Dispatches from adolescent territory reach me occasionally through my niece Michelle, who has moved into her teen years like the Wehrmacht hitting Belgium. Her most recent posting has taught me this about contemporary film culture: While visiting a Midwest resort town with a friend, Michelle was delighted to discover a street of quaint shops, as well as a theater that played old movies. Which old movies, I wanted to know. “Spider-Man,” she said.
In the hope that this column might fall into the hands of teenagers, I therefore begin with an apology. Some of the movies I am about to discuss have been running for two weeks, or even longer. That’s enough for them to have earned most of whatever theatrical revenue they can expect; enough that they are now being pushed into the back reaches of the public’s attention, so that next week’s movies can be marketed. I want to write about these pictures precisely because they were made to be forgotten (like Men in Black II); or, conversely, because they are already starting to fade, despite their makers’ best intentions.
I also want to write about a film that just might stick in the mind: Langrishe, Go Down, starring Judi Dench and Jeremy Irons. But there I’m cheating. Although that film is only now being released, it doesn’t really count as current, since it was made in 1978.
To people who dislike movies and attend only films, it might seem obvious that Men in Black II can’t compete against Langrishe, Go Down (which has not only Dench and Irons to its credit but also a screenplay by Harold Pinter). But then, to my mind, Langrishe, Go Down can scarcely compete against the original Men in Black, which so brightened the summer of 1997. While that picture cheerfully fulfilled every duty of a sci-fi special-effects comedy, it also won a permanent place in memory by developing a theme that should interest thoughtful teenagers and adults alike.
In its portrayals of agents Kay and Jay (Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith) and of the coroner who stumbled onto their secrets (Linda Fiorentino), Men in Black proposed that knowledge has to be paid for, and that the cost is often loneliness. Fiorentino, you may recall, played a scientist whose zeal for research allowed her no living companions. Smith played a New York cop who had to choose between satisfying his curiosity and maintaining relations with his friends and family–not much of a decision in his case, since he was already thoroughly alienated. (In a training exercise, Smith shot to death a cute little blond girl but left unmolested a fanged and tentacled potato from Outer Space, with which he seemed to empathize.) As for Jones, he strutted and snapped his way through the movie as if a show of bravado were all that could keep him going. “We are a gullible species,” he sighed at one point, as if wishing he might lay down his burden and rejoin the credulous. Everyone except Smith understood this ragged man was on his last case.
Clearly, Jones should have stayed in the retirement he achieved at the end of Men in Black. Smith should have remained partners with Fiorentino, and the sequel (if there had to be one) ought to have been written by Ed Solomon, who so ingeniously handled the original. Maybe he would have titled the picture Men and Women in Black. Instead, we get the throwaway Men in Black II, which disposes of Fiorentino in half a line of dialogue and uses the same method to eliminate the wife for whom Jones once pined. (It’s as if the audience could be purged of memory, just like the movie’s neuralized civilians.) With these impediments to buddy-movie business cleared away, the screenplay (by Robert Gordon and Barry Fanaro) can proceed to reunite Smith and Jones and replay, with slight variations, the simpler gags from the first picture.
Time passes, hope sinks and a theme emerges, unfortunately. Men in Black II shows that only two kinds of women exist on other planets: shining saints and snaky monsters. If this is so, then Earth must be bigger and more varied than the whole rest of the universe–a notion that runs counter to the spirit I recall with such joy from the first, the one true, Men in Black.
As you may know, Men in Black was based on a comic book by Lowell Cunningham; so it has something in common with Road to Perdition, a gangster picture spawned from a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner. Under the fussy and portentous direction of Sam Mendes (who previously postured his way through American Beauty), Road to Perdition is clearly a far more ambitious movie than Men in Black II. It boasts the very substantial talents of Tom Hanks and Paul Newman in lead roles, an unnerving performance by Jude Law in a crucial supporting part and magically dark, dense cinematography by Conrad L. Hall. The story would seem to be worth telling (it’s about murderous gangster fathers and the sons who are either loyal or disloyal to them, either willing or unwilling to follow their path); and the setting is the Depression-era Midwest, which always helps a movie. And yet very little of Road to Perdition lingers, except for a feeling that you’ve been carried along.
Most of the carrying happens when mob hit man Michael Sullivan (Hanks) is driving around the wintry plains with his 12-year-old son, Mike (Tyler Hoechlin). The two are both fleeing a killer (Law) and chasing the men who dispatched him–a situation that allows for a couple of good, tense confrontations. Since Hanks thinks it would be helpful to empty Al Capone’s bank accounts, there’s also a series of jolly robberies. I would guess these episodes take up about fifteen minutes of the movie. The rest is murk, forced lyricism and mounting corpses. Perhaps you won’t care when I reveal that almost no one survives, since the deaths never matter. They just happen, like ticks of a metronome. Each beat gives Sam Mendes the opportunity to make pretty arrangements: an image of violence framed by a man’s legs, a flash at a nighttime window, a brightly lit homage to David’s Death of Marat, a tracking shot of men silently collapsing in the rain. Watching these stage-derived tableaux vivants, I began to think better of the movie-mad energy of Miller’s Crossing, in which the Coen brothers invested their overcoats-and-hats gangsters with both drive and character. Maybe Miller’s Crossing has also turned out to be forgettable in large part; but its core moments (such as the scene of John Turturro begging for his life) dig right into you, as if they were newly installed neural pathways to the heart.
Road to Perdition? A passing flutter.
John Sayles can’t be accused of prettifying his films, and he would never kill a character for lack of anything better to do. What’s more, he despises the grand simplifications that are so common in comic books, graphic novels and pop moviemaking. In Sunshine State, he sets up for ridicule the fabulations of history pageants and real-estate developers, so he can show off to better advantage his own, more intricate vision of the social network. It’s a strategy he’s used in many earlier films, just as he visited Texas and Alaska before this excursion into Florida. From Sayles, you get highly specific landscapes, reliable accounts of politics and commerce, and (more often than not) actresses to die for–in this case, in alphabetical order, Jane Alexander, Mary Alice, Angela Bassett and Edie Falco.
All this is admirable. I just wish Sayles would also put a little movie into the movie.
Sunshine State isn’t claptrap, like Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, but it shares that picture’s claptrap method of being almost entirely expository. In scene after scene, Sayles tells you exactly what he thinks you should know about Florida, often by putting into the mouth of a character the kind of cliché-twisting monologue that keeps rational people away from Off Broadway plays. I think this is a waste of good actors–and the effects are nowhere more evident than in the parts of Sunshine State you forget, or that Sayles forgot. Tell me, if you’ve seen the picture: Can you recall what finally becomes of Terrell (Alex Lewis), the troubled teenager whose act of vandalism begins the story? He’s hustled away so perfunctorily, once he’s served the purpose of uniting two strands of the plot, that he might as well be Linda Fiorentino. And can you remember anything the American Indian construction worker does in the movie, other than wait around to be an American Indian at a crucial moment? For a filmmaker with a social conscience, Sayles is awfully quick to use characters as means, rather than ends.
So, for a dose of something eccentric and memorable, I turn to Langrishe, Go Down.
David Jones directed this picture in 1978 for the BBC, working from Harold Pinter’s screenplay. New York’s Film Forum is now giving the movie a much-belated theatrical release (July 17-30), no doubt on the strength of Judi Dench’s ascent to stardom. She is, in fact, a wonder in the role of Imogen Langrishe, one of a household of spinsters living in ever-more-impoverished gentility on an estate outside Dublin. The period is the 1930s, when such descents from grandeur were not uncommon for the Irish gentry; nor would it have been unlikely for a self-styled scholar from Bavaria (Jeremy Irons) to show up in the neighborhood to do research, and to assert with sudden, unmotivated violence that he is indifferent to politics, absolutely indifferent.
Sayles himself could not ask for a more realistic, closely observed setting. (In this regard, Langrishe, Go Down owes a lot to its source, the novel of the same title by Aidan Higgins.) But the way the film’s seduction and repulsion play themselves out–you understood, surely, that Dench and Irons have an affair–is utterly unpredictable. Irons turns himself into a fun-house mirror version of the self-important German intellectual, complete with an accent that keeps migrating toward Transylvania. He never stops talking; whereas Dench, who is given relatively few lines, speaks volumes with her eyes and the set of her mouth. You understand, without a word, how she sees through Irons. She’s amused by him; she feels this may be the last amusement she’ll get; and she enjoys it, until the underlying frustration and rage break through.
To all this, David Jones adds a fragmented, time-shuffling montage that’s reminiscent of Alain Resnais. Or is the film’s structure also a Pinter contribution, like the lines of dialogue that continually run askew? All I know is that this odd little movie has lodged in my brain, not comfortably, perhaps, but permanently.
Langrishe, Go Down is a keeper.