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Too Many Cigarettes

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Monday: Screening of Garry Marshall's The Other Sister, which seems to be about a goldfish. Whenever the characters have to make a decision, the film cuts to a close-up of the cute little fella swimming in his bowl. Since the picture was photographed by Dante Spinotti, the background pebbles are of a blue so luscious as to be edible. But distractions multiply, keeping me from entering into a meditative union with the fish. Snatches of pop music keep drifting onto the soundtrack and off again, as if someone on the set had been having trouble tuning a radio. And then there's the plot.

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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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A more apt comparison would be between the surviving staff of the satirical magazine and the brave abortion providers who carried on after the murder of Dr. George Tiller.

The Other Sister claims to be concerned with a plucky young woman named Carla (Juliette Lewis), who is determined to lead a full life despite being (in the current phrase) mentally challenged. While attending a technical college in San Francisco, she meets and falls in love with Danny (Giovanni Ribisi), who is similarly challenged. He also faces a second hurdle: Unlike Carla, whose family rolls in money, Danny is scraping by. I think this is a fine subject for a film--but by Fassbinder, not Garry Marshall. Given his emphatic style, you'd think Carla and Danny were not just the protagonists but also the intended audience. I wonder what they'd make of all those goldfish shots.

I also wonder what they'd think of the role of Carla's mom, which has been fixed on Diane Keaton like a curse. During the early scenes, Mom is so cold, commanding, heartless and manipulative, you keep expecting her to offer Carla a poisoned apple; and at the climax, when (for comic effect) she's doused by the sprinklers on the country club's golf course, the only thing missing is a strangled cry of "I'm melting!" Considering the movie's nonstop lectures about granting people their dignity, perhaps Marshall might have reined in his get-Mom urges. He also might have granted some dignity to the black people in the movie, who exist solely as background, except when they step forward, minstrel-style, to entertain Carla and Danny.

Instead of leaving with an inward promise to respect the mentally challenged, I go out brooding on the Return of the Strutting Negro.

Tuesday: Screening of 8MM. The soundtrack throbs with Arab music, laid on to lend an atmosphere of spice and danger to what the press notes call the "garish red-light district in Hollywood." As the notes go on to say, "there is no such district." But what the hell--what are set designers and Arabs for, if not this?

I find I can mull over that question, watch Nicolas Cage stroll through entire basements full of Threatening Negroes, Mexicans and Filipinos, and still have plenty of leisure to review the history of film criticism. It was in the fifties, as I recall, that certain critics adopted the habit of interpreting films as the self-dramatizations of their directors. Where exactly would we discover Joel Schumacher in 8MM?

There's a clue in those invaluable press notes. Nicolas Cage describes the character he plays, a private detective, as someone whose work "starts to trigger a darkness inside of him." Or, as a sidekick says to Cage in the film itself, "Dance with the devil...the devil changes you." Apparently, Schumacher told everyone that the movie is about someone who comes face to face with the evil inside himself--in which case, 8MM can't be about the detective. He's just a guy who schleps from one grungy place to another. But if Schumacher is the true protagonist, and 8MM his journey of self-discovery, then we know where he encounters the ugly truth about himself. It's in the character of Dino Velvet (Peter Stormare), the filmmaker known as "the Jim Jarmusch of S&M." Dino Velvet is tacky; he's self-infatuated; he dresses badly; he lives and works in a place that looks like an old-fashioned gay-sex paraphernalia shop on Christopher Street. And the worst thing about him is not that he killed a runaway girl on camera. The worst is, he let the producer keep all the money while accepting chump change as his fee.

The horror. The horror.

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