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On September 17, PBS aired Darkness at High Noon: The Carl Foreman
Documents.
On the surface, this documentary is a posthumous homage
to a worthy blacklisted screenwriter.

Walking at a good New Yorker's clip, you would need about fifteen
minutes to go between Film Forum and the World Trade Center site: a
straight shot down Varick Street from three cozy screening rooms and
fresh-made popcorn to the remains of a mass grave. I sketch this
geography to suggest what September 11, 2001, meant to the Film Forum staff, and to clarify the meaning of their decision to commemorate the other September 11 attack: the one that killed Salvador Allende in 1973.

The calendar links these two events, and so too does the roughest kind
of arithmetic. About as many people died at the World Trade Center as
were snatched up and murdered by the Pinochet regime. Because the United
States helped install and maintain that dictatorship, you might imagine
that Film Forum is also connecting these Septembers politically. You
would not be entirely wrong; after presenting Patricio Guzmán's
new documentary, The Pinochet Case (on view through September
24), the theater will continue its Chilean theme by showing The
Trials of Henry Kissinger
. But if you know the Manhattan streets,
you will realize this schedule doesn't mean to explain--or, worse, to
excuse--the criminals who destroyed the Twin Towers. Rather, the Film
Forum staff have added sorrow to sorrow, looking beyond themselves and
their neighbors to others who are neglected at this moment. Generosity
inspires this programming choice, along with hope--precisely the
qualities that shine through The Pinochet Case.

If you remember the dangerous immediacy of Guzmán's
now-classic The Battle of Chile, you may be surprised to see
The Pinochet Case begin as a landscape film. Guzmán sets
the tone by showing views of mountains under a clear blue sky, as
glimpsed from a car on a lonely highway. A little time passes before the
car reaches its destination: a site where corpses were dumped. Two fully
clothed men, breathing and fidgeting, lie on the ocher ground to show
where the remains were found. By the very inadequacy of their imposture,
these surrogates hint at a horror you can't imagine; and maybe they
suggest as well that this place belongs to the living. Nothing is left
of the victims except for a few fragments--precious to the forensic
experts--and the memories borne by their families, who have come here
with Guzmán so they can testify to what cannot be seen or heard.
A woman speaks of her missing son, meanwhile fingering a photograph that
she has slung around her neck. A man recalls his missing brother by
reciting a song lyric by Victor Jara: "The spring will come from your
heart." He says the line several times over; and somehow, in this place
of natural beauty and man-made bitterness, he doesn't choke on the
words.

The Pinochet Case belongs to witnesses like these. They sit for
their portraits, singly or in groups, sometimes while the moving camera
seems to caress their faces. They talk about whatever was hardest for
them to endure. (For Nelly, it was admitting that her missing husband
would never use the suitcase she packed for him. For Gabriela, who was
tortured and raped, it was seeing others killed.) Above all, these
witnesses hold out. "My revenge," Luisa says, "is just staying alive."

Not subsisting--staying alive. For Luisa and other witnesses, that meant
compiling data that Chilean society preferred to ignore, pressing
lawsuits that Chilean courts refused to hear, seeking justice that
seemed unattainable even after Pinochet stepped down. Underneath the
forms of democracy, as one witness explains, Chile remained unchanged,
since the thousands who had cooperated in state terror were still
around, still powerful, still unwilling to see their deeds uncovered.
And yet, "The spring will come from your heart." The witnesses went on
expecting justice--and suddenly, in 1998, they got it.

Narrating the story with brisk reverence for its heroes, The Pinochet
Case
explains how Spanish prosecutor Carlos Castressana ingeniously
recognized that "crimes against humanity" are by definition the business
of all courts everywhere. Charges of torture and political murder could
therefore be brought against Augusto Pinochet in a Spanish court, even
though the crimes took place in Chile. Judge Baltasar Garzón
accepted this argument and began to hear testimony--quixotically, it
seemed, since no one imagined there would be a trial. But then
Castressana and Garzón had the further insight that if their
court could enter charges, it could also request extradition. They
sprang upon Pinochet during his annual visit to London. All at once, the
Senator for Life found himself under house arrest, while the British
legal system began fitfully to strip away his immunity from prosecution.

Another surprise: While The Pinochet Case is meditative and
leisurely when dealing with the witnesses, it becomes lively and even
raucous when it details the court proceedings in England. Part of this
energy comes from the polyrhythmic demonstrations that sprang up around
Pinochet. (Wherever he was, Chileans and their supporters turned out in
force, to bang on drums and shout "Murderer!") Another part of the
film's energy comes from the personalities of the lawyers--Castressana,
for example, is memorably forceful when he speaks of the historic ties
he feels with the Chileans--and still more is contributed by the
filmmaker himself. Guzmán illustrates the legal tactics with a
chessboard; the political maneuvering with some patched-in footage of
Margaret Thatcher, who paid a courtesy call on Pinochet during his
period of house arrest. "I'm very much aware," she intoned for his
benefit and the camera's, "that it's you who brought democracy to
Chile."

What kind of laughter should those words arouse? If I know my New York
audiences, a jeer will greet them. We're good at jeering, and Thatcher
deserves it. What haunts me about The Pinochet Case, though, is a
far different expression of amusement: the bright smile of one of the
witnesses toward the end of the movie. She has lived to see Pinochet
humiliated; she knows the history books in her country can no longer
pass over his crimes; and although full justice has hardly been done,
although killers live unmolested all around her, she speaks with a tone
of laughter in her voice, a laughter without spite. The killers, she
says, are ashamed before their children; but we, we are free.

In September 2002, in New York City, The Pinochet Case is a gift.

Short Takes: The Method actor and the sensitive young junkie
emerged together in film history. New versions of the rebellious city
boy, scruffy yet soft and inward-looking, they both elected to hunch
over a pain in the gut, seeming to protect and even savor the inner
flaws that made them writhe.

Half a century later, those figures are still with us, most recently in
a Warner Bros. release titled City by the Sea and in a film from
China, Quitting. Both are based-on-a-true-story movies; both are
exercises in acting. Only one of them touches on the social disaffection
that used to spark these now-mythical types.

Directed by Michael Caton-Jones from a screenplay by Ken Hixon, City
by the Sea
stars Robert DeNiro as a police detective whose
long-abandoned junkie son (James Franco) is now wanted for murder. The
dialogue is thick with intergenerational doom; the images with
establishing shots, as the action bounces between lower Manhattan (where
the cop lives and works) and the derelict boardwalk of Long Beach, the
son's all-too-symbolic hangout. But the real locus of interest is the
face and body of DeNiro, who once might have played the son but now has
grown meaty and measured, avuncular if not exactly paternal. You spend
the movie admiring his self-control but waiting for the performance to
start, until it finally does, on schedule, at the very end. Too bad the
acting doesn't benefit the son. The turmoil in this pretty-good picture
serves only DeNiro, helping him say farewell to his Method youth to
settle comfortably into a chair at the beach.

So I prefer Quitting by Zhang Yang, a fiction film in which young
actor Jia Hongsheng, playing himself, re-enacts his years of drug
addiction, his struggles with his family (who also play themselves) and
his time spent in a psychiatric hospital. Directed and performed with a
mercifully light touch, the movie is full of telling details, not just
about the characters but about their world: Jia's contempt for his
parents' "peasant" manner of speech and dress, for example, or his
fascination with Western youth culture, meaning drugs, rock and roll and
Method acting. (On the door of his room hangs a poster of DeNiro in
Taxi Driver.) All this is right on the surface, unlike Jia's
sexual orientation; but if you've got an eye for tight blue jeans and
midriff T-shirts, maybe that theme, too, comes to light.

The debate over how to redevelop the World Trade Center site has
revolved around several key concerns: the commercial interests of the
real estate industry, the public's desire to embolden Manhattan's
skyline with exciting architecture and the historic obligation to
memorialize thousands of lost lives. As we continue to address and
balance these concerns, let's also seize the chance to reclaim Ground
Zero in the spirit of the twenty-first century, showcasing one of
today's most inspiring and politically meaningful industrial movements:
the revolution in clean energy.

Imagine for a moment that the structures surrounding the memorial will
be sheathed in an invisible skin of electricity-producing solar cells.
During the day, while electricity demand is peaking, the buildings will
silently, automatically produce energy. No power plants or transmission
lines necessary. No greenhouse emissions. No need for oil, coal, natural
gas or nuclear energy. No risk of blackouts. No spiking electricity
prices. Computer and phone networks, elevators, clocks, air conditioners
and ATMs will all run simply, cleanly, like a crop of corn or a grove of
trees, on sunlight. (The complex will be connected to the grid, drawing
electricity when necessary--at night or on cloudy days--and pumping
power back in when it creates a surplus.)

These high-tech buildings will supply all the services and comforts of a
traditional commercial or residential complex but require less than half
the electricity because of their green design features: superinsulated
walls and windows; highly efficient appliances and lighting, heating and
cooling systems; and a motion-sensing laser system that will
automatically switch off lights and equipment when not in use. Whereas
the original World Trade Center complex guzzled nearly 100 megawatts of
electricity a day on peak days, with associated emissions, the new
complex will be a net-zero-emission development. Moreover, this mini-El
Dorado of energy independence and its surrounding neighborhood will be
designed to have minimal need for cars and trucks. Once there, visitors
will be in the greatest walking neighborhood in the world. The three
airports, Kennedy, La Guardia and Newark, will be connected by train to
the downtown terminal, making it an easy commute. An expanded network of
ferries connecting lower Manhattan with Brooklyn, Queens, New Jersey and
uptown will provide a fast and pleasurable way to get around. The heart
of lower Manhattan will be knitted together by a clean, quiet street
grid restored for use by pedestrians alone.

"From both a technological and cost standpoint, this scenario is
entirely possible," says Ashok Gupta, an energy economist at the Natural
Resources Defense Council. Solar systems, fuel cells and
energy-efficiency measures have already been implemented in the design
of several skyscrapers in Manhattan, including the Condé Nast
building at Times Square and the residential tower at Battery Park
currently under construction. As clean-energy technologies become
rapidly more sophisticated and affordable, a large-scale application at
Ground Zero would galvanize their acceptance in the marketplace. As for
transportation, fuel-cell-powered buses and taxis may be too expensive
today, but already they're technologically feasible. The Lower Manhattan
Development Corporation (LMDC) and the Port Authority have approved
additional rail connections for commuters beneath the new complex; they
are also considering plans to depress the West Side Highway for a more
pedestrian-friendly environment, and to add new ferry lines at Battery
Park and on the East River.

The opportunities are real, but they can't be realized without leaders.
Yet neither Governor George Pataki, site developer Larry Silverstein nor
Mayor Michael Bloomberg has expressed much interest so far. "Mr.
Silverstein isn't really thinking about this," says his spokesperson.
"It's just too early to get bogged down in these kinds of details."
Pataki's office expressed a similar lack of initiative, saying the
issues are important but not yet a priority. Alex Garvin, vice president
of planning for the LMDC, was more assertive in his commitment: "We plan
to establish standards for sustainability and green technology that
architects will be not only encouraged but required to meet. But we
can't get started on this now; it's too early to determine the details."

Prominent green architects disagree. Robert Fox, senior principal of Fox
and Fowle, the architecture firm that designed the Condé Nast
building, says planners should adopt the Leadership in Energy and
Environmental Design rating system, the gold standard for sustainable
building practices. "Now is the time to address this, at the beginning
of the planning process," stresses Fox. "Sustainability measures must be
incorporated into every aspect of the design, from the infrastructure of
the water, sewage and electricity systems to the external PV-integrated
paneling."

It's a safe bet that the public will support much if not all of the
larger zero-energy vision. In addition to the LMDC, two
coalitions--Civic Alliance, representing more than 100 institutions, and
New York New Visions, representing dozens of local architecture
firms--have endorsed principles for downtown redevelopment that promote
sustainable design and clean energy. Furthermore, there's impressive
evidence that supports the use of clean-energy systems: Richard Perez, a
scientist at SUNY Albany who's been tracking sunlight in New York City
for more than ten years, has found that the average amount of sun that
hits the city annually is only 12 percent less than that in cloudless
Tucson.

Right now the Pataki administration is considering a proposal to limit
power-plant emissions of carbon dioxide 30-40 percent below 1990 levels
by 2010. Building a zero-energy complex and a state-of-the-art
transportation system would advance these goals and address the mounting
crisis of global warming, while making a clear statement about America's
commitment to energy independence. Since September 11 many energy
experts have called for a massive, government-funded research project, a
"Manhattan Project of alternative energy" to alleviate our dependence on
foreign oil. The opportunity for such an initiative now lies at the foot
of Manhattan. Nothing would be more appropriate for a memorial to a
traumatic past than one that points us in the direction of a sustainable
future.

The footprints of clashing interests.

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
taffy.

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
the air.

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
capital R.

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
soar.

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.

It's only August, but I'll go out on a limb and congratulate the
Village Voice
's Keith Harris for what I feel confident will stand
the test of time as the stupidest comment of the year. "Because his
vision of rock and roll is so grand, Springsteen requires a popular
consensus as surely as any invasion of Iraq. And as we've learned yet
again, nothing sparks phony consensus like national cataclysm. Maybe
that's why, for the past few days, a nagging thought has burrowed into
my brain that I wish was merely the snide aphorism I initially took it
for: If there hadn't been a September 11, Bruce Springsteen would have
had to invent one."

Like an Ann Coulter bestseller or a Rush Limbaugh radio rant, Harris's
review is idiotic but instructive. Aside from its self-evident (and
self-incriminating) silliness, what galls about the comment is its
willful forfeiture of the common cultural ground upon which Bruce
Springsteen plies his trade. Does 9/11 belong only to George Bush and
Donald Rumsfeld? Is American popular culture the exclusive preserve of
Spielberg, Bruckheimer and Britney?

While managing to keep both feet planted in the mainstream, Springsteen
has done more than any American artist to give voice to the American
"other" that pop culture would prefer to forget: the humiliated Vietnam
veteran, the fired factory worker, the hunted illegal immigrant, the
death-row inmate, the homeless person living beneath the bridge and
Amadou Diallo, a West African immigrant, accidentally murdered by
forty-one shots from New York's finest. With his 1994 AIDS ballad
"Streets of Philadelphia," Springsteen became the first heterosexual
rock star ever to sing in the voice of a homosexual man, in a work
that--as Ann Powers, who was then writing brilliant music criticism in,
uh, the Village Voice, observed--succeeded in crossing "the
barriers of class, race, and gender."

Springsteen is vulnerable to criticism on any number of grounds,
artistic and commercial, but his willingness to offer solace in troubled
times strikes me as pretty low on that list. Springsteen was literally
stopped in his car after 9/11 by someone who cried out, "We need you."
Monmouth County, where he lives, lost 158 people in the towers. He
played a couple of local benefits. He read, repeatedly, about the
meaning of his work to his fans in the New York Times's
"Portraits of Grief." He called a few widows, shared their stories and
made a record. It's what he does. "I have a sense of what my service to
my audience is going to be," he explains. "It's the true nature of work
in the sense that you're filling a place. And that place comes with its
blessings and its responsibilities." So sue him.

It is a separate question as to whether one thinks the art that emanated
from this impulse is wholly successful. With regard to The
Rising
, I can argue the point either way. But to take issue with the
very idea that art can be a balm to those in pain--or, as Springsteen
puts it, "music is medicine"--is cynicism itself. And to the degree that
this is at all representative of leftist attitudes, it speaks for an
impotent and self-defeating left: too smug and self-satisfied to engage
the culture of the common people, preferring instead to smirk on the
sidelines.

Granting both its sincerity and its (inconsistent) genius, The
Rising
does nevertheless raise some complicated questions about art,
politics and commerce. One has to go back to 1984--to Springsteen's own
Born in the U.S.A.--to find a rock record that was marketed as
energetically to mainstream America. After decades of relative
reclusiveness, Springsteen is suddenly everywhere in the mass media:
taking over the Today show in Asbury Park, on David Letterman two
nights in a row, ditto Ted Koppel, on MTV, Saturday Night Live,
simultaneous covers of Time and Rolling Stone; long
interviews with the New York Times, the LA Times and
USA Today. I half expected him to duet with Elmo or Big Bird over
breakfast. It should surprise no one that the record entered the charts
at No. 1 in eleven countries.

The problem arises--just as it did with Born in the U.S.A.--when
the work's cultural signification overwhelms its artistic essence; what
Nietzsche, in Twilight of the Idols, termed "the thing itself."
The dilemma for anyone who seeks to use popular culture to communicate a
message at odds with its market-driven heart of darkness is: who's using
whom? Did Springsteen accidentally empower Reaganism back in the
mid-1980s as he simultaneously denounced it? Is he somehow cheapening
the individual tragedies of which he writes and sings by performing
these haunting melodies at the ungodly hour of 8:30 am in the happy-talk
context of a Today show beach party?

Matt Lauer asked Springsteen whether he feared being accused of
exploiting the tragedy of 9/11, and Springsteen told him to listen to
the music and make up his own mind. The same might be said of his
willingness to embrace (and exploit) America's mighty mass-marketing
machine.

The answer has to be a personal one. In Asbury Park, I did some random
interviewing of people who had traveled many hours, and waited on
overnight lines, in the hope of seeing Springsteen perform four songs in
the Convention Hall for the Today broadcast. I spoke to a
firefighter who had gone into the burning buildings, a 16-year-old girl
who was repaying her mom for waiting ten hours on line to get 'NSync
tickets, a woman with her 5-year-old son, who, back in '85, enlisted her
entire family in a weeklong wait for tickets. Nobody mentioned Matt or
Katie. Nobody mentioned the marketing campaign. Nobody even complained
about the all-night wait and the uncertainty that they would be allowed
inside the hall. They were there for Bruce because Bruce was there for
them. In the midst of what Springsteen accurately terms "a theater of
humiliation on TV and on the radio, a reflection of self-loathing," they
had created a community around something better. This was their
hometown.

(Don't forget, while those Nation folks are on vacation,
www.altercation.msnbc.com.)

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
filmmakers.

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
pathetic.

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
career.

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
day.

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.

Bob Dylan at Newport

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