swirling stars and a time-lapse moon. Morrison singing a few random lyrics to Manzarek on the beachfront inspires immediate action in perfect obedience to the free-form energy and multitudinous references of the time and place, and within minutes they’re bashing out crude versions of future hits in a Hollywood bungalow with laid-back Krieger (Frank Whaley) and tetchy Densmore (Kevin Dillon), hurling “Light My Fire” together with the same enthusiasm of Garland and Rooney putting on a show. Stone’s chain-lightning, easy-as-can-be approach to the coming together of Morrison and Courson and The Doors as conquering band does nod to classic showbiz films. I love the crash cut from Krieger tapping out time to start “Light My Fire” to shots of LA nightlife with the song erupting in finished form as instant theme to a nocturnal wonderland.
Stone paints this as an Edenic moment for Morrison and his camp, unfettered idealism and life-hunger immediately earning reward, perhaps the writer and filmmaker’s good-humoured mockery of the way things seem to come much more easily to (some) musicians. But Stone is also not interested in the usual business of artist biopics, which is proving that their heroes are ordinary people who suffer and bleed for trying; the extraordinariness of Morrison is his subject, the Lawrence of Arabia of rock, working up followers with messianic passion and then finding himself going mad from such vision and power. He’s Lizard King in the world Stone left behind to make his tilt at good patriotism as detailed in Platoon (1986), and later on, Morrison’s admission that he might be having a nervous breakdown is backed up by footage fresh from Vietnam, as if he’s a psychic sponge for the half-submerged rot of the moment. “Let’s plan a murder or start a religion,” Morrison suggests as the band and their girls strut their embryonic cool through the LA evening, and he plays crowd cheerleader atop a car with stars spinning above him as the acid kicks in and turns his up-with-people chants into slurred onomatopoeia. Then, quick digression to the desert for some peyote, the band recast as seekers in search of nullifying experiences treading the sands like they’re on their way to the sandy orgy of Zabriskie Point (1970).
Stone started his movie career as a screenwriter and evolved into a filmmaker with an uncommonly vibrant, even assaultive style redolent of great talent and messy ambition. His major works of the late ’80s and ’90s blended traditional Hollywood effects with techniques borrowed from documentaries, TV news, silent expressionism, experimental film, Soviet realism, psychedelia, and sometimes even animation to create a visually rhapsodic, unsubtle but dynamic, associative form of cinema. The Doors subsumes the classic rise-to-fame biopic and layers it with Stone’s vivid, tendentious connections, like projecting an ancient Greek poet’s bust over Morrison’s face before fading into the regulation montage moment of the singer hero surrounded by the covers of magazines featuring his image, ramming home the idea Morrison himself was happy to embrace that the modern pop star was the classical poet-warrior reinvented. Stone offers a corny, but dazzling islet of psychedelia, as the band treads into the wastelands to get high. Morrison, in the depths of his own fantasy mindscape, follows the Indians he saw dead under mysterious eclipses, chased by black raptors and venturing into a cave to be reborn as crowd-mesmerising shaman. He emerges with “The End” as new anthem, with its Oedipal killer-hero embodied by a bald Indian who reappears throughout the film, most notably as a dancing hippie with a third eye painted on his forehead, constant reminder of Morrison’s dance with death and thematic link with JFK, where the same actor played one of the president’s assassins.
Stone’s visuals often genuinely tap the hallucinatory, half-banal, half-incantatory edge of the band’s songs and the imagistic obsessions in Morrison’s work to a degree of intensity that’s very rare in the artist biopic, calling back to the wildest moments of Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers (1970) and Savage Messiah (1972) or even, proportions maintained, Andrei Tarkovsky’s more remote and austere, but equally imaginative, panoramic Andrei Rublev (1966), as the directors seem to have interiorised the visions formed in their head whilst listening to the music and spat out the terrain created within. The camerawork, by Robert Richardson, swims in relentless motion, tracking and crane shots executed in sensual leaps surveying dense frescolike depictions of counterculture nightlife littered with intricate lighting and colour effects. The band’s first performance of “The End” in the Whiskey a Go Go sees Morrison achieving the orgiastic tötentanz that quickly becomes the band’s stock in trade, even cliché, but turns the eyes of everyone, even the go-go dancers, onto the front man who seems to recreate primal scream therapy onstage and then die Orpheus-like, sprawled on stage with women tearing at his carcass. Club management (represented, amusingly, by Eric Burdon) isn’t so happy about the obscene punchline of the song and casts The Doors onto the street, where they are greeted by Elektra Records chief Jac Holzman (Mark Moses) and producer Paul Rothchild (Michael Wincott) with the offer to make a record, which brings Morrison down from his performance high just long enough to get something done.
Stone’s reputation as American cinema’s most ambitious and aware filmmaker in the period was always rather belied by the blatancy of his concepts and messages, a tendency to push a rather obvious and tendentious idea with a force that could become mesmerising and tedious in equal measure. Such a tendency for me significantly hampers the likes of Platoon (1986) JFK, Natural Born Killers (1994), and Nixon (1995), and is certainly apparent in The Doors. But at least here it suits the theme, which is the texture of a pop culture experience, never greatly amenable to nuance, and Stone’s fascination with the idea of Morrison as a man who disintegrated under the frustration of gaining success that offers only a compromised freedom to energise but not radicalise. Stone’s print-the-legend depiction of the rock scene has been lambasted a lot over the years and with some good reason, and yet it’s worth noting that a scene like the early jam that pieces together “Light My Fire” actually gives a good idea of the process behind it in a way very few films about this sort of thing do, like, for instance, Control (2007), where the band just somehow turns up in the recording studios with its sound already burnished. Considering how prosaic most such films are, no matter Stone’s bollocks, I admire what he does here—even having Morrison dance on stage with ghost medicine men as naked hippies flounce around a bonfire—because he’s not trying to capture the surface reality of performance, but his idea of it, the joy of liberation in a stifled and technocratic America.
Of course, Stone can’t resist laying Morrison’s self-destructive edge down to a mixture of rank Freudian alienation from his parents, and the more intriguing notion of his hero as spiritual grease trap for his society’s wrongs, kicked off by the intense, formative experience of the bleeding labourers that anoints him as witness and soothsayer. Stone turns the parade of celebrities in the background into moving waxworks, as Ed Sullivan is gruesomely caricatured as a phony, old vampire and Andy Warhol (Crispin Glover) is anti-personality at the eye of a poseur storm and prophet of the post-reality age. Stone stages the band’s encounter with Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd as a descent into the underworld, where West Coast hallucinogenic inspiration sours under the influence of New York decadence and hard drugs. Morrison nervously pleads with his bandmates not to be left alone to face Warhol, as if he senses an oncoming ordeal he can’t face, but swiftly gives into this pint-sized Satan’s temptations, as Nico (Kristina Fulton) goes down on him in an elevator before Pamela’s stoned disbelief. A photographer (Mimi Rogers) takes iconic snaps of Morrison and repeats the siren call of stand-alone stardom. A press conference alternates between Morrison’s fantasy image of himself reproducing Bob Dylan’s shaded, combative cool and his slightly bleating, defensive actuality, hooking up with an inquisitive journalist and Wiccan, Patricia Kennealy (Kathleen Quinlan), who successfully prescribes drinking blood as the cure for limp dick and later marries him in a Wicca ceremony (officiated by the real Kennealy).
Kennealy fatefully disturbs Morrison however, as she digs up the parents he claimed were dead, complete with the not-incidental detail that his father, an admiral in the U.S. Navy, was heavily involved in the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and a cop’s intervention in their charged conversation before a show sparks one of Morrison’s infamous stage demonstrations, whipping up the audience against the patrolling cops and getting the show shut down. Morrison’s relationship with Pamela spins into increasingly fraught and mutually wounding territory, counterpointing level-headed Manzarek’s union with his wife Dorothy (Kelly Hu), whilst Morrison’s peevish displays increasingly infuriate Densmore. Pamela has her own sense of humour, introducing herself to a customs man as “Pamela Morrison, ornament,” but shares her husband’s appetites far too much to counterbalance his collective of enablers, including Warhol actor Tom Baker (Michael Madsen) and omnivorous ratbags Dog (Dennis Burkley) and Cat (Billy Idol). An attempt to throw a party for Ray and Dorothy after their wedding devolves into a shambles when Morrison gets stoned, Kennealy comes to call, and Pamela lets loose, sparking a bratty tantrum by Morrison that sees a roast duck stomped on and Morrison posing as Richard of Gloucester to Pamela’s Lady Anne, begging her to skewer and end him or accept the consequences of living with him. Stone’s love of concussive romance pitching half-mad men against haplessly loyal women (see also Heaven & Earth, 1994; Alexander, 2004) is certainly at play here, even if, true to form, he can’t help but make stuff up to make his visions of Morrison and Courson’s relationship more intense, like having him lock her in a cupboard and set fire to it with lighter fluid after catching her shooting smack with a suss Italian aristocrat (Costas Mandylor). Come on baby, light my fire, indeed.
One could again justifiably abuse Stone for buying Morrison’s postures as authentic, in presenting him as a man constantly swinging between the poles of the beatific world love of psychedelic rock and satanic troughs, looking forward to the brutalism of punk and heavy metal because of his psychic radar, rather than as a successful guy living the high life whose pharmaceutical indulgences fuel wild emotion swings. But in Stone’s eye there might as well be no distance between man and art, because to an artist like Stone, so often fired by both biography and autobiography, it’s absolutely true. The film’s proper climax is an epic restaging of the infamous 1970 Florida concert that saw Morrison indicted for obscenity. Densmore, already quietly infuriated by overhearing a rock journo sneer at their recent work, is at a fine pitch of anger at Morrison, who after arriving late and soused, starts abusing the crowd (“You’re all fucking slaves!”) with his inclusive demagoguery turning increasingly to septic provocation, and pretending to pull his prick out. The show climaxes in an eruptive return to form as Morrison hurls himself into the crowd and bellows “Break on Through” in a churning mass of wild humanity, the spirit of death hanging on to his shoulder all the while. This is a dazzlingly staged moment that exemplifies Stone and Richardson’s technical bravura.
The film as a whole is top-heavy with such audiovisual jazz, from Morrison crowd-surfing, picked out by a spotlight as hipster Jesus floating on his human Galilee, to a David Lynch-esque, languorous dolly shot closing in on Morrison in a red-lined recording booth, an islet in a sea of dark, slowly revealing Pamela giving him a blow job to coax him to an enthusiastic performance. One of my favourite shots in the film is near-antithesis to the rest of the sturm und drang, as Morrison strolls on the Venice beachfront in the early morning after one of his most rapturous concert performances, overlord now a burnt-out exile from his own home and wellsprings. Some anticipation here of another moment I love in an underrated rock film, Gus Van Sant’s Last Days (2004), where the similarly doomed, rootless and exiled artist hovers in the shadows of the kind of underground, defiant performance that once gave him community and purpose. That shot comes after of one of Stone’s loopiest, most dynamic sequences, as he furiously crosscuts between Morrison on stage and his mad reaction to Pamela taking junk with the Italian climaxing with the closet incident, and concluding with a visual quote from that eternal touchstone of films about American hubris, Citizen Kane (1941), reproducing the camera swoop Welles used to punctuate Kane’s apotheosis as political rabble-rouser on stage. This time, Morrison repeats his earlier cry of “I am the Lizard King – how many of you really know you’re alive?” but not as connective declaration, but rather as spacy star self-worship.
The film’s problematic nature is so closely linked to its achievements. The plotless rambling through this historical copse seems at first glance egregious, yet is actually fecund in a manner I appreciate as an attempt to prize an artistic experience as a value in itself above other motives. But Stone gets bogged down with duly included gossip, like Morrison and Kennealy having a contretemps over her pregnancy by him, and repetitive scenes in the second half that capture but do not much enlighten the wash-rinse-repeat aspect of life with a self-destructive addict and Stone’s concept of Morrison as someone constantly pushing himself to the edge of death as if on a constant adolescent dare. Ryan certainly looks the part of the kind of twentieth century fox Morrison celebrated, but her performance scarcely suggests what Morrison found so interesting about Courson amongst the panoply of partners life offered him.
What Stone found particularly compelling about Morrison emerges through such a motif as he studies his hero as doomed not just by internal failings, but also by the specific flaws of his society and as a classic overreacher. Just as much as Nixon represented to Stone both the beauty of America in his capacity to rise from straitened youth to national captaincy, and its dark flipside in his resentment and paranoia, and Alexander the Great believed in the potential and practised the worst inherent in colonial adventuring, so, too, Morrison represents a spiritual America doomed to be tortured by a materialistic age where hedonism is offered as substitute for liberty, his rebellion doomed to cause mere damage to self and others.
Stone suggests Morrison found a kind of stability in his last days, glimpsed as a pacified, bearded guru reading Beat poetry in solemn isolation (save for a recording engineer, played by the real Densmore), attending Manzarek’s children’s birthday party, and finally expiring with a look of transcendental bliss on his face when Courson finds him dead in a bathtub. That’s probably not how things really happened, but it does help the film find a tentative grace in its conclusion. Stone’s camera roves through Paris’ Père Lachaise Cemetery in search of Morrison’s grave amongst the greats buried there, and finds it floridly decorated with freaky missives, quotes, and artworks that celebrate the odd glory he found. But the film’s truest intersection of the sublime and the ridiculous is right at the end, with its parting glimpse of The Doors cranking out one of their best later songs, “LA Woman,” in an improvised home studio, with Kilmer-as-Morrison laying down his vocals seated on a toilet.
Deep within the tangled growth of a dark forest lies an ancient ruin, a place where lost or weary travellers might find a place to rest for the night. But in the glow of moonlight, a mysterious and beautiful female emerges from the shadows. She approaches with seductive, otherworldly tenderness, and the traveller, stunned and smitten, can only submit, but at the peril of their soul, as they graze the boundaries of the liminal and fall in love with an emanation from beyond.
You know where this is going, because it’s the basic outline of dozens upon dozens of ghost stories. It’s a simple narrative that exploits a kind of idle masculine fantasy, charging it with warning and delineating the boundaries of taboo through the image of the death-dealing temptress and the evocation of evil in a place cordoned off by legend to commemorate some forgotten travesty of history and invested over time with fetid psychological symbolism. Mario Bava’s La Maschera del Demonio (1960) and Terence Fisher’s The Gorgon (1964) are some Western film variations; Eastern takes include episodes in Masaki Kobayashi’s Kaidan (1964) and Kaneto Shindo’s Kuroneko (1968).
Tony Siu-Tung Ching’s variation, based on a novel by Songling Pu, is something different—a crossbreed of this Gothic-flavoured nightmare scenario with the high-flying, reality-bending action of wu xia, the meat-and-potato genre of Chinese cinema. Blends of supernatural and mythical drama with swashbuckling exploits are fairly common in wu xia, and in the annals of Hong Kong action film. Tsui Hark’s canonical fantasy action work Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1982) and Lau Kun Wai’s nutty Mr. Vampire (1985) did it before Ching, as the Bride with White Hair diptych would afterwards. Ching is one of Hong Kong cinema’s most employed stunt and action choreographers, but he has maintained a directing career as well, with the three entries in his A Chinese Ghost Story series the most famous.
The grandmaster of Hong Kong cinema’s international emergence in the 1960s, King Hu, had experimented with melding spirituality and action and had filmed another Songling Pu story as the epic A Touch of Zen (1972). The first episode of Ching’s take was produced by Hark, and the imprint of that master’s rocket-paced, breathless sensibility is all over Ching’s work. But there is a delicate, but fervent romantic streak counterpointing the ebullience in Ching’s first two terrific films (the third is generally regarded as a flat retread of the first and lacks two important actors) helps to mark out A Chinese Ghost Story I & II as gems of 1980s Hong Kong cinema and that distinguishes Ching’s sensibility, even in later, blander work like The Empress and the Warriors (2008) and The Sorcerer and the White Snake (2011). Ching’s cleverest tweaks to the old mythos was to transform the ghostly female figure from agent of death to pawn struggling for freedom, and uncover an element of dreamy longing and rebellion against the oppressive nature of social norms.
The intensely rhythmic opening evokes fetishistic, erotic qualities, a swooning succession of wind-driven autumnal leaves, drenched moonlight, dangling silks, burning candles, hazy nocturnal light, breathily suggested sensuality, and exposed flesh, as a young taxman is seduced by a spectral woman. The bells on the anklet of Tsiao-Tsing Nieh (Joey Tsu-hsien Wang) ring when locked in the folds of love, summoning an awful thing from the woods to launch itself upon the man she pretends to embrace but, in fact, holds as prey. Destined to encounter these supernatural emissaries is a young tax collector, Ning Choi Sin (the lamented, ever-charming Leslie Cheung), who passes through a regional city. Law and order there are kept by an incompetent, overeager gendarmerie who assume everyone running must be a wanted criminal. Ning is beset by multiple humiliations as a callow youth playing the one official everyone wants to avoid, without horse or funds to buy him a dry place to sleep for the night. When he tries to collect taxes from one tavern keeper, he finds that rain has rendered all of the entries in his record book illegible.
Penniless, Ning asks where he might spend a sheltered night. He is directed to the ruined Lan Ro Temple by townsfolk whose murmuring disquiet at his obliviousness evokes a trillion horror movie peasants. Ching turns canard into satirical coup as Ning keeps pausing and glancing back over his shoulder at the crowd, who all cease rhubarbing and play dumb until he starts off again. He reaches the long-abandoned temple deep in the woods and straddling a lake, bathed in blue moonlight and fog and swirling leaves. Ning is chased by wolves, which stop at the threshold, and is then caught between two super-talented martial arts warriors battling in the grounds of the temple. The frighteningly brilliant Taoist warrior-monk Yin Chek Hsia (Ma Wu) duels with his long-time challenger Hsia-hou (Wai Lam), who’s determined to best the monk but has never succeeded. Poised uncomfortably between their sword points, Ning spouts desperate pacifications: “Love will conquer the world! Love is a powerful weapon!” Hsia-hou stalks off whilst Yin, who’s holed up at the temple trying to hide from a world of such competitive men, tells Ning to leave him alone. Hsia-hou comes across Tsiao-Tsing bathing in a river and tries to seduce her, leading to his exsanguinating death by the mysterious monster. When Yin comes in search of him, he’s attacked by Hsia-hou’s withered zombie remnant.
The Taoist destroys the zombie with magic, whilst Ning spends the night in a temple wing filled with other zombies who, despite his proximity, keep failing in their attempts to catch the oblivious taxman. Ning is drawn out of the temple by the strains of an instrument being plucked in the temple grounds: he finds the musician is Tsiao-Tsing, lustrously beautiful and hauntingly melancholic. With his mixture of bumbling well-meaning and innocence, Ning makes the lady fall in love with him. Tsiao-Tsing has a secret, however, that is no small lover’s hindrance: she’s actually the ghost of a murdered woman whose father was also killed before he could properly bury her and perform the necessary rituals to help her become reincarnated. Now she’s in thrall to a demon that can alternate between the forms of a tree monster, with an enormously long tongue, and an androgynous human overlord with a retinue of malevolent ghost-women. The demon is planning to wed Tsiao-Tsing to its evil overlord, Lord Dark, in the netherworld because, as Yin says in the film’s most pertinent line, “Spirits use each other, just like people.” The centrality of the romantic passion between Ning and Tsiao-Tsing enriches A Chinese Ghost Story enormously without ever slowing the film’s breakneck pacing or giddy inventiveness.
A Chinese Ghost Story, a pinnacle of Hong Kong film, also represents in turn an exemplar of a showbiz ethic, one that aims to offer a variety of entertainment, shifting from thunderous action to scares to romantic melodrama to slapstick comedy to musical numbers, without fatal tonal uncertainty or narrative diffusion. This replicated a presumption which Hollywood filmmaking once accepted but since abandoned in favour of focus-grouped niche markets, kept alive rather in the mass-audience-serving style of Hong Kong film and Bollywood. A Chinese Ghost Story readily includes all these elements, including breaks for song numbers. Both episodes are loaded with horror-movie tropes, but Ching quickly reveals his love for silent comedy, channeling the influence of Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd, always well-remembered Hollywood icons in Hong Kong film, in Ning’s beleaguered but hardy approach to the hilariously overdrawn problems life keeps throwing his way. Ching’s intricate staging of comedy situations could become silly if they weren’t handled with deft invention and timing, qualities that work hand in hand with wu xia’s emphasis on precise physical skill and wit. In his first appearance, Ning tries to eat a dumpling that proves so hard it can crack rocks. A later comic bit turns into a miniature epic of taboo-grazing and suspense-mongering mixed with low comedy as Tsiao-Tsing hides Ning from the demon and her ghost-slaves when they come to visit her in the temple. She forces him into her bath to hide under the water, doing everything in her power to keep one of the more curious ghosts from looking into the bath, including breathing water into his lungs via a kiss and finally diving in and sitting on top of the increasingly breathless bureaucrat. Ching delights here in dodging around the usually prim behaviour in popular Chinese cinema whilst not breaking the rules. The comedic and suspense elements dovetail beautifully in a climactic moment as Ning tries to climb a ladder even as it’s being eaten by the monster, thus climbing frantically to nowhere.
A Chinese Ghost Story is, in familiar fashion, partly the tale of Ning’s maturation. As he begins to learn how to make his way in the world, he hits upon the bright idea of faking all of the erased entries in his ledger and successfully intimidates debtors into paying up. Ning’s true rite of passage is doing battle with evil, of course, a labour in which he’s not greatly talented or effective, but he transcends himself through the strength of his ardour. Tsiao-Tsing saves him several times with her supernatural powers, and she and Yin take on most of the action sequences. Deeply knowledgeable in the occult and supernatural warfare, Yin uses the paraphernalia of his religion and black magic as well as martial arts prowess to battle evil, and chases spirits through into the netherworld. Yin’s formidable gifts and cold capacity to recognise and take out ghost women makes him an oddball blend of the familiar variety of wu xia hero—a warrior who has mastered arts both physical and spiritual, giving them herculean skill and poise—mixed with the Van Helsing-esque variety of evil-battling savant, with overtones of a third tradition linked to both: the superhero. Yin is mistaken at first for a murderer by Ning, who sees him decapitate one of the tree demon’s ghostly underlings and glimpses his face on a wanted poster, which proves to be the image of Yin’s outlaw brother. The young bureaucrat tries to report Yin to the local magistrate, who is so timorous that he’s happy to take any excuse to ignore the problems posed by Lan Ro Temple, striking a note of satire over the ostriches and puppet masters of politics that extends more cogently into the sequel. Soon enough, however, Ning and Yin form a team, and Yin abruptly starts tearfully confessing how he’s let his anger over being confronted by challengers alienate him from humanity.
The very title A Chinese Ghost Story conflates parochial qualities with sarcasm. The story is grounded in the peculiarities of Chinese folklore and the accumulation of religious and spiritual concepts from multiple cultural influences, ineffably different to European precepts and yet subject to the same historical patterns. Ching presents a world where the incorporeal and earthly can meet and shift between states almost at will. The raw symbolic qualities of ghostliness, as embodiments of loss, of unfulfilled responsibility towards the dead, of fear of the unknown, and other permeable emotions that dog us, are considered as part of the texture of everyday existence. The narrative duel pits abstracted good against evil, but each is associated with different levels of religious belief and concomitant social ideas. The primal undertow of animism, associated with sacrifice and an oppressive, ancient, feudal/patriarchal hierarchism that subjugates Tsiao-Tsing to its power for despicable ends, is embodied by the ancient tree demon. This is pitted against the more enlightened religious creeds of Taoism and Buddhism, with their singular spiritual beneficence and capacity to meet chaos with order. Evil is battled not with crucifixes and holy water, but mantras and written sutras.
But the title’s cheekier quality is located in another dimension, that is, the manner in which it combines and coherently contrasts distinctive localised storytelling modes. The narrative sends horror story crashing headlong into comedy and freewheeling action, with the spirits and demons serving similar purposes to aliens for Hollywood blockbusters, a reminder that Ching followed Hark in trying to compete with and outdo the flash of Hollywood on a limited budget. Even fiends from hell prove fallible to the right bit of chop-socky know-how. It’s this hyped-up quality, the genre-hopping energy and gall of Ching’s films, that spur me to consider them adventure films, as they travel well beyond the psychological miasmas of horror tales as well as wu xia’s shared trait with Westerns, in that they both detail personality clashes and morality plays in terms of action. Here, as in Greek myth, battles with supernatural forces are merely part of the texture of a grand battle of humankind to dominate the earth around them and even venture into lands beyond, and, like many true adventure tales, the heroes engage in rebellion against repressive orders. And throughout it all, comedy and tragedy masks frame every gesture with an emotional directness that again feels like it belongs to a longer, older tradition.
The vivacity of Ching’s imagery and the compulsive drive of his filmmaking provide a centrifugal force that compels the various, usually quite distinct building blocks to form a coherent whole, a whole that overcomes the occasionally jarring shifts in approach, and finally dances on air as deftly as its heroes. Ching creates indelible visual impressions, like the grotesque sight of the tree demon’s colossal, tentacle-like tongue slashing through the undergrowth and writhing under the feet of the heroes. The penile invasive tip tries to dive into their mouths to drain their essences, enhances the already queasy erotic quality of the great tongue, an image of perverse evil that contrasts and manipulates the enticing feminine grace of Tsiao-Tsing. Ching wreathes shimmering mist and diffused light around the starkly atmospheric environs of Lan Ro, with the hauntingly lovely sight of Tsiao-Tsing’s white-and-red-clad form dashing through the misty trees, with sleeves of flowing silk that can become rescuing ropes and animated tendrils. This quality of unearthly beauty appended to the usual wire-fu shenanigans would show up again in the Bride with White Hair films and Hark’s Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame.
The undertone of hazy eroticism and romantic languor is never entirely quelled by all the action, climaxing in a rapturous scene in which Tsiao-Tsing and Ning fulfil otherwise unquenchable longing by writing a poem together, creating a missive shot full of mysterious imagery that is so vague and affecting that in the sequel it’s mistaken for some kind of secret political message. The act of writing is imbued with the same romantic and totemic power it possesses in the climactic scenes of Doctor Zhivago (1965) and Hero (2002), and, in a way, the lovers’ penning of their poem is political, as it is a placard for their independence, with the films siding with young rebels against the malicious, life-sapping dictates of forced marriage. Whilst the Old Evil is bested in combat, the film resolves with Ning desperately attempting to keep exterminating light from falling on Tsiao-Tsien, who finally has to retreat into the urn with her ashes to protect herself. She cannot emerge again to see Ning, and he must perform the necessary rites to send her on in her reincarnation cycle.
Ching’s sequel lacks the romantic passion and the structure of the original, but in some other ways is superior. With a larger budget and zestier staging, he embraces an ever more madcap approach to his blend of action, comedy, and supernatural power. With Tsiao-Tsing freed from the bonds of the demon and hopefully allowed to gain reincarnation, Ning travels on his lonely way, only to be imprisoned, escape, and fall into the company of another warrior monk, this time a Buddhist called Autumn (Jacky Cheung): Autumn takes Ning for a thief when he rides off on Autumn’s horse, in the mistaken belief that it has been provided to facilitate his escape. Autumn, as well as possessing the same proficiency in white magic as Yin, can dig his way through the earth at great speed like some sort of mutant gopher.
The duo are attacked by spooks in the woods, which for some reason, do not set Autumn’s infallible nose for the supernatural tickling; in reality, they’re not spooks at all, but a band of freedom fighters in disguise. The band is led by sisters Windy (Joey Wang again) and Moon (Michelle Reis), who want to rescue their father, Lord Fu (Siu-Ming Lau), a former official who’s been arrested and charged with treason for trying to criticize the autocracy of the Imperial court. The fighters mistake a bearded Ning for Elder Chu Kot, the intellectual with whom Ning was imprisoned and whose writings inspired both the Lord’s arrest and his faction’s rebellion. Ning is transfixed by Windy’s amazing resemblance to Tsiao-Tsing, wondering if, against all seeming logic, she is her reincarnation. Both sisters in turn are love-struck by the man they believe to be their wise revolutionary guru.
Ching devotes a lot of the first half of A Chinese Ghost Story II to trying to top his first film’s physical comedy and action set-pieces, and succeeds, if at the expense of narrative contiguity, especially in two extended sequences of ribaldry. As in the first episode, the plot revolves around a haunted temple, except this time the locale is chosen by the freedom fighters as a place to ambush the convoy taking Lord Fu to the Emperor, and proves to be inhabited a large saurian demon that ponderously stalks potential victims in the temple. When Ning and Autumn first enter the temple, Autumn endeavours to teach Ning an incantation that can freeze anything in its tracks. Ning accidentally freezes Autumn while practising it at exactly the same time that the hulking demon bears down up them: Ning desperately tries to fend off the creature and communicate with Autumn through eye movements to learn the counter-curse. At one point all three become frozen in a pose with the beast, claws about to furl about the heroes, dribbling drool down on Ning’s cheek. The level of farceur skill shown here by the two Cheungs, and the way Ching cleverly weaves it in with the animatronics of the monster, is rare and splendid. A second, equally adroit if sillier scene enlarges upon the first film’s bathtub scene, as Ning tries to avoid compromising the two Wu sisters when he tries to alert a bathing Windy to the monster’s presence, and then tries to cover for Windy as she tries to get dressed without being seen by Moon and the other warriors and retreats to a loft, where the monster stalks her, in a dance of embarrassment and timorous sexuality.
Whilst both women are taken by Ning, he only has eyes for the one who looks like Hsiao-Hsien; when Moon gets the message, she transfers her affections to Autumn, an equally impossible fancy. But as in the first episode, the lingering shadow of arranged marriage holds Ning and his love at bay, for Windy’s father has promised her long ago to another lord, though fortunately such impediments prove rather more surmountable when both lovers are corporeal. Along the way, however, Windy is almost transformed into a demon herself when the monster in the temple is finally destroyed, albeit with its still-animated body parts flying in all directions to attack and latch onto the fighters. The girls’ father and his escorting jailers, led by the formidable, decent but rigidly dutiful soldier Hu (Waise Lee), finally pass by the temple, but the clash of arms between the two forces is stalled by the arrival of the official procession escorting the Imperial High Priest (Shun Lau). The High Priest proves to be the source of both the epidemic of demons and the political repression sweeping the land.
Political subtext is introduced during Ning’s early, mistaken imprisonment, learning quickly he has no hope of proving his innocence. Elder Chu (Feng Ku), who’s spent most of his life in jail, claims that every effort he’s made to find safe artistic ground has merely brought him some new variety of official persecution: “I analyse military strategy, they say I’m organising rebellion…I try to write fairy stories, they say I’m promoting superstition!” He’s spent so long in jail that he’s actually dug a hole through the wall and comes and goes when he feels like it, using his cell as a quiet place to work. Ching’s mischievous culmination of the theme comes when the heroes pursue the High Priest to his temple, where they find the entire Imperial court arranged in rigid ceremonial splendour—except they’re all hollow shells, their insides eaten out by the demon, a fake government fronting for monstrous power. Fortunately for Ning, he and Windy find themselves at the Lotus Temple, where Yin has holed up, and they’re able to call him to aid Autumn in a showdown with the High Priest.
Both episodes conclude with epic, utterly bizarre and visually startling leaps into special-effects set-pieces, as the heroes make journeys into the netherworld to do battle with the demons on their own turf, lands of abyssal dark and desolate plains where the demons sit on thrones and lord over dimensions beyond. In the first episode, Old Evil’s body proves to be composed of severed, animate flying heads that try to gnaw on the heroes like piranha, but the tag-team work of the three heroes finally helps defeat the monster. In the second, the High Priest proves to be a colossal juggernaut of a flying centipede, and Autumn and Yin, in a flourish unashamedly pinched by Men in Black (1998), are both swallowed by the beast, forcing them to destroy the beast by detaching the spirits from their bodies by reciting mantras, and then hacking their way out. This risky trick for the two savants of supernatural warfare proves tragic for Autumn, who can’t get back into his body. His spirit is swept away, with a distraught Moon chasing him–a last flourish for the rarefied melancholy that consistently underscores the series’ general joviality.
Ching’s visual style throughout the two films is a constant delight. Like Hark, who would eventually take the approach to excessive levels, Ching toys in the first episode with paring every shot to the bare minimum of time it takes to register, in a fashion that anticipates, but still remains distinct from, Hollywood filmmakers’ embrace of the hyperkinetic because basic rules of focus and editing rhythm are still obeyed. Nonetheless the racing pace of the films is startling and compulsive, whilst Ching’s photography, essayed in an argot of wide-focus lenses used in close-ups to give everything an overlarge, vertiginous immediacy, and zooming camera motions that constantly take on points of view or are used to add physicality to action shots, became deeply influential in a lot of subsequent filmmakers. Perhaps the western filmmaker most inflected with Ching’s example is Peter Jackson, whose photographic style and kinetic approach to fantasy, spectacularly in his early work and more measured in his Tolkien films, bears distinctive traces of Ching’s mighty fantasy-adventure diptych— at a zillion times the cost.
One of the worst films of 2010 was The Kids Are All Right, a sitcom of a movie in which straight actors Annette Bening and Julianne Moore play a lesbian couple dealing with the appearance of the sperm donor who is the biological father of their two children. Given the chance to reach a mainstream audience with a realistic portrayal of a family headed by two females, The Kids Are All Right instead self-consciously backs away from gay sexuality as fast it can, hiding a scene of lesbian sex under a heavy blanket and then rushing Moore into straight sex with the sperm donor. The only thing missing from the conventionality of this flat film is the nightstand sitting like a sentry between two single beds.
I wouldn’t have given The Kids Are All Right a second thought if not for the fact that it was cowritten and directed by Lisa Cholodenko, representing a shocking fall from grace for a director/screenwriter who created one of the most memorable feature debuts in many a year—High Art. High Art is everything The Kids Are All Right is not—assured, unapologetically frank about lesbian sex, nuanced, and authentic. Perhaps most important, Cholodenko offers a look at lesbians leading lives that contain as much love, dysfunction, ambition, and familial relationships as any other way of life.
High Art begins with Syd (Radha Mitchell) sitting in a small office examining slides submitted to Frame, the New York-based photography magazine where she works as an assistant editor. Her tragically hip boss Harry (David Thornton) dismisses her as his glorified gofer, though his condescension is a cover for his lackadaisical attitude toward his job and its subject matter. Dominique (Anh Duong), the editor of Frame, started as a receptionist at Interview, and her drive to succeed, her immersion in the art scene, and her cutthroat instincts form a mirror in which we can view Syd’s career aspirations.
Syd lives with her boyfriend James (Gabriel Mann) in a rundown apartment run by a slum landlord in the making. One evening, as she relaxes in a hot bath, she notices that the crack in the ceiling above the tub is starting to leak. She goes to the apartment above to let the tenants know about it. At the door is a thin woman about twice Syd’s age. After some perfunctory talk, the woman, Lucy (Ally Sheedy), promises to contact the super. Because service is slow to the point of nonexistent in the building, Syd returns to Lucy’s apartment several times to try to fix the leak herself.
The leak becomes a convenient excuse for Syd to explore an attraction to Lucy subtly encouraged by Lucy herself and the quality of the photographs hanging all over Lucy’s apartment. It doesn’t take long for Syd to discover that Lucy was once one of the hottest photographers in the New York art scene. The engulfing attention and demands made on her caused her to flee to Europe, where she became involved with Greta (Patricia Clarkson), a has-been Fassbinder actress, and spent most of her time snorting heroin and taking pictures as more of a reflex than as a serious pursuit. Her return to New York after a 10-year absence may signal that she is ready to start making photographs again, but the downward pull of Greta and the rest of their heroin-addicted circle of friends seems to be keeping Lucy in a holding pattern, that is, until Syd enters the picture.
As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention, and the obviously modest budget of High Art brought out the best in Cholodenko’s creativity, something the high-budget, high-profile The Kids Are All Right buried. The handheld camera work and settings—the apartments, the Frame offices, an upscale home where Lucy goes to visit her rich mother (Tammy Grimes), a restaurant, a mountain retreat—all must have been places opened to the cast and crew by friends and family. The lived-in, hazy look of Lucy’s apartment creates a realistic milieu for the kind of crash pad/opium den atmosphere needed to suggest the subterranean hideout of Lucy’s spirit. The unsuccessful photographs depicting Greta underwater reflect Lucy’s muffled talent. By contrast, the photos she takes of Syd when they go away together for the weekend to consummate their love are alive, vital, compelling.
The strong subtext of Syd and Lucy’s desire is ambition. There’s no question that the two women are in lust and could be falling in love, but what really pushes them together in an irresistible way is their individual hopes for themselves. Syd has a good eye and immediately recognizes that Lucy could be the great discovery that could raise her profile at Frame and help her push past her clueless boss. When she realizes how big her discovery—rediscovery—is, there is no stopping her from picking a fight with James, with whom she seemed to be happy, and running straight into Lucy’s arms. Lucy’s overtures to Syd are, to me, more touching. She seems to want to be saved from herself, from the pull of heroin and her codependent relationship with Greta. She is feeling the advance of age, signaled by her desire to return to New York and spend time with her aging, if difficult, Jewish mother, fearing the future, fearing her own mortality. Becoming the Lucy Berliner again seems a plausible way to ensure that her life will count for something once more, and continue after death.
The central performances by Sheedy and Mitchell are a master class in the way women love each other. Mitchell moves her braless torso in gentle curves, half-aware that she is being watched, not only by Lucy, but also by Greta. Cholodenko frequently directs shots that put Syd in the foreground, with Lucy in a corner of the frame looking at her with the eye of both a photographer and a seducer. Sheedy invades Mitchell’s space casually, agilely, but fixes her with her intensity. Syd’s response must feel like the kiss of life after Greta, who nods off in a drug haze when Lucy starts to make love to her. Indeed, although her German accent waxes and wanes, Patricia Clarkson plays a very believable Fassbinder actress, her superficial, needy vanity peeking out perfectly under her drug-layered performance. Overall, the drug scenes are very realistic—we can actually see Syd getting off after snorting her first line of heroin, and junkie-in-arms Arnie (Bill Sage) laying back in supreme pleasure after shooting up in Lucy and Greta’s bedroom.
The script is a bit precious at times, but often witty and revealing, such as when Syd holds forth on one of Lucy’s compositions, and Lucy responds ruefully, “I haven’t been deconstructed in a long time.” Perhaps at that moment she sees the true foundation of Syd’s affections toward her, but chooses to ignore it. Harry’s pretense that he knows who Lucy Berliner is when questioned by Dominique is appropriately sleazy and hilarious. Greta’s dialogue seems to have been lifted in part from a Fassbinder film, which is either very lazy or very clever—I haven’t made up my mind yet. The most touching scene is when Syd and Lucy are about to make love and Syd says, “I don’t really know what I’m doing.” The tenderness and reassurance Lucy provides, and Syd’s genuine tears of love and gratitude, are pitch perfect.
High Art offers a point of view in its final act. Photography—and by extension, film—captures moments in time that can move us with their emotional and physical content. The more universal the image, the more timeless it can be. Mere ambition and even enormously hard work have amazingly short shelf lives. True art can only come from those who can face the pleasure and pain of being alive and project that honestly.
The career of Edward D. Wood Jnr. went thus: he made bad movies, was not rewarded for this, and died young, poor, weird, and obscure. A simple narrative, one obeying seemingly cast-iron rules of talent in art and industry, a ready example of an almost natural law at work—except that we sometimes tend to rebel against such obvious arcs, a temptation that’s especially strong today when movies can cost $200 million and still be less coherent, personal, or fun than the films Wood slapped together on rock-bottom budgets. Wood’s status as a hero of cash-strapped delirium has passed through phases, from roots in the punk era’s camp-hued affection for trashy antitheses to the slick emptiness of much popular culture, through to genuine, if sometimes over-earnest, attempts to embrace him as the essence of the outsider artist and a ramshackle surrealist.
In fact, Wood was a schismatic creature, at once a filmmaker who packed his movies with peccadilloes and private delights, and a hack who tried to winnow his way into Hollywood with his own ineffably clueless takes on material he thought popular. Wood lamely attempted to ape his betters, but also was a secret rebel twisting their noses with his characterful statements in favour of acceptance and against nuclear-age blustering, reflecting a general inability to fit into the conformist world of the 1950s, as if he was a prototypical, half-unwilling beatnik lost in a jungle of coldly commercial professionalism. Yet, it was precisely his inability to recreate the art that pleased him and to express his serious ideas in a serious manner that makes his work so disturbingly thrilling at times, the simultaneous horror and delight in the obviousness of the intention and the depth of failure. Edward D. Wood Jnr. has become the Charlie Brown of cinema icons, locked in an eternal frieze, trying to kick that cultural football and missing.
Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, spun from a screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, is as much a film about the art and the idea of Wood and what they meant and could mean for other artists and filmmakers, as it is a traditional biopic. Ed Wood views his life through a prism of decades of semi-underground art movements, to celebrate those movements and their clique-happy enthusiasm. Burton feted Wood’s career through a series of ironic contrasts, reproducing his tacky special effects and cardboard motifs with large-budget, detail-driven zest and exacting technical competence, precisely the qualities Wood so badly lacked. Mimicking Wood’s style in the visuals of the film freed Burton somewhat from having to devote too much time to depicting the products of Ed’s work. Burton seemed to latch onto Wood as a personal avatar, another natural outsider, a singular oddball with a strange power for attracting and employing a posse of glorious misfits to whom he could offer a protective wing. Burton also found the same essential pleasure in cinema as a way of exploring the ephemera of things readily dismissed as tacky and corny, and yet which lingered with strange intensity from the shoals of childhood memory and adolescent fixation.
Wood’s story, at least the notable phase of it depicted in the film extending from 1953’s hallucinatory Glen or Glenda? through to his sci-fi anti-epic Plan Nine From Outer Space (1959), offered plentiful raw materials for a tragicomedy. The film concerns itself mostly with Wood’s friendship with the aging, haggard Béla Lugosi (Martin Landau) and others inhabiting the Hollywood fringe, including TV psychic Criswell (Jeffrey Jones), monster movie hostess Maila “Vampira” Nurmi (Lisa Marie), temporary fiancé and future tunesmith Dolores Fuller (Sarah Jessica Parker), gloriously gay socialite Lyle “Bunny” Breckenridge (Bill Murray), and hulking pro wrestler Tor Johnson (George Steele), provided a gallery of characters to rival the Addams Family for incongruous charm and the Keystone Kops for incompetence in the line of duty. Ed Wood is unusual as a movie narrative in many ways, then, because unlike most films, especially biopics, which lead us towards either a singular triumph or cathartic collapse, it becomes instead a snapshot of people fending off the ravages of time with fellowship, and the only triumph is an illusory one. Wood’s employment of the footage he took of Lugosi in Plan Nine is, here, no longer merely a man using a desperate gimmick for box office appeal, but an instinctive poet’s attempt to stave off mortality’s victory and the inevitable dissolution of the weirdly beautiful world he’s built around himself.
By presenting a biography of a director where the resulting work is, implicitly, negligible, Burton offers one of the most beguiling portraits of the artist as young self-deluder ever. Johnny Depp’s Wood is a creature of manic-depressive highs and lows, sometimes gnawed at by self-doubt suppressed with alcohol, but often skating along on the back of enthusiasm, process, and the druglike rush of believing in his own brilliance. Burton captures the latter attitude in a perfect visualisation: stock-footage explosions and patriotic parades are superimposed over Wood’s beaming face as he marvels at his own achievement, blending both the man’s defining traits and his techniques into a seamless, singular image. Ed Wood is the essence of every artist who has remained convinced of their own worth even whilst every force in the universe seems to be contradicting them.
For Burton, Ed Wood was a departure, and it remains a stand-out in his career, not only as his best film to date, but also in how he tackled a true story and transmuted it into both companion piece and negative image to his other works, executed with an uncommon economy, yet still stuffed with stylistic coups. Coming after his uneasy rise to the higher ranks of Hollywood through his Batman films, and his still-beloved diptych of black-comedy satires on family and suburbia, Beetlejuice (1987) and Edward Scissorhands (1990), Burton indulged a measure of self-analysis, possibly casting his thoughts back to his own brief partnership with Vincent Price on Edward Scissorhands in regarding Wood’s and Lugosi’s alliance, and extrapolating the image of himself as a man locked in a contradictory posture of eccentric, individualistic creativity finding a niche in a world with opposing priorities and values. Leading man Depp’s interpretation of Wood seems partly channelled through his one-time director John Waters, whose Cry Baby (1990) helped give Depp his first move beyond the teen stardom of “21 Jump Street.” (Waters’ own early efforts were something like Wood’s, though operating from a perspective of self-aware absurdist chic). In spite of the overt artifice Burton indulges, like black-and-white photography and flourishes of generic parody, and indeed largely because of this, Ed Wood is also a film with a sense of time and place so vivid you can practically smell the shady bars, two-room apartments, seedy low-rent studios, and bunkerlike offices of fly-by-night producers. This milieu is inseparable from Wood’s own work, with its location filming in deepest San Fernando and the down-market corners of Los Angeles. Ed Wood captures that atmosphere with an intensity that’s at once tactile, seamy, nostalgically affectionate, and occasionally, as in the opening, transformed into an adjunct of Wood’s shoestring-Expressionist worldview. Ed Wood remains a daydream about the underside of ’50s Hollywood.
Ed Wood commences with Criswell warning the audience in the manner of his introduction for Wood’s Revenge of the Dead (1960), from a coffin in the Old Willows Place of Bride of the Monster, about the dread experience the audience is about to witness, before the opening credits explore the environs of Wood’s iconography via an extended piece of brilliant model-work, resolving on a soaring vision of Los Angeles transformed into a Gothic wonderland. Wood is found fretting over the lack of press turning up for the premiere of a play he’s putting on. The glimpses we see of the play offer the Wood sensibility already fully formed: a giddy mix of the naively poetic and the woodenly terrible. Wood’s fearsome optimism proves resilient even in the face of a bad review served up by a leading critic’s copy boy, though his fiancé Dolores mournfully takes to heart its jabs at her (“Do I really have a face like a horse?”). Ed’s fairy godmother Bunny cynically dismisses the whole thing with his knowledge of the forces that really run Hollywood: sex, power, and money.
Ed, whose day job is carting around props at Universal Studios, is a man constantly trying to understand the business he’s involved in, marvelling at the forces which can produce camels for a bit of backlot flimflam, and yet its resources of magic remain ever out of reach, even as he finds possibility and excitement in detritus like the reels of stock footage an older employee digs out and then files away. Wood’s adoration for and grasp on the potential in the marginalia of this world extends to his spotting of Lugosi, whom he happens upon as the aging, haggard star is checking out coffins at an undertaker’s for the next exhausting tour of a production of Dracula, hanging onto the last vestige of his fame and means of making a living. Ed makes friends with Lugosi simply by offering him a ride in his car, saving the once wealthy star from having to catch the bus.
Ed’s tale is as much about trying to subsist and thrive within the precepts of the grand narrative of American and Hollywood success, whilst also, almost accidentally, trying to resist the pulverising conformity those 1950s narratives could assert, as it is about making bad movies. Late in the film, Ed and future wife Kathy (Patricia Arquette) reminisce over their childhood love of the figures of wonderment broadcast to them through the highways of pop culture, from pulp radio serials to Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre, evoking the way such enchantments change lives even in the boondocks. Ed’s attempts to get into that game himself retain this innocent quality. Ed’s troupe become something akin to a family, accumulating members, some gleeful, some resistant, but all glad to find a temporary shelter and the shreds of dignity Ed’s drive gives them. Lugosi entrances Ed with a nostalgic, pseudo-intellectual paean to delights of the classic Gothic horror film, complete with Freudian jive about the felicities of Dracula as spur to scoring with the ladies in a humorous tilt that seems aimed as much at the psycho-sexual desolation of most contemporary genre film as at the ’50s giant monster craze Lugosi derides, as well as the spectacle of two horror nuts trying to lend their obsessions a veneer of profundity. (No, I wouldn’t know anything about that.) Mostly, it establishes Ed and Lugosi as men fundamentally out of step with their technocratic and fashionable time, one in which Lugosi is grievously humiliated on a live TV comedy show where the host’s improv mockery overwhelms Lugosi. The sequence suggests the real way Lugosi had been reduced to a comic foil in Abbot and Costello and Bowery Boys movies. Ed can’t even get Dolores to dredge up Lugosi’s name in making her guess who he just met (“You met — Basil Rathbone!”).
But Ed, in finding himself a star who needs money, gains through Lugosi a ticket into the great world of movie directing, even if it’s only a film about sex changes, hastily redrawn from a Christine Jorgensen biopic after the rights get too expensive for producer George “I make crap” Weiss (Mike Starr). Ed, after catching the article about Weiss’ efforts in Variety, makes an initial pitch to Weiss, trying to compel him with his own secret kink, his love of cross-dressing (“You a fruit?” “Oh no, I’m all man. I even fought in WW2”), draws the beefy, volcanic Weiss in to listen eagerly to tales about making parachute landings in the war whilst wearing a bra and panties. Ed’s desire to be a success is constantly stymied by, and also inseparable from, his desire to present himself unmasked to the world, and to explore himself and his obsessions through his work, lacking the essential inner censor who can corral such impulses into professional limits. Late in the film, he convinces Baptist Church stalwarts Reynolds (Clive Rosengren) and Reverend Lemon (G.D. Spradlin) to give him the money to make Plan Nine from Outer Space, or Grave Robbers from Outer Space as it’s initially called, promising to make them enough cash to bankroll their own pet project, a series on the 12 apostles, only for the uptight religious financiers to take umbrage at Ed’s habit of putting on the angora sweater and blonde wig to relax on set.
One comic highlight here is the striptease Ed does for the for Bride of the Atom wrap party, with Criswell slipping cash into his garter and concluding with Ed unveiling to display his beaming, dentureless face in a moment of pure camp-grotesque cool. Fittingly, it’s both the moment of Ed’s personal liberation and the final straw for Dolores, who announces she’s leaving him to write songs for Elvis Presley. Ed’s personal identification with Orson Welles (Vincent D’Onofrio and Maurice LaMarche) as the symbol of youthful, all-encompassing genius presents the hope of the artist-rebel as transcendent titan, as opposed to Wood, doomed to be the image of the artist-rebel as ant. The climactic (fictional, but readily imaginable) encounter of Welles and Wood spells out the similarities in their career troubles and dreams in sarcastic, and yet oddly accurate terms. For artists, Ed Wood constantly suggests, the only hope for such contrary personalities is to try to reconceive the world through the personal prisms of creativity, making no distinction between good and bad artists. Wood’s attempts to do so culminate when he uses his draft screenplay to reveal his predilection to Dolores, his doting partner rising in realisation from the chair in their kitchen to open the door upon Ed in full drag, like a sweet-tempered Frankenstein’s Monster.
Whilst art is liberating in Ed Wood, it is also enslaving. Lugosi finally, happily embraces association with a single role to the extent of having himself buried in Dracula’s cape, a fate many actors would recoil from precisely because it’s the last chance to force reality to obey their own will. Lugosi, in readily adopting his Dracula guise, is photographed taking his fixes in shadows, as if he’s become one of his own expressionist grotesques, and is finally found lolling in a pool of despair and self-pity; composer Howard Shore uses strains of Swan Lake, the theme of crepuscular romanticism from Tod Browning’s film, to lend undertones of tragedy to Lugosi’s attempts to hold onto his final alternate identity. The generally jokey movie quotes segue into outright horror, in the glimpse of Lugosi tied up in rehab, screaming at detox horrors, a vision transmuted through a B-movie nightmare. In counterpoint to Ed’s awkward emergence as the man he really is comes a transformation of Dolores herself, one which Parker exposits in a key of cleverly stylised archness. Dolores moves through stages of twentieth century American femininity, souring slowly from the ever-chipper, supportive wife-to-be, to a domestic terrorist who knocks Ed with a frypan brandished in Amazonian ferocity, as well as a wisecracking professional who leaves Ed in a mixed fury of personal and professional frustration. Ed offers movie stardom to Tor Johnson, who believes he’s “not good-looking enough” to be one: “I believe you’re quite handsome,” Ed assures him. He gives the girl just off the bus, Loretta King (Juliet Landau), a chance to become a star, too, even if it’s only because he mistakes her for a rich kid who can invest in his movie, and the act of trying to capitalise on this results in the start of the breakdown of his relationship with Dolores.
The secret codes of show business remain, however, constantly undecipherable to the wonderstruck Ed, even as Criswell tries to clue him in: “People believe my folderol because I wear a black tuxedo.” The spectacular failure Glen or Glenda? leaves Weiss threatening to kill Wood if he ever sees him again, and Universal Studio exec Feldman (Stanley Desantis) thinks it’s a practical joke foisted on him by William Wellman, before declaring to Ed that it’s the worst movie he’s ever seen. “Well, my next one’ll be better!” our hero replies without missing a beat, only to meet dial tone. Still, Ed tries to make the movie he thought up on the spur of the moment when talking with Feldman, Bride of the Atom, both for his own sake and for Lugosi’s, as the actor becomes increasingly distraught over his lack of money and doubtful future. This time, Ed attempts to raise funds independently, cueing a series of excruciatingly funny attempts to fool rich people into giving him money. Ed reaches an abyss of humiliation after a chance encounter with Vampira leaves him begging on his knees, looking like the biggest schmuck in history. Vampira herself describes the same downward arc as the others, only quicker, for when the moment of success is exhausted, she’s reduced to travelling on the bus in full arch-brow, décolletage-flashing Goth garb on the way to a job for Ed, unaware of how she provides a barren stretch of L.A. with a sketch of surrealist delight. “You should feel lucky,” Kathy admonishes her when she’s mournful about sinking to appearing in one of Ed’s film,: “Eddie’s the only fella in town who doesn’t cast judgement on people.” “That’s right,” Ed adds, “If I did, I wouldn’t have any friends.’
Ed Wood is first and foremost a comedy, and indeed it is, to me at least, one of the most truly, consistently funny films ever made. Alexander and Karaszewski’s dialogue is absurdly quotable—back in the late ’90s when I was often trying to shoot no-budget, hand-crafted movies with family and friends, every new shot was presaged by our own ritual quote, “Let’s shoot this fucker!”—and the film is littered with tiny bits of comic business that provide endless pleasure. Much of the humour resembles those little sketches in the margins in MAD Magazine, captured in throwaway flourishes of wit, far too many of them are worth mentioning but impossible to cram in here. Wood’s labours, from running from police because he lacks a filming permit to breaking into a studio warehouse to steal a giant octopus prop, inhabit the realm of farce.
Burton leavens it all with his most precise comedic rhythm and staging. There’s strange magic in Ed setting his impish helpmates and actors Paul Marco (Max Casella) and Conrad Brooks (Brent Hinkley) to find props and dig up body doubles for the deceased Lugosi, scurrying into action like lost members of the Three Stooges; in Ed and Lugosi watching Vampira on the TV presenting White Zombie (1932), with Ed irked by her sarcasm whilst Lugosi marvels over her jugs, attempting to hypnotise her through the TV screen; in Bunny submitting to a baptism for the sake of getting financing for Plan Nine, Baptist beatitude and nelly enthusiasm finding a bizarrely beautiful accord; and in stealing the octopus for Bride of the Atom, a moment in which Tor takes on the persona of Lobo to wrench away the lock on the warehouse door. The film’s set-piece comedy sequence, one of the funniest scenes in anything, revolves around the disastrous trip Ed and his troupe make to attend a premiere of the retitled Bride of the Monster, only to find the crowd going berserk, an event that sees them mugged by lecherous adolescents, lost in a maelstrom of popcorn (“I gotta save ‘em!”), and chased down the street by rioting movie fans, after the hearse they arrived in is found being stripped down by street hoods. For a moment, all the boundaries between persona and person, movie and reality, dream and discontent dissolve in a frenzy of anarchic delight.
For Burton, Ed Wood’s formal rigour, as well as the concision of its humane yet raucous spirit, remains unsurpassed. The lucid, often bald and unflattering, and yet also often textured, swooning beauty of the Stefan Czapsky’s photography is one of the film’s great qualities. Burton and Czapsky find actual expressionism lurking behind Wood’s half-assed attempt to find it in his jerry-built sets and location shoots. They transform the interior of Lugosi’s shell-like prefab house into a Gothic castle littered with remnants of former greatness and Lugosi’s past—the beauty, mystery, and threat of the exotic imprisoned in suburbia. Burton actually extends the dualistic contrast of Wood and Welles by constantly using Wellesian technique to depict Wood’s world, with soaring camera surveys of models that seems liberated from physical limits, passing through glass, in and out of water, with the sort of joie de vivre Wood himself seemed to be chasing haplessly; deep-focus, multiplaned shots and deadpan, medium-long shots, sometimes engaging in dramatic spoof or comedic contrast, and just as often leaving his characters stranded in their hapless pathos. Such dazzling cinema is often the very opposite of what Wood was infamous for, and yet his own flourishes of oddly inspired low-rent hype, like the lightning strike that announces his own name at the start of Plan Nine from Outer Space, are faithfully reproduced. One of my favourite shots in the film comes when Lugosi gives an impromptu recital of his famed “Home? I have no home” speech from Bride of the Monster, with Burton’s camera shifting to frame Lugosi, a façade that provides him with a suitably sepulchral proscenium arch. Equally terrific is Shore’s scoring, one part satire on the tinny stock music slapped onto Wood’s films, one part celebration of retro weirdness, complete with theremin whistling eerily over driving beatnik bongos.
Many biopics tend to reduce their subjects, and that’s true to a certain extent here. Ed’s sideline as an equally terrible screenwriter for hire is left out, and Lugosi, who had an entire politically tinged history in Hungary, is a touch less than the commanding figure he was. But considering the film’s theme of how show business turns everyone, for better or worse, into the image they create for themselves, such diminution is understandable. Suffice to say Landau’s performance deserved every one of his copious plaudits, and the rest of the cast is impeccable. For Depp, though the film gained him little real reward at the time, it remains one of his best, most cleverly pitched performances, one that proved he could move into adult roles and introduced him as that most contradictory of figures, a star character actor. The film’s powerful undercurrents of melancholia, even tragedy, as it encompasses Lugosi’s sad final months and the start of Wood’s alcoholism, does not overwhelm the comedy, and in some ways even enhances it. Landau’s professed ambition to make Lugosi both funny and sad describes the film as a whole, as both emotions here well out of the same fundamental details—the try-hard aping of mass commercial culture, the struggle to retain a sense of personal beauty in the face of impersonal forces, the ravages of age and the hopeless delusion of youth. It’s a note that becomes especially keen in the closing moments when Kathy and Ed leave an imaginary triumphal premiere for Plan Nine to get married in Las Vegas. Ed’s real story was doomed to run out of gas somewhere out there in the California desert he and Kathy are last seen heading off into, but his legacy remains. The roll call of the characters’ fates listed in the prologue rams home the ephemeral nature of their labours, even though time has proven kinder to so many of them than they might have expected. The true cheat of Ed Wood’s life was his death barely months before his rediscovery commenced.
In cinema, even documentary cinema, the question of who we think we see on screen and who is actually on screen are two different things, fueling all kinds of existential fun and games for the astute filmmaker and receptive audiences. Identity as a motif has preoccupied numerous filmmakers, from Ingmar Bergman (Persona) to Monte Hellman (Road to Nowhere) to Abbas Kiarostami (Close-up). Identity is often tied up with psychosis, and psychotics frequently feature in horror and suspense films because they channel the nameless, faceless Id that resides in all of us that, on some level, we all would like to release in all its rampaging glory once in a while. The idea that any one of us could become a gruesome killer if someone or something pierced our social conditioning is at the heart of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure. Kurosawa, interested in the shocked comments people invariably make after a neighbor or acquaintance commits a brutal murder (“He was such a nice man. They were an ordinary couple.”), explores the nature of identity and whether our bodies and minds are mere vessels waiting to be filled.
On a busy street in Tokyo, a man (Ren Ohsugi) walks through a damp tunnel as cars pass on his right. A fluorescent light illuminating the tunnel blinks and buzzes. We next see the man in a hotel room with a naked prostitute. He is moving about the room, and she is sitting up in bed. Suddenly, he grabs a pipe and bashes her twice on the head. When next we enter the room, it is filled with police investigators. The lead detective, Kenichi Takabe (Kôji Yakusho), observes that a deep “x” has been cut across the prostitute’s neck and chest. The man is found naked, hiding in an air duct in the hallway. When he is questioned at police headquarters by Takabe and police psychiatrist Makoto Sakuma (Tsuyoshi Ujiki), the man has no idea why he killed the woman. The case resembles other murders under investigation where a similar “x” was carved into the victims.
Takabe will have several more such murders to investigate as the film goes on, but he must balance this puzzle with the increasing burden posed by his wife Fumie’s (Anna Nakagawa) mental deterioration. We first see Fumie talking with her psychiatrist (Toshi Kato) as an outpatient and observe her attachment to the story of Bluebeard. She tells the doctor that she knows how the story ends—Bluebeard is killed by his wife. Fumie doesn’t appear capable of murder, but the worry she causes Takabe, the things she does that drive him crazy, the loss of companionship he experiences by her disconnectedness certainly must cause a kind of death to his spirit. Not being able to talk to her about the pain of his work is especially difficult for him.
As other “x” cases come to the fore—a young man kills his wife of two years, a police officer shoots his partner in the head, a doctor kills a man in a public bathroom and peels his face away from his skull—we and Takabe slowly discover what links them together: a young amnesiac who is soon identified as Kunio Mamiya (Masato Hagiwara), a medical school dropout whose disheveled home reveals shelves of books about psychiatry, psychosis, and works about and by Franz Mesmer, a German physician who developed the idea of animal magnetism, or in the term used in the film, hypnosis, to influence behavior. We saw the young husband, Tôru Hanaoka (Masahiro Toda), encounter Mamiya on a beach and after Mamiya collapses, take him home. Mamiya questions him over and over about who he is and asks him questions about his wife Tomoko (Misayo Haruki) while transfixing Tôru with the flame of his cigarette lighter. As Mamiya bounces from one encounter to another—Hanaoka takes him to the police station, where he mesmerizes Oida (Denden), the cop, before being sent to a hospital to put Dr. Miyajima (Yoriko Dôguchi) under his spell—the daisy chain of violence barely outpaces Takabe’s efforts to unravel the mystery before he himself is drawn under Mamiya’s influence.
As with most detective-centered stories, Takabe is no ordinary cop. He is intelligent and tormented, a Japanese version of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse, and his complexity makes him a Rorschach image of good for his evil opposite Mamiya. Mamiya entices Takabe with an accurate assessment of the detective’s torment, mentioning a vision Takabe had of Fumie hanging dead in the couple’s kitchen that incited the detective to helpless wailing. Of course, as a mesmerist, Mamiya causes his victims to conjure such visions by helping them to access their deepest fears and hatreds through his highly developed gift for hypnosis. Only by remaining empty himself can Mamiya be the master rather than the victim.
It is Mamiya’s conviction that most people don’t know themselves, the many selves hidden under the surface, the duality of their generous and vicious impulses. He considers Takabe extraordinary, like himself, for recognizing the split in himself—trying to be a loving husband while seeing the worst in human nature on a daily basis. The encounters Takabe has with Mamiya create convulsions of emotion in him, signaled not only by his violent outbursts toward Mamiya but also toward some of his colleagues; in fact, when Takabe tries to turn the tables on Mamiya by forcing him to look at his own lighter while incarcerated, a vision of a rain-collapsing ceiling overwhelms Takabe, and the lighter goes out. It appears to have been put out by the rain water, but my guess is that while Takabe was having the visions, Mamiya merely blew the lighter out. But, of course, this wouldn’t be a horror story if we didn’t give ourselves over to wondering if the strange sights on screen are real or imaginary.
Kurosawa’s camerawork is beyond good. He scouted locations in and around Tokyo that reek of decay, giving us a fair approximation of a haunted house in the penultimate scene where the final showdown between Takabe and Mamiya takes place. He combines handheld work with static long shots of great beauty and atmosphere. He knows how to create tension by considering the images outside the frame that haunt our imagination, for example, having Sakuma enter Mamiya’s cell, which has a short wall hiding the toilet area in which Mamiya is standing. We don’t see the prisoner, but we know what he’s capable of, and the fear of actually looking at him infuses this scene powerfully. In a later scene, we see one handcuff hanging from a pipe, and the story a cop tells Takabe about it creates the image of the body that had been attached to it in our minds in an uncomfortable parallel to the way Mamiya was able to create images in the minds of his victims. Indeed, Mamiya is rather like a filmmaker, bringing us under his spell, finding our triggers, conjuring images through exposition and suggestion.
But Cure does more than that. It makes us wonder what Takabe achieved by resolving the murder investigation. The last two scenes are powerfully suggestive, but also highly ambiguous. Takabe has put his wife in a psychiatric hospital, and we see a very brief scene at the hospital in which the image of a corpse with the telltale “x” appears. Takabe is later seen eating heartily and happily in his regular diner, apparently cured of his previous troubles. His waitress removes his plates and is called over to speak to her boss. Calmly she moves to a station and picks up a large chef’s knife. Has Takabe taken over where Mamiya left off, or has our experience of the film left us imagining the worst?
Who can turn the world on with her smile? As a fan of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and of its star, I must admit that in a head-to-head tooth-off, MTM would wither in the blaze of Julia Roberts’ pearly whites.
Julia Roberts has been dazzling movie goers with her mile-wide grin, infectious laugh, and Playmate-like naughty innocence since the late 80s. Can she act? Does it matter? As the first $20 million woman among a legion of limited-range actors commanding that sum or more, Julia Roberts is a rarity in today’s world—an old-fashioned Hollywood star in the Gene Tierney mold who can act if a director pushes her out of her comfort zone and forces her to, but whose main assets lie in her on-screen charisma and beauty. One look at her list of films and a flashback to the studio build-up to her nonwedding to Kiefer Sutherland show that the old boys of Tinsel Town understood what kind of a property they had in her.
Many of her films cast her as the fantasy trophy woman every man wants. She doesn’t need to come from the American aristocracy to ascend to it—as waitress Daisy Aruja in Mystic Pizza (1988), she is a self-confessed social climber who snags a hot-blooded blue blood with sex and the saucy insolence that such men seem to like. Of course, her breakout role as Vivian, the hooker who catches corporate raider Richard Gere in Pretty Woman (1990), is as nakedly honest about America’s then-definition of success as any out there; every young turk needs his BMW and his beautiful arm ornament who is, of course, a pistol in the sack, and every woman needs to be a mercenary sexpot who cleans up well to catch one. Vivian going on a shopping spree on Rodeo Drive became Roberts’ signature scene, a representation of the grasping, greedy climber made adorable by Roberts’ naive sweetness.
As Roberts matured, her roles tended to vary, but her iconic status worked most effectively in films that reflected on her persona—her commitment-phobic Runaway Bride (1999), her superstar-marries-a-commoner character in Notting Hill (1999), the reverse-snob triumph of using sex and lies for good in Erin Brockovich (2000). Even Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) became more than a cultural blip because of the way her rich neoliberal character separated her heavily mascaraed eyelashes. In Eat Pray Love (2010), she played a success who throws it all away to find enlightenment, forming a dead-on critique of the characters she played at the start of her career on just another type of shopping spree.
Sleeping with the Enemy is a bit of an aberration in the Roberts canon, showing as it does the downside of being a trophy wife. The film capitalizes on all those things audiences love about Julia Roberts, but allows her to be a woman who uses her tenacity to survive and strive for authenticity. Although Sleeping with the Enemy is a Hollywood movie and a hack bit of filmmaking, it is interesting as perhaps the definitive anti-Julia Roberts vehicle.
Laura Burney (Roberts) has been married for 3½ years to Martin (Patrick Bergin), a filthy-rich investment counselor who calls her “princess,” but sees her more like the bust of Nefertiti he bought her on their honeymoon—his possession, a symbol of his status. They live part-time in a huge beachfront mansion on Cape Cod that appears to have been designed by Luigi Moretti, one of Mussolini’s chief architects. Martin tells Laura what to wear to a party, signals her with a look when it is time to leave, and grabs her for sex when they arrive home. Laura is very good at appearing to be happy when Martin is watching, but the film reveals rather quickly that she looks at sex with Martin as rape and stands in terror of a beating for everything from having her pantry items carelessly stacked to taking off to bury her dead mother without his permission.
Martin likes to sail, but Laura is deathly afraid of the water. Nonetheless, he prevails upon her to go out for an evening sail with their neighbor (Kyle Secor), whose casual remark that he has seen Laura looking out from their home garners her a beating from a jealous Martin. Although the weather report called for calm waters and clear skies, a sudden squall forces them to turn back. When the boat is nearly home, the jib comes loose, and the two men run to the bow to secure it. When they turn around, Laura is gone, and an intensive search for her only turns up her life vest.
Of course, Laura has faked her death. Conquering her fear of the water, she took swimming lessons, preparing for a moment when Martin wouldn’t be watching her. Swimming toward the gap in the boardwalk lighting she made by breaking the bulbs, she runs to their house, dons a wig, grabs a prepacked bundle, and rides a bus to Cedar Falls, Iowa. She rents a house next door to handsome drama teacher and future lover Ben Woodward (Kevin Anderson), gets a menial job at a library, and starts flashing her dazzling smile and naturally curly hair all over the place.
A call to Martin from one of Laura’s swim classmates, however, sets him and his considerable resources on her trail. He tracks down Laura’s mother (Elizabeth Lawrence), who did not die but rather was moved to a nursing home near Cedar Falls. When Laura goes to visit her disguised as a man, Martin is there. She narrowly misses running into him, but we know it is only a matter of time until he shows up on her doorstep.
Based on a book by Nancy Price, Hollywood has upscaled the story to Julia Roberts proportions, making the crummy beach house in the book into a monument to the money-no-taste 80s. The scene during which she fakes her death is the epitome of convenient scripting, and Martin never emerges as anything other than a male version of Glenn Close’s monster in Fatal Attraction (1987). In the final denouement, every horror film cliché gets trotted out as Laura goes to investigate strange noises in the house, looking at her disheveled cupboard with relief, only to return to it shortly and find everything lined up with terrifying regularity. Anyone as frightened of her husband as Laura would run at the first sound and ask questions later.
In addition, the producers at 20th Century Fox felt the need to throw in a Julia playing dress-up scene, using the costume room at Ben’s theatre as an appropriate substitute. I hated being manipulated this way, but I must admit that having Kevin Anderson in the scene improved on it considerably. He’s a wonderful actor who understands how to portray just a guy who comes to understand how he might be frightening Laura, and why. He’s rejected for sex during a heavy makeout session, and accepts no for an answer, but not entirely gracefully. With a lesser actor, Ben would have been a complete gentleman, too good for words. Sadly, Bergin, who is a good actor, was given a character with less opportunity for nuance. It is an unfortunate fact of Julia Roberts films that the script is often formed to create the cardboard theatrics the bean counters demand to ensure success. It happened at the end of Erin Brockovich, and it happens here, too.
Nonetheless, Laura is an interesting character. She would seem to have it all, except that she’s just like millions of women from all classes and walks of life who are abused physically and psychologically by men close to them. Laura acknowledges to a woman she meets on the bus that she stayed with her husband too long, and feels that she is a coward. This is an interesting statement—clearly she was strong enough to get some things for herself while under his thumb, such as a part-time library job, and to hatch an elaborate and risky plan to leave him. It seems clear that her cowardice may be tied to her desire for the luxurious lifestyle he offered, or perhaps just her lack of self-confidence. Laura is a very real woman in recognizing these feelings in herself.
Her romance with Ben is also too fast. As onlookers, we think two such good-looking, age-appropriate people should be together (and, after all, that’s what the Hollywood shell of this movie sets us up to expect), but in truth, Laura is revealing the depth of her lack of confidence by hooking up after only a short period of caution. This is a woman whose lack of skills, as evidenced by the minimum-wage job she lands shelving books, forces her to rely on men to take care of her. Laura is a sister under the skin to Francine Hughes, and was lucky to have held onto her sense of self so that her torment lasted under four years. Fran was put on trial for killing her husband, but Sleeping with the Enemy makes sure there’s a witness to Laura’s attack to ensure that her murder of Martin will be deemed self-defense. So it looks like we have our Julia Roberts happy ending after all, but for once, she gave us a woman who punctured her gassy image.
“Mystery Science Theater 3000” (MST3K), started in 1988 on KTMA, a Minnesota television station, but was swiftly promoted onto Comedy Central and, later, the Sci-Fi Channel. After some initial line-up changes, the show settled into a formula, with comedian Joel Hodgson, cocreator of the show, playing a version of himself as a victimised everyman kept prisoner in space on the Satellite of Love by evil genius Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu). Forced to watch bad movies in a relentless experiment in mind control, he constructed a team of acerbic, antisocial robots, Crow (Beaulieu again) and Tom Servo (Kevin Murphy), in a touch inspired by Silent Running (1972), that helped him mock the often dreadful movies foisted upon them. The line-up altered through the years, most notably with members of the writing team, Mike Nelson, Mary Jo Pehl, and Bill Corbett, taking over the parts of victim, tormentor, and Crow, but the basic dynamic remained successfully intact until the show’s demise in 1999, thanks to those corporate maniacs! Damn them all to hell! At any rate, the warmly goofy tone of the witty, semi-dramatic interludes depicting the altercations of the Satellite of Love team and their hapless persecutors helped to make MST3K the most clever and sustained variation on an American TV tradition stretching back to the sepulchral quips of Vampira in the 1950s.
The limited production values gave the show’s creators a chance to exhibit much the same qualities as the material they were showcasing: low-budget, flagrantly tacky invention, but layered with hipster irony, referential dot-joining, and genuine movie-geek- affection for the weird, wonderful, and often just plain lame breed of cinema on display. The legacy of MST3K has been a little mixed for fans of schlock genre cinema because any film subjected to the show’s signature snark was instantly branded for all and sundry as noxious junk. That was patently untrue of a number of movies the team took on, including This Island Earth (1955), Danger: Diabolik (1967), and The Undead (1957), and other, sometimes excellent low-budget works. Also, apart from occasional dares, like roasting a tacky West German version of Hamlet from the early ’60s, they rarely took on the more difficult tasks of making fun of inflated pseudo-art, or pumped-up Hollywood idiocies like Top Gun (1986) or Pretty Woman (1990), which have no budgetary excuses for their rankness. Instead, the quips at their laziest replicated standard shtick of mocking not terribly photogenic actors or cheap and obvious special effects, whilst ignoring hints of intelligence in the script or direction. But MST3K was arguably as much about a variety of audience interaction and the peculiar fraternity that has always defined fans of junk cinema as it was about film criticism, and at their best, the team’s riffs constructed new, concurrent movie narratives.
The series’ most beloved episodes include their epic takedowns of the South African space opera Space Mutiny (1988), Coleman Francis’ rancid beatnik noir film Night Train to Mundo Fine aka Red Zone Cuba (1966), and Ray Dennis Steckler’s freaky The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (1966). MST3K often flailed trying to sustain its signature type of humour, but some of the team’s extended riffs, like the WWF-style commentary on the climactic bout of Godzilla vs. Megalon (1974) and the beach party of The Horror of Party Beach (1964), can stand up with any more polished challengers for sustained comic brilliance. Widely felt to be the show’s most definitive chapter is the 1993 episode that disinterred Harold P. Warren’s barely-screened “Manos” The Hands of Fate. Another product of that vintage year, 1966, “Manos” had failed to meet even its lowly ambition of becoming filler at drive-ins.
This film, whose title translates as “Hands The Hands of Fate,” was a labour of…well, not love, but rather a mixture of envy, gall, and entrepreneurial daring, for Warren, an El Paso fertiliser salesman. See? The jokes write themselves here. Legend has it Warren made the film after a lounge bar encounter with reputable Hollywood screenwriter Sterling Silliphant, whom he a bet he could produce a film for under $50,000. I’ve always been fascinated by the mystique of such risk-taking, low-budget cinema entrepreneurs, but for every George Romero or John Waters (whose no-frills early movies are name-checked at one point in the MST3K episode) thrown up by the cultural bayous, there are too many more like Warren, who simply redefined the depths of incompetence such fly-by-night filmmakers can descend to (a tradition still alive for us today thanks to Tommy Wiseau). Also, “Manos” The Hands of Fate is genuinely unwatchable without the MST3K crew (I know, I’ve tried) and would probably have remained in virtually complete ignominy had MST3K not disinterred it.
The funny thing is that “Manos” shows inklings of promise on a conceptual level. With its plot revolving around a nuclear family venturing into the southwestern backwoods and falling foul of retrograde menaces, it’s a certifiable first draft for the variations of that theme in 1970s horror cinema. The story setup, with the bizarre high priest of an obscure cult with a rugby team of wives and a satyr for a manservant, and the downbeat finale that was just becoming more popular in horror films, also hint at unexplored possibilities for black satire, or at least a half-decent soft-core porn film: paging Jesús Franco! There’s a vaguely existentialist air to the proceedings, as the family who are the protagonists finish up on a road to nowhere from which there is no return, and their smug presumptions swiftly unravel. There are signs Warren wanted to make a film with a lot more sex appeal, but because the modeling agency that he hired the evil cult leader’s wives from forbade anything but rather prim apparel, he spiced things up with the stodgiest mass catfight in cinema history. As Hodgson devastatingly sums it up at one point, “every single frame of this movie looks like someone’s last-known photograph.”
The family, consisting of dim-witted patriarch Mike (Warren himself, under the thin pseudonym of Hal Warren), equally dim-witted but slightly more intuitively aware mother Margaret (Diane Mahree), and young daughter Debbie, drive to their rendezvous with fate…and drive…and drive. The Robots start to fret, wondering if possibly this time Forrester is going to make them watch a snuff film. Finally a missed turn along a side road which seems signposted as the way to Valley Lodge (or “Valley Looge” as Joel misreads the poorly painted prop sign) brings them instead to a remote house overseen by Torgo, who mumbles uncertainly about not wanting to upset the Master (Tom Neyman).
This sequence highlights both the dire lacks of Warren’s film, and the singular inspiration of the MST3K team, as the watching trio make up dialogue for the characters that is both very funny and yet makes much more hay out of the ludicrous situation unfolding on screen than the script ever did. The spectacle of the family trying to negotiate Torgo’s physical strangeness and incoherent mix of warning and greasy hospitality is newly inflected with surreal politeness (“You got family, Torgo?”) and sarcasm (“So what does the Master approve?”), which, ironically, combine to make the scene feel much more…well, realistic—suddenly the characters have depth and pathos, as well as even deeper strangeness. Torgo himself—described initially by Servo as “Tom Cruise is Dr. John!” like a pitch for some nightmarish, yet alarming possible, musical biopic—is frustrated with his master for hogging all the women who fall into their trap, and leers over Margaret when he gets her alone, a liberty she’s appalled by in spite of the fact he’s slightly more attractive than her husband. The family dog runs outside and is later found mauled to death, and then Debbie disappears, prompting a search that brings the family closer to the shrine where the priest and his wives sleep. Quite a lot of MST3K’s comic style was attuned to mocking lazy exposition and cheap directorial tricks, but “Manos” offers a challenge in that regard, considering that Warren seems barely aware of any directorial tricks. A rare instance is a clumsy flashcut between the sight of the Master and his previously glimpsed portrait back in the house: “Ooooooh I get it,” Servo murmurs sarcastically.
Otherwise Warren’s lack of technique provides plentiful fuel for unforgiving ridicule. For example, Warren offers a long, boring, opening travel montage without quite seeming to understand the purpose of such montages is to compress the experience, not fill screen time—Hitchcock’s maxim of film being life with the boring parts cut out is numbingly forgotten. When two local cops pull over the family, Joel gives them the line, “Do you guys have any idea how you was framin’ back there?” A peculiar quality of “Manos” is that it almost seems to boil some generic basic of the era down to a pure essence, in a sort of revelatory, inadvertently satirical coup, encompassing a portrait of square ’60s suburbanites trapped in an existential crisis. Mike’s utter insensibility to any sort of caution and constant pig-headed patronisation is balanced by his being completely wrong and ineffectual all the time (“When is this guy going to start showing some simple competence?” Joel demands in exasperation when Mike can’t get his car started), and Margaret’s attitude is one of fretful anxiety and febrile passivity. At one stage, she gets grossly pawed by Torgo, whom she’s taller than and could probably push over with a sneeze considering his lousy satyr’s balance, but she shrinks back in torpid fear.
Another great MST3K trait was their capacity to rip fragments out of films and drop them into different genres, here perhaps best illustrated in a moment when Margaret combs her hair with a glazed and nervous aspect, and the riffs transform it into a musical: “Torgo, I just met a guy named Torgo!” Servo sings to the tune of “Maria” from West Side Story, whilst Joel gives her the line, as if we’re in a wistful romance, “Mrs. Phyllis Torgo…guess I kind of like it.” The trio are often at their best when making fun of movie music, and they eat the score of this film alive, filled as it is with long, haunting flute solos that sound like they’ve been stolen from some sensitive indie film about wandering homeless children (“It’s Herbie Mann-os!”), interspersed with dreadful jazzy lounge singing and hideous dance-pop.
There’s a sort of subplot with barely a hair’s relationship to anything in the rest of the movie that involves two teens in a convertible constantly making out and being harassed by the cops: they do serve a function of alerting the audience to the doom the family is heading into and alerting the cops to their peril. But really, the kissers are just there to kiss. “Manos”’s sleazy aspect, complete with intimations of paedophilia in the final twist, is pronounced throughout even as the film displays no idea of how to make it count for anything sexy or unnerving; instead, it is icing on the cake for the whole film’s rankness. “I’m guessing this why this whole movie was made,” Servo says during the catfight scene, whilst Crow, as one of the wives slaps hell out of the other, inserts a little Chinatown reference, “She’s my sister and my daughter!”, perhaps my favourite moment of the episode. Another is when we get our first glimpse of the Master’s crypt, which bears an odd resemblance to a bad variety club act, emphasised by the rattling drum and cymbal music. Here the MST3K team’s well of cultural references and habit of projecting them into the movies blends perfectly with the editing of the film, as Servo adopts the voice of an announcer: “Ladies and gentlemen, tonight at the Copacabana, Jules Podell proudly presents…Pat Benatar and Tricia Nixon!”
The “Manos” episode is also a prime, if not quite the best, example of MST3K’s host comedy sketches interpolated throughout, with the usually gleeful Forrester and Frank each apologising in turn for going too far for making the crew watch this movie. The increasingly distraught, exasperated robots and Joel try to turn lemons into lemonade by mocking the driving scenes in adopting the persona of a Minnesota Swede and his family enjoying the scenery with “bemused interest” and being harassed by a southern sheriff caricature, but the robots are so nauseated by the footage from the film they can’t finish the sketch. The episode ends with Forrester and Frank ordering pizza, which is delivered by Torgo himself (played by future host Mike Nelson) in his ponderously icky fashion.
To fill out the episode owing to the short running time of “Manos”, it starts with part of an old Chevrolet sales-training film Hired, a bleakly tacky and hectoring piece of work about a senior company salesman complaining to his father about his lazy underlings, but being convinced by his father to put real effort into training them. The trio’s riffing on Hired beautifully draws out the quasi-fascistic edge in the short’s theme, acting, and style, presenting Chevrolet salesmanship as a pseudo-military operation requiring deep commitment and utter perfection of technique, capturing in its way how American big business tried to transfer the ethos of military service into civilian life after WWII. The leading salesman’s gruff advice is rounded out by Crow’s adding, “Name names!” whilst Joel has another ask, “Are you now or have you ever been a Ford owner?” Hired might, in its way, showcase the felicitous sensibility of the MST3K team even more perfectly than “Manos”. As for Warren, I have no idea whether he ever collected his bet from Silliphant, but thankfully, he never made another movie.
Well before Newsweek declared in June 1986 that it was more unlikely for an unmarried 40-year-old woman to get a husband than to be killed by a terrorist, writer Armistead Maupin struck a nerve with San Francisco’s unmarried women—and a lot of other people—with his portrait of the city’s romantic scene. What became Maupin’s first novel, Tales of the City, started showing up in serialized form, first in 1974 in The Pacific Sun newspaper, and then switching to The San Francisco Chronicle in 1976, exposing the general readership of these papers to the travails of heterosexual women in a city teeming with gay residents, as well as the way various factions in the city lived, loved, and interacted. In much the same way as Maupin’s series and eventual eight books opened a few eyes in their fun and offbeat way, the two miniseries based on his work created a minor earthquake for people like me with little or no exposure to gay life or San Francisco social customs.
In many ways, Tales of the City and its sequel tell a pretty familiar story about the search for love. Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney, in the first role I and many other people ever saw her play) is a fresh-faced young woman from Cleveland who decides to make her vacation in San Francisco permanent. She feels at home in San Francisco, she tells her flabbergasted mother over the phone, though it’s fairly obvious that she’s been seduced by its spectacular scenery and laissez-faire atmosphere that are worlds away from her home in the American heartland. She takes up her asterisk-flowered luggage and bunks in with Connie (Parker Posey), an old friend from high school who is singularly dedicated to finding her sexual identity by reading self-help books and smutty magazines and picking up men at discos and the grocery store. After seeing Connie bring home a man she herself had rejected, Mary Ann starts looking for a new apartment. A distinctive classified draws her to 28 Barbary Lane, a courtyard building on Russian Hill that looks like an idyllic land that time forgot. She quickly becomes the newest member of the small “family” headed by flamboyant landlady Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis) who welcomes each new tenant with a joint made from the marijuana she grows in her garden.
28 Barbary Lane forms the heart of the intersecting stories that have Mrs. Madrigal and her low-rent tenants—hippie fag hag Mona Ramsey (Chloe Webb in the first series, Nina Siemaszko in the second), gay looking-for-love Michael Tolliver (Marcus D’Amico/Paul Hopkins), womanizer Brian Hawkins (Paul Gross/Whip Hubley), and Mary Ann—bumping into the lives of the high-rent Halcyon/Day households. Edgar Halcyon (Donald Moffat) runs an ad agency, employing Mona as a copywriter and hiring Mary Ann as his secretary on Mona’s recommendation. His son-in-law Beauchamp (pronounced Beechum) Day (Thomas Gibson) is a selfish lout who seduces and dumps Mary Ann over a weekend, much to his wife DeDe’s (Barbara Garrick) dismay, and has a one-night stand with Michael’s boyfriend Jon Fielding (Bill Campbell) in the gay baths. DeDe consoles herself in the arms of Lionel Wong (Philip Moon), the son of her Chinese grocer who delivers; Mona leaves Michael, who moved in with her after he moved out of his former lover’s apartment, and returns for financial security and a platonic relationship to her rich lesbian lover D’orothea Wilson (Cynda Williams/Francoise Robertson), who models for the Halcyon agency; Mary Ann, who tried to pick up Michael’s first lover at the grocery store, doesn’t find love until the second series, and then it’s with an amnesiac named Burke (Colin Ferguson) who throws up every time he sees roses; and Michael and Jon break up and make up. Most important, Edgar and Anna find true love together in the last six months of Edgar’s life, a love that endures even after Anna tells Edgar that she is a transsexual who grew up in the brothel where Edgar lost his virginity, and that Mona is her daughter.
Got all that?
Of all the big cities I’ve had the pleasure of visiting, San Francisco is the one that seems most like a small town, or series of small towns all planted side by side on its hilly streets, open for some neighborly snooping through a pair of binoculars (which Brian and a party of gay men indulge in during the second series). Being a port city and a jewel on the magnetic California coast, it is also a place of transience. Tales of the City emphasizes not only San Francisco’s small-town incestuousness, but also the reinvention that California offers its teeming masses. Every type of sexual arrangement is explored, and the nontraditional ones appear to breed more stable, happy people than the socially accepted ones.
The people who seem most trapped and unhappy are those who play by society’s rules: DeDe’s wealth screws her into a socket of social propriety that has her a virtual prisoner of public opinion and her unhappy marriage; her mother Frannie, strikingly played by Nina Foch in the first series and pallidly by Diana Leblanc in the second, is so in her cups she doesn’t notice that her husband has fallen in love with someone else. Frannie escapes in the second series, where her drinking is drastically downplayed and her freedom to enjoy her life and money doesn’t come until she turns 60 and is eligible to join another very exclusive club for women exploring their hedonist side. It seems telling to me that this club, called Pinus (hardy har har), implies that these women who have married, raised families, and volunteered for all the right charities have long ago left behind pampering and sexual fulfillment—all the things Pinus’ stock of handsome, well-built young men will offer them for a price.
Maupin is, in fact, rather unkind to women in this series. Mona goes postal on a client selling pantyhose, loses her job, and then basically becomes completely lost. She is very close to Michael (“Mouse”), but leaves him with hardly a by-your-leave, refuses to have sex with D’orothea and leaves her, too, and then just leaves. A random encounter—again fated in the stars by a Maupin coincidence—puts her in company of her grandmother, “Mother Mucca” (Jackie Burroughs), madam of the Blue Moon brothel in Winnamucca, Nevada, and eventually, the entire Ramsey family ends up in or near Barbary Lane. Mona’s vengeful mother Betty (Swoosie Kurtz) comes to see her estranged daughter and blackmail her husband, and is instead sent packing to avoid a scandal. Mary Ann is ill-treated by Beauchamp—who seems to be the biggest douche of all because he plays both sides of the fence and loves no one but himself—and lets her dreamboat Burke go off to New York without her because she is unwilling to leave her cozy family at Barbary Lane. And DeDe and her new love, D’orothea go off to a place where, D’orothea says, “there are no strangers”—Jonestown.
Brian was potentially the most interesting character to me. A hetero man who dropped off his fast track to success as a lawyer and became first a professional protester (“I was at Wounded Knee.”) and then just a guy waking up with a different woman every morning, he seems to be a pretty typical representative of straight guys in San Francisco, at least as imagined/observed by Armistead Maupin and his love-starved hetero women. Paul Gross played Brian with a real complexity—acting like a complete jerk and revealing his serious-minded background as something of a dark secret. By contrast, Whip Hubley is Mr. Nice Guy through and through and made me completely lose interest in this rather dark character. His story line in the second series seems cheap and facile while trying to follow Anna’s advice to find a nice girl to be sincere with.
Michael is mainly an unemployed and unpretentious guy from Florida who has a hard time with self-esteem. He is the entry point to gay culture for the rest of us, using gay slang and generally being sweet and romantic. I liked Marcus D’Amico a bit better in the role because he wasn’t so pretty and he seemed less affected, but Paul Hopkins was a close second. Mary Ann becomes his fag hag in the second series, but I missed his intimacy with Mona as played by the intriguing Chloe Webb. Linney’s affection for him just seemed a little too big. In fact, most things about her character and performance seemed too everything—too naïve, too flamboyant, too understanding—and I put this down mainly to the writing. I don’t feel Maupin or his fellow screenwriters had a real understanding of this character, and if Linney didn’t look so much the part and try so hard to fill her with a bit of depth, Mary Ann might have been a complete misfire.
If this series belongs to anyone, it is Olympia Dukakis. This may be her best role, and I hope I won’t insult her by saying that she looks as though she could have been a man at one point in her life. This androgyny helps make Anna a very believable character physically, but obviously, her performance goes deeper. Her life as a man surfaces in her response to situations, but her mother hen routine is strongly felt. I sensed right through the TV screen the atmosphere of home she created in the almost enchanted setting of 28 Barbary Lane. Her love affair with Edgar develops beautifully, the only love story in this series that really touched my soul for its maturity and depth. When Edgar dies, I actually believed that Anna could sense the moment it happened. Of course, the asshole Anna admitted to being when she was Andy comes through, too. She has a genuine panic attack when she fears Betty will destroy her family, and it is this possessive love that has made her tenants prisoners in their haven. None of them is truly gainfully employed, emotionally committed to anyone but each other, or looking to fulfill any dream but being part of a family—and how much of that is generated by Anna’s dream, one wonders. Ultimately, this is kind of a sad story.
As a series, I prefer the first part for its greater emotional intimacy, particularly as generated by Dukakis and the great Donald Moffat. I preferred the gritty cinematography of Walt Lloyd in the first series to the slick, brightly colored work of Serge Ladoucer. Some scenes as shot by Lloyd were atmospheric and chilling, such as when Jon is cruising silently through the steam of the baths or the raucousness and competitiveness in the End Up Club, where Michael enters a dance contest to win money to pay the rent. The first series also attracted quite a few major celebrities, from Moffat and Foch to Karen Black, Bob Mackie, Paul Dooley, and Rod Steiger. I thought it was hilarious that everyone was watching “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,”—a favorite of mine and apparently of the entire gay community—only to have Mary Kay Place, a star of that late-night soap opera, appear in a small part as the leader of a topical ladies luncheon whose subject of the month was their personal experience of rape. The second series had fewer surprise guest stars (perhaps because it was filmed largely in Canada instead of California) though Swoosie Kurtz whipped out a terrific performance from a cliché-ridden and brief part. Both series indulged in a cloak-and-dagger mystery, but only the first series made use of the Northern California setting to evoke Hitchcockian suspense. The latter series simply devolved into silliness that left me cold. But then, the warmth of the free-love culture San Francisco represented to the world was about to give way to the horrors of AIDS, and the tender mercies of Tales of the City could no longer make sense.
Yusheng Liang, who died in 2009, is credited as one of the writers who modernised the wu xia novel, the imperishably popular Chinese mythological pulp genre. One of his most iconic works, The Bride with White Hair (1958), has been adapted several times for the big and small screens, but never more famously than with the two-part epic made by Ronnie Yu and David Wu, who split directorial duties but shared writing credits on both films. Both directors parlayed their success with this movie into disappointing Hollywood careers, but The Bride with White Hair diptych is one of the most eye-catching and dramatically inventive examples of the evolving modern Hong Kong genre cinema. It was made when the classic wire-fu style defined by directors like King Hu and Tsui Hark had not yet been corrupted by CGI, but it is vividly modern in other respects. The aesthetics of the Hong Kong genre school both recall Hollywood’s all-but-lost enthusiasm for raw storytelling and cinematic action panache, whilst retaining its own peculiarities, and The Bride with White Hair pushed the boundaries of the school. Its relatively unsheathed erotic edge and its modern thematic concerns pick at the surface the generic conceits and traditional assumptions, and present wild variations on its central issue of masculinity and femininity in fatal conflict.
The Bride with White Hair’s unusual structure offers a prologue that depicts a party of Imperial soldiers travelling to a distant, enchanted mountain where they’ve heard grows a rare flower with amazing healing properties that blooms only once every 10 years. They need the flowers to cure the Emperor’s health, but when they reach the peak, they’re astounded to find a man seated in the billowing snow, watching over the flowers. He slaughters them, declaring that there is only one person the flowers are for. This guardian is Zhuo Yihang, whose life story is recounted in flashback.
Zhuo was an orphan adopted into and raised with the values and fighting techniques of the Wu-Tang clan, one of eight syndicated sects that form the Chung Yuan. Zhuo proved to be a problematic student because of his innate individualism and discomfort with a life lived according to strict hierarchies, but he was also clearly the most talented. In spite of the efforts of one of the teachers, Bai Yun (Law Lok-lam), to promote his daughter Ho Lu-Hua (Yammie Lam) as a potential chieftain for the Wu-Tang, Zhuo, after clearing himself of charges of assault and battery against some young men from rival clans, is nominated to lead a coalition of their forces against the forces of Ji Wushuang. This enemy gang is named after its leaders, conjoined male and female twins (Francis Ng and Elaine Lui) who are evil sorcerers, once expelled from China by the Chung Yuan clans. Now the twins have returned at the head of a cult of followers who practice human sacrifice and erotic rituals.
Their chief warrior and strong right fist is the whip-wielding Devil Wolf Girl (Brigitte Lin), so dubbed because she was raised from infancy by wolves and retained a devilish relish for battle after being trained in the deadly arts by Ji. But Zhuo, seeing her at war, remembers her when she was still living with the wolves and playing her pipe under the moonlight. He tracks her down after a battle to a ruined city where she bathes in a sacred spring. In spite of her fury at his intransigence, she has to return to her overlord before she can kill him. Such a sequence has echoes through to Western mythology, like the tale of Artemis and Actaeon, with its coded relationship of voyeurism and the inviolable female space. Later, when the Chung Yuan army advances into Wushuang’s territory, Lian and the cultists ambush the coalition encampment, and she and Zhuo square off. Zhuo challenges her to a weaponless fight, but Lian is struck by an arrow shot by Lu-Hua, and Zhuo protectively rushes her away to the ancient city, where he helps her recover and becomes her lover. He gives her the name Lian Nichang, and during his absence, he’s written off as a traitor by the clans. The male Ji Wushuang desperately desires Nichang, and is stoked to heights of jealousy; when she returns to the cult to ask for release so she can live with Zhuo, the male insists she sleep with him first. When she fails to please him, she’s forced to undergo a punishing ritual humiliation.
The Bride with White Hair films share common traits with Hong Kong cinema, from the style of humour and character interaction that seem distinctly more naïve than what we’re used to in Western cinema, to the fluent, utterly confident sense of storytelling that seems at once beautifully simple and irreducibly sophisticated, moving at a pace that forces the viewer to keep up. Both episodes soar to rare heights of stoked emotion and drenched décor effects, but it’s the way their inflated set-pieces revolve around metaphorical versions of everyday travails that really drives them. It’s most marked in Nichang’s singular insistence that Zhuo trust her, a key component of any adult relationship, made here to hinge on an act of mass murder and magical shape-shifting. But likewise, Zhuo’s chafing against the authoritarianism and clannish narrowness of Chung Yuan life evokes any kind of discomfort in imposed social roles.
Yu was most interested in taking a Romeo and Juliet angle on Yusheng’s novel, emphasising its heroes as struggling with the deterministic forces that have created them. Throughout the two films also flows a richly transformative investigation into extreme visions of gender conflict and emotional violence. Nichang, in particular, lives on a balancing point between transcendent epiphany and infernal rage in the first film, linked to the natural world and primal forces, whereas fellow orphan Zhuo is associated with human, hierarchical society and its entrapping concepts. But both are characterised as exceptional rebels who cause terrible destruction because of their wayward identities. In the sequel, Nichang relentlessly pummels a young woman almost to death to save her the lesson never to trust a man. The conjoined male and female villains of the first film, who, with their magic powers, can beat up people without touching them, also embody the story’s twisted take on heterosexual relations, and add immeasurably to the perversity and drama of the action. The his/her arguments between the twins, sister perpetually mocking her brother for his agonised lust for Nichang, which proves to be their Achilles’ heel, builds to the amazingly pathological images of the brother stabbing his own arm in masochistic frustration, the sister screaming and begging him to stop, and later, when he’s trying to have sex with a willfully passionless Nichang, his sister, “lying” on his back mocking him, building to eruptive frustration that causes him to smash Nichang’s head repeatedly against the bed frame. It’s the sort of scene where you wonder why David Cronenberg or Paul Verhoeven didn’t come up with it first.
Dashes of Spielbergian ambition dot The Bride with White Hair’s visual texture, with the Indian styling of Ji’s infernal cult, massed in a chanting relish of evil, suggesting the influence of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), as well as a hint of Bollywood flavouring. But with its colour-drenched frames, dramatically tilted camera angles, and the eerily beautiful, yet lightning-paced images of the warriors bounding through fog-shrouded forests, Yu, like Johnny To’s wild The Heroic Trio from the same year, effectively synthesises Hollywood high style with the traditional effects of wu xia cinema. Yu also employs a headlong rush of narrative clearly learnt from Tsui Hark, and he’s not terribly interested in developing with clarity a political subplot involving General Wu San-Kuei (Eddy Ko), an officer Zhuo had known since childhood who sets out to become Emperor, adding to a slightly diffuse quality to the narrative that is the film’s biggest fault. But the blend of fantasy imagery, and a coherent use of that imagery’s protean possibilities for investigating complex aspects of the psyche, help the film earn comparison with the classical mythology it evokes.
The blend of the utterly fantastic and the emotionally overwrought builds to two brilliant sequences. The gauntlet Nichang has to walk in leaving Ji’s cult sees her walking upon hot coals, and shards of jagged glass while being mercilessly beaten by the cultists. She emerges, bloodied and near collapse, but still manages enough pride and power to walk out. But when she returns to the ancient city, she finds Zhuo has left. Fellow members of the Wu-Tang, including Lu-Hua, have tracked him down and convinced him to return to explain himself to the head priest, but on arrival, they find the other Wu-Tang have all been massacred, the head priest’s severed head dangling from the ceiling, and one wounded man reporting that the Wolf Girl attacked them. When Nichang arrives looking for Zhuo, the remnants of the cult attack her, and even Zhuo believes she’s guilty thanks to the dying man’s testimony. Nichang is deeply offended and heartbroken at the distrust, especially after what she’s been through for Zhuo, and when Lu-Hua manages to stab her with a sword, rather than dying, she’s transmogrified into a white-haired demon. She skewers Lu-Hua with a sword, tears off her red wedding gown to reveal a white one, and slaughters the rest of the Wu-Tang in a supernatural fury. The first massacre proves to have been the work of Ji, having used their power to assume Nichang’s form, and she and Zhuo join forces long enough to slice the evil sorcerer in half, allowing the male to release a sigh of relief before dying: “Such a relief to sleep this way!”
Yu’s film concludes on a bravely unresolved note with the haunted Zhuo on his mountaintop vigil, transfixed by his failures, and Nichang having disappeared into the underworld, now a spirit of purified wrath. Wu’s follow-up takes the story well beyond the limits of Yusheng’s novel: it’s 10 years later, and Zhou continues his vigil as the time of the flower’s blooming comes near. The Wu-Tang is struggling to rebuild after the massacre, but Nichang has entirely embraced her dark side and is relentlessly killing off all the sects of the Chung Yuan. The Wu-Tang tradition has come down to its last heir, Fung Chun-Kit (Sunny Chan), who’s marrying Yu Qin or “Lyre” (Joey Mann), daughter of another clan, taking the risk of incurring Nichang’s wrathful efforts to destroy all marriages within the clan. The image of the severed Ji twins presages a theme developed here of gender war, as Nichang has become a declared misanthropist, saving wronged and dishonoured women and bringing them into her cult, including her chief henchwoman and crypto-lesbian lover Chen Yuanyuan (Ruth Winona Tao), inculcating them with powers to become ruthless killers whilst giving them each a taste of revenge on their specific male abusers. On Kit and Lyre’s wedding night, Nichang breaks into the temple and savagely beats the couple, but when one of Feng’s friends manages to help him escape, Nichang spirits Ling to her hidden fortress and brainwashes her into becoming a psychotic assassin of men. Feng is nursed back to health by tomboy Wu-Tang adherent Moon (Christy Chung), who’s in love with him and sad that he married Ling, but sets out with him and a band of other young Chung Yuan warriors to seek out and storm Nichang’s fortress.
Wu’s half of the story presents several mirroring images of both the first film’s characters and their travails: where Zhuo and Nichang’s schism was something they tried to resolve in spite of their disparate worlds, Kit and Ling’s split is artificially imposed. The original’s core love triangle is reconfigured into a proliferation of grazing, inchoate relationships. Moon pines for Kit and is admired in turn by his determined but less good-looking fellow warrior Liu Hang (Richard Suen), who proves nonetheless a determined and able helpmate. Moon, with her mannish affectations—she’s seen constantly chewing on a cigarette—but thoroughly heterosexual ambitions stand in contrast to the cult Nichang runs with her collective of female assassins and their hideout’s air of lush sensuality. The clan warriors are placed under the command of the aged “Granny” of the Au Mei clan (Lily Chung), whose own mane of white hair sees her momentarily mistaken for the witch when she comes to take command. Moon fires off arrows at her, but she’s so good, she catches the arrows between her teeth. She’s also a disarmingly unaffected, calm, and wise person who prefers acting in defence and delegates to Kit when the time to attack arrives. Nichang in her transmogrified witch state can throw out her long white hair in tentacle-like coils that pierce the skin and drip poison. Moon is riddled with strands of the hair, and she’s left on death’s door, forbidden from attempting any kung fu; but she still leaps into the fray to save her friends with tragic results.
A lot of credit for the heft of the films is owed to its terrific pairing of Cheung and Lin, two of the best actors in Hong Kong cinema (though Cheung’s contribution to the second film is disappointingly brief), and especially Lin, who commands the films like an empress. They both considerably overshadow the younger actors in the sequel. There’s a touch of tribute to John Carpenter as the languorous, suggestive sequences of Lyre being ritually subsumed into the cult by Chen Yuanyuan echo the similar scenes of heroines in Big Trouble in Little China (1986), whilst the scene in which Kit dances before his wedding, blindfolded and playing a lyre given as a wedding present, has a quality similar to the rapturous little touches with which Zhang Yimou would decorate his wu xia films. After one fight scene, Wu cuts to observe the glittering drops of a slain man’s blood drip from the fronds of a silvery bush, a poetic flourish of a kind that dots both films, and it’s worth noting the intensity of the design element to the films, with the great costume design by Emi Wada and the set decoration, especially in the recurring contrast between the livid whiteness of Nichang and setting rendered either in red, the same as the red blood that spits out of so many bodies, or rich nocturnal blue. Wu, a long-time editor who also served in that capacity on the first episode, offers direction slightly more prosaic than Yu’s, and the initial Seven Samurai-like story set-up more familiar, failing to ruffle the settled rhythms and naïve humour of the genre as much.
But the story arc again echoes with fidelity a familiar mythic tale, and proceeds with wildly eccentric energy, building to even more floridly grandiose climaxes. When the Chung Yuan war party is all but wiped out infiltrating Nichang’s citadel, Kit and Liu are advised by Granny to seek out Zhuo Yuhang, as she’s one of the few who knows where’s he’s been hiding all these years. Wu obfuscates whether they find him in the chilly extremes of the sacred mountain, cutting from them stumbling away in a blizzard with Zhou watching them from his pinnacle, to the determined young duo deciding to attack the fortress again with planted explosives. It’s in the last few minutes that Wu’s installment goes for broke as his heroes give battle, Lei dying in combat with one of female cultists, dynamiting both himself and her after giving her a kiss to show her what a “real man” is like, and Zhuo turning up in time to forestall Nichang from killing Kit and Lyre. The confrontation of the two former lovers, long delayed, pays off in the delirious image of Zhuo, once again dropping his arms before Nichang, being skewered by her long tendrils of hair, proffering the magical flowers that get burnt to a crisp by a falling cinder. Zhuo’s proof of his still-smouldering ardour and contrition brings Nichang back from a homicidal rage, only to gain a sword in the back from the jealous Chen Yuanyuan, and all three die as the fortress falls flaming about their ears. It’s the sort of giddy, Wagnerian climax that one so often expects from fantasy-action tales, but so rarely gets.
Bram Stoker’s most famous creation has retained his culturally iconic status largely because of the many fascinatingly varied cinematic takes on the sanguinary Count. His story invites inventive interpretation, with underpinnings that are intrinsically mythic and psychologically primal, yet parsed by modern processes of rational investigation and juxtaposed realism. It’s also expressively bound up with the transformations just beginning to afflict Western society when Stoker published the work. These different tensions within the tale need only be tweaked slightly in any direction to change it comprehensively. Look at the films, and the artistic and cultural traditions therein, evolved from this work. F. W. Murnau offered a Germanic, Death-and-the-Maiden take in his expressionistic Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens (1921). Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) conjured a high-gothic, dreamlike world that belittled the neurotic repression of its heroes and offered the suavest of vampire overlords. Terence Fisher’s rip-roaring, ironically realistic Dracula (1958) stripped things down to basics and portrayed invasive sexuality afflicting the uptight bourgeoisie. Werner Herzog’s epic recasting of Murnau’s template with Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979), delved even deeper to create a medieval-flavoured folk myth. Various interesting TV takes in the 1970s tried to stick close to the novel and draw out its literary intricacy, whilst John Badham’s 1979 version offered Frank Langella as a romance-novel antihero. Guy Maddin’s Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002) was a blend of dance and illustrative fantasia.
All of these versions have fans and several have a claim to greatness. Francis Ford Coppola took his chances in the early ’90s, and it paid off for him, at least in the short-term. Bram Stoker’s Dracula was his last popular hit to date, and it’s still held in fond regard by a lot of younger movie fans, largely because of the magical nexus of Gen-X icon Winona Ryder and a swooning version of the tale perfect for the burgeoning teen Goth subculture. Coppola had begun his directorial career with horror films, including his uncredited work on The Terror and his mainstream debut, Dementia 13 (1963), under the aegis of Roger Corman, so he knew his way around the genre. Being a young horror fan and movie buff at the time, the promise of Coppola making a Dracula film was exciting to the deepest parts of my anatomy. And yet the result was a disappointment so severe that I’ve never quite shaken it off in estimating my opinion of Coppola. I’ve only returned to it again a couple of times in the nearly two decades that have passed since its release. I generally feel Coppola’s post-Apocalypse Now work is badly underappreciated, particularly One from the Heart (1981), Rumblefish (1983), The Cotton Club (1984), and The Godfather Part III (1990). And yet Bram Stoker’s Dracula is definite proof of many of the worst things said about Coppola in those waning days: that he was only interested in style, and that his care with the human element was gone.
The initial selling point of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (hence the title) is the nominal notion that it’s a more accurate adaptation of Stoker than usual. It does restore many elements from the novel, from some of Stoker’s surprisingly potent horror, like Dracula’s feeding a child to his coterie of vampire femmes, to supporting characters like the gallant American Quincey Morris. And yet the possessive title starts to seem more than a bit laughable, because Coppola’s and screenwriter James V. Hart’s own digressions, though different from Murnau’s, are just as great. Conceptually, Coppola’s version is epic, and that is this film’s most resilient quality. Other versions reduce Dracula to a kind of rogue seducer and rodent-like survivor, but Coppola aims to flesh out Stoker’s hinted, if never quite fulfilled, portrait of Dracula as a titan with control over men and elements, a fallen king who only needs a foothold to commence an unparalleled reign of terror. Like other more recent versions, Bram Stoker’s Dracula conflates the historical inspiration for Stoker’s story by commencing with a stylised flashback to Vlad III “The Impaler” (Gary Oldman) fighting for the survival of Christianity against the Turks.
Vlad wins, only for his beloved wife Elisabeta (Winona Ryder) to commit suicide after a false message declaring his death is shot by arrow into the castle by his enemies. Returning home to her body, Vlad is enraged when the officiating priest (Anthony Hopkins) won’t give the sacrament of extreme unction to a suicide, and he declares a vow against God, stabbing the crucifix in his castle’s abbey and drinking the blood that pours forth from it. Four centuries later, young lawyer Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) is commissioned by his boss to replace his predecessor, the now mad and incarcerated Renfield (Tom Waits), to travel to Transylvania and arrange for the decrepit, bizarre Count Dracula to move to London. Of course, after sealing the deal with the Count, Harker is left stranded in Dracula’s castle at the mercy of his vampire brides. Dracula hits the shores of England and quickly sets sights on Harker’s young fiancée Wilhelmina “Mina” Murray (Ryder again) and her saucier friend Lucy Westenra (Sadie Frost). Lucy’s triumvirate of suitors, Dr. Jack Seward (Richard E. Grant), Arthur Holmwood (Cary Elwes), and Morris (Bill Campbell), dismayed at Lucy’s afflicted state, call in Seward’s mentor on obscure illnesses and arcane things, Professor Abraham Van Helsing (Hopkins again) to advise. He quickly diagnoses vampirism. The cure? More stake in her diet.
Whilst what follows traces the outlines of Stoker’s tale, Coppola’s wild cinematic flourishes quickly swing far away from the oneiric, creeping menace of the novel. So, too, does Hart’s addition of a new element—Mina is not just another target for Dracula’s attentions, but the reincarnation of Elisabeta, for whom Dracula hungers like the world’s oldest lovesick teenager. This notion essentially cuts against the grain of Stoker’s story, which is about rapacious, eruptive sexuality, and the way it subordinates conscious social constructs, not transcendent amorous attachment. Meanwhile, Coppola attempted to prove on multiple levels how hip he was, stirring the pot with relentless visual artifice, film references, MTV crowd casting, and subtext-ransacking figurations. Coppola set out not merely to make an effective horror movie, but to make every horror movie. His film contains direct visual quotes from Nosferatu, both Browning’s and Fisher’s Dracula, as well as The Cat and the Canary (1927), Faust (1926), Vampyr (1931), White Zombie (1932), The Wolf Man (1941), La Belle et la Bête (1946), Wolfen (1981), The Exorcist (1973), and The Shining (1980). The new central story motif comes from Karl Freund’s The Mummy (1932). The kinkier elements take clear licence from the ’70s semi-underground horror of Jean Rollin and Jésus Franco, and the deliberately po-faced mixture of mockery and erotic exploration in early scenes between Mina and Lucy resemble Ken Russell’s similarly artificial, anarchic take on Stoker, The Lair of the White Worm (1987).
But Russell’s film, less refined and expensive, is nonetheless rather better, largely because it was a pure product of Russell’s unique sensibility, whereas Coppola here is mixing and matching like a half-interested DJ. There are signs he felt an essential empathy for Dracula as a tragic villain not so far from Michael Corleone and Colonel Kurtz, but the way this is handled saps the story’s intensity and excitement. White Worm also had a strongly focused lead performance by Amanda Donohoe as a Tory bitch-goddess, whereas here Oldman as Dracula seems completely at a loss in presenting a singular characterisation when the story and style seem set on sabotaging him. The seriously fragmented impression he leaves is exacerbated by Coppola’s giddy presentations of his various guises. Dracula is, successively, a flowing-locked cavalier, a withered, ludicrously attired old drag queen, an Oscar Wilde-ish dandy, and various forms of monster. Coppola embellishes on the way Dracula ages in reverse in the novel, but he neglects to give connections and explanations for a lot of his changing guises, and Oldman’s characterisation changes with each, offering grossly hammy flourishes, particularly in the first third. Coppola makes the Count and his environment so archly bizarre it’s a wonder Harker doesn’t run off screaming at first sight, and the film’s early portions offered a wealth of material to satirists, from Dracula’s independently gesturing shadow to his amusing hairdo, which the likes of Mel Brooks and The Simpsons have since made a meal of. Within moments of arriving, Dracula is waving a sword at Harker and ranting, lapping Harker’s blood off his razor blade, and delivering the famous “children of the night” with overblown camp relish. Indeed, whilst Coppola’s editing, special effects, and camerawork are all remarkably energetic, on closer inspection, it’s hard to miss how flatly and poorly directed most of the interpersonal scenes are. Then again, there’s only so much anyone can do with dialogue like this:
Mina: Can a man and a woman really do that?
Lucy: I did only last night!
Mina: Fibber! No you did not!
Lucy: Yes I did…well only in my dreams. Jonathan measures up, doesn’t he?
What is this, Carry On Dracula? Coppola aims straightforwardly to explicate the coded sexual elements in the novel. Dracula’s brides are pure carnal fantasy, suckling at Harker’s blood and bodily appendages. Lucy, rather more the flirt in the book than the prim Mina, is here completely reconfigured into a budding tart happy to toy with her three suitors whilst pining for sexual acrobatics, giggling and wondering with Mina over the ancient erotic Oriental illustrations in Richard Burton’s translation of Arabian Nights. How exactly two well-brought-up young ladies got hold of such outré material isn’t made explicit, but it is a cunning introduction to the peculiar way the Victorians vicariously partook of erotica through the mystique of the historic and the Orient. When Dracula arrives on English shores in wolf form, he makes directly for Lucy’s house and bangs her in werewolf form in her garden, after she and Mina have been dancing in the rain and kissing in overripe ecstatics. Theoretically, this should be tremendously cogent and subversive in the fashion of some of the originators of the erotic horror style, but instead it mostly comes across as try-hard. A real problem is that Coppola goes to no effort at all to invoke a proper sense of repression and reaction, as Fisher, in particular, realised so beautifully. Coppola’s all-encompassing stylisation, which at many points starts to resemble a Dracula-themed video clip, numbs the narrative imperatives. Seward and Van Helsing are reduced to druggie weirdoes as crazy as anyone they treat. Seward is even seen injecting morphine, and his asylum suggests Peter Brook’s Marat/Sade crossbred with the pastiche of Terry Gilliam.
Like Basic Instinct, with which it shared a high-water mark in mainstream Hollywood’s embrace of the adult in 1992, there’s something amazingly asexual about the sexiness on screen, with Frost’s Lucy lolling on a bed with her boobs constantly falling out leaving a desultory flavour. Amongst Coppola’s fragments of visual rhapsody, bobbing corpuscles are a frequent motif, perhaps underlining why some thought of the film as a metaphor for AIDS, especially with the tale as sexed-up as this. Most crucially, placing a sentimentalised love story at the story’s heart basically smothers the erotic anarchism in the cradle. The clear dichotomy here, between Dracula’s predatory intentions and exploitation of Lucy’s desires to make her a ready victim, and his wanting to win over Mina through more traditional romantic means, is silly on several levels. After a meet-cute on the street, he’s giving Mina candlelit dinners, encouraging her to cuddle a white wolf, and swapping heavy sighs. This mocks the film’s own provocations by reducing the matters at stake to a lust-vs-love dynamic. When the time comes for the text’s key moment of Mina drinking Dracula’s blood from his chest, which is supposed to possess a queasy mixture of coercion and forbidden indulgence, Dracula gets all conscientious: “No, I do not vant dis!” he declares, against the grain of everything the character stands for, only for Mina to insistently drink, with Oldman contorting as if receiving the world’s greatest blow job. Secondly, there’s no subsequent substance, hysteria, or passion to the tug-of-war between Dracula and Harker for Mina’s affection, as Coppola rushes through the latter stages of the story, and never achieves the kind of poetic dissent Rollin’s films could muster.
The final impression, which left me so seriously irritated all those years ago and for reasons that have since become all too clear, is of a film that’s identifiable as a significant step on the route to the tedious Twilight-isation of the vampire mystique. Another thing that’s hard to get around is the fact that Bram Stoker’s Dracula is barely effective as a horror movie. Corny gore and make-up effects are aplenty, but there’s no coherence of mood or eeriness to the proceedings. Apocalypse Now sports a far firmer sense of dread and building metaphysical menace. Instead, Coppola trucks in some of his visual fixations, like cross-cutting between action and a religious ceremony, with lingering views of classical ceilings and religious icons, and bleeding crosses that heal, suggesting a Catholic-porn edition of the story. That the film is visually impressive and occasionally awesome is easy to concede. Coppola builds certain sequences to crescendos, and there are some excellent set-pieces that display Coppola’s sense of sheer cinematic movement, particularly a quality piece of swashbuckling when the heroes battle Dracula’s Magyar serfs. Coppola takes the epoch in which the story is set as an excuse to explore the evolution of cinema itself, from magic-lantern shows through to the flicker of the nickelodeon, one of which Dracula and Mina visit, to the stylised expressionism of Murnau and Lang, the lush artifice of the Hollywood back lot, and on to the most advanced swirl of technical effects.
And yet the effect, whilst bracing for movie buffs, leaves the movie perched uneasily between mainstream storytelling prerogatives and the world’s most elaborate student film. In this regard, it strongly resembles Coppola’s fellow haute-cineaste Martin Scorsese’s version of Cape Fear from the year before, and likewise is a good candidate for Coppola’s worst film. So many moments are conceptually arresting, and yet fumbled in execution and in relation to the overall drama. There’s a suggestion throughout, especially when Coppola cuts from Lucy’s beheading to a rare roast beef being carved, that he wouldn’t have minded turning it all into a Monty Python-esque spoof, and Hopkins’ Van Helsing certainly seems pitched on that level. He suggests a savant, introduced stating that “civilisation and syphilisation have evolved together,” detached from regular humanity. “Yes she was in great pain, and then we cut off her head and drove a stake through her heart and burned it, and then she found peace,” he airily declares when Mina asks how she died. His moral determination is seen as based in his own erotic divorcement, and is himself momentarily tempted, when Mina kisses him in the throes of vampiric urges. But again, there’s not enough firm engagement with this notion to make it seem more than another failed aspect, and Hopkins’ simultaneously hammy and distracted performance doesn’t help.
By the conclusion, the number of things Bram Stoker’s Dracula is trying to be has piled up like a mass car wreck: revision, send-up, ardent romance, film studies class, homage, spooky tale, action flick, disease parable, soft-core porn. But the aspect of Bram Stoker’s Dracula that finally wounds it beyond repair is the endemic woeful acting, from Reeves at his most wooden in impersonating an English gentleman to Hopkins, Ryder, Elwes, and Oldman all offering uncharacteristically poor work. Reeves’ worst moment is his one attempt to get emotional, screaming in terror when he sees Dracula giving over the baby to the brides. I would go easiest on Ryder, who was still making the shift from teen starlet to leading lady, and she acquits herself with flat competence until that scene with Van Helsing, where she suggests less a moral woman giving in to demonic impulses than an interpretive dance student giving in to her inner tart. It is worth noting a brief appearance by future star Monica Bellucci as one of Dracula’s brides, and a cameo by Jay Robinson, once famous for playing Caligula in The Robe and Demetrius and the Gladiators, as Harker’s boss. But the actor who comes off best is Waits as Renfield, essaying physically one of the grotesques Waits usually conveys vocally in his music: he wields exactly the right stylised blend of mordant humour and perverse ferocity. Likewise, Wojciech Kilar’s terrific music score and Michael Ballhaus’s cinematography lend the film much more authoritative heft than it actually deserves. It wasn’t, however, a complete waste of time for Coppola, for some of his motifs and effects crop up again, infinitely more controlled, in his extraordinary return to mythological filmmaking, Youth Without Youth (2007).
I remember wondering back in the mid ’90s if Steven Spielberg had retired from directing after Schindler’s List (1993), his colossal, uneven holocaust diorama, finally brought him the widespread admiration as a cinema artist he seemed to have been longing for. Four years passed between Schindler’s List and The Lost World: Jurassic Park 2 (1997), and that comeback was enough to make many wish he’d stayed away. I recall enjoying the entirely superfluous sequel to his signal 1993 hit rather more than the original, but it was hard to deny it encapsulated many of his least-favourable traits. And yet, as he’s done often throughout his career, he released his moneyspinner in near-tandem with a personal, more archly solemn work—Amistad.
Amistad was the middle film of what I’ve come to think of as his “Historical Conscience” trilogy, with Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan (1998) as its bookends, and it was, for the most part, received coolly and was soon eclipsed by Private Ryan’s orgiastic reception. Amistad neglected the gloriously oversized raptures of his first two dramas, The Color Purple (1985) and Empire of the Sun (1987), and much of the self-conscious largesse of its triptych companions. Instead it was, on the face of it, a sober, talky tale that encompasses America’s greatest guilt complex, the transatlantic slave trade, in the form of a courtroom drama. The naked appeals to audience involvement and empathy that rendered Schindler’s List troublesome to some, and his overt efforts to bring a newly visceral, confrontational sense of violence that would find grand consummation in Saving Private Ryan’s D-Day opening, were both dialed back, and the horrors of the situation at hand explored more tangentially.
I’ve expected myself to reevaluate Amistad over the years, to decide it’s preachy, stagy, and minor. Nonetheless, Amistad has instead consistently remained my personal favourite of all Spielberg’s dramatic films. Whilst it doesn’t conjure anything quite as startlingly staged as the Krakow and warfare scenes in its trilogy partners, it also doesn’t provide anything as excruciating as Schindler’s List’s more stilted dialogue exchanges, or Private Ryan’s flimsy present-day frame, and its attempts at providing a kind of Socratic dialogue within itself are the most integral and persuasive of Spielberg’s several attempts at such. I take enormous pleasure in every sequence, every performance, in the deeply, physically convincing recreation of the historical milieu and the care with which Janusz Kaminski filmed it. It is fitting that Amistad gave to cinema the career of Chiwetel Ejiofor, one of our finest contemporary actors, as well as the charismatic Djimon Hounsou. Every bit as rigorous in terms of intense physical detail and production polish as his other films, it is nonetheless the most beautiful, coherent, and classical of all Spielberg’s serious works. Amistad achieves the effortless blend of the near-mythic and the intimately conversational those old-school cinema heroes the likes of John Ford, Howard Hawks, William Dieterle, and Michael Curtiz could bring to such dramas.
Some obvious statements first: Amistad’s a film that aimed to do for the African-American experience, which Spielberg had articulated his sympathy with in The Color Purple, what Schindler’s List had done for his own Jewish identity—to contextualise horrific aspects of its past, and to explicate a new paradigm for it. It’s modern in theme, insomuch as that it’s about nascent multiculturalism and self-empowerment rather than merely showing white guys being so kind as to stop enslaving black people. Or, at least, it’s not only about that. It’s also a film that clearly signals how Spielberg was willing to use his clout as a mainstream cinema hero to make films that push the boundaries of what that mainstream cinema can and should do. Only a few lines of dialogue are translated into English in the film’s first 20 minutes, and that opening relies instead almost purely on visual storytelling; later parts are purely about speaking and listening.
Amistad draws its ironic title from the vessel La Amistad, which is transporting a boatload of illegally enslaved men and women from Mendiland (in present-day Sierra Leone) in 1839. The ship is taken over by those slaves after one of them, Singbe Pieh, renamed Joseph Cinqué (Hounsou) by his captors, mounts an escape and leads his fellows in a slaughter of their tormentors. The Mende keep two of the Spanish crew of slavemasters, Ruiz and Calderon (Geno Silva and Tomas Milian), alive to steer them home. But that duo contrives to hug the American coast, and the rebels are captured by a U.S. navy frigate and put on trial in New Haven, Connecticut.
The question as to whether they’re guilty of piracy and murder on the high seas, or whether they are, in fact, merely property to be returned to their owners, is central to the trial, as several parties, including Ruiz and Calderon, the Spanish government, and the American officers who “salvaged” them, contend for the prize. Abolitionist journalists Joadson and Tappan (Morgan Freeman and Stellan Skarsgård) make the defence of the Africans their project. After an aborted effort to convince former U.S. President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins), now an embittered and distracted U.S. Senator, to represent their cause, the journalists eventually hire property-rights attorney Roger Baldwin (McConaughey) to be the defendants’ advocate. He’s the only local lawyer willing to take the case, but his pragmatic reading of the issues at stake seems rather ignoble for the abolitionists. Yet his notion that merely proving that the slaves are from Africa rather than Cuban plantations will make all other points void proves persuasive; under the hypocritical, but consequential law of the time, the enslavement of free-born people was illegal, and the Africans had every right to commit insurrection in such a circumstance. Baldwin argues this case with the help of a manifest that he and Joadson locate on the La Amistad, which details how the Africans were transported across the Atlantic in an infamous slave ship, the Tecora. But with elections coming up, President Martin Van Buren (a splendidly craven Nigel Hawthorn), fearing loss of votes in Dixie, has his Secretary of State John Forsyth (David Paymer) and underling Hammond (Xander Berkeley) begin influencing the case. They have the first judge on the case (Allan Rich) dismissed and replaced by the handpicked Coglin (Jeremy Northam), whom they assume to be malleable because he is both at the start of his career and Catholic, then a handicap.
David Franzoni’s otherwise highly intelligent script leans on some familiar touches for elucidating sympathy and humour, mostly in the transformation of Baldwin from the antebellum equivalent of an ambulance-chasing douchebag into a man with a burgeoning sense of shared humanity, and the wait for Adams to come out swinging like a dry, drawling, legalistic Rocky. But such flourishes are, for me anyway, part of the film’s appeal, partly because they’re not oversold and because they establish the film’s credentials as old-fashioned, melodramatic agitprop. And they’re also part of the texture in a story that’s as much about the potential for noble institutions to be both cyclically corrupted and cleansed, depending of the mettle of the people engaging with them, as it is about the history of slavery. It’s also, of course, a film about humanity and its capacity to be both horrendous and virtuous, sometimes all at once and in fierce, virtually surreal opposition. Amistad is also perhaps Spielberg’s most sophisticated exploration of his most important recurring theme: the difficulties and beauties of communication. Revisiting Amistad to write this piece, it occurred to me that Spielberg’s career unfolded in the wrong direction. If he had made a film like this first, and then Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), ET: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) or Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), he would have been congratulated for adapting his serious themes for a larger audience. Instead the cheap shot that’s always been used to attack his dramatic films has been the old “stick to making movies about dinosaurs” line.
Amistad’s opening contains some of the most vivid images of Spielberg’s career, thanks to his great find, the Polish-born cinematographer Kaminski, obscure before he provided Schindler’s List’s monochromatic ferocity. Boiling the film’s metaphysical and corporeal concerns down to a single act, the opening depicts Cinqué’s colossal, sweat-bejewelled brow as he tries to dig a rivet from out of the wooden frame of the hull, his nails scratching at the splinters and caked in blood, the unbearably slow, squeaking slide of the rivet out of its place to pick the lock on his chains. The imagery—the martyred man’s intense self-mortification, the drawing of the great spike—suggests crucifixion in reverse, and the resonances will spread throughout the coming narrative. Cinqué and his fellows emerge into a storm-thrashed night, and the hulking African warrior, every bit as terrifying as the tyrannosaurs that stalked Jurassic Park, roars with inconsolable fury as he slaughters his enemy. Later, when he tries to puzzle out Ruiz and Calderon’s deceptions, he turns the wheel of the boat whilst studying the way it affects the position of the stars: there’s something ineffably primal in the image of the aboriginal man evolving into a Copernican astronomer and seafarer. Cinqué connects to other Spielbergian protagonists who gaze at the night sky—Roy Neary, Quint, Indiana Jones, Elliott—and tried to puzzle out their place in the universe’s scheme. Whilst coming from a less “civilised” civilisation, he’s still a man, and far from stupid; on the contrary, he possesses the capacity to puzzle out a challenging, hostile, bizarre world with relentless ingenuity and determination, and he knows the stars as a map for his own world, too.
Shortly after, the La Amistad drifts past a ship on which a party of ritzy folk are dining. The immediate contrast, of the pretentious gentility of the white westerners and the fearful, frazzled Africans, is easily evident, but the scene echoes on deeper levels. Spielberg stages it with a ghostly aura that’s reminiscent of the way John Carpenter shot the appearance of the phantom ship in The Fog (1980), and like that film, it’s about angry spectres from crimes of profit resurging out of the mystic sea. The brief vision each ship’s parties have of each other seems charged with oppositional mystery and threat, as if neither belongs to the same world, each as unreal as the other. The physical nature of the scene—the dense fog, the creak of the ships’ rigging, the lilting elegance of a string quartet, the bleakly mystified gazes of the Africans and the perturbed returned stares of the whites—makes it seem like a fever dream where wildly disparate versions of humanity are as strange and irreconcilable as any men and monsters in Spielberg’s genre tales. Soon enough, the Mende find themselves locked within not only an alien country, but also an alien system of laws, letters, language, and presumptions that are almost entirely inimical to their own hitherto self-evident identity. When they’re captured, Cinqué’s determination to remain free sees him resort first to trying to swim home, and then to try to drown himself, but his will to live is finally greater.
Communication now becomes imperative, both legally and interpersonally. Amistad is a rare film, especially in modern Hollywood, that privileges words, laws, vision, and oratory on the same level as physical action and heroism. What words mean, and what they’re used for, are profoundly important things in this society, and defeating slavery and injustice is also a matter of defeating a dominant discourse. When the Mende are being escorted into prison, Cinqué and his fellows bellow in outrage and protest, and the guards treat this with contempt. Cinqué has his hand crushed in a gate by a jailer simply to get him to enter a cell. Many confrontations finish up with the hapless Africans shouting incoherently at the jailers and bristling at perceived threats and insults that make no sense to them. The problem of how to make the Africans understand their exact situation and allow them to tell their story—as Adams insists is a prerequisite for winning any case—presses upon their defenders. Here Amistad, whilst not losing its main focus, becomes a kind of screwball comedy of constantly repelled and cross-purpose communicative gambits, with the flustered Baldwin and the bemused, angry Cinqué cast in the functional roles of two potential brothers who need to learn how to speak to each other. The first translator Baldwin digs up, an anthropology professor (Austin Pendleton), fails to understand the Mende dialect and so makes up translations. Baldwin, Joadson, and Tappan have to scour the docks reciting words in Mende to dig up a native speaker, finally getting one in the form of James Covey (Ejiofor), a Mende who, after being rescued off a slave ship himself, became a sailor in the navy that saved him—the British navy.
That irony, that the nominal early enemies of American freedom actively fought against slavery in the post-Wilberforce era, is oft-repeated in Amistad. Against this is pitted mordant humour in the spectacle of Spain’s 11-year-old ruler Queen Isabella (Anna Paquin) and her patronisingly anti-democratic advisors trying to gain what they see as natural justice out of the trial. During the trial, Peter Firth makes an appearance as Captain Fitzgerald, a British officer who’s working to disrupt the slave trade and whose expert testimony is belittled by the state’s prosecutor Holabird (Pete Postlethwaite); Fitzgerald’s increasing irritation and disdain are all too obvious under the stiff upper lip, in a scene full of dark foreboding and threatening undercurrents. Covey provides the vital link between the Mende and their defenders, and Cinqué can then tell his story.
Where Amistad makes for a fascinating and intelligent extension to, and auto-critique of, Schindler’s List is in the way Spielberg goes to such lengths to unfold his story. In this way, he places the pain and necessity of remembering, the confusion of witnessing, and the difficulty of proof in a more important position. To win his case, Cinqué must recount the dreadful things that he saw and went through—being kidnapped from his home village, being kept in the slave trading fortress of Lomboko and then transported on the Tecora, and comprehending brutality that seems beyond all understanding. Whippings, rapes, and degradations. Men and women chained together and flung overboard. A woman giving birth in the huddled battery-farmlike lower decks of the ship and then promptly dying as her child is passed over the enchained ranks of slaves to its father. Another woman, suckling the baby, hurls herself and it to their deaths in the sea to escape this nonexistence. It’s a story the meaning of which Cinqué himself can’t comprehend, even as it finally contextualises his mad screams of bloodlust in his revolt. Holabird calls it a “good work of fiction,” even as Fitzgerald calmly explains the reasons for all the apparently incomprehensible acts of carnage as being merely cold pragmatism on the slavers’ part.
This notion that witnessing and testimony are vital in making society face up to shameful things is powerful and ever-relevant. It also allows Spielberg to avoid some of the problems that beset his approach to Holocaust: the fragmented landscape of atrocity in Amistad is selectively recalled and therefore free of any overneat sense of dramatic cause and effect. Cinqué’s subsequent survival and ability to speak about it are as much through chance as anything else, even if his own story is one of heroism and refusal to submit, and he holds on to his experiences like random shards of a nightmare. Overcoming the willful ignorance of a society in which the internet wasn’t even a thought and photography was just being invented, it was all too easy to ignore the truth of such situations, and this proves to be both a key to the trial and the overwhelming problem facing the abolitionists. Identity is a problematic notion. Proving who the Mende are is fraught with difficulty, and yet it’s not limited to them. Joadson, whose nightmarish experience in the La Amistad’s hold conjures his forefathers’ transportation as a perfervid race memory, is trying to come to terms with his own exceptional freeman status, and even Adams, whose own burden, that of his seeming inadequacy after his sire John Adams (“The only thing John Quincy Adams will be remembered for is his middle name!” Forsyth has previously derided), is reiterated constantly.
The process of what is known in contemporary postcolonial and structuralist studies as the construction of Otherness is seen in many forms in Amistad’s early sections, with the lack of dialogue as the key to the enforced portrait of the Africans as subhuman. There’s an intricate play on structuralist signs at work here, for the first actual subtitled line from one of the Mende is when he mistakes a black slave coachman for a chief because of his apparently exalted position on top of the carriage he steers. The Mende’s sense of the world’s signs are schematic and easily associative, full of direct meaning, which becomes all too apparent later when Covey, during a fraught conversation between Cinqué and Baldwin, explains to the frustrated lawyer that there is no Mende word for “should.” Cinqué’s friend and fellow prisoner Yamba (Razaaq Adoti) first likens Baldwin’s overeager manner to a man who was employed as a dung scraper in their village, and Cinqué murmurs that such a man might actually be what they need. Cinqué is ambivalent about the esteem his fellow Mende hold him in, for he was given preeminence as a warrior in their society for slaying a marauding lion, a feat he accomplished, he confesses to Baldwin, only by the lucky throw of a stone. The echoes of this story are clear—David and Goliath, obviously, but also, more pertinently, the finale of Jaws (1975)—thus clearly constituting Cinqué as one of Spielberg’s monster-slaying Everymen. Baldwin, too, is evolving into a lion slayer, and he has to remind Cinqué of the other lion he slew, the rebellion he led on the La Amistad, to recharge Cinqué’s sense of potency.
Spielberg’s customarily ambivalent take on religion bobs up throughout Amistad, a film which vibrates with echoes of parable. Such is particularly apparent in a lengthy, almost dreamy sequence in which Yamba reads through the bible handed to him by one of the abolitionists, and teases out for Cinqué that narrative he gleans from the engraved plates that tell Christ’s tale. This moment celebrates the power of visual storytelling as well as the potential for the beauty of faith to be easily communicated. But other underpinnings of this scene have already been suggested in moments in which the Africans are bewildered by the severe look of the Quakers who form the core of their abolitionist support that bolsters an otherwise jeering, hateful crowd surrounding the courthouse. Cinqué now sees signifiers of the hitherto mysterious religion of the Americans everywhere, even on the masts of ships, and interprets the Christ tale and the look of the abolitionists as involving a deeply morbid quality that permeates white western society that will sacrifice the Mende as Christ was when the time arrives. “That’s when they will finally kill us,” Cinqué states to Adams, when asked what will happen at the Supreme Court. This suggestion has an aspect of truth. Tappan’s tendency to reduce issues to flowery abstraction proves finally to mask an attitude to the matter at hand that’s less about saving specific lives than crusading on “the battlefield of righteousness,” or self-righteousness. He entertains the notion that the slaves are of more use to the cause dead than alive, which causes Joadson to break with him.
As much as there’s an overwhelming sense of deistic yearning, however playfully concealed, in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the Indiana Jones films, Spielberg’s interest in religion always centers chiefly on how it acts as social cement and form of heritage—as another form of communication for the passing along parables and legends as exemplars and embodiments of values. Cinqué reminds Yamba, “This is just a story,” but the point is that no story is just a story. Yamba’s explication is crosscut with images of Coglin worshipping in church. Far from being a reason to obey Forsyth’s wishes in the case, for Coglin his Catholic conscience is plainly part of the reason he finds in favour of the self-evident truth that the men of La Amistad are freeborn.
I’ve noted before in my commentary on Temple of Doom what an extremely musical director Spielberg can be, and that quality is subtly evident throughout Amistad. That cross-cutting between Yamba’s explication and Coglin’s worship works in a clearly contrapuntal fashion, and the sequence before that is a great example of Spielberg’s capacity to build towards climaxes and then let them fall away, in a fashion that resembles a Bruckner symphony. The scene in which Holabird grills Fitzgerald is staged as the courtroom, mostly illuminated by external ambient light, is filled with the infernal glow of dusk light as the smouldering tension between Fitzgerald and Holabird and their opposing worldviews becomes acute. Cinqué, seated in the dock, begins to silently panic as he reads the room, a plethora of tiny, insignificant details like twiddled cane knobs and the sheen of sweat Fitzgerald’s hand leaves on the wood of the witness bench, suddenly charged with suffocating meaning: he comes now to comprehend that the simple truth he recounted on the stand might still be lost, and now begins to speak his first words in fractured English (“Give us…us free!”) first in a fierce whisper and then in a righteous bellow. It’s corny on one level, but it’s also a sequence built with sublime technical and artistic care. Then it subsides again as if some random moment of humanity has somehow punctured the glaze of legal process. This is also vitally important in that it’s the first time Cinqué can make his sentiments crystal clear to the society now holding him captive. And yet this is only a small example of the many small swells and retreats in the film’s rhythm, which, of course, builds to a literally explosive climax and melancholic diminuendo.
Another aspect of the innate musicality is, as ever, John Williams’ music score, which could actually be the pinnacle of his and Spielberg’s collaboration, and that is saying something. Williams’ music, blending African themes with sweeping Copland-esque Americana, achieves aurally what the film attempts to do thematically—to draw out the common ground of disparate cultures and celebrate humanistic resistance to tyranny—with the recurring theme “Dry Your Tears, Africa” first heard in embryonic form when Adams prods Joadson about the importance of telling stories and rising with expansive heroism in later scenes. Adams finally joins the fight proper when his august expertise becomes necessary. That comes after Coglin finds in favour of the Africans. Van Buren is scared by the glowering auguries of Adams’ former vice president and slavery advocate John Calhoun (a keen cameo by Arliss Howard) that the unfavourable outcome of the case might not only lose Van Buren the election but might add fuel to the budding secessionist cause. So Van Buren has the case referred on to the Supreme Court, of which, Baldwin notes, seven of the nine members are slave-owning southerners.
Amistad was one of two prominent films of 1997—the other being Milos Forman’s The People vs. Larry Flynt—to lead to a climactic argument in front of the Supreme Court. Comedian Bobcat Goldthwaite once took a sharp jab at Schindler’s List: “After making hundreds of millions of dollars, Spielberg finally decided to make a film with social content: the Nazis were bad! Wow!” In such a light, it’s not a small thing to note that Amistad is Spielberg’s most political film prior to Munich, in the sense that it is a clear assault on conservative readings of a constitution put together by revolutionaries. The nearly 10-minute final summation by Adams, a joyous piece of marathon theatrical showmanship on Hopkins’ part, is more than just a clear nod to such capping scenes in classic films like A Free Soul, Young Mr. Lincoln, Inherit the Wind, and A Man For All Seasons, but also a philosophical exegesis. Adams sets out to establish Cinqué as a man, and an heroic one at that, for both the court and the sake of conservative and phallogenocentric sensibilities that regard the struggles of black men as less immediately worthy of depiction and transmission (“If he were white and his enslavers were British, he wouldn’t be able to stand, so heavy the weight of the medals and honors we would bestow upon him. Songs would be written about, the great authors of our time would fill books about him!”). But he also channels Cinqué’s cultural understanding of his ancestors as direct aides in his life, in a spiritual sense, into an invocation of the capacity of heroic exemplars of all kinds to be spurs to right action.
Adams, too, learns to embrace such a legacy not as a burden but an inspiration, and a challenge, memorably suggesting that the Declaration of Independence be torn up if Calhoun’s credo is to be taken seriously, and actively pits the idealistic creed of the revolution in opposition to Van Buren’s cynical real politik and Calhoun’s pretentious white supremacy. This is Spielberg casting an eye on the meandering fashion in which the precepts of the American founding documents were used to achieve great breakthroughs in the time of Spielberg’s own youth in resistance to reactionary sentiments, and also another invocation of a sense of community that is larger and grander than the conveniently individualistic. “Who we are is who we were,” Adams reports, meditatively. Such a notion of overarching stories and awareness of culture, the inescapability of the past—and that not necessarily being a bad thing—which enfolds and overlaps with our present, individual selves, also infuses the other films in the Historical Conscience trilogy.
The payoff is Cinqué’s second liberation, the manacles now finally taken off his hands in the courtroom, and then, the consummation of the carefully controlled rhythm, where the film lets slip at last and offers up the rousing thunder, as Fitzgerald’s rifles and cannons smash Lomboko Fortress into rubble, its masters lying with smoking bullet holes in their flesh and their enslaved population flowing to freedom. There’s clear visual affinity there to the kids escaping the Thugee’s caverns in Temple of Doom, the film that first invoked Spielberg’s emancipationist concerns. There’s a bit of license here. Lomboko was wiped out in 1849, eight years after John Forsyth, to whom Fitzgerald dictates a pithy letter once the fortress has been smashed, ceased to be Secretary of State. But the impact of this moment is still colossal. Yet Amistad’s final note is perhaps the most outright tragic Spielberg left off on since The Sugarland Express, with Cinqué, his fellows, and Covey too, making their way back to Africa, where civil war and the decimation of his village awaits, just as it looms in the America he’s left behind. Even those who beat the odds of history must still bow to it. l
While empires have come and gone throughout the centuries, the first empire to fall after the invention of motion pictures was the British Empire. Films about the age of empire have appeared intermittently over the years; for example, Oscar Wilde’s 1899 comedy of manners The Importance of Being Earnest was filmed most memorably by Anthony Asquith in 1952, perhaps in a fit of nostalgia for a time when life was more orderly and certain.
Certainly, the post-World War II youth in Britain were having few spasms of remorse over the demise of Earnest’s Lady Bracknell and her ilk. Indeed, one of the founders of “kitchen sink” drama, John Osborne, used the name “Lady Bracknell” as a term of derision in his explosive 1956 drama Look Back in Anger. The 1959 film version of Osborne’s play helped kick off a string of films featuring angry young men—mainly decent chaps underneath it all, but embittered by the loss of the social, economic, and moral compasses that had steadied earlier generations—that formed part of the British Free Cinema. This phase of British filmmaking receded after the early 1970s, but young men and women would be angered anew in the Britain of Margaret Thatcher. That anger would find its greatest cinematic expression in Mike Leigh’s harrowing and touching Naked.
The film opens with a bang as it introduces us to its central character, Johnny (David Thewlis), as he is having rough sex against a wall with a woman who is screaming to be let go. As she runs off, she promises to tell her boyfriend what he did—whether it was rape at the start, it certainly is rape by the end, and Johnny steals a car and flees to avoid punishment.
He shows up at the London flat of Louise (Lesley Sharp), whom he dated for a year in their home town of Manchester. She’s not in, but her unemployed, drug-addled roommate Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge) is. She and Johnny drink and smoke dope while waiting for Louise to return. When she does, she and Johnny start sparring, causing her to retreat to her bedroom. Sophie and Johnny have rough sex, during which Johnny repeatedly slams Sophie’s head into the hard arm of the sofa. Unaccountably, Sophie becomes utterly besotted with Johnny, chasing after him desperately until he leaves the flat in disgust and roams through the nighttime streets, where he encounters and engages with various damaged, lost, and lonely people in witty and philosophical banter.
Johnny finally latches onto a man going about his work putting up posters and plastering “Cancelled” signs over others; he becomes annoyed with Johnny’s patter and beats hell out of him. Johnny returns to Louise’s flat, where she and Sophie are being terrorized by a rich bloke named either Sebastian or Jeremy (Greg Cruttwell) who has coerced Sophie into having sex with him, brutalized her during the act, thrown a large wad of cash at her for “services rendered,” and is marching around the flat in his briefs. Eventually, Louise tosses Sebastian/Jeremy out. A reconciliation and return to Manchester for Louise and Johnny seems in the offing.
When looking at Naked, it’s evident that the characters represent various aspects of British society—from its sensible, hardworking backbone played by Lesley Sharp to Katrin Cartlidge’s punk wannabe, to Cruttwell’s callous, entitled yuppie. But Mike Leigh’s famous working method—months of improvisation during which each actor builds a character and relationships with the other characters, followed by setting their work into a fixed script for shooting—allows these types to become fully fleshed individuals we can both loathe and love.
Sharp’s Louise is the round, solid kind of girl all the fellows went nuts over in Georgy Girl (1966); she offers a maternal warmth as well as a no-nonsense attitude toward Johnny’s irresponsible behavior and angry sarcasm. She’s had to run away from him, but she’ll never abandon him if he really needs and wants her. Emotionally, she’s a less masochistic version of Nancy from Oliver Twist. Sophie is almost Louise’s exact opposite. She’s unemployed, a stoner, dresses in tight black everything, and shags at the drop of a trouser zipper. Cartlidge slurs out Sophie’s dialog with a tight, almost motionless mouth, a tricky device for suggesting a literal stiff upper lip against life’s many adversities that only someone as skilled as the much-mourned Cartlidge could pull off without rendering her character incomprehensible.
But this film belongs to David Thewlis. His Johnny is a memorable character for the ages. He’s widely and well read, intelligent and witty, arrogant and misogynistic, and a walking wound. We hate him to start with, watching him raping a woman and then putting two baby strollers into the open trunk of a car and running off with the lot. What kind of a guy does that? He’s insulting in the extreme to Sophie, who’s too dim to know he’s laughing at her, not with her, and Louise clearly has hard feelings toward him when she meets up with him again.
But Thewlis performs a sleight of hand during Johnny’s nocturnal travels that gains our trust and sympathy. He hooks up with a deranged young Scotsman named Archie (Ewen Bremner) who’s bellowing for his girlfriend Maggie and twitching his head violently; we fear Archie will knife him, as he keeps reaching into his back pocket and exploding at Johnny. But Johnny seems touched by the lad’s fear of being lost in London without his girl; later, after Archie has gone off to look for her, Johnny stays put and hooks up with Maggie (Susan Vidler), also looking for Archie, and accompanies her through the tramp-strewn streets until the young lovers are reunited in a hail of punches and obscenities.
Johnny, in turn, is pitied by Brian (Peter Wight), a security guard who is minding the empty building in whose doorway Johnny has sought shelter from the cold. In a peripatetic version of the conversation in My Dinner with Andre, Johnny and Brian make the rounds of the multilevel “space” Brian is guarding and talk about Nostradamus, time, women, boredom, and the Bible. Poor Brian does essentially nothing but look after the unused property of the rich—apparently the sure way to an income in Thatcher’s England—and he has his thoughts and plans to move to a home in Ireland where he lived in a past life. Johnny’s awareness of the state he and the world are in causes him the kind of anger and pain that Brian has anesthetized himself against; the insults he throws at Brian bounce off, and he eventually softens to Brian as well.
The men in this film are exceedingly fucked up about women. Brian, who seems voluntarily celibate since his wife left him 13 years prior, mumbles a lot about the whores of Babylon and seems to have worked at returning to an approximation of innocence. He has watched a woman dance drunkenly in front of a window across the street every night for ages, but when he sees that Johnny has gone over to meet her, he is angry at the thought that the two might have had sex. Apparently, she is his innocent ideal and escape from sexual and romantic loneliness. To Johnny, she’s just a played-out, old souse whose hair he reluctantly stops pulling when she says pitifully, “You don’t have to hurt me.” Sebastian, the least-fleshed character in the film, just hurts the women he entices with his champagne and rich surroundings, and we are left with the strong suspicion that he may kill them as well.
What is all this hatred about? Are women stealing the jobs men like Johnny used to have? Some, perhaps, but Sophie’s unemployed, too, and Louise seems like a glorified file clerk. Is it, then, about the leadership of the county—an old queen who won’t give up her crown to her rapidly graying son and a battle-ax female prime minister without an ounce of human kindness in her broad, but shriveled breast? The angry young man genre trafficks in a free-floating anger and anxiety, a mirror to a pervasive, systemic mood. In its essence, Naked shows up the original angry young men, represented by Johnny (named for John Osborne?), as pale figures when compared with the intensity of the anger at the hoi polloi among the neocons of Thatcher and Reagan.
Leigh’s visual style, captured by his regular cinematographer Dick Pope, is breathtaking and reminiscent of László Kovács’ Heart Beat. The London nightscapes look both dreamy and a day away from apocalypse. Several indoor scenes seem stagebound, as though in homage to Osborne, particularly the extended and wordy conversation between Johnny and Brian. At one point, the pair is shot entirely in silhouette, an effect that returns us from the stage to cinematic virtuosity, showing Leigh’s command of form.
Leigh’s script is a tour de force, with humor and ferocity and complex, philosophical monologues that Thewlis spits out with speed and conviction. I wasn’t enamored of Sandra (Claire Skinner), the third roommate introduced at the end of the film; her dialogue, rendered in halting, unfinished sentences to signal her upset with the condition of the flat and its new occupants, was just a little too cloying. And Sebastian/Jeremy was a brutal stick figure and not worthy of the deeply realized characters of the rest of the film. Nonetheless, these peripheral characters didn’t detract appreciably from the brilliance of the film. The uncertainty at the end of Naked rivals that of The 400 Blows as we wonder what the future will hold for Johnny, and Britain.
Oh to be in Oleanna,
That’s where I’d like to be
Than to be in Norway
And bear the chains of slavery.
Little roasted piggies
Rush around the city streets
Inquiring so politely
If a slice of ham you’d like to eat.
Beer as sweet as Muncheners
Springs from the ground and flows away
The cows all like to milk themselves
And the hens lay eggs ten times a day.
This satirical folk song about the failed utopia Norwegian violin virtuoso Ole Bull tried to set up in 19th century Pennsylvania is the obscure and pretentious origin of the name of David Mamet’s play Oleanna—and perhaps that pretension was part of Mamet’s game plan. The idea of Oleanna certainly makes sense to the aspirations of the play’s two characters—a smug professor about to grasp the gold ring of guaranteed employment and freedom of thought that is tenure and a working-class, somewhat dull female student of his who has sacrificed to realize her supposed promise at the expensive, exclusive university at which the play is set. The tragedy of their Oleanna is that neither are true believers in the power of education; instead, their cynical pretensions barely conceal that they have each put their faith in power and hierarchy to get ahead.
Tellingly, the play premiered in 1992 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just a stoning’s throw from Harvard, and not so far from Worcester, Mass., the home of College of the Holy Cross, where the then-newly minted U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas matriculated in English literature 20 years earlier. Thomas almost certainly inspired this examination of sexual politics, as the term “sexual harassment” (ha-RASS-ment or HAR-ass-ment was the pronunciation dilemma of 1991) was ubiquitous following testimony at his Supreme Court confirmation hearing by Anita Hill. Hill, Thomas’ special assistant when they both worked at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said he had spoken in a sexually inappropriate manner to her on several occasions. Testimony by Angela Wright, another Thomas aide, that “she had not considered the behavior to be sexual harassment, but that others might” seems to have informed Mamet’s construction of the play. Mamet’s obsession with language and meaning gets a workout in this play, as interpretation of the text/subtext of the first act leads to a radical and ruinous shift in power in the second.
The play was moved to the screen with little consideration for cinematic possibilities by the man who created it in the first place. That is not pleasing for the more cinematically inclined members of the audience, but the virtue of this approach is that we are really forced to consider the movie’s text—how language can be flattened of nuance by committing it to paper (presaging the rampaging misunderstandings that take place every day in online communications), how interruptions in conversation can destroy understanding, and how social position (teacher/student, male/female) can create a very different experience for the participants in a conversation.
During the first half, John (William H. Macy) is meeting in his office with Carol (Debra Eisenstadt), a student of his who is doing poorly. Repeatedly, Carol says she doesn’t understand a word he is saying, that she can’t follow the discussions, and that she has tried and failed to understand his point of view in the book he has written and is using as a classroom text. John takes the blame for her lack of understanding, and offers to have intensive one-on-one sessions with her to help her succeed. He offers a reassuring arm around the shoulder, and reveals a bit of his personal life, perhaps as a way to build rapport or perhaps simply because he is constantly interrupting their conversation to take phone calls from his wife and real estate agent. John explains that he is awaiting an announcement that he has made tenure and is buying a house to go along with his new job security and salary increase. As befits their respective positions and prospects—imminent success and looming failure—John is magnanimous, a rush of erudite words and concepts, and only slightly regretful that he has to take call after call during their meeting; Carol is sheepish, desperate, bewildered, and frankly kind of annoying in her repeated, emphatic “I don’t understand” and commands that John explain his $10 words in plain English.
During the second half, the tables are turned—John is the sheepish and desperate one. Carol has filed a complaint against him for sexual harassment and racism (using the term “the white man’s burden”) and submitted a report to the tenure committee detailing his abuses. What? This is as unexpected for audiences as it is for John, but Carol has written everything down from their meeting. When read out loud, it sounds like what she accuses him of:
He said he liked me, that he liked being with me. He’d let me write my examination paper over if I could come back oftener to see him in his office. He told me he had problems with his wife and that he wanted to take off the artificial stricture of teacher and student. He put his arms around…
Carol has fallen in with a “group,” which given the elite university setting suggests women modeled on Mary McCarthy’s characters in The Group (at least, that was a fun and useful way for me to imagine how Mamet might have conceptualized them while writing the script). Her group has apparently instructed her in the error of John’s ways and helped her draft a list of demands that could possibly save John his job, if not guarantee his tenure; one of the demands includes the banning of several books from the curriculum, including his. His indignation at this affront pushes him from cajoling to defiant. The last straw, however, is when John learns from his wife that Carol has charged him with attempted rape; witnesses heard her yell for him to let go of her and saw her run frantically from his office at the end of the first half. “You think that you can destroy my life after how I’ve treated you,” he yells and begins slapping and hitting her, stopping just short of pummeling her with a heavy chair. The final words, as he recoils from himself in horror, are “Oh my god.” “Yes, that’s right,” says Carol. The ambiguity of that final sentence is interesting to ponder—has John finally had his consciousness raised about his own monstrous prerogatives, or has Carol become the new god in his universe(ity).
Sorry for all the wordplay, but Mamet’s language is always very carefully chosen for its depth of meanings. Of course, he takes kind of cockeyed aim at the political correctness that was spreading through campuses at the time; John is skewered for the historical and relatively innocuous phrase “white man’s burden.” Perhaps, tellingly, the example of another professor in Philip Roth’s 2000 novel The Human Stain being dismissed for using the word “niggardly” in class points to the larger problem of the decay of vocabulary in American society.
But vocabulary is the least of it. Although Carol doesn’t understand a few words John uses, such as “paradigm” and “predilection,” she is not inarticulate, and she clearly understands that John is a hypocrite. Her protests that she doesn’t understand refer to how it is possible for John to bite the hand that feeds him, criticizing in his book and in his lectures the assumption that higher education is necessary. John and Carol are moving at opposite purposes toward social mobility—John is already at the top and so declares that one doesn’t have to go to college to achieve, whereas the still-striving Carol sees he wouldn’t be saying such things if he hadn’t already succeeded and resents his condescension. He pretends to question social constructs like higher education, and yet when faced with a construct he is not consciously aware of—his male prerogatives—he is relatively defenseless and reduced to animal aggression to defend himself.
What I find most interesting about Oleanna is that it seems to be an exercise in Mamet trying to figure out women. He has, in my opinion, never written a wholly successful woman character; in fact, some of them have failed miserably. His early, most successful plays revolved around the rituals and relationships of men. His abstract expressionist verbiage isn’t very user-friendly for actors or audiences and requires a strong grasp on the feelings and motivations that underlie it in order for a character to truly emerge as a person. William H. Macy, a cofounder with Mamet of Chicago’s now-defunct St. Nicholas Theatre, originated several of the playwright’s roles and has learned to climb into this difficult skin. He knows how to punch Mamet’s words like a pointillist painter to create the image. He also can let us know a dozen thoughts with a look. For example, when Carol is about to reveal a part of herself she has “never told anyone,” the phone rings; he knows he should let it ring, but he really doesn’t want to become her confidant and cares more about his pending home purchase anyway. The guilty/apologetic/offhand look Macy assumes is exactly right and forms a crucial link in the vehemence of Carol’s attack on him in the second half.
Eisenstadt fares less well. Not only can’t Mamet write women, he can’t really direct them. He has her use props to signal her mental state, putting on her glasses and pulling her hair back when she becomes defensive and rejects mercy for John. He has her sounding as stupid as she thinks she is in the first half with inappropriately punched repetitions of “I don’t understand.” The flatness in her voice, certainly as directed by Mamet, robs her of her intelligence and nuance and does not adequately convey her fear of failing John’s class and intimidation about her privileged surroundings. He forces her to find her identity in her group, as though she had no mind of her own, and seems to turn her into a Cultural Revolutionary with the anti-educational act of proposing a ban on certain books. Eisenstadt strives to individualize Carol, but she can’t overcome the deficits Mamet has hung on her.
So, in the end, Oleanna is something like a Socratic dialog, where we get to judge the “he said, she said” evidence and render a verdict. Mamet stacks the deck against Carol, and it’s hard not to think she completely overreacted and is actually a virulent danger. Turning John into an abuser at the end is the only way Mamet knows to balance the scale, but there’s an ever-so-slight hint of “she deserves it.” The film is a stilted, stagebound misfire, but it’s still fascinating, thought-provoking, and a snapshot of America’s recent culture war at one of its most intense moments.
For decades, song and dance were well-respected staples in Hollywood films, making legends of Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, and many, many other talented performers. As the supply of seasoned musical talent dried up with the extinction of vaudeville and hard times fell on both Hollywood and a nation rapidly losing its innocence to televised war and assassination, the movie musical all but disappeared.
While white America was busy debriding and closing its wounds, other American subcultures continued to crave music and dance on screen. Perhaps it was MTV’s music videos, which debuted in the 1980s, that caught the attention of some Hollywood producers, but dance-filled films aimed primarily at the youth market slowly started trickling out of the dream factory again. White faces could still be found in films like Footloose and Dirty Dancing, but the breakout hit and trendsetter of the decade, Flashdance, starred Jennifer Beals, a mixed-race actress. From then on, dance films remained largely an entertainment of minority audiences.
In 1998, the perhaps inevitable pairing of a pop singer with an actress/dancer, providing a blend that film producers could understand and bank on, took place. Puerto Rican singing idol Chayanne was teamed with Vanessa Williams, a beauty queen who was proving to be an effective screen presence, for Dance with Me, an entry in the growing ballroom dance subgenre. The film effectively mixes family drama and love story with street dancing and formal dancing—a combination that made Flashdance such a potent force for audiences. Yet, it slyly lampoons the Reader’s Digest approach to dance (“8 to 80, anyone can do it, makes you feel good”) by drawing a porous, but definite line between amateur and professional dancers that proves to be a credit to both.
The film opens onto the lively streets of Santiago de Cuba, where the sway of music and dance seems to fill even the most mundane of chores. We follow Rafael Infante (Chayanne) to a cemetery, where he lays flowers on the grave of his mother. At home, he regards a letter addressed to a John Burnett (Kris Kristofferson) in Houston, Texas. Soon, he receives an answer to his letter telling him there is a job for him—a favor to Rafael’s mother, with whom Burnett had an affair on a cruise ship. Rafael has not yet told Burnett that he is the father Rafael never knew.
At the Houston airport, he is met by Ruby (Williams), who takes him to the dance studio Burnett runs. Ruby dashes off to teach a class, and Rafael is left to regard the students and employees of the lived-in studio. Burnett arrives, orients him quickly to his duties as the studio handyman and takes him to his home; Rafael will live in a walk-up apartment adjacent to the main house. Burnett declines Rafael’s request to go out for drinks, as he dashes back to the studio. Thus abandoned with his dashed hopes that he and his father would find immediate rapport, we experience along with Rafael the uncertainty of a new immigrant.
There’s no question that there will be a serious romance between the alliteratively named Ruby and Rafael—they simply look too good together—but there is Ruby’s defensiveness after a disastrous relationship with her former dance partner (professional Latin-division dancer Rick Valenzuela) and Rafael’s offensive clumsiness to contend with first. When Rafael watches Ruby and her new partner Michael (Harry Groener—who knew The Mayor from TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer could dance so well?!) practicing, he wonders how they can dance without music. Ruby, practicing her footwork dancing around a pillar while Michael takes a break, says, “It’s choreography.” He presses his point that it should be the music that tells a dancer what to do, insulting Ruby’s professionalism. She returns the insult when she accedes to Rafael’s request that she teach him how to dance at a local salsa club, and she catches him dancing quite well with another woman while she was in the restroom. “Why didn’t you tell me you could dance?” she asks him accusingly. “I’m Cuban. Of course I can dance,” he replies, as though she has rocks in her head, “just not the way you do.”
Haines offers these exchanges to set up themes about the dance world that complement the story and make the connection between a love of dance and a love of life. In the amateur world, the joy of the music and communality, such as when Ruby and Rafael slow dance at an engagement party they happen into and a second, more successful attempt at clubbing, help Ruby put her life into perspective. At the same time, the pro-am competition for which studio regular Patricia (Jane Krakowski) is preparing with John as her partner shows that even an amateur can aspire to be the best she can be as an expression of the love she feels for dance. John, who has grown tired and lost his passion for dance, also has a solitary personal life. It is only when he realizes belatedly what he might be missing after an angry confrontation with Rafael in which his secret is revealed that his interest in dance renews.
Randa Haines, director of the highly honored drama Children of a Lesser God, might have been expected to emphasize the film’s dramatic story. But she shows her versatility and intelligence by using the clichés in which the script trafficks as punctuation for the dance sequences, where the emotional lives of characters play out with much more nuance and effect. The stunning artistry of Krakowski took me by surprise. Obviously a trained dancer, she creates a passionate pas de deux with Rafael at the championship that subtly tells half the story of the Rafael/Ruby romance.
When Ruby dances with her former partner in the other half of the story, she spots Rafael in the audience; overjoyed that she hasn’t lost him after all, she responds to the movements he makes in the crowd and imagines that she is in his arms instead. The unlocking of her passion proves to be the key to winning the championship and, of course, a happy, harmonious life with him working for a revitalized Burnett at his dance studio.
Haines’ camerawork is superlative in the dance sequences, which form the majority of the film. She choreographs her shots precisely at the salsa club, seemingly as abandoned as the dancers, yet ending up exactly where she needs to be when Ruby and Rafael, who have been changing partners throughout the sequence, end up in each other’s arms. She does not adhere to the full-body shooting favored by dancers of Hollywood’s Golden Age, but there were few times when I felt cheated, so deftly does she move between the story on the dancers’ faces and the movements of their bodies. I would have liked to have seen a little more of Joan Plowright’s dancing in the senior division competition—as studio regular Bea Johnson, she more than showed her chops during her dance lessons—but it was gratifying to see her in the spotlight anyway in an endearing duet with Chayanne. It was also gratifying to see Haines pay tribute to Gene Kelly’s classic “Singing in the Rain” dance when Rafael, caught in a field of lawn sprinklers, cavorts and splashes his feet in a puddle. The closing credits are a short story in themselves, using this normally useless time to show the richness of Ruby’s, Rafael’s, and John’s lives following their final reconciliation at the competition. The film’s editors Lisa Fruchtman and William S. Scharf deserve maximum kudos for their efforts.
Since Dance with Me came out, one film tried to fuse the white and minority audiences—Save the Last Dance (2001). An excellent film that transports a white ballet dancer into the black South Side of Chicago, where she learns to meld tradition with new styles, this could have paved a new road for dance/music films. Sadly, it was not to be. Dance with Me is a wonderful film, but it remains in the dance film ghetto, and its director and performers far from creating this kind of magic again.
If there had never been a California, Michael Tolkin would have had to invent it. Tolkin, a talented novelist and filmmaker, has made a specialty of exploring the particular kind of lost souls that emanate from the balmy, windblown clime of Southern California. He especially likes to take on the self-important pretensions of the rich and bored. The Player showed up the arrogance of privilege in a particularly satisfying way, as Tim Robbins and Greta Scacchi wallowed in the mud bath of a desert spa like two contemptible pigs. You might even say that he showed contempt for the privileges God arbitrarily offered and withheld in The Rapture.
The New Age takes a slightly different tack by having a privileged couple, Peter and Katherine Witner (Peter Weller and Judy Davis), serve as the instruments of their own destruction. Katherine, a graphic designer with her own business, “fires” her biggest client for nonpayment, deletes all his electronic files, and then goes on a shopping spree. Peter, who has been screwing up at a CAA-like talent agency, spontaneously quits his job when he is brought under fire at a board meeting and goes off to meet Alison (Paula Marshall), his mistress. When the Witners meet up back at their exquisitely appointed mansion and learn of each other’s financially disastrous follies, what do they decide to do? Throw a party. “We haven’t had one in weeks,” Peter laments.
The party puts the Witners in contact with Jean Levy, a French (“Belgian, actually”) self-help guru (Patrick Bauchau, Vic in The Rapture) who seems to have anticipated Twitter with his pithy, vague exhortations to “Live the Question” and other New Age falderall. Jean’s disciple Ellen (Susan Traylor) buzzes close to Peter, arousing Katherine’s suspicions, but her cheat-o-meter goes into high gear when she spies Peter and Alison talking, though they lied to her about having just met when Alison shows up unexpectedly as the date of an invited guest. In retaliation, Katherine leaves the party with Misha (Bruce Ramsay), an attractive, young coffee-shop owner, and becomes an adulterer for the first time. Shortly thereafter, she suggests a trial separation, one in which she and Peter share the house but not the bedroom; Katherine seems to have abandoned her business and has insufficient finances to move out. Alison and Misha both move in, and Peter and Katherine carry on their dalliances while opening and running a high-end clothing store together after Levy suggests that their next move should be something that involves their greatest talents—talking and shopping.
The New Age is quite funny in the way it shows what impresses people like the Witners and their set. Jean speaks French, so he must be at the vanguard of something authentic. Katherine also seeks help from Sarah (Rachel Rosenthal), a spiritualist who must be the real deal because she’s old, dresses like a wealthy hippie, and shaves her head, but Katherine confesses in frustration that she cannot feel the vibes of the universe the other women in her drum circle do. Katherine’s pain at her husband’s serial infidelities, her failed business and slowly failing clothing store, and the betrayal of her friends is difficult to watch. She sells a $400 belt to her friend Anna (Patricia Heaton), oblivious to Anna’s reluctance to buy it, and later finds out Anna is throwing a party to which she and Peter are not invited. Anna bluntly says she doesn’t want to deal with Katherine and Peter’s problems; “I have to be honest,” she says when she no longer has the option to lie by omission. Later, in a scene eerily reminiscent of the coming of the Apocalypse in The Rapture, Peter, Ellen and several others go to a “sacred place” in the desert and get caught up in a dust storm. As the assembled scurry for cover, Katherine stumbles upon Peter and Ellen kissing passionately at the base of a rock. Katherine, who admits she only cares about looking cool (“but I’m working on it”), is more afflicted by others than inflicting. Her businesses legitimately dry up, and she faces the reality of surviving and making better choices.
Peter isn’t anywhere near as sympathetic a character. Despite being poorly fathered by a hypercritical, rejecting father (Adam West) who gives him a $10,000 check to help him keep his home and business afloat and then cancels the check first thing the next day, Peter actively turns into someone he himself despises. Telemarketers, whom he loathes as lying parasites, plague him throughout the movie until he is so desperate that he begs one for a job. When he hoodwinks an elderly florist (Audra Lindley) out of $150, his boss (Samuel L. Jackson) declares him to be “a man.” This “validation” is an indictment of Peter and Katherine’s entire way of life—selling image rather than substance to corrupt people like themselves—and by extension, the lack of substance that, in 1994, was making overvalued or nonworking elites wealthy and quietly destroying the economy for real workers, who were being laid off in droves and replaced by cheaper labor in other countries. Katherine ends up doing what she is truly interested in doing with her talent for style, and Peter, though offered high-paying work back in show biz, descends into self-loathing and acts on the outside what he has always been on the inside, choosing to follow in his surrogate father’s footsteps as a telemarketer.
In the panel discussion after the film, Tolkin said it really shook him up to watch the film, that it was more personal than he remembered. He said the point of the film was to explore what a man is supposed to be in this society. When questioned about his attraction to religion, he admitted that he sees religion as all psychology, and that belief is an expression of character that he can’t explore in the abstract. Therefore, he does not caricature belief systems, though the spirituality in this film certainly skirts that line.
Tolkin revealed that he didn’t agree with Judy Davis when they were making the film, but stands in awe of her skill and recognizes after seeing the film again that her choices were dead right. A funny line in the film comes when Peter sits down to play the piano—Fauré—and he is asked to play something else by a guest who has heard him play this piece numerous times. “It’s the only song I can play,” says Peter, and indeed, it is the only piece Peter Weller could play on a piano at the time.
Tolkin offered his different takes on being a novelist and a filmmaker, and on being a screenwriter and a director of his own work. Humorously, when asked what he thought of the film, he said, “The writer was really angry with the director, and the director threw the writer off the set.”
Although this film takes place in 1994, its mention of an economic meltdown makes it timely. “I’m always right about the economy,” said Tolkin about his social commentary over the years. He also suggested that the film had some documentary qualities to it, that he likes to film real people being themselves. At one point, Peter is taken to an S&M orgy. Tolkin said the people at the party, including the two women who invite him to take his pants off and join them in a threesome, were real members of the scene. While this part of the movie seemed a little tacked on, it was a fascinating scene reminiscent of the orgy in Eyes Wide Shut; the entire film has quite a few echoes with Kubrick’s film, though somewhat surprisingly, Kubrick’s is more hopeful.
The New Age captures a moment and place in time with breadth and deadly accuracy. Despite its moments of humor, the film is not really fun. But it is wise in its wariness, and another small gem from a talented writer and director. l
The 1980s and 90s were an interesting time, a time when the pendulum swung away from the rebellion and hedonism of the 1960s and 70s. In many countries, and especially in an already religiously oriented United States, God and traditional religion made a big comeback in the larger culture. On television, religiously oriented shows, previously confined to Sunday-morning children’s programming and preachy talking-heads discussions like “30 Good Minutes,” were developed for prime time. Dramas like “Highway to Heaven,” “Touched by an Angel,” and “Seventh Heaven” became big and enduring hits. Yet, while these shows were unabashed in their faith in God and angels, they followed the television formula of wrapping conflict up in a tidy bow by the end of the hour, leaving a warm afterglow of harmony and goodness without really engaging religious dogma and belief.
The big screen was slower to get on the religious bandwagon, and when it did, the films that resulted (for example, Dogma and Michael) engaged in feeble mocking of sanitized religion without really challenging it, or exploited scripture for titillation, as with Mel Gibson’s graphic The Passion of the Christ. Eventually, a subgenre of religious films that follow the television formula was established, with The Blind Side reaching the pinnacle of recognition for these efforts.
To my mind, the only film to come out of this period that truly, literally wrestles with scripture itself—not morality, not social problems, not biblical stories—is Michael Tolkin’s dramatic and thought-provoking The Rapture. Combining the apocalyptic predictions from The Revelation of John with a brand of evangelical Christianity, Tolkin explores the journey of a woman who literally fills her emptiness with belief in and love of God and Jesus Christ in the final few years before the end of the world.
Sharon (Mimi Rogers) is a directory-assistance operator who lives in Los Angeles and works in a windowless room of cubicles fielding hundreds of calls for phone numbers with a rote rapidity that make us feel as numb as Sharon looks. Sharon spices up her life after hours cruising with her male friend Vic (Patrick Bauchau) for couples to have sex with. They end up in a downscale bar, where they pick up Randy (David Duchovny) and Paula (Terri Hanauer). Tolkin lets us in on the preliminaries to sex, as Paula dances topless, and Randy, Paula, and Sharon eventually tumble into bed as Vic watches.
At work, Sharon becomes curious when she hears three coworkers talking about “the boy” in the lunchroom. One night, she and Vic meet a pair of married swingers. When the woman unzips her dress, she reveals an elaborate tattoo crowned with a pearl that fascinates Sharon so much that she ignores the husband grinding away at her and asks the woman, Angie (Carole Davis), about it. Angie says, “Don’t you know?” and then says the pearl is a sign that the Rapture is coming, and Christians everywhere are dreaming about it.
Sharon has started to see Randy regularly, though she’s dissatisfied with mere sex and wants to discuss her deeper problems of pain and emptiness. One night, she dreams of the pearl and overnight realizes a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. In her uplifted zeal, she tries to convert the people who call her for phone numbers at work. When she starts proselytizing to Randy he retorts angily, “You hate your job; you hate your life; but you want to feel special. Instead of letting me do that, you’re rushing off to something that’s not even there.” Yet, Sharon meets people who believe in the coming apocalypse, including her boss (Dick Anthony Williams), who takes her to meet the boy (DeVaughn Nixon), a prophet who interprets God’s signs.
Six years pass. Randy and Sharon have married, have had a daughter they named Mary (Kimberly Cullum), and have devoted themselves to God. The boy is a teen now (Christian Benavis) and says the Rapture will be upon them within the year. Randy fires an incompetent employee who later comes back and shoots him and several other employees dead. Sharon hardly seems to grieve, believing that Randy is with God and that she and Mary will see him again very soon when the apocalypse comes. Yet, she sees photos of Randy beckoning her to come meet him in the desert. Certain that she and Mary have been called early, she drives them out to Vasquez Rocks County Park where they pray daily to ascend.
Only they aren’t taken. After more than two weeks, they run out of food. Mary asks Sharon why they can’t just take matters into their own hands and die. Mary, pleading how much she wants to see her daddy, how much she loves God, and how she doesn’t want to wait, eventually persuades Sharon to shoot her. Sharon, crying, fires the fatal shot, but hesitates to kill herself because suicides don’t get into Heaven. She is arrested for murder by the cop (Will Patton) who has been keeping an eye on her and Mary in the park and thrown in a holding cell. Then the first sounding of Gabriel’s horn rings out, announcing Judgment Day, the day Sharon has been waiting and praying for. And despite this, despite the evidence of her own eyes that God and Heaven exist, Sharon chooses to deny God and remain in the darkness. Forever.
The Rapture is a remarkable film that avoids the mundane, the extraneous. It’s not important how Randy and Sharon decide to keep seeing each other after their initial hook-up. Randy’s conversion isn’t important either. This isn’t a story about a couple or even a corrupt world. It is a story about faith—why people seek it, how they find it, and how they lose it.
Sharon’s desperately empty life is communicated economically. Her office environment is characterless and grey, her home spare and provisional, and her relationship with Vic, about whom we neither know nor need to know much, loose and convenient. The stepping stones to her conversion are in plain view, but she can’t pretend she has seen the light until she actually has. Mimi Rogers’ entire demeanor changes the morning after she dreams of the pearl, moving from an affectless shadow to a woman glowing with happiness and self-possession. Her conversation with Vic about falling in love with Jesus is coy, in the language the pair understood before Sharon’s conversion. It’s a clever scene played with conviction that sets up Sharon’s future actions.
Rogers’ sincere central performance makes the questions Sharon asks worth considering, even for an atheist like me, because they are asked without irony from a place of deep yearning. Why do we have to suffer the pain of the world? Why does salvation have to come through Jesus Christ and not any of the other world religions? Why does God demand that we love Him? Tolkin doesn’t answer the questions he poses with reason, but rather by showing that the prophesies of John were true. The apocalypse does come as it was foretold, therefore Christianity is the only true religion. Tolkin’s depiction of the darkness enveloping the world is eerie. Close-up shots of hooves and their hollow clopping stir a real terror before we share with Sharon the dread sight of Death perched upon its white horse, its scythe at the ready. When Sharon makes her fateful decision to refuse God, then, we really feel the gravity of that decision whether or not we are Christian believers. Tolkin’s Rapture is a persuasive cinematic tour de force.
But what of Sharon’s decision? All she has to say is that she loves God and she will never be parted from her beloved daughter and husband again. Is God’s decision to let her kill her daughter really so grievous considering that He overrules His own law against murder to give her a chance to enter Heaven? Was it even God who put her in the desert in the first place? The boy prophet said that Sharon’s visions of her husband in the desert might have been the work of the Devil. Who was Sharon to decide that it wasn’t?
The Rapture dignifies free will even as it ruefully illustrates the disasters of pride. Killing Mary ruptures something in Sharon that had gotten shaky as she waited in vain for God to call them to Him. Is faith that fragile, or is it asking too much for a mother to abandon concern for her child? Humans live in the world, not in eternity, and a loving mother does not want to see her child go hungry, does not want to see her child die before her, and certainly does not want to be the instrument of that death. When faced with what seems like the petulance and immaturity of a god who demands to be loved, Sharon can only protest His cruelty and His pride through refusal.
Although John is a New Testament book, the God of the Revelation is the God of the Torah, who shares a good deal in common with the Greek and Roman gods. That is, the God of Israel is vain, demanding, cruel, capricious, and not as loving of His creations as they are of Him. It has been said that a person who marries for money pays for it every day of married life. Had Sharon accepted the riches of God without feeling love, she would have paid for all eternity. Her choice, to accept the happiness she had before the desert as enough, was, in fact, the right one.
Of God and Sharon, Sharon is by far the better parent. And if our goodness is known by how we treat the least among us, Sharon is the one who belongs in Heaven, not God.
Legendary and lauded as most of them have become, few of Stanley Kubrick’s later films landed immediate punches with viewers. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) took time to find an audience, A Clockwork Orange was so controversial in its time Kubrick removed it from British cinemas, Barry Lyndon <1975) remains largely unloved, and The Shining (1980) underperformed badly on first release, catching neither the Oscar-bait nor the Friday the 13th (1980) crowds. And everyone knows that Kubrick’s final film, a mordant and menacing sexual satire, gained a collective shrug from general movie-goers, even after the death of the director and the pairing of then-married superstars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman earned it an avalanche of hype.
I found Eyes Wide Shut a deliciously weird, funny, beautiful, and original piece of work, then and now. Eyes Wide Shut did for writer Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle what Apocalypse Now did for Joseph Conrad—transpose it to the modern day without ejecting its crucial flavour of timeless, mystified sensuality, filtered through a cutting sarcasm that was Kubrick’s own. Frederic Raphael, who wrote the screenplay with Kubrick’s aid, had tackled similar themes, with some similar narrative touches, in Two for the Road (1967). Kubrick’s ironic-realist approach always shaded into a deep stylisation, and Eyes Wide Shut was stupidly criticised for being unreal-seeming when such was the whole damn point of a film based on a “dream novel.” But it’s a judgment I also take issue with: I can think of very few better films that capture with accuracy the haunted feel of a great city late at night as we follow Cruise as he stalks the frigid streets, lost in mists of sexual jealousy and aching fear.
Sold as a sexy thriller, which means, in standard terms, a tawdry morality play like Fatal Attraction, Kubrick’s swan song is closer in spirit to Italian horror films, Val Lewton (particularly The Seventh Victim, 1943), Ernst Lubitsch, and the Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs.” Eyes Wide Shut isn’t actually about sex—it’s about what it means to individuals and to couples and the anxiety it engenders, built around the basic joke that the top male movie star of his era can’t get laid. That would be Cruise, who plays Dr. William Harford—named after Harrison Ford, the whitest-bread guy Kubrick could think of—who plays (as he did in his two other best roles after it, in Magnolia and War of the Worlds) one of his cocky ’80s golden boys getting a rude shock when it comes to growing up.
Fit, handsome, prosperous, and criminally self-satisfied, Harford and his wife Alice (Kidman) leave their gorgeous apartment and young daughter (Madison Eginton) for an evening at a party thrown by Bill’s wealthy, randy patient Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack) and his wife (Leslie Lowe). Bill encounters a friend who dropped out of med school, jazz pianist Nick Nightingale (Todd Field, before becoming a Kubrickian director), and playfully chats with two models (Louise J. Taylor and Stewart Thorndike) who try not so subtly to sell him on a threesome. Alice dances with the fishy Sandor Szavost (Sky Dumont), who, with gentlemanly affect and a strong whiff of sleaze, tries to make her. Bill is soon called upstairs to aid Ziegler, who is hurriedly putting on his clothes near a naked girl named Mandy (Julienne Davis) sprawled on a chair, almost dead from a drug overdose. She comes to, and Ziegler asks Bill not to speak about this, which Bill takes as all part of the business.
Alice extricates herself eventually from her would-be lover’s arms, but suspects that Bill may have gone romping with the models, an anxiety that doesn’t reveal itself until the following night. After a day in which Bill works and Alice, an unemployed gallery curator, packs Christmas presents, they get stoned together. Alice taunts Bill with a story about her powerful attraction to a young naval officer she encountered a year before at a resort she and Bill visited. Before the discomfort of the revelation can be settled, Bill is called away to “show his face” at the apartment of one of his patients who has died, commencing a series of charged scenes in which Bill is confronted by distorting mirrors to his plight: the dead man’s daughter (Marie Richardson), who’s willing to throw away her fiancé for a professed love of Bill; the fur-clad, oddly named hooker Domino (Vinessa Shaw) he meets on the street, whose professional glaze slips in dealing with her good-looking, charming, slightly befuddled client; a European costumer, Milich (Rade Sherbedgia), who rents out his pubescent daughter (Leelee Sobieski) as a prostitute; and a gay hotel clerk (Alan Cumming) who swoons, figuratively, in his presence, not long after a mob of obnoxious frat boys have assaulted Bill on the street and hurled homosexual abuse at him.
Most dizzying and bizarre of all, Bill crashes an orgy of a secretive cabal of society patricians, alerted by the intimations of Nick, who plays music for their hedonistic mock-religious rituals while blindfolded. Bill wanders through the mansion while dozens of black-draped, masked guests cavort in approximations of passion with the exquisite females provided for their entertainment. One of the faceless, lushly formed women chooses him as the assembled pair off, but seems to recognise him. She warns him to leave, but he’s soon hauled before the assembled hedonists and forced to remove his mask. Only the masked girl’s intervention seems to save him from a grisly fate, and Bill is ejected with a warning to keep his mouth shut. It’s a scene that evokes and exploits a deep anxiety, desire (both sexual and social) seguing into the needle-sharp moment of being revealed and humiliated. After Bill returns home, Alice awakens from a dream and recounts it to him. It is startlingly similar to his experience, and for Bill, the settled boundaries between life and fantasy, waking and dreaming, threaten momentarily to dissolve. In the clear light of day, Bill finds no solace: in retracing his steps, he finds Nick has vanished, receives another warning from the cabal, and soon suspects that an ex-beauty queen, found dead from an overdose, may have been his guardian angel from the orgy. He senses he might be pursued around town by what may or may not be malevolent agents.
Like most of Kubrick’s other films, Eyes Wide Shut is indeed coal-black comedy, but the humour tends to die in the throat: the recurring gag that goes beyond a joke quickly enough is that while he gets come-ons from every direction, every flirtation Bill engages in, consciously or unconsciously, sees him frustrated or embarrassed. He withdraws from Domino when he gets a call from Alice; later, when he returns to visit her, he’s about to screw her roommate Sally (Fay Masterson) when she halts their tryst with the news that Domino has AIDS. The darkest reflection of his appetites comes with Milich and his daughter, who whispers a come-on in his ear and backs away in a provocative pose, and later appears at her father’s side as he explains he and her Japanese fancymen (Togo Igawa and Eiji Kusuhara) “came to another arrangement.” The film is, in many ways, a comedy of manners, and again like most of Kubrick’s films, it is about how social ritual masks games of power and desire, a method Kubrick initiated with the contrast of the elegant waltzers and the office politics that destroy hundreds of men, in Paths of Glory (1957), and evolved into more delicate and intricate shadings.
That Bill becomes the ultimate in uninvited guests is both the biggest and coldest of the string of humiliations he receives. The unmasking is also Bill’s “outing,” for a recurring counterpoint to his desire to reaffirm his masculinity that leads him into situations that rob him of it. He’s taunted as gay by rowdy, vicious young men, and becomes the object of Cumming’s obvious ardour. There’s a quality of vicious humour in using Cruise, so long associated with on-screen potency and off-screen rumours, and the narrative constantly moves to cut off both Bill the character and Cruise the actor from the usual recourses. He is transmuted from beaming, cocky would-be stud striding through the party with two women on his arms, to weeping, unshaven fool of fortune confessing every minor and major seamy act of the previous two days.
The great conspiracy that Bill considers unwinding proves to be little more than a bunch of rich wankers having a good time, as Ziegler, who was one of them, admits to get him to stop digging into what is nonetheless a potentially volatile situation. He awakens Bill to the fact that the dead girl, his saviour, whom he was able to recognise in the morgue from the colour of her eyes, was Mandy and that her death was, so he swears, her own stupid fault. It’s particularly galling for Bill considering that despite his mask, Mandy could recognise him, or least sense his outsider status. The long sequence between Ziegler and Bill is one for which Pollack received almost more praise at his death than he did for the films he directed. As was once said of Liv Ullman in Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf (1966), Pollack cuts like a knife through the mouldy cheese of Bill’s self-absorption. Victor accuses Bill of spending the past two days in a metaphorical jerk-off. Ziegler’s admissions deflate Bill’s mounting panic and put a leash on—but do not seal away—the genie of erotic dicontent, as Bill’s journey has conclusively revealed a pattern of how people use one another in sexual situations for whatever motives and prices. Only in his marriage is there something more than a variety of economics involved.
Eyes Wide Shut is also about marriage, its failings, frustrations, and intrinsic intensity; the shadow people lovers construct from each other and the damage that results from the demolition of those images; and the necessity of both the construct and the demolition for the survival of any union. Bill and Alice’s intimate moment after the first party sees them touching each other but admiring themselves in the mirror, trapped in a state of narcissistic self-contemplation by their experiences at Victor’s. Alice’s admission of her deepest temptation, which mingle desperate ardour both for another man and for her husband, sends him out to half-consciously replicate the journey, to provide himself with objects of desire, and then reject them for his wife. He, in his waking life, and she in her dream, tear apart the false versions of themselves in order to return to where they essentially began. I’ve never liked Kidman as an actress more than here, with her mordant deliveries in the hypnotically brutal confession scene, and her weary, frightened, but hopeful affect in the final few moments.
Kubrick’s visuals, festooned with shades of muted colour and embracing warmth contrasted with deep blues and evocations of a frigid northern city night, light Bill’s path between inside and outside, acceptance and rejection. Beneath the fastidious, facile realism of the details, the expressionist intent is readily apparent in the city sets that, like Val Lewton’s settings, vibrate with stylised liveliness. Kubrick had quoted Euro-horror before in The Shining, which utilised the fetishist visual patterns of Dario Argento with impunity, and Kubrick’s saturated colours and textures here again resemble Argento’s. The orgy sequence, with its sex-as-theatre dreaminess, clash of flesh and formal clothing, and psychedelic music, evokes many a work of Euro underground sex-gothic and surrealist cinema. It’s an aspect that many viewers seemed blind to, perhaps because Kubrick had always been assumed, despite the distorted expressionist violence and comedy and pop-art reflexes in Dr. Strangelove (1964) and A Clockwork Orange (1971) (and classical art in Barry Lyndon), to be a careful realist. The film’s core musical theme is Shostakovich’s “Jazz Suite,” a cunning choice that fuses the lingua franca of America and Europe in a jaunty waltz time that contributes to the blurring of space and era.
But as well as making its own felicitous quotes of other oeuvres, Kubrick readily referenced his own obsessions all the way through. His script for the unproduced Napoleon had a scene in which a young go-getter is ushered into decadent society to his shock and delight. Milich’s daughter is another Lolita. The film’s mix of formal elegance and impudent humour reflects how deeply the influence of Vladimir Nabokov, whose Lolita he filmed in 1962, seeped into Kubrick’s style. What is rare about Eyes Wide Shut and what made it a particularly lovely coup de grace, is the final, fecund warmth it tries to locate between Bill and Alice. It is able to approach the nature of human decency as well as corruption, leading to one of the greatest, pithiest, most meaningful final lines in any movie.