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The Flounder | The Nation

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The Flounder

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Should you imagine that The Perfect Storm is questioning this manly code, or showing the limits of its usefulness, I would ask you to consider the parallel story and its contrasting version of professionalism. The true heroes of the movie are members of a Coast Guard rescue team: guys who are so uniformly brave and efficient that you can't tell one from the other. Granted, it's dark and raining throughout their scenes, and everybody's wearing a helmet. But when men swoop into a movie in a helicopter, out of nowhere, perform as if they were integrated parts of a machine and lack any distinguishing features except for the occasional mustache, I say they're not characters but incarnations of military valor. Here they come, to save a hurricane-tossed boat off the coast of Bermuda. The skipper, an incarnation of amateurism and civilian foppery, is Bob Gunton, done up in a ridiculous yachtsman's cap. The crew, who have to mutiny before they can radio for help, are Cherry Jones and Karen Allen: one great actress and one used-to-be star, given nothing to do but get slogged by buckets of water and scream "Mayday!" into a microphone. Tough, selfless, well-trained men save lives; women cower and looked awed.

About the Author

Stuart Klawans
The Nation's film critic Stuart Klawans is author of the books Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order (a finalist for...

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And should you imagine that The Perfect Storm proposes other possibilities for women, I would ask you to consider the role given to Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, who confirms the film's stereotypes by embodying their false exception. There are no bad reasons for putting Mastrantonio into a movie. But even she can do only so much, when cast as a highly successful fishing boat captain who would prefer to retire to Maine and bear George Clooney's children. Yes, she can do a man's job--but she'd rather not. Her true role is to worry for Clooney and his crew, just like all the other women of Gloucester.

How perverse is this movie? I will observe that deep-sea fishing crews and Coast Guard rescue teams are still predominantly staffed by men; but most jobs today are accomplished perfectly well without testicles. Steelworkers, carpenters, farmers--even the directors of blockbuster summer movies--can all be women. So, by insisting that professionalism is a matter of having balls the size of cantaloupes, The Perfect Storm not only resexualizes the world of work but oversexualizes it. This isn't a gendered division of labor--it's pornography.

You may want to know that the film's much-publicized composite shots and computer-generated storm images are in fact quite convincing. Big deal.

* * *

Screening schedule: If you can get to the New York Video Festival, showing at Lincoln Center July 21-27, I would strongly recommend your taking a look at Trent Harris's Beaver Trilogy, a work that's as strange and rare as a fire-dwelling salamander.

Part one is a half-hour documentary, which Harris seems to have put together while working as a news cameraman. A chance encounter with a young man outside a Salt Lake City television station led Harris to the small town of Beaver, Utah, where the would-be entertainer (self-described as "the Rich Little of Beaver") was appearing in a talent show at the high school. His act, performed with many protestations of his fundamental and undying masculinity: an impersonation of Olivia Newton-John.

This part of Beaver Trilogy, shot in 1980, feels uncomfortably like a peep show, in which you, as citified hipster, get to laugh at the small-town closet case. All well and good--because in 1981, Harris shot the second part of the trilogy: a half-hour fiction, with the young Sean Penn in the lead. This video uncannily reproduces the events of the documentary; at the same time, it opens them up, to show you the jeering, pot-smoking newsman who came to Beaver hoping to record something "funny as hell," no matter the consequences for his subject.

Part three, shot in 1985, expands and alters the fiction in its turn, in part by casting Crispin Glover in the lead. Penn found something intense and bottled-up in the outwardly goofy character. Glover makes him ingenuous; you'd think he was walking around town butt-naked. At the same time, part three builds up more of a sense of a little society, to show you how the character tries to fit in and how thoroughly, scandalously, he doesn't.

For information on the New York Video Festival, phone (212) 875-5600, or visit www.filmlinc.com.

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