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.
Long before Carrie-Anne Moss rips open Val Kilmer's shirt and begins pounding his chest, providing him with a version of CPR that she must have learned from a Japanese drum troupe, the makers of Red Planet have resorted to their own thumpings and flailings, as if to resuscitate a film that's gone limp. It's a panic response, coming from people who have realized too late that the hookup of a radio would be a high point of their picture.
Their script has stuck Moss in a stricken spaceship that's orbiting Mars; by this point, her comrades Kilmer and Tom Sizemore have been marooned, incommunicado, on the planet's surface. So when the boys stumble upon an old circuit board in the dust, it's time for high-energy drama. "Let's do it!" shrieks Sizemore, as if he were starting the Indy 500. With a roar, guitars and drums begin pounding away on the soundtrack. Kilmer, in closeup, damn well solders a wire, sending a meteor shower's worth of sparks across the screen--at which point, back on the spaceship, Moss decides to strip down to a sleeveless T-shirt, giving us a much better view of her breasts.
I'm really grateful for the breasts. If not for them, I might have fallen asleep and missed the climactic scene, in which Kilmer performs a diagnostic check on a computer.
If only the makers of Red Planet had trusted in their story's essential schleppiness! Then, instead of giving us this lumbering, expensive beast, they might have realized the small but halfway-clever idea that's still dimly visible within: a story about the heroism-by-default of a spaceship janitor.
The character in question, a fellow named Gallagher, holds the job title of mechanical systems engineer; but to the rest of the personnel on this flight to Mars, that's like saying he's the guy who fixes the toilets. "It's high school," he remarks to a fellow civilian in the crew, after being brushed back by a swaggering NASA pilot. "They're the jocks, and we're the nerds." Just so. When he bumps into Moss--the ship's commander--on her way out of the unisex shower, Gallagher can think of nothing better to do than fumble with his fingers and blush. Later, when the outcome of the mission comes to rest on him, Moss has to give him a pep talk before he'll even get to his feet. Yet he's the guy who must save Earth from destruction and consummate a rendezvous with those breasts. What a role for Steve Buscemi! How the hell did it go to Val Kilmer?
He's good, of course. Kilmer is always good--but he's a guy who previously played Jim Morrison, Elvis and Batman. The only thing that's nerdlike about him is the hairdo he's been given for this picture, which is brushy and yellow and makes him look as if he's in crying need of a conditioner. Mind you, the premise of Red Planet is that all of Earth needs a conditioner. After these many years of environmental degradation, we've burned out our world and must colonize someplace else. Hence the desperate and very expensive project, in the year 2057, of sending Moss and her crew to Mars. Wouldn't it have been cheaper, as well as more practical, to institute a few conservation measures instead? No doubt. But humans, according to this movie, lack much capacity for self-discipline and forethought, and so must splurge on stupid but spectacular stunts. As if to prove this point, the producers have done their own splurging and hired Kilmer--the actorly equivalent of a rocket to Mars, compared with Buscemi's compost heap.
As they cast the lead, so too did they decide to ladle on the excitement: pounding guitars, sleeveless T-shirts, unmotivated shrieks. How were these choices made? I can venture a guess. The credits for Red Planet list three producers and two executive producers. This is a fairly standard aggregation in today's movie business; and with so many big shots keeping themselves busy on the picture, how could a mere idea survive? The story, written by a lone guy named Chuck Pfarrer, was almost sure to be buried alive; and into the dirt with it went a few other notions.
One of them might have involved some sexual role-play, based on the fact that the only females in the story are Moss, the shipboard computer (named Lucille) and a navigation robot called Amee. "She's my kind of girl," Gallagher says of the robot, just before it goes into killer mode. (It was designed for the Marines.) Somebody, maybe Pfarrer, seems to have wanted the nerdy Gallagher to feel ambivalent toward strong women: attracted to them when they shower, threatened by them when they turn into whirring kung-fu machines.
But since the production is at war with its own screenplay--have I mentioned that Red Planet is directed, more or less, by Antony Hoffman?--this kinky little idea is no better realized than the movie's religiosity. As far as I'm concerned, it's just as well that this latter theme gets only lip service. Ever since 2001: A Space Odyssey, Earthlings in Outer Space have sought God, and found light shows. At least Red Planet spares us that final cliché--though it still makes us listen to a lot of spiritual blather.
Those Deep Thoughts are provided by Terence Stamp, who manages to be the crew's world-famous scientist despite having abandoned rationalism. Science cannot provide the answers he craves, Stamp explains to a sweetly patient Kilmer, and so he has turned to religion. Kilmer obligingly spends the rest of the picture looking for a divine purpose--which doesn't seem so misguided, considering the level of scientific expertise around him. When the crew's biologist (Sizemore) discovers a life form on Mars, he cries out, "Nematodes!" Either he's forgotten his Linnaeus--nematodes are worms--or else the solution to God's mysteries is to be found not in Outer Space but in the pages of old sci-fi magazines. These creatures are clearly arthropods: the genre's usual bugs.
Fans of the platoon-in-space movie will want to know that the Mars scenery is furnished with the necessary rocks, peaks and ravines. Fans of Carrie-Anne Moss--meaning the adolescent boys, of whatever age, who admired The Matrix--will want to know that here, too, she gets to fly around. Not every actress is suited to antigravity; and so, until such time as Moss gets the chance to deliver a performance, I will congratulate her on giving good float.
As a memorial tribute to Vincent Canby, the "Arts & Leisure" section of the New York Times recently published half a page of excerpts of his prose, as selected by The Editors. Implacable beings of ominous name! With grim rectitude, they shaped a Canby in their image, favoring passages where he had laid down principles of the sort that should be cited only under capitalization. These were Sound Judgments.
For those of us who admired Mr. Canby (as the Times would have called him while he was alive, and as I will continue to call him, knowing how the style fit the man), soundness of judgment was in truth a part of his merit. A hard man to fool, he could distinguish mere eccentricity from the throes of imaginative compulsion, the pleasures of pop moviemaking from the achievements of film art; and when he was offered sentimentality in place of feeling, his heart didn't warm, it burned. These powers of discernment allowed him to bear with extraordinary grace the responsibility of being the Times critic. They also contributed a lot to his need for responsibility, since it was his sureness, as much as the institutional weight of the Times, that made Vincent Canby so influential.
That said, I confess I read him to laugh. At present, I can give only tin-eared approximations of his wisecracks--correct and ample quotation will become possible when someone smart decides to publish a Vincent Canby anthology--but I can hardly forget his review of Salome's Last Dance. This picture was the latest chapter in Ken Russell's phantasmagorical history of sex in the arts, or the arts in sex. Mr. Canby's lead (more or less): "As the bee is drawn to the flower, as the hammer to the nail, so Ken Russell was bound to get to Oscar Wilde."
` I also recall Mr. Canby's description of the used car that Jim Jarmusch peddled to the title characters in Leningrad Cowboys Go America. It looked, he said, as if it had been dropped from a great height. Writing about I've Heard the Mermaids Singing, a film of relentlessly life-affirming whimsy, he claimed he'd been cornered by a three-hundred-pound elf. A typically self-regarding, show-offy performance by Nicolas Cage (was it in Vampire's Kiss?) inspired him to write that other actors must enjoy working with this man about as much as they'd welcome being shut up with a jaguar. And once, when forced to think up copy about his umpteen-thousandth formula movie, he proposed that the only way to derive pleasure from such a picture would be to play a game with yourself, betting on whether you could guess what would happen next. "As you win," he wrote, "you lose."
From these few and random examples, you may conclude that Mr. Canby's principles often emerged with a deep-voiced chuckle, and that they involved matters that went far beyond the movies. Some of these concerns were political in the specific sense, as when he gave a favorable review to Alex Cox's Walker: a film that offered a burlesque insult to US supporters of the Nicaraguan contras, in government and at the Times. His concerns were also political in a broader sense. Witness the 200 words he devoted to a little African-American picture titled Love Your Mama: a heartfelt, thoroughly amateurish movie produced in Chicago by some people who had hired an industrial filmmaker to direct their script. While quietly letting his readers know that they probably would not want to watch this film, Mr. Canby conveyed a sense that real human beings, deserving of respect, had poured themselves into the project.
Of course, the best places in which to seek Mr. Canby's principles were within the films he championed. He would have earned his place in cinema history (as distinct from the annals of journalism) had he done nothing more than support Fassbinder's work. And yet I'm not surprised that The Editors found no space to reprint Mr. Canby's writings on this crucial enthusiasm. Fassbinder, like his critic, was preternaturally alert to political and social imposture, to the bitter and absurd comedy of human relationships, and also (for all his laughter) to the pain and dignity of those who go through life being pissed on. Mr. Canby recognized in Fassbinder's work all these qualities and more (such as the presence, in the person of Hanna Schygulla, of one of cinema's great fantasy objects); but these matters seem to have been judged too unruly for an "Arts & Leisure" tribute.
Now, I've been allowed to do some work for "Arts & Leisure" and have received from my editors nothing but aid and kindness. Surely the people I've dealt with at the Times would have chosen excerpts from Mr. Canby that were funnier, sharper, more challenging. So maybe, when the Times moves to memorialize somebody as one of its own, a higher level of control takes over. It's as if the paper means to show its own best face--or rather the image it wants to see in the mirror, urbane and solid--and never mind that man in the old tweed jacket.
This tendency of the institution to eclipse the individual figures prominently in a new book by another major film critic, Jonathan Rosenbaum. By "major," I mean that Rosenbaum is highly regarded by other reviewers and film academics, and that he's gained a certain public following (concentrated in Chicago, where he serves as critic for the Reader). But if you were to ask him how he fits into American film culture in particular and US society in general, he would locate himself, quite accurately, on the margins. As his friends will tell you (I hope I may count myself among them), Rosenbaum is one of the angel-headed hipsters: a sweet-natured, guileless man, wholly in love with art and wholly longing for social justice. And for these very reasons, he has become the angry man of American film criticism, as you might gather from the title of his new work, Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Conspire to Limit What Films We Can See (A Cappella, $24).
Rosenbaum argues--"argue," by the way, is one of his favorite words--that those American writers, editors and TV producers who pretend to cover film are for the most part hopelessly self-blinkered. It's in their interest to look at only those movies that the big American companies want to promote (including the so-called independent films that have been ratified by Sundance and Miramax). So journalism collaborates with commerce, instead of acting as a check on it; informed, wide-ranging criticism gets shoved to the side; films that might have seemed like news flashes from the outside world fail to penetrate our borders; and everyone excuses this situation by claiming that "the people" are getting the dumb stuff they want. Rosenbaum is enraged that moviegoers should be viewed with such contempt; he's infuriated that well-placed journalists should justify their snobbism (and laziness) by dismissing whatever films and filmmakers they don't already know about; and he's mad enough to name names.
In Movie Wars, Rosenbaum advances his arguments by means of a crabwise motion, scuttling back and forth between general observations (which are newly composed) and case studies (many of them published before, in the Reader and elsewhere). This means that some stretches of ground are covered two or three times. I don't much mind the repetition--even when the material shows up in a second new book by Rosenbaum, his excellent, unabashedly partisan monograph on Jarmusch's Dead Man (BFI Modern Classics, $12.95). I do worry that indignation, however righteous, has begun to coarsen Rosenbaum's tone and push him into overstatement.
When Rosenbaum is at his best, his extraordinary wealth of knowledge about cinema informs an equally extraordinary power of insight into individual pictures; and both these aspects of his thinking open into frequently astute observations of the world at large. You can get Rosenbaum at his best in his Dead Man monograph and in three previously published collections: Moving Places, Placing Movies and Movies as Politics (California). By contrast, Movie Wars is a sustained polemic, with all the crabbiness that implies.
It's a welcome polemic, in many ways. Most rants against the infotainment industry are on the level of Michael Medved's godawful Hollywood vs. America; they complain, in effect, that the movies tell us too much about the world. Rosenbaum recognizes the real problem, which is that our world (filmed and otherwise) has been made to seem small. I agree with much of what he says. But when, in his wrath, he digresses to settle scores or rampages past obvious counterarguments, I begin to wish that he, too, would sometimes pretend to be urbane and solid.
"There's a hefty price tag for whatever prestige and power comes with writing for The New York Times and The New Yorker," Rosenbaum says, "and I consider myself fortunate that I don't have to worry about paying it. Film critics for those publications--including Vincent Canby and Pauline Kael...--ultimately wind up less powerful than the institutions they write for, and insofar as they're empowered by those institutions, they're disempowered as independent voices."
To which I say, yes and no. As bad as the situation is--and believe me, it's woeful--I've noticed that news of the world does sometimes break through. David Denby, in The New Yorker, may contribute to American ignorance by being obtuse about Kiarostami (as Rosenbaum notes with disdain); but then, as Rosenbaum fails to note, Stephen Holden and A.O. Scott in the Times delivered raves to Taste of Cherry and The Wind Will Carry Us. Individuals in even the most monolithic publications still make themselves heard; and the exceptional writer can manage (at least in life) to upstage an entire institution.
Rosenbaum himself has pulled off that trick at the Reader; and Vincent Canby did it at the Times. To the living critic, and all those who share his expansive view of the world, I say, "We've lost a champion. Better stop grousing and pick up the slack." And to those who mourn Mr. Canby, I say, "You can still hear his laughter. Just don't let The Editors get in the way."
Had Samuel Beckett written the script for a mud-wrestling contest, to be performed by the Pina Bausch dance troupe, the result might have looked like the scenes of warfare in Kippur. Co-written and directed by Amos Gitai, based on his experiences in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Kippur is a vision of rain and smoke hanging above a scarred earth, and of men who are either dead or else staggering about in physical and moral exhaustion.
The picture might almost be encapsulated in the indelible episode--shot in a single, seemingly endless take--in which four members of a rescue team struggle to carry an unconscious soldier out of a sucking, oozing wasteland. The rescuers move forward from an utterly void background, inching their way toward the camera by means of a progressive collapse. They heave the wounded man over their heads, take half a step, stumble, drop the stretcher into the mud, fall over one another trying to pick up the stretcher, stumble, drop the stretcher into the mud, fall over one another, pick up the stretcher, stumble, drop the stretcher, fall, pick up the stretcher, fall. At some point, the wounded man dies; and still the rescuers labor on with their mortal burden, open-mouthed, reeling, streaming with muck. You might wonder whether they're melting back into the earth or are trying to rise from it, to assume human form.
Kippur is long minutes of futile slogging, interrupted by bursts of terror.
Confronted by the film's pitilessly long takes, which are usually shot from the viewpoint of a participant in the action, I'm tempted to say that Kippur tosses the viewer headlong into a direct presentation of war. There's a little more to it than that. First, Gitai provides the buffer of a framing device; at the beginning and end, you see Weinraub (Liron Levo) engaged with a friend in lovemaking, in a ritual that involves their pouring paint onto a white sheet and rolling naked in the goo. Before the war, this pastime seems like a mildly kinky, Israeli knockoff of Yves Klein. After the war, it's more like a re-enactment of that struggle in the mud--which means the image is meaningful and memorable, besides reeking of art. Gitai also provides some respite in the middle of the film by having the rescue crew's helicopter pilot (Yoram Hattab) and its doctor (Uri Ran Klauzner) deliver monologues about their families. You fall back on the comforting illusion, which Gitai seems provisionally to accept, that people can explain themselves.
But these brief diversions are hardly enough to distance you from the principal action, which is conveyed as if through a fixed stare. Most viewers, having been stunned by the impact, will therefore want some context for Kippur. I can offer two frameworks: biography and filmography.
Biography: Amos Gitai, whose middle name is Weinraub, was studying architecture in his native Haifa when the Yom Kippur War erupted. He went off to serve in a rescue team; and after several days' worth of missions, his helicopter was hit by a missile above Tel Ahmal, in Syria. The date was October 11, 1973, Gitai's 23rd birthday. The co-pilot was killed and four other crew members severely wounded. The downed pilot who had been the goal of the rescue effort was never reached; he was to spend five years in Syrian prisons. Gitai, almost unharmed in body, walked away from the field hospital as the survivor and witness.
He completed his degree in Haifa, continued his architectural studies in Berkeley and then, upon returning home, launched a career as the most challenging documentary filmmaker of the Israeli left. After his early projects were funded and then censored by Israeli television, he went into self-imposed exile in Paris, where he circulated among the headiest film intellectuals and decided to expand his prolific output into features. He returned to Israel in 1993. Kippur is (more or less) his twenty-ninth film, and to my mind is the feature he's needed to make.
Filmography: Gitai's early documentaries had a stark, confrontational vigor. House (1980) exposed the various levels of society that overlapped, without meeting, at a house in Jerusalem: from the Palestinian laborers who were bused in from the West Bank each dawn to expand the building, to the present Israeli owner, to the elderly Palestinian doctor who had owned the house and been driven from it by war. Field Diary (1982) took the viewer into the occupied West Bank, in defiance of military authorities; its most common image, repeated throughout the film, was of a soldier's hand clamping down on the lens.
The features, beginning with Esther (1985) and Berlin-Jerusalem (1989), were far more studied. At the time, Gitai was devoted to the slow-moving, anti-illusionistic, playing-dress-up style that was then fashionable in certain art-film circles. I recognized that the style fit his subjects--a low-key restaging of the Book of Esther, using a Palestinian and Israeli cast; a reconstruction of the experiences in Mandate Palestine of the German Expressionist poet Else Lasker-Schuler--and I admired the ambition and intelligence of the work; but I didn't feel I was watching a movie. It was more like hearing about one, after I'd been heavily medicated for a cold.
The fog started to lift with Gitai's three-cities trilogy. In 1995 he brought out the first in the series, a version of Yakov Shabtai's extraordinary novel Zichron Devarim (Past Continuous). The book is impossible to film, and in a sense Gitai didn't try; in effect, he staged a number of tableaux from the story, as if to remind viewers of what they had read. But in doing so, he allowed his actors (including himself) far more freedom than in the past, and he also permitted himself the freedom of looking at Tel Aviv through a fictional lens. He went on to make features set in Israel's two other principal cities. Yom Yom (1998) was an entropic comedy, in which things fell apart around (and in) a Muslim-Jewish man in Haifa. Kadosh (1999), Gitai's first film to achieve commercial release in the United States, was a tragedy about women who struggle to escape--or don't escape--the ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim section of Jerusalem.
Gitai was still practicing a long-take, medium-shot style, with the occasional camera movement (sometimes motivated, sometimes not) used for variety. The effect was distanced, even when (as in Kadosh) a woman was being raped and beaten by her husband. But to look at it the other way around, Gitai was now dealing explicitly with violence (and with explicit sex as well). His association with cinematographer Renato Berta was giving his films a richer, moodier look; and he was assembling a stock company of actors who were brilliantly naturalistic. (Hattab, Klauzner and Juliano Merr all worked with Gitai before their appearances in Kippur.) He had brought himself to the verge of a breakthrough; and I think he's achieved it in Kippur, the first feature with the urgency and immediacy of his best documentaries.
The slog through the mud is not the only scene in Kippur to come off the screen with straightforward power. First comes the approach to the war zone, as Weinraub and his comrade Ruso (Tomer Ruso) make their way north to join their unit. It's slow going in Weinraub's old junker of a car--he won't buy anything flashy or new, having read Marcuse--and it gets slower still when the reservists get caught in a mammoth traffic jam. You get your first view of war as chaos, shot in part from inside the car, in the manner of Abbas Kiarostami.
Then there's the first rescue mission, in which no one is left to rescue. Dropped into a still-smoking entrenchment, the crew discovers that all the bodies are dead--although this fact escapes one member of the team, who rushes about ordering charred corpses onto the helicopter. Much later in the film, after you and the crew have seen a lot of this kind of thing, Gitai provides your only comprehensive view of the war: a long, circling shot from Weinraub's point of view, as he looks down from the helicopter onto a ruined, rutted world, where the dominant life form seems to be the armored tank.
Nor are you spared the aftermath of the war: triage. The drama reaches its matter-of-fact conclusion in the field hospital, where one crew member after the other is examined and then sent off for someone else to deal with.
This is tough-minded, uncompromising filmmaking: the maximum action within the minimum framework. I believe that's always been an ideal for Gitai, as it is for certain other figures of international cinema--meaning the vital (though commercially minor) field of co-production and festival-based distribution that's generally known as "the art film." Now the art film has ventured strongly onto the terrain of the war movie--Gitai specifically credits as an influence Sam Fuller, who was among his mentors--which means that Kippur confirms the vigor not only of Gitai's filmmaking but also that of an entire segment of international cinema, which he represents.
So much for Kippur as art object. As testimony, it is beyond price--and unfortunately without time. Though utterly specific in its details, the film would have been relevant if shown anytime after 1914 and will remain all too meaningful into the foreseeable future. Its release at the present moment is telling, of course; but what it tells us is awful in its simplicity. "Do you plan to settle things by armed conflict?" asks Kippur. "Then this is what you get."
George Washington takes place in a small, weedy, rusty city in the American South, where children conduct their affairs with adult responsibility and adults behave like kids. The grown-ups had fought wars and built machines, explains Nasia (Candace Evanofski), the little girl who narrates the film in voiceover, so "it was hard for them to find their peace." By contrast, the children dwell on problems of friendship, love and the care of small animals. These subjects lead not to turmoil but to the contemplation of "mysteries...all the mistakes God had made."
Nasia doesn't name these errors; but a moviegoer might draw up quite a list. God has allowed George Washington to be set in a city of empty storefronts, derelict factories, junkyards, railyards and tumbledown houses: places of abandonment and failure, which are lovingly photographed in warm sunlight and deep colors. Presiding over this America (at least in Nasia's mind) is her friend George (Donald Holden), whose skull God forgot to fuse. George's brain lies so near the surface that he has to go about wearing a football helmet. But despite his vulnerability--or because of it--George wants to be a hero, and Nasia sees him as one. The marvel of the movie is that you see George almost as she does, even while knowing that he's a poor, scared, guilt-burdened kid.
On the level of knowledge--of meanings that can be paraphrased--George Washington is a mounting pile of disasters. Parents are dead, imprisoned or crazy; pets are candidates for slaughter; friends are one slip away from a violent end. The survivors, while not yet old enough for high school, ache with a secret conviction of sin, or else go numb and blame themselves for it.
But the movie doesn't play at the paraphrasable level. As written and directed by David Gordon Green in his remarkable feature debut, George Washington is a languid series of impressionistic glances, many of them cast at subjects that seem lovely or droll. Scenes often fade to black, so they occupy their own little space. The performers (all of them nonprofessional) play-act with a sincerity (sometimes an abandonment) that makes each moment a piece of eternity. Music is used sparingly; and when it does come up, it's generally in the form of a slow, two- or three-chord pattern that isn't planning to go anywhere. Maybe a couple of the children want to skip town after their friend Buddy abruptly dies; but the sounds are content to cycle in the air, as if they feel what George and Nasia feel. The goodness that the kids hope to find, the love and heroism they seek, must be present here and now, if they exist at all.
Do they exist? The answer might be yes, if you smile when George puts on his superhero outfit--the football helmet, a uniform from the school wrestling team and a white sheet, tied around his neck as a cape--and pretends to direct traffic. Never mind that the traffic doesn't need direction. George apparently believes he's saving lives; and though his need for this belief is terrible, though circumstances have made the wrestling uniform a token of guilt, the camera nevertheless gazes up at him, admiring rather than belittling his solemn arm-waving.
This is irony reversed: a demonstration of the moral and imaginative strength of a character who is, in his material condition, weaker than the viewer. I might even say (to compare small things with great) that George takes on the role of Father of His Country much as Leopold Bloom assumes the mantle of Ulysses. For all we know, George's ancestors were owned by the Father of His Country. (Like most of the film's characters, George has African blood.) But in his own eyes and Nasia's, there's still freedom and glory to be found on Independence Day--though the parade, to us, may look comically shabby, though the city's grown-ups doze off before the fireworks begin.
"Smile," someone says to George as the film concludes. When a picture's this good, that's easily done.
By coincidence, October has brought another outstanding first feature about the sudden death of children in a garbage-strewn city. The setting of this picture is a slum in Glasgow, where a foul canal runs past row houses of brick, near the concrete towers of a housing project. The period is the recent past, when Tom Jones was the latest singing sensation, and a garbage strike had left the streets and lots heaped with vermin-infested rubbish. The title of the film is Ratcatcher; and the writer-director, Lynne Ramsay, promises to be a major talent.
She's had the courage to make the worst happen within the first five minutes of the film. Young James (William Eadie) is tussling playfully with his friend Ryan Quinn when the latter goes down in the canal and doesn't come up. James runs off in fear; and from then through the end of the film, he lives with his secret. You might even say that he walks around in the secret. Ryan's mother gives him the shoes she'd been buying for her son at the very moment of his death. James accepts the gift, having no alternative, then slashes the uppers with broken glass.
As that action suggests, Ratcatcher is a far less dreamy film than George Washington. While Green chooses a vibrant rust as his predominant color, Ramsay calls up all the shades of mud. While George Washington takes place in sunshine--even the most awful setting is shot through with shafts of light--Ratcatcher is so muted that it might have been shot underwater. The world is drained of sensual pleasure; when James's father brings home a can of pale blue house paint, which seems to have fallen off a truck, closer inspection proves he's got industrial gray.
Don't even think about seeing Ratcatcher if you dislike knowing that the film conforms to its title. But don't stay away if the prospect of unrelieved grimness is what's putting you off. The good news is that Ramsay has the idiosyncratic eye and mind of a young Jane Campion. She's always picking out odd but telling details--a wedge of nylon stocking between the mother's toes, a trickle of saliva along the slumbering father's cheek--and showing them from punchy angles. She also has a talent for opening windows in the daily grind, to reveal sudden vistas of the wondrous. Ratcatcher is hardly the work of a whimsy merchant; and yet, at one point, James discovers a green field that's as perfect as a picture on the wall, and is framed like one. At another moment, while witnessing one of the film's many rodent deaths, he imagines a pet mouse's trip to the moon.
Most important of all, Ramsay chooses to dramatize characters who are loving as well as damaged. James may have the low, dark hairline and bat ears of Franz Kafka (perfect attributes for a lad serving time in this penal colony); the young girl he falls for, Margaret Anne (Leanne Mullen), may be used as common property by a gang of toughs, whose preferred love nest is an outdoor privy; and yet, in a scene at the film's heart, James and Margaret Anne can share a frolic in the bath, innocently enjoying one another and a rare body of nonlethal water. Even the grown-ups are granted such a measure of grace. Mother (Mandy Matthews) is at wit's end, coping with the chaos and dangers of poverty; Father (Tommy Flanagan) is a philandering drunk. But late in the picture, after a rough night, they put on a Sinatra record and dance in a single shaft of light, surrounded by utter blackness; and for that long moment, while they clutch each other, the screen is suffused with unembarrassed warmth.
Ratcatcher is about the surprises that crop up and the hopes that remain alive after the worst has occurred. Tough, dour and open-spirited, it's a welcome new entry in the smallest genre of cinema: pictures that become more interesting as they go on.
Noted with pleasure: My colleagues say that Bedazzled--Harold Ramis's remake of the 1967 comedy--is not a masterpiece, and surely my colleagues are right. This tale of a sniveling schlep who sells his soul to the Devil, having despaired of getting laid in any other way, was far more theologically sound in the original. For one thing, the 1967 version was written by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, who were known to have read books, and starred the innately sadistic Cook as the Devil and the innately floundering Moore as the schlep. For another thing, the original included a full-scale parade of the seven deadly sins, featuring Raquel Welch as Lust.
The new version dispenses with such medieval apparatus and casts today's Raquel, Elizabeth Hurley, as the Devil. She's a sport (as you know if you've seen the first Austin Powers movie) and seems to enjoy wriggling all relevant parts of her anatomy; but once you get past the sight gag, you realize she does most of her acting with her teeth. Hurley is a great biter and clacker.
But then there's the schlep. He's played by Brendan Fraser, who has become the pre-eminent big lug of contemporary American comedy. Bedazzled gives him the opportunity to play a computer nerd (the basic character), a Colombian drug lord, a New Age California simp, a loofah-brained basketball star, a hyperarticulate novelist in a great tuxedo and Abraham Lincoln, all of which roles he carries off with the ease and aplomb of George of the Jungle swinging smack into a tree. No, Bedazzled isn't a masterpiece. But it's a Brendan Fraser vehicle, and for that I'm grateful.
Since Spike Lee begins his new picture, Bamboozled, by giving a dictionary definition of satire, the least a reviewer can do is to open with a proper critical definition. Strictly speaking, Bamboozled is a Menippean satire; and because I'm unqualified to describe that form, I will defer to Northrop Frye. A few lines from his Anatomy of Criticism:
The Menippean satire deals less with people as such than with mental attitudes. Pedants, bigots, cranks, parvenus, virtuosi, enthusiasts, rapacious and incompetent professional men of all kinds, are handled in terms of their occupational approach to life as distinct from their social behavior. The Menippean satire thus...differs from the novel in its characterization, which is stylized rather than naturalistic, and presents people as mouthpieces of the ideas they represent.
Frye's catalogue of Menippean personages will serve nicely as a roll call for the characters in Bamboozled. "Rapacious and incompetent professional men"--those would be Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport), a full-throatedly boorish program executive at the CNS television network, and his underling Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), the network's only African-American staff writer. The story's "virtuosi" are a pair of starving, scuffling street performers, Manray (Savion Glover) and Womack (Tommy Davidson), who at first want nothing more than a chance to do their act and get paid. In them, Delacroix sees a vehicle for escaping his job, while at the same time exacting revenge on Dunwitty for endless slights and slurs.
"Enthusiasts" are the American people, God bless them, who fall in love with the variety show that Delacroix dreams up. Manray, now called Mantan, and Womack, renamed Sleep 'n' Eat, become the stars of Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show, a variety program set in an Alabama watermelon patch, featuring a full cast of coons, Toms, mammies, pickaninnies and chain-gang prisoners. To Delacroix's horror, viewers do not rise up in fury against this spectacle. Instead, they adopt blackface as the nation's latest fad.
"Cranks"--these are the members of a would-be-revolutionary hip-hop collective called the Mau Maus, led by a man who has named himself Big Blak African (Mos Def). The Mau Maus conform to the most noxious stereotypes--they're unlettered, inarticulate, unemployed, slovenly and very fond of malt liquor--so of course they declare war on the minstrel show for perpetuating such images.
"Parvenus"--a term that applies to most of the major characters. Once the minstrel show turns into a huge success, misbehavior becomes general. "Pedant"--that would be Sloan (Jada Pinkett-Smith), Delacroix's young assistant and his uneasy but ineffective conscience. She's the one who insists that if Manray and Womack are to wear blackface, they must use authentic burnt cork. She's also the one who protests against the show by collecting hundreds of antique coon figures, with which she fills Delacroix's office and home. To these, Spike Lee adds a collection of his own, appending to the movie an entire gallery's worth of film clips of Toms, mammies, pickaninnies, etc. In such a manner, writes Frye, does the Menippean satirist demonstrate exuberance, "piling up an enormous mass of erudition about his theme."
Finally, we have the category of "bigots." It's enough to say that this is a Spike Lee movie.
And now, having anatomized Bamboozled, I must pass on to the tougher question: How good a Menippean satire is it? Or, to phrase the question more precisely: How does the movie play? To answer, I'd better begin again, starting this time with the bizarre figure of Delacroix.
Who is this man with the shaved head and pencil mustache, who keeps his voice locked in his sinus cavities and speaks English as if he'd learned it from 78 rpm records? (I mean, who is he other than another brilliant characterization by Damon Wayans?) We know that Delacroix is the narrator of Bamboozled and the instigator of its plot. We also discover, fairly quickly, that he's a postmodern, post-civil rights, post-affirmative action type, who calls himself a Negro and takes pride in dressing like Duke Ellington on a Savile Row spree. But behind all his preening and posing--pinching the air while he talks, pretending to believe that his co-workers respect him--who the hell is Delacroix?
Two aspects of his life--his apartment decor and the script for his TV show--combine to answer for him. The lavish apartment is located in a Manhattan tower, right behind the face of a giant clock. It's the perfect home for a man who, as they say, doesn't know what time it is. As for the TV show: One of the minstrel routines it revives is a doubletalk bit, spoken by a man whose family ties are so complicated that he seems to be his own grandfather. Says the minstrel, who might as well be speaking for Delacroix, "I don't know who I is!"
He's not the only one. The Mau Maus, too, live in a riot of self-misapprehension. Lee shows them in constant, jostling, purposeless motion; you get the impression of a many-headed, many-limbed being stuffed into a single baggy sweatshirt. "Know what I mean? Know what I'm sayin'?" they sputter at one another, without anyone's actually having said anything. They, too, seem to be echoed by the minstrels in an old routine--the one where two buddies converse unintelligibly because they never bother to complete a sentence.
Of course, the characters not of African descent have their own deficit of self-knowledge. Michael Rapaport, who has developed a specialty in playing big but sweet-natured imbeciles, here brings out a more bullying side of himself, making Dunwitty into a loud, tall, sputtering fount of vulgarities. "Yo! I'm the only black in this room!" he shouts at the grimly self-controlled Delacroix, before launching into a supposedly genial chant of "Nigger nigger nigger nigger!" But because of the privilege that comes with his pale skin, Dunwitty gets to enjoy his ignorance. The film's African characters suffer for theirs--and, in the end, make each other suffer.
This is hardly the first time that Lee has looked coldly at the popular culture of denigration (another word to look up in the dictionary), seeing in it a source of confusion and misery. His treatment of the subject has ranged from the rhetorical (in Malcolm X) to the intimately dramatic (in Crooklyn). But he's never before made this problem the main focus of a film--and when you think about it, you may realize that for all his coruscating wit, he's never before made a full-blown satire, either.
So how does Bamboozled play as a movie? I will cite, in descending order of merit, the performances, which are vivid; the themes, which are coherently developed (despite what you might have heard); the settings, which are reasonably varied but not strong in themselves (except for that clock tower); the videography, which is undistinguished; and the pacing and editing, which might have been improved had Lee emulated those minstrel routines he's revived.
The movie's dirty secret, which Lee has the courage to reveal, is that those bits really can be funny. You might expect to enjoy Bamboozled when Savion Glover gets to dance--how could a movie go wrong with him?--but the big surprise is to see how Tommy Davidson, as Womack, works those corny old jokes. Never in my life did I expect to hear an actor call out that legendary punch line, "Ain't nobody here but us chickens!" Is the moment humiliating for Womack? You bet. Did I laugh? You would, too.
Spike Lee has applied his erudition to this American tradition and discovered not just how it wounds but also how it entertains. With the intellectual acuity of the Menippean satirist, he's shown that the entertainment is the wound--the louder the laughter, the worse the damage. It's understandable, then, that he would want to drive home the lesson by strategically killing the fun for his own audience. I can imagine the gesture's being made swiftly, so that your throat would be slit in midlaugh. But Lee seems to lack the resolve for such savagery. Past a certain point in Bamboozled, when he might have declared a grand refusal, he instead falls into a semi-puritanical sulk, leaving the movie to clunk and clatter along. This is the satire of the passive-aggressive personality: someone who withdraws into a show of indifference, as if we should apologize to him and beg for a livelier picture.
I think of the sign that Delacroix places on top of his television set, to spur himself on in his work. Feed the Idiot Box, it says. How little regard the man must have for himself, when he feels such contempt for his job and his audience! Do I detect a touch of self-portraiture in Lee's picture of this fellow satirist? Would Bamboozled have been a better movie had Lee believed that we--and he--were worthy of it?
Short Take: Moviegoers who are willing to risk having their hearts warmed might take a look at Billy Elliot. Directed by Stephen Daldry from a script by Lee Hall, it's an amiable example of the working-class-uplift picture--the uplift, in this case, involving the ability of a coal miner's son to execute a grand jeté.
In Durham, England, in 1984, young Billy sneaks off from his boxing class to study ballet with Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters). Bad enough that he's the only lad, amid all those tutus. Worse still, his father's union is in the process of being crushed by Mrs. Thatcher, so the 50 pence he misappropriates each week can be ill afforded. His dad (Gary Lewis) wants him to spend that money on learning to fight his way through a hard world--not on leaping about like a poofter.
I might have enjoyed Billy Elliot a bit more if the film hadn't insisted so often that Billy is not, I mean not, repeat not a poofter, just because he loves to dance. All right, back off. It also might have been useful to address the mineworkers' strike substantially, rather than use it as mere background, and to have made Billy's ultimate triumph something less of a foregone conclusion. Then again, Jamie Bell, who plays Billy, is a marvel. The kid knows how to dance; what's more, he knows how to pretend to dance less well than he really can, which is amazing in such a young actor. Let him and the character he plays have their triumph. It's harmless enough--and I'm pleased to say it's accomplished through public financing.
Now that Karyn Kusama's much-heralded Girlfight has opened, I figure it's time to catch up with the 1999 releases and review On the Ropes. And since I've been so slow to write about this documentary, which has long since vanished from theaters, the first thing to say is that you shouldn't hesitate to watch it on video. That's how On the Ropes was shot, by Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen: with a handheld Sony, which the filmmakers carried through the streets and courtrooms of Brooklyn and into the New Bed-Stuy Gym, where a deeply impressive man named Harry Keitt was devoting himself to training amateur boxers.
The second thing you should know about On the Ropes is that these boxers were not living the easy life. One of them in particular, a young woman named Tyrene Manson, was destroyed right in front of Burstein and Morgen's camera, not by a ring opponent but by the police and the court system. Since Manson is real--whereas the young Brooklyn boxer who is the heroine of Girlfight springs from Kusama's imagination--let me explain the case in some detail.
Manson, a tough and wiry piece of work, was training at the time for the Golden Gloves, and going at it with extraordinary good cheer, considering her less-than-ideal circumstances. When not sparring or doing roadwork, she was busy caring for two young nieces, since her crackhead uncle couldn't be bothered. Unfortunately, Manson had no place to live except in this same uncle's house. Credible evidence suggested that she'd been trying to relocate herself and the girls; but there she was when the cops broke in. As expected, they found illegal drugs lying about, along with any number of Uncle Randy's friends and colleagues. And so, on the grounds that she'd been breathing the same air as these people, Tyrene Manson was arrested for possession with intent to sell. A few shufflings of paper by a court-appointed lawyer, a grunt or two from the judge, and off she went to prison, on the very day she'd been scheduled to fight in the Golden Gloves. Watch On the Ropes and see it happen.
It's certainly possible for fiction to convey the horror of such a situation--the messiness, the outrage, even the element of self-undoing. (Much to Manson's detriment, the controlled aggression she used in the ring became flailing belligerence in court.) For an example, I turn to the opening chapters of Tolstoy's Resurrection. But I don't think of Girlfight, a well-acted and well-directed feature with a screenplay written on tissue paper. Dab your eyes with it, if you will; but blow your nose with caution.
The one substantial element of Girlfight is its lead actress, newcomer Michelle Rodriguez, who grabs your attention and holds it from the minute she comes onscreen. She's first seen in an effective dolly shot, as she leans against a locker in a busy high school corridor. As the other kids go by, crossing left and right, the camera pulls closer and closer to the immobile Rodriguez, whose head is lowered but whose attitude is plain to read in the combat fatigues she's wearing. At last, when she's in close-up, she lifts her face and glares straight into the camera, her eyes steady and dangerous beneath the parapet of her brow. The expression is reminiscent of the young Muhammad Ali; and the framing of the shot, from chin to forehead, brings out the resemblance between one pretty, round-faced, pouty-lipped fighter and another.
Rodriguez is here to play Diana Guzman, a young woman who's about to be kicked out of school for throwing too many punches at her classmates. Chronically enraged by her beer-guzzling father, chronically furious at the world's flouncy women, Diana doesn't need the Board of Regents curriculum. What she wants is a school for her anger--and she finds one at last when an errand takes her to a local gym, where Hector (Jaime Tirelli) trains young men to box. Will he train her? Ten dollars an hour, growls the stubbled, straw-hatted Hector, with a gruffness that will grow avuncular over the next 90 minutes, just as surely as Diana's talents will prove to be natural.
The liveliest moments that follow are those in which you see Diana training. Kusama has a sure instinct in these scenes for camera placement and editing--in that sense, she's a natural--and she knows she's got two great subjects in the craft of boxing and Rodriguez, whose every movement seems powered from the pit of her stomach. When Rodriguez is called upon to get gooey with a fellow boxer (Santiago Douglas), she's convincing; but she's fascinating when she bobs and weaves, works the speed bag, practices her combinations or walks into the room with an insolent roll to her left.
All this makes Girlfight a thoroughly watchable picture, right up till the closing shot, in which Diana, who is taking comfort in an embrace, is photographed so the calluses stand out on her knuckles. A nice touch; I just wish the screenplay had a few calluses of its own.
I didn't expect Kusama to make Hector as sorrowful, patient and determined as Harry Keitt, the trainer in On the Ropes; I didn't think she'd make Diana as compelling and doomed as Tyrene Manson. But does a boxing picture--especially one that's focused on a woman--really need to tie itself up in a pink bow? All of the viewer's presumed wishes are fulfilled: Diana gets to be a warrior, her brother Tiny gets to be an artist, the brutal father gets his comeuppance and the sensitive hunk gets to prove himself a better kind of man. Had Kusama done any more to flatter a liberal audience, Girlfight would have ended with a November victory rally for Nader.
I wish Kusama well; with a lot of toughening, she might be a contender. But on my scorecard, I give the decision to On the Ropes. Reality wins every round.
And now, for a different kind of girlfight:
Jeff Bridges and Gary Oldman have so much fun with their roles in The Contender, a new inside-the-Beltway movie, that I sometimes imagined I was having a good time, too. Bridges, playing President Jackson Evans, uses his biggest, most blustering manner to give the character the sort of person-to-person skills for which Lyndon Johnson was famous. When dashing another politician's career hopes, President Evans signals his indifference by idly lighting a cigarette and blowing smoke rings. When staging a sensitive meeting, held in the White House bowling alley, he tests his guests' mettle by giving his shoes a sniff. Such is the liberal Democratic hero of The Contender. The conservative Republican villain is Representative Shelly Runyon of Illinois--in Oldman's interpretation, a small, nervous, owl-eyed man with a sparse fringe of curly hair. Runyon looks like a desiccated Roberto Benigni, talks in hiccups and grins like Fred Leuchter, the engineer of execution machinery who was the focus of Errol Morris's Mr. Death.
But as it happens, neither of the big guys is meant to carry The Contender. That unhappy task falls to Joan Allen, in the role of Laine Hanson: a Democratic (formerly Republican) senator from Ohio who has been nominated to replace the recently deceased Vice President. Runyon, catching a whiff of affirmative action in this nomination, commandeers the confirmation hearings, vowing to do everything possible to stop Hanson. Everything, in this case, includes an Internet-launched smear campaign, accusing the nominee of having courted popularity in college by accepting the sexual advances of an entire fraternity. When shown the photos, Joan Allen compresses her lips and says she won't dignify these accusations with a response. And that's the end of the fun, for her. Allen spends the rest of the picture with her spine frozen and her mouth locked in frostbite.
A strange torture for the filmmaker to impose--to constrain the lead actress's every move, while letting the men run free--when the ostensible purpose of The Contender is to advocate greater career opportunities for women. But then, muddle-headedness seems to be the very method of this picture. The smallest exchange of dialogue yields confusion. (According to one of Runyon's aides, "We have to gut the bitch in the belly." Where else would you gut her? In the foot?) The longest speeches may cause headache, dizziness and fatigue, and should not be listened to while operating heavy machinery. There are two of these doozies--one apiece for Hanson and Evans--each accompanied by a swell of patriotic music; and if you can make sense of the political program they announce, in ringing Capra-corn fashion, then you might be the right therapist for Al Gore's multiple-personality disorder.
Of course, the grandest muddle of all is the premise. First The Contender tries to whip up some topical interest by evoking the richly pornographic impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton. Then the movie asserts that Laine Hanson's ordeal is unique, because sexual smears aren't used against men.
Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe you can gut a woman in the foot.
The Contender was written and directed by Rod Lurie, who used to be a film critic. I don't know what this means to you; but for me, it's a lesson in humility.
I have two films to tell you about in this column, one of which I recommend to your attention because it's beautiful, absorbing, touching and droll. It will involve you in the choices its characters make, and it will probably make you think about how you live, too. I'm speaking about Yi Yi (also known as A One and a Two), written and directed by Edward Yang. As for the other film--Dancer in the Dark by Lars von Trier--I had to watch the thing, and now you're damn well going to read about it.
While you're getting braced, I will point out that I'm not the first to link these pictures. This past spring, at the Cannes festival, Dancer in the Dark won the top prize, while Yi Yi earned Edward Yang the award for best director. Now it's autumn, and the New York Film Festival is launching both movies in the United States. You might say the festival is showing us two major possibilities for film. You might also say that Martin Luther King Jr. and Huey Long represent two options in politics.
Of course, to some eyes, Yi Yi appears soft and safe--as does Dr. King, to people who don't look beyond that nice, chubby man who talked about dreams. I can understand the criticism. Yang has put a wedding at the beginning of Yi Yi, a funeral at the end and a birth right in the middle. That's enough in itself to set off a life-affirmation warning--and the alarm really starts to clang once you realize that the main characters, members of a single middle-class family in Taipei, span the ages from childhood through senescence.
Before you bolt, though, I'd like to mention the seating arrangement at that concluding funeral, where characters who ought to clump together prefer to be separated by a few crucial inches. Look from one side of the aisle to the other, and you understand that for all its buoyancy, Yi Yi dramatizes the breakup of a family and the withering of illusions, as experienced in a society where everyone's supposed to be rich and everybody's going broke.
At the film's heart is the paterfamilias, known as NJ (Wu Nienjen), a partner in a rapidly failing computer company. A slight man with the solemn, baggy look of a Taiwanese Buster Keaton, NJ quietly accepts every duty that arises, retreats into music when he can (using the portable disc player that's his favorite possession) and stares deadpan into the face of a hundred indignities. These begin at the wedding of his brother-in-law (Chen Xisheng), where the bride's advanced state of pregnancy is only the first of many breaches of decorum and escalating disasters. Among the others: NJ's first love, Sherry (Ke Suyun), suddenly materializes in the hotel lobby, after thirty years' absence; and his mother-in-law (Tang Ruyun) is rushed to the hospital in a coma. "Don't worry," cries the newlywed brother-in-law, arriving at the hospital roaring drunk. "Today is the luckiest day in the year. Nothing bad can happen."
But for NJ, a lot has happened. It's only a matter of time before he gives Sherry a late-night phone call from his darkened office--an innocent call, of course (she lives in Chicago), made just as a gesture of reconciliation, just to feel the thrill of connection. Then it's back to his highrise apartment, full of new life, to find his wife, Min-Min (Elaine Jin), weeping in the bedroom. She's been trying to speak to her comatose mother, as the doctors recommend, and has found she has nothing to say. Every day is the same; every day is nothing. "How can I have so little?" Min-Min sobs, opening and closing her hands as if her life had flown out of them. NJ shuts the door--he doesn't want to wake the children--and then makes a practical, well-meaning, thoroughly off-the-mark response: Hire a nurse, who will read the newspaper to Mother.
With that, the camera retreats to the balcony, to view NJ and Min-Min through a sheet of glass that's frantic with reflections from a nearby expressway. Lights skitter over the dumbstruck couple. From the next apartment come hideous shrieks and curses: the new neighbor, fighting with one of her lovers.
Not every sequence in Yi Yi is similarly wrenching; but each has this startling degree of emotional and cinematic fluidity, which I thoroughly fail to convey. Scenes that focus on the 8-year-old son (Jonathan Chang) tend to serve as comic relief; but they also sketch out a kind of artist's manifesto, expressed in terms of a kid's candor and curiosity. Scenes centered on the teenage daughter (Kelly Lee) tend to be darker, since she blames herself for her grandmother's illness; but they also draw her into a romantic triangle of which she, quite miraculously, turns out to be the strongest leg.
I have heard a few people complain that Yi Yi is long. So it is; it runs almost three hours. And for me, those were three hours of deep pleasure: more time to watch a large and brilliant ensemble live and breathe on screen; more time to follow the intricate rhythms of a faultlessly constructed story. "I want to show people things they haven't seen," says the young son, as the tale comes to its inconclusive and satisfying close. I take that to be a statement of artistic purpose--though not, perhaps, of Yang's. The glory of what he's achieved in Yi Yi is to show us things that we've all seen, many times, and to make us feel how extraordinary they are.
Lars von Trier pretends to be interested in the everyday, particularly in its struggle with the visionary. So, to take pretense at face value, I will initially describe Dancer in the Dark as the story of Selma (played by the Icelandic pop star Björk), a single mother who works in a factory and is losing her sight. A Czech immigrant to the United States, Selma labors tirelessly for the sake of her young son, accepts her trials with sweet resignation and finds strength in imagination. A passionate fan of musicals, she makes up songs based on the rhythms and events of her life and visualizes them as big dance numbers. From time to time, life's muted colors intensify, the shooting style changes from hand-held tracking to quick montage and one of Selma's inner movies erupts before us on the screen.
Now, to take a second run at the description: Dancer in the Dark takes place in 1964 in Washington State, a heavily wooded area of Sweden populated by Scandinavian performers and Catherine Deneuve. As the film begins, the pop star Björk is pretending to be incompetent at singing and dancing, in the hope of fitting into a community-theater production of The Sound of Music. The seriously overqualified community-theater director Vincent Paterson (fresh from choreographing dance routines for Madonna and Michael Jackson) pretends not to notice that this young woman is awful--or that she's Björk, I'm not sure which--and casts her anyway. Then Björk and her best friend, Catherine Deneuve, go to work in a factory, where they break into a number presumably inspired by the 1997 documentary East Side Story, Dana Ranga's delightful compilation film about Soviet-bloc musicals.
But I'm forgetting about the blind shtick. It seems that Björk has passed on a degenerative eye condition to her son, who will surely lose his sight unless Udo Kier operates on him before the age of 13. That's why she's such a Stakhanovite (unless it's the influence of all those Soviet-bloc musicals). When the local American sheriff tries to steal her money--just like an American!--she sweetly and innocently shoots him dead, then insists on being hanged to death for the big finale.
Real life? No. Lars von Trier is interested in the preposterous--or rather in seeing how much of the preposterous he can get you to swallow without gagging. He admitted as much in The Idiots, a film that might be said to serve as his self-portrait. That picture was about a kind of avant-garde theater director, who goes about mocking people by feigning simplicity. In Dancer in the Dark (as in Breaking the Waves), it's the heroine who is simple and vulnerable (and long-suffering and self-sacrificing), and you, as viewer, are the one who is mocked.
Do you believe you're in the midst of reality, when the camera is darting back and forth and poking actors in the face? Then von Trier has the laugh on you. He's persuaded you to ignore his very obvious jump-cuts and swift changes of point-of-view, visible evidence that the scene was assembled from multiple takes. And are you a filmoid, eagerly following the doings of today's star directors? You will surely be grateful for von Trier's publicity machine, which has put out the claim that he shot his musical numbers using 100 digital video cameras. What a magical figure--100! Repeat it to yourself, and you can almost forget that von Trier's pop montage is outdone ten times each hour on MTV.
For what it's worth, Björk is a truly remarkable performer--if "remarkable" is the right word for a woman in her mid-30s who can make herself seem like a teenager, bubbling over with naïve, sexless joy. Call it fun, if you like. But when I think about the overture to Dancer in the Dark--a long sequence in which colored patterns dissolve into one another, to the accompaniment of a slow, rising brass chorale--the name of Wagner comes to mind, and I think of what's behind that show of vulnerable simplicity. This film is about power, and its victim is meant to be you.
The first time I saw Anna Deavere Smith, I realized a new meaning had been given to the term "body politic." She was appearing in Fires in the Mirror, her show about the conflicts between blacks and Jews in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and that area's eruption into violence in 1991; and as she performed, a whole neighborhood seemed to congregate in her. One after another the people stepped in, many of them voicing mistrust, misunderstanding, fear, hatred; and yet these conflicting individuals had been brought together, if not harmonized, by residing in this one woman's flesh. How did she do it? Through a combination of sociological fieldwork and shamanism. First Smith interviews people by the hundreds and edits the material she's elicited. Then she learns to impersonate her subjects--literally to incorporate them--so that she may present them to the audience entirely in their own words, with their own inflections and mannerisms.
A year after the Crown Heights riots, she went to the other side of the country and began a new cycle in this process, developing a show about the police beating of Rodney King and its bloody aftermath. Now we have an expanded version of this play in Twilight: Los Angeles.
Shot on video by the incomparable Maryse Alberti and directed by Marc Levin, Twilight: Los Angeles features documentary footage about the Rodney King beating (including excerpts from the infamous, on-the-scene videotape) and newsreel scenes of the ensuing trial and riots. Another element in the collage is footage shot for this production in 1999, when Smith revisited some of the people she had interviewed. But the main reason for watching Twilight: Los Angeles is to see Smith's performance, which is re-created for the camera on modified stage sets--principally a looter's playground of furniture, cardboard boxes, odds and ends of clothing, ground smoke and flashing red lights. Over the course of eighty-five minutes, Smith populates this set with her portrayals of some thirty people who witnessed or participated in this horrendous civic rupture. The roster of characters is so wide-ranging that I'm tempted to call it comprehensive. About the only interested person who doesn't get to speak--either through Smith or through the documentary footage--is Rodney King himself.
That omission may well be the main point of Twilight: Los Angeles. Out of all these people, the only one to discuss King as a person is his aunt Angela. ("It took three plastic surgeries to get Rodney to look like Rodney again.") For everyone else whom Smith calls up, King is an occasion, an excuse, a justification or (very often) a blank. Why bother to think about a man who's had his head kicked in when you have your own claims of victimhood to assert?
I soon lost count of the self-described victims in Twilight: Los Angeles--although I can tell you that the main body of the picture begins with Smith's portrayal of one of them. Popping her eyes behind huge glasses and speaking in a heavily italicized singsong, Smith becomes Elaine Young, a real-estate agent in Beverly Hills. What is Young's account of the beating of Rodney King, the acquittal of the police officers who stomped him and the subsequent three days of riots? She never quite gets to that. Speaking without benefit of commas, Young concentrates instead on rattling off her résumé, with special emphasis on the cosmetic silicone implants that made her a victim for a year: "I almost died!"
Young serves to represent one extreme of social blindness in Twilight: Los Angeles, as localized in (but not confined to) Beverly Hills. Henry "Keith" Watson might be said to represent the South Central counterpart. To play this very young man, accused of tearing a truck driver from his cab during the riots and beating him half to death, Smith puts on a leather porkpie hat, a zippered jacket and a machine-gun laugh. Gleeful in destruction, her Watson sobers up only when speaking of how the mayhem he inflicted has hurt him: "I've been placed next to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. I mean, that's a lotta pressure, y'unnerstand?"
Between these poles are characters who can see more clearly; and some of their grievances tear the heart. With her hair pulled back in a bun and tears in her eyes, Smith gives us Mrs. Young-Soon Han, who lost her store in the riots. "We are nothing. Nothing," she says, speaking of the Korean merchants who saw their lives go up in smoke, while the police were busy cordoning off Brentwood and Beverly Hills. And then, pulling herself together, she expresses her happiness for the black people who had felt that they, too, were nothing, and who rejoiced when two police officers were at last found guilty of beating Rodney King. "I wish I could be part of their enjoyment," she says.
Here is author Ruben Martinez, who bubbles over with amused scorn when describing the petty, daily victimhood inflicted on Latinos by the police, who bust them for everything right down to jaywalking: "You're, you're, you're, you're, you're, you're--you're just not walking right." And here is Elvira Evers, a cashier by profession, who picked up some stray gunfire after 8,000 federal troops were sent to Los Angeles. She covered her wound with her gown so as not to alarm her children, drove to the hospital and had an emergency caesarean section, giving birth to a daughter born with a bullet lodged in her elbow--all of which she describes not as proof of victimhood but as evidence of having been blessed: "Open your eyes."
A word about the way in which Smith pauses in her portrayal of Elvira Evers, to wipe her hand across the plastic cloth covering a tiny kitchen table: Most of her impersonations are built around one such observed gesture. Smith is stingy with these moments, doling them out to convince you of the authenticity of the scene, but also making sure that this detail, though apparently circumstantial, sums up something about the character. With Elvira Evers, for example, you see both the modesty of her possessions and the care she takes with them. Angela King flips through a magazine while she speaks; you see a woman who has some contact with the world of ideas, and who is controlling her emotions through distraction. Sgt. Charles Duke of the LAPD shows you the correct way to beat someone into submission with the baton and decries the loss of the chokehold, then pauses in his demonstration to sip water and cough; you glimpse a sliver of vulnerability in a man who is damn well defended. As for Mrs. Young-Soon Han, nothing needs to be explained about the way she stutters over the word "incendiary."
I mention these naturalistic details to suggest how thoughtfully Smith constructs her portrayals but also to point out a curious feature of her talent. She is an astonishing mimic without being a transformative actress. By that, I mean that she always looks like Anna Deavere Smith; her wigs and costumes seem only to emphasize her features, not to disguise them, so that you're always aware of the oval face, deep eyes, rounded mouth, robust figure. This characteristic becomes most striking when she impersonates famous people, such as Cornel West, Jessye Norman, Charlton Heston, former LA police chief Daryl Gates. And because she's always revealing herself while she's portraying the character, Smith likes to start a scene broadly, almost caricaturing the subject and sometimes verging on ridicule, from which point she can tone down the performance while letting a deeper emotion come through. To let one example serve for many: She begins her portrayal of Cornel West by emphasizing his peacockery. For her one naturalistic gesture, she has him discuss the riots while enjoying a snifter of brandy. And then, sounding a lower note, she shows him pausing to say, "I don't think whites could bear to feel the sadness of black people."
Shortly after this moment comes an extraordinary segment of Marc Levin's recent documentary footage: a scene of a dinner in someone's home, where the guests at the table include Smith, Daryl Gates, Ruben Martinez, author and scholar Elaine Kim and Paul Parker (a black activist who describes the riots as a "revolution," and who organized a legal defense committee for the men who assaulted truckdriver Reginald Denny). As the conversation becomes heated, Smith intervenes: "Since we're talking," she says, "we should also listen." I can think of no better summary of her art, nor of the social and moral impulses at its core.
And if I were forced to sum up Anna Deavere Smith? I'd call her a clear-eyed, hard-working utopian. That's a tough combination to maintain; witness the recent closing of the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue, which she'd been running at Harvard. Smith had hoped that the listening that goes into her work might be practiced by groups of people who would come together in the theater. Not having witnessed the events she mounted, I can only guess at why they didn't work; but I suppose that other people simply weren't as good as Smith at this kind of thing. But that doesn't mean the attempt was unworthy. As Twilight: Los Angeles so brilliantly demonstrates, listening (like art) is not just an ornament to society. It's the thing itself.
Screening Schedule: Nation readers who receive the Turner Classic Movies channel might want to know that Wednesdays and Thursdays in October will be devoted to a series called "Ideology and the Movies." Each Wednesday, TCM will show purportedly conservative films, selected and introduced by Spencer Warren, a writer for National Review and The American Spectator. On Thursdays are films of the left, selected and introduced by the film critic of The Nation. The leftist roster includes The Battleship Potemkin, Man with a Movie Camera, Grand Illusion, Citizen Kane, The Bicycle Thief and Dr. Strangelove--so obviously, we win.