Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
In the coin toss of college life, art students are the great wobblers, stuck on edge and unable to fall. They don't seem to know whether they're waiting for inspiration or sitting around bored, fooling other people into thinking they're talented or fooling just themselves, pining away for love or avoiding work. To experience this full, authentic teeter in cinematic form, you would need to dig up Caveh Zahedi's A Little Stiff. Failing that, you can still get a lot of sardonic pleasure, plus maybe a little too much resolution, from Art School Confidential.
Reuniting director Terry Zwigoff and writer Daniel Clowes (whose first collaboration was the incomparable Ghost World), Art School Confidential follows whey-faced, virginal Jerome (Max Minghella) through his first semester in downtown New York. He falls, no doubt hopelessly, for the reigning art-gallery queen and life-study model (Sophia Myles). He recoils at, and yet is drawn to, a reclusive older artist steeped in slivovitz and failure (Jim Broadbent, evoking memories of poor, doomed Charles in Zwigoff's Crumb). He struggles to find meaning in the posturing of his teachers (notably John Malkovich, playing a fellow who is proud to have spent a quarter-century learning to paint triangles) and thrashes about trying to impress them. The more he thrashes, the worse his work gets. Maybe this material isn't entirely fresh, but Zwigoff delivers it with the snap of a quick punch to the face--which is, in fact, the first image in the film, and a model for innumerable excellent sight gags to follow.
Less snappy, unfortunately, is the campus murder mystery, which supplies the film with suspense, excitement, development, structure--everything an art student doesn't need. The more this plot takes over, the more it turns Jerome into a neatly contained symbolic figure, despite his supposed late-semester breakup. I didn't mind, much. However conventional the murder mystery, Jerome is still left weeping near the end, heartbroken that the gallery queen doesn't love him and baffled that no one admires the careful, detailed portrait he's made. It looks exactly like her.
* * *
Searching for a term adequate to describe Park Chanwook's Lady Vengeance--a film that begins with Korean carolers, dressed as Santas, performing a country gospel tune, and ends with the cries of terrified children and a visit from a ghost--I reach for my James Joyce and choose "collideorscape." What else to call this mad jumble of overhead shots, pop-in-the-face close-ups, slanting perspectives and faux TV-news footage, this fireworks burst of scattered time frames and points of view, this Grand Guignol joke that turns into a women-behind-bars thriller that turns into a deadly serious morality play? A collideorscape it is, and a very fine one.
Angel-faced Lee Yeong-ae stars as the title character, newly paroled after serving some thirteen years in prison for kidnapping and murdering a small boy. Her intentions upon release are murky--but judging by the way she slaps on her dark glasses, after telling the evangelist who sprang her to go screw himself, she must be planning something outside the range of the godly. By the end, she hasn't recovered her reputation as a prison-house saint, but neither does she qualify any longer for her cellmates' nickname, The Witch. This transformation no doubt helps to explain why Lady Vengeance is currently the movie of choice among intelligent young women. The rest of the explanation? Sheer aesthetic bliss.
* * *
Dressed in respectable suits and ties, the men stand clustered in a spare and shuttered room, arguing over how best to kill the figure cowering against the wall. They can't shoot him--the neighbors would hear. They can't stab him--they have no knife. They'll just have to figure out how to strangle him. This distasteful task takes a long time and entails some bickering, but it must be done. The victim is a traitor; and the killers, who in another movie might have been gangsters, are the French Resistance.
You may take this tough, adrenaline-charged, utterly uncompromising scene as typical of Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows. Based on Joseph Kessel's 1943 book of the same title, the classic insider's account of the French Resistance, the film was a labor of both love and conscience for Melville, who had been a member of the Resistance. Featuring an exceptional cast--Lino Ventura, Simone Signoret, Paul Meurisse, Jean-Pierre Cassel--and an epic running time, Army of Shadows ranks high among the works of this remarkable filmmaker. Yet after its 1969 release in France, the film found no distribution in the United States--perhaps because its vision of the Resistance, though gripping, is also thoroughly unheroic.
Now Rialto Pictures, the company that successfully reissued Melville's Bob Le Flambeur and Le Cercle Rouge, has arranged for the first US theatrical release of Army of Shadows, in a restored print. It has just opened at New York's Film Forum and will soon be playing around the country. There is nothing more to say, except "Go."