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.