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When The Majestic was about to be released--it's the movie, you will recall, in which Jim Carrey plays a blacklisted screenwriter who suffers from amnesia--someone asked me to tote up the other films that touch on the Hollywood inquisition. I eliminated the allegories, such as Johnny Guitar, and the pictures that deal with other branches of show business (the music industry in Sweet Smell of Success, television in A King in New York and The Front) and calculated that all of two features--The Way We Were and Guilty by Suspicion--pay attention to the blacklist.
The number is also two with The Majestic included.
Talk about suffering from amnesia! Of course the movie industry feigned ignorance when the witch hunt was on--among its other unmentionable traits, the blacklist was illegal--and you can see how a certain forgetfulness was convenient afterward. But as Hollywood moved into the 1970s and '80s, with new corporate masters taking over the studios and old decision-makers dying off, the subject of the blacklist might have seemed ripe for exploiting. The industry has always loved to dramatize itself; and here, lying unexplored, was an episode that had convulsed all of Hollywood, and much of America with it.
Two films--if you feel generous toward Carrey, three. But now the count has risen significantly with One of the Hollywood Ten, the most honest movie of its very small group and arguably the best. It is not, however, an American picture. To our shame, it has taken a Welsh writer-director, Karl Francis, and producers based in Britain and Spain to film the true story of a blacklisted couple, Herbert Biberman and Gale Sondergaard, and their making of that remarkable movie, Salt of the Earth.
Since even Nation readers might be unaware of these events--and since truthfulness is a large part of Francis's merit--here's a quick synopsis:
Biberman was called before HUAC in 1947, among the committee's first group of unfriendly witnesses. Until that time his work as a writer and director had been so sparse, and so lackluster, that no one could have rationally accused him of transmitting ideology through the movies. That he had an ideology was unquestionable; Biberman was a committed Communist. But his greatest distinction was his marriage to Sondergaard, a hard-working, Oscar-winning actress.
Citing his First Amendment rights, Biberman refused to testify before HUAC, whereupon he was charged with contempt of Congress and sent to prison. When Sondergaard insisted on standing by him, she too was blacklisted. She found herself, upon his release, running a household of the dual unemployed.
It was at this point that their friends and fellow blacklistees Michael Wilson and Paul Jarrico came up with the idea of making an independent film about a labor uprising in New Mexico. The members of Local 890 of the Mine-Mill Workers, most of them Mexican-American, had gone on strike against Empire Zinc, demanding the same pay and conditions as Anglo workers received. The company's response was to get an injunction against the union, forbidding the miners from picketing. But the injunction said nothing about the miners' wives. In a brave and ingenious improvisation, the women came forward to walk the line, and did it so effectively that Empire Zinc finally settled.
Wilson turned this episode into the screenplay for Salt of the Earth. Jarrico took on the producer's duties, and Biberman signed on as director. Sondergaard had expected to play the lead--she was the cooperative's only bankable property--but at Biberman's request she stepped aside in favor of a Mexican actress, Rosaura Revueltas. Most of the other parts, including the male lead, were also cast with an eye for authenticity (and budgetary restraint), with the people of Local 890 playing themselves.
I said that One of the Hollywood Ten is a rare movie. Salt of the Earth is unique. It would have stood alone in its era just for having been made by movie industry veterans, but shot on location and acted by a largely nonprofessional cast. But, even more extraordinary, Salt of the Earth was a story about the problems of Mexican-American workers, as told by a Mexican-American woman. You'd have trouble finding such a movie today, when independent filmmaking is well established in America. Salt of the Earth was released in 1954.
Of course, neither unique nor pioneering is a synonym for good. And though the filmmakers faced extraordinary hardships, those, too, must remain external to any judgment of Salt of the Earth. The government deported Rosaura Revueltas in the midst of production, discouraged labs from processing the film, accused the crew of wanting to spy on atomic secrets at Los Alamos, kept theaters from booking the completed Salt of the Earth and warned projectionists away from showing it. This was an impressive show of force to mount against one little movie; but the harassment, in itself, doesn't justify what you see on the screen.
Biberman and his many collaborators justified Salt of the Earth. They managed to imbue the film with the feelings of a living community: at house parties and on picket lines, in the saloon and the church. Scenes percolate with the natural interplay of friends and neighbors, giving rise to a barely suppressed boisterousness. (The ruckus breaks into the open after the women are arrested for picketing. They mount a protest in their cell, with undisguised glee.) The ease of the group interaction makes up for the occasional awkwardness in individual performances--an awkwardness that at any rate has its own charm. And no excuses are needed for Revueltas, with her finely nuanced movements toward self-assertion; for the pace of the film, which keeps building and building; or for Biberman's eye, which seems to have been delighted with every face, landscape feature and stick of furniture in New Mexico.
To the eyes of present-day viewers, who may be accustomed to strains of neorealism developed everywhere from Italy to Iran, Salt of the Earth looks surprisingly good. It is not a based-on-a-true-story movie but something more valuable: the chief American prototype for those films that are simultaneously fiction and documentary. As for the virtue of its uniqueness: Doesn't a special honor accrue to the one film to have done something that was well worth doing?
I believe One of the Hollywood Ten has earned a similar distinction--though its internal, cinematic merits are entirely different. That's as it should be. The two films take entirely different approaches to their medium.
Biberman and his partners made a movie that barely acknowledges the existence of the entertainment business; the only evidence of pop culture in Salt of the Earth is a radio, bought on the installment plan. One of the Hollywood Ten, by contrast, reminds you at every turn that you're watching a movie, and that movies are (among other things) a business and a site of ideological contest. Francis opens his film with a prologue set in 1937, in which he tosses up two opposing forms of movie politics: the opening in New York City of Triumph of the Will, and the announcement by Gale Sondergaard (in the midst of the Academy Awards broadcast) of the formation of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. Once Francis jumps into 1947, he continues this theme, showing the HUAC hearings as newsreel fodder (which they were). Everybody in One of the Hollywood Ten is playing for the camera and the microphone.
It's fitting, then, that Francis's movie should feature three star performances. The biggest of them is Jeff Goldblum's, as Biberman. Much of the usual Goldblum shtick is in evidence: the talking with dark eyes unfocused, the bursting forth of little phrases after unpredictable, Miles Davis pauses. But, also as usual, Goldblum feels his way deep into the character. He shows us Biberman as a chronic empathizer, someone who's always draping his big hands reassuringly over anyone he talks to. The voice is low, patient, thoughtful; and then, when Biberman doesn't get his way, he jumps without transition to a full bellow.
Greta Scacchi, as Gale Sondergaard, makes good use of a certain brittleness in her screen personality. Here she's playing a Hollywood star of the old school--a woman with perfectly groomed vowels, who keeps her well-powdered face turned toward the key light in any room--which allows her to find authentic feeling, even gutsiness, within her pose. But the movie's biggest star turn, the one that steals One of the Hollywood Ten, is Angela Molina's performance as Rosaura Revueltas. Molina looks older than Revueltas did in Salt of the Earth; whereas Revueltas had smooth, freckled features, Molina's face is lined and sunken. When Molina begins to play Esperanza, the central character in Salt of the Earth, her eyes take on the outsize look of hunger. And the voice! Molina puts a weariness, and a wariness, all her own into Esperanza's lines, using intonations that cut into your bones.
One of the Hollywood Ten thrives on these performances, and on Francis's fascination with movies themselves--how they're made, how they work on their audiences. (In one of the picture's truest moments, Biberman bubbles over with enthusiasm at his own cleverness, talking about the best way to shoot and edit Salt of the Earth.) Where the movie strays from these strengths, it also falters. Among its several glaring faults, One of the Hollywood Ten gives us an FBI agent who is so monotonally nasty that he seems to have strayed in from a bus-and-truck tour of Les Miz, and a Gale Sondergaard who is indomitably firm, except when she's not. When her husband tells her she won't play the lead in Salt of the Earth--her husband, who wouldn't have gotten to direct the picture without her intervention--she needs only a brief walk on the beach to calm her down. And, of course, there's music on the beach. There's music everywhere in One of the Hollywood Ten, poured out of a can of creamed corn.
This is merely to say that no one has yet made a masterpiece about the Hollywood blacklist. Karl Francis has made a good, intelligent movie about the subject, and a largely truthful one. Let's see somebody try to top him.
One of the Hollywood Ten has just been shown in the New York Jewish Film Festival, presented by The Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Scattered chunks of films littered the theaters this holiday season. Except for The Royal Tenenbaums, which I've told you about, there wasn't a whole movie to be found. Or, to speak more precisely, no movie except The Royal Tenenbaums gave me the impression of wholeness, by which I mean the pleasure that arises when the mind can play back and forth through a picture, discovering how the details enrich one another.
No doubt I value this pleasure so much because I've been trained, as a critic, to look for it. Surrealists, post-structuralists and the average moviegoer do not. Even so, I believe that when artists aspire to wholeness, they put into their work a kind of sustained intelligence that we might call integrity, care or love. When I claim that this quality is missing from most movies nowadays, I of course say almost nothing. Maybe a slightly higher percentage of today's films are hash, compared to the run of productions in the 1930s; but that's for the cliometricians to decide. The critic's challenge is to find some response to the present year-end Oscar contenders, when there's no object of criticism among them.
Should I solve the problem by jumping outside the film world? Then, from a safe distance, I could belabor the politics of Black Hawk Down for being simple-minded, and the politics of Iris for being absent. Many useful comments could be made on these subjects. They just wouldn't be useful to someone who already reads The Nation.
So I suppose I'll have to do what moviegoers have always done: ignore the pictures and watch the stars. I won't talk about The Majestic and Ali, Monster's Ball and A Beautiful Mind. The subjects of this column will be Jim Carrey, Will Smith, Halle Berry and Jennifer Connelly. Let me begin with Connelly, who in A Beautiful Mind has finally achieved recognition as an actress, and in so doing has given the film a large part of its merit.
As you may know, A Beautiful Mind offers a loose approximation of the story of John Nash, a highly gifted mathematician who has struggled all his life against delusions and compulsions. The film, too, suffers from some mental confusion--screenwriter Akiva Goldsman and director Ron Howard somehow got Nash's biography mixed up with Jack and the Beanstalk--but once you get past that problem, you may appreciate the cleverness of this quasi-fairy tale. To begin with, the filmmakers have invented some briskly effective ways to suggest that Nash has a miraculous talent for pattern recognition, and that such a talent can be dangerous. Even when there's no order to be found, his mind keeps searching for one; and since the cold war provides great material for paranoia--the film begins in the late 1940s--Nash has a world of troubling data to sort. In a risk that's bold by Hollywood standards, the film presents its hero's blossoming delusions as if they were real--that is, as he would experience them. You're well into the story before you can sift the facts from the hallucinations, a process that's made compelling by Russell Crowe's performance in the lead. Awkward, shuffling, aggressive, witty, exasperating and vulnerable, he's altogether credible as someone who thinks in abstractions for a living.
But back to Connelly. She plays Alicia Larde, the woman who courts, marries and helps to rescue Nash. The filmmakers turn A Beautiful Mind into her story, almost as much as it is her husband's, and that's as it should be. Alicia is the one who gets scared witless, calls in the shrinks, strives to keep the household together and howls in the bathroom at 2 am. Connelly deserves full credit for carrying off the role.
It's a credit that's long been denied her. Although she's done some good work in smaller productions--Keith Gordon's Waking the Dead, Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream--Connelly has suffered till now from the Elizabeth Taylor syndrome. Like Taylor, she started young in show business and was quickly turned into a physical commodity, cast for her dark hair, blue eyes, smooth face and a buxom figure that she exposed very freely, arousing both sexual interest and condescension in a single gesture. The condescension came all the more quickly because Connelly, like Taylor, seems submerged in her beauty. It tends to separate her from other actors, as a rare fish is held apart in an aquarium, with the result (among other things) that she's a bad choice for comedy. Connelly can play at being amused by someone, but she isn't funny in herself--in contrast, for example, to her near-contemporary Shannon Elizabeth, a wonderfully silly person who shares her looks like a good joke.
Connelly has so far been incapable of such lightness; but she's right at home with the intensity of suffering that's called for in melodrama. Now her reputation is taking an upward turn similar to Taylor's at the time of Suddenly, Last Summer and Butterfield 8. Heaven knows, I don't want to go on to Cleopatra; but as someone who respects the tradition of melodrama, I think American cinema would be stronger if producers created more roles for Jennifer Connelly.
Having just seen Monster's Ball, I will also say the same for Halle Berry. She, too, has based her reputation on being absurdly gorgeous, with this distinction: Berry treats her looks like a loaded gun, which she can and will use. Of course, the danger varies; there was a lot of it in Bulworth but not much, somehow, in The Flintstones. Now, in Monster's Ball, the sense of risk suddenly leaps to a higher order.
Berry plays a wife and mother in a present-day Southern town--wife to a man on death row, mother to a boy who weighs 180 pounds and has not yet reached puberty. Through a series of catastrophes--or perhaps I should say wild coincidences--she eventually finds herself on the sofa late at night with Billy Bob Thornton, the racist white prison guard who led her husband to the electric chair. Grief, fatigue and booze are weighing heavily on her. She needs to wriggle free of them; everything that's still alive in her demands it. And so, in a scene that becomes a tour de force, she laughs in reminiscence about her husband, insists to herself that she's been a good mother, philosophizes starkly about the lives of black men in America and ultimately pours herself into Thornton's lap, demanding, "Make me feel good."
The screenwriters of Monster's Ball, Milo Addica and Will Rokos, might easily have based this scene on an acting-class exercise. A pair of students are assigned random emotions and must then improvise their way through them, making up the transitions as they go. What Berry does with the scene, though, has no whiff of the classroom. She doesn't just bob along on the swells and troughs of her feelings; she remembers at all times that these emotions have welled up because of the stranger next to her, this oddly quiet man to whom she addresses the whole monologue. She seems half-blind when she looks at him, but only half. She pushes against his self-possession, moment by moment; and the steadier he holds, the further she plunges in.
I wish the rest of Monster's Ball could live up to this scene. There are several fine sequences in the movie, which Marc Forster has directed with admirable restraint; but the picture is entirely too eager to flatter the audience. Monster's Ball is a machine, designed to make Billy Bob Thornton think and behave just as you believe he should. By the end, there's nothing to cut the good intentions except the memory of that smoky, greasy, overpowering scene where Halle Berry risks everything. It's almost enough.
The opening fifteen minutes of Ali are so good that they, too, come close to justifying the picture. In a virtuoso montage, which shows director Michael Mann at his very best, this sequence takes young Cassius Clay up to his first fight against Sonny Liston and his declaration of allegiance to the Nation of Islam. After that, you begin to notice that four screenwriters have labored over this production. Plot points are made with the galumphing literal-mindedness of Bob interviewing Ray. What's worse, these same points, from Liston I through the Foreman match in Zaire, were touched on in the 1977 film The Greatest, written by Ring Lardner Jr., directed by Tom Gries and Monte Hellman and starring (in the role of Muhammad Ali) Muhammad Ali.
Condemned in advance to being third best, after the real-life figure and the original movie incarnation, Will Smith can do little more than look good. It's what he specializes in; I've loved him for it. Here his innate cockiness takes him a long way in the role, as does his rapper's enjoyment of Ali's rhymes. So why does he keep getting upstaged by his supporting cast: Jamie Foxx, who makes something glorious of Ali's sidekick Drew "Bundini" Brown, and Jon Voight, who lives and breathes the role of Howard Cosell? The answer, I think, is that Smith does best when he floats along at a slight remove from his scenes, commenting on the action as if he might at any moment call it a day and go home. Ali makes him earnest; and earnestness, even more than the need to mimic a living figure, makes Will Smith disappear.
I wish Jim Carrey would disappear when he becomes earnest; but instead he latches into the movie like a tick, gorging on sentiment and perpetually, monstrously sucking in more. The effect is all the worse in Frank Darabont's The Majestic for the cinematography. It turns Carrey into a pastel-colored tick.
In this insufferable fantasy about good old-fashioned movies and good old-fashioned Americans, Carrey plays a blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter who (through a wild coincidence) loses his memory and is welcomed into a small town. It's a wonderful life, except for the FBI. I needn't point out to Nation readers how The Majestic makes a hash out of the blacklist period. (Carrey figures out, in a climactic burst of inspiration, that he can plead the First Amendment before HUAC. Gee!) What really concerns me is the demotion of this anarchic genius to the status of All-American Nothing. Carrey can play comedy like nobody else alive; so why is he pushed into melodrama?
My conclusion: American cinema is taking its actors too seriously, and its actresses not seriously enough. Happy new year.
Director Wes Anderson's 'The Royal Tenenbaums' is full of bittersweet whimsy.
Stuart Klwans reviews two films: In the Bedroom, by Todd Field, and The Man Who Wasn't There, by the Coen brothers.
David Mamet's Heist is tasty, but not quite aces.
2 movie reviews: Jung (War) in the Land of the Mujaheddin; Kandahar
A review of Training Day, a film by Antoine Fuqua, starring Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke.
Lifestyle sections have lately been detailing the public's renewed appetite for comfort food. If that rice-pudding desire translates to the big screen, then cinematic fairy tales that offer the reassurance of a bedtime story should benefit accordingly. Two such concoctions have arrived, one light as brioche and one grimmer than Grimm: Amélie, the latest fable from French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children), and its evil twin, Mulholland Drive, by America's own David Lynch (Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks). Visually dazzling and full of imagination, these fantasies by directors at the top of their game depict invented universes where happiness and unhappiness trade places in a flash and the world as we know it can be transformed by a fall down a rabbit hole.
Amélie owes its incredible success ($40 million in France alone since spring) in no small part to the immense appeal of newcomer Audrey Tautou in the lead role. Her very name invokes the actress with whom she's most likely to be compared--Audrey Hepburn at her Roman Holiday or Breakfast at Tiffany's stage, innocent still and ripe for discovery. For Frenchness, think Juliette Binoche--minus the sex appeal. Add a Louise Brooks haircut, the biggest eyes this side of cartoonland and a sense of prankishness borrowed from the Eloise books. Give the character a Mary Poppins way with magic and a sweetness that her surname ("Poulain" is a brand of chocolate) promises and, bon, there you have her: a child-woman for the ages.
Amélie introduces its heroine as a little girl, imprisoned in a childhood ruled by a remote father who barely touches her and a warped mother who dies when hit by a suicide-bent tourist outside Notre Dame. She quickly grows up into an adorable but shy young woman who works as a waitress in a quintessentially Parisian cafe packed equally with irritable and amiable characters. At home in her garret, she leads a solitary life reading, dreaming, watching television and spying on a neighboring recluse who endlessly repaints Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party. On her day off, she visits her daddy, who dotes on a garden shrine to his departed wife, topped by a colorful gnome.
On August 31, 1997, everything in Amélie's oddball universe changes with a thunderbolt: the death of Princess Diana! It is at this very moment that Amélie discovers a small tin box that's been hidden in her apartment for forty years. Inspired by Diana to make a difference in the world, she sets out to track down its owner. Her search is reminiscent of another French film, When the Cat's Away, in which a Parisian damsel sets off on a quest that leads her through the Bastille neighborhood and its picturesque characters. Where that film showed gentrification and evictions, though, this one's a magical mystery tour.
Voilà! Amélie is off and running when her once-upon-a-time boy is reunited with his beloved box of toys. When his destiny changes, so does hers: She commits herself, saintlike, to a life of good deeds. It's impossible not to be charmed by Amélie's missions, like her secret campaign for justice, centered on her mean neighborhood greengrocer who loves to demean his shy Algerian assistant in front of the customers. Amélie secretly copies the merchant's key, then sneaks into his apartment and subtly changes things in a manner calculated to drive him mad--such as replacing his beloved slippers with an identical pair, one size smaller. Amélie's more benign interventions--on behalf of a jilted widow, a hypochondriacal cashier and the reclusive painter--are equally inventive.
Unfortunately, Jeunet doesn't leave well enough alone. Dissatisfied with these minor intrusions, he dictates that Amélie must find love herself. But with whom? Whimsy takes over. Enter one eligible guy, Nino, whose hobby is hunting for torn-up pictures under photo booths in the Paris metro stations when he's not gainfully employed as a porn-shop assistant and funhouse spook. (Nino is played, incidentally, by Mathieu Kassovitz, director of 1995's gritty hit La Haine, a decidedly un-Amélie-like drama about racial tensions in Parisian projects.)
Bien sûr, this is a fairy tale, and so Nino's the one with whom Amélie must fall in love. But then there's the mystery of the stranger whose torn photo keeps turning up. And the mysterious notes delivered to Nino, stipulating mysterious rendezvous. And the paranoiac who stalks his ex-girlfriends with a tape recorder. Oh, there are dozens of zany pranks to escalate the irritation--oops, I mean charm--of Jeunet's conceit.
"Eurodisney in Montmartre" was one European critic's verdict. Actually, it's more like Jeunet let loose in the Disney archives. Piling cartoon references on top of his childhood visions of Paris-then, Jeunet has used a toolbox of stylized sets and special effects to create a world as quirky as his characters. Equally original but less phantasmagorical than the worlds he invented with former collaborator Marc Caro in Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, Jeunet here jettisons the nightmarish creatures that made them tick. Amélie's more reality-based world is magical in part because every trace of modernity has been erased. No Pompidou Center or Louvre pyramids intrude on the cityscapes. Virtually no immigrants, either. A glow of burnished memory polishes Montmartre, as its Frencher-than-French denizens, seemingly lifted straight out of some classic prewar French film, go about their pre-2001 lives.
Nobody is going to Amélie, of course, for a taste of realism. Rather, what it offers is a determinedly cinematic world in which references pile upon references to assemble a synthetic universe that resonates emotionally, reeking of familiarity and nostalgia. It is safe to speculate that Jeunet, who returned to France after an unsatisfying Hollywood stint on Alien: Resurrection, felt nostalgic himself for a golden age of French cinema unbeholden to the American movie juggernaut. With the trademark stylistic excess that he honed in his earlier features, and contentedly reunited with a screenwriter and cinematographer from his past, Jeunet has found a way to re-enter his own lost Paris.
For anyone loath to sign on to the Godiva-voltage sweetness of Amélie, there's a simple antidote: Mulholland Drive. Playing dark knight to Jeunet's virginal white one, David Lynch returns here to the pre-Straight Story vein of perversity that he mined for so long. It's a place where sweetness is preyed upon by maggots, where the dice are loaded and no one's hands are clean. Lynch polished his theme of innocence confronted by unspeakable evil in Blue Velvet, where youngsters Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern battled to free Isabella Rossellini from the grasp of psychotic evildoer Dennis Hopper. Twin Peaks introduced the moral and supernatural parlor games that Lynch has pretty much owned ever since: small towns in the grip of conspiracy, characters with secret lives, and forces of evil that might somehow be circumvented but probably never defeated. Basically, everyone's lying and nobody can escape.
Mulholland Drive is a fable of two women beset by mysteries. One blond, one brunette; one innocent, one not. The dark locale to counterbalance Montmartre? Los Angeles, of course--equally magical but dangerously so. Instead of sunshine, we get noir. Lynch wastes no time in having fun as he sends the luscious brunette Rita (Laura Harring) on the road to near-death in a car driven by hit men working for an unknown client. An amnesiac survivor, she takes refuge in an empty apartment. Of course, it's not empty for long. Along comes Betty Elms (Naomi Watts), a corn-fed blonde straight out of Deep River, Ontario, trailing the faint scent of Lynch's Twin Peaks ingénue Laura Palmer. Betty seems as innocent as Amélie and just as ready to throw herself into helping to sort out someone else's fate. And Rita? Well, her hair color alone marks her as untrustworthy for this particular sort of coded intrigue. Like a couple of sexy, breast-enhanced Girl Scouts, the pair sets off to solve the mystery. What happened to Rita, and why? Who was after her, and are they still? Like Rita and Betty, the audience has to play detective. And be prepared for the red herrings.
Mulholland Drive was originally meant as a television series, where Lynch might have spun its narrative into multiple complications week after week. Here, truncated into the ruthless logic of a finite cinematic form, it builds its meaning into a jigsaw puzzle of cinematic references. The brunette's name, Rita, is filched from a Gilda poster. Betty could be straight out of Hitchcock's Vertigo. An elderly, excessively enthusiastic, suspiciously helpful couple who share a taxi with Betty from the airport must be on loan from Rosemary's Baby. Betty's apartment, on loan from Aunt Ruth, could have been lifted from any postwar LA film noir, the kind peopled by unsavory men and untrustworthy women. For authoritative cinematic history, look no further than Coco, the landlady of the apartment complex. She's played by veteran actress Ann Miller. A living footnote, Miller was an RKO contract player from the age of 14, an ingénue in Stage Door in 1937, a dancer at MGM in its golden age of musicals and a star on Broadway. Her presence functions as legible commentary: With what she knows, no wonder her character is suspicious and prone to offering unsolicited advice.
Despite the film's considerable length, time flies as the audience is kept busy poring over the clues littering the subplots. One involves a self-important movie director named Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) who lives high off the hog until he's betrayed by his wife (with Billy Ray Cyrus, for gawd's sake) and threatened by the mob to hire a particular actress, or else. Then there's the Winkie's diner that one terrified guy has seen in his nightmares so many times that he finally goes there to eat. And there's a nightspot that Rita somehow remembers, El Club Silencio, where she and Betty witness a full-throttle rendition of Roy Orbison's "Crying" lip-synched in Spanish. This over-determined show-stopper is vintage Lynch, combining the pleasurable and the ominous with the savoir-faire of a bartender who knows full well that his cocktail is lethal.
Mulholland Drive has all the trappings of a fairy tale, from the monster hiding out back to the princess who's in danger. There's even a magic key and a magic box. When the two are combined, everyone is thrown into an alternate reality, where the actors are the same but their characters are completely different. There, good and evil are scrambled. The rules change, time runs backward and our hard-earned holdings fall subject to fraud. Have I mentioned that the film manages to seduce us and humble us, one after the other, with its cleverness?
If, in the end, Mulholland Drive is too clever by half (the final section really, really doesn't make sense), no matter. Lynch's superb command of mise en scène makes his images and situations their own reward, rendering even the simplest gesture creepy and imbuing any innocence with evil. Lynch's ending even takes the audience by surprise, leading moviegoers to ascribe its crossover plots to the effects of parallel universes or the unreliable testimony of self-serving narrators. So what if it ultimately makes a terribly imperfect sense? God is in the details, and its details are sublime.
Serendipity is rotten cotton candy. No, more like actual cotton dipped in rich, drippy chocolate--the confection hawked by Catch-22's greedhead Milo Minderbinder. About a quarter of the audience I saw Serendipity with (evidently a fair national sample) wolfed it down and clamored for more. Newcomer Marc Klein's script is so insidiously predictable, it won him a three-picture deal. Suits are scared; they reward reassurance, as long as they can respect its cynicism. Still, the flick is worth a look, because it's a station of the cross in the career of John Cusack, the Ninth-Greatest Actor of All Time (so says an Empire Magazine poll) and the unwitting recipient of a grassroots campaign to draft him for President (hey, stranger Presidents have happened).
Stop me if you've seen the trailer, but here's the gist: Jon (Cusack) and Sara (Kate Beckinsale) tussle over a pair of gloves at Christmas. Each has a squeeze to shop for. They shouldn't but they spark, they skate, they float beneath improbably starry skies through enchanted Manhattan, skillfully fairytale-ified by director Peter Chelsom and cinematographer Jon de Borman, who enclose the two beauties in a space like a big snow globe with swirling plastic flakes.
Cusack's droll, knowing, McCartney bedroom eyes glint with Lennon venom, and he stammers romance with convincing conviction. He's still very much that heartbreak kid Lloyd in Say Anything, hoisting the boombox to serenade his girl. Back then, young Cusack lobbied director Cameron Crowe to file his moral sweet tooth down to fangs--he wanted Lloyd, a kickboxing fanatic, to assault and batter the girl's oppressive dad. "Yeah, I can see that," said Crowe sweetly, "but this is the movie where he doesn't throw the dad up against the fence." Crowe and Cusack likened themselves to Lennon and McCartney, temperaments clashing in harmony.
Cusack, a born director, an actor in training since 8, soaked up the lesson: Now he's sweetness and blight in one smart package. He can lend heft to featherweight lines, pull moments out of thin air, even defuse Hollywood bombs. Like the hunky sapper in The English Patient, Cusack is cool.
Beckinsale, a call-all-your-friends find in Cold Comfort Farm, remains too chipper and remote--she's still got the Oxford chill in her bones. Too bad--her feebly imagined Serendipity role needs all the humanity it can get. She and Cusack have potential chemistry, but not the heat required to bring the experiment to a rolling boil. It's cold fusion at best. She would've been ideal for High Fidelity, but she was sixty-five pounds bigger then, pregnant, so Cusack had to wait for her until now. Pity.
Jon jots his phone number on a $5 bill; Sara promptly spends it on mints, then jots her number in a copy of García Márquez's Love in the Time of Cholera. She says she'll sell it, and then if fate places that fiver and that book in each other's hands someday, they'll know they were meant to be together. (Does Sara know that before fate reunites the couple in García Márquez's book, the guy cheats on the girl with 622 women?) Sara, dimwit mystic tease that she is, devises yet another trial: They'll simultaneously punch random buttons in separate elevators at the Waldorf, and if they emerge on the same floor, it'll be kismet. What is this, the Immunity Challenge on Survivor? Sara's not a maiden, she's a MacGuffin, a plot point, a marketing concept.
Flash forward a few years. Jon's about to marry some girl so devoid of personality she's practically transparent. It's Bridget Moynahan, who induces in the viewer total short-term memory loss of her existence. Sara has a more engaging fiancé, a musician (John Corbett) who comes off like Kenny G playing a hookah. Corbett gets one fun bit, agonizing over the motivations of the Vikings in his music video. But his courtship with Sara exists solely to receive a decent Viking funeral--she burns him to return to the New York site of her old flame. Horribly, pointlessly, she's accompanied by her best friend (Molly Shannon, who specializes in one emotion, awkward discomfort). At least Moynahan is forgettable; Shannon's performance is the stuff of nightmares. She ought not to be in pictures.
Jon has the film's only beautiful relationship, with his best friend, a New York Times obituary writer (Jeremy Piven, Cusack's best friend for life, and the hungriest actor you ever saw). Piven gets two fine scenes: his wedding-rehearsal toast, which hails himself as the true love of Jon's life (there's lots of weird homophobia in the film, but this bit at least is funny), and his attempt to tackle Jon on Sara's front lawn to prevent him from seeing an apparently naked Sara in flagrante delicto through a window. The good scenes start strong and go nowhere, but most scenes in this film start nowhere and wander off into nothingness.
Serendipity, like Cusack's whole career, illustrates the New Auteur Theory in action: Forget the old heroes, the people with the camera--they can't save us. Who could have more heart and soul than Chelsom (Funny Bones) and de Borman (Saving Grace, The Full Monty)? All Chelsom can do here is smuggle in the odd slice of life: a random Hasidic golfer glimpsed at a driving range, a bracing swoosh of the camera here and there. If you want to work, you've got to cast your style before swine.
No, our sole hope is the enlightened despotism of actors. Look what Cusack's ornery independence has achieved. He broke out of the Brat Pack by renouncing and artistically trouncing the soulless corporate youth movie, etched his Grifters role in righteous acid, co-wrote the against-the-grain High Fidelity and Grosse Pointe Blank, and made the screen world safe for Spike Jonze and Nick Hornby. When he does a big, dumb film, it's to collect clout for art, and he subverts Mammon at every opportunity. If he must do an action hero in Con Air, he does it in Birkenstocks. He forced a wholesale rewrite of America's Sweethearts when he took the lead from Billy Crystal, trying to put some English on the gags, some backspin. Cusack may even reverse Woody Allen's creative death spiral in the film they're cooking up. The key is that Cusack is savvy, pragmatic, yet skew to the plane of all that makes movies so bad.
Most signs of life in Serendipity were planted furtively by actors desperate to escape the story's shackles. Eugene Levy does much with little as a martinet sales clerk who briefly torments Cusack. (But see how much more he can do in Best in Show or the lost worlds of SCTV or Splash, where he was unconfined by formulas.) Most of the film's best moments are the largely improvised scenes of Cusack and Piven cracking wise. Those spontaneous looks of shock you see on the wedding party's faces in Piven's toast scene are reactions to startlingly off-the-script things he made up on the spot. It would be grimly charmless to hear Jon and Sara quiz each other about their favorite sex positions on their first skating-rink date without Beckinsale's expert pratfall on the ice and the nice-guy naturalness of Cusack's quip, "Yeah, that's my favorite position too." His performance has qualities the studio system can't grasp: It's humane, understated, seemingly uncorrupt.
When I'm on movie sets with big male stars, I'm always struck by how small they are--I feel like I could carry Nicolas Cage or Sly Stallone off under my arm, like Dino grabbing Sammy Davis and saying, "I'd like to thank the NAACP for this award!" Yet how they strut and puff themselves up! One $20 million star actually has a colleague slap his face to ready him for the camera, shouting, "You're [name of $20 million star]!" causing the star to bellow, "I'm [name of $20 million star]!" until he really feels big. It's Pathetic Method acting.
John Cusack, by contrast, really is big, over six feet tall. He flying-tackled me in the snow once on a film set, just for fun and out of boredom (and maybe to express his opinion of the press). It hurt: The guy is all muscle. But instead of acting big, he does the opposite. He crouches, makes himself look smaller, a rather cryptic human question mark in place of the human exclamation point that most stars aspire to become. (The scene in Being John Malkovich where he's on the 7 1/2 floor of a building with extremely low ceilings uses this Cusack tendency to excellent comic effect.) He always ducks the obvious, loud, self-aggrandizing statement in favor of the quiet, inquisitive, other-focused, elusively self-concealing statement. Not that he's any less of an egomaniac than most other stars--just more interesting.
Every love story on film is contrived, and we're all inclined to give the most rickety fairy tale the benefit of the doubt. All it takes is the illusion of spontaneity. Serendipity should have heeded the stern Correct Usage warning under "serendipity" in my Encarta dictionary: "The idea of discovery is necessary to the word." As John Barth put it, "You don't reach Serendib by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearings." But nothing is left to chance in Serendipity. The film should have been as open to discovery as its star is. As it is, the whole excessively premeditated thing has less emotional resonance than that single quick scene in Being John Malkovich where Cusack's puppeteer character manipulates a pair of marionettes miming a tortured embrace. You know they're made of wood, you can clearly see the strings--everything you see on a screen is a manipulation--yet you can feel an unmistakable human pain and passion.
John Cusack probably won't get elected President of the United States. But maybe he should be President of Hollywood.
Telluride, Toronto and After
For folks involved in film, seasonal clocks can be set by the annual confluence of international film festivals (Telluride, Toronto, New York, Edinburgh, Venice) that shape reputations and kick-start the movies that show up on screens throughout the fall and winter. Usually, festivals are measured by which premieres and stars they snag, which prizes are awarded. This year, however, only one factor comes into play: whether festivals and films ran before or after September 11.
Telluride took place in the bucolic setting of the Colorado mountains in the prelapsarian weeks prior to September 11. In addition to hot-off-the-press premieres, the Telluride festival is known for its tributes and archival revivals. Each year features a guest director who brings some special expertise to spice up the mix. (Full disclosure: I was the 1996 guest director.) This time it was Salman Rushdie, who unspooled Indian classics and chatted about science fiction films to the thrill of the crowd. (A few days later in Toronto, opening my copy of the Globe and Mail, I was surprised to find Rushdie's name on the front page. An item on September 11 reported that the FAA had alerted Air Canada that it could not board him as a passenger, bound for Toronto that week, due to "extreme security measures" that required air traffic to operate under a "heightened state of alert.")
Yes, Telluride was before all that. Still, it's a festival that often has a political spin buried in its offerings. (Its very first festival, after all, honored Leni Riefenstahl.) The roster of films this year included everything from Jean-Pierre Jeunet's French blockbuster Amelie to a documentary on Walt Disney. No Man's Land, by first-time Bosnian director Danis Tonovic, was a popular hit, offering an antiwar message that combined M*A*S*H-style humor with the despair of Waiting for Godot.
Telluride's succès de scandale was Dear Fidel, a quirky German documentary on the life and love of Marita Lorenz, a German-American woman whose love affair with Fidel Castro during the first year of the Cuban Revolution led to a subsequent assignment from the CIA to murder him. Conspiracy alert: She was also a member of a convoy that drove from DC to Dallas on--guess which day. And, yup, Lee Harvey Oswald (she calls him "Ozzie") was one of the gang. The documentary, by investigative journalist Wilfried Huismann and producers Detlef Ziegert and Yvonne Ruocco, is packed with these astonishing stories and more, plus all-important witness corroborations. The confused editing might boggle the mind, but Dear Fidel's central subject never fails to fascinate. Showing up in person for the premiere, Lorenz basked in the crowd's attention and told even more stories: For example, her daughter (by Venezuelan ex-dictator Gen. Marcos Pérez Jiménez) is now married to the son of Orlando Letelier! Check out the website (www.dear-fidel.com) and prepare to be astonished.
The pure cinema part of the Telluride schedule featured an award and retrospective tribute to Catherine Breillat, the French director whose brilliant examinations of female sexuality freed from societal constraints have made her one of the most original filmmakers of our time. That her cinema is itself freed from societal constraints, and thus free to explore sex explicitly on screen and ignore taboos regarding both age and agency, is not incidental. Romance, the 1998 film in which she used actors alongside porn stars, pierced the facade of feminine wiles and instead constructed a character who was willing to go to any lengths for satisfaction.
Breillat's new film, Fat Girl (À Ma Soeur!), went on to both the Toronto and New York festivals after Telluride, and opens in New York City on October 10, with a national release thereafter. A deliberately troubling film about adolescent female sexuality, Fat Girl can easily be interpreted as a long-overdue riposte to the French coming-of-age movies centered on summertime first loves, such as Eric Rohmer's beloved Pauline at the Beach. Breillat explores the hypocrisy of a society that weighs down the sexual act with sentimental and moralistic baggage through one summer affair between a beautiful teenager, Elena (Roxane Mesquida), and Fernando, the Italian law student (Libero de Rienzo) who woos her after a chance meeting in a beachside cafe.
For a clear-eyed view, Breillat has written into the narrative a plump and grumpy younger sister, whose role is to accompany the Lolita-ish teenager throughout the flirtatious escapade. Protected by age and weight, Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux) dissects the terrible contract by which a teenage girl is allowed to possess beauty and "lose" virginity. In a hilarious cameo, Laura Betti, Pasolini's star and muse, appears as Fernando's social-climbing, bejeweled mother.
Naturally, since this is a Breillat film, sex and death are never far apart. There's unpredictable violence lurking at the movie's end, just when the audience relaxes, thinking it knows what's up. From its tranquil beginning to its shocking finish, Fat Girl shows Breillat to be a world-class artist working at the top of her form--even when the lessons of gender, sexuality and social custom may be hard to swallow. Without her, they wouldn't be available to us at all.
Telluride is not known for favoring women directors, but this year was different. Alongside Breillat was a new talent from Argentina, Lucrecia Martel. Her first feature film, La Ciénaga, churned up attention at virtually every festival and, like Fat Girl, was programmed at Toronto and New York. (It will also have a wider theatrical release, at New York's Film Forum in October and elsewhere throughout the fall.) La Ciénaga is an astonishing debut that mixes a Gabriel García Márquez sort of setting with a thoroughly cinematic imagination. Summer is a time of disintegration in Martel's universe, constructed from her memories of growing up in Salta, a province in the northwest of Argentina near the Bolivian border that's haunted by its own fears and illusions. In La Ciénaga, a middle-class family comes unglued over the course of several days in which petty disasters add up to major calamities. What distinguishes the film is Martel's wholesale reinvention of Latin American film language, so long bound by the rules of realism and/or melodrama. With La Ciénaga, cinema gets a shakeup, and the result is intoxicating.
La Ciénaga does what cinema at its best can do: It reveals a universe we've never even imagined and then gets us to look differently at both the society and medium we'd underestimated. Here, that means seeing water balloons thrown by young men at young women in the glorious frenzy of a fiesta. Or the modern-day stigmata self-inflicted by a boozy mother who, drunk, drops her glass on the patio and falls right into its jagged remains. Or the aura surrounding a maid, adored by the children she cares for and depended upon by their parents, who is nevertheless accused of stealing whenever anything cannot be found. Martel lays open a system of contradictions--individual, familial, racial, class--that show up like fissures in the bedrock of Argentine society. It's the audacious vision of a true artist who has paid close attention to the society around her.
When I arrived in Toronto, I was half-afraid I'd already seen the two best films in the festival. I needn't have worried. The lineup was terrific. Fat Girl and La Ciénaga were still standouts, but they had good company in the 300-plus films from Albania to Zanzibar and most places in between, including Hollywood. David Lynch's Mulholland Drive proved to be a terrific return to form for him, all dark intrigues and homicidal corruption. Alfredo Cuarón's Y Tu Mamá También? spiced a road movie with riffs on adolescent masculinity and the Mexican elite. From Hong Kong, Stanley Kwan sent Lan Yu, a gay melodrama looking at the tumultuous relationship between a businessman and a student hustler. Chilean Patricio Guzmán brought El Caso Pinochet, an examination of the legal and political work of trying the ex-dictator. Toronto is known as an exceedingly democratic festival, with something for everyone--its programmers even sign their catalogue entries so you know whom to blame--and the scope pays off for moviegoers who choose wisely.
Midway into the festival, it began to look possible to divine a new trend in American independent cinema. A series of accomplished films deployed a new narrative structure, tracing a large cast of characters across a series of ever-interlocking dramas. Jill Sprecher's Thirteen Conversations About One Thing and Rose Troche's The Safety of Objects (based on a collection of stories by A.M. Homes) both carry their audiences through multilayered journeys of loss, anxiety and redemption with commanding complexity. In Thirteen Conversations, tricks of fate direct a series of characters whose interconnections are slowly exposed through a complex structure that moves across time and locations. In The Safety of Objects, Troche's script stitches disparate stories together into a treatise on lives touched by tragedy and redeemed by connections that bind them through a similarly complex structure of events. A film by another American woman director, Nicole Holofcener's Lovely and Amazing, offered a brighter and leaner version, with a family story of interconnecting events that culminate in cinema's funniest McDonald's scene. Unlike earlier films that played with narrative--Happiness, American Beauty--these women do not rely on irony. Instead, they're perfecting a new approach to storytelling for complicated times.
Not surprisingly, films at Toronto played differently before and after September 11, a date that fell directly mid-festival. It was astonishing how quickly the hippest buzz dissolved once the events of the world intruded and, conversely, how much excess meaning accrued to those films with the "luck" to consider life-and-death issues, now utterly amplified. Indeed, after the 11th, Toronto was not the same event. The first half wound down as the press corps, in high spirits, emerged from a screening of Mira Nair's deliriously joyous film, Monsoon Wedding (which had been named the Venice festival's grand prize winner the day before), to enter a lobby filled with weeping colleagues staring at a giant monitor above the concession stand carrying the now-familiar scenes of unimaginable destruction. In the aftermath, all parties were canceled, industry presence was diminished and lines of Torontonians wound around the block, eager for the diversion and transport that movies deliver so well.
Suddenly it seemed that the festival was spilling over with films about loss, sudden death, fatal accident and families rent by grief. There were so many I tired of counting (The Safety of Objects, by the way, is one). Three are such exceptional films that they would have been singled out at any time; now they resonate, trembling like a tuning fork with the nervous hum of recent weeks. From Italy, there's The Son's Room; from Taiwan, What Time Is It There?; from France, L'Emploi du Temps (Time Out).
Laurent Cantet's Time Out is an unemployment thriller, detailing the desperate denial and increasingly psychotic behavior of a middle-management family man who loses his job, and with it his identity, sense of safety and all bearings. He never tells anyone what has happened. He cuts off all contact with his old colleagues and concocts one strategy after another--from pyramid investment schemes to outright smuggling--in order to maintain his face-saving fiction. As the screws of his deception tighten, a Hitchcockian shadow of slowly and excruciatingly built tension begins to shadow the film's events. Surely this will end violently? But Cantet is a latter-day Marxist whose last film, Human Resources, looked at a father-son struggle based on a factory floor. Here, he seems to tell us, nothing can compare with the violence experienced by any human caught up in mindless white-collar management, whether working or laid off. In that sense, the lie told by Cantet's protagonist--claiming that he's got a new job with a Swiss NGO doing business in Africa--is merely one more irony in his doomed flight from capitalism.
Tsai Ming-liang appeared in these pages earlier this year when his film The River had a delayed US release. Now he's back, with a wonderfully mature film, What Time Is It There? A comedy of sorts, it considers, among other things, how a son and mother cope with Dad's sudden death. The mother weeps and tries valiantly to communicate with her husband on the other side, utilizing variously a cockroach, a carp and a Buddhist priest. The irreligious son, played as always by Lee Kang-sheng--star of all of Tsai's films since his 1992 hit Rebels of the Neon God-- is shaken, too. He works as a street vendor. When an attractive customer insists on buying the watch on his wrist instead of the one he's selling--arguing that the dual-time dial is essential for her trip to Paris the next day--she sets the film's structure in motion. As her geographic absence begins to stand in for his father's passing, the son performs his mourning by changing every clock in Taipei to Paris time, seven hours ahead.
It's a hilarious conceit, which Tsai carries through with smart cinematic wit. One scene explicitly evokes Harold Lloyd's silent-film antics. In another, our hero purchases a video--Truffaut's 400 Blows--and watches the scene of Jean-Pierre Léaud stealing a bottle of milk and gulping it down. Constant cross-cutting to the watch-bearer, now a lonely Parisian, reveals her chance encounter with the now-aged Léaud himself in a Paris graveyard. The themes of love and loss, nurturance and abandonment, couldn't be clearer; for added resonance, consider that actor Lee is often compared to James Dean, who so famously drank milk from the bottle in Rebel Without a Cause.
Nanni Moretti has made a career's worth of film grounded in humor, but here he has turned serious. The Son's Room, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes this spring, is a portrait of a family, first in happiness and then in grief, its moods bifurcated by the accidental death of an adored son. Conveniently, Moretti's script supplies the father (played by the director's favorite star, himself) with a profession uniquely suited to its needs and ours: He's a psychoanalyst. Prior to his personal tragedy, the doctor is able to handle his patients with ease, even though each one seems to have a problem that echoes his own issue in some way. But after the terrible twist of fate--how cruel film scripts, and life, can be-- he is less and less able. The marriage, too, enters difficult territory. All seems to be lost. And then a letter arrives out of the blue from an unknown girl, and everyone gets a second chance.
The experience of watching The Son's Room two days after the WTC tragedy has forever marked my sense of it. In return, it makes me confident of this film's ability to crack open the heart and heal its wounds again. Totally different from one another, each of these three films takes up loss (of child, parent, job) and looks for a remedy. All three appeared in the New York Film Festival as well and will, one hopes, open across the country quickly. We need them. The movie theater needn't be the place, as the late Pauline Kael once wrote, to "send our minds away." It can be the place where we find them again. And with our minds, our hearts.
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