What was it like in the sixties, wonders a dewy young woman in The Limey, speaking to Peter Fonda. Who better to ask? The jeans and leather he used to wear have given place to a summer-weight suit; when he stands at the bathroom mirror, he now checks for gum disease. But in the role of a wealthy music promoter called Valentine, he remains more than a witness and more than an authority--he's an embodiment. The sixties? Imagine, Valentine says (between grimaces) to the fresh-faced beauty soaking in his tub: You're in a place where everybody speaks a different language, and yet you understand them, and they understand you.
Turn that notion around, and you've got the conceit of The Limey: A man comes to Los Angeles speaking the same language as everyone else, yet no one understands him.
The man's words are impenetrable, first of all, because they're in cockney rhyming slang; but surely that's only an outward, symbolic expression of the deeper culture gap. This title character--known as Wilson, and portrayed by another icon of the sixties, Terence Stamp--has been frozen in his era, having spent most of the past years in prison. He's not just out of place but out of time, and by fifty percent more than Rip van Winkle. When Wilson roars at one of Valentine's lackeys, "Tell him I'm coming!" you might realize there's serious catching up to do, even if blood weren't spattered across his face.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh from a script by Lem Dobbs, The Limey sounds in summary like a standard revenge drama. Wilson's daughter, who once was another fresh-faced beauty in Valentine's entourage, has died in questionable circumstances. Now Wilson, recently freed from his latest decade in prison, has come to Los Angeles to get answers and exact punishments. That the heaviest responsibility will prove to fall on himself--that he will discover his mirror image in the man he stalks--cannot surprise anyone who has seen or read other thrillers. Such moral turnarounds have become a convention in themselves. What's intriguing about The Limey is the way its characters, by confronting one another, play out a myth of the sixties as alien, shady and overrated, a period that amounted to no more than "1966, and some of early '67" (in Valentine's recollection). As someone who came of age during the Reagan years, Soderbergh looks coolly at the older generation--but he looks all the same, unable to tear his eyes away from their spectacle of waste and bravado. For at least one young person in The Limey, that's enough for Wilson and Valentine to be fatal in their allure.
In Valentine's case, the outlaw of thirty years ago has become chatty and vulnerable. You see him with the jitters, shaking the booze out of the cut-glass tumbler in his hand, or grinning too broadly as he tries to ingratiate himself with the young woman in his sports car. The character becomes a kind of mental double-exposure: Fonda as you now see him, and the Fonda you remember from The Wild Angels or Easy Rider as almost wordless in his self-possession, virtually unreadable behind his shades.
In Wilson's case, the double image is even more explicit. It's right on the screen, in snippets from Ken Loach's Poor Cow. There's Terence Stamp in 1967, playing an airy young cockney thief; and here he is now, white-haired and finely wrinkled, adding a wounded dignity to the role.
Dignity, and humor. In what is perhaps the most important of the scenes in which he misunderstands and is misunderstood, Wilson draws himself up before a Drug Enforcement Administration officer and spins out a self-justifying monologue that's baffling in vocabulary, direction and motive alike. As if he didn't notice these little difficulties, Stamp plays the scene with head, shoulders and spine smartly aligned, his chin tucked in, his arms hanging loose by his sides unless needed: a picture of rectitude, as would no doubt be shaped by many hundreds of lineups in prison. "In the past, granted, I have been known to redistribute wealth," Stamp intones, giving the armed robber the touch of class he would desire, while at the same time betraying a career criminal's mindset. He assumes the DEA man must be crooked. Slumped mountainously behind his desk, the decidedly uncrooked drug cop (played to insolent perfection by Bill Duke) regards Wilson through drooping eyelids and replies, "There's only one thing I don't understand: every word you just said."
There you have the problem addressed in The Limey: the rupture between Wilson and the world where his daughter lived and died. Now that it's too late, Wilson is trying to bridge the gap, with results that can be funny (in the DEA scene), violent (in various shootouts and beatings) or meditative. Assembling the film in virtuosic fashion, Soderbergh fractures time, allowing a dozen incidents to take place while Wilson walks from one side of the screen to the other; he overlaps moments, making the dialogue within a scene shift unexpectedly against the image; he changes tempo, so that The Limey first signals its identity as a crime thriller and then slows into a quiet montage sequence, observing Wilson as he sits humming in an airplane, a rental car, a motel room.
Perhaps the most striking feature of The Limey is this contemplative tone, to which the film returns again and again. It's also the feature that betrays a culture gap on Soderbergh's part. He's more convincing when he contemplates Wilson--letting the camera dwell on Stamp's face, or intercutting sweet memories of Stamp in Poor Cow--than when he tries to get inside the character's deeper meditations. I sensed an emotional ground-note lacking in the final confrontation between Wilson and Valentine, and in the scenes that evoke Wilson's late-found resignation. If these moments seem more generic than iconic, perhaps it's because the film's point of view is never truly Wilson's. It's Soderbergh's--and he feels the back story, of a daughter's yearning for her father, more keenly than he experiences Wilson's loss.
Still, it's a flaw you might forgive in a film as intelligent and well crafted as The Limey. Maybe the film doesn't plunge you into a character's adrenaline and bile, as happened in Soderbergh's The Underneath, or set loose rushes of pure pleasure, as in Out of Sight. But perhaps there's something valuable even in the distanced artifice of The Limey.
For a multitude of filmmakers, writers and culture botherers, the sixties have become a Great White Whale. How many Ahabs have we seen, caught in the lines of their own harpoons as that vast, submerged power drags them down? How many curses have we heard sputtered against an era they can't defeat and can't leave alone? At least credit Soderbergh with taking a different role, one that allows him to watch the pretty patterns made by the wreck's debris. Call him Ishmael.
If Terence Stamp and Peter Fonda may serve as icons of sixties filmmaking, then surely David Lynch is cinema's emblem of the Reagan years. Jeering irony, empty mystery, stylishness in the service of style and a very pronounced liking for brutality: Such were the qualities appropriate to an era of conservatives as self-proclaimed rebels. You got the whole package in Blue Velvet in the scene where Laura Dern, as Blond Virgin, was posed against a stained-glass window to the accompaniment of organ music. By making the use of a stereotype seem hip, Lynch got credit for being an innovator--and reasserted the stereotype.
I've often thought Lynch ought to do the honorable thing by tearing up his career and starting over. And that, to some degree, is what he's done in his surprising new film, The Straight Story.
Once again, Lynch proposes that there's a "normal" America--a small-town place, with little houses set behind their yards--where all manner of thrilling "oddity" waits to be discovered. The difference this time is that he found the fusion of "normal" and "odd" in an irreducibly real figure: Alvin Straight. In 1994, when he was in his 70s and in frail health, Straight undertook a journey of several hundred miles to visit his brother Lyle, whom he hadn't seen in ten years. Unable to drive a car because of his poor eyesight and unwilling to be driven on a bus, Straight fitted a trailer to a John Deere lawnmower and puttered his way from Laurens, Iowa, to Mt. Zion, Wisconsin.
Another irreducibly real figure plays the role of Alvin in The Straight Story: longtime stuntman and character actor Richard Farnsworth. Working without his dentures, walking with the aid of a pair of canes he actually seems to need, speaking in a soft, high voice that is nevertheless always firm, Farnsworth breathes an unapologetic simplicity into the character--and Lynch, for once in his career, doesn't interfere, almost. There is one godawful Lynchian scene in The Straight Story, where a motorist bewails her unaccountable bad luck in running into deer. How do they manage to jump onto the highway from the Iowa plain? But once the Deer Lady has been voided from the screen, not a moment too soon, the movie settles again into a study of the Midwestern landscape and Farnsworth's face, proceeding at a pace that's suited to Alvin's lawnmower. Nothing is rushed. Nothing is forced.
I still think Lynch has a lot to answer for. But by the time Alvin got to the Wisconsin border, I felt The Straight Story had rediscovered a sense of wonder that is no less redemptive for risking sentimentality. I saw the lawnmower clatter onto a bridge, and suddenly I could recall the awe I'd felt on car trips as a child when we drove over certain very important bridges. Lynch has made the Mississippi River seem epic again, and he's brought to the screen someone who seems worthy of the crossing. It's a beginning.