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Too Many Cigarettes | The Nation

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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.

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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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.

Wednesday: Screening of Risa Bramon Garcia's 200 Cigarettes. Young white heteros bicker in New York's East Village on New Year's Eve 1981, while a black cabbie (Dave Chappelle) chauffeurs them around and pop hits of the year drift onto the soundtrack and off again. Was I in the East Village that evening? I can't remember. My memory seems to have stopped at Election Night 1980.

I remember that Keith phoned, saying, "I can't take this on my own. Can I come over?" He showed up fifteen minutes later with a bottle of Stolichnaya.

"Good," I said. "I've got Jameson. Let's mix them."

We poured equal measures over ice and got something that looked like a Stinger and tasted like sweetened antifreeze. "What should we call it?" I asked.

"Stoli and Jameson," Keith said. "It's an IRA."

After three of them, we still knew Reagan would be President, but we temporarily didn't care. But what about 200 Cigarettes? It occurs to me that a movie has been unspooling. Evidently this, too, is something I don't care about--and the feeling in this case would seem to be permanent.

Thursday: Screening of Adam Bernstein's Six Ways to Sunday, a movie with subtle links to 200 Cigarettes. Bernstein can claim to have directed more than seventy music videos, while 200 Cigarettes is co-produced by MTV Films. Also, the soundtrack to 200 Cigarettes features a number of tunes by Blondie, whose lead singer, Deborah Harry, has a lead role in Six Ways to Sunday, as the domineering mother of an up-and-coming gangster in Youngstown, Ohio.

So is Six Ways to Sunday merely a continuation of 200 Cigarettes by other means? No--it's too weird for that. Based on Charles Perry's novel Portrait of a Young Man Drowning, the movie stars slit-eyed Norman Reedus as a severely repressed young man who discovers his métier--and his sexuality--while beating people up for the mob. Every time he whacks a victim, the screen explodes in a freakout montage of distorted faces, bloody colors, flashing lights. This is the normal part of the movie. The strange stuff has to do with the Yiddish-speaking, klezmer-loving gangsters for whom the boy works, the junk-shop decor of Mom's apartment, the allure of the limping maid (Elina Lowensöhn) who ministers to the chief hoodlum and (above all) the question of what we're to make of the people in this high-style freak show.

Are we to laugh? Mourn? Giggle in superiority? Or just use these people for thrills and move on, as Dino Velvet would do? Since the plot is a machine for eliminating the characters, one by one, the question is perhaps self-resolving. Once the remaining two have left Youngstown, in effect voiding the screen, we're simply free to get up and go as well. In a way, that makes Six Ways to Sunday the most coherent film I've seen all week--praise whose height you may judge for yourself.

Friday: I watch a videocassette of Matthew Diamond's Dancemaker, an Oscar-nominated documentary that will play in New York at the Film Forum. The subject is Paul Taylor and his dance company--which is different from saying it's about Paul Taylor (a man who gives away very little about himself) or his dances (which are discussed for the most part in surprisingly superficial interview snippets). What comes through is the peculiar form of master-slave relationship that's developed between Taylor as boss and choreographer and his dancers as employees and collaborating artists. A high point: archival footage from perhaps three sources showing Taylor himself dancing a classic solo, beautifully intercut with new footage of Taylor setting the same solo on a member of his current company. For the first time all week, I feel I've watched a movie. It's just not as deep and consistent a movie as I've been hungering for.

Saturday: While visiting my sister-in-law and brother-in-law, I watch Howard Stern's television program. Tonight, he's put together a travesty of Hollywood Squares, which he's titled Hollyweird Squares. The "celebrity contestants" include a mentally challenged young man called Gary the Retard, a damaged former drug addict called Crackhead Bob, an assertive black man called Angry Black, a truly powerful-looking female bodybuilder and a full-dress member of the Ku Klux Klan. This is an even bigger freak show than Six Ways to Sunday, a deeper look into the heart of darkness than 8MM, a more truthful presentation of the mentally challenged than The Other Sister, a more troubling exploration of mutual exploitation than Dancemaker. In fact, the next time Bill Clinton talks about "what America looks like," he ought to refer to the tape of this show.

But that's just another way of saying the broadcast makes me feel as if I've been trolled through a sewer. Surely someone in film or television could find a way to engage with the craziest stuff America can offer, neither cheating on the details nor neglecting the side of the craziness that's genuinely uplifting.

Sunday: Ben Sonnenberg phones with wonderful news. Our friend Allison Prete has secured a series of bookings at the Brooklyn Heights Twin Cinema for her hourlong documentary Lavender Lake. This is the perfect venue, since Lavender Lake is about Brooklyn's Gowanus Canal: its history, smells, human remains, concentration of typhus, navigation, bridges and surrounding community of Italian-Americans and artists. The film is also about the ardent dream of one neighborhood resident--which he's pursued for twenty years--to transform the Gowanus Canal into a tourist attraction, complete with outdoor cafes overlooking the human remains, typhus, etc.

So, after a hard week, I've finally got a movie I can recommend with all my heart. Effortlessly intelligent, beautifully shot and edited, tactful about its own artfulness but eloquent about the humanity it discovers in every interview subject, Lavender Lake is a classic big little picture: one that opens up an entire quirky, funny, complicated world, simply by paying attention to the lives that pass along one very stinky waterway in Brooklyn.

Lavender Lake will be showing at the Brooklyn Heights Twin Cinema at 7:30 pm on March 17 and at noon on March 20 and 21. Further (perhaps regular) screenings are rumored for the future. Drop by if you're still looking for a real movie.

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