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.
If you're in the mood to see great acting, I recommend that you watch Aurélien Recoing get caught in a lie in Laurent Cantet's Time Out. As Vincent, a French management consultant who is secretly unemployed--playing hooky from life, let's say--Recoing is forever being asked why he's hanging around in office
towers, motel lobbies or parking lots. The truth is, he's dawdling: killing his own time, or spying on the way other people use theirs. But since dawdling in the modern world is a category of malfeasance, midway in seriousness between a theft and a threat--theft of an organization's private airspace, the threat to use that space without management approval--Vincent must continually justify his mere presence. Each time he fails to do so, Recoing brilliantly shows you how Vincent is a little slow with the first words of his excuse, a little too quick with the rest. You can see the lie form behind his pale, high forehead.
That expanse of flesh seems transparent not only to you but also to the security guards who challenge Vincent. They see how a flush tints his otherwise bloodless, round-cheeked face; they read the effect as shame (which it is, in part). But Recoing's ability to alight cleanly on each emotion, as a dancer hits the mark, is only the beginning of the marvels he performs in this role. What's really impressive is the talent he displays for playing simultaneously to his fellow actors and to the audience, revealing aspects of Vincent's makeup to you even as he conceals them from the people onscreen. The security guards often fail to guess what you do, that the flush comes from anger as much as shame; they seldom hear the note of outrage that wavers beneath Vincent's thin-lipped patter.
Of course, this two-faced performance owes a lot to Cantet, the writer-director of Time Out. He's the one who plotted out the successive views of Vincent, so the man's emotional truth would accumulate even as his lies pile up. But it's Recoing who is so good at making Vincent lie badly. One moment, you'd think his eyes opened onto the rear wall of his skull; a second later, and the pupils are glittering near the surface, in slits like two flesh wounds. All the while, as his mind visibly shoots forward and retreats, Vincent keeps pouring out the words, hopelessly, uselessly, as if he wanted and deserved to be caught.
Maybe he talks so volubly because words are all he has: the words of a corporate functionary, backed up by a cell phone, a car and a carefully tended dark suit. Time Out begins with Vincent using most of the above assets in one of those rare and ingenious opening shots that instantly define a movie. You see a field of nocturnal mist, which gradually proves to be a fogged-up windshield. Vincent has been sleeping behind the wheel. As the shot continues and dawn breaks, a bare landscape takes shape beyond the membrane of the car. Inside the automotive bubble, Vincent picks up the cell phone. Yes, he tells his wife smoothly, the meeting went well--so well that now he has to stay over. He probably won't be back tonight. Miss you, too.
The windshield has cleared. Outside, the world's activities have begun. Inside, Vincent is insulated (though none too well) from the first of the film's challenges. He isn't supposed to be parked where kids get off the school bus? Then he'll drive elsewhere. As you eventually learn, Vincent likes to drive.
We'll get to that revelation. But for now, since I've told you some of the plot, it's probably more important to acknowledge the true story that underlies Time Out. You may remember the newspaper account: For years, a man in France said goodbye to his family each morning and drove off to a nonexistent job. He spent his time sitting around in parking lots and coffee shops; he got his money by floating loans, which he never repaid. When the debts grew so pressing that exposure was at hand, the man took a gun and ended the imposture; he killed his family but, though he tried, not himself.
Cantet has transformed this violent reality by draining it of almost all physical menace. Granted, in one memorable scene Vincent seems on the verge of killing his wife (Karin Viard), but his method is the relatively passive one of abandonment in the snow. Also, at the climax of Time Out, Vincent raises his voice and storms clumsily through the house; but despite that, Cantet doesn't go in for explosive denouements. He's far more interested in the normal texture of this abnormal story. Cantet wants to explore the corridors of a glass office tower, to sink into the squared-off armchairs in a motel lobby, to follow a strip of road wherever it leads. As much as Vincent's anger and anxiety keep mounting throughout the film, the shots and rhythms remain coolly composed.
When filmmaking is this precise and intelligent, critics habitually tack on a third adjective: dull. It's a judgment I was tempted to make whenever Vincent got together with his family. Those scenes felt obligatory, with Vincent trapped among the overbearing father, the surly son, the increasingly frustrated wife. If I had to live with this bunch of stock characters, I too might sleep in my car. But Cantet's vision of domestic life, though uninspired, makes up only a minor part of Time Out, whose patient and meticulous technique pulled me in whenever the film turned to a more congenial subject: criminality.
Vincent's most important relationship in Time Out is not with his wife but with a lean, wolf-faced smuggler named Jean-Michel (Serge Livrozet), who strikes up an acquaintance after catching him sleeping in that motel lobby. There's something wickedly avuncular about Jean-Michel, with his low, low voice and ironic smile. You could take him home to dinner (and wind up feeling like a guest in your own home). Jean-Michel leads Vincent into a world of darkened rooms full of cardboard boxes and darkened roads that slip across borders--a world that temporarily appeals to him.
It's during this time with Jean-Michel that Vincent makes the revelation I mentioned earlier, explaining how a love of driving cost him his job. When on the road to a business meeting, Vincent used to ignore the turnoff and simply keep going; he would drive on for one more exit, then for two, until he eventually stopped showing up at all and was fired. Jean-Michel gives Vincent the courtesy of accepting this story as a confession of good sense. And from what Time Out shows us of the business world, Jean-Michel is right.
What do people talk about in all those meetings? At one point, Cantet has Vincent spy on a conference-table gathering, so we can hear the presentation for ourselves: public-private strategic infrastructure business-model development. Nothing that you could smell or taste or pick up in your hand. Who wouldn't prefer the hum of wheels, the sound of the radio, to these endless polysyllables? And when you consider the cloudiness of this language of global trade, why shouldn't Vincent's old school chums believe him when he says he can take their cash into Switzerland and invest it in, ah, something or other? Some of these buddies all but force their money onto him. After all, he speaks so well.
Cantet's previous film, Human Resources, was similarly skeptical about the modern arts of management. That picture told the story of a young man from a working-class family who comes home from school to work in his father's factory. The father labors on the shop floor; the son, with his college education, hunches over a computer. I admired the way Cantet dramatized the homecoming, with congratulations quickly giving way to suspicion and resentment. (Wear a tie to work, and your favorite old bar might no longer be so comfortable.) But once the film's story kicked in, with the workers threatening to go on strike and the son being maneuvered to lie to them, Human Resources turned into more of a diagram than a movie. You could have taken a piece of graph paper and plotted the characters' relationships. In fact, that's what Cantet seemed to have done.
But there's nothing schematic about Time Out. However neat or decorous the storytelling, the movie respects the oddness of Vincent's refusal; which is to say, it reveals something of the oddness of the normal world by letting Vincent haunt it from a slight remove. And in Aurélien Recoing, the movie has a perfectly bland-looking Vincent whose every breath is charged with mystery. Recoing is your boring neighbor from down the hall, suddenly glimpsed doing the perp walk on the 10 o'clock news. He's Bartleby for the age of the euro; he's what you see in the mirror on Monday morning, before your eyelids mercifully ungum.
Recoing is an actor playing a character who is himself onstage full-time. He's in every frame of Time Out; and to every frame, he contributes something of genius.
Let's start with the Morlocks. In the new film version of The Time Machine, the subterranean carnivores are not merely apelike, as in the H.G. Wells novel. They're Planet of the Apes-like, with mighty deltoids and flowing locks; and that's only the beginning of their nightmarish iconography. These Morlocks cancerous lizards. With their tucked-up, skeletal noses and dead-white complexions, they also bear a striking resemblance to Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera. I have seldom seen such redundant hideousness designed into movie monsters. If kitchen sinks made you squeamish, the Morlocks would have them installed.
The above-ground, vegetarian Eloi also carry a surplus of associations onto the screen, as many as DreamWorks pictures can drape over their tattooed frames. When time traveler Alexander Hartdegen (Guy Pearce) wakes up among the Eloi more than 800,000 years in the future, he finds them to be a bronze-skinned, cowrie-decorated tribe, not unlike the islanders in the Murnau-Flaherty Tabu. Their choral music seems to have been passed down through the millennia from Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Their dwellings, made of wooden ribs and built high above a river gorge, look like a South Seas cultural project by Renzo Piano. Apparently, these noble savages read Architectural Record; and to prove it, they have exquisite taste in home furnishings. H.G. Wells described the Eloi as squatting in temples that were falling into ruin, as if they were the degenerate inheritors of a Greco-Roman golden age; but our current Eloi live amid the homespun textiles and décor of a pricey Caribbean resort. I almost expected them to lay out for Hartdegen little bottles of shampoo and conditioner from The Body Shop, bearing labels that say "Trade, Not Aid."
By now, it should be plain that a certain clarity of conception--a dialectical rigor, you might say--has been deemed useless by the makers of this new Time Machine. Writer John Logan and director Simon Wells have not even maintained the separation of nocturnal and diurnal habits; though the Morlocks are said to be creatures of the night, they in fact carry out a raid in full daylight. This disrespect for the source novel doesn't make The Time Machine a bad movie--I'll get to those failings in a minute--but it does point up how attitudes have changed between 1895 and today.
As is well-known to anyone with a decent respect for Fabianism, H.G. Wells used The Time Machine to project into the future his ideas about nineteenth-century class struggle. His Eloi were the feeble descendants of aristocrats, lovely to look at but frivolous and idle. The Morlocks were the offspring of workers, condemned to dwell and labor brutishly underground. The twist in Wells's story was that the workers, by virtue of their know-how, had come to dominate the aristocrats. The twist in Wells's psychology was that this socialist, born into the very-lower middle class and self-educated out of penury, gave his sympathy to the Eloi and wrote of the Morlocks as subhuman.
Of course, this was just the beginning of The Time Machine's meanings. As the story spread from H.G. Wells to the movies, the 1927 Metropolis gave us not only the struggle between aristocrats-in-the-clouds and proles-in-the-mines but also two other head-on collisions: between modern science and Gothic magic, between the sluttish New Woman and the peasant-village Madonna. The movie resolved these many contradictions through a final handshake between Capital and Labor--a gesture so unsatisfactory that it hinted at stronger convictions left unexpressed. They would emerge soon enough. When screenwriter Thea von Harbou got around to defining her politics, she proved that H.G. Wells's fable could also appeal to a National Socialist.
Speeding back toward the present, we discover more and more uses for Wells's invention. Passing quickly over its appearance in the 1960 movie by George Pal--in retrospect, a notably faithful adaptation of The Time Machine--we find the device turning into a tool of manhood. In the 1967 Star Trek episode "City on the Edge of Forever," written by Harlan Ellison, time travel provided an occasion for the heroic renunciation of love, as tragically enacted by the last fictional character capable of this choice: Capt. James T. Kirk. In Nicholas Meyers's 1979 Time After Time the machine became the vehicle for a slasher picture--a rather charming, romantic one--in which a timid H.G. Wells bested the manly Jack the Ripper.
Then came the juvenile time travelers. Terry Gilliam gave us a schoolboy's vision of universal corruption in Time Bandits (1981). Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale encouraged their adult audience to revert to school-days nostalgia (and Oedipal longings) in the 1985 Back to the Future. And after that, as if to confirm Nietzsche's worst fears about the shape of time, we began to get the recapitulations. Just recently, we saw another Metropolis (this one splendidly animated, by Taro Rin) and another kind of unhinged-in-time slasher movie, Christopher Nolan's Memento, which by a strange coincidence starred Guy Pearce, the pilot of the latest Time Machine.
As I think of Pearce, the wooziness of the current film is plain to see in his performance. When he first appears, he behaves like the funny professor in a Disney preteen movie, wiping the blackboard with his jacket sleeve, blinking over the top of his little eyeglasses and letting his marvelously sculpted jaw hang slack. But then, very quickly, the filmmakers turn him into a tragic, obsessed figure, who clenches that jaw and can't be bothered to shave. The reason: His fiancée dies right before his eyes (and ours), not once but twice.
Again, I note the redundancy, which is particularly important here because it is the filmmakers' own invention, and their reason for sending Hartdegen into the future. H.G. Wells saw no such need to explain his protagonist's interest in time travel; curiosity was motive enough. But he assumed his readers would want to know how time travel might be possible, and so he devoted his whole first chapter to speculation about the fourth dimension. In 2002, Simon Wells and John Logan see no need to explain time travel (and certainly wouldn't frontload their movie with math). But they assume their audience will want to know why anyone would go to the trouble of inventing a machine, and so they kill off a character. To make sure that we get it, they even kill her again.
They treat us as if we were H.G. Wells's Eloi: mild, incurious and stupid.
And here's where the new Time Machine has its own dialectical twist. In the Logan-Wells version, the Morlocks are both bestial and dangerously cerebral. (I know that doesn't make sense, but trust me. There's a very smart über-Morlock who looks just like the old rock star Edgar Winter.) That's the Aryan side of things. The viewers, meanwhile, are expected to sympathize with the Eloi, who are nice and multicultural but passive. "This is the world," they explain helplessly, and a bit self-righteously, when Hartdegen learns they're lunch for the Morlocks. "How can you do nothing?" he demands, even more self-righteously. They need someone with a bit of über-Morlock in him to revive the notion of free will. Hartdegen, the Last White Man, will teach the tourist-resort staff to resist. He will blow things up.
And now, having defined Fabianism for the year 2002, I will mention the good bits in The Time Machine. The device itself looks wonderful when it's whirring at full speed, encased in a globe of light. Sometimes, sunk within a quickly changing landscape, it even resembles a glowing eyeball. Production designer Oliver Scholl has been equally clever with the Eloi's housing--especially at night, when the cliffside shells turn into lanterns. There are also a few bright spots in the storytelling. For a minor example, I can cite a shop window that's across the street from Hartdegen's time machine. As fashions change over the years, the mannequins do a funny stop-motion dance. For a major example, I offer Orlando Jones's performance as a holographic, computerized librarian.
You may have seen Jones's long-faced drollery in such less-than-terrific movies as Evolution and The Replacements. Here, he's made to represent nothing less than the sum of all knowledge--and instead of bowing under the weight, he rises with it, giving a performance that seems to come entirely from the balls of his feet. Despite having to play a machine, he's the only human character in the movie. So long as Jones was on the screen, I felt there was a good reason for H.G. Wells to have brought out his invention in 1895--and for the Lumière brothers to have bothered, in that same year, to project their own ghosts of time past onto a cafe wall.
Screening Schedule: A time machine of another sort is now at work around the country, in a retrospective of the films of Joris Ivens. From a starting point in the European and political avant-garde of the 1920s, Ivens's cinema moved on to document (evoke, eulogize, sing) many of the most profound social and political moments of the twentieth century--and then concluded in 1988 with the astonishing A Tale of the Wind, which turned his own life story into a poem, a landscape, a philosophy. All this is now available to you in the present, March 20-28, at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center, and in the near future at cinematheques and museums in Washington, Boston, Ithaca, Cleveland, Chicago, Berkeley, Toronto and Vancouver. Watch for it: The Films of Joris Ivens: Cinema Without Borders.
Why, asked my friends and my baffled wife. Why, piped my son. Even the movie critics sitting next to me wanted to know: What perversity drove me to see Hart's War and Rollerball? Did I need to make February seem any longer?
Rollerball I can explain. The costumes looked nifty on the subway poster, LL Cool J makes me smile and Chris Klein, in Election, was an endearing goof. In other words, I'm a movie sucker. Besides, the original Norman Jewison film had represented capitalism (to use a big word) as a corrupt blood sport--and in the early weeks of the Enron scandal I felt like hearing a rant.
Would that I had listened to my colleagues, friends, soul mate and 3-year-old. Cinematically, the John McTiernan remake is a hodgepodge of jittery traveling shots that convey the excitement of blood sport by capturing whatever random objects passed before the lens. Since there were more floodlights on the set than anything else, the main thrill of Rollerball comes from learning how a police interrogation would feel if it were conducted on skateboard. The politics? Let me note that the action has been transferred to Central Asia, which offers three alien hordes for the price of one location. Mongols, Arabs and ex-Soviet miners threaten to engulf our beamish Klein, who dresses for the occasion in a red Statue of Liberty T-shirt.
As for Hart's War: When I signed up to watch Bruce Willis win World War II, I didn't know the movie's real lead would be some other actor, whom I wouldn't recognize again if he came to my place for Friday dinner and stayed the weekend. This young stick of furniture represents an untested lieutenant, who lands in a German POW camp. Willis, meanwhile, is the camp's ranking American officer, a role that he interprets as a test of endurance. He tries to get through the whole picture without once moving his face.
Mysteries lie within Hart's War. How did this setup give rise to a courtroom drama? Who decided this particular case was a good way to put American racism on trial? Why is the movie's most sensitive, complex figure a Nazi commandant? And if Bruce Willis shaves at the end of every third day, how come we never see his mug on days one or two? There must be answers to these questions, but they remain elusive, like my reasons for seeing the picture.
Actually, my reasons were all too simple. I wanted to watch something--and when I got to Monsoon Wedding, the new movie directed by Mira Nair, I at last found something good. I don't call it that just because I'd been worn down by Hart's War and Rollerball, or because (full disclosure) I'm acquainted with the co-producer. Shot in Delhi in what seems to have been a single great rush of energy, Monsoon Wedding is good because it spills over with color, music, dance, sex, rainwater, flowers, cell phones and popsicles. The actors' faces are all indelible; the characters' family dynamics, both impossible and too damned normal.
Written by Sabrina Dhawan, Monsoon Wedding is the story of four days in the family life of Lalit Verma (Naseeruddin Shah), a dyspeptic Delhi businessman whose nerves and bank account are being stretched thinner than usual by the impending marriage of his daughter Aditi (Vasundhara Das). She is about to wed Hemant (Parvin Dabas), a young engineer now living in Houston, who proves to be handsome, muscular and pleasant when he drives up the lane to the Verma house. "Hi," he says. "How are you?" Not the greeting a bride wants at her engagement party--but then, she and Hemant scarcely know each other. Amid clusters of video cameras, the arranged couple exchange rings and sweets. To answer the question: She isn't doing too well.
It seems she's in love with another man: a TV talk-show host, who's sleek and exceedingly married. But this, as it turns out, is the least of the film's concerns. Sweet-faced Aditi and easygoing Hemant function almost as the ingénues of Monsoon Wedding, occupying the middle distance with bland pleasantness while the rest of the frame fills up with the real characters.
There's a funny and touching couple, first of all: the Verma family's wistfully beautiful servant, Alice (Tilotama Shome), and the man in whom she dares to take a romantic interest, the comically energetic wedding planner P.K. Dubey. Played by Vijay Raaz, Dubey is the movie's most vivid figure, and a character who deserves a share of screen immortality. All ears, Adam's apple and polka-dot scarf--the sign of a fragile vanity--he starts out spouting double talk into his cell phone, proceeds in nervous animation to devour the wedding's decorative marigolds and never once slows his pace till Alice brings him down, bump, on his knees.
Next there's a steamy couple: cousin Ayesha (Neha Dubey), a teenage bump-and-grind expert in a tight blue dress, and Rahul (Randeep Hooda), a college student from Sydney, Australia. Called "bloody number-one most stupid duffer" by his own father, Rahul has shown up at the wedding with his broken hand in a cast, out of which sticks a painfully erect thumb. And yet, despite this obvious protrusion, Rahul waits almost till the last second to make his move on a more-than-willing Ayesha.
Finally, there's a tragic couple: Aditi's unmarried cousin Ria (Shefali Shetty), who wants to become a writer, and silver-haired Tej Puri (Rajat Kapoor), the de facto head of the family. Although the bitter history between these two must go undisclosed in this review, the audience will have no trouble guessing their secret. The important question is, What will Lalit do about this matter, once it's revealed to him?
Though dramatic in itself, Lalit's dilemma is all the more striking as the turning point of a movie about people we might lazily term Westernized. This big Punjabi family speaks English half the time and drives the same cars you might see in Connecticut. Aditi's lover, the TV host, appeals rhetorically to "our ancient culture," even while he's trashing it; Dubey's mother interrupts a twilight, touristic view of Delhi to chatter about the day's stock prices. But these characters are modern, not homogenized. Lalit's problem takes a specifically Indian form when he's forced to choose between two responsibilities: to Ria, who is wounded, and to his family, which must not suffer a rift. The young not-quite-lovers, Aditi and Hemant, confront a similar choice when they have to decide not just whether to go ahead with the wedding but also who should make the decision.
But enough of problems. Monsoon Wedding is more interested in unions: wet ones, and lots of them. From an opening scene played before a wilting, semicollapsed piece of lawn architecture, the movie bounces toward a conclusion in a tent, which holds up surprisingly well and has room for more revelers than expected. I think there's space for you, too.
Much admired by French critics and now opening in the United States, Esther Kahn is one of those movies you decode more than watch. Outwardly, it's a costume drama, set in London during the gaslight era, about a fiercely odd Jewish girl from the East End. Though her home is warm and convivial, Esther (Summer Phoenix) feels so estranged that her family sometimes looks transparent to her. A hard-core rejectionist from birth, she won't read, won't court properly with boys, won't earn her living normally. Her manner is blank, except for the occasional outburst of violence.
So she becomes an actress--which leads us to the inner story.
Destined for the theater but completely untutored, Esther comes under the protection of an older Jewish performer, Nathan (Ian Holm), who volunteers to teach her to act. In the most absorbing section of the film, we watch the wily Holm instruct Summer Phoenix in how to build a rapport with the audience by acknowledging their presence, feeding off the emotions that run across the footlights. This is, of course, exactly what a film actress cannot do.
It's a familiar game, this ploy of dramatizing the actress as she dramatizes the character; but Esther Kahn plays it to the limit, erecting the barrier of a movie screen between the two figures. Esther, a young woman who doesn't feel a part of life, becomes an allegory of Summer Phoenix, who really isn't in the room with us, though she soaks up our desires anyway.
The distinction comes up early: When Esther goes to a medical clinic for a checkup, a voiceover narrator recites a description of the character, while the camera provides us with our first series of close-ups of the actress who stands in for her.
Later, as if to extend the allegory, the movie has Esther apprentice herself in sex to a drama critic--a necessary step, according to the plot, since sex will supposedly fill her with the emotion she lacks. The instruction doesn't seem to work. Although Esther moves upward in her career, ultimately taking the lead in Hedda Gabler, Summer Phoenix goes on behaving like a blank, as befits a projected image.
Forgive me for foisting off so much interpretation. I do it only because Esther's success in the theater would be inexplicable at face value; from what we can see, she's as expressive in her roles as a pair of socks. (In fact, the movie refuses to let us see Esther act. Whenever she steps on stage, the sound drops out and the action goes into slow motion.) Nor is there any good reason why Esther could attract and hold the attention of the drama critic--except that he's played by Fabrice Desplechin and therefore serves as a stand-in for the director and co-writer of Esther Kahn, Arnaud Desplechin. The intangible shadow-woman on the screen is Desplechin's creation. He loves her, guides her and will ultimately abandon her. Or perhaps he'll be the one to be abandoned.
Maybe this sounds dry. It's not. Arnaud Desplechin finds startling beauty wherever he turns his camera: in the boarded-up windows of the East End (as closed to the world as Esther), in a framed view of a tree (an alien apparition in Esther's life), in the waves of the Thames as they carry Esther toward her future. The re-creation of the period is almost hypnotically vivid, and the large supporting cast (notably the actors who play the family) build up a wonderful sense of community, which Esther can't enter. Everything here is precise, intelligent and slightly maddening. You want to take Summer Phoenix by the shoulders and shake her, to make her act in this world.
But then, doing the job for you, she begins to strike her own face. It takes a long time before the allegory, and the actress, turn on themselves--but when it happens, Esther Kahn delivers an unforgettable, visceral blow.
When The Majestic was about to be released--it's the movie, you will recall, in which Jim Carrey plays a blacklisted screenwriter who suffers from amnesia--someone asked me to tote up the other films that touch on the Hollywood inquisition. I eliminated the allegories, such as Johnny Guitar, and the pictures that deal with other branches of show business (the music industry in Sweet Smell of Success, television in A King in New York and The Front) and calculated that all of two features--The Way We Were and Guilty by Suspicion--pay attention to the blacklist.
The number is also two with The Majestic included.
Talk about suffering from amnesia! Of course the movie industry feigned ignorance when the witch hunt was on--among its other unmentionable traits, the blacklist was illegal--and you can see how a certain forgetfulness was convenient afterward. But as Hollywood moved into the 1970s and '80s, with new corporate masters taking over the studios and old decision-makers dying off, the subject of the blacklist might have seemed ripe for exploiting. The industry has always loved to dramatize itself; and here, lying unexplored, was an episode that had convulsed all of Hollywood, and much of America with it.
Two films--if you feel generous toward Carrey, three. But now the count has risen significantly with One of the Hollywood Ten, the most honest movie of its very small group and arguably the best. It is not, however, an American picture. To our shame, it has taken a Welsh writer-director, Karl Francis, and producers based in Britain and Spain to film the true story of a blacklisted couple, Herbert Biberman and Gale Sondergaard, and their making of that remarkable movie, Salt of the Earth.
Since even Nation readers might be unaware of these events--and since truthfulness is a large part of Francis's merit--here's a quick synopsis:
Biberman was called before HUAC in 1947, among the committee's first group of unfriendly witnesses. Until that time his work as a writer and director had been so sparse, and so lackluster, that no one could have rationally accused him of transmitting ideology through the movies. That he had an ideology was unquestionable; Biberman was a committed Communist. But his greatest distinction was his marriage to Sondergaard, a hard-working, Oscar-winning actress.
Citing his First Amendment rights, Biberman refused to testify before HUAC, whereupon he was charged with contempt of Congress and sent to prison. When Sondergaard insisted on standing by him, she too was blacklisted. She found herself, upon his release, running a household of the dual unemployed.
It was at this point that their friends and fellow blacklistees Michael Wilson and Paul Jarrico came up with the idea of making an independent film about a labor uprising in New Mexico. The members of Local 890 of the Mine-Mill Workers, most of them Mexican-American, had gone on strike against Empire Zinc, demanding the same pay and conditions as Anglo workers received. The company's response was to get an injunction against the union, forbidding the miners from picketing. But the injunction said nothing about the miners' wives. In a brave and ingenious improvisation, the women came forward to walk the line, and did it so effectively that Empire Zinc finally settled.
Wilson turned this episode into the screenplay for Salt of the Earth. Jarrico took on the producer's duties, and Biberman signed on as director. Sondergaard had expected to play the lead--she was the cooperative's only bankable property--but at Biberman's request she stepped aside in favor of a Mexican actress, Rosaura Revueltas. Most of the other parts, including the male lead, were also cast with an eye for authenticity (and budgetary restraint), with the people of Local 890 playing themselves.
I said that One of the Hollywood Ten is a rare movie. Salt of the Earth is unique. It would have stood alone in its era just for having been made by movie industry veterans, but shot on location and acted by a largely nonprofessional cast. But, even more extraordinary, Salt of the Earth was a story about the problems of Mexican-American workers, as told by a Mexican-American woman. You'd have trouble finding such a movie today, when independent filmmaking is well established in America. Salt of the Earth was released in 1954.
Of course, neither unique nor pioneering is a synonym for good. And though the filmmakers faced extraordinary hardships, those, too, must remain external to any judgment of Salt of the Earth. The government deported Rosaura Revueltas in the midst of production, discouraged labs from processing the film, accused the crew of wanting to spy on atomic secrets at Los Alamos, kept theaters from booking the completed Salt of the Earth and warned projectionists away from showing it. This was an impressive show of force to mount against one little movie; but the harassment, in itself, doesn't justify what you see on the screen.
Biberman and his many collaborators justified Salt of the Earth. They managed to imbue the film with the feelings of a living community: at house parties and on picket lines, in the saloon and the church. Scenes percolate with the natural interplay of friends and neighbors, giving rise to a barely suppressed boisterousness. (The ruckus breaks into the open after the women are arrested for picketing. They mount a protest in their cell, with undisguised glee.) The ease of the group interaction makes up for the occasional awkwardness in individual performances--an awkwardness that at any rate has its own charm. And no excuses are needed for Revueltas, with her finely nuanced movements toward self-assertion; for the pace of the film, which keeps building and building; or for Biberman's eye, which seems to have been delighted with every face, landscape feature and stick of furniture in New Mexico.
To the eyes of present-day viewers, who may be accustomed to strains of neorealism developed everywhere from Italy to Iran, Salt of the Earth looks surprisingly good. It is not a based-on-a-true-story movie but something more valuable: the chief American prototype for those films that are simultaneously fiction and documentary. As for the virtue of its uniqueness: Doesn't a special honor accrue to the one film to have done something that was well worth doing?
I believe One of the Hollywood Ten has earned a similar distinction--though its internal, cinematic merits are entirely different. That's as it should be. The two films take entirely different approaches to their medium.
Biberman and his partners made a movie that barely acknowledges the existence of the entertainment business; the only evidence of pop culture in Salt of the Earth is a radio, bought on the installment plan. One of the Hollywood Ten, by contrast, reminds you at every turn that you're watching a movie, and that movies are (among other things) a business and a site of ideological contest. Francis opens his film with a prologue set in 1937, in which he tosses up two opposing forms of movie politics: the opening in New York City of Triumph of the Will, and the announcement by Gale Sondergaard (in the midst of the Academy Awards broadcast) of the formation of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. Once Francis jumps into 1947, he continues this theme, showing the HUAC hearings as newsreel fodder (which they were). Everybody in One of the Hollywood Ten is playing for the camera and the microphone.
It's fitting, then, that Francis's movie should feature three star performances. The biggest of them is Jeff Goldblum's, as Biberman. Much of the usual Goldblum shtick is in evidence: the talking with dark eyes unfocused, the bursting forth of little phrases after unpredictable, Miles Davis pauses. But, also as usual, Goldblum feels his way deep into the character. He shows us Biberman as a chronic empathizer, someone who's always draping his big hands reassuringly over anyone he talks to. The voice is low, patient, thoughtful; and then, when Biberman doesn't get his way, he jumps without transition to a full bellow.
Greta Scacchi, as Gale Sondergaard, makes good use of a certain brittleness in her screen personality. Here she's playing a Hollywood star of the old school--a woman with perfectly groomed vowels, who keeps her well-powdered face turned toward the key light in any room--which allows her to find authentic feeling, even gutsiness, within her pose. But the movie's biggest star turn, the one that steals One of the Hollywood Ten, is Angela Molina's performance as Rosaura Revueltas. Molina looks older than Revueltas did in Salt of the Earth; whereas Revueltas had smooth, freckled features, Molina's face is lined and sunken. When Molina begins to play Esperanza, the central character in Salt of the Earth, her eyes take on the outsize look of hunger. And the voice! Molina puts a weariness, and a wariness, all her own into Esperanza's lines, using intonations that cut into your bones.
One of the Hollywood Ten thrives on these performances, and on Francis's fascination with movies themselves--how they're made, how they work on their audiences. (In one of the picture's truest moments, Biberman bubbles over with enthusiasm at his own cleverness, talking about the best way to shoot and edit Salt of the Earth.) Where the movie strays from these strengths, it also falters. Among its several glaring faults, One of the Hollywood Ten gives us an FBI agent who is so monotonally nasty that he seems to have strayed in from a bus-and-truck tour of Les Miz, and a Gale Sondergaard who is indomitably firm, except when she's not. When her husband tells her she won't play the lead in Salt of the Earth--her husband, who wouldn't have gotten to direct the picture without her intervention--she needs only a brief walk on the beach to calm her down. And, of course, there's music on the beach. There's music everywhere in One of the Hollywood Ten, poured out of a can of creamed corn.
This is merely to say that no one has yet made a masterpiece about the Hollywood blacklist. Karl Francis has made a good, intelligent movie about the subject, and a largely truthful one. Let's see somebody try to top him.
One of the Hollywood Ten has just been shown in the New York Jewish Film Festival, presented by The Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Scattered chunks of films littered the theaters this holiday season. Except for The Royal Tenenbaums, which I've told you about, there wasn't a whole movie to be found. Or, to speak more precisely, no movie except The Royal Tenenbaums gave me the impression of wholeness, by which I mean the pleasure that arises when the mind can play back and forth through a picture, discovering how the details enrich one another.
No doubt I value this pleasure so much because I've been trained, as a critic, to look for it. Surrealists, post-structuralists and the average moviegoer do not. Even so, I believe that when artists aspire to wholeness, they put into their work a kind of sustained intelligence that we might call integrity, care or love. When I claim that this quality is missing from most movies nowadays, I of course say almost nothing. Maybe a slightly higher percentage of today's films are hash, compared to the run of productions in the 1930s; but that's for the cliometricians to decide. The critic's challenge is to find some response to the present year-end Oscar contenders, when there's no object of criticism among them.
Should I solve the problem by jumping outside the film world? Then, from a safe distance, I could belabor the politics of Black Hawk Down for being simple-minded, and the politics of Iris for being absent. Many useful comments could be made on these subjects. They just wouldn't be useful to someone who already reads The Nation.
So I suppose I'll have to do what moviegoers have always done: ignore the pictures and watch the stars. I won't talk about The Majestic and Ali, Monster's Ball and A Beautiful Mind. The subjects of this column will be Jim Carrey, Will Smith, Halle Berry and Jennifer Connelly. Let me begin with Connelly, who in A Beautiful Mind has finally achieved recognition as an actress, and in so doing has given the film a large part of its merit.
As you may know, A Beautiful Mind offers a loose approximation of the story of John Nash, a highly gifted mathematician who has struggled all his life against delusions and compulsions. The film, too, suffers from some mental confusion--screenwriter Akiva Goldsman and director Ron Howard somehow got Nash's biography mixed up with Jack and the Beanstalk--but once you get past that problem, you may appreciate the cleverness of this quasi-fairy tale. To begin with, the filmmakers have invented some briskly effective ways to suggest that Nash has a miraculous talent for pattern recognition, and that such a talent can be dangerous. Even when there's no order to be found, his mind keeps searching for one; and since the cold war provides great material for paranoia--the film begins in the late 1940s--Nash has a world of troubling data to sort. In a risk that's bold by Hollywood standards, the film presents its hero's blossoming delusions as if they were real--that is, as he would experience them. You're well into the story before you can sift the facts from the hallucinations, a process that's made compelling by Russell Crowe's performance in the lead. Awkward, shuffling, aggressive, witty, exasperating and vulnerable, he's altogether credible as someone who thinks in abstractions for a living.
But back to Connelly. She plays Alicia Larde, the woman who courts, marries and helps to rescue Nash. The filmmakers turn A Beautiful Mind into her story, almost as much as it is her husband's, and that's as it should be. Alicia is the one who gets scared witless, calls in the shrinks, strives to keep the household together and howls in the bathroom at 2 am. Connelly deserves full credit for carrying off the role.
It's a credit that's long been denied her. Although she's done some good work in smaller productions--Keith Gordon's Waking the Dead, Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream--Connelly has suffered till now from the Elizabeth Taylor syndrome. Like Taylor, she started young in show business and was quickly turned into a physical commodity, cast for her dark hair, blue eyes, smooth face and a buxom figure that she exposed very freely, arousing both sexual interest and condescension in a single gesture. The condescension came all the more quickly because Connelly, like Taylor, seems submerged in her beauty. It tends to separate her from other actors, as a rare fish is held apart in an aquarium, with the result (among other things) that she's a bad choice for comedy. Connelly can play at being amused by someone, but she isn't funny in herself--in contrast, for example, to her near-contemporary Shannon Elizabeth, a wonderfully silly person who shares her looks like a good joke.
Connelly has so far been incapable of such lightness; but she's right at home with the intensity of suffering that's called for in melodrama. Now her reputation is taking an upward turn similar to Taylor's at the time of Suddenly, Last Summer and Butterfield 8. Heaven knows, I don't want to go on to Cleopatra; but as someone who respects the tradition of melodrama, I think American cinema would be stronger if producers created more roles for Jennifer Connelly.
Having just seen Monster's Ball, I will also say the same for Halle Berry. She, too, has based her reputation on being absurdly gorgeous, with this distinction: Berry treats her looks like a loaded gun, which she can and will use. Of course, the danger varies; there was a lot of it in Bulworth but not much, somehow, in The Flintstones. Now, in Monster's Ball, the sense of risk suddenly leaps to a higher order.
Berry plays a wife and mother in a present-day Southern town--wife to a man on death row, mother to a boy who weighs 180 pounds and has not yet reached puberty. Through a series of catastrophes--or perhaps I should say wild coincidences--she eventually finds herself on the sofa late at night with Billy Bob Thornton, the racist white prison guard who led her husband to the electric chair. Grief, fatigue and booze are weighing heavily on her. She needs to wriggle free of them; everything that's still alive in her demands it. And so, in a scene that becomes a tour de force, she laughs in reminiscence about her husband, insists to herself that she's been a good mother, philosophizes starkly about the lives of black men in America and ultimately pours herself into Thornton's lap, demanding, "Make me feel good."
The screenwriters of Monster's Ball, Milo Addica and Will Rokos, might easily have based this scene on an acting-class exercise. A pair of students are assigned random emotions and must then improvise their way through them, making up the transitions as they go. What Berry does with the scene, though, has no whiff of the classroom. She doesn't just bob along on the swells and troughs of her feelings; she remembers at all times that these emotions have welled up because of the stranger next to her, this oddly quiet man to whom she addresses the whole monologue. She seems half-blind when she looks at him, but only half. She pushes against his self-possession, moment by moment; and the steadier he holds, the further she plunges in.
I wish the rest of Monster's Ball could live up to this scene. There are several fine sequences in the movie, which Marc Forster has directed with admirable restraint; but the picture is entirely too eager to flatter the audience. Monster's Ball is a machine, designed to make Billy Bob Thornton think and behave just as you believe he should. By the end, there's nothing to cut the good intentions except the memory of that smoky, greasy, overpowering scene where Halle Berry risks everything. It's almost enough.
The opening fifteen minutes of Ali are so good that they, too, come close to justifying the picture. In a virtuoso montage, which shows director Michael Mann at his very best, this sequence takes young Cassius Clay up to his first fight against Sonny Liston and his declaration of allegiance to the Nation of Islam. After that, you begin to notice that four screenwriters have labored over this production. Plot points are made with the galumphing literal-mindedness of Bob interviewing Ray. What's worse, these same points, from Liston I through the Foreman match in Zaire, were touched on in the 1977 film The Greatest, written by Ring Lardner Jr., directed by Tom Gries and Monte Hellman and starring (in the role of Muhammad Ali) Muhammad Ali.
Condemned in advance to being third best, after the real-life figure and the original movie incarnation, Will Smith can do little more than look good. It's what he specializes in; I've loved him for it. Here his innate cockiness takes him a long way in the role, as does his rapper's enjoyment of Ali's rhymes. So why does he keep getting upstaged by his supporting cast: Jamie Foxx, who makes something glorious of Ali's sidekick Drew "Bundini" Brown, and Jon Voight, who lives and breathes the role of Howard Cosell? The answer, I think, is that Smith does best when he floats along at a slight remove from his scenes, commenting on the action as if he might at any moment call it a day and go home. Ali makes him earnest; and earnestness, even more than the need to mimic a living figure, makes Will Smith disappear.
I wish Jim Carrey would disappear when he becomes earnest; but instead he latches into the movie like a tick, gorging on sentiment and perpetually, monstrously sucking in more. The effect is all the worse in Frank Darabont's The Majestic for the cinematography. It turns Carrey into a pastel-colored tick.
In this insufferable fantasy about good old-fashioned movies and good old-fashioned Americans, Carrey plays a blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter who (through a wild coincidence) loses his memory and is welcomed into a small town. It's a wonderful life, except for the FBI. I needn't point out to Nation readers how The Majestic makes a hash out of the blacklist period. (Carrey figures out, in a climactic burst of inspiration, that he can plead the First Amendment before HUAC. Gee!) What really concerns me is the demotion of this anarchic genius to the status of All-American Nothing. Carrey can play comedy like nobody else alive; so why is he pushed into melodrama?
My conclusion: American cinema is taking its actors too seriously, and its actresses not seriously enough. Happy new year.