6th 03 - 2011 | 30 comments »

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

By Roderick Heath

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, sucking 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).

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24th 12 - 2010 | 5 comments »

Amistad (1997)

Director: Steven Spielberg

By Roderick Heath

This is an entry in The Spielberg Blogathon hosted by Adam Zanzie of Icebox Movies and Ryan Kelly of Medfly Quarantine.

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 (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 near-orgiastic acclaim. 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


15th 12 - 2010 | 7 comments »

Naked (1993)

Director/Screenwriter: Mike Leigh

By Marilyn Ferdinand

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.


22nd 07 - 2010 | 17 comments »

Oleanna (1994)

Director/Screenwriter: David Mamet

By Marilyn Ferdinand

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 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.


11th 07 - 2010 | 6 comments »

Dance with Me (1998)

Director: Randa Haines

By Marilyn Ferdinand

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.


23rd 04 - 2010 | 3 comments »

The New Age (1994)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Michael Tolkin

Roger Ebert’s Film Festival 2010

By Marilyn Ferdinand

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 (1992) 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 (1991).

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.

Q&A with Michael Tolkin


21st 03 - 2010 | 61 comments »

TOERIFC: The Rapture (1991)

Director/Screenwriter: Michael Tolkin

 

By Marilyn Ferdinand

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.


3rd 11 - 2009 | 10 comments »

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Director: Stanley Kubrick

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By Roderick Heath

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) was written off by many as a prestige-seeking objet d’art, and even 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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11th 08 - 2009 | 7 comments »

Hook (1991)

Director: Steven Spielberg

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By Roderick Heath

Hook was a film I never had any time for. Perhaps it’s a fitting irony that I’m much younger now than I was when the film came out. There was no way in hell my 12-year-old self wanted to see a Peter Pan movie, not in the season of Terminator 2. Since then, I’d neglected it because it came from the blandest phase of Steven Spielberg’s career, that space in between the flop Empire of the Sun (1987) and Schindler’s List (1993), also distinguished by two indifferent money spinners (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, 1989, and Jurassic Park, 1993) and the now virtually forgotten, problematic but fitfully dazzling Always (1989), a period in which the director seemed to have lost his way both in style and substance. The lack of appreciation for Empire of the Sun, still his most unique drama, left the director stuck playing to juvenile crowds that no longer seemed to be his thing.

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Hook has its fans, and it surely made money, but it left me with extremely mixed feelings. Spielberg’s capacity to paint gorgeous fantasy imagery and sell his films emotionally prods this overproduced, underplotted contraption to dazzle in fits and starts. The hook, so to speak, is actually quite smart— a middle-aged, overworked, distracted man who’s completely forgotten that he’s the epitome of youth, imagination, and joie de vivre. It also features an early variant on the powerful motif of a boy or man spying on his own family, in which another has taken his place, an image that reappears in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) and Catch Me If You Can (2002). But as a tale and a piece of filmmaking, Hook remains conflicted and violently uneven.

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Robin Williams, visibly transforming from the appealing comic actor of the 1980s to the smarmy, overexposed star of the 1990s, plays Peter Banning, a flabby, overprotective corporate lawyer whose neuroses include a fear of heights and flying. He’s the kind of dad who’s so busy he doesn’t show up for his son Jack’s (Charlie Korsmo) Little League games. Peter, his wife Moira (Caroline Goodall), Jack, and daughter Maggie (Amber Scott) fly to London,to visit Moira’s 90-year-old grandmother, Wendy Darling (Maggie Smith, in heavy make-up). Wendy, the “inspiration” for the girl in J. M. Barrie’s play Peter Pan, had dedicated her life to helping orphans; Peter, one of her former foundlings, has helped fund a grandiose institution named after her. However, one of his business projects is going south, driving him to yell at his kids and alienate everyone.

When Jack and Maggie disappear from the house, a taunting note, pinned with a sword and signed by Captain Hook (Dustin Hoffman), demands that Peter return to Never-Neverland and face his vengeance. Of course, the police (represented, scarily, by Phil Collins) think it’s a prank related to Wendy’s famous “literary character,” but Wendy tells Peter the truth: he really is Peter Pan. Having visited Wendy (played in flashbacks by Spielberg’s goddaughter Gwyneth Paltrow) for decades after their first adventure, he fell in love with Moira, and, when he kissed her, became mortal and forgot all about his past life. Peter anxiously writes Wendy off as batty, but is soon visited in his bedroom by Tinkerbell (Julia Roberts). She literally drags him to Neverland to confront Hook. Once there, Peter proves to be a wretched disappointment for Hook and his kids when he can’t even climb a mast to fetch them from the net they’re held in. Hook is inclined to kill him offhand, but Tinkerbell convinces the Captain to let her get Peter back into shape for a real confrontation.

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There’s a lot of room for humour, adventure, and even satire in such a set-up, and, broadly, Hook belongs in a contemporary subgenre with films like The Princess Bride (1987), Shrek (2001), and Ever After (1999) as a smart-mouthed, revisionist twist on fantasy material. And yet it never quite gets over being a concept, a vehicle, a scheme, to become a real movie. There are a number of reasons for its failure to wow, but put a lot of down to a disjointed screenplay by James V. Hart and Malia Scotch Marmo. Hart did a similarly lumpy hack job on another revisionist film of the period, Francis Coppola’s terrible Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). The lack of strong dialogue means that the film often has an air of the provisional, such as when Hook’s underling Smee (Bob Hoskins) gorges on food and skips around like an actor trying to unfreeze an icy audience waiting for the actual jokes.

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Hook is split into three disparate personalities: a cheeky take on a dusty old tale, a heartfelt tribute to the power of the fantastic and the legacy of J. M. Barrie, and an oversized effort to beat the audience into submission with production values and make them buy toys for Christmas. Chiefly it lacks zip. Raiders of the Lost Ark has zip. Hook ambles clumsily along like Long John Silver. Much like his closest literary forebear, Dickens, the fear of loss is partner to Spielberg’s sentiment, and this quality gives Hook some emotional imperative. He offers some marvellous moments, most notably when Tinkerbell first kidnaps Peter, carrying him bundled in a blanket across a fairytale London, her pixie dust accidentally raining on a kissing couple and causing them to levitate in front of Big Ben, before heading for the second star on the right, and the night sky splitting open with the rays of a seaborne dawn. It’s a sequence that serves as a fair reminder of Spielberg’s capacity to wield special effects in service of wonderment. A scene in which Peter falls in the ocean and is saved from drowning by a trio of mermaids who kiss him to push air into his lungs, has a delicately adolescent erotic tone. And the true climax, in which Peter delves into his memories and finally extracts the birth of his son as the moment that allows him to fly again, is suitably joyous. Similarly affecting, if in a different fashion, is the image of Peter, having desperately raced to escape his workplace and make it to Jack’s game, arriving at a completely empty stadium. Spielberg utilises the same variety of crane shot here as for the momentous revelations in Close Encounters, but only to offer desolation. The London scenes, and the evocative references to the original tale, fortunately flow with appropriately misty magic.

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And yet Spielberg the director is only confident in spurts. The film is curiously cramped, revolving around its two ornate, but tiresomely huge sets—Pirate Cove and the Lost Boys’ lair. Perhaps this reflects the project’s partial origin in a musical John Williams tried to put together with Leslie Bricusse—a stagy air is ever present. The opening in America lacks the concision of workaday life and domestic crisis that made Close Encounters of the Third Kind work, or the mordantly overdrawn quality of John Patrick Shanley’s thematically and visually similar Joe Versus The Volcano (1987). Musically bridging some of the early scenes, Williams slaps on a dreadful piece of pseudo-pop that only encourages plugging one’s ears.

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Once the film reaches Neverland, the film’s split ambitions become more problematic. In what ought to be a land out of time, we get a mob of Lost Boys trying far too hard to be MTV-fit hellions, zipping about in their badass lair that suggests a G-rated Paranoid Park. When Peter falls into their midst, the sheer volume and choppiness of the editing suggest a complete loss of certainty on Spielberg’s part as to what film he’s making. The Lost Boys go into battle wielding gadgets that are obviously meant to expand the franchising revenue in a climax that’s unfairly twee and nonviolent: Lost Boys take out their enemies with jets of raw egg and tomato sauce, and the subtly named Thud Butt (Raushan Hammond), a fat, black Lost Boy, rolls himself up and cannonballs his enemies. Yeesh. The final duel of Hook and Peter sports some startlingly flatfooted fencing.

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One of the contradictions of Spielberg’s career through the 70s and 80s was that although he surely made many films that kids loved, he was never really a maker of children’s films; even E.T. is a fairly rowdy movie in its scares, threats, and generational hostility. Hook reveals just how much he misses going for the throat, making faces melt and staging action scenes of real verve. Perhaps a larger problem is that Peter Pan strikes me as far too thin to play around with in such a fashion. It’s not a solidly conceived fantasy world, like Tolkien’s Middle Earth or the realm in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials . It’s nothing more than the figment of a child’s imagination, nor is it intended to be, and so trying to enlarge on such a template—making Hook a weirdly existential villain or having Tinkerbell tortured by an unrequited love for Peter—is both amusing and troubling. I start asking stupid questions like, whose ships do these pirates attack? Is Tinkerbell so hard up for other pixies to hang around with?

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Perhaps this makes Hook sound worse than it is. In fact, it’s entertaining, and works best as a kind of a character study as it describes Peter’s journey from man to boy to back again, finding delight at last in watching his family come together. There’s such a barrage of throwaway gags, most of them offered by Hook’s chorus of dimwit pirates, that some hit home. Some fair performances help enormously, especially from Korsmo and Hoffman as Hook attempts the ultimate revenge on Peter—winning the affection of his son. Hoffman’s disarmingly droll Hook is less hammy than expected— a shade more restrained indeed than anyone in Pirates of the Caribbean. Hoffman’s Hook sports bad teeth, a pencil moustache, a ratty head of thinning hair concealed by his black wig, and a Terry-Thomas accent. Williams may have been obvious casting at the time, but it’s not a choice that’s aged well; an actor of greater subtlety might have given the film less noise and more vitality. Goodall, perpetually underused, is luminous in all her scenes. I actually liked Roberts’ Razzie-winning Tinkerbell. If any actress ought to stick to playing miniature sprites of no corporeal quality, it’s her. l


19th 05 - 2009 | 7 comments »

Office Killer (1997)

Director: Cindy Sherman

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

A long time ago, January 15, 2006, to be exact, I posted a short essay on Cindy Sherman, a photographer whose work I greatly admire. At the time, I mentioned that I had ordered Office Killer, her directorial debut (actually, her only film as a director to date), and promised to review it. Reminded of this promise unfulfilled by viewing an exhibit of Gordon Parks’ photos and making plans to see a film he directed, I felt moved to rewatch Office Killer and carry through my original intention. Office Killer, a darkly humorous horror movie, isn’t the greatest thing out there, but certainly for fans of Sherman’s photography, the film is a richly rewarding experience.

The staff of Constant Consumer magazine are about to have a very bad day. Editor-in-chief Virginia Wingate (Barbara Sukova) is talking to bean counter Norah Reed (Jeanne Tripplehorn) about the massive layoffs Reed is recommending to save the troubled publication. A verbal skirmish during which Reed paints herself heroic for “saving your ass” and Wingate retorts that Reed knows “shit” about editing a magazine, ends with Wingate delegating the layoffs to this self-styled Joan of Arc.

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Norah makes her way to the copyediting department and hands out pink-slip-filled envelopes informing staff that they will be working part time from now on. “At least no one has lost their jobs yet,” says fatherly senior copy editor Mr. Landau (Mike Hodge). “Let’s get back to work.” Mousy copy editor Dorine Douglas (Carol Kane), her head bent low over the galley proofs she’s marking up, leaves her envelope unopened. When she finally gets around to reading its contents, she is shaking a replacement canister of dry ink for the photocopier. Her shakes get so vigorous, she spews the ink all over herself. Sympathetic Norah runs to her aid.

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Star writer Gary Michaels (David Thornton), a slimy, imperious jerk, and his bit on the side, Jill Poole (Molly Ringwald), work together and haven’t met a deadline in weeks. Because of this, Dorine is assigned to work with him on deadline night to see that he finishes. Dorine’s new computer, installed by Norah’s boyfriend Daniel Birch (Michael Imperioli), gives her the error message from hell and starts beeping as though counting down a missile launch. She retrieves Gary from his office, where he tries to feel her up and cuss her out at the same time. He shuts off the power so that he can work on the electrical connection and calls Dorine to hold a flashlight for him. Instead, he shines the light in her face, blinding her, and causing her to back up into the fuse box, restoring the electricity. Gary is fried. Dorine picks up the phone to call 911, but then doesn’t speak to the responder. She carts Gary down to her car on a mail trolley, stuffs him in her trunk, takes him to the home she shares with her invalid mother (Alice Drummond), and sits him down in the rec room. The combination of having her job threatened, this accidental death, and a mind warped by a sexually abusive father (Eric Bogosian) send Dorine on a killing rampage to populate her home with additional “playmates.”

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Office Killer takes the familiar viewpoint that offices are prisons that recreate the traumatic pecking order most people experience in their adolescence. Sherman emphasizes the cell-block quality by including medium shots of window banks in buildings with shaft-like courtyards, the human inhabitants of the office so small it’s hard to see them at all. She also opts for low angles that put her characters behind the “bars” of wire in-boxes, between walls, in door frames. None of this is particularly new or revolutionary: just take a look at The Ipcress File, and you’ll see ingenious framing to your heart’s content.

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What Sherman adds to the visual mix is her brand of tabloid/tableau, particularly in the way she captures Dorine’s face. Dorine’s eyebrows are deliberately drawn in a high, thin, arching line to emphasize a wild-eyed derangement that Carol Kane’s naturally large, round eyes accentuate. Dorine is the quintessential sexual hysteric who goes over the edge, the perfect Sherman cinematic type. Compare Dorine with Judith Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca, and you’ll recognize the type Sherman is playing with.

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There are many other shots that scream Sherman to me. Take a look at the dead body and a still from Sherman’s series above; she loved to shoot reclining forms looking rather lost. She also creates a low-angle, almost fisheye look at scenes from Dorine’s past, again skewing the normal idyll of a 1950s childhood with odd angles and looks that give the entire film the kitschy menace so characteristic of her photography.

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Dorine’s killings are brutal and somewhat random. We are sure she will go after Jill, particularly after Jill bounces a wadded-up piece of paper off her head and screams insults at her. Will it be when Jill, having just been fired because she left Dorine alone to finish a story the vanished Gary never filed, boards an elevator to the covered garage below? Jill, as the only person who recognizes Dorine as a dangerous looney, manages to keep her guard up. Others are taken just because Dorine wants them to be part of her family, though she seeks revenge in the end against the woman who cut her job in half. Sherman revels in gore in a way that would make Stuart Gordon more than proud.

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Carol Kane gives a memorable comic performance with just the right amount of menace to make this a fairly proper horror film. She hates taking care of her invalid mother, unplugging the chair lift so that her mother can’t come downstairs to annoy her. When she arrives home one night and finds her mother dead, she goes into a grief-stricken panic over her mother’s body and then switches on a dime, intoning malevolently that she hopes her mother and father will be very happy dancing together in hell. It’s a hilarious moment among many that mine her vocal and facial dexterity.

Another great comic performance comes from Barbara Sukova, who twists her genuine German accent into a parody of Madeleine Kahn’s parody accent in Blazing Saddles. Michael Imperioli is a believably likeable guy who takes the hero role, and Ringwald is perfect as a bitchy, ambitious writer. Her scenes with Kane are among the best in the film.

Office Killer is just a little too funny to be truly menacing, and the jabs at office culture were pretty careworn even in 1997, when the film came out. But Sherman’s visual compositions and some highly entertaining performances and death scenes make this film one worth checking out.


12th 05 - 2009 | 1 comment »

Titus (1999)

Director/Screenwriter: Julie Taymor

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By Roderick Heath

Shakespeare’s play Titus Andronicus is one of his earliest works and, as its reputation well confirms, a shaky effort by a great talent. The training wheels were still squeaking badly: the characterisations lack the rock-steady motivation and complexity of his great works, the dialogue is fine but rather more drab and to the point than old Bill at full poetic flight, and the plot has some gaping foolishness. The young poet, taking refuge on the stage after his sonneteering patronage dried up, stacked on stage gimmicks, grotesquery, and madly proliferating plots and ideas in a fashion that borders on what we’d now call black comedy. It was also the biggest success of his career and helped give birth to Jacobean drama. The play also contains interesting sketches for almost all of his later works of note, from Richard III to Othello to Coriolanus. To this day, its gothic excesses–a doe-like daughter raped as a precursor to having her tongue and hands cut away, two sons slaughtered and fed to their mother in pastries, a supervillain who stabs a nurse in the stomach whilst gleefully mocking her cries as the squeals of a pig–exceed even the warped imagination of the average torture-horror director.

Julie Taymor, who since her debut with this film has made the excellent Frida (2002) and the popular Across the Universe (2007), came to movie-making with all the freakish pomp of a theatre monarch advancing to conquer a new world. If Frida worked because the artist-subject’s oeuvre provided a ready-made template for Taymor’s visual compositions and narrative discursions, Titus is an excruciating disaster in large part because she takes the play’s weaknesses as an excuse to indulge her own shapeless conceptualism. The resulting film resembles a performing arts school project run amok, as Taymor’s approach is a mish-mash of other people’s approaches: Richard Loncraine’s 1930s flourishes in Richard III (1995); Peter Greenaway-esque animated visual inserts and avant-gardish wankerdom; the hyper-stylised modernist chic of Peter Brook seen in the Roman legions; Wellesian employment of architecture; Baz Luhrmann-derived Oz-punk loudness in the portrayals of villains Chiron (Jonathan Rhys-Meyer) and Demetrius (Matthew Rhys); and sprawling decadence by way of Tinto Brass and an 1980s Park Avenue coke orgy.

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The story is, at least, still generally coherent. Titus Andronicus (Anthony Hopkins) returns to Rome from a victorious war against the Goths with Tamora (Jessica Lange) and her three sons, Alarbus (Raz Degan), Chiron, and Demetrius, as captives. Titus has lost 21 sons in the war, so he lets the survivors, Lucius (Angus Macfadyen, sporting excessive pomade), Quintus (Kenny Doughty), Mutius (Blake Ritson), and Martius (Colin Wells), sacrifice Alarbus. The reigning emperor has just died, so his sons Saturninus (Alan Cumming) and Bassianus (James Frain) compete for election. As a mark of respect, proposed by Titus’ brother Marcus (Colm Feore), Titus is also offered a chance at the throne by the Senate, but he puts his backing behind Saturninus as the proper heir and throws his daughter Lavinia (Laura Fraser) into the bargain. But Lavinia’s in love with Bassianus, and her brothers help her run off with him in defiance of daddy. Titus, in a rage, stabs Mutius when he tries to hold Titus from pursuit. Saturninus, stung by his rejection, marries the wily Tamora and acquiesces to her plans for ruthless revenge on the Andronicii. This soon comes to pass as they have Martius and Quintus set up for Bassianus’ murder by Tamora’s Moorish henchman and lover Aaron (embodied with high style by Harry Lennix), and Lavinia left terribly mutilated by Chiron and Demetrius. After some down time to think and dither until the fifth act rolls around, Titus plans his own revenge.

Taymor begins with a clodhopping point–a boy playing with his action figures is transported into the midst of a tale that analyses the true, self-replicating, morally corrosive nature of honour crimes. She then proceeds to suck from the film any real moral resonance, however, with relentless cartoonishness. Lavinia’s hideous fate is presented with a blackly witty idea–her rapists strand her atop a tree stump where she releases bloody, silent screams with tied twigs where her hands were, as a dark twist on the line “made her body bare of thy two branches,” uttered by Marcus when he finds her. But the CGI effects are clumsy, and the sequence has no impact because it’s robbed of all corporeal quality–it’s just another fancy visual effect. A later scene, in which Tamora and sons try to provoke Titus to madness by pretending to be incarnations of Revenge and consorts Rapine and Murder, was pretty dumb in the play too, but here’s it an absurd lysergic vision out of an arty music video.

Shakespeare’s tragedies are, by and large, about how violations of social codes take on a terrible velocity, laying everything waste until the violation’s results are played out. His fecundity of imagination and characterisation always strained, and usually ignored, the rules of classical drama, but he obeyed their principles in this regard; indeed, he took this cause and effect of social disintegration to new heights of disturbing political cynicism in the Elizabethan world with its very early intimations of both imperialism and multiculturalism. Without a feel for the social element, any adaptation is doomed to misunderstand him. That Taymor is under the spell of the mantra that his plays have to be jazzed up to appeal is not so problematic as the lack of a decisive presentation. Loncraine’s Richard had thunderous impact precisely because it pursued its historical analogy with stylistic rigour and a melodramatic delight in the story at hand.

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As the story demands a modicum of focus, the film settles down for a patch in the middle: for all the play’s faults, it has an inexorable drive that pushes the film along here, particularly when Aaron the Moor is on screen. A clear precursor of such disparate Shakespearean characters as Richard Gloucester, Iago, Shylock, and Othello, Aaron is a dramatic engine, the relentlessly unsentimental, cultural outsider flaying the values of that culture with fearless bravado even as he meets his comeuppance. Lennix struts through the film as if he owns it, and with good reason: he’s the only actor, as well as character, with the guts to admit it’s all a joke. But just when the actors find an island where they can work their craft properly, Taymor throws in a showy sequence of Titus being is presented with his sons’ heads by an Italian circus clown.

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Taymor’s film is more intent upon examining its own theatre-queen fabulousness. The flourishes are often clever, but never escape the status of gimmickry. Take the sequence in which candidates for the Imperial throne appeal to the people. Saturninus (a performance of über-camp spectacle from Alan Cumming) is backed by the bullyboys of Berlin circa 1933, whereas brother Bassianus (James Frain) has the trappings of 1950s America; their followers wave the flags of two different contemporary Roman football clubs. The clash of symbolism and intellectual intent with these grab-bag touches (Is this serious analogy of political styles? Jokey send-up of clannish loyalty?) is actually a kind of opportunism. It has nothing much to do with either the story at hand, nor with the populist elements of both fascism and American democracy: it’s merely a pseudo-intellectual shorthand.

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Despite the champion’s league cast, the acting styles seem snatched from as many corners of the earth as the set decoration. Cummings’ hyped-up showiness suggests Jay Robinson by way of his Cabaret emcee, clash madly with the gravitas of Hopkins who, for once, is the one trying to bring something like intensive emotional modulation to someone else’s showing off. He’s too often left floundering in the mess. He can’t be the tragic hero at the centre of the drama if the drama is deflated. He’s finally outshone by the simpler, more effective characterisations of a bracingly calm Colm Feore as Titus’ brother Marcus and Laura Fraser, who has a straight Old Vic accent as Lavinia, but rather subversively presented as a faintly racist, self-impressed princess fit for a bit’a the old ultra-violence at the hands of Tamora’s droogs. Jessica Lange, with all her ripe maturity, seems primed to steal the film as Tamora, but the film seems almost embarrassed by her campy ferocity, backing away at any opportunity. One moment that’s both fiendish and fudged finds Lange lying on a couch bare-breasted in an orgiastic embrace with both husband Saturninus and one of her sons, but it’s also cuts away so quickly it’s hardly registered. Taymor keeps her centre-frame provocations relentlessly ineffectual, replete with gaudy homoerotica, bouncing bums, and digitised boobs.

O, this offence is rank. l


3rd 04 - 2009 | 7 comments »

Close-up (Nema-ye Nazdik, 1990)

Director: Abbas Kiarostami

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Close-up, the extraordinary film documenting the trial of a man accused of impersonating noted Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, put Abbas Kiarostami on the map of the world. He and Makhmalbaf, of course, were the leaders of the Iranian New Wave that hit its stride during the 1980s, ironically, in the aftermath of the country’s 1979 Islamic revolution. An early champion of Iranian cinema, Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote in 2002:

Part of what has made Iran a movie-mad country in recent years, with about a dozen film magazines coming out regularly, is that cinema provides one of the only routes to upward class mobility available in that society. … Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s status as a local culture hero—an impoverished fundamentalist who evolved into a successful reformist filmmaker—is undoubtedly tied to this fact, and the desire of an out-of-work bookbinder to impersonate someone like him, giving him access to upper-class society, which set the real-life plot of Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-up in motion, clearly has a lot to do with what made that 1990 film the most influential of all Iranian new wave features.

Certainly, Close-up has been influential in Iran and around the world, but the story it tells concerns more than one man striving to reach beyond his impoverished conditions. Hossain Sabzian speaks for all of us when he describes how he wished to be admired in the same way as his hero, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and to create something of beauty and lasting significance for people like himself. It is uniquely appropriate that a philosophical examination of art should be intertwined with a real-life drama in a country with a centuries-long reputation as a cultural and artistic center.

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The film opens in a taxi that is carrying magazine journalist Hossain Farazmand and two police officers to the Tehran home of the Ahankhahs. Farazmand tells the cabbie (Hooshang Shamaei) that he has the story of a lifetime, one that will make his career. His excitement is, frankly, a little annoying in its self-congratulatory nature. Nonetheless, it becomes obvious soon enough that Farazmand is rather inept and needs this story to help secure his position in a country raging with unemployment. After the rather lengthy car trip and the exchange of personal information between the driver and passengers, the cops follow Farazmand into the Ahankhah compound and emerge with Sabzian. Farazmand nearly forgets his briefcase, then goes from gate to gate, buzzing intercoms and asking the neighbors if they can loan him a tape recorder. None can oblige.

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Kiarostami visits Sabzian in prison where he is awaiting trial. Sabzian tells him that his court date is late in January, and Kiarostami promises to try to get the date moved up. We have an encounter with a court bureaucrat who says he has no power to change the date but will comply with the authorities above him. “What’s the rush?” he wants to know. There are much more serious, interesting cases than this one. Serious? Yes. Interesting. Probably not, especially for a film maker and his audience.

Eventually, we enter the courtroom, a full month earlier than Sabzian’s trial was to be held. So a man like Kiarostami has some pull. With cameras and microphones set up to record the proceedings, the judge asks the Ahankhah patriarch if he would be willing to drop his suit. He answers that he would, but that his sons wish to press forward. He will not oppose their wishes. Mehrdad Ahankhah speaks for the aggrieved family, saying that Sabzian gained their confidence in an effort to burglarize their home; in addition, he accepted a not trifling sum of money from them. With the grounds of a trial still in place, the judge and Kiarostami proceed to question Sabzian and the witnesses against him about the fraud he admits he carried out.

Through reconstructions using the actual individuals involved, Kiarostami shows how the fraud began innocently enough and progressed over the week. Sabzian was reading the script for Makhmalbaf’s The Bicyclist on a bus when Mrs. Ahankhah sat down next to him and asked him where he got it. “A bookstore,” he answered. Then he offered it to her and said he wrote it. “You’re Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the famous director,” she asked. “Yes.” “Why are you taking a bus? You must have your own car.” “I like to look for interesting people to cast in my films.” Mrs. Ahankhah says her family loved The Bicyclist and that her sons would love to meet him. Thus, the scene has been set for Sabzian to play the great director for a willing audience of admirers.

Close-up%206.jpgAs the trial progresses, the judge questions him on why he carried on with the charade. Sabzian adamantly denies that he wanted to rob the Ahankhahs. True, he was unemployed, and he took the money Mehrdad offered him, using it to buy some things for his son. But he became entranced with the idea of playing Makhmalbaf. It opened doors for him and got people to listen to him. Mr. Ahankhah even offered to cut down some trees in his courtyard to make shooting an exterior shot easier.

“Why didn’t you become an actor?” asks the judge. “I would like to be an actor,” says Sabzian, “but the means are not available to me.” “Why Makhmalbaf?” asks Kiarostami. “Because he dignifies people like me in his films. The Bicyclist is a part of me.”

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In the final shots of the film, Kiarostami films Mohsen Makhmalbaf meeting Sabzian and giving him a ride on his motorcycle to the Ahankhahs. The microphone being used to record their conversation as they ride through the streets of Tehran is faulty, so we hear very little. We see them stop to buy a plant for the Ahankhahs and watch Sabzian ring the intercom. He announces himself as Sabzian. Silence. He adds, “Makhmalbaf,” then the real Makhmalbaf comes to the door and announces himself. The door opens, and a sobbing Sabzian presents the plant and asks, bowing low, for forgiveness.

This film is incredibly moving. Listening to Sabzian talk about his life, the breakup of his marriage due to his inability to provide for his family, his frequent escapes into movies, and finally, a deception that may have looked sinister to the younger Ahankhahs but really amounted to little more than a vacation from reality for everyone involved, well, it’s a riveting human drama. At the end, when the door doesn’t open immediately for Sabzian, he uses a name that has opened it before. How sad. How true.

The film also creates a strange sort of wish fulfillment for the Ahankhahs and Sabzian. They all wanted to be actors in a movie, and ironically, the fraud has made that possible in Kiarostami’s film. Even though the Ahankhahs live a very comfortable life, their futures aren’t guaranteed; both sons are unable to secure a job in their chosen field of engineering. Sabzian’s offer to them to do something artistic and visible was an irresistible carrot to satisfy their ego needs as well.

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I don’t know whether Iranian courts were or are this humane or whether Kiarostami’s camera had an influence. Whatever the reason, it was soul-warming to see this simple man truly get his day in court. By bringing his own plight to light in this very unique film, Sabzian became a voice for all the struggling people of his country. He also is a persuasive advocate for the arts and allows us to examine our own relationship to art in a very meaningful way. In our current times, with economic gloom hitting at all levels and the need for the healing power of art never greater, this film couldn’t be more timely. l


12th 09 - 2008 | 8 comments »

The Grifters (1990)

Director: Stephen Frears

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

I’m not really a fan of detective/crime novels, though I have read a bit, but even I know that Jim Thompson and Donald E. Westlake are among the elite novelists of the genre. Both men wrote screenplays and have had their fiction adapted for the movies: Thompson’s includes The Getaway and Westlake’s include Point Blank, The Outfit, Payback, and most recently, The Ax. Pairing Thompson’s novel The Grifters with the screenwriting talents of Westlake and capping the whole thing off with the excellent and versatile British director Stephen Frears should have made for an amazing movie. The film of The Grifters stumbles but, ultimately, the power of Thompson’s nihilistic vision of society as played out by its bottom feeders makes the film a memorable, repeatable experience.

John Cusack plays Roy Dillon, a con man, or grifter, who keeps a roof over his head playing the “short con.” Myra Langtry (Annette Bening) is Roy’s girl, a part-time chippy who exchanges sex for rent with her reluctant landlord Irv (Michael Laskin). When we first meet her, she is trying, unsuccessfully, to scam a jeweler. Roy’s mother, Lilly Dillon (Anjelica Huston), puts the fix in at race tracks for her mobster boss Bobo Justus (Pat Hingle). These three people will form a triangle fueled mainly by their desperate need to survive. As the story unfolds, we will see that survival means different things to each of them.

Roy tries a con in a tavern—ordering a beer, flashing a $20 bill at the bartender, and then laying a 10-spot on the bar and collecting the change for a 20. Small-time stuff that usually works, but not always. One bartender spots the deception, grabs Roy’s hand, which contains the $20 bill, reaches back for a baseball bat, and smashes Roy in the gut. Roy limps home to the inept ministrations of Myra, who decides sex would be the best medicine in the world.

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At the same time, Lilly gets a call to go to a racetrack in Delmar. Protesting that she never goes to California, she really can’t say no. She decides to drive to Los Angeles to look up Roy, who is not at all happy to see her. He maintains a cold, discourteous demeanor even as Lilly tries on maternal love for size. When Roy starts to run a high fever from his encounter with the baseball bat, she calls an ambulance. The doctor who greets the ambulance—Bobo’s personal mob physician—says he probably has internal bleeding and likely will not live. Lilly says, “You know who I work for. My son’s going to be all right. If not, I’ll have you killed.” Roy survives. Lilly is sent to La Jolla to do another job.

Grifters%208.jpgAfter he recovers, Roy decides he and Myra should go to La Jolla for the weekend. On the train, Myra observes Roy con some sailors in a rigged dice game. She confronts him later: “You’re on the grift, same as me.” He says he doesn’t know what she’s talking about. “Roy, you’re a short-con operator… and a good one, I think. Don’t talk to me like I’m another square.” She reminisces about her salad days on the grift, raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars in long-con investment schemes with her partner Cole (J. T. Walsh), who is now confined to a sanitarium for the criminally insane. She proposes teaming up with Roy. Remembering the man who taught him his trade warning Roy to stay away from the long con (“You don’t want to do jail time.”), he refuses.

Myra is determined, however, to get back in the money. She follows Lilly to the track and watches her take money and put it in a hidden compartment in her car’s trunk—she’s been skimming Bobo’s winnings. Lilly suddenly finds herself in deep trouble with Bobo, Myra moves in on the money, and it all ends with a confrontation between Roy and Lilly in Roy’s L.A. apartment a couple of days later.

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Los Angeles is the American city that produces the most photogenic and evocative night images. One look at the lights from atop the hills around the city almost instantaneously evokes a seductive nightmare of vice, tawdry criminality, and corruption. The opening credits play up this association as the words “The Grifters” fuse with the background.

Frears likes to shoot reality pretty much as it appears, so he uses different devices to suggest shifts in each character. Angelica Huston’s blonde hair is so startling, so cheap, yet she’s a woman with a very nice figure who startles others as being too young to have a grown son. Her white suit glows in the Southern California sun, but soon she will be stained with blood, as we watch her switch to red.

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Annette Bening puts on a stupid, Betty Boopish voice and dresses in the cheap, garish costumes of a tramp, with her long, faux-gold earrings suggesting a reject from a Vegas chorus line. She is enormously comfortable with her body; it’s Myra’s meal ticket, and Bening’s not afraid to show it off with an unself-conscious playfulness. The full-length shot of her sashaying toward the jewelry store owner, willing to offer herself in exchange for some dough to make rent is itself a jewel of cinematic power. This lively image will be echoed with a deathly one—the climactic shot of Lilly at the end of the film, stony-faced, appearing dead as she is lowered in a cage elevator.

In between are some fairly strained performances from Bening and Cusack. Bening has been called the thinking man’s sex symbol. She’s not convincing as a floozy in the first third of the film. This may have been by design, as signaled by Myra’s hammy performance as a woman of means faking her own death in her long-con game. Nonetheless, the high-tone character fits Bening like a glove, and the contrast is jarring. In the final act, she is pure animal, willing to stop at nothing to survive in the style to which she had become accustomed, thus redeeming the overall performance.

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Cusack fares much less well. He’s a penny-ante con, therefore perhaps a bit more innocent than either of the women with whom he spars. Nonetheless, his disillusionment with life should have been stronger, his antipathy for Lilly more bitter. His performance is weak and tinny even though he’s given great dialogue to chew on. His “I owe you my life, Lilly,” has none of the foreshadowing he could have given it. Indeed, he admits on the DVD extra about the making of the film that his first day at work was almost a complete disaster. Frears, in this extra, is gracious to all of his actors by saying that you hire performers for what they are and shouldn’t try to change them into somebody else. Alas, the performers are charged with changing into their characters, and Cusack just couldn’t step far out of his naïve, teenage persona at times when it wasn’t called for.

When it was, however, he helped create the most electrifying scene in the entire movie, the climactic end when Lilly kisses Roy as a woman to try to convince him to give her his money to make her escape from a murder-minded Bobo. He responds briefly, then pulls himself away in horror. The incestuous undercurrents ripple a bit, enough for Myra to call Roy on them, providing a reason why mother and son normally stay a continent away from each other and why Roy calls her “Lilly” and treats her with a distancing disdain—his survival depends upon it. Thus, the explosion of passion at the end is earned and shattering.

Grifters%201.jpgThe shining light in this dark tale is Anjelica Huston. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her perform with such intensity and shading, taking risks that most actors would never dare approach. Her wiry body, nervous smoking, and shaky stability vibrate and build throughout the film as though emanating from an animal that has been horribly abused and only knows how to cower or go for the throat. She seems to understand Jim Thompson’s world somewhere in her gut and is the single facet that makes The Grifters magnetic and watchable time and time again.

Try pairing The Grifters with House of Games for a night of con games.


13th 08 - 2008 | 4 comments »

Pump Up the Volume (1990)

Director/Screenwriter: Allan Moyle

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

I have a soft place in my heart for teen movies. Perhaps it stems from my adolescent crush on Mercutio (John McEnery) in Franco Zeffirelli’s version of that perennially updated classic of teen romance Romeo and Juliet—a crush that never really went away. I’ve commented favorably on the 80s takeoff on this classic, Valley Girl, and can still be found, hopelessly out of place, in lines waiting to get into teen movies, particularly if they involve dancing.

The 80s were a heady time, optimistic about a new “Morning in America,” as Ronald Reagan’s campaign ads liked to say, and teen movies of that era generally reflected the zeitgeist. Girls Just Want to Have Fun, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, even The Breakfast Club managed to create happy environments in which kids got over on their parents and adult authority figures with relatively harmless ease. Pump Up the Volume follows the familiar formula of teenagers finding ways to thwart adult power, but its tone and eventual outcomes are much darker, much more a reflection of the new Lost Generation to come that elevated anger and cynicism to new heights of lyrical rebellion.

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“Do you ever get the feeling that everything in America is completely fucked up? “ says Mark Hunter (Christian Slater), aka Happy Harry Hard-on, the pseudononymous DJ/radio host of his very own illegal, underground radio show. Mark, a recent and unwilling transplant to Paradise Valley, Arizona, has already sipped at the fountain of existential angst in the craven environs of New York. He finds his classmates at Hubert H. Humphrey High School repressed, oppressed, and out of touch. He feels like a stranger in a strange land and can’t talk to them face to face. So every night at 10 p.m., Mark lights a sign depicting a hand flipping the bird, activates his hopping penis toy, spins his theme song—that great song of defeat, “Everybody Knows” by Leonard Cohen—and becomes Happy Harry, a raunchy, rebellious prophet, a teenage Howard Beal.

I’d say “much to his surprise,” but I think it’s no surprise at all to Mark that he builds a following. He’s even set up a P.O. box to receive mail from his similarly pseudononymous listeners. If they include phone numbers, he calls them. When he learns some dirt on school administrators—which he can because his father (Scott Paulin) is the district superintendent and leaves his mail lying around—he broadcasts it. One night, he reads a letter David Deaver (Robert Schenkkan), the head of the school counseling department, wrote to suggest a student’s expulsion. He also has the faculty’s private phone numbers, and calls up Deaver. After initially playing to Deaver’s vanity, Mark starts to grill him about why he ratted out a student who spoke to him in strictest confidence. Not surprisingly, Deaver hangs up. Happy Harry Hard-on becomes public enemy #1 at Humphrey High, with the Machiavellian principal Loretta Creswood (Annie Ross) pulling every dirty trick she can to find out his identity so she can expel him.

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Christian Slater, though full of mannered movements (he’s in a perpetual slouch when in the company of his peers), is a sexy, charismatic presence on screen. His personality combined with his rap on the plight of the nation, in general, and teenagers, in specific, make for some compelling listening, not only for the kids on screen but also for the movie audience. He coins several lines that rightly turn into memes in the film: “So be it,” and “Thought is a virus.” When he receives a letter that asks, “Should I kill myself,” he opines, “You hear about some kid who did something stupid, something desperate; what possessed him? How could he do such a terrible thing? …The terrible secret is that being young is sometimes less fun than being dead.” Unfortunately for Mark, he didn’t take the suicide threat seriously; the next day, the student is found dead, and Mark feels responsible. Thus, the darker side of letting it bleed on the air (shades of Jenni Jones and Rush Limbaugh) gets a hearing in this film.

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His foil, and the only person who discovers his identity, is Nora Diniro (Samantha Mathis, in her screen debut), a girl transitioning from Pippi Longstocking wannabe to Goth rebel. She is turned on by Harry and sends him sexually explicit mash notes as the “eat me beat me” lady. She spends a good deal of the movie harassing him to pay attention to her and encouraging him to go on after the suicide and as his alarm at the revolution he has started keeps growing. As a couple, Slater and Mathis have a lot of chemistry (they became an item in real life), but Mathis is, frankly, pretty bad in this movie; she only captures attention because she’s so pretty. If I had to use Rod’s rating system for film debuts, I’d give her an “unpromising”—which would be inaccurate because she has become a pretty good actress. The pair’s almost-sex scene is embarrassingly bad—both topless, circling each other and licking their lips. Only Slater’s swoon on the ground after Mathis leaves breathes real sexual energy into the scene.

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Paige Woodward (Cheryl Pollak), cast as a preppie-looking achiever, but really an unhappy girl overstressed by everyone’s high expectations of her, has a real scene-stealing moment. Harry, extolling his “troops,” says, “Go nuts, go crazy, get creative! You got problems? You just chuck ’em, nuke ’em!” Paige takes him literally. Pulling the Yale banner off her wall, gathering up her cosmetics and other aids to perfection, she carries the lot into the kitchen, tosses them in the microwave oven, sets it, and sits at the kitchen table watching it explode and burn. It’s a great scene of teen rage, and I really appreciated that director/writer Moyle gave it to a female.

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As might be expected, the adults in the film are caricatures—clueless parents, cool teachers, evil guidance counselors, and ineffectual enforcers of the law. At one point, Arthur Watts (James Hampton), the head of the FCC, comes to Paradise Valley to apprehend the radio pirate. He stays lamely near his limo as his radio trucks, brought in to triangulate Mark’s broadcast signal to find him, spin like bumper cars trying to follow the now-mobile Mark, his broadcasting set-up rigged to his mother’s jeep. Eventually, cool teacher Jan Emerson (Ellen Greene) finds incriminating evidence against the principal, allowing Mark’s father to redeem himself somewhat by suspending her. Only Annie Ross was able to modulate her performance to avoid playing a cackling witch, only to have it spoiled by a clichéd showdown with Mr. Hunter.

The film has a strictly meat-and-potatoes look. Aside from some interesting low camera angles that create some skewed perspectives, the shooting and editing are fairly unimaginative. Wardrobe shows the lingering fashion-victimization of the 1980s, complete with shoulder pads, horizontal striped tights, and pegged, viscous rayon slacks.

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What sets Pump Up the Volume apart as a true film for the 90s is the hopeless tone of its message and its soundtrack. All Mark can muster in the way of encouragement for his disaffected audience is, “We’re all worried, we’re all in pain. That just comes with having eyes and having ears. But just remember one thing—it can’t get any worse, it can only get better. High school is the bottom, being a teenager sucks, but that’s the point, surviving it is the whole point. Quitting is not going to make you stronger, living will. So just hang on and hang in there.” Gone is the conventional wisdom that “the best years of your life” happen when you’re young. The music he chooses to narrate his philosophy includes the Beastie Boys, Bad Brains with Henry Rollins, The Pixies, and Sonic Youth. David Was’ “Dad, I’m in Jail” is Mark’s appropriate choice as the police chase after his mobile studio and finally catch him at the edge of the field where his listeners congregate every night to share his broadcast. Finally, “Stand,” performed by Liquid Jesus accompanies Mark’s call to arms as he and Nora are arrested:

I’m calling for every kid to seize the air. Steal it, it belongs to you. Speak out, they can’t stop you. Find your voice and use it. Keep this thing going. Pick a name, go on the air. It’s your life, take charge of it. Do it, try it, try anything. Spill your guts out, say shit and fuck a million times if you want to, but you decide. Fill the air, steal it. Keep the air alive.

Many people who were teens in 1990 were listening to their version of a speech that has been said a thousand different times across a thousand generations. And despite their more-hopeless-than-usual disaffection, they have perhaps gone the farthest in heeding Harry’s words. Welcome to the Internet generation, folks.


4th 08 - 2008 | 4 comments »

Destiny (Al-Massir, 1997)

Director: Youssef Chahine

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Last week, Egyptian director Youssef Chahine died at the age of 82. I’m sorry to say that until the moment I read the obituary, I had never heard of this director. Once I saw his film output listed on IMDb, I felt ashamed that the only accomplishment of his I could identify with was that he gave Omar Sharif his break in movies. Fortunately for me, other cultural institutions in my town were not so blind to Chahine and his legacy. I was able to score four of his films at my local library—his Alexandria trilogy (Alexandria… Why?, An Egyptian Story, and Alexandria Again and Forever) and the film under consideration here, Destiny. Having viewed some of the trilogy made 20 years before Destiny, I’m interested in the consistency of his viewpoint. He tells stories in a somewhat disjointed, episodic manner in which various story elements have tenuous links to each other. He has a strong concern for politics—though the villains change over the years, oppression is always the enemy. Finally, he never forgets that audiences want to be entertained while they are being enlightened. And like other Christians and Muslims working under heavy censorship in Egypt—most famously Nobel Literature Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, who is represented by the character of Averroes in this film—he tells his story indirectly.

The film opens dramatically in a 12th century French village, as a man in chains is dragged behind a horse to be burned at the stake as a heretic. He is a Muslim from Andalusia who has translated the works of the philosopher Averroes (Nour El-Sherif), who believes scripture is not the literal word of God, but is a text open to interpretation. The condemned man spots his wife and son Joseph (Faris Rahoma) in the crowds that have gathered in the square to watch him burn. He tells them to run as the flames rise from the ignited wood piles beneath him. As we watch him turn to a blackened skeleton, Youssef vows to carry on his father’s work.

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The scene shifts to the Andalusian town of Cordoba, where we will meet up with Youssef again. He returns to the house of Averroes, where he is welcomed by the philosopher and his wife (Safia El-Emari) as the prodigal son returned. You might think Youssef will be at center stage, but indeed he is a fairly minor character throughout the film. This introduction has the air of introducing Western cultures to Middle Eastern thought (or something to do with the French financing of the film). Averroes is the center of the compass, the point all directions of Muslim thought—both friendly and hostile—touch.

After Averroes has held forth, like Socrates, for a group of students, the men disperse. One student admires Averroes’ intellect, while the other worries about the opposing forces at work that would silence the philosopher. Religious fundamentalists led by a charismatic emir (Magdi Idris) and secretly backed by the wealthiest man in the kingdom, Sheik Riad (Ahmed Fouad Selim), have started to make trouble.

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Averroes is a confidante of the Caliph El-Mansour (Mahmoud Hemida), a proud man blind to the unrest in his kingdom. His eldest son, Crown Prince Nasser (Khaled El Nabawy), prefers to avoid the palace to spend time with Averroes. His younger son Borhan (Abdalla Mahmoud) loves to dance, and spends most of his time singing and dancing with a family of gypsies led by troubadour Marwan (Mohamed Mounir) and his daughter Manuela (Laila Eloui). One night, Borhan gets drunk and sings his poetry to a couple of men, who fawn over his brilliance. Soon they have recruited him to join the emir’s sect and instructed him on how to kill his own father.

Borhan’s symbolic father, Marwan, is also the object of a fatwa. One night, as he walks and sings down an empty street, he is attacked and stabbed in the neck by two followers of the emir for the crime of singing. He survives the attack, his vocal chords intact, but strives to free Borhan from the clutches of the emir. In an elaborate plan, exciting in its execution, Marwan rides into the sect’s camp and kidnaps Borhan; at his home, Marwan begins the task of deprogramming Borhan.

Averroes isn’t faring too well himself as he learns that his work is to be suppressed. Joseph takes the precaution of hiding Averroes’ most important works in a barrel of flour. Averroes’ house is set on fire one night, and the philosopher despairs of his lost work; it is then that Joseph reveals that they are safe in the flour. Every friend Averroes has works around the clock to write out copies of his books to save them for posterity. Joseph carries a set off to France, but loses them when he falls in a river. Riad finds the volumes downstream and persuades the Caliph to burn the books and banish Averroes. As Averroes watches his words going up in flames, he learns that Nasser has spirited the volumes safely to Egypt. Strengthened by the gravity of events in his kingdom, Nasser becomes the kind of Crown Prince his father always wanted, and the emir and his money man are undone. Borhan returns to himself, saying that the emir got to his head, but never his heart. The film ends with the word “Ideas have wings; they fly like birds.”

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This film isn’t subtle with its message and its assertion that it is the artists and outcasts who “love life” and whose ideas must survive. Two or three musical interludes performed by the gypsies that owe a lot to Bollywood are entertaining, but also carry the message of freedom in the poetic tradition of Islam:

Raise your voice, Sing,
Songs are still possible/available,
And we still have much to live,
If one day you break down,
You must get up,
Stand up like a palm tree looking at the sky,
No retreat, no defeat, no fear…

The methods of sect recruitment are interesting to watch and painful to realize—Borhan, a cheerful and peace-loving boy, becomes a slogan-spouting automaton, ready to kill for the cause. It is interesting that music breaks the sect’s spell on Borhan, not the precious ideas of Averroes. This is rather a contradiction that Chahine sees no need to reconcile. In fact, Marwan dies, happily, in the cause of freedom. Chahine owes his allegiance first to Art, then to progressive ideas.

To what does the title Destiny refer? At the beginning of the film, it seemed as though it would refer to Joseph and whatever role he would play in carrying on his father’s work. But as events unfold, Joseph fails to save the books. It is, in fact, the destiny of the ideas this film conveys—again, indirectly communicated as Averroes’ work and Marwan’s artistry—that concern Chahine. This film isn’t a slick Hollywood production, but it has all the elements of a well-constructed film of beauty and ideas. Belated as it was, I’m glad to have found Youssef Chahine.


31st 07 - 2008 | 4 comments »

The Kingdom (Riget I & II, 1994, 1997)

Directors: Lars von Trier (Riget I & II) and Morten Arnfred (Riget II)

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Shortly after Breaking the Waves came out in 1996, I got a hold of the script at my local Barnes & Noble and read it. And, well, I was so revolted by it, I vowed to skip Lars von Trier’s career forever and ever. A few years later, cooler heads prevailed upon me to revisit my decision; after all, I hadn’t even seen any of his films! They assured me that I’d LOVE, LOVE, LOVE Dancer in the Dark (2000), so I rented it. I hated it. Now confident that my original judgment was sound, I felt free to cross this Danish poseur off my list of filmmakers I needed to know about.

Then, wouldn’t you know it? The hubby, who I didn’t know when all the Lars and the Angry Girl stuff was going down, is a huge fan of von Trier’s TV series The Kingdom. This two-season series was released as a movie in various parts of the world, but the hubby moved mountains and fiords to get his hands on the actual TV episodes. He begged me on bended knee to watch it with him, promising I could leave the room at any time and find something more worthwhile to do, like reading my spam mail. So, because I love him and because it’s embarrassing to see a grown man grovel right there on the floor in front of our silly, little cat, I agreed.

Who’s sorry now? Unbelievably, not me. This series—which really should be seen in TV format for the oddly chilling comments von Trier makes over the closing credits of each episode—won me over immediately.

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The Kingdom is a massive hospital in Copenhagen, the national hospital of Denmark as a matter of fact. According to the introductory opening of each episode, this house of advanced medical technology was built over a swamp where, many years before, Danish peasants used to bleach their cloth. The opening shows medieval Danes in rustic dress draping long sheets of fabric among thickets of trees, with vapors enveloping them in a presumably toxic fog. I’ll tell you right now that if you try to relate these actions to anything in the story, you’re wasting your time. It’s a nifty, little mood setter, but it’s a complete non sequitur. It is within the swirl of activity in the hospital that the story originates; we are introduced swiftly to a fairly large cast of characters whom we will grow to love, loathe, and pity through the course of some very strange goings-on.

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The literal nerve center of the story is the neurosurgery unit, presided over by a imperious, obnoxious, xenophobic Swede named Helmer, played with malevolent glee by Ernst-Hugo Järegård. Helmer hates Denmark and, therefore, all of his colleagues, but was forced to leave Sweden amid charges of malpractice and malfeasance. He’s already thought to have caused irreversible brain damage in a young patient named Mona (Laura Christiensen), who is shown throughout the series twisted and drooling in her hospital room. Despite his dubious reputation and actions, he feels completely free to hurl insults at anyone who comes near him. When we first meet him, he is tangling with Krogshøj (Søren Pilmark), nicknamed Hook, for ordering an expensive CT scan for Mrs. Drugge (Kirsten Rolffes), the mother of burly hospital orderly Bulder (Jens Okking), whom he correctly diagnoses as a malingerer. This confrontation takes place in the daily neurosurgery meeting, which the head of the hospital Moesgaard (Holger Juul Hansen) attends to launch his morale-boosting program Operation Morning Breeze with a cheerful song. Helmer stares at him with contempt, refusing to sing with the assembled doctors, and leaves. He discharges Mrs. Drugge immediately.

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Mrs. Drugge is a spiritualist who, during her frequent hospitalizations for imaginary illnesses, conducts séances. As she heads down the elevator, she is visited by a ghostly presence. Determined to investigate, she goes into a bathroom, runs her hand under cold water for some minutes, returns to the emergency room complaining of numbness in her hand, which is confirmed by a needlestick test she can’t feel, and is readmitted. Her investigation will take on gothic proportions as she discovers that the presence was a young girl named Mary (Annevig Schelde Ebbe), who was the victim of foul play and whose body is still somewhere on the grounds of The Kingdom. The killer, a supernatural being shaped like a man named Aage Krüger (Udo Kier), is key to a plot development in the second season—the birth of a strange baby that pops out of Judith (Birgitte Raaberg), another neurosurgeon beloved by Hook, that is a full-grown man (Kier) covered with slime who grows abnormally long legs and arms. Watching Kier’s head pop from between two legs at birth is an image of startling silliness (and not a small amount of sympathetic pain on my part).

As you can see, The Kingdom is fantastical and farcical at the same time. In a brief rundown of a few story lines in this soap-opera-like series:

++ Hook threatens to make public proof of Helmer’s mistake in Mona’s surgery. Helmer, learning of a Haitian poison that will turn people into mindless zombies from his would-be lover Rigmor (Ghita Nørby, playing a character similar to her role in Hamsun), flies to Haiti to get his hands on it and spikes Hook’s coffee with it.

++ Moesgaard’s son Mogge (Peter Mygind), rejected by a nurse, cuts the head off a cadaver that resembles him, puts it in a bag, and drops it at her desk.

++ The hospital staff gamble night after night on the time of arrival of an ambulance driver speeding the wrong way down a highway to the hospital.

++ A pathologist named Bondo (Baard Owe), has been doing research on an almost nonexistent form of liver cancer. He finds a dying patient with a liver tumor like the one he is studying, but the patient’s family refuses to donate his liver to science. In one of the most twisted parts of the series, Bondo finds a legal way to secure the liver by transplanting it into his own body.

Most comical of all is the Sons of the Kingdom lodge, a semi-secret society of senior doctors that performs all the strange rituals one expects of these bastions of brotherhood. Helmer joins the lodge to protect his precarious position on staff, but deplores everything about them—naturally. Below is a clip from the night of his initiation:

So, what are we to make of this odd assemblage of supernatural and subhuman stories? Like the savage satire The Hospital, The Kingdom skewers the medical profession by suggesting they are a careless, feckless, useless club of pseudo-gods (best represented by Helmer) that is empty gas at best. Since The Kingdom is the national hospital of Denmark, however, von Trier seems to be siding ever so slightly with Helmer in his contempt for the Danes:

Letting a Danish Miss Marple with extraordinary spiritual powers run loose and solve crimes in a place run by a lodge that sees science as the one true power is an interesting speculation on natural law, and certainly one that was in vogue when this series aired. But von Trier is a playful bloke. He was a member of the Dogme95 group, whose Vow of Chastity barred the use of advanced technology in order to capture “reality.” Von Trier sticks to the rules in some instances—kingdom04.jpgfor example, the sepia tone of much of the series was caused by the use of natural lighting or a single light attached to his handheld camera. He avoids others by inserting himself into the film at the closing credits, thereby refusing to remain anonymous. In addition, he heightens the unreality of the series by employing two kitchen workers with Down’s syndrome as a sort of Greek chorus to illuminate or portend events. I rather liked them, though I didn’t feel they were all that necessary.

The last part of the vow is, I think, the key to von Trier’s vision for The Kingdom:

Furthermore I swear as a director to refrain from personal taste! I am no longer an artist. I swear to refrain from creating a “work”, as I regard the instant as more important than the whole. My supreme goal is to force the truth out of my characters and settings. I swear to do so by all the means available and at the cost of any good taste and any aesthetic considerations.

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The expansiveness of a TV series allows its creators a chance to explore character, delve deep, and reveal truth. Although many of the actions in The Kingdom are outlandish or unbelievable, they do produce real moments. Judith’s love for her baby and her baby’s sacrifice to prevent more evil at The Kingdom is genuinely moving. Ernst-Hugo Järegård as Helmer is a tour-de-force depiction of a colossal asshole. I was also touched by Hook’s devotion to Judith, even accepting her baby and thereby proving himself to her. Bulder became one of my favorite characters, enduring his mother’s insults and after she is seriously injured, (Helmer’s comment: “Mrs. Drugge has become much more convincing.”) welcoming them back as a sign that she will be all right.

The Kingdom is an utterly original creation teeming with lively plots and performances. It taught me not to be too pigheaded in my opinions—Mr. von Trier is back on the list.

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11th 07 - 2008 | 7 comments »

Restoration (1995)

Director: Michael Hoffman

The Self-Involvement Blog-a-Thon

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

This is an entry in the Self-Involvement Blog-a-Thon hosted by Culture Snob.

In 1995, I was a few months separated from my first husband, living with my mother in my childhood home, sleeping in my childhood room, and completely broken and lost. I had already quit my job, unable to carry the responsibilities my boss had in mind—publishing two magazines instead of our current one without adding staff to our two-person operation—and freelancing a bit and working a part-time job at a local YMCA. I needed to be around children, think about life renewing itself, instead of feeling less than dead. I wasn’t yet a film buff, I wasn’t blogging. Hell, I’m not sure there were blogs yet. I wasn’t sure of anything. I was turned inward, wondering if I’d ever return.

At the time, the Morton Grove Theatre, a small movie house literally yards away from my mother’s home, was still in operation. It had gone from the first-run house I frequented in the early 70s, to a second-run, cut-rate house. The day I went to see Restoration wasn’t much different from others; I’d spent an extremely undemanding day at the Y and then gone for my usual mega-lap swim. Exercise was my main release back then, which was a great relief to my mother, who feared I’d turn to the bottle for escape.

It felt good to sit alone in the dark. It was something I used to do a lot as a kid. I used to lose myself in my dreams. Now, I’d lose myself in someone else’s dream. Seemed appropriate, because I’d just done that for the past seven years, trying to be someone I wasn’t to please my mate. I didn’t know who I was. Maybe Restoration could tell me.

The story takes place in the 17th century, during the reign of Charles II of England, a restoration of the monarchy after the overthrow of Oliver Cromwell. Robert Downey, Jr. plays Robert Merivel, a gifted physician who comes to the notice of the king when he is observed reaching into the chest of a man who walks around with a metal plate covering a hole and holds the man’s beating heart in his hand. Merivel’s lack of superstition about the human heart fits perfectly with Charles’ (Sam Neill) Enlightenment attitudes. The king summons Merivel to his castle, shows him his models and contraptions, and then engages him as a royal physician—for his dogs. Robert, though loathing the assignment, feels he cannot say no. Soon, he becomes another one of the court wastrels, indulging in the decadence that has come back with a vengeance after the previous 11 years of Puritan severity under Cromwell.

Charles has a beautiful mistress at court, Celia Clemence (Polly Walker), which is beginning to vex the queen. He decides to marry her off to Robert to make her seem safe, and then carry on his affair in a less conspicuous manner. Robert does the unthinkable—he falls in love with Celia. In a poignant scene, the newly married couple repairs to their marriage bed, with Robert clumsily clad only in a feather-festooned cap covering his genitals. Robert blindly hopes they are to consummate their marriage, only to watch Charles take his place beside Celia, thank Robert for his service to the crown, and laughingly embrace the bride. Robert’s sad, humiliated face tells all.

Restoration%203.jpgRobert leaves the king’s service and wanders in a daze. He eventually meets a woman named Catharine (Meg Ryan) at an insane asylum where he finds employment and takes her as a lover. She has a peculiar habit of walking in a circle in the courtyard using wide, heavy steps. She calls it the “leaving step.” “Every man on earth has his leaving step. If my husband had been a small man, he would not have been able to leave me. But he was a large man, and stepped over me as I slept, one great stride,” she explains. Catharine becomes pregnant and listens to hear Robert’s leaving step. But he doesn’t go. He takes her to London where he intends for them to become a family. Unfortunately, when Catharine’s time comes, her baby is breech. Robert must perform a C-section to save the baby, but he tells Catharine that she will die. She accepts her fate and asks only that Robert care for the baby and name it Margaret if it is a girl.

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Robert mourns Catharine, but becomes a restored man in fathering Margaret. The 1666 Great Fire of London engulfs Robert’s home, and he risks everything to save Margaret. He can’t lose himself again, now that he has rediscovered his gift as a doctor and removed the steel plate from before his own heart and felt what it is to love.

I had no real idea what Restoration was about when I went to see it. I only knew that Robert Downey, Jr. was in it and that I felt a kinship with his troubled soul. I cried as though I would never cry again, feeling so much the hurt of thinking I loved someone who ended up only using me, of giving up on my own being and gifts to rest in an institution to which I rushed in panic at being 30 and unwed. I cried because I tried to please someone who never would have been pleased with me, and experienced his leaving step. I hadn’t yet been restored to myself—that would take 10 years of hard work—and was terrified that once I got there, I would lose it all again. But I saw that there was a road ahead, that I might not always feel empty and bereft, and that my gift—writing—might yet pull me through.

I walked home, went up to my small, safe, childhood room, wiped my eyes, and put on some audiotapes a kind soul had given me to help me understand divorce and recovery. I can honestly say that this heartfelt, well-crafted, visually stunning movie with sincere performances all around changed my life by giving me a mirror onto my own experience and, along with it, hope.

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17th 06 - 2008 | 11 comments »

To Die For (1995)

Director: Gus Van Sant

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Suzanne Stone Maretto: It’s nice to live in a country where life, liberty… and all the rest of it still stand for something.

Suzanne Stone Maretto: You’re not anybody in America unless you’re on TV. On TV is where we learn about who we really are. Because what’s the point of doing anything worthwhile if nobody’s watching? And if people are watching, it makes you a better person.

The above quotes pretty much sum up that always-plump target—American culture—in Buck Henry’s wickedly funny adaptation of Joyce Maynard’s book To Die For. Suzanne Stone Maretto (Nicole Kidman) is a dumb, narcissistic blonde for whom TV sounds like her only chance to be a good person and who doesn’t really relate to those greater goods of life and liberty as intended by America’s founders. She intends to be a better person even if she has to kill someone to do it.

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The beautiful Suzanne has wanted to be on television ever since she first saw herself at about the age of 5 captured by her father’s live camera hook-up to the family Stone’s TV set. Out with her girlfriends one day, Suzanne immediately attracts the attention of nice-guy Larry Maretto (Matt Dillon). They start to date. The members of his close-knit Italian family, and especially his sister Janice (Illeana Douglas), don’t think too much of Suzanne, but Larry is convinced she is the girl of his dreams—delicate, fragile, and a “volcano” in the sack—the perfect madonna/whore of every Catholic boy’s fantasy. He marries her and prepares for a life of Italian wedded bliss.

Suzanne, of course, is still avid in her pursuit of her career. She attends a meeting of NBC affiliates while on her honeymoon, where she gets some advice from the weasly keynote speaker (George Segal)—offering sex for a job is a great way to the top.

The Marettos acquire a condo, a red Mustang, and a tiny Pomeranian puppy Suzanne names Walter after Walter Cronkite and from which she is rarely separated. She reads about a job as a glorified gofer at local cable-access station WWEN. The station manager, Ed Grant (Wayne Knight), and his assistant call her “gangbusters”—not because she puts out (indeed she tears up a letter of reference she wrote for herself that offers sexual favors, an idea she got from Segal’s character)—but because she has ideas for the station about every 10 minutes. Eventually, Ed gives Suzanne an on-air job as the weather bunny.

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Given an inch, she goes for a mile by getting a local high school principal (Buck Henry) to allow her to shoot a documentary with any students who volunteer. Three burnouts sign up—crude Russel (Casey Affleck), budding lesbian Lydia (Alison Folland), and smitten Jimmy (Joaquin Phoenix). Her footage shows their relative inability to put two words together in a sentence, but Suzanne will spin gold from straw if she has to work on the tapes all night.

Meanwhile, Larry and his family are impatient with Suzanne’s lack of interest in popping out babies. Larry confronts Suzanne one night and suggests that she hang up her go-nowhere weather reports and help him out at the family restaurant. When Suzanne comprehends exactly what he means, a strange glow comes into her usually plasticine eyes, and we know we are being prepared for murder most foul.

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Suzanne isn’t very learned, but when it comes to providing motivation—sex, and lots of it, to Jimmy—and manipulating Lydia and Russel to keep herself about a step removed from the murder, she’s as “gangbusters” as ever. Her dream of being on TV—this time as a prime figure in a murder investigation—is fulfilled, but she overplays her hand. In the end, she becomes the subject of a documentary on the infamous crime—a fate she would have loved had she only known about it.

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Van Sant provides the perfect structure for a film about media fame—interviews with all of the principals in the murder case, who tell their version of Larry and Suzanne’s life and times. Omniscient narration fills in the blanks, and Suzanne herself gets her say on a self-made video.

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Kidman plays Suzanne with the perfect amount of paper-thin charm, vicious self-interest, and stupidity. Her wardrobe and make-up make her look like a lollipop—long, slim legs topped with rainbow-bright mini-skirted suits of shocking pink, lemon yellow, lime green, and baby blue—sickly sweet, devoid of nutritional value, and likely to rot your teeth in the short time it takes to dissolve. Suzanne has used her looks and sexual prowess to get her way all her life—right after her wedding, she whispers in her father’s ear, “I’ll never find another man like you, Daddy.” As Mr. Stone, Kurtwood Smith assumes a bewildered look on his face at this remark, suggesting that Suzanne’s not just a vain, shallow tart, but rather something closer to a maneating psychopath.

Incestuous overtones continue as Janice competes with Suzanne for attention. The look Janice gives Larry when he interrupts her reverie about her small but important solo as a skater in the Ice Follies to announce Suzanne’s new job is one of jealous betrayal. I laughed when Larry’s parents (Dan Hedaya and Maria Tucci) thought the news was that Suzanne was pregnant—a stereotype, but ringing so true in this film.

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The entire supporting cast is phenomenally good (even including a brief, but priceless appearance by David Cronenberg). Phoenix is the perfect sex-besotted burnout who seems to have gone a little insane in prison. I was deeply impressed with Folland as a grimy-haired lackey who says over and over again that Suzanne is her friend, “the only friend I had.” It’s not hard to feel sympathy for her and Jimmy, but the caustic wit and sexiness of the script keep the film’s tongue planted firmly in cheek and between legs.

A visually stunning satire, each moment is real, even at its most absurd, as the cast relishes the wonderful lines they are given. There are so many great moments, I can’t begin to do them all justice here. I’m so glad that before Nicole Kidman became an Actress, she had the sense to stretch her considerable comedic muscles. Now that she is a bit past her prime for leading lady parts, I hope she’ll return to comedies worthy of her talents.


15th 06 - 2008 | 6 comments »

Fireworks (Hana-bi, 1997)

Director/Screenwriter/Star: Takeshi Kitano

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The hubby is the person whose enthusiasm for Takeshi Kitano got me into watching the works of this film entrepreneur extraordinaire. Using the stage name—Beat Takeshi—he still uses when acting, Kitano was one half of a popular comedy duo in Japan. He turned to filmmaking in 1989 with the film Violent Cop (Sono otoko, kyôbô ni tsuki), in which Kitano plays a cop who never met a rule he wouldn’t break to get results. Kitano frequently includes yakuza plotlines and characters in his films, but his seemingly endless imagination has never stopped exploring other ways of telling stories. The first Kitano film I saw, A Scene at the Sea (Ano Natsu, Ichiban Shizukana Umi), his third outing as a director, was a gentle, bittersweet tale without a yakuza in sight.

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Fireworks has some of Kitano’s trademarks—seaside scenes, yakuza, his own ensemble of actors—but strongly references the events and aftermath of his near-fatal motorcycle accident in 1995. The film focuses on policemen Nishi (Kitano) and his long-time partner Horibe (Ren Oshugi) and the course of their lives following violent encounters with a yakuza gang. Nishi is a legendary cop with a tragic life—after his wife was diagnosed with fatal leukemia, their young daughter died. He has had to go to a yakuza loan shark to help pay for her medical care. Horibe pities Nishi, cherishing as he does his normal family life.

Hana-bi04.jpgOne day, Horibe approaches the stakeout car of two cops he and Nishi are training, telling them they will have to remain on stakeout longer than expected because Nishi must visit his wife. Nakamura (Susumu Terajima) says he has a date waiting for him across town. Horibe releases Tanaka because he is a family man and takes the duty alone. As he sits in the car, he calls home and talks to his wife and daughter. He learns from his daughter that she has drawn a picture. Comically, he listens to her and then opens his notebook to look inside. This is the last bit of normalcy in the film. In a quick shot, we see a yakuza with his hand wrapped in a newspaper, pointing his gun downward. Switch to a shot of Horibe on the ground, his hands impotently pushing at the air to shield himself. Bang.

The film plays with time and characters in a seemingly random fashion. Nishi talks with a woman, asking how she is. As well as can be expected; she has a part-time job now as a clerk in a deli. We learn what has happened in Shakespearean style, as two incidental characters confound our expectations of what happened and relate that Horibe has been crippled and that his wife and daughter left him. Tanaka has been killed; Nishi was talking with his widow. Nishi is no longer on the police force, having resigned in the wake of Horibe’s crippling injury and Tanaka’s murder at the hands of the yakuza soldier being watched. The latter event is revealed slowly in flashback.

Nishi visits Horibe. The former partners stare at the sea, and Nishi asks Horibe what he plans to do. Paint, he says, almost at random. We see Horibe alone on the sand looking down as the water splashes at the front wheels of his wheelchair. Two parallel lines in the sand trail behind the rear wheels.

Nishi plans to take care of everyone, from providing for Tanaka’s wife and his own to settling his debt to the loan shark and setting Horibe up with art supplies. How he does this is interesting and not without consequences. His ultimate goal is to be left alone to spend all his time with his wife in her remaining days.

Fireworks takes us far inside Takeshi’s creative process. For example, the responsibility Nishi assumes for his extended family of police officers and their families could very well mirror his regard for his regular collaborators on the screen and behind it. Beyond providing for those affected by the fall-out of the yakuza shooter, Nishi refuses to put Nakamura in a difficult position when he has to track down Nishi for the murders of the yakuza loan shark and his gang. He maintains his honor, even though he must now be regarded as a ruthless killer.

hanabi08.jpgHoribe is a stand-in for Kitano after his motorcycle accident. Months of recovery left the director time to learn how to paint. (All of the art in the movie is by Kitano.) We see Horibe regarding bunches of flowers and picturing animals and people with flower heads. The images are beautiful, alive, and meaningful, a reaffirmation of sorts of Horibe/Kitano’s desire to live and create. At one point, Horibe takes up a pointillist technique, producing an image interesting like Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of the Grande Jatte.” He refines this technique by substituting words for dots; the image at the beginning of this review has the Japanese pictogram for “star” forming the points of light in the sky. The bold, red word across this impressionistic landscape is “Suicide.” Horibe finishes the painting by splashing red on the canvas to resemble a blood spatter. This canvas certainly communicates not only the despair of many of the characters in Fireworks, but also that of Kitano as he mends and must come to terms with his disfigured face and noticeable limp. It also gives a graphic example of the rather pointillist construction of this film, in which the story assembles into a coherent whole from the out-of-sequence slices of life Kitano films.

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What lends the efficiently violent Nishi, and this film, its sad tenderness is the relationship between Nishi and his wife Miyuki (Kayoko Kishimoto). Miyuki seems like a true innocent, enjoying simple pleasures like fishing and putting some wilted flowers in a vase and scooping water into the vase with her hand at the edge of the sea. The couple’s relationship is telegraphed in many intimate scenes. Nishi puts a sardine-sized fish on a stick and cooks it over a fire. He says, “Italian-style cooking,” and they both laugh, no doubt at some private joke this comment evokes. However, we don’t hear Miyuki speak until the very end of the film; rather Nishi “translates” her off-screen comments in his dialogue. He asks her why she wanted to see snow as they drive along a road plowed through a good 6 feet of snow. He stops and says, “Can’t you hold it?” Miyuki runs off into the snow, only to fall into a drift in one of the small comic moments Kitano peppers throughout the film.

Fireworks is an odd work that mixes almost cartoonish violence, comedy, and deep feeling to create a compelling and affecting film. “Beat” Takeshi Kitano is a wonderfully bold and original voice in world cinema who deserves your attention. l

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30th 05 - 2008 | 8 comments »

Nang Nak (1999)

Director: Nonzee Nimibutr

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

You know a film renaissance is taking place in a country when one of its indigenous products outgrosses one of Hollywood’s juggernauts. That’s exactly what Nang Nak did to Titanic in Thailand, showing that the Thai New Wave was alive and real. Nonzee Nimibutr tapped a popular and enduring legend that had already received numerous film and television adaptations; from that standpoint, he was ensuring he had a built-in audience. But the huge popularity of his film in Thailand spread beyond the country’s borders. What ignites this version of the legend and gives it universal appeal are the deeply felt performances of its principal actors, Intira Jaroenpura and Winai Kraibutr, as Nak and Mak, a wife and husband who share a great and enduring love.

The film is set in the late 1860s in a rural area near Bangkok. Mak has been called to war. He tries to comfort his grief-stricken wife Nak as a row boat paddled by his friend comes down the stream on which they live to take Mak away. Nak clings to Mak as he arises and moves toward the stairs that lead to a small pier. She reluctantly lets go of him and plaintively calls his name as he climbs into the boat and slowly disappears from view.

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The film moves forward to show the separate situations of Mak and Nak. Mak, in the middle of a battle, looks for his friend Prig, whose voice he thinks he hears. Gunfire and strewn bodies lay in his path. Injured himself, he passes out near Prig, who is near death. Coming to, he urges Prig to hang in there, but Prig’s eyes roll up in his blood-spattered head. Mak yells in a panic for the medics to come to his aid. From this point on, Mak’s injury will put him near death’s door for many months.

Meanwhile, Nak is revealed to be pregnant. She learns of Mak’s condition, but is unable to go to him. Worried, she goes to the head of the Buddhist temple in her town. He tells her that Mak’s good fortune remains strong and will help him through his illness. Nonetheless, she asks him to pray for Mak’s recovery. As she tends to the family farm, she feels a sudden spasm of pain. The town’s midwife is called, and Nak begins a very arduous birthing. At the same time as Nak goes through her ordeal, Mak has terrible dreams, ending with a horrifying image of Prig’s face at the time of death. He awakens with a scream, as Nimibutr cuts to Nak’s scream as the midwife cuts her vagina with a piece of glass to allow more room for her baby’s head to pass.

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Eventually, Mak recovers from his illness and sets off for home. The stream on which he pushes his boat is marked with signs of decay and destruction. However, when his own home comes into view, Nak is standing on the pier. They call each other’s name, this time with joy. Mak discovers that his wife has borne a son, Dang. Nak is especially protective of Dang, keeping him with her always, even as she goes off to perform an errand Mak intended to do. Nak and Mak would seem to be off to a good life together, but strange warnings from their neighbors and unexpected problems at home—rats below the house, an unexpected break in a formerly solid rung on the front steps, strange forebodings of separation that keep Nak up at night—threaten their happiness.

If you know the story of Nang Nak (a term that has become synonymous in Thailand with “faithful wife”), you know what’s troubling Nak and the village. If you don’t know the story—as I did not—Nimibutr plants disturbing scenes throughout, from the horrifying image of the dead Prig to tense close-ups of Nak shaving Mak with a straight razor, to guide the viewer toward the truth. As the film progresses, the villagers reveal the secret that some viewers may already have suspected.

I found myself both anxious and saddened by the fate that was bound to befall the loving couple. In the interests of suspense, I won’t reveal some of the events that mix traditional folk beliefs and remedies with Buddhism in a tantalizing look at Thai culture. Just know that Thailand was revealed to me in richer detail, with brief and stunning fixed shots of natural settings announcing the passing of time through the changing of the seasons as well as the strength of culture that has helped the story of Nang Nak persist. The story is the strength of this film and carries it through some of the rudimentary acting and occasional clumsy editing. I was a bit baffled by the poor English subtitles, but never lost.

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Most affecting of all was Intira Jaroenpura as Nak. A willowy actress of subtle beauty and grace, Jaroenpura imbues Nak with a poignancy that is very moving. Her first separation from Mak is grudging and helpless; her last, heartbreaking but filled with a kind of acceptance. It is said that a Nang Nak actually lived and that a relic of hers, inscribed with story and prayer, has been passed down from one Buddhist monk to the next until it passed out of the monastery, never to be seen again. The relic has become a symbol of eternal love. While some Thai fear the legend of Nang Nak, Jaroenpura restores the emotional core of the story with power, beauty, and sympathy.


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