Y2K: The Prequel
Our New Year's number is a mother goose with three eggs tucked behind. It could be a sign of cryptic rhymes and unhatched possibilities--or maybe of silliness, tailed by a lot of nothing. Either way, I'm asking for a couple weeks' grace before this pictured future becomes the present; a thousand or so December releases are still clamoring in my brain.
Here's one I'd love to dump from the noggin: Frank Darabont's The Green Mile. Based on a serialized novel by Stephen King, this film towers above the past century's movies as a monument--a headstone, to be precise.
At the grave's foot is the rock upon which Hollywood was built, The Birth of a Nation: a three-hour film in which epic events become intimate through D.W. Griffith's artistry, and vicious through his race hatred. In The Green Mile, by contrast, events that are intimate (if not claustrophobic) are dragged out to epic length, in the name of a race love that's little better than hate. John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan) is a death-row inmate in thirties Mississippi: the biggest, strongest black man you ever saw. But look--the scary Negro isn't bad! A simple child of nature, J.C. really wants to die in the electric chair, so he can bear away the sins of the white men who throw the switch. Thank you, Stephen King and Frank Darabont. Now we know where Paul Robeson went wrong: He ought to have been an idiot.
And speaking of idiots: Here's a film directed by Julie Taymor. Though reputed to be a theatrical genius, she has made a hash of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, turning one of the stupidest plays ever written (I quote T.S. Eliot) into the dumbest movie of December '99.
Now, in Titus, hash is not just a dish served up at the climax. It's Taymor's specialty. She has made her name by mixing together the flavors of different places and epochs, laying out for her public a global brunch. So, in Titus, fascist chic gets served up with lost-world primitivism, Renaissance weeds with late-nineties kid's wear, to no more purpose than can be found in the reeling-drunk camera movements or dump-it-in-the-Cuisinart editing. Taymor's images, chronically baggy, reveal that she has neither innate camera talent nor the humility to learn that which nature did not supply. To judge from Anthony Hopkins's braying in the title role--he lurches through the film, screaming his way up a three-note scale--Taymor is equally clueless with actors.
But, speaking of unwatchable: Here's Girl, Interrupted. Directed by James Mangold, based on a memoir by Susanna Kaysen, this is the story of a young woman's long season in a Massachusetts mental hospital in the late sixties. Winona Ryder stars, while also serving as an executive producer--a conjunction that may explain why no other actor was allowed to occupy the frame with her. The movie plays as an exercise in photo-booth acting: two hours of Winona in close-up, mugging away.
I could say much the same about Alan Parker's plodding film version of Frank McCourt's memoir, Angela's Ashes: Though playing a married couple, Emily Watson and Robert Carlyle cohabit the frame about four times in two and a half hours. (They somehow keep missing each other, while Parker and his co-screenwriter Laura Jones skirt past McCourt's bitter laughter.) Snow Falling on Cedars? The fanciest photo booth on record. Ethan Hawke, Youki Kudoh and Rick Yune pose singly within various lighting effects, while music crashes and breaks like the crool, crool sea. These washes of prettiness apparently have something to do with the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Go ask Scott Hicks. He directed the mess.
And speaking of messes: Anthony Minghella, who could do as he pleased after The English Patient, has converted Patricia Highsmith's novel The Talented Mr. Ripley into a muddle-headed, super-deluxe film. The best I can say is that Matt Damon does not disgrace himself, blinking and shucksing through the title role as a not-so-innocent American abroad. If you've seen René Clément's 1960 film of the same novel (known as Purple Noon), you probably will prefer the cold beauty of Alain Delon and the flair of a real movie director. (Clément gives you a giddy sequence of crime on the high seas; Minghella, a brawl on a dinghy.) What you'll miss most of all in the new version is the calculation of a psychopath. Minghella's Ripley, unlike Clément's, contains no abyss--just a banal hunger for love, and a style of improvisation that relies heavily on violence. You never shiver at this man; you just think, "Too bad Ben Affleck wasn't around in the fifties to keep the guy company."