With over 100,000 members in college and university chapters, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was the largest and most significant of the 1960s New Left organizations in the United States. While its history has been told before in a few well-known titles--Kirkpatrick Sale's SDS, James Miller's "Democracy Is in the Streets," Todd Gitlin's The Sixties and Thomas Powers's Diana among them--SDS is finally getting visual treatment as well with Helen Garvy's intriguing film Rebels With a Cause.
Garvy, a former assistant national secretary of SDS, reveals an insider's history of the organization with her film, built around the voices of twenty-eight of its leading activists, including Tom Hayden, Carl Oglesby, Casey Hayden and Bernardine Dohrn. And despite a sparse use of visual images, narration and music, Garvy has created an affecting picture. She avoids the "talking heads" danger inherent in documentary technique through tight editing--one interviewee picks up right where another leaves off. The effect is that of a seamless and compelling narration to the unfolding history and issues.
While other films about the '60s capture the energy and excitement of student rebellion with footage of protests and confrontation, this one captures the thought that went into the activism. It is the best film record we have of the intellectual motivations of the New Left in the United States.
The SDS story as Garvy tells it begins with its founding in 1960 as an organization concerned with racism, poverty, democratization of American society, the cold war and the danger of nuclear confrontation. SDS sought to identify itself with the left but avoid the traditional leftist pitfalls of sectarianism and dogmatism. The Port Huron Statement, drafted two years later by Tom Hayden, began with an expression of the generational anxieties to which SDS was responding: "We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit."
Despite the great concerns and ambitions of its founders, SDS was at first nothing more than a loose network of activist friends on a few college campuses (Michigan and Swarthmore, in particular) and in New York City. Then the contacts began to expand; I first heard about SDS in 1963 as a freshman at the University of Oklahoma, where we were concerned with ending both segregation in the surrounding community and compulsory ROTC on campus.
The most important initial organizing thrust of SDS was to serve as a Northern student adjunct to the Southern civil rights movement. But it quickly moved from supporting the Southern struggle to attempting to spark parallel struggles in the North. Through its Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP) the organization embarked on a series of ambitious community organizing campaigns in nine Northern cities with the avowed aim of creating an interracial movement of the poor. "We were very serious organizers," Sharon Jeffrey says in the film. "We intended to change the world." Within a couple of years, though, the escalating Vietnam War began to divert the energies of SDS away from its domestic community-organizing agenda. The ERAP began to wither, as did a number of civil rights projects in the South.
Nineteen sixty-five was a critical year in this transition. On April 17 SDS held the first March on Washington to protest US intervention in Vietnam. Exceeding all expectations, 25,000 people participated. Then more than 100,000 took part in the October 15 International Days of Protest and the November 27 second March on Washington sponsored by SDS and a range of other organizations. The number of SDS chapters on campuses multiplied from a few dozen to well over a hundred. Thousands of new members joined up. National and international media descended upon the Chicago national office, where I was working at the time, thinking that they had located the epicenter of the antiwar movement. In reality, by this time, SDS was just one of many organizations responding to a groundswell of opposition to the war.
The war was the new reality. At this time, SDS was actively struggling against America's foreign policy as well as its racial and economic policies at home. Then, in December 1965, Casey Hayden and Mary King, both highly regarded organizers and informal leaders from the civil rights movement, opened up yet another front. They circulated a letter, titled "Sex and Caste," that called upon women in SDS (and the movement in general) to initiate dialogues over "the problems between men and women." This call added gender to the inequalities of race and class that the organization sought to redress. It also marked the beginning of women's activism in the movement.
For the next four years, SDS played a prominent role in the growth of a freewheeling and militant new radicalism. But the movement defied any kind of central control, and a succession of national SDS leaders struggled to establish a clear role for the organization.
An initially small faction dominated by the Progressive Labor Party (PL), a pro-China splinter from the Communist Party, made inroads into SDS year by year, and its opponents among the national leadership grew increasingly rattled as they sought to fashion nonsectarian alternatives to PL's brand of Marxism-Leninism. The 1969 SDS convention in Chicago broke into warring factions--one controlled by PL, another by the emergent Weather Underground and others, including the Revolutionary Youth Movement. The Weather faction controlled the national SDS office until early 1970, then closed it down before going underground. That marked the formal end of the organization.
In many ways SDS succumbed to the very sectarianism that it had sought to avoid. "There was a process of one-upmanship on rhetoric," Bob Ross says, "that eventually one-upped us right out of touch with either students or the mass of the people."
Most of the tendencies of the radical politics of the seventies, including clandestine guerrilla organizations and the attempts to build Marxist-Leninist parties, can be traced from the breakup of SDS. Some members, however, came out of SDS committed to electoral politics and moving the Democratic Party to the left. A significant number also continued to pursue grassroots organizing strategies.
Although the SDS name continued to be employed by PL for several years, it was not the same organization and has never been recognized as such by original SDS activists. Consequently, Garvy does not include the PL "SDS" in her treatment. However, she does describe the Weather Underground experience, since its leading activists had roots in SDS. A number of these, including Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers and Cathy Wilkerson, speak in the film.
Garvy treads cautiously in this part of Rebels. Since the Weather campaign of terrorism continues to be an issue of sore dispute among SDS veterans, Garvy tells two sides of this story. She includes both a point-blank denunciation of the Weathermen as unrepresentative of the movement by former SDS president Todd Gitlin and a sympathetic interpretation--that the Weather tactics grew out of frustration with the failure of large-scale marches and other nonviolent tactics to stop the war. "In some ways," Jane Adams says, "I felt that they were my agent despite the fact that I didn't agree with them. I could fully understand the frustration out of which their rage came."
But not all of SDS's long-term survival problems were due to its internal dynamics. Documents released through the Freedom of Information Act confirm what was widely suspected then: The FBI and other government agencies kept close tabs on SDS and disrupted its activities through the FBI counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO). The full extent to which government agencies contributed to destroying the organization's effectiveness remains unknown. There are still-unreleased files, and, as is typical, much of the content of the released material is blacked out.
Garvy situates SDS as a phenomenon of homegrown radicalism in the great tradition of American grassroots democratic movements. What she chooses not to show is that SDS was also a phenomenon of the American left.
SDS was as much an outgrowth of, and entangled in, the left-wing political tradition as it was a spontaneous response to issues of the time. A number of its original activists came from left-wing, including Communist, families. The organization began as the student affiliate of the cold war social-democratic League for Industrial Democracy (LID), which had a long history of intraleft warfare against Communism.
The LID parentage proved increasingly problematic as SDS got older, especially as the Vietnam War became a major issue. (Leading members of LID supported the war.) The final straw that broke the relationship came at the 1965 national convention when SDS voted to remove a clause in its constitution that barred Communists from membership. SDS's "anti-anti-Communist" stance could not be tolerated by the profoundly anti-Communist LID, and a formal separation was negotiated a couple of months later.
Throughout its history, SDS saw itself as an alternative to the traditional left-wing Trotskyist, Maoist and Soviet-aligned groups, which it dismissed as sectarian and largely irrelevant to the nation's political life. (It was in SDS that I learned the difference between an "-ist" and an "-ite." You used the former for polite descriptions, the latter for ideological enemies.) Nevertheless, it had both to struggle with those groups and to participate with them in coalition activities. Thus, historical events of the left, from the split between communists and social democrats to the Sino-Soviet split (via the PL), contributed to creating the organizational environment in which SDS functioned.
Garvy can be forgiven for leaving out this part of the story in the interest of producing a film for wide consumption--how many ordinary people would want to sit through hearing SDS veterans onscreen reminiscing about their differences with Trotskyism or other leftist tendencies? Still, those differences did make up a part of the nitty-gritty struggles of the day and were a significant part of SDS history.
Rebels With a Cause can best be described as oral history in the form of a film. As such it is a faithful record--without the left-wing context--of that part of the 1960s movement. It is especially valuable as an antidote to the cynical interpretations that dismiss the 1960s activists as either misguided idealists or hedonists consumed with sex, drugs and rock and roll. But beyond establishing an accurate record, the film's contribution is its transmission of historical memory to later generations. It is an especially valuable resource for current activists who wish to link their struggles to those of the recent past.
I was therefore curious to know what this generation of students, who had not been born when the 1960s movement took place, would think of Garvy's film. There had been no overt censorship to prevent transmittal of the memory. But would other mechanisms keep students from knowing this history? Would they consider the events to be too remotely in the past to have any relevance to their lives?
I showed Rebels With a Cause at the university where I teach--Eastern Connecticut State, a working-class campus not at all known for student activism. As one might expect, reactions and interests varied. What I was most struck by was that while all the students had heard of the civil rights movement, many had not heard of the antiwar movement.
The media and schools have enshrined the civil rights movement, as they should, as a good example of a social movement in American history. The antiwar movement is another matter. It is largely ignored by the media and schools because it is still controversial--both in terms of whether citizens should have protested that war and, most important, for the "dangerous" example it set for how citizens might respond to present and future wars engaged in by this country.
In Rebels With a Cause Helen Garvy has given us a resource for keeping alive the radical memory of such dangerous examples and dreams in American history.
REBELS WITH A CAUSE
A director, now an old man, alone, sits in his tidy house by the sea, everything in its place, the notebooks piled in their drawer, the letter opener and pen neatly on the desk. He conjures up his dead lover, an attractive actress named Marianne. She settles into the window seat, or sits in a chair opposite him, or, more rarely, strolls briefly around the room as she flashes back through her life with him and without him, by turns caustically, tenderly, revealingly, angrily. Through watery, startled, wounded, even yearning eyes, he stares at her and at himself years earlier. For entr'acte punctuation, he stares out the window toward the rolling sea, and three or four times even walks toward it. That, and a couple of Paris-from-the-rooftops shots, are among the few shifts from this movie's claustrophobic interiors and tight head shots and static camera setups. Welcome to Faithless. Premiered at last fall's New York Film Festival, written by Ingmar Bergman and directed by Liv Ullman, the movie takes 150 minutes, more or less, to relive one extramarital affair and its aftermath.
The setup? Marianne (the beautiful and talented Lena Endre, whose performance is one of the film's best aspects) is married to Markus (Thomas Hanzon), a conductor who's rich, powerful and handsome. They have a daughter, the saucer-eyed preteen Isabelle (Michelle Gylemo). Markus's best friend is David (Krister Henriksson), a pudgy, morose, egocentric, not-quite-unsuccessful director. One night David shows up when Markus is on tour, and asks Marianne to sleep with him. She is startled, then agrees to sleep--and only that--with him. And so she does, but the seed of adultery is planted. She fantasizes about David, approaches him and kisses him on the lips (his characteristic response: "This is serious") and decides to meet him in Paris while Markus is in Detroit at a recording session. They agree to "discover" they'll be in Paris at the same time during Markus's farewell dinner, and the affair begins.
Throughout its twists and turns, angst prevails, as steady and remorseless as the unwavering camera's medium-to-close-up range, through flickering moments of sex and happiness. For the older though not much wiser David has conjured a Marianne less Eurydice than Emma Bovary. She's ironic, introspective, optimistic, yet armed with an existentialist sensibility, although somehow--it's unclear whether this reflects the general human condition or whether Marianne is yet another woman in movie-love who pays the wages of sin--she never quite manages to understand why these things are happening to her. She stays almost willfully blind to probable chains of events even when she's set them in motion herself.
Watch how she persistently teases Markus on the eve of his departure about her being with David in Paris. She nudges him into suspicion without a clue that that's what she's done--until he shows up, months later, to confront her in David's bed. In one of the film's most human and effective scenes, she and David blur between laughter and tears while Markus rages and guilt-trips and swaggers and simply stares.
From there on, things unravel relentlessly. There are Isabelle's emotional traumas; an aborted death pact between Markus and Isabelle; David's calculated outbreaks of violent jealousy (in one scene, he asks Marianne about previous lovers, then throws her around after she tells of Markus's sexual power over her); Marianne's unconvincing analyses of herself and her world (she insists to David that she likes simplicity, where he insists things must always be more complicated than they seem); her abortion of David's child after she's screwed Markus several times in one night as part of a "deal" to get custody of Isabelle (all-powerful Social Services looks askance at her future with David); and the affair's last spasms and final collapse. Like a revenge tragedy, it ends with nearly everyone dead, and the old man once more walking toward the sea, meditating on drowning.
Even compared with Bergman's 1973 TV series Scenes From a Marriage, there's a remarkable amount of talk here, far outweighing action. Characters ponder the links, articulated and not, between sex and death, happiness and pain, and the guilt of the past unredeemed. What, Bergman seems to ask in Faithless, could be more human than to blunder or float from event to event as if this particular chain of them were wrapping its way around somebody else? Maybe nothing, but it's also a bit of a trick question: Bergman is no moral relativist. Time after time he's filmed his brooding sense that moral codes as rigid and predetermined as his camera angles underlie the apparent games of chance operating the universe. It's no mere conceit that Faithless is made from the voices of the dead in an old man's head.
Ullmann (who, in addition to her many deservedly praised starring roles in Bergman films, played the wife, also named Marianne, in Scenes) has praised Bergman's hard-won willingness to face himself in this script, mentioning its autobiographical genesis. Fair enough: The film doesn't spare middle-aged David, but it also makes him the center of Marianne's story. Here it's worth noting that Bergman is very much this movie's auteur, though he hasn't directed a feature film in eighteen years. Perhaps it's unintentional, perhaps it's a larger Bergmanesque irony, but Ullmann directs in Bergman's cinematic language in much the same way Marianne, his "muse," speaks his own thoughts.
In her fourth directorial effort (her previous film, Private Confessions, dutifullyshot another Bergman script, that one based on his parents' marriage and infidelities), Ullmann has clearly internalized her erstwhile friend and lover's deliberate, at times ponderous, pacing and pared-back camerawork, his tight shots, even his masterful flair for subtle signposts to mark a mood shift or plot turn, like changing the light or color of a scene. What is more typically Bergman than interrelations between macrocosm and microcosm?
But honesty? Aside from the nagging sense of loss that middle-aged and old David share, what does this self-described malcontent carry with him from all those grave trips down memory lane? The old man touches Marianne's face, and his own younger face too, in benediction, but it reads more like solipsism than real emotional connection.
For all its biting truths, this is a movie about talk whose talk meanders around self-examination without ever really striking self-awareness. Everyone in Faithless is trapped, by their creator's design, in a self-sealed world. Is this honesty about human reality or a kind of smug, bleak paternalism? That and its quaint take on infidelity explain why Faithless ultimately feels like a soap opera for highbrows. (Who else sits through movies with subtitles?) It lacquers an existentialist veneer onto Big Issues like Life and Love and Relationships and Death. But minus the larger framing issues that resonated through Scenes and that series' far more dramatic vicissitudes, in modern America--if not modern Scandinavia--Bergman's truths too often come off as melodramatic, heavy-handed and trite rather than timeless. We're left, in Faithless, with an almost medieval allegory that ultimately flattens human foibles into archetypal moral categories.
It's as if in his old age Bergman has forgotten his lessons from Ibsen's Hedda Gabler and A Doll's House, where real, if inevitably frail, individuals are dramatically, provocatively shaped and bent by larger forces. Scenes worked best when it followed Ibsen's lead. In Faithless, however, Bergman, like the old David (Erland Josephson, who has played the movie Bergman before), spends a lot of time in front of the mirror. When does merciless self-examination slide imperceptibly into narcissism?
Here's my problem. If there's a line separating the later Bergman's existential dilemmas from daily infusions of TV soapsuds, Scenes From A Marriage helped confuse me about where that line might be. (PBS and BBC costume dramas, movies like The English Patient and My Dinner with André, Barbra Streisand, Tennessee Williams and Op-Ed pieces about media violence have the same effect on me.)
Until then, I knew I was supposed to be in awe of Bergman. I saw The Seventh Seal when I was a teenager, and like a good intellectual wannabe, entranced by Death the chess player, I voyaged through Bergman's oeuvre during high school and college. Scenes From A Marriage left me saying goodbye to all that. I guess I decided it was more fun, less patronizing and (in ways I didn't have to defend to myself anymore) more enlightening, even, to tune in to An American Family, the 1973 PBS foray into reality TV that aired at around the same time. Who remembers the Louds, Santa Barbara's favorite upper-middle-class real-life soap opera, who became inured to cameras following them through a year of their lives? One kid coming out of the closet, sex and drug problems for the others, a disintegrating marriage between the apparently sophisticated adults masquerading as parents and, through the bemusement and horror, some key issues of contemporary American life driving a cast of self-consciously avid talkers who grew remarkably sophisticated (if frequently self-contradictory), somehow conscious and unconscious about cameras and soundbites as their Andy Warhol moments of fame spun on and on and on...
A few years later, I was living in Italy when I saw Woody Allen's Interiors, his first overt homage to Bergman. My Italian was pretty good, but as I sat in the huge cold Roman theater with a smattering of chatting Italians watching the frozen, black-and-white anguish spread like molasses across the patched screen, I kept straining for punch lines that never came, making them up for myself when they didn't, finding ironies in the dubbed Italian voices emitted by actors whose accents I knew only too well. I left feeling as though I understood multiple-personality disorder from the inside--not because of the movie, exactly, but from my time in the dark spent in parallel with it.
The unintentional Brechtian effect that Interiors had on me extinguished whatever was left of my need or desire for Bergman's increasingly circumscribed world of angst and sin and guilt, even if filtered through Liv Ullmann's disciplined lens. That, of course, isn't their fault. But despite some fine moments, Faithless didn't convince me I was wrong.
A survey of films from this year's Sundance Film Festival.
Commenting on the German film Run Lola Run two years ago, The Nation's redoubtable film critic, Stuart Klawans, quoted a character speaking nominally of soccer: "The ball is round. The game lasts ninety minutes." He went on to write, "That's a good answer, if your head's filled with the same stuff as the ball.... Just don't forget which part of you is getting booted." Vintage Klawans, who gibed his fellow critics as well for decrying "the demise of movie culture--laments that have been sighed, paradoxically, over the living bodies of any number of vital but less fashionable films." Holiday moviegoers have doubtless missed Stuart's insight, grace and humor in recent weeks; we here report that after a dozen years spent in the dark so that the rest of us might see some light, he has decided to take a sabbatical. We'll miss his presence. In the interim, we hope you'll find the occasional film commentary by others in these pages to be very much in his spirit.
Long before Carrie-Anne Moss rips open Val Kilmer's shirt and begins pounding his chest, providing him with a version of CPR that she must have learned from a Japanese drum troupe, the makers of Red Planet have resorted to their own thumpings and flailings, as if to resuscitate a film that's gone limp. It's a panic response, coming from people who have realized too late that the hookup of a radio would be a high point of their picture.
Their script has stuck Moss in a stricken spaceship that's orbiting Mars; by this point, her comrades Kilmer and Tom Sizemore have been marooned, incommunicado, on the planet's surface. So when the boys stumble upon an old circuit board in the dust, it's time for high-energy drama. "Let's do it!" shrieks Sizemore, as if he were starting the Indy 500. With a roar, guitars and drums begin pounding away on the soundtrack. Kilmer, in closeup, damn well solders a wire, sending a meteor shower's worth of sparks across the screen--at which point, back on the spaceship, Moss decides to strip down to a sleeveless T-shirt, giving us a much better view of her breasts.
I'm really grateful for the breasts. If not for them, I might have fallen asleep and missed the climactic scene, in which Kilmer performs a diagnostic check on a computer.
If only the makers of Red Planet had trusted in their story's essential schleppiness! Then, instead of giving us this lumbering, expensive beast, they might have realized the small but halfway-clever idea that's still dimly visible within: a story about the heroism-by-default of a spaceship janitor.
The character in question, a fellow named Gallagher, holds the job title of mechanical systems engineer; but to the rest of the personnel on this flight to Mars, that's like saying he's the guy who fixes the toilets. "It's high school," he remarks to a fellow civilian in the crew, after being brushed back by a swaggering NASA pilot. "They're the jocks, and we're the nerds." Just so. When he bumps into Moss--the ship's commander--on her way out of the unisex shower, Gallagher can think of nothing better to do than fumble with his fingers and blush. Later, when the outcome of the mission comes to rest on him, Moss has to give him a pep talk before he'll even get to his feet. Yet he's the guy who must save Earth from destruction and consummate a rendezvous with those breasts. What a role for Steve Buscemi! How the hell did it go to Val Kilmer?
He's good, of course. Kilmer is always good--but he's a guy who previously played Jim Morrison, Elvis and Batman. The only thing that's nerdlike about him is the hairdo he's been given for this picture, which is brushy and yellow and makes him look as if he's in crying need of a conditioner. Mind you, the premise of Red Planet is that all of Earth needs a conditioner. After these many years of environmental degradation, we've burned out our world and must colonize someplace else. Hence the desperate and very expensive project, in the year 2057, of sending Moss and her crew to Mars. Wouldn't it have been cheaper, as well as more practical, to institute a few conservation measures instead? No doubt. But humans, according to this movie, lack much capacity for self-discipline and forethought, and so must splurge on stupid but spectacular stunts. As if to prove this point, the producers have done their own splurging and hired Kilmer--the actorly equivalent of a rocket to Mars, compared with Buscemi's compost heap.
As they cast the lead, so too did they decide to ladle on the excitement: pounding guitars, sleeveless T-shirts, unmotivated shrieks. How were these choices made? I can venture a guess. The credits for Red Planet list three producers and two executive producers. This is a fairly standard aggregation in today's movie business; and with so many big shots keeping themselves busy on the picture, how could a mere idea survive? The story, written by a lone guy named Chuck Pfarrer, was almost sure to be buried alive; and into the dirt with it went a few other notions.
One of them might have involved some sexual role-play, based on the fact that the only females in the story are Moss, the shipboard computer (named Lucille) and a navigation robot called Amee. "She's my kind of girl," Gallagher says of the robot, just before it goes into killer mode. (It was designed for the Marines.) Somebody, maybe Pfarrer, seems to have wanted the nerdy Gallagher to feel ambivalent toward strong women: attracted to them when they shower, threatened by them when they turn into whirring kung-fu machines.
But since the production is at war with its own screenplay--have I mentioned that Red Planet is directed, more or less, by Antony Hoffman?--this kinky little idea is no better realized than the movie's religiosity. As far as I'm concerned, it's just as well that this latter theme gets only lip service. Ever since 2001: A Space Odyssey, Earthlings in Outer Space have sought God, and found light shows. At least Red Planet spares us that final cliché--though it still makes us listen to a lot of spiritual blather.
Those Deep Thoughts are provided by Terence Stamp, who manages to be the crew's world-famous scientist despite having abandoned rationalism. Science cannot provide the answers he craves, Stamp explains to a sweetly patient Kilmer, and so he has turned to religion. Kilmer obligingly spends the rest of the picture looking for a divine purpose--which doesn't seem so misguided, considering the level of scientific expertise around him. When the crew's biologist (Sizemore) discovers a life form on Mars, he cries out, "Nematodes!" Either he's forgotten his Linnaeus--nematodes are worms--or else the solution to God's mysteries is to be found not in Outer Space but in the pages of old sci-fi magazines. These creatures are clearly arthropods: the genre's usual bugs.
Fans of the platoon-in-space movie will want to know that the Mars scenery is furnished with the necessary rocks, peaks and ravines. Fans of Carrie-Anne Moss--meaning the adolescent boys, of whatever age, who admired The Matrix--will want to know that here, too, she gets to fly around. Not every actress is suited to antigravity; and so, until such time as Moss gets the chance to deliver a performance, I will congratulate her on giving good float.
As a memorial tribute to Vincent Canby, the "Arts & Leisure" section of the New York Times recently published half a page of excerpts of his prose, as selected by The Editors. Implacable beings of ominous name! With grim rectitude, they shaped a Canby in their image, favoring passages where he had laid down principles of the sort that should be cited only under capitalization. These were Sound Judgments.
For those of us who admired Mr. Canby (as the Times would have called him while he was alive, and as I will continue to call him, knowing how the style fit the man), soundness of judgment was in truth a part of his merit. A hard man to fool, he could distinguish mere eccentricity from the throes of imaginative compulsion, the pleasures of pop moviemaking from the achievements of film art; and when he was offered sentimentality in place of feeling, his heart didn't warm, it burned. These powers of discernment allowed him to bear with extraordinary grace the responsibility of being the Times critic. They also contributed a lot to his need for responsibility, since it was his sureness, as much as the institutional weight of the Times, that made Vincent Canby so influential.
That said, I confess I read him to laugh. At present, I can give only tin-eared approximations of his wisecracks--correct and ample quotation will become possible when someone smart decides to publish a Vincent Canby anthology--but I can hardly forget his review of Salome's Last Dance. This picture was the latest chapter in Ken Russell's phantasmagorical history of sex in the arts, or the arts in sex. Mr. Canby's lead (more or less): "As the bee is drawn to the flower, as the hammer to the nail, so Ken Russell was bound to get to Oscar Wilde."
I also recall Mr. Canby's description of the used car that Jim Jarmusch peddled to the title characters in Leningrad Cowboys Go America. It looked, he said, as if it had been dropped from a great height. Writing about I've Heard the Mermaids Singing, a film of relentlessly life-affirming whimsy, he claimed he'd been cornered by a three-hundred-pound elf. A typically self-regarding, show-offy performance by Nicolas Cage (was it in Vampire's Kiss?) inspired him to write that other actors must enjoy working with this man about as much as they'd welcome being shut up with a jaguar. And once, when forced to think up copy about his umpteen-thousandth formula movie, he proposed that the only way to derive pleasure from such a picture would be to play a game with yourself, betting on whether you could guess what would happen next. "As you win," he wrote, "you lose."
From these few and random examples, you may conclude that Mr. Canby's principles often emerged with a deep-voiced chuckle, and that they involved matters that went far beyond the movies. Some of these concerns were political in the specific sense, as when he gave a favorable review to Alex Cox's Walker: a film that offered a burlesque insult to US supporters of the Nicaraguan contras, in government and at the Times. His concerns were also political in a broader sense. Witness the 200 words he devoted to a little African-American picture titled Love Your Mama: a heartfelt, thoroughly amateurish movie produced in Chicago by some people who had hired an industrial filmmaker to direct their script. While quietly letting his readers know that they probably would not want to watch this film, Mr. Canby conveyed a sense that real human beings, deserving of respect, had poured themselves into the project.
Of course, the best places in which to seek Mr. Canby's principles were within the films he championed. He would have earned his place in cinema history (as distinct from the annals of journalism) had he done nothing more than support Fassbinder's work. And yet I'm not surprised that The Editors found no space to reprint Mr. Canby's writings on this crucial enthusiasm. Fassbinder, like his critic, was preternaturally alert to political and social imposture, to the bitter and absurd comedy of human relationships, and also (for all his laughter) to the pain and dignity of those who go through life being pissed on. Mr. Canby recognized in Fassbinder's work all these qualities and more (such as the presence, in the person of Hanna Schygulla, of one of cinema's great fantasy objects); but these matters seem to have been judged too unruly for an "Arts & Leisure" tribute.
Now, I've been allowed to do some work for "Arts & Leisure" and have received from my editors nothing but aid and kindness. Surely the people I've dealt with at the Times would have chosen excerpts from Mr. Canby that were funnier, sharper, more challenging. So maybe, when the Times moves to memorialize somebody as one of its own, a higher level of control takes over. It's as if the paper means to show its own best face--or rather the image it wants to see in the mirror, urbane and solid--and never mind that man in the old tweed jacket.
This tendency of the institution to eclipse the individual figures prominently in a new book by another major film critic, Jonathan Rosenbaum. By "major," I mean that Rosenbaum is highly regarded by other reviewers and film academics, and that he's gained a certain public following (concentrated in Chicago, where he serves as critic for the Reader). But if you were to ask him how he fits into American film culture in particular and US society in general, he would locate himself, quite accurately, on the margins. As his friends will tell you (I hope I may count myself among them), Rosenbaum is one of the angel-headed hipsters: a sweet-natured, guileless man, wholly in love with art and wholly longing for social justice. And for these very reasons, he has become the angry man of American film criticism, as you might gather from the title of his new work, Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Conspire to Limit What Films We Can See (A Cappella, $24).
Rosenbaum argues--"argue," by the way, is one of his favorite words--that those American writers, editors and TV producers who pretend to cover film are for the most part hopelessly self-blinkered. It's in their interest to look at only those movies that the big American companies want to promote (including the so-called independent films that have been ratified by Sundance and Miramax). So journalism collaborates with commerce, instead of acting as a check on it; informed, wide-ranging criticism gets shoved to the side; films that might have seemed like news flashes from the outside world fail to penetrate our borders; and everyone excuses this situation by claiming that "the people" are getting the dumb stuff they want. Rosenbaum is enraged that moviegoers should be viewed with such contempt; he's infuriated that well-placed journalists should justify their snobbism (and laziness) by dismissing whatever films and filmmakers they don't already know about; and he's mad enough to name names.
In Movie Wars, Rosenbaum advances his arguments by means of a crabwise motion, scuttling back and forth between general observations (which are newly composed) and case studies (many of them published before, in the Reader and elsewhere). This means that some stretches of ground are covered two or three times. I don't much mind the repetition--even when the material shows up in a second new book by Rosenbaum, his excellent, unabashedly partisan monograph on Jarmusch's Dead Man (BFI Modern Classics, $12.95). I do worry that indignation, however righteous, has begun to coarsen Rosenbaum's tone and push him into overstatement.
When Rosenbaum is at his best, his extraordinary wealth of knowledge about cinema informs an equally extraordinary power of insight into individual pictures; and both these aspects of his thinking open into frequently astute observations of the world at large. You can get Rosenbaum at his best in his Dead Man monograph and in three previously published collections: Moving Places, Placing Movies and Movies as Politics (California). By contrast, Movie Wars is a sustained polemic, with all the crabbiness that implies.
It's a welcome polemic, in many ways. Most rants against the infotainment industry are on the level of Michael Medved's godawful Hollywood vs. America; they complain, in effect, that the movies tell us too much about the world. Rosenbaum recognizes the real problem, which is that our world (filmed and otherwise) has been made to seem small. I agree with much of what he says. But when, in his wrath, he digresses to settle scores or rampages past obvious counterarguments, I begin to wish that he, too, would sometimes pretend to be urbane and solid.
"There's a hefty price tag for whatever prestige and power comes with writing for The New York Times and The New Yorker," Rosenbaum says, "and I consider myself fortunate that I don't have to worry about paying it. Film critics for those publications--including Vincent Canby and Pauline Kael...--ultimately wind up less powerful than the institutions they write for, and insofar as they're empowered by those institutions, they're disempowered as independent voices."
To which I say, yes and no. As bad as the situation is--and believe me, it's woeful--I've noticed that news of the world does sometimes break through. David Denby, in The New Yorker, may contribute to American ignorance by being obtuse about Kiarostami (as Rosenbaum notes with disdain); but then, as Rosenbaum fails to note, Stephen Holden and A.O. Scott in the Times delivered raves to Taste of Cherry and The Wind Will Carry Us. Individuals in even the most monolithic publications still make themselves heard; and the exceptional writer can manage (at least in life) to upstage an entire institution.
Rosenbaum himself has pulled off that trick at the Reader; and Vincent Canby did it at the Times. To the living critic, and all those who share his expansive view of the world, I say, "We've lost a champion. Better stop grousing and pick up the slack." And to those who mourn Mr. Canby, I say, "You can still hear his laughter. Just don't let The Editors get in the way."
George Washington takes place in a small, weedy, rusty city in the American South, where children conduct their affairs with adult responsibility and adults behave like kids. The grown-ups had fought wars and built machines, explains Nasia (Candace Evanofski), the little girl who narrates the film in voiceover, so "it was hard for them to find their peace." By contrast, the children dwell on problems of friendship, love and the care of small animals. These subjects lead not to turmoil but to the contemplation of "mysteries...all the mistakes God had made."
Nasia doesn't name these errors; but a moviegoer might draw up quite a list. God has allowed George Washington to be set in a city of empty storefronts, derelict factories, junkyards, railyards and tumbledown houses: places of abandonment and failure, which are lovingly photographed in warm sunlight and deep colors. Presiding over this America (at least in Nasia's mind) is her friend George (Donald Holden), whose skull God forgot to fuse. George's brain lies so near the surface that he has to go about wearing a football helmet. But despite his vulnerability--or because of it--George wants to be a hero, and Nasia sees him as one. The marvel of the movie is that you see George almost as she does, even while knowing that he's a poor, scared, guilt-burdened kid.
On the level of knowledge--of meanings that can be paraphrased--George Washington is a mounting pile of disasters. Parents are dead, imprisoned or crazy; pets are candidates for slaughter; friends are one slip away from a violent end. The survivors, while not yet old enough for high school, ache with a secret conviction of sin, or else go numb and blame themselves for it.
But the movie doesn't play at the paraphrasable level. As written and directed by David Gordon Green in his remarkable feature debut, George Washington is a languid series of impressionistic glances, many of them cast at subjects that seem lovely or droll. Scenes often fade to black, so they occupy their own little space. The performers (all of them nonprofessional) play-act with a sincerity (sometimes an abandonment) that makes each moment a piece of eternity. Music is used sparingly; and when it does come up, it's generally in the form of a slow, two- or three-chord pattern that isn't planning to go anywhere. Maybe a couple of the children want to skip town after their friend Buddy abruptly dies; but the sounds are content to cycle in the air, as if they feel what George and Nasia feel. The goodness that the kids hope to find, the love and heroism they seek, must be present here and now, if they exist at all.
Do they exist? The answer might be yes, if you smile when George puts on his superhero outfit--the football helmet, a uniform from the school wrestling team and a white sheet, tied around his neck as a cape--and pretends to direct traffic. Never mind that the traffic doesn't need direction. George apparently believes he's saving lives; and though his need for this belief is terrible, though circumstances have made the wrestling uniform a token of guilt, the camera nevertheless gazes up at him, admiring rather than belittling his solemn arm-waving.
This is irony reversed: a demonstration of the moral and imaginative strength of a character who is, in his material condition, weaker than the viewer. I might even say (to compare small things with great) that George takes on the role of Father of His Country much as Leopold Bloom assumes the mantle of Ulysses. For all we know, George's ancestors were owned by the Father of His Country. (Like most of the film's characters, George has African blood.) But in his own eyes and Nasia's, there's still freedom and glory to be found on Independence Day--though the parade, to us, may look comically shabby, though the city's grown-ups doze off before the fireworks begin.
"Smile," someone says to George as the film concludes. When a picture's this good, that's easily done.
By coincidence, October has brought another outstanding first feature about the sudden death of children in a garbage-strewn city. The setting of this picture is a slum in Glasgow, where a foul canal runs past row houses of brick, near the concrete towers of a housing project. The period is the recent past, when Tom Jones was the latest singing sensation, and a garbage strike had left the streets and lots heaped with vermin-infested rubbish. The title of the film is Ratcatcher; and the writer-director, Lynne Ramsay, promises to be a major talent.
She's had the courage to make the worst happen within the first five minutes of the film. Young James (William Eadie) is tussling playfully with his friend Ryan Quinn when the latter goes down in the canal and doesn't come up. James runs off in fear; and from then through the end of the film, he lives with his secret. You might even say that he walks around in the secret. Ryan's mother gives him the shoes she'd been buying for her son at the very moment of his death. James accepts the gift, having no alternative, then slashes the uppers with broken glass.
As that action suggests, Ratcatcher is a far less dreamy film than George Washington. While Green chooses a vibrant rust as his predominant color, Ramsay calls up all the shades of mud. While George Washington takes place in sunshine--even the most awful setting is shot through with shafts of light--Ratcatcher is so muted that it might have been shot underwater. The world is drained of sensual pleasure; when James's father brings home a can of pale blue house paint, which seems to have fallen off a truck, closer inspection proves he's got industrial gray.
Don't even think about seeing Ratcatcher if you dislike knowing that the film conforms to its title. But don't stay away if the prospect of unrelieved grimness is what's putting you off. The good news is that Ramsay has the idiosyncratic eye and mind of a young Jane Campion. She's always picking out odd but telling details--a wedge of nylon stocking between the mother's toes, a trickle of saliva along the slumbering father's cheek--and showing them from punchy angles. She also has a talent for opening windows in the daily grind, to reveal sudden vistas of the wondrous. Ratcatcher is hardly the work of a whimsy merchant; and yet, at one point, James discovers a green field that's as perfect as a picture on the wall, and is framed like one. At another moment, while witnessing one of the film's many rodent deaths, he imagines a pet mouse's trip to the moon.
Most important of all, Ramsay chooses to dramatize characters who are loving as well as damaged. James may have the low, dark hairline and bat ears of Franz Kafka (perfect attributes for a lad serving time in this penal colony); the young girl he falls for, Margaret Anne (Leanne Mullen), may be used as common property by a gang of toughs, whose preferred love nest is an outdoor privy; and yet, in a scene at the film's heart, James and Margaret Anne can share a frolic in the bath, innocently enjoying one another and a rare body of nonlethal water. Even the grown-ups are granted such a measure of grace. Mother (Mandy Matthews) is at wit's end, coping with the chaos and dangers of poverty; Father (Tommy Flanagan) is a philandering drunk. But late in the picture, after a rough night, they put on a Sinatra record and dance in a single shaft of light, surrounded by utter blackness; and for that long moment, while they clutch each other, the screen is suffused with unembarrassed warmth.
Ratcatcher is about the surprises that crop up and the hopes that remain alive after the worst has occurred. Tough, dour and open-spirited, it's a welcome new entry in the smallest genre of cinema: pictures that become more interesting as they go on.
Noted with pleasure: My colleagues say that Bedazzled--Harold Ramis's remake of the 1967 comedy--is not a masterpiece, and surely my colleagues are right. This tale of a sniveling schlep who sells his soul to the Devil, having despaired of getting laid in any other way, was far more theologically sound in the original. For one thing, the 1967 version was written by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, who were known to have read books, and starred the innately sadistic Cook as the Devil and the innately floundering Moore as the schlep. For another thing, the original included a full-scale parade of the seven deadly sins, featuring Raquel Welch as Lust.
The new version dispenses with such medieval apparatus and casts today's Raquel, Elizabeth Hurley, as the Devil. She's a sport (as you know if you've seen the first Austin Powers movie) and seems to enjoy wriggling all relevant parts of her anatomy; but once you get past the sight gag, you realize she does most of her acting with her teeth. Hurley is a great biter and clacker.
But then there's the schlep. He's played by Brendan Fraser, who has become the pre-eminent big lug of contemporary American comedy. Bedazzled gives him the opportunity to play a computer nerd (the basic character), a Colombian drug lord, a New Age California simp, a loofah-brained basketball star, a hyperarticulate novelist in a great tuxedo and Abraham Lincoln, all of which roles he carries off with the ease and aplomb of George of the Jungle swinging smack into a tree. No, Bedazzled isn't a masterpiece. But it's a Brendan Fraser vehicle, and for that I'm grateful.
Since Spike Lee begins his new picture, Bamboozled, by giving a dictionary definition of satire, the least a reviewer can do is to open with a proper critical definition. Strictly speaking, Bamboozled is a Menippean satire; and because I'm unqualified to describe that form, I will defer to Northrop Frye. A few lines from his Anatomy of Criticism:
The Menippean satire deals less with people as such than with mental attitudes. Pedants, bigots, cranks, parvenus, virtuosi, enthusiasts, rapacious and incompetent professional men of all kinds, are handled in terms of their occupational approach to life as distinct from their social behavior. The Menippean satire thus...differs from the novel in its characterization, which is stylized rather than naturalistic, and presents people as mouthpieces of the ideas they represent.
Frye's catalogue of Menippean personages will serve nicely as a roll call for the characters in Bamboozled. "Rapacious and incompetent professional men"--those would be Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport), a full-throatedly boorish program executive at the CNS television network, and his underling Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), the network's only African-American staff writer. The story's "virtuosi" are a pair of starving, scuffling street performers, Manray (Savion Glover) and Womack (Tommy Davidson), who at first want nothing more than a chance to do their act and get paid. In them, Delacroix sees a vehicle for escaping his job, while at the same time exacting revenge on Dunwitty for endless slights and slurs.
"Enthusiasts" are the American people, God bless them, who fall in love with the variety show that Delacroix dreams up. Manray, now called Mantan, and Womack, renamed Sleep 'n' Eat, become the stars of Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show, a variety program set in an Alabama watermelon patch, featuring a full cast of coons, Toms, mammies, pickaninnies and chain-gang prisoners. To Delacroix's horror, viewers do not rise up in fury against this spectacle. Instead, they adopt blackface as the nation's latest fad.
"Cranks"--these are the members of a would-be-revolutionary hip-hop collective called the Mau Maus, led by a man who has named himself Big Blak African (Mos Def). The Mau Maus conform to the most noxious stereotypes--they're unlettered, inarticulate, unemployed, slovenly and very fond of malt liquor--so of course they declare war on the minstrel show for perpetuating such images.
"Parvenus"--a term that applies to most of the major characters. Once the minstrel show turns into a huge success, misbehavior becomes general. "Pedant"--that would be Sloan (Jada Pinkett-Smith), Delacroix's young assistant and his uneasy but ineffective conscience. She's the one who insists that if Manray and Womack are to wear blackface, they must use authentic burnt cork. She's also the one who protests against the show by collecting hundreds of antique coon figures, with which she fills Delacroix's office and home. To these, Spike Lee adds a collection of his own, appending to the movie an entire gallery's worth of film clips of Toms, mammies, pickaninnies, etc. In such a manner, writes Frye, does the Menippean satirist demonstrate exuberance, "piling up an enormous mass of erudition about his theme."
Finally, we have the category of "bigots." It's enough to say that this is a Spike Lee movie.
And now, having anatomized Bamboozled, I must pass on to the tougher question: How good a Menippean satire is it? Or, to phrase the question more precisely: How does the movie play? To answer, I'd better begin again, starting this time with the bizarre figure of Delacroix.
Who is this man with the shaved head and pencil mustache, who keeps his voice locked in his sinus cavities and speaks English as if he'd learned it from 78 rpm records? (I mean, who is he other than another brilliant characterization by Damon Wayans?) We know that Delacroix is the narrator of Bamboozled and the instigator of its plot. We also discover, fairly quickly, that he's a postmodern, post-civil rights, post-affirmative action type, who calls himself a Negro and takes pride in dressing like Duke Ellington on a Savile Row spree. But behind all his preening and posing--pinching the air while he talks, pretending to believe that his co-workers respect him--who the hell is Delacroix?
Two aspects of his life--his apartment decor and the script for his TV show--combine to answer for him. The lavish apartment is located in a Manhattan tower, right behind the face of a giant clock. It's the perfect home for a man who, as they say, doesn't know what time it is. As for the TV show: One of the minstrel routines it revives is a doubletalk bit, spoken by a man whose family ties are so complicated that he seems to be his own grandfather. Says the minstrel, who might as well be speaking for Delacroix, "I don't know who I is!"
He's not the only one. The Mau Maus, too, live in a riot of self-misapprehension. Lee shows them in constant, jostling, purposeless motion; you get the impression of a many-headed, many-limbed being stuffed into a single baggy sweatshirt. "Know what I mean? Know what I'm sayin'?" they sputter at one another, without anyone's actually having said anything. They, too, seem to be echoed by the minstrels in an old routine--the one where two buddies converse unintelligibly because they never bother to complete a sentence.
Of course, the characters not of African descent have their own deficit of self-knowledge. Michael Rapaport, who has developed a specialty in playing big but sweet-natured imbeciles, here brings out a more bullying side of himself, making Dunwitty into a loud, tall, sputtering fount of vulgarities. "Yo! I'm the only black in this room!" he shouts at the grimly self-controlled Delacroix, before launching into a supposedly genial chant of "Nigger nigger nigger nigger!" But because of the privilege that comes with his pale skin, Dunwitty gets to enjoy his ignorance. The film's African characters suffer for theirs--and, in the end, make each other suffer.
This is hardly the first time that Lee has looked coldly at the popular culture of denigration (another word to look up in the dictionary), seeing in it a source of confusion and misery. His treatment of the subject has ranged from the rhetorical (in Malcolm X) to the intimately dramatic (in Crooklyn). But he's never before made this problem the main focus of a film--and when you think about it, you may realize that for all his coruscating wit, he's never before made a full-blown satire, either.
So how does Bamboozled play as a movie? I will cite, in descending order of merit, the performances, which are vivid; the themes, which are coherently developed (despite what you might have heard); the settings, which are reasonably varied but not strong in themselves (except for that clock tower); the videography, which is undistinguished; and the pacing and editing, which might have been improved had Lee emulated those minstrel routines he's revived.
The movie's dirty secret, which Lee has the courage to reveal, is that those bits really can be funny. You might expect to enjoy Bamboozled when Savion Glover gets to dance--how could a movie go wrong with him?--but the big surprise is to see how Tommy Davidson, as Womack, works those corny old jokes. Never in my life did I expect to hear an actor call out that legendary punch line, "Ain't nobody here but us chickens!" Is the moment humiliating for Womack? You bet. Did I laugh? You would, too.
Spike Lee has applied his erudition to this American tradition and discovered not just how it wounds but also how it entertains. With the intellectual acuity of the Menippean satirist, he's shown that the entertainment is the wound--the louder the laughter, the worse the damage. It's understandable, then, that he would want to drive home the lesson by strategically killing the fun for his own audience. I can imagine the gesture's being made swiftly, so that your throat would be slit in midlaugh. But Lee seems to lack the resolve for such savagery. Past a certain point in Bamboozled, when he might have declared a grand refusal, he instead falls into a semi-puritanical sulk, leaving the movie to clunk and clatter along. This is the satire of the passive-aggressive personality: someone who withdraws into a show of indifference, as if we should apologize to him and beg for a livelier picture.
I think of the sign that Delacroix places on top of his television set, to spur himself on in his work. Feed the Idiot Box, it says. How little regard the man must have for himself, when he feels such contempt for his job and his audience! Do I detect a touch of self-portraiture in Lee's picture of this fellow satirist? Would Bamboozled have been a better movie had Lee believed that we--and he--were worthy of it?
Short Take: Moviegoers who are willing to risk having their hearts warmed might take a look at Billy Elliot. Directed by Stephen Daldry from a script by Lee Hall, it's an amiable example of the working-class-uplift picture--the uplift, in this case, involving the ability of a coal miner's son to execute a grand jeté.
In Durham, England, in 1984, young Billy sneaks off from his boxing class to study ballet with Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters). Bad enough that he's the only lad, amid all those tutus. Worse still, his father's union is in the process of being crushed by Mrs. Thatcher, so the 50 pence he misappropriates each week can be ill afforded. His dad (Gary Lewis) wants him to spend that money on learning to fight his way through a hard world--not on leaping about like a poofter.
I might have enjoyed Billy Elliot a bit more if the film hadn't insisted so often that Billy is not, I mean not, repeat not a poofter, just because he loves to dance. All right, back off. It also might have been useful to address the mineworkers' strike substantially, rather than use it as mere background, and to have made Billy's ultimate triumph something less of a foregone conclusion. Then again, Jamie Bell, who plays Billy, is a marvel. The kid knows how to dance; what's more, he knows how to pretend to dance less well than he really can, which is amazing in such a young actor. Let him and the character he plays have their triumph. It's harmless enough--and I'm pleased to say it's accomplished through public financing.
Now that Karyn Kusama's much-heralded Girlfight has opened, I figure it's time to catch up with the 1999 releases and review On the Ropes. And since I've been so slow to write about this documentary, which has long since vanished from theaters, the first thing to say is that you shouldn't hesitate to watch it on video. That's how On the Ropes was shot, by Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen: with a handheld Sony, which the filmmakers carried through the streets and courtrooms of Brooklyn and into the New Bed-Stuy Gym, where a deeply impressive man named Harry Keitt was devoting himself to training amateur boxers.
The second thing you should know about On the Ropes is that these boxers were not living the easy life. One of them in particular, a young woman named Tyrene Manson, was destroyed right in front of Burstein and Morgen's camera, not by a ring opponent but by the police and the court system. Since Manson is real--whereas the young Brooklyn boxer who is the heroine of Girlfight springs from Kusama's imagination--let me explain the case in some detail.
Manson, a tough and wiry piece of work, was training at the time for the Golden Gloves, and going at it with extraordinary good cheer, considering her less-than-ideal circumstances. When not sparring or doing roadwork, she was busy caring for two young nieces, since her crackhead uncle couldn't be bothered. Unfortunately, Manson had no place to live except in this same uncle's house. Credible evidence suggested that she'd been trying to relocate herself and the girls; but there she was when the cops broke in. As expected, they found illegal drugs lying about, along with any number of Uncle Randy's friends and colleagues. And so, on the grounds that she'd been breathing the same air as these people, Tyrene Manson was arrested for possession with intent to sell. A few shufflings of paper by a court-appointed lawyer, a grunt or two from the judge, and off she went to prison, on the very day she'd been scheduled to fight in the Golden Gloves. Watch On the Ropes and see it happen.
It's certainly possible for fiction to convey the horror of such a situation--the messiness, the outrage, even the element of self-undoing. (Much to Manson's detriment, the controlled aggression she used in the ring became flailing belligerence in court.) For an example, I turn to the opening chapters of Tolstoy's Resurrection. But I don't think of Girlfight, a well-acted and well-directed feature with a screenplay written on tissue paper. Dab your eyes with it, if you will; but blow your nose with caution.
The one substantial element of Girlfight is its lead actress, newcomer Michelle Rodriguez, who grabs your attention and holds it from the minute she comes onscreen. She's first seen in an effective dolly shot, as she leans against a locker in a busy high school corridor. As the other kids go by, crossing left and right, the camera pulls closer and closer to the immobile Rodriguez, whose head is lowered but whose attitude is plain to read in the combat fatigues she's wearing. At last, when she's in close-up, she lifts her face and glares straight into the camera, her eyes steady and dangerous beneath the parapet of her brow. The expression is reminiscent of the young Muhammad Ali; and the framing of the shot, from chin to forehead, brings out the resemblance between one pretty, round-faced, pouty-lipped fighter and another.
Rodriguez is here to play Diana Guzman, a young woman who's about to be kicked out of school for throwing too many punches at her classmates. Chronically enraged by her beer-guzzling father, chronically furious at the world's flouncy women, Diana doesn't need the Board of Regents curriculum. What she wants is a school for her anger--and she finds one at last when an errand takes her to a local gym, where Hector (Jaime Tirelli) trains young men to box. Will he train her? Ten dollars an hour, growls the stubbled, straw-hatted Hector, with a gruffness that will grow avuncular over the next 90 minutes, just as surely as Diana's talents will prove to be natural.
The liveliest moments that follow are those in which you see Diana training. Kusama has a sure instinct in these scenes for camera placement and editing--in that sense, she's a natural--and she knows she's got two great subjects in the craft of boxing and Rodriguez, whose every movement seems powered from the pit of her stomach. When Rodriguez is called upon to get gooey with a fellow boxer (Santiago Douglas), she's convincing; but she's fascinating when she bobs and weaves, works the speed bag, practices her combinations or walks into the room with an insolent roll to her left.
All this makes Girlfight a thoroughly watchable picture, right up till the closing shot, in which Diana, who is taking comfort in an embrace, is photographed so the calluses stand out on her knuckles. A nice touch; I just wish the screenplay had a few calluses of its own.
I didn't expect Kusama to make Hector as sorrowful, patient and determined as Harry Keitt, the trainer in On the Ropes; I didn't think she'd make Diana as compelling and doomed as Tyrene Manson. But does a boxing picture--especially one that's focused on a woman--really need to tie itself up in a pink bow? All of the viewer's presumed wishes are fulfilled: Diana gets to be a warrior, her brother Tiny gets to be an artist, the brutal father gets his comeuppance and the sensitive hunk gets to prove himself a better kind of man. Had Kusama done any more to flatter a liberal audience, Girlfight would have ended with a November victory rally for Nader.
I wish Kusama well; with a lot of toughening, she might be a contender. But on my scorecard, I give the decision to On the Ropes. Reality wins every round.
And now, for a different kind of girlfight:
Jeff Bridges and Gary Oldman have so much fun with their roles in The Contender, a new inside-the-Beltway movie, that I sometimes imagined I was having a good time, too. Bridges, playing President Jackson Evans, uses his biggest, most blustering manner to give the character the sort of person-to-person skills for which Lyndon Johnson was famous. When dashing another politician's career hopes, President Evans signals his indifference by idly lighting a cigarette and blowing smoke rings. When staging a sensitive meeting, held in the White House bowling alley, he tests his guests' mettle by giving his shoes a sniff. Such is the liberal Democratic hero of The Contender. The conservative Republican villain is Representative Shelly Runyon of Illinois--in Oldman's interpretation, a small, nervous, owl-eyed man with a sparse fringe of curly hair. Runyon looks like a desiccated Roberto Benigni, talks in hiccups and grins like Fred Leuchter, the engineer of execution machinery who was the focus of Errol Morris's Mr. Death.
But as it happens, neither of the big guys is meant to carry The Contender. That unhappy task falls to Joan Allen, in the role of Laine Hanson: a Democratic (formerly Republican) senator from Ohio who has been nominated to replace the recently deceased Vice President. Runyon, catching a whiff of affirmative action in this nomination, commandeers the confirmation hearings, vowing to do everything possible to stop Hanson. Everything, in this case, includes an Internet-launched smear campaign, accusing the nominee of having courted popularity in college by accepting the sexual advances of an entire fraternity. When shown the photos, Joan Allen compresses her lips and says she won't dignify these accusations with a response. And that's the end of the fun, for her. Allen spends the rest of the picture with her spine frozen and her mouth locked in frostbite.
A strange torture for the filmmaker to impose--to constrain the lead actress's every move, while letting the men run free--when the ostensible purpose of The Contender is to advocate greater career opportunities for women. But then, muddle-headedness seems to be the very method of this picture. The smallest exchange of dialogue yields confusion. (According to one of Runyon's aides, "We have to gut the bitch in the belly." Where else would you gut her? In the foot?) The longest speeches may cause headache, dizziness and fatigue, and should not be listened to while operating heavy machinery. There are two of these doozies--one apiece for Hanson and Evans--each accompanied by a swell of patriotic music; and if you can make sense of the political program they announce, in ringing Capra-corn fashion, then you might be the right therapist for Al Gore's multiple-personality disorder.
Of course, the grandest muddle of all is the premise. First The Contender tries to whip up some topical interest by evoking the richly pornographic impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton. Then the movie asserts that Laine Hanson's ordeal is unique, because sexual smears aren't used against men.
Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe you can gut a woman in the foot.
The Contender was written and directed by Rod Lurie, who used to be a film critic. I don't know what this means to you; but for me, it's a lesson in humility.
I have two films to tell you about in this column, one of which I recommend to your attention because it's beautiful, absorbing, touching and droll. It will involve you in the choices its characters make, and it will probably make you think about how you live, too. I'm speaking about Yi Yi (also known as A One and a Two), written and directed by Edward Yang. As for the other film--Dancer in the Dark by Lars von Trier--I had to watch the thing, and now you're damn well going to read about it.
While you're getting braced, I will point out that I'm not the first to link these pictures. This past spring, at the Cannes festival, Dancer in the Dark won the top prize, while Yi Yi earned Edward Yang the award for best director. Now it's autumn, and the New York Film Festival is launching both movies in the United States. You might say the festival is showing us two major possibilities for film. You might also say that Martin Luther King Jr. and Huey Long represent two options in politics.
Of course, to some eyes, Yi Yi appears soft and safe--as does Dr. King, to people who don't look beyond that nice, chubby man who talked about dreams. I can understand the criticism. Yang has put a wedding at the beginning of Yi Yi, a funeral at the end and a birth right in the middle. That's enough in itself to set off a life-affirmation warning--and the alarm really starts to clang once you realize that the main characters, members of a single middle-class family in Taipei, span the ages from childhood through senescence.
Before you bolt, though, I'd like to mention the seating arrangement at that concluding funeral, where characters who ought to clump together prefer to be separated by a few crucial inches. Look from one side of the aisle to the other, and you understand that for all its buoyancy, Yi Yi dramatizes the breakup of a family and the withering of illusions, as experienced in a society where everyone's supposed to be rich and everybody's going broke.
At the film's heart is the paterfamilias, known as NJ (Wu Nienjen), a partner in a rapidly failing computer company. A slight man with the solemn, baggy look of a Taiwanese Buster Keaton, NJ quietly accepts every duty that arises, retreats into music when he can (using the portable disc player that's his favorite possession) and stares deadpan into the face of a hundred indignities. These begin at the wedding of his brother-in-law (Chen Xisheng), where the bride's advanced state of pregnancy is only the first of many breaches of decorum and escalating disasters. Among the others: NJ's first love, Sherry (Ke Suyun), suddenly materializes in the hotel lobby, after thirty years' absence; and his mother-in-law (Tang Ruyun) is rushed to the hospital in a coma. "Don't worry," cries the newlywed brother-in-law, arriving at the hospital roaring drunk. "Today is the luckiest day in the year. Nothing bad can happen."
But for NJ, a lot has happened. It's only a matter of time before he gives Sherry a late-night phone call from his darkened office--an innocent call, of course (she lives in Chicago), made just as a gesture of reconciliation, just to feel the thrill of connection. Then it's back to his highrise apartment, full of new life, to find his wife, Min-Min (Elaine Jin), weeping in the bedroom. She's been trying to speak to her comatose mother, as the doctors recommend, and has found she has nothing to say. Every day is the same; every day is nothing. "How can I have so little?" Min-Min sobs, opening and closing her hands as if her life had flown out of them. NJ shuts the door--he doesn't want to wake the children--and then makes a practical, well-meaning, thoroughly off-the-mark response: Hire a nurse, who will read the newspaper to Mother.
With that, the camera retreats to the balcony, to view NJ and Min-Min through a sheet of glass that's frantic with reflections from a nearby expressway. Lights skitter over the dumbstruck couple. From the next apartment come hideous shrieks and curses: the new neighbor, fighting with one of
Not every sequence in Yi Yi is similarly wrenching; but each has this startling degree of emotional and cinematic fluidity, which I thoroughly fail to convey. Scenes that focus on the 8-year-old son (Jonathan Chang) tend to serve as comic relief; but they also sketch out a kind of artist's manifesto, expressed in terms of a kid's candor and curiosity. Scenes centered on the teenage daughter (Kelly Lee) tend to be darker, since she blames herself for her grandmother's illness; but they also draw her into a romantic triangle of which she, quite miraculously, turns out to be the strongest leg.
I have heard a few people complain that Yi Yi is long. So it is; it runs almost three hours. And for me, those were three hours of deep pleasure: more time to watch a large and brilliant ensemble live and breathe on screen; more time to follow the intricate rhythms of a faultlessly constructed story. "I want to show people things they haven't seen," says the young son, as the tale comes to its inconclusive and satisfying close. I take that to be a statement of artistic purpose--though not, perhaps, of Yang's. The glory of what he's achieved in Yi Yi is to show us things that we've all seen, many times, and to make us feel how extraordinary they are.
Lars von Trier pretends to be interested in the everyday, particularly in its struggle with the visionary. So, to take pretense at face value, I will initially describe Dancer in the Dark as the story of Selma (played by the Icelandic pop star Björk), a single mother who works in a factory and is losing her sight. A Czech immigrant to the United States, Selma labors tirelessly for the sake of her young son, accepts her trials with sweet resignation and finds strength in imagination. A passionate fan of musicals, she makes up songs based on the rhythms and events of her life and visualizes them as big dance numbers. From time to time, life's muted colors intensify, the shooting style changes from hand-held tracking to quick montage and one of Selma's inner movies erupts before us on the screen.
Now, to take a second run at the description: Dancer in the Dark takes place in 1964 in Washington State, a heavily wooded area of Sweden populated by Scandinavian performers and Catherine Deneuve. As the film begins, the pop star Björk is pretending to be incompetent at singing and dancing, in the hope of fitting into a community-theater production of The Sound of Music. The seriously overqualified community-theater director Vincent Paterson (fresh from choreographing dance routines for Madonna and Michael Jackson) pretends not to notice that this young woman is awful--or that she's Björk, I'm not sure which--and casts her anyway. Then Björk and her best friend, Catherine Deneuve, go to work in a factory, where they break into a number presumably inspired by the 1997 documentary East Side Story, Dana Ranga's delightful compilation film about Soviet-bloc musicals.
But I'm forgetting about the blind shtick. It seems that Björk has passed on a degenerative eye condition to her son, who will surely lose his sight unless Udo Kier operates on him before the age of 13. That's why she's such a Stakhanovite (unless it's the influence of all those Soviet-bloc musicals). When the local American sheriff tries to steal her money--just like an American!--she sweetly and innocently shoots him dead, then insists on being hanged to death for the big finale.
Real life? No. Lars von Trier is interested in the preposterous--or rather in seeing how much of the preposterous he can get you to swallow without gagging. He admitted as much in The Idiots, a film that might be said to serve as his self-portrait. That picture was about a kind of avant-garde theater director, who goes about mocking people by feigning simplicity. In Dancer in the Dark (as in Breaking the Waves), it's the heroine who is simple and vulnerable (and long-suffering and self-sacrificing), and you, as viewer, are the one who is mocked.
Do you believe you're in the midst of reality, when the camera is darting back and forth and poking actors in the face? Then von Trier has the laugh on you. He's persuaded you to ignore his very obvious jump-cuts and swift changes of point-of-view, visible evidence that the scene was assembled from multiple takes. And are you a filmoid, eagerly following the doings of today's star directors? You will surely be grateful for von Trier's publicity machine, which has put out the claim that he shot his musical numbers using 100 digital video cameras. What a magical figure--100! Repeat it to yourself, and you can almost forget that von Trier's pop montage is outdone ten times each hour on MTV.
For what it's worth, Björk is a truly remarkable performer--if "remarkable" is the right word for a woman in her mid-30s who can make herself seem like a teenager, bubbling over with naïve, sexless joy. Call it fun, if you like. But when I think about the overture to Dancer in the Dark--a long sequence in which colored patterns dissolve into one another, to the accompaniment of a slow, rising brass chorale--the name of Wagner comes to mind, and I think of what's behind that show of vulnerable simplicity. This film is about power, and its victim is meant to be you.