Winner of the National Magazine Award for his film reviews for The Nation, Stuart Klawans is author of the books Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order (a finalist for the 1999 National Book Critics Circle Awards) and Left in the Dark: Film Reviews and Essays, 1988-2001. When not on deadline for The Nation, he contributes articles to The New York Times, Parnassus: Poetry in Review and other publications.
Walking at a good New Yorker's clip, you would need about fifteen minutes to go between Film Forum and the World Trade Center site: a straight shot down Varick Street from three cozy screening rooms and fresh-made popcorn to the remains of a mass grave. I sketch this geography to suggest what September 11, 2001, meant to the Film Forum staff, and to clarify the meaning of their decision to commemorate the other September 11 attack: the one that killed Salvador Allende in 1973.
The calendar links these two events, and so too does the roughest kind of arithmetic. About as many people died at the World Trade Center as were snatched up and murdered by the Pinochet regime. Because the United States helped install and maintain that dictatorship, you might imagine that Film Forum is also connecting these Septembers politically. You would not be entirely wrong; after presenting Patricio Guzmán's new documentary, The Pinochet Case (on view through September 24), the theater will continue its Chilean theme by showing The Trials of Henry Kissinger. But if you know the Manhattan streets, you will realize this schedule doesn't mean to explain--or, worse, to excuse--the criminals who destroyed the Twin Towers. Rather, the Film Forum staff have added sorrow to sorrow, looking beyond themselves and their neighbors to others who are neglected at this moment. Generosity inspires this programming choice, along with hope--precisely the qualities that shine through The Pinochet Case.
If you remember the dangerous immediacy of Guzmán's now-classic The Battle of Chile, you may be surprised to see The Pinochet Case begin as a landscape film. Guzmán sets the tone by showing views of mountains under a clear blue sky, as glimpsed from a car on a lonely highway. A little time passes before the car reaches its destination: a site where corpses were dumped. Two fully clothed men, breathing and fidgeting, lie on the ocher ground to show where the remains were found. By the very inadequacy of their imposture, these surrogates hint at a horror you can't imagine; and maybe they suggest as well that this place belongs to the living. Nothing is left of the victims except for a few fragments--precious to the forensic experts--and the memories borne by their families, who have come here with Guzmán so they can testify to what cannot be seen or heard. A woman speaks of her missing son, meanwhile fingering a photograph that she has slung around her neck. A man recalls his missing brother by reciting a song lyric by Victor Jara: "The spring will come from your heart." He says the line several times over; and somehow, in this place of natural beauty and man-made bitterness, he doesn't choke on the words.
The Pinochet Case belongs to witnesses like these. They sit for their portraits, singly or in groups, sometimes while the moving camera seems to caress their faces. They talk about whatever was hardest for them to endure. (For Nelly, it was admitting that her missing husband would never use the suitcase she packed for him. For Gabriela, who was tortured and raped, it was seeing others killed.) Above all, these witnesses hold out. "My revenge," Luisa says, "is just staying alive."
Not subsisting--staying alive. For Luisa and other witnesses, that meant compiling data that Chilean society preferred to ignore, pressing lawsuits that Chilean courts refused to hear, seeking justice that seemed unattainable even after Pinochet stepped down. Underneath the forms of democracy, as one witness explains, Chile remained unchanged, since the thousands who had cooperated in state terror were still around, still powerful, still unwilling to see their deeds uncovered. And yet, "The spring will come from your heart." The witnesses went on expecting justice--and suddenly, in 1998, they got it.
Narrating the story with brisk reverence for its heroes, The Pinochet Case explains how Spanish prosecutor Carlos Castressana ingeniously recognized that "crimes against humanity" are by definition the business of all courts everywhere. Charges of torture and political murder could therefore be brought against Augusto Pinochet in a Spanish court, even though the crimes took place in Chile. Judge Baltasar Garzón accepted this argument and began to hear testimony--quixotically, it seemed, since no one imagined there would be a trial. But then Castressana and Garzón had the further insight that if their court could enter charges, it could also request extradition. They sprang upon Pinochet during his annual visit to London. All at once, the Senator for Life found himself under house arrest, while the British legal system began fitfully to strip away his immunity from prosecution.
Another surprise: While The Pinochet Case is meditative and leisurely when dealing with the witnesses, it becomes lively and even raucous when it details the court proceedings in England. Part of this energy comes from the polyrhythmic demonstrations that sprang up around Pinochet. (Wherever he was, Chileans and their supporters turned out in force, to bang on drums and shout "Murderer!") Another part of the film's energy comes from the personalities of the lawyers--Castressana, for example, is memorably forceful when he speaks of the historic ties he feels with the Chileans--and still more is contributed by the filmmaker himself. Guzmán illustrates the legal tactics with a chessboard; the political maneuvering with some patched-in footage of Margaret Thatcher, who paid a courtesy call on Pinochet during his period of house arrest. "I'm very much aware," she intoned for his benefit and the camera's, "that it's you who brought democracy to Chile."
What kind of laughter should those words arouse? If I know my New York audiences, a jeer will greet them. We're good at jeering, and Thatcher deserves it. What haunts me about The Pinochet Case, though, is a far different expression of amusement: the bright smile of one of the witnesses toward the end of the movie. She has lived to see Pinochet humiliated; she knows the history books in her country can no longer pass over his crimes; and although full justice has hardly been done, although killers live unmolested all around her, she speaks with a tone of laughter in her voice, a laughter without spite. The killers, she says, are ashamed before their children; but we, we are free.
In September 2002, in New York City, The Pinochet Case is a gift.
Short Takes: The Method actor and the sensitive young junkie emerged together in film history. New versions of the rebellious city boy, scruffy yet soft and inward-looking, they both elected to hunch over a pain in the gut, seeming to protect and even savor the inner flaws that made them writhe.
Half a century later, those figures are still with us, most recently in a Warner Bros. release titled City by the Sea and in a film from China, Quitting. Both are based-on-a-true-story movies; both are exercises in acting. Only one of them touches on the social disaffection that used to spark these now-mythical types.
Directed by Michael Caton-Jones from a screenplay by Ken Hixon, City by the Sea stars Robert DeNiro as a police detective whose long-abandoned junkie son (James Franco) is now wanted for murder. The dialogue is thick with intergenerational doom; the images with establishing shots, as the action bounces between lower Manhattan (where the cop lives and works) and the derelict boardwalk of Long Beach, the son's all-too-symbolic hangout. But the real locus of interest is the face and body of DeNiro, who once might have played the son but now has grown meaty and measured, avuncular if not exactly paternal. You spend the movie admiring his self-control but waiting for the performance to start, until it finally does, on schedule, at the very end. Too bad the acting doesn't benefit the son. The turmoil in this pretty-good picture serves only DeNiro, helping him say farewell to his Method youth to settle comfortably into a chair at the beach.
So I prefer Quitting by Zhang Yang, a fiction film in which young actor Jia Hongsheng, playing himself, re-enacts his years of drug addiction, his struggles with his family (who also play themselves) and his time spent in a psychiatric hospital. Directed and performed with a mercifully light touch, the movie is full of telling details, not just about the characters but about their world: Jia's contempt for his parents' "peasant" manner of speech and dress, for example, or his fascination with Western youth culture, meaning drugs, rock and roll and Method acting. (On the door of his room hangs a poster of DeNiro in Taxi Driver.) All this is right on the surface, unlike Jia's sexual orientation; but if you've got an eye for tight blue jeans and midriff T-shirts, maybe that theme, too, comes to light.
The streets of lower Manhattan are deserted--also spotlessly clean and glowing in the light of the golden hour--when the studio head takes the movie director outside to tell him he's washed up. Those were great dreams he had in New York in the old days, with Cassavetes, but they're over. How it must wound the director to hear these words in Hollywood, on a mere back-lot simulacrum of New York--and from his own ex-wife! How it must shame him to hear the name of Cassavetes! Although the director claims to be the last American auteur, who is being fired because he won't compromise, we've seen some of the picture he was shooting, and it looks less like Cassavetes than a feature-length ad for "Dysfunction" by Calvin Klein.
But Hollywood holds out hope even for a moviemaker who's so pretentious that he spells his first name "Viktor." The director receives a genie in a bottle--or, in this case, a wonderful computer program on a hard drive. This gift puts into his hands a virtual actress, or synthespian, who can be molded exactly as he wishes and secretly inserted into his not-quite-finished movie. The computer program is known as Simulation One; the virtual actress, as Simone. When the picture is released, it will be Simone, not Viktor, who wins the public's unconditional love--after which it's only a matter of time before he's struggling to shove the genie back into its bottle.
"Our ability to manufacture fraud," muses the director, "now exceeds our ability to detect it." These words will do to sum up a theme that has emerged in the work of Andrew Niccol, who wrote and directed Simone. He first made a name for himself as the screenwriter of The Truman Show, in which Jim Carrey unwittingly resided on a TV soundstage the size of an entire village. Niccol next wrote and directed Gattaca, a futuristic fantasy about a world where you have to be physically perfect, or else. Now comes Simone, a story about the public's adoration for an actress who is too good to be true, and isn't. "Simone has the voice of the young Lauren Bacall, the body of Sophia Loren and the face of Audrey Hepburn crossed with an angel," raves one critic about the new star. "Almost right," the director mutters.
You will observe that Simone is not a fraudulent contest winner, phony political reformer or bogus war hero (to mention only three of the impostors who populate Preston Sturges's movies, and so define the great tradition of American screen comedy). Simone is a mirage of femininity, projected by a man who can make her into just what he wants a woman to be. Conversely, when Viktor turns against her, he can make Simone into his image of everything he finds horrifying in a woman. Since the director is simultaneously trying to win back his ex-wife (Catherine Keener, in another of her hard-as-peanut-brittle roles), we can judge how well his fantasies match reality.
It would be enough for me if Simone played out these ideas consistently and well. But it does even more--because Viktor is portrayed by Al Pacino. If you've seen him as the suffering detective in Insomnia, you've had a recent reminder of how overbearing he can be. Part of the pleasure of Simone is to see him give pretty much the same baggy-eyed performance as Viktor, yet make the character come out funny. Who better than Pacino to take on the role of a director, railing against those self-regarding actors who think they're more important than the movie? And who better to be transformed into a porcelain-skinned blonde? Simone "acts" by mirroring her director's gestures and speech--which means she's a Victoria's Secret version of Pacino, right down to the hands spreading apart as if they were pulling taffy.
I confess there were moments when I merely chuckled at Simone, or smiled, or checked my wristwatch (during the meandering third act). There were also moments--two of them--when I laughed till I wept. I think that's reason enough to recommend Simone for a holiday weekend's viewing--that, and the delight of discovering there's still a moviemaker in America who can toss up three ideas and keep them all in the air.
American moviemakers (including those who, like Niccol, come from New Zealand) get a hard time from Jean-Luc Godard in his most recent feature, In Praise of Love (Éloge de l'amour). By now, one particular sequence in that film has become notorious. A certain Steven Spielberg wants to buy the life stories of an elderly couple who were active in the French Resistance in World War II. The couple's granddaughter bitterly denounces the project; but she is silenced by Spielberg's negotiator, who comes not from DreamWorks but the US State Department.
Although I don't want to overprotect Spielberg--he's probably capable of defending himself--I admit I squirmed at this burlesque. But that was just on first viewing. The second time through, having got my bearings (which is no easy matter), I still disliked the too-facile choice of target but could see it as something more than the product of old Jean-Luc's crankiness. I now think it's part of a dense, thrumming network of ideas, which concern resistance both with and without the capital R.
Resistance against what, you might ask. Godard shows you some possible answers and lets you sound out a few others. Here are homeless people sleeping in the rain, in the world's most beautiful city. (The larger portion of In Praise of Love, filmed in black and white, brings Godard back to Paris as a location, for the first time in many years.) Here are silent, shuffling workers, cleaning railroad coaches late at night; here is a grim, spray-painted underpass, in one of the workers' suburbs. And here, too, is a report about the recent massacres in Kosovo, in case you forgot that mass murder still happens at your doorstep. Let us agree there is something in the world worth resisting, and something within ourselves, too--call it slackness, indecision, indifference, a failure to create ourselves as adults. Resistance is necessary; and resistance is impossible, the voices on the soundtrack say, without memory and universalism.
I would suggest that "Spielberg" is the name Godard gives to a false universalism: the omnipresent culture of Hollywood, which unites people by offering them all the same fantasies about movie stars. What might constitute a genuine universalism? Godard's protagonist, a would-be artist named Edgar (Bruno Putzulu), takes a stab at an answer when he launches a project about love: its cycle of meeting, passion, rupture and reunion; its different manifestations in youth, adulthood and old age. An impossible project, for Edgar anyway. A perfect specimen of the European mope--a descendant, you might say, of the screenwriter character from Contempt--he's so weighted with historical memory that he can't finish anything, let alone mount a resistance to Spielbergism; so conscious of his cultural birthright that he can't love the forceful Berthe (Cécile Camp) but can only pursue her and then push her away.
This leaves Godard himself to love and remember and resist, in the best way he knows how: by making something ravishing. In Praise of Love is an achingly beautiful picture, both in its initial filmed section and in the later portion that was shot on video, with vibrating, Fauvist colors. (The video section seems to take us into Edgar's memory, where he has just met Berthe, where an orange sea crashes onto chocolate rocks.) Every image is incisive; every cut to a fresh shot, musically timed; every musical fragment, eloquent; every spoken line, evocative of some new picture.
Still, I can understand why some people resist the autumnal beauty of In Praise of Love. Its sense of melancholy can become oppressive. (There are four suicides in the story, not counting the death of Simone Weil.) The protagonist is insufferable (and is meant to be so, I think); and the proliferation of allusions can make you feel like the slowest student in Professor Godard's seminar room. As has usually been the case in his later films, the characters speak almost entirely in quotations, while hanging around settings that are themselves in need of footnotes. Were Godard still interested in actors, you would at least have a strong performance to help carry you through the quiz; but he hasn't cast anyone with a personality since he put Depardieu into Hélas pour moi. To Godard, people are now just elements in the sound-and-image mix. He's the sole actor.
And, of course, he is a brilliant actor. In Praise of Love may be a kind of directorial soliloquy about loss and failure--including cinema's failure to put up an adequate alternative to Hollywood--but it's performed with such deftness and vigor that it can make the heart soar.
Short Takes: In Satin Rouge, first-time feature director Raja Amari gives us the tale of Lilia, a respectable widow in Tunis who finds happiness through belly dancing. To get a hint of Amari's deadpan methods, and of the magnificence of Hiam Abbass's performance as Lilia, you need look no further than the opening shot. A 360-degree pan reveals the details of a humble apartment, which is being briskly cleaned by a handsome woman on the verge of middle age. Lilia dusts the mirror, checks the surface to make sure it's clean and then belatedly notices herself in the glass. As she does so, she begins to move to the music on the radio. She unpins her hair, letting it flow over the shoulders of her housedress; she dances; and then, just as simply as she'd begun, she pins the hair up again and cleans her way out of the room. A woman capable of such interludes might end up just about anywhere, to the astonishment of both her daughter and the audience in the movie theater. Lilia may well astonish you, too.
You may recall Liz Garbus as co-director of a fine documentary titled The Farm: Angola, USA. She's back now with a new picture, The Execution of Wanda Jean, which was made for HBO but will have a well-deserved theatrical run, starting September 6 in New York. The picture follows convicted murderer Wanda Jean Allen, her family, her defense team and her victim's family over the final weeks of Wanda Jean's life: from the preparations for her clemency hearing, to her execution in January 2001, to her funeral. Garbus worked wonders in winning the confidence of her subjects (as she also did in The Farm); and to her great credit, she chose to follow a genuinely thorny case. On the one hand, prejudice seems to have played a role in Wanda Jean's getting the death penalty: She was an African-American woman accused of having killed her lover, Gloria Leathers. On the other hand, Wanda Jean had previously done time for manslaughter, and she shot Gloria outside an Oklahoma City police station. Those of us who oppose the death penalty need to be able to look at cases like this, take a deep breath and then say, "Even so." The Execution of Wanda Jean is a tough movie, and a valuable one.
Like life itself, good movies sometimes change the subject on you in midparagraph. You think you're watching the story of an elderly man in mourning, buoying himself up against grief and then realize he's started to worry about younger women, who have such a distressing preference for younger men. Or you settle down to enjoy a satire about the movie business, only to figure out that most of its characters, though peculiar to Los Angeles, have little or nothing to do with filmmaking.
As you probably know by now, the not-quite-Hollywood story emerges in Full Frontal, written by Coleman Hough and directed by Steven Soderbergh. The elderly man's predicament is the subject of I'm Going Home, written and directed by Manoel de Oliveira. It's not just the coincidence of an August release that prompts me to put these films together. Although one is a high-art meditation by a nonagenarian Portuguese master, the other a sketchlike quickie by a pop-drenched American, both films express a fascination with playacting: its evasions and distortions, as well as its unforeseeable matchups with reality. Despite the difference in provenance, the two pictures also tell us something about the working conditions of today's more interesting filmmakers.
More on that later. Right now, I want to rush Michel Piccoli onto the scene, so I can tell you how he first appears in I'm Going Home: doddering at death's threshold and having the time of his life at it.
I'm Going Home casts Piccoli as Gilbert, a celebrated French actor, who in the opening sequence is onstage in a production of Ionesco's Exit the King--a role that calls for him to stumble about in a cloak that looks like some kid's security blanket, thrown over a grayish pair of thermal underwear. The figure he cuts is ancient, palsied, pathetic; but when he turns his back to the audience to deliver the play's final tirade, Gilbert chews and sucks and spits out his words, roars and rasps and bellows and croons with the self-confidence of a great actor working at full power. Without needing to show his face, without even moving, Gilbert dominates his world.
Controlling it is another matter. While this opening sequence plays out--Oliveira has the nerve to prolong it for an astonishing fifteen minutes--three agents of mortality come calling for Gilbert. "I can't hear you. Your words scare me," he protests from the stage, when the dark messengers peep into the theater. At that, they withdraw; but they don't retreat. Taking up positions in the wings, they wait to pronounce their doom, while Gilbert, as king, seems to hold them off with a whine: "I never had time." But once the applause sounds, he can no longer evade the news; and so these fates in their business suits tell him that his family has died in a car accident--wife, daughter and son-in-law, all at once. Despite the close attention the camera has been paying to Gilbert, we don't see him receive this blow. Oliveira discreetly allows the information to reach him when he's out of the frame. Then Gilbert clatters down a staircase and is gone.
The sight of his back disappearing through the stage door may remind us: We haven't seen Gilbert until now, only his version of the king. It takes another minute until we get our first look at the man himself, out of costume and makeup; and the close-up reveals what we'd expect: someone with the head of a glum Humpty-Dumpty. As the next sequence starts, Gilbert is discovered staring at nothing, with a slight frown. Yet almost at once, with only a small shift in camera setup, he is utterly transformed: We now see he's posed behind the window of a cafe, where he smiles and chats when the waiter comes by.
Under the weight of loss, it seems, Gilbert means to keep up his urbanity. The next section of I'm Going Home shows how he does it. He strolls the Paris streets, buys handsome new shoes, signs his autograph for excited young women, plays Prospero in The Tempest (where he ignores the smile of a fellow cast member, another young woman). Doesn't he need companionship, his manager wants to know. Gilbert rejects the question, perhaps more angrily than is needed. He has his grandson, he says. He's content.
This is hubris, of course; and Gilbert will pay for it by accepting a part in a film version of Joyce's Ulysses--a French-American co-production that is impeccably high-minded and already foundering. In a staggering refusal to act his age, he signs on for the role of Buck Mulligan. In English. With three days till shooting starts. At first, Oliveira spares us the sight of the result, just as he turned the camera elsewhere when the terrible news was announced. Gilbert is owed that much kindness. But the audience is owed the truth; so then we see Gilbert struggle with ribald young Buck, only to have grief settle on him finally like the cloak of a tattered king, ancient, palsied and pathetic.
This is the second time in recent years that Oliveira has used theater people as his characters for a story about age and loss. He did it before in Journey to the Beginning of the World, with Marcello Mastroianni as his surrogate; but that picture was sweeter, more rustic and elegiac. Although I'm Going Home has some sugar of its own, spun out of its deliberately touristic views of Paris, it comes much closer to heartbreak. This is, at last, a movie about the impossibility of imagining your way out of old age. It's a theme that Piccoli acts with great beauty and sorrow; one that Oliveira directs with the exquisite sureness a filmmaker may attain in the eighth decade of his career.
Distributed by Milestone Film and Video, I'm Going Home is beginning a US theatrical run at Film Forum in New York.
The people in Full Frontal live in Los Angeles, and so their idea of irredeemable old age is 40. The plot's conceit is that a producer who is facing that awful birthday has invited all the other characters to his party. Some are currently shooting a movie for him; others are hangers-on, who nevertheless have contributed something of their lives to his production. Carl (David Hyde Pierce), a wretched employee of Los Angeles magazine, banged out the movie's screenplay in his spare time. Carl's energetically aggrieved wife, Lee (Catherine Keener), is meanwhile banging the movie's male lead.
The story of Lee and Carl is told as if it were a documentary, shot on digital video with voiceover narration. These scenes generally look a bit crummier than they might have. When Soderbergh shoots a tryst in a hotel room, first making the lovers' bodies into a pulsing kaleidoscope, then snapping the image into focus with a brutally unadorned close-up of Keener, you see how magical he can be with video. Most of the time, though, he doesn't want magic. The "real people" in Full Frontal tend to look decomposed, even ghostly, in the buzzing light; whereas the "movie characters" (played by Julia Roberts and Blair Underwood) inhabit a schlock-cinema world that's as persuasive as it is preposterous, since it's shot in sparklingly clear 35-millimeter.
It's good fun to watch how reality warps as it crosses into movie--to see, for example, how Blair Underwood first embodies everything that threatens Carl, then turns into his heroic fantasy double. But this is only the first layer of playacting in Full Frontal. Lee, who works as a corporate personnel officer, uses her exit interviews as a form of psychodrama (one in which somebody gets fired, but no one is cured). Her sister Linda (Mary McCormack) goes around town under an assumed name (she's a masseuse) and makes online dates using a chat-room identity. The producer, it turns out, is about to stage a real-life imposture; and everybody has a more than casual interest in porn.
Considering how many fabulations abound in Full Frontal, you will perhaps forgive Soderbergh for not savaging the lies of the movie business, as some critics have assumed he should have done. He seems to feel that the urge to satirize Hollywood is itself in need of satirizing; and so he has one of his characters liken a movie mogul to Hitler, not just in passing but onstage, in a theater production, so you can judge whether such comparisons might be, shall we say, overstated. This subplot of Full Frontal yields the film's funniest moments (Nicky Katt's improvisatory turn as the Bel-Air Führer outproduces The Producers); but it also underscores a point. The real producer in Full Frontal (David Duchovny) is almost a blank. So, too, are the movie-star characters, who may be the least interesting figures in the picture.
The thick, complicated people in Full Frontal are office workers and a veterinarian and Lee and Carl, who perhaps read too much of themselves into the pretty void of the movies. Lee might be the ultimate Catherine Keener role; what other actress could turn an inflatable globe into the tool of a dominatrix, and really enjoy it, and simultaneously be alarmed by her own craziness? Pierce, meanwhile, takes the role of Carl as a gift, savoring every one of the man's screwups and continually finding the decency that underlies them. Pierce is playing someone who is derided for drinking his beer out of a glass. When he later removes a frosted mug from the refrigerator and considers whether to use it, Pierce makes that decision into just enough of a victory to save his day.
For some of Soderbergh's moralizing critics, though, this is not enough. They complain that the director of Ocean's Eleven is being pretentious by working fast and cheap. Perhaps these same critics have not yet forgiven Roberto Rossellini for defiling his art with Ingrid Bergman--or is it Bergman they can't forgive, for having left Hollywood for Rossellini? I'm perpetually amazed at the way some people really want big-money movies to be trashy (perhaps so they can be safely sneered at), while imagining that small-budget filmmakers have a duty to remain pure, and inconsequential. In the actual film world, though, Oliveira casts John Malkovich in I'm Going Home, and Soderbergh adopts a few Dogme 95 rules (just the ones he likes) to make Full Frontal. That doesn't mean that Oliveira is a sellout or Soderbergh a poseur. It just means that film culture continues to exist on the art-house level, where a certain internationalism flourishes. That's a good thing for filmmakers who choose to keep their eyes and minds open, and it's a good thing for us moviegoers.
Otherwise, we'd all have to go home.
Short Takes: Merchant of uplift M. Night Shyamalan gives us his latest message from Beyond in Signs, the story of a self-defrocked Pennsylvania minister and his strangely geometric crops. It seems that God has killed the minister's wife, then dispatched to Earth a plague of carnivorous extraterrestrials, who trample the fields and make screen doors creak; but all is well in the end, since these events move the minister to reaffirm his faith. Untold millions carried off so that one can be saved? I'd say God's methods are inefficient--which might be why Mel Gibson has to waste all his deadpan humor on an ultimately lifeless starring role. In its story and methods no less than its setting, Signs is nothing but corn.
Blood Work documents the latest stage in Clint Eastwood's aging, in which he collapses while chasing the bad guy and undergoes heart-transplant surgery, yet still remains Clint enough to smooch with the raven-haired babe. The story in which he accomplishes these feats follows classic whodunit rules, which means that the murderer must be in plain view throughout. Unfortunately, the screenplay, by Brian Helgeland, supplies only one possible suspect. Even people who move their lips while reading will figure out the solution before Clint gets to it; which is strange, because he doesn't seem to have wasted much time directing the picture. The actors knock around loose in the frame, line readings fall into silence and the mind drifts back to In the Line of Fire, when Clint was feeling his age but hadn't yet checked into intensive care.
Dispatches from adolescent territory reach me occasionally through my niece Michelle, who has moved into her teen years like the Wehrmacht hitting Belgium. Her most recent posting has taught me this about contemporary film culture: While visiting a Midwest resort town with a friend, Michelle was delighted to discover a street of quaint shops, as well as a theater that played old movies. Which old movies, I wanted to know. "Spider-Man," she said.
In the hope that this column might fall into the hands of teenagers, I therefore begin with an apology. Some of the movies I am about to discuss have been running for two weeks, or even longer. That's enough for them to have earned most of whatever theatrical revenue they can expect; enough that they are now being pushed into the back reaches of the public's attention, so that next week's movies can be marketed. I want to write about these pictures precisely because they were made to be forgotten (like Men in Black II); or, conversely, because they are already starting to fade, despite their makers' best intentions.
I also want to write about a film that just might stick in the mind: Langrishe, Go Down, starring Judi Dench and Jeremy Irons. But there I'm cheating. Although that film is only now being released, it doesn't really count as current, since it was made in 1978.
To people who dislike movies and attend only films, it might seem obvious that Men in Black II can't compete against Langrishe, Go Down (which has not only Dench and Irons to its credit but also a screenplay by Harold Pinter). But then, to my mind, Langrishe, Go Down can scarcely compete against the original Men in Black, which so brightened the summer of 1997. While that picture cheerfully fulfilled every duty of a sci-fi special-effects comedy, it also won a permanent place in memory by developing a theme that should interest thoughtful teenagers and adults alike.
In its portrayals of agents Kay and Jay (Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith) and of the coroner who stumbled onto their secrets (Linda Fiorentino), Men in Black proposed that knowledge has to be paid for, and that the cost is often loneliness. Fiorentino, you may recall, played a scientist whose zeal for research allowed her no living companions. Smith played a New York cop who had to choose between satisfying his curiosity and maintaining relations with his friends and family--not much of a decision in his case, since he was already thoroughly alienated. (In a training exercise, Smith shot to death a cute little blond girl but left unmolested a fanged and tentacled potato from Outer Space, with which he seemed to empathize.) As for Jones, he strutted and snapped his way through the movie as if a show of bravado were all that could keep him going. "We are a gullible species," he sighed at one point, as if wishing he might lay down his burden and rejoin the credulous. Everyone except Smith understood this ragged man was on his last case.
Clearly, Jones should have stayed in the retirement he achieved at the end of Men in Black. Smith should have remained partners with Fiorentino, and the sequel (if there had to be one) ought to have been written by Ed Solomon, who so ingeniously handled the original. Maybe he would have titled the picture Men and Women in Black. Instead, we get the throwaway Men in Black II, which disposes of Fiorentino in half a line of dialogue and uses the same method to eliminate the wife for whom Jones once pined. (It's as if the audience could be purged of memory, just like the movie's neuralized civilians.) With these impediments to buddy-movie business cleared away, the screenplay (by Robert Gordon and Barry Fanaro) can proceed to reunite Smith and Jones and replay, with slight variations, the simpler gags from the first picture.
Time passes, hope sinks and a theme emerges, unfortunately. Men in Black II shows that only two kinds of women exist on other planets: shining saints and snaky monsters. If this is so, then Earth must be bigger and more varied than the whole rest of the universe--a notion that runs counter to the spirit I recall with such joy from the first, the one true, Men in Black.
As you may know, Men in Black was based on a comic book by Lowell Cunningham; so it has something in common with Road to Perdition, a gangster picture spawned from a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner. Under the fussy and portentous direction of Sam Mendes (who previously postured his way through American Beauty), Road to Perdition is clearly a far more ambitious movie than Men in Black II. It boasts the very substantial talents of Tom Hanks and Paul Newman in lead roles, an unnerving performance by Jude Law in a crucial supporting part and magically dark, dense cinematography by Conrad L. Hall. The story would seem to be worth telling (it's about murderous gangster fathers and the sons who are either loyal or disloyal to them, either willing or unwilling to follow their path); and the setting is the Depression-era Midwest, which always helps a movie. And yet very little of Road to Perdition lingers, except for a feeling that you've been carried along.
Most of the carrying happens when mob hit man Michael Sullivan (Hanks) is driving around the wintry plains with his 12-year-old son, Mike (Tyler Hoechlin). The two are both fleeing a killer (Law) and chasing the men who dispatched him--a situation that allows for a couple of good, tense confrontations. Since Hanks thinks it would be helpful to empty Al Capone's bank accounts, there's also a series of jolly robberies. I would guess these episodes take up about fifteen minutes of the movie. The rest is murk, forced lyricism and mounting corpses. Perhaps you won't care when I reveal that almost no one survives, since the deaths never matter. They just happen, like ticks of a metronome. Each beat gives Sam Mendes the opportunity to make pretty arrangements: an image of violence framed by a man's legs, a flash at a nighttime window, a brightly lit homage to David's Death of Marat, a tracking shot of men silently collapsing in the rain. Watching these stage-derived tableaux vivants, I began to think better of the movie-mad energy of Miller's Crossing, in which the Coen brothers invested their overcoats-and-hats gangsters with both drive and character. Maybe Miller's Crossing has also turned out to be forgettable in large part; but its core moments (such as the scene of John Turturro begging for his life) dig right into you, as if they were newly installed neural pathways to the heart.
Road to Perdition? A passing flutter.
John Sayles can't be accused of prettifying his films, and he would never kill a character for lack of anything better to do. What's more, he despises the grand simplifications that are so common in comic books, graphic novels and pop moviemaking. In Sunshine State, he sets up for ridicule the fabulations of history pageants and real-estate developers, so he can show off to better advantage his own, more intricate vision of the social network. It's a strategy he's used in many earlier films, just as he visited Texas and Alaska before this excursion into Florida. From Sayles, you get highly specific landscapes, reliable accounts of politics and commerce, and (more often than not) actresses to die for--in this case, in alphabetical order, Jane Alexander, Mary Alice, Angela Bassett and Edie Falco.
All this is admirable. I just wish Sayles would also put a little movie into the movie.
Sunshine State isn't claptrap, like Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, but it shares that picture's claptrap method of being almost entirely expository. In scene after scene, Sayles tells you exactly what he thinks you should know about Florida, often by putting into the mouth of a character the kind of cliché-twisting monologue that keeps rational people away from Off Broadway plays. I think this is a waste of good actors--and the effects are nowhere more evident than in the parts of Sunshine State you forget, or that Sayles forgot. Tell me, if you've seen the picture: Can you recall what finally becomes of Terrell (Alex Lewis), the troubled teenager whose act of vandalism begins the story? He's hustled away so perfunctorily, once he's served the purpose of uniting two strands of the plot, that he might as well be Linda Fiorentino. And can you remember anything the American Indian construction worker does in the movie, other than wait around to be an American Indian at a crucial moment? For a filmmaker with a social conscience, Sayles is awfully quick to use characters as means, rather than ends.
So, for a dose of something eccentric and memorable, I turn to Langrishe, Go Down.
David Jones directed this picture in 1978 for the BBC, working from Harold Pinter's screenplay. New York's Film Forum is now giving the movie a much-belated theatrical release (July 17-30), no doubt on the strength of Judi Dench's ascent to stardom. She is, in fact, a wonder in the role of Imogen Langrishe, one of a household of spinsters living in ever-more-impoverished gentility on an estate outside Dublin. The period is the 1930s, when such descents from grandeur were not uncommon for the Irish gentry; nor would it have been unlikely for a self-styled scholar from Bavaria (Jeremy Irons) to show up in the neighborhood to do research, and to assert with sudden, unmotivated violence that he is indifferent to politics, absolutely indifferent.
Sayles himself could not ask for a more realistic, closely observed setting. (In this regard, Langrishe, Go Down owes a lot to its source, the novel of the same title by Aidan Higgins.) But the way the film's seduction and repulsion play themselves out--you understood, surely, that Dench and Irons have an affair--is utterly unpredictable. Irons turns himself into a fun-house mirror version of the self-important German intellectual, complete with an accent that keeps migrating toward Transylvania. He never stops talking; whereas Dench, who is given relatively few lines, speaks volumes with her eyes and the set of her mouth. You understand, without a word, how she sees through Irons. She's amused by him; she feels this may be the last amusement she'll get; and she enjoys it, until the underlying frustration and rage break through.
To all this, David Jones adds a fragmented, time-shuffling montage that's reminiscent of Alain Resnais. Or is the film's structure also a Pinter contribution, like the lines of dialogue that continually run askew? All I know is that this odd little movie has lodged in my brain, not comfortably, perhaps, but permanently.
Langrishe, Go Down is a keeper.
In Steven Spielberg's latest picture, a skinheaded psychic named Agatha keeps challenging Tom Cruise with the words, "Can you see?" The question answers itself: Cruise sees in Minority Report, but not well enough. He must learn to recognize his ocular limitations--a task he accomplishes by enduring chase scenes, double-crosses, confrontations at gunpoint and a few jocularly nauseating trials, conducted in Spielberg's bucket-of-bugs, Indiana Jones style.
In Jacques Audiard's new picture, by contrast, Emmanuelle Devos can't hear, and she knows it from the start. The first shot in Read My Lips is an image of her tucking a hearing aid behind one ear, then concealing it with her hair. Her first lines, spoken while answering the phone in a nerve-jangling office, include the words, "I didn't hear. Can you repeat that?" Her task in the movie--accomplished through acts of larceny and hostage-taking--is to learn how much power she might have, despite her aural limitations.
Ineluctable modalities of the filmable! We are discussing not only sight and sound but also America and France, plot and character, man and woman, innocence and experience. Film culture needs both sides; so if I tell you that I'd gladly watch Read My Lips several times but will be content with one viewing of Minority Report, please don't take it to mean that Minority Report shouldn't be seen at all. On the contrary: To miss it would be like bypassing one of those grand and macabre curiosities that lie just off the tourist's route--like visiting Madrid, for example, without troubling to descend the marbled stair to the crypt of the Escorial. In the monumental edifice of Minority Report, as in that palatial tomb, you may encounter something madly idiosyncratic, yet absolutely characteristic of its culture. It's just not much of a pleasure; whereas Read My Lips is so much fun, it could be retitled Curl My Toes.
But, to begin with Spielberg:
After last summer's release of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, all true filmoids were eager to know what nightmare he might next sweat out in public. Under the influence of Stanley Kubrick, under the pretense of selling us entertainment, Spielberg had made a nakedly confessional movie about abandonment, disillusionment and the corruptions of show business. Past a certain point, of course, the picture was a misshapen wreck; but that was because A.I. struggled so desperately to escape itself and concoct a happy ending. The harder it strained, the more compelling, and horrifying, it became. I felt that Spielberg had at last tapped into emotions he'd located not in his audience but in himself. Could he maintain that connection, now that he'd established it? That was the question hanging over Minority Report.
The answer is now before us, in the only futuristic, metaphysical thriller I can think of that takes the violation of civil liberties as its theme and the abuse of children as its obsession. These twin facets of Minority Report come together, improbably but unforgettably, in the figures of oracles known as Pre-Cogs. They lie in a bottom-lit, Y-shaped pool somewhere in Washington, DC, in the year 2054: three damaged orphans who are adult in form but fetal in situation, since they are kept floating in an amniotic fluid of high narcotic content. Their fate (you can't really call it a job) is to remain forever in that stage of childhood where every shadow in the bedroom conceals a monster. Unfortunately, the monsters are real: They are the murderers who will strike in the near future, and whose crimes the psychics not only foresee but experience. You might think someone would take pity on the Pre-Cogs and release them from these visions, at which they convulse in pain and horror. Instead, for the public benefit, a police agency called the Department of Pre-Crime maintains these creatures in a permanent state of terror.
We come to the theme of civil liberties, which must have required some precognition on Spielberg's part, since Minority Report went into production well before John Ashcroft declared due process to be an unaffordable luxury. It is the movie's conceit (borrowed from the writings of Philip K. Dick) that the police may someday arrest people pre-emptively, for crimes they would have committed had they been left on the loose. As chief of the Pre-Crime unit, Tom Cruise sees no problem with this practice, either legally or philosophically--which is why he is half-blind. He doesn't yet understand that the rights he takes away from others may also be taken from him.
But I'm making it sound as if Minority Report constructs an argument, when it actually contrives a delirium. A sane movie would have been content to give Cruise a reason for arresting pre-criminals. For example, he could have been blinded by the pain of losing a son. That, in fact, is how the plot accounts for Cruise's keen efficiency; but it isn't enough of an explanation for Spielberg, who goes on to embed a second rationale in the mise en scène. Every setting, prop and gesture shows us that Cruise does this job because it excites him.
He's in his brush-cut mode in Minority Report. He rockets around Washington, rappels onto the pre-crime scene, dives at the last second between the would-be killer and the not-quite-victim--and that's just the conventional part of his work. The real thrill comes from interpreting the Pre-Cogs' visions, which he does in front of a wraparound computer screen while a stereo pipes in the Unfinished Symphony. Waving his hands against the music's rhythm, making digital images slide around at will, he looks like a cross between an orchestra conductor and a film editor, working at some Avid console of the future.
So childhood pain in Minority Report bleeds into fear of crime, which blossoms into a fantasy of omnipotence--and this fantasy in turn sows further pain, in the form of little stabs to the eye. In the year 2054, government bureaus and advertising agencies alike scan your retina wherever you go, blinding you with lasers a hundred times a day to track your whereabouts, your spending, your preferences in clothing from the Gap. What does it matter if Cruise comes to see the dangerous fallacy of pre-crime? Human freedom has already vanished from his world, in the blink of an eye.
I hope it's clear from this summary that Minority Report not only represents another of Spielberg's Major Statements but also continues his risky new practice of self-expression--risky because his feelings remain unresolved, and also because he allows them to be Major. A solemnity pervades the movie, making itself felt most tellingly at moments of incidental humor. Spielberg has never been a rollicking filmmaker--the human activities that least interest him are laughter and sex--but in the past he's known how to raise a chuckle, and he's known when to do it. In Minority Report, though, clumsy throwaway gags keep interrupting the action, as if Spielberg had lost his sense of how to play with the audience. Slapstick assaults upon a family at the dinner table, or Olympian sneers at bickering couples, do nothing to leaven Minority Report. The movie's ponderousness is relieved only by Samantha Morton's uncanny portrayal of the psychic Agatha and by Lois Smith's turn as Dr. Hineman, the researcher who ought to have healed the Pre-Cogs but instead turned them into tools of the police. When Cruise goes to visit Smith at her greenhouse hideaway, the colors of Brutalist architecture briefly give way to those of nature, and the pace of the acting triples. Speaking her lines over and around Cruise, Smith plays her role in the manner of Vladimir Horowitz dashing off an étude.
"Who is the strongest Pre-Cog?" Cruise wants to know. Smith smiles indulgently at the blind man. "Why, the woman, dear." This claim of female superiority has the charm of gallantry; it's Spielberg's gift to the actress. But as it's developed in the rest of the movie, the notion (like far too much of Minority Report) lacks the flourish that gallantry requires. I offer sincere congratulations to Spielberg for at least two-thirds of this picture; but now I think it's time to leave Minority Report and consider a movie about a real woman.
Her name is Carla. She works for a real estate development company, where she's treated like part of the office equipment. As embodied by Emmanuelle Devos, Carla has an apology for a hairdo and a choked-off complaint for a lower lip. When she's casually insulted--her paperwork ruined by the spill from a coffee cup, her skirt stained suggestively under the rump--Carla falls apart so completely that her boss offers to let her hire an assistant. "Trainees are cheap," he explains, as if that would make her feel better. She hires one anyway and comes up with the man of her dreams: Paul (Vincent Cassel), a greasy, long-haired, leather-jacketed, muttering ex-con, who assures her (while his eyes scan for the exit) that sure, he's worked with, uhm, spreadsheets. Plenty of them.
One of the pleasures of Read My Lips--a pleasure that isn't available in Minority Report--is the way the movie invites you to see into these characters, who always amount to more than their functions in the plot. Early on, for example, when Carla and Paul are just getting to know each other, you see how they might be bound by a common lack of decorum. "What were you in jail for?" Carla asks bluntly, violating rule number one for dealing with ex-cons. Paul answers her, then asks in turn, "So you're deaf? I mean, really deaf? Like, you can't hear?" Although she tells him to shut up, Carla doesn't hesitate to play along when he asks her to read someone's lips. He likes her willingness to trespass on others. She likes the muscle he provides.
Although Carla's alliance with Paul develops uneasily, it's not without humor. (No false notes here; Audiard always gets the tone right.) But even though the bumps and jolts of the plot are intriguing--and far more numerous than those in Minority Report--what's perhaps most engaging in Read My Lips is the evocation of Carla's reality. The images are often incomplete, oddly framed, out of focus, unsteady, surprisingly closeup, bathed in shadow, richly colored, dreamily slow. This is the subjective vision of human eyes, not the objective gaze of the camera--and Carla sees it all the more vividly because the world of sound is closed.
I like the sensuousness of Read My Lips and the nuance of its portrait of a woman. I like the sense of possibility in the characters, the interplay between Devos and Cassel, the mundane realism of the plot (which asks you to believe only that the real estate business isn't entirely clean, and that large sums of cash sometimes flow through bars). I even like the happy ending. Although Spielberg's picture is the one titled Minority Report--an ironic name for a Tom Cruise blockbuster, as its maker surely knows--Read My Lips files the story that's too infrequently heard.
Although car chases are formulaic, they needn't be standard issue. One of the many substantial pleasures that The Bourne Identity offers is a thoughtful car chase, a loving car chase, in which the characters truly care about their conduct amid prolonged automotive mayhem. It doesn't hurt, of course, that the scene is Paris. The streets there are barely wide enough for a single fleeing vehicle--which means that Jason Bourne may as well use the sidewalk when he needs an extra lane. Once the pedestrians dive out of the way, he gets to skid through every degree of turn except ninety--Descartes never laid his grid over this city--until the route ends at a set of stairs. They're very picturesque; and considering what his car's undercarriage was already like, they can't do much harm.
By the time the car fully resumes the horizontal, some of the pursuing motorcycle cops have managed to pull up. "Turn your head," Jason warns his passenger, Marie Kreutz, in a surprisingly gentle tone. She was guzzling booze straight from the bottle even before this ride; he'd rather not worsen her alarm by letting her watch the next maneuver. But we see it, as one cop after another is shaken off and the car hurtles onto a highway. At last--a chance to make time! The camera drops to within an inch of the macadam so that our brains, too, can get a good rattle, as Jason and Marie's car seems to race straight out of the screen. Then, almost without transition, it's shooting through more non-Cartesian turns, off a ramp, past the spot where the last motorcycle cop makes his rendezvous with a passing truck, to come to a very temporary version of rest.
How should a car chase end? If the sequence is standard issue, the filmmaker will require a fireball, or a roll downhill and then a fireball, followed perhaps by the sight of the good guys speeding away. But in The Bourne Identity, director Doug Liman has been witty enough to conclude the sequence by having Jason pull into a parking garage. From this, we may learn that the hero is a fundamentally conventional person, despite what he's been doing for the past five minutes. But this is only part of what we learn--because Liman is also clever enough to make the real action start when the motor stops.
All but vibrating from what they've been through, Marie and Jason sit in the car in silence, each glancing awkwardly toward the other and then looking away. The camera, static at last, takes them both in at once. Time stretches; they squirm. Someone is going to have to say something pretty soon--and the words, when they come, will have the shy banality of a postcoital stab at conversation, when the two people have scarcely met and are wondering what the hell they've just done.
For me, this was the moment when The Bourne Identity revealed its true nature, as a study of those people in their 20s who can't yet put up with workaday life. Liman has looked at such characters before, in Swingers and Go. Those movies were about using recreational drugs, selling recreational drugs, selling over-the-counter medicines that you claim are recreational drugs, losing yourself in music, losing yourself in lap dancing, losing your sense that this cute thing before you might not be an ideal companion when you get to be 70. Jobs in these movies count for little or nothing; friendships mean the world, though they're always breaking apart. If you can recognize these attitudes, and if you're familiar with the behavior through which they're expressed nowadays, you will understand Jason Bourne and Marie Kreutz. They're typical Doug Liman characters, who just happen to live in a spy thriller.
Now, since The Bourne Identity is adapted from a Robert Ludlum novel and was written for the screen by two people other than the director, you might doubt the wisdom of ascribing all the above to Liman. But look at the casting. In the title role, Liman has Matt Damon, who carries over from Good Will Hunting his persona of the regular working stiff--an unpretentious guy who must nevertheless come to grips with a great power he's been given. In Good Will Hunting, the gift was mathematical genius, which somehow was shut up behind Damon's sloping brow and wary, squinting eyes. In The Bourne Identity, in which he plays a CIA assassin suffering from amnesia, Damon is puzzled to hear himself speak many languages, and to find that his arms and legs demolish anyone who threatens him. Different skills; same aura of being troubled, but decent and game. When Jason Bourne refuses to hold on to a gun--something that he does more than once in the picture--Damon infuses the gesture with the gut-level morality of a Catholic boy from South Boston.
Paired with Damon, in the role of Marie, is Franka Potente, the young German actress who is best known for Run Lola Run. She, too, has retained her persona from the earlier film, so that she brings to Marie a convincing impression of having enjoyed quite a few good times over the past years, many of which she can't remember. Her basic facial expression is something between a scowl and a sneer--the sign, you'd think, of a feral sexuality that bores her, because it encounters no worthy challengers and yet prevents her from concentrating on anything else. No wonder she runs--or drifts in this case, playing someone who has done nothing since high school except wander about. When first seen in The Bourne Identity, Potente is at the American Embassy in Zurich, making a pain of herself by demanding a visa to which she is most likely not entitled. When first approached by Damon, Potente establishes her baseline attitude toward people by snapping "What are you looking at?" Her Marie isn't a bad person, you understand--she's just been bad news for any man she's hung around. Now, though, she's met the right guy in Jason Bourne, meaning someone who can be bad news for her.
I think it's worthwhile to compare these characters with those played by Chris Rock and Anthony Hopkins in Bad Company, a routine bomb-in-a-suitcase thriller, whose main function is to help audiences kill time till the release of Men in Black 2. Hopkins plays the self-controlled CIA agent, who is so white he's English. Rock plays (guess what?) the street-smart, fast-talking black guy, who must be put into the field at once, or else the world will end. There's an underground trade in nuclear weapons, you see, which Hopkins can foil only with the aid of someone who looks exactly like Rock.
And there's the essential problem of Bad Company. The mere appearance of Chris Rock is supposedly enough; the assignment requires no one to act like him. In any decent movie of this sort--48 Hours, say, or Trading Places--the white character will fail in his task, except for the wiles the black character can lend him. But in Bad Company, Rock exists solely to be educated. A very smart man who has made nothing of his abilities--the reasons for which failure are left disturbingly vague--his character must be trained to wear a suit, sip Bordeaux and rise at dawn. These traits, according to the movie, are proper to a white man; and Rock will help defeat terrorism by adopting them. As an interim goal for the character, this is bad enough. What's worse is the final justification for rubbing some white onto Rock: to make him a fit husband.
Bad Company was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, directed by Joel Schumacher and written, so far as I can tell, by the welfare policy officials of the Bush Administration. Heartless in theme and faceless in style, it is so many thousands of feet of off-the-shelf filmmaking, through which you sift, disconsolate, in search of a single live moment. There is one: the scene in which Rock tells off a CIA supervisor. Of course, this, too, is part of the formula; but when Rock lets loose his falsetto indignation, the world's shams all wash away in the torrent. You feel clean and free, listening to Rock's outrage. I wonder what he'd say in private about this movie.
Maybe he'd say The Bourne Identity has more soul than all of Joel Schumacher's films put together. I think soulfulness has to do with acknowledging the reserves of personality in someone who might at first seem a mere type--or acknowledging, for that matter, the personality in a movie that appears generic. It's about individual but strict judgments of right and wrong; and, always, it's about the exuberance of talent. This last point is the one that makes The Bourne Identity into Liman's movie. His direction is a performance in its own right, combining the logic and flair of a first-rate bop solo. He attends to the small, naturalistic gestures--the way Jason pauses to brush snow off his sleeve, or Marie shields her mouth to hide a smile. He pushes the cinematography to extremes, using low levels of light from very few sources, to give you a sense of intimacy with the characters' flesh. He continually thinks up ways to keep the action fresh. Sometimes his tricks are unobtrusive, as when he makes a shot shallower than you'd expect, and so more arresting. Sometimes he's expressive, as when Bourne teeters on a rickety fire escape, and the camera peers down at his peril while swinging overhead. And sometimes he's flat-out wild. In the midst of a fight scene, Liman tosses in a point-of-view shot, about half a second long, to show you what the bad guy sees as he flies over a desk, upside down. If my schedule of screenings and deadlines had been more merciful, I would now compare Liman's direction with that of the master, John Woo, in his new Windtalkers. But I wasn't able to see Windtalkers by press time; and, on reflection, I'm glad I didn't. The Bourne Identity deserves to be enjoyed for its own sake.
If you're interested in the plot, you can enjoy that, too. I've left it till last, since that's what Liman does. In one of his cheekiest gestures, he lets the movie's McGuffin go unexplained. But as a public service, I will give you this much detail: The Bourne Identity assumes that the CIA's activities are an endless chain of cover-ups, with each new calamity needing to be hidden in turn. That's why the agency needs unlimited power.
Bad Company? Right.
As all reputable news outlets assure us, privatization benefits everyone--which is lucky, since these same outlets report that privatization is inevitable. We live out a happy fate, which rolls on despite the occasional need to report, say, the resignation under fire of Britain's transport secretary, Stephen Byers. Mr. Byers comes to mind because I happen to be writing to you on the very day he stepped down, following the bankruptcy of his privatized Railtrack service, and also the fifth fatal rail crash in six years of newly efficient service.
You may have noticed that when the route of progress bumps over such inconveniences, all reputable reports concentrate on the disappointment of the privatizers (who nevertheless must go on) and of consumers (who certainly will be happier sometime soon). Nobody ever seems to report on the experience of the privatized workers--nobody, that is, except for Ken Loach. His new film, The Navigators, finds drama in the resentments and resistances, adjustments and accommodations of a crew of track repairmen in Yorkshire, who yesterday worked for British Rail and today begin working for a new company, Midlands Infrastructure, which in another two weeks will be called something else entirely. Not that the name matters. Twelve more weeks down the line, and the men will all be working for themselves--that is, for an employment agency, which will hire them out to contractors who needn't bother with sick pay, vacation time or a superstitious regard for safety rules.
The Navigators is now about to receive its US premiere as the opening-night feature of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival. Now in its thirteenth year, the festival will be on view June 14-27 at New York's Walter Reade Theater, in Lincoln Center, where Ken Loach is also scheduled to receive the Irene Diamond Lifetime Achievement Award. An unaffectedly modest man, Loach will probably try to blend in with the audience, as if hoping someone else will show up to claim the prize. But as The Navigators shows, it's his by right. Every performance in the film is effortlessly convincing; every scene plays out with its own easy rhythm. There's time and space in The Navigators for domestic trials (as when a man attempts to court his estranged wife and winds up feeding a bouquet of roses through the mail slot), casual slapstick and practical jokes--even for a spirited defense of day labor. "There's plenty of work, at top dollar," declares one of the crew, who seems happy now to be an entrepreneur of his own labor power. And so, when doom strikes, it seems foreordained but not at all forced.
Of the pictures I had a chance to sample in this year's festival--there are thirty-three in all--The Navigators struck me as being both the freshest and the most Old Masterly. This is hardly a definitive statement; I wasn't able to preview such big bookends of the festival as the new feature films by Costa-Gavras and Chris Eyre or the new documentary by Fabrizio Lazzaretti and Alberto Vendemmiati, the team that made Jung: War in the Land of the Mujaheddin. But here are a few recommendations:
Lourdes Portillo went to Ciudad Juárez, just across the border from El Paso, to make Señorita Extraviada (Missing Young Woman), a documentary on the kidnapping and murder of hundreds of women over the past decade. You may be aware that workers from the booming assembly factories in Juárez have been turning up dead in the desert, after having been raped, mutilated and burned. What you may not know is that the authorities to date have arrested exactly one suspect, whom they blame for everything; that the killings continue, despite the chosen culprit's imprisonment; that the police officers investigating these cases maybe ought to handcuff themselves; and that in the eighteen months Portillo spent in making this film, another fifty young women disappeared. Although Portillo brings a skeptic's sensibility to these events, I wish she'd been more skeptical still. Some of the testimony that she accepts strains credulity, despite its coming from victims. But, that said, she isn't preparing a legal brief. She's creating a meditative investigation--or is it an investigative meditation?--and doing it with real poetic power.
Of the many films in this year's festival that deal with conflict in the Middle East, most seem to me to be sketches toward a movie, rather than finished works. Valuable raw information emerges about Palestinian and Israeli attitudes in Michal Aviad's Ramleh, Mai Masri's Frontiers of Dreams and Fears, Jean Khalil Chamoun's In the Shadows of the City, Avi Mograbi's August; but you have to sift through self-indulgence, self-righteousness, clumsy fictionalizing or diffident storytelling to get at the data. The exception, among the films I was able to preview, is Rachel Leah Jones's 500 Dunam on the Moon.
Jones had the wit to seize on a revelatory topic for her picture and the patience to develop it fully, telling the story of three villages in the Galilee. The first was Ayn Hawd, an old Arab settlement that Israeli forces emptied in 1948. The second village, built from the first, is Ein Hod, an artists' colony established in 1953 on Dadaist principles. (I wish I were kidding, but I'm not.) To this day, Ein Hod remains a well-frequented site for the production and sale of bad Israeli art. And to this day, nearby, many former residents of Ayn Hawd live in the third, makeshift village, Ayn Hawd al-Jadida (New Ayn Hawd), a place that officially does not exist, even though its inhabitants do the heavy labor in Ein Hod, helping to keep their former homes picturesque.
Finally, let me mention two films from The Nation's orbit. The Trials of Henry Kissinger is a brisk, well-argued documentary directed by Eugene Jarecki and written by Alex Gibney, based largely on Christopher Hitchens's book of similar title. Unlike Lourdes Portillo's documentary, this one really is put together like a legal brief, and a very effective one at that. Of course, as a Nation type, I've always thought of Kissinger as a war criminal and am glad to see the filmmakers make the case. I complain only that they may have been a touch too adulatory to the writer who has guided them. However estimable his work, Hitchens is not quite the lone, precedent-shattering crusader that he appears here.
Then again, at the mere mention of the Hitchens name, Gen. Alexander Haig trembles with rage and sputters, "He, he's a sewer-pipe sucker! He sucks the sewer pipe!" This is an enviable endorsement, on which we should all congratulate the author.
Congratulations also to John Friedman and Eric Nadler, whose documentary Stealing the Fire will have its US premiere at the festival. An investigation of the traffic in nuclear weapons, following a tortuous trail from Germany to Pakistan to Iraq, Stealing the Fire is a CinemaNation production.
Since there's no point in watching human rights unless someone or something gets liberated, let me now join in the celebration of freedom that is Undercover Brother. Directed by Malcolm D. Lee from a screenplay by John Ridley and Michael McCullers, Undercover Brother is not the first pastiche, in MAD magazine style, of the blaxploitation films of the 1970s. Keenen Ivory Wayans was there first, with I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, just as Mike Myers and the Austin Powers team were a little quicker to collage into the present a pop-culture character from the recent past. Even so, you will understand how right Undercover Brother gets everything when I tell you that it runs just ninety minutes and stars a magnificently Afro'd Eddie Griffin, who is so cool that he winks at the camera in every damn scene.
The plot--do you really care about the plot? Griffin steps out in a wardrobe of platform shoes, flared pants and shirts cut to show off the discus-size Black Power medallion he wears around his neck. He drives a Coup de Ville convertible, drinks large quantities of orange soda and is aptly described by the film's kung-fu-kicking love interest (Aunjanue Ellis) as "a Soul Train reject with a Robin Hood complex." Recruited by a secret organization called B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D., Griffin learns that the most weed-addled fantasies of Conspiracy Brother (David Chappelle) are actually true. There really is a fantastically wealthy and powerful white man--called The Man--who keeps black people down.
From this point on--I'm three minutes into the movie--the jokes really get cheap. They're also consistently, wildly funny, despite being based without exception on the stale scheme of "White folks do this, but black folks do that." Sure they do. But then, as the chief of B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. explains, his goal is to "help black people of all races," which clarifies everything.
The role of the white she-devil is capably played by Denise Richards.
My wife issues literary judgments on an irregular but reliable basis; so when she took her half-read copy of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and hurled it against the wall, I knew this was a book I should not pick up. As a result, I can't tell you how much the new movie of the same title might deviate from Rebecca Wells's gazillion-selling novel. I went to see the picture only because it's written and directed by Callie Khouri, who also wrote Thelma & Louise. I can report as follows:
Divine Secrets is a sandwich made of two slabs of angel food cake around a slice of raw liver. The sticky-sweet stuff is women's friendship and the mother-daughter bond, tributes to which are layered onto the movie at the beginning and end. The liver is the very long middle section, in which Ashley Judd (the film's one saving grace) shows how sexual frustration and the demands of childrearing can drive a woman crazy. Apparently, this truth is unknown to Ashley's daughter, Sandra Bullock, who must be told, at excruciating length, what everyone in the audience has guessed in a flash.
Every scene in Divine Secrets is expository. Every performance demands that the actress wave her arms energetically (perhaps to swat away clouds of gnats in acknowledgment of the Louisiana setting). Every character is affluent and white, except for a loyal black maid who says things like "I knew it wuz trouble. Just yestiddy I heerd dat screech owl." Every sequence ends like a dinner plate hitting the floor, and every new sequence begins with a fresh plate being dropped.
Cans of 35-millimeter film are heavy, and projection booths tend to be locked. I went home, found my wife's copy of the book and gave it a fresh ride.
You may recall Insomnia as a Norwegian film made on a modest budget--do I repeat myself?--about the inner life of a morally compromised police detective. The picture enjoyed a small but respectable run in the United States a couple of years ago, thanks to the shambling presence of Stellan Skarsgard in the lead and to the clever use of locations. The director, Erik Skjoldbjaerg, set the action in the north of Norway, during summer, so that this film noir played out almost entirely in daylight.
Now comes a new, American Insomnia, made to the costly standards of a Warner Bros. release. Directed by Christopher Nolan in the wake of his surprise hit Memento, this remake transposes the action to rural Alaska and replaces the not-quite-stellar Skarsgard with Al Pacino. A few paragraphs from now, I will recommend this picture to your attention. First, though, let me talk about a modestly budgeted American movie, The Believer, since it has the distinction of being a film of ideas--in contrast to Insomnia, a film of idea.
I care about The Believer, first of all, because its writer-director, Henry Bean, has noticed a truth that escapes most American filmmakers: People think about things. For most of us, of course, at most times, our notions of the world amount to a discontinuous, self-contradicting jumble; but it's a jumble on which we may stake our lives. That's why the disorderliness can be dramatic in itself--provided, as Bean knows, that the ideas trouble the mind of a compelling enough character.
So here is young Danny Balint, played unforgettably in The Believer by the whiplike Ryan Gosling. Think of him as Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, only leaner, more delicate in features and infinitely more articulate. Danny hunches and glowers and struts and slinks through the streets of New York City, his close-cropped head buzzing with mutually incompatible versions of Jewish identity, his brain bursting with arguments about God and against God. Danny wishes with all his heart to be someone other than a young man of ideas--but it's his fate to be cerebral, which is what makes him so moving and so horrible. He is a yeshiva-educated Jew who wants to live in the blood, as a Nazi activist.
Now, I've hesitated to write about The Believer, in part because I happen to know Henry Bean and in part because I was never sure when the picture would get into theaters. The Believer won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance festival in 2001 but then failed to find a theatrical distributor. (According to The Independent magazine, the phones stopped ringing after a preview audience at the Simon Wiesenthal Center felt The Believer might be bad for the Jews.) The filmmakers decided to go straight to cable and signed a deal with Showtime, which announced a television premiere in late September 2001--not a propitious air date, as it turned out, for a movie about an intense guy in New York City who plans to blow things up. But since Showtime has gotten around to presenting The Believer (in March of this year), I want to say a few words about the picture, now that audiences may at last face Danny in the public space of a movie theater.
Those who choose to do so will discover that The Believer starts in two locations at once, on the subway and inside Danny's skull. In the exterior setting, Danny is a twentyish skinhead, who when first seen is methodically harassing a bespectacled, yarmulke-wearing youth on the elevated train. Danny crowds the prey, crunching his Doc Marten boots all over the guy's wing-tips. Then, when the victim behaves like a victim--avoiding eye contact, fleeing the subway at the first opportunity--Danny pursues him onto the street. "Hit me! Please!" Danny howls. The less resistance he gets, the more enraged he becomes, till he stomps the timid, book-toting Jew.
Meanwhile, through cross-cutting, we also get access to Danny's memory, in which he's forever the pale student with big eyeglasses. We see Danny in the yeshiva at about age 12--just another of the boys, except for his rage against the patriarch Abraham, who was willing to slaughter his own son as an offering to God. None of the standard, moralized readings of this tale will assuage Danny. He insists that Abraham's sacrifice made the Jews into a race of willing victims, perpetually crushed by a God who holds them to be worthless.
You see why this stuff can make people nervous. It's not just that Danny takes Jewish self-hatred to its ultimate conclusion--he takes it there theologically, argumentatively, with a foul-mouthed, spray-the-room exuberance that will offend every moviegoer. Zionists, for example, will object when Danny says the Israelis aren't real Jews--they have soil, and the kind of manliness a fascist like him can respect. Supporters of the Palestinians, on the other hand, will cringe to hear Danny denounce the massacre at Sabra and Shatila. (With friends like this...)
But I'm making The Believer sound like a string of provocations, and it's not. It's a modernist tragedy, meaning one that's realized with equal measures of sympathy and irony. When Danny tries to enlist in an "above-ground, intellectually serious fascist movement," its leaders (Theresa Russell and Billy Zane) welcome his anti-Semitic tirades but dismiss his offer to kill Jews. Instead, to his horror, they make him into a fundraiser, with a suit and a cell phone. When Danny hooks up with a dreamily masochistic young Aryan (Summer Phoenix), it isn't long before she decides to study Hebrew, hangs a mezuzah on the door and starts wearing ankle-length dresses. Yes, hit me! Please! The harder Danny tries to be a Nazi, the more ineluctably he's a Jew.
I begin to think of Hazel Motes, the protagonist of Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood, who is a Christian preacher in spite of himself. According to O'Connor, Hazel's integrity lies in his not being able to rid himself of Jesus: "Does one's integrity ever lie in what he is not able to do? I think that usually it does, for free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man." In the same way, many wills conflict in Danny, with that of the faithful Jew refusing to die away. At one point, in fact, Danny secretly wraps a prayer shawl around his torso, much as Hazel wound himself in penitential barbed wire. Then, like any good yeshiva boy, Danny lets the fringes dangle beneath the T-shirt, which in his case is emblazoned with a swastika.
It's good to see someone take such care with his appearance. Most American movies these days are little more than fashion statements--and yet the characters are shockingly thoughtless about their clothes.
So we come to Al Pacino's leather jacket.
It plays quite a prominent role in Insomnia, a movie whose premise goes like this: Someone in the remote town of Nightmute, Alaska, has murdered a high school girl. The victim clearly knew her killer, and the local population is neither large nor highly mobile. Nevertheless, the Nightmute police feel too humble to work the case on their own. They send for help--though not from Nome or Anchorage, nor even from Seattle, Portland or San Francisco. They go all the way to Los Angeles, whose police department immediately agrees to dispatch two of its top detectives, despite their being under investigation by Internal Affairs.
I tried explaining all this to my friend Ben Sonnenberg, who seemed puzzled. "But what about Eddie Murphy?" he asked. "Was he too busy to come from Detroit?"
Reassure yourself, Ben. Eddie has answered the call, in effect if not in person. That's the point of the leather jacket.
It's hard to imagine Pacino's character, Detective Will Dormer, going out and buying this item for himself. It's a little too heavy for the climate in LA, a little too pimp-chic for a cop who's supposed to be an agonized moralist. With its supple new leather, the jacket looks more like something that was recently issued to the guy--which, of course, it was. The filmmakers decided this was just the thing to signal "cool, hip and streetwise" for Pacino. In much the same way, they imposed a symbolic costume on the murderer, Robin Williams. Although the script says he's vain and attracted to luxury, Williams is draped in something that says "phony, out-of-touch intellectual": a corduroy jacket.
Don't worry, by the way, that I've revealed the killer's identity. You'd be able to figure it out for yourself, by process of elimination, no more than ten minutes into the movie, which is about twenty minutes before Williams comes into the open. The mystery of Insomnia has nothing to do with discovering he's the murderer and everything to do with his somehow being able to deliver a restrained, nuanced, convincingly chilling performance. There's Robin Williams, taking care of business, while everybody else is goofing off.
Pacino behaves ridiculously, as he typically does when the script's a laugh. Hilary Swank has no such history of egregious mugging; but now, in the role of a local cop, she bounces onto the screen like a young squirrel on its first day of acorn school. Who allowed these performances, or maybe even encouraged them? Christopher Nolan, that's who. He was so intent on dolloping pizazz onto this story that he didn't notice the visual syrup was drowning a six-inch stack of toaster waffles.
I'm sure Insomnia will have its champions, even so. They'll claim the picture is About Something, namely the importance of never, ever breaking the rules. That's the one, big idea of Insomnia. As we may learn from life and better movies, it's wrong.
Screening Schedule: Speaking of people who broke rules, Lynne Sachs has made a fine, artful documentary about the Catonsville Nine, the war protesters who walked into a Selective Service office in 1968, grabbed as many files as they could carry and burned them with homemade napalm. She's got the surviving protesters down on film, Philip and Daniel Berrigan among them; and she's got other interested parties too, including the district attorney who prosecuted the Nine and one of the jurors who convicted them. The juror weeps now, out of respect for their courage. The film is titled Investigation of a Flame, and it's showing in New York at Anthology Film Archives, May 29-31. The distributor is First Run/Icarus Films, (800) 876-1710.