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Auteur, Auteur! | The Nation

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Auteur, Auteur!

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The streets of lower Manhattan are deserted--also spotlessly clean and
glowing in the light of the golden hour--when the studio head takes the
movie director outside to tell him he's washed up. Those were great
dreams he had in New York in the old days, with Cassavetes, but they're
over. How it must wound the director to hear these words in Hollywood, on a mere back-lot
simulacrum of New York--and from his own ex-wife! How it must shame him
to hear the name of Cassavetes! Although the director claims to be the
last American auteur, who is being fired because he won't compromise,
we've seen some of the picture he was shooting, and it looks less like
Cassavetes than a feature-length ad for "Dysfunction" by Calvin Klein.

But Hollywood holds out hope even for a moviemaker who's so pretentious
that he spells his first name "Viktor." The director receives a genie in
a bottle--or, in this case, a wonderful computer program on a hard
drive. This gift puts into his hands a virtual actress, or synthespian,
who can be molded exactly as he wishes and secretly inserted into his
not-quite-finished movie. The computer program is known as Simulation
One; the virtual actress, as Simone. When the picture is released, it
will be Simone, not Viktor, who wins the public's unconditional
love--after which it's only a matter of time before he's struggling to
shove the genie back into its bottle.

"Our ability to manufacture fraud," muses the director, "now exceeds our
ability to detect it." These words will do to sum up a theme that has
emerged in the work of Andrew Niccol, who wrote and directed
Simone. He first made a name for himself as the screenwriter of
The Truman Show, in which Jim Carrey unwittingly resided on a TV
soundstage the size of an entire village. Niccol next wrote and directed
Gattaca, a futuristic fantasy about a world where you have to be
physically perfect, or else. Now comes Simone, a story about the
public's adoration for an actress who is too good to be true, and isn't.
"Simone has the voice of the young Lauren Bacall, the body of Sophia
Loren and the face of Audrey Hepburn crossed with an angel," raves one
critic about the new star. "Almost right," the director mutters.

You will observe that Simone is not a fraudulent contest winner, phony
political reformer or bogus war hero (to mention only three of the
impostors who populate Preston Sturges's movies, and so define the great
tradition of American screen comedy). Simone is a mirage of femininity,
projected by a man who can make her into just what he wants a woman to
be. Conversely, when Viktor turns against her, he can make Simone into
his image of everything he finds horrifying in a woman. Since the
director is simultaneously trying to win back his ex-wife (Catherine
Keener, in another of her hard-as-peanut-brittle roles), we can judge
how well his fantasies match reality.

It would be enough for me if Simone played out these ideas
consistently and well. But it does even more--because Viktor is
portrayed by Al Pacino. If you've seen him as the suffering detective in
Insomnia, you've had a recent reminder of how overbearing he can
be. Part of the pleasure of Simone is to see him give pretty much
the same baggy-eyed performance as Viktor, yet make the character come
out funny. Who better than Pacino to take on the role of a director,
railing against those self-regarding actors who think they're more
important than the movie? And who better to be transformed into a
porcelain-skinned blonde? Simone "acts" by mirroring her director's
gestures and speech--which means she's a Victoria's Secret version of
Pacino, right down to the hands spreading apart as if they were pulling
taffy.

I confess there were moments when I merely chuckled at Simone, or
smiled, or checked my wristwatch (during the meandering third act).
There were also moments--two of them--when I laughed till I wept. I
think that's reason enough to recommend Simone for a holiday
weekend's viewing--that, and the delight of discovering there's still a
moviemaker in America who can toss up three ideas and keep them all in
the air.

American moviemakers (including those who, like Niccol, come from New
Zealand) get a hard time from Jean-Luc Godard in his most recent
feature, In Praise of Love (Éloge de l'amour). By
now, one particular sequence in that film has become notorious. A
certain Steven Spielberg wants to buy the life stories of an elderly
couple who were active in the French Resistance in World War II. The
couple's granddaughter bitterly denounces the project; but she is
silenced by Spielberg's negotiator, who comes not from DreamWorks but
the US State Department.

Although I don't want to overprotect Spielberg--he's probably capable of
defending himself--I admit I squirmed at this burlesque. But that was
just on first viewing. The second time through, having got my bearings
(which is no easy matter), I still disliked the too-facile choice of
target but could see it as something more than the product of old
Jean-Luc's crankiness. I now think it's part of a dense, thrumming
network of ideas, which concern resistance both with and without the
capital R.

Resistance against what, you might ask. Godard shows you some possible
answers and lets you sound out a few others. Here are homeless people
sleeping in the rain, in the world's most beautiful city. (The larger
portion of In Praise of Love, filmed in black and white, brings
Godard back to Paris as a location, for the first time in many years.)
Here are silent, shuffling workers, cleaning railroad coaches late at
night; here is a grim, spray-painted underpass, in one of the workers'
suburbs. And here, too, is a report about the recent massacres in
Kosovo, in case you forgot that mass murder still happens at your
doorstep. Let us agree there is something in the world worth resisting,
and something within ourselves, too--call it slackness, indecision,
indifference, a failure to create ourselves as adults. Resistance is
necessary; and resistance is impossible, the voices on the soundtrack
say, without memory and universalism.

I would suggest that "Spielberg" is the name Godard gives to a false
universalism: the omnipresent culture of Hollywood, which unites people
by offering them all the same fantasies about movie stars. What might
constitute a genuine universalism? Godard's protagonist, a would-be
artist named Edgar (Bruno Putzulu), takes a stab at an answer when he
launches a project about love: its cycle of meeting, passion, rupture
and reunion; its different manifestations in youth, adulthood and old
age. An impossible project, for Edgar anyway. A perfect specimen of the
European mope--a descendant, you might say, of the screenwriter
character from Contempt--he's so weighted with historical memory
that he can't finish anything, let alone mount a resistance to
Spielbergism; so conscious of his cultural birthright that he can't love
the forceful Berthe (Cécile Camp) but can only pursue her and
then push her away.

This leaves Godard himself to love and remember and resist, in the best
way he knows how: by making something ravishing. In Praise of
Love
is an achingly beautiful picture, both in its initial filmed
section and in the later portion that was shot on video, with vibrating,
Fauvist colors. (The video section seems to take us into Edgar's memory,
where he has just met Berthe, where an orange sea crashes onto chocolate
rocks.) Every image is incisive; every cut to a fresh shot, musically
timed; every musical fragment, eloquent; every spoken line, evocative of
some new picture.

Still, I can understand why some people resist the autumnal beauty of
In Praise of Love. Its sense of melancholy can become oppressive.
(There are four suicides in the story, not counting the death of Simone
Weil.) The protagonist is insufferable (and is meant to be so, I think);
and the proliferation of allusions can make you feel like the slowest
student in Professor Godard's seminar room. As has usually been the case
in his later films, the characters speak almost entirely in quotations,
while hanging around settings that are themselves in need of footnotes.
Were Godard still interested in actors, you would at least have a strong
performance to help carry you through the quiz; but he hasn't cast
anyone with a personality since he put Depardieu into Hélas
pour moi
. To Godard, people are now just elements in the
sound-and-image mix. He's the sole actor.

And, of course, he is a brilliant actor. In Praise of Love may be
a kind of directorial soliloquy about loss and failure--including
cinema's failure to put up an adequate alternative to Hollywood--but
it's performed with such deftness and vigor that it can make the heart
soar.

Short Takes: In Satin Rouge, first-time feature director
Raja Amari gives us the tale of Lilia, a respectable widow in Tunis who
finds happiness through belly dancing. To get a hint of Amari's deadpan
methods, and of the magnificence of Hiam Abbass's performance as Lilia,
you need look no further than the opening shot. A 360-degree pan reveals
the details of a humble apartment, which is being briskly cleaned by a
handsome woman on the verge of middle age. Lilia dusts the mirror,
checks the surface to make sure it's clean and then belatedly notices
herself in the glass. As she does so, she begins to move to the music on
the radio. She unpins her hair, letting it flow over the shoulders of
her housedress; she dances; and then, just as simply as she'd begun, she
pins the hair up again and cleans her way out of the room. A woman
capable of such interludes might end up just about anywhere, to the
astonishment of both her daughter and the audience in the movie theater.
Lilia may well astonish you, too.

You may recall Liz Garbus as co-director of a fine documentary titled
The Farm: Angola, USA. She's back now with a new picture, The
Execution of Wanda Jean
, which was made for HBO but will have a
well-deserved theatrical run, starting September 6 in New York. The
picture follows convicted murderer Wanda Jean Allen, her family, her
defense team and her victim's family over the final weeks of Wanda
Jean's life: from the preparations for her clemency hearing, to her
execution in January 2001, to her funeral. Garbus worked wonders in
winning the confidence of her subjects (as she also did in The
Farm
); and to her great credit, she chose to follow a genuinely
thorny case. On the one hand, prejudice seems to have played a role in
Wanda Jean's getting the death penalty: She was an African-American
woman accused of having killed her lover, Gloria Leathers. On the other
hand, Wanda Jean had previously done time for manslaughter, and she shot
Gloria outside an Oklahoma City police station. Those of us who oppose
the death penalty need to be able to look at cases like this, take a
deep breath and then say, "Even so." The Execution of Wanda Jean
is a tough movie, and a valuable one.

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