The Nation's film critic 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. His film criticism and reviews for The Nation won the 2007 National Magazine Award. When not on deadline for The Nation, he contributes articles to the New York Times and other publications.
The streets of lower Manhattan are deserted--also spotlessly clean and
glowing in the light of the golden hour--when the studio head takes the
movie director outside to tell him he's washed up. Those were great
dreams he had in New York in the old days, with Cassavetes, but they're
over. How it must wound the director to hear these words in Hollywood, on a mere back-lot
simulacrum of New York--and from his own ex-wife! How it must shame him
to hear the name of Cassavetes! Although the director claims to be the
last American auteur, who is being fired because he won't compromise,
we've seen some of the picture he was shooting, and it looks less like
Cassavetes than a feature-length ad for "Dysfunction" by Calvin Klein.
But Hollywood holds out hope even for a moviemaker who's so pretentious
that he spells his first name "Viktor." The director receives a genie in
a bottle--or, in this case, a wonderful computer program on a hard
drive. This gift puts into his hands a virtual actress, or synthespian,
who can be molded exactly as he wishes and secretly inserted into his
not-quite-finished movie. The computer program is known as Simulation
One; the virtual actress, as Simone. When the picture is released, it
will be Simone, not Viktor, who wins the public's unconditional
love--after which it's only a matter of time before he's struggling to
shove the genie back into its bottle.
"Our ability to manufacture fraud," muses the director, "now exceeds our
ability to detect it." These words will do to sum up a theme that has
emerged in the work of Andrew Niccol, who wrote and directed
Simone. He first made a name for himself as the screenwriter of
The Truman Show, in which Jim Carrey unwittingly resided on a TV
soundstage the size of an entire village. Niccol next wrote and directed
Gattaca, a futuristic fantasy about a world where you have to be
physically perfect, or else. Now comes Simone, a story about the
public's adoration for an actress who is too good to be true, and isn't.
"Simone has the voice of the young Lauren Bacall, the body of Sophia
Loren and the face of Audrey Hepburn crossed with an angel," raves one
critic about the new star. "Almost right," the director mutters.
You will observe that Simone is not a fraudulent contest winner, phony
political reformer or bogus war hero (to mention only three of the
impostors who populate Preston Sturges's movies, and so define the great
tradition of American screen comedy). Simone is a mirage of femininity,
projected by a man who can make her into just what he wants a woman to
be. Conversely, when Viktor turns against her, he can make Simone into
his image of everything he finds horrifying in a woman. Since the
director is simultaneously trying to win back his ex-wife (Catherine
Keener, in another of her hard-as-peanut-brittle roles), we can judge
how well his fantasies match reality.
It would be enough for me if Simone played out these ideas
consistently and well. But it does even more--because Viktor is
portrayed by Al Pacino. If you've seen him as the suffering detective in
Insomnia, you've had a recent reminder of how overbearing he can
be. Part of the pleasure of Simone is to see him give pretty much
the same baggy-eyed performance as Viktor, yet make the character come
out funny. Who better than Pacino to take on the role of a director,
railing against those self-regarding actors who think they're more
important than the movie? And who better to be transformed into a
porcelain-skinned blonde? Simone "acts" by mirroring her director's
gestures and speech--which means she's a Victoria's Secret version of
Pacino, right down to the hands spreading apart as if they were pulling
I confess there were moments when I merely chuckled at Simone, or
smiled, or checked my wristwatch (during the meandering third act).
There were also moments--two of them--when I laughed till I wept. I
think that's reason enough to recommend Simone for a holiday
weekend's viewing--that, and the delight of discovering there's still a
moviemaker in America who can toss up three ideas and keep them all in
American moviemakers (including those who, like Niccol, come from New
Zealand) get a hard time from Jean-Luc Godard in his most recent
feature, In Praise of Love (Éloge de l'amour). By
now, one particular sequence in that film has become notorious. A
certain Steven Spielberg wants to buy the life stories of an elderly
couple who were active in the French Resistance in World War II. The
couple's granddaughter bitterly denounces the project; but she is
silenced by Spielberg's negotiator, who comes not from DreamWorks but
the US State Department.
Although I don't want to overprotect Spielberg--he's probably capable of
defending himself--I admit I squirmed at this burlesque. But that was
just on first viewing. The second time through, having got my bearings
(which is no easy matter), I still disliked the too-facile choice of
target but could see it as something more than the product of old
Jean-Luc's crankiness. I now think it's part of a dense, thrumming
network of ideas, which concern resistance both with and without the
Resistance against what, you might ask. Godard shows you some possible
answers and lets you sound out a few others. Here are homeless people
sleeping in the rain, in the world's most beautiful city. (The larger
portion of In Praise of Love, filmed in black and white, brings
Godard back to Paris as a location, for the first time in many years.)
Here are silent, shuffling workers, cleaning railroad coaches late at
night; here is a grim, spray-painted underpass, in one of the workers'
suburbs. And here, too, is a report about the recent massacres in
Kosovo, in case you forgot that mass murder still happens at your
doorstep. Let us agree there is something in the world worth resisting,
and something within ourselves, too--call it slackness, indecision,
indifference, a failure to create ourselves as adults. Resistance is
necessary; and resistance is impossible, the voices on the soundtrack
say, without memory and universalism.
I would suggest that "Spielberg" is the name Godard gives to a false
universalism: the omnipresent culture of Hollywood, which unites people
by offering them all the same fantasies about movie stars. What might
constitute a genuine universalism? Godard's protagonist, a would-be
artist named Edgar (Bruno Putzulu), takes a stab at an answer when he
launches a project about love: its cycle of meeting, passion, rupture
and reunion; its different manifestations in youth, adulthood and old
age. An impossible project, for Edgar anyway. A perfect specimen of the
European mope--a descendant, you might say, of the screenwriter
character from Contempt--he's so weighted with historical memory
that he can't finish anything, let alone mount a resistance to
Spielbergism; so conscious of his cultural birthright that he can't love
the forceful Berthe (Cécile Camp) but can only pursue her and
then push her away.
This leaves Godard himself to love and remember and resist, in the best
way he knows how: by making something ravishing. In Praise of
Love is an achingly beautiful picture, both in its initial filmed
section and in the later portion that was shot on video, with vibrating,
Fauvist colors. (The video section seems to take us into Edgar's memory,
where he has just met Berthe, where an orange sea crashes onto chocolate
rocks.) Every image is incisive; every cut to a fresh shot, musically
timed; every musical fragment, eloquent; every spoken line, evocative of
some new picture.
Still, I can understand why some people resist the autumnal beauty of
In Praise of Love. Its sense of melancholy can become oppressive.
(There are four suicides in the story, not counting the death of Simone
Weil.) The protagonist is insufferable (and is meant to be so, I think);
and the proliferation of allusions can make you feel like the slowest
student in Professor Godard's seminar room. As has usually been the case
in his later films, the characters speak almost entirely in quotations,
while hanging around settings that are themselves in need of footnotes.
Were Godard still interested in actors, you would at least have a strong
performance to help carry you through the quiz; but he hasn't cast
anyone with a personality since he put Depardieu into Hélas
pour moi. To Godard, people are now just elements in the
sound-and-image mix. He's the sole actor.
And, of course, he is a brilliant actor. In Praise of Love may be
a kind of directorial soliloquy about loss and failure--including
cinema's failure to put up an adequate alternative to Hollywood--but
it's performed with such deftness and vigor that it can make the heart
Short Takes: In Satin Rouge, first-time feature director
Raja Amari gives us the tale of Lilia, a respectable widow in Tunis who
finds happiness through belly dancing. To get a hint of Amari's deadpan
methods, and of the magnificence of Hiam Abbass's performance as Lilia,
you need look no further than the opening shot. A 360-degree pan reveals
the details of a humble apartment, which is being briskly cleaned by a
handsome woman on the verge of middle age. Lilia dusts the mirror,
checks the surface to make sure it's clean and then belatedly notices
herself in the glass. As she does so, she begins to move to the music on
the radio. She unpins her hair, letting it flow over the shoulders of
her housedress; she dances; and then, just as simply as she'd begun, she
pins the hair up again and cleans her way out of the room. A woman
capable of such interludes might end up just about anywhere, to the
astonishment of both her daughter and the audience in the movie theater.
Lilia may well astonish you, too.
You may recall Liz Garbus as co-director of a fine documentary titled
The Farm: Angola, USA. She's back now with a new picture, The
Execution of Wanda Jean, which was made for HBO but will have a
well-deserved theatrical run, starting September 6 in New York. The
picture follows convicted murderer Wanda Jean Allen, her family, her
defense team and her victim's family over the final weeks of Wanda
Jean's life: from the preparations for her clemency hearing, to her
execution in January 2001, to her funeral. Garbus worked wonders in
winning the confidence of her subjects (as she also did in The
Farm); and to her great credit, she chose to follow a genuinely
thorny case. On the one hand, prejudice seems to have played a role in
Wanda Jean's getting the death penalty: She was an African-American
woman accused of having killed her lover, Gloria Leathers. On the other
hand, Wanda Jean had previously done time for manslaughter, and she shot
Gloria outside an Oklahoma City police station. Those of us who oppose
the death penalty need to be able to look at cases like this, take a
deep breath and then say, "Even so." The Execution of Wanda Jean
is a tough movie, and a valuable one.
Like life itself, good movies sometimes change the subject on you in
midparagraph. You think you're watching the story of an elderly man in
mourning, buoying himself up against grief and then realize he's started
to worry about younger women, who have such a distressing preference for
younger men. Or you settle down to enjoy a satire about the movie business, only to figure out that most of its characters, though peculiar to Los Angeles,
have little or nothing to do with filmmaking.
As you probably know by now, the not-quite-Hollywood story emerges in
Full Frontal, written by Coleman Hough and directed by Steven
Soderbergh. The elderly man's predicament is the subject of I'm Going
Home, written and directed by Manoel de Oliveira. It's not just the
coincidence of an August release that prompts me to put these films
together. Although one is a high-art meditation by a nonagenarian
Portuguese master, the other a sketchlike quickie by a pop-drenched
American, both films express a fascination with playacting: its evasions
and distortions, as well as its unforeseeable matchups with reality.
Despite the difference in provenance, the two pictures also tell us
something about the working conditions of today's more interesting
More on that later. Right now, I want to rush Michel Piccoli onto the
scene, so I can tell you how he first appears in I'm Going Home:
doddering at death's threshold and having the time of his life at it.
I'm Going Home casts Piccoli as Gilbert, a celebrated French
actor, who in the opening sequence is onstage in a production of
Ionesco's Exit the King--a role that calls for him to stumble
about in a cloak that looks like some kid's security blanket, thrown
over a grayish pair of thermal underwear. The figure he cuts is ancient,
palsied, pathetic; but when he turns his back to the audience to deliver
the play's final tirade, Gilbert chews and sucks and spits out his
words, roars and rasps and bellows and croons with the self-confidence
of a great actor working at full power. Without needing to show his
face, without even moving, Gilbert dominates his world.
Controlling it is another matter. While this opening sequence plays
out--Oliveira has the nerve to prolong it for an astonishing fifteen
minutes--three agents of mortality come calling for Gilbert. "I can't
hear you. Your words scare me," he protests from the stage, when the
dark messengers peep into the theater. At that, they withdraw; but they
don't retreat. Taking up positions in the wings, they wait to pronounce
their doom, while Gilbert, as king, seems to hold them off with a whine:
"I never had time." But once the applause sounds, he can no longer evade
the news; and so these fates in their business suits tell him that his
family has died in a car accident--wife, daughter and son-in-law, all at
once. Despite the close attention the camera has been paying to Gilbert,
we don't see him receive this blow. Oliveira discreetly allows the
information to reach him when he's out of the frame. Then Gilbert
clatters down a staircase and is gone.
The sight of his back disappearing through the stage door may remind us:
We haven't seen Gilbert until now, only his version of the king. It
takes another minute until we get our first look at the man himself, out
of costume and makeup; and the close-up reveals what we'd expect:
someone with the head of a glum Humpty-Dumpty. As the next sequence
starts, Gilbert is discovered staring at nothing, with a slight frown.
Yet almost at once, with only a small shift in camera setup, he is
utterly transformed: We now see he's posed behind the window of a cafe,
where he smiles and chats when the waiter comes by.
Under the weight of loss, it seems, Gilbert means to keep up his
urbanity. The next section of I'm Going Home shows how he does
it. He strolls the Paris streets, buys handsome new shoes, signs his
autograph for excited young women, plays Prospero in The Tempest
(where he ignores the smile of a fellow cast member, another young
woman). Doesn't he need companionship, his manager wants to know.
Gilbert rejects the question, perhaps more angrily than is needed. He
has his grandson, he says. He's content.
This is hubris, of course; and Gilbert will pay for it by accepting a
part in a film version of Joyce's Ulysses--a French-American
co-production that is impeccably high-minded and already foundering. In
a staggering refusal to act his age, he signs on for the role of Buck
Mulligan. In English. With three days till shooting starts. At first,
Oliveira spares us the sight of the result, just as he turned the camera
elsewhere when the terrible news was announced. Gilbert is owed that
much kindness. But the audience is owed the truth; so then we see
Gilbert struggle with ribald young Buck, only to have grief settle on
him finally like the cloak of a tattered king, ancient, palsied and
This is the second time in recent years that Oliveira has used theater
people as his characters for a story about age and loss. He did it
before in Journey to the Beginning of the World, with Marcello
Mastroianni as his surrogate; but that picture was sweeter, more rustic
and elegiac. Although I'm Going Home has some sugar of its own,
spun out of its deliberately touristic views of Paris, it comes much
closer to heartbreak. This is, at last, a movie about the impossibility
of imagining your way out of old age. It's a theme that Piccoli acts
with great beauty and sorrow; one that Oliveira directs with the
exquisite sureness a filmmaker may attain in the eighth decade of his
Distributed by Milestone Film and Video, I'm Going Home is
beginning a US theatrical run at Film Forum in New York.
The people in Full Frontal live in Los Angeles, and so their idea
of irredeemable old age is 40. The plot's conceit is that a producer who
is facing that awful birthday has invited all the other characters to
his party. Some are currently shooting a movie for him; others are
hangers-on, who nevertheless have contributed something of their lives
to his production. Carl (David Hyde Pierce), a wretched employee of
Los Angeles magazine, banged out the movie's screenplay in his
spare time. Carl's energetically aggrieved wife, Lee (Catherine Keener),
is meanwhile banging the movie's male lead.
The story of Lee and Carl is told as if it were a documentary, shot on
digital video with voiceover narration. These scenes generally look a
bit crummier than they might have. When Soderbergh shoots a tryst in a
hotel room, first making the lovers' bodies into a pulsing kaleidoscope,
then snapping the image into focus with a brutally unadorned close-up of
Keener, you see how magical he can be with video. Most of the time,
though, he doesn't want magic. The "real people" in Full Frontal
tend to look decomposed, even ghostly, in the buzzing light; whereas the
"movie characters" (played by Julia Roberts and Blair Underwood) inhabit
a schlock-cinema world that's as persuasive as it is preposterous, since
it's shot in sparklingly clear 35-millimeter.
It's good fun to watch how reality warps as it crosses into movie--to
see, for example, how Blair Underwood first embodies everything that
threatens Carl, then turns into his heroic fantasy double. But this is
only the first layer of playacting in Full Frontal. Lee, who
works as a corporate personnel officer, uses her exit interviews as a
form of psychodrama (one in which somebody gets fired, but no one is
cured). Her sister Linda (Mary McCormack) goes around town under an
assumed name (she's a masseuse) and makes online dates using a chat-room
identity. The producer, it turns out, is about to stage a real-life
imposture; and everybody has a more than casual interest in porn.
Considering how many fabulations abound in Full Frontal, you will
perhaps forgive Soderbergh for not savaging the lies of the movie
business, as some critics have assumed he should have done. He seems to
feel that the urge to satirize Hollywood is itself in need of
satirizing; and so he has one of his characters liken a movie mogul to
Hitler, not just in passing but onstage, in a theater production, so you
can judge whether such comparisons might be, shall we say, overstated.
This subplot of Full Frontal yields the film's funniest moments
(Nicky Katt's improvisatory turn as the Bel-Air Führer
outproduces The Producers); but it also underscores a point. The
real producer in Full Frontal (David Duchovny) is almost a blank.
So, too, are the movie-star characters, who may be the least interesting
figures in the picture.
The thick, complicated people in Full Frontal are office workers
and a veterinarian and Lee and Carl, who perhaps read too much of
themselves into the pretty void of the movies. Lee might be the ultimate
Catherine Keener role; what other actress could turn an inflatable globe
into the tool of a dominatrix, and really enjoy it, and simultaneously
be alarmed by her own craziness? Pierce, meanwhile, takes the role of
Carl as a gift, savoring every one of the man's screwups and continually
finding the decency that underlies them. Pierce is playing someone who
is derided for drinking his beer out of a glass. When he later removes a
frosted mug from the refrigerator and considers whether to use it,
Pierce makes that decision into just enough of a victory to save his
For some of Soderbergh's moralizing critics, though, this is not enough.
They complain that the director of Ocean's Eleven is being
pretentious by working fast and cheap. Perhaps these same critics have
not yet forgiven Roberto Rossellini for defiling his art with Ingrid
Bergman--or is it Bergman they can't forgive, for having left Hollywood
for Rossellini? I'm perpetually amazed at the way some people really
want big-money movies to be trashy (perhaps so they can be safely
sneered at), while imagining that small-budget filmmakers have a duty to
remain pure, and inconsequential. In the actual film world, though,
Oliveira casts John Malkovich in I'm Going Home, and Soderbergh
adopts a few Dogme 95 rules (just the ones he likes) to make Full
Frontal. That doesn't mean that Oliveira is a sellout or Soderbergh
a poseur. It just means that film culture continues to exist on the
art-house level, where a certain internationalism flourishes. That's a
good thing for filmmakers who choose to keep their eyes and minds open,
and it's a good thing for us moviegoers.
Otherwise, we'd all have to go home.
Short Takes: Merchant of uplift M. Night Shyamalan gives us his
latest message from Beyond in Signs, the story of a
self-defrocked Pennsylvania minister and his strangely geometric crops.
It seems that God has killed the minister's wife, then dispatched to
Earth a plague of carnivorous extraterrestrials, who trample the fields
and make screen doors creak; but all is well in the end, since these
events move the minister to reaffirm his faith. Untold millions carried
off so that one can be saved? I'd say God's methods are
inefficient--which might be why Mel Gibson has to waste all his deadpan
humor on an ultimately lifeless starring role. In its story and methods
no less than its setting, Signs is nothing but corn.
Blood Work documents the latest stage in Clint Eastwood's aging,
in which he collapses while chasing the bad guy and undergoes
heart-transplant surgery, yet still remains Clint enough to smooch with
the raven-haired babe. The story in which he accomplishes these feats
follows classic whodunit rules, which means that the murderer must be in
plain view throughout. Unfortunately, the screenplay, by Brian
Helgeland, supplies only one possible suspect. Even people who move
their lips while reading will figure out the solution before Clint gets
to it; which is strange, because he doesn't seem to have wasted much
time directing the picture. The actors knock around loose in the frame,
line readings fall into silence and the mind drifts back to In the
Line of Fire, when Clint was feeling his age but hadn't yet checked
into intensive care.
Dispatches from adolescent territory reach me occasionally through my
niece Michelle, who has moved into her teen years like the
Wehrmacht hitting Belgium. Her most recent posting has taught me
this about contemporary film culture: While visiting a Midwest resort
town with a friend, Michelle was delighted to discover a street of quaint shops, as well as a theater that played old movies. Which old movies, I wanted to know.
"Spider-Man," she said.
In the hope that this column might fall into the hands of teenagers, I
therefore begin with an apology. Some of the movies I am about to
discuss have been running for two weeks, or even longer. That's enough
for them to have earned most of whatever theatrical revenue they can
expect; enough that they are now being pushed into the back reaches of
the public's attention, so that next week's movies can be marketed. I
want to write about these pictures precisely because they were
made to be forgotten (like Men in Black II); or, conversely,
because they are already starting to fade, despite their makers' best
I also want to write about a film that just might stick in the mind:
Langrishe, Go Down, starring Judi Dench and Jeremy Irons. But
there I'm cheating. Although that film is only now being released, it
doesn't really count as current, since it was made in 1978.
To people who dislike movies and attend only films, it might seem
obvious that Men in Black II can't compete against Langrishe,
Go Down (which has not only Dench and Irons to its credit but also a
screenplay by Harold Pinter). But then, to my mind, Langrishe, Go
Down can scarcely compete against the original Men in Black,
which so brightened the summer of 1997. While that picture cheerfully
fulfilled every duty of a sci-fi special-effects comedy, it also won a
permanent place in memory by developing a theme that should interest
thoughtful teenagers and adults alike.
In its portrayals of agents Kay and Jay (Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith)
and of the coroner who stumbled onto their secrets (Linda Fiorentino),
Men in Black proposed that knowledge has to be paid for, and that
the cost is often loneliness. Fiorentino, you may recall, played a
scientist whose zeal for research allowed her no living companions.
Smith played a New York cop who had to choose between satisfying his
curiosity and maintaining relations with his friends and family--not
much of a decision in his case, since he was already thoroughly
alienated. (In a training exercise, Smith shot to death a cute little
blond girl but left unmolested a fanged and tentacled potato from Outer
Space, with which he seemed to empathize.) As for Jones, he strutted and
snapped his way through the movie as if a show of bravado were all that
could keep him going. "We are a gullible species," he sighed at one
point, as if wishing he might lay down his burden and rejoin the
credulous. Everyone except Smith understood this ragged man was on his
Clearly, Jones should have stayed in the retirement he achieved at the
end of Men in Black. Smith should have remained partners with
Fiorentino, and the sequel (if there had to be one) ought to have been
written by Ed Solomon, who so ingeniously handled the original. Maybe he
would have titled the picture Men and Women in Black. Instead, we
get the throwaway Men in Black II, which disposes of Fiorentino
in half a line of dialogue and uses the same method to eliminate the
wife for whom Jones once pined. (It's as if the audience could be purged
of memory, just like the movie's neuralized civilians.) With these
impediments to buddy-movie business cleared away, the screenplay (by
Robert Gordon and Barry Fanaro) can proceed to reunite Smith and Jones
and replay, with slight variations, the simpler gags from the first
Time passes, hope sinks and a theme emerges, unfortunately. Men in
Black II shows that only two kinds of women exist on other planets:
shining saints and snaky monsters. If this is so, then Earth must be
bigger and more varied than the whole rest of the universe--a notion
that runs counter to the spirit I recall with such joy from the first,
the one true, Men in Black.
As you may know, Men in Black was based on a comic book by Lowell
Cunningham; so it has something in common with Road to Perdition,
a gangster picture spawned from a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and
Richard Piers Rayner. Under the fussy and portentous direction of Sam
Mendes (who previously postured his way through American Beauty),
Road to Perdition is clearly a far more ambitious movie than
Men in Black II. It boasts the very substantial talents of Tom
Hanks and Paul Newman in lead roles, an unnerving performance by Jude
Law in a crucial supporting part and magically dark, dense
cinematography by Conrad L. Hall. The story would seem to be worth
telling (it's about murderous gangster fathers and the sons who are
either loyal or disloyal to them, either willing or unwilling to follow
their path); and the setting is the Depression-era Midwest, which always
helps a movie. And yet very little of Road to Perdition lingers,
except for a feeling that you've been carried along.
Most of the carrying happens when mob hit man Michael Sullivan (Hanks)
is driving around the wintry plains with his 12-year-old son, Mike
(Tyler Hoechlin). The two are both fleeing a killer (Law) and chasing
the men who dispatched him--a situation that allows for a couple of
good, tense confrontations. Since Hanks thinks it would be helpful to
empty Al Capone's bank accounts, there's also a series of jolly
robberies. I would guess these episodes take up about fifteen minutes of
the movie. The rest is murk, forced lyricism and mounting corpses.
Perhaps you won't care when I reveal that almost no one survives, since
the deaths never matter. They just happen, like ticks of a metronome.
Each beat gives Sam Mendes the opportunity to make pretty arrangements:
an image of violence framed by a man's legs, a flash at a nighttime
window, a brightly lit homage to David's Death of Marat, a
tracking shot of men silently collapsing in the rain. Watching these
stage-derived tableaux vivants, I began to think better of the
movie-mad energy of Miller's Crossing, in which the Coen brothers
invested their overcoats-and-hats gangsters with both drive and
character. Maybe Miller's Crossing has also turned out to be
forgettable in large part; but its core moments (such as the scene of
John Turturro begging for his life) dig right into you, as if they were
newly installed neural pathways to the heart.
Road to Perdition? A passing flutter.
John Sayles can't be accused of prettifying his films, and he would
never kill a character for lack of anything better to do. What's more,
he despises the grand simplifications that are so common in comic books,
graphic novels and pop moviemaking. In Sunshine State, he sets up
for ridicule the fabulations of history pageants and real-estate
developers, so he can show off to better advantage his own, more
intricate vision of the social network. It's a strategy he's used in
many earlier films, just as he visited Texas and Alaska before this
excursion into Florida. From Sayles, you get highly specific landscapes,
reliable accounts of politics and commerce, and (more often than not)
actresses to die for--in this case, in alphabetical order, Jane
Alexander, Mary Alice, Angela Bassett and Edie Falco.
All this is admirable. I just wish Sayles would also put a little movie
into the movie.
Sunshine State isn't claptrap, like Divine Secrets of the
Ya-Ya Sisterhood, but it shares that picture's claptrap method of
being almost entirely expository. In scene after scene, Sayles tells you
exactly what he thinks you should know about Florida, often by putting
into the mouth of a character the kind of cliché-twisting
monologue that keeps rational people away from Off Broadway plays. I
think this is a waste of good actors--and the effects are nowhere more
evident than in the parts of Sunshine State you forget, or that
Sayles forgot. Tell me, if you've seen the picture: Can you recall what
finally becomes of Terrell (Alex Lewis), the troubled teenager whose act
of vandalism begins the story? He's hustled away so perfunctorily, once
he's served the purpose of uniting two strands of the plot, that he
might as well be Linda Fiorentino. And can you remember anything the
American Indian construction worker does in the movie, other than wait
around to be an American Indian at a crucial moment? For a filmmaker
with a social conscience, Sayles is awfully quick to use characters as
means, rather than ends.
So, for a dose of something eccentric and memorable, I turn to
Langrishe, Go Down.
David Jones directed this picture in 1978 for the BBC, working from
Harold Pinter's screenplay. New York's Film Forum is now giving the
movie a much-belated theatrical release (July 17-30), no doubt on the
strength of Judi Dench's ascent to stardom. She is, in fact, a wonder in
the role of Imogen Langrishe, one of a household of spinsters living in
ever-more-impoverished gentility on an estate outside Dublin. The period
is the 1930s, when such descents from grandeur were not uncommon for the
Irish gentry; nor would it have been unlikely for a self-styled scholar
from Bavaria (Jeremy Irons) to show up in the neighborhood to do
research, and to assert with sudden, unmotivated violence that he is
indifferent to politics, absolutely indifferent.
Sayles himself could not ask for a more realistic, closely observed
setting. (In this regard, Langrishe, Go Down owes a lot to its
source, the novel of the same title by Aidan Higgins.) But the way the
film's seduction and repulsion play themselves out--you understood,
surely, that Dench and Irons have an affair--is utterly unpredictable.
Irons turns himself into a fun-house mirror version of the
self-important German intellectual, complete with an accent that keeps
migrating toward Transylvania. He never stops talking; whereas Dench,
who is given relatively few lines, speaks volumes with her eyes and the
set of her mouth. You understand, without a word, how she sees through
Irons. She's amused by him; she feels this may be the last amusement
she'll get; and she enjoys it, until the underlying frustration and rage
To all this, David Jones adds a fragmented, time-shuffling montage
that's reminiscent of Alain Resnais. Or is the film's structure also a
Pinter contribution, like the lines of dialogue that continually run
askew? All I know is that this odd little movie has lodged in my brain,
not comfortably, perhaps, but permanently.
Langrishe, Go Down is a keeper.
In Steven Spielberg's latest picture, a skinheaded psychic named Agatha
keeps challenging Tom Cruise with the words, "Can you see?" The
question answers itself: Cruise sees in Minority Report, but not
well enough. He must learn to recognize his ocular limitations--a task
he accomplishes by enduring chase scenes, double-crosses, confrontations at gunpoint and a few jocularly
nauseating trials, conducted in Spielberg's bucket-of-bugs, Indiana
In Jacques Audiard's new picture, by contrast, Emmanuelle Devos can't
hear, and she knows it from the start. The first shot in Read My
Lips is an image of her tucking a hearing aid behind one ear, then
concealing it with her hair. Her first lines, spoken while answering the
phone in a nerve-jangling office, include the words, "I didn't hear. Can
you repeat that?" Her task in the movie--accomplished through acts of
larceny and hostage-taking--is to learn how much power she might have,
despite her aural limitations.
Ineluctable modalities of the filmable! We are discussing not only sight
and sound but also America and France, plot and character, man and
woman, innocence and experience. Film culture needs both sides; so if I
tell you that I'd gladly watch Read My Lips several times but
will be content with one viewing of Minority Report, please don't
take it to mean that Minority Report shouldn't be seen at all. On
the contrary: To miss it would be like bypassing one of those grand and
macabre curiosities that lie just off the tourist's route--like visiting
Madrid, for example, without troubling to descend the marbled stair to
the crypt of the Escorial. In the monumental edifice of Minority
Report, as in that palatial tomb, you may encounter something madly
idiosyncratic, yet absolutely characteristic of its culture. It's just
not much of a pleasure; whereas Read My Lips is so much fun, it
could be retitled Curl My Toes.
But, to begin with Spielberg:
After last summer's release of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, all
true filmoids were eager to know what nightmare he might next sweat out
in public. Under the influence of Stanley Kubrick, under the pretense of
selling us entertainment, Spielberg had made a nakedly confessional
movie about abandonment, disillusionment and the corruptions of show
business. Past a certain point, of course, the picture was a misshapen
wreck; but that was because A.I. struggled so desperately to
escape itself and concoct a happy ending. The harder it strained, the
more compelling, and horrifying, it became. I felt that Spielberg had at
last tapped into emotions he'd located not in his audience but in
himself. Could he maintain that connection, now that he'd established
it? That was the question hanging over Minority Report.
The answer is now before us, in the only futuristic, metaphysical
thriller I can think of that takes the violation of civil liberties as
its theme and the abuse of children as its obsession. These twin facets
of Minority Report come together, improbably but unforgettably,
in the figures of oracles known as Pre-Cogs. They lie in a bottom-lit,
Y-shaped pool somewhere in Washington, DC, in the year 2054: three
damaged orphans who are adult in form but fetal in situation, since they
are kept floating in an amniotic fluid of high narcotic content. Their
fate (you can't really call it a job) is to remain forever in that stage
of childhood where every shadow in the bedroom conceals a monster.
Unfortunately, the monsters are real: They are the murderers who will
strike in the near future, and whose crimes the psychics not only
foresee but experience. You might think someone would take pity on the
Pre-Cogs and release them from these visions, at which they convulse in
pain and horror. Instead, for the public benefit, a police agency called
the Department of Pre-Crime maintains these creatures in a permanent
state of terror.
We come to the theme of civil liberties, which must have required some
precognition on Spielberg's part, since Minority Report went into
production well before John Ashcroft declared due process to be an
unaffordable luxury. It is the movie's conceit (borrowed from the
writings of Philip K. Dick) that the police may someday arrest people
pre-emptively, for crimes they would have committed had they been left
on the loose. As chief of the Pre-Crime unit, Tom Cruise sees no problem
with this practice, either legally or philosophically--which is why he
is half-blind. He doesn't yet understand that the rights he takes away
from others may also be taken from him.
But I'm making it sound as if Minority Report constructs an
argument, when it actually contrives a delirium. A sane movie would have
been content to give Cruise a reason for arresting pre-criminals. For
example, he could have been blinded by the pain of losing a son. That,
in fact, is how the plot accounts for Cruise's keen efficiency; but it
isn't enough of an explanation for Spielberg, who goes on to embed a
second rationale in the mise en scène. Every setting, prop
and gesture shows us that Cruise does this job because it excites him.
He's in his brush-cut mode in Minority Report. He rockets around
Washington, rappels onto the pre-crime scene, dives at the last second
between the would-be killer and the not-quite-victim--and that's just
the conventional part of his work. The real thrill comes from
interpreting the Pre-Cogs' visions, which he does in front of a
wraparound computer screen while a stereo pipes in the Unfinished
Symphony. Waving his hands against the music's rhythm, making
digital images slide around at will, he looks like a cross between an
orchestra conductor and a film editor, working at some Avid console of
So childhood pain in Minority Report bleeds into fear of crime,
which blossoms into a fantasy of omnipotence--and this fantasy in turn
sows further pain, in the form of little stabs to the eye. In the year
2054, government bureaus and advertising agencies alike scan your retina
wherever you go, blinding you with lasers a hundred times a day to track
your whereabouts, your spending, your preferences in clothing from the
Gap. What does it matter if Cruise comes to see the dangerous fallacy of
pre-crime? Human freedom has already vanished from his world, in the
blink of an eye.
I hope it's clear from this summary that Minority Report not only
represents another of Spielberg's Major Statements but also continues
his risky new practice of self-expression--risky because his feelings
remain unresolved, and also because he allows them to be Major. A
solemnity pervades the movie, making itself felt most tellingly at
moments of incidental humor. Spielberg has never been a rollicking
filmmaker--the human activities that least interest him are laughter and
sex--but in the past he's known how to raise a chuckle, and he's known
when to do it. In Minority Report, though, clumsy throwaway gags
keep interrupting the action, as if Spielberg had lost his sense of how
to play with the audience. Slapstick assaults upon a family at the
dinner table, or Olympian sneers at bickering couples, do nothing to
leaven Minority Report. The movie's ponderousness is relieved
only by Samantha Morton's uncanny portrayal of the psychic Agatha and by
Lois Smith's turn as Dr. Hineman, the researcher who ought to have
healed the Pre-Cogs but instead turned them into tools of the police.
When Cruise goes to visit Smith at her greenhouse hideaway, the colors
of Brutalist architecture briefly give way to those of nature, and the
pace of the acting triples. Speaking her lines over and around Cruise,
Smith plays her role in the manner of Vladimir Horowitz dashing off an
"Who is the strongest Pre-Cog?" Cruise wants to know. Smith smiles
indulgently at the blind man. "Why, the woman, dear." This claim of
female superiority has the charm of gallantry; it's Spielberg's gift to
the actress. But as it's developed in the rest of the movie, the notion
(like far too much of Minority Report) lacks the flourish that
gallantry requires. I offer sincere congratulations to Spielberg for at
least two-thirds of this picture; but now I think it's time to leave
Minority Report and consider a movie about a real woman.
Her name is Carla. She works for a real estate development company,
where she's treated like part of the office equipment. As embodied by
Emmanuelle Devos, Carla has an apology for a hairdo and a choked-off
complaint for a lower lip. When she's casually insulted--her paperwork
ruined by the spill from a coffee cup, her skirt stained suggestively
under the rump--Carla falls apart so completely that her boss offers to
let her hire an assistant. "Trainees are cheap," he explains, as if that
would make her feel better. She hires one anyway and comes up with the
man of her dreams: Paul (Vincent Cassel), a greasy, long-haired,
leather-jacketed, muttering ex-con, who assures her (while his eyes scan
for the exit) that sure, he's worked with, uhm, spreadsheets. Plenty of
One of the pleasures of Read My Lips--a pleasure that isn't
available in Minority Report--is the way the movie invites you to
see into these characters, who always amount to more than their
functions in the plot. Early on, for example, when Carla and Paul are
just getting to know each other, you see how they might be bound by a
common lack of decorum. "What were you in jail for?" Carla asks bluntly,
violating rule number one for dealing with ex-cons. Paul answers her,
then asks in turn, "So you're deaf? I mean, really deaf? Like, you can't
hear?" Although she tells him to shut up, Carla doesn't hesitate to play
along when he asks her to read someone's lips. He likes her willingness
to trespass on others. She likes the muscle he provides.
Although Carla's alliance with Paul develops uneasily, it's not without
humor. (No false notes here; Audiard always gets the tone right.) But
even though the bumps and jolts of the plot are intriguing--and far more
numerous than those in Minority Report--what's perhaps most
engaging in Read My Lips is the evocation of Carla's reality. The
images are often incomplete, oddly framed, out of focus, unsteady,
surprisingly closeup, bathed in shadow, richly colored, dreamily slow.
This is the subjective vision of human eyes, not the objective gaze of
the camera--and Carla sees it all the more vividly because the world of
sound is closed.
I like the sensuousness of Read My Lips and the nuance of its
portrait of a woman. I like the sense of possibility in the characters,
the interplay between Devos and Cassel, the mundane realism of the plot
(which asks you to believe only that the real estate business isn't
entirely clean, and that large sums of cash sometimes flow through
bars). I even like the happy ending. Although Spielberg's picture is the
one titled Minority Report--an ironic name for a Tom Cruise
blockbuster, as its maker surely knows--Read My Lips files the
story that's too infrequently heard.
Although car chases are formulaic, they needn't be standard issue. One
of the many substantial pleasures that The Bourne Identity offers
is a thoughtful car chase, a loving car chase, in which the characters
truly care about their conduct amid prolonged automotive mayhem. It
doesn't hurt, of course, that the scene is Paris. The streets there are barely wide enough for a single fleeing vehicle--which means that Jason Bourne may as well use the sidewalk when he needs an extra lane. Once the pedestrians dive out
of the way, he gets to skid through every degree of turn except
ninety--Descartes never laid his grid over this city--until the route
ends at a set of stairs. They're very picturesque; and considering what
his car's undercarriage was already like, they can't do much harm.
By the time the car fully resumes the horizontal, some of the pursuing
motorcycle cops have managed to pull up. "Turn your head," Jason warns
his passenger, Marie Kreutz, in a surprisingly gentle tone. She was
guzzling booze straight from the bottle even before this ride; he'd
rather not worsen her alarm by letting her watch the next maneuver. But
we see it, as one cop after another is shaken off and the car hurtles
onto a highway. At last--a chance to make time! The camera drops to
within an inch of the macadam so that our brains, too, can get a good
rattle, as Jason and Marie's car seems to race straight out of the
screen. Then, almost without transition, it's shooting through more
non-Cartesian turns, off a ramp, past the spot where the last motorcycle
cop makes his rendezvous with a passing truck, to come to a very
temporary version of rest.
How should a car chase end? If the sequence is standard issue, the
filmmaker will require a fireball, or a roll downhill and then a
fireball, followed perhaps by the sight of the good guys speeding away.
But in The Bourne Identity, director Doug Liman has been witty
enough to conclude the sequence by having Jason pull into a parking
garage. From this, we may learn that the hero is a fundamentally
conventional person, despite what he's been doing for the past five
minutes. But this is only part of what we learn--because Liman is also
clever enough to make the real action start when the motor stops.
All but vibrating from what they've been through, Marie and Jason sit in
the car in silence, each glancing awkwardly toward the other and then
looking away. The camera, static at last, takes them both in at once.
Time stretches; they squirm. Someone is going to have to say something
pretty soon--and the words, when they come, will have the shy banality
of a postcoital stab at conversation, when the two people have scarcely
met and are wondering what the hell they've just done.
For me, this was the moment when The Bourne Identity revealed its
true nature, as a study of those people in their 20s who can't yet put
up with workaday life. Liman has looked at such characters before, in
Swingers and Go. Those movies were about using
recreational drugs, selling recreational drugs, selling over-the-counter
medicines that you claim are recreational drugs, losing yourself in
music, losing yourself in lap dancing, losing your sense that this cute
thing before you might not be an ideal companion when you get to be 70.
Jobs in these movies count for little or nothing; friendships mean the
world, though they're always breaking apart. If you can recognize these
attitudes, and if you're familiar with the behavior through which
they're expressed nowadays, you will understand Jason Bourne and Marie
Kreutz. They're typical Doug Liman characters, who just happen to live
in a spy thriller.
Now, since The Bourne Identity is adapted from a Robert Ludlum
novel and was written for the screen by two people other than the
director, you might doubt the wisdom of ascribing all the above to
Liman. But look at the casting. In the title role, Liman has Matt Damon,
who carries over from Good Will Hunting his persona of the
regular working stiff--an unpretentious guy who must nevertheless come
to grips with a great power he's been given. In Good Will
Hunting, the gift was mathematical genius, which somehow was shut up
behind Damon's sloping brow and wary, squinting eyes. In The Bourne
Identity, in which he plays a CIA assassin suffering from amnesia,
Damon is puzzled to hear himself speak many languages, and to find that
his arms and legs demolish anyone who threatens him. Different skills;
same aura of being troubled, but decent and game. When Jason Bourne
refuses to hold on to a gun--something that he does more than once in
the picture--Damon infuses the gesture with the gut-level morality of a
Catholic boy from South Boston.
Paired with Damon, in the role of Marie, is Franka Potente, the young
German actress who is best known for Run Lola Run. She, too, has
retained her persona from the earlier film, so that she brings to Marie
a convincing impression of having enjoyed quite a few good times over
the past years, many of which she can't remember. Her basic facial
expression is something between a scowl and a sneer--the sign, you'd
think, of a feral sexuality that bores her, because it encounters no
worthy challengers and yet prevents her from concentrating on anything
else. No wonder she runs--or drifts in this case, playing someone who
has done nothing since high school except wander about. When first seen
in The Bourne Identity, Potente is at the American Embassy in
Zurich, making a pain of herself by demanding a visa to which she is
most likely not entitled. When first approached by Damon, Potente
establishes her baseline attitude toward people by snapping "What are
you looking at?" Her Marie isn't a bad person, you
understand--she's just been bad news for any man she's hung around. Now,
though, she's met the right guy in Jason Bourne, meaning someone who can
be bad news for her.
I think it's worthwhile to compare these characters with those played by
Chris Rock and Anthony Hopkins in Bad Company, a routine
bomb-in-a-suitcase thriller, whose main function is to help audiences
kill time till the release of Men in Black 2. Hopkins plays the
self-controlled CIA agent, who is so white he's English. Rock plays
(guess what?) the street-smart, fast-talking black guy, who must be put
into the field at once, or else the world will end. There's an
underground trade in nuclear weapons, you see, which Hopkins can foil
only with the aid of someone who looks exactly like Rock.
And there's the essential problem of Bad Company. The mere
appearance of Chris Rock is supposedly enough; the assignment requires
no one to act like him. In any decent movie of this sort--48
Hours, say, or Trading Places--the white character will fail
in his task, except for the wiles the black character can lend him. But
in Bad Company, Rock exists solely to be educated. A very smart
man who has made nothing of his abilities--the reasons for which failure
are left disturbingly vague--his character must be trained to wear a
suit, sip Bordeaux and rise at dawn. These traits, according to the
movie, are proper to a white man; and Rock will help defeat terrorism by
adopting them. As an interim goal for the character, this is bad enough.
What's worse is the final justification for rubbing some white onto
Rock: to make him a fit husband.
Bad Company was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, directed by Joel
Schumacher and written, so far as I can tell, by the welfare policy
officials of the Bush Administration. Heartless in theme and faceless in
style, it is so many thousands of feet of off-the-shelf filmmaking,
through which you sift, disconsolate, in search of a single live moment.
There is one: the scene in which Rock tells off a CIA supervisor. Of
course, this, too, is part of the formula; but when Rock lets loose his
falsetto indignation, the world's shams all wash away in the torrent.
You feel clean and free, listening to Rock's outrage. I wonder what he'd
say in private about this movie.
Maybe he'd say The Bourne Identity has more soul than all of Joel
Schumacher's films put together. I think soulfulness has to do with
acknowledging the reserves of personality in someone who might at first
seem a mere type--or acknowledging, for that matter, the personality in
a movie that appears generic. It's about individual but strict judgments
of right and wrong; and, always, it's about the exuberance of talent.
This last point is the one that makes The Bourne Identity into
Liman's movie. His direction is a performance in its own right,
combining the logic and flair of a first-rate bop solo. He attends to
the small, naturalistic gestures--the way Jason pauses to brush snow off
his sleeve, or Marie shields her mouth to hide a smile. He pushes the
cinematography to extremes, using low levels of light from very few
sources, to give you a sense of intimacy with the characters' flesh. He
continually thinks up ways to keep the action fresh. Sometimes his
tricks are unobtrusive, as when he makes a shot shallower than you'd
expect, and so more arresting. Sometimes he's expressive, as when Bourne
teeters on a rickety fire escape, and the camera peers down at his peril
while swinging overhead. And sometimes he's flat-out wild. In the midst
of a fight scene, Liman tosses in a point-of-view shot, about half a
second long, to show you what the bad guy sees as he flies over a desk,
upside down. If my schedule of screenings and deadlines had been more
merciful, I would now compare Liman's direction with that of the master,
John Woo, in his new Windtalkers. But I wasn't able to see
Windtalkers by press time; and, on reflection, I'm glad I didn't.
The Bourne Identity deserves to be enjoyed for its own sake.
If you're interested in the plot, you can enjoy that, too. I've left it
till last, since that's what Liman does. In one of his cheekiest
gestures, he lets the movie's McGuffin go unexplained. But as a public
service, I will give you this much detail: The Bourne Identity
assumes that the CIA's activities are an endless chain of cover-ups,
with each new calamity needing to be hidden in turn. That's why the
agency needs unlimited power.
Bad Company? Right.
As all reputable news outlets assure us, privatization benefits
everyone--which is lucky, since these same outlets report that
privatization is inevitable. We live out a happy fate, which rolls on
despite the occasional need to report, say, the resignation under fire
of Britain's transport secretary, Stephen Byers. Mr. Byers comes to mind because I happen to be writing to you on the very day he stepped down, following the bankruptcy of his privatized Railtrack service, and also the fifth fatal rail crash in six years of newly efficient service.
You may have noticed that when the route of progress bumps over such
inconveniences, all reputable reports concentrate on the disappointment
of the privatizers (who nevertheless must go on) and of consumers (who
certainly will be happier sometime soon). Nobody ever seems to report on
the experience of the privatized workers--nobody, that is, except for
Ken Loach. His new film, The Navigators, finds drama in the
resentments and resistances, adjustments and accommodations of a crew of
track repairmen in Yorkshire, who yesterday worked for British Rail and
today begin working for a new company, Midlands Infrastructure, which in
another two weeks will be called something else entirely. Not that the
name matters. Twelve more weeks down the line, and the men will all be
working for themselves--that is, for an employment agency, which will
hire them out to contractors who needn't bother with sick pay, vacation
time or a superstitious regard for safety rules.
The Navigators is now about to receive its US premiere as the
opening-night feature of the Human Rights Watch International Film
Festival. Now in its thirteenth year, the festival will be on view June
14-27 at New York's Walter Reade Theater, in Lincoln Center, where Ken
Loach is also scheduled to receive the Irene Diamond Lifetime
Achievement Award. An unaffectedly modest man, Loach will probably try
to blend in with the audience, as if hoping someone else will show up to
claim the prize. But as The Navigators shows, it's his by right.
Every performance in the film is effortlessly convincing; every scene
plays out with its own easy rhythm. There's time and space in The
Navigators for domestic trials (as when a man attempts to court his
estranged wife and winds up feeding a bouquet of roses through the mail
slot), casual slapstick and practical jokes--even for a spirited defense
of day labor. "There's plenty of work, at top dollar," declares one of
the crew, who seems happy now to be an entrepreneur of his own labor
power. And so, when doom strikes, it seems foreordained but not at all
Of the pictures I had a chance to sample in this year's festival--there
are thirty-three in all--The Navigators struck me as being both
the freshest and the most Old Masterly. This is hardly a definitive
statement; I wasn't able to preview such big bookends of the festival as
the new feature films by Costa-Gavras and Chris Eyre or the new
documentary by Fabrizio Lazzaretti and Alberto Vendemmiati, the team
that made Jung: War in the Land of the Mujaheddin. But here are a
Lourdes Portillo went to Ciudad Juárez, just across the border
from El Paso, to make Señorita Extraviada (Missing Young
Woman), a documentary on the kidnapping and murder of hundreds of
women over the past decade. You may be aware that workers from the
booming assembly factories in Juárez have been turning up dead in
the desert, after having been raped, mutilated and burned. What you may
not know is that the authorities to date have arrested exactly one
suspect, whom they blame for everything; that the killings continue,
despite the chosen culprit's imprisonment; that the police officers
investigating these cases maybe ought to handcuff themselves; and that
in the eighteen months Portillo spent in making this film, another fifty
young women disappeared. Although Portillo brings a skeptic's
sensibility to these events, I wish she'd been more skeptical still.
Some of the testimony that she accepts strains credulity, despite its
coming from victims. But, that said, she isn't preparing a legal brief.
She's creating a meditative investigation--or is it an investigative
meditation?--and doing it with real poetic power.
Of the many films in this year's festival that deal with conflict in the
Middle East, most seem to me to be sketches toward a movie, rather than
finished works. Valuable raw information emerges about Palestinian and
Israeli attitudes in Michal Aviad's Ramleh, Mai Masri's
Frontiers of Dreams and Fears, Jean Khalil Chamoun's In the
Shadows of the City, Avi Mograbi's August; but you have to
sift through self-indulgence, self-righteousness, clumsy fictionalizing
or diffident storytelling to get at the data. The exception, among the
films I was able to preview, is Rachel Leah Jones's 500 Dunam on the
Jones had the wit to seize on a revelatory topic for her picture and the
patience to develop it fully, telling the story of three villages in the
Galilee. The first was Ayn Hawd, an old Arab settlement that Israeli
forces emptied in 1948. The second village, built from the first, is Ein
Hod, an artists' colony established in 1953 on Dadaist principles. (I
wish I were kidding, but I'm not.) To this day, Ein Hod remains a
well-frequented site for the production and sale of bad Israeli art. And
to this day, nearby, many former residents of Ayn Hawd live in the
third, makeshift village, Ayn Hawd al-Jadida (New Ayn Hawd), a place
that officially does not exist, even though its inhabitants do the heavy
labor in Ein Hod, helping to keep their former homes picturesque.
Finally, let me mention two films from The Nation's orbit. The
Trials of Henry Kissinger is a brisk, well-argued documentary
directed by Eugene Jarecki and written by Alex Gibney, based largely on
Christopher Hitchens's book of similar title. Unlike Lourdes Portillo's
documentary, this one really is put together like a legal brief, and a
very effective one at that. Of course, as a Nation type, I've
always thought of Kissinger as a war criminal and am glad to see the
filmmakers make the case. I complain only that they may have been a
touch too adulatory to the writer who has guided them. However estimable
his work, Hitchens is not quite the lone, precedent-shattering crusader
that he appears here.
Then again, at the mere mention of the Hitchens name, Gen. Alexander
Haig trembles with rage and sputters, "He, he's a sewer-pipe sucker! He
sucks the sewer pipe!" This is an enviable endorsement, on which we
should all congratulate the author.
Congratulations also to John Friedman and Eric Nadler, whose documentary
Stealing the Fire will have its US premiere at the festival. An
investigation of the traffic in nuclear weapons, following a tortuous
trail from Germany to Pakistan to Iraq, Stealing the Fire is a
Since there's no point in watching human rights unless someone or
something gets liberated, let me now join in the celebration of freedom
that is Undercover Brother. Directed by Malcolm D. Lee from a
screenplay by John Ridley and Michael McCullers, Undercover
Brother is not the first pastiche, in MAD magazine style, of
the blaxploitation films of the 1970s. Keenen Ivory Wayans was there
first, with I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, just as Mike Myers and the
Austin Powers team were a little quicker to collage into the
present a pop-culture character from the recent past. Even so, you will
understand how right Undercover Brother gets everything when I
tell you that it runs just ninety minutes and stars a magnificently
Afro'd Eddie Griffin, who is so cool that he winks at the camera in
every damn scene.
The plot--do you really care about the plot? Griffin steps out in a
wardrobe of platform shoes, flared pants and shirts cut to show off the
discus-size Black Power medallion he wears around his neck. He drives a
Coup de Ville convertible, drinks large quantities of orange soda and is
aptly described by the film's kung-fu-kicking love interest (Aunjanue
Ellis) as "a Soul Train reject with a Robin Hood complex." Recruited by
a secret organization called B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D., Griffin learns that
the most weed-addled fantasies of Conspiracy Brother (David Chappelle)
are actually true. There really is a fantastically wealthy and powerful
white man--called The Man--who keeps black people down.
From this point on--I'm three minutes into the movie--the jokes
really get cheap. They're also consistently, wildly funny,
despite being based without exception on the stale scheme of "White
folks do this, but black folks do that." Sure they do. But then, as the
chief of B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. explains, his goal is to "help black
people of all races," which clarifies everything.
The role of the white she-devil is capably played by Denise Richards.
My wife issues literary judgments on an irregular but reliable basis; so
when she took her half-read copy of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya
Sisterhood and hurled it against the wall, I knew this was a book I
should not pick up. As a result, I can't tell you how much the new movie
of the same title might deviate from Rebecca Wells's gazillion-selling
novel. I went to see the picture only because it's written and directed
by Callie Khouri, who also wrote Thelma & Louise. I can
report as follows:
Divine Secrets is a sandwich made of two slabs of angel food cake
around a slice of raw liver. The sticky-sweet stuff is women's
friendship and the mother-daughter bond, tributes to which are layered
onto the movie at the beginning and end. The liver is the very long
middle section, in which Ashley Judd (the film's one saving grace) shows
how sexual frustration and the demands of childrearing can drive a woman
crazy. Apparently, this truth is unknown to Ashley's daughter, Sandra
Bullock, who must be told, at excruciating length, what everyone in the
audience has guessed in a flash.
Every scene in Divine Secrets is expository. Every performance
demands that the actress wave her arms energetically (perhaps to swat
away clouds of gnats in acknowledgment of the Louisiana setting). Every
character is affluent and white, except for a loyal black maid who says
things like "I knew it wuz trouble. Just yestiddy I heerd dat screech
owl." Every sequence ends like a dinner plate hitting the floor, and
every new sequence begins with a fresh plate being dropped.
Cans of 35-millimeter film are heavy, and projection booths tend to be
locked. I went home, found my wife's copy of the book and gave it a
You may recall Insomnia as a Norwegian film made on a modest
budget--do I repeat myself?--about the inner life of a morally
compromised police detective. The picture enjoyed a small but
respectable run in the United States a couple of years ago, thanks to
the shambling presence of Stellan Skarsgard in the lead and to the clever use of locations. The director, Erik Skjoldbjaerg, set the action in the north of Norway, during summer, so that this film noir played out almost entirely in daylight.
Now comes a new, American Insomnia, made to the costly standards
of a Warner Bros. release. Directed by Christopher Nolan in the wake of
his surprise hit Memento, this remake transposes the action to
rural Alaska and replaces the not-quite-stellar Skarsgard with Al
Pacino. A few paragraphs from now, I will recommend this picture to your
attention. First, though, let me talk about a modestly budgeted American
movie, The Believer, since it has the distinction of being a film
of ideas--in contrast to Insomnia, a film of idea.
I care about The Believer, first of all, because its
writer-director, Henry Bean, has noticed a truth that escapes most
American filmmakers: People think about things. For most of us, of
course, at most times, our notions of the world amount to a
discontinuous, self-contradicting jumble; but it's a jumble on which we
may stake our lives. That's why the disorderliness can be dramatic in
itself--provided, as Bean knows, that the ideas trouble the mind of a
compelling enough character.
So here is young Danny Balint, played unforgettably in The
Believer by the whiplike Ryan Gosling. Think of him as Robert De
Niro in Taxi Driver, only leaner, more delicate in features and
infinitely more articulate. Danny hunches and glowers and struts and
slinks through the streets of New York City, his close-cropped head
buzzing with mutually incompatible versions of Jewish identity, his
brain bursting with arguments about God and against God. Danny wishes
with all his heart to be someone other than a young man of ideas--but
it's his fate to be cerebral, which is what makes him so moving and so
horrible. He is a yeshiva-educated Jew who wants to live in the blood,
as a Nazi activist.
Now, I've hesitated to write about The Believer, in part because
I happen to know Henry Bean and in part because I was never sure when
the picture would get into theaters. The Believer won the Grand
Jury Prize at the Sundance festival in 2001 but then failed to find a
theatrical distributor. (According to The Independent magazine,
the phones stopped ringing after a preview audience at the Simon
Wiesenthal Center felt The Believer might be bad for the Jews.)
The filmmakers decided to go straight to cable and signed a deal with
Showtime, which announced a television premiere in late September
2001--not a propitious air date, as it turned out, for a movie about an
intense guy in New York City who plans to blow things up. But since
Showtime has gotten around to presenting The Believer (in March
of this year), I want to say a few words about the picture, now that
audiences may at last face Danny in the public space of a movie theater.
Those who choose to do so will discover that The Believer starts
in two locations at once, on the subway and inside Danny's skull. In the
exterior setting, Danny is a twentyish skinhead, who when first seen is
methodically harassing a bespectacled, yarmulke-wearing youth on the
elevated train. Danny crowds the prey, crunching his Doc Marten boots
all over the guy's wing-tips. Then, when the victim behaves like a
victim--avoiding eye contact, fleeing the subway at the first
opportunity--Danny pursues him onto the street. "Hit me! Please!" Danny
howls. The less resistance he gets, the more enraged he becomes, till he
stomps the timid, book-toting Jew.
Meanwhile, through cross-cutting, we also get access to Danny's memory,
in which he's forever the pale student with big eyeglasses. We
see Danny in the yeshiva at about age 12--just another of the boys,
except for his rage against the patriarch Abraham, who was willing to
slaughter his own son as an offering to God. None of the standard,
moralized readings of this tale will assuage Danny. He insists that
Abraham's sacrifice made the Jews into a race of willing victims,
perpetually crushed by a God who holds them to be worthless.
You see why this stuff can make people nervous. It's not just that Danny
takes Jewish self-hatred to its ultimate conclusion--he takes it there
theologically, argumentatively, with a foul-mouthed, spray-the-room
exuberance that will offend every moviegoer. Zionists, for example, will
object when Danny says the Israelis aren't real Jews--they have soil,
and the kind of manliness a fascist like him can respect. Supporters of
the Palestinians, on the other hand, will cringe to hear Danny denounce
the massacre at Sabra and Shatila. (With friends like this...)
But I'm making The Believer sound like a string of provocations,
and it's not. It's a modernist tragedy, meaning one that's realized with
equal measures of sympathy and irony. When Danny tries to enlist in an
"above-ground, intellectually serious fascist movement," its leaders
(Theresa Russell and Billy Zane) welcome his anti-Semitic tirades but
dismiss his offer to kill Jews. Instead, to his horror, they make him
into a fundraiser, with a suit and a cell phone. When Danny hooks up
with a dreamily masochistic young Aryan (Summer Phoenix), it isn't long
before she decides to study Hebrew, hangs a mezuzah on the door and
starts wearing ankle-length dresses. Yes, hit me! Please! The harder
Danny tries to be a Nazi, the more ineluctably he's a Jew.
I begin to think of Hazel Motes, the protagonist of Flannery O'Connor's
Wise Blood, who is a Christian preacher in spite of himself.
According to O'Connor, Hazel's integrity lies in his not being able to
rid himself of Jesus: "Does one's integrity ever lie in what he is not
able to do? I think that usually it does, for free will does not mean
one will, but many wills conflicting in one man." In the same way, many
wills conflict in Danny, with that of the faithful Jew refusing to die
away. At one point, in fact, Danny secretly wraps a prayer shawl around
his torso, much as Hazel wound himself in penitential barbed wire. Then,
like any good yeshiva boy, Danny lets the fringes dangle beneath the
T-shirt, which in his case is emblazoned with a swastika.
It's good to see someone take such care with his appearance. Most
American movies these days are little more than fashion statements--and
yet the characters are shockingly thoughtless about their clothes.
So we come to Al Pacino's leather jacket.
It plays quite a prominent role in Insomnia, a movie whose
premise goes like this: Someone in the remote town of Nightmute, Alaska,
has murdered a high school girl. The victim clearly knew her killer, and
the local population is neither large nor highly mobile. Nevertheless,
the Nightmute police feel too humble to work the case on their own. They
send for help--though not from Nome or Anchorage, nor even from Seattle,
Portland or San Francisco. They go all the way to Los Angeles, whose
police department immediately agrees to dispatch two of its top
detectives, despite their being under investigation by Internal Affairs.
I tried explaining all this to my friend Ben Sonnenberg, who seemed
puzzled. "But what about Eddie Murphy?" he asked. "Was he too busy to
come from Detroit?"
Reassure yourself, Ben. Eddie has answered the call, in effect if not in
person. That's the point of the leather jacket.
It's hard to imagine Pacino's character, Detective Will Dormer, going
out and buying this item for himself. It's a little too heavy for the
climate in LA, a little too pimp-chic for a cop who's supposed to be an
agonized moralist. With its supple new leather, the jacket looks more
like something that was recently issued to the guy--which, of course, it
was. The filmmakers decided this was just the thing to signal "cool, hip
and streetwise" for Pacino. In much the same way, they imposed a
symbolic costume on the murderer, Robin Williams. Although the script
says he's vain and attracted to luxury, Williams is draped in something
that says "phony, out-of-touch intellectual": a corduroy jacket.
Don't worry, by the way, that I've revealed the killer's identity. You'd
be able to figure it out for yourself, by process of elimination, no
more than ten minutes into the movie, which is about twenty minutes
before Williams comes into the open. The mystery of Insomnia has
nothing to do with discovering he's the murderer and everything to do
with his somehow being able to deliver a restrained, nuanced,
convincingly chilling performance. There's Robin Williams, taking care
of business, while everybody else is goofing off.
Pacino behaves ridiculously, as he typically does when the script's a
laugh. Hilary Swank has no such history of egregious mugging; but now,
in the role of a local cop, she bounces onto the screen like a young
squirrel on its first day of acorn school. Who allowed these
performances, or maybe even encouraged them? Christopher Nolan, that's
who. He was so intent on dolloping pizazz onto this story that he didn't
notice the visual syrup was drowning a six-inch stack of toaster
I'm sure Insomnia will have its champions, even so. They'll claim
the picture is About Something, namely the importance of never, ever
breaking the rules. That's the one, big idea of Insomnia. As we
may learn from life and better movies, it's wrong.
Screening Schedule: Speaking of people who broke rules, Lynne
Sachs has made a fine, artful documentary about the Catonsville Nine,
the war protesters who walked into a Selective Service office in 1968,
grabbed as many files as they could carry and burned them with homemade
napalm. She's got the surviving protesters down on film, Philip and
Daniel Berrigan among them; and she's got other interested parties too,
including the district attorney who prosecuted the Nine and one of the
jurors who convicted them. The juror weeps now, out of respect for their
courage. The film is titled Investigation of a Flame, and it's
showing in New York at Anthology Film Archives, May 29-31. The
distributor is First Run/Icarus Films, (800) 876-1710.
Say what you will against the Hollywood event film, and you can say it
twice about Spider-Man. Twice, because this movie has been so
successfully pre-sold, mall-booked, cross-marketed and revenue-streamed
that Columbia Pictures confidently scheduled Spider-Man 2 before
it ever let an audience see
the first. Violent? The fight scenes in this picture must have cost a
hundred Foley artists a hundred nights in the recording studio, banging
away at a hundred anvils. Crass? The product placements are literally as
big as Times Square. Crude? The camera is perpetually drawn, as if by
animal magnetism, to the cleavage of Kirsten Dunst, the better to
examine two of her character's few defining features. It is not enough
to say that Spider-Man is a big movie. It is a big, big movie.
And Spider-Man is also a small movie, which hangs from the thin,
very odd thread of its lead actor, Tobey Maguire. A little late in life,
though not implausibly so, Maguire plays high school senior Peter
Parker: the smart, shy, artistic, dateless victim of his graduating
class, the kid voted Most Likely Not to Be Voted Anything, who happens
to get bitten by a mutant spider and so turns into--what? A superhero?
More like a freak. As conceived for comic books by Stan Lee and Steve
Ditko, Spider-Man was the first really alienated guy to swoop around
fighting crime in a funny outfit. His strange powers made this teenage
outsider into even more of an outsider--and Spider-Man the movie
stays true to that idea, thanks mostly to Maguire.
Consider his voice, first of all: a nasal tenor instrument, with which
he's in no hurry to say anything. Maguire doesn't cultivate a stammer,
as did James Stewart (whom he occasionally calls to mind), but he does
give a consistent impression of letting his words trail a beat or so
behind his thoughts. You might recall his doing so in The Ice
Storm (in which, for my money, he was the film's one point of
contact with reality), or in The Cider House Rules (where he was
used for his air of moping fragility, yet somehow held his own against
Michael Caine), or yet again in Wonder Boys (where Michael
Douglas and Robert Downey Jr. kept competing to see which one could play
more broadly, and Maguire very quietly and subtly took control of the
movie). It's characteristic of him that in one of his better moments in
Spider-Man, he says nothing at all. "Just got contacts?" asks MJ
(Dunst), the girl of Peter Parker's dreams, when she sees he's no longer
wearing glasses. The question sounds casual, but the occasion is
charged; MJ has noticed for the first time the color of Peter's eyes
(spider-power has corrected his vision), and he's just been granted his
first chance to look into hers. Maguire considers her question, pauses
as if a dozen possibilities were crowding his head and then settles on a
reply: He grins. It must be the right choice. At the screening I
attended, the audience answered his smile with laughter.
Maguire can get that effect because he generates a time zone of his own
around his body, and also because that body is a mismatch not only for
its surroundings but for itself. The carriage is stiff. The smile, when
granted, loops goofily up and down the long face. The features of that
face don't quite come together. Although the assertive cleft chin might
well belong to a superhero--or a movie star--it cohabitates a bit
uncomfortably with rosebud lips, a delicate nose and eyes whose natural
tendency is to watch for trouble. The impression, as a whole, is one of
pleasant ungainliness--which may be why Maguire seems as surprised as
the audience to discover what's happened to his musculature. When he
awakens after the spider bite, this 98-pound weakling finds that his
torso can bulge and ripple, just like something from an old Charles
The allusion to Charles Atlas seems deliberate on the part of the
director, Sam Raimi. He knows those ads had their rightful place on the
back covers of comic books, where they held out a fantasy of power to
the medium's core audience, the Peter Parkers of this life. That's
something comic books share with event movies; they're both made to
appeal to boys in their adolescence, or barely out of it. The
difference, of course, is that event movies mount their appeal by
deploying resources of a vastly greater scale, comparable (let's say) to
that recently used by the Pentagon in Afghanistan. Part of what I like
about Spider-Man is that despite its staggering budget and
daunting market clout, it stays in touch with the unpretentiousness of
the source material. Raimi uses Maguire for that purpose, and he also
uses a second, uncredited star: New York City.
To an extent that's very rare with digitized, semi-cartoon pictures,
Spider-Man is a movie shot on location. You see the Columbia
University campus, Midtown, the Flatiron district, SoHo, the East River
and (maybe most gratifying of all) the row houses and little commercial
streets of Queens. Very often the action that takes place in these
settings is computer-generated, with Spider-Man swinging from building
to building by his web, or performing the kind of acrobatics that were a
prime attraction of The Matrix. Even so, the real city remains an
irreducible presence in Spider-Man, as when Peter discovers his
new abilities and goes leaping across the rooftops in exhilaration--the
roofs, in this case, belonging to the same squat apartment buildings you
see every day from the elevated train.
So there's something humble, plain and slightly old-fashioned working
within this mega-movie--or perhaps even working against it. As I turn
from Maguire and the settings to the story and its themes, as elaborated
by screenwriter David Koepp, I notice that the conflict between big and
small is more than an accidental effect in Spider-Man. It's the
The plot, in brief, concerns a surrogate father who happens to be an
all-powerful homicidal maniac. Norman Osborn (played by Willem Dafoe,
the movie's Michael Douglas and Robert Downey Jr. rolled into one) is a
millionaire scientist who at first befriends the impecunious Peter,
offering him concern and sympathy. But Norman is also a military
contractor who hungers for that next big contract, as a result of which
he undergoes his own transformation, developing a monstrous alter ego
known as the Green Goblin. Whereas Norman is kind and gentle toward
Peter, the Green Goblin schemes to destroy Spider-Man, striking at him
through the people he loves.
As someone who has been a son and is presently a father, I wasn't
convinced. Spider-Man tosses out a notion of the paternal
relationship, but it conveys nothing of the feeling of bone of my bone,
flesh of my flesh. (Paradoxically, the relationship between MJ and her
father has emotional weight, even though it's a side issue in the movie.
Her father bullies and belittles her--which may be why she takes a
liking to Peter. He's the one male animal she encounters who is strong
but doesn't act it.) But if we agree not to take the movie's terms more
seriously than they deserve, then the father-son conceit can be made to
yield some sense. Let's say the father is a stand-in for Columbia
Pictures, a Sony Pictures Entertainment Company, and the son is Sam
Raimi, who at one moment gets sweet talks and huge sums of money from
his corporate parent and at another is reminded, no doubt forcefully,
that the parent is in fact his master, who will kill for those revenue
Does this interpretation seem far-fetched? Then think about Peter's
Uncle Ben, the other surrogate father in the film and the movie's moral
voice. Raimi has waggishly cast Cliff Robertson in the role--no doubt
because Robertson, too, went through a life-altering, science-fiction
change in the movies, in Charly, but also perhaps because he was
the one who uncovered malfeasance at Columbia Pictures in the late 1970s
and so brought down its management. Robertson's mere presence in a new
Columbia release is a kind of history lesson, and a rebuke. Who better
to tell Peter, practically with his dying breath, that power brings
responsibility? Who better to play a wise, elderly working stiff from
Queens, in contrast to Dafoe's military-industrial tycoon?
And who can doubt that such a contrast is needed, when Spider-Man
portrays modern economic life as an endless series of downsizings? The
older people in the movie are pushed out of their jobs; the younger
can't get any. Why, the very notion of hiring someone seems repugnant to
the editor of the Daily Bugle (JK Simmons) when Peter comes
looking for work. "Freelance!" he bellows. That's the best thing for
young people today. Then, as a substitute for decent freelance pay, the
editor goes on to promise "Meat--Christmas meat!"
As an object of commerce, Spider-Man belongs to the world of the
Daily Bugle, and to the Green Goblin. As a work of the
imagination--as a movie, rather than a blockbuster--it belongs to Cliff
Robertson and Tobey Maguire, to New York City and to New York's people
(who put in a surprising, crucial mass appearance late in the film). I
liked seeing this conflict played out openly, in the first summer-season
mega-production of 2002. But that's not why I gave my heart to
What really moved me was the exchange between Peter and MJ at the end of
the film. It's a scene that comes out of nowhere, if you've ignored the
small movie within Spider-Man and seen only the product
placements and special effects. But if you've registered the moments of
wit and feeling that surface throughout the picture, intermittently but
steadily, you will feel that it's right for the movie to end here, in a
graveyard, with MJ at last caressing Peter's face and doing it with a
black-gloved hand. Finally she can speak of what she wants, amid death.
Peter wants to reply, and could do so eloquently; but, being Tobey
Maguire, he chooses to hold back.
And so it ends, triumphantly, unhappily--that is, until Spider-Man 2.
What date shall I assign to Chris Marker's magnum opus, A Grin
Without a Cat? This rugged oak of an essay-film, whose gnarls trace
the growth and withering of decades of leftist politics, is now playing
for the first time in the United States, where it's being shown in the
form Marker gave it after
the demise of the Soviet Union. I might say it's a film from 1993; and
yet the version we now have is the revision of a work completed in 1977,
when Communism was still alive, and anti-Communism was more than the
hungry zombie it's since become.
Communism was still alive, but even then Marker perceived a change. The
last major event he incorporated into his essay was the 1974 election of
Valéry Giscard d'Estaing to the presidency of France. In the
film, this election represents the end of a period of turmoil that had
begun in 1967: the year of campus uprisings in the United States against
the Vietnam War, increased union militancy in France, bloody student
protests in Berlin against the visiting Shah of Iran, the death in
Bolivia of Che Guevara. It's fair to say that the main body of A Grin
Without a Cat deals with these years, so I might date the film
But then, the historical marker slips back even further. To explain why
Che perished as he did, to account for his prestige in death, to suggest
how that martyrdom shaped the period that followed, the film revisits
1962, when Douglas Bravo launched a guerrilla war in rural Venezuela.
Believing that a few militants could spark revolution on their own,
Bravo and his followers abandoned the discipline of the Communist Party.
That was the good news. The bad news was, they also abandoned the
party's political base. In Marker's words (which are spoken throughout
the film by several voiceover narrators), the guerrillas made themselves
into "a spearhead without a spear, a grin without a cat."
The phrase brings to mind Lewis Carroll, and maybe Gogol, too. I will
have something to say about the rude adventures of this grin. First,
though, a question: Assuming there was once a whole cat, what did it
Marker gives a filmmaker's reply: He goes back in time to The
Battleship Potemkin. His picture begins in that other movie--begins
twice, in fact. As his first gesture in A Grin Without a Cat,
Marker shows us Eisenstein's celebrated vision of the Potemkin
mutiny, in which a sailor faces a line of riflemen and wins them over
with a single shout: Brothers! Out of that moment, Marker develops a
great, thrilling montage sequence of his own, spanning half a century of
conflicts in the streets and ending on Eisenstein's Odessa steps, more
or less in the present day. There, as if to begin the film again, Marker
shows us a pleasant young woman who sits in the sunshine, chatting with
an offscreen interviewer. She is a French-speaking Intourist guide, and
she can testify that this site is very popular. She brings people to it
two or three times a day.
We might conclude that the not-quite-mythical cat was on the prowl
sometime between these two historical moments, the first of inspiration,
the second of nostalgia. We might decide that A Grin Without a Cat
is dated 1925-93.
During those years, was anything left unfilmed? To watch this picture is
to be astonished at the world of footage that's been piled up here, some
of it shot by Marker himself, most of it recorded by others, both known
and anonymous. The raw materials of A Grin Without a Cat include
images of a US pilot bombing Vietnam, as seen from the cockpit; scenes
of carefully staged party congresses in Havana and Beijing and of an
unscripted, on-the-run congress in 1968 Prague; views of the festive Cat
Parade in Ypres; broadcasts of the Watergate hearings and of the Shah of
Iran's grandiose party for himself in Persepolis; raw footage of
Communist and Trotskyist workers getting into a fistfight at a factory
gate; interviews in the jungle with Douglas Bravo, in the Pentagon with
a counterinsurgency expert, in the Citroën headquarters with that
firm's managing director; Soviet newsreels from World War II; a student
collective's newsreel from 1967 Berlin; shots of Giscard d'Estaing
playing the accordion and of The Who destroying their instruments;
behind-the-scenes pictures of training sessions at the School of the
Americas; and the usual amalgam of flaming automobiles, flying tear-gas
canisters, descending truncheons and human beings lying in pools of
So complete is the filmed record on which Marker draws, and so
associative is his method of using it, that he can show us a statement
made in 1968 by a Czech national hero, Emil Zatopek, just before he was
stripped of his military rank for protesting against the invasion;
Zatopek at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, when he famously swept the
distance running events; and Zatopek in 1972, when he was released from
the mines and trotted out to look solemn at the Munich Olympics, when
the games continued despite the murder of eleven Israeli athletes. But
then, Marker comments, "I had been in Mexico City in 1968, when 200
people were killed so the games could begin," and we have that footage,
This sort of thing can make your head spin; but since it should also
make your head clear, Marker's montage is not only associative but
diagrammatic as well. A Grin Without a Cat is divided into two
main sections. Part One, "Fragile Hands," concentrates on the events of
1967 and 1968, up to the fizzling of the May revolt in France. Part Two,
"Severed Hands," begins with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia,
continues with the rise and fall of Salvador Allende (and the Gang of
Four) and concludes with the fading of the cat's grin, late in the
Marker tends to present these events in big loops. He'll jump from
source to source, place to place, to develop an argument (about the
concept of a revolution in the revolution, for example); he'll digress
to examine the way people gestured with their hands, or how they either
filled or did not fill the space between striking workers and police;
and then he'll swing back to close the loop, concluding one phase of his
essay and moving on to the next. At each phase (at least in the earlier
part of the film) he also introduces elements that I might as well call
dialectical. When he shows a group of war protesters preparing to burn
their draft cards in 1967, he also shows a rally of the American Nazi
Party. When French student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit comes into the
picture, so does Giscard d'Estaing. We watch the New Left rise in tandem
with the New Right. In Marker's view of history, the development of the
New Right may have been the New Left's greatest achievement.
If so, then the Old Left contributed ample help. Marker makes the point
with stunning force during his section on Czechoslovakia, when he
unexpectedly closes one of those big loops of montage. Citizens of
Prague have surrounded a Soviet tank driver and are berating him--"How
could you, a Communist, be doing this?"--when that intertitle from
The Battleship Potemkin pops onto the screen again, in a way
that's now heartbreaking and futile: Brothers!
And since Marker is a moviemaker above all, A Grin Without a Cat
also makes its point as a movie should, through the actions of its star.
Yes, there is a lead actor in this film: Fidel Castro, whose many
performances, interspersed throughout the picture, amount to a little
drama of their own, complete with a nasty plot twist. Here is Fidel on
the podium, addressing a night-time rally with wit, vigor and good
sense. Here he is again, sprawled casually on the grass for the benefit
of the camera, giving a very good impersonation of a man speaking
spontaneously, sensitively, about popular militancy and his comrade Che
Guevara. And here, giving a radio broadcast, Fidel appears to work
himself into a fury against the invasion of Czechoslovakia, as a
dramatic overture to praising the Soviets for their tanks.
This is dense, complex, allusive filmmaking, encyclopedic in ambition,
profound in understanding, playful enough in form to make you smile
sometimes at the tricks of history. Though Marker has made an elegy to
the left, he would prefer that you leave the theater invigorated,
feeling that power is still abroad in the world, and that you and your
friends might still disrupt its dirty work.
My only complaint is that the film could have sent you home feeling even
better. During the period Marker covers, the feminists got a few things
done, often without bothering to define their relationship to the
Communist Party; but feminism shows up very late in A Grin Without a
Cat, as a mere afterthought. Africa doesn't show up at all; yet
activists from around the world made some changes there too, such as
ending apartheid and establishing a new democratic state. You may choose
to add to the list a third or fourth victory. We've had a few, despite
all of history's tricks.
That said, A Grin Without a Cat was made for you, Nation
reader. It premieres in America on May Day, at New York's Film Forum.
Abbas Kiarostami's most recent documentary, which premieres in the
United States on May 3 at New York's Cinema Village, is about nothing
other than Africa and feminism. Made on behalf of the UN's International
Fund for Agricultural Development, ABC Africa is the record of a
trip to Uganda, during which Kiarostami investigated the effect of AIDS
on women and children.
The effect, briefly stated, is that children are orphaned, and women are
left to care for them: six, eleven, thirty-five at a time. According to
the film, there are now more than 1.6 million orphans in Uganda, out of
a population of 22 million. The Catholic Church helps by offering a
wretched level of care to the suffering, meanwhile insuring there will
be more suffering by discouraging the use of condoms. By contrast, the
Uganda Women's Effort to Save Orphans (UWESO) helps with a program that
encourages women to band together and become economically
I lack the space in this column to describe even a part of what
Kiarostami recorded with his digital video cameras. It's enough to say
that, while he captured images on the run, he somehow made a Kiarostami
film. ABC Africa is devastating, as you'd expect. It's also
lyrical, beautiful and quietly inventive.
Filmmakers in sub-Saharan Africa tend to divide their attention between city life today and village life once upon a time. This rule has its exceptions, of course; but if you're searching for an African film that truly overcomes the split, deftly merging the contemporary with the folkloric, I doubt you'll find
anything more ingenious than Joseph Gaï Ramaka's retelling of Carmen. Set along the coast of modern-day Dakar, this Karmen Geï drapes current Senegalese costumes upon the now-mythic figures of Mérimée and Bizet, puts old-style songs and African pop into their mouths and has its characters dance till they threaten to burst the frame.
The film's American distributor, California Newsreel, suggests that Karmen Geï is Africa's first movie musical--that is, an all-singing, all-dancing story, rather than a story with song and dance added on. If so, that breakthrough would count as another major achievement for Ramaka. But nothing can matter in any Carmen without Carmen herself; and so I propose that Ramaka's true claim to fame is to have put Djeïnaba Diop Gaï on the screen.
Practically the first thing you see of her--the first thing you see at all in Karmen Geï--is the heart-stopping vision of her two thighs slapping together, while a full battery of drummers pounds away. We discover Karmen in the sand-covered arena of a prison courtyard, where she is dancing so exuberantly, lustily, violently that you'd think this was a bullring and she'd just trampled the matador; and at this point, she hasn't even risen from her seat. Wait till she gets up and really starts to move, shaking and swerving and swiveling a body that's all curves and pure muscle, topped by a hairdo that rises like a mantilla and then spills down in ass-length braids. A rebel, an outlaw, a force of nature, an irresistible object of desire: Gaï's Karmen embodies all of these, and embodies them in motion. The only part of her that seems fixed is her smile, shining in unshakable confidence from just above an out-thrust chin.
Is it just the memory of other Carmens that brings a bullring to mind? Not at all. There really is a contest going on in this opening scene, and Karmen is winning it, effortlessly. She is dancing, before a full assembly of the jail's female prisoners, in an attempt to seduce the warden, Angélique (Stéphanie Biddle). Pensive and lighter-skinned than Karmen, dressed in a khaki uniform with her hair pulled back tight, Angélique yields to her prisoner's invitation to dance and soon after is stretched out in bed, sated, while Karmen dashes through the hallways and out to freedom.
From that rousing start, Ramaka goes on to rethink Carmen in ways that vary from plausible to very, very clever. It's no surprise that the Don José figure (Magaye Niang) is a police officer; the twist is that Karmen snares him by breaking into his wedding, denouncing all of respectable Senegalese society and challenging his bride-to-be to a dance contest. The chief smuggler (Thierno Ndiaye Dos) is a courtly older man who keeps the lighthouse; and Escamillo, the only person in the movie big enough to look Karmen in the eye, is a pop singer, played with smooth assurance by pop star El Hadj Ndiaye.
Ramaka's best invention, though, is Angélique, a previously unknown character who is both a lovesick, uniformed miscreant and a doomed woman--that is, a merger of Don José and Carmen. By adding her to the plot, the film gives Karmen someone worth dying for. The details of how she arrives at that death are a little muddled--the direction is elliptical at best, herky-jerky at worst--but thanks to Angélique's presence in the story, the climax feels more tender than usual, and more deliberate. Karmen shows up for her final scene decked out in a red sheath, as if to insure the blood won't spoil her dress.
Karmen Geï has recently been shown in the eighth New York African Film Festival, at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater. It is now having a two-week run downtown at Film Forum.
The title of Fabián Bielinsky's briskly intriguing Nine Queens would seem to refer to a sheet of rare stamps--or, rather, to a forgery of the stamps, which two Buenos Aires con artists hope to sell to a rich businessman. But then, the businessman is himself a crook, the con artists don't actually know one another and the sale just might involve real stamps. You begin to see how complicated things can be in this movie; and I haven't yet mentioned the sister.
The action, which stretches across one long day, begins in the convenience store of a gas station, where fresh-faced Juan (Gastón Pauls) draws the attention of Marcos (Ricardo Darín), an older, more aggressive swindler. Teamed up impromptu, just for the day, the two stumble into the con of a lifetime when Marcos's beautiful, prim, angry sister (Leticia Brédice) summons them to the luxury hotel where she works. She just happens to need Marcos to cart away one of his ailing buddies; and the buddy just happens to know of a guest who might buy some stamps.
No, nothing is as it seems. But Bielinsky's storytelling is so adept, his pace so fleet, his actors so much in love with every nuance of their dishonesty that you will probably laugh with delight, even as you're being dealt a losing hand of three-card monte.
And if you want social relevance, Nine Queens will give you that, too. As if Juan (or was it Marcos?) had scripted the whole country, this release swept the critics' awards for 2001 just in time for Argentina's economy to crash. Enjoy!
I hadn't intended to review this last film; but since it's become a critical success, here goes:
The Piano Teacher is a pan-European remake of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, with French stars Isabelle Huppert and Annie Girardot playing the sacred-monster roles and Austrian director Michael Haneke fastidiously avoiding the camp humor that alone could have saved the movie. Set in Vienna and cast (except for the leads) with German-speaking actors, whose lips flop like dying fish around their dubbed French syllables, The Piano Teacher is a combination of immaculately composed shots and solemnly absurd dialogue, much of it about the music of Franz Schubert. "That note is the sound of conscience, hammering at the complacency of the bourgeoisie." Sure it is. Add a sequence in which Huppert humps Girardot (her own mother!) in the bed they share, throw in an extended sex scene where the characters grandly ignore any risk of interruption (though they're grappling in a public toilet), and you've got a movie that ought to have made classical music dirty again.
But to judge from critics' reactions, Schubert remains the touchstone of respectability, and The Piano Teacher is somehow to be taken seriously.
The aura of high-mindedness that cloaks the action (at least for some viewers) emanates mostly from Huppert. No matter what her character stoops to--doggie posture, for the most part--Huppert seems never to lower herself. She maintains her dignity because she is being brave. She is acting. She is allowing herself to be shown as sexually abject before an athletic younger man, Benoît Magimel, who has a cleft chin and peekaboo blond hair. Huppert has been similarly abject in recent years, in Benoît Jacquot's The School of Flesh, for example. I wonder what hope other women may nurture for themselves after 40, when this wealthy, celebrated, greatly accomplished and famously beautiful woman has no better prospects. I know we're expected to give prizes to Huppert for such ostentatious self-abnegation. (Last year, at Cannes, she collected a big award.) But what pleasure are we supposed to get from seeing the character humiliated?
A dishonest pleasure, I'd say; the same kind that's proposed in The Piano Teacher's now-notorious scene of genital mutilation. The meaning of the scene, for those who are pleased to give it one, is of course transgressive, subversive and otherwise big word-like. See how (women) (the Viennese) (the middle class) (fill in the blank) are repressed, how they turn against themselves, how they make themselves and everyone around them suffer. Then again, if you subtract all that guff about the complacent bourgeoisie, maybe the scene means nothing more than "Ew, gross!"
I have admired Haneke's films in the past, beginning with the antiseptically grim The Seventh Continent and going on to the tough, much-maligned Benny's Video. When Haneke has proposed that clean, affluent, educated people may do horrible things, I have agreed, as of course I must, accepting what would have been a mere platitude for the sake of the films' clear vision and genuine sense of dread. But as I watched Huppert's preposterous impersonation of a music teacher, I began to wonder if Haneke knows that characters can be something other than horrid.
The dynamics of Schubert's music represent emotional "anarchy," says Huppert at one point, in a pronouncement that would get a pedagogue sacked from any self-respecting conservatory. Listen to Rudolf Serkin play the great B-flat piano sonata, varying his touch with every breath, and you will hear not anarchy but imagination. It's the quality most lacking in The Piano Teacher--followed closely by warmth, humor, realism and purpose.
Fun at Home: Nation readers will want to know that Zeitgeist Video has just brought out a DVD of Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick's fine documentary Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media. All the original fun is there, plus added features such as Chomsky's own commentary on the picture. The film is now ten years old. You will probably find it's more to the point than ever.