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“Mimic,” directed by Guillermo del Toro

Mimic-1997

By Ray Sawhill

“Mimic” is undoubtedly the best mutant-cockroach horror thriller ever made. Even granting that there hasn’t been much competition, this is intended as a high compliment. The director Guillermo (“Cronos”) del Toro’s giddy, elegant scare picture is also a mutant among current movies: it never sacrifices its story or characters to its special effects, and its thrills aren’t extensions of theme parks or videogames. It works on your emotions rather than your nerves.

The script, from a short story by Donald Wolheim, tells a classic nature-takes-revenge-on-us-for-messing-with-her story. Mira Sorvino and Jeremy Northam are scientists who have stopped a cockroach-borne epidemic in New York City by releasing genetically engineered roaches programmed to breed and then die. A few years later signs of a different problem appear: some of the designer bugs may have outwitted their DNA, mutating into scary new forms. The two scientists set out to solve the problem they have created.

A virtuoso at tension and atmosphere, Del Toro orchestrates sounds, shadows and textures with expressionist malice, and sets the action amid damp, vaulted spaces and in tunnels full of forgotten industrial debris — the city as a roach nest. Sorvino, with her air of Yuppie expertise and her face puffy with guilt and fear, is touching as the top bug-fighter. Playing her mentor, F. Murray Abraham hits eerie bass notes. Charles S. Dutton, warm and humorous, is the cop who leads the team underground.

As a yuck!-and-eek! extravaganza, the film is an effective successor to “Scream” — audiences at New York previews have been shrieking, giggling and talking back to the screen. Yet “Mimic” is also a feast for film buffs, recalling such cult favorites as 1985’s “Re-Animator” and the Italian vampire and horror movies of the ’60s. In one long sequence, the investigators take shelter in an abandoned subway car deep under the city. All around are scaffolding and crud; above, far out of reach, beckons an enormous, befogged skylight. The image has the flamboyant poetry that silent movies are still treasured for. Then the giant cockroaches attack. “Mimic” is just an exploitation movie with artistic touches, but it gives us the creeps about all the creatures we share our cities with.

©1997 by Newsweek Inc. Reproduced by permission.

“Romance,” directed by Catherine Breillat

romance poster

By Ray Sawhill

1.

Had Catherine Breillat’s “Romance” been released 25 years ago, it would have caused an immense fuss in the press, and would likely have been a must-see for the stylish crowd. You’d have overheard people arguing about it in restaurants and bars. Hipsters would have competed to see who could be bored with the whole brouhaha first. These days, who knows how it’ll be received? It is an art-house sex movie, and that term no longer has the allure it once did. But I found “Romance” to be one of the two or three most potent films about sex I’ve seen in the last few decades. And I hope to persuade you that it’s something more than just some arty turn-on, though among other things it certainly is that, too.

It’s quite different from “Basic Instinct,” “Eyes Wide Shut” or “Nine 1/2 Weeks.” No stars, no melodrama, no rock soundtrack, no flashy cutting. Instead, “Romance” is austere, even clinical. And where such gross-out date movies as “There’s Something About Mary” and “American Pie” suggest food fights at the Burger King, “Romance” is like an evening spent at a four-star restaurant, lingering over the paté and snails. “Romance” is about Marie (Caroline Ducey), a sexually frustrated woman who is looking to be fulfilled, wherever that desire may take her.

She’s a schoolteacher, mousey but chic, whose narcissistic, male-model boyfriend (Sagamore Stevenin) will barely touch her, and he won’t let her touch him. For the needy Marie, he’s like a Beckettian, cosmic joke. Depressed by his sensual neglect, she seeks physical fulfillment elsewhere. She finds an Italian stud (played by the international porn star Rocco Siffredi). Her boss at school (François Berleand) provides her some surprises, and other men have a go at her too. Woven throughout is Marie’s voice, in an unusual kind of voice-over that’s part diary, part stream-of-consciousness.

Breillat has a talent for targeting and hitting raw spots. Attracted to images and situations where the gruesome and the voluptuous are hard to disentangle, she’s a specialist in unease. (When does she want us to laugh? It can be hard to tell, but the movie is occasionally very funny.) And in “Romance” she has created a landmark — the first movie to give a convincing, feature-length account of sex from a woman’s point of view.

In many ways, “Romance” is a version of the standard French novella about sex and death, the one with short chapters and lots of somber white space. But watching performers embody the explicit sex acts you’re used to reading about on the page changes the experience drastically. (“Romance” suggests a film from Femme Productions directed by Eric Rohmer.) The movie has the kind of daredevil oomph that those of us who treasure memories of moviegoing in the ’70s recall. Breillat seems to have been infuriated at all those films that feature manicured, coiffed Frenchwomen conducting unhappy affairs while looking poised and expectant even in bed. She wants to show us what following the sex urge out is really like.

2.

romance in bed with boyfriend

When did people decide that the aphrodisiac has no place in art? Some moviegoers have fallen into the habit of dismissing such work as “just a turn-on.” But that is to dismiss essential parts of major art traditions — Japanese, Italian, Indian and French film, just to start, which were once sought out by what were known as “adult filmgoers.” It was understood that a French movie wasn’t just an excuse to get out of the house, but also an occasion for visiting cafés and bars afterwards, to flirt, drink and flex a little intellectualism. Another hurdle for filmgoers who might otherwise be open to more eroticism is the legacy of some feminist film theorists, who have long asserted that the camera is an expression of the phallus, and is thereby related to technology’s rape of nature, America’s rape of Vietnam, capitalism’s rape of everything — you name it. They have made a lot of educated people feel that it’s offensive to look at performers with adoration and lust, and to use movie images to keep our inner flames burning. (We do it anyway, but we react to being chastened by becoming crude.)

But taking erotic pleasure in filming and watching performers isn’t just some perverse hobby. It’s central to the history of movies. Certainly, there can be a kind of implicit pornography in shots of performers; there can also be admiration. Often, and perhaps ideally, there’s both. Stiller and Garbo, Hitchcock and Grace Kelly, Von Sternberg and Dietrich — these were collaborations, not acts of rape. Jean Renoir once said that the reason he went to all the trouble of financing, writing, directing and editing movies was to justify making close-ups of actresses he loved. As moviegoers, we tend to luxuriate in the idea that the image before us is of both a made-up character and a real person. (That really is Nicole Kidman’s butt, and at the same time I accept it as the butt of the character she’s playing.) For much of film history, this duality — the fact that every movie is both a work of fiction and a documentary, more specifically a documentary about its performers — has been one of the major, disturbing attractions of the medium. It has always been part of what draws people into theaters, and draws some people into filmmaking itself.

Younger American audiences, particularly those raised in a P.C., media-saturated environment, are especially likely to find “Romance” objectionable. It won’t reward a channel-surfing, crack-wise-with-your-friends state of mind (as, say, “Sex in the City” and “Cruel Intentions” do). Worse, a full-bodied appreciation of the movie depends on having a range of cultural references that extends slightly beyond the purely pop. That lighting calls up Ingres, doesn’t it? And isn’t that image of scissors and clingy, wet panties reminiscent of Oppenheim’s furry teacup? Some familiarity with authors such as Colette, Tanizaki, the comtesse de La Fayette, Georges Bataille, Lady Murasaki and Strindberg won’t hurt either.

Enjoying “Romance” depends on our ability to feel the seductiveness of beauty, to wince when it’s violated, and to recognize what it implies of an inner life. The spareness of the film’s visual design (the Japanese touches, the white/blue/crimson color scheme, the use of circles and visual frames), Breillat’s attentiveness to acoustic shifts, and of course the eyes, flesh and feelings of the actress Ducey — they’re what the movie is built of.

In the 1970s, these aspects of film — a fascination with beauty, movie history, performers and sex — all boiled to the surface in what I think of as the “let’s fuck in a bare apartment until we arrive at an existential realization of ourselves, or die trying” genre. These films range from the sublime (“Last Tango in Paris,” “The Last Woman”) to the provocative (“In the Realm of the Senses”) to the preposterous (“The Night Porter”). Breillat had a small role in “Last Tango,” and has said that she was inspired to make “Romance” when she watched “In the Realm of the Senses.” Can art and porn be fused? Can a movie achieve the stature of, say, the novel “Story of ‘O'”?

3.

romance after rape

Breillat’s approach to moviemaking is lordly in a way that I usually find off-putting. (Of her previous movies, only the 1988 “36 Fillette” is available on video in this country, and I didn’t enjoy it much. A search on the used-book Web site Bibliofind turned up a copy of her novel, “A Man for the Asking,” which she wrote at 17. It’s ferociously pretentious, but pretty sexy.) She’s a ’60s princess with a weakness for dry theory, and in “Romance,” she’s aristocratically pitiless in the way she cuts her characters almost no slack. Yet in this case her temperament and approach yield some astounding scenes.

In one, it’s night, and Marie’s on foot. She passes a guy who mutters to her that he’ll give her some money if she’ll let him perform oral sex on her. She pauses, then assents. In an unbroken shot, he goes down on her for a bit, but then flips her over and semi-rapes her from behind. She claws the ground as he thumps away, but she doesn’t try to escape. When he’s done, he calls her vile names and hurries off. She yells after him angrily, “I’m not ashamed” — yet by now she’s just a wet, shuddering heap of flesh. Marie has kind of asked for what she’s gotten, and has kind of not asked for it too, and is now both proud of and disgusted with herself.

For the spectator, the scene has heat, and messiness and complexity too. Breillat has carefully set up a number of dramatic skeins to give this scene its shuddery effect. Earlier, Marie, suspecting her boyfriend of having an affair, tracks him down, only to find him alone in a Japanese restaurant, eating sushi and reading Bukowski. She doesn’t want to get home before him, so the passing stranger’s offer has an appeal. Marie has spoken earlier about not liking to see the face of the man she’s having sex with. And since being gone down on is like being worshipped, she anticipates that she’ll feel in charge and exalted. But then she’s up-ended, repelled and not in charge of anything at all, yet getting something out of it anyway. Like many other scenes in the film, it feels almost out of control, but it also perfectly fits in.

Breillat’s approach also yields some beautiful close-ups. In one scene, a suave older fellow proposes tying her up. She doesn’t respond out loud. Instead, she backs up against the frame of a door and bows her head. She can’t say yes, but she wants him to proceed — or at least she thinks she does. She’s shying away, hoping he won’t disappoint her, but she doesn’t want to give him any help either. You see her furtiveness, her excitement and uncertainty. In other scenes, her face is swollen with longing and rage as she lies in bed next to her dud boyfriend. She’s a misery junkie ennobled by her addiction. (These images are similar to some of Godard’s in “Hail Mary,” but Breillat’s are more specific, and more charged.)

However much “Romance” resembles some male-made porn, the fact that it was made by a woman with high intentions changes the experience of watching these images and scenes. We aren’t staring at them from the outside, so we have to wrestle with their content. These are facts of this woman’s life, Breillat is saying — and she’s saying that maybe they imply something about women in general, too. Marie’s adventures don’t happen in the take-charge way we Americans have been taught to applaud. It’s hard to think of a worse role model than Marie, and women who want to like or at least approve of a movie’s heroine may find “Romance” hard to warm up to.

Marie sinks into passivity and masochism. She’s released emotionally, at least somewhat and for a while, by bondage and thralldom. Sex here is presented as an occasion for pleasure, despair and shame, as well as for near-religious ecstasy. (Breillat wants us to acknowledge that, while sex can lead you into a sense of self-discovery, it’s just as likely to leave you overwhelmed by loneliness.) The theme of “Romance” is a woman’s relationship with her erotic being, and Breillat has the sophistication to acknowledge that if you don’t feel good, that doesn’t always mean you’re doing something wrong; no relationship is always happy.

In one long, daring overhead shot, Marie is on her back, in bed, naked and masturbating. The camera travels from her crossed ankles up her tense legs, over her crotch and torso (her hand is hard at work), past her neck muscles and veins to her flushed, glossy, straining face. In a voice-over that resembles interior monologue, Marie says that she isn’t crazy about masturbation — “It’s only mildly satisfying, but it’s proof I don’t need a man.” Ultimate blasphemy, to present masturbation as something other than a triumphantly can-do form of self-empowerment.

The slim, dark-haired, covertly pretty Ducey had only had a few screen roles before “Romance.” The heightened and exposed way Breillat puts her on view is glorious but unsettling. There’s a narcissistic arrogance in the way Breillat works, as there was in the way Bertolucci worked at the time of “Last Tango in Paris.” (That’s part of the excitement of their work.) Your anxieties about the performers in these movies become part of your experience of the film.

When Marie is untied after being bound for the first time she bursts into wracking sobs. The man — who a minute ago had sat before her, admiring the beauty of her trussed-up form — now tries to soothe her, holding her in his arms and anxiously petting her damp hair. You wonder whether what you’re watching is one actor trying to calm another after a scene has misfired; you half-feel that you’re watching something that should have been an outtake. She wails and gasps and, finally getting a little hold of herself, says, it’s OK, my hands were just beginning to go numb — i.e., it’s been Marie, not Ducey, all along. I can’t think of a scene that danced so close to the existential edge since Brando’s monologues in “Last Tango.” Soon Marie is back for more. After playing with shackles and rope, she and the guy go out for caviar and vodka.

Some scattershot criticism: The movie is both a study — in the “objective” French manner — of a recognizable character type and a parable about creativity. (Marie is named Marie for a reason.) She endures trials in her search for fulfillment — there’s even the hint of an immaculate conception. Her journey (and the film’s title) may remind us of medieval romances and make us wonder: If a man’s search for the Grail takes him outside himself, where might a woman’s take her? Breillat’s use of Japanese touches and of circles may make us think of Zen, and may also relate to Marie’s desire for obliteration. (She speaks of wanting to be reduced to nothing but a hole during sex, yet she also dislikes parting her legs.) The salacious elements and the humor, the shock cuts and the poised pacing all put stresses on each other — Breillat is as strict (and cruel) as a French chef in holding it all together.

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romance spreader02

When I saw “Romance” for the first time, it was in New York at a festival of French films. The audience was largely French and largely female — the house was full of scarves, sweaters, makeup and disdain — and the humidity level got pretty high during several of the film’s sexier scenes. Outside afterwards, the women smoked and chatted appreciatively. The next time I saw the film was in a screening room, among a small crowd of New York media women who tittered happily and knowingly during the film’s first few minutes. There’s some just-among-us girls truth-telling in the film that resembles the sex-confession columns in the new grrrl-power-influenced women’s magazines, and the media women recognized and enjoyed it.

Then Ducey is in bed with the sweetly tender Rocco Siffredi, and there’s a yucky condom being held up and mused about — those Europeans, they’ll philosophize about anything! — and then Rocco gets hard, and my lord but he’s hung, and he politely asks Ducey — sorry, Marie — if she wants to be fucked in the ass (she declines, but graciously), and then, omigod, it looks as if they’re really having sex. From then on, the media women seemed agog. In the elevator after the film was over, most of them were visibly pulling themselves and their irony back together. But one woman looked at the others and asked straightforwardly, “Were you ready for that? Did you know what we were in for?”

These days, movies can be made more cheaply and with more freedom than ever before, and cable channels need programming. We also have a remarkable abundance of performers — especially women — with the gifts and drives to take dicey chances: Elizabeth Shue, Diane Lane, Georgina Cates, Rebecca de Mornay, Kelly Lynch, Fairuza Balk, Joey Lauren Adams, Elizabeth Peña, Ming-Na Wen and many others come to mind. We’ve even had a few small movies that have shown some worldliness — but Andrew Fleming’s “Threesome” and Amy Jones’ “Love Letters” went largely unnoticed. And when Kevin Smith’s “Chasing Amy,” which did have some success, was discussed, what got mentioned was the comically smutty dialogue, not the film’s tone of erotic melancholy, or its evocations of pain and regret.

But educated Americans, even while they’ve become more adventurous in their cooking and eating, have largely given up the pleasures of erotic movie art. They’ll rent porn, or watch a few minutes of a Cinemax “erotic thriller,” but they’ve lost the habit of searching out films that join sexual content with the psychological, visual and narrative power of real movie art. “Romance” can’t be beat as a way to remind ourselves of these pleasures, or perhaps to learn about them. Seeing it in a movie theater, in its full, stained-glass radiance, will certainly leave you with plenty to think about. Why not visit a bar, order drinks and talk the film over? That’s its own kind of erotic pleasure.

©1999 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Salon magazine.

“The Specialist,” directed by Luis Llosa

specialist

By Ray Sawhill

“The Specialist” is moronic and inept, and it put me in a very good mood. It’s an attempt at marrying a woman’s romance to an action-adventure plot. Sylvester Stallone is a bomb expert with something awful in his past. He’s in Miami, living the embittered former-soldier-of-fortune lifestyle — i.e., bunking down in an abandoned warehouse, practicing martial arts, playing intently with lethal gizmos that beep and make the camera cut to anxious close-ups. Sharon Stone is an enchantress who talks him into a risky job. Her parents were murdered when she was but a girl, and she wants Stallone to blow away the Latino gangster family responsible. Rod Steiger, really working that accent, is the ancient Latino patriarch, Eric Roberts the dumb stud son. The question is: can Sly and Sharon get over clinging to their pain and learn to trust each other?

The film has a luxury-resort quasi-glamour; it seems to have been made on sets that didn’t make the cut for De Palma’s “Scarface.” The visual scheme is tropicalismo: candy pink and neon blue, cabanas and palm trees. The script, by Alexandra Seros, shows a woman’s touch, if not perhaps to its best advantage. Stone to Stallone: “So that’s it? We just walk away? Forever?”

The director, Luis Llosa, may be bereft of filmmaking skills, but that doesn’t stop him from seeing everything in legendary terms. Steiger is unspeakably powerful; James Woods, playing Steiger’s Mr. Fixit and Stallone’s nemesis, unutterably unprincipled; Stallone indescribably masterful; Stone unthinkably beautiful. The bad guys smoke cigars to show how corrupt they are. John Barry contributes an appropriately excitable score. During one scene, the triumphal-yet-ominous horns and strings call up images in the mind of mounted lawmen arriving in town for the final showdown. What’s actually on-screen is Stallone carrying a bag of groceries.

Although watching Stallone struggle with his feelings is like watching cement being mixed, he’s surrounded by world-class hams. Eric Roberts is a sleek, spoiled viper. Woods wears domineering, double-breasted sports jackets, and throws a couple of fits as mean and funny as anything in “Pulp Fiction.” Both are as meek tyros beside Steiger, who chews scenery for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and stays hungry. In one scene, he pushes his face up to the camera and literally snorts like a bull. Woods, for maybe the first time ever on camera, looks a little intimidated.

In a swanky party scene, Stone makes a swivel-hipped, babe-on-a-catwalk entrance; she’s a stunning camera subject. She can act, too, and her tiny-featured, airline-stewardess prettiness makes her commitment to emotionality all the more vivid. Pursuing Roberts in order to watch him die, she allows herself to be caressed and made love to by a man she wants to kill. She does the arousal-crossed-with-revulsion touchingly well. In a daytime scene with Roberts at a bar, she’s wearing flowing cream slacks and a mostly-open cream tunic; her hair and makeup are more subdued than usual. Everything about her is taking in light and returning a soft glow except her narrowed eyes, which glitter. She looks well-fucked, financially taken-care-of, and venomous. (The guys behind me said “Damnnnn!” and “Sheeee-it!” admiringly.)

Is there another actress who compares to Stone as an incarnation of what America — alluring, narcissistic, deceitful, troubled — means to immigrants, and would-be immigrants? She’s the blonde who heroes in chop-socky movies sometimes won, and sometimes had to renounce. Many of the working-class people and recent immigrants I saw “The Specialist” with brought their kids and infants along to enjoy the bombings, beatings and nudity. We were all pretty cheerful afterwards. It’s a film that doesn’t make you feel sour about getting exactly what you paid for.

©1994 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Modern Review.

“Smash Palace,” directed by Roger Donaldson

smash palace

Glass Houses

By Ray Sawhill

The only films from New Zealand to receive a major American release in recent years are “Sleeping Dogs” and “Smash Palace,” both directed by Roger Donaldson. “Smash Palace” is about how a husband and wife jockey for position when their marriage goes flat, and it has a beautiful clarity and a plain-spoken elegance. Al Shaw (Bruno Lawrence) has brought Jacqui (Anna Jemison), whom he met and married in Europe, to the New Zealand boondocks. There, tinkering in an auto junkyard, building and racing a sophisticated car, teaching their daughter, Georgie (Greer Robson), how to use tools, and chuckling over snooker and beer with his friend Ray (Keith Aberdein), Al is content. But the chic Jacqui has grown bored. She wants a chance to feel pretty and saucy again; she begins an affair with Ray, takes the child and moves out. Al sputters impotently until, humiliated by a friend of Ray’s, he decides he must have Georgie all to himself, if only for a while, and he hatches a desperate, nutty plot.

The story may sound grim, but Donaldson, who also co-wrote the screenplay (with Peter Hansard and Bruno Lawrence), tells it with unaffected wit. The film is congenial and funny, and it takes you farther than you expect. The warm, powdered light, the authenticity of the details and the patient rhythms bring you in close to Al and Jacqui; the action unwinds out of their deepest yearnings as if that were the most natural way in the world to tell a story. The principal actors let you look right into them: Bruno Lawrence and Anna Jemison keep Al and Jacqui’s inner fires burning ferociously, and little Greer Robson shows you the strength of Georgie’s emotional life.

“Smash Palace” was made on New Zealand’s North Island, a setting that seems both familiar and eerie. Not far from little wood houses, tall grasses and rolling hills that resemble down-home America are a rain forest and a fog-collared mountain — beyond the everyday slumbers something more essential. One long sequence cuts between Georgie, sucking her thumb and clicking a flashlight on and off, as if trying to hypnotize herself into numbness, and, in another room, her quarreling parents. Al and Jacqui trade accusations, scream at each other and come to blows. As Jacqui sobs, Al pulls her clothes off and makes love to her, brutally and despairingly. They lie back against the green and red quilt, and Jacqui, her flushed face streaked with tears and sweat, tells Al she’s leaving him. It’s a daring domestic scene, breathtakingly sustained. Roger Donaldson has made a film that has the surprises, the calm and the inevitability of a classic fable.

©1982 by Newsweek Inc. Reproduced by permission.

“Tucker,” directed by Francis Coppola

tucker poster

By Ray Sawhill

Francis Coppola’s “Tucker: A Man and his Dream” lumbers around, off in its own world, doing little pirouettes. Coppola wants us to play with ideas about Imperial America, which is fine, but he also wants to make us swallow his view of Francis Coppola. You may not feel like submitting.

“Tucker” is like a Frank Capra movie with a Felliniesque self-consciousness mixed in; the two elements seem meant not to jell but to coexist fairly peacefully. Neither one has much snap; they don’t enhance each other, either. The film, from a script by Arnold Schulman and David Seidler, takes off from the story of the actual Preston Tucker (Jeff Bridges), who, in the heady years after World War II, tried to go outside the major corporations to mass-produce a car that would be snazzy, safe and reasonably priced. But we aren’t given anything besides Tucker’s devotion to his “vision” to explain his persistence and energy. Couldn’t Tucker have had, in addition to enthusiasm, a taste for daredeviltry and high rolling? As a Capraesque bit of kitsch Americana the film is a bust because of Coppola’s conviction that he’s addressing yearnings all of us have outgrown. But he doesn’t mean us to take the storytelling very seriously anyway. The way the WASPiness of the Tuckers is presented as a lack of ethnicity is a sign that we’re not supposed to go looking for much in the people onscreen.

What we’re meant to take more seriously is the Fellini side of the film — Coppola’s view of American public life as a circus, and especially the way the film’s real subject matter is Francis Coppola. Coppola has spoken about having wanted to make a film about Tucker since the early ’60s, but what might have excited him back then about Tucker is a mystery, because the real subject matter of the film as he has made it is his own experience with Zoetrope Studios. This story is as present onscreen as Tucker’s is. (In brief: after creating sensations with the two “Godfather” movies and “The Conversation,” and then exhausting himself and ruining himself financially with “Apocalypse Now,” Coppola tried to recoup his fortunes by breaking with established Hollywood ways of producing movies. He signed actors and technicians to long-term contracts, purchased production facilities, and in interview after interview spoke of developing a radical new technology. Zoetrope’s biggest production was Coppola’s own “One From the Heart”; after all the hoopla, what his revolutionary new studio had produced was a slight romantic comedy with a hallucinogenic look. The film lost huge amounts of money, and a short time later the studio collapsed.)

“Tucker” is gargantuan yet weightless, with some amusement provided by doodles of style — the kinds of neo-Busby Berkeley devices Coppola developed for “One From the Heart”: trick cutting and lighting, patterned sequences that seem on the verge of turning into musical routines. What Coppola is saying is, “So maybe in trying to make a go of Zoetrope, I made a few mistakes and created a lot of fuss. All I ever wanted to do was make better movies. Was that such a sin?” This view of his own history leaves out his disgust and rage. Worse, it fudges the main issue: if, as legend and this film have it, Tucker was more done in by the Big Three (operating through a compliant SEC) than by his own business practices, Coppola was already broken by the time he began assembling Zoetrope’s production facilities. In order to finish “Apocalypse Now,” he’d had to mortgage everything he owned. It’s more accurate to think of Zoetrope as a desperation gamble than as an inspiration. And if the self-reflexive, art-cinema side of this film doesn’t work, it’s mainly because Coppola has simply never, as a filmmaker, been the Orson Welles-like genius of self-display that he seems to think himself. In his best movies, he has worked from inside stories, bringing out the corruption and danger implicit in what we think of as business-as-usual.

Almost nothing in this film connects with the audience. Playing a man whose only characteristics are ingenuousness and exuberance, Bridges persists rather grimly. Of the cast, only Dean Stockwell, who as Howard Hughes has one scene, makes much of an impact. Narcissistic dreaminess and an unconvincingly benevolent indulgence towards storytelling are what Coppola gives us in “Tucker.” He’s like a tiresome old uncle infatuated with his own whimsy.

©1988 by Ray Sawhill

“The Thin Blue Line,” directed by Errol Morris

thin blue line reenactment

People As Kitsch

By Ray Sawhill

Errol Morris’ “The Thin Blue Line” doesn’t sit well. Watching it, you may find yourself engrossed in the story Morris is telling, but deadened and revolted by his presentation of it. Why is this film — which concerns an actual murder, and a miscarriage of justice — so fancied-up? As a reporter, Errol Morris shows canniness, sympathy, verve, openness and persistence. He has the gifts of an eccentric journalist, but he isn’t content with them. He wants above all things to make art, and he’s in thrall to his aesthetic thinking.

The film concerns the murder of a Dallas policeman, and its aftermath. Morris makes the case that the man put in prison for the crime, Randall Adams, is innocent. (Thanks in large part to Morris, Adams’ conviction was recently overturned, and Adams was released from jail.) Most of the movie consists of interviews: with policemen and lawyers, with people who claim to have been witnesses, with Adams himself, and with many others.

It’s puzzling that Morris is so often written about as an innovative, groundbreaking filmmaker. His techniques — which rely on “appropriation,” repetition and references to bad popular art — are pretty familiar. In his presentation, Morris uses no narration, and no expository titles; he doesn’t use titles or voice overs to identify who’s speaking. One result is that the story, which could be summarized in a paragraph or two, comes across very indirectly; the information we need to know is made to seem to emerge from Morris’ artistry. We see and hear only the people he’s talking to, not Morris himself; he makes his comments, such as they are, with his general approach and his editing, and with his photography style, which is related to William Eggleston’s visions of American suburbs as science-fiction film-sets, to “Still Life,” Diane Keaton’s collection of movie-studio promotional photographs, and to the radiation-glow cinematography of Ed Lachman.

The phrase “the thin blue line” is spoken in the film by the judge who sentenced Randall Adams; this judge recalls trying to hold back tears when the case’s prosecutor spoke of the “thin blue line” of men and women, i.e., the police, who stand between law-abiding citizens and chaos. Visually, Morris locates nearly all the people he films within “the thin blue line” (which he pretty clearly wants us to take to mean “so-called ‘normal’ American ways of going about determining truth”). He does this very literally: he films almost all his interviewees in blue light, or against blue walls. In one case he color-coordinates a woman interviewee’s blue eyeshadow and blouse with the light.

Morris gussies the film up with re-enactments of events from the night of the crime, which he artificializes with slow motion, “obvious” framing and super-deliberate cutting; he turns camera angles as well as certain images — a flung milkshake, popcorn, an ash tray, a dropped flashlight whose lens shatters — into icons of weirdness. Throughout the film, he scatters inserts of grids, maps, diagrams, photos and excerpts from newspaper reports about the crime and the trial; his point is to suggest the texture of “conventional ways of figuring things out.” (Some viewers may instead find this to be an instance of an aesthete’s fascination with the morbid reaches of tabloid journalism.)

He drops into the film excerpts from old crime movies — cruddy Hollywood junk he seems to want us to regard as what, in America, takes the place of an unconscious. These interludes are also scolding little lectures on “how America imagines crime to be and how it actually is” — Morris and the hip, appreciative audience presumably being those in possession of the true facts.

Morris is putting most of his filmmaking energy into creating a Next Wave-style art object about America the Grotesque. He treats the people he films, as well as the murder and the possible miscarriage of justice, as kitsch objets d’art that are evidence of a psychopathology that dwells within America. He isn’t interested in the people inside the kitsch; he’s interested in people to the extent they can be seen as kitsch. This is a form of snobbery that verges on outright cruelty. Morris uses his self-consciously foursquare framing and lighting (both of which suggest the way products such as dishwashing soap were presented in ’50s ads) to make us wince and giggle at the appearance of a woman lawyer who tried to defend Adams. We have to get over the reaction he has enforced on us to realize how on the ball the woman lawyer is, and how much gumption and brains she put into the case.

As a filmmaker, Morris is an aesthetic dandy with an elaborately-achieved, politically/artistically-correct, distanced/passive pose. He abstracts himself — his physical presence, and his human reactions — right out of the movie. We’re meant to register that he isn’t taken in by — and that he won’t take part in — kitsch culture. It’s clear that we’re meant to feel that Morris is more likely than a “mainstream” documentarian not only to answer the question of Adams’ guilt or innocence, but to be onto something philosophically impressive — like “the nature of truth,” or “how we do/don’t perceive,” or “the myth of objectivity,” or some such. What his film style signals us isn’t just that Morris believes that he recognizes the dangers and limitations of “the thin blue line,” but that he thinks it necessarily produces grotesqueries. He stands outside the thin blue line: his pose is “I’m a Martian lost in mid-America. Isn’t what’s going on around here bizarre?”

In a bit of audio-tape recording that’s included in the film, a hick charmer named David Harris, who spent part of the evening of the murder with Randall Adams and who is now on death row for another crime, all but admits that he, not Adams, killed the cop. (We have to obtain the film’s production notes to find out that that the reason this interview was recorded only on audio-tape was because Morris’ camera broke. And we have to read the production notes to find out that when Morris asked Harris if he acted alone, Harris nodded yes. Morris’ aesthetic — which is meant to question the possibility of directness and spontaneity, as well as the possibility of the existence of a speaking “I” — prevents him from simply telling us anything.) This is the only time during the film we get a sense of Morris’ person, and of his involvement in the case. It comes as a shock to realize that as a reporter he’s so quick on his feet; he’s sparring successfully with a psychopath.

But what Morris shows us during this passage is the minicassette recorder the tape is supposedly playing on. He shows it from all sorts of angles, the images dumbed-up in a “this is how bad photographers once took color photos” way, the editing treated similarly. He ends the sequence with an enormous shot of the tiny reels turning around and around. This turning over and over is of a piece with the rest of the film. For instance, Morris plays, and then replays and replays some more, his deliberately-fake reenactments of the murder, and then he replays them yet more. Only a couple of times do the reenactments serve an explanatory purpose — for instance, when we realize that people in passing cars who later testified against Randall Adams couldn’t possibly have gotten much of a look at the face of the man with the gun.

The rest of the time, what Morris has us watching is a slowly-modulating abstraction, like a musical phrase that’s changing ever so slightly as it moves past us time and again. In these passages, Morris does achieve an effect like those associated with the composer Philip Glass, who composed the film’s soundtrack music. But how will the family of the murdered cop feel when they see an actor playing their relative get blown away what seems like a dozen times for the sake of a rarified aesthetic effect?

Morris wants us to believe that his conclusion, which represents a genuine triumph of reporting, is in fact a consequence of style. In his thinking, style isn’t arrived at, it’s generative. The film, whose material lends itself to hard hitting, fast-moving treatment on “60 Minutes” (get the facts out there and make something happen, now!) is more than a little inhuman. Although he spent a great deal of time helping reopen Adams’ case, Morris-the-filmmaker doesn’t mean — or at least won’t be caught meaning — to inform or protest. His film conveys no urgency and no outrage.

What the film is really about is Errol Morris’ aesthetic responses. His filmmaking emphasis is all on his own way of seeing. Morris seems to believe that he’s an artist because he’s consciously perverse, and what he seems to want us to do is examine his obsessiveness, drive and willfulness as if they were somehow akin to what he would have us take as an insanity at the heart of the nation. But dwelling on your aesthetic responses to material like this is really kind of horrid. An actual murder and a miscarriage of justice aren’t great material to base refined, illusion-and-reality style games on. “I think the film is broader than just the story of a miscarriage of justice,” Morris told the Washington Post. “It’s a film about evidence, about illusion and self-deception, confusion, error. About lying and truth-telling.”

“Just” the story of a miscarriage of justice? Just?

©1989 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Anarchy! magazine.

“Visitor Q,” directed by Takashi Miike

visitor q

By Ray Sawhill

The 40ish Takashi Miike is a brilliant maniac who makes four or five movies a year, yet seldom makes more than one movie in the same style. “Audition,” his best-known film, suggests a splatterfest as directed by the meditative Yasujiro Ozu; it’s one of the most horrifying movies I’ve ever seen. “Ichi the Killer” is whirling, sadistic gangster gore; I liked it a lot better than John Woo’s movies, and its virtuosity and flamboyance make poor Quentin Tarantino look like an overdeliberate wannabe. “The Happiness of the Katakuris” is one of the strangest musicals ever made, an attempt to fuse a dysfunctional-family black-comedy with “The Sound of Music.” The elements don’t gel, to say the least, but the film is nothing if not daring.

Though it isn’t in a league with “Audition” or “Ichi,” “Visitor Q” is also well worth a look. It’s a camp comedy about a mysterious stranger who moves in with a screwloose Japanese family. Dad’s a washed-up reality-TV show host who’s desperate for another hit. Sis turns tricks, Bro is routinely beaten up by his chums, and Mom gets a sexual thrill from having her breasts milked. Bodily fluids play a leading role. Sexual encounters of the strangest kind are lingered over.

The film — which Miike shot on next to no money, in a week, on digital video — is like one of John Waters’ grotesque-family comedies, only far more intense. It’s also, at least at first, considerably more bewildering; for the film’s opening 30 minutes, The Wife and I felt completely disoriented. (The Wife, a much more devoted Japanese filmbuff than I am, likes to giggle and mutter “Caucasion not understand” during such opaque passages.) But the film’s storylines finally sort themselves out, and as they do the action becomes ever more nutty and funny.

©2004 by Ray Sawhill